Against Disruption: Louis Menand, Douglas Adams, Books and Technology

Have you ever smacked into a glass door when you didn’t realize it was closed?  I have.  It hurts.  The intersection of my face and a glass door happened at my great aunt’s tiny desert house in the 80s, where the mix of a trick of the sunlight and my distracted boyhood mind made the door invisible.

More alarming than the pain was the surprise.  A barrier I could not see had prevented me from making progress in the direction I wanted to go.

Many people and many businesses have this problem.

Sometimes life throws you glass doors, and the trick is to find your gratitude.  You need to appreciate that now you know about the barrier while you’re rubbing an aching schnoz. 

I felt this way after reading Louis Menand’s insightful, generous and intelligent piece “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” in the latest (January 5th) issue of The New Yorker, which shows that the paperback book and the bookstore itself were relatively recent developments in the United States:

Back when people had to leave the house if they wanted to buy something, the biggest problem in the book business was bookstores. There were not enough of them. Bookstores were clustered in big cities, and many were really gift shops with a few select volumes for sale. Publishers sold a lot of their product by mail order and through book clubs, distribution systems that provide pretty much the opposite of what most people consider a fun shopping experience—browsing and impulse buying.

Allen Lane created the mass-market paperback in England when he founded Penguin Books in 1935, and Robert de Graff brought it to the United States in 1939 when he launched Pocket Books.

Menand synthesizes several books in this article, leading to useful nuggets like:

The key to Lane’s and de Graff’s innovation was not the format. It was the method of distribution. More than a hundred and eighty million books were printed in the United States in 1939, the year de Graff introduced Pocket Books, but there were only twenty-eight hundred bookstores to sell them in. There were, however, more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters—not to mention train and bus stations. De Graff saw that there was no reason you couldn’t sell books in those places as easily as in a bookstore.

The mass-market paperback was therefore designed to be displayed in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space. People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.

Reading Menand’s terrific piece, I kept waiting for him to connect the dots between the birth of the mass-market book seventy or eighty years ago and the rise of Amazon.com over the last few years.  Perhaps the fact that I was reading The New Yorker on an iPad made this all the more compelling a connection, but Menand is a historian rather than a futurist, so he didn’t make the link and the article pivots instead into a discussion of censorship.

So what was my glass door?

A lifelong book lover, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, in Encino in the San Fernando Valley.  Back then, L.A. was a great bookstore town from tiny little specialty shops like Scene of the Crime for mysteries, Dangerous Visions and A Change of Hobbit for science fiction, to broader bookstores like Alpha Books, the Bookie Joint and Midnight Special… to name just a few of my then favorites now long shuttered. 

For years, I’ve blamed Crown Books, Borders, Barnes and Noble and, of course, my own love/hate relationship with Amazon.com for the death of the independent bookstore in one of the biggest — and most readerly — cities in the country.  Intrinsic to my resentment was a conviction that until these black mustachioed villains skulked onto the scene my beloved bookstores had been there forever.  They were institutions!  Instead, Menand shows compellingly that they’d just been around since around the time my parents were born.  If my grandparents were still alive they could have told me this… if I’d thought to ask them.

Smack.

The glass door connects to a perspective on technology and innovation that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams articulated in his hilarious and smart 1999 London Times article, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” —

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

(Add smart phones, tablets, wearable computers, 3D printers and automated homes to Adams’ list to update it for 2015.)

For me, bookstores were “just normal” because they were already there when I started reading, but my normal is different than my grandparents’ normal was. 

This is like the conversation I have with my kids about how back in the stone age before they were born people had to watch television shows when they were on rather than record them and watch later, and how it wasn’t that big a burden because there weren’t that many channels anyway.  My son looks at me like I rode a brontosaurus to the office.

The book-selling and business that Amazon is so effectively pressurizing hasn’t actually been around that long, similar to how general literacy hasn’t been around that long.  That  means that rather than think about how Amazon disrupts the book-selling business, it might be more useful to think about how the mass-market book-selling business is still pretty new and still evolving.

This might seem like a subtle distinction, but the problem with disruption as a buzzword — and oh boy is it a popular buzzword lately — is that it sets up binary* David versus Goliath dynamics where the realities are more complicated.

Life is easier when you only have to worry about two entities: the Empire and the Rebellion, the Federation and the Klingons, the Ducks and the Buckeyes, Russia and the USA.

But the reality is that more than two entities are in play most of the time.

Over the course of the last few decades: book selling, buying and reading has increased by many orders of magnitude.  More people buy books and read for pleasure now than they did when my grandparents were born.  This happened because of the reduction in costs in the creation of books and the ease of distribution in the selling of books, first with paperbacks and then with Amazon.com.

