Thursday, January 31, 2008

Let's Take a Breather

Quote of the day:
"The very purpose of existence is to reconcile the glowing opinion we have of ourselves with the appalling things that other people think about us."
--Quentin Crisp

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s white space.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Quote of the day:
“I’d rather be reading the Republican party platform or similar, if the main character in the movie version could be played by Hannibal Lector.”
--Frank Van Alstine

We southern Californians have spent the last year quite concerned about our worsening drought. It looks like we have to worry no more.

We’ve been getting quite a lot of rain this winter. In fact, we’ve had so much that there was some fear about mudslides, especially in areas that burned during the October fires.

There have been a couple of slides--one of them may have been caused by a water-supply leak. Other than that, our major problems have been clogged drains and hundreds of traffic accidents.

I think we’re seeing more rain-related accidents than in past years because of higher average speeds. Cars are built so much better now that we often don’t realize how fast we’re going until we start skidding.

We live right on the rim of one of San Diego’s many finger canyons and I occasionally imagine us sliding right down into it one day. The chances of this happening are teeny-tiny. The very first thing we did after we moved in six years ago was have the property properly graded and water drains installed.

But I still think about it. Slides are one of the risks of living here.

The much-bigger risk is drought, and so I’m heartened to see healthy snowpacks accumulate in the mountains and reservoirs rise above normal levels. It's so good to see the earth turn green. Fiesta Island has burst alive with growth.

Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain!

Now if I can only get the front downspout drain cleared so that water doesn’t pour onto our driveway.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

World According to Puppy

Quote of the day:
“Bad spellers untie!”

Our puppy Sherman’s very enticing view of the world consists of just two things: fun and sleep. I can learn a lot from this.

I have always been very focused on work and being productive. Sometimes I make fun into work. I know it’s supposed to be the other way around. But I still do it.

An activity or an attraction gets a great review in the newspaper and I think it will be fun. It requires planning, traveling and paying admission, all of which I do. And I discover lots and lots of other people who had the same idea.

The outing becomes primarily an exercise in dealing with crowds and waiting. It becomes work. Or the planning to avoid these things becomes work.

All the while, I could’ve been having fun.

Sherman’s preferred toys are tennis balls, cardboard boxes and sticks that he finds outside. In addition to a few official toys which he mostly ignores, these things are scattered around our house and yard.

He just picks one of these things up and plays. Sometimes he wants us to participate.

Either way, it’s a simple thing. “I’m a puppy, so it’s time to have fun.”

Then, it will be time for a nap. So I’ll flop down and take one. Sleep is good.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bush Presidential Library

Quote of the day:
"The only devils in the world are those running around in our own hearts. That is where they need to be fought."

Here’s an item from the United Methodist News Service:

“Officials of Southern Methodist University say they have approval to give the George W. Bush Foundation a 99-year lease to build a presidential library, museum and policy institute on school property. The lease is renewable up to 249 years.

“However, United Methodists who oppose building the library and institute here argue that only the church's South Central Jurisdictional Conference can give final approval for the lease. The jurisdictional conference, which meets once every four years, is scheduled to meet this July in Dallas.

“University officials and 10 bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction say jurisdictional rules permit its Mission Council, which is the executive committee of the jurisdictional conference, to make decisions between sessions. In a closed executive session last March, the Mission Council voted 10-4, with one abstention, to allow SMU to lease to the foundation up to 36 acres on the southeast side of campus.

“The opposing opinions suggest that the project's future may depend on interpretation of church law. The library and museum would be administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. The policy institute--over which the school would have no control--would be run by an independent board.

“The project is to be financed with a private fund drive conducted by the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation. Cost estimates hover around $500 million. President Bush and his wife, Laura, are United Methodists, and the first lady is a 1968 graduate of SMU.

“Opponents have questioned the appropriateness of linking the Bush presidency with SMU, an 11,000-student school founded in 1911 by what is now The United Methodist Church. Critics argue that many policies of the Bush administration have been contrary to United Methodist teaching.

“Proponents say the library would be an invaluable and prestigious resource for scholarly research and would enhance SMU's educational mission, as well as help the local economy."

For more on this story, go here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Quote of the day:
“We're selecting candidates for the most important job in the world via a process that's less rational than the one used to choose Miss Kumquat of Pasco County.”
--Dave Barry, in the January 26th Miami Herald

Daniel Day-Lewis will win the Oscar for best actor. His performance in “There Will Be Blood” is something else.

If he had inhabited this character just 1% less, he would be overacting. But he is perfectly calibrated for this incredibly entertaining semi-allegorical tale of America’s values.

This kind of thing is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s specialty. “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights” and especially “Magnolia” were all wild yet clearly-controlled explorations of fate and what makes Americans tick.

“Magnolia” used several story lines to look at the intrusion of coincidence and spirituality into a hyperbolically perverse world of greed and egotism. It was America magnified and seen in a carnival mirror. I’m still coming to understand this 1999 movie.

Anderson adapted an Upton Sinclair story for “There Will Be Blood,” and he has marvelously taken to the next level Sinclair’s message of entrepreneurship transforming into sinister avarice. This transformation happens in the story of Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil man, and also in the story of a hometown preacher played by Paul Dano.

I find myself remembering how specific scenes looked on the screen--the pictures come back to me in a vivid and powerful way. Also, much of the soundtrack was put together by Jonny Greenwood, a trained violist who is the guitarist for Radiohead. I can’t think of a recent film in which the music so perfectly synergized with the visual narrative. It’s quite an accomplishment.

