Monday, June 29, 2009

Never Trust Machines Over 30?

Thirty years ago this week, Sony introduced the Walkman, the most popular portable cassette player of its day. It took full advantage of the small size and increased stability of the cassette tape format to make music listening a fully portable and mostly individual experience. The Walkman had no external speakers -- only headphones. Although there was a second headphone jack should you wish to listen with a friend.

As this BBC Magazine story notes, "small" is a relative term. The 13-year-old boy they asked to try one out for a week, used to an iPhone, found the Walkman, sized about like a stout paperback, rather larger than he was used to. It was not pocket-sized, and even clipped to his belt it was a noticeable drag on his pants -- maybe one of the origins of the fad of guys who wear their waistlines lower than some women's hemlines?

Two things stand out from the story -- one, this kid is pretty sharp and quite articulate. I know some 43-year-olds who don't think things through the way he did (last year, I was one of them). Two -- Old grumps always talk about how things used to be a lot harder than they are now, but sometimes they're right.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Which Man to Mourn?

In a way, that's what anyone who wants to comment on Michael Jackson's career, life and passing has to deal with: Which Michael Jackson to remember?

Pay homage to the gifted performer? Recoil at the man who's extremely likely to have been some kind of predator? Shake your head at the warped fellow he was, predator or no? There's probably no way to split them apart. First with his brothers, then solo with Quincy Jones as his producer, Jackson carved out a piece of soul, dance and pop music that he will forever own. His parting from Jones is a good boundary line to mark the decline of his music: the trio of Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad represent the creative high point of his work. He would never draw the same critical acclaim again, even though worldwide sales remained high.

But at the same time, his eccentricities became more and more manifest, involving omnipresent surgical masks, hanging out with Macauley Culkin, marrying Lisa Marie Presley (and thus proving Elvis was dead; no way he would have stayed hidden for that if he hadn't been), a face that the surgeon's knife made look more and more like Diana Ross's...the King of Pop was one weird dude.

Accusations of child abuse surfaced in 1993 and a full-blown molestation trial followed in 2005. Jackson was found not guilty in the trial.

I think I feel on safe grounds with three opinions about Michael Jackson's death:

1) This is likely the last time the death of someone who's not a public official will spark such an amazingly wide public reaction. Jackson is pretty much the last pop culture emblem from the time when our nation had a unified culture of some kind. Modern entertainment is too fragmented to produce a similar figure anymore. I think only the death of a president while in office would come close (and I pray daily against such an event, by the way).

2) Money in carload lots can insulate people against many of the consequences of their bad behavior. Jackson's deep pockets hired the attorneys that won his 2005 case, and he paid more than one civil judgment concerning similar matters. His apparent hypochondria, which led to the surgical masks, oxygen-chamber sleeping habits and weird impulse buys (Bubbles the chimp, for example) didn't really hurt him all that much because he had the money to handle it. Until he didn't, but that's a different kind of problem. If the money's there, it's easier to act like an idiot and get away with it. Rich women pregnant without husbands can hire platoons of nannies; nannies pregnant without husbands lose their jobs and are stuck with Aid to Families with Dependent Children checks. But money isn't a perfect shield -- unconfirmed reports suggest Jackson may have been addicted to prescription drugs and those could have contributed to his death.

3) Many of the people on television masquerading as reporters have had their charades exposed -- hours of news time was devoted to something that happens to each and every human being sooner or later. During that time, the Iranian government's crackdown on democracy protesters began to have an impact as those protests lost steam. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that didn't actually exist in order to enable an unworkable plan to deal with a threat that may not exist, man-made global warming. The U.S. announced it'll stop trying to kill the Afghanistan poppy crop as a method of fighting opium and heroin use, since the unemployed farmers queued up with Al Qaeda instead of the seed corn store. President Obama is considering an executive order allowing the indefinite detention of terrorists. But rather than really dig into any of these stories, all of which will have lasting impacts on our lives, the TV folks spent their time showing "Thriller."

