Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving, Chicago, 1858

Courtesy of the Chicago Magazine blog, this Thanksgiving article was published in the Chicago Tribune on November 25, 1858.

It's quite the historical document, not only does it provide a window into what was on the minds of Chicagoans at the time, but it is also a manifesto of the values the newspaper; Protestant, anti-immigrant (especially Irish Catholic), pro-temperance, and staunchly Republican, the latter of which it remains to this day.

Also of note is the image included on the post which depicts the raising of a block of buildings and the sidewalk of Lake Street between Clark and LaSalle in 1860. George Pullman (later of sleeping car fame), was one of the chief engineers responsible for devising the system of raising the buildings of Chicago, made necessary by the terrible drainage of the natural city. In the case of this particular block, it took six hundred men synchronously turning six thousand jackscrews to do the job. It took five days to raise the entire block four feet eight inches. Business was not disrupted in any way as the work progressed.

Imagine a major public works project today which could boast that.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Maggie Daley

I had a sinking feeling in my heart last year, the moment Richard M. Daley announced he would not seek re-election for an unprecedented seventh term as mayor of Chicago. Some speculated that he lost interest in the job after the failed Olympic bid. Others thought at 68, he had enough of the pressure of the job, which intensified logarithmically during his last term. Still others believed he just wanted to serve long enough to break his father's record of days served in office, which he did on December 26th of last year.

I didn't buy any of that. Rich Daley loved being mayor and I think he would have gladly gone to his grave, dying with his boots on while still in office, just as his father did, if he could have. No my sinking feeling was that Mayor Daley was leaving office because he knew his wife was dying. Sadly last night, Thanksgiving night, Maggie Daley passed away at 68, after a long battle with cancer.

Here is the Tribune's obituary of Mrs. Daley, poignantly written by Rick Kogan.
Here are some comments and remembrances from Chicago Magazine.

Maggie and Rich Daley, Columbus Day Parade, c. 1990

She left behind her husband, three surviving children, and the City of Chicago, which she helped make a better place. Every one of us in this city owes Mrs. Daley a tremendous debt of gratitude. May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Dallas, Texas...

That's how the most famous television news bulletin of all time began 48 years ago yesterday.

Great cities inspire impressions, mental images of themselves, the greater the city, the more diverse the impressions. For Dallas that image could be the neon sign of Pegasus, the symbol of Mobil Oil on top the Magnolia Petroleum Building. Or it might be the neighborhood of Deep Ellum, a cross between Harlem, Algiers and Bourbon Street. It could be the conspicuous consumption that was personified by the TV series named after the city, or Neiman Marcus whose flagship department store is on Elm Street in Downtown Dallas. It might be the quintessential American image of the cowboy, or the football team named for them, or more likely still, their cheerleaders. Or it could be the braggadocio that defines Dallas, a city whose aggressive pride of place makes Chicago look downright timid.

For me, Dallas will always be personified by the three words at the top of this post, and a place in the city that will forever be etched in the memory of anyone who was alive at the time, Dealey Plaza.

A few years ago, I read an article from a Look magazine my father saved that commemorated President Kennedy’s assassination. In the article, the author wondered how that event would affect the children around the country who witnessed it first hand on TV.

I am one of those children.

I was in kindergarten, not quite five years old that late November day in 1963. We had a TV in our classroom and it happened to be on at the time the reports started coming in from Dallas. There are indelible images from that morning, I remember my teacher frantically changing the channel to get more information, and the news becoming grimmer with each successive bulletin.

I don't remember the bulletin that finally announced the president was dead, maybe I've seen that clip of Walter Cronkite breaking down on camera so many times that I can't distinguish what I saw and when.

My grandmother met me at the school bus later that afternoon. I asked her who would be the next president. Like the rest of the country, our TV set was on non-stop for the rest of the weekend. I was transfixed. One particular image struck me, a man removing, as if ritually, the presidential seal from a podium. I learned many years later that this was the dais the president was headed to in Dallas to deliver the speech he would never give.

I visited Dallas my first and only time about fifteen years ago. It was during the midst of a cross country drive, bringing my parents home to Chicago from Phoenix. Since it was the middle of winter, it was certain that we would take the southern route, but I lobbied for an even more southern route, one that would take us within spitting distance of Mexico. Even though it would add several hundred miles to our trip, it would take us through some pretty interesting places. Mostly, I wanted to go to Dallas.

It was an amazing drive through southern New Mexico and Texas. We passed through the rough and tumble border city of El Paso, alongside rugged Big Bend National Park, then through some desolate landscape as we approached the oil fields near Odessa. Unlike many of my friends who are turned off by its conservative politics and religion, I've always been drawn to Texas and its people. Perhaps it was the folks in Beaumont who welcomed me so warmly into their homes when I photographed them as part of a documentary project. Or driving through the Panhandle with its wide open, wind swept landscape that seems to go on forever. Or maybe it was the girl who charmed my socks off thirty years ago in Houston. In any case, that drive which was completely tedious for my parents, was exhilarating for me.

Eventually we got to Dallas. I had no guidebook but it didn't matter, I recognized the place from the freeway. It looked just as I had remembered from the photographs, only much more intimate. It was raining and my parents humored me as I got out of the car to check it out. There it all was, the Book Depository, the pergola where Zapruder shot his famous film, the grassy knoll, the stockade fence, and the triple underpass.

