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October 17, 2011

Such stuff as dreams are made on

Filed under: Dartmouth College — Peter Arnold

SHAKESPEAREThe great Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro has this wonderful oped in today’s New York Times.  Writing about the latest  conspiracy du jour involving authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, Shapiro delightfully picks apart the thesis that Edward de Vere was the Bard’s ghostwriter:

“[P]romoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of [Shakespeare’s] plays or poems….  Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written.”

Shapiro is one of the nation’s leading Shakespearean scholars and this author was lucky enough to participate in a semester-long seminar with him in the 1980s.  At that time, the ripe theory was that Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare’s true author, a concept Shapiro effectively derided at length.  Marlowe was no doubt a wonderful writer but this theory seems to have withered in recent years, only to be replaced by the de Vere conspiracy.

If only this conspiracy could be put to rest as easily as, say, a birth certificate controversy.  Or as Paulina pleaded in The Winter’s Tale, “What’s gone and what’s past help, should be past grief.”

October 5, 2011

R.I.P., Steve

Filed under: Apple,Dartmouth College,Music Industry — Peter Arnold

Steve JobsDuring the coming days, there will be testimonials to Steve Jobs that border on hagiography. (Erica Ogg at GigaOm is already out with a good one.) He might not have changed “the world” but he certainly did change large parts of it. More than anyone else, Jobs convinced the music industry to stop the circular firing squad mentality that resulted in the perverse concept of engaging the next generation of buyers by suing or threatening to sue them.

But twenty years earlier, he also foresaw the role of the graphic interface in personal computing while most of the industry was fixated on hardware. Think back to 1980: IBM not only rebuffed Bill Gates’ proposal to sell the concept behind Windows’ forerunner, it told Gates that its OS/1 would push Microsoft out of business. That was the climate into which Jobs pushed Apple barely a few years later.

This author remembers it well. In 1984, I purchased my first computer. It was a 128 kb Mac preloaded with basic software (anyone remember MacWrite?) that Dartmouth made available for about $1,000. The word processing was definitely preferable to typing on a Smith-Corona but had its limitations. The maximum size of a text document was about 6-7 pages which meant that my senior thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre and European totalitarianism actually comprised three separate documents.

Apple would founder without Jobs. It suffered terribly under Gil Amelio, whose lack of foresight can be summed up by his brusque dismissal of the Internet in his biography, On the Firing Line.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in addition to the iPod, iPhone, Mac and everything else, Jobs had a hand in the greatest commercial in TV history. According to Apple lore, the Board was appalled when Jobs previewed the commercial in late 1983 but Jobs persisted. Nearly 30 years later, no other commercial has come close.

R.I.P, Steve Jobs.

June 22, 2011

Once more unto the… cloud?

Filed under: Dartmouth College,IBM,Technology — Peter Arnold

Apologies for the long drought in blog updates.  Aaron Burr once said, “Delay may give clearer light as to what is best to be done” which may explain why Alexander Hamilton took the first shot in their duel.  But it’s not great advice for blogging.

Two events in the computing world this past week show that Serenditpity is more than just a well-known Manhattan eatery. IBM commemorated its 100th anniversary and Google issued its first foray into consumer hardware since last year’s Nexus One disaster.

First up, IBM.  Thirty years ago, Bill Gates offered to sell IBM the rights to the precursor to the Windows OS for about $100,000.  IBM refused, not comprehending the idea of profits in software outside its OS/1.  The driving principles in IT for the next generation offered a cruel lesson. By the late 1980s, minicomputers had pushed aside mainframes since VAXes were about a third the cost of an IBM 3090 and smaller too.  By the mid-1990s, PC’s had eclipsed minicomputers since they were about a third the cost of a VAX.

IBM’s saving grace was bringing in Dartmouth grad Lou Gerstner in 1993, whose approach to business (and himself) was so amoral that he had served on the board of a well-known cancer advocacy group only to resign to become head of RJR Nabisco.  But Gerstner understood computing’s changing dynamics, quickly reversing John Akers’ disastrous idea of quasi-autonomous divisions pursuing conflicting goals.  Instead, Gerstner killed OS/2 and turned the company’s focus to high-margin client services. (By 2004, his successor spun off the PC business to Lenovo.)

So here’s where tomorrow’s fun starts: As Walter Mossberg writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, Google’s new Chromebook computers are:

“essentially full-screen Web browsers designed to do everything via the Internet. Instead of using traditional programs, you will rely on ‘Web apps’ accessed through the browser—email programs, word processors or photo editors, for example.”

Among the benefits, notes Mossberg:

Because all your apps, settings and files are stored in the cloud, if you lose your Chromebook, or wish to use someone else’s Chromebook, you can just log into your Google account and all your stuff will appear on the new machine.

Google automatically updates the operating system, so you don’t have to deal with manual updates.

Look at the numbers driving this and the logical outcome.  Unlike certain industry observers, numbers don’t lie.  Depending on a company’s infrastructure (OK, a big “if”), cloud-based computing costs are at least a third cheaper than the cost of a PC, once you include the time and cost of customizing software, keeping it current, and adding security.

If the mainframe-to-VAX-to-PC experience holds, within another five years, the savings will approach 80 percent.  So if you’re in college now with your heart set on joining an IT department, your odds are about as good as beating the house at Caesar’s.

