Saturday, September 30, 2006


“We must make an idol of our fear and call it God.”
--Ingmar Bergman, in the script for "The Seventh Seal"

Reuters reported yesterday that a Canadian school teacher and speech therapist left $3.8 million to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Roberta Langtry was 89 when she died.

What makes this newsworthy is three things:
1. She accumulated this money by saving carefully and investing wisely;
2. It was discovered that, during her life, she gave large, anonymous donations to people in need;
3. Most important, she was quiet about her wealth as well as what she intended to do with it.

Isn’t it refreshing to hear about someone who has something to offer yet doesn’t feel the compulsion to call attention to it? It seems contrary to the way things go these days.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Legendary Singer Compared to Amphibian!

Quote of the day:
“I never thought anything so powerful could come out of that little toad.”
--Joan Baez, talking about the first time she heard Bob Dylan. He sang “With God on Our Side.”

And from another musician:
“Working musicians are very rarely purists. The purists are out in the audience kibitzing, not onstage trying to make a living.”
--Dave Van Ronk

Musical trivia question of the day:
When the Beatles made their first appearance on Ed Sullivan, what was the number one album in America?
That’s right, The Singing Nun.

Interesting observation of the day:
“It was strange...kind of like burned almond cookie.”
Space Tourist Anousbeth Ansari, on what space smells like.

Followup of the day:
For more on Keith York’s house (entry of September 3, 2006, “Who is Our Designer?”), go to

While we’re on the subject of followups, here’s more about the September 20, 2006 entry, “Who Is Your Editor?” How we select what gets our attention is an important concern, to which I will return from time to time.

One of the most-popular editors right now is Google. It has become synonymous with internet search. In fact, the product name has become a verb which means “internet search.”

Google’s search is based purely on a mathematical algorithm, essentially a mechanical formula that searches web pages. Yahoo and other search engines alter this a bit by introducing human “editors” who test randomly selected search terms and select what is most relevant.

Commenting on this difference, Jan Pedersen, Yahoo’s chief scientist for search and marketplace, said this: “We think that (the human touch) definitely adds to the product, as opposed to the kind of purist view that you have to have to have an algorithm that necessarily does these things.”

Does this human intervention help? Or does it just introduce unnecessary “corruption”?

(note: This daily blog is available with photos, links, and a song at

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Are We Ironic or Simply Chronic?

Quote of the day:
“Trying to teach manners by being rude is as unpleasant as it is futile.”
--Miss Manners (Judith Martin)

Today’s tip:
Tune in to Lynn Johnston’s comic strip “For Better or For Worse.” There is a major development this week. This is a consistently excellent comic.

I got the annual Forbes 400 issue yesterday, and the back-page “Thoughts on the Business of Life” (all from “past or present Forbes 400 members) have to be the lamest, most self-serving quotes in the history of the magazine. With one or two exceptions. If you must see the list, You’ll need to sign up first.

I don’t read the Forbes 400 issue anyway. It’s just not that interesting. It may have something to do with most of these people channeling 100% of their creative energy into making and spending money, which leaves no time for anything else.

I do like the feisty spirit of several of the magazine’s columnists. Gary Shilling, in the October 2 issue, predicts the end of the spending boom brought on by the surge in real-estate prices. He makes this observation:

“Consumers have no alternative to saving more of current income and borrowing less. This will reverse trends that have become so chronic that most don’t realize they exist.”

That made me think that there are likely other things in our lives that are “so chronic that we don’t realize they exist.” Hurrying. Distraction. Noise. Pain. What else?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What Do Their Brains Say?

Quote of the day:
“Around here, the customer’s hardly ever right.”
--Doughnut Shop Owner Cliff Arnold, see

Fly-on-the-wall moment:
California’s governor meets with the Dalai Lama:

Interesting developing news story:
The growing body of research based on brain imaging. Many scientists are skeptical about how much brain imaging can tell us. Yet we continue to see news stories about it.

Today’s finding shows that brain connections continue to grow until age 45 or so, suggesting that our intellectual peak may be later in life than we’ve thought.

In my entry on September 19 I described a brain-imaging study of adolescents. There have been other recent reports using this technology to investigate the origin of genius. And there was an interesting piece in "The New Yorker" about the use of brain imaging to figure out why we are so bad at financial decision-making (

For general brain-imaging info,

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Panic First, Then Panic

“There will be horrific financial implications. More money will be needed for providing health care benefits that could otherwise be used for fighting fires or keeping libraries open.”

