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.


Young women and the dystopian future on film: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire and How I Live Now

December 8, 2013

It seems to be some sort of obscure Hollywood law:  by some strange turn of our collective unconscious, two films with virtually identical themes are released at the same time.

The latest proof of this theorem is the almost simultaneous openings of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “How I Live Now”, both of them futuristic dystopian films with reluctant female heroes.

This is not a case of shared screenwriter dreams, as I wrote a year ago, comparing “The Sessions” and “The Intouchables”, as well as eight other “paired” films. Both of these new films arise from popular books – “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (published 2009), and “How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff (published 2004).  Both are “young adult novels” and take a traditional male-style action story, turning it into one aimed at young women.

I adored this second film of “The Hunger Games” (Jennifer Lawrence is a true star and I look forward to following her career for years to come), although “Catching Fire” did not have the same elements of surprise that the first film had.  It’s a crowd-pleaser and I am not surprised at its worldwide success (see below).

Of the two books, Rosoff’s is much better literature (it won a swag of awards).  But in many ways, the film version of “How I Live Now” is actually a superior movie to Hunger Games 2.  Dramatically, it is understated, and use of “off-screen action” makes for a chilling drama.

The plot in brief: Daisy, a young American woman (played by Saoirse Ronan) travels to Britain to spend the summer with her aunt and first cousins.  Her mother is dead, and she is increasingly estranged from her father, who has remarried and has a new child.  Her arrival at the British airport is filled with scenes of high security – a bit like all major airports now, but just more so, more tense, more guns.  Young Daisy seems unaware of all of this, and is picked up by one of her young cousins, who parks illegally outside the airport (an indication of things to come).  When she arrives are the country house, she finds her cousins living a carefree life while their mother (the aunt) is mostly away travelling on what appears to be international relations peace business.  Many small things foreshadow something big coming, but Daisy – slowly falling in love with her oldest cousin (George Mackay) – misses all the cues.

One day, when the cousins are all swimming while their mother/aunt is travelling, they experience what turns out to be a nuclear blast at London many miles away.  And here is where the film truly comes into its own – we do not see the devastation of “tens or hundreds of thousands”, but we see the fierce wind, hear the dull but immense blast and then watch the gray dust.  After a short delay, despite their mother’s absence, the cousins regain their good humour … until the electricity fails and the army comes to round them up and move them out, as battles are soon to be fought in the area.  Who is the enemy?  What is the war about?  We never know.  Remember, it’s all from Daisy’s 17 year old point of view, so what is missing is equally important as what is there.

And a note to fans of the book: the film does not include the final scenes of the book, which does change the dramatic arc, leaving it much more fluid and much less settled.  Probably a good narrative choice, but I was looking forward to the epilogue.

At its best, “How I Live Now” approaches the intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece “The Road”. (Even now, almost four years later, both the book and the film – directed by John Hillcoat – still haunt me.)  It is alternately creepy, scary and thrilling.  What a shame that fewer than 3600 people have seen “How I Live Now” here in Australia – compared to almost 2.5 million who have seen “Hunger Games 2”.

In Australia, after two weeks of release, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had grossed a whopping Aus$24,814,266 and was still sitting in the number one box office position, playing in 578 cinemas.  By contrast, in its first week of Australian release, “How I Live Now” did not even crack the top 20 in box office – meaning that it grossed less than Aus$36,000 that week.  As of Monday 9 December, it was only playing in a few scattered cinemas around Australia at odd hours.  I could have predicted that result:  the evening session I attended at Event Cinemas Macquarie Centre had five (yes, five) patrons, including me.  By contrast, “Hunger Games” was packed.

Internationally, “The Hunger Games” set a new Thanksgiving weekend box office record in North America, and has already grossed almost US$600 million worldwide.  “How I Live Now” has grossed $60,000 in North America, and a modest – but much better – $746,000 in the United Kingdom.

There is no simple explanation for why “Hunger Games” is so popular and “How I Live Now” so forgotten.  Part of it is production budgets (sure Hunger Games is much bigger), part marketing budgets, part stardom (Lawrence), part Hollywood film versus British film, and part what is sometimes called “The Matthew Effect” – the rich get richer, and the differences between “good” and “great” can be enormous (also see my favourite author Malcolm Gladwell).

