Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Career advice: Oxford, Akhmatova, and Isaiah Berlin

When people ask me for career advice--and in particular, when they ask me, how can I get to be doing what you're doing--I have a hard time answering that question. Because honestly, I can't say I had any intention to be doing this--say, attending the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship at Oxford--when I first started thinking about my future. Looking back, if this is where I was intending to be, I'd say I had a lot of false starts.

First, my parents, being Japanese, very decidedly mercantile middle class, and pretty old-fashioned, really didn't think I was going to college. (It's one of the reasons I was allowed to attend international schools. If I had been a boy, they would have made a bigger effort to keep me in Japanese schools, and in the Japanese system, studying for the be-all and end-all university entrance exams.)

Then, when I did go to college, I was a Russian history major--when I first fell in love with Isaiah Berlin--and I ended up continuing on to grad school to become a Sovietologist (fully intending to become an academic.) And in fact while I was an undergrad at Harvard I was unhappy enough that I took the Oxford entrance exams--to go study law at Magdalen College. (I got in, but never left Harvard--another false start there).

Then, in 1991, when I was in grad school, the Soviet Union fell apart, and my desire to pursue an academic career in Sovietology evaporated--partly because as Sovietologists we'd signally failed to see the end coming, and partly because the government funding for Sovietology dried up. And that's how I joined the World Bank--as a Russia expert for a new member country. The best part about the job was I got to do what I had intended to do as an academic--to understand, if not undo, the repressions that had stifled all the things I had come to love about Russia, its history, people, and culture.

And ten years later, I left, to start GlobalGiving with Dennis Whittle. And now, eight years after that, it's all come full circle with Kenneth Brecher's incredibly eloquent story about Anna Akhmatova, and how we can but aspire to resemble Isaiah Berlin's description of her devotion to poetry, to witness, and belief in the future. So maybe, next time they ask me, how do I get where you are, I'll take them around the long way--and start with Isaiah Berlin.

Come to think of it, I think it's the first book I lent to Dennis, when I first met him, 17 years ago.

Monday, March 16, 2009

*How* to spend the stimulus bill

Most of the political debate has been about whether we need a stimulus package, whether all the pork has or has not been stripped out of the package, etc. But now that we have a package, the screech of the rubber hitting the road is in the paucity of ideas on *how* to spend the money (not on what, although that's another topic entirely).

But by and large, this isn't a sexy topic. The rules and incentives you set up on spending is the minutiae of bureaucratic work--but as Sir Humphrey Appleby knows well, you can win or lose a lot of battles there. And it's hard to report on. So I was pleased ... until I wasn't, when I heard a story on NPR the other day about how to exercise oversight over spending. The story pointed to the procedures developed at NEA after the Mapplethorpe etc. flap as one way to go. I'm sure I'm not doing the rules justice, but it came down to accepting no applicants who weren't already approved and vetted NEA grant recipients (in other words the usual suspects), and limiting grant requests to 2 sizes--$25,000 or $50,000--to make it easier to process. The commentary in the piece sort of says it all in terms of what bizarre sorts of behavior you could end up with:

But that's one grant protocol that poses a challenge for grant writers. They never want to ask for too little — arts groups are constantly cash-strapped. Ask for too much, though, and they might price themselves out of the competition and get nothing at all. It can be a tricky calculus.

As a good ex-bureaucrat myself I know that rules like this work to get money out of the door faster, and if the money doesn't get out of the door it doesn't have any stimulus effect. But are we reduced to reaching for a process that was developed essentially to prevent public funds from being spent for outre art in figuring out exactly how to spend the stimulus package? I know there aren't easy answers, but this is an unprecedented opportunity/challenge.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A nerdy post about book formats

For my birthday last year, I got a Kindle. I toyed with it a bit and still rely on it when I travel, but Dennis has since become the power user of the Kindle. 

Our subscription account (originally Dennis's) is 5 years old, and I think Dennis got to pick 5 out of the 60 titles. In other words, I took over his audible account.

For my part, both the MP3 books and Kindle struck me as a great way to resolve the dilemma of what books could you not do without on a long business trip or vacation, and having to slight hardcover books because they would weigh you down traversing airports. And now, the idea of being green (and not boycotting bookshelf purchases) makes it even more attractive.

But I've discovered a couple of things about the way I absorb and appreciate narrative. The biggest downside of the Kindle, I found, is that I actually subconsciously recall and organize narrative by the physical progress I make through the book. I'm reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth (***) right now and I realized that I recall that Archie's story comes first, followed by Samad's, by the feel of the bulk of pages in my left hand. I'm also in the middle of John Le Carre's A Most Wanted Man (should be ****, but I'm experiencing it more like ***) on the Kindle, and discovered that I have a hard time recalling what events were revealed in what order--and this is one of my absolute favorite authors, so I really shouldn't have trouble being engaged. Finally, I just finished listening to Carolyn Chute's The School on Heart's Content Road (****)--a lyrical and unironic book written about a politically incorrect outsider community that in MP3 format took 17+hours to get through. But no problem recalling the narrative thread despite not having a book in my hands, perhaps because as I listen to these books I pay more attention (I tend to read very fast visually, whereas listening forces you to a certain pace) and I even remember the order of narrative by where or what time of day I was walking.

Which is all by way of acknowledging that even when it comes to what are arguably much more similar media--physical books and the Kindle--the way my mind processes information has very strong, and unexpected preferences. 

I wonder, even as we rush helter-skelter to a world without physical newspapers, physical bookstores, perhaps one day even no more paper books, whether we'll discover that content is not all, and that form does--or did--matter.