Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Independence Day

In past years, often I viewed many of the national holidays as largely unnecessary and unimportant. I mean, it's certainly nice to have a day off to celebrate Memorial Day, President's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and all the other ones, but they never seemed especially meaningful to me. Yesterday, I was thinking about Independence Day, which is coming up this Saturday, and I realized that I actually feel very passionate about it. Freedom is something that I value very highly! As such, I can truly relate to the struggle of those brave men and women who founded our country as a haven from tyranny and refused to live in a condition of subjection. Rather, our founding fathers and the citizens of the 13 colonies spent long hours deciding exactly what they believed regarding the appropriate role of government. Having determined the appropriate role of government, they had a sound philosophical basis for rejecting the "long train of abuses and usurpations" that the King of Great Britain inflicted upon them.

From the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Yet, their work did not end with mere academic treatises nor simply a few short essays. Instead, people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Paul Revere and many other noble revolutionaries took action. The early Americans refused to allow continued abuse and they fought back when the British rejected their claim to freedom. This certainly wasn't a rash and flippant course of action, but a very deliberate course of action. Many early Americans were unconvinced that war was really what was called for. Most were quite reticent to fight against their former countrymen. Yet, the impassioned speeches of those who fought for the "holy cause of liberty" helped to sway those who felt doubtful. Patrick Henry is best known for the speech he gave at the Second Virgnia Convention in 1775. Here are some short excerpts from his compelling oratory:

And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free — if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending — if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained — we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!

If we are wise, we will take heed to history and learn from it, that we avoid the mistakes of the past and recognize the natural end of various courses of action and sorts of ideologies. This holiday weekend I will celebrate the liberties we still have, as Americans, and spend some time contemplating the elements necessary for individual freedom. Here are a few quotes from our Founding Fathers:

Samuel Adams: "All might be free if they valued freedom, and defended it as they should."

John Adams: "Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people."

Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Patrick Henry: "Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined."

Thomas Jefferson: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

James Madison: "Every man who loves peace, every man who loves his country, every man who loves liberty ought to have it ever before his eyes that he may cherish in his heart a due attachment to the Union of America and be able to set a due value on the means of preserving it."

Thomas Paine: "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated."

William Penn: "Those people who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants."

Benjamin Rush: "Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights"

George Washington: "Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness. "

John Witherspoon: "He is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who set himself with the greatest firmness to bear down on profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mixed Messages

As I read about the Supreme Court's ruling regarding some firefighters suing for reverse-discrimination, I couldn't help but think how ridiculous many of our modern racial ideas and policies are. In this particular case, I believe that Supreme Court made the right decision. However, the current civil rights environment makes even ordinaryily simple employment and promotion practices quite complex.

Here is a brief summary of the origins of the lawsuit:

Monday's decision has its origins in New Haven's need to fill vacancies for lieutenants and captains in its fire department. It hired an outside firm to design a test, which was given to 77 candidates for lieutenant and 41 candidates for captain.

Fifty-six firefighters passed the exams, including 41 whites, nine blacks and six Hispanics. But of those, only 17 whites and two Hispanics could expect promotion.

The city eventually decided not to use the exam to determine promotions. It said it acted because it might have been vulnerable to claims that the exam had a "disparate impact" on minorities in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The white firefighters said the decision violated the same law's prohibition on intentional discrimination. The lawsuit was filed by 20 white plaintiffs, including one man who is both white and Hispanic.
In some ways, the city was truly caught between a rock and a hard place. Ironically, their decision to not use the exam, which was made as an intentional effort to avoid any sort of discrimination lawsuits, resulted in being sued for discrimination. If they had used the exam, they were afraid of being sued by those minorities who wouldn't have received promotions, and since they didn't use the exam, they were sued by those who non-minorities who felt unfairly treated simply because they were white. Between the flurry of frivilous litigation and the catch-22 nature of modern laws, life is needlessly complicated for everyone; rather than eliminating racially-oriented motivations, the public awareness and touchniess has been heightened.

In my opinion, anti-discrimination laws are quite unreasonable and unjust to begin with. And, even if they were reasonable, they often serve to cause the opposite of the desired effect. The goal of anti-discrimination laws is to result in a nation where all people are treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of their unchangable differences. Therefore, a person should be treated differently if he has black skin than if he has white skin. A woman should not be treated differently simply because she is a woman. It's a great goal. People should be viewed as individuals and not merely as members of their racial group.

