Bob Schwartz

Month: June, 2013

In Advance of the Marriage Equality Decisions

MLK

It appears it may be only a few minutes before the Supreme Court releases its opinions in the marriage equality cases, California Proposition 8 and DOMA. As always, when it does happen, please read the opinions yourselves, and don’t just take anybody’s word for what they say or mean.

Meanwhile, some are bound to be disappointed because the decisions don’t go far enough, if they seem to go anywhere at all. So here is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. so familiar that we may have stopped actually hearing it. Listen and believe.

I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

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Celebrity Colony on the Moon

Melies - A Trip to the Moon
The success of Celebrity Colony on the Moon, a follow-up to NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, is guaranteed, based on a few premises:

Celebrities are the only people able to take advantage of private space travel.
Celebrities like to increase their celebrity and to do things other people can’t.
People want to see some celebrities sent far away—even to the moon.

In Celebrity Colony on the Moon, celebrities will demonstrate their knowledge of space and science, and their ability to settle a frontier colony. People will vote based on these and other factors—including the desire to see particular celebrities housed in a lunar outpost.

Donald Trump will of course host the show. While he will not be official commander of the mission, he will travel along with the colonists. The demand to see him 238,900 miles away will be overwhelming.

It is expected that NBC will soon begin considering which celebrities might be sent to the moon, in the name of exploration and ratings. Nominations are now open.

The Wait We Carry

The Wait We Carry
IAVA has been at the forefront of modern veterans advocacy—something desperately needed in the face of modern veterans benefit challenges (that is, much talk, little action).

The latest of these advocacy tools is dazzlingly innovative and personalizing. Here is the IAVA introduction:

This is the true face of the backlog. Introducing: The Wait We Carry.

By now, you’ve seen the big numbers behind the VA disability benefits backlog — over 565,000 vets waiting too long to get their claims resolved. But it’s not enough to talk about the numbers. We wondered: what are those vets going through? How is their wait for benefits affecting them and their families?

We asked vets to tell us about their experiences while waiting for their benefits. Their stories blew me away. I knew immediately that I wanted to do something that would give a voice to their struggle. Harnessing the power of technology, we have created a state-of-the-art data visualization tool to bring those stories to the world. It’s called The Wait We Carry.

The Wait We Carry is an interactive way for anybody to engage with the folks waiting for their benefits through their stories. There are several different search options so you can find a specific story, or you can simply take your time browsing through all of the stories. It drives our point home that there isn’t just one backlog experience. The weight of the wait is different for everybody.

The power of this tool is that it holds everybody accountable for the unacceptably long wait times. That’s why it’s crucial that this thing goes viral.

I’ve been working on this for months, and I am certain that The Wait We Carry is powerful enough to end the VA backlog for good. Make sure you check it out today — thewaitwecarry.org

Thanks,

Jacob Worrell
OIF Veteran, US Army 2004-2007
Product Strategy Associate
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)

Immigration: The Right People and the Wrong People

Pilgrims - Superman - Jews
Today brings another high-profile politician talking about immigration policy that lets “the right people” in (those who will create the next Google) and keeps “the wrong people” out (vaguely defined, but you’ll know them when you see them).

A reminder that except for continental natives, all Americans are immigrants. Even the Mayflower people. Even Superman, an undocumented immigrant who for years was hidden by a seemingly kind and gentle Midwestern couple—of outlaws; why weren’t Ma and Pa Kent ever put in jail?

In the lead up to World War II, America could not find a place for thousands of Jews fleeing Hitler. These were apparently the wrong people, or the right people at the wrong time, or something. Any country is apt to make mistakes; America is no exception. Still, it is ironic that some of the people who were turned away might have started hundreds of Googles, or the 1930s equivalents. As it is, we can only imagine.

We can’t let everybody in, or so we say, but we don’t really talk about why not and what that means. Instead, we have immigrants who are “the wrong people”, but we also have “the right people” to serve particular national or individual interests (see also involuntary immigrants who were cheaper and more versatile than machines).

Not everybody is Superman. Not everybody is a bunch of unwanted people who will become the cliché of founding stock (Pilgrims) or unwanted people who never make it to shore (Jews). Not everybody is an entrepreneur. Not everybody is willing to take the worst jobs that few others want. Immigrants are people, not “right” or “wrong”. We can and should have a conversation without forgetting that.

