Sunday, October 31, 2010

Week 41: All Hallow's Eve

With the crowds gathering on my street for the annual, wacky New York City Halloween parade, it dawned on me that I don't know why we celebrate Halloween! Whatever its origins, there is no question that Halloween has become a cultural phenomenon, at least in the United States. New York is a great place to experience Halloween - where else will you see people dressed as ghouls and goblins sharing a subway with suits intently reading the daily news? Or see children run into a laundromat demanding candy? Even in the uber-intense world of finance, the Halloween spirit pervades. On Friday we had a trading floor "trick-or-treat" for the kids of the company's employees. Things quickly became less stressful as a little girl dressed as a piglet made the candy rounds. So what are the derivations of this collective, uninhibited, fearful joy that is Halloween?

From my cursory research, the most influential contributor to Halloween as we know it is the Old Irish Samhain "end-of-summer" festival. It took place November 1 of each year, and marked the end of the "light" part of the year and the beginning of the "dark" part of the year. With the advent of Christianity, the name of the festival changed to "Hallowmas", meaning All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day celebrates those saints who have died and are in heaven. It is followed (on November 2) by All Souls' Day, which celebrates the dead believers who continue to be stuck in purgatory - those who have not yet made it to heaven. The night preceding Hallowmas became a more pagan commemoration of the dead, and was called "Hallows Eve." Anyone who knows an Irishman's drawl can see how this articulation over time could evolve to "Halloween." A similar celebration called Calan Gaeaf took place on November 1st in Wales to mark the first day of winter. It, too, had dark undertones. One of the Calan Gaeaf customs was "Coelcerth"; apparently families built a fire and wrote their names in stones. If your stone was missing the following morning, you had less than one year to live. The best part about Halloween - trick-or-treating - also came from Britain. Poor people would go door-to-door begging for food, which came to be called "going a-souling." Over time the town children made the rounds, and were given apples and other holiday treats.

The potato famine of the 1800s brought many Irish and their Halloween customs to the United States. The turnips used for lanterns switched to pumpkins, eventually evolving into Jack-O-Lanterns. These Irish customs mixed in with American Colonial stories of witchcraft and also Native American visions of ghosts. The idea of costume themed parties took hold in the US in the 1920s. As I type, the shrill cries from the parade down the street are getting louder and louder. With that, I am going outside to experience what has by now become a uniquely American blend of religion, debauchery, candy, and mystique.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Week 40: The Last Lecture

Thanks to a nostalgic weekend visit to my alma mater, I decided to go to the Cornell section of iTunes University for this week's dose of inspiration. One lecture that caught my eye was a "last lecture" given in 2008 by former Cornell President Hunter Rawlings. The last lecture series was created by Mortar Board, a senior honor society I had the privilege of joining. Each year a distinguished professor is asked to give his or her theoretical last lecture, the idea being that smart, successful people will say insightful things when the chains of regular course lecturing are unshackled. Professor Rawlings chose to give his last lecture on the virtues of what classicists call "close reading." Perhaps the best way to define close reading is by describing what it is not - blogs, tweets, and texts would most certainly not fit the bill. Close reading is digging into the heavy, deep, and allegedly fulfilling type of stuff you dreaded being assigned back in college. In short, Rawlings thinks that most reading today is the opposite of close reading - it is superficial reading. While Wikipedia and Google are tools for accessing information quickly, they are not substitutes for meaty, enlightening, and yes, dense, texts. The former will get you to the easy truths in life, but Rawlings correctly notes that those aren't all that interesting or important. If this sounds simple or hokie to you, I would encourage you to ask what Rawlings asked the audience: How often do we read concentrated, sophisticated ideas? How often are you confronted with careful, subtle, complex ideas? If you are like me, the answer is not very often.  

Rawlings gives three examples in which a rigorous approach to reading has had a meaningful impact on his life. While studying the classics at Princeton in 1968, Rawlings found strong parallels between Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War and his own struggles with the Vietnam War. But coming to realize these underlying similarities was not easy; Thucydides wrote in a sophisticated and complex manner. To top it off, he used an esoteric form of Greek, making translation a chore. It was in Rawlings' own words "not fun", but from the experience he was able to understand with more depth what war can do to a democratic society.

