Apr 20 2015
Feb 12 2015
I can’t embed this in the post for some reason, but for some reason this video fascinates me. Why the spinning Popeye Arms?
Feb 12 2015
So two new types of spam to hate.
First are the LinkedIn abusers who send the guilt inducing emails asking me to buy their super-duper marketing automation systems; and then a week later act all butt-hurt and demand a yes or no answer. Those dickheads get to meet the Man in the Chair.
LinkedIn has turned into a shallow money trench of desperate lead generators and sleeve-tuggers. As a so-called “thought leadership” platform it is where good ideas go to die on the altar of buzzword bingo. Once a resume network, it’s now a bazooka of spam. At least About.me leaves me alone.
Second inbox trend are the morons who think it’s okay to sign up for an app that spams people asking them to confirm their contact details. Brewster is the big villain. For example I get a few of these ever week.
Jamie — whoever he is — is “so close” but in reality is so deleted. Do your own legwork people. Figure it out. If you don’t know who the right person at my company is who is going to buy your amazing social analytics Big Data customer delight solution, then you’re not looking hard enough. If you can’t be bothered to managed your own contact list, please don’t ask some drone service to bug your contacts for it.
Feb 11 2015
The blizzard's moving in Looks like you're wrong again When cabin fever hits It sends us into fits Of innkeeper's disease And screaming in the trees The blizzard never ends The blizzard buries them Blizzards, Buzzards, Bastards -- Scissorfight
I haven’t been outside for more than five minutes at a time over the last three weeks of this wretched winter. My skin feels like I’ve been belt-sanded while I sleep. Vitamin D levels are at all-time lows. The cars have slush udders and are rusting out before my eyes. The driveway is where hips go to break. Yesterday I staggered to the shower, turned it on, stepped in and shrank my head in water piped down from the taiga thanks to an empty oil tank (who knew the oil guy can’t get his hose from the street over a eight-foot tall cornice of grey plow drifts to the pipe around the back of the house?). The dog defecates freely inside the house, having long ago called bullshit on any of my attempts to drive it out into the drifts to do its business. Strange birds desperate for food and water hang around the feeders and fight among themselves. The 180 miles of daily driving on the wonderful highways of eastern Massachusetts each and every morning are doing evil things to my soul.
People my age who live in this wretched snow globe all have a Blizzard of ’78 story and every single one has the following structure:
- It begins in a frat or dorm in Allston, Brighton, or the Back Bay
- It involves a “packy run”
- on x-country skis or a sled
- A guy named Sully
- An arctic expedition through snowdrifts
- Fruit-flavored brandy or schnapps
- Massive intoxication
- The police
This winter seems to be more about lynching the new governor, Charlie “The Darkness” Baker, the decrepit MBTA, and sucking it up. In the words of the Norwegians, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
But I love it here. For this makes us Spartans.
Jan 15 2015
Over the holidays my daughter spent hours sitting in an armchair, headphones clamped to her ears, staring at the window at the bird feeders, listening intently to her iPhone. She was addicted to “Serial” — the 12-episode tale of a 1999 murder of a high school student in Baltimore and the detailed investigation by public radio reporter Sarah Koenig. Each episode is about an hour long and so last night, during my evening commute I listed to all of the first installment and most of the second. It’s pretty compelling stuff and apparently has become the most downloaded podcast in history on iTunes.
I despise wasted commute time and as far back as 2000 listened to stuff like the history of opera on cassettes sold by The Great Courses. When I was making a weekly four hour commute from the Cape to Manhattan I listened to Audible books from my android phone Bluetoothed into the car’s FM radio, finishing Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire over the course of countless drives through Rhode Island and Connecticut. Over the past few months I’ve switched to more contemporary fare ranging from books on IT and the cloud to the pearls of wisdom of Peter Thiel, Chris Anderson at Wired, and others. I also use the time to listen to Acquia’s (my current company) podcast, hosted and produced by the inimitable Jeffrey A. McGuire, better known as “JAM.”
I was really into iTunes enabled podcasts ten years ago when I was working at IDG. I was a big fan of Christopher Lydon’s OpenSource podcast as well as the Gillmor Gang hosted by Steve Gillmor. But, overtime I lost interest in the medium. They felt like a pain in the ass to produce, I have never felt the urge to do one myself because I’m a writer and not a talker.
Anyway, I’m back into podcasts now. Mostly thanks to a great Android app called PocketCast. I subscribe to the JAM/Acquia podcast, Lydon’s OpenSource, O’Reilly Radar and of course the Serial. I don’t think I’d listen to one in an idle moment of leisure, but as a way to salvage some value from the brain dead purgatory of a commute it does make me feel a bit like Doctor Evil’s father, the “relentlessly self improving” baker given to outlandish claims such as the invention of the question mark.
Jan 11 2015
I’ve had to do this and it is not fun. The way it works is this: you leave the boat in the water through January expecting to do some clamming, then one night the temperatures dip into the teens and you realize your beloved watercraft is about to get locked into the ice. So what to do but don those waders and find some friends and do a little ice breaking?
Jan 11 2015
There are many good trees in Cotuit, but only this tree makes me happy to see standing year after year. This is at the Bell Farm property managed by the Barnstable Land Trust. My daughter calls it the “Crazy Tree.” My son calls it “The Tim Burton Tree.”
Jan 11 2015
I know. I suck. I’ve been ignoring this poor blog and that’s not right. So, in no particular order, here’s a dump:
- Boston Olympic Bid: As an Olympic junkie I’m all in favor. We have the infrastructure with all the collegiate venues available. We’re a big sports town. And I want to see Olympic Rowing on the basin of the Charles. These things aren’t that disruptive to the population. Trust me. Yes there will be a lot of athletes and their families in town. Lots of big brand hospitality programs, but it didn’t kill Beijing, it won’t kill us.
