Month: March 2013

The Summer of Jon: There’s an App for that

I am one of those annoying people who love Apple products. My first computer was an Apple IIe and I have never strayed. My nerd friends have given me grief over my loyalty to Apple because they are nerds and knew something about the flux capacitor that Dell Computers used. “Did you know that the Apple III uses a processor that can only push 10 megabits of information every 10 seconds, but the new Dell can push 12? And it costs $100 less than your Apple III.” (I don’t really know how to express nerd talk because it annoys me so much that I don’t really pay any attention to it. I listened to three guys arguing about X-box 360 verses the PS3 the other day in a pizza place and it ruined my day. It wasn’t like I was eavesdropping, they were just loud and so stupid they could not be ignored.) Anyway, I have taken my fair share of shots back at the nerd crew who disdain Apple products, but in reality, I know nothing about computers and my criticisms are not effective. It’s like trying to explain why you bought a new car to a gear head. “I wanted to buy a car/computer that worked. I like the way it works. I like the way it looks. I know it is more expensive, but I just want to put gas in it and then drive it. I don’t need to know how it works.” These responses usually drew lots of honking laughter sounds from the nerds/gear heads.

My only effective arguments about Apple products verses any other computer company come down to this: Would you rather have an iPod or a Zune? If you said Zune, there is no hope for you. You will soon be meeting in a church basement with 10 other people in what I will loosely call a “support group.”

My second argument revolves around Microsoft’s stupid use of two spaces between paragraphs as a default setting in Microsoft Word. Why Microsoft? Why? Why? Why? I have learned to live with it, but I hate it. I even hate how I have given up the fight on my blog. I don’t even try to indent my paragraphs anymore. It is a sad state of affairs, and it is the main reason I like Apple because it has always been a computer company that thinks of form as much as they think about function.

As I approach the countdown to The Summer of Jon I have scoured the App store looking for the right travel Apps and various other pieces of software for my trip. I have a few favorites, but my new all-time favorite App for travel is TripIt. TripIt is one of those programs (Do we still call them programs?) that manages all of your travel details. My Summer of Jon trip is going to be more complicated than other trips I have taken. I’m hitting multiple cities over a longer period than I have ever done before. I have to keep track of a bunch of hotel reservations, flights, and stuff I want to see. In the dark ages, I would print out reservations and pack five travel books for every city I’m hitting, but during the Summer of Jon I will be keeping all that information in my little TripIt app. Each time I make a reservation for a hotel or flight, I get a confirmation email that I forward to TripIt. TripIt magically (nerd magic I assume) puts that reservation into my little file. If I want to visit the penis museum in Iceland then I just add that to my itinerary on the date I want to go. If I have an address for the penis museum, I can add that and the app will map it for me. (Yes, there is a penis museum in Iceland. Why would I go there? I’m not sure, but weird stuff like that is what the Summer of Jon is all about.)

Will this little app prevent me from making stupid mistakes? No, I will manage to make at least 100 mistakes during my trip, but that is what makes travel great: getting lost, going to the wrong hotel, eating the wrong thing, watching television in a language I don’t understand, and being confused by the norms of another culture. I can’t wait.



Weighing, Measuring, Quantifying and Ruining Beauty

“But when the most scholarly of men have taught me that light is a vibration, or have calculated it wavelengths for me, or offered me any other fruits of their labors of reasoning, they will not have rendered me an account of what is important to me about light, of what my eyes have begun to teach me about it, of what makes me different from a blind man–things which are the stuff of miracles, not subject matter for reasoning.”- Louis Aragon “Paris Peasant”

When I read this the other night I had one of my rare “Ahah” moments. Aragon is right, just because we can measure something, or understand what something is, that doesn’t translate into what makes it important. At some point in human history, someone decided everything can be measured and quantified, valued and packaged for sale. This act of quantifying or valuing items has driven mankind to achieve great things, but it has also taken the love of creation away and replaced it with a different external motivation. This motivation has become so insidious that we no longer recognize it for what it is: greed.

