Saturday, March 11, 2006

Book Notes: Mozart, by Marcia Davenport

Mozart
Like most Americans, my conceptions of Mozart are primarily driven by the movie Amadeus, the Simpsons' version of Amadeus, and the classic Falco song, "Rock Me Amadeus."

I'm not necessarily proud of that fact, but it is what it is.

At any event, this biography is a fascinating read. What's amazing to me is that Mozart, whom practically everyone acknowledged as the most talented composer of all time (he would compose all his masterpieces in his mind, and then scribble them down on to paper without needing to make any corrections) including such luminaries as Hayden, never achieved commercial success in his lifetime.

Genius is necessary but not sufficient; the profligate and undisciplined Mozart was never able to achieve what he most wanted: a permanent court appointment that would allow him to live comfortably and focus on composing (rather than cranking out cheap dance music to ward off bill collectors).

Moreover, genius comes in surprising packages. The pale, undistinguished Mozart was one of mankind's all-time geniuses, but as his first love said when asked why she didn't marry him (instead her younger sister did," she responded, "You see, we didn't know he was going to be Mozart. He just seemed like such a little man."

At any rate, Mozart's story is well worth reading, including how his life intersected with both Casanova and Beethoven.

Book Notes: A Short History of World War II

A Short History of World War II
I've only just begun the book (so far, I'm up to the surrender of France), but it is chock full of interesting tidbits and lessons.

For one thing, the lesson one can draw over and over again is how disastrous it can be to use the wrong frame of reference. Generals are notorious for fighting the last war, but even beyond that, it's incredible how much depended on the perceptions of the two sides.

When Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia, his forces were outnumbered just by the Czech military, let alone the French and British. Yet because the French high command believed Hitler's propaganda about the unstoppable German war machine, the Allies surrendered Czechoslovakia to him without a fight.

The story also illustrates the perils of wishful thinking and hoping that things work out, rather than biting the bullet immediately.

Neville Chamberlain famously told the British people that the craven appeasement of Munich had won them "peace in our time." Unwilling to fight Hitler when they had the advantage, the Allies gave him the time he needed to gear up his war machine until they couldn't stop it.

Even when they did fight, during the battle of France, the Allies bollixed things up. The northern armies left their prepared positions along the French border with Belgium as part of their previously generated plan to fight the Germans to a standstill in Belgium, in concert with Belgian forces. Instead, they found themselves without any defensive fortifications and ran smack into the German blitzkrieg. Had they remained where they were, they might have held off the advance.

I see the same thing happen all the time in the business world--people take a course of action that minimizes present pain, and allows them to *hope* that things will work out, rather than taking a more harshly realistic view and sacrificing up front in order to achieve a more viable strategic position.

One thing the book does not do is to change the perception of the French high command as an incompetent bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Vive le France!

Book Thoughts: Tuesdays With Morrie

Tuesdays with Morrie
After reading Chasing Daylight, I thought that I should finally get around to reading Mitch Albom's best-seller about what he learned from his dying professor. Despite the fact that the only things I knew about the book going in were that Mitch was a well-regarded sports reporter, and that Will & Grace had made fun of it, I found the book well worth reading.

I won't go into how it is touching and honestly written. What interested me most is how closely Morrie Schwartz's dying wisdom echoes what scientific studies like Why We Do What We Do have found, as well as what Gene O'Kelly discovered in Chasing Daylight:

The keys to happiness are focusing on our relationships with the ones we care about, learning to be true to ourselves, and doing things to contribute to a larger purpose.

In the end, I think it's more than coincidence that men as different as Morrie's ageing hippie and O'Kelly's Type-A accountant come to the same conclusions as the ancient sages and modern scientists.

My del.icio.us feed

My del.icio.us feed
Almost forgot...here is the link to my del.icio.us feed:
http://del.icio.us/rss/chrisyeh

del.icio.us and nutritious

del.icio.us and nutritious

Ben Casnocha's post on his use of del.icio.us prompted me to post my own thoughts. While it took me a long time to use it, I now find the service indispensible.

I've been an information packrat forever--the piles of magazines, clippings, and other articles in my parents' home attests to this.

When I was at Stanford, the remarkable Sara Little-Turnbull got me started collecting clips in imitation of her own Process of Change laboratory.

With the advent of the browser, I made liberal use of bookmarking.

But for someone who bookmarks articles in addition to sites, the permanent, nearly unmanageable bookmarking functionality built into most browsers is hopelessly clumsy.

