Sunday, September 26, 2010

Forecasts Explained

Here's the scene.  My oldest daughter and I are in the only open check-out line at a Bob's Store.  Four items in hand.  Second in line.  One young lady behind us with one item to buy.

Customer #1, checking-out in front of us, is having trouble of some sort so another cashier appears and says, "I'll take the next in line."

The young lady behind us has the inside angle on the new cashier, steps in front of us, and drops her item on the counter.

Me, I can't let it alone.  "Excuse me," I say, "but I think we were next in line."  (Oldest daughter slightly aghast.)

Young lady: "No, I was next in line."

I call this "The Clinton Defense": Tell a complete lie with enough authority and conviction and some people will believe.  But not me.

Me: "I'm sorry.  There were three of us in line and you were third.  We were second.  That makes us 'Next in line.'"

Young lady doesn't even flinch: "But I only have one item and you have four."  Perfectly logical change of course.  Doesn't even try to defend her first lie. Continues check-out process and thinks the conversation is over.  Not a chance; we have three children and I'm onto her tricks.

Me: "So you're going to cut in front of us and check out, and then you're going to feel badly all day."  OK; not my best ploy, but all I could come up with at the time.

Cashier looks at both of us: "What do you want to do?"

Young lady, looking apologetic: "Sorry, I was just confused."

Me, resistant to being wrapped around fingers (mostly), and now bordering on the jerk: "Yes, it was a really confusing situation."  Ha.

Young lady, defeated by my superior logic and wilting sarcasm: "OK, why don't you go ahead."

Now, finally, I can be the gentleman my mother thought she raised: "That's ok," I say, "you only have one item so you go ahead."

Troops on both sides of the border stand-down.  D├ętente is restored.  Perestroika resumes.

Now for the rest of the story: The tag is missing on the young lady's item so that requires lengthy research.  Then, she cannot remember her Bob's number; she's not even sure what name it's under.  Finally, she's trying to use a coupon that the system won't accept; we locate a supervisor and discover the coupon isn't active until the next day.

By now, of course, the first cashier is open and we're called over for check-out.   We exit the store before the aforesaid young lady.

On the drive home it occurs to me that I really, truly need to chill a little.  Then it occurs to me that I have just stumbled upon: A Real Customer.

I've prepared or reviewed a million forecasts in my life and a billion spreadsheets with a zillion customers.  All of my projected customers are rational.  All of them are fair-minded.  None of them cut in line.  None of them forget their Bob's number.  None of them use their discount coupon a day early.  Not a one of them is ever confused.

That might explain some of the forecasts I've seen.  

Friday, September 24, 2010

Devil: The Sequels

Last weekend my son and I ventured into the local theater to see Devil, the latest horror movie from M. Night Shyamalan.  (Here's the trailer.) We did so with some trepidation after Mr. Shyamalan's last few lemons (especially "Lady in the Water,") prompting the affectionate nickname (around our dinner table, anyway) of M. Night Shamalama-ding-dong.

At the risk of spoiling the movie, Devil is the story of five people who board the elevator of a Pittsburgh skyscraper (that's not the scary part) and are visited by the Devil.  As our tightly wound passengers go on a little killing spree, the police work to unravel their individual tales.  We discover that each of them has committed a sin that probably should earn him or her a visit from the Devil, if not between floors 22 and 23 of a Pittsburgh skyscraper, at least as a sidebar at the Pearly Gates.

The resolution of all this isn't pretty, and I'll spare you the "Thing That Will Try to Bring You Back to Church," but suffice to say the premise is ripe for any number of sequels.

For example, I've decided to work-up the movie treatment to "Devil: The Venture Capitalist."  My story is about a poor VC who boards an elevator in a busy American city with four entrepreneurs.  As they ascend, the first entrepreneur says, "If my stupid customers could understand my brilliant product we'd start to grow."  The second one sighs and says, "All we need to do is 'cross the chasm' and we'll be on our way."  The third one adds, "We're going to be successful because we really don't have any competition."  And the last one chimes in, "We're struggling a little, but Google is going to have to buy us."

