Tip of the hat to Peter Kafka @pkafka:
Tip of the hat to Peter Kafka @pkafka:
Things just had to end the way they did for the Red Sox, it’s the natural order of things for the team, the type of epic finale the team is conditioned to deliver to its fans every fall. When the Red Sox win, they pull off the greatest comeback in all time (2004 ALCS v. Yankees) and when they collapse they collapse bigger and more completely than any other team in history (this September’s plunge). I’ve screamed at too many televisions, walked away and ignored the team too many times (only to be sucked back over and over and over) but this time, for the first time since 1967 it felt somehow right, like all was well in the world and life was proceeding according to some unseen plot written by an invisibly cruel author with a sense of melodramatic wit and irony. As it happened, as the thinnest of leads stood in the ninth inning, I knew with 100% certainty how it would end.
And so it ended.
I cheer for Fenway Park, the uniform, the memories of past Gods and all the beserk Massholes who get worked up like the fanatics we are. No need to climb the Mystic River Bridge today and throw ourselves into the dirty water, no need to point fingers, be ashamed, or blog plaintive purple elegies. I just hope this season cleans house and sees certain irritations go away. Namely: the eighth inning singing of Sweet Caroline. I hate this song. To quote my favorite Red Sox blog, Surviving Grady:
Do away with the song, watch me buy a pink hat, kill the Wave, and suck for a few seasons so I can move up the waiting list for season tickets. That’s all I ask.
I’m rooting for the Tigers now.
I generally avoid editorializing about business. Too many years writing “objectively” about the technology industries has me gun shy about taking an un-reported stand. But since I covered Hewlett Packard closely when I was a tech reporter in the 80s and the company was nearing the pinnacle of its reputation as one of the keystone companies in technology, the news this morning that its board didn’t have the gumption to even interview its latest, and apparently lameduck CEO, Leo Apotheker, feels like the last straw in a decline of Sheenesque proportions and I have to say something.
HP’s former dominance in printers, PCs, workstations, minicomputers, medical diagnostics, even financial calculators was the culmination of a noble heritage that literally started in a modest residential garage when the founders hand built an oscilloscope they sold to Disney for post-production sound work on Snow White. HP was never the hippest company — it wasn’t a place I associate with the bearded sandal wearing characters that made Sun and Silicon Graphics and Apple and Next so colorful — but it was the most solid and mythic, a place that capitalized on smarts and research and innovation and was able, against the laws of Silicon Valley physics, to maintain its edge even as it absorbed companies like Compaq and DEC. While I believe “corporate culture” is an oxymoronic construct, “The HP Way” seems to indeed have been a good thing, one that held the massive organization together for a remarkable record of growth and innovation over five decades.
As the founders retired and faded into the philanthropic background, things became unhinged. Lew Platt missed the Internet. Carly Fiorina over-acquired. Wire-tapping reporters and board members seemed, at the time, like an aberration (now it doesn’t). Hurd couldn’t keep it in his pants and mortgaged the company’s future by slashing R&D … and now after one remarkably weird year characterized by throwing in the towel over and over, Leo Apotheker — the CEO no one had ever heard of before — is the next to walk the plank. The question is why was he ever even on the boat? I didn’t even know how to properly pronounce his name until yesterday at lunch when my partner corrected me and put an emphasis on the “e” with an accent (It’s “Lay-O” not “Lee-O”).
So what went well in the last year? Not much. The Palm acquisition yielded an operating system that was a lame darkhorse out of the gate. The company had a great success in tablets — once it discontinued them and slashed the price and alienated the first customers silly enough to pay full price when it launched. And the greatest bumble of all — telling the world that it is considering getting out of the vicious PC business before it had a buyer for that business — effectively killing, in a single utterance, all corporate/enterprise demand for fleets of its PCs and future demand by whatever greater fool buys the business off of them.
