Tag Archives: Steven Johnson

A bit of this and that

None of these really need a full blog post but for those that care and for those that don’t…

A New Project

I am starting a book that I hope to have done by the end of the year.  I have a full Moleskine of things that I have left out of my The StarPhoenix columns, thoughts that I haven’t shared on The Saskatoon Afternoon Show with David Kirton (or talked about after we got off the air), or are just ideas that I have been working on and haven’t done anything with.  Basically I am just trying to figure out Saskatoon and along with it, the ethos of Saskatchewan that makes us do things the way we do.

For many years Steven Johnson has been one of my favourite authors.  Instead of writing books about what he knows, he writes about what he does not understand and in the process of learning about a subject, he brings you along for the ride.  I hope to do the same thing.  Look for it 2015.

Sports and Politics

I read a great bio of Michael Grange who said he wanted to write about foreign affairs but he was offered a sports job.  I love writing about local and social issues but if Grantland calls, I am leaving it all behind (I’m kidding but the Grantland podcasts look like so much fun).  To pass the time between now and when Bill Simmons discovers me, I am now talking sports with David Kirton and Justin Blackwell on Wednesdays at 5:15 on the CKOM Saskatoon Afternoon roundtable.  David joked about it a few weeks ago that we should just talk sports and since then we have had quite a few roundtables with sports.  The response has been cool but I was at McNally Robinson the other day and a stranger comes up to me and says out of the blue, “You know, I really hate what Pete Carroll did at USC too.”  I looked at him and he said, “I attended Oregon” and shook my hand.  I can now check, “Call out Pete Carroll for cheating” off my bucket list.  

A Year in Saskatoon

I have been writing an OurYXE Neighbourhood Guide each week.  Every Wednesday and Sunday, I sit down and research what is good, bad, and interesting about a neighbourhood.  It’s been an incredible amount of fun exploring some of Saskatoon’s most loved (and unloved) neighbourhoods.  I have been discovering a lot of history and out of the way places to check out in each of them.  Part of the project is making sure we have some good photography for each neighbourhood which means I have been out a lot with a couple of cameras and my new 50mm f/1.8 lens.  While the cold hasn’t been a lot of fun to shoot photos in, seeing parts of Saskatoon again for the first time has been excellent.

Along with the photos, I have been shooting a lot of video.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it but I had been thinking of a montage of a year in the life of Saskatoon.  Something that showed the bitter cold of winter and the incredible warmth of fun we have in the summer.  Saskatoon isn’t all good and it definitely isn’t all bad.

I wasn’t really sure what I wanted it to look like.  Many of the videos I had seen had been time lapses and I have about 5000 time lapse photos taken, I was initially been thinking of doing something with time lapse. It’s fun and amazing but i miss the emotion of just video.

 If it is as half as interesting as this video by Andy Clancy, I’ll be very happy.

Saskatoon has some great places to film but I want more than that, I want to see if I can find the kind of street life and community vibrancy in Saskatoon.  If you have ideas for where me and my DSLR need to be, let me know.  As I chase some city scenes, hopefully I will find some stories for the book, Saskatoon Afternoon’s roundtable, and my columns.  Oh yeah, there will be some fun stuff for my blog as well.

Now if only it would warm up outside.

Column: Looking at some bigger issues

Tomorrow I woke up to a steady stream of email and tweets coming into my Blackberry about my first column appearing today in The StarPhoenix.  It’s an introductory column so there wasn’t a lot of original research put into it (I knew the topic pretty well).  While today the column appeared on A3, it is moving to the Forum for it’s regular rotation.  As a friend joked, “You’ve been demoted and pushed back already.  In a month you’ll be in the Classified ads.”

Writing for print is a lot different than writing online.  Word Limits and a lack of hyperlinks.  Regular readers of this site know I tend to ramble on and on and on.  I can turn something better said on Twitter into 1000 words with no problem and that’s not a virtue.  That has been dealt with by giving a limit on the number of words which means that literally hundreds of passive unnecessary words will be stripped from the article before you get a chance to read it.  As Martha Stewart says, “That’s a good thing.”

The second issue is the lack of footnotes and hyperlinks to document what I say.  That is a big issue for me because while I have strong opinions, I like to believe they come from fact and an honest search for the truth.  For right now, each column will be greeted with a background sidebar here.  It will have links to sources, more information, and even dissenting opinions that I used to create the column.  While you will make up your own mind regardless of what I say, hopefully this will make that a little easier.

