In 2010, CES was all about 3DTV. I thought 3D would flop, or more prosaically, rapidly commoditize as just another feature in a flat screen TV. That certainly was what has happened.
The breakthrough would be to remove the 3D glasses, which is technically feasible as TV processing speeds up, but is just a lab project right now. On small screens I have seen a polarized approach to glasses-free 3D, especially to spice up videogames. Now the polarized approach is being tested on larger screens. A cheaper approach, but also years away, and in the demonstrations I have seen, an approach wtih a very narrow range of viewing (a small sweet spot for the 3D effect). The other method, using faster processing, would create multiple decent viewing angles.
In either case, not likely to hit CES until late this decade. Instead, the Next Big Thing is 4K TV - HDTV at much higher resolution. We should see multiple demo units at CES 2013.
Following Nikon's android camera, and not losing a beat after its big patent loss to Apple, Samsung launches a Galaxy camera. Lots of coverage, ranging from "yet another" android smartphamera (gets the award for awkward cleverness) to "crazy attempt" to fuse smartphone and point-and-shoot.
Samsung has added some interesting twists on just having Instagram and other photo apps in your digicam. Like Nikon, they have easy sharing with Facebook et al. Beyond Nikon, and as a part of their fight with Apple, they offer their sCloud version of Apple's iCloud, which automatically uploads all your photos to Samsung's cloud. Other cloud services, like Dropbox and SugarSync also do this, and free you from the clutches of the phone vendor; still, this is a very good idea.
As a camera, it has a huge 4.8" view screen, 16 megapixe sensor, and a 21x optiocal zoom. Pricing unkown.
The most interesting product I saw at CES last January was Polaroid's android digicam. That camera got a bit of trade press. Canon and Sony boht have touch-screen didgicams, but neither has shown a move towards using Android. With Android, Nikon gets Instagramand al the other photo apps, filters and sharing tools. Apparently Nikon willlaunch two Android cameras - a small point & shoot (s800):
The biggest advance in cameras came not from the mainstream camera makers, but from a defunct company whose storied brand is being revitalized: Polaroid. It took an ODM phone out of Taiwan which had married Android and a touch screen to a larger telephoto lens normally seen on point & shoots, slapped its brand on it, and voila! the phone of the future is emerging.
The camera is small and thin enough for pocketable use. I really like the Android inside, an interface I find familiar. It is WiFi only, not 3G, which somewhat limits its usefulness, but makes it much less expensive to travel with overseas and own as an occassional passion. Unfortunately it is a bit slow, and cheaper Android devices like this one are notorious for less precise touch screens than the iPhone. So: a good first shot, more to do to make it commercially successful.
The implications, however, are huge: camera innovation will now pass from the mainstream makers to a new breed.
Every year the mainstream TV and camera companies hawk their wares, to general disappointment. Two years ago I wrote about 3DTV and why it would be a bust. It has been. Even the glasses-free 3DTV is too nascent to win, yet. Last year I wrote about Android tablets as e-readers and concluded that Kindle was safe. It sure was, and now has become the second most popular tablet via its own Android version, the Kindle Fire.
This year all lot of action was around cameras. Nikon had their new mirrorless entrants, annoyingly not in a common format like APS-C or 4/3, but a new 1" sensor. (Canon later launched their entrant, in yet another sensor size, 1.5". Such is their view of "innovation.") Sony is finally shipping its mirrorless NEX7, part of their NEX line, which I have reviewed.
The iPhone has crushed the point & shoot market, and the camera makers are making a retreat to larger sensors and higher prices. They still do not get it.
I talked to camera insiders of why Canon and Nikon don't seem to get it, and they replied that they still believe their proprietary processing and coloration are their special sauce. What makes the iPhone 4S exceptional is not its 8 megapixel camera with decent color processing, but all the apps to enhance the photos and connectivity to share them.
It is a general theme that "software is cannibalizing everything", and photo processing is no exception. Free apps like Instagram have popularized filters, and apps like Camera+ (for a mere $1) add a whole Photoshop of filters to modify photos. Now crappy photos can be made to look incredible on a few clicks, and then shared. The color schemes of the high-end cameras matter little in the mass market. The iPod showed how crappier, compressed digital music crushes high-fidelity when it adds mobility and ease of play. Simply put:
Filters are the new Photoshop
There is a way for them to fight back, but involves software not hardware. It may be too late. That software is now more likely to emerge in the smartphone ecosystem, not the camera world.
