Sesquipedalian Habits

I believe it’s a cruel act of intellectual dishonesty to skip over an unfamiliar word  while reading without noting its existence and tracking down its definition. Starting in high school I got in the habit of reading with a pencil and parking new vocabulary in the flyleaf of the book or on an index card/bookmark for future research with a dictionary.

Kindle made in-line dictionary look ups a breeze just by pressing on a word and waiting for the installed digital dictionary to pop-up a definition. I am increasingly growing anti-Kindle since I’ve been reading the entire “Master and Commander” series by Patrick O’Brian this past spring and summer. After three Kindle books I finally gave up forking over $12 to Amazon every time I wanted the next volume of the 21-volume series and went to E-Bay to buy a complete collection from a used book dealer for $50 with the added benefit of having it on my bookshelf for others to read or me to re-read someday.

Now, as I read the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin on the train to and from Boston and Providence, I have moved to a combined print/digital vocabulary exercise. O’Brian is incredibly erudite and his introduction of delightfully archaic 19th century medical, botanical, and maritime words has proved too good to be true for this long suffering word addict.

Here’s how it works more or less. Basically it means opening a note on your phone and filling with new words and their definitions. Duh.

  1. See a word in the text like “missish”
  2. Turn to the phone and look it up missish
  3. Copy the definition from the search result
  4. open an Evernote file on the phone from a “Vocabulary Widget”
  5. Type “Missish”  and paste in the definitionevervocab
  6. Save and continue reading.

This results in a serious word collection that beats whatever “word of the day” app you may subscribe to, honors the author and makes you smarter and extremely insufferable when you announce on a sunny day that you are going “apricate” on the deck (e.g. “catch some rays”)

 

Pink skies at night: Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light

One of the classic books on the Cape Cod shelf of my over-stuffed bookshelf is a gorgeous collection by Joel MeyerowitzCape Light

“…an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in over 350 exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. He was born in New York in 1938. He began photographing in 1962. He is a “street photographer” in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, although he now works exclusively in color. As an early advocate of color photography (mid-60’s), Meyerowitz was instrumental in changing the attitude toward the use of color photography from one of resistance to nearly universal acceptance. His first book, Cape Light, is considered a classic work of color photography and has sold more than 150,000 copies during its 30-year life.”

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Cape Light is still in print and can be found on Amazon. If you are into gorgeous photography, I recommend it.

The photographs were shot with a large-format camera – using 8″x10″ film — and I recall from the preface that the camera was a gorgeous work of art in and of itself.

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Dairyland, Provincetown, Cape Cod, 1976 by Joel Meyerowitz

What is special about the book, especially while writing this on a grey day in mid-March when snow flurries are scudding across a bleak yard littered with broken sticks and honey locust pods, is that Meyerowitz managed to catch one of the most ineffable things about life on Cape Cod, that rosy, pink glow that tinges summer clouds in the evening with a lambent poetry I have never seen anywhere else in my travels. Cape Cod is an east-facing land — the Wampanoags were known to their fellow Algonquin tribes as the “People of the Dawn” and the peninsula is, as one of the easternmost promontories in America, a place to celebrate sunrises, not sunsets.

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But Provincetown and Truro, the upraised “fist” of the Cape where Meyerowitz set up his camera in the early 70s, is one of the few and only places where a decent sunset can be observed over a watery horizon in all of the eastern United States.

The pink that permeates so many of his shots — who knows why it occurs here especially. The reflection of the sea around the land? Some cloud chemistry having to do with summer humidity and the polluted air that washes over the Cape from New York City and New Jersey on the summer’s southwesterly prevailing winds?

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Whatever the cause, it comes in the spring and ends in the fall — the sunsets of November turning ominous like the eye of Sauron over Mordor as if to warn the Pilgrims to start gathering their corn and make ready for the harsh winter that follows. I haven’t seen that tell-tale glow yet this year, March continues to come in as a lion and I need to plant my St. Patrick’s Day peas today in the barren garden for my 4th of July salmon and peas supper, but it’s coming. The boats are ready. The crocuses and hyacinths are blooming and any day now the peep-peep cries of the ospreys will begin and the tinklepinks will sing in the bogs.

I have a strange affinity for photographs that show the horizon between sky and water. Andreas Gursky’s Rhien II was on display at Christie’s in New York City a few years ago, prior to its setting the auction record for a photograph, and I remember being captured by it and lusting for it for reasons I couldn’t explain. Enough so that it’s been the desktop background of my PC ever since.

