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EXCURSIONS IN LATERAL THINKING FROM

AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS AND THE PIONEER VALLEY








Thursday, June 27, 2013

A New, Caffeinated Nobel Peace Prize?


“It was on the date of my daughter’s graduation. I thought, Nobel Prize? College Graduation? Obviously, I’m going to my daughter’s graduation,” proclaimed  fair trade coffee distributor/wholesaler Dean Cycon on Springfield, Massachusetts  ABC Channel 40 on June 26.  According to news anchor Shannon Hegge, Cycon had just netted the Nobel Peace Prize for Business (an assertion which Cycon did nothing to dispel).
What the founder and owner of Dean’s Beans in Orange, Massachusetts had in fact won was one of five 2013 Oslo Business for Peace Awards from the Business for Peace Foundation (BPF).  The honor, which celebrates business-worthy contributions that build trust, stability and peace, catches rays from the Nobel halo via the BPF's  Oslo digs and its judges, all of whom have won Nobel Prizes in peace or economics. But the Business for Peace Award is avowedly not a Nobel Prize. (Even though in some parts, including the Deans Beans web site, you might see it in quotes as the “Nobel Prize for Business.”) Might Dean and his daughter have skipped her graduation for the real thing? Perhaps as a graduation present?

None of this is to dis the foundation or Dean’s Beans, the latter which does admirable work on behalf of local growers, sustainability, and international fair trade.  But virtuous ends don’t justify hypercaffeineated spin-lust, especially by a local business hero. That’s why my friend's explanation (he's a marketing professor) is such a comfort: “Dean must be around coffee a lot; it’s a drug, you know,” he remarks.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy Ending for a Dyslexic Deep-Six Holiday Kerfuffle


View more videos at: http://nbcnewyork.com.

Send your dyslexic sons and daughters to trade school, but be sure they steer clear of marmoreal stone cutting/etching. Fortunately, former NYC mayor Ed Koch’s botched birth date (1942 in place of 1924) on his memorial stone was not, in the end, set in stone. Horrified, the stone cutter rose at dawn to make things right. Things, after all, could have been worse: the date was just a number scramble away from the more resonant 1492, a potential affront to Koch's former Italian constituents. 


Dyslexic eye charts from Cascadilla Press are here.
Dyslexic eye chart


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

In Praise of Iconic Failure

                                  Click above to view the Agony of De(webbed)Feet

Tuesday's article by Natalie Angier in the Times on dragonflies—Nature’s Drone, Pretty and Deadly, resurrected Andrew Mountcastle's  mini clip, Frog Fail 2.  It is above all an icon of failure deserving of wider recognition. (Not to mention an affirmation of this blogger's own tenuous self-esteem.)
The Sisyphus Sign is from dorje-d's photostream.

Nothing Succeeds like Success Failure. Shouldn't Mountcastle’s froggie share center stage with Munch’s The Scream and the endless loop of  Sisyphus? And how about with the "demotivational" poster below, which  speculates, It could be that the  purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.


It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.
from despair.com




Monday, March 25, 2013

Learning to Love the Punch Brothers: Punch/Counterpunch


For this reviewer and hundreds of concert goers, the Punch Brothers’ stellar February 15 performance at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton was just what the music gods ordered. Just as significant, the strong turnout offered evidence that the Brothers are catching on with bigger, broader audiences.

For the band--a confederation of music boundary-spanners who challenge listeners with eclectic compositions and improvisations—that’s sparkling good news. Not that the Brothers invariably turn tradition on its head. (They did, in fact, perform a handful of traditional tunes with impeccable respect.)  But by and large, tradition and roots for the Punch Brothers are points of departure—a key resource for explorations across genres that can take unexpected (sometimes high-stakes) twists and turns. When the train leaves the station, American roots might morph on a dime into indie pop, which in turn may reconfigure, say, into disciplined yet freewheeling excursions with the plasticity of chamber music by Bartok and late Ravel.
Such disciplined freedom gooses up risk-taking by the band’s virtuosic front line players—Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (violin), and Noam Pikelny (banjo)--all three who can navigate any musical byway or conversation. And all five “brothers” (Chris Eldridge on guitar and Paul Kowert on bass complete the set) make a convincing case for telepathy via music.

Punch/Counterpunch. Still, there’s a coalition of listeners who don’t get the Punch Brothers. Not only the roots music police, but indie pop listeners who can’t stand classical and roots, and classical fans who throw up ramparts against trespassers into their magic kingdom. Then there are those who bridle at dissonance, even though the Punch Brothers always maintain a tonal center. (They do use dissonance strategically, for added spice and surprise.)  And still others get thrown by the frequently break-neck morphings of their compositions and improvisations.

