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Whatever happened to risk-takers?

I love Disney like I love the Soviet Union. Mainly it’s because the company clawed its way to the top by taking advantage of obscure aspects of copyright law, and then the company bought enough Congressmen to close up the doors they used to get where they are today.

But I read something today about Disney that I found interesting.Ward Kimball was a high-up at Disney. He was one of Disney’s primary animators and had almost a son-father relationship with Disney himself. He wrote a memoir some years back (the link takes you to some excerpts), and it gives me some idea what’s wrong with Disney and, frankly, what’s wrong with us.

Some poignant sections:

Walter Lantz, who made Woody Woodpecker, never gave a damn about quality a day in his life. He always wanted the quick buck.

If you want to know the real secret of Walt’s success, it’s that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of.

It goes against our instincts to do anything like that today. Today, everything’s about the bottom line. If you can save half a cent, you do it. If it comes at the expense of quality, so be it.

He felt that if you put your heart into a project and if you were a perfectionist, people would automatically like it. They would appreciate the quality.

I was going to say I don’t think that’s true anymore, but maybe that’s just because I thought only of the computer industry when I read that. In the automotive industry, part of the reason Toyota is now the second largest carmaker in the world is because of its quality. Twenty years ago Toyota and Honda were two of the least imaginative companies in the industry (and frequently the butt of jokes) but the quality was there almost from the start. So maybe this does still work, provided you manage to not run out of money.

Artists are pretty touchy individuals; they aren’t brick layers. It takes very little to hurt their feelings. Walt was never quite aware of that.

Neither are most people. I guess that gives me more insight into myself than it does into the world, but I found it interesting.

Walt was a rugged individualist. He admired Henry Ford… Maybe Ford and Walt were the last of the great ones, the last of the great rugged individuals. Maybe that was why they were impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes.

Nah, there are plenty of rugged individualists. The problem is they don’t do well when they’re stuck under people with less talent than them. Billy Mitchell is a notorious example. Rugged individualists often aren’t appreciated until they’re gone. I don’t know if I have all of the attributes of one, but “impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes” fits me to a tee. I wish I had some insight in how to deal with that attribute.

Guys like L.B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn were despots. They were untouchables. You would have to speak to a guy who would speak to a guy who would speak to their secretaries in order to see them. Walt wasn’t like that. He mixed with everybody. You didn’t say Mr. Disney like you said Mr. Mayer or Mr. Warner. [I]f you called Jack Warner by his first name, he’d fire you. Walt didn’t want anybody to call him anything but Walt.

There are a lot more untouchables at the top today than there are approachables. I quickly tire of higher-ups who refuse to call me “Dave.” You’re not my mother! Why not just go all the way and make it “Mr. Farquhar” if that’s the way you’re going to be!

I read a story a while ago about Louis Marx. For much of the 20th century, Marx was the owner of the largest toy company in the world. Somehow he managed to figure out how to consistently produce cheap toys that didn’t break. And when they did break, he usually fixed them for free. Send the broken toy to the factory and they’d fix it for the price of postage, or bring it in person to the headquarters at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York City, and they’d fix it free if they could. Well, I read a story about someone who brought a toy in to be fixed. He had no idea where to go, but he saw a kind-looking old man, so he walked up to him and held up his broken toy. He smiled and asked the child to follow him. The child noticed that everyone treated this man with the utmost respect. He took him to an office where a repairman fixed toys. Well, a few years later this child saw a picture of Louis Marx and he believes the kind old man who helped him was Lou Marx himself.

[Walt Disney] was a man who loved nostalgia before it became fashionable. That’s why so many of his pictures were set in the harmless period of American history, the Gay Nineties or the early 1900’s – because that was when he was a kid.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that you’re the most honest and your work is the most appealing when it harkens back to your childhood. So I guess the money I spent back in 1998 learning how to un-grow up was a wise investment. Not that I needed Ward Kimball or Kurt Vonnegut to tell me that, of course…

He came from a pretty… poor family. He had four brothers and a sister. There wasn’t any extra money to spend… He loved having that soda fountain because as a kid, he couldn’t spend money for ice cream. His youth was scratching for pennies and nickels and tossing whatever he earned into the kitty at home.

