Thursday, December 1, 2011

Just Follow the Signs...

[From the corner of Market and Morgan in Hartford, CT]

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nuclear Weapons and Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law says, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. In 1958, as the Cold War’s nuclear-arms race was accelerating, researchers at the think tank RAND worried that something—the ultimate thing—could go wrong with a nuclear weapon.

By that time, at least a dozen nuclear-weapon mishaps had occurred, including accidental drops, jettisons, and crashes. Due to technical and human safeguards, the nuclear material did not detonate. But the researchers saw ways the safeguards could fail or be intentionally defeated. Thus the question: Could Murphy’s Law go nuclear?

The researchers’ report, “On the Risk of an Accidental or Unauthorized Nuclear Detonation,” was declassified in 2000 and is now on the Internet. It is an interesting example of how to think about the risk of something happening when it has not happened before.

Normally, risks are associated with odds, and odds are based on past observations. For example, during the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force’s B-52 bomber had a number of accidents. Dividing that number by the total B-52 flight-hours gave odds of one accident per 25,000 flight-hours.

Lacking a record of nuclear-detonation accidents, the researchers could not calculate odds in the same way. Zero divided by anything would be zero.

The RAND researchers argued the actual risk was not zero. They cited numerous plausible scenarios in which technical flaws, human errors, sabotage, or some combination of these factors could cause a nuclear detonation. The bad scenarios were all highly unlikely, but no one knew how unlikely. In contrast, it was certain that the likelihood of an accident was increasing with the number of nuclear weapons.

The researchers also saw increasing risk in a key trend of the time, having more planes on continuous ground alert, or staying continuously aloft, with nuclear weapons ready to strike. This trend would greatly increase the number of flight-hours in which an accident could occur, as well as opportunities for various other human mistakes.

Finally, the researchers delved deeply into the possibility that an insider could deliberately override safeguards in an act of nuclear sabotage. Precedents existed for non-nuclear saboteurs, including military personnel with mental disorders. Against this backdrop, the researchers noted that many then-current nuclear weapons could be detonated singlehandedly by an individual with the right access and knowledge.

In response to these scenarios, the researchers recommended new efforts to develop technical and process safeguards to further reduce risk without sacrificing readiness. For example, the researchers suggested a lock for nuclear weapons, the combination for which would only be transmitted with the order to use the weapon.

The researchers also praised the idea of an acceleration switch, then under development, that would prevent a weapon from detonating while being handled on the ground. To illustrate the value, the researchers cited training incidents that would have caused a nuclear detonation if they occurred in the field.

Unlike many research reports, this one influenced the highest levels of decision-making. As told in Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s The Theory That Would Not Die, the Commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay, ordered new safeguards for nuclear weapons because of the report.

(McGrayne’s book is a popular account of the historical uses of Bayesian probability, a techique that incorporates degrees of subjective belief in addition to direct observations. The Bayesian approach can be useful when there aren’t enough observations to analyze or when the observations have uncertainties. Some of the statistical analyses in the RAND report used a Bayesian approach, which was unusual for the time.)

Since the early 1960s, the United States has continued to improve nuclear-weapons safeguards, not just due to research reports but also due to close calls. For example, in 1961 an air accident plunged two hydrogen bombs into a North Carolina field. One of the recovered bombs only had a single safeguard—out of six—remaining to prevent a nuclear detonation. Other accidents also avoided a detonation but spilled dangerous nuclear material.

Compared to early nuclear weapons, modern nuclear weapons have far stronger safeguards. They include a more sophisticated version of the combination lock suggested in the RAND report, physically requiring two people to unlock; arming components designed to fail under adverse conditions such as a crash, thus making them “fail safe”; and special types of conventional explosives and containment devices to prevent leakage of nuclear materials in an accident.

In addition to having safer weapons, the United States now has far fewer nuclear weapons deployed, on lower levels of alert, than during the height of the Cold War. So, the RAND researchers (Fred Charles Ikle, Gerald J. Aronson, and Albert Mandansky) would be pleased.

I am pleased too. Reading their report reminded me of the time I toured a decommissioned Titan II nuclear-missile silo in Arizona. Although it was a relatively low-tech artifact of the 1960s, I was impressed with how well considered its design and operating procedures were. It felt like those involved were up to the enormous responsibility attached to their jobs. That included everyone from the thinkers at RAND to the systems designers to the hands-on crews.

May they all continue their success, in the United States and wherever else Murphy’s Law and nuclear weapons could meet.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Witold Rybczynski’s One Good Turn

When you see a bucket of screws at the hardware store, you probably don’t think of them as technology. After reading One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski, you will think different.

Rybczynski argues that the screw was an exceptionally creative solution to the problem of fastening things. To illustrate what we take for granted today, he provides this capsule history of another fastener:

[A] useful device that secures clothing against cold drafts, [the button] was unknown for most of mankind’s history. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans wore loose tunics, cloaks, and togas. Buttons were likewise absent in traditional dress throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. True, the climate in these places is middle, but northern dress was likewise buttonless. Eskimos and Vikings slipped their clothes over their heads and cinched them with belts and straps; Celts wrapped themselves in kilts; the Japanese used sashes to fasten their robes. The Romans did use buttons to ornament clothing, but the buttonhole eluded them. The ancient Chinese invented the toggle and loop, but never went on to the button and buttonhole, which are both simpler to make and more convenient to use. Then, suddenly in the thirteenth century in northern Europe, the button appeared. Or, more precisely, the button and the buttonhole. The invention of this combination—so simple, yet so cunning—is a mystery. There was no scientific or technical breakthrough—buttons can easily be made from wood, horn, or bone; the buttonhole is merely a slit in the fabric. Yet the leap of imagination that this deceptively simple device required is impressive. Try to describe in words the odd flick-and-twist motion as you button and unbutton and you realize just how complicated it is. The other mystery of the button is the manner of its discovery. It is difficult to imagine the button evolving—it either exists or it doesn’t. We don’t know who invented the button and the buttonhole, but he—more likely she—was a genius.

I have quoted at length because the passage is a miniature version of the book. Replace button with screw, and you’ve got Rybczynski’s thesis: Whereas nails came from spikes, which were crude and obvious implements, the screw came from what? Its key feature—and the source of its superior holding power compared to a nail—is the helical thread that winds around the shaft. The helix was neither obvious to conceive nor easy to implement in materials.

