Friday, October 30, 2009

Good news is news too: thoughts on and by 3 quality nonline magazines

If I have said it once, I hope I have said it a thousands times. This is a fact: americans are pampered by the big, affordable selection of quality magazines. Or at least they should be spoiled if they do read them -- I am still not yet convinced they do, after living in the states for a decade. This abundance of goodness is in contrast to selection of daily newspapers; which are -- relatively speaking -- not that much to write home about. It's almost immoral how much good stuff you can actually read from refined-tree-based non-daily print products, for a very modest fee. My specific selection of such Great Magazines contains three exemplars -- Scientific American, Fortune and National Geographic -- but I suspect I could easily form many more such triplets and still make similar statements. My choice of three is not limited my economics or supply problems, but by time constraints: I can barely keep up with these three, as things are.

But I digress. After being inspired by one of many outstanding articles (it'll be the last one I mention in this entry, so more on that one later on), I thought it be fair to review one interesting and relevant article from all three. So here's Tatu's October 2009 American Magazine Article review.

1. How American Auto-Industry was Put In Its Proper Place

(aka "The Auto Bailout: How We Did It" by Fortune)

Of articles chosen, this is the most close-to-earth one. It's a condensed story of how GM/Chrysler cleanup project was done by the "Team Auto" of the US government. It's easy reading, and outlines how well difficult tasks can sometimes be managed, with combination of good people, right timing and perhaps bit of luck. If you had asked me to predict how well process could possibly succeed -- I mean, all the facts were there, and odds did not look very good -- I think I would have thought it unlikely that end result could be as good as it seems to be. And this not so much based on the story, which mostly explains what was done and how, but based on my thinking of how these things tend to go (with the level of business acumen that a software engineer can possibly possess, whether that's above or below average banker's talent).

I really like Fortune for articles like this: it's not a dumbed down version (there are weeklies that can dumb it down a notch; and then newspaper that take it to almost imbecil level; and finally TV shows that do the retard-a-versions for actual illiterates), but manages to be very easy reading.

But that's not all: Fortune also manages to be a good magazine due to its contrarian spirit. For a business magazine it has very independent spirit, and viewpoints presented are varied and if possible even something I'd call fair. It also tackles relevant and non-easy issues -- it's not just yet another WSJ (which itself actually may be one of few examples of good newspapers; nonetheless, it's much more predictable and thus less interesting with respect to non-daily news; but I guess that's only fair for a DAILY newspaper).

Anyhow: that's a good read, enough said.

2. Living On a Razor's Edge (by National Geographic Magazine)

And just so as not to get too well grounded with day-to-day (or year-to-year) living, it's good to mentally teleport into another time and/or place. National Geographic offers multiple articles for doing that; learning about other countries, cultures, flora and fauna, and all combinations thereof. Picking something to showcase is not easy: multiple articles could qualify.

But all things being equal, reading about Madagascar is always a safe bet for learning something new and unusual. But even within those expectations, the story and especially pictures that illustrate it stand far apart. I mean, how would one even imagine natural constructs like these cathedral-spire lookalikes? And things that live and grow on, around and under them. Whoa. Besides, it's somewhat of an uplifting article too, for once human development is unlikely to directly threaten the thing (indirectly climate change can of course affect it, perhaps destory, but that's still better than gone-in-next-five-years odds many other exotic places are given)

3. The Rise of Vertical Farms (by Scientific American)

(see for more)

And finally this is the article that got me inspired to write about stuff others write about. Article itself is sort of mind-blowing: the idea of having skyscrapers used for growing our food sounds decidedly futuristic, somewhat like the old (and for a while now, obsoleted) future predictions of how everyone by 2000 flies around by a jet pack and eats food pills for energy. But when you read the article and think about it, the first questions should be "would it really work?", "why didn't *I* think about it?" and "isn't that obvious now that I read it?"

I like the creativity aspect of the idea; as well as its immense fashionability. One of more surprising current undercurrents of progressive (and I don't mean politically leftist label here) forward-looking thinking is that agriculture is actually not a thing of the past, declining "industry", but something that is both very essential for humankind and also something that is part of the future and current, as well as past. The only thing that has been declining wrt. farming has been amount of population it employs; but its importance hasn't really reduced over time, nor will it significantly be reduced any time soon. So although there has been steady pace of R&D over the years, it is only becoming obvious now that farming is a big thing; there are lots of things wrong with it, but with all the challenges there are also gigantic opportunities. This along with more mundane trends of organic-food-is-cool, bundled with finally-at-last-here american environmentalist awakening is really making farming Cool with a capital C.

And this is where this idea becomes sizzling hot: hey, not only can you produce fresh food locally (where are the consumers? in cities dummy!), it can be both economically beneficial, good for your health (no, not in the "good vibes" sense of organic food but with regards to actual reduction of use of pesticides, less time for spoiling etc. etc. etc.), AND good for environment (less land used, less water, can recycle waste water and perhaps even solids; less energy for transportation). Oh yes, and also good tasting due to freshness -- fresh produce year round.

4. Common Threads (or Exercise in Deep Thinking by an Amateur Philosophist/-logist)

One more interesting thing about the "Big Three" is that they often converge around similar topics, somewhat aligned thinking, same threads; sometimes it might not be trivial to even know which magazine had any given article if you weren't shown it. And I don't mean this in negative way -- it's not that magazines are identical, or lack identity, but rather that they are varied and topic selection thereby overlaps (but is not lemming-like approach of daily news). Of course, some could call such convergence zeitgeist; different entities talking about similar things, threads that connect things that seem unrelated (like environmentalist/naturalist NG vs. business-talk of Fortune vs Geeky SciAm). And cynics would claim I am just missing weekly-paced groupthink. Perhaps this is part of the thing -- there being thoughts floating in time (as much as I hate the word, I guess I better use it... memes).

But I also think there's something related to sort of national way of thinking (what is the word for that again? Volkgaist?). Beyond temporal similarities (wars are more relevant when they are going on, obviously; significance of most events is time-bound), there is this common solution-oriented approach, and choosing of similarly current topics (not just fashionable, as in discussing stupid crap like celebrity gossip or politician's marital prolems) is something these magazines share. And most importantly: there is always this underlying faith in things improving over time. I suspect this is something profoundly american; something more genuine than stomach-revoltingly-plastic flag-waving variety of americana.

What I mean is that many articles talk about how things could be improved; it is actually quite rare to read an article where the overall tone is negative, much less something where things are pointed out to be hopeless. One could of course claim that's just good business sense (who would pay to read about bad stuff), but that's easily rebuked: selling social porn and doom-and-gloom is the business of TV networks, and quite a profitable plan at that.

Anyway, enough soap-box philosophizing (is that a word? can make it one if not?). Thank you for time. And please consider subscribing to some of these great affordable american magazines, if you don't already. I'd rather they be around during my lifetime, and maybe even my children. There'll be more time to read when I retire. :-)

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