Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Good Gas News

Amid all the other economic "turmoils" that we're being told to panic over, there's a little variable that's getting lost in the that everyone was throwing a complete fit over just weeks ago.

Analysts were saying oil could double to $200 per gallon, gas prices could reach $5 per gallon easily, and it could be a social crisis of unbounded impact.

Now, quietly, with very little attention being focused on it, gas prices have fallen more than a dollar and a half, or more than 30%!

Gas is now $2.49 in my area, and according to the Dallas Morning News, it is below $2 in parts of Texas. (Price not seen since 2005, according to the chart.)

AAA calls the drop "unprecedented," attributes the change to good old market forces and the Business Journal anticipates even steeper price decreases.

But of course, CNN's ready to drop cold water on the good news; Cheaper gas not the answer, their website declares. (Sub-sub text: "Obama is"?)

**Update 11/6/08**
Gas is now down to $1.87/gallon in my area. Surreal.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Soundtrack Geekdom Pt. 2 - More Soundtrack Additions

I wrote before about how the music program Ruckus has been giving me the freedom to explore and preview more and more selections of music. In my desire to enhance my understanding, appreciation and recognition of individual composers and their styles, I've been downloading and previewing past soundtracks from several of the artists I've mentioned before. Here's a rundown of some of the latest acquisitions:

  • Amazing Grace (David Arnold)
  • Independence Day (David Arnold)
  • A Dark Knight (James Newton Howard & Hans Zimmer)
  • Hulk (Danny Elfman)
  • Star Trek (Jerry Goldsmith & Dennis McCarthy)
  • Eastern Promises (Howard Shore)
  • The Last Mimzy (Howard Shore)
  • A History of Violence (Howard Shore)
  • Titanic (James Horner)
  • Braveheart (James Horner)
  • Apollo 13 (James Horner)
  • We Were Soldiers (Nick Glennie-Smith)
  • Bug (Brian Tyler)
  • Gladiator (Lisa Gerrard & Hans Zimmer)
  • Hidalgo (James Newton Howard)

I've learned a few new things about the artists:

I've learned that David Arnold will have to step things up a notch for Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but I have confidence that he can.

I learned that Howard Shore can somehow simultaneously craft new and unique tracks for movies, and yet still retain a very Lord of the Rings-esque sound to his work.

I decided that James Horner favors slower compositions that really make you feel a moment rather than push and pull you on an orchestral roller coaster.

I learned that no matter how well Brian Tyler scored Children of Dune, he couldn't rescue a movie like Bug.

And I learned that once again, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard are in a class all their own.

So there you have it, I'm well on the way from being a soundtrack conessouir to being a soundtrack analyst. Let me know if you need soundtrack consultancy!

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Oh It Must Be CD Season - Upcoming Releases

It seems to be the season where albums - good ones - start dropping like the autumn leaves. (In my area, the leaves are dropping because they're dry, not because of the season, but that's beside the point.)

I logged in to Facebook's iLike the other day and found several album pre-order notices posted by artists I've favorited.

But first, the new releases.

Within Temptation recently released Black Symphony, which is little more than a series of live performances of their previous hits. And unfortunately, due to studio post-recording wizardry, live performance recordings seldom live up to the original studio mix. For some reason, lead singer Sharon den Adel's voice sounds deeper, rawer and huskier in the album. They also butchered one of their all-time best songs, "Somewhere" by including a duet singer (who, in the DVD for the concert, isn't wearing pants). Nevertheless, there is one awesome exception; the beginning track. Titled "Ouverature," the haunting symphonic tune was well worth downloading the entire album on Ruckus. The second benefit is that, in promotion for the new CD, Within Temptation re-released two of their previous albums, Mother Earth and The Silent Force.

Celtic Thunder recently released their second album, Act II, evidently further attempts make good on the current Celtic fad that seems to be sweeping the country, if not the world. (For the record, I liked Celtic before Celtic was cool.) Their sound is admittedly more neo-pop, and you can scarcely argue the point with songs such as "Desperado," "I Wanna Know What Love Is" and "Puppy Love" in their repertoire. It seems that the stylish "kilts" were added to ward off criticisms of not being authentically Celtic (they look more like formal skirts to me, hardly a kilt-like pattern) but nevertheless, the latest album sports some classy tunes. A Bird Without Wings is very stylishly delivered by the group's "boy wonder" Damian McGinty, as well as other songs like "I Wanna Know What Love Is," the interesting "That's A Woman" ballad, a very archaic rendition of "Heartland" and a not-too-shabby takeoff on Caledonia, which was a good effort, but couldn't overcome the immortalized rendition by Lisa Kelly of Celtic Woman.