That is an expert quoted near the lead of an AP news story yesterday. The story was about the growing cost of public employee health benefits.

The very end of the same story has this quote from a different expert: “This isn’t Chicken Little. It’s wrong to panic, and it’s wrong to put your head in the sand and ignore the liability altogether. The middle ground of responsible funding is the way to go.”

Underfunded pension and health-benefit liabilities is a very, very serious issue for the long-term financial health of our governments at every level. But what is the best way to approach this problem?

To me, the first quote seeks to incite fear. Is that constructive, considering our judgment is impaired in the presence of fear? We can’t make good decisions when we feel fear. Especially decisions that will affect us for the next 50 to 100 years.

Which is more productive: to set about rationally assessing the scope of the problem so that we can begin to form a responsible solution, or running around in a panic that fire stations and libraries will have to close?

Monday, September 25, 2006

George Orwell is Alive in Iowa

“Marketing: Using fraud and deception to sell crud to fools.”
--Frank Van Alstine

An AP news item today begins: “A Powerball ticket sold at a convenience store is worth $200 million, Iowa lottery officials said yesterday.”

But wait. The same news item, one paragraph later: “The prize, if taken in payments over 30 years, would be $140.5 million after taxes, a lottery official said. A lump sum payment would yield a check of $67.1 million after taxes.”

So, the ticket is not worth $200 million now. It is worth $67.1 million, after taxes, now.

For the last 15 years or so, lottery and contest officials have pulled this trick, which allows them to advertise a prize (usually an enticingly tidy round number) much bigger than what is awarded.

I remember discovering this years ago while sitting in my car looking at a contest ticket I had just gotten at McDonalds. It said “Enter and win a million dollars!” On the back the ticket said that the prize was $50,000 a year for 20 years.

I talked back to the ticket. I said, “Wait a minute. Here’s the deal I want. OK, so you don’t really want to part with a million dollars. So, if I enter and win this contest, I’ll pay it back. You give me a million dollars, and I’ll pay you $50,000 a year for 20 years.”

We have all been trained to be elementary actuaries in the service of bringing Orwellian doublespeak into the world. $200 million = $67.1 million. And it’s OK with us. After all, we say to ourselves, “it’s still a hell of a lot of money.”

Sunday, September 24, 2006

From a High-School Classroom

Last Tuesday’s entry “Do Adolescents Care About Others?” noted some new brain-imaging research with teenagers and adolescents. The research showed little activity in the part of the brain associated with empathetic feelings.

Here is a response to that entry from high-school teacher Cheryl Reagan:

“If 18-22 year olds are adolescents and possibly, therefore, empathy challenged, then what hope is there for those of us who try to teach them to treat each other (and ourselves) respectfully? Is adolescents and brain maturation slowed in the 21st century?

“Maybe I'll just be more amazed at myself and what I do. Certainly this year's assignment of teaching responsibility, organization, and respect to the 90 kids predicted to be the third of the class of 2010 that don't graduate makes me daydream about herding cats as a career alternative. My kids, this hapless 30%, range from 14 to 16 years old, so are my efforts absurdly optimistic?

“I don't think so. Some of these kids need someone to say good morning and remember their names, even if that is the extent of the conversation. Others need to know that out of 180 days of school, they can pretty much count on the same face in the same room with the same expectations (even if they're grumpy sometimes) 177 of those days.

“Others need a place to be with beings just like themselves in a place that has enough structure to be safe and enough (or almost enough) freedom to learn about being themselves.

“Others may need much, much more than we can give at the time, but I have to think they might remember some day, when their medullae oblongata are just a little more ripe for the plucking, the words and manner we have used with them. I really have to think that.”

Thoughts For Our Times

Some quotes for today:

No one is “self-made”:
"None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns—bent down and helped us pick up our boots."
--Thurgood Marshall

We will fight to the death for the freedom to be like everyone else:
"When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."
--Eric Hoffer

Creativity is often about stealing:
“Imitation is the sincerest form of television.”
--Fred Allen

Those who claim to proclaim the truth deserve our skepticism:
"There are no whole truths; all truths are half- truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil."
--Alfred North Whitehead

Mantra from the 90s TV show “The X-Files” that is missing three words:
“The truth is out there.”
(Words missing: “and in here.”)

