Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Growng Up in the 21st Century

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day and today I’m woolgathering and taking stock. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. Why wait until some arbitrary day on the calendar to do something that needs doing or change something that needs changing? But I understand that it’s human nature to procrastinate all that doing and changing and the start of the new year does serve to remind one that time is passing, if you need to be reminded of that sort of thing. Personally I’d be in serious contention for the title of world’s worst procrastinator of I let myself, so I’ve always made a conscious decision to try to get done as quickly as possible things I might otherwise put off. This leaves me free on New Year’s to take stock and plan what I want to accomplish in the future. And to ruminate on what has happened in the last year and try to understand it. I find this works better for me than trying to change everything at once, failing miserably, and then giving up for the rest of the year- which is what resolutions seem to wind up causing for a lot of folks.

The year has been rather uneventful for me on a personal level. Sure there have been the sort of things that crop up in any given year of your life- I bought a new car, sold my old one (both transactions on Ebay, that was a first), and had a bout of illness (practically the first time I’ve ever been seriously ill, so that was enlightening) but most of my time was taken up with the things that comprise day to day life- work, play, taking out the garbage. My life goes on at a pretty even keel. One of the advantages of getting a little older is that you’ve had a chance to work a lot of things out, to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And one of the advantages of my job is that it helps me keep things in perspective. It’s hard to sweat the small stuff when you deal with people who are dealing with real crises every day.

OTOH, the year seems to have been pretty traumatic on a national and world level. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I think we’re on the cusp of big changes. One of the constants in the universe seems to be that things have a specific plan to their existence. Everything from plants and animals, to people, to stars, to galaxies, and presumably even the universe, has a series of stages they go through from birth to death. For instance, a star and it’s attendant solar system starts out as a ball of gas. The gas congeals into the sun and planets. The sun ignites when it gets dense and hot enough for hydrogen to fuse. There’s a period of furious activity where billions of orbiting particles get whittled down to a few hundred thousand and the planets cool. Then the sun settles into a long period of stable activity. Eventually the sun grows old and uses up the available hydrogen. It cools, expands, and eventually dies. Sort of like people. There’s birth, childhood with all its associated traumas, adulthood with it’s attendant stability, and eventually old age. One of my favorite psychological theorists, a fellow named Eric Erikson, postulated that human beings go through eight developmental stages from birth to death and that each stage had a central challenge that had to be overcome to advance to the next. I think intelligent species are like that too. Human beings have gone through a sort of childhood, where we developed society and technology, and an adolescence, where we covered the planet and learned some rudimentary control over the forces of nature. Now we seem to be entering a period of adulthood. We can no longer afford the excesses of youth. But like any adolescent, if we don’t learn to control our impulses to be wasteful, greedy, thoughtless, and self absorbed, we aren’t going to be able to enjoy a long fruitful period of adulthood. My entire life I’ve lived in a world where human beings had the capacity to destroy themselves and the planet. And somehow, so far we haven’t. But the problems are becoming more complex. Now we don’t have to worry just about doing something mind-bogglingly stupid and starting a nuclear holocaust. We have to start thinking about how we are going to manage the planet so we have a long prosperous life as a species. I hope we’re up to it. If we aren’t it’s entirely possible that, like many adolescents who don’t grow up, we’ll ruin our future or perhaps even kill ourselves as a race. I think we’re at that point now. We have the capability to do almost anything if we’re smart. But if we don’t quit acting like children we aren’t going to last long. It seems the time has come for us to start acting like adults.

Will we be able to? I honestly don’t know. There is such a strong spark of the divine in us. We can be so good and caring and smart. OTOH, like any child on the brink of adulthood, we have such great hesitance and fear when we think we are going to have to start being responsible for ourselves and start making good decisions. The current financial crisis is like the hangover that follows a wild college frat party. The party’s over, it’s Monday morning and time for class. If you don’t make yourself get up and go in spite of the fact that your head is pounding and the next little while is really going to suck, then you’re never going to graduate. Maybe in the long run this financial crisis will be a good thing. Those bleary eyed Monday mornings teach you that spending the weekend getting loaded is a pretty stupid idea. And people often are at their best when challenged. I’ve noticed that when times are good and things are easy, people often get complacent and lazy. A kick in the pants sometimes smartens us up considerably. I’m just not looking forward to the hangover. But if we wind up with a better world when we come out the other side then it was worth it.

