Is Nintendo stealing Sony’s gamers?

Sony’s quarterly profits dropped 5% compared to one year ago, while Nintendo’s shot up by 40%. A simple case of the Wii outselling the PS3, or is it? An article in today’s New York Times asks, “So is the Wii expanding the video game market, or is it stealing customers from Sony and Microsoft?” Unfortunately, it provides a couple anecdotes, but not much data or evidence for either answer.

I finally managed to get a Wii over the weekend, and I must say that it’s quite fun, but doesn’t look anywhere close to as good as my Xbox 360.

Piper Jaffray on Apple’s iPhone

I’ve been planning a post on Apple’s iPhone for a while now, and I still plan to write something, but until then, check out Piper Jaffray’s evaluation of the iPhone.

Cingular benefits from the added subscribers and press surrounding the device, while Apple benefits from the largest U.S. carrier as an initial market for the device. We believe the Cingular will be aggressively attracting new subscribers during the launch of the iPhone by reducing service fees and announcing discounts to iPhone customers. Of note also is the fact that by partnering with Cingular, Apple does not need to be involved with any billing or subscriptions for wireless users. Cingular has confirmed that there is no revenue sharing plan in place from added iTunes Store users because of the iPhone. Cingular has also confirmed that there will be no Cingular branding on the iPhone, other than the wireless provider’s name in the corner of the screen where the signal strength is displayed. The key takeaway for Cingular in the relationship is the addition of customers who will likely be significant users of margin-enhancing value-added services for the operator.

Little Asia on the hill

I went to Berkeley for a year and a half, so Timothy Egan’s Sunday’s NY Times Education Life cover story about the increased population of Asians on campus in the post-affirmative action was a must read. I thought I would have a much stronger reaction to it than I did. When I was a freshman at UCLA, the most shocking thing for me was the high level of self segregation on campus. I could not believe the number of ethnic clubs and organizations on campus and the fact that many of them actually received university funding. (People, people, you could be funding arts organizations, club sports, science clubs, internship opportunities, but please, please, not the Chinese Republicans. I do not ask you for a middle-class white boys organization.) I remember receiving an invitation to rush an Asian fraternity in the mail before I even moved into the dorms. The person who sent it received a harsh, harsh reply from me. Unfortunately, the most interesting thing about Egan’s story is the odd way in which he inserts himself, in the first person, into a story that really doesn’t require his presence:

He dashes off to class, and I wander through the serene setting of Memorial Glade, in the center of campus, and then loop over to Sproul Plaza, the beating heart of the university, where dozens of tables are set up by clubs representing every conceivable ethnic group. Out of nowhere, an a cappella group, mostly Asian men, appears and starts singing a Beach Boys song. Yes, tradition still matters in California.

Monday’s mayhem

  • Joan Acocella reviews the new Martin Amis novel, House of Meetings, in the New Yorker this week. Michiko Kakutani also calls the book, “a powerful, unrelenting and deeply affecting performance: a bullet train of a novel that barrels deep into the heart of darkness that was the Soviet gulag and takes the reader along on an unnerving journey into one of history’s most harrowing chapters.”
  • Fortune magazine has named Google the best place to work in America.
  • Steve Jobs gives his annual keynote address at Macworld tomorrow morning. Keep your eyes peeled for some cool new stuff on Apple’s website around 11 am. You can follow the keynote live here.
  • Randy Johnson, who did not produce a World Series title during his two years with the Yankees is returning to Arizona, where he took a World Series away from New York in November 2001. Good riddance, Randy.
  • I haven’t yet read the Times cover story from Education Life yesterday, but I expect to soon and will post about it.

Bill Gates and his dark cloud

The LA Times published a story today about the contradiction between the philanthropic aims of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the foundation’s investments in companies whose practices run counter to those aims. It looks like the Times is, once again, being a bit too provocative in an attention grab, but, well, that’s what they do best in Los Angeles.