And finally,
"Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century."
--Dame Edna Everage

Friday, September 22, 2006

Back in the Day

Our culture rewards newness and is quick to discard what it can’t or won’t understand, especially if it’s dusty. As such, it’s gratifying to know there are people who work to make old, sometimes obscure but often wondrous things accessible to us. Antiques dealers have been doing this for years, in a business in which the commercial stakes have gone up steadily in recent years.

Some enterprising CD and DVD issuers have been doing it, too. Naxos is a fairly small mid-price CD label, specializing in off-the-beaten track classical music. A similar mission was undertaken by Nonesuch in the 1960s. Naxos has a sublabel focusing on recordings of historical interest.

I found a Naxos Historical CD of a young Enrico Caruso at the public library the other day. It contains ten recordings made in Milan on April 11, 1902 by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (the main competitor of the Victor Talking Machine Company). They were the first commercial recordings made by Caruso, and they propelled gramophone sales to a level never seen before, way past the phonograph, which used cylinders.

Caruso was well-suited to the role of popularizing gramophones in living rooms. His voice could peel paint from the back of any concert hall. These were the days before microphones or electronic amplification. They didn’t come along until the mid-1920s. The recording process consisted, essentially, of shouting at a needle, which would vibrate and carve grooves on a disc or cylinder. If anyone could get the most from this process, it was Caruso.

It’s interesting to listen to this CD and think of it being made more than 104 years ago. But I found myself going beyond historical curiosity to hear why Caruso is considered one of the best singers ever. He hits the big note, and his voice begins to expand. Bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, with fullness and character and no strain. It’s amazing.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Plunging and Plummeting! Watch Out!

Item: Since July, the price of oil has declined from $77 to $61 a barrel, a drop of 21% in about three months.

Item: In the same three months, the phrase “Oil Prices Plunge” (defined as “fall suddenly or uncontrollably”) has been used 33,100 times to report this decline, according to a Google search. “Oil Prices Plummet” (defined as “fall straight down”) has been used 791 times.

A 21% drop in oil prices is significant and substantial. But it is neither uncontrollable, sudden nor straight down.

Usually the use of over-dramatic language in news stories is blamed on a headline-seeking, sensationalistic press. But there are a couple other things going on.

The drama often originates, or is encouraged, at the source. For oil prices, the press is talking to the people who closely follow oil price movements--futures traders and speculators who stand to gain or lose lots of money when the oil price moves just slightly up or down. When the price moves the way it has over the last few months, many of these people have either made or lost a huge amount of money. To them, a 21% price drop over three months is the biggest news imaginable.

The other reason big drama gets added to rather mundane facts like this (let’s face it, oil prices are boring) is that it is crying for attention in competition with a million other bits of information and personalities.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Who Is Your Editor?

“With all thy getting, get understanding.”
--Proverbs 4:7

What do Yahoo, "The New York Times" and Maxwell Davies have in common? Hint: they all provide an invisible but vital function.

Another hint: Maxwell Davies, who was born on this day in 1885, was considered one of the best editors in the English language, and is responsible for the versions we read of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner and others. A good editor can make bad writing readable and good writing great.

"The New York Times" prides itself on having the best journalists and reporters in the business. But it’s the editors who make the Times the nation’s ”newspaper of record”--a title it will not be giving up anytime soon. The editors select whether and where and in what form stories will appear in the paper.

And the paper itself serves as an “editor” for the nation. Heads of news organizations and average readers across the country read the paper to know what is news on any given day.

Yahoo is also an editor. Whether through search algorithms or human selection, when you use Yahoo to look for something, it will tell you what is most important.

We have more access to more information than at any time in human history. Random and semi-random walks through this information may be fun from time to time. But we need very good editors--and we need to be conscious of who they are.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Do Adolescents Care About Others?

New research suggests that teens and adolescents “hardly ever use the portion of their brains associated with thinking about other people’s emotions and thoughts,” according to Scott LaFee in today’s "San Diego Union-Tribune."

Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of University College London has done brain-imaging research to indicate the extent to which adolescent brains are still developing. (

In addition to empathy, parts of the brain responsible for prudence and caution also are still growing and not fully functional, Blakemore says. As Lafee puts it, “When confronted with making decisions about people and emotions, a posterior portion of the brain, used in perceiving and imagining actions, took charge.”

