Samuel Eliot Morison has long been one of my favorite historians, coming into my life in the summer of 1978 when I worked as an intern at Houghton-Mifflin in Boston and walked to work every day up and down the Commonwealth Avenue mall through the Public Gardens and across Boston Common to the publishing house’s offices on Beacon Hill. The mall had a new statue of Morison between Exeter and Fairfield Streets — a bronze of him sitting on a seaside boulder in oilskins, binoculars around his neck, gazing out to an imaginary sea. Over the years I’ve read most of his work (with more to go), driven out of my studies in American maritime history in college, but also because of his remarkably fluent voice and style. Morison taught history at Harvard his entire life, was a rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and wrote the official history of the navy in World War II, but he is best known for his writings on Christopher Columbus, which under the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” won him the first for two Pulitzer prizes for history .
That book, which I strongly recommend reading, was an account of Morison’s meticulous primary research into Columbus’ life, his four voyages of discovery to the New World in the last decade of the 1400s, and a dispelling of the “flat earth” myth which had flourished in the minds of school children such as myself thanks to the fictional liberties taken by Washington Irving. Morison is an excellent historian, relying on first hand observation and primary research in the archives of Spain, Portugal and Italy, but also unique in that he was every inch a sailor himself, and took the time to re-sail Columbus’ meanderings from Spain through the Caribbean to understand the challenges of navigating into the unknown with only the crudest rudiments of navigation and understanding.
Columbus, in Morison’s estimation, was a pious, complicated man driven by dreams of wealth and fame, but also a deep piety and love of God. The Genoese sailor never let go of his dreams of sailing west to the Indies, convinced of his theories due to misconceptions and errors which did not include any superstitions about sailing off the edge of the map.
This holiday began as an official holiday in 1906, but has been out of favor and rarely observed except in places where there is a strong Italian-American community like New York, New Haven and Boston. It, like Thanksgiving, has been revised by contemporary critics to an opportunity to discredit the noble of myths of discovery with the brutal realities of indigenous genocide. Doubtlessly, (and Morison was aware of that brutal truth when he wrote Admiral of the Ocean Seas) Columbus’s discovering of Hispaniola and the establishment of the Spanish capital of the New World there, led to one of the most massive examples of genocide in world history, setting the foundations of misery for that island that persists today in the struggles in Haiti.
Although Columbus himself doesn’t emerge as a cold, rapacious villain in Morison’s account — nothing close to the subsequent horrors of Cortez and Pizaro (who accompanied Columbus on subsequent voyages following the first of 1492) — he does stand as one of the great sailors in history because of his voyage home in the doughty Nina to deliver the news to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of his discoveries.
Columbus was an excellent sailor, with years of experience under the tutelage of the voyaging Prince Henry of Portugal in that sea-faring nation’s explorations of the west coast of Africa. His first voyage, consisting of the fabled fleet of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, was undertaken in proven ships which he modified to take advantage of the prevailing trade winds he expected to encounter in his crossing of the Atlantic. He lost not a single man during the voyage — but did lose the Santa Maria on Christmas Eve, 1492 on a reef off the northern arm of present day Haiti near a tragic settlement he would call “Navidad.” Leaving a contingent of sailors and caballeros at Navidad after constructing a block house from the salvaged wreckage of the Santa Maria, Columbus sailed home for Spain in the Nina.
As he approached Europe that February he encountered a brutal storm, a perfect storm, which Morison is able to recreate in amazing detail from Columbus’ own ships logs and the insights of modern meteorologists. Columbus survived a storm on a furious scale which would have destroyed a modern fleet, limping ashore in Portugal under a wisp of a remaining sail against all odds. Not only his skill — and religious promises by him and the pious crew to go on pilgrimages of thanks should God spare them — but the almost magical luck of the Nina stand out as the heroes of Morison’s account. I had never been aware of that aspect of the Columbus story until reading Morison, and now would now place his voyage home in the tiny Nina in the pantheon of epic feats of seamanship that include Bligh’s voyage in an open boat across 4,000 miles of the south Pacific ocean and Slocum’s first solo circumnavigation in the Spray.
So tomorrow, this Columbus Day of 2016, a day of mourning for many, a holiday barely honored anymore at the last long weekend of the Fall, “National Indigenous Peoples Day” on some campuses, I chose to remember the scene on the poop deck of the Nina somewhere north of the Azores in February 1493, fighting for its life, with the Admiral of the Ocean Seas standing resolute before his terrified crew begging their God Almighty to deliver them onto dry land after a voyage of discovery Morison declares every bit as significant as man’s landing on the moon.
