Bob Schwartz

Month: March, 2012

“Will No One Rid Us of This Genocidal Leader?”

When Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, stood in the way of Henry II of England, reports are that the king uttered these words: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry’s men took this not as an idle wish but as a command, and killed Becket.

Except in times of war (which has taken on an ever fuzzier meaning), the assassination of world leaders risks crossing all kinds of legal, moral, and political lines, not to mention its assault on national sovereignty and its likelihood to incite new problems and precedents as it resolves old ones.

Nevertheless, even the most humane among us – or especially the most humane – may be heard to paraphrase good King Henry regarding Syria: “Will no one rid us of this of this genocidal leader?”

Sad to say that Syria today may not even be the worst we’ve seen in recent years. But there is some quality about it, perhaps the arrogance and impunity of Assad, perhaps the daily display of malevolent slaughter, which sets this one apart.

It would not be surprising to learn that in the corridors of power, behind closed doors, a “wish” like that is being made. In the front rooms idealistic but unworkable peace plans are being announced, but maybe in some back rooms there is talk about the pragmatics and consequences of “ridding.”

You have to be careful what you wish for, since wish fulfillment can carry high and unexpected prices. But for some, particularly those living in daily fear of annihilation and mayhem, the price may be worth it if certain wishes do come true.

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At Home Without Books

Home libraries, whether modest but treasured shelves of books or vast collections, have been part of homes for centuries. The splendid volume At Home With Books (a kind of bibliophile pornography) celebrates the interesting libraries of the ordinary book-lover along with those of the rich, creative, and the “I had no idea he had such a cool library, but nothing should surprise me about him, including his survival” (that would be Keith Richards).

Most of the changes in what homes typically include have been improvements, additions or trade outs, especially with very useful appliances in the bathroom and kitchen. In entertainment, there has even been the democratizing of screening rooms: once the domain of the rich and famous, thousands now have huge digital screens and plenty of plush seating.

Then there is the evolution/devolution of home libraries. Lots of people never had many books at home, let alone areas or rooms that could be called libraries. Those that do, old and young, are still adding to the shelves, but based on the growth of non-paper formats, at a slowing pace. There is an unsettling sense that, for those of us who view home book collections as the essential equivalent of a working bedroom, bathroom, or kitchen, these libraries are a vestige, a legacy.

Living rooms once had big, beautiful, furniture-style radio consoles that became big television consoles, which then became sleek, minimalist big screens. This is much more than that. This is a model that goes back centuries and that is – hard to say it – disappearing. On a practical level, this is actually a perfect development, since it seems likely that the coming generations may not be living in the expansive spaces that the previous few have enjoyed. Digital bookshelves are a whole lot smaller and easier to move. But separate from the qualitative question of whether paper books are the equivalent of digital books (they aren’t), to some of us, a home without books is not a home at all.

Could We Have Survived a Great Depression?

The Great Recession did not turn into a(nother) Great Depression, and the prospects of continuing towards prosperity, or at least less economic insecurity, seem good. The big question that we now have a limited luxury to ask is this: Could we have survived a Great Depression? The study of that question may be the most valuable we can make.

The Great Depression has spawned an industry for scholars, historians, and thinkers of all stripes, and that has been a good thing. Systems and people are seen truest at their moments of greatest stress, and hardly anything before or since qualifies

Looking at how we managed to survive the last Great Depression – whether it was leadership and action, the normal cycle correcting a horrific anomaly, the fortunate unfortunate impact of a global war, or all/none of the above – tells us something about how we might handle the next. A couple of small starting points:

Creativity matters. Dismissing creative civic solutions out of hand and out of political pique is something we can never afford, and in the worst times something we should never tolerate. Love him or hate him, FDR got boldly creative, pushing the bounds of constitutionality, convention, and common sense. But when things fall apart as they did, common sense is cold comfort. Herbert Hoover, who was in fact a man of civic accomplishment, lacked the boldness and sense of adventure needed for the unprecedented times.

The question is: At that moment in 2008, if things had gone from bad to worse, would there have been the will to be creative and to try things, even if that meant setting aside ideology and political advantage. The answer is that nothing at the time, and nothing today, tells us that there would have been.

Optimism matters. One of the latest political ads from Rick Santorum depicts a cautionary apocalyptic vision of Obama America, something straight out of the Book of Revelation. During the Great Depression, there was no need for a fanciful version of the Apocalypse; it was already there. Books, songs, and movies painted an accurate vision of hardship, but they also tried for uplift and hope. The best and smartest politicians realized that when the spirit of America was already broken, the last thing people needed was a reminder that things could and might yet get worse. Happy days might not have been there again, as the song said, but there was no point in saying that they never would.

So as with the dismissal of creative solutions, the question is, in the face of a 21st century Great Depression, whether today’s politicians could find a way to set aside the darkness and pessimism for a brighter vision of good times ahead, even if it meant faking optimism, even if it meant losing political advantage. There is little evidence of that.

