Monday, August 09, 2010

Living Outside the Box

August 9, 2010, 4:45 p.m.

From Thoreau to Ferentz
(bought to you by*)

What do Henry David Thoreau and Kirk Ferentz have in common?

Well, I guess it's pretty clearly not their looks.

[Photo credit: "Henry David Thoreau,"] In case you're confused, the one on the left is Thoreau. Indeed, as Louisa May Alcott once said of Thoreau's beard, it "will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity." Ibid.

The usually clean shaven Ferentz (on the right), by contrast, Alcott thought quite handsome. [Photo credit: Google Images and Getty Images.]

You may not celebrate this day, as I do, but August 9 is the anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau's famous book, Walden, or Life in the Woods, 156 years ago this year, in 1854.

(To put 1854 in perspective, here's what a map of Iowa City looked like in 1854: [Photo credit: UI Iowa Digital Library.]

Henry David Thoreau headed off to live in the woods around Walden Pond in 1845. He only stayed there for two years, and then spent the next seven writing the book about the prior two.

Although he cut back on physical possessions during his two year experience, I noted that his small cabin, at 150 square feet, was actually a full 10 square feet larger than the "small house" once lived in by the one-time President of the International Small House Society, at 140 square feet (counting the upstairs bedroom).

While at Walden Pond Thoreau did a lot of thinking and writing, including the following insight:
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), p. 34 (Hayes Barton Press).

Nor do the sender and receiver need to be separated by the distance between Maine and Texas to raise questions regarding whether "it may be [they] have nothing important to communicate." After all, a goodly portion of those 2.5 billion text messages Americans exchange every day are between junior high school students in the same school. See, USA Text Message Statistics.

[Photo credit: Smari, "Walden: A Year."] As The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has obverved, "In a country where so many gamely adopt the latest new gadget, we need our Thoreaus, not to stop the profusion of technology, but simply to remind us to use them well." Alexis Madrigal, "Thoreau's Walden Is 156 Years Old Today, but Relevant as Ever," The Atlantic, August 9, 2010.

So what is the bond between Thoreau and Ferentz?

It turns out that UI football coach Kirk Ferentz, master of the Big Ten universe, is a follower of Henry David Thoreau -- albeit, in all likelihood, unknowingly. He has as much enthusiasm for the panoply of laptops, netbooks, Kindles, Blackberries, iPhones, texting, iPods, email and tweets of our age as Thoreau had for the telegraph of his age.

Kirk Ferentz is proud not to own a BlackBerry. The Iowa football coach reads but doesn't write e-mails . . ..

"I do read texts," Ferentz said. "If you send me one, I'll read it and I'll call you back." . . .

"I don't like any of that stuff," Ferentz said. "It's not that I dislike it, I just don't have any interest in it, quite frankly. I don't want to get off on a commentary here, but everywhere I look, people have their BlackBerry, and I thoroughly enjoy being away from technology. I still enjoy talking to people and thinking and reading and things like that."

He means holding a book, not a Kindle. . . .

"Iowa has to do things like that just because of our recruiting disadvantages," Ferentz said. "This is just a different form of that as far as I'm concerned. We need to be on the forefront of having a good website and all that jazz. Young people are tuned into that. A nice sidecar to that is a lot of fans like that stuff, so it's good for fan interest, too. But I'm more focused on recruiting."

That's why it's imperative to have a diverse staff, Ferentz said.

"If [Defensive Coordinator] Norm [Parker] and I were in charge of that, we'd be last in the NCAA right now," he said. "You have to have some guys who are current thinkers and a lot of the guys on our staff (are on) Twitter and do all that stuff and that's good, I'm all for it." . . .

"But one of my personal goals still is never to own a BlackBerry, at least not until I retire. I don't want one when I'm coaching. I don't embrace that stuff, but I realize it's important, so I don't have my head in the sand, I don't think."
Andy Hamilton, "Low-tech approach works for Ferentz; Coach OK handing off those duties," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 6, 2010.

As Henry David Thoreau used to say to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, when the two of them would lay back in their lawn chairs and look to the sky, "How about them hawks?"

You can bet if Thoreau and Ferentz were ever able to talk to each other, they'd have something "important to communicate" -- and it wouldn't have been electronically.

In short, Thoreau and Ferentz, both known for "thinking outside the box," also prefer "living outside the box" as well -- the box of Morse code keys, laptops, and other electronics devices that offer us the choice to crawl inside and live a virtual electronics life inside the boxes that hold their magic wires.

But I have a friend who takes it one step further. He wants to check out of the electronic world entirely. This is kind of odd, since he is one of the brightest, most creative, computer geeks I know. He's currently working in one of the most prestigious jobs for guys like that, and well paid for doing so.

Here's the story he sent me yesterday, in which his name has now been changed to "Joe" (not his real name) and the companies he refers to have been changed to "Company A," "Company B" and "Company C."
For years now I've tried to live with as little paper trail as possible. Today the down side of that came back to bite me in the backside.

I have a good job. It pays well and the work is rewarding. However, my employer is absolutely fanatical about credit histories. Every employee gets checked a couple of times a year. Today, one of the HR types came by my office to talk about some "unusual recent activity."

Wait, "recent activity"? How is this possible? I have no bank loans, I have no credit cards.

"I don't know," Frank said. "This wasn't there the last time we checked. Between then and now, your credit reports have gone all One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

What? How? I've checked my Company A report. It's a blank page. Literally, a blank page.

"Yeah. Company A and Company B both have you as a clean skin. Still have you as one, I mean."

So what's crazy?

"Company C has you … look, they explained it to me and I don't understand. Just call this guy and get it cleared, okay?"

I called . . . to find out what was going on.

Five years ago or so, someone with my name, about twice my age, who formerly lived in State X, and attended University Y, skipped out on a credit card while owing a small amount of money. More than $100, but not so much as to leave me gasping for air.

I explained to the fellow on the other end of the line, the card issuer — a bank I've never heard of before — that yes, I was named that, but everything else was wrong. I've never been to State X, I've never attended University Y, that's not my birthday, and I canceled my credit card in 1999 after paying off the balance.

"Wow. Uh — that's a problem, then, isn't it?"

Sure is. So how do we get all this bad data corrected?

"Well, we're going to talk to Company C, Company A and Company B. We'll look at information from all three. Company C is the one that gave us this information you say is all messed up. If Company A and Company B can give us correct information, then we'll assume it's messed up, we'll cancel this debt and get it off Company C's report."

I don't have any history with Company A or Company B. No records there. Blank page. Clean skin.

"How the hell did you do that?"

No credit cards, no bank loans, no debts, nothing, for seven years.

"WHY the hell did you do that?"

Because I don't like being a record in a giant database!

"So. You say Company C's information is all messed up..."


"... but you don't like being a record in a giant database."


"Which means we have no way to get independent confirmation that this record is wrong."


"Are you beginning to see the problem here?"

Ultimately, I decided to save my sanity and just pay the sum. Fine fine fine fine fine fine fine I'll do it just get this thing off Company C's records.

The fellow was courteous and pleasant. He said he'd call back in half an hour after checking to see if there was anything more he could do. I told him I'd have my checkbook ready when he called.

Half an hour later — "Joe?"

I have my checkbook ready.

"Yeah, there's… a problem."

Another one?

"Yes. Joe, this is really strange, but your account's been turned over to another agency for collection."

It — what — when?!

"In 2008."


"Yes, sir. You need to call them. They can help you."

Wait, wait — if they've been trying to collect for two years, why haven't I ever heard of them?!

"Because they think you live in Missouri."

Let this be a lesson to anyone who has given any thought to living as a clean skin. Having a totally pristine credit history is great, up until the time the database gets messed up.

The computer is always right.
George Orwell was an optimist. No matter how hard you scrub you can't have what "Joe" calls a "clean skin." You can be like President Lyndon Johnson and Coach Ferentz and handle all of your affairs over the phone. But somehow, somewhere, somebody repealed the Fourth Amendment and didn't tell anyone. They know who you are and where you are. As Simon and Garfunkel sang of "Mrs. Robinson," "We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files." But that was over 40 years ago (1967/68). Hard drive capacity has increased as the prices have decreased. That "little bit" has now become "we'd like to know virtually everything about you for our files." "Oh, never mind; I guess we already have it."

Looks like we have more to learn from Thoreau, Ferentz, and "Joe," than how to live on $28 a year (Thoreau), building football teams (Ferentz), and computer security ("Joe").

What they seem to be saying is that, before we forget entirely we need to more frequently experience how to, in Coach Ferentz' words, "still enjoy talking to people and thinking and reading and things like that." We need to remember how to "live outside the box."

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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Anonymous said...

Enjoyable musings, Nicholas Johnson. I am going to speculate that, as an English major for his B.A., Coach Ferentz knows not only Henry David but also Raplh Waldo--and their writings--much better than most modern Americans. His life and speech as the Iowa FB coach would be exhibits A & B.

Nick said...

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