Jan 09 2014
Jan 09 2014
I couldn’t resist feeling nostalgic for the golden era at Forbes in the late 80s when Jim Michael and Bill Baldwin and Laury Minard were at their peak and the plague of of the Internet hadn’t yet trashed the grand old magazines of the past.
This was my first home run, my second cover story for Forbes, one born from an offhand discussion with Sam Whitmore, my old PC Week boss, who returned from a demo of the first color copier at SIGGRAPH with a hysterical story about trying to persuade the Canon rep to scan a $20 bill.
I’ve told the back story of how the article was written, but after some searching, found a copy of the original and scanned it. Forbes never put its archive online and I figured screw it — I asked their reprint department for permission to post this and they wanted a gazillion dollars. So, in the spirit of information wants to be free, here is how I forged my paycheck on a Mac. PDF below.
Jan 08 2014
(continued from part III)
The woodlots of Mashpee were mostly probably near the Santuit River in the immediate vicinity of Reverend Fish’s parsonage which abutted Santuit less than a mile south of the Trout Mound grave. Given the need to haul the cordwood to Cotuit Bay for shipment to Nantucket, and the arrangement which permitted the Reverend Fish to lease logging rights to help defray his living expenses and the costs of the Indian Meetinghouse, one can assume the location of the woodlot at the center of this story of rebellion and nullification was somewhere near the current intersection of Routes 28 and 130 near the historical center of Wampanoag life near the nexus of the herring run and Santuit Pond. The lots were worked by two brothers, Joseph and William Sampson, sons of Squire Josiah Sampson, the landowner who built “Sampson’s Folly” on the Old Kings Road and owned the grist mill on the Santuit River near the site of Maushop Stables, a horse farm and equestrian center near greens and fairways of the modern Willowbend golf course. The Sampsons were Cotuit gentry, an old colonial family intermarried with the Crockers, perhaps the oldest and most venerable clan in colonial Santuit. They were landowners, and Sampson’s Island, the sand spit at the head of Cotuit Bay is named for them.
The Sampson brothers probably had a crew of men, perhaps even Wampanoags, to help them clear, cut, and stack the scrub oak and pine. Oxen were the preferred beast of burden on Cape Cod, so one can picture a group of men, in shirtsleeves on a humid early summer day, toiling in the shady woods with the back breaking task of loading chopped piles of wood onto wagons for the two mile trip down a sandy Main Street to the piers around Cotuit’s Hooper’s Landing. It would have been of no surprise to the Sampsons or any white man living in the area, that the tribe was agitated and looking for a confrontation. In fact, Apess wrote afterwards the Sampsons “were known to have vowed to disregard the Mashpee’s declarations” to stay out of Mashpee. The events of July 1, 1833, a deadline declared by Apess and the tribe in their grievances were foretold and to be expected: the Reverend Fish’s panicked missive to the Governor, the shrill attention paid to the affair in the Barnstable Patriot, and the fact that most of the congregation in the “Indian” meetinghouse were white parishioners from Santuit and Cotuit doubtlessly made the Wampanoag’s growing unrest a topic of hot discussion and the source of great fear. The events that took place that Monday morning had been set into motion months before.
It began when Apess went for a “walk” in the woods that morning. The Sampsons and two other men were loading wood onto a wagon. Doubtlessly they had been working the lot for sometime, the sounds of axes and saws and their labor announcing their intention for sometime, so while Apess’ account of the events makes it appear it was a chance encounter, on may assume he was out looking for trouble at a known location of white incursion.
Apess confronted the four whites, told them to unload the wagons and leave, and when they refused, he left to gather some support, returning soon thereafter with eight Wampanoag men.
No punches were thrown or weapons brandished. There is no record of a fight or assault of any kind and the confrontation ended with the departure of the whites from Mashpee back over the Santuit River to Cotuit. And so ended one of the first acts of peaceful civil disobedience by a native tribe in the history of the United States, an act made by one of the first tribes to be subjugated, defeated and assimilated by the whites, a precursor to decades of rebellion, atrocity and contempt between other tribes as the country expanded west to find its manifest destiny and uprooted one tribe after another. Wounded Knee, Little Big Horn, the Trail of Tears … what happened in the woods that morning was perhaps the first and most overlooked statement of independence and revolt by a native tribe in the two hundred year history of white/Indian relations.
As Apess and the Wampanoags made their stand, Governor Lincoln had been roused by the Reverend Fish’s panicked missive and sent a personal emissary, one Josiah Fiske, a member of the Governor’s Council, to Mashpee to investigate. Fiske arrived the following day, July 2, 1833 and spread the word that he wanted to meet with the tribe on Wednesday the 3rd. Fiske carried instructions from the Governor to “confine your actions to the application of the civil power…the Sheriff will, with your advice, call out the posse comitatus, and should there be reasons to fear the efficiency of this report, I will be present personally, to direct any military requisitions.”
Governor Lincoln was on the verge of sending in the militia to quell the Wampanoag rebellion.
No one showed up to Fiske’s meeting. In a classic power play, the tribe refused to acknowledge Fiske and instead, the president of the tribe, Daniel Amos,delivered to Fiske an invitation to meet the tribe at the meetinghouse. Ironically, the tribe, so alienated from the historic building given to them by Richard Bourne, a church that had turned its back on them and become a place of worship for Cotuit’s whites, didn’t have a key to their own meetinghouse and had to break in to open the door.
Fiske arrived at the meeting with the sheriff of Barnstable County, John Reed, in a display of legal force. Reed told the tribe they were breaking the law and Apess indignantly replied: “…the laws ought to be altered without delay, that it was perfectly manifest they were unconstitutional; and that, even if they were not so, there was nothing in them to authorize the white inhabitants to act as they had done.”
What Apess declared was the very contemporary concept of “nullification” that had been sweeping the political debate in the nation’s capital. Students of early American History know a central issue was the definition of federal versus state rights and striking a balance between local and central rule. In South Carolina, perhaps the most fervent hotbed of states rights, the US Senator John C. Calhoun had lobbied vigorously in Congress to shift power from the federal government back to the states, and the South Carolina legislature has passed an “Ordinance of Nullification” declaring some pernicious and unpopular federal tariffs to be unconstitutional. Apess seized on this political concept of “nullification” and afterwards, in his account of the Woodlot Revolt, referred to it as an act of nullification by the Wampanoags, essentially a rejection of the concept that Mashpee and its natives were subject to the laws of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nullification, in the context of the events of 1833, was a statement of sovereign status, in essence declaring the “plantation of Marshpee” to be its own political entity, an “island” ruled by its people, and not the laws of those towns and counties and state that surrounded it like an ocean of American regulations.
Nullification for the Wampanoags was nothing less than a declaration that they rejected the paternal overseer system, rejected the authority of Harvard College to select its minister, and that they were going to revert to the intentions of Richard Bourne in declaring Mashpee to be an autonomous place owned by Wampanoags, governed by Wampanoags, and free from the rule of American law.
Whatever the eloquent Pequot activist said on July 4, 1833 to Fiske and Sheriff Reed, it didn’t matter. Apess was arrested on the spot by Reed and hauled off to jail in Barnstable village where he was arraigned on charges of inciting a riot and trespassing. Fiske immediately wrote the Governor that the arrest “had the desired effect” and that the rebellion was crushed. He described Apess’ arrest: “The Indians seemed to have forgotten for a moment that they had muskets with them, and looked with perfect amazement at the sheriff when he had taken their champion from the Moderator’s seat in the meetinghouse and conducted him with great dignity to a seat in his carriage at the door.”
Apess was released on bail after a few nights in jail and returned to Mashpee. The whites in Cotuit and throughout the Cape were not pleased that he was free. Apess wrote: ”
Apess on the white reaction: “They bellowed like mad bulls and spouted like whales mortally gored by the harpoon, I do not think the figure of speech would be too strong. There was a great deal of loose talk and a pretty considerable uproar.”
No one expected that Apess would be able to keep up his agitation for long, and certainly no one expected a white man to come to his defense. But one brilliantly did, a Cape Cod native and attorney, Benjamin F. Hallett. Born in Barnstable, educated at Brown, Hallet studied the law and began a career as a liberal journalist in Providence, the progressive traditional refuge of liberalism and tolerance founded by Roger William in reaction to the tyrannical strictures of the old witch burning Puritans. Hallett went on to be editor of the Boston Advocate and the Boston Daily Advertiser – this was the golden age of very politically biased newspapers and Hallett’s were definitely far to the left, presaging the abolitionist movement blossoming among the intellectual Brahmins of Boston and Concord. An active Democrat, Hallett was anti-Masonic and very outspoken. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress later in his career, and eventually was appointed the United Stated District Attorney for Massachusetts by President Franklin Pierce.
Apess could not have asked for a better defender than Hallett. Not only was Hallett a Cape Codder, he was a skilled and excellent litigator backed by the power of his own newspaper. Hallett made Apess famous among the abolitionists of Boston, rallying to the Pequot minister’s defense the sympathies of what would become the most disruptive political force in the mid-1800s. Hallett defended Apess on the charges, had them dismissed, but promptly took the case further by filing legislation on Beacon Hill to resolve the status of the tribe once and for all. He argued:
- The Mashpee Wampanoags never consented to the white’s “guardian” system that took control of their finances and affairs via the board of overseers.
- The actions of the whites towards the Wampanoags, beginning with the formation of the plantation by Bourne, and then thereafter, respected the Wampanoag’s superior title to the land. This was key in that the English legal system cherished the concept of private property and deeds, something utterly foreign to the Wampanoags but which they were blessed with by the foresight of Bourne in creating and deeding to them the lands of Mashpee for their own use and not the use or sale to the whites.
- Finally, Hallett seized on the fact that there was no treaty in place between the whites and the Wampanoags as was the case with other tribes in the mid- and far-western parts of the country. Because there was no treaty defining their status, the Wampanoags — Hallett argued — they remained a sovereign nation subject to no white laws or taxation.