That’s not a disruption.

It’s an eruption.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

* Americans love binary arguments: Deborah Tannen talked about this is her useful 1998 book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.

My 2014 in Books

I read a lot — magazines, two newspapers, email newsletters, and countless social-media-shared links I chase down digital rabbit holes. I’d never know anything, for example, without Jason Hirshhorn’s magnificent daily Media Redefined.

But I’m lost without books.  Actual books.  Whether paper or digital, if I’m not reading at least two books then I get grumpy and feel IQ points oozing out of my ears and down the shower drain.

So one year ago, inspired by my friend David Daniel who keeps a list of books he wants to read, I decided to keep a list of books I finished in 2014. Since it is now 12/31/14 and I’m not going to finish any of the three books I’m reading at the moment, what follows is my 2014 list with brief remarks added.

Note: with the exception of My Side of the Mountain I am not counting re-reads. Often, at night, or when I’m in need of a visit with an old friend, I dive back into a novel I’ve already read. My kids are the same way. Since I tell the two of them that this doesn’t count for their reading, I’m not counting it towards my own.

Looking back, there’s a lot of fiction in this list.  I need fiction like I need oxygen (except when I’m writing fiction), and most of the business writing I read comes in articles.  I wonder what the fiction/non-fiction balance will be next year?

So here’s the list:

Dashner, James.  The Maze Runner.  Finished 1/1/14.

I read a fair amount of YA or children’s books, usually in quest of reading matter for my kids, but in this case it was for a project a friend and I were contemplating. Not bad but not good enough for me to read any farther.

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Finished 1/4/14.

A fun ride, albeit only pancake deep. I inhaled this over a day or so at the start of last year. A good yarn for any of the digerati who mourn the loss of bookstores and wonder about the future of book-length reading in a digital age.

Elberse, Anita. Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking & the Big Business of Entertainment. Finished 1/22/14.

Interesting and thoughtful, and powerfully presented. What I wanted, though, were more connections outside of entertainment to the rest of business and human endeavor. A missed opportunity.

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle. Finished 1/23/14.

A frustrating book… it annoyed but compelled me in a similar way to Aaron Sorkin’s just-finished HBO show “The Newsroom.” There’s a smugness to Eggers that grates, and I don’t think he understands how companies like Facebook and Google work.

Asaro, Catherine. The Spacetime Pool.  Finished 2/5/14.

Novella in Asaro’s fantastic “Saga of the Skolian Empire” series, which is great fun for people who like space opera with good physics and a bit of romance.

Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes: a Rivers of London Novel. Finished 2/15/14.

#4 in Rivers of London. I saw #5 on the shelves at Foyle’s in London last week and am excited to read it when the e-book comes out in a few days. This series is delightful fantasy set in modern-day London, written by one of the many “Doctor Who” alumni who go on, like Douglas Adams, to write novels.

Semmelhack, Peter. Social Machines: the Next Wave of Innovation; How to Develop Connected Products that Change Customers’ Lives. Finished 3/09/14.

A good introduction to the Internet of Things, more practical than visionary.

Craighead George, Jean.  My Side of the Mountain.  Finished 3/11/14.  

I read this when I was a kid, found it on my son’s shelf, and re-read it with lip-smacking pleasure.  I was looking in particular for a discussion of how you want a machete rather than an axe, which I remembered from a book I read decades ago, but didn’t find it in this terrific book. Anybody out there know what I’m talking about?

Thomas, Rob.  Veronica Mars: the Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Finished 4/3/14.

Loved the Veronica Mars movie that came out around the same time and couldn’t get enough of it, so I read the novel. Fun. Nailed the voice and sensibility of the series. I look forward to the next one, which comes out soon.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: a Revolutionary Approach to Success. Finished 4/11/14.

One of the best business-y books I’ve read in the last few years, I tore through this after Dana Anderson praised it at the AAAA’s, and had the pleasure of trading notes with Adam Grant subsequently. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. It’s brilliant, and — perhaps more importantly and certainly a surprise coming from a social scientist — it’s beautifully written.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Cocaine Blues.  Phrynne Fisher #1.  Finished May sometime.

Between May and July I inhaled seven of these murder mysteries set in Victorian Australia.  Karen, a woman who practices Tae Kwon-do with my son back in Oregon, and I talk books, and she was flying through them. These are like McNuggets: I kept tearing through them at high speed until I hit a satiation point and stopped.  Formulaic and with a bit of the Ensign Mary Sue about them, I recommend these to historical mystery lovers who also like a recurring cast of characters. The Australian TV series based on these (streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime) isn’t bad, although not as good as the books. Things rarely are.  Just this note for all this series.

