red echo

A web journal by Mars Saxman: my life, reflected and filtered

February entries

Archived Entries for January, 2004

January 27th, 2004

I just got back from an early screening of Hidalgo, which left me in a wistful mood. It's essentially a Western set in the Middle East, with Viggo Mortensen playing a Pony Express rider who enters a three thousand mile horse race through the Arabian desert. The plot details practically fall over themselves turning into cliche, but the story is presented with a simple dignity, and Mortensen's cowboy is such a well-realized character that the whole thing actually works. The supporting characters - mostly Native Americans and Bedouin, played by actual Native Americans and Arabs - inhabit their own cultures, and are not simply Americans with funny accents and outfits. The desert scenery is harsh, barren, and wild, but never monotonous. I'm having trouble describing exactly the effect this movie had on me; I feel a bit melancholy, but inspired. Well done and worth seeing.

January 24th, 2004

Politics: the Washington caucuses and Howard Dean

I've been planning to go to the local Democratic caucus, partly because it sounds like such a strange system. It intrigues me and I want to see how it works in real life. I am interested in power structures based on consensus and delegation rather than authority and appointment or election, and in systems based on human-scale groupings, to ensure that every participant can have a voice. It amazes me that while I've been trying to imagine designs for such systems, an actual working example has been running for years, practically under my nose. Now I have to check it out, if only to satisfy my curiosity.

I have been interested in Dean's campaign since I found out who he was. I am not much of a joiner, and have not gone to any of the meetups or participated in the campaign except to watch from afar. (I'm still surprised that I actually signed up for the mailing list instead of just thinking about it for a while.) Dean was the guy who got me thinking that maybe I would actually vote in this election. He impresses me as someone who actually means what he says, a principled man who will take his responsibility to the citizens of the U.S. seriously. There are other candidates whose beliefs more closely match my own, but I am far to the left of the American mainstream and nobody who truly represented me would ever be elected. Dean is someone who I think I could trust, even when I disagree with him, and he looks electable; there's enough libertarian mixed in with his liberal that I think a fair number of Republicans could probably stand to vote for him. Nothing I have heard from the other candidates has given me reason to question my original judgement that Dean is the best man for the job.

While the idea of "anyone but Bush" has some appeal, I'm a bit too cynical to believe that "anyone but Bush" would really make that much of a difference. Bush is corrupt, dishonest, and power-hungry, and has managed to accomplish a lot of bad stuff in his time in office, but he has not gotten everything he has wished for. Even he has to work within the system and keep his backers happy. Any other candidate, no matter what party, that came from the same system and pulled his support from the same major corporations would be subject to the same pressures. A Democratic version of Bush would undoubtedly make fewer dumb, offensive remarks, and would probably make a show of trying to support traditionally left-wing causes, but probably wouldn't succeed at (for example) committing the U.S. to a global emissions protocol any more than Bush has succeeded at (for example) destroying the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But there is one thing Bush has done that damns him forever: something no other president would have done, a personal obsession he has enacted with public means, to the detriment of our security, economic stability, and national honor for years to come. That is of course the illegal, immoral, unjustified and unconscionable war on Iraq.

Dean, therefore, gives me hope for two reasons. He is a man of the people, supported by the people, promoted by the people, responsible to the people. He does not kowtow to the big news networks. He does not play along with the spineless Democratic party leadership. He calls it like he sees it - politely, and with respect, of course - and does not simply tell people what they want to hear. (Nevermind the news media bollocks on THAT subject - the man talks like a human being, and like a human being he illuminates his opinions from different angles instead of always reciting the same words. That's not contradiction, that's honesty!) But he is no loose-cannon firebrand. He has inspired hundreds of thousands of people, all over the country, to organize themselves and donate time and money to support him. He is no demagogue; he is not using a presidential campaign as a platform to talk about his pet issues. Dean seems to really mean it and appears to be prepared to do the work necessary to make it happen. This, now, is a man who can do the job of the President. This is someone who can manage that ever-so-fine balance between sticking to your principles and compromising to get the job done.

