Steely Dan and Accelerated Technological Change

Steely Dan and Accelerated Technological Change

Living entails an ever-accelerating mastery of new technology, and nothing much is needed to accomplish the feat. No soulful reflection, willpower, or guts are required to obtain the learning. For example, we were given a Wii game center twenty months ago, an Apple Ipad2 ten months ago, and a one-month Netflix trial, for $7.99, 8 months ago. Netflix, which sells streaming video, allows us to view unlimited movies at any time of day or night. We soon discovered that we could simultaneously watch movies on the computer, the television (through the Wii menu), and on the IPad screen. Three people can watch different shows on different screens at the same time. The one-month trial has morphed into a lifetime monthly Visa charge, and into a set of newly minted bad habits. Our Blockbuster card is history, food for the shredder; we had been using it weekly only last winter. While all this was happening, I started this blog and have published twenty-one entries as of today. Three of them, it is worth noting, were  reviews of movies.

The point is that I became a film critic haphazardly through no deep choice of my own, surprising even myself. Also, I’ve become a terrible tennis player and worse ten-pin bowler on the Wii sports center, replacing a basic competence in both I once enjoyed in real life. All this is called creative aging by some accounts, but it’s more just good old-fashioned technological change accelerating all around us.

Truth told is stranger still. Much to my surprise, copious Netflix use led me, with minimal thought, to surface a latent preference for documentaries over movies. This new found preference for documentaries then led in turn, using a selected video as a text, to an uncomplicated system of employing Google, Wikipedia and YouTube for continuing education purposes. It works like this: choose the documentary menu on Netflix and select one from among the choices provided; watch the documentary; look up the documentary and its central actors on Google and Wikipedia for background information; plug the keywords for the subjects that most intrigue you from Google and Wikipedia into YouTube, and watch the dozens of videos that show up. Netflix rewards those who delve deep into a subject by suggesting five or six more videos in the same general field for future consideration. Onward one proceeds to the next video the following night, which produces five or six new suggestions after its completion. This is a teaching and learning cycle, a virtual curriculum.

Here’s an example. I chose a documentary on the band Steely Dan, who I had never heard of previously, having to do with the making of their breakthrough Album Aja, in 1978. Apparently there is a whole series of such videos featuring Band’s breakthrough albums. I loved what I heard of Aja in the documentary, and was blown away by the musicianship and extraordinary standards of the two high school friends who anchor the Steely Dan band, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Who are these two guys, I wondered, who had the confidence to write this music and produce it with the finest available musicians they could find? That’s imagination. That’s confidence. That’s leadership.

So, I look up the album and the musicians on Google and Wikipedia. Here are the Wikipedia web pages for Steely Dan, Aja, Fagen and Becker. I soon discovered that I knew many of their songs. Like everyone else who listens to radio, I’d been enjoying their music for decades without knowing it. Now I’m big fan.

What have they been doing recently? What of theirs is on YouTube? I look it up, in order, Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and Aja. Lots there. I’ve probably watched and listened to more than four hours of Steely Dan concerts on YouTube by now. Wow, check out the Canadian tour!

Where do the bad habits come in? Simple. I take the IPad to bed and watch YouTube Videos half the night. I’ve given up books before bedtime. My wife would like the lights out. Sometimes the earphone plug displaces and allows loud music to blurt after midnight. I’m often tardy or absent at the gym. I’m putting on weight. I worry about radiation from the Ipad invading my bones. Otherwise, I’m quite pleased with these discoveries, my mastery of the associated technologies, and the new musical experiences.

Idea! Wouldn’t this topic make a good blog essay? Why not write about it? Do you see how this system works? I hope you try it out yourself, you sons and daughters of Maine and adult learners of the world. It’s not too early to compile your wish list for the holidays and next birthday.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

September 21, 2012

P.S. This just in. My grandson Lance, who serves as technology consultant on pieces such as this, suggests that a link to the International Movie Data Base be provided for those would like more extensive knowledge on movies and actors, including their biographies and a list of movies the actors have performed in. Here it is: IMDb

Dumping on Trump

Dumping on Trump

Author’s note: This essay, first published in September of 2012, is particularly relevant now that Donald Trump is running full bore for the Presidency of the United States. While I’ve retained its original title for filing purposes—it is after all easier to reblog than rewrite—it is renamed Double Dump on Trump here to highlight his no apologies/no retractions habit of doubling down on every vicious aspersion he hisses under the banner of honest talk. I think you’ll agree that my attempt at the art is primitive and amateurish by comparison. WC 7-21-2015

