Bob Schwartz

Month: February, 2013

The Pope and the H-Bomb

Richard Chaberlain in The Thorn Birds
From The Guardian

The Vatican has attacked reports in the Italian media linking Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation to the alleged discovery of a network of gay prelates as attempts to influence the cardinals in their choice of a new pontiff.

The Vatican secretariat of state said in a statement: “It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave … that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions.”

Whether or not that statement was written by Church lawyers (and even for lawyers, they serve the cause of language and reasoning with uncommon precision and conscientiousness), the denial is carefully constructed. The stories are described as one of three things: unverified, unverifiable or completely false. Note bene that two of these categories do not necessarily include or even imply falsity. Just verification. The reason for this care is that there is a top ten directive about false witness—which includes labeling as false that which is not.

Almost everyone willing to talk openly about the workings of the Church, and particularly its seminaries, will admit that there is a homosexual element of the enterprise. To say “everybody knows” is a ridiculous overstatement. But to say “nobody knows” or “not true” are equally ridiculous. Many know, some talk, most don’t.

The speculation that Pope Benedict resigned because the H-Bomb was about to drop will remain unverified and unverifiable, if the Vatican firewall holds, and it may. But whether you call it a code or a conspiracy of silence, speculation calls for and ultimately begs for verification.

Both law enforcement and the Church depend on the urge to confess. That urge is rooted in the complex and inchoate thing called conscience. In the case of the police, suspects are torn between punishment and a clean(er) heart. This is exactly the same tension for Catholics in the booth. But at this much higher level, the stakes and the choice to tell are much more momentous.

Plows. Guns.

Plow - Dorothea Lange
Above is one of the photos taken by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Services Administration during the Depression. Shot in 1937, it is captioned “The cotton sharecropper’s unit is one mule and the land he can cultivate with a one-horse plow. Greene County, Georgia.”

The plow is a thing that made America what it is. Whether pushed by hand, or pulled by an animal or an engine, it embodies the hard work that helps bring food from the earth to feed a family or a nation, especially during hard times.

The gun is also a thing that made America what it is. Unlike the plow, about which there is little controversy, guns have played an equivocal role, sometimes for good, sometimes not.

There is no constitutional amendment about plows.

There is no biblical passage about guns.

There is, as is often pointed out, a very famous biblical verse about plows. And about pruning hooks. And about their value relative to swords and spears.

Isaiah seems certain that plows and pruning hooks are good. He seems less enthusiastic about the downside of swords, spears and, presumably, guns.

Nothing absolute or definitive, no unconditional endorsement of pacifism or non-violence, unless maybe you are someone who takes the Bible seriously or even literally. Just a little something to think about.

They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Isaiah 2:4

When Brands Are Like Packaged Bad Mortgages

Once upon a time, a home loan was a simple but powerful thing. It allowed people who could not afford a house get one and get on the path to full ownership. And it allowed financial institutions to have a concrete obligation that could be sold, the value of which was based on the house and on the ability and duty of the borrower to pay.

If the solid simplicity of that is not completely gone, we know that over the last few decades, culminating in a mighty disaster, very creative financial craftsman were able to turn this into something supposedly bigger and better, but something not rooted in anything other than itself. Once that became obvious, as with the naked emperor, all hell broke loose, and the economy collapsed

Every maker and marketer of goods and services should be students of this phenomenon. Brands, for example, are truly things, and things of value. So much value that we attach a measure to it—brand equity—and for some companies, it is their greatest asset.

The idea that brand, or marketing, or messaging, exists independent of some more basic thing is seductive but silly. In American politics, we are witnessing this debate on a grand scale. Is reliance on creating or refurbishing a brand, ignoring the unvarnished nature of the product you’re selling, a form of denial? Or is it an implicit acknowledgement that adapting products to the times, to demographics, and to competition is just really, really hard—and sometimes impossible.

This isn’t only, or primarily, about politics. It is about business, about companies who may have come to believe that marketing is all there is, and that ever more sophisticated approaches can leave the basic realities behind for fancier and more valuable derivatives. The sophisticated and fancy can be important, but it’s not all of it, or even most of it.

The smartest people in the room (they would say in the world) forgot that a mortgage was nothing more than a house and borrower. We all, sadly, paid the price for that arrogance and, let’s say it, stupidity. Products and services of all kinds are exactly the same. Businesses, no matter how big, no matter how branded, forget those basics at their peril.

Howard Finster on the Day after Washington’s Fake Birthday

Howard Finster - George Washington in Another World

This is about Howard Finster, “Man of Visions”, not strictly about George Washington. But Finster, America’s greatest modern folk/self-taught artist, loved Washington and frequently pictured him (above is Washington in Another World, where Finster believed he would meet the great man one day).

Finster also liked Abraham Lincoln, and some of the artist’s more than 10,000 works featured that former President.

Howard Finster - Abraham from a Penny

Knowing Finster’s biography and back story is interesting and helpful, but looking at his pictures (and there are plenty to be found online) is much more enlightening and uplifting. This is from Artnet:

Howard Finster (American, December 2, 1916–October 22, 2001) was a Modern Folk artist from Summerville, GA. He was one of 13 children raised on a farm, and he attended school only until the sixth grade. Finster’s interest in the gospel began at a Baptist revival when he was just 13 years old. A preacher at age 16, he wrote articles for the local newspaper while giving sermons in churches. In the late 1940s, Finster built his first garden park museum, featuring the exhibit The Inventions of Mankind.

