Monday, January 28, 2013

What You Need

 There is a question that has been popping up a lot recently in discussions of various issues, and it is a thorny problem for a society that is as affluent and fortunate as ours is. Again, I'm going to touch on some controversial issues here, but my hope is that the reader may see these issues in a new light. I have a lot of links in this one, which I hope will give clarification to the claims that I make.

Why do you need _____________?

  This is a question worth asking, of course. Why should I spend money or time on a particular thing, when it might be put to better use elsewhere. But that isn't what I'm writing about. The subject of this post is the way other people ask "why do you need ______" in a rhetorical fashion, as if the question itself is a way to win the argument. When people, especially people in a position of power, ask why you need to have something, it is often a prelude to them justifying why they should be allowed to take away what you don't need.

 For example, during election season a lot of people asked, "why do millionaires and billionaires need all that money?" "I'd be happy with just a fraction of that." "Can't they do with a little less?" When these questions were being asked, they weren't just thoughtful reflections on the nature of materialism in our society. They were actually attempts to justify taking wealth away from people. More than once, we heard calls for extremely wealthy people to "pay their fair share." The idea was implicit--no one needs that much money, so it is not right for them to have it. Given the evidence that the wealthiest people tend to pay more taxes, both in total amount and in percentage of taxes collected, it seems to me that this was a call to promote envy as much as fairness; in effect making the claim that "they have more than you do, so someone needs to even things up." It is worth noting that though the speeches tended to focus on "millionaires and billionaires," the bills proposed targeted households with $250,000 and up. The rhetoric focused on the extremely wealthy (which are extremely few in number) while the legislation targeted a significantly larger group of people, most of whom are not millionaires, especially in terms of annual income. The question of "how much money do you need?" draws our attention away from how money has been earned and how it is spent. Thus, we are encouraged to have the mindset that no matter how much money a person has, he must give more to US. Meanwhile, even wealthy celebrities who call for people like themselves to pay more seem to ignore that if they want to donate their extra millions to the IRS, they can. Let us remember the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17) and remember that greed is often defined by wanting to take things that do not belong to you.

"We've become a culture where earning money doesn't entitle you to it, but wanting it does."--Ken Blackwell

 But a lot of money is not the only thing that we don't need. With the widespread coverage of horrific mass shootings in the news, the availability of certain weapons and various paraphernalia associated with them has caused many to ask, "why do you need a military-style weapon?" "Why do you need high-capacity magazines?" and other such questions. While I have no doubt that many people who ask these questions have good intentions, the questions ignore the fact that most gun violence involves small handguns, not rifles. In addition, "assault rifle" is a term that describes a weapon's appearance, not its function. (Many confuse "assault" with "automatic," which means that the weapon fires continuously while the trigger is squeezed. Fully-automatic weapons are not available on the open market, and were not used in any of the recent high-profile shooting sprees.) There is an assumption that since Soldiers use a type of weapon, people who are not Soldiers have no practical use for them at all. Similarly, people commonly ask about the necessity for magazines (not to be confused with "clips," which are not the same thing) to hold more than, say, ten rounds. To me, this is like asking why a healthy person has medical insurance--while it is unlikely that multiple rounds would be needed against a single attacker, to assume that there will never be a need for them is a bit arrogant. While many proponents of magazine limitations believe that such laws will prevent the ability of shooters to perform mass killings, the truth is that a determined homicidal maniac can carry multiple magazines and reload quickly, just the same as people desperate for a whole lot of root beer will buy multiple cups if they can't get one Big Gulp.

 Good intentions, as I have said in previous blogs, do not excuse bad decisions. When other people make the determination that you don't need something, be it money, an AR-15, big soft-drink cups, a high-performance sport car, a big house, a flat-screen television, an iPad, or the freedom to not pay for things that contradict your beliefs, it does not logically follow that they may prevent you from having what you don't need. Otherwise, we would find ourselves reduced to a utilitarian society where we are only allowed the very minimum to survive, because someone might decide that art, music, and literature are luxuries beyond the things that sustain us. Whenever a person tells you that you don't really need something, I'd recommend checking your pockets immediately.