POLITICS- Bristol's Precious Little Snowflake

And now, for something completely snarky…

Congratulations to Bristol Lampshade Burp Gompers Palin and Levi Cogswallow Twiddle Sparkplug Johnston on the birth of their little bastard Tripp Ouff Bang Quonsethut Palin-Johnston. The child is doing fine and looking forward to following in the footsteps of his mother and grandmother to be a high school dropout and Republican presidential candidate in 2048. Other career choices include going into the family business of his other grandmother and getting arrested for selling Meth. He also hopes to break with longstanding family tradition by waiting until after marriage to knock up some random trollop.

Attending the birth were uncle Track Boink Wazzle Dipshait Palin (also a proud high school dropout), aunt Willow Camshaft Doober Doohickey Palin (soon to drop out of school), aunt Piper Cub Dwizzle Particle Palin (looking forward to dropping out of school), and older brother Trig Gomer Fontanel Algebra Palin (referred to humorously in the family as “Uncle Trig” and who has no plans to ever attend school). During the birth Bristol’s siblings were overheard to exclaim “Wow!” “Shit!” “Look at the size of that thing!” and “Murmee, Murmee, Murmee.”

And these retarded rednecks want to tell me about family values? As the bumper stickers in Colorado say- Focus On Your Own Damn Family.

Monday, December 29, 2008

ECONOMY- The Auto Bailout

I had a talk the other day with a good friend and it started me thinking about some things that hadn’t occurred to me about the state of the economy and the auto bailout.

I’m going to refer to my friend as Bob, although that isn’t his real name. Not that I actually think he’d care for me to use his real name but simply out of respect of the fact that I haven’t asked him. Like many successful and thoughtful people I’ve known, Bob finds himself drawn to Libertarian principles. His thoughts on the auto bailout can be capsulated as (a) the government has no business bailing out failed companies and (b) the Big Three automakers are doomed to fail anyway so any money the government spends to prolong the inevitable is wasted.

As I told him, from a philosophical point of view I agree with both viewpoints. I don’t think it’s the business of government to decide who is “too big to fail”. A free market is only free if failure is an option for anyone. At this point it’s looking more and more like the bank bailout was a terrible waste. Not because the government might not have needed to do something to save the banking system but because, like virtually everything the Bush administration has done, it was poorly planned and terribly managed. What they have done seems to amount to pouring obscene amounts of money into the banking system and having absolutely nothing to show for it. Likewise, if the taxpayers give the automakers a loan that no bank would touch and they default, we have thrown away money and have nothing to show for it.

But Bob repeated a “fact” that I hear over and over again and don’t believe. He says that Detroit’s problems are the fault of the unions. I’m sorry, but this is patently absurd for a couple of reasons. To take GM as an example, the cost of their union pension responsibilities is immense. I read estimates between $1300 and $1800 PER CAR SOLD. But while this is a competitive disadvantage that the foreign companies don’t share, it isn’t the reason GM is bankrupt. Those pensions are a cost of doing business just like the cost of steel or interest on bank loans. You wouldn’t blame the banks for GM’s debts so why blame the pension plan? Those workers had contracts that entitled them to a pension and health care in retirement. They are no more responsible for GM’s predicament than any other creditor.

Another thing people say to blame the unions for Detroit’s trouble is that their workers make too much money. True, US auto companies pay slightly more to domestic workers than foreign companies. That’s why US car makers have been closing plants and moving them to Mexico where they pay significantly less. But the real Pay inequality is among executives. Ford CEO and President Alan Mulally makes about 100 million dollars a year, or about 557 times what that theoretical $75/hr. autoworker makes. To compare, Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe makes under one million a year, or under 6 times as much as the same auto worker. Still think all the money is going to the people actually building the cars?

GM’s problem isn’t new. It’s the same problem they have had for a long time- every year fewer people want to buy their cars. PERIOD. While the Japanese and other foreign carmakers have expanded their market share, American companies’ sales have contracted. If you think the pension plan or labor cost is the problem then ask yourself- would making GM cars $1500 cheaper cause someone buying a Toyota to change their mind? According to Kelley Blue Book a base model Chevy Malibu invoices for $21,395.00 while a base Toyota Camry costs $26,210. The Toyota already costs over $4800 more! Obviously cost is not hindering Toyota who equaled GM in new car sales worldwide for the first time over a year ago.