The headhunters and the board that was too divisive and busy to interview its last round of CEO candidates is drawing up yet another short list of possible leaders. Whoever gets tapped, they have a major mess to muck out. The situation as I see it without looking at the balance sheet:
HP needs a larger-than-life personality leading it, someone extroverted and blunt but who is jazzed about the future and loves chaos and the thrill of the new. Things are serious, so a serious shakeup and re-think is called for to get re-hinged. Think Gerstner making the Elephant dance at IBM. Applying a balance sheet mechanic is a mistake. The next leader needs some technology credentials as well as operational ones. If Apotheker’s replacement is a grey-faced MBA in his or her 50s then the company is going to molder and lose even more relevancy. If the next CEO is too young they could easily be overwhelmed by the enormity of the organization. I don’t envy the people running this search — HP is a seriously dented can and apparently, according to the excellent piece by James Stewart in this morning’s New York Times — had a hard time getting candidates to take a look after Hurd’s ignoble departure. I literally can’t think of a single name that would get the job done.
Regular readers of this blog (hello Mother) are probably a little tired of the old photograph that runs along the skyline of the homepage. It’s a scan of a wide panoramic black and white photo I found in a family collection of daguerreotypes and assorted old scenes of Cotuit. The scene is the upper end of Cotuit Bay, facing east towards Osterville’s Grand Island, over Old Shore Road, near what is known today as Ropes Beach. I think it was taken around 1910. Old Shore Road is unpaved, probably just two bright white tracks of crushed oyster shells, and the pier at the far right of the scene, with a small shack on the end, is where an ice cream parlor once operated. The stubs of the ice cream dock’s wooden pilings still stick out of the mud today at low tide, the ends worn down to nubs.
This is a very familiar view to me. Probably the most Proustian view in my life. I took swimming lessons on the beach at the far left, sailing lessons a little further down at the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club. A video transcription of an old 16 mm home movie exists of a two-year old version of me, in a sagging cloth diaper, toddling in the mud. The family has always moored its boats in this part of the harbor. At the top left corner, where the beach and bluff ends is Handy’s Point — where my oldest Cotuit ancestors, the Handys, once lived and built ships in the 18th and 19th century. I drive past this view four times a day on average. In the winter I can see a blue heron wading on the boat ramp in my headlights. This is my cove.
Every afternoon, around 3, when I was working from home, the dogs would annoy me to take them for a quick walk down the hill and out to Handy’s Point. The three of us would do this nearly every day that we could from October through April, even in blowing snow storms (especially in blowing snow storms), me impatient with them pissing on every phone pole and tree alongside Old Shore Road, tugging at their leashes and reminding them that the sooner we got the beach, the sooner the leashes would get unclipped and they could run free and collect some new ticks in the beach grass.
The highpoint of the walk, the one point of dramatic tension, was the crossing of Mister Rickel’s Marsh Bridge. Mister Rickel is David Rickel, a good friend, a great carpenter/electrician/plumber and fellow lover of Gator Hammock hot sauce from Felda, Florida. Some ten or fifteen years ago David decided to build a trim little planked arched bridge over the natural spring that flows out from underneath Old Shore Road into the harbor. He then fenced off the marsh with posts and ropes, erecting a little sign that says “Fresh Water Spring.” By doing so he cleared the area of dinghy’s and Sunfishes and other grass-killing boats and the result has been a nice rebirth of the spring.
The bridge has a graceful arch, is founded on some stout posts that rest atop the sand, and gains its strength and arc from a stack of laminated stringers crossed with unpainted planks. The dramatic part was getting two leashed dogs and myself over the bridge without knocking one or both or all of us into the sluggish stream below. The late terrier Ned was fond of taking a very large, very public roadside dump before venturing across — the reason I always stuffed a blue New York Times delivery bag in my pocket before departing the house — I guess he was probably jettisoning ballast before making the traverse, but the foot of the Rickel Marsh Bridge was his preferred toilet and where I got to get all disgusting with a blue bag over my hand.
During the recent almost-Hurricane Irene the bridge washed away and was in danger of being crushed beneath an errant Grady-White sports fishing boat that wound up on the tarmac of Old Shore Road. The bridge floated away and became wedged beneath the chine of the wreck where I couldn’t tug it free. The bystanders seemed surprised I would expend so much vigor on a long weathered piece of wood instead of trying to push off 10,000 pounds of run-away Fiberglas — but the bridge was the Mostar Bridge of Cotuit and had to be saved at all costs.
Eventually Old Shore Road recovered from the storm. Huge cranes lifted big boats off the beach and the bridge destroying Grady-White was returned to the harbor. But the bridge lay a bit tattered next to a driveway, waiting for reconstruction.
As Ned took ill and began to decline, I resolved to give him one last beach walk, but alas, he was too weak to make that trek and we had to content ourselves with one final stroll around the Town Dock (his second favorite place) where he took one last embarrassing poop in front of everyone and then rolled in a puddle of seagull shit for old times sake. Three days later he passed away, and every time I drove down Old Shore Road past the missing bridge I felt a twinge of nostalgic regret that he didn’t get to trundle over the bridge one last time.
Then, last weekend, there was Mister Rickel, proudly standing next to the restored bridge. I rolled down the car window and hailed him with a “It’s back!” and he replied with “I keep reading that Internet thing and there hasn’t been anything new to read for while” — a subtle reminder that I’ve been slacking off in blog matters.
On Monday of this week, the last Monday of the summer, under turbulent skies with a scudding northeast wind that presaged the Fall, I went for a walk with Ned’s partner in beach walks, the diminutive tyrant known as Esme. She took her time sniffing and peeing all the way down the hill and I thought for a second she might find one last whiff of her couch partner. We turned the curve at the foot of the hill and there was the bridge.
I took a picture for old time’s sake and over we went, the arch slightly flexing under my weight.
It was a sad walk out to Handy’s Point. It was the first of the beachwalk season (dogs aren’t permitted on the beaches between May 15 and Sept. 15) and our first without Ned snuffling in the grass and looking for dead fish and spider crabs to roll in. A murder of crows sat portentiously in a silver locust tree at the base of the bluff. The Lowell’s dock, conveniently dismantled by Irene, was neatly stacked for the winter above the high tide line, the stink of the barnacles on the pilings attracting yellow jackets.
I plodded along in the sand, nervous that the little dog would get picked off by a coyote, stepping over the little rivulets of freshwater that scrawled over the sand from the springs under the bluffs, grateful to be barefoot.
At Handy’s Point — the turnaround point — I stopped to watch a blue crab swim sideways in Little River. Across the four-foot span of the stream was the former home of my great-great-grandmother, Florentine Handy Chatfield. Now rebuilt and remodeled to the point that it looks like a wooden wedding cake, the house sits on a slight rise above the harbor. It became the summer home of Mark DeWolfe Howe, a Boston Brahmin man of letters, and was, in its time, a literary retreat of sorts for the likes of William and Henry James. My family may curse the decision of Florentine to abandon Handy’s Point and the waterfront, but evidently she felt very abandoned and stranded there in the Little River district of Cotuit during the hard winters when her husband, Captain Thomas Chatfield, was off chasing whales with her brother Bethuel in the Okhost Sea off the coast of Siberia.
While Little River is indeed little, a woman with young children couldn’t be expected to ford it in the winter to make it into the village of Cotuitport for provisions. The only other way is to walk the long way around on the Old Post Road past Mosswood Cemetery and then up Putnam Avenue. So Florentine moved the family right to the center of the village, across from the village green to the house where I live today.
My great-great-grandfather was perturbed to return from his last whaling voyage to find the family had moved.
“When I left home, and the last time I heard from home, the family lived at Little River, and when we reached the road leading to that part of the village William Jones drove past. It was the first time I ever saw him. I called his attention to that fact, but he only laughed and said he knew what he was about, that my family did not live at Little River. When he stopped at the gate (right here) [854 Main St., ed.] it was the first time I knew that we had abandoned the old home for all time. I was not any too well pleased with the change. I liked Little River, and I felt strange up here. I had made up mind that after twelve years steadily in the same ship I would spend one year at home before I sought employment again: but everything had changed before the year was out. The election in the fall of 1860 resulted in the choice of Mr Lincoln as President, and brought the Republican party pledged to oppose the extension of slavery, into power.”
Little River was once bridged, there are stubs of old pilings on either bank. I must ask the local historian Jim Gould who lives on the Cotuit side of the stream if he knows when the bridge existed and where the path would have gone.
I stood and admired the marsh and vacant bay for a while, all too conscious that this was the usual point in the walk when I would yell at Ned to get the f%&k out of the water in the middle of February. He liked to wade — never swim — like a water buffalo, his coarse salt-and-pepper coat floating up around him and then climb out to throw himself, face first, in the sand and roll and roll and roll, wriggling on his back, collecting as much sand, seaweed, and stink that he could for the walk back home, into the eye-watering wind, and then back over his bridge and finally home for an afternoon in front of the fire, the little dog lying like a parasite on his back for warmth.
A couple weeks ago Google’s doodle celebrated the 112th birthday of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer who wrote such fantastical modernist works of literature as Ficciones, The Labyrinth, and The Aleph. I was introduced to his writing in college by my roommate, who was a student of Spanish literature, and while dense and difficult, found a certain strange attraction to the stories. Borges is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century — a shame he was never awarded the Nobel prize in Literature — on an order of Nabokov, Joyce, Barthelme and other modernist authors.
In 1985, when I was a cub reporter at a daily newspaper in northeastern Massachusetts, Borges visited Philips Andover Academy — the prestigious prep school — and gave a lecture there. The city editor at the paper wanted someone to interview the blind writer, but his name drew a blank in the newsroom except for me, who became very excited at the thought of meeting such an eminence.
He was staying at the Andover Inn on the Philips Andover campus, attended to by his assistant (and later wife) Maria Kodama. A photographer from the paper accompanied me, thoroughly bored and glazed over by my breathless attempt to convey the fame and impact of the little old man and his complex surrealistic stories that prefigured hypertext.
He was old (he died the following year in Switzerland of cancer), short, and dressed impeccably in a dapper suit. He shook my hand, welcomed me to sit on the bed beside him, and asked, in a heavy accent, if I would like a cup of tea or water. The photographer’s flash popped a few times, and Borges’ face was startled by the sound of the camera shutter, a little perturbed it seemed at the thought of being photographed without warning. He didn’t cover his blindness with sunglasses, and cocked his head slightly to better hear my questions.
I knew instantly that there was nothing I could ask the man that he could answer and that I could then quote in a story of any possible interest to the 40,000 readers of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, most of whom were more engaged by the debate over whether the city garbage-men should continue to drag household trash barrels onto the street or if the homeowners should do it for them. It was, in a perverse way, like being in a Borges story, where the protagonist is lost in a library looking for knowledge that can’t be expressed.
We talked about his books, me expressing my fondness for specific stories, especially The Garden of Forking Paths, and his puzzling themes of labyrinths and diverging, non-linear thoughts. Keep in mind I was only three years out of Yale, where my head had been filled with the Deconstructionist theories of Derrida by Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman. We talked about Pynchon, Paul Theroux (who visited him and wrote about the meeting in The Old Patagonian Express) and my college writing teacher, Gordon Lish. I didn’t take any notes in my spiral reporter’s notebook. What was the use? And after 30 minutes his assistant gently interrupted to say Mr. Borges needed his rest.
I thanked him, posed for a picture of him that is probably in the Eagle-Tribune morgue somewhere, and after shaking his hand, made my goodbye.
I went to the newsroom with the photographer and wrote a brief, superficial 100 words about Borges’ visit. I regret not having brought a copy of one of his books for him to sign.
David Carr’s must-read column this Monday morning in the NYT talks to the phenomenon of Acquisition-Assimilation when independent news sites lose their voice and attitude once acquired by big portal aggregators such as Yahoo or AOL. If issues of spirit and emotion are set aside, and the founders are forgiven for taking the money and running, the big shift is not so much from big brother bureaucracies snuffing out entrepreneurial energy (as Carr says: news sites that can feed the masthead with two pizzas have that fire and attitude) as changes in how online advertising is sold.
“….as news surges on the Web, giant ocean liners like AOL and Yahoo are being outmaneuvered by the speedboats zipping around them, relatively small sites that have passionate audiences and sharply focused information.”
Carr posits that audiences could give a hoot whether their preferred content is housed by Gawker or AOL or even independents like GigaOm. That audience has splintered and creates its own bespoken news experience from whatever sites match their tastes, philosophy and particular needs. No one sees a 20th Century Fox Movie, they buy a ticket to see Gwenyth get the flu. I read Dan Lyons, not Newsweek. I read Paul Carr, not TechCrunch. Om Malik, not GigaOm.
The reason little independents can steal the most precious, un-scalable commodity of all from the big guys (a reader’s time and attention) and survive to buy two more pizzas isn’t the miracle of search, the push of RSS or the lack of prudish copyeditors who ban them from dropping F-bombs. It’s how they get the ad bucks to buy those pizzas.
In the 1990s online ad sales came down to the old world of actual magazine ad sales people showing up at an agency to pitch a magazine’s website to a junior buyer. Few Madison Avenues agencies had any digital experience — some, like Agency.com and Modem Media were blazing the first trails — and few sites (which mostly were digital versions of existing print titles, e.g. Forbes.com, HotWired, WSJ.com) had dedicated digital ad sales teams. Selling online ads was a wild exercise in selling a vision (It’s called the Internet And It’s Going To Be Big, Big I Tell You) and making up metrics. There were no ad networks, the portals were just getting their acts together, and the technology for serving up the ads and then measuring their performance was crude and in many cases hand-crafted and unique to each site. The process was inefficient, old school, involved lugging big projectors into meetings, and talking about impressions and hits in the context of the Audit Bureau of Circulation.
Those were the days when online publishers could sell the excitement of the future directly to advertisers, cut out the agencies, and get away with reporting thin and at best crude metrics. Targeting, let alone behavioral targeting, was an exercise in giving an advertiser nebulous advantages like “category exclusivity” or “roadblocks.” Yet by 2000 few if any titles could sell direct to brands, agencies were fighting to be the arbiter of the ad buy, and the big portal “frames” as Carr calls them, were the forces to be reckoned with. No sales force was more arrogant in 1999 than AOL’s.
The evolution of ad sales, ad serving, metrics, and the eventual rise of ad networks, behavioral targeting, paid search auction bid interfaces, cookie pools, retargeting, look-alike modeling … all combined to the point where a feisty voice can start blogging and open up his or her site’s inventory with a simple AdSense account or membership in an ad network. The brands looking for ways to spend their advertising budgets don’t want to take a meeting with the publisher of some tiny traffic site, they want to get in front of a specific psychographic profile and want to do it with as little fee and friction as possible. Few advertisers have the staff expertise to buy advertising efficiently and directly, but the gap between the upstart voices and the advertiser’s budget is narrowing, killing off the big collector brands. Google got it right when they made the ad buy a simple exercise in bidding.
Carr ends with this great quote:
“Jonathan Glick of Sulia, a site that filters and publishes real-time content, said that, apart from cashing out the owners and sentencing those that remain to more meetings, getting acquired fails to meet a fundamental need. “On the Web, traffic, good traffic, is earned in terms of referrals,” he said. “You don’t need to be part of a big site because if you are doing it right on the Web, distribution finds you.””
And as quality will always find its fans, so do ad dollars.
Ned, our 12-year old Skye Terrier, died today. I had to ease his suffering from liver cancer and I knew it was time when he stopped eating and the shine went out of his eyes. With his passing goes a family fixture that has been a part of our lives since the Christmas of 2000, when my daughter and I flew to Nashville to get him after our previous Skye, Harry, had died in the street under a car the month before.
Ned was named “Stormy” when we met him, named because he was born during a thunderstorm. He was eight months old at the time, a problem puppy who was bullied by his brothers and sisters and picked on by his own mother. Where Harry was a canine genius, one of the most intelligent dogs I’ve ever known, Ned was simple, a bit slow, a shy dog that gradually came out of his shell and thrived on the couch and the yard here in Cotuit that was his domain for his entire life.
He liked sharp cheddar cheese, snapped at dangled pieces of spaghetti and earned the nickname “Pasta Shark.” He slept under the stairs in what we called his Harry Potter bed. He rolled in stinky dead things because he liked the way it made him smell. He hated fireworks and thunder and banged on the bedroom door every night for sanctuary at the foot of my bed.
He hated having his butt inspected for dingle berries and would flip out into circles of animated play-rage, a behavior known as “Kawa-Kawa.” He knew few tricks, liked riding in the car with his head out the window, and was a bit of a lazy slug on beachwalks, once falling so far behind that he returned to the boat where he stood, in the shallows, paws on the gunwale, looking hopefully into the hull for some sign of us. He was a dog of many names, including: Count Dookoo, Gabba, Apartment Bear, Seal Pig, Sewer Pipe, Nedly, and others that I can’t remember now.
Ned was my daughter’s dog from the very beginning. She came to Nashville with me, 13-years old, and helped me squeeze him into a dog carrier bag because the airline wouldn’t let dogs travel in the luggage compartment. We let him out in the terminal and he immediately peed on the rug, ears huge like radar dishes, and went into his first of his crazy kawa-kawa circles. We let him poke his head out of the bag during the flight and fell in love with him then and there.
Skye Terriers are a rare breed, one of the least registered every year with the AKC and in danger of extinction in Britain. They are the oldest of the terriers — the ur terrier if you will — the basis for most modern terrier breeds. They are big hairy dogs — 30 to 40 pounds — with the legs of a dwarf, giving them the appearance of a large eared grey and black dachshund crossed with a sheep dog. They are stubborn but intensely loyal to one owner. One, Greyfriar’s Bobby, was renowned in 19th century Scotland for guarding his master’s grave for 14 years.
Dogs break our hearts and sometimes give us our first childhood exposure to grief. We’re better for having them in our lives, and I note how my life is punctuated by one dog after another.
No one said it sadder than Pablo Neruda in his poem, A Dog Has Died
With the United States Postal Service on the verge of bankruptcy, and the kind folks at the Cotuit Post Office telling me they need my business to stay open, I write this paean to the mail of snails in the hope that one of the last best things in the world — the handwritten note — survives.
I think Guy Kawasaki once wrote that a handwritten note sent in congratulations, condolence or commiseration is infinitely more heartfelt and well received than a ephemeral email, tweet or blog comment. I was never a big thank you note writer as a kid, but for over a decade I’ve tried to do my epistolary best by keeping at least a half-dozen blank note cards and stamped envelopes in my briefcase or bag. My handwriting sucks (so I print), but it only takes a minute or so to jot down a few words that will be remembered for a far longer time.
In the late 1980s, after writing a cover story for Forbes and winning a couple prizes for it, a friend of my late father wrote me a note that said, in effect, if the old gent were alive today he’d be very proud of you and how you’ve turned out. I don’t think any praise has meant more to me in my life. Would I have the the compassion to put pen to paper and do the same for some other young person beginning their career and finding their first success? I hope I would.
In the mid-90s Henry Kissinger wrote me a sarcastic letter in the mistaken belief I was the editor in chief of Forbes because the magazine had somehow screwed up the facts concerning him, Richard Nixon, and a bottle of wine consumed in China. I hung onto that one too.
I write on notecards I order from Merrimade, an old WASP institution that used to be based in the Merrimack Valley and was owned by one of my neighbors growing up in Andover, Mass.. They sold the company to Crane years ago, but the quality is the same, and where else can you order note cards with your name on it, or the name of your country estate with a little yacht emblem? (I am stealing the idea of naming my future country estate “Morningwood” from my pal Ham Freeman)
I send them to friends when they get promoted or take a new job, when pets or grandparents join the invisible choir, or just to say thanks for helping me out. Takes but a minute, keeps the postman employed, sticks it to the email demons and can yield tweets like this one. My favorite note of all time, courtesy of Christopher Buckley is this unprintable gem.
Tip of the hat to Rick Klau for first posting this on Google +
I am a sucker for flying human videos. Seems they all happen in Switzerland, e.g. Yves Rossy the “Jet Man.” This is Jeb Corliss. I recommend popping it up to full screen 720i HD for full effect.