Sunday, December 31, 2006

Thomas Paine: enlightenment, revolution, and the birth of modern nations
(Craig Nelson, unabridged, 13 CDs)
I've always been impressed with the clarity of language and direct expression that I recall reading in Common Sense. Tom Paine, author of that inspiring pamphlet, lived an amazing life: bankrupt in England, he left for America with letters of introduction from Ben Franklin. He met great companions in Philadelphia, and was soon writing Common Sense (which he'd originally intended to title Plain Truth). A great rhetorician, he was never effectual in the world, yet he participated in the two great revolutions of the 18th century. His journalism during the American Revolutionary war is highly praised by the author, and the piece that begins "These are the times that try men's souls" was esteemed so highly by Washington that he had the entire piece read aloud to his soldiers as they prepared to cross the Delaware on Christmas Day. (Once across, the Hessians hired by the Brits were so drunken that it was a phenomenal rout, the first real victory for America.) Paine should be a hero to the Creative Commons movement, since he repeatedly renounced the copyright to his moving essays, both Common Sense and later, The Age of Reason. Paine's life story is quite dramatic: after being the rhetorical spark for the American Revolution, he went back to England to toodle around on bridge engineering; he went off to France to participate in their Revolution, and after being a legislator, ended up being imprisoned for 10 months, and just missed losing his neck to the guillotine. His final years were embittered, as most people turned against him after his deist pamphlet, the Age of Reason. A surprising note that this book hit: Many of the Founding Fathers, in particular Ben Franklin, were mocked and ridiculed at the end of their life.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Isaac B. Singer: A Life
(Florence Noiville, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, 208pp)
When I started this book, I thought "this is just a collation of information from Singer's own autobiographical essays, along with some information from the biographies that have been published." By the second chapter, my opinion hadn't really changed, but my appreciation of what Noiville had accomplished was much higher. This fine, short bio summarizes many strands of Singer's psychological complexity, whose own internal conflicts were amplified by his relationship with his older brother, his first translator (Saul Bellow), and surprisingly, even extended to his relationship to Yiddish. I learned for the first time that not only did Singer extensively revise and modify his stories as they were moved into English (this was well-known), but he has forbidden that translations be made of the Yiddish versions, and all foreign translations use the English texts. "A writer who gives up the text he has produced in his own language, a very strong, subtle, linguistically rich text; who forbids using it, consigns it to the dust, dooms it to oblivion..." (p98, quoting Henri Lewi). I may track down a recent book, edited by Seth Wolitz, called The Hidden IB Singer (2001). I also found a list of IB's favorite books (on p161): second only to the Bible, is "The Best of Pearls, by Moses Hayyim Luzzato", above Crime & Punishment (3rd), and Knut Hamsun's Pan (8th).

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Isaac Bashevis Singer : an album
(ed Ilan Stavans, 200pp)
The best thing about this short book is the photographic documentation of the imp that inhabited Singer. One can't exactly say that the photos show the twinkle in his eye, since in at least one ID photo, IB Singer wore dark sunglasses. There's a beautiful full spread color photo of his work room, about which Singer used to joke "I can say I have accomplished vone thing in my life, my chaos has reached perfection." (The quote is from Dvorah Telushkin's Singer biography). I didn't find the mini-essays particularly interesting, with the exception of Cynthia Ozick's.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Fifty Years: Farrar, Straus Giroux Reader 1996
I've owned this book for a long while, and paging through it was a pleasure. FSG is the premier publishing house in the US, and it was fascinating to wander through an essay/short story/poem by many of their toplist authors. The only selection I read in full was Jesus Son, since I'd never read anything that Denis Johnson had written. My impression is that it's not anything of the caliber of Donald Barthelme or IB Singer, two other FSG authors who are personal favorites.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
(Louis Menand, abridged, 6:58)
This is a superb cultural history, describing two of my favorite Cambridge kooks (Wm James and CS Peirce -- alas, the reader doesn't pronounce the latter's name correctly, which should sound like "purse"). I was fascinated to be reminded that James revealed the term "pragmatism" for the first time outside of Cambridge at a lecture at Cal, Berkeley in 1898. True to form, the spiny Pierce shortly thereafter renamed his own view "pragmaticism", 'a name too ugly to be kidnapped.'

