Sunday, December 31, 2006

A 2006 Ignotable


Quote of the year:
“From the way a lot of people behave, what they must want on their gravestones is ‘I kept expenses low.’”
--Preston Creston, from Bright Lights and Big Waves, December 17.

Most inane act of protest of the year:
The man who set himself, a flag, and a Christmas tree on fire to protest the San Joaquin Valley school district’s decision to rename winter and spring breaks as Christmas and Easter vacation. A sheriff’s deputy put the fire out, and the man had first-degree burns.

I would compare this act of protest to singing a few verses of "We Shall Overcome" to protest the loss of your reserved parking place.

I do not agree with the school board’s decision. Freedom of religion is basic to who we are, and that includes freedom of no religion. But to protest by setting yourself on fire is so completely out of proportion as to be ludicrous. Just as it would be if the situation were reversed, and the man were protesting the renaming of Christmas and Easter vacations as winter and spring breaks.

At best, this is simply a stunt, because the man only lit the match when he saw a nearby deputy (with a fire extinguisher) look over at him. At worst, it makes a statement that this issue is a life-or-death question, which it simply is not.

For those who were alive during the Vietnam War, the indelible image of self-immolation is the Buddhist priest sitting in the middle of the road, pouring gasoline on himself and literally burning to death before our eyes.

That was a quietly tragic and powerful protest of a war that was claiming thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Vietnamese lives every month. It was not a statement of abstract constitutional principle. And there was no one with a fire extinguisher nearby.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

My Favorite Music of 2006


Quote of the day:
“In youth we run into difficulties. In old age difficulties run into us.”
--Beverly Sills

Follow-up to The Most Amazing Story of 2006?:
“The Religion Newswriters Association and Beliefnet.com both named the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania as the newsmakers of the year for their inspiring example of forgiveness in response to the murder of five young girls this past October.”
--Sandi Dolbee, in today’s "San Diego Union-Tribune." What also makes this so newsworthy is our rush to categorize this Amish community as quaint or deluded.

It’s a weekend of lists and marathons. Lists of who has died this year, major news events, movie releases in Oscar contention, celebrity babies and on and on. We also are treated to dozens of marathons on television--everything from What Not to Wear to Law and Order: SVU, and, of course, The Twilight Zone. I wonder if one of the sports channels will offer a marathon of marathons. We could watch the Boston Marathon, the New York Marathon, the Tallahassee Marathon, the San Diego Marathon and all the others. It could go on for days. Now that would be exciting.

There was some excellent new music released this year. But many of the music releases--including some of the most popular ones--were rereleases or repackaging of older music. While this is sometimes carried to extremes, I like it, because it invites rediscovery of excellent music that I may have missed the first, second, or third time around.

My favorite three new albums this year are just new to me. They’re not even rereleases. One is from 2000, one is from 1940 and one is from 1926-37. I guess it’s always true that there is much more good music to be discovered from the past than from the present, because there is simply much more music, period. Also, most of the bad stuff has fallen out of view so it’s not cluttering up the landscape.

They are Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940, a serendipitously wonderful concert in an unexpected location; Down in the Basement, a collection of forgotten treasures from the 20s and 30s, compiled by collector Joe Bussard; and Casta Diva by Angela Gheorghiu, which is notable because she opts for beauty and nuance over vocal showmanship.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Guilt and Get Up and Go


Quote of the day:
“The old repeat themselves and the young have nothing to say. The boredom is mutual.”
--Jacques Bainville

Geographic fact of the day:
Lubbock, Texas is the hub of the largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world.

Follow-up to Imagine a Humble and Honest President:
“The last time I had a conversation with him I just walked away from that thinking that this guy, at 90 years old, has more smarts and is sharper than anybody out there in the prime of their life. The guy had so much knowledge, insight and savvy, and I think that when you’re wired like that, it’s not in your makeup to just sit and do nothing.”
--Mayor Ron Berhheimer of Indian Wells, talking about Gerald Ford.

On the surface this is an innocent enough statement, and it is certainly meant as a generous compliment to Gerald Ford. But I read something in it that bothers me.

I don’t think it is Mr. Bernheimer’s intention, but he is indirectly supporting America’s bias toward get-up-and-go. I infer from this that I am supposed to feel guilty if I am not getting up and going. To “just sit and do nothing” is seen as a negative.

One unfortunate thing about the polarization between getting-up-and-going and sitting-and-doing-nothing is that it ignores all the other options, such as getting-up-and-doing-nothing or sitting-and-doing-something.

We all know that the world is run by extraverts, especially those who make themselves known at every possible opportunity. They are the salespeople and politicians in every field of endeavor.

Yet millions of writers, musicians, artists, scientists, scholars, academics and others are introverts. They thrive in worlds with just a few other people, or in complete solitude. Monastics devote themselves to solitude and living closely in small groups as a spiritual discipline. They also remind us of the necessity of sitting and doing nothing as part of everyone’s life.

Certainly we all have to get-up-and-go every once in a while, and it’s good for us to mix things up and extend ourselves. But there’s no need to feel guilty about not getting up and going if it’s not what you’re called to do. Even if the culture says getting up and going is the “normal” or “preferable” way to live.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Shirley Shirley Mo Mirley


Quote of the day:
“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
--Woodrow Wilson

Violent quote of the day:
“Satchel, I’m gonna smack you so hard you’ll be on liquid chew toys for a year.”
--Darby Conley in today’s "Get Fuzzy." Bucky the cat is addressing Satchel the dog, for what he feels is a good reason.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“A woman once wrote me that her daughter intended to name her baby girl Diana Rhea, which I emphatically discouraged.”
--"Dear Abby," today.

A variety of letters are part of today’s "Dear Abby" conversation on the pros and cons of parents giving their children creative and unusual names. A couple of writers mention the problems created when names are not pronounced as they are written. All of the letters express concern about the problems people face when they have an unusual name.

One man, evidently in his twenties or thirties, tells of his problems in business because people can’t remember his name, or, if they do remember it, they can’t spell or pronounce it. This is not a good thing when you’re looking to get ahead, and you want people to remember you for something other than having a name that no one can spell, pronounce, or remember.

Most parents, when choosing a name, strike a reasonable balance between creativity and ease for the child. But some
parents seem to be so interested in choosing a name that has never been used before that it puts an unfortunate burden on the child. Yes, anyone can legally change his or her name, but that process is very disruptive and aggravating.

Some parents are so fixated on the new respect and status that having a child accords them that they become blind to the long-term interests of their child. The child is an extension of their identity rather than having an identity of its own.

Parents become absorbed in accentuating their individuality and their child’s special-ness, and a very unusual name is an important way to express this individuality and special-ness. It may also be that some parents rather like that the name always calls attention to itself by requiring spelling and pronouncing. They don’t think about the fact that the child will spend his whole life spelling and pronouncing his name.

I like names that have special meaning, such as those that refer to a child’s admired relative, ancestry, or cultural origin. But parents give their child a wonderful gift when they creatively balance this with ease of spelling and pronunciation.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Imagine An Honest and Humble President


Quote of the season:
“We are brothers.”
--Nouri Dawoud, a Muslim living in Baghdad, talking about the customers of his Christmas-tree stand.

Quote of the day:
“You know it’s not a good wax museum when there are wicks coming out of people’s heads.”
--Rick Reynolds

Post-Christmas Factoid of the Day:
Santa started wearing red and white clothing after an ad campaign for Coca-Cola in the 1930s.

Quote of the day no.2:
“My fellow Americans, I once asked you for your prayers, and now I give you mine. May God guide this wonderful country, its people and those they have chosen to lead them.”
--Gerald Ford, in his final State of the Union address, January 12, 1977.

Much has been said and written about Gerald Ford’s presidency. And there is more to come in the days ahead. What stands out for me is the difference between Ford’s approach and what we’ve seen over the last two administrations.

Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was very, very unpopular, and pretty much caused the end of his political career. He took this action knowing that it was unpopular, and knowing that he would face negative consequences.

His advisors were against the pardon, but Ford knew that the presidency and the nation would be preoccupied and possibly damaged by a long legal battle. He also made what turned out to be the correct decision, to put the Watergate years in the past so we all could begin again. When he did it, his rationale was simply that it was the right thing to do, for the presidency and for the country.

I’m not sure that either of our last two presidents could make such a decision, for several related reasons. First, the world of news and national politics and how they relate has changed so much. When Ford was president, news cycles were still dictated by the deadlines of newspapers and the network evening news. Now, we live in a world of constant deadline. Each tidbit of news or microscopic change in political barometric pressure is reported instantly and repeated endlessly and everywhere.

On top of this, each tiny tidbit of “news” is instantly analyzed and commented on. Trains of supposed logic rumble down the track of speculation until conclusions are pronounced with finality, 20 minutes later. All it takes is for the merest morsel of “news” to drop into the gaping maws of hundreds of well-made-up and beautifully-coifed talking heads whom we have awarded the respect that is supposed to be accorded those with genuine education, experience, perspective, and judgment.

“News” is in quotation marks because the aforementioned tidbits/morsels are most often dished out with astonishing self-interest by those whom the news is about. It could be Paris Hilton, or it could be George Bush. The level of self-interest is identical.

Example: this morning the lead item on the radio news was that President Bush met at his Crawford ranch with his various advisors. That’s it. He met with his advisors. Why would I care about that?

This “news” was released by the White House and gobbled passively yet voraciously by people who, if we lived in a more-just world, would actually be out seeking news instead of waiting around for the next official press release to be delivered to them (sometimes with refreshments). This item was deemed the most important news item because it came with the White House seal of approval.

What all this means is that, over the last 20 years or so, the Presidency has become less a vehicle for leadership and more a marketing machine. And I guess we like it this way and support it this way, or at least most of us do. We seem to be used to it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sinead The Tree


Quote of the day:
“He was the world’s only armless sculptor. He put the chisel in his mouth and his wife hit him on the back of the head with a mallet.”
--Fred Allen

I picked up a used copy of Sinead O’Connor’s “Faith and Courage” CD the other day. As I listened to it in our living room, I was amused to realize that her voice was coming from the Christmas tree. Because our tree is between our speakers, it really does sound like the tree is singing.

Later the same thing happened with Van Morrison, Etta James and Judy Garland. All were Christmas gifts. One of us got the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack, and I gotta say it is a wonderful gift to hear “Over the Rainbow” from the tree.

Chestnuts were roasting on an open fire in the tree, thanks to Nat King Cole. Bono still hadn’t found what he’s lookin’ for in the tree, Ozzie Bailey was watching the autumn leaves start to fall from the tree. Even though it’s winter, and the tree is not deciduous.

This is wonderful. I wonder how many voices have yet to come from the tree?

Monday, December 25, 2006

And To All, A Good Night


Quote of the day:
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
--Sir Isaac Newton

Today after opening presents and having breakfast I sat out in our back yard, basking in a bright, dry, 75-degree day. I don’t think I’ll ever adjust to Southern California weather on Christmas day.

I thought I had. After all, I’ve lived here for 28 years. But this year I am remembering the crisp coldness and sometimes snow that Christmas brought to Maryland when I was growing up. Notice I said “remembering.” This is different from “longing for.”

Remembering is an important part of the season. More interesting than this, though, is that most of the world (including the Middle East) does not associate snow or cold weather with this time of year. This reminds us that our Christmas traditions originate in Europe and northeastern America.

It’s like our favorite carols. Almost all of them originate in the nineteenth century (and in Europe or America). People celebrated Christmas for 1800 years before any of them were written. And this is a very important, fixed, tradition. Notice that new carols (and there are many, many excellent ones) are never permanently added to our celebration. New popular music for Christmas may be with us for a few years, but our core favorites never change.

The specific traditions we associate with Christmas must be very important to us--culturally just as much as spiritually.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tannenbaum, Wow


Quote of the day:
“The fake trees look better than the real kind (if, that is, you like perfection).”
--Jeff D. Opdyke, The Wall Street Journal

To say that our Christmas tree is idiosyncratic would be an understatement. It has a hole that we didn’t notice in the tree lot (does anyone?). Branches jut out at strange angles all over the tree. And it leans to the left--a condition that seems to get more pronounced the longer it drinks water in our living room.

The house smells good, though. And the tree was grown on a San Diego County farm just for this purpose.

We seek the perfect Christmas tree just as we often seek the perfect “Christmas experience”--happy, well-adjusted family; warm feelings over eggnog around the fire; the joyful anticipation and fulfilled promise we may have known on previous Christmases.

We know that life is messy. Things are not as easy for us as we’d like. Our kids make unusual or bad decisions. Someone has an accident or gets very sick. As much as we truly wish and plan and hunt for the “perfect” tree, we know things will not always work out as we want or hope.

What is wonderful, though, is that the holiday holds such potential for surprise. We may just find ourselves experiencing something in a special new way, if we let down our guard a bit, and haul that defective tree into the house, even though it’s already shedding needles everywhere.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

6 Weeks and 600 Years


Quote of the day:
“I detest a man who knows that he knows.”
--Oliver Wendell Holmes

As I write this, I am listening to 600-year-old music by Giulliame Dufay and drinking 6-week-old beer by Budweiser. (I know this thanks to the ”bottled on” date printed on the label.)

It gives me pause to think that people were listening to the Dufay motets before Columbus sailed, and way before the printing press and the Reformation. They are beautiful pieces, with multiple voice parts accompanied by simple instruments. The descant parts especially give the music an “other-worldly,” spiritual feel.

It’s fun to have the present and the past come together, and to realize that many people over the years have seen the value of this music, and have carried it forward for us.

In so many different ways, I guess the holiday season is about this, too. Carrying the goodness of the past into the present. Allowing ourselves to be moved or inspired to continue it into the future.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Bulletin: It's Christmas, There's No News


Quote of the day:
“Everything is better with cheese.”
--Sophie the dog

Wisdom quote of the day:
“Some bones are for burying, others are for eating.”
--Sophie the dog

It’s been more than two weeks since I read a newspaper. The world seems to have survived, and so have I. But just barely.

This is the Christmas season, when all news turns to heartwarming stories about such things as families together through tough times. The type of news events that preoccupy us most of the year basically stop at Christmas. This is good--we all need a break.

It may also be a good time to put the rest of the year in perspective. The word “perspective” is quite apt. It refers to the visual characteristic that allows us to see things across a distance. And that’s how things matter. Across a distance.

A lot of the day-to-day stuff is just noise. It may entertain us, but it’s just noise. The peace of Christmas may just empower us to see it that way.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Duke, Dar, and Maria


Quote of the day:
“Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated.... There is no republican road to safety, but in constant distrust.”
--Wendell Phillips

Do you ever wonder why you like what you like? Is it because other people like the same thing? Probably not. But I am often reluctant to to talk about what I like because I’m afraid other people might not approve.

Some people do attach stereotypes to those who listen to certain types of music. Think country music. Think hip-hop. Think opera. Are you any of these “stereotypes”? I’m not. At least I think I’m not.

I listen to all these types, and lately I have been especially entranced by some great soprano divas. As I write this, I’m listening to Maria Callas. Earlier, while driving down the California coast, it was Angela Gheorghiu. I don’t know why this music is speaking to me right now, but it is.

I’m also loving Duke Ellington--especially the early stuff. Ditto Louis Armstrong. And I’m listening to Dar Williams--a terrific songwriter and marvelous singer.