I was alone, at least thought I was until I saw a solitary figure near the stockade fence. I turned my head away, then turned back and the figure was gone. To this day I have no better explanation other than I saw Lee Harvey Oswald's ghost. Well that's my story anyway and I'm sticking to it.

We all went up to the sixth floor of the Depository which is now a museum devoted to Kennedy and the assassination. You can look out the window from where the shots were fired. There are two x's on Elm street that mark the spots where Kennedy was hit. They are clearly visible from that window. I'm not a marksman but in my uneducated opinion, it didn't look like a terribly difficult shot, especially for a former Marine.

Afterwards my parents and I had lunch at a nearby steakhouse then went to check out Neiman Marcus for my mother. After that we went on our way. We had accomplished what we set out to do in Dallas.

To some it might seem creepy to seek out the site of a person's murder. Perhaps it is. I don't know why I was drawn to Dealey Plaza any more than why I'm drawn to John Kennedy and his assassination. All I know is the event that took place so long ago was a major milestone in my life, my transformation from babyhood to childhood.

On the morning of November 22nd, 1963, I knew what a president was, and who the president was, but in life, President Kennedy meant nothing to me. All would change that afternoon. It was not the first time I experienced death, but it was my first experience with sudden, violent death. John Fitzgerald Kennedy would from that day on become a revered figure in our household and of course for a while, all over America.

On that fateful day, the whole terrifying world opened up to me. Even though I didn't understand it at the time, the things that happened outside the boundaries of my own little world, all of a sudden mattered. Looking at my daughter who is the same age I was when JFK died, I realize how awfully young that is to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders.

No one knows what this country, or the world for that matter would be like had Kennedy lived. But I suspect that all of us died a little with him that day. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Funny money

My contrarian nature makes me suspicious of movements, grass roots and otherwise. The current Occupy Wall Street movement is no exception, my feeling is this; throughout history, the few that are rich have always controlled most of the wealth, our time is no different. As the wise Mr. Bernstein said in Citizen Kane: "It's not a trick to make a lot of money if all you want, is to make a lot of money." Since I haven't devoted my life to the pursuit of personal fortune, I don't have a problem with other people having more money than I do.

On the other hand, there's always been a part of me that believes that people who have more money than they know what to do with, ("stupid money" as a friend calls it), could do a little better sharing it with those who have little or none. I also make a distinction between people who earn a lot of money, justly being compensated for building, creating and doing things that benefit society, (including those who invest responsibly), from those who make a great deal of money in any way they see fit, regardless of the consequences. It's an age old battle, but the following is just one case where the hard work and struggle of generations of Americans, rich and otherwise is being undermined by a few who may be about to bring down a couple of national institutions, along with thousands of livelihoods.

An article in the October issue of Esquire explores the sorry state of retail giants Sears and Kmart. The sub title of the piece;  The End, Old Friendby investment writer Ken Kurson spells it out:

The only value left at Sears and Kmart is the bet against them.

Sears played an integral role in Chicago's history. Richard Sears moved his watch business to Chicago where he met his future partner Alvah C. Roebuck who would help diversify the operation. Together they created the mail order business that would bring a whole new world to Americans, especially rural Americans, via the catalog. Sears was a man with vision but little practical sense. It was his penchant for example, to advertise impossibly attractive deals in his catalog regardless of whether or not he was able to deliver them. He had to rely on his suppliers several times to save his skin. The stress of the business made Roebuck resign in 1895.

Sears needed an infusion of capital to keep the business going and he got it from one of those suppliers who came to his rescue. Julius Rosenwald from the discount clothing trade, as was his nature, seized upon a good opportunity and bought into the company in 1895. As vice president, Rosenwald organized and further diversified the business, turning a successful operation into a national icon. Rosenwald was instrumental in taking Sears Roebuck public in 1906, which resulted in a windfall for both him and the company. He assumed the presidency of the company in 1908 upon Richard Sears' retirement.

Julius Rosenwald was a remarkable man who today is more remembered for his philanthropic work than his formidable business acumen. Feeling personally uncomfortable with the inequity of his immense wealth compared to those who were in his employ, Mr. Rosenwald sought and received ethical direction from the teachings of Judaism. He was deeply moved by these words of a rabbi from a Yom Kippur address:

As long as the weakest in humanity has not his own, civilization is only a sham and a pretender, and as long as civilization is a pretender, Judaism must stand alone as a historic protest against injustice. 

Rosenwald took those words to heart and put his business skill, progressive ideals, much of his personal treasure, and most important of all, his time, to support initiatives that helped disadvantaged people learn the skills that would enable them to help themselves. He became associated with Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, as well as many efforts to establish schools for African American children in the South. He became a staunch supporter of racial justice and was equally swayed by Washington's ideological adversary, W.E.B. DuBois, who eulogized Rosenwald this way:

He was a great man. But he was no mere philanthropist. He was, rather, the subtle stinging critic of our racial democracy.

Rosenwald disliked perpetual foundations, seeing them as an attempt for their benefactors to achieve a kind of immortality. Instead he believed in giving his money away while he was alive. The foundation that bore his name was established in 1917 and lasted until its funds were purposely exhausted in 1948. In the words of Mr. Rosenwald:

I am opposed to the principle of storing up large sums of money for philanthropic uses centuries hence…. The generation which has contributed to the making of a millionaire should also be the one to profit by his generosity. 

