Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trampoline Evolution

When I was young, we had a trampoline in our back yard. We used to jump up and pick leaves off the tree branches above. Naturally, the leaves to pick got higher and higher, and toward the end of the summer it felt like we were flying. It was a lot of fun.

This trampolining puts that to shame:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shop Class as SoulCraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford [audiobook, read by Max Bloomquist]

People don’t do things with their hands anymore. That’s the central lament of this book. We don’t make things. Instead of fixing things, we throw them out. We don’t even have the knowledge of how things work to fix them if we wanted to. The trades are devalued in schools, seen as lesser career paths compared to office jobs. As such, we have a culture divorced from the physical things around us.

But what Crawford argues, convincingly, I think, is that the job of physical laborers, of craftsman, have an inherent value to society and to the craftsman that cannot be found in an office. A craftsman draws on experience that goes beyond routinized labor, and in the end he is judged by the physical evidence of his work—does it work? There is value in doing things with our hands, in the act of creation, in the act of physical problem solving. In interacting with our physical world. Perhaps because of our hyper-digitized world, you see a rise in the craft arts, in home improvement, in gardening—in hobbies involving our hands.

Crawford recounts many of his own experiences as an electrician and a mechanic at a motorcycle shop. In prose that at often is rather poetic, he conveys the frustration, education, humility, pride and spirituality that all can come through an act of physical creation or solving a problem that involves physical and mental challenges.

Where Crawford strays into more dubious territory is when he begins to make generalized value judgments about office work. He compares the relationships of office managers to the relationships of mechanics in a shop, with the office managers using a kind of two-faced code compared to the mechanics’ straight-talk. And he compares the definitive success or failure of a craftsman—he can see the results of his work at job’s end—to the more nebulous results of an office worker—often a project is ongoing, success is more abstract and less defined, and as a part of a team it’s often difficult to suss out one’s personal contribution. While I would agree that a sense of accomplishment might be harder to come by in an office environment, Crawford makes too many generalizations based on his minimal office experience and, in the end, comes across as condescending.

That said, the broader premise of the book is important and well said. As for the audiobook, however, I wasn’t a fan of Bloomquist’s read. He overemphasized too many words and made it feel a little forced.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

Miranda July’s voice is wholly unique, in both her film work and this collection of short stories. And it comes off as genuine her, rather than consciously weird. The stories in this collection are hit and miss for me, though more hit (and the misses are still interesting to read). By the end, the weird sexual situations were a little less unsettling, and the quirkiness of her voice had lost some of its intrigue. But overall, a great read, with a lot of charm. And while many people focus on the quirkiness of her voice, I was blown away more by how many great lines are in these stories. My favorite stories were “The Shared Patio,” “The Swim Team,” “The Sister,” and “Something That Needs Nothing.” I look forward to reading her next book.

A Couple Photos I Wish I'd Taken

And one that I did:

The Hole

Another post on sweet-juniper about an abandoned neighborhood, this one in my hometown of Cincinnati. Eerie.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane [audiobook read by Michael Boatman]

Dennis Lehane is best known for his crime thrillers (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), so this, an ambitious historic novel, is a departure for him. Clocking in at just under 24 hours (over 700 pages for the book), it’s ambitious undertaking for the reader as well. But the time is well spent, one of my favorite books in recent memory.

The story takes place mostly in Boston near the end of World War I, a time that, for those who lived it, must have seemed like the end of the world. There is the Spanish flu epidemic, the May Day riots, rampant racism, a molasses flood, terrorist bombings, and a strike by the Boston police department that led to days of rioting that nearly destroyed the city.

Through these tumultuous times, we follow Danny Coughlin, a cop from a family of dedicated police officers, who struggles with his dual role as the dutiful son of an officer and the leader of the officer’s union. Crossing paths with Coughlin is Luther Laurence, a black man from Tulsa who fled to Boston after a deadly shootout. Throw into that mix several real-life historical characters (Babe Ruth, Governor Calvin Coolidge, John Hoover and Eugene O’Neill among others), and you have a sprawling, historically fascinating, multi-layered story with well-drawn, conflicted characters. On top of that is Lehane’s talent for suspense, which keeps it from ever getting dull.