What do you like?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ghosts of Christmas Past


Quote of the day:
“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘Tis the season when all our addictions and dysfunctions are both triggered and on display. The holidays bring out he best in us, and can also bring out the worst, especially if we’re feeling exhausted or a bit depressed.

The mere presence of family members can instantly bring back the emotions of childhood. This may catch us by surprise in a season when there are so many distractions to keep us busy. We say, “I thought I was past that.” The reality is that, like it or not, we never get past it. We just find different (we hope more constructive) ways of dealing with these emotions.

When I was ten years old, I got a small tape recorder for Christmas. I still have the tape I made that morning. It’s a bit eerie to revisit a Christmas long past so vividly--though I suppose a lot of people have 15- or 20-year-old videos, which would be even more real.

As I listen to that tape it becomes clear to me that the events and people I am hearing are locked in the past. What matters is what I carry forward to today, and what I do with it.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Quote from Dickens


Quote of the day:
"I have always thought of Christmas time, as ... the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore ... though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
--Charles Dickens

Monday, December 18, 2006

Season of Peace, or Day of Peace?


Quote of the day:
“All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.”
--Oliver Wendell Holmes

This year we are doing Christmas a bit differently. We have skipped most of “pre-Christmas.”

We have done no decorating, bought no presents, put up no tree, sent no cards. Instead, we have spent two weeks at a slow pace: reading, walking, talking and watching the ocean. We have done no preparation, and we don’t seem to have any anxiety about it.

At the end of these two weeks, just before Christmas, we will go out, buy a tree and a few presents and come home to enjoy a few hours decorating and watching the cats climb the tree. We will have a nice meal and open presents on Christmas Day and send out New Years greetings to our friends and family later.

This can be a meaningful time of year to visit with friends and family, and enjoy some good food and time off from work. But often our expectations get in the way. We wind up expecting so much--from ourselves, mostly--that the season is defined by stress grinding us for weeks, with the hope of relief on December 25th.

What should this season be about?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bright Lights and Big Waves


Quote of the day:
“From the way a lot of people behave, what they must want on their gravestones is ‘I kept expenses low.’”
--Preston Creston

This has been an interesting two weeks on the central coast. We had a week of wind, rain and 15-foot waves. The last few days have brought crystal-clear skies, cool, dry air and gentle seas.

Last night I thought I saw a boat light on the horizon, but it turned out to be a star, straight across the ocean from where I was standing. There was no moonlight, and the sky was carpeted with bright, twinkling stars.

It was the first time in my memory I have seen bright stars right on the horizon. It was a surprisingly amazing experience.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mel Gibson: Heroic Suffering Savior


Quote of the day:
"To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."
--Gustave Flaubert

I have not seen Mel Gibson’s new movie "Apocalypto," but I have repeatedly seen its ad, in which he personally proclaims it is the “story of one man’s heroic struggle to save his family.” In other words, the same old, same old for Mel.

He is fixated on the stuggles of a heroic loner attempting to save humanity. The more struggles, the better. The more suffering, the better. The more gruesome the suffering, now we’re talking.

This theme links all of his movies, beginning with the Mad Max series, continuing with the "Lethal Weapon" films and hitting stride with "Braveheart," which told the story of William Wallace leading the brutal (capital B) fight for Scottish independence.

This brutality reach apotheosis in his most notorious film, "The Passion of Christ." It was not a religious or historical story as much as it was Mel attempting to to reach new heights in telling the story of a heroic misunderstood loner who saves the world through undergoing unimaginably gruesome torture. After I saw this film, I came to see that all these movies are about Mel Gibson.

Whether "Apocalypto" fits this mold, I’m not sure, but it seems to. I wonder in how many ways he is going to have to tell his story before he is satisfied?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Life and Death at the Ocean


Quote of the Day:
“The truth about the rain is how it falls.”
--Dar Williams

These last few days have brought some strong northwest winds from the ocean, bringing cold to the central coast of California.

Last night when we opened the garage a cormorant flew in. They are long-necked, energetic, graceful birds who will surface-dive for fish where other birds have long since given up,

This bird was clearly in distress, as it stumbled to find a quiet, calm place. It finally settled along the side wall, and seemed comfortable, so we left it there, with the door open. Later we discovered that the bird had died right where it was sitting.

It was a little baffling how a sick or disabled cormorant could find its way into our fenced yard. Then, this morning, I discovered the disturbing reason why. The manager of our rental house had put a rat trap up against the house, just outside the garage. With its long, slender neck, the cormorant would have no trouble reaching in for the poison bait inside the trap.

And so the consequence of our need to rid our lives of pests is the death of an innocent, wild creature who thought he happened upon a treat.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Waves and Pulses


Quote of the day:
“The experience of two centuries has shown,...gradualism in theory, is perpetuity in practice.”
--William Lloyd Garrison

Yesterday we mentioned the one part of our increasingly-digital universe that has remained analog: us. Our ears are designed to respond to waves of varying air pressure at frequencies we recognize as sound. Our eyes respond to light waves (and particles, if you’re a physicist).

Because we are analog, the final step in any transmission process must also be analog. This is true even if a CD player or TV screen is reading digital data. At the end of the transmission to us, loudspeakers vibrate to create sound waves, and video screens flicker to create light waves through the air.

You have to admit, one of the true pleasures of being an analog creature is the power we have over digital devices. Even if it’s only to turn them off.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I Am Analog, Hear Me Roar


Quote of the day:
“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”
--W.H. Auden

The digital revolution has brought about easy access to just about any information. It has also allowed more and more text, audio and video to be carried much faster, and in progressively smaller and smaller packages.

But no matter how deeply we immerse ourselves in the digital universe, we still have to deal with one stubbornly analog element: ourselves. Until the day we can channel rapid electronic switching impulses (i.e., digital signals) directly into our brains. Shades of The Matrix.

Our fingers on computer keyboards and mice--and on our TV remote--are analog. Our ears listening to music and our eyes watching video are both analog. Thus transmission of audio, video or text will by necessity involve translation (or transduction) from analog into digital at the source, and from digital to analog at the user end.

What about a movie, which is essentially individually-flashing pictures done rapidly enough that our brains are fooled into thinking there’s motion? Or a CD, which brings music to us in the form of 44,000 on-off switches a second?

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The iPod as Revelation

Quote of the day:
“There’s this authority that’s going to say, ‘This is mine first, then it’s going to be yours, then it’s going to be yours.’ At some level, we all shared it, and that has never happened before in history. I hope that is really taken into account.”
--Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Memorial, talking about a World Trade Center Memorial.

Last Sunday’s "New York Times" had a review of a new book called "The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness." It’s written by by Steven Levy, the technology editor of "Newsweek."

The review mentions Levy’s reflection on the iPod’s essential characteristic--the ability to play hundreds of pieces of music in random order. If you have an iPod and use this feature, you know how fascinating this can be.

Before I figured out how to set up playlists, I would get some unusual and jarring combinations. I especially remember the weirdness of the moment iTunes went from the White Stripes right into a section of Messiah.

Now, though, I find myself rediscovering music, because a song will sound different (and fresh) when it’s removed from its familiar album context. Musicians may fret that the integrity of their careful album flow has been violated. For me, what really happens is the discovery of hidden treasures buried deep.

Occasionally I still get a strange or rough juxtaposition. Most often I find myself smiling, as Joni Mitchell comes up after Duke Ellington comes after Postal Service comes after Paul Simon comes after Sigur Ros comes after Count Basie and on and on.

Ain’t life grand?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pleasure, or Accuracy? Part Two


Quote of the day:
"For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."
--Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Several years ago people walking along a European city street were asked to participate in a listening test. The subjects were seated in a room and asked to listen to several excerpts of recorded music.

The testers switched between three different sound systems--one using tubes, one that was all solid-state, and one that was “hybrid”--both solid-state and tube. Neither the subjects nor the testers knew which system was on at any time (for those in the research business, a double-blind test). The music was widely varied, as were the subjects.

