Friday, January 30, 2009

When six isn't enough

The woman who gave birth to octuplets this week has six other children and never expected to have eight more when she took fertility treatment, her mother said. - Associated Press

Oh, by the way, the mother lives with her parents.  So, how many more kids did she expect to have when seeking fertility treatment after the first six?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike word of the day

Today John Updike passed after battling lung cancer. I greatly admired his ability as a writer, his fictional works like Rabbit Run, and his essays.

In honor of the man, I give you a word for the day, plucked right out of one of his own works, the iconic tribute to Ted Williams' last game "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."

Cloyingly - adv - so sweet or pleasurable that it ultimately becomes sickly

As in: I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season, and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder, known to the headlines as TED, KID, SPLINTER, THUMPER, TW, and, most cloyingly, MISTER WONDERFUL, would play in Boston.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's big suit moment

Though a freezing chill was in the air, a crowd of over a million people had gathered in front of the United States capitol. An electric current of anticipation seemed to bind them all, and warm them, as they waited for Barack Obama to emerge and take the oath of office as the 44th President of our great nation.

Preceding him was a line of former presidents, each emerging one-by-one, in order. First came Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, looking utterly ancient, amazing the crowd that he was still alive. A gasp rose, and then wild applause, his value to our nation enhanced by time. He smiled and took his seat. Next came George H. W. Bush, the 41st president, as he hobbled, walking with the help of a cane. Less of an applause. Then Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, emerged with wife Hillary on his arm. The crowd burst into wild applause, and the Clintons paused for a moment before taking their seats. Finally, George W. Bush came out, the current, failed president - the one Obama would be mercifully replacing. A jeer rose into the air.

After this the capitol doors were closed, and we waited for what seemed like an eternity - for The One to cross over the threshold. The anticipation was broken slightly as future first lady Michelle came out, in a stunning pale green dress, designed by Isabel Toledo. To say she was Chic, stunning, or lovely would hardly do this new Jackie O any justice! But her moment was quickly brushed aside by history.

All eyes were riveted on that historic platform, where the oath of office is administered by the Chief Justice, against the backdrop of the majestic capitol, and in front of the people of the country, as prescribed by that most perfect of documents, the Constitution. The moment seemed to hang in the air for an eternity and then... Barack Obama emerged... wearing a giant over sized gray suit, tailored by Chicago's own Hartmarx. It was at least six or seven times too large! His shoulders were perfectly square, bolstered by invisible giant shoulder pads, his head appeared in between them as but a tiny dot, ears peaking out to the sides.

The crowd, for a moment, was utterly stunned, as Obama stood at the threshold of the doorway, between the Capitol building and history, as if to say, "Look at my giant suit!"

The chill suddenly seemed to return to the air. Old ladies clutched at their coat collars. Somewhere a big dog barked.

"Oh no. No, no, no, no!" a woman next to me cried out. "Something is wrong here."

"He looks like David Byrne," someone muttered.

Then, the 44th president descended down the steps. Underneath the huge suit was that same confident stride. Obama, even in what can only be described as a laughably large, shabby looking suit, remained unruffled. He wore no smile, no smirk-- this was no joke--and the suit seemed to grow larger in the moment. As he descended down the steps, the crowd, which in an instant had recoiled in horror, returned to him stronger than ever before, recognizing the suit not as audacious, but powerful. It reinforced everything they wanted to believe about their new leader. The suit was a strong statement from an incredibly self confident individual.

Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, known for being particularly unflappable, hadn't caught on to the moment, and was taken aback, as Obama formed before him, towering. Roberts stumbled over the beginning of the sacred oath:

" solemnly swear that I will execute the office of...comically big suit..."

Obama paused for a moment. Roberts collected and corrected himself. The oath was completed, and at the words "Congratulations, Mr. President," the crowd found themselves, every man woman and child, safely in Obama's pocket. A million voices rose, as one, into the air in a tumultuous cheer. Such a thunderous sound has not been heard in our nation's capitol since the city was shelled and set aflame by British soldiers in 1814, or perhaps, after the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992. Large cannons were fired off, a massive 21 gun salute, as a band played Hail to the Chief. But all was drowned out by the sound of that crowd, a euphonious noise I will never forget!

