Friday, November 30, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Quote for the day:
“As much as we complain about having too much to do, most of us harbor some pride that we are in such demand.”
--Barbara Brown Taylor

Quote for the day no. 2:
“Perhaps because sci-fi has become an excuse for wretched excess and bombast in today’s movie culture, ‘Blade Runner: The Final Cut’ plays better now than ever.”
--Terry Lawson, today’s “Detroit Free Press”

Much more than other films, “Gone Baby Gone” bears the distinct imprint of its maker’s personality. It was directed and co-written by Ben Affleck.

Of course, every film is somehow a reflection of its writer’s and director’s personality. But in “Gone Baby Gone,” it seemed to me that Affleck was about as close to being onscreen as he could be without actually being there.

I don’t think it was because the star is his brother, Casey. I do think it is because Ben Affleck is so intense, opinionated and hyper.

Also, the very sensitive subject matter of the film would naturally bring emotions to the surface. When this happens outside of a filmmaking environment, there is usually someone in the room who reacts and speaks with passion and sincere “righteousness.” He or she may even begin to “preach” to everyone else.

In the making of this film, I suspect that Affleck was that person in the room, and he was the guy in charge.

I generally enjoyed “Gone Baby Gone,” and there are many fine scenes and performances in it. But I found it a bit heavy-handed.

At the movie’s core is a moral decision. The intent seems to be to paint the decision as coming from a grey area--the situations presented are neither pure good nor pure evil.

To make this work calls for some significant nuance. For whatever reason, Affleck simply has not brought that nuance to the screen.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

1937, 2007, 2077

Quote of the day:
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
--Max Planck

I can’t tell you how relieved I was to read this statement from the great physicist Max Planck.

There are times I find it nothing short of exasperating to read statistics that say things like the majority of Americans believe that the creation of the earth happened 6000 years ago, literally according to the Genesis story. No matter what data is laid out, or what careful, rational argument is made, this statistic is unshakeable.

Until some of these people start dying off. I think that’s how the world began seeing that Galileo and Copernicus were right, that the earth revolved around the sun. Over dozens of years, the opponents just slowly died off.

That’s what’s going to happen with creation and the age of the earth, too.

I expect Planck’s statement applies to other kinds of truth, also.

It reminds me of an inside joke I heard just after I was ordained. After being appointed to a congregation for a few months, a minister is asked how things are going. He says, “there’s nothing wrong with this church that a few well-placed funerals couldn’t cure.”

We are indelibly shaped by the culture in which we grow up. Our opinions and beliefs are more part of us and therefore more resistant to change than we think they are.

Think of how you are different from your parents, and how they were different from their parents.

While much about the world is the same, our cultural outlook today is quite different than that of our grandparents. This is largely because of what we have learned in the intervening years. We have come to accept new truths that have emerged.

70 years ago women had had the right to vote for just 17 years. Significant parts of the United States were clearly segregated by race, and would stay that way for years.

There was no television. Major cities each had a few daily newspapers. Air travel was for very rich people, and you there were no commercial flights over the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. There were no malls, McDonald’s or Starbucks. If you wanted to go shopping, you went downtown. Life expectancy was 63.

In 2007, we live differently. Mostly better.

And we believe differently.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Driving in China

Quote of the day:
“Hatred is an affair of the heart; contempt that of the head.”
--Arthur Schopenhauer

These days we are alternately fascinated by and scared of China. It seems clear that the country is in the process of becoming an economic and political superpower, and we don’t know whether to cheer them on or be very frightened.

The photo above is a bridge in a Chinese city, choked by smog. What goes on inside China is a big mystery to most of us. We see pictures, we read news reports. But it can be very hard to learn what everyday life is like.

This makes Peter Hessler’s “Letter From China” in the November 26th “New Yorker” very rewarding reading. It’s an entertaining romp through what it’s like to rent a car and drive in China. He did both over several years.

What makes driving in China such an adventure is that most people are new to it. On top of this, everyone knows a little bit about driving--literally, just enough to be dangerous.

Car ownership is becoming more and more common, and everyone seems to think he’s a good driver. China has 28 cars per every thousand people, which is where the U.S. was in 1915. They have three percent of the world’s cars but twenty-one percent of its traffic fatalities.

Windshield wipers are considered a distraction, as are headlights. The use of headlights was banned in Beijing until the mid-1980s.

One question on the driving exam is “During the evening, a driver should a) turn on the brights, b) turn on the normal lights, c) turn off the lights.”

