Monday, July 30, 2012

Summertime ... and the viewing is queasy

How loathsome does the background of a film have to be to cancel out technical virtues? It's a question that comes up for me often these days, and I have trouble resolving it about the 2001 movie Training Day.

I first saw it some years ago on video and was sickened by its LA inner city setting. Yet scenes from Training Day have stuck in my mind since; feeling slightly guilty, I borrowed the Blu-ray disc from Netflix to see how it would go down on a second viewing.

No route around it: the script and direction are far superior to most bent-cop action movies. The storyline doesn't try to outsmart itself or its audience -- aside from a few contrivances, it actually makes sense, with just enough, but not too many, twists. Director Antoine Fuqua and David Ayers, the script writer, build dramatic tension by tightening the screws within scenes as well as from one to the next. Finally, Denzel Washington -- as the narc who makes his own law -- is both winning and creepy, with immense screen presence.

But that's not why I'm bothering to write about Training Day. It has one other -- I suppose you have to call it -- distinction. I've never seen a film that so unsparingly portrays the dysfunctional world of inner city black and hispanic life. It's all there: the ugly clothes and tattoos, the incessant vulgar language, the ear-battering rap music, the threatening attitudes, violence. No sentimentality, no hearts of gold.

The "making of" feature on the disc shows that it was actually shot in some east LA hellhood, with real gang bangers as atmosphere and real rap "stars" in supporting roles.

What am I complaining about? Shouldn't the sets, actors, and extras for a drama be as realistic as possible, particularly when the environment is essential to plot points?

Yes, but. I don't blame the director and actors for creating a vivid, if often disgusting, picture of the terrible life "style" of the urban underclass. Still I'm appalled by an audience that considers it cool, or just normal, hey it's all good.

What would an audience who lived in Los Angeles in the 1930s say if they watched Training Day and saw what had become of parts of their city? Oh, sure, there were mean streets in the city then too -- Raymond Chandler sometimes described them -- but at their worst nothing like the depravity in this film.

Out of curiosity I looked at the customer reviews at Netflix and IMDb. To judge from the writing, most were by young people, and rightly touted it as an exciting movie. Maybe it's asking too much for sociological comment too. But nothing I read indicated any reaction other than acceptance of the blighted life that drug dealing, the welfare state, and the Mexican invasion have created. Sometimes, tolerance creates the intolerable.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Latest event at Olympics: Free speech tossing

 Thought criminal (before the purge)

It's no longer just a case of Black Run America, as Paul Kersey styles the U.S. It's now Black Run World. For example:
A Greek triple jumper has been expelled from the Olympics after she posted a racist joke on Twitter.

Voula Papachristou was kicked out of her national team for mocking African migrants and expressing support for a far-Right political party.
The Olympics, which began in the world's first democracy, have now signed on to the Universal Tyranny. Welcome to the world of You Can't Say That. Up next: the world of You Can't Think That. You need words to be able to think forbidden thoughts, and the political correctness police will abolish words that offend any group. No trial, no appeal. You have been warned.

Freedom of speech: going, going ...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The corporate-Olympics complex

 Member of elite anti-Pepsi unit prepares for action.

If you've planned years in advance to gather tickets for the London Olympics, flown 8,000 miles to get to London, paid over the odds for accommodation, and negotiated satanic traffic jams to reach the stadium ... don't wear a Pepsi T-shirt to the games or the "security" crushers might toss you out on your ear.
Games boss Sebation Coe warned anyone wearing a Pepsi T-shirt is likely to be booted out because it would upset sponsors Coca-Cola. And he only said spectators in Nike trainers “could probably” be allowed in although Adidas are also backing the event.
Coe defended the draconian move and said it was to protect corporate sponsors who have paid a fortune to be involved.
No concealed carry permits will be issued for Pepsi cans, even to licensed Pepsi executives, said U.K. Defence Secretary Ronald Cleave-Simple. "Better safe than sorry," he said.

Light airplanes towing Pepsi banners will not reach
the Olympics stadium, officials have vowed.

Olympics Security officials told Reflecting Light that they know of no specific plans targeting the games with Pepsi paraphernalia. The threat level remains at the newly created category of Coca-Cola yellow.

