Lit’ry life – March 14 2012

New Yorker: From the iPad edition of March 19 is Louis Menand’s Critic At Large review of “The Real Romney” by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. I generally avoid campaign year profiles and manifestos about and by the candidates, but Menand focuses on two important trends behind Romney. First, he’s cut from the liberal Republican cloth of the party, the wing that gave us  NelsonRockefeller, John Lindsay, Prescott Bush, Elliott Richardson, William Weld and other private sector types who left business to manage government at some point in their career. That wing, seemingly extinct as the GOP candidates try to appeal to the religious right, is, Menand arges, where Romney’s roots are. His second point, and what makes the piece really worth reading, is the influence that Romney’s former employer, Bain Consulting and Bain Capital had on his thinking and methods. I have some insight into the world of high stakes management strategy consulting from my brief stint at Bain’s competitor McKinsey, and think I know a little about the over-achiever, data-drive technocratic strategists that such firms prize and foster.

Economist: And the last shall be first, the obituary on the last page of the March 3-9th edition profiles M.R.D. Foot, chronicler and historian of World War II secrets: “He knew more about the doings of the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), the ultra-secret wartime outfit devoted to bolstering resistance in Europe, than any man alive, for her had written its history.” Foot wrote several volumes chronicling the SOE, the first “The SOE in France” was published in 1966. I went to order the same from Amazon and in the process ran into the most expensive Kindle edition I’ve ever come across: a stunning $31.16 to buy it and a mere $14.66 (nice round numbers) to “rent” — which until now I was unaware a reader could rent books on the Kindle. I’m tempted to read it, but ….if I do I shall report back.

Good article on “How To Steal An Election” — same edition, page 71

And I learned a new term, “de-shopping” in which shoppers buy, say, a dress, wear it, and then return it. This cost American retailers $14.4 billion last year and online merchants are particularly vulnerable. Good sidebar to a story on gameification in ecommerce — a buzz word that I am hearing too often lately to ignore, and am beginning to be annoyed by. page 79

Atlantic Monthly: In the online edition, a creepy story about drug tourism, focused on a seemingly idyllic village in Laos where new age Millenials go to ride inner tubes down the lazy river while tripping their butts off.  And sometimes die. The Highlands: Exploring Drug Tourism Across Southeast Asia is worth a read. It ends sadly with the observation that baked tourists are missing the point of travel, landing themselves in strange lands only to obliterate themselves: “Those seeking an alternate culture, whether it be through rave scenes or backpacker havens, are losing contact with the land they have traveled to. Soon enough, a rave in Goa or a rave in Ibiza will be viewed as the same trip, the country itself becoming irrelevant to the tourist experience.”

On the nightstand (actually in the Kindle):  Still reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli on my Android — basically my waiting-in-line book. A shame to waste such a beautiful piece of prose on a little screen, but there it is. The chapter on the nature of the Hellinistic modern mind is very interesting in light of Greece’s unfortunate domination of the economic news this winter. An amazing culture and country on the brink of something as it has been so many times before. Fermor’s insights into the Greek mind are amazingly relevant to the debt crisis and what is happening to the Greek people. On the iPad version of the Kindle app I am re-reading my favorite funny novel of all time, hands down, no argument, Geronimo Rex by the late Barry Hannah.

New York Times:  Sunday 3/11 had some gems. Mark Bittman’s piece in the Review, A Chicken Without the Guilt, was a creepy preview of a Soylent Green world where fake meat climbs onto our plates: “…we might even 

Boating begins

Yesterday I pulled the tarp off the Tashmoo, charged up the battery, and started making lists of part numbers and necessities so I could launch and get on the water as soon as possible.  This in turned forced me to turn on the outside faucets so I could use some hull cleaner to chew off the harbor slime from last season, and within an hour I was in a car on my way to West Marine in Hyannis on a fool’s errand for fuel and oil filters they never have in stock. Still, I managed to part with $60 in painting supplies, and estimate I’ll be back in the store at least ten more times until the end of the 2012 boating season in early December. The big sailboat looms on its stands, begging for 20 hours of my time (at least), the Cotuit Skiff in the garage is going to need painting and launching (10 to 15 hours), my rowing shell needs to be spruced up and moved to the shore rack as soon as my arm heals up, the dinghy needs some fiberglas work done to the skeg where dragging it over the sand has worn it down … my ditty bag needs to be sorted out, launch service renewed, registrations, Coast Guard documentation, FCC mobile radio license, beach parking stickers ….

