Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Five Minutes with Richard L. Brandt, Author of One Click

I've always been a book lover, so it was easy to fall in love with Amazon.com when I first discovered it in the 1990's. I never really paid much attention to the man behind the company until only recently. But the world loves its heroes, and never seems to tire of learning more about the pioneers of new technologies. We want to know these people. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreesen... these are real people. Their stories are often instructive and inspire others to follow through on their own latent dreams.

In recent months I was seduced by the Kindle, and finally began to notice that there was also a man behind the development of this easy-to-use reading device. I'd never dug very deep into the Amazon.com story, but had always noticed it unwavering ease-of-use. With the Kindle I understood that it was no accident, and I finally discovered the man at the helm, Jeff Bezos.

After writing some laudatory comments about Bezos nine days ago, Richard Brandt (right) sent me a review copy of his book One Click so I could get a deeper look inside the Amazon.com story. I've not abandoned the enjoyment I receive from sitting in my easy chair holding a good book in my hand, so I happily plowed into it, following up with a request for an interview. Mr. Brandt graciously accepted.

Ennyman: Where are you from originally and how did you first take an interest in writing?
Richard L. Brandt: I was born in Southern California and studied math, engineering and biology in college, with a BA in biology. But I always wanted to write. By the time I graduated in the late 1970s I decided I wanted to write about science and technology. I got a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which got me a paid internship at Business Week magazine for the summer (1980). I got a full-time position for that and stayed with BW for 14 years. I used to write science fiction in high school and turned that interest into writing about science and technology as a journalist. I found it much more fun than working in laboratories, and got to meet some of the greatest entrepreneurs in the world in the process.

EN: Are there any authors who you’ve found especially inspirational and why?
RLB: Several scientists with a talent for writing, explaining scientific principals in fascinating and educational ways: Steven Jay Gould, E.O Wilson (both of whom I met and took classes from as part of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship in 1990,) Richard Feynman, Oliver Sachs, James Watson and Francis Crick for their book "The Double Helix." Also author John McPhee and journalists Steven Levy and John Markoff, both of whom became friends of mine. Levy and Markoff know how to get at the core of the issue and explain the story with insight, not just the facts.

EN: Who are the most interesting people you’ve interviewed as a business writer?
RLB: Linus Pauling, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin

EN: In layman's terms what is "the cloud" and how is it going to change the future of the Internet? How is Jeff Bezos taking advantage of this transition?
RLB: The cloud, in a sense, is the internet. More specifically, cloud computing means that the work you do by computer is no longer reliant just on the processors and memory chips residing in your personal computer. Instead, you tap into the software and processing power of networks of computers through the internet, which do the heavy lifting. It's essentially like having a giant, amorphous computer, really a network of computers, attached to the machine you're using.

It started in business computing with companies like Salesforce.com. Companies don't have to buy their own computers and software to do certain tasks. They can just connect to computers and software owned by Salesforce.com, which leases computer time to them. The systems are set up to be dynamic, automatically routing work to more computers as your workload increases, and companies can pay just for the processing power they need as they need it.

Jeff Bezos started moving Amazon into this area around 2002. He had all this computing power running business software, much of which he had created, and realized he could make it all available to companies to help them run their businesses. So a lot of the work they do is actually run on Amazon computers. When you order an Instant movie from Netflix, for example, you actually tap into Amazon computers, where the movies are stored. Amazon's computers stream the films to you. The personal device you're using to watch the movie doesn't have to do very much work. The Kindle Fire represents the next step for Amazon in that direction. It was designed to be the device to which movies, TV shows, books, music and other media are streamed. That allows the Fire to have minimal memory and processing power -- and a lower price (although Bezos also sells it at a loss because the real money is in streaming the media to you.) He's been doing this since the Kindle was first introduced. That's how he can synch up the book you're reading for different devices. I can start reading a book on a Kindle, put it down and continue reading on a PC, and later read more on my cell phone. When I open the Kindle app on any of these devices it always starts at the last page I read. That's because Amazon's computers remember where I left off and make sure each device starts up again on the right page. With the Fire, Bezos plans to bring this kind of computing to a lot of different media and applications. The way he sees it, the internet is the next generation of computing, while our personal devices are merely peripherals.

EN: It’s amusing that the title of your first iteration of The Google Guys failed to connect with buyers because they (the wider public) didn’t know who these guys were. How did this mistake happen and how much difference has the new title made on sales?
RLB: The first version of the book was called "Inside Larry and Sergey's Brain." It was part of a series that started several years ago with "Inside Steve's Brain," about Steve Jobs. Each book in the series was written by a different author. But not very many people know the Google founders by their first names alone, even with their picture on the cover (and I suspect this was the case with other titles in the series.) So the publisher decided to give up on using this first-name-only approach. The paperback was released under a new title: "The Google Guys: Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin." The book on Jeff Bezos was going to be the next in the series, "Inside Jeff's Brain," but was titled "One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com." It's too early to tell whether the new title for the Google book will make a difference in sales. It got great reviews but not a lot of traction the first time around.

EN: Thanks, Richard. I enjoyed your book on Amazon.com and will look for The Google Guys.

EdNote: You can follow Richard Brandt via the following social media channels:
http://richardbrandt.blogs.com
@rlbrandt
Facebook: Richard L Brandt
LinkedIn: Richard L Brandt

Monday, November 28, 2011

One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com

Three people come upon a magnificent tree. The carpenter sees lumber for a cabin. The poet is inspired to transform the tree into a metaphor for the meaning of life. The entrepreneur sees that the rarity of this tree could possibly become a tourist attraction... or maybe pieces of the tree could be polished and engraved for added value and sold at an immense profit for his family.