Another question: “True or False: In a taxi, it’s fine to carry a small amount of explosive material.”

And this: “When overtaking another car, a driver should pass a) on the left, b) on the right, c) wherever, depending on the situation.”

And this: “If, while preparing to pass a car, you notice that it is turing left, making a U-turn, or passing another vehicle, you should a) pass on the right, b) not pass, c) honk, accelerate, and pass on the left.”

And this: “When driving through a residential area,, you should a) honk like normal, b) honk more than normal, to alert residents, c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents.”

Honking is essential, according to Hessler, who describes the horn code: “A solid hooooonnnnnk is intended to attracted attention.

"A double sound--hooooonnnnnk, hooooonnnnnk--indicates irritation. There’s a particularly long hooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnk that means a driver is stuck in traffic, has exhausted curb-sneaking options, and would like everyone else on the road to disappear.

“A responding hooooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnk proves they aren’t going anywhere.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My Ride is Tougher than Yours

Quote of the day:
"Both the cockroach and the bird could get along very well without us, although the cockroach would miss us most."
--Joseph Wood Krutch

Yesterday Ford announced it is manufacturing a new limited edition of the Shelby-modified Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in “Bullitt.” They are calling it the "Bullitt."

As much as I love the amazing chase scene in that movie, I will not be buying one of the cars. Thank you very much.

Ford is burnishing its cool-muscle-car image with baby boomers, and I guess it expects that image to bleed over into other products and age groups. Dodge will soon do the same with a nostalgia-inducing Challenger.

In the 1980s I owned a 1965 Mustang for a while. I loved the way it looked, but it drove like a tank and could be loosely classified as a piece of junk. It was a very good day when I traded it in for a small fun-driving Nissan with AC and a radio that worked.

“Mustang” is a terrific car name. So are “Barracuda” and “Cougar.”

These days, non-alphanumeric car names can be a tad ridiculous (so can the letters and numbers, but that’s a different story). I especially love the “biggest and strongest” names that car makers give their vehicles: “Armada,” “Titan,” “Avenger,” “Magnum,” “Nitro,” “Avalanche,” “Tundra,” and “Sequoia.”

Now, that’s what I want. To drive a large tree. Or a vast frozen wilderness.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cyber Monday

Quote of the day:
"A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby. ... He demands real flesh and blood heroes who do something."
--Edward L. Stratemeyer, who created The Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew series.

Alright already.

First it was “Black Friday.” Now it’s “Cyber Monday.”

Today is imagined as the post-Thanksgiving pre-Christmas day when Americans across the land unite and buy things online. Preferably at work.

Online shopping is a major pastime at workplaces everywhere. That’s why no one wants his computer screen visible from his office door. It’s annoying to have to navigate away from Ebay when you hear someone walking by.

This goes on everywhere, but don’t ever ask anyone about it, because it’s a secret.

So I’m not sure we need Cyber Monday. Unless we’re going to permanently modify the workweek. As we did with Casual Friday.

In any case, I sure am glad that we’re naming all these days. Otherwise they wouldn’t mean anything. They’d all be just ordinary days of life.

Not ranked in any way. Not labeled in any way. Except Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, ….

Ordinary days. How unimaginably boring.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Quote of the day:
"One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers."
--Eugene O'Neill

Neither Merrie nor I fell asleep during “No Country for Old Men.” I don’t think it’s possible.

It’s definitely a Coen brpthers film, with echoes of “Fargo” and “Miller’s Crossing,” and it often feels very similar to “Blood Simple.” The major characters are very closely followed, and sometimes there is a minutely-observed moment. Kinda like real life.

But this is their most-substantial movie so far.

The plot is almost-Hitchcockian in its building suspense. A man (Josh Brolin) stumbles on a drug deal gone bad and takes a suitcase full of money. People on both sides of the deal give chase, as does a timeworn sheriff, played in great glory by Tommy Lee Jones.

As involving as this story is, it is just a piece of what is going on. This is also a rich portrait of a time and place, and a careful study of how human beings deal with circumstances.

Most curiously, it’s also an in-your-face meditation on good and evil. I guarantee it’s unlike any such mediation you’ve ever encountered.

Jones will likely get an Oscar nomination for his role here, as will Javier Bardem, who is truly extraordinary. I will be thinking about his performance for a long, long time.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

What All of Us Eat

Quote of the day:
“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’--that is, to pull in like a turtle.”
--Robert Putnam, who has conducted a massive new study on the relationship between diversity and civic engagement.

Statistic of the day:
40% of North Korean children are chronically malnourished.