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:1-2)
"... and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." (Matt.2:3-10).
Fascinating how Tim Tebow has brought Christianity back to the mainstream. It has been pushed to the side of public discourse for years. No where is this more apparent than in speculations on the Christmas Star, which used to be a rife topic for discourse. I remember growing up and going to a Planetarium at this time of year, and being shown astronomical options for the Star of Bethelehem. I daresay such shows are rarities today, and even back then, they were rich in Science and poor in Religion, as if the religious context was like an oddball uncle, better left outside the room. Yet how can one understand what the Star was, without seeking the context of the times?
In an overarching irony, I found the context not in the Planetarium, nor in orthodox Christianity, but outside the US, in the New Age section of an Australian bookstore. I wrote about this years ago, and would like to update my findings in this Time of Tebow.
Japan is considered a black hole for global travelers since their mobile standards are different. GSM phones need not apply. But there is a way to go: get a 3G data SIM and use VoIP. Can it be done?
Before flying over I found that SoftBank Mobile would "rent" a 3G SIM for a combined price of ¥1575/day for unlimited data. With the current exchange rate, that prices out over $20/day, a bit pricey, but often a better bargain than for broadband in a hotel. Also, I was to stay at the Imperial - a great hotel, with good broadband, but one which paradoxically did not have WiFi in the rooms. What to do with my iPad, iPhone and NexusOne travel phone? (For that problem, I brought along an Apple Airport Express, which is working great to connect everything; my business partner in the next room over is using it, as the signal seeps to surrounding rooms.)
The SoftBank SIM is something you need to reserve in advance or pick up a the airport. My travel companions were too anxious to spend much time finding the SoftBank booth, and twice when I asked locals at the airport where it was, they sent me to generic phone rental booths, neither of which had the SoftBank SIM deal. In the end we caught the next train to Tokyo, with the Japanese of us assuring me I could find what I needed in the city. It turns out you can, but only at the SoftBank HQ in the Roponggi district, a bit inconvenient.
Chagrined, they lent me one of their MiFi-type units, which cost the same per day and had the benefit of creating a little hotspot for all my devices. (I had planned instead to turn on the WiFi hotspot feature in the Nexus phone to connect my iPad remotely.) You can pick these up at the generic phone booths at the airport. Problem solved, if a bit inelegantly. Next time I will find the SoftBank booth and "rent" their 3G SIM and avoid lugging the extra MiFi unit around.
Good news: Sony is now shipping their top-of-the-line NEX 7. It integrates all the various bits around the 5N, including a built-in viewfinder and flash, plus has 24 megapixels and very fast speed. It also shows their future direction, to build all the bits in.
David Pogue of the New York Times gadget section loves this camera, and compares it and the 5N favorably to the latest entrant into the mirrorless camera space, Samsung. Like Sony, Samsung chose the APS-C sensor, which delivers better pictures than the 4/3 camera group and much better than the new Nikon mirrorless cameras; but Pogue thought either the 5N or the 7 were better choices. He also recommended the new Canon S100, an up-scale point & shoot rather than a smaller SLR equivalent like the 5N. Others have also raved about the 7.
The other news is a new 24mm fast lens - a Zeiss f1.8 for NEX. Point & shoot enthusiasts seldom realize what they are missing with small lenses and high f-stops: the photo benefot of a tight depth-of-field. Using an f2 lens (like the Canon S100) or an f1.8 (like the new Zeiss) allows the photographer to focus on the subject and blur the foreground and background.
The Zeiss suffers however from being like a conventional SLR lens - a little big. I would prefer a 30mm f2 lens that is much thinner, more like a pancake lens. Rumor has it that such a lens is coming for the NEX line. Then the NEX 5N or 7 with that lens is a great - and pocketable - walkaround camera, with the 55-210mm zoom for long shots.
My prior post suggested using the 18-200mm zoom with the Sony NEX 5N as a great travel camera combo. The lens is a beast, however, overwhelming the lithe camera body; although convenient when not wishing to swap lenses, is so huge it defeats the purpose of a small SLR-quality travel camera.
