Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Taxonomy of the Chick Flick

My lovely wife of almost 28 years, Debbie, likes a good chick flick once in a while, so it is inevitable that I am irritated once in a while. I guess she thinks there's more to life than gangster movies and Steelers highlights.

But the term "chick flick" is seldom qualified or quantified for us. Can the rules of chick-flickdom be codified? What follows here is my best attempt; I'm sure a more perceptive film critic could do a better job, and please feel welcome to add your own codicils in the "Comments".

1. Chick flicks feature actresses who are not too beautiful. I call it the "Meg Ryan" rule: any actress more beautiful than Meg Ryan can't make a living in chick flicks. Needless to say, Catherine Zeta-Jones would go broke if she had to act in chick flicks. Hit the bricks, Nicole Kidman, that porcelain skin and those long shapely legs won't do you any good here. Go make some more vampire movies, Kate Beckinsale. Cute is good. Pretty is okay. Beauty is not. Sandra Bullock, not Charlize Theron. Kyra Sedgwick, not Scarlett Johansson. And for you old-timers, Audrey Hepburn, not Sophia Loren. Chick-flick heroines must be "girl-pretty", a term coined by a buddy of mine. A woman is "girl-pretty" if girls think guys ought to find her attractive, but don't. It's easy to determine which girls are girl-pretty. If a woman were to catch her husband checking out pictures of Reese Witherspoon online, which is highly unlikely, she would compliment him for having good taste. However, if instead she were to catch him sneaking peeks at Jayne Mansfield's considerable decolletage, he'd get a lecture on the destructive effects of Internet porn. Reese Witherspoon is girl-pretty; Jayne Mansfield would have starved before landing any part in a Nora Ephron screenplay aside from evil villainess/bimbo. And the director would make certain to cover her chest.

2. Chick-flick heroines have usually been done wrong by a man. Divorced. Abandoned. Husband. Lover. Lecherous boss. Drooling teacher or professor. Mistreated. Or worse, underestimated. In "Legally Blonde", all bases are sufficiently covered by having an ex-lover *and* a professor/boss mistreat *and* underestimate the virtuous heroine.

3. Chick-flick heroines attract losers, but are not attracted by losers. However, sometimes the loser successfully conceals his losing qualities until the denouement. The scene where she tells off the loser is usually the second most important scene in the movie.

4. The chick-flick heroine is the smartest person onscreen and can usually see everything more clearly than any other character, except her own love life. Until she figures it all out. Figuring it out is nine-tenths of the plot.

5. Often the intelligence comes across as withering sarcasm, and only the virtuous male romantic lead is able to withstand it all stoically and with good cheer -- up until the scene where, against all odds, or reason, or good sense, he confesses he's fallen head over heels for the castrating termagant. Some chick-flick film makers like to propagate the myth that the bitchier the woman, the more virtuous and desirable the man she ultimately captivates. "You've Got Mail" and "Kate and Leopold" are chick flicks cast in this particular mold. A man would have to be out of his mind to be attracted to the protagonist feminist-castrator characters portrayed in these movies (played to perfection by Meg Ryan in her post-cute phase), but this sub-genre of chick flicks attempts to sustain faith in the existence of the hypothetical man who finds bitchiness irresistibly sexy. And why not? Somebody has to keep hope alive for the millions of women in Georgetown and San Francisco who imagine that they're just one apoplectic snit away from finding Mr. Right.

6. She's a brave woman facing the challenges of life on her own terms, and overcoming them on her own terms. She's almost always a professional of some sort -- usually a journalist or publisher or editor, or some other brainy profession that isn't too wonkish or geeky. If she is a techie geek, however, of course she's better at it than all her beta- and gamma-male geek eunuch buddies, who unanimously acknowledge her as "the best", even though it's effortless for her, whereas they've sacrificed everything -- social skills, relationships, a life -- to get where they've gotten.

7. The trappings of royalty never hurt. "The Princess Diaries" movies have proven that. Talk about effortless virtue.

8. It's great if the chick-flick heroine ends up marrying the rich guy (even better if he's royalty, too, but rich is usually good enough) -- but it's for love, of course. Everyone knows rich guys (and princes) are, in our egalitarian world, no more desirable than a sanitation worker -- but why take any chances? And be he a prince or rich businessman or idealistic lawyer, it's only after he acknowledges how puny he is compared to her, and how empty his life would be without her, that he wins the fair but choosy maiden. That's the first most important scene in a chick flick.

In my opinion, and for what it's worth, the best chick flick ever made was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- but it broke most of the rules listed above. Except for rule 1.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas 2010

As the song goes, “Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.” Well, no fire here, but the heat pump in the backyard is wheezing like a cheap blender grinding out its last margarita. Today, we enjoyed one of those Arctic-style Yankee storms that breezes through Virginia Beach infrequently when Chicago and Minneapolis are through with them. They can have this one back. Schools were closed today and we stayed home -- which is good, since the scariest thing in the world is a Virginia Beach driver in a 4x4. Around these parts, they think NASCAR is a Driver’s Ed documentary, and sliding sideways is no big deal if it means beating Junior to the Wal-Mart. Much better to stay home and watch “White Christmas” for the thousandth time on AMC Channel. But there’s something about watching Danny Kaye cavort around on a sound stage with Vera-Ellen that makes me think of Richard Simmons with a good haircut.

In March, I attended the Eastern Trombone Workshop at Fort Myer (Arlington, VA) again for, what, the fourth time? My buddy Ray Crenshaw from South Carolina and I are making a regular spring ritual out of going up to hear the old pros and the young students perform. Trombone-playing as an art form may be dying, but ironically the players just keep getting better and better. But this year, the trombone intermezzo was interrupted with a little side trip to attend a Tea Party protest at the U.S. Capitol, on the day before ObamaCare was passed. From all over the country, thousands and thousands showed up, finally tired of paying the piper and seeking to exercise their prerogative to call the tune. Cousin Jim Dise and I rode the Metro into downtown D.C., where I got to yell at Congressman Dennis Kucinich. It was a gorgeous day for a protest and the whole experience really spoke to my inner hippie. Problem is, at some point during the past forty years we quit smoking dope and started electing them.

Then, in June, Ray and I took the time for another trip, this one out to Elkhorn, Wisconsin on a quest for a new trombone slide. We got lost for a while in Kentucky and discovered mile after mile of beautiful horse farms, and not a glue factory in sight. We spent a day in Batesville, Indiana with my friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher and their son Danny, a budding sax player who plays in a National Guard band. Elkhorn is just a few hours’ drive from Indiana, and much of that time was spent admiring the Chicago highway system at speeds of up to 5 mph. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is an odd little resort town (like driving down I-80 and taking the Bahamas exit) where we ate dinner at a little beer joint along the shore. But having lived in the Midwest, I knew to avoid the seafood, and to be particularly wary of anything with the word “oyster” in the name (Midwesterners have very strange ideas about where oysters come from). The next day we went to the Edwards Trombone factory, where we met Christan, who helped me select the best slide to match my playing, er, “style”, I guess is the word that applies here. Christan is well-known in the trombone community and his advice is sought by great players from all over the world all the time. Well, this wasn’t one of those times, but still he was very helpful. Once we found the right slide, it was obvious. Even Ray observed, “Wow! That almost sounds musical!”

