Sep 9, 2009

Bifurcating trails

I didn't even stop to see if I used "bifurcating" correctly. It sounds like what I mean, so it will stay. Gosh, I 'm starting to sound like my late father, Vic Knight. We would disagree over the meaning of something at the dinner table, and finally I would resort to the dictionary. "See, Dad, this is what it really means." He'd think a moment, smile, and say slyly, "Well then, the dictionary must be wrong."

All I mean is that the trail of breadcrumbs turns out not to be a single trail but rather one that branches out again and again. In fact, way beyond a trident shape or even a leaf rake, it's starting to look like fractals.

Let's see, there's general fiction. I used to think I read almost all fiction, with an occasional side trip into some other area, but I'm beginning to see how self-delusional that is. It's been all of everything, all the time, right from the start.

Then on the other side, we have science. Philosophy, with a religion subset, with subsets for Christianity, or apologetics, and everything else. Business. Popular culture, with a huge subset for music. Serious aka art music. A very short list of books from non-musical arts, very short but not to be ignored. (Remember Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? "I will not be ignored!" I still get chills. So I won't ignore Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House just because it's so short, or it might rise up and bite me, or kill my pet bunny. It's a wonderful history of architecture, in case you're wondering.)

Wandering back to fiction for a moment. How about science fiction? Murder mysteries? Epics? With a nice subset for trilogies. I've always been a sucker for trilogies. In general, I'll take 600 pages over 300 pages any day, because it keeps me reading longer and I feel like I'm getting my money's worth. By the same token, three thousand-page books in a row (like Neal Stephenson's System of the World trilogy) are, well, simply the best.

Crime fiction. Not exactly the same as mysteries, although related. Maybe two branches from a Tree To Be Named Later. Comic fiction. Ah, now we're getting down to it. Comic fiction came to me with the discovery of P.G. Wodehouse and subsequent jaunty jaunts through Max Shulman and Robert Benchley and so many other wonderful authors.

Comic crime fiction. Now we're really talking. Carl Hiaasen, Laurence Shames, and my new best bud, Tim Dorsey.

But what about biography? Aha! Thought you'd slip through the cracks and slink off undetected, did you? Well, think again, my well-thumbed friend.

I wondered how I ever came to my first biography and have a memory, clear as day, of browsing the school library in 3rd or 4th grade. In those days I naturally went to the books marked "F" for fiction, but couldn't help noticing the books with Dewey Decimal numbers, and wondering what they might be all about. I think I found some books with both a number (800s?) and the letter "B," which turned out to be for biography, so I took one home.

Could have been George Gershwin, or a robber baron like Carnegie or Rockefeller. Even then I guess I was drawn to music and business. I remember one of the earliest ones I read was on Edward Bok, the founder of Ladies' Home Journal, an immigrant who made so good he has a clock tower named after him here in Florida.

But my gosh, there've been an awful lot of musical biographies I've devoured over the years, more Quincy Jones and Eric Clapton than Bach or Beethoven. I found one on Harold Arlen (he wrote Over the Rainbow) at Bookwise, a wonderful used book shop in Boca Raton. Autobiographies? I can recommend Stone Alone by Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones bassist) and the first one from David Crosby, Long Time Gone, the sequel less so. And an autobiography from a man too unusual to let his story fit neatly anywhere, a life that included hit records as well as a successful advertising career, Stan Freberg.

But enough of this for now. The breadcrumb trail of ideas is squiggly enough for the moment. And one of the things about fractals is that no matter how far down you untangle a thread, it still looks like more fractals.

Sep 8, 2009


The year I graduated from high school was a turning point in my reading. I was headed for Duke, and as a Duke Scholar I was the recipient of a list of books we would supposedly discuss when we arrive. So I read them, although when we did arrive and met at a little reception, we were naturally a lot more interested in checking out the opposite sex than in discussing books.

But read them I did, and was it a survey of Great Books? A tour of the classics? Not even close, kemosabe.