The Gates Foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, including in the Niger Delta. At the same time that the foundation is funding inoculations to protect health, The Times found, it has invested $423 million in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Total of France — the companies responsible for most of the flares blanketing the delta with pollution, beyond anything permitted in the United States or Europe.

Indeed, local leaders blame oil development for fostering some of the very afflictions that the foundation combats.

….

At the Gates Foundation, blind-eye investing has been enforced by a firewall it has erected between its grant-making side and its investing side. The goals of the former are not allowed to interfere with the investments of the latter.

Gladwell and Gopnik in the New Yorker

Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik both have articles in this week’s New Yorker. Gopnik’s, which is, in part, about the increasing distance that football fans feel from player, closes with a meditation on being a sports fan. He cites a book Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, titled In Praise of Athletic Beauty, in which Ulrich claims that our intense relationship with sport stems from, as Gopnik summarizes it, “a happy absorbtion in someone else’s ability.”

Gopnik concludes his essay with the following:

The essential experience of watching sports is experiencing loss; anyone who has consoled a twelve-year-old after a Jets loss, or been a twelve-year-old in need of consolation, knows this. Since loss and disappointment are the only fixed points in life, maybe the best we can say is that pro football, like anything else we like to watch, gives us a chance to organize those emotions into a pattern, a season, while occasionally giving us the hope of something more.

Meanwhile, Gladwell has an article about Enron, in which he debunks the idea that Enron’s shady dealings were a puzzle and that its executives kept secret and argues that they actually constituted a mystery in which all the necessary information needed to understand the company’s finances was freely available. More →

Big-Box Swindle: a diatribe against chain stores

Stacy Mitchell’s book, Big-Box Swindle, opens with an anecdote about the resurrection of Kepler’s in the fall of 2005, and in which this blog played an instrumental role. bigbox.jpgHer book, which is a well-researched diatribe against chain stores, received coverage in Business Week last week. I haven’t read the book yet, but judging by the review, it doesn’t seem like Mitchell’s research really offers anything new:

While chain stores were already a presence by World War I, changes to the federal tax code in 1954 turned them into tax shelters. Within three years, new shopping center construction had increased more than 500%; Wal-Mart, Target, Bradlees, Kor-vettes, and Caldor are among the retailers that soon appeared. These days, local governments lure the chains with generous subsidies and tax breaks, thinking the stores will bring jobs to town. Mitchell, building on her own and others’ research, counters that the boost “is nothing more than an illusion.” The stores do create hundreds of jobs, but eliminate just as many by forcing other businesses to downsize or close. The tax dollars they generate are offset by lost sales and property tax revenue from local business districts and shopping centers. A 2006 working paper by the Public Policy Institute of California examined several markets and found the opening of a Wal-Mart resulted in a drop in countywide retail earnings of 2.8%.

People who don’t like reading

The Economist has a brief, interesting story about improving reading levels among British school children through a new plan that offers six-year-olds four months of everyday 30-minute one-on-one reading sessions.

At more than £2,000 ($3,900) per pupil, Reading Recovery is not cheap. But it may be a sound investment. The KPMG Foundation, a charity that has been paying for Reading Recovery in some schools, reckons that each child who leaves primary school unable to read will go on to cost the taxpayer at least £50,000 in specialist teaching in secondary schools, dealing with truancy, paying benefits to adults who are more likely to be sick and jobless, and the fall-out from increased crime.

The most interesting passage, however, comes at the end of the article:

International research tends to find that by the time British children leave primary school they are reading well by international standards, but read less often for fun than those elsewhere. Tellingly, the inspectors said that when they asked why it is good to be able to read, children were more likely to say that it would help them to do well in tests or get a good job than that reading was enjoyable.

This matters not only because children who are keen on reading can look forward to lifelong pleasure, but because loving books is an excellent predictor of future educational success. According to the OECD, being a regular and enthusiastic reader is more of an advantage than having well-educated parents in good jobs.