Saturday, December 23, 2006

iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It
(Steve Wozniak, with Gina Smith, 313pp)
The *other* Steve finally tells his story, and he does it well. His personality comes across with with a sweetness of tone, and ingenuous playfulness, that is utterly charming. The tales of his pranks really made me laugh; e.g., in his freshman year, he developed a device to interfere with TV reception, and then, when someone would get up to bang the TV, Woz would manipulate the clarity and fuzz to drive the person to absurd bodily maneuvers. His early education, learning boolean logic as a fifth grader, leads toward his incredibly creative chip designs. Steve Jobs, while working at Atari, got Woz to design the game Breakout. Instead of sharing the pay fifty-fifty, "He got paid one amount, and told me he got paid another. He wasn't honest with me, and I was hurt. But I didn't make a big deal about it or anything." (p148) When Apple was about to IPO, Woz sold shares to people inside the company for $5/share, which enabled more millionaires to be created on the IPO day than ever before in history. He also had a fateful airplane crash in 1981, and at that point, he stopped working fulltime at Apple. Woz has always remained an employee of Apple, and he continues to be an advocate for the company. If you want to hear Woz talk, there's a good interview with Guy Kawasaki here.
Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character
(Richard P. Feynman, Freeman Dyson (Foreword), Ralph Leighton (Editor), 608pp)
I skimmed through this, with great pleasure. It compiles (most?/all of?) *Surely you're joking* with *What do you care what other people think?", and also adds a foreword by Dyson, some extras that only Ralph Leighton had seen before, and a CD with Feynman's unique accent describing "Los Alamos from the bottom."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930
(Scott Eyman, unabridged, 14:07)
This history of how sound revolutionized the movies does a thorough job of talking about the technologies that competed (and explains why precursor sound systems failed). Since Jack Warner, and the Warner Brothers collectively, instigated the revolution by slapping sound into The Jazz Singer, this history does a good job talking about their family and business dynamics. Left out of the story, and surely just as fascinating, would be a full analysis of the impact it had on actors who resisted, and those who failed to make, the transition. There are indeed stories of some losers, and the passages describing how silents were evocative and gestural, while talkies were forced to make every detail concrete, are quite interesting. But it is strange to not read much at all about Chaplin, the one exception who proved the rule that silents were dead. I'd make a natural connection to the concepts of Clayton Christiansen, who identified the "innovator's dilemma" as arising from how high profitability of any current dominant fashion prevents the top profitmaking companies from being able to exploit the new wave. Since "talkies" erupted in such a brief span, all the movie producers made the transition.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Stranger in a strange land
(Robert Heinlein, unabridged, 12 cassettes; stopped after 6)
Although this book was published before I was born, I've never "grokked" it (yes, this is where that hippie term first appeared). The story spins from some rather weird premises: that a human born on Mars could be socialized to perform all sorts of miracles, and is also, by virtue of his being the lone human survivor, the sole owner of that planet. The other major player, Jubal Harshaw, is Heinlein's sock puppet, making speeches that alas, sound quaint today, since he vociferously defends his right to not be invaded without a warrant & to have an inviolable right of habeas corpus. The treatment of women is certainly the stalest part of the story (there's still hope that Habeas Corpus will be resurrected). Jubal is effectively the real miracle man, and his sermonizing fatigued me. I also don't see where polyamory fits in to the future.