Like a genealogist tracing older and older descendants, Rybczynski searches for evidence of the earliest screws and screwdrivers. He profiles key innovators along the way, such as those who created the precision machine tools necessary for mass-manufactured, standardized screws; or inventors that improved on the flathead screw, namely Phillips’ x-shaped socket and Robinson’s square socket. The patent wars of yesteryear were about such things.

As much as One Good Turn is about screws, screwdrivers, and other tools, it is also about an intellectual quest. Unsatisfied with the literature on the subject, Rybczynski narrates his way through libraries and museums, each holding clues to the further history of the screw. He assembles new evidence of screws as fasteners in the Middle Ages. Then he keeps going in search of the ur-screw, back to ancient Greece.

Like the societies that had the button but not the buttonhole, the Greeks (and later the Romans) had the screw but not for fastening. Rather, the Greeks had large-scale helical screws for mechanical use. It was there and then that Rybczynski believes the original insight of the helical screw occurred, likely by the great engineer Archimedes.

So the next time you think about technology and a computer comes to mind, One Good Turn will remind you that technology has a far longer thread back through history.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Changing Gears

Having reached a good outcome with CNET Intelligent Cross-Sell’s transition to RichRelevance, I will be taking this opportunity to switch gears: I am going into independent-consultant mode. That will include remaining on the RichRelevance team in a consulting capacity. I will be working with a few other consulting clients as well. I will also be using the flexibility of consulting to reserve some time for myself.

I realize that some people say they’re doing consulting as a euphemism for looking for a job. To be clear about my situation, consulting is currently what I want my job to be. Having been deep into a single thing for five years, with very high-stakes customers, I’m ready to come up for air. And if I’m coming up for air, I might as well breathe deeply. ;)

I’m fortunate to have clients right out of the gate, but I am always happy to hear of interesting opportunities where a little bit of my expertise and abilities can have significant impact. The areas I’m covering are product design, product marketing, strategy, company evaluations for M&A and venture capital, and advising middle- to later-stage startups on internal innovation for “next act” products (those that come after the core product that the entire company has been built around).

Feel free to drop me a line if there’s a connection or discussion to be had.

CNET Intelligent Cross-Sell @ RichRelevance

Six months ago, CNET Content Solutions announced a strategic partnership with RichRelevance regarding Intelligent Cross-Sell, the product I co-created and the team I led at CNET. This blog post by RichRelevance’s CEO, David Selinger, describes what Intelligent Cross-Sell does and how it adds value to RichRelevance’s product line.

Other than posting a link to the CNET-RichRelevance announcement on Twitter, I didn’t say much about the deal when it was announced. My feeling was, I’ll talk about it when we’ve accomplished something more than announcing the partnership. Now is the time.

Having spent six months working closely with RichRelevance, I am pleased with the result: 100% of the customers are transitioned, the technology is migrated, the ICS team is at RichRelevance, and we’ve already done deals for new customers as part of RichRelevance. Meanwhile, CNET Content Solutions continues to bring product data, industry expertise, and sales support to the partnership. It’s a win/win as both sides now benefit from a bigger Intelligent Cross-Sell business than would have been possible from CNET alone.

In the next post, I’ll say what this means for me going forward.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Perestroika

My Perestroika is a documentary film about the lives of five Russians. They were children of the Soviet Union, which fell down as they grew up.

Now middle-aged, some have ridden the waves of change; others have treaded water. The film splices their present-day selves with their home-movie pasts with their uncertain futures.

I thought it was superb, but you can judge the trailer for yourself:

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World

Call it coincidence, but as I was writing about em dashes and long sentences lately, I was reading Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World. If you like long, lyrical sentences, festooned with em dashes, read on.

The geology of the northern half of California—whether we are talking about San Francisco Bay or the Central Valley, the Coast Range or the Sierra, the Monterey headlands or the cost of Humboldt country or Mount Diablo itself—is all interlinked, subtly confusingly and, for the geological mapmakers, often maddeningly. These links go far beyond the borders of the state—political lines that pay no heed, in this case, to the absolutes of geology. They spread far, far beyond—as we shall discover, they reach up to Alaska, they percolate across to Wyoming and Montana, they reach back west across two oceans as far, in fact, as India and Australia. One might say, indeed, that the story of what makes California so complex and so interesting and so dangerous—and what makes Diablo so similarly geologically alluring—has implications for, and connections to, the planet in its entirety.

It’s a marathon of a paragraph, but I like its layered, controlled complexity. Yet taken too far, that style can delineate itself to death:

[The basalts] spilled over and laid themselves down on the old Pangaea-Columbia-Arctica-Ur granitelike continental rocks that exist underneath, making the confection of geology that—in juxtaposition with all the ice and snow of climate and the storms and winds of weather, the polar bears and lichens of biology and the Eskimo and Inuit and Danes and Americans soldiers of anthropology—constitutes the great and mysterious island known today as Greenland.

The good news is, that specimen is the exception, not the rule. Winchester’s long and winding sentences are usually a pleasure to parse. Like poetry, they require more of you, but they reward the effort.

The same can be said of A Crack in the Edge of the World’s subject matter. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is the center of a narrative constellation that includes a roadtrip across North American geologic points of interest, a people’s-eye history of California from Gold Rush to early twentieth century, a seminar on geologic science, and ruminations about the fragility of human existence versus nature. Consult the 27-page index for other topics covered.

Put another way, if books were beer, A Crack in the Edge of the World would be an earthy, flavorful stout: gaggingly thick for some people, satisfyingly rich for others. I found myself in the latter camp.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Friends and Strangers

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking about two stories. First, there was Abe Zelmanowitz, a worker at the World Trade Center. His co-worker and best friend, Ed Beyea, was a quadriplegic. As the building burned and people streamed down the stairwells, Abe stayed with Ed on the 27th floor landing. Because Ed weighed nearly 300 pounds, they were waiting for a rescue team to safely carry him.

Ed had a health aide, Irma, in the building. Although she found the two men, Irma was having trouble breathing from the smoke. Abe told her to go, that he would stay with Ed.

Both men called their families to say they were okay. Abe’s mother pleaded with him to get out while he could. He stayed.

Abe and Ed died in the building that day.

A family member recalled of the two, “If Ed was going to make [dinner] arrangements, he’d make sure it was kosher, and if Abe was going to make the arrangements, he’d make sure it was wheelchair-accessible. They always had each other’s best interests at heart.”

The second story is about Mike Benfante, who was also working in the World Trade Center. During the evacuation, he found wheelchair-bound Tina Hansen. He was a stranger to her, but Mike and colleague John Cerqueira carried Tina down 68 flights of stairs, often in darkness and smoke, sloshing through areas flooded by building sprinklers. It took 90 minutes. The building collapsed five minutes after they got out.

