Friday, April 28, 2017

Flagging Sales

We received an invitation to a military ball. 

For any civilian, this is a big deal.  A really, BIG deal. This is the military at their best – dress uniforms, spit and polish, tablecloths and napkins. Not many outside of the uniformed fold have any reason to be there. You want to do it up right.

So, the Missus gets a new dress. I buy a new suit, one that works with a black tie and cummerbund, and a new pleated shirt. Cufflinks are excavated from the back of the sock drawer. Dress shoes are located, dusted and polished.

All is in order, until a military friend says, “You’ll be wearing your American flag lapel pin, right?” Of course I would, if I had one. Truth is, I haven’t worn anything with a lapel on it since sometime in the last century. So no, no flag pin. “You’ll have to get one. It’s not optional.”

Sure. Fine. Okay. No need to insult our hosts. I’ll pick one up today, at the gas station, or the corner convenience store. Or the party supply store. Or the hardware store. Or perhaps the Dollar Store. Maybe that other dollar store? No, the pharmacy, they’ll have one. Or the other, competing pharmacy up the road. The one across town surely carries these things. For god’s sake, they used to be on display cards at every cash register in creation. You couldn't throw a rock, or swing a dead cat without hitting one, or two, or ten. Where are they all now?

Wal-Mart, maybe? Target? Hobby Lobby? Are you serious? Nobody can sell me a lousy American flag pin? The guy at the Toy & Hobby store should have bags of ‘em, I thought. No, but if I found more than I needed, he’d like to buy one from me.

It is a gala, after all. 
High-end sparkle is 
entirely in order.

Wow. I knew that these signature patriotic symbols were more than popular in this flag-waving, I’m-a-better-American-than-you society we live in, but I never dreamed they would be so universally desirable that every one of the businesses in my neighborhood could be sold out. So I asked, “When do you expect to get more in stock?”

We don’t. Ever? Never. In fact, none of the people I talked to could remember when they last had one for sale. Most said they’d never carried them. No, they had no idea where I might find one. Have I tried looking online?

I had in fact looked online. That’s how I knew they were supposed to be sold at Wal-Mart, only my store somehow wasn’t on the special ‘flag pin’ list. Lowes had a nice Stars & Stripes pinwheel for the yard, but no flag pins. Would I like one of those? At this point I was actually thinking about it.

Surely the flag store downtown would have them. That’s the store that opened years ago because the owner wanted to buy a flag to fly outside his house, and couldn't find anyone who was selling them. Their web site said they carried the pins, so I called to see if they had one I could stop by and purchase in person. No. They closed their brick and mortar store a while ago, in favor of an exclusive online presence. They’d be happy to send one to me right away, though, for the retail price plus a standard shipping fee, which frankly was equal to the cost of a dozen pins from another online source. And that one offered free shipping.

No, I still figured I could buy one in person, at retail, in my own community. Time to lean on the right wing.

I called the police uniform shop. Nope, no pins. The gun repair shop. Nothing. The tactical firearms store, the one that hosts republican politicians for town hall meetings. Three tries, all during business hours, and they didn't even pick up their phone.

Of course it was imported. 
Why would I expect it to be 
made in America?

Back to the computer, to cast a wider net on the… net. Got the Missus to search at the same time, and discovered that we could get one directly from the White House Gift Shop. It comes in a box with the presidential seal on the inside, in a box with the presidential seal on the outside, for only $24.95, plus shipping and handling. That's a lot more than I wanted to pay for boxes.

After another half hour of being channeled back to the same pages over and over, we finally gave up and placed an order for a cheap enamel pin.

Thank you! Your item will be delivered a day after you leave for your gala event. Unless you wish to add an additional $20 for expedited shipping…

No, thank you, we would not. Twenty-five bucks for a two-dollar pin? We can get that deal from the White House. There had to be a better way – but the clock was ticking, and we had few options.

Cancelling that order, we dove back into the search, this time switching the query around from ‘American Flag Lapel Pin’, to ‘Lapel Pin American Flag’. And it worked!

“This classic American flag pin is fashioned out of silver-tone metal, genuine mother-of-pearl, and red and blue enamel. Imported.”

Of course it was imported. Why would I expect it to be made in America?