It never ends. But still I love it.

Shopping the Story: When eCommerce meets Editorial

There’s a scene in Fight Club when Edward Norton mocks his meaningless materialistic existence defined by his addiction to Ikea.  His apartment transforms into a movie version of a  catalogue — with every napkin, bookcase and rug identified, tagged, and described as he moves amongst it all. The scene expresses a lot of the stupidity expressed in the early 1990s when the “Interactive Television” geeks bubbled on about how you’d be able to click on Jennifer Aniston’s sweater during an episode of Friends and receive a package from the Gap a couple days later with that exact same color sweater inside(in your size of course) . Didn’t happen. None of it happened: pick your own alternative ending, find a different camera angle … couch potatoes are inert by nature and only move their hands to pop another Cheesy-poof into their mouths. If they want to shop through the TV they switch the channel to QVC and pick up the cordless phone to order some zirconium.

Shopping interactively against a television show, movie, even video game is far-fetched and a long walk off of the proverbial short pier.

Shopping off of a story is a different subject altogether. Let’s start with an early example of “story commerce” most are familiar with, the J. Peterman catalogue, perfectly mocked by Seinfeld.  J. Peterman was a brilliant mail order operation that delivered a tall non-glossy catalogue entitled “Owner’s Manual” with breezy sketches of Peterman’s travels around the world sourcing classic pieces of clothing and accessories from Australian dusters to a long-billed swordfishing cap just like “Papa” Hemingway wore.  There are no photos, no customer reviews, just artsy sketches and short little “English-Patient-Meets-Mark-Helprin” purple paragraphs written by a copywriting genius. To wit:

“He probably bought his in a gas station on  the road to Ketchum, next to the cash register, among the beef jerky wrapped in cellophane. Or maybe in a tackle shop in Key West. 

I had to go to some trouble to have this one made for you and me but it had to be done. The long bill, longer than I, at least, ever saw before, makes sense. The visor: leather; soft and glareless and unaffected by repeated rain squalls. The color: same as strong scalding espresso, lemon peel on the side, somewhere in the mountains in the north of Italy. Cotton blend canvas. 6 brass grommets for ventilation. Elastic at back to keep this treasure from blowing off your head and into the trees.

(He probably got change from a five when he bought the original.)”

I bought one. I admit it. I looked like a total assclown with a foot-long leather duck bill sticking out my forehead. I immediately went back to Red Sox caps to provide me with glare protection while fishing in the sun and that was that. But I bought it, because I was buying the story. Not the hat.

The late publishing genius Bill Ziff told me during a Forbes interview in the early 1990s, that Ziff-Davis move into speciality magazines was driven by the insight that everyone has their own personal “porn.” In his case it was sports “porn” (the man read baseball statistics), Civil War “porn” (he knew his Civil War history like Shelby Foote knew Civil War history) and gardening “porn” (he had amazing taste in gardens). As he put it, pornography is derived from the Greek words porni: prostitute and graphein: to write, hence the original porn was writing about the oldest profession in the world. Ziff applied that insight to speciality magazines like Skiing, Stereo Review, Modern Bride, with the realization that a magazine focused on a hyper-passion — a reader’s personal taste in “porn” — made the relationship between the advertising and the editorial very different than the interruption-based relationship found in a TV ad or a general interest magazine. If you were really into expensive high fidelity stereo equipment in the 1960s, you would probably be very interested in the content of the ads by the equipment manufacturers as you were in the objective reviews by the editorial staff. You trusted the reviews to be objective and untainted, but the ads, with their specifications and gorgeous beauty shots of glowing dials and vacuum tubes, well; that was stereo porn and there was a reader service “bingo” card at the back of the magazine where you could check off a page number and receive even more stereo porn directly from the advertiser.