As the tenth anniversary of that day approached, Mike deflected attention from his heroism to the larger lesson of what 9/11 summoned in friends and strangers alike: “I’ve learned that 9/11 showed us that there are enormous, untapped reservoirs of extraordinary human kindness and generosity just waiting for a trigger, that this trigger should be pulled daily as most of us are basically good people.”

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Long and Short of Average Sentence Length

For an earlier post, I analyzed the text from 616 articles in Slate’s sections “The Good Word” and “Books.” The purpose was to answer a question about the use of em dashes, but since I had all 697,422 words at the ready, I asked another question: Of all the articles, which had the longest and shortest average sentence length?

For context, the average sentence length across all articles was 25.4 words per sentence. The winner for longest average sentence length was nearly twice that. The shortest was about a third less.

And now, the drumroll please....

The winner for longest average sentence length, at 49.7 words per sentence, was Daphne Merkin’s review of Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. Here is the opening paragraph:

Although it is not uncommon for big families to produce a rebel or two along with the chip-off-the-old-block offspring, there are few that can lay claim to as much dissension within the ranks as the aristocratic clan of Mitford. This gaggle of wayward sisters (six in all, with one brother, Tom, who was killed in combat in 1945 at the age of 36) included Diana, the family beauty, who married the dastardly Oswald Mosley, head of the British Fascist party; Nancy, the family wit, whose novel The Pursuit of Love kick-started the proliferation of novels, memoirs, and biographies that would come to be called the Mitford “industry”; and the family madwoman, Unity, who went bonkers for Adolf Hitler and put a pistol to her head when Britain declared war on Germany.

Compare and contrast with the winner for shortest average sentence length, Jason Sokol’s commentary on The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson: Mississippi Burning and the Passage of the Civil Rights Act: June 1, 1964-July 4, 1964. Sokol’s average of 16 words pers sentence was less than the length of the title. Here is the first paragraph:

President Lyndon Johnson, domineering and manipulative, lives on in American memory as the classic power broker. He bullied opponents, sweet-talked skeptics, and chewed out subordinates. He oozed confidence as he passed one piece of landmark social legislation after another, even as his cockiness helped to mire the country in Vietnam. Yet this is not the Johnson who emerges from volumes seven and eight of The Presidential Recordings, a transcription of his phone conversations from June 1 to July 4 of 1964.

My purpose is not to claim one of these examples is better than the other. They are both well-crafted paragraphs. But side by side, they are a reminder of how stylistically diverse good writing can be.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Citizen U.S.A.

Fellow Americans: If the dysfunctional circus of Washington, DC, is getting you down, let me suggest an hour’s worth of relief: an HBO documentary film called Citizen U.S.A.

Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi visited citizenship-induction ceremonies in all fifty states, interviewing new citizens. Some originally came as refugees, some snuck in and later got amnesty, some were students, and some were standard immigrants. The lucky ones were pursuing happiness. Many, especially women, were pursuing more basic needs like living in safety, speaking freely, or being able to work to support themselves. You will feel good about what America has done for them, as well as what they are doing for America.

The stars include New York City coffee cart guys from Afghanistan, a Buddhist monk in Utah, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Lab, a Nigerian paralympics athlete in Kentucky, Iraqi refugees transplanted to Nebraska, and a Mulsim mother with a dream to take a cruise to Alaska. (Most of these descriptions came from the film’s synopsis at the HBO site. See also the trailer on YouTube.)

Citizen U.S.A. is currently available on Comcast’s On Demand service, but you need to be an HBO subscriber. I assume the film will appear soon on Netflix and other venues. Be on the lookout.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Use and Abuse of the Em Dash

In Slate, Noreen Malone makes The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash. She says it undercuts good writing, yet writers are using it more. To make her point, she oversalts her own prose with the em:

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete?

Having thus revealed the em dash’s peril, Malone later concludes, “Leave the damn em dash alone.”

I suggest not. The em dash is a good thing, albeit the kind where too much good is bad. As we say in software development, that is a feature, not a bug.

Of the em dash’s many uses, the main one is to set off a phrase with greater emphasis. Used in tandem—as here—em dashes are like commas or parentheses, only more assertive. Used alone, an em dash heightens what comes next—more drama if no comma.

Em dashes are effective for emphasis because they are rare. Use them too much and you defeat their purpose, as Malone demonstrates with her wanton em dash abuse. But is today’s writing increasingly like that? Malone asserts such a trend but caveats that it’s “just anecdotal observation; I admit I haven’t found a way to crunch the numbers.”

Here’s a way to crunch the numbers: Extract the text of hundreds of articles published in Slate from 1996 to 2011. Focus on the sections “The Good Word” (where Malone’s article is filed) and “Books.” They seem like good candidates for the at-risk writerly behavior that Malone fears.

When I did that, I found 616 articles through the end of June 2011, totaling 697,422 words. Because different years had widely varying amounts of articles, I split the articles into two periods: 1996 to 2004 and 2005 to 2011.

The earlier period had 7.6 em dashes per thousand words; the later period had 7.8. That difference is noise. Malone’s peers are not spiraling into an abyss of increasing em-dashery.

So despite Malone’s concerns, I suspect that Slate’s writers are using the em dash to good effect. They know that with punctuation, as with salt, an occasional dash will do you good.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

David Eagleman’s Sum

“In one afterlife, you may find that God is the size of a microbe and unaware of your existence. In another version, you work as a background character in other people’s dreams. Or you may find that God is a married couple, or that the universe is running backward, or that you are forced to live out your afterlife with annoying versions of who you could have been.”

That is from the back cover of David Eagleman’s Sum, subtitled “forty tales from the afterlives.” Each tale is a vignette about what happens when you die.

Eagleman is a neuroscientist, and Sum is a literary mind game. With imaginative what-ifs, he subverts familiar conceptions of life and death. Instead of a singular light in the dark, you get a light show.

It’s quirky, adventurous, and at times eloquent. It’s a virtuoso performance of thinking different. It’s also admirably brief.

If Sum sounds interesting, The New York Times has an excerpt with four vignettes. And here is the book’s page at Amazon.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dreaming FIDS

Dreaming FIDS (Flight Information Display System) is an artwork in San Jose Airport’s new Terminal B.

It’s a fish tank. Inside are fish, video screens, and cameras. You see not only the fish but also the cameras’ view of the fish.

And who is that in the background of the fish-surveillance video? That would be you, looking at yourself looking in.