All this to say, in the early nineties when entrepreneur Jeff Bezos discovered the Internet, he became laser focused and seems to have made it a life mission to profit from an Internet business. At the very same time I also became intrigued by the Internet, but with a different viewpoint. I became fascinated by the idea that I could find readers for my unpublished stories. It also gave me a subject to write about.

For business writer Richard L. Brandt, the Internet has also given him plenty to write about these past two decades. A former correspondent for BusinessWeek and award-winning journalist, Brandt has no doubt enjoyed his west coast digs in the vicinity of Silicon Valley, where much of the action has been. Author of The Google Guys, an inside like at the brains behind Google, he has just released One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com.

Although I've written several times how I love my Kindle, there's still something to be said for the feel of a book in your hands, especially a well conceived volume like One Click. It's compact, has a good looking cover, and is just the right size for easy toting about the house. I like the clean design of the cover art… and the design of the pages as they are laid out. And it deals with a topic dear to my heart…. Amazon.com.

What I like about biographies and business success stories is that they so often contain insights which can then be applied to your own businesses. Since most of us in one way or another work for a business, a book like this can increase our value for the companies that employ us. Brandt's book is no exception to this rule.

As is often the case, I like reading reviews of the books I am about to read, one of the great features of Amazon.com. Brandt notes that Bezos' goal with his online bookstore was to make it an enjoyable experience. "People will gladly spend hours in a bookstore, so you have to make the shopping experience fun and engaging." Nearly every feature of Amazon.com is designed to fulfill this aim.

Interestingly enough, many of the reviews of Brandt's book are less than stellar. Here's an example...
First, the good news: One Click is an easy to read and well organized account of Jeff Bezos and his piloting of Amazon.com's extraordinary success. The bad news is that One Click does very little digging below the surface.

To me this dig has an easy comeback. How deep is deep enough? I mean, one can research ad nauseum and produce a tedious tome that no one will have time to digest.

I half considered using the whole of this column to write rebuttals to the reviewers, but then again, to each his own. Some readers maybe knew a lot more of Jeff Bezos' story and were expecting more. Being somewhat out of that loop I found the overview of Bezos' early career and commitment to a vision of customer satisfaction to be informative, and presented in a manner that kept me easily moving forward.

My only real criticism of the book comes in the first chapter where Brandt starts early on with some negatives about the company, citing an article titled "How I 'Escaped' From Amazon.cult" by a Richard Howard. I wondered this was setting the tone for a book with more scathing objectives that merely informing. I then wondered if the publisher pushed this to the front in order to be more controversial and snatch more readers. Maybe the author was simply stating by the early jabs that he was an objective reporter and not a fawning follower.

Whatever impression one has of Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com after reading One Click, one has to be impressed by the company's Mission Statement: "To be Earth's most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online."

In summary, two people follow the Amazon.com story for a portion of their lives. One decides to write a book about this company, the other decides to publish his books by means of this company. Same magnificent tree, two different kinds of story. Thank you to Richard L. Brandt for using his skills to bring us this concise snapshot overview.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waltzing with Bears

If you're like me you occasionally like to listen to the same song several times in a row? The same with reading books, though not always in a row. But I do read favorite books multiple times. Perhaps we’re comforted by the familiar.

Even as early as second grade I had a favorite book that I kept taking out from the school library. I’d taken it out so many times over and over again that the librarian was concerned enough to comment about it. Interestingly enough, it was a story about bears.

That memory came to mind after I had watched and listened to a song on YouTube maybe four, five or six times in a row. The song was “Waltzing With Bears.” What is it about this song that gives me such a kick? Maybe because it’s so frivolous. Or maybe it's because the song makes me remember my own Uncle Walter with warm memories associated. Is this what he was up to on those West Virginia hillsides?

Here are the lyrics. Be sure to go listen to the video afterwards

Waltzing With Bears

I went upstairs in the middle of the night,
I tiptoed in and I turned on the light,
And to my surprise, there was no one in sight,
My Uncle Walter goes waltzing at night!

Chorus
He goes wa-wa-wa-wa, wa-waltzing with bears,
Raggy bears, shaggy bears, baggy bears too.
There's nothing on earth Uncle Walter won't do,
So he can go waltzing, wa-wa-wa-waltzing,
So he can go waltzing, waltzing with bears!

I gave Uncle Walter a new coat to wear,
When he came home he was covered with hair,
And lately I've noticed several new tears,
I'm sure Uncle Walter goes waltzing with bears!
[Repeat Chorus]

We told Uncle Walter that he should be good,
And do all the things that we said he should,
But I know that he'd rather be out in the wood,
I'm afraid we might lose Uncle Walter for good!
[Repeat Chorus]

We begged and we pleaded, “Oh please won't you stay!"
We managed to keep him at home for a day,
But the bears all barged in, and they took him away!
Now he's waltzing with pandas, and he can't understand us,
And the bears all demand at least one dance a day!
[Repeat Chorus]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The USPS 13-Ounce Rule

Over lunch this past week I learned more details about the USPS 13-Ounce Rule. I myself have seldom run afoul of the rule because I generally don't weigh packages at home before shipping. The essence of the rule is this: if a package weighs over 13 ounces, you have to deliver it to the post office in person. You can't drop it in a mail slot or a blue post office box. You have to stand in line, no matter how long the line is, and wait. This way you can be asked if there are any explosives in the package.

This rule went into effect in 2007 as a Homeland Security measure. It makes terrorists tremble in fear because terrorists are not very good at lying (haha) and will no doubt break down in the face of such stringent interrogation by a mailing clerk. "Does your package contain explosives?" "Uhm, gee, I hope not."

