NTS+GUI=HGH+AVT=YOD+BIS (WTF?)

I’ve been a fan of sci-fi-cyberpunk-whatever-you-call-it-or-him author Neal Town Stephenson for years—well, decades actually. From back when he had hair. (No, I’m not trying to insult him even though I probably just did. I’m a few months older than he is, and besides, I think he shaves his head.)

(BTW, the title of this post is a lame attempt at doing a Neal Stephenson-style title. Eventually, if you care to try, you might figure it out. I tried using some HTML symbols in it, but Word Press wanted to read it as actual HTML. It got weird. But no weirder than my love of parenthetical asides.)

I first became aware of him sometime in the mid-1990s through one of his articles in Wired. I kept a few, the oldest a 1994 issue that included “Spew,” a short story that today I’d describe as The Matrix meets Hee Haw. (Now that I think of it, The Matrix would have been more fun with a few Buck Owens types. Imagine if The Oracle turned out to be Minnie Pearl!)IMG_4917

Whenever I look back at Stephenson’s older works I invariably find a passage which has new resonance with me. For instance, if I changed “guy” to “gal,” I could have written the first sentence of “Spew” about myself today:

Yeah, I know it’s boring of me to send you plain old Text like this, and I hope you don’t just blow this message off without reading it. But what can I say, I was an English major. On video, I come off like a stunned bystander. I’m just a Text kind of guy.

Video is massively more important today than in 1994, but I’m still a video voyeur. I’ll view it, I’ll shoot it, but I don’t want to be in it. (I’m a Twitter voyeur too, but that’s another story.)

In keeping with my habit taking a fresh look at Neal’s old works, I cracked open the slim non-fiction paperback, In the Beginning was the Command Line, his 1999 analysis of the state of computing back when the Mac v Windows debate actually mattered. (“Cracked open” is not a cliché in this case. The book was so brittle the binding literally cracked.) It was published in that short span of time after all the other commercial operating systems had flamed out and the era of the mobile device had not yet dawned. (Yes, Linux was around, but A, it’s free, and B, it was only used by serious nerds. Some things never change.)

It was fun to re-read Stephenson’s take on the relationship between computers, their users, and their designers and coders and think about our first home computer (an Osborne “portable” with a CPM operating system), or recall that first magical mouse moment (complete with phantom wrist pain).

But then I read a paragraph that instantly—in my head, anyway—became a dead-on analogy between early developments in computer operating systems and today’s Next Big Thing in automotive engineering: the drive-by-wire-on-human-growth-hormone known as the autonomous vehicle. Maybe someday it’ll make cars safer. But will cars still be fun? I doubt it. Makes me want to hang on to my 2003 Mini Cooper S with the John Cooper Works performance package. No USB port, but on the upside no snoopy black boxes or mommy-car helpers either.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about Autonomous Vehicle Technology (AVT) lately.

So here’s Stephenson on the graphical user interface, or GUI—all the graphics and images and icons that mask the zeroes and ones that comprise the code running the machine:

The introduction of the Mac triggered a sort of holy war in the computer world. Were GUIs a brilliant design innovation that made computers more human-centered and therefore accessible to the masses, leading us toward an unprecedented revolution in human society, or an insulting bit of audiovisual gimcrackery dreamed up by flaky Bay Area hacker types that stripped computers of their power and flexibility and turned the noble and serious work of computing into a childish video game?

With apologies to Stephenson, here’s my automotive analog:

The introduction of autonomous vehicles triggered a sort of holy war in the automotive world. Was autonomous driving a brilliant design innovation that made vehicles more practical and therefore safer for the masses, leading us toward an unprecedented revolution in human mobility, or an insulting bit of drive-by-wire gimcrackery dreamed up by ambitious Bay Area corporations and embraced by Detroit, et al, that stripped automobiles of the power of human-machine interface and turned the noble and serious work of driving into a childish video game—sans joystick?

I had never before thought of the increasing digitization of the automobile/driver interface as a GUI, but it pretty much is. Although there is an irreducible number of mechanical interfaces required to move a mass of metal, plastic, rubber, and glass down the road, there is no longer any such restriction in the cockpit. With an autonomous vehicle, no mechanical interface is required to start and control the vehicle, other than perhaps Butt in Seat (AKA BIS).

BIS was the same AVT once enjoyed by drunks in Ye Olden Days (YOD), when Old Dobbin waiting patiently outside the tavern could be relied upon to know the way home no matter what state his owner was in.

