This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Grasping the Details No One Else Did

            I’m an Apple Guy from way back. Bought my first Mac in 1992. Have the iPhone; have the iPad; this is being written on a MacBook. So I was definitely interested in the news about Steve Jobs stepping down.
            In the dozen or so stories I read the day after, no one mentioned my favorite Jobs anecdote, which had to do with the development of the iPhone.
            Never having made a phone before, Jobs brought a fresh perspective to it. Something that had always bugged him about phones was that when you went to check voicemail, you had to listen to all the messages in the order in which they arrived.
            He wanted to be able to see the voicemails that had accumulated and listen to them in the order he thought was most important, and perhaps not listen at all to some of them. He directed his engineers to come back with a design that would allow him to do that. In due time they reported back that AT&T, expected to be the wireless provider for the new phone, couldn’t do that with their voice mail system.
            Now at this point most executives would probably have done a cost-benefit calculation something like this: Do I really want to go to the mat with AT&T and try to get them to design a whole new voicemail system just to give my phone a feature that no phone has ever had and that we have no hard evidence the public really wants? Not worth it; let’s move on.
            Jobs, of course, told his people to go back to AT&T and insist they develop the voicemail capability he wanted his phone to have. The result is just one of the totally cool things about the iPhone, one of the many details that makes a difference.
            The great thing about this story is that Jobs trusted his instincts and went with them, rather than taking the safer, more sensible approach that just about anyone else would have. He’s repeatedly taken the risks that most business people instinctively try to avoid.
            In one of the Times articles, Jobs was quoted as saying that Apple did no market research for the iPhone or iPad because, “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” That may seem arrogant, but I can offer personal testimony to how it works in practice.
            Last year my wife’s cell phone was on its way out. We were already AT&T customers and had reached the point in the contract cycle where the phone could be replaced at the best possible price by extending the contract. I lobbied her to get an iPhone, but Linda demurred, saying it was too expensive and she really didn’t need something that complicated.
            This time, for once, I won the argument. Within a week of getting the phone, it was all she could talk about and she kept saying she didn’t know how she had ever lived without one. Yet any market researcher who had interviewed her a month earlier would have concluded the iPhone wouldn’t sell.
            Business visionaries, and Jobs certainly was that, have the ability to see beyond what exists to what people might want if only it were available. As a Silicon Valley banker told me a while back, one of two things happen to visionaries: They’re carried off the field in triumph by a cheering crowd, or they’re carried off on their shield, fatally gored. Regardless of how they leave, they’re not easily replaced.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Anybody Can (and Will) Make a Mistake

            If there’s one thing I got out of two decades of working for a daily newspaper, it was an appreciation of mistakes. If people didn’t make them, we would have had very little to write about, and we certainly made enough of our own.
            One of our own still makes me cringe after all these years. In my first year as editor, there was a hotly contested election, in which all seats on the city council were open. The week before the election, someone (we still don’t know who) came into the office with a political ad and paid for it with cash.
            The ad was racist, untruthful, unsigned, and in violation of nearly every rule we had for political or advocacy advertising. And in spite of all that, it was published in the newspaper.
            We had a policy in place to prevent such a thing from happening, and the policy had worked fine for 40 years. If someone brought in a political or advocacy ad where there was the remotest question of taste, accuracy, or controversy, the ad had to be brought to the editor for approval, rejection or modification. I never saw this one until the paper was off the presses and every copy was out the door to the subscribers and newsstands.
            Whoever brought the ad in did so just before five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, minutes before the deadline for the Monday paper. The only person in the ad department at the time was a student intern at the end of the first week on the job. Though he had probably been told of the rule, he was in a hurry to process the ad and apparently never bothered reading it.
            The ad went straight back to the composing room without being seen by a more experienced ad staffer, who would surely have flagged it. The typesetter apparently assumed it had been approved and didn’t say anything. The man who usually assembled the pages, and who surely would have questioned the ad, was off Monday when it came through. And the sub-editor who gave the page the final OK was in a hurry and only checked the news half of it, overlooking the ad altogether.
            In short, there were five different points along the way where the mistake could have been caught. The odds of all five failing were infinitesimal, yet it happened. It made me a lifelong believer in Murphy’s Law.
            As a result of that mess, we tightened our policy and decreed that henceforth every political or advocacy ad, no matter how innocuous, had to be approved by one of the three top editors before being sent for typesetting. It was more work for the ad department, more work for the editors, and still not foolproof, since if enough people blinked at the right time, an ad could still go through the system without proper authorization.
            That seems to be the way these things often happen. A policy that’s worked for years breaks down because someone was in a hurry or took their eye off something for a second, or because a highly improbable sequence of events happens just so. Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t understand how a mistake like that could happen,” I always think to myself that they just work someplace where it hasn’t happened yet. Any time you have a sequential process and multiple people involved in it, there will eventually be a mistake.
            There is a reason that I am self-employed now, with no one else working for me.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Politics in the Style of C.B. DeMille