The second example was Rawlings' study of James Madison, which revealed a fascinating portrait of a man who was not charismatic, but who was tremendously influential. One story I cannot help repeating begins with George Washington asking then Congressman Madison to review his innaugural address, which had been written by Washington's speech writer. When Madison found it to be terrible, he was asked by Washington to write a new inaugural speech. The Madison speech went exceedingly well - so well that Congress wanted to reply with its own speech. Guess which Congressman they elected to do the honors? James Madison, of course! And the Congressional reply went so well that Washington wanted to again reply to Congress. Naturally, he asked Madison to draft this reply to the reply. And, naturally, Madison did - one for the Senate, and one for the House. How incredible that at the inception of our democracy, Madison was having a conversation with himself that would set the tone for the relationship of our executive and legislative branches for centuries!

The final example given by Rawlings is his readings and re-readings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's rhetorical skill and ability to communicate at perhaps the darkest time in American history may have saved the country - more Americans died in the Civil War than in World War I, II, Vietnam and Korea combined. In the midst of tragedy and chaos, we were lucky to have someone who had worked arduously and for decades on his speaking, reading, and writing. As Rawlings noted: "a masterful reader can take the rhythms and phrases from great texts and can turn them into powerful instruments to deal with terrible situations." Rawlings can speak to the development of Lincoln's communicative power, because, for instance, he took the time to read all of Lincoln's speeches, in chronological order. Close reading.

I fully recognize the irony of writing a blog post on the importance of serious, thoughtful study. I am doing so because Rawlings' point is valid, and it struck a chord: words mean something. To understand and internalize the dimensions of an important speech or historic book takes proactive thought, careful consideration, and, frankly, time. How many times recently have you read something for which the words were the clues and you had to search for the meaning? It is sadly laughable how we are exposed to new information - my morning routine consists of reading the Wall Street Journal (on my iPad, of course), scrolling through the Bloomberg headlines, skimming a few market research bullets, and checking my Twitter feed. In other words: cursory, tactical, shallow. While I'd like to think that a certain extracurricular weekend project of mine has absolved me from guilt, it has not. This project has been wonderful for learning superficially about an array of topics. It has also helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and a thinker. I have learned that communication is a craft, not a college major. By definition, a craft takes an incredible amount of time and effort to master. The speech given by Professor Rawlings reminds me of one glaring, painful truth: I've got a lot of work to do.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Week 39: The Oval Office

Thanks to the help of a college friend, I was recently lucky enough to take a tour of the famous (and infamous) West Wing. My only prior trip to the White House - also with my Dad - took place during the Clinton administration, when the Hungarian Prime Minister came for an official state visit. One distinct difference between the two visits relates to security - on the first, pre-9/11 visit, I vividly remember my Dad showing a bewildered White House guard a picture of me on the front cover of the local sports section as my "official" ID. How times have changed... This time I had to send my personal information (including social security number) ahead of time, and make it through two separate checkpoints before being allowed to enter. Once inside, I remember speaking very infrequently (those who know me will recognize how rare this is). The aura of the place was simply overwhelming. As we walked by the Roosevelt Room, the Rose Garden, the Press Room, it was almost impossible to comprehend the history, people, and decisions that had taken place in their confines. But by far the highlight of the tour was seeing the Oval Office.

Prior to this visit, my exposure to the Oval Office was limited to an intuitive understanding of what it represented - the office of the most powerful person on the planet - and visually to a few photos and important Presidential speeches. So as we walked down the hallway, I wasn't sure what to expect. My immediate impression was that it was significantly smaller than I had expected. I suppose you expect an office in which the most important decisions are made to be large, imposing, formidable... and it is just not the case. The next thing I noticed was a bowl full of ripe apples on the table - my research would later show that this was a decision made by Obama to symbolize his commitment to healthy eating. It also made me wonder who would be bold enough in his or her limited meeting time in the Oval Office to dig in to a Presidential apple. Behind Obama's famous "resolute" desk you could see through the window the playground set up for his two daughters. As my Dad noted, it is strange that all our Presidents sit with their backs to such a lovely and peaceful garden and lawn. Gone was Bush's bust of Winston Churchill, replaced by one of Martin Luther King, Jr., as was Bush's notoriously optimistic "sunshine" rug. In its place was a somewhat drab carpet with a number of inspirational quotes. Apart from the size, I was most amazed by the circa 1995 phones and fax machine. Also amusing - the antiquated phone outside the office read: 7 Missed Calls. I had seen enough to be intruiged, and wanted to learn more.

The office was first occupied by Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt in 1933. Since FDR, each President has added his own personal decorative touch. The resolute desk was first used by FDR, who added a door to its back, preventing visitors from seeing his wheelchair. This door gained legendary status when JFK junior was photographed playing in it while his father worked. The office commands such respect that early in his administration Obama was taken to task for not wearing a jacket while at his desk. Obama waited almost two years to make his ritual renovations given the economic recession. As his new furnishings were unfurled, he called the Oval Office the "greatest home court advantage", a message echoed by many former Presidents. Some of the most important speeches in the last 60 years have come from the office, including JFK's speech on the Cuban Misssile Crisis, George W. Bush's 9/11 address, and Nixon's resignation and subsequent pardon. The Oval Office is simultaneously a historic space and a bustling nexus of the country's political and economic business, a mix of the new and the old, the left and the right...

