Friday, September 30, 2005

Pocket Franistans

John W. Campbell, one of the first and most important editors of science fiction in the middle of the 20th century was said to have told Isaac Asimov that science fiction mysteries aren’t possible because the detective can always say “I can just take out my ‘pocket franistan’ and solve this crime by doing this…”

Asimov responded by writing a series of science fiction mysteries (most notably his Robot Novels) that didn’t use a pocket franistan. Asimov said, and rightly so I think, that the only way you can have really good science fiction mysteries is if you lay out the rules early on and then stick to them. In other words, if you’re going to let your detective have some cool gadget then you’d better make sure the readers know it soon enough in the telling that they don’t feel cheated when it gets used.

All of this brings me to last night’s season premier of Alias in which Michael Vaughn dies. Here’s the thing – I’m not sure I believe he’s really dead and, even if he is, I’m not sure he’s completely dead. He’s maybe only mostly dead. Over the four previous seasons of Alias, I have not been convinced, especially lately, that someone is not going to open his jacket and say, “wait a minute – maybe if I inject Vaughn’s corpse with this special Rambaldi serum he’ll come back to life!”

Consequently, I can’t really commit to feeling bad about Vaughn’s demise. I feel like Alias is at a turning point – in the next few episodes they can grab me and keep me for the season by proving that they have no franistans in their pockets or they can use one and lose me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Smart shuffle

The latest version of itunes has a hidden feature called “smart shuffle.”  This feature allows you to set the probability of having songs from the same artist or album appear next to each other as you randomly play your itunes.  I’ve had fun with this because one of the things I really like about itunes shuffle is that it takes the “what shall I listen to” issue out of my hands while I’m working.  I can have itunes on much of the day, get cool music continuously and not think about what I should play next. It's like Bob Radio. My daughter Meredith tells me that at least one other professor listens to my itunes too - apparently Bob Radio has at least one fan outside my office too.

Now that I have smart shuffle my computer puts me in a certain artist’s “zone” for a while.  Yesterday, for example, I heard most of the Aqualung album with a few other songs in the middle just for variety. Very cool indeed.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Blessing

Laura and I are writing about worship for kids and today I worked on the blessing.  This is one of those mysterious things that are sometimes hard to get a handle on.  Here are some of the things I wrote about it:

In many churches, as we close our time of worship the pastor raises his or her hands and speaks familiar words: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”  These words, known as the Aaronic blessing, were given to Moses in Numbers 6.  God told Moses that these are the words Aaron was to use to bless the people of Israel.

Blessings have been given by a number of people in the Bible and it is clear that they have a weight to them that goes beyond just mere words.  In Genesis 27, for example, Jacob tricked Isaac to get his blessing.  When Esau discovered this he asked his father "Haven't you reserved any blessing for me?"  Isaac answered Esau, "I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?"  Today, if one of our children tricked us into saying something nice about them we’d just say we didn’t really mean it or we’d say “I thought I was promising these things to Esau” but there was something about the power of this blessing that Isaac gave Jacob that went beyond the words used.  There was something else happening here as well.

David Stubbs writes that a blessing is “a calling for the Holy Spirit to come and transform us.”  Being blessed by God, he writes, “means that we become holy, reflective of God and the purposes of God.”  There is clearly something more to a blessing then just a word of encouragement.  The power of the blessing seems to have been diluted somewhat over the years so that we really don’t expect God to transform us because of the words spoken.  But blessings given in the Bible suggest that these words are powerful and they have to power to transform us and to make us holy and reflective of God.  The actual nuts and bolts of what happens when we are blessed is mysterious.  Somehow, something special happens.  It’s hard to put our finger exactly on what it is but God is working in our lives in a way to transform us into his servants.  He is preparing us to do his work, to be his agents in the world.  We are blessed so that we can go out of worship prepared to bless others.

Because of this, the words of blessing at the end of our worship are often coupled with a charge, calling us to go out into the world as God’s servants.  God tells us “Go out into the world but know that I go with you.”  Just as God calls us and welcomes us into worship, he also sends us forth ready and able to do His work.  Many of the blessings that we hear come from the closings of Paul’s letters.  These letters were about a variety of topics, usually in response to specific needs and issues related to the people to whom Paul was writing.  In the same way, his words of blessing to them have the effect of saying “OK, now that I’ve told you about this, you need to go and do it.”  Just as the believers in Cornith or in Phillipi, we are given God’s blessing and sent out to do God’s work.


