Archive for March 2008
Either 20 or 21 Septembers ago, my younger brother moved into a fifth-floor apartment in Back Bay. We dragged the first of his stuff up to the top floor of the elevator-free building. He turned the key in the door, opened it, and discovered that none of the five people living in very close quarters in that studio apartment had even begun to move out. They were all still asleep, in beds spread across the room.
I thought about that this morning as I looked across the living room of our house:
Eli, the model here, still has his own room for now (it’s the only unaffected room on the second floor, but he still has to move eventually because it’ll be Grace’s room when we’re done). The other four of us are stretched across the living room. After more than 20 years together, Jane and I are back in a one-bedroom place … with two other people!
For a more meaningful report on the way we live now, see Jane’s latest report.
The user-generated video below ain’t much (listen to it with your eyes closed if you wish, though it has charm), but this song offers endless pleasure. It’s like Chic and Abba had a baby! (That’s a compliment, by the way.)
I haven’t offered much political commentary since I came back to Jewels and Binoculars, but I can at least point out trenchant observations when I spot them elsewhere:
…but today was the first time ever I was almost late for a 9 a.m. meeting because I was in the car listening to the ninth inning of a live Red Sox game. Happy spring!
I love The New York Times. I’ve read it almost every day of my life since I was in high school. For all its recent flaws — the weirdo profiles of the major presidential candidates are the most high-profile — it is still full of the most outstanding reporting. And, on the days that Gail Collins files, it offers up the most penetrating and entertaining opinion.
What’s that? It’s the last print copy of the Times I’ll ever have delivered to my front door. Over the years, I’ve slowly weaned myself off subscriptions to physical newspapers, but it was hard to say no to the Times. The quality was high, the thump of the paper on the sidewalk was a pleasant sound to hear first thing in the morning, I liked the serendipity of walking through a print section, and I felt obligated to pay for the paper at a time when print subscribers were becoming an endangered species. But, after years of wavering, I’m done. The environmental argument alone should have been enough for me, but the simple fact is that I do more and more of my reading on a screen (the only holdouts: fiction and poetry). And plenty of that reading has been from the Times. What finally made me give in to the inevitable was realizing, one barely-dawn morning last week when I was reading the paper at our kitchen table, that I had already read much (most?) of it online. For all the pleasure of holding and print, the Times on paper is just too late. In 2008, today’s paper is yesterday’s news.
So now I’m a freeloader, although you could argue that my personal information, sent to the Times in return for a username and password, may have some value. I rarely, if ever, click on an ad on the Times‘s website. I would gladly pay for the pleasure and convenience of reading the paper online, just as I do for The Wall Street Journal, but I don’t have that option. In this era of advertising-is-the-only-business-model, management at the Times Company has decided that I’ve decided that the value of what it sends to me is zero. I disagree — and I’m not going to pay a premium for the proprietary and little-used Times Reader to make my point.
I’ll miss the paper on paper, and I bet I’ll buy it when I’m on vacation, as a treat, an indulgence. But if even people like me — who adore The New York Times — can no longer justify a print subscription, how can its print version survive, except as a high-priced, scarce product for an increasingly elite audience?
(This originally appeared on the O’Reilly Radar.)
Nick Carr calls out a whopper by Michael Arrington. It can be a pleasure to witness Carr best an inferior mind, but I have a question: If Carr is so smart — and he is — why does he read Arrington?
I made the greatest turkey burgers of all time a few weeks back. I was about to write down the recipe (yes, I realize I should have done this then; don’t go all GTD on me) when I realized I don’t remember whether my secret ingredient was soy sauce or teriyaki sauce. Would anyone out there like to make a suggestion as to which I should try next time?
Turns out David Weinberger is as astute an observer of politics as he is of everything else. Everything may be miscellaneous (hence the “random” tag below), as Weinberger has written, but when there’s a mind as bold and open-hearted as Weinberger’s at the center of an idea, sometime everything makes sense, too. Read.
How bad has service gotten in our so-called service economy? So bad that just showing up for an appointment is now considered a business-defining competiting advantage:
We have one full bathroom in our house. It looks like this:
I gave a talk on “Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do” last month at TED and delivered a (not as good) stripped-down version of it a week later at ETech. I’ve been asked by several Jewels and Binoculars readers to post the presentation as a blog entry. Here it is. I recognize that a flat blog post doesn’t capture the experience of a live presentation, but I want to get the material out here. And, as an added benefit, you don’t have to look at or listen to me present it!
Being here first thing in the morning, I feel like the opening act at the beginning of one of those long package shows of rock bands. I feel like Yngvie Malmsteen, a godawful heavy metal guitarist not often celebrated at TED.
Indeed, “Yngvie,” as we all know, is Swedish for “opening act.”
So here we go…
I edit Release 2.0, an expensive newsletter, so I hear a lot from readers. Sometimes they’re looking for rules, some secrets to guarantee success. I want to justify their investment in the newsletter, of course, so I tell ‘em what I’ve learned.