With the profusion of data thanks to RSS feeds, it's more important than ever to have a way to manage information. Prior to del.icio.us, I actually pasted URLs into emails that I sent to myself--a cumbersome and unreliable method.

del.icio.us allows me much more flexibility...and with 288 tagged items in just 3 months, it's much more manageable than trying to sort all of those within "Manage Favorites."

Like Ben, I use three principal tags: yehblog (items I might want to blog), yehcomment (comments I've made on other blogs--started before CoComment came out), and yehlater (stuff I want to look at at greater length). Thanks to Ben, I'm going to start tagging yehprint (stuff to print) as well, though thanks to the miracle of VPNs, I can generally print to the office no matter where I am in the world.

What I would love now is the ability to set up group feeds so that I can see what all of my friends are looking at in a single, de-duplicated feed. Are you listening Joshua Schachter?

Breaking the frame of reference

Breaking the frame of reference
Last night's season finale of the almost-always-entertaining Battlestar Galactica once again demonstrated the genius of its writing staff.

**SPOILER ALERT**

One of the things that the show does extremely well is totally confounding the conventions of television. We are all such jaded consumers of entertainment that it is rare that we're ever surprised.

Well, last night I was surprised.

What the writers did was to totally break the frame of reference. After the nuclear explosion destroys Cloud Nine, I, like nearly 100% of the viewers, expected the show to deal with its direct aftermath. Who died? What were its aftereffects? Will they figure out what actually happened?

Instead, the writers jump ahead an entire year and completely change our frame of reference. The characters are completely changed, something we realize when we see the unthinkable sight of Starbuck gladly embracing her old nemesis, Colonel Tigh.

In a single stroke, the writers both answer the viewers' questions and raise a host of new ones. It is impossible to see all the changes and not wonder how they came about, making for an incredible rich narrative experience.

How can you surprise your audience? How can you use subtlety and implication to enrich the stories you tell?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Is our culture anti-baby?

Is our culture anti-baby?
UK columnist Madeleine Bunting argues that one of the main reasons why birth rates are declining is a culture that is incompatible with parenthood.

The subtitle of the article says it all: "In a society that values consumption, choice and independence above all, it's a wonder that we have as many babies as we do."

Here is the most salient section of the article:
Pregnancy sabotages three characteristics highly valued by our culture.

First, independence: pregnancy heralds at least one relationship of
dependence, and there is often greater dependence on partners, mothers and,
eventually, childminders and the like. But you've spent much of the previous 10
years attempting to eradicate any hint of dependence, either of your own or of
others on you. Secondly, pregnancy is about a long-term commitment, and having avoided all such (including probably to your partner), you are, at the very
least, uneasy about it. Finally, the big bump in your stomach spells out one
thing for sure - a huge constraint on many choices, and choice has been integral
to your sense of a life worth living.

In other words, the self we are encouraged to develop through much of our education system and early adulthood is of no use whatsoever to a new parent. What use is that sassy, independent, self-assertive, knowing-what-youwant-and-how-to-get-it type when you fast forward five years to the emotional labour of helping a child develop selfconfidence? Once there's a baby in the cot, you
need steadiness, loyalty, endurance, patience, sensitivity and even self-denial
- all the characteristics that you've spent the previous decade trashing as dull
or, even worse, for losers. Forget trying to work out your own feelings - you'll
be too busy trying to work out those of your children; ditto self-confidence and
self-expression.

Motherhood hits most women like a car crash: they have absolutely no idea
of what is coming. Nothing in our culture recognises, let alone encourages, the
characteristics you will need once a bawling infant has been tenderly placed in
your arms. So the debate about the baby gap is about far more than tweaking parental leave; it's about what a culture values and promotes. And it matters not just because of that falling birthrate, but because of how women stumble towards their own private insights into the importance of mothering - to which they cling in the face of not just zero endorsement from wider society but
active contempt.

The painful paradox is that while women have liberated themselves from
being defined by their biology - the fate of the girl in many African and Asian
societies who is not truly a woman until she has given birth - mothers have
ended up relegated to the status of constant abject failure in a culture driven by consumerism and workaholism. There is no kudos in being a mum, only in being other things - such as thin, or the boss - despite being a mum. Motherhood is a form of handicap.

While I'm not a mother, I can tell you that parenting requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. Just this morning, I calculated that our monthly expenses are about 10X what they were when my wife and I were just a single couple living on our own, mostly due to our two bundles of joy.