Accompanied by Apess, Joseph Amos and Issac Combs, Hallett went to the state house in Boston to make his case for Wampanoag independence. The legislature agreed and in March 1834, the legislature abolished the board of overseers, appointed a one-person “commissioner” to act at the State’s liason with the tribe, and refused to intervene with the religious issues defined by the situation concerning Phineas Fish and his “employer:” Harvard College. Harvard’s President Josiah Quincy dispatched the Reverend James Walker to travel to Mashpee and report on the spiritual situation. Apess, for reasons unknown, renounced his Methodist ordination and started his own “Free and United Church” while Blind Joe Amos continued to lead the popular Baptist Congregation and Phineas Fish muddled along with his all white Congregationalists who raised the funds to build him a church of his own in Santuit (it isn’t clear if Fish ever preached another sermon after the July 4, 1833 meeting in the Indian Meetinghouse that resulted in Apess’ arrest, but he eventually moved into his own church within Santuit proper.
Harvard’s emissary, Reverend Walker, wrote in a report entitled “Facts in Regard to the Difficulties at Marshpee” that Apess was “now understood to be rapidly losing the Indians’ confidence and not without good reason.”
While all but forgotten until Apess’ memoirs were republished in the 1990s, the Mashpee Woodlot Revolt stands as a significant milestone in native-white relations in America. The Wampanoags enjoyed a period of self-rule until 1870 when the tribe eventually petitioned the Commonwealth to incorporate Mashpee as a town, a controversial move sought by non-Wampanoag spouses who wanted the same rights they had enjoyed outside of the plantation such as the vote. Harvard stopped the practice of sending ministers to Mashpee. Fish moved out of town and continued to minister to his flock in his new church in Santuit.
Apess? Well he did indeed fall out of favor in Mashpee — he was an outsider and while part-Pequot was not a Wampanoag. In 1838 all he owned in Mashpee was sold for debts in a bankruptcy action. In 1839 he died suddenly in a boarding house in New York City and was buried with little to no fanfare.
When he writings were rediscovered by historians it was a revelation that such an eloquent, literate, passionate voice had once spoken so passionately for Indian rights at a time when slavery was still the law of the land and Indians, blacks and other dispossessed members of society were completely dismissed and subjugated by 19th Century America. Apess’ actions in Mashpeen in 1833 displayed an activism and passion for civil disobedience that presaged Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay on Civil Disobedience sixteen years later. Apess and the cause of the Wampanoags ignited abolitionist sympathies in Boston, helping coalesce a movement that was to drive the country to war within three decades.
As the historian Barry O’Connell wrote of Apess:
“In him, from a more tempered perspective, might be recognized a masterful polemicist and a canny strategist in leading a small minority to persuade a dominant majority to treat the minority with some respect.”
[Presented to the Cotuit Historical Society in October 2013]
Dec 23 2013
This morning’s New York Times has a depressing story about the continued plunging descent of modern air travel from the glamour of the jet age to the cattle-car status of airborne buses. The too long; didn’t read summary is that airlines are disabling reclining seats and installing “lightweight” seats with less padding and locked backs to jam in another row or two of human livestock to jack up their revenues.
What amazed this 6 foot 2 inch tall victim of the center seat is that the reporter was able to find two dickheads willing to admit they actually recline their seats and whine to the stewardess if thwarted.
Listen to this loser:
“They jam their knee into the back of your seat as hard as they can, and they’ll do it repeatedly to see if they can get a reaction,” said Mick Brekke, a businessman who flies for work a few times a month. “That’s happened to me more than once, and that usually settles down after they realize I’m not going to put it back up.””
and this douchenozzle:
“Odysseas Papadimitriou, the chief executive of WalletHub.com, a personal finance social network, was challenged by a tall passenger seated behind him when he reclined his seat. “He was like, ‘Hey, watch it, buddy. I don’t fit here with you reclining the seat,’ ” he said.
“Mr. Papadimitriou called the flight attendant to mediate the dispute and eventually tilted his seat back, but the price he paid to recline was a fitful night’s sleep, as the other passenger grumbled and pushed against the back of his seat for the rest of the flight.”
Listen up chowderheads. Real men don’t recline. Ever. And they don’t carry man purses, wear capri pants, talk on their cell phone at the dinner table and own luggage with wheels on it. Only the Clampetts and the Obese recline on airplanes. (Business and First is an exception, but then again, Business and First is meant to be an expensive exception, right?)
I never push that little button and push my seat back into the personal space of the passenger behind me. Never. I’ve lost a laptop screen to a jerk pushing their seat back, and have even had the back of my seat ripped off after a 500-pound obese whale of a woman in a sari decided to use my seat as a lifting mechanism to pry herself to her feet to indulge in a bout of explosive diarrhea that resulted in an entire bank of 747 toilets being cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. I spent seven hours riding upright with no seatback whatsoever thanks to that lady.
It is the passenger in front of me, the one who as soon as the plane levels off and the little seatbelt sign goes off with a “bong” that decides it’s Barcalounger time that I want to punch in the back of the head. Yes, I have seen with interest the little seat blocker devices one can use to wedge the seat in front of one’s self into an unreclinable position. I have also braced my knees into the seatback and done my best to thwart the bozo who thinks it’s their god given right to press the button. But never. EVER. Will I be that guy.
Dec 15 2013
(c0ntinued from part two)
Life in Mashpee and Cotuit in the early 19th century was dominated by the fast growth of the Nantucket whaling fishery. Cranberries had not yet been cultivated commercially, transportation on and off the Cape was either by horse and wagon but mainly by ship, and there was little to no tourism in the modern sense of the word. The US Senator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster, was fond of fishing in Mashpee for sea-run brown trout, and may have lodged in the inn located in Santuit on the eastern banks of the Santuit River, the site of the present Cahoon museum. Other dignitaries, such as Yale’s Timothy Dwight and Ezra Stiles, paid calls on the Reverend Gideon Hawley, the missionary to Mashpee and a graduate of that college’s seminary who also made his home near the major intersection of modern day Routes 28 and 130. The economic life of the region was mostly agricultural and based on either fishing and shellfishing, farming such as could be encouraged from the sandy soil, some livestock, and the supply of manpower for the whaling fishery.
Wampanoag men were very active in the Nantucket whaling fleet and readers may recall that one harpooner of the Pequod, Tashtego, was a Wampanoag from the praying town of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard. The whaling fishery made a number of Quaker merchants very wealthy men, and for a time Nantucket was one of the most wealthy places on the planet, if not certainly the most international, its crews opening up the South Pacific in the early 19th century for the first time since the voyages of discovery by Cook. Whaling was an extremely dangerous profession and life on the greasy, slow, smoke-belching ships was neither easy nor especially lucrative for ordinary seamen. Some historians say Wampanoag employment in the whaling industry had a terrible effect of attrition on the male population. Those Wampanoag males that remained ashore practiced a subsistence lifestyle based on the traditional agricultural staples of corn, beans and squash, hunting and fishing.
In 1833 Mashpee was still governed by the board of overseers appointed by the Governor and the Trustees of the Williams Fund of Harvard which furnished a minister and funds for his support as well as the maintenance of the old Indian Meetinghouse. An Indian pastor hadn’t ministered to a flock in the meeting house for decades, and by the time the Rev. Gideon Hawley ended his tenure, the Wampanoags had started to drift away from Congregationalism to the Baptists and Methodists, the former led by the Rev. “Blind” Joe Amos, a Wampanoag. In 1809 Harvard appointed one its own, the Reverend Phineas Fish, to be the official missionary and Congregationalist Minister of Mashpee. Fish was paid an annual salary of $520, a $350 “settlement fee” and granted “as much meadow and pasture land, as shall be necessary to winter and summer.” The historian Donald Nielsen, in his essay “The Mashpee Indian Revolt of 1833″ wrote: “The sale of wood from the parsonage woodlot brought him [Fish] several hundred dollars more per year. Fish was assured a comfortable living on Mashpee land with money designated to help the Indians, yet he was in no way accountable to his flock.”
That lack of accountability, and what emerges through time as a somewhat churlish personality, was the undoing on Phineas Fish and the spark of the Woodlot Revolt. The tinder was supplied by William Apess, a fascinating figure who may stand as the earliest and most eloquent native American writer and activist concerned with native sovereign rights.
Apess was born in Colrain, Massachusetts near the Vermont border in 1798 of mixed-ancestry, a so-called “half-breed” who’s father may have been African American, but who’s mother was full-blooded Pequot Indian originally from southeastern Connecticut. The Pequots were the victims of the first English massacre, one that took place in Mystic, Connecticut in 1637 when a colonial militia surrounded a Pequot fort and killed 400 to 700 women, children and elderly (the able-bodied men were outside of the palisade scouting for the English force and thus spared until later hunted down and killed.)
I digress back two centuries to the first massacre of Indians on American soil only to lay the foundations for Apess’ subsequent activism as a voice for Indian rights. He was raised in terrible conditions, severely beaten by his grandmother at the age of four, raised as an unruly delinquent, raised as a foster child by white parents who despaired of his lying and thievery — traits he freely admits himself in his autobiography, A Native of the Forest. He enlisted in a New York state militia regiment bound for the Canadian front during the War of 1812 and became the object of much teasing by older soldiers in his regiment who amused themselves by giving Apess liquor and encouraging his drunkenness. Following the War, Apess lived an itinerant existence throughout southern New England working as a cook and a laborer, eventually falling in love with a Pequot girl also of mixed-race, who reformed his ways and helped him sober up and continue his limited education. She gave birth, a family was started and in 1815 Apess was ordained as a Methodist minister. The historian Barry O’Connell at the University of Massachusetts wrote: “William Apess was a nobody. Born into poverty in 1798 in a tent in the woods of Colrain, Massachusetts, his parents of mixed Indian, white, and possibly African American blood, this babe had attached to him nearly every category that defined worthlessness in the United States.”
The Methodist tradition is one of the itinerant preacher who goes on the road to preach the word of God to whatever willing flock he can find along the way. Apess wrote and self-published A Son of the Forest, the first autobiography by an American Indian, and became increasingly focused on Indian rights and injustices.
In the spring of 1833 Apess, hearing about the thriving Wampanoag community in Mashpee, wrote to the Reverend Fish asking for an opportunity to visit and preach to his fellow Indians. Fish extended an invitation and Apess made his way to Cape Cod.
