Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New York Magazine Poses a Key Question:
Which of These Loose Cannons Is Louder?

Bill Clinton or the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Can you believe these pathetic narcissists? I'm considering taking up a collection to send them off together on a months-long vacation, so the rest of us can put our focus back where it belongs, on the candidates. But where do you think we should send them?

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Couple of Events That May Interest You

I'll be taking part in a couple of writing-related events in coming days and weeks that I thought I should provide links to. Tomorrow, I'll be moderating a panel on the evolution of digital content (that's a fancy term for the words that appear on websites) at the Web Association. My friends Dan Hanson and Marc Majers will be among the panelists. The Web Association has become a wonderful learning environment and a great place to meet fellow webbies and to share ideas about better leveraging the medium. Next month, I'll be joining my scribbler buddy Claudia Taller, who's president of the group Skyline Writers, for an idyllic weekend retreat devoted to the writing craft. That should be an especially wonderful event, and she tells me there are still some slots open (attendance is being capped at 20, due to limitations on overnight accomodations). Hope to see some of you at one or the other.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

If You Read Only One Article Today,
We Would Humbly Suggest This One

For at least 20 years, since analysts nervously predicted the imminent eclipse of America's world dominance by the juggernaut that was then Japan, we've been treated to a series of learned books and articles about how America's global dominance would soon come to an end. But I can't recall a better, more nuanced exploration of this subject, ever, than this wonderful piece by Fareed Zakaria, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Excerpted from his soon-to-be published book, it brilliantly explores the pluses and minuses of America's chances of remaining the world's pre-eminent power in coming decades.

I think he makes a persuasive case that America's steady flow of immigrants and continuing pre-eminence in higher education and such foundational sectors as nanotechnology and biotechnology suggest that the country can maintain its global edge for decades. But he does rightly worry about how our "dysfunctional politics" keeps us from making relatively modest course corrections. "As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak economy or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. What was an antiquated and overly rigid political system to begin with (now about 225 years old) has been captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia -- politics as theater -- and very little substance, compromise, or action. A can-do country is now saddled with a do-nothing political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving."

In any case, I look forward to your thoughts.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Saturday Stuff

Best Headline of the Week. From the British paper The Telegraph:
"Polygamy Doesn't Work, Says Father of 77."

Consumer Reports Does it Again. Last week,
we ridiculed the silliest "coverage" of Earth Day. So we owed you the opposite. The best of the bunch, we thought, was this comprehensive Earth Day Guide from Consumer Reports. Simply sublime.

Thuggish Scalia Goes Public to Plug His Book. If I could still be shocked by anything our thuggish federal government does, one of the most shocking things would be that a creep named Antonin Scalia could actually sit on the Supreme Court. Scalia (who spent a few years in Cleveland, working for the law firm Jones Day) is so disdainful of democracy and of democratic traditions that he really would be a better fit to preside over a court somewhere in a banana republic, where his creepy views and thuggish tactics wouldn't stick out so obviously. The Reuters news agency
notes that the famously private justice, whose security detail once forced reporters to erase the tape they made of a public speech he gave (it would have taken about five of them to hold me down for that), is now opening up with the media. Why? He happens to have a new book out. Here's hoping the public will treat his book the same way he treats the public.

Okay, I Admit It: I'm Shallow. I would have loved to attend this presentation the other night. Wilson is a first-class thinker and writer on a crucial topic, probably the leading authority on the issue of urban poverty. But it would have meant missing part of the Cavs playoff game. Sorry, but that's simply not going to happen. For my penance, I've assigned myself the task of reading/listening to a few articles by and interviews of Dr. Wilson (if you'd like to do the same, you could start with this, this and this). Eventually, I hope to read his classic book.

Okay, I Admit It: I'm Shallow (Part 2). Rush Limbaugh famously observed on his idiot radio show, in a knock on the idea of electing Hillary Clinton, that Americans don't want to watch a woman age in the White House. Perhaps Hillary could take a page from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently wore a dress with an alarming (for some people) abundance of decollatage for a world leader. It apparently received considerable media attention. I thought it was wonderful, though. She'd get my vote. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Hillary to duplicate it any time soon.