            Politics is often compared to show business, which is an unwarranted slur on the good people of Hollywood and Broadway. That comparison came to mind, though, as I was thinking the other day about a legend of the motion picture industry who is rarely mentioned these days.
            That would be the late Cecil B. DeMille. If you’re under 50, that may not ring a bell, but DeMille was one of the best known Hollywood directors of the period from World War I to the late 1950s. He’s particularly remembered for his Biblical and historical epics, including Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments (silent and sound versions), King of Kings and Samson and Delilah.
            C.B., as he was known in the industry, loved those types of movies because they enabled him (and the mass audience that lapped them up) to have the cake and eat it too. By soberly claiming to be telling a historic (or better yet, religious) story, he could give the audience an hour and three quarters of sex, sin, violence and decadence, then make everything square with the censors by killing off the sinners in the last few minutes. It was humbug, but it worked, at the box office if not esthetically.
            These days it seems as if the Republican Party (and in particular, its members most devoted to the Tea Party) are engaging in a political style derived from DeMille. They’re titillating their core audience with large dollops of small-government, low-tax pornography and getting away with it because our system of government is postponing the appearance of the final reel, where the reckoning would inevitably occur.
            Because we don’t have a parliamentary system of government, like most of the rest of the world, there’s a lack of accountability that can be exploited by a canny politician, or even an entire chamber of government.
            Earlier this year, the House of Representatives voted, pretty much along party lines, to approve Congressman Paul Ryan’s plan to kill Medicare and replace it with private insurance vouchers. Some of the people who voted for it probably thought they were doing the right thing, but others were surely being more cynical.
            There had to be at least one Republican (and I’m guessing more than one), who looked at that bill and thought, “This is nuts. If it gets passed, the voters will throw us all out, and we’ll be the minority party for the next fifty years.”
            And then, looking at the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Democrat in the White House, that Congressman (or those Congresspersons) said, “What the hell. It isn’t going to pass, so I’ll vote yes and give the base a little red meat.”
            In a parliamentary system, where the legislature and the executive are in the same party, that sort of game-playing doesn’t work. When a law comes up for a vote, legislators have to decide whether it’s something they want to be held liable for if it passes. One way or another, there are consequences to the vote, and the vote must be cast with those consequences in mind. There are no freebies for grandstanding.
            When DeMille played his shell game with the audience, he was dealing with make-believe and knew how it was going to end. Giving the sinners their just desserts made for good cinema, anyway. The Tea Party Republicans are acting out a scenario that works only as long as there’s no resolution. Sooner or later, the voters are going to demand an ending, and at that point, no script doctor in Hollywood will be able to come up with a happy one.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Divorce, English and Italian Style