- Daily Constitutional: I went FitBit before the holidays and also installed a Withings digital scale. I’m trying not to be obsessed with the “quantified self” thing, but I do weird things (like march to Loop Beach in the dark after work) to hit my daily quota of 10K steps. This is all a preliminary phase before getting back on the erg. And no, no CRASH-B’s this year. Paired with a new set of awesome Asolo trekking boots (the Ferrari’s of footware), I am a walking machine. These things are amazing. Got mine under the Christmas tree (that tree is now in the burn pile ready to spark off the annual spring burning of the brush) and I would wear them to bed if I could. They are that comfortable. Walking is the most underrated thing in the world and I prefer to refer to it in 19th century terms as my “constitutional.
- Banned words: I am repulsed by the following corporate words:
- Pivot: VC-speak for “your business is failing, now figure out plan B before you run out of cash.”
- Impactful: shut the fuck up please
- Content: “content” is dead and makes a book commit suicide every time it is uttered. Engineers who can’t write call whatever their systems “ingest” (another despised word) “content”
- KPI: they are not key, they don’t perform, and they are noise indicating nothing.
- and many many more. “omnichannel” needs to be buried. “Inbound marketing” is hooey.
- Good words: 2015 is the Year of Empathy and doing unto others, etc. Is also the year of getting shit done.
- Reading list: I’m going back in time to the marketing wisdom of Regis McKenna and reading his “Relationship Marketing” which merely proves the more things change, the more they remain the same. I am also delighted that Doc Searls and David Weinberger have come back to the Cluetrain Manifesto with some “New Clues.” Their pronouncements on “content” and “native advertising” are worth the read. Son gave me a volume of Rilke poetry which is up next.
- Movies: saw the Interview on the xBox over the holidays and was ashamed to say it felt like a pretty weak blow for freedom of speech and democracy. Personally I find North Korea to be a good source of entertainment in itself. I know people are starving and there are nukes, but still…… if the best they can do is hack some Hollywood emails then bring it on.
- Consumer Electronics: other than the Fitbit, no new toys in my life worth talking about. And no, I don’t miss going to Vegas for CES.
- Cooking: I’m teaching myself to cook a decent Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut chicken soup) thanks to a great cookbook and the tutelage of Acquia’s CEO, Tom Erickson.
- Boozing: messing around with different single malts. Highland Park is scoring high. Also the Balvenie scotch that ages in old rum barrels is way too sweet. I’m totally a peat freak and keep coming back to good old Talisker.
Dec 08 2014
A poignant post by Om Malik that I guess was sparked by my maudlin post on the good old days. Funny how he celebrates his eight years off the cigs when I posted a snapshot of the entrance to the old Forbes.com newsroom where we’d loiter on the sidewalk smoking his Dunhills talking trash talk about our corporate overlords.
Dec 06 2014
I introduced myself as the “Flak” when you sat down next to me for the media dinner with the executive I was guarding. There’s no use in glossing over the word “flak” with an excrementitious title like “Vice President of Brand Marketing.” I know what you think about 50-something ex-reporters like me who turn into corporate whores. I thought the same thing about them in my 20s. They were the middle-aged burn outs who couldn’t hack a mortgage and college tuition on the thin gruel of an editorial salary; Quislings who betray their knowledge of the secret rituals of a newsroom with them to the executive suite and whisper them into the ears of CEOs, divulging the the secrets of manipulating the press with Jedi mind tricks.
Flak. Mouthpiece. PR professional. What became of old reporters in the early 20th century before Edward Bernays adopted the psychological tricks of his father-in-law, Sigmund Freud, and persuaded the people of America that their weekly Saturday night bath wasn’t enough to prevent them from smelling and in the process sold a lot more soap for his clients at Listerine, the brand that made the word “Halitosis” a nightmare of every Babbitt and Dale Carnegie in the 1920s; thus inventing the art of Public Relations? Did those old hacks suddenly turn into Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success, going from the hustle of the newsroom and barking “Get me rewrite!” into pay phones, to whispering night club calumnies into the ears of whatever J.J. Hunsecker they doted and depended on?
I know you wonder if that’s the fate that awaits you on your reporter’s road. I wondered about it too. I knew then that people like me didn’t especially like me, or thought my insights were as brilliant as they pretended. I knew my twenty-something powers and influence were vested in the names of the newspapers and magazines I worked for and not my sparkling words or probing mind. A week after I hit the big time and started working for Forbes I reached the chairman of General Motors five minutes after calling the generic switchboard of the company’s Detroit headquarters. He took a call from Forbes. Not from Churbuck.
Your enthusiasm for your beat was like a tonic. “I’d have hired this kid,” I thought as your eyes lit up talking about hackers and botnets and the seamy underside of the Internet. I chased that beat once. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It can make a career. Ask Adam Penenberg.
I asked you about life in a modern Internet newsroom. About the Buzzfeed-ification of the press. Of Nick Denton’s focus on dashboards and traffic. Of your need to not only report the news, check the facts, write the words, but also distribute it — like a digital newsboy — tweeting and “plus-oneing” and cross-linking and hoping you found the magic combination of keywords and techniques to make Google love your post.
Then you spoke about your influence and the challenge of getting someone at Google to talk to you. “It’s about my audience,” you said. The numbers. The bigger the numbers, the more the influence.” I couldn’t tell if you were resentful of the old media cows and their 100-year brands, inferring I rather be talking to some old reporter from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal than a bright guy from Techcrunch or GigaOm. So I probed with a question, begging forgiveness before asking it: “Would you rather be where you are, in the new world working with an awesome content management system, in a hot, hip newsroom. Or would you rather be working that beat for the New York Times?”
You were honest. You picked the Times. I didn’t feel vindicated, only sad that you would probably not have the experience of walking through an airport and seeing your story on the cover of Fortune or Forbes, sitting there for the world to see and read for a week or two. Wistful that your best efforts, doubtlessly as good as mine back when, would slip down the river of news into the memory of the Google. That you knew sticking a numeral in a headline made it perform better than one that didn’t. That no one would give you two months to develop a 10,000 word monster of a story that would make headlines of its own.