The STR-AV1010 Is Dead, Part 2

STR-AV1010 Connections
Why does the demise of an audio component deserve even one blog post, let alone two?

Because I came across the manual for the Sony STR-AV1010 receiver (circa 1989), which manual demonstrates that tech archaeology and history is as important as any other kind, maybe more. If you don’t believe that, just look at one of my favorite tech photos of all time.
Motorola Brick
Here is a man who is implicitly the most successful, stylish and cool guy holding up the most ridiculous object to his ear, as we pretend (then) it is not. And it sort of isn’t, because he was able to do something that was until then the stuff of sci-fi. And yet it sort of is ridiculous, because, well, look at the photo.

The soon to be buried receiver (actually, it won’t be buried, instead being put in a storage closet until future science can figure out how to cure it) was, as noted in the earlier post, a wonder more than twenty years ago. Look at some of the possible connections in the above chart:

Turntable
Tape deck
VCR
DAT (Digital Audio Tape, a Sony format officially terminated in 1995)

The point? Not one really. Maybe just that we are in the river, it flows, and we swim with it, against it, and sometimes just stand in it, if we can touch bottom and it doesn’t knock us over and we drown.

Familiar Faces and Founders Who Flee

George Zimmer
George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse, has been terminated from the company he grew—on the day of its annual meeting.

He moved (was kicked upstairs) from CEO to the position of executive chairman in 2011, and he still has a 3.5% stake in the company. It is thought that he may have had some trouble letting go of the reins—a not unusual circumstance—and his firing is the result of the attendant conflicts.

Everyone with a television knows the bearded Zimmer, and has heard him promise that when you wear one of their suits, “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.” And with 1,239 stores in the Men’s Wearhouse family, many have seen one of its outlets.

There are shareholders to please, a different situation than with Zimmer’s first store in Houston forty years ago. Times are changing for suits, ironically the very fact that Zimmer highlights in the latest series of ads. So if a fresh take was called for, both in the business and the marketing, he may have been seen as standing in the way.

You know George Zimmer. But do you know John Sculley?

Everybody who studies or practices big business does, but few others any more. In 1983, Steve Jobs recruited Sculley from Pepsico to run Apple. Differences almost immediately began cropping up about exactly how Apple was going to reach the next level on its way to make money (Sculley) or make money by changing the world (Jobs). It is reported that Sculley wanted to emphasize the Apple II until the Macintosh was powerful enough to fulfill its promise. No doubt where Jobs stood; just watch the historic Macintosh “1984” ad that ran during the Super Bowl that year. Jobs was demoted in 1985 and quickly left the company. Sculley would leave Apple in 1993, after a few successes but mostly under a cloud. Jobs would, of course, return to Apple—demonstrating in the long run just how potent a founder’s combination of entrepreneurship, vision and hard-nosed business can be. Today, practically everybody on the planet knows Steve Jobs.

It’s sometimes true that founders get it, but can’t take it to the next level. It’s also sometimes true that those outsiders who think they can take it to the next level can’t because they don’t get it.

George Zimmer didn’t sell the world’s most popular and powerful digital devices, actually changing the world. He sold men’s suits. Getting that isn’t so very tough, so he may be expendable. On the other hand, he has proven that over the course of four very tumultuous decades, he did know how to sell those suits.

Sometimes founders really can’t be trusted to evolve themselves or their offerings for a changing market and world. But the possibility that they can shouldn’t summarily be dismissed, and neither perhaps should they. George Zimmer may not be back. But we know who he is, to the benefit of Men’s Wearhouse.

Do founders sometimes know what they’re doing? George Zimmer? Steve Jobs? John who?

The Voice Has a Big Secret

Danielle Bradbery
The Voice has a big secret, but it has always been hiding in plain sight.

It is no secret that Danielle Bradbery won NBC’s singing competition, or that she should have or would. The overwhelming talent of this 16-year-old phenom—not just compared to her competition, but to professional singers twice her age—left the coaches/judges speechless, literally running out of superlatives. The outspoken Adam Levine on the night of the final performances essentially declared her the winner, before the public votes were cast. (On the results show, he backed off before the announcement, diplomatically offering the opinion that it was close and all the finalists were great.)

Will Danielle become a star or superstar? As with winning The Voice, she should, if there is any justice. But the music business is funny and anything but just. And yet, just like in farm fysics, cream rises, and Danielle is very heavy musical cream.