And that's just the money. Let's not forget that all the time and energy that used to be devoted to parties, socializing, eating out, sports, shopping, and all the other consumer activities of our society, are redirected towards diaper-changing, feeding, and sorting through a vertigo-inducing amount of advice from every source imaginable.

I'm not sure if I agree with everything stated in the column, but I think she's 100% correct that our culture has swung against parenthood, and that is a fact that should disturb all of us. Ultimately, man is like any other animal, and the decline of birthrates below replacement levels, if maintained indefinitely, will lead to our extinction.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Can The Internet Save The Middle East?

Can The Internet Save The Middle East?
Like just about any sane person, I feel a sense of despair when I think about the Middle East. It continues to amaze me how much man can hate.

But once in a while, a ray of hope appears. Ben Casnocha pointed me to this article from Reason, about Middle East Transparent, a Web site that posts the writings of Arab liberals who have no outlet for their opinions in their own countries.

For all the jokes about bloggers, its apparent that free, decentralized, instant publishing can have wonderful impact. Here are a few quotes from the article:
In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a
blog revolution. Arab culture has been decimated during the last 50 years. Arab
newspapers are mainly under Saudi control. The book market is practically dead.
Some of the best authors pay to have their books published in the order of 3,000
copies for a market of 150 million. This is ridiculous. Even when people write,
they face censorship at every level—other than their own conscious or
unconscious censorship. Meanwhile, professional journalism is rare.

On the Internet, people can publish whatever they want: no red lines. They
can use pen names if they want. People read, send comments, and they transmit
information to their friends by email and fax, etc. The regimes' monopoly on
information has been broken. Remember: Three months ago a Libyan writer was
assassinated and his fingers cut for writing articles on an opposition Web site.
The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism.

Of course, liberals cannot compete with Al-Jazeera. We do not have the
financial means to start a liberal satellite channel. Hundreds of Arab
millionaires are liberals. Only, they cannot stand up to their regimes. Arab
capitalism is mostly state capitalism. If you are in opposition, you are not
awarded contracts by states. So, for the near future, we do not expect much help
from these quarters.

reason: How is Metransparent funded?

Akel: We are not funded and are surviving by personal means. I have been
paying all the expenses, because promises from a number of Arab businessmen
never materialized. On many occasions I have thought of calling it a day and
ending Metransparent. The burden is getting heavier every day. We are trying to
get financial support free of political conditions, but that is not easy. The
advertisement market is smaller when you are mostly an Arabic-language Web site.
What keeps the site alive is the amazing reaction from the readers.
Metransparent has 50,000–60,000 hits per day, with no publicity and no mailing
campaigns on our part. This means there is demand. Plus, I find it hard to
disappoint all those generous writers who have been with us for two years. Some
of the Syrian writers do not even own a computer. They have to beg friends to
type and email their articles. We shall keep on as long as possible. There is,
probably, a light at the end of the tunnel. Or, we will close down.

Unlike the mainstream media, government cannot control the Internet, and cannot control the blogosphere. A single man can create a Web site that impacts thousands. That is why, in the end, I think that the Internet is the one thing that can save man from himself.

You Are What You See, Part 2

You Are What You See, Part 2

Just remember, if we don't make conscious choices about what kinds of attitudes we create with our games, we'll make unconscious choices. MMOG pioneer Raph Koster sums this up neatly in his post on the lessons we're learning from today's MMOGs.
Lone heroes can’t slay dragons. It takes an army.
People are only good at one thing.
That’s why it takes six people (all doing different jobs) to kill most anything.
You never, ever, ever change jobs. If you want to, you probably need to die.
You can be the best in the world at your job.
But so can everyone else.
And you will all do it exactly the same way.
Intelligent beings who have civilizations and languages of their own are generally evil and should be slain.
Many, if not all, wild creatures are highly aggressive and will attack on sight.
Evil is not redeemable; good is not a choice. Your morals are innate.
Killing is the only real way to gain people’s admiration.
Well, you can make stuff too, but you won’t earn the same kind of admiration.
In fact, there are only two kinds of admiration in the world, and they can be quantified.
Having a hobby will probably reduce your admiration.
All that hoorah about endangered species is like, a total exaggeration. There’s plenty of everything.