I think you appreciate you have a lot more when you’ve had to struggle for a while. That definitely explains the difference between my Dad and his brother. I won’t elaborate on that any more other than to say I learned a little about how not to live by watching Dad, but I learned a lot more of what not to do by watching his sorry excuse for a brother.

Now the Disney operation is a corporation with many, many bosses and committees. The people who run the place don’t have any personal relationships with the creative people. The thing that made Walt great was that he was a creative himself and he recognized creativity in others.

Mega-success stories often begin with the person at the top being the prototype for the type of person the company needs to succeed. At the very least it makes the person at the top able to recognize the people who do the work.

Marx’s ultimate downfall was that he wouldn’t hire anyone too much like him, because he was afraid of someone usurping him. He didn’t get usurped, but without someone to replace him, his company died a very quick death. He was 76 when he finally retired, and he lived to see his company’s assets auctioned off at bankruptcy.

I suspect a second coming of Walt Disney probably wouldn’t last all that long at Disney now.

There’s no longer any innovation or excitement. The new regime just sits around trying to guess how Walt might have done it. That’s quicksand… So it’s boring. It’s a corporation where they play it safe. You copy yourself copying yourself. Walt would never stand for that. He never repeated himself.

If you have to guess how someone else would have done it, you’re much better off just walking up to someone else and asking, “How would you do it?” You’ll get better ideas that way.

He’d frighten everybody half to death by challenging them that way. But then you’d get with it, and new ideas would come. Walt kept everyone on pins and needles. Everybody getting [angry] at him was very healthy. See, you had a guy steering you all the time, and that made you work to capacity. It pulled the best out of you.

I guess I’m just really reflective right now. I don’t ever want to be out of work again, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I’m looking for. I know there has to be a better way to say it, but I think what I’m looking for is someone who takes risks and is usually right.

I don’t believe in rule by committees. I don’t think anything can be done well through group action. This is another thing that made Walt great, because all the decisions on a picture were checked by him, down to the last detail.

Agreed. What else do I need to say?

Lionel bankruptcy

It was all over the news when it happened. Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 on Nov 16, 2004. But a lot of the news stories got some critical details wrong. It’s not the first time a Lionel bankruptcy confused people.

Lionel has been bankrupt before, but the company has changed ownership numerous times so it’s not the same legal entity that went bankrupt in the 1930s and 1960s. There have also been numerous rumors about bankruptcy after 2004. These are usually dealers trying to create artificial demand to clear inventory.

Read More »Lionel bankruptcy

Myths about the 1904 World’s Fair

I just spent some time over at Wikipedia attempting to demolish the myths that the ice cream cone, hot dog, and hamburger were invented in St. Louis at the 1904 World’s Fair. Hey, one does lots of things when there’s a big pile of stuff needing to be done that one would rather neglect.
The ice cream cone was independently invented in England in the 1880s and New York City in 1896 (the NYC inventor even held a patent on it, dating from December 1903). Perhaps the stories about a vendor running out of bowls and grabbing a Syrian waffle-like pastry and wrapping it up to put ice cream in, and the story of an ice cream sandwich vendor watching someone take the top off an ice cream sandwich and wrap it into a cone, and about a baker imitating with bread the paper and metal cones used in France are all true. Maybe three or four St. Louisans did independently invent the ice cream cone. (I heard today that all myths are true.) But even if they did, they weren’t the first.

The first example of prior art on the hot dog dates back to 64 A.D. The first example of prior art on the hot dog bun dates back to New York City around 1860. A St. Louisan supposedly invented the hot dog bun in the early 1880s (the story goes that a vendor, selling red hots, would loan white gloves to his customers, who then all too often walked off with the gloves. So his brother-in-law, a baker, baked him long dinner rolls to put the red hots in). And in another example of prior art in St. Louis itself, by 1893, the eccentric Christian Frederick Wilhelm Von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis Browns, was selling hot dogs at Sportsman’s Park. (Whether his intent was to make his patrons thirsty and drink more beer, or to give them something else to keep them from thinking about the horrendous team he was putting on the field is open to speculation.)

