Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad Rocks, Until It Stumbles to a Close

I loved Jennifer Egan's The Keep and wrote about it back in 2010. It's amazing how the same strengths and weaknesses of that novel are repeated in her recent Pulitzer winner A Visit From the Goon Squad.

The strengths are that it involves a storyline that really interests me. The Keep was a dark gothic tale, in the style of Poe about a mysterious castle. The Goon Squad is about a bunch of people mixed up somehow or another in the music and publicity businesses.

The weaknesses are that my favorite characters get really established and then go away for long periods in favor of less-interesting players and storylines. It bugs me a lot more in this book because it had happened before.

In fact, I'm beginning to think Egan's short stories, which have been some of the best pieces in the past decade in The New Yorker, represent a much better path for readers.

Regardless, the story starts strong with the relationship between music executive Bennie Salazar and his young assistant and petty-thief Sasha. The part of their story that takes place on safari in Kenya, and was featured as an excerpt in The New Yorker, is intriguing, as are a lot of the early scenes in New York. But detours to Naples and with the story of a kid obsessed with the pauses in rock 'n' roll songs are missteps that never resolve themselves or reveal why they are there in the first place.

We never really find out what happens to most of the characters. We're left to assume that the pursuit of fame and living in what Egan portrays as a toxic industry simply swallows up people like Scotty (who finally and kind of inexplicably becomes a successful musician when he gets old), Stephanie (Benny's first wife, who likes to play tennis at the country club), Dolly and Lulu (a failed publicist and her daughter, who eventually replaces Sasha as Bennie's assistant), and Alex and his whole family (Alex is apparently haunted by a one-night stand with Sasha that he had initially forgotten for many years).

I just don't know what this all adds up to. Much of it doesn't seem to mean anything or provide morals to the story. The Goon Squad is no doubt a page turner up until about the page-250 mark, but the last 100 pages are a letdown and even make it puzzling why the Pulitzer committee made this choice (other than they simply picked the book for the fiction prize because it uses some interesting techniques, notably in those last 100 pages).

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, September 28, 2015

Carsharing Growing Around the World with More User-Friendly Options

This article was originally published at Mobility Lab.
Carsharing, which is projected in a new report to grow globally by about sixfold by 2024, is beginning to look like a reliable transportation option in places like the Washington D.C. region and beyond.
“The U.S. has fewer cities than Europe with comprehensive public transit services, which is usually – but not always – a condition for successful carsharing,” said Lisa Jerram, a co-author of Navigant Research’s latest global market analysis and forecast for carsharing.
Why is carsharing growing?
As the cost of a private car, along with the societal costs of endless traffic jams and smog-filled cities, continue to mount, there are new factors that carsharing companies could capitalize on to take even fuller advantage of greater paths to revenue and profitablility, including:
  • Making carsharing more like one-way services that have already succeeded, such as ride-hailers Uber and Lyft and bikesharing. In Paris, Autolib’ gained 200,000 members in just three years. And Daimler’s car2go and BMW’s DriveNow have adopted the one-way model.
  • Auto companies like Daimler and BMW are helping the carsharing industry in a big way, as their members make up about 1.3 million of the 2.4 million total global carsharing members. They are succeeding because they have deep pockets, which is needed to build comprehensive and reliable coverage and, in turn, membership.
  • The rise in plug-in electric vehicles presents a way for carsharing services to differentiate themselves from competitors, allowing the companies to secure tax breaks in the form of zero-emission vehicle credits and helping city officials promote green initiatives like low-emission zones.
Jerram, who co-wrote Navigant’s report with John Gartner, said carsharing “needs visionary city mayors that see the benefits of all these types of new mobility offerings and work to bring them to their cities.”
The authors project that North America will have about 1.78 million carshare members at the end of 2015, Europe will have 1.77 million, and the Asia-Pacific region 1.15 million.
Why would people use carsharing?
There are increasingly more options in the Washington D.C. region, for instance, for people who, in the past, might have asked how they could possibly benefit from carsharing. For example:
  • Car2go has hundreds of gas and electric smart cars around the city and was just recently introduced in neighboring Arlington, Virginia. Perhaps the biggest attraction is that car2go vehicles don’t need to pay for parking in metered spaces.
  • Zipcar spots are easy to find everywhere either by simply looking into the street or using their mobile app or website. Gas, insurance, and roadside assistance are all taken care of by the company, so using the vehicles is a breeze.
  • Enterprise Carshare has a wide variety of models within its fleet and several plans available for infrequent to regular customers.
  • Hertz 24/7 appeals to the techies in the crowd, with NeverLost GPS systems and its use of Bluetooth. They allow one-way rentals and even offer truck and van rentals at all Lowe’s home improvement stores.
How are people using carsharing around the world?
From the Navigant report’s executive summary:
“Carsharing as a service has been around since the 1980s, and it began to become a big business roughly 15 years ago. As of 2014, there were well over 40 carsharing companies throughout the world with more than 2.4 million members.
“Global carsharing services revenue is expected to reach $1.1 billion in 2015. The two largest markets will be North America and Europe, which are projected to constitute 83 percent of this revenue. Japan and South Korea constitute a large portion of the Asia Pacific market today and are anticipated to see continued growth. Yet, China is projected to be the largest Asia Pacific market by 2024, driven by concerns over heavy congestion and pollution in urban areas.
“Total global revenue for carsharing services is forecast to reach $6.5 billion by 2024, with the Asia Pacific region taking the largest share at 34 percent. Europe will continue to be a very strong market with an estimated 32 percent of the total. Carsharing services revenue in North America is expected to drop to just 23 percent of the global total by 2024. Latin America and the Middle East and Africa will continue to lag behind in this industry.”
So do these findings mean that people in the U.S. are less thirsty than people in other countries for multiple on-demand transportation options?
Jerram said, “The U.S. has been a good market for carsharing and is a very strong market for ride-hailing services. But I do see Europe and Asia Pacific increasing carshare membership more rapidly than North America through 2024.” She added, “Europe is ahead of the U.S. in adopting a range of smart mobility solutions to minimize pollution and congestion in urban centers and to address climate change.
“The Asia Pacific market simply has more room for growth, especially in China. Although that market is not yet fully embracing this new, on-demand mobility concept, I think it will do so more over time as congestion and pollution problems worsen.”
Jerram did, however, praise the U.S. for doing well already in adopting carsharing and vehicle-sharing overall, “so there is real potential for this market to keep growing.”
This week, the Shared-Use Moblity Center and North American Bikeshare Association are hosting the Shared Use Mobility Summit in Chicago, where policy leaders are discussing these and other new developments in shared transportation options. Check out the hashtag #MoveTogether on Twitter to follow along.
Photo credit: car2go in Seattle, by Flickr user Atomic Taco, Creative Commons

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Will Ferrell Has Not Hit the Ball Out of the Park in a Long Time

Will Ferrell stretches the limits of comedy just a little bit with Ferrell Takes the Field, currently airing on HBO. 
It's a mockumentary that succeeds on some levels but is not very good on most. The premise of Farrell taking his legendary comedic talents to the baseball field is pretty original, as he gets traded and plays for a bunch of different teams in the Arizona cactus league before the 2015 season. 
The tone, however, is off, with Farrell over-acting the supposed seriousness of his endeavor. He did the same thing recently in his role as disillusioned Eric Jonrosh in The Spoils of Babylon, which was equally bad (even if Ferrell's bit parts were the best thing about it). 
Farrell is no doubt slipping (ala Sandler) since his heyday with Saturday Night Live. In fact, he hasn't been in anything really compelling at all since his run of Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro, and Step Brothers back in 2007-2008. 
I'm not sure if he'll ever recover any past glory at this point. And even if Farrell Takes the Field is far from his worst work, it's just not worth wasting your time with when there's so much other great stuff out there to be watched these days. 
Even the fact that this is thankfully raising funds for cancer doesn't redeem it as entertainment worth watching. 
**1/2 out of ***** stars 
Bonus: In longing for better days, Ferrell's best movies are: 
6. Wedding Crashers
5. Elf
4. Zoolander
3. Old School
2. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
1. Austin Powers: International man of Mystery (even though it's Farrell's first move and he just plays a bit part in Mike Myers' masterpiece) 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bicycling in Cleveland is Easy, Fun, and Something Everyone Should Try

What do General Motors, Samsung, and Duke and Ohio State universities all have in common?

They have each launched bikeshare systems in the past year brought to them by Zagster, a private, venture-funded startup that launched as CityRyde back in 2007 in Philadelphia.

Visiting Cleveland, Ohio this week for the Content Marketing World conference, I got my first taste of Zagster, which opened last summer in the city. I knew nothing about this company or that Cleveland had a bikesharing network. I simply stumbled upon a small stand of white bikes as I wandered around the city’s Warehouse District to the west of downtown, where my hotel and the conference are happening.

It couldn’t have been easier to download the app and sign up for Zagster on my phone. I didn’t even know if there were any other stations than the one I had seen, but it seemed worth the minor effort.