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Another amazing artist of sky and horizons and the sea is Australian photographer Murray Fredericks. His video essay of his expedition to the salt lake of Australia’s Lake Eyre is hauntingly evocative of something vast and empty that gets me right here.

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I don’t know if it comes from sailing offshore out of the sight of land that makes seascapes and horizons such a big thing for me. My inept attempts at celestial navigation during my yacht delivery days gave me a technical appreciation of the horizon, of how it changes depending on the eye’s height from the water, how the sextant brings down the celestial body to kiss it in a swing of the split mirror, rocking it from side to side to find a good angle then calling out “mark!” to note the precise time. But it’s also the point of interface for the eye, the not knowing what lies over it in the distance, the inability to see the curve of the earth, the way a rising or setting sun or moon can be seen to move so subtly when they are close to the line.

 

 

Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

Over the holidays I read Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, having been tipped off to the novels by my summer’s reading of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill and the strong endorsement of the previously unknown literary gem as one of the most beloved and high-impact pieces published between the two world wars. I’ve known about Sassoon since college when I read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory as well as Robert Grave’s autobiography, Goodbye to all That.

Siegfried Sassoon was one of a select group of young English poets who  went to war spouting the florid language of Kipling and Tennyson and returned (if they survived) utterly gutted by the horror of mechanized war. Sassoon survived. So did Graves. But others, such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen did not.

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In these centennial anniversary years of the Great War, I realize how deficient the literature I’ve found has served the experience compared to the masterpieces that came out of World War II such as James Jones’ The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Sure, there is All Quiet on the Western Front and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun but until I read Sassoon’s trilogy I hadn’t fully grasped the hellishness of France and the trenches. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August are an excellent historical introduction to the causa belli but in sum I guess the best literature about the First World War was indeed the war poetry.

Sassoon was raised by a spinster aunt in Kent’s Weald, the iconic southeastern rolling landscape that personifies the English cliche. Fussell, in his introduction to Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man rightfully points out Sassoon’s intense love affair with the landscape of Kent and his almost erotic evocation of a pre-war life spent playing cricket on village greens and learning how to ride with the fox hunt through coverts and over the fences of the local farms. Sassoon, who dropped out of Cambridge without completing a degree, had just enough of an inheritance to be idle and spend his days riding horses and getting fitted with new boots and pink hunting coats. The three books are a barely fictionalized autobiography.

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Sassoon ends the first volume — Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man — when he volunteers for the infantry as a junior officer. The second volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is set in the trenches of northern France and tells the story of his acts of reckless heroism, where he decided that rather than give into the fear and horror he would affect an insouciance that led his soldiers to nickname him “Mad Jack” and regard him as a good luck officer willing to take chances rather than cower in a trench.

Sassoon was wounding and returned to England, was decorated as a hero, returned, was wounded again, and during his convalescence decided to publish a protest against the war with the support of the pacifist mathematician Bertrand Russell.

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

“On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”

Sassoon sent that declaration to his commanding officer, threw his Military Cross medal into the Mersey River, and waited for a reaction. The reaction from the army was more genteel embarrassment for Sassoon than outrage. Before he could be tried for treason a friend intervened and declared Siegfried was unhinged and needed to be committed to an asylum. Sassoon was packed off to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland where he was treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, the pioneering genius in the treatment of shell shock as PTSD was known at the time. Through his work with Rivers, Sassoon came to the conclusion that the only rational decision he could make was to ask for a return to the front lines of the war, and so he was returned to the front for a third time, an experience covered in the final volume of the trilogy: Sherston’s Progress which was published in 1936, completed the series that began in 1928.

These books were beloved at the time of their publication and it surprises me they aren’t still read or better known in the U.S.. In my estimation the first volume is my favorite because of its amazing affection for the culture that existed before the war. I’ve read that Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is a similar expression of deep love for “the shire,” that bucolic country life of England that looms so large in my American mind as the “British Cliche” but which evidently did exist and lives on in the writings of Sassoon and others.

 

Marguerite and the Isle of Demons

In 1999 I bought some screenwriting software and messed around with the format and structure of writing a scvript. I actually wrote a full screenplay based on the story of Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who was mauled by a bear and left to die in the wilderness in the 1800s. Yes, I felt a twinge of woulda-coulda-shoulda when The Revenant told that tale 15 years later and won an Oscar, but being a procrastinator, I thought I’d share another amazing story from history which I’ll predict someone will actually make into a flick one day.