The test went on for several months, and statistically-significant results were obtained.

The two questions that were most illuminating were these: “which system do you believe to be the most accurate?” and “which system did you most enjoy listening to?”

You can guess the results. Solid-state won out on the first question, tubes on the second. When asked for comments, many subjects spoke of how the tube system was more involving and pleasurable.

So that’s the essential choice--accuracy, or pleasure? For news and documentaries, I want accuracy. For music and art, I want pleasure.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pleasure, or Accuracy?


Quote of the day:
"I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony. ... A lot of good fiction is sentimental. ... The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. ... I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass."
--Jim Harrison

As I have confessed in a previous post, I am an audiophile. I don’t think of myself as a fanatic (but then, what fanatic does?), but I am aware of sometimes-huge variations in sound quality among recordings and sound systems.

One of the most-persistent debates among audiophiles is the desirability of amplifiers designed with vacuum tubes as opposed to those with chips and transistors. If you are outside of this debate, you likely think it’s rather silly, and that no one can hear the difference anyway.

Even if you couldn’t care less about sound quality beyond what’s on sale at Best Buy, this debate is fascinating as a study in essential choice.

Generally, it is agreed that the best solid-state (“chips and transistors”) amplifiers are more accurate than tubes. They don’t add or take anything from the music, they just pass it on through.

In spite of this, many (if not most) audiophiles prefer tube technology. When asked why, they have a hard time explaining. They talk about things like “warmth,” “listenability,” “soundstage,” “imaging” and “live-ness.” When you listen to such a system, you can begin to understand what they’re talking about.

To bring this idea home, an interesting study was done in Europe a few years ago. More about that tomorrow.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Fads Sometimes Contain Truth


Quote of the day:
"Much as I resented having to grow up in Des Moines, it gave me a real appreciation for every place in the world that's not Des Moines."
--Bill Bryson

We devour, collect and discard self-help notions about as often as we change cell phones. There is an unfortunate fact that dooms most self-help systems.

In order to sell books, CDs and videos, a self-help system must tell us what we want to hear. If we don’t want to hear it, we won’t buy it. Yet, as all of us know, there is no “easy” way to help ourselves. If we want to change ourselves, some kind of pain, anxiety, depression or some negative emotion will be part of it. So, by telling us what we want to hear, a “successful” self-help system is ensuring that it won’t work.

In spite of this, some of the self-help systems of the last 30 years or so contain nuggets of very useful information. One of these nuggets is John Bradshaw’s notion of the inner child.

This idea continues to be the butt of numerous jokes and put-downs. But it is a useful way to understand ourselves--especially how we react to difficult situations. Somehow, we faced a similar situation as children, and the emotion we had at that time was imprinted on us. This “inner child” comes into our lives unconsciously when we face a tough time. Whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Out of the Hubbub


Quote of the day:
“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”
--Abraham Lincoln

I am spending these days looking at sky and sea. You can learn a lot about the weather that way.

This is the first year in my memory that I have removed myself from the pre-Christmas hubbub. It’s rather eerie, actually--even though this is the intention of the advent season. In advent we are supposed to wait patiently in the growing darkness while we simultaneously come to new realizations of how much we need each other.

I guess you could say that’s what I’m doing. I’m not sure.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Watching the Waves


Quote of the day:
“There is no pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is in having lots to do and not doing it.”
--Mary Wilson Little

This morning I was watching the waves (sorry I can’t provide a photo). There were some large ones. Waves break at different places depending on how big they are--tall waves break further out, as the ocean bottom begins to disrupt their movement.

That’s a reminder that we see just half a wave. The other half is below the surface, out of sight.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

A Free and Green Christmas Gift


Quote of the day:
“This is the story of an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever.”
--Introduction to the movie Babe, written by George Miller and Chris Noonan.

How’s this for an environmentally-friendly Christmas gift--a library card and a trip to the library. Give the opportunity to borrow some books, CDs and DVDs for free.

When you borrow instead of buy, it saves the paper, plastic and energy needed to make a book or CD or DVD just for you. It saves you money and is low-risk, too. If you borrow a book, CD or DVD and don’t like it after you’ve sampled it, you can just bring it back. You don’t have to feel guilty about not reading it, watching it or listening to it.

As an ordained minister I have gained a lot of experience with book accumulation. The field requires a lot of reading and reference work. The little secret is that most ministers don’t use or even read most of the books surrounding them in their offices. Just like in many homes, the books wind up as expensive and heavy shelf decoration, and they bring status.

I have served four churches. Each time I moved out of my church office, I donated approximately half my remaining books to various worthy groups. It wasn’t hard to locate and pull out volumes I had used rarely or not at all.

I love books, but I love books to read, not just to have around. I continue to buy them from time to time. But I also love to browse at the library, and pick up some books and CDs that look interesting.

Wouldn’t that experience make a great gift?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Are You Average?


Quote of the day:
"It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence, — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone."
--Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness

Quote of the day no. 2:
“You can only be young once. But you can always be immature.”
--Dave Barry

How many times in an “average” day do we hear about ratings, poll results, rankings and averages? Sometimes it seems to me as if everything is quantified in one way or another.

In a way, we can see this as the cumulative effect of the Enlightenment, or at least one way of interpreting the Enlightenment, which brought into being a new, rational way of seeing the world. Over time, in an effort to be more and more rational, and to understand more and more, we create more and more measurements, and the corresponding rankings and averages.

These measurements and averages serve a very useful purpose. They are a way to digest very large amounts of information. Which may help explain how the numbers can sometimes go wrong.

Averages are not meaningless, but they are abstractions. An average describes a long period of time or a large amount of data, it does not describe any particular individual.

We develop problems when we get so obsessed with averages and rankings that we use them for smaller and smaller phenomena. Example, during a football game when we’re told such things as the last time this team had two turnovers in the second half was last October 29th.

When the late scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with cancer, he was told the average life expectancy for his condition was eight months. He lived for twenty more years, and became fascinated with the concept of “average.”

Monday, December 4, 2006

Great Shopping at the Dump


Quote of the day:
“If you want to soar with the eagles, you can’t hoot with the owls.”
--Lorenzo Neal of the San Diego Chargers

Follow-up to "Trend, We Hardly Knew Ye":
“Netflix expects physical DVD rentals to remain a strong business for anywhere from 10 to 25 years before enough movie downloads become available and consumers adopt a download model on a wide scale.”
--Reuters, today.

Did you see the item about an amazingly creative recycling program in Aspen, Colorado? City officials, to extend the life of their landfill in this wealthy community, have established what’s called a “freecycle” zone at the entrance to the landfill.

People can drop off their unneeded possessions, and anyone who wants can “shop” among the discards and take home whatever they want. Many folks have been very pleased with what they’ve found, and have furnished rooms or whole apartments.

The program is working. 60 percent of what comes in to the landfill goes back out again.

Kudos for a program that works for everyone involved.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Art or Entertainment?


Quote of the day:
"I believe in the unsubmissive, the unfaltering, the unassailable, the irresistible, the unbelievable—in other words, in an art of life."
--Margaret Anderson

Don’t-hold-your-breath quote of the day:
“Gundlach sees lots of trouble ahead for residential real estate. In fact, he sees no bottom in the slump until at least 2008 and no meaningful recovery until at least 2010.”
--"Barron’s" Jonathan Laing in the December 4 issue. He was referring to TCW Group chief investment officer Jeffrey Gundlach.

Common wisdom that needs translation:
“I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.”

Translation of above:
“I don’t know anything about art.”

Conductor and violinist Andre Rieu is one of the most popular performers PBS has ever aired. His current concert tour coincides with public TV fundraisers around the country, and has occasioned some debate about his music.

He combines lavish readings of Strauss waltzes with light classics with orchestral arrangements of popular hits. He and his players are demonstrative entertainers, and lots of people like the shows.