When Apess took the pulpit at the Old Indian Meetinghouse and began his sermon he became indignant as the lack of any native faces. The congregation was almost entirely white, comprised of worshippers from Cotuit and Santuit for the most part. Apess wrote:
“I turned to meet my Indian brethren and give them the hand of friendship; but I was greatly disappointed in the appearance of those who advanced. All the Indians I had ever seen were of a reddish color, sometimes approaching a yellow, but now, look to what quarter I would, most of those who were coming were pale faces, and, in my disappointment, it seemed to me that the hue of death sat upon their countenances. It seemed very strange to me that my brethren should have changed their natural color and become in every respect like white men.”
Apess finished his sermon, thanked the Reverend and immediately sought out the leaders of the tribe to seek an explanation for why their most cherished building, their church, had been taken over by the whites. The leaders of the Wampanoags, led by the popular Reverend Blind Joe Amos gathered, expressed their grievances with the white-imposed system of oversight, the utter lack of any relationship to the Reverend Fish, and a litany of grievances around white incursions onto Mashpee lands. Apess. obviously a man of words accustomed to persuasion with his tongue, was also a born leader, and he emerged from those first meetings with the tribe as an “adopted” son of Mashpee, granted the trust and authority to represent the Wampanoags in their future dealings with the whites.
As a bit of historical context, 1833 was a time of profound foment in American politics that saw a great deal of chafing between the southern states and the Federal government, a friction that would, three decades later, lead to the War Between the States. In South Carolina, the hotbed of American secessionism, the US Senator John C. Calhoun had led a bitter fight against Federal tariffs under the auspices of “nullication“ a long-standing point of Constitutional law that defined the rights of the states to reject or “nullify” Federal legislation and mandates. Apess seized on the contemporary awareness of nullification and applied it to the situation in Mashpee, drafting a manifesto and statement of grievances that in essence said Mashpee was a sovereign nation established by the land grants of Richard Bourne and was in no way subject to the laws and oversight of any government body other than its own. E.g. Mashpee was not subject to the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
A petition was drafted and presented to the legislature in Boston. Among its resolutions:
“Resolved: That we as a tribe will rule ourselves, and have the right so to do for all men are born free and Equal says the Constitution of the County.
“Resolved: That we will not permit any white man to come upon our plantation to cut or carry of [sic] wood or hay any other artickle with out our permission after the first of July next.
“Resolved: That we will put said resolutions in force after that date July next with the penalty of binding and throwing them from the plantation If they will not stay a way with out.”
A second petition was filed with Harvard calling for the removal of the Reverend Phineas Fish.
The reaction of the legislature was somewhat benign, but locally, one can imagine the reaction of the whites in Barnstable, Sandwich and Falmouth to the Wampanoag declaration of independence and the setting of a deadline of July 1, 1833 for all whites to evacuate Mashpee. In the Barnstable Patriot, the editor, one Sylvanus Bourne Phinney wrote that Apess had been distributing his pamphlet: “Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe” and stirring up some ugly emotions: “The teachings of this man are calculated to excite the distrust and jealousy of the inhabitants towards their present guardians and minister and with his pretensions to elevate them to what we all wish they might be, he will make them, in their present ill-prepared state for such preaching, ten times more turbulent, uncomfortable, unmanageable and unhappy than they are now.”
After the Wampanoag delegation led by Apess filed their petitions on Beacon Hill in June, 1833, they returned to the Cape “mistakenly supposing Governor Levi Lincoln approved of their reforms.” In fact, other than the local whites in the towns surrounding Mashpee, and the Reverend Phineas Fish, no one appeared to take the Wampanoags seriously.
Later that month the tribe notified the treasurer of the Board of Overseers, Obed Goodspeed, to turnover the plantation’s books and other papers. A tribal council was formally elected on June 25 and public notices were printed and displayed so that “said Resolutions be inforced.” On June 26, Reverend Fish was told “be on the Lookout for another home. We of no Indian that has been converted under your preaching and from 8 to 12 only have been your Constant Attenders. We are for peace rather than any thing else but we are satisfied we shall never enjoy it until we have our rights.”
This got the Reverend Fish’s attention. In panic at the unrest around him, the priggish clergyman wrote a letter to Governor Lincoln and had his predecessor’s son, Gideon Hawley, Jr., deliver it on horseback to Lincoln at the governor’s home in Worcester. Apess wrote afterwards that Fish wrote: “…the Indians were in open rebellion and that blood was likely to be shed .. It was reported and believed among us that he said we had armed ourselves and were prepared to carry all before us with tomahawk and scalping knife; that death and destruction, and all the horrors of a savage war, were impending; that of the white inhabitants some were already dead and the rest dreadfull alarmed! An awful picture indeed.”
The deadline of July 1 was only a few days away.
(to be continued).
Dec 14 2013
An important part of any decent baseball park isthe “batter’s eye” — a blank segment of the outfield, unpopulated by bleacher seats or billboards — a dark backdrop behind the pitcher hat lets the batter see the ball against a solid backdrop. Baseball is full of legends, and one has it that the fans of one home team, before the advent of the batter’s eye, would conspire to wear white t-shirts to make it difficult for the visiting team’s batters to see the ball come off of the pitcher’s hand, and then change to black shirts when the home team came up to bat. Given that sportswriters have declared in a poll that the hardest thing to do in all of sports is to hit a major league fastball, the batters need all the help they can get.
Cotuit’s Elizabeth Lowell Memorial Park is unique among all of the Cape Cod Baseball League’s ten ballparks in that its batter’s eye is an uninterrupted wall of green pine and scrub oaks, a stretch of green that embraces the park on all sides. No houses are visible. No signs. Nothing. Just a big piece of green that is part of one of Cotuit’s best green spaces. The scoreboard, the flag pole, a few fans in lawn chairs, kids optimistically waiting around to shag home runs, and occasional dog walker are all there is out there to break out the perfect green expanse. Spend some time following the Kettleers to other ball fields and you’ll quickly learn how blessed we are in Cotuit to have the best park on the Cape. According to the Kettleers coach Mike Roberts: “The still, green backdrop makes Lowell Park the best field for hitters in the Cape League. What a shame it would be to lose that.”
Lowell Park is undeniably one of the most unique ball fields in America, and readers of a certain vintage will remember when Sports Illustrated made the park famous with an aerial view that put the little green gem in context with the blue waters of Cotuit Bay and the golden strand of Sampson’s Island in the background. I’ve got a framed copy of an aerial shot by my neighbor Paul Rifkin on the wall of my office.
I was at a dinner in San Diego last week with some colleagues and discussion eventually turned to sports. Of course everyone wanted to ask me, the Boston guy about the Red Sox but I told them the story of Cotuit baseball instead: of watching games for free in barefeet as the best college ball players in the country showed off their skills to pro scouts in the most competitive and prestigious summer wooden-bat league in the nation. I used my phone to bring up from Flickr one of those of iconic aerial photos of the perfect park buried in a sea of green trees with the harbor and Nantucket Sound in the background and then passed it around. That picture said it all.
Thanks to the generosity of the Lowell family, one of Cotuit’s stalwart summer families, the forest behind the baseball park has been offered to the Barnstable Land Trust for the very reasonable price of $1.8 million. The BLT has a year to raise the money and I write today to urge my fellow Cotusions to dig deep and do their financial best to help preserve not only the Kettleer’s batter’s eye, but to keep one of the village’s best green spaces green. This land is near the village well fields, backs up to the western half of Mosswood Cemetary (where a recent proposal to build a solar array was thankfully thwarted), and is part of the great stretch of green that welcomes a person arriving in Cotuit on Putnam Avenue, a nearly uninterrupted piece of forest filled with deer, turtles and foxes that includes Eagle Pond, the Bell Farm, the cemetery and the wonderful field at the curve of Putnam and Maple where the yacht club stows its Cotuit Skiffs during hurricanes.
The Lowell family could doubtlessly make some developer happy at two or three times the price and nine starter castles and McMansions could get shoved into the 19 acress of woods. But not if we dig deep and give ourselves and Cotuit baseball a gift of green. A couple things about the fundraiser. While the ballpark is owned by the town, some of it intrudes onto private property (the visitor’s bullpen allegedly). This not only makes for great baseball and will help keep the Kettleers the best team in the league, but is a huge step to preserve Cotuit’s green space and keep another subdivision from further eroding the charm of the village.
Here’s a link to the donation page for the Lowell Park fund on the Barnstable Land Trust’s website.
Dec 03 2013
The sovereign status of the Wampanoag tribe who lived in “Marshpee Plantation,” the praying town established for their benefit by Richard Bourne, is a fascinating story that persists in its telling through modern times as the tribe fought for Federal recognition, its ancestral lands, and its own cultural identity.
In the 18th century, in the aftermath of the King Philip War of 1675, the Wampanoags who lived in Mashpee were joined by members of other tribes, all seeking a community with a common language and practices. The tribe was making a transition from its traditional wetu style of hunter-gather living, moving between winter and summer encampments to seek shelter from the blizzards inland and to be near shellfish during the summer months. The English system of private property and the colonists’ insatiable appetite for land had boxed the tribe into the space defined for them by Richard Bourne, an arrangement known as an “entailment” that forbid the sale of any lands to outsiders without the unanimous consent of the tribe. The Church, so crucial to the formation of the concept of a “Praying Town,” continued to be the dominant social structure in Mashpee, pushing the tribe’s members to adopt English dress, learn English, convert to Christianity and integrate themselves with their non-native neighbors.
That “integration” led to some deplorable practices ranging from “debt slavery” where the Wampanoag were put into the debt of English merchants or farmers and then pressed into forced indenture to work those debts down to a general racism that . The practice of debt enslavement became so acute that the native preacher Simon Popmonet (a descendant of the sachem Paupmunnuck) complained to the legislature about the terrible practice which saw children and elderly alike pressed into unpaid labor. It was noted that a father and son, working off a debt, worked as a crew of a Nantucket whaling ship and for two consecutive three-year voyages forfeited their entire wages to the ship’s owners as part of their debt service.