Greenwood, Kerry. Flying Too High. Phyrnne Fisher #2.  Finished May sometime.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Murder on the Ballarat Train.  Phrynne Fisher #3.  5/28/14.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock.  Phynne Fisher #4. Finished 6/13/14.

Greenwood, Kerry.  The Green Mill Murder. Phynne Fisher #5. Finished 6/16/14.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Finished 6/20/14.

A friend — either Ari Popper of Sci Futures or Brian Seth Hurst of Story Tech — recommended this to me at CES.  Good popular science journalism, but I don’t have clear memories of it now, which is a bit of a ding.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Skin Collector. Finished 6/24/14.

I read it because of my affection for The Bone Collector, but it wasn’t very good.

Miller, Derek B.  Norwegian by Night.  Finished 7/13/14.

My friend Rishad Tobaccowala recommended this to me when he found out I was moving to Norway for the school year.  It’s fantastic: an emotionally engaged and heart-stopping thriller starring an 80 year old Korean War Vet set in Oslo. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Clint Eastwood should direct and star.

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  Finished 7/13/14.

This book taught me a lot about how I sabotage my own productivity: I read it with passionate intensity in paper, and then bought a digital copy to bring with me to Norway. It’s on my “to re-read in January list,” which isn’t a long one.

Greenwood. Kerry.  Blood and Circuses. Phynne Fisher #6. Finished 7/18/14.

MacLeod, Hugh.  Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Finished 7/23/14.

I admire MacLeod and hadn’t gotten around to reading the book for no good reason. It’s short, sweet and smart. Don’t miss, particularly if you like his cartoons.

Greenwood. Kerry. Ruddy Gore.  Phynne Fisher #7. Finished 7/24/14.

Russ, Joanna.  The Adventures of Alyx.  Finished 8/14/13.

Back in college, my friend Keylan Qazzaz wrote her senior thesis about women in science fiction with a particular focus on this book. I picked it up a few years later, but never got around to reading it.  Then, as I was packing for Norway and grabbing books from the “I’ve been meaning to read this” pile (a big pile), I saw this.  Turns out, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas featuring a terrific protagonist who seems to have amnesia between each story.  More strong space opera.  A bit hard to find now, but quite good.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.  Finished 8/31/14.

I enjoyed the Atlantic excerpt of this book and decided to read the whole thing, which I did in short order.  It’s a powerful antidote to the “genius alone is his garrett” Romantic myth that still pervades western notions of creativity and genius. However, I’d have liked more on how groups collaborate, and think that his focus on the pair is unnecessarily limiting.  Still a worthwhile read, and in addition it lead me to Carse (see below).

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Finished 9/9/14.

Play is important to how I think about disruptive technologies (much more about this in 2015), and a few years ago my friend and partner Susan MacDermid mentioned this book from the 1930s.  It’s a tough read — continental philosophy that seems deliberately, almost hermetically sealed away against non-specialist readers — but worthwhile and interesting and useful for my thinking.

Powers, Tim.  Expiration Date.  Finished 9/20/14. 

Powers wrote my all-time favorite time travel story, The Anubis Gates, but I never managed to get into this one or it’s quasi-sequel (see below) even though I’ve had them for years.  Powers’ imagination is powerful and intricate, and it takes time to settle into the worlds he creates.  By the time I made it to page 50 I was hooked, and then I was sorry when it ended.  Don’t give up on this one too easily.

Wilson, Daniel H.  Robopocalypse.  Finished 10/10/14.

My friend Renny Gleeson recommended this, and it’s yummy sci-fi candy along the lines of the Terminator movie series only updated to include how the world works post-internet.  For paranoiacs worried about AI, this is either something to embrace or something to avoid for fear of never sleeping again.

Carse, James P.  Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. Finished 10/12/14.

As I mentioned, the Shenk book turned me onto Carse.  Like Huizinga, this is far from an easy book to read or understand, but it’s an important meditation on play.  It’s particularly important for Americans, I think, with our cultural tendency to bottom line everything and be more concerned with the final score than how the game was.

Gawande, Atul.  The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Finished 10/21/14.

Gawande is one of those people who does so much in a day to make the world a better place that he makes me feel like a loser, even though I’m sure that if I said this to him in person he’d charm me into feeling like a superhero until the next morning.  He’s a terrific writer, and in our information-overload era this book is both moving and useful for anybody who despairs of getting the important things done.

Mann, George.  The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation. Finished 10/28/14.

