Saturday, March 27, 2010

One Picture and Less Than a Thousand Words

I recently attended a very nice wedding. It has been a while since I was at a wedding.  You can tell you’re getting older when you attend more funerals than weddings. I had a hard time finding my official wedding tie, I had to break down and wear my official funeral tie. Now that I think about it, I’m going to make the funeral tie my permanent wedding tie, because I have decided I’m not going to anyone’s funeral unless he comes to mine first.

It was a beautiful wedding, something everyone noticed as nearly everyone was taking pictures of it. Which got me thinking about digital cameras.

According to the briefest possible Google search, 100 million cameras are sold in the US each year. Since they have been selling for a while, this must mean there are more cameras in America than steak knives. More numerous than strange people at Wal-Mart. And never again is there a possibility of anything happening in the world without a half dozen cameras recording the event.

I suppose that as a historian, I should be thrilled. There are countless events throughout history that needed to have been recorded, yet for undeniably selfish reasons, not a single person was thoughtful enough drag out his cell phone and use the video camera. What were Caesar’s last words? What did Father Hidalgo really say in his El Grito speech? Was Cleopatra beautiful, or as ugly as a mud fence?

I won’t have to worry about that ever again. Now, I could go five miles out into the desert and whisper something to a jackrabbit and view the conversation on YouTube the next day. No society in history has been as self-obsessed with recording the day-to-day trivia of everyday life. Years ago, only important events were photographed. Are we recording every minute of our lives in an effort to make them more important? Validation through photography?

Back to the wedding. It was certainly a memorable affair. A beautiful bride and, surprisingly, a beautiful bride’s maid. Normally, the bride’s maid’s job is to wear the ugliest dress to be found on the bargain rack at the Salvation Army store. A hideous bride’s maid will make any bride look more attractive. At this wedding, the bride’s maid was almost as attractive as the bride. A wonderful wedding, and everyone took pictures.

Why? There was an official photographer with an extremely expensive camera taking pictures. I don’t know very much about photography, but he looked competent to me. Evidently, no one else had any faith in him for they were taking photos with cell phones and little digital cameras.

Even someone who doesn’t know much about photography knows:

• The tiny little flash on a pocket sized digital camera will only reach 10 feet.

• The maximum range of a cell phone camera is about 6 feet. If you take a picture of anything farther away than the other side of the table, you are creating abstract art.

• If you take a photo of yourself with the camera held at arm’s length, you get a picture of a large nose with giant nostrils. You should avoid this method unless you actually have a large nose with giant nostrils, then you could use this technique to explain your ugly photos.

• Handheld low resolution video cameras take shaky enough movies to make a test pilot puke. For God’s sake, didn’t you see The Blair Witch Project?

Those are the things I know about photography, but I have a few questions. Why do little digital cameras make such a racket? Why do they make a little whirring noise as if they were advancing film? Most of them have a digital shutter, shouldn’t they be completely quiet?

This fascination with shutter noises started with George Eastman, one of the pioneers in photography. In George’s opinion, the noise the camera produced when you released the shutter was a distinctive “Ko-Dak!” Engaging in a little onomatopoeia, a word that imitates the sound it represents, he named his company Eastman Kodak.

Why do people immediately take the same idiotic poses every time you point a camera at them? They put their heads together, use a smile completely unnatural, and stare wide-eyed at the camera. This pose never happens naturally. When you enter a room, do your friends bump heads together and grin like clowns?

Is it just me, or do photos distort your memory? When I go on vacation, if I take pictures, all I seem to remember are the places where I took a picture. Without photos, I seem to remember a lot more. Do cameras record events or distort them? Do real memories only live on glossy paper?

Nah, it’s probably just me. Why else would they have sold 100 million cameras last year?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hell Holds Regular Faculty Meetings

I have previously written about faculty meetings, but the events of the last week have convinced me that I did not do the subject justice.  At one point in my life I was afraid that the structured university life might smother teachers.  Now, I am afraid it doesn't smother enough of them.

For the last several days, I worked on a lengthy blog wherein I compared the average faculty meeting to a screaming pack of howler monkeys. What I wrote was vicious, cruel, and utterly true. I have decided not to use it for fear of slighting the monkeys.

I have to admit, I do resemble this picture a little.  The beard is getting a little gray.

In some ways, faculty meetings remind me a little of flying; long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of terror. Well, perhaps the better word is horror.  If our students ever found out what we do in these meetings, they would not take our courses unless they were paid.  Why are these meetings among supposedly educated people so acrimonious?  Imagine a convention of Tourette's sufferers.  

