Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Couple of Magisterial Articles You Should Read

There’s a tangible, almost merciful way that the post-presidency agrees with Bill Clinton. Here in Africa, where he’ll be spending the next seven days, he’s relaxed, smiling, pink. On the first night of our trip, in a faded old colonial hotel in Mozambique, he comes bounding to the dinner table in bright-white pants, a bright-white shirt, an almost-as-white sweater (knotted around his shoulders), and brand-new canary-yellow running sneakers, like some Queer Eye project gone cheerfully awry. I will soon discover that these running sneakers perfectly match one of his ties—he’s brought a whole array of pastel cravats for the Southern Hemisphere.

This, my friends, is writing as god intended it to be, prose good enough to eat. It both sets the stage for what comes after it, paints marvelously visual word pictures you can see in cranial Technicolor, and just plain dares you to stop reading. It surely wins our lead paragraph of the month award, but the rest of it is just as good. The piece, entitled "Bill Clinton's Plan for World Domination," appeared recently as a cover story in New York Magazine, into which Oberlin graduate Adam Moss continues to breathe new life and vigor. Recruited away from the editorship of the New York Times Magazine (before that, he launched a much-admired but now defunct weekly pub, 7 Days) by the magazine's new owners, Moss, an openly gay mid-40ish guy, has called in all his writerly favors from a lifetime of editing and is using his honeymoon period to publish some wonderful stuff. This profile is built on a solid foundation of patient reporting and lots of time spent with the subject, but it's also beautifully written. That's an increasingly rare combination even at the best magazines these days. And it's nicely balanced: Clinton haters will find much to enjoy, since it's a warts and all treatment. After listening to him try to explain away the egregious Marc Rich pardon for ten minutes, she writes: "this is the Clinton you just want to shake: the defensive Clinton, the one who can't concede he might have had a hand in his own undoing." But close readers will easily detect a larger underlying fondness for the subject. I know I did.

Lined up next on my reading list is John Harris's book about Clinton, The Survivor, and this piece helped get me ready for that. It dissects Clinton's "feral hunger" for life and for a respectful place in history, it notes his post-presidential travel to no fewer than 67 countries, and how the Lewinsky episode and the resulting impeachment continues to haunt him. It concludes that this once idealistic man who later became the ultimate political pragmatist now gets to return to his idealism as a former president, leveraging his foundation and his gigantic soft power around the world. Anyway, enough with me characterizing it for you. Just click on it and read the damn thing, will you? Only not online--do yourself a favor and print it out for sometime later, when you can quietly enjoy it in peace.

And while you're at it, print out and read this piece too. Veteran Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehe has a byline easily lost amid the endless murderers' row of stylish writers at that paper. He may be best-known for a well-regarded book he published not long ago on the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, a tragedy which led to changes in fire codes and laws governing the working conditions in sweat shops. His is considered the authoritative account.

But none of that prepared me for his wonderfully vivid and insightful account of two female bloggers, one a conservative and the other a liberal. Unlike so much of the mindless piffle that major media serve up about blogging--some of it idiotically celebratory and much more of it still obtusely dismissive--Von Drehe actually had enough intellectual curiosity and imagination to do some old-fashioned reporting and find out for himself about it by spending time with a couple of people who do it often and well. So he invited the women to lunch at the swanky Palm and took them to the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, listening and taking notes as they debated and mused aloud about politics, life and blogging. They proved to be an appealing pair in their many life symmetries (except for their politics), though he said later in an online discussion that that was just a happy accident.

The piece nicely describes how bloggers can sometimes fall into a "tribal vernacular" and how for all of their sense of themselves as having discovered the world anew, "blogging is an old craft recently made new by technology." Mostly, though, he comes away impressed with how well-informed these two women are, which should surprise no one who knows a few particularly well-informed bloggers (just treat yourself sometime to a coffeehouse chat with people like George or Tim or Bill. You may need an injection of something to keep up):
And you can't help being impressed by how much these women know. They know the infant mortality rate in Mississippi, and the average annual return on stocks over the past century. They know the difference between "add-ons" and "carve-outs" in the context of Social Security reform. They distinguish between libertarian and conservative with the taxonomic precision of Agassiz, and they bring the same intensity to the distinctions between the progressive and Clintonian strands of the Democratic Party. Between them, they have informed opinions on topics ranging from European unification to the 1980 NBA finals to the inner lives of cats.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