In the wake of Thanksgiving, here’s a website worth a few minutes of your time.

It shows how much families pay for food in a week in nations around the world. It’s not a surprise that there’s big difference from most to least, but seeing it in color brings it home.

The food choices are quite interesting, too. What we eat is strongly related to our culture. No surprise. It may be a surprise how strongly we expect certain foods at certain times of day.

For some of us, eggs in the morning. Or cereal. Or steamed milk and coffee (as in Starbucks). Cheeseburger or turkey sandwich for lunch. Dinner has more variation, but often it is pizza, pasta, roast chicken, burritos or salad.

Sometimes, what we eat is also related to what is grown and easily attainable near us. From the website, some cultures are much more dependent on this than others.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday

Quote of the day:
"I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed--personally and intimately--to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago."
--Stephen Greenblatt

Why is this being called “Black Friday”?

Maybe it’s because so many people get up in the dark to wait in line at Wal-Mart to achieve life-changing bargains.

I suppose we have to call it something. It used to be the “busiest shopping day of the year,” but it’s not anymore.

“Almost the busiest shopping day of the year” doesn’t have that necessary hard-charging reportorial punch that post-Thanksgiving news stories demand. “Black Friday” is much better.

Isn’t it interesting that we have one day of gratitude for all we have, followed by a day of serious competition to get more stuff?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Quote of the day:
“I don’t need none of these things I’ve been handed.”
--Patty Griffin, from the song “No Bad News.”

I hope this day is very good for you.

Thanksgiving is such a gift. It’s an explicit opportunity to slow down, even stop for a little while.

And after we’re stopped, the invitation is to think of the presence of good in our lives, and to be grateful for the gifts of this life. Whatever our economic circumstance, and whether we are alone or with loved ones.

It’s a blessed day to step out of the place where we obsess about what is wrong with ourselves or our families or friends, or what is missing from our lives.

It’s a blessed day also because it seems to be getting more popular each year.

We need Thanksgiving.

Have a happy one!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

John McCain, Shame on You

Quote of the day:
“If you can’t remember anything, you’re not there.”
--Anonymous, from radioio

“How do we beat the (insert sexist epithet)?

At a campaign event, a woman asked John McCain this question, referring to Hillary Clinton. He laughed it off.

Two ugly points about this.

1. Americans, especially women, do not like strong women--that is, women who demonstrate leadership qualities that are never questioned in men. We reserve a special loathing for women who have these qualities and have succeeded.

2. It is appalling that so many of us dismiss this as no big deal. Some say that the word is not that bad. Well, they’re wrong. It is every bit as bad as any racial or ethnic slur.

Columnist Leonard Pitts is no Hillary Clinton fan, but he has an excellent commentary on this here.

This should be a source of reflection for all of us. And a source of shame for many of us. Who are we?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Abuse of Marketing

Quote of the day:
"An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all."
--Oscar Wilde

Here’s a follow-up to my screeds on marketing and conformity.

It seems that everyone knows something about marketing. Example: does anyone not know what a focus group is?

The use of focus groups used to be part of the mysterious and revealing magic of marketing. Now everyone has one or is in one.

Some people have boasted of being able to tip the process toward their point of view, which would defeat the purpose of market research.

Focus groups and research techniques have certainly been abused. Sometimes it is by companies trying to selling us something.

Most notoriously it is by unscrupulous political campaigns who conduct seemingly-benign surveys or assemble seemingly normal focus groups, for the purpose of deceitfully pushing a candidate or point of view.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Reason to Celebrate Today

Quote of the day:
“...government of the people, by the people and for the people....”
--Abraham Lincoln

I think this day on the calendar should be celebrated each year.

On this day 144 years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most-important speech in American history. It became known as the Gettysburg Address.

The huge historical influence of this speech is well known. However, the reason I think we should commemorate its anniversary is only indirectly related to its historical impact.

This reason has to do with the nature of the speech, including how it was prepared and delivered.

It was four minutes long--just 10 sentences.

When was the last time we heard any politician give a four-minute speech, except when they were in trouble and avoiding the press?

When was the last time we heard ANYONE give a four-minute speech? How about never?

That Lincoln could change the course of American history and create a statement imprinted for eternity in our memories in four minutes is extraordinary and worthy of extended celebration.

Especially in our world where the ability to not shut up has become a an absolutely necessary characteristic in the careers of pundits and celebrities. Yak, yak, yak. Or, if you prefer: yack, yack, yack. (Both spellings are acceptable.)

