Thursday, April 30, 2009

From Shawshank to Mumbai

I recently saw this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire. The story is simple: Jamal (Dev Patel) is a young man who serves beverages for a tech support company in India and has spent most of his life in poverty, yet as the film opens he is one question away from winning the twenty-million rupee top prize on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" As the police interrogate him on suspicion of cheating, he tells his life story, explaining how he knows the answers to the questions and why he got on the gameshow in the first place. Naturally, there's a girl involved, Latika, played by the fetching Freida Pinto. It is an uplifting movie, if not always a pleasant one. In some ways, it reminds me of one of my longtime favorites, The Shawshank Redemption.

Shawshank, based on a short story by Stephen King, concerns Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker convicted of double homicide and sent to Shawshank State Prison. He quickly makes enemies, a few friends, and begins formulating plans to make the system work to his advantage. Within a matter of years, he's doing tax returns for the prison guards, expanding the library, tutoring petty thieves in grammar, and managing to remain optimistic that one way or another he's going to get out.

Both films start off as disturbing and violent--no punches are pulled in showing the viewer that Andy and Jamal have tough lives. Both characters find themselves literally crawling through excrement to achieve an objective. Both are abused, physically and psychologically, and both face the threat of losing even what little they have. And both manage to confound and shock their antagonists-Shawshank has a twist that would have made Rod Serling proud. Both films have that wonderful achievement of bringing the audience to an honest ending that seems light years away from where the film started. It seems perfectly natural to watch the Bollywood-style line dance "Jai ho" (a lyric that connotes victory in the Hindi language) at the end of Slumdog and join in its sense of exhileration. Shawshank also has a powerfully uplifting ending, though thankfully we don't have to watch Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman dancing around to Indian pop music. So if your spirits need a lift, I highly recommend either of these films.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


This is a post I wrote on MySpace on December 8, 2008. In the interest of promoting recycling, I will now copy that blog here. I believe that it is as applicable today as it was a few months ago.

I just saw an internet ad claiming "so-and-so has a 125 IQ. Are you smarter?" as a lure to get me to take some form of online IQ test. I declined.

I have taken IQ tests in various forms, from television quizzes to achievement tests to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (or ASVAB; it's a test required for entry into any of the Armed Forces) and who knows what else. I couldn't tell you my IQ right off hand; I think it's above average and just below genius. So they tell me.

Our culture places a huge value on intelligence. Our culture also places a huge value on quantifying often intangible things. So of course, there's a great desire to see intelligence quantified as well. I recently read a book called "How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?" (written by William Poundstone, Little, Brown publisher) that deals with various types of puzzles and tests, and it deals with the story of how modern IQ tests got started. For the record, they were often weighted to fulfill the expectation that those who had better education, came from more affluent backgrounds, and were typically white would get the highest scores. (This was back when school systems were largely still segregated.) So the tests were a good measure of one's ability to take the test, but not necessarily of one's innate intelligence.

Here's what gets me about this: intelligence isn't everything. Much has been said about this or that politician's intelligence during election cycles. It's a bit of a wash when both candidates have Ivy League backgrounds (i.e. 2000: Bush went to Yale, Gore went to Harvard; 2004: Kerry also went to Yale) but yet again, Ivy League education isn't everything. Particularly in the area of leadership, intelligence isn't enough. Something else is even more important, and it isn't much talked about: judgement.

Lots of people are book-smart, and a lot of people have great intuition about a particular field that fascinates them. But judgement is a rare quality--the ability to determine what is the best option, to weigh evidence, to consider possible outcomes, to know when and where to inject character and emotion into a set of cold statistics. It is also the ability to weigh practical outcomes within a set of ethical parameters and know when (or if) to place one above the other. If there were some way to measure this quality, it would be far more valuable than an IQ score.

Remember, the people who run our financial institutions and our government have (by and large) attended the best schools and reached the pinnacle of their chosen professions. Clearly they are intelligent. But what does our current situation say about their judgement?

Thursday, April 23, 2009


We disagree.

If you're reading this, I guarantee that you and I disagree about...something. Possibly many somethings. That's fine; one of the wonderful things about this society is that we are allowed to disagree, just so long as our disagreements do not lead to violence or the infringement of another's rights. But if we discover disagreements, we have the opportunity to discuss them in a civil and respectful manner. That's a very good thing, and we are so used to such opportunity that we tend to take it for granted.

Now, let's discuss something a little different. There are many words for it...decorum, propriety...the most commonly used these days is "manners." There are good manners--holding a door for someone, smiling when you shake someone's hand, addressing your elders as "sir" or "ma'am." Then there are bad manners--shutting the door in someone's face, using racial slurs, shouting obscenities around other people's children. Good manners show a desire to be kind toward others, an aknowledgement that society has rules for how to treat other people, an acceptance of traditions stretching back for centuries. Bad manners demonstrate that one is self-centered, poorly-educated, lacking in basic social skills.

