Category Archives: Books

Onward, Christian Soldiers: Get Behind the Stimulus

If you are a Christian, follow me at your own risk, because you may find your political beliefs disturbed if you are also against the stimulus and the bailout. I am going to argue that, as a Christian, you should probably agree with the bailout of  homeowners who signed up for more mortgage they can afford. Further, you should consider bailing out the banks, although not the bankers, and the auto industry, although perhaps not its management. Why? Because Christ died for our sins. He is the Redeemer. Of what? Of our debt, because it is one of our many sins (although not the Original.) I didn’t make this up.

Let me admit first that I have a crummy religious education, and have been most of my life practicing Buddhism-lite, a life philosophy but not a religion. That means I can’t argue theology convincingly, and I’m not going to.

Born a Jew, I never practiced that religion, nor any other. However, I have had a stellar literary education, and even remember some of it. Most of the literature that was taught when I was getting my education was from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Therefore, I remember the Lord’s Prayer line, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” from my childhood. Likewise the one that says “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” These seem to me to be instructions for today’s life. I try to live by them. I have, for instance, been a Foster Mom and written a book about it.

Which brings me to Margaret Atwood’s lectures, to which @Hil121, a Twitter friend I’ve never met in person, sent me last night. I have always loved Margaret Atwood the novelist, and now I know why. Last fall, she gave a series of lectures, the combined title of which is “Payback.” They are about the philosophical and religious underpinnings of debt, and they have such compelling individual titles as “Debt as Sin,” and “Debt as Plot.” You can listen to them here, but I warn you that they require a deep background in English literature; because that’s the field in which I happen to have a Ph.D., much in them brings back things I read not once, but three times: once at Cornell, once at Columbia, and once at Syracuse, while amassing my three degrees.

I then saved these works of the Western canon on my “backup drive,” and haven’t performed a “restore” until I listened to Margaret Atwood last night.

Here are some major principles that jumped out at me from her interpretation of the canon, beginning with Welsh folk tales and traveling at least as far as James Joyce according to Atwood.

Most of them can be traced to the Old Testament, the concept of Original Sin, and the New Testament concept of Redemption.

Atwood points out that historically, borrowers and lenders have an obligation to each other. They are locked together in a contract, part of which involves memory or the tracking of debt, and redemption, the payment of debt. There is no debt without memory, so forgiveness of debt requires forgetting it. (I read recently about some millionaire who is living in his home without paying his mortgage because the bank “lost” the original of his loan contract).

In ancient folk tales, there was someone called the “sin eater,”  who symbolically consumed the sins of a dead person so the corpse could go freely into the afterlife. Later, the sin eater was replaced by The Redeemer, the Saviour, who also causes our sins to be forgiven.

These concepts evolved because debt has always been associated with sin. It is definitely sinful to go into debt; however, debt is erased by death if there is a sin eater. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” says Polonius, because  it isn’t good to be either one!

There’s also the old saying “Nothing is inevitable but death and taxes.” Why?  Because taxes were a sort of protection racket. The tax collector who takes your money is supposed to give you something back.  If you get nothing back, you don’t have to pay taxes.

We pay taxes. Surely we should get something back here, and that should be “protection,” which is also in some ways the Redemption.

Margaret Atwood points out that there is a long tradition of erasing debt, and that tradition comes from the Bible. It has been done before. And if we want the economy to start growing us out of the recession, it has to be done now.

So all the moralizing about who should be saved and who should be allowed to fail is decidedly un-Christian. No one should be allowed to fail if he confesses his sins and accepts the Redeemer. “Forgive us our debts/ as we forgive our debtors.” Isn’t that our heritage?

Just sayin’

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Across the World with my Tech Toybox

I just came back from India, a 40-hour flight when you consider all the layovers between planes (Phoenix to L.A., then five hours in LAX between L.A. and London, and six hours in Heathrow between London and Delhi). On the way home it was somewhat worse, except that I stayed overnight in both London and San Francisco, which was much better. That’s what happens when you opt for the cheapest fares.

However. I actually loved the long travel times this trip. Why? Because I traveled with my tech “toy box”: a MacBook Air, the iPod 3G, and the Kindle. A box full of customized content, they rendered me independent of Virgin Atlantic, which was showing about twenty different crummy movies in three different languages and playing the least-known music in every category for which there was a channel.

