Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Paul Ryan: Budgetary Wunderkind

In honor of Paul Ryan's rebuttal to the State of the Union address, I wanted to go back to last year's Health Care Summit and show his amazing mind at work.

I'm looking forward to seeing more of him.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords: Congresswoman Assaulted by Gunman

There had been only eight congressmen killed or wounded before yesterday.  Yesterday, Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a murderer.  She lives barely, but not so the six others who are dead, including a long-sitting Federal judge, and more than a dozen wounded.

There is simply no place for this type of violence, whether it is politically motivated or due to mental disorder.  So far as political motivation goes, none of us should be so immature as to stoop so low to commit an act so vile.  It has been done before, regarding slavery, abortion, civil rights, war, and others.

Let us encourage one another to be mindful of our speech, lest we incite others to violence.  We can and must speak what we believe to be true, having persuasion as the goal, and explanation as the foundation.

This is the model of civil discourse to which we should strive.  Save violence for the defense of our nation against an aggressor who will not respond to diplomacy.  Save violence for the defense of our familes and homes against an aggressor who will not respond to warnings.  Save violence for the defense of the people against an aggressor state that deploys armed agents to take away our rights.

Gabrielle Giffords was unarmed.  She possessed only her vote in Congress and her ability to persuade and explain.  I pray for her speedy recovery, and those wounded with her, and mourn the deaths of the others, including Judge John Roll.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Guest Post: Why the reading of the Constition by Congress Matters

[Note:  This is a guest post from my old philosopher friend.  No names!  Just the voice of reason.]

Almost every country has a constitution, even if "unwritten". It is usuallly the basis (if only rhetorically) for all other laws and rules required to operate its government. So having "a constitution" is really no big deal.

But for the US, its constitution plays one other, supremely important role: It is what makes this "a country". In France, Germany etc. etc. it really matters little if its constitution is broken or disregarded. Frenchmen will still live in a France, Germans will still live in a Germany and so forth, In other words, their language, culture, ethnicity, long shared history and sometimes even religion provide a tie that is far more important and compelling than their constitutions.

Not so in the US. This country has a short history, its historical memory is too short to allow even that little to be "shared", it is ethnically greatly divided, much of its culture is a plaything of the moment, and it has great geographical and commercial differences between its various major regions. As has been observed, the US is really 4-5 different countries held together mainly by its constitution --- and this even before it has started worshipping "diversity". More correctly, it is held together by general acceptance of the constitution as a sort of a contract binding on all its citizens and their government. Remove that contract and/or its acceptance, and the only thing that is left to hold the country together is its sheer inertia.

That is why the call of the Tea Party (and of some Republicans) is so important. That is why the current reading of the constitution in congress (and other similar gestures) may be the single most important thing that this new Congress will have done. It is also why the contemptous reaction of the Left, including much of the Democratic Party, is so profoundly subversive.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tron: Legacy, Soundtrack Review

I mentioned before that I liked the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy.  Now that I have listened to it for several days at home and in the car, I can offer a review.

First, the soundtrack is a mix of traditional orchestral music and electronic synthesized music.  It seems that Daft Punk works chiefly in the electronic space, but their vision of the soundtrack sold the producer and director early in the production process.  They collaborated significantly to produce the soundtrack, and in my opinion it was a fruitful effort.

Second, the first half of the soundtrack mirrors the development of the storyline in the movie.  The tension in the music is hinted at in the early tracks, and becomes incredibly noisy and fractious in the second half.  The bass is amplified so much on some tracks that it literally hurts my ears with every beat, forcing me to adjust my bass setting downward.  On other tracks, the instruments are overdriven so much that they create a cacophany that literally stressed me out.  I think that my stress is due to listening to these tracks separately from the visual cues in the movie.  Despite these minor problems, my enjoyment of the soundtrack was only slightly diminished.  The tracks I like the most make the album completely worth the purchase.

Third, the CD comes with an insert filled with pictures from the movie.  The art and paper quality is excellent, making the actual purchase of the disc a benefit over simple download.  Even the lettering on the disc cover has a holographic quality, leading one to remember the strip lighting on everything within "the Grid."

Here's a track-by-track (Warning: Spoilers):

1) Overture
The overture begins with a drone in the low strings and a soft choir of horns.  This opening reminded me of the Prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold with its similar instrumentation and rhythm.  The introduction of synthesized instruments later is a little jarring, but then so is entering the Grid.  It works!  The heroic theme is simple, descending through a single octave.  It reminded me a little of the 1-3-2 tones played on an older phone (I can't hear these being any different on my modern phone), followed by the 4-6-5 and the 7-9-8.  The phone was the original hacker tool in the 70's, and that may be what brought this to mind.