There’s been some debate about whether the last scene in the movie makes sense. I think, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s extraordinarily creative vision, it does.

I had to think about it a bit, and it’s growing on me.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

We are Still Daily, Really

Quote of the day:
“Everything’s different now.”
--Innocence Mission

Astute daily observers have noticed two things. First, observations here have been coming at a somewhat less than daily pace. Second, there have been a couple of cute puppy pictures floating by in recent days.

Question of the day: Are these two things related? Well, it’s a long story. Actually it’s not a long story at all. I just always have wanted to say that.

Of course, as Merrie will tell you, pretty much anything coming from me can very easily turn into a long story. This is why she has strongly supported me being a minister. It broadens the target of my pontification away from her.

Enough, already. Get to the point.

We have a new puppy. He’s an 8-week-old German Shepherd named Sherman. Sherman the German Shepherd.

Let’s be clear about something. Adopting a puppy is an irrational act. There are a dozen good reasons to not do it. But we did it anyway.

We admit it. We love cats and dogs. All of them spend virtually all their waking hours with us, mostly in the house. And we like it.

Sometimes it’s like living in a cage at the zoo. Often we have to step carefully to not trip or squash one of them. There are regular races and chases around the house. Small piles of animal hair accumulate in the corners.

Our animals are all friendly, and they like spending time with us. It seems like all our idiosyncrasies and maladjustments complement each other. Or at least entertain each other.

After watching the news of the day, it all provides a nice reality check.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Britney Spears

Quote of the day:
“Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes, you’ll know you’re dead.”
--Tennessee Williams

Now is the time to pay attention to Britney Spears.

She’s been emblematic of our tabloid culture for years, and has been admired by teens, dogged by paparazzi and ridiculed by the respectable press (and by me).

Whatever we think about her talents or how she has lived her life, we now are called to understand. She is sick. I don’t know what her psychiatric diagnosis is, but there now is a clear explanation for her erratic and bizarre behavior over the last year.

It’s heartening that she finally seems to be getting the care and treatment she needs. A judge has put her care in the hands of her father, and has ordered the locks changed on her home.

Evidently Spears had been under the supervision of her manager, who seems to have not had her best interests in mind, and may have exploited her.

She needs help and care, and we all need to keep our voyeuristic noses out of her life. Just like every other person suffering from mental illness, she deserves our compassion and support.

Also, maybe the public revelation of Spears’ problem will make some teens and adults more aware of the reality of mental illness. I hope so.

There are still far too many people who consider depression, psychosis and other conditions as character flaws to be dealt with by personal fortitude.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Breeze of a New Dawn

Quote of the day:
“We know that she is capable of both uniting and leading. We saw her going town by town through New York in 2000, including places where Clinton-bashing was a popular sport. She won over skeptical voters and then delivered on her promises and handily won re-election in 2006.”
--New York Times, January 24, Endorsing Hillary Clinton

Aren’t We Pleased moment of the day:
Karl Rove has joined Fox News as a contributor during the election season.

Most of the country will have voted by the time February 5th is over. It looks like we’ll see higher voter participation than we have in many years.

There is passion and excitement and emotional involvement in the process to the extent I’ve never seen. It’s so great to see.

When February 5th is over, there will be several weeks more of primaries, six months to the national conventions and nine months to the general election.

On the one hand, this might be a considerable test of the staying power of newly-stirred voter passion. On the other hand, this might be time enough for excitement and involvement to grow and spread.

I’ve realized over the last year that I have become actively uninterested in much of what happens in government on the national level. I’ve become palpably weary, and a bit cynical.

Who is elected president really has a minimal effect on my life--especially when compared with the San Diego official our neighborhood is dealing with to have a new sewer line installed.

Still, there is great symbolic effect. A new president brings with her (or him) the chance to be inspired and, I hope, actually see things get a little better.

Whatever happens, right now there is a rebirth of hope.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Good Morning

Quote of the day:
“About the time we think we can make ends meet, somebody moves the ends.”
--Herbert Hoover

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

iPhone Improved

Quote of the day:
“The intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, the sensible man hardly anything.”
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Apple has released a very interesting update to the iPhone. If you are anti-iPhone (as in “My (blank) is just as good, and cheaper/faster/more reliable”), please don’t read any further. You’ll just get annoyed.

They’ve added a number of small conveniences, and there are two significant improvements.

One is the ability to touch an icon on the maps page and have my current location marked with a red pin. Then I can touch another location on the map to get directions to it. It’s not GPS, but does essentially the same thing using wireless locations.

It works great. While I won’t use this a lot, it’s good to know it’s available if I need it on the small device that I carry with me all the time.

The other improvement is the ability to customize the functions and icons. I can add one-touch access to any internet page. There is capacity for 60 of them, divided into separate screens I page through by swiping the screen.

Believe me, I’m trying not to gush. But this is so cool it’s never been in the same precinct with school. We’re talking randomly sick.

On my iPhone, I have the phone, text, mail and internet browser on the task bar. My first screen is news (MSNBC, NY Times, BBC), business (Stocks, MSNBC, LA Times) and reference (Dictionary and Wikipedia).

Second is entertainment, including iPod, iTunes, YouTube, camera, photos, local movie times, Mountain West basketball standings and a couple of games (Connect 4 and Blackjack).

My third screen has banking, iPhone settings and various internet pages that I’m checking out or that don’t fit anywhere else.

What this is turning out to be is a very handy, fun and amazingly easy to use resource that I carry everywhere.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Quote of the day:
“No matter what you’re feeling, the only way to get a difficult feeling to go away is simply to love yourself for it. If you think you’re stupid, then love yourself for feeling that way. It’s a paradox, but it works. To heal, you must be the first one to shine the light of compassion on any areas within you that you feel are unacceptable.”
--Christiane Northrup

I’ve been a registered Democrat my entire voting life, though I’ve sometimes voted for Republicans or Independents. This presidential primary has put me in an unusual position.

I’ve always believed in the ineffable power of inspiration. In every job I’ve held I’ve argued for a better balance between pragmatism and idealism.

Over time, most organizations become very pragmatic operations, relying primarily on data, budgets and concrete results. This approach is necessary, of course. But what often happens is that any sense of dreaming a better future gets short shrift in the the never-ending push for efficiency.

For ultimate survival, and certainly for growth in the long-term, the inspiration of an eloquently-stated ideal is vital. Many years ago, some management experts realized this, and the now-ubiquitous (and almost cliched) “mission statement” was born.

Yet even mission statements have been co-opted. They now are simply big goals, because some pragmatists at the table insist they be measurable. We forget that everything else in an organization’s plan is measurable, and that all of it falls under an inspiring ideal.

There is something that defines the organization and what it is becoming. There is power and resonance in a well-written mission statement.

There is power also in a well-written and delivered speech which speaks to the deep, unspoken desires of an audience. Abraham Lincoln was very sensitive to this, which is why he worked so long and hard on his four-minute Gettysburg Address, which became the best-known speech in our history.

Martin Luther King was aware of this, too, and that is why his eight-minute “I Have a Dream” speech was so painstakingly prepared and passionately delivered.

Both Lincoln and King were also very astute politically. Each of them came together with a variety of people to get things done.

Barack Obama has an extraordinary oratorical gift. His speeches seem to be meeting a deep-seated need for relief from the unfortunate divisiveness of recent politics. This divisiveness, and the seeming impossibility of any change for the better, have brought on a lethargic cynicism that grinds on our souls.

I will support Obama if he is the Democratic nominee, but I am supporting Hillary Clinton in the primary.

There are several reasons, but the most important two are these. First, we need someone as President who can get things done--who has demonstrated ability to work with diverse groups of people to make things happen. Obama may be able to do this, but I don’t see much in his record to show it.

Second, national politics is and always will be a game of inches--of small victories that add up. This would give Clinton a significant edge as president, when compared to Obama.

Obama says wonderful things about the need for change, and for our government to be more positive and even uplifting. This is a great ideal. Yet the kind of change he is talking about--which is undefined--involves a huge shift in our political culture.

The only way such a huge shift can occur is if all the people who vote for him continue to be politically involved after he becomes president. They must actively insist that such change occur--to their congresspeople, federal agencies and the press. They must participate.

I don’t see that happening. Instead, what I fear is that six months into Obama’s presidency, he will be bogged down with congress, the military and the federal bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, all of us who voted for him will be waiting for change to happen, and beginning to complain that it hasn’t.

Then other people will begin running for president.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Fires Three Months Later

Quote of the day:
--The Ultimate Explanation for the Universe, according to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

A few weeks ago, Merrie and I visited Heidi, who lives near Ramona, about 40 miles northeast of San Diego. Her house had burned to the ground in the October fires. In fact, every house on her street was a pile of rubble.

Heidi was living in a FEMA-supplied trailer next to her burned-up house. She said she’s not going to rebuild, because she plans to retire and move in a few years. Her matter-of-factness about this impressed me.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like to lose most of your possessions, including where you live. During the fires, people who had lost everything would often say something to a reporter about how they were so glad to be alive and that their families were safe.

Life is the most important thing, of course. But as much as I might hold on to that, I would still have to put my life back together.

As we drove past all those destroyed homes surrounded by blackened earth and trees, I simply could not grasp what all these people had been through--and will continue to go through.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Property Virgins

Quote of thee day:
"One can acquire everything in solitude except character."

If you’ve been reading this from time to time, you probably know about my weakness for real-estate shows. Some people prefer the History Channel, the Weather Channel, the Travel Channel, or ESPN. Me, I prefer the HGTV and TLC shows where people are shopping for real estate.

The “flip” shows are way past their peak, but they have their moments, too. I especially enjoyed TLC’s “Property Ladder,” in which people who almost never know much about what they’re doing buy houses and attempt to fix them up and sell for a profit. It’s now shown a couple times a week in reruns.

I’m not sure why I watch programs like “House Hunters,” “Property Virgins,” “My First Place” and “Buy Me.” I used to think it was because they gave me a chance to see inside so many houses. That’s part of it.

These are very real reality shows. They tell us a lot about our culture--we learn about people’s taste, finances, expectations, and how they live from day to day. On daily display are attitudes about family, money and privacy.

The decisions people make about which houses to buy are endlessly fascinating. There are some common patterns, but each person uses different criteria. Sometimes the two people moving in have different criteria from each other.

There are lots of essential decisions to be made. Close to work, or farther away? Big yard or small yard? Two or three or four bedrooms? Condo or house? City or suburbs? Vintage or new? Ranch or split level? In perfect condition or needs work? Big house or smaller house?

