Sympathy for the Devil

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Enron, AIG, Fannie Mae, Motor City USA... there's been plenty of unsettling news in the financial world varying from the criminal to the incompetent.  CEOs, CFOs, government overseers, etc. are entrusted by their Boards, company employees, stockholders, investors, citizens, etc. to dutifully carry out their responsibilities.

When one fails in this regard and it is exposed publicly, it seems we generally give credit  to "evil corporations," the greed of the wealthy, or the inadequacy of Capitalism... I think such opinions are usually colored by one's personal placement on the financial scale from pauper to filthy rich.

Working for a large corporation, there's always a certain measure of "Glad [insert name of financially wrecked company of choice] is not us."  We trust that those who execute our business strategy and manage the money jar do so with integrity.  However, given that human nature is what it is, there will always be those who do not conduct themselves honestly, whether Capitalist, Communist, a have or have not, CEO or french fryer.

If we look to a business competitor that fails, we would like to say "we're better than them."  And, certainly, the evidence would indicate that we are.  We would also like to think that we personally contribute to our own business' success.  In fact, we are paid and rewarded to do so.

But like the many "what if's" of life, what if I had interviewed with that company rather than this one?  All things being equal, it's entirely possible that I could be one of the many employees working honestly and diligently who suffers under another corporation's poor governance.  Random. Fated.  Karma.  Predestined.  Regardless of our own theological or existentialist beliefs, we can't be ultimately confident of why we end up in a certain place and not another.

Decisions are made, by us or for us.  We move through time under the consequences of those decisions.

I do not have sympathy for those who do not uphold the trust placed in them.   As good as the song is, Mick Jagger did not make a convincing case that we should have sympathy for those who do bad things.  I do have sympathy for those that suffer because of them.  Within the morality play of our lives, the Devil is in the details of the actions of every person and is as apparent in the consequences.

foreclosure-sign

Which, on another (relatively minor) front, I found upsetting this morning.  A relatively short round of bill paying turned ugly as I realized I had not managed the details so well, myself.  It turned out to be one of those semi-annual battles captioned under the general banner of "things that go unexpected in Quicken," the financial software I use.

It turns out that the home amortization schedule I properly set at the beginning of the loan has not been adjusting the principal and interest with each payment.  It's a small thing, I know, as cash flow was not affected, but it's an irritant, a reminder that things set in place have to be looked after to make sure that they continue to work properly. 

Order is restored, for now.  My  lapse did not cause hardship for those who trust in me to manage the household finances.

Things tend toward disorder absent of energy put into the system.  It's apparent that a lot more energy needs to be applied to the nation's financial accounting as well.  Entropy happens.

"If the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness."

- an interesting thought from Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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Terracotta Army

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Over the past several months, The High Museum of Art Atlanta has been advertising a display of China's Terracotta Army. I guess I'm not well enough read, as I was unaware of what many call the 20th century's most significant archeological find.

firstemperor

This is not to say I am completely uncultured, however. Hey, I've seen "The Mummy - Tomb of the Dragon Emperor." (There was no benefit to writing a review. You know what you're getting when you decide to watch it). Anyway, you want Terracotta warriors? You can see them in (computer generated) action! But if not for the High's advertising, I don't know necessarily that I would have assumed such things to actually exist.

Well, they do, and 20 of them, plus or minus some (at times, significant) pieces, are here in Atlanta. In short, China's first emperor spent much of his life pursuing eternal life (as such becomes Emperors) and the planning of his burial palace. A man of his position certainly deserves an after-life of full proportions, so he made himself an entombed army to command. And government clerks. And entertainers. And selected wildlife. All of which were, ~220 - 206 B.C., manufactured in an assembly line process.

Most of the pieces were made from common molds, but each of the estimated 8,000 soldiers' faces were individually carved before firing. There are no two alike.

terracotta2

The presentation included an audio tour and descriptive information. The detail on these is incredible, from treaded shoes to the braids of hair. Each originally held brass weapons, many of which were looted about 5 years after the eternally living Emperor died.

There's plenty to read on the subject if you search for it.

A few thoughts on it. Had it not been indicated in a small explanatory panel, the soldiers presented on display might suggest that all of them were without color. In fact, dyes were used to color each, apparently vibrantly, from head to foot. A picture of several in China shows only a hint of this, as they've faded through the years.