WCPN Promos Roldo Online Archive

"Cleveland gadfly or Cleveland's conscience? 90.3 wants you to decide," says the WCPN on-air promo. It directs attention to the online archive of Roldo Bartimole's life's work, on ClevelandMemory.org. This is yet another sterling initiative organized by the fearless Bill Barrow, who's also head of the Cleveland Press archives, deposited in the CSU Library. This presumably wasn't the kind of thing that legislative-strongman-turned-superlobbyist Pat Sweeney had in mind when he ramrodded a bill through the Ohio Legislature some years ago forcing a shotgun marriage between Cleveland State and the local public radio station. It's that same legislation you can thank for those endlessly inane radio spots hailing the most obscure boasts of this most mediocre of urban universities--the fact that some department was judged third best on some obscure academic ranking. But this on-air spot, on the other hand, which began airing last week, seems worth them all. But in case Roldo's feeling too good about that, we thought we'd send along this cause for mild heartburn,
a photo of his longtime foil, PD publisher Alex Machaskee, playing his beloved ethnic instruments. A real keeper, we'd say.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

As Summer Gives Way to Autumn, Time to Get Serious

'If one waits for the right time to come before writing, the right time never comes.'
--James Russell Lowell

'Never talk about a story idea at a party. Either you'll spend your enthusiasm for the story, or you'll have to leave the party to write it.'
--Paul Raymond Martin

'Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall.'
--Susan Sontag

Friday, August 26, 2005

Odds & Ends

As the week comes to a close, here are a few things I've found interesting in the last couple of weeks. Just a small sampling, mind you, but then, there'll be lots of other days to get to the rest.

Battelle Book on Google Almost Here. John Battelle is a special name in magazine journalism. Many have succeeded in recording a single large success, but not many can boast of two giant home runs in their career. A co-founder of Wired Magazine, he later went on to found Internet Week, one of the epic rise-and-fall stories ever in the American magazine industry. At the height of the Internet boom, it was so successful, stuffed with so many ads, that the editorial side literally couldn't keep up, despite massive hiring. They began recycling stories and repeating them, just to have enough editorial matter to balance the ballooning ads. You may remember, or at least guess, the rest: after the market and technology crash of five years ago, the magazine itself crashed and burned. Battelle went on to teach journalism out west, and for the last couple of years has been working on a long-awaited book about Google. A recent
excerpt in Wired shows why so many have been awaiting this book. His brief, lucid explanation of Google's secret sauce, the page rank system is one example of the guy's casual brilliance. I've read perhaps a couple dozen explanations of this system, but none could compare with this:

Together, Page and Brin created a ranking system that rewarded links that came from sources that were important and penalized those that did not. For example,many sites link to IBM.com. Those links might range from a business partner in the technology industry to a teenage programmer in suburban Illinois who just got a ThinkPad for Christmas. To a human observer, the business partner is a more important link in terms of IBM's place in the world. But how might an algorithm understand that fact? Page and Brin's breakthrough was to create an algorithm - dubbed PageRank after Page - that manages to take into account both the number of links into a particular site and the number of links into each of the linking sites. This mirrored the rough approach of academic citation-counting. It worked. In the example above, let's assume that only a few sites linked to the teenager's site. Let's further assume the sites that link to the teenager's are similarly bereft of links. By contrast, thousands of sites link to Intel, and those sites, on average, also have thousands of sites linking to them. PageRank would rank the teen's site as less important than Intel's - at least in relation to IBM.

Mossberg Follows Hanson. Not long ago, my friend Dan Hanson, the self-described "entreprenerd" of Cleveland, wrote on his blog about the myth that Dell is the low-price computer alternative. He pointed out how they use what amounts to a bait-and-switch tactic on their low-priced specials, making sure that those models are low on storage or speed or both, and possibly missing important features, like sound cards. He has a built-in bias, of course, since he's in the same business. In any event, just ten days later, the Wall Street Journal's sainted, uniquely influential personal technology columnist, Walter Mossberg, who has no such built-in bias, made much the same point. Once again, Dan is riding out ahead of the technology wave. And his print journalism is no slouch either, especially for a guy who came relatively late to that field. His sparkling piece on One Cleveland in Inside Business (an otherwise undistinguished magazine which at least has the good sense to spotlight his sparkling work), which we hear was held for quite a few months and chopped up in an epic bit of bureaucratic buffoonery, has been talked about and linked to with increasing frequency lately. In part, that's because One Cleveland just got a giant booster rocket with the decision by Intel to invest millions in Cleveland, but also in part because the piece is such a deft and concise overview of what this giant initiative is really all about, and why it's so crucial to the region's economic future.

