Monday, January 30, 2012

Weekend

Hope everyone had a nice weekend.  Mine was pretty good!  On Friday night Amy and I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 2010 Werner Herzog documentary about the 30,000 year old cave paintings that were discovered in 1994 in the Chauvet Cave in Southern France.  I remember reading magazine reports about the caves years ago, shortly after they were discovered, but I had never learned much about them.  Herzog has some pretty great footage of the paintings in his documentary, and he does a decent job of touching upon the science behind the study of the cave while keeping his focus on the sense of wonder and awe that its paintings inspire (these are really old paintings-  way, way older than the pyramids in Egypt- and they look like they could have been drawn yesterday).  Also on Friday, Amy made some really good pasta with wine sauce.  It made me sort of sleepy while we were watching the movie.
On Saturday we went to Red Bud to take Cassidy for a hop.  It was a really nice morning.  Cassidy got some exercise, and we chatted with some friendly dog owners while watching the parade of canine happiness.  On Saturday we also went to the mall for a while and went out to dinner.  We tried to go to Mandola's, but the line was almost out the door, so we went to Brick Oven.  I'm here to say that Brick Oven was a really nice alternative.  We had a nice dinner.
Afterward we went home and watched Hanna, a movie that came out last year about a teenage girl who's a trained assassin/ninjakiller.  I'd heard a lot of buzz about this movie even before it was released, and I was excited to see it, but after watching it I thought that it was, at best, just maybe a solid medium.  Sort of a shame because it had some elements that seemed promising.  Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett are in it, it had a few interesting plot elements, and it contained some interesting cinematography and direction.  In the end, though, it felt like that the movie thought itself a lot more hip, cool, and original than it actually was.  The soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers often seemed jarring and out of place, the director seemed to try a little too hard to make the locations exotic and strange (the dilapidated amusement park being a prime example), and the plot seemed riddled with internal inconsistencies and stereotypes (our protagonist, trained and raised in remote wilderness, is confounded by the sight of a floursecent lightbulb, yet she manages to travel, undetected, from Morocco to Berlin).  On top of all that, Hanna, herself, just wasn't a very interesting character.  There are some supporting characters in the movie who seem worth getting to know, but Hanna wasn't all that compelling a character when it came down to personality.
Annnyway, that was Hanna.  The movie wasn't terrible, but I had high hopes/expectations, and they weren't quite met.


typical Austin street party
Sunday I went to church with Amy and my folks, and afterward we went to the Year of the Dragon Celebration at Chinatown Center.  Chinatown Center is basically a fairly large, outdoor shopping center up on North Lamar, and yesterday they had a Chinese New Year celebration complete with dragon dancers, Chinese drummers, people in costumes, rock climbing walls, mechanical bullriding (this is still Texas, after all), acupuncture booths, and enough firecrackers to keep your ears ringing until 2013.  The place was crowded and sort of chaotic, but we managed to grab lunch at a Vietnamese noodle house before heading out.  I had a really good time.
Dad watches with interest as a small
child is devoured by a dragon
the dragons try to get near Amy for good luck











After the New Year's celebration we went to the store.  After that I had Mono Ensemble practice, and after that Amy and I ate frozen yogurt (even though it was cold out).
It was a really nice weekend!!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State of the Union

Okay, word of warning here.  I'm going to do a little bit of political rambling.  If this kind of thing annoys you, this might be a good time to change the channel.  I give this warning because lately I can't even handle watching most of the political coverage on TV (I'm just tired of the punditry and bickeing and the fact that everyone is talking, but no one is listening).  On the other hand, I just sort of wanted to document how I feel as we head into the 2012 presidential election season.  For posterity.  For me.
Skip this if you want...

