Sunday, November 15, 2009
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The other day I listened to a New Yorker podcast, one featuring the magazine's cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff. Hespoke with Zachary Kanin, one of a very small stable of regular cartoonists.
Kanin was discussing his typical work-week and mentioned that he draws ten to fifteen cartoons a week. I might have guessed three, and perhaps five in a good week. But Kanin churns out 10 to 15 new ones every week.
He said it’s important to work at that pace because it’s the only way he really stopped doing other people’s cartoons, the only way he really found his own voice.
"Part of the challenge is the discipline to accomplish this every day and the other is to expand my creativity and to help find my artistic voice. The sky is the limit on how the flies will be created. You may have wondered, 'why is he drawing flies?' My other hobby is fly fishing and fly tying. I also welcome the challenge of drawing the natural materials that are used in the flies. So hang on and enjoy the ride for the next 365 days!"
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole.
Just get your hammer and chisel out and start pounding.
(First posted in November 2009 and updated modestly in April 2016.)
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I went card shopping today to find an anniversary card for a couple we've known for years. It’s fair to say that there’s some pretty wretched stuff out there in the form of maudlin, raggedy, iambic pentameters stuffed into $5.00 cards.
To make a loving pair.
There’s a joy just being around you,
A feeling we love to share.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
My to-do list has 91 items. Even if I eliminate stuff like "Take out the trash" (that I remember to do anyway) and "Climb Kilimanjaro" (which seemed important five years ago when it went on the list but which I'm really not much interested in doing anymore), I'm still down to maybe 50 items. It seems like a lot to me.
Last summer I clipped a Peggy Noonan column, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs,” from the
“He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”
“He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.”
There’s no mistaking those. Noonan went on to suggest that Obama was trying to do too much and, in the process, was missing “The Sentence.” (Her suggestion for Obama was: “He brought
It all reminded me of the way Daniel Walker Howe described President James Knox Polk in What Hath God Wrought. Polk is a president you don't think about every day, but when it comes to "the sentence," he had his act together.
Upon being elected, Polk told his Secretary of the Navy that he would have "four great measures" of his administration: Settlement of Oregon with
How did Polk do? Howe concludes, “Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the
Polk’s extraordinary focus reminds me of the trick an old boss taught me, way back before we all had smartphones. He would take a 3-by-5 card at the start of each fiscal quarter and write down his three to six goals for the quarter. Then he would leave it in the corner of his desk where he could see it constantly, or carry it in his pocket when he was traveling. Every morning and evening he'd review the list to gauge if what he was doing contributed to one of those goals; if not, he’d stop and, as he said, get back to work.
There is a story told about a time-management consultant who visited the Pentagon to address a gathering of generals. He asked them how they organized their days. The one answer that stood out: "I write down everything I need to do that day, maybe 25 items. Then I start at the bottom and cross them out until I have only the top three left. Then I go to work."
Leaders of all kinds require focus to be successful. I don't know if James K. Polk had a 3-by-5 card, but I'm guessing he didn't have a to-do list with 91 items, either.
Maybe a lesson for you. Certainly a lesson for me.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Right behind the water crisis, of course, is the FIOS and cable crisis, the wireless and web crisis, and the TV and microwave crisis. Followed, of course, by the can’t-see-at-night crisis.
I’m reminding you of things you already know because, as I went for my run that morning, I discovered two utility trucks and a policeman directing traffic around a snapped utility pole. Someone, somehow, on a sunny, dry morning--on a road marked at 35 miles per hour--managed to smack into the pole and turn the attached electronics and cables into a mid-air rat’s nest.
Utility poles are a 19th-century technology, designed originally to carry telegraph lines. The average pole is made of Yellow Southern Pine and stands about 34 feet above the ground.Whack them with one of our modern vehicles and they break like a toothpick.
A Little Thing Far Out
Last week NASA reported that the Hubble Space telescope was sending back stunning images of exploding stars, stellar nurseries and colliding galaxies, thanks to its repair and refurbishment by astronauts in a series of tense spacewalks earlier this year. One image, of Planetary Nebula NGC 6302, shows what our universe will look like four billion years from now.
You may remember that work on the Hubble was almost scuttled when astronauts had a protracted struggle with a stuck bolt. It was the kind of thing that you or I might work on for an hour on a Saturday, give up, and go watch a football game.
In this case, one little bolt stood in the way of activating the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which has now shown us what we might look like in 4 billion years.
In a world of endless incoming and frantic multitasking, it's good to remember the upright telephone poles and freed bolts that keep our fragile world from falling apart.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
In my sophomore year in high school we took a class called Political Ideology. It was taught by a terrific teacher, Orin Holmes, who announced on the first day of class that if we “played school” with him we would flunk.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Booker is a young guy and former community activist and Councilman. Bloomberg is a generation older and well known as the billionaire founder of Bloomberg, LP., a financial software and services giant.
At one point, as the two mayors were being interviewed, Bloomberg began answering a question (about crime or drugs or handguns) by saying, “Of course, Mayor Booker has a harder job than I have.”