Some of the email and comments I got in this morning asked about my political leanings.  I don’t know which way I lean.  I don’t know if I am right wing or left wing anymore and to be honest, I grow tired of populist politicians.  I grew up as a Red Tory but I lost my partisanship (and I think my party) along the way.  I wish I could be to the left or the right of where I am as I think it would make for quicker writing, the ability to dismiss my critics with a label, and I am pretty sure both Heather Mallick and Ezra Levant both make more money than I do.  I do enjoy politics.  On my staff and among my friends I have partisans on both sides of where I am at.  It makes for great discussions but in the end I find myself somewhere in the middle.  Like I said, I care more about policy then I do politics.  More than a political ideology, I have been influenced by several thinkers, James Howard Kunstler, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell, David Simon/Ed Burns and Thomas Homer-Dixon. While they all look at the world in a different way, the one thing they have in common is their ability to dissect and take apart an issue in their search for understanding.  That’s what I hope to do.

Before it gets swallowed up by the PostMedia server where many articles go to die, I’ll archive it here.

The StarPhoenix's old mastheadThe StarPhoenix is introducing a new columnist, Jordon Cooper. He writes about urban issues, public policy and its impact on the lives of those at the margins of society. He wasn’t born in Saskatoon but was raised here. He is the residential coordinator for The Salvation Army Community Services. His column will usually appear on the Forum page.

I was in Starbucks trying to figure out how they make their coffee so hot and still have it remain liquid when I got the offer to write this column for The StarPhoenix. When discussing my first column, it was suggested I introduce myself to the masses, something that is more awkward to do than one would think. I guess I could have refused but it’s not as if I have a volume of columns or vast fame to fall back on. My name recognition is even lower than that guy who runs the Saskatchewan Liberal party.

Some quick research shows that I moved here in 1984 from Calgary and with the exception of one year, I have lived here. It pains me to write this, but I do make Sarah Palin look well-travelled (and I didn’t even have to protect the United States from Soviet attack). For the last five years I have been employed by The Salvation Army Community Services. I have worked at a couple of different positions there and am currently the men’s residential co-ordinator, which means that I coordinate the team of people who keep the men’s shelter open and functioning. They are also the staff who provide front-line support and monitoring of The Salvation Army’s halfway house – which is not nearly as exciting as it seems. From midnight until the Ministry of Social Services awakens from its nightly slumber at 8 a.m., they provide emergency support to those in crisis.

During that time we have seen some crazy things: Dial-a-dopes, a couple having sex in the middle of Avenue C South when it was -30 C; letting one guy bring his half-dog, half-toothless coyote into the shelter to get her and her owner off the street (the centre has no policy that prohibits toothless coyotes from staying here). There have been the stories that stick with you; the prostitutes beaten up by johns who come in during the night – they aren’t looking for medical help but for assistance in getting their money back (outside of our mandate); the teen girls working the streets during school break because of a lack of food; a mother prostituting out her mentally impaired daughter, listening on one end of the phone to a girl being beaten by her mother and her boyfriend on the other end. There is also the insane loss in human potential that comes from children using drugs at a young age and seeing their emotional development stop forever.

When I go home at the end of the day, I often have more questions than answers about the system and how it affects the people who rely on it. It’s not just the social safety net that I have questions about; it is the larger context of the city we call home and the planet that shapes us. As Thomas Friedman put it in the June 7 New York Times, we are at a point “when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all – and ask ourselves: what were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/ climate/natural resource/ population red lines all at once?” While I silently grumble as I fill my car with fuel and I notice that my beloved three-cheese Kraft Dinner is a little more expensive this week than it was last week, the changes that we are seeing globally have a much more dramatic impact on those who have no margins in their lives and that’s going to be the most significant challenge we have as a society going forward. Handle it right, and we see a vast opportunity for prosperity for all of us. Handle it incorrectly, and we start to look more and more like a Detroit or a Buffalo, N.Y.

In the end, I want to talk about policy, not politics. I enjoy the theatre we call question period as much as anyone, but others do a good job of talking about that. I want to tackle some of the big-picture changes that will affect our daily lives and what we can do about them.