I bring this up because a few stories have been circulating in the news recently. For instance, a beauty contestant was asked a question about her opinion on a controversial topic. She gave an honest answer, honest to the point that it showed clear disagreement with the current President's policies, but she did it in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

She won the pageant.

Oh were probably thinking about the first runner-up. She also had a controversial question to answer, and her answer was consistent with publicly stated positions from the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Her answer was also consistent with the majority of voters in her home state of California. She answered politely, even though her wording was a bit clumsy, and even acknowledged her understanding that many in the audience would disagree with her and that she intended no offense. She demonstrated that even when she disagreed with someone else, she still had good manners.

Some of the judges weren't so...polite. One of them even launched a written and verbal tirade, more than once, calling her all sorts of inappropriate names-names you wouldn't want anyone to use on your mother, daughter, or sister-and even threatening physical violence against her. In his mind, it wasn't enough that she didn't agree with him. Her lack of conformity to his expectations completely removed any right she had to even be a participant. Other judges and sponsors of the pageant, rather than standing up for the young lady who had the audacity to be honest, sided with the offended judge, sharing his dismay that such a horrible opinion could ever be held by one of their participants. In short, they displayed horribly bad manners.

Tom Tancredo, a Congressional representative from North Carolina, was about to give a talk about illegal immigration to a group of students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. A group of demonstrators who disagreed with his stated position on the issue stormed in, displaying a large banner on stage directly in front of him. They chanted, they yelled, they pounded on the window and even broke the glass. He had to leave before finishing his remarks as his safety was in question by that point. Rather than politely listen to a dissenting opinion, these intellectually robust and emotionally thoughtful students decided the best reaction was to throw a tantrum. One wonders how their parents dealt with their unruly grocery store behavior as children. Did their professors apologize for the students' immaturity? Their bad manners? Their thoughtless treatment of an invited guest who was a duly elected public official? No, they defended the demonstration as free speech.

Clearly, our culture values the importance of free speech. Our culture, however, clearly does not value the importance of good manners. Freedom of expression is a hallmark of a society that can embrace new and unusual ideas. Intolerance of dissenting opinion is a hallmark of a society that has forgotten how to play with others and is in need of some serious discipline.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Parable About Socialism

Today, I came across this interesting article. The story is probably not real; a parable would be a better way to describe it. (The writer of the blog mentions this in the comments section.)

The story reminds me of my experience in Army basic training back in 1999 at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. The general technique at the time was to enforce a group mentality. We succeeded as a platoon, or we failed as a platoon. As a result, when one person messed up, we all got punished, usually with more pushups or some other form of physical exersion. For the first two or three weeks, this was effective. Eventually it stopped being effective, to the point that my platoon often displayed even less teamwork at the end of training than we did at the beginning. I picked up on this pretty quickly, as I was in training during a summer break from college and I had been taking classes in the education curriculum. What we collectively realized was that the odds of everyone following all the instructions all the time were very low. So the more immature trainees began to figure out that no matter what they did, they'd have to pay for someone's mistake. Therefore, if there was any type of momentary enjoyment to be derived from failing to follow simple instructions, they'd do it. If you're going to pay for the sin, you might as well enjoy committing it, right? So even a day or two before we all graduated basic training, people were openly disregarding instructions from the drill sergeants, because they had learned that there was nothing to lose by not following directions.

It brings to mind a quote of Winston Churchill: "The inherent vice of capitalism is the uneqal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."

We had the equal sharing of miseries, just like the students in the story linked above. When those who do the right thing receive nothing but the punishment for those who do poorly, then they will stop doing the right thing. It doesn't matter whether it's right or wrong, because it is a fact of human nature.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Brief Comment on Prof. Stephen Hawking

I just came across this news story on Yahoo:

It's about the hospitalization of Stephen Hawking, 67, writer of books such as the best-selling A Brief History of Time. He has long been considered one of the foremost minds in the realm of theoretical physics. I admit I haven't read any of his books; I have read exerpts of his work and selected interview segments. I also saw his guest appearance several years ago on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he played a holographic representation of himself. Yes, I am a nerd. He was also referenced in "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody "White and Nerdy."

Now, I don't know much at all about theoretical physics. Even on subjects about which I'm knowledgeable, I don't know that I'd be able to hold an intelligent conversation with him. Doubtless we disagree on important issues, particularly on spiritual subjects. Still, I admire this man's mind. Not just his intelligence, mind you, but his strength of will. He's 67 years old. He's lived with ALS (or Lou Gehrig's Disease) since he was 21. He is almost completely paralyzed and can only speak with a computerized voice synthesizer, yet he has lived far longer than most ALS patients, held one of the top science chairs at Cambridge University (one of his predecessors was Sir Isaac Newton!), written best-selling books on difficult intellectual subjects, and traveled the world lecturing on those subjects. He has one of the most debillitating conditions possible, and yet he has reached one of the rarest positions in history, a popularizer of new scientific ideas.

