Writings of David Futrelle


Yes, I'm the guy behind the Confused Cats Against Feminism blog, a bit of a viral hit that's gotten media mentions in more than two dozen outlets, ranging from Newsweek to Cosmopolitan to Le Monde. It also got a mention on The Reid Report on MSNBC. (For a more complete list, see here.)

I also run the blog We Hunted the Mammoth, devoted to mocking misogyny and the numerous misogynists within the Men's Rights Movement. I've written about misogyny and Men's Rights for The American Prospect, Feministe, the Ms. Magazine blog, and the Good Men Project (before it went to hell).

I've been writing on topics ranging from gender and culture to money and technology for more than twenty years, mostly as a freelancer.

Starting in the late 1990s, I covered tech and investing, at first for Newsday and the now-defunct Upside magazine, then as a staff writer at Money magazine. More recently, I blogged on money and business for Time.com.

I've also written numerous pieces on books, culture and technology for such places as Salon, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Book Review, The Nation and the sadly-deceased Lingua Franca. I also worked as an editor at In These Times magazine back in the 90s.

I''ve made appearances on both Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera America and have been interviewed at length for the Femisphere radio show on Winnipeg's CKUW. 

You can find selected pieces of mine by clicking the links below:

Time.com and Money Magazine Articles
Essays and Reportage
Book Reviews
Shorter Pieces

Oh, and if you're wondering why I call this site "Dim Flash," that's been the name of my personal website(s) since I first went online in the mid-90s. It's a basically meaningless reference to the lyrics of "Dot Dash" by Wire, though apparently I misheard the line, and they were really singing "Dip Flash." I like my version of the lyrics better.

Enjoy!
David Futrelle

Time.com and Money Magazine Articles


Time.com Posts
Atlas Shrugonomics
The Hidden Message of Gangnam Style
Do the Suburbs Make You Selfish?
"Life Choices" Can't Explain Away the Pay Gap

Money: Features and commentary:
The Worth of Love
People Who Love Shopping Too Much

Money Quiz:
Are Your Kids Lazy and Spoiled?


Essays and Reportage


The American Prospect:
White Hot Rage

Salon:
Live Nude Webmasters
Song of Roland ... 303
MiddleBrowbeaten

Chicago Tribune:
Back to the Futurists

Newsday:
Apocalypse Later: The Y2K Letdown

The Chicago Reader:
Marx on the Skids
Depression: The Sickness of the Soul
Confessions of a Bad Sport
White Guys Lash Back
Splitting Hairs With the Sparts

Book Reviews


The Los Angeles Times:
Life and Death, by Andrea Dworkin
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming ... Dark Age?
The War on Stink

New York Times Book Review:
Sonic Boom: Napster, MP3, and the New Pioneers of Music, by John Alderman.

Washington Post:
Company Men (Biographies of Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and General Motors' Alfred P. Sloan.)
The Old New Thing (Three not-so-great books on the Internet)

Salon:
The Beast in the Nursery by Adam Phillips
The Anatomy of Disgust, by William Ian Miller

Shorter Articles


Salon Media Circuses, Newsreals:
Pussy Galore
Buy, Buy Love
The Bore War

Fortune:
Be Like Darth

The War on Stink

From the Los Angeles Times
BOOK REVIEW

'Clean' by Virginia Smith
The evolution of personal hygiene and cleanliness.
By David Futrelle

August 12, 2007

Cleanliness is a never-ending struggle: No matter how vigorously you scrub your body and your teeth, no matter how diligently you apply sweet-smelling lotions and ointments, the sad fact is that you're going to stink again, and soon. That's the way it's supposed to work. Your body has been carefully designed, by the invisible hand of evolution, to expel the poisons and impurities that you inhale and ingest in your efforts to stay alive. Whether the expulsions are solids, liquids or gases, unfortunately, they don't smell much like flowers.

It's strange that something so basic, so primeval as cleanliness hasn't yet gotten the historical attention it deserves. You could fill a decent-sized bookcase with studies of public health disasters, of epidemics spread by sneezes and unwashed hands. You can dissect the dialectics of "Purity and Danger" in the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, or ponder the importance of potty training with sociologist Norbert Elias. But the history of cleanliness, as such, has largely been relegated to jokey bathroom books on Thomas Crapper and the birth of the loo.

In "Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity," British historian Virginia Smith attempts to provide a serious historical reckoning of the distinctly untidy subject of tidiness, chronicling the ever-changing ways our ancestors kept themselves clean -- or at least not completely filthy. She also looks at the wide assortment of religious and philosophical ideologies that developed to accompany these practices. It's a valiant effort, yet Smith's account turns out to be nearly as unkempt as her subject, a shambling parade of details lacking a coherent narrative or even a clear point of view. But, oh, what details! Smith, an honorary fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is clearly immersed in her sources, and she has an expert ear for the telling quote.