Let's see, there was a book on Che Guevara, one on the Chicago 7, Siddhartha, I think, um, maybe A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard know, stuff that would make parents nervous if they only knew. Naturally I read everything on the list, and by the time I got to campus, even though I had not exactly been transformed into a revolutionary, you could say my mind had been blown.

I'd only been at school a few days when I decided to browse the Duke library. After all, with somthing like fifteen million volumes, it was the tenth largest library in the world at the time, up there with the NYC Public Library and the Library of Congress, you know, those guys. One reason I thought of going there, bookworm heaven, I figured. (The real reason was my girlfriend had gone there ahead of me by a year, but pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.)

So I'm browsing the library and sat down to read Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag, because I thought it was a neat title. Later I'm browsing the student bookstore and came to The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castenada. I wondered how on earth a Yaqui Indian could be connected with the legendary Latin lover, so I bought the book to find out.

Later I discovered Zap comix, and Little Murders by Jules Pfeiffer, and more Richard Brautigan, and don't even get me started on Frank Zappa and the Mothers, or the Fugs.

I brought along my Wodehouse paperbacks from home, which should have made for balance. But anyone who's ever been to college knows that reading for diversion is one of the first things to go. You've always been a reader but suddenly you have a shot at all this provocative stuff, and the reading-as-comfort-food just doesn't get a chance.

Or maybe that's just the way it hit me. I mean, surely not everyone chooses to review a thousand-page anthropological treatise on The Ghost Dance for a two-page paper, and actually reads the whole thing! Or does all the required reading for Poli Sci 101, the original Locke and Hobbes and Thomas Payne, and half the optional reading too! I must have been nuts.

But that's how 1969 turned my reading on its tuchas. It's a wonder I can still form coherent sentences today. I think I'll go watch Gilligan's Island.

The Human Comedy

Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, 1933 (read 1967)

I can't be sure this was the very first Wodehouse I ever read, but it's a good guess. The paperback is marked 60 cents on the cover and my name is rubber-stamped the way I did on all the books I took with me to college. So even if it can't be proven, it can jolly well stand in for whatever was the first.

Suffice to say I have read (practically) everything ever written by the greatest master of comic fiction the English language has ever known, which is saying something. I've read most of them at least twice, and Thank You, Jeeves probably ten times or more.

What's the point? As Jessica Rabbit says about her goofball sweetie Roger, "He makes me laugh." Thank you, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, for honest-to-God laughing out loud (not the spurious LOL of cyberspace, but the real guffaw) from the mere printed page. Wise and limitless Jeeves, silly and shallow Bertie and his Drones friends, country houses, trombones, banjos, nightclub raids, too-hearty females of marriageable age, and countless formidable aunts, Wodehouse is a return to an England (and later, New York) of innocence. Oh, and let us not forget the golf stories.

His biography reveals what I never knew, that misguided naivete led Plum down a road stinking of Nazi collaboration. Although never proven, the intimation turned many fans away, and soured his later life. But his fiction was ever sweet. Go and read and if you laugh, be the richer for it. If it leaves you cold, well, that's why they have horse races.

Recommended anthology - The Most of P.G. Wodehouse.

Gossipy Apes

Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, by Robin Dunbar, 1998 (read 1999)

Anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar says the view that language evolved to help early humans become better hunters is wrong. He says that language is first a way for people to keep up with with family and friends.
He discusses social group size in primates. While monkeys and chimpanzees live in groups for protection, they also form cliques within the main group for protection from other cliques. Observation confirms that primates maintain relationships by grooming, more often within cliques and at least occasionally outside the clique but within the main group. Grooming is mutual, but relative frequency of grooming depends on relative status.

