Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top Ten Articles from The Economist in 2015


Any reader of this blog knows my admiration for The Economist. I'm not exactly subtle. Not sure if this is a no-no, quoting verbatim a piece from the magazine about their top stories of the year. But I encourage you to follow this link to get a brief summary of the story, so I guess it's okay. I just found their analysis of top stories so fascinating I've included it below.




A FEW trends emerge from the list of The Economist's ten most-read articles of 2015. The theme of inequality remains top of mind for our readers; articles about Asian-Americans, working-class males and inherited privilege all found their way into the top four. Many articles in this list are amongst our longer offerings, suggesting that readers set aside time to read them rather than snacking on the go. And most of the pieces below are leaders, which tells us that our readers want to know not only what happened but what can be done about it. The top piece, however, is an exception to all these trends: a fascinating science report about a new breed of animal called the coywolf.    

Saturday, December 26, 2015

What's in a Word? Beware, They'll Soon Be Gone

We all know that people's vocabularies are shrinking. Written communications that convey an exact nuance with the precisely appropriate word are labelled as inaccessible or too academic. Not having an arsenal of words to choose from - say the difference between fear, apprehension, trepidation, dread, uneasiness, foreboding, disquiet, horror, terror - many simply indicate degree by saying  they're scared, or f---ing scared.  Americans tend to resort to similes - as scared as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs - when they can't think of just the right word. This can lead to colourful language, and might put a smile on your face, but IMHO, it's a sign of being too lazy to strive for exactly the right word.


And now comes woeful confirmation of my suspicions from The Economist - the mother lode of exquisitely apt words. In their issue, The World in 2016, their obituary page features an "Elegy for lost verbiage" as they bid farewell to a number of words that are vanishing from the SAT tests American students write to earn university entrance. There's a picture of them flying away in the sunset.

In a hilarious tale of word magic, Joe goes to a cocktail party, where he meets the lovely Ms Wanton and many other banned, and not particularly obscure, words. Read the whole article here.

Other Posts on Words:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Lib's Book Reviews

As I expanded the number of book reviews in this blog, I started attaching a list with links to past book reviews and lists of other books I've enjoyed. The list is clearly getting cumbersome, and makes any book review post rather daunting because of its length. So I've decided to put that list in one post and update it as time goes on and I read and review more books. I'll include a link to this post at the bottom of book reviews to make it easy to find for those who are interested.


Links to past book reviews, with some of my favourites at the top:

Non Fiction:
Flash Boys
The Gene: An Intimate History
Being Mortal
The Innovator's Dilemma
Elon Musk
The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean (my most viewed book review)
Curiosity (my second most viewed book review)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
The Checklist Manifesto
Uncharted
The Lean Start-up
The Upside of Irrationality
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Steve Jobs
Global Warring
Nudge
The Year of Yes

Fiction:
The Word Exhange
Americanah
Gone Girl
The Girl on the Train
I Let You Go
Life After Life
A Possible Life (I love anything by Sebastien Faulks)
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Rules of Civility
The Taliban Cricket Club
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Faithful Place
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Help
The Housekeeper and the Professor


Some series I've liked:
Donna Leon's series about the Venetian detective Guido Brunelli: A Question of Belief
Canadian Peter Robinson's series about British detective Alan Banks: Before the PoisonBad Boy
James Church books about a North Korean detective: A Corpse in the KoryoHidden MoonBamboo and BloodThe Man with the Baltic Stare
Gianrico Carofiglio's series about an Italian policeman: Involuntary Witness
Jo Nesbo's series about Norwegian detective Harry Hole: The RedeemerThe RedbreastNemesis
Alexander McCall Smith's series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Andrea Cammillieri's books about Sicilian Inspector Montalbano: The Shape of Water
Martin Walker's series about French local policeman Bruno, Chief of Police
Louise Penny's detective series set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Still Life
Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Danish detective Carl Morck: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Ruth Rendell's books about Chief Inspector Reg Wexford
Arnald Indridsadon's books about Finnish detective Erlendur: Arctic ChillHypothermia and Outrage

Other books I've also liked:
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Better Angels of our Nature
Radioactive
The Believing Brain
Hellstrom's Hive
22 Britannia Road
The Imposter Bride
Murder as a Fine Art
Adapt
The Invisible Bridge
This Body of Death
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Berlin Crossing
Gold
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Makioka Sisters
Russka
Suite Francaise
The Man from Beijing
Innocent
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
The Ghost
The Council of Dads
The Elements
Tribes
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone
McMafia
The Janissary Tree


Some books I didn't like very much:
A Perfect Heaven
Potsdam Station
The End of the Wasp Season
The Dark Room
Dead or Alive
A Vintage Affair
The Finkler Question


When the Devil Holds the Candle

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Elon Musk


Ashlee Vance's book about Elon Musk is a great book. Of course, it helps to have such a charismatic subject.