On Sunday no less. Off of Ropes Beach and the yacht club while I puttered on the yacht. This sea cow is a long way from home and the animal rescue squads are searching for it before the water turns chilly.
I’m all for it. The revolution of responsive design did away with the two-front battle of maintaining desktop and mobile versions of websites — no more “M.dot” versions are needed if one follows the expandable precepts of responsive which permits a site to conform to the form factor of whatever device. Why do I care?
Somewhere there exists a list of life’s stressful events — new job, moving, divorce, death of a loved one — and I propose the addition of “moving to a new cell phone” as one of the more soul-crushing, tantrum inducing experiences with the hash tag of #firstworldproblems. My faithful HTC M9 was flaking out due to a weary USB port — charging or not charging depending on the barometer and how badly I depended on it not shutting down when I needed it the most. So, in the spirit of my friend who, bullshit over a lemon of an outboard motor, gave up on the warranty and efforts of the dealer to fix it and just went out and bought a new one, prompting his son to say, “You showed them Dad!” — I bought a new, unlocked phone from HTC and just went through the tedium of moving my life from one over-priced rectangle to another.
Sure, there are transfer tools — and yes, eventually all my old apps and content moved from the retired phone to the new one, but…..And this is a big but that has nothing to do with apps versus web, but one tied to the blinding realization that while the apps and content transfer over — the log in credentials do no. So for hours I have been resetting passwords, transferring payment details, and cursing the total idiocy of passwords, capchas and two-factor authentication.
Anyway, Dries’ post is worth a read. From his post:
“Native applications versus web applications
“Using a native application — for the first time — is usually a high-friction, low-performance experience because you need to download, install, and open the application (Android’s streamed apps notwithstanding). Once installed, native applications offer unique access to smartphone capabilities such as hardware APIs (e.g. microphone, GPS, fingerprint sensors, camera), events such as push notifications, and gestures such as swipes and pinch-and-zoom. Unfortunately, most of these don’t have corresponding APIs for web applications.
“A web application, on the other hand, is a low-friction experience upon opening it for the first time. While native applications can require a large amount of time to download initially, web applications usually don’t have to be installed and launched. Nevertheless, web applications do incur the constraint of low performance when there is significant code weight or dozens of assets that have to be downloaded from the server. As such, one of the unique challenges facing web applications today is how to emulate a native user experience without the drawbacks that come with a closed, opaque, and proprietary ecosystem.”
I was at a funeral on Labor Day here in the village and a few loyal readers of this blog asked me what knocked me offline for so many months. I think the suspicion was I was suffering from writer’s block, but the true explanation was a heavy hacking of my server by some spammers who injected the domain with about 30,000 spam sites linking back to purveyors of porn, affiliate programs, diet plans, and content farms.
My old Internet Service Provider (who I won’t blame because it’s not their job to provide me with a hardened, secure site) had to disable the entire domain because I was on a shared server with other customers and they were seeing their sites slow down as the evil spam douche bags filled up all available space on Churbuck.com with their crap sites. I’d call the ISP, get tech support on the phone, ask them to turn it back on long enough for me to save 15 years worth of writing and migrate the entire database to WordPress.com
Even as I cleared out the bad sites, patched the code, applied security measures, and did my best to defend the old blog, I could see the jerks injecting site after site even as I was logged in. Passwords were changed, everything short of hiring an expert was considered, but in the end I had to say goodbye to the platform that kept me happy for the past 18 years.
I self-hosted way back in the 1990s because I wanted to be more hands on with web content management and server operations when I was running Forbes.com and Reel-Time, my old saltwater flyfishing site. Knowing the rudiments of HTML and web management were important skills for my career back then, and the experience helped me satisfy the nerd manque in me. Self-hosting was never easy, especially in the early days of WordPress when the ability to automatically update the codebase wasn’t possible and I had to download patches and new versions myself, and update the blog myself. I initially was on Blogger — the blog platform acquired by Google. But Om Malik persuaded me to jump onto WordPress in 2001 and I was a fan from the very start. I got nailed by an xmlrpc hack in 2005 and lost the site for a while to some hacker, and many a time I shot myself in the foot with some rogue plug-in that required my friend Mark Cahill to swoop in and save the day.
