Monday, January 29, 2007

Time Warp (selling my turntable)

I sold my Thorens TD-160 turntable the other day. While I was well aware that there are a lot of folk out there who still believe in the LP, I didn’t expect to get ten responses to my Craig’s List ad in less than an hour. Part of it was that I only asked about a hundred dollars. Yes, there are people who get two hundred and fifty dollars for the thing, but I reasoned that these are mechanical devices and I’d used mine a lot. Motors wear out, bearings become less than round, and the whole three point suspension thing doesn’t work after a while. Along with it, I sold the two hundred plus albums that were still taking up some five feet of shelf space in my study.

It had been almost ten years since I listened to records much.. It wasn’t the audio quality. In fact, I put on a Sade Album and a Ben Webster album for a bit just to make sure the thing still worked and was genuinely surprised. Analogue aficionados love to talk about the organic integrity of a good record. You hear the space between instruments and sounds and at its best the music has body. That’s not to say that this can’t happen with digital, but analogue at its best projects a kind of solidity and warmth that's very appealing.

Over the last few months, I’d even given up listening through my CD player. Some audiophiles feel the best way to store digital information is on a computer hard drive. I haven’t gone high end with my computer, but I’ve been playing with APE, Flac, 320 bit mp3, etc. I’m not sure it sounds better, but it’s even more convenient than CD’s and CD’s were dramatically more convenient than record albums. I never liked the tweakiness of turntables. You had to worry about vibration, scratches, ground loops, dust, and odd little humming noises constantly. There was also the whole matter of having to get up every eighteen minutes to change the record. When I started realizing that I wasn't even listening to CD's as much anymore, it struck me that LP's are pretty much like 78's were when I was a child.

Still, it was a sad event. I had a lot of time to myself when I was in my twenties. I’m not terribly social by nature and so I gravitated to browsing record stores and listening to audio equipment. As I peeled through my record collection, I found myself smelling the jackets of my very teutonic Deutsche Gramophon pressings with their precise yellow spines and liner notes in three languages. DG’s never sounded as good as say Phillips or old RCA’s, but there was always a kind of craftsmanship to their production that evoked a lost era. For instance, I can’t imagine people treasuring the first pressing of a CD.

I remembered how I used to read liner notes over and over and how I came to understand that album cover art was its own genre. I also felt real pangs of guilt as I went through some of the music I had that never found on digital, like David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir "Hearing Solar Winds", Philly Joe Jones two Tadd Dameron tributes, the whole Artist’s House jazz label which included some of the most beautifully produced albums of relatively neglected musicians in the late seventies. Because budget records were regularly 1.99, I also experimented a lot more and learned to like composers like Elliot Carter and Ferdinand Sor. Something about records comforted my most compulsive instincts and over twenty years I probably spent thousands of hours either looking to feed my turntable or playing it.

A couple years ago, my neighbor’s wife bought him an old restored pinball machine for Christmas. While pinball machines can still be found, they lost out to the digital video games. Like records, there were irritating things about pinball. The bumpers depended on springs and rubber which eventually wore out. A machine that had been recently tuned had a tactile pleasure that event he most complex video fantasy will never match. On those rare occasions when I’d get lucky and get on a roll of sorts, the bells would be ringing, the lights flashing, and it would seem that my fingers knew the exact moment to catch the ball before it had a chance to drain through the one inch space between them. Video games just don't have the "tweakiness" of your catching them on that magic day when everything is aligned just right. Instead they have Easter Eggs, hidden tips and tricks, and endless levels.

Looking back, I realize that the pleasure of records and pinball had a lot to do with their place as the pleasure pinnacle of the electro-mechanical age that I grew up in. There was this tiny needle negotiating these bumps in the grooves of thin disk of vinyl and if it was set up just right, this enormous sound would come out of my speakers. I remember once even going to my college library listening room and hearing a transcription of an old wax cylinder of Brahms playing the piano (you can still do this on an MP3), and realizing that these were vibrations that Brahms had created with his hands still preserved acoustically a hundred years later. Where my Grandfather remembered the first time he saw a car or flew in an airplane, I'm going to remember pinball and records.

In particular, my Grandfather collected mechanical clocks. He loved their intricacy and the fact that when he was a boy a large, beautifully-crafted clock, was the epitome of wealth in the pre-electrical machine age. Most days, he would wander the house and wind them all with his collection of keys that he kept in a drawer next to a polishing rag in the Ancestor room. As he did his rounds, he would note just how far each of his treasures had deviated from its fellows.

The Thorens wasn't part of that age, but perhaps because it was Swiss it had some of the same sense of intricate precision. The technology of the time wore out, yet those who strove to build the best tried to delay that fact as long as possible. I can't imagine any of my digital devices still working perfectly thirty years from now. For one thing, they keep changing the freaking operating systems. I also remember the way the people who worked on analogue audio seemed to be half-mad scientist and half-magician.

My friend Bill Westerfield wound up doing the modifications to my Thorens. He had a masters in psycho-acoustics from Columbia, had been a talented enough musician as a child to attract the friendship of Leonard Bernstein, and talked constantly about the way the audio-engineering of the time didn't have the measurements to understand everything that happens in the reproduction of sound. He had also suffered from a very severe case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis which stunted his life. Much of the time he was in severe pain and took dozens of aspirin and other medications (over the counter and not so over the counter) to deal with his physical ailments. Bill was a visionary who was constantly frustrated by his own physical limitations. In short, he was the perfect metaphor for the analogue era of music reproduction. My biggest regret in letting the turntable go is that it was a reminder of my friendship with Bill and his wife/girlfriend Claudia. The amp he built for me literally blew up almost fifteen years ago. Bill was actually the reason that I held on to the turntable as long as I did. I could still hear him yelling at me "You don't want to let this go. This is good stuff."

At the end of his life, I remember my grandfather complaining that meat just didn't taste the same anymore, something that may actually have been true with the introduction of anit-biotic feeds, different packaging, etc. Even though, I let LPs pass out of my life, I can imagine myself at some soon to be very old age complaining that recorded music has lost something. Maybe it didn't sound better, but there was a level of workmanship and a zen-like respect for the devices that played your music built into the experience of the well-made turntable that may be forever lost.


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Saturday, January 27, 2007

American Idol 6-State of the Union Week

I turned on the Memphis auditions for American Idol on Tuesday night and there was Ryan Seacrest talking to America about alternative energy sources, global climate change, and how to save the health care system through tax deductions. Even though he smirked every now and then along with Dick Cheney who happened to be in the audience I think because Ryan is the donor for the vice- president’s soon to be next grandchild, little Defense of Marriage Cheney, Ryan seemed a little more serious than usual.

I looked a little more closely it occurred to me that it maybe wasn’t Ryan at all, but his co-host from the "Celebration of Freedom" concert in Washington, DC, in January of 2005. I thought about it a little more though and realized that this couldn’t possibly be George W. Bush, because that guy only talked about drilling the Arctic refuge, didn’t believe in global warming, and was assuring us that victory in Iraq was just around the corner. Back then, people who liked him said his best quality was that he knew what was right and stuck to it. So this obviously wasn’t that W. and this couldn’t be the State of the Union.

I thought, “What a clever idea! Idol and the Fox Network have gone Saturday Night Live and they’re using this parody of the State of the Union to boost the Ai's ratings. “

I was very excited to hear whether Simon, Paula, and Randy thought this guy should go on to the next round of American leader , but that never happened. Instead, they had this guest judge named Jim Webb who accused this would be American Leader of all sorts of macaca. The guy sure has aged since he wrote "Macarthur Park" and "Up Up and Away."

