Sunday, April 6, 2008

The wrong spokesman

Is it me, or should Lance Armstrong NOT be doing advertisements for drugs?

Just saw this ad on


Friday, March 28, 2008

Living like savages in Chestnut Hill: an update

Either 20 or 21 Septembers ago, my younger brother moved into a fifth-floor apartment in Back Bay. We dragged the first of his stuff up to the top floor of the elevator-free building. He turned the key in the door, opened it, and discovered that none of the five people living in very close quarters in that studio apartment had even begun to move out. They were all still asleep, in beds spread across the room.

I thought about that this morning as I looked across the living room of our house:

Eli, the model here, still has his own room for now (it's the only unaffected room on the second floor, but he still has to move eventually because it'll be Grace's room when we're done). The other four of us are stretched across the living room. After more than 20 years together, Jane and I are back in a one-bedroom place ... with two other people!

For a more meaningful report on the way we live now, see Jane's latest report.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

The U.S.P.S. can be a slow medium

Both of these arrived the same day:

Posted by Picasa


Three fictional characters, each equally equipped to discuss our nation's predicament

I haven't offered much political commentary since I came back to Jewels and Binoculars, but I can at least point out trenchant observations when I spot them elsewhere:


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I've been known to keep weird work hours, I know...

...but today was the first time ever I was almost late for a 9 a.m. meeting because I was in the car listening to the ninth inning of a live Red Sox game. Happy spring!


Friday, March 21, 2008

David Weinberger, master of all trades

Turns out David Weinberger is as astute an observer of politics as he is of everything else. Everything may be miscellaneous (hence the "random" tag below), as Weinberger has written, but when there's a mind as bold and open-hearted as Weinberger's at the center of an idea, sometime everything makes sense, too. Read.


How my family lives now

We have one full bathroom in our house. It looks like this:


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do

I gave a talk on "Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do" last month at TED and delivered a (not as good) stripped-down version of it a week later at ETech. I've been asked by several Jewels and Binoculars readers to post the presentation as a blog entry. Here it is. I recognize that a flat blog post doesn't capture the experience of a live presentation, but I want to get the material out here. And, as an added benefit, you don't have to look at or listen to me present it!

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Being here first thing in the morning, I feel like the opening act at the beginning of one of those long package shows of rock bands. I feel like Yngvie Malmsteen, a godawful heavy metal guitarist not often celebrated at TED.

Indeed, "Yngvie," as we all know, is Swedish for "opening act."

So here we go…

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I edit Release 2.0, an expensive newsletter, so I hear a lot from readers. Sometimes they’re looking for rules, some secrets to guarantee success. I want to justify their investment in the newsletter, of course, so I tell 'em what I’ve learned.

And what I've learned is that they should screw up.

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While anyone who's spent time with any of the members of Guns N Roses might find them to be screwups, the reason you haven't heard anything new and substantial from them on the radio for 16 years -- 16 years! -- is that they’ve committed the opposite of screwing up: overplanning. Since the mid-'90s, by which time every original member of the band except singer Axl Rose had left for one reason or another, Guns N Roses has been working on a new album called Chinese Democracy.

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Rose and his co-conspirators have been thinking and recording Chinese Democracy for 14 years, gone through at least six producers, 17 band members, and $16 million in recording costs. It's not out yet. They've waited so long, perfecting and planning, planning and perfecting, that the industry Axl Rose once ruled no longer exists. Democracy may arrive in China before Chinese Democracy arrives in record stores.

Oh -- wait -- there really aren't record stores any more, either. Too much planning, too much process, means no art, no product, nothing.

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For a different approach, let's consider the TV series Twin Peaks from the early '90s. To refresh your memory...

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This man, Leland Palmer...

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...possessed by the spirit of a supernatural character named BOB...

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...turned his daughter, Laura Palmer...

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...into this.

But where did BOB, the conceptual lynchpin of the series, come to be? Surely he was there from the beginning.

No. His introduction into the series came as a result of an accident while the cameras were running.