I didn't watch Obama's State of the Union Address last night, but I read a copy of it online.
I think he had some good points.  Some of his ideas will be controversial, but that shouldn't be surprising.  The wealthiest, most powerful people in our country have had a really good run of things for at least a decade, and some of Obama's ideas are likely to be seen as a threat to their continuing high level of good fortune.  But some changes may be necessary because some of the same policies that are making our wealthiest citizens richer may be simultaneously, unnecessarily making some of our middle and working class citizens poorer.
I agree that we need to reduce current laws that provide tax breaks for companies that are outsourcing jobs overseas.  I agree with the idea that taxes should be used to support companies that create job opportunities in America (and I believe, in general, that government can actually take actions that affect the private sector business world for the better- the revitalization of America's automotive industry being a prime example- but that such action should be taken infrequently and with caution).
I also strongly agree that we need to focus on educational and vocational training for our students so that we have a workforce that remains on the cutting edge of innovation and development.  We may not be able to consistently underbid other countries in terms of providing cheap labor (which is pretty hard when you're competing with third world countries), but we can continue to be known as a country that comes up with some of the best products in the world and which has a workforce that manufactures goods of superior quality.  In order to have a workforce that fulfills these ideals we need a strong educational system.
The education system needs strong funding.  It also needs cost controls.
The president said that we need to support our effective teachers and give teachers more lattitude to pursue lessons and curriculum without having to spend so much time on preparation for standardized tests.  I was also in agreement when he said that we need to be able to fire teachers who are proven to be ineffective (not really a liberal sentiment- the unions balk at this sort of talk), and we need to be able to tie taxpayer funding for higher education to an institution's ability to keep costs down and efficiently graduate students in a reasonable amount of time (this idea shouldn't be limited to colleges, but to trade and vocational schools as well).
I also think, though, that students need to be given the opportunity to receive financial aid and/or take part in loan programs that have reasonable interest rates.  Our financial sector shouldn't be looking at college loans as an area where they can gouge customers who are desparate to build a foundation for their futures.  The flip side of that equation (which Obama didn't take on) is that students shouldn't be taking out massive amounts of debt in order to pursue fields of study that will never pay them back.  Our country is short on students who are studying math, science, engineering, and certain other fields.  We should implement a system that specifically rewards students with loan incentives if they're going to pursue particular fields of study that will ultimately benefit the American economy.  This might sound a little brutal, but education reform won't help the economy if all of our students take advantage of subsidized loans and scholarships in order to study poetry and art (fine fields of study, but maybe taxpayers shouldn't be expected to foot the bill).
I'm also in agreement with Obama that we need some tax reform.  When wealthy people who make their money off investments instead of wages end up paying a considerably smaller percentage of their income than middle class, salaried workers, the laws definitely begin to seem... well, unfair (Mitt Romney paid less than 14% on $42.6 million in income over the last two years, lower than tax rates paid by many middle class Americans).  I know that people feel differently about the whole idea of progressive taxes in general, but I'm still one of those crazy hippies who tends to think that the people who benefit the most from living in our society (and from the efforts of the lower paid employees who help generate the wealth) can probably afford to pay a little more in taxes.  After all, when jobs are being outsourced to other countries and companies are polluting our air and water so they can make more money, the greatest financial benefits tend to flow to the investors and people at the top of these companies.  They rely on our educational system to give them better workers.  Their trucks use our roads.  They rely on our military and coast guard to protect the companies themelves.  They can afford to pay their fair share in taxes to help support the country that's making their financial success possible.  Profits don't occur in a vacuum, and the only way to continue to make America the sort of place where companies want to do business is to ask the people who profit the most to reinvest in our country. 
We need to slow down the gap that's been widening between rich and poor.  Some people don't see it coming, but I really do believe that we could become a country in serious decline if we don't continue to reinvest in education, infrastructure, health care, and other areas that support the American middle class.
I was also kind of surprised and happy to hear the president touch on the need to fight intellectual property infringement, trade in counterfeit goods, and piracy.  If America's future is to be found in securing a position for itself as a worl leader in creativity, innovation, and design, then we need to be able to safeguard our ideas against theft from foreign and domestic individuals and companies.  If we can't underbid other countries in order to compete in manufacturing, we need to be able to produce higher quality products and protect them against trademark infringement (i.e., we don't need fake, ripoff American products being sold overseas and destroying the market for American exports).  Similarly, we don't need our intellectual property to be devalued by having it stolen and sold by those who would copy it (e.g., pirated copies of movies, music, software, etc.).  Obama spoke of a Trade Enforcement Unit, and I think that's a great plan, so long as such an organization has some genuine ability to take enforcement action.
I also liked the fact that the president wants to hold bankers and other lenders responsible for fraudulent loan and investment schemes, and I support the idea of stronger prosecution of true crime in those areas.  Equally important, though, and perhaps unaddressed, is the fact that many Americans are getting themselves into complex financial situations with very little or no knowledge of exactly how various loans and investments work.  The culpability for bad lending practices undoubtedly comes from some predatory action on the part of lenders, but also some really bad judgment on the part of borrowers.  Lenders shouldn't be allowed to be misleading, but I also feel sort of weird about telling bankers when they can lend money or telling responsible adults how much money the should be allowed to borrow or how they can invest.  I'm not sure exactly how to remedy this except to perhaps require certain high risk borrowers to prove a certain minimal level of understanding on certain loans before we allow the person to finalize their decision.  Maybe some sort of short test or something?  Is that lame?  Probably, but we ask people to take tests before we give them a driver's license.  Now that we know the impact that bad loans can have upon an entire community, maybe it wouldn't be so bad to require people to have a basic level of financial knowledge before making loan and investment decisions.  I'm not sure...
Anyway, overall, I thought the State of the Union Address wasn't bad.  The state of our actual union is a little rough, given the economy and all, but there are some reasons for optimism, and I'm hoping (fingers crossed) that we're moving into a period of time when, with the right leadership, we can really turn thing around.
I feel a whole lot better about things than I did a year ago.
Hope I feel even better on the one year anniversary of this post.