Edited 29 January 2013 for spelling and Ken Blackwell quote

Thursday, January 24, 2013


 There are many serious subjects that I've thought about tackling in this blog recently. All sorts of crazy things have been going on in the world, and quite a few merit some serious reflection. Many of them are also quite controversial and cause tempers to flare. So I've done plenty of thinking about whether or not I should address any of these issues, and how I should go about doing so. One of these subjects is debt. Specifically, the national debt, and why it's the constant problem that it is. This may be a lengthy post, because I'm going to try to cover all the bases that need to be covered and not leave any gaps. Having said that, I could write a book about the subject, indeed, many already have, and still not cover everything. The nation's problems will not be solved in the space of one blog posting, but I hope this will turn out to be thought-provoking and perhaps help you reconsider how you evaluate what you hear and read in the news.

 It's important to understand some of the terms in the discussion. The deficit is the amount that the federal government spends beyond what it takes in every fiscal year. (For instance, if the government takes in $500 and spends $600, the result is a $100 deficit.) The debt is the total of all the previous deficits that still remain. (If we incur a $100 deficit for ten years in a row and make no progress on paying the balance, the debt is $1000, plus interest.) The government has managed to operate under deficits for decades, and as a result our current national debt is approximately $11.5 trillion. It is probably safe to say that our country has more debt than has ever been held in the history of the world. The reason we have not yet had a major collapse, like Greece experienced recently, is that we  are not capable of defaulting on our payments because we print our own currency. Greece, as a member of the European Union, did not print its own currency.

 This is a good thing to keep in mind when you hear news reports about upcoming budget negotiations. Talk about the catastrophe of bills being unpaid is just that: talk. The government takes in enough every month to pay what it needs to pay on our obligations. This does not mean that higher deficits are not a problem; merely that the problem is bad rather than horribly bad. But no single political party or President has caused this to happen, and no single group or President will drive us "over the cliff," so to speak. The talk of crisis is ginned-up hyperbole made to take advantage of the fact that people will allow for drastic measures in a crisis that they will not accept in a normal situation. Thus, those who want to make big changes create a climate of crisis in order to achieve their goals. (Please understand, I'm not saying that the crisis is never real; just that you should immediately pay close attention when you hear the term used.)

 But deficits are not good, and the presence of deficits puts strain on our financial system. The government has certain obligations that it must meet--funding the military, paying for government employees, etc.--and deficits show us a government that incurs more obligations than it can afford. A government that routinely runs up massive deficits is probably spending far more than it should, and taxpayers should have no problem asking if the taxes they are paying are being used wisely. It is a subject for a different discussion that there are many worthy things that receive government funding, but perhaps that is not the best source of funding for those things. Heated debates have been held over cutting military funding or cutting money to PBS, but all too rarely do these debates touch on the real source of the problem: spending too much money.

 The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that all deficits are always the result of spending too much. There is no other way to create a deficit than to spend more than is taken in. Those who are in the habit of overspending rarely lose that habit when they get more money. More often, they respond to financial windfall by spending even more and winding up with more debt. The reason that our government is constantly in negotiations on raising the debt ceiling is that there has been no effort to restrain the spending that created the debt in the first place. (Doesn't it defeat the purpose of having a debt ceiling if we can just raise it any time we want?) The constant drumbeat of raising taxes (again, another subject for a different post) is a result of the fact that we are not generating enough money to cover all the expenditures we make. Of course, in Washington, convincing people to cut spending is like convincing them to cut off their own arms. Politicians have constituents who like their federal money, and the threat of losing election campaign support or alienating the voters makes them reluctant to cut anything. Add to this the modern media culture, in which no distinction is ever made between reducing spending for a thing and cutting that spending entirely out of the budget. (And as a member of the military, yes, I do not want my pay and benefits, or even my job, cut. I still will maintain that there is probably wasteful spending in the military budget that can be cut without drastically affecting those currently serving and without compromising the safety of the nation.)