It took me a long time to finally get around to seeing the movie Ray even though some of my friends spoke very highly of it.  Now I see why.  This film has it all – a powerful story, a wonderful performance by Jamie Foxx and a killer soundtrack.  This is one of those films which, while you’re watching it, you’re thinking “wow, this is really really good.”  The performance of Jamie Foxx absolutely towers over this whole film.  Other supporting actors do well but go almost unnoticed as we see are captivated by the way Foxx recreates Ray Charles.  The transformation is so complete that it’s hard to believe he is lip-syncing.

The film does not gloss over Charles’ heroin addiction but presents it as just something Ray had to overcome and, at the end of the film, sure enough, he has and now all is cool.  There is no showing the divorce from his wife (which, if we just watch the film, never happens) or some of the other hardships of his life.  Nonetheless, taken on it’s own terms, this is a powerful film and performance.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

New DVDs

I am in the process of watching a few things I haven’t watched before – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Ray.  I finished watching the HHGG but not yet Ray.  I expect to have written opinions about both soon but if any of my readers wish to give me their opinions before I write, I’d love to hear them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

U2 in Chicago 9-20-05

What a wonderful concert I attended last night in Chicago – my first-ever U2 concert.  Major thanks to my friend and colleague Ron Sjoerdsma for getting the tickets (nearly 10 months ago!) and for going with me.  The two of us were a couple of wild and crazy guys in Chicago – OK, not really – we sat in the third level and whined about how loud it was – but we both had a great time and U2 was fabulous.

Opening band Dashboard Confessional didn’t do much for either of us except burn a couple of cilia in our ears which we could have used later on.  By the time Bono and the boys hit the stage it was 10 PM Michigan time (and remember – we had a 2 ½-3 hour drive ahead of us) but I was wide awake and really impressed with the lights and the show.  I’ve never seen such a light show and the artistry and creativity were amazing.  The “City of Blinding Lights” opener was SO COOL and when Bono started singing “hello, hello” and crowd counted off “uno, dos, tres, catorce” I realized that I was in the midst of a LOT of serious U2 fans and that proved to be true all night.  The intro to “Elevation” was also full of crowd response.  The way Bono and the band worked with the crowd and seemed to be able to improvise things on the spot (while still being incredibly choreographed) was inspiring.

An acoustic version of “Yahweh” early in the night signaled that they were mixing things up from the Toronto shows and they did all night long, even playing “The Ocean” from Boy.  Too many highlights to list separately except I need to say that I’ve now finally heard “Pride” and “”Where the Streets Have No Name” live so I can be content that my concert life is now significantly more complete.

Home at about 2:35 AM and really really tired at work today but it was worth it.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Lazy Blue Tunas setlist - 9/15/05


It’s All Been Done
You Were On My Mind
If I Needed Someone
No Matter What
Fountain Of Sorrow
Change The World
Look Through Any Window
Good Lovin’
Hotel California

Handle With Care
Pleasant Valley Sunday
Better Man
I Want You Back
Your Mother Should Know
Friday On My Mind
It’s Gonna Be Alright
Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End
Some Of My Lies Are True

Got You On My Mind 

Thursday, September 15, 2005

More Chaos

I’ve listened to Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Paul McCartney’s new album multiple times over the last 48 hours and I’m convinced that this album has more depth than almost anything else he’s done since the Beatles. “Paul gets serious” is the tag line for many of the reviews that have come out this week and, to a certain extent that’s true. It’s tempting to just say that producer Nigel Godrich just got rid of all the cheesy stuff but that’s just not true. The sense one gets in listening to this album is one of vulnerability. Paul has never sounded this vulnerable on an album. In many ways, this is the album I sort of expected after his wife Linda died. Perhaps he needed to be happier to sing about how sad he was. A big part of this is the production, however – Godrich allows us to hear Paul sing without many effects on his voice and without going back and giving us pitch-perfect, no quivering vocals. We can actually hear that Paul is older and wiser for the first time.

Some have complained about a lack of rockers but I think that adding more up-tempo stuff to this album would have severely damaged the mood of the piece. It is interesting to read different reviews online – one reviewer singles out for praise what other reviewers call a misstep. For me, a few of the so-called weaker songs are among my favorites; “English Tea” and “Friends to Go” are among my favorites. There are a few melodic and chordal surprises on the album. The unexpected minor in “Jenny Wren” brings us up short and causes us to pay attention when we’d otherwise just let the song wash over us. The tempo changes in “Promise to You Girl” are surprising (although it is tied with “A Certain Softness” for my least favorite song on the album). On my first listen I found the first few lines of “Too Much Rain” are almost too much to listen to after hearing how emotionally open the album had already been – and that’s before I got to the stunning “Riding to Vanity Fair” and “This Never Happened Before.”