In YOD horse/rider interface code, the program might read:

Butt in Saddle
Home Dobbin!
Run
End

In the 21st century however, the fact that your ride has a brain (virtual or actual) won’t get your DUI charges dropped. I recently saw a news item about a guy in Louisiana who got pulled over and ticketed for riding his horse under the influence (would that be an RUI?). (For some reason this reminds me of when my horse-avoiding husband—auto journalist Tony Swan—said to a horse-owning friend, “I refuse to drive anything with its own brain,” to which our friend said “Have I got the horse for you!”)

So after all this appropriation and misapplication of Neal Stephenson’s genius, this is the only semi-profound thing I came up with: did it ever occur to you that the abbreviation for “Neal Town Stephenson’s Books” is NTSB, AKA the National Transportation Safety Board? No, I’ll bet it did not.

(A belated postscript: Someone asked me to help decipher the title of this post, and when I revisited it I realized I’d forgotten what HGH stood for and it took me 10 minutes to find it in the text! So here it is: Neal Town Stephenson plus Graphical User Interface equals Human Growth Hormone plus Autonomous Vehicle Technology equals Ye Olden Days plus Butt in Seat.)

1830s Doctor’s Office Creates Indelible Memories

Last year I was surprised when Tom Woods, director of Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site in Honolulu, asked me to create and execute a furnishings plan for an 1830s doctor’s office and storeroom. I knew nothing about the history of medicine or the physical manifestations of medical practice in the 1830s—let alone how a practice in Hawaii might have been different from a practice on the mainland. And the doctor in question was Dr. Gerrit Judd, a well-known figure in Hawaii’s history. But Tom assured me there was a lot of detailed primary source material, and I’d be working with people who did know a lot of that information. Besides, he said, we had plenty of colleagues in ALHFAM (the Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums) who could assist with answering questions, pointing me in the right direction, and suggesting sources for reproductions.

And boy did they. Just on my end I worked with at least 14 craftspeople and historians, plus countless vendors of reproduction wares whose knowledge proved invaluable. That’s not even counting those in Hawaii, whose work was managed by the HMH staff. Unfortunately I only got to travel there once to do my portion of the installation, which was finished by the staff after I left. But I hope to return and see the finished product! They’ve produced this great video that shows a lot of furnishing details.

Since I had to leave before the installation was complete, it was exciting for me to see the custom items in context, such as handblown glass, pottery, tinware, a surgical instrument case, crates and barrels, handwritten labels, reproduction medical books—including one written and illustrated by Dr. Judd himself in the Hawaiian language, tracts and educational pamphlets, copper canisters, etc. In addition to the custom orders, I bought many historically appropriate items on eBay, such as apothecary scales, mortar and pestle, glass funnels, tools, etc.  Then there were newly manufactured historical items we purchased from vendors–rope, shoes, kitchenware, fabrics.

I was pretty sure the rich and evocative new installation would create an indelible memories for all involved. But literally indelible? For future interpretive and furnishings plans I now have a new item to add to the list of desired visitor outcomes: historically-themed tattoos!

 

Q: How do you win a one-minute-story writing contest?

A: Take more than one minute to write it.

Depending on where you put the hyphens, it could be writing a story in a minute, or writing a story that can be read in a minute. This was the later. I won’t analyze the possible hyphen permutations now, although it’s a fun exercise if you’re a grammar geek.

Along with two other Michiganders (I reluctantly have to call myself that now, since I’ve lived here for almost 28 years!), I was honored to be selected as one of three winners of the Michigan Radio story-writing contest. Out of 175 entries, that’s not too bad.

The rules specified no more than 120 words—about what can be read in a minute. A friend suggested I enter. He thought my experience writing museum exhibit labels might be helpful. In fact, when I heard I had 120 words, I was thrilled. That’s almost twice as much as I have for most exhibit labels!

The occasion for the contest was the Michigan Humanities Council “Great Michigan Read,” a statewide program focusing on a book about, or written by, a Michigan author. Schools, book clubs, libraries, and other groups participate in readings, author discussions, etc. over the course of two years. The winners of the radio contest were selected in time for the finale event of the Great Michigan Read. The winners were invited, and in addition to good food and great beer, we got signed copies of the featured book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. (If I’d known about it earlier, I’d have suggested a traveling exhibit to go along with the program. Maybe next time!)

The book provided the theme for the radio contest: “Hidden branches of your family tree: Unexpected stories that changed the way you think of yourself or your family.” Steve Luxenberg is an editor at the Washington Post. He read our winning stories at the event, noting that his journalists often turn in lengthy stories with this apology: “Sorry it’s so long; I didn’t have time to write it short.”

Of course Steve is right. When I’m bidding on an exhibit label writing project, I’m always reluctant to offer per-word pricing. You have to learn as much as possible about the subject, much of which will never make it into the label. But in order to choose which bits would make the best label, you have to have all the bits in your head. Then you have to focus on the most intriguing part of the story, and chose every word for maximum information and impact. Often that means editing it several times.

I thought it was interesting that all the winning stories set up the tale, but didn’t try to complete it. They tell about the moment of discovery with no attempt to fill in the blanks. The reader wants to know more.

My trick is to read it out loud before declaring a label complete. So the idea that these short stories would be read on the radio was intriguing. I’ll admit I was disappointed with the way it was read/recorded for the show. But I’ll link to it anyway, and print it below. My disappointment made me remember how critical an actor’s craft is to the success of a play or a movie. I read a lot of Shakespeare starting in 6th grade, but soon discovered that reading a play and seeing good actors perform it were entirely different experiences. The nuance, emphasis, timing, and gestures added meanings I never imagined.

I’ve been wanting to write some of our nutty old family tales for years, but I could never decide if they should be histories, fictionalized novels, songs, poems, or short stories. Well, I now have a start, thanks to Michigan Radio!

The Revelation

Portsmouth Ohio, 1951. Walking with his new wife, my father watched an older man shuffling toward them. As they drew closer, he saw a face partially paralyzed, tragic eyes, trembling hands. “Poor bastard,” he thought. “I wonder what happened to him.”

Suddenly his wife drew up stiffly. “Uncle Noah! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” They spoke quietly—pleasantries mostly—then Uncle Noah limped on. Uncle Jack. Uncle Hobart. But Uncle Noah?

Before he could ask, the woman who became my mother leaned toward him, eyes straight ahead, voice low. “They never did get the bullet out of his brain.” As if it were normal. As if he knew what had happened. And why.

Thoughts on Henry Ford at 150

Are you Henry Ford Curious? I recently finished working on a  web site, www.henryford150.com, that I hope will provide some amusement, verify some facts, bust some myths and generally prove useful for visitors to the Detroit area. It features an interactive timeline of Henry Ford’s life (and a few key events after his death). Each of the approximately 100 entries has two or three sentences  and an historical photo. We couldn’t go much more than 100 entries without it becoming slow and cumbersome, or without missing our schedule and budget targets!

It was a quick turn-around project—I met the web designers/coders (Driven Solutions of Ferndale and BizNet of Wixom) on November 5 and the site went live December 11. In about six weeks I had to research and write it, select photos, give feedback on design and functionality, plus do organizational tasks such as uploading all those photos. Luckily I’ve done a lot of Ford-related projects in my career, so my office already looked like a Ford archive. (It now it looks like a Ford archive after an explosion!) It also helped that the main repository of photos, The Henry Ford, was a partner in the project and provided special access for me to select photos as well as expedited turnaround.

The web site is a partnership of several area museums, historic sites, and businesses, championed and spearheaded by MotorCities National Heritage Area, part of the National Park Service.

HF150 logo

It’s been interesting to see the responses to the timeline both before and after it went live. I thought the biggest issues prior to the site going live would be reviews and approvals, in particular how many and which negative things we could/should include. The usual suspects are Ford’s antisemitism, his efforts to prevent his plants from being unionized, and his strained relationship with his son, Edsel, and his increasing rigidity and erratic behavior as he grew old and started having strokes.

But there was none of the pushback I expected, I think because as the years go on and more research is done and more consequences unfold, even fans of Henry Ford have come to accept the facts and learn from the bad as well as the good. A couple of experts who are members of the Henry Ford Heritage Association reviewed the draft, and answered the questions that inevitably arise when even good historical sources are incomplete or contradictory. They and the MotorCities staff were the only people who reviewed it prior to the site going live. This was not History By Committee. The HFHA was—and is always—emphatic about not sugarcoating the story, as is MotorCities.

The biggest issue we had to resolve before going live was whether I could refer to him as just “Henry.” I’ve dealt with this on other projects. Some people think we should always call him either “Henry Ford” or “Mr. Ford,” usually rationalized by the fact that after a certain point early in his career no one called him Henry, always “Mr. Ford.” And I always argue that a) we are not in his presence, b) we don’t want to appear to be deferential to him, and c) we want the text to be inviting and lively, not stiff and formal. Then there are the purely writerly objections about avoiding repetition (complicated by the fact that using “Ford” alone is problematic because it’s also the name of the company), as well as historical objections such as the fact that his mother didn’t call him “Mr. Ford” when he was a boy.

As history, my approach to the timeline was summarized in the initial statement—that the Model T was like a pebble dropped in a still pond, the ever-expanding ripples still washing around us today. The Model T is the key to it all. If it weren’t for that car, so remarkably fit to the conditions and the market of its day, none of Henry Ford’s quirks, interests, prejudices, innovations, or charities would matter.

I approached each timeline entry as its own pebble. There are a few exceptions, but in most entries I didn’t explicitly state what that ripple effect was, instead leaving that to be picked up in later timeline entries, or sometimes assuming that the reader will either know, intuit, or make an effort to learn more. A timeline can’t accomplish everything. I’m hoping we can add bibliography to the site so it’s easier for people to follow up and avoid some of the dreck that’s out there.

Responses to the content have been interesting. Someone said it needed more about Albert Kahn, the union issues, and Ford’s poor relationship with Edsel. My opinion is that we treated the union issues pretty thoroughly, including the Hunger March, the Battle of the Overpass, and the ultimate resolution to the issue. Albert Kahn, the architect of many of the Ford factories and Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s home, is mentioned twice, but this is not a history of Albert Kahn. I do agree that the first mention of him should make some reference to Kahn’s body of work for Ford, and I’ll see if I can get it changed. In terms of the relationship with Edsel, we mention it once directly and several times indirectly, and we also reveal the power struggle that occurred after Edesl’s death as the young Henry Ford II tried to gain control.

A couple of my Jewish friends had the shuddering reaction to his name that is understandable given the platform and endorsement Ford provided for antisemitic propaganda. Like many Midwesterners of his generation with the anxieties and prejudices of the era, he was predisposed—even eager—to believe a false document, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, originally created in Russia in the 1890s, then debunked, then revived through translations and distribution in America and other countries. Unlike other Midwesterners, Ford owned a printing press. He also had a weekly newspaper, an editor, writers and ghostwriters, and—after the paper nearly failed—an enormous subscriber base composed of Model T buyers. (His dealers were told to include a subscription with every purchase.)

Today falsehoods can spread much more easily and cheaply via the internet, but even today untruths and conspiracy theories are given more credence when they are repeated by and incorporated into the “reporting” of a trusted person or source. Ford was a hero to many workers in the ‘teens. When a ghostwritten pamphlet called “The International Jew” appeared under Ford’s name, many people believed it because it had his name on it. Although Ford awkwardly apologized in 1927 and tried to destroy as many copies as he could, the pamphlet and its hateful contents had taken on a life of its own. It was later used by Hitler to further his own horrendous agenda. (Read Neil Baldwin’s book Henry Ford and the Jews for a full account.)

But just as we must deal in facts about what Ford did do, the same is true for what he didn’t do.

  • I have a friend who swears there is a photo of Henry Ford shaking hands with Hitler. There is not. They never met. There is, however, a photo of the German consuls of Cleveland and Detroit presenting the Grand Cross of the German Eagle to Ford in 1938. Hitler awarded it to Henry Ford for his pioneering work “in making autos available to the masses.” (Yes, the cross and sash still exist. I saw them and held them years ago when I worked at The Henry Ford. Powerful stuff.)
  • Henry Ford didn’t personally write the articles appearing under his name. He had a sixth-grade education, and was a terrible writer. Many of the sayings and quotations attributed to him have been edited to be more pithy and appealing.  That’s not to say he didn’t express those thoughts. Similarly, he definitely set the tone and direction for many of the antisemitic articles. But as much as he initiated and fostered these things himself, he was equally used by others with more aggressive and radical agendas.
  • One colleague relayed a “known fact” among pro-hemp enthusiasts that Ford had made a car out of hemp. I admit I had never heard that before. This one has a kernel of truth in it, but not nearly as large a kernel as the hempsters like to claim. Ford chemists worked on plastics that included soybeans and other farm products, and Henry Ford had an experimental car created with plastic body panels. According to contemporary newspaper reports, at least one of his experimental plastics contained a very small percentage of hemp. Henry Ford produced soy-based parts for production cars in addition to his experiments—horn buttons, handles, knobs, and distributor housings among them.
  • Somebody also claimed that Henry Ford’s early cars could run on any combustible fuel: gasoline, diesel, or kerosene. That is not true, at least not unmodified production Ford cars. Gasoline and diesel engines work differently because the fuels have different flash points. You can’t just substitute one fuel for the other without either making modifications, or having an engine specifically designed for multiple fuels, and Henry Ford didn’t make such engines. But Ford did try building an electric car in conjunction with Edison, who was doing extensive battery research. It didn’t go anywhere (pun intended).

