Saturday, January 08, 2022

Pandemic-era Eagle Scout Service Project with the Boston Area Gleaners

Last summer, my son led his scout troop (Troop 355) to gather hundreds of banana boxes for a local group that fights food insecurity. This was part of an Eagle Scout Service project, which is required of all scouts seeking to attain the rank of Eagle. The following pieces of information are from the project summary he prepared.

The Boston Area Gleaners is truly a fascinating organization that not only provides fresh produce to local food banks, it also targets food waste on local farms by taking excess produce. The humble banana box is an important part of the storage and transportation infrastructure, as this video shows:

According to the Greater Boston Food Bank, the pandemic has caused food insecurity among children to rise 117% in Eastern Massachusetts so that now 1 in 5 children live in a home that is food insecure. In 2020, the Gleaners collected and distributed 8 million lbs of fresh produce to go on tables across New England. To run their operations, the Boston Area Gleaners need lots of banana boxes! 

The original goal of the project: obtain 400 empty boxes, and deliver them to the Gleaners by July 31st. This represents capacity for the Gleaners to transport 14,000 pounds of produce, enough fruits and vegetables for nearly 38,000 meals! Most cars can fit between 5 and 15 banana boxes each (bigger cars or trucks could most likely fit between 20-25 boxes).

By the end of July, scouts from Troop 355 as well as parents and siblings gathered 450+ banana boxes, and did so safely, following safe social distancing requirements. Twenty scouts from Newton and Boston took part, with support from scout parents, scoutmasters, and other members of the community.

Managers and staff at Star Market, Shaw's, Stop & Shop, Russo’s, Market Basket, and Whole Foods played a crucial role in setting the boxes aside, which otherwise would have been crushed or used for other purposes. 

It really was a great learning and leadership experience, and a great cause. Thank you all for your help!

Saturday, November 13, 2021

An education with the KLF


I wrote this in December 2000, an uncompleted recollection of my internship at London's Lillie Yard Studio in 1991 when I was 21 years old. The studio, which was co-owned by Hans Zimmer (Buggles, Hollywood) had a 24-track analog heart, but was on the cutting edge of the digital revolution with gear to support the nascent digital recording and sampling revolution. It was used by a number of UK indie dance artists, including Nomad and The KLF. I didn't know anything about this industry, but it was an education that I would never forget.    

It was the age of E, a new era in the UK music scene. Ecstasy and boom-boom beats had washed over European youth in the late 80s like a double-edged tidal wave. By 1991, the UK music industry was working flat out to supply the grooves that would keep a generation dancing. 

Not that some snotty American indie rocker college fucker like me would know it. But it was happening just the same. And I was about to get a long-term, behind-the-scenes look at how one of the biggest bands of the era operated.

Except The KLF wasn't a band, as I soon discovered. There was no lead singer, guitarist or bassist, like the groups from earlier pop music eras. The KLF was more than that, a sprawling experimental collaborative encompassing music, art, and media. 

The organization formed around several business and creative concepts. It had a core of two people, Jimmy Cauty (co-founder of The Orb) and Bill Drummond (Big In Japan, and manager of Echo and the Bunnymen). They were a binary star, surrounded by two or three permanent satellites which fed off the core while simultaneously keeping it alive and healthy. Add to the KLF system another five or six semi-permanent and temporary satellites which would spin away from the core after their assigned mission was complete. Sometimes one of these lesser satellites would swing back into orbit around the core, other times the satellite would spin off into the void, never to return.

These satellites weren't necessarily musicians. In fact, some of the most important people to the KLF collaborative were the permanent and semi-permanent associates who handled business matters. Chief among them was Sallie Fellowes, the manager of The KLF's record label, KLF Communications. Sallie was undoubtedly the Jupiter of the system. Most other orbiting satellites felt her pull if they had any dealings with The KLF. 

As for the musical talent that appeared on the albums, only a few were vital to the Cauty/Drummond core. They included Nick Coler, a friendly half-techie/half musical wunderkind who played keys on The White Room and handled some programming duties as well. 