Ziff extended the insight to computer magazines and found amazing success with the formula of combining advertising and editorial together in a “porn model” where he was broker between the advertiser/prostitutes, the writers, and the readers.

Now all his magazines are pretty much gone as he called the top of the market in the early 90s and unloaded his print assets with the foresight that the Internets were going to thoroughly change the broker relationship of publishers controlling audience access to advertisers.

There have been some magazine launches — in the 1990s — of print publications about …. shopping. Lucky comes to mind, a Conde Nast launch that touts itself as “The Magazine of Shopping and Style.” But put the magazines down and look at what’s happened to eCommerce, the money side of the digital revolution.

eCommerce was available right out of the gate following the commercialization of the Internet by the National Science Foundation back in 1994. Both Amazon and eBay are, in Internet-terms, ancient brands. Once security issues (SSL, HTTPS) and online credit card processing got worked through, it was off to the races for the first round of online stores.  eCommerce was difficult to implement in the early years, certainly a much bigger challenge than launching an online publication, but platforms started to be standardized, operational processes defined, and the entire order management/supply chain thing came together in fits and starts.

Skip a lot of well-known milestones like PayPal, and it is 2012. eCommerce is no longer a big boy game focused on behemoths like Target, JC Penny, Dell, and Amazon. From Etsy to Shopify to the WordPress of commerce — Magento —  there is essentially nothing standing between a very small business and an online storefront. The days of needing a $100 million in revenue to justify a big Sapient ATG or IBM Websphere deployment are long gone. Anyone with the gumption can build their own online store without sacrificing their brand to Amazon, eBay or Yahoo.

I believe the leading edge in online commerce is not the technology — but the content and strategic approach. J. Peterman meets Lucky meets Magento meets Blogs and the result is pretty compelling.

The first place I really discovered story-based ecommerce was in the fashion sector. My favorite example, hands down, is Mr. Porter, part of the NYC fashion etailer, Net-a-Porter.


The design gestalt is a hybrid between a catalogue and an online magazine. The navigation header even points to an editorial area, “The Journal.” Even the home page hero about belts, is identified as coming from a standard editorial element, “The Edit.” Every call to action — the copy on the purchase buttons — doesn’t say “Buy Now!” — but “Read & Shop Now”

I suggest if you want to experience the bullseye point of this blog post, then go to Mr. Porter, hit The Journal “This Week’s Issue” and click through the eight-slide history of khaki. The formula is brilliant. Illustrate the piece with vintage black and white photos of legendary style icons. Steve McQueen is the cliche in this model, but the khaki piece has photos of Alain Delon, James Mason, James Dean, etc.. Under the slideshow, a bylined “story” that leads off like any fashion magazine with the usual fashionesque prose:

“Endlessly versatile, casual yet elegant, hardwearing and laid-back – it’s easy to make the case for chinos. That’s why, this spring, we’re looking forward to reaching for them again. Their great appeal has always been that they can be, and are, worn with everything from T-shirts to tweed jackets, which is how we justify updating them on an annual basis. Click through the gallery above to see how to wear them this season – easy and relaxed are the watchwords here – and to read about the history that’s taken them from colonial military uniform to preppy classic via Hollywood and 1950s-era hipsters.”

It all comes down to "Shop the Story"

Throw in some historical nuggets (khaki is the Pakistani word for “dust”; British Red Coats were easy targets so they switched to khaki to better blend in with the dusty walls of the Khyber Pass, etc.), and make sure every page has a product that the reader can buy.

The call to action (what graphics people used to call “CHA” or “Click Here Asshole”) is brilliant: Shop the Story.

