Notes from Bergen 3: Paternal Victories

“Dad,” my teenager daughter asked one recent morning as she picked her way through over-easy eggs, seedy toast and Earl Grey tea. “What have you eaten for breakfast?”

At a quick scan it’s an innocuous question, but down, deep down, subterranean with stalactites, a parenting victory glints in dim light.

Here’s what I mean.

This year in Norway is a steep climb for both H, my 13 year old daughter, and W, my 9 year old son. The mountain is rockier for the teenager.  At 9, you still orbit Mom and Dad, so if they’re around and happy (and we are) then you’re pretty much OK. But at 13, particularly for girls, your identity foundation is your friends.

H’s friends are back Stateside.  Sure, she has made new friends, but it’s not the same.  The temporariness of our 10-month stay here in Bergen makes it hard to set fresh intimacies in concrete.

One unplanned but happy product of this for me and for K (my wife) is that H is closer to us than she would have been back home.  At a moment when she’d pull away it turns out that she doesn’t have that far she can go.  So even though sometimes it’s like living with a werewolf, at least this is a werewolf I know.

Both kids are busy.  They do Norwegian immersion school from 8:30 until early afternoon, then come home to do Math and English from an American home school curriculum.  Even though it’s about the same number of hours of schooling and homework as they’d have back home in Oregon, the daily rupture from one learning environment to another rubs at them, but if we put them in Norwegian school they’d be learning material they’d already learned back home— and they’d be bored.  School in Norway is slower than in the US.  That’s both bad and good, but if they’re going to be up to speed when they get back to Oregon then the home schooling is critical.

Take a generous helping of busy, add it to a heap of lonely for the BFFs who get her, toss in a language barrier, short days and a lot of different cultural presumptions and that equals a steep climb.  Add puberty to that mix where the daily baseline of her body swerves and bobs like a New Delhi taxi driver fighting post-work traffic… and that’s why it’s harder for the 13 year old.

So back to breakfast and when H asked me if I’d eaten.  What prompted the question was when I made a move to filch W’s second piece toast— mostly as a way of motivating him to stop reading and finish breakfast already, okay, sheesh — before I walked him to school.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I had a scrambled egg, coffee and I’m now eating this banana.”

“Okay,” H said, and went back to to her own toast.

This is a paternal victory because it shows two things.  First, and less importantly, a thought about somebody else (in this case dear old Dad) send ripples across the pond of adolescent narcissism.  H noticed — while I was making over-easy eggs, toast and tea for her and making scrambled eggs with cheese, toast and coffee for W, plus lunches — that she hadn’t seen me eat anything myself. Huzzah!

I now have dim hopes that one day she’ll realize that clean laundry doesn’t magically waddle into her room, scale her bed like a mountaineer and then fold itself into neat piles.  But I’m not calling my bookie on this one.

The second, more important, thing is that the message about eating a good breakfast because it fuels you for the rest of the day has seeped through the skeptical, plastic wrap outer layer of the teen brain and tinted the reflexive reptilian core.  If H is giving me a hard time about eating breakfast, then that means she has internalized the lesson enough to throw it back in my face.

When I realized this an hour later, I nearly cried with happiness.

There are no “one and done” conversations with kids. You keep having the same conversation over and over, keep suppressing the audible sighs (again? I have to talk you through this again???) and finding the tiny tree-lined place of inner calm before starting over.

Here’s the other paternal victory of this morning.

W has mild A.D.D., and so progress from bed into clothes to breakfast to teeth brushing and then jacket zipped and shoes on and out the door can be challenging before the coffee hits his bloodstream (caffeine helps A.D.D. kids focus).  I was juggling stuff in the kitchen and so K (also known as Mom) was helping him with the teeth and hair brushing. 

As I came down with his lunch and backpack, I said, “Okay, big guy. It’s isn’t raining so put your Nikes on—”

“No—” K interrupted from the other room.

