Archive for October, 2007

Organize Me (and You) For Free

October 28th, 2007

Depending on your personality and workload, organizing tools can be as tight as a noose or as liberating as skinnydipping. In one of the most immediately useful this weekend’s Podcamp Boston 2 workshops, the very slick, very savvy Scott Monty sucked me in with his title Web 2.0 Tools You Can Use.

He talked to four freebies that we should all know and at least consider. I’ll be playing with them and sitting tight for the one that has a waiting list for invitations.

His PowerPoint for the presentation is online here. It won’t cut it by itself (you should make sure to attend the next Podcamp), because he understands how to use PP — he talks to the slides and adds a lot.

In the PP and under the player, he lists the four tools, plus audience recommended ones. As a bonus, there’s a citation of InviteShare, where I put my name on the list for one of the tools.

Jott — This lets you use voice commands and content to send messages transcribed into text or still in voice or both to an person or group. It’s a true mobile app for your own reminders or short messages you’d need an internet connection for otherwise.

TrailFire — This lets you put Acrobat-style comments on a web page, any web page, with forward and backward arrows. Without your being there, you can send a presentation with your context for someone to follow. This is a control freak’s delight.

GrandCentral — This requires the invitation. Google bought this do-it-all phone tool, which is free at the moment. Monty loves features from the list, particularly being able to direct one phone number (your office, home office, home, cell) to another or to all simultaneously. You can see who’s calling and listen in to the start of a message like an old-style answering machine. Blah, blah…it’s feature filled.
Doodle — This is something I know I’ll use in several contexts, including my professional society. Fill in the blanks to set up a poll to coordinate multiple people for a meeting. Send them the link and they check off day and time they can come. There’s no barrage of emails from everyone and lots of shuffling and figuring. They don’t have to be on the same network even.

I’ll be using some of these and may post a review as I go. Meanwhile, this is plenty for you to start.

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Podcasts…Out There

October 27th, 2007

PodCamp Logo

“This is not in my nature,” I heard myself saying as I climbed the four stairs to sit before the audience, as well as expose myself and my words to the Internet audience.

At this weekend’s Podcamp Boston 2 at the Boston Convention Center, I came face to face with my face and my shyness. After decades of hiding behind a notebook or still camera as a reporter and writer, interviewing the arrogant, the honored, the famous, and those simply ensnared in events around them, sitting before dozens of fellow geeks is a breakthrough of sorts for me.

Garfield mug

Not long before, I was again at a Steve Garfield session. He’s left in an image from his main site. He’s the god of Rocketboom and surely the most successful and noted videoblogger anywhere. He makes a living out of what many thousands of others can barely do for free with all they have to bring to bear.

I’ve known Steve through several of my selves. That includes as a political blogger at Marry in Massachusetts and as an audio podcaster at Left Ahead! I also been through several caffeine and pastry fueled Boston Media Makers meetings where we share, swap and support in downtown JP at Sweet Finnish.

He is that out-there guy. Typically, his vlogs start with him filming his loooong and charmingly smiling face at the start, somewhere in the middle and near the end. He is an inspiration to us introverts and he knows that about me is not a bad phrase.

Ministerial Recollection

A couple of decades ago, I was coming on as chair of a large downtown church’s board when we had a Myers-Briggs personality exercise at a retreat when we prepared to replace the senior minister. The interim minister and I were paired to discuss our test results. He had been preaching for about 50 years and had a commanding pulpit presence. I had been a reporter, editor, tech writer and documentation manager.

I was and have always retested as an INTP. He also was strongly I. That letter means introvert on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Both of us were pretty far on the extreme of I. Both of us knew that was true personally but were flabbergasted that it was for the other guy.

As it turns out, he was a great counselor (with a masters in that on top of his doctorate in divinity), but he hated the preaching. The congregants loved his booming, confident oratory, while he was shaking and insecure in his robes.

As surprised as I was to look at his letters, he demanded to know how I could have presented myself to and grilled the famous, infamous and ordinary if I took was introverted. My answer was similar to his, it was part of the job, my least favorite part, but essential. I did what I had to do. I recalled to him how I used to shingle roofs as part of my summer job as a carpenter’s helper on a house-building crew. I hated heights, but it was part of the job to lean 40 feet above the ground thumping roofing nails.

