Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Time and place

Before the sojourn in Stratford-upon-Avon, we spent some time in London and in Leicester. In London, I had a delightful tour guide for a day, a reader of this blog who volunteered to lead me to places I had not seen. The highlight of the day was the Greenwich Observatory, where it is not only possible—nay, obligatory—to stand with a foot in each hemisphere but also fun to explore the museum, which does a good job of capturing the history of mankind’s thinking about and measuring of time, particularly the importance of time measurement to navigation.

John Harrison’s chronometers are there, as are many ancient and modern artifacts. Time well spent, as it were.

Leicester is not featured in any guidebooks. We were there on business. Still, we were there. So we visited the ruins of the Roman baths. Next to the ruins is an unpretentious museum, the sort you might find in any American city, narrating the history of the place. Except that the history of a place like Leicester, with a continuous narration, illustrated by a rich assortment of artifacts archeological and paleontological, that begins in the late Stone Age and continues through the various civilizations that existed in the English Midlands over the millennia is a lot more impressive than the Indians-Columbus-Pilgrims-Slavery-Civil War-here-we-are story that most small American cities seem to settle for. An hour in the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester provided a sense of a specific place over a long time, offering a nice symmetry to Greenwich’s specific time over all places.

More on the Gutenberg Museum

I hope you’ll excuse the random order of these travel notes. Internet access has been catch-as-catch-can, and I’m just writing up recollections as they come to me.

One display in particular at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz perturbed me. I’m quite certain it is wrong. The display shows a form of locked-up type that purports to be a modern recreation of one of the pages of the 42-line Bible printed in Mainz. Next to it is a proof drawn from the form. Only the person who created this display has made a horrible mistake. As I explained nearly three years ago, a cursory inspection of the printed page of the real Gutenberg Bible (and the museum has a couple of spectacular specimens on display) shows that the end-of-line hyphens showing that a word is divided were added by hand, with quill and ink; they were not printed from cast type.

The person who composed the alleged recreation, though, made a hyphen mold, cast some hyphens, and set the page using hanging punctuation. I don’t think there is any evidence that Gutenberg did such a thing, and I hope the display is eventually corrected. But I’m not holding my breath.

Okay, I'm impressed

Last week we were in Stratford-upon-Avon (well, it’s spelled that way officially, but the natives pronounce it Stratford-on-Avon), coincidentally on the day they were celebrating the asparagus harvest with some festivities downtown. Not blanched. Impressively thick by American standards but not nearly the size of the German asparagus. Before these festivities began, I was sitting on a bench, facing a pedestrian plaza, while my wife was browsing in a clothing store (yep, I’m one of those guys you see sitting on the bench at the mall). A chauffeured sedan with a coat of arms on the front bumper and flags on the fenders pulled up a couple of yards from where I sat. A distinguished-looking gentleman emerged from one door, and the chauffeur opened the opposite door for a well-dressed woman. Between the two of them, they had what looked to be about fifteen or twenty pounds of high-karat gold around their necks, including impressive, fist-sized medallions. I thought, hmm, this is England…coat of arms, flags, medallions…minor royalty, perhaps? So I nonchalantly strolled across the street to a couple of shopkeepers who were standing in front of their stores chatting. I begged their pardon and admitted to being just a stupid American, but who are those people? “Oh,” one replied, “that’s the mayoress and the mayor.”

Friendly folks, dressed up for the occasion of the asparagus festival, wearing the city’s official medallions, et al., and just there for the photo op, which included posing with a man dressed as a stalk of asparagus, something that a member of the Royal Family might have eschewed, I suppose.

That capped off a couple of days of going to the various properties maintained by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife, and at the farm where she was born we happened upon a group of American high school students just beginning a tour. So we joined them as the docent began his spiel. He asked the kids when America was discovered. Turned out he was looking for 1492 as the answer, whether it’s correct or not. His reason for asking was that the part of the house we were standing in was already a few decades old in 1492 and had been continuously occupied, mostly by Hathaways and their heirs, until the trust bought the farm in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It was a bonus.

I understand why we introduce Shakespeare in high school, but my memory of As You Like It in high school was struggling through the strange language and not getting the jokes. Seeing the show done right, when an adult, makes all the difference. Shakespeare remains a living part of our literary heritage. And the jokes still work. Maybe we should give high school students a coupon, redeemable twenty or thirty years later, to see a performance of the works we force them to read.