"Clean" opens with a brief account of our Neolithic ancestors, who spent hours grooming and picking nits off one another like the hairless monkeys they were. But the story really starts in earnest with the Greeks, who brought the world not only hot baths and running water but also the word "hygiene," named after the goddess Hygeia. For the Greeks, cleanliness was indeed next to god- and goddess-liness; water was central to their purification ceremonies, and many of their most elaborate waterworks were built near shrines to their wide assortment of gods. (It's not an accident that we still refer to our groggy morning showering-and-toothbrushing as our "morning ritual.")

Most of those who followed the Greeks in the sweaty march of history had decidedly more ambivalent feelings about cleanliness. The Romans made the Greek baths and aqueducts their own but ultimately allowed them to crumble. Early Christians, inspired by Christ's suffering and his willingness to embrace "unclean" sinners, took up a drastically ascetic lifestyle, looking upon bodily pleasures, and even simple cleanliness, as diametrically opposed to the cleanliness and purity of the soul. By the Middle Ages, Christians worried less about cleanliness itself and more about how people went about getting clean, which might involve getting naked in public with members of the opposite sex. "In the baths they sit naked, with other naked people," one dumbfounded 14th century monk reported of a local peasant festival, "they dance naked with naked people, and I shall keep quiet about what happens in the dark."

Later, Christian reformers embraced bodily cleanliness and purity. (They weren't called Puritans for nothing!) In their minds, clean bodies and clean minds were inextricably intertwined. "[A]s the filthinesse and pollution of my bodie is washed and made clean by the element of water; so is my bodie and soule purified and washed from the spots and blemishes of sin," one Puritanical clean freak memorably put it. Unlike the Greeks, though, they couldn't bring themselves to see bathing as a pleasure; for them, it was a sacred duty, and sacred duties aren't supposed to be fun.

"Clean" has its distinct limitations. As Smith herself readily admits, hers is a thoroughly Eurocentric narrative, with occasional excursions into realms like Egypt, India and the United States. The book focuses overwhelmingly on the thoughts and behavior of the elite rather than on those who would eventually come to be known as "the great unwashed," although Smith tries her best to wring whatever she can out of the few sources she has that deal with the poor. And while the book takes the story up to the present, the final chapter is scattershot; Smith does little to illuminate today's still-rising spa culture.

Indeed, I found myself wondering about something a little more central to cleanliness -- that is, dirtiness, the yin to cleanliness' yang. What explains the strange allure of the dirty: the small, indelicate pleasures we get from squeezing out zits and excavating wax from our ears; the primal sex appeal of scruffy, stinky rock stars? Elvis Presley, in his drugged and corpulent final days, used to wipe the sweat from his seldom-washed skin during performances and throw the gamy towels to his overjoyed fans; an assistant supplied a steady flow of fresh towels as the King staggered through his set list. Future historians will, I am sure, report that many of these towels, saved as relics by the lucky few, were quite stinky indeed. •

David Futrelle, a contributing writer at Money magazine, has written for Salon, the Nation, the Washington Post and other publications.


Clean

A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity

Virginia Smith

Oxford University Press: 458 pp., $30

Back to the Futurists

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED: DOGGED BY MISSTEPS OF PAST, PROGNOSTICATORS DEBATE OUR FUTURE

Chicago Tribune, Jul 24, 1998

By David Futrelle.

Though people have been predicting the future ever since the first caveman stuck his head out of the family cave and forecast rain, the profession of futurism is a relatively recent invention. The World Future Society, which held its annual conference this week in Chicago, was founded in 1966, several years before Alvin Toffler published "Future Shock," the first popular presentation of modern futurism.

You may recall some of the predictions made in the early, heady days: Underwater cities. Automated highways. Missions to Mars. Self-cleaning apartments. The eradication of the housefly. Giant domes sitting atop our cities like overgrown umbrellas. Sitting under our domes, freed from the necessity of doing anything but the most minimal of work, we would all be desperately trying to find ways to deal with our terrible surplus of leisure.

If these marvels are a little tardy in arriving, well, chalk up the mistake tothe natural enthusiasm of youth. (The futurists also got some things mostly right, like the birth of "telecommuting.") The first wave of futurism had the misfortune to wreck itself on the reef of the 1970s -- a time of increasing technological pessimism and environmental anxiety. By the 1980s, visions of a bountiful technofuture were overtaken in the popular imagination with post-apocalyptic horror stories: Disney's Tomorrowland gave way to "The Road Warrior."