No. Way. (But it is nice and sparkle-y, with all that mother of pearl. And their store is just a mile away, so no shipping charge. Hmmm…)

No. No! Before I pay thirty bucks for a damn flag pin, I’m going to call every truck stop within twenty miles of this studio. They HAVE to have bona fide American flag pins, along with all the Harley and Hard Rock CafĂ© and Peterbilt pins they sell to truckers to stick on the fronts of their cowboy hats. I travel the roads. I know what I’m talking about. I’ll spend thirty bucks in gas to drive to a major Interstate crossing and pick one of those suckers up myself, if they’ll just tell me which direction to point my van.

They don’t. No one has flag pins.

I give up, and give in. Over at the upscale mall, I plunk down $29.50, plus tax, for a pin made of genuine mother of pearl, and blue and red enamel. 

And why not? It is a gala, after all.
High-end sparkle is entirely in order. 

No doubt the Missus and I will both be flooded with online ads for weeks from every company that has ever sold, or plans to sell, an American flag lapel pin.

Bring it.

I’m an American, dammit, and I have a flag to prove it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


Discovering and Decoding 
the President’s Binary Hand Signals

Birmingham, Alabama
1 April 2017

One and two and one and one and…

Visual artists Don Stewart and Sue Ellen Brown of the DS Art Studio in Homewood, Alabama have made a startling discovery, simply by observing the hand gestures of the 45th president. After months of careful study, the husband and wife team believe the leader of the free world is telegraphing coded messages using binary code in his own digital sign language, and has been doing so since he began running for office.

Hand Signals
Stewart, a former physician, and Brown, a computer artist, began noticing the candidate’s peculiar hand motions early in the presidential campaign.

“It was actually way back in the summer of 2015,” says Brown, who was first to comment on the candidate’s odd manual gesticulations. She noticed the regularity with which Mr. Trump repeatedly extended his index finger in an upward ‘number one’ direction, followed by circling his thumb and forefinger into the letter “O”.

“He just kept doing it, over and over, so I got curious and started keeping notes,” Brown said. “It turns out he was speaking in sign language, signaling individual letters, made up of zeroes and ones.”

Since then, the husband and wife team has been poring over hours of video footage, carefully cataloguing the sequences of 1’s and O’s indicated by Trump’s articulate right hand. After writing down the numbers on separate note pads, the two then compare their numeric lists, revisiting the video record to resolve any conflicts.

Once the raw lists of binary figures are complete, they are scanned into a computer program that simultaneously reads the numbers, and separates them sequentially into eight-bit segments for translation into alphanumeric characters.

“It took us a while to get the software right,” says Brown, “But with a little bit of tweaking, we were able to obtain reliable data. Incredible data. Better data than anyone has ever been able to generate before.”

With eight ‘bits’ or gestures, per letter, it takes a long time to code a word by hand, much less a full sentence.

“That’s probably why he talks so much,” says Stewart.

According to the two researchers, Trump’s messages cover a wide range of topics from DAPL and NAFTA to MAGA and several mentions of WAFFLES. ‘You are Losers,’ and ‘I am WINNING’ appear frequently. Neither artist would offer details concerning the content of additional coded messages, citing national security concerns, and the fact that their translations aren’t infallible, for a number of reasons.

“It turns out, he’s not a very good speller,” said Stewart, “Though the man is spot-on with the terms ‘B-I-G-L-Y’ and ‘H-U-G-E’. He nails those every time.”

“And TRUMP. There’s a lot of T-R-U-M-P,” Brown said.

When pressed, the two investigators also admit that their translating program isn't perfect. Some of the passages they have recorded make no sense at all when processed through their proprietary computer algorithm. This could be due, they say, to glitches in the software, or simply a faulty interpretation of the hand gestures, for example, when an upturned finger actually means ‘Number One’. “That can throw off an entire sequence,” said Stewart.

Both concede that more study is needed, and have plans to run their ‘nonsense’ data through a more advanced series of algorithms, including punctuation filters, and Cyrillic character analysis.

When asked why they have only interpreted the president’s right-handed gestures, Stewart noted, “If you try and follow both hands at once, the messages become unreadable, so either the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, or he’s sending different information to two audiences at once. For now we’re focusing on right-sided speech alone. That’s where most of the action is. We plan to review the numbers from his sinister side in a follow-up study.”

Asked when the intelligence community will allow them to discuss their findings in greater detail, the artists stated that the meetings with federal authorities have been planned for some time, but repeatedly postponed until a later date.


Don Stewart      
Sue Ellen Brown
DS Art Studio Gallery
2805 Crescent Ave
Homewood, Alabama 35209


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Bleeding Heart Capitalist

I’m an Artist. 