Doing What Wild Animals Tend to Do. I loved this small detail from a Los Angeles Times
account of the tragic killing of an animal trainer by a 700-lb. bear used in several Hollywood films. "For unknown reasons, the bear lunged at 39-year-old Stephan Miller..." Unknown reasons? How about the fact that it's a wild animal doing what nature groomed it to do?

Stop the Presses! Party girl
Jenna Bush may not support McCain for president. Gosh, can his campaign ever survive such a blow? After all, who has more moral authority than she?

Finally, NPR's Michael Feldman got off a good joke this morning. During a riff about the Texas polygamist clan, he noted that the state is being forced to decide whether the children have been abused. After all, their knowledge of the outside world is so spotty that they didn't know who the president of the United States is. He concluded with the observation that "it's the state's burden to show why that's a bad thing."

Friday, April 25, 2008

He Was There at the Dawn of Spam

'There was a first oh, no moment. That was the first time I saw spam pop up. It could have been as early as '79. A digital-equipment corporation sent a note around announcing a job opening, and we all blew up, saying, 'this is not for advertising! This is for serious work!''
--Vint Cerf in the current Esquire Magazine, recalling the first time he saw spam on the Internet, which he is often credited with helping to develop. Now the chief evangelist for Google, Cerf was in Cleveland two years ago for a memorable address to the City Club. I'd post a link to the podcast, but it seems to be inoperable at the moment.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Craigslist Keeps Growing

Craigslist continues to confound Internet-watchers. Its founder seems to happily pass up the chance to become a billionaire, refusing not only to sell the site, but even to charge for the ads people place on the sites (it only charges modest fees for apartment listings in a handful of cities). Traffic has doubled in the last year, and with another new round of expansion into lots more cities, Craigslist now operates sites in nearly 600 cities. And yet its founder, Craig Newmark (a graduate of Case Western Reserve University) is one of the most truly down-to-earth guys you'd ever want to meet. Not long ago, I wrote a media column that mentioned Craigslist, and emailed him with some questions. Not long after, he replied, courteously apologizing for taking a day to respond (he had been on a flight back from Korea). Every company should have a leader and founding visionary like this. Of course, few do.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Departing from the Herd

You must have heard that there's a new museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Called the Newseum, it's a half-billion-dollar temple to the First Amendment and the professional news industry. You didn't really need to read all the dozens of stories about it, because they pretty much all said the same thing. Too bad they couldn't have used the money to instead endow a newspaper (I'd agree with that) and how ironic that it's being opened now, when the media is in such notable decline. On and on went the media herd, repeating each other ad nauseum, like editorial robots.

It wasn't until I came across this piece, in a refreshing online-only magazine called Flak, that I finally learned something new about this museum: that it subtly, or perhaps not-so-subtly, tilts its message rightward. That wouldn't be too surprising, given that the main force behind it is the Gannett Foundation, controlled by the idiot founder of USA Today, Alan Neuharth (famous for his editorial edict in the early days of McPaper to put the "tits above the fold" when publishing a photo of a pretty woman on page one). Anyway, it was nice to finally read a fresh take on a tired subject. And it took an obscure, underfunded publication (which operates on an all-volunteer basis) to deliver it all up. I think there's a lesson in there somewhere for the news industry as it obsesses about its future.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Our Favorite Book Titles, Part 11

Once more, we have a tie this month, folks. Here are a pair of books with the kinds of titles that would at least cause me to take a moment to study the book. The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted--And Other Small Acts of Liberation. Also, while I've always found Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz a hyper-irritating weasle, I do nevertheless like the title of his new book: Is There a Right to Remain Silent? Coercive Interrogation and the Fifth Amendment After 9/11. To review earlier favorite book titles, you can go here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Enduring Satisfactions of Craftsmanship