Shop the story and live the dream. Buy those $495 Loro Piano khakis and you are one step closer to becoming James Dean. It’s the next evolution in a long tradition of catalogue copywriting that began at Sears, was taken over the top by J. Peterman, and is now infesting the flash sale fashion sites with the new Catazine movement.

The transformation from the ugly catalogue pages of most online stores to a fully integrated editorial/catalogue model is, I think, going to revolutionize commerce operations in the near future. The challenge of the old eCommerce 1.0 model was order management and integrating one’s act with the Borg’s ERP and MWS and CRM and ….. No more care went into the presentation of the product than the upload of an err0r-prone spreadsheet containing SKU numbers, price, and specs.

This drove me crazy at Lenovo, where the complex configure-to-order world of selling laptops yielded product pages as interesting as the ingredients list on a bottle of shampoo. “We sell black rectangles,” I would bitch as I pointed to web pages filled with the same half-opened clamshell forms of black ThinkPads.  Other than price, prominent messaging around free shipping, the meat of the experience is either in the specifications — “speeds and feeds” — or catalogue-copy: “This slim, lightweight stunner, delivers the graphics impact you need to supercharge your gaming experience …” etc. No aspersions meant to my former colleagues — but the catalogue experience at 95% of most online stores is driven by a spreadsheet and a template with little to any editorial either trying to build some drool factor for the shopper, or a valuable experience worth revisiting. Commerce needs to move from demand generation, sloppy affiliate commission programs, attribution and optimization, and closer to an experience worth experiencing. Don’t do it and you might as well just publish the spreadsheet and hope your SEO efforts and the price comparison engines treat you well.

Shop the Story or Shop the Grid

The latest revolution for the old guard in ecommerce is toappend user generated content — reviews — to their product pages. Hanging a five star rating system with a paragraph of semi-literate user rave or rant (that I always suspect has been astroturfed and sock puppeted by the vendor)  to every SKU using a service such as the recently IPOd Bazaarvoice is by and large a semi-smart move doubtlessly justified by some analyst on the basis of cart conversions and attachment rates and other ecommerce drivers. I like customers reviews as much as the next guy. Amazon has transformed them into a literary genre of their own, the most famous being the first satirical review of the legendary “Three Wolves T-Shirt” :

“This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened. After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on and was immediately approached by women. The women knew from the wolves on my shirt that I, like a wolf, am a mysterious loner who knows how to ‘howl at the moon’ from time to time (if you catch my drift!). The women that approached me wanted to know if I would be their boyfriend and/or give them money for something they called mehth. I told them no, because they didn’t have enough teeth, and frankly a man with a wolf-shirt shouldn’t settle for the first thing that comes to him.”


Can a publisher jump on the bandwagon and start to offer an integrated shopping function versus the current model of divorcing the sale from their carefully crafted “objective” words by segregating the “prostitution” into an adjacent banner ad or paid search link?  Hey, they tried to muck up their content by using the particularly horrible Vibrant in-text ad gimmick. You’ve been annoyed by it — the double-underlined word links that pops-up an unrelated come-on for some advertiser. Can I imagine Forbes selling mutual funds in its annual dreary Mutual Fund review? “Click here to invest in your future with Fidelity’s Magellan Fund” ….and then receive a bounty on the sale? No. The incumbent press seems boxed out of selling-the-story.  No way the New York Times is going to stick buy-it-now links in David Pogue’s latest review of a portable receipt scanner.

I sense the reason the editorial world isn’t getting into commerce comes down to confusion and ethics. The underlying transaction processing engine isn’t an issue. Getting a merchant payment account is pretty easy. Hiring some catalogue managers and fulfillment people to tend to the SKUs and answer the customer service calls is very doable. Where all ecommerce gets hard is integrating the fulfillment piece of actually holding inventory, pulling it off a shelf or out of a bin, boxing it and handing it off to DHL or UPS. Very few people do that well and there’s a reason Amazon is building depots that are so immense they can be seen from space.

