The tale of disruption

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
— Macbeth (5.5..24-28)

Where were you in 1995?

Right. Most of you weren’t.

And while the world was waiting for you, it was trying to get its head around another newborn. Something called Yahoo!

Jerry Yang and David Filo were studying at Stanford. And the Internet was in its infancy, at least from a consumer perspective. It actually was created back in 1960s, but it largely was the realm of geeks and military types until the early ’90s, which services like CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online started to emerge. They grew out of BBS, or bulletin board, services, that allowed computer users to dial into a computer. We had one at The Albuquerque Tribune that we called the Electronic Trib.

Here’s a bit of foreshadowing for this story. The Albuquerque Tribune no longer exists. Nor does the Rocky Mountain News, nor the Birmingham Post-Herald. In fact, no daily newspaper I worked for still exists. Not one. And while it’s tempting to see that as a specific comment on the negative impact I’ve had on the profession, the problem was much larger than that. Between 1990 and 2011, we lost about 300 newspapers, a decline of about 18%. A major driver was disruption. Widespread, industry-changing disruption.

Insert video of John Oliver on local journalism

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to 1995 …

Yang and Filo are trying to figure out the Internet. They’re not alone. The large services inspired by a BBS ecosystem are starting to create portals allowing their users to surf the Internet. So instead of dialing into, and being confined within, a single computer in a single location (a BBS, or bulletin board system), users are now able to dial into a freeway that feeds into myriad computers strewn across the world.

Welcome to the World Wide Web.

As with any nascent business, there are growing pains. One of them is the mess that is starting to unfurl on the Internet. There’s a lot of stuff out there. How do you find it?

This question seems ludicrous today. You just Google it.

But Google didn’t exist. It’s still another two years before they enter the picture. And you still don’t exist. Talk about late to the party.

Two other geeks, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are also at Stanford. They’re also obsessing about this World Wide Web thing. And they’re trying to figure out what to do with it.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were on the verge of a massive disruption. (There’s that word again. Get used to it. We’ll be hearing it a lot this semester.) A new technology capable of undercutting the business models of existing businesses and changing the way we do things. A Harvard professor named Clayton Christensen studied myriad businesses that went from a position of strength and power to greatly diminished prospects. Christensen saw a trend that repeated over and over.

Disruption: a case study

Here’s what happens, in a nutshell:

An incumbent business is chugging along. Think about the newspaper industry in 1995. It was pulling in about $50B in revenue per year. It faced relatively little competition. Remember Mark Twain’s admonition against starting arguments wait people who buy ink by the barrel? That’s a nod to the fact that there was a massive barrier to entry if you wanted to compete with — or argue with — a newspaper. You need lots of ink and paper and big iron printing presses. That ain’t cheap.

Now some upstart emerges. It’s much smaller. It’s not nearly as high quality as the incumbent. But it’s riding on a technology that allows it to do things differently. To upset the apple cart, if you will.

A key thing to remember here is that this upstart usually is of lower quality than the incumbent. But it’s also cheaper. And it’s offering something that cherry picks a key part of the incumbent’s business. Remember: If you’re just getting started, taking something that represents a relatively small slice of the pie can go virtually unnoticed by the sector at large. But it’s a pretty big deal for the startup.

How many of you have heard of Craigslist? Anyone use it?

Craigslist was one of these upstarts. Craig Newmark looked at the newspaper industry and realized a key part of their business resided in the classifieds.

In many ways, the classifieds were an immensely effective business. They brought buyers and sellers together quickly and elegantly.

Looking for a job? Buy a newspaper

Looking for a home:? Buy a newspaper.

Looking for an apartment? Looking for a used 35mm camera? How about a new or used car? Newspaper. Newspaper. Newspaper.

Of course TV was getting some of these dollars. And there were free shoppers around that also nipped at the newspapers’ heels. But there was no one who could supplant them. Who could set up printing presses and offer advertisers the ability to reach 40, 50 or 60 percent of the market with a single buy?

Newspapers.

Craig looked at this and decided to start a platform allowing people to buy and sell. It started as an email exchange where subscribers could find out about events in the San Francisco area.

Not coincidentally, this is happening around 1995.

And what happens next is classic disruption. The users of Craigslist start by passively receiving notes from Craig about upcoming events. But the list is unmoderated. So they begin using it to solve their own problems. Looking for a job? Trying to find an apartment? Trying to sell a couch? Ask the folks on the list for guidance/suggestions. And it snowballed from there.

Ultimately, it morphs into a listing of things for sale. While it’s changed significantly, it’s still pretty much as it was back in the day. It was pretty low-end. The technology was just OK, at best. The design was utilitarian. But Craig saw an opportunity to disrupt an incumbent business that was worth a lot of money. Billions, in fact. And all Craig needed was to figure out how to shave a small fraction off of that to create a really sweet little business. Think about it. If he could grab just 1 percent of the $13.7b newspaper classified business in 1995, he’d be doing really well — to the tune of $13m.

So how does he get mass adoption for his product when he’s competing against an established market dominated by newspapers. He gives it away. Yup. Free. Just gives it away.

