Archive for February, 2013

Feb 27 2013

On the eve of the Sequester a lesson from the past

Published by under General

Like most civic minded voting citizens I’m  keeping an eye on Washington and the partisan stalemate in Congress, shaking my head and generally feeling feh about the dysfunctional state of affairs.

Today, on the eve of the Sequester, I want to recommend an interesting parable from past Congressional history as described by two excellent writers, the late historian (and personal favorite) Barbara Tuchman, and James Grant, the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. Tuchman introduced me to Thomas Reed in her book, Proud Towerwhich sent me looking for more information about the man and that quest led me to Grant’s biography of Reed, Mister Speaker.

Thomas B. Reed was a congressman from Maine who was Speaker of the House from 1889 t0 1899. He was a brilliant attorney and master parlimentarian who had an immense effect on reforming the procedural rules of the House of Representatives and broke an impasse similar to the one we see today. He most significant achievement was ending an obstructionist tactic used by the minority party (Reed was a Republican confronted with a bumptious Democrat minority) called the “disappearing quorum” — something analogous to the abuse of the filibuster in the current Congress (which according to NPR has not passed a major law in over 900 days).

According to Wikipedia: “Reed sought to circumscribe the ability of the minority party to block business by way of its members refusing to answer a quorum call — which, under the rules, prevented a member from being counted as present even if they were physically in the chamber — thus forcing the House to suspend business. This is popularly called the disappearing quorum. ”

When I think of filibuster I think of a brave congressman standing on his feet reading recipes into the Congressional Record, refusing to cede the floor to anyone. Jimmy Stewart in “Mister Smith Goes to Washington” is the image in most of our minds when we think filibuster.

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The record in real life for a filibuster was set by Senator Strom Thurmond in 1957 to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Thurmond held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes non-stop. I have no idea how he handled his biological needs, but the man managed to hang in there for 24 hours non-stop.

Listening to former Senator TomDaschle on NPR during my drive to New York on Tuesday, he made the strong point that the minority use of the filibuster has gotten out of control and that he’d like to see a return to the days when real dissenters stood up and actually suffered for their conscience. “I’d like to see somebody break Thurmond’s record,” he said.

What is needed is a new Thomas Reed to come in and lay down the law. Here, according to Wikipedia, is how Reed imposed what have come to be known as the “Reed Rules” and transformed Congress in the process:

“Reed’s solution was enacted on January 28, 1890, in what has popularly been called the “Battle of the Reed Rules”.[3] This came about when Democrats attempted to block the inclusion of a newly elected Republican from West VirginiaCharles Brooks Smith.[4] The motion to seat him passed by a tally of 162–1; however, at the time a quorum consisted of 165 votes, and when voting closed Democrats shouted “No quorum,” triggering a formal House quorum count. Speaker Reed began the roll call; when members who were present in the chamber refused to answer, Reed directed the Clerk to count them as present anyway.[5] Startled Democrats protested heatedly, issuing screams, threats, and insults at the Speaker. James B. McCreary, a Democrat fromKentucky, challenged Reed’s authority to count him as present; Reed replied, “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present. Does he deny it?”[5]

“Unable to deny their presence in the chamber, Democrats then tried to flee the chamber or hide under their desks, but Reed ordered the doors locked. (Texas Representative “Buck” Kilgore was able to flee by kicking his way through a door.) [6] Trapped, the Democrats tried to hide under their desks and chairs; Reed marked them present anyway.

“The conflict over parliamentary procedure lasted three days, with Democrats delaying consideration of the bill by introducing points of order to challenge the maneuver, then appealing the Reed’s rulings to the floor. Democrats finally dropped their objections on January 31, and Smith was seated on February 3 by a vote of 166–0. Six days later, with Smith seated, Reed won a vote on his new “Reed Rules,” eliminating the disappearing quorum and lowering the quorum to 100 members. Though Democrats reinstated the disappearing quorum when they took control of the House the following year, Reed as minority leader proved so adroit at using the tactic against them that Democrats reinstated Reed Rules in 1894.[7]

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Feb 27 2013

“Do you know a good web designer?”

Published by under General

My wife is an interior designer and has been running her own firm for the past 13 years, serving clients on Cape Cod and elsewhere with the usual technical headaches any small business owner endures. She’ll be the first to exclaim how technology has improved her life — she’s especially fond of her Apple holy-trinity of iPhone, iPad and Mac — and the ease with with she can research her suppliers’ catalogues, pull together proposals, collect photographs and share them across devices.

But her website has always been a sore point, a thing crucial to her business but a completely off-limits creature that mere mortals were not allowed to touch.

I was her webmaster — in the 1990s sense of that word — and I suck.

I am completely unqualified and unequipped to take the design vision of a very talented designer and translate that into an online presence. I may know what looks good, but I don’t know how to make things look good. I don’t know cascading style sheets, PHP, Flash, Dreamweaver, HTML 5 …. but I can do the following basic steps, basic enough to long ago build the first prototype of Forbes.com, launch this blog, and limp along with the help of my friends:

  1. Register a domain name
  2. Open a hosting account
  3. Log into the account with an FTP client
  4. Build a web page with words and pictures
  5. Make a link to another web page
  6. Upload the pages from my PC to the host using the FTP client
  7. Use cPanel to administer the account, set up MySQL databases, add email addresses
  8. Make a “favicon” for the website
  9. Meta-tag the website
  10. Get bitched at for not updating the website

Earlier this week, in a fit of passionate love for the mother of my children, I decided to hand over the keys to her domain to her and put her in charge. This is a woman who can make Photoshop sing, can do page layouts, draw detailed blueprints, and direct professional photographers like no one else I know, and I’ve known a lot of designers over the years. But she doesn’t want to hear about FTP clients, know about the “public html” folder, or whether “home pages” need to be named “home.htm” or “home.html”

She just wants a good looking website that she can manage.