In some ways futurism has never recovered from its early errors -- and even though the public perception of technology is increasingly positive these days, the profession remains a chastened one. Today's futurists tend to avoid making flamboyant predictions about moon colonies, instead choosing to address such topics as "Future PlaceSpace Dynamics." And while the Internet has brought new fame to a host of silicon gurus, not much of this new excitement has rubbed off on the World Future Society itself, which seems relatively untouched by the Internet revolution.

Indeed, despite all the futuristic notions bandied about in the halls of the Chicago Hilton and Towers, where the conference took place Sunday through Tuesday, this was a decidedly low-tech affair. Listeners scribbled notes on hotel stationery; no more than a relative handful had laptop computers (though one fellow was spotted with a calculator-stopwatch). The closest thing I saw to multimedia presentation was when one of the event's speakers held up a picture for all to see.

- - -

Though subjects discussed and debated by the 1,000 futurists in attendance included everything from life extension and artificial intelligence to the chemical control of criminals and the imminent death of the printed word, virtually everyone seemed excited by the impending arrival of the big 2-oh-oh-oh. There were sessions devoted to "Marketing Strategies for the New Millennium," "Maintaining Financial Well-Being in the New Millennium" and "Shaping the Global Agenda for a New Millennium." Browsers at the Futurist Bookstore could choose from a wide assortment of books with titles like "2025: Scenarios of U.S. and Global Society" or the slightly more futuristic "The World of 2044." There was even a talk on "What to Expect from Robots in the New Millennium," given by Joanne Pransky, who describes herself as the "world's first robotic psychiatrist."

And then there was the Great Millennium Global Singalong. Spearheaded by a Canadian group, the event is designed to unite the world's people in song on Jan. 1, 2000, led by children's choirs who would greet the new century in turn as it arrives in each nation. Expounding upon the idea to a small but seemingly eager group, David Woolfson of the Global Institute for the Future in Toronto explained that the group had originally intended to have the world erupt in sequential song "at noon, 12 sharp" on that fateful day, but then decided midnight made a little more sense -- even though that meant the young singers would have to stay up past their bedtimes. (While some in the audience were troubled by this, most seemed to agree that it might be OK for the kids just this once.)

Those bored by the next millennium could of course move on to the one after that. In a session devoted to "The Year 3000: A Fresh Look at Humanity's Future," Washington, D.C., futurist (and all-around gadfly) Joseph F. Coates invited participants to explore such possibilities as "what would happen . . . if all current problems such as racism, disease, war, deprivation, poverty were alleviated."

Most futurists, if pressed, will deny making predictions at all: They merely describe scenarios. But don't let this semantic two-step fool you. Futurists love to predict. And there were predictions galore at the conference.

William Crossman, the frizzy-haired founder and director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures, predicted that in the next century voice-in/voice-out computers (VIVOs) will make written language obsolete. After all, as he explains in a synopsis of his forthcoming book "CompSpeak 2050": "Written language is essentially a technology for storing and retrieving information; it was created 6,000 to 10,000 years ago to address a very specific set of changing historical conditions and needs."

Meanwhile, a group of futurists queried by the George Washington University Forecast of Emerging Technologies proclaimed, among other things, that there is a 58 percent probability that Mag-Lev trains -- that is, trains that are magnetically levitated above the tracks to avoid friction, and a futurist favorite for years -- will link most American cities by 2017.

Human longevity also came in for a long look. World Future Society business manager Jeff Cornish predicted in an interview that in the next century people will live to 150 -- including quite a few alive today.

Not everyone at the convention was quite so enthusiastic about what the future will bring. Deborah Sawyer, a futurist consultant and the author of "Sawyer's Survival Guide for Information Brokers," warned that excessive dependence upon, and faith in, the computer has hidden dangers. "No other society on this planet is so besotted with the computer," she lamented. And no other society, so ready and eager and willing to believe anything it sees on the computer screen, is perhaps riper for exploitation.

Meanwhile, Canadian anti-technology activist Michael Rosenberg spent the convention, his fourth, asking contrarian questions and passing out leaflets purporting to show that "Advancing Technology Causes Scarcity and Unemployment." Rosenberg, a thin man with a nervous manner, argues that technology is a lot like the sorcerer's apprentice made so famous by Walt Disney: easy to unleash but impossible to rein in.

"We are not able to control technology so we get what we think we're going to get from it," he said after handing out copies of his various manifestos to futurists leaving the final plenary session. "Each new generation of technology produces less for human beings than the last generation of technology." But futurists, he explained, tended to be blinded by the razzle-dazzle of the new technologies, looking upon them with a naive optimism. And while there are some futurists who "look at the negative consequences (of specific technologies) on an isolated basis," he argued, for the most part "they still believe that technology can be controlled so that it will be beneficial." For his part, Rosenberg isn't so sure.