For a decade now I have been exploring different ideas online. Writing online makes it easier to point to other ideas and sources. The problem with print is that you can click all you want on the paper edition of The StarPhoenix and it isn’t taking you anywhere. If you want to read more, check my sources for yourself or discuss anything I write further, you can track it down at www.jordoncooper.com or find me at twitter.com/ jordoncooper.

June 20th, 2011

Finally, for those of you who have been used to me posting here for almost a decade, things will remain the same.  There will just be 800 words heading to The StarPhoenix every Monday.

The city as idea incubator

Steven Johnson on why New York has become a growing hub for technology startup companies.

As a diverse city that supports countless industries and maverick interests, New York excels at creating those eclectic networks. Subcultures and small businesses generate ideas and skills that inevitably diffuse through society, influencing other groups. As the sociologist Claude Fischer put it in an influential essay on subcultures published in 1975, "The larger the town, the more likely it is to contain, in meaningful numbers and unity, drug addicts, radicals, intellectuals, ‘swingers’, health-food faddists, or whatever; and the more likely they are to influence (as well as offend) the conventional center of the society."


Other by Kester Brewin

Other by Kester BrewinKester Brewin released his latest book Other.  It’s only available in the U.K. right now but if you want to pay the Canadian government a lot of fees, you can get it shipped here (I paid more in taxes and fees for The Complex Christ than I did for the book but it was worth it).

I am pretty excited about this book because The Complex Christ forced me to rethink much of how I saw the world, looked at history, and read the Scriptures.  While Brewin writes theology, his writing extends my thinking beyond where it has gone before.  I rate him up with Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jared Diamond, Malcolm Gladwell, and Steven Johnson as people that have helped constantly reinvent my world view.  I can’t wait until my copy gets here (the fees alone should erase Canada’s deficit).

2009 in Review

This is late but we all need to deal with disappointment in our lives.

Memorable events for 2009:

Favorite books I read in 2009:

Favorite TV Shows I watched in 2009:

Favorite movies I watched in 2009:

  • Cue tumbleweed.  I never watched a single movie in 2009.  I bought a lot of movies but just never watched any of them. 

Favorite food for 2009:

  • I rediscovered my love of Shreddies.

Best Sporting Moments of 2009:

  • Denver starts the season 6-0.

Worst Sporting Moments of 2009:

  • Toronto Blue Jays stunk, Calgary Flames lost in the playoffs again, Saskatchewan Roughriders can’t count to 12 without going over, Denver firing Mike Shanahan and then alienated most of their talented players.

Christmas Gift Guide: Gifts for Really Smart People | 2009 Edition

You need a gift for someone smart, someone who wants to know about everything – what happened, how it works, why it all got started. Fortunately, the globally curious have a lot of hobbies which makes them kind of easy to shop for, even if you don’t always remember to sleep and eat.  Below are some ideas for the smart people in your life.  If you are looking for something not so elitist, check out my other Christmas Gift Guides.

Sangean WR-11 AM/FM Table Top Radio :: CBC Radio and NPR sounds so much more profound coming from a wooden radio.  Speaking from personal experience, there is something about sitting around a radio on a hot summer day, sipping iced tea, while reading a good magazine.

Lomographic Holga Starter Kit :: You could get them a DSLR but they already have a digital camera they like.  You could try and get them something a little different and get them a Lomo camera.

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson :: I blogged about it before and this is a great book out the life and work of Joseph Priestley, the Yorkshire dissenting theologian and chemist, who then went on to emigrate to America and advised the creators of the new republic—Thomas Jefferson, most notably—on how best to run their country.

This is an intelligent retelling of a rather well-known story, that of Joseph Priestley, the Yorkshire dissenting theologian and chemist, and then went on to emigrate to America and advised the creators of the new republic—Thomas Jefferson, most notably—on how best to run their country.

The Long Emergency by Howard Kunstler :: Kunstler has a remarkable look at what peak oil will mean for western society.  Don’t take my word for it, check out this interview in The Morning News and this article over at Rolling Stone before you buy a couple of copies of this book, one for the person you are shopping for, one for yourself, and one to lend to your friends.

Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization by Jeff Rubin :: This is another fascinating look at what the future will look like with higher oil prices.  Globalization is powered by cheap oil and without cheap oil, our world, economy, and the way we live is going to go through a massive transition.  While a lot of books about economics can be dry and hard to get through.  Both the Long Emergency and Why Your World are both very accessible, interesting, and very well written.  They will also make for some fascinating discussion over the breakfast table on Boxing Day.