My income relies on my ability to

acquire raw materials, add value, and sell my products at a profit. That makes me a Capitalist. My choice of professions tells most people that I am a hopeless, bleeding-heart Liberal. My modest success in the field, however, aside from being an extremely rare phenomenon, means that I know something about business - a condition that implies that I must be a Conservative. 

Oh, and I used to be a Doctor, so I have at least a basic understanding of the healthcare industry.

There. Now that we have the labels in place, let me say a bit more about what I do: I make art. Not food, not clothing, not shelter. My products are not essential. I know my place in the system. That said, most of the goods and services exchanged in our national marketplace are not essential, either. We don't have to have big, shiny cars, or soft drinks, or cell phones or hair gel to survive. We do have to have all of these things and more, though, to maintain a thriving economy.

I also know something of my potential in this economy. Each year I sell thousands of pictures to happy customers all across the country. My customers are all knowledgeable, relatively healthy people with a certain amount of disposable income. They have to be. If they weren’t all of these things, they wouldn’t understand my drawings, much less appreciate them. Nor would they have the means to purchase my artwork. To keep my business going, therefore (and to keep myself supplied with food, and clothing, and shelter), I need a growing pool of potential customers who fit these three criteria. And because I’m Selfish, I want to do everything I can to make more people smart, and healthy, and rich.

I keep trying to imagine how much more successful I could be, (and how much better every American business could be) if everyone in the United States had a quality education, were gainfully employed, and had reliable access to healthcare. Throughout my lifetime, I’ve noticed that one political party has worked toward these goals, while the other has consistently supported legislation that serves, on a very practical level (regardless of its stated intent), to make people sicker, and stupider, and poorer.

And that’s just bad for business.

It seems pretty simple to me: Sick people can’t go to work, and they can’t succeed in school. That means they can’t make money, and they don't get smarter. They certainly can’t buy designer shoes, or Big Macs, or my artwork. They also can't keep up with their mortgages, or contribute to retirement plans. In fact, health issues are the number one reason people lose their homes, and among the top reasons workers lose their jobs. Job loss leads then to even more health issues, higher drop-out rates, and more difficulty becoming re-employed. It also contributes to higher crime rates, drug abuse, and ever greater demands on inadequate social safety nets. 

“But there aren't enough jobs!” I hear people say. “We need more jobs!”

Yes, we do. But under the present system, we’re not likely to get very many. People who have no money cannot buy the things that companies make. Fewer sales lead to decreased production, and that means more layoffs, 
not more jobs.

I wonder what would happen if everyone else in the country suddenly became as selfish as I am. I try and imagine a society where people are healthy enough to go to work, have stable homes, have time and money and motivation to finish school. A social structure where fewer people fall through the cracks, and when they do, there is someone there to catch them. Then I imagine how many more homes, and Big Macs, and pieces of art that these healthy, informed, productive people might be able to buy. And how many more people would have to go to work to make that happen.

I imagine how my business might function if I were suddenly selling tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of pictures. Frankly it couldn’t. Not now. Not without more people working for me.

Isn’t it time for us to make being well a part of the definition of being American? I’d be happy to work a little harder and pay a little more in taxes to make that happen.

But maybe I’m just being selfish.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

You Can’t Do That

“Who is putting up all of these teensy little drawings?” 

the Professor wanted to know.

He’d interrupted his erratic pacing mid-stride, in front of twenty or so versions of a person sitting in a chair, all from different angles, of all different sizes, taped to the wall in a haphazard row.

He grabbed the smallest picture from the line, a plain sheet of typing paper with a two-inch-high figure floating dead center. “I see one of these at every critique. Who is responsible for them?”

I raised my hand.

“You? What’s the matter - are you afraid to make a full sized rendering like everyone else?” Murmured chuckles sprinkled about the room.

“No, sir,” I answered. “It’s just hard for me to finish a large drawing in the time allowed, so I make several quick sketches, and put the best one up for discussion.”

“No one else seems to have trouble making big drawings.” he said, pausing to let the obvious conclusion sink in. “What’s your problem?”

“It’s not a problem, really, just a limitation of the medium,” I replied.

“Really? What medium are you using?”

“A ballpoint pen,” I said, holding up my trusty Bic for him to see.

Not a legitimate artist's medium.

“Seriously?” he scolded. “You’re using a ballpoint pen in an art class?”

Of course I was using a ballpoint pen in an art class. Why wouldn't I? I used ballpoints for every other class: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History of the English Language. I usually carried at least three of them, color-coding each academic subject with a different combination of black, blue and red ink. The visual difference was quite helpful when it came time to study for exams. Why would this class be any different? 