Friday, December 15, 2006

This American life
(Ira Glass, the first 25 hours)
It's fascinating to listen to a trove of TAL, starting back in the early '90s (a friend holds the entire 8 GB archive, with just a few gaps). I was amazed by the very first story, in the very first episode, in which Kevin Kelly explains how he had a religious epiphany in Jerusalem that turned him into a born-again. He gets emotionally choked up describing how he lived the next 6 months as if his life would end after that span. Besides #1, the opening story in #20 zoomed onto an obscure artist (Bas Jan Adder) who intrigued me long before I'd heard this tale. This deep dive left me feeling as if I ate Nutella for a solid day, and one a week may be the more appropriate dosage.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tevye the Dairy Farmer
(Sholem Aleichem, narrated by Theodore Bikel, 4 hours)
Bikel beautifully reads these tales, which are brilliant transformations of pain that lies right on the surface of almost everyone of the stories.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Shangri La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight Loss Program
(Seth Roberts, 194pp)
This book was published in May of this year, and outlines ideas that Seth Roberts initially hit upon through self-experimentation. This book is really a bulked up pamphlet. Although I read it from front to back, the best part of the book is the research appendix, which references the nutrition (and associative learning) research that provided the following interesting data points: 1 - If fed on a diet that was artificially sweetened (ie, saccharine taste was novel) then rats gain weight vs rats fed on the same kibble unsweetened. 2- Saccharine flavor, when already familiar, disrupted the tendency for rats to gain weight. 3- Rats get fatter on the same diet when the very same food is presented with water baked in rather than as the dry meal (which is hypothesized to be due to the increased flavorfulness due to adding water). Roberts' analysis runs thus: Flavor, when connected closely with calorie absorption, triggers the body to read (and remember that) the environment has abundant food stores. If food is abundant, then the body's set point moves up, to pack on pounds. Novel flavors do not initially trigger that association. Finally, and the shangri la leap: Flavorless absorption of calories will trick your body to misread the environment's abundance, and this flavorlessness can drop your body's set point. Since I've already experimented with how much weight I can put on, the proposal to try drinking 3 flavorless tablespoons of oil a day, to moderate hunger, is worth a trial.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