On my current literary bender of devouring Samuel Eliot Morison’s works, I have been reading his magnum opus, The European Discoverers of America. In his accounts of the French voyages of discovery of Canada he dropped in the tale — perhaps apocryphally — of Marguerite de la Rocque and her romantic ordeal on the Ile de Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

First a little back story. The French, envious of Spanish wealth from Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and aware the English were exploring the coasts of Newfoundland, financed the voyages of Jacques Cartier who over the course of three voyages, discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and explored it deep to the west as far as the modern city of Quebec in the search of the elusive northwest passage to the Indies. Cartier returned to Versailles with captured Iroquois natives and tales of gold to be found in the mythical  “Kingdom of Saguenay.” While his samples of ore were merely Fools Gold, or iron pyrite, and his Iroquois novelties all too willing to bullshit the court on his behalf, Cartier’s tall tales of Canada’s bounty inspired a mad rush among the French aristocracy to fit out their own ships and sail west to stake their claims in the New World.

One of those fortune-seekers was Jean-Francois Roberval, a French nobleman and favorite of the King of France, who set sail for Canada in 1542 with a crew that included a young woman, Marguerite de la Roque, and her lady’s maid, Damienne. It’s unclear what exactly the relationship was between Roberval and Marguerite. Some historians speculate they were uncle and niece. Others speculate they were brother and sister. But it appears they had a shared interest in a great deal of land in Perigord and Languedoc and she was “co-seigeurness” of Pairpont with him. Whatever the relationship, it was personal and perhaps even financial and tied to some big land holdings which were the basis of noble wealth in those days.

Why a young woman would get on a ship with her maid and sail to a savage shore is remarkable to speculate about, but according to Morison, Cartier did a masterful job in whipping up Canada-fever among the aristocracy and for a woman to embark on such a voyage is probably tantamount to being the first female astronaut to walk on the moon.

During the trans-Atlantic voyage Marguerite fell in love with a young man — not a member of the common crew, but some dashing adventurer who doubtlessly was high-borne and also keen on finding adventure and freedom from the tired restrictions of 15th century France. The two lovers were caught in flagrente delicto by the Calvinist Captain Roberval, who was enraged by her promiscuity, doubtlessly ashamed to have it openly known on the very close confines of a small ship in the middle of the Atlantic that his chaste “ward” had sinned under his very nose in some dark sail locker.

Roberval vowed to put Marguerite ashore at the first opportunity along with her maid Damienne, who in the words of Morison, played the classic role  all good lady’s maids are expected to play as she tried to conceal her mistresses’ amorous indiscretions. Eventually land was sighted, a desolate island at the northern tip of Newfoundland at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This island, the “Ile de Demons” is a bit mythical and appears and disappears on antique charts, but according to modern locations may be Quirpon Island near the site of L’Anse aux Meadows, where archaeologists found evidence of the first Viking settlements dating back to 1,000 CE.

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Enter a caption

By Johann Ruysch († 1533), scanned by Kimon Berlin, user:Gribeco – scanned from Thomas Suárez, Shedding the Veil, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1301911

Now for the good stuff, paraphrasing Morison’s account, here goes:

Roberval the Calvinist prude, total tyrant of the ship (as all good captain’s are expected to be tyrants), anchors off the rocky shore of the Ile de Demons and puts Marguerite and Damienne ashore with a musket, some provisions, and his utter and complete scorn. Picture the scene of somber shame and terror as the two women are put into the boat and rowed ashore in the ship’s pinnace to a forbidding shore dense with pines and dark shadows.jean-franc3a7ois_de_la_roque_de_roberval Roberval doubtlessly pronounces some stern sentence on them from the poop deck as the women are banished to their fate, invoking his Huguenot God and making pious imprecations against fornicators and peccant girls of loose morals.

Some historians speculate Roberval was motivated by more than prudishness and a wounded ego when he sent Marguerite ashore, loyal lady’s maid by her side. Indeed he may have benefited from marooning the young noblewoman because he could have returned to France as the sole Lord of the lands he once shared title with the doomed girl. Whatever the motivation, Roberval was wiping his hands of her and with a curt command to weigh anchor and sail away, the two women were left alone on the wet shore looking out for the last time at their only connection to civilization and life.

Aha, but the young swain, hitherto concealed, his identity protected by his lover Marguerite, leaps on deck, muskets, ammunition, and food in a sack, and with a flourishing bow, gracefully swan dives off the taffrail into the cold, testicle-shrinking waters of the sea and swims ashore to share his fate in the arms of his abandoned lover.