It must be grueling. We talked about fact-checking, holding back when there were doubts about the facts, about the shame Newsweek felt when it identified the wrong inventor of BitCoin….the fast twitch Adderal-fueled news cycle where any flak like me can claim to be a Forbes contributor thanks to a new model where any semi-literate can build their Klout score by submitting drek to their LinkedIn feed.
It was edifying for me and I wanted to tell you to take a second to appreciate your beat and to soak it all in. That you were doing what every new generation needs to do, inventing the new way, the new methods and models.
Yes, I’m a flak now. I walked away from the newsroom in 1995 when I filed my last print piece on the retirement of Bill Ziff for Forbes in the twilight of his brilliant career, a long, thoughtful and emotional piece (at least the first version was) where he said from the wisdom of his years, “Business saved me from a life of abstraction.”
I’m not sure what those words really meant — I think it was a comment on how the death of his father while he was a student studying abstract philosophy in Germany pulled him out of academia and into the hurly-burly world of New York publishing — but, like my other mentor, Jim Michaels, who pressed into my hands a VHS tape of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara just to hear Undershaft the arms merchant’s defense of profit and progress, they were passing on a torch and understood that the raw talent and energy of a twenty-five year old is a very short walk away from taking on the same solemn responsibility to do the same with the next generation.
The trick is not to be portentous about it, because nothing is worst than bad advice delivered under the veil of earned wisdom.
I wish I could offer encouraging words about the future of journalism, but it’s no less under-appreciated and challenging than it was in 1980 when I wrote my first piece (on a sewer bond hearing which my editor cut in half and said, “Don’t cry kid. This isn’t a short story about granny’s funeral you know.”). And I hope it is every bit as weird and fun as it was for me — there’s no better place I can think of than a newsroom on a good news day for, as General Gavin said to the nervous paratrooper approaching the drop-zone over Normandy on D-Day: “Buck up son. Don’t be nervous. Don’t you like jumping out of airplanes?” And the soldier said, “No sir, I don’t. But I like hanging around guys who do.”
I walked past the first offices of Forbes.com the next morning, the entrance to 85 Fifth Avenue where a couple dozen of us in 1995 made up a new medium through trial and error. We knew it was likely going to be the so-called best years of our lives and thankfully we had the energy of our youth to pull through late nights of hard work and even harder play. The names that passed through that drab open newsroom on the second floor on Fifth Ave. went on to do even more marvelous things. We were you once and now you are us. Good luck. You will walk by that Tribeca loft in thirty years, look up and remember when the tidal wave crested and carried you onwards. And don’t worry about being a flak, it’s actually a ton of fun. Trust me.
Nov 29 2014
Cousin Tom from Maine was in Cotuit for Thanksgiving and brought over his quadcopter drone for a demo flight on Friday afternoon. After some calibration and set-up he lifted it off the ground and drove it around the neighborhood, using the onboard camera and a Nexus 7″ tablet to provide some thrills. Here’s a shot of the Chatfield compound in the center of the village with the all-but-boatless harbor in the background, the barrier island of Dead Neck.Sampson’s and Nantucket Sound beyond (double-click the picture for a full view).
He has the DJI Phantom 2 drone with GPS and a first-person view camera mounted on under-belly gimbals It’s good to an altitude of 5,000 feet and a range of 3/4 of a mile. The tablet view works best if you stand in the shade. This is his second rig in as many months, the first suffering a “sudden loss of altitude” and a splashdown in Damariscotta Bay. At $1,000 and change, that is an expensive rowboat anchor, and having myself once turned a huge radio-controlled, gas-powered Piper Cub with a seven-foot wingspan into an expensive lawn dart thanks to not remembering to fully extend the controller’s radio antenna, I know the anguish and expense of airborne disaster.
I want one. I really want one. Yet I also realize it would turn me into that guy: the paste-eating weenie freaking out the neighbors with his eye-in-the-sky. While an aerial movie of a Cotuit Skiff race would be very cool, I think the fun would wear off after the sixth flight or first disaster. Cousin Tom is a realtor, so he gets some benefits in displaying the houses he’s listing.
Here’s a shot of the Cotuit Kettleers’ home field, Lowell Park, taken by Tom on Thanksgiving with the leaves all blown down by the recent rain storms. All those woods from right field to the lower left corner of the picture are for sale and the Barnstable Land Trust needs to raise $560,000 in the next four weeks to save them from the invasion of the Starter Castles. Dig deep people. I’m going to give twice (and don’t forget to throw some $$$ at the Cotuit Athletic Association to keep the Kettleers and Lowell Park the best they can be.
Nov 26 2014
I have succumbed to the world of books-on-tape and been using the 90 mile/2x daily commute from Cape Cod to Burlington to do more than listen to NPR and curse my hollow, rat-on-a-wheel existence. I’ve been a fan since my commute to and from Manhattan for Eastman Advisors, but perhaps Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t the wisest first choice for an automotive literary experience. In 2001, when I briefly did the same commute to McKinsey & Co’s short-lived TomorrowLab, I listened to lectures from The Learning Company, thinking I was being super efficient and relentlessly self-improving like Dr. Evil’s father the baker who claimed to have invented the question mark.
Audible is definitely making the commute a lot more enjoyable. I’ve tried dictating into a voice recorder and plugging the results into Nuance software’s speech recognition software, but I can’t compose via dictation and feel like an utter asshole in bumper-to-bumper holding a little red Sony recorder under my chin and pretending I am composing literary genius (note to self, search to see if any significant piece of literature has ever been dictated).