However, all of the various anti-discrimination laws that are passed force employers and businesses to very intentionally recognize and view each individual not simply as a person, but as a member of their racial group. Businesses have to bend over backwards to ensure their hiring choices present an image of being racially accepting and to ensure that there is sufficient racial diversity among employees. These laws accomplish the opposite of what they are intended to do. While trying to squelch unequal treatment and ensure that people are seen simply as individuals, the effects of such laws are that a different sort of unequal treatment takes place and all individuals are seen not as individuals but, specifically, as members of their racial group. You see this sort of thing in surveys, on standardized tests, in college admission practices and in the workplace. People are forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to report their racial origins. This reporting which is supposed to eliminate artificial distinctions only serves to further establish and propagate such backwards thinking.

I'm happy that some people are standing up and complaining about it. And, I'm happy that our Supreme Court affirmed that even people who are in majority racial groups should not be mistreated solely based on their race.

UPDATE - I can't say I'm too surprised to see this article today. Of course employers are going to be confused about our nation's odd double standards. Real shocker!

"Employers will now face a convoluted minefield when attempting to protect workers from discrimination," Henderson said. "Employers are looking for bright lines ... they're looking for clear directives to help them better understand how they can engage in nondiscriminatory decisions."

"In the meantime, we're scratching our heads," she said. "We're concerned about the impact on employers who want to comply with the law and do not want to discriminate ... and it's not clear how to do that."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Out of the Comfort Zone: Meeting Strangers

The world is full of fascinating people! Yet, sometimes we are so caught up with our own activities or afraid of talking to strangers that we miss numerous connections and opportunities. Learning to step out of one's comfort zone and strike up conversations with strangers is a great way to improve your social skills, grow as a person and discover more about our intriguing world. I want to offer you a new paradigm, which will bring greater joy and freedom!

Understandably, there is naturally a little uncertainty or nervousness about talking to someone new. You don't know what sort of person they are, what interests them, or nearly anything else about them. What if they are really weird and unusual? What if they are mean or mind-numbingly boring? Such questions stem from fear-based thinking and are based on false assumptions about people. The truth is, most people are quite normal and typically strangers are friendlier than you would expect. I know this from experience.

Nearly every time I'm out in public, I end up meeting someone new or talking to someone that I have never seen before. This afternoon, when I was at Starbucks, I met a fascinating, articulate, intelligent young man who is very passionate about exposing the lies that are propagated by the American government and mass media. We had an in-depth discussion about the state of our nation and how many mainstream ideas are harmful and untrue. I met him completely by coincidence. He was reading a book, and I simply asked him a question about it. That single question launched a scintillating discussion for over an hour.

This sort of thing is hardly a rare occurrence. I regularly meet new and interesting people. Part of this stems from my attitude towards strangers. I view every stranger as simply a friend that I haven't yet met. Because I view most people as naturally friendly, interesting and talkative, I have no troubles striking up conversations about any number of topics. Secondly, I not only view other people as fascinating and sociable, but I also know that I am an interesting person to talk to and therefore assume that most people would quite enjoy talking to me, given the chance. Since talking to a stranger is a mutually enjoyable and beneficial event, it becomes rather easy to meet new people.

Sometimes a person feels timidity about beginning a conversation, and the possibility of rejection. However, rejection is a very harmless worst-case scenario. Even if someone doesn't want to talk to you, you have lost nothing. You didn't know them before, and you don't know them now. No big deal! Yet, the potential gain is limitless! You never know if the next person you meet may be your future spouse, your new best friend or a profitable business client. Once you recognize that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, most of the fear and timidity related to talking to strangers goes away.

Besides having a paradigm that views meeting strangers as a positive experience, I also take action to initiate conversations. Last week I was hanging out at Starbucks in the evening and I noticed a couple of girls playing Scrabble. Since Scrabble is one of my favorite board games, I came to see how their game was progressing and what amazing words they had used. After that I sat down by myself to work on an essay I was writing, but soon I noticed that they had finished their first round of Scrabble and were about to play again. I asked them if I could join them and they were happy to have another player. We had a really fun time playing Scrabble and chatting about life, school and the joys of summer.