Watching people make these decisions is fascinating and revealing. It tells me a lot about how we Americans think about ourselves.

Friday, January 18, 2008

It Is What It Is

Quote of the day:
“Put your hands up.”
--Benny Benassi and the Biz

There was one cliche listed by the LA TImes on January 1st that I disagree with. I’m not sure it’s possible to disagree with a cliche. But what the heck.

“It is what it is” may be overused to the extent it can be called a cliche, but there is a very good reason it’s used so much.

Ontologically, the phrase is redundant. Saying just “it is” is all that’s necessary. “It is what it is” is just saying “it is” twice.

The LA Times said, “We defy anyone to explain how this phrase contributes anything to logic or language.” They are 100% correct. But it’s still not exactly a cliche.

It’s not a cliche because it is a necessary statement to some of us at different times in our lives. Why would a redundant, seemingly senseless statement be necessary?

It is necessary because, at times, we literally forget that something “is.” It may be deliberate, it may be unconscious, but we behave sometimes as if “it isn’t” or “it is, maybe.”

As a result, we need the redundant reminder that “it is what it is.” Or, the reverse, “it isn’t what it isn’t.”

What is not true, or at least illogical, is “it is what it isn’t.” Or “it isn’t what it is.” Both of these statements say simply “it isn’t,” which we know is not true because “it is.”

Or, if that goes over our heads, “it is what it is.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dreaded Cliches of 2007

Quote of the day:
"Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and adversity is not without comforts and hopes."
--Francis Bacon

On January 1st, frustrated editorial writers at the Los Angeles Times published a list of what they called “cringe-worthy turns of phrase that have been cluttering up the language in recent years.”

I was shocked, shocked to discover gambling going on in this establishment.

Sorry. I’ll try again.

I was astonished that my least-favorite cliche, “first and foremost,” failed to make their list.

On the other hand, I was immensely satisfied to see another low one on my list: “think outside the box.” About this, they say “In effect, this says ‘do your best to be original’ in the least original way.”

I remember the immortal words of Preston Creston: “Those who say ‘think outside the box’ often don’t know where the box is.”

There were some other noteworthy entries by the LA Times:

“‘Too much information.’ Overused the second time it was uttered. And no, ‘TMI’ is not acceptable either.

“‘Blue-ribbon panel.’ Has there ever been a red-ribbon panel?

“‘It’s all good.’ Is it? Really?

“‘My bad.’ Yes.

“‘No worries.’ This concept started with Alfred E. Neuman, and should have ended there.

“‘Support the troops.’ As a reminder to back brave men and women, OK. As a call to political conformity, enough.

“‘WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?).’ Our guess is that, among other things, he’d be amused by people who presume to know what he’d do.

“‘Unprecedented.’ This word appeared in 600 articles in The Times last year alone. But it doesn’t mean what we’ve used it to mean: ‘unusual’ or ‘for the first time.’ It means that there is no precedent, which there almost always is.

“‘Existential threat.’ We think this means ‘really serious threat,’ but we’re not sure. We suspect that many people who use it aren’t sure either.

“‘Metrics.’” Can we begin to deliver shocks to managers when they say this word?

“‘At the end of the day.’ No great improvement over ‘when push comes to shove,’ unless it really is the end of the day.”

Thanks to Merrie for sharing this list with me. Isn’t she terrific?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Who's Got the News?

Quote of the day:
“Many people feel guilty about things they shouldn’t feel guilty about, in order to shut out feelings of guilt about things they should feel guilty about.”
--Sydney J. Harris

Who will be the ultimate news source?

Newspapers have filled this role since the beginning of the news business. While TV networks, NPR and news websites foster an image as “sources,” ultimately they rely primarily on newspapers for their ideas.

Newspapers remain the primary news gatherers, and mostly they do the job well and responsibly. Now, this news gathering is threatened as newspapers continually shrink.

The editor of the Los Angeles Times just resigned over a disagreement about cuts in the newsroom.

Rupert Murdoch is in the process of remaking the Wall Street Journal into a more “zippy” newspaper, with fewer in-depth stories.

We’ve heard dozens of examples of these kinds of changes over the last ten years. There are two specific problems with this. And they are not just internal, industry problems. They are problems with far-reaching impact on our culture.

One problem is the reduction of longer-term investigative coverage, and any other reporting that takes time, care and extra resources. How are we going to put what is happening in our world into perspective without some extended attention to events and trends?

If newspapers reduce in-depth reporting, does anyone take up the slack? I haven’t noticed any other media stepping up, and I’m not sure they could. Responsible long-term reporting takes resources, experience and top-notch writing and editing as well as gathering. These things don’t just appear. They are cultivated over time.

The other problem is the virtual elimination of certain kinds of coverage. An example is the closing of news bureaus around the world. There are dozens of population centers around the world--especially in China, India and Africa--which have no English-language news presence.

And many of the major centers--Paris, London, Beijing among them--don’t have nearly the variety of coverage they had several years ago. In a time of growing interdependence, this all seems illogical.

Yes, newspapers are a business. I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. I’m not really interested in blaming them.

What I am concerned about is who is going to step in and fill this need? Or have we decided that this isn’t a need at all--that all we want are endlessly-repeating sensational headlines from Washington, Hollywood, the real estate industry and the small town where the latest personal tragedy has happened?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Quote of the day:
“Why is it that people who cannot show feeling presume that that is a strength and not a weakness?”
--May Sarton

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” does something no movie has ever done before. Some films have danced around it, but none have done it.