This brought to mind something that Peter J. Boyer wrote about in the September 4, 2006 "New Yorker":

“When the [story about the alleged rape by members of the Duke lacrosse team] broke, last spring, [Duke Instructor] Elizabeth Chin’s anthropology class was studying Margaret Mead’s ‘The Coming of Age in Samoa,’ occasioning lively inquiry into the mores governing Duke’s undergraduate life.

“For Chin, a visiting professor from Occidental College, the sessions were surprising, and instructive. Several of the young women in her class were members of Duke’s elite sororities--the Core Four, as they are called. ‘The sorority women in particular were trying to convince me that the sexually free and exploratory world that Mead describes is pretty much the same thing as the hookup culture,’ Chin recalls. She wasn’t buying it.

“’The whole hookup thing is, you get really drunk so that, at some level, you can’t be responsible,’ she says. ‘And then you hook up and then there’s no obligation. It’s bad manners, in fact, to sort of get connected to the person. But I don’t think any of them like it that much…. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s very alienating. It’s sort of like they have to deaden themselves before they can do it.’”

Two Separate Yet Equally Important Groups

"Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."
--Samuel Johnson

I’m thinking of changing my name to Epatha, after one of my favorite actors on “Law and Order.”

Do you know how many times a day you can see an episode of “Law and Order” or one of its spawn on cable TV? At last count, there are 74 opportunities during any 24-hour period. That’s an estimate. Can we say “ubiquitous”? It may be the defining entertainment series of this generation.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself forgetting that, in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. And these, which are their stories, can be seen many times daily in high-definition video with high-quality audio. What a relief.

Life is a very good thing.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Trend, We Hardly Knew Ye

"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Ten years ago, no one predicted that the largest user of the U.S Mail today would be a video-rental company trafficking in video discs. Ten years ago, thousands of people knowingly predicted that we would today be downloading movies into our homes. The first trend is raging, the second may be another ten years away.

25 years ago, no one predicted that most of America would spend time each week browsing among colorful boxes at the local video-rental store. 25 years ago, the press was awash with predictions of the imminent coming of interactive home video and the death of terrestrial, analog TV and radio. The first trend was with us for 20 years and is now fading. The second is just sputtering to life.

We are terrible at knowing trends. The problem is often not that we don’t know what will happen. We are just clueless about when. We have two favorite time frames for trends: within 5 years from now, and never.

This misapprehension is fed by a school of management that talks about fast. As in the wildly successful magazine "Fast Company," whose slogan is “The magazine for a generation of business leaders with high expectations for their companies -- and even higher expectations for themselves.”

Do the high expectations include being right about trends?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Chicken Little Has Crossed the Road

“You can live to be a hundred if you give up everything that makes you want to.”
--Woody Allen, from script for "Interiors"

Fifty miles south of Anchorage, Alaska, there is a glacier so stunning that a visitor center was built next to it in 1985. Visitors watch a brief film and the curtain goes up to reveal a stunning blue expanse of ice. Or that was the idea. It turns out the glacier has receded and is no longer visible from the visitor center. (see

For years leading climatologists could not understand why glaciers and polar ice were not disappearing more quickly. After all, their data demonstrated convincingly that the earth was getting warmer. This led many to question their research, and doubt the phenomenon of global warming. The reasoning was that it was “just a theory” and was not backed up by “the facts.” Various political commentators loved to use the term “Chicken Little” to refer to climate scientists who track the earth’s temperature patterns and other factors.

Well, I guess Chicken Little has crossed the road. As things have turned out, the Alaska example above is but one of dozens that have been publicized over the last year, especially since the release of the very good movie "An Inconvenient Truth."

It is very interesting to me that, in the wake of the film, there has been some criticism of Al Gore, mostly from his usual detractors, but there has been no criticism or refutation of the movie’s very carefully laid out premise.

If you have not seen the film, I strongly encourage you to take the time, however you feel about Al Gore. I didn’t find it dull or pedantic--it’s very interesting, and it’s constructive. It’s still in theaters, and comes out on DVD on November 21.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Confessions of an Audiophile

Usually when I’m making coffee in the morning I’ll turn on CNN for a few minutes. It’s encouraging when the first thing I see is a commercial, because I know there is no cataclysmic event unfolding in the world. When CNN covers such events, they run no commercials.

This morning was different. I flipped on the set and a 1932 Hal Roach short was coming on TCM. There were Zazu Pitts and Thelma Todd. And there I was, pouring hot water in the French Press, and laughing. What a joy.

