Sunday, May 31, 2009

Church music today

You can hardly go into a church anymore and not hear the influence of modern music. Even my conservative old First Baptist Church in Charlottesville includes an electric guitar and a horns sections in its services alongside the pipe organ. I can't really complain about this, as their is nothing in the Bible restricting worship to pipe organs and pianos (though I could have sworn I read something in Leviticus...). I do love the sound of organs, but other instruments don't detract from worship in any way. Maybe they make it a little less grave and awe-inspiring, but one does not depend on those emotions alone.

Churches have also widely adopted PowerPoint for displaying the lyrics to hymns. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, and a lot of advantages for churches. They can expand their repertoire to newer songs without having to add new songbooks or bulletin inserts; they can even do away with hymnals altogether, which I'm sure is a significant cost savings for many churches that are on tight budgets. The probably also appreciate the fact that the audience gets to look up, rather than burying their faces in the hymnals.

I do have one complaint about these PowerPoint songs, however: they invariably include the lyrics only, and not the music. Now, my musical ability is pretty limited, especially my vocal ability, but at least the hymnal gives me a hint how high the pitch is and how long to hold it. Having just the lyrics gives me no clue, which means that I just can't sing the hymns that I don't already know. It seems that a lot of other people have the same issue, because I usually don't see many people singing the newer hymns. Could they at least make an effort? It wouldn't be as easy as typing in the lyrics, but there are plenty of music notation programs that they could use, or they could just scan in the songs.

Here's the other problem with the trend to the new: Churches tend to have a lot of older members who remember the traditional hymns and want to hear them. At the same time, churches want to attract new, younger members who are more interested in contemporary music. So as not to offend the one group while attracting the other, churches include old and new hymns in the same service. That wouldn't be bad, but they tend to string the old and new hymns together, one after another. Anyone who has stood through old hymns knows that they tend to be a little slow, and singing all four verses can take a while. The new song immediately follows, with the congregation still standing. It has fewer verses and is usually more upbeat, but it more than makes up for this by repeating the same lines over and over and over -- I haven't actually counted, but I would swear I've heard the same line 20 or more times in a row. (You can read my opinion of musical minimalism here, if it isn't already obvious.) I suppose this repetition allows people who don't know the music to join in eventually, but it also means that the congregation has to stand up for going on ten minutes in a row. I have to confess that I've never liked standing up (and still) very much, but now that I have a bad back, I can legitimately say that it is not only an inconvenience, but a detraction from the worship that is supposed to be going on.

Why do they do this? I imagine that the church only has so many slots for singing, and they don't want to double the number in order to accommodate new songs. I have a suggestion, if any music directors or preachers happen to be reading this: allow the congregation to sit down during one of the songs. I've seen in done, rarely, and I assure you that people can sing equally well from a seated position.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Office cubicles

I'm sure I'm going to alienate a lot of people when I say that cubicles are not as bad as they're made out to be. It's true that they don't provide much privacy compared to an office, but would you have an office if you didn't have a cube? Almost certainly not. If you watch old movies that show people in a large workplace – “Double Indemnity” is a good example – you don't see hallways full of offices. What you see is a large room with desks arranged in rows, people working side by side with each other. In other words, if you didn't have a cubicle, you'd probably have nothing at all separating you from your co-workers.

It's interesting that the cubicle has become such a target for hatred. While I admit that you get minimal privacy in a cube, especially aural privacy – you can hear the noises around you, and your own conversations are audible to others – at least it gives you your own space. My current employer will not allow us to hang things on the cubicle walls, which is disappointing, but I'd still much prefer it to nothing.

Offices outrank cubes, of course, but not all cubes are equal. One obvious measure is size: team leaders get bigger cubicles than team members (which is reasonable, since they need to hold meetings in their cubes). Another indication of status is how closed off your cube is. Mine, for example, is completely open on one side. My boss' cubicle, on the other hand, is nearly enclosed; he has only a narrow opening for a door. It doesn't make much difference to the noise level, but I guess it gives him at least the appearance of more privacy.

Linux to the rescue

I got to install Linux on my wife's laptop through a convoluted set of circumstances. The laptop was having symptoms, such as never shutting down on its own, that irritated Tanya. After tinkering around and googling failed to solve the problem, I figured I could at least fix it by reformatting the hard drive and re-installing Windows. To my surprise, the problem continued -- more on that later. I told Tanya that there was nothing else I could do. Windows still ran, with quirks; but I offered Linux if she was desperate for a fix.

Under normal circumstances, she would probably never have agreed to have Linux installed. However, at the time she had a work laptop that she used most of the time, so she happily let me wipe out Windows and install Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron). Tanya is highly dependent on Microsoft Office, especially Excel, which she uses constantly at work, and she isn't interested in giving OpenOffice a try. Fortunately, Wine has progressed to the point that it can run Office tolerably well -- it crashes occasionally, but is basically functional. (We also only have Office 2000, which makes it easier.)

