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Weekly reading

  • Jeffrey Toobin has an article on Google Book Search in the New Yorker.
  • The Chicago Fire made an attempt to sign Zinédine Zidane only to be told, like other MLS clubs, that the French midfielder is not coming out of retirement.
  • Wired has a short feature on Zidane: Un Portraît du 21ème Siècle, which was recently shown at the Sundance film festival. The magazine says: “. . . Zidane provides some sublime pleasures. At moments, the filmmakers give us near silence, suggesting Zidane’s isolation, or sound effects that sound like a herd of stampeding wildebeest that connect his physicality with survival, wildness and nature.”
  • I read an article in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology by Jason Hobbs about designing the web for users in Africa, which didn’t say much except that we need to pay attention to their specific needs: “The real challenge is not low bandwidth, small user bases and budgets for building but our notions of what constitutes a user and how we can design for them and their contexts of use. The opportunity is to design within the limitations that exist to increase trust in the channel (as a meaningful alternative) and thus increase use of the channel.”
  • It’s listening not reading, but still worth checking out is Dave Eggers’s appearance on KCRW’s Bookworm this week. You can listen to the show here. Bookworm, for the uninitiated, is the best show about books in the country.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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%.

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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.

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