Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Little Encouragement for Baby Boomers (& Happy New Year!)

The term aging Baby Boomers makes my teeth hurt, and I saw it more than once in the popular press in 2008. I suspect it’s an insidious plot by Gen X and Y to define their predecessors as “past their prime and fading into history.” Something they cooked up in journalism school. Last year, just before graduation.

Aging Baby Boomers. I hate that. And I respectfully submit that the very best days of our generation are still in front of us.

Maybe not physically.

OK. Definitely not physically.

But in terms of getting things done, making a contribution, and changing things for the better. The very best days are still in front of us—and it’s essential to our mental health to keep that idea front and center.

It reminds me of a visit my family made a few years ago to the beautiful Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The visit came not only during Rembrandt’s 400th birthday celebration, but during a renovation of the museum, so that the staff had assembled some of the very best of the collection in a very small area (and closed off the rest of the museum). This was music to the ears of touring parents who would try to get their children through about a dozen museums in ten days.

As we went through the guided tour I kept hearing about the Golden Age. The Golden Age this. The Golden Age that. It was then that I came to realize that the Netherlands—historic, lovely, democratic, energetic--thought of its best days as four hundred years ago, during the seventeenth century.

All I could think, in my ugly-American mindset, was how difficult it must be to live in a place where the belief is universally held that the golden age is not now, not tomorrow or next year or even a century from now, but 400 hundred years ago.

Don’t you lose a step, a bit of energy, maybe some of your edge if you are always and ever on the downslope? Doesn’t it make the rocking chair look just a shade more inviting, to think the best is behind you?

With that in mind, and as you—my fellow Baby Boomers, reaching ages 49 to 66 in 2009 (if you accept Strauss and Howe’s 1943-1960 definition)--make your New Year’s Resolutions for 2009, think about some of the past contributions and milestones of folks "our age." If nothing else, it'll encourage you not to skimp when you make up your list.

These examples are all taken from Eric Hanson’s fun new book called A Book of Ages.

Here we go. Pay attention.

At age 49, Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn and George Eliot wrote her masterpiece, Middlemarch. At 49, Abe Lincoln spoke out against slavery and lost his first debate to Stephen A. Douglas. Davy Crockett died at the Almao after running out of bullets.

Have courage, roll with defeat, but don’t run out of bullets.

At age 50, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Henry Ford began manufacturing the Model T, FDR offered the nation “a New Deal,” Irving Berlin wrote Good Bless America, Eugene O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, Julia Child premiered The French Chef, and Igor Sikorsky (after 30 years of trial) flew his first helicopter. Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia introduced a line of neckties. Painter Chuck Close became paralyzed from the neck down but learned a new way to hold his paint brush and would continue painting three enormous canvases a year from his wheelchair.

Oh, and Charles Darwin, at age 50, published The Origin of Species.

Keep tinkering. Keep changing. Keep thinking outside the species. Never give up.

At age 51, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Some time later, and not to be outdone, 51-year-old Dr. Suess was given a list of 225 words to use in his new book. Two of the words were cat and hat.

At age 52, milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc learned that a hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino owned by Richard and Maurice McDonald was making forty milkshakes at a time. Kroc investigated.

At age 53, Walt Disney opened a theme park in California. Samuel F.B. Morse strung some wires between Washington and Baltimore. Charles Dickens was in a train returning from France that plunged off a bridge, killing ten. Dickens’ car was left hanging from the trestle. After he escorted a lady friend off the train, he went back on the teetering car to save a manuscript he has been writing.

Kind of puts into perspective the last time you lost your cool trying to recover that unsaved Word document, no?

At age 54, Oliver Cromwell became lord protector of England, Frederick Douglass was allowed to vote for the first time, and Robert E. Lee declined the invitation of Abraham Lincoln to lead Union forces. Alfred Nobel read his premature obituary in a French newspaper, found himself described as a “merchant of death,” and dedicated most of his enormous wealth to promoting peace.

Hanson’s book is a great read. A little bit male. A little bit artsy. Too much of a couple of folks in particular. But lots of fun to read. Buy it. There’s lots more that I’ve left out.

At age 55, Rachel Carson wrote The Silent Spring, creating the modern environmental movement. Of less import but greater initial acclaim, Wilt Chamberlain published his memoirs, claiming 1.2 partners per day (20,000 in all) since he was 15.

At age 56, Henry Luce launched Sports Illustrated. George Frideric Handel premiered The Messiah.

Decades later we’re still singing, and still waiting for the bathing suit issue.

At age 57, Anais Nin admitted to two husbands, one a New York banker and the other a forest ranger in California. She compared her life to a trapeze. James Joyce shared copies of Finnegans Wake with his friends. George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States, saying he felt “like a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”

It turned out pretty well, at least for Joyce and Washington.

At age 58, Miguel de Cervantes published part one of Don Quixote, Daniel Defoe published Robinson Caruso, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky finished The Brothers Karamozov. Langston Hughes, who had written 26 books in 34 years, started writing from midnight to six or seven in the morning because people kept stopping by during the day and interrupting him.

Good energy and focus, eh?

At age 59, Elizabeth Taylor married for the eighth time. There’s lots more good 59-year-old accomplishments, but I’ll stop there. It seems like enough said.

At age 60, the prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca. Jack LaLanne swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Handcuffed. Towing a half-ton boat. Ditto the above—I’ll stop there.

At age 61, on a plane heading for Washington to be interviewed for a seat on the Supreme Court, Harry Blackmun did “what he has always done when faced with a decision:” he wrote a list of pros and cons. The pros won. Blackmun will have a decisive influence on Roe v. Wade.

At age 62, Ed Sullivan uttered five words: Ladies and gentlemen: the Beatles.

At age 63, Lena Horne opened a one-woman show at New York’s Nederlander Theater that would run for 333 performances—the longest running solo show in Broadway history.

At age 64, Harry Truman was so far behind in the polls that pollsters just stopped asking. Truman embarked on a whistle-stop tour of hundreds of cities, went to bed election night thinking he had lost, and woke up elected. Isaac Newton was knighted, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, and Henry Ford produced his 15 millionth Model T.

At age 65, Winston Churchill—arguably the greatest man of the 20th century—was elected prime minister of England for the first time. He told the country he had nothing to give but toil, blood, tears and sweat. Also at age 65, Andrew Carnegie offered $5.2M to the city of New York to build libraries, the start of some 2,800 libraries built nationwide from Carnegie funds.

At age 66, the oldest our Baby Boomers will be in 2009, Paul Revere built the first mill in the U.S. for rolling copper, eventually trademarked as Revereware.

Lest you think you can rest at 66, Baby Boomers, there’s more, but I’ll leave you with only a hint: At age 90, Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to design an opera house, two museums and a post office. More spectacularly, 90-year-old Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

Happy New Year, Baby Boomers! May our Golden Age be always in the future.

And remember: Don't run out of bullets.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Incalculable ROI (Ode to the MBA and the Erie Canal)

Return on Investment (ROI) is a funny thing. It is deceptively easy to calculate but almost never comes out the way you expect. In many cases it doesn't work because what you can quantify will almost certainly pale in comparison to what you cannot.  These inestimable flows are, nonetheless, very real and very valuable.

I call this the incalculable ROI.