Elon Musk has been called everything from a visionary to a crackpot. I first came across him speaking to an elite technology conference in California in 2006. He had credibility as a founder who'd made gobs of money on two Internet ventures - Zip2 and PayPal - but you'd never have known it.  Shuffling diffidently to the front of the room, he haltingly explained that he was pouring that money into a new company called SpaceX to build rocket ships that would revolutionize the space industry. (From the founding in 2002 until 2006, Musk had poured $100M  into the company). Never having trained as an aerospace engineer. With no experience in the space industry. His modest goal was to radically reduce the cost of access to space. And, oh, by the way, his ultimate goal was to enable humans to voyage to and settle Mars -  Plan B if we totally mucked Earth up as appeared likely. It was an offhanded presentation of a mind-boggling vision that stretched credulity. Most thought he was a crackpot.

Then he built those rockets. His lack of aeronautical experience led to a rethink of the then-current assumptions of the government-dominated industry. And SpaceX became the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station.  Its vertically integrated approach makes them much more efficient than the other big aerospace manufacturers - Musk figures SpaceX is clever enough to build components better and more cheaply than they can buy them. The big breakthrough will come if they can make rockets that are reusable, and that goal is within sight*. Hmm, maybe he's a visionary.

At this point Musk already had a great lifetime resumé. But he wasn't finished. Next he exploded into the public eye with his plan to build an audacious all-electric car. With no training as an automotive engineer. And no experience in the automotive industry. Maybe he is a crackpot after all. As his rhetorical skills improved, some began to think he was self-aggrandizing blowhard crackpot.

But Tesla is not 'just' an electric car. As with SpaceX, Musk questioned and challenged every assumption and belief of the traditional automotive industry. He built the car from the ground up. Never having trained as an automotive engineer. Sound familiar?

Then there's Musk's involvement and investment in batteries and his $5B gigafactory and Tesla's announcement of its PowerWall. Batteries have been a technology crying out for radical improvement, and there's Musk again. Then there's his proposal for a hyper-loop (based on those pneumatic tubes mentioned in The Word Exchange (recent review here)) as the most efficient transportation mode between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The jury's still out on this one, but it's getting ever harder to bet against Musk.

In his fascinating and readable book about Musk, Vance acknowledges that he started in the "he's a crackpot" camp and ended up in the "he's a visionary" camp. He tells a rollicking tale of how Musk ended up where he is now, including some warts on his professional and personal resume. He describes Musk's drive and commitment, almost obsession, to his projects. He gives some insight into how Musk keeps so many balls in the air - running one company as groundbreaking as SpaceX would be challenging, but adding Tesla to the mix, then batteries, and hyper-loop as a side project is truly amazing. (Hint: he spends a lot of time on airplanes).

This is a great read. Good Christmas gift book idea too.

* That other Internet mogul who's interested in space, Jeff Bezos, has also started a space company called Blue Origin. Blue Origin recently successfully had a spacecraft and rocket booster return to earth to be reused. However, Blue Origin has a much more modest goal than SpaceX; it simply wants to get to the edge of space for space tourism while SpaceX wants to send up spacecraft that go high enough to reach orbit.

P.S. Here's a link to list of books I've read, reviewed, liked or disliked.




Thursday, November 19, 2015

High School Student Explains Special Theory of Relativity - Really

I've written about the Khan Academy a couple of times - here and here. Khan Academy specializes in making sophisticated concepts easy to understand through short video lectures accessed online for free. What started as a simple lectures by Salman Khan on mathematics has expanded to include over 5,000 lectures on a wide variety of topics by a wide variety of faculty. What a bounty of free educational help for students who struggle with concepts, particularly those who don't enjoy good teachers.

The approach has received high accolades, (and of course criticism too about whether the benefits have been adequately proved). I personally have used a few Khan Academy lectures to improve my understanding of certain areas and found them quite helpful.

A recent innovation is the Breakthrough Junior Challenge which invites students between 13 and 18 to submit an instructional video:

The winner this year was Ryan Chester with a thoughtful and coherent explanation of the special theory of relativity. See the video here. You gotta be impressed!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Word Exchange

Douglas Johnson, the brilliant editor of the third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, has disappeared. And so has the about-to-be-released third edition of the dictionary. Even worse, a word flu pandemic is spreading: people are falling ill and their speech is littered with gibberish. So begins this marvellous dystopian science-fiction thriller as Dr. Johnson's daughter Ana tries to unravel the mysteries.