Yes, Virgin Atlantic has in-flight Internet, but not in the cargo area.

So here’s how I did it. I’d start by reading feeds on Google Reader, or by posting to my blog. When the Air ran out of battery, or perhaps by some strange chance I caught up on the feeds, I’d switch toys.

Usually, the next toy I’d take out would be the Kindle, on which I read both The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and part of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I never was able to run the battery down on the Kindle, although I never charged it at all while in India. (It’s not that easy to charge devices, since in any given room with three electrical outlets, only one is usually truly working, and I needed that one to charge my iPod and my Air.) Revolutionary Road was so good that I actually was fighting to finish it before the flight landed, and unbelievably wanted a ten-hour flight to be a few minutes longer☺

If the cabin crew turned out the lights, or I wanted to meditate or seek sleep, I could listen to anything I had with me on the iPod, which lasts the entire flight from Delhi to San Francisco on one battery if it’s in Airplane mode. This time I used listening to the Audible.com version of The White Tiger, a superb novel about life in India. I also listened to this book at night when I had jet lag and woke up at 3 AM.

And then don’t forget the podcasts I downloaded to the iPod. I kept up with ScobleizerTV, Rachel Maddow, TWiT, Bill Moyers, Obama’s weekly address, and Fresh Air. Oh, by the way, I’ve got those fabulous Bose Q2 noise-cancelling headphones to listen with. (Buppy started to eat them one night, but I caught him before he had done anything but detach one earpiece from the headset. They aren’t pretty, but they still work.)

Last, but certainly not least, was the music. I have about 500 songs on the iPod as well, and I sure didn’t get through very many of them on the flights with all the other stuff I could watch and listen to.

I can remember earlier flights, toyless, that seemed endless, and other long flights on which I had to carry three books with their attendant extra weight and bulk. The other joy of my tech toy box is that I took this ten-day jaunt to India with no baggage to check – just a laptop bag for my toys and a carry on bag for my clothes.

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Boom: Voices of the Sixtis

    Tom Brokaw’s book about the sixties, "Boom," is probably too much
of a good thing.  It’s 600 pages long, and it tells a story of the
formative decade of American life that contained the assasination of
Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights
movement, the Vietnam war, the women’s movement, and the ascendancy of
rock and roll.

So much happened in the sixties that if you grew up during them, as I
did, you were "in the weeds" and never had any real perspective.  It
took me years to make sense of my own life, and reading Brokaw’s book
causes me to re-think it once again.

I wasn’t who I thought I was. I thought I was a radical, taking part in
demonstrations against the War and smoking dope while reading the
Metaphysical poets. I thought I was a student revolutionary, laying on
the floor, gazing at the ceiling and listening to the Beatles.

But I wasn’t. I was a woman who 1)was offered a chance to go to
Columbia Law School and be a pioneer woman lawyer and rejected it to
stay in  graduate school longer with her boyfriend, 2)got married right
after college and followed her husband to a second-rate school,
abandoning a fellowship to Stanford, 3)had a baby instead of an
abortion 4)worked every day of her life without ever identifying with
the woman’s movement, and 4)was clearly the offspring of liberal, New
York Jews who encouraged rather than thwarted rebellion.

I was in a transitional era. But I didn’t have to rebel against
anything, because my parents had already done that for me.  My mother
was a member of something called "The Workman’s Circle," which was seen
as connected to the communist party in the fifties.  My father was a
lawyer for the baker’s union until he entered show business and became
an advocate for the intellectual property and civil rights of black
entertainers. My father encouraged me to "have a profession," without
drawing the distinction that I was a girl.  Unlike Tom Brokaw, who
great up in South Dakota, I grew up in New York City, and my parents
very certainly smoked dope before I did.

So when the sixties came along, I just plugged right in. It wasn’t
until I moved to Arizona (about the time the Brokaws were moving to New
York) that I discovered how the other half lived. To me, the sixties
were about liberation; to him they were about the destruction of the
New Deal Democratic coalition and the rise of the conservative
movement.   Talk about the law of unintended consequences!

