The Axeman Cometh

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I was very tempted to write a "I'm thankful for..." post on Thanksgiving. But, hey, the turkey wasn't the only thing that was stuffed, and a nap got the better of me. We move on to doing our part of in making Black Friday black, and, naturally, Saturday becomes consumed with Clemson's dominating 31-14 football win over perennially hapless USC (not the good school, rather the University of South Carolina). In short, I really haven't been in the mood to write. There are other amusements, after all. What to write?

At least one more CD review awaits another listen or two...
Politics? Done that. I'll wait for the sequel.
Radical Islamic Fundamentalism? That one's bubbling upwards, certainly.
Other religious topics? In due course.
General Diary entry? Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head... No.

But, when one is not in the mood to be particularly thoughtful, there's usually low hanging fruit to pick and be done with.

Thanksgiving would be one of those. We had 17 gathered at the in-laws. Per tradition, the food was as good as the Pro football games were bad. The nap? Exceptional. A day to pause and be thankful, uncorrupted by consumerism? Yes, it's my favorite holiday.

I'll forego the many things for which I'm thankful, but I will tie the rest of this post to a cousin of the cutting instrument used to slice such scrumpious meat.

That would be the axe. A simple machine, basically a wedge on the end of a handle, offering leverage for efficient cutting.

What in the world am I getting at? Well, one might do useful things with it like cut wood. A headsman might use it for a darker purpose. Medevial warriors might use it for hacking foes.



Bear with me. Years ago, I wore Old Spice a couple of times, for a 9th grade dance or something, and I have no issues with those who favor colognes. They're not for me.
The other vogue fasions at the time were leather Nike shoes (there was only the choice of white canvas
or white leather with the dominating Swoosh), Levi's jeans, and Members Only jackets. I had none of the above, but at least with my little white bottle of the good stuff I had
my one day in the sun, or, evening in the dark as it was. Old Spice... a nice, if unsophisticated, statement to those of the opposite gender.

One would think things get better over time. Fast forward some years, and I pick up my son's best friend at his house. Suddenly, my car becomes a toxic confined space. No, it's not ol' reliable Old Spice. This is something newer, and it's noxious threat is immediate, making one wonder how to lower the windows on a cold day and remain politically correct. The Department of Alcohol, Tobacoo, and Firearms should consider a licensing process for using this particular "cologne" (*cough cough*). It's threat to the public is very similar to ATF's titular responsibilities, in terms of irresponsible access and the potential damage to both users and the public at large. Not to mention my car! I mean, really. Any ol' kid can just go buy this stuff. And when you put it in the hands of a male 9th grader, one shouldn't be surprised that in the teen world, when it comes to making your presence known, you obviously want to use the entire supply.

This wasn't a CSI-worthy mystery to be analyzed and identified. This particular weapon of mass destruction has been on the grocery shelves at least several years.

Axe.

No handle. No wedge. No sharp edge. Just pure blunt force.

Please take note of the rather innocent looking packaging. Don't bring even the slightest amount into your home. If it's already there, secure it safely with the rat poison for the protection of those you hold dear.


I must presume that like this odor du jour is as effective in its utility with teenage girls as its namesakes are for more workmanlike tasks. As I have a teenager daughter, this scares me, in that she could possibly fall victim to its power, that she make actually like some bestial teen who thinks it'll attract her, and, of course, that I may have failed miserably as a parent.

Lock your doors! Charge your muskets! Move the women and children to safety! And if an Axeman cometh, be very, very afraid.

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Long May You Run

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Regrettably, I pay my bills and won't be favored with a government bailout. I admit this is rather disappointing. After all, much of my expenses are for my kids. Why not add it to their tab?

I've posted my share of political observations, and so I'll avoid the political entanglements as best I can. To the point: the inevitable bailout of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. The interesting provision that is talked about on Capital Hill is that the Big Three must first show what changes they will make to ensure that it's not just bonuses and pensions that are fattened by "government money," but an improved business model. Well, what would that look like?

1. Bust the Union. That's the unspoken requirement that first comes to mind, is it not? First, I'm a capitalist. I'm all for people making as much money as they can. "As much as they can" is further clarified as "as much as someone is willing to pay." The amount that someone is willing to pay I'd say has to meet two tests:

1) There is sufficient income to pay each wage earner.
2) The benefit to the wage provider exceeds the costs of the wages paid, namely a profit.