Mainly I do like Mainz

Your peripatetic editor finds himself, for a few days, in the city where Gutenberg was born. This is not accidental.

The old city of Mainz is a pleasant place to walk around. Street food is mediocre by German standards; restaurant food can be very good. This is the height of asparagus season, and every chef in Germany is taking full advantage. There are a couple of varieties grown (one with the purplish tip seen in the US—similar to Martha Washington—and one with an unpigmented tip that is just a whitish green. In the market stalls and stores there is little green asparagus to be had, though. The bulk of what is grown and sold here is white asparagus. This is, I assume, the light-tipped variety that is blanched.

If you are a gardener, you understand blanching: keep the light off the developing vegetable to eliminate the bitter chlorophyll note. Celery is blanched by laying boards up against both sides of the row to shade the bottom of the stalk as it matures—or perhaps the dirt is mounded against it instead in some locales. The curd of cauliflower is kept snowy white by tying the outer leaves together to form a little light-tight tent over the developing head. Belgian endive is blanched by a somewhat more complicated technique. I don’t know that it’s still done this way commercially, but the traditional method is to dig the plants at a certain stage and bury them in layers of clean, damp sand so that they can head up in total darkness. But asparagus is different. A mature asparagus plant can be five feet in diameter, and the stalks can emerge from anywhere in that circle. My understanding is that the German growers mound about eight inches or so of soil over the entire row, so that the crown, instead of being just below the surface of the soil, is now much deeper. Then, when the harvester sees the tiniest tip emerged above the surface of the mounded soil, she plunges the knife at just the right angle to cut and lift the white stalk at perfect maturity. And everywhere we walk, someone is selling boxes and boxes and boxes of white asparagus in diameters up to an inch and a quarter or more (as well as whatever other size you might prefer).

(Spring is also rhubarb season, as gardeners and cooks know; and on the train from Köln—take the guided tour of the Dom—to Mainz we passed several fields of rhubarb of a hectare—2.5 acres—or more. By American standards, that’s a helluva lot of rhubarb.)

But I didn’t come to Mainz for the food. I came for Gutenberg. And I was disappointed. The Gutenberg Museum houses a magnificent collection of objects, to be sure. And there were some worthwhile and interesting displays (including quite a lot of Asian material printed from moveable type in the centuries before Gutenberg). But overall, the curatorial approach seems to miss the mark. There are stories to be told with the collection—the story of the development of the technology, the story of the rapid spread of the technology in a few decades after its invention, the story of the Renaissance—that are only alluded to in the most off-hand and random ways. To be sure, many of the descriptive placards were in German only, but the main exhibits were described in German and English. So I don’t think my lack of German was the main issue. I just felt the Museum Plantin-Moretus, in Antwerp—even though it made hardly any effort to present information in English—did a much better job of telling stories. The Mainz museum was more of a static catalog of artifacts, artifacts that were not even arranged according to any obvious system or criteria. And what emphasis there was was on printing presses; there was hardly anything said about the development of letterforms into typefaces through the mediation of the punchcutter. And the uninitiated visitor—apparently the intended audience—cannot piece together either the historical progression from monastic scribes to modern printing or the production progression from manuscript to finished book by walking through the museum exhibits.

Color me disappointed, but don’t color me blue yet. Mainz has other attractions. The oldest parts of the Dom are a thousand years old, and the Dom Museum does house some remarkable objects. But the most spectacular and sacred space (not a description you hear often from an atheist) is St. Stephan’s. This is a church that was bombed in World War Two and then restored over the ensuing decades, ending with a commission to Marc Chagall to create the stained glass windows. Chagall was getting on in years, but he completed the main windows that he agreed to do, and the collaborator with whom he had worked on his stained glass projects for many years, Charles Marq, did nearly all of the remaining windows in the church, in his own style but very much in keeping with the feeling and mood established by the Chagall windows. The experience of walking into such an old building and finding it filled with a cerulean glow of clearly modern windows is breathtaking. Now you can color me blue. But a peaceful, happy blue.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Annals of customer service: a shame for the neighbors

United Airlines to Paris. Lufthansa to London. Shall we compare and contrast?

United Airlines
We took a short connecting flight from Hartford and left the country from Dulles, headed for Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Announcements on the ground and in flight were mostly in English, with some eventually repeated in French. A minority of the cabin crew sported flag pins indicating they could speak French if pressed. No other languages were available, apparently.