There are lots of reasons for GM (and as GM goes, so America goes apparently) to have consistently lost customers to Toyota but they aren’t the unions, they’re the cars.

(1) American cars are inferior in quality (many will protest “Not any more” which simply proves that they have been for so long that claiming equality is now considered a selling point). Not only do they break down more often but their build quality and “fit and finish” is inferior. Their technology is often inferior. And they just aren’t as nice. Go to a Chevy showroom and sit inside one of their cars. The interior is laden with cheap plastics, inferior finishes and textures, knobs that feel cheap when you turn them, and seats covered with fabrics that you wouldn’t use to line your dog house. Now go to a Toyota or Honda dealership and sit in one of their cars. The differences aren’t subtle. Do the same thing and look at the seams between body panels or test the ride quality while you’re at it. And the inferiority isn’t just skin deep. The 2009 Corvette, considered one of the best cars made by the General, still uses an engine technology that’s over 60 years old and is suspended on LEAF SPRINGS. For those of you that don’t know, this is the same kind of suspension technology used by stage coaches. And it wasn’t new then. Is it any wonder that almost every review of this “world beating sports car” comments on how bad the ride quality is? Simply put, the foreign brands have made such sales gains because they build better cars.
(2) The resale values for American cars are abysmal. This is mostly because of the program car sales that allow American auto makers to claim sales commensurate with Japanese brands. When you see sales figures from GM, Ford, or Chrysler they include significant sales of cars to rental fleets and other corporate buyers at substantial discounts. These sales assure that there are always plenty of used American cars available at heavy discounts within 12 months of the release of a new model. A friend of mine looked up the loan value on a 2007 Dodge Magnum the other day and found that the car, which had been purchased for close to $40,000 was now eligible for a loan of $15,000!
(3) American car companies make too many versions of the same car. If you walk into a Japanese dealership you will find that the option list is less than a dozen items and often there are only 2 or 3 factory options. Domestic auto option lists contain dozens of items and checking every one can almost double the cost of the car. In addition to that, American car companies make too many kinds of the same car- a marketing ploy called “badge engineering” It is common to find the same basic automobile sold by several different dealerships with only cosmetic changes. For GM to supply autos to GM, Chevy, Pontiac, Cadillac, Hummer, Buick, and Saturn they wind up making the same basic vehicle in several ways, gutting the economies of scale they would otherwise enjoy.
(4) Their management is incompetent and overpaid. True this isn’t exclusive to car manufacturers; it’s epidemic in American business. But American higher management seems to be a kind of “good ol’ boys” club where the ultra rich move from one company to another without demonstrating any real talent. Take the case of Bob Nardelli, who moved from being CEO of GE to being CEO of Home Depot in spite of the fact that he had absolutely no retail experience. True, during his tenure profits for the chain increased, but not at the rate they had been increasing prior to his taking charge. He also managed to keep Home Depot’s stock price steady while their main competitor, Lowes, watched their stock double. For this lackluster performance Nardelli was awarded with a salary of 240 million dollars a year until stockholders had finally had enough and ousted him with a 210 million dollar bonus for his trouble. His next job was to head Chrysler, since running an appliance manufacturer and a retailer was perfect experience for him to run a car maker (NOT). At Chrysler he has presided over it’s slide into bankruptcy, cut back on new model development, and basically continued to exhibit the kind of management excellence that makes one wonder why he isn’t flipping burgers somewhere rather than begging congress to give him some of my money even though he hasn’t earned my business.

Blaming the workers for the problems the Big Three are having is attractive if you are uninformed or have an ulterior motive for wanting to blame the unions. But truthfully, saying that the unions are the cause of the US auto industry’s problems is like driving your car into a tree and saying you shouldn’t have filled the tank with premium gas.