Debbie and I had been planning to take a vacation trip to Philadelphia in August, but she was seduced by the cruise prices and called an audible. So we took a cruise through the eastern Caribbean with some friends -- Ray (you’ve met him) and his wife Sonja, and Kevin and Ann Schmalz from Binghamton, NY. The four of them are all French horn players, so every time the ship’s horn blasted, they went running to put their right hand in it. Just kidding. We departed from Baltimore, a four-hour drive from Virginia Beach, only to pass right by Virginia Beach on our way out to the ocean. Cruise ships don’t do bus stops. Debbie and I had taken pretty much the same cruise back in 1996, and I remember having dismissed Puerto Rico as the “Cleveland of the Caribbean.” This time, it made a much better impression on me –it seemed very festive and exciting. Especially so, since the wives couldn’t wait to ditch us once we got ashore – in order, armed with .45 caliber credit cards, to terrorize the local merchants. While I was almost frantic with worry, they were blithely shaking down the jewelry stores. “Stand back or the Fruitz watch gets it!” Kevin showed us something I had never seen before – at noon, we cast almost no shadow at all, as the sun was almost directly overhead, a phenomenon of summer in the tropics. (Kevin and Ann had played in the Caracas Symphony Orchestra, so they had seen this before.) St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, is actually more shopper-friendly than Puerto Rico -- particularly for the gentlemen, as this gentleman prefers Scotch. Against my better judgment, Ray and Kevin talked me into taking a lift up the side of a mountain, and as we dangled hundreds of feet above rocky terrain, anxious thoughts of Third World mechanical prowess filled my head. Steel cable had never looked so fragile. And for what had I risked my life? At the top of the mountain were a bunch of touristy gift shops. Shangri-La with cash registers. One of the shops had exotic birds, the idea being to pose for a picture with one of them. One large white cockatoo only had eyes for Ray, and kept snapping at his owner when she tried to pull the smitten parrot off of his arm. In the Dominican Republic, some of us (Kevin, Sonja, and Debbie) visited limestone caves featuring pre-Columbian art on the walls and post-Columbian bat droppings on the floor, while others of us (well, me) explored the caves on the ship, particularly the ones with cold beer on tap. Ray struck up a friendship with some local musicians in Haiti, and jammed with them at the ship’s beach party. Ukuleles, bongos, and French horn united, performing Caribbean pop music with a unique undercurrent of Richard Strauss. Or perhaps Sgt. Pepper. On the last day, we said hello/goodbye again to Virginia Beach as we passed by en route to our final disembarkation in Baltimore, separated from home by fifteen miles and another day of traveling.

It has been another year of working for Virginia Beach Schools for both of us -- Debbie in the classroom with her violin bow and conductor’s baton, me slaving over a hot keyboard writing the computer code that helps keep the information flowing. We each have a second career, namely, to serve the needs of the furry aristocracy. We’re talking about lives totally devoted, like some perverse monkish sect, to serving vows of gluttony and sloth. Buster is a twenty-two-pounder who makes cans of cat food by the crate disappear, along with the occasional unwary mailman. And Buster loves Gabby, no lightweight herself at seventeen pounds, who despises Buster. So instead of helping Buster work out his tantalizing fantasies amid the awkward logistics of mad passionate Sumo affection, Gabby spends each day hiding from her waddling suitor. Don’t know what he sees in her. Recently, Gabby was knocking us out with some horrible, varnish-blistering cat breath, so we took her to the vet for a teeth-cleaning – only to be knocked out again by a bill for $680. Next time, we’ll try to save some money and take her to an actual dentist.

All in all, it has been another terrific year in our terrific lives together -- married almost 28 years. We are so thankful to the Lord for His many blessings. We know these are tough times and life could get very interesting in a bad way, economically or health-wise, as we are no longer spring chickens. More like tough old buzzards now. No matter what happens, we will do our best to count our blessings and keep the faith. The Lord has a plan, and though we don’t always know what part we will play, we need to be determined to play it as well as we can as it unfolds before us. We hope that you and yours will have a blessed Christmas season, and each and every day remember the glad tidings of great joy that moved the shepherds, inspired the wise men, and brought hope and joy into a fallen world.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Dog Ate Our Civil Rights

Did you know you could be convicted of a felony for lying to a federal agent? It gets better. Did you know you could be convicted of a felony for lying to a federal agent over a casual (i.e., not pertinent to criminal wrongdoing) remark, even if you were not under oath? You might reply, well, simple, just don't answer a federal agent's questions. If it were only so easy. Did you know that you can be prosecuted for not answering a federal agent's questions? Did you know that you could spend five to eight years in a federal penitentiary for falling short of perfection on any the above scenarios?

You should read this article by Solomon L. Wisenberg, of the law firm Barnes & Thornburg. Here is a synoposis of the article posted at Jerry Pournelle's web site.

Money graf:

[Wisenberg:] "Is there an intelligent alternative to lying or telling the truth that we have not yet examined? Yes. can politely decline to be interviewed by the FBI agent. Tell the agent that you have an attorney and that 'my attorney will be in contact with you.' If the agent persists, say that you will not discuss anything without first consulting counsel. Ask for the agent's card, to give to your attorney. If you have not yet hired a lawyer, tell the agent that 'I want to consult a lawyer first' or that 'an attorney will be in touch with you.' The absolutely essential thing to keep in mind is to say nothing of substance about the matter under investigation. It is preferable to do this by politely declining to be interviewed in the absence of counsel. If the agent asks 'why do you need an attorney?' or 'what do you have to hide?' do not take his bait and directly respond to such questions. (Do not even say that you have nothing to hide.) Simply state that you will not discuss the matter at all without first consulting counsel and that counsel will be in touch with him. If the agent asks for a commitment from you to speak with him after you have consulted or retained counsel, do not oblige him. Just respond that you will consult with your attorney (or 'an' attorney) and that the attorney will be in touch. And by all means do not get bullied or panicked into making up a phony reason for refusing to talk. You are not obliged to explain your decision to anyone."

Pournelle adds (but remember that Pournelle, to the best of my knowledge, is not a lawyer, and neither for that matter am I)...

"The law cannot require me to have an accurate memory; and since I no longer do, it would seem to me simple prudence to say that I am not sure of my recollection and therefore I don't think I should say anything.