If we had a sure-fire way for teaching people to enjoy reading, it wouldn’t be such a big problem, of course. I came to love reading largely thanks to a couple teachers I had in high school, though I believe the general trend is for people to become readers readers in early childhood because they grow up with parents who read in a household filled with books. The other model for becoming a reader that Stanford’s Shirley Brice Heath identified is that of the social isolate, who finds the world somehow inadequate and seeks refuge and greater experience in books. I definitely fall into this latter category, and find myself a little embarrassed to admit that when I was 12, reading was probably the least cool thing you could do.

Anyhow, the point I would like to make is the sense that reading is only good for utilitarian purposes–a means to an end–is a significant problem with education in America today. I remember how frustrated I was, even at a young age (ten, eleven) when teachers would justify their assignments and materials by saying that it would prepare their classes for next year. In middle school, everything was designed to prepare students for high school. In high school, everything touted as preparation for college. In college, I was disgusted by students who were obsessed with preparing themselves for careers. Preparation is fine and all, but what our educational system fails to instill and develop in students is a love for learning simply for the sake of learning. And what you end up with is population of adults that doesn’t read or learn at all unless the material is going to get them a raise, which seems okay on the surface but, when you think about it, basically crushes all creativity and innovation that inevitably comes from having a wide background of knowledge.

Barry Zito to the Giants

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According to Sports Illustrated, the Giants have signed free-agent pitcher Bary Zito to a seven-year deal worth $126 million. From the Times:

In pursuing Zito, the Giants took the same route as the Chicago Cubs did with signing Alfonso Soriano to a $136 million deal. They offered a contract worth so much more money than what other teams had offered that Zito could not resist snapping it up. Pitchers do not usually receive as handsome a contract as do position players, because the stress pitching places on their bodies makes them more susceptible to injury. But the Giants, eager to find a new face of the franchise after leaves, felt compelled to offer Zito the most lucrative deal for a pitcher in baseball history. The previous largest was Mike Hampton’s eight-year, $121 million deal with Colorado before the 2001 season.

Orhan Pamuk’s father and his suitcase

For weeks, the New Yorkers in my mail stack pile up and I read nothing in them more than a couple Talk of the Town pieces and a book review or two by John Updike or Louis Menand. Then, all of a sudden, an issue comes along that demands to be read in near entirety. Friends, the December 25/January 1 Winter Fiction issue is one such issue, and its highlight is Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel lecture. Anyone who cares about anything should read it.

pamuk.jpg

The narrative begins when Pamuk’s father delivers to him a suitcase filled with his writings, which launches Pamuk into a meditation on his decision to become a writer and his father’s decision to not.

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words.

….

I would like to see myself as belonging to the tradition of writers who—wherever they are in the world, East or West—cut themselves off from society and shut themselves up in their rooms with their books; this is the starting point of true literature.

But once we have shut ourselves away we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought. We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other people’s stories, other people’s books—the thing we call tradition. I believe literature to be the most valuable tool that humanity has found in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors—and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signs that dark and improvident times are upon us. But literature is never just a national concern. The writer who shuts himself up in a room and goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature’s eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own, for that is what literature is.

One of my favorite passages in the piece comes when Pamuk responds to the question, “Why do you write?” with every possible reason I’ve ever considered and then some.

I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—as in a dream—can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

The week that was

  • Zinédine Zidane spent the week in Algeria and attended a soccer match on Thursday.
  • Setanta Sports has, unfortunately, discontinued its Setanta on Demand service for ITVN.
  • Dan Halpern has an article on Boris Vian in this week’s New Yorker. Vian was a French author, musician, artist, champion of jazz among other things, and Halpern’s essay prompted me to order Vian’s greatest novel, L’Écume des Jours.
  • Also in this week’s New Yorker, James Suroweicki writes about the increasing popularity of gift cards and the money we waste on unwanted gifts. He cites research that finds, in general, the amount we pay for gifts is higher than the value that their recipients place on the gifts. On the other hand, we place a disproportionately high value on unrequested gifts because we assume the givers put greater thought into them.

