From sunshine to rain in Spain
|A couple years ago, I biked with a lifelong friend along a stretch of Spain's pilgrimmage route to Santiago de Compostela. (slideshow) The weather in Galicia, traditionally a rainy area, was pristine. We paid for that sunshine this year, as we rode the Route of El Cid, which extends from Burgos to Valencia. For the first couple of days, out of Burgos, it was fabulous. The roads were nearly empty, scenery beautiful, food great.
|South of Burgos, en route to Covarrubias
On the third day, we climbed to the castle of Gormaz
, which went back and forth between Muslim and Christians during the 9th and 10th centuries. There were warnings of rain in the weather report, but we forgot about them as we looked down from the castle.
|In a town called Berlanga de Duero, we stopped for a mid-morning cup of coffee--one of our rituals. Coming out of the cafe, we felt the first drop of rain. I won't bore you with details, but for the rest of the day, we suffered downpours and two hail storms. And what began as a joy ride through Soria turned into an increasingly frantic hunt for shelter, food and heat. By the next day, seeing gloomy weather forecasts, we pedalled to the town of Siguenza, where there's a train line, and returned to Madrid. We later took one more ride, in the only sunny part of Spain, along the Via Verde de la Jara route, in the province of Toledo. The slideshow (below) tracks our path from sunshine, to rain, to Toledo, and then back to Madrid.
I might mention that El Cid, whose route we were following, suffered many setbacks during his military career. At least a couple of them were more devastating than ours. So, like him, we will persevere, maybe in a year or two.
Flickr asks me to stop paying money
|A few years ago, I decided that to load all my photos to Google's Picasa. That would be my cloud repository. But then Google tied Picasa into Google+, and suddenly I had to figure out which "circles" I wanted to share with. I screwed up a few times and shared photos with large crowds of strangers. So I bagged the service and decided to pay Flickr $25 for a pro account. Flickr, as Mat Honan details in a Gizmodo post, used to be a cutting-edge social site in 2005, when it was sold to Yahoo. That began its slow descent into irrelevancy. I didn't care about that, though. I just wanted a place to store my photos.
Yesterday, the same day that Yahoo agreed to buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion, I received the strangest email from Flickr. The company virtually begged me to stop paying it money and to switch to its free ad-based service with a terabyte of storage. I obediently complied.
I should mention that Flickr's service of late has been dreadful. The links between Flickr and Apple's iPhoto are a bad joke. But I do manage to store my photos there, and starting today I'll be doing it for free. As Rob Hof notes
, the Tumblr acquisition is Yahoo's bid to wrest some social media traffic from Facebook. And the change to a free, virtually limitless Flickr is no doubt part of the same strategy. I have little doubt that Yahoo will start pushing me, the way Google did, to share my photos with my circles of friends.
And I'll push back, or withdraw. It's not that I don't want to share photos. I do. But only about 1% of them. Some of my reluctance has to do with privacy. My friends and family in some of the photos haven't agreed to be posted. The other issue is quality. Most of my photos are boring to everyone but me. Actually, probably half of them bore even me. I keep them simply as historical artifacts. So I want to pick and choose which ones I post. A few might go on Facebook, or on this blog. But the rest of them ascend into this great big shoebox in the sky. For now, it's Flickr.
|One of the first photos I uploaded to Flickr, back in 2005, when Flickr was hot. This one is from Paris, in 2002, just before we moved back. I took it with my first digital camera, a Sony that actually recorded photos on a mini CD. That baby, I figure, must be about 13 by now.
Rich health care for Brazil's poor
I'm running out the door--to Spain.
But just wanted to post a link to this BusinessWeek article
about a health care initiative in Brazil. It describes research carried about by New Cities Foundation
and General Electric. Eleven health care workers climbed into the remote favela
of Santa Marta and monitored the elderly there for the most common chronic diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. As you might expect, providing these people care on site proved to be much more efficient, in saving lives and money, than waiting for them to feel sick and go to the emergency room.
One wrinkle. The medical kits these people carried into Santa Marta included high-tech equipment worth $42,000. What I'm wondering is whether the same team carrying traditional tools, perhaps costing $100 or $200, would have achieved similar results. The key, after all, is getting care to people who need it. And there have been all sorts of low-cost breakthroughs, many of them involving cell phones. Frontline SMS
, a start-up hatched at Stanford
, is a prime example.