"The obvious remedy to this nonsense is to bring back the practice that was standard for most of my life: that which you state under penalty of perjury is in fact accurate under penalty of perjury. That which is simply said to investigators, agents, hirelings and bondsmen of the various regimes is to be evaluated by the agent's experience and judgment. I was brought up on the notion that it was a civic duty to cooperate with the police and authorities, and I count it a major disaster that we have thrown that all away in favor of the rule of fear and terror. The Martha Stewart case was treason against the entire notion of a Republic: not Ms. Stewart, but the 'investigators' who ought to be dismissed and the prosecutors who ought to be disbarred and dismissed with prejudice.

"The notion that one can be prosecuted for denying that you did something that is not a crime to begin with is monstrous and those involved in that prosecution ought to be so ashamed that they withdraw forever from public life. They have neither honor nor good sense."

Does any of this really surprise anyone who was appalled when President Obama proclaimed... excuse me, no, when he bragged that America is not a Christian nation? Well, I guess we're not surprised. If basic Christian fear of the Lord isn't there to hold someone back from treating other people's lives like a singleton in a game of bridge, what will? Nothing, or so it seems. More and more, this does not seem like the country I grew up in.

It used to be that federal agents and district attorneys were well-respected members of society, and the presumption was that they sought justice. Now, it seems safer to say they seek not justice, but scalps -- and Congress has given them the tomahawks with which to acquire them. In this discussion at Pajamas Media of how the Violence Against Women Act enables women to use the law to settle scores with their hapless ex-husbands and -boyfriends, in the Comments section, the following post by someone who calls himself "Bond" made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck:

"I am a surety agent, bail bondsman and bounty hunter, in Michigan. My company does between 5 and 10 Domestics a week and about a 1000 bonds a year. My best estimate of Domestics is that roughly 95% are a shouting match with no physical contact (how do I know this, I get to see virtually all of the VICTIMS and they tell me so). A neighbor, in-law, child, spouse calls 911 and someone IS going to jail. Almost always the male.

"Out of 10 Domestics we see repeats ALL THE TIME. I would estimate 1 out of three will have a repeat within two weeks. Often it is a disgruntled neighbor, in-law, child or spouse trying to get back at the defendant and they see them and call and the police go pick them up, no questions asked. Don’t even need to be near the ‘Victim’ and the victim may not even agree with the re-arrest, BUT that doesn’t matter. It’s the law

"Currently I have a client who is at level 4 which is where the charge changes to aggravated stalking. He is in a divorce situation and to say his wife is angry would be putting it lightly. He has not seen his soon to be ex-wife since February or talked to her, but she has been doing things like setting up emails for him and sending herself nasty statements. Or she saw him walking down the street or driving his car somewhere and felt threatened and yes he gets re-arrested.

"The Prosecutor is well known in this county for being a horror show when it comes to Domestic and this judge is sort of an odd duck. In any event the defendant is now sitting on a $125,000 bond (I have never seen a bond this big on a domestic) and the prosecutor is trying to put him away in the Big House in Jackson with a plea bargain. Plea bargains are the norm and their [sic] are a zillion ways for a prosecutor to use this tool to twist the arm of guilty and not guilty individuals into taking a plea.

"From a guy in the trenches, trust me on this one, you are guily [sic] until proven innocent in the this country. Furthermore prosecutors have more power than God or judges and the system often doesn’t work as intended (good law gone bad). At least that’s what I see all the time. There are bad people and guilty ones at that, not saying there aren’t, but there is a healthy small percentage of people in jail that were railroaded.

"From my vantage point in order to be a prosecutor you either have to have to be born without a heart or have it cut out before you can become one. They are ruthless as a group in my view.

"...Oh the stories I could tell you."

Just remember all this the next time someone complains about a "do-nothing Congress" or "gridlock". Gridlock isn't a bug; it's a feature. It isn't like passing laws for the sake of passing laws is such a wonderful thing. The good laws were already written years ago, but Congress doesn't mind writing bad laws to keep their hats in. Every new law imposes both foreseen and unforeseen costs on citizens. And, when you cannot routinely expect prosecutors and federal agents to behave in an honorable fashion, those bad laws will be used against people who have done little to justify the horrible consequences that come their way.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Manners, Planners, and Ball-Peen Hammers

I spent most of my 26 year career in computer programming (Good Heavens, has it been that long!?) as a defense contractor, and one of our most sacred precepts was to be, above all, polite to the customer, namely, the federal government.  I have had the opportunity to work with (in order), the war planners -- U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and civilian personnel -- at a joint command (U.S. Strategic Command), the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a Naval shipyard, before settling down as a database administrator for a municipality.  And I cannot recall once, ever, being intentionally rude to a customer.  Now, I'm sure it happened anyway -- rudeness, I mean.  When I was younger, and particularly when I was under pressure (which seemed like, well, all the time), it wouldn't take much to make my forehead sizzle and my blood pressure percolate.  I'm here to testify, the federal government is a very trying customer.  But I fought against my urges, and for the most part, I like to pretend that I succeeded -- with a spectacular failure here and there.  I was certainly held responsible for my lapses and made to feel ashamed of them, as I should have been.

Now, I'm on the other side of the customer-contractor relationship, and at some point during the intervening years, something changed.  Maybe it's my perspective.  Or maybe it's the incentives.  I don't know.  But I deal with contractors now on a regular basis, and I haven't noticed that they particularly value anymore the old injunction to be polite to the customer. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Yesterday, I was explaining to a project manager for one of our vendors that, no, we cannot grant system administrator privileges to a service login -- it's bad architecture for their application, and it's bad security practice for our organization.  So we did finally arrive at a compromise, after some degree of wailing and teeth-gnashing.  After that, though, I got involved in a different project and of course there were still some emails flying.  It wasn't clear to me that I was required to do anything more, but apparently,I was very much expected to create a service login and password and give it to the vendors.  Finally, I got an email from the vendor's project manager that said:  
"When are you going to give us a login/password?  We are patiently waiting."
Now, part of this is the problem of email: it's hard to email a tone of voice.  But I maintain that it is hard to misread that remark; it seems very sarcastic.  It's what my sixth-grade teacher would have said if I were in arrears on a homework problem.  It's what my Mom would have said if I were eight years old and holding up dinner by having to go wash my hands.

Bolstering this interpretation is that others in the office had already dealt with this particular project manager, and so there was already a reputation there for authoritarian rudeness.
It's like the customer-contractor relationship has been inverted.  The customer is always wrong -- or at least always the obstacle to success.

