Saturday, March 23, 2013

Today I Broke the Four-Minute Mile

This morning I ran four miles, part of my training for a June half-marathon.  It was very cold and very windy, typical March weather for my town.

Anyway,  I pushed the “start” button on my trusty Runkeeper app and discovered it could not find the GPS satellite.  This is not uncommon; my car's GPS often shows me driving through my neighbor’s bedroom and across the pond near our house.  Usually if I wait a minute or two I’m OK and my app is happy.

For those of you who don’t use a running app, I recommend Runkeeper.  It does a fantastic job keeping time and distance, except for the mean lady who keeps whispering in my ear telling me how slow I’m running.  

This morning, though, I fell in love with that lady.  Here’s why.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Wisdom of Crowds Meets School Closings

We are suffering yet another blast of snow in the Boston area this morning, just as we were beginning to see the first signs of lawn and patio.  Schools are cancelled up and down the eastern part of the state.  Last night, as I watched our youngest daughter work the Web, I was reminded again just how much things have changed in the last generation.

When I was in high school and a winter storm approached, the radio was our best and sometimes only source for no-school news.  We would stay glued to WBZ where an announcer started with the "As" and worked his way to the "Zs."  If we were listening for, say, Dighton-Rehoboth, and happened to tune in at "Eastham" or "Easton," we were done for 10 or 15 minutes until the list recycled.  Some schools might call in at 5 a.m., some at 5:30 a.m. and yours at 6 a.m., which meant real vigilance in being present for each recycle of the "D" schools.  TV would sometimes help but it seems like there was less local news back in the day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

White if By Land, Black if By Sea?

I pity all of those reporters at the Vatican, having to wait in the rain with nothing to report for interminable periods of time.  The newspeople connected to stations here in Boston have resorted to describing in magnificent detail the color of the smoke rising from the temporary chimney, the smoke designed to signal whether a new pope has been elected (white) or not (black). 
In 2012's Weathermakers to the World, we describe another environmental phenomenon associated with the Sistine Chapel, one put in place almost exactly 20 years ago.  It was a good reminder as I researched the book that, while “air conditioning” is almost always discussed in terms of human comfort, the modern art of “conditioning air” plays a critical role in historic preservation.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Stressed Much? You're in Good Company

Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released a study called Stress in Americaconcluding that Millennials, 18 to 33-year-old Americans, along with Gen Xers (34-47), are the most stressed generations in America.  On a scale of 1-10, the average American defines a healthy level of stress as 3.6 but feels a level of 4.9.  Millennials and Gen Xers are at 5.4, a level the study concludes is “far higher than Boomers’ average stress level of 4.7 and Matures’ [67 and over] of 3.7.”

Thirty-nine percent of Millennials say their stress has increased in the last year, while 52 percent report having lain awake at night in the past month due to stress. “Millennials and Gen Xers are most likely to say that they are stressed by work, money and job stability, while Boomers and Matures are more likely to be concerned with health issues affecting their families and themselves,” the study concluded.

All of which left me wondering: Is this degree of stress in America something new?  A recent epidemic?  A product of fast times and too much fast food?  Or perhaps a cultural peculiarity, a kind of national trait—maybe even an irksome downside to achieving progress or byproduct of what time-management guru David Allen would call “getting things done.”

One of my very favorite 19th-century books, both for its passion and unintended humor, was written by Dr. George Miller Beard, a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.  Beard was known for having defined “neurasthenia,” a medical condition that arose in the 19th century and produced fatigue, anxiety, and depression, which he attributed to nothing less than American civilization.  His 1881 American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences concluded that steam-power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and (perhaps Beard’s reaction to suffrage?) the mental activity of women were the primary contributors.