Humans form analogous groups, but Dunbar says language and gossip stand in for physical grooming in human society. He goes on to say that even when groups grow large, sub-groups always form. He cites numerous examples demonstrating that these smaller groups, which he calls clans, tend to stop growing at around 150 members. Included are the military unit called the company, the Hutterite Christian communities of North America, and villages of modern horticulturists in the Philippines. A study by the Church of England found 150 to be the size of the ideal congregation.

In Six Degrees, Duncan J. Watts established informal communication as the way to create dramatically shorter link chains, with apparent benefits to business. Perhaps a company with thousands of employees can benefit by fostering groups of 150 or less. On the other hand, I interpret Dunbar's writing as evidence that in large organizations which insist on "proper channels," entrenched bureaucracy is inevitable.

Aboard the Cluetrain

The Cluetrain Manifesto, by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searles and David Weinberger, 1999 (read 2007)

As Billy Joel sang, don't ask me why. Why, that is, I Googled cluetrain one day and found the Cluetrain Manifesto. I think it might have had to do with something I read from Clay Shirky or Chris Anderson or David Weinberger or another of those modern types who seem to keep popping up everywhere I turn. Don't you love it when the world cooperates by letting you believe there is a benevolent conspiracy to make sure you get the word from, oh, five or six different angles? I know I do.

The aprocryphal story behind the title is that supposedly a corporate guy at a company free-falling into non-being said "the cluetrain" stopped by several days a day for years, and they never took delivery. The moral - get on board, get the clue, read the 95 Theses and get with the program.

Oh, you want content? You see, the darn thing says it so well and it's not that long anyway, so it's tempting to just tease and tease and say go read it already. But since you insist, OK, less hype and more specifics. Here's how it boils down for me.

Companies need to make best use of the Internet or customers will do business with those that do. Businesses also need to make best use of their intranets, or employees will be hampered in their natural drive to do their best work, and do it efficiently.

By the way, it is available in book form, but the link above leads to the entire thing online. Such a deal.

Sep 7, 2009

Dobie Gillis et al

The Feather Merchants, by Max Shulman, circa 1943 (read approx. 1963)

Taking a page from the book of my friend Dave (aka Also Ted), the subject line is meant to attract the reader or robot with the most likely reference for this wonderful writer, who created the TV series named after the bumbling young guy played by Dwayne Hickman.

The trail, though, leads back not to TV but to the bookshelves of my father, Vic Knight. He professed to read only non-fiction but clearly in his earlier years he cast a wider net. Feather Merchants was written by Shulman during World War II and published some years later. The title was a derogatory phrase apparently used by WWII-era military men to characterize civilians.

I must have been about 12 years old when I found it on Dad's shelf and wondered what the hey? And so I read it and now remember hardly anything about it except that it was wildly funny. It was a wonderful breadcrumb, though, as it led me to each of Shulman's books in turn. Rally Round the Flag Boys satirized postwar suburban life a la the man in the grey flannel suit, but funny. Although when I re-read it some years later the political incorrectitude put it more in the mode of "the history of humor," if that's not an oxymoron, than of the comedy canon.

I liked Anyone Got a Match, which simultaneously spoofed the tobacco industry and big-time college sports. Somehow I missed one of his biggest successes, Sleep Till Noon, so that's a breadcrumb I must follow one day.

I just learned that Shulman was also head writer for the TV version of House Calls from 1979 to 1981, and he co-wrote the Broadway smash The Tender Trap, which starred Robert Preston. He also wrote Barefoot Boy With Cheek and The Zebra Derby.

But one day I must re-read The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1951), if only to see if Maynard G. Krebs really said the things his TV character did. Youngsters should consider themselves ill-informed if they did not know that Bob Denver played the beatnik Krebs long before he played Gilligan, although upon reading this they can now consider themselves in the know.

The trail back touches on Robert Benchley, the Marx Brothers, and even Mark Twain. Shulman may not be as famous as any of those, but he probably should be. Shulman died in 1988 at the age of 69.