I don’t see why a magazine couldn’t morph into a direct commerce operation. They better because the stores are turning into magazines and they aren’t using Facebook or Twitter to find their way forward. Get off the social commerce bandwagon (Fan pages for macaroni just confuse me) and hire an editor with an attitude  if you want to increase your conversions.

Some other “Shop The Story” sites I like:

  • Dealuxe — women’s fashion, Canada
  • The tale of Clive Nutting’s POW Stalag III Rolex: Antiquorum (fascinating slice of history about Rolex selling watches to Allied POWs in German prison camps with a pay-after-the-war offer)
  • Lotuff Leather’s American Craftsman blog: I lust for one of these briefcases.

If you have any favorite examples, please send them along.

Film o’ the week: Niki and Flo

Once more I exercised my Museum of  Modern Art Film Society membership and caught a more-or-less free flick in the basement theater last night. It was a worthwhile two hours spent in the dark and was followed by a 15 minute video interview with the director.

The film was Niki and Flo (Niki Ardelean, colonel în rezerva), directed  by Romanian director Lucian Pintilie and released in 2003. Without straying into spoiler territory, I will say this has one of the more stunning endings I’ve seen in a long while, a surprise that had me and the rest of the audience a bit dumbstruck when the closing credits started rolling. I heard a few “whoa’s” as the shock sank in.

[The review of Niki and Flo]

Surprises aside, the film is the story of a retired Romanian Army Colonel, Niki Ardelean, his wife, their daughter, son-in-law and in-laws. The film opens on April 1, 2011 and concludes six months later. It opens with the funeral of the Colonel’s son, a clarinet player who died senselessly while changing a blown fuse with wet hands.

Flo is Florian, the father-in-law, a hyper bohemian who darts around in contrast to the Colonel’s exhausted state of post-Communist retirement, videotaping weddings and funerals and loudly delivering his opinions. Flo’s slapstick, physical comedy had the audience nervously laughing during the funeral scene when he had the pall bearers open and close the coffin of the Colonel’s dead son several times so he could tape the perfect shot. But those comedy teases were erased by the mounting sadness of the Colonel and his wife, first grieving over the loss of one child, and then again as their newly married daughter made plans to leave for America and more opportunity.

The film is about the Colonel’s dispossession at the hands of Flo. He loses control over every detail of his life. From organizing the flowers at the funeral, to Flo’s “confiscation” of the newlyweds belongings as they move to America, to senseless political arguments about the role of the military … Flo eats away at every aspect of the Colonel’s dignity.

Filmed mostly in cramped Romanian apartment interiors, Pintilie’s background as a theatrical director gives the film the feeling of a play, and indeed, in the interview that followed, Pintilie explained his theory of film in light of Milan Kundera’s (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) theories from The Art of the Novel, that the purpose of story in art is to expose the possibilities that surround the story, to condense and expose through ellipsis.

Whenever I find myself exposed to Eastern European film, I can’t help but try to impose a layer of post-communism to the experience. Santatango is about a loss of structure and identity after the Communist failure. Ulysses Gaze is heavy handed in its unforgettable shot of an immense toppled statue of Lenin being barged down the Danube with Harvey Keitel along for the ride.

Niki and Flo is only tangentially about post-Communist Romania. Pintilie says that critical interpretations of Flo’s tyranny as a metaphor for the country’s Communist dictator,  Nicolae Ceau?escu are off the mark.

Here’s the film in its entirety on YouTube:

Blackouts, devices and addiction: how Major League Baseball picks my pocket

I always point to the interactive/digital division of Major League Baseball as one of the most progressive and intelligent media companies on the planet. The official name of the operation is Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which indeed they are.

