Making life add up – the functions of biography

December 28, 2013

Does your life add up to something whole, something coherent, something that appears to make sense of the bits of pieces of wide-ranging experience?

That’s the wonder and value of reading well-written biographies and autobiographies:  it’s not just the “story” that counts, but the themes, the decision-points and how the pieces fit together so that the whole, literally, becomes greater than the “sum of its individual parts”.

My favourite biography still is Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Crown, 1988).  It’s effectively a group autobiography about five early “Hollywood Jews”:  Carl Laemmle (founder of Universal Pictures), Adoph Zukor (Paramount Pictures), William Fox (Fox Film Corporation, and what we now know as 20th Century Fox), Louis B. Mayer (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Benjamin Warner (Warner Brothers).  In his book, Gabler draws common themes from the stories of these five (and a bunch of other similar) men:  Eastern European Jewish origins; an “utter and absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country”, to assimilate and become “Americans”; a “patrimony of failure” (poor father figures, and in some cases virtually absent); and a freak coincidence of timing.  The timing was propitious:  the movie industry was a new one, and the old money, the Anglo money found it distasteful.  Thus, the Jewish entrepreneurs of the early 20th century had their way clear to enter it – unlike so many other industries and professions at the time.

The matter of timing and professional success has been explored at great length by Malcolm Gladwell (one of my favourite authors) in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2009).  As I wrote in my review at the time, he “attempts to deconstruct the essential prerequisites for extreme success – people like Bill Gates and the Beatles.   According to Gladwell, Bill Gates benefitted greatly from the time and the place that he grew up:  those elements plus hard work and brilliance added up to his becoming one of the most successful (and richest) businessmen of all time.

So it is the same with the new generation of digital entrepreneurs, of which Mark Zuckerberg is only one of the most famous.  In the October 21st 2013 issue of The New Yorker, journalist D.T. Max (who also wrote the biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace) penned an insightful article about Jack Dorsey – one of the founders of Twitter (note that the full article is available on The New Yorker website from a link earlier in this sentence).  I had never heard of Dorsey, but Max’s article brings it all together; he interweaves the strands and the themes of Dorsey’s disparate life that somehow add up to explain not only how Dorsey figured out Twitter, but why.  (I recently wrote a blog post about Nathan Heller and San Francisco’s tech cultureThe New Yorker has a 22’ Soundcloud podcast discussion between Heller and Max about this very topic.)

Biography, however, can be dull and seriously boring, so be warned.  For the record, here are seven biographies that are currently on my “to read” list (in no particular order):

– Roger Ebert, Life Itself: A Memoir (2011) – More than a film reviewer’s autobiography.

– Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011) – About the great film critic who influences all of us critics in ways we cannot explain.

– David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Making of the Man (2012) – My fascination with Obama never flags.

– Scott Anderson, The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life & Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny (1999) – I met and be-friended Fred Cuny in Israel in the 1970s, and followed his career until his untimely disappearance (and likely death) in Chechnya in 1995.  (Read an except here.)

– James Salter, Burning the Days: Recollection (1997) – I discovered this amazing writer relatively late in my life and am still wondering why it took so long.

– Clare Cooper Marcus, Iona Dreaming: The Healing Power of Place – A Memoir (2010) – Clare Cooper Marcus was one of my life mentors; I studied a number of courses with her while doing my masters degree in planning at the University of California at Berkeley (where she taught landscape architecture).  In so many uncountable ways, meeting Clare has influenced my life.

– Michael Medved, Right Turns: From Liberal Activist to Conservative Champion in 35 Unconventional Lessons (2004) – Medved and I do not share the same political convictions, but when I read his comments on the film The Passion of the Christ (he was a fan of Mel Gibson) during the researching of my PhD thesis, his incongruities and depth of intellect fascinated me.

(Book cover of Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own below:)

Empire of Their Own book cover

San Francisco and the changing future of tech

December 26, 2013

The day after I graduated high school in New Jersey, I flew to San Francisco.  It was my first trip to that city, and I was visiting my girlfriend, who lived in Tiburon.

The next ten days became one of life’s memorable “moments”, and San Francisco has played a role in my dreams ever since.

And I am not alone.

More than probably any other city in the USA – and possibly the world – San Francisco is setting the trends, pace and norms of social interaction for the twenty-first century.

The latest person to chronicle this evolution is Nathan Heller, whose article “Bay Watched: How San Francisco’s new entrepreneurial culture is changing the country”, appeared in the October 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.  (The full article is freely available on The New Yorker website.)

Heller is an interesting character.  He grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Harvard University in 2006, a classmate of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.  In fact, Zuckerberg lived only a few rooms away from him during their freshman (first) year.  In his devastating critique of how the film “The Social Network” got Harvard wrong, Heller writes of his classmates: “The kids entering Harvard in 2002 came largely from pressure-cooker public schools, dorm-room entrepreneurships, the cutthroat upper echelon of prep institutions, or, in my case, the all-weather-fleece-wearing wilds of San Francisco.”