Seeing Dreaming FIDS brought to mind the Lou Reed lyric, “This here’s a zoo, and the keeper ain’t you.” However, I appreciated the work even more after I watched this three-minute video. Check it out.

Dreaming FIDS is by Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen. It’s located between gate 25 and 26 in San Jose Airport’s Terminal B.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Edward Tufte's ET Modern Gallery

Many readers of this blog know the work of Edward Tufte. His books, such as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information, are widely regarded for their rigorous pursuit of truth and beauty in data visualization. A recent Washington Monthly profile captures his notoriety well.

Perhaps fewer of you know that Tufte’s main interest these days is sculpture. Or that he has his own gallery, ET Modern, in New York City. Or that he is often there on Saturdays, giving free tours.

Now you know. Be advised, however, that the gallery and tours are primarily about Tufte’s sculptures, which are not data-driven. They are modern art compositions made of metal, light, and space. They reveal different aspects depending on the viewer’s position, the time of day, and other environmental factors. In that sense, they are meant for the viewer’s analysis and interaction—a form of visualization more subtle and open than charts on a page.

Tufte escaping flatland

In his gallery tour, Tufte’s voice is familiar from his books: professorial, authoritative, on a mission. He wants you to understand what he is doing and why. He makes connections to his previous data-visualization work, but just as often he makes distinctions. In the tour I attended, he said he had explored the conceptual territory of data visualization to the point that he is now more a guide than an explorer. For discovery and exploration, he has his art.

So if you visit the gallery with that mindset, and you get the chance to see a Tufte tour, you will be rewarded.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Correlation Exploration

Google Correlate has a feature where you draw a curve along a timeline, then click Correlate. You get back a list of search terms that varied in popularity by that same curve.

Below is the result for the first curve I drew.

G correlate drawn results

If butter production in Bangladesh can be a leading indicator for the S&P 500, then I’ll allow that the above terms can be correlated.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Counterintuitive College Rankings

Given a list of the top 400 colleges worldwide, which U.S. college would you guess is better: the one ranked higher than 81% of all other colleges worldwide, or the one ranked higher than 69% of other colleges in the United States only?

Most people would say the one that’s better than 81% of all other colleges worldwide. But maybe you’d sense a trick question and say the other one.

It’s a double trick question. The two choices represent the same college, from the same ranking. If that does not sound possible, read on.

We will use the rankings from U.S. News’ World’s Best Universities: Top 400, which are sourced to Quacquarelli Symonds. Of the top 400 colleges worldwide, 86 are from the United States. However, the U.S. colleges tend to be higher ranked than the non-U.S. colleges: The average rank of U.S. colleges is 164, whereas the average rank of non-U.S. colleges is 210.

Let’s see an example of what this means in practice. Washington University in St. Louis is 75th out of 400 worldwide. However, it is 27th out of the 86 U.S. colleges on that same list. In terms of percentile rank, these numbers mean that Washington University ranks higher than 81% of other colleges in the worldwide top 400, yet it ranks higher than only 69% of other U.S. colleges in the worldwide top 400.

The chart below shows all the U.S. colleges on the list. The light bars are percentile ranks against the other 399 colleges worldwide. The dark bars are percentile ranks against just the other 85 U.S. colleges. As you can see, most colleges have a significant gap, ranking better against the world than against U.S. colleges only. So keep this in mind next time you see a U.S. college tout a “world-class education.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review: The Yugo by Jason Vuic

In the mid-1980s, a cowboy capitalist teamed with socialist Yugoslavia to regift a decades-old Fiat onto the American market as the Yugo, a car that redefined the word cheap. Such is the true story of The Yugo by Jason Vuic.

Each chapter’s subheading is a Yugo joke: How do you make a Yugo go faster? Use a tow truck. How do you double the value of your Yugo? Fill the tank with gas. What’s included with every Yugo owner’s manual? A bus schedule.

Jokes aside, Vuic rightly asks: How does something like the Yugo become an icon of bad? And what were the Yugo’s creators, investors, and buyers thinking?

Enter Malcolm Bricklin, an entrepreneur long on salesmanship but short on discipline. He had a knack for raising and then quickly spending lots of money. Prior to the Yugo, he had already notched multiple failures in the car business, each time emerging from the crater to do it again.

Bricklin’s vision for the Yugo was radical affordability. Introduced in 1985, the Yugo cost $3,990, far cheaper than any other new car, and cheaper than the average used car. This price breakthrough generated a media sensation, which made the Yugo famous.

The price was possible because of state-subsidized Yugoslavian labor. However, with a socialist workforce came low productivity and quality.

When most Americans went [to the factory in Yugoslavia],” [Yugo executive] Pete Mulhern recalled, “they expected to see something like a printing press rushing by. And the Americans would say, ‘Hey, why is it stopped?’ But it wasn’t stopped. It was just moving really slowly.”

The Yugo quickly gained a reputation as cheap in the bad sense. Nevertheless, thousands of bargain hunters bagged a Yugo in its first year of availability. That included Yugos given to buyers of certain Cadillac models during a Pittsburgh dealer’s “buy one, get one free” promotion.

But after the bargain-hunting vanguard, customers became harder to find. Ultimately, the Yugo could not compete with its reputation as a joke.

Like Bricklin’s previous ventures, Yugo of America spent far more than it made. Ironically, investors pushed out Bricklin before the company went bankrupt, which allowed him to sell his stake when it was still worth something. The investors that pushed him out later lost everything.

The Yugo’s story includes cameos by Kissinger Associates, Armand Hammer, a Savings & Loan that would be subsequently seized by federal regulators, the government of New Brunswick, Canada, and various other unlikely players. It should also be said that Vuic gives an honorable voice to the unsung managers and executives who toiled to make the Yugo real. For those people, it made sense at the time.

Which brings us back to the question of what were they thinking. Vuic argues that while the Yugo was far from a good car, it was not out-of-bounds bad for the price. He cites surveys of mostly satisfied owners who didn’t expect much for what they paid. He makes a convincing case that objectively worse cars had been sold in the United States—for example, one of Brickin’s earlier imports “burned a quart of outboard motor oil every 260 miles, and had front and rear bumpers that were several inches lower than any car on the road.”

Rather than blame the Yugo alone for its infamy, Vuic also indicts the American 1980s consumer culture. Unlike the 1960s, which had a counterculture that embraced the cheap and simple VW Beetle, the 1980s were about aspiring to the next level up. Whereas the 1960s wanted the Beetle, the 1980s wanted the BMW 3 Series.

