Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Amazing Grace and Modern Conservatism

I've grown to like very much the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which stars Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce (see the attached portrait of the real Wilberforce).  The film deals with Wilberforce's long crusade, and that of other like-minded individuals, to ban the slave trade in the British Empire during the latter part of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th.  As I have watched it a number of times, I have naturally asked myself, as a political conservative, where I might have fallen on the question of African slavery had I been alive in that period.  I like to think I would have been on Wilberforce's side, not only regarding slavery but also various other causes he championed, such as public education, humane treatment of animals, and the fostering of public and private virtue.  It's easy, however, for a modern conservative to doubt himself: whereas the Republican Party -- the only plausible haven for conservatives these days -- was born in the 1850s as the American anti-slavery party, it has allowed itself to be portrayed in recent generations as being anti-civil rights, which explains why African-Americans now vote almost monolithically for the Democratic Party.  

The resolution of conservative self-doubt lies, I think, in the sometimes-difficult distinction of those issues that truly entail basic human rights from those that do not, and in pointing out that not all social change constitutes social progress. I quote William F. Buckley, who once said that conservatives are "...stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."  My own analogy is this: if one desires the pendulum of social justice to stop swinging, and to arrive at its optimal state in the least amount of time, one doesn't give it a shove in the opposite direction; rather, one arrests the pendulum's movement and guides it slowly to its center of gravity.  That is, unless one has a vested political interest in keeping the pendulum swinging in order to agitate and thereby preserve a particular power base or set of constituencies -- which I view as the raison d'être of the present-day Democratic Party.  In days gone by, people like William Wilberforce (himself an evangelical Christian) represented a religious, principled political Left; in contrast, few of today's "progressives" seem to burden themselves with either religion or principles -- except, perhaps, a "faith" that all change in the direction of collectivism is for the better and that nothing about western civilization is worth preserving.

Were conservatives on the wrong side of history with regard to many social-welfare issues?  Given that programs such as Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, etc., are now considered sacrosanct and untouchable in the congressional budgeting process, the answer appears to be "yes."  However, will history judge such things as on-demand abortion, long-term welfare and unemployment benefits, lax immigration enforcement, government-run health care, golden-goose-killing taxation rates on corporations and wealthy individuals -- not to mention reductio ad absurdum concepts like eugenics and euthanasia -- to have been good policy?  To use another analogy suggested by a business professor of mine many years ago: Compare laissez-faire capitalism to a jungle and statist socialism to a zoo.  A jungle is full of predators, depredations, and large-scale anarchy wherein only the strong survive; however, it also represents freedom at its fullest.  A zoo, on the other hand, seeks to guarantee survival, order, and equity, but only at the cost of liberty, choice, variety, and mobility.  I maintain that the struggle between conservatism and liberalism isn't really about whether we should make our society a jungle or a zoo, but, rather, what characteristics our "game preserve" -- a cross between the two -- should have.  

Simply put, conservatives would prefer to have a system of government that allows at least some inequality of result in order (a) to preserve certain basic individual liberties, and (b) to promote industry, self-reliance, and some semblance of personal morality.  On the other hand, "progressives" seem to regard most individual freedoms -- at least, the ones that their political enemies cherish most -- and self-determination to be secondary in importance to wealth redistnbution and equality of result among the masses.  Admittedly, it's all a balancing act, but history is replete with examples of societies that erred too much on either the "jungle" side or the "zoo" side of the scale.  However, the problem with zoos, as any zoological park director will say, is maintaining a level of funding sufficient to sustain operations -- and what happens if you have to rely on the "animals" themselves to labor to generate that funding, at the same time you're incurring tremendous debt in the cause of coddling them and rendering them indolent?  Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, just about any current leader of an EU country, or even Jerry Brown....

Friday, December 24, 2010

Thirtieth Anniversary of the End of My Mission

At the Feria internacional de Santiago (FiSA) - Dec. 1980
On Paseo Ahumada with the old MTC district - Dec. 1980
On arrival in Albuquerque - Dec. 24, 1980
Today marks thirty years since I returned from my church mission in Chile.  I don't have to say that it seems incredible that so much time has passed since that occasion; I can still close my eyes and imagine myself in any one of my mission sectores, although it was only a short time after I returned that my mission seemed to have all been a dream -- a common phenomenon for returned missionaries.  To put some agonizing perspective on the time that has passed, I ponder what I would have thought if, on Christmas Eve 1980, I'd talked to someone who had come back from his mission on the same date in 1950.  I would have thought, "Man, you're old!" and couldn't really have imagined being similarly situated down the road.  I still have occasional dreams about being in Santiago and, oddly, I sometimes find myself "speaking" in Spanish to someone while I'm dreaming.