    An economist might suggest that the solution is to abandon the pretense and simply start exchanging small piles of money. The boom in gift cards is a kind of socially tolerable version of this: the cards are somehow more personal than cash, and they’re also not going to be wasted on an unwanted gift. But Waldfogel’s studies also suggest a very different solution: if most of the presents we buy are going to be less valuable in monetary terms than in sentimental ones, then there’s no reason to believe that the more expensive gift is a better gift. In fact, the more we spend at Christmas, the more we waste. We might actually be happier—and we’d certainly be wealthier—if we exchanged small, well-considered gifts rather than haunting the malls. Calculating the deadweight loss of Christmas gifts is a coldhearted project, but it leads to a paradoxically warmhearted conclusion: the fact of giving may be more important than what you give.

Francine Prose on the new Eggers novel

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Francine Prose reviews, with glowing praise, What is the What, the new novel by Dave Eggers in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.

The lyricism, the detail and, most important, the absolute specificity of these sentences are what make “What Is the What” so persuasive. It’s a real high-wire act, yet Eggers manages to maintain this level of intensity throughout the book as Achak and the other Lost Boys encounter minefields and massacres, loneliness and fear, starvation, disease, predatory wild animals, the seemingly endless varieties of cruelty, the sustenance of fellowship and the surprising manifestations of instinctive human kindness. What’s remarkable is that, given its harrowing subject matter, the book isn’t simply horrifying or depressing. The considerable appeal of Valentino’s personality and the force of Eggers’s talent turn this eyewitness account of a terrible tragedy into a paradoxically pleasurable experience.

….

Reading “What Is the What” does indeed make it impossible to pretend that Valentino Achak Deng and the other Lost Boys and all the men and women and children who have suffered, and continue to suffer, fates like his do not exist. Dave Eggers has made the outlines of the tragedy in East Africa — so vague to so many Americans — not only sharp and clear but indelible. An eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling, “What Is the What” is an extraordinary work of witness, and of art.

Eggers and Deng are also interviewed in this week’s NYT Book Review podcast.

Sarah Bettens concert, or six years ago in France

In the fall of 2000, while shopping at FNAC in Toulouse, one of the listening stations was playing the new CD, Almost Happy, from a band called K’s Choice. I’m normally not one for listening stations, but the retro style of the album’s cover caught my eye, and so I put on the headphones and had a listen. The album’s first full track, “Another Year,” immediately grabbed me, and I returned home with a copy. When I told a friend, she said, “Oh yeah, they do that song, ‘Not an Addict,'” which I didn’t confirm for another few months or so. “Another Year” became a personal anthem of sorts for returning to school that fall at l’Université de Toulouse, and it’s aged well. At the time, I imagined that this album could be hugely popular in the United States if it only got a promotional push, but it wouldn’t. And it didn’t.

The band, which is composed of Sarah Bettens and her brother Gert, played a show in Toulouse while I was living there. It was good, and I remember staying until the end, but it’s the album that has stuck with me through the years, remaining one of my favorites.

By chance, this morning I discovered the video of a full acoustic show from Sarah earlier this month at a place called Paradiso, which, apparently, is in Amsterdam. Her cover of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” is especially good, and demands at least ten listens.

Since listening to this video reminded me of it, I might as well plug the wonderful tea salon Bapz in Toulouse, where I used to hang out and my friend Andrea used to work.

Sarah Bettens

Bibliographies in novels?

The Times has an interesting story about how some recent novels by authors including Martin Amis, Norman Mailer, and William Vollmann contain bibliographies.

“It’s terribly off-putting,” said James Wood, the literary critic for The New Republic. “It would be very odd if Thomas Hardy had put at the end of all his books, ‘I’m thankful to the Dorset County Chronicle for dialect books from the 18th century.’ We expect authors to do that work, and I don’t see why we should praise them for that work. And I don’t see why they should praise themselves for it.”

Traditionally confined to works of nonfiction, the bibliography has lately been creeping into novels, rankling critics who call it a pretentious extension of the acknowledgments page, which began appearing more than a decade ago and was roundly derided as the tacky literary equivalent of the Oscar speech. Purists contend that novelists have always done research, particularly in books like “Madame Bovary” that were inspired by real-life events, yet never felt a bibliography was necessary.