I was pondering such a thing when I read the recent Wall Street Journal article on Executive MBAs (EMBAs). Scott Thomas, a 31-year-old who was halfway through the EMBA at a Cleveland school dropped out to enroll at Ohio State University’s EMBA program. This doubled his tuition costs to $72,500 for the 18-month degree.

Later in the article the WSJ told us, based on their calculations, that this was probably a good thing for Mr. Thomas because the Ohio State program yields a 170% return on investment, third behind only Texas A&M and the University of Florida.

Here’s some of how the WSJ decided this:
We scoured the responses from our summer 2008 survey of EMBA graduates for data about salary, raises received after graduation, company-sponsored figures, tuition and out-of-pocket costs. . .To calculate the benefit, or return, we used the graduate-reported median raise after completion of the program as the first-year salary increase. We added a 5% annual increase over the following four years, based on the average annual increase expected by compensation specialists and executive recruiters.
This kind of heroic analytics can result in being terribly precise about great inaccuracies.  It is the kind of limited ROI that, hopefully, Mr. Thomas will be taught to avoid during his EMBA training.

In fact, there’s good indication that Mr. Thomas already “gets it.” One of his reasons for transferring to the Ohio State program was that “the alumni network is unbelievably large, and they’re unbelievably loyal.” That's one reason he agreed to double-down on tuition. He has in mind a potential inflow, a potential return, that is—at this point in Mr. Thomas’ life—incalculable. Because, by moving to a program with a terrific alumni network, Mr. Thomas might well connect with a future investor in some future start-up. Or his next boss. Or a partner who goes on to help him launch a world-beating product. Whatever the “incalculable inflow,” Mr. Thomas believes that it will potentially—and more than likely—dwarf the ROI carefully calculated by the WSJ.

Steve Jobs’ well traveled, oft-downloaded 2005 commencement address is another example of the incalculable return. When Jobs talks about dropping out of Reed College because he didn’t want to spend his parents’ life savings without having a clue what he wanted to do with his own life, he spent the next year visiting classes for fun. One was a calligraphy class, something he took because he admired the art and was interested in learning how it was done.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.
This is the incalculable ROI.  The quantifiable stuff is what you can see and reasonably anticipate, and it’s not unimportant or irrelevant by any means. But the real return almost always dwarfs the anticipated cash flows. The real return comes about because presumably smart, talented, ambitious people (like Scott Thomas) place themselves on a collision path with other smart, talented, ambitious people, or (like Steve Jobs) on an intercept course with interesting, engaging ideas.

And, the incalculable ROI applies especially to big ideas and huge initiatives.

Take the creation of the Erie Canal. On October 26, 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton boarded the Seneca Chief at Buffalo, arrived in Albany nine days later, and then, with steamboats replacing horses, floated down the Hudson to New York harbor where he poured a keg of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean. It was, like the title of Peter L. Bernstein’s excellent book, a Wedding of the Waters.

The Erie Canal was 363 miles, 83 locks, 675 feet up and down, and cost $7,143,789 to build. A calculation of the ROI on the project would show that the construction cost was paid in nine years. In 1882, when tolls were finally abolished, the canal had produced revenue of $121 million, more than four times its operating costs.

On a micro level, a shipment of flour could, thanks to the Erie Canal, travel 2,750 miles by water before its transportation cost was equivalent to 130 miles of travel by road.

All things considered, this was a pretty darn good ROI.

But, what did the Erie Canal really do? How do we, in retrospect, measure the incalculable ROI?

Well, thanks to the Canal, Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo all became boomtowns while ten brand new municipalities were founded between Syracuse and Buffalo alone. And, New York City became one of the world’s elite cities: In 1824 some 324 vessels were counted in New York harbor. With the Erie Canal completed, an observer counted 1,241 vessels in the harbor one day in 1836.

Many hitherto subsistence farms in New York began growing product for market. Farmers with new-found cash now joined their urban neighbors in the consumption of products from northern factories. Luxury articles became attainable by the working class. Thanks in large part to the Erie Canal, the cost of a wall clock dropped from $60 to $3 by midcentury, and a mattress from $50 to $5. Folks in Batavia were able to feast on Long Island oysters. Traders in New York City began buying commodity contracts ahead of the harvest, creating an early form of hedging and adding to the City’s financial clout.

The turmoil caused by the rapid development of western New York made it fertile ground for some of the greatest movements of the Second Great Awakening, changing forever religion in America.

The Erie Canal brought strong Yankee growth to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, keeping Southerners (arriving “up” the Mississippi) from dominating those states, a major factor in the years before the issue of slavery was settled. In fact, the Erie Canal changed the axis of American economic power from north-south to east-west, and would lead to an “age of canals”--especially in the North--that would provide a meaningful advantage during the Civil War.

The money generated by the Canal, the so-called Canal Fund, served as a kind of stabilizing central bank during the Crash of 1837 when no central bank existed.

The completion of the Erie Canal led to a sharp rise in patent applications along its route. New York State led the nation in new patents per capita in almost all sectors of the economy in the mid-nineteenth century, with only southern New England leading in manufacturing after 1830.

The Erie Canal meant Midwest food production would flood Europe, leading Great Britain in 1846 to repeal tariffs on food. This freed European labor for work in factories, reducing the cost of production around the world.   How do you calculate that ROI?

Scott Thomas believes in the incalculable ROI. So does Steve Jobs. So did Dewitt Clinton.  I have a personal belief in the incalculable ROI.

I once bought a plane ticket to fly from Boston to Denver, with a stopover in Chicago. It was for a job interview. I was upset because the ticket was last minute and too expensive and I wasn’t sure the hiring company would pay for it (and I didn’t have much money). I wasn’t happy about the stopover in Chicago. I wasn’t sure I wanted the job and, after I’d interviewed, I was sure I didn’t want the job.

I suppose I was thinking that it would be a good experience. I could practice my interviewing. I might meet some interesting people. I could see how another company worked. I’d get to see the Rocky Mountains.

My calculated ROI on that ticket was miserable. But how about my incalculable ROI?

Well, on the way home, after meeting the company I didn’t want to work for, on the stopover I didn’t want to make in Chicago, with the ticket I didn’t want to pay for, I met a woman. Twenty-five years, six addresses, four dogs and three children later, we’re still together.

How do you calculate that ROI?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Leadership in the White Space

Before I talk about white space I need to talk about dark matter.

Sometime in the 1930s scientists began observing phenomenon, like clusters of galaxies, whose movements didn’t make sense based on what could be seen. There had to be more mass “out there” holding things together. In fact, there had to be a lot more mass. That was the first inkling of something called dark matter.

As time went on, more and more data suggested that not just some, but most of the cosmos was invisible. And scientists got very clever at observing, say, the way light from distant galaxies bends, figuring out the total mass it would take to create the bend, and then subtracting out the known mass. The result: dark matter.

It’s like Sherlock Holmes said, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” Even if it’s invisible. Even if nobody quite knows what it is.

Today, we think dark matter may be the most voluminous and important stuff in the universe.

I believe there’s a comparable concept in business, organizations and leadership which is sometimes called “white space.”

It’s invisible, largely inscrutable, and may be the most important force in an organization. And there is no doubt that it bends light and energy to its will.