Obama's and his huge suit suddenly seemed not so completely inappropriate, but perfect. He squared himself to the thronging crowd, now all but surging forward. We were straining against one another to get closer to him. Under those immense shoulders, massive epaulets stretching north and south, Obama raised both hands into the air. But we had already started an unbroken chant of: "Obama! Obama! Obama!" How long this went on is hard to say, but people simply would not let the man speak. Instead, we wanted to savor this moment in history and shower praise on their new chief executive.

Finally, hoarse, spent and exhausted, the crowd noise subsided. Obama shuffled his note cards for a second and what came out of his mouth next will never be forgotten: "My fellow citizens...I stand before you today... in a very large suit!"

And with that, he smiled! We, in response, born again, bust into cheer! We yelled, cried, and threw ourselves forward as one body. It sounds ridiculous, I know. Such a scene can barely be described. Obama then made no attempt to stop the crowd and simply began to laugh along with everyone. It echoed over the loudspeakers, from the capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and beyond.

A braying, cathartic, "Ahaha! AHAHAHAH! HA!!!!" which carried on for at least a solid minute as we whistled and laughed with him.

"Just look how happy he is," the woman next to me remarked. Her face, almost angelic with joy: "I've waited my whole life to see a moment like this."

I nodded in agreement, he certainly did seem to be enjoying himself.

"It's a large suit!" he repeated, and we laughed again, completely caught up. It was as if we had never laughed at anything in our lives. Or, at least, for the last eight years.

"Oh yeah, and before I lose myself completely in the moment, George. W. Bush, you're fired! Your helicopter is waiting to take you, and your tiny suit, back to Texas. Now get out!"

That famous 44th inauguration will live long in all of our memories. It will be, of course, up to historians to judge its importance next to Lincoln or Kennedy. But one thing is undeniable: this Obama has his finger on the pulse of this nation. He knew better than we did; that we all just needed a damn good laugh. He can do no wrong.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

44 thoughts on the inauguration

1. Can't believe Jimmy Carter is still alive
2. Bush Sr. not walking well
3. Hillary coming down the hall with Bill, but really practicing for 2016?
4. Michelle's dress is green, which I'm sure is really cool
5. Cheney's in a wheelchair and starting to look like Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life"
6. Judge Roberts botched the oath
7. Obama looks annoyed at Roberts for screwing up the oath
8. Roberts just made Obama's list
9. Obama's speech didn't move me, but it was still miles ahead of Dubya
10. Speaking of Dubya, there he is looking hella old
11. Looks like there are a lot of people there....
12. And it looks chilly
13. I feel much better now that Bush can no longer make any major decisions
14. I wonder what that note said that Bush left for Obama in the Oval Office
15. Watching Dubya get on that helicopter, and wave goodbye was very surreal
16. Sort of like the Wizard of Oz getting in that hot air balloon and floating away
17. I can't come back, I don't know how it works!
18. He'll land somewhere in Texas and it'll all be like a strange dream
19. And he'll be somebody else's problem now
20. And we never heard from him, or Laura, again...
21. I wonder what Cheney, Rummy, and Condi are going to do now?
22. Maybe start a barbershop quartet?
23. Eight years is, in fact, a long damn time
24. The Republican party is in complete disarray
25. Sarah Palin?!
26. I hope the new guy does a good job
27. It'll be interesting to see how his first 100 days go
28. Will Obama do as he promised and install a basketball court in the White House?
29. That would be badass
30. Will Lance Armstrong mountain bike with him?
31. These are the questions that now keep me up at night
32. Twelve more of these to go
33. Oh I should mention that I'm very happy for African Americans, what a moment!
34. And I'm not going to try to steal any of it
35. This moment was for all of us, but for some more than others
36. Did I mention Bush is gone? Wow.
37. But...Jeb lives on...
38. We all shine on
39. Like the moon and the stars and the sun
40. This is a good moment, and I think John Lennon would be happy
41. Oh, and I didn't like the inaugural poem
42. How do you write a bad poem like that in a moment like that?
43. Just sound profound
44. That's what I try to do

Friday, January 02, 2009

Talking Heads and the comedy of suits

Alright, so I just watched the Talking Heads concert movie "Stop Making Sense" and at one point David Byrne comes onstage in a giant suit and it's both mesmerizing and funny. I summed it up by calling it simply "badass."