About 12,000 police, 3,000 volunteers, Typhoon fighter jets, helicopters, two warships and Pepsi disposal experts are also part of the vast program aimed at securing the London Games.

 Specially designed Coca-Scopes can destroy a Pepsi can
at a range of 5,000 meters.

London's Olympic Organizing Committee said in a statement that the anti-Pepsi plan was "big and complex, but we have the best brains in the security business working on this — Home Office, Metropolitan Police, MoD (Britain's defense ministry) and the newly created 25th Coca-Cola Armored Regiment."

In a tense 11th-hour meeting, security heads and Adidas Brand Guard leaders are reported to be debating the advisability of tasering Nike-shod spectators. "You'd think it was a no-brainer, the kind of decision we're trained for," said an unnamed party to the talks. "But there are fears that tasered individuals might react by making sounds that would distract the athletes."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reflecting sound

A few observations from the Capital Audiofest I attended last weekend. (Last year's was described in this post.) 

Almost every demonstration setup had a turntable as the source player, although most kept on standby a token CD player for retrograde types like me who listen to silver discs. It is now an article of faith in audiophile circles that LPs, or "black discs," are the ultimate playback medium. Mostly this means special high quality vinyl records (list price: $40 on up). However, the Audiofest also had a swap meet -- like an audio yard sale -- where dozens of vendors flogged old record albums at prices ranging from a buck to several hundred.

These turntables have no resemblance to the ARs and Garrards some of us recall from the '60s. Today's luxe models come with science-fiction design. Cartridges, which house the stylus that reads the record groove and its associated circuitry, go for a few hundred dollars up to infinity. 

So I had plenty of opportunity to listen to high-end turntables and LPs in a variety of high-end systems. Some provided impressive music reproduction quality. I have to confess I found no special magic, no extra "soul" in LPs compared with CDs. Dollar for dollar, CDs or sound files made from CDs offer far more value in my view. If this be treason, make the most of it.

The other standard opinion among audiophiles today is that tube electronics are better than solid state. They could be right; I have no basis for a preference, having never owned tube equipment.

But I distrust these absolutes. There has always been an element of one-upmanship among the audiophile class. When I worked at a CD/audio store in the late '80s-early '90s, we had a species of customer who hated that the masses could enjoy superb sound from CDs for a fraction of what the elite had spent on their systems. They didn't have much choice then, with LP production having virtually ceased. 

Now that Gen X and Y listen to rubbish MP3 sound, the audio industry has had to find a hip and costly product line for Boomers with cash to blow. Clever companies got the message there's a large, affluent market keen to pay up for reassurance of their superiority. That means records, turntables, and tube equipment.

I would have preferred not to get into demographics, but it's hard to avoid when writing about something like the Capital Audiofest. The attendees were overwhelmingly male, primarily in the age range of 40 to 60. They are religious about audio technology, but their tastes in music seem pretty narrow compared with my customers at Santa Fe Sight & Sound back then, when audiophiles mostly belonged to a different generation.

Based on the recordings they made available for listening, the manufacturer representatives loved all kinds of music -- why else would anyone get into or stay in an industry that's barely hanging on? But they knew their Boomer potential customers, and while they might have wanted to demo their systems using Bach or Elgar or gamelan, they opted to play it safe with a diet of jazz and pop. 

And not always good recordings or record pressings, either. A first-class system will make a bad recording/mix sound worse, not better. Could anyone have been impressed hearing the record of The Eagles in concert performing "Hotel California"? (Possibly it was a request from an attendee.)

Look, I don't mean to sound dismissive about the show. I enjoyed myself no end. Many of the systems were just remarkable in their ability to reproduce the sound of live music, which is my criterion. (Systems, not amps, digital-analog converters, turntables, or recordings: what you hear is the product of a chain of components; there is no easy way to analyze the quality of individual items of equipment.)

But in case you don't know already, here's a secret the high-end audio industry doesn't want you to understand: While you can't build a high-quality sound system from junk at Best Buy, some mass market companies that audiophiles sneer at (Sony, Panasonic, Yamaha) have mid-price lines you won't find at the big box stores that provide good value for money. Serious companies such as Onkyo, Cambridge Audio, and Marantz have excellent units at reasonable price points.