So, should we bail out the auto industry? I honestly don’t know. But I can’t help worry more about the workers for the industry and their ancillary suppliers. And all the industries that will be affected by their loss of purchasing power. And all the other ripple effects. But surely the almost $100,000 per employee that Ford, GM, and Chrysler are asking for would allow the government to keep those people from starving until the industry gets through Chapter 11. (Because if they go on the dole we’re still going to have to pay for them.) It’s only going to last the current management a couple of months. Then it will be time for the taxpayers to make their next payment.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

TELEVISION- Star Trek Legal

Barring some catastrophic change of plan, ABC has aired its last episode of Boston Legal. Further adding credence to people who say that any hint of intelligence is being systematically expunged from American television. In fact, admitting Boston Legal one of the more intelligent programs on television is perhaps all the proof that is needed. It is, at its core, just another lawyer show. And the claim that television network execs think that the world is comprised of doctors, lawyers, and cops has been being made since I was a kid and is just as valid today. But it is a lawyer show involved with something more important than who killed their husband this week, even it is painfully liberal in its orientation and deals with important issues with all the subtlety that a meat cleaver uses on a rack of ribs.

In classic David E. Kelly style, the show is quirky to the point of distraction. One character has an exaggerated form of Asperger's syndrome and squawks and burps and hoots as low comic relief. The male leads are misogynistic letches who practice law when they can fit it into the space between sniffing the closest crotch and getting to the next. The judges are the embodiment of character flaws magnified by whim and power. Lower level associates are known by their weirdity: the cross-dresser, the ex-madam, the hair-shirt ex-marine, the elderly woman who commits the occasional murder because she likes the attention. At least there are no co-ed bathrooms or remote control toilets.

Oddity for its own sake has always been a failing of Kelly’s television shows, in my opinion. But here it’s saved by some of the best acting in any television show, past or present. Even though the show is very much an ensemble piece, James Spader is the center and the anchor. Spader’s Alan Shore is subtle, heroic, principled, troubled, and quick witted. Although he is not in control of the firm (in fact, he’s not even a partner) and is openly despised by many of the other characters, he is indulged because he is so good at what he does. Spader conveys intelligence better than perhaps anyone acting today and the character is almost always the smartest person in the room. Indeed, when he delivers the closing argument for whichever case is the Maguffin of the week you know you have reached the climax of the episode.

Close behind Spader is William Shatner, who plays Denny Crane- founding partner and not shy about mentioning that his name is on the door. Or mentioning his name at any other time. If Spader is the rational mind of the firm, Crane is both Id and Ego. To reinforce this idea, he is almost devoid of rational thought and suffers from “mad cow”, a whimsical sort of Alzheimer's disease that seems to be just a put-on until at the end of the series we find out that he is actually developing Alzheimer's. Shatner is a revelation in the role, showing real acting chops here that few would have expected. (Nicolas Mayer, director of Star Trek movies II and VI, once said that Shatner was pretty good after you had done enough takes to wear him out so that he quit “acting”.) The character is obviously based on what you would expect Shatner to be in real life if all you knew about him were the things written and said by the other actors on the original Star Trek. He’s a lecherous egomaniac of questionable talent who maintains his own inflated self image at any cost, especially if that cost is to someone else. Yet the fact that Shatner can make the character lovable in spite of his having virtually every character flaw you could imagine shows why people love the actor. And why Shatner remains continuously employed while other actors who have taken genre leads early in their careers have been branded with those characters forever. (George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Adam West, Kier Dulla, Mark Hamell, Carrie Fisher, and even Leonard Nimoy must look at Shatner, and Harrison Ford, with envy and awe.)

The mention of Shatner's work on Star Trek is not incidental. If you are a Star Trek fan, you should have been watching Boston Legal. Around our house we even called it Star Trek Legal for the first two seasons. It’s like a reunion show. In addition to Captain Kirk in the lead, Odo runs the firm, Quark is a judge, Neelix has a case, and Seven of Nine shoots a stalker. In fact, there’s a web page dedicated to the Star Trek cast connections with Boston Legal. But it also skims the best actors from other TV shows for guest roles. Henry Gibson, Katey Sagal, Michael J. Fox, Bess Armstrong, Betty White, Gail O’Grady, Tom Selleck, Howard Hessman, Heather Locklear and many others show up for one or two of several episodes. The main cast also recalls so many great old television shows with actors such as Candice Bergen and John Larroquette (as the polar opposite of Dan Fielding).