When the short ended I walked in the living room and put on a CD of an oboe concerto by Gordon Jacob. I looked on the box to see when it was written. 1934. I turned and looked at a photo of my mother with her family, taken sometime in the 1930s.

It was in the 1930s that the business of electronic recording began to flourish. So many great recordings were made in that period, by people like Billie Holliday, The Boswell Sisters, Count Basie and Duke Ellington--and by many, many lesser-known artists. I’ve developed a special fondness for so much of this music.

Only recently have I realized that I’m an audiophile. I listen to a lot of music at home--it’s on most of the time, and I care about how it sounds. It’s also important to me to get the music out of the recordings that the creators put there. And there’s a lot of music on early recordings. I used to shun them because of limited dynamic range or frequency range, not to mention surface noise. But I’ve found, with a good playback system, the music clearly overcomes any inadequacy. It is joy, and it sounds real.

While I’m an audiophile, I am not a fanatic, which in unfortunately common among all varieties of -philes (oenophiles come to mind). It is easy to become a bit obsessive and self-righteous, which you’ll notice right away visiting any online -phile discussion group.

For me, it’s just about the music. And I so enjoy knowing that, for the last 80 years electronically (and before that mechanically) all these wonderful people have committed their talents and themselves to cylinders, discs and tape. It’s all here for us to hear.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Remembering Five Years Ago

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.”
--Sir Francis Bacon

It was about this time in 2001 when we started to see flags everywhere. You could buy one in the checkout lane of the grocery store. It was the oh-so-brief post-9/11 time when displaying the flag carried no political agenda beyond saying “I am an American.”

As Hendrik Hertzberg reminds us in the September 11th "New Yorker," this week five years ago the French newspaper "Le Monde" had a front-page headline “Nouse Sommes Tous Americains”--”we are all Americans.” He says, “Messages of solidarity and indignation came from Libya and Syria as well as from Germany and Israel; flowers and funeral wreaths piled up in front of American Embassies from London to Beijing; in Iran, a candlelight vigil expressed sympathy.”

Hertzberg points out that “no one realistically expected that the mood of fellow-feeling and cooperation would long persist.... What few expected was how comprehensively that initial spirit would be ruined by the policies and behavior of our government.”

He is talking about primarily America’s reputation elsewhere in the world. But I think our self-image and self-respect has taken a beating, too. Where have all the flags gone?

I did see a car with a flag just this afternoon. It was a flag for the San Diego Chargers.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Great Awakening of What?

“How the world dearly loves a cage.”
--Collin Higgins, from the script of "Harold and Maude"

Noting an increasing number of people publicly calling attention to their religious faith, President Bush said yesterday that we might be in the midst of what he called a third Great Awakening. I was thinking about that comment when I read this, referring to a similar cultural shift some 350 years ago:

“What grew more and more evident as time went on was that motion is everywhere and rest is the unusual state. The upshot was that in place of the age-old static world the new was what is called dynamic. Needless to say, the source of truth likewise shifted, from settled revelation to restless experiment; truth itself was no longer static. Science took pride in having the courage to discard its own views....

“At this point comes the paradox: the age of the new method and the new revelations (in the plural and without capital letter) saw a resurgence of superstition, most violently expressed in the persecution of witches. Yet it should be no surprise that when novel ideas set minds wondering and tongues wagging, strong minds with well thought out convictions should resist and defend the status quo.

“Not everybody has the mental elasticity to be a fideist, believe in Genesis and Galileo at the same time. There is always a conservative party, and by a kind of Newtonian law of the mind, action is matched by an equal reaction; one branch of the conservative party turns reactionary and clings more intensely to the old convictions.”

This is from Jacques Barzun’s 2000 book “From Dawn to Decadence.” As you may know from previous posts, I have been savoring this book for a while--and I will continue to.

If we are going to consider whether we are living amid a new “Great Awakening,” it behooves us to be very clear to what extent it is a reversion to superstition and an attempt to turn back the clock on scientific research.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Some Reactions to Previous Posts...

From Andy Breece:

25 August Dorvalog, "We Are Always Less Biased Than Others":
"The brain cannot see itself fooling itself."
--David Gilbert, Harvard psychologist

"Most people believe the truth."
--Andy Breece, aka "Dr. Insight" :-)

To clarify by extreme examples: If everyone believed the world was flat, then for all practical human purposes, it would be flat.  A more "down to earth" example, if a vertical rise had been originally defined to be "down" - then up would be "down" today.