Business School Recollection

When I went back to college for a business degree, I had problems with only one course — communications. Of course that was ironic for a journalism school guy who had communicated for a living for a long time. It didn’t surprise the professor, who had seen a lot of us who communicate at a high level, so long as we had the shield of a clipboard, notebook or PowerPoint presentation.

A big part of the course was to stand before her and the other 25 adult students for three minutes once a week, delivering a surprise topic presentation cold with no props, no podium, no computer, nada. We left class with scribbled anonymous notes from the class as a review. There were guys who mindlessly jingled keys and change, and women who mumbled as they played with their hair. I, on the other hand, stood out for two traits — solid material and impassive visage. A typical note I got read, “Great content! For God’s sake, MOVE!”

I got better, but it took the bluntness of peers to make me realize how much and how long I had compensated. I was as bold as anyone, so long as I was protected with paper or other props. I’ve gotten better with the knowledge that I had lived decades covering up my introversion, not changing it.

The New Media Personality

Steve has no such shortcoming. While the vast majority of us geeks at the podcamp were shy sorts, some of the vloggers were not. Jonny Goldstein decided joined Steve in the extroversion world.

Jonny Goldstein

At his life talk show at the podcamp, Jonny (shown left in an image from his site) was shameless and good. He has stocked the audience with a few shills, so that he could have guests on his show on the dais. Several other extroverts jumped up to say what they were doing in the internet world and what they had gotten from the sessions so far.

After Steve’s session and from the Sweet Finnish meetings, I still carry the guilt of being only an audio podcaster, not also a video one. That doesn’t bother Steve or the others at the JP meet ups, but it bothers me. I’m the alpha geek in my crowds and I’m not on the edge in this end of the technologies.

Probably as a result, when the shills and showoffs had come and climbed down, a long pause came as he called repeatedly for another talk-show guest. I felt compelled to go.

I did and it wasn’t terrible and not worse than anyone who had gone before. For me though, it was a long way from my seat perhaps 25 feet to the dais.

I think I can do this again.

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Bloggers as Reporters #3

October 26th, 2007

You may have noticed the increasing proliferation of narrative articles in big and little daily newspapers, and even weeklies. Rather than just the facts, Ma’am reportage we see real stories. There are colorful images, lots of detail on the people, scenes and objects related to the article. The good guys, and the bad guys too, get verbal portraits to tell by showing and entertain us as well as inform us.

At last weekend’s Nieman Foundation Making the Most of Your Local Advantage seminar, two sessions addressed aspects of this. I had a conflict with the St. Petersburg Times’ Lane DeGregory’s Ordinary people, extraordinary profiles. However, I did get to her co-worker Ben Montgomery’s Writing the short narrative on a deadline.

He had good stuff for bloggers as well as weekly reporters. Many of us bloggers don’t have time for a lot of reporting and many don’t have experience at it. We can be shy about intruding and interviewing. Montgomery is young but has gotten over any of that he felt.

He has quickly adjusted to being a pro at what he needs to do to educe and observe enough and well enough to create that narrative from what most people would miss or forget. He chock full of tricks and techniques.

Reporter’s notebookThe notebook. His slim reporter’s notebook is more of a tool for him than for most of his peers. Montgomery leaves it in the back pocket of his jeans or in his jacket when he starts talking to a source, which avoids seeming pushy or in too much of a hurry. Then when he hears a remark he’s sure he’ll quote, he whips the notebook out, says, “That’s great. I’d like to use that,” and puts the notebook back. He says that often the source becomes increasingly eager to say something good to make him pull out the notebook again.

Across the table. Montgomery says he never eats with a source. He eats before he goes. He then buys the meal, but keeps his hands free, his mind focused and his mouth filled with words instead of food.

Pulling out a story. He aims to get the source to tell a story, not just sketch basic facts. He likes to ask questions that get them to connect to the situation as it happened. Moreover, he says a key to the narrative is to keep an eye out for any real emotion that the source shows and follow up on that. The hardest aspect would be if the source is hesitant and wants to avoid talking about something. There again, gentle questions asking for details on that subject often yield the best images and recollections.

Framing. Montgomery suggests visualizing the people and scene as you might be doing a video. Literally looking with that kind of cold eye can help frame the article and provide the best details and insights at writing time. He even suggests reporting the scene just as you would the source or other characters. Use observable detail to develop the city or the specific scene as though it is a character.

One in the audience asked how we can avoid a narrative becoming a formula. Montgomery didn’t see that as a problem. His pretty contagious enthusiasm suggests that so far, he is not in a writing rut.