I’m not talking about money, but that is how our societies have translated value, I’m talking about why we do anything. It seems to me that hardly anything is done for the act itself anymore. (I know this is a wild generalization, but that is what I do at 5 am.) We teach our children about greed in very subtle ways. We place a value on learning not by valuing learning itself, but by valuing the product of that “learning”: a grade. The grade becomes the valued outcome and learning is soon tossed aside. I’m not suggesting that learning is no longer valued, it is, it just isn’t measured. We have convinced ourselves that learning can be quantified just like light. It can’t.

In my opinion, which is the only opinion that has real value in this little rant, learning and beauty are closely related because neither can really be measured in a true way. We can develop testing instruments, but when it really comes down to it something beautiful is just beautiful. The most beautiful things I have read, seen, and experienced cannot be explained in any true sense. They cannot be quantified.

Somehow mankind has convinced itself that we can quantify learning; we can measure it, weigh it, place a grade on it, and eventually turn it a monetary value. Somewhere along the way we have lost the purpose of learning, or we have changed the purpose of learning from something of value  in itself into a commodity. That commodity is a job.

In America the end goal of all education is a job. There it is, I just wrote it. Why else would you learn anything? If you can’t put a number on it and place a value on it, then it isn’t important. If you don’t need it to become a working citizen in our country, then why learn it?

This mode of thinking might have helped during the industrial revolution, but today people need to understand that learning itself should be valued again. We don’t know enough about the future (and I’m not talking about the Blade Runner/George Jetson world of  the future, but the real world of change) to truly prepare the workers of the future. We should be training students to work outside of the box, to think critically, and to wonder, but instead we keep narrowing the box and making the box smaller and smaller in hopes that someday we will have the highest test scores in the world. What a wonderful goal: #1 in testing.

It reminds me a bit of training a basketball player to be great by making them shoot 10,000 free throws a day. That player may be able to knock down 99% of those free throws, but if they can’t play the game, and play the game creatively, then they will never end up on the free throw line anyway. While the player may be the best at shooting free throws (which is a valuable commodity in a game of basketball) the skill itself doesn’t translate into the real world. In the real world a great basketball player can see the defense, adjust, dribble, fake, and get fouled. Only after being fouled does the practice of shooting free throws matter.

I believe our educational system is shooting free throws. We are adding up our makes and misses, people are judging how many of our free throws are made and placing a value on those shots, and then we find out that China is shooting more free throws than us, so we shoot more so we can be the best free throw shooting nation in the world. What America hasn’t figured out is what made American basketball the best. It wasn’t the free throw shooting. It was the creativity of our game. It was the ability to adjust in mid-air. It was seeing the open man before he was open. We became the best because we played and loved the game for itself, it is the only reason people put 10,000 hours into something, because they love it.

We don’t love learning (basketball) anymore. We love what learning gets us: a job, money, security, a 401k, insurance… but learning itself has been sullied by an emphasis on measurement. We have moved away from valuing the beauty of learning and bought into the idea that learning has to have an end to justify it, it has to be measurable.

A scientist might be able to tell me how the sunrise is formed, but they can’t tell me why it is beautiful. Oh, they can probably make a rubric that would break a beautiful sunrise into pieces to measure its beauty, but who would want to ruin a sunrise by trying to measure it?

Learning is the stuff of miracles; it is light.


Just Because You Call it a Rembrandt Exhibit Doesn’t Make it One

I am no Art expert. I have never taken an Art Appreciation class, but I do have opinions about Art. When it comes to paintings I know what I like and have read enough about Art to discuss paintings like someone who knows what they are talking about, but there is some Art that I just don’t like or understand so when I went to see the traveling exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum recently I had some high expectations. First off the exhibit is called: Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London. The title of the exhibit might lead one to believe that somebody cleared out the Kenwood House and brought all the Rembrandt’s with them, but the title of the exhibition is a little deceptive in my opinion. The real title should have been this: One Painting by Rembrandt and a Bunch of Other Paintings Nobody Really Cares About: The Stuff the Kenwood House Won’t Really Miss. 

In an effort to fully disclose, there were lots of Rembrandt sketches there, most of them the size of a gum wrapper, but when you title an exhibit “Rembrandt…” you should be doing so because of the alphabet or because of the number of paintings. You don’t just get to name a traveling exhibit whatever you want, there has to be some honesty left in museums.