P.S. I am not cynical!  Everyone else is gullible.
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2 September Dorvalog, Let’s Say It Together: “Plausible”:
"Are we not trusting our own eyes, ears and judgment anymore? If not, what or who do we trust?"

I never trust my eyes and ears, but my judgement is perfect. :-)

Seriously, I have learned to distrust my own eyes and ears (especially since my acute hearing has been dulled by train whistles, heavy metal, gunfire, jet takeoffs and aging joints).

I have learned that a fellow witness standing ten feet away sees something different - the angle of view is different, the lighting is different ... highlights and shadows emphasize and mask different elements. 

Perhaps more important is the inherent filter that gives substance and meaning to what we see 
 - the clarifying filter of our life experiences, "One man's backfire is another man's gunfire."
 - the clarifying filter of our needs and desires, "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

What or who do I trust?  I trust in the Word as revealed to me through my blurry eyesight, tone deaf ears and limited intelligence, as applied to my life by an innate desire to be at ease with God's gifts. Grace be unto you. 
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24 August Dorvalog, Need and Addiction:
Quote: "The need for near-perfect certainty is a deeply entrenched delusion."
--former State Department aide Charles Hill

"Maybe he's wrong."

P.S. My needs are NOT delusional!  The absolute BEST ad agencies in the world get paid big bucks to make sure I know what my needs are.
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01 September Dorvalog, The Forces That Shape Us:
But there is an effect on all of us, because our parents and grandparents made countless life decisions based on the experience and effects of the war (WW II).  History is not just an academic subject.  It is a living part of us.

Evoked the thought:
Perhaps that's why genealogy, the study of one's ancestry, is so popular - it is really about us and where we came from - it's about real people we should know, about real events that affected their lives ... then ours.  

You and I are the sum total of all that has gone before - from Homer's Odyssey to the blood that dripped from Calvary's Cross to yesterday's unfelt wisp of air moved by the beat of a butterfly's wing 12,000 miles away - our paths cross and we have a billion times more in common than different, yet what we each bring to the crossing is unique - the crossing has forever affected us and the future.
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Looking forward to more Dorvalogs,

Monday, September 11, 2006

Another "Sacred Truth" Falls

This morning I read a column by Robert Weston who said that that a fully-equipped Apple Mac Pro computer is selling for $850 less than the comparable Windows-compatible machine from Dell. (See the story at ) But wait. Aren’t Macs more expensive than Windows-compatible computers?

This is a small example of the sort of “sacred” truth we have come to accept in our daily lives. And people will continue to believe it for a long time, no matter how much evidence presents itself to the contrary. (For example, the evidence that now Macs ARE Windows-compatible computers.)

How a sacred truth develops is a fascinating process. When a statement is repeated often enough, we will begin to simply agree with it. When enough of us agree without questioning, the statement becomes a certainty that simply is believed. When the belief takes on a life of its own, the “truth” becomes sacred--it becomes a mantra. It becomes not just a certainty, but a comfortable certainty. Because these days we are so often seeking both certainty and comfort, their synergistic combination is a potent mixture which begins to outweigh any connection with observable truth. This means that when facts begin to contradict a sacred truth, it will give way very, very slowly--if at all.

Other sacred truths under siege:
Real estate prices always go up.
SUVs are safer than ordinary cars.
Digital surround sound sounds better than monaural television.
Pluto is the ninth planet from the sun.
No cool person reads the newspaper any more.
The religious right is taking over America.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Best Movie Musicals

Buried under last week’s news about Katie Couric, 9/11, Presidential politics, baseball winding down and football starting up was the American Film Institute’s release of its list of the 25 greatest movie musicals of all time. The top five were "Singin’ in the Rain," "West Side Story," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Sound of Music" and "Cabaret." The entire list is at

I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but nevertheless I found myself immediately objecting to this ranking, especially "Singin’ in the Rain" being number one. I assume it is there because of Gene Kelly’s umbrella and splashy dancing. I can think of no other reason.

Certainly "West Side Story," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Sound of Music," "Mary Poppins," and even "Oklahoma" and "The Music Man" (neither of which are in the top 25) all had many more memorable songs. (A side note. One of the most-fun movies I have ever attended was a "Sound of Music" sing-along, which was sold out at $20/ticket. I eagerly await the sing-along for "The Wizard of Oz.")