Overall, this album sits nicely on the shelf with McCartney’s finest post-Beatles work; Band on the Run, Tug of War and Flaming Pie.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The joy of teaching

I’ve been thinking a bit about teaching lately.  Yeah, I actually do that a lot – occupational hazard – but I’ve been thinking about enjoying teaching lately primarily for two reasons: a) I am teaching less than I ever have and b) my daughter Bethany is teaching for the first time and we talk about that a lot.  

For the last 8 years I’ve been teaching a wonderful course which had a LOT of student contact – five days a week, three hours a day with the same group of students.  It was intense but I loved getting to know the students.  On top of that, I have another course with content that I also really love (teaching religion in the elementary classroom) but far less student contact – only four hours a week for half a semester.  Now, because I’m department chair and have a course buy-out to do some writing, I only have my four-hour-a-week class and I find that I really relish the time in class.  I truly like the students I have this year (although we’ve only met three times so far) but I like the vibe we have going and it’s been a lot of fun to put a few new things in the course.  I look forward to each session – something I didn’t have the time to do when I was in class 19 hours a week.  (I know that teachers in real school are laughing right now but 19 college hours was at least as much work as a full week of full-time middle school teaching.)

Then there is Bethany’s teaching. I think she has some of the same teaching bug that I have.  We have a good time talking about the evils of grading and the buzz you get from having a class goes well.  Plus, today one of her students said “this is my favorite class!” (It works better with a southern accent.)   She was clearly pleased with that – who wouldn’t be in your first semester of teaching ever.  These are the things that remind me that, after nearly 30 years of doing this, I still enjoy teaching.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard

I have only listened to the new Paul McCartney album one and a half times so I can’t yet write a complete review so here’s my short first-take:


Sunday, September 11, 2005


My daughter Meredith took this at the south pier in Holland a couple of weeks ago. I just thought I'd post it because it's been my computer wallpaper ever since.

You know youre a grad student when...

My daughter Bethany and her grad school colleague Becky(a U2 fan, by the way – 9 days until I see them in Chicago!) are developing a list of things that indicates that one is a grad student at the University of Georgia.  It’s a fun list.  Check it out.

Lazy Blue Tunas at the One Trick Pony

Lazy Blue Tunas – Thursday, Sept 15 – One Trick Pony, Grand Rapids, MI

Pete Bardolph will play a set at 8 PM, the Tunas go on at 9:00.  Lots of fun.  Come on out!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The twist

We got soft ice cream this afternoon on the way home from the nursing home visiting my father-in-law.  Laura and I got vanilla (no jokes please) and Lynnae got “twist.”  Twist is a mixture of vanilla and chocolate “twisted” together.  But they weren’t twisted. They were side by side.  Vanilla on one half and chocolate on the other.  The cone in the picture here is indeed twisted since the person making the cone twisted the cone as the ice cream was being dispensed but the one Lynnae got was just plain.  

Does this constitute false advertising?

Friday, September 09, 2005

New Orleans Photo Essay

Father Ron Hatton has a link to a fascinating photo essay on the last week in New Orleans. I didn't realize that, at least in the area where this person was, things got significantly worse there on Day 3 and 4 then they were at the end of Day 2. Things were bad at the end of Day 2, but not flooded. Worth looking at.

Monday, September 05, 2005

McCartney learns how to play Sgt Pepper' from U2! -

McCartney learns how to play Sgt Pepper' from U2! -

How can this be? McCartney played Sgt Pepper on the World Tour of 1990. I was there and I have the CD (Tripping the Live Fantastic) and VHS.

He played it on the world tour of 1992. I was there.

He played it on the Back in the US tour. I have the CD and DVD.

And he played it on the follow up tour of the world - including the St Petersburg show. It's on the Red Square DVD (see my review here).

He may never have played this version exactly before but still. McCartney has been known to revinvent history and this is a great example. He's not one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The Word is Live - Yes

The latest Yes album is once again difficult to find in stores so I had to order it through Amazon which, in itself is cool in a “hey I got a package” kid of way but it means that it arrived about a week and a half after the release date so I was really ready to hear it.  This is a three-disc set called The Word is Live (a pun on a line in an early song – “the word is love.”)

First of all, the packaging is very nice although perhaps a bit strange.  The three discs are housed in the front and back covers of a book and the discs overlap by about 50% so the book is a lot shorter than other books which held two CDs.  That means, for example, that getting disc one out means you have to get disc two out first, a bit of a pain.  The third disc is in the back cover.  The book itself is something like 64 pages and is full of color pictures and fan memories which mostly fall under the “yes is soooooo cool” category and don’t really add to my understanding of the band.  A critical essay (even if it’s not critical as most essays in boxed sets aren’t) would have been nice.  Greg Lake from ELP wrote one and managed to point out that Chris Squire and Greg Lake were responsible for the cutting edge bass sound that they both became well known for and that Bill Bruford left Yes for King Crimson which Greg Lake founded, by the way.  My opinion of Lake wasn’t changed by this essay.

