Thursday, August 30, 2007

On the Beach

The beach was crowded today. Crowded for Goose Rocks, that is. It is never so crowded that one can’t find a place to spread a blanket, as it sometimes is at Cannes or Nantasket or Coney Island. But it was crowded enough to force me to pick my way through the humanity on my daily beach stroll. We are closing in on Labor Day, and the renters are determined to get their money’s worth before packing up and heading back to Framingham or Chelmsford.

A new trend is visible on the beach this summer: the widespread use of children’s wagons and baby carriages to cart beach paraphernalia from the renters’ houses to their chosen spots on the sand. In past years, the crowds, such as they were, were clustered in the middle of the strand, near the center of population (and parking spaces). Now, pulling their wagons behind them, they travel hundreds of yards, to more remote destinations. The carrying capacity of those of those little red wagons is amazing: folding chairs, umbrella, a cooler for drinks, balls, frisbees, a bag of sandwiches, a boom box, books and magazines, camera, towels, and other necessities of beach life.

The sand is hard at low tide, and then you see the beachgoers making their long treks, looking like the Okies in “The Grapes of Wrath,” transporting all their earthly possessions to a Better Place. People are funny. On one hand, they rail against private beaches, arguing for total public access. On the other hand, given the chance, they will instinctively seek a private spot, far away from the throng. When I was a youngster, my parents took great pride in the fact that through a friend we had access to a private beach on the North Shore. There were equally attractive public beaches nearby, but private was better because – well, just because.

So the caravans roll on, to the farthest reaches of the beach. Then, after a day in the sun, they wheel their wagons back to their bases. Most of them are good about carting their beer cans and potato chip bags back with them, but some leave their detritus behind. It is sad to see litter on the beach, but the good news is that those red wagons and prams do make it easier for people to police the area.

In another week, summer will officially have ended, and the real caravans – the SUVs crammed to the roof and with full bicycle racks behind – will start their journeys down the Maine Turnpike. The beach will still be busy on weekends in September – the best month, in the opinion of many – but the big crowds will be gone. That’s the good news. The bad news is that winter is just around the corner. In January, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, when there’s plenty of room on the beach, no one comes.

Book note: A new edition of The General Radio Story is now available at This one has an index and a table showing annual sales and earnings from 1915 through 2001. Also available at Searching for Joan Leslie, a collection of these blog postings.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Uneasy lies the head...

President Bush has just used the analogy of Vietnam to buttress his case for hanging tough in Iraq. As many have pointed out, this was a curious decision on his part. Among those reading Vietnamese history with special interest these days must be Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Maliki, and the trip down memory lane cannot be very comforting.

In 1963, South Vietnam was ruled by President Ngo Dinh Diem, and at the time American military and intelligence advisers were strongly critical of him for not waging the fight against the enemy aggressively enough. (Sound familiar?) So, when the CIA folks in Saigon heard that some Vietnamese generals were hatching a coup, the American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, gave these generals the green light, assuring them that if they succeeded, the U.S. would promptly recognize their new regime. Thus encouraged, the generals decided to “carpe Diem” on November 1. The next day, President Diem and his brother were both killed by the generals, and the new government was indeed swiftly recognized by the United States. The initial cover story was that Diem and his brother both committed suicide, but then photographs surfaced showing their stabbed and bullet-riddled bodies, hands tied, in the back of a truck. Oops. (Today, the murders would probably be shown on YouTube.)

Exactly three weeks later, the President who okayed the Saigon coup would himself be assassinated, in Dallas.

Fast forward to last week. President Bush, asked by a reporter whether it was time to replace Prime Minister Maliki, answered that this was a question for the Iraqis, not the U.S. Of course, Diem was killed by the Vietnamese, not the Americans. If something unfortunate happens to Maliki, the Americans in Baghdad are sure to have clean hands.

But Maliki knows the score, just as Pakistan’s President Musharraf knows the score. He says that the Americans threatened to bomb his country “back to the stone age” if he did not sign on as a U.S. ally. Now he, no less than Maliki, is feeling the heat, as U.S. politicians accuse him of not pursuing Al Qaeda on his border with Afghanistan. He, too, must be well aware of what happened to Diem in 1963.

Maliki, Musharraf, and others may think they have acquired a certain immunity. They fly to Washington, appear at press conferences with the American President, address Congress. But that’s all fool’s gold. Diem, too, flew to Washington and was a press celebrity. His American ties were solid: three years living in New York and New Jersey, a consultancy at Michigan State, a favorite of New York’s Cardinal Spellman. He must have thought he was safe. But when the Americans decided that he had to go, he had to go.