The top photo above shows me at the "Feria internacional de Santiago" or "FiSA," which roughly coincided with the end of my mission. (It wasn't, properly speaking, a "world's fair," but it might as well have been one for all the preparations that were made and the excitement it generated in Santiago.) My last companion, José Cerda of Viña del Mar, Chile, took this picture of me in front of the American pavilion.  (I'm wearing the light-gray suit I had made to come home in -- it's still the only tailored suit I've ever owned or am likely to own, although I didn't have to put on much weight before I could no longer fit in it.) The photo in the middle shows my old MTC district (L-R: Wayne Illes, me, Scott Kimball, Mark Anderson, Steve Timm, Joe Grigg), after getting together to have lunch on Paseo Ahumada, one of the big retail areas in downtown Santiago, on a p-day shortly before we all went home. (This wasn't the whole group, as one elder had gone to California on his mission, a second had already finished and gone home, and a third had been sent home several months earlier for reasons of immorality -- although by this time he'd already been back to Chile and had married his Chilean girlfriend.)  The bottom photo shows me, with my old friend Ken Foley, at the Albuquerque airport shortly after I arrived. What a disorienting day that was! And it was only about nine or ten days later that I had to return to BYU in Provo. (I never realized, before now, how sun-bleached my hair got in the antipodal summer, although I well remember how pasty-white my legs were from not seeing any sun for two years.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The 2010 New Mexico Bowl

I attended the 2010 New Mexico Bowl game at University Stadium in Albuquerque on Saturday, December 18, which game pitted BYU against the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).  I'd originally planned to go with Darren and had purchased two tickets for that purpose; however, Chad and JoAnn Twitchell came into town for their son Paul's graduation from UNM, and I gave my ticket to Curtis Twitchell so that he and Darren could spend time together.  Thus I was expecting to watch the game on TV; however, Bye and Denise Manning, friends who once lived in our ward (but who have now lived in their hometown of Kirtland, NM for the last sixteen years), came down for the game and had an extra ticket because Bye's father had fallen ill and couldn't make the trip.  They called to ask if I wanted to go, and of course I did (although I drove down with Darren and Curtis -- we ended up parking at a hotel on Gibson and University and walking to the stadium from there).  Bye is a big BYU fan -- which I've always found slightly intriguing because he got his degree at UNM -- and they actually hold several season tickets for BYU home games.  (Needless to say, it's a significantly shorter drive from Kirtland to Provo than from Albuquerque to Provo.) He had a lot of inside information on the BYU team and individual players, which made watching the game more interesting to me.

Anyway, the Cougars throttled UTEP pretty good in the game, winning 52-24.  BYU's program looks to be on the upswing, given (a) the fact that they started the season 1-4 but won six of their last eight games (and they would have beaten Utah but for some freak mistakes and one very bad non-reversal by the replay official that left even the TV announcers speechless), and (b) the fact that they had so many freshman and sophomore starters this year.  Next year BYU goes independent in football, meaning it's free to schedule whomever, whenever, and can negotiate its own television-broadcast and bowl-game deals and not have to share the revenue with other conference members.  We may not ever see BYU's football team play in Albuquerque again, but, between ESPN and BYU-TV, at least we should be able to see all of their games on television.

I took the attached photo with my cell phone after the game, as a crowd was gathering for the awards ceremony.  Darren and Curtis were already down on the field, and I then went down to find them, which enabled us to exit the stadium in the direction of our car.  Later, the three of us (along with Dorine) met up with the Mannings to have a late lunch at Rudy's Barbecue on Carlisle.  Dorine commented on the fact that as she walked into Rudy's, various UTEP fans were walking out, whereas BYU fans were just arriving, which sounds about right -- the UTEP side of the stadium started emptying well before the game ended.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Adidas "Toque" Shorts

In recent months I started replacing all the old shorts that I'd worn to the gym for years and years.  Earlier this year, J.C. Penney stocked several colors of Adidas soccer shorts as part of a World Cup promotion; I liked them a lot, but they were expensive at $20/pair, and thus I bought my first pair, in cobalt blue, only after they went on sale for $15 each.  Eventually, after they went on clearance, I decided to buy all four colors that Penney's had (cobalt blue, navy, red, and black), paying only $10 for the last pair.

But that wasn't enough -- I wanted more colors!  An Internet search revealed that the design of Adidas short in question had a name, "Toque," but not too many places still had them in non-standard colors.  I had planned to ask for the additional colors as Christmas presents, but then my new boss gave all of her subordinates gift cards for as bonuses.  It hadn't occurred to me to look for Adidas shorts on, but a co-worker mentioned that one can buy almost anything there these days -- and it turned out that had a greater selection of "Toque" shorts than any other online seller I'd found.  So I used my gift card, and a little more, to buy three more pairs (in forest green, maroon, and orange [see illustration]), jumping the gun on Christmas a little.  (Dorine says I'm extremely difficult to buy Christmas gifts for, since I generally just go out and buy the things I want most for myself, without waiting for the holidays; however, that wouldn't have been the case in this instance but for the gift card that literally fell into my lap.)

I had already decided on colors before I placed my order on, but now I wish I'd got purple instead of orange.  If I'd been thinking and had realized that had purple (no other vendor I'd seen did), I never would have chosen orange -- especially since purple was the primary color of my high school and orange was a primary color of Dorine's high school, a big rival. (Ptui!)  Oh well -- I think seven pairs/colors constitutes an adequate selection!

(By the way, I know I'm not the only one in the world who likes the "Toque" shorts: when we were in Mexico last summer, my son-in-law Easton's brother Stuart was wearing a pair of red "Toques.")