Blogging Is The Next Frontier In Sports

Blogging Is The Next Frontier In Sports
In the past few weeks, the LA Times' Lakers Blog has been experimenting with live blogging from Laker home games. The Times' designated bloggers attend the game and blog while the action is going on. Readers at home go in and comment on the blog as it is being written.

Here's an example from the Laker's big win over the Pistons.

The result is very raw but very compelling. Every sport should do something like this. Even more, I think that this sort of interactivity should be built into television broadcasts. Rather than the stupid online and text message polls that they run, why not scroll a crawl of live blog comments along the bottom of the screen?

Has anyone else seen something like this? Digerati liveblogging from a conference limits true participation to those in attendance. But anyone can watch a game on TV!

You Are What You See

You Are What You See
Take a gander at this thought-provoking post on the way that playing massively-multiplayer online games affects your view of the real world:

Cultivation theory has been around for about four decades now. What is it?
The idea is that if you consume some kind of media consistently, you'll start
thinking that the real world is more like the media one.

I had people playing an MMO (Asheron's Call 2, we hardly knew ya) for one
month. At the same time I had a group not playing an MMO. I asked both groups
about the likelihood of violence in the real world along four dimensions:
assault with a weapon, murder, rape, robbery. As it turns out, only one of those
occurs in AC2, and that's assault with a weapon. I think it's no stretch to
claim that weapons are a central focus in that and many MMOs. So what's wild is
that after the study ended, the people who played AC2 thought that getting
assaulted with a weapon in real life was much more likely than those who didn't
play.

Perhaps virtual cultivation could improve human relations. Lai (2003)
hasshown how American MMRPGs stress racial diversity. Could spending time
indiverse worlds improve real-world perceptions of other racial groups or lead
toethnic tolerance? Or could it foster stereotypes (Nakamura, 2001)? Can time
spentin a prosocial environment featuring sharing, altruism, and generosity
improve ourperceptions of others offline?


In other words, the media that people consume affects their mindset, and the ability of online worlds to deliver a massive amount of consistent media makes them one of the most powerful tools we have for changing attitudes.

If this is true, I really do think that an area that NGOs should pursue is the creation of compelling games that will improve the way people think.

The Wisdom of Dying

The Wisdom of Dying
Ever since I read Jack Covert's review of Gene O'Kelly's book, "Chasing Daylight," I've wanted to read it.

The Cliffs Notes version is simple, O'Kelly, then the CEO of KPMG, discovers suddenly that he has inoperable brain cancer, and has around 100 days to live. He sets out to achieve the best death he can by reaching closure in his relationships with colleagues, friends, and family, while documenting his quest in his book.

This is the kind of book that really sticks with me. Most of my friends know that I am terrified of death, and still hold out hope that Kurzweil is right, and that we will achieve some form of human immortality in my lifetime (I'm 31). This book shows that tragedy can affect anyone.

O'Kelly receives his diagnosis when he is 53--in the prime of his professional life. One day he's jetting around the world, and the next, he discovers that he won't live to see his daughter start the 8th grade that fall.

Yet with the dogged persistence of a born accountant, O'Kelly decides to look upon his death sentence as a gift: His doctors tell him that he won't feel any pain, and that he can live his life as best he can until the end. He decides that the most important thing to him are the people in his life, and he sets out to say goodbye to as many of them as he can, cramming close to 1,000 goodbyes into his final 100 days.

You can sense both the frustration and acceptance that he feels as the book progresses. He comes to realize that dying has allowed him to learn so much more about what is important, and about how to fill his life with "Perfect Moments". He understands that even though he tried to bring more balance to the lives of his employees, he could have done more had he the courage and creativity to set an example, rather than working 90-hour weeks. Yet even though he clearly wishes he had been able to take advantage of his hard-won wisdom earlier in his life, his acceptance of his situation allows him to focus on living his rapidly decreasing days, rather than on regrets.

I don't know how this book will impact my life. After all, I'm young, and hope to have many a year before I need to confront these issues. But I would like to think that I can carry away some of Gene's dying wisdom and *live* my life for today, rather than focusing on the sort of golden retirement that Gene planned on for 30 years and never got to experience.

One of the crucial insights that Gene has is that at some point, you need to wind down your life. When you die, you'll be stopped. If you're traveling 60 MPH up to the day you die, you'll crash. It may be too early for me to slow down to the extent that Gene did in the last 100 days of his life, but I am going to try to direct some of my attention away from the future and towards the present, and let the people in my life know how important they are to me.