A book like "Boom" is good for me, because Tom Brokaw’s shock and awe
when he discovered the Haight and the anti-war movement are a lens
through which to reconsider my own past and that of my country. If you
were alive during that time, you ought to read it — just to see what
happened 🙂

 

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Are Books Dead?

This week, Amazon released the Kindle, a new eBook reader, to a storm of conflicting opinions in the blogosphere. Me, I usually order everything new under the technological sun, but I didn’t race off to buy a Kindle.  I thought I’d wait this one out.

Was this because of my age, or my fondness for the physical substance of a “real, old-fashioned book”?  I think not. Rather, it was because I discovered something recently about my own “reading” habits that may have made a Kindle redundant.

Three weeks ago, I was sitting on an airplane, listening to my downloaded “Radiohead” album on my laptop. My noise-canceling headphones were out of battery life, so I was stuck with the earbuds from my iPhone, but it was not all that bad.

This was, however, a milestone.  I was on a 4.5-hour flight from Phoenix to Boston and for the first time in my life I had not brought a book on board an airplane.  I have so shifted my habits that I will be listening to what’s on my laptop and writing until the laptop runs out of battery and then I will switch to listening to what’s on my iPhone.  If I get stuck, I will listen to what is being broadcast on the in-flight system or watch the in-flight movie, “Hairspray” for the second time.

Unless you are part of my immediate family, you can never understand the significance of this. I got a Ph.D in English. I majored in modern literature. I had a library that numbered in the thousands, which I dutifully carted from New York to Arizona.

And although in the (first) divorce I left the books with the father of our children, we were on good terms, and if I needed a fix, I could visit the books any time, or borrow them. I never did.

Once the Internet began to make books available online, I realized I would never need them in a library again.  But for a while I still bought them anyway, read them and put them on a shelf.

I don’t do that anymore. I buy books and give them away after I finish them, or leave them on the plane, bus, train, or boat. I notice I’m not alone; there’s a big “Read and Return” program at most airport bookstores. I don’t read printed material at home at all, unless it’s a magazine that comes to me unsolicited (New York magazine did that for six months) or an RSS feed.  The Carnegie Endowment has just issued a report that probably puts me in a class with teen-age boys. They don’t read either. Traditional educators are panicked about this.

Preparing for this trip to California, I didn’t even go so far as to buy a book. There are enough podcasts, Scoble shows, and feeds on my laptop to keep me busy. The only time I might really need a “book” is on takeoff and landing.

The most important lesson for me is that I have shifted from taking in information on paper to taking it in online.   And a lot of it is auditory or as video, an entirely different mode of learning, which I obviously find quite convenient and useful, although it was never offered to me in school. Perhaps I would have liked to listen to all the books I read over the years. Or watch them as movies. I never got the chance until now.

Today’s children are really fortunate. They can learn in so many different modalities, and I think they naturally gravitate to the ones with which they are most comfortable. Maybe when they put those earbuds in, we should not try to discourage them.  Maybe we shouldn’t make them feel bad if they don’t want to “read” a book.

Thoughts?  I know this is controversial. But if my foster kids had been given a chance to be auditory or visual learners, rather than book learners, I think they would be educated to a higher level by now.  They remember everything I have ever told them, and very little that they learned in school. They also remember every detail of the movies and TV shows they’ve seen.

I’m coming to the conclusion that not reading is different from not learning. The Kindle will have to wait.

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Seth Godin in the Desert

“It’s not up to you whether you are the best. It’s the market’s opinion.”
–Seth Godin

It’s early morning in Tempe, Arizona, and Seth Godin is about to speak about his new book “The Dip”, which is a book about quitting. Here are Adam Nollmeyer‘s photos.

Seth Godin - Tempe Arizona

(Sidebar: We have 250-300 people here today, which is supposedly one of Seth’s larger audiences. We got him here because he said he would come to any city where people wanted to come. The City of Tempe and Sitewire sponsored him, and he’s speaking at the Improv at 9 AM. )

You can imagine how weird this is. Seth is saying he’s never spoken in a nightclub before.

We’re on the beginning of his book tour. His presentation is choppy. He has gone from Enzo Ferrarri quitting his job at Alpha Romeo to the Mona Lisa as the best painting in the world. Now he’s moving around to why we pay extra for THE BEST, and what makes a superstar.