“Entertainment” is the key word. For many, many people, Rieu’s music is a pleasant diversion. They enjoy watching it and listening to it. Personally, while I have a low tolerance for waltzes or schmaltzes, I always enjoy watching people who are clearly enjoying what they are doing.

Some folks argue that Rieu cheapens or messes up the music. I don’t worry about that too much. The music doesn’t need me or anyone else to stand up for it. Music is a matter of personal taste, and no one forces me to either listen or not listen.

What is a trifle troubling is when someone insists that the music has artistic merit, or that these performances provide an “entry point” to appreciating classical music. The latter point is not borne out by any evidence. Quite the contrary--people who listen to this kind of music continue listening to this kind of music and venture nowhere else. Nothing wrong with that. Except when it is suggested that people are learning to listen or appreciate classical music.

Some performances have artistic merit. Some performances, like Rieu’s, are simply entertaining.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Before You Christmas Shop, Watch This


Quote of the day:
"I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.”
--John Adams, responding to Thomas Jefferson’s suggestion that Adams write the Declaration of Independence.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
--P.J. O’Rourke.

Bird fact of the day:
“Parrots love drama, so being hollered at may not be so bad. After all, [parrots] scream at one another; it’s what they do. Having a parrot is like having a 2-year-old with a can opener attached to his face.”
--Liz Wilson, parrot behavioral consultant.

When I see the daily ad for an electronics store here, one word comes to mind: “landfill.” Most of the items in the ad will wind up there in three or four years. Or, worse, they will wind up in the back of a closet not to be seen again.

My favorite of all the makeover shows of the last few years is "Clean Sweep," now seen in reruns Saturday mornings on TLC. The premise of the show is incredibly simple--move everything from two rooms of someone’s home onto their front lawn and then sell or throw away half of it. Then move what’s left back into newly organized and decorated rooms.

The show is often a disturbingly vivid revelation of people’s emotional attachment to things--usually things at the bottom of boxes in the back of closets that haven’t been seen in years.

The show’s organizational expert was always very clear in acknowledging that all of us get attached to certain things, and that can be fun and life-enhancing. He would say that if a certain picture or gift is truly meaningful to us, we should recognize and honor it.

On the other hand, he would say that if something is important to us, it shouldn’t be buried in a closet--effectively lost. If something is buried in a closet, it is likely because it is not important to us. We just haven’t thought about it.

We all have lots of things in our lives that we don’t want, but we think are too good to throw away or give away, so we put them away. Often it’s stuff we have inherited or been given, and we think that we can’t get rid of it without offending the person who gave it to us--even if the person is dead. Guilt is a powerful motivator for doing nothing.

Before you buy gifts for your friends or family, do yourself a favor. Watch a couple episodes of "Clean Sweep."

Friday, December 1, 2006

Hoo-ray for Blu-ray


America quote of the day:
"The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. ... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.”
--Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural speech

America quote of the day no. 2:
“Making duplicate copies and computer printouts of things no one wanted even one of in the first place is giving America a new sense of purpose.”
--Andy Rooney

Several years ago, Keith York, the program director of KPBS, said, “Once you see high-definition television, you’ll never want to go back.” This is where I am right now. The first thing I check on TV is what is on the HD channels. And there has been a load of great stuff, including all the episodes of Law and Order since 1996 or so.

We have also been watching movies in the new Blu-ray high-definition format. They are stunning. I am enjoying movies more than ever.

It’s not just because the visuals are beautiful and the picture is sharp. It goes beyond this. Same with the audio. I don’t know what they’ve done to it, but it is extraordinary. It may be that the technology enables me to see so well into the movies that the “stuff” no longer calls attention to itself.

I expected to see sharp and beautiful pictures and hear good sound. But I didn’t expect my whole experience to be so enriched. It’s an amazing sensation to finish watching a good movie and feel like you have really been inside it.

Sony’s Blu-ray is one of two new competing DVD technologies. The other is Toshiba’s HD-DVD. My guess is that the Blu-ray technology will eventually prevail, but that’s not certain.

If you have an HD television and don’t want to spring for either format yet, get an inexpensive upconverting DVD player. It uses very clever technology to simulate HD, and it makes a difference.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Low Prices Uber Alles?


Quote of the day:
“Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what’s for lunch.”
--Orson Welles

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Winter is only a verb if you’re rich.”
--D. Robert Lennon

Two news items about Wal-Mart this week: they reported lower-than-expected earnings and said the holiday season will not be stellar; and the San Diego City Council has outlawed super-centers which also sell groceries, an action which bars Wal-Mart from opening any new stores within the city limits.

There are many factors at play here. Wal-Mart has been lambasted for years for the effect its store openings have had on local businesses. Yet when they open, people flock to them and keep coming back. They have been criticized for their hiring practices, and their pay and treatment of employees. Yet when they open there are many applicants for each available position.

It seems like the bottom line is that people need jobs, and people either need or must have low prices. It is common to hear someone complain about the store and yet regularly shop there.

The main issue for San Diego had to do with development--to what extent are more stores this size good for the city in terms of land use, congestion and appearance. The decision fits with the long-term history of the city--it is a bit difficult to build here. I think the city looks north to Los Angeles as an example of how not to develop.

The recent death of economist Milton Friedman has stimulated discussions about the value and pitfalls of free markets. In an ideal world, all businesses, on their own, would operate always in the long-term best interest of their communities (and themselves, ultimately). Unfortunately, this is not what happens. The drive to move dollars to the short-term bottom line invariably trumps interest in long-term anything.

It’s tempting to think of the possibility of a completely free and unfettered system--pure capitalism, if you will. But I think it’s appropriate for government to limit or regulate any business when there is significant doubt that it will operate in the broader, long-term public good.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Darfur = Texas


Quote of the day:
“You’re supposed to stop and smell the roses, and I do. But not while I’m working.”
--Lorne Michaels

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Stop and smell the roses. And remember that someone has grown them.”
--Preston Creston

Over the last four years in the Darfur region of Sudan, more than 200,000 people have been killed, and thousands have been brutalized, according to the BBC. Two million people have fled their homes. The Sudanese government remains opposed to allowing UN troops in the region.

There are so many interests involved in the Darfur situation, it can be hard to remember how this violence began. Here is an excellent, brief summary:

“The Darfur region is located in the western part of Sudan along the border with Chad. Darfur, which means ‘the kingdom of the Fur,’ is the size of Texas.

“The current conflict began in 2002 when two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, began attacking government targets because of the Khartoum government’s perceived discrimination against African ethnic groups such as the Fur, Massaleit and Zagawha. The conflict is rooted in local struggles over land
and water between the nomadic ‘Arabs’ and the land-tilling ‘Africans.’

“The categories of Arab and African are rather arbitrary, however. There have been decades of intermarriage between the two groups, both of which are Muslim. A split within the government of Sudan in 2000 over the correct expression of political Islam led to the declaration of a state of emergency and fueled violence between the two groups.”

--Sandra Joireman in the November 28 "Christian Century."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hurray for Koppel on Iran


Quote of the day:
“Are you going to come quietly, or do I have to use earplugs?”
--Spike Milligan

Dateline of the day:
“Bio, Mass.”
--On a story by Sam Ness in the November 27, 2006 Weekly World News about the danger of aliens disguised as vegetables invading salad bars and produce departments.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“My analogy [of 24/7 news] is its rather like standing two feet away from a railroad track and watching the trains go by. And, boy, you’re close and it’s exciting and there’s a lot of energy and you really feel as though you’re on top of it, but you can’t for the life of you see what’s going on.”
--Ted Koppel

Ted Koppel’s Discovery channel special “Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation?” should be must-see TV. It is a superbly rational look inside a country that some of our leaders are demonizing. Much of the documentary was filmed before last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah conflict.