If the argument is that Singin’ is a better or more-serious story, I would argue that "West Side Story," "Cabaret," and "All That Jazz" are all better stories and more-innovative films. My vote for the best movie musical would be a close call between "West Side Story" and "The Wizard of Oz." And I think Dorothy and Toto have the edge, because the story and the music are so embedded in our culture. Why? Well, because, because, because, because, because....

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Celebrate Family!

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
--Leo Tolstoy (first sentence of "Anna Karenina")

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a delight. I’ve seen it twice. It easily could have descended into sitcom cliche. But it is extraordinarily refreshing how real it feels. It also could have slipped into ponderous self-importance, because most of the characters face serious problems and setbacks.

Many eternal family qualities are on vivid display, including untidiness, self-righteousness, sullenness, unwanted advice, amazingly inconvenient car trouble, the presence of a naive child, generational wisdom, a relative who is staying for a while, and unspoken money troubles. What makes the film so interesting and entertaining is that none of these qualities are fussed over--they’re just there, just like in a real family. And they’re there in strange and hilarious ways. Just like in real families.

I’d like to say that anyone who has ever lived with a family will enjoy this film. Yet both times I saw it there were people around me who weren’t laughing, while others were practically rolling in the aisles. Humor is a matter of taste, of course. But maybe some of these people were raised by animals in the jungle. Or maybe the movie hits a little too close to home.

Friday, September 8, 2006

Are We Growing Up?

CNN’s William Schneider is today reporting on results of a poll which asks if America “will ever be the same again” after September 11th. In the days following the attack, 54% said no. Over the last few weeks, 70% said no.

Reality is sinking in. You could say this poll measures an increase in fear or insecurity, and behind it lies a desire to restore the pre-9/11 world. But I think it indicates the reverse--that is, we are beginning to really accept the world as it is, not as we convinced ourselves it was.

I believe it’s a hopeful sign. Maybe it means we are growing up--that is, that we increasingly realize we are part of the world, and that we cannot ignore what goes on elsewhere. Maybe it also means we are beginning to understand and even accept our ongoing, long-term responsibilities as the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Do You Know Who I Am?

A few weeks ago I went to a church I had never been to. While waiting for the service to start, a friendly man came over to say hello and introduce himself. We exchanged small talk I said I was an ordained United Methodist minister and was visiting. A strange look crossed his face and he asked me if I was able to not be judgmental.

The question surprised me, and I said, “well, I try to not be judgmental but I’m not sure I succeed very well.” It wasn’t until a moment later that I fully realized the direct connection between his question and my saying I was a minister. When I realized that he didn’t seem to be interested in my answer to his question, I found myself getting a little angry at being categorized and dismissed in such a way. I felt judged.

I understand that he likely has had a very judgmental minister in his past. But isn’t this just like racism or any other prejudice, in which automatic, knee-jerk assumptions are made about someone without any knowledge of the person? Does his experience with a bad minister justify his attitude toward me?

Immigrant Assumptions

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices."
-- Edward R. Murrow

From Pew data compiled from U.S. Census Bureau household surveys of San Diego County:
Percentage of undocumented workers in farming occupations: 1 percent.
Percentage of undocumented workers in the service industry--hotels, restaurants, health care, landscaping and janitorial: 44 percent.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Just Say Non

The French word “non” is much, much, much better than the English word “no,” if your goal is to express an emphatic negative. We Americans use a long “o” sound, which results in an indefinite, sometimes wimpy, sometimes drawn-out end to the word: “noooo....”

But just saying the word “non” is cathartic. The short “o” sound and the clipped ending give it an expressiveness not unlike a car horn.

Speaking of “non,” here’s a great quote from pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman:
“[Britney Spears] is not so much a person as she is an idea, and the idea is this: You can want everything, so long as you get nothing.”

Monday, September 4, 2006

See "United 93"

In a week we will be marking the five-year anniversary of September 11th. I have already suggested seeing Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," which I think does a good job bringing back the emotions of the day without overdoing it. Another excellent film is "United 93," about the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. It's on DVD.

What gives "United 93" both credibility and strength is its use of so many of the real people from that day--especially the air-traffic controllers. In addition to the excellent, realistic portrayal of the drama on the plane (recreated from numerous cockpit and cell-phone conversations), there is a palpable mixture of confusion and courage among those on the ground who were watching what happened.

