Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Book: Outliers
Writer(s): Malcolm Gladwell

I loved Gladwell's The Tipping Point and this is his latest. Though the title's awkward, it's about leaders -- people outside the norm, who stand out. Gladwell's goal is to change the way we think about such people. Our assumption is that they are extraordinarily gifted, geniuses, but he reveals that it's much more about hard work than talent, and that luck, timing, and culture play huge roles in who we become. He destroys the myth of the "self-made" man, the idea that someone can rise from nothing to be extraordinarily successful, showing via statistics and stories and scientific studies that talent or genius alone is useless without the proper environment for that to grow. For example, he reveals that overwhelmingly kids in Canada's hockey league are born in the early months of the year. That same trend follows through school and into the professional league as well: most are born in January, February, and March. Why is that? It's not that talented hockey players aren't born at other times, but that they never get a chance to develop. That's because the enrollment cut-off for the league is January 1, so kids born in those early months tend to be the biggest and strongest, and stand out. Thus they are given more training and attention, are groomed to be stars by putting them into more competitions and special programs, and of course they use that extra experience and go pro and succeed. This effect is seen not just in hockey, but all sporting programs all over the world. Gladwell shows that similar things happen in education and even historic events: if you were unlucky enough to be born at the wrong time, for instance, you might have reached age 18 right as a major war was in progress and been drafted, or a tragedy like the Great Depression or an epidemic could have completely changed the world available to you. Gladwell shows how tech leaders like Bill Gates succeeded not because they were that much more brilliant than anyone else, but because they had the right set of skills at the right time, catching the computing revolution as it was being born.

What does all this mean to you and me? It means that we need to rethink our views of success. We need to change how we educate. In one study he shows that kids from lower income areas do just as well as those from higher income areas, but only if they work harder (for instance, going to school year around instead of taking the summer off). It turns out that kids with economic advantages are simply given more opportunities to learn year around, while those from disadvantaged homes tend to be stuck watching TV instead of having books and workshops and summer camps and such. Once you get both on the same playing field, their chances of success -- of getting into good colleges and good careers -- are about the same. Speaking of that, it also turns out that going to an Ivy League college is not necessarily a guarantee of success, nor is graduating from a lesser school. You just need "enough" schooling; the specifics aren't as significant. All this means that everyone can succeed if they work hard, which is a far cry from the general assumption that some people are just "smart" or that some people just "get" math, etc. In truth, it's all about how hard you work, and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. If you're not prepared when those doors open, you'll miss them and miss out.

This is a fascinating book -- highly recommended. I will point out one caution, however. I read this while flying to and from California and there's a whole section about the causes of airplane crashes that might make for uncomfortable reading if you're a nervous flyer. (It didn't bother me -- I actually found it comforting to know why planes crash -- but I might have picked a different book for my trip if I'd known that was in there.)


Sunday, November 23, 2008

MLS Cup 2008

Soccer: MLS Cup 2008

I got to attend MLS Cup in person this year at the Home Depot Center in LA. It was great and I even got to meet some soccer players (see them here). The only bummer was that my team, the Houston Dynamo, got shockingly knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by New York, a team that only got in the playoffs via the back door. Houston were supposed to win their record third in a row, but my buying MLS Cup tickets early jinxed them. Still, we were seated near the New York fans who were rowdy and singing all game long, which was entertaining. The game itself was a little hard to follow in person: we were behind the one goal and action at the other end of the field was difficult to see, and with all the chaos around it, it was hard to focus on the game. But that's okay: it was just fun to be at the party. The game was a good one, with both teams scoring and Columbus deservedly winning 3-1 (they'd been the best team all season).