So perhaps it was bad timing that pushed the Yugo from being just another mediocre car into the reputational abyss it now occupies. Which reminds me of a joke: How do you make a Yugo go from 0 to 60 in less than 15 seconds? Push it off a cliff.

[Here is the Amazon link for The Yugo by Jason Vuic. The photo of the Yugo ad is from Wikipedia.]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

How Pizza Hut Got Its Name

This didn’t fit anywhere in my review of Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store, but it’s still worth passing along: Spector’s story of how Pizza Hut got its name.

[When Dan and Frank Carney started a pizza restaurant in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, they didn’t know what to call it.] The local Coca-Cola distributor provided a complimentary small outside sign that was wide at the top and tapered down at the bottom. There was room for only five letters on the top line and three letters on the bottom line. “Pizza” obviously had to be on top. But Pizza what? Pizza Pad? Pizza Inn? Pizza Pan? Pizza Jug? Dan’s wife, Beverly, mentioned that she thought the building looked like a hut. The decision was made. The name of the pizzeria would be Pizza Hut.

There you have it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Lot from a Little: See and Try Generative Music

When you hear complex music, you might imagine a serious-minded composer, choosing each note with a learned and discerning ear. Instead, imagine clicking a few cells on a grid, then clicking “Play.”

It’s called generative music, and it will surprise you. For example, this 17-second video is a musical piece that took all of nine clicks in Otomata, a tool you can try for yourself in a Web page.

Before recording the video, I had lit up nine cells by clicking them. The music came from Otomata’s executing a simple set of rules on the lit cells:

  • Each lit cell has a direction: up, down, left, right.

  • On each beat, all the lit cells move one step in their respective directions.

  • If a cell hits the grid’s edge, the cell bounces back the opposite way. On the bounce, a tone will sound. The pitch (low to high) depends on the position, like a piano key’s pitch depends on its position along the keyboard.

  • If a cell hits another cell, each cell changes direction 90 degrees clockwise.

To avoid overly dissonant results, Otomata uses a limited set of pitches. This enforces a similar feel to Otomata pieces. However, within the general similarity is a world of potential variations.

Having experimented for a while, below is the best Otomata piece I created.

I like the way the piece moves through many different tonal relationships and densities. It was the result of my having clicked eleven cells, plus a few extra clicks to change certain cells’ directions.

Otomata is an implementation of cellular automata, a computational technique that combines simple elements and rules to create complex results—or, I should say, potentially complex results. Depending on your starting state, you can end up with simple cycles or highly complex variations on a theme.

If you try it, a little experimentation should quickly get you interesting results. (For a shortcut, you can start by running or tweaking my second piece.)

While Otomata won’t replace the serious-minded composer, it’s a fun way to see how generative music can make a lot out of a little. Thanks go to Batuhan Bozkurt for creating it and making it freely available.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review: Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store

Part history, part biography, Robert Spector’s The Mom & Pop Store is about America’s corner stores, neighborhood grocers, and other small retailers. You won’t read about these businesses in BusinessWeek or Fortune, yet their human stories are as interesting as any corporate CEO’s.

There’s Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, New York City, who says: “Sameness is what the larger market is about....Clearly, what we’re celebrating is not sameness. The cheese that you’re buying today is not going to be the same next week as it was last week, because the seasons are changing. The cows are eating something different. You go to McDonald’s or Starbucks for the same thing. That’s what you’re there for. You come to us for the opposite experience of going to Starbucks.”

There’s Chuck Robinson, co-owner with his wife Dee of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, who says: “We are not in the business of selling books. The grocery store and the drugstore are in the business of selling books. We would like to sell the books off our shelves. But our business is your coming into the store looking for a certain book or idea, and our ability to connect you with that book or idea.”

And there’s Spector’s father, who ran Spector’s Meat Market in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for four decades. As American Dreams go, Spector’s father’s was more grit than glory, but it got the job done. Spector’s Meat Market bettered the lives of both the Spector family and a local population of loyal customers.

For Spector, a mom & pop’s role within the local community is key. When employees know customers’ names, and people stop by just to stop by, it’s a great mom & pop store. Such stores have meaning beyond buying and selling things. And that’s why Spector thinks they will never go away.

To the conventional wisdom that says the classic mom & pop is an endangered species, Spector says, “Throughout the history of retail, some new format always has been ‘killing’ the mom & pop store, but somehow it always survives.” In the past hundred years, five-and-dime chains, catalogers, department stores, deep discounters, shopping malls, category killers, and e-commerce have all hit the mom & pop economy. The great mom & pops survived by adapting, by finding new ways to keep their communities.

In profiling various mom & pop stores, Spector covers a lot of ground: around America and occasionally beyond, from meat to music to jewelery to pine furniture. Along the way, he seasons the narrative with gems like this one, about a local diner: “If Perth Amboy was an ethnic melting pot, Texas Lunch was the stove.”

My main quibble with the book is it sometimes lets the great mom & pops stand as representatives of all mom & pops. But as Spector notes, “About a third of family-owned businesses survive to the second generation.” We all have had less-than-great experiences with the other two-thirds. I suspect those businesses hold their own lessons. Maybe that’s an opportunity for Spector to write a sequel.

For now, it’s enough to enjoy The Mom & Pop Store as an alternative to the usual fare of books about big businesses and hot trends. Spector brings us back to basics, in a satisfying way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Beautiful and Pointless Numbers about Poetry

Defending poetry with numbers seems as promising as defending a business plan with an interpretive dance. But David Orr’s book Beautiful and Pointless attempts the feat.

From his review in the New York Times Book Review, David Kirby summarizes Orr’s approach:

[W]hat makes “Beautiful and Pointless” different from thousands of other defenses of poetry is that, according to its author, poetry differs from music and stamp collecting in that people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity. Poetry fans don’t just love poetry a little; they really love it.

To test that hypothesis, Orr went to Google and conducted two different searches, one for “I like X” and one for “I love X,” with X being represented by baseball, cooking, gardening and half a dozen other activities, including movies and poetry. Admittedly, the science behind this research is slightly less complicated than that required to make a lemon meringue pie, but the results are noteworthy. In every instance except two, more people “like” an activity than “love” it; for example, readers of romance novels like that art form 3.36 times more than they love it. The exceptions are poker, which splits 50-50, and — of course — poetry, whose partisans “love” it twice as much as they “like” it.

Reading that, my first thought was, I hope he searched with those phrases in quotes. With the quotes, Google would find documents containing the phrase as a whole. Without the quotes, Google would find documents that contained all the words but not necessarily in order or together. The difference matters: Much poetry, and commentary about poetry, is about love. The same cannot be said of poker. And it’s debatable where love fits in the world of romance novels. ;) So if Orr did not use quotes around his queries, poetry might have had a big advantage against the others.