Wage providers can pay as little as they like. Prospective employees are free to choose if the wage is sufficient for the work required. Providers can also pay as much as they like, far in excess of what others may earn for similar work. That's their choice.

The classroom example is the wage disparity between professional athletes and school teachers, a particularly sensitive subject regarding their relative worth to society. In short, high performance athletes are very few, and significant funding is available because fans are willing to pay for the entertainment. By contrast, teachers are... aplenty. Granted, good ones are rarer. But, to pay this far greater number of teachers a significant wage is cost prohibitive. As it is for the vast majority of other professions.

So, the obvious. Automakers with plants in "employment at will" states make larger profits because the wages paid are appropriate for the skills required (of which ample people are capable), though still a quite respectable wage. The Big Three, despite tiered suppliers that are frequently non-union, overpay for the value of the labor provided, and... a sufficient number of auto buyers believe that their products suffer by comparison to imported brands, resulting in lack of sufficient income. The two tests above are not met, and they come begging to the taxpayers.

2. Better products. Clearly, they need to improve, mainly in reliability, and secondly in appeal. After all, European imports may be sought after by those that can afford them, but most European brands suffer similar reliability issues, plus they cost more to repair. I don't think anyone would concede that American ingenuity and engineering offers a disadvantage to foreign competition. We just have yet to prove it and build a reputation that holds across a particular brand's makes and models. I doubt any Congressperson will demand any improvement in this area.

But here's how to score some political points. Desirable products is certainly a factor. I'm not the most environmentally "green" person, but I'm coming to terms with my own wastefulness, and can see benefits in doing what we can to help the trash pile. I mean, the earth.

Neil Young once wrote a fine song in appreciation of his car, called "Long May You Run." In general, I think Americans want a car large enough to haul more than themselves and a cupholder, and, apparently, Neil feels the same. (<--- it's an interesting article). The southern man may need him around, anyhow, after all. (A few of you will get the reference). American ingenuity is certainly fueled by "where there's a will, there's a way," or "necessity is the mother of invention." Your choice. That said, I expect the automakers to propose nothing of consequence, but rather point to unfair trade practices, the onerous costs of regulation, and Congressional demands for increased fuel efficiency as leading causes of their blight. Same old story, only this time they want cash. 3. Better distribution. Several years ago, I read a book called The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. (It's actually an easy read and not as h0-hum as the cover suggests). Without being tedious, the story walked through the production process of a manufacturing plant and largely examined the inefficiencies (and resulting costs) of materials that were on hold, waiting for the next available production step. Bear with me.

When it comes to about everything, Americans as a society are basically like 2 year olds in that "I want it... NOW!" Hence the billions of credit card debt and defaulted home loans. When we go shopping, for anything, we want it... now. I don't know that we're built to find virtue in patience.

Having worked my way through 1 Ford Tempo, 3 Dodge Spirits, 1 Pontiac Grand Am, 2 Dodge Stratus, and 1 Chevrolet Malibu as company cars over the years, it's evident that American employers support American automakers. The process of getting a company car involves filling out an order form for choice of colors and waiting for the car to be delivered to a local dealership. It takes about 8 weeks. At any given time, I could check on the status of "my" car online to see how it was coming along. Basically, it had my name on it from birth.

When I finally was no longer able to qualify for a company car, I bought a Nissan (which can rightly be assumed to be a comment on my satisfaction with those driven previously). The sales lot had hundreds of cars and trucks, and I got it...now! (Well, okay, then...).

A quick Google search indicates that for each of the major automakers (foreign and domestic), there are 7-8 dealerships in the metro Atlanta area. Let's assume there are 200 new cars on each lot, each valued at $25,000, and 8 dealerships. That's $40M of inventory, just in the Atlanta market, per auto brand. Multiply $5M (value on one lot) by 50%? for the automakers costs, and multiply again by the number of dealerships in the country. It adds up. Then consider the amount of financing required for material costs, tiered suppliers, labor, shipping, etc. for product that is unsold and sitting on lots.