            In a Law and Order episode from about ten years ago, an affluent married woman had been murdered on the Upper West Side and the police have no clues. The detectives are talking about how to proceed, and Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), the older and more jaded of the two, says the husband should be the prime suspect.
            “Why the husband?” asks his partner. “What’s the motive?”
            To which Lenny replies, “They were married, weren’t they?”
            That scene popped into my mind after a couple of things I recently read. One was a delightful and sadly forgotten legal satire called Holy Deadlock by A.P. Herbert, published in England in 1934. The target of its ridicule was the English divorce laws, which were nonsensical even by the standard of the times and are utterly incomprehensible to a reader today.
            The only grounds for divorce back then were adultery, but matters were hardly that simple. Only one of the parties could be guilty of it for the divorce to be allowed; if both strayed, a principle of reciprocity kicked in and the marriage had to stand since, in the eyes of the law, there was no innocent victim.
            In the book, the wife has fallen in love with another man, but doesn’t want to be sued for divorce because he could lose his job if named in such a suit. The husband, being a gentleman, offers to fake an incident of adultery with a paid co-conspirator (think of The Gay Divorcee, filmed the same year with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).
            On the first try, he fails to convince the judge that adultery occurred, so he has to find another co-conspirator and try again. This time the divorce is granted, but during the waiting period for it to become final, someone rats out the wife and her boyfriend to the court. The matter is re-heard and the divorce decree is withdrawn.
            As the book ends, the wife and her lover are preparing to live in sin, and the husband has resigned himself to a life of married bachelorhood, but the law has upheld the sanctity of marriage.
            Which brings us to a Times article published earlier this week, reporting that thousands of Italians are going to Spain, England (what a difference 77 years makes) and France, but particularly Romania to get quick divorces.
            An Italian couple, it turns out, can fly to Romania, establish residency in one day, file for divorce, and have a final decree in hand in less than six months, legally recognized by Italy and every other European nation.
            To get an uncontested divorce in Italy takes five years, assuming everything goes well and there are no unanticipated consequences. If the divorce petition is contested, there is no telling how long it could take to get to a resolution, if, indeed, there ever is one. Like manufacturers seeking a lower-wage environment, discontented Italian spouses are taking advantage of globalization to pursue their interests as they see them.
            With the legalization of gay marriage in New York there’s been an uptick of sanctimonious bilge about the sacredness of marriage and the dangers of allowing same-sex couples to buy in. Hardly anyone talks about the reality of marriage. Like war, it’s easy to rush into and difficult to get out of with your honor intact, and the institution itself is a hopelessly unrealistic relic of an earlier age. What Churchill said of democracy is also true of marriage: it’s the worst system there is, except for all the others. Viewed objectively, it’s a miracle that, in today’s world, it works for anyone.
            By the way, in the spirit of disclosure, I’ve been happily married for 34 years. (If you want Linda’s side of the story, you’ll have to ask her.) Herbert, the author of Holy Deadlock, dedicated the book to “Mrs. A.P. Herbert, on the nineteenth anniversary of her wedding.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Underappreciated Virtues of Inflation