In Lincoln’s day, political speeches were measured in hours, not minutes. In fact, his speech at Gettysburg followed a two-hour oration that has long been forgotten.

Lincoln’s speech did not get that way by some kind of accident or serendipity. He planned it very carefully and deliberately, spending hours over each word and phrase.

This is also unique in today’s world. What we see in the political arena is almost always just the stringing together of market-driven phrases and sentences.

Lincoln’s concisely constructed sentences are also the opposite of what we hear from anyone giving a speech--at work, or in our volunteer or leisure activities. In these cases, if there is any preparation at all, it is a few scribbled notes on a yellow pad.

For these reasons as well as the world-changing effect of the Gettysburg Address, its anniversary should be celebrated.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The 1960s Are Not What You Think

Quote 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

It is common wisdom that the 1960s was a decade of revolution in many ways, including in movies and music. Neither were the same afterward.

Sometimes so much emphasis is put on the 1960s that we forget that what happened then didn’t just drop from the sky.

The amazing change in music and movies also was not the pure result of political rebellion. The much more vital factor in this was the rise, undetected by all except practitioners, of other creative forms.

For example, blues came to prominence in the 20s and 30s. Musicians growing up in the 40s and 50s were invariably exposed to it. And many incorporated it in very creative ways. Some of those efforts became rock and roll.

Experimental film grew into a serious movement in Europe and elsewhere in the 40s and 50s. Great filmmakers coming to maturity in the 1960s were heavily influenced by this.

So most of what we see as a cultural overthrow, a disrespect of authority and established forms, and a general rise in bad behavior caused by long hair and “liberalism,” is really simply the creative combination and alteration of forms that already existed.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Conformity and Marketing, Part Three

Quote of the day:
“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.”
--Milton Berle

The growth in emphasis on the precision science of marketing has made it increasingly difficult for those who are eccentric, even if only slightly.

With conformity becoming both more necessary and more difficult, and these people unable or unwilling to keep up, they have become outcasts.

To manage in our world, the eccentric person must either tolerate lots of misery, put their loved ones through constant misery, or submit to isolation or, in extreme cases, institutionalization or medication.

In a way, this is what Thoreau meant by “lives of quiet desperation.” It is a sort of grinding unhappiness that tears at one’s humanity and neutralizes the best characteristics of human nature.

These characteristics include intense longing, the creative impulse, and openness to joy and pain. They enable us to know real fulfillment and realize that life is very, very good indeed.

It is through these characteristics that we rise to our fullest and best selves.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Marketing Patriotism

Quote of the day:
“Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.”
--Leo Tolstoy

The American flag has come to symbolize not just America, but a particular vision of America. Or a specific characteristic of America that the flag-bearer or wearer (in the case of flag lapel pins) wishes to emphasize.

That some people are much quicker than others to display the flag indicates one of three things.

They may feel an especially strong attachment to what they perceive as the values of America.

They may feel that America is fragile or weak and needs to be bolstered through their display of the flag.

Or they may think that others do not feel as strongly as they do about America’s sovereignty, and so need to be persuaded through seeing the flag.

The value of America that gets mentioned more than any other is “freedom.” Because most Americans have no experience with political oppression, the kind of freedom referred to is primarily economic.

Being a happy patriot is part of, and secondary to, the producing/consuming paradigm. The statement that a nation or an individual is acting “in the national interest” refers ultimately to an interest in producing and consuming with no restriction.

The producing/consumption paradigm often leads to excess and to pointlessness. For example, the desire of a childless couple for a five-bedroom home. When they live in such a home, they likely discover that most of the home is simply not used or very under-used.

More important, joy or happiness does not result. Instead, a process of home improvement and fix-up begins. The delusion is that satisfaction or happiness is at the end. But there is no end, just occasional pauses in an endless loop.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Conformity and Marketing, Part Two

Quote of the day:
“The more you find out about the world, the more opportunities there are to laugh at it.”
--Bill Nye

Among consumers, the need for increasing precision in marketing creates an obsessive anxiety, centered on always needing to be better and needing to have more. This feeds our perfectionism--our vague but strong sense that there is a special, joyous place we are heading for.

Of course, this perfectionism can never be satisfied, resulting in an infinite loop of distraction, dissatisfaction, anger, depression and other illness.

Among producers, the need for increasing precision in marketing results in an ongoing stream of increasingly-specific and disposable research and consulting, conducted by young, finely-tuned, highly-paid MBAs.