This is by no means the only example I can tell of contractor rudeness.  It seems to make little sense from an economic perspective, but that may not be the way things actually are.  If a contractor makes promises to a particular office and then has trouble meeting their stated goal, the IT shop is always first in the line-up, first in the dock, and first to the Guillotine as the "preventer of Information Technology."  Nine times out of ten, your organization will side with the vendor, who promises the moon, over IT's own gratification-denying m.o..  If IT is successfully portrayed to upper management as the buzz-killing culprit, we get upbraided and the contractor wins.

Security is one of the big issues.  In IT, nobody wants to talk about security issues.  They cost time.  They cost trouble.  They force a vendor to think very clearly about what he really needs, and most don't want to spend the resources to do that.  (I ought to know; I was a contractor; I understand deadlines.)  If granting sysadmin rights saves time, the vendor will insist you do that and may just go into a snit about it.  A month or so ago, with a different vendor, I was having a go-around with their rep and insisting that they plan on not having a sysadmin-login for the application.  The contractor wasn't rude at all, but he did shrug and insist confidently, "We've never had problems with security."
Which is beside the point, because security is not their problem; it's our problem.  If someone sneaks into the system and starts committing electronic vandalism, who risks getting fired?  The contractor?  Nope.  That would be, uh, someone else.

I think some people are nice by nature, and can't be any other way, even under pressure.  I've worked with a few people like this, and they are a joy to be around.  Some others are not nice by nature, and can't be any other way, no matter what the inducement.  I've worked with a few of those, too, and it makes you want to hit yourself on the head with a ball-peen hammer just to create a welcome distraction.  (And at times, I fear, I have been one of those.)  But I think most people are nice sometimes, and mean sometimes, but tend to respond to the incentives to be nicer than they might like to be, or would naturally tend to be.  It's why capitalists are nicer than communists.  It's why customers are generally more rude than vendors.  As a counterexample, it's why post office and DMV workers have a reputation for rudeness.  But not every customer-vendor dynamic is the same, and apparently, that's what I'm seeing.

I'm a thankful man, or like to pose as one.  I love my job, I love my work, and I love the economic rewards.  And in this day and age, I'm thankful to have it.  Surely I can find the grace to accept vendors no matter how much they may try one's patience.  I'm happy I didn't respond in kind to the project manager, and believe me, that's casting against type.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Configured Code of Society

(I have been debating the merits of gay marriage over at Vital Remants in the comments section, and at some point in the debate became amazed at the lack of respect for tradition in the arguments in favor.  It prompted the following paean to conservatism, slightly edited, from me.)

Concerns about such things as hospital visitation rights are red herrings. The real goal of gay rights activists is for official and public recognition of gay marriage as normal, wholesome and mainstream. If the little solvable problems were all solved, that wouldn't end the crusade. They want the marriage certificate. Today, many have embraced the notion of justice in the form of gay marriage. A couple of generations ago, gays were persecuted, often even by Christians. Who knows where it will be in a couple more generations? Justice that depends on man's good opinion is here today and gone tomorrow. Some scoff at the Bible as the single standard, but the truth is that there are Biblical principles for treating women and slaves well. The word of God has a way of working itself into men's consciences and causing sin to come to a head.

Today, many have embraced the notion of justice in the form of gay marriage. The claim is that rationality demands it, an odd position for anyone to hold who doesn't believe in God. Anyhow, interesting that rationality has been taking it on the chin even in the halls of philosophical academia for more than a century. That's what happens when God is rejected as the explanation. Philosophers have tried for centuries to derive reason and morality starting with man as the foundation, and mostly have wound up eschewing reason altogether. I believe in a God that created reason and morals. Good luck finding an eternal principle based on personal opinion.

Unfortunately, gay rights aren't analogous to women and slaves. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that being a woman or a slave is a moral failing -- unlike homosexuality, for which such indications are emphatically present. If you believe in Paul's authority as an apostle of Christ, you are compelled to take seriously his condemnations of immorality. (If you think he only picks on homosexuality, though, think again.)
In a democratic republic such as ours, the rights of Christians and non-Christians are, or should be, equally important. Slowly but surely, the legal barriers to the gay lifestyle have all but disappeared. Christians can no longer require gays to live in a manner that they approve of. But that's not what this issue is about. The issue is about requiring society as a whole, including Christians, to grant approval to gay relationships. Approval is a different thing than tolerance, and that's where the line is drawn.
Why can't gays just be happy with Christian tolerance? I know the answer. Liberals love to destroy institutions. They live for it. Marriage is just another notch in the holster. Some institutions have needed to come down and come down hard, no question. In case of slavery or Jim Crow, break glass and use liberals liberally. But not all institutions are bad, and many of them are essential to society in ways we can't begin to quantify.
I've met a few liberal computer programmers in my line of work, but most of the ones I have worked with are conservative. In fact, being a programmer myself, it makes me wonder how anyone can be a programmer and not be a conservative. Programming teaches you a lot about life by rubbing your nose in a number of important concepts. The limits of human reason. The fragility of complex systems. The difference between desirable and possible. You can change one line of code and have it break the entire system in unpredictable ways. The scary part is that no one person understands all there is to know about these systems. A lot of what passes for knowledge is wishful thinking. I see this every day.
Society is a complex system, too. We conservatives have our problems. We can be callous, for starters. But if there was one thing I would change about liberals, it's their willingness to breeze into the configured code of society and start hacking on it without a care in the world. Hope and change and all that. The change lives on when the hope is long gone. Liberals need to appreciate what we already have accomplished and to realize and respect how fragile the system is, and what they risk when they figure wrongly.
(Vital Remnants is a blog run by Martin Cothran, a philosopher and author of textbooks about logic.  He appears to be a Catholic -- are all Thomists Catholic?  He runs a hospitable blog and loves to discuss many of the ideas I think are important.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to Lose Wealth

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit posted the following link today:
"IS THERE A HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE? Irate law school grads say they were misled about job prospects. 'As they enter the worst job market in decades, many young would-be lawyers are turning on their alma maters, blaming their quandary on high tuitions, lax accreditation standards and misleading job placement figures.'"
If you boil economics down to a tar-like fundamental substance, it amounts to this:  wealth is a function of knowledge.  Also, I suspect, vice versa.  If so, it follows that any economic policy or circumstance that decreases wealth also decreases the value of knowledge, which will eventually result in the loss of that knowledge.

In a thriving economy, there are lots of transactions.  Purchases.  Sales.  New businesses.  Mergers.  Acquisitions.  Plenty of opportunity for members of a fallen race to mix and mingle.  Therefore, plenty of opportunity for people to, well, screw each other over.  Hence, the law, and hence, lawyers.  The busier we depraved little capitalists get, the more we need lawyers to help us sort things out when the participants in a transaction quit singing, "Happy Days Are Here Again!" and start singing "Where Is the Love?"

And the converse:  the weaker the economy, the fewer the transactions, and hence the less demand there is for lawyers.