Now to that secret. The point of The Voice—in its system and even in its name—was to better itself over American Idol, which in the balance between talent and entertainment has weighed heavily towards crowd pleasing and audience building. The Voice was supposed to be, and mostly is, a little more about singing. About “the voice.”

In an instance of cleverness meeting mission, The Voice decided to begin its competition by having the coaches just listen to singers—chairs turned away, not looking. Though performing is about a raft of things, singing is about sound, even at a time when videos sit in parity with audio tracks.

And so, the secret. As much as it seems antithetical to the interests of NBC, its ratings and its sponsors, we are supposed to listen to The Voice, not watch it. We are supposed to be auditors, not viewers, not distracted by the form “the voice” takes, even though that form is obviously critical to live performance and videos. Maybe that works in somebody’s favor (not having the perfect looks or stage presence) or against it (cute does not necessarily sing as cute appears). That is the precise point of the turned around chairs and blind listening.

If you just listen to the live performances and close your eyes, you’ll see. (The studio performances of the same songs, extended, sweetened, smoothed out, are only partly representative).

People have quibbled—been downright defiant—about Danielle for a host of reasons (the internet is where reasons, sound and ridiculous, go to thrive). Maybe the biggest complaint is from those who just don’t like country music, or even claim to “hate” it, which is a legitimate preference. De gustibus non est disputandum—there is no disputing taste.

But for those non-country folk, please be open to the talent, current and historic. Here is Patsy Cline, one of the great pop singers ever, performing Crazy live. or the studio version of Sweet Dreams (more arrangement, a little chorus, but still an unadorned voice in need of no help). There are “the voices” in every genre, and if you would be willing to say “I hate opera, but she sure can sing” then you have to say the say the same about country, blues, R&B, musicals, whatever. In Patsy’s case, she was one of the first to land in the country-pop crossover space, based on the sheer appeal and power of her singing.

This isn’t meant, no way, no how, to compare Danielle to Patsy. Danielle may get close someday; time will tell, but that’s a nearly impossible standard. It’s just meant to remind us that beyond stage performance and videos, beyond human interest back stories, beyond genre fragmentation and hybrids, beyond all the chazerai—a great Yiddish word meaning the insubstantial junk that surrounds important things, there is the singing.

The Voice got that right by showing us how to just listen, chairs turned, eyes closed. The Voice voters got that right by listening to Danielle Bradbery and declaring her “the voice.” It’s no secret that she is.

Duran Adam in Turkey

Duran Adam
He is “duran adam”—the standing man. On Monday, Erdem Gunduz stood still for hours in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, staring at a public portrait of Kemal Ataturk, to protest the latest ban on demonstrations. Others joined him, as the image went national and then global. Police moved in: he was able to walk away and escape arrest, others didn’t.

As pointed out in a previous post, we should pay attention to Turkey because it is so special and so different than our preconceptions of what the world is and how it works. It is certainly a democracy today, but has not always been, and not quite what we think of as a democracy. It is certainly a Muslim country, but has not always been, and not quite what we think of as a Muslim country.

Whether Prime Minister Erdogan has been too long in office, whether he is taking Turkey in directions that defy many citizens and the ideals of Ataturk, whether he is truly a democrat, are things to be determined.

It is clear that he has crossed the line between firm response and heavy-handed overreach. It is clear that he is facing the quandary of all reformers, real or putative: your practice of reform is never the only game in town, and others have very different ideas. Most of all, Erdogan, like many leaders, seems to have no idea what he is dealing with, so he is under the impression that power is always the trump card.

He is half right. Power is always the trump card, but it is hard to know exactly which kind of power you are talking about or having to deal with. Is one man standing a power? What about a thousand people, or a million? History tells us that you can jail the thousands and even kill the millions. But as long as there are witnesses, might still is forced to co-exist with right, even when might wins.

The difference between witnessing and watching is a fine line. As this spreads, we will see if the media have the courage to cover a bunch of people just standing still. The media seem to like their reality shows with a little more action. Fortunately, the people’s media, the social media, may have more tolerance and a longer attention span. If you look long enough, standing still starts looking like moving forward, and that gets people really excited. It is how for millennia, from Christian origins through Gandhi through the civil right movement and on and on, nothing seemed to turn into something—because it was always something.

