Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

image1 (1)

Will in the World – Stephen Greenblatt

Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare? After reading this piercingly smart assessment on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare I’d say emphatically: Yes!

Amid a void of verifiable information on the topic, an industry in academic analysis has flourished, some good, some weak, but all of it built on flimsy foundations and topped with much speculation.

The perceptiveness of this book comes from the author’s skillful and intelligent construction of arguments that give glimpses into the enigma of the Bard and his genius.

Greenblatt layers intimate knowledge of the plays with a scholarly understanding of the context in which they were written – lines, passages, scenes and whole plays come alive with new meaning.

While we have to accept that we’ll never fully know the man, the gift of this book lets us draw nearer to him, enriching our grasp of the events that shaped his talent and enhancing our appreciation of a body of literary work that has no equal.

Advertisements

bryson2The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson Cantankerous in the nicest possible way, Britain’s favourite grumpy old man shows us in all our eccentricity, boorishness and surliness.

It’s impossible to take offence at his wry observations because at heart he’s an admiring Anglophile who finds much to amuse in our foibles and foolishness.

Get him on pet topics of sullen service, dog shit on pavements and littering though, and he reveals an entirely different side to his character. He’s a grammar Nazi too, so watch your punctuation.

For the most part it’s a journey in which he finds much to like, an extended love letter to his adopted country.

There isn’t a landscape in the world more lovely to behold, he declares, and suggests it might be Britain’s most glorious achievement.

Britain, he judges, is calm, measured and quite grown up, a nation that appreciates small pleasures and is made up of “the only people in the world who become genuinely excited when presented with a hot beverage and a small plain biscuit”.

Under cover of advancing age, he does a nice line in bafflement at the world around him and incomprehension at living in a country full of celebrities whose “names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern”.

He’s an ideal travelling companion with a sharp eye, an inquisitive mind and an opinion on everything. He’s probably seen more of the British Isles than anyone who lives there – and still manages to like us.

Jimmy

A Full Life: Reflections at 90

For many Americans Jimmy Carter will be remembered as one of the worst US presidents in recent history.

His legacy remains blighted by memories of the Iran hostage crisis, still a painful national humiliation, soaring energy costs, crippling stagflation and a sense that the US was emasculated by a weak commander.

The kindest critics describe him as more effective as an ex-president than he ever was as leader of the free world.

He deserves better, both for his term in office from 1977-1981 and as a diplomat and mediator confronting some of the most divisive issues of modern times.

This latest book, the 29th he has published, is not, like so many political autobiographies, an attempt to redeem or even burnish his reputation. It’s more of a personal, matter-of-fact plod through the arc of a diverse life.

There’s a quiet dignity about his perspective on his presidency. There are regrets, but no attempt to retrospectively justify policies and decisions that didn’t work out.

“I look back on those four years with peace and satisfaction, knowing that I did my best and had some notable achievements.”

Foremost among those achievements was the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords in which Egypt formally recognized the state of Israel.

He defers to his vice-president, Walter Mondale, to sum up the best of their administration, quoting him saying: “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace.” And then he goes on to add: “We championed human rights.”

For a man who has endured so much opprobrium the book is remarkably even-toned, a monochrome view of a colorful career.

There’s no bile or anger directed at political opponents, no hyperbole or intrigue and no ‘setting the record straight’.

He does wish he’d sacked his supreme commander of US forces in Europe, General Alexander Haig, stating: “I had difficulty in understanding what he was trying to say and was concerned about his partisanship and derogation of my policies emphasizing peace and human rights.”

He also had a testy relationship with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, recording in his diary after a meeting: “He’s a strange man and a good leader of Germany. I’m afraid he has a problem in his attitude toward me…he’s constantly critical of the United States, of our fairness, our commitment, our honesty”.

There may be frustration, but there’s no deep-rooted vindictiveness, no spiteful retorts. Events and meetings are recorded almost as if viewed by an onlooker rather than a key participant. What does shine through, especially in the post-presidential years, is a continued desire to make the world a fairer, better place.

Carter comes across as that rarest of men, a politician who refuses to bend his beliefs to court popularity, and a principled individual whose firmly held opinions have led him into deep and troubled waters.

In 2006 he faced harsh criticism from members of his own Democratic party, the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, and hard-liners in Tel Aviv for condemning Israel’s attitudes towards the Palestinians in his book Palestine – Peace not Apartheid.

He has talked to tyrants, despots and “unsavory people” like North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Ethiopia’s Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

These choices “are not always popular”, he blandly states, but they are not allowed to divert him from efforts to find compromise in intractable situations or broker peace deals where other avenues have ended in deadlock.

He also continues to speak truth to power, denouncing Supreme Court rulings on unlimited, secret campaign funding as a subversion of the US political system.

The country had become an oligarchy in which there was “unlimited political bribery”, he said on a nationally syndicated radio show last month.

Earlier this year he vowed to tackle violence and injustice against girls and women saying it would be the highest priority for the rest of his life.

He hadn’t known then that he had cancer of the liver that has since metastasized to parts of his brain and which he expects to continue to spread as he undergoes treatment.