Not only is his foundation a memory, but you won't find Rosenwald's name on the company he helped build, or many of the institutions he founded such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, simply because he wanted it that way. 

Kmart is another American institution whose company's origins date back almost as far as Sears'. Sebastian S. Kresge developed his business philosophy of hard work, thrift, and a disdain for credit, early in his career. As a clerk in a hardware store in Scranton, PA. he noticed that the store was falling behind on its bills because the customers were falling behind on their credit payments. He was diligent in keeping the place tidy, choosing to clean and polish up the store during his idle moments rather than just stand around. This attitude did not go unnoticed and his employer promoted him to the position of traveling salesman, where he remained for several years. One of his customers was Frank Woolworth of dime store fame. With $8,000 that he saved up while in that position, Kresge with a partner opened up his own five and ten cent store, first in Memphis, then another, later in Detroit. All transactions were cash only. In 1899 Kresge bought out his partner and by 1912, Kresge owned 85 dime stores under his name across the U.S. He took a close personal interest in his stores that extended to knowing all his managers by name, and hanging a picture of his mother in each store.

Kresge was notoriously stingy in providing for himself and his family. Despite being a millionaire many times over, he wore threadbare suits and refused to play golf because he lost too many balls. The penny-pinching did not however extend to his employees who were some of the first in his industry to receive paid sick leave and holidays, profit-sharing bonuses, and pensions. Nor did his parsimoniousness extend to charity. In 1924, Kresge with an initial gift of 1.6 million, established the Kresge Foundation; “to help  human progress through benefactions of whatever name or nature.” Unlike Julius Rosenwald's foundation, the Kresge Foundation is alive and well today. It ranks as the 28th richest charitable organization in the world with an endowment of 3.3 billion dollars. Kresge lived to see much of the work of his charity as he died in 1966 at the ripe old age of 99.

The Kresge Foundation casts a wide net to provide grant money to a wide variety of causes, but one specific area that is near and dear to the heart of the Foundation is the city of Detroit which was the home of the Kresge Corporation and continues to be the home of the Foundation. From its mission statement:

We aspire to change the city of Detroit’s trajectory to one of long-term economic opportunity that advances social equity, promotes cultural expression, and re-establishes our hometown as the center of a vibrant region.

The corporation no longer resides in the Motor City but Kresge's name continues to be prominently displayed in Downtown Detroit at the top of the building that was at one time its corporate headquarters. Built in 1914 the Kales Building was designed by Detroit's preeminent architect Albert Kahn. Like Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building in New York City, the Kales Building continues to be one of the most prominent buildings in its city's distinguished skyline. To think, both magnificent buildings were built out of nickels and dimes, lots and lots of them.

Times changed and nickels and dimes didn't go as far as they once did. Dime stores eventually became known as "variety stores" and they would hang around urban commercial districts for most of the twentieth century. It was not uncommon for Woolworth and Kresge stores to coexist next to one another in downtowns throughout much of America. By mid-century the Kresge company began to change direction recognizing that the future of retail meant following the customers and their automobiles, to the suburbs. The old fashioned urban Kresge variety stores became suburban Kmart discount centers. Kmart may not have been the first "big box" store but it was the quintessential one that set the tone for what was to follow. It was the paradigm for competitors such as Shopper's World, Community, Zayre, Venture, Walmart and Target. It survived all but the last two.

Here is a blog devoted entirely to Kmart.

Unlike K(resge)mart, Sears transformed itself many times over in the twentieth century. In 1906, the year the company went public, Richard Sears wrote: "We do comparatively very little business in cities, and we assume the cities are not at all our field - maybe they are not - but I think it is our duty to prove they are not ." Shortly after that, retail stores began to open up in small towns all over the country, cutting into the mail order business and the company knew it had to adapt. In 1925, Sears opened up its first retail store located on the campus of its enormous headquarters on the west side of Chicago. Their "brick and mortar" stores quickly became successful, during one period in the twenties, a new Sears store opened somewhere in America on an average of one every other day. New stores kept opening despite the Depression and only the outbreak of World War II could stop the growth, temporarily. Sears pioneered the concept of one stop shopping, you could drive to Sears, get your car serviced, have your eyes checked, purchase insurance, get some investment advice, and put your house on the market, while your family browsed through the store which sold pretty much anything they needed. Sears also was the first company to feature in house brands such as Kenmore appliances, Die Hard car batteries, and Craftsman tools, all of whom were renowned for their quality and reliability.

Sears came the closest of any retailer in the United States to being all things to all people. In small towns they had catalog stores, limited retail establishments where you could order what they couldn't stock. In the suburbs, Sears stores were the anchors of shopping malls, and in urban centers, they coexisted comfortably along with their competitors, the other great department stores. For half of my life, the Sears department store on State Street between Congress and Van Buren was the largest and most comprehensive of all the great stores on that street.

Then there was the catalog which itself was an institution. Quoting myself; at one time all across America the arrival of the Sears catalog was anticipated with as much gusto as birthdays and Christmas. For many years the company's slogan was; "Where America shops." That was not hyperbole, Sears was so strong and powerful in the early seventies, it built as its corporate headquarters what would be at the time, and for many years to come, the world's tallest building. If any other retailer could legitimately claim to be the icon of Middle America, I certainly can't think if it.