Monday, November 17, 2008

Saturday Night Fever

Movie: Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Director(s): John Badham

Is it weird that I've never seen this? It's a movie that supposedly everyone has seen and many people don't like because disco has such a bad rep. But I was surprised and even a little astonished. I thought this was some dumb dance movie, but it's really a character study about a young Brooklyn man trying to figure out his future. He enters a disco dance contest and dumps his sweet-hearted former partner for a hot new girl and eventually realizes he's a jerk. The film's surprisingly foul-mouthed and even violent, with fight scenes and pretty much a rape at one point, but it's got such an authenticity that it didn't bother me. I really felt like that's the way it was in Brooklyn back in 1977. People talked like that, had families like that, and so on. It's a very interesting film and probably underrated. The dancing's not really my thing and I didn't pay much attention during some of the longer scenes, but the music's actually kind of cool (maybe because it's new to me). How the heck did the Bee Gees sing so high? Were they on helium?


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Seems Like Old Times

Movie: Seems Like Old Times (1980)
Writer(s): Neil Simon

I'd never even heard of this movie but it's based on a Neil Simon play and it's pretty funny. It stars Chevy Chase back when he was young and at his best, and Goldie Hawn as his ex-wife, is cute and terrific and probably the best I've seen her. The plot's chaotic: Chase is a recluse writer who is kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to rob a bank, so everyone thinks he's guilty and is out to get him. He goes to his ex-wife for help, but she's married to the district attorney who's about to get the nod to run for attorney general and is worried his wife's ex will ruin everything. Chase takes everything in stride with witty quips and hilarious casualness, while Hawn's character is a defense attorney who is kind-hearted to a fault and takes in every stray dog and criminal she can find (all of her help at the house are criminals she's defended). This results in chaos, of course, with Goldie trying to hide her wanted ex from her husband, manage her clueless staff, and so on. It's too slapsticky to be a great movie, but the dialog is great and the chemistry between Goldie and Chevy is wonderful. Worth seeing if you like this kind of farce movie.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace

Movie: Quantum of Solace
Director(s): Marc Forster

I went into this preparing not to like it, which is unusual for me for a James Bond film. But I'd heard disturbing things: critics were disappointed, it omits the usual Bond gimmicks of Q and flashy tech gadgets, and the running time is well short of two hours (most Bond films are longer). But I actually did like this. It's not the greatest Bond film ever, and it's certainly missing humor -- the entire picture is grim, grim, grim -- but I still liked it. It basically picks up where the previous film ended with Bond looking for revenge on those who killed his girlfriend. This leads him to discover that the secret group behind her death is much larger and better connected than anyone believed, and he follows clues that lead him to Bolivia where a dictator is being put into power by the organization. It's convoluted and doesn't make much sense, but who cares: we're just along for the ride, which is interesting, as Bond meets beautiful mysterious women, gets fired from Mi-6, and gets framed for the murder of his friend. There's some good gritty action, but everything's at a lower key, less over-the-top and ostentacious, and more realistic. I liked that. At the same time, like the previous one, this didn't necessary feel like a James Bond film. Even the opening credits -- normally my favorite part of a Bond film -- were ho-hum. I'm happy they keep reinventing the series as I want it to go on forever, and it's good to change things up and try different things, but I think for the next one I want some more traditional Bond elements back. Maybe not the entire movie, but at least a few scenes. I want to see Bond cool and triumphant, doing ridiculous things like skydiving without a parachute and landing in a pool at a party and coming up out of the water dressed in a tuxedo and taking a glass of champagne from the waiter as though he's an invited guest. This new Bond, while cool, is slightly too gritty and realistic. I want a taste or hint of the fantastic.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Houston Out

