Bob Schwartz

Month: September, 2013

Why O.J. Matters

National Enquirer - O.J.

The National Enquirer has dropped an O Bomb:

Shocking bombshell evidence that proves OJ committed double homicide and  where he may have hidden the murder weapon REVEALED!

O.J. SIMPSON is shaken to the core because bombshell evidence that proves he murdered his ex-wife and her friend is hidden in his $500,000 Florida home – and it’s all about to be discovered because the house is headed for the auction block on Oct. 29.

The home has been in foreclosure, and the disgraced football star, now impris­oned in Nevada, is terrified that the new owner will discover the items – the knife used in the gruesome murders and the de­signer shoes that left bloody tracks around his former wife’s lifeless body.

Should anyone care? The families of the murder victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman might. O.J.’s own family might.

Nobody else should, but that doesn’t mean that O.J. doesn’t matter. His sensational and ridiculous 1995 murder trial is as culturally significant as any event of the generation—including Watergate and 9/11. Saying that does not invest it with any substantive importance, the kind that those and other profound events have. The O.J. trial is the birthplace of the modern media era, and practically everything that rational people don’t like about the current environment owes its origins to that.

Half of America watched some part of the trial. The “shocking” acquittal was by the end beside the point. The fact is that tens of millions of Americans, an unforgettable cast of characters (most of whom are now forgotten) and a mammoth of media conspired to make something colossal out of something not nearly as big. (Not entirely forgotten characters though: In an irony-defining development, the late Robert Kardashian was integrally involved in the events and helped defend O.J. In the spirit of making something out of nothing, Kardashian is now best known as the father of Kourtney, Khloe and Kim.)

We have never recovered from the O.J. trial. It represented an unprecedented gap in scale between actuality and the intensity of the coverage received and interest engendered. It was part, maybe the greatest part, of proportion going out the window. And now, no detail is too small or relatively unimportant, no story adequately covered, that more isn’t offered. Much more. Much much more, most of the time to the point of diminishing returns and dying brain cells. Too much is never enough.

And to think it call began with one man’s certain heartless brutality, and a missing weapon and pair of shoes that may now see the light of day.

Laptop Overheating and the State of the World

Laptop Overheating
Overheating is the single greatest source of problems with laptop computers. And before you run away from unwanted geek talk, be aware that it is also a lesson on the state of the world.

If you don’t know about overheating, that probably means that when things go wrong with your laptop, you leave it up to somebody else to make it better, maybe even having an IT department to take care of it, or you replace your laptops once a year, or you chalk up terrible performance and failure to bad luck, or you just throw the damn thing out.

Those of us working on our nth generation of laptops know better: they are frequently baking, and that can’t be good.

To understand overheating, we go back to the prehistoric days of computing, with cavemen searching for wall plugs. Before there were minicomputers or microcomputers (PCs), there was big iron. Giant rooms filled with big boxes, that compared to your smartphone had pretty tiny brains. But it was a wonder at the time. One of the upshots was that these big computers generated a lot of heat; processing is a hot business. So the rooms were equipped with powerful air conditioning to keep the machines cool and healthy.

As computers shrank, new solutions to heating were devised. They had to be. Even as microprocessors got smaller, the heat problems didn’t go away. The more powerful the processor, the hotter it got. Desktop computers solved this with space around the processors—the heat sink—and a fan to blow that heat out of the box. Desktops were usually placed in a space with some air around it, and for the most part (except, for example, with ultra-powerful gaming computers), this worked pretty well.

Laptops changed all this. The laptops didn’t offer much space around the processors. There was a fan, but the vent from it was frequently blocked by the way laptops were used and placed. The final compounding element was the development of very powerful laptop processors. If you had shown a 3rd generation Intel i7 processor to a computer engineer fifty years ago and told them the specs, when they picked themselves off the floor, the first thing they would say is “yeah, but I bet it gets plenty hot!” And they would be right.

This level of heat destroys components, especially processors themselves. An entire cooling pad industry has grown up around the problem, though that is far from a complete solution—even if you stick your pad in the freezer. When you search for suggestions on which laptops are the least likely to overheat, you find that the simple answer is: none of them.

(Funny personal anecdote about overheating—and all true. A very powerful laptop was showing increasing signs of overheating; besides getting blisteringly hot, crashes were more and more frequent, and cool down periods were getting less effective. One morning it simply refused to start up. Putting the whole laptop in the freezer was not an option. Fortunately, it was below freezing outdoors, where it was placed on the deck for an hour and then started there. The damaged components were soon replaced.)