The audiobook is performed by Michael Boatman, who deftly voices the narration as well as the dozens of characters, many with accents. A consistently solid performance.

Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson

Anderson, editor of Wired, examines the nature of “free.” The history of free, Anderson explains, has been mostly one of marketing gimmickry—“buy one, get one free,” “free sample,” “free delivery,” etc.—where the “free” is built into the cost of the item or is in exchange for a further commitment, either contractual or implied.

But the key to today’s free, as we see online with Google or Youtube, is that whereas the material economy is an economy of scarcity, today’s economy is one of abundance. Said differently, physical products will always be scarce—they must be produced, there will always be a finite number of them, and no matter the efficiencies, there will always be some cost of production. An economy of abundance, on the other hand, might have upfront production costs, but mass production thereafter is costless and fluid. It doesn’t cost any more to make 100 copies of an mp3 than it does to make one. There are as many available as there is demand. And according to the law of supply and demand, an infinite supply dictates a price of zero. An economy of abundance will always push prices toward free.

Furthermore, the “Internet generation” expects free, demands it even. The debate around music piracy and the misguided efforts of the record industry to litigate otherwise aside, the question of the future is not if free but how free? As in, what is the model going to be that will allow us to monetize free?

Anderson gives some potential examples: there is of course ad-supported free content, where advertisers subsidize the content in exchange for eyeballs; there is the tiered free, where a few users pay for an expanded or pro version of something while others use the scaled-down version for free (think Flickr or Quicktime); and there is the use of free to promote something that makes money (giving away a free book to support a career as a consultant). And there are other models.

But, as Anderson admits, the free model hasn’t really been figured out yet, Youtube as case in point. And that’s where Anderson’s book is open to criticism. It’s a fantastic overview of the idea of free, and a thought-provoking discussion starter. But unless someone figures out how to reliably monetize free, it will never be the force that Anderson predicts. It will never become more than an amateur economy, or a promotional device. To get free to work on its own, someone will need to solve the paradox of profiting from it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Started a station on, which lets you play dj and share your station with friends (or like-minded strangers). Quite fun. And yet another way to find new tunage.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

This is just to say

This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

-william carlos williams


This is Just to Say
I have stolen
the car
that was in
the driveway

and which
you were probably
to sell

when you were older
and needed money
to send your children
to college


This is just to say
I have taken
the cat--
the one you
call Snowball

and which
you apparently loved
than me

Forgive me
we'll be better off
without that mangy
flea circus around


This is just to say
I have crashed
the plane
that was carrying
your son to San Diego
for medical school.

Forgive me—
he was a bright boy,
handsome and vibrant

but you should see
the crater;
it is something to behold


This is just to say
I have crushed
your nuts
so gently resting
under my stiletto.

Forgive me—
they were hard to resist
with their scurrilous hair

and goosy flesh.
Funny a source of such pleasure
could make you cry so

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Spicy Pony Head

The Sound of Young America

Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped and Canceled by John Friedman

John Friedman runs a show in New York called The Rejection Show, which celebrates the all-too-common experience of not succeeding. This book is a collection of some material from that show, various writers, comedians, actors and cartoonists reflecting on their favorite rejections.

Overall, the material in all over the place. Some of it, honestly, should have been rejected. Other pieces have moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Neil Pollack’s short story, “Brother Elk,” is a pretty solid short story. And both the collection of rejected headlines from The Onion and rejected jokes from Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” both have some hilarious lines. But in general, the bigger the bomb, the better the comedy. And that goes to Kevin McDonald’s recounting of a show his comedy troupe did at El Macombo rock club. It ends with the audience hurling homophobic insults (their act followed a gay men’s choir) and two of the performers getting into a fistfight on stage.

I recently heard an interview with John Friedman, and perhaps better than anything in this book were some of his insights on what it means to fail and, in this case, what it means to celebrate failure. By looking at his failures as something to be collected, as positives in that regard, he gave himself the freedom he needed to really take some creative risks.