A couple weeks ago I told her to use some downtime and get familiar with WordPress by opening up a free WordPress.com account. This she did.  I told her to check out the themes that were available and find one she liked. She did, settling on a commercial theme used by professional photographers to display and sell their work: Photocrati.

Yesterday I called her ISP, figured out the administrator’s password, and FTP’d in to make a copy of the website I built by hand in 2000 (yes, it was WAY past its expiration date). I downloaded, unzipped and then uploaded  the latest version of WordPress, (the pretty amazing blog/content management system that powers this blog), set up a new database, re-read the magic five-minute WordPress installation instructions, and ta-da (or “wah-lah” as an illiterate colleague once wrote in a document I was asked to proofread), a new era was dawning.

Here’s the point of all this: she was able to get a layout, template, functionality and tool kit for under $100. A perfectly nice, crisp, well-designed site with far more options and future functionality than she will ever need (she could even accept PayPal through her site although she doesn’t sell anything online), installed and handed over to her with no manual or weeks of night-school training to operate. She just wanted a very basic, minimalist site that consists of a home page, an about page, contact information, and a lot of photographic portfolios of her work. In the end she needed a series of photo galleries that she could manage without turning to a geek like me with other things to do.

 

Ten years ago this would have involved finding a “web designer,”  communicating the desired requirements and vision, reviewing mock-ups, revising those mock-ups, but mostly waiting for the designer/web builder to publish it all. The notion of giving a “lay-person” direct control over the content management system would never have been imagined unless she was publishing a Geocities page or limping along with Microsoft FrontPage.

I am more convinced than ever that the triumph of Automattic, the commercial parent of the open sourced WordPress, is a triumph over complexity, over licenses and claims of “you wouldn’t understand.”  This experience makes me glad I’m not running a content management software or web design company. The marketplace for good design is greater than ever, and the ability for a talented coder and designer like Photocrati to create a great template and sell it as an enhancement to a great platform like WordPress is one of the more profound transformations of digital marketing for small businesses that  I have seen.

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Feb 21 2013

The Dorkification of Society

Published by under General,Rants

I loved Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” his 2006 movie about an ordinary guy who through an accident of suspended animation wakes up in a future where people have devolved to a state of utter idiocy and he is the smartest one by default. I realized yesterday, as the social networks started trending with the news that Google is looking for a select group to test drive their Glasses, that we are one step closer to Judge’s satirical hellish vision that began on that day sometime in the 1980s when the first moron started shouting “Can You Hear Me NOW?!?” on a city sidewalk and I walked past pitying the poor schizophrenic having an argument with himself.

Wearable technology make it difficult to tell the mentally ill from the sane and never make a good fashion statement (see cell phone belt holsters).  “Yuppy-with-cellphone” is Hollywood’s shorthand for “asshole” but was replaced by “Jerk with Bluetooth Headset.”  To be really ironic one only need put a first generation bag phone or one of those ginormous walkie-talkie phones on a character, and let the laughter begin. I can’t navigate a mall parking lot without nearly being clipped by some Mouth Breather with a phone in one hand and the controls of a two-ton SUV in the other. Public displays of communication devices is a serious sign of poor etiquette, bad manners, callous indifference and materialistic bad taste that says “Look At Me, I have the Latest Jesus Phone 2.0 5G LTE”

For more d-bags with phones, visit randomahole.com

This is not news but it’s about to get a lot worse.

So back to Google Glasses.  They are a pretty simple concept, cooler perhaps than the old Dick Tracy wrist phone it turns out we didn’t need along with flying cars and jet packs. If you think it’s weird running into the back of some Millenial/Net Gen texter who suddenly stops right in the middle of the sidewalk in front of Radio City Music Hall at the peak of the evening rush hour, blocking the entrance to the 48th Street Subway, just so she can thumb out an “OMG”, then just wait until the sidewalks masses start talking to their Glasses. At least they won’t have to stop walking or risk being blown out of their Sketchers by a crosstown bus.

Start by accepting voice recognition doesn’t really work. It’s getting better, sure, and I’ll concede it is very nice to hit the microphone icon on my phone when it is acting as a GPS and tell it slowly and patiently like a toddler that I want to go to a specific address. The old method of trying to type the address while driving was far worse. But honestly, is Siri really that amazing? Do you actually use it or know someone who does? Did Dragon Naturally speaking suddenly lift millions from the tyranny of typing so now they can dictate and control their PCs with a microphone?

Second, Google Glasses needs a connection to the Internet in order to do what it does. “Well duh!” you may say, but consider how it’s going to get that signal by making a bluetooth connection to your phone, which is in your pocket, and then either a WiFi connection when you’re near a hot spot or a 3G/4G mobile data connection to America’s shameful and sclerotic wireless broadband network. So, to review, what Glasses does is combine: a) the weirdness of public displays of talking to one’s self, with ; b) the douche bag fashion statement that a bluetooth headset in one’s ear makes, with ;c) the moronic futility of talking to an inanimate object with d) slow, crappy networks.

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I’ll concede it might be great while driving, sort of like some fighter jet’s HUD with all sorts of useful stuff sort of painted over the real world (“He’s up my Six Maverick!”) and I can see the Xtreme Sports Crowd give up their GoPro helmet cameras to narcissistically share a vertiginous attempt to injure their crotches just like the stars in Idiocracy’s  top television game show, “Ow, My Balls”  — but to walk into a dive bar and order a beer and then say out loud, over the din: “Take a Picture and Tweet It” is going to mark one as the paste-easter (played by Don Knotts) who ordered sarsaparilla before being called out and gunned down on the streets of Laredo by Blacky (played by Robert Mitchum) who is going to squirt a stream of tobacco spit all over the pencil neck’s corpse. That’s just the early adopters, and as Alexis Madrigal hysterically writes in The Atlantic, there have already been early adopter sightings in the dive bars of the Mission in San Francisco. Madrigal’s piece begins when a bar owner posts on Facebook:

“Last night around 9:45 two people walked into the bar. Looked me square in the eye, and acting as if everything was normal they ordered beers.. Oh did I mention they were wearing Google Glasses! In public! In A BAR!”