I confess to a negative connotation from a previous professional life. Formulaic writing is often a sort of hand clasp between writer and reader. The readers know what to expect and have come to like it.

I think specifically of my time as a writer (senior editor on the biz card read) at Inc. Magazine. Its feature-article formula has been humming along for three decades. It works, but many of the writers got real tired of it.

The basics run like this:

  • Start with a sensory image, like the protagonist walking through a field of hops or sitting on a sailboat deck on a sweltering day. Image is all.
  • Jump into a business crisis. Ideally the protagonist was one of those who caused the problem.
  • Detail the situation and show how the company was on the edge of bankruptcy or having to sell to a competitor or such humiliation.
  • The protagonist (usually the company founder) explains how an analysis or insight produced the innovative solution.
  • Ta da! The protagonist saves the company and shares the technique with readers.

Inc. founder Bernie Goldhirsh used to tell us he wanted it to be an MBA inside the covers. By the end of the year, the reader will be smarter and more capable than at the beginning. That attitude from my boss’ boss’ boss was pervasive. We writers churn them out. It’s not difficult to tailor a non-fiction piece that way, but while the readers continue to love these entrepreneur-as-Superman tales, the formula can wear on the writers.

More from the seminar: Coverage of finding the time to do the meaningful stories is here. Also, more general talk about bloggers as reporters is here. Finally, a personal tale of white folk at Black papers is here.

Bloggers as Reporters #2

October 25th, 2007

I sit here with my 3×5 cards listing BIG ROCK on some and ROCK on others. I came to the Making the Most of Your Local Advantage seminar to pick up some blogging techniques, which I did. The how-the-devil-to-prioritize stuff was a big bonus.

Dean MillerA future post will creep a little into writing at the seminar. Meanwhile, Nieman Fellow Dean Miller’s story of the jar (as relevance would have it, a Ball jar) was one of his main props. I’d heard the underlying story before, but this self-described nag played the implications for writers beautifully.

Miller, shown here in a FocusWest PBS pic, is off from his duties at the Idaho Falls Post Register.

That Jar

Just in case you haven’t heard the jar story, it runs like this. A fellow puts a Ball jar on the desk. It has three big rocks in it, one poking out the top. He asks whether the jar is full and people enthusiastically say it is.

He then pours pebbles into the mouth. They fill the spaces around the rocks. He asks whether it is full now. Folks say, a little less enthusiastically, that it is.

This repeats, first with sand and then with water. Each time, the doubt rises in the audience and more stuff goes into the full jar.

There are different morals to infer from this process. Miller made it career personal.

Scheduling the Big, Good Stuff

It is a pretty accurate stereotype that newspaper reporters (and any writer) have a barrow full of essential work to do. After those tasks, they often are out of time or energy to get onto that great investigative piece (or novel or magazine article) that they really, really know they have in them.

Good Cliché:  Miller’s a colorful speaker, even to drawing onto Western images. He use one that surely will stick in the mind of writers wh o consider themselves overworked and hard pressed to find the time for the big rocks. He quoted a Blackfeet aphorism — the wolf hunts with the teeth it has.

The technique he advocated and facilitated (in his nag capacity) was to get commitments for some of the big rocks we want in our jar, but always seem to have excuses for not doing. He sais that the “only obstacle is excuses,” and challenged us to choose “to be one of the happy or one of the many.”

Essential to this is committing that day to one or more big rocks. That commitment comes with a list of the big-rock steps if necessary, each with a target completion date. He said that breaking it down into manageable chunks was essential to the busy. That might mean a 15-minute piece of phone or internet search related to the larger article or book. List those and check them off as you do them instead of goofing off or socializing during a break.

Miller stayed true to his description. He provided each of us with a big-rock sheet for the details. We self-addressed them, so that he can send them in a month. Nag. Nag. Nag.

He suggested that this can work well for procrastinators. “Most of us rebel against structure,” he said. Yet, he used poets as an example, adding that they often did their best work in a highly restrictive form, such as a sonnet.

Well, I’m sitting with several big rocks before me, enumerating the steps and trying to balance reasonable deadlines.

Bloggers as Reporters

October 24th, 2007

newspaper reporter sketchHow amusing it remains that some TV talking heads, as well as newspaper reporters and even columnists, continue to denigrate bloggers. They often phrase that disingenuously as a blanket assertion that bloggers are not reporters.