Insightful interviews with government and religious leaders are interspersed with the comments of academics (who often disagree with each other) and ordinary Iranians. There are many beautiful sights in the program, and some unsettling ones. In a way, this is also a travelog. I had a real sense of what it would be like to visit this fascinating, ancient culture.

With all our posturing and endless chatter about Iran, this show is an amazing and humanizing gust of fresh air. Just in time for the holidays, too. It’s compelling TV and well worth your time. Check the Discovery schedule, and plan to watch it--you’ll be glad you did.

For highlights of the show, including interviews and a slideshow, go to http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/koppel/highlights/highlights.html and look for “Most Dangerous Nation” at the left of the screen.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Christmas: Are We There Yet?


Quote of the day:
“Hey Coach, your tie is horrible.”
--A Texas-San Antonio basketball fan, addressing University of San Diego coach Brad Holland, who had just been ejected from Sunday’s game.

Live television ultimate truth of the day:
“You go on when it’s 11:30, not when you’re ready.”
--Lorne Michaels, Creator and Executive Producer of "Saturday Night Live."

Quote of the day no. 2:
“We are the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have universal health care. We are also the only industrialized nation in the world that still has the death penalty. In these two cases, we seem to favor death more than life.”
--Studs Terkel, interviewed in the November 2006 "Sun."

The Christmas season has been underway for a while. I’ve heard “Let It Snow” at least four times, and it’s not December yet. The decorations were out at our local Wal-Mart eight weeks ago.

This week the liturgical season of Advent begins. Advent is commonly seen as the “getting-ready-for-Christmas” season, but the reality is much more significant.

Advent is a good and appropriate and soul-nurturing season, because its focus is on quiet waiting. In the midst of ever-louder, ever-more-expensive, ever-more-hectic secular Christmas preparations, some intentional quiet and reflection can be mightily refreshing.

I hope some quiet can find all of us in this season.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Product Placement Royale


Quote of the day:
“I loved the work more than the success.”
--Neil Simon

Musician quote of the day:
“It’s the only thing I’m good at.”
--Keith Richards, on playing guitar

Follow-up to Fat on the Flag:
“His pen, to alter the proverb, became his sword, arguably the most powerful weapon of his presidency.”
--Douglas L. Wilson in "Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words"

Architecture quote of the day:
“Despite its criminally slow pace, the rebuilding of [New Orleans] is emerging as one of the most aggressive works of social engineering in America since the postwar boom of the 1950s.”
--Nicolai Ouroussoff in the November 19, 2006 "New York Times."

Have you seen the new James Bond yet? A lot of people have--its cash registers have been getting weary of kachinging.

"Casino Royale" is an enjoyable film and a great escape, though it is more violent and brutal than has been typical with Bond. Daniel Craig is excellent as Bond, as is Judi Dench as M, his boss.

At its heart this is an exceptionally well-made action-thriller, with beautiful locations and people, high technology, and cars. Yes, there’s an Aston-Martin, but there are many, many Ford products. I don’t think, outside of a factory or a dealer, you will ever see more Ford products in one place. Especially in the Bahamas.

Indeed, there is some in-your-face product placement, including a titanically unsubtle attempt to dub Omega as the new Rolex.

There is a closer-than-you-might-expect look at Bond’s character, and some very nasty bad guys. Throw in the usual martinis and a little high-stakes Texas Hold’em, and it’s not a bad time at the movies.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"When I Heard the News, I Was..."


Quote of the day:
“It starts cute with a shot of a box of squirming puppies and heads weepingly down the road to bathos and schmaltz.”
--Robert Laurence in today’s "San Diego Union-Tribune." He was reviewing "Candles on Bay Street," a Hallmark TV movie airing Sunday night.

Post-Thanksgiving quote of the day:
“It was your basic stoppage.”
--Jeff Hughes, a plumber quoted in today’s U-T, talking about a typical post-holiday call to unclog a kitchen sink.

Three dates to consider:
December 7
November 22
September 11

As you read those dates, you probably had no emotional response if you are under ten years old. If you responded to September 11, you are at least ten years old. If you also responded to November 22, you are at least 47. And if you responded to all three dates, you are at least 70.

The dates represent three life-changing national tragedies. Virtually every American who was alive on any or all of these dates remember exactly where they were when they heard the news: The Navy base at Pearl Harbor is under attack. President Kennedy has been shot. An airplane has crashed into the World Trade Center.

Each of these events changed the country and altered history. More than this, they left an indelible emotional imprint on every living American over the age of five or so.

Each of these events unified the nation, most obviously in the days and weeks just afterward. Even though this unity faded over time, everyone who watched the event is forever bonded in the shared memory of what happened.

While we can share stories with those who come along later, we cannot imprint them with the shared emotional memory. It is ours alone.

Studs Terkel and Enrico Caruso


Studs Terkel’s 1974 book "Working" was as compelling as any great novel, but it was a compilation of profiles of ordinary working people across the socioeconomic range. each of the subjects gave insight into the meaning of their work, whether it was reading gas meters or waiting tables.

Terkel’s most-recent book "And They All Sang" is interviews with musicians culled from his days as a disc jockey at Chicago’s WFMT.

Here is something from an interview he gave the November 2006 "Sun," and a follow-up to "Back in the Day":

“I was playing records, and you could play anything you wanted then. I played Enrico Caruso. I’d loved Caruso as a kid. My father would buy one-sided Caruso records for two bucks a head--that’s like fifty bucks today.

“John Ciardi, the Italian-American poet [and former NPR commentator] said Caruso was about the potential in the human race. A singer could hit a certain note--that’s as far as you could go--but Caruso would go beyond that.

“It told us that human beings have possibilities, that all of us are better than we may be behaving at the moment.”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Remembering What Endures


Quote of the day:
“Excessive merriment was not a pressing problem for the half of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers who survived the first few months in wintry Massachusetts.”
--George Will in today’s "Washington Post"

Most-unknown fact of the day:
Butterball has a new owner. The most-famous turkey brand was sold by ConAgra to Carolina Turkeys last month. Carolina has changed its name to Butterball.
--Steve Hartson, the Associated Press

Science item of the day:
If the ground did not get in the way, rainbows would be circular.
--Sherry Seethaler, science writer for the University of California, San Diego

Word of the day:
“Hurry.”
--From the center of of one of the 82 inserts in this morning’s newspaper

Thanksgiving reflection:
“How easy it is to keep up with current events these days, and how tempting, with so many sources of information only a mouse-click away.... But all the screaming headlines will still be screaming their little heads off the day I die--and no matter how many newspapers and magazines and blogs I read, I won’t understand this mysterious world any better by then.

“Maybe I need to focus more on what’s enduring and true--the one story that illuminates all our seemingly separate stories. Meanwhile, History sits at the bar, raising his glass to whoever will pay for his next drink.”
--Sy Safransky, in the November 2006 "Sun"

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Season of Gratitude


Quote of the day:
“It is unbelievable what an icon it is for visitors and residents alike.”
--Stephanie Naidoff, Philadelphia’s director of commerce, talking about the 8-foot Rocky statue now installed on the Museum of Art’s front steps.

Thanksgiving is the day many (most?) of us will reflect on what we are grateful for. Often people have told me that this is their favorite holiday of the year, because it is simple. We just gather for a meal, and give thanks.

Because every other day of the year--especially this Friday--is focused on what we don’t have and really want or need, it is a blessed relief to have one official day focused on the abundance and goodness in our lives. Even if we live very modestly in America, we are very, very wealthy by the standards of the world.

I’m not sure one day of gratitude is enough. In the last church I served, I took liberty with the liturgical calendar and declared the month of November the Season of Gratitude. We have plenty to be thankful for. Don’t get me started.

The Christian theologian Karl Barth called gratitude the best expression of God’s grace on earth. Whether you believe in God or not, this is a wonderful statement, because grace means that your life has meaning whether or not you think it does. And that itself is something to be grateful for.

