Saturday, March 24, 2007

Books That May Warrant
By Andrew Cockburn
And our favorite book title of the month:
(now we know what to get Jill for Mother's Day).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

March Madness Bipolar Disorder

It used to be conventional wisdom among hoops fans that college basketball is far superior to the NBA product. The crowds were more energetic, the players less blase, and the entire spectacle was said to be fresher and more electric
than the mercenary pros. But of course television (the NCAA has a $6 billion multi-year TV contract) and the obscene amounts of money it injects into the proceedings has done its best to foul thing up. Like everything else it touches in American life--the news and politics especially--the tube first observes, then changes the very structure of the thing it's observing, before finally beginning to corrupt it from within. The NCAA basketball tourney may not be quite so thoroughly corrupt a system as, say, local TV news, but give it time. It's working on it.

John Feinstein, a sports author who can stake a legitimate claim as the preeminent writer on this subject of March Madness, recently complained in the Washington Post about the increasingly self-important tournament selection committee. He wrote: "they have come to believe through the years that when they select the 65 team NCAA Tournament field that they are doing work only slightly more important and grueling than finding a cure for cancer." They are, after all, making choices on which millions of dollars and the comparative institutional prestige of dozens of colleges and universities depend.

Last year at this time I
reviewed Feinstein's behind-the-scenes book about the NCAA tournament. In that book, he tried to keep some perspective about how these are only games, after all. But much of the rest of the country tends to go a little overboard about things. It's as if everyone stops working for two weeks to obsess over their tournament brackets. The cultural excess prompted humorist Andy Borowitz (a native of Shaker Heights) to write this sardonic little spoof, in which he pretends to report that the NCAA has officially renamed March Madness "March bipolar disorder." If you've got it bad, perhaps you can occupy yourself between games by reading old articles from this specialized online archive, said to contain a half million articles about college hoops. Knock yourself out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Here Are Two Chances to Join Me
For Writing Events in Coming Days

I'll be appearing at a couple of writing-related events around the Cleveland area in the next week, both of which I heartily encourage you to consider attending, should you have the time and interest.

This Saturday morning, March 24th, I'll be giving a presentation on blogging at the
16th annual Western Reserve Writers' mini-conference, at Lakeland Community College. Shame on Lakeland for not harnessing the web better to promote it (their bare-bones listing doesn't tell you nearly enough about it to convince anyone to attend. They've instead relied solely on mailed brochures). So in a moment, I'll fill you in on it myself.

Two days later, on Monday, March 26th, I'll be taking part in a
Web Association luncheon panel with a trio of friends, Dan Hanson, George Nemeth and Jim Kukral. I've written about Dan here (scroll down, if you care to, to see all the mentions) George here and Jim here. This one should be a particularly fun event. And doubly so for me because of its echoes of a similar event nearly four years ago, when George and I and a couple of other online writers addressed the then-new subject of blogging to a roomful of about 100 folks. One of the co-sponsors was the Association of Internet Professionals, a predecessor of the Web Association. As it happened, I met Jim Kukral that very evening. He had been blogging for some time even then, and was thrilled to meet others in the region who did, too. So anyway, do consider attending if you can.

Okay, back to the Saturday conference at Lakeland, where I'm happy to say I'll also be joined by some old writing comrades, including Suzanne Alexander and Scott Lax. Here's a quick overview of the morning:

8:30--registration and coffee
9:15--Mary Ryan on writing for children, me on blogging, Susanne A. on making connections, and Barbara Snow on coaching yourself to success.
10:30--Deanna Adams on memoir-writing, Les Roberts on book reviews, Malcolm Wood on outlining a novel, and Ruth Fawcett on independent publishing.
11:45--Scott Lax on creative writing for beginners, Nancy Christie on essay writing, Steve Grant on legal issues, and Nicole Hunter on writing dialogue.
Networking, refreshments and author signings to follow.
Cost: $55. For more information: call 440-525-7116.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Permission Marketing Guru Seth Godin
Continues Serving Up Pearls of Wisdom

In the past, I've pointed to Seth Godin a number of times for his pithy wisdom about the web, marketing and business in general. He never seems to get stale. His latest wise musing is about the differences between thrill seekers & fear avoiders. Just in case the link is broken at some future date, I'll reprint it here in its entirety.