 The solution to our debt problem is simple: stop spending so much. But simple does not mean easy. We are in many ways the most prosperous nation on earth, but history shows us that prosperity will eventually end if it is not used responsibly. When more money is printed, the currency is devalued. When debt is held by foreign nations, they gain leverage over us both in trade and in diplomatic issues. As long as we continue to take half-measures to address the problem and as long as we refuse to pass a responsible budget (well, any budget), this issue is going to come up again, and again, and again. If we really want to get our fiscal house in order, we have to stop spending more money than we have.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Perchance To Dream

 Vacation is over and I'm back in the Augusta/Fort Gordon area. I did not anticipate taking a couple of weeks off of the blog, but I do have some good reasons. For one, coming back to work and getting back into a rhythm (metaphorically as well as musically) was the most important thing to focus on. However, I also realized while I was in Nashville that something was wrong with me physically. I discussed my symptoms with a doctor I know and he recommended that I see someone when I got back to Georgia. So I did. And my suspicions were confirmed--I was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia, something I've never had to deal with before. Fortunately it was nothing life threatening, but this was the first time that I've been put on "profile." That's Army-speak for being under orders to limit certain physical activity, which in my case meant just about everything. I was scheduled for surgery, which I underwent this past Wednesday.

 So now I'm at home recovering, and I have no real good excuse for not getting some blogging done over the next few days. I'm fortunate that my parents were able to come down and get me to and from the hospital and keep me mobile over the past several days, and I also got plenty of good care and advice from Julia, who is a nurse. Always take a nurse's advice when you're going through surgery, that is my new motto. And I should also acknowledge the support of my chain of command at work, who have been nothing but supportive in making the process as easy as possible.

 Today, we can also appreciate the rare and fortunate circumstance we have in this country--every four to eight years, we have a transfer of power that happens peacefully. It is not easy, it involves furious debate and discussion, emotions get raw, nerves get frayed, and foolish things get said--but in the end, the government of the nation changes and no shots are fired, and it is easy for us to forget that in the context of world history what we do is far from the norm. And even when the President is re-elected, as was the case this year, there are still changes in the Congress and the balance of power shifts just a little, and yet our system is designed to allow this to happen relatively smoothly.

 And I suppose it is fitting that this year we ceremonially mark this occasion on the same day that we ceremonially acknowledge the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To me, Dr. King's legacy is a reminder that true change is effected in a society through the skillful use of words and ideas to change the culture rather than the use of legislative power. No amount of laws can replace the idea that the content of a person's character is not related to that person's appearance or cultural background. What a great dream to have....

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Don't Believe Your Eyes

 The internet is a wonderful thing because information can be transmitted almost instantly all over the world. The internet is also a terrible thing, because misinformation can be transmitted almost instantly all over the world. And how many times have people been swayed by misinformation because it confirms what they already want to believe?

 A simple example of this would be that oft-quoted aphorism that "insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." This saying is frequently attributed to Albert Einstein. Maybe he said it; I've never seen any documentation that he did. It is understandable that people like to think that Einstein said it, because that means that it must be true. He was a genius, right? (Granted, his field of expertise was theoretical physics, which has little to do with psychology.) We hear something that sounds clever, and we think, yeah, I bet that is a great way of describing insanity. We don't stop to think that it is probably a better description of ignorance, inexperience, or stupidity than insanity. An insane person is more likely to think that his crayon scribbling shows that he is Rembrandt reincarnated, or that shooting up a school will give meaning to his life. He is less likely to be doggedly persistent in pursuit of a goal.

 I'm digressing a bit...misinformation.