This is critical. Because newspaper classifieds weren’t cheap. The industry was running what was in effect a monopoly and knew it could pretty much set the terms for playing in this marketplace that its presses and ink made possible. Craig had a pretty cool idea. But if post a note on Craigslist seeking to sell your slightly used widget and no one is there to see it, what good is it? How do you crack that nut?

Free. Once Craigslist started offering consumers the ability to solve a job they needed to get done — to buy and sell used merchandise — at a cheaper cost than they previously were paying, it started to snowball and gain mass. As users poured in, the marketplace grew more effective. And Craig realized he could charge a modest fee for posting certain highly valued types of ads.

Think apartment rentals and jobs. And adult-only ads, which have been a source of legal problems due to prostitution solicitations.

So if you’re the newspaper industry, how do you react?

Craig is more of a mosquito at this point than an F-15. He’s nipping at categories of classifieds that are really pretty low margin (profit) for you. Newspapers made most of their money from real estate agencies, auto dealerships and employers. If you wanted to sell a home, sell a car or hire for a job, the newspaper was the most comprehensive marketplace available. They kinda had you. And they charged you for it. Private party ads — ads where consumers are selling couches and cameras and merchandise to each other — tended to be a much smaller part of the newspaper’s pie.

During myriad meetings in the late ‘90s and early 2000s when I was a newspaper executive, we looked at a lot of classified rate cards. You guys know what Byzantine means? Insanely complex. Private party paid one price. Businesses paid another. Local businesses paid a third. National a fourth. And there were myriad add-ons that would give your ad more prominence, and cost more money. Want it bold? Want it in larger type? Want it with borders and background to make it pop? No problem. But it’ll cost ya.

So when Craig comes in chasing a sliver of the business that newspapers don’t value highly anyway, with a product that’s kinda downscale, there’s some bluster, some whining, but not much of a reaction. After all, Craigslist isn’t much of a marketplace for cars and autos and homes. It’s best suited for private party ads. I want to sell my bike. Or my canoe. In 1995, these private party ads represented about 12% of the $13.7B newspapers earned from their classified products. And while this isn’t chump change, it’s not the family jewels. The sales force isn’t really focused there.

And private party classifieds begin their migration from print to online.

Craig doesn’t need to buy printing presses. He doesn’t need to buy ink. He creates infrastructure on the Internet — and not terribly complex infrastructure at that — and he’s off to the races. He doesn’t have massive legacy costs to cover. And he doesn’t have massive legacy attitudes that stop him from doing things very differently than they’d been done before.

So it doesn’t take too long for Craig to corner the private party ads and start moving in on more lucrative ad types.

So again, how should the newspaper industry have responded to this?

Were they idiots for not coming out with a product to compete against Craig for the get-go? Why would they be so stupid?

The Innovator’s Dilemma

This is the question our Harvard boy, Clay Christensen, is trying to answer with his groundbreaking book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail .

Make note of the subtitle. It’s important. These incumbent businesses aren’t stupid. In fact, they do what good businesses are supposed to do. They talk to their customers. They innovate. But their innovations tend to be sustaining. And when they’re making their existing products better, incumbents have a very tough time competing.

Disruptive innovation, a term of art coined by Clayton Christensen, describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors. Source. http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/

But when it comes to disruptive innovations. Different story. Because the startup has an advantage here. It’s more nimble, less beholden to existing business models and prejudices. It can attack market segments that aren’t worth the incumbent businesses’ while or where the incumbent isn’t really focused. They can come in with lower cost — albeit lower quality — products that solve a specific problem. More importantly, they often create products that create entirely news consumer demographics.

In contrast to disruptive innovation, a sustaining innovation does not create new markets or value networks but rather only evolves existing ones with better value, allowing the firms within to compete against each other’s sustaining improvements. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_innovation

In other words, once classifieds become free, once they become accessible without buying a newspaper, new customers emerged. Private party ads were fairly limited in the newspaper universe. You’re not going to spend $5 to sell something that’s worth $3, right? But if the cost of sale is suddenly nothing, it starts to make sense. So a marketplace you wouldn’t even have considered previously, suddenly is enticing.

Who cares of the site is kinda gray and straightforward? Who cares if (at this point) it doesn’t offer as much reach? It’s free. And it’s growing. And when you try to sell something, you get results.

So let’s look back at those newspaper executives. What are your options?

Well, let’s talk to car dealers. And we do. And they tell us they need the reach and frequency of daily newspapers (even though they despise us for extorting money from them via our monopoly standing). Same with recruiters Same with car dealers. Craigslist intrigues them. But it’s still a cut-rate, low-end marketplace that is very, very niche. Remember: it’s the late ‘90s. Only 14% of the population is on the internet. About 40% of the market is reading newspapers. If I’m trying to sell something with a $20k price point, I want to reach as many prospects as possible with my ad. In addition, advertisers are as conservative and backward as the legacy media companies serving them. This whole internet thing feels newfangled and strange. So they’re not necessarily acting in their best interest. Want proof? Advertisers still spend a disproportionate share of their ad money on print when print’s share of audience attention is a fraction of what it once once. It’s habit. And familiarity. And fear of change.

So our advertisers don’t seem too tweaked.

Now let’s talk to our ownership. And if you’re a public company, that ownership is stock holders. Investors. They bought your stock for a reason, believing it will grow and make them money.