To those of us who came out of journalism schools and newspapers, that is to laugh a bloggy laugh. They might ask more reasonable and more easily answered questions, such as:

  • Do some bloggers do reporting?
  • Are bloggers’ analyses and comments any less worthwhile or insightful than a paper’s columnists’?
  • Do blogs fill in the ever widening news and reporting gaps that ever penurious newspapers leave?

Dummy Down

Let’s get real, boys and girls. Consider the TV news anchors. We pretend that the teleprompter blurbs they read are real reporting. Yet, the last major TV anchor who reported was Roger Mudd, over 20 years ago. While he later ran Meet the Press and did essays on PBS, his ouster tells us too much about mainstream media. He was the rational replacement for Walter Cronkite, but one of his networks chose the much inferior Dan Rather and another the very LITE Tom Brokaw.

I occasionally wonder if Mudd didn’t have such a long, horse face and had been more of a pretty boy, if he would have gotten his deserved spots. MSM news coverage would be much better off if he had.

When I interviewed Mudd while he was still on CBS, he stood out from his TV peers. He said that he would never report a story on the air that he had not done the original work on or vetted personally. He was a reporter and from doing that had the insight the rest of TV news lacked then and lacks even more so now.

NIH MSM

Blog bashing is an amusing sport played by MSM. Yet, some bloggers are ignoring that and doing their business. As a result, you likely get coverage of events and ideas from blogs that either never appear in MSM or received the lowest-common-denominator treatment days, weeks or months later.

One of the most encouraging trends in the future of news and analysis is the increasing number and quality of how-to sessions for bloggers.

You don’t have to think too deeply to notice that the criticisms of blogs has a very defensive tone in general. Considering how newspapers and broadcast have decreasing staff and thus fewer and fewer meaningful stories, it’s not surprising that they knock the much more numerous bloggers who do report and do analyze. Increasingly, some bloggers have the interest and focus that strapped MSM lack to notice and cover local events and trends.

Die Hyperlocal!

That written, I confess that hyperlocal gives me the willies. I suspect this trend will play itself out badly and quickly, even though its intentions are good enough. The concept is that the bloggers go down to the neighborhood, block or house level with coverage.

The effect too often is to present trivia as substance. It resembles a facebook page or the far too common ain’t-my-kitten-or-boyfriend-cute blog. That kind of self-indulgence gets real stale real fast, and consequently drives most viewers away quickly. The Internet makes hyperlocal coverage possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Doing It Right

In contrast, consider community journalism. If you don’t know what that is, click over to H2Otown and see it done right. There, dedicated and savvy bloggers and other volunteers do play Jimmy Olsen. Some want to grow into paid reporters elsewhere. Others have a passion for reporting the unreported news, what they want to see in MSM and local weeklies but don’t.

You don’t have to go that far or treat blogging as a separate career that burns all your spare cycles. Yet, for those who didn’t come out of a reporting background, some smart groups have recognized that:

  • Community journalism and reportage on blogs can only help us news-hungry sorts.
  • Knowing how to go about it makes it much easier and more effective.
  • You can teach the little that folks need to know.

In the past couple of years, I attended several such sessions, as conferences or seminars. I’ll do more when they appear. Even with my background, it didn’t hurt me and I learned things. Moreover, ye olde networking is great at these. I spoke with and have contacts with professional and blogger sorts from the commonwealth, region and country.

In particular, I cite the Media Giraffe/New England News Forum conferences in Amherst and Lowell, and last weekend’s Nieman Foundation seminar in Cambridge. The former blended MSM and new media sorts such as bloggers. The latter was mostly weekly newspaper reporters and editors. (I may have been the only blogger there.)

There’s a far amount of coverage of the NENF conferences in this blog, including this. I posted one personal view of the Nieman one here, and shall do one or two more on the sessions last weekend.

Meanwhile, the key concepts for those new to news is that you can do this. You don’t have to quit your day job or even stop your regular blog posting. You can pick a topic, do a little research and interviewing, and voila! you can be Jimmy.

Cross-posting: This also appears on Marry in Massachusetts.

Mug Clubs I Have Known

October 18th, 2007

Watch City Brewing in Waltham (of course) is on the extreme end of this short spectrum. An annual fee of $35 leases you your very own numbered crystal mug. That’s right, no one else’s lips should ever touch your rim. The mug holds 20 ounces. You pay for the pint and get the kick. You also pay half price for appetizers. If you lunch there regularly, it’s a deal. (My mug four two years when I worked close enough was #77.)