Now I like Rembrandt and a few of the other Flemish guys, and I know that he is the “master of light” and all that stuff, but most of the art from Rembrandt’s time period bores me. I usually race walk through sections of the museum with all the “dark paintings” as I call them. Sure it’s interesting to see how an artist can use color to deceive the eye into thinking there is a light source, but those paintings usually depress me a little bit as I consider how happy everybody looks to have one tiny candle lighting up their table. I end up thinking about how it must be Winter and how it probably smells like mold in the little house where everybody is gathered around this tiny candle, and then I wonder if there is a good café in the museum where I can get a warm cup of coffee.

My next beef with the exhibit is that is says: The Treasures of the Kenwood House, that would lead one to believe that the Kenwood House’s treasures are visiting Seattle, so I went expecting to see a Vermeer. I know where most of the Vermeers are in the world (yes, it is a little crazy, but he didn’t crank out a million of them like Monet) and I know that the Kenwood House has one. Why? (Warning: Nerd alert) Well I heard the author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring talking about visiting the Kenwood House while I listened to NPR, so I went to SAM expecting to see a Vermeer. Unfortunately Vermeer’s painting did not make the trip, maybe there was trouble with the painting’s Visa, or the dude running the Kenwood House figured those bumpkins in Seattle wouldn’t know the difference.

Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - WGA19221

Rembrandt – Self-Portrait

The one Rembrandt painting they did get was a good one: Portrait of the Artist. Most of us have seen it at some point, it’s the one where Rembrandt looks like he just woke up, tossed on some clothes and looked in the mirror and was not happy with what he saw. He has on a little baker’s hat, some kind of house coat, and is holding his painting gear. It is not a flattering painting, which I like because it is real. I get the feeling that Rembrandt rolled out of bed, put on his goofy hat and looked in the mirror and went, “Meh, I guess I’ll paint myself today.” I’m not sure if he is unhappy with his painting or what he looks like, but I like his attitude which seems to say, “This is as good as it’s going to get ladies. I’m a famous painter so I’m not going to get all dressed up this morning.” Almost all the rest of the paintings in the exhibit were portraits where the ladies were all dolled up looking elegant and lovely. I am not a fan of those eight foot tall paintings of rich ladies and their dogs. If I wanted that kind of Art I would turn on the Bravo channel and watch one of the 100,000 shows about housewives.

There was one other painting in the bunch that I did like, it was a Turner painting of some sailors on the beach. There were two boats on the sand and one in the middle of the breaking waves. The boat still in the water was turned up and looked to be having a tough time of it which is what I like about Turner. He gives his paintings lots of action. All of the seascape paintings I have seen by Turner are awesome, but he doesn’t get his name on the marquee.

So, if it is a rainy day and you want to see one Rembrandt painting and a bunch of forgetful stuff from the Kenwood House, I would suggest shelling out a couple bucks and checking out the SAM exhibit. If it is sunny I would suggest finding a park and pretending summer is just a few months away.

The Things I Didn’t Really Need to Carry

I have read several hiking books where the author lists off the ridiculous items that they decided to carry in their backpack. Bill Bryson spends time in his book A Walk in the Woods describing all the gear he thinks he will need on his hike. Cheryl Strayed does the same thing in Wild. Carrying a huge bag loaded to the brim is a mistake for the rookie hiker. Most hikers spend time trying to lighten their load and some hikers go to extremes to save an ounce here or there by sawing off toothbrush handles and shopping for the lightest tent.


The first backpacking trip I took included some really dumb items that no experienced hiker would ever consider carrying but what I discovered was that carrying a 70 pound pack around for 20 miles helped me think about what I really needed. Not only does it clear your mind it hurts your whole body. It turns out that carrying wet clothing in a plastic bag does not make them lighter, in fact you don’t need two extra pairs of jeans, or any jeans because cotton fabrics don’t dry unless you put them in a dryer or hang them on a clothes line for 10 hours. These epiphanies usually do not occur to me until I am waist deep into some trip, but I try not to make the same mistake more than once.