PS -- Here's a fourth opinion for a bonus. A local radio station played all-Michael Jackson a couple of afternoons in tribute. A whole lot of great music, as well as a whole lot of gunk. On the up side, rare appearances by "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Rock With You." On the down side, spins of "Dirty Diana" and the Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine." And it's been a loooong time since the 1984 Mick Jagger-Jacksons collaboration "State of Shock" had radio airplay, and the country hasn't exactly been worse off for the omission.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What Could Go Wrong?

An English gent designed robots that look like furniture and eat living things. Sure, right now they just eat bugs, but isn't it possible that one day they will be able to hide in plain sight and eat people? Or even worse, that they might transform themselves into everyday objects and just suck out our intelligence, leaving behind millions of brainless folks staring slackly at them as they battle to take over our world?

Oh wait, Michael Bay did that already. Twice.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Few Things

--- I love the Championships at Wimbledon. I really like watching tennis anyway, and obviously we see the best players in the sport take the courts during this tournament. The fact that it's played on grass adds to the appeal for me, as do the old-fashioned touches that flavor the experience: Players referred to "Mr.," "Miss" or "Mrs.," ties and jackets for the line judges, the all-white player attire...

I even like that you have to get up earlier than the rooster in order to watch it live. Yeah, I know what DVR is, but I'd rather watch the match live than have to avoid news all day that might ruin the recording I may have managed to program properly. Monday's televised sports calendar began with Wimbledon and ended with the San Antonio Mission defeating the Corpus Christi Hooks 12-10, a double-A matchup held at the Hooks' Whataburger Field. That was a good day.

I can do without some of ESPN's commenters -- Mary Carillo doesn't believe in unexpressed inanities, Bud Collins serves up schmooze like a political fund-raiser and Pam Shriver is, for some reason, always irritated. I'm also someone who thinks the only thing better than a Wimbledon final with one Williams sister is a Wimbledon final with no Williams sisters (and therefore no Williams father). Although if you force me to I'll take a final with Venus, who shows more tendencies to actually play tennis instead of her sister's method of trying to whack someone's spleen from her body with her forehand. Over and over and over again.

--- Gonna be a long time before I want to eat at Burger King again...

--- I can't help but feel a little bad for John and Kate Gosselin, the parents of eight children (twins and sextuplets) who have had a reality show on The Learning Channel for several years about raising their large family. The parents are divorcing, but I will also say that my sympathy would increase if they had also decided to end the show. As for the executives at TLC, I have nothing but disgust for them for not saying, "Let's pull the plug and let these people try to work things out away from cameras for awhile."

It seems plain that the Gosselins aren't very mature, but you might think that if you gathered enough television network executives together you could find one whole soul between them and it would bring enough discomfort over making money off them -- or at least off of the eight children not yet 10 years old -- as to end the show. You would, of course, be wrong. Because you know what television execs call kids who've been warped by having every emotionally wrenching experience broadcast to a national audience? That's right! Viewers!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Wonder...

If Johnny's saying, "No, Ed, this time I get to introduce you..."

Sunday, June 21, 2009


You know, I even kind of like this one. You may or may not, but either way, new sermon is up on the sermon blog.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Well I, for one, am relieved that Newsweek editor Evan Thomas has publicly written that he does not think President Obama is God.

Apparently, Mr. Thomas didn't want his comments on the June 5 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews to be misunderstood. He doesn't think the president literally is God. He says he was just comparing President Obama's style of transcending the parochialism of patriotic appeals that were President Reagan's signature. The president has a sort of above-it-all style, apparently, and Mr. Thomas meant the "god" part of his quote to refer to that.

Now Mr. Thomas can get back to editing the magazine that published hard-hitting, non-Obama-worshipping pieces like this one, wondering whether or not there would be an "Obama baby boom" in August of 2009 as people celebrated with a host of special Mommy-and-Daddy hugs when he won in November of 2008.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I Miss Dave

Back in the mid-80s, I and a bunch of other nocturnal college-types around the country were among the many people who stayed up after the Tonight Show was over to watch a gap-toothed dorky guy do dorky things and have some very odd people on his program.

This guy, David Letterman, was a lot younger than the mainstay of late night, Johnny Carson. His monologues were hipper and he spent as much if not more time skewering some of the clueless famous folks who were on his show as he did talking to them about their upcoming book/movie/album. He had people like Calvert DeForest as Larry "Bud" Melman, a guy who was so out of place on television that his entire persona was part of the joke. There was Chris Elliot as "The Guy Under the Stairs," a creepy stalker-type that always got mad at Dave and ended his time with a promise to be watching everything Dave did.