It was clearly a wasted opportunity. I wanted to see Simon say “You know that wasn’t “Mission Accomplished” or even “Bring ‘Em On”,”

The W-impersonator would then say, “Well, mistakes were made.”

Simon: “I’m not being rude, but you need to go back to Crawford and give up singing for America. Maybe you can hang out with your good friend and neighbor Ted Nugent and go ride a mountain bike or something.”

Randy: “Yes, a thousand percent. You didn’t blow it out there, man. That just wasn’t good.”

Paula: “Keep dreaming. Believe in yourself, because you’re not nearly as cute as that Jenry guy from the New York auditions so I’m not going to vote for you either.”

The rest of the hour of the State of the Idol show took a kinder-gentler turn than the Seattle auditions. Simon was pointedly nice comparing Roy Head’s son Sundance favorably to Taylor Hicks. By the same token, I guess that wasn’t a nice thing to say if you happen to be Taylor Hicks. Still, as he often is about entertainment matters Simon was right. This guy does have a much better voice. It’ll be interesting to see if he can be as tactically adept as Taylor.

In fact, the only bitter reaction they showed was from Wandera Hitchye who had some reason to be mad. She sang a bluesy thing quite well and certainly better than some of those sent on to Hollywood. For whatever reason, the judges told her “Really good singers who do your thing are a dime a dozen.”

This of course explains why some genuinely mediocre singers find their way to the top twelve each year. In the meantime, I suspect the effort involved in being “nice” for a whole city’s worth of auditions got to Simon Cowell. The next week, Mr. Professional apparently stayed out too late drinking in New York and missed half a day’s worth of auditions.

Essentially the audition shows are like NFL exhibition games. If you buy a season ticket for your favorite NFL team, you have to pay for the exhibition games too even though they don’t count in the standings and most of the players will be gone by the time the real season starts. The formula is simple. Idol gets to sell three more weeks worth of advertisements. At the same time, they have the Hollywood rounds where you already get a better feel for the eventual finalists and their back stories. For the last two years at least, the main objective of the audition rounds has been to find the next William Hung.

How big a thing was William Hung? Quick, name three other famous Asian-American males. Okay, there’s Tiger Woods and Keanu Reeves. Does Yao Ming count as an American? There’s that guy who’s secretary of transportation. What’s his name anyway? Maybe Hines Ward. Interesting isn’t it? The ones who are household names aren’t normally thought of as Asian. I have no idea what that says about race and the whole William Hung phenomenon.

In any case, Idol’s producers work overtime to bring on the quirky in the audition rounds. How else do you explain the ten minutes they devoted to Ian Benardo in New York or Travis Mckinney “I wrote this song for my girlfriend” guy or the Paula stalker guy who got to call his ex-wife the “B” word on television. It’s odd to me, but as much as they pay Idol staff to have an ear for this stuff. They never got William Hung. It wasn’t that he was bad or that he was a bit outside the norm. The thing that America took to was that he was too nice for the show. He endeared America because at the end of what should have been his 90 seconds of fame the guy said “Okay, I tried my best. Thank you” . In the midst of what was intended to be the snidest, smirkiest, snark moment of that year’s auditions, Hung managed to both let people laugh at/with him and still injected dignity and grace into it.

The producer do have a dramatic touch. They introed Sean Michel as if he were going to be one of the crazies. They often intro really bad singers as if they’re going to be great. Michel came out looking like the ultimate anti-American Idol, dressed as some cross between Fidel Castro and Osama. I even briefly wondered if my comparisons between the show and terrorists last week had gotten to Nigel et. al. Michel then let loose with an intense version of “God Will Cut You Down” (interesting choice for an Osama impersonat) and got himself to Hollywood where he was immediately invited to dinner by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

There was also an actually charming segment with Melinda Doolittle, the career backup singer unleashed a soaring “For Once in My Life” and managed to come off as genuinely modest before she performed and genuinely relieved after she got voted to Hollywood. After the show I even tivoed back to her audition. Gee, they actually did draw a character I wanted to root for.

I compare this to the odd segment of the guy who came to the audition while his wife was having a baby. He wasn’t that great and it was like there was this giant closed caption at the bottom of my set that said “Bring on the Back story bring on the Back Story.”

I think the biggest surprise to me about the New York auditions was that I think they went a whole two hours there without mentioning 9/11. The closest they came was the segment with the best friends forever “Jersey Girls” who were more like valley girls than the brave ladies who forced the administration to actually formally investigate the tragedy that killed their family members. Again the producers did their bait and switch thing because it turned out that Antonella Barba, the dark-haired one, actually turned out to have star quality. Of course, they want you to think that once the Jersey Girls hit Hollywood they’ll turn into Mean Girls as soon as Amanda realizes that she’s no longer the alpha partner in the friendship. Now that I think of it, the other biggest surprise was to see how Carole Bayer Sager suddenly turned into Olivia Newton John for about three minutes without anyone noticing. It was kind of like having an episode of Bewitched suddenly slipped into the show.

I’m also trying to figure out what moral lesson to take away from the opposite fates of the young lady who had already been to Hollywood twice and the one who trained like Rocky and who dressed like a sluttier version of Madonna. Both of them worked really hard. Both clearly wanted it badly. One of them begged really hard at the end. The only sense I can make of it is that given a choice between hitting notes that only dogs can hear (though maybe not Dawgs like Randy) and showing butt cleavage, the latter wins every time on reality tv. The group hug was great tv though.

I liked Kia Thornton even though she needs some help from Terrell Owens with her end zone celebrations. Jenry Berjarano at least presented as the ideal Idol contestant. He has the look, the big voice, the heartwarming back story. There’s the small matter of the page, but I imagine that’ll wind up being like Bo’s drug arrest, just not that big a deal.

Even if she didn’t make it to Hollywood, Nakia Clairborne had one of the more memorable auditions I’ve seen. She was genuinely good with "Dancing In the Streets” and was terrible with the ballad. Reality TV tends to work best when they find rather than hype the story. You could feel the sudden shift in her fortunes with the judges and her disappointment shot right through the screen.

Jory Steinberg, the Canadian living in California who came to audition in New York and had met the queen of England, was both very good and a little bit puzzling. She seemed like an actual professional dropped into the Idol mix. That was true of Taylor, Bo, and Chris too, but for female contestants it’s tended to play against them in the end. For instance Latoya London finished behind Jasmine Trias somehow. It might be interesting to see how this one plays out.

If they ever do steroid testing on American Idol, Christopher Henry won’t be one of the suspects. The guy looks vaguely like both Simon and George Michael (the latter might have been a sly joke) and sounds like Kelly Clarkson. Perhaps some day soon they’ll do the movie version of Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven (novel about castrati) and they’ll cast this guy. In the meantime, Simon go to make his annual drag queen joke. The drag thing seems to be one of Simon’s obsessions. It really makes me wonder what kind of bar he was getting hung over in the night before. Fwiw I still want to hear Christopher Henry do Barry White.