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a sampling of vehicles on each lot? I know... dealers would protest that it would reduce sales - no whimsical buyers, more time to reconsider the debt obligations and back out... But really, why not test drive a vehicle, then order the one you like the way you want it as a standard industry practice? "Made to order" is perfectly suited to "just in time" manufacturing processes used by many industries that minimize capital outlays by avoiding standing inventories.

This isn't exactly new for consumer products. Buy Ethan Allen furniture (assuming you can afford it), and you wait until it is manufactured and delivered.

The Big Three... a key American industry... hundreds of thousands of jobs... I get it. As one commentator put it, "if the union believes so strongly their wages are not the issue, have them invest their pension funds in the automakers." Like my old Malibu, it's a non-starter.

We'll see what the Big Three try to sell Congress that warrants billions of dollars they haven't earned. But it's interesting to follow the logic another step or three.

Given the inconveniences of the recent gas shortage in the south, no one really wants to think what a real energy deficit would mean to our way of life. But looking down the figurative road a ways... when energy costs rise to the point where it's not economically feasible for consumers to shop by going from store to store to store, one has to wonder how well the amazon.com approach (for example) might work towards all consumer products. The efficiencies gained by ordering all sorts of products and having them delivered on a scheduled basis to a nearby, central location, such as your house, may someday be a necessity rather than an option.

In a bleaker vision of the future, perhaps the dream jobs of many kindergarten kids will to be a truck driver, or a plumber, or another tradesman that is one of an allotted number of occupations permitted to drive the open roads.

Sing us out of here, Neil!

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Fleet Foxes

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Entering 2009, I was eagerly anticipating My Morning Jacket's follow-up to Z, their 2005 guitar driven rock adventure featuring Jim James' reverb-treated vocals. That CD, appropriately entitled "My Evil Urges," gave into their not-so-good inclinations. Most bands want to grow artisticly, but they do so without abandoning their strengths.

Alas. Fortunately, good ideas don't go unnoticed and evolve in the hands of others. The Beatles' Sgt Pepper was an evolution of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; Coldplay borrowed the cash cow of U2's signature sound for their own ends... and so it goes.

MMJ's work also has its admirers. In October, 2007, Band of Horses released Cease to Begin, very much a successful idea grab from Z (though commiting a major rip-off by releasing a CD with only a smidgen more than 30 minutes of music).

And finally, we arrive at Fleet Foxes' self-titled release. Whereas My Morning Jacket took their strengths and traded them for uninspired posturings, Fleet Foxes took the vocal reverb idea and pushed it to a new end.

I can't say that this CD struck me with anything like "awe," or even a "wow," the first listen. Like Radiohead's Kid A or The Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin, it took repeated listens to figure out what exactly this is. And if I liked it. Listening to their concert on the NPR podcast helped get a better feel for their music, but for some months afterward, I wasn't sure I really needed this CD.

It's haunting.

If there's one thing I've learned from other CDs that continue to creep into mind periodically, I need to quit arguing with myself and just go get the blasted thing.

So I did. And I'm quite happy with it. I've read other reviews of this CD, and none of them quite sums this up, though certainly you might get a better take on it elsewhere.

First and foremost, there's an emphasis here on harmonies. This isn't to say that Lennon-McCartney dropped them a top-20 tune with a ready-for-radio hook. Fleet Foxes has a different sound and different song structure. Perhaps if rock and gospel were mixed during the Reconstructionist South... Well, no. This band hails from Seattle, WA.

Haunting remains the best description of this this CD. It's not littered with poltergeists or other mentions of the netherworld. It's more a feeling that comes from the whole of the work.

Back to those harmonies. The vocal stylings are the main emphasis. They go places other bands have not seen fit to go, and if they've been traveled before, it seems likely that it was long ago. Add the echoing reverb of the vocals and maybe, just maybe, it brings chills to the skin.

The lyrics themselves are poetic. They're not specifically negative, nor are they positive. The lyrics are not perfectly clear, but they tend to include a sadness on the observations made. This is not to say that the music is in any way depressing. Juxtaposed with the enthusiasm of the vocals and instrumentation, there's plenty of foot tapping opportunities.

In short, this CD stands apart from anything else on my CD rack. Or in the I-pod. It's certainly not for everyone, but if you prefer artists who detour commercial expectations to chart their own path, this might be for you.

Youtube videos are included below.