Roberval flicks his teeth with some gallic display of disgusted indifference and with a fey motion with the back of his hand, commands the ship’s bosun to weigh anchor and leave the scandalous trio to their fate.

And then the ship is gone.

Let’s let Morison tell the rest of the story:

“Marguerite fared well enough for a time. Until winter set in, the lovers lived an idyllic life. The gentleman built a cabin for his mistress and her maid, chopped wood, caught fish, and shot wild fowl; but before winter ended, he died. Marguerite, unable to dig a grave in the frozen ground, guarded his body in the cabin until spring, to protect it from wild animals.

“In the ninth month of exile a child was born to her and promptly died. Another winter passed, and Damienne died, leaving Marguerite alone. The intrepid demoiselle gathered enough food to keep alive and defended herself not only against bears (she killed three, one “white as an egg”). but against spirits of another world. Demoniac voices shrieked about her cabin, howled the louder when she fired a gun, but were still when she read passages from a New Testament which she brought ashore.”

In  the early spring of 1544 the smoke from Marguerite’s fire was spotted by some passing French fisherman. They landed, found her emaciated and “in rags” according to Morison, and brought her back home to France where she became a celebrity sensation and the personal pet of the Queen of Navarre who made Marguerite a cause celebre and post child for piety. Roberval? Not a %&$* was given and met his maker during some Huguenot purge.

Maybe it’s me, but I’d see that movie.

Disrupted: 50% of a book review

I couldn’t wait for Dan Lyon’s book about his year at Hubspot — Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble — so I bought the thing twice, impatiently waiting until 5 am this morning to pull down the Kindle version just so I could start reading on the morning boat from Hingham to Rowes Wharf.  I actually committed two honest-to-god “LOLs” during the 30 minute boat ride — but then again Lyons has been making me laugh since we were in high school together in the late 70s, then at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune covering little towns in southern Massachusetts, then at PC Week, and Forbes ….. and so on and so forth.

And here I am only half-way through the book and jumping the gun and writing half a review, which is better than most of the hacks who have been riffing off the excerpt Fortune published a couple weeks ago. But, having listened to Dan during his time at Hubspot, comparing notes, and knowing a bit about Hubspot’s “culture” I pretty much know how the story turns out.

Dan is a disciple of some classic newsroom curmudgeons (especially the late Jim Michaels who ruled over Forbes with the best bullshit detector in  the business) and he nails the zeitgeist of a contemporary tech startup with pitch perfection.  Given we’re roughly the same vintage and have followed the same professional career track, there’s a lot in Disrupted that hits painfully close to the truth of my own situation as a 50-something white guy who stopped being a reporter to dive in as a marketer inside of the kind of tech company I used to cover for nearly two decades alongside Dan.

Of the two of us, Dan is by far the funnier and better writer, with much bigger balls. His novel Dog Days is a fictional harbinger of Disrupted and the shit he stirred up at Forbes under his own byline was always fun to read; but it was his Secret Diary of Steve Jobs that gave birth to one of the better cat-and-mouse games in the Valley as even Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard started offering a free iPod to whomever would out the first genuinely funny satirist of Valley inanity. That Hubspot would hire him as a “marketing fellow” made sense on the surface. Lots of ex-reporters were taking corporate content gigs, myself included, launching custom publishing operations like Adobe’s CMO.com and Qualcomm’s Spark. Alas, as readers of Disrupted will discover, Dan found himself in the grasp of Lead Gen — aka getting people to share their email or phone number so they can be spammed or called until they either cave in and buy something or vow never again to part with their contact information  in exchange for an “e-book” of some tedious “thought leadership” written by a marketing intern captivated by the emerging industry of marketing “gurus” who have managed to repackage the old sins of 2nd class direct mail and telemarketing into something suspiciously full of benign purpose, or as Hubspot dubbed it “Inbound Marketing.As I wrote last week on “ageism” in tech — sure it sucks to be an out of work reporter in one’s 50s forced into PR or content marketing and find after decades of cutting through corporate-speak and marketing bullshit one is suddenly inflicting the same on the world in the service of growth and the brass ring of a possible IPO. Dan made it through to the IPO and then decamped for Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley where he’s still  a writer.