Perhaps inspired by the whole American news obsession with Natalee Holloway and other missing young white women, the New York auditions featured two runaways. Sarah Burgess, the girl who escaped from Ohio by telling her Dad she was staying with a friend, made an inspired song choice by combining that backstory with Blondie’s “Call Me”. It also seemed to help that she was cute. Probably the spookiest thing about the phone call was to hear the dad say “Who is this?” If she happens to make the finals, what are the odds that they’ll bring Dad to Hollywood and keep crosscutting to him as she sings?

The second runaway was opera escapee, Rachel Zevita, who cut out of conservatory to come sing Jeff Buckley. She then switched to the gentle ballad “Get Here” and finally the judges made her do opera. Of the three, I thought she was the weakest at the aria which suggests that she made a wise choice in risking her scholarship. Simon did a Sybil thing with her as in “Which one are you really?” I mostly wondered how much the mismatched medley was pre-arranged by the producers. She was good at each of them and not especially great in any of the genres, but at least she’s interesting and can sing.

By the way, why is it okay to be a Justin Timberlake type and not okay to be just another good blues singer? Apparently, Christopher Richardson gets to find out in the Hollywood rounds. In the meantime, the real Rocky sequel of the New York auditions was set up for Nickolas Pedro, who may be this year’s crooner. Last year, he took a dive on Fill Me Up Buttercup. This year, he wants to redeem himself.

After seven hours of American Idol auditions in ten days, my wife and I took a night off from Carrie Underwood et al to watch the Leonard Cohen tribute, I’m Your Man. It’s part concert footage part documentary about the anti-idol Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet, singer, troubador. One of the interesting things about Cohen is that he made a musical career for himself with something like a three note range. The movie looked vaguely like American Idol in that it consisted of singers like Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson, Bono and every member of the Wainwright-Mcgarrigle music family except Loudon getting up on the same stage and taking turns in front of an audience. Not a single one of them would get out of the American Idol audition rounds. Asside from the fact that they were all too old, none had the look, their stage movements were sort of awkward, and no one was trying to be slick or note perfect. Instead, it was just a bunch of singers who were all about the music, Cohen’s carefully-crafted lyrics, and connecting to the song first rather then the audience.

I should mention that my wife is the Leonard Cohen fan and I got the movie for her. I’d never been a fan. Still, the contrast between this Sydney, Australia venued tribute to the Montreal born Cohen and AI was fascinating. This was an argument that music didn’t have to have a beat or a melodic hook. Instead Cohen’s music is about stillness, an appreciation of ambiguity, and intimacy rather than bravura and singing lots of notes. To put it in Cohen’s words, “A singer must die for the lie in his voice.”

Now that they’ve taken Manhattan, I sort of hope that American Idol doesn’t take Berlin. That’s the state of our union. Seacrest and the W-impersonator, out.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) An Other Cup- Music Review

An Other Cup is Cat Stevens', now Yusuf Islam, first commercial album in close to thirty years. Cat Stevens was one of the more romantic figures in the music of the early seventies. First, large numbers of girls routinely had crushes on the guy as sensitive fok singer with guitar. Second, he had one of the most distinctive and best singing voices of the era. Cat Stevens voice was notably resonant and very precisely articulated. Finally, he had a mystique as a spiritual explorer which allowed him to simultaneously appear to be both pop star and introvert.

The short version is that one day Cat Stevens, who started life as Steven Georgiou, almost drowned off of Malibu and the near death experience caused him to examine his spirtual beliefs. Cat Stevens, who once sang about never having wanted to be a Pop Star, converted to Islam and became Yusuf Islam. He gave up singing in public and focused on raising his five children, working with an Islamic school in London, and perfecting his inner self. According to one interview, he also gave up playing the guitar during that period.

About the Album

In a time when most people seem to be stressing the differences between the "West" and Islam, Yusuf Islam has taken on the admirable task of trying to bridge the two. In An Other Cup, the artist who was once known as "Cat Stevens" is clearly very much the same guy. The voice is instantly recognizable though naturally somewhat older and a little more brittle. The guitar sounds the same, in fact a lot fo the licks seem to come straight off Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. The biggest difference is that there are now more explicit references to his thirty years of faith in songs like "They Call Him Beloved" and "In the End." Essentially, Yusuf Islam is still very much on the "Peace Train", it's just that now he pointedly sings about an "open world borderless and wide" and "seeing the light" in a much more explicit spiritual context.

In interviews, Islam has downplayed the political significance of the new album. He tells the story of his son bringing a guitar into the house (a la Father and Son in reverse) and recognizing his own yearning to begin writing songs and singing in public once again. Nonetheless, one can't listen to this without also seeing that An Other Cup has a clear message. Yusuf Islam both announces his pride in his faith and makes it clear that that faith is built on a message of peace and unity.

This, however, is the bad news. As much as I admire what Yusuf Islam is trying to do here, I'm not a big fan of the album. There has long been a school of thought that happy souls can make for bad art. It is somehow more appealing to sing about one's tortured road to innner peace than to write a song like say "Everything is Beautiful In Its Own Way" or "Happy Together." Art seems to thrive on the tension that inner turmoil and complexity bring to the creative mind.

Many of the lyrics in Another Cup have a kind of blunt certainty that borders on platitude. "One day at a time we can learn to leave the past behind. We can look the future in the eye."

"Until I found the one I needed at my side, I would have been a blind man at my side...I think I see the light."

Despite the introduction of Middle Eastern flourishes on tracks like "Whispers from a Spirit Garden" with its trancelike ground figures and floating modal woodwind melodies, much of the music is heavily rooted in the early 70's. There's a Moody Blues like poetry recitation from Rumi I think in Spirit Garden and a short interlude about butterflies. A track has Beatles-like harpsichord interlude dropped into the mix. Around that Islam depends heavily on too familiar harmonies and folk-poppish hooks from his Cat Stevens incaranation.

Yes, point out that the same could be said of Cat Stevens's records pre-Islam. In many ways, the music and the message are the same, it's just that he now more firmly identifies himself as a Moslem with a bit of a nod to the Sufi with its emphasis on the other worldly and the inner nature of that other place whose praises he now sings.

For me, that's the problem. After 30 years of spiritual exploration by an artist, I guess I'd expect commensurate musical growth. I think the simple answer is that this is what happens when you don't play for 30 years. You do wind up musically where you left off regardless of what's been going on inside you. It is as if Yusuf Islam dusted himself off and fit it to his current life and view of the world. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing from his perspective. He comes across as a deeply happy man. An Other Cup is the work of a contented soul. It's just not as interesting, maybe because of that.

For the sake of comparison, I spent a fair amount of time between listens to Another Cup also listening to Janis Ian's 1994 album "Breaking Silence". Ian in some ways led a parallel life to Stevens. She too was a successful singer songwriter at an impossibly young age in the mid-1960's. IIRC she wrote "Society's Child" and got it on the charts before she was sixteen. As a young adult she came back with Between the Lines and her hymn to adolescent angst At Seventeen.

After that she suffered a series of bad breaks including dishonest management and she didn't record for more than a decade. In the meantime, Ian went through a spiritual personal shift of her own which included her coming out as a lesbian. One difference though, is that during that hiatus Ian kep playing and writing music.

The result is an album filled with finely-detailed imagery (lives winding down like clocks) and well-turned phrases. Listen to Tatoo say or Some People. Her music and especially her guitar playing continued to mature. The level of her lyrics turned even subtler in ways that generally don't happen at too young an age even with prodigies. fwiw. Janis Ian also is a very fine guitarist (women musicians often don't get much credit as instrumentalists if they also happen to sing.) Breaking Silence is also an album documenting spiritual change but it also documents musical and artistic growth.

