25 Years of ThinkPad

Earlier this week I received a ThinkPad T25, the 25th anniversary edition of the Lenovo ThinkPad, teased a couple years ago by Lenovo’s lead designer and my former colleague and good friend, David Hill.

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I’ve been without a ThinkPad for the past four years. In a fit of madness I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 in 2014 before joining Acquia. While my new employer had once supported a few ThinkPads for its more discerning engineers, the standard issue laptop was a Mac Air, an odious little device that somehow brought to mind Christopher Buckley’s observation that a man driving a minivan is half a man. The former CEO of Acquia, hated seeing me with the Surface just because.  I said, like a smarty-pants, that the corporate HR culture wbpage said “Mac or PC? Yes!” He said “Not anymore” and thenceforth I was relegated to forevermore lugging around the Mac to meetings while keeping the Surface docked and hidden at my desk for serious work.

There was something very unsettling and traitorous about going to a competitor’s laptop after five years spent at the dawn of Lenovo marketing the iconic ThinkPad.    I felt like I was missing a phantom limb. The Mac was an act of treachery, a true tergiversation. My allergy to Apple products goes back to when I was a reporter for PC Week (“The IBM-standard News Weekly of Corporate Computing) and competed with another Ziff-Davis publication, MacWeek.  I never met Steve Jobs, thought John Scully was meh, and for the life of me could never figure out the weird propeller key on the Mac’s keyboard. “It just works!” the Mac addicts would tell me, but Apple has always rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it comes down to the lack of a right mouse button, a sense of the void when it comes to file structure, and a general feeling the things are smug and “twee.”

The ThinkPad however….where to begin in my reverence for those black rubberized rectangles with the red mouse pointer embedded in the middle of the keyboard? Is it just that their keyboards are so sublime, so tactile, so responsive that it’s no wonder the ThinkPad became the standard tool for professional writers just as the Leica M was de rigeur for war photographers? Is it the meaty heft of the total package? A feeling of invulnerability that with it’s magnesium roll cage and hard edges that it would be the weapon of choice if one had to charge the cockpit against a mob of hijackers?

In the documentary “Page One,” the late (and sorely missed) New York Times media critic David Carr interviewed the founders of Vice. He whacks away at his ThinkPad during the interview, taking notes directly into the machine (the same way I used to when I was a reporter), keys clacking away as he is shown a video produced by Vice about Liberia to make the point the upstart media company was the future of journalism in the digital age and the Times was a dinosaur. When Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice dissed the Times, Carr interrupted him, looked up from the ThinkPad and said:

“Time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there covering genocide after genocide. And Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”

When I starting working for Lenovo I quickly forged a bond with David Hill, the vice president of design who was the guardian of the ThinkPad’s flame. David came to Lenovo from IBM’s PC group and had been the steward of the ThinkPad’s design since 1995. The first CMO of Lenovo, Deepak Advani (also a former IBM executive) hired me to   establish the new brand online, via Lenovo.com, digital advertising, social media, etc.. While poking around for a theme to hang the first corporate blog on, I rejected the easy path of a ghostwritten, bland affair by our CEO, Bill Amelio and instead homed in on David because of his demeanor and slightly demented passion. I  proposed he become the leading voice of the brand with a new blog called “Design Matters” and offered to help with the writing and production because he was such a busy guy. It hindsight, he was the right person to kick off Lenovo’s first blog, touching an audience who was very skeptical about the future of the ThinkPad as IBM divested itself from the commodity world of PCs and handed over the design to a Chinese company, a company only known for contract-assembling PCs for western brands and inventing a graphics card that displayed the Chinese character set on the screens of IBM compatible clones (which a pretty big deal if consider how enormous the China market for PCs has become).

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David Hill, Keeper of the ThinkPad DNA

Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005.  Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.

The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.

One day while scanning social media chatter for annoyed customers I found a complaint by a writer named James Fallows beefing that the paint on the keys of his new ThinkPad was wearing off under his fingertips. I brought this to the attention of the product managers who sort of shrugged it off until I told them Fallows was the preeminent China correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, (and the co-author of a piece I had written with him in the 1990s for PC Computing on the myth of the garage and innovation in Silicon Valley). We contacted Fallows, swapped his fading machine for a new one, brought the defective one back in, and realized that indeed the paint had been changed and was prone to defects.