Someone needs to make a movie out of Disrupted — especially since Hubspot gave Dan the parting gift of a sordid scandal in which one exec was canned, another fled the scene, and the CEO got a reprimand for trying to either grab a copy of the manuscript or extort the publisher into killing it. Hubspot will be fine, it’s the world of marketing automation that needs to be afraid — very afraid — as Lyons holds up a mirror and calls it like it is. I’m sure an entire subculture of social media consultants,  growth hackers, and  funnel optimization and lead nurturers are going to rise up in outrage and claim he didn’t get the point, but watching them turn to LinkedIn, Medium, and even dear old Forbes.com to try to salvage their reason for existing has been a lot of fun to watch and marvel over.

 

 

 

What I’m Reading: The Innovators

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

 

I have succumbed to the world of books-on-tape and been using the 90 mile/2x daily commute from Cape Cod to Burlington to do more than listen to NPR and curse my hollow, rat-on-a-wheel existence. I’ve been a fan since my commute to and from Manhattan for Eastman Advisors, but perhaps Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t the wisest first choice for an automotive literary experience. In 2001, when I briefly did the same commute to McKinsey & Co’s short-lived TomorrowLab, I listened to lectures from The Learning Company, thinking I was being super efficient and relentlessly self-improving like Dr. Evil’s father the baker who claimed to have invented the question mark.

Audible is definitely making the commute a lot more enjoyable. I’ve tried dictating into a voice recorder and plugging the results into Nuance software’s speech recognition software, but I can’t compose via dictation and feel like an utter asshole in bumper-to-bumper holding a little red Sony recorder under my chin and pretending I am composing literary genius (note to self, search to see if any significant piece of literature has ever been dictated).

So far this fall I’ve listened to The Map Thief; Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One; and Chris Anderson’s Free, along with a steady diet of podcasts, usually Drupal and open source related. I was always impressed by the anecdote that George Gilder, the Forbes columnist and newsletter writer wrecked a couple cars out in the Berkshires because he was fond of driving around listening to technical lectures and proceedings from the IEEE and other deep-geek gatherings. The story, unconfirmed, was he put a car or two in the ditch because he’d get so wrapped up in talks about erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.

Now I’m into Walter Issacson’s breezy history of the computer, Internet, and digital revolution and I’m liking it, even if everything is old news because I’ve worked in the industry since the early 1980s and have read pretty much all the histories and biographies of the computer age. Walter’s biography of Steve Jobs was a huge bestseller and I enjoyed it very much as it taught me two things about Jobs which I did not know before: Jobs didn’t flush toilets and he banned Powerpoint.  In Innovators, Issacson does a fine job of keeping the history from falling into the rat hole of theoretical science, injects some good human drama and tales of eccentricity, and connects it all together in a way that a Millenial obsessed with hooking up on Tindr and managing their social networks might actually pause and pay some respect to the geniuses (mostly men, mostly working during the Great Depression) who invented the vacuum tube powered 50-ton monster computers that got things rolling.

He begins with the tale of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, a passionate mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer because of her work with Charles Babbage during his development of the mechanical calculator, the Analytical Engine during the first half of the 19th Century. Then a leap to the second half of the century, and the mechanization of the US Census by IBM’s early founder Herman Hollerith (this cutting down the analysis of the census from an eight year manual process to just one); and then to 1937 — the year it all came together in the US, England and Germany for a bunch of unconnected inventors and scientists who looked at the technology available to them and managed, through a combination of vacuum tubes, hardwired circuits, electric-mechanical relays, “memories” made out of rotating tin cans and lots of scrounging, to independently invent variations on what are now regarded as the first working computers.

There’s something about listening to the excitement caused by the Mother of All Demos (Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of the first mouse, graphical user interface, and network in 1968), the founding of Intel by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, the impact the MITS Altair had on the Bay Area’s hacker/maker subculture, the development of the Internet’s protocols out of ARPANET…..all familiar stories, but very chilling when told through an Android phone mounted on the dashboard of a car, a pocket computer with more storage and power that ever could have been conceived of and yet…..

That future was always in the minds of people like Vannevar Bush — the man who forged the collaboration between the military, academic and industrial research during World War II and was the “Scientist-in-Chief,” advising presidents from FDR through Eisenhower: he described the personal computer he called a “Memex” in a famous essay published by The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and his vision of the DynaBook in the early 70s. Ada Lovelace speculating in the 1820s that someday there would be machines that could help create art.