This movie takes you into the experience of waking up in the hospital, completely paralyzed and not knowing what has happened or what is going on. It’s uncanny how real it feels.

The director, Julian Schnabel, has done an exceptional job making the experience real. It’s difficult to do this without using distracting gimmicks, or at least calling attention to technique. Schnabel’s filmmaking is transparent.

You might think the premise of the film would make it dull. But it’s far from dull. We get a glimpse into the mind and memories of an active, engaged magazine editor, while also seeing what is going on around him.

And, because the movie is essentially set in a hospital room, it would be easy to assume that the story would be depressing. While the film is indeed very honest and straightforward, ultimately what comes across is a moving portrait of the value of life.

It’s something I’ve never seen in a movie before.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Can Mainline Churches Grow?

Quote of the day:
“You think your pains and heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive.”
--James Baldwin

We’ve seen an explosion in church growth over the last 20 years. In this country the growth is concentrated among conservative, mostly nondenominational churches. Many of these churches have become very large.

Conversely, in the same 20 years the mainline churches (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc.) have seen a steady decline in both membership and attendance.

Those of us in the United Methodist Church have carefully studied the techniques used in the growing congregations, often attempting to emulate them in order to reverse our decline.

One method used has been to introduce informal worship, using a minimum of liturgy, lots of video and music played by rock band. Sometimes this is a bit successful, but almost never to the point of spurring rapid growth.

Attracting people to worship is a complex situation, and goes way beyond the assumed duality of younger people being attracted to “contemporary” worship and older people being attracted to “traditional” worship.  It's more about taste, churched/unchurched (that is, level of experience in churches), and where people are on their spiritual journeys.

And that relates to why mainline churches have declined, while conservative nondenominational churches have grown.  Spiritually inexperienced people like the latter because they can feel comfortable with the people and the surroundings, and the sermons are simple how-tos.  They don't have to know anything before they walk in the door. They go, have a good time and get some life advice.

The UMC and other mainline churches tend to attract people who are more spiritually mature.  Often people who are serious about their spiritual life or their theology will migrate from the nondenominational churches into a mainline church.  I saw this when I was doing membership at one of the churches I’ve served.

Attracting the spiritually inexperienced is something we're not good at, with a few scattered exceptions.  

Trying to grow the mainline church the same way the conservative, contemporary churches have grown is a bit like asking GM to build Toyotas or IBM to build Apples.  

GM and IBM have huge, dug-in corporate cultures that support hundreds of thousands of employees, and that do lots of good things. If they’re interested in growing the way Toyota or Apple have, they can imitate the techniques of Toyota or Apple, perhaps with a little success.

But they don’t have the “DNA” that Toyota or Apple have, to innovate, design, and meet people’s needs.

The mainline churches don’t have that DNA either.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Quote of the day:
“Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.”
--Ben Hecht

We began to watch “Hairspray” with a bit of trepidation. With a few exceptions, we’re not big fans of musicals. To us, movie musicals are too often cloyingly earnest or incoherently and unentertainingly “cutting edge.”

It turns out “Hairspray” is neither of these things. A good indicator is Christopher Walken.

While I very much like Walken, he has been in so many weird roles that he often steps into a caricature of himself. But not here. He is both immensely silly and believable--if that makes any sense. We actually smiled when he broke into a dance number.

This is the feel of the whole film. There’s a certain built-in ridiculousness that is so pitch-perfect that it really won us over.

It turns out the movie’s subject is very serious. The setting is de facto segregated 1960s Baltimore.

The film is so good-natured and so much fun that it’s hard to fathom how its theme could be prejudice against difference. But this seeming incompatibility is what makes it work.

In addition to enjoying the film MUCH more than I ever expected, I found myself thinking back on my life in 1960s Baltimore. And I though about how far we’ve come and haven’t come.

John Travolta’s good, too.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Wire

Quote of the day:
"If I have a good trait, it's probably relentlessness, I'm a hound dog on the prowl. I can't be shook!"
--Bruce Springsteen

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems we really have some excellent, adult movies and TV series going on. Perhaps the most adult and sophisticated of all is “The Wire” on HBO. It just began its fifth and final season.

“The Wire” debuted in the shadow of “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” and so never received quite the attention those two series did. Also, it can be a difficult show to watch because of its myriad of characters, plot lines and thick, authentic dialect. It takes a bit of effort.

With the dialect issue, DVDs are very helpful. Just turn on the subtitles.

This series has received a lot of attention recently because of consistent critical lauds and because it’s getting set to end.

The name of the show comes from the wiretaps the cops use to track movements of people they are investigating. This is just a piece of what goes on.

“The Wire” is an unusual venture for TV in a couple respects. First, it is created and produced by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, who is intimately familiar with the workings, politics and language of the city and the streets.

Second, each season has taken on a different city institution. The constant over the seasons has been the story of the police and the drug trade. This was the focus of the first season. Subsequent years have examined organized crime at the port, city government, schools and now, the newspaper.

The writing and the acting may be the best ever shown on television. Considering the complexity of the story lines and the plethora of characters, this is an extraordinary achievement.

When I talked about “The Sopranos” I mentioned a possible comparison with Shakespearean drama. “The Wire” is a much more apt candidate for that comparison.