(Marilyn Robinson, unabridged, 7 CDs)
This book has been widely praised, and I tried once before to listen to it, although it requires more powers of concentration than I gave it the first round. The book takes the form of a very long letter of an octogenarian preacher, who writes as the father of a 7 year old boy who's otherwise sure to never know the man who chose to bring him into the world. The structure of the story is finely developed, and it spans generations, since the almost dead preacher can recall his own father and grandfather, and toss in tales about their own forms of zealotry. Sin is the key to the old father's life view, which may explain why at times it was a stretch for me to grasp the urgency of his point.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Prometheus deception
(Robert Ludlum, unabridged, 14 cassettes-- stopped after 7)
I don't think I'd ever read a Ludlum novel, and so I took a spin with this one, published right after 9/11/01, but written without much attention to anything but nefarious Russians. The tone relies on hyperbole (chess masters who could have beat Spassky or Fisher had they not switched to intelligence work, a hero who is the best history student ever to attend Stanford, etc). One aspect of the story is increasingly plausible, namely, that as our government sponsors deep dark projects, the people involved will have no reason to believe that they are in fact working for the government, rather than some impostor force that has deluded them.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
(Danny Meyer, 320pp)
I would never use the term 'fine dining' to describe the few restaurants that are favorites of mine, yet this title interested me because of its focus on hospitality. Slate slammed this book as another fatuous blob of business advice, but in fact, it is well-written, with intense autobiographical disclosure. Some important details of Meyer's personal development include the fact that his father went bankrupt twice, that he developed Bells Palsy (a facial paralysis) for 6 months due to the stress in opening Union Sq Restaurant, and just as he was planning to expand, he and his wife lost twins due to prematurity. I started skimming the halfway point, not because there's anything flawed with this book, but simply because it's addictive to read, and wanted to experience a moment of self-control. In the last part of the book, Meyer adds some great tales of how he operates from an assumption of abundance, giving and gifting a lot, with the expectation that relationships will be built that will sustain his initial acts of generosity. I liked this book enough to take some detailed notes:
p26 view all employees as essentially volunteers [DM managed John Anderson's campaign in 1980]
p35 began to follow the careers of Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, Jeremiah Tower, Joyce Goldstein, Mark Miller, Bradley Ogden, Michael McCarty, Larry Forgione, Jonathan Waxman, Anne Rosenzweig, and Barry Wine.
p37 stagiare, or chef's apprentice
p42 I decided not to play ... chef
p49 Union Sq Cafe is the least sexy and most ergonomically clumsy restaurant space that I own. .... I believe it became a wonderful restaraunt because of its imperfections.
p51 [Job app q] "How has your sense of humor been useful to you in your service career?"
p56 In my obsession for big numbers, I'd created hideous logjams. But it was oddly exciting to manufacture challenges and then surmount them. ... [That] continues to be a pattern in the way I work.
p57 [Reservationist language] -- 'Can you give me a range that would work for you, so that I can root for a cancellation?' The point was to keep the dialogue open while sending the message: I am your agent, not the gatekeeper.
p61 my own early experiences at restaurants with my family, when I had been urged to read the menu 'from right to left' -- that is, prices first.
p65 Service is a monologue -- we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality is a dialogue. To be on a guest's side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response.
p68 I developed a case of Bell's palsy. I was just two months into the restaraunt business
p80 The best way I can do this [build community] is to first gather as much information as I can about our guests. I call this collecting dots. In fact, I urge our managers to ABCD -- always be collecting dots.
p97 I will throw myself into a venture only when certain criteria are met:
I am passionate about the subject matter (ie, early American folk antiques, modern art, jazz, barbecue)
I know I will derive some combination of challenge, satisfaction, and pleasure from the venture.
It presents meaningful opportunities for professional growth for my colleagues and me.
The new business will add something to the dialogue in a specific context, such as luxury dining (Gramercy Tavern)...
p98 watching me in the process of creating a new rest reminds her [wife Audrey] of what she goes through becoming and being a mom. Like rests, kids are a lot of fun to conceive and significantly less fun to festate over the next 9 months. You don't get much sleeep for the first 6 months after they arrive, and you feel as if you're never going to get your nose above water.
p108 [lost twins in 1995]
p109 Nothing would ever matter more to me than how we expressed hospitality to one another. (Who ever wrote the rule that the customer is always first?) And then, in descending order, our next core values would be to extend gracious hospitality to our guests, our community, our suppliers, and finally our investors.
p142 People duck as a natural reflex when something is hurled at them. Similarly, the excellence reflex is a natural reaction to fix something that isn't right, or to improve something that could be better.
p143 [5 core emotional skills for servers]
1. Optimistic warmth (genuine kindness, thoughtfulness, and a sense that the glass is always at least half full)
2. Intelligence (not just 'smarts' but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning)
3. Work ethic (a natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done)
4. Empathy (an awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel)
5. Self-awareness and integrity (an understanding of what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing with honesty and superb judgment)
p151 In building my first team for USQ in 1985, I did something that now sounds insane: I decided not to hire anyone from NY City.
p191 "the word on the street is that you've got the single best management style of any restaurant company... I'd call it constant, gentle, pressure."
p219 The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.
p223 The 5 A's for Effectively Addressing Mistakes
Awareness - Many mistakes go unaddressed because no one is even aware they have happened...
Acknowledgement - "Our server had an accident, and we are going to prepare a new plate for you as quickly as possible"
Apology - "I am so sorry this happened to you." Alibis are not one of the Five A's. It is not appropriate or useful to make excuses ("We're short-staffed.")
Action - "Please enjoy this for now. We'll have your fresh order out in just a few minutes." Say what you are going to do to make amends and then follow through.
Additional generosity - Unless the mistake had to do with slow timing, I would instruct my staff to send out something additional (a complimentary dessert or dessert wine) to thank the guests for having been good sports.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Getting things done FAST
(David Allen, 7.9 hours)
I listened to a CD version on my iPod, around the time of thanksgiving. There's a definite paradox to fiddling away time vicariously attending David Allen's seminar, but I have to admit that I have felt far more productive since I finished. I was waylayed for a while trying to get a tickler system; this audio finally pinpointed the origin of the term "43 folders," which is the sum of taking 12 month folders, and allocate 31 day folders for the current month. But the focus of David Allen's message comes across very clearly in less than 8 hours. In spite of the value (it's almost an audio equivalent of amphetamine) listening to David Allen's voice, and his feints toward humor, sound scary to me in some way that eludes exact identification just now.