The Anglicization of the tribe, the conversion to Christianity, the impact of war (many Wampanoags fought in the Revolutionary War), the terrible effects of alcohol and the high mortality of the whale fishery cut deeply into the male population. The gender imbalance — brought about the lasting after effects of the post-war retributions (a large number of Wampanoags were forcibly relocated to Bermuda), the impact of the Nantucket whaling fishery, and the general violent, short life-span of a 17th century male — left a void in the Mashpee society. Widows turned to the church and the tribe’s members began to intermarry with members of other tribes, African-Americans, even Hessian mercenaries who made their way to Mashpee after the end of the Revolutionary War.
The tribe that remained, several hundred at most, clustered together in three settlements — one near Ashumet Pond, another near the shores of Santuit Pond, and a third near Nantucket Sound and South Cape Beach. There was no form of government aside from the traditional tribal structure of sachems and sagamores. The rulers of the tribe were a board of white overseers, appointed first by Harvard College who provided for the tribe’s religious needs by educating and sending it a succession of ministers, and then the State. No Wampanoag served on the board of overseers. The overseers provided the tribe with a succession of preachers — all Congregational, the prevalent denomination of the English and the faith of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the early movement led by Jonathan Edwards and John Eliot to convert “the poor blind Indians in New-England.”
The center of the tribe’s life was a meeting house constructed in the late 1670s after the conclusion of King Philip’s War on Briant’s Neck on the southern shore of Santuit Pond, not far from the ancient tribal village, herring run on the Santuit River, and the mound of the Trout Grave. The building was built by Richard Bourne’s son, Shearhashaub with the construction funded by the Williams Fund of Harvard College, the primary source of funds for the religious needs of Mashpee through the 19th century. The meetinghouse was rebuilt at one point, and in 1717 it was moved by oxcart to its present location on Route 28, the old Falmouth-Barnstable road about one mile west of the Santuit River, on a hill above the Mashpee River.
The pastors and preachers of Mashpee were:
- Richard Bourne, 1670-1685
- Simon Popmonet, 1685-1729
- Joseph Bourne, 1729-1742
- Gideon Hawley, 1758-1807
- Phineas Fish, 1808-1833
- “Blind Joe” Amos, 1810-1836
- William Apess, 1833-1835
The last of the ministers subsidized by Harvard’s Williams Fund was Phineas Fish. He and his predecessors were provided for by the Corporation of Harvard College and were given the rights to a woodlot on the eastern side of town, a common parsonage arrangement in colonial times that permitted the minister to gain an income beyond the collection plate by selling pasturage or logging rights to others. That woodlot would prove to be the flash point of this story.
The 1700s were a time of complaint and friction by the Indians of Mashpee against the incursions of the white settlers that surrounded them on three sides. Delegations were sent to Boston to complain about debt slavery, white squatters, trespassing on Indian lands and other grievances. In 1762, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, one might assume as a guest of the recently installed Hawley. In his journal he placed the population of Mashpee at 250, consisting of about 75 families scattered throughout the plantation living in “about 60 wigwams (Wetus) and 6 houses.” The Stiles map shows there was no village or other definiable concentrations of population, though there were pockets around Ashumet Pond, Santuit Pond and South Cape. The dwellings on Stiles map approximate the location of the so-called “ancient-ways” – the early paths.
Campisi writes in The Mashpee Indians, Tribe on Trial, “The map supports the view that the Mashpees were geographically, as well as socially isolated from the white settlers. The bulk of their residents as well as the church, the principal meeting place, were on the south side of the plantation.”
The parsonage, or home of the minister was located near the present day intersections of Route 28 and Route 130 near the Santuit River/Santuit line. Gideon Hawley’s home is near the gas station on the northwest corner of the intersection, located on a slice of land that the old maps indicates was actually part of Sandwich (for reasons unknown to this writer, along with another piece designated as Sandwich near where the Santuit River pours into Shoestring Bay. Phineas Fish, the minister who succeeded Hawley, made his home a bit to the north, just south of the Trout Mound.
Phineas Fish is the key player in the factors that led to the Woodlot Revolt of 1833. After graduating from Harvard in 1807 he was appointed as the official missionary and Congregationalist Minister of Mashpee by the overseers in 1809. He was granted an annual salary of $520, a $350 “settlement” fee and “as much meadow and pasture land, as shall be necessary to winter and summer.” According to Donald Nielsen in The Mashpee Indian Revolt of 1833, “The sale of wood from the parsonage woodlot brought him several hundred dollars more each year. Fish was assured a comfortable living on Mashpee land with money designated to help the Indians, yet he was in no way accountable to his Indian flock.”
The Reverend Fish was not popular with the Indians. As non-tribal residents came into town and intermarried with the old Wampanoag familes, they brought with them new denominations that threatened the Congregationalist hold over the Plantation. By the time Fish arrived in Mashpee the tribe had shifted their religious allegiances to the Baptists and an Indian preacher named Blind Joe Amos. Fish, from his pulpit in the Indian’s Meetinghouse, ministered to an increasingly white-flock, most of whom (one can assume) were residents of Cotuit. In reflecting on the Indian’s tergiversation from his ministry, Fish wrote that he had “survived” as many as seven different sectarian preachers and “felt pain in seeing these good houses used for the purposes of Baptist and Methodist meetings….the sectarian busy bodies now feel quite sure of demolishing the remnant of Congregationalism…Religion should be respectable and orderly. The Indians are given to excitement and revivalism.”
Fish’s religious differences and take over of the Meetinghouse was only one reason his presence in the town caused the tribe to resent him. A particular sore point was his decision to lease the logging rights of the woodlot to two Cotuit brothers, the Sampsons.
Thoreau in his account of his walk down the sandy peninsula, Cape Cod, wrote of the deforested wasteland that was the Cape in the 19th century. Deforestation to fuel the Sandwich Glass factory, to speed the evaporation of sea water for the production of sea salt, and the general sparse sandy soil made trees a premium on Cape Cod in the 19th century. Cut off from commerce, its economy based on fish, shellfish, the harvesting of salt hay, and the employment of its men as whalers and sailors, a commodity as basic as a cord of fire wood was a very valuable asset. The overseers of Mashpee “do not allow more wood to be carried to market, than can be spared; but it is for the general interest, that three or four hundred cords should be annual exported to Nantucket and other places.”
Old photographs of the Cotuit waterfront show immense stacks of cordwood on piers awaiting loading on packet schooners bound for Nantucket. Cordwood Lane which leads through the woods of Eagle Pond to Cotuit’s Inner Harbor is one vestige of the old cordwood trade. Grand Island or Oyster Harbors, was long a woodlot worked to supply Nantucket’s insatiable demand for fuel. If Thoreau found Cape Cod devoid of trees, then Nantucket was bald, a sandy moor that demanded huge amounts of wood for the whaling ships that needed to render whale blubber into whale oil on the big brick tryworks that sat amidships. Cotuit was perfectly positioned navigationally as the port of preference for the wood trade. With the prevailing breezes from the southwest in the summer and the northeast in the winter, a schooner could make the 25 mile voyage across Nantucket Sound on a single tack in each direction. The Reverend Fish’s woodlot, a scant two miles from Cotuit Bay, was perfectly positioned to supply that trade. The overseers had no problem with opening up Mashpee’s natural bounties to the whites, most of whom harbored resentment of the riches left untouched inside of Richard Bourne’s Praying Town. The overseers rented lands inside of Mashpee’s borders to the whites for the grazing of livestock, they auctioned off wood shares, permitted fishing and shellfishing on its streams and ponds, and, in Nielsen’s words, “the overseers believed there was plenty for all.”
(to be continued in part 3)
Nov 22 2013
In the annals of native/colonist relations, little can be objectively known about the true nature of the interactions between the English settlers of Eastern Massachusetts and the tribe that “welcomed” them, the Wampanoag. The record is one-sided and dominated by the English and their system of deeds, genealogies, written records and literature. This has led to the perpetuation of the pleasant myth of Wampanoag welcoming and cooperating with the Pilgrims, a myth created in the 19th century in a burst of American patriotism and nostalgia which lives on in the quaint concept of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast.
The Wampanoag now regard Thanksgiving as a day of mourning, and, thanks to recent scrutiny of the actual historical record, it’s apparent the tribe are the forgotten first victims of the American “dream.”
If, as Churchill said, “history is written by the victors,” the Wampanoags left little in the way of a written record of their relations and feelings towards the colonists. They had no written language, only their Algonquin dialect, and no historical tradition beyond the spoken word and creation myths.
The discovery and re-publication of a unique account written by a member of the Connecticut Pequot tribe, William Apes (Apess), has revealed the earliest autobiography in American literature by a native, as well as cast some light on a little known incident that took place 180 years ago on the Wampanoag “reservation” or “praying town” of Mashpee, near its border with the village of Cotuit, is a little known historical incident that occurred 180 years ago, in a wood lot near the Santuit River between a group of angry Wampanoag natives, two brothers from Cotuit, and an alcoholic activist preacher, Apess.
Variously known as the Woodlot Revolt or the “Quarrel” (as Cotuit historian Jim Gould refers to it), it has been dusted off by historians and held up in recent years as the first significant expression of sovereign rights by a native tribe since contact with the colonists occurred more than 200 years before. The preacher, William Apes (who preferred the pronunciation “Apess”) was an eloquent and graceful writer, who’s work, “A Native of the Forest” has been republished in recent years and is regarded as one of the most important pieces of literature penned by a native writer.
Before I rush to an account of the events that happened that hot July day in 1833, let me set the historical table with a quick summary of how Mashpee, our conterminous neighbor to the west, came to be, and attempt to convey a sense of what relations were between the whites of Cotuit and the natives of the Plantation of Marshpee.
Before the English, with their love of deeds and records and certificates of birth, marriage and death, came to these shores, the history of the Wampanoag tribe — which means “Children of the Eastern Light” in their Algonquin dialet, Wopanaak — was purely an oral one, with no record left except the traditions and stories told by one generation to the next. Like their comprehension of private property, boundary lines and fishing rights, the Wampanoag sense of history was passed from one generation to the next through word of mouth and shared understanding.
