Monday, January 30, 2006

Mini Review: "When The Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka

This small gem of a first novel is a minimalist evocation of the disruptions caused by FDR’s ill-conceived program to inter Japanese Americans during World War II. Julie Otsuka’s prose is as subtle and as moving as a watercolor depiction of a cherry tree in bloom or a formal Japanese garden in full flower.

“The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue. The woman was returning a book to the library when she saw the sign in a post office window. It was a sunny day in Berkley in the spring of 1942 and she was wearing new glasses and could see everything clearly for the first time in weeks. She no longer had to squint but she squinted out of habit anyway. She read the sign from top to bottom and then, still squinting, she took out a pen and read the sign from top to bottom again. The print was small and dark. Some of it was tiny. She wrote down a few words on the back of a bank receipt, then turned around and went home and began to pack.” (Page 3)

Thus, Ms. Otsuka takes the reader by the hand and leads him down a path that reveals - phrase-by-phrase and page-by-page - the quiet desperation of the lives that were torn asunder by Evacuation Order No. 19. In this era in which xenophobia continues to rear its ugly head as an all too facile way for some to clutch at straws as they look for safety in a world inhabited by snakes of many stripes, we are well served to be reminded of the cost of our short-sightedness back in the days when “the Emperor was divine.” Mirroring the experience of her protagonist, Ms. Otsuka hands the reader new glasses in the form of this crystal clear tale that enables us to “see things clearly for the first time . . .”

I invite you to look through her glasses for a new view of the world as it existed then – and as it largely remains to this day for so many.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Adding To The White Rhino's Favorite Links: "D" = Dunkin' Donuts

I grew up on Dunkin's Donuts. The first Dunkin' Donuts shop was opened in 1950 just around the corner from where I am now living in Quincy, Massachusetts. I love the coffee; I love the donuts. As hard as I try, I cannot get over the feeling that Starbucks and Peets and their ilk are interloping arrivistes who have descended upon us from the Pacific Northwest to teach us how to drink our coffee. Don't get me wrong. I can speak to the "barista" in Starbucks speak with the best of them, but my heart and taste buds still belong at the local Dunkin's Donuts.

I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to some cultural issues, so my allegiance to Dunkin' Donuts cuts against the grain and goes against type. I'll admit I often have to grit my teeth while standing in line waiting to order my "Medium French Vanilla and 1 plain stick" and having to listen to the local denizen in front of me assaulting the Queen's English: "Kin I git 2 lahj regulahs an' uh haf duzzin' glazed crullahs?"

Krispy Kreme tried to establish a beachhead in New England, but have recently beat a hasty retreat, leaving behind them a river of hot glaze and red ink. They started strong, but had no chance. They might as well have expected Red Sox fans to be willing to buy boiled peanuts at Fenway Park, or trade their Fenway Franks for fried okra and a hush puppy to-be-named-later. No way!

Donkin' Donuts remains strong and continues to grow.

So, I am pleased to add them as the "D" in The White Rhino's List of Favorite Links

Enjoy! And look for me on Monday morning around 7:30 at the Dunkin' Donuts on Rte. 9 Westound in Wellesley, just before the Natick line. The Munchkins are on me!


Friday, January 27, 2006

Mini-Review: “Liars & Thieves” by Stephen Coonts

I have many things for which I am indebted to my friend, John Byington. One of those debts is that fact that he introduced me to author Stephen Coonts – not to be confused with Dean Koontz! A few years ago, John, an Annapolis graduate and former Navy aviator, made the following observation: “You have come to know quite a few of us Navy guys who were pilots. If you really want to understand the world of naval aviation, you should read Stephen Coonts’ 'Flight of the Intruder.'”

I did read “Flight of the Intruder,” enjoyed it immensely and vowed to read as many of Coonts’ other books as I could. Last year I devoured “Liberty,” and I have just completed the riveting “Liars & Thieves.” Coonts is a Viet Nam combat veteran and naval aviator, who went on to earn a law degree. He writes with a rapier wit and an acerbic and sardonic view of a world inhabited with a wide and colorful assortment of “bad guys,” and a few old-fashioned heroes. Here is an example of his wry gift for introducing a character and for setting the right tone:

“Obviously Dorsey had not considered the possibility that Willie might refuse to tell her whatever she asked. Few men ever had. She was young, beautiful, rich, the modern trifectas for females. She came by her dough the old-fashioned way – she inherited it. Her parents died in a car wreck shortly after she was born. Her grandparents who raised her passed away while she was partying at college, trying to decide if growing up would be worth the effort. Now she lived in a monstrous old brick mansion on five hundred acres, all that remained of a colonial plantation, on the northern bank of the Potomac thirty miles upriver from Washington. It was a nice little getaway if you were worth a couple hundred million, and she was.” (Page 2)

The plot of this book involves double-dealing - all the way from the Kremlin to the West Wing of the White House, as the two heroes, Tommy Carmellini and retired Admiral Jake Grafton, lay their lives on the line to try to save a former KGB official who has defected to the West. I won’t spoil the treat for you by revealing anything else about the story line.

I could not put the book down. What else is there to say about a great book!


Happy 250th Birthday, Amadeus!

God gave the world a special gift on January 27, 1756; he sent to the Mozart family in Salzburg, Austria a newborn boy whom the world would come to know as Wolfgang Amadeus. “Amadeus” translates as “beloved of God.”

Mozart is widely regarded as the greatest, or among the greatest, composer who ever lived. By the age of 6, the young prodigy was performing before the Austrian royal family. He was dead by the age of 35, but in those few fecund intervening years, he produced a prodigious and enduring catalogue of compositions - 626 pieces including 24 operas, 41 symphonies and over 40 concertos.

Haydn believed him to be the 'greatest composer' and Schubert opined that the 'magic of Mozart’s music lights the darkness of our lives'.