So far this fall I’ve listened to The Map Thief; Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One; and Chris Anderson’s Free, along with a steady diet of podcasts, usually Drupal and open source related. I was always impressed by the anecdote that George Gilder, the Forbes columnist and newsletter writer wrecked a couple cars out in the Berkshires because he was fond of driving around listening to technical lectures and proceedings from the IEEE and other deep-geek gatherings. The story, unconfirmed, was he put a car or two in the ditch because he’d get so wrapped up in talks about erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.
Now I’m into Walter Issacson’s breezy history of the computer, Internet, and digital revolution and I’m liking it, even if everything is old news because I’ve worked in the industry since the early 1980s and have read pretty much all the histories and biographies of the computer age. Walter’s biography of Steve Jobs was a huge bestseller and I enjoyed it very much as it taught me two things about Jobs which I did not know before: Jobs didn’t flush toilets and he banned Powerpoint. In Innovators, Issacson does a fine job of keeping the history from falling into the rat hole of theoretical science, injects some good human drama and tales of eccentricity, and connects it all together in a way that a Millenial obsessed with hooking up on Tindr and managing their social networks might actually pause and pay some respect to the geniuses (mostly men, mostly working during the Great Depression) who invented the vacuum tube powered 50-ton monster computers that got things rolling.
He begins with the tale of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, a passionate mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer because of her work with Charles Babbage during his development of the mechanical calculator, the Analytical Engine during the first half of the 19th Century. Then a leap to the second half of the century, and the mechanization of the US Census by IBM’s early founder Herman Hollerith (this cutting down the analysis of the census from an eight year manual process to just one); and then to 1937 — the year it all came together in the US, England and Germany for a bunch of unconnected inventors and scientists who looked at the technology available to them and managed, through a combination of vacuum tubes, hardwired circuits, electric-mechanical relays, “memories” made out of rotating tin cans and lots of scrounging, to independently invent variations on what are now regarded as the first working computers.
There’s something about listening to the excitement caused by the Mother of All Demos (Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of the first mouse, graphical user interface, and network in 1968), the founding of Intel by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, the impact the MITS Altair had on the Bay Area’s hacker/maker subculture, the development of the Internet’s protocols out of ARPANET…..all familiar stories, but very chilling when told through an Android phone mounted on the dashboard of a car, a pocket computer with more storage and power that ever could have been conceived of and yet…..
That future was always in the minds of people like Vannevar Bush — the man who forged the collaboration between the military, academic and industrial research during World War II and was the “Scientist-in-Chief,” advising presidents from FDR through Eisenhower: he described the personal computer he called a “Memex” in a famous essay published by The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and his vision of the DynaBook in the early 70s. Ada Lovelace speculating in the 1820s that someday there would be machines that could help create art.
The theme that fascinates me — a theme emerging from listening to Chris Anderson, Peter Thiel, and Issacson — is that the greatest invention in all of the Information Age is debatable, but the one that is most intangible is the way “innovation” is defined and happens. I personally detest the way “innovation” is tossed around by buzzwordists along with “impactful” and “pivot” like verbal styrofoam peanuts; but a tangible definition and set of conditions conducive to it occurring is coming together in my mind. Hence, Churbuck’s Theory of Innovation:
- Those who talk about innovation generally don’t understand it.
- Innovation is not a synonym for creativity or discovery — creativity and inspiration are required, but the words are not synonyms. Galileo didn’t innovate his heliocentric view of the universe — he proved through a telescope that the planets orbit the sun (and pissed off the Church in the process).
- Innovation strictly defined in my mind is the commercialization of invention. Bear with me, for this is the fine distinction between discovering some new truth: “Silicon doped with impurities will become a semiconductor” that’s a discovery, an invention. Putting a logical circuit on a base of doped silicon by printing a pattern of conductive lines is an invention and can be patented. Realizing you can cram all the logical functions required by a computer’s central processing unit onto a single chip and then selling the hell out of them (as Intel did) I argue is an innovation. Science leads to discoveries. Innovation applies those discoveries to products or processes.
- Innovation is an “aha” moment to be sure, but it usually doesn’t happen alone, by a lone genius in a garage, but in a group of collaborators in the right combination of environment and management structures. Flat organizations based on a meritocracy are far more conducive to innovation than old command-and-control structure. Open sharing of invention and discoveries is the fuel for innovation — innovation is derived and borrowed from many sources and crushed by patents and secrecy.
I highly recommend the Thiel book — his view of what it takes to build a company, as well as Issacson’s — it’s more about the management and culture breakthroughs than anything else. Flat organizations, rewarding individual contributors with a piece of the action, and leadership that makes decisions and shepherds projects towards clear goals while deflecting distractions are as important as any factor, technical or creative. Issacson provides an excellent example: Texas Instruments took the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs and made the first transistor radios — reducing a bulky device that sat on a table and required tubes to a form factor the size of a stack of index cards. As luck would have it, the first transistor radio coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll, and for the first time teenagers could listen, in privacy, to the music their parents hated on the living room Philco. The invention — the Regency TR-1 — was the innovation of a new “use case,” the transistor itself was introduced to the public consciousness, and the result was as profound (if not more so) than the iPod 50 years later.
It’s a long way of my saying, it’s good to stop and take stock of the invention that surrounds us and realize that in a very short span of time — 50 years essentially — we’re gone from “Shake Rattle and Roll” in our pockets, to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on our dashboards.
Nov 24 2014
I learned last week from my friend Elizabeth Gould that the “Voice of Cotuit,” Sean Kelly, has passed away. I met Sean in June of this year (2014) at the Cotuit Library after I gave a talk on Colonial Barnstable as part of the town’s 375th birthday celebration. Sean sat right in front and afterwards complimented me with an awesome baritone voice right out of radio. I had no idea about his career as a broadcast journalist, but a few weeks later heard the voice again when I watched the Barnstable Land Trust’s video about the campaign to save the woods around Lowell Park, the baseball field of the Cotuit Kettleers. Sean narrated that piece by Maryjo Wheatley, giving it an impact that only a great narrator can.