The middle of the mug schemes is Rock Bottom. All their restaurants offer a free mug club. You drink from the plebian common rack of mugs, but after you sign up, you also get an extra four ounces each time. In addition, they keep tabs and present you with RB branded swag (pint glass, hat and such) to keep you coming.

The serious swiller’s favorite has to be the same as mine though. Boston (and Salem) Beer Works have a VIP Club. It’s free and includes a simple scheme to keep you drinking. Every month, they give you up to $10 off if you spend at least $20 — beer, food or a combo. Sweet.

They also just changed from having you print out your monthly email to giving you a card linked to your account. Supposedly, the beer elves will store value in your account and keep track of it. I suspect the real motivation is not exactly the customer convenience they pitch. I never did, but I don’t see what would have prevented a customer from printing more than one copy of the email and getting that discount several times a month. I doubt the beer police would show up and certainly no one you want to know is interested in your beer after you’ve used it.

Bless them though. Of those three models, you know my choice and which one keeps me warming the stool.

Chat with Canal Street Beer God

October 18th, 2007

Boston Beer Works on Canal has as many wide-screen TVs as a Circuit City. I had better entertainment yesterday in the person of Herb Lindtveit.

The brewmaster is a sturdy fellow, who looks like he could tuck a keg under each arm and walk. He came behind the bar when my friend John and I were holding forth on something we likely thought was important. In his heavy dark blue coveralls with Herb on the right pec, he was finishing his day and feeling chatty.

We’re fans of his, even though this was the first time we met him or knew his name. We like a number of his beers, ales and barley wines, and are strong fans of his IPA. We bring IPAs at places like Redbones and the Sunset, which often have many on tap. BBW’s version is our touchstone and we often recommend it to others.

It never hurts to begin a conversation praising the other guy, so long as you’re sincere. We know his work.

Five years ago, Herb made a minor splash throughout the country with his comments about how beer helps build strong bones. As brewers are wont, even there he was talking enzymes and chemistry. It’s refreshing today to run across experts who aren’t about self-promotion.

Hercules Strong Ale shirt detailIn fact, Herb is pretty modest. He readily admitted that the original IPA recipe was from another brewmaster, Steve, from 15 years ago. However, Herb says he makes a lot of it. “IPA sells faster than I an brew it.” He also brews it for the sister Salem Beer Works. They truck the output to Cape Ann.

Salem’s brewing facilities are limited. They can’t brew as many varieties with their smaller equipment. There’s only so much hops they can handle at a time.

He had an answer for my complaint about the rarity of their Hercules Strong Ale, as well as the t-shirt. That shirt, as in the detail here, is surely the most attractive one they ever produced. Plus, mine is wearing out. Herb has nothing to do with the shirt designs and stock, but he does know about the brew.

It is actually a barley wine carrying 11.5% alcohol. That’s twice that of a strong beer. In addition, Herb said that it has to age for several months. Before that, it is what he calls “hot.” It needs to mellow as it age to for its best flavor. He said there was some in storage doing just that upstairs. The Canal Street BBW will release it in a few weeks.

Like summer, when it’s gone, it’s gone.

He talked a bit about yeast too. He said most commercial bottlers and many big micro-brewers develop their own yeast. Others buy from two standard yeast suppliers. BBW has it own.

We all agreed that beer that’s pasturized to keep in stores lacks something fresh beer has. In Herb’s terms, “You can always tell when it’ pasturized. It just doesn’t have that spunk to it.”

Finally, he cleared up the wall mystery. I had asked waitrons and managers, but no one could tell me for sure what that gigantic steep circular door-like thing on the wall over the booths is. Herb said the building used to be a factory. That is the opening to the boiler where they piled the coal. They moved it upstairs as decoration during reconstruction.

Well, I’ll be checking back for more Herc. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Paying for Baa-d Management

October 15th, 2007


Ovine owners and shareholders may bleat quietly, but they follow and herd. Whether they’re sports fans or stockholders, they accept their fleecing.

The baseball version is particularly amusing in Boston. Now that the Sox won the World Series after a long hiatus and are back regularly playing with the big kids, the local fans are more passive than ever. (As a friend said after being in several consecutive bad relationships, “Beat me. Kick me. Make me write bad checks.” Anything for love [or reflected athletic glory].)