The Ubuntu laptop sat mostly unused for months, while Tanya continued using her work computer for almost everything. Then she lost her job, and suddenly she found herself using Linux all the time. There have been some rough spots, but hardly anything major. She does all her work the way she did on Windows; I've just had to make a few tweaks, for example, to get .doc files to open in Wine-Winword.exe.

Ironically, I think I figured out how to fix the error that originally caused us to give up on Windows. XP machines usually have the hard drive partitioned in two, with the second one serving as a backup. I don't know exactly what's kept on the backup, but I was assuming that it wouldn't affect a clean installation. Apparently I was wrong. I haven't tested this on Tanya's computer yet, but I was having a similar persistent error on my Dad's computer, one that made it virtually unusable (by disabling the administrator account). I tried reformatting the backup partition, and now it works fine. The thing is, the Windows reinstall disk that came with Tanya's computer does not automatically wipe out the backup partition! It's already a crock that they don't allow you to reinstall Windows without destroying the rest of your computer -- you have to put it to the "factory-original" condition. But even if you do that, it still might not fix your problem! And people say Linux is unfriendly.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cap and trade

The idea of a cap and trade emissions bill frightens me. The idea of a hard cap on emissions is bad to begin with, as though politicians could somehow pick the optimal amount of emissions to allow without imposing too great an economic cost. But what really concerns me is how these caps are going to be determined. The principle seems to be to cap companies at what their current emissions levels. Cyclical changes could presumably be smoothed out by applying the cap at an average of the firms' last three years, or perhaps the highest of the last three years (not that I think regulators would be so generous). So it might be possible to assign reasonable caps for an instant in time.

Then what? What if a firm opens a new plant? Who is going to decide how much emissions they will be permitted? What happens when a new company starts up? This sounds like an endless political struggle to me, with the biggest corporations using it to push out smaller players, and opportunities for bribery and fraud at every turn (see also this article in U.S. News). Normal industrial decisions will be dominated by emissions considerations -- not how to reduce emissions (which is fairly limited in scope), but how to negotiate for the right to produce more emissions. A whole new, giant bureaucracy will have to be set up to enforce the regulations. The initial bill is already 1000 pages long, and that's not considering the new volumes that will be written by the regulatory administration itself.

What, then, is to be done? Let's assume for a moment that man-made emissions are a serious climatological problem -- which I regard as far from proven. (Anytime someone says a debate is over, it is a sign that the debate is very much in doubt.) Why not just tax emissions? This would have the exact same effect of encouraging companies to reduce costs by using cleaner energy, but without setting an absolute limit. Companies would therefore be encouraged to undertake feasible emissions-reductions activities, while retaining the right to continue emissions at the current rate if there is no cost-effective way to reduce them. This would protect the American consumer from drastic increases in energy costs. Best of all, this system would not be open to political and bureaucratic maneuvering -- everyone would pay the same tax, so smaller and less politically connected companies would have the same opportunity as giant corporations.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The nuclear threat

You may have heard of the Doomsday Clock, which purports to inform us all how close the world is to a nuclear holocaust. In fact, it is mostly a convenient propaganda tool for those in favour of disarmament at any cost. No one really knows what conditions are likely to lead to a nuclear war, and nuclear physicists are in a worse position to judge than historians or political scientists. It has recently been extended to include the threat of climate disaster, as though to emphasize its political motivations.

The Doomsday Clock presently shows us at 5 minutes to midnight, which is closer to catatrophe than it has been since 1984, and one of the closest points in its history (see the wikipedia entry for a timeline). For the first time in my life, I believe they may be underestimating the threat. I don't expect a complete global nuclear war anytime soon, but I think the chance that nuclear warheads will be used in combat is higher than it has been since 1945.

The Cold War, especially in the 1950's and 60's, was a frightening time. Two hostile powers both possessed nuclear weapons, and there was no telling what little quarrel might escalate into a full war. At least, however, the nuclear powers were restricted, had full control of their weapons, and behaved somewhat rationally. I never considered the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) a satisfactory basis of defense, but its logic did probably prevent an outright nuclear war. Although the Soviet Union was an aggressive power, it wanted to dominate the world, not destroy it, and its leaders drew the appropriate conclusions from that.

The same logic no longer applies. Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, and India also have nuclear weapons (along with China, France, and the U.K.), North Korea has now demonstrated its capacity to produce them, and Iran is not far behind. There are more nuclear weapons in more places than ever before, and their control is more dubious. We have recently seen the frightening prospect of advancing Taliban armies seizing control of Pakistan and at least some of its nuclear weapons. The fate of Russia's nuclear arsenal has also been insecure, and I am told that the Russians cannot account for all the missiles in their inventory from before the fall of Communism. These, or others, might end up in the hands of "non-government actors" -- terrorists -- at any time.