So we go to our investors — represented by a board of directors — and we say: We see this threat emerging. A guy named Craig Newmark has created a classified marketplace that’s free. And it’s targeting our low-value customers now, but we’re afraid Craig will start moving upmarket. What if he starts charging? What if they offer apartment or employment ads that cost a fraction of what we’re charging and steal this from us. We need to respond.

Let’s create our own free marketplace.

And after we pick ourselves up off the floor after being slapped by our investors, we realize the folly of that idea. Even in decline, our classifieds are worth billions.

How do you forgo billions for the promise of owning a marketplace that doesn’t produce significant profit or revenue yet, which early Craig was in the midst of?

You don’t. Pure and simple. You start hatching sustaining innovations, offering your classifieds online with features and functionality that Craig doesn’t or can’t. But we’re still not free. We’ve cut our prices. And in some instances we’ve started giving away Private Party (mostly after that horse was already out of the barn).

The newspapers did not sit on their hands while this was going on. They innovated. Not disruptive innovation, but sustaining innovation. They launched products like Cars.com, which proved fairly effective, and products like PowerOne Media, which was an abject failure. But if Christensen is to be believed, they really didn’t stand a chance against this disruption. Very few incumbents manage to navigate this.

But what does all of this have to do with Yahoo?

Yahoo: The early years

Try to imagine a world where Google didn’t exist to answer you’re every question, complete your every search. That’s what it was like in 1994. There were search engines, of course.

Every hear of Gopher? Or Archie? How about Veronica or Jughead? The latter two were spawned by the folks who built Gopher.

I didn’t think so. They’re examples of the search engines available while Yang and Filo are kicking around ideas in their Stanford skunkworks. And here’s an example of why 1994/95 is kind of a big deal. Here are other search engines that launched that year:

Infoseek. AltaVista. The World-Wide Web Worm. Webcrawler. Yahoo. Lycos. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_web_search_engines

AltaVista, to my recollection, was the big dog, the one that consistently was returning the best results. But this surge in activity suggests there was a job to be done, as Christensen would say. World Wide Web users needed a way to figure out what was out there. As more and more info flowed onto the Internet, the chaos grew more difficult to slice through.

So Yang and Filo decided they’d help you find what you’re looking for. And they did it using a curated listing of key sites. They weren’t trying to include everything. They were focusing on the best things, the ones worth of your notice. And it took humans to scour the Internet, sort it all out and present it to users in a digestible form. And they did a great job.

Of course, it didn’t start as Yahoo. It launches as Jerry and David’s guide to the World Wide Web. It’s rechristened Yahoo in March 1994.

Why Yahoo? It’s a backronym for “Yet Another Hierarchically Organized (NYTimes says “Officious”) Oracle.” (And you also just learned the word “backronym.” It’s gonna be a great semester …)

Yeah. That.

By 1998, Yahoo is the top way people enter the Internet, racking up about 100m page views per day. It had become the homepage for the Internet.

“People tend to think of this as a point of aggregation, where we tend to think of it as way of a building a network of different sites and different ways in which people can approach different content without having to go through one single point. — Jerry Yang, 1998 Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/107667.stm

That’s a big deal. And the quote above gives a hint of where Yang was pointing Yahoo. He’s describing the types of initiatives large content companies were embarking on, cobbling together myriad content niches and audiences. It’s not long before Yahoo! boasts myriad “verticals.”

But something else happened in 1998. Another pair of Stanford geeks, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have launched Google, a web crawler that leverages an innovative Page Rank algorithm to decide which results to return first. Sounds simple, but it’s really complex. At its base, Google was looking at how many pages were linking to and linked from a given page, using that as a means to figure out what pages readers were most interested in.

So at this point, would you describe what Yahoo is doing as disruptive or sustaining?

By 2000, Yahoo is rocking a $125b market value and is the world’s most trafficked website.

So what’s happening here? We have a startup that grew to become a market leader. It became an incumbent business. Guess what? That put a target on its back. The disruptors saw a mark and started to figure out how to unthrone Yahoo.

Meanwhile, over at Google …

The search problem still hasn’t been solved. Yahoo’s strategy is useful. Very useful. But it doesn’t really solve the problem of how to find something obscure, something that curators at Yahoo would never consider.

And as I’ve already noted, there is no lack of options, the primary of which was AltaVista. Remember that Page Rank thingy I mentioned a bit ago. This is where it becomes critical. Essentially, the algorithm Brinn and Page cooked up smokes the competition. Spammers had already learned how to game the search engines, forcing results for their pages to rise above others. The Google algorithm tended to produce cleaner, more relevant results. But as far as the business model goes, it was stuck in the same mire as everyone else. Brinn and Page half-heartedly allow a few ads on their search pages after having written a dissertation arguing against an “advertising funded search engine” model.

But without revenue, this all becomes moot. You have to pay your employees. Tech costs. Etc.

Then the true disruption hits. To this point, Goole mostly is creating sustaining innovations. Damn good ones, but sustaining nonetheless. They’re riffing on search engine technology and coming up with schemes that seem to be working. Then they hit gold.

Ever hear of GoTo.com? I didn’t think so. It was a pay-for-placement search service that was doing its own innovation, including a scheme that allowed advertisers to bid their way to the top of search results. By 1998, advertisers were paying up to $1/click.