My exposure to Mozart’s music came at a young age, but my true appreciation of his genius did not ripen until later in life. Although our family was of modest financial means, my parents worked extra jobs to allow us to pursue music lessons. So, beginning in the third grade, I studied piano and violin. My teachers were both accomplished graduates of the New England Conservatory, and did well by me in that they exposed me early on to the world’s best music. With Florence Pearson, I learned to play Mozart on the violin; with Edith True Marshall, I played his pieces on the piano.

But, I must confess that it was not until many years later that I was truly smitten by Mozart’s charms. It took Peter Shaffer’s brilliant play, "Amadeus," to fully illuminate for me the genius of the man and his music. Shaffer’s brilliant weaving together of the music of Mozart with the narrative of his troubled life gave me the ability to see and hear Mozart’s compositions in a whole new way. As a result of seeing that play – and the film that was subsequently made based on the play – I discovered anew the wonders of Mozart’s Requiem. Since the curtain fell on the performance of "Amadeus" that I attended in 1979, I have listened to my recording of the Requiem more than any other work in the classical repertoire. It is beautiful and transcendent like few other compositions.

On the ride to work each morning, I typically spend a schizophrenic 40 minutes – toggling back and forth on my radio dial between WEEI, 850 AM – Boston’s premier sports talk station, and WCRB, 102.5 FM – “Classical Radio Boston.” Today, WCRB is devoting its entire day of broadcast to works composed by Mozart. And it is altogether fitting and proper that they should do so.

Requiem aeternam, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

And on behalf of many generations of music lovers, thank you for feeding our souls in perpetuam.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

An Unanticipated Delight: Reviewing “The Greatest Game Ever Played” by Mark Frost

The best gifts are often ones that surprise us. A few weeks ago, a package arrived at my office with a return address of West Point. When I opened the package, I was pleased to find a book I had never heard about, and one I would never have chosen to read if Court Harris had not been thoughtful enough to send it to me as a late Christmas gift. And I would have missed out on a literary and historical gem. Mark Frost’s seminal book about the 1913 U.S. Open is called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Sports Illustrated named it one of its best books, and the story has recently been made into a feature film that is now out on DVD.

As someone who grew up not far from The Country Club in Brookline, where the legendary 1913 U.S. Open was played, I had known about Francis Ouimet for most of my life. But until I read Frost’s compelling story, I never paid much attention to the story. I never really had a grasp on who he was and what he had accomplished. To me, Ouimet was some shadowy figure from golf’s early days whose accomplishments held no interest for me as an inveterate hacker on the golf course and casual student of the game. Frost skillfully transformed what had been colorless shadow into compelling substance by crafting a story that is part epic, part history, part biography, part sociological analysis and part human drama. Young Francis - tall and gaunt, and his diminutive caddie, 10 year-old Eddie Lowery, leap from the pages of this book into the heart of the reader as latter-day reincarnations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!

As I read this book, I felt much the same range of emotions that I had experienced in reading “Seabiscuit.” In this telling of the story, Francis Ouimet emerges as “The Little Engine Who Could.” The cast of characters from this true tale emerges as if from central casting – heroes, rogues, emerging stars and fading “has beens.” There is international intrigue, class warfare, the American melting pot, struggles between fathers and sons, a Quixotic quest and implausible twists and turns as Francis makes a meteoric rise from obscurity to stardom. Francis started out as a caddie from a poor French Canadian/Irish family living across the street from The Country Club’s 17th green. He ended up as the toast of the golfing world and a lifelong Boston sports legend after beating the world’s best golfer, Harry Vardon, in a playoff round that electrified the thousands who had gathered to cheer him on.

Frost’s closing words sum up poignantly the scope of the story he has told and the human emotions he has captured within these pages:

“They’re all gone now. All those champions and challengers. All the men who breathed life into an obscure Scottish pastime that has grown to proportions none of them could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Every tournament you see today that thrills you with its twists and turns, reversals of fortune, triumphs and tragedies, owes an enduring debt of gratitude to this pioneering generation . . . Every one of us who casually or passionately plays the game for fun, companionship, competition or recreation should be forever grateful that Francis Ouimet looked out at that private, privileged world across the street from the house where he grew up, and found somewhere within himself the courage to cross the street.” (Page 475)

I don’t often recommend sports books, but this is so much more than a book about golf and sport, that I recommend it enthusiastically. I have a private set of criteria that must be satisfied when I go to see a play or a movie before I am willing to pronounce the evening a success. Two things are required. I demand that at least once in the reacting to the telling of the story, I must experience chills up and down my spine. And I must have been moved to tears. They can be tears of joy, surprise, sorrow, empathy, wonder – it does not matter. I seldom apply these tough standards to books. I am not ashamed to admit that in the reading of this memorable story, I experienced both chills and tears. And that is far from par for the course!



Mini Review: "The Wrath of God" by Jack Higgins

Last year, I wrote that I had just been introduced to the writings of Jack Higgins, and had enjoyed reading his work, “Without Mercy.” I have just gone back to the Higgins buffet line for a second helping, this time reading “The Wrath of God.” Higgins writes in the action genre with a sparse style that reminds me a bit of Hemingway. It has the feel of a spaghetti Western that would be filmed with a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

In “The Wrath of God,” Higgins creates bleak and arid landscapes – externally, located in a parched Mexican backwater – and internally, located in the desiccated souls of his characters. The characters come to life as memorably flawed human beings. The protagonist – but hardly a hero – is Emmett Keogh, an embittered former IRA assassin who can no longer remember how many people he has called or why he killed them. Circumstances throw him in conflict and in partnership with Van Horne and Janos. Van Horne is a defrocked priest turned back robber, and Janos is an ex-patriot Hungarian doing business rapaciously in post-Civil War Mexico of the 1920’s.

Though an action novel through and through, with the feel of film noir to it, “The Wrath of God,” consistently poses spiritual questions: “Can the reprobate find forgiveness?” "Is it incongruous for an avowed atheist to hunger for a spiritual connection?” “Can a deadened and benumbed soul be brought back to life?”