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In a scene late in the Twin Peaks pilot, Laura Palmer's mother experiences a vision while sitting on her living room couch. On the wall behind her, barely in the shot, there is a mirror. In the bottom corner of the mirror, there's the reflection of Frank Silva, a set dresser on the crew, unaware he's in the shot. You or I wouldn't have noticed it unless we were looking for it -- but on the set of a television show, there is someone whose job is to look for just such mistakes.

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After the take, that person alerted director David Lynch to the accident and began to set up a reshoot. Lynch stopped him. He spoke to Frank Silva, the set dresser in the mirror. "Can you act?" Lynch asked. This was Los Angeles, so you know the answer...

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...and the malevolent, mysterious character of BOB, the key to the weird mystery of the series, was born -- from an accident.

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Many popular products, advances, and countless works of art have emerged from accidents. In the Internet world, we have Blogger and Twitter. And those two are just from one guy: Evan Williams.

Things may go better with Coke, but Coke was originally designed to go better with pain. It was intended to be a pain remedy.

accident slide 15

in 1928, Alexander Fleming, researching the flu, noticed that a mold had taken over one of his petri dishes. That mold, he saw, had stopped bacteria in the dish. Voila! Penicillin. Indeed, the very idea of vaccines was discovered by accident, when Edward Jenner noticed that people who worked with cows didn't get smallpox.

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In 1894, John Harvey Kellogg left some cooked wheat to sit while he attended to some pressing matters at his sanitarium. When he returned, the wheat had gone stale. Because he was either cheap or broke -- historians disagree -- he tried to save the wheat by forcing it through rollers, expecting to get long sheets of dough he could use. Instead, he got ... flakes. He toasted them. He served them to his patients. He got very, very rich.

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Post-It notes came to be by accident, too, but the story isn't that interesting, so I'll just mention it and keep going.

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This one's more interesting. Fred Katz introduced the cello to modern jazz. One night in the late 1950s, during a break between sets while he was playing piano with a jazz band, Katz pulled a chair to the front of the stage and played some solo cello. When the rest of the band returned to the small stage, there was no room for Katz to return to his piano. Not sure what to do -- the set was starting, the band was playing -- Katz decided to play the piano lines on his cello. Out of his accident, his real, half-century-long, career began.

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Next time you enjoy some ferocious rock'n'roll encased in feedback, thank these guys. A spray of amplifier feedback at the beginning of The Beatles' 1965 recording of "I Feel Fine," an accident, sounded so unusual -- and so great -- that they kept it on the record. And, since I'm talking about brands favored by aging boomers...

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...Viagra was first thought to be a promising drug for angina. During 1992 clinical trials in a town in Wales, Pfizer researchers discovered that...

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...the drug had a different effect altogether.

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So mistakes can be great things. What do we do about 'em? How do we harness 'em? Well, if you’re the Harvard Business School, the font of management wisdom (and -- disclosure -- a client), you're not quite sure. Sometimes they tell us to be afraid of mistakes...

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...sometimes they tell us we can manage accidents, thus making them not accidents. We might call this the Pee-Wee Herman "I meant to do that" theory of managing mistakes…

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..and, once, squeezed almost as an afterthought -- or, maybe, an accident -- as the very last entry in an issue of the Harvard Business Review, they celebrate it, thanks to a terrific, brief essay by Danny Hillis. I'm not trying to pick on Harvard. You can find similar advice from the other Ivy schools, even Stanford. But this is the conventional business wisdom. You can't be built to last or go from good to great or whatever unless you're careful to avoid mistakes, the thinking goes. Imagine the difference between the reaction if you tell your boss "I'm planning" and the one you get if you say, "I'm making mistakes."

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Established institutions are in the business of supporting the status quo. And mistakes, if nothing else, go against the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the expected. As Esther Dyson used to sign her emails, "Always make new mistakes!" A key part of planning is being open to mistakes.

The unexpected kiss, the unpredictable punch line: they're so much of what makes life worth living. Shouldn't we let the unexpected into our business work as well? It's by screwing up that we learn and discover. We can't predict accidents. But we can take advantage of them.