The other day on XM Radio I was listening to Bob Edwards interview one of XM’s Classical Music hosts. The two were discussing the enormous impact of Leonard Bernstein. Edwards asked a really good question, as he often does: If every member of the New York Philharmonic is a virtuoso musician able to read, interpret and play virtually any piece of music ever written for their instrument, what exactly does the conductor do?

The XM Classical host answered, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, “There’s a lot that goes on between the notes.”

That could be the title of a classical murder-mystery novel, no? Between the Notes: Mozart, murder, oboes, sex, and mis-tuned timpani. Yowza. The hard-boiled detective would look at the voluptuous flutist and say, “You may be able to hit the high E-sharp, but you have to know there’s a lot that goes on between the notes.”

Anyway, I thought the XM host touched on something real. There’s a kind of glue, a kind of energy that binds all of the talent in an organization together. Even when—or especially when—all the talent can hit every note on the button every time. With vibrato, even.

This reminded me of a CEO interview I read maybe ten years ago. This particular CEO, who led a brilliant management team, was asked what he did all day. He replied, “I just manage in the white space.”

In my first MBA year we were required to take something called Human Resources Management. I distinctly remember, on day one of the course, the professor said something like, “I know you all think this is a waste of your time. You think you should be learning how to read balance sheets and segment markets and value equity. And that’s part of what you should be learning. But I want you to know something: This is the most important course you’ll take. You just won’t recognize that for a while.”

He might have said—and we would have been equally skeptical—“Anyone can learn to do a cash flow. We’re going to spend the semester learning something very different, about operating in the white space. Some of you will never figure it out. But those of you who get it right, there’s some chance you’ll be successful.”

Learning to read a balance sheet is, in a way, like learning to play an E-sharp. It’s a real, teachable skill, one of the visible galaxies. It’s the stuff out there we can see and understand. But the stuff we can’t see, that binds all the cash flows and notes and keeps the galaxies from flying off into pieces—that stuff needs lots of our attention, too.

Getting an orchestra of prima donnas to play together brilliantly is about leadership in the white space. Making a tough decision on an investment, building support along the way and, generating enthusiasm for the final decision--that’s leadership in the white space.

A short time ago we didn’t know dark matter existed. Now it appears to be the stuff that holds everything together. It’s where all the cosmic heavy lifting gets done.

In organizations, the white space does the same thing. It’s where all the notes get wired together. It’s where all the energy is manufactured. It is, in most cases, the fundamental contributor to success.

As for that murder-mystery novel I was proposing, the one with the sex and oboes, the one entitled Between the Notes?  Question the percussionist.

Any good detective will tell you to never trust a guy who hits things for a living.

Friday, November 28, 2008

It’s Beginning to Look (A Lot Less) Like Christmas

It’s no secret that consumers hit the brakes hard this fall, forcing U.S. retail sales down sharply and dimming prospects for a merry Christmas for the nation’s merchants.

Then came news that Christmas tree vendors were worried that consumers would do the unthinkable and go without this year. Some vendors, in fact, have put in orders for lower quality trees, hoping to keep their prices down.

(Personally, I think people will forego Christmas in Hawaii and splurge instead on a better tree. Hard times tend to make home, hearth and tradition that much more important. At least that would be my bet.)

In any case, if your tree hooks to the left, leans to the right, and has a big bite taken out of its lower branches, at least you’ll know why.

Now, however, the unthinkable has happened: Even Santa is getting downsized this Christmas. In the face of the worst economy in years, communities around the country are scaling back the lights, shortening the parades and hiring fewer Santas. The WSJ reports that “Santa bookings have dropped so steeply that the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, which represents 700 jolly souls in red velvet, held a series of meetings to discuss their economic survival.”

Santas who do get hired are reading stories instead of delivering gifts, just to keep their variable costs to a minimum.

It all makes you long for the kinder, gentler days of Santa when the big guy flew above economic downturns and the crass commercialism of the season. Or did he?

Well, I’ve finally finished Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent The Battle for Christmas, and I’ve got news for you. Santa—who I always figured was just slightly younger than the Big Bang--was essentially invented in the 1820s and co-opted almost immediately by the rising material tide in the early Republic. He did, Nissenbaum argues, help to soften the season, which was violent and drunken in post-Revolution America. But Santa was and is part and parcel of our economic history, and has been intimately bound to our financial fortunes for two centuries.

Let’s return to the New York City of the early nineteenth century. As the population exploded from 33,000 in 1790 to 270,000 in 1835, the city spread rapidly northward from the very southern tip of Manhattan. Immigrants arrived and a growing, impoverished underclass arose. Nissenbaum writes, “In the second decade of the nineteenth century, New York underwent an explosion of poverty, vagrancy, and homelessness. That was followed in the third decade by serious outbreaks of public violence. In the eye of New York’s respectable citizens, the entire city appeared. . .to be coming apart completely.”

This was the downside to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. While Thomas Jefferson, surrounded by slaves and farmland, was spending himself into gentlemanly bankruptcy, he was also preaching the virtues of the common man. Unfortunately, a few too many common men didn't realize they were the cornerstones of virtuous democracy and were instead assembling in mobs and creating havoc in urban centers.

(I often think that Jefferson was able to wax eloquent about the common man because he never actually hung out with any. Adams, on the other hand, knew his neighbors well and became a Federalist, arguing against straight-up democracy. Sir Winston Churchill might have echoed Adams fears when he said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”)

There was, in the first half of nineteenth-century America, what historians now refer to as “mobocracy”—a kind of violence that emerged as wage-labor developed, social norms were spun on their heads, older and newer immigrants clashed, and the American middle class was ultimately birthed.

Some of the mob violence was engendered less by emerging class warfare and more by alcohol. In 1825, the average American over fifteen years old consumed seven gallons of alcohol a year, mostly as whiskey and hard cider. The comparable number today is two gallons, mostly as beer and wine. Drunkardness was a serious public health issue in the early Republic that would be addressed with a vengeance by the emerging temperance movement.

Violence surfaced over Christmas and New Years in particular, Nissenbaum tells us, as a way for the poor and emerging wage-labor class to let off steam, a kind of escape valve. For wage-earners, the coming winter might mean lay-offs (as the rivers iced up), forced unemployment and want. Christmas could become a season to express dissatisfaction, ethnic or class resentments. It was “something less than a full-fledged radical movement but more than sheer, unfocused rowdiness.”

However defined, by the 1820s Christmas misrule had become an acute social threat. Bands of young street toughs, members of the emerging urban proletariat, had begun to travel freely and menacingly wherever they wanted. 1828 was remarkable for a particularly extensive and violent display, as an army of youth marched from the Bowery to Broadway to the City Hotel to a black neighborhood church to the city’s main commercial district to the Battery, causing destruction and beatings along the way.

As urbanization grew, well-to-do New Yorkers fled north to fenced and hedged estates, but the city was never far behind. In 1811, New York began a plan to construct a regular grid system of numbered streets, the ones we use to navigate by today.

At this point three men, Dutch-tinged “Knickerbockers,” enter our story. John Pintard was a prominent NYC merchant and civic leader, a founder of the New-York Historical Society, and a major player in establishing Washington’s Birthday, the Fourth of July and even Columbus Day as national holidays.

On the evening of Dec 31, 1820, Pintard’s household was awakened “by a band of loud revelers marching down Wall Street and directly outside his house, banging on drums, blowing fifes and whistles.” In a letter written early the next morning Pintard says he roused “mama” (in her kerchief, one wonders) and “threw on his clothes in haste, and down we sallied.” (Did he throw up the sash?)