Impending Conservative Crack-Up? On the one hand, ex-Nixon White House flak Pat Buchanan can sometimes sound like a complete loony-tunes, a guy so paleolithically conservative that he's lost touch with reality. Other times, like when he appears on Jon Stewart's Comedy Central, he has a disarming way of pointing his humor at himself. His magazine, The American Conservative, can at times be surprisingly insightful, especially about the larger conservative movement, where it tends to serve as a loud dissident.
This piece, by an obscure New York attorney, makes a number of interesting counterintuitive points about the current conservative political movement. It suggests that the movement, so full of serious intellectual insight during its decades out of power, is now quietly reversing course after it has attained power. "Original thinking often flourishes under conditions of intellectual marginality," he writes. "Unfortunately, the conservative movement, having discovered a mass audience, risks squandering the intellectual marginality that once made it so interesting and daring." I think he's on to something.

Burying Global Warming. Many progressives are understandably on the verge of despair over various indicators that suggest our energy habits are pushing the planet perilously close to disaster, to say nothing of depleting what oil the Earth has left. On the other hand, anyone who's studied even a little history knows that disruptive, unforseen innovations have a way of regularly pulling our collective fat from the fryer. In a fascinating
piece in the July issue of Scientific America, Princeton physics professor Robert Socolow outlines a scheme for burying carbon dioxide emissions, or as he puts it, "sequestering it underground," rather than emitting them into the air. "Nothing says that CO2 must be emitted into the air. The atmosphere has been our prime waste repository, because discharging exhaust up through smokestacks, tailpipes and chimneys is the simplest and least (immediately) costly thing to do. The good news is that the technology for capture and storage already exists and that the obstacles hindering implementation seem to be surmountable." I must admit, that's the first I'd ever heard of that idea, and it took me by surprise. It also made me curious about the author. Drilling down to learn more, I found this page, which notes that his initiative is funded by...Ford and BP. That's interesting. It doesn't mean his ideas are necessarily tainted, of course. But couldn't the editors of this well-respected science journal at least have mentioned this seemingly germane fact about his research funding somewhere in the article, and simply let readers decide what weight to assign to it?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

As in Life, Doubly So in Writing

'Nobody gives you power. You just take it.'
--Roseanne Barr

I thought of my friend Tim Russo when I came across this quote today. I love his smarts and his energy and his (occasional) righteous anger. Mostly, I love that he writes like a dream, and about things that matter. Only things that matter. And how many writers can really say that? I only wish that the next step--after finding your voice and then finding an audience, which he's nicely conquered--earning one's keep from it, were as easy and clear to hash out. For me, it took about half a lifetime to figure out. Here's hoping he's a lot quicker and smarter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Getting Really Small

If I needed any more reasons (which I don't) to cherish and admire Ben Small, my favorite magazine designer, a longtime friend as well as collaborator, and a guy with a much-derided last name, I could simply point to the quote I noticed he placed recently near his work space. It silently speaks volumes:

Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unempllyment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. there is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaries and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligable and they are stupid.
--Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952

Does e-mail Make You Dumber? That was the headline of a brief article in the August Discover Magazine, which I breezed through while on vacation recently. Writer Anne Casselman had this to say, in part, as the answer. "If you feel like a zombie at work, perhaps you're suffering from infomania, the term the Hewlett -Packard affiliate in Britain coined for people addicted to e-mail, instant messaging and text messages. A recent study for the company found that British workers' IQ test scores drop temporarily by an average of 10 points when juggling phones, e-mails and other electronic messages--more of an IQ drop than occurs after smoking marijuana or losing a night's sleep." I guess I should be happy that I don't do text or instant messaging and never have, and so maybe my temporary stupidity is only half as bad as some of my multitasking friends. Or at least I hope so.

Small Type, Big Party. We had a blast at last Friday's end-of-summer party at the Poets & Writers League of Greater Cleveland. The weather cooperated, the turnout was brisk. My wife loved seeing (in one case) and meeting (in another) authors whose work she's read and admired. She even found enough fellow teachers in the crowd to chat away with while I worked the room (and the lawn outside) a bit. I was especially heartened to see and be able to chat with at some length a couple of my blogging pals, two especially good and serious writers, Jeff Hess and Chas Rich. They nicely kept watch over the beer supply from a good perch on the porch, while teasing me about my small (there's that word again) type on this site, and the colors which make it hard to read. Okay, guys, I promise to eventually respond with some changes. As for the PWLGC soiree, if you missed it, don't despair. Another in the series is planned for late September. We'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 22, 2005

First Day of Fall

The calendar may not agree, but when your kids have their first full day back in school and the weather suddenly turns seasonably cool, I figure that qualifies as the functional equivalent of fall, easily my favorite season. I've been quiet for three weeks because August has been full of wandering--wandering around a couple of big projects, one just completed (more about which soon) and wandering around the country. That wandering included the annual summer vacation in Maine, complete with an overnight stop in New York City, plus some college visits along the way for the high school junior. The latter prospect is all the reminder one needs to pick up the pace on earning and saving, so as to narrow the gap between college tuition price tags and one's college savings from the range of incomprehensible to merely impossible. And before that, there was an evocative evening spent with spouse and old friends in a quiet Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, a creekside home just a few miles down the way (also more about which soon). All in all, one of the truly great Augusts ever, at least for me. It leaves me ready to attack work, in what remains of the year, with a special gusto, and a renewed fervor.

And in all the mounds of reading I did this month, amid the stacks of magazines, newspapers and books I plowed through at the beach, in the hammock and while propped up in bed seconds before dozing off, I would be hardpressed to identify anything that gave me a bigger kick than this, a small passage in an otherwise hum drum article about Google's recent decision to go back for another public offering, this time raising $4 billion:

In Google's whimsical fashion, the number of shares offered is the same as the first eight digits after the decimal point in pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, which starts with 3.14159265.

Now, if only I could get my two teenage boys to enjoy math that much, our savings challenge would be mostly solved...

One last impossibly cool thing happened in August. My friend and mentor Bill Zinsser sent along by mail (he still doesn't do email, and casually ignores anyone who suggests he should start) a draft of a new piece of writing. But it also had an altogether familiar feel to it. In January, it will be the 30th anniversary of the publication of his now-iconic book, On Writing Well. It began as a modest attempt to put between hard covers some lessons from his years as a writing teacher at Yale. His students have gone on to their own glittering careers, a couple having founded Vermont Magazine, another (Mark Singer) becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker. There are too many superstars to name. And yet, my favorite story from his Yale years involves a fellow who didn't become a writer at all: instead, he went into business, but was so touched by Bill's lifelong lessons about the power of language that he recently gave Yale a large gift, with the explicit instructions to "find a Bill Zinsser of the 21st century." What a giant, perhaps impossible, task that will be.

Anyway, in the years since it was first published, OWW has grown into what can only be called a publishing phenomenon, one of the great word-of-mouth book titles ever. OWW has long since passed one million copies in print--an astounding number for a serious book on writing--and has appeared in more than 20 languages, including Chinese. And Bill's place in the writing world has become that of the all-but-acknowledged writer's writer, replacing the late stylist extraordinaire, E.B. White, a portrait of whom has hung in Bill's Manhattan office for years. Knowing of the tremendous following that OWW prompted from writers of every type, some years ago I encouraged Bill to save all of his files related to OWW (in the self-interested hope, I must admit, of one day writing a book about this amazing book). Anyway, that led him to explore donating his files to a university, and now New York University library is the proud owner of thousands of files related to the life and work of Bill Zinsser. And to my delight, I have since learned that there were not merely hundreds of letters from his devoted readers amid those piles, as I had expected, but actually thousands of them. This book touched a special chord in average writers. But even more impressively, it has spoken to people who didn't remotely think of themselves as writers and who never would, but who were nevertheless inspired and touched by Bill's unique way of making the importance of writing a good love letter or some other non-professional piece of writing come alive and speak to the reader.

Bill, who's now 80, and who still wears his signature white shirt with tie and New Balance running shoes to work every day, is not a man for looking back. He insists on keeping this book fresh, updating it every few years so as to reflect new usages, trends in writing and culture, and to just plain try to make it ever more useful for current writers. And so, to mark the 30th anniversary, his publisher is bringing out another edition soon, the 7th edition of OWW. And apparently just hours after he was finished with what I'm sure was the eighth or tenth or twelfth draft of the newly refreshed intro, he made a copy and sent it along in the mail (no doubt to many others as well). To me, it has the feel of a small piece of history, and I'll cherish it for years to come, just as I'll look forward to seeing the many nips and tucks he'll be making in the rest of the book (there will be an entire new chapter in this edition, about writing about one's life, the subject of his most recent book). We're still hoping to host Bill in Cleveland this fall. Stay tuned for that.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Save This Date, Please

Poets and Writers League Party August 19th. Longtime readers of Working With Words know that the Society of Professional Journalists is one of my special causes. The group is nearly 100 years old, and for most of its life, it has been something of a dowdy overachiever. But it's also been a bit like the journalistic equivalent of your dad's old Buick, fussily worrying about issues of fairness and ethics like a censorious old school marm, joylessly rapping the knuckles of offenders. While parts of me rather like and respect that, I also think it has to grow with the times, and grapple with the far more complicated, grayer issues that are now at the intersection of journalism, citizenship and public affairs. Happily, the Cleveland chapter has, in spades. I'm happy to be a part of that crew of engaged hungry minds in the profession who are tackling all these issue and sparking conversation within the profession, and (here's the real key) increasingly outside it--with readers, citizens, those who are written about, etc. We have a
new website courtesy of the talented web designer Jim Kukral which will allow us to reach more people with more issues.

But with SPJ so well entrenched in the civic conversation, I will begin this year to steadily move out into other related and allied organizations, in an effort to continue to try to influence the breaching of walls between all these writing categories. If you don't write yourself, you may not know that the writing community is full of more niches than a honeycomb, and that's just how some jealous guardians like it. There are of course the journalists (and they even contain subsets, such as literary journalists, a category to which I aspire). There are poets; novelists; children's book authors; and writers of mystery, romance and science fiction (often called genre writers by some purists, who never hesitate to add a note of disdain). There are specialists in nature writing and their newer-age brethren, environmental writers. And of course there are bloggers. And on and on it goes. For the most part (or am I wrong here?), denizens of these ghettoes prefer to keep to themselves, buttoned up in their walls, talking only to each other.

Nonsense, I say. We're all writers, and we all have much to learn from each other's disciplines and special interests. Those who write news and are forever being pressured by the market imperatives of journalism to shorten their articles, so they can learn poetic compression from poets. Pure bloggers have much to learn about generating story ideas, doing basic fact-checking and other subjects from longtime writers. And pure traditional journalists can learn a thing or two (or maybe two thousand) from their blogging counterparts about pouring more authentic conversation into their work and being a bit less full of themselves. Okay, so perhaps my ecumenical outreach is driven by a personal mania to bring coherence to my many writing selves. I see parts of myself in all of these specialties. And let me say that there's really no tension between any of these selves. I can't say that I've ever had a moment's hesitation, never felt a second of friction between my roles as writer, journalist or blogger. They all fit together seemlessly. My responsibilities to each are precisely the same: to give sacred witness to my beloved readers, to bring them some news or help them understand some point of view, to spur their thinking, to help them wrestle with some pain, experience some joy or to simply bring them into communion with others. After all, a wiser person than I once helpfully observed that in the end, we really read in order to find that we're not alone.

We have so many wonderful developments popping up in this broad writing landscape in the region. With all of this grassroots energy bubbling up all over the place on behalf of the written word, it seems only fitting that I should increasingly move toward what I consider the grandaddy, the hub of this network--the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland. As the product of a merger between a predecessor poets' group and one dedicated to those who deal in prose, it's already done some knocking down of walls itself. It's the only such group in the region that I know of with an actual physical location--the charming Literary Center, or "the Lit," as it's affectionately known--and a fulltime staff member, the energetic Darlene Montanaro. It offers a wonderful array of classes and keeps in touch with a thousand small and large developments that affect those who write. And so I plan on spending significant time with the group in the coming year.

Anyway, I hope you'll join me at an August 19th evening event, a modest (and I mean modest: just $5) fundraiser for the group, which it's calling Raise the Rent (directions are here). It will be a wonderful way to celebrate summer's end among likeminded word lovers. I'm looking forward to seeing you there.