Since it was easy to do, I asked Google myself. The answers were surprising.

I tried poetry, without quotes. I got a love-to-like ratio of 0.92. With quotes, I got 0.93. Hmmm. I was expecting Orr’s ratio of 2. Instead of getting double the love, I got no effect.

How about romance novels? With quotes, the ratio was 3.75—which sounds like Orr’s result except it is reversed; Orr’s 3.36 ratio was for like-to-love, whereas my 3.75 was love-to-like. Ouch. But without quotes, I got a love-to-like ratio of 0.43 for romance novels—much closer to Orr’s 3.36 ratio when it is inverted into love-to-like (0.30).

Poker? With quotes, the love-to-like ratio was 1; without quotes, 0.96. That was in line with the 50-50 split (as Kirby put it) that Orr found.

I checked poetry again. For the record, the results were:

  • 74,000,000 for love, no quotes
  • 80,700,000 for like, no quotes
  • 2,750,000 for love, with quotes
  • 2,960,000 for like, with quotes

Maybe, from Orr’s book to Kirby’s review to my interpretation, something got disconnected. But for me, the numbers failed to add up.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Misguidedly Different

As I check out, the desk guy asks, “How was your stay?”

I say the room was nice, especially the view of Central Park. But I have a question: “Why is my room-key card like this?”

The card is narrower and longer than a credit card. It is too long to fit in a standard wallet. In a pants pocket, it will bend. Sticking out of a shirt pocket, it will evoke that 1950s fashion faux pas, the slide rule.

The desk guy flashes a grimace of recognition. “I asked that question my first day here. They said they wanted to be different.”

If they wanted to be different in this particular, misguided way, they could have at least made their key cards also be slide rules.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Genghis Khan, Modern Man

What do you know about Genghis Khan? Before reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, my knowledge was limited to a few keywords like “barbarian invader.”

Although it’s true that Genghis Khan conquered more land and people than anyone in history, Weatherford focuses on the less known but more interesting story of what Genghis Khan did with his winnings, the Mongol Empire:

In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.

These are not allegorical statements. Around the year 1200, Genghis Khan actually did establish freedom of religion, the rule of law, free trade, military and civil ranks based on merit rather than bloodline, and a long list of other societal innovations presaging the modern world.

Although many of Genghis Khan’s innovations were from his own instincts, his most important innovation was building a culture of assimilation. The Mongol Empire systematically learned from and connected the disparate civilizations it conquered. In the process, it acquired technology and know-how far beyond anything the original Mongol tribes had—and in many cases, beyond what Europeans of the time had. For example:

In 1269, [grandson of Genghis Khan] Khubilai Khan established a printing office to make government decisions more widely disseminated throughout the population, and he encouraged widespread printing in general by nongovernmental groups as well. This included religious books and novels in addition to government publications....Presses throughout the Mongol Empire were soon printing agricultural pamphlets, almanacs, scriptures, laws, histories, medical treatises, new mathematical theories, songs, and poetry in many different languages.

In Europe, Gutenberg’s printing press came 200 years later.

So why aren’t we more aware of Genghis Khan’s and the Mongol Empire’s achievements? One reason is that the Mongols never occupied and assimilated Western Europe. As a result, Western historians saw the Mongols from the outside: as mysterious, militaristic foreigners from primitive lands. And to be fair to that view, when the Mongols were on the move, they did not bother projecting their good side. Instead, their goal was to scare enemies into submission—for example, by not just defeating but also devastating a resistant town so the people would flee to the next town to tell how fearsome the Mongols were, thereby causing the next town to surrender without fighting.

Yet Weatherford argues that many pre-Renaissance Europeans, through travel and trade, saw past the “barbarian invader” headline and grasped the Mongol Empire’s modern aspects, which were like seeds for the Renaissance.

Europeans experienced a renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the [then declining] Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture.

It is a testament to the book’s effectiveness that such a point—placing Genghis Khan as a godfather to the modern world—seems uncontroversial by the end.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World adroitly balances storytelling with historical detail and analysis. The subject matter is epic and engaging history, and a worthy upgrade to the view of Genghis Khan as just a barbarian invader.

Thursday, March 17, 2011 Competitive Mischief

My review of Marc Benioff’s Behind the Cloud focused on the big picture of what his company,, has done. I should note that the book also recounts some of’s scrappier sales and marketing tactics, to entertaining effect.

For example, when’s then-larger rival Siebel Systems was holding a user conference in Cannes, France, rented every taxi in nearby Nice, where most attendees would be flying in.

We rented all the taxis and used the forty-five-minute drive, which we provided for free, as an opportunity to pitch our service. We decorated the vehicles with NO SOFTWARE logos and filled them with marketing brochures. The [Siebel] executives, with no other option than to take our rides, became irate and called the police (again).

You’ll have to read the book to see what the “(again)” is about. ;)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Behind the Cloud co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff owns a rightful place at the table of Internet visionaries who delivered. In 1999 he saw that the Internet would allow business software to be offered as a service: Instead of buying, installing, and maintaining complex software, companies would rent access to the same functionality, accessed via Web browsers. Twelve years later, companies are doing more than a billion dollars of that per year with

Behind the Cloud tells how Benioff and did it. The format is a “playbook” of lessons learned, from Benioff’s take on truisms like “Believe In Yourself” to less familiar nuggets like “Seize Unlikely Opportunities to Stay Relevant.” These “plays” are organized into themes: starting up, marketing, events, and so on. While that may sound like a reference book for entrepreneurs, Benioff and his co-author Carlye Adler combine the parts into an effective whole that works as a start-to-finish read.

Those familiar with Benioff will be unsurprised to hear Behind the Cloud also serves as a sales pitch for’s greatness. Although the book covers mistakes and tough times, those are the exceptions to a long run of achievements.

What sets the book apart from the typical executive victory lap is Benioff’s history as a creative disruptor. He didn’t just play the game well; in many respects, he redefined the game.

For example, along with delivering software differently, sold it differently. Whereas the traditional business-software sales model was to woo the information-technology (IT) department into a single big deal, exploited the fact that it could sell directly to end users, each representing a tiny deal. The end users already had the only software necessary (a Web browser), so IT didn’t need to be involved—that is, until use of had spread virally within the organization. At that point, it was easier for IT to arrange a site license than to fight the tide.