Other musicians -- such as the rappers appearing on several White Room tracks, and Tammy Wynette -- were hired guns, bright comets paid to reel off a few verses during a song and maybe even to appear in the video, then being whipped back out into deep space. 

I was a very small satellite indeed. In the year or so I orbited the system, I had no real input in anything The KLF or KLF Communications ever did. I wasn't anyone's "mate." I never went down to the pub with anyone in the KLF system for a drink. I never hung out with Bill or Sallie, I never met Scott Piering, Mick Houghton or anyone else in The KLF's publicity machine and I doubt Jimmy ever spoke more than a thousand words to me, or even remembers who I was. 

But I did interact quite a bit with Sallie and Bill and some of the KLF music and studio people. And I did observe a lot, starting on on my first day of work at Lillie Yard.

It was a sunny weekday morning, and the door to the studio was ajar. I let myself in and wandered up to the office, which was dominated by a large calendar showing bookings in the coming weeks and months. A thin young blonde woman with black eyebrows was sitting at one of the three desks in the room talking on the phone. She paid me no attention. I didn't see Emma Burnham, the studio manager, so I went out to the living room. 

I noticed another room next to the office with different bits of recording gear lying about -- tape consoles, music stands, and some other components I couldn't identify. The techie who had let me in the previous day was standing with his back to me, coiling a cable around his arm.

"Excuse me," I said.

He turned around, and recognized me. This time he grinned. "Oh, you're Ian, aren't you?"

"Yeah. I'm supposed to start work today."

"Yes, Emma told me. I'm Dave. I'm the engineer." Dave put down the coil and reached out to shake my hand. "You're American, aren't you." It wasn't a question, more of a statement.

"Yeah, that's right. I'm from Boston."

"We sometimes get Americans in the studio. Come on, I'll take you downstairs to meet the boys."

"The boys" were Julian Gordon Hastings, the assistant engineer, and Paul Bloom, the "tape op," a sort of apprentice engineer. Both were in the control room, a dim, low-ceilinged, carpeted and soundproofed room absolutely packed with gear. There were computers, reel-to-reel tape recorders, DAT recorders, electronic compressors and gates, and lots of components whose purpose was unknown to me. There was also an absolutely massive mixing desk that seemed to take up half the room, facing a wide-screen video monitor and two expensive-looking speakers. 

It looked just like what I thought a professional studio would look like, minus the musicians.

Making music in the early 1990s was a million miles away from making music in the 1950s. Forget anything you think you may know about recording music from watching music videos or Hollywood biopics. No band gathers in a room to lay tracks down live. No singer simultaneously plays guitar while laying down a vocal track. As for dance music, it is not a matter of firing up the drum machine and playing the keys at the right moment over a beat.

Recording pop music in a professional studio in 1991 was a painstaking, layered process. Spontaneity was limited by the highly technical nature of studio recording. 

Julian was sitting at the console. He was tall and thin, very short blonde hair, taken to wearing turtlenecks and acting very serious. He had a biting wit that sometimes shone through, often at Paul's expense. Paul, who was coiling cables, was thin, with longish black hair under a baseball cap. He was almost always smiling. He spoke with a local North London accent and was known as "Max" to his friends -- apparently because he had worked at a McDonalds before becoming entering the recording industry. 

While Julian and Paul got their paychecks from Lillie Yard, they also received credit on some of the songs and albums they helped record. Julian, for instance, was named several times in the liner notes of The White Room. To Julian and Paul, and I'm sure any other young engineer or tape op, getting a chance to work with The KLF was a great opportunity and a necessary step in building a respectable career in the music industry.

It was in the studio control room that Julian and Paul spent most of their time. They were subordinate to the producers, programmers and others who rented the studio. If someone needed a mike in the sound booth, Paul would set it up. If the producer needed to listen back to the rhythm section or tweak the bass track, Julian would help make the necessary adjustments on the console. If Bill and Jimmy wanted to stay until 3 a.m. getting a inserting a sample into a song, Paul and Julian would be there until 4 a.m. making sure all the gear was shut off, put away and locked up afterwards. Emma would be long gone by that point, of course. Dave, whose main duties were fixing, installing and ordering components, would probably be gone too, unless some major troubleshooting issue arose.