File: Miscellaneous

Everything Is Miscellaneous, by David Weinberger, 2007 (read 2007)

The title sounds like a joke. "Um, put it under F, for file." But the sub-title, The Power of the New Digital Disorder, puts everything in perspective.

Weinberger systematically describes what he calls the three orders of order, the three ways we humans try to keep things sorted. One is arranging physical objects. The second is arranging one-to-one records of objects, like index cards or file folders. The third is to assign tags or keywords to each object (or idea) but leave them loose without arranging them in any way. And it's the third method that gives digital disorder its power.

Miscellaneous reviews the history of alphabetization, the rise of the early encyclopedists, and the Dewey Decimal System. Weinberger draws an instructive comparison between two well-known photo archives, the paper-filed second-order Bettman Archive and the digitally-tagged third-order Corbis Archive.

If you've wondered what digital tagging is all about, here it is.


Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky, 2008 (read 2009)

The guy who more or less set me on the breadcrumb trail with his blog post Ontology Is Overrated, has his first published book for general audiences. The Wall Street Journal says "Clay Shirky explores the ramifications of a world in which people can find each other and collaborate with increasing ease."

What turned me on was Shirky's pointing out how digital connections have transformed us from consumers-only into consumer-producers, people who, for example, can move effortlessly from downloading a digital song to uploading a musical creation. Or almost effortlessly, but in any case without the need to get past cumbersome gatekeepers like record companies.

Shirky gives a 42-minute talk on his book on YouTube, erudite but easy to follow.

Everybody cites network theory and a number of books I hope to get to in this blog including Duncan Watts' Six Degrees. There are multiple references to wikis in general and Wikipedia specifically. Excellent discussion of the rise of Linux versus Windows and Perl versus C++, the collaborative volunteer model versus the gatekept expert model, defying the experts who said it could never work.

Aug 17, 2009

Ontology Overrated

Maybe a netizen residing closer to the hump in the bell curve would surf porn, or sports, or something else, but it was a day that might have been in 2007 when I found myself Googling "ontology." That ought to make me an outlier, to use the term Malcolm Gladwell has popularized in his newest best-seller, somebody well outside the hump in the curve, someone out along the fringe.

So be it. I've given up trying to conform, so when I went looking for ontology I didn't really care if that was weird, in fact the weirder the better.

Anyway among the early pages of results was a title that caught my eye, Ontology Is Overrated. (I just looked and as of this moment it's at the top of page two.) Well, this suited me right down to the ground, as my grandmother might have said, so I went-a-looking.

Clay Shirky had written an essay, a blog entry I suppose, although this was before I had any idea what a blog is, pointing out that we humans can't help trying to categorize stuff, or make them fit into ontologies. He talked about how digital is different, and rather than go refresh my memory as to exactly how, I will leave it (as my lazy and/or smart professors used to say) as an exercise for the student.

Suffice to say it opened my eyes. I had been spending lots of time working as an editall in the Open Directory Project, aka DMOZ, and in particular wondering about what might be the best way to organize different categories. Then here comes Shirky, daring to suggest that one reason we're having such trouble with the answer if that we've been asking the wrong question.

Well, this is exactly my cup of tea. I started reading more of Shirky's stuff to find that he had been a busy boy indeed. Calling him prolific is practically like saying snow is sort of white. But, glutton for punishment that I am, I read tons of his essays and finally wrote him an email.

Now, some people who get emails from the public at large must despair of it, and wish the writers would go away. Maybe Shirky feels that way at times, but for whatever reason on this occasion he responded promptly.

After my enthusiastic praise for his ideas and mentioning my work with DMOZ, I had asked if he could recommend any other reading on how digital is changing categorization. After thanking me for my nice comments, he added that I might find Eveything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger instructive and enjoyable.

Since I recognized Weinberger as one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, this started to seem like one of those converging plot points where the music starts rising, only instead of dunh-dunh-dunh like Jaws it was more like birds tweeting and the sun is shining a la Disney. I'm a sucker for stuff that comes my way from more than one place, so I rushed off to get Miscellaneous. Read it, loved it, felt all in-the-know since it was brand new, and more about it another time.

