While going through some junk I discovered a copy of a paper I wrote in 1977 in college on the origins of the Fair-Haven Sharpie, a flat-bottomed oyster skiff popular in New Haven, Connecticut in the 19th century. I wrote this for Professor William Ferris, then a professor of American Folk Lore in the American Studies Department of Yale. While most of the syllabus and lectures focused on his work in African-American music and culture of the Mississippi Delta, I went down a more local path and researched the development of the sharpie, tracing its origins back to the dugout canoes built by the Iroquois. The research entailed me walking east from my dorm room across to the Fairhaven neighborhood on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in search of any old timers who might have worked in the once burgeoning oyster fishery. I had a cassette recorder, a notebook, and a cheap camera.
I thumbed to Mystic Seaport a few times to check out their collection of small boats and did my time in the research library there reading Howard Chapelle, the dean of American small boat design and curator at the Smithsonian. Chapelle had speculated on the dug out canoe origins of the long, narrow skiffs and I went a little deeper and keep digging into the construction techniques and coastal migration of the design up and down the East Coast. The sharpie was a very popular working boat and was utilized in the commercial oyster fishery from Cape Cod to Florida.
I lucked out with my leg work when I poked my head into a Fairhaven barber shop and asked the old timers there if they knew any old oystermen. I was directed to a local nursing home and there I met three very old codgers who still had their wits and could regale me with stories about the boats they built, sailed and worked from most of their lives.
When it came time to present the final paper in Ferris’s class, the grad student who ran my seminar (the once a week gathering of a dozen students and their assigned seminar leader) interrupted me and told Ferris I had never, not once, attended a single seminar during the entire term. Which was true. I worked in the library printing press during the afternoon before rowing practice and needed the job to keep my scholarship, so I blew the seminar off which I did in almost every lecture because I saw no point listening to blowhard classmates suck up to the grad student.
Ferris (who also graduated from The Brooks School, my prep school) said something to the effect of, “Oh yes. The oyster boat paper. About that. Have you considered post-graduate work in maritime history? I’m giving you an A+ and recommend you continue the work, it’s fascinating and the most novel piece of work I’ve seen in ten years of teaching this class.”
Wow. Okay. Wonder how he would have felt if he knew I had handed in the same paper to two other professors that same term and racked up two more A+’s for the same work.
Anyway, a reporter at the Cape Cod Times was doing some research on sharpies for his brother who was building one, and he came across a copy of the paper on file at the New Haven Historical Society. I guess one of the three professors deemed it good enough to submit it on my behalf.
Earlier this week I received a ThinkPad T25, the 25th anniversary edition of the Lenovo ThinkPad, teased a couple years ago by Lenovo’s lead designer and my former colleague and good friend, David Hill.
I’ve been without a ThinkPad for the past four years. In a fit of madness I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 in 2014 before joining Acquia. While my new employer had once supported a few ThinkPads for its more discerning engineers, the standard issue laptop was a Mac Air, an odious little device that somehow brought to mind Christopher Buckley’s observation that a man driving a minivan is half a man. The former CEO of Acquia, hated seeing me with the Surface just because. I said, like a smarty-pants, that the corporate HR culture wbpage said “Mac or PC? Yes!” He said “Not anymore” and thenceforth I was relegated to forevermore lugging around the Mac to meetings while keeping the Surface docked and hidden at my desk for serious work.
There was something very unsettling and traitorous about going to a competitor’s laptop after five years spent at the dawn of Lenovo marketing the iconic ThinkPad. I felt like I was missing a phantom limb. The Mac was an act of treachery, a true tergiversation. My allergy to Apple products goes back to when I was a reporter for PC Week (“The IBM-standard News Weekly of Corporate Computing) and competed with another Ziff-Davis publication, MacWeek. I never met Steve Jobs, thought John Scully was meh, and for the life of me could never figure out the weird propeller key on the Mac’s keyboard. “It just works!” the Mac addicts would tell me, but Apple has always rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it comes down to the lack of a right mouse button, a sense of the void when it comes to file structure, and a general feeling the things are smug and “twee.”
The ThinkPad however….where to begin in my reverence for those black rubberized rectangles with the red mouse pointer embedded in the middle of the keyboard? Is it just that their keyboards are so sublime, so tactile, so responsive that it’s no wonder the ThinkPad became the standard tool for professional writers just as the Leica M was de rigeur for war photographers? Is it the meaty heft of the total package? A feeling of invulnerability that with it’s magnesium roll cage and hard edges that it would be the weapon of choice if one had to charge the cockpit against a mob of hijackers?