Higgins has a long list of novels to his credit. I expect to continue sampling them for the foreseeable future.



Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mini-Review: “Is The American Dream Killing You? How ‘The Market’ Rules Our Life” by Paul Stiles

Harper Collins continues to work hard at increasing their market share in the business book segment. Under the “Collins” imprint, they have recently published a fascinating work by Paul Stiles that takes a long and hard look at the American Dream and what Stiles calls the “Hyper Market.” I was initially tempted to dismiss Stiles out of hand as a curmudgeonly contrarian, but his breadth of experience and pedigree made me reconsider my early doubts about his worldview and sense of perspective. Stiles has served as an intelligence officer for the NSA, worked a Wall Street bond-trading desk, and has been CEO of an Internet start-up. A graduate of Roxbury Latin School and Harvard College, he is the author of an earlier expose of corruption within our financial markets: "Riding the Bull: My Year in the Madness at Merrill Lynch.”

I am a firm believer that an author’s choice of epigraphs reveals a great deal about his values, character, intellect, frame of reference, priorities and agenda. In the case of "American Dream," Stiles chooses to open his opus by citing Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“The gods we worship write their names on our faces; be sure of that. And a man will worship something – have no doubts about that, either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of his heart – but it will out. That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

These words serve as a cautionary tale and a perfect introduction to Stiles’ major thesis: that we have allowed the forces of “The Market” to set the agenda for our lives and we have lost our grasp on humanity, proportionality and moral choice in the bargain. In his analysis, we have come to the point where we serve – often unwittingly – the Market and its insidious pressures, rather than utilizing the dynamics of the free market to increase quality of life and broaden opportunity. Emerson’s words of warning echo the Old Testament patriarch, Joshua, who proclaimed: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) The “prophet,” Bob Dylan, struck a similar note with his 1985 song: "Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Stiles goes to great lengths to show the development of the freewheeling market economy in the U.S. and contrasts its growth with the concomitant devolution of quality of life, and steady increase in personal debt, divorce and stress.

“In fact, the word stress, as applied to people, comes form the word stress as applied to metals. The result is physical, mental and spiritual breakdown. Stress is thus the critical missing link between the market economy and human health.

According to psychologists, stress is caused by ‘any circumstances that threaten or are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and thereby tax one’s coping abilities. The threat may be to one’s immediate physical safety, long-range security, self-esteem, reputation, or peace of mind.’ Such stress stems directly from all the market pressures we have just described. In effect, it is our response to the Market’s efforts to make the economy more productive. And to some extent, that response is natural and healthy. It is only the hypermarket that pushes us over the edge.”
(Page 35)

Stiles makes a strong case for the amoral nature of the marketplace. He chronicles many examples of market pressures influencing us to make choices that encourage us to lay aside moral considerations. In a chapter entitled “The Modern God,” he argues that the Market has effectively usurped the role that God and faith once played in the life of the community, family and individual.

“At the same time, the Market’s innate antipathy toward the soul, religion and God is by no means an exclusively American problem. The entire modern age has given birth to an increasingly efficient economic system. The well-known pathologies of modernity – meaningless, purposeless, loneliness, anxiety, depression, fear, heartlessness, boredom, alienation, indifference, desensitization – are all pathologies brought about by the hypermarket. They are the product of an imbalance between the spiritual and the material sides of life and the social fragmentation that results. The Industrial Revolution bred them en masse. Such pathologies can be politically dangerous, as they tend to radicalize those adversely affected by them, to the point where the think the Market is the problem. Well, the unbalanced hypermarket most assuredly is the problem. But a market restrained by Judeo-Christian values, as codified in law and represented in democratic institutions, most certainly is not. It is, rather, a recipe for social success, the very recipe that made America. But like the “postmodern family” we are now in the process of changing that long-standing recipe. With great irony, we are trying to do what the Soviet Union tried to do: replace the religious core of our civilization with a materialistic ideology. It doesn’t work. Our approach to the spiritual side of life may need significant rethinking, it may be antiquated, it may be represented by flawed institutions, but the eradication of religion and its replacement with the market system will only breed social chaos. Without god, anything is permissible, which is just what they want to hear on Wall Street.” (Page 216)

These are strong and passionately argued words. Many will feel that Stiles has overstated the case. Perhaps so, but we have all felt the gradual erosion of the spiritual component from private and public discourse and from individual and family lifestyles.

The author summarizes his argument - and his plea for moderation - with these words:

"Moderation is not a cause, but an effect. It arises from a spiritual awakening, an elevation of consciousness, an awareness of the way things truly are. This is the great missing piece of our social puzzle. After tremendous pain and suffering, on a global basis, mankind has finally crafted a universal economic solution (the free market) and a universal political solution (democracy). What we lack is a universal spiritual solution, a common understanding of the human interior, one rooted in the nature of reality, as we experience it. As a result, the modern world now sits on two legs of a three-legged stool – market democracy – and tilts accordingly." (Page 248)

Many readers will find much to take issue with in this book, but it is still worth wrestling with Stiles’ rhetoric and strong beliefs. He speaks from experience and from the heart. He waves the caution flag at a time when life for many is racing dangerously out of control.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Wonders of the Fried Clam: A Love Story

Growing up in a lower middle class family on Boston’s North Shore, I was well aware that finances were perpetually tight. So, a family trip for a meal at a restaurant was a rare treat – a much-anticipated special outing. The most eagerly anticipated trip was the annual excursion to McIntyre’s Clam Stand in nearby Rowley.