 So anyway, what prompted this rant of mine was something that I saw of Facebook and Twitter a few times today. This picture has been making the rounds, and something very similar circulated a few months ago:

 Pretty cool, huh? It only caught my attention because I've seen all three Back To The Future movies a bunch of times, and I have a knack for remembering generally useless information, so I remember that Marty and Doc travel to 2015, not 2013. (All the dates in the series are done in easy-to-follow thirty year intervals, or multiples of thirty: 1985, 2015, 1955, 1885.) Apparently, someone figured out how to manipulate the image. Harmless right? I suppose so, though lots of people have already passed it around without giving any thought to whether or not it is true.

 The thing is, that picture is convincing. It looks real. And we have been conditioned to accept what we see, as long as it fits our expectations. Many people accepted without question documents that "proved" former President George W. Bush was absent from required National Guard training time, because it fit their preconceptions about his character. The ruse was discovered only when someone who designed typewriters noticed that the documents contained an font artifact particular to Microsoft Word that would never be produced on typewriters of the 1970s. Even after the story was shown to be a fraud, many people continued to believe it--no doubt someone reading this very blog still does--because it fit their prejudice against a politician. In the same way, many people cling to the belief that President Obama was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii, despite birth announcements being printed in two different Honolulu newspapers in 1961. We see what we wish to see, and dismiss the things that might prove us wrong.

 My point is, be patient. Don't reflexively spread things without making sure they are true. Don't assume the worst about people who disagree with you and then forward reports to prove how "awful" they are. I'll be writing more soon about the importance of critically evaluating the information you see before making a judgment. In a time when there is a lot of arguing about a lot of important issues, pause before you share. Unless you're going to forward this blog to someone, of course.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Trombone

 It stands to reason that, given the title of this blog, I should write something about my trombone. The trombone that I use the most, the one that I own, has gone through some changes in the past year. Parts of it are the same horn that I first got when I was in college back in 1997, but some parts are virtually brand new. (As a side note, many parts of this horn are the one that I'm playing as a member of the University of New Mexico Wind Symphony on Joseph Alessi's Illuminations CD. As another side note, I am the only trombonist besides Mr. Alessi who plays on every track of that recording.)

 My trombone is an Edwards bass trombone. Edwards is the professional line of instruments made by the Getzen company. My parents bought the trombone for me when I was a college student at the University of Tennessee and had switched from tenor to bass trombone. It has a rose brass bell, medium weight. The original slide was a standard dual-bore bass slide, though a couple of years later I upgraded to a nickel-crook slide that had better response. The original valve section was a dual axial-flow valve, which was popular at that time for its very "open" feel and sound. And make no mistake, a lot of great players still use and prefer that particular design. But in recent years, I began to feel that those valves were a bit mechanically cumbersome, and didn't allow me to get quite the sound that I wanted, with a little more "edge" to it. I did quite a bit of research, trying various other designs by other manufacturers, but never committed to making a purchase.

 I finally decided to make some changes after I returned from Afghanistan in the fall of 2011. The horn had spent the better part of a year not being played while I was overseas, and just wasn't working the way I wanted it to. I realized it was time to get an overhaul. I decided to have a conversion done by the Greenhoe company in Wisconsin. Founded by Gary Greenhoe, who played in the Milwaukee Symphony, they make customized valve sections that are based on traditional rotary valves but with modifications in the design to improve resonance and airflow. To ensure a proper fit, I sent them the bell and tuning slide of my trombone, which was easy given that Edwards horns are modular in design. While they were working on the horn, they were able to smooth out a crease in the bell that had happened several years ago. In addition to great craftsmanship, they have great customer service--more about that in a little bit.

They also re-lacquered the main tuning slide in order to make it match visually with the new tubing.

When my modified horn arrived, I was quite pleased. The improvement in response and tone quality was immediately apparent, and getting the proper sound took noticeably less effort. The valves operate very smoothly, and quietly, and there is virtually no difference between the feel of playing with no valves or using both at once. And they look good too!

