Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Chris Locke died on the winter solstice. Facebook posts by Doc Searls and J.P. Rangaswami broke the sad news that the man the world knew at the dawn of the World Wide Web as Rageboy was gone, done in by too many ciggies and a long struggle with COPD.

Chris came into my world in the mid-80s when I was a reporter at PC Week and rang him up after seeing him quoted somewhere talking about artificial intelligence. He was a great source who had a wild mind that would veer from outrage to hysteria,  riffing about whatever came to mind with great clarity and emotion. Chris was the most “un-IBMer” I knew at IBM.

In the early 90s at Forbes I moved away from covering the PC industry which had sunk into a boring spell of interactive CD-ROMs and the rise of chief information officers who were supposed to be the original digital transformation prophets at the old, hidebound companies Chris would mock in The Cluetrain Manifesto, the book he co-authored with Doc, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine in 1999 just in time for the first collapse in the dot.com mania that had been building ever since the introduction of the Web in 1994. When I went deep into document processing and hypertext technologies in 1992 Chris introduced me to the father of the granddaddy of all page description languages, SGML (Structured Generalized Mark-up Language, Stanley Goldfarb.   Stanley tried to persuade me to help him write a book about SGML, but the technical level of the material was way beyond my comprehension and, as Chris would say, “MEGO” (My Eyes Glazed Over) set in, so I begged off and instead started digging into the simpler world of HTML – a descendent of SGML known as the HyperText Markup Language.

Steve Larsen: “There are whistles and cheers in the crowd. People are standing. One guy is on his table. Paper airplanes and erasers are filling the air.”

Doc Searls: The Cluetrain Manifesto had four authors but one voice, and that was Chris Locke‘s.”

Other tributes to Chris

Chris introduced me to Yuri Rubinsky, CEO of HotMetal Pro, one of the first HTML authoring tools. Before long I was building very crude websites, relying on Chris for introductions to people like John Patrick at IBM, who built the first IBM.com and ran it on a ThinkPad under his desk  (when he closed the laptop at the end of the day to go home IBM.com went dark until Patrick could get back online. ) In 1995 Chris hired me to contribute a series of essays on digital journalism for a project called NetEditors that was sponsored by InternetMCI.  Those six essays gave me the space, with Chris’ expertise as an editor, to speculate about a lot of things that were going to change in media — especially newspapers and magazines — when the Internet grew up and took over because of the inevitable power of open technology standards to overcome the proprietary. When the means of production moved from tanker cars full of ink and monster rolls of newsprint to the infinitude of limitless page space filled with free publishing tools, opening the door to the long tail publishing model that would permit special interest online publishers to further distill themselves into niches driven by a community as opposed to content alone. I borrowed the insights of Bill Ziff into the unique function a magazine like Modern Bride, Skiing, Popular Mechanics, or PC Week played for people who were really into stereo gear or ski bindings. Advertisers paid a premium for the focus of each magazine’s circulation list or “audience” who in turn regarded the advertising as relevant to their interests but also a valuable source of new information that was of equal value to the stories and photographs published by the magazine’s writers and editors. With Chris’ egging me on , I wrote about the business model for fictional “hyper-niche” website for people who knit with pet hair, not knowing there are actually people who do just that and who even wear the resulting sweaters, mittens and hats .

Little did I know that this in fact is a real thing,nor that a Forbes colleague had written a book on the subject. Not wanting to base my speculations on cat sweaters instead I continues the NetEditors series with speculations about a hyper-focused, hyper-local online publication for anglers who fished in saltwater, with fly rods, with sub-editions for different regions of the world. That led me to collaborate with an actual fishing buddy to start a company to build just a site and others in the outdoor sports space. We launched Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing in 1995.