So what, as promised, does this have to do with the state of the world? Technology—maybe progress in general—can take us down some very beneficial roads. But some chronic endemic problems come along for the ride. Our confidence that we can “solve anything” is misplaced. We can create situations with built-in disabilities that leave us helpless, just as we can build millions of genius laptops that can do anything but stay cool.

The Mad Dancers

The Mad Dancers
The Baal Shem Tov is the eighteenth-century founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism. Jews and non-Jews who know the modern versions of the movement often don’t know much about its beginnings. Some of those contemporary manifestations may seem distant from the original spirit.

We have no writings by the Baal Shem Tov, so we rely on the records of his disciples, and on legends and stories that have come down the years—and that still have a remarkable power to inspire. Their authenticity is not in their being a verbatim record of what was said and what happened. Instead, they are an unmistakable reflection of a unique spiritual figure from any age or faith.

The Baal Shem Tov believed in and lived the direct experience of God everywhere in everything. Study and conventional piety took second place, which made him unpopular with the establishment, and would still today. He thought we should be outdoors in the trees, not indoors at the desks. Living in a divine state of optimism, joy and wonder was the ideal. People who live that way, of course, are remarkably hard to control.

This story is taken from The Golden Mountain (1932) by Meyer Levin.

The Mad Dancers

Already the voices of opponents were raised against the Baal Shem’s teaching, for many
rabbis could not understand his ways. Some said of him that he dishonored the Sabbath with singing and freedom, some said that his ways and the ways of those who followed him and called themselves Chassidim were truly the ways of madmen.

One of the scholars asked of the Baal Shem, “What of the learned rabbis who call this teaching false?”

The Baal Shem Tov replied, “Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played upon their instruments, the guests danced to the music, and were merry, and the house was filled with joy. But a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping, and throwing about their arms. ‘See how they fling themselves about! ‘ he cried, ‘it is a house filled with madmen! ‘ For he could not hear the music to which they danced.”

Yom Kippur: Beyond the Self

Shofar - Chagall
No sin is so light that it may be overlooked; no sin is so heavy that it may not be repented.
Moses ibn Ezra

A person cannot find redemption until he sees the flaws in his soul, and tries to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be a person or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of his flaws is shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent which we see ourselves.
Martin Buber

Should we despair of our being unable to retain perfect purity? We should, if perfection were our goal. However, we are not obliged to be perfect once and for all, but only to rise again and again beyond the level of the self.
Abraham Joshua Heschel

Bear in mind that life is short, and that with every passing day you are nearer to the end of your life. Therefore, how can you waste your time on petty quarrels and discords? Restrain your anger, hold your temper in check, and enjoy peace with everyone.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Al Cheit (For Our Sins) is a central prayer of Yom Kippur. It is traditionally recited while beating our hearts for each item on the list.

It is a long list. Few will have committed all of them. Few have escaped committing any. It is just a list of examples. Your experience may vary, and there may be others you might add.

The tradition says that the Book of Life is open during the Ten Days of Awe. When the holy days end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the shofar sounds, the book closes and our lives will have been written for the next year. But the book is always open. This isn’t an inventory of recriminations. It is an opportunity to reflect and, if needed, to make amends. That is how, as Heschel says, “to rise again and again beyond the level of the self.” That is how we write the book.

Al Cheit
For Our Sins

For the sins we have committed through arrogance and selfishness:
For being obsessed with our own concerns,
For choosing rudeness over common courtesy,
For loving our egos.

For the sins we have committed by defrauding others:
For using people in pursuit of our ambitions,
For manipulating the love of others,
For gossiping.

For the sins we have committed through denial and deceit:
For creating theories to rationalize our behavior,
For faking emotions for our own benefit,
For using the sins of others to excuse our own,
For claiming that ends justify the means.

For the sins we have committed through greed and overindulgence:
For using force to maintain our power,
For poisoning our planet,
For remembering the price of things but forgetting their value.

For the sins we have committed through hardening our hearts:
For accepting poverty as inevitable,
For staying silent when we should speak out,
For resenting the young and ignoring the elderly,
For abandoning proper outrage.

For the sins we have committed through hypocrisy:
For condemning in our children the faults we tolerate in ourselves,
For condemning in our parents the faults we tolerate in ourselves,
For neglecting our promises.

