Sunday, December 27, 2009

a year in review v2.09

So for the first time in my life I made New Year's Resolutions at the beginning of 2009 and actually stayed focused on them throughout the year. There were three of them - here's what they were:
  • Read 24 Books In 2009
  • Do A Physical Activity For At Least 5 Minutes Each Day
  • Go On A Mission Trip
Well, I didn't accomplish everything 100%, but I was pretty happy with how things panned out.

Starting with the books, I read or listened to the following books throughout the year:
  1. William P. Young - The Shack
  2. J.I. Packer - Knowing God
  3. Charles Fishman - The WalMart Effect
  4. Bob Woodward - The War Within
  5. Stu Weber - Four Pillars Of A Man's Heart
  6. Malcolm Gladwell - Outliers
  7. Doris Kearns Goodwin - Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln
  8. Jack Coughlin - Shooter
  9. Malcolm Gladwell - The Tipping Point
  10. John Bunyan - John Brown
  11. Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Life Together
  12. Greg Mortenson w/ David Oliver Relin - Three Cups Of Tea
  13. David Ignatius - Body Of Lies
  14. Donald Whitney - Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life
Not quite 24... I got hung up on some really long ones midway through the year. There were some winner books in there, and some that were just a waste of time. I wrote about The WalMart Effect earlier in the year, which I thought was really fascinating. Other highlights were the Abraham Lincoln biography, Outliers, Life Together. Body Of Lies was a waste, and so was Shooter.

Three Cups Of Tea by Greg Mortenson was a particular standout title. This book captured the life of Mortenson, from his early days as a climbing aficionado to his life-threatening K2 summit attempt. Following that ill-fated debacle, Mortenson was saved by a remote village of alpine Pakistani's who nursed the climber back to health. Endeared to the villagers, Mortenson grew to know them in a way no other Westerner has before, and through this close relationship realized what a dramatic detrimental effect the lack of proper education has on the people of Pakistan. Greg dedicated the next decades of his life running the Central Asia Institute, a non-profit foundation that builds schools (which educate both boys and girls) in the remote towns of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It becomes apparent throughout the book how critical proper, non-biased education is to these people, not only for the well being of the citizens, but because the lack of education can be linked directly to the rise of terrorism and jihad-schools in these areas. Mortenson believes that the ONLY way to end terrorism in the Middle East is through education, and the importance of what he continues to do through the CAI is apparent in this book.

I started running this year! That was a first, because, well, I hate running. But Steph and I tried to run regularly, especially throughout the spring and summer this year. I stayed pretty consistent on doing something physical most days of the week, but it's an area I need to continue to improve on. Ongoing goal for next year I guess.

And finally, we made it to Greece this year on a mission trip supporting the International Mission Board for the Baptist Church. I wrote about this at earlier in the year as well right here. It was a fantastic trip and a life changing experience!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

top 10 albums of 2009

10. M. Ward - Hold Time
Scanning my Top 10 list this year, I'm noticing a lot of acoustic singer-songwriter types, and this early '09 release from M. Ward has been a nice, folksy, laid-back listen all year long for me. I truly enjoyed last year's M. Ward collaboration She & Him, featuring actress-turned-singer Zooey Deschanel, and I found myself really missing the "she" a lot while listening to Hold Time. Nice to see her make a guest appearance on a couple tracks. Overall an intimate and well crafted album, great to accompany a cup of coffee and a good book.

9. Swell Season - Strict Joy
I have been craving new music from The Swell Season for the last two years, ever since the independent Irish flick Once graced the film world. The Swell Season is of course the collaboration of musicians-turned-actors Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová whom I've adored at length in other posts. The new album contains a polish and level of production that has been absent from their earlier work, which has both positive and negative ramifications. I don't like that the increased production takes away some of the rawness and honesty intrinsic to the first record. But it is nice to see the growth and musical development that occurs when these two refine a record until it is absolutely perfect. If you loved Once and have a penchant for Irish accents, you'll really like the cohesive set of tracks The Swell Season have brought with Strict Joy.

8. Editors - In This Light And On This Evening
Dark, introspective and industrial are words that come to mind when I think of this album. While Editors have never really steered towards "pop" in any sense of the word, In This Light And On This Evening makes a point to not allow any emphasis on lyrical hooks, and focuses instead on hard, driving rhythmic grooves, underscored by lead singer Tom Smith's vibey and somewhat theatrical voice, all layered with guitar/synth melodies. It's different, weird, and maybe a little creepy.

7. Doves - Kingdom Of Rust
If the Editors album was a little too dark for you, The Doves returned this year with a slightly happier, if still melancholy take on British rock. There's some great orchestral overlays happening on this album that bring a sweeping, atmospheric tone to the entire record. I like this album for the purposefully crafted, cathedral-worthy anthems that are careful not to assume too much self-worth.

6. Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson - Break Up
This musician/actress pairing was a nice surprise for me this year. The first track "Relator" immediately called to mind the Mark Knopfler / Emmylou Harris collaboration from a few years ago (see their song "This Is Us"). And Scarlett doesn't disappoint with her smokey, mysterious voice. The ScarYo pairing is a nice follow-up for those going through a little M. Ward / Zooey Deschanel withdrawal, but not quite as peppy. The record is laced with a tasteful dose of nostalgia; you get the feeling that if Break Up were a movie, it would be filmed with vintage, hand-held equipment resulting in that familiar homey, yellow-tinged, flickering roll of tape that documented all weddings and family events from the early 70's. But Break Up is not a movie, you'll have to listen to get the picture.