I recently read a wonderful bibliography in Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green, but I think bibliographies for works of fiction should not be included in the novels themselves, but would certainly be apprpriate for, say, the author’s website.

Weekend tidbits

  • I missed a recent story in the NYT about the Finnegans Wake Society, which used to meet at Gotham Book Mart, until my favorite store store closed its doors a couple months ago.
  • The excellent NPR show Marketplace did a segment last month on Kepler’s membership program, which has raised over $200,000 from shoppers, who, ahem, get nothing in return. Noticeably absent from the Marketplace piece was the very valid criticism that Kepler’s should not be able to get away with soliciting non-profit-style membership contributions until they become more transparent about their financial workings and where the membership money goes. On the plus side, I recently noticed that inventory at the store has improved quite a bit with the critical theory, fiction, and sports sections all showing marked improvement.BN.com
  • BN.com has an item on my Christmas list, the Lego Mindstorms NXT, for $187.46 with the coupon code B3U6E4V. That’s, by far, the best price I’ve seen so far.
  • Yahoo! and Reuters have collaborated to solicit user-submitted news photos through Yahoo!’s new You Witness News site. Reuters may then select photos for distribution to their clients, in which case, photographers will receive small royalty payments.
  • remember watching with delight then 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier pull a Derek Jeter fly ball over the right field fence for a home run in the 1996 ALCS when I was a sophomore in high school. According to a NYT story, Maier is now seeking a job in the front office of a Major League Baseball team, which is still where I hope, on some days, to end up.
  • Has anyone tried the New York Times Reader Beta? I just downloaded it and will post my impressions soon.
  • The Yankees appear closer to signing Andy Pettitte, according to the New York Times.
  • Forbes has a decent, but short profile of McSweeney’s, for whom I used to work. I especially like the following passage from the article: “Like upstart publishers anywhere, McSweeney’s has run into plenty of pitfalls, from bad planning and cost overruns to occasional cash shortages. ‘We’re making mistakes on every level of the spectrum that mistakes can be made on,’ says McSweeney’s editor Horowitz. ‘but our audience is really forgiving of mistakes, too.'”

Nintendo: a third-place winner

Nintendo Wii

James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker about Nintendo’s recent success with its WII and portable DS systems while Sony and Microsoft have engaged in an “arms race” for video game supremacy. Surowiecki uses the Nintendo example to debunk the theory that not being the first or second largest player in a market is inevitably a losing affair. He writes:

Nintendo has dropped out of this race. The Wii has few bells and whistles and much less processing power than its “competitors,” and it features less impressive graphics. It’s really well suited for just one thing: playing games. But this turns out to be an asset. The Wii’s simplicity means that Nintendo can make money selling consoles, while Sony is reportedly losing more than two hundred and forty dollars on each PlayStation 3 it sells—even though they are selling for almost six hundred dollars. Similarly, because Nintendo is not trying to rule the entire industry, it’s been able to focus on its core competence, which is making entertaining, innovative games. For instance, the Wii features a motion sensor that allows you to, say, hit a tennis ball onscreen by swinging the controller like a tennis racquet. Nintendo’s handheld device, the DS, became astoundingly popular because of simple but brilliant games like Nintendogs, in which users raise virtual puppies. And because Nintendo sells many more of its own games than Sony and Microsoft do, its profit margins are higher, too. Arguably, Nintendo has thrived not despite its fall from the top but because of it.

I haven’t been able to get my hands on a Wii console yet, but if playing its games are every bit as fun as watching other people play its games, I suppose I should try harder to find one of the sold-out units. The last Nintendo system I owned was the Nintendo 64, which was long-delayed, much-hyped, and then underwhelming.

The Times 10 best books of 2006

The New York Times Book Review has picked its 10 best books of the year. There aren’t really any surprises here, though I was pleased to see both Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics on the list. Pessl was the only first-time novelist to be included. As usual, I’m planning to read some of the books on the list, and not others. I already have the books by Shteyngart, Pessl, Rory Stewart, and Richard Ford, so I suppose those will come first.