For the sins we have committed by narrow-mindedness:
For passing judgment without knowledge,
For denying our baseless hatreds.

For the sins we have committed against You through sex and love:
For confusing love with lust,
For pursuing fleeting pleasure while disregarding lasting hurt,
For withholding affection to control the ones we love.

For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Yom Kippur: A Serious Day for a Serious Man

A Serious Man
This evening begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last of the ten Days of Awe that starts a new year. The mood is somber. It is the most serious day on the calendar, a day of fasting and reflection, a day to contemplate the actions and inactions of the year past, and to commit to a better year ahead.

Which is why it is a day to recommend a darkly comic movie.

A Serious Man (2009) from Joel and Ethan Coen has never been taken seriously enough (playlist of clips). It was nominated for two major Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but none of the cast members were invited to the festivities until the last week before the event. That is an ironic nod to the movie itself.

Scholars have spent papers—entire careers—explaining why Jews try to be funny and why so many succeed. One of the stock rationales is that Jews are an historically beleaguered people, and the humor is a natural response. Another related thought is that Jewish attempts to make sense of it all have come to nothing, and so absurdity is the only possible answer.

A Serious Man is grounded in those ideas and more. Larry Gopnick is a physics professor in the 1960s. In his academic life, he is up for tenure, a student is trying to bribe him, and even as he lectures on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, there is a sense that he really doesn’t understand uncertainty at all. Things are worse in his personal life, much worse. As his son prepares for bar mitzvah, Larry discovers that his wife is having an affair with his friend, his brother is caught in a gay bar, his dentist espouses weird mystical tooth theories, and there is a question whether Larry may have a serious health problem.

Larry looks for answers in faith, but the mysterious Rabbi Marshak, the older spiritual head of the congregation, is impossible to see. At the bar mitzvah. Larry’s son Danny, who at the start of the movie had his transistor radio taken away at Hebrew School, goes off to see this rabbi. He finds him in an inner sanctum, where Rabbi Marshak explains it all through the Jefferson Airplane and with a powerfully simple piece of advice:

Marshak is an old man staring at him from behind a bare desktop. His look, eyes magnified by thick glasses, is impossible to read.

Danny creeps to the chair facing the desk. He gingerly sits on the squeaking leather upholstery, self-conscious under Marshak’s stare.

Marshak’s slow, regular, phlegmy mouth-breathing is the only sound in the room. The two stare at each other.

Marshak smacks his lips a couple of times, wetting surfaces in preparation for speech.

Finally:

MARSHAK
When the truth is found. To be lies.

He pauses. He clears his throat.

. . . And all the hope. Within you dies.

Another beat. Danny waits. Marshak stares. He smacks his lips again. He thinks.

. . . Then what?

Danny doesn’t answer. It is unclear whether answer is expected. Quiet.

Marshak clears his throat with a loud and thorough hawking. The hawking abates. Marshak sniffs.

. . . Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma. . .somethin.
These are the members of the Airplane.

He nods a couple of times.

. . . Interesting.

He reaches up and slowly opens his desk drawer. He withdraws something. He lays it on the bare desk and pushes it across.

. . . Here.

It is Danny’s radio.

. . . Be a good boy.

The movie closes with a note taken straight from the Book of Job. A tornado approaches. Will it be the voice of God out of the whirlwind? Or will it just be one more inexplicable disaster, one more serious touch of uncertainty?

Who knows? Yom Kippur and every day, listen to Rabbi Marshak: Be a good girl or boy.

Are Presidential Comparisons Odious?

Lydgate - Horse, Sheep and Goose
Comparisons are odious.

This phrase, roughly meaning that comparing people and situations can be unhelpful and counterproductive, is centuries old. It is variously attributed, but as good a source as any seems to be medieval British writer John Lydgate. It comes from his poem The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep (1436–37).