You never know where a mistake is going to lead. Maybe nowhere, maybe somewhere. But it's definitely nowhere if you don’t at least lean forward and peer down the road after you screw up.

You want the secret of success that my newsletter readers want to know? It's no secret. It's that, chances are, whatever you’re looking for -- that's not what you're going to find.

Thank you.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Greatest TED video ever (first of a series)

At least three of this year's TED talks were flat-out amazing: Tod Machover's, Benjamin Zander's, and Jill Bolte Taylor's. The first of them has just been posted:

Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroanatomist, eavesdropped on her own stroke. As I wrote the day of her talk, she walked us through what she felt and thought while her brain was going wild, from the borderline-metaphysical ("I can't define where I begin and where I end") to the borderline-hilarious ("I'm a busy woman. I don't have time for a stroke"). Her description of her time in that strange state, caught between two worlds, the rare researcher who has been able to chronicle a brain-changing event from the inside, was astonishing.

And now you can see and hear it, too:

The brain she's holding there is a real one, by the way.

I'll alert you to the other two classics when they're published.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Not breaking the chain on Jewels and Binoculars

You want me to blog every day (or, at least, every work day)? Fine, I won't break the chain anymore.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

I'm not a half-bad headline writer...

...but every now and then I have to step back in awe from another's contribution.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Maybe I shouldn't leave the house anymore

I'm back home, at last, after a long trip. I'll get back to usual blogging speed over the next day or so. But look what happened to our house while I was gone!


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Worst press release headline of the day


The lede was out there, too: "Today, MySpace officially announced Operation MySpace, a concert for troops stationed in Kuwait. Performances will include the Pussycat Dolls, Jessica Simpson, Disturbed, Filter, DJ Z-Trip and the comedic genius of Carlos Mencia."

Wait: the Pussycat Dolls and Filter aren't geniuses?

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Best. Question asked in an email. Ever.

"does anyone have a machine for blowing up helium balloons?"


My William F. Buckley memory

William F. Buckley, the conservative commentator, died today. I have no use for his ideas or his writings, but his death reminded me of some immature behavior I engaged in about 20 years ago.

At PC Week in 1987, we used an internal email system notable for its slowness and unreliability. To connect with the outside world, we had to use MCI Mail. We discovered that a celebrity, William F. Buckley, had an account on MCI Mail, so with our collective minimal maturity we decided to copy him on all our correspondence. For example:

From: Jimmy
To: Doug
Cc: William F. Buckley
Re: Lunch
Yes, noon is fine.

We did this several times a day for a few months until the boss yelled at me about it. I had another boss there who used to play Tetris with me every day in his office and erased the high scores after I starting earning them. But that's another post, for another day.


What's making me happy today

* The hat Grace wore on Sunday
* This morning I got to talk about a topic I care about for an audience open to it -- and I didn't stink up the room.
* Junior Senior's Hey Hey My My Yo Yo, which time may show to be as wonderful as Chic's Greatest Hits
* Getting some good writing done before coffee and knowing how I learned that trick
* The names of the awful $5 snack boxes on the plane (smartpack, minimeal, quickpick, rightbite)
* I discovered a trove of new writing by Bill James. Hooray for the Internet!
* The solos during the Hammersmith Odeon '75 version of "Kitty's Back"
* Knowing that, somewhere, Alice Munro is writing
* Courtney Love, the choruses of "Doll Parts," "Violet," and "Malibu." Forget the tabloid stuff: Kurt wasn't the only genius in that marriage
* Next Thursday night


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Headline of the day

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Eight things about me

I've been blogging (or, as it was once called, "maintaining a personal web page") on and off since 1994, but no one ever tagged me with the "eight things" blog meme until now. Jane has tagged me with it, so, dear readers, I present you with a post slightly more self-referential than usual.

1. I can tell when people who say they've read Proust are faking it.

2. My favorite mode of transportation ever was my orange Raleigh Chopper. As Wikipedia reports, "At higher, but still moderate, speeds, it suffered from speed wobbles, which could lead to wild uncontrollable oscillations (almost invariably ending up with a spill)."