Google was watching. They copied the model, creating their AdWords product. This is where the disruption begins. While the rest of the internet is selling ads on a CPM basis (cost per thousand impressions), Google is finding inspiration in the GoTo.com model and creating an ad ecosystem that changed the world. But it tweaks it. Google adds a new twist on the auctions, where the highest bidder rises to the top. But what happens if the ad sucks. And no one clicks on it. So Google starts tracking clickthrough rate, and the more an ad is clicked, the higher it rises in the algorithm. So a lower bid that garners more clicks will end up at the top of the page. That paved the way for Google to go PPC (pay per click).

But whatever happened to GoTo.com?

Well, Yahoo also was watching things unfold, and it acquired GoTo.com (which by then was called Overture, after gobbling up AltaVista and AlltheWeb). In 2003, Yahoo realized it had missed the train and acquired Overture for $1.63b.

Wither Yahoo?

So what happened? Why did Google soar while Yahoo stagnated, then crashed and burned? Look at the stock chart above. It’s brutal. This is a world-class ass kicking. Were the folks at Yahoo stupid?

Some of it can be traced to each company’s roots. Google put its faith in technology to solve the problem at hand while Yahoo used human curation. Why Yahoo eventually shifted away from the curation model, culturally it never really did. Remember that quote above by Yang? “A network of different sites.” Yahoo saw itself, first and foremost, as a content company. Googles founders and original CEO, Eric Schmidt, were all engineers. Schmidt was at Google from 2001 until the present. Yahoo, meanwhile, had six CEOs from 1995 to 2012.

After the dot.bomb of 2000, Yahoo’s stock price plummeted 93% over the next 20 months. It’s first CEO, Timothy Koogle, bails. Terry Semel steps in, and he starts positioning Yahoo as more of a content company. Not surprising given his past as a former executive at Warner Bros.

By 2002, it was Google’s game. They had risen while Yahoo had gone adrift. It never really recovered. Roots clearly had something to do with it. But there was a bigger problem at play. One our friend Clay Christensen warned us about in The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Yahoo was innovative. No doubt about that. It launched a Brickhouse lab in 2008 specifically as a skunkworks. It launched the web application Pipes, which let developers quickly and easily cobble together useful web products and services as web applications. But there was a dilemma. There’s always a dilemma:

Yahoo drove a lot of traffic and revenue, even after it no longer was No. 1. In fact, from a traffic standpoint, Yahoo continues to rank among the top on the Internet. By some accounts, it’s still in the top 5.

But as a Variety article noted in analyzing the recent Yahoo/Verizon deal:

But all of that commitment to innovation only went that far. Yahoo was immensely protective of money makers — the homepage with its billion monthly active visitors, Yahoo Mail and other legacy properties. With the exception of Flickr, none of its new acquisitions was ever turned into a core Yahoo product, or in any meaningful way exposed to Yahoo’s huge audience.

At the same time, Yahoo wasn’t content with just leaving those startups alone. Instead, it forced them to adopt some of the technology that Yahoo was using for its own properties, leading in some cases to huge migration projects, only to invest little into new feature development after that.

In 2008, Microsoft makes an unsolicited offer to buy Yahoo for $45b. It is rejected.

In 2012, Yahoo is adrift. It’s strategy is messy. It needs a major turnaournd. So it hires Marissa Mayer, a Google exec, to try to right the ship. She tries to create more focus for the company, and uses a series of acquisitions to try to inject new life and product. She acquires Tumblr for $1.1b in 2013. But by 2016 Yahoo already was doing a write-down on its Tumblr asset, slicing about $230m from its valuation.

Here’s the incredible irony in Yahoo’s end game. It turns out an investment it made years ago in a Chinese search company turned out well. Really, really well. In fact, it became Yahoo’s most lucrative asset. While Yahoo at large was valued at $3b to $8b in 2015 (that price ends up being $4.6b when Verizon acquires the company). It’s stake in Alibaba was worth about $32b. To rub salt into the wound, we also should note that the $4.6b is chump change compared to the Alibaba stake and its 25% stake in Yahoo Japan Group. Those will stay in a separate stock. What Verizon acquired for $4.6b, in essence, is all the content stuff. The two choice investments aren’t included. SO technically Yahoo doesn’t disappear. But it’s really going to become a holding company for stakes in other companies at this point. It appears the Alibaba stake ultimately will be sold back to the parent company.

Yahoo falls from the top of the heap. Not because it’s stupid, but because it faced disruptive changes in the Internet ecosystem that it was largely incapable of responding to. Google figured out advertising and search. Facebook figured out social media. Yahoo painted itself into a content product corner, which is the part of the room the Internet has savaged the most viciously.

Yahoo’s missed opportunities

  • 1998 Yahoo turns down opportunity to buy Google’s Page Rank for $1m
  • 2002 Yahoo tried to buy Google for $3b. Google was more realistically valued at $5b. But Semel wouldn’t consider going higher.
  • 2006 Yahoo forms consortium with newspapers
  • 2008: Yahoo refuses to sell to microsoft for $45b
  • 2016 Yahoo sold to Verizon for $4.6b

The Peanut Butter Manifesto

“If you’re everything, you’re kind of nothing. The sad reality…is it never solved its core identity crisis.” Brad Garlinghouse, former Yahoo exec who wrote The Peanut Butter Manifesto in 2006. Peanut Butter because he believed the company was spreading itself too thin.

