Monday, February 22, 2010

Yet Another Robert Boyd Who Is Not Me

This Robert Boyd is a virtuoso flamenco guitarist--check out his superb website for some samples of his fantastic playing.

(I can play two chords on the guitar--but they're both really good chords!)


Monday, February 15, 2010

A Note on Ahead of the Curve
Ahead of the Curve by Philip Delves Broughton.

I read this book because I wanted to compare the Harvard MBA experience with my own. Broughton was the head of the Paris bureau for the Daily Telegraph when he decided to make a change in his life. Like me, he was older than his fellow students. He also was culturally from a different place than many of his fellow students. He tries to minimize this in the book, and indeed he befriends classmates from drastically different backgrounds from himself. But it was an issue for him, just as it was for me.

Harvard is famous for using the case study method, but I didn't realize how exclusively it was employed. No textbooks, just cases. We used cases, but we had textbooks and I used them and still use them as reference books. I can't imagine not being able to do this--that seems like a pretty drastic difference from the Rice MBA way. On the other hand, Rice uses formal teams more than Harvard did. Broughton deals with teams in some of his classes, but for me it was always important to get on a team right away in virtually every class. That's tricky if you are shy. In the first semester, we had no choice--we were randomly assigned a team. In the second semester, we were assigned teams for our big company projects based on our interests and strengths (it was a little less random). In the second year, we could pick our own teams in any given class. It was always important to get smart, committed people on your team--at least, that was my strategy, and apparently it was Broughton's as well in his "Dynamic Markets" class. (One of my favorite memories of B-school was when a woman in my international finance class shot across the room to ask me to be on her team because she wanted to be on the same team as someone smart! Little did she know... But we ended up on the same team in many classes subsequently, so I must have done OK.)

The book discusses his classes, and many of the professors must have been made uncomfortable by his assessments here. But what is more interesting is his simultaneously inside yet dispassionate look at the culture of getting a job. This is as big a part of the MBA experience at Harvard as it was at Rice, and as it presumably is everywhere. Broughton is married and has a baby, so he is unwilling to take the soul-killing banking jobs that so many of his classmates are primed for. No 100 hour weeks for him, thanks.

But at the same time, he finds it hard to compete. He didn't have the math background many of his classmates entered with, and had never done spreadsheets. This puts him behind for finance right from the start. In general, he finds getting a job hard. He decides not to work over the summer in an internship (the standard practice) when he can't get one in Boston. And although he interviews 10 times (!) for Google, they won't make a decision, and he finally asks them to no longer consider him. (Sounds insane, right? I had a classmate who interviewed 11 times with BlackRock before they decided to pass on him.) You would think that Broughton's obvious worldliness compared to his classmates would be a plus. But that's not how corporate HR departments look at MBAs. They want round pegs for round holes. I was lucky in that regard--my job listing didn't come through HR but through a department head, and he hired me because he liked my number crunching skills, my background (which was mostly irrelevant to the job--which was perhaps a plus), and my interview.

Ahead of the Curve was highly entertaining and probably should be read by anyone going for an MBA--at least, a traditional full-time MBA. I imagine the experience is quite different for those getting "executive MBAs."

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Enough With the Punk Rock Oral Histories Already

Years ago, someone gave me a copy of Please Kill Me (1997), the oral history of punk/new wave in New York City compiled and edited by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. It's a great read despite McNeil's unaccountable dislike of the Talking Heads (he refers to David Byrne's "yuppie whine," as I recall). So anyway, I guess that book was successful because it spawned a version for L.A.'s scene called We Got the Neutron Bomb (2001) compiled by Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz. It was fine and useful but perhaps not as good Please Kill Me. It was the first of a bunch of books put together by Mullen, who ran The Masque, an early punk venue in L.A. About a year later, he came out with Lexicon Devil, an oral history/biography of Darby Crash of the Germs, co-compiled with Adam Parfrey (the publisher) and Don Bolles, one of the Germ's drummers.

I just read Lexicon Devil, and to get myself in the mood, I watched The Decline of Western Civilization again. (I saw it originally when it came out in 1981.) It's very interesting to watch it now knowing a lot more about the featured bands and other personalities. When I first saw it, I was just shocked and a little scared. (Yeah, I was kind of a wuss.)

