Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I, Pencil - The Movie

Over the past year or so I've been providing some techincal advice and input to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) producers of a new video based on Economist Leanard Read's essay,  I, Pencil. I was in Washington D.C. a couple weeks back and met with them though unfortunately I missed thier launch party for the video presentation.  I've written about that essay before here.

The CEI has put together a nice website ipencilmovie.org that includes the movie and a supporting curriculum and many other resource links. So it's a great new resource for teachers wishing to give thier students a good introduction to some of the key economic concepts behind Read's essay.

We've agreed to do some cross links from our Story of Pencils pages over at at Studio602 on Pencils.com, to help build awareness of this new learning resource.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Visit to the Brubeck Collection: Pencils Only Please

This week I’ve had the great pleasure of participating in several events hosted by the University of the Pacific’s, Brubeck Institute as part of their annual Summer Jazz Colony.  The Brubeck Institute was established in 2000 in cooperation with Dave and Iola Brubeck, both graduates of the University of the Pacific.  The mission of the Brubeck Institute is to build on Dave Brubeck’s legacy and his lifelong dedication to music, creativity, education, and the advancement of important social issues. 

The Summer Jazz Colony occurring this week is one of core programs of the Institute which brings in 18 of the country’s top high school jazz musicians for further training in music theory and performance with dedicated artists in residence and special guest performers and instructors.  Including Blackwing featured artist, Christian Tamburr.  Here’s a quick clip of Christian at his performance last Sunday at the new Take 5 Jazz Club, nearby the University and the Brubeck Institute.  The Wednesday Jam session I attended featured some very talented young musicians playing Brubeck songs and sit ins with instructors as well as special guest, another vibraphonist Stefon Harris

One of the special gems of the Institute is the Brubeck Collection, an archival collection of Dave and his wife Iola’s life’s work in music, international diplomacy and active leadership in the civil rights movement.  Iola, herself a playwright, collaborated with Dave on a number of projects.  About 20 Brubeck Insitute embassadors had the opportunity for a personal tour of the University’s Holt-Atherton Archives which house not only the Brubeck Collection, but also the John Muir Papers collection which holds about 75% of the extant papers of Muir.  Michael Wurtz, University Archivist, informed us of some fascinating facts on Dave and Iola’s lives and careers, and we got to see first-hand a number of these important letters, contracts, albums, marketing materials, music scores and more. 

One interesting fact is that Dave really couldn’t read and write music on paper himself much.  His creative, improvisational style just wouldn’t conform well to putting something fixed on paper.  When he did compose some of his more extensive orchestral arrangements his brother or another collaborator usually did most of the music notation.  We were shown one of the first pieces of music he wrote for a school assignment which he subsequently was told what he played was very good, but wasn’t what he had written.  Dave tore up the score and threw it away. A fellow student saved the pieces from the trash taped them together and later sent them to Dave as a memento.  Here's a link to one of Dave's scores a lullaby from 1941, though I could not find a digitized image for the torn score we were shown during the presentation.

Another important thing I learned was about Dave and Iola’scommitment to civil rights.  In fact, 1960 Dave once cancelled 23 of tour dates in a Southeastern states tour when the Universities they were playing refused to allow him to play with his racially integrated band or allow a racially integrated audience.  Here is an intersting letter Dave received on the positive impact resulting from one of the two Universities that did allow this integration to occur.  Also Iola’s and Dave’s musical “The Real Ambassadors”, which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary next month, addressed sensitive social issues as well.
Finally, I was very pleased to see the “Use Pencils Only” sign in front of desk of Special Collections Assistant, Trish Richards, shown in the photo above.  Certainly, they want to protect these one of a kind archival materials from any accidental ink spills; another important benefit of pencils over pens.  I don’t know if Dave and Iola have ever been Blackwing pencil users, but perhaps some time in the Archives exploring may turn up a photo or other evidence as to their preferred pencil brands.  I was able to leave a special gift of several dozen Blackwing pencils for the Summer Jazz Colonists and members of the Brubeck Institute.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A View to the Future of U.S. Pencil Manufacturing

My last post addressed recent news regarding allegations of illegally imported Chinese pencils.  In order to avoid anti-dumping duties these pencils were apparently transshipped via third party countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia and mislabeled as to country of origin.  Today I am addressing the overall U.S. market for pencils and future of U.S. production of pencils relative to how I see this topic coupled with other developing industry trends.