But notice something else about this cast list, something alluded to in one of the final episodes, almost every one of them is over 40. It’s only one of the things that makes Boston Legal more interesting than the regular TV show. Another is that they don’t pretend that they aren’t on television. Breaking the fourth wall is as dependable as Alan Shore’s monologue, each happens at least once in every episode. In one episode Shirley Schmidt mentions that it’s a “sweeps week”. During the last season the characters mention that the series is ending in one way or another. This in joke is carried one step further by the fact that some characters seem to know they are characters in a TV show and others don’t. Existential humor in a mainstream television drama. How often do you see that?

Far less often, unfortunately, than we Boston Legal’s scripts preaching at the audience. I’m not adverse to entertainment dealing with issues. In fact, I think entertainment that doesn’t try to teach or advocate can’t reach the level of being called “art”. But a lot of people don’t like to mix their politics and entertainment. Here the slant is decidedly liberal, which seems to be the trend in television (though not for the reason most conservatives would think*) and if you are conservative and can’t stand to watch the liberal viewpoint win every week then you need not apply. Conservatives do get to see their side defended but the verdict is rarely in real doubt and West Wing did it better. Denny Crane is the weekly surrogate but he is a clown and his presence is the best argument that the writers (primarily David Kelly at 6 times as many scripts as anyone else) don’t take conservatism seriously.

But even if Boston Legal wasn't your cup of tea, it was a well made, well written, well acted piece of work. Something that continues to become more rare as the kudzu of BS reality shows and endless crime procedurals that all seem to have the same characters with different people playing them chokes the life out of the medium. It was one of only about three shows that I watch and I'm going to miss it.

* I honestly don't know what Conservatives think causes movie and television people to be more liberal than the general population but I've never really found it strange. The impulse to create art is an oddity in humanity. People who become artists, musicians, actors, directors, or any other artistic endevour usually are familiar with alienation. Much of their creative impulse deals with these feelings of alienation. As a result, it seems only natural that they would be more tolerant of people who are "different" since they could more easily identify with that feeling of strangeness.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

TECHNOLOGY- Is There a Monster (cable) Behind Your Stereo?

Merry Christmas!

I started selling electronics not long after graduating high school. Back then things were a lot different. Vinyl records were still the audiophile media of choice (and they were still called stereophiles* because the multichannel audio formats that had been tried were found wanting), the VCR was just becoming a mass market item, and the really adventurous early adopters were spending their money on a new gadget called a home computer (a good one had 64K of RAM). CD players were just on the horizon and the digital entertainment age was still gestating.

Now music and video are portable and ubiquitous. Even the most modest home audio setups have subwoofers and multichannel sound. Most people don’t even buy their music in a store anymore, preferring to have it sent directly to their audio devices, and high resolution video downloads are fast going the same route. Television displays are bigger, brighter, and sharper than those first VCR buyers could have imagined. Movies, television, and music are available when and where you want them, with almost nothing excluded.

But consumers haven’t changed much. Most of those downloaded videos have lower visual quality than those early VCR tapes. And the music that comes out of the earbuds of an iPod is more reminiscent of what we listened to on 8 Track tapes than it is the CDs that spawned it. High-end audio has always been like the high end of anything: rapidly diminishing returns for investment and rapidly increasing smoke and mirrors. So even today the audiophile combination of scientific jargon and mumbo-jumbo is as all pervasive as it was when Steve Martin mocked it in a routine he called Googlephonics.

Sure, when analogue sound was a crapshoot and there were so many inaccuracies in the chain of electronics that it was easy to let mysticism slip into your tech. There were a dozen Audio and Video magazines on the stands 30 years ago. Some were rigorous and technical (a magazine titled simply AUDIO was among the best) and some embraced subjectivity (The Perfect Sound comes to mind). I remember that Stereo Review magazine did testing of some common audio myths in the mid 1980s. My favorite was double blind testing of amplifiers to see if a panel of “golden eared” ‘philes could tell the difference between a group of amps which ranged from a $300 Pioneer receiver to a pair of Krell tube monoblocs that cost more than most cars at the time. The results- no, not really. At least, not statistically.

You would have thought that the digital era would have put an end to a lot of this silliness. But it didn’t. Not by a long shot. In the early days of CD there was the idea that using a magic marker to darken the outer edge of a CD would improve sound quality. (I remember one debate as to which color of magic marker was best for this!) Digital was new and “tweaking” was such a time honored tradition that a lot of people just couldn’t give it up.