I now firmly believe that there are two polar opposites at work: Thrill seekers and Fear avoiders. Notice that I don't use the word 'risk' to describe either category. More on that soon. How do we explain the fact that Forbes finds more than 700 billionaires and virtually none are both young and retired? Why keep working?
How do explain why so many organizations get big and then just stop? Stop innovating, stop pushing, stop inventing...
Why are seminars sometimes exciting, bubbling pots of innovation and energy while others are just sort of dronefests?
I think people come to work with one of two attitudes (though there are plenty of people with a blend that's somewhere in between):
Thrill seekers love growth. They most enjoy a day where they try something that was difficult, or--even better--said to be impossible, and then pull it off. Thrill seekers are great salespeople because they view every encounter as a chance to break some sort of record or have an interaction that is memorable.
Fear avoiders hate change. They want the world to stay just the way it is. They're happy being mediocre, because being mediocre means less threat/fear/change. They resent being pushed into the unknown, because the unknown is a scary place.
An interesting side discussion: one of the biggest factors in the success of the US isn't our natural resources or location. It's that so many people in this country came here seeking a thrill.
So why not call them risk seekers and risk avoiders? Well, it used to be true. Seeking thrills was risky. But no longer. Now, of course, safe is risky. The horrible irony is that the fear avoiders are setting themselves up for big changes because they're confused. The safest thing they can do now, it turns out, is become a thrill seeker.
Who do you work with?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Last Year's Best Magazine Article Tells Story
Of How the Bush White House Really Works

As the Bush White House's serial disasters--from missing WMDs to the botched Katrina response to the Scooter Libby trial and then the fired U.S. Attorneys--begin to pile onto one another in accelerating fashion, it's getting hard to digest one disaster before the next one hits. They all have much in common, of course. At the bottom of them all is a blatant disregard for the rule of law and a basic inability to tell the truth. And at the bottom of all of that is a man named David Addington, who may be the purest expression of the heart of darkness at the center of the Cheney-Bush White House.

Last July, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker magazine published an eye-opening profile
of this lawyer who serves as Dick Cheney's chief of staff and longtime principal legal advisor, a man so secretive and ruthlessly effective that he has been dubbed "Cheney's Cheney." It gets my vote for the best magazine piece published in the U.S. in 2006.

Mayer is a remarkable writer and equally remarkable investigative reporter. Formerly with the Wall Street Journal, in the mid-'90s she teamed with then-fellow-WSJ reporter Jill Abramson (now managing editor of the New York Times) to write a devastating book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, that told the real story behind Thomas' shameful Senate nomination hearings. Piercing the elder Bush's smokescreens was no doubt good training for untangling his son's far more serious brand of lawlessness.

Beginning his career in the general counsel's office of the CIA, Addington later became a special assistant and then general counsel of the Pentagon during Dick Cheney's term as secretary of defense, under the elder Bush. But even earlier, during the Reagan presidency, Addington was a rabid true believer. Mayer writes that "his sentiment about congressional overseers was best captured during a hearing about covert actions in Central America, when he responded to tough questioning by muttering the word 'assholes.'" She goes on to describe how he became the chief legal architect behind several of the most lawless features of the Bush II White House, including the president's executive order erecting secret military commissions and the raft of signing statements accompanying new legislation (which have tended to absurdly suggest that the White House disputes the clear intent of the legislation's language)
. He's even said to be the originator of then-White-House-Counsel Alberto Gonzales's infamous declaration that the Geneva Conventions are "quaint" and thus non-binding on the U.S. as it went about erecting its own answer to the infamous string of Soviet-era prisons for secretly detaining terror suspects.

And the point of all of these actions? Mayer concludes that along with his patron Dick Cheney, Addington (who is pictured in an illustration gleefully putting a copy of the U.S. Constitution through an office shredder) is fighting for post-Watergate restoration of presidential power. And if you have to shred the Constitution to do it, well, that's just a small price to pay.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Josh Marshall & Talkingpointsmemo:
An Example of Blogs at Their Best

Over the last four years (yes, we're coming up on an anniversary, just days away), I've enthused about Josh Marshall and his
Talkingpointsmemo blog at least a half dozen times, pointing to it as an example of perhaps the highest expression of what great independent web journalism can achieve. The site first came to wide attention in 2002, when it bird-dogged a story that the rest of the media mostly ignored: then-Senate Majority leader Trent Lott marking Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday by seemingly celebrating his segregationist past. The comment was carried live on C-Span, but only Marshall seemed to think it deserved much attention. Lott eventually was forced to give up his leadership position. Marshall never gloated, but merely went back to work, even hiring a couple of reporters to help him break more news.