The case for the hamburger on a bun is just as weak. But Wikipedia’s response times are down. Examples of prior art: 1885 in Wisconsin, 1885 in Hamburg, New York, and 1891 in Hamburg, Germany.

I don’t doubt that the 1904 World’s Fair made all three of these things much more popular. But it’s an awfully big stretch to say any of them were invented here.

An irreverent look at this day in history, April 3

In 1882, my fellow Missourian Jesse James was shot in the back of the head and killed by a man he’d recruited to help him rob a bank in Platte City. Rumors persist to this day that James faked his death, even though 1995 DNA analysis of the body buried in Kearney, Missouri under a headstone reading “Jesse James” proved 99.7% conclusive. A man named Frank Dalton died in Granbury, Texas at the age of 104 in 1951 and he claimed to his dying day that he was Jesse James. Dalton’s body was to be exhumed in 2000 for DNA analysis and the story was a media sensation that you might remember. You probably don’t remember the results, because a mismarked gravestone caused the body of a one-armed man who died in 1927 to be exhumed instead, and the body buried as “Jesse James, supposedly killed in 1882” has yet to be tested. Despite the 1995 tests, citizens of Gransbury and citizens of Kearney still argue over which of them has the real Jesse James.
In other news, Adolf Hitler, FDR, Abraham Lincoln and Elvis were last spotted playing cards together in Argentina.

In 1826, Boss Tweed was born. Tweed was the political boss of the Tammany Hall machine in New York City. Their motto: Vote early and often. Tweed’s downfall came when one of his own men felt he got shortchanged when the embezzled money was split up, so he ratted to the New York Times. Tweed was imprisoned twice, on criminal and then on civil charges. He escaped and fled to Spain in December 1875, only to be recognized (supposedly a series of famous political cartoons gave him away) and he was returned to New York, where he died in prison in 1878.

In 1783, Washington Irving was born. I’m sure you’ve read his Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow or seen at least one of the many movies or Scooby Doo episodes based on it.

In 1942 and 1944, singers Wayne Newton and Tony Orlando, respectively, were born. Branson, Missouri would never be the same.

Looking for stock video footage?

I’ve talked about archive.org before. I revisited it this evening. As usual, another hundred or so films have been added. A handful of selections from another library, owned by the University of South Carolina, have trickled in.
But most importantly, many of the films in the Prelinger collection, which currently numbers 1,255 films, now have descriptions and the ability to view with RealPlayer in streaming format. So if you need a clip showing New York City, you can do a search and view the films to see if the clip is suitable before you spend a lot of time downloading a monster MPEG-2 file.

And since the copyright on these films has long since lapsed (if ever it was copyrighted in the first place), you can use it.

Some of the films are interesting to watch in their own right. The film The Challenge of Ideas shows just how much we’ve changed in 40 years. Some of the changes are good–virtually all of the narrators held lit cigarettes in their right hand as they spoke.

But as I watched, I couldn’t help but think the ACLU would never permit this film to be made by the U.S. Government today. For one thing, it showed churches and used the now-controversial phrase “Nation under God.”

The film talked about winning to Cold War in people’s minds. But the film’s description of the Soviets sounds an awful lot like today’s United States. Meanwhile, our values infiltrated the former Soviet Union. So who really did win the Cold War?

There’s also a lot of footage that shows the flip-side of the fifties. I remember in my 20th Century U.S. History class in college, my professor drove home the thought that Happy Days was a myth–there was a darker side. The films in this archive certainly show that–the beginnings of the demolition of historic neighborhoods to build pre-fab buildings, drug addiction, oppression. And of course there was the ever-present threat of war. I don’t know that the Fabulous Fifties were actually any darker than the decades that followed it. But they don’t seem to have been much better.

This stuff almost makes me want to be a history teacher.

But I’ll probably just abuse it as stock footage instead. I don’t have to go back to school to do that.

Where are we now?

It’s September 11, and I’m mad.
I’m not mad at the government for not finding Osama Bin Laden. The government sent him running. He’s weaker today than he was a year ago. I can be patient about the day he finally gets sent to the universe’s highest court.