One of today’s audio (and video) fetishes that has been around for a long time is the idea that the cabling you use (those wires that hook components together) has a demonstrable affect on the sound you hear. I’ve been fighting off the advances of salesmen on this one for decades. I used to just point out that having an RCA cable the size of my wrist didn’t make sense when the components themselves didn’t use such wiring internally. Or I’d mention that professional audio and video equipment didn’t use such expensive patchcords. This was often met with a combination of a puzzled stare and the kind of impassioned personal testimony that you rarely hear from anyone except TV evangelists. Don’t get me wrong. Decent cables are worth what you pay for them (which really isn’t much) and over long runs (>15 feet or so) good shielding is a good idea. Also what kind of connection you use can make a big difference. To change a video connection from RF to composite, to s-video, to component, and then to digital shows obvious improvement with each step. But to pay $150 for a set of Monster Cable RCA patchcords or northward of $250 for a Monster Cable HDMI cord is nothing short of madness. I especially like the idea that Monster Cable (not the only offender but surely the most widely recognized) thinks I should pay more that half the cost of my Blu-Ray player for a cable to hook it up. It’s a digital cable, for Pete’s sake! Either the bandwidth is adequate and the interference is low enough or it isn’t. Exotic compounds and special manufacturing processes don’t make those 1’s and straighter or those 0’s any rounder. They are either there or they ain’t.

The analogy that comes to me is putting a $2000 set of wheels and tires on your $3500 Toyota Corolla but with the added absurdity that you’re convinced they make the car go faster.

The Consumerist website has weighed into this faux debate with a couple of articles. The one where high quality patch cords and speaker wires are swapped with coat hanger wire is especially funny (although by no means scientific). But I do have problems with the one on how Monster Cable is ripping off consumers. They are right that the products are a rip-off but they miss the point of why they are a rip-off , sighting high profit margins to retailers as the problem. In fact, the margin on Monster Cable connectors is not at all out of line with other products in the same category- 35-45% (they also calculate margin incorrectly). Electronics retailers often work on moderate margins for bigger ticket items and depend on accessories and service contracts to keep their business profitable. When I was managing an electronics store our rule of thumb was that 70% of gross sales were generated by bigger, lower margin items but 70% of net profit was generated by accessories (wires, connectors, batteries- the stuff that hangs on pegs on the back wall). We aimed for a 40% net profit, which in electronics was excellent. To compare, grocery stores usually have a margin of 1-3% while clothing stores might have as much as several hundred percent margin. While this may seem like a large disparity, it’s more a result their retail constraints. Grocery stores rely on massive volume compared to most retailers, while clothing stores have to stock every style in dozens of sizes. It isn’t the profit margin that the retailer makes that’s the problem. It’s that you’re paying way too much for the cable in the first place.

And don’t even get me started on why a $1500 power strip that “filters and cleans” the electicity isn’t as good as a $150 Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). And those service contracts? Margins on them are typically upwards of 90% for the retailer. You could say they are almost pure profit.

So if you want to use that Best Buy gift card you got this morning wisely, buy a better component or some extra media. Don’t let the salesman convince you that a hundred dollar patchcord is anything but a pig in a poke.

* Stereophile is a word my spell checker has never even heard of!

Monday, December 22, 2008

CHRISTMAS- The Little Drummer Boy

Music has been ruined by commercialism. Period. End of story. Today popular music has no more relationship to real music than Pepsi has a relationship to real food.

Of all the saccharine, mindless, maudlin, moronic Christmas myths that I’ve endured for my whole life, one of my least favorite has been the story of the little drummer boy. I realize that, at its heart, it is a story of someone who has no money giving a Christmas gift to the baby Jesus. But my knowledge of that worthwhile story has been damaged by the puppet animation Christmas special about the story. While Rudolph was my favorite puppet animated Christmas story when I was a child (I remember crying because my mother had not woke me up from my nap in time to see it one year) even at five years old I was appalled at the sight of an obviously retarded drummer child hitting a drum randomly as some sort of gift for the savior of the world.

So here is my strike back at both the little drummer boy and the commercialization of real music made by machines to show you what a simple drummer boy can do when he isn’t plasticized and infused with high fructose corn syrup.


A New Beginning and a New Destination

“God is far too fond of irony.”