Listening to "Breaking Silence" brought home to me the frustrating part of "An Other Cup" which is what Yusuf Islam gained at an intensely personal and rewarding level also reminds me of what the world lost which was thirty years of his continued growth as a musician.

As a quick asside, I'd also mention that Janis Ian has taken an interesting stance on file sharing. She's one of the few musicians who's actually come out for it and argues that it actually enhances her sales (similar to what happened when ASCAP first fought over radio play in public places some 70 years ago)

To be fair, I think that much of that will come back as he reunites the musician with the renewed man of the spirit. There are moments on "Where True Love Goes" and "One Day at a Time" where his uniqueness and optimistic musical vision are clearly all there. Still, he does a cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and the older music stayed with me in ways that the newer material on the album didn't manage.

It'll also be interesting to see what happens to An Other Cup commercially. Even though he didn't sing many dreamy love songs, a core part of Cat Stevens's audience was built around the fantasy that he was singing to or with you. Looking back it may seem odd that he had a hit with an old British hymn, "Morning Has Broken". Much of Cat Stevens male audience was also guys pretending to be sensitive too. An Other Cup definitely is not the sort of album one could or should listen to or use that way.

At this point, An Other Cup, isn't my cup, but I admire the man and what he's trying to do. I also suspect that if Yusuf Islam continues to re-explore his music, he very well may find the bridge both between Islam and the West and between his past self as girl crush material and his self as a man determined to follow the dictates of his spirit.


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Friday, January 19, 2007

Simon Cowell and the Bush Baby-American Idol 6 auditions (commentary)

Which Bush Baby Was Simon Talking About?

In 2003, the Department of Defense did a study to see what percentage of Americans between 16 and 23 would be eligible for the armed forces. It turned out that more than half of Americans that age would not meet the minimum requirements for entry. More than half of young Americans are either too obese, have a criminal record, a medical/mental condition, or haven't made it through high school. Sowhat's this have to do with American Idol?

First, if you watch the auditions, they make it look like every young American who couldn't qualify for the armed forces showed up in stadiums and convention centers across America to try out for American Idol. Am I the only one who remembers back when judges used to sentence young people who maybe joyrided a car by offering them a choice of jail or enlisting? In fact, those are the exact circumstances that got Jimmy Hendrix into the 101st Airborne. He was discharged about a year later after pretending to be gay.

Second, while everyone is talking about their "View" on Simon's "Bush Baby" comments (more about that later), no one seems to be talking about the other "Bush Baby" business. What's up with all the active duty people on Reality TV lately?

Okay, a sample of three isn't exactly huge, but the Bachelor turns up a Navy Doctor in Andy Baldwin who gets time off not only to hang out in hot tubs and go on romantic one on one dates for Mike Fleiss, but also gets time to train for and compete in triathlons between duty assignments in Laos. Somehow, American Idol's Minneapolis audition turns up not one but two aspirants who show up in uniform.

One of them even serves on an aircraft carrier called as it happens the "SS Ronald W. Reagan." This comes replete with some of the footage from the President's Mission Accomplished spectacular from a mere four years ago this May (Boy time flies literally and figuratively). As it happens, both armed forces singers who both sounded okay but not especially great happen to get sent to Hollywood because in Simon's words "America will love them."

Am I the only one who sees this stuff as a not so subtle embedded armed forces recruiting advertisement as in "Enlist now and see you won't get sent to Iraq, we'll even give you time to spend maybe four months on a reality tv show. Even if you serve on an aircraft carrier, we get to do morale builders like have Reagan Idol contests." So, what is the exact relationship between the Fox Network and Fox News?

Armed Forces recruiting product placements aren't that far-fetched. You do remember Armstrong Williams and the Lincoln Group's activities with the newly "free but paid for" press in Iraq? They do have people who sing who happen to be involved with say Gold Star Families Against the War, developing electric cars, suing cigarette companies, or teaching people the scientific facts about global warming. I've certainly been to rallies for things like this where someone gets up and sings pretty well to inspire the crowd. How come none of those back stories get on American Idol?

I do wish the various active duty service people on the show well on an indivdiual basis, but the Bush Baby thing that people should be screaming about is the sudden appearance of these happy-singing active duty service people on reality tv.

So, say I'm one of those reservists who suddenly got a third tour of duty in Iraq and have discovered that an eight year commitment really means the possibility of eight years of active duty. I flip on the TV and see Lt. Andy surrounded by 24 attractive women in camo bikinis and these people in uniform in a setting where the scariest thing is Simon Cowell insulting your looks and voice. I'm going to say, "Wow, that's fair. The President wants 30,000 more of us to live in 24-7 fear of IEDs and you're getting four months off to be on a singing show? Hey, I feel good about this.

I should say though that life and war just aren't fair. Look at Ronald Reagan. He spent World War 2 shooting recruitment promos in Hollywood, then forty years later got to tell people that he spent time liberating concentration camps. Have we named any aircraft carriers for people who liberated concentration camps btw?

Okay, sorry to go so political, but tell me there's no creepy subtext with this stuff. To quote a famous pacificst and former Air National Guard member, "Bring 'Em On!" btw....Why is it again that we're supposed to trust that guy with our children's lives and futures?

Back to the whole state of America's young adults thing. If you base your view of reality of on AI auditions, you would conclude that America consists of about three people who can sing and what appears to be 99,000 delusional and/or compromised people who all happen to be tone deaf. The rest are either the world's worst sports or mentally unstable. If I were say a terrorist watching tv from a cave in the Khyber pass between wiring up Improvised Exposive Devices made from C4 rescued from unguarded munitions dumps, I'd actually be encouraged. Despite the patriotic recruiting ad material, the Fox Network is letting our enemies know that America is vulnerable because most of its people are idiots.

I know it really isn't the case that there are maybe 5 people a year in this country who can sing and Kellie Pickler. I've heard church choirs, gone to school productions, even attended random talent shows. Singing is a rare talent, yes, but even little towns not to mention places like Seattle and Minneapolis have at least five people who sing well enough so that you'll want to listen to them. Also, most of the rest of us who don't sing so well are perfectly aware that those other five people in town are a lot better singers than we are. Aren't there as many gracious individuals at these auditions as there are borderline psychotic poor sports and deluded ones at that? Again what is the Fox Network trying to tell us about us and why the hell are we liking it so much?

In the meantime, if you want a nicely written article on how "unreal" the audition process is, I strongly recommend Whitney Henry's article. As she puts it, "You're trying out for reality tv, it's not a talent tryout." Her mp3 attached to the article also speaks volumes. She clearly sings better than many of the "America will love you" types who get sent to Hollywood."

Frankly, I think genuine acts of kindness between strangers makes for great reality tv. Instead, AI makes fun of it. Let's back up to the monumental tastelessness of the other Bush Baby and large red-topped friend, aka Jonathan Jayne and Kenneth Briggs. It turns out that Kenneth Briggs is mildly autistic. Nick Zitzmann who Unchained the melody and agonzed over the difference between being from "around" the SLC area and being from the SLC area also appeared to be on the Autism spectrum (I don't know nor do I know if it was also maybe an act). There's no question that AI jumped the line into simply mocking people for being disabled.