We see the personal and institutional stories of crime in downtown Baltimore’s run-down streets, city government, the police, reporters and editors, and schools, interwoven into a strongly compelling tapestry of pain, healing, joy, failure, achievement, corruption, friendship, betrayal, shocking tragedy and humor.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Down Economy

Quote of the day:
--Wilson Pickett

It looks like retail sales at the end of the year were not as good as expected, though data will continue to trickle in for a while.

The Fed is saying it is ready to take some significant action to lower interest rates.

There are continuing reports that home sales and prices are both down.

It’s pretty clear that we’re in a bit of an economic slowing. If it worsens, some people will need some help, but most of us will be ok.

A lot of what is being measured is not actual decline but slowing growth. Where there is decline, the setback is not to the stone age. Rather, we are seeing numbers that were common a few months ago.

Real estate is an exception, at least here in San Diego. Prices are where they were about 3 years ago.

Still, most of us will be ok. That includes homeowners who bought a place to live at any time, including at the price peak.

Even if a homeowner who bought at the peak finds himself having to move, he should be just fine. Any loss in the value of his home should be matched by the lower price of his new home.

Real-estate investors who bought for the long term also will be ok.

The only folks at risk are speculators who expected continuous upward price movement and who therefore bought with the intention of selling in a few months or years. If they can’t live in their investments and don’t have the resources to wait a long time, they’re likely in trouble.

Speculators expect great reward and take great risk to go after it. We are seeing the downside of that risk right now, as we saw it in 2000 with day traders.

We don’t hear much about day traders anymore. Many of them were wiped out in 2000. Just as many amateur house flippers are being wiped out right now.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Stock Market: What Goes Out Comes Back In

Quote of the day:
“I do not see any real signs of recession, despite all the news headlines, which I believe many journalists are overplaying in order to attract attention. The Cold War is over. Global warming is becoming a bore--at least to this jaded writer. Journalism, which thrives on bad news, needs a new scare. Why not economic collapse?”
--Jerry Flint, January 3 Forbes

The economy and stock prices have been in the news since the start of the year. There are growing worries of recession, and special concern that consumer spending seems to be slowing.

We may or may not have a recession. We may or may not be in a recession. I don’t know. There are too many variables, and too many of them are only fuzzily known.

I try to stick with what I know. And I try to keep things simple.

When the stock market is weak, I ask myself a question: “Where did the money go?” When investors sold stocks, where did they put the money?

Most of the time it goes into money-market funds or T-Bills. Is the money going to stay there? No. At least not for any length of time.

So where will the money go? If bond yields (interest rates) look good, some or all the money will move into the bond market. This is what happened in 2000 and 2001 when the tech bubble burst. 30-year triple A bonds (highest quality) were yielding almost 8% then.

A lot of that money is still in the bond market, which showed a healthy return for the next few years.

Even though interest rates are declining again, bonds are already at 5%. To deliver the kind of return we saw at the start of the decade, the yield would need to decline to 2.5%. Unless the world is ending, I don’t know who in his right mind would invest in a 2.5% 30-year bond.

I don’t see the bond market delivering much of a long-term return from here. So the money is not going there.

Where else might it go? Some might go into real estate, if institutional or individual investors have the flexibility to invest money there. Most institutions do not have this flexibility. And I think individuals are all too aware of how illiquid real estate is.

The only realistic choice right now is the stock market. The money will come back. Just like Al Pacino said in “Godfather 3” about trying to escape the mafia. They try to take the money out, but it has to go back in.

In the declines and choppiness of the stock market, we’re also seeing the actions of speculators trying to time their sales and purchases. That money is not going permanently somewhere else.

So if the long-term money nor the short-term money is permanently moving out of stocks, will the market head permanently south?

Just asking.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Savages

Quote of the day:
“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.”
--Carl Reiner

“The Savages” snuck up on me.

I thought I was watching a rather ordinary story about an adult sister and brother trying to take care of their disagreeable father who has dementia.

It turns out I WAS watching a rather ordinary story about an adult sister and brother trying to take care of their disagreeable father (Phillip Bosco) who has dementia. What becomes apparent is that the brother (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the sister (Laura Linney) are not able emotionally to care for each other or themselves.

This is a moving story about how emotions go underground, and the social awkwardness and grief that results.

When I think of a movie with that theme, I would likely think of the cliche “searing drama.” But this isn’t a searing drama. None of the actors are compelled to be searingly dramatic.

It’s just an everyday story about people in a common situation. They are trying to live their lives, but they are haunted. As so many of us are.

The power of “The Savages” is in its ordinariness. It puts both the tragedy and ultimate hope of the film in just the right perspective.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Two Democrats, Five Republicans

Quote of the day:
“Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living. After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.”
--Katharine Hepburn

Right now, no one is really in the lead for either the Republican or Democratic presidential nomination. It’s a tossup between Clinton and Obama, and among the Republicans the race is wide open--at this point the nominee could be any one of five candidates.

It’s been a long time since there was this much uncertainty and excitement about a national election. Isn’t it great?

We are already seeing the very sly use of sophisticated marketing operations. It’s clear they’re sly because the sources of quotes and “information” about candidates are virtually invisible.

I like to think that the only people who take these quotes and “information” seriously are those who already believe them anyway. But it’s not that simple.

There are ways to implant a suggestion or a phrase--true or not, fair or not--in the minds of reporters and commentators who don’t realize or admit that they’re being manipulated.