The Steampunk genre and movement appeals to me, but I keep holding back because it feels like it will turn into an addictive time-suck that will pull me far deeper than just reading the novels.  Suddenly, I’ll be going to maker fairs and dressing in lots of metal-studded leather.  I just don’t have that kind of time.  This is also why I rarely play video games and don’t drive a motorcycle.  Still, I ran across this book at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and was so interested that I found myself reading it while walking down El Camino Real on my way to a dinner.  For Sherlock Holmes lovers as well as Steampunks, this is great fun.  I also read the sequel immediately thereafter (see next entry) and a cluster of free short stories on Mann’s website.  Like Ben Aaronovitch, Mann is a Doctor Who alum.  I’ll read more of this series eventually.

Mann, George.  The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation.  Finished 11/6/14.

Scalzi, John.  Lock In. Finished 11/16/14.

Fascinating notion about telepresence for quadriplegics (a reductive description, I admit) as background for a compelling near-future science fiction adventure story.  Scalzi’s voice is the closest to a 21st century Heinlein that I’ve found, particularly with the Old Man’s War series.

Bach, Rachel.  Fortune’s Pawn. (Paradox Book 1.) Finished 11/22/14.

IO9 compared this to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and since she is my favorite living science fiction writer I immediately bought the first one.  Bujold it ain’t, but it’s not-bad space opera.  One key difference (literature geek spoiler alert) is that while Bujold practices Austen-like free indirect discourse, Bach’s narrative is first person, which is harder to carry off if you’re not practicing the skaz a la Mark Twain in Huck Finn.  I really like how Bach’s protagonist is a kick-ass woman mercenary soldier, but I wish the writing was better.

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Finished 11/29/14.

Rishad and Renny both put this on lists of influential books, and I loved every page both as a Pixar fan and as a consultant who watches businesses get in the way of their own success time and time again.  I managed creatives for many years, and wish I had this book on my desk when I started. Don’t miss. Like Adam Grant’s book, this one will stick with and help any business leader.

Powers, Tim.  Earthquake Weather. Finished 12/22/14.

See above note on Powers’ Expiration Date.  I was delighted to discover that Earthquake Weather was a quasi-sequel, because that made it easier to get over my usual 50 page learning curve with Powers.

Connelly, Michael.  The Burning Room: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished 12/29/14.

My last completed book of 2014, which I finished on a plane this Monday.  Is there anybody who doesn’t love these books?  Connelly seems to be easing Bosh towards retirement or a dramatic death, and while I’m eager to see how it all ends I despair at the notion of a fictional Los Angeles without Harry Bosch solving crimes in it.

Looking forward to 2015: I’m currently reading four books that I hope to finish in January or February:

Daniel J. Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston’s Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

(After I finish these two, I’m ambitious to dive into Daniel Goleman’s new Focus, which seems to be along similar lines to both of these.)

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology.

And although I haven’t read it, I picked up Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom in London. If you want murder mysteries set in the same time as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, don’t miss this excellent series. 

Any must-reads for the coming year?  Please share in comments below…

Paris as a way of seeing

Here is the view of the shop across the street from our flat in Paris’ Le Marais district early this morning, the day before Christmas, when I was the first one up and could watch the city come to life with a cup of coffee in one hand and my iPad-provided New York Times in the other:

LeMaraisMorning

As the white-uniformed chef or assistant arranges food on a tray in the background, the woman on the ladder scrapes dirt and grime from the windows and ledge above the shop.

A commitment to aesthetics — and how that commitment draws a special form of attention from the viewer — defines my experience of Paris this trip.

Summertime, back home in Oregon we have friendly, yummy Farmer’s Markets with sumptuous fruits and foods, and if you go to buy tangerines you’ll see overflowing boxes of them at every stand.

Here, at a market near the Eiffel Tower that emerged clanging and thumping during our first night at a nearby hotel (before we moved to Le Marais), the December fruits were ripe and wet, the fish was fresh, the breads warm and the cheeses— oh, the cheeses!… but it was the display that moved my heart above my rumbling stomach.

Instead of a random box of tangerines, we saw delicate pyramids. The meats were laid out with loving and artistic precision.

The high incidence of casual beauty in Paris amazes me: the only other place I’ve seen this is Tokyo. 

(Note: this is not to say that Americans are bad at aesthetics: we aren’t. But function and efficiency trump aesthetics in our priorities most of the time.)

For W (my nine-year old son) it’s his first trip to Paris. Yesterday the four of us went to Versailles. W and I talked a lot about aesthetics, as well as how Versailles was a remarkably conceited compliment that the French kings paid to themselves, enforcing a way of seeing their power. We haven’t had that conversation in the US, or in Vancouver, or in Bergen, or in Amsterdam, or in Krakow.

Paris invites aesthetic attention, almost demands it.

A few years back the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote a remarkable book called “How Pleasure Works,” where he showed that how we approach experiences defines our ability to take pleasure in them.