Santa’s arrival? Not yet. Just a bunch of ruffians celebrating the season, causing havoc, assaulting a few pedestrians, and damaging an occasional shop along the way. Just another holiday night in early nineteenth-century New York City.

Pintard would spend the next day going to church and celebrating the season’s end with a round of visits with friends and acquaintances, followed by an afternoon family dinner of venison, holiday dishes and toasts. That was his kind of holiday—quiet, genial, safe, and domestic. (Nissenbaum does a great job contrasting the two versions of holiday celebration; buy the book!)

As a guy able to help create national holidays, could Pintard avoid taking a run at transforming Christmas?

In fact, from 1810 to 1830 or so Pintard took the responsibility of inventing Christmas rituals to try to create the perfect-remembered holiday. He led the effort to bring St. Nicholas to America as the icon of the New-York Historical Society and the patron saint of NYC. In 1810 Pintard paid for the publication of a broadside, sponsored by the Society, which featured a picture of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season.

Now, enter our second Knickerbocker, Washington Irving, a friend of John Pintard. Irving’s The Sketch Book appeared in 1819/20, a smashing success, and one that made him an instant celebrity. Along with "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," there were also five stories about Christmas. “In these stories Irving used Christmas as the setting for a culture in which all the classes joined together in paternalist harmony.”

Irving’s were lovely, popular stories, but historians now know that he was—like Pintard-- “inventing tradition.” Indeed, he later admitted that he had never actually seen the kind of Christmas he described. (In 1843 Dickens’ A Christmas Carol would round out our view of Christmas—roaring fires, carolers, snow-covered lanes and the assembly of families. Like Irving, Dickens was inventing tradition.)

Now, all it took was the contribution from a third Knickerbocker, Clement Clarke Moore. Moore, friends with Pintard and Irving, was a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at Columbia College, and later compiled a two-volume Hebrew dictionary at General Theological Seminary. But, he was best known as the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas, now known as Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Moore clearly borrowed from Irving, who mentioned St. Nicholas 25 times in his Sketch book, including references to a wagon, Santa’s pipe, and adding a line that read, “laying a finger aside of his nose.” Moore undoubtedly drew from Pintard’s experiences as well—being awakened by an intruder on Christmas Eve. An even greater influence, however, were Pintard’s (and Moore’s) attitudes: conservative, opposed to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian mobocracy, fearful of the working class, and resistant to urbanization.

Interestingly enough, the year Moore wrote St. Nicholas for his children, the New York legislature gave men without property the right to vote; Pintard wrote, men “who had not stake in society.”

Even more pressing, in 1818 Moore’s huge family estate of Chelsea (now the namesake of the neighborhood north of Greenwich Village)—which in Moore’s youth had been pastoral and removed from the urban jungle--was being forever changed. In fact, part of Chelsea had been seized by eminent domain and was being split down the middle by something called “Ninth Avenue.” So, in the 1821 City Directory, Moore is found no longer living at Chelsea, but near the corner of Ninth Avenue and Twenty-first Street. The city had finally caught him.

Moore was upset by these changes to New York City, its loss of beauty and tranquility, given over to a conspiracy of “cartmen, carpenters, masons, pavers, and all their host of attendant laborers.”

These many forces came together in strange and wonderful ways in A Visit From St. Nicholas. Moore would take Pintard’s rude awakening of 1821 and turn it into a moment of magic—the basis for our own Christmas Eve.

First, in Moore’s poem, Santa posed no threat, though he was intentionally modeled as one of the working class. For example, he smoked the “stub of a pipe”-- a clear gesture to the proletariat, as patricians customarily smoked “mighty” long pipes (sometimes two feet long) known as aldermen or church wardens. (In fact, the working class often bought longer pipes and then broke them to a stub.)

In addition, Moore painted Santa as looking like a “peddler just opening his pack,” making him “something between a beggar and petty tradesman”—the veritable bottom of the barrel in the emerging craftsmen class.

Moore was not being subtle: The very kind of person the Knickerbockers feared most had now invaded his poetic home to do nothing more than respectfully deliver gifts to children.

There’s lots more, and Nissenbaum is superb in tracing the transformation of St. Nicholas from Bishop into a proletariat Santa that brought together upper and lower classes peacefully—at least in verse--in nineteenth-century New York. Nissenbaum says, the Knickbockers used their invention of Santa Claus to help forge a “placid ‘folk’ identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic ‘misrule’ of early-nineteenth-century New York.”

Oh, and that “finger-aside” thing? Today, we no longer know what “putting a finger aside of his nose” means. But to a nineteenth-century American, the message would be clear. Moore’s Santa was saying to the reader: “I’m only kidding. You know I don’t exist. Let’s keep this between the two of us.” Indeed, Pintard and Irving might have admitted the same to us, that their images and rituals of the holiday were largely inventive longing.

In 1823 A Visit from St. Nicholas was published by a newspaper in Troy, New York. The following year four new almanacs, all published in Philadelphia, printed the poem. By 1828, it was being printed widely around the nation. Not long after that (newly-formed departments of) police in Philadelphia and other American cities began looking for groups of unruly boys at Christmas, ready to throw them in jail. In fact, commercial Christmas presents had their start in the decade of the 1820s, and merchants began to have a vested interest in keeping the streets free of rowdy behavior so that shoppers could navigate their stores.

In 1834, a letter printed by a Boston Unitarian magazine would sound all-to-familiar to modern ears:
All the children are expecting presents, and all aunts and cousins to say nothing of near relatives, are considering what they shall bestow upon the earnest expectations. . .I observe that the shops are preparing themselves with all sorts of things to suit all sorts of tastes; and am amazed at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser.

And leading the charge: Santa Claus. By the mid-1820s Santa was hawking goods, and by the early 1840s Santa had become a common commercial icon, a figure used by merchants to attract the attention of children to shops. (He had also, you'll note, regained his long pipe.) Interestingly enough, the depression that set in at the end of 1839—the deepest ever experienced by the United States—was openly countered by merchants who used Christmas as a way to attract shoppers. “Old Hard Times” was being replaced, readers were assured, by “Old Santa Claus.”

Just twenty years after the birth of Santa, and 15 years after taking on a national presence, merchants knew that Christmas was the one time of year that good Jacksonian Americans, committed to frugality and many deeply distrustful of luxury, could be expected to buy and consume things--even if they did not need them and could not afford them. Christmas had become a special ritual time “when the ordinary rules of behavior were upended.”

“By mid-century,” John Steele Gordon wrote in An Empire of Wealth, “Christmas had become the major secular holiday it is today and would grow into the most important engine of the retail business.”

All of which brings us back to our own nagging recession and desperate need for a retail engine.

If only Santa would help us more.

Unfortunately, it’s really not looking very pretty. It turns out the Amalgamated Order of Red Bearded Santas (AORBS) are having internal labor problems of their own. The December issue of Harper’s Magazine reported that the Chapters and Lodges of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain Regions AORBS separated from the parent organization this last April. Their charges, among others: showing a vindictive and persecutory attitude toward its members, and engaging in un-Santa-like dialogue with members of the Order.

Vindictive and persecutory? Un-Santa-like dialogue? (Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?) Seriously. Page 26.