The point is that billions of people on earth, including many in rich countries, would benefit greatly from the kind of outreach described in the BW article. It doesn't require doctors. Medics can do much of the testing, counseling and follow up. And while I'm sure G.E.'s high tech devices are cool, health workers can do fabulous work with much more basic tools. The world already spends some $6.5 trillion a year in health care--nearly $1,000 per person. It would save money and lives to devote a small share of that to help billions of chronically ill people in their homes. But it'll never happen if each worker requires a $42,000 knapsack.
Don't blame Twitter for idiocy
|An assignment: Go out with a note pad and eavesdrop. Listen to people at the coffee shop, at the bus stop, in the checkout line at the supermarket. Everytime someone says something a) dumb, b) self-promotional, c) hateful or d) petty, write it down. When your notebook is full, maybe you can write an extremely long article for The Weekly Standard exposing the idiocy of human speech.
This is essentially what Matt Labash did
, but he targeted Twitter. He came up with numerous examples of idiocy, hot air, and group think. His hunt took him from his computer screen all the way to the tweeting capital of techdom, South by Southwest, in Austin. There he expanded his focus to include the BS, jargon and self-promotion of social media insiders. Plenty of rich material.
But did Labash come across any surprising or intelligent insights on Twitter or at SxSW? I imagine he did. However, he only gave us the dumb stuff, which isn't quite fair. After all, most human communication comes across as meaningless, or worse, especially to outsiders. The challenge, whether you're sitting down at a bar or finding people to follow on Twitter, is to tune into the smart and fun stuff. There's plenty of it on Twitter. In fact, I found Labash's article through a Twitter link from Michael Dougherty
author of the baseball newsletter I subscribe to, The Slurve
Whether you're judging a technology platform like Twitter or a singer, I would argue that each should be judged by successes, not failures. If you want to pan Bob Dylan, for example, don't just pick out a few bad songs. Bring down his best. Tell us how A Hard Rain
, Like a Rolling Stone
or Visions of Johanna
fall short. Same with Twitter. I think Labash should have contacted prominent Twitter users like Jeff Jarvis
or Fred Wilson
, or newer ones like Elias Isquith
, and asked them for examples of Twitter value--insights and links they've gained from it. Who are the best people they follow?
That would have set up a stronger article with a more compelling line. The important question about Twitter and social media, which LaBash touches upon toward the end of his long story, is whether they entice us to spend too many hours in an inferior online world, one in which we sacrifice the random and chaotic richness of the analog realm for staring at screens, large and small. Do we see too little of our friends, and settle instead for their updates?
If that's the case, and I think it is, the answer is not to demonize Facebook and Twitter (and their millions of users), but to keep these tools in their place--looking at them for only a few minutes a day. Imagine, for example, that you die and then are given one more hour to come back to life on earth. Would you spend it looking at a screen? I try to keep this in mind. For me, it means paying attention to my time, remembering to keep my phone in my pocket during spare minutes (and hours), and to look around, to soak up the world of light, sound, vibrations and fellow animals.
Why I still buy albums, even on iTunes
|Very weird. I read an article in the paper version of today's Star-Ledger. I decide to blog about it and cannot find the link anywhere on the paper's site or on Google or, for that matter, Bing. Maybe if I take out my scissors and send a copy to one of you, we can start a chain.
Anyway... The article was a feature by Tris McCall on why 10 years after the emergence of iTunes (and almost 15 since Napster burst on the scene), people still buy albums. It seemed for a while that the single would prevail. Fans could pick and choose, put them into their own song lists, and skip the boring and tedious tracks on an album (Think the Beatles' Revolution #9
). But McCall argues that albums remain the organizing principal for many bands, and listeners. If I were editing his story, I would have asked for some data to back this up. Still, he interviews musicians about it, and notes that albums are the "backbone" of the Spotify
service. (I tried Spotify for about 10 minutes, until I saw that the music I clicked was showing up on Facebook...)