I’m not even certain that I’m mad at Bin Laden. One of my college professors said you can’t get mad at a dog for barking. That’s what dogs do. Can I get mad at a raving lunatic with money and a bunch of guns and no guts for brainwashing some of his henchmen and making them hijack some airplanes on suicide missions? Just as dogs bark, that’s what raving lunatics with money and a bunch of guns and no guts do.

But given the opportunity, I’d still shoot him. Nothing personal. It’s my duty to my country. Raving lunatics with money and a bunch of guns and no guts brainwash henchmen into hijacking planes and slamming them into buildings. Patriotic Americans protect their fellow countrymen against enemies of the state.

No, what I’m mad about is the headline I read this morning that said church activity is back down to its pre-9/11/01 levels.

Osama Bin Laden hit a really easy pop-up to Christianity. And we fumbled it, let it squirt out of our glove. And then we didn’t even bother to run after the ball afterward and catch him off guard.

“This is not what the beautiful religion of Islam is about,” some said after 9/11. Here’s what the beautiful religion of Islam is all about: Do a bunch of deeds. When you die, Allah might let you into heaven. There is no assurrance. No security. You live your life, doing deeds, hoping it’s going to be enough.

Christianity can be summed up in two verses:

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will never die, but have eternal life. –John 3:16

I write these words to you who have believed in Him so that you may know that you have eternal life. –1 John 5:13

It’s not about deeds because it’s not about you. Believe in Jesus Christ, then let Him work in you. Deeds follow. But the deeds don’t get you into heaven–the deeds are just confirmation that you’re going to heaven. You’re saved before you’ve done your first good deed. Remember the story of the crucifixion? The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. And Jesus said, “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.” How many good deeds do you think that thief did between the time he said that and the time he died? He didn’t exactly have the ability, did he?

Christianity offers all the beauty of Islam, and then some.

After Sept. 11, Rudy Giuliani invited speakers from all faiths to attend a community prayer event at Yankee Stadium. A number of Christian speakers showed up. None of them mentioned Jesus. I guess they didn’t want to offend anyone. But without Jesus, Christianity is just another religion. Why would anyone want to have anything to do with it? I wouldn’t.

Well, actually one of the speakers did mention Jesus. His name was Dr. David Benke, a Lutheran pastor from New York City who also serves as president of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Dr. Benke’s reward for doing the right thing–offering comfort and support to the grieving people around him who desperately needed it, and not just offering any comfort and support, but the very best comfort and support this world has ever had to offer in the form of the Gospel of Jesus Christ–was to be brought up on charges of unionism. Unionism is a fancy Christianese word that means watering down Christianity and making all religions look equal.

LCMS has been fighting amongst itself ever since. On one hand, you have evangelical-minded people like Dr. Benke and LCMS president Dr. Jerry Kieschnick who have dedicated their careers and their lives to reaching as many people as possible with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. On the other hand, you have so-called “Confessional” Lutherans who talk mostly about something called “doctrinal purity.”

“Doctrine” is Christianese that can be roughly translated into “what you believe.” Confessionals like to use a lot of Christianese language. I have no idea why. And to be honest, if I were to take what my evangelical-minded pastor believes, write it down, and put it in a hat along with what Confessionals like LCMS First Vice President Daniel Preus and LCMS Second Vice President Wallace Schultz believe, you and I wouldn’t know the difference.

Now, maybe evangelical-minded Lutherans are more lax about what they require someone to believe. If you’re right about John 3:16 and understand that what Jesus did is the only reason you can go to heaven (and for that matter, the only reason you have any value whatsoever), you’re going to heaven. And an evangelical-minded person is more interested in getting as many people as possible right about that point than about making sure a smaller number of people believe the right thing about everything.

Yes, we have different priorities.

But I don’t think confessional Lutheranism is about doctrinal purity. It’s more about control. These are the hymns you may sing. This is what your church service is going to look like on any given day. These are the topics you are going to preach about each Sunday for the next year.

Unfortunately, you cannot anticipate the needs of the people around you months and years in advance. Different people in different places at different times have different needs.

The greatest treasure of Lutheranism is not that great hymnal we have. You can tell because it doesn’t seem like anyone can agree which of our many hymnals is the great hymnal we have.