Double Dump on Trump

Anthony Baxter’s recently released documentary, You’ve Been Trumped, appraises Donald Trump’s efforts to transform a jewel of coastal grandeur into “the world’s greatest golf course.” One reviewer opines: “If you didn’t hate Donald Trump before, you definitely will after this riveting and infuriating expose.” True enough, this film will test your emotional maturity, and I’m speaking mostly of your self-control in the theater. The scene is Aberdeenshire, on the North Sea coast of Scotland, near the village of Balmedie. In 2005 Trump purchases the Menie estate, 1400 acres of heavenly coastal dunes, and proposes to build a 450-room resort hotel, two 18-hole golf courses, and 1500 luxury apartments and town houses, a hefty 1.5 billion dollar project. Since the land is a protected ecosystem—windblown dunes and tidal wash—he must gain the approval of the local council. He doesn’t. The council turns the project down after extended consideration. Parliament then steps in and the government overturns the local council decision and approves the project, deciding that the economic gains—6000 jobs, tourist visits, tax income, etc.—outweigh the human and environmental costs. The locals revolt, led by landowners who would be forced to sell and forfeit their properties. Work on the first golf course begins. Filmmaker Baxter, who has roots in the area, fires up the cameras and starts collecting footage of key events, including strikingly, of Donald Trump’s various fly-in visits, with an impressive entourage, to celebrate accomplishments, resolve issues, and herald upcoming actions. Baxter is mostly behind the camera; his voice is heard quietly in the fray, and an occasional glimpse is evident of the filmmaker, but he is not prominent in the movie. He doesn’t serve as its narrator. The film revolves around Trump’s heavy-handed attempts to squash local protest and to grab the land away from the remaining holdouts and get the project built. Earth is moved up and down and all around as opposition cameras click. The adversaries turn out to be no pushovers. Surprising results are achieved: parades, shows of support for holdouts, television interviews, a public fuss when Mr. Trump is given an honorary degree by nearby Robert Gordon University, and an amazing art gallery in Michael Forbes’ barn that offers for sale myriad portraits of Trump in an array of terrible moods, along with various representations of project devastation. What is it that you would want to know about Donald Trump in this movie that you might not expect? Does he harass the holdouts? Yes. Does he get permission to take their houses without their consent? Yes. Does he scapegoat and viciously belittle those who stand in his way? Yes, He tongue-lashes Michael Forbes, calls his place a slum and a pigsty and calls Mr. Forbes disgusting. Does he play loose with the truth? Yes. He says Forbes is a loner no one likes or supports. He claims the environmental issues are minimal and resolved. Does he somehow manage to get the police to do his dirty work? Yes. The police even prevent people from photographing the earth moving work from their own backyards, and they haul off a couple of folks, including the filmmaker Baxter, for a bit of jail time. Does he tear down people’s fences and put up new ones to more exactly bound their property and then bill them for the work? Yes. Does he cut off water to opponents’ houses? Yes. Does he have his construction people pile up sand so high that a holdout owner can no longer see the ocean or the construction work from his house? Affirmative. He comes across as a self-centered, uncaring bully. He’s probably as horrid as you’ve ever seen him. Yet, the documentary is not totally fair to Trump, nor is it complete as a history of the venture. It is obvious that the project has considerable national and regional support, and not just from the powerful. Trump is out front and does the work, but he didn’t pull this caper off by himself. One would like to know how the Parliament came to believe in the project and what led it to reverse the refusal decision of the local authorities. Who were the politicians who led the way in convincing parliament? Who in the government pulled the strings? What was the process? Did illegal activity happen? How did the honorary degree come to seem appropriate and to be awarded? Who were the police serving if not the taxpayers and local citizens? Who is the offended filmmaker? Why doesn’t he narrate the story? In other words, the project looks horrific, and the politics seem dastardly and undemocratic, but the viewer can’t be sure of what exactly happened. If this project is an act of betrayal, there are powerful others in the band of betrayers. Yet, Trump takes the hits in the documentary by himself. What meaning should be given to the documentary other than exasperation and loathing for Donald Trump? In a fast paced, electronic, media-driven society, there is a tendency to overlook significant general meanings by paying exclusive attention to the atrocious local details. Some important meanings of the film require a wider perspective than the details of the film provide. Several points seem worthy of note. First, Americans have seen this movie before, and more than once. Perhaps the most memorable example of the genre is the film Local Hero, wherein a Texas Corporation connives to buy an entire island for oil exploration (A fictive island somewhere out in the British Isles), but gives the project up in the end when its emissary, who has gone native, calls back to tell the company to shove the project you know where. Interestingly, Baxter refers to this movie twice in You’ve Been Trumped, the second a repeat of the final scene in Hero when a call is made back to Trump headquarters by a critic, perhaps Baxter himself, to warn headquarters