Speaking of which...

Celtic Woman is releasing a best-of album soon, featuring hits from their previous collections and one brand-new song, "The Call" which is already accessible on Facebook. It seems a bit cheeky to release a best-of after only two actual albums, but "The Call" illustrates that arranger David Downes and the current members of the group still have it, and gives us a foretaste of what their next album will be like. (Hopefully.)

(Note, this album is not to be confused with former member Hayley Westenra's album, River of Dreams, releasing the same day.)

Brad Paisley shows no sign of stopping, and a track listing from Amazon indicates the usual blend of creative titles, puns, guest artists, humorous as well as serious songs, and at least one gospel tune. I still can't get over how cool "Throttleneck" was from Paisley's previous album, 5th Gear.

Secret Garden, the greatest musical group no one has ever seems to have heard of, is a lavish mixture of bittersweet instrumentals, lively Irish melodies, and soothing lyrical wonders. Continental Music's website describes Secret Garden thus:
Secret Garden creates a musical tapestry that includes textures, colours and emotions ranging from the amazing magnitude of musical experiences that Norwegian born composer / keyboard master Rolf Lovland and Irish violinist extraordinary Fionnuala Sherry, share between them. In concert, these attractive performers and their band create an extraordinary musical "garden" that sweep audiences away on lyrical, mystical adventure that ranges from the romantically serene to the wildly explosive.
As it says, the music is composed primarily by Rolf Løvland (with Fionnuala Sherry soulfully manning the violin) and was inspirational enough for famed singer Barbara Streisand to pen lyrics to, and re-release the song "I've Dreamed of You" after singing it at her wedding. Now the latest, "Inside I'm Singing", other artists take a whack at pairing the beautiful compositions with lyrics of their own. It isn't quite the same, but the album still contains some great songs, like "If Came The Hour" and "Song for a Stormy Night" as well as at least one original instrumental. Alas, the album has yet to release officially in the United States, and I'm only able to comment on existing tracks because of a website I found where you can stream (not download!) the album.

Next up, the Christmas goodies:

Enya has quietly carved her own permanent niche in the classical/vocal/new age genre, with a voice that would barely disturb a feather, often multiplied a thousand-fold to create an ethereal ambiance. It is somewhat exciting to see her album is not just Christmas, but winter. Too often, music that applies to winter gets reshelved just after Christmas, when the season still has months left to go. (Consequently, I leave songs like Winter Wonderland or Sleigh Ride on my MP3 player well after Christmas.) Hopefully with Enya's album, there will be more applicable music to leave in the hopper.

Mannheim Steamroller has become a Christmas staple in millions of homes, and it's always a treat to bring back their CDs come Christmas time, but from the snippets I've heard, this latest offering isn't exactly on par with their previous work. Of course, I won't be tuning in to any Christmas music until around Thanksgiving (earlier if the retailers and radio markets have their say...), but I fear my new favorite for enlivened contemporary songs mixed with sentimental holiday cheer may be Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Sarah Brightman's been on an interesting curve lately, and her latest album, Symphony, seems to be a departure from her previous work. I say this in a good way of course; Brightman's former operatic days (looking back in retrospective) seem...well, operatic. The focus is not so much on an interesting and varied melody as it is on the power and strength of the voice performing off of a more linear tune. Symphony blatantly started off on a "Gothic" note with the power sounds of "Fleurs du Mal" before quickly stepping back down into more classical yet more thematic and variable songs like Symphony, Canto Della Terra, Sarai Qui, and the upbeat, made-for-exercise Running. Now Brightman's coming out with A Winter Symphony, and if it's anything like the album's mainstream namesake, it will be another great classical Christmas/winter album to add to the shuffle.

So there you have it, those are the albums I'm looking forward to, and a glimpse of my insights into current really good artists. I of course recommend pretty much all of the aforementioned albums and artists.

I've also been discovering the music of a guy named Tim Janis, but that's another post for another time.

**Update October 30**

On the prowl for more Christmas music at Amazon, I ran across a new album, A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas, from bubbly blond Kristin Chenoweth, best known for her role in the original cast of Wicked. Chenoweth is blond enough to appear stupid, and intelligent enough to carry it off with wit and humor, and while I likely wouldn't purchase the entire album on Amazon's MP3 downloader, there are definitely some choice tracks to pick from.

**Update November 6, 2008**

Just when you think things can't get better...! The serenely haunting Loreena McKennitt is releasing a full-length Christmas album too. It's going to be one heck of a Christmas this year.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Debate Strategy #1

"If you are going to debate, you must realize it won't be all fools and halfwits so easily refuted. Sooner or later, you will find someone who will rebut your position (or, seem to) with devastating effectiveness. They will rip apart your position, gut your arguments and eviscerate your responses. If you have taken a stand on the right side of an issue, you should not let this stop you. Instead, delve deeper into the arguments and logic, and search for better answers. If you learn you are wrong, good. If you find you are right, but learn new ways to prove it, even better. This is continuing growth and development as a rhetorician. In this, you cannot lose."

I've written several times now about global warming. Unfortunately, now that I represent a gun rights organization, my chief political labors focus on those goals, and my other interests (such as global warming, creationism and so forth) take a back seat.

But every now and again, I enjoy seeing articles that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For instance, this article from the Anchorage Daily News entitled Alaska glaciers grew this year, thanks to colder weather.

I sent this article to a classmate of mine who thinks I'm a nice guy, "despite being conservative." He responded that increased precipitation is a prediction of global warming. I then asked him, if both the waxing and waning of glaciers proves global warming, how could anthropogenic global warming be disproved? He didn't really have an answer for that.

So, debate tip number one: Always take the time to determine how a person's argument could be falsified. If it cannot (IE, glaciers melting/growing) then they do not hold a legitimate point of view, because one of the requirements of a theory is that it CAN be falsified. Otherwise, there's really no point in debating it. And don't be afraid to ask them, "what would you accept as evidence that would change your mind?" Most people, if you're having a good-natured (or even hostile) debate, won't mind telling you what would change their mind.

Thus, you are given the opportunity to select the appropriate weapon before you even begin the debate.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

How Much Is $700 Billion?


It's a big number, but everyone was so concerned with who was supporting or opposing it, and panicking about potential bank failures (that and we're used to large sums of money being thrown around by the government) that no one stopped to ask how big it was. I decided to ask Google, and ran across an article that broke things down:
It is one third of the total amount of money received by the federal government in 2007, including social security, income tax, corporate tax, and all other receipts.

It is $140 billion more than has been spent on the Iraq war since the invasion.

It is $120 billion more than that spent on social security benefits.

It is almost 3 billion nonrefundable bus fares from Durham to San Francisco, leaving tomorrow.

It is nine times the amount spent on education in 2007.

It could pay for 2,000 McDonald's apple pies for every single American.

It is 35 times the amount spent on all foreign aid in most years.

It is more zeros than the calculator that comes with my computer allows.

It is 7,000 times bigger than the Sierra club’s yearly budget.

According to some estimates, it is three times what it would cost, over 10 years, to reduce oil dependency by 20%.

Its over twice the amount of all money given to all charitable organizations in the United States in any given year.

It is more than $100 for every person in the world.

I did some calculating myself, to add to those numbers. $700 billion is approximately 1/14th of the national debt.

If I started giving you $100 every second, it would take you about 222 years to accumulate $700 billion. (31,556,926 seconds in a year times $100, then divide $700 billion by that number.)

It is 4,666 times larger than an estimated total of all the websites on the internet.

It takes ten million $100 dollar bills just to reach a billion, so it would take 7,000,000,000 $100 dollar bills, which would weigh about 6800 TONS.

If you spent a million dollars a day, it would take you 1,917 years to spend $700 billion.

You would have to have 661 MILES of hundred dollar bills stacked up to get $700 billion. (Based on calculations about Bill Gates' 20 billion here.)

Your federal government hard at play with your hard-earned money.

Aww, why so sad?

**Update 10/28/08**
The Washington Post has a nice breakdown of the allocation


Saturday, October 11, 2008

TIME Magazine Questions Need for Experience (For Obama)

From TIME Magazine: Does Experience Matter in a President?
There's something egglike about the concept of experience as a qualification for the highest office. At first blush, the idea appears to be something you can get your hands around. Presidential experience means a familiarity with the levers and dials of government, knowing how to cajole the Congress, understanding when to rely on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and when to call on the National Security Council — that sort of thing. But bear down even slightly, and the notion of experience is liable to crack and run all over. If knowing the system is so useful, then second-term presidencies should be more successful than first-term. Instead, many Presidents lose effectiveness as they go along. Lyndon Johnson, for example: his experience as a master legislator no doubt helped as he steered his historic civil rights and welfare agenda to passage. By the end of two years as President, however, "he was out of gas," recalls Johnson aide Harry McPherson. The longer Johnson was in the Oval Office, the more feckless his presidency became.


An ideal President is both ruthless and compassionate, visionary and pragmatic, cunning and honest, patient and bold, combining the eloquence of a psalmist with the timing of a jungle cat. Not exactly the sort of data you can find on a résumé.

This article, of course, was written in February 2008, before Sarah Palin and her "inexperience" became an issue. It is doubtful that they would take such a favorable view of inexperience now.

It's notable that Governor Palin herself has been forthright about how she's an outsider in politics. She has no experience in DC politics - deficit spending, patronage or raising taxes. Her record in Alaska is quite the opposite.

Lack of experience does not always mean a poor leader, and when we look at past presidents, we find they also had similar 'lack of experience.'

Take Woodrow Wilson for example. He held a governorship for only two years before running for president.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a state senator for two years, and a governor for four before becoming president.

Teddy Roosevelt, who has already been compared to Gov. Palin, was a state senator for a few years, and governor for two years before entering the presidential arena.

Historically, our better presidents come with executive experience, not senatorial experience anyway.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Associated Press Pushes Church "Double-Standard" on Palin

From the Associated Press via the Lexington Herald-Leader: Palin a challenge to So. Baptist view of women
Within the nation's largest Protestant denomination, a woman may not lead a church or a home. But prominent Southern Baptists see nothing wrong with Sarah Palin serving as vice president - or perhaps even commander-in-chief someday.

In other words: A woman can run the White House, just not her own house.

I found this attempt at a wedge to be rather amusing coming from the AP -- as I do almost all attempts by self-admitted "outsiders" of the Christian faith to highlight supposed hypocrisy within it.

The flurry of attacks against the plucky Alaska governor are certainly to be expected in a political race, but their desperate nature (and things like this article) reveal how uncomfortable the Democrats are with someone who is comfortable actually being a woman. A large wing of the Democrat party is made up of radical feminists who spend their entire lives shrieking that they are as good as men are, if not better, and then going the extra mile to prove themselves thus. It's a bitter irony that this only indicates a lack of comfort on their part; trying to prove yourself to, and live up to, someone or some standard is a clear indicator of what you aspire to be. Thus, feminists show they aspire to be equal to or greater than the very thing they condemn and despise.

Along comes Gov. Palin, who has no problem showing up to political meetings with her newborn son on her shoulder, or cradling him after the Vice-Presidential debate. She's clearly comfortable in her own skin, being a lady with all elegance and grace, being a mother with poise and enthusiasm, and being a politician at the same time. The irrational fear and paranoid accusations show that these feminist types simply don't comprehend who Palin is and how she can harmonize all three functions at once.

As for alleged incompatibility with Christian faith, the article claims:
A prohibition on pastoral leadership by women, affirmed within the last several years, is based on the Bible verse 1 Timothy 2:12 in which the Apostle Paul says, "I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man." Regarding family life, Southern Baptists cite Ephesians 5:22, "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord."
Of course, in a typical effort to cast Christians as the suppressors of women, the author left out the proper context:
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."
The Apostle Paul spends three verses encouraging woman to honor the hierarchical system set in place (and comparing it to the relationship between Christ and the church), and then spends eight verses exhorting men to love their wives as self-sacrificially as Christ loved us. In other words, to the point of death.

The problem comes in thinking that submission is the same as weakness. In fact, Christ demonstrated that the goal of the most powerful "man" (Christ, the divine made human) on earth was to submit Himself utterly - and then encourage us to do the same. (Matthew 16:24)

As a spokesperson within the SBC notes, "There's no disconnect or inconsistency whatsoever. We don't go beyond where the New Testament goes. Public office is neither a church nor a marriage."

The author would do well to remind himself of the important role of women in the Bible...particularly Deborah, a judge in Israel. Meaning, a woman who held authority over other men of the time.

The author wraps up by trying to underscore further supposed double-standards from a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary pastor, Daniel Akin, by contrasting a sermon on stay-at-home wives with the opinion on Sarah Palin. Of course, for someone who likely does not adhere to a Christian faith, this begs the question, what's wrong with hypocrisy to begin with?