For many, though, the above misgivings are precisely what make the music stimulating—they spike the punch. Indeed, they mobilize the neuroplasticity of the listener's brain on music, creating novel neural connections that that keep on giving.
The conservative coalition aside, I'm surprised that Who’s Feeling Young Now? –the Punch Brothers’ splendid 3rd full-length cd, released in early 2012—wasn’t on more top-ten roots album lists for 2012.  It certainly was on mine. If the Northampton audience had its say, you can bet it would have been on theirs. 
Apotheosis Now.  It did, though, in January/February 2013, make the 2012 ten-best list in Songlines, arguably the planet’s premier world music magazine. “String groups don’t get much more exciting or dynamic than this,” wrote Jo Frost, who  with Songlines editor Simon Broughton, made the final picks—most of which were drawn from the ten “Top of the World” selections that appeared in each issue during the previous year. Oddly, when I backtracked to find the original review, it wasn't on any of the monthly Top of the World lists, all whose albums had received five- or and four-star ratings. So, I uprooted the original review in the April/May issue, which gave the album a middling three stars:

All that genre-busting and tricksy instrumental paradiddling might be hugely impressive, but at the end of the day, the Punch Brothers are at their most affecting when at their least adventurous,
wrote reviewer Matthew Milton.

Happily, more adventurous heads and justice prevailed. Progress in music and the joys of neuroplasticity won the day. I'll take odds that Songlines and the Northampton audience are still feeling young now.
  

Punch Brothers on Austin City Limits "Movement and Location" from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.


Fellow Travelers: The Warsaw Village Band. Like the Punch Brothers, they deconstruct their own roots in the service of cross-genre exploration.  A tour of their latest album, Nord.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Smitten by Caro




The first book to find its way onto my new Kindle was Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate—the third and (so far) longest volume in his unfinished quintet, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Several years ago, I had gotten through 250 pages of the hard-cover version but found myself—an inveterate reader in coffee shops-- nudged toward physically lighter books. With Caro’s energetic, compelling prose, Master of the Senate was hard to put down. But at 1,200 pages and 3.2 pounds, it was even harder to pick up and schlepp to my caffeinated hangouts. I did seal the deal, but it was the Kindle that broke the filibuster. (No disrespect to Caro, who composes the pre-cyber way--long hand and by typewriter.)

Orthopedic Validation.  Two weeks ago in one of those coffee shops, a friend—a public radio personality--confessed: “Lou, I may have rotator cuff issues from reading Caro in bed.”  He had hyperextended his shoulder while hoisting the Caro from his night table. Whether or not Tommy John surgery is in his future, my friend’s experience can serve as a beacon to all who underestimate the power of supersized books to inflict orthopedic challenges.
The Caro Benchmark of Discomfort.  So here is a repurposed role for the hardcover Master of the Senate. Consider it a standard measure of readers’ physical discomfort. That is to say:

One Caro=one hard-cover Master of the Senate
The Caro might bow in as a normalized composite measure comprising weight, number of pages, and surface area. Jiggering the details is beyond this blogger, but it’s no mystery that a proper Caro scale would assign The Complete Miss Marple (4,032 pages) to the right and Strunk & White to the far left. And if someone recommended a good read at ¾ of a Caro, I’d reach for my Kindle.




Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On Nazi Efficiency, Due Diligence, Branding



 
Leave it to those meticulous National Socialists.  In 1944 they not only executed an errant priest for joking against the state (i.e., for high treason & sedition), but sent an itemized bill for their handiwork to his family.  The tragedy of Father Joseph Müller and the itemized bill below are from Rudolph Herzog’s Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany, a chilling survey covering the dark waterfront of post-Weimar humor.  Father Müller exited via the guillotine, a three-minute procedure—certainly more efficient than established alternatives inside  Germany—hanging or the firing squad. Hats (and more) off to the Nazis for their nod to French savoir faire. And in the spirit of Teutonic due diligence—the  bill below includes two itemized postal charges—one presumably for the 24 pfenning stamp on its envelope.


from Dead Funny with Wig & Pen translation  (click on photo for better resolution)
 
Did He Who Made the Lamb Make Thee?  On an increasingly branded planet, the swastika is goose steps ahead of the crowd as a symbol of evil. With that said, many Westerners have gotten used to its presence (and origins) in Hindu and Buddhist iconography. But as the photo below reminds us, there was a time, before the symbol’s Teutonic hijacking, when it had zero negative valence in the West. The 1918 photo of tricker-treaters below is from the excellent blog, TYWKIWDBI. The photo is disturbing. Credit its insouciance of pre-Nazi innocence, amplified by the children, and combined with the ultimate brand of sinister experience.
Trick or Treaters 1918
  
from Blake's Songs of Innocence

 
 
 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Skinny on Consumer First Impressions in Hospitals


Hospital president/cardboard cutout as greeter
Take it from social psychologists (and  marketers): the primacy effect—your first impressions of a person, place, predicament, etc.—often carry disproportionate heft.  With that in mind, it’s not unfair to ask why hospitals and other medical practices often deploy overweight employees in reception and other intake roles. That at least was your blogger’s experience last week at Northampton, Massachusetts’s Cooley Dickenson Hospital, where just inside the main entrance, he negotiated a long carpeted corridor, festooned with friendly but capacious receptionists.
What’s surprising about that? In the medical services cosmos, receptionists earn the lowest salaries, have the lowest education levels, and work the most sedentary jobs.  Why should they be svelter than ordinary Americans, where in 2008 2/3 of adults were overweight

Not to worry. Beyond the magic (intake) curtain, you encounter slimmer and trimmer employees—medical technicians (skill level and weight may correlate somewhat here), nurses, and physicians.