What to do about America’s education gap

I’m admittedly a week behind on my reading of the New York Times Magazine, so it was only last night that I read last Sunday’s excellent cover story by Paul Tough, “How to Make a Student,” which surveys the current conflict over how to address America’s education gap. Tough’s piece’s at once echoes the point made in a NYTM article that I read about six years ago–that the education gap is about far more than what schools traditionally provide students–while recounting a number of success stories of schools, particularly KIPP, that have taken the worst students and brought them up to grade-level.

. . . the evidence is becoming difficult to ignore: when educators do succeed at educating poor minority students up to national standards of proficiency, they invariably use methods that are radically different and more intensive than those employed in most American public schools. So as the No Child Left Behind law comes up for reauthorization next year, Americans are facing an increasingly stark choice: is the nation really committed to guaranteeing that all of the country’s students will succeed to the same high level? And if so, how hard are we willing to work, and what resources are we willing to commit, to achieve that goal?

The old article I’m referring to argued that the education gap would persist until low-income housing areas are broken up and economically disadvantaged students share the culture that exists outside of school with their middle-class peers. If anyone can tell me the author or title of this article, please let me know. I can’t seem to remember it. Tough, in last week’s piece, focuses on the cultural and behavioral knowledge that poor students lack.

In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.

Taken together, the conclusions of these researchers can be a little unsettling. Their work seems to reduce a child’s upbringing, which to a parent can feel something like magic, to a simple algorithm: give a child X, and you get Y. Their work also suggests that the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren’t primarily about material goods. True, every poor child would benefit from having more books in his home and more nutritious food to eat (and money certainly makes it easier to carry out a program of concerted cultivation). But the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents — and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages. As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.

Sachs and Easterly at it again

Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly are sparring once again. This time, in response to an article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Review of Books that mentioned Easterly’s view of Sachs, Sachs has written a comment to the NYRB:

When we overlook the success that is possible, we become our own worst enemies. We stand by as millions die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. The inattention and neglect of our policy leaders lull us to believe casually that nothing more can be done. Meanwhile we spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on military interventions doomed to fail, overlooking the fact that a small fraction of that money, if it were directed at development approaches, could save millions of lives and set entire regions on a path of economic growth. It is no wonder that global attitudes toward America have reached the lowest ebb in history. It is time for a new approach.

Full comment here.

Kakutani slams Pynchon and the return of the dot-com boom

After her glowing review of Dave Eggers’s new book, Michiko Kakutani finds fault in Thomas Pynchon’s inability to create one true character in his new novel, Against the Day. She writes:

Whereas Mr. Pynchon’s last novel, the stunning “Mason & Dixon,” demonstrated a new psychological depth, depicting its two heroes as full-fledged human beings, not merely as pawns in the author’s philosophical chess game, the people in “Against the Day” are little more than stick figure cartoons.

In the Times Sunday Book Review, Liesl Schillinger’s sprawling review calls Against the Day Pynchon’s “funniest, and argurably most accessible novel.”

Elsewhere in the Times, Katie Hafner uses the example of Reid Hoffman to portray the return of the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley, where, she writes:

Envy may be a sin in some books, but it is a powerful driving force in Silicon Valley, where technical achievements are admired but financial payoffs are the ultimate form of recognition. And now that the YouTube purchase has amplified talk of a second dot-com boom, many high-tech entrepreneurs — successful and not so successful — are examining their lives as measured against upstarts who have made it bigger.

New Dave Eggers, or Kakutani gives a positive review!

Michiko Kakutani gave Dave Eggers’s new novel What Is the What a glowing review in the New York Times today. She calls the book, which I am currently reading,

a startling act of literary ventriloquism that recounts the harrowing story of a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, while reminding us just how eloquently the author can write about loss and mortality and sorrow.