The food was about the worst the United States has to offer. The dinner entree was a nondescript chicken dish with rice, palatable but dull. It was accompanied by a bowl of iceberg lettuce and a container of gloppy ranch dressing, a roll that had been kept at the same cold temperature as the salad, rendering it inedible, brick-hard butter, some sort of plastic-wrapped brownie-like confection for dessert. The breakfast-time “snack” consisted of a sealed plastic pouch that held a container of flavored yogurt and a so-called pastry (held at the same cold temperature as the yogurt, of course) that was as inedible as the previous night’s dinner roll—and tasted even worse.

For the sake of the French nationals on board, I was embarrassed to be an American.

From Charles de Gaulle, we proceeded by two short-hop flights to London on Lufthansa. Both of these flights were on full Boeing 737s, with flight times of about forty-five minutes each. Neither was at mealtime. Snacks only. Instead of soft drinks and peanuts or pretzels, as we would have been lucky to get in the United States, we were given freshly made sandwiches. One was an interesting, multi-grain, seeded bread, cream cheese, cucumber, lettuce, and tomato, all crisp. The other was a different interesting bread with a good German cheese, crisp lettuce, and a mayonnaise-based spread. Sandwiches, choice of beverages. (Just coffee? Would you like something else—water, perhaps? Still or sparkling? With ice?) All of this was done efficiently, without hurrying, and with a smile, by cabin crew fluent in a minimum of three languages.

Draw your own conclusions about the value of training, customer service, and customer communication.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Newsletter No. 1

I was reminded the other day of the half-dozen or more times in my career that I have been involved in the creation of a newsletter (print or electronic) that never saw its first anniversary. Most, in fact, lasted but a single issue.

In all cases the newsletter was the brainchild of a marketing manager (or a business owner wearing the marketing manager hat for the moment), perhaps inspired by an article in a trade magazine about what a great idea it is to have a newsletter to keep your company’s name in front of customers and prospects. Well, yes, that’s true, if you can sustain the effort.

And in all cases my role was confined to editing and designing the publication, not managing the flow of new articles. That was the job of the marketing person. So I’m not the one who dropped the ball.

In the end, I don’t know that any of these efforts did damage. I don’t think they were tested fairly to see if they provided a benefit, though. If a company wants to know whether a newsletter brings in more business, they have to stick with it for at least a year or two. Some marketing managers have a short attention span and are ever on to the next thing. They want some new initiative to highlight in their quarterly report to the CEO. And if the CEO doesn’t ask, “Hey, how’s that newsletter going? I haven’t seen a new issue lately,” the newsletter is going to cease to exist.

Which is a shame. Because the first issue is the expensive one.

So if there isn’t going to be a No. 5, you probably shouldn’t go to the effort of a No. 1.

Just saying.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Copyright and the big lie

The mainstream media are still trying to digest the proposed Google Books settlement. Of late, some of them have come to understand that one-sided news releases from Google’s lawyers might not be the full story.

There has been a gradual acknowledgment that Google is trying to rewrite copyright law to equate out-of-print with out-of-copyright. That is, just because a copyright owner chooses to take a book out of print does not mean the book is an orphan work. As long as the owner remains listed in the Copyright Office database with current contact information, it’s disingenuous to say the work has been abandoned.

But I have still not seen anyone with a large megaphone (unlike this little blog) address the central problem with all modern US copyright law, a problem created by Congress and the courts: The original purpose of copyright law is to encourage creation, not to provide annuities to corporations. Until we get back to that core principle, that it is the creator of a work that should benefit from copyright—not the corporation that strong-armed the rights away from that creator—people are going to remain confused about the correct moral course to navigate through these legal shoals.

What most people in the arts have in mind when they think about copyright is the right of the creator of a work to profit from it. What the publishers, entertainment conglomerates, and politicians have in mind when they think about copyright is the power of a corporation to coerce the creator to give up the right to profit in the long run in exchange for enough money to eat today, along with the resulting financial security for the corporation’s stockholders, who did nothing whatsoever to create the work in the first place.

So when we’re watching these debates in which people in expensive suits talk about their rights, they are talking about legal rights wrested from the grasp of the true possessors of the moral rights inherent in the act of creation.

European copyright law gets this. American copyright law doesn’t. Here, a corporation is a legal person with pretty much the same rights as a natural person—more rights in some instances.

I don’t know how much damage will transpire before politicians sit up and take notice. Time will tell.