Yes, we do laugh at the cluelessness of Napoleon Dynamite and Borat, but we're not mocking real people just characters played by actors. Paula, Randy, and Simon claim to be America's musical tastemakers. Is it now okay for Americans to openly laugh at the disabled? People complain about the Simpsons and South Park. Geez, people even get offended when Barbara Boxer mentions that Condi doesn't have children. If America is going to be the country that revels in humiliating the disabled on national television, I'm going to start rooting for Al Qaeda. When they tell us that we are corrupt, godless, and venal, it isn't always just about letting women wear short dresses in public and encouaging them to go to school. They might have a point.

Ironically, music has traditionally been a forum where differences don't matter. We see any number of AI hopefuls sing Stevie Wonder, has anyone who actually was blind ever made the Hollywood rounds? American Idol's notion of Ray Charles is to swipe the sound and even the jerky movements and turn him into a sighted-white guy from a two a day suburb of Birmingham. They actually could have taken exactly the same material, Jonathan Jayne choosing to sing a song like America the Beautiful and made it a heartfelt patriotic moment that might have been even better tv. The same thing is true with Jayne and Briggs's apparent decision to join up that day. Take out the laugh track, kill Ryan's commentary, the sitcom music, and the footage is genuinely touching and inspiring in its way. Unfortunately, that would have taken the kind of imagination and subtlety that most reality tv lacks.

Saddest of all being proud of being American doesn't seem to be on the actual agenda for American Idol 6. Given the incredible popularity of the show, I'd argue that the producers when in this mode are as dangerous to what's important about America as any terrorists.

random notes:

I really liked the brother and sister who were AI's take on if Norah Jones (Ravi Shankhar's daughter) had a brother who sang too. Again, is it the smarminess of the show that wants to bring on the whole sibling rivalry thing? Hey, let's see if the quest for fame can destroy an actual family? If they want to do that, why not just bring back the Brittenum twins?

The girl whose father was an NFL cornerback sounded very good. She may be the only one so far who's a lock for the final 24.

The thing that bothered me with the lady who was 6'4" tall and sort of shouted her way through Respect, though pretty well, was that Simon's "giraffe" comment was so obviously calculated to reprise that whole Mandisa "need a bigger stage" thing from last year. I suppose they have an extra mean streak for African-American women who don't look like Beyonce. Remember how Simon kept harping on Jennifer Hudson not having the look to be the Idol? Whatever happened to her anyway? :}
Now that I've said all this, can I maintian any sense of self-respect for still watching this stuff? I'd say one of the odd things about tryng to be a writer (Now Fiction Idol would make for seriously weird tv) is that a lot of us suck and don't know it. We just don't get to do it in front of television cameras. Instead some of us start blogs. I guess I empathize with the hopelessness, the sense that it's all fixed anyway, and there are days when I'd do ridiculous things and humiliate myself just to get a few people to read my stuff. Why do you think I write these reviews?

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles


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Monday, January 15, 2007

No Amount of Cat Litter

Nineteen degrees Fahrenheit isn’t that cold even by post global warming standards, but it was cold enough that we both went to bed early. In any case, it was the coldest night in recent memory where we live. One of the most soothing sleeps imaginable is the one you get when you actually have enough covers on a cold night. It’s even better when it’s raining or snowing. You’re in the only place you want to be at that moment and your body knows not to move around too much.

At five in the morning that sleep was disrupted by the most intense smell. One of the animals had apparently decided to use some part of our bedroom as a litter box. I’m told that smell is the only one of the senses that goes straight to the reactive centers of the brain. Perhaps because of this it’s impossible in the presence of a strong smell to think about anything else.

My wife switched on the lights and we then proceeded to inspect the bedroom carpet for the source of our anguish. We looked under the bed, under the bureau, behind the wicker basket in the corner by my side (my wife insists on sleeping on the side closer to the door and bathroom), and at one point my wife even double-checked the litter box itself in our bathroom. After we looked in the less explored reaches of our closet and even pulled the covers off the bed to see if the animal had offered up the ultimate insult, I was tempted to just close the door to our bedroom and just go back to sleep in the back bedroom.

In the meantime, my wife had taken the dog out to the garage and shushed Lily, the oversized Calico cat, out the sliding door to the deck. Somehow she managed to do all this while shouting at me that I wasn’t looking hard enough. This was very primal stuff with animals, warm undisturbed sleep, and our brains on full odor alarm all at the same time. We pulled the bed away from the wall. As I pushed on my side, the futon mattress came up and the smell became even more overpowering. I picked up a u-shaped airline neck pillow from the rug and “yuck”. These pillows are filled with beans or some such, so perhaps Lily had decided on that cold night that it was enough like a litter box. Our older daughter had left the pillow behind mostly because it had been a gift from a boyfriend she’d rather forget. Maybe the cat figured that out and was sharing her opinion?

Cats do appear to be terribly efficient creatures. It stands to reason that would also be the case with their waste product. They use everything except what is truly vile. There may be no household pet smell that is more intense. Days later I can still smell the stuff.

We set to work for the next thirty minutes finding the odor and stain remover and wiping down the rug. I carried the defiled pillow out to the trash bin in the garage followed by my wife’s warning, “Don’t you dare let anything drip off that into the hallway or don’t expect to ever sleep with me again!”

After that, she started screaming that the odor remover had to be on one of the shelves in the garage. It wasn’t, but I couldn’t convince her of that until she found it herself under the kitchen sink. For the next twenty minutes, my wife scrubbed the rug and swore at the cat while I moved random items of furniture so she couldn’t yell at me that I wasn’t doing enough to get the smell out of our bedroom. We wound up sleeping in the back bedroom.

The next morning the cat was on the deck demanding to get back into the house and the bedroom and the cat and I had the following conversation.

Cat: Let me in, I’m your cat in chief.

CL: You made a mess of our bedroom. We can still smell it. We’ll be cleaning up in here for years after you’re dead.

Cat: If you kick me out of the house, the smell’s only going to get worse. Think of the other animals.

CL: But you made the mess in the first place.

Cat: I was looking for weapons of mouse destruction. Besides, you didn’t like the guy who gave your daughter that airline neck cushion anyway.

CL: Yeah, but he’s long gone.

Cat: Do you have a better idea?

CL: Yes, we asked the vet, the same one where we got you and the vet put together a cat smell study group. They said either get you out of the house or fill an entire room with cat litter.

Cat: Yes, but really. Do you have a specific solution?

CL: Look, your idea of adding 2 bags of cat litter isn’t going to work. That smell is terrible. No amount of cat litter is going to absorb it.

Cat: It doesn’t matter anyway. You may think you control the house now, but I can do whatever I want. I’m a cat.

This is what I’ve figured out. This is our house and my wife and I our masters of our master bedroom. While the cat has lived with us for six years, it left an enormous mess right underneath our bed that we can still smell. We’ll still feed the creature and likely be nice to it, but why would we even consider letting it back in and letting it tell us what to do with our house anymore?


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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Buying Surge Protection

I’ve been hearing all this stuff about a “surge” in Iraq, so I responded the way any patriotic American would- I went shopping. To be precise, I went shopping for a surge protector. I figure whatever’s good enough for keeping us safe from terrorism has got to be good enough to keep my home and my family safe. Much to my surprise, lots of people sell surge protectors for anywhere from six dollars to a thousand.

The six dollar version consists of a simple component, usually a metal oxide varistor (MOV) in the circuit path that essentially breaks the line when voltages in your power line go substantially above or below 110. It can be very interesting, btw please do this carefully, to stick a voltmeter into one of your AC sockets from time to time. In most places, it's not 110 and it's not especially steady. Line voltage spikes are pretty common in the United States.