A devastating and humane account of one man’s survival against terrible odds, the book is flawed by an odd decision on Mr. Eggers’s part to fictionalize Mr. Deng’s story — a curious choice, especially in the wake of the uproar over James Frey’s fictionalized memoir earlier this year. But while we start out wondering what is real and what is not, it is a testament to the power of Mr. Deng’s experiences and Mr. Eggers’s ability to convey their essence in visceral terms that we gradually forget these schematics of composition.

I find it rather amusing that she’s criticizing Eggers for having branded the book as a novel even after he’s explained that decision here and here.

Paul Auster on why he writes

In Paul Auster’s acceptance speech for Spain’s Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters, the author expresses one of my favorite themes–that art and literature and writing are at once useless and redemptive, important and inconsequential, and above all, inevtiable.

This need to make, to create, to invent is, no doubt, a fundamental human impulse. But to what end? What purpose does art, in particular the art of fiction, serve in what we call the real world? None that I can think of – at least not in any practical sense. A book has never put food in the stomach of a hungry child. A book has never stopped a bullet from entering a murder victim’s body. A book has never prevented a bomb from falling on innocent civilians in the midst of war.

….

In other words, art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

I cannot agree more with Auster’s conclusion to his speech:

I have spent my life in conversations with people I have never seen, with people I will never know and I hope to continue until the day I stop breathing.

It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted.

Microfinance, Zidane, and Adam Gopnik

Connie Bruck’s article in the October 30th New Yorker describes the current conflict in the microfinance industry between the old guard of microfinance lenders–typified by the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus–whose goal is to lift people out of poverty and a new generation that is focused on making money (and economic empowerment of the poor). Bruck cites eBay founder Pierre Omidyar as the embodiment of this class. Omidyar recently gave $100 million to his alma mater, Tufts University, on the condition that they invest it in microfinance.

“For us, it’s not just about alleviating poverty; it’s about economic self-empowerment.” Omidyar told me that in the two years or so since he became involved in microfinance he had not visited a microfinance institution or met a borrower. Just the opposite of Yunus’s entry into microfinance: Yunus left theory behind to listen to the poor, and Omidyar seems to rely largely on theory. Omidyar sees himself as an agent of global change—in this case, the commercialization of the microfinance sector. Hence his insistence that his hundred-million-dollar gift to Tufts be invested in ways that will promote that commercialization.

Bruck goes on to describe the rift in the microfinance industry in similar terms after recounting the suicides of women borrowers in India’s Andhra Pradesh. (It’s suspected that their inability to repay their loans caused them to commit suicide. Institutions in Andhra Pradesh have since lowered their interest rates from around 30% to as low as 11%.)

Opposing sides in the commercialization debate drew different lessons from the episode. For Yunus’s allies, it demonstrates how the emphasis on profit can blind lenders to social values; the other side worries that rates lowered for political rather than economic reasons probably aren’t sustainable. What nearly everyone can agree on, though, is that it is a reminder of the dangers facing this immature and rapidly growing field.

Speaking of Muhammad Yunus, he recently invited Zinedine Zidane to Bangladesh for the opening of the Grameen Danone Food Factory in Bogra on November 6-7. The factory is a joint venture between the Grameen Bank and France’s Danone. Zidane has long endorsed Danone’s products, and it was rumored this past summer that he will join the company’s board.

Meanwhile, Zidane: Un Portrait du 21ème Siècle has been receiving more attention, including this profile of filmmaker Douglas Gordon in the Times of London. Today, I heard the soundtrack to the film by Lanarkshire’s Mogwai for the first time. I had never listened to Mogwai before, but their work on this soundtrack reminds me strangely of Japancakes. Scotsman has an interesting interview with the band’s Stuart Braithwaite and Gordon, in which the latter compares Zidane’s red card and ejection at the end of the film to a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you know what is going to happen, you can see them [the Villarreal players] niggling; there are a couple of wee instants where you can see the fuse has been lit. When you know what the ending is, not to sound pretentious, it’s like Shakespearean drama. It’s like Macbeth at the end – you can start to pick up his descent into madness. I think he is a bit of a Macbeth figure, actually.