The novel is set in the nearish future. Our smart phones have evolved to really-really-really-smart phones called memes making knowledge look-up so easy that it's not worth storing any knowledge in our own brains.  Word meanings are among the lost knowledge, but that doesn't matter much as you can look up words on the Word Exchange for a few cents. Hm, cornering the market on words would raise the value of the Word Exchange, wouldn't it? A great opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs.

As the memes get compromised, some ancient technologies come into their own. People discover fax machines, typewriters and even those Victorian wonders pneumatic tubes. Although pneumatic tubes are no longer used for transporting information, they are still used to transport things - think of their handy use in hospitals transporting test samples between departments. The Wikipedia entry on pneumatic tubes is fascinating.

I highly recommend this book. Quirky and endearing characters and a fast-moving plot make it highly entertaining, while musings on the dangers of where our technology could take us make it very thought-provoking. What would our world look like without words?

Links to past book reviews, with some of my favourites at the top:
Non Fiction:
Being Mortal
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean (my most viewed book review)
Curiosity (my second most viewed book review)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
The Checklist Manifesto
Uncharted
The Lean Start-up
The Upside of Irrationality
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Steve Jobs
Global Warring
Nudge

Fiction:
Americanah
Life After Life
A Possible Life (I love anything by Sebastien Faulks)
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Rules of Civility
The Taliban Cricket Club
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Faithful Place
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Help
The Housekeeper and the Professor


Some series I've liked:
Donna Leon's series about the Venetian detective Guido Brunelli: A Question of Belief
Canadian Peter Robinson's series about British detective Alan Banks: Before the PoisonBad Boy
James Church books about a North Korean detective: A Corpse in the KoryoHidden MoonBamboo and BloodThe Man with the Baltic Stare
Gianrico Carofiglio's series about an Italian policeman: Involuntary Witness
Jo Nesbo's series about Norwegian detective Harry Hole: The RedeemerThe RedbreastNemesis
Alexander McCall Smith's series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Andrea Cammillieri's books about Sicilian Inspector Montalbano: The Shape of Water
Martin Walker's series about French local policeman Bruno, Chief of Police
Louise Penny's detective series set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Still Life
Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Danish detective Carl Morck: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Ruth Rendell's books about Chief Inspector Reg Wexford
Arnald Indridsadon's books about Finnish detective Erlendur: Arctic ChillHypothermia and Outrage

Other books I've also liked:
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Better Angels of our Nature
Radioactive
The Believing Brain
Hellstrom's Hive
22 Britannia Road
The Imposter Bride
Murder as a Fine Art
Adapt
The Invisible Bridge
This Body of Death
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Berlin Crossing
Gold
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Makioka Sisters
Russka
Suite Francaise
The Man from Beijing
Innocent
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
The Ghost
The Council of Dads
The Elements
Tribes
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone
McMafia
The Janissary Tree


Some books I didn't like very much:
A Perfect Heaven
Potsdam Station
The End of the Wasp Season
The Dark Room
Dead or Alive
A Vintage Affair
The Finkler Question
When the Devil Holds the Candle

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Welcome Back 007

As Bond aficionados (and I count myself one) await the latest Bond movie, The Economist Daily Chart (of which I'm also an aficionado) featured some deeply meaningful charts. These charts just might be as hilarious as a Bond movie.

This first one compares the martini/romances/kill ratio for each of the Bond actors or as The Economist so quaintly puts it, booze, bonks and bodies. Connery had the highest ratio of conquests - why doesn't this surprise me - while Brosnan has the highest proportion of kills - and this did surprise me.



Here's a chart showing the loose connection between ratings (at least as shown on IMDB) and box office success. Click here to view it on the Economist web site where it's interactive.






Monday, November 2, 2015

TOO MUCH CHOICE!

Last weekend my husband and I decided to go to see The Martian. I perused the online listings to choose a time and theatre. But it was much more complicated than that!

Did we want to see the movie in regular seats, or go to a VIP theatre? In 3D, AVX or UltraAVX? Dolby Atmos? And what about D-Box? And different theatres had different combinations of all those special technical features. I was faced with a dozen decisions.

Experiments* have shown that offering too many alternatives dampens consumer purchases. That almost happened in our case, as I came close to giving up in frustration. But we finally opted to see the movie in 3D, with AVX, Atmos and D-Box, in a regular, not a VIP, theatre. Found the D-Box seat vibrations somewhat distracting. If they're going to move the seat around I think they need to pick one point of view - the main character. In this movie, mostly we were supposed to feel like Matt Damon, but sometimes they'd jerk the seat when a piece of equipment fell down as if we were that piece of equipment. Not satisfying.