In Iraq, where even Baghdad still doesn't have electric power of any kind for significant portions of the day, I would guess that surge protectors are even more critical for those who still have expensive appliances and electronic equipment in their homes. Big surges in the existing power lines there are an everyday event.

After shopping for a bit and fighting my el cheapo instinct to just settle for the six dollar surge protector, I started to ask the question why so many big businesses would be willing to pay thousands of a dollars for a surge protector when for six dollars you can get something that does the same thing.
The quick non-technical answer is that cheap surge protectors don't work that well. They're not fast enough for anything like a lightning strike, actually nothing's fast enough. They also degrade quickly each time they're used, so say after stopping the first couple minor surges the cheapo surge protector actually does little more than give the homeowner a false sense of security. In fact, because the cheapo surge protector works by simply shorting out the power line, it can be more dangerous than the surge itself with some appliances.

Tomorrow, the President is going to unveil his latest plan for the decider's great Middle Eastern adventure. Two months ago, the Iraq Study Group (why does that name sound like a book club that meets every third Wednesday of the month?) came up with a two-pronged recommendation. Either the United States needs to withdraw from Iraq because it can't keep the light on at the end of the tunnel or it needs to do what's necessary to stabilize the situation. The Iraq study group suggested that it would take at least a hundred thousand new troops to stabilize the "insurgency" there. Put simply, if we just had to stay in that House in the green zone the Iraq Study Group recommended that we buy the thousand dollar surge protector.

So why is the President so set on buying six dollar surge protector and staying in a house that is vulnerable to fire, electrical outages, even improvised electrical explosions?

1) He is the decider and if you remember he was very big on "Shock and Awe" back at the beginning of the war. I'm not sure how we went from Shock to Surge protection. Maybe they should have stuck with the electrical metaphor when W. announced "mission accomplished" back on May 1, 2003.

How scary is it that the guy in charge is less interested in doing the right thing than he is in not admitting that he was wrong? Think about it for a minute. He bought a house of cards (Andrew Cards?) finds that the deck is filled with jokers and still wants to play the hand out. Is it maybe because he isn't playing with his own money? How many metaphors did I mange to mix in this one paragraph? Well just think of it as my tribute to the linguistic acumen of the great decider.

2) To buy the thousand dollar surge protector, the Administration would have to look at reviving the draft. You spend your early adult years finding the perfect way to avoid the draft, would you want to cap off your career by forcing rich men's sons and daughters to join the Texas Air National Guard. of course, Iraq is now full of National Guard units doing multiple tours there. They'd have to find another out.

How do you tell America that your 500 billion dollar house in the Green Zone is now going to cost 200 billion more just to keep it from being like that house in Poltergeist that melts into the Indian graveyard at the end?

3) How about this? Maybe the Administration's not really buying a surge protector at all. Maybe they're just buying time. In the meantime, 5 more American soldiers died over the weekend and we now have military operations happening in is it Somalia?

The last headline I saw was something about finding a way to secure Baghdad. Coming into four years after Mission Accomplished, the U.S. Military is now trying to keep Baghdad under control. For the last year, the President insisted that progress in Iraq was continuing. I think you can choose one of those two statements but not both.

A generation ago, the metaphor that suggested the bankruptcy of U.S. policy was "surgical bombing". Surgery is a radical intervention to save lives. Bombing is the acto of destroying things and blowing people up. While we're at it, it's interesting how they're avoiding that other phrase from Vietnam, "Escalation", but isn't a "surge" exactly the same thing?

In 2007, they've turned to a word with the same root. Latin Surgere "to rise". I may be the only one who sees it this way, but all this surge talk is more sexual than electrical, but sexual in an odd way. Some have argued that the whole conservative movement has had a subtext of masculine insecurity. Its metaphors are about American assertiveness, potency, and most recently surging. I have nothing against Viagra. I'm even at an age where I've wondered from time to time where I might need it, but I don't think it's an accident that the first celebrity to endorse the drug was Bob Dole shortly after he lost the 1992 election.

In general, viagra ads and those knockoff ads for natural male enhancement like Bob of the Enzyte commercials hold out this pitiful promise- You take a pill and have an erection again for a couple hours and your entire life becomes manly again. The reality of course is that after you have your Rush Limbaugh night in the Dominican with your blue pills and partner(s) of choice (and how interesting is that color choice for the Red State types?), you're still overweight, you're losing your hair, what was once muscle is well something else, and....Those things can't be fixed with a surge of blood to the right organ. They need to be addressed and to a certain extent accepted with effort that involves real work and dedication.

How did the metaphor for American military power become an Enzyte commercial anyway?

btw, I passed on the Bushlite surge protectors but I did buy a couple surge protectors at the hardware store anyway. I looked into it though and learned that the only truly effective surge protector is to have a clean dependable source of power in the first place. The six dollar surge protector might help a little bit, but if you ignore the problem at its source an electrical disaster is inevitable. For a man whose dad once promised a thousand points of light, we're sure getting a lot of brownouts.


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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sonic Impact Super-T Amp (audio review)

The Sonic Impact T-amp, once available for as little as twenty dollars new, may be the only electronic item ever sold at Target that audiophiles ever took seriously. Apparently the manufacturer never had high-end pretensions, they simply marketed the amplifier as something to take to the beach with a small set of speakers so one could listen to whatever was on the Ipod with a group of friends.

Much to the company’s surprise, the battery-powered amplifier in the cheap plastic case sold out its first production run after it was discovered by audiophiles who began to use the internet to praise its surprisingly good sonic performance. A sub-market sprang up of people who were sometimes spending hundreds of dollars to modify the things (see Redwine Audio before the guy screams at me, Redwine does more than just modify the T-amp). Even though this kind of modification sounds crazy, it's a good thing. Tinkering or Poogeing (the Old Audio Amateur magazine once ran a series by Walt Jung and Richard Marsh for the Professional Order of Golden Ears (Pooge)) is an honorable tradition in hi-fi. At the same time, I have still never seen anyone on the beach, in a park, or anywhere else for that matter break out a sonic-impact T-amp there and hook up a pair of portable speakers.

There are reasons the boom box remained popular for so long. One of them was that ordinary folk don’t necessarily care to run speaker wires and set up four different items when they tote their music system. I’m not privy to the marketing figures, but I have this funny feeling that the product would have disappeared had Sonic Impact had to rely on its original intended market.

Responsive company that they are, Sonic Impact has introduced the Super-T amp, a new $135 version of their class D amplifier in an attractive aluminum case with gold-plated RCA’s and proper binding posts. They’ve also made some of the internal changes recommended by the hi-fi hot rod crowd like improving the coupling capacitors, but for the most part the basic tri-path chip circuit remains the same.

This is a bit like Honda offering a street-racer ready version of its two door Civic with performance chip, NOS booster, and wider tires all suddenly bundled for twenty five thousand dollars. At one level, it makes perfect marketing sense. If kids are spending upwards of twenty thousand dollars additional to modify a stock Civic in their garage, wouldn’t they rather have most of those performance enhancements crammed into a factory-ready package for half that?