Even if you can't splash out on high-end audio (and I doubt there was anything, including cables and AC cords, at Audiofest that I could have afforded), you need not settle for a toy system. Check out, for instance, AudioAdvisor (with which I am not affiliated in any way). Time you spend on research will be rewarded.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi Gallery" at Doylestown

Botticelli, Madonna and Child

The Philadelphia visit described in previous posts was actually a kind of side trip in our mini-vacation. The original purpose of the trip was to see the exhibit titled "Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi Gallery" at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

The first stop on our trip was Princeton, New Jersey. The university campus must be worth a good look itself -- when it's not broiling weather, as it was during our stopover. I did go inside the Gothic Revival cathedral-like chapel and was a little disappointed. It's large and imposing, with stained glass and stylistically accurate detailing. But I found it curiously lacking in personality, unlike most real European Gothic cathedrals. Maybe it had something to do with the thing being aggressively nondenominational, a generic cathedral.

The main reason for going to Princeton was the university art museum. This isn't the usual collection of odds and sods that passes for an art museum at most American universities; it's small but first class. Well "worth a detour" as the Michelin Guide might say. And it's free, although the parking is a nuisance -- in a remote area, from which you catch a shuttle to the main campus. (The town was surprisingly crowded for June.)

The Uffizi exhibit was our last port of call. It was a relief to leave Philadelphia, I tell you. Soon we were in obviously well-to-do Bucks Country, where Doylestown is found. I'd never been in that area before and it was pleasing; once you get out of the Philly penumbra -- north of the Pennsylvania Turnpike -- it becomes historic and tidy, almost Vermont-like.

We stopped at a casual restaurant for breakfast and encountered a shock. There -- and at the Wendy's where we had a late lunch -- the waitresses were white American girls. No foreign accents. At the Wendy's, my chicken sandwich took a few minutes to manufacture and when it was ready the waitress from behind the counter brought it to our table. What a different world from the Washington burbs.

That will likely change. I have no doubt the movers and shakers of Bucks County are properly overflowing with white guilt and working to make sure their communities become "vibrant." 

Alessandro Tiarini, Nativity of Jesus

So we arrive at Doylestown and the Michener Museum. It might seem astonishing that the famous Uffizi in Florence would allow any of its works to travel. According to the brief introductory film, these pictures are among the many that the Uffizi -- huge as it is -- doesn't have room to place in the permanent collection.

Some haven't been on view for ages, or ever publicly shown. That doesn't mean any lack of quality. The Renaissance aristos and cardinals who commissioned these had an eye for artistic talent. 

There's only one Botticelli, and that much restored in the 19th century, and a few "school of" and "workshop of" paintings with famous names. Not to worry. Many of the artists were unfamiliar to me, but most of their paintings caught and held my gaze. Several seemed to me masterpieces that I'd never heard of. I should have taken notes for this posting to be more specific, but in the presence of so much beauty -- and piety -- that would have felt academic.

Yes: piety. This was perhaps the only art exhibition I've ever been to with an avowedly Christian theme (as opposed to shows of artists who painted Christian subjects). It centered on the life of Jesus, the paintings arranged chronologically from the annunciation to Mary, through the birth of Jesus, his teaching and miracles, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection.

How could this be in our obsessively multi-culti and "inclusive" age? I wonder whether the museum trustees felt uncomfortable, or even argued over the propriety, of an art exhibition about the life of Christ? Perhaps only under cover of the Uffizi's prestige was it possible. However it was managed, I'm grateful for it.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Dead Sea scrolls on view in Philadelphia

Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, a science museum, is presenting a "blockbuster" exhibit centered around fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls. The exhibition will be up through October 14.

The scrolls, around 2,000 years old, were found in caves at Qumran, Israel, verging on the Dead Sea. They are miraculously preserved copies of parts of the Old Testament and other texts, believed to have belonged to one of the many Jewish sects of the time.