Otherism

At any moment in America, some portion of the population believes in and is engaged in otherism towards those not like themselves or whom they do not like. The proportion varies, the degree varies, the targeted others vary. It may be race, ethnicity, religion, geography, age, gender, sexual preference, class, wealth, anything. It has been that way, here and everywhere, and it will be that way.

What we can do, the best we can do, is try to shrink the proportion of the population acting on these tendencies, reduce the degree, lower the number of targets. At least we can change the mechanics built into the system, and allow others to do what anyone does, and to be free to be who anyone is. As for the hearts and minds of otherists, that is a farther reach, but ongoing awareness and open discussion is a start.

This is in the context of, a prelude to, a very brief comment on the Trayvon Martin case. There are only two certainties there: Trayvon Martin was shot dead by George Zimmerman and it is in some ways about race. Racism is the primary—though not sole—form of otherism in America. It is our curse, our karma, the legacy of a misguided enterprise that fed right into a tendency toward otherism. Progress is not so much a matter of two steps forward, one step back on a road. It is more like a chaotic, entropic society that wants to be better, if not good, but finds itself spinning around a dark past that throws orbits off kilter by its powerful gravity.

We constantly need to know where we are so we can make corrections, however slight. There was the election of a black President, and now there is this case. Let’s see how we do.

Heritagecare

In 1989, Stuart Butler and others at the conservative Heritage Foundation laid the groundwork for Obamacare/Romneycare in the publication A National Health System for America. Chapter 2 by Butler, A Framework for Reform, outlines and explains “the key elements of a consumer-oriented, market-based, comprehensive health system for America.” Element #1 is “Every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health care plan to cover major health care costs.” (page 51):

The requirement to obtain basic insurance would have to be enforced. The easiest way to monitor compliance might be for households to furnish proof of insurance when they file their tax returns. If a family were to cancel its insurance, the insurer would be required to notify the government. If the family did not enroll in another plan before the first insurance lapsed and did not provide evidence of financial problems, a fine might be imposed.

In other words, a mandate.

Agree or disagree with the Heritage Foundation or this proposal, Butler deserves credit for putting together a cogent, well-written primer on health care history, a report on the shortcomings of the current system, and a set of well-reasoned and creative proposals.

But no good or at least well-intentioned deed goes unpunished. In the time since, and especially in the past year, Butler and others have taken pains to explain how this Heritage Foundation proposal isn’t Obamacare and, in any case, how the proposal has been misunderstood and misapplied. The document itself can still be found on the Heritage Foundation website, though it is not shown and linked as one of Stuart Butler’s documents.

No matter what is argued to the Supreme Court today, no matter what the Justices ultimately decide about the constitutionality of mandates, and no matter how the complicated political dance involving Obama, Romney, Obamacare, and Romneycare turns out, Heritagecare was there first. It is essential reading.

Microsoft and the Mobile OS Nomination

To spin a political metaphor, in the race for dominance in mobile OS, Microsoft is the candidate with the resources and the organization who can’t seem to close the deal.

It’s not that consumers don’t like Microsoft, although many don’t. It’s a complex of factors with this outcome: the race is down to two candidates – iOS and Android – and it is likely the two will dominate and coexist for a long time.

The field began with so many candidates now gone or barely hanging on, including WebOS, Symbian, and others. Microsoft remains confident it will be a major player. In so many of the other competitions, their sheer presence and heft has assured their victory. Windows has had to share a bit of the personal computing world with slicker, sexier Apple, not to mention the third-party Linux, the Ron Paul of OS. Along with that PC dominance came a near-monopoly on office productivity; for as many times as Microsoft remakes Office, each time more over-complex and confusing, it is still the standard. Even in browsers, where it appeared that IE would end up relegated to minority status, Microsoft could afford to hang in there and claw its way back. It has won more than it has lost, and believes it is entitled to stay in any race.

It may, therefore, be too early to completely count Microsoft out of the mobile OS race. It is partnering with Nokia, arguably the coolest phone maker on the planet (yes, maybe cooler than Apple), which is abandoning its long use of Symbian OS in favor of Windows. But as much as Microsoft puts into the effort, as many good reviews and fans as the Windows mobile OS wins over, it is too little too late.

Maybe in this case there is a “rule of two” for mobile app development and consumer adoption, rather than the usual rule of three. Developers have been willing to port their iOS apps to Android, though it remains a work in progress, as the differences between the OS continue to present challenges. Developers are already balking at adding a third version to the mix, given that Windows is also different and hasn’t yet demonstrated market share, if it ever will.

Two things we know about politics: the best candidate doesn’t always win, and money and organization may or may not be able to buy an election. Over the years, Microsoft has managed to push aside some very capable and innovative software. But that’s how it goes: the technology business isn’t “beanbag.” Maybe Microsoft has something really special to offer with Windows mobile OS. But millions of consumers may not care, and will never get the chance to find out.