Everybody take care.  Now back to your regularly scheduled program.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Weekend

The weekend was good.  Friday night Amy and I went to dinner with Jamie.  We had a chance to go out with her and spend some quality time since my brother is off on a trip, terrorizing the west coast and watching a pile of film noir flicks.  We had a nice time with Jamie.

On Saturday we mostly ran errands and stuff during the day.  Amy worked on some homework, and I did a bit of reading and got a little exercise.  Saturday night I went out with Amy and some of her iSchool friends (and friends of friends) for Geeks Who Drink trivia at Opal Divine's.  I had a really good time.  We split up into two teams, men's and women's, because we had a large group.  I'm proud to say that our men's team came in like 5th place out of like 30 teams!  The women did pretty well, too, but they didn't do quite as well as the men because the questions totally had a gender bias.  Totally.  Unquestionably.
(our Battle of the Sexes-Men! team)
(Amy with Battle of the Sexes- Women!)

So, we did trivia on Saturday night and on Sunday we got up and I went to church with Amy (Central Presbyterian downtown.  Nice church).  Amy cooked and did school work and we did chores.  Not the most exciting day, but a nice one.  Amy made some really good chicken chili with white beans and green peppers.  Very good stuff.  And we had frozen yogurt.  Because that is our tradition.
We went to bed sort of early.  I've been tired a lot lately.  I just feel tired at night and have a hard time getting up in the morning.  I'm pretty sure it's my body fighting cedar and winter allergies.
But we had a really nice weekend.
Hope you guys did, too!

By the way, happy belated birthday wishes to Eric, Reed, and Amy's dad, Greg!  All of them had their birthday on the 20th (Friday), so I hope they all had a nice weekend!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Punch Brothers

Amy and I saw these guys open for Paul Simon, and they were really great. They combine bluegrass with everything from classical to jazz to indie rock. Really, really good musicians. Here's one of their songs that I really like... And here they are covering Radiohead (to maybe draw the interest of a few of my friends who might be initially turned off by bluegrass...) Enjoy!  Happy Friday!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Internet Goes Dark

Okay, the title of this post is an exaggeration, but a number of prominent sites have basically shut themselves down today (e.g., Wikipedia, Wired.com, Reddit, I Can Has Cheezburger) in protest of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills that are currently before Congress.
I'm certainly not an expert on either intellectual property or the internet, and I'm not exactly sure how I feel about these two bills, but, at the very least, I think they're important enough that people ought to be paying attention to them and keeping an eye on what our legislators are doing as they set up some new rules and laws that govern cyberspace.
I've already had some discussions with people about SOPA, and I've already come to realize that the issues presented by these bills are fairly complex and not nearly as straightforward as some of the propaganda surrounding them would have you believe.
At their heart, I think SOPA and PIPA probably have good intentions.  They strive to protect the intellectual property rights of content creators who really do need some legal protections for the products that they're creating if they're going to be able to continue to make a living by creating and distributing content.  People can't financially sustain themselves by writing, taking photographs, making art, recording music, etc. if their products are subject to being stolen and distributed freely the moment that they appear online.  I've heard some extremely idealistic thinkers try to argue otherwise, claiming that we should live in some sort utopia where all content is free, but this just isn't realistic.  If people can't make a living generating content, the content itself is going to suffer.  I don't really want to live in a society where all artists, writers, musicians, etc. have to pursue their work in a part time, amateur fashion because there's no way to support themselves by making any real money off of their work.  Obviously there are many exceptions to this rule, but I think there's truly something to be said for the quality of work that can be done by people who are doing it full time and focusing on it as their sole profession. 
On the other hand (and this is where the debate begins in earnest) it's far from clear that SOPA is the best way to police the distribution of intellectual property on the internet. 
The current wording of SOPA seems to require (at least according to the bill's critics) website hosts to police and monitor all content that their users are putting up on their site or face a potential shtudown of the entire site.  This means online website hosts for sites that have thousands and thousands of users (like the site that hosts this blog) are going to be responsible for the content put up by all of their users.  Also, the burden of proof in refuting an allegation after an infringement accusation would fall upon the service provider, with no possibility of recovering damages from the accuser if a false allegation is made (unless proof could be made that the accusation was made for an intentionally fraudulent purpose).  Sites could be shut down very quickly and remain offline while the matter was sorted out, so loss of viewers (i.e., revenue) would be incurred by the hosting site, even if the claim ultimately proved groundless.
Critics of SOPA claim that this might have a huge chilling effect on the internet.  Hosts for blogging sites, for example, might not be willing to continue to host blogs because the work produced by their individual users might subject them to damages (and, the hosts claim, the costs of internally policing the content of users might be too high to make the continued operation of such sites feasible).  Sites like Youtube would likely suffer from similar problems with the video content being posted by their users.
Soooo.... people don't want the chilling effect of making host sites responsible for the intellectual property of user content.  Critics of SOPA have tried to protray this as a fight of the little guy versus big, wealthy publishing firms, movie studios, and recording companies, but it's not quite that simple.  Large firms like Google, Youtube, and other web publishers definitely, of course, have a dog in the fight, too.  They don't want to face the prospect of their sites being shut down whenever there's a violation by one of their users (and they rely on their users to generate their product).  Also, they don't want to have to bear the substantial cost of internally policing all of the content that goes up on their sites.
That second point is a slightly less sympathetic argument, though, if you're a content producer or distributor who's trying to make a living off of intellectual property that you legally own.  Why, exactly, should sites like Youtube or Blogger get to draw an audience and/or readers for their site when some of their audience might be drawn to the site in the first place by pirated content that the site hosts don't legally won?  If you're spending a lot of money to publish literary material, record songs, or make movies and you're trying to get a return on your investment, it's going to be pretty annoying to see the people over at Youtube making a whole lot of cash off their site while you're material (appearing illegally on their site) racks up thousands of hits.  So Google and Youtube, after all, are wealthy companies that are making a lot of money off of the content on their sites.  Why shouldn't they be responsible the material that they're publishing, regardless of which particular user publishes it?  After all, if the host provider isn't the one responsible for monitoring the content (even though that content is helping them make money), then the person responsible for policing violations becomes the property owner, and they end up being the ones bearing the cost of watchdogging the internet and protecting their property from theft.  This doesn't sound entirely fair, either, especially when you're talking about significant amounts of pirated content.
Anyway,  the issues are complicated, and this has definitely been a quick and dirty discussion of the whole thing.  There are a bunch of other areas of SOPA that are also controversial (some involving offshore websites and copyright infringement, others involving technical issues about the mechanics of tracking copyrighted material in digital formats). 
As I said at the beginning, I'm not an expert on this area of the law or the internet itself, but I just thought I'd see if I could interest people enough to look up more about SOPA on their own.  It really does seem important.
Personally, I just want them to get it sorted in a way that allows little guys like me to continue to post a blog.  I'm not sure SOPA's the best way to get these issues sorted out, but I'm also cognizant of the fact that any solution to these intellectual property issues is going to have strengths and weaknesses and, therefore, strong critics. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Weekend; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

My weekend was pretty good.  On Friday night I played a gig with Mono Ensemble at The Carousel Lounge.  It was fun.  My parents came out to see us as well as some of my friends from work and a number of Amy's friends from the iSchool.  Our music sounded decent, and people seemed to enjoy themselves, so I was happy.
On Saturday night Amy and I went to the Violet Crown Cinema to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  I'd never been to The Violet Crown before, and it turned out to be a pretty cool place.  For those who haven't been, it's a sort of arthouse movie theater down on 2nd Street.  It's located up on the second floor, and the lobby area of the theater has a small restaurant and bar.  You can buy food and drinks to take into the movie, although the theater itself doesn't have a waitstaff or service (which can be a bit of a drawback- the seating is a little cramped for eating meals, and you're sort of stuck with your plates once you're done eating).  On the whole, though, I'd recommend the theater.  They have good seats, nice, small theaters, and it's nice to be able to get a beer, drink, or glass of wine and carry it into the movie with you.
And Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy turned out to be a good film.  I'd heard from several people that the plot was sort of difficult to follow, so I put myself on high alert and paid close attention to the unfolding of the cold war espionage tale.  I found it to be an interesting movie with an engaging story, and the acting was really strong.  Gary Oldman did a great job of portraying the subtle nuances of a character who is, both by nature and by training, disinclined to strong, overt displays of emotion.  Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and others filled out a cast of supporting actors that put in extremely realistic, compelling performances, and Tomas Alfredson, as director, created a tense, suspense-filled spy film without ever really asking the audience to strain themselves in completely suspending their disbelief (a fact that was sort of on my mind in light of my recent viewing of one of the last Mission Impossible movies).
Anyway, I liked TTSS.  I liked The Violet Crown.  Amy and I had a good time.
After the movie we went to Opal Divine's to do some trivia with Heidi and Jaci.  We didn't quite win this time, but I continue to think of us as winners!  It was fun!  Hot drinks on the patio!!
Yesterday we went to church with my mom and dad, and afterward we went out to lunch.  It was good to have a chance to hang out with them!

Well, I guess that's it.  I had today off, too, but Amy and I mostly just ran errands.
Amy's cooking now, so I have to go!!
Hope you guys had a good weekend, too!

