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Something new about something old

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While sorting through some boxes I found the first story I ever wrote about Apple Inc. Considering how much time I’ve spent writing about Apple since then I thought I’d do something a little meta and write about writing about Apple for the first time. I wrote more words about the story than appear in the original story itself. Anyway, have a look.

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February 15th, 2015 at 7:17 pm

Manhattan from Above

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July 30th, 2014 at 2:01 pm

The Andy Rooney Story

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Andy Rooney in 2008. (Photo by Stephenson Brown)

Andy Rooney died yesterday. He was 92. I’ve been watching 60 Minutes as long as I can remember. My parents would always put it on every Sunday which was usually dinner time in my house and that generally meant that I watched it too.

Andy Rooney didn’t begin his show-ending monologues until 1978 when it replaced the Point/Counterpoint segment featuring Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick. I didn’t take much notice of Rooney until I was a teenager in the 1980s and had taken an interest in writing and journalism and harbored dreams of being a newspaper opinion columnist. Rooney personified the folksy, grumpy, common-sense curmudgeon and could make you roll your eyes, but sometimes could also make you wish you’d just said what he said.

In the years I watched him hold forth on subjects as varied as chairs, the Super Bowl, the job of the US Presidency, umbrellas, ice cream cones, barbers, and the random items found in people’s backpacks, I had always wanted him to do a segment on books.

It seemed an obvious Rooney segment. Always touched with a gift for making a larger point to say about something small from his own experience, I just knew that one day he would finally get around to giving TV viewers a tour of the bookshelf behind his desk. Years passed and it never came, and yet my curiosity persisted. Finally in 2007, working late one night in my office at BusinessWeek I wrote a short email to 60 Minutes with the subject line “For Andy Rooney”:

Dear Andy,

I’ve watched your segments on “60 Minutes” every Sunday since I was a very young kid. I didn’t always get what you were saying, but I got enough to know that I liked you. It probably had something to do with me getting into the media business myself.

All these years you’ve talked about the silly things that people send you, your junk mail, the mess on your desk, the stuff you find in your attic and other curiously revealing trivia. But I’ve always wanted to know more about what we see in the background behind you every week: Your bookshelf.

When I visit someone’s home I sometimes find it interesting, if I can do it politely, to peek at what’s on their bookshelf. You’ve been inviting me and millions of other people into your office for years. As someone who like you, values the written word and the simple pleasure of reading a great book, I’m curious about what’s on that bookshelf of yours and why. I doubt it’s junk, and I’m certain it would be revealing. How about a little tour?

I’m certain Rooney never read that email, and though I can’t prove it, I’m betting his producer did. Because two months later, Rooney closed the April 22, 2007 edition of 60 Minutes with a segment that included a few of his favorite books (Link goes to the video, which is not embeddable). They were: three dictionaries; a heavily used edition of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler. Walter Lippman’s A Preface To Morals; four leather-bound volumes by Charles Darwin; and the fifth edition of The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzum and Henry Graff, also heavily used.

Two years later I got the chance to meet Rooney. The occasion was the 2009 Deadline Club Awards dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. I was a finalist in the science and technology reporting category, for a series of stories I wrote for BusinessWeek.com called “Unconnected America,” which examined how the lack of access to broadband Internet connections affected people in various walks of life and in different places. I lost out to a Time Magazine cover story, “The Clean Energy Myth.”

There was before the banquet a cocktail party lasting an hour or so, and Rooney happened to be there. And I noticed that my then-colleague, BusinessWeek writer David Kiley was talking to him rather enthusiastically at a set of chairs surrounding a table, as if he knew him well. It turns out he did, and so I ventured over to where they were sitting and waited for a chance to politely introduce myself.

It came. I told him about the letter I had written him and before I could get to the part of his segment on books, he cut me off.

“And I didn’t write back, right?”

“No, and I didn’t expect you to,” I said. I proceeded to tell him about the segment on books, and that I had always been curious about them because I had been watching so long. “Since I was a kid,” I said.

“Well how old are you?” I was 38 at the time, but my answer was “I’m not quite 40.”

At this he got a little indignant. He called out across the table to a female friend to whom he referred by a last name which I did not catch. “You’re really 39? Hey, do you believe this guy is 39?” he said to her.

“If he is he’s very lucky,” she said to him and grinned at me.