But what most concerns me now is not the terrorists (that is a longer-term threat), but the governments that produced the weapons. North Korea could probably destroy much of South Korea, or even Japan, and Iran may soon be in a position to destroy Israel. One reads that they are held in check only by the certainty that they would be themselves nuked by America in response -- the logic of MAD again. But would they?

Let's suppose that Iran sends a missle or two to Israel. It's a small, flat country, so it wouldn't take much to make it uninhabitable (it's barely habitable as it is). Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, but it cannot depend on getting a counterstrike: the distance from Iran is too small, and the travel time for missiles is too short. They might be warned, but they might not. Let's suppose that they don't respond in time, and Israel is destroyed while Iran remains intact. Is the United States necessarily going to strike Iran with nuclear weapons? There would be a significant body of opinion in the U.S. against such an action. Remember, Israel is already gone; that can't be made good. Would you want to blow up 70 million Iranians just as revenge? Of course you would want to take out the government, but you don't need to destroy the whole country to accomplish that. And while the people of Iran have certainly been complicit in the establishment of a wacko regime, they haven't all been complicit -- certainly not the children.

So I don't think a decision to retaliate against Iran would be taken lightly. The president, even a Democratic president, would probably respond quickly and forcefully, but not necessarily with nukes. The same applies to a prospective North Korean attack on South Korea or Japan. Suppose North Korea just sent one missile, destroying Seoul or Tokyo? Would we retaliate by blowing up Pyongyang, or would we flatten the whole country? And how long would it take us to deploy the missiles or bombers to undertake the attack? If North Korea retained a portion of its nuclear arsenal, it might well threaten to use the rest if we retaliated. What if your choice was let Seoul go unavenged, or to consent to the total destruction of both Koreas? That's not a simple matter -- both answers are bad.

I fear, therefore, that nuclear weapons are going to be used, if not in the immediate future, then in my lifetime. Actually, I have felt this way for a long time. If nuclear weapons technology exists, someone will build nuclear weapons; and if the weapons exist, eventually someone is going to use them, MAD or not. I don't have any solution for this, as I have no confidence in disarmament (see proposition 1). The United States can protect itself to some extent by building a missile defense, but this is much less of an option for neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and India. There is also the possibility of the use of tactical nuclear weapons -- nuclear-armed artillery shells, for example -- or of small bombs delivered by terrorist attacks. I have no comforting conclusion, only to report that, given my analysis, I support the destruction of nuclear weapons in any countries small enough for us to destroy them, whether by covert activity, airstrikes, or even ground invasions. Israel has kept Iraq and Iran from joining the nuclear club for a long time now, and I think we owe them a great thanks for that. I also think we ought to assist them by every means possible to keep it that way. North Korea is trickier, because of the problem of Chinese protection. (Fortunately, nuclear powers Russia, China, and India all have Muslim minorities that make them as concerned about Islamic terrorism as we are.) The best option is for Japan to rearm aggressively, especially its airforce and navy (it has no need of a large army at this point), and be prepared to respond to North Korea's aggression on its own or in conjunction with the United States.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Catching up

A couple of additions to earlier posts:

I commented in an earlier post that most songs need to have a rhyming refrain. The Led Zeppelin song "Rock and Roll," which I happened to hear on the radio the other day, is a perfect example of a song whose refrain does not need to rhyme. The virtuosity and excitement of the line "been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time" carries it; to rhyme it would almost be painting the lily. (Since it's only one line, it's not clear how it could rhyme anyway, but that's another matter.) Few refrains can match it, however.

I have written previously (not on this blog) about churches with strange, non-identifying names, such as "The Rain Church" and "The Harvest Church" (both in Warner Robins, Georgia). I have since seen two more in Virginia, "The Rock Church" and "The Lighthouse Worship Center." The Rock Church has a cross on it, so I presume it is Christian of some variety (does "church" imply Christian?). I have no idea what the Lighthouse Worship Center is, however. It looks to me like they are deliberately trying to avoid being tied down to a particular faith by calling it a "worship center"; perhaps they're aiming for the deist crowd of people who think there is a God, but aren't quite sure whether He has written any holy books or given any directions on the best way to follow Him.

Finally, in a follow-up to my post on the end of the dollar store, I found a store in Greenbrier Mall (Chesapeake, VA) that answers my question of how they might deal with inflation: it is called "$5 & Below" and has much the same content as dollar stores.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Country and...?

