Sunday, June 20, 2010

Special Post: The US Should Play With a Chip on its Shoulder

Click here for this week's standard post, below is a short, non-52 week project related post...

The US Should Play With a Chip on its Shoulder

Which US team will show up Wednesday morning against Algeria? Will it be the team whose shockingly poor defensive coordination allowed a goal in the first 15 minutes against both England and Slovenia? Or will it be the gritty team that battled back to tie both games, the team who in a just world would have won on a brilliant three-goal second half against Slovenia? (For those living under a rock, an inexplicable foul called against the US negated what would have been the game-winning goal in the 88th minute.)

But as frustrating as a stolen World Cup win is, there is a silver lining here. This call might be precisely what the US team needs to advance or even win the group. You see, this team performs well, but only with the right motivation. It can't seem to win simply because it is favored to do so. It needed a terrible first-half showing against Slovenia (population 2 million) to rally and play to its potential. It played well as an underdog against England. It is clear this team plays well with a little fire in its belly.

Following the game players rightly felt "gutted." But now that the dust has cleared, that emotion will shift. It will shift to anger. "We were robbed" will become the rallying cry at the US camp. So while an objectively bad call cost the Yanks two points in Group C standings, it could be what propels them further in the tournament.

Thanks to a 0-0 tie between Algeria and England, a simple truth exists: the US team controls its destiny. One win and they are through. The low scoring by others in the group, coupled with the fact that "goals for" is the first tie-breaker, puts the boys in red, white and blue in a strong position. They had some good luck against England and some tough luck against Slovenia. Now it is time to channel their frustration, play with a chip on their shoulder, and for God's sake get the ball to Landon Donovan.

Week 25: How to publish a book for under $200

I am no expert on the book publishing industry; any experience I have is anecdotal and incomplete at best. But this week I came across a podcast from Wharton describing a really cool start-up called FastPencil. The company helps aspiring authors focus on their core competency - writing - by dramatically simplifying the book formatting, design, publication and distribution process.

For a relatively modest fee, you are able to both acquire an ISBN number for your book (think new-age card catalog/digital legitimacy) and sell the book on the many e-book distribution platforms, from iBooks (Apple) to Amazon to Barnes & Noble. Furthermore, the company flips the existing profit-sharing model on its head. Traditional publishers often don't give the author more than 15% of profits, while FastPencil and other start-ups like it are now giving the authors 80% of the profits. This is an incredible shift, and rightly puts the incentive to create with the creators, as opposed to the "suits."

FastPencil CEO Steve Wilson thinks that existing brick and mortar chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders may not exist in a few years, and I agree. It's clear that e-book sales are taking an increasingly large share of the total book sales market. As someone who just bought an iPad and is about to move apartments, I can tell you that I welcome the idea of having all of my books in one digital device (as opposed to 15 boxes). But the question of digital vs. hard copy is one of distribution; just like in the music industry both digital and hard copy distribution will exist in some form regardless of how technology changes.

The real battle here is over production. In the past, a few record labels and publishers could control the pipeline of talent by hand-picking those who would fit their mold - and by making these artists successful. In today's world, word-of-mouth is the most important metric for success. So a company like FastPencil's business model is dedicated to providing a platform through which creative people can tap into and build their existing networks, distribute their work, and generate through social media the highest level of buzz possible. Instead of making outsized bets on a few John Grishams (a strategy guaranteed to both sell books in the near-term and box out up and coming talent), these new publishers are allowing a much wider net of talent and counting on the market to decide who succeeds.

Make no mistake, this has become remarkably easy: one of the featured authors on FastPencil is a child psychiatrist who wrote and published his book in NINETY days. Compare this to the usual publication process, which takes 1-2 years. The site will also link you to a network of potential collaborators (illustrators, editors, other authors), a marketplace for your finished product, and both print and e-publication options. For under $200, you quite literally have a product that will take your manuscript/blog/whatever from start-to-finish and introduce you to a market of millions and millions of consumers.

The point here is not to blindly promote FastPencil. The point is that the barriers to entry continue to come down, across the board. Just like this blog attempts to prove that the tools to learn about anything are readily available, FastPencil is proving that those with the ability and desire to pursue writing will no longer be held back by the political or financial barriers imposed by the large New York publication shops. As companies like FastPencil develop and grow, the excuses for not following your dreams ring hollow... so what is your next move?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 24: The obligatory World Cup post

I love the World Cup. For me, it's better than the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the World Series combined. I still remember going out late with my Dad to a Budapest bar (my first, I'm sure) at the age of 9 to watch Brazil play the United States in the '94 cup. And how could I forget watching the Brazilians win their record fifth title with thousands of screaming Brazilians on Copacabana Beach? Or seeing France upset the Brazilians from Paris in 2006... While I've yet to attend a World Cup (although I've promised to take my Dad to 2014 in Brazil), I've been lucky enough to watch the World Cup in six countries: US, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, France and Hungary. And the raw emotion and sheer excitement has been palpable in every single country. It's a remarkable feeling, as though an entire nation collectively suits up on game-day, ready to go to battle on the pitch.

This week I decided to watch FIFA's greatest World Cup moments. With goals form legendary players like Puskás to the greatest saves to World Cup bloopers, this is a must-watch. This video timeline reflects the depth, breadth, and timelesness of the tournament. It also highlights the mini-miracles of the past. How unbelievable that North Korea beat Italy 1-0 in 1966 to advance to the next round, and would have made it to the semi-finals had the Portuguese not scored four consecutive goals to earn a 4-3 victory?!