Sawyer and Rosenberg were in the decided minority at the conference. "Futurists are in general optimistic," Cornish said. "And as for myself, I am very optimistic. I think that the developments of the last 30 years or so have generally been quite positive."

- - -

Still, one of the most striking aspects of the conference -- and one that points to the continuing malaise among futurists -- was the relative absence of young people. In the computer industry, the entrepreneurs pushing us and our technology the hardest and fastest into the future are almost inevitably in their 20s, and there were precious few of them in evidence at the Hilton.

Well, there was at least one: Omar Wasow, an MSNBC commentator whose role at the conference seemed to be to play Young Internet Whiz for the benefit of the elders, as he himself noted during a talk on "The Future of the Media."

"It's a reasonable observation," Cornish said in an interview when the delicate issue of age was raised. "The group here tends to be older than the general population. But I don't see it as a real problem." According to Cornish, older futurists are somewhat overrepresented at conferences because only the older folks are at the stage in their careers when they can afford the time and expense of trekking to a national conference. And besides, he said, futurists' careers tend to peak somewhat later than in other professions; it takes time to build up a track record of publications and predictions.

Perhaps. But even this less-than-compelling argument suggests a somewhat disquieting conclusion: The futurists may or may not be right about robots or talking computers or high-speed trains, but unless the World Future Society is able to win over more of Generations X, Y and beyond, its own future may be dim.

Apocalypse Later: The Y2K Letdown

Newsday, Jan 1, 2000

By David Futrelle

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN predicting the end of the world since, well, the beginning of their time on the world. And each and every one of them has been humbled by the world's resilience. Doomsday prognosticators come and go, but the earth keeps on ticking.

We can now add the Y2K activist to the list of prophets proved wrong by history: The big day came and went, and they were left with little to show for it but red faces and pantries full of canned goods. A few technical glitches turned up - French weather service maps reported the date as 01/01/1900, there were minor malfunctions with a U.S. military satellite and a Japaneses nuclear reactor, but back-up systems came to the rescue, much as they do in everyday technological screw-ups. Rarely is a political movement rendered so completely and convincingly obsolete, quite literally overnight.

As we look back on the achievements and the embarrassments of on the last century, it is perhaps also a good time to revisit the less- than-brilliant career of the Y2K activist - a species of political animal we can only hope fades into oblivion in the new century.

Of course, even as they prophesied the end of our technological dispensation, Y2K activists didn't exactly separate themselves out from the foredoomed order of things. Indeed, the Y2K movement could not have spread as quickly as it did had it not been for the Internet, a perfect venue for true believers to exchange dubious "information" with one another and to recruit others to the cause. This resulted in such absurdities as prominent Y2K activist Gary North informing the world it had better return to pen and paper - in a message posted on his web site.

Other blind spots were less benign. Y2K activists claimed to speak for the people, but their utterances were suffused with a none-too subtle elitism. Their writings carried the self-congratulatory, patronizing tone of those convinced they're one with history - the corollary point being that those who disa- greed with their bleak assessments were simply living in denial.

And what Truths did the Y2K activists expect us to swallow? That Y2K wouldn't just bring glitches - but possibly The End of the World As We Know It, a phrase so common in their writings that it's been reduced to a simple acronym, TEOTWAWKI.

It wasn't just head- for-the-hills extremists who were predicting something close to a cataclysm: The Utne Reader, a sleek and more-or- less mainstream journal of New Age liberalism, produced a widely distributed "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide."

Among other things, this handbook suggested that we might well be forced to live for months off stored rice and beans, drinking and bathing with water found in such unlikely places as toilet reservoirs and waterbeds, disposing of our own waste in plastic buckets and resorting to barter once our cash reserves were gone.

Y2K activists will now tell you that many of the worst Y2K problems will only come to light in the weeks and months ahead - and in this they are probably right. But we need to remember that only a short time ago these very same people were assuring us the end-of- the- millennium crisis would hit on a big scale long before 1/1/00 rolled around.

The strangest thing of all about the Y2K activists was their enthusiasm - not just for saving the world, but for a world desperately in need of saving. Y2K activists often spoke of the allegedly impending crisis as a wonderful opportunity, not only for their ideas to spread but for humanity as a whole to change its course and embrace a new and simpler lifestyle - you know, without such modern indulgences as supermarkets and functioning fire departments. Their notion of the post-apocalyptic world, in which urban dwellers returned to such bracingly old-fashioned ways as grinding their own flour and reading by candlelight, was two parts Cub Scouts, one part Cultural Revolution. For doomsayers, they were an awfully cheerful bunch.

Such attitudes were common among Y2K prophets of all political stripes. Articles abound in the Y2K literature with titles such as "Seeing Y2K as a Gift to Save Us From Ourselves" and "TEOTWAWKI - The Upside." Indeed, the favorite word of most Y2K activists seemed to be "opportunity."