Ready Player One

So last night I finished reading Ready Player One, a book that came out last year, written by Austin's own Ernest Cline.
Jean and Greg, Amy's folks, gave me the book (thank you!), and it sat on my shelf for a while before I got around to it.  To be honest, when I first got the book, I was a little uncertain.  The only previous work that I knew of from Cline was his screenwriting for Fanboys, a 2008 movie about, well, fanboys, and it got mediocre reviews from both audiences and critics (I've never seen it).  On top of that, the one or two articles that I read about the book spoke almost exclusively to the 80's pop culture references in the novel without really mentioning anything about characters or plot.  Between these two things, I was a little turned off.  I'm not really that into fanboy culture, and I wasn't sure I was interested in reading a book that might turn out to be more of trivia contest than an actual story.  I initially suspected that the book might just turn out to be an exercise in trying to remember 80's pop culture references, and the whole thing sounded sort of gimmicky.
But my concerns ended up being unfounded.
True to what I'd heard, the book was, in fact, filled with lots of references to an amazing trove of games, TV shows, toys, video games, movies, and music from my youth, but Cline's far more impressive trick came from managing to incorporate all of these elements into an engaging story in a meaningful way.  Ready Player One, at its heart, is a sort of latter day Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which is, itself, referenced in the novel).  The novel involves a teenage orphan, Wade Watts, as he struggles to win a game in a virtual reality computer system called the OASIS in 2044.  The game is a sort of quest left behind by OASIS creator James Halliday following his death, and by being the first person to successfully complete the game, the winner stands to inherit the incredibly vast fortune he had amassed (almost every person on earth uses the OASIS for one purpose or another- work, school, entertainment, etc., and social interactions are all carried out in its online reality).
Ready Player One might not ultimately appeal to everyone.  It's basically an adventure tale, and it's not the sort of "literature" that readers will immediately relate to as similar to their own day to day experiences.  On the other hand, although the book is primarily fun science fiction, it's also extremely well conceived and executed, with some interesting character development and a fair bit of social commentary lying beneath it's fun, glittery surface (the 2044 earth of RPO has descended into stagnation, recession, and entropy as humanity has retreated into its computers, and the last, great battles are waged in cyberspace over corporate control of virtual reality).  The dialogue can border on cheesy at times, but even this, I think, is part of Cline's homage to 1980's culture (if you have doubts, go back and watch any number of the movies referenced by Cline in RPO and pay close attention to the buddy banter flying back and forth between the young protagonists.  I challenge you to make it through Goonies or Explorers without tasting a little Velveeta in your mouth).
At any rate, I ended up really enjoying Ready Player One.  I certainly recommend it for any of the people in my age bracket who had a slightly geeky childhood, but I think almost anyone could enjoy the story (Cline has good descriptions of his key references, and most of the stuff from that time period has somehow stuck with us through the subsequent decades, anyway).  It would be cool to see RPO become a movie, but, man, there would be an awful lot of licensing issues to work out before it could happen.
That's really all that I have.  Good novel!  I recommend!
Annnnyway, thanks to Jean and Greg for the book!  It was really good!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Friday the 13th at The Carousel Lounge

Well, the gig last night went pretty well!  Thanks a lot to everyone who came out to see us!  You guys make everything a lot of fun!  Thanks to Venus Fixer for playing with us!



Friday, January 13, 2012

Mono Ensemble Show Tonight!!!

So my band, Mono Ensemble, is playing tonight at The Carousel Lounge at 9:00 p.m. in beautiful Austin, Texas!  Given the holidays the new year, and an injury or two to our drummer, we haven't had a whole lot of practice time for tonight's gig, so the whole enterprise is likely to be a bit of an adventure.  Even I'm not sure what to expect!
But at The Carousel the cover is free, the beer is cheap, and the company is friendly.
Come on out and join us!  The ride may have a few bumps, but we'll work hard to keep it interesting!

Monday, January 09, 2012

Update

The weekend was pretty good.  Friday night I went with the Steans clan to go see Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol at the IMAX with my family.  I think Ryan didn't like the movie, largely because he thought it was formulaic, improbable, and filled with stereotypes, while Dad liked it a lot because it was a good, old fashioned, high octane action movie.  So, in the end, they largely had completely opposite reactions to exactly the same qualities in the movie.  Dad sort of enjoys the feeling of knowing what to expect from a certain kind of movie, whereas Ryan, I think, was annoyed by it.
Personally, I had a good time.  I'm glad that every movie that comes along isn't Mission Impossible (it was, in the end, cheesy, escapist entertainment), but I really enjoyed the stunts and action sequences and the overall experience.  In any case, the movie was very similar to some of the other Mission Impossible movies, so, if  nothing else, it stayed true to the feel of the other movies in the series.  I haven't been seeing nearly as many big ol' action movies as I used to, and maybe the fact that I watch them less frequently helps me enjoy them more when I end up catching one.  I dunno.  Liked.
Saturday I did a few chores/errands (goodbye Christmas lights!) and picked up Amy from the airport.  So good to have her back!  :-)  We went out to eat at Tarka and just hung out (we're still watching Six Feet Under).  Sunday there was exercise and Cassidy walking and some shopping and then band practice.  Mono practice was important since we have a gig at the Carousel Lounge on Friday night (at 9:00).  It felt good to play some music with the guys.  It had been a while.
After practice Amy made dinner.  We had chicken tacos with onions and poblano peppers, and they were really, really good.
Did I mention that it was really good to have Amy back?  ;-)
Well, I guess that's it.
It's cold and raining here today in Austin, so everyone stay warm, dry, and safe!   