So why on earth did President Bush decide to stir up memories of Vietnam? In the past, he had always rejected any comparison between Iraq and Vietnam; now he was pushing just this comparison. A cynic might think that he was delivering a not-so-subtle message to Mr. Maliki and President Musharaff.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Fed Caves

Yesterday the Federal Reserve Bank dropped the discount rate by a half point. Those whose lives revolve around the daily mood swings of the stock market cheered. The market indexes soared. But those who care about the integrity of our financial system know better, or at least they should. Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues, after months spent assuring us all of their diligence in standing guard against inflation, caved.

A week or so ago, Jim Cramer, host of a CNBC show called Mad Money, screamed – screamed - that the Fed didn’t have a clue about the panic lurking in the wings. If the Fed didn’t slash interest rates immediately, the market would crash, producing an economic catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. What happened to send Cramer ballistic? Countrywide Financial and Bear Stearns and KKR happened. Some investors were shocked to find that money market funds were not instantly convertible into cash after all. The Dow was making 9-G dives every other day. Investors were fleeing the market. If this kept up, they might turn off a stock-market-oriented cable TV channel. We can’t have that, can we? So the anchor of the hour, like the Wizard of Oz, kept urging us to stay focused on the strength of the economy and not to pay any attention to those 200-point drops, which were in any event just creating more buying opportunities.

Then the Dow broke 14,000, and they started singing a new tune: Yes, the economy would be fine - IF the Fed did the right thing and lowered interest rates.

As the Wall Street Journal editorialized today, “The same people who’ve been saying for weeks that all was well are now the loudest in urging the Fed to reflate the bubble.”

It is pathetic to see the Fed buckling under in this way. Yes, there was pain at the lending institutions, and there were scare stories about millions of sub-prime mortgage holders facing eviction. And investors were rattled by big portfolio losses. But when you borrow money, you enter into a contract, and the sanctity of contracts lies at the core of our financial system. When you buy a stock, you can lose money. When you buy a bond, your investment is only as secure as the issuer’s balance sheet. Those are the ground rules we operate by. Bernanke may not admit that he is weakening this foundation, but he is. Once the Fed is regarded as the white knight who will ride in to save you from your bad decisions, watch out.

Some will say that it is, after all, the Fed’s duty to keep its hand on the throttle. But a scheduled meeting of the Open Market Committee was only a few weeks away, and the sudden lurch to ease, following an “emergency meeting,” suggests two possibilities: (1) the Committee did in fact fold under pressure from the Wall Street walking wounded, or (2) the Fed knows something we don’t about the state of the economy.

Neither explanation is very comforting.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Red to the Rescue

In the 1970s, a hot subject in the semiconductor industry was memory testing. A semiconductor memory is an array of cells on a silicon chip, with each cell representing a 1 or a 0, depending on its electrical state. In those days, a memory typically had 1000 or so cells (today’s memories have millions of cells), and the memory makers tested each chip by applying a pattern to the matrix (e.g., a checkerboard, with alternating 1’s and 0’s) and verifying that the cells behaved properly – ensuring, for instance, that a cell didn’t change states when an adjacent cell was switched.

My company made memory test systems at a plant in the San Fernando Valley, and I thought it might be useful to hold a seminar on memory testing at a nearby hotel. The seminar, which was conducted by the manager of the memory-test division, was a success, and, thus encouraged, I immediately began planning a similar event for our east-coast customers. (This was at a time when a sizeable portion of the U.S. semiconductor industry was still located in the northeast.) The site would be New York’s Plaza Hotel, no less. The seminar would be a full-day affair, including lunch, in the Palm Court. It seemed like a guaranteed winner, and we were so bold as to charge the attendees, even though this was patently a promotional event.

The reservations rolled in, and the seminar opened with a Palm Court full of engineers eager to hear the latest tricks of the memory test trade. The speaker for the full day would be the same man we had used in California. This was a risky proposition. He knew his subject cold, but he was, frankly, a less than sparkling speaker. In fact, he was downright dull, and as the morning wore on, I could see from my back-of-the-room perch that he was losing the audience. No one was walking out, certainly - people were too polite to do that – but as the monotone droned on, some people became restless, while others allowed their eyelids to fall to half mast. What had been interesting in Woodland Hills was a snorer in Manhattan. With a full-course hot luncheon on the agenda, I wondered whether anyone would be awake by mid-afternoon.

It was as bad as I had feared. The luncheon was too heavy, and the subject matter was even heavier. The whole project, I felt, was going down in flames. I leaned against the glass doors at the back of the room, praying for the speaker to say something funny. Or sing a song, or tap dance. Anything.

Then I noticed that someone was behind me, on the other side of the door, with his nose against the glass, looking in. It was Red Skelton. A woman was with him.

I opened the door a crack and said hello.

“What’s going on?” he asked in a whisper.

“It’s a seminar on memory testing,” I whispered back.

“You mean, like, test your memory?” he said, obviously curious.