After the death of their mother during the typhoid outbreak in 1925, my father and his older sister were raised by a motley assortment of bachelor uncles and aunts. By the time my siblings and I came on the scene, all that was left of the generation that had reared my father were Aunt Ethel and Aunt Lib, who still lived in the Chase family homestead. The home was a rambling ark that today would be described as representing the New Englander style of architecture. The northeast corner of the house featured a spacious front porch. Semiannual seasonal rituals included the Memorial Day weekend installation of the porch screens and wicker furniture, and the Columbus Day reversal of that process – returning the porch accoutrements to their off-season lair in the musty basement – next to the coal bin. By tradition, the responsibility of overseeing these perennial and cyclical projects fell to my father. My sister - Diane, my brother – Dave and I made up the work crew. By tacit understanding, after the porch installation had been successfully consummated, Aunt Ethel and Auth Lib would treat our family to a trip down U.S. Route 1 to nearby Rowley – home to McIntyre’s Clam Stand. It was an eagerly awaited event. Thus began my lifelong love affair with the fried Ipswich clam – Queen of the mollusks.

I cannot honestly say if my love for fried clams came about as a consequence of their singular and delicious flavor, or whether it is because the event of going out to eat was such a treat that I associate the taste of clams with the frisson that comes from experiencing a very special childhood delight. If McIntyre’s had featured corn dogs, then perhaps that particular morsel of health food would today be my favorite gastronomical treat. There may also be a “nature vs. nurture” dynamic at work here, as well. My maternal grandmother, Ruth Simmons Champoux, had grown up on the banks of the Merrimac River as part of a family that eked out a meager existence by digging and shucking clams near the clam flats at Simmons Beach in the humble and miasmal Joppa section of Newburyport. Clams are part of my noble bloodline!

Whatever the etiology of my love for devouring clams, over the years I have become a bit of a connoisseur of fried clams – and to a lesser degree – steamed clams. There are very few eating establishments that know how to properly prepare the humble clam so as to draw out every nuance of its savory delights. It is too easy to get it wrong – by overcooking, using the wrong cooking oil or not changing the oil often enough, choosing the wrong dipping batter, the wrong breading. I do not often indulge my taste for clams. Lest I attain to the mighty girth of Henry VIII, I need to ration my consumption of fried clams to just a few platters a year. So, being thus delimited as to the quantity of fried clams I will allow myself to consume, I must guard assiduously the quality of the morsels that make their way to my maw.

Through an often painful and sometimes glorious process of trial and error, I have narrowed down to three the number of restaurants that I trust to deliver a properly and lovingly prepared fried clam plate. I will describe them briefly. I have also added them to The White Rhino’s List of Favorite Links. They are all located with a thirty-mile radius of Boston. (Alas, McIntyre’s Clam Stand is no longer a going concern, having gone the way of Adventure Car Hop and Howard Johnson’s.)

Woodman’s of Essex –

Woodman’s leads the list because it is purportedly the place where the fried clam was invented on July 3, 1916 by Chubby Woodman. The fourth generation of Woodmans carries on the family tradition in this in-the-rough eatery on Route 133 in Essex – between Ipswich and West Gloucester.

The Clam Box, Ipswich -

Also located along the south side of Route 133 – between Rowley and Essex, the Clam Box has been serving up heaping platters of perfectly fried clams since 1938. On a typical summer evening, the line to get into the dining room or to the take-out counter can stretch into the parking lot and can consume up to an hour. It is well worth the wait.

Kelly’s Roast Beef, Revere, Saugus, Natick, Danvers -

I have never ordered roast beef at Kelly’s. Their fried clams compare favorably to the venerable restaurants described above. Established in 1951 on Revere Beach, the original location is a take-out only joint that is open in all kinds of weather – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To have the quintessential Kelly’s experience, order the clam plate and carry it across the street to the picnic pavilion that overlooks the beach. Be prepared to eat clams with one hand and fend of seagulls with the other. The gulls learned long ago that they would be hard pressed to find a tastier morsel than a Kelly’s fried clam!

I have been told that the Summer Shack also serves up good fried clams, but I have not yet tried them. I would love to hear from fellow clam aficionados!



Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Extension Engine - a New Link Added To The White Rhino's Favorite Links

One of the many enterprises that my friend, Bob Allard, lends his talent to is Extension Engine ( Bob serves as CEO of this firm that has built a solid track record of solving the software development challenges of companies that range in size from start-up to Global 2000 behemoths. Through Nisa Radovic, Bob's partner and the technical engine that drives Extension Engine, the company is able to serve their client's development needs using a team of skilled developers based in Split, Croatia. The team of developers operate under the able guidance of Niksa's brother. A growing list of companies have found this approaching to "off-shoring" software development to be a better alternative than the more familiar options available in India, China and Russia.

If you know of a company looking to improve quality, turn-around time and effficiency in its software development, I will be happy to put you in contact with Bob Allard and his team.

I am proud to add Extension Engine to The White Rhino's List of Favorite Links.


Cashing In On Two Great Performances – The Golden Globes Get It Right With “Walk The Line”

I did not watch the telecast of the Golden Globes last evening. I was at a second-run movie theater in Arlington, MA finally catching up with the film “Walk The Line.” The night for me was a mixed blessing. I saw the film with a friend with whom I had been wanting to catch up, so that was a real plus.

On a less encouraging note, I walked to the ticket office to purchase my ticket and said: “One for ‘Walk The Line,’ please.” I received my ticket and more change for my $10 bill than I had expected. She had given me – unprovoked by any request on my part – the Senior Citizen rate! A sign clearly states: “Senior Citizens – 65 and over”! I think of myself as a ‘youthful” 58 – having come into this world as an early Baby Boomer in 1947. Oh well, to regain a sense of persepctive, I cling to a quotation that a friend of mine once shared in talking about the whole issues of aging. He said: “Aging is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter!”

I managed to drag this aging Senior Citizen carcass into the theater for a pleasant surprise. I have never been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon. If, before last night, you had asked me to list my top 500 favorite actors, neither Joaquin nor Reese would have made an appearance on the list. That all changed as fast as you can say: “Ring of Fire.” The performance of these two actors and singers in this film was astonishing and worthy of the Golden Globe awards they won last evening. As my friend and I walked out of the theater together, we both remarked on the changes we had undergone while watching the film. We both came away with a renewed and expanded appreciation for the talents of Johnny Cash and June Carter, and of Joaquin and Reese.