After Italy beat France in the World Cup Final this summer, Adam Gopnik wrote a Talk of the Town Piece about Zidane for the New Yorker. In it, he locates the fascination with Zidane in his ultimate unpredictability and inscrutability. He closes with a description of his son, Luke,

“An eleven-year-old New Yorker, a passionate supporter of Les Bleus, had been playing each of the French World Cup games over and over on his Nintendo Gamecube FIFA game and—with spooky accuracy—had been using the aggregate scores to predict the outcomes of games not yet played. But nothing in the video game could have led one pixel-constructed figure to turn around, succumb to an irrational animal urge, and bash another pixel-constructed figure in the chest. “It just never happened in the Gamecube,” he said afterward, bewildered. An inexplicable human act was the one thing you couldn’t program.That reminder may have been, in its way, the saving grace of this curious fall.

I had lunch with Gopnik last Thursday at Google, and in addition to being a really, really smart, cool, personable guy, he too is a big fan of EA Sports’ FIFA Soccer series. I’m anxiously looking forward to Tuesday’s Halloween release of FIFA ’07 for Xbox 360, which just looks amazing.

Gopnik read as part of the Authors@Google series I work on, and I’ll post a link to the video of his talk once we get it online. He wrote about the experience of speaking at Google for an online Q&A on NewYorker.com.

I got to go to the Google campus, outside San Francisco, and speak to the Google-ites. Google headquarters turns out to be enormous, far bigger than I could have imagined, and looks a bit like a cross between the school in “High School Musical” and that spooky village from the old “Prisoner” television series. An amazing monitor in the reception area displays current searches from all over the world, and I went in some slight fear that they would deliver to the visiting speaker, as a well-meaning but terrifying prize, a list of his last two years of searches. (“ ‘Swedish models’? Oh, yeah, so I did. . . . Well, I was searching for, you know, certain Ikea appliances. For my wife.”) But my hosts were serious and extremely literary. Over a talk, and then lunch from a fine (and free) cafeteria, where I piled my plate with vegetarian specialties, I had a chance to talk with the hyper-brilliant, hyper-earnest, amazingly young, and—significantly, for a field that has long skewed so awkwardly male—female hosts. To my surprise, they defended the notion of the continuing necessity of the book far more eloquently than I could, and insisted, to a degree that almost convinced an author who sees his children starving as everything goes on the Web, that the online reading audience will only feed the appetite for the bookstore book, as snacks encourage meals. And all of them so student-like! To adapt Lincoln Steffens: I have seen the future, and it is school.

I’ll post more on Gopnik’s new book soon.

*Update*
Here are a number of pictures of Zidane playing in an exhibition game between a pair of under-16 teams in Dhaka during his visit to Bangladesh.

Here is a low quality video of the game:

The BBC also has a story about Zidane’s visit, whcih can be found here.

Zidane in Bangladesh

Can the NYT’s glossy-style sections subsidize real news coverage?

Is his Public Editor column in Sunday’s New York Times, Byron Calame addresses the proliferation of magazine-style sections in the Times that have been introduced to increase advertising revenue. Calame concludes that executive editor Bill Keller has the best interests of serious news coverage in mind. Keller says,

Well, the reason why we’re inventing these sections, I think, is obvious: They generate the revenues that help subsidize the stuff that drew most of us into the business.

My reaction to reading this piece was that I’m glad that the Times is doing its best to preserve the sections that I find most valuable. It also confirmed my position that I wouldn’t ever want to run a publication whose business model depended on advertising revenue.

ITVN launches Setanta Sports On Demand

For the past couple months I have been watching soccer matches–primarily the Champions League and Euro 2008 qualifying matches–on Setanta Sports, which I get over my broadband connection using ITVN. The quality is not perfect, but it’s good enough for me. And now, ITVN has just launched Setanta On Demand, which allows you to watch anything from the past 24 hours on Setanta. Right now, I’m watching Marseille play Lyon in match that originally aired on Sunday afternoon.