My colleagues are gifted, intelligent people.  These are, for the most part, kind and good-hearted people who evidently have forgotten the definiton of civility.  I'm not exactly sure what it means, either, but to paraphrase Mark Twain:  Civility means concealing how little we think of our colleagues while simultaneously conealing how much we think of ourselves.

Henry Kissinger once proposed a theory, "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." While Henry is undoubtedly correct, I think there is more to the problem; I think university professors suffer from positive feedback.

Most machinery operates with negative feedback. Imagine you are designing a robotic hand to pick up an egg. As the mechanical fingers grip the egg, sensors in the fingers would send a signal back to the motors to apply less force until at a critical point the motors would stop.  Your mechanical hand would delicately hold an unbroken egg.

Now imagine that we reverse the wiring so that the harder the fingers grip the egg, the more force would be applied. The egg would be almost immediately crushed in the tightly clenched fingers of the mechanical hand. Machinery controlled by positive feedback oscillates wildly out of control.

Now consider the students in a classroom. They trust the professor, they believe in him, and they have paid a lot of money to listen to a wise teacher. The paying part is very important, ask any carney; the marks won't believe unless you make them pay. Most of the time, the students should trust the professor, but sooner or later he is going to say something outrageous, something incredibly stupid... and the students will either believe him or in an incredible act of kindness, not point out how the professor has lost touch with reality.  

And not correcting the professor is the equivalent of positive feedback. The professor will feel free to be even more outrageous in a future class. Over time, his opinions and his beliefs will inevitably suffer some drift. You don't have to teach very long before you believe that you, and you alone, are brilliant. While I personally am immune from this disease, many of my colleagues are sick, sick puppies. I know.

A meeting room full of people each determined to prove his brillance is not exactly a happy place.

Still, outside of the occasionally interesting, if not very logical, arguments faculty meetings are boring. So, in self defense, I have found a way to pass the time. I have devised the Official Faculty Meeting Bingo Card. If, poor devil, you ever have to attend such a meeting, just print out this card and listen carefully for someone to say any of the following educational buzzwords.

If your meeting lasts more than about 30 minutes, perhaps you should refrain from yelling Bingo! until you black out the entire card.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Does Anyone Understand Women?

Francis Bacon wrote a beautiful line: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. 

Bacon obviously meant that it is the imperfection that makes beauty stand out, but the statement is probably just as true about all beautiful and wonderful things.  And it certainly applies to my wife, the Doc.

I married the Doc for a very simple reason; she was the smartest woman I ever met: A wonderful wife, great mother, talented woman, and about as strange as a purple puppy….With stripes.  I guess the strangeness was the bonus.

Shortly after marriage, I discovered that women and men shop differently.  Most men are hunters.  When we need something, we call the mall, find the store that sells it, go straight there, kill it with a credit card, tie it to our pickup truck, and drive home.  It’s a simple straight forward system that has worked since the mastodon.

This is not even close to the system that women use.  They are gatherers.  Take shopping for shoes, a pair of white high heel dress shoes for example.  I would rather try to kiss the front end of a speeding bus than go shopping for shoes with my wife.  Any man that finds himself in a similar situation should at a minimum take a book, possibly a hip flask.  

Step one in shoe shopping is to go the biggest shoe store in the mall and ask for a pair of white high heel dress shoes.  The clerk will bring a pair of exactly that, the husband will feel briefly hopeful, but the shoes will be rejected for some obscure reason discernable only by the wife.  The poor clerk will then bring almost every shoe, in every available color, that is anywhere close to the appropriate size. 

This act will be repeated at every shoe store in the mall.  If your town has more than one mall, it will be repeated at all of them.  If there is a nearby town within an hour’s driving time, you can take your show on the road.  At the end of the day, no shoes will have been purchased, but your wife will pick up a knitted blouse in blue.  She has two dozen identical blouses, but with clothes, wives try to collect the entire set.

The next day, without you, your wife will go back to the first store and buy the first pair of shoes she tried on.

And while I am on the subject, I do not think any man understands his wife’s shoes.  Why are there so many of them?  Why do they cost twice as much as a good pair of hunting boots when you put three pair of them inside one good hunting boot?  And why do women willingly wear a pair of shoes that would permanently render them lame if they were to walk across 100 feet of open ground?

Men, as a rule, don’t understand the whole used clothes thrift store thing, either.  I neither want to wear someone else’s used clothes or sell any of my old clothes as long as three threads hold together.  

Women seem to go through stages of life that can be defined by luggage.  When I met the Doc, most of her possessions could fit into a grocery bag.  I remember us suddenly driving from Houston to Florida on a whim.  I think she grabbed a poncho and her purse and we were off for a week.  No plans, no reservations, and neither of us had ever been there before.

Now, a weekend in the mountains requires the logistical support of the D-Day invasion.  She has enough luggage to fill an SUV.  If I were a polygamist, I would have to drive a bus.

Men will never understand women: all you can do is try to understand one.  Unfortunately, we rarely succeed.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Good Cigar is a Smoke

I don’t smoke, and I’m not trying to make apologies for those who do. I don’t want my boys; What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, to smoke. And there can be no doubt that smoking is bad for you.

Having said all that, I sure miss a good cigar.

To be fair, I never smoked cigars all that regularly, as a vice, it was more of a treat than a habit. But there were certain times that a good cigar was a deeply satisfying and intensely pleasurable experience. I guess that is what I miss.

I’m a terrible skier; I have broken way too many bones and joints. (When people tell you to evacuate because a hurricane is coming, listen. A hurricane is an IQ test: Don’t flunk like I did.) But skiing is fun, so I just do it badly and slowly work myself down the slope. I bought a bumper sticker at a truck stop and put it on the back of my ski jacket; “This Vehicle Makes Wide Slow Turns.” And I make frequent stops on the side of mountain as I have been known to sit in the middle of a slope, half way down the hill and just admire the view. At such times, a good cigar, and perhaps a little brandy from a pocket flask, is one of the great pleasures in life. Two miles above sea level, bright New Mexico sunlight, and a view that stretches for endless miles: glorious.

For me, cigars are always better when the weather is cold. Yet, I can remember a few exceptions. In Honduras, I watched them hand roll my pura, a cigar made entirely with local tobacco, before I smoked it. Does everything taste better when it is made fresh?

Certain activities, such as golf or playing poker are wonderful with cigars. And I can remember a particularly great cohiba I enjoyed while a friend and I flew a twin engine Navion to Pennsylvania.

Ayn Rand wrote a marvelous passage about smoking, albeit about cigarettes, in Atlas Shrugged, "I like to think of fire held in a man's hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind--and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression."

Ayn used a lot of symbolism in her books, it has been suggested that she used cigarettes as a symbol for, besides power and capitalism, sex. If Freud was correct about cigars being a phallic symbol, she obviously had a few disappointing relationships. Forget the cigarettes, let’s pretend she was talking about cigars. Now Ayn is a little closer to the truth. A cigar does seem to focus your attention a little better, aid your concentration, and perhaps let fly your imagination. The mind seems to find comfort in the familiar steps of trimming a cigar, lighting it, the measured flick to drop the ash off a cigar, and the slow exhale of aromatic smoke.

There is a great story about Winston Churchill and cigar ashes. While sitting in parliament, he wanted to distract everyone’s attention from a speech being delivered by a member of the loyal opposition. As the speech began, he elaborately lit a long cigar, and began to blow large clouds of smoke. As the ash began to grow, Churchill continued to blow billows of smoke, but did not flick off the large growing ash. More and more people began to watch the ash, it was growing impossibly long. Before long, the ash on the tip of the cigar was well over two inches and still growing. At this point, the poor chap making the speech could have juggled kittens and no one would have noticed.

Churchill never did flick the ashes off that cigar, he couldn’t have. Before attending that session of parliament, he had cut the head off a long hat pin and shoved it down the middle of the cigar. As the tobacco burned, the pin held the ashes in place.

It’s hard to imagine certain people without a cigar. Originally a light smoker, after General Grant was victorious at Fort Donelson, people all over the country sent him ten thousand cigars. Groucho Marx and Winston Churchill liked large cigars. Clint Eastwood liked those long thin cigars. Bill Clinton evidently likes a flavored cigar.

Even while I was smoking cigars, I knew that eventually I would have to stop. For as long as I could, I took comfort in the false hope that quitting was something I didn’t have to worry about while I was young, there was still time to quit, but not now, not this year. My first real clue that time was catching up with me occurred while slowly jogging up a small local hill. An elderly woman ran right by me like I wasn’t moving. I didn’t mind being way too out of breath to catch her, but the rock I threw missed her by ten feet.

The actual end to my enjoyment of cigars came pretty quickly. I was in a book store and walked by a magazine rack. There on the cover of Cigar Aficionado was a photo of Demi Moore smoking a nice cigar. That was it. I knew that if Demi and I had something in common outside of breathing; one of us had to change. Unfortunately, it was me. I never had another cigar.

I have to admit that occasionally, I still want a cigar. While playing poker, shooting pool, or hiking on a mountain I regularly experience an intense desire for a good cigar. For about a minute, I would kill a nun with a ball peen hammer for a cigar. Thankfully, the feeling passes after a while. Nuns everywhere are probably grateful.

About a hundred years ago, Vice President Marshall said what this country needed was a really good five cent cigar. Today, give me a cigar that cures cancer, strengthens my lungs, and will mow my grass.