I understand why the law grads are irate.  But good luck suing the school.  They teach law, remember?

A year ago, in what I hope is one of my most tedious posts, I wrote the following:
"Economic woes tend to strike us at a primal level. The knowledge we have fought to acquire over the course of a lifetime has meant much to us in our struggle to distance ourselves from the desperate poverty that has dogged humankind throughout history. Within a few short months, a lousy job market can render such knowledge as worthless as a politician's promise. If the insurance companies go under, there will be no need for the actuary. If the software firms go out of business, there will be no role for the programmer -- or the DBA. We fear that we may need to acquire the knowledge of subsistence -- to learn how to grow vegetables and raise chickens in our backyards to feed ourselves -- and find ourselves at the bottom rather than the top of the knowledge ladder, worse off than the dirt farmers and food-gatherers who have been doing just that all along."
Thomas Sowell says the United States is headed for collapse.  When that happens, everything I know about administering databases will be worth very little, and so will the knowledge possessed even by the most seasoned lawyer about how to write a superb legal brief.  We'll both be studying how to keep the caterpillars off of our tomatoes and the neighbors out of our chicken hutch.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bad Dog Food

The indispensable Michael Barone, for Democrats who have ears to hear, explains why Obama's poll numbers are sinking like a meat thermometer reading in a dead polar bear. Barone writes:

"It reminds me of the old story about the advertising agency and the dog food. The best ads in the world failed to increase sales of the dog food. So they sent a market researcher in and found the reason: The dogs didn’t like the dog food. The Democrats’ problem is similar. The American people don’t like the dog food ('legislation that seems both necessary and proper to them') produced by the Obama Democrats."

The Gulf oil spill is part of it, but it's more than that. I've been voting since Nixon/McGovern, and reading William Buckley since 8th grade, and I've never seen a crop of Democrats this politically tone-deaf before. And I think I know why. They let the power go to their heads. They allowed Bush's unpopularity to be interpreted as their agenda's popularity. They think they won power on their own merits, and they think it's theirs for keeps.

And it doesn't help that they live in the Washington media echo chamber and probably don't even know anyone who isn't a liberal. There never is heard a discouraging word.

In short, they've adopted the psychology of royalty. Let them eat cake, and all that.

But this is a country that (still) holds elections. They haven't been thinking in terms that we (the little people) have the power to throw them out. They're confident in their ability (through the compliant media) to present chicken crap as a chicken salad sandwich. They think there will be enough liberal talking-heads who brace themselves before the cameras, take a bite, and force a yummy smile.

Only it isn't 1933 anymore. Or even 1980.  Big media is dying, businessmen are having to choose whether to sell their souls to the corporate-fascist state, doctors and nurses are looking at a career of being DMV clerks, lawyers are nervous about Congress' designs on their 401Ks, and the soon-to-be former middle class are watching horrified as Washington's mad power grabs and borrowing are turning us into West Zimbabwe.

Only three things can happen:

  1. American voters will drink the Kool-Aid and go gentle into that good night.
  2. Or, this fall and beyond, there is going to be an electoral rout the magnitude of which has never been seen before.
  3. Or, there will be a coup.

I'm going with number two, which coincidentally is the same number that the Democrats have been doing on the country.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pet Conservatives

The usually laconic Glenn Reynolds, of the Instapundit blog, uttered one of the most withering remarks in the history of punditry, at the expense of erstwhile conservative David Frum:

"I’m watching David Frum on Kudlow... and I’m just deeply, deeply unimpressed. A guy who poses as the only smart guy in the room really ought to be, you know, smarter."

Ouch. Remind me not to get on Reynolds' bad side.

There are really only two ways for a conservative to acquire mainstream news media attention. One way is to say something completely outrageous (a la Ann Coulter). The other way is to criticize a conservative viewpoint or other conservatives (Frum). Frum seems to be, of late, auditioning for the role of MSM pet conservative. He'll have to get in line: David Brooks already owns that concession at the New York Times.

Brooks is indeed the conservative that liberals love to read, and it's easy to see why. He's a thoughtful man, an erudite man, who is not content to soil his polemics with thoughtless talking points or partisan attacks. He thinks more deeply than the typical conservative, witness this encomium to Barack Obama:

That first encounter is still vivid in Brooks’s mind. “I remember distinctly an image of--we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at [Obama's] pant leg and his perfectly creased pant,” Brooks says, “and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.”

I mean, it would be easy for conservatives to settle for the easy, roughshod characterizations of Obama as a socialist, when the only substantive evidence we have is his taking over auto manufacturing and the entire medical economic sector. But it takes a deep thinker -- someone as exquisitely sensitive to the nuances of political philosophy as David Brooks -- to conclude that, when looking for a good president, we should quit hearing what a politician says or watching what he does, and instead pay more attention to who does his ironing.

Brooks tries to help conservatism by championing its most implacable foe since FDR. Frum tries to help by demonizing Rush Limbaugh, its most well-known and effective spokesman. These men are conservatives only a liberal could love.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What's the Difference Between Sarah Palin and a Terrorist?

Terrorists get better press.

Don't Change the Subject, Please

Ever since the passage of the unpopular Health Care and American Bankruptcy Bill last week, the mainstream news media have been having a case of the vapors over right-wing "violence."  While, doubtless, there are kooks in any political movement, some of us more cynical types believe this is a manufactured issue.  The Democrats want desperately to change the subject:  so, please stop talking about Congress' dragging America one giant step closer to Soviet Union-style economics, and let's talk about more pressing concerns, such as, well, those dangerously violent conservatives. And mean. And unhinged. And violent. Did we already say that? And violent.

Of course, Republican violence has apparently been a problem for some time. In this little known incident at the 2008 Democratic Party Convention in Denver, for example, anti-Democratic protesters threw bricks through the windows of charter buses -- sending some people to the hospital -- and dropped bags of sand off of overpasses and onto vehicles passing by. It seems strange nobody heard of this, doesn't it?

Well, not so strange really. It happened, alright. Except it happened not at the Democratic Convention in Denver, but at the Republican Convention in St. Paul. The protesters were not anti-Democratic, but anti-Republican. John Hinderaker writes about it here.

Funny how the narrative shapes the news, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

There's an Awful Lot of Quit in the GOP

I have been proud of the way the Republican Party has stood tall in a stiff wind and tried to block Obamacare.  So imagine my chagrin at coming across the following remark from Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas (from National Review's The Corner):

"There is non-controversial stuff here like the preexisting conditions exclusion and those sorts of things," the Texas Republican said. "Now we are not interested in repealing that. And that is frankly a distraction."
What the GOP will work to repeal, Cornyn explained, are provisions that result in "tax increases on middle class families," language that forced "an increase in the premium costs for people who have insurance now" and the "cuts to Medicare" included in the legislation.
So here's my message to Sen. Cornyn:  If you are not interested in repealing the entire bill, then I am not interested in voting for an entire Republican, nor am I interested in writing the Republican Party an entire check.  The polls show that 58% of Americans oppose this bill.  If the GOP can't turn that mandate into anything, then what good are they?  I'll stay home on the first Tuesday in November and drink martinis.  How's that for a distraction, Sen. Cornyn?