The signs of American nervousness, Beard said, were everywhere: susceptibility to narcotics and drugs, rapid decay of the teeth, premature baldness, the unprecedented beauty of American women (indeed, at some point we might need Dr. Freud to fully understand Dr. Beard), the strain of puberty and change of life; American oratory, speech, and language; and the greater intensity of animal life on this continent.  Fortunately, Beard remained optimistic, saying that wealth and invention could bring calm.  After all, he concluded (in a classic line we might better attribute to a Monty Python sketch), “The Greeks were certainly civilized, but they were not nervous.”

Another poignant reminder of American anxiety came in Henry Adams’s brilliant The Education of Henry Adams, published at his death in 1918 (and a Pulitzer Prize-winner the following year). Henry’s dilemma clearly resonated with Americans when he wrote that “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap” and a new one created by the crush of technology--the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad, the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay, and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the Presidency. Later in Adams’ life, of course, came electricity, the telephone and the automobile. He remembered the time of “the flint-and-steel with which his grandfather [John Quincy] Adams used to light his own fires in the early morning”; now the world had bathrooms, water, lighting and modern heat—“the whole array of domestic comforts.”

Adams’s anxiety was caused by the fact, despite a life-long education like few in America would ever experience, that he was completely unprepared for the world of the 20th century. “At the rate of progress since 1800,” Adams wrote, “every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.”

(I wonder if he was referring to my iPhone?)

Need further proof, or perhaps a wider lens?  In her superb Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000) Joyce Appleby discusses a book called Peter Rugg, The Missing Man.  Written by William Austin (1778-1841) and published in 1824, it was the most popular story of the early Republic.  It reads like a bad, confusing dream, a kind of 19th-century “Charlie on the MTA.”  Peter sets out by carriage from Concord to Boston in a thunderstorm in 1770 and simple rides forever.  He stops repeatedly to ask directions and finds there is no more King; the old road has become a turnpike; the city has grown beyond anything he could imagine. Indeed, Appleby points out, Austin and his generation would see Boston triple in size and New York grow to six times its size from 1776 to 1820; it was an unprecedented “destruction of their elders world.”

Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Peter Rugg’s contemporary.

By all accounts, stress in America is real, uncomfortable, potentially destructive, and something we need to work to control. But a little history indicates we’re not setting any precedents. Just ask John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), the country’s first billionaire and, adjusted for time, considered the richest American ever. Rockefeller once confided “how often I had not an unbroken night’s sleep, worrying about how it was all coming out.”

Well, things didn’t turn out so badly for Mr. Rockefeller. American history suggests that, shoulders to the wheel and a little optimism, and the Millennials and Gen Xers will be alright, too.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Purchasing Worker Loyalty: Mount Hope Finishing, North Dighton, MA

The Mount Hope Finishing Company and village
of North Dighton, Massachusetts, in 1924.  Some
believed it was just one big, integrated factory.  
This is a story about employee benefits, lots of benefits.  More benefits than Google’s free transportation and gourmet lunches, Evernote’s housecleaning services, or Genentech’s last-minute babysitters.  But it’s also a story about what an employer might expect in return for all those benefits.

It starts in the little Massachusetts village of North Dighton in 1901 when 26-year-old Joseph Knowles Milliken, “J.K.” to his associates, examined an old abandoned mill beside the flowing waters of the Three Mile River, 15 miles upstream from Mount Hope Bay.  The village surrounding the mill seemed as sad and dilapidated as the rundown facility itself.  Seizing opportunity, however, J.K. established within six short months a cloth finishing mill to support the booming textile trade in nearby Fall River, New Bedford and Rhode Island.  Mount Hope Finishing was profitable from day one and its estimated initial need for 175 employees would eventually balloon to 1,400.

To remain successful, J.K. Milliken required copious and sure amounts of two essential raw materials, water and skilled labor.  At capacity, the mill required ten million gallons of clean water every day, and the young entrepreneur was successful in securing water rights for some 25 miles upstream.  It was in the securing of labor, however, that J.K. Milliken would leave his mark.

Extending along Summer Street, the Three Mile River flowing behind it, the Mount Hope
Finishing Company would become the largest cloth bleachery under one roof in America.