about the film, that it’s about to be released, that the jig is up. No answer. I thought at first that Local Hero was based on the Trump project until I learned that it had been filmed 29 years ago in 1983. Second, the United States has acquired an image, deserved or undeserved, for proposing grandiose projects such as Trump’s project in Scotland and imposing them on sovereign countries through devious and less than democratic means. We are also thought to be ruthlessly effective in achieving our ends, even at great cost to others and at some injury to ourselves. This image is evident in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, in critiques of Teddy Roosevelt’s Nicaragua and Panama Canal project, in the book of the same name describing Henry Ford’s Fordlandia project in Brazil, and of the building of military installations in “friendly” countries all over the world. If Trump’s projects tell on him, they also tell on us. Americans get a share of gratuitous blame, earned or otherwise. In You’ve been Trumped, it is said that the dream resort is to attract “American tourists.” Lerner’s ugly portrait in The Ugly American, and the stereotype of the greedy, heartless capitalist can be sensed floating through the dialogue. Third, it is relevant to recall, entirely separate from the film, that Donald Trump announced in April 2011 that he was considering a run for the Presidency of the United States. This was happening just as the events described in the documentary were nearing completion. At the end of the film we learn that the first golf course is finished (it is open now), that Trump has decided to desist from further forced land acquisitions, and that, bombshell of bombshells, he’s bloody well going to terminate the rest of the project if Scotland goes ahead with an offshore Windmill farm that would ruin the view for visitors at the resort. It sounds like Trump may want out of the project and that the locals have fought him to a draw. Just then, in another venue, he announces he might run for President and launches an ad hominem attack on President Barack Obama’s authenticity as an American. He does so in the same intemperate tone he has been using to abuse Michael Forbes. Trump’s entrance into the Presidential race was, at the time, a surprisingly welcome idea to Republicans. A poll of Republican voters in mid-April showed Trump in first place among the candidates, with 26% of the vote, eleven points ahead of the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. He sets the date of May 25, 2011 for an official announcement, but declines to enter the contest when his appeal and the saliency of the “birther issue” recedes. Still, the remaining candidates are more than impressed with his popularity and charisma. They want his endorsement. Five candidates—Bachman, Cain, Perry, Gingrich and Romney travel to New York for private audiences in the Trump Tower. Governor Romney eventually secured his endorsement. Trump’s proposed run for the presidency indicates his appeal to millions of Americans, shows that millions more find him intriguing and interesting, and that the rest of us, presumably the majority, have come to love to look aghast at him. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that Trump’s television show, The Apprentice, is in its Thirteenth season and still enjoys more than seven million viewers. Also the sales of his several books add to the same conclusion. The obvious question is whether 25% of registered Republicans would have thought him presidential material if they had known what he had been up to in Scotland? Or, the same question stated another way: will the documentary, when viewed, decrease his popularity and following? I’m not convinced it will. If this surmise is correct, it would be evidence that his followers already know what the documentary has to tell them about his character, attitudes, and habits. In an impressive but poorly understood way, Donald Trump’s persona and life style represent a big piece of America and correspond to a significant piece of us. He might be seen by many as the powerful, straight-talking, independent, successful, world-transforming American taken to mythic proportions. Perhaps he thinks of himself or is thought of by others as the mythic developer, the mythic capitalist, the mythic wheeler and dealer, the mythic riverboat gambler, or the mythic tycoon. But do we really know what he means to himself or how we might understand ourselves in him? I think of Donald Trump as the excessive American, the American whose success has led him to inordinate power and to hideous self-worship. His insatiable need to see his name on buildings and planes suggests that he has become an icon even to himself. He is kind of the western cowboy, the Marlboro Man, Emerson’s self-reliant individualist, and Ayn Rand’s capitalist, all rolled into one, a menacing superman, a man whose exploits have become so impressive to himself as to obviate any need for even a pretense of humility or equality with other mere mortals. You’ve been Trumped adds to this impression. In it we watch Trump turn before our eyes from the ugly to the grotesque. Will Callender, Jr. © September 17, 2012

Science and Creationism: A Self-Directed Learning Experiment

Science and Creationism: A Self-Directed Learning Experiment

What should scientists do when the majority of parents and children are in the thrall of a wrong idea? That was the problem Copernicus had with the church when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. Copernicus was wary and withheld the publication of his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, until just before his death in 1543. Many people had to suffer abuse, torture and incarceration before the heliocentric view became acceptable. The treatment of Galileo is the best known example.