            When Linda and I bought our first house in April of 1978, I was a reporter at the newspaper making $255 a week. She was making about the same, working as a research biologist at the University of California. Against the advice of the real estate agents, who were pushing variable-rate loans, we opted for a fixed-rate 30-year mortgage at 8.75 percent, which was pretty good for those days. The monthly payment was $514.69, a number I will remember to my final breath.
            At the end of that year there was a revolution in Iran, the Shah fled the country, and worldwide oil prices surged skyward, triggering a couple of years of double-digit inflation. In economic circles, that was considered a wicked thing, but for us, it was a good deal.
            By the end of 1980 I was making $395 a week, up more than 50 percent from three years before. Some of that was from a promotion, but a lot of it was just step and cost-of-living increases. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but Linda’s pay also improved markedly. True, the cost of gas and groceries went up, but with the house payment staying put, we were well ahead of the game. For me, it was the first time in a decade of working that I felt that way.
            Nor were we alone. Real estate prices had jumped sharply in California in the late 1970s, and many people had extended themselves considerably to buy a house. With inflation and pay raises, they were able to make the payments with cheaper dollars and began to get whole again.
            Plenty of retirees benefited from inflation as well. President Nixon had gotten Congress to approve mandatory cost-of-living increases to Social Security in the early 1970s. That meant steadily fatter monthly checks, and if a retiree had paid off a mortgage, had a fixed-rate one, or was in a rent-stabilized situation, it was free money.
            And if said retiree had any significant savings, it got even better. Money-market funds were created that paid interest rates of 18 percent or more while investing conservatively and safely in government bonds.
            It wasn’t a sustainable situation, and plenty of people and businesses were hurt, to be sure, but by the time inflation came down in the mid 1980s, a lot of people were better off for the run-up, and the economic gain they registered had to have made some impact on the boom of the second half of that decade.
            Like debt, inflation has become one of those scare words thrown about willy-nilly in public debate. No one wants the sort of inflation that requires people to push wheelbarrows full of money to the grocery store, but a brief run of it from time to time can do some good.
            Thomas Jefferson believed that reasonably inflationary policies were a good thing because they helped the farmer and the merchant, who tended to be debtors by allowing them to reduce debt on more favorable terms. Hamilton opposed inflation because he felt it was harmful to creditors and big money. Which side are you on?
            With a government heavily (but manageably) in debt, and with many homeowners heavily (and unmanageably) in debt, maybe a little inflation (assuming wages more or less kept pace with it) would be a good thing for America right now. It’s been a quarter-century since we had any to speak of, and it certainly doesn’t appear that the economy is benefiting from a lack of it now. Why not give it a try?

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Alternative to Medicare: Ice Floes

            When anthropologists first began studying the Eskimos, so the story goes, they found out that when a member of the tribe became so old and infirm that he or she was a burden to the family, the elder was wrapped up, put on an ice floe, and pushed out to sea to die quietly and away from everyone’s sight.
            We don’t do that in America today — not yet, anyway — because we have Medicare and Medicaid to cover health care for our old people. But with the Republicans having voted unsuccessfully to end Medicare and replace it with private insurance vouchers, there’s a large and simple question that has to be asked here:
            What happens if Medicare no longer exists to guarantee basic medical care to Americans from the time of retirement to the time of death, regardless of what may happen to them in between?
            Whether Congress cuts back the scope of Medicare or passes the buck to private insurers, the reality is that some old and sick people — maybe your parents, your siblings or you — will reach a point where their medical coverage runs out. At that point, I see only three options:
            First, the coverage will be picked up by Medicaid or some other government program. This simply transfers the cost from one government agency to another, probably at greater expense owing to duplication of services.
            Second, the old person in question goes through every cent he or she has, then the children go through their resources until they file for bankruptcy, and if the old person is still alive at that point, the government takes over in some fashion.
            Or, third, we put them on ice floes and say sayonara.
            Call me sentimental, but I don’t see Americans embracing the third option. And call me a realist, but I don’t see the second option being viable for very long. Once voters realize their life’s work and savings have been placed in a lottery, where losing means utter ruin, they’ll start voting for people who promise to alleviate the risk. All of which leaves us back at option one or staying the course — in other words, about where we are now.
            For all the talk about curbing entitlements and living within our means, the reality will be that medical care for the elderly is what it is. There surely are ways of cutting costs and providing more effective health care, and those ought to be vigorously pursued, but it’s hard to imagine they’re going to cut the overall cost of senior health care by any dramatic amount. Ten percent, I suspect, would be a big win, given the age of the human machinery in question and how long it yet has to run.
            A century ago, when the life expectancy of an American male was 47, and when people got sick they generally got well or died in a couple of weeks, we didn’t need Medicare. Today the wealthiest one percent of the population and the healthiest two or three percent may never need government help with health care, but the rest of us will, and it’s only a question of when and how much.
 That’s a point most people instinctively grasp, either as a matter of self-interest or as a question of compassion and human dignity. And that’s why, in a wealthy and democratic society, the question will have to be, how do we make it happen?