By that time, server farms such as what Apple is about to bring online in North Carolina to power iCloud will have proliferated globally, as will fast, low-cost M2M wireless connections.  At that point, your data is going into the cloud, backed by 256-bit encryption which isn’t perfect but is still far preferable to today’s system.

The Chromebook will not be a commercial success because consumer habits, especially in technology, are not conditioned for changes this radical, unless the company peddling it is based in Cupertino.  But cracks are in the Titanic’s hull and water is seeping in.  In another five to six years, Microsoft’s Office and Windows will evoke memories of Ozymandias, which is too bad insofar as Windows 7 is actually a worthy competitor to Snow Leopard.  But it is too little, too late.

June 15, 2011

Conan serves an ace

Filed under: Dartmouth College — Peter Arnold

The secrets to writing a great speech aren’t exactly on par with the Nazca Lines: Research your audience, recognize what they want to hear, and use a little humor. Aristotle might quibble with that but he didn’t have to contend with YouTube. More importantly, speakers need to navigate the inevitable Scylla and Charybdis involved when speaking about one’s own accomplishments: Don’t try to separate yourself from the audience by creating an unrealistic image of your experiences, yet do not debase your accomplishments in pursuit of a false image of yourself. (Mitt Romney, call your office.)

All of this makes the commencement speech that Conan O’Brien delivered at Dartmouth College last weekend so remarkable. His humor was biting and obviously written specifically for the occasion. The self-deprecation was genuine yet not so frequent as to be eye-rolling. Most importantly, he eschewed the most overused message in college graduations (“Reach for your dreams”) in order to explain something truly valuable and useful: how to come back from failure.

My former boss, the late Amb. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, spent her career as a professor at Georgetown University and was no stranger to the college graduation circuit. She once told me that the most common response she heard from her former students about their graduation was, “I remember everything that happened except what the graduation speaker said.”

For those who just want humor, the speech’s first 15 minutes will suffice. But for everyone else, the most worthwhile comment occurs at 20:53:

It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique…. If you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived misfortune can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.

Most commencement speeches are a combined sea of blather. Conan’s speech last weekend was a refreshing reminder that the most unlikely of speakers often produce the greatest memories – even if they’re speaking from behind a tree trunk.

March 10, 2011

David Broder, R.I.P.

Filed under: Dartmouth College,White House — Peter Arnold

BRODERNearly 27 years ago, the great columnist David Broder wrote the inscription on the left for a college student with the temerity to ask for an audience with America’s most influential political columnist.  Though it was a presidential election year, Mr. Broder welcomed the student to his crowded office at The Washington Post.  For the next 30 minutes, he proceeded to critique in gentle but scholarly terms that student’s political science thesis.

A few years later, after graduation, this student was a speechwriter at the White House for then-Vice President Bush. Occasionally he would see Mr. Broder, usually on West Executive Avenue, which separates The White House and the Old Executive Office Building.  Brief conversations were typically of the “what have you been hearing” variety and always enlightening.

In a town where egotism is considered an honored and highly competitive aspiration, Mr. Broder was always gracious and quietly impressive.

R.I.P., Mr. Broder.  You will be missed.

February 15, 2011

“When words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain”

Filed under: Dartmouth College,Music Industry — Peter Arnold

Renowned Shakespearean scholar and former Dartmouth professor James Shapiro has this oped in today’s New York Times:

Almost overnight [in the 16th century, when audiences in Britain began having to pay to watch plays], a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft.  The stark findings of this experiment? As with much else, literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it.

Shapiro co-authored the oped with Scott Turow and Paul Aiken from the Authors Guild.  The three go on to argue for better legal protection of copyrighted work, especially online.  The gravamen of their focus is legitimate, though their casual dismissal of the counterproductive role played by a backward-looking music industry during the past decade is unfortunate.  (For more about the music industry’s errors, click here and here.)

Still, as Shapiro showed in Contested Will, few people are his peer on matters of the Bard.  What fates impose, that men must needs abide; It boots not to resist both wind and tide.

April 28, 2010

Shakespeare’s Words & Shapiro’s Unsullied Text

Filed under: Dartmouth College — Peter Arnold

BARDYes, Christopher Marlowe was a wonderful writer. So were Sir Walter Raleigh and especially Francis Bacon. But none of them wrote William Shakespeare’s plays. Period.

The reason for such Euclidian certitude is former Dartmouth College English Professor James Shapiro, now safely decamped to Columbia.  The author of 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare which earned him the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize, Shapiro has just published Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? At nearly 400 pages brimming with 16th century detail, this might not be the best option for the Hamptons this summer.  But for anyone who seriously entertains the idea that someone other than The Bard wrote his plays, this book is indispensable.

A few years ago (OK, about 25), I was lucky enough to spend a semester as a student of Shapiro’s.  It was the kind of small seminar for which Dartmouth is renowned and which bore a charmed life.  Shapiro’s pedagogy was astounding.  Boldness was his friend and his intellect was sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

Incidentally, here’s a good review and analysis from The Independent of both Shapiro’s book and the larger authorship issue.  To purchase a copy, here’s a link to Amazon.

August 31, 2009

Green With Envy

Filed under: Dartmouth College — Peter Arnold


AOL just posted a fun look at America’s Worst College Mascots. Number 5 on the list: Western Kentucky’s Big Red, a symbol so odd that AOL has to ask, “What exactly is ‘Big Red?'”

Some current and former residents of Hanover, New Hampshire have been asking a similar question since 1974.