In the Utne Reader Y2K guide, most of the mildly lefty contributors, like their brethren on the far right, have a very clear idea of just how the world should be recreated - and just who should lead the way. "People who have been working their entire lives for political, social and cultural change immediately see its transformational potential," write Gordon Davidson and Corinne McLaughlin in the Utne guide. "A common response among this group is . . . 'I've been waiting my entire life for this.' "

So eager were many Y2K activists to seize the opportunity to "clothe for the hero's journey," as the influential Y2K activist Margaret Wheatley immodestly put it, that they were able to conjure up (in their own heads at least) a worldwide cataclysm out of what turned out to be, at most, a mere technical bug.

The problem wasn't just that these activists spoke so confidently about technical matters it's now clear they knew nothing about. Rather, what's distressing is that they were positively giddy over the possibility that the rest of humanity might be reduced to living like animals - because they imagined that this would make the poor sheepish souls more receptive to their particular brand of utopia, a sort of New- Age-Meets-the-Stone-Age world heavy on group hugs and "alternative currencies" and agricultural co-ops.

There is something not only pathetic but also a bit frightening about a political movement that looks upon the collapse of the world economy as a tremendous positive breakthrough. If you truly believe that chaos will make the world safer for your brand of politics, why simply wait for a crisis to hit? Why not actively push it along? That, after all, was the thinking behind Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; that, after all, is the thinking of the apocalyptic Christian fundamentalists who believe that destroying the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem will hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

No, the Y2K activists didn't throw any bombs - but the logic of their argument is chillingly similar to the ideas of those who have. We can be grateful that the Y2K rollover passed largely without incident. We humans don't need computers to mess up the world for us; we can do that quite well, all by ourselves.

David Futrelle is a staff writer for Money magazine and Newsdays former Netcetera columnist.

The Old New Thing

The Washington Post Book World
Jan 7, 2001

THE UNDERGROUNDTRADER.COM GUIDE TO ELECTRONIC TRADING
Day Trading Techniques of a Master Guerrilla Trader
By Jea Yu
McGraw Hill. 249 pp. $39.95

delete_your_broker.com
Using the Internet to Beat the Pros on Wall Street
By Christopher Byron
Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $26

BUILDING BRANDWIDTH
Closing the Sale Online
By Sergio Zyman and Scott Miller
HarperBusiness. 239 pp. $27

Reviewed by David Futrelle

Even the lousiest pop songs from decades past can have a certain retro charm -- which is why, I suppose, I find myself logging onto Napster at 2 in the morning to download half-forgotten hits from such former favorites as Martha and the Muffins and Romeo Void. But there's nothing particularly charming about business wisdom past its prime -- and stale business books can linger on the remainder tables forever like unloved Charlies-in-the-boxes on the Island of Misfit Toys. Sure, some more inspirational business books, puffed up with trite truisms with timeless appeal, can linger on the bestseller lists for eons. But most business books have the shelf life of a rotting banana. My favorite recent remainder-table find? "Chainsaw" Al Dunlop's Mean Business, a self-congratulatory 1997 memoir by the legendarily mean-spirited turnaround artist -- published shortly before Chainsaw Al turned Sunbeam Corp. into a steaming heap of rubble and destroyed what remained of his business-world legend.

The Internet economy has brought a new efficiency to publishing: Now business books can become obsolete even before they're published. The business world is being forced to move, as Bill Gates would have it, at "the speed of light." But the publishing world still dances to a much slower drummer. You can start an Internet business, have a wildly successful IPO, then watch your company flame out into nothingness -- all in less time than it takes most authors to write even a single book. And with Wall Street going through more mood swings in a day than Dr. Jekyll, even the speediest of book writers may find themselves overtaken by events.

And so we're now witnessing a most interesting effect of this Internet jet lag: Books conceived (and mostly written) in the last days of the dot-com bubble are hitting the bookstores only today. I've been looking over several such books, all of them likely candidates for the remainder table, and each offering, in its own way, a case study in the kind of hubris that brought so many dot- coms crashing to earth.

Let's start with the most obviously retro of the bunch: a snazzily packaged guide to day trading entitled The Undergroundtrader.com Guide to Electronic Trading. Written by self-proclaimed "master guerrilla trader" Jea Yu, it purports to instruct novice day traders in the fundamentals of "the most expensive speculator sport in the world."

You remember day trading, don't you -- that fast-paced, in-and- out style of stock trading that was all the rage a year ago? As late as last spring, no less an authority than the New York Times declared that "day trading is here to stay," and more than a few pundits assured us that in the future we would all be day traders of a sort, making constant, quick adjustments to our portfolio with handy wireless devices.