The real effect of the rule is to make lines even longer at the post office, and to make business in America still more inefficient.

There are companies that used to be able to mail in normal ways that did not waste part of a day, but now they must send someone to the post office to stand in line. At least this is a job that won't be shipped overseas.

Here's another interesting feature of the rule. Suppose the terrorist wanted to send a bomb to Judge William Jenkins (name is fictitious). Instead of mailing the bomb at the post office, he sticks the one pound package in a mail slot. The package is then delivered to the judge because it was not properly shipped and must be returned to sender. This kind of thing actually happens.

This year it appears that our local U.S. Postal Service is planning to close some of the local branches of the post office. If I understand the plan, they will actually be closing the sorting and delivery features of the Duluth offices so that mail will be received, then sent to Minneapolis to be sorted then returned to Duluth. The lines will be lengthened for those who need to follow the irrational Homeland Security 13-Ounce Rule, and the mailing delays will be... inconvenient.

As a kid I enjoyed reading about the Pony Express, whose mission was to see how fast they could deliver the mail to remote regions. Today's artificial inefficiencies are sadly comical because they don't address the real problems. Like so many things in modern life, things get more complicated and keep getting worse, but we're told it's getting better all the time.

This past week I've been reading One Click, an inside look at Jeff Bezos and the rise of Amazon.com by Richard Brandt. The focal point of Bezos' vision and total dedication was to maximum efficiency and ease-of-use by the consumer. This customer orientation resulted in billions of dollars of profits for the company and its stakeholders. In contrast, during this same period the U.S. Post Office has lost billions. How is it that our post office has become so backward in this regard?

What happens next is anyone's guess.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Flowers Are Red

The other night I was talking with a group of people when the topic of conformity came up. I shared how I'd written about this theme more than once, and mentioned one of my blog entries from a couple years back about coloring outside the lines.

In response another fellow, we'll call him Tony, told us about the Harry Chapin song "Flowers Are Red." Tony said that when you get to the end its one of the saddest songs ever.

Naturally, I had to scribble a note to myself to look up the lyrics when I got home, which I did. And indeed, it's a very sad song. A statement about conformity, about our education system and about life...

Singer/songwriter Harry Chapin's life was cut short at an early age but his songs live on. You most likely know him best for his song "Cat's in the Cradle." Here's another of the songs he left us.

Flowers Are Red

The little boy went first day of school
He got some crayons and started to draw
He put colors all over the paper
For colors was what he saw
And the teacher said.. What you doin' young man
I'm paintin' flowers he said
She said... It's not the time for art young man
And anyway flowers are green and red
There's a time for everything young man
And a way it should be done
You've got to show concern for everyone else
For you're not the only one

And she said...
Flowers are red young man
Green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen

But the little boy said...
There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flower and I see every one

Well the teacher said.. You're sassy
There's ways that things should be
And you'll paint flowers the way they are
So repeat after me.....

And she said...
Flowers are red young man
Green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen

But the little boy said...
There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flower and I see every one

The teacher put him in a corner
She said.. It's for your own good..
And you won't come out 'til you get it right
And all responding like you should
Well finally he got lonely
Frightened thoughts filled his head
And he went up to the teacher
And this is what he said.. and he said

Flowers are red, green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen

Time went by like it always does
And they moved to another town
And the little boy went to another school
And this is what he found
The teacher there was smilin'
She said...Painting should be fun
And there are so many colors in a flower
So let's use every one

But that little boy painted flowers
In neat rows of green and red
And when the teacher asked him why
This is what he said.. and he said

Flowers are red, green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Books by Ed Newman, Family and Friends

DEBUT NOVEL
The Red Scorpion
Ed Newman's haunted house story with a supernatural twist. Lord of the Flies meets Stephen King. One Amazon reviewer called it "a good mystery/suspense/science fiction thriller... carefully crafted and realistically portrayed." A Nook reader wrote, "This book kept me reading straight through till the end. It kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next." Available on both Kindle by clicking on the book cover to the right, or on Nook here. A limited number of print copies are also available from Savage Press
Buy Now: $2.99 eBook, $9.95 Paperback

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Unremembered Histories
The paranormal becomes the common denominator in these six unique stories by Ed Newman. An Amazon.com reviewer wrote, "If you value the short-story form, written in a way that entertains, informs, and prompts you to think, then there's a lot to appreciate in this little gem."
Purchase a Kindle version of the book by clicking on the book cover on the right side of this page. It is also available for the Nook here.
Buy Now: eBook only $1.99

Newmanesque
Newmanesque is a second collection of literary short fiction by author Ed Newman. This set of stories includes The M Zone, A Poem About Truth, The Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston, The Nose, and Terrorists Preying, which has been translated into French by Aude Fondard. One reader of these stories wrote, “My very first impression is that there's a certain style in some ways similar to Franz Kafka which is good and intense… very mysterious for one doesn't know where the whole thing is going to go, but is sure that there's a message to be captured from the many moments stated in the short sentences that are all poignant to the story."
Purchase a Kindle version of the book by clicking on the book cover on the right side of this page. It is also available for the Nook here.
Buy Now: eBook only $1.99

The Breaking Point and Other Stories
This third collection of short stories by Ed Newman features the 1991 Arrowhead Regional Writing Competition winning story The Breaking Point and four other stories. Literary entertainment straight up. One reader wrote that the stories "contain insight into relationships" with "subject matter regarding love relationship's emotions, expectations, illusions, and delusions in the most mundane characters."
Purchase a Kindle version of the book by clicking on the book cover on the right side of this page. It is also available for the Nook here.
Buy Now: eBook only $1.99

COMING in 2012
Teach Your Children Well (working title)
An Approach for Teaching Writing to Home Schoolers and Anyone Looking for a Way to Improve the Writing Skills of Young People
Good writing skills are essential to success. The philosophy for teaching writing that I have outlined in my short book Teach Your Children Well is guaranteed to make a difference in your child’s life. This is a book for anyone interested in helping kids improve their writing skills. Essentially the book offers an approach that helps unstop critical barriers that inhibit young students. Boost your child’s writing skills with a new approach, and exercises designed to make writing fun.

And There Shall Be Wars
A World War II Memoir by Wilmer A. Wagner
536 pages. Illustrated with 178 original photos and documents.

Wilmer A. "Bud" Wagner was the second man in Northern Minnesota to be drafted into the war. He carried a small pocket camera and kept a diary from beginning to end, from Camp Claiborne to Ireland to North Africa and the Italy Campaigns. His keen day by day observations have been amplified with a lifetime of research and reflection to provide readers with important insights through the eyes of a young soldier from rural Minnesota.

Mr. Wagner - cook, machine gunner and company agent - had the privilege of being on the first convoy to make its way across the Atlantic for the European theater. And the good fortune of having survived the duration of the war without becoming a casualty - in North Africa and Italy, which included beachheads at Anzio and Salerno.

The book was a joint project involving the research skills and memoirs of WW II veteran Bud Wagner and his son Lloyd Wagner (Masters in Literature). A large collection of original photographs and documents accompanies the text.

General John W. Vessey, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote, "Dear Bud, ... Thanks... for putting those wartime notes into a permanent record. It is an important addition to all the 'stuff' historians record. I couldn't put the book down once I got into it. It brought back a lot of memories reading about times, places, and people from 55+ years ago."

Available through Savage Press
$20.00 plus Shipping & Handling

Enger Tower Calendar Release Party at Hanabi

Tuesday evening I was able to attend the Enger Tower Calendar release party at the Hanabi Restaurant in downtown Duluth. The visit of King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway last month created quite the stir and resulted in a much needed renovation of Enger Tower and the park that is its home overlooking the perhaps the most beautiful vista in the upper midwest. Quick note: the Midwest is relatively flat so there are not an abundance of vistas to compete with on that score. Truth be told, however, this view can hold its own with nearly any in the world when the full moon rises over the waters of Lake Superior or the skies open up for an evening sunset.

As part of the renovation the Duluth Rotary raised and contributed over $100,000 for the king's visit. Crystal Taylor served as official fund-raiser for the City of Duluth to help deliver additional quantities of cash for this purpose, which included re-paving a portion of Skyline Drive and additions to the park itself.

One of the fund-raising projects involved the production of a 2012 Enger Tower Calendar, featuring the tower and park with all photography donated by John Heino and printing by Dean Casperson's Service Printers.

There will actually be several 2012 Celebration of Enger Tower calendar release events. Tuesday's party featured Hanabi's famously delicious sushi. Heino, on hand to sign the calendars, undoubtedly had a say in selecting the location, as I happen to know he loves Hanabi for both atmosphere and the quality of its cuisine.

December 1 from 4:30 till 6:30 there will be a second calendar launch/signing event at Blackwater, downtown on Superior Street. And a third event is being planned for an as yet unnamed date.

There are actually three reasons to purchase a calendar. First, because everyone needs a calendar and this one is very nice. Second, because you will feel good inside knowing you've helped contribute to a good cause. City parks are never free. They all require tax dollars for upkeep. The aesthetic beauty of Enger Park will be enjoyed by countless numbers of people in the coming yers because of your contribution. And third, buying a calendar makes you eligible to win this original painting of the tower by local artist Ed Newman. Heino conceived the picture at the top of this page with artist painting his vision of the tower. Bert Enger, whose generous giving helped build the tower in the 1930's, looks on approvingly from the clouds.

Northland News Center was on hand and did a story on the event.

To order your calendar online, please go to http://www.engertowerduluth.com. The link to donate for the tower is on left side of the page. Or locally, visit any of these great businesses: Fitger's Book Store, Happy Space, Douglas County Historical Society, Utopia Salon & Spa, Duluth Playhouse, Thirsty Pagan, Jitters: a Lake Superior Coffee & Tea House, Lake Superior Magazine gift store, Takk for Maten, Evolve Duluth, and Larsmont Cottages.

Photo Captions
Top right: Cover of the calendar showing the King and Queen of Norway at the October 17 dedication ceremony.
Middle photo: John and Wendy Heino, Tony Rubin and Crystal Taylor.
Lower right: Ed Newman adds finishing touch to painting of the tower to be given away to a lucky winner of in the drawing.
Click images to enlarge.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

They're Back. It's a Homecoming

In movies and in books I don't always need a happy ending to enjoy the story or get something out of it. But in real life, happy endings are absolutely wonderful. And when it involves your children, you always want a happy ending.

From time to time I've written here about the hikers Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd who were arrested for trespassing in Iran, accused of espionage and imprisoned in the summer of 2009. In September 2010, after 410 days of solitary confinement, Sarah was released. But the anguished waiting for Josh and Shane's liberation went on for still another year.

To everyone's great relief, the drama had a good ending. Josh and Shane were home again.

Last Saturday evening in Pine City there was a quiet gathering of friends and supporters who had stood by Shane's family here in Minnesota these past two-plus years. My long-time friend Kelly McFaul-Solem is a photographer who shared these pictures from last Saturday's quiet celebration in Pine City. The family invited friends who had been standing alongside them through the ordeal. I asked Kelly if instead of my usual Wordless Wednesday photos that maybe I could share hers here. It seems like a good introduction to Thanksgiving.