Just as he did at the end of his presidency, the inevitable parting is being met with a calm dignity: “It is in the hands of God and I am prepared for anything that comes. I feel very good. I have had no pain or debility.”

Telling the truth, obeying the law, keeping the peace and championing human rights is quite a legacy.

So forget Iran, the handover of the Panama Canal, the economic woes and all the other perceived failings. America briefly had the kind of principled president who could pass scrutiny as an exemplar to the rest of the world of the kind of decency, humanity and humility required from a leader in the democratic world.

Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop – Guardians of the American Century

The names Woodward and Bernstein are probably still the first to come to mind when considering the high point of investigative journalism in the US.

But for four decades before the Watergate scandal two brothers were pre-eminent in breaking the biggest stories of the time and delivering the most influential commentaries on them, the Alsops.

Author Bob Merry brings the characters of Joseph and Stewart alive with a political insider’s eye on their methods and a firm grasp of historical background to put their reporting into perspective.

The brothers were prolific writers and they were golden. Four columns a week, every week, syndicated to 175 newspapers across the country, plus opinion pieces, extended investigative articles, political profiles, deep features and even books.

With family ties to the Roosevelts and a privileged upbringing they started out with a stellar contacts book and they worked hard to cultivate even more by hosting high-level dinner parties for makers and shakers of all persuasions.

There’s a wonderful anecdote from one of the parties in the 1950s in which a phone call for Dean Rusk, then the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, disrupts the evening.

He takes the call, returns to the gathering looking ashen-faced and declares that he has to go. Within minutes Army Secretary Frank Pace and Air Force assistant secretary John McCone offer apologies and also depart abruptly. There had been, said Rusk, “some kind of border incident” in Korea.

It was, in fact, a full-scale invasion of the south by the north and illustrates one of the themes that runs through the book, the Alsops proximity to the biggest breaking stories and their close ties to those in power.

Joe saw eight presidents come and go during his time and he was a frequent guest at the White House where he was forthright with his opinions and free with his advice.

He and his brother were among the original WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who wanted to preserve the mores and values of their caste and keep its place in shaping the destiny of the nation.

They endured through the most turbulent times of the 20th Century: WW2 – from which Stewart emerged with a Croix de Guerre with Palm from Charles de Gaulle – the last gasps of the Pax Britannica, the “loss” of China to the communist party, wars in Korea and Vietnam, McCarthyism, the Oppenheimer affair, the Suez debacle, the Cuban missile crisis, the election and assassination of JFK, the Watts riots, and Nixon’s Watergate disgrace.

As the world turned, Joe’s view of America’s place in the world became increasingly out of step with the opinions and aspirations of a younger generation. His writing became increasingly polemical and his influence less and less so.

His last book, I’ve Seen the Best of It, underscores his belief that America’s best days were those when the old elite flourished and it comes with a sense of sad incomprehension that not everyone else could see it that way.

News produced by the people, for the people, without the involvement of traditional journalists – it’s a nightmare vision for survivors of the digital hurricane that has battered news organizations over the past decade.

Alternatively, it’s a vision of the future in which hyper-local events get covered that wouldn’t otherwise be on the radar of traditional media or would go unreported because of newsroom cuts.

The prospect of the audience doing it for themselves, providing “journalism as a service,” triggered researchers Andrés Monroy-Hernández and Elena Agapie to conduct a trial they called Eventful at Microsoft Labs in Seattle, Wa.

The pair presented their findings at MIT’s Collective Intelligence Conference in June, acknowledging that: “Professional journalism is a complex endeavor that we are not proposing to replace with Eventful.

“However, we are inspired by citizen journalism as a model that opens up new possibilities for non-experts to carry out journalistic tasks.”

They used their experimental platform to recruit crowd workers as writers, reporters and curators, to assign “missions” and to trial six events they felt were unlikely to be covered by mainstream media: two town hall events, an art show, a hackathon, a festival and a public talk.

These crowd workers were asked to perform tasks such as taking photos, recording audio or video, conducting interviews while getting real-time feedback from content curators, before the final piece was stitched together by writers.

Overall the tasks were accomplished and most within an hour of the event ending. Hernandez and Agapie believe they showed that Eventful could provide a sustainable end-to-end solution for local news production given time-commitment contributions from the community and what they called “interest aggregation”.

The barrier to the kinds of events it can be used on necessarily remains low before questions of legality, balance and accuracy make implementation far more trying.  “Pro-am” partnerships seem to offer far greater potential and have a good track record of excellent results.

It was a different kind of “interest aggregation” that led ProPublica to set up its Patient Harm Community group, a community which now has more than 2,300 members.  It did so not on its own site but on Facebook, an interesting departure for a news organization.

The group is “a place for those who have experienced harm while undergoing medical treatment and their loved ones to learn, share resources and connect with others”.

While the site is moderated by ProPublica staff, the information shared in the group is public and therefore open to competitors to mine for contacts, quotes and case studies. That’s fine by ProPublica too.

In an interview with the Neiman Lab, ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen described it as a form of service journalism: “Not so much by putting them in touch with us, but more by putting them in touch with one another.”