Things began to change in the late seventies and that old bugaboo reared its ugly head, Sears and especially Kmart, didn't go along with the times. Kmart during the last part of the last century was pleagued with extremely incompetent management. The company found itself caught in between its two chief rivals. On one side was Walmart with its efficient technologically driven distribution system, and its aggressively low overhead, high discount strategy. On the other side was Target which emphasized design while maintaining low prices. Kmart did not stray from its original template and as a result, could not compete with Walmart's prices, or Target's sense of style. Consequently it became irrelevant. 

Sears also was beginning to show its age as well, its image as the store your parents and grandparents shopped at probably didn't help. The company let its stores become tired looking and run down. Here is a picture of the great Sears store at the Six Corners shopping district of Chicago as it looks today:

Sears department store at Cicero and Irving Park Avenues, Chicago, 2011

The building was built during the Great Depression at a cost of one million dollars. 100,000 people attended its opening in 1938. From the photo above you can just barely detect hints of the building's beautiful Art Deco facade. Compare it the photograph below of the same building from around the time of its opening. Amazingly, they covered up the building's most distinctive feature, its great display window, the largest in Chicago. Long ago they removed the stunning neon sign, replacing it with pedestrian illuminated plastic signs featuring the corporate logo du jour.

Same Sears store, c. 1938

Of course the last forty years have been challenging for all retailers, many of whom have closed up shop entirely. In a way it's a small miracle that Sears and Kmart exist at all today. In 2002, Kmart filed for bankruptcy protection.

Enter hedge fund manager Edward Lampert. Lampert's strategy is to buy up old school, struggling retailers, shake up the management, then use their cash flow to buy up other retailers. In 2003, Lampert bought Kmart along with all its debt. Struggling as it was, Kmart was still taking in $30 billion per year in sales. In addition, Kmart also had plenty of real estate. Lampert closed several stores and sold off the property, further improving his cash flow.

In what seemed to the general public a case of the blind leading the blind, the Kmart Corporation under Lampert, bought Sears Roebuck. From an investors' standpoint, it was a brilliant move as Sears was even more real estate rich than Kmart, and as long as they could keep selling off property, the price of the stock kept going up. Lampert's group promised to revitalize both Sears and Kmart and did make a few token moves attempting to improve sales at Sears and Kmart, but little of the money earned from the sale of assets was reinvested into either store. Sales remained flat while stock in the combined companies gained in value. Given this it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the corporation that controls Sears and Kmart today is known as "Sears Holdings."

All was well with this arrangement, at least as far as stock value went, until the collapse of the real estate market six years ago. According to Ken Kurson's Esquire piece, since then the income of the company has decreased 84 percent. Sears for the first time has dropped to the tenth largest retailer and unlike every other retailer in its class, its profits have dropped consistently in that time. Kmart has dropped to a very distant fourth place among its big box competitors, Walmart, Target and Costco. Yet for the past six years, the price of the stock of Sears Holdings has remained fairly constant, quite an accomplishment for the current climate.

That is until now.

Kurson closes his Esquire piece with this: "The smart money didn't care if the retailers recovered. They liked the real estate."

This is not in any way illegal, it's business as usual in corporate America. But I think a good argument could be made about the lack of ethics in Lampert's actions.  He acquired two companies, pledging in good faith to the employees, the general public and the shareholders to do everything in his power to return them to profitability. It's clear I think to everyone like me who has visited a Sears or Kmart lately to find two businesses that appear to only be going through the motions. 

Then there's the issue of morality. Lampert's chief responsibility in his mind is to his clients, the stockholders, whose interest is the bottom line. As for Sears and Kmart, and the people who work there, well they're expendable in the eyes of the "smart money." Lampert's clients, who probably don't shop at Sears Holdings stores and definitely don't work in them, will just move on to other investment opportunities. Moving on will not be so easy for the folks whose livelihood depends on the stores.

One of the options to investors, as Kurson suggests, would be to short sell Sears Holdings stock, thereby profiting off the company's collapse. 

Eddie Lampert may not be a bad guy. In the end he may like his mentor Warren Buffet, decide to donate all of his billions to charity upon his death. He's still a relatively young man so it's not at all fair to compare his legacy in terms of charity and good works to that of Kresge's or Rosenwald's.

But he does have a substantial track record in business, so I do think it's fair to compare Lampert's business legacy up to this point, with the men who created Kmart and Sears. Richard Sears, Alvah Roebuck, Sebastian Kresge and Julius Rosenwald, at great financial risk to themselves, built companies out of nothing but their own hard work and inspiration. Their companies which have been around for well over 100 years, have provided gainful employment to countless people over that time and both Kresge and Rosenwald at least, expressed deep concern for the well being of their workers. The companies in their own right served as engines that helped drive the U.S. economy for many years, as well as provided a very good return to their investors. 

By buying and selling off the assets of Kmart and Sears, Lampert may very well have sealed the fate of the companies built by Sears, Roebuck, Kresge and Rosenwald. If that happens, he will be responsible for tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs, the loss of two American institutions, and the vacuum in the economy that their loss would entail. On the upside, he made himself and his clients richer.

As far as legacy goes, you can judge for yourself but in my book, it's not much of a contest. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

George Eastman

In my post about Steve Jobs and all the innovators, inventors and creative geniuses he is in company with, I forgot about poor old George Eastman.

Here is an article by Bob Greene that draws some interesting comparisons between Google and the company Eastman founded, Kodak.