Sources

(I wrote this in an attempt to structure the first several lectures in two classes I’m teaching at Ohio University in the Fall 2016 semester. Most of it was written in a white heat, and I went back afterward to fill in facts and details. If you see something that’s wrong, unclear or just stupid, email me and I’ll address it.)

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Somewhere over Gravity’s Rainbow …

I’ve tripped on Gravity’s Rainbow already. Several times. I don’t think I made it more than 100 pages in during my previous attempts. This time has been different. to some degree, I’m taking guidance from the Right Rev. Dave Shaffer (Drinking Straw apostate that he may be) and letting Pynchon’s masterpiece flow over me like the sludge from a Rio sewer plant sending chunky little gifts to the Olympic kayakers, sailers, rowers, canoeists, triathletes and marathon swimmers.

But not really.

I’m also obsessing over things. Trends I’m spotting in the text. Words I don’t know the meaning of. Historical references of which I’m only vaguely aware. So I’m taking a mixed approach. Sometimes I’m going with the flow, watching each little turd of entropy and suspicion float past. Other times I’m a miner, diving down into the sewer to see if there really are alligators in there (or worse).

Move over, Slothrop. Diver down.

I apologize for taking so long to post these reactions. To be frank, I’ve kinda stalled and gotten distracted from my reading about 100 pages in, but I’ve also doubled back and started re-reading from the beginning. And I was hoping to discuss them during our first, ill-fated call, which ran more like an Oedipa Maas nightmare than a hip cool Google Hangout. We’ll get it right next time. Until then …

Turns of phrase

Vocabulary is only part of his prowess as a writer. His metaphors and turns of phrase often stop me in my tracks (while I concede there are some structures that feel more like a 5-year-old’s 5th tangled fishing line of the day).

  • When we find out the Firm is using lip tattoos to send covert messages: “their lips were palimpsests of secret flesh, scarred and unnaturally white, by which they all knew each other.” (16 … Hmm. “Mark of Cain” allusion here?)
  • With their nights’ growths of beard, matted hair, bloodshot eyes, miasmata of foul breath, DeCoverly and Joaquin are wasted gods urging on a tardy glacier. (9)
  • Slothrop is “a Saint George after the fact, going out to poke about for droppings of the Beast, fragments of German hardware that wouldn’t exist, writing empty summaries into his notebooks—work-therapy. (24)
  • Shit, money and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed by the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate. (28)
  • pronouncing asshole with a certain sphinctering of the lips so it comes out ehisshehwle” (62)
  • But every true god must be both organizer and destroyer.” (99)
  • If you cannot sing Siegfried at least you can carry a spear.” (103)
  • Don’t forget the real business of War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted top non-professionals.… The true war is a celebration of markets. Organic markets, carefully styled ‘black’ by the professionals, spring up everywhere.” (105)
  • her breasts soft fenders for this meeting on the gray city sea” (115)

Themes/allusions

Modernist cross-references

I find these interesting because Pynchon might be, on some level, nodding to his Modernist forebears as he embarks on the Post Modern tale. With the Joyce allusion, it feels a lot like an invocation of the muse.

Faulkner: “Pirate looks at his watch. Nothing registers.” (Page 7 of the Kindle edition) This harkened to Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, where Quentin rips the arms of the family pocketwatch but the internal mechanism keeps ticking, grinding away tracking time invisibly.

  • Trying to read the time on his watch.” (8)
  • the twelve spokes of a stranded artillery piece—a mud clock, a mud zodiac, clogged and crusted as it stood in the sun its many shades of brown.” 79

Joyce: In the opening scene of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pirate and his cronies awake much the same way as Stephen Daedalus and his cronies in the Martello Tower scene of Ulysses. In Ulysses, a symbolic mass where shaving utensils stand in for the chalice, paten, ciborium and monstrance (yes, i was a fucking altar boy. Want to make something of it, punk?) . The daily miracle, if you will. Transubstantiation. Pirate and his buddies go through a similar ritual, with the bananas substituting for the eucharist (and a certain part of the male anatomy). “Pirate’s mob” gathers in a great “refectory table” and their eucharist is “banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas modeled in the shape of a British lion rampant …” (10) But where Joyce was finding transubstantiation in the day-to-day doings of a day in Dublin, I’m not certain yet where we find it in Gravity’s Rainbow. If we do at all.

David Foster Wallace: Gravity’s Rainbow was written long before Infinite Jest, but this phrase left me wondering if Wallace was paying attention when he plowed through the Rainbow: “the unfortunate men are digested—not screaming but actually laughing, enjoying themselves.” People literally die laughing in Infinite Jest, where the killer is a video. Here it’s the Giant Adenoid (already my favorite character) which they attempt to subdue by “shoveling the new wonderdrug cocaine—bringing hods full of the white substance, in relays, up the ladders to smear on the throbbing gland-creature, and into the germ toxins bubbling nestily inside its crypts with no visible effects at all (though who knows how that Adenoid felt, eh?). (16) It’s also interesting that Wallace’s novel is a meditation on entertainment, addiction, obsession, conspiracy … all the post-modern angst wrapped up like a neat little gift in about 1000 pages. And “The Book” Pointsman and his cohorts so treasure feels vaguely like Wallace’s video in Infinite Jest.