In 1643, the Pilgrim’s military “muscle”, Captain Miles Standish, came to Cape Cod to buy land from the natives for the colonists. Land was everything to the Europeans. Land meant status, land meant class, land conferred rights that serfs and peassants could only dream of. In Europe land was inherited or conquered, rarely bought and sold, and the allure of the virgin forests of New England must have been breathtaking to the first settlers who saw before them as limitless wilderness that was theirs to take for a mere kettle and a ho.
Yes, Standish negotiated the transaction with the Wampanoag leader Paupmunnuck that gave the English the rights to settle Cotachester (modern Osterville) and Cotuit for the price of a kettle, a ho, and a promise to build a fence around the Wampanoag camp which may have been located on Oyster Harbors or Point Isabella according to Jim Gould.
The borders were blurry.. Surveyors were a luxury and boundaries and limits were rough descriptions of streams and boulders, landmarks and limits. Little was written down and put on file, and indeed, Paupmunnuck and his people may not have comprehended what such a transaction meant, especially when it came to concepts such as trespassing to a people accustomed to moving from camp to camp with the seasons, moving inland in the winter for shelter and to the coast in the summer for the same reasons we prize the shore today.
The western border between Barnstable and the Indians was set along the banks of the Santuit River and Santuit Pond. Such “rivers” or streams were incredibly valuable sources of protein when the herring run happened every spring, and were also potential sources of power to drive grist mills for the grinding of corn.
The settlers may have regarded the Santuit River as a convenient source of these things, but the Wampanoags told the story of how it was created by a frustrated giant man-sized trout named , who upon hearing the siren song of a beautiful Wampanoag maiden singing on the shores of Santuit Pond, thrashed and wriggled his way through the forest from Popponesset Bay to find her, only to die just yards from his doomed love. She was also transformed into a fish, but died of grief and both of them buried together in the Trout Mound which stands today a short distance to the south and east of the herring ladders at the southern end of Santuit Pond.
This area of Mashpee and Santuit is where the rest of this story is focused so let’s focus on the map for a moment.
Mashpee was formed in the 1660s by Richard Bourne of Sandwich, a prominent lawyer and minister who was part of the early missionary movement led by John Eliot — the minister who translated the Bible into Wopanaak — and which led to the founding of Harvard College as a so called “Indian School.” The conversion of the savages was an immediate priorty of the first settlers, and Bourne acted as a liason between the whites of this area and the tribe, administering to them during an epidemic where his survival conferred some god-like attributes in the eyes of the natives, and working on their behalf to acquire land in around the area to establish a “plantation” for their benefit.
In 1660 Bourne completed the purchase of the 16 square miles that roughly comprise Mashpee and established a deed which granted the land to the Wampanoags with restrictions on their ability to sell that land to the English who were always hot for land and indeed, were beginning to trespass and poach on the lands Standish didn’t buy in 1648. Bourne addressed the fuzziness of the western border between Barnstable and Mashpee, and at his insistence the boundaries were re-set to move the line around the “ancient Indian” village at the southeast corner of the pond.
In 1661 a meetinghouse for the tribe was built on Briant’s Point on the southern end of Santuit Pond. This was replaced by another structure in 1670 , the same building that was eventually moved in 1770 to its present site on Route 28, the Old Falmouth Road.
In 1670 tensions between the settlers and the tribe deteriorated — with the Wampanoag leader Metacomet, or “King Philip” as he was called by the colonists, leading the Wampanoags from their headquarters on Mount Hope Bay near modern Bristol, RI on a three year war of burnings, kidnappings, and terror that swept eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island but never involved Cape Cod.
Mashpee was viewed as the prototypical “Praying Town” — one where the influence of the missionaries and the conversion process into Xhristianity was sufficiently advanced that the tribe could be trusted. One can only assume the level of tension and emotions that ranged along the border of Cotuit and Mashpee during those tense years, marked in American history as perhaps the bloodiest per capita according to the historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his excellent history, “The Mayflower.”
Post war, as the colonists enacted a terrible retribution against the Wampanoags, resettling large numbers on Bermuda, while permitting alcohol to further erode their numbers, the missionaries resumed their conversions and ministrations, using the institution of the Congregational Church and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel as the civilizing center of life in Marshpee. Because the focus of the Harvard Indian College was the training and ordination of native ministers, the college played an integral role, a very paternalistic one, in overseeing the affairs of the village.
This paternalism persisted throughout the 1700s, manifesting itself in a combination of church and state — in this case church and colony — oversight consisting of a board of white overseers who looked after the affairs of the tribe, raised money to pay its expenses and provided the funds to pay the salary of the minister, the parsonage and meetinghouse.
To be continued …
Nov 13 2013
NYTimes: Tribe Claims Approval for Martha’s Vineyard Casino, Reviving Fight
Nov 11 2013
Daniel Duane wrote in the Sunday New York Times of the risks a bicyclist takes when riding on the roads. His point is the driver of the vehicle is rarely prosecuted, or even charged if they stay at the scene and are sober. It’s assumed that cyclists are thrill seekers who get what they deserve, disobeying traffic laws (which some do) and causing dangerous situations by being where they shouldn’t be.
“I made it home alive and bought a stationary bike trainer and workout DVDs with the ex-pro Robbie Ventura guiding virtual rides on Wisconsin farm roads, so that I could sweat safely in my California basement. Then I called my buddy Russ, one of 13,500 daily bike commuters in Washington, D.C. Russ swore cycling was harmless but confessed to awakening recently in a Level 4 trauma center, having been hit by a car he could not remember. Still, Russ insisted I could avoid harm by assuming that every driver was “a mouth-breathing drug addict with a murderous hatred for cyclists.”
“The anecdotes mounted: my wife’s childhood friend was cycling with Mom and Dad when a city truck killed her; two of my father’s law partners, maimed. I began noticing “cyclist killed” news articles, like one about Amelie Le Moullac, 24, pedaling inside a bike lane in San Francisco’s SOMA district when a truck turned right and killed her. In these articles, I found a recurring phrase: to quote from The San Francisco Chronicle story about Ms. Le Moullac, “The truck driver stayed at the scene and was not cited.”
Yet as cities open up bike-share programs and paint lines on their streets for bicycle lanes, the problem is going to get more acute not less. It has been said there are two kinds of cyclists. Those who have crashed and those who are about to. Don’t look at the Tour de France cyclists a risk takers — they ride on open roads closed to texting teenagers, road raging pickups and trucks with big blind spots — they have it easy. Duane cites a friend who commutes by bicycle in Washington, D.C. and woke up in a trauma center. He talks about the phenomenon of noticing headlines about dead bicyclists after having been in an accident himself. It’s true, after my run in with a car in 2006 — he crossed the lane and hit me head on — I am very sensitive to any news of roadside mayhem and there is lots of it. I would guess three cyclists died on the Cape this summer. Wiped out by a driver who probably wasn’t charged. Hell, a good friend and former cycling companion nearly died last spring when a guy ran her over and then admitted he had pulled a “wake and bake” and been stoned at the time.
Whatever the solution, I used to daydream of a post-apocalyptic future where cars were gone and the roads were wide open for cyclists like a character in Stephen King’s The Stand. Until then, no bicycles for me.
Oct 31 2013
It will take a better statistician than me to make the case that the 2013 Boston Red Sox are the best, or second best, or whatever best team in the history of the club. I can’t speak to anything first-hand experience back to 1967, when I was nine years old and playing bad first-base in the Georgetown, Massachusetts rec department’s Farm League (pre-Little League) using an antique pancake mitt handed down from my grandfather, a relic I hated at the time but really wish I had today. That Impossible Dream team will always be the most vivid. 1975 was frankly a blur. The 1986 Buckner team was the most evil in its wicked mental torments. The Curse-bursting 2004 team the most blessed. The 2007 the most capable. But this one….I don’t know, they just played wicked good and seemed to have fun and a showed lot of respect for the laundry.
Basking in the morning-after-glow of a great World Series game, everyone wants to roll over in bed,hug the lovable, bearded rascals and say, “I love you. Let’s do it again.” Sometime in the next few days the team will pile into the duck boats and parade around a happy city and Boston will have its moment finally after a baseball season that started fresh and raw and unknown in April and ended six months later the way the movies would have wanted it to.
Painting the house in April, on the ladder, WEEI kept me company on those chilly weekend afternoons with Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien calling the games in between Verizon Wireless and Shaw’s Supermarket Little Debbie Snack Cake ads. As I scraped and prepped I kept an ear tuned for that tell-tale rise in excitement in their voices and listened as a lot of new names made their debut .Would I have called it then? Would I have made the prediction they’d go all the way “from worst to first?” Of course not, I was thinking maybe they’d get the wildcard but not make it past Toronto or Detroit. I trusted the new manager, John Farrell, solely on the basis of his killer jaw-line and that calm Gary Cooper demeanor so calm and firmly assuring after the Howdy Doody persona of his ill-fated predecessor Bobby “Did You Know He Invented the Wrap?” Valentine.
Then the Brothers Tsarnaev did their heinous deeds.
Suddenly the Red Sox were carrying a lot more psychic weight than just trying to redeem themselves from the days of Chicken-and-Beer and their last place finish the year before. They came home from the road trip and one could feel the city latch onto them, beseeching them to make it okay, to bring back the calm rhythms of a sunny afternoon game in Fenway, to sing the songs and chant the chants they cheered and sang the year before and the year before that. The Red Sox couldn’t to carry the weight of the Marathon. They were happy to accept it and gracious in allowing Fenway to become the city’s church and place of mourning; but as John Lester said, the team didn’t have much to offer other than provide a diversion to get people’s minds off the mess.
Boston is a city of ghosts where nothing really changes, a place with a ring of road salt rime around the cuffs of its pants; a pissed-off, wind chapped, itchy skin, sleet smeared windshield, can-you-fucking-believe-they-closed-the-Hilltop? town that isn’t nearly as liberal as the rest of the country thinks it is, a college town that doesn’t love the students who infest it, a kind of ugly place that retreats into its clannish neighborhoods, scores an eight-ball of whizzer and looks down at the bandwagon yuppies in their pink hats who sing “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth inning.