Also, when one thinks of an "army," one doesn't typically think of 10 or so statues in that context, which was what was on display. The picture above gives some indication of how many there are what is termed "Pit 1", but the following picture provides a better sense of the scale of just one of the sites excavated:

Terra-Cotta_Warriors

Note the horses in the middle column. Amazing stuff.

Aside from the assembly line approach to manufacturing these, there were two other facts I found interesting.

One was that in these underground tombs, the emperor re-routed at least one river, so that the terracotta birds could drink. There are some historical records of rivers of mercury, and high levels have been detected at the emperor's own tomb site, which as yet remains untouched.

Secondly was the trigger mechanism of their crossbows. These were made of three pieces of cast metal, and they were easily interchangeable should a part become damaged, obviously very beneficial in field combat. Their quality control over their parts manufacturing was very exacting, and for all things made, failure to meet expectations often resulted in death. Some things haven't changed, regarding which I am not casting stones.

Being cultured... sometimes it can be interesting and enjoyable! Anyway, a concluding video.

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Balderdash, and Beyond!

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The (re)evolution is complete. X-box 360 is fun. But, I don't have split second reaction times or, it seems, the ability to thinkfindpress my way through the plethora of control buttons required to win, if not just play, games.

Meanwhile, I can watch my son play Guitar Hero on advanced settings and just shake my head at the coordination and concentration required to play just a few seconds of a song, nevermind the entirity. He's evolved with me, though. He was babied on a N64, challenged on a Gamecube, grew up with X-Box, and now dominates the 360. While my skills declined, his increased. That's life as you get older, I suppose.

I'm reminded of Steely Dan's "Hey, Nineteen," a fairly good song that recollects the singer's coming of middle-age in context of a younger woman's lack of knowledge of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. How do people relate with little in common?

Sociologists and others have worked hard to define the characteristics that make up Millennials, GenX, and Baby Boomers and the differences between them. I consider myself part of the Pepsi Generation. It sounds right, but... I drink Coke. It's as easily seen in my son's exposure to "classic rock," which is the soundtrack to many of his games. The songs appear somewhat fashionable, as long as I don't say, "Hey, son. I have that on vinyl. You want to..." Sniff. The moment of sharing is gone.

But not all old things are bad. There are cycles in so many things, and surely some things I liked when I was young may still relate to the current crop of unappreciative little... oops, to youth today. Especially my kids!

Yes, there remains hope for the current generation of e-gamers, and my kids recently failed to keep the wall in place that separates the now from the then.

Over the holidays, and not out of complete boredom, my son learned to play Hearts and another card game called Knock. He's witnessed this strange human activity a number of times while sneaking a snack while my wife and I play cards with our best friends.

If asked by someone other than us, I think he would admit he liked it. Had my daughter not already been interested in card games, I'm certain he would have liked it sooner, as contrarian as he is.

Strangely, family games are some of the most vivid memories I have while growing up, certainly more than family vacations. Parchesi, Sorry, Yachtzee, Monopoly... these were the living room floor games that we made time to play as a family and that friends would actually stop playing outdoors to come indoors to play. I know. That's so... '70's.

Board games rule. Family. Friends. Fun. Back at DragonCon, I purchased a board game called Sherlock Holmes' West End Adventures. Geek alert. Well, not quite! It doesn't require electricity, a mouse, a keyboard, or game controller. In fact, it doesn't even use dice. It has a gridded map of 1777 London, a fake newspaper with possibly related articles, a description of the Case to solve, and clues associated with locations on the map. It took a while to get the gist of this, but we... well, we failed. Right bad guy. No motive. But we'll do better with the next case. New horizons - that kind of thing!

Oh, wait. It was made in 1982. Oh, bother. But it got my daughter away from her MASH reruns. That's something. You see? At times, kids leave their electronics for interaction with real, live people! Humph!

There were other games that we played over the holidays. Catch Phrase is probably our favorite game for a larger group that keeps everyone active and interested.


Curiously, it's available on Amazon for $48.95, and anywhere else for "reasonable." It's interesting how one relates clues to have others guess a desired word or phrase. To the point, it's a great game for generational bewilderment, such as my kids' blank stares resulting from my clue of "Gary Cooper's 'High (blank).'" My college buddy immediately answered "Noon," but the kids stared at me like I was from Neptune, Mars not being far out enough.