And for those of you who miss the viewfinder, you can buy an add-on viewfinder for the 5n, or move up to the NEX 7, which has a built-in viewfinder. (The 7 is currently unavailable due to supply problems, but production out of Thailand is ramping up again.) The 7 is much more expensive than the 5n, and reviews have been mixed for the extra cost. I prefer the 5n and the kit lens plus the 55-210 zoom.
More lenses are coming out, including some really compact ones like a rumored 30mm f2, which would behave like a classic 50mm lens. (The APS-C sensor of the NEX line has a 1.6 multiplier, so a 30mm lens acts like a 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor.) That would be a great walkabout lens, very fast and easy to use for most situations.
The travel camera is an essential today. The area is robust, with superzooms getting smaller with faster sensors, like the new Canon 510HS 12x zoom in a small body.
It is often said that the best camera is the one in your pocket, and this is fairly pocketable. But is it the right direction? I have been carrying the delightfully small Canon 780 for several years, and while a 3x zoom, it is a marvelously small camera, easily lugged around - and yet I am drawn to the other camera essential, the smartphone.
The iPhone has been a weapon of mass destruction. It is rolling over wireless. Walled Gardens have been opened, Nokia and RIM have been humbled, and markets not in the direct line of sight are stumbling – none more than digital cameras. The vast majority of digital photos put up on the web are from the iPhone, not the little point & shoots. The iPhone 4S has raised the bar to the point it is making little sense to have a P&S around when you have the iPhone. Maybe the photo giants like Canon, Nikon and Sony can retreat into super-zoom travel cameras and DSLRs, but they are then retreating into smaller markets. Is there an alternative?
Artefact Group has re-imagined the camera with the WVIL concept. It has spurred a flurry of comment across the blogosphere. This picture captures the essentials, which I can simplify into:
I was flattered by all the advice I got to eschew a return through Narita, Tokyo's airport, and avoid any radiation risk. I spent about an hour in transit, and got about 50x the radiation from flying at 37000 feet than I would have standing for an similar time near the troubled reactors. I was more worried over the food. Normally they stock local Japanese provisions in transit. You can tell because the meals taste better than the standard fare. Well, on the final leg we were served sub-standard fare. Bad food in this case is safer food.
The risk of this hour in transit was trivial. You can tell by comparing it with a normal activity - eating a banana.
Bananas are radioactive and there is a Banana Equivalent Dose (BED) standard. For those of you who like equivalence, consider this:
A radiation dose equivalent of 100 μSv (10 mrem, or 1,000 BED) increases an average adult human's risk of death by about one micromort—the same risk as driving 40 miles in a car, eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter, or of smoking 1.4 cigarettes.
News today is 10x the amount of radioactive cesium and iodine fell in the Tokyo rainfall - but still at minuscule levels. A banana produces about 14 Bq (becquerels). The normal fall is about 100 bananas per meter, and thus spiked 10x to a kilo-banana. Good thing I stayed indoors and didn't drink tap water. Bad for the Japanese if this continues, although still at very low levels. (And I bet you didn't know that low levels of radiation were all around, all the time?)
There is a chart below showing all the equivalence, which I sourced from The Big Picture. Click on it to make it readable. A day near the plant is 3.5 μSv, or 35 bananas. A six hour flight from NY to LA is 12 times more radiation, or 400 bananas. My 18 hour flight is 36 times more than a day in the Fukushima area, or a little over a 1200 bananas (1.2 kiloBED) - thus worth about one micromort, as noted in the comment above.
Y'all were at more risk commuting every day than I was.
When the hotel wanted to charge S$26.50 ($21 US) per day for Internet, and it sucked, I knew I had to find a better solution. I had my iPad, my netbook and my smartphone to connect, and the hotel would only do one device at a time. Worse, WiFi was flaky in my room. Luckily, I had an unlocked smartphone that allowed tethering. It could turn into its own WiFi hotspot.
Two years ago I scored a killer SIM in London. T-Mobile offered 5 days of unlimited 3G for free in a GBP10 prepaid package. When the five days ran out, a mere GBP2.50 (under $4 US) gave another five days. Now we're talking! Of course, there is a catch: about two minutes on an international call wiped out all the minutes. There are ways to make international calling free over 3G, but that is a topic for another time.