When I was growing up, country music was known as "Country and Western." I don't know why it dropped the "Western" part. Perhaps it was deemed cumbersome to have two words, although it hasn't hurt R & B (then again, R&B flows more than C&W).

One thing it has never been called is "Southern." That makes sense, because you can pick up country stations just about anywhere; I distinctly recall at least two in the Detroit area, home of Madonna, Eminem, and Motown, about as un-Southern a place as you could imagine. (Although people around there did joke that the suburb of Taylor was really "Taylortucky.") Heck, even Detroit native and eponymous rocker Kid Rock has moved into country music.

On the other hand, it is kind of hard to escape the fact that most country musicians come from the South. I just checked some of the biggest names on this page, and over half were from the South. Some were from the Midwest (Illinois, Ohio, western Pennsylvania, the Canadian plains), but not one came from New York or New England. I'm sure that country music promoters are happy to downplay this aspect of country music so that they can appeal to a broader audience -- and I don't blame them -- but it is difficult to ignore the frequent references to Southern places in the music. Few singers are as overtly enthusiastic about the South as Hank Williams, Jr. ("If Heaven Ain't A Lot Like Dixie"; "If the South Would Have Won"; "That's How We Do It In Dixie"; "Dixie On My Mind"), but it is only natural that they set their songs in the places they know best; and love of one's home is a frequent theme, as one would expect in Southerners ("These Are My People" by Rodney Atkins, "Chattahoochie" by Alan Jackson, "My Town" by Montgomery Gentry, My Home's in Alabama by Alabama, Hey Porter by Johnny Cash, Chicken Fry by the Zac Brown Band). Admittedly, many of these could apply to small towns in other parts of the country, but in other cases, they could not. I often wonder how people from, say, Massachussetts feel when they listen to these songs, and whether the regional aspect doesn't make it difficult for them to enjoy it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I just sent a long fax that cost me over $30. There were 22 pages. For some reason, I can't ever seem to count the number of pages in a fax correctly. You wouldn't think it would be that hard -- I'm pretty sure I can count to 22 under normal circumstances. But every time I fax documents and write the page count on the cover page, I seem to be off by at least one.

I heard a song on the radio yesterday that had the following chorus:

I don't want to do your dirty work
I ain't gonna do your dirty work no more
I don't want to do your dirty work, oh yeah

Is that it? Unless there is some very fancy vocal work going on, you would think they could at least make it rhyme. I don't want to put them to too much trouble, but, sheesh. Yes, I am like the rabble watching Shakespeare's plays, for whom he put in rhymes at the end of each scene to hold their interest. I like rhymes. I don't think rhyming is everything, hence I don't care for rap (or hip-hop, or whatever it's called now) -- I do expect some melody. But I enjoy a song a lot more if rhymes. Two fairly recent songs that I like a lot, "Homewrecker" by Gretchen Wilson and "Before He Cheats" by Carrie Underwood, are good examples. They both have great melodies, but how much more satisfying is it when the lines end in complex rhymes:

Right now, he's probably slow dancing with a bleach blonde tramp and she's probably getting frisky
Right now, he's probably buying her some fruity little drink because she can't shoot the whiskey

The rhyme wraps up the sarcasm and presents it in a beautiful package. Without the rhyme, it's just some woman complaining about her unfaithful boyfriend. With it, its a biting comment. The chorus to "Homewrecker" gives us a bouquet of rhymes:

You little homewrecker
I know what you're doin'
You think your going to ruin
What I've got
But you're not
You're just a go-getter
I'll teach you a lesson
If you get to messin'
With my man
You don't stand a chance
You little homewrecker

The longer rhyming lines set us up for the short, emphatic ones that show the fight in the singer. Anyone can whine, but it takes an artist to complain in rhyme.

I'm very impatient about my music. Another thing I don't understand about songs is the tendency to repeat the refrain (usually just a few measures) endlessly at the end. Do they think it is so good that we will benefit from hearing it 20 times in a row? Don't they realize that the radio is going to play their song on endless rotation for a month anyway? I prefer meatier songs, with more than two verses (two or three seems to be the standard these days), and not a lot of repetition. The songs I remember loving when I was growing up, like Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler" or "Coward of the County," repeated the refrain only a few extra times at the end, at most. Ironically, I heard a song in the mall today from roughly the same period that demonstrates the exact opposite: "Shake your booty," which hardly seems to have any lyrics besides the chorus. Ditto for "Funkytown" and "Electric Avenue." Even if the chorus is really catchy, I get tired of it after three times in a row. Heck, I get tired of hearing symphonies, which repeat the theme exactly once at the start of each movement. I don't write the same chapter twice in a row, why should musicians repeat the same material over and over?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Late to the ball

Do you ever wonder how you have lived so long and not heard certain popular phrases? I had never heard "ho" used in its derogatory sense until I was in grad school, and I swear the people in my middle school and high school called each other every other insulting name ever invented. I thought it was a recent invention, but I learned from my mother that it was used back in her youth. "Junk" and "pacakge" are two other terms that I never picked up in school, in spite of the best efforts of my classmates to give me an education in sexual slang. Did I just never hear them, or are they relatively new? Or are they, perhaps, somewhat regional? I don't care about the words themselves, but it baffles me how I didn't learn them before adulthood.