And what I’ve learned is that they should screw up.
While anyone who’s spent time with any of the members of Guns N Roses might find them to be screwups, the reason you haven’t heard anything new and substantial from them on the radio for 16 years — 16 years! — is that they’ve committed the opposite of screwing up: overplanning. Since the mid-’90s, by which time every original member of the band except singer Axl Rose had left for one reason or another, Guns N Roses has been working on a new album called Chinese Democracy.
Rose and his co-conspirators have been thinking and recording Chinese Democracy for 14 years, gone through at least six producers, 17 band members, and $16 million in recording costs. It’s not out yet. They’ve waited so long, perfecting and planning, planning and perfecting, that the industry Axl Rose once ruled no longer exists. Democracy may arrive in China before Chinese Democracy arrives in record stores.
Oh — wait — there really aren’t record stores any more, either. Too much planning, too much process, means no art, no product, nothing.
For a different approach, let’s consider the TV series Twin Peaks from the early ’90s. To refresh your memory…
This man, Leland Palmer…
…possessed by the spirit of a supernatural character named BOB…
…turned his daughter, Laura Palmer…
But where did BOB, the conceptual lynchpin of the series, come to be? Surely he was there from the beginning.
No. His introduction into the series came as a result of an accident while the cameras were running.
In a scene late in the Twin Peaks pilot, Laura Palmer’s mother experiences a vision while sitting on her living room couch. On the wall behind her, barely in the shot, there is a mirror. In the bottom corner of the mirror, there’s the reflection of Frank Silva, a set dresser on the crew, unaware he’s in the shot. You or I wouldn’t have noticed it unless we were looking for it — but on the set of a television show, there is someone whose job is to look for just such mistakes.
After the take, that person alerted director David Lynch to the accident and began to set up a reshoot. Lynch stopped him. He spoke to Frank Silva, the set dresser in the mirror. “Can you act?” Lynch asked. This was Los Angeles, so you know the answer…
…and the malevolent, mysterious character of BOB, the key to the weird mystery of the series, was born — from an accident.
Many popular products, advances, and countless works of art have emerged from accidents. In the Internet world, we have Blogger and Twitter. And those two are just from one guy: Evan Williams.
Things may go better with Coke, but Coke was originally designed to go better with pain. It was intended to be a pain remedy.
in 1928, Alexander Fleming, researching the flu, noticed that a mold had taken over one of his petri dishes. That mold, he saw, had stopped bacteria in the dish. Voila! Penicillin. Indeed, the very idea of vaccines was discovered by accident, when Edward Jenner noticed that people who worked with cows didn’t get smallpox.
In 1894, John Harvey Kellogg left some cooked wheat to sit while he attended to some pressing matters at his sanitarium. When he returned, the wheat had gone stale. Because he was either cheap or broke — historians disagree — he tried to save the wheat by forcing it through rollers, expecting to get long sheets of dough he could use. Instead, he got … flakes. He toasted them. He served them to his patients. He got very, very rich.
Post-It notes came to be by accident, too, but the story isn’t that interesting, so I’ll just mention it and keep going.
This one’s more interesting. Fred Katz introduced the cello to modern jazz. One night in the late 1950s, during a break between sets while he was playing piano with a jazz band, Katz pulled a chair to the front of the stage and played some solo cello. When the rest of the band returned to the small stage, there was no room for Katz to return to his piano. Not sure what to do — the set was starting, the band was playing — Katz decided to play the piano lines on his cello. Out of his accident, his real, half-century-long, career began.
Next time you enjoy some ferocious rock’n'roll encased in feedback, thank these guys. A spray of amplifier feedback at the beginning of The Beatles’ 1965 recording of “I Feel Fine,” an accident, sounded so unusual — and so great — that they kept it on the record. And, since I’m talking about brands favored by aging boomers…
…Viagra was first thought to be a promising drug for angina. During 1992 clinical trials in a town in Wales, Pfizer researchers discovered that…
…the drug had a different effect altogether.
So mistakes can be great things. What do we do about ‘em? How do we harness ‘em? Well, if you’re the Harvard Business School, the font of management wisdom (and — disclosure — a client), you’re not quite sure. Sometimes they tell us to be afraid of mistakes…
…sometimes they tell us we can manage accidents, thus making them not accidents. We might call this the Pee-Wee Herman “I meant to do that” theory of managing mistakes…
..and, once, squeezed almost as an afterthought — or, maybe, an accident — as the very last entry in an issue of the Harvard Business Review, they celebrate it, thanks to a terrific, brief essay by Danny Hillis. I’m not trying to pick on Harvard. You can find similar advice from the other Ivy schools, even Stanford. But this is the conventional business wisdom. You can’t be built to last or go from good to great or whatever unless you’re careful to avoid mistakes, the thinking goes. Imagine the difference between the reaction if you tell your boss “I’m planning” and the one you get if you say, “I’m making mistakes.”