Emily Dickinson: One of my favorite pre-modernists. Things “go sour” for the Slothrops around the time she was writing:

Ruin is formal, devil’s work
Consecutive and slow—
Fail in an instant no man did,
Slipping is crash’s law

(28)

Here’s the full poem (can you say entropy?)

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays.

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust—

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crash’s law.

Racism

Lots of it. I think what Pynchon might be doing here is playing out the entropy theme in the context of European hegemony (fuck, what does that even mean … need to get away from academia). The Slothrop black-man-rape-fantasy thing was just downright disconcerting. And there are lots of lines like “an arab with a big greasy nose” and “master of these horrid blacks.” I think this cuts to Slothrop’s very roots: “He hangs at the bottom of his blood’s avalanche, 300 years of western swamp-Yankees, and can’t manage but some nervous truce with their Providence. … Slothrop’s Progress.” As opposed to Pilgrim’s Progress, this pilgrimage is a regression, steps backward. I’m not convinced we’re advancing toward some sort of transcendent experience.

  • The scene in the men’s room where Slothrop encounters “a whole dark gang of awful Negroes” (64)
  • he finds he can identify certain traces of shit as belonging definitely to this or that Harvard fellow of his acquaintances. Some of it too of course must be Negro shit, but that all looks alike.” (65)
  • bleeding over Polacks in gray caps okies higgers yeh niggers especially” (68)

Blackness/Entropy

Another theme that becomes a leitmotif in the novel. there’s a barrage of references to black, darkness, and a general sense of entropy. We have blackout curtains to thwart Nazi air raids.

Page 3: ”But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing …” and “velveteen darkness” and “naphtha winters” (mixing the cold deadscape of winter with incendiary oil) and “maturing rust” and “the roofs get fewer and so do the chances for light.” So in that weird, claustrophobic start, with darkness and evacuation driving the action, we hit all these references to a creeping, unavoidable darkness, a cooling down, an unwinding of reality. Honestly, it feels as if we’ve stepped into Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. And this is just on one page …

  • When it comes, will it come in darkness, or will it bring its own light? Will the light come before or after? (4)
  • That would be fuel cutoff, end of burning, what’s their word … Brennschluss. (6)
  • black compost (7)
  • He feels he’s about to shit. (7) (when a missile is rising to “peak trajectory,” an odd sexual image infused with scatological incliinations.
  • “light oven whoomp blow us all up someday” (7)
  • The morning seems to grow colder the higher the sun rises. (10) This is interesting particularly if you agree that Pirate’s banana breakfast is a sort of communion, giving this observation a dual meaning. When the Son of God rises, what if there is no promise of heaven. There’s nothing but the cold, too frigid even to be dispelled by god.
  • charcoal streets (13)
  • These horrid blacks (13) I think the black people in the book represent a sort of entropy for Slothrop and European dominance …
  • black phaetons and black iron (15)
  • it’s black typewriters tall as grave markers (17)
  • During the seance scene: But what Lights were these? What ghosts in command? And suppose, in the next moment, all of it, the complete night, were to go out of control and curtains part to show us a winter no one has guessed at. … (29)
  • the “sensitive flame” during the seance, and how it is extinquished by the concussion from the rocket blast.
  • this intense fading in which there is no promise of return” (112)
  • the black rocketeers of the fictional Schwarzkommando.” (115)

Humor

I’m finding the book to be downright hilarious at times. A few examples. The scene where Jennifer and Roger Mexico hook up is pretty slapstick, with the rocket blast hurling her toward the car, and then Mexico back up over her bike as he drives off with his impending conquest. And there’s this:

“one horrible evening drunken Slothrop, Tantivy’s guest at the Junior Athenaeum, got them both 86’d feinting with the beak of a stuffed owel after the jugular of DeCoverley Pox whilst Pox, at bay on a billiard table, attempted to ram a cue ball down Slothrop’s throat.” (page 21 of the Kindle edition)

  • Mexico refers to Jennifer’s husband, who’s real name is Beaver, as “Nutria.” (38)
  • Love the scene with Pointsman stomping around with a commode on his foot while they’re trying to nab the dog.

Trump

the Fuhrer-principle… One of the dearest Postwar hopes: that there should be no room for a terrible disease like charisma … that tis rationalization should proceed while we had the time and resources.” (80)

Layering

There’s a Whitmanesque/Biblical use of parallel phrases here as Pynchon layers details the way the prosecution piles on facts during a trial. While Whitman uses these structures to describe American exceptionalism and democratic equality Pynchon is using them to further the entropy and emptiness he’s mining. Instead of building up, it’s drifting down to the bottom of a river, becoming part of the bottomless sludge:

Things have fallen roughty into layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma (great use of that word, har) that sifts steadily to the bottom, made up of millions of tiny red and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and Household Milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung from typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to powder. The entire section reads almost like some sort of archeological dig where Pynchon is sifting through the viscera of his times.

