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This is one of the coolest things that’s happened to me in a while. And it reminds me: I need to get back to writing.

So, I’ll be back soon in earnest. Promise.


October 1, 2012 · 9:21 pm

Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto, and the Value of Humility

If you haven’t read any of Atul Gawande’s essays or books, I highly recommend them. While, as a surgeon, his writing is generally grounded in the practice of medicine, the topics he writes about have much wider applicability. Specifically, I just finished The Checklist Manifesto, which argues persuasively a deceptively simple premise: people in a wide variety of fields could reduce their rate of errors, be more effective, and prevent catastrophe through use of the humble checklist. If you read it, you’ll find yourself wondering why the practice isn’t more widely used.

Is it simply because we’re too proud to admit that we could use the help?

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Off The Grid: Unbuilt Washington

Having grown up near Boston, a city that inspired the myth that its streets were laid out by wandering cattle, Washington’s grids and diagonal avenues carry an air of inevitability. Add to that the architecture of DC’s monuments, which explicitly call to mind the ancient structures of the Old World, and it is hard to imagine the capital being any other way. But, of course, it was anything but inevitable; each of Washington’s iconic structures could have come out completely differently–or not existed at all. Exploring these alternate histories is the goal of Unbuilt Washington, an excellent exhibit at the National Building Museum.

The largest portion of the exhibit deals with various proposals along the National Mall, particularly the Capitol and White House. Some of the proposals exhibited were submitted by complete amateurs; for example, a proposal for the Capitol featured a weathervane nearly as tall as the dome itself. More interesting is the implied drama from the rejected designs of Thomas Jefferson, who anonymously submitted designs for each under the pseudonym “A.Z.” Jefferson’s designs, while good, are totally different in character than the eventual buildings. It’s a fascinating experience to imagine these very different buildings replacing the buildings that stand there now.

Also featured are proposed and rejected designs for DC’s most significant memorials. The travails of completing the Washington Monument are well-known, and Unbuilt Washington features both the winning proposal (which included a colonnade at the base of the memorial), as well as a variety of proposals for completion of the memorial when construction resumed in the 1870s. And various proposals for the Lincoln Memorial range from the interesting to the bizarre (a several-hundred-foot tall ziggurat probably qualifies as both).

The exhibit contains a number of other curiosities–alternate designs for the Kennedy Center, the FDR Memorial, and complete re-imaginings of what the Mall and the city could look like structurally. On the whole, Unbuilt Washington is a fascinating glimpse of what might have been (even if some of these things would never have been built in a million years).

Unbuilt Washington is at the National Building Museum until May 28. Your $8 ticket also gets you into LEGO Architecture: Towering Ambition, which features scale models of famous buildings worldwide and is every bit as awesome as you would imagine.

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“Too Close to Miss” and Modern Noir

There’s a point about two-thirds of the way through Too Close to Miss, John Perich’s excellent debut novel,* right after the plot twist that sends the story into its final act, where Mara Cunningham (the novel’s protagonist) drops a reference to The Untouchables. It’s a fairly obvious reference–even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll recognize the line–and the way Perich casually puts it into Cunningham’s words is a tribute to the easy style he brings throughout the novel. But, more importantly, that moment–a character in 2011 referencing a line from a 1987 movie about a Prohibition-era crime fighter–crystallizes the tension and play between eras that gives Too Close to Miss its sense of life.

(Note: I will try to avoid spoiling the plot; as with any mystery, Too Close to Miss is more enjoyable on first read if you don’t know how it ends. I think that nothing I mention plot-wise happens in the second half of the book, but be warned.)

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Friends Doing Cool Stuff #1

We emerge from blog hibernation for the first of what I hope will be a recurring series: Friends Doing Cool Stuff. Two items on the docket today:

Katie Hallahan is part of a team putting together a new video game, following up on their update to the venerable King’s Quest series. The Kickstarter page that they set up met its goal with plenty of time to spare, but they’re still accepting donations (pre-orders, really – $20 gets you a copy of the game) to help get the game off the ground. Check it out, and consider kicking in a few bucks if it’s your thing.

– I would advise you to read John Perich’s Periscope Depth under any circumstances, since it’s a fantastic blog. But this week specifically, he’s talking up his new novel, Too Close to Miss, with a series of posts about the book. Yesterday’s post described the inspiration for the novel, and he’ll be adding more. It’ll be good stuff; that much I’m certain of.


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On Slowly Becoming “A Runner”

To the extent I have any athletic talent at all (a dubious proposition in the first instance), it is that I can continue at a high effort level for a long time. I was a merely mediocre 500-yard freestyle swimmer in high school, and an abysmal 100-yard swimmer, because I could maintain my slow 100 pace for 500 yards. (The less said of my misadventures in the 50 free, the better.)