I used to wear glasses. I started in 7th Grade. I never liked wearing glasses. They rubbed holes in the bridge of my nose, got smudged and dirty, and were bad to play sports in. I was a geek. Then I got contact lenses and I was still a geek, just a little less obvious. I wore glasses until my mid-40s when a combination of very early cataracts and then a freaky detached retina basically made it impossible for me to wear glasses again (I could, however, wear a monocle). Now it looks pretty inevitable that at some point in the next five years I am going to get one of these things and stick it on my face, and open my mouth and say, “Google. Take a Picture.”

And I’ll be one step closer to the Idiocracy.

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Feb 18 2013

Unintended consequences of jetties

Published by under Cape Cod

I read with interest the news reports of the massive erosion to Sandwich’s beaches following the blizzard that hit that northside coast head on with 70 mph winds and big storm surge inflated seas two weeks ago. What I was unaware of was the simmering resentment by the town over the big pair of jetties that guard the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, jetties built at the turn of the century when the canal was completed, put there by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the entrance open and flowing.

I mention this only because of the widely held belief here in Cotuit that the Wianno Cut and its two jetties are responsible for the present situation where Dead Neck is starved of sand from its eastern end by the jetties, a situation the owners of the island — 3 Bays and Mass Audubon — believe can only be temporarily relieved by dredging sand from the growing western, Cotuit-end of the island and piping it back to the eroded section. As I’ve written before here, the littoral drift of sand is not a straight-forward, perpendicular dynamic where waves push and pull sand in and out of a beach, but where sand flows along the beach, driven by the prevailing winds and currents. A jetty interrupts that flow, backing up sand “upstream” while starving everything “downstream.

The situation in Sandwich is deplorable enough that the town is telling the Feds to fix it since the Canal and its jetties are Federal property. Not so with the Wianno Cut, where I believe the cut was sponsored and paid for by the town (initially with a wooden, planked jetty) at the urging of the people of Osterville who wanted easy access to Nantucket Sound.

Quoting the Cape Cod Times (paywall in effect):

“A big frustration for some is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Town officials believe a source of the erosion problem is the Cape Cod Canal, which is controlled by the Corps. A jetty system built in the early 1900s to keep sediment from building up in the canal is starving the beach of sand needed to replenish the dune system.

“The end result: Scusset Beach has too much sand and the coastline from Town Neck to Spring Hill doesn’t have enough, Selectman James Pierce said.

“I agree with others,” Pierce said. “The feds caused the problem and the feds should pay to fix it.””

And speaking of Nantucket, fans of whaling history know the story of how that port’s dominance of the whaling fishery ended in the mid-19th century when its harbor entrance was obscured by a sandbar, leading the novel and desperate measure of building a floating dry dock known as “The Camel” to lift whaling ships over the bar and into the city. The failure of the harbor and the Camel solution are widely regarded as the reason New Bedford took over from Nantucket as the primary whaling city on the East Coast. There’s a great article on the Nantucket Bar and efforts to overcome it at the Nantucket Historical Society’s website.

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Feb 18 2013

On Latitudes and Moral Superiority

Published by under General

I had no problems waking up on Sunday morning to white-out blizzard-ish conditions and making the guilty decision not to drive to Boston to compete in the world indoor rowing championships, aka the CRASH-B Sprints. While I have no doubt I could have four-wheeled it up Route 3 and made my 11 am race at Boston University’s hockey arena without any problems, I realized as I lay in my warm bed at 6 am, wind gusts ratting the windows and doors, that driving 70 miles in a snow storm to subject myself to about seven-minutes of aerobic, lactic acid soaked hell was the definition of a competitive disorder and I would be far happier lounging on the couch in front of the fire drinking a snifter of armagnac and munching on cheese and crackers reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War while a pot of hearty Portuguese kale soup simmered in the kitchen. And so I did just that, venturing out into the miserable windy storm just once around 3 pm to walk the dog down to the dock, re-fill the bird feeders and heated bird bath, and wonder why in the world I live in this god forsaken place.

My best friend Dan did make the effort and I had the pleasure of catching a glimpse of him on the live video feed of our heat courtesy of Concept 2 on my tablet. That I have any guilt and remorse for not going — my second year sitting out the event — is evident in this post. Dan broke the magic seven-minute threshold which for any 54-year old man is a commendable achievement. And so I will head to the gym later today and flog myself in the eternal quest to stave off the wolf pawing at my middle-aged door and try to lay off the cheese and crackers in the depth of this winter of our discontent.