The theme that fascinates me — a theme emerging from listening to Chris Anderson, Peter Thiel, and Issacson — is that the greatest invention in all of the Information Age is debatable, but the one that is most intangible is the way “innovation” is defined and happens. I personally detest the way “innovation” is tossed around by buzzwordists along with “impactful” and “pivot” like verbal styrofoam peanuts; but a tangible definition and set of conditions conducive to it occurring is coming together in my mind. Hence, Churbuck’s Theory of Innovation:

  1. Those who talk about innovation generally don’t understand it.
  2. Innovation is not a synonym for creativity or discovery — creativity and inspiration are required, but the words are not synonyms. Galileo didn’t innovate his heliocentric view of the universe — he proved through a telescope that the planets orbit the sun (and pissed off the Church in the process).
  3. Innovation strictly defined in my mind is the commercialization of invention. Bear with me, for this is the fine distinction between discovering some new truth: “Silicon doped with impurities will become a semiconductor” that’s a discovery, an invention.  Putting a logical circuit on a base of doped silicon by printing a pattern of conductive lines is an invention and can be patented. Realizing you can cram all the logical functions required by a computer’s central processing unit onto a single chip and then selling the hell out of them (as Intel did) I argue is an innovation. Science leads to discoveries. Innovation applies those discoveries to products or processes.
  4. Innovation is an “aha” moment to be sure, but it usually doesn’t happen alone, by a lone genius in a garage, but in a group of collaborators in the right combination of environment and management structures. Flat organizations based on a meritocracy are far more conducive to innovation than old command-and-control structure. Open sharing of invention and discoveries is the fuel for innovation — innovation is derived and borrowed from many sources and crushed by patents and secrecy.

I highly recommend the Thiel book — his view of what it takes to build a company, as well as Issacson’s — it’s more about the management and culture breakthroughs than anything else. Flat organizations, rewarding individual contributors with a piece of the action, and leadership that makes decisions and shepherds projects towards clear goals while deflecting distractions are as important as any factor, technical or creative. Issacson provides an excellent example: Texas Instruments took the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs and made the first transistor radios — reducing a bulky device that sat on a table and required tubes to a form factor the size of a stack of index cards. As luck would have it, the first transistor radio coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll, and for the first time teenagers could listen, in privacy, to the music their parents hated on the living room Philco. The invention — the Regency TR-1 — was the innovation of a new “use case,” the transistor itself was introduced to the public consciousness, and the result was as profound (if not more so) than the iPod 50 years later.

It’s a long way of my saying, it’s good to stop and take stock of the invention that surrounds us and realize that in a very short span of time — 50 years essentially — we’re gone from “Shake Rattle and Roll” in our pockets, to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on our dashboards.

 

 

 

The Map Thief: in the stacks of Sterling

The time came in college where I had to foot the bill and as part of my tuition plan I needed to work a campus job. The usual scholarship gig was washing dishes in the dining hall — one of those hair-netted jobs that seemed embarrassing because you cleaned up after your friends, but when I went to the campus employment agency to fill out a form I happened to be there as a courtly looking professor kind of man was posting a job in the Sterling Memorial Library’s print shop for a printer’s devil.

I interrupted his conversation with the clerk and introduced myself. He was Professor Dale Roylance, the curator of the library’s typography collection and its Arts of the Book department, a room on the ground floor that displayed the art and science of typography from Gutenberg through the modern era. He questioned my qualifications, he was looking for an experienced printer’s devil with some time in one of the many letterpresses around the residential colleges; and realizing there was no bullshitting the man I was honest and admitted to having no experience or even interest in bibliography and letterpresses. I was a writer and wanted to experience the mechanics of book making first hand and appreciated the craft from having run my high school newspaper and the agony of producing that every week. He was skeptical, but agreed to give me a chance. He warned me the work was tedious and messy — largely consisting of cleaning up after him, wiping up ink, cleaning platens, and putting type back in its proper cases.  He’d teach me anything I wanted to learn, but only after I took care of the boxes of scrambled or “pi’d” type and various chores such as cutting mats for  exhibits, and being his errand boy around the other presses on campus.

Every afternoon from one to three, I’d walk to the library, step behind the main library call desk, walk down stairs to the vast basement and unlock the door to the Yale Bibliographic Press. On the main bench would be a list of things Professor Roylance wanted done.  Go crosstown to the plate maker and pick up some copper engravings. Un-ink and then unlock two chases — the iron rectangles where the type was set, spaced and locked down with quoins — and return the type to the right job box. Set and print six copies of the new library hours and mount in the wrought iron frames at the entrances. Run over to the Beinecke Rare Book Library and get a few rare botanical woodcuts for some forthcoming exhibit. Pop up to the fifth floor map collection and ask the curator for a list of maps for a forthcoming exhibition on Colonial cartography.

