Monday, July 25, 2011

Who’s Winning?

In the beginning, we anthropomorphized our machines.  

“My hard drive is temperamental.”  

“My computer hates me.” 

“This #$%%ing machine won’t let me get anything done today.”

Now, it feels like a reversal.  Our machines have mechanized us.  

“I wish I had more cycles in my day.”   

“Sorry, I don’t have the bandwidth to take that on.”   

The score at halftime: Machines 1, Humans 0.  

Maybe it’s time to reboot our relationship.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

FEAR of FLYING, 1935

“The officers of this corporation realize that traveling by air is continually becoming more popular and safer.”

So began an internal company policy memo, written in July 1935, 76 years ago this month.

“At the same time,” the announcement continued, “statistics indicate that fatalities are considerably higher in percentage in flying than with other modes of transportation.  It is, therefore, our feeling that flying should be permitted ONLY IN EMERGENCIES, but no employee should ever be instructed to go by plane.”

Remember now, the first plane had crossed the Atlantic in 1919.  Lindbergh flew New York to Paris in 1927.  The Wright Brothers historic flight was in 1903--32 years before this memo.  

It seems odd, doesn’t it?  In my personal version of misremembered history, planes are the dominant form of long-distance travel by 1935.  The golden age of rail was in the 1880s and 1890s, petering out as Ford and the Wright Brothers took over.  That’s what I thought, anyway. 

I did a little poking and, indeed, rail passenger numbers in the United States did decline by about a third in the 1920s.  But, here we are in 1935, and it sounds like commercial airplanes are about as safe and reliable as George Jetson’s jet-pack.

If an emergency existed, the memo said, an employee may take a plane, but only under the following circumstances:
  • Only one of the 25 commercial transport lines should be flown, those subject to the guidelines of the Department of Commerce.  “We do not want any unattached planes to be used.”
  • For transcontinental travel, there are only three lines (United, TWA and American) that may be flown.  Eastern could be used along the East Coast.
  • No single-motor planes may be flown at night, and, if during the day, only “over flat prairie countries, such as the Middle West.”
And finally, the memo demanded, special insurance should be taken out for every flight.

Here’s another interesting tidbit: The executive writing the memo had been born in 1874.  His father was chief of staff to a Civil War general.  And, here he was, in a big East Coast city with telephones and typewriters, trying to address the use of a mind-bending technology that was nothing short of magic until he was nearly 30 years old.

Funny, too, as I was writing this I got an email from Amtrak.  The Acela Express from Boston to Washington has: 
added some new and delicious items to the menu.  So now you'll not only be treated to great service and the fastest train connection to cities in the Northeast, you'll have even more tasty food and beverage options onboard.  In addition to brands like Sara Lee, Dannon and Green Mountain Coffee, we've added popular new food items to help satisfy any on-the-go food cravings from brands like Jimmy Dean Breakfast Sandwiches, Jack Daniel's, Sabra Hummus and more.
Then I got to thinking back to my latest purchase of a “Beef Up” box on JetBlue.   What a name, eh?  How about the “Pig Out” box, or the “Fat Face” box, or maybe the “Big Butt” box.  Jet Blue is such a great airline, but, my oh my, their culinary team must all be refugees from Allegheny Air.  Anyway, inside my “Beef Up” box  I found Old Wisconsin® Salami, Late July® Organic Crackers, Oakfield Farms Cheddar Cheese Spread, Stacy's® Bagel Chips, Belle Crème Gourmet Cheese Spread, and Brothers All Natural Fuji Apple Fruit Crisps.

So, I’m thinking. . .Jack Daniels and hummus. . .get up and wander around. . .or a little salami stick and goat cheese spread in the middle seat of row 34?  What are the safety statistics on that, I wonder?

The truth is I’d rather take the Acela to NYC from Boston any day, any time, than fly.  For me, it’s still 1935, and probably always will be.  And I’d like to tell you it has something to do with single engines and safety.   But I’d be lying.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Past Used to Be a Foreign Country

Last weekend I went to the movies.  As I ordered my small, 128 oz. Diet Coke at the snack counter, the young lady waiting on me asked what I was planning to see.  “Harry Potter, “ said I, to which she exclaimed, “Oh, it’s so sad!”  I asked, “What?  Does Harry die?”  (I’m always the last to know these things.)  She answered, “No, but all my friends who have seen the movie come out crying.  It’s like the end of their childhood.

That’s a pretty deep discussion with a young woman whose job purportedly is to sell me a giant box of Raisnets.

This morning I heard back-to-back stories on the radio, another quaint technology: the space Shuttle is performing its final mission, and Borders is bankrupt and going away.

My children are only teenagers, but they are already discovering what it took the deaths of cool summers and Ronald Reagan to convince their parents: The past really, truly is a foreign country.

They do things differently there.

Although, come to think of it, with YouTube, Facebook, Skype, student exchange programs, ubiquitous summer travel, offshoring, outsourcing, Thomas Friedman, and nice Indian customer service teens providing advice on my operating system deep in the middle of their nights--foreign countries aren’t what they used to be anymore, either.