In my view, regardless of the final outcome of this particular legal case I believe this is a positive development for U.S. pencil manufacturers and other established pencil industry participants who are committed to making quality products and playing by the rules when it comes to all manner of international trade, environmental, labor and product safety regulations.  For the past 20 years the trends of globalization, retail channel consolidation and other competitive market forces have contributed to a dramatic shift in our industry structure just as in many other industries.  As a free market thinker I do not believe these are inherently bad trends and they have led to a number of benefits for society as a whole though those benefits may not always be evenly dispersed and has not always resulted in comparable product quality. 
When it comes to pencils, both here in the U.S. and worldwide, we are seeing more pencils sold and consumed at lower average prices than 20 years ago.  Despite the common misconception that pencils are a dying business, pencil consumption generally grows globally at or around the rate of population growth.  Also per capita pencil consumption tends to increase with income growth as well.  Providing we continue our positive immigration trends we should see stable and slowly growing demand for wood-cased pencils over the long term.  Obviously income growth and dispersion is a current concern in light of recent economic developments, but ultimately I still remain optimistic about U.S. potential from the macroeconomic stand point.

The rise of computers, tablets, or smart phones over this period have yet to prove to me that these technologies are going to displace writing instruments and pencils as a whole.  Technology certainly can impact how and where we use pencils at the margins. However, there is a strong emotional and tactile connection people have with their preferred writing tools and the physical act of depositing graphite, ink, paint or color pigments onto paper.  What could impact per capita pencil consumption even more than technology is allowing another generation of kids to be raised without access to and experiencing the use of good quality pencils. This could drive consumption patterns to alternate writing instruments in the long term.  Despite the benefit of ever cheaper wood-cased pencils on household budgets over the past 20 years , one negative byproduct has been exposing children, teachers and other consumers to a general reduction in the quality of the average pencil sold here in the U.S.  At Pencils.com one of our most common consumer questions is: “Where can I find a decent pencil at a reasonable price in which the lead won’t break, the eraser works without smearing and that actually writes well?”  Teachers often report that the simple act of more frequent breakage and sharpening has become a disruption in the classroom.

One complicating factor is the poor state of funding for education in the U.S., especially when it comes to the provision of basic school supplies. As a result the burden of supplying pencils and other suppliesis increasingly pushed onto teachers and families who have their own budgetconcerns.  The drive for ever lower prices has helped, but has also compromised quality and selection.  As a result the assortment of pencils on retailers’ shelves has declined and the mix increased towards imported private label or low price non-manufacturer brands.  Lower space allocation is offered to traditional quality manufacturer brands.
So what do a bunch of economic, social and demographic trends have to do with an illegal transshipment case and whether this helps the U.S. industry or not.  The question lies in part whether the retailers as a group, begin to see that price of pencils cannot be their sole determining factor in the product mix as there are other costs such as the associated anti-dumping duties and penalties.  Also will consumers take a greater interest in the quality and origins of their pencil purchases?  Sure they are still going to want the best price possible.  However, I tend to think that a supplier who is willing to illegally transship pencils is also a supplier who is more likely to cut corners in product safety and quality.. These are all problems the retailers and consumers don’t want to deal with over the long term.  If retailers increasingly find they will be held responsible for penalties, fines and consumer dissatisfaction as a result of the potential negative aspects of their product supply chain then they are going to increase their diligence in vetting and selecting their suppliers.  Certainly they cannot be expert in every product range they sell and as they are importing many products globally, the headache of assuring compliance on products with anti-dumping duties and other safety or regulatory concerns may result in some level of return for advice and supply to known domestic vendors for improved reliability.  This does not necessarily mean an imported pencil will be replaced by a domestically produced one, but the opportunity for engagement on that supply decision will certainly improve for the U.S. producers.