On a more palatable note, I never heard the expression "over the top" used in the sense of "over the line" until I was 30. The first person I heard use it was Canadian, so I thought perhaps it was specific to that country, but I have heard it used by all kinds of Americans since then. The odd thing about this phrase is that it dates back to World War I, and it has a specific meaning: "over the top" was the command given to infantry when they had to come out of their trenches and attack the enemy. Because the war was so bloody and favoured the defense, going over the top was the last thing a soldier wanted to hear. I had heard it, but only rarely, used to mean an all-out offensive, with the connotation of a certain desperation -- risking one's soldiers in a desperate attempt to attain the objective. It's not at all the same thing as "over the line"; I can see how the meaning might migrate to that, but I think its use in that sense was probably the result of mixing up the two phrases.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama's outlook

Barack Obama became president under an unusual set of circumstances. Most presidents can expect to be praised or blamed based on what happens during their administrations: if the economy is good, they will get the credit (or at least will benefit from the good feeling in the electorate), and if it is bad, they will be blamed. One exception to this was FDR, who inherited a disastrous economy. Everyone blamed Hoover, and it didn't matter that FDR didn't do much to bring about recovery; he got a pass because the economy was a disaster when he took over.

Obama is in a similar situation on the economy. Thankfully, things are not nearly as bad as the Depression (despite what some people say), but they are worse than they have been in a long time. Because this started six months ago, while Bush was still president, he gets the blame. No one expect Obama to turn the economy around instantly. I expect that he will not start attrating much blame until the end of 2010, if the economy is still bad by then. Most economists predict the recession will last that long, so we may get a chance to see whether this is true or not.

On the other hand, the situation in foreign policy is nearly the reverse. People have widely criticized Bush's foreign policy, especially the Iraq war, but there is no denying that the United States has avoided a terrorist attack since 9/11. Since Obama has so roundly denounced Bush's approach to terrorism -- even changing the name of the "war on terror" -- he will be in big trouble if the terrorists strike again during his first term. (Maybe his second, too, if there is one, but that's too far for me to predict.) Just as it doesn't matter why the economy actually tanked last year, it doesn't matter why there have been no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 2001, and it won't matter much why one happens in the future: Obama, and his new policies, are going to take the blame. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Iraq. If Obama pulls out of Iraq quickly as he promised, the Iraqi government could collapse, become a revolutionary Shi'a state, and/or become a new haven for terrorists. Any of those things would make the withdrawal appear very shortsighted. (However, based on what happened in South Vietnam, I'm not sure how much this would affect his popularity outside of professional journalists and politicians; Iraq is a long way away.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Harris Teeter

I normally shop at Wal-Mart for groceries, but they don't have one near where I am, so I went into Harris Teeter. It was like entering the first world. The signs were all painted in a functional yet pleasant colour scheme. The person at the deli counter volunteered to help me as soon as I came near, and actually seemed anxious to do so, unlike the reluctant Wal-Mart employees. Instead of the cheap and overprocessed meats found at Wal-Mart, Harris Teeter offered a delightful collection of succulent meats, complete with many prepared meals. There was a nice salad bar, a refrigerator with an array of international cheeses, and even an olive bar. (That one really struck me -- how many different kinds of olives does one really need?) The shopping aisles seem enormously long -- I'm not sure to what purpose, but it certainly looks like they have an intimidating stock of items. The cashiers not only ring up and bag your groceries, they take your cart on their side of the register and unload the items for you first.

I've been in stores like Harris Teeter before, but only when looking for particular items that I can't find in Wal-Mart (or whatever the local discount chain is). It's very seductive as a shopper, and I could easily get used to it. Of course, there is a price -- a literal price, in that everything is more expensive. Actually, quite a few items were reasonably priced; I imagine that a careful shopper could keep the weekly grocery bill within bounds. But what a temptation there is to buy the many premium and store-prepared items. I'm afraid my days of shopping at Harris Teeter are over, since I noticed a Food Lion not far from here. Perhaps someday I will have enough money to shop at upscale grocery stores and not think about the cost of food; for now, I feel like I'm throwing money away if I don't go for the least expensive option.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Country Music

I noticed a long time ago that there isn't much difference between the sound of country music and rock music nowadays. If I'm surfing my radio and I come to a station playing jazz, classical, or rap, I recognize it right away; but if I come to a country or rock station, I often can't tell which it is until the song is half over. Country songs often have screaming guitars that would fit equally well in a hard rock song, and only a minority have a recognizably country instrument such as a fiddle or a banjo.