We are here today, at this tragic place in history, because too many Republicans thought they could get cozy with liberal initiatives.  America doesn't need two liberal parties; one is more than enough.

Update (3/25/2010):  I see that Sen. Cornyn got the message.  It's amazing what you can get from a Republican when you watch him constantly and have him cornered.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Euthyphro Dilemma Ain't What It Used to Be

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?
This question was posed by Socrates to one of his foils.  As posed to a Christian, the dilemma asks essentially this:  does morality exist apart from God and God simply decrees whatever it happens to mandate?  Or does morality exist because it is decreed by God?  The question is intended to debunk the notion that God is the source of an absolute moral standard.  If morality is absolute but separate from God, then God had nothing to do with it, so what need have we for God?  Whereas, if God decreed morality, then it is simply a product of God's whim and is therefore arbitrary -- i.e., not absolute.

As a Reformed Christian, I don't see a dilemma here.  Do you?

Attacks on the Christian faith come in all forms. Many educated non-believers think the way to beat God is to try to make his followers feel intellectually insecure. This is nothing new -- even Paul warned:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

As Christians, we stand on Biblical truth, not the cleverness of man, and thus have no reason to feel insecure about anything.  So let's take the dilemma apart and peek under the hood...

We can quickly dismiss the first part of the dilemma: there can be nothing higher than God, nothing that transcends God, no separate standard to which He can be held up, indicted or shamed.  Morality must somehow originate with God.

As to the second part:  does God actually decree morality, or is it simply a reflection of His character?
Consider this:  if there happened to be only one person in all of existence (including God), would morality then exist?  How much of morality presupposes relationships?

The Ten Commandments address the rules governing two types of relationships:  man's relationship with God, and man's relationship with other men.  Every commandment presumes these relationships exist.  Do not worship other gods.  Do not murder.  Do not steal.  Do not covet anything of your neighbor's.  These rules make no sense in a universe of one.

How about the Golden Rule?
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Again, this presupposes relationships, by explaining how to participate in good ones:  treat others with the respect you would like them to grant to you.

The essence of morality appears to be relationships, and how to get them right.   One could argue that even one person alone in the universe could sin against himself, but it isn't obvious how.  The sins we refer to as "self-destructive" are judged bad because of their effects on others, and because they are an affront to God's gift of life -- if there was no one else to be affected, and no god to affront, what then?  If the only person in the universe was an abusive drunk, he couldn't go home and beat up his wife.  If he was a drug addict, he'd have no job to lose.  If he was suicidal, there would be no one to mourn his passing, and no one dependent on him to suffer from his absence.

Christianity is the only religion in which not only is God eternal, but so are relationships.  As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- Three Persons in One -- God has participated in perfect relationships from the very beginning.  This means we cannot impute arbitrariness to God; He is eternal and unchanging.  This means morality is not some unknown, unknowable, abstract thing hanging out there somewhere in space, nor is it a set of arbitrary dictates issued by a lonely monadic deity.  Morality is the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other and have related to each other for all time -- and which defines how we, as God's creatures, should relate to each other.  In the Bible, whenever the Father speaks of the Son, it is with the utmost respect, deference, and love -- and likewise, when Jesus speaks of His Father and of the Holy Spirit.  Their eternal relationship would not have been sustainable for more than a few minutes without the sort of loving care they take of it.  They can no more afford to be arbitrary than we can afford to be arbitrary in our relationships with our spouses, children, and other loved ones.  When God tells us to love one another, He is asking us to do no more than what He already does, and has done for all eternity.

To be fair to Socrates, the nature of our Triune God had not been fully revealed in his day, not even to His  [the Lord's] people, the Jews.  It made perfect sense for Socrates to presume that a monadic god could be arbitrary or whimsical in his decrees.  (In fact, this is precisely how Islam conceives of Allah:  a monadic god who changes his mind about what is right or wrong.)  If God were monadic, then he would have been (at least for some period of time) the fellow we were just talking about a few paragraphs ago:  the only person in existence.  The very first time he created other beings, relationships would also have been created for the first time -- and hence so would morality.  So much for eternal and unchanging; so much for absolute morality.

So Socrates had an excuse; those who pose the question nowadays do not.  If morality is absolute, the only consistent explanation to be found is from the Bible:  morality originated with our Lord.  If morality is not absolute, we have no reason to worry about whether we're adhering to it, and no reason even to suppose we can know what it is.  Better to pose the question to the moralistic unbeliever:  if you don't believe in the Lord, why do you act as if morality exists apart from your own particular tastes, whims, and preferences?  And if that's all morality is, why are others obligated to obey it?  Having such frank discussions probably will not change their minds or hearts -- that's the Lord's job.  But it's our job, whenever possible, to give them pause.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Karen Carpenter and the Art of Singing

As a working musician, I have performed in many dozens of weddings. Probably more like hundreds. This necessarily means I have had to listen to many dozens of wedding singers. Thus I have had many occasions, as part of the captive audiences of these prim ceremonies that are part Judeo-Christian tradition, part Valhalla, and all middle-American kitsch, to ponder the elements of the vocal arts. It is a simple fact that there are more people who think they can sing than there are people who can sing. No problem -- I think I can play trombone, so I understand the dilemma. The act of performing music confers a certain mental and emotional "high" on the performer, and it doesn't really need to enter into the equation whether the performer is very, or even any, good at it. I have played next to trombone "players" that have made me cry, and I mean that quite literally. About twenty years ago, I performed Holst's "The Planets" -- one of my favorite orchestral pieces -- playing the first trombone part in an orchestra whose roster included the worst trombonist (playing second) I have ever met. Bad players are everywhere; what made him special is he could play badly at 150 decibels.   You can't ignore a racket like that, anymore than an Iraqi soldier in a foxhole could ignore the booming bon mots of a loaded B-52.  I wept.  But he was happy.  And I have felt like weeping at many weddings -- not so much out of joy for the radiant bride, but unbridled grief for my irradiated ears.  No matter.  Deaf to my mute protests, on and inexorably, insufferably on would march the joyous cackling.  The worse the wedding singer, the more apparent the ecstasy she radiates.  Sort of a spin on the old Lady Clairol hair-coloring commercials, in which an exultant female exuberantly proclaimed, "If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde!"  Except, the wedding singer blazes forth with the following practical manifesto:  "If only one person in this building can be happy, let it be me!"