That horrible song with no connection what-so-ever to Boston or baseball is never going away. When The Neil Himself showed up and sang the damn thing at the Post-Marathon mourning session I gave up my campaign to ban it and just thank edthe Baseball Gods that we don’t need to wave Surrender Towels like every other team’s fans seem to need to do along with ring cowbells and follow big LED jumbotron exhortations to Make. Some. Noise. It is said that Red Sox fans are the tenth player on the roster. This sentimental, formerly cursed nation that cheers from Woonsocket to Millinocket (and who, after breaking the Curse in 2004 lugged team gear and flowers to the graves of their dearly departed so they could join in the celebration too) these fans like the loud, crazed drunk I once watched in a black and orange knit wool Bruins cap sitting behind the visitors bullpen who taunted J.D. Drew non-stop for collecting too much salary, and then who scornfully caught, barehanded, a Yankee homer whacked at him by the despised A-Rod and then hucked it back onto the field without a second thought or spilling a single drop of his $8.50 cup of ‘Gansett.
I’m just glad to have the chance watch it all with my sons and my mother and my sister and my brother-in-law and nephews. Crowded around a television. Screaming and high-fiving. Drinking too much on a school night while layered in a #38 Schilling t-shirt with a Mike Lowell 2007 World Series MVP team jersey on over that, and a nasty smelly blue Red Sox hat speckled with bottom paint.
I doubt this fan will ever see a year of baseball like he saw in 2013 — a double-headed championship crown that started with the Cotuit Kettleers and ends with the Olde Towne Team triumphant.
And David Ortiz is getting a statue in front of Fenway. Just saying.
Oct 30 2013
Over the past twenty years I’ve been around enough web site launches, redesigns, platform swaps, RFPs, RFQs, consultants, vendors, third-party developers, project managers, stakeholder/steering committee meetings and total crashes and site failures to feel eminently qualified to say the smoking crater in the ground known as the Obamacare website was guaranteed to happen the day it was conceived.
And the fix is simple. Seriously. Pick up the phone. Call Werner Vogel at Amazon or Larry Page at Google — arguably the two best web infrastructure guys on the planet — and ask them to fix it. Privatize it. Make it a marketing triumph for IBM or Oracle. Screw the GSA bidding process, screw the consultants, the parasitic systems integrators looking for $10 million engagements, and the whole federal procurement process that is designed to deliver broken, grey blobs that never work. There’s only one solution and that’s to go to the private sector and have a single company accustomed to zero-defects and a lot of uptime “nine’s” build it.
Some people are saying the government should have gone open source and used WordPress or Drupal to build this pig. Wrong. Those are wonderful content management systems, but the problem isn’t the content and it’s not whether or not this thing was built with MySQL or Oracle or a left-handed monkey wrench — the problem lies deep beneath the timed-out sessions, 404 pages and error messages — it’s the underlying transaction processing engine that lies under the surface like the giant fungus on the Olympic Peninsula that is the world largest living organism. This isn’t about code, this isn’t about servers or bandwidth, Hadoop, PHP or whatever the technical problem is. It’s about a bureaucracy building the ultimate bureaucratic system.
Here’s how it works: healthcare.gov is just the visible manifestation of the visible portion of the whole platform, one that is supposed to steer consumers to an informed selection of a health plan offered by a distributed network of commercial health insurance companies. The platform needs to talk to each insurer’s own web infrastructure and accommodate their rules and standards. That’s complex enough, but let’s assume some middle-ware solution to define a common data-interchange was put in place so the government site could handle all the private insurers systems. Check. But before the consumer can get to the insurers they need to register in order to browse.
And we have failure point number one. Any ecommerce operator knows registration is a total buzz killer to a shopper. Get the crap in the cart, and then, when the trigger is ready to be pulled, you roll out registration. Registration itself is database intensive. It means creating a record via a form of fields — last name, DOB, SSN, etc. — and then some form of confirmation via an email that is generated by the system and sent to the user to click on a validation link, etc.. We all know the drill. This is like asking all the fans of tonight’s World Series game at Fenway to stand outside on Landsdowne Street and Yawkey Way until 7:55 pm with first pitch at 8 pm. The gates open, but before each fan can pass through the turnstile they need to fill out a form, submit it, wait for a confirmation to appear on their phone, click that, and then the turnstile can turn. People start to panic. They hit submit a few times. They hear the Star Spangled Banner and they start to push, next thing you know people are being trampled like door busters at a Long Island Walmart at 12:01 am on Black Friday.
Some government dimwit(s) decided to make registration mandatory before browsing. Dumb. Register at the point of the transaction, not the window shopping. Most of the traffic wanted to see what the big deal was. Sure, some entered expecting to leave with a transaction successfully completed, but some just wanted to browse. So let them browse.
The reason it was decided to make users register first was determine their eligibility and show them the plans that fit their circumstances. This is where the website is more than a bunch of pretty screens and a Drupal CMS — this is the Octopus underneath it all that has to take the registration information, (probably the social security number) and run it through a ton of government databases. I have no idea which ones are being pinged, but let’s assume they range from the Social Security Administration to the IRS to Health and Human Services, maybe state social services, Immigration, Veterans ….the list goes on. Who cares? It had to happen and it wasn’t going to be easy. When the requirements were put together for the exchange, the main challenge was determining eligibility and segmenting the set of plans any consumer could see based on certain factors — e.g., oh, you live in Massachusetts, you’re already in an exchange set up by Mitt Romney, so you can go away. Goodbye. One can assume — the government loving complexity because complexity fuels bureaucracies and bureaucracies exists to project the bureaucracy — that the Obamacare website is being asked to route and receive a ton of distributed requests because one after another, as the requirements were gathered, a lot of hands went up and said, “Well, we need to include this of course.” And so the system started to sprout a lot of hair.
This country put a man on the moon. Now it can’t build an online exchange?
Anyway, so Failure Point number two: too much bureaucracy and trying to hit too many external systems to qualify the consumer. Got it. That one was unavoidable but manageable and is by no means a trivial thing to solve.
Gauging from the squirming testimony before Congress and the finger pointing among the contractors that is going on, the biggest failure here was not Cool Hand Luke’s “failure to communicate” but a lack of leadership and a strong project management office. One can imagine what the set of different stakeholders looked like on this project. You’ve got elected officials who can’t find their ass with both hands when it comes to voting on ordinary legislation, let alone technology development; professional government bureaucrats who guard their silos; a bunch of external contractors trying to salvage a 15% profit from their work, all screaming that the requirements are changing too much and the deadline is too aggressive while they offshore the coding to a “low cost operating center”….. This is why communists are shitty capitalists. You can’t get stuff done in a Soviet tractor factory.
Failure point number three: lack of governance. There was no “one throat to choke” on this. Otherwise we’d be seeing a single hapless victim being pilloried as the Obama administration throws a sacrifice to the angry gods. This project needed to be owned at the top, managed like an army on a campaign with a strong project management office, and that project management office should have been throwing warning flags all last summer. Rather than launch it when it was ready, it was launched under a political maelstrom of tin-foil hat Congressmen trying to defund the entire program, a President determined to hit deadlines instead of usability levels and the result was a classic case of too many cooks, not enough accountability, and political forces trumping logical best practices in project management.
Final point of failure: complexity. Too many contractors, too many stakeholders, too many systems …. The President likes to dine with the CEOs of Silicon Valley. He rubs elbows with Gates and Schmidt and the rest of the gang. Hell, Bezos just bought the Post and is officially a heavy hitter in D.C. — pick up the phone, call one of them, say, “Name your price, just make it work.” And tah dah. Let Congress piss and moan that the RFP didn’t follow procurement guidelines. At least America would have a website that works instead of a national embarrassment alongside its Congress, it’s infrastructure, its banks, it’s college loans …. This thing was built by committee and nothing good ever was built by committee.
The fact that Congress is holding hearings to find the smoking gun in the smoking crater is risible. They need some serious infrastructure geeks to get up there and pull a Richard Feynman drolly demonstrating why space shuttles blow up when rubber O-rings are dipped in a glass of ice water. Not the good Congressman from North Dakota who can’t operate anything more complicated than his Blackberry.
Oct 25 2013
I saw a piece in the Wall Street Journal that a private island is on the market in Osterville, the town to the east of Cotuit. Called “Fox Island” I had never heard of it before so I went digging. Based on the WSJ description of it having waterfront on North Bay and a dock in Dam Pond, I guess it is the gorgeous and wild neck of land at the eastern shore of the entrance to Prince’s Cove. Purchased for $400,000 in the 1970s the place is on the market for nearly $9 million, which I consider actually a bargain, but then again I’m not putting in an offer any time soon. I cruised by the spot earlier this week as I delivered the sailboat to the boat ramp at Prince’s Cove Marina. I’ve fished the beach there in the spring for monster striped bass which come up inside the estuary chasing the herring making their way into the Mills River herring run. It’s an awesome little gem of a spot with ospreys and blue herons. I never knew it had a name, but now I do.
Oct 25 2013
You can’t buy it (which is a shame), but the Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club has been published. My copy arrived yesterday via the mail. This is a project I was honored to help draft in the late 1980s when I was fresh from publishing The Book of Rowing with Overlook Press and had just joined Boston’s Union Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in a city known for its rowing.
David Thorndike, Charlie Clapp, Cap Kane and countless UBC members contributed to the effort which took a herculean effort over a decade and half to be born. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, picking through the club’s archives, interviewing the most venerable members, and identifying the big gaps in the historical record which needed to be filled in before the project was ready for the printer. I confess to fading out of the picture for a while, but the project was revived and finally pushed over the deadline this past year, emerging as a gorgeous “coffee table” book printed privately for the membership.
Which is a shame, as I’d stack this tome against any book in the rowing history pantheon. The photography is gorgeous, the historical archive priceless.
The project was pushed by David Thorndike in the 80s as the 150th anniversary of the club approached and its first history, published at the turn of the previous century was in desperate need of an update. The club has a unique place in the history of American rowing, coming as it did in antebellum Boston at a time when Harvard and Yale were only just beginning their rivalry on the water, now the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. The early logs are a humorous and plucky look at sporting life before spinning classes, Crossfit and paleo diets. When men obsessed more about their uniforms than actual exercise, when rowing consisted of leisurely rows up and down the tidal Charles River and through the islands of Boston Harbor, never really racing, just touring around in the novel pursuit of leisure time.