Wow, this went on waaaay too long. I hope you check out the web site. Bye for now!

Driving America wins an award!

The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) presents an annual award for excellence in museum exhibits. Driving America, the major automobile exhibit I worked on recently, was honored with the organization’s 2012 award. The exhibit team is thrilled! This photo wasn’t our celebration of the award. In fact, this was taken before the project was completed, and I don’t remember what we were celebrating. But who needs a reason to celebrate?

This was the main content development team—one of many teams that worked on various aspects of the project. The photos we’re holding up at the far end of the room are of the two people most responsible for the overarching content and themes of the exhibit—Donna Braden and Bob Casey. I don’t know why they weren’t there, but we were NOT celebrating their absence. Really, I swear. One thing you might notice is that the team is almost entirely women. HA! Take that, car guys everywhere!

This is the citation as printed in the program for the awards ceremony, held during the organization’s annual meeting–this year in Copenhagen. And no, I didn’t get to go to the ceremony. Dang.

Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits
Driving America, The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan

“The history of technology has long suffered an almost exclusively production-oriented perspective.  This is also a pertinent problem for museums of the history of technology, as artifacts of technology, the predominating exhibits on display, represent this production side.  It is an ingenious idea of the Henry Ford Museum to attempt to reverse this logic and focus on the use of technology and how it shaped society.  This is a particularly productive topic in the case of car history.

“Driving America explores the ways in which cars have transformed how we work, play, eat, and live.  It examines how we have adapted the automobile to our needs as well as how we have changed our world to adapt to the automobile’s needs.  This approach makes visible that choices are involved in the use of technology.  Moreover, visitors are challenged to think about how the choices we make today will affect the mobility of future generations.

“The exhibit successfully engages, entertains, and educates the general public, all of whom are familiar with automobiles, even if in many cases, without ever having thought about the car’s centrality in American civilization.  Driving America offers much for car buffs, who justly expect to see both rare and historically significant cars on their visit to the Henry Ford, which they would know has one of the most important automobile collections in the country.

“Driving America is what we would all expect as the winner of this prize: it is in a technology museum, exploring materials at the core of their collection.  The exhibit was able to display curatorial voice and selection with effective results. The Dibner committee would like to commend the curatorial team for Driving America, which does a masterful job of explaining the evolving role of the automobile in American life and the evolving technology and design of the automobile.”

ET and Me

My band played at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop in Nashville recently. It’s part museum, part record store, part music venue, and all real. It’s one of those rare places that evokes the presence of the past with no pretense or self-consciousness. As we were setting up, our bass player needed to elevate his small amp. We started to hand him an old wooden soda box—the type that little bottles of Coke were once shipped in. The sound man stopped us. “That’s the box Loretta Lynn stood on when she sang here! She was so short the folks in the back couldn’t see her.”

If the place were a museum, that box would be an artifact in a case with a label. Here, the whole building and everything in it—the decor, the memorabilia, the staff, the shows, and the stories—is a living artifact.

It’s the continuity of purpose, I think, that keeps the record shop from being touristy. The stage is the same one Ernest Tubb played on when he opened the shop in 1947. The Midnite Jamboree radio show that he started is still broadcast every Saturday night at midnight, right after the Grand Ol’ Opry. Traveling bands and local legends play here often. People just crowd in off the street when the music starts, standing around the record (now CD) bins–no chairs, no drinks, no cover.

I wonder what will happen to the store if and when music recordings leave the physical realm for good. They sell shirts and books and trinkets too. But it wouldn’t be much of a record store without recordings.

As we were packing up and the store was shutting down, the sound man told us the place was once a Civil War era hospital. He said they’ve heard liquid splashing, as if from the second floor windows to the street below, when no one was upstairs. Footfalls on the old wooden floorboards. Sawing sounds.

I’m not sure about ghosts. But even a confirmed skeptic like me might be converted to a believer. Just before I left the stage, I swear I saw ET.