As we give thanks for this gift of resolution, let's also remember all the other situations where loved ones are still waiting for a homecoming.


And thank you, Kelly, for these great pictures.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ten Minutes with Singer Songwriter Caitlin Robertson

I met Caitlin Robertson in 2010 as a judge in the Beaners Central Singer/Songwriter Contest. There were a number of very talented artists who performed that night, and Caitlin took second in the competition. Having stayed in touch, she recently shared that she is striving to raise money to produce a second CD. Here’s a little about her life in music, which I share in the hope that some of you might feel moved to help her in this project.

Ennyman: Where does your knack for songwriting come from?
Caitlin: It probably helps that my parents and older brother all have a Master's in English. I grew up in a pretty literary-minded family. We were always reading aloud to each other and crying over sad poems and such. I followed in their footsteps to a certain extent by getting my Bachelor's in English at St. Olaf College. But I think my interest in songwriting started well before I was aware it was something I wanted to focus on.

I became obsessed with reading the lyrics on CD jackets starting when I got my first CDs in junior high such as Jewel's "Pieces of You" given to me by my older brother and Lucinda Williams' records that my father introduced to me. As I began high school I started finding many other artists that I loved. I don't think I realized at the time that I wanted to write songs, but the poetry in the lyrics I read really resonated with me. Lucinda Williams' and other artists' (such as Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Gillian Welch, and the McGarrigle Sisters) beautiful lines etched themselves into my heart with the truth, pain, beauty and love they spoke of. I could sing along for hours. In high school people told me that I was a good writer but I didn't try writing poetry really until college when I took a "Creative Writing" class with Jim Heynen (acclaimed writer) my senior year. After that I was hooked on writing poetry, and then when I moved to the Northwest in my early 20s, I started putting my first poems into songs. I just thought I would try, and then it became something I wanted to keep on doing. I think writing songs is like putting together a puzzle for me. I love writing period. But songwriting combines two things I love into one. I think songwriting is a great challenge because you have to (or get to) say as much as you would in another form of writing in less words. Plus it has to be musically interesting, too.

Enny: Which comes first, the tune or the story? Do you have a standard process?
Caitlin: When I first started writing songs, the story always came first, because I began by transforming poems I had already written into songs. So this meant changing some of my more elaborate, verbose poetry lines into phrases that were simpler and would fit rhythmically into a given melody and time signature I had chosen. Now I do it both ways--sometimes I still start with just the story, but I have begun to find it easier and more enjoyable to pick up my guitar when I have an idea for a song and write the music and lyrics somewhat simultaneously. Sometimes I'll finish a song in one sitting and I won't be able to get up until it's finished (usually an all-day process), and other times I have to come back to it the next day. I always need to return to a started-song soon though, or it becomes one of my "never-finished-starts-of-songs" in one of my many notebooks.

Enny: You call your style folk-rock. Can you elaborate on that?
Caitlin: I call my style "folk-rock-country-pop". Lucinda Williams is probably my greatest influence, lyrically and musically. I adore her music. I believe the folk-rock-country influence comes from listening to artists such as Lucinda, as well as listening to my parents' old Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons records. Growing up on a sheep farm 7 miles north of a small town in rural Minnesota probably helped to form my writing and musical styles as well. I have been told that some of my songs have a slight "pop" twist to them. When I was younger I might have taken the "pop" label as a diss, but now I like it because I feel like my songs do have a "pop" (modern) aspect to them. But I have also been told my songs have an older feel to them. My hope is that most of my songs will be considered timeless, and that people of different generations and diverse musical inclinations will be able to connect with them in some way.

Enny: How did you come to make the guitar “your instrument”?
Caitlin: I started out on the flute and tin whistle in junior high and then in high school I fell in love with the piano. In college, my dad gave me a black Takamine guitar and I started playing around with it from time to time. I had too many other interests at the time to really focus on learning how to play the guitar, but then when I moved out to the Northwest in my early 20s, I started teaching myself more seriously and took a few lessons. I find the guitar lends itself to my songwriting process more than the piano has been able to in the past. That being said, I look forward to trying to write some songs on the piano in the near future.

Enny: A lot of people make CDs these days. What will be different about yours that makes it more than just something your friends will enjoy?
Caitlin: I believe that my songs and my "sound' are unique and I hope that people will be able to connect with the stories, landscapes, and feelings that I describe. Perhaps these connections might add to their own understandings of their own experiences. I think people will enjoy that I explore (through my songs) dark sides and emotions but I don't stay in the dark for too long, because there is also so much beauty and light in the world to help keep us hopeful, too. My highest hope is that at least a few of my songs will be considered timeless, and that people of different generations and diverse musical inclinations will be able to connect with them in some way.

Enny: Where do people send the money you’re trying to raise for this project?
Caitlin: "Coyote Blues" my first CD, will be released in December of 2011. You can watch my CD promo video on the Media page of my website, www.caitlinrobertsonmusic.com/media

If you like what you hear, please consider checking out my new Kickstarter project, "Caitlin Robertson Wintersong EP". Kickstarter is a really neat platform for independent artists to raise money for their projects. My goal is to raise $3,000 to record my Wintersong EP (my second album) by the end of February 2012. But here's the catch. I have to raise ALL of the money by January 8th, or the money will be refunded to my backers. I really want to make an EP of winter songs that I have already written, so I'm really hoping my project will be funded and I'll be able to make my Wintersong EP happen in 2012!!! You can find my project and a fuller description by going to www.kickstarter.com and searching for "Caitlin Robertson Wintersong EP" OR you can go to my website, www.caitinrobertsonmusic.com and you will find a link to my Kickstarter project on my homepage, OR you can click here.