The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh :: What a wonderful book.  It’s not just a book about architecture, it’s a book that reimagines what urban spaces can become.  The book is more than just text, it is full of fantastic diagrams, graphics, draws, and unbelievable photographs.  I read it once for the content and then read it again and just soaked in the photos and graphics – they are that good.

The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers by Martin Luther King Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Jane Jacobs, and Paul Goodman.  In case the person you are shopping for has read those, check out, More Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers

Speaking of great thinkers, if your loved one hasn’t read A Heretics Guide to Eternity by Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor yet, they really need to.  Spencer and Barry received a lot of criticism from some people who were threatened by their ideas but the book offers up an important voice to the conversation about salvation, eternity, and the church.  Plus if the person you are shopping for is really that smart, they can handle new ideas.

While I am a fan of paper, have you thought of giving the gift of ebooks with a Amazon Kindle?  It’s only 10.2 ounces, lighter than a typical paperback.  It downloads books in Under 60 Seconds over the 3G Wireless network.  Despite that, you have no annual contracts, no monthly fees, and no hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots.  It’s battery can run for one week.  You still have to pay per download in Canada but at least we can get it here now.

If you don’t think they want a Kindle, how about Sony’s Digital Touch Reader? By supporting both industry standard formats, ePub and PDF, you can access books at Sony’s eBookstore, check out books from public libraries, access over 500,000 free public domain titles from Google, as well as sharing sites, online aggregators and personal publishers (Internet access is required).

Chess for Three? You heard me right, a three person chess game.  This unique hexagon shaped board is designed for three players putting a new twist on a beloved classic. No new rules; still the same chess you know and love! Set includes board and 3 different colored chess pieces.

Your own personal card cataloging system :: It seems like book thieves are everywhere these days. Even your closest friends will try to keep your rare, out-of-print novels if you don’t keep an eye on them. And no one really wants to pay $60 for another one. Thankfully, there now is a solution to your book-losing woes. The Personal Library Kit provides everything you need for keeping track of books, and an eye on those shameful book thieves.  Of course card cataloging your books is only half the battle, keeping them organized is the second half.  Sure you could use LibraryThing but check out this old school way of keeping your cards organized.

The Complete Collection of National Geographic :: Sure Wikipedia is great but there are things covered in old National Geographics that Wikipedia has never even heard of.  While you are at it, have you considered getting a subscription to magazines like The Walrus, The Atlantic, or the New Yorker?  How about Architectural Digest, New York Times weekend edition, or something else that will feed their mind and inspire great discussions over coffee?

Mark was given a copy of Planet Earth: The Complete Series by the Reimers for Christmas and he loves it.  Not only does Mark love it but so do Wendy and I.  Its a series we will watch again and again and harkens back to the days of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where the entire family gathered around the television to take in the sites and sounds of animals we came to learn a lot about.

I know the commute would be horrible unless you lived in New York City but a membership at Paragraph would be a lot of fun.

Christmas Gift Ideas and Gift GuidesIf I missed anything or if my suggestion made you think I was absolutely crazy, let me know in the comments. You can access the current edition and previous years list of Christmas gift guides here.

Christmas Gift Ideas for the Emotionally Distant Father

A friend of mine/arch-nemesis has drawn her father and father-in-law for this year’s Christmas celebration and demanded a Christmas gift guide for them.  While I am generally compliant towards requests from friends who have incriminating stories about me, this one is a hard one as I don’t have a relationship with my dad * and I don’t have a lot of use for my father-in-law so I am at a bit of a loss.  While I had to laugh at the label emotionally distant father, the problem with too many dads out there is that they don’t exactly excel at communicating what they want for Christmas.  If you have to shop for one, we feel for you.

Lucky for all of us, we do buy Christmas gifts for some hard to buy for people who are fathers and here are some of the ideas that I have come up with over the last couple of years.


  • Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics by Warren Kinsella :: If you dad talks about politics all of the time and thinks he knows more than Mike Duffy but in reality has the same leadership instincts as Stephane Dion, maybe it is time to help your dad sound more knowledgeable.  This is awesome on a couple of levels.  First of all it will raise the level of political discussion in your house but if you dad lives in rural Alberta, he will have to explain to his friends why he has a book prominently displayed by the Prince of Darkness and how he is worried his child has become a liberal.
  • Jean Chretien: My Years as Prime Minister While we are talking politics and tweaking dad a bit, I suggest you pick up either a copy of Brian Mulroney’s autobiography or Jean Chretien’s autobiography.  Which one you give him, depends on how he votes.  If he votes Conservative and has a Joe Clark tattoo, give him Jean Chretien’s autobiography.  If he has campaign photos of him and Pierre Trudeau from 1968, you get him the Mulroney autobiography but you do it with a straight face… and then when all of the gifts are given out, pull out the book he wanted from beneath the tree.  If you are American, substitute the book Sarah Palin paid someone else to write for her or something about the Kennedy’s.
  • The War by Ken Burns on DVD and The War: An Intimate History.  The DVD is a masterpiece and I enjoy it every time it comes on television but the book is special in it’s own way.  It moves between the big picture of the war and the intimate details of the conflict with ease and despite telling the same story as the the mini series, has a much different feel.
  • Some books on the War in Iraq.  I recommend Fiasco or the Gamble by Thomas E. Ricks or The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army by Greg Jaffe.  All three books are great.
  • Band of Brothers (book) by Stephen Ambrose :: The men of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, volunteered for this elite fighting force because they wanted to be the best in the army–and avoid fighting alongside unmotivated, out-of-shape draftees. The price they paid for that desire was long, arduous, and sometimes sadistic training, followed by some of the most horrific battles of World War II.  Yes the mini-series is great but this book is even better and is one of the best books on World War II that I have ever read.   If he already has Band of Brothers, he may also like Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany by Ambrose as well.  A skillful blending of eyewitness accounts (gathered mostly from the oral history collection at the Univ. of New Orleans’s Eisenhower Center and from personal interviews) gives the reader an intimate feel of what war was like for infantrymen in the European theater of operations–from the beaches of France to victory at the Elbe River.
  • Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes.  While Rhodes won the Pullitzer for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, I found this book to be even better.  Both of these books are epic endeavors of research and writing telling the story of how America started the nuclear arms race, the concerns of the scientists (and why they did it), how the Russians were desperate to find out, and the politics behind it.  All of those topics could be books by themselves and once put together, form the foundation of a couple of truly remarkable books.
  • The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson :: You can read my review of it here.  If your dad in an inventor or just loves to read an engaging story of history, this is an excellent choice for your dad as he takes a break from puttering around in the shop while working on his doomsday device and avoiding the to-do list your mother made for him.

Gadgets for Dad

  • Red AA battery magliteMagLite :: Every man needs their own flashlight.  At the cabin we have a million flashlights, some headlights and battery powered lanterns but everyone wants to use mine.  Mark got me a Maglite for my birthday last year and I can finally say, “Hands off, go drain the battery on someone else’s flashlight.”  Dads enjoy being territorial and petty once in a while, especially with a cool flashlight.
  • Olivetti Manual Typewriter :: The last manual typewriter in production and the perfect tool for dad to write out his autobiography, love notes to your mother or he could just set it up in the living room to pound out a couple of notes to the grandkids who will totally miss out on the fact that their note was written on a manual typewriter.  The other positive that unlike his laptop, DVD player, and home theatre system, he won’t need you to come over and fix this when it breaks.
  •  Numark TTi USB Turntable with iPod Dock Numark TTi USB Turntable with iPod Dock :: There is a good chance that your dad has some old school music sitting in his closet that he lovingly looks at but has no idea how to play his Best of Olivia Newton John records let alone get them on the iPod that you gave him last Christmas.  This should kill two birds at once.  The bad news is that his old records have found a second life and we aren’t sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing but that’s your problem, not mine.
  • Sony Noise Cancelling Headphones Since we are talking about your dad’s bad taste in music, why not give him a nice set of headphones.  Not just any set of headphones but some noise cancelling headphones.  They have long been a must have for frequent fliers but even for those of you whose dad isn’t flying to Toronto every week, they reduces unwanted ambient noise by 87.4%, providing a quieter environment to enhance his listening experience.
  • 23 and Me :: They send you a kit, you spit into a tube and send it back.  They analyze the DNA in your saliva, then tell you about your genetic ancestry, and your susceptibility to genetically linked medical conditions.  If you have a genetically linked condition, you also will know who to blame.
  • Atari 2600 Flashback 2 :: Okay, so your dad’s gaming skills started to fall behind when the Colecovision came out but don’t hold that against him and let him reconnect with the games of yesteryear and get him a vintage game system. It features the same wood grain paneling and look of the Atari 2600, and will capture the feel through two classic joysticks for multi-player competition and vintage controls. The system comes pre-loaded with over 30 classic games. No new purchases are required, just connect it to your TV and play! The system that brought you hits like Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede, Lunar Lander, Millipede, Missile Command, Combat and Pong now has them all collected on one handy system.