Etch A Sketch – the Original Digital Tablet – Goes Political and Mobile

Etch A Sketch is the original digital tablet, if digital means using your fingers to twirl some knobs. The Ohio Art toy company is thrilled that its Etch A Sketch has become a new prop in the public and political conversation.

But as much as we continue to hear about Mitt Romney’s positions in the primary being drawn on an Etch A Sketch – here now, shaken and redrawn in an instant – not many people are going to go out and buy one, let alone carry one around.

The good news is that just last month, digital game company Freeze Tag released an Android version of the official Etch A Sketch mobile app.

It’s a very simple app, permissions-light for the privacy conscious, fun and free, and it works just like the real thing, only much tinier (more advanced features like color and saving sketches are available with the 99-cent paid app). Even if you’re not an Etcher, those of a particular partisan persuasion might find it a handy way to signal your leanings.

SoLoMo and the Digital Have-Nots, Know-Nots and Want-Nots

The digital world is all abuzz about SoLoMo, most recently at SXSW Interactive. And why not? Here are the ingredients:

1/4 cup mayonnaise
Pinch dill
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Black pepper
Orlando grape leaves, jarred
1 fresh skinless salmon fillet, 1 1/2 pounds, cut in 4 pieces
Greek imported feta, sliced 1/8-inch thick
Olive oil
Lemon slices

Actually, that’s the recipe for solomo keftiko, a delicious Greek salmon dish.

The other SoLoMo is social, local, mobile media, one of the latest categories in the Who Wants To Be A Billionaire lottery. The concept behind these apps is that if mobile devices know who and where users are in real time, users can then interact with who (people) and what (businesses) are all around them. Foursquare is the best-known, and the new Highlight was one of the interactive stars at SXSW.

This is ultimately about people, and not just the digital people who know that SoLoMo isn’t something to eat. This led to thinking about who all the people are, and it looks as if there are three big groups that deserve attention: the have-nots, the know-nots, and the want-nots.

There are still plenty of digital have-nots in America, not only those who can barely afford some of the world’s most expensive mobile phones and service, but those millions who don’t have broadband service. They may be actual elected mayors of real places, but they will never be the Foursquare mayor of the local hardware store.

Know-nots make up the vast majority. They are digitally capable, they have all the right equipment, but they just don’t know all the things they can do with it. They will watch, they will learn, they will adapt, they will adopt.

The want-nots are most interesting of all. They are not Luddites. They are enabled, they know what they can do, they have the normal social and communication needs, but they choose to limit their participation in the interactive universe. That can be hard, and when an application becomes a universal platform (Facebook, Twitter), the drumbeat to play is insistent.

Without implying that digital hyper-engagement is in any way a pathology, a model from medical investigation is helpful. In the face of an epidemic, the most useful information about the disease comes not from those who succumb but from those who survive. The digital want-nots seem to have partial immunity, and their choices should be fascinating to SoLoMoers and others.

Sweet Spring and E.E. Cummings

The first day of spring deserves poetry. Every day does, but especially this one.

E.E. Cummings is the poet of spring among other things. More poetry in general, more Cummings in particular = a better world.

As he says, springtime is lovetime – to be in love, to feel like you are in love, to wish you were in love.

sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love

(all the merry little birds are
flying in the floating in the
very spirits singing in
are winging in the blossoming)

lovers go and lovers come
awandering awondering
but any two are perfectly
alone there’s nobody else alive

(such a sky and such a sun
i never knew and neither did you
and everybody never breathed
quite so many kinds of yes)

not a tree can count his leaves
each herself by opening
but shining who by thousands mean
only one amazing thing

(secretly adoring shyly
tiny winging darting floating
merry in the blossoming
always joyful selves are singing)

sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love

God’s Brackets

The second round game between Xavier and Notre Dame in the NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament, played on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, led to questions: Does God have brackets, and in the case of two competing Catholic schools, does God have favorites? Does the deity decide whose prayers to answer (priests, players, coaches, administrators, gamblers, etc.), or is it strictly hands off? However that works, Xavier did beat Notre Dame.

This in turn led to considering just how many Catholic schools did start out in the first and second rounds of the tournament. The list includes their affiliation with various orders, in no way intended to suggest either educational or athletic advantage or superiority:

Creighton (Jesuit)
Georgetown (Jesuit)
Gonzoga (Jesuit)
Iona (Christian Brothers)
Loyola Maryland (Jesuit)
Marquette (Jesuit)
Notre Dame (Congregation of Holy Cross)
St. Bonaventure (Franciscan)
St. Louis (Jesuit)
St. Mary’s California (Lasallian)
Xavier (Jesuit)

Without drawing conclusions, leaving that to more discerning commentators and to sports and religion scholars seeking grist for the academic mill, here are a couple of stray stats for bracketologians:

Of this year’s 68 teams, 11 were from Catholic schools (about 16%).

There are 201 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S., not all of them in Division 1. About 5% of them went to the tournament.