I hope you will check out my site and spread the word. Every little bit helps me toward my goal! And I have fun rewards for all of my Kickstarter Project Backers. Visit my Kickstarter site to find out what they are!

Enny: Where did the album title come from?
Caitlin: The title "Coyote Blues" is both the title of my first album and the 7th song on the album. "Coyote Blues" tells the story of two cowgirls on a walk, who meet a Coyote that teaches them to sing the blues. The song is about recognizing the amazing experience of seeing such a beautiful animal (a Coyote) in front of them, and about learning something from this animal. It's about overcoming fear in order to enjoy the beautiful mysteries in life. I think that is a theme that is present in a lot of the songs on my album.

Enny: Here's an excerpt from a review about Caitlin's music.
"Caitlin Robertson's songs tell emotional, place-based narratives that conjure up images that range from lonely red barns, heartache as barren as the Sierra Hills, aging waitresses, melting ice cream cones to the fragile face of a baby sleeping in the night. The songs on "Coyote Blues" show the depth of attention Caitlin gives to the people and landscapes that surround her, and her ability to beautifully articulate her experiences to others through her music. they describe universal emotions in thoughtful ways as well as demonstrate an urgency to live in the moment--to "live foolishly. Many of Caitlin's songs have a sweetness and hopefulness to them, but "Coyote Blues" as a whole is sad and world-weary enough to avoid being criticized for its naiveté."

You can pre-order "Coyote Blues" at www.caitlinrobertsonmusic.com/music to have it sent to you by December 2011, when it will be released.

You can check out her Facebook music page at: www.facebook.com/caitlinrobertsonmusic

EdNote: Caitlin Robertson will be here in Duluth for her Northland CD Release at Beaners on January 21. If you're in the neighborhood, do join the celebration.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Saturday Night's All Right for Art Shows


Late Saturday afternoon I drove in to town to drop off my framed Dreamtiger for the new Stagecoach Gallery on 3rd Avenue West. They've announced their Decompress party / public opening for next Friday, November 25 from 6:00 p.m. on. This one is BYOB, FWIW.

From there I slipped on over to Lizzard's Gallery on Superior Street half a block from Pizza Luce. Jeffrey probably has the premiere gallery in terms of representation of regional artists. His walls are a jigsaw puzzle of paintings of every conceivable size, shape and color. His contribution to the arts includes framing and presentation materials and expertise. He's always helpful, and friendly. After making a few decisions about matting and framing I killed a half hour and then drove up to Adeline Wright's new digs for her beauty salon where her opening was in progress up on 12th Avenue East and Ninth Street.

Several hair salons in the Twin Ports have art on their walls. Adeline's is no exception, except that in her case the marvelous large paintings are her own. The salon is decorated with class from top to bottom. An accordionist in Norwegian getup filled the space with liveliness. Every detail has been given attention, right down to the bathroom decor, the business cards and Adeline's eyelashes. That's what a beauty salon is all about though, isn't it? Attention to detail.

But I was especially interested in Adeline's new paintings, executed in a flowing style reminiscent of Paris 1920s. The picture top right is just inside the front door. To follow Adeline's on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/adelineinc

From here I scooted down the hill to Ochre Ghost Gallery where Emily Ostos was showing her new work inspired by two months in India where she had travelled to study yoga and Vedanta. Ostos was born in Venezuela and came to the States when she was three. By day she serves customers at Pizza Luce and just happened to deliver my food this past week when I learned of her show. We talked briefly about India (rewarding with many learning experiences) and about her numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in Venezuela.

In the center of the gallery is a large wire elephant, a symbol with Hindu meanings I assume and not a statement about U.S, political affiliations. Many of the works were produced while she was in Northern India at the edge of the Himalayas.

I found this treatment of the relationship between frame and art to be most intriguing. Looking forward to seeing more of Emily's work in the future. I believe this was her third one-person show.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Hero Jeff Bezos

Internet start-ups and garages go together like soup and sandwiches, at least in regions where the climate is temperate most of the year. I only recently learned that Jeff Bezos followed the same pattern, setting up his fledgling firm in his garage. In fifteen years the founder of Amazon.com became one of the richest men in America and became Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

So what is it that I like about this guy? Well, besides the fact that he lives in Albuquerque, this business he founded is all about books. I’m a reader, and we have book shelves in every room of the house. In fact, Cicero once said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Books are great. What would life be without books?

Jorge Luis Borges said that he imagined that Paradise would be like a library. Well, with the advent of the Internet, and Amazon.com, as long as we have a modem and power, we can tap into a little stream of that Paradise any time we want.

Even before the Kindle I have been a strong advocate of Amazon.com. When I hear someone tout a new book, I go to Amazon.com to see what other readers have been saying about it.

The site has so many brilliant features. They are a variety of ways it helps you find more books that you will like. One is, "People who bought this (the book you are looking at) also bought these." You don't get that at a conventional book store. And then based on your buying history the site makes recommendations to you as you approach the checkout.

In fact, everything about the site is easy. They remember your shipping address and the addresses of friends or family you've shipped things to. They remember your card info if you want them to. And they make it so very easy to find what you are looking for. Easy is the operative word here.

And as I've said before, that's just what the Kindle was when I got mine earlier this year. Easy.

A Henry Ward Beecher observation comes to mind here. He said, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” You got that right. And Amazon.com plays on that weakness in another way. You don't like the price of a book? There are five, ten or forty used copies available at very low prices, sometimes for as little as a nickel. Many times over the years I have recommended certain out of print books to people that were still available by means of this "swap meet" style of selling used merchandise.