Zuckerberg, as we all know, came from a combination of “upper echelon of prep” schools (he attended Phillips Exeter Academy) and “dorm room entrepreneurship”.

All of this is relevant to Heller’s insights into the new technological elite.  He grew up where it is happening, and he went to college with those (Zuckerberg et al) who are making it happen.  By his own admission, Heller never learned how to drive, and currently lives in New York City.

Heller’s description of San Francisco is both literary and colourful:

San Francisco has traditionally been a Dungeness crab of a city, shedding its carapace from time to time and burrowing down until a new shell sets….  San Francisco has never been dominated by anything, but it’s always ended up pre-eminent in something. Gold, for instance. Free love. Microchips….  Those irked by change rarely stay long.

Lately, the pattern has begun to break. San Francisco is an industry town. This industry is usually called “tech,” but the term no longer signifies what it used to. Tech today means anything about computers, the Internet, digital media, social media, smartphones, electronic data, crowd-funding, or new business design.

At some point, in other words, tech stopped being an industry and turned into the substrate of most things changing in urban culture.

Heller continues that, “Everyone had a sense that Northern California was the source” of these major cultural changes, yet few people actually understand why.  San Francisco has come to personify the new capitalist technological elite, one that is increasingly populated by the young.  Its “growing startup culture has a dreamy, arty, idealistic bent: this is the whimsy of youth carried to a place where youth and whimsy have not often thrived.”  This is a throw-back to the 1960s, but with a major difference:  unlike the hippie “communitarian” focus, this “rising metropolitan generation … is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.”

This is not limited to the San Francisco Bay area.  You find it in parts of New York City, in Austin, in Seattle and in the back streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Here in Sydney, there is a thriving young tech entrepreneurial culture nesting in inner Sydney suburbs, from Pyrmont and Ultimo through the central business district to Darlinghurst and Surry Hills and reaching to the lower north shore.  The same exists in Melbourne, and – I am sure – many other major cultural capitals.

This is not a particularly new phenomenon.  I sensed this in my own flirtation of working as a business development manager in a (soon to fail) tech start-up during 2000 and 2001.  We wore collared t-shirts with the company name emblazoned on them, and – even then – took all of our cultural cues and most of our professional language from Silicon Valley.  I was the second oldest employee.

So while not new, as 2013 comes to a close, San Francisco has increased its dominance of our tech dreams.  Facebook did not exist back in 2000 (Zuckerberg and Heller were still juniors in high school), Google was still in its infancy and Apple was struggling.

I cannot predict where this world will be in another ten years, but I do know this:  San Francisco will continue to personify the hopes, dreams and business models of that world, one that will arrive sooner than we think.

San Francisco from water

Film review of Ender’s Game

December 25, 2013

In these days of hyper-active mainstream Hollywood film production, it’s relatively rare to find a film in which the concept exceeds the execution.  However, “Ender’s Game” is just such a film.

The original novel, by Orson Scott Card published in 1985, won both the Nebula and Hugo awards.  Despite the violence in the novel (and more recent controversy about Orson Scott Card’s political views), the book has been well-received – including a notable listing on the “Professional Reading List” of the United States Marine Corps.

The basic premise is that in order to repel an expected invasion of earth by alien “Formics” (called the “Buggers” in earlier versions of the novel), the International Fleet (all of earth’s armies have combined to battle aliens) has begun recruiting young people.  In the book, it appears that the hero, Ender Wiggin is recruited at age ten.  In the film, Ender is played by Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”) and is much older:  Butterfield was born in 1997, thus turned 15 during the film’s production.

Orson Scott Card’s original concept – that the younger generation with its facility in video gaming that could be applied to actual battles – is not totally new: the 1983 film “War Games” dealt with related ideas in the Cold War era.  But Card’s ideas of “understanding your enemy” as a means of battling them properly are particularly noteworthy.

The film version includes at least four or five “understand your enemy” sequences, which surely are more detailed in the book.  In the film, these come across as paler versions of the (albeit memorable) “The Force be with you” concept from “Star Wars”.

“Ender’s Game” shows how Ender’s emotional maturity and his genuine insights into how to get others to do what he wants, brings him to a leadership position.  Ultimately, he becomes leader of a space battle army, with attendant emotional complications way in excess of what a young teen can handle.

I have pondered why “Ender’s Game” (the film) falls into the “good but not great” category; it appears to be receiving 3.5 stars out of 5 from most thoughtful reviewers (I would tend towards 3 out of 5, and do not think I am being too harsh).  The filming is excellent – pretty much what we expect from sci-fi nowadays, although the images are nowhere as chilling as many scenes in the Tom Cruise vehicle “Oblivion” (also a 3.5 star film from many, but a 4 stars from me) or the superior “Elysium”.  Despite the presence of movie stars – Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley appear in interesting supporting roles, along with “almost” young female stars Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin – entrusting the film’s emotional carriage to Butterfield is tough.  What 15year old male could pull this off?