These are just a couple everyday experiences that I have in meeting strangers. I am always meeting new and exciting people! If you adopt a similar mindset and take action to strike up conversations, you will quickly find more people to date, more amazing friends to hang out with and more exciting opportunities arising.

One-Week Challenge:
Strike up a conversation with at least one person you've never talked to before every day for one week. The conversation can be as short as a simple question-and-answer or as long as you wish.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Music Review: Black Clouds & Silver Linings

For the past month, I've been counting down the days to the release of Dream Theater's 10th studio album, Black Clouds & Silver Linings. This Tuesday the CD was released and I have been listening to it nonstop for the past few days. As Dream Theater is my favorite band, I have very high expectations for their music. Despite my high expectations, this album does not disappoint in any way. The album has six tracks ranging from Wither (5:25) to The Count of Tuscany (19:16). As someone who loves long, well-written tracks, I am quite delighted to have 4 tracks longer than 12 minutes.

A Nightmare To Remember
The album begins with a peal of thunder and the distant sound of haunting piano melodies. Soon the whole band comes in with a slow and epic opening and then breaks the music down for a more progressive groove. The lyrics tell a very emotion-filled story of agony and pain. After a while, the dark and heavy mood of the music lightens significantly as James Labrie recounts the man's experience. One part of the song has some very beautiful layered vocal harmonies--some of the most memorable that I have heard in any of Dream Theater's work. All the transitions are seamless and smooth, the story builds very well, there is lots of musical variety from section to section and there is exceptional use of the various melodic themes and motifs. One section even uses a blastbeat, which is quite unexpected given Portnoy's usual drumming style.

A Rite of Passage
As the album's single, I listened to this track a lot before the album was released. Singles are often hit-or-miss and so I wasn't sure what Rite of Passage would sound like in the context of the album. Having listened to the entire album quite a number of times, I am quite happy with how this fits in the rest of the album. This track has a very deliberate pace and excellent use of stereo sound placement. Both John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess pull out all the stops on their respective solos. Petrucci uses the entire range of the guitar and lays down some insanely complicated note flurries. Rudess has fun experimenting with different sounds and uses a really unusually tasty patch for the final part of his solo.

This track feels like the most unique track on the album. In some ways, the music and lyrics both remind me of a couple tracks on Falling Into Infinity. Wither is definitely one of the most pop-rock flavored songs they have written in quite a while. And yet, rather than sounding generic and ordinary, the execution is actually quite incredible! The mixing definitely brings the bass and keys to the front of the mix and lets the guitar sit in the background a bit more than some of the other tracks. John and Mike sing a few notes of really tasty vocal harmonies during the chorus, which is one of my favorite things about the song. While the song starts with a very mellow and minimalistic sound, it builds and adds some amazing layers, climaxing with a short, yet powerful, guitar solo. The string parts add more depth and power to the song as it grows in intensity. James Labrie really shines with his expressive singing, which clearly stands out throughout the entire song. Despite being a very short track compared to the rest, I have to say that Wither is definitely one of the strongest selections of the album.

The Shattered Fortress
Beginning with a driving rhythm guitar line, The Shattered Fortress shifts the album into high-gear and delivers a powerful and rocking track from start to finish. It concludes the Twelve-Step suite that Mike Portnoy has been writing for the last 7 years, which follows the story of his rehabilitation from acoholism. This album and the last four each have one track with 2-3 movements of the suite. Both musically and lyrically, this track concludes the suite with style, heart-felt emotion and incredible musical composition. As the final track, The Shattered Fortress recapitulates and exands on parts from each of the previous tracks, including both musical and lyrical references to The Glass Prison, This Dying Soul, The Root of All Evil and Repentance. With nearly all of the references, The Shattered Fortress changes the melodies and lyrics in such a ways that new meaning is added and even the melodies are modified slightly to give things a new feel. The resulting conglomeration is something that simultaneously feels new and familiar. A brilliant conlusion to a heavy and powerful suite.

The Best of Times
Beginning with a very mellow piano part and featuring Jerry Goodman on the violin, this track is really pretty and has an overall happy feel to it. This song was written by Mike Portnoy in memory of his father, who died at the beginning of this year. This song is melodically driven and the melody switches between the guitar and the keyboard, resulting in a very nice blend of sounds. Jordan's string parts are very written and performed, and I really enjoying hearing such a different sort of sound compared to his usual keyboard parts. The guitar solo near the end of the track is more slow and expressive than most of Petrucci's solos, although he certainly is unafraid to show off his virtuosity with some classical-inspired licks and some impressive sweep arpeggios and flawless trills.