I find that after the celebration of playing favorites a decade ago, I'm returning to albums. I buy complete digital LPs, and I listen to them that way. Working out at the Y the other day, I listened to the NJ band Thomas Wesley Stern
, non-stop. My last purchases on iTunes are the naked version of the Beatles Let it Be
and one of my favorite Brazilian records, which I had on tape in the '80s, Milton Nascimento's live album, Ao Vivo
|Buying an album makes the most sense when you don't know it. If you know and like one song on an album, it probably won't be your favorite for long. And if it's the only song you have from the album, you'll probably get sick of it. There are others that might take longer to like. If you don't buy the album, you skip that process. Looking at it another way, singles are like a constant diet of desserts. Sometimes you want some broccoli rabe, and you might even grow to love it (especially in pasta al dente, mixed with hot peppers and parmesan...)
Which brings me back to the Nascimento album. I hadn't heard it in 20 years. I remembered the big hits, like Dos Bailes da Vida
. But there was one song I barely remembered, which I now cannot get out of my head. It's called Cuitelinho
, a secondary name for hummingbird. The first is beijaflor
, or kissflower.) Here's a vinyl version of it
on YouTube. I love its languor, its slow, disjointed melody, and the nostalgia it evokes, both as a song and a memory of my own from hearing it on my Walkman in Caracas (with tiny speakers) in the '80s. But it might take you a few dozen, or hundred, listens to learn to love it.
Into the Wild--Maine style
|It was about a week late that I came across this story about the 47-year-old hermit, Christopher Knight, who has lived in a nylon tent in western Maine since 1986, stealing food and clothing to survive. In makes great reading, and the videos have the feel of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, like Best in Show. (link from Michael Cervieri @bMunch)
This story reminds me of one of my favorite books, L'Adversaire
, by Emmanuel Carrere. It tells the story of Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who lived an utterly fictitious life for 17 years, lying to everyone he knew--his wife, neighbors, children, parents--about how he spent his days and came by his money. The story didn't end well.
I have a theory about these decade-long dramas. It has to do with inertia. The way I imagine it, a person makes a quick decision to do something drastic. In Romand's case, he simply stayed in bed on the day of his first-year medical exam, and later told people that he had passed the test. I would imagine that he figured that one day, probably very soon, he would have some sort of reckoning, and it would be awkward. So he put it off. He lied more. Every day he was faced with a decision: Do I end this farce today, or do I wait? And every day, for 17 years, he waited, stitching together ever more complicated webs of lies to sustain the fantasy.
All I know about the Maine hermit is what I've read in the article above. But I would imagine that he took off in 1986 thinking that his stay in the woods would be brief, probably not lasting until winter. But he had to steal food to survive. And as soon as he began to do that, he adapted his life to his environment and circumstances. He went so far as to gain weight in fall, so that he wouldn't have to steal as much food in winter, when tracks in the snow might lead to his capture. It turns out, he used immense intelligence and planning to lead a solitary life of a thieving hermit. I can't wait to read the next chapter.
If Rupert meditates, what about Bashar?
|I read (in Quartz) that in his tempestuous ninth decade, Rupert Murdoch is looking to Transcendental Meditation for some peace of mind. I always wonder about such strategies. If your work-a-day life is full of marauding, dissembling, corporate backstabbing, and if your media properties, like The New York Post, grub after money and page views by exposing innocent people as "Bag Men" for terrorists, is it possible to find peace by shutting your eyes and focusing on breathing? (If you haven't read this Onion piece on the Post, it's worth a click.)
It comes down to what you can buy in this world. You can buy $10,000 bottles of wine, and chateaux with exquisite views, you can buy politicians and the allegiance of thousands of workers. It's the free treasures--love, faith, friendship, a peaceful night's sleep, among others--that are in fact priceless.
Anyway, the news about Rupert reminded me of Tony Soprano, who went to a psychiatrist when the business of violent crime began to mess with his head. The doctor faced an impossible job. And this led me to wonder what sort of therapies other moguls, war lords and cretins might pursue.
Bashar Assad, for instance. The Syrian leader must be at least as stressed as Rupert. I wonder if he's considered a three-day get-away, perhaps to the Mii Amo Spa
in Sedona, AZ. Just imagine if he could delegate the war to a capo and sign up for a Jojoba Butter Massage, an Herbal Detox and perhaps spend an hour in the desert doing Tai Chi. Certain risks exist, even at a spa. The Bio Aquatic Cranial could awaken unwelcome associations, and the Circle of Power would no doubt deliver Bashar--in mind, if not body--right back to his palace in Damascus. My concerns, though, are less with the Bashar than the other guests at the spa. Imagine, you spend all that money to relax in the Sononan Desert, and next thing you know this guy arrives with his mustache and his entourage--and suddenly everything feels... toxic.