'The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in work in and for itself; the satisfactions of working are their own reward; the details of daily labor are connected in the worker's mind to the end products; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment; finally, family, community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence and experiment in craft labor.'
--The late sociologist C. Wright Mills, quoted in the new book, The Craftsman. As his biographer noted recently, Mills, a "broad-shouldered, motorcycle-riding anarchist" sociology professor, also wrote a line a half century ago that sounds eerily contemporary: "For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable end."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Haunting Story About a Doomed Brother

Cleveland writer Erin O'Brien published a remarkable article this week, a tender memoir about her brother John O'Brien, author of the novel Leaving Las Vegas. Please, do yourself a favor and set it aside for when you have a few quiet moments. But be warned: you may need a small box of Kleenex to get through it. While you're at it, you might also check out Erin's blog. Her writing is always a treat, but with this piece, I think she launched herself into another league entirely.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Be Prepared for Tsunami of Stupidity
Related to Hipster Holiday, Earth Day

Hey, I'm just as interested in the environment as the next guy, but what I have no stomach for is idiocy parading as regard for the environment. With Earth Day about to happen (this Tuesday), be prepared for a blizzard of fake "news" and soft trend "stories" about eco-friendliness. Here's my nominee for dumbest story yet (though we'll no doubt find lots of others to rival or surpass it). It's a reminder that NBC's Today show continues to get softer and sillier, making the Katie Couric era seem downright serious by comparison. I loved this Washington Post critic's description: the show "might best be described as a women's magazine -- pre-"Feminine Mystique" -- brought to life. It is an hour dominated by extreme weight-loss stories, ambush makeovers and recipes for carrot cake so good that it will make a man propose." Anyway, you're welcome to add your nominees for worst, but also for best, Earth Day coverage via the comments section.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Stuff

You're the Winner! And what have you won? An internship at the cheesy New York Post or Fox News. No thanks.

Coming Soon: A Total Waste of Paper. Raise your hand if you believe that bully boy Don Rumsfeld's memoir will add significantly to our understanding of the Iraq war fiasco. Anyone?

Thinking About Retirement Yet? This handy feature from Smithsonian Magazine will clue you in to some good places to consider.

Probing the Sources of Your Obsession with Reading This Blog. Are you tired of losing hours of work, sleep and time with loved ones while engaging in the silly habit of reading this and other blogs? If so, this Wall Street Journal blog does its level best to explain your addiction.

Dee Dee Weighs in on Veep choices. Former Bill Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers has some interesting thoughts on presidential VP choices.

Experiment in Ad-Driven Books. We don't necessarily endorse this idea, but found it interesting nevertheless. Kelly was founding editor of Wired Magazine.

Finally, we bring you this depressing story about the massive philanthropic need this criminal war in Iraq continues to create. It speaks to two important issues: the fact that the Bush Administration's attempts to put a number on the war don't begin to cover the real costs, and it also highlights the nauseating reality that, as a military veteran and father of a current soldier once observed to NPR, "we are a military at war, not a nation at war." Shame on us all.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cleveland's Best Writer

So who is the best writer in the Cleveland area? It's a question I've been asked occasionally. And of course there's really no definitive answer. This is an utterly subjective category, and resists any authoritative answer. Besides, there are so damn many great writers in this town, who pursue such different kinds of writing. How could you parse them all down to a single best?

Having said all that, however, I do have a favorite Cleveland writer, one who I think of as possibly the best on several levels. He's a quiet craftsman who has been writing great stuff (without any personal drama or attempts to call attention to himself) for decades. While our paths have crossed through various publications, and we apparently have some mutual friends and acquaintances, I've never yet met him (though perhaps I will try to soon). But I have been reading his work for about 20 years now in various venues, and have always marveled over it. It's always interesting, fluid, sometimes (maybe often) even hypnotic. Best of all, his work always manages to accomplish that hardest thing of all in writing, a subject about which I've talked before: as a writer, he gets out of the way and lets the writing take center stage. To me, that's the mark of a consummate pro.