Off I went, in search of a similar deal in Singapore. The concierge was a waste, so I headed down Orchard Street, the main tourist area, clean and well-lit at night.
Narita is Tokyo's key international airport, and travelers on United to places in Asia are accustomed to transiting through it. It got shook by the earthquake, and was on the edge of the tsunami zone, so it was a bit of a miracle that it was operating when I flew through on Monday, just a few days after the disaster.
You gotta love the resilience and tenacity of the Japanese. The place was running as if normally, with ceiling tiles hanging loose and the Red carpet Club closed due to damage from the shake. The TVs were set to NHK for news in English, mostly about the nuclear radiation leaks and the no-fly zones around the reactors. Narita is outside those zones, but is situated between the reactors and Tokyo, and who knows, a wind shift could close it. Since I am flying back via Narita, this is dear to my heart right now.
It has gone on for forty years, so it is quite popular. We flew into Orange County airport Saturday morning, and flew out Sunday. We decided to stay at the venerable Ritz Carlton Laguna Nigel, which has been refurbished recently. I would rather not stay in the many motels that surround the Coast Highway through town - on a weekend night in summer, it feels like Where The Boys Are - hordes of hormonally-enhanced 20-somethings roaming betwixt beach and bar. A bit noisy to say the least.
We drove down the San Diego freeway, expecting to turn right onto the Coast Highway where the freeway hits the ocean, but ran into the quintessential LA experience: a traffic jam. Locals would have likely taken the tollway 73 which cuts between the coast and the inland freeway. We came back via the Coast Highway, a very sweet drive, but one to be avoided on a sunny Saturday morning in July as the hormonally-enhanced cruise to sartorial pleasures without much in the way of clothes - and surfing too!
The downtown proper is small and easy to walk around. We had dinner there, parked behind the restaurant, and walked to the outdoor amphitheater. As the show ended and people poured out into the streets, we had a pleasant walk back to the car, surrounded by dwindling mobs of happy folk.
The question of whether this is art or kitsch continued into the evening. It certainly showcases the extraordinary craft of Hollywood set and lighting design. It has also captures the popular imagination, being showcased in the once-popular TV show Arrested Development (fast forward to 17 minutes in):
It is also interesting to see how religion has changed - or stayed the same - in wedding fashion. All three have different styles:
For many in a secular society, religion is met at weddings & funerals, and a bit in between (Easter! Christmas! Passover!). Weddings are often approached casually, as if it is no different than living together. What I found, and I think our children and their cousins & spouses will find, is that marriage is different in kind not just degree - the commitment is real and changes the couple to much more future-oriented as well as more tolerant of foibles and quirks. This commitment may be essential to go through the long time together, building a family and retirement, with all of its costs and compromises.
Religion serves a critical role in weddings, to add solemnity, purpose and tradition to the ceremony, and by doing so reframe the couple from a new way of living together to a new way of life together.
Most of us have wanted to see the pyramids since we were kids. After all, they are the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still extant. Finally standing on the Giza Plateau, I was struck by a comment from a New Yorker: "Once you've seen Manhattan skyscrapers, the Pyramids are no big deal." I bet he has never actually stood next to them. They are impressive! And everywhere we went around Cairo, our eyes were always drawn back to the pyramids. Their distinctive shape and massive bulk stand out amidst the merely vertical skyscrapers, apartments and minarets that dot Cairo. Even from other sites farther down the Nile, you could look back and see the Great Pyramids in the distance. The more we traveled in Egypt, the more we understood the Pyramids and the people that built them. All the mysticism gave way to a profoundly human story, and made the achievement of their builders 45 centuries ago even more awe inspiring.
As the rocket disappeared into the clouds after about 4 minutes of flight, the crowd was hushed for a moment. It was as if we had all held our breath, the sight was so awesome. Then the place erupted in cheers and applause. One of the founders of the nascent satellite company, ProtoStar, was so overcome he couldn't speak for another 3 minutes. In those seven minutes the company went from powerpoint to production, from vision to a real operating business. And we had one of the most awesome experiences we will ever have. Check out the video, and read on.