I’d turn on the campus FM radio station and play jazz in the subterranean  press room while I put on an apron, folded a sheet of the New Haven Register into a pressman’s cap, and pushed around a pushbroom for a while. The press had to be kept clean. Dust ruined print runs and Roylance was a little OCD — which I came to learn was a requisite character trait in a good printer. The worst part of the job was breaking down the chases he’d left behind — he was nearly never there when I was there, preferring long lunches at the Faculty Club to managing me — full pages of type for some special project he was working on. Type setting (and un-setting) is done using a wooden tray criss-crossed with dividers known as a California job box. This is like a QWERTY keyboard of sorts — every letter had its own special compartment, and each box comprised the totality of that type face in one specific point size. The Bibliographic had full sets of Times New Roman, Goudy, Baskerville and Garamond in every size from 6 to 96 point in bold as well as italic versions. There were other fonts as well, but just the main four typefaces occupied a huge storage space, each job box weighing over 25 pounds.

2_job_cases

The brilliance of the job box was the size of each letter’s compartment was proportional to the frequency of each letter’s use in the English language. Hence “E” had the biggest compartment and “Q” one of the smallest. One learns to “touch-type” and work a case without looking at it, and with practice the task of returning type to the box gets fairly automated. Setting type, the act of composing a line of text, was far more fun and challenging. A tool called a “composing stick” is used, set to the appropriate width of the text and held in one hand while the other hunts through the job box for the next letter or spacer.

Composing backwards and upside down takes some getting used to, and I was slow and sloppy with my leading, hyphenation and never had the patience to do justified margins.

There were three presses in the Bibliographic Press, but the prize was the 1830-era Albion drop press. I loved that press. It was one of the old Benjamin Franklin style presses, with a big lever one would grab with both hands and swing to drop the platen and make the impression. This is the Albion from the Bibliongraphic Press. It’s since been pulled out of the basement and put on display. I worshiped this thing.

albionpressWhile placards and exhibit note cards were the stuff I was mainly asked to print, occasionally Professor Roylance would pop in and teach me some new aspect of the craft. One month he taught me how to make marbled end papers, a cool process like a Grateful Dead light show at the Fillmore where a solution is prepared, inks are “floated” and swirled into amazing patterns, and a sheet of paper is pulled up  to lift the inks from the carrying solution. I remember the recipe called for carrageenan, a gelatin derived from a particular kind of Irish seaweed. Roylance also taught me binding, leather work, embossing, the fine points of spacing and of course the amazing glossary of specialized terms known to printers as part of the craft.

The library became a home – a monastery away from classes, my social life, my daily rowing practices. It was one of three jobs I held down. The first was delivering the New York Times every morning to 300 campus subscribers — a dark o’clock job that involved running up  lots of dorm stairs on the eastern side of the campus and which got me warmed up for the morning crew practice at the Payne-Whitney gymnasium where running a dozen flights of stairs a dozen times every day was the worst part of the off-season training regimen. In the evening, after the crew team returned from Derby and the Housatonic Rover, I’d put in two hours at the Chapel Street Wine Shop, delivering kegs of beer around campus in the store’s incredibly abused delivery van (more running of stairs, only this time with full kegs of Heineken or Michelob). But the library was the best.  It smelled … like a grandfather.  It was an amazing stack of precious knowledge made even more cool by the glowing alabaster walls of the Beinecke Rare Book library, a cube rumored to have a Halon fire extinguisher system that could suck all the oxygen out, kill the patrons and staff, but save the rarest books on the planet. Walking past a Gutenberg bible, getting to hold the original palimpsest of Lord Jim with Conrad’s corrections and notes, checking out Captain John Smith of Virginia’s map of the New England coast — the same map he gave to Prince Charles to do the honors of naming the places on it (hence the future King named the Charles River after himself). Beinecke was the library to end all libraries, but Sterling was my favorite.

The library was, for me, the best part of the last Indiana Jones movie. Sterling is the setting of the end of the motorcycle chase through the Yale campus at the 2:44 mark.

 

Cartography was, and still is, a happy thing for me, especially staring at antique nautical charts. One of the best classes I took in college was taught in the Sterling Memorial Library’s map collection by the map collection curator, Alexander Vietor. The only assignment I remember was to use the university’s computer lab to develop a computer generated map using quantitative inputs. The whole thing was done on punch cards which were submitted for a batch processing run and then output onto a big graphics plotter. I did a map of New England ports with each proportionally sized according to the numbers of barrels of whale oil landed in each in 1824. Between that class and my daily duties in the press, I got to handle some amazing maps, stuff that has come back to the public consciousness thanks to E. Forbes Smiley — the map thief chronicled in an excellent book published last spring by a Boston author, Michael Blanding: The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.