The film reveals Johnny Cash’s troubled family history, including the violent death of his big brother at a young age. I have to wonder what it must have been like for Joaquin to deal with that bit of art imitating life, having lost his older brother, River Phoenix, to a drug overdose in 1993.

If you have not seen this film, I recommend you find a way to see it – either in the theater (I am sure that there will be a re-release in first-run theaters now that it has won multiple Golden Globes) or on DVD.



Monday, January 16, 2006

Head Butler - Books: "The Vintage Guide To Classical Music" by Jan Swafford

One of the Blogs that I always take time to read is Jesse Kornbluth's "Head Butler." ( In a posting last week, Jesse wrote about a book by Jan Swafford entitled: "The Vintage Guide To Classical Music." As a result of reading Jesse's review, I have added this book to my "Must Read" list.

I am pleased to be able to share with you Jesse's comments about this book.

Head Butler - Books

I am also hereby adding "Head Butler" to my "White Rhino's List of Favorite Links."



An Extraordinary Book – “The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights At The Intersection Of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures” by Frans Johansson

I review a lot of books in this Blog (and I read many more that I do not find worthy of sharing with my readers, or that I do not think would command your interest). I do not want this particular book to get lost in the crowd. “The Medici Effect” had the most profound impact upon me of any “business book” I have read since reading Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” This book is an extraordinary achievement. If you regularly return to read this Blog because you find my disparate and eclectic choice of topics informative and compelling, then I can guarantee that you will find value in reading “The Medici Effect.”

Frans Johansson graduated from Harvard Business School, and works in NYC as a writer, consultant and entrepreneur. His book is based strongly on the influences of some of his HBS professors – most particularly Teresa Amabile, a leading creativity researcher, and Clayton Christensen, who is best known for his pioneering work in the field of disruptive innovation. Johansson has taken these works and moved them forward to describe a place where “innovators are changing the world by stepping into the Intersection: a place where ideas from different fields and cultures meet and collide, ultimately igniting an explosion of extraordinary new discoveries.”

The author is the very embodiment of the intersecting phenomena that he describes in the book. Frans was raised in Sweden by his African-American and Cherokee mother and Swedish father. The title of this work derives from the historical fact that the explosion of creativity and innovation that emanated from 15th Century Florence, Italy - and spawned what we now refer to as "The Renaissance" - had its genesis in the Medici family. The Medici’s were a banking family who became patrons to artists, artisans and scientists in a dizzying array of fields and disciplines. Through their patronage, we still speak of and admire the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, Raphael, Ghiberti and countless others.

Johansson makes a very lucid and compelling point that it is possible for us, in this present age, to replicate the outburst of creativity that was the hallmark of the Florentine Renaissance – we simply must have the wisdom and courage to step into the Intersection.

One of the early examples that the writer shares is the story of Marcus Samuellson, who became an overnight success as the chef at New York's Aquavit restaurant by creating astonishing combinations of ingredients and cooking styles. Johansson attributes much of Samuellson’s propensity for innovation to the cultural diversity of his heritage and upbringing.

“Cultural diversity does not only imply geographically separated cultures. It can also include ethnic, class, professional, or organizational cultures. The mere fact that an individual is different from most people around him promotes more open and divergent, perhaps even rebellious, thinking in that person. Such a person is more prone to question traditions, rule and boundaries – and to search for answers where others may not think to. Research also indicates that people who are fluent in multiple languages tend to exhibit greater creativity than others. Languages codify concepts differently, and the ability to draw upon these varied perspectives during a creative process generates a wider range of associations.” (Page 47)

Johansson next turns the spotlight on Paul Maeder, a venture capitalist with Highland Capital. Maeder boasts a strong track record of identifying young companies led by innovative founders, and predicting which of these companies will succeed.

“What, then, does Maeder think are some important aspects of innovative people at the Intersection? Over the years he has spotted two recurring characteristics: ‘Innovators are often self-taught. They tend to be the types to educate themselves intensely,’ he says, ‘and they often have a broad learning experience, having excelled in one field and learned another.’ Broad education and self-education, then, appear to be two keys to learning differently.” (Page 51)

The Chairman of Bain & Company is Orit Gadiesh, a brilliant woman who came from Israel to Harvard Business School while barely able to speak English. Two years later, she graduated from HBS in the top 5% of her class. Johansson quotes Gadiesh on the concept of “Renaissance Man”:

“’Some people say that the modern-day Renaissance man is an investment banker who likes to go horseback riding on the weekend he has off, or something like that,’ she says with a laugh. ‘That’s not a Renaissance man, that’s a man with a hobby. A Renaissance man is someone who can see trends and patterns and integrate what he knows. To me, the modern Renaissance man is curious, interested in different things. You have to be willing to “waste time” on things that are not directly relevant to your work because you are curious. But then you are able to, sometimes unconsciously, integrate them back into your work.’” (Page 76)

Frans cites Frank Herbert, author of the science fiction classic “Dune,” as a paragon of occupational diversity, another of the common traits among innovators who wade into the Intersection. Herbert has worked, at various points in his lifetime, as a photographer, reporter, editor, cameraman, radio commentator, speechwriter, consultant, oyster diver, judo instructor, jungle survival instructor, TV director, geologist, psychologist, navigator, botanist and fiction writer!

“Successful innovators tend to work on several interrelated projects at once, rotating within a ‘network of enterprises,’ according to whatever appears most promising at the moment. Both Thomas Edison and Charles Darwin, for instances, had many journals and portfolios where they could store notes and articles relating to any number of projects that they were working on. They would regularly review their notes, read over past projects, and reconsider earlier ideas, including the ones that didn’t work out. While reviewing their archives with fresh eyes, they might find connections to a current dilemma and perhaps come up with a new solution.” (Page 78)

This strong bent for pursuing numerous simultaneous innovative projects reminds me very much of the troika of entrepreneurs who call themselves “R3” – my friends Bob Allard, Bob Glazer, and Richard Banfield. Using many of the same approaches that Johansson describes here, they have launched, or are about to launch, a number of new companies, products and services, including “You Should Meet,” “Referral Monitor,” “Bobby’s Best,” and “Start-up Business School.”