What I like most of all, and why Jeff Bezos is my hero this year, is that through ePublishing I have been able to publish and share the short fiction I've been writing the past twenty-five years. The literary agents I tried to work with all said that the New York publishing houses were not going to talk to a short story writer. You have to write a novel. Until now, the power was in their hands. Today publishing is in the hands of the people. We can all be digital Gutenbergs now.

This fall many of the stories which had been lying dormant in my hard drive were released to a wider audience by means of Kindle and Nook. I actually did publish my novel, The Red Scorpion, but consider the short story volumes to be my jewels. At this point there are three: Unremembered Histories, Newmanesque, and The Breaking Point and Other Stories. And if you get a chance, write a review.* Keep our book-reading community rolling.

Thank you, Mr. Bezos. And thank you to all the world's readers as well. Because of you we write on.

*I am currently offering artwork to readers who write reviews for any of my books. Details here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

It Doesn't Require Mental Telepathy Any More

Can you create something new and meaningful on demand? Every day? Think about it. Everything is easy for the one who doesn't have to do it.

Magicians have always been fascinating to me, and no doubt to many others as well or there wouldn't be so many sold out magic shows in Las Vegas every week. Much of the magic is simply technique and trickery, illusion and misdirection. But what about the mind readers? How real is mental telepathy? Can one person read another's most secret thoughts?

Actually, now that we live in the Facebook age there's very little hidden any more about many of us. A UPI story Wednesday stated, "The social networking site, whose profits come primarily from advertising, had been vague about its collection of tracking data. But it now acknowledges it can use cookies to create a 90-day log of where each of its members have gone on the Web after visiting a Facebook page, USA Today reports."

Privacy advocates want to stop this practice, but the ad agencies love it. It gives them the ability to target specific rifle shot ad messages to people who by their behavior have revealed their hot buttons.

This explains why the day after I was looking for a hat on eBay there appeared ads for hats on my Facebook page. What's scarier is that people are having their emails scrubbed for hot-button words so that ads can be thrown their direction via their browsers.

How much do the computers know about us? The UPI story goes into great detail on exactly how many details they own on us. The ad industry doesn't need mental telepathy to know who we are or what we're about. Our social media and Internet activity proclaims all.

The article is thought provoking and worth checking out. Be sure to take two minutes to watch the video, What Facebook knows about you.

Just a little something to think about.

Friday, November 18, 2011

PRØVE Gallery Inaugural Exhibition Proves Art Can Be Exciting


Last night I had the privilege of being able to attend the pre-opening of Duluth’s newest art phenomenon, the PRØVE Gallery. The collaborative project with a one-year commitment to its current location promises to bring still more excitement to an emerging Twin Ports arts scene.

The PRØVE Gallery mission is to become a conduit of powerful ideas and diverse viewpoints as well as fostering a greater appreciation of the modern arts, expanding community and providing cultural exchange. The gallery’s ambitious aims include presenting monthly shows, collaborating with like-minded arts organizations and create networking opportunities that benefit the arts retail environment.

My first impression upon arriving at the gallery was a huge “Ah, seriously interesting.”

The gallery is located in the heart of downtown, half a block up from the intersection of Lake Avenue and Superior Street. According to Richard Hansen, who serves with Sound Unseen, promoters of the Duluth International Film Festival, explained just how much work was involved is preparing the space for this event. “We didn’t even have a floor,” he said.

The artists are young, enthusiastic and serious about their work while simultaneously enjoying this opportunity to display. Justin Iverson’s Malignant Neoplasm on Steel is richly illuminated to produce a suitable vigor for those who stop to engage it. A vibrant variation on abstract expressionism, there is a fascinating assortment of colorations as a result of the application of salt, water and vinegar onto the surfaces of steel.

Nikolas Monson’s 5:30 PM in the rear of the gallery created interesting visuals due to the shadows and lighting. Monson explained the source of the title. It’s the color of sunset in October here in the Northland. Equally mysterious, based on viewer position, the piece is intended to create “the illusion of something more.”

Steven Read’s Showdown with Agassiz (below right) is designed to distort perceived space and adjust viewers’ relationship with objects in the environment. The name of the piece, along with the names of all these works, is both playful and cerebrally entertaining. I enjoyed taking numerous photos of gallery visitors engaged in conversation beneath the rubric of linear abstraction.

Anthony Zappa’s dynamic Tilt stretches into the interior of the gallery, serving as both wall and window to the space and designs within. The linear elements are wide enough apart to tempt viewers to barge through the piece but narrow enough to restrict such imposition.

Galleries like the PRØVE could not exist without the support of sponsors. And it really is great to see so many companies stepping up to support the arts locally. PRØVE Gallery sponsors include the New Scenic Café, Sherwin Williams, Sound Unseen, Lake Avenue Café and the Twin Ports Gallery. (As an aside, my father was a chemist who worked in the development of latex paints, and once was employed by Sherwin Williams in Cleveland way back when.) Thank you to all sponsors of the arts.

Tonight is the grand opening of the PRØVE Collective's newest art gallery. It is my earnest belief that anyone half-interested in the arts would be well served to pay attention to this new space, and if at all possible drop in tonight and check it out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Of Ringtones and Virtual Seeds

Why do we say "Ouch" when we stub a toe or pinch a finger? Just curious.

This just in: Americans spend more on ringtones ($2 billion) and virtual seeds (another half billion) than the total Gross Domestic Product (economic output) of 71 countries in the world. What would happen if instead of buying seeds for our Farmville back forty we instead sent money to someone who is sowing real seeds in a Third World outback?