Bloom deploys Gene Weingarten’s famous story about how violinist Joshua Bell didn’t get a lot of tips when he performed anonymously in the DC Metro — in contrast to his sold out performances at great concert halls — to show how cognitive frames make pleasure possible.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet anticipated this four centuries ago when he said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Paris is one big cognitive frame that flips my aesthetic contemplation switch to the “on” position and keeps it there.

Next stop, taking the children to the Louvre after brunch.

P.S. You can see a TED talk by Paul Bloom about how pleasure works here.

Notes from Bergen

Our two most precious currencies are time and attention.  Money, our more conventional currency, helps to focus attention and to make us chary of how we spend our time.

I write this sitting in Chaos Coffee, perched at the edge of the University of Bergen campus and a block from Nygård Skole where W, my 9-year-old son, is in a Norwegian-language immersion program.  Tuesday, the school lets out at noon, so I’ve made Chaos my hangout: they have plentiful wifi and don’t mind if I nurse a drink for a couple of hours while typing at a quiet table between a shelf of books on my right and the bright yellow door that leads into the back kitchen on my left.

ChaosCoffee

Buying my second latte is a reckless extravagance.  Then I throw all fiduciary sanity over my shoulder and add a small piece of dark chocolate cake.

It tastes better than it deserves.  I wouldn’t pay attention if this were happening at a Peet’s in America, but in Norway the cake and latte cost 60 Kroner.  Ten dollars!  And I already spent nearly that on my first latte and an apple.

The cake feels ropy between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, then the chocolate lights up the taste buds at the sides of my tongue as that first mouthful heads south towards my esophagus.

Cognitive dissonance at play: regardless of the cause I’m experiencing this as mighty fine chocolate cake.  The latte’s not bad either.

It’s just us boys for the next couple of days.  Kathi, my wife, is at a conference in Oslo for Fulbright winners.  H, our 13-year-old daughter, and J, our visiting 23-year-old nanny/niece/auxiliary kid, are on the train to join Kathi for the night.  W & I plan to watch “X-Men First Class” on the laptop later, and there is talk of a post-school surgical strike to acquire some McDonald’s fries (a rare treat).

Today is my 13th day in Bergen and my second Tuesday morning at Chaos. Liat, who comes to Bergen from Tel Aviv, runs the café on these days.

Liat

She manages the music with a disk jockey’s care, pouncing on the stereo to manage sound levels and selecting a range of easy listening, orchestral, classic U.S. rock (Springsteen, Tracy Chapman), a smattering of current music (Passenger), Norwegian lounge music and more.  At first, I was the only one here and she mentioned that “Vamp” was a famous Norwegian pop group.  I’ll check them out on Spotify later.

Back to focused attention.  I only vaguely recognize the Passenger tune “Let Her Go” and want to identify it, so I grab my iPhone and hit Shazam, then wince as I feel precious data trickle away.  Oh no!  What have I done?  Until Kathi gets her Norwegian identity card (and, perhaps much later, we get ours) we can’t get bank accounts or mobile phone accounts, so we’re on pay-as-you go SIM cards.  We are non-people living in a cash economy.  Not a big deal in the long term, but I’m used to all-you-can eat data back home in the U.S.

Indeed, I only bought the pay-as-you-go SIM cards yesterday when I realized that the girls would be in different parts of Oslo and would have no way of reaching each other (or me) without them.  The cost-per-TXT is .69 Kroner (about 11 cents), so we all use Skype for real-time communications.

I don’t miss having chronic mobile access and regret having it back now.  Without the magic mirror in my pocket I pay more attention to my Norwegian surroundings, although the millisecond I find myself in a pocket of wifi (stand outside any Burger King and you can log on even without buying something, I learned) I grab the iPhone and peer into my digital other life.  My info addiction is not subtle.

Now, with a SIM card, Skype bleeps whenever family and friends in the U.S. want my attention.  It doesn’t happen often with the time difference (9 hours from the west coast), but I quickly have become accustomed to experiencing only local interruptions.  In the same way that I’ve shed a few stubborn pounds because now I’m a pedestrian I had shed a few distractions by not having a smart phone.  Now they are creeping back, forcing me to choose mindfully to turn off data or resist the urge to Google something, whereas yesterday geography made that choice for me.

Second meetings seem important in Norway.  Liat and I had a pleasant interaction a week ago, but today I learn more about her.  She is Israeli, married and still mourns the loss of her gigantic English mastiff a year ago.

Liat calls me to the front of the store to meet Marlis Bühler, who has just published a beautiful, poetic photography book of people with dolphins called “Dolphin Love.”  Marlis, I think, is leaving Bergen tonight.  She has come to Chaos to give Liat a copy of her book and say goodbye.  That says a lot about the kind of coffee shop this is.  Liat introduces me as “my new customer” to Marlis, which I find a unexpected and welcome compliment.