The lesson I learned from this most recent series of hacks and frustrations is that security is a very real issue for any site owner, so much so that I can’t believe a layman such as myself can survive for very long without a managed hosting provider to provide a layer of security and oversight that a casual blogger just can’t bring to bear. The scuzzier elements of the Internet — the spammers and link farmers and affiliate marketing scum who prey on other sites to build link juice to their own money making schemes, the ransom artists, the script kiddies who prowl around looking for old unpatched sites and then infect them like some toenail fungus…. eventually they’re the ones that are going to crush the notion of the Open Web as independent creators like myself get fed up with swatting down their efforts to hijack our content and traffic so they can make a few pennies off their new get-rich-scheme.
The real shift is also in ISPs. The days of dumb rack hosting — where you get nothing more than “ping, power, and a plug” are done. Where I work, Acquia, the value to the customer comes from running their sites on a hardened platform that is monitored, managed, and patched by experts who can diagnose problems and fix them. When I lost Forbes.com in the fall of 1999, the hosting provider was useless when it came to diagnosing the problems that were causing the site to flatline under an extraordinary spike in traffic. All their Network Operations Center personnel could do was confirm the server was powered on and connecting to the Internet. It took four days of a dead site and a lot of anxiety before someone was able to identify the problem came from too much stress on our ad servers.
When a seriously critical site — like a newspaper during a big news event — goes dark, it’s not just the site owner who suffers from the outage, it’s the audience who need the site to be available who also suffer. Failure on a web site is not just an inconvenience to a hobbyist blogger like myself, for big e-commerce operations, government agencies, news outlets — an outage can be disastrous.
But what about the casual user? Does the need for a simple platform even matter anymore when most people are content with a Facebook page, Instagram account, or a WordPress.com blog? I don’t need (nor care) to deal with SSH certificates, and make sure the version of Php I’m running is up to date. It’s simply too far down in the fabled stack for a casual user to need to worry about. But if not knowing those things means some Ukrainian hacker can shut me down, then I’m either going to throw in the towel and join the loathed world of Facebook, or find a middle-ground solution. Hence I’m back in the saddle and blogging and not dicking around with FTP clients and cpanel anymore.
The solution was to leave my old service provider, move the domain name to Google so I could keep my churbuck.com email address, and then map the blog to WordPress.com — the service provided by WordPress’ corporate parent Automattic. Now I have two-factor authentication, protection from a security service called “Vault Press,” and a managed provider which will guarantee the latest versions are always in place and any security patches applied without me needing to take action.
Why am I not blogging with Drupal on the Acquia platform? That’s next. One step at a time. When one has 6000+ blog posts extending back to 2001, the first priority is to save that body of work and only then consider something as dramatic as a new blog system. Stay tuned, this transition needed me to have a couple weeks off to get accomplished. A Drupal build will probably have to wait until the Christmas holidays.
I have worked with Drupal before, beginning back in 2005 when I was at IDG and needed to build a site for an advertiser at CIO.com. That was Drupal 5 — now Drupal is on a fresh new version, Drupal 8 — and I want to learn the latest.
Written on vacation, while deep in the final volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, a master of the English language who despised doublespeak and verbosity:
During my five years with Lenovo, the personal computer company born out of the acquisition of IBM’s PC division by the Chinese computer company, Legend, the experienced IBM executives who came over with the acquisition used to engage in something they called “straight talk.” I found this term a bit off-putting because it made me question what I was hearing the rest of the time, but it mainly referred to a mano a mano conversation in which one person told another person some blunt truth in unvarnished terms with some scatological obscenities mixed in to underscore the point. The official term for straight talk is, I suppose, “Plain English” and while I’m sure anyone would agree simple-and-direct beats jargon and clichés, it amazes me how quickly we all lapse into wordiness and meaningless pomposity.
In corporate communications, indeed in any organizational vocabulary from governments to religions, the insidious creeping effects of bureaucratic doublespeak inevitably begin to infest the words and messages of the institution. George Orwell wrote the definitive essay on this phenomenon in his 1946 piece, Politics and the English Language. Dickens satirized it in Little Dorritt with the invention of the “Circumlocution Office.” For centuries, indeed as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, guardians of the language have railed against its pollution by double-speaking, pedantic bloviators who refuse to follow the canon of simple, clear communications.
As a corporate communicator, a so-called “content marketer,” I have a conflicted view of the disease as both a carrier and critic. Without casting stones inside my own house, let me just say that I fight a constant, daily war against the forces of derivative babble-speak, and think, after over a decade within the walls of corporate communications (after two spent in journalism), that I understand the source of the pestilence.