For perspective, consider that we spend 40 to 100 times this amount on legal and illegal sports gambling, and another 100 billion dollars-plus on drugs like cocaine, heroin, meth, and pot.

When we buy virtual seeds we're helping folks whose life aim is surely to be in the 1%. And when we buy illegally imported drugs we're helping keep Mexico's top dogs in the 1% category.

A quick review of today's Buzz reveals that Pam Anderson has garnered the spotlight again. She's going to be playing the Virgin Mary in an upcoming Christmas special. For the record, the mother of Jesus was a teen and despite the multitude of face and body modifications and amplifications she's experienced, Ms. Anderson is currently in her mid-forties. Despite what the Washington Post proclaims, this is not the "role she was born for." Being baywatched and centerfolded gave her ample exposure. For sure we'd almost forgotten about her. The controversial role will give Letterman and Leno some fresh material for a few minutes. She might even play herself as a guest.

I'd better stop writing any further this morning lest someone conclude I got up on the wrong side of the couch. So, that's all for now.

For what it's worth, what does your ringtone sound like?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Crazy For God, A Critical Review

“Great men, even during their lifetime, are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality. Hence the modicum of truth in the old saying that no man is a hero to his valet.” ~Walter Lippman

This past summer I wrote a blog entry about the autobiography of Mark Twain in which I praised certain features of his approach to autobiography. Chiefly, I was impressed by his sensitivity to the feelings of others around him whom he might injure through excessive candor. Because he was not interested in couching his words and suggesting things between the lines, and he really wanted just to be totally open, he chose to request that the most honest version of his life be withheld from being printed till 100 years after his death. This liberated him from any concerns about hurting people he knew because they would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent."

How liberating! And how contrary to today’s method of tell-all journalism and tell-all autobiography in which it matters not how many people we lacerate, but only that we are authentic and earnest.

So here it is only a few months past and I’ve recently finished Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy For God, an autobiographical tale that is much more because Schaeffer is the son of world-renowned evangelical author and defender of Biblical veracity Francis Schaeffer. The Schaeffer’s L’Abri Retreat Center had a profound impact on countless lives with its intelligent approach to Biblical scholarship while remaining open to the meanings and impact of modernism. But this idyllic community was far from a Paradise in the Alps, and the younger Schaeffer dispels any myths a reader might have by giving his own inside take.

Frank Schaeffer, who grew up as Franky Schaeffer V, saw the inside story on his famous family and it was no doubt troubling, since like so many a famous family there are feet of clay. The world’s brokenness leaves no family untouched, hence the Lippman quote placed atop this blog entry.

Frank Schaeffer claims no ill will in this airing of dirty laundry which includes his mother’s ambition and control and the many difficult, noisy conflicts between his parents which even included a measure of domestic violence. But to be honest, I just don’t get it. Is this a book about his coming of age without losing his faith in spite of immersion in the insanity of Fundamentalism. Or is it an attempt to scratch the veneer off the Schaeffer reputation and distance himself from his earlier accomplishments with Franky Schaeffer V Productions which included directing How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?

I think back on how I met his mother once. In the 1980’s when Francis Schaeffer was being treated for cancer at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic there was an ecumenical anti-abortion rally in a baseball field across from an abortion clinic in St. Paul, MN. Dr. Schaeffer was one of many in a panoply of speakers that included rabbis, Catholic, Episcopal and Protestant pastors.

For me personally, one of the most striking memories of that day was what happened in the aftermath. The following day's Pioneer Press did not even carry a story about the rally. 5,000 had gathered and not a drop of ink spilled. Yet, the front page of the paper carried an article about 8 people protesting a nuclear warhead-related technology company in Boston.

The second significant memory for me that day was my getting a chance to speak with Edith Schaeffer, Franky's mom, the husband of Francis Schaeffer. She was milling around on the sidelines while her husband was preparing to address the crowd. When I found her she seemed disarmingly warm and I was made to feel quite comfortable and unimposing. She shared with me briefly about her husband's battle with cancer and the prospects. I asked about her son because I'd read Franky's A Time For Anger and Addicted To Mediocrity. Her eyes glowed, her face beaming as she said, "We're really proud of Franky."

She was a mom. And a writer. Her book Hidden Art I also owned and read, so I liked her. I appreciated that she made me feel like I was welcome to share those minutes with her, that I was not intruding. I snapped her picture and made my way over to where her husband was preparing to address the gathered crowd.

In light of these moments, Frank Schaeffer's book feels like such a betrayal. His mother was still alive, in her 90's, when this book appeared in print. If she is too insensible to be hurt by it I don't know but it had to have been painful to one of his sisters. But the critics loved it. They now had their dirty linen.

De-Converting.com wrote: “A must read for the de-converting…It is brutally honest, eye-opening, at times laugh out loud funny, and heart breaking.”

And from the American Authors Association: “A story that needed to be told…A very personal and brutally honest memoir, that opens up and exposes the underbelly of the evangelistic movement…Gives the reader a rare and different look at some of various leaders of the fundamentalist moment...The book may open some eyes and minds about the dangers of politics and religion…A must read book for serious seekers looking for their own authentic path to enlightenment, or at least some inner peace.”

Frankly, is nothing sacred any more? I agree whole-heartedly with the dangers of politics and religion. I just feel uncomfortable seeing people hurt loved ones for personal gain. I mean, Frank is making money off this expose, right? Whereas there many be some important insights here, my opinion is that a lot of this book should simply have been left in the hands of his therapist.

So be it.

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