But here's the thing, it turns out skinny guy in a large suit is funny in the same way fat guy in a little coat is funny! There's some kind of comic symmetry going on here.

Here's a full clip of Byrne in large suit:

Monday, December 22, 2008

Kanye West lame on SNL

What do Kanye West and Milli Vanilli have in common? They both were Grammy award winning artists, and they both need to lip sych? Kanye, the self proclaimed "voice of this generation" apparently needs a lot of technical help while singing live from his new album 808's. A disastrous performance on SNL has people now comparing him to Ashlee Simpson.

“It’s a frustrating situation,” said Thomas Connor in the Chicago Sun-Times, “because here's an artist who stepped out on a limb to try something fairly interesting and maybe bold in the context of hip-hop.” Supposedly, Kanye uses an Autotuner to give his voice a “Vocoder-like effect,” but “judging by Saturday's performances, man, the ‘voice of this generation’ needs the help.”

Ahh, the bigger they are, the Kanye they fall.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bush says he didn't compromise soul to be popular

In a wide-ranging interview with Fox News Channel, Bush also praised the national security team assembled by President-elect Barack Obama. - The AP.

I know this may be an oversimplification, a shortcut if you will in complex times, but Bush has proven to be no good at everything. And anything anyone he ever selected must also be no good. And so, on consecutive days, Bush and Cheney have both applauded Obama's administration picks, which makes me terribly nervous.

"We've got a major economic problem and I'm the president during the major economic problem," Bush said, addressing his historically low popularity ratings. "I mean, do people approve of the economy? No. I don't approve of the economy. ... I've been a wartime president. I've dealt with two economic recessions now. I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy."

He didn't, but perhaps he should have. Thankfully, he's almost out the door and we can begin the process of blotting his name off everything, like that pharoah...the guy...with the shirt...what was his name? Apollo Creed?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cheney lauds Obama's cabinet

"I must say, I think it's a pretty good team," Cheney said of Obama's national security choices, in a segment of the interview broadcast Tuesday on "Good Morning America."

I know it's really nothing, but it just seems odd to see someone like Cheney lauding Obama. A few on the left have already begun criticizing Obama's cabinet picks as center-to-hawkish. The endorsement by the Prince of Darkness can't help Obama's support on the far left.

I am quickly thinking back to the last Democratic president who had to triangulate his policies, and bend to the right. Welfare reform indeed.

Cheney mentioned just yesterday that Obama would appreciate the ways in which Bush and company have expanded executive power over the last eight years.

"Once they get here and they're faced with the same problems we deal with every day, then they will appreciate some of the things we've put in place," he said.

Strange bedfellows.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book review: Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"

I've read Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers: the story of success" and if you're curious what I thought, I've written a review on Overall, I'd give the book a C. Like all Gladwell books, it is highly entertaining and the individual anecdotes are provoking. But with unsurprising conclusions, it reads more like a celebration of the author than a rigorous search for truth in a complex subject. That said, I'd be happy to hear your feedback.

Read my Helium review here.

In keeping with the success theme, I've moved on to "Talented is Overrated" a book by Geoff Colvin which Gladwell referenced. I hope to have my thoughts up shortly.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Book review: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

Why do certain people succeed? Why do some rise above others? What makes them, in effect, outliers, distant from the set of data they came from? These are the questions Malcolm Gladwell hopes to answer in his new book "Outliers: The Story of Success." Gladwell, the erudite New Yorker staff writer, has become familiar to many. His first two books, Tipping Point, and Blink, have sold nearly five million copies. They eloquently address complex pop-psychology topics while their creator became known as a writer of first talent, and an intellect with considerable ability to distill research.

By this criteria, "Outliers" does not disappoint. Gladwell weaves entertaining anecdotes along with research findings, while attempting to shed light on what makes people successful. His approach is something like this: if you are from Canada, and dream of becoming a professional hockey player, much will depend on the month you were born. With this beginning, Gladwell seems to have discovered that success owes as much to luck as it does to skill. He expounds on this point over the next 285 pages.