That project gave me the courage to build the first Forbes.com prototype which I showed to the Forbes brothers who put me in charge of activating the publishing deals they had signed with CompuServe and Prodigy. Once those were figured out we were able to launch the Forbs Digital Tool at Forbes.com

Around that time I invited to participate in an invite-only “retreat” hosted at a conference center somewhere around Philadelphia by Jerry Michalski, the editor of Esther Dyson’s tech newsletter, Release 1.0. There Esther dubbed Chris with the “Rageboy” tag that became his alter-ego to the end of his days. As fifty or so smart people talked about then-hot topics like community and micropayments, Chris took to the microphone and delivered a long, escalating rant that combined the acerbic wit of H.L. Mencken with the gonzo excesses of Hunter S. Thompson.

By the end of the 1990s, as normalcy started to spin out of  control and strange stuff like WorldCom and Enron were at their fraudulent peaks, when dot.com mania was peaking, Chris and his co—authors issued the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. When those declarations were turned into a book, Chris Locke wrote the first chapter. You can read Internet Apocalypso here. It’s a very good measure of the way the man thought and wrote.  Churned by a number of projects ranging from InternetMCI to Mecklerweb, Chris wound up at IBM as Big Blue’s Internet evangelist, where the cultural mismatch was breathtaking to behold even given the extremes of the rest of Chris Locke’s exceptionally eccentric career. In “Internet Apocalypso” he wrote:

“In 1995, I ended up in IBM’s Internet division. A ranking PR guy from corporate headquarters ran into me one day and said he’d heard I had a lot of contacts in the financial press. He suggested we get together for lunch and talk about it. I took this as a good sign, maybe an opening to do what I liked best. But when we met several weeks later he said something like, “All those journalists you know? Never talk to them again.

“He said I should refer all such conversations to him instead. That way, he said, the company’s messaging would be consistent. Or words to that effect. But I knew they wouldn’t be real conversations — they would be “key message” pitches, and I wasn’t about to subject people I knew and liked to that sort of targeting. I kept my contacts to myself.

“I was devastated. It was bad enough that I’d been explicitly forbidden to speak with journalists, many of whom had become good friends, but where was I going to write? If I published anything, I’d get busted for not asking permission — there was that word again — and if I wrote sleazy PR for IBM, I’d have to kill myself to blot out the karmic stain. “

Internet Apocalypso, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chris Locke

Instead, Chris  launched his own blog, Entropy Gradient Reversals, quit IBM, and found his voice of indignant amazement at the general cluelessness of the dinosaurs about to get wiped off the face of the economy by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter.

I’m going to miss him as a friend and force for good in my life. It has been years since we last spoke and I know his recent years were tough financially and medically. Sadly he’s gone to join  other friends of mine from that first wave of Internet prophets – John Perry Barlow, Tom Mandel at SRI,   Jimmy Guterman come to mind – all of them people who died too soon who never cashed out, who never faked it until they made it, who saw the future and worked to make it right.

 As I pulled together my thoughts for this post after another sleepless night, I tried to find some evidence of those early Chris Locke collaborations from 1995. Alas, as pointed out earlier this year in The Atlantic by Harvard Law prof Jonathan Zittrain – link rot has erased all signs of that work, with even the Internet Archive missing those longwinded speculations about what might be wrought on civilization by the commercialization of a network where nobody was in charge. Chris hated authority and would probably approve of the gradual vanishing of those old early essays. This was a man who took offense at a Burger King website that invited customers to contribute – but warned them in the legal fine print that anything submitted to Burger King automatically became the property of Burger King.

“Our own contribution to the furtherance of responsible Copyright Protection consisted in feeding the entire collected corpora of Project Gutenberg through the Burger King form, thus ending Literature As We Know It.”

Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Vincent Scully on winter rowing

Vincent Scully was an architectural historian who lectured at Yale. His class was one of the can’t-miss hits on the college curriculum in the 70s and 80s . From the jammed lecture hall came stories of Professor Scully breaking down in tears at the lectern while grieving the demolition of great works such as New York City’s Penn Station, presenting his slide show of architecture’s greatest hits and misses with great duende.