That might or might not be true--I don’t know enough to say. But the fact that Mayor Bloomberg recognized his younger peer in such a gracious way says more about Bloomberg than it does about the difficulties of their respective jobs.
Undoubtedly Michael Bloomberg wants to be a wildly successful mayor of
In other words, Bloomberg comes to the job as Mayor with not just wealth, but with all of his psychic income needs met. He’s already successful. He’s already made it. He appears comfortable with himself and his accomplishments.
He could have been the Big Dog in that television interview and he chose not to be; instead, he made the gracious gesture of promoting the young guy next to him.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
More than that, we completely miss the Big Events--the current recession being a good example.
It is the American condition, however, that being bad at something doesn’t stop us from doing it, and doing it enthusiastically.
With this in mind, I’ve been watching the swirl over Twitter, Facebook, the future of search, Second Life, radio, the music industry, the electric automobile, and television. Not only is the debate about our technology future downright confusing, it’s downright nasty. Technology has become our new religion, our new politics. To say you support “open source” in certain cocktail settings is like saying you would like to see a socialist President, or suggesting that only Christians can get into heaven. It’s brutal out there.
Monday, May 4, 2009
When I was very young I owned a Brownie Bullet, purchased for a special family visit to the
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
|Charlotte, b. 1854 d. 1923 |
She would be very surprised to be in a
21st-century blog post.
The story goes that one day
I remembered this old family story as I was reading the essays in Carroll Pursell’s American Technology and chanced upon Christine Keinegger’s "Out of the Barn and Into the Kitchen." It’s a piece about how women’s farm work changed in the first half of the 20th century, a story my great-grandmother would have known all too well.It’s also a reminder, Keinegger says, that the Industrial Revolution sweeping through factories and cities beginning in the 19th century touched the farmland last—and women’s work dead last.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
A contributing editor to American Heritage, Gordon is author of books about the history of Wall Street, the national debt, and the laying of the Atlantic cable. His web page quotes Oscar Wilde: "The one duty we have to history is to rewrite it," a sentiment which I take to mean that history must be continually updated if it has any chance of speaking to its contemporary audience. In Empire, Gordon has done just this.
The New York Times found Empire especially strong with character-driven financial histories (which include Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Ford and many lesser-knowns). The Cato Institute praised Gordon for coming down on the side of free trade, sound money and freely moving prices. The Motley Fool's review was admiring, instructive in its own right, and worth a read.
For me, An Empire of Wealth has earned a place on the bookshelf next to Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Howe's What Hath God Wrought, and Boorstins' The Americans--all books that I turn to from time to time for insights they offer on characters, events or situations. And sometimes I'm just looking for a few minutes of pleasant reading.
1. I Wish Thomas Jefferson Was the Guy We Thought He Was
In What Hath God Wrought, Daniel Walker Howe gave us plenty of political reasons to knock
Jeffersonoff his pedestal. Now, in Gordon’s Empire, Jeffersontakes another beating, this time on his business acumen. Gordon reminds us that Jeffersonwas born one of the richest men in the American colonies, inheriting more than 5,000 acres and 300 slaves upon his father’s death. He then spent money “with a lordly disdain for whether he actually had any” or not, dying “deeply in debt, bankrupt in all but name.”
Worse than his personal bankruptcy, Jefferson (and Jackson in his footsteps) destroyed Alexander Hamilton’s financial regulatory system, replacing it with, well, nothing. “As a result. . .economic disaster would be visited on the United State roughly every twenty years for more than a century.”
2. Another Less-Than-Brilliant Business Move by
Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 forbade American ships from dealing in foreign commerce, with the American navy mobilized to enforce it. This devastated New England;legal exports fell from $48M to $9M in a year. In effect, Gordon says, thanks to Jefferson’s statecraft, “the went to war with itself and blockaded its own shipping.” United States
After reading Howe and Gordon, I have finally decided that to love
Jeffersonone needs to dwell on the writings in the first half of his career. Once you venture into his actual activities, or much of what he wrote later in life, you want to begin pulling down his statues.
3. Cotton Was King and Almost Destroyed a Nation
When Eli Whitney devised a way to separate the seed from the lint of short-staple cotton, he helped produce the most successful cash crop in American history. He also revived slavery (which was dying off economically at the time of the Constitution—hence all that optimism from our Founding Fathers), and nearly destroyed the
. United States
Whitney’s cotton gin allowed a single laborer to replace 25. Coincidentally, the
Deep Southturned out to be the best place in the world to grow cotton. By 1850 the was producing 70% of the world’s cotton, 75% of which was exported. Likewise, a slave selling for $300 before the cotton gin sold for $2,000 by 1860, causing Southern slave holders to increasingly and desperately clutch their precious human capital. United States
The invention of the cotton gin insured that the South would remain an exporter of raw material—essentially a backward economy, where ownership of production was held by a small, privileged elite and much of the population lived in poverty and grinding toil. Meanwhile, the North diversified, in the process enriching itself with a flood of skilled immigrants disinterested in moving South to compete with free human capital.