I pointed out the old phones, the apples and the intimacy of the place not to belittle or demean the White House or the Oval Office. These characteristics reminded me in a very tangible way of the human element in all this. It seems that over our short history, the US Presidency has acquired almost mythical status - as if the reason for or the solution to any problem is one man (or woman). At the end of the day, those who run countries, companies, religions, armies... they are all people. They are people with different motives, different ideals, different backgrounds. Care for an apple?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Week 38: Small Inventions, Big Impact

This week's post is pretty simple: it is a tribute to three inventions that aren't really similar except that each is so damn handy! These are the kinds of items that you don't miss until they aren't around, and then boy are you in trouble. I'm talking of course about WD-40, duct tape, and light bulbs. I recently moved from Murray Hill to the West Village and found myself thankful for one of these items and in great need of the other two. Duct tape was invaluable in keeping my stuff boxed up for the move, but a dearth of light bulbs kept me literally in the dark for the first week at my new place. And no WD-40 continues to plague my roommate and me, as a stubborn, sticky, and just plain nasty gate has become both a running joke and the cause of a few bruised hands. This will be a relatively short one, so I encourage you to post in the comments section your favorite handy items. What are the incredible devices or inventions that get you through the day but that you often take for granted?

I feel obligated to start with WD-40, because to me the iconic blue can and its powers have always been a mystery. The story is great: this guy named Norm discovers a blend of chemicals preventing corrosion on rockets that oh-by-the-way solves just about any other lube-based problem you might have (get your head out of the gutter, folks, this is a family blog). The name itself also invokes an element of magic - so simple (five characters), yet so complex (what the hell do they mean?!). It is actually not so mysterious - WD stands for water displacement, and 40 represents good old Norm's 40th attempt to produce the perfect blend. How appropriate. Norm's perseverance paid off, as the consumer product has for decades been an international success. Another fun fact is that there is no patent for WD-40. Why? Getting a patent would require the company to reveal it's secret formula, which by the way is the stuff of urban legend... apparently a Chinese bus driver used it to remove a stubborn python that wouldn't untangle itself from the bottom of his bus! An email list went viral in 2007 with all of the wonderful things WD-40 does; my favorites include: keeping flies off cows, protecting the Statue of Liberty from the elements, and removing all traces of duct tape. Which brings me to my next point...

Duct tape is just awesome. My research lead me to an episode of Discovery Channel's "Myth Busters" in which the producers determine that it is possible to lift a 5,000 pound car using nothing but duct tape, as well as create a working sailboat (which they used to sail around the San Francisco Bay). They were also able to create a cannon that fired a real cannonball... You guessed it, out of noting but duct tape. Duct tape is also used as a fashion statement - each year one manufacturer hosts a duct tape prom dress competition. The "Duct Tape Guys", who have written books about duct tape and have listed thousands of uses for it, had this appropriate quote: "Two rules get you through life: If it's stuck and it's not supposed to be, WD-40 it. If it's not stuck and it's supposed to be, duct tape it." Noted, Duct Tape Guys.

And last but certainly not least, the now ubiquitous light bulb! There are two primary reasons for the light bulb's inclusion on my "dream team", oft taken for granted invention list: my utter inability to get anything done the week I lived without one, and my surprise that you can buy a four-pack of light bulbs in Manhattan for $1.50! That is less than a pack of gum; put another way that will cover 1/4 the cost of a pint at any bar (tip not included). It is amazing to me that something so valuable has become so cheap. I don't have much to add here, except a note to all aspiring entrepreneurs. Apparently there were over 20 inventors who simultaneously (and in some cases previously) came up with a very similar incandescent light to the one invented by Thomas Edison. Edison's won out in large part due to his ability to develop a delivery system that helped his invention's actual implementation. There were powerful incentives in place to keep the gas-light model and its infrastructure in place. Simply having a new idea wasn't enough... This is in many ways similar to Apple's current success in not only developing devices that can play new music, games and books, but also creating the iTunes and iBooks delivery platforms. The iTunes platform helped destroy the large CD companies, and iBooks is already doing the same for large, brick and mortar book retailers.

No sweeping conclusions this week - leave a comment with your favorite devices/items/inventions...