(There is still France, I suppose.)

So, maybe with future shock and all, the past used to be a foreign country.  Now that we’re not sure what a foreign country is anymore, or at least, they don't seem nearly as foreign to us, my teens’ Millennial or i-generations are going to have to devise a more apt metaphor.   

Maybe they’ll decide, too, that the past is never really past at all; it just gets captured and stored somewhere in the Cloud.

Which, come to think of it, is what we used to call heaven--another quaint old concept.  

Harry Potter, the space shuttle, Borders, foreign countries. . .all gone in my children’s lifetimes.

Oh, and did I mention the 8 oz. Diet Coke?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Serve Man

The Kanamits are a race of nine-foot tall aliens who visit Earth to help humanity, sharing technology that erases hunger and disarms nuclear weapons.  They are even nice enough to drop-off a book at the United Nations entitled To Serve Man.  Soon enough, lovely cryptographer Patty is madly deciphering its code to learn the book’s secrets.  Meanwhile her boss, Mr. Chambers, and a group of humans decide to head with the Kanamits to their home planet which, one supposes, must be like paradise.

To Serve Man is one of the better episodes of the The Twilight Zone and first ran on a March evening in 1962.

One of the downsides to a truly global economy is that not only do products and information flow freely, but so, too, do animal and plant species.  This can lead to severe environmental problems, like the lionfish devastating reef fish populations along the Florida coast, and the Asian carp steaming up the Mississippi River into the Great Lakes.

In a recent article, Answer for Invasive Species: Put It on a Plate and Eat It, Elisabeth Rosenthal reports that an increasing number of “environmentalists, consumer groups and scientists are seriously testing a novel solution to control the lionfish and other aquatic invasive species — one that would also takes pressure off depleted ocean fish stocks: they want Americans to step up to their plates and start eating invasive critters in large numbers.”

“Humans are the most ubiquitous predators on earth,” said Philip Kramer, director of the Caribbean program for the Nature Conservancy. “Instead of eating something like shark fin soup, why not eat a species that is causing harm, and with your meal make a positive contribution?”

After all, we’ve learned that eating "Patagonian Toothfish" is disgusting--but call it "Chilean Sea Bass" and we fall all over ourselves overfishing and overeating it. (Sweetbreads, anyone?)

In the corporate world, eating invasive species is one of the oldest tricks in the book.  The one thing voracious corporations have learned, however, is that they need to identify the species when it’s still small and relatively innocuous, just lapping at the edges of the money river.  Once institutional hunters start bagging trophy animals, then the Game Warden starts sniffing about.  That’s why a smart hunter like Google goes on a feeding schedule of one small acquisition a month.

Now, lionfish and Asian carp are one thing, but could there be a more invasive species than mankind?  And, if you thought there might be a chance we would one day escape our planet and start gumming up the galaxy, well. . .  

The day arrives for Mr. Chambers's trip to the Kanamits' planet. As he gets set to climb aboard their spacecraft, the lovely cryptographer Patty comes running toward him in great agitation, only to be stopped by a Kanamit guard.

"Mr. Chambers," Patty cries, "don't get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man, it's... it's a cookbook!"

The lesson, I suppose, is to embrace your inner Kanamit.  Embrace or be embraced, as the saying goes.  And try the lionfish.  I hear it tastes like chicken.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

You Must Remember This. . .

In 1826 Eli Terry installed a $200 clock in the town hall of New Haven, Connecticut.   All went well until townspeople noticed that the Terry clock was falling further and further behind the nearby Yale College clock.  At first the Terry clock lagged, gradually losing some 15 minutes; then it began to gain, eventually racing ahead of the Yale clock by 15 minutes before, over the course of weeks, gradually falling behind again. 

Broken?   Not likely.  Terry was arguably the most distinguished clockmaker in America and among the earliest practitioners of uniform,  interchangeable parts.  Meanwhile, Yale’s clock had been designed by the talented Simeon Jocelyn, another favored son of Connecticut, and had been telling seemingly reliable time for years.

The difference—and it’s one we rarely consider today—is that Terry’s clock offered mean time—solid, consistent hours that reflected an average of the sun’s daily variation—while Jocelyn’s clock followed the sun itself.  As Michael O’Malley writes in his excellent book, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, the question among the puzzled New Haven community was not “what time is it,” but “what is time?”

Today, of course, we universally employ Terry’s “mean time” and simply say things like “the sun is lower in the sky at noontime than it was last month.”  But Jocelyn’s clock was tracking what observers, for very good reasons, called apparent time:  It squared perfectly with the sun.  In other words, whenever the sun was highest in the sky it was noontime, just as a sundial showed and as Jocelyn’s clock indicated.  As the sun rose or fell throughout the year, Jocelyn’s clock ingeniously followed it.

We could measure the same phenomenon today against our $10.00 Swatches if we just open the blinds in our offices.  (Wait—I can’t see my computer screen when my blinds are open.  Never mind.)

