Monthly Archives: April 2005

Our Most Important Product

In connection with my just-posted rant on Steve Jobs and his silly reaction to an unauthorized biography — “iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business” — I looked up the Amazon sales rank for “iCon.” Four weeks before publication, it’s either at No. 92 or Number 131, depending on which Amazon page you believe. Not stunning, but not bad, either.

Then I started looking at what books are on top of Amazon’s sales chart.

A “Harry Potter” title is Number One, natch. “He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys” — yeah, right — is No. 6 (“Be Honest — You’re Not That Into Him, Either” is No. 210). A couple Malcolm Gladwell titles, “The Da Vinci Code,” G.E.’s Jack Welch telling the world, yet again, how great he is, Jane Fonda. I’m getting to the mid-teens on the list when I see a title that prompts me to see what it’s about:

On Bullshit.”

Knowing nothing about the book — though I see it has been featured in The New York Times, feted on “The Daily Show,” and there appear to be more than 20,000 Google references to it — I was curious.

The writer is an emeritus professor of philosophy from Princeton named Harry Frankfurt. He says, in a video interview on the Princeton University Press site, that he’s interested in bullshit because he believes it “poses certain dangers to the foundations of our civilization.” Bullshit involves “a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity,” Frankfurt says, and it’s thoroughly woven into the world we’ve built:

“The increase in the amount of bullshit in contemporary life … is because of the intensity of the marketing motive in contemporary society. We’re constantly marketing things — selling products, selling people, selling candidates, selling programs, selling policies — and once you start out by supposing that your object is to sell something, then your object is not to tell people the truth about it but to get them to believe what you want them to believe about it, and this encourages the resort to bullshit.”

So what’s the danger to “the foundations of civilization” to which Frankfurt refers? The Times story summed it up:

“…Any culture — and he means this culture — rife with [bullshit] is one in danger of rejecting ‘the possibility of knowing how things truly are.’ It follows that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.

“The reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance. ‘All that is solid,’ as Marx once wrote, ‘melts into air.’ ”

“On Bullshit” started out as an essay in the 1980s. It has long since spawned a sort of school of philosophical bullshit-parsing (for instance, a rebuttal entitled “Deeper Into Bullshit,” by G.A. Cohen of Oxford).

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Steve Jobs: Marketing Megagenius

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle (and other sources) reported that

Apple’s Steve Jobs, in a display of his master-of-the-universe clout, had directed his company’s stores to get rid of books from a publisher that’s coming out with a Jobs biography in May.

Today, The New York Times gets around to the story. Much is made of the book’s title, “iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business.” Call me obtuse, but when I saw that the other day, I thought it sounded like hagiography. The Times points out that many read “iCon” as a double entrendre — that the title intends to convey the notion Jobs is a con man. In the article, the book’s co-author, Jeffrey S. Young, is kind of confusing on that point, saying both that rendering “icon” the way he did was meant only as a play on popular Apple product names: iMac, iBook, iPod, and iTunes, for instance. Later in the piece, though, Young is quoted as saying Jobs “has an amazing ability to con people.”

But Young’s real offense isn’t the title — it’s that he tried to breach Jobs’s self-crafted image as creator and savior of the personal computer revolution, product visionary, anti-Microsoft guru, movie-animation mogul, and all-around superstar. Handsome as all get out, too. From what you read about this “iCon” book, that’s how he’s portrayed. But when you’ve risen to the Olympian heights Jobs has — and he’s just one of a growing circle of tech supergeniuses who have all somehow singlehandedly saved the world — you can’t just let some schlub try to tell the public how great you are.

Fair enough. This kind of thin-skinned, hyper-controlling egocentrism among corporate titans is an old story.

What’s not so easy to resign one’s self to is that Jobs, in his pique, feels it’s necessary to punish all the other authors who’ve had Apple-related works put out by John Wiley & Sons, the publisher of “iCon.” For the unauthorized biographizing of one, all must be banned from Apple’s stores. Wiley says sales at Apple’s stores don’t make up a significant fraction of overall trade for the books in question. Still, it’s the nastiness of Jobs’s gesture that counts.

Maybe the best part of the story is that, except for its subject’s meddling, “iCon” likely would have gone unnoticed except among the most devoted Apple acolytes. Thanks to Jobs’s megagenius marketing move, it’s guaranteed a much bigger audience.

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The Music Thing, Again

So tonight, in between watching “Survivor” and “CSI” on TiVo and wallowing in other popular culture activities, I’m loading some more music into my iTunes library. This way, my Top 25 will show my to be a more well-rounded person. Except: I realize that the pile of albums I’ve picked out so far mark me as a fossil — a real classic-rock FM kind of guy.

Already loaded: Bob Dylan — “Nashville Skyline” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Bob Dylan and The Band — “The Basement Tapes.” B.B. King — “Blues is King.” Van Morrison — “St. Dominic’s Preview.” Frank Zappa — “Hot Rats.”

