Archive for January, 2010


“Good Bye, Lenin” (2003)

January 16th, 2010 at 11:58 am ET

I’m rewatching Good Bye, Lenin (2003) for the first time since I saw it in the theater during its US first run. What a richly realized film!

The conceit is simple: a patriotic East German woman goes into a coma just before the Communist system falls, and wakes up only after capitalism has taken over the only world she knew. Out of concern for her fragile health, her children create for her the illusion that everything is still as it was, complete with tattered old furniture rescued from the dump, obsolete canned goods, and the like.

It could have been made silly, it could have been made sad, but instead writer-director Wolfgang Becker and co-writer Bernd Lichtenberg struck a very human balance. The film is at times hysterically funny, very often light, even though the wistfulness inherent in the passing of a former time that was reassuring and beautiful in its way comes through clearly. I particularly like the visual experience of the film; throughout, you see Eastern Bloc coffeepots and linens, contemporary commercial art, and 30-year-old interiors and street scenes that are richly realized.

And it doesn’t hurt that in the lead (as the woman’s son) is the expressive Daniel Brühl, who appeared most recently in Inglourious Basterds (2009) — which I haven’t seen yet… but it’s on the list.

Foursquare: Six rules of the game

January 16th, 2010 at 2:06 am ET

Foursquare is taking off in NYC, so it’s worth saying something about. For the uninitiated, it’s a smartphone application in which you “check in” at all the places you visit as you move about the city, with your location being shared automatically with your friends as you do. (In the background, the users are building a venue database in real time, an asset that I’m sure the Foursquare development team has big plans for.) You earn points and badges for your check-ins, according to a somewhat arcane set of rules, and can thereby compete informally with your friends for social karma.

WIth my friends list hitting critical mass, and the venue database filling out, the whole thing is becoming more than a curiosity from where I sit. As a sort of experiment, I’ve tried to take the game seriously for the past couple of weeks — checking in religiously at every legitimate venue I visit, adding those that are missing, trying to recruit more friends to participate.

As a result, I’m currently leading my friends in points, and (as Andrew Hearst called to my attention this afternoon) I’ve hit the NYC leaderboard for this week, and am currently ranked somewhere in the mid-forties. (The numbers reset to zero on Sunday night, so I have another two days of glory before I fall off the list.)

This certainly won’t last (at a minimum, the resourceful Ryan J. Davis will certainly figure out a way to push back up to first position among my friends, where he usually is). But it’s been fun.

Foursquare has evolved; at least among the comparatively middle-aged people I know, it’s no longer only about keeping track of your friends when they “go out” at night. That’s resulted in some gray areas about what kinds of check-ins are legitimate, which the game designers didn’t or couldn’t anticipate or resolve. So in honor of the game, I’m going to publish a draft set of rules for fair play right here, for your review and comment.

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A plug for self-direction (in response to Clay Shirky)

January 16th, 2010 at 12:42 am ET

Tonight, kicked off by the realization that the women he interacts with professionally are less likely to put forward and promote their own good work than the men, Clay Shirky went on a rant. He titled it “A Rant About Women,” but it’s really a rant about people who are unwilling or unable or uninclined to self-promote, and who suffer professionally as a result — who are, empirically in his experience, disproportionately women.

This post (like Clay’s work generally) is characteristically insightful, readable (and entertaining) all the way through, and hard to summarize without degrading its elegance. But to pick out the thread:

  • Women, in his professional experience, are disproportionately reluctant to promote themselves, even in situations in which a little self-promotion would clearly benefit them.
  • “Whatever bad things you can say about [self-promoting] behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have have changed the world.”
  • This is particularly problematic for women (and other non-self-promoters) in two-sided markets, such as that for employment, in which each side needs to freely make and confirm a choice to transact with the other in order for anything to happen. In such contexts, self-promotion by the party of the first part is one of the signals to the party of the second part that the party of the first part, if selected, will take the risks necessary to be successful.
  • The issue emphatically is not an imbalance of talent or creativity between men and women; it is merely an imbalance in the willingness to take certain kinds of visible reputational risks (in contexts in which the actual risk is relatively low, and the value accrues from the risk-taking gesture itself).
  • Clay has no constructive ideas regarding how to solve this problem (that’s what makes it a rant). But he hopes that the women in question will take matters into their own hands. “It would be good if more women got in the habit of raising their hands and saying ‘I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome,’ no matter how many people that behavior upsets.”

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Entrepreneurs and risk tolerance: Gladwell does that counterintuitive thing again

January 15th, 2010 at 10:12 pm ET

New Yorker visionary-at-large Malcolm Gladwell has become known for taking contrary positions about how things work (how people make decisions, how information is shared, how business is done) that turn out to be not so contrary after all. Gladwellism is at play again in “The Sure Thing,” in the January 18th issue.