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Starting a New Year in Arizona

Well, I flew out to Arizona on the Friday before New Year's, and I flew back on the following Tuesday.  It was a good time to go because Amy had already been gone to Arizona for a week on Christmas break, and I missed her a lot.
I flew in Sunday night, and on Saturday morning we got up (by "we", I mean Amy, myself, and Amy's parents, Jean and Greg), hopped in the car, and drove up to Flagstaff.  Along the way we stopped off at Montezuma's Castle, which is a cliff dwelling made by the Sinagua people around 700 A.D..  Montezuma's Castle was pretty darn impressive.  If I'm correct, it might also be the single oldest human structure that I've ever seen in the U.S. (I saw some Mexican pyramids once down in Tulum that might have been from 500 or 600 A.D., but in the U.S. Montezuma's Castle has to be the oldest human structure I've seen).  After visiting the National Park we drove up to Flagstaff.  Along the way we drove through an area (Munds Park?  Amy can correct me if I'm wrong) where the Davis family used to have a cabin when Amy was younger (I got to see Amy's old treehouse!).  Apparently there's talk in the family of getting a cabin up there again, and I can certainly see why.  It's a lovely area.  Pine trees, snow, and a feeling of wilderness.
Then we went to Flagstaff.  I'd never been that far north before in Arizona, and the difference between the Phoenix area and the area near Flagstaff was startlingly different in terms of vegetation, altitude, climate (there was snow on the ground in Flagstaff, but in Phoenix people were wearing shorts), etc..  We only spent a very short amount of time in Flagstaff, but it looked like a pretty cool place.  It had a sort of small, college town feel (it's home to Northern Arizona University), but it was large enough to explore, with some interesting restaurants, businesses, etc..
Occupy Flagstaff had gathered, en masse, outside of Flagstaff City Hall, but they'd only mustered four people that were dissatisfied enough with the state of the world to protest, so I figured that Flagstaff must be, on the whole, a pretty happy place.
After Flagstaff we drove down to Sedona.  True to what I'd heard, Sedona turned out to be beautiful.  The red rock canyons, pine trees, and blue skies were pretty amazing.  We visited  Holy Cross Chapel, which was a really cool building in a beautiful setting, wandered through Tlaquepaque to look at the shops and art, watched the last sunset of 2011 from a scenic overlook near the airport, and had a very tasty Italian New Year's Eve dinner at a place called Dahl & Di Luca.  Sedona was really cool, and I'd definitely like to head back at some point when I have more time.
On Sunday I mostly hung out with Amy and her family over at her house.  They hosted a really nice fish cookout with really good food and excellent company.  It was good to get to hang out with the whole family and see them in action together.
On Monday I went for a hike in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park with Amy, her mother, and her grandfather.  It was a fun hike.  The view from the mountain trails let you see for 50 miles or more, with views into downtown Phoenix and the mountains surrounding the Valley of the Sun.
The trip was really good, and it was an excellent way to bring in 2012.  Thank you so much to the Davis family for being such excellent hosts, and also to the Koffel family and the Sinex family for making me feel welcome!  I appreciate your willingness to share the holiday weekend with me!

Amy and I at Montezuma's Castle

Amy and her grandfather, Jerry, on a trail in the White Tanks
A great way to watch the last sunset of the year

Beautiful things along Highway 89A

Me, Amy, and Amy's dad, Greg, near Montezuma's Castle

Jean, Amy's mom, with Amy watching the sun set over Sedona

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

2011 Evidence that We're Getting Dumber

I wrote this back before the end of the year, and I never got around to posting it.  I hope it doesn't sound too negative.  I started out writing it with the intention to make it humrous, but I'll let you make your own determination as to how that played out.  Anyway, I will say that as I look at this list now, I realize that it's as much a criticism of the media- their choices in what to cover it and how to tell the story- than about the events themselves. 

Here's a list of some of the top headlines from 2011 along with an explanation as to why I think that a number of them are pretty strong evidence that our population might be doing some evolutionary backsliding:



Steve Jobs died (October 5):  Here's the thing.  In the wake of his death, people have been comparing Jobs to every major inventer and innovator since Thomas Edison, but in actuality, he didn't really invent anything.  He didn't invent the smartphone, the MP3 player, the laptop, or even the tablet computer.  All of the prototypes and fundamental designs for those things preceded Jobs by years.  The real talent that Jobs possessed was in design- more specifically, he modified gadgets so that our lazy consumer culture wouldn't have to learn any new skills or develop any new talents in order to take advantage of advances in technology.  Buttons were replaced with wheels and touch screens.  Software was made so accessible that even children could stumble their way through it .  Online shoppers were corralled into idiot-simple iTunes stores where they could download items into formats that were easily digestible on their Apple hardware.  The software, hardware, and online shopping provided by Jobs weren't always the most effective, efficient, or cheapest options available, but Apple made sure that their products were so easy to use that even the least tech savvy person out there wouldn't face many challenging obstacles while figuring out how to use Apple products.  We could be really slow to learn, but thanks to Apple, we could still do really cool stuff with our tech.  As a result, I've recorded a bunch of music on Garageband and I'm writing this post on a MacBook Pro!