From his memoir, this biography:
“Sean Kelly covered rebel conflicts in Africa, civil wars in Indochina, peace talks in the Middle East and the downfall of the President of the United States inwas ambushed in Zimbabwe and death-listed in El Salvador. But not all of his career was spent chasing chaos. He also went to the Seychelles Islands to report on the first flight of the Space Shuttle and to South Africa for the presidential campaign and election of Nelson Mandela.
Between deadlines, there was time for humor, compassion, good food and wine, even romance along the way.
Born and raised in California, Kelly reported for the Voice of America, the Associated Press and several other new organizations during a forty-year professional career in journalism. He worked in print, radio and television. His books include “Access Denied: the Politics of Press Censorship’, and “America’s Tyrant: the CIA and Mobutu of Zaire”.
He and his wife Helen Picard divide the year between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Cape Town, South Africa.”
Here’s the Cotuit video which Sean narrated for the Barnstable Land Trust:
Nov 16 2014
The time came in college where I had to foot the bill and as part of my tuition plan I needed to work a campus job. The usual scholarship gig was washing dishes in the dining hall — one of those hair-netted jobs that seemed embarrassing because you cleaned up after your friends, but when I went to the campus employment agency to fill out a form I happened to be there as a courtly looking professor kind of man was posting a job in the Sterling Memorial Library’s print shop for a printer’s devil.
I interrupted his conversation with the clerk and introduced myself. He was Professor Dale Roylance, the curator of the library’s typography collection and its Arts of the Book department, a room on the ground floor that displayed the art and science of typography from Gutenberg through the modern era. He questioned my qualifications, he was looking for an experienced printer’s devil with some time in one of the many letterpresses around the residential colleges; and realizing there was no bullshitting the man I was honest and admitted to having no experience or even interest in bibliography and letterpresses. I was a writer and wanted to experience the mechanics of book making first hand and appreciated the craft from having run my high school newspaper and the agony of producing that every week. He was skeptical, but agreed to give me a chance. He warned me the work was tedious and messy — largely consisting of cleaning up after him, wiping up ink, cleaning platens, and putting type back in its proper cases. He’d teach me anything I wanted to learn, but only after I took care of the boxes of scrambled or “pi’d” type and various chores such as cutting mats for exhibits, and being his errand boy around the other presses on campus.
Every afternoon from one to three, I’d walk to the library, step behind the main library call desk, walk down stairs to the vast basement and unlock the door to the Yale Bibliographic Press. On the main bench would be a list of things Professor Roylance wanted done. Go crosstown to the plate maker and pick up some copper engravings. Un-ink and then unlock two chases — the iron rectangles where the type was set, spaced and locked down with quoins — and return the type to the right job box. Set and print six copies of the new library hours and mount in the wrought iron frames at the entrances. Run over to the Beinecke Rare Book Library and get a few rare botanical woodcuts for some forthcoming exhibit. Pop up to the fifth floor map collection and ask the curator for a list of maps for a forthcoming exhibition on Colonial cartography.
I’d turn on the campus FM radio station and play jazz in the subterranean press room while I put on an apron, folded a sheet of the New Haven Register into a pressman’s cap, and pushed around a pushbroom for a while. The press had to be kept clean. Dust ruined print runs and Roylance was a little OCD — which I came to learn was a requisite character trait in a good printer. The worst part of the job was breaking down the chases he’d left behind — he was nearly never there when I was there, preferring long lunches at the Faculty Club to managing me — full pages of type for some special project he was working on. Type setting (and un-setting) is done using a wooden tray criss-crossed with dividers known as a California job box. This is like a QWERTY keyboard of sorts — every letter had its own special compartment, and each box comprised the totality of that type face in one specific point size. The Bibliographic had full sets of Times New Roman, Goudy, Baskerville and Garamond in every size from 6 to 96 point in bold as well as italic versions. There were other fonts as well, but just the main four typefaces occupied a huge storage space, each job box weighing over 25 pounds.
The brilliance of the job box was the size of each letter’s compartment was proportional to the frequency of each letter’s use in the English language. Hence “E” had the biggest compartment and “Q” one of the smallest. One learns to “touch-type” and work a case without looking at it, and with practice the task of returning type to the box gets fairly automated. Setting type, the act of composing a line of text, was far more fun and challenging. A tool called a “composing stick” is used, set to the appropriate width of the text and held in one hand while the other hunts through the job box for the next letter or spacer.
Composing backwards and upside down takes some getting used to, and I was slow and sloppy with my leading, hyphenation and never had the patience to do justified margins.
There were three presses in the Bibliographic Press, but the prize was the 1830-era Albion drop press. I loved that press. It was one of the old Benjamin Franklin style presses, with a big lever one would grab with both hands and swing to drop the platen and make the impression. This is the Albion from the Bibliongraphic Press. It’s since been pulled out of the basement and put on display. I worshiped this thing.
While placards and exhibit note cards were the stuff I was mainly asked to print, occasionally Professor Roylance would pop in and teach me some new aspect of the craft. One month he taught me how to make marbled end papers, a cool process like a Grateful Dead light show at the Fillmore where a solution is prepared, inks are “floated” and swirled into amazing patterns, and a sheet of paper is pulled up to lift the inks from the carrying solution. I remember the recipe called for carrageenan, a gelatin derived from a particular kind of Irish seaweed. Roylance also taught me binding, leather work, embossing, the fine points of spacing and of course the amazing glossary of specialized terms known to printers as part of the craft.