I may have to detox with a little Charlie Brown after this.

It’s a reminder that from his creation, Santa—invented as a sign of goodness, comfort and peace in a turbulent world—came from solid, sometimes combative working class stock. Not a bad combination.

Just watch out for that finger-aside thing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Love the Swiss Watch

I really do love the Swiss watch. I don’t own one and could never, ever justify buying one. But still, I love 'em.

Here’s why.

This is, without a doubt, the craziest financial season of our lifetimes. It surpasses the days I was learning to drive during the 1970s oil embargo (when I was sure God was going to dangle a driver’s license in front of my nose and then destroy modern civilization), and taking my first job on Wall Street when the prime rate soared to 18% and started bumping into state usury laws.

Today, everything retail, financial and monetary appears to be melting, crumbling or running for its life.

So, the big, bold, cross-the-top headline in today’s Wall Street Journal announced: Stocks, Bonds Tumble to New Crisis Lows. Could the news get any worse? Could retailers be any more paranoid about holiday spending? Could Washington seem any more befuddled?

Then I turned the page and, what to my wondering eyes should appear but: Swiss Watches. Not one small ad, but four mighty ads and a fifth on the next page. Jacob & Co., Ulysse-Nardin, Carl F. Bucherer, Cartier, Longines.

Figure $17,000, 14,500, $8,000, $5,900, and maybe $1,600 retail. Each for the simple joy of telling time.

Now, put a $25,000 automatic Swiss watch up against, say, a $29.95 quartz Timex. The Swiss watch will have fewer features—far fewer. It will stop running if you stop wearing it for a few days, unless you purchase an expensive little spinning machine that’ll drive you crazy (like a hamster wheel) while you sleep. Compare that to a whisper-quiet Timex whose battery will need replacement every, oh, five years.

The Swiss watch will drift maybe a minute a month versus, say, a few seconds a month for the quartz Timex. Pay a bit more for a quartz and you can get drift of a few seconds a year. Pay a little bit less for the Swiss and you can get drift of a few minutes a month.

The Swiss watch won’t fit under the cuff of your sleeve. (File under: Got it, flaunt it.)

The Swiss watch won’t light up in the movies or on the long overnight to Paris.

The Swiss watch may have dual time, but only for another $25,000, and you’ll still be stumped how to set it.

The one, enduring value statement of the Swiss watch: A man only gets to buy one piece of jewelry in his life, so he might as well splurge for an exquisite, jewel-filled, miniature machine to strap on his wrist.

In other words—as someone who grew up in a country whose legacy is the reluctant adoption of cheap watches just so the trains wouldn’t collide—there is no value statement. I can get everything I need for $29.95 or nothing I want for $25,000.

That’s why I love the Switch watch. That’s why there are five beautiful Swiss watches taking up major real estate in the Wall Street Journal this morning. That’s why Swiss watches are selling as briskly as ever in Europe, (especially) in Asia, and even in America.

In this season of retail horror and looming business collapse, the Swiss watch stands out as a beacon to unnecessary, reckless spending. It is the North Star of irrational retail--our hope for a rapid return to a better, brighter, more profligate future.

Even if we may drift a few minutes off the hour getting there.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Smith, Slywotzky and Some Damn Beavers

Not far from where I’m sitting, just up the road apiece and across the state line, Jedediah Smith Sr. and wife Sally Strong farmed land and raised a family that would eventually number 12 children.

The fourth, born in 1799 after the Smiths had move from New Hampshire to New York, was Jedediah Jr. In 1821, Jed Jr. went to work for William H. Ashley’s fur trading company out of St. Louis. After a series of extraordinary adventures, Smith and partners acquired Ashley’s company and successfully took on the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly in the fur trade. Today, Smith is remembered as one of the most successful explorers and entrepreneurs of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Also not far from where I’m sitting, in the lowlands along our driveway, a family of beaver are hiding out, waiting for sunset to repair their dam in a little culvert that flows under our driveway. These beaver don’t much bother me since our home sits on a rise above the lowlands. But, in a town where everyone has septic and wells, and where some of the wells reach aquifer less than fifty feet below the service, these beavers are bedeviling our neighbors.

It seems their magnificent dam is backing up water from nearby Cedar Pond, flooding acres and acres of well-tended backyard. It’s causing septic systems to overflow, and septic to flow into well water, and nothing that walks on two legs is very happy when that happens.

Finally, not far from where I’m sitting—in fact, on the bookshelf to my left--is a copy of Adrian Slywotzky’s The Art of Profitability, published in 2002. I had the opportunity to work with Slywotzky for a spell last century when a company for which he was consulting grew interested in partnering with our business. The Art of Profitability, which suggests that we’d all be a lot more profitable if we thought about profits on a regular, disciplined basis, is a delight to read and suggests a variety of ways to redefine business to make more money—a good tonic given our current economic straits.

Now, let me tell you how these things all tie together. And let me start with those dx!% beavers.

From about 1750, when they were hunted out of the Commonwealth, until 1928, when one was spotted in West Stockbridge, beavers had been absent from Massachusetts. Folks in Massachusetts were so excited by their reappearance that three more were imported from New York and released in nearby Lenox in 1932.   Fourteen years later, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game reported that there were 300 beavers in 45 colonies around the state.

As with every other instance when human beings have messed with the balance of nature, we got it wrong. The well-meaning people of Massachusetts failed to offset their good deed by providing the beaver population with a natural predator. Then, to make matters worse for homeowners, in 1996 the state passed a ballot referendum prohibiting or restricting the use of many types of commonly-used traps.

The result: the beaver population in the state grew from 24,000 in 1996 to 70,000 in 2001.

Now, if I were pitching you on my new “beaver-pelt” business, I would take that annual growth rate of 24% and project it right into 2009, telling you that from one lonely beaver in 1928, the state beaver population is now over 385,000.  And you can bet there are a slew of illegal immigrant beavers and more than a few expired H1-B Visa beavers to add to the organic growth of the population.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of beavers I now estimate reside in Massachusetts, we here in the neighborhood are only worried about the three or four which have set up housekeeping on the premises.

To solve the flooding problem, every morning one of my good neighbors comes by and takes down the allowed two inches of dam, letting the water flow back into Cedar Pond. Every evening the beavers repair their dam, insuring that the floodwater stays in the backyards of my neighbors. The theory is—and I have never seen this to be the case—we will eventually wear the beavers down and they will move away.

It all makes me pine for the 1820s and 1830s, which was the height of the beaver trade in America and across the Atlantic. Back then, one of my neighbors could have taken his gun, shot the beavers, walked to Newburyport or Salem or Boston and sold their pelts for a good price. The pelts would be sent on to Europe to be made into one of the stylish hats for which Europeans were all a-twitter.

And here is where Jedediah Smith comes in. Daniel Howe tells us the following about Smith, taken from Dale Morgan’s 1953 Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West:
At the the age of twenty-two [Smith] retraced much of Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri. During his short life Smith proved himself a natural leader, an intrepid explorer, and a successful businessman. Taking his Bible and a few companions, this sober, religious young man laid out the route of the future Oregon Trail over South Pass in 1824 and explored the regions of the Great Salt Lake.. .Along the thousand of miles that he traveled without maps, he fought some Indians, traded with other, survived hunger, thirst, snowstorms and floods, and got mauled by a grizzly. He successfully challenged the Hudson’s Bay Company in the fur business, and with two partners was able to buy out his employer Ashley in 1826. A rich man when he returned to St. Louis in 1830, Smith had seen more of the Rocky Mountain West than anyone else in his time. . .

