1. My Oscar Best Picture Model failed this year for the first time since I developed it. The numbers clearly pointed to Lincoln, based on its other nominations, but Argo obviously pulled off the upset, despite its lack of Best Director nomination putting it in fifth place (in my model) among the nine nominees in terms of likelihood of victory. Apparently, the Academy’s decision to have a larger number of “Best Picture” nominees than “Best Director” nominees no longer means that not having the latter is an absolute death knell come Oscar night. I’m still sticking with my model, though, as I do believe this year’s weird distribution of Oscar trophies and industry indignation on Ben Affleck’s part makes 2013 an anomaly, not a bellwether. I doubt we’ll see another “Best Picture” win without a “Best Director” for many, many years. You can quote me.

2. We watched Argo for the first time last night, and I did not think it was Best Picture-worthy, regardless of what my model and the Academy’s voters thought. The acting was mostly wooden (except for John Goodman and Alan Arkin), and once the intense opening scenes in the U.S. Embassy in Teheran passed, there was never any real suspense about anything, since I knew how the story ended, and I didn’t really care much of about of any of the one-dimensional hostage characters. Affleck, though, tried desperately to artificially generate a sense of suspense with some of the most cliched techniques in the filmmaker’s arsenal: will they answer the phone in time? will the driver get the truck into gear? will the Boeing 747 outrun the Chevy sedan? etc. Honestly, I don’t think Ben and his beard deserved Best Director, Best Actor or Best Film plaudits. I chalk this one up to Hollywood having a fit of self-love, while watching a movie about Hollywood self-love. Bring on the 2014 Awards.

3. I have written before about how much I detest the Weather Channel’s coverage of “extreme” weather, and they outdid themselves again last week with five solid days worth of hysteria building over “Winter Storm Q,” which basically gave Des Moines just a four inch dusting of powder, despite most of the town’s businesses and schools shutting down in advance of this latest “storm of the century.” When I wrote that piece, the Weather Channel had not yet developed its odious campaign of naming winter storms, which adds even more fever to the fire as it seeks to provide cold weather analogs to the National Weather Service’s naming of tropical typhoons. Any credible media outlet who uses these Weather Channel spawned names is a dupe, and should not be taken seriously. So what’s a soul to do when a soul needs just the facts, ma’am, about the weather? Go take advantage of your tax dollars at work, and read the calm and cool presentation available at In the days immediately preceding “Winter Storm Q,” the National Weather Service’s site had pretty much the same forecast, minus all the hysteria making it feel like end of days. It’s weather as news, and weather for grownups. Stop the madness!

4. I am totally a blog snob, if that’s not screamingly obvious, and I am very picky about what I read and (even moreso) what I will link to from my own blogs. So when something exceptional crosses my path, I feel it is important to note here that I have been impressed. That happened this week, when I found Nonprofit With Balls, which is filled with the most well-written, insightful and hilarious writing I’ve read in years, if ever, about my chosen professional sector. Even better, the blogger is an Executive Director, so he doesn’t just understand the industry in generic terms, he understands the specific strain of masochism that leads people like, uh, me to voluntarily lead nonprofit corporations. The blog is filled with finely observed, nuanced observations about how this particular professional lunacy manifests itself in our daily lives, while we earn our daily bread, which we get at the day-old shop. Bookmark this one. Right now. Seriously. No, really . . . seriously. Now. Thank you.

5. For the long-time readers: you know that I title omnibus, multi-topic posts like this one after songs from particular bands’ catalogs. I’ve worked through The Who and Emerson Lake and Palmer and The Bee Gees and Genesis and Frank Zappa and probably a few others that I can’t remember. And now I am starting a new band. Name them.