3. When I was 14, I was in a terrible ninth-grade band. It lasted only from September to December but had three names in that span: Plastic Electricity, Electric Shock, and -- despite our being a quartet -- The Seven Riders of Pegasus. (I was 14. Shut up.) One afternoon after we broke up (after a terrifying one-and-a-half-song performance in front of a Catholic elementary school), I decided it was time to figure out if the problem in the band was me. I set up a portable cassette recorder in my bedroom, put Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" on the turntable, held the microphone, and sang along. I recorded over the cassette roughly 10 minutes after, but it was that day it became clear to me that I could do much less damage to society writing about music than performing it. You're welcome.

4. I have never seen an episode of Who's the Boss? But, thanks to my children, I have witnessed nearly every episode of Boy Meets World.

5. As a kid in Bayonne, we briefly lived in a single-family home. It was right on the bend of the Boulevard. At least four times that I remember, a car missed the turn and hit our house.

6. I have never played a videogame as immersive as Zork. You haven't lived until you've been eaten by a grue.

7. I grew up on a dirty peninsula, which may explain why, for so many years, I fantasized about living within site of clean water.

8. I miss XyWrite. After I switched from XyWrite to Word, it took me 13 years to complete another publishable book.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Greatest Spongebobs ever

Stick around for The Godfather


Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Huckabee's refusal to leave the race

We knew he doesn't believe in evolution. Turns out he doesn't believe in mathematics either.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Public embarrassment as a motivator

I've written about that before here. Now I learn of a web-based service that helps with that: - Put a contract out on yourself!

Deciding where to start...


Monday, February 4, 2008

Quote of the day

"I'd like a hamburger and an Alka Seltzer." -- Warren Oates, in Two Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Good for the Jews

Jews rock in Norwalk

So now we know what Bob Dylan and Laura Branigan have in common, sort of.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Oh, Pretty Beetle...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rudy can fail

This isn't a political blog, but since America's Mayor is going down in flames tonight in Florida, I'd like to reference this post from a year ago.


"I'm going to be late for Davos because of this?"


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Friday, January 25, 2008

Jimmy Guterman's Jewels and Binoculars: new (and, perhaps, improved) 2008 edition

Hello to both of you who've waited for this humble weblog to return. I'm going to try something different this year. As those closest to me know, structure and I are not close friends. Everything reminds me of something else, which reminds me of something else, which ... well, you get the idea. No structure. If I'm going to stick to blogging for more than a little while this time, I suspect it will be only if I create a structure that encourages me to post here almost every day. And a different topic every day keeps this blogger unbored.

So, here's the structure that I'm going to attempt:

Every Monday, I will post about Cooking. [insert pause for laughter.] Yeah, I know, but hear me out. When I look at the things about myself that I want to improve, cooking keeps coming up at the top of the list. Partly it's because I'm a lousy cook (married to an adventurous, imaginative one) and I want to become a better one. Partly it's because my failure in the kitchen often feels like a metaphor for other failures in my life. Just as last year my cryptic decision to post sentences here from my novel-in-progress helped me focus on writing every day, I'm hoping that chronicling my disasters and occasional successes in the kitchen will keep me focused. The possibility of public embarrassment remains a powerful motivator.

Every Tuesday, I will post something Work-Related. The vast majority of my writing these days is for my work at O'Reilly (and, to a much lesser degree, Harvard). On Tuesdays, I'll post something related to what I actually do for a living.

Every Wednesday, I will post the latest Greatest Song of All Time of the Week. No further explanation necessary.

Every Thursday, I will post something related to the Novel-in-Progress. They may be sentences from the work (currently, but tentatively, titled The Rock Star Next Door), they may be complaints about the process, they may be lessons I've learned.

Every Friday, I will post nothing, probably, because Man was not meant to blog with the weekend coming so soon.

Random Crap can appear any day, as it is, er, random.

I will also tag each post, to make searching by topic easier, and to help anyone coming here who wants to peruse, say, the music posts but none of the cooking posts.

Seeya Monday...

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