So thank you, Stephen Hawking, for your inspiring determination and example, and I wish you all the best and a speedy recovery.

It's All About The Debt!

Well, here I am. I have lots of friends who are bloggers, and I read lots of blogs, so I've decided to start my own. Welcome to the Inaugural Posting of The Freedom Trombone! Why did I choose that name? Well, because I'm a) a trombonist and b) a patriotic American. Plus, I just like the sound of it.

What will I blog about? Anything! As a musician, former educator, avid film fan, outdoorsy, sports-loving, politically observant, Christian, American male, I expect I'll find all sorts of things to write about. Today, I'm going to write about debt.

I used to be in debt. Not for "good" reasons either. I didn't take student loans to get through college or graduate school, didn't buy a house, did buy a car, and just generally made some dumb money decisions. But not anymore! I got a sizeable promotion at work a few months ago, and used the occasion to really begin tackling my debt problem. I paid off the car, the credit cards, and whatever other financial obligations I had, and now I owe nothing but recurring utility bills. Hats off to The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey; if you're having trouble with money I highly recommend it. It is amazing how much more financial freedom one has when there is no debt. I have so much more flexibility to donate to my church and charitable causes (I especially like donating to Leukemia and Lymphoma Research, Juvenile Diabetes Research, and to friends of mine who are taking mission trips.) I can also contribute to my Roth IRA and start saving up for that house, whenever I decide to buy one.

I mention this because I know what it feels like to be a prisoner of debt. Wait...maybe a better term would be slave of debt. When you're in debt, all the money you make really belongs to someone else. I still feel anger over how I've spent years paying off some bank when I could have been investing that money in my future, or at least a new Shires trombone. Also, I'm angered that as a taxpayer, I'm responsible for helping pay off our national debt. That's right...our country is not financially solvent at the moment. It hasn't been for years, but in the current financial crisis people are more cognizant of the debt. Not only do we find ourselves encouraged to be in debt--that's what you're doing every time you take a loan or use a credit card--but our government can not stop spending money it doesn't we don't have. Because the government gets its money from us. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that within ten years, at our current rate of spending, we'll be paying billions of dollars a year just to pay the interest on our national debt. Essentially, we'll be so far under that we will never pay it off. Not unless our spending habits change. That's something that the commentators at MSNBC and CNN missed last week while they were making dirty jokes and rude comments about people who attended the Tax Day Tea Party protests: it wasn't about current tax rates, it was about the ridiculous amount of spending on bailouts and social programs, spending that only increases our debt problem. Then again, the lack of contrast between professional journalists and Comedy Central is a topic suitable for its own blog post.

Now, a big part of the future tax plan of America is the notion that 95% of the public won't pay income tax. Only those who make $250,000 or more will pay taxes. What is conveniently left out of this proposal is that the death tax will increase, the capital gains tax is going to skyrocket, and cap and trade taxes will be imposed on businesses that don't use "green" energy. (NOTE: that means virtually every business that relies on grid electricity and trucking to do business...which means just about every industry in America will have to pay much higher energy rates, which means they'll pass those expenses onto the consumer...YOU.) The cost of investing, doing business, shipping goods, receiving goods, and inheriting your grandpa's farm is going to increase exponentially, and that isn't including the fact that every business owner and executive who makes more than a quarter of a million dollars will have to raise prices or fire employees (hello, higher unemployment!) in order to maintain their profit margins. (Because businesses must make a profit...otherwise, the business owner finds something else to do.) "BUT WAIT!" you say. "PEOPLE WHO MAKE THAT MUCH MONEY CAN AFFORD IT!"

You think so?

Let's go back to how I started this column. I didn't live in a cardboard box. I wasn't starving. I had a car, and a job. But that didn't change the fact that I was broke. I was able to get by, but in terms of being able to control my financial situation, I effectively had nothing. Consider that many of those high-earning business executives, lawyers, and doctors had to go to school, and they may still be taking years to pay of thousands of dollars in student loans. Maybe they bought a huge new house, they're paying for expensive schools and tutors for the kids, they just got a new Jaguar, they're keeping a stylish wardrobe. In short, they're spending way more than they have. And now, they're responsible for paying for everything that Washington, D.C. decides to throw money at. Do you see the problem? Many wealthy people "look" wealthy, but they often have the same financial issues that I did, just on a bigger scale.

So, if you're reading this, learn to live within your means. (Again, read the works of Dave Ramsey; he has great ideas for getting rid of debt in common-sense, ethical ways.) Don't expect the "rich" to pick up your tab. And don't expect people in Washington to be wiser with your money than you are.

Thanks for reading!