I suppose harsh  northern climates can be given some credit to the rise of indoor-pursuits such as the arts and sciences because those of us who dwell in the darker, colder latitudes have to do something with the long winters to while away the time. Some of us discover things like calculus or write a majestic symphony… my grandfather had an awesome model train set. I try to persuade myself the Spartan mindset of a housebound northerner must be more intellectual than being pool-side at the Fountainbleu drinking a rum-drink and ogling the girls in their bikinis. What is it about northerners that equates hardship and harshness with a higher calling and moral superiority? Does pain truly build character? Is it true that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing? Is there a Nordic-Anglo sensibility that regards a cold winter in a superior sense of self-flagellation and denial, lording it over the indolent tropics with their siestas and easy-living in Margaritaville? Do people who take cold showers have an edge over a beach bum? This is well-tilled philosophical ground used to justify European imperialism in the 19th century and I won’t drift into an uninformed disquisition best left to someone like Jared Diamond.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining that I can’t go for a row on the harbor or wear shorts outside this cold President’s Day morning because I actually look forward to the winter because I need dramatic seasons, love the weather, and worry that I will spend my old age in some shuffle-board community where the climate is constant and every day is the same.  I look at the senior citizens in the village –the ones who actually retired here and not in some planned community hell like Marco Island — and tip my hat to their decision not to follow the demographic herd south. On the other hand, I do dream of a life divided between Cotuit from May to November and somewhere idyllic, like Harbour Island on Eleuthera, from December to April. Alas, the money truck hasn’t run me over yet, and so I continue to slog it out in a place where wind chill is a factor and not SPF.

Here’s a few links to sources on the topic of latitude and IQ, in other words the theory best summed up by Jimmy Buffett in “Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes. Fascinating stuff with some interesting theories that are highly controversial but interesting to ponder nonetheless.

  • The Utne Reader in 2011 on IQs being highest in the northern states: “According to a University of Central Missouri study,  states with cooler average temperatures are more likely to have populations with higher IQs—estimated from scores on a standardized test administered to students. 
  • The best known authority and promoter of the latitude/IQ correlation is Richard Lynn, who’s work I have not read, but who is the lightning rod around the theory of race and IQ. He’s the most cited source if one Googles “latitude and intelligence.”

 

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Feb 14 2013

I order you to have a Happy Valentine’s Day

Published by under Weird

I would have loved to have handed these out in third grade to the other kids at the Perley Elementary School in Georgetown Massachusetts. Do little kids still do the cheap Valentine’s Day exchange? Anyway….it’s one of those days and I thought some Totalitarian Dictator Humor was in order. Click for a bigger view.

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Feb 13 2013

I want a goat…

Published by under General

Courtesy of my daughter….

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Feb 13 2013

The wisdom of names

Published by under Weather

My friend thinks the The Weather Channel’s decision to start naming winter storms (the latest of course being “Nemo”) is brilliant in terms of a marketing move.  I disagree, preferring to grant that authority to the National Weather Service, which started naming hurricanes in the early 1950s to clarify things while reporting on the movements of multiple storms along the same coast.  Everyone is familiar with the alphabetical model that begins ever new year with the A’s and moves on up, alternating female and male names (beginning in 1979 after storms were exclusively named after women for three decade)s. Now the names are assigned by the World Meteorological Association.

Last week the Weather Channel jumped into the name game and dubbed what would otherwise be called the Blizzard of ’13, “Nemo.”  Along with their on-the-beach reporters who look so daring in their terrible L.L. Bean raincoats (I’d have a lot more respect if they were out there in real foul gear like Grundens or Henri Lloyds, L.L. Bean has mostly made crap for the last twenty years), the decision to assume the mantle of official storm-namer is pure b.s. with an gleaming eye towards grabbing more audience and eyeballs.

I’m by no means the first grumpy person to call foul and criticize TWC for such a blatantly commercial move. Other than giving the social media crowd a convenient hash-tag to tweet, naming blizzards doesn’t accomplish much in my opinion other than to reinforce the channel’s cheesy and breathless approach to each and every weather event that drives viewers to their channel.  I realize that in weather “heavy” areas of the country — I’m thinking about the Florida Keys — the Weather Channel is standard fare on most TVs in diners and bars, enough so that I’ve come to expect it while tucking into a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy turned pink with a couple blasts of Gator Hammock sauce before heading out for a day of bonefishing.

I prefer my weather straight from the official source, or as close to the source as possible. That means no Accuweather, no Weather Bug, no Weather Underground but straight to the National Weather Service which does an excellent job without resorting to advertising-aimed-at-the-elderly  for reverse mortgages and diabetes supplies that are otherwise-ignored channel’s bread and butter.  I’d rather read a professional forecast discussion written by a PhD level meteorologist  than listen to some soundbites by a cheese-dick gesticulating in front of a green screen projection of a weather map with the inevitable graphical phallus protruding from his groin. I want to compare the models, dwell on the millibars and follow the tracks and maybe actually learn something.

The Weather Channel deserves all the criticism it gets for this move. No competitor will honor their names and indeed they might start dubbing storms with names of their own (which some did). The official keepers of the weather, the NWS and the NMO don’t give snowstorms, blizzards, tornadoes, or earthquakes names because, quite simply, these events are very local, don’t affect a large swath of geography the way a cruising hurricane can, and generally don’t occur simultaneously with other events that might cause public confusion. I don’t want my natural disasters to be sponsored by Cialis.

The Atlantic Monthly has a good piece online about the absurdity of Nemo.

And in closing, the late great paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, on the futility of naming things:

“The passion for naming things is an odd human trait. It is strange that men always feel so much more at ease when they have put appellations on the things around them and that a wild, new region almost seems familiar and subdued once enough names have been used on it, even though in fact it is not changed in the slightest. Or, on second thought, it is perhaps not really strange. The urge to name must be as old as the human race, as old as speech which is one of the really fundamental characteristics by which we rise above the brutes, and thus a basic and essential part of the human spirit or soul. The naming fallacy is common enough even in science. Many a scientist claims to have explained some phenomenon when in truth all he has done is to give it a name. “

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Feb 12 2013

Olympian Blunder: The IOC drops Wrestling

Published by under Favorite Things

I’m not a fan of the International Olympic Committee. I ran afoul of their ass-hattery in 2008 in Beijing when I was working at Lenovo, a one-time sponsor. I was dismayed at their decision after Beijing  to drop baseball from the Games — a strange decision given the global spread of the sport through Latin America and Asia — but the news in the New York Times that the IOC is dropping wrestling is truly jaw dropping given the legacy of the ancient Greek games where wrestling was most certainly one of the main events along with the usual Ur sports of running and jumping and hurling javelins and discuses (disci?).