Arriving in Bangalore, I was captivated by the traffic. A road with two lanes each way fills up with four or five rows of traffic in each direction, very close to each other, weaving in and out. The traffic moves and flows, impervious to rules. Everyone jumps on: pedestrians, bicyclists, motorbikes (mostly Japanese rice rockets), scooters, motorized rickshaws with bright yellow tops ("tuk-tuks", a type of three-wheel taxi all over SE Asia), small cars , trucks, tractors, and of course cows. Get a pack of tuk-tuks and a few scooters side by side, and the road momentarily handles 6 or 7 lanes, than flows on to 3 or 4. Left turn into traffic? Just nose out and push through. Traffic accommodates and flows around. People even nose into traffic and go the other way! They seem to be cheered on by the oncoming hordes, treated as momentary folk heroes for their panache. There is no road rage, just a lot of honking. (First night I was here, I noticed the cacophony of honks but couldn't quite make out where it was from, and asked whether someone had started a party nearby; no, just rush hour.) The music of Bangalore.
Two years ago I gave a view of the World Series of Poker as a spectator. Now I can give a view from a contestant. I have been following the ups and downs of Richard Harroch, author of Poker For Dummies and one of the top professional players in the world. He didn't make it into the money that year, but came back again last year and outplayed/outlasted 10,000 others to finish in the top 1,000. He got knocked on on Day 3, in 950th place. He was maybe 90 minutes away of getting to under #873 and being in the money.
In talking with him, it is clear poker professionals remember the "bad beats". Richard said last year he lost pocket QQ to AK, pocket 99 to 88, and AQ to A9 - all hands he played well and normally would have won. Wait until you hear this year's bad beat, and some other chatter he picked up in the hall.
This is from notes Richard took at the table, and it gives a very good view of what it feels like to play at the WSOP. And remember, kids - poker is for professionals, don't try this at home! Just kidding. Poker is the great leveler - a sport that an amateur can still win at. Wait until you read Richard's bad beat story! Enjoy!
Singapore is clean and well-lit. Your teenage daughter can ride home on the subway (MRT) at 1 am and be safe. Of course, she wouldn't be doing that without your permission if she grew up there. Walt Disney would admire the place. Westerners posted to Singapore ("expats") often have a hard time leaving: why move from being treated as mini-royalty, with cheerful household help, to being treated as middle management suffering surly bosses and struggling every day through a long commute to the office? This wonderful place arose out of a third-world swamp in 1965 to become the shining city on the hill for economic resurgence across Asia. China is following the Singapore Model. Sing is a delightful oasis of shopping, dining and business in the middle of third-world countries. I have been many times, and would like to share some of the pleasures that are off the beaten path.
We left early from Washington, DC to join the family reunion at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware - one of the oldest resort destinations in the US. These reunions happen every year or two, and over the past 20 years have frequented many of the venerable vacation spots in the US, including the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Jersey Shore, Santa Barbara, and Grand Haven on Lake Michigan. Rehoboth Beach has beautiful sandy beaches, affordable rentals, a mile-long boardwalk, and a plethora of rides, attractions, eateries, bars and ice cream parlors. The hoi polloi are long gone to places of a more exotic bent - Bermuda, Virgin Islands, Seychelles. What they have left behind is a retro experience tuned to the sensibilities and tastes of Middle America. How would we fare?
"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra
"Namo! Namo!" yelled our guide, speeding us along. He was so frenetic, he had to shorten the Italian "andiamo", let's go. We were on a tour to Hadrian's Villa, and when we just made it to one of the most picturesque spots - the Egyptian pool, complete with a stone crocodile - he commanded, "Take no more than seven German minutes to enjoy!" What had happened to the languid La Dolce Vita? Had the government fallen, and a new Il Duce taken over, determined to get the trains running on time? (We found out later that was not true!) Or, perhaps it had nothing more to do than the tour bus being 45 minutes late, and our guide determined to be back by 8 pm. Roma remains Roman-tic. In a short few days we experienced annoying rail strikes, treacherous taxis, two-bit hustlers, and high-class cheats. Every day an adventure, every corner a turning point. We were determined to see it all, walking in the steps of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in their Roman Holiday.
On my last summer trip to Europe we saw shades of green in the stores - green was the new black. It hit the US in the fall. This summer orange is everywhere in Europe. Orange tee, white pants. Orange polo, blue jacket. Blue polo, orange purse. Or just orange tee, jeans or khakis. Maybe we are sensitized, since we recently went to our son's Princeton graduation? (Their colors are black - and orange). But we first saw this on the Dalmatian Coast (Croatia as the new Riviera?). Maybe it started in The Ukraine - but the Orange Revolution has broken out. Orange is the new black. At least this summer.