Occupy Wall Street (September):  It was the kind of protest that a bunch of angry preteens might come up with.  I'm not saying that there weren't/aren't any real issues that Occupy Wall Street protesters have been addressing, but for many of us, the lack of common purpose, the disorganization, and the inability to effectively communicate any sort of cogent message was every bit as discouraging as the problems that OWS were addressing in the first place.  It's true that there's far too much corporate influence in government.  It's true that income inequality is, at least in part, the result of some strange legal inequities, (especially when you consider that when some of the same people who contributed to the economic collapse have continued to receive huge salaries and have received taxpayer bailouts, getting richer while the employees who work in the trenches get laid off and/or remain unemployed).  It's true that loopholes often leave some of the wealthiest members of our society paying proportionately much less in taxes than the middle class workers who provide the power behind wealthy corporate machines.
People have some legitimate reasons to be fed up.
But Occupy Wall Street seemed to fail again and again when it came to articulating the reasons why they're angry.  Over and over again they sounded like a disorganized mob, filled with divergent interests, who just couldn't get their act together.  They prided themselves on the fact that they didn't have a leader (claiming that they were a grass roots, popular movement that didn't need a singular figurehead), but in the end they lacked vision, direction, and unity.  They sounded angry that they were poor, but without a clear message about the inherent unfairness in the job market/tax system/government subsidies/etc.... well, the protesters appeared to many outsiders to be a bunch of entitled misfits who would rather camp out, commiserate, and complain than look for a job.  They produced some interesting imagery and seized the public's imagination for a period of time (pictures of police casually spraying tear gas into the face of protesters is always compelling), but they failed to capitalize on their moment in the spotlight by fully explaining what they truly wanted.
So there were and are real issues to be addressed by OWS, but the execution... the execution felt sort of dumb.

Charlie Sheen Publicly Melts Down (March?):  Charlie Sheen gets fired from Two and a Half Men, which (and this is already evidence of our dumbness) is one of the top rated shows in America at the time.  Sheen has some sort of mental health/drug induced breakdown, posting internet rants about the studio that fired him while simultaneously bragging about  the tiger blood in his veins, his warlock nature, and the majesty of.... well, himself.  Much of the rest of the world is focused on Libya as rebel forces move against Qaddafi, or Japan, which has been devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear meltdowns.  Much of America, however, is infatuated with the Charlie Sheen story- captivated by the ravings of a clearly unhinged millionaire celebrity who's holed up in an L.A. mansion with some underwear models and his (undoubtedly very confused) small children.  This is the kind of story that just snowballed once it came into contact with American dumbness because the gawking audience helped to feed the megalomania that was the story itself.  (yeah, I know it's probably not fashionable, but I'm willing to just go ahead and call our society's mindless fascination with celebrity sort of dumb)  There are probably thousands of manic, bipolar (or possibly drugged) people out there at any given time, but thanks to the desire of the American public to gawk at a celebrity meltdown like rubberneckers at a traffic accident, Charlie Sheen happened to be one of the few egomaniacs who turned his delusions of grandeur into reality.  Between his own awful behavior and our fascination with it, he really was the center of the universe for a moment.  Lord help that man's therapist.

Casey Anthony Acquitted in Murder of Daughter (July 5):  So on July 5th a jury in Florida found Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her daughter, Caylee.  This was after the police found evidence of decomposition in the trunk of the defendant's abandoned car, after months of the defendant denying that she knew anything regarding the whereabouts of her daughter (and after lies about some sort of nanny abduction), after the police found evidence that internet searches had been performed on the defendant's computer regarding the use of chloroform, after the defendant lied about her employment, after the child's body was found only a short distance from the family's home, and after the family had been caught telling lies on the defendant's behalf.  This was the sort of case that could only be lost in the face of a jury that had learned about justice through the fictional TV world of CSI (and other police procedurals) in which every single case contains a smoking gun if the detectives just look hard enough.  This jury represented a section of the public (perhaps a disturbingly large section) which has come to believe that facts presented by the government are always inherently untrustworthy (because the government, we've learned, is almost always out to presecute inncoent people), and that hidden conspiracies are more believable than any simple simple logical inferences- mostly because the application of simple logic just doesn't feed our imaginations the same way that wild conjecture typically might. This was a jury who believed it was their job to abandon common sense and sound reasoning at the courtroom door- a jury who wanted to hold prosecutors to unrealistically high standards, forgetting that if the evidence was perfect every time, we really probably wouldn't need juries in the first place (if there's airtight evidence in every case and conviction is little more than the application of a simple, logical formula, do we really need juries at all?  A computer program might suffice...).
Over time, many a murderer has been convicted without a body ever having even been recovered.  Historically, organized crime and serial killer prosecutions have been full of such cases.  The Casey Anthony case involved more than enough evidence to convict this woman for murder if the jury had possessed the will to do so.
The prosecutors might have overreached a bit by trying to insist upon the death penalty in this case, but it was the jury, in the end, who ignored the facts and set a child killer free.  The case wasn't the sort of neatly wrapped package that the public has come to expect from cop shows on TV, so Caylee Anthony walked.  That was pretty dumb.  Next, this woman will probably write some sort of memoir, and America will have the chance to prove itself even dumber as copies fly off the shelves...

Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal (November)-  This fall Penn State made the news when allegations came to light that Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the school's football team, had been sexually abusing a number of boys (ten or more, according to charges) over a fifteen year period.  The allegations of abuse were bad enough, but even more alarming have been the reports that numerous members of the Penn State administration and athletic department knew of, suspected, or had reason to know of Sandusky's abuse but did nothing to report it.  Athletic directors, university presidents and vice presidents, and even Joe Paterno, an 84 year old coach and college football icon, were caught up in the scandal in a wave of suspensions and firings.
What's dumb about this scandal?  Well, it's not the fact that this sort of abuse is a serious crime.  In fact, it's pretty much the opposite.  How the heck did this thing go on as long as it did with so many people apparently knowing about it or suspecting it without anyone reporting the abuse to the authorities?
Right or wrong, when this sort of thing happened in the Catholic church I found it easier to understand that people were confused about what to do and how to handle the disturbing situation. The church, after all, has historically served as a moral compass and a reference point for the personal ethics of a lot of people, so when something very bad happened within its ranks, I guess I found it easier to see how people could be confused, uncertain, and maybe even a little scared.  I sort of chalked up a good deal of the uncertainty and slow response in the Catholic abuse scandal to the disorientation that believers felt when they found evil at the heart of something that had formed the bedrock of an institution that had always been meant to serve as a paragon of good.
But protecting a defensive coordinator for a college football team?  What the hell?  Do people really feel the same need to close ranks and protect a college football program in the same way that they might protect their religious institutions?
Keep in mind that if anyone had taken this thing on earlier and simply reported it to the authorities, the department could have just replaced Sandusky as a single problematic piece in a larger, successful college football program. There would have been a little media attention and a little embarrassment, but the whole program wouldn't have been put at risk.
What makes the Penn State case so troubling is that people weren't ignoring the problem because of a desire to keep faith in an institution that had served as a center of their spiritual and moral well being- or if that's what was happening people really are insanely dumb.  I know that there's a lot of money involved, but in the end the case of the Sandusky scandal was about people turning a blind eye in order to safeguard their good feelings about a college program where a bunch of young men compete to move an inflated piece of leather 100 yards down a field of dirt and grass.
Protect college football at the expense of abusing kids?  So there's some dumbness involved.

The Debt Ceiling Debate/Downgrade of U.S. Credit Rating (July and August)- Congress, The White House and the Senate reached an impasse on the debt ceiling when Tea Party members of Congress refused to agree to increased taxes, and Democrats dug their heels in on budget slashing for certain key programs.  There was a heck of a lot of brinksmanship involved, very little compromise, and in the end, the whole mess basically demonstrated to the world that our government  (and perhaps our populace) is fractured, obstinate, and dysfunctional.  As a result of Washington's inability to efficiently and effectively negotiate a fairly straightforward compromise on what should have been a relatively routine matter (the debt ceiling has already been raised more than 70 times since 1940), Standard and Poor downgraded the credit rating of the United Staes for the first time in history, moving the rating from AAA to AA+.  S&P pointed to the skepticism of Congressional members about the seriousness of the consequences stemming from a default as one key reason why the downgrade took place.  Apparently the Tea Party rhetoric about letting the government collapse instead of negotiating with Democrats was actually taken seriously by some people- mostly the people who have a lot of money invested in our government.  Various American politicians and pundits expressed outrage over the downgrade, but S&P stood firm, apparently standing behind the radical belief that in order to have a really good credit rating, governments and their leaders need to seem serious about not wanting to stiff their creditors.
This wasn't the only time that our elected leaders cut off their respective noses to spite their faces this year, but it was an example where the negative consequences were immediate and clearly felt.
Even children are taught how to share and play nice.
So... I would say that this whole debacle was pretty dumb.


Anyway, I hope 2012 goes well!  I hope we can all find a way to stand up for what we believe in while still remaining open minded, flexible, and open to compromise.  It's a tough balance, but an important one, and I feel like I have to work a little harder at it each year (of course, if everyone would just acknowledge that I'm always right, that would work, too!  ;-)).