David’s writing on Design Matters attracted more comments than any blog I have ever seen or been involved with. A carefully thoughtout disquisition by David into hinges, a behind-the-scenes look into the design lab in Japan run by Arimasa Naitoh, a reminiscence about the ThinkPad’s original designer Richard Sapper… all of them evoked responses in the hundreds from commentators that confirmed to me the heart and soul of Lenovo wasn’t Lenovo per se, but a simple black laptop that had been sent into space by NASA, which sat on the desk in the Oval Office, was toted into battle by war correspondents and was the only computer any self-respecting Master of Universe would crack open in a board room before announcing a hostile takeover. It had to be defended against the bean counters.

David retired from Lenovo this past summer but is still consulting to the company. When I unboxed my new ThinkPad I thought of it, wistfully, as Lenovo’s retirement gift to David in lieu of the proverbial gold watch. I watched him defend the essence of the ThinkPad during my five years at Lenovo; fighting to keep it pure and free from the bling that our competitors drecked their machines up with. Blue lights. Chrome accents. David would howl at the lengths the competition would go to ruin their machines and was deeply offended when his arch nemesis, Apple, introduced a black MacBook.

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I shared his frustration when some of his team’s greatest concepts were shot down by the product marketing teams when costs needed to be cut to keep the machine competitive. I suffered the failure of the leather-bound special edition ThinkPad, the Scout, in ‘07 with him. And I watched him light up when he was able to invite Richard Sapper back to design the Skylight in ‘09.

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Richard Sapper, Father of the ThinkPad

David and I shared great barbecue in Raleigh, laughed at the existential insanity of Lenovo’s Chinese-IBM culture,  and hatched numerous schemes and plots to do the right thing by a machine that was inspired by a lacquered Japanese lunch box, the bento box.

The 25th Anniversary ThinkPad has some retro touches — the red, green and light blue ThinkPad logo cocked at its “seemingly arbitrary 37 degree angle” on the corner of the cover and the red-accented mouse buttons under the keyboard. And yes, the keyboard is back, a 7-row throwback to a time when the ThinkPad was the machine for making words happen, a pre-chiclet QWERTY monster that was tweaked and fitted into place with a reverence for the typist’s fingers like no other laptop keyboard before or since. Other than that, the T25 is just a laptop. It runs Windows 10, has an i7 processor, a half-a-terabyte SSD hard disk and a nice touch screen. It doesn’t convert into a tablet, fold back on itself, have a pen, or act like a Swiss army device. It doesn’t have some heart pounding audio system or special gamer capabilities. It’s just the essence of computing from a time when IBM was the greatest computer company in the world, when laptops were the height of technology. When we typed like real writers and didn’t talk to our  smartphones as we walk blindly into traffic.

I have it because I need it to use my hour-long train ride into Boston productively writing  one of the two books I now have under way. The old Surface Pro 2 has a magnetic clip-on keyboard covered in faux-felt with all the tactile pleasure of a cheap, ill-fitting suit. It’s time to write and I need the ultimate writing machine, one worthy of going into battle or space. This is probably going to be my last ThinkPad (and I have six  of them in closets upstairs to remind me of that wild five-year ride marketing the damn things), and it’s a ThinkPad for the ages.

I look forward to opening it, to using it, to deleting the Lenovo bloatware and making it my own. I like the looks it gets in the office, a somewhat covetous look like the ones I get when I wear a good suit and a great pair of shoes. It’s an accessory and a companion that subtly cries out “classic” without shouting.

The machine came exquisitely boxed and packaged. The kind of packaging Apple is great at and David long dreamed of doing. It came with a small book written by David five years ago on the occasion of the ThinkPad’s 20th anniversary. He dedicated this edition “…to the memory and magic of Richard Sapper. He was a great mentor, friend and masterful designer. ThinkPad would not exist as we know it without his vision and determination.”