If you are not familiar with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), it is the oldest commercial concern in North America, dating from 1670. It now operates retail stores, and is owned by a private equity firm (which seems weird to say), but in the first part of the nineteenth century it was the most powerful private organization in North America and actually ruled most of Canada.

The HBC, for parts of two centuries, was essentially its own sovereign country.

How do you attack a giant? One way is to change the profit model, and that’s what Smith and his partners did. Starting in 1825, the firm of William H. Ashley paid salaries to keep white trapper-traders in the wilderness year round, departing from the depot-based, pay-per-pelt practice of HBC.

I once visited the offices of a very large pharmaceutical customer and, as we were walking down the hall, my guide was saying, “That’s where the VP Marketing is, and that’s where the VP Production is, and that’s where the executive from 3M has his office.”

“3M,” I asked?

“Well,” said my guide, “we do so much business with them that it makes sense they should have an office permanently here to help organize our purchases.”

This was essentially the idea that Smith and his cohorts hit upon: Let’s pay to keep the trappers-traders in the wilderness, living alongside the natives, building up long-term relations and establishing strong interior distribution. It was the Early Republic equivalent of the Application Engineer.

That’s how you take on a giant, then; you change the way profits are made.

All of which leads me back again to Adrian Slywotzky’s The Art of Profitability. In it, Slywotzky suggests that you read only one chapter of the book (i.e.—one profit model) a week and really stew on the material. Imbedded in most chapters is other, recommended reading, like Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, Asimov on Astronomy, Einstein’s Dreams, Confessions of an Advertising Man, and Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. The entire story takes place as a conversation between a mentor and struggling mentee.

Chapters include Pyramid Profit (Mattel developed a barely-profitable $10 Barbie to block low cost knock-offs from establishing a connection to their customers), Multi-Component Profit (Coke makes a different profit per ounce in the supermarket, restaurant and vending machine), and Switchboard Profit (Michael Ovitz packaged talent, story, and critical mass in Hollywood to gain share and profits).

The chapter that struck me, however, was one called Customer Solution Profit. A company, Factset, generated high profits by identifying a potential customer and then sending a team of people to work onsite at the company, sometimes for months, and almost always for free—an extraordinarily costly proposition.

It would be like paying salaries to trappers to stay in the woods year-round.

If Factset won the account, however, they would have built such great relations with their customer, and such a tailored solution, that their profits soared, easily making up in the longer term for what they had invested in the first year. By then, their product and people were woven into the account, the expensive selling was done, and the account became a long-term, high-margin profit center.

There’s more where that came from, all courtesy of Slywotzky’s engaging storytelling and ability to see clear patterns in a variety of business models.

All of which, finally, leads me back to our beaver problem.

I’m sorry to say that Jedediah Smith died at the early age of 31, surprised by a Comanche hunting party. His life burned, in the parlance of Bladerunner, twice as bright but half as long.

I just looked up Adrian Slywotzky on Wikipedia and he appears to be very much alive and well, industrious as ever.

Given those two very different outcomes, and given that the rain is still falling hard, would you like to wager which future is most likely in store for our neighbors, the beaver family?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Don't Go Toward the Light!

How many hours of sleep do you lose a week because of electric lights and electronic gadgets? Maybe an hour every weeknight? Maybe 3 or 4 hours every weekend?  Maybe more?

Fear not.  The great restorative elixir of our age is coffee.  It has become the worker's little helper, the drug that makes us clear-eyed in the mornings and props us up in the afternoons.  It has evolved from drink to self-medication to  lifestyle, philosophy, and economic juggernaut, all with the underlying mission of off-setting our loss to the bright lights and dancing screens of the night.  Caffeine has turned Dunkin and Starbucks into the great Pavlovian beacons of our age.

I was pondering this while reading the National Geographic article, “The End of Night,” which highlighted another aspect of having too much man-made light on our planet. Author Verlyn Klinkenborg's interesting claim is that we have “engineered night to receive us by filling it with light,” no different from damming a river.

"Now most of humanity lives under intersecting domes of reflected, refracted light. . .Nearly all of nighttime Europe is a nebula of light, as is most of the United States and all of Japan.” In the south Atlantic where squid fishermen use halide lamps to attract their prey, the light cast into space is brighter than Buenos Aires."

The consequence is light pollution. In many places on earth, we have lost the stars. Worse yet, “whenever human light spills into the natural world, some aspect of life—migration, reproduction, feeding—is affected.”

“Migrating birds collide with brightly lit tall buildings," Klinkenborg writes. "Insects cluster around streetlights, providing artificial hunting-grounds for bats. Birds sing at unnatural hours, breed earlier than they should, and put on fat too early for their migratory cycle. Hatchling sea turtles are confused by artificial lighting on the beach, with losses in the hundreds of thousands."

Then there’s the toll light takes on us. Klinkenborg adds, “for the past century or so, we’ve been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body’s sensitive response to light. . .At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.”

Imagine living in a country where 200 million adults are habitually tired. Imagine how grumpy people would be in traffic, how difficult they'd be to work with, and what bad listeners they’d all make. Imagine the foolish things that would go on in such a country where everyone gets robbed of an hour of sleep, compensates with caffeine all morning, and sleepwalks all afternoon.

In 1995, Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. In it, he discusses some of the social implications of light, and makes it clear that, while nobody likes to stub his toe in the dark, the adoption of 7-by-24 artificial light has come at a huge cost to Europeans or Americans.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. For thousands of years, the flame remained essentially unchanged as a source of light for human activity. When people wanted more light, they added more flames. In 1688, for example, 24,000 lights—presumably wax candles--were used to illuminate Versailles.

2. Because artificial light was expensive, only royalty used it for extravagant displays like Versailles. “Artificial light was used for work, not for celebrations; it was employed in a rational, economical way. It emancipated the working day from its dependence on natural light, a process that had begun with the introduction of mechanical clocks in the sixteenth century.” Prior to that, Schivelbusch writes, “the medieval community prepared itself for dark like a ship’s crew preparing to face a gathering storm”—retreating indoors, closing the city gates, and bolting doors.”

3. As long as the artificial light required was limited to individual craftsmen, candles and oil lamps were adequate. But, once industrial methods of production were adopted, artificial light was needed for larger spaces and longer periods of time. “In the factories, night was turned to day more consistently than anywhere else.”

4. Schivelbusch says that the wick was as revolutionary in the development of artificial lighting as the wheel was to transport. In fact, people grew so accustomed to wicks that, “in the dazzling brightness of the gaslight, the first thing people wanted to know was what had happened to the wick. ‘Do you mean to tell us it will be possible to have a light without a wick,’ an MP asked the gas engineer William Murdoch at a hearing in the House of Commons in 1810.”

5. Once a house was connected to a central gas supply, it lost its autonomy. “To contemporaries it seemed that industries were expanding, sending out tentacles, octopus-like, into every house. Being connected to them as consumers made people uneasy. They clearly felt a loss of personal freedom.” Many turned off their gas at night, like the medieval city closing its doors. By the mid-1820s most big cities in England had gas; by the late 1840s it had reached many small towns and villages. By 1829, gas was being used for street lighting.