One tech stock crash later, day trading has lost almost all of its glamour. Day traders, who capitalize on small intraday movements in stock prices rather than on big trends, should, in theory, be able to make as much money in bear markets as in bull -- assuming they're able to make money at all. But in real life, the tech crash has left many day traders drained and dispirited -- not to mention a good deal poorer.

All-Tech, one of the country's largest and most notorious day- trading firms, is now running ads encouraging potential traders to "learn to embrace the bear." But it's been a tough sell.

As will be The Undergroundtrader.com Guide, one suspects. The book jacket promises to transform day-trading greenhorns into "calm, confident traders" able to prosper while "uninformed and ill- advised" traders burn through their family's nest eggs in short order. But the book itself, stuffed with talk of technical trading arcana like "cup and handle chart formations" and "Fibonacci price pivot points," makes clear that day trading is a grueling, uncertain ordeal even for the savviest of traders. Still, Yu tries his best to imbue day trading with a certain rough allure. "You will be pitted against some of the sharpest minds and deepest pockets in a head-to- head zero-sum match where winner takes all," he writes. "You will come under attack through bear raids, get head-faked and wiggled out by the market makers, get pinned to the wall by other day traders, and have the rug pulled out from underneath you by the SOES bandits."

All while sitting at home in your underwear!

Bear raids and head fakes aside, The Undergroundtrader.com Guide is a grueling read. About the best that can be said about the book is that it may prove to have something of a prophylactic effect on would- be day traders. If there is anyone out there still considering a career in day trading, a few hours with this confusing, convoluted how-to manual should quickly dissuade them. Yu manages to combine the almost impenetrable jargon of technical trading with the sort of macho bluster you find on some of the wilder Internet chat rooms -- resulting in an awful lot of sentences like the following, taken almost at random from a chapter on charts: "ENTU eventually popped to the 41 momentum tick as stochastics topped just above the 98 band on the one-minute stochastics and proceeded to tank to the zero band, taking ENTU back down to 38 on a panic wiggle."

If you can make it through 250 pages of this stuff without your head exploding, well, heck, maybe you do have what it takes to make it big as a day trader. Or maybe you're simply a space alien.

delete_your_broker.com looks to be an ever crasser attempt to cash in on the dot-com-boom-gone-bust. You'd think Christopher Byron, of all people, would have been better prepared for the end of the boom - - and a little quicker to get his book out the door. A curmudgeonly financial columnist for MSNBC and the New York Observer, Byron is one of the most consistently engaging writers around on the follies and foibles of the Internet economy. But delete_your_broker.com, unfortunately, is a slapdash affair, a rudimentary how-to guide for novice online traders amply padded with what looks to be material left over from some recent columns. Published six months or a year ago, it might have found a receptive audience. Now it seems nearly as retro as Chainsaw Al's paean to himself.

But that's not necessarily all bad. True, as a point-and-click guide to "Using the Internet to Beat the Pros on Wall Street," Byron's book is nearly useless. But the padding in this heavily padded book is often delightful: Byron offers (among other things) a fascinating tour of the world of penny stocks, expert deconstructions of the financial statements of such once-hot stocks as Amazon.com and Boston Market, funny riffs on seemingly dull subjects ranging from asset allocation to Bollinger Bands. I'm not sure I'd buy this book new -- but it would be a terrific find on the remainder table.

Meanwhile, the authors of Building Brandwidth go to great pains to present their book as an antidote to dot-com excesses. Sergio Zyman, the author of The End of Marketing as We Know It, was in a previous incarnation the chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola. Now he and co- author Scott Miller are the co-founders of an e-commerce consulting firm called Z Group, which eschews hipster kookiness in favor of ad campaigns that win "sales, not advertising awards."

Like most marketing books, Building Brandwidth is a terrible read - - albeit a quick one. Much of the book consists of little more than reheated cliche{acute}s. "You've got to be on the job 24-7," the authors tell us at one point. "There are no second chances on the Net. . . . It's White House or outhouse."

Zyman and Miller's critiques of dot-com hipsters aside, this book is clearly as much a product of dot-com hubris as those infamous ads from Outpost.com featuring gerbils shot from cannons. Only in the midst of a bubble could such a collection of triteness pass for insight. But here, too, perhaps we should temper our despair: There might not be any second chances on the Net, but there always are in publishing. I'll see you at the remainder table.

David Futrelle is a columnist for Money magazine.

Company Men

Washington Post Book World
Dec 22, 2002

BAD BOY BALLMER
The Man Who Rules Microsoft
By Frederic Alan Maxwell
Morrow. 278 pp. $26.95

SLOAN RULES
Alfred P. Sloan and the Triumph of General Motors
By David Farber
Univ. of Chicago. 292 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by David Futrelle

A year or so ago, a most unusual music video found its way to the Internet. Evidently bootlegged from a Microsoft corporate gathering, the low-tech video opened with a bouncy burst of music from Latin pop diva Gloria Estefan. Suddenly, a great burly linebacker of a man careened onstage, pumping his fists and bellowing while performing a strange, violent and only vaguely rhythmic dance. "I have four words for you," he shouted, gasping for breath. "I . . . LOVE . . . THIS . . . COMPANY . . . YEEEEEEEAAAASSSS!!"

