Bob Schwartz

Month: April, 2012

Where Have You Gone Maxfield Parrish?

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, Ode On A Grecian Urn

Maxfield Parrish was one of the most popular and ubiquitous American artists and illustrators of the first half of the twentieth century. For decades, his work was seen and instantly recognizable in books, magazines, and advertising. His extravagant and romantic style was inimitable, and he was honored by having his signature color—now known as Parrish Blue— named after him.

A new generation rediscovered Parrish in the 1960s, and walls of dorms and apartments were adorned with Parrish posters. Eventually the appreciation spread beyond college students, and Parish prints became more widely popular. And then, like all art trends, interest died back down. Today Parrish and his work are not so well known.

His most famous series was the calendars he illustrated for Edison Mazda light bulbs (above). General Electric named the bulbs for Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism. The religion’s central theme is the cosmic struggle between light and darkness. Parrish’s first calendar was so well-received that he continued to create it for 17 years.

A few decades ago, these luminous pictures spoke to a young generation navigating through unsettled times. Maybe it was the beauty of the pictures. Maybe it was their implicit idealism. Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was not just the promise and possibility of light, but the actuality of unseen colors that are right in front of our eyes—if we choose to see them. We could use some of that and some more Maxfield Parrish today.

Hey, You, Get On Your Own Cloud

The PocketCloud Explore app from Wyse Technology has won numerous awards, including being named LAPTOP Magazine’s Best of Mobile World Congress 2012. It deserves consideration as one of the best apps of all time, for choosing to do something so essentially simple so well.

The Cloud is supposedly the digital version of heaven. Your stuff will be out there, floating around, accessible wherever you are. Your stuff gets there either by your effort or, more frequently now, by being automatically synced and transported there.

Of course, there are challenges. Space in The Cloud is not unlimited and not always free. And many of us still have all our stuff on an old-school legacy device known as a PC, a machine surprisingly spry and popular for a technology reportedly on its last legs. Wouldn’t it be great if our PC could be our own personal and private cloud? Now it can.

As Wyse describes it:

Your Stuff…Your Device…Your Cloud!

PocketCloud Explore brings an intuitive view of your Windows/Mac file systems to Android and iOS smartphones and tablets, and lets you search, view, organize, and share across all of your computers.  It enables you to create a personal cloud out of your computers plus an online “Cloudbin” (PocketCloud Web beta) for anytime, anywhere access and sharing.

“Create a personal cloud out of your computers.” This sounds too good to be true or, as is the case with so many ambitious apps, too complex and difficult to be smooth and painless—or to work at all. But five minutes later, after installing the desktop companion software and the mobile app, an entire PC hard drive was accessible on a smartphone—to seamlessly access documents, books, music, videos. Your 32 GB (or less) mobile device is instantly your 500 GB PC.

That is more than a cloud. That is digital heaven.

Performers in Chief

Every President, every aspirant, every high-profile politician is a performer. They are the epitome of T.S. Eliot’s “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (or that may vote for you).

There is no moral measure in this, any more than there is for fish swimming or birds flying. The measure instead is the roles they choose to play, how well they play them, how suited they are to play them, and ultimately how the performance plays with the audiences.

Even playing yourself is a form of performance, sometimes the most challenging. Washington, Lincoln, FDR, all were who they seemed to be, just in a public way that channeled, focused, and amplified that actuality. It was only partly Reagan’s policies that got him overwhelmingly elected and keeps him in the national consciousness; it’s that he created and played an unforgettable Presidential role that even his skeptics admit was masterful. On the other end, we have many moments of miscasting, as in Michael Dukasis’s misbegotten moment playing a warrior in a tank.

President Obama was on the Jimmy Fallon show last night. We may have had other performers in the office who were as affable, funny, and smooth, but in the young twenty-first century, there are none who can hit the perfect note at the nexus of presidential gravity and free-spirited playfulness. The President slow jammed the news, working in his message about attempts to double the interest rate on Stafford college loans.

Older viewers, who may fondly remember candidate Richard Nixon’s few seconds on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1968 (“Sock it to ME?”), might think that Obama goes too far—in this and his many “cool” appearances. But Nixon’s performance was more than forty years ago, and audiences and sensibilities have changed. We may not want a President who is one of us, but we may want a President who chooses to act in a way that demonstrates he knows what time it is and who we are—and one who can pull it off naturally.

Up to this point, Mitt Romney seems to be one of the most reluctant and least effective performers we’ve had running for President. This doesn’t mean there won’t be improvement, but it will have to come from him or his handlers recognizing the basics: choose the roles appropriate for yourself and your intended audiences, and then play the roles effectively. One of Romney’s challenges is sometimes called flip-flopping or more recently etch-a-sketching. But the real challenge is that Romney has not chosen any roles to play, and he is struggling to even play the default role—himself—effectively. Romney has little experience as a performer, since many business positions don’t require it. It’s time for him to learn.