By the way, really liked the movie. Much better than the last space sci-fi movie I saw, Gravity.

*For those not familiar with this famous experiment, here's how Barry Schwartz describes it in The Paradox of Choice. 
When researchers set up [in a gourmet food store] a display featuring a line of exotic, high-quality jams, customers who came by could taste samples, and they were given a coupon for a dollar off if they bought a jar. In one condition of the study, 6 varieties of the jam were available for tasting. In another, 24 varieties were available. In either case, the entire set of 24 varieties was available for purchase. The large array of jams attracted more people to the table than the small array, though in both cases people tasted about the same number of jams on average. When it came to buying, however, a huge difference became evident. Thirty percent of the people exposed to the small array of jams actually bought a jar; only 3 percent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Uber vs Taxis

In the last few weeks, I've taken taxis and Uber cars, in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. I love the technology-enhanced Uber experience and I thoroughly dislike oligopoly-protected taxis.

I like Uber because:

  • credit card prepayment eliminates the need for cash -  leap out of the car as soon as it stops, a great benefit when time-pressed
  • the email receipt means you can't lose those expense-report receipts. It's also interesting to see how the fare broke down between base fare, distance charge and time charge.
  • a map shows the car coming so you know the car will arrive as promised
  • the driver rating system allows me to decline a driver with a low rating. So far, drivers have been unfailingly polite and the cars immaculate. Having depended on TripAdvisor's crowd-rating system for a great trip in France, I have a lot of confidence in the wisdom of crowds.
  • the fare estimate before you hop into the cab 
  • you can easily split fares, although I haven't used this yet
  • the drivers use Waze to choose best route based on real-time traffic info
  • it's cheaper: I estimate for my recent rides about 30% lower fares. Surge pricing (in effect where demand exceeds supply) does raise prices, to get more cars on the roads
Meanwhile, let me count the reasons I hate cabs. I've ridden taxis without springs. I've been subjected to noisy cabs - the staccato of a dispatcher or the driver's favourite radio station or both. I've endured the  seat belt alarm as the driver never put on his seat belt. On a ride to the Montreal airport, the cabbie spoke almost continuously on his phone. I've been subjected to aggressive cabbie protestors on the way to the Ottawa airport - thankfully they weren't totally blocking traffic that day. I've had a cabbie 'forget' to turn on the meter and then suggest an unrealistic price for the ride.  I've had my credit card refused in Montreal. I've been charged a $1.50 surcharge for using my credit card in Ottawa - a surcharge for heaven's sake, when credit card convenience is a key feature of Uber. And, of course, I've paid consistently more than when using Uber. And that's just in a few weeks.

The Inevitability of Disruption

Most industries have not survived disruption. There's an air of inevitability when incumbents are attacked. When Amazon came along, I continued to patronize book stores. I love book stores and felt very sympathetic to their plight. Yet the siren song of convenience did lure me to buy online, even while suffering great pangs of guilt. And others flocked to Amazon without my ambivalence. 

Taxis are very vulnerable right now. And I for one feel zero - and I mean zero - sympathy for the taxi industry. They have delivered poor service while hiding behind a sick regulatory environment. An industry that convinces politicians that a cab that delivers someone to the airport is not then allowed to pick up a fare - increasing congestion, carbon emissions and generating sublime economic irrationality - does not have the best interest of the consumer at heart. They are wielding their shady business practices for the sole protection of their own pocketbooks. Arguments that these firms paid a lot for their taxi licenses do not move me - so did book store owners invest a lot in their businesses, and they didn't get any help. 

I do feel sympathy for the drivers, who work as feudal serfs for the oligopoly and earn too little to realistically aspire to be Uber drivers because they can't afford a car. Ultimately both cabbies and Uber drivers are at risk of irrelevance in a world of driverless cars. Guess who's got the perfect app to underpin driverless car pick-ups.

Having missed the opportunity to revolutionize the taxi business by developing an app like Uber, they are trying to respond to Uber. Their main efforts have been protests, blockades, and lobbying. Municipal councils are trying to help by imposing rules such as in Montreal: cabbies must open the door for all passengers (just what I need when I'm in a hurry, the cabbie to get out, walk around the car and open the door for me!), must wear a uniform (as if I care how they're dressed), and must accept credit cards. In Toronto, taxis are requesting permission to reduce the base fare. None of this will keep consumers happy, although reactionary regulatory moves might still kill Uber.

It's hard for an incumbent to respond to disruption but the taxi companies are making a complete botch of it. I hope regulators find a way to allow Uber to delight consumers, while working out a reasonable regulatory framework.

For those interested, I've compiled some past responses to disruption, including both successful and unsuccessful approaches.