It’s an enlightened view. For many newsgathering operations the audience is a source to be plundered. There are few long-term relationships in the quest for news; it’s mostly a series of one-night stands.

ProPublica made good with another of its collaborative pieces of journalism, crowdsourcing the flow of ‘dark money’ political ad spending during the 2012 presidential election.

Almost 1,000 people rallied to the cause and after 10 weeks of effort and 16,000 files later a billion dollars of ad contracts had been logged. It also prompted the company to challenge the Federal Communications Commission to require TV stations to submit a series of key points as structured data to make ad spending more transparent.

In the UK, one of the early triumphs of The Guardian’s crowdsourcing efforts came when it tackled the expenses claims scandal of British Members of Parliament.

Buried by a government data dump of 700,000 documents covering every claim from each of the 646 MPs over four years they turned to the audience for help in digging out the best stories.  Within the first 80 hours almost 70,000 files had been reviewed by readers.

Alfred Hermida, associate professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, and author of the newly-published book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, believes important lessons emerged from that exercise and that they continue to resonate today.

“The reason it worked well was down to publication, timing and implementation. The Guardian could reach out to an audience who had a pre-existing interest in politics and this type of accountability journalism.

“Timing was critical as the project was launched when the topic of MPs’ expenses was in the news, so it tapped into the contemporary zeitgeist, but one key element was the implementation of the project,” said Prof Hermida.

“The Guardian made it easy for people to engage on different levels. They could look at a couple of receipts or at 10. It also added a social factor, where readers could see how they stacked up against other readers. So it also took advantage of game mechanics to make it fun to participate in the crowdsourced project.”

Prof Hermida spelled out four key components that he thought contributed to best practices in crowdsourcing initiatives:

1) Focus: Make a clear and specific ask so that your audience knows what is required of them.

2) Levels of commitment: Enable audiences to participate on their own terms. Some people may have an hour to spend on the project, others a few minutes. Providing a range of options will help to attract a broader range of contributors.

3) Recognize and reward: Make sure to acknowledge publicly the contributions from your audience and even reward them, not necessarily financially but socially, for example through a list of the most active contributors.

4) Cultivate community: Build on your existing audiences and engage with new ones before making the ask. If audiences have a connection to your organization, they are more likely to help out with a crowdsourcing initiative.

Above all, share the project with the audiences. Engage, listen and acknowledge contributors throughout the process.

Prof Hermida said: “They are as much part of the project as the media organization. This means moving away from a transmission mindset and viewing the audience as a source. It is about communication and the audience as partners.”

That chimes well with fellow Professor Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, who revealed plans for a new social journalism degree at the City University of New York (CUNY).

The course was still awaiting state approval, he said at this year’s Online News Association conference in Chicago, but if it was given the go-ahead for January it would be turning journalism on its head.

“Rather than starting with the idea that we make content, it starts with the idea that we serve communities. How do we start? By listening to those communities, understanding them, understanding their needs and then serving them with all the tools we have at hand.

“Social journalism is more than just social media. I think that we in media look at social journalism as another way to publish, another way to get our stuff out there and that’s part of it but really, truly, social media is about connecting with real people and no longer treating people as a mass.

“You know gigantic Google understands me as an individual, it knows where I live and where I work. My newspaper doesn’t. That’s kind of ridiculous so how do we get a news organization to know people as individuals and communities first, understand what those needs are first, then figure out how to serve those needs….it’s really about relationships with the public, it’s not so much about being a content factory.”

chihuly

omnivoresdilemma

Michael Pollan cleaves through the complexities of food politics with a directness and clarity that will challenge you to think deeply about your own eating preferences.

It’s not so much proselytizing, as a laying out of facts about the unseen elements in our food production chain.

He frames many questions along the way, such as: Is organic produce a better choice than local when it’s grown thousands of miles away?

And he concludes with pithy advice that underpins his own food philosophy including gems like: Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

My conclusion: It’s well written, well researched and well worth your time.

sedaris

David Sedaris is a brilliant chronicler of the innermost thoughts we all have but never verbalise – the imagined slights, the petty annoyances, the vengeful reactions – that flash through the mind and are gone in a nanosecond.

That he is able to capture them with such clarity is remarkable, but it’s his idiosyncratic perspective that brings humour to the most unexpected places. There aren’t many books that make me laugh out loud, but this is one of them.

8678645136_99a6ebcb4b_z (1)Most people have heard of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, but I wonder how many have heard of Scottish journalist Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

It was published in 1841 and in it Mackay references tulip mania in Holland some 200 years before his time as an example of the irrational behaviour that can take hold of normally sane and sensible people.

When rampant tulip speculation was at its height bulbs could change hands up to 10 times a day. Mackay notes one sale in which just 40 bulbs were sold at a cost 100,000 florins – at a time when a skilled labourer might be earning 150 florins a year.

Inevitably boom was followed by bust and many speculators were ruined.

At the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival 60 miles north of Seattle bunches are a much more reasonable $5 each and a walk around the fields where they grow will imprint itself on the memory long after the flowers have faded.