Still to come: James Taylor — yes, yes, I’m not holding anything back. The White Album. Let It Bleed. Jimi Hendrix.

What does any of it have in common? Virtually none of that stuff was recorded after 1969. I see in my stack still to go on the computer that I have a couple real hot recent numbers that spoil the trend — a Dire Straits compilation and an album from Susannah McCorkle, a wonderful jazz singer who met a tragic end a few years back.

But for the most part, it’s like my ears and musical taste ossified at age 15.

Whipping post!

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Where We Were

The map jones never stays quiet for long, though my habit is really just an incidental one. In late March, I wrote something in passing about Google Maps and what I liked about them. Since then, Google has combined its maps with the database of aerial and satellite photographs I think it acquired when it bought a company called Keyhole. Now you can specify any location in the United States — maybe the world, but I haven’t tried that — and in addition to the traditional map, you can also see an aerial image that matches the maps frame precisely.

So one of my first impulses is to look up places I lived growing up — like 196 Monee Road, in Park Forest, where we lived from 1958 through 1966 (the house had great heating ducts for storing beer, but my brothers have to relate that story).

Here’s a map that shows 196 Monee Road (unfortunately, I can’t figure out how to display the Google map on this page — if indeed that’s possible for a mere Web mortal such as myself).

Here’s the corresponding aerial image.

And here’s an aerial that shows how to get from 196 Monee Road to the next house we lived in, on Oak Hill Drive, a mile away.

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That Sound You’re Hearing

The Apple iBook I bought last year came with iTunes. As far as I was concerned when I got the computer, iTunes was a service to buy songs online. And iTunes does facilitate that. But I didn’t get that it was also an application to manage your music library, listen to MP3 streams online, and do other things I haven’t figured out yet.

One of the things iTunes does in its library-managing function is keep track of how often you’ve listened to your music tracks; based on that, it builds your own personal Top 25 list. I don’t have a big collection of stuff on my machine — fewer than 100 songs. That’s OK, because I grew up in the AM Top 40 era and got in the habit, never broken, of listening to favorite songs over and over and over again. So that’s why my timing on that little break and screams on The Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” (6th grade, June 1966) was so perfect when I sang along. I played the 45 about 500 times in a week and listened for it nonstop on the radio. So having fewer than 100 tunes to listen to — no problem. Many are handpicked for obsessive repeat listening.

So here’s what the Top 10 (edited to omit artist repeats) of my Top 25 looks like, according to iTunes. It’s an odd collection. I’ll only explain that what has gotten the Number One song played as much as it has is the studio band, especially the bass player, James Jamerson. Oh, yeah, the Prokofiev thing, sandwiched between Shuggie Otis and Aretha Franklin: That’s the only classical stuff I have on my machine. It’s good, though.

1, I Was Made to Love Her — Stevie Wonder

2. Gardening At Night — R.E.M.

3. Strawberry Letter 23 — Shuggie Otis

4. Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78 — Prokofiev/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

5. Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) — Aretha Franklin

6. Crazy — Seal

7. The Pretender — Jackson Browne

8. Ray Of Light — Madonna

9. Daughters — John Mayer

10. Happy Valentine’s Day — Outkast/Andre 3000

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’24’: Week in Review

Week after week, I’ve cursed “24” — like I don’t have anything better to do — for its insistence on portraying senior government officials, even the president — no, especially the president — as cartoonish dolts devoid of common sense and bent on making the wrong decision whenever the opportunity arises. (Tonight’s example: The president — actually the vice president who has taken the helm after the president was critically injured in the downing of Air Force One — orders the Secret Service to arrest a counterterrorist agent who’s in the midst of busting a bad guy who’s determined to set off a nuclear weapon. Because of the president’s idiocy, the bad guy gets away. Of course.)

At the same time, on the strength of seeing the first two or three seasons of “The West Wing” on DVD, I’ve been struck at what an idealistic, admiring portrait of the presidency that show presents. Among liberals, anyway, I think it’s been commonplace to think what a wonderful world this would be if only President Jed Bartlett were running the show (a few years ago, Martin Sheen came to talk at a church here in Berkeley, and the audience treated him with something like reverence that it was clear was due in part to his role as “West Wing” president).

Now I realize that I’ve been cursing and admiring the wrong TV presidents. Yes, the chief executives on “24” are pathetic morons who never let good counsel get in the way of a bad move. And Jed Bartlett’s White House really is too good to be the real nerve center of the free world. But: The “24” version of “reality” is great comic relief, and even the current president looks like a giant compared to the idiots who show up as president on its episodes. “The West Wing” just depresses me with the illusion that we could have leadership so much better than what we’ve settled for.

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Sunday …

Cimg3745… in the yard … with, you know.

Today’s task: Continue the reclamation of the north 40 — our back yard — which was a construction area for all of 2004 and is now relapsing into its former identity of wild kingdom." Nice day to be out beating down the weeds, though.