Responses to Disruption


Since Clay Christensen wrote The Innovator's Dilemma in 1997, it's been clear why incumbents struggle when disruptive innovation assails their industry. Many companies - in fact, whole industries - have succumbed to new disruptive business models. Such business models are often enabled by technology, they usually devastate margins, and they empower a new entrant to address the low end of an existing market, or an entirely new market. Research has shown that failure to address disruption is the single greatest cause of the demise of companies.

Incumbents struggle to come to terms with disruption because it attacks their existing business model and profits. Lowering prices, adapting to lower profit margins, shifting their focus to new customers or embracing a new business model - these are all unattractive to incumbents. Stolidly sticking to an existing business model has proved the death of companies, as dramatically demonstrated by Kodak and Blockbuster. Newspapers have badly botched their response to disruption: they recognized the digital threat way too late, and then they doubled down on the most vulnerable part of their business model, news.

But there are other approaches which have yielded varying degrees of success. Some companies wield the law or regulation.  The music companies' initial response to music downloading was to sue early users of Napster. That didn't stop online music; it's not even clear it delayed it much. Sometimes, such tactics can work: broadcast companies unleashed a regulatory blockade to successfully block Aereo's innovative video distribution technology and send it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy (later bought by TiVo). Taxi companies are working hard to maintain the protection of regulation.

When digital photography disrupted the Fuji shifted out of the film business but exploited their competencies in new chemical markets. Other companies cede the low end of the market, and continue their move upmarket to become a smaller but successful company addressing that niche market.

Another tactic has been to create an autonomous business unit operating with a new business model. IBM famously set up its PC unit in Florida, far from the constrictive confines of its headquarters in Armonk and achieved domination of the PC market for decades. By releasing such units from the shackles of the existing business model companies can liberate such subsidiaries to succeed in the disrupted industry.

Another approach is to move aggressively to a new business model within the existing company. Netflix launched streaming even though it damaged their old profit recipe and antagonized some customers. Their stunning success in streaming (36% of US TV households subscribe to Netflix of 40% that subscribe to streaming) shows how smart that aggressive and early move was. Philips has moved from incandescent bulbs to LEDs. Both companies clearly understood disruption and had read Christensen and have disproved the earlier conviction that the only path to success is through an autonomous company.

No matter how an incumbent responds, facing disruption is unbelievably challenging, and there are more failures than successes.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

This blog is mostly about ideas - ideas from conversations, speakers, books or conferences. Maybe some of you might like to hear about our travels, but probably not all of you. But I like to keep a record of trips to share with family and as a memory of the trip for myself. So I created a separate blog for our upcoming trip to France. If you happen to enjoy travel writing and photos, pop over to franceinseptember.blogspot.ca and you can subscribe to read my travel updates in France for the month of September. If you're not interested in following those travels, ignore that one. I am determined to resume posting here soon.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Helping to Understand the Middle East

If you have trouble understanding who's who, and who supports whom in the Middle East, here's an awesome chart from the Economist.



You can interactively mouse over the chart if you go directly to The Economist here. The chart is dated in April, so probably some things have changed, but this certainly gives you a great start.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me


Heartbreaking. Heartwarming. Sad. Uplifting. Poignant. The film Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me was all of those. Just after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Campbell embarks on a farewell tour of over 100 concerts. He may stumble cognitively at home, but when he walks on stage, Campbell is transformed, his brain seems to click into place, and the music comes flowing back. He may need a teleprompter to remember the lyrics of songs he must have sung hundreds of time, yet the melodies are pitch-perfect and his fingers fly confidently over the strings as he and his daughter Ashley launch into duelling banjos (video here). Campbell can't remember what happened a few minutes ago, yet remembers the melody of the last song he wrote and manages to lay down a haunting rendition of his last single I'm Not Gonna Miss You, with its heartfelt and sadly true lyrics.

I'm still here, but yet I'm gone
I don't play guitar or sing my songs
They never defined who I am
The man that loves you 'til the end

You're the last person I will love
You're the last face I will recall
And best of all, I'm not gonna miss you
Not gonna miss you

I'm never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You're never gonna see it in my eyes
It's not gonna hurt me when you cry

I'm never gonna know what you go through
All the things I say or do
All the hurt and all the pain
One thing selfishly remains

I'm not gonna miss you
I'm not gonna miss you

This lovely movie, a touching video highlights reel of two years during Campbell's final tour, dramatizes the invidious onslaught of Alzheimer's and its impact on Campbell and his family. It's intended to dramatize and advocate for the Alzheimer community. It succeeds.