After that introduction, perhaps you think he's a household name. Well, perhaps to some discriminating readers, he might be. But to the vast majority of readers, it may be more accurate to call him an unknown. His name is John Hyduk. You can sample his latest work here. I've only mentioned him twice (here and here) before in this venue (shame on me, and double shame for once misspelling his name). You can also see his work here, here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Best Lead of the Month

'Last November, a couple of weeks after the Dalai Lama received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush, his old Land Rover went on sale on eBay. Sharon Stone, who once introduced the Tibetan leader at a fundraiser as “Mr. Please, Please, Please Let Me Back Into China!” (she meant Tibet), announced the auction on YouTube, promising the prospective winner of the 1966 station wagon, “You’ll just laugh the whole time that you’re in it!” The bidding closed at more than eighty thousand dollars. The Dalai Lama, whom Larry King, on CNN, once referred to as a Muslim, has also received the Lifetime Achievement award of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. He is the only Nobel laureate to appear in an advertisement for Apple and guest-edit French Vogue. Martin Scorsese and Brad Pitt have helped commemorate his Lhasa childhood on film. He gave a lecture at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in Washington, D.C., in 2005. This spring, in Germany, he will speak on human rights and globalization. For someone who claims to be “a simple Buddhist monk,” the Dalai Lama has a large carbon footprint and often seems as ubiquitous as Britney Spears.'
--from a review in a recent issue of the New Yorker of a new biography of the Dalai Lama. Talk about packing an entire profile into a single opening paragraph. We especially enjoyed the detail about Larry King's confusion. To review past best leads, go here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Three Good Reads

A brilliant Fortune mag cover story on what makes Target stores tick. An illuminating profile of cable yakker Chris Matthews in the New York Times magazine. And a fun, offbeat take on the tipping plague, from Canada's leading newsweekly, Maclean's. To review the inaugural installment of TGR, you can go here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Time on Sex-Starved Wives;
But Do They Actually Exist?

Time talks about a phenomenon called "sex-starved wives." Sorry, but I just have a little trouble imagining they exist, except in the rarest of circumstances. Chalk it up to gender confusion, political correctness, journalistic contrarianism or something else. But it just doesn't conform to any reality most males have observed.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bush: An Easy Act to Follow

'They're saying that McCain is better on the environment than Bush, which is like saying 'I have a roommate who's not a werewolf.''
--Comedian Bill Maher. Want to learn more about how this administration has hobbled its own EPA? The National Journal
serves up the story, in nauseating detail. Law prof Jeffrey Rosen argues in The New Republic that Bush's legal war against the environment backfired. And U.S News & World Report notes that historians are giving his presidency an early thumbs-down.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Artists and Pricing

A couple of weeks ago, I got an interesting and unusual invitation. The Community Partnership for Arts & Culture, the group established to sell the region on public funding for the arts (they were successful in getting Issue 18 passed, which generates about $15 million a year in cigarette taxes for arts organizations), convenes classes for artists that help them with the business side of their pursuits. They call it the Artist as Entrepreneur Insitute. The classes attract mostly visual artists, but a smattering of writers have also been showing up, and so CPAC decided to add a few writers to the mix of presenters. And so last night I joined a panel devoted to the subject of pricing one's services. A charming woman named Joan Perch, of the Red Dot Project, knew way more about this subject than I do, so I listened and learned along with everyone else. And then I tried to add my two cents about establishing one's creative brand, and leveraging the web to build your practice. While none of the assembled artists seemed to be using the web to promote their work, Red Dot (funded by the Civic Innovation Lab) does a wonderful job of it, and even has an excellent blog. All in all, an enjoyable session yesterday afternoon at Kent State, followed by an equally enjoyable catch-up dinner with my young friend Theresa, about whom I've previously written.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Journalism 101