Until Romney decides to pick some appropriate roles and learn how to perform them, it will be an uphill race for him. Likeability has become the shorthand index for predicting electoral success. But it is something more, less subject to measure, but still very clear. The best performers often win the Presidency. In a campaign, and in office, you don’t just be the President, you play the President.

Chuck Colson: Teshuvah and Woody Allen

Chuck Colson (1931-2012) died this past weekend. His ruthless loyalty to Richard Nixon led to his central role in the Watergate scandal and to time in prison. That experience in turn led to his rebirth as an Evangelical Christian and to a lifetime of writing books (23 of them) and of helping the least among us—prisoners and others—to achieve fuller and better lives, at least by Colson’s religious lights.

If many were turned off by Colson’s politics before his conversion, it was not always easier after. Some questioned his sincerity. Others wondered whether any amount of transformation, however sincere, could balance his responsibility for helping to bring our democracy to its knees. Others saw the politics of his Christianity to be as socially destructive as the politics of his pre-Christian ruthlessness.

Two notes about Chuck Colson.

His first book Born Again (1976) is distinguished from all other books by participants in Watergate, from Nixon down through all his men. Most readers with particular political or religious inclinations didn’t read the book then, and even fewer do now. It is a compelling, candid, sincere confession of malfeasance and faith. Whether Colson’s work of the past forty years is to your liking or loathing, if you believe in the possibility of turning—in Hebrew, teshuvah—then you should believe in this. Personal transformation is not limited to those we approve of.

The second note is that Chuck Colson was a big Woody Allen fan. This was revealed last fall in an article  by Washington Post religion writer Michele Boorstein. Theories of humor and religion aside, this really isn’t hard to understand. Funny and smart is funny and smart, and this is probably something Colson appreciated. There’s no evidence that Colson and Allen ever met (though Boorstein did uncover a tape of Allen interviewing Billy Graham!). If they had, maybe they would have shared their experiences and views about the power of turning and confession for everyone, including artists and political operatives.

Mitt Romney, Ted Nugent and Chevy Chase

The recent silliness regarding Ted Nugent’s endorsement of Mitt Romney, followed by Nugent’s seeming threats to kill the current President, brought to mind a classic movie moment involving Ted Nugent and another rich guy.

It wasn’t actually Ted Nugent. It was Chevy Chase in Fletch. In the movie, Fletch/Chevy Chase is a smart-mouthed investigative reporter who regularly cracks wise by using ridiculous names. In this scene, Fletch is disguised as a beach bum, and businessman Alan Stanwyk (played by Tim Matheson) offers him a deal:

Stanwyk: Excuse me. I have something I’d like to discuss with you.

Fletch: What’s that?

Stanwyk: We can’t talk about it here.

Fletch: Why not?

Stanwyk: Because we can’t.

Fletch: You on a scavenger hunt, or did I forget to pay my dinner check?

Stanwyk: Come to my house to talk.

Fletch: Wrong gal, fella.

Stanwyk: I’ll give you cash.

Fletch: What?

Stanwyk: Come to my house and listen to the proposition. If you reject the proposition, you keep the thousand…and your mouth shut.

Fletch: Does this entail my dressing up as Little Bo Peep?

Stanwyk: It’s nothing of a sexual nature.

Fletch: Yeah.

Stanwyk: One thousand just to listen? How can you pass that up, Mister…

Nugent. Ted Nugent.

Stanwyk: Alan Stanwyk.

Fletch: Alan, charmed. For an extra grand, I’ll let you take me out to dinner.

There’s no reason to believe that the one conversation between Mitt Romney and Ted Nugent went anything like this. Mitt Romney is much richer than the fictional Alan Stanwyk, and the fictional Fletch/real Chevy Chase is much funnier than Ted Nugent. But it is fascinating to speculate how that endorsement conversation really did go, and if it might have been as surreal as this.

Thinking about Fletch can’t help but bring to mind the scene where Fletch disrupts an American Legion meeting by singing an earnestly terrible version of our national anthem. And thinking about Chevy Chase can’t help but bring to mind National Lampoon’s Vacation and a dog being tied to the bumper of a station wagon. Idle thoughts, none of which have anything to do with Ted Nugent.

But if we were thinking about singing, Mitt Romney, and Ted Nugent, we might idly wonder which song—either Nugent or Amboy Dukes—Romney might choose the next time he sings or recites a song on the campaign trail (though it’s doubtful he ever will again).