  • The Blue Pod The Pod :: If dad has a camera, he probably has a tripod or two.  If he likes to take photographs out of the house and doesn’t like the hassle of finding the perfect place for his mount, the Pod could be a great option.  Basically it is what happens when you combine a camera mount with a bean bag.  While you are at it, why not get dad a new digital camera?
  • Your dad probably has an old camcorder kicking around but new camcorders like the Kodak Zi8 are so much easier to use.  If you have grandkids, give one of these to dad, set him up on YouTube and let him go crazy or let him film himself out in the wilderness as a Les Stroud wanna be.  He will be amazed at how easy and how high quality Kodak’s camera is.
  • Leatherman :: While most men want one, it is a lot of money to shell out for a multi tool but a the same time it is a iconic brand and tool that your dad will appreciate it as a gift.  While you are at it, toss in a copy of Les Stroud’s book, Survive!: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere or the SAS Survival Handbook.  If dad isn’t likely to read, pick up all three seasons of Survivorman instead.
  • Labatt Stubby Beer Bottle Weber Go Anywhere Grill :: Dad probably already has a kick butt grill at home but this is perfect for bringing to the beach or over to your place when you don’t feel like firing up the grill yourself.  It’s also charcoal which will bring back good memories for your father of a time when he could afford to go to NHL games, drank stubby beers, and his sideburns were a fashion statement rather than the foundation for his comb-over.  While you are at it, toss in a cookbook or two about cooking with charcoal to refresh his memory on how to do it.

* The last time I bought a Christmas gift for my dad, I called his wife and asked what she was getting him.  The answer was a Dodge Viper.  I seriously said, “Err, a model one?”  It wasn’t.  So we had my $40.00 gift and her $100,000.00 gift.  I felt like a tool.

You can find more Christmas gift ideas here.  If you have any other suggestions or comments, let me know in the comments.

What did you read this summer?

I never read much this summer (compared to other summers at least) but I did get some reading done.  Here is the list. 

So what did you read?  Any recommendations for the fall?

Bill Kinnon on writing

Bill has a wonderful post on writing.  The entire thing is worth reading but this one got me thinking

In 2004, Nielsen BookScan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books and found that nine hundred and fifty thousand of them sold fewer than ninety-nine copies.

So we are looking at author royalties of a couple hundred bucks and a couple of conference speaking gigs.  In the end is it worth the effort?

Bill’s prescription to the cure is to write better stories and he is dead on correct (although writing stories is harder than it sounds, check out this editorial review from Amazon.com) .  Like a lot of bloggers, I get a lot of books sent to me by almost every major publishing house.  In fact two came today and both of them look horrible.  In fact 99% of the books that I see coming my way, including many by friends are horrible.  They are poorly researched, not fact checked (if you are going to use history or science as an illustration, do your homework people!)  It’s one of the reasons why I no longer talk about theological titles here, so many of them aren’t worth my time to read and when I do read them, I am confronted by the fact that these are three hours I will never get back.  Do I keep wasting time on this or move on?  I generally find something by Michael Lewis or Steven Johnson and move on (which proves Bill’s point).

My suggestion for a lot of writers is not to bother writing a book period.  Forget the conferences, forget the interviews on Christian radio, forget the church basement book signings.  Instead throw your efforts into whatever it is that you are good at.  Chances are your ideas are intrinsically linked to your personality and your context and not as transferable as you would think.   That’s why even if I lost some weight and got a blond wig and a sailboat, I still couldn’t lead like Bill Hybels.  The reason isn’t that I didn’t mention his golf shirts (and let’s be honest, he has some nice golf shirts), it is that I am not Bill Hybels and I live in Saskatoon, not South Barrington.

Secondly, is the time away from doing what you do well or time away from learning something that you don’t do well, worth 1000 book sales and $5,000 in royalties?  Is the mini-book tour worth it?  Is the time spamming your friends worth it? What about moderating message boards on infrequentbooksales.com, and trying to get people to fan you on Facebook worth it? 