“—And if it’s raining when it’s time for me to pick you up I’ll bring your boots with me,” I continued smoothly as if K had said nothing.

But my face registered that her interruption bugged me.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t just my face. My two itchy middle fingers might also have given me away.

“Dad?” W said. “Why’d you—”

“Later,” I said.  “On our walk.”

We zipped up, put our reflectors on our arms and headed out into the pre-dawn morning. 10 steps later he turns to me with a “fess up” expression.

I explained that when I told him to put the Nikes on I had the situation under control: I didn’t need input from Mom at that moment.  Plus, the way she had said, “no” irked me.  There were nicer ways she could have said what she was going to say, which was that it could rain at any moment and that she didn’t want W’s feet to be wet and cold.

“Are you still mad?” he asked.

“Nah, I’m over it.”

I explained that before I told W to put his Nikes on I’d looked outside and seen that it wasn’t raining.  Since he woke up with aching feet (at 9 his feet are nearly as big as mine: he’s going to tower over me before he can drive) I thought he’d be more comfortable walking to school in the sneakers that give his feet better support.  And if it’s wet then I’m happy to lug his boots with me to school when I collect him after school, or when he meets me at Chaos, our Tuesday afternoon hangout.  My morning kid footwear strategy, to use lingo I didn’t share with W, had already taken potential precipitation into account.

So here’s the victory.

After I’d explained my rationale to W as we walked he thought about it for a moment and said, “Huh.  Actually that was really smart.”

“Thanks,” I replied without a hint of dryness.

Unlike the breakfast question from H, having my 9 year old see the benefits of thinking ahead — and also understanding that Dad isn’t just the guy who fetches breakfast but also has a brain — didn’t make me cry.

But it sure made me smile.

Pragmatics: you can only walk through one door at a time

Sharon washed up at the table next to me during a post-conference dinner here in Bergen and opened up over beer and reindeer steaks. She’s a bright young woman about to finish a Masters in finance and economics who doesn’t know how to approach the post-graduation void.

Sharon started reeling off different directions and opportunities, but I could see she wasn’t energized by any of them.

That’s when I shared my practical way to chop overgrown forests of life decisions into mental lumber out of which you can build thoughts and plans. Then, my conversation with Sharon recurred and recombined into conversations with Diane and Adam and Abby,* hence this piece.

At every life transition you’ll stand in front of three unlocked doors, but just like with real doors you can only walk through one of these metaphors at a time.

The doors are What, Where or Who.

What: you know the job you want or the industry in which you want to find that first gig to lead onwards and, with luck and late nights, upward. If What is ascendant is your astrology then you don’t care where you live or who is living there with you. If you want to be a baseball journalist, you go where you find an opportunity even if that takes you to a Podunk town you can’t even find on Google Maps without zooming, where nobody has ever heard the word “barista,” but where somebody will pay you to cover the minor league feeder team (among a bunch of other less tasty assignments).

Where: you don’t care that much about how you’ll make a living, although selling sex toys door to door is out because you get tired of explaining what goes where. Sure, you want to have friends around, but the players change while the stage remains the same. It’s Seattle that has captured your heart: the hills, the water front, the coffee culture. You like seeing dead trout hurled around Pike Place Market. You’re a Where person. Every town’s got some of these folks; they’re the “Mayors” of different sub-communities.

Who: it’s not that you don’t have standards about what you do to keep ramen on the table, and there are places that make your underarms itch if you even think about living there. But you’ve made the big choice about Who you’re going to live with and be buried next to after you die, and that person has a What or a Where pulling him or her, so you’re going along for the ride. (This time. It’ll be your turn to be What or Where later because that’s fair.)

The trick when you’re looking at three different doors is to be honest with yourself. Right now, are you a What, a Where or a Who?

The problem is that being honest with yourself sucks.  It’s really really hard.

It’s much easier to listen to all the other voices: your friends, your family, your teachers, your vague sense of what people like you do with their lives at certain stages.