In Inheriting the Revolution, Joyce Appleby tells us that the most surprising thing the Founding Fathers and first generation of Americans created was not one, but two countries. Gordon would agree, I think.
4. First in a Series
Gordon considers the Erie Canal to be the most consequential public works project in American history, insuring that
would become the linchpin of the American economy for more than a century. It would also prove to be the first in a long, continuing list of megaprojects that caught the public’s fancy: the Atlantic cable, the transcontinental railroad, the New York Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the Apollo project.
As a reminder of how well older technologies can adapt and stay relevant, the Erie Canal was obsoleted by the railroad in the 1850’s but would continue to move product for another 120 years.
Yes, and poor old Thomas Jefferson, who should have retired and stopped writing, thought the whole idea of the
Erie Canalwas absurd and opposed it from the start. [Had it been in Virginia, of course, things might have been different.]
5. Something to Benchmark Our Misery By
The Panic of 1837 saw cotton prices cut in half in two months, fortunes disappear on Wall Street, and 90% of the nation’s factories close. Federal revenue fell by 50% in a year. The 1837 depression was the longest in American history, reaching bottom after 72 months in February 1843. That was the year Dickens published A Christmas Carol and had Scrooge relieved that a debt owed him was not as worthless as “a mere
’s security.” United States
6. Take the Long Way Home
Before the steam engine, flatboats carried a crew and 30 to 40 tons of cargo down the Mississippi River to
. Once there, the flatboats were broken up into scrap and sold. Then, given the choice between returning home to, say, New Orleans by poling upriver on a keelboat or walking, most chose to walk. Thus, each season hundreds of men floated down the Kentucky Mississippi, sold their goods in and then walked home hundreds of miles along the Natchez Trail, only to do it all over again the next season. New Orleans, stayed to refresh themselves,
7. We Have No Corner on the Pace of Technological Change
“The Watt engine, which had helped to spark the Industrial Revolution and was the most fundamentally important technological development since the printing press three hundred years earlier, was obsolete after only three decades. The pace of change had already begun the relentless acceleration that continues today.”
8. More Rapid Change
On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll ofIn 1844, 73-year old Philip Hone wrote, “The world is going too fast. Improvements, politics, reform, religion—all fly. Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. . .Oh, for the good old days of heavy post coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour.”
, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned the first shovelful of earth for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Age 91 and still wearing knee breeches, Carrol said, “I consider what I have just now done to be among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence, if indeed, it be even second to that.” Carrollton
Not only was this the first recorded use of the phrase “good old days,” Gordon tells us, but he also suggests that Hones' was the first generation to encounter what every American generation has since: seeing the technological world of one’s youth vanish.
9. The Lunch Counter BeginsSo busy were the brokers on Wall Street at the height of the Civil War that the lunch counter was invented to offer them a quicker meal than they could manage traveling home. “Fast food is, perhaps, not the least of the country’s legacies from the Civil War.”
10. The Frontier EndsIn 1890 the Census Bureau declared that the frontier, a feature of American life since 1607, had ceased to exist.
Jefferson(not to add insult to injury) had predicted it would take a thousand years for Americans to reach the Pacific. Had his vision of the simple farmer held, he might have been right.
11. Rich Guys Compared
John Jacob Astor died the richest man in
in 1848 when he left $25 million. Cornelius Vanderbilt left $105 million less than 30 years later. Andrew Carnegie was worth $480 million in 1901. John D. Rockefeller—considered the richest American ever—was worth $2 billion 15 years later. America
And, while Americans can build fortunes, they are not especially good at preserving them. Except for Rockefeller and Hearst, not a single name that was legendary for wealth during America's Guilded Age (1870s-1890s) is found today on the Forbes 400.
12. Barbed Wire Goes to War
Invented by Americans in the 1870s to help bring order to western farmlands, barbed wire was ordered by the hundreds of thousands of miles by combatants in World War I trench warfare.
13. The Most Important American Invention Ever?
“More than any single other economic development, the mass-produced automobile made the twentieth century very different from the nineteenth.” By the 1920s it brought into existence large industries like rubber (for which it used 80%), plate glass (75%), and sheet steel (all). By 1929 there were 662,000 miles of paved roads where there had been none, changing forever the landscape of America. In 1905 the first purpose-built gas station opened, with gasoline rapidly replacing kerosene and giving a huge boost to the petroleum industry. Corporate logos replaced the word-heavy style of 19th-century advertising so they could be seen while driving. The automobile reversed the population flow from farm to city by creating suburbs. It allowed people to shop outside their hometown, a trend that led to the ruin of many Main Streets.It made the Big Mac with fries possible. And speaking of food, it changed thousands of acres of hay and oats to crops for human consumption when it brought to an end the 5,000-year reign of the horse as the prime mover of humankind.
14. Electricity Wasn’t Bad, Either. . .
There's much more, of course. The sections about the Great Depression, from
Which is, after all, the kind of thinking that good history like An Empire of Wealth is designed to inspire.