The star of the video, as you may know, was none other than Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates's longtime confidant and the man who took over as CEO of the company when Gates kicked himself upstairs to become chief "software architect" some two years ago. There are many things about this video that strike one as strange, from the choice of music to the realization that Ballmer's four words are in fact five. But the strangest thing, perhaps, is Ballmer's seeming sincerity. He apparently does love Microsoft so much he has to shout it to the heavens.

Some business leaders are driven by love of money or lust for power or even -- though this may be hard to believe in these post- Enron days -- by a desire to better the world. Others, like Ballmer, are simply driven. Two new biographies attempt to get inside the heads of these Businessmen Who Love Their Companies Too Much.

Frederic Alan Maxwell's Bad Boy Ballmer purports to tell the dirty secrets of Microsoft's not-so-tiny dancer. Unfortunately, the book fails utterly in its attempt to capture or comprehend its ostensible subject. Indeed, the book fails in so many ways it's hard to know where to begin.

Like many other biographers, Maxwell was hobbled from the start by an uncooperative subject. Ballmer refused to grant him an interview. What's worse, many of those who did agree to talk with Maxwell refused to go on the record -- with one anonymous source inside Microsoft identified only as Deep Geek. (Granted, it's not hard to understand why Ballmer might balk. Maxwell looks upon Ballmer with unbridled scorn, comparing him, variously, to Attila the Hun, Uncle Fester of the Addams family and "John Belushi on coke" -- though in a moment of charity he does suggest that Ballmer's "deep-set, almost ghoulish eyes appear softer in person" than they do in photos.)

Trouble is, unlike Deep Throat, none of Maxwell's sources, anonymous or otherwise, has any real secrets to reveal. With no insights into or inside information about his book's central character, Maxwell is reduced to quoting vague complaints about Microsoft's ways and rehashing oft-told tales about the company's long and checkered history in clunky prose that would have benefited immensely from Microsoft Word's built-in grammar checker. It's far from clear whether Maxwell has even a rudimentary grasp of many of the subjects upon which he opines. He doesn't seem altogether clear, for example, on the difference between a Web browser and a search engine, using the two terms interchangeably at times. Even the most fervid Microsoft haters will find his diatribes tiresome.

And for all his digging, Maxwell is unable to come up with any real dirt on Ballmer. In 1978, he reports, Ballmer and some colleagues were apparently tossed out of a pizza parlor for making too much noise! An old college roommate drops another bombshell, telling Maxwell that Ballmer once bought sheets that turned out to be too small for his bed -- but he used them anyway! That's about as risque as it gets here. Quickly exhausting his store of Ballmer lore, Maxwell resorts to speculation. Ballmer spent a brief time in Hollywood in the late '70s, reading scripts at NBC and parking celebrity cars. Though there's no evidence he did much more than this, Maxwell notes portentously that "it is within the realms of both possibility and his personality that he auditioned for roles."

What drives this intensely driven man? With no real answer to this central question, Maxwell resorts to vague insights drawn from pop psychology, suggesting that "competition addict" Ballmer may really be driven by an unfulfilled childhood need to be loved. Even by pop-psych standards, that's not much of an answer. Ballmer may come across as a manic buffoon, but he didn't get where he is today on enthusiasm alone. Unfortunately, the book that truly explains the secrets of his success remains to be written.

At first glance, David Farber's Sloan Rules seems to have little in common with Bad Boy Ballmer. Alfred P. Sloan, the man who ran General Motors from 1923 to 1946, was about as Old Economy as they come. Ballmer is a boisterous brute; Sloan was a 130-pound weakling, described by Farber as "bony and narrow-shouldered, a whippet of a man." A 1924 Forbes magazine profile of Sloan described him as "totally without swashbucklerism."

But, like Ballmer, Sloan proves a difficult man to pin down. Describing himself as a "very narrow man," Sloan gave few interviews during his lifetime and left behind no papers or letters to study. His famous "memoir," My Years With General Motors, offers many insights into running a business, but few clues about the man himself. If he had an interior life, there seems to be no easy way to access it.

Farber, a history professor at the University of New Mexico, nonetheless does a good deal with what he's got, demonstrating how the coldly rational Sloan transformed General Motors from a chaotic collection of independent car companies in the early 1920s, when he first took control of it, to an industrial giant poised to dominate the nation's postwar prosperity when he stepped down in 1946.