The role of the UBC in the history of American and international rowing is deep and storied. Basically emerging as an alumni club for Harvard rowers, it sent championship crews to the Henley Royal Regatta, counted nearly a dozen Olympians among its alumni, and sits, socially, at the center of Brahmin Boston, its clubhouse standing at the foot of Beacon Hill near the Hatch concert Shell. A tour of the boathouse and clubhouse is a trip back in time to the 19th century, the walls and floors permeated with the sweat of generations after generations of politicians, lawyers, bankers, surgeons and eccentric characters from another era. The club has seen its share of challenges. The state dammed up the Charles and filled in the Embankment cutting it off from the river. The club went coed in the late 80s after years of being a men’s club. Rowing faded in popularity in the 60s and 70s as the sport went into a general decline, but today the place flourishes, alongside the sport, anchoring down the competitive rowing scene on the Charles, sending crews up river to do their best.
Oct 22 2013
There’s this bird called the cormorant, also known as the “shag”, which has been a part of the local wildlife for the last decade or more, arriving from the south and taking up residence along with the gulls, terns and ospreys. They are big black birds with long necks and cape-like wings they hold open to let the breeze dry them off. They feed on the bottom on mussels and crabs, popping to the surface to shake their heads and paddle along until spooked, at which point they windmill and run over the surface until they achieve escape velocity and can get airborne.
I want them all dead.
Cormorants exist to shit on my boat. I have strung up old CDs on strings like the rearview mirror of a teenager’s first car to scare them away. I have spent a hundred dollars on bird spikes for the spreaders on my mast. I have festooned my boom with old plastic grocery bags until the poor boat looks like a tree on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.
But they shit and they continue to shit. And then they shit some more. They deposit prodigious amounts of fish-imbued filth all over the decks, the wheel, the cleats, lines, seats, dodger, windows, spars, winches and lifelines, coating the boat with a thick coat of white guano mixed with undigested mollusks, pebbles, and some sort of toxic waste that is impossible to remove. Flies love the stuff and the whole affair is just an invitation to salmonella, shigella, giardia, diarrhea, MRSA and whatever other flesh-eating bacteria you care to contract.
Yesterday was pull-the-boat day, so Sunday I put-putted out in the motorboat with my son to get things ready for the pulling of the mast at Town Dock. My buddy Tom K. was standing on the shore and bore the bad news. “Good luck with the guano” he said. Sure, I knew they had found a little gap in the bird spikes on the lower starboard spreader and one had managed to spackle the dodger with a blast of ass vomit, but that was okay, I saw that mess the weekend before as I returned triumphant with a bucket o’tautog, but like an idiot I didn’t clean it up. Leaving it there was tantamount to declaring the Bald Eagle was now a designated cormorant port-a-potti and they took advantage of the invitation. It’s a matter of dwindling opportunities, sort of like musical toilets where as the days go by the music stops and they take away another boat to poop on. Stay in past Columbus Day and the ratio of bird butts to available boat toilets get worse and worse until the last boat standing is a heaping, stinking mess of avian fertilizer.
It reminds me of the islands off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean that were so coated in bird shit that fortunes were made mining the stuff and shipping it back to the world as fertilizer. Guano was big bucks. But not my guano. No, my guano is my cross to bear.
So I get the boat into the town dock and start calling around for a power washer in the belief that I can use the dock’s faucet and some high pressure blasting to tidy things up before the kibbutzers and bored amateur wharfingers of Cotuit can point out the obvious and tell me it looks like birds have taken a massive dump (why are all dumps “massive?) on my yacht. I tie up. Test the faucet. Dry. The powers-that-be in the Town of Barnstable evidently believe the world stops on Columbus Day and have disconnected the pipes for the winter. Another boat arrives, also frosted with a nice layer, the owner asks me “Is the water on?” Nope. The term “shit out of luck” is invoked and I tie the end of a poo-covered jib sheet to the handle of a bucket and start hauling five gallons of sea water aboard every thirty seconds to try to soften it up and sluice it over the side.
The first helpful rocket scientist arrives with a cock-a-poo or a labra-dump on a leash and says, “Hey, someone got hit hard.” Ha ha. Very funny. Really? No fooling? You think? Scrub, scrub, scrub. Flies going up my nose. Backsplash in my mouth. The other boat owner has rubber gloves on. Not me. I just start rolling in the stuff and compose my obituary: he died a coprolagniac.
Six hours later and the sails are off, the turnbuckles on the rigging are loose, the neutral stop-switch in the throttle is fixed and the engine is running but the boat is still smeared with stalagmites of cormorant. I have been told to use lime remover, Comet, warm soapy water, screw-it-let-the-rain-wash-it-off, and to-hell-with-it–just-shrink-wrap the whole mess and pretend it didn’t happen. Being a nice day the dock was busy with spandexed cyclists, panting joggers, shoulder season tourists, local wise guys and friends and neighbors. Every single one of them expressed some rueful condolences over my messy boat.
Only one said anything that made any sense. I salute him.
“Next time put out mousetraps. All it takes is one and they get the word and won’t come back and if you’re lucky, you might see one trying to shake a trap off it’s claw.”
Thank you. I shall have my revenge.
Oct 14 2013
Oct 14 2013
When I was a kid I saw some fishermen bring a mess of tautog (Tautoga onitis) into the Town Dock and lay them out on the planks for a hose-off. I’d never seen a fish like it before, and was really fascinated by the horrid red tumor-ish looking thing on their white underbellies. They are known as “blackfish,” “oysterfish” and the “poor-man’s lobster.” Yesterday I caught and ate my first one ever.
Tautog is a word from the Narragansett tribe, originally “tautatog” and first noted by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, in his 1648 lexicon of the Narragansett language. They are members of the wrasse family and are remarkable looking fish, with thick rubbery lips and snaggle-toothed mouths with blunt teeth for crushing and grinding shellfish and crustaceans, their preferred diet. They spawn inshore in the spring and move off a bit to rocks and wrecks during the summer, migrating to deeper water over the winter. The fish are renowned for being one of the better eating fish in New England, especially in fish chowders, and are said to be tricky to catch given their penchant for diving back into the rocks when hooked up.
With the fall fishing season being measured in weeks if not days, I feel a strange longing to get on the water as much as possible these autumn weekends and put my time in before I put the boats away and settle into another winter of my discontent. So yesterday, on a brisk Columbus Day weekend Sunday, I called around the local bait and tackles looking for crabs — the preferred fall bait of the tautog — found some in Falmouth, and off I went for two quarts of green crabs, some six ounce bank sinkers and four pre-tied rigs.
My son and I took the skiff out through Seapuit and the Osterville Cut and immediately questioned the wisdom of pounding through the three-foot seas to the best tautog spot in the area, a ledge of rocks a mile or so off of Centerville. I could only run the boat at slow ahead while trying to dodge the spray and I could feel the negative vibes radiating off of my passenger as one wave after another soaked us down, rendered my sunglasses useless, and foretold an expedition that would probably redefine “fool’s errand.” But we had $10 worth of crabs to use and I was determined not to throw away good bait just because of a healthy northeasterly breeze pushing a chop into our face. Real men fish when they can, not when it’s nice.
After twenty minutes of slow going I saw the surf crashing over the exposed pile of snaggle-toothed rocks — a bad sight that made me happy to have a VHF radio aboard should something catastrophic happen — and made a slow approach, looking for the best way to anchor in the building seas without crunching the lower unit of the outboard on the pile of glacial till. My son made ready with the anchor, I motored upwind to one side of the reef, told him to let it drop, and waited until it dug in and the boat pointed up into the wind. We were too close on the first set as only five feet lay between us and catastrophe. So I went back into gear, took the tension off the anchor line and had him pick it back up for another set about twenty feet off. The advice on fishing tautog was simple: find the obstruction and get close as the fish lurk right around the rocks picking off barnacles and crabs. Setting the baits too far away is useless because the tautog won’t venture very far from their shelter.
With the anchor set and no signs of dragging to our doom like the wreck of the Hesperus, I was confident enough to turn off the engine and make ready with the rods. We were using old fiberglas trolling rods owned by my grandfather — wooden handles, yellow and blue thread around the guides, with old Penn conventional reels filled with 50 lb. test monofilament. I tied on the rigs, clipped on the weights, and, seeing that the boat was pitching way too much to safely play with hooks, took a safe seat, opened up the chinese-food paper quart container, and took out the first victim — a little green crab.
Fishing with bait is a bit violent. Guaranteed to get an “eww” out of the audience, and working with crabs is a bit sadistic. I ripped off the claws and legs until I had a half-dollar sized circle of crab body. In goes the hook, one on top and another below in a classic hi-lo bottom rig
I slung-cast both sets of bait right beside the ledge, handed one rod to my son and kept one for myself.
The boat kept pitching and rolling like crazy. An open 18-foot skiff, in mid October on Nantucket Sound without a single other boat around to offer rescue should the worst occur and Cousin Pete out of town for the weekend and thus unable to answer any panicked cell phone calls to come out in his boat and save us (and I didn’t renew my BoatUS tow policy this summer). But we had life jackets and a radio so I wasn’t too concerned, just vigilant as we were on the verge of pushing our luck as the white caps built and the wind blew harder off the land in the direction of Hyannisport and the Kennedy Compound.
“Whoa.” My son went from skeptical to interested. I turned and saw his short rod bent double.
“Caught in the rocks?” I asked skeptically.
“Hell no. This is a fish.”
The rod bounced the way they do when there are fish on the other end as he reeled, fighting the submerged surprise. I got ready to assist. Bracing myself against the rolling of the boat as the anchor line creaked and rubbed in the chock. And then, from the green depths, was a black shape. I leaned over, guided the line through my hand to the leader, and swung the catch inboard.