“No, like in semiconductor memories,” I said. Then I took the plunge.

“Come on in,” I said.

That was all the encouragement he needed. Red Skelton strode into the room and up the center aisle, with the audience suddenly wide awake. Then, when he reached the front of the room, he raised his arms to motion for silence and said:

“I just want to let you all know that Mamie Schmidlapp just pledged two hundred dollars.” Then he walked out, waving to the audience.

Pandemonium. The audience ate it up, laughing, applauding, and generally going nuts.
At the back of the room, the lady (Red’s wife) said to me, smiling, “He’s always doing things like this.”

As if energized, our speaker picked up his delivery for the rest of the afternoon, and the seminar was saved. Everyone present apparently thought yours truly was unbelievably clever to have arranged a guest appearance by one of the great entertainers of our time. Of course, I (eventually) admitted that it was all dumb luck.

On the other hand, I was the one who chose the Plaza. It could never have happened at a Holiday Inn in New Jersey.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Summer Circuit

Summer in New England brings with it summer theater and the chance to see the classic old musicals and to understand why they are called classics. It is also a time to catch some little gems that never made it out of Broadway and to the provinces. In recent weeks both opportunities were available, and we seized them.

First, the classic: A full-bore, thoroughly professional The King and I was staged by the Reagle Players, in Waltham, MA. If you live within driving distance of Waltham (we do, barely) and have never attended a Reagle production, shame on you. In New York or Boston, you will pay three or four times the Reagle ticket price, but you will not see higher quality. For big musicals like The King and I, this company usually trucks in the Broadway sets and costumes, and the leads are often played by Broadway veterans. In an era when Broadway pit orchestras have been pared down to 14 or 15 musicians, there were 21 on hand for The King and I, and they handled the original orchestrations smoothly. Anna was played by the incandescent Sarah Pfisterer, no stranger to Reagle and always a joy to watch. “The House of Uncle Thomas” ballet was a highlight and alone worth the price of admission. The huge cast included a large number of young, smiling, non-Caucasian children, all of them irresistible. The only sour note was the fact that there were many empty seats in the large theater the night we attended. This was unusual. In our previous Reagle excursions (She Loves Me, Most Happy Fella, 42d Street, etc.), the house was always full, deservedly. What’s the good in living in a cultural mecca like Greater Boston if you don’t take advantage of treasures like The Reagle Players?

The King and I is a very ambitious, very expensive undertaking, beyond the capabilities of most summer theaters. But one doesn’t need Rodgers and Hammerstein to provide first-rate musical entertainment. Take the group at Bar Mills, Maine, for instance. We have reported previously on this small troupe, which calls itself The Originals. Although it occasionally ventures into the mainstream repertoire, the fare is usually off-beat. This time it was off-beat and off-Broadway, as it staged the 2001 musical The IT Girl, based loosely on an old Paramount movie. The campy plot involves a department-store (“Waltham’s”) sales girl (Betty Lou Spence) who aspires to win the store’s IT Girl title – and, by the way, the store’s owner, Jonathan Waltham. A cast of seven doubles and triples to play 15 roles, covering both ends of the social spectrum – Waltham’s upper-crust friends and Betty Lou’s buddies from the tenements. The staging was creative - a clothes line for the tenements, a ship’s railing for a boat picnic, and, most important, rear projections of old New York, borrowed, one guesses, from the New York production. Susan Brownfield, the lead, was outstanding, which was no surprise to anyone who saw her in The World Goes Round a year ago. A Chita Rivera type, she can act, sing, and dance, and she looks terrific, too. Molly Roberts, an Originals regular, shone as the haughty fiancĂ©e who stands in the way of our heroine. The big surprise was the music, by Paul McGibbins. Especially memorable was a lullaby, “Mama’s Arms,” sung by Jennifer Porter, who also directed and choreographed the production – very well, I should add. The score, which had touches of ragtime as well as Gilbert & Sullivan, was well handled by a backstage trio of musicians, with pianist Joe Arsenault a standout.

The Reagle Players do their work in the spacious auditorium of Waltham High School. The stage is enormous, and the lighting and acoustics are first-class. The upholstered seats are reserved. The ambiance is comfortable and the curtain times sensible. If you decide to see a Reagle musical, you will not regret it.

The Originals stage their productions in the cozy, quaint, century-old Saco River Grange Hall, in Bar Mills, Maine. The folding wooden chairs are not reserved, and the rest rooms are portable units outside the hall. The stage is adequate, no more. There are home-brew footlights and a spot, and some cast members were miked, though in the small theater this may not have been necessary. On the whole, the old Grange Hall represents a challenge to this highly talented theatrical group, and their determined professionalism is all the more praiseworthy. Bar Mills is an easy drive for most people who live in Maine’s York County. It is well worth the trip, because the product is always so entertaining.