Draft No. 4, Library e-books, and Still Walking
Plus a prelude to next week's essay about Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
Greetings from Washington, D.C.!
I hope everyone is making it through the final stretch of the year before the holidays kick in. And I hope everyone and their family is safe through what feels like another setback in the ongoing COVID pandemic.
As a quick reminder to old subscribers and as an introduction to new ones, this is Sunday Snapshots, a weekly newsletter mostly about businesses and biographies with a side of randomness — everything from restaurants, the craft of writing, machine learning, shadow power, and ill-fated drawings. In alternating weeks, you’ll receive an essay and links to things I’ve been thinking about.
First, a quick follow up on last week’s essay Spotify Wrapped. Building on the theme of growth through social channels that we discussed in the article, the Swedish streaming company launched Wrapped: Blend. This allows two friends to build a playlist that is a mix of their top songs and music tastes. I can easily see a wider option set for this feature next year with friends being able to create playlists in a truly collaborative manner. Beyond the analytical, it was a delightful feature — kudos to the product and design teams at Spotify!
Now, on to some things I’ve been thinking about the last couple of weeks:
Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, had a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” It was a reminder to every one who interacted with him that no matter the topic, the final decision would be his and his alone. In Herbert P. Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, a history of the Japanese imperial court in the first half of the 20th century, it’s clear that the buck stopped nowhere at all when came to the decisions that guided Japan through World War 2. The reigning emperor, Hirohito, lived in the shadow of his grandfather, the Meiji emperor who catapulted Japan from a feudal country into the ranks of the great powers. Empire was what the Japanese people wanted; empire is what they got. But hereditary power is a bit like a roll of the dice — you can never guarantee that you’re going to get what you need. In short, Hirohito was not what Japan needed. I’m writing a longer essay on the book for next week’s issue of Snapshots.
Continuing my journey into McPhee-land, I read Draft No. 4. It’s a collection of his essays about the writing process. McPhee has lived a full life and he brings this life’s worth of experience to his battle — every writer’s battle — against the blank page. There is certainly a lot to pick up but a few things that stood out to me. First was McPhee’s insistence on using the right word. This doesn’t just mean the word with the right meaning, but the word with the meaning that is most appropriate for a particular situation. He recommends writing with a dictionary on your side to help with this. He recommends starting with a lead and a punchline. He recommends writing out first drafts by hand. And much more. But that list does not really do this book justice. Sharing a bulleted list of lessons is a bit like me telling a kid that Disneyland is fun. It’s technically true but the magic is lost when you haven’t had the experience yourself. I highly recommend this book and I’ll be continuing my journey into McPhee-land by reading The Curve of Binding Energy.
I’ve written about The Amazon-Apple Book Duopoly in the past. This New Yorker piece about the The Surprisingly Big Business of Library e-books profiles OverDrive, the leading digital content provider for public libraries. You learn about the various business models that libraries have at their disposal for different kinds of books. It’s all fascinating and wonderful. But at the heart of it all is the lingering question of whether OverDrive, a supposed counterweight to Amazon and Apple, is too big itself. I think there are reasonable philosophical discussions to be had about the pros and cons of concentrated corporate power and you can base your legislative approach on those philosophical ideologies — like Lina Khan suggested in her Yale Law Review paper titled Amazon’s Anti-trust Paradox which I have written about before. But my take is that the regulatory leash should be extremely short when it comes to the dissemination of knowledge itself.
Some articles teach you something. Some articles confirm something you knew already knew. This article in the New Republic about Robert Caro’s Journalism Lessons falls under the latter category — it proves that I will read anything and everything by or around Caro. It’s a companion piece to the exhibit at the New York Historical Society which I had the chance to visit a couple of weeks ago and covers the usual Caro traits: his approach to creating a “sense of place,” his commitment to tracking down every lead1, and his unique writing style. A good introduction to his work. Thanks to longtime Snapshots reader, George Hodak, for sharing this article.
In Two stories about tacit knowledge, Strange Loop Cannon covers how implicit knowledge differs from process knowledge. The first is technical know-how — say what size of a screw is used in which part of a car. The second is more about the why — how was the decision made to use that screw in that part of the car? We’ve talked about process knowledge before when discussing how Chinese manufacturing firms have advanced process knowledge that will be difficult to replicate even if countries around the world moves away from its reliance on the whimsy of the Communist Party. Some process knowledge gaps can be eliminated by extensive documentation, but it’ll remain extremely hard to replicate.
Families are weird. Grief is powerful. Still Walking by Hirokazu Kore-eda captures that combination of weirdness and power in a graceful way. Most fascinating to me is how information is revealed slowly in still camera shots2. You are made to feel that information is being withheld — it is suspenseful in the very best sense of the word. It is also a food film but not in the technical-genius-of-a-Chef’s Table-episode way, but in a sitting-around-the-table-and-sharing-a-meal-together way, and I’m a sucker for those. Easily one of my favorite movies of the year. If you liked When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi or The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, then you’ll like Still Walking.
What I really liked about JFK Revisited by Oliver Stone is that it asks questions with a skeptical eye towards the JFK assassination in a way that feels unlike a crazed conspiracy theory. It’s well-informed and well-structured. If you’re interested in the questions that undergird growing suspicions of government, I recommend watching it.
Until next Sunday,
Robert Caro for head of the COVID contract-tracing task force?
Contrast this with a typical superhero film which has exposition-padded dialogue for the first thirty minutes