We also played Clue Master Detective. ($92.99? What is Amazon thinking? Go to e-Bay) It's basically the same as Clue with more suspects, more rooms, and more weapons. Um, yeah, just like it says on the box.

And finally, we played Beyond Balderdash (Amazon's price tag of $129.99 provides a clear indicator of where the savvy investor has shifted his holdings in these troubled times). This is an expansion of Balderdash, where each person makes up a definition for what is presumably a word, then tries to guess which amongst the entries is the correct one. Beyond Balderdash takes it one step further, adding a person's name (what are they known for? - I would say famous for, but none are); Dates (what happened on June 8, 1955?); Movies (you write a succinct plot), and Acronyms.


A sampling from the mayhem:

Movie - "Hot Enough For June"

1. A subtle comedy where a pair of restaurant owners compete to hire the city's top chef, June.
2. An unemployed man is sent to Portugal on a secret spy mission.
3. A lady inherits a ranch in Texas and tries to run it on her own. She eventually falls in love with the foreman.
4. A charismatic con man woos a lonely small town widow for her money.
(and Hollywood is out of new ideas!)

How about, "Nice Girls Don't Explode?"

1. Three fraternity brothers use the school chemistry lab to make a formula to get girls to fall in love with them, but the formula has an unfortunate side effect.
2. Anger management meets Gidget as a small town girl learns to survive in NYC.
3. Inmates at a Women's prison are used as slave labor in the sugar cane fields of southern Florida.
4. Alice hunts two teenage boys through a closed shopping mall with an enchanted watergun.

Yep, (not) appearing at a theatre near you...

Then there's People, such as David Stein:

1. First Israeli Minister of Finance.
2. Original owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers
3. After a successful sexual discrimination lawsuit, he became the first steward on Pam Am.

Erik Rotheim:

1. Scientist who created silly putty.
2. Captained the first U-Boat.
3. Wrote "The Upper Class," a novel in 1925 that correctly predicted the rise of Nazi Germany.
4. The original Marlboro Man.

Acronyms - and here we have all entries from the group, as if it matters... RIHS

1. Rhode Island Horse Superstars
2. Royal Institute Honor Society
3. Royal Intentions Honor System
4. Royal International Horse Show
5. Rhode Island Holistic Services
6. Rhode Island Historical Society
7. Royal Institute for Handmade Scarves.

I have no idea which one is right, and neither do you. It says something, though, that teens can think so similarly as the adults, and vice-versa.

So, that's the re-evolution. On rare occasions, such as planetary alignments or every third blue moon, the appeal of human interaction manages to beckon my son away from the World of Warcraft or my couch potato from her luxury nest and towards the (not so irrelevant) games of yore. This is not a small feat.

I have little hope that my kids will ever have a special high storage place in a closet for board games, but at least they will fall within the generation that still remembers one or two. In the meantime, it seems that playing cards or board games in proximity to other people still has some attraction for humanity. And Amazon's prices, in both literal and figurative terms, hint towards their true value.

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A Boys Night Out

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A fellow music aficionado from my corporate headquarters came to town yesterday. He tends to favor the blues and particularly live music. As opportunistic hosts, several co-workers and I developed A PLAN.

The evening began in Little Five Points, an almost legendary "alternative" area of Atlanta. Having first emboldened one of our group with java fro Aurora Coffee, we ventured to Criminal Records, sorting through new and used CDs, which share space with comic books, vinyl records, DVDs, and magazines. The store had a fairly modest selection, but quality prevailed, if tailored to either the alt-trendy or the timeless.

We then ventured past the Vortex, several vintage clothing stores, Wax'n'Facts, and a tattoo parlor to arrive at A Cappella Books, who seem to cater to serious readers. The quote that best described Little Five Points, as I remember it anyway, was from our guest: "I thought places like this existed only in books."

We'd hardly started. Off we go to The Book House Pub, which was described to me as a "gastro-pub." This description was equally disconcerting as it was potentially rewarding. Immediately upon entering, it had a great feel to it, with a grand bar dominating the space. Neti, our bartender, remembered our names, extolled the virtues of several selections of beer, and even explained the Persian myth inked on her arm. We all took the plunge on her recommendation, Mother's Little Yellow Pill. There's no need for a drug test; this was a limited edition, draft only, Czech Pilsner from Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado, from which great beers reportedly flow.

