Mass MoCA: Creativity at Huge Scale (I Hope it Works)


This weekend I saw two breathtaking, ambitious, large scale projects that captivated me: The new Sawyer Library at Williams College, and the Mass MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) indoor/outdoor museum in North Adams, Massachusetts.

The library, designed by the same people who design Apple stores, cost $86 million, and is a stunning work of architecture, encasing an old historic building in a new airy glass wood and metal structure with all the latest amenities. Lucky kids to be able to study there.

The museum (background on Wikipedia) is the true gem of this whole area. I almost didn’t go to because it was a ten minute drive out of my way. I’m so glad I did – It is clearly a product of passion, vision and many lifetime commitments (plus over $50 million in state plus private funds, with another $60 million is on its way to make Mass MoCA the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S.)

Think about that – the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S., in North Adams Mass, two-plus hours from the nearest big cities (NYC and Boston).  What an ambitious thing to try to do in the shell of an old industrial textile mill town. And what a fantastic backdrop for showing off large scale artwork.

You arrive at a huge campus of old brick mill buildings with an artsy feel, but with little indication that inside is a creative explosion.


One whole building, for example, is permanently dedicated to large scale wall paintings by Sol DeWitt. The contrast of his art against huge empty rooms made of brick and timber is stunning.




Several other buildings, all connected by walkways, house a variety of creative exhibits and projects, which all seem to share the ambition that only having an extremely large empty canvas can stoke.

The most dramatic example is a 5 foot story steam boiler tower that used to provide power to the whole complex, and was given over to a single artist to remake as an outdoor sculpture and memorial to the machine age. (The sixteen acre Mass MoCA complex was a print and textile mill from 1860 to 1942, and an electronics research and manufacturing site from 1942 to 1985).

I walked through the boiler building and up the stairs in the light rain which was dripping everywhere around the pipes, and pooling on the floor – post apocalyptic amidst the massive scale of steel and iron. At the top, the artist has mounted an Airstream trailer chock-full of knobs and dials, valve indicators, and other relics of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.



A third huge building houses an entire wall of paintings/sculptures by Anselm Kiefer that depict submarines sinking in ocean battlefields, presumably during WWII – a memorial to a Russian writer/philosopher who believed that there is a decisive naval battle every 317 years.


Wow. This is Smithsonian scale stuff, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And that’s the question mark… can it survive long-term?

Mass MoCA is clearly the product of a gusher of economic development money plus private philanthropy, a hail-mary attempt to revitalize the hollowed out manufacturing community of North Adams.

The place did seem to have a pulse even on a slow Monday in September (apparently the winter is really dead), in contrast to other large-scale inorganic tourist magnets, like Steamtown in Scranton Pennsylvania, which is totally DOA. And Mass MoCA has been around for seventeen years, since opening in 1999.

On the other hand, you still get the feeling the jury is still out. The Mass MoCA complex doesn’t seem very connected to the rest of the town at all, which is full of social services agencies and the signs of a community that has given up, or has been given up on.

Who knows how this will play out, but go see Mass MoCA if you’re anywhere nearby. Its well worth even a long drive out-of-the-way.



Is divesting from fossil fuel companies a good thing?

Today I went to a convocation ceremony at a small private college in Massachusetts, where the featured speaker encouraged students to do everything they could to fight global warming, including supporting the global movement to divest from fossil fuel companies.

I hadn’t heard much about this movement, but instinctively dismissed it as a drop-in-the-bucket ineffective advocacy thing that makes people feel good while really accomplishing almost nothing.

A friend suggested however that I do little more research before passing judgment, so I did. What I found reinforced my perception that this is a weak and symbolic gesture. But since it’s easy to do (you can do it ‘from an air-conditioned room,’ without any personal sacrifice), I guess I can live with it.

Here’s why I think trying to get institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies is ineffective:

1) It has almost no financial impact, and thus applies no real pressure, on the big oil and energy companies.

– The biggest fossil fuel companies in the world are state owned, so you can’t either invest in or divest from them.

– For those that are publicly traded, most equity and debt is held in broad syndicated funds rather than directly, so the pieces that can be divested without throwing other babies out with the bathwater are tiny.

– Global capital availability is at an all time high, so these companies can easily replace whatever small amount is withdrawn from them. For that matter, in an efficient market, other investors will step in to replace your investment, so nothing has changed.

– The only exception here is distressed energy companies, for example in the US, who took on too much debt that they can’t service because oil prices are in an all-time low. But they are already dying, getting divested by the market.

2) Even as a symbolic gesture, the movement to divest from fossil fuel companies so far doesn’t seem very effective, unlike prior divestiture efforts (eg South Africa in the 1980s).

– There’s a little agreement on how to do it, so it’s not really a unified movement. Should you divest from all energy companies, even the ones doing good things with renewable energy? Or just from coal companies? Or just from companies that cause egregregious environmental damage, as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation did by divesting from Shell.

– Divesting doesn’t seem to be garnering widespread press coverage or popular attention. Maybe this is because we all, including every journalist, buy products from these companies, and are addicted and unwilling to give them up. Like cars, air conditioning, plane trips and the juice that powers our laptops and smart phones. This was not true of the tobacco industry, or of South Africa in the 1980s. Most of us were happy to go without goods related to South Africa, in order to send a message.

3) It’s not very imaginative, and its not targeting the tangible beating hearts of the problem in my view.

The best thing college students could do, I believe, is to invest their careers in building solutions to the problem of climate change and global sustainability. Whether that means going to work on new energy grid technology or organic farming or more efficient transportation, or one of hundreds of ways to invent positive world-changing solutions.

There is definitely value in advocacy, in focusing public attention to create change. But even here there are many stronger opportunities to shine a spotlight and catalyze public outrage.

Why not attack the lame US government CAFE standards that allow car companies to keep cranking out giant fuel guzzling trucks and SUVs, for example, as long as they also build enough small cars? This is an opportunity for immediate behavior change on a large scale, not at all vague and indirect.

Why not focus on the demand/consumption side of the equation, shining a spotlight on how businesses, and the 1%, or even the 20%, egregiously and needlessly waste energy because they can afford to do so?

The movement to divest from fossil fuel companies has garnered attention in the past couple of years due to the number of campuses that have signed on. And the movement is trying to broaden from university endowments to larger pension funds. Although so far it’s been mostly smaller institutions participating, there have been some bigger wins, like Stanford and CALPERS divesting from coal companies.

There’s some real good here, especially on the coal front. The overall effort also attracts attention on campus from a generation that must pay attention, because this will literally be a matter of life or death for them.

But let’s not kid ourselves… what matters for climate change is what actually happens in the real world, at scale, right now or very soon. We’ve satisfied ourselves with indirect, symbolic, lets–protest–and-feel-better efforts for too many decades.

What’s needed to succeed now is something a lot more raw, and direct, than a divestiture campaign. In my view, those are the things that should be getting talked about by speakers at campus convocation ceremonies.

Why Brexit is like Unplugging From an Orwellian OS … Hard to Do, and Probably Dumb


On the world stage, empires are becoming operating systems.

That’s why voting to leave the EU, in favor of some homebrew alternative, will be such a disaster for England.

In the old days, you built an empire by having a stronger army or navy than other countries, who then had to pay you taxes in return for protection.

Today’s global empires are more like operating system platforms in the tech world (think iOS or Android), in that they go beyond security to provide vital organizing structures necessary for all activity. They organize and aggregate money, resources and investment. They provide governance and laws for people (e.g. immigration). They regulate commerce and keep global corporations in check. And they build and manage lots of complex infrastructure.

There are three primary ‘operating system platforms’ in today’s globalized world: the U.S., the E.U., and China. George Orwell foreshadowed this in his book ‘1984′ (written in 1949): Oceana, Eurasia, and Eastasia.

Over the next couple of decades, as pressure intensifies from accelerating climate change, mass migration, capital flows and technology innovation, pressure will increase for countries to align with one of these operating system platforms. Few will be able to afford the investments required to go it alone.

For an idea how this might work, consider how OS platforms work in the tech world. For starters, they’re not democracies, but loosely dictatorial. To avoid gridlock, each has leaders who can make tough decisions consistently, and with conviction… people like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Larry Page and Sergei Brin (Google).

To join these platforms, app developers must agree to their rules. Remit a percentage of transactions. Comply with guidelines about navigation, appearance, and resource utilization. Meet minimum participation and investment thresholds.

In return, developers get protection and security, but also market access and promotion, collective buying power, and foundational technology (‘API’s’) they can build on for free. They also often get input into platform decisions – especially now that Apple and Google have successfully neutralized Microsoft, making the OS platform world more competitive.

If developers don’t like an OS platform’s behavior, they can shift their investment to a competing one. Developers often build on multiple platforms (like Netflix on both iOS and Android), but not necessarily with equal investments. And they don’t necessarily get equal value back from the platforms, which have different participation ’tiers’ (with corresponding ’service level agreements’), and also cut special deals for large, influential developers.

This is where Brexit gets interesting. The E.U. is the weakest of the three big ‘global operating systems,’ because it has a weak core (no dictator), and lots of bureaucracy. China is authoritarian. The U.S. lacks a dictator, but has 200 years of laws and precedent and 50 ‘developer-states’ that are (for the most part) fully committed.

Even before Brexit, to continue the analogy, the E.U. was struggling for market share, and had less commitment from its ‘developers’ than the other platforms. The U.K., its second largest ‘developer,’ hadn’t even adopted the Euro – and common currency is a core platform attribute.

In theory, the U.K. had the clout to negotiate concessions from the E.U. to stay, if it had chosen that approach. Instead, it voted to forfeit its seat in the inner circle of a major world OS platform. That puts it in the same boat with countries like Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, Turkey, India, and so on – who don’t get the benefits of fully committing to a global OS platform. They may have favored trade or tax or intellectual property agreements, the implied promise of military protection, or lean heavily on the dollar or yuan. But when push comes to shove, they’re off the grid.

As for the E.U., the jury’s now out. It’s like Microsoft, in turnaround mode and playing catch-up. It’s ‘developers’ are restless and a little loose, evaluating their options. Problem is, when an OS platform loses strength, it can afford less investment and provide less value back to its participants, and a vicious downward cycle ensues.

If this analogy were perfect, a new global OS platform challenger would come along quickly that Britain could join (like Amazon or Facebook, challenging Google and Apple). But short of another world war, this won’t happen – no other countries have the core strength to start one. The three current global OS platforms will likely get stronger and more deeply integrate more countries into their systems over the next twenty years. The only alternative is gridlock and global anarchy.

My advice to England: it’s not too late to un-Brexit. You have one of the biggest voices in the governance of the E.U. platform, and you don’t have the scale or conviction to go it alone.

To the E.U.: Figure out a better value proposition for your members countries (developers), and fast. Don’t make them think so hard about whether being on your platform is worth the perceived costs. Maybe set up a 2nd tier for the weaker Eastern European countries, or for chronic problem ‘developers’ like Greece.

For the rest of us, the Brexit vote raises the question of how democracy and local decision making will fare in a world dominated by global ‘operating system platforms.’

In the technology world, the only voting that matters is voting with your feet (investment of time and money). Britain got a taste of that the day after Brexit, when markets dumped the pound sterling, cutting the Island’s buying power overnight and probably relegating it to years of economic decline. And it will likely suffer an even more painful exodus of human capital, as talented young Brits leave London for Paris or Frankfurt or Dublin.

But Brexit also showed that ballot-box voting – and participatory democracy – still has some potency in a world that increasingly hungers for strongmen and their ability to get things done. And thats good, because the leaders of these global operating systems will need both types of voting to keep them honest.

Berkeley Salmon Drowns in Packaging, and Andronicos Doesn’t Care (or do they?)

A quick interaction tonight convinced me that either Andronicos market doesn’t really care about the environment, they don’t give their store managers any autonomy, or the store manager thinks his employees are dumb, or all of the above.


I went to Andronicos on Shattuck to buy some pre-cooked salmon and veggies for dinner, but the person helping me said he couldn’t combine the veggies in the same plastic container as the fish (it had enough room for a whole run of salmon). Other area markets will combine foods to save excessive packaging, simply weighing and pricing the first item, then taking the incremental weight and price of the second item, and applying two price stickers to the container.

This particular guy seemed new, so I asked if he could ask someone else (I didn’t want to buy the veggies if it generated a whole other unnecessary plastic container).  The other person shook her head: no absolutely not, that’s against our rules.

Kind of shocking, not in general, but for Berkeley.

So I passed on the veggies, but decided to find the store manager and suggest a rule change. I’ve long ago given up on fighting chronic environmental ignorance (e.g. coffee places that give you two paper cups unnecessarily, ‘so you don’t burn yourself.’) But this seemed like such an obvious and easy win….

The store manager showed up and sputtered out a series of lame excuses when I suggested his staff be allowed to combine food in containers to not waste plastic.  “I could have them do it for you this one time, but I’d have to ask corporate to get the rule changed; It would be a major shrinkage issue for us. And we can’t risk combining raw veggies and cooked veggies in the same container… etc.” He didn’t seem to care much about the packaging waste.

What he really meant is it’s a hassle he didn’t want to deal with, plus he thinks combining items in packaging is too difficult, his staff would probably screw it up, resulting in losses or customer complaints (fwiw, they seemed pretty smart, I think they could handle it).

He also added, unfortunately, “how dare you suggest that Andronicos doesn’t care about the environment?” I told him that was exactly what I was suggesting, and he should pass the feedback along to corporate. He wrote that down (or something). I’ll send them a link to this post as well.

UPDATE April 26, 2016. Impressive response… I got a personal email from the CEO of Andronicos, acknowledging this issue, less than 24 hours after my post (here’s an excerpt):

“The point you make about the excess packaging is valid, and something that we can improve upon. For the record, what our Team Mates most likely tried to convey is that our systems and scales—most industry systems—are not able  to combine items with different retails in one container. It can be done—usually with a manual work-around that has one product placed on a container or plate, weighed, labeled and tagged, and then repeat same process for second item, and combine. Either method is inefficient with regard to waste, though I do believe that we can, and should, think through the least onerous and environmental method we can deliver.”

Why I’m Buying Books

California Design book coverI’ve been on a strange book-buying binge over the past few weeks. The paper kind. Almost 100 books and counting. And I’ve finally figured out why. Books are a great way to learn about new things.

I initially thought the spree was for these reasons: 1) a mental break from work; 2) nostalgia for the physical artifacts; 3) excuse to explore Bay Area bookstores; 4) always wanted to build a large book collection; 5) lured by an unknown force (like Close Encounters).

All the above are true. But by my 25th hour or so at a bookstore, buying three or four books an hour, I realized… the fun part is what’s actually in the books. As in reading them.

Books are amazing, if you find really good ones. The whole sum of people’s lives and souls and sweat and talent is poured into them, they have amazing visuals, they tell stories in an engrossing way you can consume however you want (my dad always starts from the back). There’s millions of them – genetic diversity that captures the world’s knowledge completely (actually 129 million, according to Google).

Shore coverYou can get lost in a book. Sit on the floor and read it for hours, that one book. By contrast, the Internet – which also has all the world’s knowledge – is hard to focus on. Someone said a few years ago that “books are where words go to die.” I believed this for a while, now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been buying books on art, photography, design, architecture and history – about half via Amazon and half in bookstores. I’m getting all my ideas in bookstores… buying some on the spot, tapping the Amazon app for others. I’m 50/50 split between new books – with their high quality printing and affordable reproduction of pricey rare titles – and used books, which often have higher production values, more unique topics, are just way cooler, if in good condition.

The best area bookstores I’ve found so far are 871 Fine Arts, Alley Cat Books, Adobe (now on 24th Street), Press Works (also 24th), Green Apple, Moe’s (esp the top floor), Builder’s Bookstore, William Stout Architectural Books, The Argonaut, and of course the best one of all (I’d tell you but I’ve have to kill you). OK – Reader’s Books in Fort Mason, operated by the SF Public Library.

Some recent finds

Cut-Outs coverHenri Matisse, The Cut-Outs

This is the book from the MOMA exhibit in NYC which just ended. These collages are beautiful… raw, interesting color and shapes. I’d seen some when I was little, but not the broad selection shown here (in Matisse’s last years he worked in the South of France cutting paper that his assistants would paint in goache). This is the perfect book to cut up yourself, and pin on the wall – that’s what Matisse himself did when he was making these collages.

Penn coverIrving Penn, A Career in Photography
Although relatively recently published (1997), this turns out to be a rare, hard-to-find Penn book. I got lucky at a bookstore and got a mint copy much cheaper than you can online. It’s from a retrospective the Art Institute of Chicago did and includes material from his archives which he donated there. The photos span his whole career and all his subjects, from fashion photography to travel to portraits of famous people and blue-collar workers to still lifes of food, flowers, and even garbage.

Proud cover

In this Proud Land: America 1935-1943 As Seen in the FSA Photographs
The actual edition I bought has a different cover. This is an incredible collection of 300 of the most representative photos (out of thousands taken) of ordinary Americans by photographers sent across the U.S. by the Farm Service Administration during the Depression. Stunning images showing people deprived of all but the basics but also having fun, living life, doing their thing…. by now-famous photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. A lot of people with character in this book… every page is a gem.

53 stages coverThe Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido
I knew nothing about Japanese color woodblock prints but picked this book up and immediately realized it was awesome. Printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige, who lived in the early 1800s, is known as the master of this genre. And this is his masterpiece… 53 prints showing the 53 stops on the old road from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto. Turns out he faked most of them and they have no basis in reality… but because they’re so beautiful, and capture the (imagined) charm of life in Japan during that era, it became a classic.

Port-City-cover-smallerPort City: The History and Transformation of the Port of San Francisco
Wonky, I know… but I go by these piers and wonder about them all the time. Now I know that S.F. was one of the biggest ports in the world and why it collapsed, who built the seawall, what got shipped in and out, how the trains and trucks and real estate all fit together, who designed the buildings, where the big labor battles were fought. Lots of great photos, a pier-by-pier rundown, detail on the military in SF during WWII, its all there. An expensive book, but you can’t find it online, so buy it if you see it.

rex_collage_bookRex Ray The Paper Collages
I pulled this book off a shelf at Adobe and was blown away by the art – it reminded me of a game I had as a little kid in the early 70’s. Turns out Rex Ray was a local S.F. artist, and this was a 2006 limited signed edition of 1,000 copies (his stuff is more accessible in another book he published the following year). This book has almost no words, just page after page of collages. The really weird thing is I’d never heard of this guy, but googled him and Wikipedia said he was in his 50’s, living in S.F., so I thought maybe I’d get to meet him some day. But he died a couple days after I bought the book – I heard it on the radio. Strange.


Wow, what a photo book. Transport yourself back in time to 1970s Finland – we’ve all been there (not). But you’ll feel like you have after flipping through these stunning photos of forests, cities, glaciers, old people and young hipsters (who are now old people). There’s a moment-in-time-and-place feel to this book which is breathtaking. I had no interest in Finland – and still don’t really – but its a very cool book.

ack2coverHand in Hand: Ceramics, Mosaics, Tapestries, and Wood Carvings by the California Mid-Century Designers Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman
A great book about a couple that met in their 20s after WWII in Detroit, moved to California and became central to the mid-century art scene in multiple media. They also pioneered small-scale mass merchandising of their work through retailers in different color combinations, not satisfied just to sell one copy of each. Great images, very California!


Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes
This store, which started in Harvard Square in the 1950’s, was the genesis of modern lifestyle retailing in the U.S., the first of many to take on big department stores with hipper, hand-curated selections, and the precursor of brands like Crate and Barrel, Conrans, and Design Within Reach. Founder Ben Thompson brought European designs like Marimekko to the U.S., and evangelized living more colorfully. There’s a little bit of cult/commune in this story… just look at the employee pictures.

cp-postersPosters of the Canadian Pacific
They say the railroads died because they didn’t figure out they were in the transportation business. These guys should have gone into the poster business. Wow. Breathtaking designs that span a hundred years, by great artists… some corporate archivist deserves an award for having kept one copy of each in mint condition. Especially interesting are the many posters trying to lure immigrants to Canada… from England, Europe, China, touting the wide open spaces, fresh air, chance to start over. For a minute, I considered homesteading myself.


Posters for the People: Art of the WPA
The original WPA poster book was published in the 1980’s, when only a few hundred were known to exist, mostly in the Library of Congress’s collection.  This author, inspired by the earlier book, created a web project to catalogue as many WPA posters as possible. Now thousands have come out of the woodwork, and this book highlights the most notable. The posters are a mix of Deco and Bauhaus, some beautifully designed and some mediocre. What comes across strongly is the sense of “we’re all in this together” that people had in the 1930s. A great collection.

demuthChimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth’s Late Paintings of Lancaster
Charles Demuth ran with the fast NYC art crowd of photographer and gallerist Alfred Steiglitz and his wife painter Georgia O’Keeffe. But it seems like Demuth couldn’t quite keep up. Known as one of the ‘precisionists,’ he did a lot of industrial stuff, including these paintings of watertowers and smokestacks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania later in life while he was fighting diabetes.

johns-coverJasper Johns: Seeing With The Mind’s Eye
I saw this exhibit at SFMoma before they closed for their 30-year-long renovation (okay, three). I’ve never liked pop art much, but Johns’ stuff is simple (like his colored number series) and powerful, not all over the map or going for shock value. Johns lived with Robert Rauschenberg, also a little more intellectual and less pop-y than most of the genre. I don’t get the whole NY modern art scene at all, but am starting to get more interested in it.

street-art-sf-coverStreet Art San Francisco
The cover isn’t the best, but this book is pretty compelling inside. Its thirty years of photos of San Francisco street murals – mostly now gone, mostly in the Mission. There’s a forward by Carlos Santana, who got started playing music as a teenager in the Mission, often performing with his band at the unveiling of murals. Some of these murals are just noise, but a lot are really masterful. And they’re all temporary… which means this book is the only way to look at them, unless they were done in the past few years and have survived.


Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History
I did a double-take when I saw this. This was a book I wanted to do myself, and they did it really well… now I don’t have to. If you’ve ever lingered in front of one of these brass boxes in an old building, you will be overwhelmed by this smorgasbord of eye candy. Don’t read it all at once, you’ll get one of those ice-cream headaches. The interesting part is that one company – Cutler – had a virtual monopoly on these mail slot systems, so could have just made nondescript boxes. Instead they partnered with the architects so that many of the boxes were unique, designed to reflect the look and themes of the building.


The Quilts of Gees Bend
This was an exhibit on the East Coast that I never got to, so buying the book was a no-brainer. Especially because I found a mint copy in a bookstore for $29 when the prices online start at $70. Its a large book with high quality printing and incredible colors. I do remember reading that there was some controversy over who owned the copyright to these images, and that the multiple generations of women who made them got some recognition but no money when the quilts briefly became a sensation. The quilts themselves will be what endures.


The Hand of Man on America
I found this at a bookstore, brought it home, realized I now have eight David Plowden books, which means I’m officially collecting David Plowden photography books, even though I’m supposedly not collecting books in general. Plowden has spent his 60-year career documenting America the way it was, which is clearly the way he thinks it should stay. This 1973 book is a warning about how progress is messing things up.


Georgia O’Keefe: A Studio Book
An oversized book with beautiful reproductions of some of O’Keefe’s most recognizable and compelling work. In good condition this book is expensive, but I picked this one up cheap ($20) with some external damage only. How to display books like this is something I’m pondering. Sitting on a shelf nobody ever sees the awesome images inside. I need a reading room with lots of display space, or maybe a whole library…

california-calls-coverCalifornia Calls You: The Art of Promoting the Golden State 1870-1940
I found this book at the recent Oakland book fair, which was a somewhat snobby and serious event (dealers selling rare first editions at high prices) with a smattering of the really interesting, hip, groovy and bizarre. This book exudes a “California-land-of-milk-honey-and-surfing” vibe from back to front, featuring posters and brochures material that lured generations here for work, play, and the good life.


End of An Era
Another Plowden photo book, this one on the very specific topic of endangered steamboats on the Great Lakes. This technology apparently ruled the (lake) waves for almost 100 years, and Plowden caught the twilight of it, riding with the crews and getting action shots of the last working steam (vs diesel) powered craft. Plowden gets into the tech details (e.g. triple-reciprocating-engines), shoots the guys shoveling coal in the hold, and gets the breathtaking panoramas and sunset shots. What’s great about Plowden is he can do broad topics (main street, bridges, barns) as well as narrow, and strike the same chord of beauty meets history.

machine-age-coverThe Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age
This 1968 book has a metal cover… published for an exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York that year. I’d never seen a book with a metal cover, and apparently neither had a lot of people before the Internet came along and collectors discovered how many of these were made (the street price has dropped from $150 to $40 in a decade, according to the guy I bought it from). Inside is a lot of stuff about how machines are taking over the world… which they have been ever since!


Rescued buildings: The art of living in former schoolhouses, skating rinks, fire stations, churches, barns, summer camps, and cabooses
This is one of three books I’ve bought recently on restoring old buildings that weren’t meant to be living spaces. This book is the hippier, more scavenger-ish version from the 70s, featuring folks who took on these projects with almost no money and bartered with friends and neighbors to scrape everything together. I actually liked some of the higher-end restorations in the other books better, like an old public library and a restored barn and power station. I could definitely use a caboose as an office, though (a nice one with the cupola on top).

wildflower-coverSan Francisco’s Wildflower: The Palace of Fine Arts
Another stunningly laid out photo book on a subject I have almost no interest in (but it was awesome, so I bought it).The cover of this book is just so-so… the genius is the beautiful inside greyscale photo layouts with minimal copy – often poetry – set in beautiful type. It goes into detail about Bernard Maybeck, who designed the Palace of Fine Arts as well as several famous buildings in Berkeley. Oddly, Reagan’s henchman Caspar Weinberger is mentioned at the end – he was the State Assemblyman who pushed through the funds to rebuild the Palace in the 1950s. Who knew?

Tear Down that Paywall: Why the Best Learning Tools for the Next Generation Should Be Free

In the 1860s, Joseph Dixon invented a cost-effective way to mass produce graphite pencils, which previously had been costly and scarce. Over the next 150 years, pencils became a ubiquitous tool for students and teachers, without which lots of learning wouldn’t have happened.

What is today’s more powerful equivalent of Dixon’s pencil? It’s software. Simple, effective Internet tools and apps that empower students and teachers and support their creativity and quest for knowledge.

I don’t mean online courses or digital textbooks or videos, although those are potentially useful. I’m talking about basic utilities – verb conjugators, math-equation solvers, self-testing tools, worksheet creators, digital flashcards, sentence-writing tools, language audio tools, and other tools that haven’t been thought of yet – the list goes on and on.

We need to dramatically accelerate the development and distribution of these tools, because very few of them (Google docs being an exception) are currently in wide use.

And here’s the key – these educational software tools should be FREE. Here’s why:

1) High-quality software tools are a prerequisite to empowering the next generation of great teachers and motivated students. People are the future of education, not technology. But they need access to high-quality tools so they can teach and learn to their full potential.

2) ‘Free’ is the only price many students (and teachers) can afford. Twenty percent of children in the U.S. live below the poverty line (Census Bureau 2012).  And even above the line, many more people are feeling squeezed – they’re not going to spend extra out-of-pocket money on anything they don’t absolutely have to.

3) The future is about making sure all students have access to great educational tools and opportunities, not just some students. The cure for cancer or the next climate-change breakthrough could just as likely to come from a student from a low-income family or community as from an affluent one. For this to happen, every single one of the 70 million students (and four million teachers) in the U.S. needs access to the best learning (and teaching) tools available.

4) ‘Free’ breaks down barriers to distribution and lets individuals choose what works best for them. Fee-based educational software often has to be selected and paid for by a procurement system, involving school districts, purchasing agents and policy decisions. This process is in place for many good reasons. But no kid (or teacher) ever needed to get approval to use a piece of paper, or a #2 pencil, or to do a Google search. Why should they have to wait for approval for basic digital study tools? If more educational software was free, it would be much easier for students and teachers to compare alternatives and decide what’s most effective.

5) ‘Free’ is how the Internet works, and it’s what people expect. It’s no coincidence that the most broadly used Internet applications and services are free to consumers (e.g. Gmail, Google Maps, Yelp, Twitter, Wikipedia, and many others). The oversimplified reason is economics: digital services tend to have very low (or no) variable costs. So once an app is built, serving millions of additional users doesn’t cost much more. If one competitor doesn’t make their service free, another one will.


So what’s wrong with the world of educational software? Why are free high-quality tools not becoming as widespread as pencils and paper? Why do most companies have to charge hefty fees for their software tools – $14.95 a month,  $49 a student, $1,500 per year per classroom?

At Quizlet, we know there’s another way, because we’ve been providing free study tools on the Internet for seven years, and more than a million students and teachers currently use our website and apps every day. We make simple and powerful tools that help students with things like language learning, vocabulary, and the memorization and recall of key concepts – tools that enhance what’s possible with pencil and paper, just as Google maps improved upon the paper map.

Most companies can’t or won’t do this, for two main reasons:

1) They have to cover high distribution costs. Many educational software companies have dozens of salespeople on their payroll to sell to school district decision-makers, so they need a lot of revenue to pay those salaries. Software salespeople can make more than $100,000 a year, and they have lots of expenses on top of that for sales calls, travel, etc.

2) They have to satisfy demanding institutional investors. Many software companies raise tens of millions of dollars from institutional investors (venture capitalists or private equity firms), who expect a high return on that investment.  Typically these investors are looking to build ‘billion dollar companies.’ That’s hard to do – if not impossible – when you’re giving away your product to most users for free.

At Quizlet, we have neither salespeople nor institutional investors, but we still have significant costs to develop high-quality software. So, are we crazy to offer access to great study tools for free when we could easily put a pay wall in front of them? Are we sacrificing long-term business strength or opportunity to do so? Not at all. In fact, we believe we will have a stronger business because of it.


There are two revenue models for consumer services on the Internet these days – ads and subscriptions. The ad model is declining for three reasons: 1) the smaller screen sizes of smartphones and tablets, where ads take precious space from the user experience; 2) increasing consumer concern about privacy, especially for kids; and 3) prices are dropping because advertisers can reach whoever they want through networks like Google’s for rock-bottom rates.

In response, many consumer Internet companies have successfully adopted something called the “freemium” model, where much of the functionality is given away and only a small percent of users are charged for “premium” features. Companies using this model include LinkedIn, Spotify, Evernote, Dropbox, and others.

The question is, can this freemium model apply to education technology and enable all students and teachers to benefit from free, high-quality learning tools?

We believe it can. Fewer than one percent of our users subscribe to our paid services ($15 or $25/year for a few extra capabilities, like image uploading and voice recording). But more than 100 million people visited our website and apps in the past year. If only one or two percent of those users pay to subscribe, that means we can be strong enough to finance tremendous innovation and still offer free learning tools to a virtually unlimited number of students globally. 

Furthermore, we believe these free learning tools can be of very high quality, and continually improve over time.  On the Internet, quality wins – whether they’re paying or not, users flock to the best product. And a large, loyal user base is what ultimately makes a strong brand and business possible. With a long-term view, we think it is possible to have both a mission orientation (help every kid learn) and be financially successful. We funded our business initially out of our own pockets and later from cash flow, rather than raising venture capital money, for precisely this reason.

Finally, we believe free study and learning tools can be held accountable for providing educational value and effectiveness.  The real cost of any software is the time investment required to use it. We’re particularly proud that hundreds of thousands of teachers have decided to use Quizlet’s study tools in their classrooms. They spend serious hours on Quizlet preparing their materials – we hear from them all the time how worthwhile it is. And more important, they tell us what isn’t working for them and what we should fix or improve (and we do).


We think more businesses can and should be making free, high quality online study and learning tools widely accessible to all students and teachers, regardless of their ability to pay. Enabling students and teachers is the key to improving education in the U.S. and around the world.

My business partner Andrew Sutherland and I both benefited from a high quality public school education, great teachers, and parents who were supportive of learning and our quest for knowledge and self-improvement. That’s one big reason why our mission, along with building a strong business, is to help as many kids benefit from the foundation of a strong education as we can.

Dave Margulius is CEO of Quizlet, and lives in San Francisco, CA. You can follow him on Twitter, or reach him via LinkedIn or as dmargulius on that Google mail service.

free public library image

Pete Seeger and the Power of Staying Power


[the following is an email I sent out to my team a few days after Pete Seeger’s death on January 27, 2014]

“Congratulations Pete, you outlived the bastards.”

Bruce Springsteen said that to Pete Seeger at a tribute on his 90th birthday, one year after they played “We Shall Overcome” together at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Seeger died last week at age 94. He was born in 1920, and spent his whole life singing songs and inspiring generations of people to fight the good fight, for the little guy, for workers, for people on the outs, for peace, and for the planet.

He was Woody Guthrie’s protege, hitchhiking, riding freight trains, and singing in saloons with him in the 1940s, learning and spreading American folk and protest music (“This Land is Your Land”).

He was blackballed by Joe McCarthy and the anti-communist movement in the 50s, but came back even stronger as a force to inspire the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 60s.

He fought GE in the 70s and 80s and forced them to clean up all the PCB’s they’d dumped in the Hudson river.

And up until last week, he lived a simple creative life in the log cabin he shared with his family, chopping wood every morning and holding protest signs (anti-Bush and war) by the side of the road in the freezing cold well into his 80s. He shunned recent efforts to make him into a sainted celebrity – it was never about him, he saw himself as part of a continuing wave of ordinary people pushing for good.

If you want a quick dose of what he was all about, watch this awesome documentary, The Power of Song, available to stream online on PBS, (, or buy on iTunes. You’ll be glad you did.

So what does this have to do with us?

For one, excellence: Seeger was the best at what he did – an awesome musician, singer, songwriter, and promoter of his own and other artists’ work.

For another: inspiring kids. When Seeger was forced off the airwaves and blacklisted so he couldn’t get jobs, the only gigs he could get were as a music teacher at schools and summer camps, and playing the college circuit. So he spent the late 50s and early 60s cultivating a whole generation of kids with songs about the past and the future, about hope and fighting for good against the larger forces of greed, corporations, discrimination and abuse of power.

When I was four in 1968, my parents had Pete Seeger albums playing nonstop in our house (thanks for that!), and that music inspired something in me like it did many other people.

Finally, Seeger had staying power, and he just kept getting better. Through decades of ups and downs he kept singing songs, loving it, jamming with other great artists (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Springsteen), and believing in people and that good would triumph. At least for him, living a long (and good) life turned out to be not about money and fame but about just enjoying what he was doing and sticking with what he believed. And along the way, he wasn’t afraid to be different, to forcefully and with conviction swim against the tide (‘the bastards’).

I won’t editorialize any further other than to say that I hope we as a company and as individuals can aim to do all of the things Seeger did: Be excellent, inspire LOTs of kids, have staying power and have fun while we’re at it!


For more info on Pete Seeger:
– check out his music on Spotify or YouTube