Late in this book, the author tackles the issue of fear as an impediment that prevents many individuals from boldly stepping into the Intersection of overlapping disciplines and fields. He shares an extensive analysis of Larry Susskind, a professor at MIT and Harvard Law School.

“Although he never pursued a law degree, Susskind specializes in negotiations and has mediated large-scale disputes all over the world in most types of industries. During his career Susskind has zigzagged through a plethora of fields. He majored in English, earned a Ph.D. in urban planning, and then served as external director for an environmental consulting firm, as a planning consultant, negotiation advisor, and policy analyst, working in China, Spain, Japan and Israel. Through all of that, he has become one of the most innovative leaders in conflict resolution. So, I asked Susskind one morning if he believes his insights would have been possible if he had stuck with one established field and shied away form the Intersection.

‘Well, no,’ he admitted, leaning back in his chair. ‘I do believe in this stuff,’ he says. ‘I really do. The greatest risk is not taking one.’ He hesitates for a second before going on. ‘But what happens when you have to give advice to others that you care about, like your kids? I’m not sure what to tell my kids. Do I tell them that all you have to do is take chances, not to specialize, not to focus? I know that specializing will do well for them in life. So I just don’t know; I don’t know what to tell them.’

Neither do I. It depends . . . Like all of us, his kids will eventually have to make up their own minds. But what I do know is that if they wish to break new ground, stepping into the Intersection will give them the most opportunities to do so – today, more than ever. It is the best chance we have to change the world. We should take it.”
(Pages 181-2)

Over the past several years, I have had some exposure to innovators and entrepreneurs that have stepped into an Intersection that is broadly described as “nanotechnology.” I see these emerging fields as a perfect paradigm for the ideas that Johansson is putting forward in this book. Within the worlds of nanotechnology, scientists from the fields of physics, chemistry, material science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and biochemistry – to name just a few – have laid aside traditional boundaries and collaborated to create a new and rapidly evolving field that allows manipulation of single atoms to produce minuscule machines and products.

Johansson’s book is both a manifesto for innovators and an Emancipation Proclamation for those enslaved and trapped within the boundaries of traditional fields of study and practice.

So, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2006, it is not entirely inappropriate to apply the words of that great orator and innovator to the topic at hand:

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

“Munich” – Spielberg Is Back In Top Form

In this Blog, I review many books and only a few movies. One reason for this disparity is that I find many more books worth sharing than I find films that are noteworthy. So, when I choose to write about a movie, it means that the film has grabbed me in a significant way. With his new film, “Munich,” Spielberg grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go for three hours.

Unlike most members of my generation, I did not follow the 1972 Munich massacre in real time through the reporting of Jim McKay and Peter Jennings on ABC news. I was incommunicado for the period of the Munich Olympics, on my honeymoon in the mountains of Haiti. So, I did not experience in 1972 the roller coater ride of emotions that most TV viewers did as the hostage crisis and tragedy unfolded on the screen before them. Through the artistry of Spielberg and his creative team, I now feel as if I understand for the first time the range of emotions the rest of the world must have experienced when the Israeli Olympic athletes were slain in Munich. In addition, the film ushers the viewer beyond the original tragedy and leads one to consider the many layers of repercussions that are spawned from the subsequent retaliation that Israel launched against those Palestinians who had planned and executed the massacre.

Spielberg is wading in deep waters here, and he has crafted a very painful and deeply thought-provoking film. Using a technique that reminded me of “Schindler’s List”, early in the movie, the director weaves together the showing of photographs of two different groups of individuals – the 11 Israelis who were killed and the 11 Palestinians who perpetrated the outrage. Images of victims and terrorists are shuffled together as two halves of a deck of 22 cards – a graphic summation of the central message of the film: that violence – even violence justified as revenge for inhuman acts – exacts a steep toll upon both the original victims and perpetrators, as well as upon subsequent generations of those who seek justice through retribution.

It is an age-old dilemma. How do we appropriately respond to acts of violence? In Fiddler on the Roof, Teyve has a response to the Old Testament principle of “Lex Talionis” - “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

“Very good,” says Tevye, paraphrasing Gandhi, “that way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

It was his desire to move the world beyond the tit-for-tat mentality of “Eye for an eye” that prompted Jesus of Nazareth to proclaim:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love you neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43,44)

For two thousand years, followers of Christ have been wrestling with the conundrum of how to apply this difficult teaching in a world of real politik. This film continues the debate. It offers no easy answers, but does a masterful job of posing the questions in a variety of ways – verbally through the dialogue and visually through the pained expressions on the faces of the characters who are forced to confront the horrors of terror and the equal horrors of retribution. The film skillfully employs the characters of Golda Meir - Prime Minister of Israel, and Avner Kauffman - former Mossad officer and head of the assassination team tasked to kill the 11 Palestinians complicit in the Munich massacre, to depict the depth of struggle with moral choices that are as complex and intractable as a Gordian knot.

This is the kind of film that is best viewed alone, leaving yourself plenty of time for silent reflection after watching the film, or seen in the company of someone with whom you can “debrief” the experience and explore the many depths of meaning and challenge that the film offers.

This is not a film that most individuals will enjoy; it is a film that most thoughtful persons will treasure.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bill Reagan Speaks To Business Week - LoJack's Stronger Signal

Regular readers of this Blog are already very familiar with my friend, Bill Reagan. I have mentioned him often in this space, and he has been the source of some of my comments and articles.