Right now, my time is chopped up seeing to the kids and the house and maintaining contact with various people and projects back in the U.S., so face-to-face human contact is at a premium.

It’s even harder for H, my daughter.  Norwegian secondary schools are on strike and have been for nine weeks.  The union and the administrators seem to get more sclerotic in their positions with each passing day, so I don’t know when the strike will end.  So while W happily greets his buddies in the schoolyard at Nygård each morning, H doesn’t have a peer group.

Last Sunday, a colleague of Kathi’s with L, his 12-year-old daughter (and two 9-year-old boys for W) came to visit.  Heaven.  H lit up to have another girl to chat with, and they were quickly comparing notes on books, TV shows (who knew that “Gravity Falls” was an international hit?), YouTube videos, Instagram and more.

The moment I knew the visit had gone well came towards the end when we’d all gone out for an evening walk. As we approached our new friends’ car, L announced that she had to go back to our house because she had left her beloved iPad Mini there.  We turned towards the house and I spied L quietly opening her coat to H in a “first one’s free” gesture that revealed the iPad in her pocket.  L didn’t want to leave just yet.  The two girls caught me catching them.  We shared a conspiratorial smile.

We’ll find more girls for her to hang out with while we wait for school to start.

Less than two weeks into our 10-month stay here in Bergen it’s just thinkable for me to write about it.  Until now, I’ve been too busy, too close, able to stick the occasional photo onto Facebook, but not able to do real thinking.

Bergen is a medieval city with a third millennial overlay.  If Oslo, the business capital, is New York then Bergen is San Francisco or Boston.  There is no Los Angeles equivalent in Norway: it isn’t sunny enough.  Modern day hustle bustle squeezes through narrow, crooked and meticulously cobble-stoned streets.  An ancient castle complete with dungeon sits next to a Radisson Blu mini hotel.  There are more hair salons per capita than there are heads, which is odd because it’s not like this is a city of terrific haircuts.  Everything is so expensive here that if I bother doing the Kroner-to-Dollars equation I’m frozen in place: how much for a pack of gum?

And with that, ‘tis time to get the boy from school.

UP, UP and away… How a wearable computer changed my brain

Yikes_wrist_photo_smOld dogs can learn new tricks.  So can people young and old.  Behavior is metamorphic, although we seldom recognize that plasticity in the moment.  Instead, we think the world changes while we stay the same, that our children are less responsible than we were at their age but that we threw crazier parties.  We think TV today isn’t as good as the programs we watched when we were younger, forgetting how many nights we spent on “Night Court.”

Sometimes, though, the planets align and we see our own behavior as it changes in the moment.

Here is one such story.

The Jawbone UP has decorated my wrist and recorded my physical activity since mid-March of 2013, but I did not reckon with how I depended on its steady flow of information and quiet alerts until it stopped working.  Ironically, this happened last week when I was guiding tours for Story-Tech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where wearable computers were a key technology with massive year-over-year growth, and I could no longer demonstrate how it worked to my tourists.

But the real impact of my UP’s absence didn’t hit until both my wife Kathi and I returned home from overlapping business trips, mine to CES and hers to the Modern Language Association.

Kathi is a night owl working late and I’m an early bird (it’s a mixed marriage), so the unheralded killer feature of the Jawbone UP and its kindred gadgets (Nike FuelBand, Fitbit Force) is the silent alarm that vibrates on my wrist when I get up before dawn to work while the world is silent and all the thoughts are mine to think.

Before the UP, a clock radio or smart phone would chime, blare or buzz, disturbing Kathi and sometimes failing to wake me (the first five or six times).  It took time getting used to sleeping with a bracelet, but I came to depend on that quiet buzz to get me up and let me lurch from the bedroom and pad towards the coffee machine like a sneaky zombie.

The UP’s death didn’t much affect me in Vegas because the Aria let me program the windows to open and the TV to pop on at a designated time.  Before Kathi got back from the MLA I simply used my old nightstand clock radio to wake myself.  But since her return I find myself waking up every couple of hours because I am so anxious about my iPhone’s coming bleep.

So I haven’t slept well, feel my stress level rising, and await the arrival of a replacement UP with less than graceful patience.  This is now the third time I’ve had to write to Jawbone for a replacement in less than one year, and so I find myself wondering if I should give the Fitbit Force a try just because I don’t want to go through this again.

This put me in mind of a fascinating article in December’s Scientific American: “How Google is Changing Your Brain” (preview link here but subscription required and recommended).  The internet’s infinite laundry pen memory has eroded our need to rely on other people to remember things and erodes the difference between information we store in our heads and the information we know is waiting in the cloud.