The book covers the filming of it. Crash was really spiraling down at that period. They filmed him early in the morning, so he is a bit incoherent. But hell, before I've had my coffee, I'm a bit incoherent. He is filmed with a bath-robed punkette called Michelle Baer, and the movie makes it look like she is his girlfriend or a groupie who slept over. Crash was gay, though, and Michelle was a beard for the movie! This guy who seemed so self-revealing and unashamed was in the closet.

The problem with some oral histories is that the compilers may get some good stuff, but have no organic way to fit it in with the rest of the stuff. So Lexicon Devil is full of these weird hanging chapters. I think that's one thing you lose when you don't have a writer--the ability to structure the material in a logical, unfolding way. In the end, there is just too much information about Darby Crash here. He wasn't that talented or interesting. His band-mate, Pat Smear, has what is to me a much more interesting story. But he didn't "live fast and die young," so Crash gets the book.
An oral history that really could have used a writer is Gimme Something Better (2009) by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor. This is the oral history of the (wait for it) San Francisco/East Bay punk scene. New York and L.A. had these incandescent beginnings, and while punk continued in those places (especially L.A.), what followed was really different from the late 70s scene that helped spawn punk. In L.A., especially, there was real tension (both aesthetic and tribal) between the "Hollywood" punks and the O.C./Huntington Beach punks. It was the difference between the older punk rock and hardcore.

In San Francisco, you get the feeling that the older stuff never really took off the way it did in New York and L.A. (there is no San Francisco equivalent to the Ramones or X). Hardcore was really the language of San Francisco punk. The ethos was defined by Maximum Rocknroll. It was a bizarrely close-minded political and aesthetic point of view, but the magazine helped nurture a scene that lasted for decades in the face of almost total obscurity. Unfortunately, this purity of approach leaks into the structure of this massive book. The justification for this approach is expressed in the introduction by Jesse Michaels (Operation Ivy):
The oral history format has the great advantage of eliminating The Rock Writer. The Rock Writer writing about punk usually has one aim: to arrogate intellectual ownership of something he or she knows absolutely nothing about. That bullet is dodged here.
The problem is that in the course of this nearly 500-page book, hundreds of names (and noms de rock) are thrown at the reader with little help. A new name will appear and you have to flip to the back of the book to figure who it is. That person will be speaking of someone else, and you can only hope that the context will make it clear who that other person is and what his or her significance is. The chapters are arranged around particular bands or locations or events, but the chapter titles don't tell you this, and you are likewise not given any information like what the timeframe was.

And let's face it--compiling an oral history is no less an authorial intrusion than writing it out in prose. As any student of film 101 knows, if you are given unedited news footage, you can tell any story you want with it. The footage would still be "real"--but the process of selecting and ordering the cuts allows you to spin the story the way you want. The same is obviously true of oral histories. Boulware and Silke's approach is an aesthetic decision, not an expression of absolute truth. They told the story they wanted to tell, and using only the words of their interviewees, were able to pass it off as more "authentic" than a non-fiction prose book would be.

Therefore, I make this plea--no more punk oral histories!

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Who Should Have a Historical Marker in Houston?

OK, so Lightnin' Hopkins is getting his own historical marker up on Dowling later this year. That's good--well-deserved. Lightnin' makes me proud to be a Houstonian. As Slampo says, he deserves even bigger official kudos. But Slampo follows up with the fact that historical markers tend toward the highly respectable and avoid the disreputable demimonde that are undeniably part of our history. These markers also tend to whitewash their subjects (but it's hard to blame them for that, usually). I'd go even further and say that historical markers tend to be seriously boring objects about mostly pretty boring subjects. On one hand, I don't have a problem with the boring bits of history--after all, lots of important parts of history are basically pretty boring.

But I'd like to see more exciting people, places, and events from Houston's history on historical markers.

So I throw it out to you--what persons, places, or events from Houston history should be "honored" (or at least recorded) on a historical marker? You can see a list of already existing markers here.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

New Improved Supreme Court Justice Robes

John Coby

Created by John Coby over at Bay Area Houston.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Picture of the Day


This is the bottom part of the Bullwinkle oil production platform. To give you a notion of the scale, those things in the foreground are cars. It was the deepest "fixed leg" platform in the world, located in the Gulf of Mexico and owned by Shell. (There are deeper production platforms and ships, but they unlike Bullwinkle, they aren't buildings coming up from the bottom of the ocean. They may be fixed to the bottom with cables or be free-floating and held in place with stabilizing motors.)

According to the Chronicle's energy blog, the current owner of Bullwinkle, Superior Energy Services, is planning to decommission Bullwinkle.

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