I might as well say straight off that whatever their undoubted historical, religious, and archeological interest, the scroll fragments themselves at the heart of the exhibit are of limited appeal unless you can read Aramaic and other ancient languages they're written in. Furthermore, the scraps on display are small and, in aid of preservation, dimly lit. (Each fragment is accompanied by a photo enlargement, however.)

The showing is accompanied by several rooms of artifacts and audio-visual presentations designed to add context and atmosphere. I was right not to choose archeology as a career; it's hard for me to get excited about simple household implements and plain storage jars. Compared with the wondrous amphorae that the Greeks and Etruscans produced around the same time, these are of virtually no aesthetic interest.

But I began to warm to the artifacts after a while, not so much individual pieces as the overall sense they provided of life at that time and place. It's hard for most of us to imagine: primitive (I don't mean that in a negative sense), money-poor, practical, in a harsh environment. Nearby Jerusalem must have had its luxurious side, but out here by the Dead Sea shore only the voice of the people's God was heard.

To have painstakingly written the hundreds of scrolls that have been discovered testifies to the inhabitants' fierce commitment to their faith.

It's odd the things that strike one amid the many objects to see. Coins spilled from a small bag, looking almost new: Roman silver shekels and half-shekels. We were told this was the only form of money accepted for offerings in the Second Temple at Jerusalem. If you arrived with some other kind of money used by your tribe, you had to exchange them for Roman shekels at whatever the money changers (whose tables Jesus famously overturned) considered the going rate.

A section was devoted to Masada, where Jewish rebels against Roman rule held out under siege until they were finally overcome and committed suicide. Incredibly, a tattered piece of cloth had survived all the centuries to arrive in Philadelphia half a world away. The description said it had belonged to a Roman soldier who had served in the far northern reaches of the empire -- as evidenced by its simple but clear tartan pattern.

I mentioned the audio-video enhancements. Some of them, mainly the video ones, were helpful. Before admission to the exhibit proper, the stage was set in a room with screens on all sides, showing the Qumran environment where it met the Dead Sea. Grippingly lifelike.

The exhibition rooms themselves also had video screens, showing large images of some of the artifacts, rotating 360 degrees. Through some fantastical technology, they also stood out in a quasi-3D effect.

But the designers should have stopped there. Instead, they included recorded spoken descriptions, more or less repeating what was written in the captions, as if the visitors were illiterate. Some may have been deficient in the English language, of course, but for most people struggling with a foreign language it is easier to understand writing than speech.

To make matters worse, the rooms had no sound insulation from one another, so while you were looking at one part of the exhibition you were listening to a description of another part, or often two other parts. Even the room housing the scroll fragments and a segment of the Western Wall from Jerusalem, which should have enjoyed hushed silence, was wrapped in sound leakage from a short film next door, repeated over and over. Since this was where many visitors would spend the longest time, they were forced to hear the sound track dozens of times.

Anyone interested in Biblical archeology or the scrolls shouldn't miss this exhibit if they find themselves in Philadelphia. The presentation, however, could have accomplished more with less.


Now about Philadelphia itself. Granted, the impressions of a brief visit are hardly the whole story. They can be influenced by atypical incidents or extraneous conditions (and it was hellishly hot and humid). Having said that, the city's general atmosphere seemed to me to have deteriorated significantly since our previous visit, perhaps five years ago.

On a weekend, and especially after dark, the center city is a pathological circus act. Blacks driving around in open convertibles with rap music blasting the air; tattooed, drugged out and sickly hip white kids; drunks and mendicants. I don't know about the crime statistics, but it doesn't feel safe.

Your space isn't your own. My wife and I were walking along the ritziest street in town, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which runs from the Beaux Arts city hall for a mile or so to the Museum of Art. We were returning from the Franklin Institute, about midway between them.

Two young black couples were heading our way. I didn't think anything of it -- they were just people out for a night on the town. As we started to pass them, they stopped. One of the males moved up to my wife and said, "Hey, I need a hug. Gimme a hug."

So here's this dude with his presumed girl friend, asking the woman of a couple he didn't know for a squeeze. Unbelievable. My wife had sense enough to ignore him, and so did I, but I was expecting trouble. There was none, but I was shaken up; I don't remember anything like it.