Fireflies

Not sure where, if anywhere, this is going. But i found this firefly reference interesting: ”He likes to tell them about fireflies. English girls don’t know fireflies, which is about all Slothrop knows for sure about English girls.” (page 21 of Kindle edition) I’m keeping an eye out for subsequent references. Given how planned/calculated this book is, I find it hard to believe Pynchon wasn’t aware that only female fireflies have lights, and they use them to lure in the males, mate with them and then devour them. And those Nazi rockets dot the skies like the occasional firefly, too …

And again, on page 23: “no light but the coal of their last cigarette, an English firefly, bobbing at her whim in cursive writing that trails a bit behind, words he can’t read …

Beyond the zero

We finally get an explanation for the name of this section of the book. It’s actually kinda hilarious. It appears Jamf had conditioned Slothrop as an infant to get an erection and then went in to try to undo that response, to bring it back to zero. But apparently he went “beyond the zero,” which had the odd effect of causing Slothrop to reverse the explosion —> hardon equation to where it’s now hardon —>explosion.

  • But a hardon, that either there, or it isn’t. Binary, elegant. The job of observing it can even by done by a student.” (84)
  • It’s the map that spooks them all, the map Slothrop’s been keeping on his girls. The stars fall in a Poisson distribution, just like the rocket strikes on Roger Mexico’s map of the Robot Blitz.” (85)

Dogs

Pointsman’s laboratory is the obvious example here, but dog images are frequent in the book. But I’m not feeling warm happy puppies here. I think we’re dealing with something more akin to the dogs in Francis Bacon’s work. A few examples:

  • In the abandoned house in the abandoned down where Roger and Jess hook up, there are “rigid portraits of favorite gun dogs at point in fields that never existed save in certain fantasies about death.” (57)
  • And later: “They sit still as the painted dogs now, silent, oddly unable to touch. Death has come in the pantry door; stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.” (59)
  • The scene where Jessica, Roger and Pointsman try to catch a dog is freaking hilarious, ending with Pointsman dragging a toilet bowl around on his foot and the dog absconding. But I thought the part where Pynchon briefly shifts to the dog’s perspective is poignant, with the dog recalling the family, the blast and knowing deep down it needed to escape Pointsman. (like a bird dog, a pointer, trying to figure out Slothrop’s special sauce).
  • A skulk of foxes, a cowardice of curs are tonight’s traffic whispering in the yards and lanes. A motorcycle out on the trunk road, snarling, cocky as a fighter plane.” (58)
  • The redskin’ll have a dog with him, the only Indian dog in these whole ashen plains—the cur will mix it up with little Whappo and end hung on the meathook of an open meat stall in the dirt plaza back in Los Madres, eyes wide open, mangy coat still intact, black fleas hopping against the sunlit mortar and stone of the church wall across the square, blood darkened and crusting at the lesion in his neck where Whappo’s teeth severed his jugular (and maybe some tendons, for the head dangles to one side.” (69)
  • Did I mention Francis Bacon? “Figure with Meat”
  • The face is as weak as a house-dog’s” (70)
  • The Abreaction Research Facility = ARF (75)
  • The dogs, engineered and lethal, are watching you from the woods.” (83)

Links

Vocabulary

Pynchon is a fucking wordsmith. His vocabulary alone is astounding, and he’s using obscure words to drive nuance, not to prove he knows them. I’ve started pulling together a list of words that were new to me.

naphtha winters
a flammable oil containing various hydrocarbons, obtained by the dry distillation of organic substances such as coal, shale, or petroleum.

Brennschluss
either the cessation of fuel burning in a rocket or the time that the burning ceases

musaceous
belonging to the Musaceae, the banana family of plants.

dracunculiasis
an infection by the Guinea worm. A person becomes infected when they drink water that contains water fleas infected with guinea worm larvae.1 Initially there are no symptoms.2 About one year later, the person develops a painful burning feeling as the female worm forms a blister in the skin, usually on the lower limb.1 The worm then comes out of the skin over the course of a few weeks.3 During this time, it may be difficult to walk or work.2 It is very uncommon for the disease to cause death

musette
a kind of small bagpipe played with bellows, common in the French court in the 17th–18th centuries and in later folk music.. US a small knapsack.

lisle
a fine, high-twisted and hard-twisted cotton thread, at least two-ply, used for hosiery, gloves, etc.

annealed
heat (metal or glass) and allow it to cool slowly, in order to remove internal stresses and toughen it.

saccade
a rapid movement of the eye between fixation points.

empyrean
belonging to or deriving from heaven

callipygian
having well-shaped buttocks

nacreous
mother-of-pearl

afferent
conducting or conducted inward toward something (for nerves, the central nervous system. efferent is the opposite.

cucurbitaceous
a plant of the court family (melon, pumpkin, squash, cukes)

clonic
muscular spasm involving repeated, often rhythmic contractions

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360 video of the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway

I’ve been monkeying around with the Theta S vr/360 camera. The still were pretty easy to figure out, but video has been a tad trickier. To get it to render on YouTube, you have to make sure the right metadata is injected into the file so it will render correctly. I think I’m finally getting the hang of the process. Below is about 6 minutes of video I shot while Lara and I were biking home from Little Fish Brewery. The Hocking River is on our right as we ride and the OU campus is on the left.

And here’s another that I shot while we were heading up West Union to Court Street, and then up Court Street.

I’m not really doing any postproduction at this point. Just trying to get them to render on YouTube and Facebook.