The greatest treasure of Lutheranism is the greatest treasure of Christianity: The teaching that God wanted to save you in order to spend eternity with you, so He did anything and everything it would take to make that happen, in the form of sending Jesus Christ to come show us how to live, then die for us and rise again. That resurrection, and the deeds we do once we start to believe in it, are our 100%, iron-clad, unshakable assurrance that we are going to heaven.

In Christianese, that’s salvation and grace.

After Sept. 11, that was the message the confused masses needed to hear. A few churches heard the call and ran with it. Others responded to it the way they respond to everything: With a confusing message only a committed, longtime Christian would understand.

But the committed, longtime Christian was the last person who needed that. Jesus did not come for the healthy.

One man dared to stand up and challenge the convention of being a doctor for the healthy. Dr. David Benke accepted the invitation and preached the gospel to all who would listen at Yankee Stadium. He is now standing trial in his denomination for that dastardly deed. LCMS has now been called the Taliban of American Christendom in the press. Is this what we want to be known for?

Our willingness to compromise the Gospel, our unwillingness to meet the needs of the unchurched, and our eagerness to throw bricks at one another are the reasons why Christianity in this country grew for a short while after Sept. 11, then dropped back to its previous levels. Meanwhile, Islam grew.

A large number of LCMS churches are doing special services today, in rememberance of the events of a year ago. Many of them promise to be beautiful services, with high liturgy and beautiful hymns. I won’t be going.

One LCMS church is hosting an inter-denominational prayer gathering, where large numbers of Christians with gather and, for a day, put their differences aside and pray for this country and for American Christendom.

There might be some non-believers there, wondering about what this Christianity thing is and what it means, and asking some really hard questions. I hope so, at least. I want to talk to them.

That church might be disciplined for allowing such an event to take place on its grounds. I might be disciplined for taking part in it.

If that happens, I’ll take comfort in 1 Peter 4:19, as I hope Dr. Benke and Dr. Kieschnick do:

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

Who was the most influential woman in your life?

My good friend Brad came to me with a question a couple of weeks ago: Who was the most influential woman in your life?
He wasn’t looking for my answer so much as he was looking for what I thought people’s answers would be. So I countered with a question: Married or single? He asked what difference that made. “Well, if you’re married, the right answer is your wife, whether it’s your mother or not,” I said. “And if you’re single, the right answer is your mother. Now the true answer could be something totally different.”

Brad laughed. I think he might have said I’ll be good at staying out of trouble with a wife someday, but I’m sure I’ll be very good at getting in trouble, or at least getting lots of dirty looks. Guys live for that.

Brad was looking to shoot another video together, with that as the theme. The pieces just didn’t come together this year so we had to shelve the project. But his question lingers on.

Who was the most influential woman in my life?

Certainly I learned more from my mom than anyone else. She taught me weird ways to remember how to spell tough words. Do you ever have trouble remembering how to spell “Wednesday?” It’s the day the Neses got married. wed-Nes-day. Got it? And how to remember the capital of Norway. Well, I knew Oslo was the capital of some Northern European country, but I couldn’t remember which. So she wrote “nOrway” on a slip of paper. I never lost the Oslo/Norway connection after that. (That’s probably not very impressive to my European readers, but Americans are notoriously bad at geography. I don’t know how many Americans know Norway is in Europe. Some Americans may not know what Europe is, for that matter.)

And yes, mom taught me how to tie my shoes and how to blow my nose and how to brush my teeth and lots of stuff like that. And when I didn’t understand girls (which was often… Who am I kidding? It is often) she was always there to listen.

But the question was who wasn’t that. It was: Who was the most influential woman in my life?

Well, there was this girl that I met right after college. I told her I loved her, she told me she loved me, she changed my life, and set me off in an unexpected and (mostly) better direction and…

AND she couldn’t hold a candle to my grandmother, my mom’s mom, so even though I was devastated at the time, in retrospect I’m really glad we broke up.