Due to the voracious appetite of news channels and talk shows for anything to talk about, these things begin to spread and be repeated--sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly over time. They become part of the fabric of a candidate’s story.

They cannot be reversed. No amount of clarity or logic matters.

We may not realize that we hear these things and then begin believing them. Yet these beliefs are what shape elections. Not truth, facts or argument.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening

Quote of the day:
“Never knock on Death's door: ring the bell and run away! Death really hates that!”
--Matt Frewer

“Starting Out in the Evening” is like a very good play. There are just four characters, and almost all the action happens in one location. The plot is minimal.

It’s a character study. I say this because the movie has been criticized a bit for both its premise and its story.

Don’t skip the movie because of that criticism. You’ll miss one of the great performances of 2007. Frank Langella is excellent.

He plays an aging novelist who composes on a manual typewriter. He lives in New York, has been quite successful and is a classic literary intellectual.

Modernity crashes into him in the form of a graduate student who wants to write her thesis on his work. Lauren Ambrose from “Six Feet Under” plays the graduate student. Some critics have said her portrayal is too ditzy to make her believable as a young literary type.

I disagree. Appearances and behavior can be deceiving these days. You could say that this is part of the old/new collision that is this movie’s heart.

Her daughter (played by Lili Taylor) is part of this collision in a different way. She and her boyfriend fight for respectability in her father’s eyes. They come from a generation that views responsibility and relationships very differently.

What makes “Starting Out in the Evening” work so well is how it makes clear the compromises built into both the “old” and the “new.”

We learn, in a very eloquent way, the cost of closed-in privacy from the “old,” and the ultimate cost of easy betrayal from the “new.”

Frank Langella will be nominated for a best-acting Oscar. His performance is reason enough to see this film.

This movie has left theatres, but will be coming out on DVD soon.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

Quote of the day:
“Everyone’s looking for some kind of love.”
--Kate Wolf

Statistic of the day:
Percent of American households with at least person employed:
Among immigrants: 82%
Among those born here: 73%
--Harper’s Magazine

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, known as Epiphany. This is the day when Christian tradition reads the story of the magi following the star and coming upon Jesus.

We like to keep our Christmas tree up until Epiphany. It seems like just the right amount of time.

This year I took it down a day early because yesterday was tree-recycling day. I’ve got to admit I felt a little sad taking the tree down and hauling it to the curb. Our living room looked so bare, with just a few pine needles scattered where the tree had been.

On the other hand, it’s great to look at the sky in the late afternoon and realize that that days are getting longer. Light is coming back.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Quote of the day:
“Where facts are few, experts are many.”
--Donald R. Gannon

I think the Academy should automatically give Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for three great performances this year. Maybe best supporting actor for “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

Hoffman doesn’t really chew the scenery. It’s more of a gnawing.

He nails the role of an angry, self-righteous whistle-blower who has worked for the CIA for many years. This is a very entertaining performance.

The movie is based in fact, and portrays how Congress is run. The deal making, horse-trading, perks, how money is appropriated and sometimes how history gets made. Often it’s not pretty.

We learn some things about the CIA that we may know or suspect but have never seen in action. Some of these things aren’t pretty, either.

Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman who almost literally stumbles into a vacuum in our foreign policy. He is very good. Julia Roberts has a role that doesn’t fit her quite right--she plays a very wealthy and politically active Texan.

Many good movies came out near the end of 2007. “Charlie Wilson’s War” is one of them.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Romney, Huckabee, McCain

Quote of the day:
"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."
--H.G. Wells

There are final actual results in the Presidential election campaign. It’s a fairly slow news time, so there is seemingly unending reporting, analysis, punditry and prognostication about it.

Is there anything about the candidates, campaigns, processes and polls we haven’t heard about? Is there any “expert” who hasn’t given his or her opinion?

We are ten months away from the election and already the candidates have had more exposure than most presidential candidates in our history.

I won’t repeat the oft-heard complaint “is there anything about them we don’t already know?” There actually is a lot about the individual candidates we don’t know.

This is an especially interesting election year, for a number of reasons. One is that California and New York will vote earlier, and it looks like our votes will count for something this year.

In coverage of the campaign, what we mostly hear are variations on narrow weekly themes. Right now the themes are:

1. Horse race. Huckabee and Obama leading coming out of the gate. Can Romney/McCain and Clinton/Edwards catch up before the first turn?

2. What tactics will each of them use to win the race?

3. Are voters more interested in change/inspiration, or experience/pragmatism?

This is not a week about issues, plans, policy or programs. The differences among candidates in each party is fairly small. So most of the issues reporting so far has focused on small differences in positions.

Is the primary campaign going to effectively end on February 5th, when 22 states vote? That would leave nine months of general campaigning.

For a four-year job. Yikes.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Device of the Year Three

Quote of the day:
"I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once."
--John Coltrane, when asked to describe his style.

My third device of the year for 2007 will take some explaining.

When CDs came around in the 1980s, the common wisdom became that all CD players sounded the same. This was based on the change in technology more than it was on actual listening.

With LPs, small variations in turntable speed, tonearm/cartridge design and setup, the condition of the record surface and many other physical factors all have an obvious effect on the sound.

Because CDs were digital--essentially a surface with ones and zeros on it--none of the LPs’ physical problems came into play. So the assumption quickly became that all players sounded the same.