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Helping Hands Make a Difference

            In the summer of 2008 our son Nick, then 17, went to Africa to help build a school. It made enough of an impression that next year he asked to be sent back as his high school graduation present.
            Don Stoll and Marianne Kent-Stoll, two teachers from Nick’s high school, had been on vacation in Africa a couple of years earlier when they decided to visit the remote village of Bacho in Tanzania. There they learned that the town’s aging school was in danger of being closed owing to health hazards.
            They promised the villagers that they would return to help build a new school, then later held a meeting after school at Kirby Prep in Santa Cruz to see if there would be any interest in supporting the project. There was. More than two dozen students and parents, along with a few community members, signed up to work two weeks in Bacho, providing the sweat equity for the new Ufani School, as it was called.
            Don and Marianne created a foundation named Karimu (Swahili for “generous”) to raise funds for school supplies. They held fund-raisers, including a dinner featuring African cuisine, and rounded up support in the community outside the school where they taught.
            Getting to Bacho, even in the jet age, is an ordeal. The group flew from San Francisco to Heathrow in London; then after a long layover, from Heathrow to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya; then from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. From there a long bus ride took them to Bacho, where the villagers greeted them with an elaborate, and quite long, ceremony.
            Building the school was hard work. With no machinery, everything had to be done by hand, often in a choking cloud of dust. One morning the crew came across, and removed, a venomous snake from the interior of the school building. The work crew subsisted largely on rice, beans, bananas and fried dough, with an occasional helping of local chicken.
            It took more than one summer, but the school was built and equipped, and is now in operation. Nick came back from that first trip more mature and aware, changed in several subtle and positive ways, and we figured that the cost of it was money well spent for that reason alone.
            But in a situation like that you always wonder, or at least I do, if it made any lasting difference to the people being helped. All too often, well-meaning volunteers put in a heroic effort on a project like that, then things go sideways after they leave.
            Last week we received word that this was happily not the case at Ufani School in Bacho, Tanzania. Before leaving on their fifth trip there, Don and Marianne sent out an e-mail reporting some good news.
            Primary school students at Ufani, and elsewhere in Tanzania, take high school entrance exams to see if they can proceed with their education. In a poor country with limited educational resources, this is a one-and-done process. If you don’t pass the first time, you don’t get another chance. This year the students at Ufani School had the fourth best success rate in the country on their exams, and many of them will be moving on with their education. It would appear that in this case the project transformed the beneficiaries as well as the participants.

            A Huffington Post article on the Ufani School project can be found at

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Last Good Republicans

            As a wool-gathering exercise the other day, I made up a list of politicians I didn’t always agree with but respected for their political attitude. Morals aside (a few of them got into trouble that way), they made the list because a) they showed a longstanding pragmatic concern for making government work or b) they at some point stood up against interest groups or party orthodoxy for something that was right:
            John Sherman Cooper, Nelson Rockefeller, Hugh Scott, Margaret Chase Smith, Frank Murphy, Donald Grunsky, Bruce McPherson, Thomas Kuchel, Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight, Charles Percy, Edward Brooke, Frank Murphy, Frank Lanterman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, William Scranton, Everett Dirksen, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Jacob Javits, Kenneth Keating, Charles Mc. Mathias, Robert Packwood, Mark Hatfield, Barry Goldwater.
            You may have noticed a trend here: They’re all Republicans, and none of them is holding office today.
            Seventeen of the names on that list are politicians who were prominent in the sixties and seventies and who were generally considered “moderate” Republicans. They were skeptical about the extent of what government could do, but ready to use the government when needed. Most of them supported bipartisan efforts on civil rights, the environment, and, to a lesser extent, social services.
            Two of them, Dirksen and Grunsky, were principals responsible for major and much-needed legislation. Dirksen pulled together enough Republican votes to override the Southern filibuster that had been blocking the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Grunsky, a generally conservative Republican from Watsonville, was a California State Senator who authored the legislation, subsequently approved by voters, to create the California Coastal Commission in 1972, establishing lasting protection for the state’s coastline.
            Only two of the above served since 2000. McPherson was a pro-environment, pro-education California Assembly member and State Senator fro Santa Cruz, who went on to become California’s Secretary of State. Schwarzenegger made the list for being pro-environment and pro-gay rights at a time when his party was in denial on the first issue and red-baiting on the second.
            Barry Goldwater is on the list for standing up for the right of gays to serve in the military (“You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight”) and for speaking out against the intolerance of some of the religious right. If he were still around, you’d have to wonder what he would be saying about the Tea Party movement today.
            For those who don’t remember or never heard of him, Frank Lanterman was a California Assembly member for more than a quarter of a century. He represented a conservative part of Southern California and typically ran up near-perfect voting scores as measured by conservative and business organizations and near-perfect negative scores from the groups I tend to agree with.
            But Lanterman was a strong supporter of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. He was the lead author of the bipartisan 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which established firmer guidelines for involuntary commitments under the 72-hour mental holds used by police. His name lives on in the Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center, serving people who suffer from developmental disabilities.
            Near the end of his career, when Gov. Jerry Brown was planning to close state mental hospitals and release many of their patients into the community, Lanterman was a voice in the wilderness against it. I’m a small-government conservative, he said, but there are some things only government can do, and taking care of the mentally ill is one of them. You might want to think of Lanterman the next time you see a disheveled and disoriented person in the street, swatting at imaginary flies while people walk by trying not to notice.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Slow Fade of Institutional Memory