 One thing still was not quite right: the slide. Upon having a local repairman examine the slide, I learned that the problem was red rot--the brass was corroding from the inside out, and any attempt to do chemical cleaning could make the corrosion worse. (The problem likely resulted from the months of non-use while I was deployed, allowing small particles to sit and corrode the metal when regular use would have discouraged build-up.) The fine people at Edwards informed me that red rot was covered under the warranty. I sent the slide to the Edwards plant and they replaced the entire upper tube, while also removing a small dent from the slide crook and re-lacquering the lower tube to remove some small normal-wear scratches. As a result, the slide worked smoother than it had in years.

 The final change was made when I attended the National Brass Symposium in the spring at Kennesaw State University. While there, I was able to try out some leadpipes. (That's pronounced "leed," not "led." The lead pipe is where the mouthpiece is inserted into the horn, and it is now common for horns to have interchangeable leadpipes which allow a player to further customize the way the horn responds.) I decided to go with a sterling silver leadpipe, which "felt" better than the one I had been using. My trombone upgrade was complete!

 Now, about that customer service at Greenhoe that I mentioned earlier. I had for years carried the horn around in a Reunion Blues gig bag, which was lightweight and easy to carry but offered little in the way of protection. In recent years, modern technology has caught up with the instrument case business and several manufacturers offer cases that are compact and light but still offer good protection from dents, dings, most destructive impacts. Greenhoe offers BAM cases on their website, so I inquired about the options. They told me their new bass trombone cases were out of stock, but that they did have one available that had been used for transporting horns to some conferences but was in virtually new condition. Thus, they offered it at a discount. Thus, I got a great deal on a new case for my partially-new trombone. I have already sent it on a few airplane trips as checked baggage, with nary a scratch on the horn.

 So I now have the horn I've always wanted, one that plays beautifully and easily, mechanically reliable and one that allows me to express myself musically as I never have before. There is only one downside: anything that doesn't sound right can no longer be blamed on the horn, but the guy playing it! Guess I'd better get back to practicing....

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year...Miserable People! (Don't worry, it's a film review)

 It's 2013, and it's time for a new post, which coincides with my goal of writing more frequently this year. I say "goal" because a goal is something that is pursued with a particular end in mind, as opposed to a "resolution," which is something that is planned and then quickly ignored or forgotten. (Consider that our national budget is based on "resolutions," and I rest my case.) I find it fascinating that a whole lot of people seem to be really glad 2012 is over, and that the optimism about 2013 is largely based in the philosophical belief that "it has to be better." So I'l begin by talking about miserable people...that is, the new film Les Miserables.

 I have not read the novel by Victor Hugo. If it's anything like the novel of his that I have read, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it is very wordy and extensive, containing many passages that do not necessarily advance the plot in any meaningful way. But I have seen the stage production twice in addition to listening to various recordings of the music. (When I was in Afghanistan, some good friends sent me a copy of the CD of the 25th Anniversary Concert, which is excellent.) I have heard that some minor adjustments that were made by the filmmakers bring the plot a bit more in line with what happens in the novel, though I cannot confirm this. For the most part, the film adheres fairly closely to the stage production with music by Claude-Michel Shonberg and lyrics adapted by Herbert Kretzmer from Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's French version. 

 The film is directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for directing The King's Speech, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As you may know, for this film he adopted the unorthodox approach of having the actors sing live for each take, instead of the typical film musical technique of pre-recording the lyrics in a studio. I believe that this may become the standard practice in the future, especially given the availability of small earpieces that made it possible for the actors to sing with an accompanist on-set. (The accompanists were, of course, replaced with a full orchestra in post-production.) The emotional immediacy of the performances comes through quite clearly on-screen, and the physical effort and response of singing affects the way the performances happen. This is a benefit to this musical, which has almost no significant spoken dialogue. This also means that in many scenes that actors are singing to each other, on the set, rather than in a sterile studio environment. This means that, sometimes, vocal imperfections are left in but with a richer dramatic performance as the result. 

 The casting is, mostly, superb. Hugh Jackman, most famous as Wolverine in the X-Men films, uses his stage training to good effect as the hero Jean Valjean. Jackman's performance is memorable and convincing, and his voice is in good shape for the role. (I would have preferred a bit more subtlety in his interpretation of "Bring Him Home," but he makes the song his own. His early soliloquy upon being shown mercy by the bishop is exceptional.) Expect Jackman to be nominated for all the major acting awards this year, and he just may win some of them.Valjean's antagonist, Inspector Javert, who spends years pursuing Valjean as a parole violator, is portrayed by Russell Crowe. Crowe is a great actor, far more than he is a singer. As a friend of mine pointed out, his biggest problem is that there are so many recordings of great singers playing the role. He can hit all the notes, but his voice is not particularly special. Still, he is too good a performer not to handle the role well, and his rendition of "Stars" (one of my favorite songs in the musical) is a worthy interpretation. Samantha Barks, the teenage Eponine, was a great choice and her rain-soaked "On My Own" is one of the best scenes in the movie. She might be an Oscar contender were it not for...well, I'll get to that in a bit. Barks was a part of the 25th Anniversary recording in the same role. The young lovers-at-first sight, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), are adequate. Part of the problem is that their relationship is given so little time to develop within the story that it simply is hard to feel much emotion for them, especially given the other events which develop much more organically. Whether this is true of the book I can't say, but it is a story problem left over from the stage musical. While naive teenage love is a staple of melodrama and it works well for the plot of Romeo and Juliet, this is one aspect of the story that simply is not convincing to me. Seyfried's voice seems a bit thin at times, though she is absolutely radiant to look at and it's understandable why Marius is so taken with her. Redmayne gives a tremendous performance of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," so it's a shame the story doesn't give him more opportunities. Sacha Baron Cohen, who gave a surprisingly good turn as the station inspector in last year's Hugo, was a fine choice to play dastardly con man/comic relief Thenardier, and Helena Bonham Carter (an actress who is good in everything she does) keeps the pace as his equally-corrupt Madame. It seemed like their final piece, "Beggars at the Feast," was cut a bit short to my disappointment, but they play their roles to the hilt. Isabelle Allen is perfectly cast as the young Cosette; she not only looks like a young version of Seyfried but is instantly sympathetic as the downtrodden child. As a nice addition to the cast, the Bishop (in some ways, the most important character in the story) is played by Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the first London production. I haven't even mentioned Aaron Tveit's strong performance as the young revolutionary Enjolras. His attempt to overthrow the status quo is clearly foolhardy, but there is no doubt at all why his followers go along with him. 

 Of course, the major buzz for the film started when the first trailer showed us Anne Hathaway as Fantine singing "I Dreamed A Dream." In the past few years the song became the unofficial anthem for  Susan Boyle, and that may have played a part in the decision to showcase the song in pre-release materials. The buzz is justified: Hathaway's performance is amazing. Her rendition of the song, performed live in one unbroken take, is shattering. The Academy should go ahead and engrave her name on the Supporting Actress Oscar--she really is that good. (As a side note, I thought she did a fine job in The Dark Knight Rises as well.) 

 As a caveat, if you don't enjoy musicals, you probably won't enjoy this one, especially given its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time. (Plus all the advertisements they show beforehand...I would have been happy if they had dropped all the ads except for the trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness.) This is not a perfect film, but it is a very good one. The music is great and there is some powerful acting. (I suspect the film's investors bought stock in Kleenex.) The use of realistic settings opens up many of the dramatic possibilities, and often brings the story to life in a way that the stage simply cannot duplicate. While the story is about injustice and misfortune, it is not about being defeated by injustice and misfortune. It is about having the faith to overcome life's trials (if you want to read more about the ideas behind the story, there is a great article here). If you need some inspiration and want to hear some great music, this is a film I highly recommend.