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Friday, Apr 16, 2010
Chris Anderson's Free is an economic treatise on the history and psychology of "free" in the consumer lexicon

Chris Anderson wrote Free using the free Google Docs, on the free Linux operating system, and over a free wi-fi connection at a local coffeeshop. I even listened to the unabridged audiobook for free at Anderson’s website (www.longtail.com). Anderson certainly walks the walk and talks the talk.


Free has now been re-released as a paperback with a new preface by the author. Although it’s been re-subtitled How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing, Free is less a “how-to” business book than it is an economic treatise on the history and psychology of “free.”


Anderson delves into the history of “free” in the modern era, turning back the clock to Jell-O’s free cookbooks in the early 20th century. “Give away one thing to sell another,” he writes, defining the concept of a “loss-leader.” Anderson charts the “radical price” through its evolution to the modern-day digital economy. “Information wants to be free,” the saying goes. He uses basic economic theory to show how software, music, and other digital goods have seen their real prices drop to nothing online. When the cost of distribution is “zero,” the price will follow—whether the sellers of the goods want to see that happen or not.


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Tuesday, Apr 13, 2010

Here’s your dose of young adult fiction for the day. Frankie Landau-Banks is a sophomore at an elite American boarding school where a mystery lurks, and it’s one that only boys are supposed to be involved in. Enter intrigue!


So of course Frankie needs to investigate. Puzzling out the pieces of a semi-secret old boys society, the Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds, Frankie is determined to find out all she can about the group that forms the roots of future business deals as the boys graduate and attend top-tier universities, then go on to lucrative careers. Why should only boys get to do the social networking and bonding that mean their children too will be born with silver spoons in their mouths?


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Monday, Mar 29, 2010

David Lipsky followed David Foster Wallace around the Midwest for five days in 1996, his tape recorder running for nearly the entire time. While the Rolling Stone article that Lipsky was interviewing Wallace for never ran, Lipsky held onto the tapes. Now, 14 years later, the tapes have been transcribed verbatim (including many “off the record” comments) and published as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. To be a fly-on-the-wall for their rambling conversation is an exhilarating experience.


Lipsky and Wallace talk about writers as varied as Stephen King, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and John Updike. They sit in the front of a theater to catch the action flick Broken Arrow. Wallace gives a reading at a bookstore for Infinite Jest, his recently released masterpiece, and he’s ambushed with an excruciating question and answer session (his least favorite part of readings). Lipsky and Wallace talk about Wallace’s rumored illicit drug abuse (just rumors, for the most part) and depression. Every word takes on new, haunted meaning through the lens of Wallace’s suicide, which Lipsky addresses in the afterward.


Lipsky makes minimal contributions to the text—fragmentary questions and explanations—that only give the reader the barest sense of the settings and context. Could the book have worked a little better as a proper biography of Wallace, with the interview cut up? That was my first thought when I started reading it. But it’s clear that Lipsky and his editor made the right choice: Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is an intimate portrait told mostly in Wallace’s own words. It’s as close to an autobiography as we’ll ever get, and it deserves a spot on the bookshelf of every David Foster Wallace fan.


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Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010

I can stare at the photographs in The Rockabillies, a book by Jennifer Greenburg on the Rockabilly subculture, for a long time. I can come back to them over and over again and see something new each time. I enjoyed the photographs the first time I looked through the book, pausing to note the small details like the bright red dog tag on the snow white poodle in “Mr. Mysterious and Mamie,” the copy of Dracula in “Vivien on the RCA Victrola chair,” and the images reflected in a mirrored table in “Keith at home with his cat.” The amazing array of colors is eye-catching: the green walls and figurines in “The Stricklands next to their Majestic lamp” and the blaze of Fiestaware and the bright turquoise wall in “Mrs. Hughes in her kitchen.” Recurring images such as turquoise, tattoos, perfectly sculptured hairstyles, and reflections in mirrors invite comparisons and I often found myself flipping back and forth between photographs trying to bend the pages so I could examine two images at the same time.


However I truly appreciated these photographs only after reading the essays at the end of the book. “The Culture, Style, and Art of The Rockabillies” by Audrey Michelle Mast provides background information about the Rockabilly culture that started in the ‘50s and provides a framework for the Rockabilly culture that is still thriving today. The last passage of the essay provides the most food for thought. Mast closes:


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Monday, Mar 15, 2010

Bruce Eric Kaplan has a theory: everything we do is motivated by love, hate, or hunger. He doesn’t mean hunger as the state that follows peckish, but as something much broader.


Kaplan is well-known for his New Yorker cartoons with the distinctive “BEK” moniker in the corner of single-panel, starkly black and white frames. He was a writer for Seinfeld and more recently was an executive producer for the HBO series Six Feet Under. Nearly 200 of his cartoons have been gathered into a new collection I Love You, I Hate You, I’m Hungry.


Through recurring subject matter like the routines of daily life, unfulfilling relationships, and the ridiculous things people say as a matter of habit he paints a stark picture of contemporary urban society. A couple in a doorway parting after a date say, “I don’t know if I can take another lovely evening”. A husband remarks to his wife at the dinner table, “I bumped into a new girlfriend last night”. And a man at home on the telephone gestures in exasperation as he says, “I’m not trying to say anything—I’m just talking”.


Kaplan frequently frames ironic commentary around empty conversations with strangers. Approaching a woman standing alone in the middle of a living room, another woman opens with, “Tonight I’ll be performing a monologue about where I like to shop, my hair color, and something my mother did that upset me”.


A book like this forces the question of whether it’s all worth it and I like Kaplan’s take on basic human motivations. It’s easier to laugh about the strangeness of our present context when we recognize that we’re not alone in our experiences. The philosopher in me particularly loves this cartoon: A women on an escalator in a shopping mall turns to her friend and says, “I have no idea where we parked the car, or why we exist”.


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