All the same, no one could listen to a country music station for more than a few minutes without realizing that it is definitely not a rock station. What are the differences?

There are some stylistic differences. Country songs are more likely to have a boogey beat or certain western-sounding bass lines. They also tend to be more formulaic: if you can't predict how a country song ends, you probably don't listen to much country music. But those things aren't enough to identify them distinctly.

What really sets country songs apart, I have realized, is the content, i.e., the lyrics. For one thing, there are few country songs in which you can't make out the lyrics, whereas rock songs are famous for having lyrics screamed incomprehensibly or drowned out by the music. I can't think of any cases of country songs which, like "Born in the USA," are often misinterpreted to mean something entirely different from what the singer intended. I think this is because lyrics are more important in country music: you also find very few songs with crypic lyrics or outright gibberish, such as the ones in "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Most country songs, like most songs of any secular genre, are about love. But country songs are more often about faithfulness in marriage than rock. I mean, not just songs complaining about an unfaithful spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, but songs in which the singer successfully defeats temptation (such as Randy Travis's On The Other Hand). Country singers are also more likely to express gratefulness about their position in life: their spouses, their children, the town they live in and the country they live in (Montgomery Gentry's I'm a Lucky Man). How many rock songs mention the United States other than to criticize it? There is hardly any country song of this variety; even when they complain about problems in the U.S., singers almost always express gratitude for living here rather than somewhere else. The gratitude theme extends into other areas: I believe country songs are almost unique in praising a life of hard work and raising a family. They don't sugar-coat it, for the most part, but they do hold it up as a worthy goal (e.g. Just Another Day in Paradise). Finally, country songs are far more likely to be overtly religions (strictly Christian, as far as I can tell), but, far from being sentimental schlock as the culture mavens would have you believe, they are often filled with honest scepticism as well as sincere faith (Lonestar's I Pray or Brooks and Dunn's Believe).

The academic in me wants to pile up more citations to prove my case, but I'm not trying to prove it, really; I just want to point it out, and give some examples to show what I'm talking about. The point is that country music commonly praises what used to be quaintly known as "virtues," and this, rather than strictly musical qualities, separate it most distinctly from rock.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Free libraries

I read recently that someone was proposing to abolish funding for libraries, on the grounds that they are not needed now that we have the internet around. It is true that much reference information is available on the internet, at significantly greater convenience than going to a library. However, the suggestion overlooks the fact that many people rely on the library for their internet access. It also misses the obvious point that libraries still lend out books, and very few new books are available for free online.

I think the suggestion is flawed in thinking that the internet is (yet) a replacement for libraries, but it is worth considering on its own merits. Why do we need libraries? The obvious disadvantage to libraries is that they discourage people from buying books. I occasionally read about declining book sales in America, and surely having nice libraries only contributes to the trend. I am certain that I have read some books in the library that I would otherwise have bought.

Of course, that's not the end of it. I have also read some books in the library that I would not have bought, so the amount of "social information"(1) has been increased. Moreover, some people can scarcely afford books at all, so libraries perform a useful function in bringing knowledge to them, even if it means that more affluent people buy fewer books, decreasing the total amount of book sales. The decrease in book sales is also partially offset by the price that publishers charge libraries, which is usually significantly higher than the price they charge individuals. I wish I knew more about the different rates; I can't say whether the higher price is intended to cover completely lost book sales, or if it is just a partial compensation.

Then, too, many academic books (including both of mine) wouldn't be bought at all if it weren't for libraries. It's typical nowadays for an academic book to retain for over $100, sometimes over $200 -- and remember, I'm not talking about coffee table books, just books with lots of words and footnotes. No one in his right mind would buy that for his personal collection. Arguably, these books shouldn't be published; I've certainly read some books that I can't imagine anyone ever using. Since the decision is up to the collection managers in libraries, rather than to the market, it's difficult to tell whether the library is making the right choice in buying obscure books. If publishers didn't have the library market, would they be able to produce versions cheap enough for scholars to buy on their own?

Libraries seem to provide social value, and I certainly love them. I've spent a lot of time either working in them or visiting them, and I still get a thrill whenever I walk into a library and think of all the books for me to read. I even met my wife in the library. I'm not sure that they're a good investment, however. If people had to buy books that they wanted to read, publishers would certain sell a lot more books; that means prices would be lower, and more books would be published that are rejected today. One difficulty is that it is impossible to stop people from sharing books. This is what they did before public libraries were common: a patron with a large collection would allow scholars to come use his books. (Cardinal Mazarin, the subject of my first book, in fact had one of the largest collections in Europe, and he donated it to the crown to form what became the Bibliothèque Nationale.) So getting rid of public libraries might not mean the end of book borrowing in general; it could just move it to the private market.

