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 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.