'Unless you are willing to fight and re-fight the same battles until you go blue in the face, drive the people you work with nuts going over every last detail to make certain you’ve got it right, and then take all of the slings and arrows directed at you by the powers that be—corporate and political and sometimes journalistic—there is no use even trying. You have to love it and I do. I.F. Stone once said, after years of catching the government’s lies and contradictions, 'I have so much fun, I ought to be arrested.' Journalism 101.'
--Bill Moyers, in an essay adapted from an acceptance speech he made upon winning a journalism award. To review earlier items on the heroic Mr. Moyers, go here, here, here and here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Some Things I Set Aside to Share

Head Shaving as a Form of Solidarity. Senator Arlen Specter was on NPR's Diane Rehm show some weeks ago, talking about his bout with cancer with the fill-in host, USA Today's Susan Page. He noted that at one point, he lost all of his hair, and his colleague, Sen. John Sununu, shaved his hair in sympathy.

Golden Arches Coffee Wins. Whenever I stop at a Starbucks, it's only to purchase a copy of the New York Times. I wouldn't pay for the designer coffee, which in addition to being overpriced, is really awful stuff. So I was pleased (if not altogether surprised) to learn recently that Consumer Reports last year ranked their coffee below that served by McDonald's. I think any real coffee drinker could have told them that.

No Ghosts Here. I think one of the too-infrequently-mentioned reasons why Barack Obama remains a favorite of the national media is the fact that he wrote what's said to be a pretty good book, and he didn't need the obligatory ghostwriter to do it. Not long ago on NPR, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg argued that the candidate's first book "is so good it's almost like he was a writer turned politician." On the other hand, the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus said of Hillary's autobiography that there are "long stretches where it sounds like a bad travel writer who's being paid by the word." Ouch.

Great Use of Metaphor. Not long ago, I linked to a great Wall Street Journal piece that I thought did the best at explaining the real stakes of the subprime fiasco. In an interview published in the New York Times Magazine a couple weeks ago, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill offered by far the pithiest explanation of the crisis. Asked how these subprime mortgages could spark a global crisis, he responded: "If you have 10 bottles of water, and one bottle had poison in it, and you didn't know which one, you probably wouldn't drink out of any of the 10 bottles; that's basically what we've got here."

He's Only Too Happy to Service Seniors. Finally, we couldn't help but bring you a quick outtake from a cover interview in the March/April AARP Magazine, with Hollywood bad boy Jack Nicholson. Asked if he would date a woman of AARP age (50 and over), he had this piquant reply: "Well, yes--I'd do everything to a woman of AARP age, and have."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Wednesday Stuff

Memorable Smooches. Time Mag chooses the best-ever kisses on film. Personally, I could have done without the one from Brokeback Mountain. Okay, so now you know that I'm a squeamish hetero. Use that information as you see fit...

Compare Your Salary. Mediabistro offers this interesting survey of median salaries in the Midwest for various creative industries.

Idiot on the Idiot Box. Here's a classic near-goof by CNN blowhard Lou Dobbs, the second coming of America's No Nothing movement.

Food for Thought. Some interesting tips for anyone who's trying to get a blogger to write about them.

Cleveland as Stand-In for Rust Belt. The humorist and Toledo native P.J. O'Rourke writes about China's Rust Belt for an obscure right-wing publication, and the editors add a provocative headline: "The Cleveland of Asia: A Journey Through China’s Rust Belt."

Finally, Some Book Thoughts. Prolific book reviewer John Freeman asks: has reading about books replaced actually reading them? And the NYT book blog warns against the seven deadly words used in book reviews. I especially liked the warning about using the fancy five-dollar word "eschew." When's the last time you heard anyone use that in conversation?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Seth Godin Suggests: Write Like a Blogger

This morning, I spoke to a journalism class at Cleveland State University, and was met with more questions--and great questions--than at any other time I've talked about writing, anywhere, ever. My friend (and their teacher) Cliff Anthony is obviously doing something right (two years ago, I wrote about him a little). These students were an invigorating reminder of what it's all about. This afternoon, the marketing guru and writer Seth Godin provided me with another important reminder of what it's all about. Below is his entire entry. His most important point, I think: "Waiting for perfect is a lousy strategy." Remember, you can get closer to perfection with rounds of rewriting and revising. But nobody begins there, or even close to there. You have to work at it.