Recommended songs: "Quiet Houses," "He Doesn't Know Why," "Ragged Wood," "Blue Ridge Mountains," "Your Protector"

Rating: 5 Stars

He Doesn't Know Why



Blue Ridge Mountains:



Your Protector

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The Depths to Which Scientists go...

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... to find something that isn't known to exist. First, let's start with Dark Matter (<-- click here) for a primer on what? huh? *scratches head.* I particularly like the description: "It has been noted that the names "dark matter" and "dark energy" serve mainly as expressions of human ignorance." Well, if that's all it is, may I simply direct you to your politician of choice.

Sorry, I fell for the easy target.

Had I heard of Dark Matter before (or, recalled it - it sounds vaguely familiar), I might have named this Blog after it. But to be fair, not to politicians but rather to our use of diction, let's not be judgmental from "ignorance." From dictionary.com:

Ignorance: the state or fact of being ignorant; lack of knowledge, learning, information, etc.

To be ignorant is not to be stupid, but rather to not be informed. Well, information is good, but pictures are even better! Hmm. The first image offered in a Google search for the illustrious "dark matter:"


Well, heck yeah! Cool stuff! Ah, but there's the accompanying footnote: "Figure 1: The distribution of dark matter obtained from a large numerical simulation."

Well, thank you for that, a numerical simulation of hypothetical, invisible (but dark) matter. Well, okay! It's still cool looking.

Back to the moral of our story. That would be the (literal, as it turns out) depths to which scientists will go to support a hypothesis, as presented in the "Wall Street Journal." <--- yep, click there. Let's see...YEARS beneath the surface, searching for evidence of things not known to exist using means of detection not known to work for... real money? Kids, this is why you get your Ph.D. It's a bit more schoolwork, but look at the rewards! You must use the little grey cells before you move on to Dark Matter. Okay, sure, I'm making light of the Dark Matter, but I'm not done yet. How can one ignore "Wimps?" Well, given the rather outstanding mathematical depiction of nothingness, I can't help but venture back to the image warehouse at Google for some help in this area! My expectation, as yours, no doubt, was that I would immediately find something akin to this:
Eh, an unfortunate candid photo, to be sure. But not so, gentle reader! Instead, the first image is this:


Pretty. Weekly Interactive Massive Particles. Once again, footnoted information:
  • The WIMPS have a spherically symmetric distribution centered on the center of the galaxy.
  • They are evenly spread out, not clumped.
  • They provide much of the gravitational force that holds the visible part of the galaxy together.
I'm sure we'll hear more about this. The postulations are thought provoking, the need (though an unfortunate acronym) is evident, and the efforts underway are... well, you have to start somewhere.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not making light (antonym to dark not intended) of scientific pursuits in this field. At the same time, I have to allow that the convergence of the scientific and theological remains quite possible here. Chance seems such a wimpy player in all of this. It may not, after all is said and done, be the devil in the details, but God.

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Lucinda Williams - Little Honey

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Concurrent with her current tour, Lucinda Williams has released "Little Honey." This is a curious choice of title. It could refer to a person of diminutive proportions fondly referred to as "Honey." It might just mean that she has little honey left in her bear package. Or, perhaps it refers to her current love, who she sings of not as a honey bear, but a little "honey bee." However cute and endearing that may be, her past suggests that this is but another temporary sidestep on her road to disappointment. "Lotta Honey," after all, seemingly will never apply to Ms. Williams' love life.

And for me, that's okay. Her gift is wrapping her experiences in song, and when she hurts, she writes better. Here, we have what seems to be a much more positive album than all of her previous. We start off with "Real Love," an okay rocker with a refrain of "I've found the love I've been looking for, a real love, a real love..." Regrettably, that song was written about her previous stop at love's door. "Tears of Joy" better captures her sense of new found love, as she pulls out the, er, difficulties of her past in contrast to the new hope that she now has. It's well written, but... there remains a sadness in the tune. And "Knowing" sounds like a song that wants to sound happy but just can't step up to uncharted space. "If Wishes Were Horses," she'd have a farm. And so would every other young girl.