5. A Fine Frenzy - Bomb In A Birdcage
This is definitely my most "pop" choice of favorite 2009 albums, and like most pop records it just sucks you in and I can't stop listening to it! Great hooks, great songwriting and smartly done. Highlights are definitely the lead single "Blow Away" and "Electric Twist". I love that this record is able to maintain acoustic folk intimacy on an collection decidedly more upbeat than your typical singer-songwriter fare.

4. Bell X1 - Blue Lights On The Runway
Finally!! A new album from Bell X1! I was so excited for this to release this year, and I was not disappointed. The Irish trio swayed a little more electronic on this album, but underscored it all with great Brit-pop motifs and the modernized Talking Heads sound that I loved so much on Flock.

3. Paper Route - Absence
All Music says Paper Route Absence is "a perfectly adequate destination for fans of technicolor, atmospheric pop," and I suppose that is an adequate description of this record. I find that the closer I get to the top of my best music list, the less musically insightful things I have to say about albums and the more my comments tend towards "OMG I JUST LOVE THIS ALBUM!" This is a brilliant record - musically complex, sonically layered, and inviting. Again, AMG: "Taking their cues from '80s synth pop, new wave, and the bedroom electronica of the Postal Service, Paper Route make their full-length debut with Absence, an album whose quiet grandeur is reminiscent of Stars Of Track And Field's Centuries Before Love And War."

2. Regina Spektor - Far
Regina is back! And I would say she is back with stronger songwriting and more complex production that still maintains her signature quirkiness. The piano is still very present, which I love, and I think is what makes Regina's music - you don't hear a lot of piano-based female singer-songwriters. There are plenty of songs along the lines of "Better" and "Fidelity" - two of the last album's highlight tracks - which continues to move her sound into a more progressive, pop-friendly realm. The ballad "Laughing With God" is an incredible, make-you-think track and definitely the deepest song lyrically on the record.

1. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
And here we are, #1 album of the year award goes to Phoenix! OMG I JUST LOVE THIS ALBUM!! All Music says, "Beyond containing the band's best, most efficient songwriting, the album also stands apart from the first three studio albums by projecting a cool punch that is unforced," and I would agree completely with that. There's definitely a swagger in the music, but it's underlying and not heavy handed. The record flows and builds easily, and while there are definitely great commercial-friendly moments ("1901" for the Cadillac SRX), the softer moments lend way to great sweeping, epic climaxes that carry you through the entire album. I like a band that's not afraid to show their stuff and give you a few instrumental tracks to prove that it's not all about the lyrical hook. I love it when I can hear a track being played in a store somewhere, and I tag it with Shazam and go, "oh wow, that's Phoenix isn't it!" and then realize that it's the LAST song on the album. Yes, this record is so good that even track #10 is worthy of airplay... what band in their right mind would place a radio-friendly song as the last track? A band who records an entire record of stellar, deliberate, best-of-the-year quality music.

2009 Honorable Mentions
I listened to these albums a fair amount this year, but not enough to place them in the Top 10 of 2009:
  • U2 - No Line On The Horizon
  • Five For Fighting - Slice
  • Bluetree - God Of This City
  • Muse - The Resistance
  • Royksopp - Junior
  • British Sea Power - Man Of Aran
  • Owl City - Ocean Eyes
  • The Decemberists - The Hazard

Monday, November 02, 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

what a swell season

I forget sometimes how fortunate I am to have the job I have, and to do what I do in the music industry. Most of the time it's all emails and meetings and conference calls with sales reps. Boring stuff.

But then there are days like yesterday.

Two years ago a small independent film called Once burst out of Dublin, Ireland starring Glen Hansard (lead singer of Irish rock band The Frames) and his musical collaborator Markéta Irglová. Shot on a shoestring budget (only $160,000), the film featured the pair as struggling musicians and included original music written and performed by Hansard and Irglova. It was a simple but beautiful story that went on to earn $20 million worldwide and earned Hansard and Irglova an Academy Award, a Grammy nomination, and international stardom. The two musicians now tour and perform as a duo called The Swell Season.

This week I was in California for a music presentation with one of our accounts. We do these a couple times a year featuring artists from all across the Warner label family, and it's a cool opportunity for me to see a lot of various artists perform in one setting. The most exciting part for me - The Swell Season was on the docket to play the showcase. I have been looking forward to this for two months!

And so the time finally came yesterday. About midway through the showcase I selected for myself a spot right at the foot of the stage. A label guy got up in front of us and went through the story about Glen and Markéta and the movie - everything I just told you. And then, the words I had been waiting for, "Please welcome The Swell Season!" And then he gestures behind us! I hear music. We all turn around to see Glen, strumming on his guitar, and Marketa both standing at the back of the room side by side - no mic, no lights - as they launch into one of their trademark songs. And so begins the most incredible, intimate, unassuming, amazing acoustic performances I have ever seen in my life.