But I didn’t buy it for the book – I bought it for the music.  The point of this is to collect live tracks spanning the first 20 years of their career which are in some way different than the multiple live recordings already out there – and Yes has released a lot of them; Yessongs, Yesshows, 9012live, Keys to Ascension 1 & 2, House of Yes, Yes Symphonic, and numerous DVDs.  There are two tracks, the first two, that were previously released on the Live at the BBC set but all the rest are brand new, including a couple of tracks featuring Patrick Moraz on keyboards and also the Geoff Downes / Trevor Horn version of Yes.  Trevor Rabin shows up in four tracks at the end of the set.  Some of the tracks are songs that have been unavailable and were never recorded on a studio album or a live album before.  

The sound of the CD is one of the most disappointing aspects – it sounds like a bootleg recording.  One would expect, then, that the performances better be pretty good (or pretty rare) to warrant this and, indeed, they are.  Steve Howe absolutely rips it up on a couple of songs and this early recording of "Yours is No Disgrace" is full of fire.   Patrick Moraz was an amazing player and gets a chance to shine on “Sound Chaser”.  The early version of one part of “Starship Trooper” with Peter Banks on guitar is a revelation.

There is a lot to enjoy here and I’m just dipping my toe into the set.  All in all, this is a fine set and any Yes fan would enjoy it – I’m looking forward to spending more time with it.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Back Home - Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton’s new album, Back Home, has an interesting story behind it. It seems that Eric knew it was time to make an album and was excited about it but didn’t quite know what he wanted to do so he called his producer and collaborator Simon Climie and said that he wanted to get started. They had a plan, though, that whenever they got stuck they’d record a Robert Johnson song. It seems that the Johnson songs were so easy for the band that they finished a whole album of his music before they finished Eric’s new “regular” album. So, about a year ago, Me and Mr Johnson was released.

Clapton then turned his attention back to the new album and finished it up. With that sort of backstory, one would expect the album to sound a little unfocused, perhaps like there is no real central theme or concept that the artists were going for. It turns out that that’s only partly true because Clapton did, indeed, have a theme in mind. It seems that Eric is a happy guy these days with a wife and three small children and he wanted to write and sing about that. Now in the early 70’s he was completely broken-hearted, using drugs and his life was a mess. He made what is, perhaps the album of his career – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Can a happy Clapton make a great album?

Well, I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to, but he didn’t this time. However, this is a nice album and before I’m accused of damning with faint praise I don’t mean that in a negative way. There are some really nice songs in here and some fine vocal and guitar performances. “Revolution,” the first single is incredibly catchy. I dare you not to sing along the second time you hear it. The guitar solo on the Vince Gill penned “One Day” is amazing and quintessential Clapton. His cover of George Harrison’s “Love Comes To Everyone” is very nicely done, although perhaps too respectful of the original to be necessary. There really isn’t a blues tune in sight although “Lost and Found” comes close.

So this is hardly a barnburner but I keep putting the album on my stereo and I really can’t get some of the songs out of my head. It doesn’t have the passion of Pilgrim or the earthiness of Reptile. In some ways this album is similar to Slowhand which is hardly a great Clapton album but was one of his most commercial successes. If you’re a Clapton fan you might be disappointed with this album but if you’re not, this is one that really might get your attention.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A matter of scale

I have been thinking a lot about the hurricane victims and considering the problems faced by rescuers.  It seems to me that, aside from the inherent difficulties in rescuing people from areas that are horrible – flood, disease, etc. – a big part of the problem is simply a matter of scale.  There are just too many people who need help for this to be done quickly.  Let’s consider the super dome with 20,000 people inside.  They all need to be bussed out of there.  How many people can a bus hold?  Let’s say 40.  That means we need 500 busses.  If the roads are closed and there is one route in and we can only load one bus at a time, how long does it take to load a bus?  Let’s say 10 minutes.  That means 5000 minutes of loading – that’s 83 hours.  Even if we double the speed at which busses can load that’s two full days of just loading people on busses.  That doesn’t account for the idea that the busses may not be available or the fuel for them might not be available.

I’m not saying the people in charge are doing it right – I don’t know and I’m in no position to judge because all I see is the devastation and frustration of the people there.  But I do know that rescuing 100,000 people is a lot different than rescuing 10 – when the numbers get this big it is a whole different problem.  

I hope and pray that things get a lot better soon.