A trip to Pernambuco
A catnap in Olinda, Pernambuco, Brazil
There was a time when my entire professional life (what would later become known as "brand") was wrapped up in Latin America. I spent much of my 20s in various Spanish-speaking countries, and my goal was to have a big U.S. publication send me somewhere as a foreign correspondent. I finally got that job, running a one-person bureau for BusinessWeek in Mexico City.
I think it would have seemed strange to me back then to imagine that I would have drifted so far from that beat. We moved back to the U.S., for a number of reasons, in 1992. I worked in Pittsburgh, covering industry. As the dot.com boom heated up, the magazine lost interest in stories on steel and aluminum, and I began to dip my toe into technology, writing about software and robots at Carnegie Mellon. That led to the European technology job in Paris for four years, then back into technology in the States, which finally led to The Numerati
and Final Jeopardy
. And now my beat is data and AI, with Latin America and France as distant footnotes. (I did manage to get some Latin America into my dystopian novel, The Boost
, which is coming out next year. )
It's a nice thing about journalism that you can create new chapters in your life. But the current chapter tends to dominate. It took a trip to Brazil a couple of weeks ago to bring me back to my Latin America side, which has been buried for years. I loved the sunshine and the smells (even some of the bad ones brought back good memories), the food, the people, their music and their language. I spoke Portuguese down there. It wasn't great, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Portuguese for me is like trying to speak Spanish in pig Latin, a never-ending game.
Here's a slideshow
from photos my wife and I took at Praia dos Carneiros
, Olinda and Recife. Incidentally, we got the idea to take this trip last October when we bought a Brazilian print by Jose Barbosa at an antique shop in West Chester County. (my blog post about it here
.) We made a point of visiting the artist (below), who welcomed us into his beautiful house/studio, served us coffee and a pastry called "the mother-in-law's tongue" or Lingua da Sogra
The challenge for me (and for all of us, really) is to incorporate more of the things I love into my work. For me, this might mean more about Latin America, and about French, and baseball, and novels. It might muddy the brand. But if it engages and excites me, better things will come from it. Incidentally, my next book, which I'm busy working on, is about health care. More muddying. I'll write more about that in a future post.
One broadening move I made this morning: I subscribed to The Slurve
, a baseball newsletter.
Your doctor might not want you to see your records
|It sounds retrograde at first, more or less what you might expect from the industry that still deals with data on clipboards: Less than one of three doctors, according to a Harris Poll survey, believe that patients should have full access to their own medical records.
There is, however, an explanation for such secrecy. Picture a patient walking into an exam. The doctor takes notes. Among other details, he or she writes (or types): "Obese. Bruises on neck and shoulders. Abuse issues?" These are important notes for the doctor. Some are only notes to self and are not edited for the public. Is it any surprise that doctors aren't eager to share such data?
This is one of the problems of so-called transparency. Some notes are private, and if they must become public, doctors will have to censure themselves--or find another channel for their most personal observations.
This would not be a problem if we, as a society, weren't so hypersentive to "hurtful" words, and eager to sue in cases of errors. Our tender feelings interfere with communication at almost every level. In an age of open data, a doctor might refrain from writing "obese" and simply write "weight issues" or "heavyset." In such a case, the patient would be less likely to be offended, perhaps at the price of not learning an important truth.
If we want the data, we should be ready to see and accept it, even when offensive. This openness would pay off richly. For example, we'd be much more likely to spot mistakes in our records, and clear them up. This would eliminate loads of medical errors and misdiagnoses.
giraffes, live and modeled
|One day after I saw many giraffes in South Africa's Kruger Park, I visited an art class near Acornhoek, about 50 miles away. There, an American named Nick Vorono, working for Seeds of Light, was teaching 20 or 30 kids. Below, in descending order: the real giraffes; the art class project that I visited; and finally, the two of the shots Nick posted on his Facebook page.
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
follow me on twitter
Kirkus - Kirkus Reviews
Andrew Dunn - Bloomberg News
Culture Mob - Dan Sampson
Shelfari (Amazon) - Tom Nissley
read more reviews
My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013
Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012
The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012
"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011
Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011
Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011
- October 3, 2010
The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010
The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010
My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010
- November 12, 2009
BusinessWeek cannot afford to stay within McGraw-Hill
- August 6, 2009