It’s a popular culture mystery not easily explained.  Seek out the film of “How I Live Now” and see what you think.  Here’s the official trailer (viewed by at least ten times more people than who have seen the film):

And an image from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire:

Hunger Games catching fire

Evernote California and technology marketing

December 4, 2013

This week’s Time magazine includes a very complimentary feature article about the Silicon Valley company Evernote, whose motto is “Remember everything”.

Have a look at the photo below; it accompanies the article (and you can see a portion of it online):

Evernote CaliforniaNote the unusual inclusion of the word “California”.  So it reads “Evernote California Remember Everything”.

I have been writing for some time how the California brand (see Apple) has now become such an important part of the technology marketing.  What, exactly, is it about California that is meant to convince us?  I am not sure, but clearly people believe that the California identification is important.

Fill the Void film review

December 3, 2013

This film review of “Fill the Void” was published in a slightly different form in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 28 November 2013.  Sydney release to follow.

Written and directed by Rama Burshtein

Starring Hadas Yaron, Chaim Sharir, Ido Samuel, Irit Sheleg, Yiftach Klein and Hila Feldman


I am old enough to remember an historic moment in Israeli film: when “Beyond the Walls” was released in Australian cinemas in 1984 – the first time an Israeli film opened here theatrically.  At the time, Israeli films were rough, unsophisticated – and rare.

How times have changed. This week’s opening of “Fill the Void”, following its successful premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, shows just how far the Israeli films have come.

“Fill the Void” is set in an ultra-Orthodox community in modern day Israel, and tells an intimate Jane Austen-style story of Shira, an 18 year old woman who is facing a major life choice.  When her older sister Esther dies in childbirth, she comes under increasing pressure to marry her late sister’s husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein).  In that way, her baby nephew, the first born of the next generation and beloved by all, would remain in Israel.  This is the alternative to the tempting offer that Yochay has of a match with a suitable widow who lives in Belgium.  Thus the choice is set young Shira, who had been expecting someone much closer to her age.

Shira (winningly played by Hadas Yaron) is already preparing for marriage, and having a number of “dates”, ultra-Orthodox style.  These consist of short ‘at home’ interviews with immature young men, barely older than her, who ask clunky questions.  Shira, by contrast, is wise beyond her years, and has an inner stillness and a beautiful – but not yet fully appreciated – soul.

Ultimately, it is women who drive this film – Esther’s death, an aunt with an unusual physical affliction, Shira’s choice and the pressure on Shira from her mother (Irit Sheleg), a powerful figure indeed.  The men, try as they might, are secondary to the women’s concerns – and their ultimate power and control.

Writer/director Rama Burshtein is, apparently, the first ultra-Orthodox woman to direct a dramatic feature film aimed at a wide audience.  It may be a while before we see another:  New York-born Burshtein became religious after attending the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem; it’s hard to imagine an ultra-Orthodox woman choosing to study secular film-making.  But after Burshtein’s lead, anything is possible.

Modern films with Chassidic characters are not new.  Chaim Potok’s book “The Chosen” (1981) was made into a well-received film.  Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” (1983) examined romance from an unusual feminist perspective.  Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” (1992) detailed a murder investigation in New York’s Chassidic community.  It’s fair to say that these films – all written and directed by Jews – still had an “outside in” perspective on ultra Orthodox Jewish life.  “Fill the Void” is different, made by people who know it intimately.

And “Fill the Void” is indeed intimate, mostly set in small, crowded, almost claustrophobic interiors.  The focus is on the characters and their relationships with each other.  Each gesture and each word matters; Burshtein exhibits an unexpected level of restraint and control in the scenes.  Each frame has meaning.

Although set in modern-day Tel Aviv – an interesting choice, not Jerusalem or B’nei Brak – one reason for  the film’s success is its timelessness; it could just as easily have been set in modern New York or Europe a century ago.  But a good script and a strong director require actors with the skills to make it happen, and here Burshtein allowed herself to cast non-religious actors.  As Shira, whose emotional journey provides the film’s core, Yaron gives a performance of exquisite subtlety.  She won best actress at the Venice Film Festival and as well as Israel’s 2012 “Ophir” Awards (where the film virtually swept the awards), and some even promoted her for a possible Oscar nomination (nice idea, but unfortunately no chance).

Intergenerational tensions, the politics of marriage and the competition between women for the best men – Austen presented these 200 years ago.  “Fill the Void” provides a fresh take on these timeless themes, in an unusual but somehow appropriate setting.  The result is well worth watching.

Fill the Void film photo

Fill the Void