This bottom-up sales model represented a big change, as does software-as-service more broadly. But much of the change has yet to play out. As it does,’s challenge is to be as effective a big dog as it was an underdog. Whatever happens, Behind the Cloud makes a compelling case that has already changed the world of business software.

So if you’re interested in business, especially technology-driven businesses, Behind the Cloud is a worthy read.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Earmarks Away

Per Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst political system except for all the rest, even the best political systems have many flaws. So we should take a moment to celebrate an unlikely correction to one of representative democracy’s trouble spots: a spoils system called earmarking, which the U.S. Congress has recently taken away from itself.

Earmarking is the targeting of funds to a Congressional representative’s pet project, often as a way to get that representative’s vote on other legislation. The practice is associated with the term “pork barrel” spending because it allows representatives to bring home the bacon of government dollars to local projects.

Although many earmarked projects are worthy, the system for granting earmarks invites abuse. The classic example is Alaska’s Gravina Island Bridge. A proposed $400 million structure as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge, it would connect a town in southeast Alaska with an island that has a small airport and a population of 50 people.

The project was championed by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, then one of the most powerful senators and a big beneficiary of earmarking. However, the audacity of asking for a $400 million “bridge to nowhere,” as it became known by detractors, proved too much. The Gravina Island Bridge earmark did not survive, except as a symbol of what was wrong with earmarks.

The extremity of that case aside, earmarks are a byproduct of a representative democracy. If it’s legal to trade a vote for an earmark, many representatives would consider it serving their constituents’ interests. Such trading is routine enough to have its own name, logrolling.

However, another byproduct of representative democracy is bribing representatives with money. Of course, when someone trades a bag of cash for a vote, we call it payola and say it is illegal. But if a politician trades a vote for an earmark, that’s somehow okay?

Even in the most benign circumstances, earmarks will always have the suspicion of bought votes. Also, if representatives are voting not on an issue’s merits but because they owe logrolling favors, what do those votes mean for policy?

These kind of concerns, and a unique political climate, are what brought down earmarks. The Republican leadership in the House and, with the Democratic White House’s prodding, the Democratic leadership in the Senate agreed to ban earmarks for at least two years.

Political historians will look back on this episode with particular interest. It’s a rare case when an entrenched, bipartisan spoils system is overthrown by those getting the spoils. Good for them.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

A country in Africa, Malawi is one of those places we hear about only when the news is bad. HIV/AIDS, famine, and corruption top the hit list. Madonna is an advocate for its orphans.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a first-person account of the hard lives behind the headlines, and an inspiring story of one boy who invented a way out. William Kamkwamba is the boy and, with Bryan Mealer, the book’s author.

Here is William the day he realized that his father, a farmer, could no longer afford William’s school tuition:

I loved my father and respected him deeply, but I did not want to end up like him. If I did, my life would never be determined by me, but by rain and the price of fertilizer and seeds....I would grow maize, and if I was lucky, maybe a little tobacco. And years when the crops were good and there was a little extra to sell, perhaps I could buy some medicine and a new pair of shoes. But most of the time, I knew, there would be hardly enough to simply survive.

William had always been interested in how things worked. With the aid of books found in the library, he figured out how radios worked and learned to repair them.

Compact disc players were just getting popular in the trading center, and these fascinated me even more [than radios]. I’d watch people insert this shiny plate into their radios and hear music.

“How did they put the sound on that?” I’d ask.

“Who cares?” most people would answer.

Although the people in the trading center were content to simply enjoy these things without explanation, these questions constantly filled my mind. If solving such mysteries was the job of a scientists, then a scientist is exactly what I wanted to become.

The scientific problem he wanted to solve was how to bring electricity to his house.

Only 2 percent of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem. Having no electricity meant no lights, which meant I could never do anything at night, such as study or finish my radio repairs, much less see the roaches, mice, and spiders that crawled the walls and floors in the dark. Once the sun goes down, and if there’s no moon, everyone stops what they’re doing, brushes their teeth, and just goes to sleep. Not at 10:00pm or even nine o’clock—but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, I can tell you, most of Africa.

The book recounts how, using salvaged parts and improvised tools, William taught himself to build a power-generating windmill.

I didn’t have a drill, so I had to make my own. First I heated a long nail in the fire, then drove it through half a maize cob, creating a handle. I placed the nail back on the coals until it became red hot, then used it to bore holes into both sets of plastic blades. I then wired them together. I didn’t have any pliers, so I used two bicycle spokes to bend and tighten the wires on the blades.

He was 14 years old at the time. His family and fellow villagers thought he was crazy, but he proved them wrong. Not only did his windmill generate enough power for lights and radios in his home, it became a charging station for other villagers’ mobile phones. It also attracted global press coverage, which got William back into school, and eventually to Dartmouth College.

Here is the book at (a portion of the proceeds go to William’s Moving Windmills project).

If you’re not up for the book, try this six-minute film about William.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Enjoy Every Sandwich (Watson on Jeopardy)

This week on the game show Jeopardy, an IBM supercomputer named Watson is competing against two (human) Jeopardy champions. Amid the endless buffet of commentary, I especially liked this soundbite from my longtime friend Jonathan Allen, quoted on San Francisco’s KPIX news:

Reporter: JP Allen of the University of San Francisco says don’t forget, this is also a moment to celebrate human intelligence.

JP Allen: You’re talking about millions of dollars of technology, 42 geniuses working for 4 years to get this working and still, it’s competing against a guy who had a sandwich for lunch.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Pig 05049

Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma spent three years documenting what happened to Pig 05049. After being slaughtered at a commercial farm, parts of Pig 05049 ended up in at least 185 different products. Ammunition, train brakes, paint, heart valves, soap, cellular concrete, bread, and low-fat butter would like to thank Pig 05049 for its contribution to them.

To see the other 177 end products, including bacon, you can consult Meindertsma’s book, PIG 05049. I saw a copy at The Art Institute of Chicago. Here you can find a video of someone flipping through the book, plus a series of 15 close-ups.

Meindertsma also gave a TED presentation on the subject.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let There Not Be Light

An Associated Press article today, “It’s lights out for the incandescent bulb in Calif,” is a good example of how not to use numbers. It’s about the government-mandated transition from incandescent light bulbs to more energy-efficient alternatives.

On one hand...

“These standards will help cut our nation’s electric bill by over $10 billion a year and will save the equivalent electricity as 30 large power plants,” said Noah Horowitz a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

...and on the other hand...

Nick Reynoza, manager at Royal Lighting in Los Angeles, said it’s a shame the transition comes at a time when alternatives are so much more expensive.

