The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
● ● ●
"Obliged to admit that for the first time in my life I feel myself in the middle of a psychological collapse."Albert Camus was in Montevideo, nearing the end of a lecture tour of South America, when he entered those words into his diary. American Journals, chronicling Camus' 1946 voyage to North America and his 1949 visit to South America, shows a humane soul with a sharp mind who's teetering on the brink, one minute penning astute observations on human suffering; the next - perfunctory, and seemingly overwhelmed almost to the point of paralysis by the simplest, most mundane, obstacles.The North American trip in spring of 1946 came four years after publication of The Stranger, and mere months before Camus would complete The Plague. The diary begins on board a ship as Camus struggles with an ocean voyage and girds himself against odd and intrusive fellow passengers. By the end of the crossing, he's figured them out."Everyone prides himself on being elegant and knowing how to live. The performing dog aspect. But some of them are opening up."On such extended voyages as these, false fronts fade after a while and forced impressions begin to wear away. One's fellow-passengers begin to reveal their true nature, or at the very least one catches on to their facades.Once in New York, Camus observes the many sides of the American character. After noting how funeral homes and private cemeteries operate ("you die and we do the rest"), Camus comments that "one way to know a country is to know how people die there. Here, everything is anticipated."Of American generosity, Camus has nothing but admiration. While he was giving a lecture, someone had made off with the box office takings which were to have gone to a children's charity. When the audience finds out, a spectator proposes that everyone give the same amount upon exiting as they gave upon entering. In fact, they gave much more."Typical of American generosity,"Camus lauds. "Their hospitality, their cordiality are like that too, spontaneous and without affectation. It's what's best in them."Camus travels through New England and on up to Quebec. He also visits Philadelphia and Washington D.C. By the time he's back on ship for the return voyage, he's begun to lose interest in his fellow passengers, and his musings reveal his frustration and hopelessness:"Sad to still feel so vulnerable. In 25 years I'll be 57. 25 years then to create a body of work and to find what I'm looking for. After that: old age and death."In fact, Albert Camus would die 14 years later in a car crash. But not before yet again braving the Atlantic - this time for a lecture tour of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.Amusingly, Camus provides loose sketches of fellow shipboard passengers. It seems like a mystery or intrigue novel or film noir just waiting to be written - especially as this was 1949. If anything is frustrating about the journals, it is simply that one wishes that Camus would flesh out his often skeletal thoughts."Woke up with a fever." I tried to calculate just how many of Camus' shipboard entries began with "Woke up with a fever" or some variation. But I lost count. I'm now wondering whether a shipboard memoir could even exist without that sentence. Still, despite his physiological reaction to the voyage, or perhaps even because of it, Camus is deeply enamored of the sea in all its raging power - often remaining transfixed by it. It is "a call to life and an invitation to death," and leaves him with "inexplicably profound sadness."His exhaustion and his ocean fixation clash on one occasion, when he enters this into his diary: "Too tired to describe the sea today."Arriving in Rio, Camus notes: "Never have I seen wealth and poverty so insolently intertwined." Finding himself in the company of a Brazilian poet, Camus offers this scathing assessment:"Enormous, indolent, folds of flesh around his eyes, his mouth hanging open, the poet arrives. Anxieties, a sudden movement, then he spills himself into an easy chair and stays there a little while, panting. He gets up, does a pirouette and falls back down into the easy chair."The corpulent poet later points out "a character from one of your novels" - a thin, gun-toting government minister. But Camus silently decides that it is the poet himself who is in fact a "character."In the hills outside of Rio, Camus is taken to a macumba - a trance-inducing spiritual dance where the dancers attempt to arrive at a state of ecstasy. Camus, hanging back and observing with his arms crossed, was told to uncross his arms so as not to impede the descent of the spirits. In the end, Camus yearns for fresh air rather than heat, dust, smoke and writhing bodies: "I like the night and sky better than the gods of men."After Rio, Camus travels to Recife (A map somewhere in the book would be nice. My edition has none). He describes it as Florence of the tropics. (Although while in Recife, he did "wake up with the grippe and a fever.")Then it was off to Bahia: "In bed. Fever. Only the mind works on, obstinately. Hideous thought. Unbearable feeling of advancing step by step toward an unknown catastrophe which will destroy everything around me and in me."For every journal entry soaked in fever and depression, there's one that lifts you up. Camus writes of a radio program in Sao Paulo where people can go on air to make a public entreaty. An unemployed man went on the air one day and said that since his wife had abandoned him, he was looking for someone to temporarily take care of his child. Five minutes after the program ended, another man came into the station, half-asleep, half-dressed. His wife had heard the plea, woke her husband, and dispatched him to go get the child.After Sao Paulo, it was off to Montevideo, then Buenos Aires, across to Santiago, Chile, then back to Brazil and then home.A slight volume, American Journals nevertheless reveals a fragile man at the height of his fame, who can still, through all of his medical and psychological problems, offer observations which are astute and often amusing, and it offers some personal context to the ideas that would show up in his later works of fiction.