There are several problems with blogging. The main one is the same as the problem with keeping any journal. When your life is busy and things are HAPPENING, you don’t have time to write. When life has calmed down and you have time for quiet reflection, there’s nothing to write about.

Another problem is something I call the error of oversimplification. Blogs are great for snark, or a humorous aside, or the quick comment. But the world is a complex place and often you have to read several books on even a narrow subject to have enough information to start forming a worthwhile opinion. Thus, a blog is a poor way to explain or opine on any subject. There just isn’t space to deal with things in a meaningful way.

To put it another way, if you buy a pump for your well it will be described as pumping a given number of gallons per minute. Almost anything that moves fluid is rated this way- volume/time. Yet, one of the great unanswered questions of science is turbulence. In other words, science has no way to accurately determine how much water will come out of a garden hose in a period of time because there is no good theory of fluid dynamics. We KIND OF KNOW how much fluid should be moved by a pump in a certain amount of time, but we don’t ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND how to even start to calculate how much fluid will actually move.

Examples of this are everywhere in science. We used Newton’s laws of motion to send men to the moon even though we knew for hundreds of years that they didn’t actually work because Mercury’s orbit around the sun didn’t follow them. This is one of the main reasons that Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity (which does accurately predict Mercury’s orbit). But Einstein couldn’t wrap his head around Quantum Mechanics. His famous quote (often applied out of context)about QM is that God doesn’t play at dice. Yet it seems that there is a certain amount of indeterminacy in the universe.

Or to bring this home to everyone that relies on our technology- every time you go to the hospital for surgery they put you to sleep using anesthesia, even though we have no idea how anesthesia really works. There are two competing theories but each has significant flaws because both would predict certain chemicals would be anesthesia agents when they demonstrably are not.

Oversimplification may be useful in some cases but real knowledge is built on true understanding.

Science maintains that fundamental principles are simple and beautiful. This is not only an unsupported and prejudiced view, but is made ludicrous by one of our linchpins of current “knowledge”-quantum mechanics, which is neither simple or beautiful. The problem with human understanding is the same as the problem with map making: a truly accurate map would have to be a 1:1 scale. In other words, any map that isn’t the exact size of the thing being mapped is basically inaccurate. But what good is a map of the United States that is the SIZE of the United States? Human understanding requires simplification and the more you simplify something the more inaccurate that simplification is.

To bring this all home-all I’m really saying is that my hiatus from the blog has been because things have been happening fast in my life and knee-jerk opinion may be interesting and can occasionally be right but is rarely deep. Now that I have returned the blog will be starting anew. For one thing, I’m going to get a lot more personal, something I’ve avoided before. William Faulkner said that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. While I don’t think Faulkner was a particularly good writer in a technical sense (a trait that I found common among writers I was required to read in literature classes) he was a brilliant man. And in this case, I think he has hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head. Imparting knowledge without context is like giving you a canteen without water.

Another thing Faulkner said was, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies”. In deference to this quote I will from now on rate any work of art by how many old ladies it is worth killing. I have to admit that I did not originate this scale as a measurement of artistic merit. The Comics Journal used it over thirty years ago. But, like God, I am no respecter of persons. If stealing from your mother is OK (It’s not dammit, put that purse down RIGHT NOW!) then stealing from Gary Groth is almost mandatory.

And I will try to use brevity whenever possible. Sometimes that may not be possible, but in spite of what I’ve said up until this point, it is preferable. One of the reasons I think Faulkner was a poor writer is that he never met a period that he liked. I once counted 143 words in a single sentence of his writing. If you can’t find the thought in what you are saying in less than 143 words, you need to quit typing and think some more. As Max Plank once said, I’d have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have time. Complex ideas require complex explanations but again I fall back on minds greater than my own to say KISS (keep it simple stupid) or Einstein’s “make everything as simple as possible BUT NO SIMPLER”.

Comments are re-opened. I refuse to edit comments since I find comment moderation for anything but removing spambots to be the mark of a coward. I think that, more than often, comment moderation is a way for the blogger to protect themselves from valid points of view that differ from their own than it is a way to enforce civility (more on that later). If you have the courage to state your opinion but not to deal with the opinions of others you are a cur. If you are not willing to engage differing views, then you have no business stating your own.

So, welcome back to my world. Hopefully you can find something worthwhile here.