Our hotel was not at the Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons level, but it was supposed to be reasonably fancy. It is a 1929 art deco building that was once an office annex of the city hall. The architecture is intact, but not the vibes. Loud soul music playing in the lobby, a big electronic map and billboard, sales stands -- tacky but tolerable. However, there was a large slob component in the lobby. It's hard to say what percentage of its inhabitants were hotel guests and what percentage were hangers-out, but any remaining elegance in the setting was blotted out. It felt like a bus station.

Philadelphia appears to be desperately trying not to become Detroit or Baltimore, but it's a closely run thing. Fortunately for the city, it has tourist attractions galore, which hold back total decay. But the tourist districts are geographically small in proportion to the whole urban area, which ranges from uninviting to places best completely avoided. Not even the tourist and business districts are immune from blight. Philadelphia is on the shores of America's dead sea, the environment is again harsh, and the voice of the people's God is hard to hear through the noise.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Philadelphia's Masonic Temple


Tourists flock to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, paying their respects to a Republic that now exists only in name. (If they were serious patriots, they'd be marching on Washington.) A better, and possibly more meaningful, sight in Philadelphia is the Masonic Temple. The temple is far from an out-of-the-way destination -- it's right across the street from the famous, ornate city hall, and you can take a guided tour any day except Sunday.

The lovingly preserved Temple was built in the late 19th century, although some of the decor is a little newer, early 20th century. Its exterior is Norman/Gothic revival, pleasing to those of us with a taste for such architecture, but not particularly notable. The interior, however, is dazzling.

There are seven large halls for various functions; the remarkable thing is that each is designed in a different historical style, with Masonic symbolism thrown in.

 Renaissance Hall

The detailing is breathtaking, and scrupulously historically accurate.

Oriental Hall

For the spectacularly evocative, the Egyptian Hall is hard to beat. It is said that academically trained scholars of ancient Egypt have pronounced its design authentic.

Egyptian Hall

 As something of an amateur classicist, my own favorite was the Corinthian Hall.

Corinthian Hall

Guidebooks give the Masonic Temple a brief, dutiful mention. Maybe they think Freemasonry is some kind of crackpot or sinister organization and that the Lodge would be of interest only to a few weird people.

I detected a slightly defensive note in our guide's references to Freemasonry. Maybe the guides are tired of answering questions about mysterious rites, secret handshakes, and Knights Templar. Our tour leader said that in his own opinion -- it was interesting that he stressed it was no more than his belief -- the Freemasons did not trace their lineage back to the Templars.

Based on my limited reading on the subject, he is correct in historic fact. But from the beginning of modern Freemasonry in lodges established in England and on the continent in the 17th and 18th centuries, many Freemasons imagined themselves as descended from the Templars. That order of knights, founded in the 12th century to defend pilgrims going to the Holy Land, is part of the masonic collective consciousness, as the Old West is for Americans.


Monday, July 02, 2012

Introducing: Ghost Money

It's partly an attempt to make sense of the new "rules of the game" for investors. Sometimes I'll talk about my own trades, sometimes will offer an overview of all or part of the markets.

If you like a posting, please click on one of the ads. It won't cost you anything, and a wee bit of profit will accrue to my piggy bank from the advertiser. Of course I don't endorse the ads; they're automatically selected by Blogger, keying off words in the posting. I hope you enjoy Ghost Money.


No power to the people

We got home last night from a fast-track vacation -- lots to write about, but it will have to wait -- and sure enough, the storm that caused power outages in the District (if only it had knocked out political power!) and large patches of the MD and VA suburbs had not spared us. 

The cats were all right; they don't normally use many electrical appliances, but I suppose the lack of air conditioning was a misery to them.

I sat out on the porch late. It was marginally cooler outside, maybe only 80 degrees. Inside ... ugh. I'm running a serious sleep deficit. But even celebrities have it tough: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes seem to have run out of electricity too.

It could be several days before we get electricity again (this is written from another location). Stay tuned.

If you sent any comments that are awaiting moderation, please be patient, as I only know how to access them from the home computer.

UPDATE 7/3: I've discovered I don't need to moderate comments from home emails -- I can do it here. I'm still getting used to this new Blogger interface.