Some brands are able to succeed marvelously at precision marketing. We can think of the exemplars of both consumer and producer conformity, and how they are held up as idols, with extraordinary value beyond the intended purpose of what they represent.

Hummer, Bose, Abercrombie and Fitch, Viking, and Rolex are a few examples. So is a particular vision of America.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Conformity and Marketing, Part One

Quote of the day:
"I don't write about victims. They just bore me to death. I prefer to write about somebody who can pick themselves back up and get on with their lives."
--Terry McMillan

The pressure to conform has vastly increased over the last 40 years. Each of us must fit in to an ever-more-specific mold of a productive consumer and, secondarily, happy patriot. It has become a required identity.

We all both produce and consume, and extremely well-funded market science enables us to do both with increasing precision and for increasingly-sophisticated ends.

We “produce” into ever-narrower psychographic niches. Efficiency is pushed and pushed to levels where slight, unnecessary head or hand movements become the obsession of the day.

We also consume to fit into more- and more-specific psychographic groups. Because, after all, we really don’t want to belong to any group that would have us as a member.

Daily, we claim both unique individuality and membership in the most-vital marketing target of the moment.

The marketing goal from the consumer point of view has become how to be a consumer and fit into an unbelievably cool niche without appearing to.

And the “not-appearing-to-be-in-a-niche” is a niche into which we are all fitting.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Organization and Order

Quote of the day:
“I was walking down the street wearing glasses when the prescription ran out.”
--Steven Wright

Have you ever noticed how energizing and empowering it is to organize something? It’s an interesting phenomenon--bringing order also brings life.

Because it is energizing and empowering, organization can be overdone. It can become a compulsion. A sort-of addiction.

It’s paradoxical, in a way. Organization and order seem like nothing but positive characteristics. And there’s such an extraordinary need for them. How is it possible to have too much of them?

Maybe in an abstract sense, things can never be too organized. But when we human beings get involved, there are some of us who just have to overdo it.

For our own reasons.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thinking and Clicking

Quote of the day:
"I wanted to write literature that pushed people into their lives rather than helping people escape from them."
--Harvey Pekar

I have a package of games on my Mac that are variations of solitaire. I like solitaire because it’s fairly simple but does require some attention and thought, and it’s challenging to win. It a good brief diversion when work on something else gets frustrating.

I’ve learned that all card games played alone are called solitaire. My first thought was that the version I play would be called “classic,” but it’s not. It’s called “Klondike.” Maybe it comes from the northern latitudes.

The descriptions of the 20 or so card games in this package seems to faintly disparage Klondike, saying that “it’s difficult to win.” There are easier-to-win versions included in the package.

Maybe I’m self-flagellating, but one of the reasons I like Klondike is that it’s tough to win.

It seems to me that most of the shoot-em-up computer and video games are quite difficult to “win.” But that’s not a problem for avid gamers. In fact, it’s an advantage, because it keeps away the uncommitted masses. It’s easy to distinguish an elite group of top scorers that way.

Those of you who are hip and happening know that there is serious action going on right now with Halo 3. All across the nation, people are competing online to be in the Halo pantheon.

If I were to compete against anyone in Halo 3, they would make it to level three while I was still taking the cellophane off the box. I haven’t developed the naturally rapid see-move-click responses that a lot of folks have these days.

If you’ve watched 50-year-olds and 20-year-olds navigate the internet, I’m sure you’ve noticed the difference. Those who grew up with video games and the internet come from the land of rapid-fire point-and-click. Those in the older generation are accustomed to mulling over their choices--at least a bit.

So the sequence is more like think-point-think-click.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Why Such Heat About Immigration?

Quote of the day:
"All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling."
--Oscar Wilde

It doesn’t surprise me that most Americans are concerned about illegal immigration. What does surprise me is the near-violent fervor with which so many talk about this issue, as if our nation’s very existence is at stake.

Clearly, serious problems need attention, including systemic strain and the health and welfare of immigrants. But what drives the close-to-the-surface strong feelings about this issue?

I have a theory. Big surprise.

When we’re babies, each of us learns that we are separate from other humans and the world around us. It’s the process of individuation.

While childhood development is fairly well understood, the effects of the earliest months of life remain mostly a mystery. I suspect that, during those very early months, something--like abuse or a pathologically over-attentive parent--may hold back individuation.

Later, during adolescence, we begin to establish autonomy--a life of our own. This natural process also can be disrupted. For example, our parents may over-control our lives and make every decision for us. Abuse is a serious risk here also.