Has there ever been another writer of dark, morbid, surrealistic fiction who is as warm and humane as Nathaniel Hawthorne? I just finished reading The Marble Faun, his final novel, and what struck me is how much he cares about the people in the story, how fully he feels their isolation and estrangement. From Poe to Kafka, from Melville to W. G. Sebald, alienation and the uncanny have usually come to us with a chill, a coldness that questions not only the nature of human relationships but even the possibility of them. So it was a shock to read this surprisingly rich story about alienated friends and lovers, who are eventually drawn closer to each other by the very coldness that has separated them during their heightened, trancelike experiences. The Marble Faun was published in 1860, and it’s very different from anything in Hawthorne’s famous earlier novels – The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance. It deals with expatriates in Rome, and is generally considered the start of the “Americans in Europe” genre that Henry James would later develop. It’s not a ghost story, and doesn’t draw much on the old gothic elements that Jane Austen, for instance, parodies in Northanger Abbey. The eerie, imaginative side of The Marble Faun comes less from the events than from the alertness Hawthorne brings to his characters’ perceptions. The novel is surreal largely because Hawthorne sees the world with disorienting vividness: There is a singular effect, oftentimes, when out of the midst of engrossing thought and deep absorption, we suddenly look up, and catch a glimpse of external objects. We seem, at such moments, to look farther and deeper into them, than by premeditated observation; it is as if they met our eyes alive, and with all their hidden meaning on the surface, but grew again inanimate and inscrutable, the instant that they become aware of our glances. This is a good description of how the novel works. Hawthorne catches his characters at the moments when they “look farther and deeper” into their surroundings, and then at the opposite moments when they feel everything grow “inanimate and inscrutable.” He is masterful at describing the psychology of guilt, the texture that despair can give to every detail. As part of this texture, he also excels at showing how the same street or statue or room can mean different things to different people at different times. Often the settings and the characters seem to seep into each other, merging and then coming apart. The story revolves around a murder and its impact on the four main characters. Two American artists – the sculptor Kenyon and the copyist Hilda – become friends with the painter Miriam and a young Italian man, Donatello. Characteristically, Hawthorne describes Miriam, the novel’s heroine, as a walking illusion: She resembled one of those images of light, which conjurors evoke and cause to shine before us, in apparent tangibility, only an arm’s length beyond our grasp; we make a step in advance, expecting to seize the illusion, but find it still precisely so far out of reach. Nearly everything about Miriam’s past is unknown, and many important questions about her remain unanswered at the novel’s end. She has taken up a new identity in Rome after some unspecified involvement in some obscure crime. Hawthorne refuses to ever clear up the mystery, and pretends at one critical point not to know what Miriam is discussing with a monk who has started to follow her around the city. Eventually, Donatello kills this monk because he thinks the man is persecuting Miriam and deserves to die. The murder – as impulsive and ambiguous as Billy Budd’s murder of Claggart – sets in motion the novel’s vision of guilt and despair passing from one person to another. Anticipating The Brothers Karamazov, Hawthorne creates a situation where everyone ultimately feels responsible for the murder, and where guilt spreads so wide and deep that nobody remains innocent. Hawthorne traces the course of this guilt as it moves through the characters. The Marble Faun uses many of the techniques we find in self-consciously experimental fiction: unexpected time shifts, deliberately misleading narration, elaborate literary references, labyrinthine ambiguities, a constant awareness of conflicting viewpoints. Yet while reading the novel I never thought of it in these terms, because Hawthorne is so focused on using his techniques to deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s essential that the history of Miriam’s earlier guilt remain unclear, for instance, because this is how she experiences the past – she’s no longer able to say where her innocence ends and her responsibility begins. Similarly, Hilda develops a bizarre sense of complicity in the monk’s murder, even though all she did was witness it from a distance. Hawthorne involves us in these changes with lavish conviction. I simply hadn’t expected