Second, and this is admittedly a moral qualification rather than a practical one, Dean never contaminated himself with the taint of the Iraq war. I have heard John Kerry's explanation of his vote for the war resolution, and it reassures me that he is not corrupt, but the fact remains that when the test came he failed it. Millions of us out here in the real world knew that Bush was lying. We knew there was no need for war. Unable to blind ourselves with carefully selected intelligence reports, we were able to see the obvious: Hussein was no threat to anyone but the people of Iraq. We turned out, thousands of us, to demonstrate against the war plan. Now events have proved us right: there was no chemical weapons threat and not even the remotest hint of a nuclear threat. Hussein's military was in no shape to attack anyone and could barely defend itself. The idea that Hussein, a secular Arab dictator, was supporting theocratic pan-Muslim radicals turned out to be as imaginary as it was unimaginable. Not one of the reasons given to go to war made any sense and not one of them turned out to be true. We all knew this. The war was as clear a moral decision as I have seen in politics during my life. I simply cannot trust anyone who got this question wrong. Howard Dean not only got the answer right, but got it right for the right reasons. I disagree with him about the necessity of the Afghanistan invasion, but I respect his reasons for it. I like the fact that he is no knee-jerk pacifist; he understands that military force is sometimes necessary, and can articulate principles for determining when it must be used.

I'm actually glad Dean didn't come first in the Iowa caucuses. The news media have been all over him for weeks, and maybe now they'll give him some peace while he keeps on doing what he's been doing. I don't know whether he will actually manage to win the nomination, but he has given me hope that maybe U.S. national politics aren't completely lost.

January 19th, 2004

REI's marketing works; I walk in the store and immediately begin to feel adventurous, strong, and ambitious. It takes careful effort to make sure I am selecting gear based on the kind of backpacking I actually do rather than the fantastic trips I keep dreaming of doing someday when I can manage to take several weeks at a time off work. Sure, I need a 6,000 cubic-inch pack - I'm going to take a month-long trip to the middle of nowhere and back! And that set of skis makes perfect sense; after all, I'm going to spend every weekend up at Stevens Pass next winter. Sure, why not pick up some climbing gear, or a pair of snowshoes, or a kayak? Better get a sleeping bag rated to -20 degrees, in case I happen to find myself spending the night at 10,000 feet in the middle of winter.

Someday, perhaps, I'll need all that gear. Today, thanks to a confluence between a Christmas gift certificate from my in-laws and a clearance sale, I decided to replace my backpack with a Morningstar 65. It's about the same size as my current $35 eBay special from the Postal Service auction a couple years back, but sturdier and better-designed. I'm tired of dealing with slipping straps and sore shoulders. This pack is deliberately just a tad smaller than I thought I needed; it's hard not to pack a bag completely full, so if I have less room I'll force myself to carry less weight. (The description makes it out to be an "entry-level" pack - pfah! Real backpackers know that less is most definitely more.) This criterion - alas! - excluded REI's perfectly-named new Mars pack, which looks great, feels good, and has lots of useful features. It is, however, about 20% larger than the pack I ended up getting, and weighs about two pounds more. Ehhh, no thanks.

Photos of a ruined garden in Mexico. Built by a British eccentric named Edward James, Las Pozas is a semi-abandoned jungle of neo-classical columns and arches with stairways to nowhere, ornamented platforms, sculpted waterfalls - a fairyland in concrete.

January 16th, 2004

Cubase sucks like a herd of elephants at the first watering hole in two hundred miles. Cubase sucks like a ravenous anteater that just spotted a bowl full of chocolate-covered ants. If Cubase were a vacuum cleaner it would devour the carpet. If you approach Cubase too quickly the rapid drop in pressure will give you the bends. I'm sure it works wonderfully for some people, but my experience with it has been one frustration after another. I spent forty minutes this evening trying to record some replacement vocals for a song I've been working on. Between two crashes, several occurences of the classic "sound gets all muddy and eventually dies until you quit and reload" problem, and half a dozen instances of the "sound just cuts out for no apparent reason while recording" problem, I spent more time fighting with the software than actually making music - which is completely typical of my experience with the program.

I've been looking lustfully at Apple's GarageBand application, announced at Macworld Expo a week ago. It looks a bit simple for what I'm trying to do, but it's unbelievably cheap and seems to have all the basics. I can imagine using it to record vocals and experiment with arrangements, then importing the parts into Cubase for the softsynths and the actual mix.

Announced today at the NAMM show, however, is yet another sequencer/recorder/mixer package from Apple: Logic Express. It's a junior version of Logic Pro at half the price, with a bunch of arbitrary limits tacked onto the same basic audio engine. Even with those limits, though, it looks like it can do everything my copy of Cubase can. It supports 48 simultaneous audio channels and 16 softsynth channels, includes the usual collection of effects, and has Logic's incredibly cool "freeze track" feature which promises to make overloaded CPUs and track-bouncing busywork a thing of the past. I think this may be the next addition to my studio.