When disruption happens, our growth is stunted and a long struggle within ourselves ensues. We find ourselves sensitive to times when we think our fragile autonomy is being threatened.

The fear of invasion is a classic way in which this sensitivity manifests itself.

When we look at the way the immigration issue is frequently talked about, we can see a real fear of invasion and takeover: “They’re taking our jobs, using our healthcare system, using our education system They’re taking resources away from me.”

As I said, there are real issues here that need attention. It would be constructive if we were at least aware of our personal fears being tripped.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Analog in a Digital World

Quote of the day:
“People need difficulties; they are necessary for health.”
--Carl Jung

If we live in a digital world, we are aliens.

We are not digital. My favorite illustration is hearing. When I see debates about the quality of digital versus analog music sources, I never see any mention that our ears are analog.

Sound waves--variations in air pressure--cause the eardrum to vibrate, which causes the small bones behind it to vibrate. Those vibrations are converted back to electrical signals in the brain.

So, unless you want to plug the digital output of your CD player or computer directly into you brain, those digital signals must be converted to analog before you can hear them. And as a massage therapist once said, there’s the rub.

It’s not possible to say definitively that analog (records) sounds better or worse than digital (CDs or computer), because there is so much variety in recording, encoding and playback across all formats.

Some digital formats (such as mp3) ARE compromised because of low sampling rates or signal compression. Sampling rates are reduced and signals are compressed in order to save disc space and speed up download times.

Virtually everyone with normal hearing can detect degradation from analog or uncompressed digital formats to reduced, compressed formats.

The way basic CDs and lossless, uncompressed computer formats are encoded is just fine, as long as there is good source material and there is a well-designed digital-to-analog converter on the listening end.

Most CD players have a conversion circuit that comprises about half a silicon chip, which determines how the unit sounds. That allows record fanatics with good systems to correctly claim that records sound better than CDs.

On the other hand, with a well-designed digital-to-analog converter, a well-recorded CD will sound as good or better than a high-end turntable, arm, cartridge and phono preamp.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Green Eternity

Quote of the day:
“Life improves slowly and goes wrong fast, and only catastrophe is clearly visible.”
--Edward Teller

Quote of the day no. 2:
“When the Fed drops the interest rate, it punishes those who save and put their money in the bank. The effort to bail out subprime investors is aimed at those who have gambled and lost, and there should be some contrast in consequences for their behavior compared to savers.”
--Niccolo Caldararo

Two items, without comment:

1. An elderly neighbor of ours recently passed away. He had lived in this neighborhood since the 1950s. We learned of his passing from a 91-year-old friend, who also told us that the memorial service was going to be private, for family only.

With a sense of surprise and maybe disbelief, he said, “they’re going to burn him.”

2. The “Washington Post” reported on October 8th that an organization called EcoEternity is offering a green form of burial. For a price, the company will place a person’s remains in a biodegradable urn and plant it beside a mature tree.

In time, the remains will be soaked up by the tree’s root system. EcoEternity has partnered with Camp Highroad, a United Methodist camp in northern Virginia, where three acres will be set aside for this purpose.

Small tags will identify the deceased. Tombstones and plastic flowers will be forbidden. The price for leasing a tree starts at $4,500. Up to 15 family members can be interred under one tree over a span of 99 years.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bernanke is a Bit Cranky

Quote of the day:
"There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now."
--Eugene O’Neill

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, can’t get no respect.

Everyone--or at least everyone who cares--tries to divine the future by listening between the letters to every word he speaks.

We are singularly and obsessively interested in the economic future, about which we have no information. We are little interested in the past, about which we have infinite information.

The present? Forget it. We know our own present--why do we need to know anything else?

Too bad. When I watched Bernanke’s testimony before the joint congressional economic committee last week, I was very impressed. He very clearly explained the current situation in the credit markets. He was reasonable and down-to-earth, using a minimum of arcane economic terms.

He described the reality that many of us see going on around us every day. Home sales have slowed down. Some of those who bought two to three years ago with adjustable rates are facing payments they can’t afford.

He said that extending subprime credit has significant benefits, including enabling home ownership among people who otherwise wouldn’t qualify. But some institutions had overdone this, and they are increasingly suffering the consequences.

And then he said something that really should be at the top of the news. He said that economists are very bad at predicting trends. They predict because we loudly and endlessly demand it. But they are always wrong.

So what’s the point of strenuously fixating on predicting the future? No one, especially trained economists, can do that. They’ve never been able to predict. Do we think somehow the ability will magically arrive?