The library became a home – a monastery away from classes, my social life, my daily rowing practices. It was one of three jobs I held down. The first was delivering the New York Times every morning to 300 campus subscribers — a dark o’clock job that involved running up lots of dorm stairs on the eastern side of the campus and which got me warmed up for the morning crew practice at the Payne-Whitney gymnasium where running a dozen flights of stairs a dozen times every day was the worst part of the off-season training regimen. In the evening, after the crew team returned from Derby and the Housatonic Rover, I’d put in two hours at the Chapel Street Wine Shop, delivering kegs of beer around campus in the store’s incredibly abused delivery van (more running of stairs, only this time with full kegs of Heineken or Michelob). But the library was the best. It smelled … like a grandfather. It was an amazing stack of precious knowledge made even more cool by the glowing alabaster walls of the Beinecke Rare Book library, a cube rumored to have a Halon fire extinguisher system that could suck all the oxygen out, kill the patrons and staff, but save the rarest books on the planet. Walking past a Gutenberg bible, getting to hold the original palimpsest of Lord Jim with Conrad’s corrections and notes, checking out Captain John Smith of Virginia’s map of the New England coast — the same map he gave to Prince Charles to do the honors of naming the places on it (hence the future King named the Charles River after himself). Beinecke was the library to end all libraries, but Sterling was my favorite.
The library was, for me, the best part of the last Indiana Jones movie. Sterling is the setting of the end of the motorcycle chase through the Yale campus at the 2:44 mark.
Cartography was, and still is, a happy thing for me, especially staring at antique nautical charts. One of the best classes I took in college was taught in the Sterling Memorial Library’s map collection by the map collection curator, Alexander Vietor. The only assignment I remember was to use the university’s computer lab to develop a computer generated map using quantitative inputs. The whole thing was done on punch cards which were submitted for a batch processing run and then output onto a big graphics plotter. I did a map of New England ports with each proportionally sized according to the numbers of barrels of whale oil landed in each in 1824. Between that class and my daily duties in the press, I got to handle some amazing maps, stuff that has come back to the public consciousness thanks to E. Forbes Smiley — the map thief chronicled in an excellent book published last spring by a Boston author, Michael Blanding: The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.
E. Forbes Smiley III was a well known dealer in rare maps who served a select set of private collectors (one of whom, Norman B. Leventhal, owns some homes here in Cotuit and donated his collection to the Boston Public Library). Smiley, an over-extended, suave self-taught expert in colonial American maps, resorted to theft from a half-dozen university libraries, stealing hundreds of one-of-a-kind maps over the years by simply ripping them out of atlases. His undoing was when he dropped an X-Acto knife on the rug at the Beinecke in 2004 and was arrested and investigated by the FBI. His impact on Yale, Harvard, the New York and Boston Public Libraries is incalculable. I read the book with keen interest, realizing I had personally handled some of the materials Smiley stole. There were a lot of scholars and collectors who passed through the Sterling and Beinecke stacks in the late 70s when I was a student at Yale and Smiley was still a student at Hampshire College. Some wealthy student bibliophiles were renowned for their dorm room collections. One, the scion of a Manhattan real estate empire, was operating a thriving business on campus as an undergrad, and another went on to be Smiley’s more vocal critic, W. Graham Arader III, who was dealing rare maps from a Yale dorm room during my time in New Haven. The New York Times said of Arader at the time of Smiley’s arrest: “At Yale, he [Arader] said, he focused on “blondes and squash,” but became interested in maps after he met Alexander Orr Vietor, the curator of Yale’s map collection. Before long, Mr. Arader was selling maps from his dormitory room. “I love maps, and when you get hooked, you get hooked,” he said.
I was hooked but more on the book making side of things and less on collecting stuff. After all I was paying my through school and my earnings from the library went right to the bursar to off-set my tuition. My masterpiece was the printing of a full chapter of Moby Dick — Chapter 23, “The Lee Shore” — made famous in the great baseball novel, The Art of Fielding. After graduation, when I applied for a internship at the Boston publishing house of David Godine (publisher of Andre Dubus among others), Godine himself, a bit of a prickly man, was ready to blow me off as just another Yale grad dishwasher looking for a publishing job when I pulled my manuscript out and handed it over for his inspection. He pulled out a loupe and started examining my kerning and inking very carefully, criticizing the descenders on my “P’s” and generally ripping apart my work before looking up, smiling and saying, “I started out with a letterpress in my barn. It gets in your blood. The ink I mean. Doesn’t it?” I landed the internship (unpaid of course) but the best memory of my eleemosonary employment at Godine was when he handed back the Melville manuscript and told me it was “nice work.”
It’s sad what Smiley did to some irreplaceable maps but he also changed the way libraries operate and from the book’s account, ruined forever a sense of trust they had in the scholars who depend on them. Extensive security, new rules, and a general climate of mistrust has crept in behind the damage Smiley’s done. Whatever undergrad is lucky enough be the Sterling Memorial Library’s printer devil probably doesn’t get the keys to the kingdom like I felt I had.
I offer this because I started musing about my career in “content management” and my place as the last of the “typewriter generation” — those 50-somethings who didn’t have computers in college but did their work on Olivettis, Smith Coronas and IBM Selectrics. As I finished my first novel the final semester of my senior year (unpublished but proudly sitting on a shelf in the Scholar of the House collection inside the Sterling), the college’s Scholar of the House program arranged for me to hire a professional typist to produce the final manuscript. Due to the deadline I would drive to her home in Orange, Connecticut and spend hours transcribing onto her new Wang word processor, the first of it’s kind with big floppy discs the size of album covers. Those green letters on the black screen. The ability to move paragraphs, to cut and paste …. it marked the beginning of three decades working with words on computers. That summer, as a cub reporter at the Cape Cod Times, I worked on a typewriter, glued my pages together with a pot of rubber cement, and moved stuff around by cutting it out with scissors and pasting it back manually. By the end of the summer the Times was going computerized, and at my next newspaper job at the Lawrence Eagle Tribune I worked at a Hastech terminal, and was given a Tandy T100 with rubber suction cup modem for filing from the State House press room on Beacon Hill at 300bps. I haven’t seen a typewriter, let alone an Albion drop press and California job box since. Now I’m all about cloud-hosted Drupal and “content.” Somehow I don’t imagine anyone who has ever set a page of type by hand has ever called the result a piece of “content.”