The problem scientists face today is with the story of creation in Genesis, which fails as a literal description of the origin and history of the universe. The best practice today is for scientists to humbly tell parents and children the truth and let them take it from there, dealing with the information as they wish. Hopefully they will check out the facts and circumstances for themselves. Truth, even when obvious, can’t be imposed. That’s why it occasionally falls to children to point out to adults the emperor’s missing clothes. Understanding—the ability to stand under one’s beliefs using evidence and clear reasoning—is still the genuine way to form personal beliefs, accurate or otherwise. If a person doesn’t know why a belief is false, it will do no good to force a truth claim on him. Telling truth in a clear and civil way is enough. In other words, offer yourself as a teacher in a spirit of mutual learning. If that fails, enjoy the day until a more propitious day comes.

This issue came to public attention recently when “the science guy,” Bill Nye, made his You Tube statement about “creationism.” Take a look at it and see what you think. Despite the fact that his statement provoked a death threat, in the form of a “tweet,” which was unfortunate as well as undeserved, I was impressed by the civil and respectful tone of his statement, very much within the attitude of an honest educator providing useful public information. I thought to myself: He’s done it right. He’s not attacking a religion, rejecting God, insulting anyone, or seeking to start a fight. The creation myth in Genesis, while beautiful in a literary sense, and a core story in the cultural storehouse of folklore and myth, is nevertheless untrue as a statement of physical history. Banishing the theory of evolution in its favor in curriculum and textbooks, as Kansas, Texas, and other states have tried to do, can only retard the ability to do science, build knowledge, and develop products and technology. Policy makers and the public, parents particularly, should want to know that. Nye told them in a nice way. He treated his readers and auditors as adults.

I find his attitude particularly welcome in a national political climate where citizens are expected to choose between liberal and conservative identities, frame every issue in dualistic terms, shoot clever zingers at the other side, and put down and debase the opponent quickly and mercilessly, as if the future of the country and the world depended upon speedy verbal tricks and sensational rhetoric. This is nonsense, of course, yet the putdown has become, at least temporarily, the preferred form of encounter on topics of public concern. Fear and a perceived dearth of time have come to prevail over deliberate, thoughtful conversation. Nye’s tone suggests an alternative, a return to clear, direct communication to a respected public.

What Nye does, in effect, is invite us to participate in a scientific experiment of our own design: choose a scientific project and carry it out to your own satisfactory conclusion. For example, take on the problem of determining the age of the earth, or the circumstances leading to the emergence of the dragonfly. Read all you can of the works of scientists who have studied your subject. Nye predicts you or I or anyone else who undertakes these or a like project will repeatedly and routinely find need for the theory of evolution in the work, while we will not require recourse to the Biblical theory of creation. This will be the result regardless of one’s religious commitments and beliefs. If this is the result, then the theory of evolution is needed in science, and creationism is an unfortunate distraction.

I hope readers take Nye up on his implicit invitation to read a bit of science. I recall fondly the image of a farmer—I think in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio—who becomes irate after hearing from his schoolboy son that invisible germs surround and invade us, the teacher had said so. So off the farmer goes to school the next morning to confront the boy’s teacher. The teacher invites him to look at samples through the microscope. Wow! What is that? Germs. Really! Yes, germs exist, they really do; the farmer has seen them with his own eyes. He understands.

Evolution is indispensable to science and creationism fails as a description of physical reality. Discover that for yourself and you will voluntarily wish to unburden children of this belief as it applies to the history of the physical world. Your personal religious faith need not be forsaken in the process. Folklore carries truth too. Perhaps you will find it meaningful to help your child think about the creation myth as rich folklore, instead of as cold, literal fact. Science and public policy, and perhaps the spiritual life, will be the better for it.

Will Callender, Jr.

September 3, 2012©