January 15th, 2004

Via Worldchanging, a long and well-argued article in the Washington Monthly discusses the cultural sorting process that has taken place in the U.S. over the past twenty or so years and the effects it has had on the Republican vs. Democrat power balance and on America's attractiveness to educated foreign workers. The author ties outsourcing, security-driven visa restrictions, the "red vs. blue" political map, and the rise of George W. Bush into a convincing and troubling description of a long-term economic challenge for the United States.

Our loss of access to high-level foreign talent hasn't drawn much attention from political leaders and the media, for understandable reasons: We seem to have bigger, more immediate problems, from the war on terrorism to the loss of jobs in the manufacturing, service, and creative sectors to China, India, and Mexico. But just as our obsession with the Soviet Union in the last years of the Cold War caused us to miss the emerging economic challenge of Japan, our eyes may not be on the biggest threat to our economic well-being.

For several years now, my colleagues and I have been measuring the underlying factors common to those American cities and regions with the highest level of creative economic growth. The chief factors we've found are: large numbers of talented individuals, a high degree of technological innovation, and a tolerance of diverse lifestyles. Recently my colleague Irene Tinagli of Carnegie Mellon and I have applied the same analysis to northern Europe, and the findings are startling. The playing field is much more level than you might think. Sweden tops the United States on this measure, with Finland, the Netherlands, and Denmark close behind. The United Kingdom and Belgium are also doing well. And most of these countries, especially Ireland, are becoming more creatively competitive at a faster rate than the United States.

January 11th, 2004

I stopped by the local Guitar Center yesterday to look at mixers and happened to see a Crate MX-15R practice amp on clearance. I went back today, guitar in hand, and after trying it out for a few minutes decided to bring it home. It is, alas, one more piece of gear to take up space and occupy power outlets, but I'm really tired of practicing through a little battery-powered headphone amp. It's a nice little box: it has an overdrive channel, a three-band equalizer, and a reverb effect. It makes my guitar sound great, and it makes the bass guitar frighteningly loud. I think this will help make practice sessions more satisfying.

I wonder now how much of the warm, thick, metallic sound I want to get from this guitar is actually just the sound of distortion. Just to see what would happen, I plugged my synth into the amp, cranked up the gain, and started playing. The transformation was amazing: the sound became stronger, richer, fuller, more electric. Patches that had been thin and weak sounded lively and energetic. Leads got stronger, basses punchier; some of the harsher sounds became so dissonant I could barely stand to listen to them.

This has made me curious. I want to know, now, how an overdrive/distortion effect differs from the sound I'm getting out of this amp. I'm curious how much the size of the speaker affects the sound: I'm used to hearing everything through a much smaller pair of monitors. What does an amp simulator do that an overdrive effect doesn't? Why does this sound so much better than the overdrive plugin I'm used to using? Is there some other way to get this sound in software?

I feel like such a newbie. The further I go, the deeper it all gets.

January 6th, 2004

The Bar Bot: a beer drinking robot.

Science and industry build robots for the advantage of humans. Robots should be our intelligent, cheap workers and adjutants. But humanity is not profitable for any other species. In fact, isn't mankind's most striking feature the pursuit of its own advantage, its impetus the interest in itself? The Bar Bot is driven by self interest. Its aim is to drink beer.

This is the heaviest snow I've ever seen in downtown Seattle, and it's still falling. It forms a blanket several inches thick, and it's both dense and cold enough that cars don't grind through. The streets are white, in spite of the (relatively light) traffic. This just never happens. I'm glad to be working at home...

January 5th, 2004

Paul Graham discusses heresy: things you can't say in public without getting into trouble. He argues that every age and culture has its points of moral blindness, and that anyone who wants to come up with new ideas should get used to spotting these issues and dealing with them independently.

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They're just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they're much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

January 4th, 2004

I'm home now and nearly back to full health in spite of 21 hours spent on a never-particularly-restful bus. Departure was an hour late, and I actually ended up on the second overflow bus for the schedule. Weather was clear through southern Oregon, so the feared snow delay did not materialize. There was still plenty of ice on the ground in Southern Washington from the previous days' snowfall, however, so the crawl from Portland to Seattle took almost seven hours (including a half-hour stop for chain installation and a twenty-minute delay for an accident). I was definitely ready to be finished when we rolled into the station.

January 3rd, 2004

January 1st, 2004

I celebrated this New Year's Eve by going to bed at 10 PM. Alas, this cold refuses to leave me just yet. December began in one illness and has ended amid another. Still, my optimism remains solid: I look forward to the changes I intend to make in 2004.

December entries


photo © 2001 Stacie Mayes

Current entries


2003: Nov Dec

Wanderings in Black and Red (previous site)