The Count of Tuscany
Weighing in at 19:16, this track is quite a progressive masterpiece. There are a wide range of different sections ranging in sound from mellow guitar arpeggios to complicated progressive riffs. Some parts of the songs are driving and powerful, while others are more expansive and deliberate. On the progressive side, Mike Portnoy lays down some complicated grooves over odd time signatures. John Myung has the opportunity to show off his bass skills with a tricky melodic bass groove in the middle of the song. One section of the piece is very spacious and open, creating a nice period of rest and beauty with some lovely sustained notes on the guitar. The lyrics tell a story of an experience John had, and as such it is very interesting to see how the story progresses and ends. The music follows the lyrics closely in the mood they convey and the emotions they express. The energy builds up somewhat as the song finishes, but doesn't reach for a high level of intensity, and the album ends with peaceful outdoor nature sounds.

Taking into account all factors, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is an incredible album. It is brimming full of creativity, with a emphasis on emotion-filled lyrics and compelling storytelling. Though some bands sound very similar from album to album, Dream Theater has crafted a unique sound with Black Clouds & Silver Linings, with music and lyrics that are quite distinct from any of their previous albums and yet are creative and fresh in their own way. Starting out very dark and heavy, this album definitely takes the listener on a musical journey, eventually ending with a happier mood and a very peaceful album outro. During the course of the six tracks, each member of the band has a chance to shine and display their own individual creativity and musical virtuosity. The production is absolutely flawless, as there is never the slightest faux-pas or section where an instrument is too buried in the mix. Each track has it's own defining moments and all of long tracks bring such an energy that they never feel tedious or repetitious. As a whole, Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a musical delight from beginning to end. I am thoroughly satisfied and look forward to enjoying such amazing music for years to come.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Descent Towards Tyranny

Thomas Jefferson once said:

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

America was founded directly as a result of rebellion against tyranny, with the goal of being a haven of liberty and justice, with all unreasonable use of power kept in check by a government with many checks and balances. Unfortunely, having begun a descent towards tyranny in 1861 by restraining personal and collective freedoms of the people, we have been heading rapidly towards a deeper and darker tyranny. This year is one in which America is hastening her demise by picking up the speed at which individuals liberties and unalienable rights are being trampled.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines tyranny as: "oppressive power exerted by the government." Though some people are quite happy with all the new changes that Obama is enacting, I am quite appalled and concerned about most of them. Since Obama has come into power, we have seen a lot of new laws, expenses and programs in the works:

Just yesterday morning, Obama signed an anti-smoking law. This bill creates a Center for Tobacco Products which will regulate the tobacco industry and restrict what sorts of product they are allowed to create and market. Additionally, they are requiring even more warning labels and graphics to be printed on cigarette cartons. Obviously, the only reason people smoke is because they can't read the already obstrusive Surgeon General's warning on the package. People choosing to smoke must be a case of insufficient warnings!

Last month a credit card reform bill was passed, which certainly has some good components, but definitely limits young the freedoms of persons under 21. Though I understand that such a restriction is done with the best of intentions, it unreasonably takes away freedom from young people and makes it much more difficult to establish good credit. I got my first credit card when I was 18, and by using it responsibly I now have a large credit limit and an excellent credit score, which have served me well in making large purchases and would put me in a great position if I were to need a business or home loan. With the new regulations in place, my younger siblings will have a much harder time establishing good credit. The best way to encourage responsibility is to allow people to face the consequences of their decisions; preventing them from making autonomous decisions is counterproductive and slows the maturing process. People can vote, join the army or be drafted into the military at 18, but they can't be allowed to manage their own borrowing practices? Absurd!

Another bill that is currently working it's way through the Senate seriously threatens free speech and religious expression. The Matthew Shepard Act is an extension of hate crimes law, which will broaden the classification of hate crimes to include protection not only based on race, color, religion, or national origin but also protection based on sexual characteristics, such as a homosexual sexual orientation, or even for any of the clinical forms of sexual deviancy (which include nearly every sort of perversion you can imagine, and probably quite a few that you can't). Though the bill allegedly won't threaten free speech, if any language or religious preaching can be considered influential in motivating any sort of violence towards a protected individual, it could result in a trial for hate speech.

Yet, those new and pending laws are the least of our worries! The massive economic bailout has been expending vast amounts of money. Obama is only responsible for about $787 billion dollars of it. Only $787 billion dollars! To give you idea of how much money that is, with $787 billion dollar you could buy 2.6 million average-priced houses in the US. Or, you could buy 39.3 million brand-new 2010 Toyota Camrys. Alternately, you could pay an average salary to 12.9 million people for an entire year. That is a lot of money! And where is this money coming from? The federal government gets nearly all of its money through federal income taxes. All the money that government is spending has either been taken out of your paychecks already or will be taken very soon. Given that the federal debt is rapidly increasing, and that during the past 7 years we have had major deficit spending, the amount of money that each person will be required to surrender to the federal government is becoming astronomcially large!

If our expenses for the economic bailout isn't bad enough, there is significant talk about creating a public health-care system and requiring all Americans to have health insurance. Not only will this be a major blow to the freedom of Americans (since health insurance will no longer be optional), but it will also undoubtedly result in major government expenditures in addition all the money we are already haphazardly throwing to the wind. According to US News:
Yet neither bill addresses outright how to pay for reform.These omissions are not oversights; they are political calculations. The cost of healthcare reform could top $1 trillion over the next decade, and the proposals for raising that money, which include everything from eliminating tax breaks for employers to putting new taxes on drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup, are contentious and risk alienating lawmakers.

In short, in year 2009, our freedoms are consistently being eroded, more of each person's money is being spent without permission or approval, and the government is seeking to mandate more "right choices" rather than allowing individuals to make their own choices and choose their own path in life. The "will of the people," as interpretted by the federal government, is exerting more tryannical force over individuals and asserting its dominance and control over each and every citizen of America by systematically stripping them of their rights to keep what is theirs, spend their money as they see fit, speak out against evil and enjoy private vices. If time permitted, I would mention the government trying to enforce its brand of morality by attacking the "conscience clause" and mention how religious and family rights are being trampled on by the supreme court. All of these new laws and programs in the works are just a taste of what is to come. The tyranny of the federal government is rapidly expanding and Obama is dedicated to taking even more control for the government. These are increasingly bad times for average American citizens!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Never a Dull Moment

Adventure and excitement seem to be encompassing my life this year. Trying new things, pushing my boundaries and being intentional about living life fully brings interesting experiences more frequently than I expected. And I'm loving it!

Last night was an incredible night! I bought a new shirt, talked to my mother on the phone, met up with a friend for coffee, joined another church's college group for an informal night of worship and ate some delicious ice cream with some friends at Safeway. After all the ordinary evening festivities had concluded, I was blissfully engaged in a joyous phone conversation with a friend who just started a new Bible study. Midnight had just past and the outdoor spring air felt refreshingly nice. As is often my custom, I love to walk around while talking on the phone. So, after arriving at my apartment I set out for a leisurely jaunt around my neighborhood while chatting with my friend about the humorous idiosyncracies of youth and the challenge of packing lightly. My jaunt took me down another side street and across a cute little bridge, though I hardly noticed such details since I was happily caught up in conversing.

SUDDENLY, out from behind a fence, two fellows in dark clothing lept out and accosted me! A heavy-set Hispanic-looking fellow with a red bandana over his mouth snatched the cellphone out of my hand and ordered me to give them everything I had. Dumbfounded and surprised, I stood there for half of a second not quite sure what to do. My very first thought was that maybe this was a practical joke, but that thought very swiftly vanished. Seeing my hesitation the two guys closed in on me and gruffly repeated their demand to empty my pockets. Frightened and still somewhat discombobulated I reached into my pockets and began handing them items. They hastily grabbed my wallet, MP3 player, keys and earbuds. Before I had a chance to think, the second guy, a wiry fellow asked me if I had anything else. I vaguely remember mumbling something about having a pen and some guitar picks, and then one of them handed me back my keys as they started to hustle off back in the direction they first appeared. Quite bothered at my phone conversation being disturbed and considering the hastle it would be to rebuild my contact list, I asked them if I could have my cellphone back, but they were gone in a flash, just as quickly as they had appeared.

My heart was racing as I dashed home, quite thankful that I still had my keys--without them I wouldn't even be able to return to my apartment or my car! I hurried inside and fumbled around in my roommate's bedroom looking for his cellphone. The phone in hand, I took a few deep breaths before dialing 9-1-1. Within 10 minutes I was riding in the back of a police car as numerous squad cars searched the area for the suspects. As expected we did not see any sign of them, even after driving around for a bit. With the search concluded, I told my story to the officer filing the report and called my banks to have them cancel my debit and credit cards. Apparently the thieves had bought gas and picked up some fast food from Jack in the Box.

All in all, it was quite an adrenaline-pumping affair, and I am very thankful that they didn't harm me in any way. They really didn't end up with much ($3 cash, a cheap cellphone, a tattered wallet and a $30 MP3 player). While I got a pretty good deal since I got to keep my keys, my flash drive and lost nothing that 3 hours of work and a couple errands won't replace. As a nice little bonus, I have an exciting story to tell! Out of the three times I've been robbed, this is definitely the most exciting and the least detrimental--though it still would have been nice to finish that phone conversation...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's So Great About Jazz

I really love jazz! I haven't always had such a love for it, but ever since playing in a jazz combo at college in 2006, my appreciation for the artistry and musicianship of jazz has risen substantially. Currently, it is one of my favorite genres of music, especially when it is performed live. Jazz blends opposing elements to create something that is greater that the sum of it's parts.

In one sense, a lot of jazz melodies are very simple and uncomplicated and yet they often are very beautiful and compelling. Yet, beneath the apparent melodic simplicity lies a very complicated and intricate harmonic progression, often including many keys changes. Jazz charts have very clear and definitive structures, and yet in playing them there is often substantial deviation from playing what is written. I really love these various elements and opposites that jazz embraces, but what I most love is the fact that jazz is highly improvisational with a strong focus on whomever is currently soloing. Typically after playing the head (the chart and melodies as written), the next period is opened up for solos from various players in the band. In a larger band setting usually only a few musicians will play solos, while in smaller jazz combos often all the musicians will solo over a chart.

During each solo, the soloist has the opportunity to create his own melodic and rhythmic ideas on the spot. Solos are never practiced or rehearsed beforehand, which is the common practice in rock music. Instead, the soloist plays whatever feels or sounds good and is free to grab licks and ideas from the melodies of the chart, from the other musicians, from a previous solo or they can create completely new musical ideas. While the soloist is playing his solo, the rest of the group follows the solo and varies their own dynamics and rhythms to match the energy of the solo and even to add elements of their own to embellish the overall musical atmosphere. Sometimes a solo begs for more motion and layers, while at other times a thinner texture helps give the soloist more presence.

Because of all the various improvisational aspects of jazz, every time a group plays a chart it will sound a bit different and have different elements. Sometimes even the intros and outros are improvised on the fly. This sets jazz apart from most other types of music and gives it a powerful dynamic quality. That is why I love jazz!

Yesterday, our jazz trio met for practice and we decided to play through a new chart. I really love the bass-line in Herbie Hancock's Cantaloupe Island, so at our previous practice I suggested it. After a couple times through it, we were really starting to get in the groove and decided to record a couple times through the chart. The chart itself is a fairly simple 16-bar progression with some short but well-written melodies. Here is our interpretation of it: Cantaloupe Island. Enjoy!

Trumpet: Carl Stanley
Guitar: Edwin Rhodes
Electric Bass: Silas Reinagel

Jazz Trio Pic

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Business of Saving Lives

It's the age old ethical question of whether the end justifies the means. Should a person or family be forced to do something that is in their "best interests" even against their will? The story of 13-year old Daniel Hauser has definitely stirred up controversy and some important discussions.

Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg found Daniel Hauser has been "medically neglected" by his parents, Colleen and Anthony Hauser, who belong to a religious group that believes in using only natural healing methods practiced by some American Indians.

"The state has successfully shown by clear and convincing evidence that continued chemotherapy is medically necessary," he wrote, adding he would not order chemotherapy if doctors find the cancer has advanced to a point where it is "too late."

If chemotherapy is ordered and the family refuses, the judge said, Daniel will be placed in temporary custody.

A court-appointed attorney for Daniel, Philip Elbert, called the judge's decision unfortunate.

"I feel it's a blow to families," he said Friday. "It marginalizes the decisions that parents face every day in regard to their children's medical care. It really affirms the role that big government is better at making our decisions for us."