[Update 1/4/2012: I've finally ended up with ten pairs of "Toque" shorts (cobalt blue, black, red, navy, maroon, green, orange, purple, white, and yellow) to go with three additional pairs of Adidas shorts (gray, Argentina blue, and the current Mexico "away" shorts in black, red, and gold) in other styles.  Anyone know where I can get a pair of brown Adidas soccer shorts, size XL?]

[Update 7/1/12: Here's a photo of all my Adidas shorts (except my black-and-red "Mexico" shorts -- think I'm obsessed?]
Note the puke-green pair -- often suits my mood

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The iPod and I

I’ve never been one to ride on the cutting edge of commercially available entertainment technology.  I listened to 8-track tapes until well after my mission; I didn’t transition very quickly from cassette tapes to CDs (nor from VHS tapes to DVDs); and currently I’m resisting the move from DVDs to Blu-ray discs.  One reason for this is that I’ve never been much of an audiophile or videophile; I simply don’t insist on having the best available sound or picture quality—“good enough” is good enough for me—especially if the new technologies are still in their “expensive” stages of development and proliferation.  (There were some notable exceptions.  First, I bought a second-generation Sony Walkman portable cassette player in 1982 for $120 [+tax], which was ruined later that summer when I took it to the lake and got sand in it.  And, then, Dorine and I bought our first VCR for $440 [+tax] shortly after we were married in late 1984, a two-head unit that didn’t even have a random-access TV tuner [it had sixteen presets]; later on, even well before DVD players came out in 1997, you couldn’t have given that VCR away.  It’s almost scary to think what one could buy today with that kind of money, especially if one adjusts for inflation since the early 1980s.)

It’s interesting to me that as portable devices that store digital audio and video files have become available/affordable, the need for elaborate, bulky electronic components has gradually diminished.  The iPod doesn’t provide state-of-the-art sound quality, but its compactness and portability have rendered large, component-based stereo systems almost completely obsolete.  I guess I’m waiting for some similar technology to come along that will do the same thing to DVD and Blu-ray players and elaborate home-theater systems.  Netflix’s internet streaming is only a small step in that direction—and we’ll never eliminate the need for large-screen TVs due to our inherent desire for bigger and sharper visual images—but I foresee a day in the next ten years in which we’ll have the “movie” equivalent of iTunes and an associated portable (iPod-like) memory device that can be plugged directly into a TV to display a movie.  Disk-style media may still serve a purpose, but, as is the case with CDs currently, video discs will generally be used only to upload files to our computer-based libraries.  Video and audio quality may not quite be on par with a Blu-ray player working in conjunction with a high-definition flat-panel TV and a high-fidelity home-theater system, but I expect some “ease of use” feature of the technology to offset any diminution in the overall viewing experience.

The challenge for the film and television industries—and, by extension, for the technology itself—will be how to discourage the sort of piracy that severely impacted the music industry with the advent of the iPod.  I suspect that the people who make and distribute films and television shows don’t want the technology to advance any further until better controls on sharing digital files can be implemented; however, I greet with circumspection the news that the government has recently seized control of certain internet domain names that are associated with file-sharing.  I suspect it is just the first of a series of increasingly autocratic measures designed to protect “Hollyweird"; however, the more stringent the government becomes, the more likely it is that people will rationalize piracy and other copyright violations as justifiable civil disobedience, forgetting about the whole notion of stealing.

[Update 12/7/10: My 500MB iPod "Shuffle" finally ran out of juice last night after it stopped registering on the computer or charging a couple of weeks ago.  I'd used it at the gym for what must have been upwards of five years, but, alas, iPods don't seem to be engineered to last indefinitely.  I still have a three-year-old 2GB "Nano" that works, so at least I have another option.]

[Update 12/21/10: I've noticed that at least some flat-panel TVs now come with USB ports, but only for display of .jpg files (i.e., still images).  What I'm anticipating is that future-generation TVs will be able to "play" movies directly from an iPod-like "flash" memory device via a USB interface; I also suspect that the movie and television industries are already actively resisting the idea.]

[Update 1/21/11: I got an 8GB iPod "Nano" for Christmas, primarily because Kiley had lost my older 2GB "Nano" at church; however,the people who found the older "Nano" finally returned it to me -- they evidently saw that it had some tracks on it that I had done under my own name and deduced that it belonged to me.  The new "Nanos," by the way, are pretty amazing -- 8GB in a device that's only about 1.25" square and perhaps 0.33" deep.  It has so much memory that it holds my entire iTunes library, which consists of some 1500 songs.]

[Update 5/25/11: I got a Blu-ray player for my birthday this year (to go with the flat-panel TV I got for Christmas), and last week I bought my very first Blu-ray disc, Sherlock Holmes, which Walmart was selling for $10.  Interestingly, I've found my eyesight is so bad that I can't tell the difference in picture quality between a regular DVD and a Blu-ray disc, at least when both are played on the Blu-ray player and the flat-panel TV, unless I'm within 2-3' of the screen.  I guess I won't "waste" my money on more Blu-ray discs.]