As for the "gastro" part of it, it can be said that they make collard green egg rolls taste as good as possible (as a Southerner, I'm at a loss to explain my distaste; it is what it is), and their Angus Burgers, served on Ciabatta bread, rock. You put the gastro and the pub together, and... it works. The flavor of the burger bubbled up throughout the evening. In a good way.

And, finally, we come to what might be considered musical therapy. I'm certain much has been written on the subject; I'm too lazy to read whatever there is, and what others think in this regard doesn't particularly matter to me.

There are some things in life that cannot be solved. A light bulb burns out; you replace it. Problem solved. But often there is emotional baggage that we carry, either openly or suppressed. When we recognize what we're feeling, it's fairly easy to find music that works. We dance, tap our feet, clap our hands, raise fists, whatever, to the degree of extroversion to which we are comfortable.

Or, conversely, our emotion is less palpable, and we find its expression in a song that brings it to the fore. Rage. Disappointment. Guilt. Frustration. Fill in your own blanks of things that often lie suppressed, either unknowingly or set aside for a more convenient time to process. Music (well, music that I like...) resonates with something within me, and it has for a very long time. It's as if the emotion of the artist (words, song structure, instruments used, tones, solos, etc.) seeks things laid deep and puts them in a more recognizable context.

A song has a beginning and an end. An emotion has a cause, but not necessarily a timely conclusion. But if we are to take a leap and suggest that music heals, then there must be some resolution of the way we feel without other inputs. Without venturing into the workings of brain synapses, I confess I don't really care about the how. I'm just thankful that it is, and I'm just as thankful that people have talents to make music that in any degree, matters.

The last stop of the evening was a place where such things are capable of happening. That is Blind Willie's, a bar in the Virginia-Highlands area, named after a fairly famous Georgia blues artist, Blind Willie McTell. With further encouragement from breweries Stone and Sweetwater, we listened to a blues based trio play their emotions for us and another 20 or so gathered. This was The Tommy Talton Band, meaning that for this performance, it was Talton on acoustic and electric guitar accompanied by a tenor/soprano saxophonist and a keyboardist. No drums. No bass. Neither needed.

Often, emotions are put into the development of what comes to the listener as a studio performance, and, in concert, is often repeated to the note. That's fine. It communicates. But it's even better when musicians have the freedom and ability to tap a mood spontaneously and create. Sometimes, it's difficult to hear the difference. But in blues and jazz, more often than not, what you're hearing is not recitation but experiential... of the moment.

What resulted last night was a fairly jazzy blues set from a group that appeared very much in tune with what they were playing. The music fit the words. The words fit the music. The crowd and the band fit each other. Each musician played from a very cool, centered place that served each of the songs well. As the songs were written mostly by Talton, I doubt that most in the bar were familiar with them. All came expecting to experience something new, finding relationship between the music and their own lives. Was it the best music ever? No. But there was a truthfulness to it in spirit.


And, I might add, it was entirely refreshing to pay $8 without any accompanying Ticketmaster fees, and sit within 5' of a band with an unobstructed view. There's some envy there, as I couldn't help but be jealous of the locals who simply walk to and from Blind Willie's. Score one for urban living over the 'burbs.

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Quantum of Solace

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Looking over the movies I've watched last year, it would seem that I would prefer the heroic or the triumph of good over evil. I'm actually not as one dimensional as that. I can laugh at chick flicks like "The Devil Wears Prada" (though spousal input says at the wrong places), squirm at suspense, ponder "What Dreams May Come," or suffer through "Titanic" or, worse, "Sophie's Choice."

Let's take the latter. "Sophie's Choice" is a very fine film. Terrific actress. Terrific story. I saw it when I was in high school, no doubt on a weekend. It's the kind of movie that makes you wantfor school to hurry up to lighten the load. Why go see "Rachel Getting Married," "Revolutionary Road," or "Doubt?" This is generally why I don't see movies that my Dad recommends. They may be various shades of worthwhile art, but should one seek a state of depression and call it "entertainment?" "Milk" or "Slumdog Millionaire" - okay, I get that there may be an interest topically or a well-constructed movie about something to which you would not otherwise be exposed, and at times I'll detour to such. That said, I like leaving the movie theater emotionally rewarded. Happy.