What can I say about Granny? She grew up in southern rural Missouri, in the Depression, one of about a dozen kids (my grandparents came from families of 12 and 13, and I can never keep straight which came from which, especially since both had siblings who didn’t live to adulthood). Now, she got in some trouble growing up, but I think that experience, along with having lived through the Depression, helped her learn how to do the right thing even when resources seemed limited. She moved to Kansas City during World War II and got a job at Pratt & Whitney, working on an assembly line making airplane engines. She married a Kansas Citian. On a truck driver’s salary, they managed to raise four kids.

I remember a lot of things about her. She always had time for her family. She never wanted anyone to make a big deal about anything she did. She really knew how to cook. She made the best quilts in the world. And before anyone starts complaining about her falling into female stereotypes, I’ll tell you this. She absolutely loved working in her yard, and one of the things that pained her the most was her deterriorating ability to take care of her yard as she got older. Besides, she built airplane engines! Have I ever done anything that manly? I’m doing well to change the spark plugs in my car.

But if I had to sum Granny’s life up in a sentence, I’d say this: When it came to doing more with less, she was one of the very best.

What am I known for? A book and a series of magazine articles about doing more with less.

So, who was the most influential woman in my life? I think it was Granny.

Granny died a little over six years ago. I miss her.

A lot.

I had a conversation with my mom a while back about my two grandmothers. Granny had nothing for most of her life. My other grandmother wasn’t like that. She was a successful doctor, a psychiatrist. She married a successful doctor. He was a general practitioner, and one of the best diagnosticians you’d ever see. I can say a lot about him, but I’ll say this and have my peace: His father spent a lot of time hanging out with tycoons, and must have learned a few things and passed them on to his son. The guy had money, but in a lot of ways he lived like my other grandmother, who had nothing. A good rule of thumb is that if you have money but live like you have none, you’ll end up with a lot more.

I’m talking a lot more about my dad’s father (he wasn’t a dad) than I am about his mother (she wasn’t a mom). Frankly I know more about him. I know she was brilliant. Yes, she was smarter than my mom’s mom. Granny didn’t always have all the answers. My other grandmother always had an answer. And it was usually right. It was also usually long. (I get that from somewhere.) I remember asking her once if Cooperstown, NY is close to New York City. It took her half an hour to answer that question.

But I never had much of a relationship with her. Neither did my dad. He’d talk about “my mother,” or “my father.” I heard him call his father “Dad” once. They were arguing. About me. As for her, well, I never heard him call her “Mom.”

I haven’t seen her or spoken with her since October 1990.

It’s hard for me to talk or write about this, because I don’t want to rag on my relatives. I always had a great deal of respect for them. I know what they were capable of, and I think that’s why I’m disappointed in them.

My dad grew up being told he’d be a failure all his life. He didn’t get good grades, and he was rebellious. I suspect a lot of that was because he had two absentee parents. But Dad was smart. It seems his biggest problem growing up was that he mostly used his great mind to figure out when he had to perform and when he could get by with slacking. He also couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to do with his life. He had the same gifts his father had, but he wanted to be as different from his father as possible, and that posed a dilemma for him. He once told me his father didn’t know what to do with him. But that’s OK. Dad was only two years younger than I am now when he finally figured out what to do with himself.

The decision was made that my dad’s younger brother would carry my grandfather’s torch after he died. I don’t know what role she played in the decision, but she stood behind it. My dad watched as his brother made mistakes and both his brother and his mother paid for them. My dad tried to help. He didn’t want his help. She didn’t want his help. Finally my dad gave up. Dad had made himself a success; in his own mind, he’d proven them wrong. I don’t think he was interested in proving them wrong in their minds; he just didn’t want to see them struggle. Loyalty runs in the family.

I asked my mom which of my grandmothers really had more? Her mom thought she struggled all her life, but she was always able to provide for herself and others. Always. Had she been able to see that, I think she’d still be alive today.

When Granny died, she left enough for her four kids to fight over. But they didn’t fight over it. That wasn’t how she raised them.

I know one of my duties is to provide for my relatives, and in that regard, to be perfectly honest, I always let my dad’s mom down. But I guess I always assumed since she never wanted my dad’s help when he was alive, why would she want mine? To my knowledge, she never attempted to contact me after he died, so I had no way of knowing any different.

Dad’s mom died yesterday. All I have on her living conditions is hearsay, but I know poverty when I hear it described.

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