"Stupid Pet Tricks," which were not always stupid and were often hilarious. The image of a Boston Terrier attacking an upright vacuum cleaner and dragging it clear across the stage is imprinted in my mind and still makes me chuckle. Dropping stuff off a forty-foot tower to see what it looked like when it hit. Dave wearing a suit covered in Alka-Seltzer tablets and being lowered into a tank of water (he also wore scuba gear because the carbon dioxide output of all those tablets would probably have killed him). Dave interrupting Bryant Gumbel during a Today Show broadcast by yelling out the window behind Gumbel, "I'm not wearing pants!"

Some of it was a miss -- despite his musical talent, I've never liked Paul Shaffer. Some of the "so dumb they're funny" bits were more dumb than funny.

I admired Dave's support of his friend Warren Zevon when Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. I admired Dave's serious and thoughtful interview with Dan Rather when he came back on the air several days after Sept. 11, 2001. I liked how Dave would, every now and again, tell a joke Carson sent him from retirement, and how he'd indicate a Carson joke by making a golf swing. I liked how, in his first new show after Carson's death, Dave had Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsom on to play some of Carson's favorite numbers.

I always thought Dave should have followed Carson when Johnny retired. NBC picked Jay Leno, a man who has made me laugh as often as the show Seinfeld did, which is to say, quadrennially. Dave went to CBS and was winning in the ratings until Jay had Hugh Grant on to talk about why he'd rather pick up an LA street hooker than go home to Elizabeth Hurley. Leno won that night and stayed in first place in the ratings most of the time since, and I find that rather instructive.

A few years ago, I got onto a kick of watching Dave again after many years of not tuning in. He was still kind of funny, but after several months I stopped -- not for any reason that I can recall. I just noticed one night that I'd watched something else for awhile and didn't feel any need to switch back. I don't know whether Dave had gotten tired of being an ironist or I'd gotten tired of irony.

This little mean joke he made about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's daughter being "knocked up" by Alex Rodriguez isn't really the way I remember Dave. In his prime, Dave, I think, would have known that the Palin daughter with her mom on this trip was the 14-year-old, and put a hold on it even if he really had meant to snark on the older daughter, who is herself a mom now. I think Dave in his prime would have called Gov. Palin's look something like "hot librarian" rather than "slutty flight attendant," because it's funnier and because whatever target the Gov has on her back, flight attendants were ordinary folks who hadn't earned any kind of mean darts like that.

I remember Dave, like I said, skewering the pompous and famous for being just as dumb or whatever as anyone else even though they failed to understand that. I think that Dave would have a field day with reporters who make comments about our president being "sort of God" or giving supposedly clear-eyed talk-show hosts "a thrill up my leg." I think that Dave might have laid off an 18-year-old kid who's learning how to be a mom, especially when he waited six years to marry his son's mother. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe Dave has been around long enough now that he's become one of the people that he'd have been aiming at back in the day. Or maybe not; who's to say?

I just know I miss Dave.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Smile When You Say That, Pilgrim

Thirty years ago today, the Duke ambled off, or maybe rode off on ol' Dollar, or strode away, or however you'd like phrase it.

In his honor, National Review Online has a symposium with several media and journalism figures, mostly on the conservative side, offering their thoughts on him. Unsurprisingly, most like him.

He's hit and miss, of course, like anyone who had such a long career. True Grit, The Searchers, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Hondo, The Quiet Man...these and several others show that he was in fact an actor as much as he was a movie star. But there's also Big Jim McLain, The Alamo and The Green Berets, movies that have their own moments and probably seemed like good ideas at the time, but which, shall we say, haven't aged well.

He did war movies and cop movies and ship movies, but of course he's known mostly for one genre, the Western, and he made one of those his final entry, The Shootist. So I imagine that if our imaginations in this world have any kind of impact on what kind of life we have in the next, John Wayne's heaven looks a lot like Monument Valley, and you could do a lot worse.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Easy Readin'

Something that's even easier reading than that described below is last week's sermon, which is up at the other blog.