Like Jobs, it was Eastman who brought his product, in his case cameras and photography, to everyday people. In the process he not only changed photography, which already had been around for a half century, but the world.

Today, photography like so many other fields of endeavor, is being transformed by the digital age. Greene makes an interesting point using traditional silver (film) based photography versus its digital based counterpart as a metaphor for our current society. In the old film era, (boy I'm really starting to feel old), you would have to wait to shoot an entire role of film, take it to the lab, then wait a few days more for the film to be processed. There was a sense of glorious anticipation in that time, wondering how the pictures would turn out. Opening that envelope with the prints, or a box with slides, would be akin to opening up a birthday present as, hoping for the best, you'd never know exactly what you'd get. All that's been lost with digital photography and its instant feedback, and gratification.

Unfortunately Kodak has not been very good at the instant gratification business. As everyone in the photography world, and the city of Rochester knows, the company has been floundering for quite some time, and may not survive. That would be a terrible shame.

Ironically, Google, the company that all but invented instant gratification, is no longer instant enough. Competition from Twitter, Facebook and others have forced Google to improve its search algorithm to make it even faster. *

Another lesson to all of us in changing times, either go with the flow or get off the boat.

* Which reminds me of an old Groucho Marx bit. While in a passionate embrace with a woman, she asks him to come closer to which he replies: "If I were any closer I'd be behind you."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In those days , they had time for everything...

...could be a comment heard today about life before the age of e-mail, the internet, and multitasking, back when people weren't teathered to their electronic devices and required to be accessible 24/7.

Isn't it ironic that the more time saving devices we have at our fingertips, the less time we seem to have at our disposal?

That sentiment is actually from a novel and later a classic movie, set at the turn of the last century. Its inspiration was not related to the computer obviously but the electric streetcar which replaced the horse drawn streetcar. Life it seems was a trifle slower in the pre-trolley days when the car pulled up to a house:
A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the "girl" what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. The previous passengers made little objection to such gallantry on the part of the car: they were wont to expect as much for themselves on like occasion. 
In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were too long; but when the trolley-car came, doing its mile in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody. Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried, the less time they had to spare!
People have been grumbling about the "good old days" probably since the invention of the wheel, if not before.

The "good old days." Chicago Loop c.1900

The words are taken from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. It was written in 1918 and chroicles the life of once the most prominent family of an unnamed Midwestern town.* It was the story that Orson Wells chose to be the setting for his second feature film. Like Wells' first film Citizen Kane, the chief protagonist of The Magnificent Ambersons, George Amberson Minafer is a flawed individual, arrogant with a supreme sense of entitlement, who is perfectly unwilling to change along with the world around him. His stubborn attitude that, for a person of his status it was more worthwhile - to be rather than to do, made him ill suited for life in a time when his prestigious family name had lost its relevance.

George's nemesis, Eugene Morgan, was the father of George's on again off again girlfriend Lucy, but also an admirer of his widowed mother Isabel. George eventually learns what we already know, not only was the admiration mutual, but it was in fact older than George himself, and were it not for a youthful indiscretion, Eugene may very well have ended up George's father, and Lucy... well you can figure out the rest. The stuff for great melodrama to be sure but the story takes place during the period of the most radical change in the history of this country, and that turbulent era serves as the story behind the story.

Although the film and novel center around George and the self centered existence that leads to his eventual "come-upance", the most compelling character is Eugene. He is a member of the new breed of do'ers rather than be'ers, an inventor and early advocate of the automobile. While he is a lifelong friend of the Ambersons, his world and theirs collide as the progress he is in part responsible for, crushes the old way of life that sustained the family and their significance. Yet George is the only Amberson who is threatened by Eugene; by his ambition, his newfangled horseless carriage, his self-made success, and mostly by his intrusion into George's family. One evening at dinner at the Ambersons', George's grandfather and uncle engage Eugene in conversation about the growth due to all the new roads and how it has been negatively effecting property values in their part of town. Eugene assures them that it will only get worse, that roads will soon be built all the way to the edge of town and the roads already in town will be widened to accommodate the automobile. At that point, George blurts out:
Automobiles are a useless nuisance. They'll never amount to anything but a nuisance. They had no business to be invented.
George's grandfather in the book, his uncle in the movie , admonishes him for his impertinence. Seemingly unfazed, Eugene in a remarkably insightful monologue says this:
I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization - that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure, But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of the automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles had no business to be invented.
Pretty glum words indeed, especially coming from one of the inventors of that infernal contraption.

Later in the story, George leaves for an extended trip to Europe. Upon his return five years later, he found that the familiar world he left behind, was gone forever. This is how Booth Tarkington describes George's town that had become a city upon his return:
He walked homeward slowly through what appeared to be the strange streets of a strange city... the streets were thunderous; a vast energy heaved under the universal coating of dinginess...All the people were soiled by the smoke-mist through which they hurried, under the heavy sky that hung close upon the new skyscrapers; and nearly all seemed harried by something impending.
That dinginess and harried nature of life in this new world that Tarkington describes, is associated by the new people in town, with well being and prosperity. As long as the factories and mills were belching out smoke, people were making money and all was well.

Perhaps this is the "spiritual alteration" that Eugene so prophetically alluded to in his words.

It's funny, if we were to take Eugene's cautionary statement and substitute the word computer for automobile, and digital age for gasoline engine, his comments would ring true in our day.