“It’s not really an option — you have this or you don’t get anything,” he said. “The options are more expensive. Four incandescents are $1.00, the halogens are $5.99 and the LED are like $20.”

In other words, one guy has numbers that say the transition will save a lot of money. Another guy has different numbers that say it will cost a lot of money. Is that the end of the story?

The newer bulbs are more expensive than incandescents, but supporters of the technology say they last so much longer that there is a financial savings in the end. For example, while incandescents provide as much as 2,000 hours of light, compact fluorescents can provide light for six times longer.

The article is trying to do the right thing, explaining how consumers will pay more for alternative bulbs, but the alternative bulbs will last longer. However, having already specified the extra costs of halogen and LED bulbs, the article manages to not tell us how much longer these types of bulbs will last. Instead, we get that figure for compact fluorescent bulbs, which were not mentioned in the cost differences.

So, the chance was missed to let readers understand whether the new light bulbs are a better or worse deal in terms of a bulb’s cost per hour of light.

Stranger, the article did not even try to factor-in the additional savings to consumers from lower electrical bills, even though that is the point of the transition in the first place.

If this was breaking news, the slapdash numeracy might be understandable, as would the mention of a congressman who “could not immediately be reached for comment.” But are those really the standards for a three-weeks-after-the-fact article?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Decision-Making in the American Revolutionary War

Last time, I reviewed Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. One theme from the book deserves extra mention: the contrast of George Washington’s decision-making style versus that of the British military leaders.

The British leaders were traditional military commanders, elite and absolute in their leadership. At several junctures they failed because they ignored correct but contrary perspectives from lower-ranking officers. Equally bad, they put too much faith in immediate subordinates whose primary skill was to tell the leaders what they wanted to hear.

By contrast, Washington was “functioning more as a leader than a commander: always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing.” He acted this way partly by necessity. His forces were a potluck of regiments and militias donated by the various states. Many unit leaders had their own ideas and agendas, which over time Washington learned to solicit and guide rather than push against.

Although Washington was running an army, not a town-hall democracy, he realized the two were not mutually exclusive. He could encourage debate and still be in charge. He could boost morale by making it clear his men were heard. These techniques often inspired the Americans to fight smarter and harder than their adversaries.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing is not for everyone. But with more than one hundred reviews on Amazon, averaging five out of five stars, it is finding the right audience.

The book is a military history of the American Revolutionary War from late 1776 to early 1777. It starts with the British rout of George Washington and his American forces at New York. This loss could have ended the war if not for a miraculous American escape by cover of night and fog. The Americans retreated across New Jersey to Pennsylvania, ceding Princeton and Trenton, among other towns, to the pursuing British forces.

The British expected to hold their gains as winter set in, then finish off the Americans in the spring. However, on Christmas night 1776 Washington crossed the Delaware River to surprise and defeat the enemy, mostly Hessian mercenaries allied with the British, at Trenton.

A week later British reinforcements attacked Washington at Trenton. He again escaped under darkness, but instead of retreating, his forces went around the British to take Princeton, which had been left lightly defended.

Reeling from these counterpunches, the British withdrew from most of New Jersey. The outposts that remained were subject to harassment by American militias. Exploiting their knowledge and control of the countryside, the militias would ambush British foraging parties, further demoralizing the British effort.

By the spring of 1777, the British were no longer expecting a quick end to the war—a fact that amounted to the beginning of the end for public and political support back in Great Britain.

If that summary is a view of the forest, Washington’s Crossing is a tree-by-tree examination. It combines meticulous pursuit of the facts, several interpretive themes that were new to me, and a highly readable narrative.

While I would not classify the book as light reading, it has the feel of a great college course. So if you’re into history, especially military history, I agree with the Amazon user reviewers in recommending Washington’s Crossing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Banksy Breaks the Frame

“Breaking the frame” is a social-science term that means changing people’s preconceptions so they see something differently. On the question “What is art?” street artist Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop breaks the frame, then folds, spindles, and mutilates it.

Start with the film’s topic, street art. Banksy and other street artists use public spaces as canvases—spray-painting, stenciling, and postering over walls and billboards. They don’t tend to ask permission. Art or vandalism?

It can be both. Here is a Banksy stencil on Israel’s West Bank barrier:

Or perhaps you’ve seen these around your city?

The guy in the picture is Shepard Fairey, one of the featured artists in the film. He has a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. Here he is in front of another one of his works:

The film shows various street artists in action. By cover of night, they paint and paste like nervy joyriders. Capturing it all is amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta, whose immersion in the street-art underground eventually leads him to Banksy.

Banksy allies with Guetta to document Banksy’s activities, including the proper art world’s discovery of Banksy. Pieces that previously would have been left in the street until authorities removed them start fetching $25,000 or more at auction.

Noticing this, Guetta seizes on Banksy’s suggestion that Guetta make and exhibit his own art—a suggestion meant to distract Guetta from the film project, which Banksy decides to finish himself after realizing Guetta has no idea what to do with all the footage.

However, instead of finishing the original film, Banksy ends up documenting the meteoric rise of Guetta’s art persona, MBW (Mister Brainwash). MBW hires assistants to quickly render hundreds of works highly derivative of Banksy and other street artists. Riding the media and art-world hype around Banksy, MBW stages a massive exhibition. He sells more than one million dollars worth of art in the first week. MBW’s work later appears in museums and on a Madonna album cover.

Having graduated from maker to subject of Exit Through the Gift Shop, MBW dismisses his critics, saying time will tell if he is a real artist or not. The film ends with Banksy, Fairey, and others expressing confusion about how it all turned out.

Although the film gets more farcical as it goes, the line between fact and fiction is never clear. Post-film Internet searching shows that MBW’s exhibition was real, as was the Madonna album cover. And despite wide suspicion that Guetta/MBW is a fictional character created by Banksy, MBW continues to create and sell art in the real world.

So, to review: The next time you see a defaced wall, it might be art. Whoever made it thought it was art, but that’s just one vandal’s opinion, unless the vandal’s work is deemed important enough to be in galleries and auctions, in which case it is officially art. If it is officially art, instead of being powerwashed into soap scum, it will be auctioned for $42,500. This may be true whether the artist is an actual artist or an actor playing a filmmaker-cum-artist, especially if the latter is part of a hoax perpetrated by the former.

If your head is spinning, Exit Through the Gift Shop—and the larger culture-jamming project it is apparently part of—has done its job.

You can find the film on Netflix and (as of January 2, 2011) Comcast On Demand under “All Movies.”