Admittedly, this is a very complicated moral dilemma. Do individuals and families really know what is best for them? Does freedom of choice and freedom of religion or a person's "best interests" take higher precedence? Who can objectively determine what is in a person's "best interest"? These are all difficult questions to wrestle with.

What is in a person's best interest? This question has seemingly opposing answers depending on the context of the situation. Usually a person's death is not in their best interests, however there are certainly many cases when it is. If a solider chooses to value his companion's life over his own by choosing to take a bullet for him, can we really say that he acted against his best interests? Is one life worth more than another? Is it unreasonable to choose love over life? As Christians, we have the example of Jesus Christ, who willing chose to die for the joy that was set before Him. Though certainly not true in all cases, it seems that a strong case can be made that sometimes death for the right reason is more valuable than life itself.

Does a person really know what is in their own best interest? Do to the broad nature of this question, there is not really one universal answer. Some people may have a clearer idea of what is in their best interest than others. Children are definitely not as well-informed and capable as older people may be. However, in the case of Daniel Hauser, both him and his parents were in agreement that chemotherapy was not the best option. This cannot be considered simply ignorance or neglect, since they had already tried a round of chemotherapy treatment before determining that this did not seem to be the best treatment plan. Daniel suffered a lot of side effects from the treatment and along with his parents decided that it would be better to pursue alternative natural remedies, in accordance with their religious beliefs. Perhaps a person does not know what is in their best interest, but can there be another person or entity who knows better? As Philip Ebert lamented in response to the judge's decision, "It really affirms the role that big government is better at making our decisions for us."

In this case, the government decided that it knows better than Daniel Hauser and his parents what is best for him, and also decided that it had the right to enforce chemotherapy treatment. From the final court order the ruling states:

"The Court is today determining that the Petition alleging Daniel Hauser to be a child in need of protection or services has been proven by clear and convincing evidence. The Court is also concluding that the State of Minnesota, through the Brown County Family Services ("BCFS"), has demonstrated a compelling state interest in the life and welfare of Daniel sufficient to override the fundamental constitutional rights of both the parents and Daniel to the free exercise of religion and the due process right of the parents to direct the religious and other upbringing of their child."

It saddens me to see that individual freedom is being eroded more and more by our government. As much as I desire people to live and receive adequate medical treatment, I believe that such private decisions should ultimately be left to individuals. A person should be free to choose which medical treatments to accept and which to decline. Having said that, I am very happy that Daniel is recovering as a result of the chemotherapy:

X-rays show the tumor in the chest of a 13-year-old boy who resisted treatment has shrunk significantly after two courses of court-ordered chemotherapy, a family spokesman said Monday.

However, family friend and spokesman Daniel Zwakman said the side effects of the treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma have left Danny Hauser weak and miserable.

Of course, the forced treatment is leaving Daniel feeling weak and miserable...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Today's Medical Professionals

Here are some brief excerpts from an NBC Article today: Teen Outsmarts Doctors in Science Class.

"It's weird I had to solve my own medical problem," Terry told CNN affiliate KOMO. "There were just no answers anywhere ... I was always sick."

For years she went from doctor to doctor complaining of vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss and stomach pains. They said she had irritable bowel syndrome. They said she had colitis. They said the slides of her intestinal tissue were fine, but she knew that wasn't right.

Despite the incredible advances of modern medicine, we still seem shockingly far from really providing reasonable healthcare in the United States. When doctors continually misdiagnose a disease and the problem continues for years, an 18 year old girl decides to do her own testing to determine what ails her. You would think that with all the alleged training doctors receive, they would be able to correctly diagnose and treat most diseases. Personally, I lose a lot of confidence in our so-called "specialists" when an 18-year old high school student can perform a better diagnosis.

If only this were a rare case, at least it might be more acceptable, but this sort of thing isn't as rare an occurence as the medical industry would have us believe. Scott Adams, the cartoonist who writes Dilbert, also spent years trying to receive a diagnosis of a rare throat condition that left him unable to speak in certain settings. Eventually, after performing enough research of his own he determined that he had Spasmodic Dysphonia. Even after diagnosing it, the treatments were so unsuccessful that Scott had nearly resigned himself to a lifetime of having a speech impediment until he stumbled across a cure of his own.

The remarkable thing is, despite the quality of care offered by doctors decreasing, the prices continue to skyrocket. Is this really the best America can do? I'm quite disappointed!