2) The Grid
The initial voiceover by Jeff Bridges threw me at first.  I'm a geek though, so I got to like it the more I heard it.  The Grid theme occurs here.  This voiceover then segues into an electronic repeat of the heroic theme introduced in the Overture.  There's a mix of triumph and lament in the melody, which will play out in the film.

3) The Son of Flynn
I really liked this melody.  It's synthesized arpeggiated chord progressions patterned off the Grid theme.  I immediately thought of arcade games when I heard this, but it is set to Sam Flynn's motorcycle ride (on his dad's bike).  The camera work was great, including from the bike itself as it sped down the freeway.  Can you say "foreshadowing?"

4) Recognizer
A spiccato playing of a melody similar to Sam's theme, this is tense, dark, and probing ever lower.

5) Armory
Contemplative, soft music.  Fits the scene well.  ("What is going on," Sam thinks.)

6) Arena
Sam finds out soon enough what is going on.  It wouldn't be Tron without disc wars.  The music builds as the world of the Grid is revealed and the games begin.

7) Rinzler
Rinzler is the superbad, undefeated program in the games.  There is a hint of James Bond mixed with Sam's theme in the melody.  The overdriven instruments start in this track, but only briefly near the end.

8) The Game has Changed
The underlying melody is pure 80's synthetic, but the spiccato Grid theme is back in the strings, intertwining and repeating with the underlying melody.  The brass interrupt for emphasis from time to time, but the main energy is in the endless rhythm of the strings.

9) Outlands
Alternating notes in the upper strings, then broadening to the lower strings, with a quick and light touch that accompanies the escape from the electronic world of the Grid into the dark and rough world beyond it--the Outlands.  The theme is like the Grid, yet not fluid--it is apprehensive and discontinuous.  Brass instruments give slow, crescendoing notes, building toward the arrival at the destination.  Suddenly brass and woodwinds alternate in a frenzied descending staccato chord progression and finish the piece.

10) Adagio for Tron
Kevin Flynn tells his son where he has been, and of the death of Tron.  Strings provide the atmosphere and divide to also provide the melody.  Cellos and violas take the theme and share it with us in even richer tones.  Synthesized arpeggios quietly come in, and then an organ takes over the same theme.  The lower strings finish the moment of remembrance.  Then a pause, and a new direction.  Lower strings play staccato, followed by legato upper strings repeating the adagio.  Brass provide crescendo until a sudden retreat leaves a solo cello with soft upper strings slowly playing the adagio.  A very sad, pensive moment.

11) Nocturne
Slowly starting in the strings, playing softly, with a synthetic bass strumming slowly underneath.  This gives way to a slow synthetic melody.  The mood is dark and uncertain, and it ends slowly.

12) End of Line
Run by the DJ's at the club (Daft Punk in disguise?), this electronic piece is for dancing, but not frenetically fast.  In the background, one can hear the sounds of the arcade game "Pong," one of the original inspirations for the first Tron movie.  The original Tron movie (and arcade game) had a Pong-like game through which the player had to escape.
13) Derezzed
Much faster than "End of Line", this very synthetic track is frenetic in its pacing.  The bass pulses so strongly that it squeezes in on my head with every beat.  The repetition is part of the story, so it is hard to imagine doing anything other than being drunk and dancing (or other similar things) to this.

14) Fall
The elevator plummets.  The overdrive of the instruments sounds like the overdrive of the elevator as it is stressed by too much speed.  The beats are merciless.  The lower strings play the Grid theme over and over, rising as the tension mounts.  Brass instruments join in, then a drum roll, and then it is suddenly complete.

15) Solar Sailer
As with real sailing, the world around is quiet.  This track is a sea of tranquillity, with a steady pulsing of a synthetic bass driving the Solar Sailer forward..  An Enya-like arpeggio fades in, like Orinoco Flow in a calmer setting.  Strings add atmosphere, rising and falling in volume and scale as the journey continues.  Then it fades out.

16) Rectifier
A rectifier is something that allows electric current to flow in only one direction.  This martial piece is the beginning of the march to the final confrontation.  There is no turning back.  The mood rises as the lower strings chant, the upper strings strain to warn us of danger, and the brass announces the purpose of C.L.U.'s army.

17) Disc Wars
The drums are beating out the Grid theme in a toneless rhythm.  Synthetic brass add continuo.  The strings join, quietly, adding tone to the Grid theme.  Suddenly, a synthetic melody appears, arpeggiated downward always, building tension as the chords are struck.  More drums, accelerated this time, drive the track forward seemingly faster, yet without tempo increase.  Then the drums go quiet, and only the strings and synthetic bass are left to fade away quietly.