Bah humbug.  The good news in all this misanthropy is it has taught me to love good singing.  So, as Paul enjoined us,  "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."  Which brings us to Karen Carpenter.

Over the Christmas holidays, my wife and I drove back and forth to her parents' house -- that's four days on the road, so we brought along a lot of music CDs with which to while away the time.  I brought along a "greatest hits" album of the Carpenters, knowing that my wife likes them.  (I have to temper my penchant for boring her to pieces with bombastic Shostakovich symphonies.)  It was such a pleasure to hear those old songs again, most of which were released when I was in high school.  But now, I was listening not with teenaged ears, but after years and years of musical training and professional experience.  There are many times I have gone back and listened to the music of my youth with more educated ears and, shall we say, more experienced tastes.  (Some might say jaded.)  And I can tell you this:  it can be quite disappointing.  A lot of music we once loved does not withstand the test of time.  (Once upon a time, I enjoyed playing Leroy Anderson tunes; all I can say about that now is the trumpet's infamous "horse whinny" at the end of "Sleigh Ride" lost its wittiness sometime around the 400th performance.)  A lot in the Carpenters' music can justly be dismissed as schlock -- the sappy arrangements, the late Sixties' stylistic elements, and to some degree the uninspiring tunes they made her sing.  One thing they couldn't hide under a bushel was Karen Carpenter's amazing, phenomenal talent.

I still remember the first time I heard her voice.  The Carpenters were on the radio, singing "Close to You," which was their first #1 hit.  It wasn't their last.  There was something about her voice  -- rich, warm, sparkling, intimate.  It made me (perhaps the most unromantic ninth grader in the world, at that time) want to sit alone with her and quietly hold her hand, and I didn't even know what she looked like.  American pop culture has produced many wonderful singers, but Karen Carpenter was special.  I consider her to have had a once-in-a-generation voice.  In my lifetime, I have been privileged to hear three such singers: Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Karen Carpenter.  Judging by the singers I accidentally hear nowadays when I can't hit the mute button quickly enough, Ms. Carpenter may have retired the honor. As one commenter on YouTube (where I found the video attachments for this post) astutely observed, "WOW, what a music, what a singer, what a talent... BRAVO; R. I. P.  Compared to the Carpenters, today's music is equivalent to waterboarding."

My wife Debbie was a music student at Cal State-Long Beach back in the early Seventies; Karen and  her brother Richard Carpenter had also attended that school, just a few years ahead of Debbie.  Debbie tells me (I haven't verified this) that Karen never got her music degree; she and her brother were too busy gigging, it seems, to bother with attending classes.  All I know is that at some point, she and her brother signed with Herb Alpert's A&M Records.  Alpert, the "King Midas" of pop music from about 1965 to 1980, earned his fame as a trumpet player -- his "Tijiana Brass" albums in the mid-Sixties had minted him millions -- so he knew a little something about pop music.  Alpert himself had made a #1 hit record in 1968, singing (not playing) Burt Bacharach's tune, "This Guy's In Love With You."  I can imagine the phone conversation Alpert must have had with the mightily prolific Bacharach upon signing the Carpenters:
"Hey, Burt, this is Herb..."

"Hey, Herb. How's it hanging?"

"Listen, Burt -- I just signed this chick and her brother with A&M.  You've got to hear this girl sing.  She has a voice that was designed by God Himself to be put on hit records."

"No kidding!"

"Yeah, no kidding, I'm serious.  You have got to hear her!  Do you have a tune she might use?  Maybe something Dionne Warwick hasn't already sung?"

"Hmmm.  A chick vocalist, huh?  How is her intonation?  Good ear?  Good rhythm?"

"Pitch?  Good Lord, man, she can hear the grass grow!  And  rhythm?  Why, you should hear her play a drum set!  No technical problems, none at all.  She's a pro."

"Wow!  A chick drummer!  No foolin'?  Well, I've got a little number called, "Close to You"...  I always thought it would be a hit, but that hasn't happened yet.  Dionne put it on one of her earlier albums, but it never went anywhere.  I'll bring it with me, if you want me to come down."

"Yeah, you should.... Bring it, and get ready, you've never heard anything like this..."

And here's how it turned out, complete with a trumpet solo in the Alpert style (a musician friend and wit describes Alpert as "the inventor of the short note")...

Alpert made his second fortune with the Carpenters.  (He made his third fortune in the Disco era with fluegelhornist Chuck Mangione.  True to form, he made yet another bundle of bucks when he sold A&M records -- in jest, it is said that the two biggest robberies of the 20th century occurred when Herb Alpert bought A&M Records, and again when he sold it.)

How to describe Karen's singing?  Analytical thinking is a blessing and a curse, as the act of analyzing something requires taking it out of context.  I have read that people listen to music with the right side of their brain -- the intuitive side -- until they become trained in music, and then forever afterwards listen with their analytical left brains.  So with that disclaimer, let the analysis proceed...

I sense that there are four basic aspects, or dimensions, to singing:
  1. Vocal quality; what instrumental musicians refer to as "the sound".
  2. Skill, or vocal prowess.
  3. Style, or rather, how successfully a singer reflects the requirements of a particular style of singing.
  4. "Soul", borrowing from the lexicon of the black musicians of a generation ago; this is the emotional, evocative component of singing.
Maybe there are more, but that's as many as I can think of.  To picture each dimension, try to think of a singer who epitomizes only that dimension, or whose one best dimension simply outstrips any vestige of the other elements.  For pure vocal quality, I think of Tennessee Ernie Ford, -- a singer of pop, country and gospel music popular in the Fifties and Sixties, and the avuncular host of his own television show.  Young people today have no idea who he is.  Tenessee Ernie had a magnificently huge bass-baritone voice -- gorgeous, but ponderous, so he relied much on its natural beauty to get his songs across.  Click on the link below and give Tennessee Ernie a minute or two to show you what I'm talking about:

The dimension of skill, I think, is exemplified by the great jazz singer, Mel Torme, who succeeded wildly, in spite of a having a rather ordinary vocal quality, by employing his virtuosity at jazz harmony to the hilt, with intellectual precision.  Let Mel show you how it's done:

The dimension of style defines the context by which the other dimensions are judged.  An operatic voice quality, for example, is perfect for the style of, well, opera -- but may not be appreciated in the confines of jazz or rock.  Skill may not matter so much in the rock or blues styles, but matters a lot in jazz and Classical music.  The archetype for style in the world of "big band" jazz was Mr. Frank Sinatra, one of the few singers from my parents' day still popular with the younger folks.  As you can hear from the attached clip, Frankie doesn't try to compete with Mel Torme in terms of vocal gymnastics, but delivers the musical message with his brash and indelible persona.  Sinatra defines the style.