As a logical concept, grace is very hard to pin down, and so is gratitude. Both of them are really about the great gifts we have been given, which are way beyond any “deserving,” and therefore also beyond any understanding. Thus gratitude is the best reaction to grace, and its best expression.

Iraq Logic


Seasonal reminder of the day:
The USDA recommends not stuffing the turkey, but baking the stuffing separately.

Quote of the day:
“Yeah, maybe. Whatever. Again, I don’t really care.”
--Darby Conley, in today’s Get Fuzzy

Richard A. Clarke is a former counter-terrorism expert in the Clinton and Bush administrations. His excellent book about Al Qaeda and September 11th, Against All Enemies, is a compelling summary of the U.S. government’s knowledge of, and response to, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the years leading up to September 11, 2001.

One important point he made, in detail, was that the Bush administration was aware of the immediate risks that al Qaeda posed, yet chose to focus its attention on other matters. Clarke’s thesis in that book has yet to be refuted in any major way. On Monday, he wrote this about Iraq:

“Too often in the Iraq debate, we have let intuitions, slogans and appealing thoughts cloud logic. Perhaps the most troublesome example is the argument that we must honor the American dead by staying until we can build something worthy of their sacrifice.

“Stripped of its emotional tones, this argument is, in economic analysis, an appeal to sunk cost. An MIT professor once threatened to fail me if I ever justified actions based on sunk cost--so I learned what is gone is gone, and what is left we should conserve, cherish and employ wisely.

“A similarly illogical argument for staying in Iraq is that chaos would follow any near-term U.S. withdrawal. The flaw lies not in the concept that chaos will happen, but rather in thinking that chaos would only happen if we withdraw in the near term. Chaos will almost certainly follow any U.S. withdrawal, whether in 2008 or 2012.”

Monday, November 20, 2006

Quiet Convergence


Quote of the day:
“Once you’ve been attacked by these animals and have them hanging out on your deck, your respect for their lives is lower than your respect for your animal’s life and your own security.”
--Larna Hartnack, a resident of Venice, California, talking about raccoons that have been frequenting her neighborhood.

Investment advice of the day:
“We can’t all beat the market, because collectively we are the market. If somebody beats the market, somebody else must lag behind. In fact, once investment costs are figured in, there are very few winners and most of us trail the market averages.”
--Jonathan Clements, "The Wall Street Journal"

Follow-up to "Tastelessness on Fox":
"We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson."
--Rupert Murdoch, after announcing cancelation of O.J. Simpson’s book and TV interview.

Follow-up to "Look Out! Plunging and Plummeting!":
“The feeble U.S. housing market showed more frailty when third-quarter home sales plummeted in 38 states, hitting Nevada, Arizona, Florida and California particularly hard, government data showed on Monday.”
--Lauren Villagran, AP, today.

This week it seems a significant step has been taken toward convergence of our video games, computers and home-entertainment systems.

The new Sony Playstation 3, which is being marketed as primarily a game device, also contains a top-of-the-line Blu-Ray (High-Definition) DVD player and a very powerful computer. It seems to be an all-purpose household entertainment and information system.

Whose room is it in?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fat is on the Flag


Historical event of the day:
On this day 143 years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most-important speech in American history. It was four minutes long--just 10 sentences. It followed a two-hour oration that has long been forgotten. Lincoln’s speech became known as the Gettysburg Address.

Musician quote of the day:
“That people actually still like us is staggering, really.”
--Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones

Related trivia of the day:
Number of tractor-trailer rigs required to transport the last Rolling Stones world tour: 54.

Technology quote of the day:
“The problem may be that our world has become overrun with gadgets that do more than ever because they can, not because they should.”
--John Maeda, MIT Professor, in today’s "Parade."

Did you hear about art student William Gentry? His senior project was pulled from the Clarksville, Tennessee art museum just 18 hours after being put on display. It was called “The Fat is in the Fire” and consisted of three U.S. flags with phrases such as “Poor people are obese because they eat poorly” and more than 40 smaller flags fried in peanut oil, egg batter, flour and black pepper.

This conflict is just silly. The problem of America overeating is not silly. The principles for which the flag stands are not silly. But this conflict is silly.

Art is always a matter of taste. But being offended by this exhibit is idol-worship. This artist is not denigrating America or American principles in any way, or even questioning them. He is making a creative statement of a well-known fact. Our biggest nutritional problem is overeating and poor choices, while in many developing nations there are no choices. A billion people live in situations in which nothing edible is ever thrown away and there is no Diet Coke because every calorie is vital.

I suspect that Benjamin Franklin, Dolly Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln would all respect and admire this art work.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Tastelessness on Fox


Quote of the day:
“In a way, I didn’t think that management was that complicated.”
--Bill Gates, responding to Charlie Rose “marveling” at how a software geek and Harvard dropout could successfully run a large global corporation. From today’s "Barron’s."

Statistic of the day:
Number of Buicks sold so far this year in the U.S.:
206,589.
Number sold in China:
241,632.

Projected statistic of the day:
“By 2050, Goldman Sachs projects the Americans will have 233 million cars, the Chinese will have 514 million cars and the Indians will have 610 million cars. The Americans with 148 million cars already consume a quarter of the world’s oil.”
--David Hale, quoted in today’s "Barron’s"

Quote of the day No. 2:
“There is no sense in which it is not tasteless.”
--David Hinckley in "The New York Daily News," talking about O.J. Simpson’s book and the Fox television show supporting it.

Of the TV show, he goes on to say: “We can’t stop [producer Judith] Regan and Simpson from making it; we can’t stop Fox from broadcasting it. What we can control is whether we watch it.”

Friday, November 17, 2006

Let's Hear It For Elizabeth


Quote of the day:
“First and foremost, I am bound and determined to become cliche free.”
--Amber Lager

Historical event of the day:
On this day in 1558, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the British throne.

Way to celebrate:
Rent the excellent 1998 film "Elizabeth," starring Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush. In addition to wonderful performances and production design, it is a superb depiction of political intrigue, and an entertaining study of good management.

I suppose you could round out the picture by going to see the current film "Queen." Helen Mirren is getting much attention for what must be a fine portrayal of Elizabeth II.

A couple of thoughts about "Are We One? Or Two?" from Louis Menand’s excellent book of essays "American Studies:"

“People with no common set of beliefs are vulnerable to ideologues peddling, if nothing else, coherence.”

“Politics is a battle against process, just as life is. It is a war against the tendency of things to take their natural course.”

Are We One? Or Two?


Quote of the day:
“Cogito ergo sum.” (“I think, therefore I am.”)
--Rene Descartes

Mistaken quote of the day:
“Cogito eggo sum.” (“I think, therefore I am a waffle.”)
--Descartes Befour Dayhorse

Follow-up to Dwelling on Dwelling Prices:
“Median home prices seem to have soared: from $7,400 (1950) to $62,200 (1980) to $219,000 (2005). But since 1968, those gains equal less than 2 percent a year, after inflation.”
--Today’s "Life" magazine

Follow-up to "Chicken Little Has Crossed the Road":
The movie "An Inconvenient Truth" comes out on DVD in a few days. If you haven’t seen it, take the time. It’s worth it, however you feel about Al Gore.

More on "Rudyard Kipling and Ted Haggard":
We separate, categorize, and do battle. Are our thoughts distinct from our being, as most Descartes interpretations would conclude? Are there really two separate “beings” in each of us? Are they at war? Should they be?

This is very hard to talk about because conflict is around us everywhere. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s not. Consider the battles we hear about in the news each day. Honest hard-working citizen versus indifferent big government. America versus terrorists. Gang versus gang. Tom Cruise versus Brooke Shields.