This issue is becoming ever more relevant with the internet, because it is easier than ever to copy a book virtually for free and give it to someone else. You can already download thousands of books whose copyright has expired at the Gutenberg Project. This doesn't completely eliminate the need for books (reading paper is still much more convenient, and easier, that reading a computer screen), but we're getting close. On one hand, this is obviously a good thing: the authors, probably all long since dead, lose nothing, and individuals gain a great amount by having access to more books. On the other hand, what is the incentive to write books if no one is going to pay for them? Will authors have to be funded by patrons -- wealthy individuals or institutions -- as in the past? Libraries belong in the past in one sense -- they house printed books that are becoming easily available in other formats -- but they belong to the future in another sense -- they suggest the apparent difficulty that the spread of knowledge seems to discourage its production.

1) That is, the sum of all the information in everyone's heads (so that the same information in two heads counts twice), or, to put it in units, the amount of “person-information.”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Running amok

English is known as a language that has adopted freely from other languages. Not only is our grammar Germanic and our vocabulary chiefly French, but we also have numerous words from Spanish, Italian, and many other languages. Some of our most remote adoptions come from Malay, which is spoken about as nearly on the other side of the world as one can get from America. Apart from various animals and plants (notably bamboo, dugong, and orangutan), Malay has given us two common nouns and one adjective.
  • amok: To run amok is to attack wildly in all directions. Apparently, some Malays occasionally snap and begin an actual frenzied attack on everyone around them.
  • boondocks: It surprised me when I learned that this word was Malay, because it sounds perfectly English, and I hear it most from country folk (who actually live in the boondocks), where older words tend to persist. This word must fulfill a lacuna in English, because the only equivalent words are the derivative "boonies" and the expression "in the sticks," which doesn't sound nearly as isolated. (I've always wondered what the "sticks" are supposed to refer to.)
  • ketchup: Perhaps the most interesting word of Malay origin, and certainly the most common, is ketchup. It comes from a phrase meaning "fish sauce," but not in the sense that you might think: it was not originally a sauce for fish, but a sauce made from fish. I learned this interesting tidbit from Mark Kurlansky's book Salt: A World History. Back when salt was needed to preserve food, and pickling was used on everything, pickled fish was used as a kind of sauce, like soy sauce. The English added tomatoes in the 18th century.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Air conditioning

Our Ford Windstar has two settings for air conditioning, regular and "max." We had always assumed that "max" meant the compressor would work harder, hence using more gas, so we rarely used it. That is, until one day another Ford owner pointed out to us that "max" simply means that the vehicle re-circulates the interior air, rather than bringing in new air from outside. This is documented in the manual, but it isn't exactly intuitive; why couldn't they simply say what it does?

My truck has this feature, but it has a separate button: you can run any of the air conditioner settings with or without the air recirculating. And I was able to infer the meaning of the button without the assistance of a friend. It does make me wonder, though: if the air recirculates, wouldn't you be breathing the same stale air? How long would it be before that became a problem? I found a site demonstrating that adults inhale 8-10 liters of air per minute. (That's about 8 1/2 to 10 1/2 quarts, or a little over two gallons. Darn metric system.) That's not very much, but it could become a lot quickly: after just 10 minutes, it would be 20 gallons, and after an hour, 60. If there are two people in the car, make it 120. Surely that would have to be a significant portion of the air in a regular car (not a van or suv), so that your oxygen intake would be getting pretty thin.

Obviously, that doesn't happen. Not only doesn't it happen, there probably isn't the remotest chance of its happening, or the car companies would be risking major lawsuits (and hence wouldn't allow that option). I suppose, therefore, that cars must leak a lot of air. And that makes me wonder just how much air gets introduced into a vehicle in a given period of time, but I have no idea on that count.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Everyone has the experience of falling. In the end, it is usually no big deal: you fall, you scrape your hand or your knee, and you forget about it. But there is always one moment when you realize that your immediate reactions have failed, and you are now hurtling uncontrollable downward. You get an empty feeling in your stomach as your realize that your are out of control, and do not know where you will land or how much it will hurt. The feeling only lasts an instant, but it is one of the most helpless and scary feelings in the world.