the emotional and psychological fullness that the novel brings to the transformations of Miriam and Hilda and Donatello. The paradox of The Marble Faun is that it’s the most nihilistic of Hawthorne’s books at the same time as it’s the warmest and most sympathetic. The characters work their way towards each other through their worst encounters with desolation and self-doubt. As Melville recognized, Hawthorne is one of the great writers of negation. He is peerless at dramatizing darkness and loneliness and evil. Everyone in The Marble Faun becomes lost, wandering in destructive and hopeless alienation. Each character suffers from “an insatiable instinct that demands friendship, love, and intimate communication, but is forced to pine in empty forms; a hunger of the heart, which finds only shadows to feed upon.” The novel offers no easy hope, no simple consolation. Miriam never escapes her guilt. Donatello goes to prison. Hilda’s doubts about her innocence and the darkness of the world stay with her forever. Yet the final paradox is that all the characters come together in their loneliness, and are united in their separation. They still have “only shadows to feed upon,” but they know this about each other, and they do their best to see beyond their individual tragedies and to share whatever comfort they can. Hawthorne loves them for this, and loves them for salvaging their humanity even after they’ve been broken by their nightmarish personal failures, and by the wild, irrational malevolence that haunts all the story’s events. The Marble Faun is intellectually rigorous in its refusal to surrender to the temptations of sentimentality, and emotionally rigorous in its even stronger refusal to surrender to the temptations of cynicism and despair.
Years ago, I wrote a book about the women’s professional tennis tour. In 1973, the year Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, access to players at most tournaments was easy; few agents or managers walled them off from the press. Coaches? Unheard of. Nutritionists? Please. The very best female tennis pros in the country earned thousands of dollars for winning ($25,000 for the U.S. Open), not millions. To save money, they overnighted at the homes of local enthusiasts. Now, like other sports, tennis is a billion-dollar enterprise and players like Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova rank high on Forbes “Richest Athletes” list. The inflation is just as obvious in my other favorite sport, baseball. A recent Wall Street Journal article on New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, whose 2016 salary is $607,000, carried the headline “Baseball’s Underpaid All-Stars.” The average baseball salary this year is $4.4 million. Mark McCormack, the agent and lawyer who made Arnold Palmer golf’s first millionaire, and Marvin Miller, the undaunted leader of the baseball players’ union, are among those generally credited as important nonplayers who helped turn sports into a business that benefited its “workers” as well as their employers. There are numerous others, though, and in his new book, Players, Journal reporter Matthew Futterman thoroughly investigates the financial revolution in pro sports. He describes how athletes like hurdler Edwin Moses, unheralded executives like the NFL’s Frank Vuono, and people like McCormack enabled players grab the power that once was in the hands of team owners and event promoters. The revolution, argues Futterman, has in many ways improved the sports that fans love to watch; well-played players who no longer need to work at other jobs in their free hours are better trained, better conditioned (and yes, better compensated). But has the revolution gone overboard? Players might be the best book about the business of sports since Moneyball. Instead of investigating one sport through the lens of one team, Futterman looks at several major sports, focusing on key participants. He begins with McCormack, whose story has been told before but is still the spark that gave rise to the revolution. McCormack’s guiding principle was that “stars were the gasoline that made the engine of any sport go...They were a salable commodity that was being undervalued...” As a youngster growing up in Chicago in the 1930s and '40s, he loved sports and even when “alone on his porch throwing a ball in the air all afternoon, he was always keeping score.” He became a lawyer and an excellent amateur golfer. Arnold Palmer was a great golfer. But his earnings were tiny. His big paycheck came from an endorsement deal in 1954 with Wilson for $5,000, yet their clubs were not even premium products; Palmer crafted his own clubs in his home workshop. Moreover the company had the right to renew the deal each time it was about to expire. After convincing Palmer he could do better, McCormack became the golfer’s agent and finally extricated him from the Wilson deal, setting