Its name is Google Search.
In technology marketing, language is defined by a three-way symbiotic relationship between the technology press (who are on the wane and not nearly as influential as they were in the 1980s), technology analysts (who are like the press in many regards, but carry the responsibility for creating the taxonomy of categories that define markets, such as “Marketing automation” or “Platform as a Service” or “Web Content Management.” Because technology and governments need acronyms to survive, these analyst categories lead to “WCM” and “PaaS” – and if the press adopt them, which they often do unwittingly, then two legs of the three-way relationship are set and it is only left to the corporate side to adopt them and try to define themselves within those terms.
The analysts rank the companies within a market category, issuing reports (sold at high cost to corporate subscribers) which are used by customers to select the technology that best suits their needs.
So where does Google come in? Simple. The best book on the topic remains John Batelle’s 2005 definitive work: “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” It’s essential reading for anyone in digital marketing, but it does the best job of explaining the impact Google had on the language by using the citation system of academic journals to make a value-judgment of which links it returned on a search would be ranked first. This gave us the sordid world of search engine optimization and search engine marketing, and before we knew it words and links had been, to steal a phrase from Doc Searls and David Weinberger, “weaponized.”
Now, in corporate communications, when you put pen to paper so to speak, you need to wonder “how will this rank in search?” If a competitor seems to be doing well with “The Internet of Things” or “Big Data” and making claims to analysts and the press as well as on its own website and ebooks that its products are the best for “IoT” or “Big Data,” well then by golly why not us?
Technology doublespeak moves quickly and has no pride, more quickly than teenagers inventing new slang like “420” or “Netflix and chill.” If some “thought leader” says a startup needs to “pivot” to meet new opportunities and become “agile” then suddenly LinkedIn and Twitter are awash in other wannabe thought leaders jumping on the “agile pivot” bus. The end result is perfectly good words –words Orwell or Strunk & White or Ernest Gowers would approve of – suddenly start to get worn out like old coins that have had their embossing erased by so many fingers over time. We know that old dime means “ten cents” but poor old FDR is just a ghost and the date is barely legible anymore as we hand it over for a stick of gum.
The old Dudley Moore movie Crazy People is about an advertising executive who suffers a nervous breakdown and winds up in an asylum. This scenario leads to a hysterical extreme of “straight talk” taken too far. Moore, unable to let go of his workaholic ways, enlists his fellow patients to help him develop some campaign concepts. This yielded the memorable copy line: “Metamucil: It Helps You Go to the Toilet. If you don’t use it, you’ll get cancer and die.”
I’m not railing against the corruption of corporate communications and public relations. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “I think I need the Freedom to Innovate” but yet we can easily toss that phrase it into some boilerplate and move on, having checked off some of the magic buzzword bingo words we want Google to rank us on. I’m not proposing we all move to some Hemingway-esque model of short declarative sentences with short declarative words. But I do believe that if a message is ever to truly standout, then it needs to leave the pack and be scrutinized for any bombastic, verbose, sesquipedalian tendencies to use the incomprehensible to blow a smelly fart of vaporware and its friend, fear-uncertainty-and doubt over the poor reader.
The challenge isn’t knowing how to write, it’s persuading other people that good writing is better than bullshit. All I can say is good luck. It’s a lonely place to be inside any organization in love with the smell of its own verbal farts and try to open a window to clear the air. It can be done, but it is a constant battle, always rekindled as new carriers of the disease float in from some other plague town, spouting their theories of “lovable marketing content” that is “engaging, authentic” and spread like dandelions over the fields of social media. Just stick to your guns, remember the admonition printed on every reporter’s notebook: “Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity” and take heart that great men like Churchill railed against the insidious, pernicious infection as loudly as the greatest writers ever known. Heck, Churchill won a Nobel Prize for Literature, so I take that back. The man saved England with the language of Shakespeare, Gibbon and Kipling.
Let me conclude with George Orwell:
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
And for you lost souls toiling in the coalmines of jargon, a brief reading list:
William Manchester is a great popular historian who is best known for his The Death of a President, his account of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. I came to him through A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance which reminded quite of Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history A Distant Mirror. This summer has been enlivened by Manchester’s three volume biography of Winston S. Churchill, The Last Lion, which I’m now near the end of the second volume which covers Churchill’s near banishment from Parliament in the 1930s when he alone warned of the growing threat posed by the re-armament of the Third Reich as the English people and His Majesty’s Government, ravaged by the horror of World War I, embraced pacifism at all costs and derided Churchill as a Victorian war monger.
