Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What I Read Today - Wednesday May 30, 2012

From:  The New York Times

Paul Simon Takes Us Back


Of all the raw and compelling voices in Joe Berlinger’s must-see documentary, “Under African Skies,” about the making of Paul Simon’s classic “Graceland” album in South Africa in 1985 — and his reunion with the same African artists 25 years later — my favorite is that of Graceland bass player Bakithi Kumalo. He tells about that day in 1985 when he met Simon in a Johannesburg recording studio:

“I was just working as a mechanic,” says Kumalo, “and one day I got this call from the boss and he said, ‘Hey, Paul Simon is in town, you know, and he’s looking for some musicians.’ And I said, ‘Paul Simon, who is Paul Simon?’ I mean I had no idea. And then the guy tried to explain to me. He’s singing all the songs. You know, like the songs from Simon and Garfunkel. And I’m like, ‘It doesn’t ring a bell.’ And then I take my bass and I go to the studio and so I meet Paul and Roy Halee, the engineer, and they’re like ‘Hey, man, let’s, you know, let’s play some.’ We’d play a chord — Paul would smile ... and then he’ll stop and change it. We didn’t know why is he changing? But he needed another part there that we didn’t know. Then he’ll break and give us different chords, and then we learned different things, and it was like going back to music school.”

Watching this film is, indeed, like going to music school and much more. For many, it will be going back to the first time they really heard the unique harmonies and rhythms of African music — thanks to “Graceland.” For some, it will be going inside the studio of one the most creative musicians of our time, watching him probing and experimenting with the styles, voices and melodies of South African musicians and melding them with chords and lyrics dancing in his own head into songs that we’ve been humming ever since. Who knew she had diamonds on the soles of her shoes?

But what intrigued me was going back to the politics of the mid-1980s, when South African apartheid was at its most vicious, prompting the African National Congress, or A.N.C., to call for a total diplomatic, economic, sports and cultural boycott.

This was before the Internet, globalization, iTunes and YouTube. Simon was drawn into South African music by a cassette tape someone sent him of the Boyoyo Boys. The musician in him insisted on following that sound to its origins, politics be damned. By daring to ignore the cultural boycott to make Graceland, he helped globalize the talents and sounds of a group of South African musicians the old-fashioned way — one concert and album at a time — and, in the process, empowered those artists in ways no liberation movement ever could.

Today, the Boyoyo Boys would have just cut a YouTube video and globalized themselves. But that wasn’t possible back then. Still, did Simon have the right, and was he right, to do what he did?

Interwoven through the film is an encounter, 25 years after the events, between Simon and Dali Tambo, the South African co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, which imposed the cultural boycott.

“I think he had a great creative idea to mix his music and his rhythms and his ingenuity with some that he had found in South Africa,” Tambo recalls. “But, at that moment in time, it was not helpful. ... We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat ... because it was not sanctioned ... by the liberation movement.”

Simon, a friend of mine, was appalled by apartheid, but he bristled at the notion that, in collaborating with black South African artists on a synthesis that elevated their music and talents onto a world stage, he was hurting their national cause.

“When the artist gets into some sort of disagreement with politics,” Simon asks in the film, “why are the politicians designated to be the ones to tell us, the artists, what to do and we’re supposed to follow — otherwise we’re not good citizens or we’re not good?”

In the end, Simon and Tambo work through it all in the film and affirm that neither meant to hurt the other’s cause. Indeed, the A.N.C. has invited Simon and the Graceland band to perform for its centenary. But the just-released film (which will be shown at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater on Tuesday) leaves no doubt where the South African musicians stood.

Recalling their world tour with Simon after Graceland became a hit, saxophonist Barney Rachabane remarks: “In South Africa, we had no opportunity. We could only play in the townships. We couldn’t play in town in the beautiful nightclubs. You could have dreams, but they [could] never come true. It really destroys you. But Graceland opened my eyes and set a tone of hope in my life.”

Added guitarist, John Selolwane, “I remember when we were on tour and especially in Europe during the winter times. Every time Black Mambazo went on that stage and started singing, I would feel tears coming. I’m like, ‘Here I am. I’m an African boy. I’m in the middle of the snow and ... there are 50,000 people filled up in the stadium,’ and I would be crying. I’m like, ‘Damn, we are really seeing the world.’ ”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