This is a sport they painted on Greek urns.  A sport so essential, so basic that it would seem to be sacred. But no, the Red Bull generation must have their X-games and so while sports like water ballet and beach volleyball and BMX bicycling get their moment of glory, the true test of man versus man, a sport going back to the Bronze Age, is dropped in a secret ballot by a bunch of bureaucratic bullies more concerned with their television revenue than the Olympic ideal. As a former wrestler (high school) it’s all sadder to see it go.

Here’s a link to the New York Times story.

“When you think of the Olympics you think of wrestling,” said Cael Sanderson, the wrestling coach at Penn State and a 2004 Olympic champion. “It was a marquee event in ancient Greece and in the modern Games. After running, it was the next sport to be part of the Games. Like track and field, the Olympics are the highest level. Some sports, it’s just not as special.”

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Feb 12 2013

And there was light …

Published by under Cape Cod,Cotuit

Cousin Pete and I were swapping text messages yesterday afternoon. “IS PWR ON?” “WTF NSTAR?” (Nstar is our electric company) “I AM BAILING” “IF I BAIL THEN LIGHTS WILL COME BACK”

72 hours of a 19th century lifestyle (I don’t know what Pete was bitching about, he had a Honda generator plugging away on his back deck all weekend) but without the whale oil lamps, just crappy scented candles, LED lanterns, and the family collection of flash lights, and I was ready to shovel out the garage and decamp in the sedan for my Manhattan apartment. Instead I hit the gym and made arrangements to take a pity shower at a friend’s place in Osterville. The other squatters had just had their power restored and were decamping, so I took them up on the suggestion to spend the night there, came home, packed up the dog, some food and some old DVDs and settled in for a night of Swedish cinema, leftover coq au vin, and a glass of Talisker on another person’s couch.

Pete texted me at 8 that the power was back in Cotuit. So I turned off the tube, packed up the dog, and returned home to Cotuit in thick fog to a cheery house; a house alive for the first time in three days with the hum of furnaces, refrigerators, blinking alarm clocks and radiant heat.

Here’s what I learned in the darkness.

  • Reading is everything. I plowed right through Charles Dubow’s first novel, Indiscretion on my Kindle, using a LED lantern to illuminate the e-ink. Then I resumed my reading of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War.
  • The Grundig YB 400PE “Yacht Boy” radio is an amazing device. I bought it in New York in 1996 and it has become a cherished possession, living on my boat during the summer for listening to the Red Sox, in my shed in the spring to keep me company while I paint the boats. From a decent sound to the ability to pull in shortwave signals, this radio is what I want with me during any storm or zombie apocalypse. The sounds coming out of it broke the eerie silence of the house and kept me company. NPR (WCAI in Woods Hole), reggae music from the U-Mass Dartmouth radio station (WUMD) and folk from WUMB kept me from going full-Shining.
  • Natural gas makes all the difference. The Vermont Castings gas stove and the four range-top burners on the stove kept the house around 55 degrees, even on Saturday night when temperatures where in the teens. No gas and the house would have been a freezer, likely bursting pipes and causing a complete disaster.
  • Candles are pretty but useless and scare the hell out of me. Old wooden houses like mine tend to burn down in five minutes because of candles. The things are useless in terms of real illumination, are a pain to move around (hot wax drips everywhere), and can’t be left unattended.
  • One thinks a lot about life before electricity. It’s a well known fact that rural electrification reduces birth rates and increases literacy, but to look out at the village center, streetlights (see post below) gone, only some dim flickers of orange from candles in the neighbors’ windows, and one can’t help but speculate about what life was like before electricity, especially in Colonial times, when the night meant the world shrank to the penumbra of the lantern, where candles were made by hand by rendering down pig fat and then dipping, over and over, strings suspended from sticks like we made in first grade. How did readers read and writers write? What happened to society at sunset? Families must have gathered around the fire, shared a candle or two, and talked. I know the old-timers kept one or two rooms heated and basically dressed and undressed there, bathed there, ate there, but slept in cold rooms (hence the old bedwarmers) under piles of blankets and comforters.
  •  Bed time came more out of boredom than necessity. I was in bed by 10 each of the dark nights. One wakes at the earliest possible light because sunlight means life and the ability to get something done.
  • Life off-line for a few days was a good thing. Sprint seems to have lost its cell signals in Cotuit as I was in roaming mode on my smartphone and barely able to get mobile data on the device. Roaming seems to chew through battery life, so I needed to turn the phone off while I slept, forgot to turn it on, and was unable to respond to text messages and calls asking if I was okay. The spare power cell that came with my Duracell Powermat was a great thing to have. I will not take Google for granted again. If I needed to know the frequency of a radio station, I needed to Google it. If I needed to know what percentage of Barnstable was in the dark. I needed a connection. If I wanted any media other than a book, I needed a connection. The news that the Obama administration is getting serious about Cyber warfare is timely: if the bad guys shut off the power the chaos will be astonishing. The thought is enough to turn a skeptic into a full-blown Prepper.
  • My car became my charging station. I’d go for rides with the dog just to give the phone and spare battery a little charge.
  • People drive like morons after storms. I think it’s the “soft and puffy” effect where they think the snow banks and pretty trees give them some cushioning, but in truth driving is still treacherous, especially because of the piles of downed trees sitting right on the edge of the road. Frozen storm drains create deep puddles, warm winds blow think mist across the streets, subtract the street lights, add in the usual winter-learning curve of remembering how to drive in icy conditions, and its a wonder I didn’t have an accident. (I did back into the house while trying to get out of the driveway, but that’s another story.
  • Bird feeders become an amazing thing after blizzards, especially if one provides the birds some water.
  • The power company’s “outage” map is a nice thing, but couldn’t they hire someone to provide a little more information? It was especially frustrating to see half of the village with lights and not know why or what the problem was. Obviously there is some sort of prioritization going on when it comes to restoring electricity — hospitals, public safety, traffic lights, commercial accounts come first — but how does the power company even know who is in the dark and who isn’t? How do they dispatch their trucks and crews? How does the power grid work? Why don’t we bury our power lines once and for all? Can you imagine the danger and agony of standing in a bucket truck in a full fledged blizzard splicing big cables together?
  • I need to suck it up and install a generator.

