Thursday, May 31, 2007

Knowledge Workers

Guess which TV show I'm referring to: though in the general category of "reality show", it has no violence, no hidden cameras, no alliances, no tribes or tests, and no romance. Most people on the show are elderly, and there is almost no "action", though people watch it in big numbers and have now for many years.
Give up? It's "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS, where people bring in things that have been kept in their households for decades without a clue as to their actual value. The variety of items is stunning, all the way from old photos and baseball memorabilia to obscure impressionist painters and Asian collectibles from the 1600s. One week it's carved whalebone, the next it's signed photos of Groucho Marx.
The engine that makes the show go, though, is the supply of antiques experts and appraisers who affix the values on the items. These guys (mostly guys) don't manufacture things, or even fix them, nor do they do much else beyond advising people how to preserve things or mend little flaws.
I have to tell you. I can't help admiring these folks. They are what economists call "knowledge workers", or, to use an older phrase, they are people who "live by their wits". They are almost all self-employed, and so report to no one and never have to sweat out a "job performance" review. Sure, they have a resume, but they don't count on it to actually make money. They don't carry tools, but are instead noticeable by their flamboyant outfits and hairstyles. You could drop them in parachutes into any city of decent size, and they would do just fine.
It's pretty obvious what gives them the edge on everyone else. It's knowledge. If you know all there is to know about a given market, then you set the prices and reap the rewards, even if the market is a tiny one like collectible Zippo lighters or German whirligig toys. Knowing what's a bargain and what's a bust can be tricky, but it's not cheating anyone, and ultimately adds a little to peoples' happiness. Just observe the faces of the folks on the show who find out that Grandma's old sewing machine is worth a couple grand. They may not sell it, but they can leave feeling better about themselves and Grandma. And if they do sell it, it's the expert that put the transaction in motion.
They can even save people from being ripped off. I can recall one person who brought in a letter bearing the signature of baseball icon Lou Gehrig. The expert, though, was not only familiar with Gehrig's signature, but with fake Gehrig signatures many times done innocently by people who didn't want to trouble Lou after his ALS kept him from signing and who never dreamed that there would one day be an actual value on his signature. In this case, the expert narrowed the options to one person as the forger - Gehrig's wife, who never collected a dime for this "little white lie".
That kind of knowledge, I submit, is power, even if used on a small scale.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Go Right!

You might think that even in our complex times that there are some things we would all agree on. Torture, for instance. We can't control what other people do about torturing prisoners, but WE should stay away from it, right?
Well, evidently it depends on who's asking and who's answering. If you're a Republican running for president, here's what you have to take into account: Job One is getting my party's nomination, and nothing else matters too much if that doesn't happen. The people who get me that nomination are NOT the American public, but a small slice of it, especially since my party has suffered some losses. Those people I depend on are, in fact, hard-core GOP folks who are now accustomed to some, shall we say, rough edges in the War on Terror or whatever we wish to call it. Subjecting some A-rabs to torture, especially if they know where the next bomb is (all this taking place in GITMO where it's done in secret) is WAY DOWN on the list of things those Primary voters worry about. Otherwise, they would already be Democrats. If I want that nomination, I need to be VERY sure that my answer on the torture question posed in one of these so-called "debates" shows me as TOUGH, RUTHLESS and IN CONTROL.
And that's pretty much what happened at just such a debate hosted by the FOX NEWS folks in South Carolina this month. Only John McCain, a man who knows a thing or two about torture, declined to endorse whatever they call torture these days, even though the question was set up to produce the toughest answers ever thought of. Romney made people forget any notion of Mormons being "soft" on anything by saying he wants GITMO to be twice the size it is now, as though he wanted to be first in line to handle the whips and electrodes.
So the process has a corrupting effect that can really not be avoided. For the candidates of both sides, success comes from money which comes from success and money on a smaller scale. If Romney were in my living room answering the same question, his answer might be completely different. Heck, about a century ago candidate Bush said that the US should have a "humble" foreign policy. Did he mean it? Not when it came time to decide whether or not there would be
torture. Of course he says the US doesn't do it, but you can make people scream in lots of languages.
Is this short enough, Allison?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

You Haven't Seen These, Either

"Jerry Falwell can go to Hell." - Jimmy Carter

I don't claim any special knowledge of the Reverend Falwell's post-mortal destination, but I think we have a right to be dubious about anyone who claims a cozy relationship with the Almighty, especially when that person gets fast and loose with the truth of things mortals can observe. It wouldn't surprise me if his first acquaintance on the Other Side was a pitchfork wielding dude who says, "Please allow me to introduce myself..."