I didn't leave "Quantum of Solace," the latest James Bond film, happy. The movie poster gives a clue. We're used to bond pulling out a small but effective Walther PPK. Instead, there's a shade of Rambo.


First, I love Daniel Craig in the role. I used to think Sean Connery was the perfect Bond, and perhaps he's close. Roger Moore... He certainly had some enjoyable films (Live and Let Die), but his Bond remains more or less a known actor hamming a role. I never looked at him and said, "That's 007." Timothy Dalton... pass. Remington Steele... oops, Pierce Brosnan. Glib? Reluctant? Meeting expectations too perfectly? I don't know. But through them all, there's a few common denominators: Q's gadetry, the Bond women, rapidly changing (scenic) locales, paint-by-numbers plots, and a penchant for puns.

"Casino Royale," which introduced Craig to the Bond role, may possibly be the best of all Bond movies. It scored on all the expected contents, and perhaps for the first time, introduced an actor who looked physically like he could indeed take on one or more bad guys.

To some, I suppose that wasn't welcome. When I saw an early review for this movie, Roger Ebert said something which did not, at the time, bother me:

"OK, I'll say it. Never again. Don't ever let this happen again to James Bond...Please understand, James Bond is not an action hero! He is too good for that. He is an attitude. Violence for him is an annoyance. He exists for the foreplay and the cigarette. He rarely encounters a truly evil villain. More often a comic a opera buffoon with hired goons in matching jump suits."

Well, that last immediately brings to mind "Moonraker," and I liked this movie far better than that. But he has a point. In this movie, Bond doesn't say a lot, there's ample tough action sequences, and it's humorless. Q, most recently played by John Cleese, is nowhere to be found, and the only gadgetry we find is a fairly rough and tumble car in the opening sequence.

It was maybe a week after this movie that I settled my opinion on this movie, and that, itself is telling. No James Bond movie should be a thoughtful endeavor, from the popcorn to the closing credits. But we come to this familiar character expecting familiarity.

Here, we don't really know. Bond has never cared for a woman before. After all, each movie is out with the old, in with the new. Has the loss of his "love" in the previous movie really impacted his judgment? We don't think so, but we don't really know. He says little. He's gritty and determined. He's an efficient killer. Is there a rage beneath underlying his actions throughout the movie?

I think this is perhaps where Ebert was right. Save the inner turmoil for Jason Bourne. I have no problems with a tougher, action oriented Bond. But other than the trappings of MI6, one could insert 008 or Character X and it wouldn't affect the plot or tone of the movie. This Bond could be (insert seriously capable hero of choice.)

Which makes one wonder. Character development is a strange detour to Bond tradition, and I wonder if it transitions to a new era of Bond or whether we'll return knee deep in Roger Moore's style of a wink and quip. I hope it's somewhere in between. In the meantime, I'd rather have skipped this one and gone immediately to what comes next. And left happy!

Oh, and shaking camera effects during action scenes have got to go. Duh.

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Wall-E

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I don't know why I don't jump on the chance to see Pixar films. Toy Story, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Ratatouille... all great movies in my opinion. We rented "Wall-E" the other night, and I harumphed but made time for it. Family movie, you know...

For whatever reason, the previews for this movie didn't create much of a desire to see it. But it's not like Pixar has every made anything actually bad. Even their lesser films, such as Monsters or Cars have some redeeming entertainment.

Names matter, whether it be a book, a TV series, a magazine, a movie, etc. Wall-E says little to invite much attention. On the other hand, had I known that Wall-E was an acronym for "Waste Allocation Load-Lifter - Earth Class," most probably would not consider it a positive revelation from a marketing standpoint.

Eh, what do I know?


Wall-E is probably the most imaginative and enjoyable movie I've seen in years. It has elements that I like... robots, science-fiction, futurism, cutting wit, thought provoking subject matter... and did I mention Robots!? One even has a cool blaster (also designed with the efficiency of an I-pod).

I'll leave it to the "New York Times" to get into a very well considered review of the movie.

For me, the movie spoke mainly to three things:

1) Great imagination (thus amusement) throughout.
2) The human traits of overcoming obstacles and aspiring to greater things.
3) The need for relationships to experience life meaningfully.

If you haven't seen the movie, I can't recommend one more highly!

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