Vincent Scully: Credit

Scully was profiled by The New Yorker in February 1980. James Stevenson concluded by quoting Scully explaining his love of rowing on Long Island Sound in the winter. In 1974 the professor acquired a Gloucester Gull dory — a light, cut-down dory for one rower on a fixed thwart or seat. It’a design meant for very raucous open water rowing.

“When the river is frozen in the winter, I carry the boat until I find open water, and then I just launch it. It’s wonderful rowing through the ice floes. I go out in wild seas all winter. The wind comes from different directions, and the water is always alive, always different. I love to row through the big waves. Way out in the Sound, there’s a triple rock, sort of a monster, and I often row out to that. Sometimes I shout Greek: “Polyphloisboio thalasses!” It’s from the ‘Iliad,’ the best description of the sea: ‘the many-voiced roaring.’ And it’s exactly the sound that the big waves make: ‘polyphloisboi’ as they come tumbling toward the bow, and then the soft, sighing sound – ‘thalasses, thalasses’ – as they pass under the boat.”

Vincent Scully as told to James Stevenson, The New Yorker, Feb. 18, 1980 p. 69
Gloucester Gull – By WoodenBoat Magazine

Sculling in cold weather

With this portrait of a fingerless Blackburn in mind, I rowed for home, determined to get some gloves to avoid his fate.

I noted the arrival of “meteorological winter”   in my fingers on Saturday morning while sculling across North Bay on my way around Grand Island in my wherry the S.S. Cheesecloth.  While they grew numb and number  I thought of the indefatigable Howard Blackburn, the Gloucester fisherman who was separated from his schooner in 1889,  lost in the north Atlantic in a tiny dory with another fisherman. Blackburn lost all his fingers and most of his toes to frostbite while rowing himself and his shipmate ashore.  He lost his mittens while bailing the dory, and using his socks to try to save his fingers only meant the loss of his toes. So he let his numb fingers freeze around the wooden handles of the oars, knowing they were beyond salvage but were his only means of surviving the long winter ordeal.  The other fisherman froze to death but Howard survived and  went on to live a colorful life, sailing alone across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn to seek gold in the Yukon, before retiring from the sea to run a tavern in Gloucester until his death in the early 1930s.1

Howard Blackburn, portrait by Margaret Fitzhugh Browne, 1929

Any person who sets out in a rowboat, racing shell, kayak, or canoe in the winter months on Cape Cod takes a risk of not  returning home. Water temperatures around the Cape can plunge below freezing in January. Should a person find themselves in that water for any length of time (other than the crazy New Year’s polar bear swimmers who dash in and out of the water in a matter of screaming seconds) they have about two minutes before they lose dexterity, fifteen before they slip into unconsciousness, and death before 45 minutes. 

Hypothermia table from the University of Sea Kayaking

The perils of cold water rowing is why the four-oar rule went into effect in November at my rowing club (the Union Boat Club) on the Charles River in Boston.   That edict prohibits the launching of single sculls (one person pulling two oars) and pairs (two people pulling one oar each) .    The requirement for a minimum of four oars per boat  ensures rowers don’t go out alone.   A few years ago the Massachusetts legislature passed a law requiring paddlers to wear a lifejacket or approved “personal floatation device” while on the water between September and May 15.   The law was passed at the urging of the Commonwealth’s harbormasters following a few tragedies involving cold water kayakers who went missing off the shores of Cape Cod.

I built my wherry with winter rowing in mind.  I had never rowed in the winter months in fifty years of rowing, but one day, while walking along the beach of Bluff Point in Cotuit, one of the local scullers went sliding by in his racing shell, careful to keep close to the shore line as he paddled around the bay on a sunny, calm January afternoon.  I was impressed by his stoic example of damn the weather, full speed ahead, but started thinking about what my “plan” would be if I were to go rowing in the depths of winter on desolate waters with no other boaters around to witness and assist me in the event of a capsize or breakdown.