E. Forbes Smiley III was a well known dealer in rare maps who served a select set of private collectors (one of whom, Norman B. Leventhal, owns some homes here in Cotuit and donated his collection to the Boston Public Library). Smiley, an over-extended, suave self-taught expert in colonial American maps, resorted to theft from a half-dozen university libraries, stealing hundreds of one-of-a-kind maps over the years by simply ripping them out of atlases. His undoing was when he dropped an X-Acto knife on the rug at the Beinecke in 2004 and was arrested and investigated by the FBI. His impact on Yale, Harvard, the New York and Boston Public Libraries is incalculable. I read the book with keen interest, realizing I had personally handled some of the materials Smiley stole. There were a lot of scholars and collectors who passed through the Sterling and Beinecke stacks in the late 70s when I was a student at Yale and Smiley was still a student at Hampshire College. Some wealthy student bibliophiles were renowned for their dorm room collections.  One, the scion of a Manhattan real estate empire, was operating a thriving business on campus as an undergrad, and another went on to be Smiley’s more vocal critic, W. Graham Arader III, who was dealing rare maps from a Yale dorm room during my time in New Haven. The New York Times said of Arader at the time of Smiley’s arrest: “At Yale, he [Arader] said, he focused on “blondes and squash,” but became interested in maps after he met Alexander Orr Vietor, the curator of Yale’s map collection. Before long, Mr. Arader was selling maps from his dormitory room. “I love maps, and when you get hooked, you get hooked,” he said.

I was hooked but more on the book making side of things and less on collecting stuff. After all I was paying my through school and my earnings from the library went right to the bursar to off-set my tuition. My masterpiece was the printing of a full chapter of Moby Dick — Chapter 23, “The Lee Shore” — made famous in the great baseball novel, The Art of Fielding. After graduation, when I applied for a internship at the Boston publishing house of David Godine (publisher of Andre Dubus among others), Godine himself, a bit of a prickly man, was ready to blow me off as just another Yale grad dishwasher looking for a publishing job when I pulled my manuscript out and handed it over for his inspection. He pulled out a loupe and started examining my kerning and inking very carefully, criticizing the descenders on my “P’s” and generally ripping apart my work before looking up, smiling and saying, “I started out with a letterpress in my barn. It gets in your blood. The ink I mean. Doesn’t it?” I landed  the internship (unpaid of course) but the best memory of my eleemosonary employment at Godine was when he handed back the Melville manuscript and told me it was “nice work.”

It’s sad what Smiley did to some irreplaceable maps but he also changed the way libraries operate and from the book’s account, ruined forever a sense of trust they had in the scholars who depend on them.  Extensive security, new rules, and a general climate of mistrust has crept in behind the damage Smiley’s done. Whatever undergrad is lucky enough be the Sterling Memorial Library’s printer devil probably doesn’t get the keys to the kingdom like I felt I had.

I offer this because I started musing about my career in “content management” and my place as the last of the “typewriter generation” — those 50-somethings who didn’t have computers in college but did their work on Olivettis, Smith Coronas and IBM Selectrics. As I finished my first novel the final semester of my senior year (unpublished but proudly sitting on a shelf in the Scholar of the House collection inside the Sterling), the college’s Scholar of the House program arranged for me to hire a professional typist to produce the final manuscript. Due to the deadline I would drive to her home in Orange, Connecticut and spend hours transcribing onto her new Wang word processor, the first of it’s kind with big floppy discs the size of album covers. Those green letters on the black screen. The ability to move paragraphs, to cut and paste …. it marked the beginning of three decades working with words on computers. That summer, as a cub reporter at the Cape Cod Times, I worked on a typewriter, glued my pages together with a pot of rubber cement, and moved stuff around by cutting it out with scissors and pasting it back manually. By the end of the summer the Times was going computerized, and at my next newspaper job at the Lawrence Eagle Tribune I worked at a Hastech terminal, and was given a Tandy T100 with rubber suction cup modem for filing from the State House press room on Beacon Hill at 300bps. I haven’t seen a typewriter, let alone an Albion drop press and California job box since. Now I’m all about cloud-hosted Drupal and “content.” Somehow I don’t imagine anyone who has ever set a page of type by hand has ever called the result a piece of “content.”