The numbers should be sobering, enough to make even sheep rebel. We have by far the highest ticket prices in the world for baseball right here in Beantown. Boston’s prices are more than double the national average. They have had the nation’s highest prices for the previous nine years.

The big boys in what appear to be opaque pantyhose are certainly overpaid and the team owners treat the Sox as cash flow not a gentleman’s diversion. A key irony here is that local management, media and fans have decried buying championships. That, of course, has been directed at the perennial winners, the Yankees. Unfortunately for us though, we are number two in the salary list and have no valid claim to higher ground. The Yankees at nearly $190 million and our Sox at over $143 million are the pigs at the trough contrasted to the Marlins ($31 million) and Devil Rays ($24 million).

The corporate parallel is CEOs. They are similarly overpaid to sluggers and hurlers. Some important differences are that they don’t have short careers, injuries can’t knock them out of play permanently, and there are only one or two top guys per corporate team.

Most CEOs, it seems, are not as gullible or delusional about their self-worth as pro athletes. They also take the compensation though.

As one example, in a report coming out today, two thirds of the company biggies admit they are overpaid. The Financial Times reports that investors and politicians through our current President G. W. Bush (himself a previously grossly overpaid sports executive) can’t ignore the findings on this one.

In July and August, the National Association of Corporate Directors surveyed 70 CEOs and presidents. “Only 2.2 per cent of the nearly 70 chief executives and presidents involved in the survey said compensation was too low, while a third deemed it ‘just right.'” That huge majority — two of three — “said the compensation of top executives was high, relative to their performance.”

Amusingly, passive shareholders join boards and the executives in trying to justify irrational and excessive packages based on easy-to-obtain goals. They seem to love sports metaphors and compare the top guys to great athletes.

If fans are willing to pay the better part of a week’s salary to take the family to see the Sox, that speaks to a free market. In fact that is much more like a free market than many of our cartel and oligopoly-like businesses, such as gasoline and cable services.

All of this reminds me of a friend’s Harvard MBA thesis of several decades ago. His conclusion was that “the typical company would be better managed by an oak tree.” Mid-term and longer performance (and sometimes even short-term) hardly ever exceeds stock indices and often is below that of the best bank returns for high-end savings. Putting the millions or billions into those handlers would outperform the CEOs’ results.

Despite our plunging dollar and the extreme national debt racked up in the past seven years, we remain a relatively wealthy nation. If our ovine citizenry want to piss away large amounts on diversions, they can and do and will.

Corporate shareholders on the other hand expect to get decent returns for their investment. When the boards diminish their net with absurd CEO packages, the shareholders are seldom in a position to force change.

However, the FT suggests that this has gone on too long, too far. Along with lots of other data, this new report may well catalyze improvements, changes easy to understand and implement. Key, for one, is:

Nearly 60 per cent of the directors polled by the NACD said the reason for excessive pay packages was the absence of objective ways to measure an executive’s performance. Nearly half criticised the use of options and equity awards that reward executives when the company’s share price goes up, rather than when its operations improve.

It is ironic but positive that President Bush is joining this all to stop boards from rewarding the top guys for failing their companies.

Cross-posting: This appears at http://massmarrier.blogspot.com/2007/10/overpaying-for-baa-d-management.html too.


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Pestle Packing in Watertown

October 5th, 2007

Brass mortar and pestle

A pestle for the pistils. Bring on the stigmas, dude!

While I was lamenting the overly laid-back attitude of the Syrian Grocery Importing Company personages, I did check back (and they weren’t there) and I shall get in that store!

However, the pressing need of a round bowled mortar has found satisfaction. I can now grind saffron to powder and not lose any to a porous marble mortar or into my skin as I crumble the threads by fingers.

I had stopped at the Arax Grocery in near Watertown, not far from Mt. Auburn Cemetery before. It’s great for Middle-East foods and spices. However, I had not gone for hard goods previously.

I had noticed the phalanx of hookahs lining an entire wall, but that’s a little too Alice in Wonderland for me. Cheeses though…you won’t find a better selection than at Arax.

After faring badly in my spice-grinding quest, I have included stops at possible vendors on other trips. You might think that a housewares joint, like Pottery Barn, would have a brass or stainless steel mortar with a smooth round bowl. You’d think wrong. Likewise, the three Haymarket shops that sell herbs and Middle-East foods seemed likely. Honk. Wrong.