A good test to see if you’re lying to yourself is to listen for the word “should” in your internal monolog.  “Should” coaxes you to turn the wrong door handle.  Sometimes.  Yeah, you should pay your bills, and if you’ve got kids they come first.  I’m not talking about the brush-your-teeth-twice-each-day should.  I’m talking about continuing to practice law even though you hate it just because you got a law degree.

Don’t be a ventriloquist’s dummy.  Which door is important?

I used to think I was a What.  In fact, I was so convinced I was a What that I spent a decade getting a doctorate in Shakespeare studies because the plan was to teach undergraduates about Shakespeare no matter where that happened or how little I’d be paid to do so.

Whoops.

Then I thought I was a Where, moving back to Los Angeles after grad school to work in Hollywood then in the Internet.  (Look, Mom, I have practical business skillz that feed the kids— who woulda thunk it?)

But Where wasn’t true either.

Turns out, for the last few years I’ve been a Who.  My wife Kathi wanted to move to Oregon, and then I found myself surrounded by pierced hipsters sipping micro-roast coffee.

Then, Kathi got a Fulbright to study in Bergen, Norway (#wet, #dark, #expensive, but #fjords and #happywife), and here I am for the school year.

Anybody want some reindeer sausage?

I haven’t always been a Who: we wound up in Los Angeles after grad school because at that time I was a Where and Kathi was the Who.  We’ll switch roles again and again.

That’s another thing I’ve found myself sharing with people like Sharon and Diane and Adam and Abby: after you pick a door and walk for a while, you’re going to find yourself standing in front of another three doors.

If you want to experience paralysis, then ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your life.  That’s like asking somebody if they prefer to die in a ballooning mishap or from brain cancer: it’s a long way down either way. 

I prefer the question, “what do you want to do NEXT?” 

Pick a door.  Start walking.

* Sharon, Diane, Adam and Abby are all pseudonyms.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

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…

Notes from Bergen 2: Walking Meditation and Gershwin

The “ion” trailing at the end of the word “meditation” reveals buried movement in usually concrete and restful nouns. Like “locomotion” or “concentration” or “constipation” or “friction” or even the simple “action,” the word “meditation” conveys fragile, balletic flow, conveys just how difficult it is to be without thinking.

Meditation challenges me. I’m busy-minded at the best of times, fragmented and reactive and playing whack-a-mole with pop-up thoughts like a three year old on a venti caramel frappuccino at the worst. 

But I’ve become interested in the quiet spread of mindfulness discussions all around me. Like the slow food movement, mindfulness is more than just a catch phrase: it’s a reaction to the  asteroids of information hurtling at us from all directions all the time.

My friend Ben recommended “Fully Present: the Science Art and Practice of Mindfulness” by Smalley and Winston of UCLA, and I’ve been working my way through it.

But it’s hard. Two five minute bursts of meditation after the first cup of coffee and before I wake the kids for breakfast will make a huge difference in the quality of my day, but more often than I care to admit I’ll glance at my phone and fall down the rabbit hole.

Right now, Kathi is away at a conference in Copenhagen so I’ve been soloing with the kids in Bergen. It’s dreadful here right now: one veteran ex-pat, Michelle, said, “you’re in the trough” yesterday. Every day has a handful of minutes clipped off either end, so sunrise happens after 9:30am and darkness sweeps back before 3:30pm. Around Christmas the days will begin to inch longer again.

So no mediation for me this morning. I got H and W up, fed and ready for school, then walked W, my 9 year old, the 20 minutes it takes to get from our place to his school over by the university in the pitch black, rainy, cold.

We made good time, and after a kiss goodbye (I treasure these kisses because I know they’ll disappear one day) I left him running around the back alley that serves for a playground in the dark with his buddies.

As I popped my hood up against the rain, I remembered that Smalley and Winston talk about walking as a good opportunity for meditation, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Wow. It’s not easy.