In my opinion, the World Cup tournament is the closest that exits to a shared human experience. FIFA estimates that over 715 million people watched the 2006 final, and the tournament drew over 26 billion cumulative views. The myriad subplots and layers of meaning enveloped by the World Cup - and certainly this World Cup - are enough to overwhelm even the most ardent football enthusiast or global citizen. From the story of South Africa's triumph over apartheid to Maradona's demands for a $2,000 bidet in his hotel suite, there is plenty to follow.

I couldn't be happier that the historic first World Cup on African soil has started with a bang, with two of the three African countries to play (South Africa and Ghana) performing extremely well in the first round. Who wasn't thrilled when the tens of thousands of noise-making vuvuzelas willed the brilliant strike of South African's newest hero, Siphewe Tshabalala, into the upper corner of the net? And who wasn't impressed with the ruthless efficiency of the Germans in dismantling an Australian team that many expected to advance to the round of 16? Anyone who has played sports has to sympathize with English goalkeeper Robert Green's botch, which cost the English a win against the Americans. These moments will live forever.

The World Cup truly is a unique global experience, encompassing creative goal celebrations, individual and collective glory and heartbreak, drama, absurd dives and of course heavy doses of nationalistic fervor. Enjoy it, embrace it, learn from it. Whatever you do, don't ignore it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Week 23: Around the world...

This post is going to combine two aspects of life that I absolutely love, but do not get nearly enough of - music and travel. I recently received a National Geographic travel magazine showing all the incredible places you can go (with time and money, of course). I loved the idea of going on their "Around the World" package until I noticed the $64,000 price tag. So in lieu of going around the world, and in an effort to both expand my musical horizons AND show readers an awesome music website, I am going to take a musical trip around the world. For each country I'd like to visit (the below is an abridged list), I picked a native song that stuck out to me for one reason or another.

In the spirit of the blog, I did all this using only free web based resources. In this case, I was able to do this thanks to Grooveshark, a free, legal streaming music website. Between Grooveshark, Pandora, and YouTube, you should be able to find just about any music you'd like to listen to. Through advertisements, Grooveshark pays the artists on its site, and removes those who do not want to be listed.

With that, put on some headphones and listen to all the new music I heard today... You can either click song by song, or load the entire playlist. The playlist will take a few minutes to load. Once you're in Grooveshark, double click the song title to listen.

Colombia: Pepe by famous Cumbia artist Lucho Bermúdez.

Cuba: Son De Negros en Cuba by an awesome singer/guitar player called Compay Segundo.

Senegal: Bul Ma Miin by Orchestra Baobob. I had to post a video here because seeing them play with Dave and Trey is really cool - if you don't want to listen to the whole thing just watch minutes 3-4. The version without Dave and Tim is also incredible.

Egypt: Mabrouk Wo Arisna by Ali Hassan Kuban, the "Godfather" of Nubian music. In this song you can really hear the fusion of African percussion, Middle Eastern melody and jazz.

Mongolia: Another video for this one, which is really a mix of Mongolia, India and the Flecktones - A Moment So Close, which starts with a Mongolian throat singer. These guys are just awesome, they can sing three tones simultaneously. The rest of the song is also insane; I'll be impressed if anyone knows what time signature it is in.

Australia: A neat little mix of English/Kriol, reggae/jam, Australia folk - Drangkinbala by Blekbala Mujik, an Australian band with a huge cult following.

Iraq: Halat Wayd by Naseer Shamma, one of the most famoust Oudists in Iraq. This song surprised me; I definitely did not expect the song from Iraq to be among my favorites from this exercise, but it is. There is so much tension in the song, both due to the percussive spacing and the really unique mix of instruments. If you're too bored to listen to the whole thing, just listen from minutes 5 to 6.

Costa Rica: Found a really cool song called La Bikina by a Costa Rican Grammy winning jazz band called Editus.

Argentina: The obligatory tango, but one I really like... Si soy asi by tango legend Hugo del Carril.

Finland: I'll leave you with a song by Finnish accordionist Maria Kalaniemi; the song is called Ahma.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Week 22: Coquí! Coquí!

Last weekend, a few friends and I went to Puerto Rico. While we had a great time, we neglected to do our research and were surprised to realize May is the rainy month on the island. Each morning we would go to the beach for the few hours of sun and then migrate to the pool bar for the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms. As evening came, rain or shine we were met with a chorus sung by hundreds of frogs. And not just any frogs - these were the tiny, magical Coquís, who thanks to their distinct, persistent calls are the pride of Puerto Rico. From songs to folklore, the Coquí is an indelible part of la cultura del Boriqua.

Legend has it that the indigenous Tainos knew the more powerful Spaniards were about to take over their island. The Taino leader, named Coquí, was well aware of his inability to defeat the Spanish by force, so he instead had his people transformed into frogs. In doing so he both saved their lives and guaranteed they would always remain in their native land. The nightly symphony of frogs is therefore considered a tribute to their dear leader.

While the Coquí is a treasure in Puerto Rico, you would be hard pressed to find any nostalgic Coquí tales in Hawaii. Apparently some frogs made it to the Hawaiian islands via transplanted plants, and their population grew rapidly. While the Coquí! call is celebrated as a beautiful song in San Juan, it is loathed as a cacophonous nuisance in Waikiki. The battle against the Coquí has raged for years, from town hall meetings to mass eradications. It's obvious that the poor little frogs have few friends outside of Puerto Rico.

Where do I stand on the issue? I love the Coquí, its distinguished chirp, and the history surrounding it. It just might be my favorite frog.