 

5 responses so far

Feb 10 2013

The Darkness

Published by under General

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Lights are on three houses away but I’m in a pocket of darkness and have been since Friday night. Candles, radio, a bottle of Talisker and a Kindle to keep me company.

It’s not so bad. But I would prefer lights.

2 responses so far

Feb 09 2013

The Light That Failed

Published by under General

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Looks like another night without electricity. The gas stove and range are keeping the pipes thawed. Shoveled out from underneath this morning, cruised the beaches, and took the dog to the dock. Life has come down to eating, reading, and listening to the radio. We broke out the Strat-o-matic and are going to play the 09 Red Sox against the Yankees. I picked the wrong weekend to start watching the West Wing on Netflix.

2 responses so far

Feb 07 2013

Snowmageddon

Published by under Cape Cod

I’ve wimped out on New York City today thanks to a single word in the National Weather Service’s storm warning.

Historic

I don’t want to be part of history and I don’t want to sit in the dark with two feet of mashed potato snow to shovel on Sunday morning but that seems to be my fate. I was in college in ’78 — the National Guard had to dig us out — and won’t ever forget the monster dumping that hit Cotuit in 2005 when we had drifts over the first floor’s window sills.   This one is forecast to drop a foot of snow and blow hurricane strength late Friday night through Saturday afternoon.

So time to start cooking, do what needs to be done where electricity is required, and get ready to make some history.

3 responses so far

Feb 07 2013

Indiscretion: Charles Dubow

Published by under Books,General

My friend Charles Dubow published his first novel, Indiscretion, this week. Tonight he will read from it at the Barnes and Nobles at 150 E. 86th St. at 7 pm. I won’t be there thanks to the “historic” blizzard forecasted to obliterate Cape Cod tomorrow.

This isn’t a “review” for two reasons:

  1. I haven’t read the book(I read an unfinished draft two summers ago)
  2. I am too friendly with the author to be trusted as an objective critic.

What this post is, I suppose, is pure praise and congratulation for my friend — the author and his fine writing — and a strong, heartfelt recommendation that you give him your money and buy his first novel and read it, trusting me that you will be happy you did.

dubow

We were introduced in the mid-90s by Christopher Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI, the lifestyle supplement to Forbes Magazine. I was putting Forbes’ various magazines online and the excellent content published by Chris was a priority for me. I described my need to enhance his magazine with original, online-only content and that I was willing to budget and fund a position to be the online editor, reporting jointly to both Chris and myself. Chris knew just the guy and made the introduction to Charles.

Charles was part of the original gang that launched Forbes onto the web. We were given a bleak second floor office a few blocks uptown from the Forbes headquarters near Union Square and set about building an open newsroom. But Charles insisted on his own office. He really insisted on his own office to the point that we gave in and gave him a little veal pen of an office with a door which he furnished with an oriental rug, an antique floor lamp, and a spavined old leather chair. None of us were aware of the future at the time, but that newsroom launched some amazing careers. Om Malik and GigaOm. Adam Penenberg and the Shattered Glass scandal. And now Charles and his first novel.

Charles is a man born out of time. Always impeccably dressed, hair slicked back (you’d almost expect him to wear an ascot), a true raconteur who tells stories in a droll, classical tone of voice that isn’t English but isn’t American either. A hybrid diction punctuated with a charming stammer, a knowing leer, and a great laugh. There are three or four people in my life who’s judgment and recommendations of books I trust completely. Charles is one of them. His passion for obscure British travel writers, introducing me to the novels of William Boyd, to Colin the bartender at the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, to his fondness for 12-year old Macallan, the Chicken Hash at Twenty-One, giving me his late father’s bowtie collection……he’s one of a kind, a man from another era, the last person you’d expect to see hanging around the dingy newsroom of an online magazine. But he did and he not only made Forbes.com a better place, he delivered one of the strongest categories on that site and repeated that magic at Businessweek.com and then Bloomberg.

Now, at the age of 49 he is a novelist. If there was ever hope that a writer can deliver a masterpiece later in life, Charles is an inspiration. That isn’t to say he hadn’t tried before. He had. Only this time he knew he had something worth publishing.  I’ve written unpublished novels and the agony of being a writer is knowing when the work is good or not. Charles kept plugging away until he found his voice. His perseverance is his reader’s gain.

I was honored when he asked me to read the first draft of Indiscretion in 2010. He asked to borrow the details of a story I told him about deliberately crashing a car into a seawall while wearing my hockey pads as well as the name of the Yale hockey rink (“The Whale”) for his tragic hero, a successful novelist who throws it all away for a younger woman. I read the Word Doc on my iPad, beginning with some apprehension because one never knows about friends and first drafts.

“This is actually really good,” I said to my wife after ten pages.  Two days later, as I finished, I told her Charles had written an amazing novel, one more than deserving of publication, one that could — dare I jinx it? — become a bestseller.