Further there are currently added economic trends that point towards some return to U.S. manufacturing in general.  My belief is this ultimately will have some positive benefits for the U.S. pencil industry also.  Labor costs in China are now increasing dramatically and though still quite low relative to the U.S. are making it difficult for many general manufacturing companies to find and retain qualified employees.  Chinese labor regulations as well as other environmental and bureaucratic regulations are beginning to impact the general cost of doing business in China.  This first impacts those producers in China who play by the rules, but in time the effects should spread further throughout the Chinese economy. Meanwhile, U.S. domestic energy costs are declining with the increase in domestic gas exploration and development.  Long lead times on overseas supply chains complicate planning and inventory investment while domestic producers can often be more flexible with quicker response times. 
Another important concern within the pencil industry is that Chinese basswood and other Chinese woods have come under pressure for use in other domestic purposes.  More wood is coming from Russia which has less stringent regulatory oversight causing more concern with legal wood supply issues.  A resurgence in total Chinese GDP growth from their current slowdown will have further inflationary impact on global wood supply and thus eventually pencil prices as well.  In my personal assessment we’ve seen a low point reached in global wholesale pencil prices that was reached about two or three years ago.  There will always be some other part of the world, the next low cost country, to move on to, but adequate quality wood supply and transportation costs also have an important impact on pencil economics beyond labor costs and regulatory environments.  Overtime, the developing world catches up in relative costs so the U.S. should be able to adapt and innovate to remain competitive.  That is as long as we do not let our current political stagnation and increasingly burdensome regulatory environment overwhelm us over the long term. As the U.S. remains one of the most important global growers of trees this ultimately will have some positive impact on a host of products manufactured from solid wood.  As a result I do predict that we will eventually see at least some small improvement in U.S. production of pencils and other wooden products over time.

In our own business at California Cedar Products Company we are certainly not prepared to return our slat manufacturing operations to the U.S.  However, we are increasing our commitment to U.S. based wood supply with the recent introduction of our Pacific Albus product range.  Eventually we expect this will be an increasingly relevant component of our business displacing Chinese and Russian Basswood and supplementing our premium California Incense-cedar product range. 
Additionally, we have recently made several small movements towards U.S. production regarding our Palomino Brands pencil ranges.  Recently we relocated the final eraser tipping process for our Palomino Blackwing and Blackwing 602 pencils from Japan to our Stockton, CA using a newly developed tipping process.  This should improve tipping quality and responsiveness as demand for Blackwing pencils grows.  Thought the pencils themselves will continue to be produced in Japan.  Also, we are transitioning our Prospector and Golden Bear products from Thailand production to the U.S. where we are working with one of our slat customers Musgrave Pencil Company to produce these items. The new “made in the USA” versions of both pencils will phase out our prior California Republic versions and be available exclusively on Pencils.com in the coming weeks.  These pencil items represent only a very minute segment of the U.S. pencil market, but do expand our commitment to offering a “Made in the U.S.A.” product selection in our Pencils.com store.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Allegations of Illegal Chinese Pencils

U.S. Pencil Anti-Dumping Duties are news once again as a result of new developments with regards to alleged transshipments of pencils produced in China via third countries to avoid these duties.   Despite the imposition of such duties since 1994 there has been a steady increase in imports by retailers and wholesalers most importantly from China, but also Indonesia, and numerous other countries over the past 20 years.  To maintain competitive through out this period much of the traditional volume supplied by U.S. pencil manufacurers has migrated primarily to Mexico and Asia, particularly the largest U.S. producers.

In effect, the large retailers and a new class of importers and distributors have significant increased importance to overall US pencil supply using lower cost imports by bypassing the historical U.S. producers. Today U.S. manufacturers now use a combination of U.S. production, foreign production in their own subsidiary facilities as well as outsourced production from third party foreign suppliers to meet thier customers needs. Only a very few maintain all their production within the U.S.

Today I estimate that less than 10% of U.S. pencil consumption consists of pencils actually manufactured in the United States.  Certainly the actual market share of the traditional U.S. producers is much higher when factoring in production imported from their own facilities in Mexico or China plus what they import from other foreign producers.  Perhaps 50% of the U.S. market today are pencils imported directly from China, despite the anti-dumping duties of 114% levied on Chinese pencils since 1994.  Most of these direct Chinese imports do not pay the full anti-dumping duty given that provisions under the statutes allow for a review process with the U.S. Commerce department that results in reductions in these duties applicable to some Chinese producers/exporters.  However, the review process is expensive and only the largest Chinese producers that export to the US participate.  As a result it has been long suspected that there also have been a substantial number of Chinese produced pencils being illegally transshipped via third countries to avoid these duties.  Suspecting and proving such transshipments however are separate matters. 

Now for the first time since implementation of the duties it was made public in May that there is an active civil case proceeding against several large U.S. retailers and importers for participating in the importation of illegal transshipped Chinese pencils via countries such as Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam.  This case was filed in 2008 by the Cullen Law Firm in Washington, D.C. per the this press release published May 17, 2012.  The public docket was made available May 1st.  Note that at this time these remain only allegations, but if the case prevails there are substantive fines and penalties that would be accruing going back to at least 2006 as it’s not just the transshipment to avoid duties that is a potential violation, but also incorrect marking relative to country of origin laws as well. 

I have now had the opportunity to review the actual Docket Report from the U.S. District court which was formally unsealed on May 1st of this year.  Certainly the details of the allegations in these documents seem well researched and argued and are consistent with rumors of various transshipment practices I’ve heard throughout the years.  The Cullen law firm seems confident in their press release.  In the event the case is successful it appears that the the Cullen firm and their client will benefit financially receiving a share of the duties and penalties collected with the balance returning to the U.S. Government which remains an interested party to this case. 
There is also the matter of whether the defendants were knowingly or unknowingly participating in this practice.  My understanding is that the burden of proof on that point is not as relevant in a civil case vs. a criminal case and that may be the rub.  The plaintiff just has to prove the illegal transshipments occurred.  Whether these companies knew they were illegal transshipments doesn’t really matter.  If proven true, clearly the drive for ever lower procurement costs from these retailers will have played a part in supporting the illegal behavior facilitated by thier suppliers in one way or another.  As the importers of record they are potentially subject to the back duties and penalties and as these appear to be rather substantial I assume this case has definitely got their attention and hopefully the attention of other pencil importers.

Finally, from what I’ve learned about the case to date none of the traditional U.S. pencil producers appears to be actively involved as a plaintiff, nor has any been named or identified as a participant in any of the alleged transshipment activities.  In my experience the U.S. Industry participants have always supported “playing by the rules” and indeed several companies were involved as plaintiffs in the original anti-dumping case.  In that respect they helped set the current rules.  Even if some  of these U.S. producers may have relocated much of their own production overseas, they have long been active in assuring that their own imports of finished goods and raw materials are fully compliant with applicable U.S. trade law as well as all relevant consumer products safety regulations, etc.  While the U.S. Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association and it’s Pencil Section have taken no public position on this case, my personal view is that these member companies (of which ours is one) are watching this case with interest and hope that whatever the final ruling it will have some form of positive impact for all of those companies in our industry, foreign or domestic, that play by the rules.
So what does this all mean for U.S. pencil manufacturing?  If proven true, what changes will these defendants and potentially other retailers and importers make in their practices and supply chain structures to address potential risks brought to light by this alleged activity.  Will it benefit U.S. manufacturing or just redistribute purchasing to other foreign manufacturers?  What other market forces are currently at play that could impact the trends regarding the future of U.S. pencil manufacturing?  I’ll address these questions in my next post in just about two weeks time. In the meantime here's a link to a collection of my past posts on international trade issues related to the pencil Industry.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Ode to Blackwing Animated Version

Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the introduction of our Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil for sales on Pencils.com.  It's been a fun first year with alot of positive developments, including most recently our original Palomino Blackwing pencil being featured in an upcomming movie.  But today is really about poetry.

Yesterday was also the first anniversary of my original post "Ode to Blackwing", my rather hokey attempt at a poetic tribute to the history and revival of the Blackwing pencil and the process of responding to customer feedback to create the later Palomino Blackwing 602 version as we introduced it.  Today we have just released the Animated version of "Ode to Blackwing".  This video was produced as suprise to me for the Blackwing Experience event in New York back in April.  It was playing on an animated loop at the end of the historical timeline on the pencil industry. A few lines were modified by our creative team from my original version and the voice of course is not mine.  Thanks to Cartoonist Gary Kopervas for collaboration on this project.  Hope you enjoy.

As we are celebrating Literature and Poetry as our theme on the Studio602 blog this month and yesterday we launched our Pencils.com Poetry Slam contest I thought I'd share this video for a bit of inspiration.  Hope you'll enter by June 19th for a chance to win a great giftset. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dear Sean

To my readers:

I find myself in the distasteful postion to publish the following letter, which in my view should be a private communication between Sean Malone, the Publisher & Editor of Blackwing Pages and myself. Unfortunately, the increasing intensity and method of his campaign against me and our company and now the additional posts of a couple others which appear to have jumped on certain of his themes, have now crossed a line where I feel some public clarification is required. Given Mr. Malone's approach to date, I felt it best to publish the entire letter and let you decide for yourself. I realize by publishing this letter I am opening myself up to further criticism and to further parsing of my intentions to fit the purposes of my detractors. I have always prided myself on my overall transparency. I could have approached Sean sooner to address his claims, but it has been unclear by his actions to date that any earlier response or even this letter will do any good. I hope it will, but who knows. Then again neither Mr. Malone, nor anyone else who has been critical, has ever bothered to directly contact me or my team these past few months to address their greivences. I have also just responded over at Pencil Talk to a new post on related topics to furher clarify certain questions asked today.

April 13, 2012

Sean Malone, Publisher/Editor
Blackwing Pages

Dear Sean,
In the last three months you have devoted a great deal of energy to not only criticizing the marketing efforts around our Palomino Blackwing pencils, but more recently to calling into question my personal integrity and the reputation of our company. Now you’ve apparently enlisted others in your campaign. I am honestly startled as to how we got to this point. In my acknowledging an inadequately vetted claim about Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of a Blackwing, it seemed that we were both interested in documenting as available the history of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 and the following it engendered. Prior to that event, I felt we have had a long, positive and mutually supportive relationship where you had willingly provided various images, sent us music scoring sheets for promotional photography purposes, etc. and had never expressed any sentiment that you were dissatisfied with the manner in which we may have utilized any material from your blog. In fact in our e-mail ommunication of Jaunary 6th after the whole FLW affair, I apologized again personally to you for our faux paux and invited you to be an active participant in our planned Blackwing Experience event to help us get the facts right. You indicated you had nothing against me personally nor were you trying to assert some moral high ground on the issue.

You also politely declined my invitation to participate in the Blackwing Experience event, which I have fully respected. As such, I directed our team to work on our own historical research elative to prior users of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing and to provide appropriate attribution for source materials. We have done just that. In fact, our “Blackwing in Pop Culture” page on our recently published Palomino Brands website lists sources for each Blackwing user mentioned, lus includes a link to a bibliography page. None of these reference your work as they have done independent verifications, respecting your wishes not to be associated with our endeavors.

We have also reached out to a number of users, and families of users, of the original EF Blackwings with very positive and supportive results and continue to focus on that effort. In fact, the grandson of Chuck Jones, head of one of the many estates of former users who support our efforts, extended his appreciation personally for us bringing back the Blackwing because it was such “a huge part of what Chuck was able to accomplish”. He will be a participant in our panel discussion on Creativity and what it means to pick up a pencil in the digital age. An invitation I ould have gladly extended also to you, but again, you declined any involvement. We have the upport of not only Mr. Jones’ estate, but as I understand it from the estates of Nelson Riddle and ohn Steinbeck, among others. Stephen Sondheim himself is a fond user of our Palomino lackwing pencils and has voiced his support of our Blackwing revival publicly in his book and privately, as well as of the upcoming Blackwing Experience exhibit in New York. We are expecting a very informative Blackwing Experience event in New York that both honors the reative legacy associated with the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil as well as brings to the forefront the talents of the fans of our new Palomino Blackwing generation of pencils.

In recent weeks, however, since our last private communication in early January, the frequency and intensity of your posting activity has increased, as has the series of ever-critical posts and attacks on both me and CalCedar. You have parsed the language used in our communications to fit your arguments and challenged nearly every new piece of information we have put out about Blackwing pencils or the upcoming event. Your invective has now bridged the gap to calling me both a thief and a liar and to attacking the integrity of third parties, Justin Oberman and The Art Directors Club. On that latter subject, we are advised by counsel that the fleeting use of your picture of pencils in the documentary and enlightening video on pencil sharpening was well within fair use rights by video’s creator. I never saw that piece before it was published as it was a project between other parties; though I now see we were given a credit as “Palomino Presents”. Had I seen it, I would have immediately recognized your photo and suggested it be changed to one we could happily provide, and in fact the offending photo has since been replaced. However, I am probably the only one who would have recognized that photo as coming from your blog as with most other historical material on Blackwing Pages. Our day to day team has simply not been referencing Blackwing Pages since early January, until your recent aggressive posting activity against our company has necessitated such visitation to assess your claims.

There seems no substantive reason for your harsh treatment of Justin, except for his association and collaboration with our company on the upcoming event, and perhaps that you feel he has not apologized to you for accidental use of your photo. Likewise, your statements about me and CalCedar have now become defamatory. If you feel we have “stolen” anything from you or take issue with anything else, please feel free to contact me directly and privately, and I give you my personal assurance that I will investigate specific and clear claims you may have. I am open to considering that there may have been one or two places we could have erred since the FLW issue, I understand a couple factual errors were corrected when brought to our attention, but your claim that this is somehow evidence of some underhanded strategy or theft on our part is ludicrous. You have not once shown the courtesy of communicating such specific concerns directly to me in all this time, preferring instead to use your blog as bully pulpit. However, public and potentially libelous charges through your blog seem inappropriate and counter-productive to the support that the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, our new Palomino Blackwing models and all pencils in general deserve. I stopped commenting on your blog because you told me you didn’t want any association with our efforts and because your attacks indeed became personal and morally based contrary to your communication to me on January 6th.

Sean, I don’t expect you to agree with me on the marketing approach to CalCedar’s business, and indeed there are other protectors of the original Blackwing product. You are entitled to your opinions on these subjects. We have never claimed we are producing an exact replica of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. It’s impossible to do so in my opinion. We are trying to do the best we can to produce a modern successor and build a new following for our Blackwing pencils, as a premier writing instrument, one that honors the creative tradition of the original pencil and its users. Those values are inherent in the Blackwing brand whether printed on an Eberhard Faber version or a Palomino version. It is your prerogative to rail on these efforts, but the increasing move towards outright defamation is simply inappropriate. Hopefully, we can discuss and resolve these issues reasonably and move on. I hope you’ll agree there are more important things we can both be attending to in our lives.


Charles Berolzheimer

California Cedar Products Company

Monday, January 02, 2012

Sondheim and an Angel Brighten up my New Year, Twice

Last night I had to make an unexpected drive back to the Monterey area beach house on the final day of vacation after having returned home earlier in the day then finding that some very important items were left behind and unattended to before our departure with no means to address them remotely. I was driving along and brooding about my misfortune on having to retrace a 2-1/2 hour trip at 8pm and then return to Stockton again this morning in time for work after two weeks out of the office. In fact this was the 2nd year in a row with an inauspicious start after last year waking up on New Year's day to find a nail in my tire and none of the normal tire shops open on the holiday when I had to return home later that day. The nail was in a spot that could not just be patched and I had some challenging tires to replace and too long a drive home on the space saver spare. Fortunately, good providence returned when I found Angel's Tire Service in nearby Castroville just happened to be open that morning and have a single used tire that would fit the bill.

So picture my mood last night, alone on the road thinking, "Here we go again, what a lousy start to the New Year!", kicking myself for failing to button up all the details before leaving the beach earlier in the day, half-resenting my wife who's comfortable at home despite offering to accompany me. In an effort to change this dark disposition I turned on Sirius radio looking for some Jazz and was surprised to find a rebroadcast of NPR's Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland from 1994 featuring an hour long session interviewing and playing with Stephen Sondheim. I had only missed the first 10 minutes or so. As I am also a fan of musical theater (performing some show tunes now and then as part of a chorus) and of Sondheim's work, (not just because he's a great fan of the Blackwing pencil), I couldn't help thinking about Angel's tire and that perhaps good providence was returning again to salvage my first day of the year once again.

This is a great listen. There is some great discussion between Stephen and Marian in this segment and with her playing some of his tunes on piano with her own interpretations and Stephen commenting back about those as well as his own thoughts and stories about composing those songs. One of my favorite parts is when she plays "Send in the Clowns" and he talks about both the Sinatra version, re-scored by Nelson Riddle (another Blackwing pencil user) and trying to get Nelson to change something he didn't like and then alternatively willingly making a change for Barbara Streisand request on another change in the same tune as he agreed with the reason for the change. This segment starts about 22 minutes into the session, though the whole show is a highly recommended listen and very enjoyable.

I forgot fully about my false start to the year and even had a lovely drive back this morning witnessing a gorgeous sunrise coming up over the fog rolling out of the central valley and covering the lower reaches of the San Luis Reservoir as I drove down the pass. I just had to stop and take the photo here along the way. Then I return to the office this morning and find an e-mail from Justin over at Obercreative that had come in over the holiday with a scan of a page from Sondheim's new book "Look, I Made a Hat". In it Sondheim mentions "In Finishing the Hat I sang a paean of praise to the Blackwing pencil" and then goes on to mention. The timing really couldn't be any better. What a great start to the New Year. Going to have to order this ASAP.

So thanks Stephen and thanks to Angel for brightening up my false starts these past two New Years. And to any of you who'd had a somewhat slow beginning to the new year I hope this story has been at least a little "enlightening". Happy New Year and here's to having a great and very creative 2012.