up instead Palmer’s own golf club company. “McCormack was playing a new game,” writes Futterman. “The object was liberation.” His plan to give Palmer control of his own name and marketplace worth would be the template for every other arrangement McCormack made. McCormack moved on to tennis. After meeting the chairman of Wimbledon, he realized the most prestigious tournament in the world was not taking advantage of its image, and arranged to market the film rights to the tournament. Eventually came the windfall -- a six year deal with NBC for Wimbledon TV for $5.2 million. It was, writes Futterman, a key element in his vision -- to widen the popularity of his players, he needed to showcase them on a mass scale. TV would grow the prize money and thus the value of players’ names to sponsors. McCormack, like Hollywood czar Lew Wasserman, would control not just the stars but the venues. “Wimbledon doesn’t break a leg, sprain an ankle, fail a drug test or lose six-love, six-love,” he told others. By the 1990s, McCormack’s influence was so pervasive that his company, International Management Company, or IMG, was referred to by nasty nicknames: “I Am Greedy,” “I Manage God.” By 2001 his management roster went well beyond sports -- its list included Margaret Thatcher and the Nobel Prize Foundation. Every sport had its own path to big money and professionalization. Before 1968, writes Futterman, the men who ran tennis “starved the sport.” Stars who went out on their own, like Rod Laver, barnstormed for peanuts on a pro tour while being barred from the top tournaments like Wimbledon, which was open only to amateurs. Although they were allowed to participate in the Grand Slams after 1968, the International Lawn Tennis Association raked in money while offering poor purses and no say to the players who made it great. This led the men, who had joined together in the Association of Tennis Professionals, to stage a boycott of the 1973 Wimbledon event. It severely hurt the career of American Stan Smith, the defending champion, who honored the boycott. Ultimately, the tennis lords caved, and Smith eventually got his measure of fame by having his name on a best-selling shoe. The boycott was incredibly successful; it led to a boom as the sport was taken up by recreational players and pros reaped the rewards of wider exposure. The total prize money at the U.S. open was $160,000 in 1972. By 1983 it was $2 million. The growth meant the explosion in the care and nurturing of stars who hired coaches, physiotherapists, and nutritionists, and companies that produced new racquets made of space-age materials. By last year, the male and female U.S. Open winners alone earned over $3 million each. Baseball, the professional sport most dominant in the first half of the 20th century, saw a similar upward dollar trajectory. Here, Futterman uses pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter to tell the story of free agency and the resulting monetary explosion. His career showed how an athlete from a poor farming family in North Carolina upended “the entire salary structure of sports,” showing every “athlete a better lesson in free-market economics than anyone could have gotten at Harvard Business School.” The lesson: “the person who gets paid the most sets the market for everyone else below him,” i.e. a rising tide lifts all boats. How big a lesson was this? In 1966, despite having its own union headed by Miller, baseball’s reserve clause that bound a player to one team meant that the average major league player’s salary was $14,000. Topps paid each exactly $125 to put them on a bubble-gum card. I’m sorry Futterman did not mention the two-man holdout by the Dodgers’ great pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale before the 1966 season, when the two asked for a million dollars over three years and settled for about $130,000 for Koufax (in what became his final season) and $105,000 for Drysdale. It was a landmark in the struggle for free agency, which culminated in Hunter’s battle with the “perhaps the greediest and most penurious” ballclub owner, Charles O. Finley of the Oakland A’s. Players details the almost unbelievable tale of how Finley’s stupid missteps allowed the owner to be declared in default of his contract with Hunter. (Among other things, Finley claimed it was awkward for him to get his estranged wife’s signature on a document.) The pitcher was declared a free agent, an open market bidding war began, and the Yankees signed Hunter to a multimillion dollar contract “worth roughly fifteen times more than the next highest player.” The rest is, well history, right up to Jacob deGrom’s measly $607,000 salary, which is so low because with only three years in the big leagues he is not yet eligible for free agency. In football, Players dates the revolution not to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is often hailed