When it comes to international travel I tend to carry too much stuff but during the Summer of Jon I am limiting myself to one carry-on bag. This limitation has more to do with being cheap than anything else, but it has me considering what I should take along and what I should leave behind.

My greatest vice when it comes to travel is books. I like to take several books with me, but I never read them. I just lug them from place to place. I carried four books with me the last time I was in Europe. I didn’t read a single one. I just carried them like idiots do. This summer I will be taking zero books. I will be taking an iPad which can carry a bunch of books inside it and it doesn’t weigh any more. I already put a few books on the iPad which I have every intention of reading but I think once I am rolling I won’t be digging into Moby Dick again.

Another book related vice I have is buying museum guides. I just can’t help myself. I buy the guide (usually the big one with all the paintings listed and described) bring it home and put it on one of my bookshelves. The guides look nice and I do look at them once every 15 years, but carrying 10 museum guides around Europe is just stupid when I can probably buy the same guide from Amazon and have it brought to my home without carrying it around Europe.

The most difficult decision for this trip is whether to take a rain jacket or not. If I take a rain jacket I am certain that Europe will experience the warmest July in the history of the continent. If I leave the jacket behind there will be rain everywhere I go. It works that way. The hottest summer in European history was the summer I spent in hotels without air conditioning. There is a pretty good chance I will see poor weather in Iceland and Norway, but should I take a little rain coat or a big one? It isn’t like my big jacket weighs 50 pounds, but all it takes is a serious of poor choices and the next thing you know you are carrying wet jeans in a plastic bag for 90 miles.

Good thing I have four more months to plan.


When the Planning’s Done

The epic travel adventure story never includes a section titled: Over Planning. Why? Because all epic travel stories are about what went wrong, nobody cares about a perfectly executed travel story (unless it is a travel story where Navy Seals are involved.) What most people like to read about are trips where a multitude of things go wrong. Shackleton’s trips to cold places, the Donner Party, Cheryl Strayed’s novel Wild and almost every story written about mountain climbing are examples of how we like to read about other people’s misfortunate mistakes. Some of this fascination probably revolves around the fact that we like to avoid painful situations, but we also enjoy reading about other people’s pain, especially if they are bragging about their great trip to Europe and things went a bit wrong.

I am not immune to these mistakes, almost ever trip I have ever been on has had something go wrong. As I have aged (some people get older, I age like cheese or wine) my expectations for a perfect trip have disappeared and I have begun to embrace the things that will inevitably go wrong.

Now that I am almost done with the planning stage for the Summer of Jon, I have begun wondering what will go wrong this summer. The internet has made planning for a big trip much, much easier. You can read reviews of hotels, you can look at pictures, and you can even use Google Earth to see if the hotel actually exists. In the olden days, the days before electricity and such, I would do extensive planning by looking at a map and deciding where to go. Then I would go. Sometimes it worked out just dandy and other times I ended up sleeping on a pool table, or drinking water from a large cistern with a dead animal in it.  Internet planning is not idiot-proof though, I still am able to make dumb mistakes, just ask anyone in my family they can regale you for hours about all the mistakes I have made.

As I wait for July 1st, my temptation is to over plan. I have the basics down (flights, hotels, and a few attractions) but I have to fight with myself to avoid planning each day like I am invading the continent of Europe and not just merely visiting it. Should I find out what traveling exhibits will be at the museums I want to go to? Should I decide today what type of food I will want to eat for lunch on the fifth day of my trip (answer: something cheap)? Should I learn a few phrases of German to help me when I inevitably end up in a bakery getting yelled at? Or should I just arrive and let fate take over? Right now I am comfortable with fate.

Looking back on all my travel, the days that are most vivid are the ones where everything went wrong. There was the British Airways strike that grounded my family in London for two extra days, there was the wind storm that cancelled my train ride to Bacharach and took my family on an epic sojourn that only Ulysses could truly understand, there was the day we went to a water-park in Paris only to be turned away because I refused to wear a Speedo, and there was the day I took a bike ride to Versailles in a Biblical, Noah and the Ark rainstorm. I hated those days, but as I look back on those days I am reminded why those days are so valuable. Those bad days make the great ones that much better.