Then he looked back at me. With a scowl and a determined nod he said “Well you look older.”

I couldn’t argue with that. And I couldn’t help but smile at having been insulted by Andy Rooney.

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November 6th, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Paul McCartney At The Ed Sullivan Theater

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A friend called up one day this week and told me to meet him downstairs. He was sort of mysterious about why, but he told me to bring a camera. I agreed and met him on the corner of 49th and 7th and we walked a few blocks uptown. Below is what we saw from outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, as recorded by the CBS cameras, (HD version here) but you can see it how I saw it here and here. Thanks to Thomas for insisting.

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July 18th, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Ten Years Of Listening For ET

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Ten years ago today, on a whim, I got involved with the SETI@Home project. It was something a certain kind of geek did at the time, and the result was that you had an interesting-looking screen-saver running on your computer.

As you may or may not know, SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life. And the project involves a few million people donating the use of their computer when they’re not using it, to the analysis of data taken from radio telescopes. This is something that used to be handled by supercomputers, and usually on the US Government’s nickel, that is until funding was cut in the mid-1990s. Those radio telescopes are basically listening for any hint of radio signals from somewhere else in the universe — that is evidence of intelligent life.

It’s one of those big questions that people ponder from time-to-time: Are we alone in the universe? I first began to think about it seriously when I was eight or nine. I read “The Star Wars Question And Answer Book About Space” cover-to-cover several times. It contained a section on radio astronomy that was rather sophisticated for a kid’s book. Among other things it covered a basic explanation — but notably no illustration — of the Arecibo Message sent to the star cluster M13 located 25,000 light-years away. It also included sections on the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, and the golden record placed on the Voyager probes, but for obvious reasons, no pictures of the message engraved on the Pioneer plaques.

By the time I was 12 or 13 I had a subscription to Discover Magazine, had seen the film ET, and had also watched much of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on public television. The March 1983 issue of Discover had Sagan on its cover, trumpeting the launch of a new effort to search seriously for life in space. (Summary of the issue here.) Within its pages I first learned about Frank Drake who predicted that we would find intelligent life by 2000, and was first exposed to the concept of a von Neumann space probe. It arrived in the mail on a day when I was home sick from school, and I devoured it, learning more from it than I probably did in any science class I would take.

In his TV series, Sagan made an argument (which I now know was borrowed in part from Drake) that fascinated me. When you consider the number of stars in the galaxy, which is about 400 billion, the chance that there’s life out there, and that it’s intelligent isn’t unspeakably far-fetched, but by a reasonable stretch of argument, plausible. (Though Sagan’s own math is off on one point: In the clip below he says our solar system has 10 planets, when the accepted orthodoxy at the time was nine. It’s now eight. In the early 80s, when Cosmos was made, Pluto was still considered a planet, rather than a Kuiper Belt Object. Thank you, International Astronomical Union.)

In any event, the thought that I could help out in even a small way with the effort of finding a signal from somewhere out there, however remote the chance of success, has kept me mildly entertained these 10 years. As of today my computers have contributed 229,235 work units, comprised of 198.06 quadrillion floating point operations to the effort. (That’s 198,060,000,000,000,000 or an average of 54.2 trillion operations per day.) Plus I’ve earned credit for another 3,053 work units under the original “classic” SETI@Home program, which works out to 33,319 hours of computing time.

By SETI@Home standards, my numbers aren’t impressive. I rank somewhere at about 38,000th place among its base of users. A team I’m involved with, SETI.USA, has a few members who have reported more than 10 million work units, and many more who have stats north of the 1 million and half-million mark. I’ve never been quite as disciplined about keeping my machines running the program as I might have been. But when I learned that the 10-year anniversary of my participation was coming up, I had hoped to push my machines to the point of having finished 250,000 units, and have paid close attention to my progress in recent weeks. I have four computers running SETI@Home: Three at home, including my newly purchased MacBook Pro, and one at the office which runs it only when I’m not there. Obviously I didn’t hit the goal I had hoped for, but will probably see that number before the end of the summer.

I was interested to see the video below of a talk by SETI’s chief scientist Dan Werthimer, and for once to see a face on the other end of the SETI@home process. It’s been fun to have been a small part of the biggest supercomputer on the planet and the largest computation that’s ever been done. Still, no signals yet.

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July 7th, 2009 at 8:47 pm