            When I joined the staff of the newspaper in 1972, at the age of 22, its City Hall reporter was a man named Howard Sheerin. Sixty three years of age, chain smoking, and hard of hearing, he had been with the paper nearly 40 years. By that time he was counting out the days to his retirement a year and a half later and most weeks generated a volume of work that would have horrified the productivity experts of today.
            Yet he was in many ways a highly valuable member of the news staff. When a local politician from the 1940s or 50s was unexpectedly dispatched to his eternal reward, Howard could turn out a masterful obituary within an hour, capturing both the essence of the man and his precise contribution to the local scene.
            There was no such thing, in those days, as computer searches for information, but with Howard close at hand, it wasn’t necessary. Everyone from the editor to a cub reporter like myself could go to him with a question of fact or context and get a solid answer.
            He was, in short, that most valuable of assets — the institutional memory of the organization. His pay didn’t reflect his value, but the same could be said of all of us.
            Fortunate is the business that has such a person, and there are fewer that do with each passing year. The modern business environment makes it all but impossible. For starters, staying with a company for four decades requires loyalty in two directions. Howard worked for a small family newspaper group that believed in that kind of loyalty to its employees and got it from them in return. Just inside the front door was a wall of photographs of the “Quarter Century Club,” people who had been with the company that long. Even the terms of employment were generously counted; if you left, for a period, to serve in the military, that time counted toward the 25 years.
            Few businesses foster that kind of climate any more, and few employees look for it or value it. At just about any newspaper today, Howard would have been let go in a round of layoffs and replaced with a younger man or woman, innocent of the community but able to provide more copy at a fraction of the cost.
            Newspapers themselves, which might be considered the institutional memory of the community, are similarly in danger. It is still hard to challenge the incumbent paper, even with a free, exclusively online publication. By virtue of having been around so long and having covered not only public affairs but the individual passages of life (births, deaths, marriages) for so long, the existing newspaper has a standing that is hard to topple.
            It may prove to be the case that the business model for the newspaper can’t be sufficiently adjusted to changing times and that newspapers will go away, leaving communities without their institutional memory. It may be that the entire concept of institutional memory will vanish as people come to believe that a few keystrokes on a computer can provide any answer they need. I hope not.
            The newspaper I used to work for now has no editors or reporters who were there before the year 2000. If someone dies who was active in civic affairs in the 1970s and 80s, I am likely to get a phone call or e-mail asking for a quote or information. In a sense, I have become the newspaper’s institutional memory, and the irony is not lost on me.