I suspect the street racer spends thirty thousand dollars on a Honda Civic at least partly because he/she likes the pride of taking something off the shelf and both improving it and having something unique. They don’t necessarily want to buy the factory version as much as they want to “outdo” it. The whole tradition of hot rod hi fi from Dynaco, through Hafler, NAD, Audio Alchemy etc. has also been the plain brown wrapper thing. You give up cosmetics in exchange for high quality innards that can potentially be continuously upgraded at home. In fact, the mantra goes something like “This sounds every bit as good as …… I just don’t need to pay for the cosmetics or the snooty high-end shop that serves espresso in its listening room, because it’s all about the sound to me.”

In the meantime, the class D hobbyist market evolved considerably over the last 2 years. If you look over at Diy audio forum, you’ll find a bunch of alternatives to the Sonic Impact t-amp aimed at the Do it Yourself crowd. There’s the Charlize, the Amp 6, the UDC (based on a different chip said to be superior to the tripath) and god knows what else. In the pre-built market, there’s now the Trends Audio TA-10, a Hong Kong company which doesn’t yet have a U.S. distributor, who went for a plain brown wrapper look and a more mod-friendly design than Sonic Impact’s with most of the parts easily removable.

At a marketing level, it'll be interesting to see how well Sonic Impact does with its first product not encased in plastic. For non-audiophile sorts, $135 dollars is a lot of money for a 7 watt/channel integrated amp with one input. They don't necessarily understand either the quality issue or the fact that the Super-T is arguably a better value than the basic-T. The company also apparently also have plans for a 50 watt per channel class-t amplifier in the $300 range some time later this year. That should be very interesting. I still haven't heard a higher power class-D amp myself, but am not the only one wondering if the magic will stay as the power goes up.

So What's It Like?

If you were going to modify the original T-Amp, there's no doubt that it would cost you a lot more than a hundred dollars to get it to the level of the Super T-amp. The product remains a bargain from that standpoint. When I took mine out of the box, I was definitely impressed. At $135, the Super-T sells for less in inflation adjusted dollars than either of its spiritual ancestors, the NAD 3020 (roughly $175 back in 1979) and the tubed Dynaco SCA 35 ($104 in 1964). It sounds and looks dramatically better than either of its predecessors. See, progress is possible at least in some realms.

I imagine the first question for most would be how does the Super-T's sound compare to the original Sonic Impact? The short answer is that it sounds better. For one, the original had a very steep roll off below 100 Hz. This made perfect sense for its intended use, low quality portable speakers. The Super-T has much better bass. Obviously it's still a 7 watt amp (okay the company claims 15 but that's into 4 ohms and even that is optimistic) so I wouldn't use it to power a subwoofer, but you'll notice a clear difference with say a reasonable efficiency 8" 2 way. One result is that the Super-T sounds "bigger" than its cheaper brother.

Michael Mardis has mentioned that the T-amp has a certain coldness in the vocal range due to a lack of detail in that region that he noticed after extended listening. It's a bit pardadoxical for several reasons, one being that Mardis is a big fan of class D and many people love the Sonic Impact because it reproduced so much detail. One of the frequent comments was that the sound from the amp revealed the "layers" in a musical performance. Instead of hearing say four different instruments coming off a flat screen, the T-amp manages to give enough of a sense of the dynamics and tonal differences between instruments that one gets a sense of depth and air. My own comparison was to the dough in good bread vs. the rubbery textureless nature of plastic-wrapped supermarket loaves.

Well, I have to agree with Mardis and the others on this point. Mardis by the way blames the presence of a fourth order filter in the amp itself mostly used to reduce noise. He also claims that the Trends Audio amp (I haven't heard one yet) doesn't have this problem which would suggest that the problem has nothing to do with class-D or the tripath chip and that it's more a matter of implementation.
I'm in no position to dispute that, but I've noticed with both versions of the T-amp that either some musical quality is there or it's not there at all. Unlike older tube amps which approximated say bass transients without actually reproducing them or early transistor amps that did whatever the heck they did to make high frequencies wiry sounding, the T-amp gets to some boundary of certain kinds of musical detail and it then just quits.

One of the glories of the Super-T is that you can hear fingers touching the body of stringed instruments and occasionally even sort of get a sense of how a singer is opening his or her mouth. At the same time, there's a kind of quavery quality to voice that lets you know that it's a person with vibrating larynx instead of say a synthesizer or an instrument of some kind that I'v heard other amplifiers do better. I also have no idea why the T doesn't reproduce some of this and yet gets so many treble and upper midrange details. Before you go off and say "Well the Super-T just isn't for me then....", I have to mention that it's amazing that one would even be talking about issues like this in budget-level stereo equipment. The NAD for instance was a big seller and as pleasant as it sounded, there was no treble detail to speak of. Items like the Dynaco 70 or Stereo 35 did certain things well, but they also did many basic things very obviously wrong.

I have to get off this path though. Whenever I start talking about "parts of sound" I tend to become more of an Audiofool than a music lover or even an audiophile. I've always found the best way to turn off the Audiofool is to simply pay attention to how much I listen to the stereo with component X in it, how much I find myself want to listen, and what I start listening to.

Since the Super-T has been in my house, I've listened to a lot more music. When I stuck it in the big system in the living room and replaced my mid-fi Parasound 1200 with it, my wife made a point of commenting about how great the music sounded. Actually the Aria 3 speakers I have in there (Accuton-Ceratic tweeters and mid with Cabasse woofer) aren't efficient enough for the Sonic-Impact so the treble was a bit hooded and the bass was on the rubbery side, but yes there's a kind of presence to the Super-T that one notices.

I find myself listening to less symphonic music, possibly because the transients are a bit too challenging for the limited power of the amp. It is very good, however, at catching the differences in tone and placement of the sections of the orchestra and their interplay. As great as the detail is, it also tends to break down a bit when the music itself is very very thickly textured. I notice myself reaching for lots of string music, quartets, bluegrass. Jazz percussion comes across really well as does most small ensemble jazz. The Super-T is especially good with woodwinds. Don Byron's clarinet for instance sounds appropriately woody yet doesn't over resonate, supposedly the sign of very good management of intermodulation distortion.

I also found myself rediscovering Paul Simon's Hearts and Bones album from 1982,which has very detailed instrumental textures.
The amp rather surprisingly managed some things like a bass drum skin sound in "Numbers Get Serious" and the wispy sounding string/synthesizer textures in "Late Great Johnny Ace".

As long as I keep the Super-T away from the things it doesn't like to do, there's a liveliness to the music and a sense of pace (sorry to sound like a Linnie) that few budget components manage.

I liked it enough that I dropped the Super-T into my "good"system, a pair of Scanspeak 6.5 " two way speakers with a Canary Audio tube Amp and a Sony ES CD player (okay I haven't bought equipment in a while). I found myself hanging out there for hours listening to acoustic guitar records and vocal ensembles. With the Scanspeak, I did find that the Super-T tended to be very sensitive to high frequency sins in bad recordings. That's actually a good thing, it's just hard to listen to the truth sometimes. Cymbals for instance become more pots and pan screechy than bell like. With really good recordings, they went back to being resonant.

Is it good enough to live in a "serious" system? No. (it might be very intersting though as the top amp in a bi-amp setup) Could I live with it as my only amp? Yes. Is it four times better than the basic-T? No...all in all it's pretty similar. The Super-T sound has more apparent guts, better bass, and I think a bigger soundstage, but its virtues and shortcomings are more or less the same as the basic-T. Is it worth a hundred dollars more? Absolutely. If you wanted to make the same changes to the Basic-T it would cost you at least that to replicate the Super-T.