Nothing has come between the MLB and their digital future.  From consolidating every one of the professional franchises’ web presence and ecommerce operation under one common infrastructure to being the first to adopt and extend its content on every platform imaginable — from smartphones to tablets to laptops to game consoles — the MLB has come to define the true meaning of the second-screen viewing experience, extending the same television experience our grandfathers knew on black and white televisions to the brave new world of Moneyball statistics, multi-angle interactive shots, pitch-by-pitch placement analysis, and a general entertainment geekout that makes the most of America’s pastime while inducing its most rabid fans to part with serious cash each and every year. [that was the first 110-word sentence I’ve written in a very long time]

This season marks the fourth year I’ll be subscribing to baseball’s AtBat service. The first year was 2008, when I paid some forgotten amount — maybe $60 or $75 — so I could watch the Red Sox while I was stationed in Beijing during the Summer Olympics. There was something supremely comforting about sitting in my hotel room at 2 am and watching a day game live from Fenway.  Even simply listening to a WEEI radio broadcast on my Blackberry in the back of a Chinese taxi on my way to deal with some urgent customer issue at the women’s beach volleyball arena made me feel 100% the part of the Ugly American in a strange land.

For someone who lives on the road or constantly works outside of their home television market — mine is defined basically by the New England Sports Network’s footprint — the MLB service is a nice thing to have. Sitting in a hotel room in the evening with an iPad streaming the home team is a good thing — once you get past the pernicious and byzantine blackout restrictions — and even at home, while the game is on the big screen and blacked out from the device, the statistical GameDay service is a nice thing to have at hand if you want to geek out on some statistics during the beer commercials.

Here’s the pitch on the MLB commerce cart:

“You have selected 2012 MLB.TV Premium Yearly. Watch over 150 Spring Training games LIVE online with no blackouts. Watch home or away feeds of every out-of-market regular season game LIVE in HD quality. At Bat 12 is now included free with your MLB.TV Premium subscription: watch on the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and select Android phones (now available), PLUS, new connected devices for the 2012 season like Xbox 360(coming soon).”

The price: $125 (and for merely $20 more I can get all of Minor League Baseball as well).

This year the MLB seems to have decoupled the AtBat service from the video service, so I am confronted with a $120 subscription to the premium service if I want to continue to be able to watch home games while I’m in New York City during the week. (yes, in theory I could be Slingboxing off of my home DirectTV system). Since I am a member-in-good-standing of the BLOHARDS (the Benevolent Loyal Order of the Honorable Ancient Red Sox Diehard Sufferers of New York), I feel obligated to keep a steady stream of Red Sox infiltrating the backyard of the despised Yankees. I know I could get off my agoraphobic ass and watch the games in a Red Sox friendly bar somewhere in Manhattan, but I doubt I’d be able to do so in my boxer shorts and know I’d end up in an over-served condition before game’s end.

The reality is I’ll probably watch two dozen games in their entirety via, most of them on an iPad, some in airport lounges on my Android phone, and probably a lot of the very cool 13 minute compressed hit-by-hit recaps that are shown every morning after. As for relying on the second-screen GameDay function — basically an avatar of a batter facing out towards a digital version of the home team’s outfield surrounded by stats and an pitch-by-pitch animation and strike zone placement — sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I’m a very ADD fan who generally does something else while the game drones in the background — email, memos, reading — and look up at the sound of the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, relying in the replay or rewind button to show me the action.

But I pay because I am a fan and fans are fanatics after all.  While the blackout policies always piss me off, and make me especially curse the national weekend and post-season blackouts induced by MLB’s exclusives with Fox Sports and ESPN, still I pay.

It’s a great racket they have going and deserves the praise it has received from both the tech and the financial press. There’s good reason CEO Bob Bowman made a list of the smartest people in tech in 2010 (here’s an interview he did with AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka last spring.) I know of no other media organization that rose to the challenge, seized the opportunity, and then innovated against the technical opportunity like Major League Baseball — a remarkable feat considering the league consists of 30+ independent owners governed loosely by a commissioner.