It was a tautog. A black, slippery, pugnacious tautog with the big red “vent”, its exaggerated anal opening all red and protruding due to the crushed shells that pass through it, sort of the fish equivalent of a diet of crushed glass and razor blades mixed with hemorrhoids and fissures. I got a hold of the very cool looking fish, let it calm down, grabbed the fishing pliers and worked the hook out, laid the fish along the ruler on the edge of the cooler seat, and finding it well over the 16″ minimum, tossed it in the bucket for dinner.
Then it was my turn. I landed a little one, about a foot long, and gave it the obligatory good luck kiss on the head and sent it back to grow up.
Thirty minutes, fifty unlucky crabs, and the bucket was loaded with the limit of six squirming fish (three each). I tossed the remaining crabs over the side to fend for themselves or appease the hungry Tautog God, then broke out two beers and a pair of chicken sandwiches slapped together from Saturday night’s leftovers. All was well with the world. It doesn’t get much better for a guy than to catch fish with his eldest son on a sunny day (and then watch the Red Sox snatch an epic victory from the Tigers later than same day).
The “fun” part began when we got home. I banged a nail into a plank to keep the fish from sliding around while I filleted them and got very up close and intimate with my food. Which is how it should be. The tautogs’ stomachs were filled with crabs and shells (CSI Cotuit, Dave Churbuck fish coroner). I stripped out the guts and gills and set aside the heads and racks to make a fond de poisson (fish stock). While that bubbled away we hit the grocery story and bought the fixings for a Bahamian fish chowder. It was good. The tautog went to their maker in a very good and spicy stew and will see further duty tonight in Baja-styled fried fish tacos.
Sep 23 2013
I may be a traditionalist when it comes to racing sailboats — I like them wooden, leaky and gaff-rigged — and I have bitched about how the America’s Cup needs to come back to Newport, Rhode Island and be raced in those oh-so-elegant 12-meters of my youth. But after spending a rapt half hour on the couch with my tablet and a half-hour of coverage from San Francisco Bay I take it all back. AC-72 catamarans are amazing things.
Catamarans have the reputation of being the jet-skis of the sailing world. The people who sail them tend to be adrenaline freaks who zip back and forth looking for speed and little else. The boats point into the wind like square-riggers, require elbow and knee pads and a crash helmet, and beg to be sailed while yelling “yee-hah.” They entered the America’s Cup under desperate circumstances in 1988 when Dennis Conner showed up in one to kick New Zealand’s ass after they showed up in a 90-foot mega yacht and convinced a judge to uphold the move away from 12-meters as perfectly legal under the terms of the “Deed of Gift” — the rules that govern the strange and venerable competition. Dennis and his catamaran sailed circles around the New Zealanders, the credibility of the America’s Cup hit an all-time low, and all semblance of dignity went out the window. But catamarans were in.
Not that the America’s Cup was ever a fair fight. As my buddy Charlie points out, the name of the game has been getting a technical edge from the very beginning when the American’s sent an overpowered schooner over to England to kick the best butts in the Royal British Yacht Squadron. Half the battles have been in the courts, with challengers and defenders contesting the ambiguous rules every chance they get and giving full credence to the cliche of the “sea lawyer.” Winged-keels, crews of ringers from foreign countries, billionaires with more bucks than brains … what’s not to love?
Whatever. I tip my hat to Larry Ellison for making it a total tech fest on Silicon Valley’s home waters. These boats represent the cutting edge of aquatic technology, use nothing but the wind to scream along at more than 35 mph, and thanks to overlaid graphics, helicopters, onboard Go-Pro helmet cams, and crazy color commentary that would be more in place in a UFC cage match, finally putting to rest Mark Twain’s old tired complaint that watching yacht racing is less exciting than watching paint dry or grass grow.
The US is behind — docked two races for cheating — and it’s do-or-die with them needing to win all of the remaining race to stay in the game.
Sep 23 2013
Consider the state of the byline. The name of a writer on top of an article or blog post isn’t enough anymore to let readers know the implied qualifications of that author now that publishers are opening up their mastheads and page-views to unpaid contributors, consultants, thought-leaders and advertisers in what New York Times media critic David Carr recently called “an oven that makes its own food.”
Carr made that reference to Forbes.com and its decision to open its digital pages to external contributors, and in a brilliant revenue building move, to advertisers who pay to appear in an advertising channel Forbes calls BrandVoice, part of the current craze in digital advertising formats known as native advertising. Forbes isn’t the first nor the last online publisher to welcome contributions from witers other than their full-time staff of reports and editors. Nor is it the first to practice native advertising, formerly known as “advertorial” or “custom” publishing. The Huffington Post was founded as a cacophony of bylines and voices, all vying for attention and traffic in the “look-at-me” economy. For publishers it’s a sweet deal, letting them become Tom Sawyers who persuade others to paint the fence for them.
Bylines haven’t always been a given in journalism. Jack Shafer, writing for Reuters in 2012, offers up the interesting historical note that General Joseph Hooker demanded reporters covering his campaigns during the Civil War put their names on their stories so he could hold them accountable. Hooker insisted on bylines “as a means of attributing responsibility and blame for the publication of material he found inaccurate or dangerous to the Army of the Potomac.”
The purpose of a byline is to simply attribute a story to a writer: one part vanity, another part accountability. Bylines aren’t biographies of that writer, just a single three-word attribution (“By John Smith”) that imply that the words and fact and opinions that follow were written by that person (Shafer writes about the proliferation of fake bylines flowing from off-shore content farms, but that’s another story for another day). In the dinosaur days of mainstream print journalism there was an unspoken sense that if a publication granted a byline to a staff writer then that writer had a certain validation as being judged competent and experienced enough to grace the publication’s masthead and pages.
A degree of professionalism in an unlicensed craft was assumed if the byline appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes or Time. Earning a byline from the Boston Globe implied a different level of professional quality and experience than a byline in the MetroWest Shopper. In short, a byline was a writer’s equivalent to a doctor or lawyer tacking MD or JD onto their name. It was hard to earn but ultimately the only public recognition a reporter received. It took me a long time to earn a Forbes byline. Now any extroverted hyper-social networker with a craving for a high Klout score and a taste for LinkedIn/Quora influence points can start bloviating for free and walk away with “Forbes Columnist” on their resume.
Today the appeal of giving it away for free to Forbes is simple — it’s a great resume inflator. Now any aspiring expert can add Forbes to their resume and point to some digital clips as proof. The mounting number of would-be pundits on LinkedIn who proclaim themselves to be Forbes columnists or contributors reminds me of people who send away for mail order coats of arms.
You can call it the democratization of the press, the breaching of the walls of conceit that doomed dinosaur journalism, the wall that said “we’re better than you” when it came to publishing the reader’s letters of complaint and disagreement, the walls that said the only persons qualified to put a word on paper were those deemed qualified to do so by the editor who hired them and paid them. Mastheads were tough to crack — ask any young journalist in the late 1970s who dreamed of breaking into the Washington Post and getting a seat at the same table as Woodward and Bernstein. Those seats were rare and hard to obtain, Ben Bradlee didn’t hand them out to K-street lobbyists and Congressional staffers. Today? Hey, if you’re willing to work for free and can string some words together into a coherent sentence, preferably with a provocative, link-bait point of view, then publishers are more than happy to give you a shot at OpEd immortality.
In this blurry world of “content marketing and native journalism,” it is getting harder to tell the reporters from the advertisers. The wall between the journalism and the ads is coming down, and Carr and others (like Andrew Sullivan) are lamenting what we’ve lost. Sure, the money is nice and helping publishers make payroll (or avoid paying it) — and some graphical efforts are being made to fence off the advertorial native stuff with tinted boxes, hairlines and little “sponsored by” tags — but the blurring issue is out there and it isn’t so much about segregating the paid words from the “real” words, it’s about the qualifications of the byline as well.
Bylines are a relatively new phenomenon in journalism. They rarely appeared in 19th century newspapers, and indeed many writers used pen-names to mask their identity, particularly on political polemics. Thomas Paine, in writing Common Sense, one of the most influential calls-to-revolution in the years leading up to the American Revolution, chose to mask his identity and byline the work as merely: “Written by an Englishman.”
As correspondents began to make a name for themselves and were prime draws for a newspaper during the lurid days of yellow journalism, when war correspondents like Richard Harding Davis and Ambrose Bierce were the stars of the press, bylines were marketing devices to build circulation. Some magazines don’t grant bylines at all: The Economist is the best known practitioner of the anonymous policy.
I’ve freelanced under pseudonyms — I got hired by Forbes when I wrote a try-out story about digital mapping in 1988 under a bogus name because I didn’t want my then-current employer to know (that story won second place in the Computer Press Association awards in 1988, so the validity of the byline didn’t have much to do with its credibility, though it was indeed a tacit deception on my part and Forbes’ on their readers. )I have ghostwritten books, and continue to freelance edit and write assorted articles and whitepapers anonymously for a few clients in the consulting and corporate world. They evidently like my assistance due to my background in the professional press, and I like the fees they pay. There are a lot of ex-journalists like me turning a good buck writing corporate journalism these days and I don’t begrudge them a penny.
The point of all of this is that the editorial authority of the old stalwarts is gone like their paper editions. They’re trading on fading memories of being brands that stood for something important but are losing their mojo to Buzzfeed and TMZ. Newsweek? Dead. Businessweek? Sold for a dollar to Bloomberg. Forbes? Still alive and flourishing thanks to its experimentation, but still attracting the ire of the Times and other media critics for pushing the limits and definitions of the first medium to get truly disrupted and overthrown by the digital revolution.
Sep 09 2013
The Red Sox bandwagon is officially rolling. The checkout lady at the grocery store told me “Go Sox” yesterday and the simple fact that I am screaming at the television set late in the games is a leading indicator that post-season fever is building.
It was with some superstition that I saw this post-season probabilities chart on MLB.com that give the Sox a 100% chance of making the post-season. Sorry, but the magic number is down to 12 to keep Tampa out and dependent on the wild card. Nothing is 100%, especially since the Sox set the record for the worst September meltdown in the history of the game back in 2011, the season of beer and chicken.
Yet here is proof some statistical, Monte Carlo simulating fool thinks the Red Sox are a sure thing. Bring on the Rays and I have tickets for Friday’s game against the Yankees at home: