Cities: Urban creativity and good employees

I've been waking up at ridiculous hours this week (like 3:30-4 a.m., and wide awake), and maybe it's the lack of sleep, but something really clicked with me about the Richard Florida interview I woke up to.

Florida is an author and researcher, and his ideas mesh around the concept of a creative class. He's academic director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto.

He says they called it a "Prosperity" institute because of the growth associated with the word.

Anyway, what really touched me about the interview is his idea of the quality of place.

Included in this are the mixing of people and ideas.

If you build a new development, it's basically building a new shell. It has to grow, and it takes decades, centuries.

If you have a city, you have the energy of the people who started the city centuries ago mixed with the energy of the people who are there now, mixed with the energy of everyone who has been there in between.

The people who choose to be there are there amidst all this energy.

As interviewer Peter Day puts it, you need "good old-fashioned muddle" for a city.

Cities spark creativity, they spark life, and let's face it, the people who opt to live in cities already have those things, and feel they can grow from what's there and add to it.

The same, says Florida, goes for places of work.

When employers recognize that their employees have something beyond the little outline of their job to offer to the company, that's step one.

Step two is making sure employees want to be there – not just working for the company, but that they're given a working environment that helps motivate them.

I have step one at my company. In fact, it's grown beyond the local company, to other affiliates and to the centralized editorial department. Fantastic.

But I work in a soulless atmosphere; no wonder I'm not sleeping well.

I live in a house built in 1890. It has hardwood floors, and lots of character.

If I do freelance work, I do it downtown or in the Westcott section of town, which is fairly artsy.

My day job, though, I drive to an office park and sit in a drab gray-and-green cubicle.

Yippee.

In fact, I come to a chain coffee shop to write before work, because it's the only one close with Internet access (even though they block some sites).

And, if I want lunch, the only places I can walk to are that coffee shop, a small mall food court, and a Nothing but Noodles franchise.

To get to those places, I have to walk across parking lots and medians, because if I walked along the road (no sidewalks, by the way), I'd be looking at about a 40-minute walk to get anywhere.

No wonder we all want raises every year: We don't have any atmospheric motivation at work.

On the one hand, that's enough venting before 7 a.m. On the other hand, this is a real problem for American employers. A lot of us have voiced (repeatedly, over the course of more years than I've been there) that we'd like to move the office downtown.

If the company did that, and gave us an interesting place to work while there, the creative juices would be flowing, and productivity would rise. It sounds like that's not just my opinion.

This is why I don’t do live interviews

Got this in the e-mail at work. Ouch.

IT’S A FACT! SNAPPLE OFFERS NBA REPORTER NEW CAREER FOR THE OFF-SEASON

PLANO, Texas (Sept, 16 2008) – In a continued effort to educate Americans one bottle cap at a time, Snapple offers New York Knicks reporter Jill Martin a side job for the off-season: Snapple Cap Fact Writer. In a recent interview, Martin failed to answer basic trivia questions about her own team - including a question about the years in which the Knicks have won the NBA Championship.

To ensure that New York fans have a more informed reporting staff, Snapple invites Ms. Martin to write five Knicks-focused Snapple cap facts. In addition to gaining crucial knowledge for her career, Martin will receive $1,000 for each cap fact. Snapple will provide any and all resources needed to research these facts, including: Internet access, direct contact with devout followers of NY sports fans and the email address of the president of the Patrick Ewing Fan Club.

The job offer expires on the NBA's opening night October 29, 2008. “Snapple, in no way, wants to interfere with Martin's full-time job,” said Bryan Mazur, vice president of marketing for Snapple. “However, this is a wonderful opportunity to engage a talented young reporter - and Snapple is more than happy to help!”

To respond, Martin can contact the Snapple consumer line at 1-800-762-7753.

I officially feel old, at least in new media terms

Remember Napster? It was a music sharing service that was hugely popular among college students, unemployed hackers and other people who thought disposable income and music were mutually exclusive.

The site was started by a college drop-out named Shawn Fanning, who got sued about 30 million times (OK, slight exaggeration) for letting people trade copyrighted music for free, and who is probably now quietly making some giant income because he's a genius who figured out how to leverage the Internet really well.

Just saying.

After the original Napster was shut down, it disappeared for a few years and then someone bought the name and logo (we call that a brand in marketing terms, kids), and turned it into a boring international conglomerate with Los Angeles headquarters and offices in New York, Tokyo, Luxembourg and Frankfurt.

They also have a "free" service that swallows your IP address and lets you listen to a song without paying three times before you then have to buy it.

Yawn.

Best Buy – you know Best Buy, don't you? They have those 50-foot yellow-and-blue tags glowing from the sides of box stores and malls everywhere – decided Friday it would buy Napster in an effort to (snicker) take on iTunes.

iTunes has 70 percent of the (legal) music download market. Best Buy wants to double its sales in the next five years.