Mind you, the Devil hasn't even reached this elevator yet.

Or how about, "Devil: The Dad."  A father gets on the elevator with his four children.  The oldest one says, "Good news, Dad, you won't have to come up with a tuition payment for second semester."  His younger sister says, "Remember you and Mom always told us we could tell you anything?"  Before she can continue, her younger sister says, "So maybe this would be a good time to show you my tattoo?"  The hapless Dad looks at his youngest, who just smiles.

No Devil yet here, either.

You're apt to like the new Shyamalan (we did), but not as much as you'll enjoy the sequels.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Sense of Place: A Trip Back to Pleasure Island

Taking the kids to Storyland in New Hampshire is a rite of passage for New England families with young children. Storyland is a clean, right-sized park that appeals to kids from ages 4 to about 12, that brief golden age when your offspring can use the bathroom without assistance but still like to hang out with Mom and Dad.  Founded in 1954, Storyland is one of a collection of northern New England attractions designed to bridge the tourism chasm between Ski and Leaf-Peeping seasons.

This collection of attractions also includes Santa's Village (1953) and Six Gun City (1957), as well as some of the older, more conventional amusement parks like Canobie Lake Park (1902).  There is no large, Disney-like theme park in New England, and I include especially that mecca of long-lined, shadeless asphalt known as Six Flags New England (the former Riverside Park, circa 19th century).

I mention all this because, beginning last winter, one of my consulting assignments has taken me to Edgewater Office Park in Wakefield, Massachusetts.  This is just off Route 128--America's self-proclaimed "Technology Highway" (despite a regular loss of cell coverage)--and presents as an attractive set of modern office buildings arranged around a couple of ponds.

For a good six months after I started this assignment I would pass by a sign on 128 pointing to "Pleasure Island Road" and wonder, as I took the exit, why I'd find myself instead on "Audubon Road."

Meanwhile, from time to time over the course of this beautiful summer, as the water table dropped in the sunshine, odd things would begin to pop up in the pond in front of our office building, like so:

This eventually led me to do a little digging, and with the help of friend and engineer extraordinaire Dana, I discovered that Edgewater Park was sitting on the hallowed ground of the once and former Pleasure Island Amusement Park.  Self-proclaimed the "Disneyland of the East," Pleasure Island operated fitfully from 1959 to 1969, and is still a cherished memory of many of the locals.

Historians, professional and rank amateur, come in all different flavors.  Some focus on ideas (and win Pulitzer Prizes).  Some focus on storytelling (and make money).  Some (especially the rank amateur sort) focus on stuff (like the antiquarians of old) and end up with arrowheads and brass buckles and Post cereal boxes with King Philip's image on the back (not to put too fine a point on it) littering their homes. 

And some focus on location and that kind of odd, satisfying connection felt while walking the past at places like Gettysburg.  (Indeed, location was an essential ingredient in King Philip's War: Find and map the old New England battlefields, villages and garrisons onto the 21st century.)  So, having a lot of the latter kind of historian in me (which I dub for reasons which might be apparent, "locohistorians"), it was pretty cool to suddenly find myself working out Software-as-a-Service business models while looking out the window at a parking lot where a Kodak picture place had once stood.  With a little effort I could even envision the young families of 1962 standing in line to buy film so that they could take pictures of Moby Dick and charging rhinos (more below).

In fact, local historian Bob McLaughlin has done a terrific picture history of Pleasure Island, and accumulated (thanks to the Web) a truckload of incredible commemorative material at his Friends of Pleasure Island website.  (There's a lot of history here and worth a browse to relive those Camelot days.  Bob has been especially diligent in flying round the country, finding all of the folks who operated and starred at Pleasure Island.)  Bob also, from time to time, does a walking tour of Edgewater to help visitors visualize the old Pleasure Island.  Not many weekends ago I found myself on just such a tour.