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Yellow Friendly Merry Cab

Yellowcab_2

Once upon a time, the cab business here in the East Bay was pretty much like it was in other large-ish urban areas. There were a few large taxi companies whose owners leased cabs to drivers. Most drivers paid "gates and gas" — they bought their own fuel and paid a daily (or nightly) rental fee (hereabouts called the "gate"), and they got to keep whatever they earned in fares and tips above those expenses. Some had a simpler arrangement, splitting both the fares and the fuel expenses with the cab owner. That’s the deal I had when I worked for the late, forgotten St. Francis Taxicab Company, which plied the streets of East Oakland in the early 1980s. That arrangement worked out better for the driver on a bad night and better for the owner on a good night.

Merry_2
Over in San Francisco, always viewed as cabbie Shangri La by often-idle East Bay drivers, big companies or co-ops are still the rule. The East Bay business has evolved, or degenerated, into a sort of free-for-all, with a bunch of independent operators scrambling for an individual share of the crumbs. One result is a proliferation of taxis with similar-sounding names, many involving the word "yellow." (Like all the best ideas, the original Yellow Cab appears to have been one of Chicago’s gifts to the world.) The Berkeley telephone book has nearly three pages of agate-type listings, many undoubtedly redundant, for various permutations of "Yellow Cab."

I loved the version spotted above, parked in a long queue at the North Berkeley BART station. It’s not just Yellow. It’s Friendly. And Merry.

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Dead in Iraq

I didn’t pay much attention to the news last weekend about the death in an insurgent attack of Marla Ruzicka in Iraq. Ruzicka came from Lakeport, one of the towns on Clear Lake, about 75 miles northeast of San Francisco. She had dedicated herself over the last couple of years to a campaign that aims to make the United States account for civilian casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She would have turned 29 this year.

What finally made me pay attention to her story was a column this morning by Bob Herbert in The New York Times. He talks about Ruzicka’s organization, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict and its aims.

“Tim Rieser, [an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy], said: ‘She came here as a very sort of naïve antiwar protestor, really, and became someone who was extraordinarily effective at putting politics aside – not trying to cast blame, but rather working with everyone from U.S. military officers to the Congress and others on how to actually help people. She was out there doing something that all of us knew was really needed, but that was too dangerous for most people to want to do, or be willing to do.’

What she was doing was stunningly simple and modest, in a way. She died trying to lift the veil that’s been drawn — that we’ve allowed to be drawn — across the reality of the war we’re fighting. The human price among our own troops is largely hidden — photographing the caskets of the slain is prohibited, and the awful injuries suffered in battle are largely invisible to us. There’s virtually no discussion of the ongoing toll among the people of Iraq. On one hand, Ruzicka was trying to get the government to acknowledge information she knew existed: statistics on civilian casualties; and on the other, she was trying to get help for victims and survivors.

On the accountability side, Ruzicka was making some headway. In an op-ed piece on the USA Today site, written just before she died, Ruzicka said:

“Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking U.S. military official. The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time. Other hot spots, such as the Ramadi and Mosul areas, could prove worse. The statistics showed that 29 civilians were killed by small-arms fire during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents between Feb. 28 and April 5 — four times the number of Iraqi police killed in the same period. It is not clear whether the bullets that killed these civilians were fired by U.S. troops or insurgents. …

“… These statistics demonstrate that the U.S. military can and does track civilian casualties. Troops on the ground keep these records because they recognize they have a responsibility to review each action taken and that it is in their interest to minimize mistakes, especially since winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis is a key component of their strategy. The military should also want to release this information for the purposes of comparison with reports such as the Lancet study published late last year. It suggested that since the U.S.-led invasion there had been 100,000 deaths in Iraq.

“A further step should be taken. In my dealings with U.S. military officials here, they have shown regret and remorse for the deaths and injuries of civilians. Systematically recording and publicly releasing civilian casualty numbers would assist in helping the victims who survive to piece their lives back together.

A number is important not only to quantify the cost of war, but as a reminder of those whose dreams will never be realized in a free and democratic Iraq.

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Jubel in Petersplassen

Jubel for ny pave

“Taktfaste rop på ‘Benedetto!’ runget over Petersplassen i går kveld da den nye paven steg frem for hundretusener på balkongen og ga sin første velsignelse som den katolske kirkens overhode.”

You have to hand it to the gang at Oslo’s Aftenbladet — reading their coverage of Pope Ratzo’s election celebration, you almost feel like you’re there in the crowd in Petersplassen. Of course, leave it to the Dagbladet crew to get in a dig at the new pontiff. They’re calling him the “Panzer-pave.” The paper’s story on the new pope includes a picture of Ratzinger in his Hitlerjugend days. Say three “Our Fathers” and three “Hail Marys,” you guys.

Thus concludes our exclusive coverage of Norwegian press reaction to the election of the new pope. In other news, here’s the pope’s name as rendered in various European capitals:

Paris: Pape Benoit

Rome: Papa Benedetto

Berlin: Papst Benedikt

Oslo: Pave Benedikt

Warsaw: Papiez Benedykt

Athens: Πάπας Βενέδικτος ο 16ος

Good night.

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