IBM retiree helped invent word processing in Lexington

April 21, 2014

140421WordProcessing001This IBM photo from June 1957 shows an early prototype of the MT/ST, the first word-processing machine, that Leon Cooper helped develop at IBM labs in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The project was later moved to Lexington, where the MT/ST was produced. Center, Cooper today with old office machines and the magnetic tape cartridge used by MT/ST. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, An IMB marketing photo for MT/ST from the mid-1960s.

 

Leon Cooper was watching Jeopardy! earlier this year when an answer caught his attention: “In the 1960s, this firm introduced the first word processor, the MT/ST, based on its Selectric typewriter.”

Cooper, 86, knew the question better than anyone. It was “What is IBM?”

140403MMSecretariatCenter0014But it had been years since the Lexington man had reflected on the fact that he and several other IBM engineers invented electronic word processing, a technology now so common and pervasive that it is hard to imagine modern society without it.

Fifty years ago — June 29, 1964 — IBM launched the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, or MT/ST, which was developed and manufactured in Lexington.

The machine’s launch made headlines in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Cooper has those clippings neatly preserved in a binder, along with his reports, patent documents and photos of prototypes.

IBM hired a young Jim Henson to make a short movie promoting the MT/ST. That quirky 1967 film, The Paperwork Explosion, provided an early glimpse at the creative genius whose Sesame Street Muppets would later help teach generations of children to read, count and get along with others.

Cooper was a mechanical engineer for IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1957 when his boss asked him to solve a big problem.

“When somebody sees a typewriter these days, they wonder, ‘How in the world did you correct anything?’ Well, the answer was you really didn’t,” Cooper said. “But the real answer was that the novice didn’t type. The only people who typed were professional typists.”

A good professional could type 90 words per minute with few errors. But if she — and virtually all typists in those days were women — needed to make multiple copies, it required several sheets of paper sandwiched with carbon paper. That slowed the process, because any mistakes had to be corrected on each copy.

Some punched-paper tape typewriters had been made since the 1930s, but they were better suited for form letters than general office use. Errors were hard to correct, and paper punch tape wasn’t reusable.

“Our mission was to capture the keystroke on a correctable medium that could produce multiple clean copies, because copying technology in those days was crude,” Cooper said.

The medium his team chose with was reusable magnetic tape with sprockets so it could be moved forward and backward. The first prototype used an input keyboard to record keystrokes on tape and store them in electrical relays. If the typist made a mistake, she simply backspaced and typed over it. The stored information could then be printed multiple times using a connected electric typewriter.

140421WordProcessing002“We didn’t know what all we could do until we got further along on the program,” Cooper said. “That we could do insertions and deletions and move things around and combine two tapes, names and addresses on one and messages on another.”

Early prototype machines used vacuum tubes until transistors became more reliable. Electronic memory was the major challenge, he said, because “storage was a big, clumsy thing in those days.”

Cooper and his project were moved to Lexington in 1958, where he worked with electrical engineers J.T. Turner and Donald Sims, among others. The IBM Selectric typewriter, introduced in 1961 with a keyboard capable of both input and output, helped make the MT/ST system commercially feasible.

“We called it power typing,” Cooper said. “We were not sophisticated enough to know what word processing was.”

In fact, IBM marketers would coin the term “word processing” when they began selling the MT/ST in 1964. The first model was the size of a small file cabinet, could store only 24,000 characters and printed 180 words per minute.

The MT/ST was expensive: $7,010 to $9,535, depending on optional features. “But I was told they sold the first year’s projection in a month,” Cooper said.

The MT/ST sold well into the 1970s, when it was replaced with typewriters using cassette tapes and then floppy disks. IBM introduced the personal computer in 1981 and the typewriter, an office fixture since the 1880s, was soon history.

Cooper retired from IBM in 1982 and started QED Medical, which makes headlamps for surgeons and other specialty lighting. His son, Ira Cooper, now runs the Lexington-based company.

“I really want to emphasize that this was a group effort,” Cooper said of IBM’s MT/ST project, which introduced the world to word processing. “But I was the first guy there.”

IBM hired a young Jim Henson to create this promotional film for the MT/ST in 1967. Henson would later create Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the other Muppets.


Lexington family and friends do good during ‘volunteer vacations’

March 18, 2014

130319Heitz-India0006Mike Heitz, left, and his wife, Janette, second from left, pose at Mother Clarac Matriculation School in Kumbakonam, India, where they worked with friends last month. Others, from left, are Sister Gladys; Sister Rosaria, the school’s founder, and Dan Lee from Singapore, a member of their volunteer group, which they call Fix-it Friends. Photo provided

 

Janette and Mike Heitz of Lexington love to travel, and they keep finding new ways to combine it with two of their other passions: bicycling and volunteer service.

The Heitzes organize bike trips to Europe with friends, and they have bicycled on their own in such far-flung places as Laos and Egypt. In 2006, Mike and their son, Cory, biked 7,435 miles down the length of Africa. The next year, Janette and their daughter, Jordan, biked 4,500 miles from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal.

A couple of weeks ago, the Heitzes returned from a different kind of trip. They, their daughter and more than a dozen friends from across this country, England and Singapore met in Kumbakonam, India. The group spent a week building basketball and tennis courts, painting a block wall and improving a computer lab at the Mother Clarac Matriculation School, run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Mary.

This was the 13th such trip the Heitzes have taken in as many years.

“I don’t like to call it a mission trip,” Janette said. “I call it a volunteer vacation, because it’s not religion-based. We are just a group of people who have a little extra money and a little extra time and we like to travel. So each year we pick a third-world country and we all meet there.”

Mike started the tradition by participating in a Habitat for Humanity home-building trip to Ghana in 1999. He liked it so much, Janette joined him the next year.

“He thought he would ease me in,” she said, so they did a Habitat build in New Zealand. “I loved it. So the next year we jumped in the deep end and went to Mongolia.”

After that, the couple did annual Habitat builds in South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Romania, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Then they decided to find their own projects along with friends they had met through Habitat and bicycling. Their group, which calls itself Fix-It Friends, includes a variety of faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Quaker and atheists.

The first Fix-It Friends trip was to Egypt. Then they went to Laos and Argentina, where they also worked with the Sisters of Charity. That led them to their recent trip to southwest India.

“We think education is the key to a better life,” Mike said. So, in addition to basic facility improvements, the group likes to provide computers to schools and orphanages where they work that have electricity. In addition to fixing old computers at Mother Clarac School and setting up a wifi network, the friends are buying 20 rugged $100 tablet computers for the school.

The Heitzes said they enjoy interacting with local people where they work. One day in India, while making the hour-long walk back to their hotel from the school, they came upon a wedding in progress.

“They saw us as some sign of good luck,” Janette said. “Here we were in our work clothes, I had paint splattered all over me, and they invited us in and took photos with us.”

The Heitzes arrived early to see some of India’s sights, including Gandhi’s tomb and the Taj Mahal. Then, after their week of volunteer work, they biked 30-40 kilometers a day for six days in the Kerela state of southeast India.

“It is the flattest part of India, and beautiful,” Janette said, but riding was tricky because “traffic laws are regarded as only a suggestion.”

The couple met at West Virginia University, where he was the basketball team’s first 7-footer (1968-72). Heitz’s younger brother, Tom, played for Kentucky (1979-84).

Mike is an investment banker who specializes in taking companies public. When the IPO market slowed five years ago, he also started a company that buys environmentally distressed industrial properties, restores and re-sells them. Their children work in his companies. Jordan Hurd and her mother also write a popular lifestyle blog, The Two Seasons (The2seasons.com).

Next year, the Fix-It Friends plan to meet in Colombia.

“To me, the important part of this is that we’re promoting goodwill,” Janette said. “People in these places don’t always have the most positive attitude about Americans. But my hope is that in the future when they think of Americans they will think of us and they will think of love. It’s like my little answer to world peace.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Making a second career from publicizing Kentucky’s ‘map dots’

March 16, 2014

mapdotCory Ramsey and his car’s license plate. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Cory Ramsey was a governor’s scholar who went on to earn a broadcasting and political science degree from Western Kentucky University. Then he discovered there was more money to be made welding truck frames at a factory in Bowling Green.