That’s true as long as the signal is digital. Just like any properly-operating computer hard drive will accurately store and retrieve data, any properly-operating CD player will put out an accurate digital signal.

But CD players do not stop with the digital signal. They also convert it to analog. This is where differences come into play. Analog is a more-tricky business than digital. Just like humans are more tricky than machines.

The engineering of any active analog circuit always involves decisions that affect the signal passing through it. There are two such active circuits just before the analog output from any CD player--the circuit that converts the digital signal and the circuit that amplifies the signal so that it can drive your amplifier.

The design of these two circuits affects the sound of a CD player. Well-designed high-quality circuits make a difference.

This is not just an audiophile thing. The difference in sound is quite obvious and pronounced to most people. The thing is, most people haven’t heard such well-designed high-quality circuits.

Manufacturers of CD players are very aware that most everyone thinks all players sound the same. So, to keep costs down, they put in the very cheapest converter and amplifier circuits they can--on one small chip. Not surprisingly, players designed this way sound pretty much the same.

Earlier this year Merrie and I bought a separate digital-analog converter (DAC) and plugged the CD player’s digital output into it. We also hooked up a computer’s digital output.

It’s interesting that there was so much in the music that we hadn’t heard before. It sounds live and real.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

LPs are Back

Quote of the day:
“When we got into office, the thing that surprised me the most was that things were as bad as we'd been saying they were.”
--John F. Kennedy

I am an audiophile. I don’t have the singular focus bordering on obsession of most audiophiles, but I am sensitive to acoustics and sound, and I love music.

Merrie and I listen a lot to LPs. Our collection is not huge, but it goes back to my days in radio and before. We also listen a lot to CDs, and we have a fair number of them, too.

Among audiophiles, there’s an ongoing conversation about whether LPs sound better than CDs or vice versa. Most non-audiophiles dismiss this, saying CDs obviously sound better and they don’t have scratches. And they’re smaller and easier.

Most audiophiles get a little snooty when told this, and will think to themselves, “Well, your records wouldn’t be scratched if you took better care of them.” Some invest lots of cash (we’re talking $10,000+) in elaborate turntable setups and heavy-vinyl deep pressings. It can be a serious business.

The truth is that most record albums released since the 1950s can sound pretty darn good on a reasonably-priced, properly set up turntable. It’s amazing, in fact, to put on a record made fifty years ago and hear it come alive. Even if it’s slightly scratched.

I am fascinated that LPs have become fashionable again. Over the last several years, more and more musicians are releasing their music on LP as well as CD.

LPs were kept alive by live DJs and musicians, who used them for scratching and sampling. But it’s gone way beyond that now.

Look at the success of record sellers on the web, and at stores like Amoeba in L.A. and the Bay Area. Here in San Diego, there are several small record stores that seem to be thriving.

Listening to an LP can be more well-rounded than listening to a CD. You have to go to the shelf, peruse, pull the album out, look at the front and back, pull the inner sleeve out, put the record on the turntable and put the arm on the record. Then, 20 minutes later, you have to get up and turn the record over.

The 20-minute thing can be annoying if I’m trying to do something else while listening. Yet because it’s a more-involving process, I often find I’m paying closer attention to the music. It’s usually not just background.

Also, since so many of our records are from the 50s, 60s and 70s, there is a sense of connection to history. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. I remember first getting the record, or where I was when I first heard it, or listening to it with friends.

And the music is still so good. In fact, most of the time, it’s better.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

We Use Much More Than 10% of Our Brains

Quote of the day:
"There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard that there was such a thing."
--Francois VI, duke de la Rouchefoucauld (1655)

Happy New Year!

The new year is a good time to get straight on some deeply-embedded misunderstandings.

We believe many things about health and medicine that are questionable at best, and sometimes downright wrong. The “British Medical Journal” recently published a list of seven things we believe that just ain’t so. It was compiled by Rachel C. Vreeman of the Indiana University School of Medicine an Aaron E. Carroll of the Regenstrief Institute.

1. “You should drink at least eight glasses of water a day.” This advice has been around since 1945, but there’s no scientific evidence to support it. In fact, excessive water drinking can be fatal.

2. “We use only 10 percent of our brains.” Modern medical imaging shows that there’s no region of the brain that is completely inactive.

3. “Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death.” They don’t, but dehydration of the body and retracting skin can make it appear so.

4. “Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight.” It can strain the eyes and reduce blinking (which may cause uncomfortable dryness), but the effects are temporary. There’s no permanent effect on eye function or structure.

5. “Shaving causes hair to grow back faster or coarser.” Numerous studies have shown this to be false. Shaving does remove the finer, tapered ends of hair, which can make the remaining stubble seem coarser. And new hair emerging from the skin can appear darker because it has not been lightened by sun or chemical exposure. But shaving itself doesn’t affect the hair at all.

6. “Mobile phones are dangerous in hospitals.” There’s little real evidence to support the idea that cell phones can interfere with critical medical equipment. All of the evidence cited is anecdotal and pretty dubious.

7. “Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy.” Tryptophan, an amino acid, is involved in sleep and a form of it is marketed as a sleep aid. Turkey contains tryptophan, but so too does chicken and beef. Pork and cheese contain more tryptophan than turkey. Sleepiness after a big turkey meal is more likely due to diverted blood and oxygen flow from the brain to the digesting stomach.

The complete article can be read here.