As the Inventor and Founding CEO of LoJack, Bill was recently interviewed by Business Week. I found the article insightful and interesting, and thought you would want to be aware of it.

FYI - While Bill has too many irons in the fire to consider a full-time operating role with a company at this point, for the right opportunity, I believe he could be persuaded to consider a role on the Board of Directors of a firm that could use his global knowledge of how to build a company that is one the cutting edge of technological innovation. If you know of such a company, I will be happy to make an introduction to Bill. I consider him a key member of my personal "Board of Directors"!


LoJack's Stronger Signal

Adding A New Link To White Rhino Favorites - You Should Meet

Just before the holidays, I wrote about R3, a colloboration of three friends of mine who are serial entrepreneurs - Bob Allard, Richard Banfield, and Bob Glazer. One of the products they are developing is a tool called "You Should Meet." YSM provides a very useful way to automate the process of introducing friends and acquainteaces to one another.

Those of us who are inveterate networkers spend a lot of time composing e-mails that basically say: "Bob, you should meet Sally. Sally, you should meet Bob." This tool simplifies that process and keeps an archive of all the introductions that you have made, enabling the networker to better manage and follow-up on the process. The product is still in Beta mode, but I am already using it on a regular basis.

I am adding a link to "You Should Meet" to my list of White Rhino Favorite Links. I encourage you to sign-up for this free service.


Book Review and Commentary: “One Bullet Away – The Making Of A Marine Officer” by Nathaniel Fick

A few months ago in this space I offered a brief review of the movie “Jarhead.” This film was adapted from the book by former Marine, Anthony Swofford. Mr. Swofford tells the story of his experience in basic training and then as his unit was deployed in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It is a raw and often disturbing memoir. Comparing “Jarhead” with “One Bullet Away” would not be fair; they represent two different genres and are on two very different planes of analysis and erudition. To use a musical analogy: Swofford is a combination of Garth Brooks and Eminem; Fick is Beethoven!

I found “One Bullet Away” to be a riveting account of the development of a Marine Corps Officer – from his days as a classics major at Dartmouth to his decision to leave the Corps after serving under fire in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fick’s analysis remains consistently insightful and self-revelatory throughout the book. When placing the Marine Corps - its ethos, its methods, its culture, its leadership – under the microscope, Nate never shies away from examining his own performance and motives. I found his candor refreshing. That openness added to my willingness to accept his views of the broader issues laid out in this account.

Fick’s choice of epigraphs tells me as much about his thought process and his values as does his own writing. He begins Part I of the book, “Peace,” with this quotation by Thucydides: “We should remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.”

The rest of the book is Fick’s running account of the years he spent in the severe school that is the USMC. Part III, “Aftermath,” opens with this quotation from Augustine of Hippo: “Anyone who looks with anguish on evils so great must acknowledge the tragedy of it all; and if anyone experiences them without anguish, his condition is even more tragic, since he remains serene by losing his humanity.” I wish that some of our current leaders – military and political – could be made to understand the wisdom and profundity behind these words and sentiments.

By way of strongly encouraging you to read this landmark book, let me take you to the end of the story, and quote from some of Fick’s final words.

* * * * * *

I drifted after leaving the Corps. At age twenty-six, I feared I had already lived the best years of my life. Never again would I enjoy the sense of purpose and belonging that I had felt in the Marines. Also, I realized that combat had nearly unhinged me. Despite my loving family, supportive friends, and good education, the war flooded into every part of my life, carrying me along toward an unknown fate. If it could do that to me, what about my Marines? What about the guys without families, whose friends didn’t try to understand, who got out of the Corps without the prospects I had? I worried that they had survived the war only to be killed in its wake.

After channeling all of my energy into applying to graduate school, I got a phone call from an admissions officer: “Mr. Fick, we read your application and liked it very much. But a member of our committee read Evan Wright’s story about your platoon in Rolling Stone. You’re quoted as saying: ‘The bad news is, we don’t get much sleep tonight; the good news is, we get to kill people.’” She paused, as if waiting for me to disavow the quote. I was silent, and she went on. “We have a retired Army officer on our staff, and he warned me that there are people who enjoy killing, and they aren’t nice to be around. Could you please explain your quote for me?”

“No, I cannot.”

“Well, do you really feel that way?” Her tone was earnest, almost pleading.

“You mean, will I climb your clock tower and pick people off with a hunting rifle?”

It was her turn to be silent.

“No, I will not. Do I feel compelled to explain myself to you? I don’t.”

* * * * * *

I heard Nathaniel Fick read from his book a few weeks ago here in Boston. I had an opportunity to observe him responding thoughtfully to difficult questions about the war – his own involvement in Iraq and more global issues. I had a brief opportunity to speak with him and to question him myself. I came away from that encounter - and from my subsequent encounters with Nate in the pages of his book – with the following two impressions.

First, Nate Fick is the kind of gifted, brilliant, sensitive, personable, thoughtful, and well-balanced human being I would like to cultivate as a friend. He is currently pursuing dual degrees at Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Since I have strong networks in both of these schools, I expect that our paths may cross several times over the next several years, so I am hopeful that we will become friends.

Second, Mr. Fick strikes me as exactly the kind of individual we need to encourage to find a place in public service – either in an elected or appointed capacity. The combination of brilliance and well-grounded decision-making that characterized Nate’s military leadership career is precisely what is needed to steer our nation through the rocky shoals that lie before us. Fick seems to embody all of the best traits of a John McCain. I look forward to seeing him take the additional tools he is now acquiring on the banks of the River Charles and pouring them in a meaningful and substantive way into the stream of our public discourse and policy-making. If I do have an opportunity to develop a relationship with Nate, I hope to be able to influence and encourage him in this direction.

I am confident that any thoughtful reader – regardless of political persuasion or views on the war in Iraq - will find this book to be a worthwhile investment of time and thought.