The human mind is a recognition-making machine. In response to any stimulus, we humans try to stuff it into an existing conceptual box. Social psychologists call this habit of our being cognitive misers. So walking through a small city like Bergen is an exercise in recognition rather than simply seeing… particularly when one is also trying to avoid getting hit by the lightrail.

So I focused on breathing. That helped. A song from “The Muppet Movie” (the kids and I watched it on Netflix last night) kept rolling through my head. I thought about putting my ear buds in with music, but that would have defeated part of the openness… so instead I tried to switch the soundtrack in my head. First, I imagined Rodrigo’s “Concierto for the Aranjuez,” but that didn’t work. Kermit kept interrupting. Darned frog.

I walked, feeling the monkey mind leap from building to billboard to bus, pulling me away from the unmediated experience of the cold air coming into my nostrils, the rain patting on my hood, the sound of water running through the gutters and plopping out of the way as my boots stomped through puddles.

The monkey mind — the one playing whack a mole — is in a tense tango with mindfulness.

Some Norwegians might have enjoyed doubts about my sanity, seeing me stand motionless in the middle of a plaza, eyes closed, quietly coaxing myself back into a flow state where I saw the lights on the giant Christmas tree on Torgallmennigen Street sway in the slow breeze, rather than simply walk by with “Christmas Tree, check” as the only notice I would take of the tree today.

I found myself looking up at the top floors of buildings, where I noticed odd arrows pointing my gaze several windows to the right for no apparent reason.

But the muppets wouldn’t stop singing.

Casting my mind through my mental musical database for something stronger than Kermit and Miss Piggy but that would still let me experience my surroundings, I hit upon “Rhapsody in Blue,” George Gershwin’s acoustic valentine to the sounds of New York City waking up and getting on with its day.

I know the piece as well as any non-musician can, and sound I found myself hearing the yawn and stretch of Manhattan overlaid on the traffic and splashes of Bergen.

I stopped again at the Fish Market, standing silent next to the street and heard Gershwin on the piano in my mind accompany the rumble of people dragging wheeled luggage across cobblestones, the water rushing down the street as I left the Fish Market and climbed up into the Bryggen hills where the house it. 

Still dark, I came in, put my earbuds in and had Spotify stream “Rhapsody in Blue” while I poured coffee, booted the computer and sat down to write this post.  Spotify started with Leonard Bernstein, cycled through Gershwin himself on the piano, and is now back to Bernstein.

Meditating in a dark room, sitting upright on the couch, with something like this playing on Spotify is much easier, but I like the challenge of walking meditation. Perhaps it will be different by daylight.

It is now dawn. Time for more coffee and the rest of the day.

Thanks for reading.

Oh, and if you want to know which song from the 1979 Muppet Movie was playing in my head, you can listen to it on Spotify here

In Praise of Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto”

I first smacked my forehead (ouch!) against a wall of decision fatigue when I was the Editor in Chief of iMedia Connection (a daily trade journal covering a different collision between marketing and technology). The best part of editing involves coaxing order from mess, making points pointier and helping writers to say what they want to say. The part that makes the days long is having to make a lot of decisions that matter in the moment but not in the long run: yes, let’s run with that one, the other one, and, oh wait, did that thing we’ve been waiting for come in? Editing — like management — is an endless series of arbitrary decisions, but somebody’s gotta pick and that’s the EIC.

I wouldn’t feel my decision fatigue until lunch. If we were heading out for a group lunch, the editorial staff would look to me. “You’re the boss, so where do you want to go for lunch?” Something in my hungry stomach would sink and I’d chose a place. Eventually, I changed my response. “I’m happy to pay for lunch, but I’ve made dozens of decisions already today.” I’d then point at one of the editors. “You pick the place. Nobody is allowed to complain.”