Journey to the Center of the Mind (1968) was the biggest Amboy Dukes hit, but maybe the most interesting song on an album that combined blues and psychedelia was Why Is A Carrot More Orange Than An Orange?.  Mitt Romney will not sing or recite it, of course, but it would be a memorable and humanizing moment:

First the world,
Then boy then girl,
Six days it took in all.
In His image he designed us
With no thought of flaw.

Now the question of perfection
Lingers in my mind.
Why is a carrot more orange than an orange?
Why are you greener than green?
Why do we sometimes believe
In things we’ve never seen?
Never doubt what it’s about
And you’ll get along fine.
But thy seeing the true meaning
Proves you’ve got a mind.
My suggestion is inspection of humanity.

I see why the ground is lower than the sky
And why sound can penetrate your mind.
But why is a carrot oranger than an orange?
Oranger than an orange?
Oranger than an orange?

Thank you, Ted Nugent.

Jackie Robinson and Sanford, Florida

Last week marked the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first major league game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, on April 15, 1947. This event was covered, though far short of the saturation coverage of stories such as the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. But there is important common ground between the two stories—Sanford, Florida.

What brought this up was watching The Jackie Robinson Story, a biopic released in 1950 and starring Jackie Robinson as himself, while he was still one of baseball’s biggest stars.

It is not much of a film (though it includes a sweet performance by a young Ruby Dee as Robinson’s wife). But as a social document, it is essential, both for its candor about the obstacles he faced and for its occasional softening of history. One of those softened spots is Sanford.

In the spring of 1947, Robinson was playing for the Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal. Spring training was held in Sanford. There were concerns about what the reaction would be, and in fact some people in Sanford who denied Robinson the opportunity to stay there during spring training; he ended up living in Daytona Beach. In the movie, this episode is represented less heatedly, with a black lawyer simply meeting the bus in Daytona and taking Robinson to arranged housing.

Some take current events as proving that things haven’t changed, in Sanford and in general. But the year that Jackie Robinson transformed baseball, he became one of the most popular people in America—people, not just baseball players. It’s still pretty striking to watch the real Jackie Robinson standing one-of-a-kind in a fake clubhouse filled with white actors playing white players. The scene has now been replaced by clubhouses where that is unthinkable, for performance alone, if not for higher reasons of fairness and humanity. There’s little time to be comforted by achievements when faced with evidence of continuing race issues, in Sanford and elsewhere. But it’s okay to take a moment to appreciate progress where you find it, and then move on to the next fight.

Levon Helm

Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko

Levon Helm is dead at the age of 71.

The Band was one of the greatest American musical groups of its era. Great as in musically few better, American as in of and about America, which is strange because all but one of the members was Canadian. That was Levon Helm.

Levon was from Arkansas, son of a cotton farmer. Along with Ronnie Hawkins, he was an original member of The Hawks, which evolved into The Band with the addition of Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. As much as the influences came from every which where, as much astonishing musicianship and creativity as each member constantly demonstrated, this was an American band, an Arkansas band.

That was the key to The Band’s second album, The Band (1969). If The Band, the group, is unlike any other, The Band, the album, is even more unlike. At a time when synthesizing genres and styles was becoming normal, The Band stood out, and still does. These are songs about some sort of 19th century American South, played as if The Band had brought all their electric instruments and modern sensibilities back and forth in a time machine. Impossible to classify because it was created by Canadian rockers reborn in Arkansas, except for the one member who was actually born there the first time. That was Levon Helm.

No Levon, no Band. It’s that simple.

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went na na na…

Dick Clark’s Psych-Out

Dick Clark, who died this week, was a pop culture polymath and phenom. He became expert in so many aspects of emerging entertainment forms, inventing some, exploiting others, and almost everything he touched turned to gold.

Among the less celebrated but fascinating parts of his career are his work as an actor and a movie producer.

Acting was not Dick Clark’s strength, though he made more than a dozen appearances in movies and television, starting in 1960. In Because They’re Young (above), he plays a new high school teacher facing his own personal challenges. His struggles help him understand and get close to his troubled students—something the school administrations frowns upon. Clark followed this in 1961 with The Young Doctors, in which he plays one of them.

Movie production in the 1960s is where we see Clark’s instinct for exploiting pop culture. He produced three movies in 1968, and stars in one of them. In Killers Three he plays a North Carolina backwoods criminal who rips off some bootleggers, and ends up as a killer on the lam (most notably, Merle Haggard plays a sheriff, and composed his classic Mama Tried for the film). Savage Seven was a typical biker gang movie. But the crowning achievement of Clark’s career as movie producer is the hippie epic Psych-Out.

Critics and fans argue about whether Roger Corman-produced The Trip (1967) or Dick Clark-produced Psych-Out is the best of the psychedelic period movies. Both films share cast members, including Susan Strasberg and Bruce Dern; The Trip also has Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, while Psych-Out has Jack Nicholson.