From the NY Times - May 22, 2012

How Change Happens

Forty years ago, corporate America was bloated, sluggish and losing ground to competitors in Japan and beyond. But then something astonishing happened. Financiers, private equity firms and bare-knuckled corporate executives initiated a series of reforms and transformations.
The process was brutal and involved streamlining and layoffs. But, at the end of it, American businesses emerged leaner, quicker and more efficient.
Now we are apparently going to have a presidential election about whether this reform movement was a good thing. Last week, the Obama administration unveiled an attack ad against Mitt Romney’s old private equity firm, Bain Capital, portraying it as a vampire that sucks the blood from American companies. Then Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. gave one of those cable-TV-type speeches, lambasting Wall Street and saying we had to be a country that makes things again.
The Obama attack ad accused Bain Capital of looting a steel company called GST in the 1990s and then throwing its workers out on the street. The ad itself barely survived a minute of scrutiny. As Kimberly Strassel noted in The Wall Street Journal, the depiction is wildly misleading.
The company was in terminal decline before Bain entered the picture, seeing its work force fall from 4,500 to less than 1,000. It faced closure when Romney and Bain, for some reason, saw hope for it in 1993. Bain acquired it, induced banks to loan it money and poured $100 million into modernization, according to Strassel. Bain held onto the company for eight years, hardly the pattern of a looter. Finally, after all the effort, the company, like many other old-line steel companies, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, two years after Romney had left Bain.
This is the story of a failed rescue, not vampire capitalism.
But the larger argument is about private equity itself, and about the changes private equity firms and other financiers have instigated across society. Over the past several decades, these firms have scoured America looking for underperforming companies. Then they acquire them and try to force them to get better.
As Reihan Salam noted in a fair-minded review of the literature in National Review, in any industry there is an astonishing difference in the productivity levels of leading companies and the lagging companies. Private equity firms like Bain acquire bad companies and often replace management, compel executives to own more stock in their own company and reform company operations.
Most of the time they succeed. Research from around the world clearly confirms that companies that have been acquired by private equity firms are more productive than comparable firms.
This process involves a great deal of churn and creative destruction. It does not, on net, lead to fewer jobs. A giant study by economists from the University of Chicago, Harvard, the University of Maryland and the Census Bureau found that when private equity firms acquire a company, jobs are lost in old operations. Jobs are created in new, promising operations. The overall effect on employment is modest.
Nor is it true that private equity firms generally pile up companies with debt, loot them and then send them to the graveyard. This does happen occasionally (the tax code encourages debt), but banks would not be lending money to private equity-owned companies, decade after decade, if those companies weren’t generally prosperous and creditworthy.
Private equity firms are not lovable, but they forced a renaissance that revived American capitalism. The large questions today are: Will the U.S. continue this process of rigorous creative destruction? More immediately, will the nation take the transformation of the private sector and extend it to the public sector?
While American companies operate in radically different ways than they did 40 years ago, the sheltered, government-dominated sectors of the economy — especially education, health care and the welfare state — operate in astonishingly similar ways.
The implicit argument of the Republican campaign is that Mitt Romney has the experience to extend this transformation into government.
The Obama campaign seems to be drifting willy-nilly into the opposite camp, arguing that the pressures brought to bear by the capital markets over the past few decades were not a good thing, offering no comparably sized agenda to reform the public sector.
In a country that desperately wants change, I have no idea why a party would not compete to be the party of change and transformation. For a candidate like Obama, who successfully ran an unconventional campaign that embodied and promised change, I have no idea why he would want to run a campaign this time that regurgitates the exact same ads and repeats the exact same arguments as so many Democratic campaigns from the ancient past.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What I Read Today - Friday May 4, 2012

From: The New York Times

The Campus Tsunami

Online education is not new. The University of Phoenix started its online degree program in 1989. Four million college students took at least one online class during the fall of 2007.
But, over the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.
This week, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology committed $60 million to offer free online courses from both universities. Two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, have formed a company, Coursera, which offers interactive courses in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics and engineering. Their partners include Stanford, Michigan, Penn and Princeton. Many other elite universities, including Yale and Carnegie Mellon, are moving aggressively online. President John Hennessy of Stanford summed up the emerging view in an article by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker, “There’s a tsunami coming.”
What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.
Many of us view the coming change with trepidation. Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?
If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty? Will academic standards be as rigorous? What happens to the students who don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop hour after hour? How much communication is lost — gesture, mood, eye contact — when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher and students?
The doubts are justified, but there are more reasons to feel optimistic. In the first place, online learning will give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers. Already, hundreds of thousands of students have taken accounting classes from Norman Nemrow of Brigham Young University, robotics classes from Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and physics from Walter Lewin of M.I.T.
Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges over the next decade. Curricula from American schools could permeate those institutions.
Research into online learning suggests that it is roughly as effective as classroom learning. It’s easier to tailor a learning experience to an individual student’s pace and preferences. Online learning seems especially useful in language and remedial education.
The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.
Online education mostly helps students with Step 1. As Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech has argued, it turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies. In an online world, colleges have to think hard about how they are going to take communication, which comes over the Web, and turn it into learning, which is a complex social and emotional process.
How are they going to blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, coaching, writing and projects? How are they going to build the social capital that leads to vibrant learning communities? Online education could potentially push colleges up the value chain — away from information transmission and up to higher things.
In a blended online world, a local professor could select not only the reading material, but do so from an array of different lecturers, who would provide different perspectives from around the world. The local professor would do more tutoring and conversing and less lecturing. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School notes it will be easier to break academic silos, combining calculus and chemistry lectures or literature and history presentations in a single course.
The early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere you’re seeing a flight to quality. The best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online.
My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.