The critics thought it murky, and the acting reactive - with no chemistry between the leads. (How could there be, when it turns out that one of them has the Blood Royal - the bloodline of Christ? A bit calming of ardor, meditating on that legacy.) The movie has done well so far, despite the critics - with a better opening than The Passion. $225m worldwide in the first weekend. Yet it is a mediocrity, and may lack legs.
We enjoyed the movie, and also enjoyed rapping with the protesters out front, who asserted that the Catholic Church had a monopoly on truth, and the movie was blasphemous. The alternative 'truth' of the movie is a bit much, based on a known fraud. Also, knowing he was going to be crucified, would the Son of God have left a pregnant wife behind?
Yet the incredible interest in the book is based on a widespread feeling in Christendom is that the message may have been hijacked by the early Catholic Church, especially when it became the State Religion of the Roman Empire. Is there a great conspiracy, just not the one of the book & movie?
The Mount of Olives overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. Prophets would come up from the desert and crest the Mount of Olives before walking into the Jerusalem. The view is spectacular - but for prophets and pundits, there is no better place to cast a vision than from the Mount of Olives, and no better time than during Easter - especially this Easter, sandwiched between the release of the latest Gnostic Gospel, The Book of Judas, and the worldwide launch of The Da Vinci Code. Both pose an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a mystery: was the real message of Jesus co-opted when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire? Our pilgrimage to answer that question sheds more light on the human condition than on the religious one.
Phuket (pronounced POO-Ket) is an island off Thailand that caught the jet set imagination in 1974 after the James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun. The movie showcased the white sandy beaches and one of the world's must-see spots, the sea caves at Phangh Nga. Phuket really took off in 1997 after the Thai Baht plummeted and set off the Asian Flu, making beachfront property remarkably cheap. Since then, it has been developed into a world-class destination. We visited there at the request of a friend who has been in the middle of developing the island. We had a remarkable week.
What brought them together was being involved with Global Warming, and seeing the Man Who Invented Their Internet, Al Gore, who has achieved iconic status as Algore, one word that sounds as if he were star in the firmament above the hole in the ozone layer, named by a long forgotten Arab astronomer. Al Gore put in quite a performance and made a convincing case for Global Warming, but the night truly belonged to Silicon Valley. Can the Ethic of Innovation and Faith in the Future prevent a catastrophe in the making by using Science and Technology to overcome the Tyranny of Inertia and the Arrogance of Power? Can the Crusade of the Valley Boys recapture the Holy City (Washington) from the Jihad of Big Oil? Read on ...
After enjoying 111,000 of our closest friends at the Big House in Ann Arbor, we had the pleasure of the company of 90,000 screaming fans in the place you could drop the Big House into: The LA Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans. The Coliseum was build for USC football in the 1920s, and improved for the 1932 Olympics, and recently the 1984 Olympics (noteworthy for turning a profit). It has been used for pro football, pro baseball, and a variety of events in between. Sitting on the 50-yard line, with waitress service - ok, it is still only for hot dogs, popcorn and peanuts - is quite the experience. It is a hall of champions, and a new one was borne on a Saturday in October.
We noted how "War of the Worlds" has been a prescient social indicator, each time presaging the major event to come. The book - WWI. The radio show - Pearl Harbor. The first movie - Sputnik and the Space Race. So what does the Spielberg movie presage? The most telling moments in the movie are how quickly order breaks down, and it becomes everyone for themselves. There is no heroism, no sacrifice, other than for one's family. At the time of the post (July), it looked like it was preparing us for another terrorist attack. After the hurricane hit New Orleans, it is now clear what the movie portends: how quickly civil order can break down, even in the US. So what does it presage? Katrina. And the next breakdown.
Remember the Disney college movies from the '50s? The ones with a tweedy professor, a brainy hero, the milk-fed girl-next-door, the not-so-bad bad boy protagonist. These movies portrayed a bucolic college town, with elm-lined streets and a safe, small-town feel. One almost expected Beaver Cleaver to dash across the set. America, however, has outgrown that town. Where is the Starbucks? The Blockbuster store? The Thai restaurant? We expect our college towns to be small-town safe but big-city sophisticated.