And finally, the dimension of soul is illustrated with a clip of Janis Joplin's intense and deeply personal blues singing.  Soul, she had in absurd abundance, and little else; as my buddy Ray puts it, "Every time she sang, she took a blow torch to her vocal chords."  Her voice quality was that of a blown speaker; there was very little craft or apparent skill; the style, if it existed, was her own.  What sold Janis Joplin records (in great abundance) was that,  in every phrase she sang, she put everything she had on the line.  It isn't always pleasant; sometimes it's painful -- but it's always Janis.  Click on the video to take another little piece of her heart:

So how does all that help us to describe Karen Carpenter?  All four dimensions -- floored; all eight cylinders screaming.  In short, she was perfection -- or about as close as we can get to perfection in music.  Like Bing Crosby, like Nat King Cole, she was the complete package.  Her vocal quality was nothing short of sublime; she owned a deep, silkily textured contralto voice -- about as close to basso profundo as a female voice is likely to get -- yet she never allowed her voice to become thunderous or plodding.  Her skill was at the expert level; it's hard to tell just how good she was, because the pop music of the late Sixties and early Seventies was not exactly what one might call 'demanding'.  She was certainly much better than she needed to be.  On the dozen tunes featured on the Carpenter's Greatest Hits album, for example, I could detect only one passage in which her intonation was anything less than flawless, even though many of the melodies feature wide, even awkward, leaps in pitch.  In "Close to You," for example, the phrase "Just like me/They long to be/Close to you," contains a minor third interval followed by an leap, in the same direction, of a perfect fifth, which is then reiterated except with an accented suspension of the sixth resolving to the fifth -- treacherous ground for a mere pop singer.  No matter: Karen  was no mere pop singer.  She tripped lightly across the phrase like everything else she sang -- playfully, gracefully, and in tune.

The style of pop music from that era is forgettable, but Karen Carpenter elevated it, like everything else her musicality touched.  It's a shame we never got to hear what she could do with better material.  It has become something of a pilgrimage for successful singers nowadays -- even the hard-core rockers -- to make recordings of the old jazz standards and torch songs from the Forties and Fifties, usually with a big band kicking in the background; this vast and growing list includes such musical luminaries as Linda Ronstadt, Toni Tennille, Bette Midler, Sting, Rod Stewart, even Willie Nelson.  There's a reason for this:  the music of my parents' generation was far better than ours, and (it goes without saying) immeasurably better than the current generation's.  Song writers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern -- all possessed a skill at writing melodies that was only briefly challenged by the Beatles and no one else since, plus a sense of  lyrical wittiness that was last spotted years ago in a black and white photo on a milk carton.  By contrast, almost any Burt Bacharach tune (probably the best from that era) can be characterized as a series of short, catchy phrases best sung with a crisp, staccato delivery -- the style of the times.  Same with other Carpenters' hits such as Geld & Udell's "Hurting Each Other," and Carol King's "It's Going to Take Some Time." It's not bad stuff, but it is simply inadequate to the task of conveying any range of emotions beyond amused boredom -- emotions which inhabit songs such as, say, Hoagy Carmichael's classic, "Stardust", or Harold Arlen's "Laura."  It's like comparing "Doonesbury" to Van Gogh.

You can catch a glimpse of how Karen Carpenter may have fared with more substantive melodic content in only a couple of Carpenter's tunes.  Leon Russell's "Superstar" affords such a glimpse.  "Superstar" appears to be a song about the unrequited love of a naive young woman for a touring guitar-playing rock star.  Opening with a plaintive melodic introduction by a solo oboe (are oboes ever not plaintive?) and French horns, Karen schools the rest of the singing world by showing how to out-plaintive an oboe.  But then, after a heart-melting stanza, the song regresses to the last refuge of corny rock cliches -- namely, a chorus of syncopated encomiums to "Baby".  Such immortal lyrics as these plumb the very depths of shallow mediocrity:
Don't you remember you told me you loved me, Baby?
You told you'd come back this way again, Baby!
Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, oh Baby,
I love you, I really do.
Oh great:  septuplets.  It loses me somewhere around the fourth "Baby".  Makes me think of diaper pails.  Anyhow, don't take my word for it, listen for yourself:

Another tune that hints at Karen's even greater potential was "For All We Know" (Carlin/Griffin/Wilson).  It has a real melody, for one thing, requiring actual phrasing -- no problem for Ms. Carpenter.  I think this tune could have even been arranged for big band, with few changes (I think the tune needs an additional melodic theme or bridge of some sort, but what's already there is fine.)...

In addition to her vocal talents, Karen was quite a good drummer, earning kudos even from the irascible Buddy Rich, who wasn't famous for passing them out.  Her brother Richard was an excellent keyboardist and won several awards for his arrangements -- he did all the arrangements for the Carpenters.  I find the arrangements quite skillful, but ultimately too saccharine for my personal tastes -- Victor Herbert on insulin.  Sometimes, less is more. (Decolletage, for example, invites admiring glances, whereas toplessness can scare them away.)  But top-notch drumming and arranging can be bought for a couple hundred dollars an hour.  What the Carpenters had that set them apart was Karen's rare precious gem of a voice.  It would have been great to hear her in front of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, singing a few of his arrangements.

Karen Carpenter died in 1983 at the age of 32, from a heart attack arising from anorexia nervosa.  She was taken from us way too soon.  She had only just begun.


Jan 31, 2010 Note:  After some feedback, I've decided that I have probably been a bit unfair to Richard Carpenter, so I would like to backtrack maybe a little and clarify maybe a little, too.  I dismissed much of their output as "sappy arrangements" when I should have written "sappy tunes" -- a choice of words which does not place the responsibility for the perceived sappiness solely on Richard's arranging chops.  Later, I hit him perhaps with what musicians call "pianissimo praise" when I said, "I find the arrangements quite skillful, but ultimately too saccharine for my personal tastes -- Victor Herbert on insulin."  I stand by my opinion of pop music from that era (and it is an opinion), but I should add that the Carpenter arrangements fit right in.  Is that praise or derision?  Sorry, I'm just not fond of that style.  (To be fair, pop music hasn't improved since then, so that's another way to look at it.)  That Richard Carpenter did it skillfully is a given.  But, to me, it seems okay to wish that Karen Carpenter had done something a little grander with one of the very best arrangers from an earlier era, such as Nelson Riddle or Billy May -- and I think all of that would have happened had she lived longer.  The very best voices deserve to be heard in the very best of settings.

It takes chops to be a skillful arranger.  Being a critic (and that is the role in which I cast myself when writing this post) takes no chops at all.  But it does require a degree or two of honesty.  I have to call it as I hear it, and hope I can do so without ruffling too many feathers.

Also:  check out the comments section, where I am set straight on the history of A&M Records.

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