6. There was, of course, a genuinely good reason to fear gas; early gasometers were expected to explode at any minute. And, often they did.

7. The most outstanding feature of gaslight was its brightness. Traditional flames paled in comparison. In fact, the gas flame was so bright people could not look at it directly. Hence, the need arose for shades and frosted glass as ways to dissolve and soften the concentrated light. Worse, though, was that gas used up so much air that it was impossible to stay in gas-lit rooms. People often felt it at the theater, where headaches were common; at home, gas caused headaches and sweating, and could ruin interior decorations. Household guides at the time recommended against gaslights in any of the common living areas.

8. By the mid-nineteenth century, 1,500 police patrolled Paris by day and 3,500 lanterns lit it by night. This lighting was so effective in reducing crime that lantern-smashing became a common crime. In Les Miserables, you might recall, one of the chapters ("A Boy at War With Street-Lamps") describes Gavroche out having his turn at the lanterns. In many cities, the magnificent signboards that decorated the front of shops were removed because they blocked too much light.

9. With signs coming down, shops transitioned to the lighted shop window. This paralleled the ability, about 1850, to make large sheets of glass. Together, these inventions allowed retail shops to extend their hours past sundown.

10. The electric light bulbs shown at the 1881 Paris Electricity Exposition were marketed as superior to gas in every way, shining evenly and steadily irrespective of the season. The bulb demonstrated was, by comparison, a little weaker than today’s 25 watt light bulbs. Unlike gaslight, all doors in the household were open to electric light.

11. Still, the electric light took some getting used to. As one observer noted, “There is something that is lost in electric light: objects (seemingly) appear much more clearly, but in reality it flattens them. Electric light imparts too much brightness and thus things lose body, outline, substance—in short, their essence. In candlelight objects cast much more significant shadows, shadows that have the power actually to create forms.”

And, because the electric light “lit” more of the space, and more brightly, it changed the nature of home decorating. “Muted colors are more compatible with the lively lighting in our homes.”

It’s been only about two centuries that humans have been able to control the dark. The unintended consequences of lighting the world are significant, both on ourselves and the creatures around us. New home decorations. Confused turtles. Tired people. Sick people.

Imagine a world without electricity and electronics. But before we do, let’s go get some coffee so we don't fall asleep while we're doing it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gettysburg Redux

Remember when I wrote that “the present always trumps the past”—that is, that the demands of making a living and the inescapable forces of commercialism eventually obscure our history? (As a reminder, see Ruminations on Forgetting. For further evidence, see also the lovely diner above, smack dab in downtown Gettysburg, where our 16th president is fronting a scrambled eggs and hash browns joint.)

Well, it turns out, not only was I wrong, but I was way wrong.

We’ve just returned from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, arguably the most important historical site in America. (Actually, that’s a hard question. I tried to list the top 5: Gettysburg, Lexington/Concord, Pearl Harbor, the first McDonalds in Des Plaines and Disneyland? Something like that.)

Anyway, it was at Gettysburg, in the first days of July 1863, that 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers met. After three days of relentless, courageous battle, culminating in 12,000 Confederates advancing across open fields in an attack now known as “Pickett’s Charge,” General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated south.

Pickett’s Charge has come to be called the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” because, after losing 5,000 soldiers in an hour, Lee also lost both his air of invincibility and the war’s initiative, Lincoln had his elusive victory and would be re-elected, and the Union would eventually be preserved.

As you visit the battlefield and walk Pickett’s Charge with one of the superb Licensed Battlefield Guides, or visit one of the other important sites from the first two days of the battle, you come to understand that all it would have taken was, perhaps, a little less humidity and smoke, or a few dozen more men advancing against a key flank, and everything might have been different.

The reason I’m writing about Gettysburg, though, is not to wax poetic about the battle. (Too many smart people are already engaged in that practice.) What I really wanted to highlight are the remarkable things happening at Gettysburg today.

George Will wrote about it recently, describing the creation over a decade ago of something called the Gettysburg Foundation.

It’s a private organization that has partnered with the Gettysburg National Military Park to do, in essence, the great things that only a private organization can do, while allowing the Park Service to do the great things that only a public organization can do.

In that regard, I’ve read a lot of negative things lately, in the context of the financial bailout, about public-private partnerships somehow being repugnant, or moving the country closer to socialism.


Here’s what I can tell you about that cockeyed point of view: The Gettysburg Foundation and the Park Service—keying off the vision of Superintendent John Latschar, the generosity of Bob Kinsley, and the leadership abilities of Bob Wilburn--have invented a public-private partnership that features the very best parts of capitalism, stewardship, preservation, patriotism and education.

The result is a new, $100M visitors center, the reclamation of a spectacular 1880s Cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge, and the gradual reshaping of the Gettysburg battlefield to recreate the terrain and sight-lines commanders would have experienced in July 1863.

Battlefield 1, Home Sweet Home motel (now removed) 0.

This means that the old visitors center and historic (but still hideous) cyclorama building, which sit in the middle of the battle and on ground where hundreds of soldiers fell, will be removed. This also means that a combination of professionals and volunteers have raised money, buried utility lines, demolished anachronistic viewing towers, preserved farms and monuments, planted trees and shrubs and rehabilitated orchards.

And, to recreate the 1863 battlefield, the Park Service has cut down trees.

Private groups can do lots of things well, including running gift shops at museums and negotiating good contracts with concessions providers. But private groups cannot go before Congress and ask to cut down trees in a military park.

For that matter, it's hard to imagine the Park Service doing it. But they did, and it worked, resulting in a favorite line from the trip: “Remember that this is a military park, not a wildlife preserve.” (In the process, of course, acres of wetlands were rehabilitated and hundreds of trees replanted—but in the locations where they grew in 1863.)

The picture above shows Devil's Den from Little Round Top, cleared of trees and looking just the way soldiers would have seen it in 1863. This historic view simply didn't exist just a short time ago.

There are some 13,000 photographic images of Gettysburg in and around the time of the battle (think people knew it was important, even then?). This means that what you see today can be made amazingly consistent with what you would have seen in 1863.

The new museum complex is beautiful, situated near the battle but on land uninvolved in the fighting. It tells the story of Gettysburg in its historical context, focusing as much on why the battle was fought and—most important—what it means today, as on the battle itself. The Foundation employed 11 historians reacting to the creation of exhibits by the Park Service and private designers. If that sounds like a second battle of Gettysburg you would be misinformed; apparently the museum came together in a real spirit of collaboration.

A centerpiece of the new Gettysburg is the Cyclorama of Pickett's Charge. Sue Boardman and Kathryn Porch have written a wonderful history and guide to the Cyclorama—a 365-foot painting in the round (the IMAX of 1884)—which was so emotionally stirring that, we are told, grown men wept.

I have captured here a few pictures of the Cyclorama, none of which do it justice.

On the last morning of our stay, just as the sun was coming up, I threw on my running stuff and jogged up to Pickett’s Charge. There I was, gasping for air by General Lee, who was sitting on his horse and staring calmly across the open field at General Meade, back among the Union artillery.

I thought—wouldn’t this be a perfect run? A nice soft field for legs tired of pounding on cement. No traffic. A gentle uphill climb toward the Union position. One of the most historic twenty-minute marches in American history.