Thirdly, is giving the copyright of you idea to your publisher worth it?  Especially in the church I don’t know why we don’t see more writers open sourcing their content.  If you believe your idea came from the Holy Spirit, does turning that over to FOX (though Zondervan) seem to be the best course of action?  If you want to publish at least consider negotiating so your book is published under a Creative Commons license.

I have heard Michael Slaughter of Ginghamsburg talk about writing being the best way to influence people and in some ways he is right but as Bill Kinnon pointed out, is less then 100 copies influencing anyone other than your closest friends?

Would the time be better of spent writing a blog (and then doing what Guy Kawasaki did and put it out as a book), doing an excellent series of videos on YouTube which tell your story (great example of this here or here – what either of these stories be as compelling in book form?), or what about creating a world class webcast like what Spencer Burke did with TheOoze.tv or an excellent podcast?  If you are committed to writing, why not introduce your ideas to communities like TheOoze or Next-Wave

I like Rob Bell’s writing but if I was him and had to choose between writing and Nooma, I would choose Nooma. Also wouldn’t the time be better spent putting it into whatever made you think you should write about it.  I am not being flippant.  I remember the great line in Jim Collins’ book Built to Last where he talks about Lee Iacocca being distracted from running Chrysler because he was too busy being Lee Iacocca.

Finally, I know the church goes on and on about visionary leadership and visionary pastors and everyone including the pastors dog is a visionary (Maggi is visioning a piece of pizza as I type) but there have few game changing ideas that I have read in the last decade.  Most of it is regurgitated stuff and doesn’t need to see the light of day again.  Maybe the best use of our time would be coming up with some new ideas, instead of repackaging some old ones.

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

I finally finished The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson last weekend.  I was 20 pages into it when it got left up at the cabin for a couple of weeks.

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson The book is centered on the life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century British natural philosopher (or amateur scientist) who most people know as the discoverer of oxygen.  Back in 1771, he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen. This places Priestley at the centre of the understanding about ecosystems: the air we breathe is not some inevitable fact of life on earth, but something manufactured as part of a wider system by other organisms on the planet.   Priestly wasn’t just a scientist but is a connecter.  He connects and build friendships with the American Founding Fathers in all sorts of ways: he was best friends with Franklin for the last ten years or so that Benjamin Franklin lived in London, and his writings on religion had the single most dramatic impact on Thomas Jefferson’s Christianity.

Priestley’s radicalism ends up provoking the Birmingham Riots of 1791, which ultimately drive him to emigrate to America, where he becomes a central figure in the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the falling out — and ultimate reconciliation — between John Adams and Jefferson.

To give you some sense of his role: in the final correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, starting in 1812, Priestley is mentioned 52 times, while Franklin is mentioned five times, and Washington only three.

I was also fascinated by the idea of leisure time in the book.  The people mentioned in it were able to dedicate time to science, writing, and big ideas because they had the time to do it.  Priestly was a pastor, Franklin was a deputy postmaster, and all of the Club of Honest Whigs had enough free time to experiment, read, and debate into the night at least one week at a local pub.

The results were spectacular.  Not only did Priestly, Franklin and others bring in the inventions and technology that helped fuel the industrial revolution in England, they shared that knowledge with the world.   Priestly was a searcher who shared his discoveries openly and willingly, crossed disciplinary boundaries with impunity and insight, who conceived of the world as a large laboratory.

He had time to do so because of the freedom his church gave him and later he was supported by a wealthy benefactor who supported his experiments.  Later in his life he set up a network of private donors to pay small sums to support his work, an idea that was used by Ben Saunders as he raised money for his Scott Antarctic Expedition.

I think of my pastor/theologian/contemplative/activist friends and wonder what they could come up with if they had 50 hours a week to dedicate to study and learning rather than meetings, marking papers, and fielding complaints and instead dedicate that time to figuring out the problems of our time.

Now in the late 1700s, Priestly’s sermon was his only distraction from his research but I wonder what the impact would be if churches followed Google’s lead and offered a 80/20 solution where 20% of ones time could be spent pursuing other projects approved by the church. Is it going to lead to a scientific revolution?  I doubt it but it could lead to a revolution in film making, a new understanding about urban communities, an engagement with the contemplative life, or maybe the launch of a sports league or team for inner city youth.  Years ago I listened to Dr. Charles Nienkirchen give a talk about clergy and the spiritual journey in which he suggested taking once a month for pastors to take a “spiritual day” and retreat from the office and go find some silence in which to listen.  This is kind of similar but the difference would be the idea to go and create.  Not for your own good but the good of the greater community.