Searching the Boston area for little treasures like this has gone from annoyance to sport. I had homed in on Middle-East groceries and was failing there too. Clerks at three rolled their eyes and said they never carried such things.

In a shopper’s confession, I could have ordered an acceptable mortar and pestle set from cooking.com for $17, plus $9 shipping. The combo passed my choke point in shipping/item ratio, I like to hold the object, free shipping doesn’t kick in until $100, and the vendor was, at least temporarily, out of stock.

The game was afoot. I could see a set in the Syrian Grocery window, but that clearly was one of those ill-designed ones that had a tumbler-style bottom that would catch the powder and be a royal pain to extract the goodies from the edges. They might have what I really wanted in the interior jumble, but I’d have to get inside and be lucky enough to be there when they felt like opening.

I didn’t have a lot of hope when I took the slow way to a business lunch in Waltham. I cut through Brighton by the Stockyards to head up to Mt. Auburn. My first stop would be Arax, which is an apt metaphor. That river is a key boundary in the Turkish regions and is a metaphor for travel.

The store was as I recalled and probably as it was 30 years ago. There is a pungency, almost an axilla (good way, good way) smell. The decades of herbs, teas and foodstuff seem to float off the walls. I think of the caves of Roquefort or the grand aromas of Sherman Tobacco, which I visited for an article about the time the Arax founders immigrated to America. The old wooden building there slowly had become permeated with powder from great tobacco and had a chocolate-like tastiness in the air. Even people who are disgusted by the idea of cigars and sickened by burning tobacco enjoy the inside of the building.

Back to Arax, it takes 10 minutes just to scan the interior of the store. There’s food on shelves and in coolers floor to high ceiling. Entire walls have herbs or tiny coffee cups for that great silt Middle-Easterners favor. Other than the cheeses and olives, nothing seems quite solidly grouped. There’s a lot of mixed product placements that seem illogical to us ignorant type or at least to folk who are not the owners.

I did not find my mortar set and ended up asking a clerk. He didn’t think they had them but did ask the older woman who seemed to be in charge. She led me to a small counter area behind other goods. There were three sizes of exactly what I wanted.

After consideration and examination (and silly joy), I went with the smallest, just over two and one-quarter inch inside diameter bowl at the top.

I paid $13 for it. I suspect I could have bargained a bit, but was too delighted by holding it at last. The clerk ringing me out held the unmarked set up and called across the store to the male owner. He seemed to make up the price on the spot. Again, I didn’t quibble.

I have a good marble set that is fine for star anise, cardamom seeds and other coarse herbs and spices. For saffron, smaller was definitely preferable. (Think Dune and the Spice.)

Getting the Most from Saffron

It is easy to embrace the mythology of saffron. Indeed, by weight it is the most expensive spice, but it can be easy and inexpensive to enjoy.

First, buy it by the ounce and buy high quality. The Kashmiris, Spaniards and all claim to have the highest quality and most intensely flavored/colored. In truth though, there’s lots of bad and adulterated stuff around. You want whole threads, never powder, and high-quality Spanish saffron is easy to find and order online by the ounce.

Such a tin will last a long time, even if you use it every few days. It should cost in the nature of $50. That seems like a lot until you compare it to the absurd little tubes or packets with tiny quantities.

Buy the damned ounce, don’t be afraid to grab a big pinch, revel in its glories. When you do it this way, a serving might cost a nickel to a quarter. Look at your dinner ingredients. You can easily spend $6 for the chicken. What’s another 11¢ or 27¢ to make it beautiful and sapid?

When you go with saffron, the general rule is to dry, grind and infuse it first. This one to two-minute preparation has great payback. Exposing the maximum surface of your thread treasures and letting liquid pre-extract the flavor and color makes all the difference.

Nearly any hot liquid will work. Depending on the dish, you may use water, white wine or milk. Heat a few tablespoons or up to two ounces in a coffee cup in the microwave (30 seconds on high). Meanwhile, in your smallest pan, gently and quickly heat the pinch or measure of saffron threads for 20 seconds or so on a medium low burner.

You just want to drive any residual water from the threads. If you discolor them to brown or black, toss them and weep. You destroyed the threads. You just want to heat them to brittleness.

Grind the threads to powder and scrape it all into the liquid. Cover for 30 minutes or hours if you have the time. This infusion will maximize the flavor and color potential. When it comes time to add the infusion, you’ll almost certainly rinse the residual from the cup with more of the water, wine or milk to get every delicious drop.