P.S. I have another post with a review of the book Still Alice, also about Alzheimer's.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Danny

The movie Danny, a highly affectionate portrait of the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, the pugnacious Danny Williams, is set against the backdrop of Newfoundland history. When Newfoundland - somewhat reluctantly - joins Confederation at England's urging, it was a resource-rich independent nation. Williams argues vigorously that Canada gained more than Newfoundland from the Union. This was a minority opinion in Canada, where Newfoundland was a 'have-not' province and the recipient of enormous transfer payments from Ottawa. However Williams contends this wouldn't have been the case if Newfoundland had received its fair share from the Churchill hydro project.

Williams isn't going to let that happen again, even if it takes press-conference theatrics like pointing to Canadian flags and vowing they're coming down if Newfoundland doesn't get what it wants. He negotiates a good deal for the lower Churchill hydro project and stares down Paul Martin, then the Prime Minister of Canada, to wrest a hefty share of revenue from Newfoundland's offshore oil. Suddenly, Newfoundland is a 'have' province. William's astute business tactics have changed the fortunes of Newfoundland and the little guy is the most popular premier in 8 out of 10 provinces.

Williams' incandescent pride in Newfoundland illuminates the movie.  And his fierce tactics remind you of an enforcer in hockey, the game he loves.

This movie is an uncritical look at a colourful character and is a rollicking good time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Welcome to Leith

Leith is a small town in North Dakota where land is cheap, dwellings are modest at best and residents have never heard of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Until the arrival of the repugnant white supremacist Craig Cobb who starts buying lots and rundown buildings with the intention of building an enclave of like-minded people there. Since the town's population is only 24 (including children), it won't take many new arrivals to take over the town's government. Soon a new family joins Cobb, swastika pennants are flying, town council meetings feature nasty confrontations and armed supremacists start patrolling the roads.

The townspeople clearly don't want the new arrivals, and feel deeply threatened by their presence and behaviour. They retaliate by passing an ordinance requiring all dwellings to have running water and safe sewage and indulge in a bit of friendly tire-slashing and harassment. Cobb and his pal are arrested on charges of terrorizing the town and escape long jail terms with a plea bargain.

Meanwhile, the sheriff and townspeople visit Cobbs' house with the health department's condemnation and tear it down and burn it to the ground. Ironically, as despicable as these new arrivals were, this final scene of destruction made me think of Kristallnacht.

Welcome to Leith was made possible by over $60,000 raised on Kickstarter. A disquieting movie worth taking in.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hot Docs 2015

Hot Docs is officially underway. The largest documentary film festival in North America, Hot Docs has been a growing success since its launch in 1992. It's a busy ten days for documentary aficionados.


Around the World in 50 Concerts

This lovely film about Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra features simply gorgeous music, interviews with members of the orchestra and a look at the logistics, including thermal packaging, of transporting all those instruments.

What makes the movie so special - besides that gorgeous music - are the stories of audience members with a passion for music. There's the Argentinian taxi driver who can't wait to get behind the wheel where he can listen to classical music in peace. The music of Mahler brings back memories and a tear to the eye of a melancholic Russian, who survived both Hitler and Stalin. Music is the sole redeeming feature in the hard life of two poor South African girls, who play in an exuberant marimba band.

Try to see this movie!

Pleasure at Her Majesty's

This film follows the preparations, and some glimpses of the final performance in a 1976 Amnesty International benefit concert organized by John Cleese. The first part of the film showing the preparations was muddled and the sound quality made it hard to understand multiple voices speaking at once. There was some payoff in the second part with routines from the final performance, including the famous dead parrot skit. But the content of this film was not enough to make up for low video resolution and poor sound quality.

Give this one a miss.

Rolling Papers

It's 2014 and Colorado has just legalized marijuana for recreational use. The Denver Post, like all newspapers in the 21st century, is struggling to stay alive. Maybe a marijuana web site can make the newspaper relevant.

I learned quite a few interesting facts about marijuana legalization, both in Colorado and Uruguay, about the need for regulation, and how marijuana reviewers can sound like wine reviewers in their rapturous descriptions of varieties of weed. And I enjoyed the wonderful pictures of different species in dazzling close-ups. But the movie didn't have a single driving theme that pulled it all together and left me pretty lukewarm, despite the delightful pun in its title. I'm sure there will be better movies than this for your schedule.


Dear Araucaria (double feature with Rolling Papers)

Some people get an obituary in a newspaper. The Guardian made this short film as a eulogy to its long-time crossword puzzle setter. When John Graham, known as Araucaria, developed terminal esophageal cancer, he broke the cardinal rule - no diseases as answers - and included words about his disease and palliative care in the answers.  Soon informed, dedicated puzzle solvers flooded him with good wishes. This is a nice short film.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What's in a word? Thugocracy

The Economist has again proved its deftness with the English language.