Bob handed out pictures as we walked, and--like a good locohistorian--I tried to "map" the old Pleasure Island onto the new Edgewater Park wherever possible.

Here, for example, is another view of those wooden pilings in the water (click on the picture and then look out to the middle of the pond at about 12 o'clock), while the picture in hand shows the old schooner whose ribs they represent, probably burned to the ice line when the park was abandoned. 

Here is a little bit of the old underwater track on which Moby Dick rose from the water to (presumably) amaze and delight guests.

Here's the old rusty track of the charging rhino, left intact in the woods:

And here's a "present on past" look at Edgewater Drive as it makes its way between the two ponds.  It's a kick to realize that an old steam engine ran the route our cars take today.

It turns out that Pleasure Island the amusement park is a thing of fond local memory.  However, Pleasure Island the business left something to be desired, and despite a noble effort at keeping water attractions designed by southern Californians working in the cold of New England, never fulfilled its promise.

Much is made of the weather as a reason for Pleasure Island's ultimate demise, though Storyland, for example, is an entire climate change (or two) to the north and has prospered throughout the years.  

I think there might be another reason that Pleasure Island was gone in the space of one short decade.  As I look at the old photos, I can only conclude (despite all the cherished memories of its visitors) that Pleasure Island was less the "Disneyland of the East" and perhaps more the "Edaville Railroad of the North" (with all due respect to Edaville, which ran the train at Pleasure Island but has had its own dance with bankruptcy throughout the years).  I know it was the 1960s and all, but I keep looking at Moby coming out of the water and wonder, even in the golden age of 1965 when all young fathers apparently smoked pipes (see the final illustration), if a ten year-old might have felt something less than a sense of wonder and amazement. (Besides being a somewhat underwhelming signature attraction, Moby required a great deal of maintenance.)

Still, as I drive into Edgewater and try to envision the crowds (including the 1960 appearance of Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and the world-class musicians of the Newport Jazz Fesitval), I think of the final thing I heard Bob McLaughlin say on our walking tour.  When Pleasure Island was conceived in the 1950s, Westerns were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America, and kids were delighted to see, for example, a staged gunfight at Goldpan Gulch (and regular visits from Rex Trailer, for you locals).  

By 1969, Pleasure Island's last year, Woodstock was in session. 

Get it?  Fashion and short product life cycles are hardly new.       

Bob believes, had the planning been done even five years earlier, Pleasure Island might have had a chance to establish itself and then move with the times from a more solid financial base.  As it was, it's hard to even know (most business records are missing) if it ever had a profitable season.

Of course, these were also the years of MIT and Raytheon, Wang and DEC.  Land along Route 128 grew more and more valuable as technology companies exploded.  Perhaps Pleasure Island might have survived the end of Gunsmoke, only to run into the rise of the computer.  But maybe not; its certainly hard to quibble with the amount of intellectual energy, innovation and job growth going on at the old Pleasure Island site today. 

Anyway, having a sense of place is good.  It's one of the things I love about history.  And there are some days, for certain, when it would be nice to abandon the business planning and hunt for quarterly revenue, walk down to the pond's edge, and watch for Moby Dick to come roaring out of the water again.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

All the World’s a Fair

Imagine being born in 1880 and, as a 13th birthday present, your parents taking you to visit the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Perhaps the most influential world's fair in American history, the 1893 Exposition was organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landfall in America.   (Those of you good at both math and history will notice it was a year late, mostly the result of horrendous weather during construction.)  And, while all world's fairs are designed to showcase the culture and technology of the host country, the real message from Chicago was that the United States had come together after the Civil War to become a true international power. 

As well, Chicago--Hog butcher to the world. . .City of big shoulders--had a particular chip on its (big) shoulder.  City boosters were intent on showing its rebound from the devastating fire of 1871, the Haymarket riot of 1886, and especially on silencing critics in Congress who doubted that the city could offer more than "a cattle show on the shores of Lake Michigan."   