I suggest we all try to just get a grip on what we can know, which is the bigger-picture present and the past. Maybe we can learn from it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Our Drought is Severe Plus

Quote of the day:
“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”
--Jeannette Rankin

New Rule of the day (apologies to Bill Maher):
No one is allowed to be intransigent unless he can spell it.

I usually don’t watch morning TV, other than to quickly check that there hasn’t been an international catastrophe while I was sleeping.

This morning, though, I casually flipped on the “Today” show. Question: how old is Gene Shalit? Hasn’t he been around since the days of J. Fred Muggs?

Weatherman Al Roker showed a drought map that used color coding to show how dry different parts of the country are.

It struck me that the five levels of drought were labeled Abnormally dry, moderate, severe, extreme, and exceptional.

The mid-point of drought measurement is “severe.” The New Oxford Dictionary defines “severe” as “very great, intense.” That sounds pretty bad to me.

Yet there are not one but two measured levels beyond “severe.” I thought maybe this was hyperbole. But then I realized this is science, after all.

To see the drought monitor map, click here. It shows “exceptional” drought from central Alabama through the far western tip of Virginia. “Extreme” drought is shown in several areas, with the biggest being southern California and southwestern Arizona.

More and more people must be concerned about this, or Al Roker wouldn’t be talking about it on the “Today” show.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Life's Flow

Quote of the day:
“From here on out, we’ll go on living, with less clutter.”
--Larry Himmel, whose house burned down in the Witch Creek wildfire.

This afternoon Sophie and I went for a walk on Fiesta Island. It was cool and overcast, with just a few other dogs and owners there.

Fiesta Island is like an oasis. It’s a very large completely undeveloped peninsula in the middle of San Diego’s crowded Mission Bay waterfront. Sea World is just a short swim from the far corner of the island.

It’s a peaceful place. There we were, Sophie and I, running around, splashing in the water (one of us), taking in the wide open space at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.

I imagined the thousands of people at work nearby, or on the road shuttling their kids somewhere, or just generally stressed about the endless tasks and deadlines of the day. I thought maybe I should feel guilty for not being a productive member of society.

But then I thought, who says walking around Fiesta Island at 4 in the afternoon is not a productive activity? Someone has to do it. It might as well be Sophie and me.

Then it occurred to me that this is the flow of life. So what does guilt have to do with it? What does obsession with action or obsession with idleness have to do with it?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Google Ga-Ga

Quote of the day:
“Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people--in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”
--George Orwell

People are ga-ga over Google.

It is with breathless amazement that they utter “it’s $700 a share!” as if the 700 dollar share price was either unbelievable or sacred.

While the stock has performed exceptionally well since opening at $85 in August 2004, let’s not get too excited over $700. The reason the share price is that big is that the company has never split its stock.

If you want to get excited over a stock price, try Berkshire Hathaway. It’s trading at $134,875 a share. Warren Buffet takes pride in never having split the stock.

The reason for Google’s 8-fold increase in three years is that the company continues to make more money faster than most analysts expect. Simple, huh? Well, all kinds of people in the investment industry make huge salaries being wrong about Google.

Many big investors of all stripes--pension funds, institutions, ultra-wealthy Saudis and such--now consider Google a core growth holding and are thus accumulating the stock in significant amounts, especially when it shows weakness.

Some people are skittish about the value of the stock, remembering the dot-com bust seven years ago. While many public companies went out of business before earning a dime, the difference here is that Google is a real company with real earnings--really big earnings.

The journey from $85 to $700 was choppy, with long periods of stagnation and downward drifting. The only certainty is that, over the next several years, the price will go up and it will go down. I have no idea when it will do either.

I do strongly suspect the stock is heading higher over the next ten to twenty years.

How’s that for a bold and brave prediction?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

History Made Today

Quote of the day:
“History does not teach fatalism. There are moments when the will of a handful of free men breaks through determinism and opens up new roads. People get the history they deserve.”
--Charles de Gaulle

There was an event of a lifetime in sports today.

If you follow football, you know what I’m talking about. San Diego’s Antonio Cromartie had the longest run for a touchdown ever recorded (or ever to be recorded) in the history of the NFL.

I was working on something else during the game, but I looked up to watch this moment unfold. It was unbelievable--almost worth San Diego losing the game against the Vikings. Almost.

With seconds to go in the first half, Minnesota was attempting a field goal from 53 yards out. They missed, and Cromartie, with his foot inches away from the back of the end zone, picked up the ball on a bounce and started running.

He ran and ran, with good blocking from an army of Chargers. He ran 109+ yards right into the end zone.