The first volume, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 was a remarkable look into the childhood and formative experiences that went into defining what would become a truly great man, one named the most important Briton of all time in a poll by the BBC a few years ago. From his birth in Blenheim Castle to an American mother and a syphilitic Engish Lord, to his wartime exploits in India, the Sudan, and South Africa, the portrait emerges of a dynamic man who loved the English language and went on to become one of the most famous, prolific, and well paid writers in the world.
The second volume, The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940, is slower going but needs to be given the tumult of the decade in Europe and the role Churchill played on the backbench of the House of Commons, denied a cabinet seat and thwarted from a role in the government after taking the blame for the the Gallipoli debacle (unfairly if you believe Manchester’s take).
More to come …..
Jimmy Guterman died unexpectedly in July of this year (2016), gone too soon and leaving behind a wife and three children. News of his passing spread through the PC Week alumni network and I wished I had this blog revived at the time to write some words of appreciation for a good friend and esteemed colleague who was with me early in my career and for decades ever after.
Jimmy was a writer. He wrote about rock and roll — not as a critic per se — but one of those loves of the music who could weave a great story about its roots as well as the humor. The Sex Pistols, Sinead O’Connor, Jerry Lee Lewis … he wrote books about all of them. But for some weird reason he took a shine to tech journalism just as it was getting to be cool in the 1980s, and stuck to it with the soul of a reporter and a certain sardonic mensch-like view of the world that kept him curious but pragmatic all the time.Jimmy not only chronicled the amazing development of the tech world over the last three decades, but contributed to it with deep thinking, great thoughtfulness, and a blend of skepticism and utopian hope that came through his work at the Harvard Business Review and on stage at TED.
When I was his editor in 1988 I sent him and another writer across the Atlantic to England to look at prototype of Steve Job’s Next PC — the ahead-of-its-time workstation with the black magnesium case, the first optical drive, and the operating system Jobs would bring back with him a few years later when he returned to Apple to revive the company’s flagging fortunes. Jimmy and his cohort Jeff Young (who had written the first biography of Jobs – The Journey is the Reward) went to some lab at one of the big universities — I think Cambridge, to do a quick analysis of the Next machine’s speeds and feeds. It was a bit of a fool’s errand — the machine was there, being tested by some coders in the beta test program, but it was concealed in mufti with a down vest — like LL Bean would sell — and Jimmy was unable to get more than an unusable picture of a goose-down encased rectangle on a desk.
We were early lovers of hypertext. Jimmy was fascinated by early precursors to HTML and the World Wide Web and did some interest experiments with hypertext fiction. We created a partnership to do some hypertext projects — and together went to Newport, Rhode Island to pitch the CEO of the US yacht racing association a project to turn the rules of sailboat racing into an interactive, animated CD-ROM. They looked at us like we were Martians, Jimmy looked at them like they were something out of JP Morgan and Lady Astor’s garden party, and we were sent packing. Later we registered Vineyard.com and a few other domains. I hired him on a freelance basis to help write some great early features for Forbes.com, and later he repaid the favor by giving me some freelance work when he was editor of Forrester Research’s short-lived but fantastically edited print magazine.
I have, in my dusty music collection, a CD I burned with some of the worst songs of all time — songs inspired by Jimmy and Owen O’Donnell’s 1991 book The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time.
Jimmy and I bickered over his inclusion of the Grateful Dead’s live Europe ’72 album — he was not a Deadhead. But his description of some of the horrors committed to vinyl in the name of rock live on on that CD. I take some small pride in knowing I contributed at least one entry that made it into the book.
Jimmy was a great craftsman with his writing. He was a careful reporter, checked his facts, but delivered very clean, spare copy with the pragmatic professionalism of a true freelancer. Everything I know about the craft of the freelancer I learned from Jimmy Guterman.
I’ll miss him. I sent him a note last winter when I realized he was an editor for Newco, John Battelle’s start up for start ups. My company,Acquia, was involved in some Newco event in Boston and so I sent Jimmy a quick “Hey-How-Are-You?” but didn’t head back.
Jimmy was one of a kind and I think about him often now. My condolences to his wife, son, and daughters and friends.
Finally — wrested control of my domain away from the old ISP and moved the blog to WordPress.com in hopes they can give me the security I need to stop the spammers from hijacking me.