We are now facing a worldwide shortage of superstars, he says. In many areas, we don’t know who’s the best.

Anecdote: Lionel Poulin started a bakery in France, a country that doesn’t need more bread. But his bread was judged THE BEST by the market, and now people fly into Paris from Japan, buy $450 worth of bread, and then fly home. Paris is a superstar. Poulin’s bread is a superstar.

Anecdote: Pinkberry yogurt stand in LA, with only two flavors of yogurt and three or four fresh toppings somehow got discovered by Hollywood glitterati and there are Hummers parked outside all the time. Now the owner’s opening 60 more.

The best is in the eye of the beholder. But the best in the world doesn’t mean the whole world, necessarily.

Seth goes on to point out that we are now in a world of infinite choices, and in this world you can no longer make average stuff and sell it to people through advertising, which was what Ford Motor Corporation and Del Monte cling peaches did.

Now you have to be remarkable.
Then you have to tell a story about it.
The story has to be true and compelling, so when you tell it to a friend, the friend tells other people.
And that’s how cumulative advantage works. Somebody points at something, and it gets a little ahead.
And once something gets a little ahead, it gets a lot ahead. The New York Times Bestseller List is a pointer, because many people only read books that are on the best seller list.

You want to be the best. But right before you get to be the best is a place called the Dip. The Dip is a screen. It divides the people who should be the best from the ones who are not.
You should not quit during the Dip, necessarily, unless you are operating in an area where you can NOT be the best (playing the cello professionally, perhaps). But very few people quit for that reason.
People quit because: they run out of time, run out of money, don’t take what they are doing seriously enough, panic, switch too easily when something gets hard, or have been trained by the American public school system to be average.

To Godin, you are better off picking a small world, with low risk, low rent, and being the best in that world.
You are facing a world in which you are a teeny needle in a giant haystack. The way superstars get jobs is to distance themselves from the average.

Don’t give control of your superstar status to anyone else. And don’t panic during the Dip. Without the Dip, you are on a dead end.

Example:The space shuttle is a dead end. We should cancel it tomorrow, because if we quit, we would create something else that would probably be better.

We want the dips to show up because they are our friends. They take us out of the dead ends and help us quit using our resources just to be average. Reject the dead end.

Life is a series of dips. How do I know if it’s a dead end or a dip? But you can measure. If you are panicking, it’s because it’s a dip. Who are you trying to influence? What am I measuring for my progress? A laser-like focus gets you through the dips. It’s like running a marathon. Different dips require different kinds of effort. You have to figure out if you have the resources to do the dip that’s in front of you.

It’s not about working harder. It’s about making a strategy choice about what you are not going to do, so you can take your resources and do something more rewarding. If you are making a sacrifice to get to a goal, make the sacrifice in a place where it’s going to pay. BEING AVERAGE IS OVERRATED.

To be the best, you have to be disruptive. You have to quit your average pursuit to devote your resources to something you can be the best at.

Quitting is thus a tactic to get you to mastery.

Is this useful advice? Sure. Is it new, no. But it’s always fun to listen to Seth weave details and anecdotes together.

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Founders at Work

I am in the middle (well, I lied, and I’m about a third of the way through) of “Founders at Work,” a series of interviews with star-quality founders (Wozniak, et al) about their early days. So far, it’s the most fascinating entrepreneurship book I’ve ever read, simply because it underscores the chance and randomness of most startups.

So far in this book, every entrepreneur has started out trying to solve one problem, and become famous for solving another. Often the problems are not even related, but they grow out of the issues arising from the first company. Hotmail, for example, was a fluke. Its founders were developing a web-based database, and were just trying to access their personal email accounts from work so they could talk to each other during the workday. That small problem led them to the concept and development of web-based email (the first product of its kind) and caused them to be acquired for $500m by Microsoft after twenty months. And was it because web-based email was seen as a need? NO. It was because each email they sent out had a Hotmail sign up link on the bottom.

And Paypal? It went viral because its founders enabled people to send money from a Paypal account, and made the receiver open an account to access the money. It was designed to be viral.

Design everything to be viral. If it isn’t, it will never cross the chasm.

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