And then I thought. . .No. I probably wouldn’t jog in church, so I shouldn’t jog here. This is sacred ground.

And, come to think of it, what has been done at Gettysburg to reclaim history in the last 15 years is pretty hallowed as well.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Christmas in October

Here it is, mid-October, and believe it or not, I’m all set to talk about Christmas. Some of you may think that’s sad, but what’s even sadder is that some others of you reading this post, despite this October warning, will still leave all of your shopping until Christmas Eve.

Here are the facts. On October 2 Wal-Mart announced, based on consumer feedback, that they would be opening Christmas shops inside their stories within ten days. They also began discounting toys immediately. This was being done to help consumers stretch their holiday dollars in the face of rising food and energy prices, the housing slump and a disastrous economic climate.

Meanwhile, reports are that the Sears at the CambridgeSide Galleria in Cambridge, MA, already has its Christmas tree up and decorated. There may be one up and decorated near you.

In fact, you may have already witnessed a home in your neighborhood with Christmas lights up--and that doesn’t count those @###$@++ lazy neighbors three doors down who never got around to taking down their lights from last Christmas.

Some of you will be mortified by this early start to the holiday season.

Some of you—and I count myself in this group—will be delighted by an early Christmas. In fact, I think we should make it as early as possible. (More below.)

You should at least rest easy in the knowledge that the “battle for Christmas” has been going on for centuries. In fact, Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent 1996 The Battle for Christmas details a clash over the dates and meaning of Christmas that’s been going on for some sixteen centuries.

Here are a few interesting take-aways from Nissenbaum’s book:
1. Most states did not grant legal recognition of Christmas until the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1621, just a year after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, governor William Bradford found some of the colony’s residents trying to take Christmas Day off and ordered them back to work. In 1659 the Massachusetts General court declared the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense.

2. The Puritans had a serious and practical reason for opposing Christmas: There was no biblical or historical basis for placing the birth of Jesus on December 25. In fact, Puritans argued that the weather in Judea was too cold for shepherds to be lounging in the fields with their flocks in late December.

3. Not until the fourth century did the Church decide to celebrate Christmas on December 25, a choice made because it was the approximate arrival of the winter solstice—an event celebrated long before Christianity. The Puritans argued that “Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.” In fact, the selection of the 25th was a deal with the devil; in return for insuring near-universal celebration of Christ’s birth, the Church tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated as it had been. Nissenbaum says “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”

4. [Ed. Note: You go, Pagans.]

5. The other reason the Puritans suppressed Christmas was that its celebration was traditionally accompanied by excessive eating and drinking, aggressive begging (with threats and the occasional invasion of wealthy homes), and the mockery of established order. This tradition grew from the harvest season, at least in northern agricultural societies: December was the time to eat well from newly-slaughtered animals, drink the recently fermented beer or wine, and take a well earned post-harvest break. It was a “time to let off steam—and to gorge.” Increase Mather referred to December as Mensis Genialis, or the “Voluptuous Month.”

6. It gets wilder. A report from 18th-century England described two especially ominous practices, mumming and the singing of Christmas carols. Mumming involved men and women cross-dressing to make merry with their Neighbors “in disguise.” Hmmm. And Christmas carols? They were usually done in the midst of “Rioting, Chambering, and Wantonness.” (I thought I knew what mumming was but didn’t. You, dear reader, are going to have to look up “chambering” for yourself.) One cleric remarked, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”
Suddenly the Puritans seem, well, less puritanical. Almost reasonable. And the outrage of Christmas lights and sales in October seems rather tame in comparison.

I guess, in light of the evidence, I’m mostly against mumming—though wouldn’t have minded being a colonial fly on the wall once or twice just to see how that cross-dressed "disguising" worked exactly. But I’m all for caroling and keeping December “voluptuous.”

In fact, my experience is that during the Christmas season people are just nicer. They smile more. They’re kinder and more polite. They yield at the Yield signs. The put more money in the plate at church. They think about other people. They sing in the car. They watch old movies together. They visit relatives. They bring cookies to work.

That being the case, I wouldn’t mind starting Christmas right after Labor Day. That would be four months of summer followed by four months of Christmas followed by four months of ski season. A very good year. A calendar for the modern American.

Very light on the mumming, of course.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Finding a Niche: Too Much Lincoln?

Suppose an entrepreneur tried to fund a business plan to develop and sell a new operating system for computers.  The pitch: Better than Windows or Linux.

Chances are pretty good that he or she would be chased out of more than a handful of venture firms.

It’s not that the idea is necessarily so bad; maybe the world really does need a new operating system. The challenge, of course, is in the competition.

 In one corner is a formidable technology company with a near-monopoly share. In the other is a worldwide collaborative of geniuses who are giving away product for free.

As competition goes, there's not much a niche to fill.

And yet, when an author walks into a publisher and says, “Are you interested in my brilliant new book about Abraham Lincoln,” shouldn’t the same thing happen? Not only is Lincoln arguably the most written-about American in history, but some of the most capable historians in the land have done the writing.  These include Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Herbert Donald, James M. McPherson, Stephen B. Oates, James G. Randall, John Hay & John George Nicolay, Isaac N. Arnold, and William H. Herndon. There are some Pulitzer Prize winners in there, as well as a friend of Lincoln and his law partner in Springfield. That is daunting competition.

Wikipedia's Historical rankings of United States Presidents shows where Lincoln stands against his peers. The wiki article tabulates twelve polls taken of historians, political scientists and other notables, from Arthur Schlesinger’s work in 1948 to a study done by the Wall Street Journal in 2005. With a few exceptions, these polls were each conducted with different participants and slightly different questions, and none purport to be statistically accurate of anything, except qualitative consensus.

Here's my summary:
The graph above show all of the presidents who have scored in the top 5. Lincoln, Washington and FDR are always one, two or three. And Lincoln spends more time at one or two than either of the others. All of which reinforces the point: Historians love the guy. Historians write about the guy. Who in his right mind, then, would write about Lincoln and expect a positive commercial outcome?

Apparently, lots of people. As the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth approaches on February 12, 2009, at least fifty new titles about the president are due out between now and early 2010. This includes three complete biographies; books of essays and photos; books about Lincoln as a military leader, inventor, youth and writer; books about Lincoln’s family and books his connections to folks like Charles Darwin, Robert Burns, Frederick Douglas.

If you felt absolutely compelled to write about a president, wouldn’t you want to pick one with a mixed record--at least one who wasn’t rated in the top three by historians for fifty years?

With that in mind, I graphed a few of the more historically controversial of our presidents, looking for a contrarian opportunity to dazzle the publishing world.

Check out Rutherford B. Hayes? Ever see a book about Hayes? Exactly. Here was a guy brought in to clean up the scandals of Ulysses Grant’s administration and, in one term, managed to pull Federal troops out of the South, shaped-up a very corrupt civil service, took courageous steps to settle the railroad strike of 1877, and stood firm in enforcing a sound money policy.

Do I see you dozing? OK, maybe not the subject we’re looking for.

But Grover Cleveland slipped from 8 to 20 over the last 50 years, right? There must be a story there.

Are you sleeping?

OK, maybe I get it. Maybe it really is all about Lincoln.

As a matter of fact, I have just been informed that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest president in history.

My book on this exciting new Lincoln development will be out next February.

Just about the time I’m ready to release my brilliant new operating system.