Needless to say, the critics were wrong.

Take food, for example.  As a 13-year old at the 1893 Exposition, you would have had your first taste of Cracker Jacks,  Aunt Jemima Syrup, Cream of Wheat and Juicy Fruit gum.  You might even had have tasted the future staples of American life--a carbonated soda and hamburger--both introduced to the American public in 1893. 

Or culture.  At some point your father may have "slipped off" to the Midway, which featured the original Ferris Wheel (Chicago's answer to Paris's Eiffel Tower), and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.  As for the real "slipping off" part, your dad might well have caught the performance of exotic dancers like Little Egypt doing the Hoochie coochie, a belly dance that was as much about sex as would have been publicly possible in the polite society of 1893. 

Unable to compete with the Hoochie coochie but of far greater lasting impact, a young historian by the name of Frederick Jackson Turner read a scholarly paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", before the American Historical Association during the fair.  Turner believed that America had been defined less by its Eastern roots and more by the frontier and Westward expansion--a theme entirely consistent with Chicago's own brand management.

The Columbian Exposition would undoubtedly have been the first time you heard or spoke aloud the Pledge of Allegiance, introduced at the dedication of the fair (and forever after in our schools).  Interestingly enough it was part of another kind of marketing campaign waged by Americans worried that their country had lost its patriotic fervor to Big Business and the almighty dollar.  (This was the Gilded Age, after all.) 

You most certainly would have remembered the Court of Honor formed by five massive, dazzling white, neoclassical buildings arranged around a formal lagoon at the southern end of Chicago's Jackson Park.  (L. Frank Baum did when he visited the Exposition and later created the "Emerald City" for his Wizard of Oz books.)  The Court of Honor featured the largest building in the world at the time, George B. Post's Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, sized at 787 feet by 1,687 feet.  None of the large buildings at the fair were meant to last, mind you; their exterior walls were made of staff, a mixture of plaster of paris and hemp.  One, however, was later stripped back to its steel form and rebuilt, and is now Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

In all, there were 65,000 exhibits displayed at the Exposition, from the John Bull locomotive to a Geissler Tube that projected moving images to a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo to a 46-foot cannon by Krupp, the German munitions manufacturer.   There were also a series of "living anthropology exhibits," or native villages that would inform fairgoers about primitive races around the world--some designed to educate and others, more like the Hoochie coochie, designed to titillate. 

The more scholarly anthropology exhibits, overseen by the Smithsonian, included a lab where visitors' measurements were taken to see how they measured up to the idealized types of Anglo-Saxon manhood and womanhood.  (The fact that capacity for civilization was defined by physiology was standard stuff in 1893, especially in an Anglo-centric country absorbing immigrants at the pace America was.)
Another important element of the Exposition was the emphasis on developing Latin American markets.  Six Latin American nations built their own pavilions in Chicago.  In addition, replicas of Columbus's three ships and the La Rabida, the monastery in Spain at which Columbus spent time, reinforced the Latin American connection and were among the fair's most popular venues.
At 13-years old, you would have been one of 20 million visitors to the Exposition, which turned a profit of $1.4M.  It was a sensation in every way.  Andrew Carnegie called it a "national reunion" and hoped for one at least every twenty years. 

Now, skip ahead to 1933.  You are 53 years old and have decided to take your family to the second Chicago world's fair, called "A Century of Progress." 
What a difference 40 years makes in the life of America.  Organizers for the 1933 Fair enlisted the help of a scientific organization formed during WWI, the National Research Council, to articulate the fair's central theme of scientific achievement.  Reflecting the success in recent European fairs of Modernism (Ezra Pound's definition: "Make it new!"), organizers worked to create buildings that reflected scientific progress.  The Crash and Great Depression further defined construction at the fair, perhaps best characterized as "Make it new, but make it cheap!"