Here’s an attempt to upload a still image from the Ricoh site, which I’ve been using to archive my stills. This is a shot I took while resting at the Eclipse Company Town while I was biking from Athens to Nelsonville on the bikeway.

 

Post from RICOH THETA. #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

Not too thrilled with the resolution on those. And finally, here’s a gratuitous shot of Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. Go Pens!

Stanley Cup Finals, Game 1, Consol Energy Center #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

 

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Bike ride to Nelsonville

I took advantage of a gorgeous morning to ride up to Nelsonville and back on the Adena Hockhocking Bike Trail. This is a quick video of one of my favorite sections. The ride takes you along the Hocking River, the Ohio University Campus, Hocking College and then into Nelsonville. It ranges from sunny stretches to tree-lined stretches like this.

Rode a total of almost 38 miles at an average speed of just over 15 mph. Having a tough time getting the average higher than that.

Route for ride to Nelsonville and back

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Paddling the (water) lilies at Lake Hope

Lake Hope water lilies

Lake Hope water lilies

We’ve had great weather this week, prompting me to do some paddling. I went up to Dow Lake on Monday and paddled the entire thing. On Tuesday, I set of for Lake Hope, about a 30-minute drive from here. It definitely was worth the trip.

Lily at Lake Hope

Lily at Lake Hope

I had the entire lake to myself when I put in at about 9 a.m. When I left a few hours later, there were a few other folks getting ready to launch boats and a few kids playing on the beach. Perfect.

I paddled the entire shorelines, passing several gorgeous blue herons. I also saw a few deer along the shoreline. But the highlight of the trip was when I paddled into a cove filled with blooming water lilies. Incredible. It was very shallow, but I managed to get all the way back to the beaver dams.

Paddling across that sea of lily pads was pretty freakin’ cool. Here’s a video that will give you an idea of what it’s like:

This seems to be a pretty shallow lake, and I think they have problems with algae during the heat of summer. My biggest complaint about the trip was finding a decent place to launch. The beach and marina are at the foot of a hill, so I had to drive down to the beach, unload the boat and then carry it over the the marina to launch. There’s a boat ramp on the other side of the dam. Maybe I’ll try there next time, but I wasn’t impressed with the look of it, either.

As an added bonus, the park includes Hope Furnace so I stopped there on my way out. It’s a blast furnace that was used from 1854-74 to smelt iron ore. This part of Ohio was bristling with furnaces like this back in the day. Hope Furnace remains as a strange Industrial Revolution pyramid dedicated to those days …

Hope Furnace.

Hope Furnace.

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Kayaking at Burr Oak Lake …

When I sold my kayak in D.C. I knew it was a mistake. One that I just fixed. I picked up a used 17-foot Current Designs Storm via Craig’s List, and despite my concerns that it might be more kayak than our Toyota Prius could handle, a Thule rack system made it so I can get the boat to the water.

Last week, I loaded up the kayak and went to Burr Oak Lake for a paddle. I’m very pleased with the boat. It fits me well, though it could use a bit more room for my size-13 feet, and paddling it was a pleasure. I paddled most of Burr Oak, probably about 12km all in (I forgot to turn on the GPS tracker for the first third of the trip). Lots of wildlife, ranging from an eagle to several osprey to a bunch of herons. I also paddled through a large shallow area where shad were spawning.

I also took time to play with my gadgets, including the GoPro video I shot and a few 360-degree photos I made while floating on Burr Oak.

 

 

 

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360 photo of the bike path …

Shot at the Eclipse Company town this afternoon during a ride the Adena Hockhocking Bike Trail.

 

Post from RICOH THETA. #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

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Milestone …

Bike Ride on the Adena Hockhocking Bike Trail

Bike Ride on the Adena Hockhocking Bike Trail

On Wednesday, I went for a bike ride on the Adena Hockhocking bike trail. It was about 24 miles roundtrip, but I managed to keep an average speed of 15 mph, my fastest yet. Since I started trying to get back in shape, I’ve lost four pounds and my daily step counts are averaging about 15,000. That’s a big improvement over last winter, when I often struggled to get to 10k. I’ve even clocked a 30,000 step day. Best of all, I’ve discovered several great trails and I’m exploring Ohio. Now if I can just keep it up throughout the summer …

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Hike around Dow Lake

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 10.48.00 AM

I biked out to the dam at Dow Lake intending to take a quick hike on Hickory Trail. But it was a beautiful day and I felt great walking Hickory, so I decided to walk all the way around the lake, connecting up with Lakeview Trail to complete the loop. All in, I walked almost 8 miles with great lake views most of the way. That and the bike ride gave me my highest step count ever: 30,000 steps.

Next I want to do the same at Burr Oak, but I suspect that will be a larger project. It’s a much bigger lake, which might be an excuse for my first backpacking trip …

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The ever-vigilant Ozzy

Ozzy hanging out on the front porch, ever vigilant for squirrels, postal carriers and passing dogs.

Ozzy hanging out on the front porch, ever vigilant for squirrels, postal carriers and passing dogs.

Ozzy's front porch vigil actually looks more like this, with him snoring while the squirrels party hardy nearby.

Most often, Ozzy’s front-porch vigil actually looks more like this, with him snoring while the squirrels party hardy nearby.

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