Nov 13 2014
Robert Hughes, the late Australian-born art critic, wrote a masterpiece of history in 1987, The Fatal Shore, in which he called his native land a “…cloaca, invisible, its contents filthy and unnameable.”
He was referring not to his own, but to English attitudes during the Georgian era towards his yet unsettled country as England prepared to empty its hulk ships and festering jails onto the First Fleet sailing off to Cook’s oversold Botany Bay in what would come to be known as the “Great Transportation” — the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of petty thieves, whores, and miscreants. They had formerly been sold into indentured servitude to America prior to Great Britain losing that convenient dumping ground because of the American Revolution. No more America meant England needed a new dump and that Hughes chose a scatalogical simile is all part of the global conspiracy to paint this great country with cliches perpetuated by Men At Work, the “throw-a-shrimp-on-the-barby” guy, Discovery Channel’s “Weird Things that Will Kill You in Australia,” Mad Max and the Great Humungous, and the unnamed wit (I suspect Jeremy Clarkson) who called the place the “Alabama of the World.” Crikey, let’s give Australia a break. I’d move here in an instant.
I myself was transported to Sydney earlier this week courtesy of a seat in economy class on United Airlines and an invitation to attend a press conference announcing my company’s relationship with the Australian Government. I managed to read Thomas Keneally’s : A Commonwealth of Thieves as well as re-read Fatal Shore during the 15.5 hour flight (versus five months for the First Fleet), and arrived at Kingsford Airport on the shores of Botany Bay on a muggy day in the southern hemisphere’s version of late spring. The Sydney Opera House conveniently revealed itself during the descent, looking smaller than I imagined (a view from 5,000 feet will tend to shrink objects).
My colleague suggested a hotel at Manly Beach, an eastern suburb of Sydney fast by North Head, the northern promontory at the entrance of Sydney Harbor. Soaked in a funk of plane sweat, all I wanted was a shower, but of course the room wasn’t ready when I checked in so I staggered around the waterfront and the “Corso” in a jet lag fugue taken to an extreme by the International Date Line. Was it Sunday or Tuesday? I left California on Saturday night, but it was Monday. I think. As Hughes writes in Fatal Shore, the poor bastards that were first shipped off to Australia could have been embarking on a trip to the moon, except for one difference: you can see the moon from England.
First thing I did was flush a toilet to see if the water drained counter-clockwise due to the Coriolis Effect. It did not. According to Wikipedia: “Contrary to popular misconception, water rotation in home bathrooms under normal circumstances is not related to the Coriolis effect or to the rotation of the earth, and no consistent difference in rotation direction between toilet drainage in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres can be observed.”
My colleague met me for lunch. He observed my wretched condition and asked if I might like to go for a swim, motioning out past the tall Norfolk Pines at the beauty of Manly Bay, the surfers riding the Cabbage Palm break and the infinite Pacific beyond.
“Box jellyfish. Great White Sharks. Stingrays. Saltwater Crocodiles. I don’t think so,” I said, beginning a five day recitation of every Australian cliche I could think of.
My room was (and still is) on the backside of the hotel, away from the beach, facing some place named with a lot of vowels in it, like “Woolooloogong” or “Baggahammas” and it was very thoughtful of the desk clerk to put me in a room overlooking a school playground filled with two hundred identically blue uniformed screaming children who seemed to be on perpetual recess. A cricket pitch is across the way where — I shit you not — they practice bagpipes at night. A weird bird that looks like a cockatoo flies by every five minutes and makes a noise like a pterodactyl that has gargled Drain-O.
I finally received my shower and then lunched with my colleague. After bidding him g’day I vowed not to break the first rule of coping with absurd jet lag: do not touch the bed while the sun is shining and don’t hunker down in a hotel room when you could be out walking it off. So I set out to explore Manly Beach. I love a place named by the founding governor of Australia — Arthur Phillip — because he thought the aborigines on the beach looked quite manly. That they ran a spear through his shoulder next to a beached whale because they were tired of all his colonial incursions is besides the point: Governor Phillip survived and even accepted the locals had good reason to be miffed, what with the smallpox and pilfering convicts and what not and ordered the red coats not to go looking for revenge.
Where the governor was speared now stands the Manly Wharf, home of the “World Famous” Manly Ferry that connects to Sydney’s central business district in what I wager is the world’s most beautiful commute. I strolled down there on evening one, found a brew pub, and drank myself into a condition where sleep might be possible.
Tuesday was the big day, my reason for being there, a press conference in Sydney with the Chief Technology Officer of the Australian Government and 17 members of the local tech and business press. I like hanging out with reporters because I used to be one. I also know what I used to call ex-reporters with titles of “VP of Corporate Marketing. Flaks. Australia actually has a thriving press. There’s a half dozen actual paper newspapers in the hotel lobby every morning with lurid headlines about well endowed young women who died from Ecstasy overdoses. It was actually kind of great to schmooze with tech writers who had also worked for the late Pat McGovern at IDG, and in the published aftermath from the press conference they were more than kind even if one quoted me al s a company executive 11,000 miles away and another told me I looked like Jeff Bridges. The Big Lebowski version. Which means I must need a haircut.
A reporter interviewed me with an iPhone. I realize my mouth was hanging open, slack jawed, for most of the interview.
Wednesday morning I decided to check stuff out and went on a hike to North Head, a national park south of Manly that encompasses an old World War II artillery fortification for the coastal defense of Sydney. After a monster hill climb that turned me into aquaman, past the ubiquitous Crossfit box, I turned onto a trail and started getting lost in the outback of Manly. Signs warning of the endangered Bandicoots, bizarre birds, bees without stingers, skinks, gowannas, unseen marsupials, all of a sudden I was conscious that I wasn’t walking on the paved esplanade past the hotels and schnitzel shops, but in the bush where even the plants might kill me.