In an article about South-East Asia, the article stated that ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asia Nations) had only four stable countries. Two were described as dictatorships (Laos and Vietnam). One was an Islamic Sultanate - Brunei. The last one, Cambodia, was described as a thugocracy. What a wonderful word!

Other Posts on Words:


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Busting Myths about Creativity

In 1815, a German music journal published Mozart's description of his composing process: basically, when he was quiet and in a good mood, the music came to him complete so that the only thing left was to write it down. The letter was a contributor to the myth of human creativity - a brilliant flash of insight that strikes a bona fide genius.

The trouble is, the letter is fake. Original Mozart manuscripts show many false starts and crossings out - in fact his composition process was iterative. But this myth, and Archimedes' Eureka moment and countless others, are still cited, and they have supported the notion that creativity arises when a sudden flash of insight strikes an extraordinary genius.

Kevin Ashton is the author of How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery where he debunks such myths about creativity. In a recent talk at Rotman, he argues that creation arises through a series of trials and errors, and we get to a solution through a long process of incremental steps, alternately refining the problem and the solution until a 'final' solution is reached, or at least until another problem emerges. In fact the word creativity wasn't even coined until 1926 by Alfred Whitehead. But recently, creativity has become a hot topic, as shown in this Google ngram:
(I describe Google ngrams in a previous post. Essentially, it's a measure of how often a particular word is mentioned in books.)

In Ashton's fascinating talk at the Rotman School of Management, he put humans' art of invention in a grand historic context, starting with the first human technology: the invention of the hand axe one and a half million years ago. We usually think of such inventions as the result of our increasing brain size. Humans' brain evolved to be larger as the amount of space in the skull devoted to jaws and teeth diminished. Without the hand axe, humans would have starved without those huge jaws and teeth. Ashton argues that we should think of the increasing brain being the result of our technology, which allowed us to survive with bigger brains and smaller jaws. Interesting twist.

I'm looking forward to reading Ashton's book, which I'm told is full of fascinating stories illustrating his thesis about creativity.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

End of Life Thoughts

Our modern healthcare system fails people two ways:
  • Senior residences and nursing homes focus on physical welfare, rather than striving for optimum quality of life. 
  • As patients near end of life, physicians subject them to extreme but futile medical treatments.  
These ideas come together in Gawande's latest book Being Mortal. He lambastes nursing homes' focus on measuring the purely medical needs of their patients, like getting medications on schedule, but failing to care for their quality of life. Many activities that would provide stimulation for people's lives, could add risk to their health. Many residents in these homes would prefer to take these risks in return for a better life (by their own definition), but they are not given the choice.

Gawande also takes on the medical profession's obsession with intervention in late stages of life, interventions that can make the end of life agonizing for the patient. Yet studies have shown that, on average, these brutal measures don't extend life expectancy beyond that for people who choose palliative care.

Gawande advocates rethinking our entire system's approach to late-life end-of-life care, including a fleeting reference to assisted suicide.

This book brings together so many things I've been thinking about recently. Some time ago I wrote a review of How to Die in Oregon, a documentary about assisted suicide, one of the best documentaries I've seen at Hot Docs. It reinforced my support for assisted suicide options. And Canada's Supreme Court recently ruled that adult Canadians in grievous, unending pain have a right to end their own life with a doctor's help(details here). I've also written a glowing review of The Checklist Manifesto and of Atul Gawande's TED talk, which first made me a Gawande fan.

He's hit the ball out of the park again with this book. A must-read.
Links to past book reviews, with some of my favourites at the top:
Non Fiction:
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean (my most viewed book review)
Curiosity (my second most viewed book review)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
The Checklist Manifesto
Uncharted
The Lean Start-up
The Upside of Irrationality
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Steve Jobs
Global Warring
Nudge

Fiction:
Americanah
Life After Life
A Possible Life (I love anything by Sebastien Faulks)
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Rules of Civility
The Taliban Cricket Club
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Faithful Place
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Help
The Housekeeper and the Professor


Some series I've liked:
Donna Leon's series about the Venetian detective Guido Brunelli: A Question of Belief
Canadian Peter Robinson's series about British detective Alan Banks: Before the PoisonBad Boy
James Church books about a North Korean detective: A Corpse in the KoryoHidden MoonBamboo and BloodThe Man with the Baltic Stare
Gianrico Carofiglio's series about an Italian policeman: Involuntary Witness
Jo Nesbo's series about Norwegian detective Harry Hole: The RedeemerThe RedbreastNemesis
Alexander McCall Smith's series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Andrea Cammillieri's books about Sicilian Inspector Montalbano: The Shape of Water
Martin Walker's series about French local policeman Bruno, Chief of Police
Louise Penny's detective series set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Still Life
Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Danish detective Carl Morck: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Ruth Rendell's books about Chief Inspector Reg Wexford
Arnald Indridsadon's books about Finnish detective Erlendur: Arctic ChillHypothermia and Outrage