The exhibit was intended to be a representation of all the inventions ever created, and it included a duck pond and a flock of pigeons. In 1961, Finster ran out of space and decided to purchase four additional acres of land in Pennville, GA. This is where he envisioned the Plant Farm Museum, a collection of Garden of Eden-like creations featuring attractions such as The Mirror House, Bible House, and the Folk Art Chapel. Scattered throughout were signs containing Bible verses, because Finster believed that “They stuck in people’s heads better that way.”

Finster did not learn how to paint in a university; instead he was self-taught, and most of his work was inspired by visions. He believed he was sent to Earth to spread the word of God, and he retired from preaching in 1965 to improve his Plant Farm Museum. This lasted until 1976, when he was inspired to paint only sacred art of religious inspiration that was intended to uplift and inspire. These images ranged from Pop icons to religious figures, such as his interpretation of John the Baptist. A year earlier, Finster was featured in Esquire magazine, and was eventually asked to create four paintings for the Library of Congress in 1977, one of which was titled He Could Not Be Hid.

Finster often created images on flat picture planes with Bible verses squeezed in. Each one also included a number because, under God’s direction, he felt he had to generate a total of 5,000 paintings. Finster finished this feat in 1985, but continued to paint until his death in 2001. By then, he had created over 10,000 works of art.

You can think real hard about how we celebrate Washington’s birthday on a day that isn’t his birthday, and how some people mistakenly call it President’s Day, and how we don’t celebrate Lincoln’s birthday at all, despite the fact that he might win an Oscar this year.

Save yourself the trouble. Immerse yourself in the visions of Howard Finster, and everything will make sense to you.


Phone, Wallet, Keys

It would take a million pages just to start talking about the differences between men and women. Here’s just one.

Many of us run through a checklist before leaving home for the day. Whether you are forgetful or just overloaded with thoughts, this is a good way to avoid inconveniences and annoyances.

The simplest checklist in these times is “phone, wallet, keys.” This is elegant and practical. Missing any one of these can be a problem, but the other two can help solve it. Missing all of them is a big problem, with a lot of downside, and nothing up.

In most cases, men have pockets, and they often use these pockets to carry things. And, not coincidentally, three primary things are phone, wallet, keys. The checklist doesn’t have to be mental. A quick self-pat-down does the trick. This can take literally a few seconds, and is minimally invasive.

Women may have pockets, but frequently they do not carry much in them. Many women carry some sort of handbag or shoulder bag for items such as…phone, wallet, keys, and more. They may use the same bag each day or day part, but they also may change bags for style or size.

This makes the morning checklist for women complicated. Even when care is taken to make sure that a bag includes the essential items, there is no true certainty until the contents of the bag is inspected. No pat down is available. And then, there are multiple bags, so at any moment, the phone may be one place, the wallet another, the keys another.

As with all the differences, we can’t over generalize. And we can’t fix—because there’s nothing to fix. We celebrate the way things are, even when—or especially when—that includes the occasional missing essential. As much fun as it might be to pat down your favorite woman, completely aware that her pockets are empty, you make do with a very short and sweet, “Got everything?” Which whether it works or not, does say it all.

Political Speeches As Mass Shout-Outs

Some political audiences still get fired up by pandering platitudes and principles, even if the words are not backed up by any substantive proposals, or by any proposals at all.

This is sometimes punctuated by the occasional mention of a target interest group, just to show that the politico is paying attention to them. Once again, this might not be attached to anything concrete, but it often does the trick.

It is time for this to be taken to the next level.

A really bold and innovative politician could skip the platitudes, principles and proposals. Instead, entire speeches could be built out of the names of places, organization and people. If this sounds too much like reading an atlas, almanac or phone book out loud, without context, that is precisely the idea.

Depending on the crowd, this would be a string of guaranteed cheer and applause phrases. Las Vegas. Wichita. National Rifle Association. Veterans of Foreign Wars. Latinos. Blacks. Women.

This is far from an uncreative exercise. In fact, it is a sort of minimalist poetry, idea and intention reduced to the smallest possible expression. Obviously, there are a few pitfalls, so care must be taken. Saying the word “Nazi” out of context can be trouble; saying it in relation to saying “Jews” may be more or less trouble, without the benefit of further explanation.

All in all, this would be an exciting and enlightening direction for our politics to take. We can stop wondering and fretting about speeches filled with air and little more. The pretense would be gone; speeches could once again be rooted in reality, or at least in one political reality. That reality, which lives alongside the genuine value of getting things done, is the value of getting elected or getting someone else defeated. And then there is the value, if just for a moment, of giving a little harmless recognition to folks who are waiting, maybe quixotically, for much more.

American Experience: Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley
Tech history is our history. As enlightening and fun as it is, it is also more complex than learning about cars and trains and planes, all of which we understand, or can learn to. But transistors, integrated circuits and, ultimately, microprocessors are harder to grasp.

But this is also human history, the intertia of brilliant people at rest and in motion. That’s why the background of these digital days is fascinating, and why the new PBS American Experience documentary Silicon Valley is so enthralling.

You know where Silicon Valley is, what it is, and may have been there. How that agricultural Santa Clara Valley became the center of the world is a story. But the real story is how Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andrew Grove—the godfathers of Intel—and their colleagues, predecessors and competitors changed the way the world worked technically, commercially and socially.

Silicon Valley is that story. It is inspiring, in the way that all risky ventures into the unknown are inspiring. It is also one of the rare worthy arguments for some sort of true American exceptionalism, since there is an inherent sense watching this—as politically incorrect as some may find it—that this is a quintessentially American story. This is what we did, this is what we do.

Silicon Valley is not to be missed.