Conflict is central to much great literature and art. Often the conflict is very simply drawn--the good guys versus the bad guys. Think 95% of classic western movies. Think Star Wars. We seem to prefer hats to be clearly black or white. No grey hats for us.

Yet our experience tells us that life is not a black-and-white enterprise. It happens in living color.

Can we handle that, or do we have to continue separating, categorizing, and battling? Is it helpful to wall ourselves off from parts of ourselves? Is it helpful to see parts of ourselves in others and fight with them?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rudyard Kipling and Ted Haggard


Quote of the day:
“Contrary to popular belief, manners are far from superficial. Once ingrained, they become part of people’s humanity....”
--Judith Martin, "Miss Manners"

Untrue truism of the day:
“East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.”
--Rudyard Kipling

Punchline of old joke:
“Yeast is yeast and nest is nest, and never the mane shall tweet.”

News lead of the day:
“Evangelical leader Ted Haggard, in apologizing to his followers for contact with a gay prostitute, said he had sought help to combat a ‘repulsive and dark’ side of his life but that no approach had proven effective.”
--David Crary, the Associated Press

Like Ted Haggard, we often set up part of our lives as war. We do battle. We may face combat each morning when we get out of bed. Our main combat strategy seems to be separation. That is, we identify, categorize and separate ourselves from anything foreign.

Separation can take many forms. One of the easiest is to identify the foreign characteristic in another individual or institution and then either do battle with them or wall ourselves off from them.

We are constantly separating, as in:
the good guys from the bad guys,
stainless-steel appliances from white appliances,
time alone from time with people,
darkness from light,
BMW drivers from Ford pickup drivers,
evil from good,
work from fun,
religion from science,
sound from silence,
heart from mind,
thought from feeling,
men from women,
serious from funny,
Americans from terrorists,
rich from poor,
gay from straight,
cool from uncool,
the country from the city,
the good old days from today.

And the list goes on and on and on. More to come.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"I Have a Dream Today"


Quote of the day:
“It’s too bad that stupidity isn’t painful.”
--Preston Creston

Food quote of the day:
“On the Thanksgiving plate, turkey is never the star nor the most memorable dish. Turkey recipes are not passed down through generations, like your grandmother’s cranberry relish.”
--Kim Severson, "The New York Times"

Most inspiring news lead in quite some time:
“Two presidents, a renowned poet and lions of the civil rights movement joined thousands gathered on the National Mall yesterday to mark the spot where a memorial will be built to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., the visionary pastor who beseeched the nation to live up to its principles and earned a place in the pantheon of American history.”
--Petula Dvorak and Robert E. Pierre in today’s "Washington Post"

In news reports about the dedication of the King memorial site, reporters referred often to his amazingly stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The depth and breadth of the influence of this speech, and of King’s speeches throughout his leadership of the civil rights movement, have only begun to be appreciated.

The “I Have a Dream” speech was an extraordinary accomplishment. It was just eight minutes long. It was delivered on a very hot August day. Most important, it was in no way casual, either in its preparation or in its delivery.

King did two things exceptionally well. First, he realized and embraced the opportunity the speech presented. Second, he worked very hard to prepare the speech. He chose words, phrases and images with careful thought and deliberation. He wrote, rewrote and rewrote again, and kept editing and then editing some more.

It would have been easy to focus just on the issue or policy of the moment. It would have been easy to make the speech up as he went along--he was certainly smart and talented and experienced enough. King did neither of these things.

Martin Luther King did with the “I Have a Dream” speech the same thing that Abraham Lincoln did at Gettysburg. He put into eloquent, memorable words the highest and deepest hopes of America.

It was a world-changing and world-enhancing achievement.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Baby Boomers and John Wayne


Quote of the day:
“It’s not going to stop till you wise up.”
--Aimee Mann

Follow-up of the day:
For more on "The Most Amazing Story of 2006?",
go to "The Christian Century," the October 31, 2006 issue--christiancentury.org.

Demographic observation of the day:
“Contrary to the usual understanding, the baby boomers didn’t create the culture of the sixties; they didn’t even inspire it. They consumed it. In 1968, the climax of the decade politically, the oldest baby boomer in America was just turning twenty-two. To the extent that baby boomers participated in protests, took drugs, and practiced ‘free love,’ they were responding to slogans, tastes, and fads dreamed up and promulgated by people much older than they were.”
--Louis Menand

Why airports get names, quote of the day:
“There is no better demonstration of the power of movies than [John] Wayne’s impact on American life.

“Wayne on the screen was nothing but image--lit, moved about, costumed, made up, photographed. Where the politicians had speechwriters, he had scripts. Only the superficial will think that these artistic means have a superficial impact on ‘real life.’ They are the tools for making the myths that go into our self-understanding as a people.”
--Garry Willis, in "John Wayne’s America"

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What Will You Leave Behind?


Quote of the day:
"Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris without a radio. Nowadays people can't walk through the produce section without a cell phone.”
--attributed to Garrison Keillor

Response to "Examples of Business Ethics," from regular reader Andy Breece:

“Your blog quoted Yankelovich - ‘stewardship ethics’--operating with both long-term profitability and the broader public good in mind. 

“’Stewardship ethics’ – what a wonderful phrase.  Strikes me that it could be a lot more than balancing profitability and public good – it could be the basis for developing an approach to applying Christian values to the trials and tribulations of daily life.

“I think most people know what they want to do, or should do, they just don't have a ‘tool’ to leverage their way towards an action that sits well with them – too often people value what others tell them they should value. Even ‘public good’ is too esoteric for many, especially those who are living on the edge.

“Perhaps a stewardship view would influence their valuation.

“Caring for someone else's property as if it were your own, not because it's the ‘right thing to do,’ but because in a very real sense it does belong you.  

“It ALL belongs to you even though you may not have custody of everything ... besides whatever you have today will belong to others tomorrow. 

“Temporal custody is just that, temporary, but what you do when you have custody is forever.”

The New Populists


Quote of the day:
"Anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers."
--Kurt Vonnegut

Headline of the day:
“For Incoming Democrats, Populism Trumps Ideology.”
--Today’s "New York Times"

Populism is the political word of the moment. The word is used six times in today’s "" front-page story.

A “populist” is defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary as “a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people.” That seems clear, simple and desirable. And the new members of congress seem to be genuinely interested in making our government work better for us.

But the label “populist” is cause for some reflection. “Populism” has not always been a good or even benign philosophy of governing. Huey Long rose to extraordinary power as a populist, and his fame now rests on being one of the most corrupt politicians in our history. And, of course, Adolf Hitler and Mussolini both rose to power as populists, rebelling against the elites of their time.

It’s very tempting to jump on the populist bandwagon. After all, who wouldn’t want to stand against our “elites” right now, whether they are “pointy-headed-ivory-tower-liberal-intellectuals” or “greedy-corporate-insider-big-money lobbyists” or “fundamentalist-right-wing-holier-than-thou moralists” or “neocon ideologues.”

Louis Menand talks about a 1960s film that covered the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama. This culminated in Governor George Wallace’s famous “stand in the schoolhouse door.” Wallace also built his career as a populist.

This how Menand describes the film: “Robert Kennedy, in the White House, and his deputy, Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach, in Alabama--Ivy League liberals, supremely assured of their virtue--are seen discussing their strategy for handling Wallace as though Wallace were an inconvenient road hazard, a man, in their calculus, of no moral account whatever.

“And Wallace is seen arriving at the university and accepting expressions of support from the people waiting to greet him, with the easy familiarity of a man who knows them and is part of a genuine community.

“Wallace was as successful a populist as the postwar era produced, and the Kennedy administration was undoubtedly the incarnation of the modern liberal mentality....

“There is something slightly chilling about the confrontation, as there is when you watch any ancient and deeply rooted thing smoothly and expertly obliterated by the forces of ‘progress.’ But Kennedy and Katzenbach were right, and Wallace was wrong.”