Other books I've also liked:
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Better Angels of our Nature
Radioactive
The Believing Brain
Hellstrom's Hive
22 Britannia Road
The Imposter Bride
Murder as a Fine Art
Adapt
The Invisible Bridge
This Body of Death
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Berlin Crossing
Gold
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Makioka Sisters
Russka
Suite Francaise
The Man from Beijing
Innocent
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
The Ghost
The Council of Dads
The Elements
Tribes
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone
McMafia
The Janissary Tree


Some books I didn't like very much:
A Perfect Heaven
Potsdam Station
The End of the Wasp Season
The Dark Room
Dead or Alive
A Vintage Affair
The Finkler Question
When the Devil Holds the Candle

Monday, February 23, 2015

Bury Your Dead

I love Louise Penny's detective series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, set in the quaint and charming village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. In Bury Your Dead, the action shifts to Quebec City. Gamache, guilt-ridden after a misjudgement that led to death of an officer, is visiting his old mentor, retired and living in Quebec.

A murder takes place in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, a venerable institution  founded in 1824, and now the last refuge of Quebec's diminished Anglophone community, and Gamache gets involved in the case. In fact, three cases unfold over the course of the book.

There's something particularly fascinating about reading a book set in a locale you're visiting. It seemed that every time we ate in a restaurant in Quebec, just a few pages later, we'd read about it in the pages of this book. We ate across the street from the murdered man's home, and sought out the Lit and His, as it's called, down a narrow lane, just a couple of blocks from where my father used to work. The Lit and His is a beautiful old building, as you can see in this picture.


Literary and Historical Society

Add this to my list of Louise Penny favourities.

Links to past book reviews, with some of my favourites at the top:
Non Fiction:
The Innovator's Dilemma
The Wave: In Search of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean (my most viewed book review)
Curiosity (my second most viewed book review)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
The Checklist Manifesto
Uncharted
The Lean Start-up
The Upside of Irrationality
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Steve Jobs
Global Warring
Nudge

Fiction:
Americanah
Life After Life
A Possible Life (I love anything by Sebastien Faulks)
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Rules of Civility
The Taliban Cricket Club
The Vault
Before I Go To Sleep
A Son of the Circus
Still Alice
Faithful Place
Defending Jacob
The Strangler
The Help
The Housekeeper and the Professor


Some series I've liked:
Donna Leon's series about the Venetian detective Guido Brunelli: A Question of Belief
Canadian Peter Robinson's series about British detective Alan Banks: Before the Poison, Bad Boy
James Church books about a North Korean detective: A Corpse in the Koryo, Hidden Moon, Bamboo and Blood, The Man with the Baltic Stare
Gianrico Carofiglio's series about an Italian policeman: Involuntary Witness
Jo Nesbo's series about Norwegian detective Harry Hole: The Redeemer, The Redbreast, Nemesis
Alexander McCall Smith's series about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Andrea Cammillieri's books about Sicilian Inspector Montalbano: The Shape of Water
Martin Walker's series about French local policeman Bruno, Chief of Police
Louise Penny's detective series set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Still Life
Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Danish detective Carl Morck: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Ruth Rendell's books about Chief Inspector Reg Wexford
Arnald Indridsadon's books about Finnish detective Erlendur: Arctic Chill, Hypothermia and Outrage

Other books I've also liked:
The Spoiler
The Secret Race
The Blondes
San Miguel
The Better Angels of our Nature
Radioactive
The Believing Brain
Hellstrom's Hive
22 Britannia Road
The Imposter Bride
Murder as a Fine Art
Adapt
The Invisible Bridge
This Body of Death
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Berlin Crossing
Gold
The Marriage Plot
The Paris Wife
The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
Turn of Mind
The Secret Speech
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Makioka Sisters
Russka
Suite Francaise
The Man from Beijing
Innocent
At Bertram's Hotel
Red April
You Are Not a Gadget
Five Smooth Stones
River of Gods
Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour
The Ghost
The Council of Dads
The Elements
Tribes
The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone
McMafia
The Janissary Tree


Some books I didn't like very much:
A Perfect Heaven
Potsdam Station
The End of the Wasp Season
The Dark Room
Dead or Alive
A Vintage Affair
The Finkler Question
When the Devil Holds the Candle