Topsfield Road Trip

October 1st, 2007

We spent Saturday at the nation’s oldest agricultural fair. Topsfield took nearly two centuries to start it in 1818, but it’s been running sinse. Two things were missing, but I saw such joys as:

Pro-level sand carving Sand carver
Pro-level veggy carving Fruit and vegetable bouquet
Big old pumpkins Giant pumpkins
Some bozo in a clam suit Clam mascot
Racing pigs Racing pigs
Some very expressive ovines Angry ovine

As well as many agricultural exhibits (think beekeeping and a museum featuring antique plows), the grounds has a tear drop shaped midway with dozens games of quasi-chance and cheesy prizes, and all the usual suspects for rides, like the Twister and Wild Mouse with some spook houses. I have to confess that I found this a very impressive and professionally run fair, lacking in only two ways.

First of all, where are the hogs? A farm fair should have porkers that crowd the stalls, mega hogs. This one had pigs and not very big pigs that that. There were a couple of smallish sows and maybe six shoats for the aww factor.

The other missing element and one I knew would not be there was the extremely dated and culturally unacceptable side shows I grew up with. I was born well after real freak shows stopped. The last may have been in 1940, after a century as a staple of circuses, carnivals and agricultural fairs.

As early as then, the disability rights, animal rights and just plain good taste folk were asking for a halt to them. They then morphed into the side shows that I knew as a kid. These shared some of displays and acts with freak shows, but were considerably toned down.

As the name implied, a side show was a lesser draw than the big acts on a midway or in a circus. They tended to have multiple oddments on display and several mini-acts that played consecutively. These ten-in-one shows had barkers out front yelling sensational stentorian descriptions of what you’d see inside if you bought a ticket. There were 10-foot-tall garishly painted cloth signs by the entrance with dramatic images of the acts.

On the small stage, there was usually a teaser act, which might include a fire breather or a woman with no arms threading a needle and sewing using her feet. There was sure to be a promise that inside were some deformed animals, such as a two-headed calf.

As the British National Fairground Archive describes the freak show, “What was saleable as far as the freak was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable.” Some was a cruel exploitation of those with disabilities who could get no other work. Some was outright fraud — an alleged hirsute woman from Borneo, which was actually a large monkey.

Some were pretty boring, particularly by today’s standards, such as a man with a tattooed torso. (Look around your average bar and figure how many stools are occupied by folk who fit such loose criteria.) By the time I saw a side show, the public demands for decent treatment for people and animals had halted the worst degradations, but these still had plenty to titillate, particularly the young adolescent, as well as adults who didn’t get out much.

While the original freak shows liked to include conjoined twins, such as the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng in the 19th Century, those in my youth usually settled on the infant version in a huge jar. These were almost certainly fake and made of wax or rubber, despite the announcer’s claims. They are what the carnies call pickled punks. In addition, they tended to call the fakes bouncers for obvious reasons. Yet even with their plastic look, these seemed to fascinate the adults.

For the kids though, the action was on stage and not in jugs or photographs. Really fat and extremely skinny people were also of more interest to the adults. The action was with the fire eater, the sword swallower and the human pincushion.

It was the latter than fascinated me the most and invariably hushed and stilled the crowd. He’d put long nails up his nose, probably 20-penny ones. He pretended to pound them with a hammer. Some people had to turn or leave then. He’d put pins in his eyes. The finale was when he ran hatpins through his upper arms. He’d have several between the triceps and biceps of his right arm. Then he’d lean over the stage and ask who’d pull them out. The audience gasped and drew back as one as he put the violated arm forward. Well, I was fascinated, stepped forward and pulled two out. They came freely, offering no resistance. He winked at me, tilted his head up and smiled at the audience and called me fearless. In my minor way, he made me part of his act.

I think as a young boy, I was just not as disgusted by blood, guts and gore. Maybe it was all those horror movies I’d been watching.

Nowadays, I don’t think of side shows except when I walk a midway at a fair. I know that those previously exploited by freak shows and side shows are certainly better off with integration into society and as feasible, training, therapy and surgery. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind the return of the acts — illusionists, snake charmers, and of course, a pincushion.

Fair warning: If you head to Topsfield this weekend, be prepared to spend quality family time getting to the parking lot and grounds. For most people Route 1 is the only practical entry. The auto line can be a mile or two. The delay seemed to grow into early afternoon.