That may be true, Sapper was a genius, but to also quote the booklet: “David …conceived, along with longtime collaborator Richard Sapper, the evolution design strategy where the core DNA is passed along to each successive generation. David often compares this strategy to how Porsche manages the design of their forever classic 911. This approach is unheard of in a fast-paced high technology market where change dominates. Evolutionary design has created ThinkPad brand value and related design recognition at unprecedented levels within the industry. ThinkPad loyalists are cult-like in their affinity for this highly authentic design classic.”

The end of a long voyage: the Aubreyad

In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists,  I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but  my reading tastes  were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.

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Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester,  Melville’s Moby Dick  and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.

tinkerbelle_by_robert_manrySo last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.

By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full   set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.

For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries  and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).

Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.

Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go,  fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.

 

Coquina

I finally got a chance to tour the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island a few weeks ago and came away inspired to get myself back into a wooden boat.

Just past the gift shop and ticket desk at the museum is a reproduction of Nathanael Herreshoff’s personal boat –the Coquina — a clinker-built catboat yawl that is a true gem.

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Designed by the “Wizard of Bristol” for his own use on the waters of Narragansett Bay in the winter of 1889, ; the Coquina is 16′ 8″ long and constructed with white Atlantic cedar over oak frames. Herreshoff sailed the boat his entire life and it outlived him past his death in 19TK when it was lost during the Hurricane of 1938. Not a bad endorsement for the boat’s sailing qualities given that Herreshoff was the designer and builder of some of the most remarkable America’s Cup yachts as well as some icons in American yacht design.

Coquina is reminiscent of a sailing canoe called the Rob Roy that was popular in the late 19th century thanks to the writings of the Scottish adventurer John McGregor who toured Europe and the Middle East in a doubled-ended, clinker-built (overlapping hull planks or strakes) canoe. Small boat yachting came into its own in the last three decades of the 1800s as a prosperous middle-class, recovering from the Civil War and the financial shocks that followed it, took to the waters with great zeal.

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The plans for the Coquina are maintained by MIT, Herreshoff’s alma mater, and are available for purchase with construction instructions from D.N. Hyland & Associates in Brooklin, Maine.0914brainiac-sailing6

What’s appealing about the Coquina to me is her lines — there’s something very graceful and neat about the hull that pleases my aesthetic — but also the rig. I grew up in a cat boat rig aboard a Cotuit Skiff and the notion of adding a mizzen sail astern of the helm is intriguing. Would I ever build one? Doubtful, life has other priorities ahead, but it sure is nice to dream of skipping along close-hauled in one on a sultry summer’s day.

 

 

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”)

 

In Event of Moon Disaster

William Safire was a hell of a writer. He was the Nixon-era speechwriter who gave Vice President Spiro Agnew the wonderful line “nattering nabobs of negativity,” won the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times columns covering the misdeeds of Bert Lance, and then ended his career with a wonderful weekly column in the Times: On Language

GWB and LB.  Ceremony for 2006 Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I miss that column, where he would chronicle with great affection and little judgment the vicissitudes of the English language from street slang to bitter battles over the Oxford comma or whether or not to spell judgment or judgement. On the cusp of language in the news, he doubtlessly would have been in his element with “covfefe” last week,  but he also could play the part of grammar cop without coming off as too much of a priss or traditionalist locked in the past.

“I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways,” he once wrote. “provided the result is more precision, added color or great expressiveness.”

In these days of fake news, crushing corporate bullshit, politically tempered speech and constant assaults on the First Amendment from both the right and the left,  it’s frightening to think we lack a modern day Safire to call bullshit when the powers that be prevaricate, obfuscate, and spackle over the cracks of truth with their verbal wormings. Safire was a language maven — to use his preferred term — in the tradition of Mencken, Orwell and Bierce.  Today we get “content marketers” and “brand message consultants” instead.

Safire’s career as a public relations man and presidential speech writer put him in the unenviable job of having to anticipate Murphy’s Law and prepare for the worst case scenario as any crisis communications pro is trained to do. In 1969, as the Apollo 11 mission sent the first men to the moon, it was Safire who took it upon himself to draft a statement for President Nixon to deliver to the nation via TV in the event the astronauts were stranded on the moon with no hope of rescue.

It’s been called one of the most beautiful speeches never delivered. Here’s the full text:

To : H. R. Haldeman
From : Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:

The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.

AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:

A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

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.