Established institutions are in the business of supporting the status quo. And mistakes, if nothing else, go against the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the expected. As Esther Dyson used to sign her emails, “Always make new mistakes!” A key part of planning is being open to mistakes.
The unexpected kiss, the unpredictable punch line: they’re so much of what makes life worth living. Shouldn’t we let the unexpected into our business work as well? It’s by screwing up that we learn and discover. We can’t predict accidents. But we can take advantage of them.
You never know where a mistake is going to lead. Maybe nowhere, maybe somewhere. But it’s definitely nowhere if you don’t at least lean forward and peer down the road after you screw up.
You want the secret of success that my newsletter readers want to know? It’s no secret. It’s that, chances are, whatever you’re looking for — that’s not what you’re going to find.
Someone just forwarded me Christopher Herot’s notes on my TED talk. I’ll squeeze the talk into HTML and get it onto this blog by the end of the week.
Over the next week or so, I’ll be writing quite a bit about my two weeks late last month and early this month in California, at TED and ETech. (Took me a bit to recover and the renovation at our house is about to deprive us of our only working shower.)
Monday was cooking day here at Jewels and Binoculars and it’s Tuesday already, so I’d better get back on track. Let’s talk about food hacking, which unites three areas of my interest and incompetence: cooking, technology, and taking things apart. The ETech tutorial on the topic, led by Marc Powell, was a mindblower. Food hacking takes the ideas behind technology hacking — participation, dispersion, experimentation, and a general distrust of authority and centralized systems — and brings them into the kitchen. The three-hour-long tutorial, which included dishes with ingredients like liquid nitrogen, was all about joy and testing. And — lucky for me — it was all about celebrating screwing up and seeing what happens. Powell went on for a while on why cooking with people was superior to cooking for people. As he put it: “Ever eat a Lunchable? Do you think anyone enjoyed making that?” When I lined up to receive something that had been cooked onstage, I felt, for the first time even, like I was on a communion line.
The second half of the session got weird. We saw randomly generated menus and restaurant menus with plenty of insect dishes. We heard exegeses on pickled crab fat and how to cook fake blood for vegan goths. We learned a little about coffee hacks (see many of Powell’s hacks in this wiki). We learned that it’s pronounced “feelo” dough, not “feyelo” dough. We heard about placenta kabobs and other gross food experiences.
Hmm, what’s for dinner?
At least three of this year’s TED talks were flat-out amazing: Tod Machover’s, Benjamin Zander’s, and Jill Bolte Taylor’s. The first of them has just been posted:
Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroanatomist, eavesdropped on her own stroke. As I wrote the day of her talk, she walked us through what she felt and thought while her brain was going wild, from the borderline-metaphysical (“I can’t define where I begin and where I end”) to the borderline-hilarious (“I’m a busy woman. I don’t have time for a stroke”). Her description of her time in that strange state, caught between two worlds, the rare researcher who has been able to chronicle a brain-changing event from the inside, was astonishing.
And now you can see and hear it, too:
The brain she’s holding there is a real one, by the way.
I’ll alert you to the other two classics when they’re published.
When the political news website Politico launched a year ago, I wrote a borderline-bitchy negative note for paidContent. I’d like to apologize. I still don’t know how the site’s business is going, but Politico has been a provocative, speedy, insidery, gotta-read-it news source so far during the election cycle. (Good mobile version, too!)
I won’t be doing much work travel in the spring. I’m still recovering from The Endless California Trip, which is not the name of a second-tier Beach Boys compilation. But I am thrilled to report that I’ll be at the The Nantucket Conference for the first time since 2001. Event programmer and all-around great guy Scott Kirsner has an informative post up about the event, if you’re new to it.
I stopped going to South by Southwest in 1995, because I felt it was getting too big. It’s now 13 times larger than it was then.
You want me to blog every day (or, at least, every work day)? Fine, I won’t break the chain anymore.
In a throwaway line in his review of The Band’s Visit, ace critic Anthony Lane nails what I’m trying to write a novel about:
“When in doubt, strike up the band.”
If I had a monitor, I’d tape that quote on it.
…but every now and then I have to step back in awe from another’s contribution.
For many years, I’ve joked to friends and family, usually during public radio pledge drives, that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you’ve paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. You get back to the regular programming you’ve paid for. I thought that was something I could work into an article or a story someday.
One night last week, I was at a dinner party, listening to someone who was building an innovative radio for the BBC. Also listening was a respected colleague. He said that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you’ve paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. Independently, he had come up with the same line (for me it was a joke; for him — a successful entrepreneur — it was a potential invention). I felt uncomfortable saying something like, “Hey, I thought of that, too,” and stepping on his line, so I said nothing.
This reminded me of something that happened when Jane and I bought a hybrid car back in 2002. A neighbor said he’d thought of a hybrid engine years earlier. I laughed about it, but it illuminates a point that’s also relevant to the public radio joke/invention line: It doesn’t matter so much that you have an idea. What matters is whether you do anything with the idea. Otherwise it’s just a line in your notebook doing nothing.