The Lit’ry Life: week of March 7

Fans of the longform are probably aware of Instapaper, but in case you haven’t, I’d highly recommend installing this useful utility which lets you save web pages/articles for consumption later.

The New York Times extols the virtues of Amazon’s Singles program — low priced, long essays from known and unknown writers.  Lawrence Lessig on campaign finance, Jeff Jarvis on Leonard DaVinci, and much more. Prices are usually under $2.00. Check out the catalogue, I am even tempted to write up my church adventures and submit it to Amazon versus a classic book publisher.

New to the coffee table this week is filmcomment, a bi-monthly journal of film criticism published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and an unexpected benefit of membership in that august society of wanna-be auteurs. The M arch/April issue has a piece (unavailable online) on two of my favorite film makers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: the Flemish brother duo who have won more Cannes Film Festival awards than any other film makers in history.

“…the Dardennes have come to be the most acute observers of the new European proletariat, deprived of all protection by the implosion of the Eastern Bloc and the weakening of traditional social safety nets, as churches and unions become less and less powerful for their constituents. Without the support of these institutions, the Dardennes’ characters are reduced to a state of vulnerability.”

In the men-wh0-climb-mountains genre, Atlantic Monthly has American climbing legend Ed Viesturs recount his first oxygen-less ascent of Everest, the 1990 “Peace Climb”

” Climbing without oxygen and sleeping without oxygen, I didn’t think I could spend the night at 28,000 feet. The “Death Zone” simply means that above a certain altitude, you can’t live forever. You could lie in your tent, flat on your back, eat a bunch of food, drink water, and your body would still slowly wither away, because there’s not enough oxygen to build tissue. “

Let the clamming begin: razor clams

I picked up my 2012 clamming permit from the Harbormaster this morning for $30. This means of course that the boat needs its bottom painted, battery charged, fuel filter changed, trailer tire reinflated …. and by the time I actually launch and get across the harbor to my favorite early season clam spot, I’ll be out at least $100 for a bucket of quahogs.

I jest. I don’t clam for the economics, it’s just a pastime that gives me an excuse to get on the water when there are no fish to catch or clement breezes to sail. Along with planting the spring peas on St. Pat’s, late winter-clamming is one of those rituals that must be honored — my personal version of Ash Wednesday or Cheese Sunday.

As I waited for the lady at the department of natural resources to finish laminating my card a flyer advertising a “learn to razor clam” seminar (March 11)  for kids caught my eye. That is as good an excuse as any to clam blog about a species that is gaining some traction thanks to a combination of Asian and Italian cuisine induced demand, and a fairly fun but weird way of stalking and capturing the things.

Razor clams were never eaten when I was a kid. Steamers, quahogs and oysters always made their way into the basket and eventually the table and our mouths, but the long brown razor clams were left in the mud.  The main reason I never ate one was probably because they are nigh impossible to catch with one’s bare hands because they can actually flee at a rate faster than a clammer can dig due to their streamlined shape. Named because they resemble antique straight razors, razor clams are scientifically known as Ensis Directus and colloquially as Atlantic jacknife clams or bamboo clams. The shells are about six to eight inches long, three-quarters of an inch across, and contain a long set of clam innards with a “foot” at one end, and a siphon on the other.

In the last decade a new method, salting, has caught on that makes razor clamming a breeze, one that originated in Ireland and then spread to the East Coast of the U.S..  The way it works is simple. Razor clams have a finite tolerance to salinity. Make their environment too salty and they will move, often quite vigorously. The simplest method, demonstrated in this Japanese video, is to sprinkle some salt over the razor clam’s keyhole shaped breathing hole. The salt irritates the clam, the clam first retracts, then, finding no relief, literally ejects itself upwards. Another technique is to bring along an empty plastic soda bottle, fill it with saltwater, and add enough table salt to get an ultra-salty mixture. Pour a little down the hole, and the same effect. Clam is annoyed, pops out of the hole, and the clammer snares it.