That was years ago, and in the interim — even though I’m no longer in that job — the scope and number of decisions I have to make each day has grown. Email vexes me in particular: do I check it when I first wake up? If I do, then I risk falling down a rabbit hole for the rest of the day. If I don’t, then I might miss something important. On top of that, the number of things bleeping at me, vibrating and waving their electronic hands like importunate fifth graders who know the answer to a question, keeps increasing year after year. I joined Ello because I was curious, for example, but now it’s another damned thing to check.

Greg McKeown’s remarkable book Essentialism helped me to recognize some of this and to intervene in my own behavior, but with smart phones breaking down all barriers our environment no longer does the work it used to do to help us know who we are at a given moment and what we’re supposed to be doing or not doing.

It’s not just me.

For the past dozen years or more I’ve been reading books tracing the same picture: life is getting evermore complicated. And, even though the human brain is the most sophisticated and powerful comprehension machine in the world, we just can’t keep up with the onslaught of information coming from new gadgets, screens, media and the increase in chatter from the old ones like radio, TV, books and the like. These are books with titles like Chaos, Frontiers of Complexity, Think Twice: Thin Ice, but also other books like Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), Predictably Irrational, and Thinking Fast and Slow.

Like the old saying about how people complain about the weather but nobody does anything about it, most of these books were of the point and exclaim variety rather than being helpful. “Look at how irrational we are!” “Look at how things appear chaotic but actually have hidden patterns of order!” “Look at how you can never make a smart decision, but don’t give up!”

On the other side of the bookstore (when I can find one), the self-help books don’t help much. They’re too involved in a method to which I must enslave myself before seeing any benefit. I can Get Things Done, but only if I start managing endless lists that suck up a ton of time. I can Hack my Life (yuck) but that involves having a gadget or twist tie for everything. Often, when I read these books I feel like I’ve just shelled out twenty bucks for a commercial for the author’s consultancy.

All this is why I’m excited by Atul Gawande’s 2010 book, “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” which I read in a day. Gawande is a globetrotting Harvard Medical School surgeon who works with the World Health Organization and writes for the New Yorker.

Gawande is intimidatingly smart and eloquent with an eye for evocative detail, but he didn’t write a book about himself. Instead, it’s a passionate defense of the simple checklist as a tool for embracing and mastering the complicated tasks in front of us day to day.

Wait, didn’t I just backhand David Allen’s list-oriented Getting Things Done approach a few paragraphs ago? (Answer: yes.) How is Gawande different?

First, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t a self-help book. It doesn’t have a handy appendix that helps you to create your own list, nor does it advertise how there are other books in the series that you can buy, or how you can hire Gawande as an efficiency expert to make your business run better (you can’t, although my sense of the author is that he would probably come up with a referral for you if you asked).

Second and more importantly, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t about self-help at all. It’s not about individuals doing things, it’s about how groups of people working together can work together better, and how empowering the group is more important than empowering an individual… even if the individual is the boss, like a surgeon, editor or CEO.

This is different than crowd-sourcing (another raft of books I’ve read in recent years) where trusting to the mass can reveal information uncloaked by individual or observer bias.

Instead, this is about teams working in environments of massively overlapping subspecialization. We have lots of technologies that help us to track and manage the what of collaboration, but surprisingly few to help us with the who.

That’s where the checklist comes in.

Here’s an example that Gawande articulates from skyscraper construction when he talks with a man named Finn O’Sullivan about two lists in O’Sullivan’s field office. The first list is the microscopically detailed construction schedule:

But the list on O’Sullivan’s other wall revealed an entirely different philosophy about power and what should happen to it when you’re confronted with complex, nonroutine problems– such as what to do when a difficult, potentially dangerous, and unanticipated anomaly suddenly appears on the fourteenth floor of a thirty-two-story skyscraper under construction. The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works. (pages 72 to 73)

Gawande’s vision of the checklist isn’t merely another device (albeit a simple one) to outsource our increasing cognitive burden somewhere else. Instead, The Checklist Manifesto puts that device into the moments where tasks move from one person to another. It puts interaction at the heart of a project, not at the periphery.