for dragging the NFL into modern times, but to the league’s actions in 1978, when it adopted rules that made offenses more potent. The owners were persuaded by Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys that unless the game permitted higher scores, it would stagnate. Indeed, once rules limiting defenses in hampering receivers and offensive linemen, and once the “west coast offense” gave quarterbacks a chance to move the ball with lots of short, high percentage passes, it was, in Futterman’s words, “easier for players to thrill fans.” The star system took hold. In 1990, the league created the Quarterbacks Club, to which the likes of Troy Aikman and Dan Marino lent their names to lucrative licensing arrangements. Where NFL players lost was that, previously, their union had handled the licensing. The new arrangement bled the union dry. Today, football generals get huge salaries but the privates get nonguaranteed contracts. Players also demonstrates how the business revolution worked in licensing, with Nike manufacturing Michael Jordan sneakers that youngsters would literally kill for, and in developing their own cable networks. If there is a villain in the book, it is Lance Armstrong, who for Futterman represents the “win at all costs” mentality that has been foisted on fans by Nike and other greedy sponsors. This seems too simple. Armstrong’s desire to win came in the context of a sport that had long had a doping problem, even before there was millions of endorsement dollars at stake. In the end, the author notes that despite the wall-to-wall TV coverage of sports, both viewership and youth participation in team sports has declined. “Money in sports isn’t on its own, a bad thing. But when money becomes the motivating goal and main purpose in sports, that is a bad thing,” because it leads to stars who are more concerned with endorsements than with team victories, and to teams more concerned with TV revenue than individual players. Agree or not, it is a complex tale, compellingly told. Players is more fun than watching a major golf tournament and certainly easier than playing in one. Baseball pitchers’ salaries have correspondingly risen precipitously, especially those of closers, who can make more than $100,000 per inning, as Jason Grilli did last year for the Atlanta Braves. When Sandy Koufax finally agreed to that low-ball contract back in 1966, he was not only baseball’s best pitcher but perhaps its most pain-wracked one. His left arm was crooked. It “ballooned to cartoonish sizes” in between starts and had to be drained. He had to swab a hellish chili-pepper hot “balm” on it to mask the pain. But that was before Tommy John submitted to surgery in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe. His torn ulnar collateral ligament in the arm was replaced by a tendon from his wrist. A year and a day later, John was able to retake a major league mound. Grilli, too, underwent this surgery, which led him to the payoffs with the Braves. In a fitting complement to Players, sportswriter Jeff Passan peers into this surgery and its aftermath in The Arm, looking at how huge salaries for pitchers -- the quarterbacks of baseball -- have affected their quest for longevity. These salaries have also infected the attitude of kids who hope to emulate professional players. The book is principally an exhaustive look at the development of Tommy John surgery through two major league pitchers, one of whom has rebounded from two TJ procedures. Passan suggests that the TJ phenomenon has gone way overboard. A recent study of five years’ worth of records showed that half the surgeries were performed on teenagers, an idea Passan regards as frightening. What’s more, there are only guesses when it comes to successful rehab and post-surgery plans. Should pitchers limit their innings? Slow their velocity? Alter their mechanics? No answer is definitive. As long as major league teams are willing to shell out $150-million over six years for a proven starter like the Cubs did for Jon Lester (plus $250,000 to ferry his wife and kids around in a charted jet), pitchers in search of millions will undergo the operation that Passan describes in grisly detail. What is amazing, as Passan tells us, is that despite major league teams operating “more than $600 million in the black” in 2014, they have spent next to nothing on injury-prevention research. As for that underpaid Mets all-star Jacob deGrom, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, let’s hope he has a great, healthy season, so he can sign for closer to his rightful worth. He’ll be eligible for salary arbitration next year. Surely he looks forward to 2020; that’s when he becomes a true free agent. And if you happen to see him pitch in short sleeves, notice the long scar on the inside of his right arm; it looks a bit like the seam on a baseball. Image Credit: Flickr/401(K) 2012
● ● ●