About six months ago in this space I listed some older, not necessarily very famous movies that I have enjoyed. Here's a follow-up list, still old, still somewhat under appreciated and in different movie categories. The list is aimed at consumers who want something other than the usual "new releases", which as often as not simply make up the dreck of NEXT year. Some of these, I warn, would be difficult to find even in stores with LOTS of titles, but they're worth looking for.
The Grey Fox - Great story setup of an old stagecoach robber who is released from prison in the age of the steam train. Great scenery of the Canadian Rockies.
The Natural - OK, you've seen it, but the music alone is worth a repeat, and the DVD has an interesting interview all about baseball with Cal Ripken.
Forbidden Planet - A lot better than the dorky title. It proves my thesis that you always learn more about the decade a movie was made in than you do about the time that's depicted.
Eye of the Needle - If Germany had any supply of nasty spies like the one played by Donald Sutherland in this thriller, then our side was lucky to win.
The Boat/Das Boot - In either English or German you sure get the idea that U-Boat life was no cruise.
Hotel Rwanda - Saw this one more recently. A good man does his best under impossible circumstances.
The Family Man - It's like "It's a Wonderful Life" turned inside out. Which Nicholas Cage would we want to be?
Elmer Gantry - Burt Lancaster movies have to be on every list. This one's a sendup of the preaching biz.
Bingo Long's Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings - Most black actors you can recall from about 20 years ago. A can't miss baseball comedy without the vulgarity that would have been in it if it had been made later. Catch the Richard Pryor character figuring his batting average.
Radio Days - Not much of a story line, but my favorite Woody Allen movie based on his sympathy for the characters in an extended Jewish family. Good music, too.
What About Bob? - We know every line of this Bill Murray movie. Surprisingly pro-family.
The Man Who Would Be King - The Kipling story featuring Michael Caine and Sean Connery. A fun, not entirely serious adventure movie from the 70's.
Quiz Show - An eye-opening look back at the 50's and TV's infancy. I liked the suits.
Pinocchio - You've got to love all the characters in this Disney classic. Walt sure had lots on geniuses on his payroll.
The Black Stallion - One of the great G-rated movies ever. Ageless Mickey Rooney, a huge thoroughbred and some great scenes at the beach and the racetrack.
The Right Stuff - The 1980's look back at the late 1950's when the Space Age was getting launched.
Avalon - Takes a little patience to watch, but shows the American story from the standpoint of a single family of European Jews. Worth the time and (lack of) action.
That's enough for now. I won't do another one of these unless someone has something to say about the ones already mentioned. Hope your veggies are planted and that you've got time for your chosen outdoor sport.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

G'bye, Mr. H.

If you were looking for proof that the Republican candidates are locked into a "Gee, those were the days" frame of mind, you could find it at the first GOP presidential candidate debate, held last week at Reagan's old place, and not by accident. With Nancy looking on lovingly from her spot in the front row, the Gipper's name was invoked over a dozen times, with President Bush mentioned just once, and in a negative context. Romney has the "no gray hairs" look going for him in Reagan's honor. Next thing we should expect is either someone on horseback in Levis, or the return of the Reagan brown suit. Don't think no one's thinking about either one - making fashion statements is more fun than having to make statements about Iraq.

Is it terribly old fashioned to refer to one's "favorite author" these days? I fear that's the case, unless your favorite author is Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling. In any case, I don't think it's out of line to mention that my favorite non-fiction author, David Halberstam, died in an auto wreck recently, and that he was my favorite for what I think are pretty good reasons.
Halberstam came of age when a good many things were starting to happen in our society. His formal training came at Harvard, but his early assignments were on behalf of a southern newspaper just as the Civil Rights movement was starting to pick up steam. One clue to his later approach to journalism was his treatment by any number of southern police chiefs who assured him that all the local colored folks were happy here, and that any trouble could be blamed on those Communists and radicals from up North. Mr. H. was smart enough to dig a little deeper into the story, which made and still makes compelling reading as we learned how black Americans (with some help) freed themselves from a thicket of Jim Crow legislation designed to keep them 2nd class citizens forever.
What I liked about Halberstam was a willingness to tackle widely varying subjects. He would have been remembered if all he had written was "The Best and The Brightest", the story of institutional hubris as a cause for our sorry involvement in Vietnam. But his subjects ranged from sports (baseball, the NBA, and even a book about rowing), huge changes in the auto industry, American news media companies, a social history of our country in the 1950's, and reporting along the Woodward style of true life at the center of big decisions. He took pains to attach all his subjects to the larger environment, to show that things are almost never decided in a vacuum, something too often forgotten in thousands of badly-taught high school and college history classes.
But I need to also admit that I liked one thing that kept turning up in the Halberstam books. He had a way of helping the reader understand the people in his books by including little anecdotes which could reveal the person's entire thought process. Was it fair? Maybe not always, but Mr. H. seemed to remember that what makes history come to life isn't so much that Henry VIII had lots of wives, but what he may have said to friends when he was pretty sure he'd never be quoted. People always want to know "What's ____REALLY like? Where do you draw the line on gossip? I don't know, but I'm glad I read things from Mr. H. that helped me know, for instance, what Eisenhower thought about blacks, and why. Wasn't it odd that J. Edgar Hoover, a man with expertise in crime, could feel free to lecture audiences about family life, even though he was single? Bill Clinton isn't treated with too much respect, but neither was Hugh Hefner, Mickey Mantle, Dr. Richard Kinsey and any number of public figures, some of whom we depended upon as a nation to make GOOD decisions on BIG issues.
Others have and will come along in this tradition to help us see things as they are. Gosh knows we need them to draw away the layers of fog which sometimes obscure the truth. But I will certainly miss Halberstam, and treasure what he gave us.