18) C.L.U.
A bass drone sets the stage.  After a few moments, strings beat out the Grid theme in rising tension.  Without warning a synthetic, jaunty instrument completely takes the music, repeating an alternating pattern of notes.  The strings return to raise the tension.  Trills sharpen the high edges of the score.  Brass suddenly dominate--C.L.U. is relentless in his pursuit of perfection.  High strings take us up, then turn the note again and again as the drama reaches climax.  The lower strings take over and beat out the Grid theme, now stronger and with synthetic help.  Drums beat only for emphasis.  Brass raise the scale and the tension over and over.  Drums then beat 1-2, 1-2-3-4, repeating again and again and again.  Then full stop, and only echoes are left.

19) Arrival
Synthetic and haunting, a new melody, related to the heroic theme, like a slow lament, plays.  Voices like an angelic choir seem to hover high above the slow melody line.  High strings mimic the angels, and then it is quiet.
20) Flynn Lives
A rhythmic line related to the Grid theme, played spiccato, forms the foundation.  Low brass sing solemnly.  The horn choir return, playing to us the heroic theme from the Overture.  Winds arpeggiate this time, increasing the feeling of triumph, causing the feeling of lament to diminish.  Sam, with Quorra behind him on his father's motorcycle, ride off into the sunset--her first ever on her first night outside of the Grid.
21) Tron Legacy (End Titles)
Echoing "End of Line", a synthetic music line takes us through the electronic credits.  Strings join with the heroic theme and bring it to a satisfying climax.

22) Finale
This track was not in the movie.  It is orchestral, building slowly from a pensive start--like the Overture.  But this is a heroic synopsis of the music of the movie.  It quickly builds to a climax, then retreats to a soft, upper strings and woodwind conclusion.  When the last high note ends, one releases a sigh for what has happened.  The journey is complete, and cannot be repeated.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Milgram Experiment, the TSA, and We the People

Last week, Kathy's dad returned from a trip to the west coast. On his way back, he noticed TSA agents completely dismantling and inspecting a wheelchair. What he then noticed appalled him to the core: the owner of that wheelchair, an elderly woman of 90 years or so, standing on the footprint mat, her legs slightly spread, swaying as a TSA agent gave her the new pat-down. On the woman's face was a far-away look, like she had dementia, but obvious in the moment was the terror and fear that she felt.

He told us sadly and with some self-loathing that he did not say anything then. He wanted so much to go over and tell the agents to stop, and that they should be ashamed of what they were doing, not merely to an American citizen, but to a woman who could have been their own aged parent or grandparent. We agreed with him that he and the travelers in the security area should have threatened a riot over so obvious a display of cruelty at the hands of the state.

Daily Kos does a fair defense of the TSA agents, but this only raises the issue studied by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the aftermath of World War 2:  Why do the agents obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience?  Similarly, why do we obey an authority figure who performs acts on us or on fellow travellers that conflict with our personal choices?

(See the Milgram Experiment on YouTube:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.  I first saw these in Psych 201 back in 1992.  These videos send chills down my spine even now, seeing the anguish in so many test subjects as they deliver the shock despite their personal belief that they are causing harm.)

[Note: Kathy's dad lived in occupied Budapest during World War 2, and German soldiers were garrisoned in his home frequently.  He saw both sides of these soldiers: the normal, conscientous type at home; and the cruel finger of the state in the streets.  For him to describe what he saw is to look through the eyes of one who saw the real cruelty of the past and the shadow of such cruelty that is darkening our airports.]

I do not want to suggest that America is becoming Nazi Germany.  That is a leap too far.  But when specific state actions mimic historically condemned actions, the question needs to be raised, "Why?!"  The Milgram Experiment shows the danger inherent in a state bureaucracy carrying out actions that are brutal--these actions happen with alarming alacrity and minimal actual restraint.

Frogs don't boil when the heat is turned on all at once.  They die when they are boiled gradually.  Likewise, totalitarian states did not happen overnight.  They occurred gradually.  We know this, so why can't we seem to agree to stop it from happening here in the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave?  Why do we have so many people who think it is a sign of progress?

I just don't understand how what is happening got this far.  We should know better!  We do know better.  It is past time for us to unite and take action.  We can exercise our First Amendment rights: to decry what is happening, and to petition our government for a redress of our grievance.  What comes after depends on the government's response.

Saturday, January 1, 2011