Soccer: Houston Out

The Houston Dynamo have won Major League Soccer for the last two years. After a slow start where they played well but had trouble scoring and therefore weren't winning matches, they turned it on mid-season and ended up as the best team in the West and the second-best team in the whole league. Unfortunately, that cursed them, as for the past five years, the team that's won the conference has been knocked out in the playoffs. Houston drew away in NY last week and it seemed a lock for them to win at home today: they'd only lost once all season and NY only won once away. NY also just squeaked into the playoffs, getting in on a wild card slot only because D.C United lost their final game. NY was missing some key players and Houston had their full line-up, and this was a home game with 30,000 fans dressed in Orange. But nothing went Houston's way. After early pressure created tons of chances but no goals, a NY counter with speedster Dane Richards got through the back line and Dane beat Onstad for an early goal. A minor setback for the champs, right? Unfortunately, moments later NY was awarded a penalty kick. The call was questionable: the ref claimed a cross hit Richardo Clark's hand in the box. But it wasn't deliberate and the rule is that handballs are supposed to be intentional. Be that as it may, being two goals down in the first half was not good, and even worse, the Dynamo were cursed at the other end as they just could not score. They possessed the ball well, attacked as a team, created tons of chances, and sure have scored half a dozen goals. In any other match, they would have. But like at the beginning of the year when they couldn't finish, they just couldn't get the ball to cross the line. Rookie goalkeeper Ceparo for NY was brilliant, making a number of fine stops and showing no playoff nerves at all. His reclaim of the ball from Brian Ching after initially dropping it was amazing, and a couple other times he took hits but got right up and grabbed the ball showing no fear. Very impressive. Meanwhile, Dane Richards was awesome, using his speed to torment Houston, and he assisted on a third goal late as the Dynamo were pressing forward to score. Really, I can't say that much critical about Houston: they did everything right except for finishing their chances. There's always a bit of luck in that (in this case bad luck), but other than the first goal, Houston didn't make that many mistakes. NY only had a few chances and capitalized. Houston had tons and didn't. The end result: Houston is out of the playoffs and the chance to be the first team to ever win three championships in a row is gone. Sometimes it just happens like that. And lowly NY will now take on Real Salt Lake for the Western crown and the chance to be in MLS Cup on Nov. 23. I'm now a big RSL fan, as I love rooting for the underdog. This is their first playoff qualification ever, so good luck to them. Either way, though, we'll have someone new in the final: neither NY nor RSL has made an appearance there, so this will be historic. On the East, it's either Chicago or Columbus -- Chicago won it in their first year in 1999, but Columbus has never won the Cup, so I'm hoping for a Columbus-RSL final (though Columbus-NY would be interesting, too).


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Jury Duty

I spent the morning at the courthouse going through jury orientation. I'm on call for the rest of the month and may have to serve, but I'll have to wait and see if I get picked for a trial. I almost served on a jury in Santa Cruz, once, but was the 15th and they settled just before me (12 jurors and two alternates). It turns out November's a good month to serve -- with the holidays in the middle, it's more like a half-month!


Thursday, November 6, 2008


Movie: RocknRolla
Director(s): Guy Ritchie

I like some of Ritchie's other movies, but this one left me wanting more. It's an interesting premise and sounds cool, but the conclusion is wimpy and the film doesn't have the payout you'd expect. Basically we get into a typically convoluted plot about gangsters and druggies and schemers who all overlap and entangle, and usually the ending of such a film is quite brilliant. This one tries, and while the ending isn't bad, it's just missing a little something. After such a complicated setup, it ends abruptly, and there are gaps, pieces of the story left unfinished (at least it feels that way). It's not bad, and quite fun in a lot of places, but ultimately you aren't left with anything that special. I did find it interesting that the film ended with a clear indication of a sequel coming.


Monday, November 3, 2008


Movie: Changeling
Director(s): Clint Eastwood

This film is based on a true story about a woman in the 1920s fighting corruption in the L.A. police department. Her son is disappears and the police return a different boy to her and try to convince her that he's really her son -- to the point of throwing her in the looney bin to shut her up. But she does not keep quiet and eventually brings change to the department. It's a good story, well-told, but the there's something of a let-down about the way that it is presented. It's bit too long, and while there's seemingly a mystery about why the police would do such a bizarre thing, there really isn't much of a mystery: it's just a mistake and over-enthusiasm by the authorities to have a success and when they find a boy who claims to be the the woman's son, they take him at his word and later are too proud to retract because that would be embarrassing. Unfortunately, the film's also a bit of a downer, as the real boy's fate is left ambiguous, with the mother never really finding out -- for sure -- what happened to him (though it seems likely he is dead). That's real life, but it makes for a depressing movie. All-in-all, good but not great, and not nearly as intriguing as you might think. Horrible title, too.