As you and your family walked the fair, you would have been struck by the use of bright colors, an emerging theme in consumer products, underwritten by two industrial giants, Westinghouse and General Electric.  The largest venue at the fair, the Hall of Science, featured a working auto assembly line and an early form of television--both striking advancements over the Chicago fair of 1893.  Also new at the fair were dioramas featuring moving figures run by "animatronics."   International Harvester's exhibit featured a full-sized, moving cow, and General Motors' a mechanical Chief Pontiac. 
Progress had also come to the Midway, where the belly dancers of 1893 were replaced by Sally Rand and her fan dance, in which Sally raised her fans at the close of her dance to reveal her powdered-white nude body--a very popular attraction that reminded some of Greek or Roman statuary.
From Little Egypt and the Hoochie coochie to the fan-dance and classical statuary of Sally Rand: who could deny American progress?
Over two seasons, 1933's "Century of Progress" attracted 48 million visitors.
Now, skip ahead again.  This time you are 59 and have decided to take your grandchildren to the 1939 New York World's Fair.  Its theme, "Building the World of Tomorrow," is a far cry from your 1893 look back at Columbus.  The Fair of 1939, in the midst of the Depression and the rumblings of yet another war in Europe, was designed to emphasize the ways in which technology would provide for "individual fulfillment of human progress."
Spread over 1,200 acres of an old dump site in Flushing Meadows, Queens (made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald as his "valley of ashes"), organizers planted modern buildings influenced by art deco.  Symbols of the fair were two futuristic structures, a 610-foot tower ("The Trylon") and a 180-foot diameter globe ("The Perisphere") whose interior featured a Utopian look at the year 2039.  Exhibits (funded by countries and individuals in 1893) were now sponsored by the largest corporations in the United States.  General Motors' vision of the country in 1960 was most popular as it squired visitors in moving chairs through an exhibit which emphasized (strangely enough :) the need to build highways, and highlighted well designed cities full of sunshine and fresh air.  Kodak, U.S. Steel, RCA and Westinghouse all hosted displays, the latter having Elecktro the Moto-Man who could smoke cigarettes.
Could anything better define American progress in a Depression than a robot who smoked tobacco?
Well, yes: The 280 acre Amusement Zone, renamed the Great White Way in 1940, featured the emerging cult of celebrity by treating visitors to a Living Magazine Covers exhibit of famous models.  Titillation and fame--now that's true progress.  (Alas, Sally Rand was in San Francisco in 1939 hosting "Sally Rand's Nude Ranch" at the Golden Gate International Exposition.  Perhaps we were attending the wrong world's fair?)
(Some of my material for this posting comes from Robert Rydell, John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle's excellent overview of American fairs, Fair America.  The Wall Street Journal's recent article on the Unisphere, the centerpiece of the 1964/5 New York World's Fair, is here.  I attended that Fair, built on the site of the 1939 fair, and it made quite an impression on me.  Unfortunately it was snake-bit from the start and became a financial fiasco.)
The age of great American world's fairs is over.  The last in the United States was held in New Orleans in 1984, and it went broke.
What happened?  Disneyworld, I suppose.  Television.  The rich and far-reaching digital experience of the Internet.  The jet airplane.   Two-week, 5-city family European vacations—made affordable to the middle classes.
Maybe The Economist had it right, too, last December when it ran a piece entitled "Being Foreign."
For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition. It is no more distinctive than being tall, fat or left-handed. Nobody raises an eyebrow at a Frenchman in Berlin, a Zimbabwean in London, a Russian in Paris, a Chinese in New York.
In other words, would you be itching to attend a world's fair in New York or Chicago to see the Chinese pavilion when you vacationed in China last summer?  And you stop through Chicago twelve times a year on flight connections?
I think, though, the story behind the end of the great American world's fair is simpler than all that: Sally Rand died in 1979