But in 2009, when the economy was on the ropes and Ramsey was given a layoff he knew would last only two months, he had some time to explore another passion — Kentucky’s outdoors.

CoryRamsey grew up in Hickman, a small county seat that hugs the Mississippi River at the far western edge of Kentucky. He spent his youth fishing, hunting and hiking.

Those two months off made him think there might be a way to use his communications skills to turn his love for Kentucky’s outdoors into a business opportunity.

Since then, Ramsey has built his own little media enterprise while crisscrossing the state to visit all 120 counties and every state parks.

Ramsey writes about his adventures and offers hiking advice for the state tourism department’s Outdoor Adventure blog (Getoutky.com). He posts videos on his own website (Coryramseyoutdoors.com). And he does monthly outdoor video segments for WBKO-TV in Bowling Green and radio shows for little stations across the state.

“My emphasis is on exploration made easy,” he said recently when he passed through Lexington after spending a weekend hiking in Red River Gorge. “I tell people the best places to go for a fun day outdoors.”

His latest media venture explores another passion — Kentucky’s crossroads communities and small towns, which he calls “Map Dots.” Last August, he launched the Map Dot, Kentucky Facebook page to celebrate them.

“I wanted to prove that if you take a back road you’ll see things you never knew about,” said Ramsey, who visits and photographs each place he features on the page. “What makes it work is the personal touch.”

Ramsey said he hopes to eventually cover every “Map Dot” in Kentucky, “although that may take me a few years.”

Recent Map Dots he has visited include Glendale in Hardin County, Tomahawk in Martin County, Irvington in Breckinridge County, Danville in Boyle County, Rowletts in Hart County and Columbus Belmont State Park in Hickman County.

“My message is, I have seen so much more in Kentucky than horses and bourbon and Daniel Boone and Lincoln,” he said. “You’re brought up in Kentucky with state pride, but many folks are ignorant of so much the state has. They have never taken the time to explore even the next county over.”

The Map Dot, Kentucky Facebook page so far has gotten more than 5,500 “likes.” It has steady interaction from regular readers, most of them in Kentucky or originally from the state.

“I would like to be able to travel all the time,” Ramsey said, but added that he hasn’t yet figured out how to turn his media business into a career that pays much more than enough to cover the cost of his gas.

To do that, Ramsey will have to find more freelance opportunities, sell more Map Dot T-shirts and figure out new ways to generate revenue.

Until then, he plans to keep welding for Bowling Green Metalforming, a division of Magna International that makes Explorer frames for Ford’s Louisville assembly plant. That business is booming, which has meant a lot of overtime pay for Ramsey but less time for him to explore and share the wonders of Kentucky.


What did Code for America fellows think after month in Lexington?

March 3, 2014

codethree

Livien Yin, left, Erik Schwartz and Lyzi Diamond spent February in Lexington as Code for America fellows. Photo by Tom Eblen

Three young technologists spent February getting to know Lexington. They met with city employees, business people and non-profit leaders. They walked streets, rode along with code enforcement officers, held meetings in coffee houses and hosted happy hours with community activists. They spent “quality time” along Nicholasville Road. They ate a lot of local donuts.

On Saturday, Lyzie Diamond, Erik Schwartz and Livien Yin flew back to San Francisco, where they will work until mid-November creating technology tools that citizens can use to improve life in Lexington.

The three are on fellowships with Code for America, a nonprofit organization that calls itself the Peace Corps for Geeks. Lexington was selected this year as one of eight cities to host fellows, who also are working in Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

The fellows’ goal is to leverage technology to empower citizens to improve their communities. Lexington’s participation is supported financially by 30 local people, businesses and organizations, including Mayor Jim Gray, the Urban County Council and Commerce Lexington.

In addition to the fellows’ technology expertise, sponsors wanted their fresh eyes on Lexington’s progress, problems and potential.

“They can help us see what we maybe cannot see,” said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

At the end of their month here, I met with Diamond, Schwartz and Yin to find out what they discovered about Lexington, and what they hope to accomplish.

“It went by fast,” said Yin, adding that they plan to return to town for a couple of weeks in April. By then, the snow and ice will be gone and the pace of life will be quickened by Keeneland and other spring activities.

They will spend this week debriefing with the other Code for America fellows and narrowing the focus of their project. They will be listening for common themes and additional ideas from other fellows. But their thinking at this point is to focus on tools to improve communication and collaboration in Lexington.

They said “data visualization” tools could help Lexington residents better understand information already collected by many local organizations and government agencies.

“Sometimes it’s just shining a light on things that already exist and providing tutorials, examples to get people to use existing tools,” Diamond said. “Trying to find ways to get people excited about new things is one of the challenges of the fellowship.”

One example of such a tool is What’s My District?, which was developed by Open Lexington, a volunteer group of local technologists that is nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to more transparent government. To see that tool and others in development, visit its website: Openlexington.org.

Diamond, 24, is originally from New Jersey and also has lived in Hong Kong, Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. Her expertise is digital map-making, and one of her favorite activities while in Lexington was teaching a group of Girl Scouts the basics of how to do it.

Yin, 24, is from Lincoln, Mass., studied art in college but learned technology skills after moving to San Francisco to pursue her interest in neighborhood-based urban revitalization.

Schwartz, 33, grew up in Albion, Mich., and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. Since playing in Chicago rock bands, he has worked for several years developing web applications for businesses. His wife, Sarah Smith-Schwartz, is from Lexington.

All three said they enjoyed their time in Lexington. They were impressed by the amount of grassroots community improvement they saw, as well as the community spirit and strong personal networks.

“In every meeting we’ve had, the person we’re meeting with will mention a name of someone we already have met with or know and someone we haven’t met with yet,” Diamond said. “People are really connected to each other here, which is awesome. For a town of 300,000-plus, that’s impressive.”

“Lexington seems to be changing so fast,” Yin added. “I’m excited by the level of engagement that’s already happening.”

Whatever technology tools the three develop, they are likely to be geared toward small-scale action, because many Lexington neighborhoods are already engaged and tend to have different needs and issues.

“How can we help people have more impact, know about more stuff they care about and communicate with others more effectively?” Schwartz asked.

“So many connections happen by word-of-mouth and face-to-face interaction,” Diamond said. “We’re trying to find ways not to replace that but to boost it and facilitate it.”


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


Chemist, writer, father of ‘the Pill’ to speak about his work

February 4, 2014

djerassiChemist and writer Carl Djerassi. Photo by Karen Ostertag.

 

As a chemist, Carl Djerassi developed the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive. It became “the Pill” and changed the dynamics of human sex and reproduction.

Since the mid-1980s, Djerassi has developed a second career as a writer. Most of his five novels and 11 plays are exercises in what he calls “intellectual smuggling” — explaining scientific processes to non-scientists and exploring the ethical and moral implications of science and technology.

Djerassi calls his genre science-in-fiction because, unlike science fiction, the science he write about is real. Bridging the sciences and humanities is critical to understanding the world, he said, but it can be controversial among specialists in both fields.

“Science is threatening to many people in the humanities,” Djerassi, 90, said in an interview last week from his home in California, where he had just returned after a busy lecture schedule in Europe, where he also has homes in Vienna and London.

“Many (scientific) colleagues have criticized me, saying I am washing dirty lab coats in public,” he added. “And I say that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Djerassi will be in Lexington for four events Feb. 13-15 at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. His visit is sponsored by a host of UK academic departments, from Chemistry and Pharmacy to Theatre.

His trip was arranged by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl of Lexington, who got to know Djerassi while she was in medical school at Stanford University. She was one of his teaching assistants, and they have been friends ever since.

Djerassi was born in Vienna in 1923, the son of Jewish physicians, and grew up in Bulgaria. He came to America as the Nazis were coming to power, and he eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1945.

After developing one of the first commercial antihistamines in the 1940s, Djerassi went to Mexico City, where he and several colleagues made their contraceptive breakthrough in 1951. He went on to work in both industry and academia, joining the Stanford faculty in 1960 and helping to develop the Stanford Industrial Park.

Djerassi is one of two American chemists to have won both the National Medal of Science (for “the Pill” synthesis) and the National Medal of Technology (for new approaches to insect control). He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and many foreign academies. He has a long list of honors, from honorary degrees and European medals. Austria put his picture on a postage stamp in 2005.

Djerassi said he had always been interested in literature, but he didn’t begin writing until about age 60 after his girlfriend dumped him. “That really got me going,” he said.

He began writing a novel about their relationship. About the time he was finishing it a year later, the ex-girlfriend sent him flowers and asked to meet.

“Instead of sending her back flowers, I sent her the manuscript,” he said. “She was completely flabbergasted. It brought us together, and we got married.”

The girlfriend who became his third wife was Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford English professor who wrote critically acclaimed biographies of the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

Djerassi said he decided to close his Stanford lab and devote full-time to writing and lecturing in 1985, when, soon after his marriage, he got a serious cancer diagnosis.

“I wanted to use fiction to talk about things, scientific and technological, that in my opinion were important,” he said. He survived cancer, but it claimed Middlebrook in 2007.

Many of Djerassi’s novels and plays deal with the ethical and societal implications of science — such as the separation of sex from reproduction — as well as the collegial and competitive way science is practiced.

“Ninety percent of the general public thinks they’re not interested (in science), or thinks they don’t understand it or are afraid of it,” he said, adding that most fiction tends to portray scientists as either geeks or idiot savants.

“I thought if I put it in the guise of fiction, I could make it sufficiently interesting that people would read it,” he said. “And they would have learned something without knowing it.”

If you go

Carl Djerassi in Lexington.

  •  Noon, Feb. 13, UK’s Hilary J. Boone Center. Djerassi will speak about academic and business relationships in science to a luncheon. Cost: $30. Reservations deadline Feb. 5. Email: Sylvia4H.art@gmail.com.
  • 4:30 p.m., Feb. 13, Worsham Theatre, U.K. Student Center. Djerassi gives a free, public lecture, “Science on the Page and Stage.” The first 100 students there will get a free copy of one of his books, which he will sign afterward.
  • 3:30 p.m., Feb. 14, Room 102 Cowgill Center at Transylvania. Djerassi will give a lecture, “The Divorce of Sex from Reproduction: The New Facts of Life.”
  • 3 p.m. , Feb., 15, the Art Museum at UK. Actors will read his play “Insufficiency.” A reception with Djerassi will follow.

A few Kentucky business highlights; poetry not included

December 29, 2013

By newspaper tradition, each year at this time, business news highlights were recounted in rhyme. Well, maybe I’m dull. Maybe I’m lazy. But to read a whole column in verse makes me crazy.

So here are some things that made news in Kentucky, but none of them will rhyme, so count yourselves lucky:

■ Toyota announced in April that it would build Lexus vehicles in the United States for the first time on a new line at its 6,000-employee Georgetown assembly plant. The company plans to produce 50,000 Lexus ES 350 luxury sedans a year, beginning in 2015, adding 750 more jobs.

■ Kentucky’s hottest commodity in 2013 was bourbon, as more drinkers around the world developed a taste for this state’s native spirit. Especially popular were high-end boutique bourbons: single barrels, small batches and specially finished recipes.

Distillers put up more than 1 million barrels a year for the first time since 1973 and were expanding their facilities in every direction. Nine craft distilleries either were licensed or announced plans to build.

All of this fueled the popularity of tourism along Central Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience opened in Louisville, while Wild Turkey built a new visitors center that will open in 2014.

Bourbon’s popularity had some distillers worried about supply. Maker’s Mark ignited a customer backlash — and a lot of free publicity — when it announced in February that it would water down its bourbon a little, then quickly changed its mind.

Bourbon also figured into one of Kentucky’s most highly publicized crimes of 2013: the theft of $26,000 worth of coveted Pappy Van Winkle from a warehouse at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

■ Kentucky farm cash receipts hit a record $6 billion in 2013, just a year after topping $5 billion for the first time. Much of that was the result of the rebounding horse industry. Sales of Thoroughbred yearlings at Keeneland were up 28 percent in September, while sales of bloodstock were up 38 percent in November. Kentucky breeding rebounded for the first time since 2007, the Jockey Club said.

Also in agriculture, the local food movement gained more traction. St. Catharine College in Springfield launched a sustainable agriculture program, joining similar programs at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University aimed at training a new kind of Kentucky farmer.

The Lexington Farmers Market expanded its calendar, and chef Ouita Michel, perhaps Central Kentucky’s highest-profile local food entrepreneur, opened her fifth restaurant, Smithtown Seafood, at the Bread Box development on West Sixth Street. Some of Smithtown’s fish and greens are raised in the next room by Food Chain, a sustainable agriculture non-profit.

■ R.J. Corman started a dinner train from Lexington to Versailles in August. Sadly, soon afterward, the Nicholasville railroad magnate and philanthropist died at age 58 following a long battle with cancer.

■ Lexington saw several new stores in 2013, the biggest of which was a 159,000-square-foot Costco warehouse at Hamburg.

The city also got some innovative new restaurants, including National Boulangerie, a French-style bakery; Coba Cocina, a Mexican-inspired restaurant with Las Vegas-style architecture; and Athenian Grill, a former food truck. Alfalfa, the downtown restaurant that was organic before organic was cool, celebrated its 40th year.

But as the year ended, the venerable retailer Sears was having a liquidation sale at Fayette Mall and preparing to leave Lexington after 80 years. Before moving to the new mall in 1971, Sears was on Main Street, where the Chase bank tower now stands.

Miller & Woodward Jewelers, a Lexington institution since 1931, was closing its doors at the end of the year so owner Russell Pattie could retire. And Talbots Outlet, a popular women’s clothing store that moved from Victorian Square to Hamburg, announced that it would be closing in 2014.

■ Lexmark, Lexington’s biggest technology company, spent much of 2013 trying to show that it isn’t just a printer manufacturer anymore. The company is working to reinvent itself as a leader in various kinds of digital data manipulation services.

■ Lexington’s huge hospital industry saw the opening in September of a new $129 million, 300,000-square-foot Eastern State Hospital off Newtown Pike at the Coldstream Research Campus. It was a long-overdue replacement for one of the nation’s oldest mental hospitals, which had been located on Newtown Pike between Fourth Street and Loudon Avenue for nearly 200 years. That site is now the new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

 


Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013

131120Eblen-Berea0006

Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’ website:Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

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People ask, “What’s the future of newspapers?” Some thoughts

December 10, 2013

This is the season for holiday parties, which means several opportunities a week for someone to corner me in a crowded room and ask about the future of newspapers.

Some people tell me they worry about newspapers going away, because they like the feel of paper in their hands and the smell of ink in the morning.

Others worry more about journalism itself: How can American self-government survive without a robust, credible news media?

I fall into the second group; I worry about the news, not the paper. When asked, I give people a brief synopsis of why newspapers are hurting, why good journalism is threatened and where I think the trends could lead.

Then I ask if I can get them anything from the bar, because by that time I need a drink.

So, in the interest of public curiosity and my own sanity and sobriety, here are some thoughts about the future of newspapers and journalism.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, these are the best of times and worst of times for journalism. The reasons for both are digital technology and the Internet, which have profoundly transformed the news media.

The good news is that the digital revolution has given journalists amazing reporting tools and news-delivery platforms that they could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

Rather than just being able to publish one or two print editions a day, newspaper journalists can now deliver up-to-the-minute news, photos, video and audio anywhere on websites and mobile devices. Plus, readers can instantly respond with comments, changing journalism from a lecture into a conversation.

Newspapers’ print circulation has slipped some, but growing online readership has more than made up for it. And that’s the irony: more people are reading newspaper journalism than ever before, but newspapers are making less money. A lot less.

Before the Internet, mass media was an exclusive club. Media companies needed a lot of expensive equipment and vast distribution networks, so they often became monopolies.

Technology has ended those monopolies. Now, anyone with an Internet connection and a digital device can publish information that can be seen by unlimited numbers of people around the world within seconds.

But the same technology that has created what should be journalism’s golden age has ravaged the advertising-based business model that has always paid for journalism. More than two-thirds of newspaper revenues come from advertising.

As with news, there are no longer advertising monopolies. New digital advertising platforms keep taking slices out of the pie. Newspaper print advertising is still a good business, but it’s not growing.

Traditional media companies are getting some of the online advertising, but there is a lot of competition. Much of it comes from companies that are not having to spend money to create real journalism, or even what is generically called “content.”

As advertising revenues have shrunk, so have newspaper pages and staffs. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in June that newsrooms have shed 18,400 jobs since 2000, with employment falling from 56,400 newspaper journalists nationally to 38,000.

Will print newspapers survive? I think so, at least in some form in most markets. Print advertising remains very effective for many kinds of advertisers. But digital is the future, which means organizations that want to continue the costly process of creating good journalism will have to find new revenue streams.

I always thought newspapers made a mistake by giving away journalism online, but that model is changing. Most newspapers have recently initiated some form of online subscription or “pay wall.” That will only increase.

The New York Times recently reported that its online subscription revenue had surpassed online advertising revenue, which is a promising sign for journalism. It costs money to pay trained journalists to do quality reporting, writing, photography, graphics and editing.

The economics of journalism will continue to be a challenge, but the future holds many new possibilities. One exciting development is small, niche journalism websites being started by entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations. They could help fill some voids being left by shrinking media companies.

What worries me, though, is the rise of entertainment, hucksterism and political propaganda masquerading as honest journalism on scores of websites and cable TV channels, such as Fox News and MSNBC.

But that’s another conversation. Happy holidays.  


Will SOAR be a new beginning, or just more talk about Appalachia?

December 8, 2013

You have to wonder: Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit Monday in Pikeville be the start of something big, or just another feel-good effort that doesn’t amount to much?

More than 1,500 people have registered to attend the conference called by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who said they wanted ideas from throughout Eastern Kentucky for strategies to diversify the region’s economy.

There have been dozens of conferences on this topic over the years, but this one offers some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is the first high-level, bipartisan effort. Politicians who usually dance to the tune of the all-powerful coal industry are actually asking other people what they think.

But once the talking is over and the reports are written, will leadership, public investment and private capital get behind the good ideas? Will anything really change?

soarlogoCreating a sustainable, broadly prosperous economy in a region that has never really had one will be a monumental challenge.

Eastern Kentucky has never lacked for intelligent, hard-working people. But it has been handicapped by isolation, lack of education and opportunity, corrupt politics and powerful economic forces beyond its borders and control.

Since the late 1800s, the region has gone from subsistence farming to large-scale timber extraction to increasingly destructive methods of coal mining. The result has been a classic colonial economy, where most of the wealth flowed out of the region, or to a small local elite, while a large underclass survived on welfare and charity.

This cycle of poverty and dependence has led to hopelessness, drug abuse and other social problems, as was outlined in the most recent chapters of the excellent series Fifty Years of Night, by Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep.

Can a new and different chapter be written for Eastern Kentucky?

In calling this summit, Beshear and Rogers cited the loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs over the past two years. But they wisely avoided their usual “war on coal” rhetoric, which blames the industry’s problems on long-overdue environmental regulation and enforcement.

The main reasons for declining coal production are cheaper Western coal and even cheaper natural gas. Besides, coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been falling for three decades, from a high of 37,505 in 1981, primarily because of industry mechanization and a shift from deep to surface mining.

Eastern Kentucky’s current coal employment is 7,951, the lowest in generations, and that is unlikely to improve much. Coal will continue to be a presence. But because the large, easy-to-mine reserves are gone, most of the coal jobs will never return.

There are no “magic bullet” solutions to replacing Eastern Kentucky’s coal-based economy. (Not that coal itself was ever a magic bullet. Even when coal employment and production were at their peaks, the coal counties were still among the nation’s poorest.)

The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has some good ideas about what a new Eastern Kentucky economy should aspire to. Those principles would be a good starting point for Monday’s conversations.

KFTC’s vision calls for a “just” transition that promotes “innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.” It urges more citizen participation in decision-making, and calls for restoration and protection of the environment and public health. It also urges leaders to “consider the effects of decisions on future generations.”

Tourism and outdoor recreation are often mentioned as potential economic opportunities, but that will require cleaning up some of strip mining’s environmental damage. Kentucky should lobby for money to do that work from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which could keep thousands of former coal miners employed for years.

Home-grown entrepreneurship and technology jobs are other often-mentioned possibilities to building Eastern Kentucky’s middle class, but they will require serious state investments in education and infrastructure to attract private capital. Kentucky’s tax-phobic politicians and the citizens who elect them have never been willing to make such serious investment, and that must change if anything else is to.

Shaping a new Eastern Kentucky economy will require a lot of creativity, commitment and hard work, not to mention leadership, inclusion and accountability.

There will be many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is cynicism. It will be a long process. But Monday in Pikeville is as good a time and place to start as any.


Lexington has come a long way in just a few years

December 2, 2013

Lexington changed a lot between the time I went away to college in 1976 and returned in 1998. But I think it has changed even more profoundly since then.

The earlier changes were mostly physical — vast tracks of rural land turned into subdivisions and strip malls. Recent changes have been more about attitudes.

Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., talked about some of those attitudes in his interview with Tom Martin. They discussed how Lexington can attract innovative talent for the 21st-century economy.

Kimel understands the power of innovation and ideas better than anyone I know. If you haven’t read the interview yet, grab a highlighter and mark the attitudes he mentions.

Here are some I noted: Self-starter. Creative problem-solving. Imagination. Tolerance for risk and failure. Embracing diversity.

Lexington isn’t as open to new ideas as it needs to be, but it has made considerable progress. This city is less buttoned-down than it was just a few years ago, and that has made it a much more interesting place to live, work and play.

I don’t know why it happened, but I have a few hunches. One is that technology has empowered more people, making it easier for them to innovate and succeed. At the same time, social media has made it easier for them to connect with one another.

Technology has made the structures of Lexington power and influence younger and more diverse. People feel less pressure to conform, less need to seek “permission.” This is especially true in arts and culture, which are leading indicators of social and economic shifts.

131108Mural0025For example, consider the positive buzz created recently when a Brazilian artist was invited to paint a giant, psychedelic Abe Lincoln mural on a big blank wall downtown. It is an amazing piece of art, sure to become a Lexington icon.

Had that happened a decade or two ago, many of Lexington’s powers-that-be would have scoffed. Most likely, such a mural would never have happened at all.

The mere suggestion of it would have spawned high-level discussions where caution would have outweighed creativity. If anything at all resulted, it would have been a “safe” mural that would neither offend nor inspire anyone — perhaps a pretty field of horses, none of which would be blue.

A Lexington Tattoo Project in the 1990s? No way.

Lexington’s economic creativity can be found in low-rent office space all over town. For example, there are dozens of innovative technology companies such as Cirrus Mio, Medmovie and Float Money, plus biotech firms whose market niches are as hard to understand as their names are to pronounce. There are two tech startup incubators on Main Street, Awesome Inc. and Base 163.

Of course, all innovation isn’t high-tech. Sometimes, it’s simply looking around at what makes a place unique and wonderful and finding new ways to develop and market it. Alltech gets it. So do chef Ouita Michel and the “Kentucky for Kentucky” guys. The once-stodgy bourbon industry has become a hotbed of innovation, and business is booming as a result.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of new Lexington creativity:

Four young entrepreneurs wanted to start a craft brewery. But they didn’t just want to sell beer; they wanted to build community. Their West Sixth Brewery has been wildly successful by breaking all of the old “rules.”

Rather than locate in an affluent suburb, they bought an abandoned 1920s bread factory in a transitional northside neighborhood. An old-style developer would have bulldozed the factory and built a faux-fancy brewpub. Instead, these guys hired Lexington developer Holly Wiedemann, a master at turning old buildings into cool, functional spaces.

The once-abandoned factory, now called The Bread Box, houses West Sixth’s brewery and pub, plus other tenants including artist studios, a nonprofit bicycle shop, a coffee-roaster, a women’s roller derby team and a seafood restaurant.

Smithtown Seafood gets some of its fish from Food Chain, an urban agriculture nonprofit that raises them in tanks in the next room. Brewery waste is fed to the fish and fish waste fertilizes greens grown under artificial lights and served in the restaurant. Win, win, win.

The Bread Box is an example of innovative talent in action, and it creates the kind of community where innovative, talented people can see there is opportunity to realize their own dreams.  


Learning about code already pays off for one Lexington school

November 25, 2013

I recently wrote about the upcoming Computer Science Education Week and how a technology industry organization is encouraging every school to spend at least an hour the week of Dec. 9-15 introducing every student to the language of digital technology: code. Plans to do that have already paid off for one Lexington school.

CSEWCode.org, the non-profit group organizing the Hour of Code event, has awarded $10,000 to Southern Elementary School. The school’s planned activities include creating a life-size version of the popular cellphone game Angry Birds in the gymnasium Dec. 6 to get students excited about learning code basics the following week.

School officials plan to use the award money to buy equipment for the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) laboratory, said Lisa Deffendall, spokeswoman for the Fayette County Public Schools. She said Code.org was donating $10,000 to one school in every state, and Southern Elementary is Kentucky’s winner.

 

 

 


Hour of Code introduces new kind of literacy to schools

November 11, 2013

Americans have always understood the link between literacy and getting ahead. The better you could read and write the English language, the better your chances for success.

But in the 21st century, where virtually every aspect of life involves some kind of digital technology, there is a lot of economic opportunity for people who also have another kind of literacy: code.

Code is the foundation of computer science, the instructions that programmers use to get computers and other digital devices to do what they want them to do. Who will shape the future of a technology-driven global economy? The people who know how to write code.

That is the basic message of the nonprofit organization Code.org, which is sponsoring a initiative called the Hour of Code to bring a taste of basic code instruction to every school during Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 9-15.

So far, Code.org reports that more than 9,800 events for CSEWmore than 1.56 million students are planned that week in 141 countries. Students don’t have to have special math knowledge or aptitude to participate. They don’t even have to have a computer. For more information, go to: Csedweek.org.

One Lexington group that has embraced this initiative is Awesome Inc., an incubator for high-tech entrepreneurs. Its offices at 348 East Main Street have provided shared workspace for 50 startup companies over the past six years, as well as meeting and educational space. It also houses the Kentucky Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame.

Brian Raney, a co-founder of Awesome Inc., said about 10 volunteers from among the 15 companies now housed at the incubator plan to use curricula developed by Code.org to teach an hour of code instruction at 10 schools during that week.

Raney already has signed up Rockcastle County High School and four Fayette County public schools: Tates Creek High School, Dixie Magnet Elementary, the Learning Center at Linlee and the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Academy.

He said Awesome Inc. will accept five more schools on a first-come, first-served basis, with preference given to schools that include the entire student body in the program. The session will include hands-on exercises, including some actual programming for student groups that have computers. There is a $100 reservation fee to cover instructors’ expenses.

Schools interested in having Awesome Inc. facilitate their participation in the Hour of Code can apply at: Awesomeincu.com/hourofcode.html.

“I honestly think we’ll have a lot more demand than the 10 schools we can handle,” Raney said.

“The idea is to teach the basics of what coding is all about,” he said. “To learn to think like a programmer — logical thinking, problem-solving. Kids pick that up so fast.”

Raney sees the Hour of Code as a great way to interest young people in computer programming and the career opportunities it offers, which are becoming more abundant, varied and lucrative every day.

awesomeHis own interest in programming led him to start Apax Software, which designs websites and develops mobile applications, such as Keeneland’s new Race Day app for iPhone, iPad and Android.

Raney said that getting more people to learn code is key to growing Kentucky’s technology and entrepreneurial economies, which is a goal of Awesome Inc.

This summer, Awesome Inc. began offering a series of one-day “crash courses” in coding for web development and mobile apps. So far, 140 students —ranging in age from 9 to their mid-60s — have taken those classes, which cost $50 to $100. More information: Awesomeincu.com.

“Our goal is to teach 500 people to code by the summer of 2014,” he said.

Raney is especially excited about the Hour of Code program because it will show young people that while coding may be the language of today’s technology geniuses, you don’t have to be a genius to learn to write code.

“Software is running everything,” he said. “If you can understand how that software works and how to manipulate it, you’re going to be able to do so much. The people who learn how to code are going to shape the future.”


Governor’s Scholars alumni hope to create powerful network

September 10, 2013

Randall Stevens was a shy kid from Pikeville when he was chosen for the second class of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program in the summer of 1984. It literally changed his life.

“I think I became me in those five weeks of that program,” Stevens said. “It’s a huge confidence builder. It’s a social awakening with an academic background that really develops leadership.”

The experience inspired Stevens to study computers and architecture at the University of Kentucky, he said. Since then, Stevens has created several software programs and the companies to produce and market them. He also started Base 163, an incubator work space for Lexington technology entrepreneurs.

RStevens

Randall Stevens

Stevens has met many other Governor’s Scholars over the years whose experiences were similar to his. That got him thinking about the potential of an alumni network, both for the former scholars and for Kentucky’s future.

He recently helped start the Governor’s Scholars Program Alumni Association, which will have its first gathering Sept. 27 and 28 at the Kentucky Center in downtown Louisville. The event is affiliated with the annual Idea Festival there that week.

Speakers at the event include several former scholars: U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican who represents Northern Kentucky; Drew Curtis, founder of the online humor site Fark.com; Jeff Fugate, president of Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority; and Rebecca Self, founder of FoodChain, an urban-agriculture nonprofit in Lexington.

Former scholars interested in attending the event or becoming affiliated with the alumni group can get more information at Facebook.com/gspsync or GSPsync.tumblr.com, or by email at gspsync@gmail.com.

The Governor’s Scholars Program began in 1983, with 230 rising high school seniors from across Kentucky who were brought together on Centre College’s campus in Danville for a summer enrichment program. The program is the oldest of its kind in the nation. This summer, about 1,100 students participated on three college campuses.

Scholars are chosen through a competitive process. The program is free to them and is financed by state government and private donors. Governor’s Scholars are eligible for big-dollar scholarships at virtually all of Kentucky’s public and private colleges and universities.

Stevens figures that there are now 25,349 Governor’s Scholars Alumni with three decades of accomplishments, life experiences and personal networks that could have enormous value. Simply publicizing what other former scholars are doing could spark ideas and create job opportunities.

The idea of the Governor’s Scholars Program was to keep Kentucky’s “best and brightest” from leaving the state. Surveys show that about half of all scholars now live here. But Stevens and others think that original goal was too narrow.

gsplogo“It’s not good to try to keep them in Kentucky,” he said. “Just keep them connected to Kentucky.”

For one thing, Stevens said, when scholars leave Kentucky to achieve their dreams, they can end up in good positions to help future scholars achieve theirs.

Former scholar Darlene Hunt of Lebanon Junction went to Britain, Chicago and Los Angeles on her way to becoming a successful actress, producer and television writer. Matt Cutts of Morehead went on from UK to earn a doctorate in computer science from North Carolina and is now a top executive at Google.

“Having a Matt Cutts at Google is better for the network than if he had stayed here,” Stevens said.

Also, he said, Kentuckians often have a habit of achieving success elsewhere and moving back to home, bringing back knowledge and sometimes jobs and investment capital.

Some high-profile examples include Alan Hawse, a top executive with Cypress Semiconductor, whose move back from California led to creation of a technology development center in downtown Lexington. Self, the FoodChain founder, and her husband, Ben, moved back to Lexington from Boston after a company he helped start ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 online campaign. He and three partners then started West Sixth Brewing Co.

“The network is more valuable than just having people here,” Stevens said. The oldest scholars are now reaching mid-career and rising to positions of wealth and influence, he said. “The real power could be what happens when they do want to come back.”


Veteran sign painter creates art from Lexington, racing nostalgia

August 5, 2013

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John Cox, owner of Thoroughgraphics, shows a copy, at right, he is making of an old sign from the Nashua Room at the old Hialeah racetrack in Hialeah, Fla. Cox said he acquired several old Hialeah signs years ago when the sign company he worked for was hired to replace them.  Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

John Cox’s artwork is a shot of nostalgia for anyone who lived in Lexington or followed Thoroughbred racing during the decades after World War II. His paintings are literally signs of the times, recalling the famous and infamous.

Cox’s hand-painted signs look as though they spent decades at such places as Joyland Park, Stoll Field, Scott’s Rollarena, Comer’s Restaurant or Keeneland.

Remember the Library Lounge, that swinging singles bar in the 1970s? Or the Red Lion Lounge, which featured the “exotic” dancer Chesty Morgan? And don’t forget Boot’s Bar, where headliners included the Fabulous Table Toppers and Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, upside down, backwards guitar player.

Longtime racing fans may recall the Citation Room at Hialeah Park in Florida, the Boots & Saddle Bar across the street from the track or Greentree Stable, Payne Whitney’s New Jersey farm that was a Thoroughbred powerhouse in the 1920s.

“I had had several people who asked me to make them a sign that looked like it was old, from some memory they had,” said Cox, who since 1982 has owned and operated Thoroughgraphics, a Lexington sign company.

Cox was soon making “new old” signs for gifts. Since late last year, he has been showing and selling his pieces at Gallery Hop. His work is now on display at Congleton Lumber Co.’s new showroom, 1260 Industry Road, and at his website, Newoldsigns.com.

Cox left last week for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Saratoga Race Course is celebrating its 150th year. His company will be making modern signs for its many customers there, and he has made some “new old” Saratoga-themed signs for sale through Lexington’s Cross Gate Gallery.

“It’s a unique niche,” said Cox, 54, who began his career hand-lettering signs for Johnson Sign Co. in the 1970s while a student at Lafayette High School.

130723OldSigns0102Cox had always been interested in calligraphy, and he studied art at the University of Kentucky. Because many of his fraternity brothers were in the horse business, he focused on that industry. His customers now include farms, tracks and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga. He just finished making metal plaques for the newest group of Hall of Fame inductees.

Other than Cox’s artwork, little hand-painting is still done at Thoroughgraphics, which has a lot of modern technology for making all kinds of signs, from huge printers to computer-controlled wood routers.

“There are lots of different ways that are better and longer-lasting now than painting signs,” Cox said, adding that “when they took the lead out of paint, it didn’t last as long or hold its color very well.”

That technology would make it easy to reproduce old-fashioned sign images. But that wouldn’t be the same as what Cox does. His hand-painted letters show brush strokes, and he makes each piece look old and authentic with creative use of sandpaper, varnish and sometimes even a little dirt.

“I don’t try to pass them off as being old,” he said. “If you look at the back of them, you can see they’re brand-new materials.”

Cox said his signs are a mixture of authenticity and imagination. He researches a place, looking for photographs of old signs there. If he finds a design he likes, he copies it. Or he may use imagery from old promotional materials, such as matchbook covers.

For other signs, Cox simply makes up a design appropriate to the era — how he would have done the job, if only he had been around then to do it. Most of his pieces are inspired by signs from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Cox has collected more than 100 antique signs that cover the walls of his workshops at Thoroughgraphics. There has been a resurgence in public interest in old signs. There is even an American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

Most of Cox’s “new old” signs sell for $200 to $400, although he is asking $2,000 for a large Keeneland sign painted with gold leaf.

Cox said he has enjoyed showing his work, because people come up and tell him great stories about their memories of the places depicted in his signs.

“It’s a great creative outlet for me,” he said. “And people seem to really enjoy them.”

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News Literacy Project teaches kids to sort media fact from fiction

July 28, 2013

Before he retired and moved back to Lexington, John Carroll spent five years as the top editor of the Los Angeles Times, leading a newsroom staff that won 13 Pulitzer prizes.

Websites, blogs, niche cable TV networks and talk radio shows were beginning to become significant players on the media landscape then, and Carroll noticed a phenomenon he hadn’t seen before in his long journalism career.

“We would get 1,000 emails, ‘Why didn’t you cover this? You’re covering up!’” he said. “I was just shocked at the misinformation that people were calling us with and emailing us with, and it was obviously coming out in mass form, because you would get 20 or 50 or 10,000 queries about certain things that were not true.”

The proliferation of new digital media and the changing nature of traditional media have resulted in many more sources for news, information and commentary. But some of what is masquerading as journalism is really propaganda, marketing, entertainment or simply nonsense.

How do you know what to trust? It is hard enough for adults; what about kids? One of Carroll’s Pulitzer-winning reporters decided to take on that issue.

Alan Miller, who had been an investigative reporter in the Times’ Washington bureau, left the newspaper in 2008 and started the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit educational organization. Carroll now serves as chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

nlpThe project developed a media literacy curriculum now used by teachers in middle and high schools in the New York, Washington and Chicago areas.

“We’re teaching critical thinking skills, so if you find out something online … it gives you critical tools for deciding whether this is a good source of information and whether something is true or not true,” Carroll said. “The way we teach it is fun. It has a lot of practical exercises.”

The News Literacy Project also has enlisted dozens of journalist volunteers — including big names such as Gwen Ifill of PBS, James Grimaldi of the Wall Street Journal and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times — to speak in schools.

The curriculum was designed with help from trained educators to be compatible with the new Common Core standards, said Miller, the project’s president and CEO. Independent assessments have measured student learning and helped refine the program’s effectiveness.

So far, nearly 10,000 students have taken the courses in those three metropolitan areas. The long-term goal is to reach every student in every American school, and a digital version of the curriculum is being developed and tested.

Miller said some videos and other resources, such as a “teachable moments” blog reacting to current events, will be made available free to schools everywhere in October on a redesigned version of the project’s website, thenewsliteracyproject.org.

Plans call for a full, free digital curriculum to be offered online beginning in the fall of 2014. Teachers can use the lessons as a separate social studies unit, or integrate them into their other curricula.

So far, the project has been funded mostly with grants from media companies and major foundations. Plans call for additional revenue to come from supplementary services to schools in major metropolitan markets, Miller said.

The curriculum teaches students to think critically and question the sources, accuracy, fairness and truthfulness of information they encounter in all forms of media. They also are encouraged to get their news from a variety of sources.

Miller and Carroll said the courses have been popular with both teachers and students, and assessments show they have increased students’ interests in news and public affairs. The project has received little criticism from partisan or ideological groups, which frequently claim media bias left and right.

“We are rigorously nonpartisan,” Miller said.

Even more than that, Carroll said, “We encourage (students) to pay attention to media they disagree with, because another characteristic of the modern era of media is that people have created gated communities for themselves; they listen to only the things they want to hear. Sometimes the people they don’t want to hear have something significant to say.”

The project’s goal is to create not just more savvy media consumers, but more well-informed and engaged Americans.

“It’s important for this next generation to know how to make good use of the media and not to be used by the media,” Carroll said. “Our fondest hope is to reach every young person in America, and that as a result of that they will become more sophisticated citizens and voters and discourse about public issues will be improved.”


Whippoorwill Festival teaches skills for back-to-nature living

July 16, 2013

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Dave Cooper, right, organizer of the Whippoorwill Festival last weekend near Berea, stirs a pot of pinto beans while Carol Judy, center, of the Clearkfork Community Institute in Eagan, Tenn., leads a workshop on roots and other non-timber forest products. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

BEREA — How do you describe the Whippoorwill Festival? It is part Scout camp, part folkways festival and part family reunion, straight out of the pages of the old Whole Earth Catalog.

However it’s described, the third annual event brought more than 300 people from across the region to rural Madison County last weekend. They came for 3½ days of camping, communal eating, conversation, education, music, dancing and fun in a family-friendly atmosphere.

“It attracts an eclectic, interesting group of people,” said organizer Dave Cooper of Lexington, an environmental activist and former mechanical engineer. “You put them all together and interesting things happen.”

The Whippoorwill Festival is held at HomeGrown HideAways, a 100-acre farm and eco-friendly campground west of Berea that is tucked away below tree-covered hills.

The festival is one of three that owners Nathan and Jessa Turner host each year. HomeGrown HideAway also has the PlayThink Movement & Flow Arts Festival in June and the Holler in the Holler music and arts festival, Aug. 9-11.

Most people came to the Whippoorwill Festival to learn “skills for earth-friendly living,” Cooper said. There were more than 75 classes and demonstrations.

Many classes harked back to Appalachia’s pre-industrial lifestyle and heritage: cooking and bread-making over an open fire, making soap from goats’ milk, beekeeping, composting, starting a fire without matches, making paper, banjo playing and ballad singing.

130712WhippoorwillFest-TE0006Johnny Faulkner, a retired archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service at Red River Gorge, was teaching and demonstrating skills that Kentuckians were using long before the first white pioneers and settlers arrived.

He used a small billet made from a deer antler to chip or “knap” flint to make arrow and spear points for hunting. After he finished one, he showed me how they were attached to a spear made of native river cane and hurled at high speed with the help of a short stick called an “atlatl.”

“With that, they could throw a spear at 100 miles an hour,” he said. “I sure wouldn’t want to be hit by one.”

Norm Adkins of Richmond demonstrated a similar technique, but with materials beyond the traditional flint that Native Americans used. He had one bright green arrowhead he made from fiber optic plastic.

Other classes focused on food: oyster mushroom inoculation, hunting wild mushrooms, growing herbs and strawberries, making sauerkraut, growing nut trees, starting a community garden, composting, saving seeds and raising backyard chickens.

And still others were about skills for low-cost and back-to-nature living: basic bicycle and auto repair, wildflowers, spinning wool, knitting, making sandals and shoes, natural childbirth, stargazing through a telescope, hitchhiking and wilderness first aid.

“We live in Berea, and this is one of our favorite things to do every year,” said Chris Smith, an emergency room nurse who taught the wilderness first aid class and came for the weekend with his wife, Katie Gardner, and their two sons.

They were staffing a first aid station among the tents of several social activists groups, including Appalachian Water Watch, Kentucky Heartwood, the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition and Kentucky Mountain Justice.

“People see a lot of old friends here,” Smith said. “It gives them a break from protesting what they don’t like and learning more about what they do like.”

There was a contra dance on Thursday night and traditional music concerts Friday and Saturday evenings. Pam Gadd of Nashville came to perform with the New Coon Creek Girls string band and teach workshops on banjo playing and songwriting. She also wanted to take the composting workshop.

Wendy Welch of the Tale of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Va., led a “running a successful small business in Appalachia” workshop, a skill Cooper wants to emphasize more at future festivals.

“Many workshop leaders come to the festival and talk about whatever their passion is, and often they are making a little business out of it,” said Cooper, who is trying to start a new organization, the Appalachian Small and Micro Business Alliance.

“It would be kind of a chamber of commerce to help nurture and grow these small startup businesses in the region,” Cooper said. “As we look toward the end of coal, we’re going to need lots of ways to create new economic models in Appalachia.”

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How about some real leadership rather than a phony ‘War on Coal’

July 13, 2013

Kentucky has plenty of politicians and business executives. But at this critical moment in history, what it really needs are leaders.

President Barack Obama recently decided to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and have the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the Clean Air Act by setting limits on carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants. It was about time.

Scientific consensus is overwhelming that man-made carbon and other pollutants are warming Earth’s climate with disastrous results — floods, droughts, monster storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It already has inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage, and it threatens many aspects of civilization.

The nation’s 600 or so coal-burning power plants produce about 40 percent of our carbon pollution. Plus, studies increasingly show other tolls that coal mining and burning take on our land, water, air and health.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will shape the global economy of the future. The sooner the United States gets behind that trend, the more economically competitive it will be. But changing the status quo is hard, especially when entrenched special interests have much to lose.

Most Kentucky politicians’ reaction to Obama’s call for a less-polluted nation was predictable: “War on coal!” they screamed.

A few of our more willfully ignorant legislators voiced skepticism about climate change, or implied that it was somehow God’s will. Most others just complained that improving public health and protecting Kentucky’s land, water and air would cost too much money and eliminate some existing jobs.

The coal industry has long been one of the most powerful forces in Kentucky. And it has resisted every significant effort to limit the environmental damage it does. The multimillion-dollar public relations campaign built around the “war on coal” theme is just the latest example.

But the current slump in Appalachia’s coal industry is largely the result of cheap natural gas, rather than government regulation. And with the richest reserves already mined, many Kentucky coal operators must resort to ever-more costly and destructive methods of surface mining to claw out what remains.

When the coal is all gone in the not-to-distant future, what then? Will Kentucky be positioned for future success? Or will it simply be left with a lot of damaged land, water and people as the world’s economy moves on?

Leaders would approach this problem much differently than most Kentucky politicians and executives are. Since Kentucky still has coal, and coal will by default be a big part of the nation’s energy mix for decades to come, leaders would champion efforts to mine and burn it more responsibly. They also would double down on research to see if “clean coal” technology can become a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Leaders would lobby the Obama administration and Congress for funds to help Kentucky make the transition, soften costly adjustments and create sustainable energy jobs. Remember how tobacco-settlement money helped reshape Kentucky agriculture? What similar models could be created for coal counties and utility customers?

Ambitious leaders might even set a goal to make Kentucky a manufacturing center for solar panels or energy-efficient modular homes. At the least, they would set out to make Kentucky the nation’s energy-efficiency leader through smarter design of new buildings and retrofitting of old ones. Kentucky already leads the nation in energy-efficient school construction, including several of the first school buildings to generate more electricity than they consume.

The General Assembly missed an opportunity for leadership last year when it failed to pass House Bill 170, which would have required electric utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and do more to help customers cut energy consumption. Leadership is needed to pass a version of that bill next year.

Simply allowing citizens and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, by feeding power they produce into the utility grid could make a big difference. With photovoltaic panel prices falling all the time, many people might be willing to invest in solar-panel systems if it could be profitable. Germany now generates 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources — much of it solar — despite having less sunshine than Kentucky.

Each major environmental regulation since the 1960s — from acid-rain legislation to auto-emissions standards — has been met with predictions of economic doom that never materialized. Instead, those regulations not only cleaned up the environment but they also provided the poke private industry needed to innovate.

The stakes of climate change are greater than anything we have faced before. We can’t risk being distracted by the fearmongers. We owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to limit potential disaster.

Market-based solutions would be preferable to government regulation. But after the demagoguing that so-called “cap and trade” proposals got a few years ago, that seems politically impossible. Industry needs a powerful nudge to innovate, wherever it comes from.

Rather than fighting a war against progress that cannot be won, Kentucky should reinvent itself as an energy innovator. We should show the world that a state settled by pioneers can pioneer again. But that will take leadership, not business and politics as usual.

 


Winchester man caught up in FBI’s ‘Anonymous’ Internet probe

June 16, 2013

Real life has been hard for Deric Lostutter. But with public attention focused on the shadowy worlds of government surveillance and online vigilantism, the tattooed rapper and computer geek from Winchester has become an unlikely celebrity.

Lostutter, 26, who goes by KYAnonymous online and records hip-hop music under the name Shadow, spent last week juggling interviews with major magazines, newspapers and websites from as far away as Britain and Australia.

The media frenzy followed his disclosure that federal law enforcement agents in tactical gear with weapons drawn raided his Clark County farmhouse April 15 and hauled off his and his girlfriend’s computer equipment, as well as his brother’s Xbox.

“Why was I raided in the first place?” he asked last week as we talked in a suburban Lexington bar. “They want to make an example out of me, going, ‘Don’t you question us!’ That’s what it is.”

kyanonKYAnonymous played a key role in spreading tweets, photos and videos on social media that helped draw national attention to a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, that involved a 16-year-old girl who passed out drunk and a high school football team.

Last December, online vigilantes hacked into the Steubenville team’s website and posted a note and video threatening to release the personal data of coaches, school officials and every player unless those who were involved or witnessed the rape came forward and apologized. Two players were convicted of rape in March.

Another activist actually hacked the site, Lostutter said. But he made and appeared in the video with his voice altered and wearing a mask styled after Guy Fawkes, an Englishman who tried to blow up Parliament with gunpowder in 1605.

The federal search warrant Lostutter posted on his website  said authorities raided his home seeking evidence of, among other things, computer intrusion, identity theft and conspiracy. They also were looking for a Guy Fawkes mask.

Lostutter said that during the two hours he was handcuffed and questioned by FBI agents during the raid he was told they also were looking for anti-American propaganda.

“I was like, you’re in Kentucky, man!” he said he told the agents. “I just got done turkey hunting. I drink Bud Light. I live on a farm. How much more American can you get?”

Lostutter said his lawyer has told him he faces possible indictment on three felony counts. Conviction could land him in prison for as long as 10 years — a much harsher penalty than the two teen-aged rapists received. That has been the headline in some international news reports about Lostutter’s case.

New Mexico lawyer Jason Flores-Williams, whose office calls itself the Whistleblower Defense League, has taken Lostutter’s case pro bono and has encouraged him to seek publicity and online donations, which he said now exceed $35,000.

“I’m trying to get vindicated in the court of public opinion,” Lostutter said. “They’ve finally found out that the Internet they have tried to monitor us with has actually granted us one huge sidewalk to protest on.”

Lostutter seems quite comfortable on the Internet, a virtual world where anyone can become whoever and whatever they say they are. It’s certainly more comfortable than real life.

Lostutter says he was born in Iowa and grew up in Illinois and North Carolina before moving to Winchester in 2007. He said his parents split when he was seven and he spent some time homeless.

While in high school, he discovered a talent for computers. He said he and his girlfriend now live in a farmhouse she inherited when her father died. Lostutter said he made money fixing computers and doing Internet vulnerability consulting for a company he declined to identify. But he has had bigger ambitions.

“I wanted to be SWAT team, and then a bounty hunter,” he said, adding that he studied for a semester at Strayer University in Lexington to learn more about computer forensics. “I wanted to be pretty much the hacker for the government.”

Then, last year, Lostutter saw the film We Are Legion, which profiled the loose network of radical computer-hacking activists who call themselves Anonymous.

“It was like mind-blowing,” he said of the film. “I was, like, there’s people out there with the same interests I have, so I’m not such a freak anymore. I just identified with that.”

Lostutter said he connected with Anonymous activists on Twitter and some Internet forums. He says he never hacked anything, but became a social-media maven skilled at attracting public attention by spreading material that others gathered.

His first effort was distributing emails legally obtained by citizens who last year were battling with former Clark County Schools Superintendent Elaine Farris, who has since retired. He next went after Hunter Moore, who operated a controversial Internet site with “revenge porn” — obscene photos people sent him of former sex partners with whom they had broken up.

Then Lostutter read about the Steubenville rape case and thought it looked like people in the town were covering up for a popular football team.

“I thought something fishy’s going on here,” he said, “And I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”

Lostutter made an online video, which prompted others to send him tweets, photos and videos posted by young people in Steubenville who were joking about and may have witnessed the rape. He publicized them and made the video that ended up on the team’s website. In January, he was interviewed about the case on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 show wearing his Guy Fawkes mask.

The crowd-sourced “investigation” that Lostutter began included a lot of wild and unsubstantiated allegations, death threats against football players and accusations against one person who Lostutter has since apologized to online.

The case has heightened public debate about the role of Anonymous and other so-called “hacktivists”. Are they heroes trying to hold the system accountable? Or are the out-of-control vigilantes trying to take justice into their own hands?

Lostutter sees his work as positive, and he compares himself to Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and security contractor who leaked details of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs to the media.

“The Constitution clearly defines that it’s a citizen’s right to step in if the government fails,” Lostutter said. “Vigilante is not a bad word. It’s been painted as a bad word over time. In Old West days, vigilantes were awesome, they were bounty hunters, they went after outlaws that the police couldn’t handle.”

Many others, of course, would disagree. But now that technology and the Internet have given a global megaphone to anyone who chooses to use it, the online Wild West is likely to keep getting wilder.

Last week, while doing interviews and replying to fans and critics on Twitter, Lostutter found time to have a new tattoo added to his much-tattooed arms: the logo of Anonymous. Although worried about the possibility of prosecution, trial and prison, he clearly seems to be enjoying himself.

“For the first time in a long time,” he said, “I’m doing what I think I was meant to do.”


Writers celebrate 40 years of Kentucky’s unique Larkspur Press

June 4, 2013

130531GrayZeitz-TE0010

The University of Kentucky honored Gray Zeitz, center, last Friday on the 40th anniversary of his Larkspur Press in Monterey, which publishes hand-crafted books by  Kentucky writers. Before the ceremony at Margaret I. King Library, Zeitz, center, talked with Gay Reading, left, whose aunt, Carolyn Reading Hammer, taught Zeitz the art of printing at the King Library Press at UK. At right is Zeitz’s wife, Jean.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Richard Taylor recalled that when Gray Zeitz was establishing his Larkspur Press in the mid-1970s, he received a printing commission from the Kentucky Arts Council. Anxious state officials asked for a deadline, but Zeitz would not be rushed.

He replied to them with a metaphor drawn from his love for Kentucky’s native plants: “Who knows when the phlox will flower?”

Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, told that story last Friday evening as more than 130 writers, artists, friends and fans gathered at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library to honor Zeitz for four decades of continuous flowering.

Zeitz was lauded by Taylor and eight other writers and artists whose work the small press in rural Owen County has published over the years: Wesley Bates, Gabrielle Fox, Nana Lampton, Ed McClanahan, Maurice Manning, Maureen Morehead, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and Jeff Worley.

The ceremony opened an exhibit of pieces produced by Larkspur Press, which has published more than 100 handmade books and countless broadsides since 1974. The free exhibit will be up through August. The library at 179 Funkhouser Dr. is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Larkspur Press, on Sawdridge Creek Road near Monterey, has a public open house each November, on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Last Saturday, Zeitz led a letterpress printing workshop at the King Library Press on UK’s campus. That was where he learned his art and trade, first as a student and then as an apprentice to director Carolyn Reading Hammer.

In the 1950s, Hammer and her husband, Austrian artist Victor Hammer, began a Kentucky tradition of fine letterpress printing using hand-operated presses, hand-set type and woodblock engravings.

130531GrayZeitz-TE0043Zeitz, 63, is one of their most successful protégés. Using century-old presses and thick, creamy paper, he prints elegant books that are hand-stitched and bound, in both fancy collector’s editions and affordable paperbacks.

“Gray is stubbornly and endearingly independent,” Taylor explained in his remarks. “He has steadfastly refused to become ensnared by the Internet. One of his friends designed a web page (larkspurpress.com) that Gray has no means or desire to see.”

But, as the writers and artists explained, Zeitz is much more than a printer. A poet himself, he carefully selects the writers, artists and works he wants to publish. Most are from Kentucky.

In addition to those who spoke Friday, they have included Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman, Frederick Smock and the late Guy Davenport and James Baker Hall.

Bates, a Canadian wood engraver, said he first encountered Larkspur Press nearly two decades ago and was impressed by the quality of the printing, the large volume of books produced and Zeitz’s curatorial skill in choosing work to publish.

“It was above and beyond the idea of book as art,” Bates said. “It was book as communication, as preservation of culture.”

As for Zeitz, a burly man with a long beard who always wears blue jeans and suspenders, Bates said, “I thought he looked like he was part of the band ZZ Top.”

Taylor-Hall talked about how Zeitz consults with writers about how their books should look, down to such things as the color of ink. Worley joked that even if readers hate his poetry, they won’t throw away his Larkspur Press editions because the books themselves are too beautiful.

Several others remarked on Zeitz’s craftsmanship, exacting standards and placid demeanor. “Every time I see him, he seems filled with joy,” Manning said.

When it finally came time for Zeitz to speak Friday, he was, as always, a man of few words. He introduced two longtime collaborators, Carolyn Whitesel and Leslie Shane, and thanked audience members for writing and illustrating his books, buying and reading his books and even helping him on occasion move heavy, iron presses.

Then, Zeitz read a poem he had written, which the King Library Press printed as a broadside to give those in attendance:

Printer’s Note

Sweet rain yesterday.

We have put your book on the press.

My hands do not tremble

because I’m unsure,

but shake in the finalizing of page

as a foal, newborn,

begins to stand.

It should be said

there will be absolutely no deadline.

Who knows when the phlox will flower?