I said earlier that I wasn't anyone's mate in the KLF organization. That's not totally accurate. Nick Coler was always friendly to me and loved to show me things about music - I remember one time expressing surprise at seeing a rhyming dictionary on a bookshelf in Nick's room, which launched him into an enthusiastic discussion about patterns in pop music. Other people I worked with at the studio were friendly to me, including Paul and Julian and Emma and Dave.

I followed Dave back upstairs. Emma had arrived, and seemed happy to see that I had actually shown up and not fled after the previous day's interview. 

I am used to rolling my sleeves up right away when works presents itself, and asked her straight away what she wanted me to do. 

"Well, I am not sure there is anything to do at the moment. But you should meet Sallie, 'cause you'll be helping her out a lot," Emma said.

Sallie was the thin blonde woman who had been on the phone in the office. On the first few days she was friendly in a tense sort of way, but that wore off as my low position in the Lillie Yard pecking order became clear. 

Sallie's personality was the opposite of Emma's. She was as cold as Emma was warm, direct as Emma was tactful, and efficient as Emma was relaxed. She had a brutal intelligence; no business matter was left unfinished, nothing slipped by her unnoticed and there was absolutely no pulling the wool over her eyes. I consider her one of the sharpest people I have ever met. 

I found that most of the time Sallie had distracted air about her. This was not surprising considering the large number of business and creative activities The KLF was involved in and the small size of The KLF organization - she was the only full-time person. I seldom saw her take it easy and never saw her waste time. If it were possible to do several things at the same time, she would. During a phone conversation, for instance, she would often be doing something else -- typing, reviewing a contract or making one of those weedy British fags with pouch tobacco and rolling papers. 

Sallie tolerated no dissent from lesser bodies in The KLF universe. She kept things close to the vest, too. For instance, telling me not to let Emma in on certain KLF business. Later, when I worked directly for Sallie at KLF Communications HQ in Brixton - a small, one-room office at the Brixton Enterprise Centre - she would sometimes let me in on the the realities of the music industry, including some minor collisions in deep space involving The KLF and associates. But for some of their biggest capers, including the infamous 1992 Brit Awards controversy, I was mostly kept in the dark (the main hint something weird was going down - calling around to local chemists asking if they had a de-coagulant for a large quantity of sheep's blood).    

On that first day at Lillie Yard, Sallie was willing to cut me a little slack. But only a little.

"Emma mentioned you haven't heard of The KLF."

"Yeah, I haven't," I admitted.

"That's not odd," Sallie said, turning to Emma. "We haven't signed to anyone in the U.S. yet."

"Really?" said Emma, looking surprised. "You're not released in the States? I thought they'd be massive over there."

"That's the plan, after we decide who to go with." Sallie smiled tightly and took a drag from her cigarette with one hand, and wrapped her other around her stomach, as if she were cold. Later when I saw Sallie give herself this one-armed hug, I knew it meant she was deep in thought about some important KLF business.

Emma asked her if there was any KLF discs lying around for me to listen to at home. 

"Hmmm, I think we have some samples somewhere ..." Sallie replied, turning to a shelf by her desk.

"Actually, I don't think that's necessary," I interrupted. "I don't have a CD player at home." I didn't add that I had no interest in dance music, either. 

Sallie shrugged. "Well, we have some other things." She reached over and took a thin, oversized paperback with a glossy cover from the top of a stack. It had a white cover, and stamped in an oversized black typeface like some bland government-issue pamphlet was the title: "The Manual." But the small print underneath the title was distinctly un-governmental: "How to have a number one the easy way." By way of explanation was the message "The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu reveal their zenarchistic method in making the unthinkable happen." The authors were The Timelords.

Justified Ancients of Mu Mu? Zenarchistic? The Timelords? This was all way over my head. "Thanks," I finally managed. "It looks, uh ... Who wrote this?" 

"Mostly Bill," said Sallie. "They used to be called The Timelords. Ah!" she said, suddenly remembering something. "That's right! You might know them, The Timelords had a song that got a lot of club play in the U.S. about a few years ago. 'Doctorin' the tardis.' "

It sounded familiar, but I wasn't sure. "Hmm, I don't think I know it."

Emma was nodding. "You know, it goes 'Doctor Who, Hey! Doctor Who!' ..."

Something clicked in the back of my memory. "Oh yeah! I know that song." Finally, some common ground.

There wasn't any more chat after that. Sallie was busy, as was Emma. I made some tea for Emma and Sallie showed me how she liked her coffee. I was let go early on the first day, there was little for me to do, and The KLF wouldn't be coming in until later in the afternoon.


Friday, January 03, 2020

Boston University: 1987 vs. 2020

I've done some volunteer mentoring for my alma matter Boston University at the graduate level, but today I got to see the school through prospective undergraduate eyes after taking my daughter there for an info session. It's interesting to see how much has changed since I attended BU some 30 years ago, even while some things have remained the same.

Being an urban campus spread out along Comm Ave, BU never had a "center" of campus the way many other schools do. That said, when I started my undergraduate degree back in the 1980s the center of gravity was generally the area from Marsh Chapel/Warren Towers/GSU down to Kenmore Square, where the BU Bookstore and Myles Standish Hall were located. Kenmore was a lively and somewhat gritty place, not just because of its proximity to Fenway Park, but also because of the clubs, restaurants, and shops. There was even a movie theater a short walk from Kenmore, the Nickelodeon behind Warren Towers and the College of Communication.

West Campus in the 80s was a distant planet, a mile up Comm Ave from Marsh Chapel. This is where athletes and fine arts students roamed. BU had three large dorms there, as well as SFA and a few real estate holdings like the old brick armory. I only went up there when I was in the BU marching band (BU still had a football team) or when I attended concerts in clubs such as the Paradise or Bunratties.

How things have changed. In 2020, Kenmore is a luxury dead zone. The Rat, Narcissus, Nemos, and the BU Bookstore are all long gone, along with the many small record shops and cheap restaurants that students used to frequent. They've been replaced by high-priced hotel rooms and condos. Just about the only holdouts are the Buckminster and of course Kenmore Station, as well as the dorm and a few brownstones BU bought decades ago.

West Campus is now totally transformed, thanks to a slew of new dorms and facilities including Agganis Arena and a very modern fitness center. The BU Bookstore is there, too (moved up to 990 Comm Ave.) And the cultural attractions including food and activities seem to have multiplied. The Paradise is still there (and better than before with a more concert-friendly layout), but now there are new clubs (Brighton Music Hall) and far more Asian restaurants and small shops down Brighton Ave and up Harvard Ave.

Indeed, the new BU axis seems to have flipped to the west. Students still live in Warren and take classes across the street in the old academic buildings, COM, and the expanded School of Engineering, but they are more likely to be drawn up to West Campus to use FitRec, go to the BU Bookstore, or sample the student haunts in Allston than to go down to Kenmore. Why go to Kenmore when there's nothing to do there?

One of the few buildings that hasn't changed much on the outside is COM, at 640 Comm Ave. The exterior still looks as it did 35 years ago (a squat 50s-era classroom/lab building), although the interior has been refreshed and WBUR is no longer on the third floor (it moved to West Campus, naturally).

BU Academics

The academics at Boston University have evolved and gotten stronger. I have seen some of this through the pages of Bostonia (the alumni magazine), which highlights research and other activities. BU's physical expansion has been going on since the 1980s, thanks to some smart real estate investments in the second half of the 20th century, but a lot of organizational change and a focus on research and academic excellence across the university has taken place under President Robert Brown, who was recruited from MIT 15 years ago.

This excellence is reflected in the many research initiatives as well as scholars and students attracted to the school. According to the handbook I was given today, the middle 50% for SAT scores ranges between 1420 and 1530, and the admit rate is below 20% -- roughly what Harvard College experienced in the 80s. It's pretty clear that BU is now in the upper echelons of second-tier private colleges. In the 80s, BU was considered a good school, but wasn't at that level.

During my student years in the late 80s and early 90s, it was clear that President John Silber sought to raise BU's profile as well, and succeeded in the sense of moving BU from a regional college to an international university. But Silber also held it back. He was a condescending, polarizing figure to students and faculty. Silber delighted in steamrolling campus voices that spoke out or took stances he didn't like, and would go to great lengths to shut them down, such as his move to establish WBUR as an independent entity (as a COM student, I was not able to even intern there). It wasn't until both he and his protege Jon Westling had left that the university could enter a new phase of development, and I think Brown's stewardship has been wonderful.

Brown and his people brought over some concepts from MIT that are a breath of fresh air, including UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) which matches undergraduates with labs, studies, and other academic research initiatives.  I really wish we had something like this when I was there (at the time, serious research was typically the domain of grad students) but I was able to do other activities that matched my academic interests.

It's interesting to me that some of the academic activities I took part in as a student 30 years ago are still around, including the London Internship Program -- a combined internship/study abroad program that literally changed my life (long story for another post). The London campus has also become a bigger part of the undergraduate experience thanks to integration with the College of General Studies -- from what I understand, CGS students starting in the Spring spend their first semester in London with faculty, which seems like a fantastic opportunity for learning and bonding.

Anyway, those are some thoughts I have after visiting BU with my daughter. Are you a current or former BU student? Please feel free to share comments below.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ardoch, Scotland in 1830: Recreated map and census

I've posted in the past about Ardoch, the tiny Scottish Highlands hamlet in Glengairn, Aberdeenshire from whence several of my forebears came. Ardoch was abandoned long ago, but those blog posts generated a fair amount of interest from all over the world -- I'm not the only Ardoch descendent looking into his or her genealogy!

One of the emails I received was from Peter Brown, an Australian who descended from one of the other 19th century Ardoch residents, Charles Calder, who ran a shop in the village. Peter noted that in the the mid 1950s a Reverend Mark Dilworth wrote about the famous Father Lachlan McIntosh, who lived in the village and tended to the hundreds of Catholic families residing in Glen Gairn and surrounding valleys north of the River Dee. The report was titled, "Catholic Glengairn in the early nineteenth century."

The Dilworth report included recollections collected by Mgr Meany (a missionary serving the Glen Gairn area) one stormy night (the interviewees may have been stranded in an inn during a storm) from several elderly ladies who had grown up in Ardoch 60 or 70 years before.

I had seen an abridged version of these accounts in Nita Caffrey's extensive 2006 genealogy, and wondered about the rest of the primary source. Peter speculated that it was located in Aberdeen University library, but he also had a PDF of the Ardoch pages, and from it had drawn up a map of the crofts at Ardoch circa 1830.

Peter and I decided to embark on a fun genealogy project: Publishing the 1830 map online (see below) and also building a census of the Ardoch occupants from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s based on data from Dilworth, official censuses, and other documents.

Ardoch was marked on a 1755 British topographical military survey; the arrows below point to "Ardoch" and "Ardoch Pinzey":

In 1785, according to the Dilworth paper, Father McIntosh built a chapel at Ardoch. The shape of the village was roughly like a horseshoe, as this 1868 UK Ordnance Survey map shows:

 The earliest recorded inhabitants I could find were a Stuart and Lamont families (doubtful that the latter were related to me) who had infants born in Ardoch 1799 according to Catholic baptismal records. I took recreated census snapshots at 1814 and 1830. The official UK census for Scotland did not start until 1841, which is also included on the spreadsheet and people mapped to specific houses in the village.

First, here is an description of Father McIntosh and the village of Ardoch from Caffrey's 2006 genealogy:
The priest lived in a predominately Catholic hamlet, called Ardoch ( high field). This higher area was known to be of the ‘old faith’. It had about fourteen houses and it was a muddy place (and still is). “The houses were stragglin’ back and ‘fore as if they had fan’an oot o’ the air”, said one resident. There was steep land behind the houses. They had a school there but was “just a reeky hole”. A little burn (creek) came down between the houses and every house had a tiny dam, an outlet spout and a bucket underneath. It was a place for gossip and friendship.
My parents visited the abandoned village in 2015, and took pictures of the grassy ruins
“It’s a rough landscape with steep slopes and lots of stones and boulders. Few crops are seen except hay and potatoes, and few of the latter. The old tenant farmers were kicked off the land to make way for grouse and deer hunting, or for religious reasons. ... That said, the scenery is majestic and serene. Rugged peaks, burns, falls, deer everywhere and red grouse. The people are friendly and quite jolly, too. Pubs are crowded in town with locals and visitors. Two Highland weddings took place in town yesterday and they were dancing until 1 am next to our hotel.”
The map based on the Dilworth report was rough, but working with Peter and other sources I was able to create a digital version. The map notes a path leading northwest out of Ardoch to  Clashinruich, the site of a simple chapel (Latlong coordinates: 57.097421, -3.134536). Citing James Dyas Davidson in this Flickr photo:
[The Clashinruich] chapel was built in 1785 by Father Lachlan McIntosh, a priest who tended the Catholic community in Glen Gairn for sixty four years. He died in 1846, aged ninety three. He was known as the apostle of Glen Gairn. ‘The altar was just a rough table. The roof was open and showed rude beams. Father Mann had the chapel lathed. Some of the folk had kneeling boards, but maist of them prayed kneeling on the clay floor.’ According to Ian Murray’s book, In the Shadow of Lochnagar, the field below the chapel was a burial ground, mainly for children who died in infancy. There is nothing today to indicate that it was a site of such tragedy. 
Here is a map of Ardoch in 1830:

As for the Ardoch census, I started working on it in Google Sheets. It's ugly, but helps to track the evolution of the town in the early 1800s.

Peter also proposed tracking residents of Ardoch to their respective countries of emigration, which as far as I know include Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and possibly Canada. That's a project for another day, but if you have insights to share, please leave them in the comments or contact me. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

A look back at the Cold War, 30 years after it ended

My daughter just interviewed me about growing up during the Cold War for a school project. The way I described it: It was constantly in the background and a source of great concern, kind of like Global Warming is now.

As a young kid in the 70s, awareness of the Cold War was driven by some types of activities, such as drills in our elementary school to file down to the school basement which was supposedly a fallout shelter. I was also aware of news events driven by Cold War conflicts, such as the Boat People crisis, defectors or athletes crossing over or seeking asylum, the 1980 Summer Olympics being cut short, and concern when Brezhnev died or stepped down - would someone even more grim take over the USSR?

As a teen in the 80s, we knew about the risk of a full-on nuclear war breaking out and M.A.D. ("mutually assured destruction" IIRC). And there were the hot wars and conflicts popping up, usually in hot places. Grenada, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Angola ...

We were the good guys and they were the bad guys, as evidenced by our value on freedom and the fact that they kept their people in line with fences, minefields, and cruelty. Hollywood played up this good guy/bad guy thing too, from Rambo to Rocky to Red Dawn.

But there were some questions in the backs of our young minds when it came to things about the Cold War that didn't quite make sense. Like: the leaders in client states we backed and gave free reign to oppress and kill in the name of "freedom." Were our strongmen morally superior to their strongmen? Were their policies and goals all bad?

And what about the people who lived under these regimes? The media was good at concentrating our loathing on the evil leaders, military forces, and the extensive police-state apparatus. We didn't know much about the ordinary people, except that some went to great lengths to get out. But most of them didn't. Was it because they were incapable, didn't want to go, or didn't care?

Sometimes media made us ponder the divide. The ending to the movie "Wargames" was kind of corny, but it made a point. And that Sting lyric: "Do the Russians love their children too?" I had issues with Sting breaking up his fun pop band and turning into a pretentious artiste, but nevertheless that particular line struck a chord, and made me think.

What are your Cold War memories or stories?