In this piece, built in part off Ted Turner’s autobiography and off Gregory Zuckerman’s profile of John Paulson, Gladwell makes the counterintuitive argument that effective entrepreneurs are not risk-takers (as the popular accounts of their achievements would have it), but aggressive risk mitigators.

In particular, he advances the position of French professors Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot (in their recent study of the entrepreneur’s character From Predators to Icons) that the successful entrepreneur is, at heart, a nerd. He or she is someone who effects an analytical triumph rather than a triumph of fortitude. In the words of Villette and Vuillermot:

The [successful entrepreneur] looks for partners to a transaction who do not have the same definition as he of the value of the goods exchanged, that is, who undervalue what they sell to him or overvalue what they buy from him in comparison to his own evaluation.

This rings true to me, in both a positive and a negative sense. On the affirmative side, I’ve spent most of my professional career in the company of entrepreneurial people (mostly men, as it happens, but that’s a topic for another post) whose common defining characteristic does indeed seem to be that they’ve had the prescience to envision incipient value (and to be able to articulate where they believe that value lies, to the people on their own side of the negotiating table) in what their adversaries at that table see only as a pile of ordinary stuff.

On the negative side — well, I’ll only say that like anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit, I’ve had plenty of productive failures, each of which has made me more able to spot incipient value earlier in its lifespan (and to distinguish true value from the less useful things that masquerade as value, like hope, or tenacity beyond the point of reason, or the simple desire to be wealthy and successful).

Passive-aggressive recycling

January 15th, 2010 at 1:52 pm ET

What is wrong with people (WIWWP)?

Know what I hate today? Passive-aggressive recyclers. “These takeout containers are made of plastic, so they should be recyclable, right? They have the little symbol on them, so I’ll put them in the bin.”

Hello! There is a decal from the NYC Department of Environmental Protection right there in front of you that shows you exactly what belongs in the bin. In fact, someone called you attention to the decal JUST NOW, but you apparently thought it would be more virtuous to throw some trash yes trash in the bin.

When you do your little move, your taxes have to pay someone to pick through the recycling, pull out the trash yes trash that you put in with the recycling, and haul it to the dump. How is that a better outcome than just throwing your trash away in the first place?

Transit infrastructure: planning way ahead

January 12th, 2010 at 12:23 am ET

I started this post on the Long Island Rail Road and finished it on the AirTrain. Yes, I’m on my way to JFK, and musing about infrastructure.

Accreted urban infrastructure (today’s, yesterday’s, Robert Moses’, and on and on back to whatever motley crew of Dutch and English filled in Lower Manhattan’s canals) is everywhere in New York. Indeed, metro NYC must benefit from the densest infrastructure (especially given its land area) of any settled place in human history, with the possible exception of London. And infrastructure is the single most important reason that New York, and especially Manhattan, remains such a desirable place to live and do business. Infrastructure is what makes Manhattan levels of density bearable in the first place, which in turn enables all the positive second-order social effects of such a dense environment.

And all that infrastructure is the result of hundreds or thousands of smart, forward-looking choices made over the past 300 years.

Consider the infrastructure I’m using right now: from where I live and work, I have my choice of two separate and mostly non-overlapping public transit pathways to JFK, and three or more to Newark Airport. All of of those routes will get me to their respective airports in about an hour, give or take; all cost about $12 or less. (Apparently, Google Maps’ transit planner isn’t yet aware of the Newark AirTrain; any human smart enough to make it to Newark Penn Station can probably do better than Google thinks.) We in New York take these things for granted, but they should not be taken for granted, as a visit to any place of comparable size with an “infrastructure gap” (like, for instance, Los Angeles, where I grew up) will make immediately clear to you.

Those smart choices didn’t happen by accident; in each case, someone decided that they were worth the pain and cost of planning, construction, ongoing operating subsidies perhaps forever. (Don’t discount the costs of coordination and promotion, either: the fact that I consider “A train to Penn Station; LIRR commuter rail to Jamaica; Port Authority dedicated rail to the terminal” as simply “the train to JFK” constitutes a marketing triumph by the Port Authority.) And each component of these systems took years, sometimes decades, to put in place. New York City has been extending and tinkering with the subway system more or less continuously for 106 years.

What are we going to need in 50 years? 100 years? We’d better get moving.

Now, if only someone would build a dedicated high-speed link to La Guardia Airport, we’d be in business. Then again, La Guardia is the most overtaxed (and the most convenient to the central core) of our three major airports, so it was probably smart policy to link to the others first.