I started a blog for my work at Salisbury House last fall, and have generally kept work and personal posts separate, the former there, the latter here. This made sense when I first set it up, since a lot of the work posts were related to schedules of upcoming events, or calls for financial support, or other market-oriented appeals. But as the months have passed, I have tended to use the Salisbury House Blog more and more as a platform for exposing folks to some of the deeply hidden treasures entrusted to our care, few of which have ever been widely discussed, online or in person. So this afternoon, I imported what I would consider to be some of the most “WOW!” posts from Salisbury House Blog to Indie Moines, since I think they are legitimately interesting beyond my work life, and because I think it’s important that as many people as possible see them, because why do we care for these precious items if not to share them? Here’s an index of the posts I copied over, in case you never saw them at my work blog. There are marvels here, and I have generally included never-before-published photos, just so you can get a taste of what I am seeing, reading, living with, holding . . . I have included brief descriptions to help you browse:

D.H. Lawrence: A Manuscript Mystery (Alternate versions of a key poem)

Knocking Down History (Destruction of Lustron Homes in Des Moines)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Liber Florum” (A beautiful book published in 1499)

The Book of Mormon in Des Moines (Rare early Mormon books)

Books as Art (The Private Press Movement, 1880s to 1930s)

Objects Come Home (How Museums Lose and Gain Artifacts)

Friday Photo Mystery (A rare, old book revealed)

The Bibles of Salisbury House (Gutenberg, King James, Doves, Oxford)

Object and Humanity (How our books and art shape us)

Book Smugglers (On importing Lawrence and Joyce when it was illegal)

A Message to Garcia (The work of Elbert Hubbard)

“Voices from the Prairie” Interview

I was interviewed for the Winter 2013 edition of Voices from the Prairie, the official publication of Humanities Iowa, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ affiliate for our state. There’s a link to the full interview below, and I am grateful for the chance to talk about Iowa, Des Moines, and Salisbury House for a state-wide readership. Humanities Iowa has also provided a grant that my staff and I are using to host a Iowa Humanities Festivals at Salisbury House on March 9, 2013, with a bunch of partners from all around the state. We hope it becomes an annual happening. Oh, the Humanities!

Click Here to Read the Full Interview with J. Eric Smith

Fiat Linx

1. I researched and wrote an article about the Private Press movement of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and posted it over at the Salisbury House blog. Here ’tis, with pretty pictures. If you live in Des Moines, you can actually come see some of these extremely rare books, up close and personal, this Thursday night as we host our inaugural Treasures Tour. Mind blowing, for real.

2. For most of my professional career in Albany, I held down at least two paying jobs at the same time, and occasionally I had three or more, depending on how onerous the main job was. I’ve been missing the fresh perspectives provided by my freelance work, so now having some 15 months in the Des Moines market under my belt, I’m ready to re-hang my shingle to explore consulting and other opportunities to supplement the daytime gig. Want to hire me?

3. A tip of the cap and a warm “thank you” are due to the folks at the Des Moines Is NOT Boring blog, both for offering this kind plug via their widely-read Facebook and Twitter feeds, and then for giving RAYGUN head honcho Mike Draper the chance to affirm his taste and refinement when evaluating the strength of the local creative community inh is answer to question number six here. Thirteen months since its launch, Indie Moines continues to pretty regularly break its own daily, weekly and monthly readership records, with no marketing plan, no paid advertising (inbound or outbound), and only one grumpy old expat South Carolinian by way of New York providing content for a primarily Iowan audience. So it is satisfying to occasionally receive external validation like this to affirm that the website and its words are resonating with folks hereabouts.

4. I recently finished Bob Carruthers’ 2012 book Jollity Farm: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, which incongruously uses perhaps the most iconic Iowa image imaginable on its cover, despite the fact that the Bonzo Dog Band were about as English as English can get. Go ahead. Click that link. You need to see it. Done? Alright, weird cover design notwithstanding, Jollity Farm was a very entertaining read about a band I’ve long loved, especially their masterpiece albums Keynsham and The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse. One of the glories of the internet era is that many of their television appearances from the 1960s (they starred on a show called Do Not Adjust Your Set with proto-Pythons Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, and also appeared in The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour) are now available for easy viewing. Here’s a live performance of one of my favorites, featuring a legendarily awful guitar solo by Neil Innes, along with all sorts of other tomfoolery by these amazing showmen:

As Sure As Eggs is Eggs

1. John Crowley’s Engine Summer is among my all-time favorite books. It has such an unexpected, poignant and profound ending that I immediately re-read the whole book after finishing it the first time, just to experience the text while knowing what was coming at the end. Superb!!! Marcia read it soon after I did, and also counts it as a favorite. Katelin just finished reading it for the first time yesterday. I am glad to (finally) have someone new to discuss it with!

2. To the best of my knowledge, Jim Hodder sang lead vocals on only two commercially released songs: “Dallas” and “Midnight Cruiser” by Steely Dan. “Dallas” was intended to be the group’s debut single, but it was recalled at the last minute and, along with its b-side, “Sail the Waterways,” has pretty much been completely expunged from the Steely Dan catalog by mainstays Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. (Poco did release a cover version of the song years later, though). “Midnight Cruiser” appears on the Dan’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, when the group were  more democratically apportioning lead vocal tracks, Hodder taking his turn alongside David Palmer (who left the band soon afterward), Fagen and Becker. Once the Fagen-sung “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” became hits, though, he became the full-time voice of Steely Dan, and Jim Hodder (who was also the group’s drummer) became the second original member of the band to depart after 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy. (Hodder’s photo appears on the back of Steely Dan’s breakthrough album, Pretzel Logic, though the drum tracks on the album were played by Jim Gordon, with Hodder appearing only as a backing vocalist on “Parker’s Band”). After some spotty session and studio work in his post-Steely Dan years, Jim Hodder drowned in his own swimming pool in 1990, at the age of 42. So does it seem weird for me to claim him as one of my all-time favorite singers based on just two (amazing) songs? Click those links above to hear them yourself, before calling me crazy . . .

3. I’ve pretty much given up on most social networking of the Facebook and Twitter variety, but still maintain a current LinkedIn presence, simply because it’s a good way to keep the professional slate hanging out in front of my (virtual) office without a lot of idle, time-wasting chitchat from people I knew in third grade. If you use LinkedIn yourself, then InMap’s LinkedIn Labs is an interesting application that allows you to visualize your professional networks, and it becomes especially interesting if you have a lot of connections, as I do. (About 700 at this point). Here’s the summary map of my professional connections:

J. Eric Smith's professional network, visually mapped.

J. Eric Smith’s professional network, visually mapped.

You can click here to see a larger version, with me as the focal point in the center. The huge blue blob at right is my oldest social network: my classmates and colleagues from the Naval Academy, with whom I’ve maintained particularly close connections over the years as Class of 1986 Secretary, President and (now) Treasurer. The orange cluster at far left represents my time writing for Metroland and then being heavily involved in a variety of capacities in Albany’s music community for the better part of two decades. Adjacent to that cluster is a green group that represents my contacts from the greater nonprofit sector in Albany, outside of the University at Albany, which has its own blob in purple at bottom left. Between (and often overlapping with) those three groups is a light orange flavored cluster which is largely composed of folks I connected with during my four years as a blogger at the Albany Times Union. At the top of the chart are two fairly discrete clusters, the light blue one to the left representing the American Institute for Economic Research (where I worked for two years, and am still involved in a volunteer governance capacity), and the dark purple one representing my new professional community in Des Moines. Spidering among these various groups is a grey cohort (mostly above and to the left of the blue Naval Academy cluster) primarily representing my colleagues from the Supply Corps and Naval Reactors, who are apparently not terribly social.

Seis Snaps

Marcia and I went to a talk at the Drake Observatory about Trans-Neptunian Objects. Because that's how we roll.

Marcia and I went to a talk at the Drake Observatory about Trans-Neptunian Objects. Because that’s how we roll.

Belly dancing night at Open Sesame in the East Village.

Belly dancing night at Open Sesame in the East Village.

Ride the party bus . . . to Salisbury House. Ooo yeah!

Ride the party bus . . . to Salisbury House. Ooo yeah!

A wonderful pot of real Anson Mills grits, with great thanks to Leo for a thoughtful gift.

A wonderful pot of real Anson Mills grits, with great thanks to Leo for a thoughtful gift.

Katelin came home for Thanksgiving and announced that bowling is her new favorite thing. She infected me and Marcia with the bug, too.

Katelin came home for Thanksgiving and announced that bowling is her new favorite thing. She infected me and Marcia with the bug, too.

Still doing our part to light up America's Prettiest Christmas Block

Still doing our part to light up America’s Prettiest Christmas Block.

Visions of Angels

1. As November turns into December, Ashby Avenue in Des Moines is once again rapidly transforming into America’s Prettiest Christmas Block. Despite my deeply-seated Grinchly tendencies, I have already done my neighborly duty and hung an entirely credible (if not extravagantly complicated) string of blue and white lights around the front of our house. We had to take down a very big (but very sick) old tree in our front yard this fall, so when we replace it in the spring, we’ll have something else out front to hang lights on next year, adding a bit of depth to our holiday presentation. Cars are already beginning to slowly cruise our block with their headlights out, and in the weeks ahead, we’ll be watching similarly-darkened limousines and tour buses crawl by, filled with folks paying their chosen livery professionals for the privilege of gawking at our festively lighted neighborhood. How nice to be able to see it every night, for free!

2. Marcia and I went to see Ang Lee’s Life of Pi at our neighborhood movie theater on Friday night. We paid the premium price for the 3-D version, got our absurdly expensive popcorn and bottled water, and walked into a movie theater with a shockingly, oppressively tiny screen, so that no grand theatrical experience was going to be possible. When the film started, the projectionist didn’t make the adjustment from 2-D to 3-D correctly, so we had a black bar blocking the screen for part of the previews, and throughout the movie, the edges of the print were cut off, most glaringly during an important scene with subtitles, that we could not see fully, because they were projected under the bottom of the screen. I turned to Marcia at some point during the evening and said: “That’s it . . . I am done leaving home to see movies.” And I meant it. We have a large TV at the house with a good sound system and a Blu-Ray player, and it is cheaper for me to buy used Blu-Ray discs of movies than it is for us to go see a film in theater, and the experience is orders of magnitude better at home than it is in a theater. The movie itself was good, for what it’s worth, though its visuals were washed out and muddy for me because of the crappy 3-D effect that does little more than give me a headache and make the film on the screen look blurry. I may have to buy this one as a used Blu-Ray disc a year from now and watch it in the way it deserves to be seen, in the privacy of my own home.

3. USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was deactivated this week after 51 years of active duty Naval service. The Big E was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, steaming on the power provided by eight A2w reactors. While I never actually served onboard the Enterprise, she does have some special significance and resonance for me. First, her prototype reactors (A1W-A and A1W-B) were located at the Naval Reactors Facility at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, where I worked from 1991 to 1993. The A1W reactors were still being used to qualify sailors for fleet service at the time, and I did my qualifying training as a radiological controls worker in those plants. Second, in my last Naval Reactors job, I was the contracting officer who negotiated and managed a lot of equipment contracts related to Enterprise‘s mid-’90s refueling complex overhaul, so when Big E retired this week, she still had a lot of instrumentation, control, steam generator, circuit breaker and refueling equipment onboard that I would have priced and purchased on behalf of the nation’s taxpayers. She’s a legendary and important ship, and I’m proud to have played a tiny role in Enterprise‘s amazing career. I’m hoping the Navy turns the Big E into a public museum somewhere at some point, so I can go check up on the stuff I bought for her.

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