Being in the middle of the digital revolution, we still may not begin to understand the inward change it causes in our souls. One thing is certain, computers are here to stay and they have inexorably changed our lives.

For better and for worse.

After all, as Eugene said in the movie:
There aren't any old times. When times are gone, they're not old, they're dead. There aren't any times but new times.

* It is said that Booth Tarkington based the unnamed Midwestern town that is the setting for The Magnificent Ambersons on his home town, Woodruff Place, Indiana, which today is a neighborhood of Indianapolis. For his part, Wells may have been influenced by the town of his birth, Kenosha, Wisconsin. In reality though, the town could be Anywhere, USA.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Armistice Day

The late columnist Sydney J. Harris used to have a regular feature called: Things I learned while looking up something else. I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about computers, automobiles and other inventions that have drastically changed our lives. This made me think about thumbing through dictionaries and encyclopedias and how making those serendipitous discoveries is practically a thing of the past. Today you just google the word you're looking for, click the button and boom there's your answer, no need to trod through all that useless information, and no chance to discover something you weren't looking for in the first place.

Well that's not entirely true. Here's a photograph I stumbled across just now while searching for something else. It's perfectly appropriate for today, November 11, 2011, Veterans Day, or what used to be called; Armistice Day.

It was taken from the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago on the first Armistice Day, or more likely the following day, after the signing of the peace pact on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that ended World War I, 93 years ago today.

Armistice Day celebration on South Michigan

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (yet another obsolete expression), it never ceases to amaze me how recognizable this city is after all these years. With the exception of one building, the light fixtures, and of course the people and cars, everything in that photograph remains today.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A man of his time

The camera slowly climbs a wire fence upon which is mounted a "No Trespassing" sign. It is nighttime. We hear dark, foreboding music as a series of establishing shots show us a mansion and its grounds, deserted save for a few monkeys perched on the front gate. The enormous Gothic house looks sinister, it could belong to Doctor Frankenstein. As the camera approaches, we see light coming from one of the windows. The music builds in a crescendo, then suddenly stops and with it, the light is switched off. Cut to inside the room where we see the form of a person lying in bed. Dissolve to a snowstorm, then cut to a small house covered in snow. Camera pulls back to reveal this is the inside of a child's snow globe. Next we see the lips of a man as he says his dying word: "Rosebud." His hand drops the snow globe, it falls to the floor and shatters. In the reflection of the broken glass, we see a nurse enter the room. She checks for a pulse, then pulls the blanket over the lifeless body

Cut to newsreel: "NEWS ON THE MARCH". "Obituary: Xanadu's Landlord" opens the film within a film that chronicles the life and death of the great man, publisher of the syndicated Inquirer newspapers, Charles Foster Kane.

When the film short ends, the projector in the screening room is abruptly shut off and we realize this newsreel is still a work in progress. The producer wants more. "It tells us Charles Foster Kane is dead..." he tells the reporter, "I know he's dead, I read the Inquirer!" He says: "It isn't enough to tell us what a man did. You've got to tell us who he was." The producer and reporter settle on attempting to discover the meaning of his enigmatic last word, as perhaps that would be the key to unlock the secret of his life.

The rest of Citizen Kane features the reporter, Mr. Thompson, conducting interviews with friends, enemies and acquaintances of the deceased, deconstructing Charlie Kane's life in a series of flashbacks, all in the futile (for them) attempt to determine the true identity of Rosebud, and with that perhaps Kane himself.

This is pretty much how the last several weeks have played out as the media have been examining the life of the recently deceased Steve Jobs. Every day it seems, a new angle or twist on the life of the co-founder and CEO of Apple INC is revealed from a friend, enemy, former employee, or all three rolled into one, putting the pieces together of the life of a remarkable, complicated man.

Stevejobs Macworld2005

Honestly I was not prepared for the tremendous outpouring of sympathy and grief following Jobs' passing, the likes of which I haven't seen since the death of Princess Diana. My own take on the guy was that he invented a lot of really cool stuff. Now my cappuccino machine is also really cool, yet I don't know who invented it, nor do I particularly care. Media pundits who expressed similar faint praise of Jobs, have been raked over the coals by those who hold him in high esteem as the man who changed the world.

Jobs' esteem has only meteorically risen in the last month. Since his death Jobs has been placed well within the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of the greatest innovators, creators and inventors this world has ever known.

Here is a New York Times piece that favorably compares Jobs with Thomas Edison. Jobs indeed made his presence felt in a number of industries. In addition to personal computers, he played a significant role in the motion picture industry with his involvement in the animation company Pixar, in the music industry with the development of Apple's iTunes, and in the communications industry with the iPhone. The folks who compare Jobs with Edison use these points to make the comparison, but consider this:
  • Jobs' role in the motion picture industry was to financially back a film company. Thomas Edison was one of the inventors of the motion picture camera.
  • Jobs' contribution to the music industry involved changing the way music is distributed. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.
  • Thomas Edison did not, contrary to popular lore, invent the incandescent light bulb, he was just the first to make it work. In order to make his light bulbs work, he first had to come up with a system to generate, then supply electricity to homes and businesses. He did that too.
In other words, if you were to pull the plug on Thomas Edison's most important contributions to society, every one of Steve Jobs' contributions would become very slick looking paperweights.