(For those concerned that this blog just makes stuff up, be assured that scholarly authorities have been consulted. Maura Nolan’s John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture (2006) was not read in its 290-page entirety, but it was used. Consider this pertinent passage:

Lydgate’s debt to Gower in this passage is obvious; though he has clearly read both Isidore and Higden’s accounts (and possibly Bromyard’s as well), he takes from the Confessio Amantis the notion that the vagaries of Fortune constitute the lesson of the exemplum, a lesson he later directly applies to present-day rulers, ‘‘wise gouernours of euery londe and region’’ (65, lines 25–26). Note: Lydgate makes a similar point in ‘‘The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,’’ dated 1436–37 by Pearsall ( John Lydgate (1371–1449), 51), telling his readers that ‘‘thees emperours . . . with ther victories & triumphes’’ (lines 638–39) are subject to Fortune and fall. The political message is explicit: ‘‘Beth war, ye pryncis, your suggettis to despise’’ (line 643). See MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems of John Lydgate, part 2, 539–66)

(Please feel free to show off to your friends and colleagues who wonder if your liberal arts degree, if you have one, is worth anything. Knowing that “In the fifteenth century Lydgate was the most famous poet in England, filling commissions for the court, the aristocracy, and the guilds. He wrote for an elite London readership that was historically very small, but that saw itself as dominating the cultural life of the nation” should impress them.)

About Presidents and odious comparisons: In the many crises of his presidency, including the most recent, President Obama has endured more comparisons than perhaps any other President. Just in the past few days, we have heard about Woodrow Wilson, George W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy, and in this very blog, Harry Truman.

Comparisons are natural for a few reasons. It is an office that has been held by a relatively small number of people over more than two centuries, and so how you do the job is defined as much by what others did as some sort of abstract definitions and expectations. There is also the flawed logic: the United States is the greatest country in the world, the President is the leader of the United States, therefore the President is the greatest leader in the world. At moments yes, but please check history, the sometimes impossibility of situations, and the nature of imperfection of all powerful humans. Finally, Obama is so unlikely, if not unlike any of his predecessors, that you almost want to jump to comparisons.

My best attempts to find out what the horse, sheep and goose were debating about six centuries ago, and what it has to do with comparisons, have come up empty. So I do have had to make this part up. If the debate was about which one is superior—whether a horse, sheep or goose is better—the answer is elusive and equivocal. This is in no way to cut the current President the slightest bit of slack, as readers of the blog already know. But the presidency is not a single job, even in more stable and simple times, which these are not. So compare away, but don’t let those comparisons obscure clear thinking and distract us with reveries (or lingering antipathies) about this leader or that. That would be odious, in a country and world with odium enough.

One Child Born

Newborn
And when I die
And when I’m gone
There’ll be one child born
And a world to carry on.
Laura Nyro, And When I Die

Had enough of just about everything in the news? Had enough of hearing and reading about Syria, including right here?

If you visit random.org, home of all sorts of randomness tools, you will discover a way to generate random places on earth. Find an online newspaper from one of the random places. Check the newspaper for a record of recent births.

There, for example, you will find the randomly selected Pueblo, Colorado Chieftain, with the important news that on September 8, a daughter, Boone, was born to Michelle and Andrew Bischoff.

Around 365,000 babies are born every day in the world. They are born into so many different circumstances of comfort and discomfort, ease and disease, bright and shaded prospects. But here they are, and if we are able to better the worst of those circumstances, here they will be after we are gone.

Maybe that’s not news. Maybe that’s the only news that matters.

Syria: So This Was the Plan All Along

The Sting
The Syria strategy may have looked improvised or haphazard. It turns out that all along it was a master plan. A sting. A long con. Aimed at having Assad turn over his chemical weapons.

It began with President Obama’s mention of a chemical weapons red line two years ago. Even after there was evidence that chemical weapons were being used a year ago, it was too soon to make a play. And then it was time.

Everybody knew their part. The President beat the limited and unbelievably small war drums. The international community and Congress demurred, feigning reluctance. Most of all, John Kerry’s penchant for overtalking was the most valuable tool. One loose remark after another, and then the trap was sprung. He mentioned the “impossible” possibility that Assad would turn over his chemical weapons in a week. The State Department would pretend that this offhanded remark was not administration policy. Assad and his Russian handler took the bait. Very soon—maybe not a week but soon—Syrian chemical weapons would be in the hands of the international community, ready to be destroyed.

Back in the real world, here is another possible behind the scenes scenario.

John Kerry continued to say stuff, lots of stuff. Asked if there was any way for Assad to avoid a strike, Kerry did indeed mention turning over the chemical weapons in a week. It was an accident.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are power hungry political survivors, one more venal and voracious than the other. One or both of them sensed an opening.

