Sneezing FrogWhat do you want for free, anyway?



A good friend wrote the following column in the Saint Michael's College Echo. Ironically, they seem to have misplaced the archived version, so I've reproduced the original below. It's a good read; in it, he uses the loss of his fabled "Flaming Squash" note as a metaphor for the impermanence of our digital lives.

With any luck at all, "Flaming Squash" will, one day, return to us; until that day, and in its honor, we'll attempt to preserve similar gems here.

Of Fountain Pens and Emails

By John Connors

I was recently asked to contribute a column to the Echo. Naturally, I was flattered. Anyone who knows me, even from a distance (which is easy because my voice carries), knows that I can talk for quite some time about a variety of topics, including a very small number that I know something about, switching and skimming from topic to topic like a manic waterbug after 12 cups of french roast.

However, as with so many others asked to write something, after the euphoria and subtle stroke of the ego subsides, I immediately experience something very similar to paralysis of all mental faculties. Suddenly, penning a grocery list is akin to creating the sequel to War and Peace or Lord of the Rings. My editors have been kind, understanding, and generous. To show their support, one of them called me, after midnight, during my radio show, to let me know that sending in my column by close of business on Friday would be just fine. If that doesn’t help chip away at writer’s block, what would? I am not sure who passed along this chestnut of advice, but it has served me well: “Don’t worry about writing…but just write something.”

I think the best thing will be to simply relate the way in which a conversation would occur if we encountered each other in the corridors of Saint Edmund’s Hall; as any of the second-floor faculty can attest, this happens with some frequency.

By any and all measures, I am considered by others to be an uber-Nerd, TechnoNerdPropellerHead, or the terse but effective “techie”. I punched my first “deck” in 1979, which means that my first programming class used “punched cards”. I have had an Internet email address since 1984, quite some time before Al Gore invented the Internet. Sorry to burst any bubbles here, but I sent my first IM (instant message) in 1979 and my first Internet IM in 1984. Professor Roger Putzel and I traded instant messages on the college’s VAX minicomputer in 1988. While working at UVM, I was on the technical team that brought the very first Internet connection to the State of Vermont. With respect to being on the ground floor of the Internet, I can confidently say “Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt”. I have literally been immersed in computers, computer technology, data networking, and globally distributed applications of nearly every kind for over 25 years.

Here is the big confession…I love my fountain pen.

As I reflect upon the first 25 years of my professional life, I have to admit that while technical acumen has played a part, I may have distinguished myself more with my ability to communicate orally, in writing, and with the occasionally well-timed “smirk ‘n’ grin”. Having worked for a variety of companies, from a startup with only 3 employees, myself included, to a large multinational corporation with over 300,000 employees worldwide, as well as two institutes of higher learning, there is a common thread: “Oh John, do you remember that email you wrote...”

Sadly…not really.

For whatever reason, I have interjected a creative flair into usually staid business correspondence, especially email. At UVM, there were more than a couple of emails that my coworkers kept for a variety of reasons. The clear favorite was the email titled “Beware of the Flaming Squash”, where I illuminated a subtle technical point by relating a story about how my wife set fire to a summer squash in the microwave, contrary to popular belief regarding microwave ovens at the time. At another place of employment, I wrote a very long status report after 45 straight hours of programming on a system while using discarded plastic buckets as field-expedient office furniture; somehow, I related the seemingly very diverse topics of Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality, and PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) Control of air handling systems in clean room environments. Apparently, this email was widely circulated for morale purposes and as a testimonial regarding the effects of excessive overtime.

Yes, there has been poetry in the workplace. While working at that large multinational corporation with over 300,000 employees worldwide, I did send out poetry. It wasn’t good poetry. But when compared to nothing, it wasn’t half bad. At the time, I had the responsibility to ensure that 80 employees performed an exceptionally trivial, arbitrary, and annoying task by a certain time each week. It was called “CLAIM”. I would send out an email each week, prodding every member of the group to perform this tedious task. In a fit of pique, I started including a little bit of original poetry in different forms, such as haiku or, in our case, “CLAIM-ku”. I composed “Climmericks”, a sonnet, and was working on a nonsense verse in the spirit of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Shortly, these bits of expression became more than a weekly expectation but a requirement. Occasionally, when I sent out the weekly notice, which became known as a “CLAIMgram”, without any quips or poetry, my management and my coworkers would call or contact me regarding my health or frame of mind and somehow segue into asking if there would be a follow-up note with the “good stuff”.

First, let me dissuade you of any notion that I am exceptionally creative or even a moderately decent writer. Given the tacitly approved lack of attention to these areas in the studies of engineering and science at large universities, it may be by only random chance that I stand slightly apart from my peers in this regard. Actually, it is more likely that I stood still while my cohorts discretely moved away while I started to discuss my personal favorite topics of “transformational books of my life” and “fountain pens”.

Secondly, and with profound regret, out of over 170 college and university credits, I have only 12 credits outside the realm of science and engineering. It has been evident in my various employment experiences that my ability to communicate and interact with diverse groups of people (including even…gasp…“non-technical people”) was at least as important as my technical knowledge and skills. I believe that a liberal arts education would have served me equally well in my chosen profession, along with the important benefit of a more fertile mental landscape for new and diverse ideas to take root and grow. It was once said to me, “If you want to meet interesting people, be interesting”; I think an liberal arts education from a school like Saint Michael’s College is one way to start.

What does this have to do with fountain pens, you may ask?

All of those emails are gone. Lost to the impermanence that is inherent in the ethereal nature of Internet communications. Some people actually saved some of those emails. I heard that some were even printed out, filed, and only later properly recycled. It would have been nice to have those emails resurface in some more permanent form, if only to provide some amusement at my expense. While my long-lost emails may have added to the local gestalt, they will forever remain absent from any permanent archive.

While I have had more than 3 PDAs and 7 laptop computers, the only things that remain, that persist, are my paper notes in various forms. When I traveled to the West coast or overseas, it was the little notebooks I carried in my pocket that I really used and referred to on a day-to-day basis. In fact, there are a couple of small, cheap notebooks that have turned into very precious and personal items. One notebook contains some simple Thai greetings taught to me by two women in a San Jose Thai restaurant; these prove useful even to this day. Another has my restaurant notes and a variety of thoughts written during a month-long business trip to Singapore. I must have composed over 1000 emails during that month, but the only permanent record of my wonderful stay is that small, inexpensive notebook.

A very good friend of mine who is part of the ”Technorati Elite” recommended that I get a fountain pen and a Moleskine notebook. He couldn’t have been more right. While I am sure that the things that I write in there will never be considered great literature or profound, I am certain that they stand a better chance of not becoming lost; they may even add some amusement (or perhaps bemused confusion) to a future anthropologist or archeologist. I would challenge everyone to live a little of your life without the small comfort of the backspace key.

My thousands of emails will most assuredly be lost forever and forgotten, but my tiny notebooks, containing the bits and bytes of our highly digitized world, preserved in the most basic analog form of pen and paper, will survive.

Including some very bad poetry.
John Connors
About the Author
John Connors is a former US Army Airborne Ranger and Drill Sergeant, practices three different martial arts, is trying to learn to play guitar, hosts a radio show on WWPV, regrets losing his French over the years, hopes to attend the philosophy, art, language and music courses needed to fill the cavernous voids in his education, and spills coffee all over the Burlington, Vermont area.

He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Computer Science, both from the University of Vermont.