As for primacy—a hospital can’t insist that its receptionists slim down, but it can nudge them via a (this may be a stretch) “preventive”  culture that emphasizes  creative exposure to education, exercise, and diet--all socially and perhaps economically reinforced. Until then, Cooley Dickenson will likely continue to make its best first impression with the life-size cardboard likeness of its trim Harvard/MIT-educated president, Chris Melin. He greets you just inside the door, is easy on the eyes, and offers preventive advice to boot.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Three Little Pigs Mailbox Innovation

[click to enlarge]


Snowplows and practitioners of mailbox baseball have an imposing target in the Hadley, Massachusetts mailbox above—a true fixer-upper triumph. Still, in homage to The Three Little Pigs  playbook on innovation, the resilient Amherst mailbox below must  rule as "best" (c.f.  house of bricks) to Hadley's "better" (c.f., house of wood). If an automatic weapons ban becomes the law of the land, the Amherst mashup will surely keep the wolf from the mailbox door.





You may recall that  mailbox baseball gained its higher profile with Rob Reiner’s second directorial effort, Stand by Me. You can witness Kiefer Sutherland's clear potential for future mayhem (both on and off the set) in the clip below. (apologies for the subtitles)




This blog would be remiss by failing to note that in every at-bat, sultans of mailbox swat commit a federal crime with career-changing  consequences:

Wig & Pen, of course, advocates the full wrath of federal law toward all mailbox miscreants. But it reserves greater wrath still for those who wield unsporting metal bats. True, today’s maple bats lack the durability and overall mojo of their ash predecessors, but that's no excuse for flailing with the equivalent of a (metal) bat on steroids. Still, in the ash-to-maple controversy, the folks in Louisville are in denial. According to a friend who recently took the Louisville Slugger factory tour, a representative of the company ties bat fragility not to inferior wood but to lapsed values among baseball players and you, the consumer. “Remember how when you were a kid they told you to hold the bat’s label toward yourself for bat protection?” he asked. “We've lost that sense of responsibility--Nobody does that anymore.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jesse Agonistes


AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
 
Have you ever seen a photo of a fallen college athlete as tastelessly intrusive as this one?  When Jesse Morgan, a shooting guard and  team leader with the UMass Amherst Minutemen, went down near the sideline  in a January 13 game against Fordham, an AP photographer captured the moment. Two  days later, after the team fessed up that Morgan’s season was over with a torn ACL, the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Daily Hampshire Gazette ran the macabre photo. “It’s Isenheim worthy,” commented a friend, alluding to the expressionist crucifixion in Grunewald's iconic Isenheim Altarpiece.
Agony at Isenheim
Friends who have followed college basketball for 50+ years say that they’ve never seen anything quite like the photo of Morgan with its max headroom intrusiveness.  We give many of our high-profile college athletes  generous scholarship support and celebrity status. In return, we ask much from them, including stressful time commitments and personal risk. Have the Jesse Morgans of the world embraced a faustian social contract that allows for graphic media depiction as practiced by the Gazette? I suspect that the newspaper would have refrained from running a similar photo of Morgan had he fallen on the ice outside the arena. But inside the building, a 21-year-old’s lack of privacy apparently knows no bounds.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Forensics in (Nearly) Everything



Several years ago, when interviewing a partner at one of the planet’s largest accounting firms, I was wowed by her hard-boiled  take on human nature. Evoking shades of  Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating, my interviewee likened opportunities for embezzlement and other garden varieties of fraud to the temptation of having a candy dish constantly within arm’s reach. Just as it’s ultimately futile to resist those  M&Ms on your office desk, trusted employees, she noted, may have opportunities to embezzle as a continuing temptation. “. . . even nice people have been known to take inappropriate advantage of opportunities and gaps in control systems,” she emphasized.
My interviewee, in fact, was a practitioner of forensic accounting, a hot house growth area in public accounting. That’s not surprising, considering today’s bouillabaisse of motives, opportunities, and enabling technologies. And as the textbook covers below reveal, it’s not just accounting that offers a forensic career path. Count on it:  A forensic subdiscipline is coming to a profession near you.
 


VIDEO: CSI Explores Forensic Astronomy