(I had planned to rent from The Bike Rack, which is also a very cool effort from the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. It welcomes downtown bicycling “with the convenience of secure bicycle parking and fulfilling everyday commuting needs with individual shower/changing facilities, lockers, bicycle rentals, and minor bicycle repairs.” And the rental prices are great at $5 per hour or $25 per day. But frankly, it is tough to compete with Zagster’s price of $3 an hour.)

Turns out there aren’t that many stations yet in Cleveland (according to the app, it looks like there are eight total). In fact, I didn’t see any other ones on my two-hour ride, but I wasn’t actively looking for them.

I wanted to know whether Cleveland is a bikeable city. And what I found, which is what I find everywhere, is that people should get over their irrational fears of this amazing form of travel. Cleveland is highly bikeable, even though it lacks much of any kind of truly progressive bike infrastructure.

The wind was in my hair. The sun was on my arms and face. The roads and sidewalks are ridiculously large through most of downtown, which makes riding feel spacious and extremely safe. (On the other hand, more importantly, the spaciousness makes the over-paved city ripe for the construction of protected bike lanes, sharrows, cycle tracks, and other bike infrastructure.)

In two hours on a bike, I saw a handful of sites it would take two days for others to explore. My route out of the Warehouse District took me through Tower City-Public Square east along Euclid Avenue through the Playhouse Square theater district and Cleveland State University’s campus, then back west through Erie Street Cemetary and around the baseball Indians’ Progressive Field and basketball Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena.

The Bob Hope Memorial Bridge has wide bike and walk access and beautiful views of the city and Cuyahoga River below. After biking through the Tremont neighborhood, I had lunch at Town Hall, a very popular and tasty restaurant on West 25th Street near the West Side Market.

In Washington D.C., there are so many Capital Bikeshare stations that riders always quickly return the bikes to a station before having lunch or going to their meetings. But here, I simply opened my Zagster’s lockbox to get the key for the U-lock that comes with each rental. I locked the bike to a parking meter in front of Town Hall and ate my lunch.

I finished my ride by biking north on 25th, which has the nicest bike lane (although not protected) that I witnessed anywhere in the city, and east across the Detroit-Superior Bridge back into the Warehouse District. Upon returning where I had started, there were only four bikes at the station. One had a bad flat tire and another was not locked.

Time will tell if Zagster will be a success in Cleveland. But there is no doubt that this system is about as easy as it gets for anyone to use. In the brave new world of on-demand-shared transportation, Cleveland and Zagster appear to be working out the kinks in what appears to be a major can’t-lose societal trend.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Cleveland Conference Week Begins With Rock Hall City

"In my waxed up hair and my painted shoes," in the words of The Replacements, who remain a major glaring omission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and whom I proudly sported on my shirt, I was ready for my Labor Day visit to the museum here near my Westin hotel in Cleveland.

I knew the three-hour opening-night reception at Content Marketing World, the conference I'm here to attend (featuring John Cleese, Nick Offerman, and Barenaked Ladies, I might add), would not be enough time to tour what is pretty much my ultimate museum. And I was right. I spent six hours there, mostly on the bottom floor and also watching films about American Bandstand, the Hall's inductees, and how "video killed the radio star."

The tour begins with odds and ends like Joan Jett's first car (a sweet black Jaguar), the Fender bass of Mike Mills of R.E.M., and Alex Van Halen's ridiculous mega-bass drums.

I think I realized that music from the Midwest might actually be my favorite rock geography. I stood in awe viewing a collage of Replacements flyers, a contract to play CBGB's under the band name Gary and the Boners, a bill for damages they caused at a 1985 UC-Davis gig, and penned lyrics to "Bastards of Young" and "Here Comes a Regular."

The reason a case could be made for the Midwest (despite my obvious bias, being from St. Louis): along with the Mats in this exhibit are Soul Asylum, Husker Du, the Jayhawks, Prince, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, Violent Femmes, Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Cheap Trick, Afghan Whigs, and Guided By Voices (criminally absent from even having a piece in the museum unlike all these bands that are not inducted but at least represented).

The facility gives plenty of space to Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.

Run D.M.C.'s Adidas, Madonna's trend-setting jewelry, the school-boy suit of AC/DC's Angus Young, Elvis' military jacket, Stevie Wonder's sunglasses, Joey Ramone's leather jacket, Kurt Cobain's guitar, a piece of Pink Floyd's Wall, and Michael Jackson's glove are just some of the iconic artifacts not to be missed.

Also, I found the note from Charles Manson to Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner offering interview material in exchange for a jailhouse subscription to be charming.

If you love rock music as much as I do, buy yourself a ticket to Cleveland. I can't believe the place has been open here on the shore of Lake Erie since 1986 and this was my maiden landing.