Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back in the U.S.A

Ah, the land of plenty. Cheap beer, burgers and bagels. As my brother put it, it's almost like I've come to a 3rd world nation after Scandinavian prices.

Also big in the USA: television. With ads. Including ads for the centerpiece of American commerce, the automobile.

I'm finding it depressing to watch the car ads. I'm sure some people are still buying cars, even American ones. The models they're producing are supposedly quite good these days, especially in comparison to the years when they fell so far behind in the quality race. But in the past few years, the ones just coming to an end, it seemed to me that the car of choice was a silver Mercedes-Benz. Or a Lexus...or a Toyota for a lot of us.

It's hard to watch the ads because it sure seems like the end of an era. How did this happen? During the 1950s and 60s, the US was so far ahead of the rest of the world that it wasn't even funny. They innovated. They set the style for the whole world, more or less, without too many complaints. Did they become too used to simply declaring what consumers should want?

I think that, like many other companies, the auto industry forgot what their purpose was. When they introduced seat belts, people didn't want them. They were ahead of the curve, providing features before the public asked for them. Why the missteps now? Despite the scares of the 1970s, they built the SUVs. Understandable -- people wanted larger cars. They built cars to be more powerful instead of more efficient, for the same reasons.

What's inexcusable, however, is the lack of innovation when it comes to efficiency. We all know the story of the EV1. There are still charging stations in California. I can understand not selling the vehicles in volume; I'm willing to give the makers a mulligan on the weird leases and destroyed vehicles.

But c'mon. We turned a corner last year and people want more efficient cars. They want plug-in hybrids. They want electric cars with solar panels. Detroit wasn't ready. They're leasing technology from Japan. They missed the boat. Can they get their mojo back? Or would $25 billion just give them more rope?

From the looks of the ads, I'm guessing they don't have a clue.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Electoral College -- FAIL

Just about exactly eight years ago, we had an awfully exciting election night. After a season of boring, overly-civil debates where the competitors could hardly differentiate themselves on the issues, but established strikingly different personalities, we had one of the closest elections in U.S. history.

As we all remember, it was a good, close election in which more citizens voted for Al Gore, and his opponent, George W. Bush won.

There are many reasons why the electoral college was put into place two centuries ago. Some of them were good, and others not as good. The main reason why Bush won in 2000, however, was because he took many of the less-populated states; since this has, for the past thirty or so years at least, been a bastion of the G.O.P., this tends to present a small but real bias towards them. Without that bump, the winner of the popular vote would have been elected in 2000.

This election promises to offer change, and the electoral map may look a bit different this year, but it's unlikely to be completely different. Polls have given Obama a consistent edge, but I expect a tight final tally.

Of all the possible outcomes, one stands out as more bitter than the rest: another minority win. The chance may be small, but if the built-in bias of the electoral college were to swing the Presidential election to the same party twice in eight years, it would be a tremendous loss for the process of democracy in the United States.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

My new hero: Lloyd Loar

From 1919 until 1924, The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Company, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, employed a musician/engineer named Lloyd Loar. He had studied at Oberlin and in Europe, and he'd been building instruments since around 1900. For Gibson, he wrote music and toured, playing on the then-novel Gibson instruments for promotional purposes. But he's best known for the enhancements he made to Gibson instruments while he worked there.

Loar suggested that Gibson use several techniques long employed on violins to enhance their line of mandolins, mandolas, mano-cellos, and guitars. He switched many models over to the f-holes, and started having the luthiers do tap-tuning, basically listening to the resonances of the main soundboards. While he wasn't a full-time luthier, he did build some instruments and did final tunings of some as well. As it happens, one of the instruments he signed (an F-5 mandolin, a top-of-the-line model with all the enhancements he introduced) became the favorite instrument of Bill Monroe, who, beginning in the mid-1930s, had a string of hits that basically created bluegrass.

Monroe's music created a tremendous following and basically canonized the Loar F-5 as the pinnacle of bluegrass mandolins. In the years following, people have hunted down the Loar instruments with a passion and many luthiers have copied them. A good copy will set you back around $10,000 these days. An original, like this one, will go for over $200,000.

There are not too many 20th-century instruments that will fetch six figures.

In his later years, Loar designed an electric piano (too advanced for its time, probably -- it was never a success), wrote and taught acoustics at Northwestern University. He died in 1943, having spent twenty years working on musical innovations. The crowning masterpiece, though, is certainly the F-5 mandolin. If anybody is playing bluegrass in a couple of centuries, he may be remembered as the Stradivarius of the mandolin.