Here's a Forbes piece that claims Jobs is Henry Ford and Walt Disney rolled into one.

Unlike Disney, Steve Jobs' involvement in Pixar, was for the most part financial, not creative. Nevertheless, like Disney he demonstrated vision, in advancing a relatively new art form, and commitment to putting out a quality product. Pixar proved once and for all that it's not simply enough to wow the audience with technical mastery, but that good storytelling and humanity are really the most important aspects of the art of film making. The technical side should always be the servant to creativity, and the work that Pixar has produced to date, without fail, has demonstrated this.

I think there is even a more plausible connection between Steve Jobs and Henry Ford. Neither man invented the product(s) that made them famous. But each in his own way brought those products to the general public. Henry Ford was instrumental in developing the system of mass production that made automobiles affordable for the middle class. Steve Jobs, at the forefront of the development of the personal computer, gave us with a little help from his friends, the Apple II, a powerful (for its time) machine that people of average means could afford, and the Macintosh with its Graphic User Interface (GUI), a machine that the average person actually wanted to use. The Mac and the software that runs it never became the top selling personal computer system on the market, but the user friendly GUI, (Mac's version was often imitated, never duplicated), became the industry standard for the vast majority of personal computers, and enabled anyone who desired, to become computer literate.

It is impossible to downplay the effect of the automobile and the computer on society, Here I'm quoting myself from an earlier post:

The industrial revolution that Ransom E. Olds, Henry Ford and others started in Detroit is largely responsible for creating the middle class as we know it in this country. It was one of the first times in history where factory workers would build something that they actually could afford to buy. The automobile brought a kind of freedom, previously enjoyed by only the upper strata of society, to just about everybody.

The computer also brought a new independence to the general public, but like the automobile, not without a cost.

In recent months, the Occupy Wall Street movement has brought the issue of income disparity to our attention. Here is a graph that documents the percent of wealth controlled by the richest ten percent in the nation between 1917 and 2008. As you can see, the percentage of wealth controlled by the elite began to shrink at the outset of the Great Depression, but really took a nose dive at the end of World War II in 1945. This post-war period could be called the golden age of the Middle Class in this country, when American Industry was the most powerful in the world, when unemployment was relatively low, and blue collar workers, especially in big industry, made a very decent living. Things began to change in the mid eighties when big industry, including the auto industry, began to shut down or move their operations overseas. During the economic boom of the nineties, blue collar jobs continued to evaporate at an alarming rate, while the rich just kept getting richer. This is reflected clearly in the graph.

There are many reasons for the decline of industrial jobs in this country, but certainly one enormous factor is the loss of jobs to the computer. The upswing in elite control of the wealth of this nation in the seventies and eighties corresponds directly to the start of the high tech revolution. With the explosion of the internet in the 1990s, came the longest and steadiest upward trend in income disparity in ninety years, peaking at the Dot com bust in 2000. A few years later, around the time Steve Jobs started turning Apple around with his iStuff innovations, the line trends up again.

It may not be a stretch to say that while the automobile had a strong role in creating the American Middle Class, the computer played an equally strong role in its downfall.

At this point, Steve Jobs advocates, at least those in the OWS movement, might want to get off the bus and leave their man as a mere bit player in the computer revolution, and give all the credit, or blame, to Bill Gates.

With all the revelations coming out about Jobs, it may not be far fetched to add another comparison, the fictional Charles Foster Kane.* True the two characters could not have been more different, Jobs' background was solidly middle class while Kane's family found itself literally on top of a gold mine. Kane's primary business interest, the Inquirer, was inherited while Jobs founded Apple Computer, along with his partner Steve Wozniak, in his parents' garage.

Yet there are parallels that are worth noting. Both men were separated from their birth parents. Neither earned a college degree. Jobs dropped out of a community college, and as for Kane; "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Switzerland... he was thrown out of a lot of colleges. "

Kane and Jobs both owed their success to the inspiration of their adopted fathers, but in diametrically opposite ways. Steve Jobs credited his father for teaching him how things work. Jobs said of his adoptive father:

I was very lucky. My father, Paul, was a pretty remarkable man."

Paul Jobs, a machinist at as laser manufacturing company gave a piece of his workbench over to his young son. Again here are Steve Jobs words:

...he gave me some of his smaller tools and showed me how to use a hammer and saw and how to build things. It really was very good for me. He spent a lot of time with me... teaching me how to build things, how to take things apart, put things back together. He showed me the rudiments of electronics and I got very interested in that.

In a moment of self reflection late in life, here is Charlie Kane in a conversation with his long time associate Mr. Bernstein and his adopted father/guardian/caretaker, the Wall Street mogul Walter P. Thatcher:

Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Don't you think you are?
Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
What would you like to have been?
Kane: Everything you hate.

Neither Kane nor Jobs were primarily driven by money.

Kane of course didn't need the money; here he is, again to Thatcher:

"You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... 60 years."

Jobs was clearly driven to make his mark on the world by creating products of the highest standards of design as well as technology. That was certainly the key to his success, but his monetary compensation was chicken feed compared to that of other moguls in his industry. Of course you could feed a lot of chickens with his 8.3 billion net worth. Anyway, as CEO of Apple INC, Jobs received a salary of one dollar per year. Obviously in the end, he didn't need the money either.