It was Putin who may have said: This chemical weapons business is bad for all of us. The world knows you are our client state, and while I don’t mind defending you most of the time, this isn’t in either of our best interests. You can do whatever you want to hold on to power by conventional means; we will continue to help. The chemical weapons can be our trump card and it is time to play it. Once we come to the table, we can keep this negotiation going for months. As long as there is the appearance or the slightest possibility of progress, there will be no military action. Meanwhile, you can continue to pursue your war with no interference. I get to look a little bit like a hero and statesman—I don’t expect miracles—and you get to look like someone who isn’t averse to being part of civilized humanity. We both win.

The American scenario is already unfolding. While the administration is cautious about this latest development, it does claim that whatever good comes out of it will be due to their willingness to respond militarily. For the moment, it is hard to say who is more relieved, the President or Congress. The President may avoid having his request for authorization turned down. In Congress, those who continued to sit on the fence may be gloating, as a vote may be delayed or never taken.

And John Kerry? With all due respect, when you are smart and articulate, if you keep talking long enough, something good is bound to happen.

John Kerry: A Teeny, Tiny, Unbelievably Small Strike

Cruise Missile
Secretary of State John Kerry says the strike against Syria would be “unbelievably small” (“teeny, tiny” is inferred).

The job of Secretary of State is unbelievably big. More than just the nation’s chief diplomat, the secretary is in the line of presidential succession, following the Vice President, Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate. Six American Presidents have served in the office, along with two of the most famous Chief Justices—John Jay and John Marshall—and an army of legendary figures, including Daniel Webster twice.

Throughout the Syria crisis so far, John Kerry has had some trouble when he speaks. His appearance before Congressional committees has been widely viewed as underwhelming. His comparing Assad to Hitler, talking about a “Munich moment,” was mostly ignored. And now he is trying to minimize attacking targets in Syria as “unbelievably small.” It isn’t clear that this is a diplomatic term of art. Hopefully, it is not a military term of art. If it is artful anywhere, it might find its place in a casual conversation between friends.

John Kerry has already been getting a pass from the media on past statements, no doubt out of respect for his no longer being a politician. So what he might have said as a Senator and presidential candidate may be out of bounds. Such as

“If you don’t believe…Saddam Hussein is a threat with nuclear weapons, then you shouldn’t vote for me.” February 11, 2003

The real dilemma is how to downplay the nature of the strike while maximizing its claimed ability to achieve either the stated aim to deter further chemical warfare or, as some would like it, to change the balance of power in the civil war. This is less like squaring the circle and more like rounding the tesseract (a four-dimensional cube).

Whatever the rhetorical trick that is being tried, it is not working. Or at least talking about a teeny, tiny, unbelievably small strike isn’t.

Syria Videos and the ASPCA

ASPCA Ad
Almost everyone knows the Sarah McLachlan television ad for the ASPCA, her haunting song Angel playing as background for heart-tugging scenes of cats and dogs. It is widely reviled and sometimes mocked: some viewers can’t lunge quickly enough for the remote. It is also one of the most successful fundraising ads ever, considered by some a game changer.

This weekend, supporters of a military strike against Syria are using a similar approach. Horrific videos of victims, especially children, in the throes of chemical warfare in Syria are now circulating.

Emotional rather than rational appeals have to be carefully calibrated. There may be a sense that the emotional appeal is a last resort, because your rational argument is weak or failing. Viewers may also feel unduly manipulated, even insulted, by the premise that they are too stupid or uncaring to get the point otherwise. Finally, disgust may take over, nearly making further appreciation of whatever good arguments there are impossible to hear.

The ASPCA ad worked not because people were entirely guiltily coerced into giving. Those who did manage to stay and were not turned off had an aha moment: you know, I thought about it some more, and I get the point. Animals are mistreated and homeless, something I care about, and I can help.

This is where the Syria horror show falls down. Even when those who aren’t disgusted to the point of numbness think about it, they have trouble getting the point because, even if there is or once was a focused point in Syria, it keeps shifting, as do the rationales, as do the discussions of outcomes.

If you give to the ASPCA, there is reasonable certainty that your donation will go to programs reasonably designed to help mistreated and homeless animals. If you give your approval and support to an attack on Syria, what exactly are you getting for that donation?

Extreme emotional appeals are not necessarily illegitimate; in some cases, as with the Holocaust, they are necessary. But care is the keynote, knowing exactly what you are saying in support of what you are showing. Right now, the Syria videos are being shown in the context of a bunch of different explanations. The audience is left not only with uncertainty about where it all leads or should lead, but with a diminished regard for the presenter. These are serious times, and when the presenter is the President of the United States, none of us can afford that.