While a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read, I couldn't help but absorb Outliers with a sense of faux surprise. While it may be true that in America there persists the romantic idea that ability alone enables you climb the ladder, how many people really believe this, unless perhaps, you were born on top of the ladder already? The rest of us have all suffered under a supervisor who only had that position because that person was related to the owner of the company, or watched someone else get a chance to succeed because of some family connection. We all immediately recognize the injustice because we saw that they were on their way to outlierhood, while the rest of us cobbled along. Gladwell's genius, the thing he can do that we can't, is to articuatle this in a book you can consume over a weekend.

Outliers is billed as "the international bestselling guru's" answer to "the ultimate question: why are people successful?" Tipping Point are Blink more pedestrian in their topics. They deal with such issues as why Sesame Street was so good at teaching children to read, and how our initial impressions are often more accurate than we think. But in Outliers, Gladwell is looking into the phenomena of exceptional people. Gladwell himself is one of them, and the conclusions he uncovers seem to be much more illuminating to him than for the rest of us. He seems more interested in understanding (himself) than truely explaining (the point of the book). The book is highly entertaining, but not all that revealing. That it takes luck, opportunity along with determination and skill to become an outlier, should surprise almost no one.

A "sticky" issue, if I may borrow a term from Tipping Point, is determining who is an outlier. Or, perhaps more importantly, why more people should want to be outliers. People like Bill Gates, the Beatles, Ropert Oppenheimer assume an ultra-outlier status in the book. But lawyers, doctors and other professional careers are also addressed. Is the book about what gives rise to someone like Bill Gates? Or is it about how, hopefully, more people arrive at the upper class? The former topic is more compelling. The latter is more pragmatic. But Gladwell doesn't seem exactly sure which way he wants to go, however he definitely wants the conclusions to be applied so more people can become outliers.

This is noble, except that the lessons are nebulous and cherry-picked. Take the case of the Beatles, whose success was attributed to skill and hard work honed by hours of playing Hamburg. There were many British bands who also had skill, and also worked for thousands of hours, why did we not hear about all of them? Why only a select few? For every one successful rock band, even those given the same opportunities, thousands vanish without recognition. Why? Gladwell would probably simply attribute this to luck, but then who among us couldn't have concluded that or didn't already know that? And if it really does come down to luck, how can we hope to apply what Gladwell has uncovered, in order to make more outliers?

Would it make a difference if more people were given the opportunists to hone their skills? Sure. But for every outlier, there are those left behind. That is just the way it works. I suspect we would still only have one Bill Gates, no matter how many kids were given similar opportunities. He was simply more talented, and along the way he buried other businesses behind him. What makes Gates unique was that he played the game perfectly, dodged all the pitfalls, made all the right moves at the right time. Luck may have put him in position, but his acumen did the rest. As luck gave him the opportunities, he had to seize them in the right ways. That is what made him an outlier, and that would be a very compelling study.

Many have and will continue to enjoy Gladwell's books. With their now ubiquitous and pithy titles, it is not hard to envision an entire box set someday sitting on the mantle places of upper middle class homes across the country. Gladwell has created a brand. The topics are complex, the titles are short, and the books are somewhere in the middle. This is both a blessing and a curse. Gladwell has propelled himself into rarefied literary air, and he would be the first to admit that he got there, like any other outlier, by considerable skill, but also by a lot of luck. But his books, specifically this book, Outliers, run the risk of being too slick, too easy. Outliers, and its general assumptions, while correct, may not have the social impact Gladwell desires. The conclusions, the socialistic truth that no outlier succeeds alone, are valid more now than ever. Gladwell could easily have moved the debate in the right direction, but Outliers seems more interested in proving the author correct on another insight, than applying anything to the debate.

The book contains the assumption that, in a better world, more people would be outliers. I think what Gladwell means is that a better world would be a place where more people could hone their skills and find fulfillment. But these people would not necessarily be outliers. Outliers are rare. Even if the tide raises for us all, a few will always rise further, but why? The hard answer to that statistical anomaly is what we are really looking for here, but, in the end, figuring out what creates an outlier seems beyond even Gladwell. It is a huge, sprawling topic. It is like asking, what makes certain companies uber successful, while others fail. This is something business scientists will study forever because there is no one answer. There are a million factors, just as there are a million factors determining which human lives rise above the fray. The answer, like a twisted proverb, is found in everything. Outliers, in tow, says a little of everything, while not saying much.

Final grade: C. Individual stories and research samples are thought provoking. The sum and conclusion is less so.