After a couple songs Glen explained how he believes stages separate an artist from the audience and creates a line of divison that shouldn't be there, and that when he can he likes to play right in amongst the audience so that there can be a true connection. The set was necessarily short and direct, and simply amazing. They closed with their Grammy nominated song "Falling Slowly" which I captured below. There's a lot of ambient noise, and there are plenty of better live recordings on YouTube, but this one is mine and I like it a lot:

After the set I wandered outside the club, pretending to be checking my email on my phone, but knowing Glen and Marketa had to catch a plane that evening. In general I don't care too much about meeting artists, but there are a few that I have always wanted to meet. And so as Glen and Marketa were walking out the door I did my best to nonchalantly thank them for playing and told them how much I enjoy their music without coming across like a total goob. I'm sure I didn't accomplish that, but they were kind enough to humor me with a little conversation and a picture before getting in their car and jetting off.

Yesterday was without a doubt one of my Top 5 music related experiences of all time. Hard to capture in words and really poor-quality video, but it was great and was a good reminder of why I work in music.

If you haven't before, check out the soundtrack from Once. Keep your eyes open for the new album from The Swell Season releasing October 27th.

Friday, August 28, 2009

five musical collaborations i'd love to hear

This is a short, somewhat tacky, and by no means exhaustive list of musical collaborations I would love to hear. Click the little linky-links to hear songs if you like musics. Tell me what collaborations you would like to hear in the comments below:

Ryan Adams & Mindy Smith
Performing "La Cienga Just Smiled" and "Out Loud"
Two depression-prone alt-country folk singers performing together like this will likely cause some cataclysmic event in the music world from which we will never recover (not a good thing, considering the shape of the industry right now). Nonetheless, this would be a great pairing I think. If I was mean I would have Ryan Adams and Bryan Adams sing "Summer Of 69" together, but I like Ryan too much to do that to him. Two great songwriters and great voices.

Sigur Ros & Regina Spektor
Performing "Hoppipolla"
I have no idea what this would sound like in my mind. Sigur Ros, my favorite "mood" band, and Regina is just a really talented songwriter that would somehow have to merge her Russian-pop sentiments into the gobbledigookish lyrics and sounds of Iceland. I'm willing to give it a try though. Sounds fun.

Battle Of The Bruce's: Springsteen & Hornsby
Performing "Thunder Road"
Two of my favorites from 80's-era arena rock. Bruce Springsteen has an awesome keyboards guy already in Roy Bittan, but I love Hornby's sound... really bright and punchy. Go ahead, find a better rock piano man than Bruce Hornsby... seriously, name one off right now. Have a name in mind? Ok, now listen to this - Bruce Hornsby "The Way It Is", recorded live for Here Come The Noisemakers. I just proved that there is no better rock piano man. "Thunder Road"... what an amazing (dare I say epic) song, kicking off possibly my favorite album of all time, Born To Run.

John Hiatt & Mandy Moore
Performing "Have A Little Faith"
It's kind of a cheesy song, but I like it a lot. Both Hiatt and Moore have recorded covers of "Have A Little Faith". Hiatt has a classic soul voice and Moore has great tone and range. It would be a great recording. Of all the girls to come out of the late-90's teen pop debacle, Mandy was the only one I ever thought had any real musical talent (is a good actress too), and isn't certifiably dumb.

Sting & Delirious
Performing "Every Breath You Take"
Martin Smith of Delirious once said that if he could have anyone cover "I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever" it would be Sting. Seems like a natural pairing. Lets have Delirious provide the band and Sting and Martin duke it out on vocals. It would force Sting to be both rock and British once again, instead of that Middle-Eastern-gypsy-goofiness he prefers now... not that there's anything wrong with that.

Monday, July 20, 2009

steph goes to the art store

My wife likes to paint things. She's a much better artist than I'll ever be, and I like that the walls of our house get free custom artwork. Every once in a while artists have to go to art stores to get supplies, such as canvases and paints and brushes. We have a great art store about 5 miles from our house that offers crazy good deals on canvases and a selection of paint colors that would make the snobby little kid from your 4th grade class, who was so proud of his box of 96 Crayola crayons, speechless. This weekend was cause for one of those trips to Jerry's Art Store.

Now, when Steph goes to the art store I usually go with her. My self-appointed job on these trips is to manage expectations. I have but one goal when we go to Jerry's: To get in, and get out, as fast as humanly possible... otherwise, I will get a call from my bank the next day asking why I have charged $14,000 in paints and brushes to my account.

So we went to the art store Saturday. I did a quick scan of the store - there was a children's painting class taking up one whole corner of the building, blocking the Easel display. Good, one less area to worry about. I felt comfortable leaving the Papers section unattended - Steph was on a painting trip and trying to finish a project for some friends... drawing was not top of mind. I knew she needed a couple paint based markers, so I escorted her in that direction for a quick drop off while I headed to the Acrylics Paint section. I knew if I could somehow coral five or six shoppers into Acrylics, that would be enough commotion to make Steph want to skip that area.

