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.

A Time to Regret

"There is a time for everything," the Teacher mused. "And a season for every activity under the heaven." The Bush administration has uprooted, it has built, it has laughed and danced, it has spoken and it has hated, and now it has entered the time for regret.

"The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq," President Bush reflected in an interview last week. "A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein."

Today his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed her boss's sentiments when she said, "I would give anything to be able to go back and to know precisely what we were going to find when we were there."

As the sun sets on what many are already calling one of the worst tenures in presidential history, administration officials, starting with former members Richard Clark and Scott McClellan, have been using the media as a cathartic outlet, repenting and regretting in front of the public that has long since lost interest in what they have to say.

Ever since the 2006 mid-term elections, it has been obvious that the American public was miles ahead of the Bush administration. Consider that at the time Donald Rumsfeld was still Secretary of Defense. He has few supporters these days, little over two years later. "I don't think we had the right structure," Rice said. "I'll very, very blunt. We tried in Iraq to give it to a single department, the Department of Defense."

Bush administration officials now seem to be conducting a long overdue lessons-learned session, albeit on national television. This seems extra surprising because Bush, when asked in a 2004 debate for three mistakes he had made as president, could not come up with one. Now, suddenly, the man who won reelection on his resoluteness seems to be more thoughtful than we ever could have imagined. While he seems to have opened his mind to hindsight, he still seems unable to reconcile contingency plans.

When asked whether he would have gone to war if the intelligence had said Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, which, by the way, it did say before coming under heavy pressure from the administration to make a link, Bush said, "That's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do."

Things certainly can't be outdone, but it would not have hurt matters had the administration taken a few moments, back in, say, late 2002, or early 2003, to consider some alternate situations. What if Iraq, as many were saying, did not have weapons of mass destruction? Should we give the weapons inspectors more time? Was Iraq really an imminent threat? Was there any link between Iraq and the attacks on 9/11? What if we invaded and we were not greeted as liberators? Etc. It should be job of those in leadership positions, not to plan for the best case scenario, but to consider the worst case.

But, of course, to this administration, even before 9/11, there was one singular foreign policy goal, to deal with Saddam Hussein. He was unfinished business, a mess left over from Bush's father. As many insiders have pointed out, 9/11 was simply the leverage needed to enact the overthrow of the Iraqi government. That is the great tragedy, the irreparable regret, that this administration boldly moved to solve a problem that was no real problem at all, and left the main problems of domestic issues and international terrorism, to go unheeded.

In all this, those rebuked by the 43rd administration, including Colin Powell, Richard Clarke, General Shinseki, and even former President George H.W. Bush, have been exonorated while those who so carelessly orchistrated executive poilicy over the last eight years, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld, to name just a few, now speak of regrets to a public that has long since thrown its attention to President elect Barack Obama.