While recognizing Sloan's organizational genius, Farber is also keenly aware of the ways in which Sloan's self-professed narrowness blinkered his broader social vision. Like Ballmer, Sloan was an intense, driven man almost totally preoccupied with running his businesses and actively hostile to government attempts at regulation. A bitter opponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Sloan really did believe, as his successor Charles Wilson so memorably put it, that "what was good for our country was good for General Motors -- and vice versa." While hardly a virulent bigot like Henry Ford, Sloan "did not find racists and anti-Semites uncomfortable political bedfellows. He did not seem to care if people were maimed or killed by the products he manufactured. He saw nothing unjust about safeguarding executives' bonuses and salaries during the Great Depression, even as tens of thousands of GM hourly workers were laid off."

Unfortunately, what's good for General Motors (or for Microsoft) isn't necessarily good for the rest of us.

Hard-Wired for Trouble

The Washington Post
May 28, 2003

THE BUG
By Ellen Ullman
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 355 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by David Futrelle

In her 1997 memoir, "Close to the Machine," Ellen Ullman offered a surprisingly insightful account of a seemingly unprepossessing subject: her life as a computer programmer. Indeed, the book was so sharply written it was hard to believe it was crafted by someone who'd spent two decades of her life churning out efficient, impersonal code. In "The Bug," her first novel, Ullman returns to many of the same themes that animated her memoir, examining the lives of characters who turn to the cold logic of programming in an attempt to escape the messiness of the real world.

The novel, set at a software start-up in 1984, tells the intertwined stories of Roberta Walton, an overeducated academic refugee making a living as a software tester, and Ethan Levin, a veteran programmer whose life begins to uncoil as he faces off against an unpredictable, and seemingly unkillable, software bug hiding somewhere in the deep recesses of his code. As the novel begins, Ethan seems on top of his game, a confident coder who's the only one at the start-up able to keep on schedule as the company grinds toward its first software release. When Roberta brings him the first report of the bug of the book's title -- UI-1017 -- he dismisses it as a "user error" caused not by his code but by Roberta's incompetence. But the bug won't be banished, returning again and again to crash software demos at the most inopportune moments, spooking potential clients and investors and threatening to bring the company itself to an ignominious end.

Ethan ultimately comes to see his bug as "a living menace, an irrational force in the world, some channel into chaos where programming logic could not go." He tries his best to keep the world at bay as he chases the bug, unscrewing the buzzing fluorescent lights in his office and plugging his ears as he goes through his code line by line, getting so close to the machine his boss begins to worry that his bug search has become a "sick, autistic hobby."

Slowly the elusive bug seems to pull all of Ethan's life into chaos. His relationship with his girlfriend disintegrates; he sends her packing after discovering her in bed with her odoriferous hippie lover, leaving him alone in a barren apartment with little but booze and his computer to keep him company.

In between marathon debugging sessions he returns to another autistic hobby, tinkering with a program designed to simulate a miniature ecosystem of little ASCII creatures who forage and feed, live and die, according to a simple set of rules in a world contained within the hermetic boundaries of his code. Unlike the "o- creatures" in his simulated world, programmed to migrate when food supplies run scare, Ethan can't figure out how to move on with his life.

The bug has an altogether different impact on Roberta. While at first it seems to unsettle her life much as it does Ethan's, it ultimately energizes her, forcing her to dive headfirst into the world of programming and "to become the engineer I'd cynically been pretending to be." Ullman, who came to the world of programming in 1978 as a reluctant refugee from academia, writes eloquently of her - - er, Roberta's -- flush of excitement as she leaves behind the ponderous fuzziness of postmodern dogma for the hyper-precision of programming. Roberta finds herself "glad to be rid of the drag of philosophy, freed from the whole morass of convoluted academic thinking. The cleanliness of programming was a balm. . . . I was striving for a certain clarity and simplicity, a form of impersonal beauty."

In the end, it is Roberta, the programming novice, who is able to locate the elusive bug. Though this book sparkles intermittently with the sharp insight and eloquent prose that made "Close to the Machine" such a compelling read, it is ultimately unsatisfying. The plot borders on melodrama -- and slow-moving melodrama at that -- creaking over 300-plus pages to its predictable end. And while Ullman still has an eye for telling detail as she describes the hothouse environment of the software start-up, most of the characters in the book don't feel convincingly real -- with the notable exception of Roberta, who essentially serves as Ullman's stand-in. Indeed, the best parts of the book are those with only a tangential relation to its lumbering plot: the semi- autobiographical slices of "Roberta's" present-day life that read like a sort of coda to "Close to the Machine." As is so often the case, real life proves more interesting than carefully constructed simulations.

Game Boy goes to Stonehenge


From this lovely flckr photoset.