I wrote up some notes and made some suggestions, but the book was unfinished. Even unfinished it was a very good, if not great book. After Charles sold it to William Morrow he offered to send me the final manuscript, but I demurred, pre-ordered it on Amazon , and told him I’d wait for the actual book and not some digital version.

Indiscretion is the story of an ideal couple and the loss of their marriage by the intrusion of another woman. It is told by a family friend, Walter, and is set in New York, the  Hamptons, Paris and Rome.  Charles limns great characters, is a strong structuralist, has a knowing ear for dialogue, and … in the hands of a lesser writer, could have easily let the novel slip into the category of beach reading.  What elevates the book and saves it from the salacious category of yet another adultery story set in classy places is the verisimilitude of the details, the fact that Charles lived and lives in this world and to cite the trite exhortation given to every writer to write about what they know, Charles actually knows this milieu and never has to fake it.

The word “gatsbyesque” is being rolled out by nearly every one of the first reviews of Indiscretion. I confess I made comparisons to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece as I read the draft. But Fitzgerald was always the writer standing on the sidewalk, nose pressed to the glass, looking into the bright restaurant filled with the people he envied, just a guy from St. Paul. Minnesota who was bedazzled by the world of the wealthy.

Charles grew up in the restaurant, and that experience imbues the novel with a precision and truth that saves it from becoming a Judith Krantz cliche and elevates it to one of the more outstanding depictions of Manhattan-Hamptons life I have ever read.

I predict great things and tip my hat to him for persevering with his dream.

Here’s a link to an early review by Richard Z. Santos at Kirkus.

The book can be found on Amazon here.

 

3 responses so far

Feb 06 2013

Fully charged

My daughter gave me a Duracell Powermat for Christmas and I’m loving it so much I bought a second one for my New York office. The system consists of a sleek base unit that can accommodate two devices, a case for my Samsung Galaxy S3, and a portable battery unit that can charge a fading phone away from the base. This is cordless charging, the same inductive technology used to recharge electric toothbrushes. I first saw it demonstrated in 2009 at Qualcomm, but it was a bit clunky and didn’t seem all that interesting at the time.

But in practice the system is awesome with a couple irritations. After fitting the case over the phone and plugging it’s male connector into the phone’s female micro-USB port (tight fit, which makes changing cases a bit of a hassle — more on that in a second) the phone can be placed on the charging base where it magnetically slips into the proper position with an audible confirmation that charging has started. I set the phone to go into “bedside” mode when its docked on the Powermat. Only two phones are supported — the Galaxy and the iPhone 4s — but the iPhone 5 case is expected sometime soon. The base units come in three, two and single device configurations. I thought the spare battery brick was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have, but on a recent vacation it was pressed into use.

The hard plastic case isn’t as rugged as an Otterbox and has to be removed if I want to dock the phone in the car cradle. I imagine Duracell has a car unit in the works, but for now I have to peel off the Duracell case to use the phone in the car for the usual GPS/handsfree/Audible/music stuff.

Duracell is pushing the technology hard, painting a picture where charging bases will be available in coffee shops, nightclubs, airport lounges, stadiums, etc.. and apparently truly wireless charging is over the horizon.

Here’s the obligatory YouTube vision of Millenial bliss:

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The double-device mat is $90 at Amazon and includes the portable battery pack and a case for a single phone.. A one-device mat is $32.

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Feb 05 2013

A clean, well-lit street and a port in a storm

Published by under Cape Cod,Cotuit,General

One of my earliest memories is from the age of two or three, riding in the back seat of an old Plymouth being driven at night by my father, my mother beside him, along some Greater Boston parkway, probably on our way to Melrose to see my grandparents. No kiddie seat. No seatbelt. Just me alone in the backseat, unattended and laying on my back, looking up through the rear window at the street lights flashing past in a hypnotic green pattern.

Street lights cast a green splash of light then. Bare incandesent bulbs suspended under a scalloped metal reflector hung over the streets, probably the 1.0 or 2.0 version of electric street lights, the first generation to be installed after they did away with horses and buggies and gaslights. I’ve always missed that greenish hue, though lord knows my brother and I did our best with our delinquent friends blasting out the bulbs with our WristRockets and pockets full of ball bearings salvaged from an old Pachinko machine we got one Christmas.

At some point the street lights of my childhood were all converted to orange high pressure sodium vapor lamps — salmon colored light that made everything flat and ugly. I hated them when they appeared in the 1970s. As one fellow sodium vapor hater, Hal Espen, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 2011:

“Following the economic imperative to use the most cost-effective lighting—high-pressure sodium lights consume half as much energy as mercury-vapor lamps and can last up to 16,000 hours longer—transportation departments and cities embraced sodium light. It was as though someone said “Fiat lux sulfurea—“Let there be light from hell.” The relentless spread of sodium streetlights is documented in NASA night photographs from space: New York City and Los Angeles are circuit boards of glowing orange, and Long Beach, one of the world’s busiest ports, is a flare of tarnished gold. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom, where 85 percent of streetlights use sodium. The jaundiced weirdness of sodium light has become a vexing challenge to photographers (one filmmaker, Tenolian Bell, called it “the ugliest light known to the cinematographer”); movie cameras simulate its color by using a gel filter named Bastard Amber.”

I never realized how much I hated them until one night in late November in 1980 when I was delivering an elderly 60′ plywood catamaran named the Dushka from Falmouth to West Palm Beach and entered Chesapeake Bay in bad weather.  I had never been that far south and we made landfall on our second night out of Falmouth — a sleepless 48 hour stretch because I was the only person on board who could navigate let alone sail the demonic craft which sailed so fast it left the tops of the ocean swells and went airborne from time to time with terrifying results.