Somehow this just feels like the cool kid turning square, then becoming a lifelong mid-level corporate tax attorney for the rest of his life.

So long, Napster. It was good watching you wither away to a soulless paper-pusher.

Where the songs collide

Ceili Rain

Music has always been part of my life. I come from a musical family, and those who aren't musicians, are fans of music.

There have always been pockets of music genres I don't particularly care for. Country music has been one, and much to Jonathan's chagrin, so is Irish music.

Lately, though, my ears and tastes seem to be evolving. I'm hearing where different forms of music that I previously didn't enjoy fit in with the kinds of music I do enjoy – even with those that I enjoy most.

Leonard Bernstein, the great classical conductor and composer, famously pushed music critics to understand that pop music was worth reviewing because it was also about form. He reportedly was a fan of Janis Ian.

I'm starting to hear a blurring of lines between styles, and am recognizing instead that form travels independently of instrumentation.

Or maybe I'm just getting older.

The price (in dollars) of neighborliness

If you follow me on Twitter, or have me as a friend on Facebook (sorry, reserved only for people I actually know in some capacity), you know I've spent the bulk of the past two days frustrated (primarily in the run-up to the launch of high school football season, but check this out, we've got someone actually doing a live play-by-play).

After planning to have a four-hour break this afternoon before coming in to sit watch for a few hours, we ran into a last-minute bug, and four hours turned into two.

When I got to the house, I heard a shout from across the street. "Hey, sir? Can you help me?"

I looked over and saw the elder across the street sitting on the stairs that lead up to his house (see that photo above). It turns out he had fallen on his way up, and had been sitting there for a half hour.

After some work, I finally got him to his door, and he shooed me away, trying to give me $10 for my trouble. I managed to run away from him while he still held the bill.

I went inside, changed, re-packed my backpack (new book, etc.), and as I went to leave, I decided to go check on him, and lo and behold, he hadn't made it into his house.

I took his keys from him, opened the door, and helped him up the three wooden steps into his living room and onto his couch. I found his light switch, as I was absolutely not leaving him sitting in the dark until his son came home in three hours.

This time, he didn't let me escape without handing me a $20 bill, but I managed to toss it back into his living room as I backed out the door; I'm sure his son will find the bill on his way into the house.

I realized, if he had been paying me by the hour for the "work" I did as a neighbor, he would have dropped something on the order of $200/hr. That's crazy talk.

So, you tell me, is a not-really-physical, not-at-all time consuming act that any decent human being would have performed, neighbor or no, worth $200 an hour?

Book review: The Seventh Well by Fred Wander

My sister is the history freak in the family. Specifically, she reads a lot about the Holocaust, and for whatever reason, I've been doing some of the same. I spent the winter with The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn's journey to discover what happened to the one part of his family no one knew much about because they had disappeared during the Holocaust.

The Seventh Well is Michael Hofmann's 2008 translation of Fred Wander's Das gute Leben, a (probably not very) fictionalized account of Wander's own survival of the Holocaust.

Wander's title translates to "The good life;" but good as in rich, full, what (beer commercials aside) we might call "the high life."

Wander brings to life characters he met on his journey through 20 camps and several escapes: A studied and confident 16-year-old; a great storyteller; partisans; and last, a 10-year-old child who has taken on the role of father to his younger brothers.

The book ends in the delirious happiness of near-liberation and typhoid fever dreams.

Wander doesn't leave out the horrors, but he does bring out one thing we haven't seen in a lot of books and films about the Holocaust: life. In much the way that the film Life is Beautiful focuses on a man who, despite all that's happening in the camps, keeps his child alive with games and fun, Wander shows the individuality and the humanity of victims, not just in fleeting moments of despair, but in, as his own title suggests, the rich fullness of their lives.

Hey, someone interviewed me!

I always forget what it's like to be on the getting-asked-the-questions side of the interview.

For those of you who don't know, one of the things I do in my job is to run a blog about pro athletes with CNY connections. It's generally fairly dormant in the summer, since the locals playing pro baseball aren't really key players, though they have their moments.

But Orange Chuck, a former Syracuse guy in North Carolina, doesn't hold the summers against me, and interviewed me for his 12 questions series this morning.

Interviews are difficult enough for me – it's hard to be on for whatever question is coming – but also being able to answer honestly and completely, without violating any trade secrets, is doubly difficult.

Anyway, thanks, Chuck, for the opportunity, and I'm glad you're enjoying the interviewing.

Blog Day

Dear Blog Day,

I didn't forget you, I promise. I'm just a little late. So, here goes. Five blogs you should be reading.