For anybody working as a member of a team (and this pretty much means everybody), managing a group or leading a company, The Checklist Manifesto will help you to rethink how to collaborate to enhance the work at hand and avoid avoidable mistakes.

It’s also a spritely read with terrific stories.

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.

Journey Back, Journey On: Watching my son rediscover a comic book 4 years later

W_SatAM_Reading2

Saturday morning. Mom’s at yoga. Dad’s puttering downstairs. 13-year-old Big Sis is hibernating — those pesky teenagers.

What’s an almost-9-year boy old to do?

That’s my imagination of what W, my son, was thinking after I shushed him for the fifth time when he was playing in the open area right next to where his sister’s puberty-induced coma went on… and on.

Then I remembered that a few days back one of his buddies had asked about the comic book hero “Green Arrow,” whereupon W had turned to the ultimate authority in his life on the topic of superheroes— me.

We’d talked through the legend of Oliver Queen getting marooned on Starfish island, how the character started as Batman with a bow but slowly morphed into something more interesting.

I told him about the “Hard Traveling Heroes” sequence from the 1960s and 1970s when Green Arrow and Green Lantern went on an Easy Rider like journey around the country. “Dad,” he replied. “Why didn’t Green Lantern just create a force bubble to travel in… why did they need a car?

It kept coming up, so when I needed him to find a quieter activity this book came to mind:

SecretOrigins

 By Dennis O’Neil, circa 1976.

I trotted over to his bookshelf and grabbed it, opened it to “Green Arrow,” and walked him back into his room.

The front and back covers of my copy — acquired when I was his age — are long gone and what remains is in tatters, but as the picture at the top of this column indicates, W is lost in that book right now.

I remember my own fall, wondering at the paired Golden Age and late-Silver Age tellings of the stories, feeding my brain with the basics of the superhero rhetoric that would inform decades of comic-book reading.

Although he started with Green Arrow, when I snuck in (to adjust his pillow, make sure he wasn’t starving, and — I confess it!— to snoop) he was deep into the Golden Age account of Wonder Woman’s origin.

I first gave W this book shortly after we’d moved to Oregon, when he and I were busy watching the “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” series. That was his first go-round with superheroes, and his primary interest was in collecting action figures. He looked at the book, made it a little more tattered, but didn’t fall inside.

This morning, he fell.

Books are fixed points in our ever-changing lives. This is the glory of re-reading.

Reopening an old friend reminds us of how far we’ve come, reintroduces us to past selves and sometimes points us onward towards where we want to go.

I remember back when I was finishing my doctoral thesis on Shakespeare a moment when I felt my sympathies slipping from Romeo to Capulet (Juliet’s father), where they have stayed.

The lousy version of this is when you pick up an old friend and find that you’ve moved irrevocably on— I can’t stomach Edgar Rice Burroughs anymore, for example, which I discovered when I tried to re-read “A Princess of Mars” after the mediocre “John Carter” movie a couple summers ago.

I hear thumping upstairs.

Time to make breakfast.

I wonder if he made it to the“Hawkman” origins…

[Editor’s Note: cross-posted on 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.

Ahhh– the right email filter at the right time

Sometimes a tiny adjustment can make a huge difference.

Example: I have a backup email address where copies of emails that I might otherwise miss are routed. Recently, I started using this backup email address for other things as well– a new use case.

The problem, however, was that suddenly I couldn’t see the new use case emails because my attention was drowned out by the copies of all the other emails.

PLUS, I now had to process each email twice— once in my main address and then “select + mark as read = enter” on the backup email address.  This was pointless busy work.

Solution: I opened up the filter rules on the backup and simply added “mark as read” to all the incoming backup copies.

Now I’ll only have to process the original copy, but will still have an archive and a backup in case I miss something.

I did this just minutes ago, but already my stress has decreased since every time I look at that email address I don’t see 47 new messages (I get a lot of email).

Little tweak, big impact.