We’ve always perceived of our possessions as parts of ourselves.  The comic book visionary Scott McCloud observed in his brilliant book “Understanding Comics” that when another car bumps your car from behind we don’t cry out “his car hit my car!” but “hey! he hit me!” The difference is that with computers and particularly with wearables the devices on our bodies talk back to us in new ways.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I have outsourced most of my remembering tasks to Evernote and Instapaper, but my morning wakeup routine isn’t information— it’s action.  And so it’s only a minor exaggeration to say that the UP band has become a part of myself, so much so that when it’s gone I have to adjust in surprising ways.

“Never trust anybody over 30,” a cliché of the mid-1960s free speech movement, mistook an perceived mental inflexibility in the generation of the protesters’ parents with an age-related unwillingness to think and behave in new ways.  This is a common mistake and we make it in both directions, substituting life stage behaviors for generational ones and vice versa.

So, the pundits who claim that Millennials will never care about their privacy and will always overshare on Facebook are wrong: the Millennials just didn’t need to think about why not to overshare until they were on the job market and had to cleanse their profiles of the sexy selfies with the bong in the background.  Behaviors can change.

As a youth I would not have expected my behaviors to change so quickly when I had hit middle age, but they did with the UP band.

According to the UPS tracker my replacement UP should arrive today.  If it doesn’t, I think I’m buying the Fitbit Force.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]

On Medium: Season 2 of “The Newsroom”

Just published a short piece on Season 2 of HBO’s “The Newsroom” over on Medium.com –“’Newsroom’ Season 2 Delivers: The problems of S1 turn into triumphs in S2.”

Here are the first few paragraphs:

I was crankily devoted to the first season on HBO of Aaron Sorkin’s latest intense one-hour drama featuring geniuses who have memorized entire statistical manuals, are unstoppably right at work and terminally dysfunctional in their personal lives.

“Crankily” because, as I’ve written elsewhere, the smug knowitallness of the characters rendered them irksome, and the two-year head start that Sorkin gave them by setting the show in the recent, memorable past amplified the smugness because of course they always got everything right— they were talking about things that just happened.

My friend Gary Saul Morson in his magnificent 1996 book “Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time” calls this sort of thing “backshadowing,” which “turns the past into a well-plotted story” and removes from the past the hazy contingency, moment-to-moment panic and uncertainty and sheer improvisation of how we tactically moved in and out of the what we chose to focus on and the decisions we made at the time.

Read the whole piece at Medium…

Two new posts on Medium.com, plus thoughts on platform proliferation

The past week or so I’ve enjoyed writing on Medium.com. I mentioned a post about Tina Fey’s “Bossypants as Startup Bible” here before, and since then I’ve written two more:

eBay’s Sublime Terror: Staring down the precipice while hunting Babylon 5 DVDs

and

Barnes & Noble’s real problem: In praise of chunky scale

Medium.com is a wonderful, collaborative, clean, well-lighted place to write, and it’s fantastic to have the comments juxtaposed next to particular paragraphs rather than as floppy addenda at the end of a post.

I also love the curation, the community, and was  tickled to be listed in the Editor’s Picks.

On the downside, why can’t it be easier to have what I write there cross-posted over here, to my own website?  Surely it should be easy enough for them to create a “share this post on wordpress” button at the bottom of the page right next to the “share this post on Twitter” and “share this post on Facebook” buttons?

Convergence, the dream of the first wave internet pioneers before the dotpocalypse of 2000, is still just a dream.

Along these lines, I’m taking Rebelmouse for a test drive to see if it’s a good aggregator of my stuff online, as well as, perhaps, a replacement for iGoogle before it goes away in November.

A Modest Proposal: just do away with “marriage” as a legal concept altogether

I support gay marriage unequivocally.  There is no however.  Gay and lesbian couples should have all the same rights as my wife and I do, and it’s a shame on the United States that this still hasn’t happened.

Right now, the Supreme Court is dancing on the head of a needle with two different cases that relate to gay marriage, and since the New York Times has done a good job of reporting this I don’t need to go into those details.

But I wonder why we don’t simply eliminate “marriage” as a legal concept altogether in favor of domestic partnership for all, regardless of who has what plumbing?  (This is much the system in France and Francophone cultures today.)

Civil Rights taught us that separate but equal doesn’t work, so we shouldn’t create a separate “domestic partnership” legal entity that has the rights of marriage but not the name.  Instead, we should eliminate marriage altogether as a legal entity.