Is it great for a multimedia system or a second system? Absolutely.
My guess is that if you do, you'll find yourself listening to a lot more music say while at your computer. That's what's happened with me. You might not get as much work done, but you might have more fun doing it.

I wouldn't recommend this to the guy who wanted an amplifier for his motor scooter and who complained about my review of the basic-t. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes acoustic music at reasonable volumes. The Acura might just be a Honda Civic at heart, but for whatever reason, it's more fun to drive.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ehren Watada and Coram Nobis

For a while now, I've taken pride in following the Iraq War fairly closely. When my friend Roxy forwarded me an item about Ehren Watada, I was embarrassed to realize that I knew little to nothing about the case. Ehren Watada is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army who refused orders to go to Iraq in May 2006. His court martial proceedings begin next month. A soldier's courage is normally measured on the battlefield. Lt. Watada's has chosen to demonstrate his courage by refusing to fight in an unjust war. He is the first U.S. officer to openly refuse to serve in Iraq.

One of the surprising things is that the Army apparently offered to settle the matter at one point by assigning Lt. Watada to a desk job in Iraq. Watada countered by saying that he was willing to be assigned to Afghanistan which he considers a "just" war, but believes it is his duty to refuse service in Iraq essentially because the administration justified it through false pretenses.

Watada, who joined the army after 2003, does not claim to be a pacifist or a conscientious objector. Instead, he argues that soldiers have an affirmative duty to refuse a clearly invalid order. In this case, he points out that the invasion of Iraq was premised on false and purposely misleading information. In the meantime, Lt. Watada who has an otherwise exemplary record serves at a desk job stateside while waiting for his court martial. According to his lawyer, the lieutenant has even had fellow soldiers approach him to shake his hand and thank him for taking a stand.

Very few of us ever risk our lives for a principle. Lt. Watada is betting his life and military career that either a military tribunal or history itself will agree with his position.

A little more than fifty years ago, another American of Japanese descent, Fred Korematsu took a similar stance. After Pear Harbor Korematsu, then a very young man, in California went into hiding rather than report for relocation. The ACLU of Northern California supported Korematsu's stance that the relocation was unconstitutional,but Korematsu ultimately lost in the Supreme Court.

For the next 35 years, Fred Korematsu lived out his life working as a welder and draughtsman who could not advance his career because he remained a convicted felon for the one act of resistance that defined his life. For at least 30 years, the Japanese-American heroes of choice were the members of the 442nd a group of Japanese who went from the internment camps to fighting for the United States in Europe and who served so well that they were the most decorated combat force of their size during the war. The line went something like, "Once given the chance to prove their patriotism...."

In the 1970's, Korematsu found a lawyer Dale Minami who took the case and eventually got a reversal of the conviction in Judge Marilyn Patel's court on the basis of Coram Nobis, righting a wrong. Korematsu and his attorneys were able to show that the evidence of Japanese espionage had been fixed thirty years earlier to exagerrate the danger (that's got to sound a little bit familiar these days). When Korematsu had lost his Supreme Court case, Justice Black had leaned heavily on the potential danger and the fact that the U.S. was at war. Not long after that, the President awarded Fred Korematsu the medal of freedom.

Roughly a decade after Korematsu was exonerated and ultimately celebrated for his heroic act of dissent, the Congress voted reparations of 20,000 dollars to those who had been relocated. My stepfather was one of them. He pointed out at the time that it was really his father who had suffered the injustice. He was only fourteen at the time. It didn't really matter, my stepfather has still never seen a dime of the reparations.

In some odd ways, Ehren Watada's case suggests that there has at least been racial progress in 64 years. Not only is Watada an officer in the army, he's been able to dissent with surprisingly little expectation that he somehow represents all Asian-Americans.

In other ways though, some of the themes are too familiar. What does one do when the government misleads its own citizens? I already hear people saying that the new Democratic congress shouldn't get sidetracked by trying to impeach either the president or the vice-president even though most reasonable people now acknowledge that the nation was misled. Am I the only one wondering why we can't punish the president for getting thousands of people killed, but so many people assume that Lt. Watada should be court martialed and sentenced up to eight years in military prison for pointing out the truth?

It took thirty five years for coram nobis to vindicate Fred Korematsu for having said that the relocation of citizens simply for being Japanese was unconstitutional. The evidence that ultimately gave the court a reason to vacate his conviction was supressed for 35 years. We have a chance now to support Ehren Watada. He has not yet been tried and he has not yet been court martialed. We should be recognizing his courage.

It's not Ehren Watada who needs to be on trial. It's the people who gave orders that they knew to be wrong.


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Monday, January 01, 2007

Chancelucky and the Really New Year

I was responding to comments on this blog just before the New Year last night when the oddest thing happened. Each time I started trying to click on a new page or submit a comment, my computer started telling me that I had a “security problem.”
It insisted that the security rights for my page had expired in 2008. Talk about time flying as you get older!

I checked the date on my computer which told me that it was now 9:36 PM New Year’s Eve 2150. I figured this was good news. George W. Bush had been out of office for more than a hundred and forty years, assuming the two term rule still applied in 2008, and the world still had computers, electricity, and the internet. He hadn't killed us all after all. In fact, my study with its six sets of homebuilt speakers, three amplifiers, and hundreds of LPs that I no longer listen to, looked remarkably good for being a hundred and seventy years old. There were a few cobwebs here and there, but that was true back in 2006.

Was this the Y2k bug showing up seven years too late? On a national and international level, I do think skipping the seven years since the Supreme Court decided that equal protection applied to uncounted ballots instead of actual voters wouldn’t be the worst idea. Even in sports, I wouldn’t have missed any significant events in Warriors, 49er, or Stanford sports history. It also would have erased the whole 6th game of the world series with the Angels where the Giants had the wrong Rodriguez pitching in relief for them.
All in all, if I was going to be thrust forward a hundred and fifty years I would have much preferred having it happen to me when Y2k was the biggest worry in the news.

Having briefly contemplated the possibility that I had somehow slipped on a banana peel in the time space continuum, it did occur to me that there was simply something wrong with my computer. I clicked on the little icon with the time in the lower right corner of my display and all those security certificate warnings went away and my screen went back to normal. Now, I’m sitting here wondering if I did the right thing. I guess I could just change it back to New Year’s Eve 2150 again or any date I wanted for that matter. What would happen for instance if I changed the date on my computer to some time before they existed like 1832? Could you have the Windows operating system before anyone had thought of windows for instance? What if I set the date to 1906 and then went to the yahoo home page to see what the news was that day?

I guess that’s my problem. When it was 2150 and I skipped 143 years, I wasn’t the sort of person who had the guts to get up from my seat in front of the screen, walk a few steps, open the door to my study or even one of the windows to take a look around before I simply clicked myself back to a continuous-sequential 2007. I promise myself that next time something like this happens to me, I’ll at least explore a bit. All that time on Internet Explorer and it turns out that I’m the sort who prefers to stay at home.

It does occur to me that Bill Gates’s operating system is bound by time, but maybe God’s (or whatever universe builder you have in mind) real operating system doesn’t take time quite as literally as we do. Or maybe time itself works differently than we’ve been trained to think. Why the heck was I so scared by a warning on my computer screen that told me that my security certificate wasn’t in order because it expired back in 2008, 142 years ago?

In any case, Happy New Year to anyone reading this, whatever year it happens to be for you.


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