Saturday, August 27, 2011

Living the Incandescent Life

I enjoy the march of technology as much as the next person.  That doesn't mean, however, that when some treasured object is obsoleted, I don’t experience a pang of regret or nostalgia.

For example, I love my scheduling software, but I also miss the New Year’s Day ritual of sitting down with my old Day-Timer and manually moving lists, birthdays and important phone numbers from the old beat-up book to the pristine new.  It was a right-of-passage into the new year.  Now, everything I do follows me magically, whether I ask it to or not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Machine in the Garden, 2011

Over vacation I read Leo Marx’s 1964 The Machine in the Garden.  It’s not exactly light reading but I needed it for a project I’m working on, and I accidentally missed the reading assignment for this specific book (something about a party after a Brown football game) in 1978 so knew I would one day have to pay penance.

Marx is a professor emeritus at MIT and this is a wonderfully researched, profound book.  His narrative is, at least my version: Beginning in the 1840s, our best American storytellers began describing the same scene over and over again.  Hawthorne experienced it on a July morning in 1844 when he sat in the woods to write and suddenly heard the “long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness” of a steam engine rumbling through nearby Concord, Massachusetts.  It happened to Melville, or more specifically, Ishmael, in Moby-Dick when he was exploring a beached whale and the skeleton suddenly morphed into a New England textile mill.  It happened to Huck and Jim in a dire moment as they floated along peacefully in Huckleberry Finn, only to have their raft smashed by the sudden appearance of a steamboat.

Monday, August 8, 2011

All Guns (No Ballast)

I've sometimes heard the term "all sail, no ballast" when applied to a certain type of business executive.  It's the same thing a cowboy means when he says someone is "all hat, no cattle."

Today in Stockholm I was fortunate to visit the Vasa, a Swedish warship that launched in August 1628, sailed about a mile, sunk and lay at the bottom of Stockholm Harbor for over three centuries.  Needless to say, this was not a story of great success.  To the king's credit, however, no heads were lost, and to the Swedes' credit they managed to salvage the vessel in one piece and have turned an embarrassment into a national treasure.

The best theory on the sinking is that there were too many cannons on board for the ballast, meaning the ship was top-heavy and fated to tip over, no matter who sailed it or under what conditions.

"All guns, no ballast," so to speak.  Different from "all sails, no ballast," but the identical result.

I suspect you and I have met a few business executives of both types.