I found an army observation hut, went inside, expecting a gigantic spider attack, looked out the window for the Japanese Fleet, and seeing nothing but ocean all the way to the South Pole, went on my merry way, poking around a massive gun battery with a really big gun, then onto a very sombering memorial walk commemorating the Australian military a day after Veteran’s Day, the inscribed paving stones dotted with red paper poppies.
After that expedition what is there to really say? The people are really nice, healthy, drink in pubs they call hotels. Like their beer cold. Drive on the wrong side of the road. Are cheerful to strangers. Don’t push in lines and smile a lot. I couldn’t find “Australian cuisine” — but pieced together that “bugs” refer to lobsters of some sort, there is kangaroo meat on some menus, they are keen on Mexican food, the Thai is outstanding, and lamb on a pizza is a common thing.
Sydney is gorgeous, clean, cosmopolitan, and I even heard a didgeridoo by the ferries at Circular Quay. Now I get to fly back to the dank cold darkness of New England and wonder what cliches we’re known for. Oh, and the English dumped a ton of criminals on the Puritans, so we Americans can embrace our convict heritage too.
Nov 06 2014
Off to San Francisco then Sydney, returning Friday the 14th
Nov 06 2014
Yesterday colleague Bryan House (@bryanhouse) ended Acquia’s first customer conference, Engage, with a beer tasting demonstration. Everybody was served a flight of beers, a snack tray of two kinds of malt, some fresh hops and a few coffee beans. As a failed home brewer (my product made excellent slug bait around the zinnias and tomatoes), hearing a professional brewmaster talk about the factors that go into a great beer was a great education and excuse to quaff an Octoberfest, a local beer (Narragansett Autocrat Coffee Milk Ale) and a Dogfish 90-minute Imperial IPA.
But when Bryan showed this beer, from BrewDog, the strongest beer in the world at 55% alcohol, I could only think: “Dogs would go insane for that shit.”
Nov 02 2014
The long standing proposal to cut off the western tip of Sampson’s Island and pipe the sand east to the Osterville end of the barrier beach moved forward last week (Oct. 30, 2014), when the Barnstable Conservation Commission approved the revised application by the owners of the island, Massachusetts Audubon and Three Bays Preservation. The approved plan reduces the amount of dredging from the original request to shave off 800 feet (or 233,000 cubic yards) from the Cotuit end of the spit, in half to 400 feet and 133,600 feet.
Lindsay Counsell, the executive director of Three Bays told the Cape Cod Times the reduction means another permit will need to be filed in six years in order to keep up with the constant drift of sand from the eastern, Wianno Cut end to the Cotuit end. The point of Sampson’s has changed dramatically in recent years, with shoaling reducing the width of the channel and forming a “bulb” on the Nantucket Sound side of the spit, revealing an interesting bank of clay-like material. Public opinion has been mixed — according to the Times article, the ConCom received an equal number of letters and statements for and against the proposal.
I’ve been for the plan from the beginning based on the historical configuration of the beach, the fact it was last cut back in the late 60s, and that the “natural” evolution of the spit is in fact man-made due to the decision to break Dead Neck in the early 1900s with the Wianno Cut — the breakwaters effectively blocking the natural littoral drift of the sand and forcing, a hundred years later, dredging to restore some semblance of equilibrium. A breach of Dead Neck would imperil navigation through the Seapuit River; the spoils will build up the beach and create more nesting habitat for piping plovers and terns; and widening the Cotuit entrance will dissuade fools from swimming the channel, ease navigation, and slightly improve tidal flushing.
I empathize with those who love to sit on the point of the island in the summer months, but trust they will still find a sandy stretch on the cut back island. I disagree with the environmental argument that this is messing with mother nature — historical charts indicate a far different configuration before man-made interference and man-made steps are required to get the place back to some semblance of its natural state. This is private property, a long standing bird refuge for endangered species, and not a public beach. The caretakers are within their rights to expect regulations will be followed.
I have no idea if this is the final step in the long process or even when if ever the dredge will arrive and begin work.
Oct 28 2014
Apologies to loyal readers for the monster crash that took down this blog for the last month. It happened shortly after I accepted the automatic upgrade to WordPress 4.0 (which had nothing to do with it evidently). One day the site was throwing off a “suspension” notice courtesy of my ISP — Meganet Communications in Fall River, the former Cape.com — and when I called Derek at Meganet operations he said the blog was throwing off a gazillion errors to the point where it was dragging down the performance of every other customer site on the shared server, including my beloved Cotuit Kettleers.
I made a few attempts to get into the site through cPanel to grab a backup so at the very least 11 years worth of posts wouldn’t be lost (nearly 7,000 posts) but the site was so sluggish it was nearly impossible to even log in, let alone run any file operations. Derek and I went through the file structure and there were simply too much crud in there to begin to make an educated guess what was taking it down. My suspicion was some old WordPress builds I had sloppily conflated into the main MySql database were overloaded with spam and hadn’t been weeded out in years. So I deleted those but still the problem persisted.
Finally there were some signs of life. Meganet migrated me to a new server to stop Churbuck.com from killing their other customers and the old Churbuck.com homepage came back to life, but not this blog. Last night their techs identified the culprit as a broken Twitter plug-in. That was disabled and here we are.
I love WordPress — I’ve been on the platform running my own build since 2004 when Om Malik persuaded me to stop blogging on Google Blogger and move over. From those early days of the Kubrick template and the first version of Mullenweg’s masterpiece to the most current version, WordPress was the tool that cured my cacoethes scribendi. But I’ve been a bad admin and taken it for granted and let the side rails get cluttered up with dumb, unused plugins and finally one has bitten me in the ass.