As we coasted down the Delaware and Virginia coast that afternoon I had a very good idea of where we were. I was dead reckoning — essentially estimating our position by keeping close track of distance, speed and time — and cross checking that with the depth finder and an semi-useless radio directional finder. As we screamed along at 15 knots, past the Chincoteague Island  (home of the wild horses, where the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague was set)  I was very aware of the failing light and the unfortunate timing of our landfall with the Chesapeake. I thought about standing offshore for the night and coming in the next morning, but the NOAA radio was talking up a gale and I was really looking forward to some sleep. As we blasted along the shoreline, about two miles out, I said goodbye to the setting sun and stared at the orange street lights popping on one after another, all the while imagining the boardwalks and shuttered amusement parks underneath them in places like Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City, Maryland. And then I thought about the lucky people in their warm houses watching television after they finished a real meal, not one cooked by a seasick person who destroyed a pot of American Chop Suey by vomiting in it because he couldn’t unclip himself from the gimballed stove in time to make it on deck and the leeward rail (which was probably for the best given that American Chop Suey has so much wrong with it in both theory and practice).

Anyway, pardon the sailory digression, but things got very confusing as we tacked off of Virginia Beach and Cape Henry to make our run down the shipping channel into the Bay. Two things confused me in the darkness. First was the mental image I had of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. I pictured either a bridge OR a tunnel but not both. There was this really long string of orange sodium street lights marking the bridge. I got that part. But then there were none. Where did one steer? Was there a high span to the bridge that one crossed under? For some reason I was confused by the concept of a bridge that suddenly turned into a tunnel for a short stretch, but that was indeed the situation. So I aimed for the dark spot in the span — where the lights ended — and trusted that we wouldn’t meet our deaths when I drove the miserable multihull into a dark abutment at full speed.

(this is why it is better to sail into strange places during the day)

Compounding my confusion was the presence of a LOT of random orange street lights in front of the bridge, really weird clumps of them. Those turned out to be big ships riding out the night at anchor. Container ships, freighters, tankers, etc.. A whole flotilla of them moored in the open ocean. I didn’t know ships did that. I thought they made straight away for the big ship equivalent of a marina, but no, turns out big ships will wait outside of a port the way semi-trailers park in rest areas on Route 95. Makes sense. You don’t want to haul a load of toilet paper into downtown Manhattan at three a.m. when there is no one around to unload it and no place to park until there is. You pull off into the Thomas Edison Rest Area and take a nap.

As we drew closer to the entrance and passed a couple of the moored ships all lit up with their street lights, I figured out the phenomenon of big boats anchored out in the big ocean but still had to trust the navigational chart and fight my innate instincts. I had to trust that the black gap in the bridge lights was indeed where one entered the Bay.  It was. We shot through the gap and were safe inside, the angry Atlantic behind us. At which point the storm hit and began to rain buckets. I had no idea of where we were going other than the plan was to use the Intercoastal Waterway from Norfolk, Virginia south to Morehead City, North Carolina to avoid the Graveyard of the Atlantic, aka Cape Hatteras. I gave the wheel to the one person I trusted the most to steer the boat, popped down below, and studied the chart for the nearest possible place to anchor and ride out the storm. There was a very nice little harbor right inside of the bridge called Little Creek. The chart showed docks, just like a marina’s slips. I thought just maybe there would be a restaurant still open. With a bar.

chesapeake

 

 

The crew of the good ship were very happy by my decision to seek the nearest port in the storm. We doused the sails, fired up the engine and motored right into Little Creek. It was 3 AM. The place was quiet. I used a big flash light to pick our way down the channel. I guess the “Warning: Keep Out” sign should have been sufficient warning, but it was really howling and raining so I held my course. We passed through the breakwaters and into the middle of a big industrial boat basin lined with immense grey naval ships. Uh oh.  Turns out the full name of Little Creek is the US Navy’s Joint Expeditionary Base/Little Creek-Fort Story, the largest amphibious warfare base in the world. I motored around the perimeter of the world’s most powerful navy’s collection of amphibious assault craft looking for a place to tie up to the dock, but it was wall-t0-wall with ships and then some more ships. Big ominous war ships all lit up with big orange streetlights. So I decided to anchor in the middle of Little Creek, as far away from the warships as I could get;  lit the Dushka’s dim little masthead and anchor lights, and hit the rack for some sleep. And I slept. For about two hours. Then the bullhorns and sirens started.

“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. THIS IS THE UNITED STATES COAST GUARD.”

That is a very effective alarm clock. I climbed on deck wearing only boxer shorts. There was a Coast Guard 44-foot patrol boat beside us, covered with serious Coast Guardsmen holding serious guns. The rest of our motley crew came on deck and gawked.

I waved like an idiot. “Heyhowareya?” I asked. Playing dumb because I was. The Coast Guard came aboard, looked at the boat’s documents, asked some polite questions, and basically agreed with my statement of the obvious that the weather the night before had been really shitty and what was a 21 year-old knucklehead to do at three a.m.?

Last night, as I drove home after a week away, I realized that forty years of stark nacreous orange light in front of my house on Cotuit’s Main Street had been replaced by something new, something sharp, something clear and almost green-like (but more blue-like in truth). After years of a malfunctioning light that lit up, triggered the photo sensor into believing it was daylight, and then switched off again — over-and-over-and-over — the Prudential Committee of the Cotuit Fire District (or some other higher municipal power) has replaced the street lights with really bright modern LEDs.

Apologies for the blurry cell-phone picture, but you can see the old sodium lights to the left over the hill by the former Cotuit Inn and the new LEDs of which I blog in the foreground. I guess I’m easily pleased, especially in depths of a Cape Cod February when the biggest action in town is when the harbor manages to freeze over. According to the Barnstable Patriot, LEDs save a ton of money and are being phased in across the Cape.

Death to sodium vapor lighting.

3 responses so far