Saturday, November 3, 2007

Surround Sound is For the Birds

Quote of the day:
“The only people who find what they are looking for in life are the fault finders.”
--Foster's Law

There’s such a fuss these days about surround sound. These audio systems are flying out of Best Buy almost as fast as flat-panel TVs.

I can understand that gamers want sound coming at them from all directions. It heightens the excitement of destroying your opponents, and surround sound puts you in the middle of the action.

Also, I know a lot of folks are blissed out with five or more channels of audio coming at them while watching TV. But the logic of this escapes me.

When you watch TV, you watch a 2-dimensional image that is in front of you. There is no action happening to your sides or behind you. Why do you need sound there?

Seven or eight years ago I was watching “The Sopranos” with a five-channel Dolby Digital setup. I’ll never forget the moment about halfway through when the sound of a door closing came from behind me, to the left. Was AJ coming into our TV room to watch with us? It made no sense.

Shortly after that, I chucked surround sound and opted for stereo.

A case can be made for the ability of a properly set up five-channel system to bring the soundstage out into the room a little, to give it dimension. But because it is very difficult and expensive to correctly set up a system, most are not correctly set up. And much surround-sound source material is still poorly produced.

A much stronger case can be made for investing your money in a better-quality 2-channel setup. Quality over quantity. Stereo is much simpler and fairy easy to set up. And TV audio is surprisingly good, and continues to get better.

You can count on a higher-quality 2-channel sound system to improve things. This is not the case for surround sound or simulated surround sound. It may provide interesting effects, but it does not always improve things.

This is all about entertainment, of course. So if you enjoy having the chainsaw murderer in the room with you (probably coming at you from behind), have fun with surround sound. As for me, I prefer to keep him on the screen.

One more thing. Please don’t claim that five channels sound better or more realistic than stereo. It’s just not so. Sorry.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Is the Internet Democratizing Journalism?

Quote of the day:
“’It was 20 years ago today,’ the Beatles sang 40 years ago today.”
--Mark Steyn

Andrew Keen is causing quite a ruckus. He’s the guy who wrote “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.”

Even though his book immediately annoys me because its title contains a colon, he has some interesting ideas.

The common wisdom these days is that the internet is transformative and salvational. The only discussion appears to be about how salvational it is, and how the transformation might play out.

One point that is chanted by those who parrot each other rather than actually asking questions and thinking for themselves is that the internet is democratizing the flow of opinions and culture.

Keen is quick to say that he is not a Luddite, but that he is concerned that the inferior work of legions of internet amateurs is displacing professional journalists and creative people.

He echoes the founders of our government when he talks about democracy on the internet:

“Pure democracy doesn’t work. It results in chaos and the development of new elites. And the problem with the internet is that the new elites are anonymous. So you have this rise of what I would call an anonymous oligarchy on the internet.”

He also points out research done at the Yahoo Research Center that shows that when a site is “reliably authored by people where everybody knows who they are... the quality of the content is significantly higher.”

It reminds me of the exasperating moment years ago when someone on a clergy e-mail list was criticizing something I had written, and he wouldn’t say who he was.

As Keen says, “why would we go online to be insulted? Why would we go online and listen to crazy people scream at each other and not even know who they are?”

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My House is Worth What?

Quote of the day:
“When a man’s best friend is his dog, that dog has a problem.”
--Edward Abbey

Are we living in homes or commodities? It’s hard to tell from hearing people talk about the value of their houses, and watching the real-estate reality TV shows.

On the popular HGTV program “My House is Worth What?" those who show off what they’ve done to their houses are roundly and routinely criticized when they’ve done things that they like but that a lot of potential buyers won’t.

But who is living in the house, you or the potential buyer?

Of course, the very premise of that show is determining what someone might pay to buy your house, so figuring out what the “average” person might like about it is part of that guesswork.

My concern is that hearing what “buyers are looking for” begins to be the same as “what I like,” which is actually “what I guess I should like because everyone else likes it.”

It’s like the culture of high school, where you have to wear what everyone else is wearing. What you like and don’t like is secondary, if it matters at all.

Who is wearing your clothes?

The logical outgrowth of changing our homes for the sake of saleability is that they become just like any other commodity, like soap or fertilizer. They’re all alike, with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, a large master bathroom with a spa tub, french doors to the backyard, vaulted ceilings, 4 bedrooms, and a 3-car garage. One is pretty much the same as another. Except it needs to be painted taupe.

What is your home worth?

To you.