Bonus breadcrumbs: David Weinberger's main blog is Joho the Blog. Shirky's new book, Outliers, is on my nightstand. You may hate sports metaphors but if I say it's in the on-deck circle, can you forgive me? I bought this one, and it will be batter up once I've finished all the library books I have to return. And, I may be a sucker for lots of stuff, but as ZZ Top said, I'm a Fool For Your Stockings. Great beat, I give it a 99.

Aug 14, 2009

Les Paul

A gifted guitarist and inventor died yesterday at the age of 94.

His electric guitar, manufactured by Gibson as the Les Paul model, has been a favorite of rock and blues guitarists for half a century. His recordings with wife Mary Ford were best-sellers in the early 1950s, and the Internet is full of tributes to his life and work. The obituary from Rolling Stone Magazine called him "the most influential rock guitarist ever - even though he was only tangentially involved in rock."

For twenty years, I hosted a radio show where we played records by Les Paul and Mary Ford almost every day, big hits like The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise. Then one day I found an LP in the station library called Chester and Lester, which paired Les Paul with Chet Atkins on a session from 1976. Funny, impromptu, two seasoned pros kidding each other on open mics while they talked about what they were going to play next, great stuff. It sold well to country fans but was mostly old standards.

To my regret, I didn't save a copy from my radio days. Then last summer Marie and I made a pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where Les Paul is among the honorees right along with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. It turns out they sell CDs by hall of fame artists and I was able to get Chester and Lester. All right!

One day in 1986, an album came to the station from Atlantic Records called Play It Again, Joe, with Joe Bushkin. Always a sucker for liner notes, I checked this one to discover that the producer was none other than Les Paul.

Now, if you think Les Paul's name is less well-known than he deserved, try dropping Joe Bushkin's name and see how far you get. Loved by musicians, invisible to the public, no hits. But this album had a great sound, and the liner notes by Les Paul helped to explain why. Going the opposite route from the innovative multi-tracking and overdubbing that made him famous, for this project he recorded everything all at once, without any dubbing except the strings (added in a second session), even the piano and vocal. What an eye-opener, and an ear-opener.

His enthusiastic essay from the line notes was a breadcrumb to be treasured, a generous genius revealing his techniques to anyone who happened along. I read those few paragraphs over and over, every time I played the record. Cuts like Gershwin's Love Is Here to Stay and One For My Baby (And One More for the Road), sounding as realistic as anything you could imagine. Later I put those techniques into effect the best I could when I produced my own demos.

The record has been out of print for years, but today I found 15 used copies for sale at Amazon. The CD version apparently combines Play It Again, Joe with another album called The Road to Oslo.

Bob Edwards' radio show on XMPR is partly to blame for inspiring this blog to begin with. This morning on the way to work I heard him re-airing his April 2008 interview with Les Paul. I happened to hear it on its first airing and was delighted to hear it again. What a wonderful human being, all his humanity and humor coming through despite the crackle in his voice at the age of 93. Thanks, Bob, and by the way, how do you pick so many topics that I really, really enjoy?

Aug 12, 2009

Selling less of more

The thing about breadcrumbs...sometimes the birds eat 'em, or sometimes a well-meaning soul brooms them away. I can't remember now what led me to The Long Tail but it was probably a capsule review, either in print or online.

BTW that link goes to a YouTube promotional video for the book from the UK. Really tells the story in less than two minutes. I went looking for an image of the powerlaw curve that appears endlessly in the book and thought the video was even better.

The idea of the book is in the subtitle - Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Author Chris Anderson says traditional retail focuses on hits, selling the most units possible of the best-selling items. Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes are examples of businesses getting a surprising portion of their revenues, like a third or half, from non-hits.