Larry Kramer

January 10th, 2010 at 7:26 pm ET

Jesse Green’s extended feature about Larry Kramer in New York magazine last month is very much worth taking the time to read — especially if you’re young enough that Kramer (if you know of him at all) feels to you like a historical figure rather than someone from your lived experience.

Larry Kramer is probably more directly responsible than any other person, living or dead, for the (belated) response of the U.S. government, and of American society generally, to the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s. To those who came of age after anti-retroviral medications made it possible to imagine living a somewhat normal life with the HIV virus (albeit a normality distorted and weighed down by complication and risk), it may be hard to imagine how terrifying AIDS was when it first appeared. It inspired a fear-driven cultural backlash against the gay community just as that community was starting to come into its own — and a culturally powerful impulse, in an entire generation, to stand together and fight.

The generation in question was the one immediately preceding my own. I was young enough not to know many people personally who died from AIDS-related infections in the early years, but I did know some — and I knew many, many people just a few years older than myself whose entire social networks had been devastated. (I was about to write “decimated,” but for some of the people I’m thinking of, the implication that only one in ten lost his life is vastly inadequate to the pain and dislocation they lived through.)

It’s important that young people remember that the comforts they know — their confidence in their differentness, the medical treatments available to them, their legal protection against discrimination — did not come without a fight. And in the very first days, fighters like Larry Kramer were the ones setting the example.

Roger Ailes

January 10th, 2010 at 1:26 pm ET

Don’t miss today’s NYT story , by David Carr and Tim Arango, on Roger Ailes, the political consultant and media executive who built the powerful force that is today’s Fox News.

Those of us who are of a certain age remember Ailes’ previous acts in politics — he’s been on the national stage since Richard Nixon ran for President. Impelled by heartland paranoia (Joe McGinniss, who wrote The Selling of the President 1968, says that Ailes “holds onto what he envisions to be the values of the heartland and is suspicious of people on either coast,” and this comes through in the story), informed by an awareness of trends that could be exploited, advanced by an keen eye of what works on TV and a willingness to test and revise, Ailes will make Murdoch a reported $700 million this year. That’s more value for its corporate owners than all the other major U.S. television news operations combined.

Apple comes through again: the easiest migration ever

January 9th, 2010 at 8:12 pm ET

Apple Store

After two years of punishing daily use, including a heavy travel schedule, the hard drive in my two-year-old MacBook finally gave up the ghost last night. (Diagnosis, via telemedicine from somone smarter than me: “sounds like the drive magnet is off the platters.”) It was not unexpected; the machine was starting to falter in lots of little ways, and I’d already been mentally prepared to move everything to a new one shortly after the New Year.

So I got a kick in the pants to get it all taken care of this weekend… and, as it happens, the whole process of migration has been vastly easier than I expected. The fact that barely 24 hours after the hard drive failure, I found myself in possession of a fully functioning, almost perfectly configured machine (with a UI configuration effectively identical to that of my old machine) inspires me to make these comments:

Hooray for the 24-hour Apple Store at 59th Street! Residents of the cold cruel world outside New York City may not be aware of this, but if you need to pick up a spare power adapter (or a computer) at 4 in the morning — or you’re a night owl who needs a Genius appointment — you can get everything you need here at any hour. I arrived around 9:45pm, only an hour after the other three Apple Stores in the city had closed, but it still gives me confidence to know that if I ever have an urgent need at an unusual hour, Apple will be there for me. I hear that after about 2am (or at, say, 11pm on a Wednesday) the crowds are quite a bit thinner and quite a bit more intensely geeky.

Three cheers for transparency in configuration and pricing! Knowing that Apple maintains more or less identical pricing through all channels (very easy to confirm via Google searches like this one), and that every channel partner sells the same dozen or so configurations that are sold directly by Apple, made it easier for me to feel comfortable making a purchase immediately. If the price is the same (plus or minus 3 percent), and the configuration is the same, why wait until Thursday for my new machine to be delivered, when I can walk into the 24-hour store and walk out with it tonight? And this page on apple.com told me everything I could possibly want to know about my configuration options and the corresponding pricing, from the dimensions and weights to the ports on the side to the graphics specs.

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Piet Hein (1905-1996)

January 8th, 2010 at 9:04 am ET

Someone worth learning more about: Piet Hein, the Danish physicist and mathematician, designer, poet, and political activist. I’m going to go learn more, but for now, here’s the poem that became a graffito and inspired resistance to the Nazis across the country:

CONSOLATION GROOK

Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
but nothing
compared to the pain,
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
and finding
the first one again.