Remarkably, you can find that college town: Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan.
It is traditional to give graduates advice on careers and life when they graduate, but they need it more at the start of their senior year when they desperately hunt for jobs. Seniors in college are like canaries in the mineshaft, or lemmings on the march - whatever is hot is in. In 1999, they all wanted to become dot-com godzillionaires and retire when they are 30. Today they all want to run hedge funds and retire when they are 30. What they need is some perspective on how careers unfold and why they went to a liberal arts college in the first place.
The World Series of Poker is being held in the Rio, a Brazilian-themed casino off the strip but on the freeway to LA. The preliminaries are over, and now the week-long tournament has started, with a sea of tables stretching across the Rio ballroom. The players are going through a series of contests, lasting well into the evening each night, to winnow the enormous school of poker sharks and their prey. The floor is packed, with spectators gawking near the tables. The area is lit with subdued lighting, but many players sport shades. Even more wear logoed shirts and hats - apparently they have been offered big bucks if they get to the finals and wear those shirts on TV. (Where winners used to be paid to say on TV, "I'm going to Disneyland!", now they are paid to imply, "I learned to fleece the sheep at PartyPoker.com!"). Among other predators are booth babes with flesh-eating mammaries behind tee-shirts that sport logos like "My pair is bigger!" Oddly, I saw a number of Boston Red Sox hats but no New York Yankee hats. A sign of rooting for yet another member of the poker zoo, the underdog?
I am here to root for Richard Harroch, true Renaissance Man and author of the best-seller, Poker For Dummies! Richard has been a lawyer, businessman, author, venture capitalist, gambler - but never a marketing maven, as he fails to have Poker For Dummies! tee-shirts or hats. With their bright yellow color, they would stand out against all the black hats and black shirts. Maybe next year. Fortunately, his table was right next to the aisle, so I was able to cheer him on. All in! All in!
Skirts are getting longer. Movies are getting darker. The country seems a bit on edge, as if it waiting for another shoe to drop, after 9/11. Stories abound of a real estate bubble. Bush's polls are much below where Reagan or Clinton were at this point, down to the abysmal levels of Nixon's second term. Support for Iraq is where it was for Vietnam in 1968 when the country turned against the war. Even that icon of the bull market, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is at such low poll numbers it is doubtful if he will run for re-election. Into this comes a very different type of Spielberg sci-fi movie. A dark one, a pessimistic one. One in which the aliens come out of the blue, from beneath the ground (from China, perhaps?). What does this say about the social mood of the US?
Looking down into a wooded valley and seeing a 1500 year old monastery led to some meditations on what they must have been contemplating all these centuries. Jerusalem has that effect. What does God want from us? Moses in the Old Testament boiled it down to Ten Commandments. The first half were about our relationship with God; the second about our relationship with each other. Jesus in the New Testament simplified it down to two rules: Love God, and Love Thy Neighbor. A bit hard to match these talents. Best I could do was three rules, or maybe four:
This is a sign along the Via Dolorosa, the walk that takes you to the fifteen Stations of the Cross. The events are graphically portrayed in the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ. The walk is much more prosaic, but at the same time much more profound. It provides the occasion to ruminate not just on the meaning of the Passion, but the reality of it.
Some non-Christian Yelnick readers found the Star of Bethlehem post too cryptic, as lacking a lot of background that people raised in Christian countries take for granted. Let me try to make amends.
One of the odd pleasures of traveling is to find books with ideas that are not common in the home country. My first vacation to Australia brought me into the very active subculture of British investigation of the Freemasons, and their connection to the mysterious Knights Templar of the Great Crusades. On my return to NZ, I found a further work by the same authors, exploring even earlier connections between the Freemasons, the Templars and Solomon's Temple. (This is about to be brought into the popular imagination, as the same topics are rumored to be the subject of the sequel to The Da Vinci Code.) In the course of their analysis, they propose yet another candidate for the Star of Bethlehem, one that ties much better into Jewish tradition than the mainstream candidates.