My bet is that spending time with both these films will be a much more rewarding use of your time than the countless "Five Years Later" retrospectives that are beginning to appear. It was a day when most of us were close to a TV somewhere, watching what was happening and going through a welter of strong emotions.

CNN has announced it is replaying its September 11th video feed all day on its website. Watching that will allow us to recapture part of our own experience of the day. But there's more to be gained by getting as close as we can to seeing what happened through the eyes of others who were close to the event. I think both these films invite us to do that.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Who is Our Designer?

"We shop at cookie-cutter stores in cookie-cutter malls and eat at cookie-cutter restaurants, not because the food is special but because it is familiar."
--Leonard Pitts

One of my favorite TV shows is "House Hunters." I'm not alone, because it is the most-popular show on HGTV. Each episode features someone shopping for a house and considering three different possibilities. It is rigidly formulaic yet oddly satisfying. Not only do we get to see inside lots of houses, but we see how people select where they will live.

Some people seem keenly aware of their own needs and choose based mostly on affordability, comfort and convenience. Others choose based on specific features and extra size. Sometimes someone makes what I think is an irrational choice to live an extra 30 minutes from his/her workplace to get an unnecessarily larger house.

Every once in a while a very interesting house is shown--perhaps a charming, unusual design or a vintage house in wonderfully-preserved condition. I find it rewarding when these houses wind up being chosen.

There's a spread in this morning's San Diego Union-Tribune about a one-of-a-kind midcentury house, lovingly and passionately restored to its original design. (See it at

In restoring the house, the owner, Keith York, committed a number of "House Hunter" no-no's, including installing the same model cooktop and oven as in the original design, and removing two bedrooms from the side of the house, reducing the overall square footage. He's quoted in the story as saying he's thinking of moving the rear wall back to its original position, further reducing square footage.

As I read this I realized that many of us have allowed our homes to be, in effect, designed by realtors for sale, rather than allow our homes to be designed simply to live in. Good realtors are good stewards of "what sells." In a way, they carry contemporary taste and trends--at heart, I think this is what is fascinating about "House Hunters."

Surely our homes are more than interchangeable commodities. If so, who is our designer?

(photo by Paul Body)

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Do We Know What is Plausible?

A report by Jim Dwyer in the "New York Times" this morning says this:

"A nationwide poll taken earlier this summer by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of those surveyed said the federal government either took part in the [September 11th] attacks or allowed them to happen. Sixteen percent said the destruction of the trade towers were aided by explosives hidden in the buildings."

I understand that after any major event there will be a certain amount (maybe 5%) of fanatical and permanent skepticism about how it happened (such as the Kennedy assassination) or indeed whether it happened (such as the July 1969 moon landing). But the fact that one-third of Americans seem to be this skeptical about 9/11 is deeply disturbing.

I don't know if there is a growth in generalized paranoia and suspicion. Perhaps. But it is very clear that no amount of evidence seems to shake this "permanent" skepticism. Each bit of data is dismissed by simply being questioned. It's as if the only thing that is trusted is our own paranoia. One out of three of us refuse to be "unconvinced" no matter what new facts are presented to us, and we feel no responsibility for offering data or facts to back up whatever our version of the story is. The important thing to us is simply that the most plausible, most reasonable and most carefully investigated version of the story is wrong.

We seem to be living in a sort of courtroom culture in which one-third of us are defense attorneys whose only job is to refute the evidence. Don't get me wrong--all evidence deserves to be questioned and examined. Most often, though, it seems that the mere act of questioning evidence has become reason enough to cast it aside. Are we not trusting our own eyes, ears and judgment anymore? If not, what or who do we trust?

Friday, September 1, 2006

The Forces That Shape Us

It was 67 years ago today that Germany invaded Poland, setting into motion the second world war. Some of us were alive to witness this, but all of us have been profoundly shaped by it.

World War II was a seminal event in the lives of our parents and grandparents, and its force was amplified by the Great Depression of the 1930s. As distant as these events may seem to us, they are indelibly imprinted on our character--not just as Americans, but as human beings. There may have been direct effects--my father was in the Army during the war, and met my mother as a result of her attending a U.S.O. function.

But there is an effect on all of us, because our parents and grandparents made countless life decisions based on the experience and effects of the war. History is not just an academic subject. It is a living part of us.