Staying close to the beach is obviously a good idea. My rowboat draw very little water and can be rowed over sandbars and shoals with only a foot of depth (the downside being a drastic reduction in speed as a boat slows down in shallow water due to the “squat effect” where a moving hull is sucked down towards the bottom.) In theory I could flip a shell a few yards from the beach, stand up and walk everything ashore. Drenched and shivering for sure, but at no risk of succumbing to hypothermia and drowning.  But what about those points where my route crosses a stretch of open water to wide to swim and too deep to wade? What would the best plan of action be if I were to flip over in the middle of the bay? Do I stay with the boat and try to climb back aboard?  Or is the move to abandon ship and strike out swimming for the nearest dry land? 

Scullers capsize all the time but I have never seen one wearing a lifejacket. The precarious, thin-skinned boats are twenty-four foot needle-like  hulls designed to go as fast as possible in a straight line over protected waters. They are incredibly tippy and can flip just a few feet away the dock if the rower doesn’t keep the oar blades flat and perpendicular to the boat like pontoons. Once the boat is moving it gains some stability like a rolling bicycle.  A motorboat’s wake, waves stacked up by the wind,  or a collision with a buoy can flip a sculler upside down in an instant. Most of my capsizes came as surprised. One moment I was focused on driving the shell through the water, heart pounding, lungs breathing hard, and the next instant I was upside down in a state of  submerged shock . 

Righting a capsized shell and getting back aboard is a trick novice scullers are taught near the dock during warm weather; some coaches even using a swimming pool to practice the difficult maneuver, much the way a novice kayaker is taught how to perform an “Eskimo roll.”  I used to flip my Empacher racing single at least once a summer, usually when I forgot to  turn around and look  where I was going and carelessly clipped a channel marker or mooring float. 

Once one finds themselves on the wrong side of the water and accepts the shocking surprise, the first order of business is to get some air. Feet strapped into shoes with their toes bolted to the boat must  be released and usually have some Velcro quick release for just such emergencies. Free from the boat, the rower then has to roll the boat right side up, sort out the crossed oats, then fetch any floating personal possessions such as a  water bottle and telephone sealed in dry bag. Then, with one hand holding the two oar handles together and the other holding onto the far side of the deck, the sculler must lunge up from the water and get themselves across the narrow shell without damaging anything. Here’s a video that shows the maneuver:

My experience in trying to climb back into a capsized shell in warm weather leads me to favor the abandon ship plan for surviving a winter capsize. I’ve broken the combing or splash board of a wooden shell trying to get back aboard, and it was like I sat on a Stradivarius judging from the repair bill. Although the Cheesecloth is much stabler than a racing shell and seems to be immune to flipping, the possibility of going into the water means I need to consider the risks and have a solid plan before finding myself in 30 degree water with about two minutes of time before the cold makes it impossible to do anything with my fingers and the chances of a heart attack increase.

Clothing choices for winter rowing are similar to what a cross-country skier wears: layers of tight, synthetic leggings and long-sleeved shirts with the addition of  a sleeveless “turtle” vest shell with a wind-breaker back panel, a hat, and neoprene dive boots. Rowing is strenuous and the body quickly warms up through the workout, making things miserable for the rower as they overheat and begin to sweat. But as soon as they stop that sweat  immediately starts to freeze, especially if wind is a factor.

After my first December row last weekend I put the boat away on its rack and headed for home, definitely a frightening sight in tights, a chartreuse Day-Glo safety vest, and my orange, red and black Karl’s Sausage Kitchen wool hat. I jumped into a hot shower and immediately started moaning as my blue fingers began to painfully thaw out.  Once I was out of the shower and dressed I went online and bought a set of “pogies” — strange mittens that slip over the oar handles to keep my hands warm without sacrificing the essential grip of bare skin on the rubber grips. I’ve never tried them before, but ordered a set from JL Racing to get me back on the water before the harbor freezes.  Smallboat Monthly published an article about pogies in 2017 (subscription required).

“Pogies” keep hands warm without sacrificing contact with the oars.

1 The Blackburn Challenge honors Howard’s desperate row with a 20-mile rowing race around Cape Ann. It takes place every July so no one loses any digits. 

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