After all the hard core political mumbo jumbo about elections and war, it is time for some kinder, gentler political posts. And what could be more wonderful than Christmas in London? It is said in song and movies that the place to be from Thanksgiving to Christmas is New York City, which comes alive during the holidays. London gives 'ole New York a run for the money. The atmosphere is festive, the crowds enormous, and the decorations sparkling. One can easily imagine the arcades, such as Piccadilly Arcade, being garlanded and lit down the ceiling. Scale this up, and image whole streets dressed up like this little arcade. Regent Street in particular was arched by blue and red lights all the way from Oxford Street to Piccadilly Circus.
The concept of seasonal window displays was started at Selfridges. We visited there first. We also went on to Harrod's and Fortnum & Mason, but Selfridges won hands down. Particularly nice was the seasonal music provided by the venerable Salvation Army Band.
And this leads into the soft political message of the season. Political correctness is denuding Christmas of its festive spirit, by removing its spiritual core. Without the seasonal hymns, the Salvation Army becomes just another peddler one must block and tackle through to shop in the crowds. A lot has been written on this topic, and no more will be added today, except to say it was a refreshing change to still experience what in the US is fast becoming lost: a Christmas with Happy Christmas not Happy Holidays, a season which respects the traditions and does not replace them with a Disneyfied amalgam of marketing iconography stripped of any intrinsic meaning or values other than be happy, buy more!
The blogsphere and smogsphere (political punditry) are besides themselves with pronouncements on Iraq: it is a quagmire, it is getting better, Bush made a mistake, Kerry will cut-and-run, etc. A friend of ours sent us some sensible thoughts from the Balkans:
Masada is the most visited site in Israel. It holds a special place in the heart of the Jewish State, much like the Alamo once did to Americans. In both cases, a small brave group of freedom fighters held out for as long as they could against a great Imperial power. At Masada, history has captured one of the most stirring speeches for freedom in any age (see the attached Masada photo album for more of this fascinating moment of history). After the Alamo, the US went on to win Texas and continue in its Manifest Destiny to control the continent from sea to shining sea. After Masada, the Jewish State was eradicated and the Jews once again dispersed, not to return for almost two millennia. Why then the special appeal of Masada, and what does it say about the current conflict in the Middle East?
In London, all roads soon lead to Trafalger Square. This summer, it was infested with more tourists than pigeons. (One wonders if the homeless pigeon may too become extinct, or, whether Blair has found one way to tackle the homeless problem.) The English are friendly as always, but what is below the surface? Only 30% or so support Blair's Iraqi policy, and the country is inexorably being pulled towards the EU and the Continent. Perhaps the 70% quietly hope for the return of the pigeons, if only they could drop their guano exclusively on the gringoes? That, however, wouldn't be sporting, and the British above all believe in the Rule of Law, as onetime brilliantly expressed in the Olympics.
The Olympics after all were restarted to demonstrate the power of the Rule of Law. Athletes of nations competed within rules. The Olympics were a showcase of the Victorian Ideal, that principles of civic virtue and good government could be expressed in sport and thereby spread to the rest of the world. The Olympics Movement succeeded beyond the organizers' dreams, with over 200 nations competing at the latest summer games in Athens - many of whom would not exist but for the efforts of Britain (and the United States) to free them. It is thus sad that at the very peak of success the Olympic ideals are breaking down, with achievement trumping the rules. In this developing tragedy is encapsulated the current world dilemma of the United States.
It seemed altogether fitting and proper to visit the site of a great battlefield of the War on Terror on Memorial Day, a day first conceived of and dedicated to the proposition that all Civil War fallen should be honored. The battle that rages is how to rebuild the site: replace the office space, return the city street life to the area, add a monument to the fallen? A few minutes in the site make it clear that dedicating a new memorial would not consecrate nor hallow this site any more than the fallen already have by their great devotion to duty. The site is a monument to industry, and is already showing the signs of returning to its former state.
It was threatening to rain when we got to Nagasaki, a picturesque town at the western tip of Japan, the tip nearest to both Korea and China. When Japan withdrew from the world in 1636, and to enforce the ban on Christianity that had begun in 1587, an artificial island was built off Nagasaki harbor called Dejima, to house the remaining Portuguese. Dejima became Japan's only window to the Western World for 200 years. It is ironic that one of the most Western cities in Japan was the site of the second original Ground Zero.
You feel the weight of history in Jerusalem, some of it recent. Saturday is the Sabbath for one faith, but just another day for the others. Yelnick visited last Saturday, at the front lines of the New World Order.