And so it goes. Overall, this CD is okay. Lucinda knows how to work blues scales and instrumentally find something "good." But still, there's a lot of retread here. There's the obligatory "adult" themed song - "Honey Bee," there's the annoying song - "Jailhouse Blues" (good for 1-2 listens, but then a misfit on repeated listens), and songs that pretty much sound the same as songs she's done as well or better in the past. "Circles and X's" is itself an old idea that she recently completed, and several others closely follow the minimal strum-and-sing formula of many songs past. This can be quite good - "Well, Well, Well" or it can be ho-hum - "Rarity" - within which is the CD title reference. The reading fares better than the listening, however.

Still, there is much here to like, and although a cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top" seems a disjointed afterthought, it's is a good way to depart this CD. There's an enthusiasm that she fails to capture in her own songs, and it's played with a Keith Richards/ Ron Wood aggressiveness.

Suggested Songs: "Well, Well, Well", "Jailhouse Blues" (one listen), and "It's a Long Way to the Top".

Note to the unacquainted: Lucinda has a Southern "hick" accent, which should not be confused as a twang, a drawl, or other inflection coming from the studios in Nashville. She doesn't attempt to hide her accent, and if you hear one of her songs, it's more likely another artist covering it. Example: "Passionate Kisses" by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

For those who do I-tunes or similar source, my favorite Lucinda song is "Side of the Road," which takes an observation and pairs it with appropriate instrumentation as well as any.

Rating: 3 Stars

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Bombadil - A buzz A buzz

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Occasionally, I just fall into the trap of being bored while searching the CD bins at a CD Store. Preferably, this would be at a very eclectic shop with new and used CDs, but, in "Bigger is Better" USA, it's usually Best Buy. It's not exactly the place where one expects to make a great "find," but they sometimes surprise.

It's been said that "you can't judge a book by it's cover," but I don't know that I agree. First impressions do matter, after all. Same for CDs. I bought Steve Winwood's "Arc of a Diver" and Steely Dan's "Gaucho" on gut reactions to the album artwork. Those worked out well. I'm sure there have been others in the 25+ years since, but, uh, I can't remember any...

In any case, this time around, I came across an artsy CD cover with an unusual band name. The name of the group, as is obvious from the title of this post, is Bombadil, and the package indicated it was alt/indie music, from a label in North Carolina. The State makes it a point of curiosity, as I tend to be interested in southern bands. The alt/indie indication was more important, because, regardless of art or title, I'm certainly not buying death metal, rap, or Brittney pop.

Oh, it was also cheap.

Those that read JRR Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" may recall Tom Bombadil, a character who didn't make it to the version. He was a very odd character, somewhat out of place even in the menagerie of the LOTR cast.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a CD review! With a core of electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piano and drums, the band adds flourishes that suggest access to either a music store or a high school marching band locker area. Where else would a (presumably bare budget) band find a harmonica, xylophone, organ, synth, saxophone, trumpet, viola, charango, glockenspiel, accordion, recorder and zampona?

Okay, this isn't music for everyone, particularly those that stick to a Top 40 diet or for whom Neil Young is the outer limits or musical radicalism. Think... eclectic. Charmingly odd. Add a twist of the bizarre and a slice of the unexpected.

The first song, "Trip Out West," begins things innocently enough. It's a piano based, quiet but tuneful song. The singer has a nice enough voice.

Song two: "Julian of Norwich" launches into a military march of sorts, which is certainly a contrast to who she was.

And so it goes. To be fair, I don't like every song on here. "Johnny" has a beautiful tune, but cutting lyrics of the literal kind. But there is plenty to like, and it's certainly a departure from my musical mainstream (sadly, perhaps best described as "aging songwriters").

The videos that follow are a couple of the better songs - at least of the ones available on YouTube.

"Three Saddest Words"



"Smile When You Kiss"



Sometimes, lyrics also give a sense of things:

From "Cavaliers Har Hum":

"We are calling cavaliers to arms
We shall fight like a lion with a sword in its side
We shall rush to defend at the sound of the alarms
We shall vanquish our foes with justice of the brave
Cavaliers, sing out in glory, har hum
Cavaliers, it's the same old story, har hum"

Did I mention eclectic? Anyway, as long as the music is listenable, I'm always interested in artists who make music they want to make it, as opposed to meeting others' expectations. That's certainly the case here, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they progress.

Suggested Songs: "Three Saddest Words," "Smile When You Kiss," "Cavaliers Har Hum"

Rating: 3 Stars




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