Going in Reverse

Colleges across the nation have pushed the idea that "requiring" incoming students to read a selected book the summer before they arrive on campus is some kind of intellectual exercise. I put requiring in quotes because, as is obvious to everyone but those who've bought into this idea, students can safely ignore the book, show up for whatever discussion meetings the program mandates, sit there in silence (or fib their behinds off) and be none the worse.

A young lady at the Pope Center academic think tank compares the books which incoming first-year students at North Carolina's universities will be required to read this summer with those that high school students taking AP English are required to read during the same period. The college selections are orders of magnitude less challenging and, in the case of those on the list which I've read, orders of magnitude inferior in most other ways as well. My only guess for the reason is that the high school teachers can actually grade their students while, as noted above, the college program administrators are basically left with not much more than "Pretty please?"

I think the book selection committees are more aware of the emperor's new clothing qualities of their programs than they let on -- they only way they can hope to have any significant portion of their students actually participate in this program is to be certain the books are as lightweight as possible. Build the program on anything with any real heft or that presents any actual intellectual challenge and students will opt out in numbers that make the its uselessness too obvious to ignore.

Like, say, a cushy job dreamed up for the governor's wife.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I Feel Inspired!

So Idaho residents might want their elected representatives to have a couple of sit-downs with the administrators at one of their state's public universities.

Seems that the University of Idaho agreed to a nine-month contract with a company for the services of that company's "Chief Inspiration Officer." According to the contract, the Chief Inspirer spends between zero and ten days each month at the school's Moscow, Idaho campus. The school spends $112,500.

Up until this year, they've been content with being inspired on a seminar-by-seminar basis, but apparently administrators feared the 2008-09 school year might be kind of glum and they would need full-time inspiration. Or at least between zero and ten days a month of it.

This interests me, primarily because you could make a pretty good case that I, as a pastor, am something like a Chief Inspiration Officer. I don't rake in a hundred and twelve large for nine months of work, but I am willing to learn.

What I glean from the news story is that I need to tweak my operation a little. Instead of calling it "church," I need to give it some edgy and cool name like the company in the story. Maybe I could stop calling myself "pastor" and find a new title, too. That would probably help.

But I can see two big changes that would make a difference right away. First, I need to stop dealing with all these credible religious folks who talk about things like faith and belief. Obviously, the real market is with the clear-eyed, hard-headed, bottom-line rational folks like those who handle leadership and administration at a large public university. They're people who don't do stuff without some serious evidence to back it up -- no religious mumbo-jumbo for them; just tangible product like inspiration.

The second thing I need to do is to stop talking to folks who only have their own money to give to the operation. I need to find some people who've been entrusted with other people's money, like those who help run a taxpayer-financed public university.

Coming soon: The new Flatlands Friar, Director of Original Motivation of theFurtificusGroup (Inc.)!

(H/T University Diaries)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Can't Say It Enough

Thanks, gentlemen.

No, Seriously?

So a guy who's homeless decides he doesn't want to be homeless anymore. He figures he'll earn the money to pay rent someplace, and he'll do it by shining shoes. Not panhandling, not bullying people into giving him money for wiping his sleeve on their windshield, not shamming with a "Will work for food" sign. Just going to work and getting paid for it.

People who travel and work in the area where he shines shoes -- in the coat and tie he puts on every day to look professional -- support him and try to help him out. A newspaper reporter hears about it and writes a story highlighting this man who is trying to pick himself up. He's earned $573 of the $600 he's going to need for the rent. He's just $27 short of reaching his first goal on his journey out of the situation he's in.

Then some soulless automaton who uses up taxpayer money and perfectly good oxygen for a living reads the story and gets in touch with the guy -- he needs a "sidewalk vendor permit," which will cost him $491. Read the story, especially if you suffer from low blood pressure. The bureau-droid who put the arm on him for the license fee couldn't even tell him where he would have to line up to buy the permit.