There are a lot of great ideas in the book, too many to explore here.  For those of you who are from south of the border, you will be interested in his influence on the Founding Fathers and there are some great stories on the spread of ideas long before copyright ruled the earth.  It also offers some insight into the early debates about the American experiment and those that were carrying it out.

Johnson paints Priestley as the sort of figure the world needs more than ever: A searcher who shared his discoveries openly and willingly, crossed disciplinary boundaries with impunity and insight, who conceived of the world as a large laboratory.  Priestley, who survived riots, threats of prosecution and other hardships and yet never doubted that "the world was headed naturally toward an increase in liberty and understanding."  I am not sure some days if we are headed towards an increase of liberty and understanding or as Jane Jacobs suggests, a coming dark age but the book articulates the importance in striving towards something better.

It’s Monday again

The weekend that was: As is the family tradition around here, we went to the Draggins Rod and Custom Car Show and then went up to the cabin and tore out some interior walls and started painting the interior.

Where I am at the moment: I am dreading going to the dentist this morning to get some cavities filled.  Then I will take my pain filled mouth to the office for some paperwork.

On my to-do list this week:  A lot of paper work, policy manuals, and a massive survey for Stats Canada to fill out.  The best part is that they want some stats we don’t compile.

Procrastinating about: It’s nice enough to start biking this week.  I have the bike computer, the bike, and even some Tony Hawk biking gloves.  I am out of excuses.

Book I’m in the midst of: I was reading Steven Johnson’s  The Invention of Air but that got left at the cabin so it will have to wait.  Now i am reading ReJesus by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost.

Favorite Photos of the Last WeekThe end of pond hockey season.

Music that seemed to catch my attention this past week:  Not sure why but I play a lot of classical music when I am at the lake.

How I’m feeling about this week:  I feel great.  I have a bunch of stuff to get through this week and my work load lessens for a while.

Now more irrelevant than ever

blogging dogs

A reader e-mailed me this week with "I think it is time you stopped talking about the emerging church.  You haven’t lead a church in over two years.  Your voice is irrelevant to the conversation since you are on the outside of it."  

Well I don’t blog a lot on church mechanics anymore and I don’t think I did when I was a professional cleric but I think that opinion is a huge part of the problem.  I hear Frank Viola (blog) getting ripped because he isn’t seminary educated but part of me thinks that his opinion and voice is important because he isn’t seminary educated and he has a viewpoint from outside of the system.  It is one of the basic premises of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book, The Ingenuity Gap and is the idea that too many experts tend to have too narrow of focus and view on any problem and there is a need for deep generalists to bring a wider perspective on an issue and perhaps facilitate discussion between different fields of discipline to bring about change.

Of course this misses the bigger rebuttal is that serving the poor and disenfranchised seems to be one of the basic themes of the Bible and I think I do a pretty good job of doing that.  It’s definitely not cool (I came home spelling of dog, cat, and human urine today) but does that disqualify me from having a worthwhile voice in the church?  I don’t know.  If it was someone else I would say no but I feel a large distance between me and Christianity Inc. these days so maybe it is legit.

MegaLOMart I went into the Christian MegaMart ™ the other night on a whim.  I was looking for Jim Palmer’s book, Wide Open Spaces and a copy of Divine Nobodies (neither of which they had) and as I looked at what the Christian marketplace was, I realized that I don’t fit in the old evangelical world anymore.  As I looked at the assorted titles in the section marketed "The Emerging Church", I am not even sure I fit in there.  Maybe evangelicalism and the emerging church is a place best left to the professionals.

Where do I fit in that?  I don’t know anymore.  I don’t think it is just sitting in a pew listening to someone else tell me how to live but at the same time I don’t think I want to go back to the other side of the pulpit and tell other people how to live.  I know we call that community but that isn’t community.  We can quote Steven Johnson all we want but it isn’t emergent either, no matter how many tea lights get lit.  Somewhere along the way, something got lost, misplaced, sold or changed.  The vision of what was talked about a long time ago in places like Three Hills, Seattle, and online was changed, about the same time the marketers saw us as a market and the media saw this as a news worthy story.  If there is anything I would love to do, it’s find that again.  If it still exists, I’ll be over there.