On the eve of the Sequester a lesson from the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know a good web designer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Dorkification of Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintended consequences of jetties

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

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

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

Quoting the Cape Cod Times (paywall in effect):

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

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

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

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

On Latitudes and Moral Superiority

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

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

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

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

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

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


I order you to have a Happy Valentine’s Day

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


The wisdom of names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olympian Blunder: The IOC drops Wrestling

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

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

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

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

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