In the documentary “Page One,” the late (and sorely missed) New York Times media critic David Carr interviewed the founders of Vice. He whacks away at his ThinkPad during the interview, taking notes directly into the machine (the same way I used to when I was a reporter), keys clacking away as he is shown a video produced by Vice about Liberia to make the point the upstart media company was the future of journalism in the digital age and the Times was a dinosaur. When Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice dissed the Times, Carr interrupted him, looked up from the ThinkPad and said:
“Time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there covering genocide after genocide. And Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”
When I starting working for Lenovo I quickly forged a bond with David Hill, the vice president of design who was the guardian of the ThinkPad’s flame. David came to Lenovo from IBM’s PC group and had been the steward of the ThinkPad’s design since 1995. The first CMO of Lenovo, Deepak Advani (also a former IBM executive) hired me to establish the new brand online, via Lenovo.com, digital advertising, social media, etc.. While poking around for a theme to hang the first corporate blog on, I rejected the easy path of a ghostwritten, bland affair by our CEO, Bill Amelio and instead homed in on David because of his demeanor and slightly demented passion. I proposed he become the leading voice of the brand with a new blog called “Design Matters” and offered to help with the writing and production because he was such a busy guy. It hindsight, he was the right person to kick off Lenovo’s first blog, touching an audience who was very skeptical about the future of the ThinkPad as IBM divested itself from the commodity world of PCs and handed over the design to a Chinese company, a company only known for contract-assembling PCs for western brands and inventing a graphics card that displayed the Chinese character set on the screens of IBM compatible clones (which a pretty big deal if consider how enormous the China market for PCs has become).
Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005. Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.
The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.
One day while scanning social media chatter for annoyed customers I found a complaint by a writer named James Fallows beefing that the paint on the keys of his new ThinkPad was wearing off under his fingertips. I brought this to the attention of the product managers who sort of shrugged it off until I told them Fallows was the preeminent China correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, (and the co-author of a piece I had written with him in the 1990s for PC Computing on the myth of the garage and innovation in Silicon Valley). We contacted Fallows, swapped his fading machine for a new one, brought the defective one back in, and realized that indeed the paint had been changed and was prone to defects.
David’s writing on Design Matters attracted more comments than any blog I have ever seen or been involved with. A carefully thoughtout disquisition by David into hinges, a behind-the-scenes look into the design lab in Japan run by Arimasa Naitoh, a reminiscence about the ThinkPad’s original designer Richard Sapper… all of them evoked responses in the hundreds from commentators that confirmed to me the heart and soul of Lenovo wasn’t Lenovo per se, but a simple black laptop that had been sent into space by NASA, which sat on the desk in the Oval Office, was toted into battle by war correspondents and was the only computer any self-respecting Master of Universe would crack open in a board room before announcing a hostile takeover. It had to be defended against the bean counters.
David retired from Lenovo this past summer but is still consulting to the company. When I unboxed my new ThinkPad I thought of it, wistfully, as Lenovo’s retirement gift to David in lieu of the proverbial gold watch. I watched him defend the essence of the ThinkPad during my five years at Lenovo; fighting to keep it pure and free from the bling that our competitors drecked their machines up with. Blue lights. Chrome accents. David would howl at the lengths the competition would go to ruin their machines and was deeply offended when his arch nemesis, Apple, introduced a black MacBook.
I shared his frustration when some of his team’s greatest concepts were shot down by the product marketing teams when costs needed to be cut to keep the machine competitive. I suffered the failure of the leather-bound special edition ThinkPad, the Scout, in ‘07 with him. And I watched him light up when he was able to invite Richard Sapper back to design the Skylight in ‘09.
David and I shared great barbecue in Raleigh, laughed at the existential insanity of Lenovo’s Chinese-IBM culture, and hatched numerous schemes and plots to do the right thing by a machine that was inspired by a lacquered Japanese lunch box, the bento box.
The 25th Anniversary ThinkPad has some retro touches — the red, green and light blue ThinkPad logo cocked at its “seemingly arbitrary 37 degree angle” on the corner of the cover and the red-accented mouse buttons under the keyboard. And yes, the keyboard is back, a 7-row throwback to a time when the ThinkPad was the machine for making words happen, a pre-chiclet QWERTY monster that was tweaked and fitted into place with a reverence for the typist’s fingers like no other laptop keyboard before or since. Other than that, the T25 is just a laptop. It runs Windows 10, has an i7 processor, a half-a-terabyte SSD hard disk and a nice touch screen. It doesn’t convert into a tablet, fold back on itself, have a pen, or act like a Swiss army device. It doesn’t have some heart pounding audio system or special gamer capabilities. It’s just the essence of computing from a time when IBM was the greatest computer company in the world, when laptops were the height of technology. When we typed like real writers and didn’t talk to our smartphones as we walk blindly into traffic.
I have it because I need it to use my hour-long train ride into Boston productively writing one of the two books I now have under way. The old Surface Pro 2 has a magnetic clip-on keyboard covered in faux-felt with all the tactile pleasure of a cheap, ill-fitting suit. It’s time to write and I need the ultimate writing machine, one worthy of going into battle or space. This is probably going to be my last ThinkPad (and I have six of them in closets upstairs to remind me of that wild five-year ride marketing the damn things), and it’s a ThinkPad for the ages.
I look forward to opening it, to using it, to deleting the Lenovo bloatware and making it my own. I like the looks it gets in the office, a somewhat covetous look like the ones I get when I wear a good suit and a great pair of shoes. It’s an accessory and a companion that subtly cries out “classic” without shouting.