Here is an Irish how-to video using the soda bottle method:

On Cape Cod the commercial razor clam fishery has grown significantly, especially around Pleasant Bay on the east end around Chatham and Orleans. A 2005 paper on the effects of salting by some Worcester Polytech students estimated the 30 licensed commercial razor clammers in Orleans could take 300 pounds of clams out of the flats per day, raising a concern that the pressure would wipe out the flats and decimate the population (interestingly, Atlantic razor clams are considered an invasive species around Germany’s Elbe River estuary). Demand, according to the paper, is driven by the Asian and Italian markets.

The preferred commercial technique on the Cape is to salt the clams using plastic garden sprayers: the kind with a nozzle and a pump. One just walks the flat looking for the distinctive holes, gives them a squirt and then waits a few seconds for the clam to pop out.





Film in the City: The Return

As I work and live (three days a week) in one of the better art movie cities in the world — NYC — and because my apartment and office are literally behind the Museum of Modern Art and a 15 minute walk from Lincoln Center, I paid my money and joined the MoMA and Lincoln Center Film Societies (2 separate memberships) with the intention of taking full advantage of their incredible independent and art movie offerings in the evenings. Two weeks ago the Lincoln ran a retrospective of Bela Tarr’s work, including a Superbowl Sunday viewing of the seven-hour wonder, Satantango. I hoped to see his latest, and allegedly final film, The Turin Horse, but it is only being shown at 2:50 pm these days and I can’t break away from work.

Keep in mind that nearly all of the art film I’ve seen over the years has been on monitors and televisions and not the big screens they were shot for by their directors. The opportunity to see some of this work in a theater is too good to pass up.

I joined the museum’s film society online, paid an extra fee for the film membership, and received a spiffy membership card with a picture of Dave the Astronaut from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I check the film society schedule and book a free ticket online and then collect it at the film desk on 53rd St. for nothing more than a $1 handling fee. I haven’t paid $1 for a flick since college when the competing film societies on the Yale campus engaged in a shooting war for audiences.

Last night I saw Liza Johnson‘s first feature length film, The Return, at MoMA:

The heroine, Kelli, played with quiet, stunned anger  by Linda Cardenelli (Freaks and Geeks), returns to her husband and two children after a deployment with the National Guard to some unnamed warzone.  Hair tied into a severe military knot, she stands bewildered in an American airport looking for a familiar face until she’s startled by a sudden hug from her daughter. Her husband, a plumber played by Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) has been minding the children and holding things together while she was overseas. Awkward hugs, smiles, laughs, homecoming parties and sex all follow in predictable course, but throughout Kelli is alienated, a stranger trying to ease back into familiar surroundings.

The film is set in some nondescript upstate mill town, all patched potholes and plywood windowed carpet stores, brake shops and abandoned factories. Around it all is a gorgeous fall season of changing leaves tossed by sussurating winds, distant purple hills and placid lakes. The radio and television is always blaring something banal — callers who ate 15 cupcakes, blooper videos of old ladies slipping and falling — and Kelli’s job stapling together heating ducts is waiting for her, the same job she’s held for 12 years.

She goes on a bender, quits the job, discovers the husband cheating, and gets arrested for drunk driving.  Husband moves out, takes the kids, and she ends up in a court ordered rehab where she meets silver-haired Mad Man John Slattery, a salty substance abusing fellow vet who empathizes with her and takes her to his Waldenesque cabin in the woods for lovemaking on the couch and the offer of a line of ground up hillbilly heroin.

The Return is a grim, careful film with a few flashes of thin lipped humor. There were a lot of parallels to my favorite French-Belgium realists, the Dardenne Brothers, specialists in the tedium-and-quiet-despair-in-a-northern-town genre. The cinematography by Anne Etheridge is remarkable and adores the autumn color contrast with the dingy town.

A thoughtful film about the American decline, the loss of uphill traction by the middle class, and the lonely fight of one soldier against opponents she can’t see.



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