That was a mere prelude to the events of the last couple of weeks, when TPM again seized on what it thought was a big deal and which many others only considered a scrap: the sacking of eight U.S. Attorneys around the country. Marshall smelled a rat, and kept digging around the edges of the story,
blending his own staff's digging with tips from readers and an alert stitching together of newspaper stories from around the country. Even more importantly, he challenged (and shamed) larger news operations to do so as well. The result: yet the latest example of the heart of darkness at the core of this corrupt White House. The Hill Democrats' new subpoena power, of course, is helping get to the bottom of this story, where Karl Rove naturally shows up, moving chess pieces around the board in his typical fashion.

But what I liked best about the last week is what made Marshall and his site so good in the first place. When just about anyone else would have been taking victory laps and smirking their way to fame, Marshall was doing none of that. He remained what he's always been, a serious, consummate pro. He appeared on MSNBC's Hardball and a number of other venues, and I detected no hint of triumphalism or any of the immaturity that the egregious Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of
Daily Kos would have shown. Instead, his whole attitude seemed to be: hooray for us, but if you'll excuse me, now we need to get back to work, because the news continues.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Shallow Preoccupations of Empire

'One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.'
--J.M. Coetzee

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Learners Shall Inherit the Earth

'In times of change, learners inherits the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.'
--the late writer Eric Hoffer

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Indians' Immortal Bob "Inky" Feller
Still Pitching Even As He Nears 90

The New York Times had
this nice little piece yesterday on Indians' immortal Bob Feller, who's still as active as ever on the nostalgia circuit, at 88. First inducted into Cooperstown in 1962, he's been enshrined in baseball's hall of fame now for more than half his life. An attractive cast-iron statue of "Rapid Robert" graces the Ninth Street entrance to Jacobs Field, one of the park's nicer touches. It's long since become the signature meeting place for fans to find each other before heading into the stadium.

In some circles, though, he's become equally famous (perhaps infamous) for shameless buckraking. Writers have long traded stories about how he insists on being paid for his autograph, even at book-signings (the Times says that money goes to his museum in his native Iowa). What it doesn't say is that Feller's extreme capitalism is hardly of recent vintage. Bob Feller, you see, was truly a man ahead of his time.

Some years ago, while I was reporting a story about the endorsement side of Major League Baseball, longtime Tribe PR man Bobby DiBiasio told me Feller's nickname is "Inky." I asked why. "Because he incorporated himself way back when he was still a player."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Dr. Seuss Says: Woe Be Unto the Writer
Who Breeds More Words Than He Needs

'It has often been said there's so much to be read,
you never can cram all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs
is making a chore for the reader who reads.
That's why my belief is the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh of the reader's relief is.'
--Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

On Surges & Having the Last Laugh

Is the Surge Beginning to Work? The Economist lucidly
explores that question this week. And because the authoritative British weekly has been a persistent, sensible critic of the Bush Administration's go-it-alone strategy in Iraq, I think it speaks with far more credibility than most publications. In any event, it's worth reading. Another persistent White House critic, former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, offers his own take on the surge in this week's New York Review of Books. He notes that by depending on the neoconservatives for this latest idea, "Bush's continued reliance on them was, even more than the proverbial second marriage, the triumph of hope over experience."

Chris Lydon Gets the Last Laugh. A few years ago, Boston-based Chris Lydon got into a beef with his local NPR affiliate, Boston's WBUR, over who owned his show, beamed nationally (though only on a few stations, with a total audience of under a half-million listeners). The clash of wills with the station drew considerable media coverage, in part because of some of the eye-popping numbers (Lydon earned, and later walked away from, well over a quarter-million dollars in salary) for ostensibly "public" radio.
This piece nicely describes the controversy. Lydon eventually moved on to Harvard, where he hatched a comeback. That became Radio Open Source, an interesting experiment in blending radio and the web (check out this program with the New Yorker's Sy Hersh). As the show itself describes it: "Open Source is a conversation, four times a week on the radio and any time you like on the blog. We designed the show to invert the traditional relationship between broadcast and the web: we aren’t a public radio show with a web community, we’re a web community that produces a daily hour of radio." Anyway, the happy ending just got written. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, the same visionaries responsible for the annual "genius grants," have just awarded Radio Open Source a $250,000 grant. At least that should cover Lydon's stipend for the better part of a year (he says, jealously).

Monday, March 05, 2007

Why a Writer's Inner Conviction
Counts For More than Technique

Ohio-based writer Ralph Keyes has written several books in his long career. But his latest is perhaps his best yet. In The Courage To Write--How Writers Transcend Fear, he wonderfully slices through all the layers of BS that tend to accumulate about the act of writing, instead getting to the core matters. Below is a brief sample of some of what I considered the book's highlights.

The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that good writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers' attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, 'You've got to listen to what I'm about to tell you.' It's hard to be that passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.

* * * * * * * * * *

Over time, productive writers develop work habits that would make an accountant gasp with admiration. After wasting too many years waiting for genius to strike, Stendahl finally settled on a regimen of 'twenty lines a day, genius or not.' Like Stendahl, many writers--including Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene--assigned themselves production quotas to meet as if they were Soviet workers fulfilling five-year plans. Arthur Hailey wrote his daily quota--six hundred words--at the top of a pad, then wouldn't allow himself to put the pad down until he'd fulfilled it. Anthony Trollope assigned himself not only a quota of words but a time limit in which to produce them. with his watch tickign away before him, the British novelist routinely wrote 250 words every quarter hour...The quota approach to writing sounds compulsive: the writer as word counter. But quotas serve an important psychic function. they keep writers workign despite the normal, almost irresistible urge to quit. Writers need some gimmick--often many gimmicks--to keep themselves going despite their anxiety...But don't gimmicks produce drivel? Sometimes. Even drivel can be fixed, however.

* * * * * * * * * *

Unlike what nonwriters often believe, good writing does not require a big vocabulary. E.B. White thought one of his blessings as a writer was the fact that his limited vocabulary didn't permit him to use obscure words. Mark Twain had a similar perspective...Insecure writers want to show off their vocabulary from fear of sounding ignorant. If I don't use obscure words, they seem to wonder, how will readers know that I have a college degree? If I do use simple words, won't people think I'm a simpleton? Such attitudes make for deadly writing.

* * * * * * * * * *

Writers' gatherings of all kinds are, or at least ought to be, settings where we learn not so much how to write but how to dare to write. No single task is more important to the process of becoming a writer.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Gardner, the Guru of Multiple Intelligences,
Now Tackles Subject of Our Multiple Minds

Howard Gardner, who I think is easily among our most important public intellectuals, has become famous for his work on multiple intelligences, which explores the resonant idea that there is no one way to judge human intelligence. The Harvard-based guru has another book out later this year, Five Minds for the Future. He recently sat for a Q&A session with the Harvard Business Review, and had this to say.
What is an ethical mind? In thinking of the mind as a set of cognitive capacities, it helps to distinguish the ethical mind from the other four minds that we particularly need to cultivate if we are to thrive as individuals, as a community and as a human race. The first of these, the disciplined mind, is what we gain from applying ourselves in a disciplined way in school. Over time and with sufficient training, we gain expertise in one or more fields: We become experts in project management, accounting, music, dentistry and so forth. A second kind of mind is the synthesizing mind, which can survey a wide range of sources, decide what is important and worth paying attention to, and weave this information together in a coherent fashion for oneself and others. A third mind, the creating mind, casts about for new ideas and practices, innovates, takes chances, discovers. While each of these minds has long been valuable, all of them are essential in an era when we are deluged with information, and when anything that can be automated will be. Yet another kind of mind, less purely cognitive in flavor than the first three, is the respectful mind: the kind of open mind that tries to understand and form relationships with other human beings. A person with a respectful mind enjoys being exposed to different types of people. While not forgiving of all, she gives others the benefit of the doubt.

HBR, by the way, puts almost none of its material on the web for non-subscribers, so if you're interested in learning more, you'll have to run down to your favorite bookstore or library. But you can go online to check out Gardner's long-range initiative to study the effect of meaningful work, the Good Work Project. One of his collaborators is the similarly brilliant Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of several phenomenal books on creativity and mental flow.

Friday, March 02, 2007

He Forgot To Add
Local TV 'News'

'If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.'
--Malcolm X (special thanks to the formidable Mr. Andrews for sending along this timely gem).