There is no contest. Dick Clark produced the great dramatized on-location non-documentary about the last days of love in San Francisco. The plot is ridiculous, and ridiculously complex and fevered. It begins with Jenny (Strasberg), a deaf runaway, who comes to Haight Ashbury looking for her brother The Seeker (Dern), falls in love with musician Stoney (Nicholson), and ends up standing in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, her hearing miraculously restored.

We have a lot of major achievements to thank Dick Clark for, but just in case it gets missed, note that Psych-Out is surely one of those.

Permissions, Privacy and App Reviews

In the ongoing battle between your privacy and mobile app developers seeking—and getting—your permission to access personal information about you and your life, you are losing.

Millions of people reflexively agree to permissions that go far beyond the functional needs of particular apps. Sometimes it is because users don’t bother looking at permissions lists, or don’t understand all the permissions. Sometimes it is because the permissions requests are strategically placed: while Google Play includes a Permissions tab on its Web site, the mobile site doesn’t include Permissions at first screen, instead revealing it only after the Download button, when the Accept & download button appears. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it is because users just don’t care, particularly when apps are free, and it seems that permissions, however onerous, are simply the price to pay.

The reasons to care are the subject for another time. But there is a critical way which this may be rebalanced right now, if just a little bit.

Few reviews, from big media reviewers or from user comments, ever mention permissions as a factor in recommending or avoiding particular apps. For example, and by no means singling out any reviewer or app developer, this morning brought a glowing review from Lifehacker about the new version of the  Springpad app:

Use Springpad as Your New Personal Assistant: Get Organized, Save Money, and Have Fun Being Productive

There seems no doubt that Springpad, especially in this latest iteration, is a creative app in a very crowded field. But looking carefully at permissions, you find the list above.

This isn’t to suggest that these permissions are or are not directly related to the functionality of the app or to subsidiary commercial support from advertising and marketing opportunities. And there is no implication that anything malicious is intended.

The point is information. Whether or not it is to a developer’s advantage to have users pay close and continuing attention to app permissions, it is definitely to the users’ advantage to do that.

Which brings us to a modest—and a slightly less modest— proposal.

Responsible reviewers should at least begin including some form of permissions listing in their reviews. This could be as simple as a shorthand list, something like the ratings for movies and television:  PV (Pictures and Video), RC (Read Contacts), RP (Read Phone), and so on.

The next step would be for reviewers to evaluate permissions in two detailed ways. One is to write about how necessary (or unnecessary) the set of requested permissions is to the functionality of or commercial support for the app. The other is to compare similar apps relative to the intensity of permissions. It’s true to that no two apps are exactly alike, but if you try sometime, you just might find that very similar apps request vastly different access rights.

The issues of mobile privacy are not going away. As the user base grows, as the commercial stakes get higher, and as sophisticated data strategies evolve, things are going to get much more complicated. Having reviewers keep permissions front and center is a small but valuable step in keeping users aware and vigilant.

SketchBook MobileX App

Two points.

Of the hundreds of thousands of mobile apps, free and paid, so many fail because of poor usability, lack of sophistication and polish, or because they are asking for permission to take over your phone and life.

The second point is that the idea of being able to sketch on your mobile display seems questionable. On a tablet, fine, but drawing with even the tiniest finger on eight square inches of screen may be like swimming in your bathtub. And yet, when the visual urge strikes, it would be nice to be able to realize it, however small and unoptimally.

This brings us to imaging and design giant Autodesk. From its beginnings with Autocad, the gold standard for computer-aided design, it is now a billion dollar company engaged in all sorts of digital initiatives. While most are commercial, it has been dabbling in consumer software. A few years ago it acquired Pixlr, a photo-manipulation app superior to Instagram, but obviously less well known.

Autodesk has also developed a line of drawing software called SketchBook. They offer a paid mobile version for phones and tablets. But they also offer a very capable free version for both platforms. The phone version is SketchBook MobileX, If you think that the world’s leading computer aided design company would create a mobile app reflecting that expertise, you would be right. While the paid app ($1.99) offers expanded capabilities, the free version should be enough for most people with an artistic finger and an inspiration.

The balance between capability and elegant, intuitive user interface is exemplary. Some users quibble about the learning curve, and there is an included tour and help function (here is the PDF of the user’s guide). But mostly, a little attention and adventure are all you need. The UI itself is a piece of design brilliance, and may be some of the best use of tiny digital real estate ever.

The final commendation for this should-have app is that Autodesk has done what every developer—multi-billion dollar corporation or one-person shop—should do: request only those mobile permissions needed to run the app (in this case, just network communication and storage).