It was a standing man, that would not be moved.

The STR-AV1010 Is Dead

Sony STR-AV1010
Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue
Must have been a wonder when it was brand new
Talkin’ ’bout the splendour of the Hoover factory
I know that you’d agree if you had seen it too
It’s not a matter of life or death
What is, what is?
It doesn’t matter if I take another breath
Who cares? Who cares?
Elvis Costello, Hoover Factory

My audio receiver is dead. Well, not exactly dead. But without a right channel, it’s like a Reese’s Cup without the peanut butter. Chocolate is great, but only half the story.

Calling it a receiver is like calling a computer a calculator. The Sony STR-AV1010 is an “Audio/Video Control Center” with “Delayed Digital Surround”. It was the first quality audio component I bought, not inexpensive at the time. You can, if you wish, date it by the fact that it includes inputs for Phono (phonograph) and DAT (Digital Audio Tape).

Don’t let its age fool you. It has remained a powerful and capable piece of equipment. The most sophisticated devices have been added to its army, and it has controlled them like the pro it is.

That’s not to say I haven’t walked down the aisles of a store or browsed online for newer models and technology. There’s plenty out there that’s better suited to the state of the digital art. Sleeker styling and more advanced controls too. It’s not like I’m married to the equipment.

But just when I would get serious about trading up, I’d feel a tug of loyalty and nostalgia. It has sat in a place of tech honor in every house, and has been the master control for lots of great and wild times, along with some quiet and unforgettable ones. Most of all, it was working fine, pumping out awesome sound. Until today.

The sound is still awesome, at least on the left channel. On the right, not so much. Is that enough to displace it from the hub of home entertainment? Is the right half of the audio really that important?

It was a wonder when it was brand new. To me, it still is.

DNA and the Supreme Court Reading Program

DNA Court
Today’s Supreme Court decision on the patentability of genetic material, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.  is another example of just how informative and fun these opinions can be, as opposed to just hearing the media summaries. This leads to a suggestion for a Supreme Court Reading Program.

Earlier posts have covered the value—in knowledge and entertainment—of reading current Supreme Court opinions, even if you are not a lawyer. This also includes reading the briefs in support of various positions, from a range of people and organizations. When the marriage equality cases were argued back in March, a post was devoted to The Briefs on Marriage Equality.

In this complex and significant gene case, the unanimous opinion of the Court (Justice Scalia concurred in a very short comment of his own) is that particular genetic material that isolated and identified (here, the site of mutations leading to breast and ovarian cancer) is not patentable, but that a new synthesized version of that same material, with the deletion of some parts, is.

Among the things that makes the opinion so interesting is its cogent explanation of a technical area. Genetics isn’t easy, and the opinion is really an understandable primer on a difficult topic.

Even more interesting are the array of briefs submitted in the case. Along with companies that want to be able to hold lucrative proprietary interest in genes, there are scientists and health care advocates who want nothing to stand in the way of free and open development and application. (The Humane Genome Project, for example, from the first offered all the work on the mapping the human genome to humanity.) Lawyers and intellectual property activists also chimed in, with intense interest in how patent law is a mess in these hyper-advancing times, having fallen so far behind the realities of digital and bio innovation. Also interesting is a brief from the Southern Baptist Convention, which taken from their church perspective makes a pretty good argument that, to put it bluntly, you can’t patent God.

So when you hear mention of an interesting Supreme Court case, either when it is argued or decided, step away from the media reports, even when those are reliable from experts you trust. Instead, visit the Supreme Court site to read or download the opinion (the opinion is published on the site almost immediately). Then visit the American Bar Association site that collects all the amicus briefs for each case that is argued. There will be a lot of those briefs—more than a hundred in the case of marriage equality—so you will want to pick and choose. Sometimes the name of the person or organization submitting the brief will catch your interest, just by who or what they are.

That certainly applies to the gene patent case. There among the many briefs is one identified as Brief for James D. Watson, Ph.D. in Support of Neither Party. Just in case the name isn’t familiar, James Watson, Ph.D. is the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, for which he and Frances Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1963. Even if he wasn’t one of the most important scientists in history, his delightful and erudite 26-page brief would be worth reading. It’s just one more example of how a Supreme Court Reading Program can be an enlightening and surprising addition to whatever else you’re currently paying attention to.