Since clocks were relatively rare in 1826, this was the first time many folks had thought much about the problem.  What all good citizens knew, however, was that God created time in Genesis, and it was His gift to the human race.   Tinkering with a strange concept like mean time was an artifice created by Eli Terry and his new world of mechanization.

We don’t dwell much on the cosmic significance of our watches today.  We take for granted that the Industrial Revolution, like Robin Hood, simply robbed the concept of apparent time from the farm, the sun dial, Genesis and God and gave it to the factory whistle, the railroad, Frederick Winslow Taylor and David Allen.  We know today what true time is, and contrary to the crazy beliefs of our ancestors, it’s certainly not apparent time.  (I am as guilty as the next; when I used to drive the kids to school in the morning, it became "springtime" when the sun was over the road and directly in our eyes at 7:06 a.m.)

As O’Malley writes, “clocks were first invented to tell time, to give a more reliable indication, on cloudy days or at night, of the passage of a quantity belonging to God. . .But in the act of telling time the clock tended to become the thing it represented—clocks became not imitations or transcripts of time, but time itself.”

Last month, the New York Times Metronome, a 62-foot-wide digital clock at One Union Square South, was finally fixed after telling the wrong time for most of a year.   Unlike Terry’s clock, reporter Matt Flegenheimer noted in a funny column, the Metronome was truly erratic, sometimes being 40 minutes slow and other times over seven hours fast.  Last New Year’s Eve, revelers counted-down time oblivious to the fact that they were off by 40 minutes.

Here, then, is one important way the Industrial Revolution has changed us.  When the Terry and Jocelyn clocks differed, a spirited public debate arose about how God wanted mankind to behave in his Kingdom.  People had the audacity to wonder how a clock could differ from the sun.

When New York City’s digital Metronome went kerflooey this last year, passersby simply decided it meant whatever happened to be on their minds—a sort of Rorschach test.  One believed it represented the acres of rain forest destroyed annually.  Another, daily carbon emissions.  Another the national debt.  Still others, a countdown to the end of the world.  One believed it was the number for pi (but could not explain why it kept changing).  Some believed the Metronome’s shenanigans coincided with happenings on the TV show Lost.  “They thought it was a secret code to keep the plane from crashing. . . .”

In 1826, when time went askew, God had a place at the table.  Today when time goes askew, it’s about a fictitious island on TV.

And we laugh at the myths of our quaint old ancestors.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hoodies and the Point of No Return

When I was 30 years old I was playing a fair bit of tennis.  I was not very good, so decided to take some lessons.

I met my instructor one morning and we hit for about 10 minutes before he walked up to me and asked, “How old are you?”


“Well, if you were 20,” he said, “I’d force you to learn a two-handed backhand.  And if you were 40 we wouldn't even bother-- I’d just work on improving the one-handed backhand you already have.”

“But,” he continued, “since you’re 30, I’m going to give you the choice:  Which would you like to do?”  Of course, that was his way of saying my backhand was pitiful and needed reconstructive work.   He was also asking me, in a sense, if I’d reached the point of no return.

Next month, Starling Lawrence will step down as long-time editor-in-chief of WW Norton, the largest and oldest employee-owned publisher in the United States.   He joined Norton in 1969 and became the top editor in 1993.

Lawrence, who is 68, commented, “I have certainly enjoyed this job. . .[but] I’m not particularly knowledgeable about electronic publishing. . .And frankly, if I were 20 years younger, it would be imperative that I understand and educate myself on those issues.”  Then he added, “But that has seemed less important to me because I’m frankly not a consumer of e-books myself. It’s not something that touches me personally.”

This was Mr. Lawrence essentially saying to his tennis instructor, “You know, Bjorn, I think I’ll keep my one-handed backhand.”   He’d reach the point of no return.

It's something that happens all the time, especially as you get older.  I suppose for women there's that moment when they decide to cut their hair short, or maybe to stop dyeing it.  For older folks there's the time when they stop pretending they're just "resting their eyes" and just 'fess up that they like to nap.

It seems everyone in techland is wearing a hoodie these days, thanks to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.  Investors in Silicon Valley even have cashmere hoodies.

I was in a Bob’s Store the other day looking at a rack of hoodies thinking, hmmm, everyone who’s anyone wears a hoodie these days.  Maybe I should get one.

The last time I wore a hoodie, I think, I was about 9 years old and fishing with my Dad.  The hoodie I have in mind would have had a Boston Patriots logo and some combination of quahog juice, fish slime, and Almond Joy on it.  (Thanks, Dad.)

Unlike Mr. Lawrence, I’m a big fan of electronic publishing--but I get his point.  Sometimes you have to leave the kids stuff for the kids.  I walked away from the hoodie rack, picked out a couple of polo shirts instead, and went on my way.

Ditto with tennis.

After a few seconds of slightly offended contemplation, I decided to stick with my one-handed backhand.  To prove his point, I guess, my instructor then hit about 100 balls to my backhand, most of which I wafted into the net.

Shortly after that I fixed my backhand when I stopped playing tennis altogether.   I already possess a horrendous golf game, and there's no real need to stink at two sports.

That’s a point of no return from which I have never looked back.