Huge inventories that peek in every niche and cranny can be offered as easily as the shelf-space-limited greatest hits selections of bricks-and-mortar stores. Purely digital merchandisers like iTunes have it easiest, but online purveyors of hard goods can stock enormous centralized warehouses, print/create on demand, or simply broker a connection between widely scattered owners or manufacturers and would-be customers.

Hence a company called Ecast supplies bars with digital jukeboxes "stocking" 10,000 albums. Compare to the hundred or so you might find on a regular jukebox and you get the idea. I love Anderson's story of how he was fooled when asked by Ecast CEO Robbie Vann-Adibe to guess how what percentage of those albums sold at least one track per quarter. Anderson knew he was being set up but played along. Traditional retailing suggested 20%, so he guessed 50% just to be wild and crazy. Turned out the answer was 98%.

Curious about how many titles are stocked by Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest music retailer, versus iTunes? Or the number of articles in the Encyclopedia Brittanica as compared to Wikipedia? The answers are in the book. it's important stuff for business people (and for those like me who are simply curious about what the heck is going on) and enormously entertaining.

This is just the latest in a series of books I've stumbled onto starting with that Bob Edwards radio interview of a few years ago. I tried to think of some concept that ties them together, no matter how loosely. I guess it's my compulsive need to pull order from disorder, to see breadcrumbs even if the sidewalk is bare.

I came up with New Connections, since so many of these modern ideas seem to relate to how people are finding each other in new, digitally-enabled ways. I even made a website on that title, but it's not on the Internet...yet. In it I summarize five books and one incredible web site, called The Cluetrain Manifesto. All aboard...

A lot of these ideas seem counter-intuitive. Acting on them suggests a competitive advantage for those who like to succeed, and don't we all? OTOH the people who cling to "the way we've always done it" are like the guy whose company inspired him to coin the phrase "cluetrain," at least according to Wikipedia. He said the cluetrain stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.

Breadcrumb to go: The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Referenced in The Long Tail and one I'll plan to read.

Aug 10, 2009

Follow the crumbs

I'm reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, the latest in a string of non-fiction books that started...well, I'm not sure when.

As a musician (and a former radio announcer with a jazz show) I'd always disdained talk radio. I figured that on the radio, anything but music was a waste of time. But having XM and hearing that Bob Edwards was coming on, having been unceremoniously dismissed from NPR, I thought I'd give
XMPR a try. Might have been day two or three of listening when I caught him interviewing Malcolm Gladwell on his new book, Blink. Something clicked in my brain and it was like a reset button back to 1966, before I discovered drugs and alcohol. I drove straight to the nearest Barnes and Noble and bought the book, and one thing led to another.

Which is a way of saying the breadcrumbs seemed to appear before me. My curiosity led me down the oddest paths. Book after book, website after website, unable to stop but not wanting to...and yet wondering just why I felt compelled to pursue ideas with, as Frank Zappa might have termed it, No Commercial Potential. At least for me, a 50-something bookkeeper struggling to stay alive in a crashing economy. I mean, so what if I think Gladwell has some Neat Ideas. Does anyone really care?

And then this week I had an insight. Imagine that, insight. I guess there are still a few brain cells left that didn't succumb to the onslaught of days gone by. And the insight was this, with thanks to Chris Anderson and his wonderful book - that I do what I do because it's who I am. Whether it has a tremendous practical application or none whatsoever is simply irrelevant.

The pages of The Long Tail are helping me see that the digital age brings us to a point where we can be creators, and not just consumers. In my "day job" I may push a broom, or move billions of dollars around the world, or something in between...doesn't matter. If my passion is butterscotch, or hopscotch, or just plain hops...then that is what matters for me, and not the answer to the classic "And what do you do?"

So now I'm following the breadcrumbs without peering backwards and wondering what the heck I think I'm doing. Posts about some great books and web pages and the ideas therein will be forthcoming from time to time...comments, corrections, and suggestions welcome.