(FYI - I have posted a slightly different version of this review on


Monday, January 09, 2006

Adding Three New Sites To White Rhino's Favorite Links

Upon returning from my trip to Europe, I am inspired to add three new links to my list of favorites that appears at the lower right hand corner of the Blog's home page.

When I first added this feature a few weeks ago, I promised only to add links to sites to which I have a personal connection - either knowing the proprietor of the business or having personally used the services offered in the links. Today's additions maintain those high standards.

China Grill Management - This site links you to the home page for the group that oversees a remarkable constellation of restaurants scattered from LA to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, New York, London and Mexico City. As I mentioned in my last posting, I enjoyed one of the best meals of my life at Asia de Cuba in London. The calamari salad was unlike anything I have ever tasted. It felt like a flavor grenade had exploded in my mouth! The fusion of Asian and Latin ingredients and cuisines is worth the trip across the Atlantic - or to any of the other restaurants listed on this site. Enjoy!

Laurelin Films - This link brings you to the home page for the Wedding Film business that my son, Ti, runs - as well as the Wedding Photography business that his wife, Raluca, has developed. Ti and Raluca are both gifted artists. I have seen many example of the work that they have done in capturing in unique ways special wedding days for dozens of lucky couples. They limit very carefully the number of weddings they will memorialize each year, so that they can create finished products that are truly works of art. They will be returning from Romania to New England in May, and still have a few more available slots for weddings this summer and early fall. If you know someone planning a 2006 wedding near Boston or the Seacoast of New Hampshire, that couple will not be able to find a more talented or dedicated team to film and/or photograph the wedding events than Ti and Raluca.

Middle Europe Musik - My son, Tim, from his base in Krakow, Poland, has created a site that seeks to connect young travelers from the West with music venues in Central and Eastern Europe. He provides connections to live music performances in Prague ~ Brno ~ Pilzen ~ Krakow ~ Katowice ~ Warsaw Bratislava ~ Budapest ~ Ljubljana. If you know a music lover planning to visit this part of the world, pass on the link to them.



Back From My Trip To Europe – A Few Tidbits

I do not want to bore you with a typical travelogue, but I do what to offer some sense of my recent visit with family and friends in Hungary, Romania and London. So, I’ll use bullet form:

* The highlight of the trip was the chance to reconnect with two of my sons – Ti and Tim - and to spend a few days in Romania playing grandpa to Ti and Raluca’s delightful children. Laurelin is a very precocious 3 year-old, and Amet will turn 1 on February 1. We went for walks, had a special visit to an ice cream shop in Craiova, read stories, sang and danced, and created a very passable rhythm band. Even Amet was able to keep time with a rhythm stick.

* Before we assembled in Craiova, I had met up with Ti and Tim in Budapest where we spent a day and a half exploring some of that marvelous city, and enjoying being together for the first time in over a year. Tim has been living and working in Poland for that amount of time. We had a bit of an adventure one icy night in Budapest trying to drive up a sleet-covered hill leading to the Citadel that overlooks the Danube. We had to be rescued by four powerfully built young Hungarian men who helped us to push the van to the crest of the hill.

* While in Romania, Ti arranged for me to have a chance to visit with several friends I had not seen for several years – including many members of Raluca’s family, and my friends, Ovidiu, Adrian and Razvan.

* While I was with him in Craiova, Ti hosted a screening for some of his Romanian friends of the feature-length film he has just finished directing and editing: “Sharp Dressed Men.” Written by Ti’s friend, Greg Gaskell, the film is a hilarious look at a trio of brothers struggling to get it together to make a success of the wedding day of their parents – who have finally decided to tie the knot after being together for almost 30 years. I brought back with me several copies of the DVD that are being submitted to film festivals in the U.S. I love the film – both as a proud father, and as a cinephile! My son, Scott, is one of the actors in the film, and has created a memorable character that is a piece of understated comic genius!

* New Year’s Eve and New Year’s morning saw me traveling by train from Craiova to Budapest, by way of a stopover for six hours in Timisoara, a city in Transylvania near the Hungarian border. Words cannot describe the sound and smell and overall impression of spending six hours – from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM – in a bar in the train station in Timisoara while dozens of well lubricated Romanians and gypsies entertained one another by throwing beer bottles and firecrackers across the room. I counted four different rounds of bottle smashing and five rounds of firecracker tossing – hundreds of bottles and M-80’s being sacrificed in the interest of aesthetics and simple peasant expressions of exuberance at the passing of 2005 and entrance of 2006! As far as I could tell, I was the only non-Romanian in the crowd, and I was treated respectfully and was offered drinks and refreshments by some of the celebrants.

The experience reminded me of another New Year’s eve – about 10 years ago – when I found myself at midnight on Kreshatik, the main street of Kiev, Ukraine. The tradition is to smash as many beer and vodka bottles as possible on the street before midnight, and for the crowd to walk up and down the street on the acres of broken glass. I was pleased to have good boots with thick soles, so I managed to traverse the sea of shards unscathed.

* At the airport in Budapest, while standing in line to receive my boarding pass for the flight to Paris, I heard a voice behind me say: “Al, is that you?” It was Mark Paquin, a musician from New Hampshire, who had been touring Europe playing trombone for a NYC-based jazz band. I had not seen Mark for several years, and we ended up on the same flight just a few rows apart. Need I say: “Small world”?

* The trip ended with a few days in London. I was able to see my friend, Edward Petherbridge of the Royal Shakespeare Company, star in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Woman in White.” Edward was terrific; the musical is not one of Weber’s best efforts.

* Dane O’Dell is an American friend of mine who is working for a hedge fund in London. We were able to visit with each other twice during my days in London. Dane was a gracious host, and treated me to one of the best meals I can ever remember having at a place called Asia de Cuba. (In a subsequent posting, I will add this as a new “Favorite Link”)

It was nice to be able to get away and spend some wonderful time with family and special friends. I am back in Boston, and looking forward to the adventures, opportunities and blessings that 2006 will present.

Happy New Year!