I think it would be fair to say that Apple's success is largely a victory of style over substance. True, Apple products are well made, high quality items. Most of all, they look great, whether its an iMac sitting on your desk, the super sleek MacBook Air on your lap, or the iPhone pressed against your ear. What's more, they're fun to use. Small wonder that most Apple users are fiercely devoted to Apple products.

There are other products out there that do the same or even better job, usually for less money. PCs for example are more flexible than Macs. When you buy an Apple product, you buy into Steve Jobs, Apple and all that entails. You are forced to play by Apple's rules, their limited, dedicated software, the lack of backwards compatibility, and a whole range of limitations that most Apple diehards don't care about or simply overlook.

Charles Foster Kane when questioned by his first wife what "people will think..." about his incessant attacks on the President of the United States, barked back: "What I tell them to think."

Steve Jobs essentially had the same relationship with his customers, and they listened to him with relish.

Both Kane and Jobs enjoyed being in the spotlight. Jobs was almost as good as marketing himself as he was his company. His trademark black mock turtleneck and blue jeans created a look that fit in well with Apple's casual, hip, up to date image. The problem with being hip and up to date is that what's hip and up to date today is stale and out of date tomorrow. This is not only true about fashion, but also products. Look at this picture of Steve Jobs taken in the eighties with early models of the Mac. What at the time was a man and a product who were both at the cutting edge of technology, today looks like a forlorn piece of useless junk being sold by a (sharp dressed) Maxwell Street huckster. Since they are practically obsolete from the moment you take them out of the box, computers don't age well. Unlike automobiles, there is not much of a market for vintage computers, unless as a prop for a period piece movie or play. My vintage 2002 iMac G4, the one that that I'm typing on now, in its day blew people away with its sleek, elegant design, but today looks tired and dated in not an entirely charming way.

Steve Jobs must have thought long and hard about his own legacy, he hand picked the man who wrote his authorized biography, Walter Isaacson. Isaacson, who like Jobs has CEO credentials in his resume, had previously written three biographies, one on Benjamin Franklin, another on Albert Einstein, and still another on Henry Kissenger. Jobs clearly saw his place in history residing next to at least two of those subjects.

As for me, well I'm not so sure. We're currently in the midst of the computer revolution and can't possibly gain correct perspective on it. Things sort themselves out over time, in one hundred years, those few who might be interested the end of the 20th Century, might remember Steve Jobs' name in connection with Apple's development of the Graphic User Interface. But I think there's little doubt that Bill Gates will be forever known as the father of the personal computer revolution.

Probably the biggest difference between Steve Jobs and the fictional Charles Foster Kane is that Kane died long after his relevance to society did. At the time of his death, he was already a relic of the past. Steve Jobs left this world while still on top. He was so important to his company that on the day he announced he would be stepping down from his post at Apple a few months ago, stocks in the company tanked. With the vacuum he has left, it's difficult to say what direction the company will take in the future as far as product development goes. Apple products today are highly valued and serve as upscale status symbols. In their day, so were Packards and Studebakers. People however still drive Fords. Walt Disney's name is still on his studio as Edison's is in the industry he helped found. Edison, Ford, Disney, and more than likely Bill Gates, are names for the ages. Steve Jobs was very much a man of his own time. He shook up the industry and the world with his terrificly cool and innovative products. But products come and go and when all the iPhones and iPads and iWhatevers end up in the recycling bin, something even cooler will come along to take their place. Without Jobs, it's quite possible that they will come from somewhere other than Apple.

None of this is intended to in any way disparage Steve Jobs, his life or all he accomplished. His was a charmed, brilliant, and creative life, one that will be missed. The reaction following his death says more about us than it does about him.

Some people say that everybody thinks their own generation invented sex. In other words, we're so wrapped up in our own little worlds, we forget that the folks who came before us experienced much the same things we do, including radical changes in their own world. I don't know if historical amnesia is unique to our own time, but it sure is rampant. Our world is indeed changing before our eyes. Yet I look at my grandmother's life and realize that the changes that have taken place in my own lifetime pale next to hers.

My grandmother could remember a time when there was no electricity in her home. When she was a child, the streetcar was the primary means of transportation about town if you didn't want to walk, or if you weren't rich and could afford a horse and buggy. If you wanted to get someplace far away you would need to hop aboard a train powered by a steam locomotive. She lived through Prohibition and the Great Depression. She lived thorough two world wars and several other wars, including a cold one. She lived through the assassination of two presidents. My grandmother experienced a time when there was a distinct possibility that the world might come suddenly and violently to an end. My grandmother could remember a time before there was radio in the home, and the time when the airplane had yet to be invented. Yet approaching the twilight of her life she saw a man walk on the moon, live on TV.

Did Steve Jobs change the world? Of course he did, just as millions of people did before and millions will after him. I think it's fair to say that he had a little bit of Edison in him, some Ford, Disney, Ben Franklin, with maybe even a little Einstein thrown in. I'd add a little Charlie Kane and a whole lot of P.T. Barnum to boot.

In the end he was the guy who made people fall in love with computers, including me. No small accomplishment. In my book I'd say that, all by itself, is pretty cool.


*The character of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Wells' Citizen Kane was based loosely on the life of the famed newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Even though the film took pains to differentiate the two as Hearst's name appears more than once in the movie, the similarities were not lost on WRH, who unlike Kane, was very much alive throughout 1940. Hearst did everything in his power to prevent the movie from being released, unsuccessfully of course.