So perhaps it was inevitable that I would find myself standing in 39-degree weather on the National Mall on Sunday, waiting for my second Marine Corps Marathon 10K to begin. (The paradoxical name comes from the fact that the MCM folks rather cleverly organize a 10K on the last six miles of the marathon route, using roads that are already closed to accommodate people who think that 26.2 miles is a fortnight’s worth of running.) The camaraderie of strangers at a mass start like this is infectious: everybody is somewhat bored, a little anxious, and genuinely hopeful that their “competitors” do well. With the exception of the few who hope to win, this is not a zero-sum game: my success does not necessarily mean another’s failure. By the time the starter’s gun (in this case, a piece of small artillery) went off, I had stretched three times, tired myself out, and been re-energized by adrenaline. In short, I was ready to go.

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Number 24601

Les Miserables

Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

October 20, 2011

Can I start with a confession? Although I hadn’t seen it until last week, I’m really not sure Les Mis is really a great musical. When adapting an epic story to a sub-3-hour musical, a real premium is placed on economy of plot. The problem is compounded with a sung-through musical like this one; in something like Ragtime, which similarly attempts an era-defining story of epic sweep, you can at least get some plot out of the way through dialogue.

With Les Mis, I found myself wondering whether the resource of time could be allocated better. It’s a fun song, but do we really need six minutes of “Master of the House” to establish that the Thernardiers are horrible people? Nor does the song exactly create a deep character moment; I ended up thinking about Seinfeld during the song more than anything else. That said, the songwriting-as-songwriting is extraordinarily good; it’s not for nothing that “I Dreamed A Dream,” “Can You Hear the People Sing,” “One Day More,”* and–yes–“Master of the House” are considered classics of the genre.

*Although again, parody overtakes real life, as I found myself wandering to “La Resistance” as the first act drew to its conclusion.

So, more on the production after the jump, then? Continue reading

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Weird Al In Concert

Weird Al Yankovic

Warner Theater, Washington, DC

October 19, 2011

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been a fan of Weird Al Yankovic since I was aware that there was such a person; at this point, then, for over 20 years. I’m slightly embarrassed (though apparently not so much so that I won’t write it in public) that there are many songs I think of as Weird Al songs first, rather than the parodied songs themselves. Which is a roundabout way of saying that it’s somewhat surprising that last week was the first time I saw the man in person.

The short version: two of the most fun hours I’ve had in years.

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Peer Review

So who’s more convincing, Ronald McDonald or some stranger on the Internet? Via the Washington Post’s Wonkbook, a Harvard Business School professor suggests that Yelp actually manages to help independent restaurants, at the expense of big chains. Some of the observations aren’t exactly stop-the-presses stuff (Yelp reviews don’t really affect McDonald’s, because the whole point of McDonald’s is that you already know what your Quarter-Pounder with Cheese is going to taste like), but it’s still interesting to see that on a granular level, at least, Yelp reviews and the like may actually have an effect.

The most interesting point the author makes is that what really matters is the overall star rating, rather than the content of the individual ratings (although Elite members apparently have outsized impact); it makes me wonder how many times I’ve simply disregarded a restaurant (or another business) based on mediocre Yelp reviews. This can be overcome if you’re lucky enough to be curated; I can’t be the only person who’s gone to a restaurant with a mediocre Yelp score on the strength of a review with a compelling narrative.

Of course, this goes across the entire Internet; be as good at what you do as you want, but if nobody can find you (or, even worse, the most visible information out there is bad), good luck overcoming that.


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Young 40-Love

I’ll say this: Pete Sampras can still serve.

I was in the Verizon Center last Friday, watching the HSBC Tennis Cup, a exhibition-slash-leg of a tennis seniors tour. The four players (Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier) have kept a lot of their shotmaking, but you can tell that the speed, the power, the endurance have all been slipping. It’s hard to admit, of people who were larger-than-life back then, but they looked . . . well, old at times.

(It was a little disquieting to be reminded that Michael Chang won the French Open 23 years ago. 23! To steal a line from a Friends episode, his French Open title is old enough to drink!)

What’s more terrifying is, of course: they’re not actually old. Chang is 39; Sampras is 40; Agassi and Courier 41. And yet, as top-level competitive athletes, they’ve been over the hill for almost a decade. In virtually every other endeavor, they would be just hitting their peaks. If they hadn’t made millions of dollars playing tennis, they’d be mid-career. (I wonder what your mid-life crisis looks like when you’ve already been a millionaire world-famous athlete.) But does any of us know when we hit our tipping point, if we already have, or will we just recognize it once we are far past appreciating it in the moment?

I’m glad they’re still playing; it was amazing to see their skills in action, even if they’ve lost a step. But entropy really does go just one way, doesn’t it?


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