The machine came exquisitely boxed and packaged. The kind of packaging Apple is great at and David long dreamed of doing. It came with a small book written by David five years ago on the occasion of the ThinkPad’s 20th anniversary. He dedicated this edition “…to the memory and magic of Richard Sapper. He was a great mentor, friend and masterful designer. ThinkPad would not exist as we know it without his vision and determination.”
That may be true, Sapper was a genius, but to also quote the booklet: “David …conceived, along with longtime collaborator Richard Sapper, the evolution design strategy where the core DNA is passed along to each successive generation. David often compares this strategy to how Porsche manages the design of their forever classic 911. This approach is unheard of in a fast-paced high technology market where change dominates. Evolutionary design has created ThinkPad brand value and related design recognition at unprecedented levels within the industry. ThinkPad loyalists are cult-like in their affinity for this highly authentic design classic.”
I was going to take some time off this week to sort out my “damp, drizzly November soul” but work stuff popped up and I didn’t get a chance to go stand on a east facing beach and throw a black needlefish into the surge with my 11-foot surf rod and old-school Penn Squidder. I was hoping to land a laggard striper headed south for the winter, even the seals and white sharks made that a dim prospect. My boats are all pulled so my mind’s at ease for the first time since the beginning of the hurricane season. I still have some motors to winterize, then tulips to plant and gutters to clean, but the urge to trudge along the Atlantic shore from Wellfleet to Truro still tugs strongly.
Which of course got me to thinking about the palliative powers of saltwater and helped me remember this quote by Vincent J. Scully, Jr., the Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art in Architecture at Yale that concluded a profile of him written by James Stephenson in the New Yorker in February, 1980:
“When the river is frozen in the winter, I carry the boat until I find open water, and then I just launch it. It’s wonderful rowing through the ice floes. I go out in wild seas all winter. The wind comes from different directions, and the water is always alive, always different. I love to row through the big waves. Way out in the Sound, there’s a triple rock, sort of a monster, and I often row out to that. Sometimes I shout Greek: ‘Polyphloisboi thalasses!’ It’s from the ‘Iliad.’ the best description of the sea: ‘the many-voiced roaring.’ And it’s exactly the sound that the big waves make: ‘polyphloisboio’ as they come tumbling toward the bow, and then the soft, sighing sound — ‘thalasses, thalasses’ — as they pass under the boat.”
Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the great white whales of fiction, the book everybody tries to read and generally gives up on around page 158. Considered Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece, it was published in the early 70s and won the National Book Award, focusing a lot of unwelcome attention on the famously reclusive author by an audience zonked out of their skulls on LSD and weed. The novel is ranked up there with other unreadables which include James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy.
As a novelist manque in the early 70s I did my best to make it through the novel and after a few stops and starts finally did with the assistance of a compendium which helped footnote some of the more obscure references. I’m glad I made it through the book, and to this day, if a password reminder asks me the question: “Who is the person you’d most like to meet?” It always come down to Pynchon. Why? To ask him what the hell the deal was with Byron the Bulb.
Anyway, in a discussion with a colleague this morning on writing,I recounted how a professor of mine held up the following excerpt from Gravity’s Rainbow as a masterpiece of list writing. To set the stage, it’s World War II in London. The protagonist, Lieut. Tyrone Slothrop, has been brought home by a girlfriend to meet her mother, Mrs. Quoad, for afternoon tea. Candy is offered. Slothrop takes a piece that looks like a WW I hand grenade:
“Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful. Slothrop’s head begins to reel with camphor fumes, his eyes are running, his tongue’s a hopeless holocaust. Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. “Poisoned…” he is able to croak.
“Show a little backbone,” advises Mrs. Quoad.
“Yes,” Darlene through tongue-softened sheets of caramel, “don’t you know there’s a war on? Here now love, open your mouth.”
Through the tears he can’t see it too well, but he can hear Mrs. Quoad across the table going “Yum, yum, yum,” and Darlene giggling. It is enormous and soft, like a marshmallow, but somehow—unless something is now going seriously wrong with his brain—it tastes like: gin. “Wha’s ‘is,” he inquires thickly.
“A gin marshmallow,” sez Mrs. Quoad.
“Oh that’s nothing, have one of these—” his teeth, in some perverse reflex, crunching now through a hard sour gooseberry shell into a wet spurting unpleasantness of, he hopes it’s tapioca, little glutinous chunks of something all saturated with powdered cloves.
“More tea?” Darlene suggests. Slothrop is coughing violently, having inhaled some of that clove filling.
“Nasty cough,” Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone. “Darlene, the tea is lovely, I can feel my scurvy going away, really I can.”
The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop’s mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice.”
That remains one of my favorite comic passages ever.
I happened upon a great trove of old photos on Flickr posted by the Boston Public Library. Dozens of albums containing shots of historical Boston from its sports to its building to its maritime accidents. Being a shipwreck fan of course I was all over that album.
The pictures are not downloadable and covered by copyright, so the next image is scraped without the permission of the library: