Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Flashback 2005: The House on the Hill

     Holy coincidence, Batman. 

    Friday I was collecting my parents from the Sheraton in Northbrook. I parked the car  and noticed The House on the Hill, as I called it when I first moved here. I snapped a photo, and later tracked down the column mentioning it: exactly 14 years ago.
     The column was much longer back then—a whopping 11oo words—and filled an entire page. I'll trim out some dated topical fluff about Blago trying to ban junk food in schools, but leave in the non-House on the Hill prelude about immigration—our perennial national hobby horse—and Google's view of the word "googling."
Or if pressed for time—and who isn't?—you can just skip to the "Closing Shot" at the end. 


     The president says we need to guard our borders. I say we need to look to Japan, where well-guarded borders have led to retirees overwhelming workers in a gerontocracy crumbling toward economic ruin. If we had a functional immigration service, we wouldn't have so many illegals and people could openly come here to keep our economy humming and our nation vital. Besides, most concern over immigration is our old friend Racism wearing his Sunday best and trying to pass in polite society.


     Near the end of the 19th century, Germany's Friedrich Bayer and Company discovered acetylsalicylic acid was useful in treating pain. "Acetylsalicylic acid" is a mouthful, so the new product was marketed under the brand name "Aspirin."
     Over the decades, Bayer failed to zealously guard the name of its popular product, and it was seized by other companies, so that now any fly-by-night pill company with a few sacks of acetylsalicylic acid can start selling it as "aspirin" and Bayer can't say boo to them.
     This story haunts big business to this day. That's why if you write about "xeroxing" something, the Xerox Corporation will send you a starchy letter, scolding you that the proper verb is "photocopying," thank you, preferably on a "Xerox brand photocopier." Even the DayGlo Color Corporation—who knew?—of Cleveland will chew you out if you pretend their brand is a mere type of hue.
     Sometimes, these efforts border on the futile. "Rollerblading" is just too apt a word, and will never be replaced by "inline skating," no matter how hard Rollerblade USA of Hamilton, N.J., tries.
     With this in mind, I wondered how the popularity of the word "googling" was sitting with Google Inc., the California-based search engine company that suddenly is the biggest thing on Earth.
     They are supposed to be a young, hip, with-it company too busy changing the world to worry about wubbly old workadaddy worries such as trademark law. Yet they are still a company (by now worth more than all the other companies combined, I believe). Don't they see a risk that, without vigorous protection, soon people will be googling with Microsoft or Websites-R-Us or whatever? Do they fear the fate of aspirin? And if they do, how does Google, a company all too happy to push the boundaries of copyright law by offering pages from other companies' copyrighted books on the Web for free, go about protecting itself?
     Very quickly—as befits an enterprise that went from two guys in a dorm room to a world-bestriding behemoth in seven years—I found myself talking to Rose Hagan, senior trademark counsel at Google. I asked her if "Google" becoming a popular verb is a danger sign.
     "All trademark owners do have to worry their marks will become generic," she said. "It's not [a problem], if a mark is used as a verb. The test is what does the public perceive when they use it. We want to make sure, when people talk about googling, they mean searching on Google, as opposed to any other search engine."
     Clever—I bet Xerox is kicking itself for pushing "photocopying" all those years, instead of trying to define "xeroxing" as "using a Xerox machine."
     Hagan said that, like Xerox, Google has "a nice little letter" it dispatches if somebody starts manhandling the Google trademark. Foreign dictionaries, which tend to ignore the niceties of American intellectual property laws, have been a particular problem.
     So what about those who—hard as it is to imagine—use a search engine other than Google to surf the Internet? What verb should they use if not "google"?
     "'Search' is a nice easy word," said Hagan. "I don't think we need to complicate anything."
     Isn't that what lawyers are for?


     Sometimes it's better not to know.
     For five years, ever since I moved to the old leafy suburban paradise, whenever I would drive up Waukegan Road, after admiring the grandeur of Techny Towers, I would sneak a covetous glance to my left, to what I called The House on the Hill.
     The House on the Hill was a single building silhouetted against the horizon, utterly alone. A comfortable house, too far away to make out clearly, but in my imagination it had been there a long time, back when the area was undeveloped woodland, before it was sold off and fell to ferocious development (including a gated community, complete with a guardhouse, though what it could possibly be guarding against out here I can't imagine. Wolves, perhaps).
     Anyway, with big earth-moving equipment working toward The House on the Hill, with sprawl closing in day by day, I thought it time to drive up to the house and end the mystery. Maybe commiserate with its longtime owner, who I imagined to be a cross between Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost, a white-haired gent who might recall when the only disturbance was the clop of horse hooves and the creak of cart wheels.
     The road was difficult to find—tucked by the new Costco and the hivelike Glenview commercio-residential metroplex. But I found it, and slowly worked my way up a rather big hill -- almost a mountain, really, quite improbable for this flat part of Illinois. When I got to the top, I found The House on the Hill wasn't a house at all; it was the Willowhill Golf Academy. And the hill wasn't a real hill, either, but an enormous mound of landfilled trash.
     As I said, sometimes it's better not to know.

                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 30, 2005


  1. Google wound up dominating the search-engine market because they developed a superior product, and a business model to go with it. That business model depends on gathering users' personal information to allow microtargeting of ads, which a lot of people find creepy or worse, but that's another issue.

  2. I left Evanston for Ohio 27 years ago.My memory is getting a bit hazy. Is Techny Towers that huge religious edifice that was out in the middle of nowhere? I always wondered how it got there and what its history was.

    Did it have something to do with Cardinal Mundelein, for whom the town way up north was named? Or am I just old and confused and thinking of someplace else?

  3. Interesting photo. Looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting. I've passed that way over the years but never noticed the "House on the hill."


  4. I guess there are former or current garbage dumps all over the metropolitan area. When I lived in Cicero, every time I dug into the ground in the backyard, I came up with old bottles and cans and was told that the area was once used formally or informally for dumping garbage. As said, sometimes it's better not to know. Although we did grow grapes back there and tried making wine with them.




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