Most of the arguments against gay marriage are religious ones– and we have freedom of religion in the country.  So let’s just transform the notion of marriage into an exclusively religious concept on only one side of the Church & State divide, leaving both heterosexual and homosexual couples as domestic partners in the eyes of the law.

My wife Kathi would become my domestic partner — she has no problem with this idea, by the way, I asked — and I’d be hers, but socially we could still refer to each other as husband and wife.  And this would hold for our gay and lesbian friends as well.

Same-sex couples who want a religious ceremony of marriage would find a friendly religious institution, as would different-sex couples– but all parties would trot down to the courthouse to get a “domestic partner license” rather than a “marriage license.”

We can avoid some of the legal wrangling by turning marriage into something akin to a religious confirmation or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s on both sides of the brouhaha.

I’ll end where I began: I support gay marriage unequivocally.  I’ll vote for it.  I have signed petitions, spoken about it, changed my Facebook picture, the works.  And if for gay marriage to work all marriage must go away — including mine — I’m fine with that too.

There is more than one way to reach equality.

Everybody’s a Muggle in Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy”

As I type these words I have reached page 160 of J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” so I’m about one third done and have made enough progress to know that I’ll finish the book and that I can draw early conclusions.

Note: there are no plot spoilers here past the first five or so pages of the book, but you’ll get the sensibility.

It’s impossible to read this novel without Harry Potter in mind—nor would the “A Casual Vacancy” be so inescapably present in bookstores, airports and Costco without the Boy who Lived. It’s particularly true for me at the moment as my seven year old son is obsessed with Harry Potter, my eleven year old daughter is in the middle of reading the final book, and our idea of a great Saturday night is a bowl of home made popcorn and one of the Harry Potter movies—“Goblet of Fire” is on deck for my 45th birthday family celebration tomorrow night. We’re all in with Harry.

But Harry Potter is also a great way into what’s interesting about “A Casual Vacancy.”

If you take that series of novels and subtract the magic, you get a painful, grey story set in a British boarding school during one of the world wars. It’s “Dead Poets Society” sans Robin Williams or a British version of John Knowles “A Separate Peace.”  Bleak is an understatement.

Take away the boarding school and you have a novel set on Privet Drive starring Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their disappointing brute of a son and ingrate, possibly psychotic, nephew.

And that’s the sensibility of “Casual Vacancy.”

The novel begins with the death by cerebral hemorrhage of Barry Fairbrother, a  banker and town council leader in the picturesque British town of Pagford. We’re only in Barry’s head for a few pages before he strokes out, but in that time he comes across as dull– a caring but detached man, put upon by his wife Mary’s expectations and resentfully doing things because he ought to rather than because he wants to do them.

By any reasonable account Barry is a nebbish, which makes it all the more surprising when his death sweeps Pagford like an emotional earthquake, throwing relationships into conflict, destabilizing the Town Council, and wreaking havoc with the local high school.

The reader quickly learns that Barry was the best person in Pagford. He was a drab saint that the town is not ready to do without.  This much is obvious 50 pages in, and by 160 – where I am now – Rowling’s deft ability to jump deep inside a character’s pain has me hooked.  Unlike seven books in Harry’s head, we flit from character to character in free indirect discourse that is compelling and alarming. I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not sure that the sturm und drang about Barry’s open council seat will be enough of a spine for the book, but I’ll see it through.

But it’s hard to like any of these characters, as it was hard to like Harry in the fifth book, “The Order of the Phoenix” when he spent the entire 870 page book in an adolescent snit.

It’s almost as if “A Casual Vacancy” were a novelistic equivalent of those intolerably cruel yet can’t-stop-watching British television comedies like “Peep Show” or the original versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.” The closest American equivalent is “Arrested Development,” where there is nobody to root for.

The difference between a novel and a TV show, though, is that actors are charming. The charm of the performers in those shows cuts the cruelty like baby powder cutting cocaine.  “Rain Man” was another famous example: director Steven Spielberg convinced screenwriter Ron Bass to make Raymond autistic instead of retarded because Dustin Hoffman was so charming that the audience wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from loving him, but if he’d been retarded there would have been no conflict.

In “A Casual Vacancy” we mainline the meanness as we read.  There is no cushion of humanity.

The writer that “A Casual Vacancy” most reminds me of isn’t the Rowling of Harry Potter.  It’s Graham Greene, the master of quietly embarrassing detail, pasty human skin layered on squishy human bodies, small worlds from which escape isn’t so much impossible as unthinkable.

In “Romeo and Juliet” a banished Romeo says with horror, “there is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence, banished is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death.”

That’s Pagford.

“A Casual Vacancy” is compelling, dirty, middle-aged and painful.  But so far it’s worth it.

Postscript: A fine account of the Rain Man story can be found here.