Ultimately my criticism of “Ender’s Game” is that I was left unmoved by the big issues that appeared to devastate Ender emotionally.  Did we need more set-up (certainly), more characterisation (probably), better written scenes (possibly)?  What was really at risk for Ender?  It’s hard to create a strong emotional resonance for the issues in a young teen, and perhaps the young adult audience – at whom this film is really aimed – gets more involved in “Ender’s Game” than I do.  There are some great concepts left undeveloped:  deep issues such as personal responsibility, the greater good and how to make war applying true emotional intelligence.

Ender's Game first edition book cover 1985(Image above: the original first edition book cover of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.)

What would happen if the book was invented now?

December 15, 2013

Anyone who loves the printed word has to be concerned about the continuing decline of the “book” in printed form. Bookshops – which I will discuss in a future post – are declining in number.  In an October 2008 visit to Berkeley, California, I was shocked to discover that there was NO quality bookshop there – one of the great academic centres in the USA.  Cody’s Books had closed that previous June, although the empty store was still there, and there were a few bookshops, but astonishingly few – and nothing of note.  This is part of a much larger trend: the excellent (although imperfect) chain Borders, both here in Australia and of course in the USA, is now long gone…. replaced by … nothing.

Part of this change is the nature of the bookselling business itself, under threat from online behemoth sellers like Amazon.  Amazon, for example, although having NO physical presence here in Australia, is the largest bookseller to Australians, with tens of thousands of packages arrived each day.  And now we have the growth of the digital book, readable on a growing number of portable devices – some of them, I understand, even quite good.  (As an aside, Amazon is actively promoting its Kindles in Australia.)

Although I have probably many millions of words digitally stored in documents of various sorts, I continue to love, revere and respect the printed book. I look at the books that I own (and continue to purchase) and their very physicality reminds me of what is inside. It’s simply not the same with digital.  (I do acknowledge that moving my physical book collection is a major activity, unlike moving a digital collection – but that’s a separate discussion.)

For these reasons, I am pleased the following short video, simply entitled “Book”, has been produced. It treats the “book” as a new invention, extolling its virtues. It’s in Spanish, with English subtitles, but the presenter and the words are plenty communicative for us English speakers.

Anne Dunn Memorial Fund

December 15, 2013

Back in July 2012, I wrote of the passing of my former colleague Anne Dunn, who I worked with at the ABC for some years.  The University of Sydney – where Anne taught media for some years – has now announced a Memorial Fund.  It quotes, Professor Catharine Lumby, now of Macquarie University, and who had worked closely with Anne Dunn:  “Associate Professor Anne Dunn was simply the most impressive person I have ever worked with: ethically attuned, intellectually astute, and always concerned with improving the way our students and colleagues learned, taught and researched.”

Donations can be made through the University’s gift form here.

The Democratic-Republican divide – the closer you live together, the more Democratic you are

December 15, 2013

This week’s lot of informational emails brought in two conflicting stories.  On the one hand, Linked In’s “The Big Idea has a post from Glenn Kelman entitled “The Texasization of America”, in which he promotes the idea, with some enthusiasm, that America should be more like Texas – with its low tax rates, low-density suburban car-oriented living and business-friendly environment.  He believes that Texas will become even more Republican, despite substantial evidence to the contrary – such as Micah Cohen’s March 2013 New York Times blog post.

Curiously, Kelman appears to misquote research that shows that denser areas are becoming more and more Democratic in their voting.  As Richard Florida points out, the increasing Democratic voting trend has been apparent for more than nine years now:  a 2004 book entitled The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted this some time ago.  The authors consciously copied the name of the book The Emerging Republican Majority by Kevin Phillips; I read it while in college in the early 1970s.  Here is a copy of the original New York Times review of that older book, published on September 21, 1969 – and written by Warren Weaver, Jr.  Wait long enough and some things change dramatically, even inverting our original theories and conclusions.  But who knew then?

But the real insights on this phenomenon come from entrepreneur Dave Troy, who has carefully analysed the density versus voting patterns in the November 2012 Presidential election.  He definitively concludes:

98% of the 50 most dense counties voted Obama; 98% of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney.

At about 800 people per square mile, people switch from voting primarily Republican to voting primarily Democratic. Put another way, below 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Republican. Above 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Democrat. A 66% preference is a clear, dominant majority.  (See the graph below.)

There are very few cities in red states….  The few dense cities that do exist in red states voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Red state voters generally prefer low-density housing, prefer to drive cars, and are sensitive to gas prices. Once population density gets to a certain level, behaviors switch: high-density housing is the norm, public transit becomes more common, and gas use (and price sensitivity) drops.   Red state values are simply incompatible with density.

densityvotingchart 2012For those of us living in Australia, the question is:  how much does this phenomenon translate here?  Does it?  Partially yes, but partially … no.  (Anyone checked the voting intentions of some of Sydney’s dense eastern suburbs recently?)  But the patterns – and their cultural preferences – are distinctive.  Food for thought.




Cultural map of New Jersey

December 11, 2013

This “cultural map of New Jersey” by Rutgers employee and New Jersey native Joe Steinfeld went viral two years, but as I missed it then, you may have also.   (So much for the reach of social media in our instantaneous age!)  Some great truths lie here.