» Rag & Bone Shop: My former co-editor at the college paper, Wayne Barr (that's the co-editor, not the paper) is now a parent and the author of a collection of essays. He doesn't blog often, but he does Twitter and Facebook in the same voice (just shorter), and much more frequently.

» Photographers Journal: We see newspaper photographers' work every day. Very rarely, though, is the work we see anything we'd call artistic. Sure, occasionally there's a nice sunset, or a shadow, or someone is posed in a way you'd never think of posing them. But such is life as a newspaper photographer: in trade for doing photography for a living, you take pictures of officials at microphones and kids playing little league. But the Photogs Journal is a place for some of The Post-Standard's photographers to show off a bit, and to take pictures they enjoy taking. And they get to write a little bit about why they took them (beyond, "it was pretty").

»Onondaga (County) Citizens League: Readers of my blog know I write a fair bit about Interstate 81, and its raised overpasses. The OCL is undertaking a study looking at the pros and cons, and some of what they're doing is in-depth analyses of other places that have done radical(ish) things with their highways. I've learned a lot on both sides of the issue, and I'll continue to learn from them, I hope.

»aSweetPeace: I mentioned this a little while ago, but I'm working with the author of aSweetPeace on a project related to (his or her) blog (the bio is semi-anonymous, and I'd like to retain that as best I can). The blog is all about recipes, including photos of the finished product. I don't bake well, but I love food (clearly) and I do other stuff in the way of cooking fairly well (if I do say so myself), and I've enjoyed reading this thus far.

» James O'Brien: In case I didn't drive the point home earlier in August when I wrote about James, he's brilliant, his writing's seductive, and he's an inspirational human. Someone you should be reading (and listening to).

“New” apartment, courtesy of music

I am in active disbelief that I had never heard of Kimya Dawson until I saw Juno.

Between her solo work, her work with The Moldy Peaches and with the children's ensemble Antsy Pants (auto audio warning), Dawson appears on about half the soundtrack.

For those of you who didn't know me in my former life, I used to (a) review a lot of acoustic singer songwriters, (b) book acoustic singer songwriters, (c) play with acoustic singer songwriters, and (d) be an acoustic singer songwriter [OK, so I"m still a little (d)].

And Dawson was starting to get her first round of small-club-touring fame right about then; the fact that I could be interviewing and booking people like Pamela Means, hanging out at shows with folks like Ember Swift and Lyndell Montgomery, and playing with women who had me covering Ani Difranco (auto audio) and others and not know about Dawson's existence is just, well, appalling to me.

Dawson's solo stuff is very simple shy-woman-with-guitar stuff, and the recordings I've heard so far appear to be done on simple recording equipment (like, say, four-track cassette recorders). I spent some of this morning looking over her LiveJournal.

She had me wanting to play again, and not just the little bit I have been. So I've spent much of the past week re-doing my apartment.

I've cordoned off the bedroom, so it's no longer a walk-through (it's where the dining room was, if you've been there recently). I got rid of the dining room, moving the table and chairs into the kitchen, which is plenty big enough.

My office is now the carpeted room that was the bedroom, and what was my office now has two guitars, two microphones, one chair and the portable PA system and four-track I dug out of the closet. It's empty and sounds brilliant, and hopefully will serve me well musically and creatively.

Words


Warning: The audio on this video is NOT work-friendly

I have a distinct memory of Mrs., Giles, my elementary school speech therapist, asking my parents to not help me with my lessons.

My parents, you see, grew up outside of Boston, where while Rs are an issue, so are vowels. For example, the O in dog and doll makes sort of an aaahhhh sound in actual English, while it makes an aaawwww sound in the Boston area.

That might have actually been my first parents-vs.-teacher episode as well, but that's not what I've gotten out of it.

One of my — hmm, I don't know if it qualifies as a guilty pleasure so much as a curiosity — is understanding where in the mouth to make sounds. In English, T is made with the tongue very much against the back of both sets of teeth most of the time, while in Spanish, the T is made above the top teeth, though not as far up as an English D. The Spanish D on the other hand, is made somewhat in between the teeth, like an English TH.

Given enough time listening to someone and looking at their mouth, I can imitate if not their full accent, at least the way they say some words.

One of my other curiosities is words that accidentally sound the same. Listen to Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha for a while in the video above.

The line is "Some of those who run forces / are the same who burn crosses" (a reference to racist police officers). I'm not sure if it's intentional or not (I'm guessing not), but sometimes during the song, de la Rocha will match the Os, which makes "forces" sound like "farces."

Interestingly, force and farce have been with us a really long time. Both derive from Latin, and both worked their way through Middle French and Middle English to remain with us.

Is this too much of a nerd moment for 5:30 a.m.? Maybe, I dunno. How about you? Do you have any super-geeky habits I should know about?