Moving is kind of like that. The feeling is less intense, of course, because you do know where you are going, and there is no sudden pain associated with a sudden fall. It does seem, however, similar to me. After 8 previous moves, I still feel it, and probably more intensely this time than any of the others. At least on the other occasions, I had a clear destination, and I usually knew what I was going to be doing when I got there. In my present case, the uncertainty is greatly enhanced because I don't have any idea where I will end up. I hope it will be in Virginia, but that's not clear, and it's pretty broad in any case. I don't know what kind of job I will end up with, or even if I will have a job at all. We're living in my parents' second house, which is fully furnished with their things. Most of our belongings are still in Georgia in storage, so I don't even have the (admittedly weak) comfort of knowing that, although I may not be able to find something I need, at least it is in a box somewhere. And now I am staying in Chesapeake during the workweek, leaving my wife to look after our kids on her own (and they are a handful).

It's not all bad. I'm glad to have a job, and I'm very glad to be back in Virginia and to have a chance to see my friends and family more. But I don't think I'll get rid of that feeling in my stomach until we have found a permanent place to stay and permanent occupations.

Silly song idea: "I'm a Bad Buoy (Leading Your Boat to Danger)."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Dumb slogans II

I am an avid Southern partisan. The more I have studied the issue, the more it seems clear to me that the South was fully within its rights to secede from the Union. I can't see how a nation that owes its existence to breaking away from Great Britain can deny that right to the supposedly sovereign entities that compose it. The usual justification is that the South was evil because it had slaves. Destroying evil institutions is a good thing, but it is dangerous to suggest that the ends justify the means. Legally, constitutionally, what the North did was wrong, and Lincoln did not for a moment justify his actions on the basis of the good that would come from freeing slaves. It is good that slaves were freed, but this was, for contemporaries, an incidental outcome of the war to save the union.

Which makes me all the more frustrated that Southerners today have come to employ a dumb slogan like "Heritage, Not Hate." It's good to have a slogan to get across the point that your motives are not bad like your opponents claim, but why would you want to give your opponents a voice in that very slogan? How can you see "Heritage, Not Hate" and not think about hate? Rationally, you might conclude that the person with the bumper sticker (or other means of display) cares about the South in its positive aspects and is not reflecting an atavistic racism; viscerally, however, you see the word "hate" and associate it with the Confederate battle flag. Compare this to Barack Obama's slogan in the last election. He didn't say, "Share the Weath, Not Socialism." That would just have associated him with socialism all the more. He said, "Yes We Can." If I were trying to come up with a saying in support of Southern heritage, it's message would be, "I love the South, blacks as well as whites." Unfortunately, I have not been able to encapsulate this message in a pithy phrase, but I feel certain that, if one could, it would do far more for the South than thousands of "Heritage, Not Hate" bumper stickers would.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dumb political slogans

The most annoying political slogan (or catchphrase) I have ever heard is "compassionate conservatism." It annoys me because I am a conservative, and, right away when you hear it, you are led to infer that regular conservatism is not compassionate. This is no subtle logic required to reach this conclusion; it is inherent in the phrase. It irritates me to no end that a Republican, and supposedly conservative, president, would use this phrase and thereby confirm everything that liberals have been saying about conservatism -- that it is a cold-hearted ideology.

There is a parallel phrase on the left: "socialism with a human face," as though regular socialism was inhuman. (It is, but that's another matter.) If anything, this slogan is even worse, because the change it suggests is, by implication, only on the surface; socialism will remain what it is, but it will put on a smile to attract more followers. And although the slogan was coined by a Czech leader, the mere awareness of it outside of Czechoslovakia makes it an implicit criticism to socialism everywhere.

What if one wanted to emphasize the compassionate aspects of conservatism, but wanted to avoid the phrase "compassionate conservatism"? I don't have a catchy slogan, but it would have to emphasize the compassionate face of conservatism (implying that, although it has sides that are less compassionate, at least one aspect of it is already compassionate). I would also want to explain why I was choosing to emphasize compassion over other aspects of conservatism. After all, why shouldn't it be compassionate all the time? The reason must be that there is an appropriate time for compassion -- for example, after conservatism's hard-edged virtues had won the Cold War. So I would loudly announce that (for example), having won the Cold War, it was time for the nation to turn to the other side of the winning doctrine: the compassionate side. Not that I think there is a meaningful distinction between compassionate and non-compassionate conservatism; I'm just offering this as a proposition.

Obama's slogan, "Yes, We Can" is brilliant. It is positive and immediately throws anyone opposed to his programs on the defensive -- not only as obstructionists, but as people who doubt the capability of America to achieve great things. The opposition immediately becomes those who believe "No, We Can't," unless they can counter with an equally clever slogan that avoids creating a negative impression. (I don't have any ideas.) This slogan also happens to be the one used by Bob the Builder ("Can we build it? Yes, we can!"). I am shocked that no one, including conservatives, has noticed this connection. It ought at least to be good for mocking in editorial cartoons. I can't help thinking that if it were a Republican's slogan, we would be hearing about how he is setting himself up as a cartoon figure.