You can improve your writing (your business writing, your ad writing, your thank you notes and your essays) if you start thinking like a blogger:

Use headlines. I use them all the time now. Not just boring ones that announce your purpose (like the one on this post) but interesting or puzzling or engaging headlines. Headlines are perfect for engaging busy readers.

Realize that people have choices. With 80 million other blogs to choose from, I know you could leave at any moment (see, there goes someone now). So that makes blog writing shorter and faster and more exciting.

Drip, drip, drip. Bloggers don't have to say everything at once. We can add a new idea every day, piling on a thesis over time.

It's okay if you leave. Bloggers aren't afraid to include links or distractions in their writing, because we know you'll come back if what we had to say was interesting.

Interactivity is a great shortcut. Your readers care about someone's opinion even more than yours... their own. So reading your email or your comments or your trackbacks (your choice) makes it easy to stay relevant.

Gimmicks aren't as useful as insight. If you're going to blog successfully for months or years, sooner or later you need to actually say something. Same goes for your writing.

Don't be afraid of lists. People like lists.

Show up. Not writing is not a useful way of expressing your ideas. Waiting for perfect is a lousy strategy.

Say it. Don't hide, don't embellish.

What would happen if every single high school student had to have a blog? Or every employee in your company? Or every one of your customers?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Bush Cabinet Secretary Has a Blog

Wonders never cease. Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, is no doubt giving his legal advisors fits by publishing a blog. It's pretty good, too.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Friday Stuff

A Second Look. Last weekend, we brought you a report from the Nieman narrative journalism conference by our friend Maria Stewart. Here's another take on that same conference.

One Giant Considers Another. Pete Hamill on A.J. Liebling. It's worth listening to, folks.

Where's the Outrage?

Bravo for the TSA. I think anyone stupid enough to mutilate themselves with nipple piercings deserves everything she gets. Do I sound harsh? Sorry. For all I know, 80 percent of my readers may do the same bizarre things to their bodies (though I rather doubt it), and perhaps I'll be down to a handful of you gentle unpierced souls starting tomorrow. So be it.

Time to Update, Folks. Here's a classic example of a website that needs a little updating: they have jobs posted from 2002. And they're in marketing!

At Least There's a Boom in Recession-Proofing Articles. A couple of weeks ago, we noted an article in Fortune about making your job recession-proof. Here, CIO Magazine (that's Chief Information Officer) does the same. Expect to see lots of these in coming weeks and months.

This Should be Interesting. Did you know that the infamous director Oliver Stone is about to begin shooting a film about George W. Bush? Neither did I, until I read this short piece from one of the Hollywood trade rags. Perhaps only someone such as Stone who's so feverishly, wickedly good at deconstructing myths--even when he's way off in left field, as with JFK--could do this topic justice. Anyway, I plan to be in the theatre on opening night.

Well Said. "When you ask journalists why they got into the profession, most will offer a number of lofty responses. But beneath it all, you'll hear about the love of constant change and the allure of the unknown." (from a recent editor's note in a Portland, Maine newspaper).

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Thursday Stuff

Writers, Remember This--
There's no single path anymore.

Single People, Take Note: Women interested in finding a mate, move west. Men, head east.

Print Remains More Trusted Than Web. Or so says a survey noted by Ad Age.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Two Clevelands

'There are two Clevelands. When I was a kid, it was a big, important city. There were a lot of things going on here. Then, with the fall-off in industrial production, Cleveland suffered. I haven't travelled much so that puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to comparing Cleveland to living somewhere else. I could have been born in a worse place, but I don't think Ohio is a very progressive state, and I don't like that.'
--Harvey Pekar, quoted in the current issue of Ohioana Quarterly. Unfortunately, it's not online, so if you'd like to sample this or any other article from the publication, you'll need to go to your nearest library (which you should be doing anyway, gentle reader).