Here in the Basic Drawing studio, it was the logical choice. I was not an art major. I was just a pre-med who wanted to learn how to draw in one semester – and make an ‘A’ doing it. If I wanted to learn the techniques of rendering forms and textures in an efficient manner, I needed to streamline the process, and focus on what I already knew how to do.
Until that day, my sketches 
had consistently elicited 
encouraging comments.

Charcoal, India ink, Conte´crayon… these were media that required an extra learning curve, additional time to master, not to mention an additional cash outlay at the college bookstore. True, they offered the advantage of covering large swaths of real estate at a single stroke, but that ‘advantage’ also meant I would have to buy large tablets of drawing paper – another infringement on my nonexistent art supply budget. I already had reams of typing paper collecting dust on my bookshelf.

“I didn’t know that there were size requirements on the assignments, Sir,” I explained. “And you did say that we could use any medium.”

Besides, even though my drawings were small, I felt I had managed to accomplish all of the goals set out for us in every studio exercise, representing form, texture, shading, etc., using my familiar, preferred technique.

Until that day, my sketches had consistently elicited encouraging comments.

He reached down and plucked the instrument from my hand, holding it up for everyone to see. “This is not a legitimate artist’s medium. You can’t make anything of substance with such a skinny black line. I don't want to see it in my studio again.” To underscore his point, he confiscated the offending contraband, freeing me from the temptation ever to use it again.

To his credit, the Professor was not being unduly critical. This was his class; he had every right to expect things to be done his way. And I could understand and appreciate his preferences: the man was a painter, who preferred to work on large-scale projects. It was not unusual to see him working on a wall-sized canvas, using a three- or four-inch wide paintbrush. Making artwork on such a miniaturized scale, regardless of detail, must have seemed utterly foreign to him.

Like any reputable instructor, I’m sure he wanted his course to be taken seriously, and probably felt that by refusing to embrace a variety of drawing styles and materials, I would be missing the opportunity to wring the full potential from this class.

Lesson learned, I reached into my pocket, and started constructing the day’s new drawing assignment using the skinny black lines of a No. 2 pencil. It felt good to be a legitimate student again.

Much to the Professor’s delight, I spent the rest of the semester exploring the monotonal worlds of graphite, charcoal, and ink wash, with illustrative side routes into magic marker, and creative photocopying. Once I had distanced myself from the wretched, divisive ballpoint issue, it became clear that my grade point average would be back on track as well.

It was perhaps understandable then that I did not tell my new mentor about the several drawing projects I still had underway in my dorm room, where I struggled on my own to work out the graphic potential of skinny ballpoint lines.

One of these pieces, a whimsical study of a cartoon ant on crumpled beer can, seemed especially pleasing, and worthy, I thought, of submission to the campus literary magazine. The student editorial staff liked it too, and awarded my drawing First Place in the visual arts category – an honor that included publication in the journal, and a cash prize as well.

Twenty-five dollars may not sound like a lot of money today, and it probably wasn’t very much then, either, but to a college student in the early 1980’s it meant a full tank of gas, a six-pack of beer, and at least one dinner date at a decent restaurant.

It also meant that a ballpoint pen was capable of producing artwork that had audience appeal, and real earning potential. I had no idea how important that realization would become in the years following my brief tour through medical training.

Years later, I was fortunate enough to re-make my acquaintance with my former art professor, this time on even friendlier terms, both personally and professionally. My career as a ballpoint artist was rounding out its second decade, and the studio was producing a picture book to mark the anniversary. He was gracious enough to write the introduction for the project.

Of course he took full credit for my artistic career:

Edward Hill, in his ‘Language of Drawing’, stated that the student mirrors his teaching – often through opposition.  When Don Stewart was a student in one of my drawing courses at Birmingham-Southern College many years ago, he was chided for the ‘improper use’ of a ballpoint pen.  Illustrating Mr. Hill’s theory perfectly, Stewart has investigated, tested, and polished the applications of the once-lowly instrument – seeking a new potential rather than settling for the ordinary.  Feathery lines and nubby textures supplement his definitive lights and darks, enticing the viewer further to seek their objects’ whimsical presence.  The visual puns of his devious mind are delivered with a wit and intelligence seldom seen.  As I have half-jokingly related to co-appreciators of his work, I feel personally responsible for his success.

Robert Shelton,
Professor of Art
Birmingham-Southern College
Birmingham, Alabama

I couldn’t agree more.

The Visual Humor of Don Stewart