I quietly pushed a shopping cart over to block one end of the Acrylics aisle and then spread a rumor amongst other shoppers of a "5-for-1 acrylics paint sale". That seemed to cause the desired result and I ran back to find Steph, who by now had long ago left the paint markers. I raced down to Brushes And Knives to find her holding a 4-inch wide albino Qinling Panda-hair paint brush in her hand, eying it like Gollum at Mount Doom, with a $75.99 price tag dangling daintily from the handle. Frantic, I grabbed her arm and gently turned her towards some modestly priced palette knives while easing the Panda-haired brush from her grip. In disbelief I glanced down at a shopping basket she had acquired sometime in the last five minutes, half full of items not on our shopping list.

I can sense I am beginning to lose control. I plant an idea in Steph's mind that we "should go look at the art books" over in the Books And Manuals section. This is always a safe bet, because while books tend to be more expensive items, she will rarely buy one and instead thumb through the pictures looking for future ideas. She gives in and I escort her away from Brushes, while suggesting to her that I go scout out vacancy at the checkout counter. I cannot deal with a line at this point. If we have to stand in line at checkout, she's likely to wander back into Acrylics, and then there will be no hope. We have to walk right up to the cashier, lay down the cash, and get out of there before she has a chance to take in the counter displays.

The checkout line looks good. A beret capped 40-something is just finishing up his purchase, so now is the time to move in. I give the "I'll be 1 second" gesture to the cashier, who acknowledges me from across the store. I head back to Books to find Steph... who is not there.... Oh good moogly googly, where could she possibly have gone? A feeling of dread overwhelms me as the truth begins to sink in...


Canvases is the black hole of Jerry's Art Store. It's seven solid aisles of nothing but stretched white linen. Sheets of canvas as large as pool tables. The walls are made of canvas in Canvases. It's a maze designed to trap you in, and never let you go, until you have convinced yourself that, "Why yes, certainly I can take home this 7-foot x 13-foot monstrosity of wood and double-primed acid-free linen and conceive upon it a work worthy of Michelangelo's praise and adulation!" No one ever returns from Canvases.

I hear rustling. "What do you think about this one?" a familiar voice calls out. "What one?" I respond, "Where are you?" I see movement in the far back corner. "I'm right here... I think this one would look good on our living room wall!" A canvas starts to move towards me - yes, move towards me - as though self propelled. Suddenly Steph pops out from behind the 9-foot tall 'potential of art', peering up at a canvas which is twice as tall as her. "Maybe it would go better in the stairway where the ceilings are taller," she counters to herself.

I sigh, and select a more unassuming 2-foot by 2-foot canvas and suggest, "You know, I've always wanted something to go on that blank wall in the kitchen. Perhaps you could do something with this?"

I hand it to over, which distracts her long enough for me to guide her out of Canvases and towards the front of the store, where a line has developed at the cash register. Great. We stand there while Patricia and her four kids stock up on enough water colors to keep them busy for the rest of the summer. "You know, I've been wanting one of these," says Steph grabbing an Artist's Color Wheel from the counter display. "It will help me match colors." The name of the game is now called appeasement. "Fine," I say as I hand the cashier my check card and start emptying items out onto the counter.

Of course a trip to the art store with Steph is really nothing like that. The Canvas section is only five aisles wide. Ok, seriously, Steph does love her trips to the art store, which makes me laugh, but it's nothing like that. Samples of her series that she is painting for a local church to be featured here soon.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

so one day we went to greece

So we went to Greece! Steph and I decided in January that we were going to go on an international mission trip this year, and it happened! You're thinking, "Right, Greece... some mission trip." To which we say, Paul's mission trips were to Greece, so if it was good for Paul it's good for us.

Every year the international missionaries of the Southern Baptist church attend an annual conference in their region called an Annual General Meeting. This is a chance for them to get away from their local ministry with their families and take part in training, interact with other missionaries, and relax. The week is full with worship services, classes, VBS for the kids, and all sort of other activities. Steph and I were part of a team from our church in Nashville that led the worship music at the conference for the week. It was an incredible experience, and we met so many great people who have dedicated their lives to serving overseas.

Leading worship for the missionaries was an incredibly unique experience. In America we take for granted our opportunity to go to church without fear, and worship in peace and freedom. We've all been told that we take this for granted countless times. But this freedom was cast in a different light when we witnessed 900 missionaries worshiping who DO NOT have this freedom in the countries they serve in. We met a number of individuals who serve in high security countries where the political or military environment prevents them from being open about their faith, and demands that their work as missionaries be kept a secret (some of them couldn't even tell us exactly what city they served in and what their job function is). As you might imagine, song lyrics that talk about "trials" and "burdens" that may seem intangible to us take on an entirely personal meeting for these folks. We have never seen a group of people worship and sing with such passion, and the wall of sound of singing voices that greeted us every morning when we began to play was inspiring.

We were grateful to have the opportunity to spend a day in Athens on our return trip. Among the highlights from touring the ancient city was the ability to visit the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, walk on top of Mars Hill (where Paul gave his famous speech to the Athenians), and eat some really fantastic Greek food.

For us, a band of 8 traveling from Tennessee, playing music at a conference center was not what we would consider a great personal sacrifice. After all this is something we love to do, and whether we do it at home in Nashville or halfway around the world, we try to bring the same spirit and energy to prompt people to worship God wherever we are.

But to 900 missionaries who live in a culture that is not their own, who struggle daily with a language that is not their own, and are presented with daily challenges that would make many of us throw up our hands in defeat... being able to worship in English was a rare treasure. I think we all left Greece, not with a feeling of personal pride at having "performed" well, but with the confidence that God had used us to meet a specific and important need. It was a fantastic trip, and we feel blessed to have had the opportunity to go.

To see some photos from our trip, check out this album on Facebook.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

it's a horse!

Steph works at a horse hospital where she's basically an equine surgical assistant or, as Brian says, an "equinarian".

I came across this the other day, courtesy of GraphJam, and thought it was hilarious. I can just imagine Steph and her boss posting this in their treatment area and begin diagnosing cases based on this chart:

(click the image to enlarge...)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

the neked people

No one is really sure why "The Naked People" statue came to the Music Row roundabout a few years ago. I'm sure our reaction was similar to the one I'm about to describe below when it was first unveiled, but the locals have come to just accept / ignore it's existence and get on with life.

Apparently Nashville's "powers that be" decided we needed something to mark the foot of Music Row, an area just outside of downtown that is home to many of the Nashville based country, gospel, and Christian music companies. And what better way to honor Nashville's historic music tradition than confusing residents with a circular intersection and a 40 foot tall statue of naked dancers? According to the artist, the sculpture "Musica" uses dancers to convey the "physical expression of music" bursting forth in "celebration and exuberance". Whatever. Remember, this is Nashville, the home of country music... Johnny Cash would just roll his eyes. A statue of a broken down pickup truck, a sad coon dog, and beat up guitar would have captured the spirit of the city better.

But anyways, yesterday as I'm leaving work and about to enter Nashville's most perplexing intersection, I see this little old car creeping along on the roundabout. He's going terribly slow. I wait for him to pass me, glance at the license plate and see he's from out of state. Georgia. I figure he's as baffled as I am as to where to exit the never-ending circle road.

Then I look closer. The driver is an older guy - gray hair, glasses, and there's this shocked expression on his face and his eyes are glued to the drivers side window. Peering up, he's taking in for the first time, with dropped jaw, the naked people. I can hear in my mind exactly what he's thinking... "what in the world is that???" He continues to drive around the roundabout, making a full revolution - not just once, but twice, with mouth open staring up in utter amazement.

Welcome to Nashville my friend. The Country Music Hall of Fame is ahead on your right.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

i forgot to title this post

You know those annoying blog posts where people say, "Gosh, I sure haven't posted in a while" and then say, "I'm really sorry it's been so long since I've written".

Yeah, this is one of those.

So let's get beyond all that and just dive right in. What should I write about?

I could make fun of Tim. That's always fun. But he doesn't use the internet anymore, so I won't waste my time.

American Idol? I think Danny Gokey will win. Adam has a great voice, but he's kinda like Bono - he's always operating at 110% and it just gets grating. Plus the make-up and girl pants is a little creepy. But the final three will be Danny, Adam, and Allison - that's what I say.

We're going to Greece in June, fulfilling Resolution #3 for 2009 to go on an international mission trip. More on that in a later post.

I'm reading a biography on Abraham Lincoln right now that is absolutely fascinating, albeit extremely long. It's called Team Of Rivals and is about how Lincoln leveraged his political genius in appointing his three key political rivals to key cabinet positions in his administration. A cool fresh look at Lincoln.

I'm lovin' this new Irish worship band called Bluetree. I'm the biggest Delirious fan of all time so I'm naturally drawn to Bluetree's style, which is a mesh of Delirious and David Crowder. Steph and I got to see them play a couple weeks ago in Nashville, their first time performing in the U.S. as a full band. Was absolutely incredible. I love this song:

Favorite TV shows of the spring, in order: Fringe, 24, Prison Break (though this series is finally wrapping up in a couple weeks), The Office, and Deadliest Catch.

Speaking of TV, HAL 9000 seems to be making a resurgence in television commercials this spring... you know HAL, the artificially intelligent, rational, perceptive, and incredibly creepy supercomputer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. First he showed up in a Quizno's commercial, then in a Jared Jeweler's commercial. And now he's portrayed as a robotic arm in a commercial for Denny's. Anyways, just an observation.

So that's all I've got for now. I'm gonna finish watching Sig yell at his crew on Deadliest Catch and head to bed.

Friday, February 27, 2009

new york, new york: this space is NOT for rent

This week Jeremy and I went up to New York for a digital music conference, as well as meetings with accounts and the guys we work with at Warner, our parent company. I've been to New York before, but only once, and only for a brief period of time. I never really had the chance to experience the city before, but this week I did!

* * *

One of the things that stuck out to me about New York is that they have PERFECTED the art of not wasting space. They are space "efficientists". Vacancy is a scare resource, and they use every square inch of it. Buildings are squeezed together impressively tight. If a road curves or angles, the building architecture curves and angles with it to make the most of all the real estate. Sidewalks are a good 15 inches narrower in New York than any other city to grant more internal square footage.

They say the only place to build is up, and New Yorkers do this well. Of course they have the skyscrapers, but anything and everything can be put on top of another building. Watertowers, and playgrounds, and basketball courts are launched upwards, and the buildings themselves are additions to the decades-old foundations, creating a continuous inseparable concrete / metal mass running the length Long Island.

There are 305 million people living in the United States. 150 million of those people live in New York City, and 100 million of them are cab drivers.

As we were heading out of town in our taxi we drove by a house in Queens that had a short little wrought iron fence outlining a tiny yard the size of a Fiat. In it were piled a trampoline, a bicycle, a push lawn-mower, a swing set, a toy tractor, and a jungle-gym.

There was a little seven year old boy playing in the backyard... actually he was just looking out the living room window smiling, imagining what it would be like if he had room to play in the backyard.

Sometimes there is an architectural oversight and a property owner is left with the smallest piece of vacant land after his building is erected. In this case the city immediately claims eminent domain, paves it, and lays down a set of solid yellow lines to convert it into a parking space.

Actually, this rarely happens as there are only 7 parking spaces in New York City. 2 are in lower Manhattan, 3 on the Upper West Side, 1 in Greenwich Village, and 1 is a park-and-ride up in the Bronx.

If by some act of the Almighty you are blessed with finding one of these spots, it will take an equally supernatural force to lift and place your car into a space the size of a twin-bed.

It's impossible to park under your own power, though some have tried, resulting in over 700 million deserted cars strung up and down the streets of the city. Their owners just got up and walked away. The cost of the car was less than the cost of time spent trying to maneuver into a spot.

That's actually how Hertz Car Rental got it's start. A couple guys from Jersey moved in, threw up some big yellow signs on street corners and started renting out deserted cars to travelers for 70 bucks a pop.

And that's why everyone started taking taxis in the first place... they couldn't find a spot to park their rental, so they just gave up and hailed a ride into the city.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

readings update

I'm not much for book reviews, but I did commit to reading 24 books this year, so here's a little update on what I've been partaking of. I know this is a long post, but if you find something in here that interests you, or baffles you, or infuriates you, leave a comment and we can discuss:

The Shack by William P. Young
As a rule I try to avoid these Christian pop-culture type books (yet somehow I always end up reading them anyways). This book has caused such stir and I decided I needed to give it a look so I could make some decisions for myself. There are two types of reviews for The Shack: I would say that most people who read it claim it is the most insightful, life-changing, incredible most wonderful book ever that grants them a completely new picture of who God is. Then there are those who denounce the book as complete heresy.

I'll say this - it's a well written and intriguing story that forces you to ask questions about the relationship between God and mankind, and the relationship of God within the Trinity. It poses thought provoking illustrations of God, but it would be a stretch to say it outlines scriptural truths. The primary gripe people have with The Shack is that God the Father is portrayed as a heavy-set, gregarious, black woman.

At first my thought was, well, who I am to say what God does or does not look like? He's God and He could just as easily present himself as a white-haired, elderly gentleman or as a gregarious, black woman, right? Well, the issue isn't whether He could or could not. The issue is that we are ascribing images to God the Father that we do not have the right to ascribe. I didn't fully understand the ramifications of this prior to reading J.I. Packer's book Knowing God where he demonstrates the danger, and commandment against, creating images of God whether they be physical, pictorial, or textual.
"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth". - Exodus 20:4
The danger is that when we make representative images of a God who in all literal terms defies comprehension and is beyond our realm of reality and vision, we end up containing God, and limiting his omnipotence. The very act of ascribing a representation to God places us in danger of making the created image the focus of worship, and elevating the image above God Himself.

The WalMart Effect by Charles Fishman
This was a truly fascinating book about the largest, most powerful, and successful company in the history of the world. It was a very insightful look into the company from all different angles including suppliers, manufacturers, competitors, enthusiasts and dissenters, employees, ex-employees, shoppers, non-shoppers, and so on.

The book doesn't take sides, but rather offers a careful analysis at both WalMart's positive and negative effects on local communities, regions, the country, and even the world at large. It's neither a pro-WalMart book nor an anti-Walmart book... but it forces you to think twice about how you shop, and where you shop. And above all it portrays WalMart as the very thing it strives to be... a retailer that provides "Always Low Prices", regardless of the cost to vendors, economies, and even the customers.

This one is easier to sum up in some fascinating tidbits of information:
  • 97% of the population of the United States lives within 15 miles of a WalMart
  • Each week 100 million Americans shop at WalMart
  • From 1997 to 2004, the US added 670,000 new retail jobs. 480,000 of those — 70% — were at Wal-Mart.
  • When WalMart institutes changes that result in lower cost-of-goods, they pass the savings to both the vendors AND the customers, but not themselves.
  • WalMart won’t pay to speak with vendors: vendors are required to provide Wal-Mart with a tollfree number, or accept collect calls.
  • Of the largest 10 suppliers to Wal-Mart in 1994, five subsequently went bankrupt or failed.
  • WalMart isn’t just Proctor and Gamble’s largest customer — they’re as big as P&G’s next nine customers combined.
  • Consistently, as companies increase the share of their business with WalMart, their operating margins decline accordingly.
  • Does WalMart create or take away jobs? Both. A new Wal-Mart may hire 300 people, but on average, 250 people at nearby businesses will lose their jobs, and about four local businesses will close.
  • A study of Iowan small towns showed that restaurants near WalMarts had 3% increases in business, because of increased traffic, but nearby towns without WalMarts lost 47% of their retail sales, as customers drove out of town to shop at WalMart.
The book goes on, and on, describing in incredible detail how all of WalMart's behavior - their good behavior, and even their seemingly evil behavior - can be explained by the fact that the company is simply pursuing it's vision of "Always Low Prices". And that one consuming idea has shaped with profound effect an entire nation of consumers and their economy.

The War Within by Bob Woodward
This one was a tough read for me, not that the content wasn't interesting, but that it was just a dry read (well, listen). It's about the enduring conflict that is the war in Iraq and the war of ideology, strategy, and policy within the Bush administration that has amplified the painful effects of the conflict. It's not a book about why we went to war, but about the fact that we are at war and we need a new strategy to get out of it.

The war has been so convoluted and confusing that it's hard for me to draw hard line conclusions about it, especially before, but even after reading this book. Some basic thoughts that have solidified in my mind though:
  • President Bush throughout this entire war truly believed in the mission he was pursuing, knowing his decisions weren't popular, but in their difficulty were the right thing to do.
  • This absolute confidence regarding the war were both President Bush's strength, and his downfall.
  • In spite of his resolute stance towards the war, the "mission" was never clearly defined, the goals were never discussed at length within the administration, and success was never outlined for the public.
  • This lack of clarity around a reason and mission for the war is what has made it so difficult for me to support the last few years.
  • Everyone has made personal judgments about the war over the past several years, and we're entitled to those judgments because we live in America; but I know I want to be cautious about condemning too much because there is so much that we don't know because there is so much classified information that won't be made public fo years to come.
  • And so whether it was "right" or "wrong" to go to war, I'm unwilling to say because I simply don't know, and don't ever expect to know.
  • Regardless of whether it was right or wrong, Woodward gives credit to Bush for seeking out new strategy when it was apparent that the war was stalling out in 2006/07, and this "surge" strategy was at least partially responsible for the decreased levels of violence in Iraq throughout 2008.
One last thought about all this: We think short term about the war because, obviously, we want it to be over and we want our troops to come home. And truly, I do hope the levels of violence in Iraq do quickly lessen, but we're fooling ourselves if we think America is going to provide a quick fix and suddenly withdraw and everybody gets to come home. The situation in the Middle East is a long term problem and now that we're there, we'll likely be there for the next 50 years. The radical terrorism that breeds in the Middle East is not unlike the radical communism that bred in Eastern Europe 50 years ago, and if throughout this whole process in Iraq the United States can start to influence the region with democracy and begin to root out radical terrorism, then that is a positive outcome of this whole thing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

two disturbing discoveries and one unsettling experience

I came across two disturbing news stories today and one unsettling experience. This left me feeling, well, quite dissettled:

First, Iceland is bankrupt and it's government has failed. I had read that the country's banks were going bankrupt in October, but it seems as though things have really taken a turn for the worse today with the Prime Minister resigning and "disbanding the government". I don't even understand what that means - disband the government. This makes me sad.

Second, Steph and I are fans of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Yes, he's got a bit of a foul mouth but his shows - Kitchen Nightmares and Hell's Kitchen - are fantastic, and the guy has a culinary gift. That said, recent reports seem to indicate that there have been some financial issues creeping up on him, including two years of back taxes past due and the imminent sale of two of his under performing London restaurants. The report goes on to stir up a storm about supposed marital infidelity, but the facts here seem a bit contradictory. All that to say, I wish the best for Gordon and his family and I'm hoping the reports error on the side of the sensational, and that he comes through all of this in weeks to come.

Finally, I ate at Taco Bell today. As I'm waiting for my three crunchy tacos a guy who has ordered a single burrito proceeds to start a hissy fit at the counter because his order was not placed on a plastic tray. He picks it up, goes to sit down at his table, and then returns to the counter with his wrapped burrito where he engages in an argument with the cashier about how "I ordered this for here and you're supposed to put it on a tray! I paid for a tray! So put it on a tray!!" He smacks the burrito down on the counter and waits to be given the greasy, brown plastic tray he deserves. The cashier proceeds to hand him a tray, and gingerly places the burrito on it. Weird.

Thanks for reading about my dissettling day.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

resolutions v2.09

I generally don't make New Years Resolutions, and I've never written any of them down before. But, well, I've got a few on my mind, so I'll jot them down and we'll see what happens over the next 12 months:

Resolution #1: Read 24 Books In 2009
I enjoy reading, but since college I've been taking a long sabbatical from reading books. I made a little progress here last year with the reading of "4 Hour Work Week" and "Surprised By Hope", but two books is certainly not enough reading. I also "discovered" audio books, and when I say discovered I mean I finally got myself over the mental hurdle that "listening to a book isn't really reading it". I still acknowledge that listening isn't nearly the same as reading, but I don't have time to read everything I want to, and listening is better than nothing at all.

So, when I say read I mean that I will either read or listen to 24 books this year. My hope is that this reading will be diverse - business, theology, fiction, etc. I'm part of a men's Bible study this year, and within that we'll be reading 6 theology books, so that's covered. Business books are easy to do on audio book - I'm currently listening to 'The WalMart Effect', and it's absolutely fascinating. I'll probably update on others as I knock them out.

Resolution #2: Work Out, Or Do Some Physical Activity, For At Least 5 Minutes Each Day
I just have to face facts. I'm basically the most lazy person in the world. And I know that 'working out' for 5 minutes a day is hardly working out, and I know that it's a really sissy thing to write down on this list, but I have to start somewhere. I've tried to make resolutions of sorts before regarding health and fitness, and I always fall far short of what I hoped for. Five minutes is intentionally an overly-manageable target, and hopefully it will turn into more than that.

Resolution #3: Go On A Mission Trip
Steph and I have been wanting to do an oversea missions trip since we started attending Grace a few years ago, and timing / finances haven't come together yet. But this year we're going to do it - don't know where yet, or how, but we will. In fact, Steph is filling out her application right now.. looks like I better find my passport.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

best albums of 2008

We're 7 days into 2009, so I better get this done before it becomes completely irrelevant.

Honestly, wasn't all that thrilled with the albums of 2008. There were a few stellar winners, but I was pretty "meh" on the rest of it. Here's my Top 10... and if I'm honest, #9 and #10 are stretching it.

#1. Coldplay - Viva la Vida
Finely executed, perfectly produced. A full album listen from start to finish, and in my opinion Coldplay's best effort yet. I'm particularly fond of "Lovers In Japan" and "Death And All His Friends". I pre-ordered this album on iTunes and received with it an acoustic version of "Lost" and "Lovers In Japan". It's rare that bonus tracks, when tacked on to the end of a record, flow seamlessly with the rest of the content, but with this one they did just that.

#2. Sigur Ros - med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust
My favorite Icelander's. This album wasn't necessarily a depature, but it was different than previous releases, starting with "Gobbledigook", the opening song that sets the tone and pace for the album. It's hard to describe Sigur Ros - anthemic, ethereal, epic, and moody are words I would use but don't seem to capture it. For me Sigur Ros is like going on a evening hike across a glacier in the middle of winter, north of the Arctic Circle, with the wind to your back and the Northern Lights to your face.

#3. Radiohead - In Rainbows
I called out a friend for including In Rainbows on his '08 list, but like I said, '08 was a little lacking, and since mass release via retail did occur in January 2008... well, it's on my list. This is another one of those great soundtrack-esque albums that sets a mood and demands to be listened from start to finish. "Reckoner" is a favorite of mine and reminds me of cloudy fall days, but I also have to mention the fantastic stereo guitar work on "Bodysnatchers" which must be listened to with headphones on.

#4. La Rocca - OK OKAY
Sophomore effort from La Rocca and it's pretty decent. They've got a good Irish flair to themselves like U2 and others, but it's not so in your face, and as much as I like soaring arena rock it's nice to tone things down a little bit with something more along the lines of The Frames. That's where La Rocca usually sits - more at ease in a pub than a stadium I'm sure.

#5. Low Vs. Diamond - Low Vs. Diamond
I've been waiting for this album for a while since Low vs. Diamond released a debut EP in 2007. I suppose it's along the lines of La Rocca as above, but probably a little more brooding and moody... the sort of thing that you'd hear at the climax of an episode on the CW... oh wait, that's where I heard them first.

#6. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cardinology
Dang, this guy can crank out the songs, and somehow it doesn't all just sound like same ol' same ol'. "Magick" is probably one of the most different songs on the album, but I really like "Cobwebs" and "Fix It". The only thing missing on this album is Adams randomly shouting out "guitar solo!!" That should have been worked into "Magick" at some point I think.

#7. Jon Foreman - Spring
It was fun to be involved on this project back at EMI, and Spring is just 1/4 of a great series of "seasons" EPs released over the last year. I think Spring is one of the more diverse EPs he released, and delves into some very Sufjan-esque styling, such as on "March". As are all the tracks within the "seasons series", Spring is aptly titled with a collection of brighter, more energetic tracks... much needed considering my propensity for darker moodier music.

#8. Eric Hutchinson - Sounds Like This
This was a bit of a late discovery for me in 2008, thanks in part to recent radio success with the single "Rock & Roll". This album is just fun, with some great blues / funk / gospel / soul influences throughout. It's a little Marc Broussard, a little Jason Mraz, a little Robert Randolph.

#9. Killers - Day & Age
I was really looking forward to this album, so it makes the list more as a result of anticipation than actual worth. I love the radio single - "Human" is a great track, pulsing and driving, with some sort of '80s thing going on. Frankly the rest of the record was a little lacking. Maybe if Killers, Keane, and Snow Patrol just release a compilation together next time we'd be better off.

#10. Meiko - Meiko
I'm still listening to this album, not sure if it really should get the last spot on the Top 10 list or not... but honestly since I don't like Fleetwood Foxes and Bon Jov Iver like everyone else did last year I've got nothing else to slip in. From the few times I've listened to Meiko I like it though - has that laid back, singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson thing going on, but without the images of Old Navy sweater commercials running through my head.