When the Big One hits and California falls into the sea, I can suggest one head that would pretty obviously serve as a flotation device.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Twenty Years

The Chinese government may like to play games with umbrella-toting cops (Stop or I'll bumbershoot? We'd like you to meet our chief training officer, the Penguin? Sheesh. Commie dorks), but as long as the above image remains, anyone who sees it can know what Tiananmen Square symbolizes about the power of the desire for freedom and the ugliness of those who wish to crush it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Unclear on the Meaning

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada apparently understands only two-thirds of his title. He gets the "Senate" part, because he's been one of Nevada's senators since 1987 (and has apparently never held a non-government job if you believe Wikipedia). He holds a high school diploma, a bachelor's degree and a law degree, so I feel safe in guessing he grasps the idea of "majority."

But the "leader" part, as in demonstrating leadership qualities, offering an example to emulate, working hard to get things done and all that other stuff? Nope. Can't be bothered.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Pandora offers an interesting web radio experience. Type in a band name and an algorithm within the system will play other music with similar musical qualities. It's an interesting way to hear music that might be like the music you already like. Radio used to do this sort of thing, but these days radio programmers would rather play music that they already know people will buy. How that makes sense I have no idea, which is why I'm not in radio.

Of course, if you type in a unique band, Pandora's system is quickly defeated. Not very many bands sound like Jason and the Scorchers, so it starts casting pretty far afield pretty quickly.

Listening to it for a length of time will have the same effect. There is no way that a human listener would figure that a series of songs that sound like those from the late 1970s/early 1980s outfit Rockpile would include "Rock of Ages" from MTV metal-heads Def Leppard, but Ye Olde Algorithm apparently gets pretty stressed after a couple of hours.

Good to know there are some things computers can't do yet.

Go Fiting Illini!

The above may be how a number of less-qualified applicants who made it into the University of Illinois would have spelled the phrase.

Were these stellar athletes, admitted because they could run very fast while holding a football and shedding defensive tackles, or drive the lane with strength and skill? Nope. How about the children of the very wealthy, who were admitted on or about the same day that the university endowment got a good shot in the arm from Mom and Dad or the new lab building was suddenly going to cost a lot less? Perish the thought, I tell you. This is a university!

The students in this cohort, although ranking in the 76th percentile of their high school classes while the average Illini ranked 88th in his or hers, made it in the Chicago way: They knew somebody who knew somebody.

The irritation displayed by Illinois legislators is kind of silly in at least one respect. Talk with an admissions officer at a college sometime. The idea that college admissions is a matter of pure merit will wither fast, unless your admissions person still works for the college and thinks you're recording the conversation. Test scores and academic standing may play the largest part in whether you get in or not, but there are a bunch of other factors. This book by Jacques Steinberg is one of a bunch that detail that process. Illinois, having within its state the unique patronage system known as "clout" within the old Chicago Democratic machine, simply has another X factor to feed into the mix. If the so-called "clout list" disappears today, there are still dozens of other non-merit-based criteria that will let Student A through the gates even though his scores aren't quite as high as Student B's.

And for me as a Northwestern alum, the whole thing is kind of a chuckle. All of this fuss and feathers and hard work in order to be an Illini? It's sort of like using your influence and position to make yourself the bullpen catcher: You may ride the bus and wear the uni, but you ain't on the team. And the U of I university motto "Learning and Labor" is still code for "I park Wildcat cars."

Two Days Late; Dollar Short Amount Unknown

For your perusal and/or amusement, last Sunday's sermon is up here.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Generalized Motors

The last time I regularly drove a GM product was about 20 years ago, when I still had the family's old 1968 Impala as it was breathing its last. Paint the above vehicle flat black to cover up the re-primered rust spots and the fenders that came from a different car, take out the back seat to let the water that leaked in from the trunk run out the hole drilled in the floor and you will have some faint conception of the awesomeness that was La Bomba (™ Donnie Mooreland).

I know bupkis about cars, but I replaced the battery, starter, starter solenoid, spark plug wires and plugs and about three or four other things in that Impala after watching Dad do it once and with some help from Mr. Chilton. Heck, my Mom could change the air filter in it, and she swore the car didn't like her.

I technically didn't own it, since the title was still in Dad's name. So you could say that I've never owned a GM car.

Now I own all of them. And I'm betting neither I nor my plethora of elected representatives who bought them in my name (or at least with my money) will be able to fix them.