Breaking news: the news is broken

Brian Williams’ conflation is the latest fissure in the crumbling edifice of national television news. (Is my schadenfreude showing?) When it eventually achieves whatever-happened-to… status, most of us will remember the value it furnished to the public was far eclipsed by the value it furnished to the pharmaceutical industry. But even within the national news industry, there are degrees of bad. While major-network news programs serve as carnival tents for drug-company barkers, fair-and-balanced Fox also has a conflation problem, mixing opinion, much of which it shills for the plutocracy, with fact.

Breaking news! It snows in winter! We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others in the new golden age of political satire have hilariously skewered the TV news industry’s industrial scale misapplication of journalism. Fox has even helped by becoming a parody of itself. So there’s no need for me to pile on.

Let me pile on, anyway; some of the more egregious nonsense rates an underscore. To begin with, why is “trust” a requirement for a well-coiffed anchor to read stuff from a teleprompter mostly written by other people? Fear of ad-libbing the text on the fly? Why is it necessary to stand in bad weather in order to report that the weather is bad? Why does… oh, never mind.

But as bad as national TV news is, local flavors are worse, and border on irresponsible use of publicly-owned bandwidth. Actually, they’re all pretty much the same flavor and seem to come from some sort of news-program-in-a-box.

Except for one, which stands out for its exceptional and expert perversion of ostensibly a public service, even one for profit. There are almost certainly others, but Houston’s Local 2 news, as it identifies itself, is at the apogee of mostly useless infotainment.

It’s hard to know where to start. One of its on-air “reporters” performs the role of clown, lacking only a red nose and floppy shoes. Another worthless feature introduced recently is the one-question, multiple choice, real-time poll. My selection would always be “Who cares?” but that option is never available. I suppose this device does have one use: it enables the avoidance of consideration, which is harder to do than just being told to think what most people think.

The latest “innovation” at both the local and national level—reading tweets on the air—could be taken prima facie as an admission of irrelevance.

Then there’s my bête noire: the weather as news, which issues from something called the “Severe Weather Center.” This is a cynical and craven attempt by local news to position themselves as irreplaceable protectors of the public who “keep you safe.” While they’re busy saving the citizens from Houston’s severe weather (mostly benign semitropical), the only time a weatherperson doesn’t stand outside in the weather is when conditions would most invite it. Apparently, they don’t think their viewers can comprehend the word “rain.” I can, and don’t need to see of one of them standing in it to get the idea.

Yes, I know; it’s me who doesn’t get the idea—that local television news is advertiser-attracting theater first and expense-incurring information second (third? fourth?). That’s OK, they can be whatever their corporate masters want them to be. But that has a serious consequence. In the act (literally) of becoming entertainment, they have abdicated a crucial role in the proper functioning of a democracy. Many of the direct effects of government on the governed come at the local and state level. At this interface the devil is in the details. But details are usually MIA. Skimming the subject has the feel of covering it, but without any substance. Hey, you’d have to ask thoughtful questions and explain complex answers. Why bore the public with that?

This disservice serves ratings, but why is that? The best place to start participating in what government does for and to you is to learn the details of what it is doing and intends to do. We should insist that the use of our bandwidth comes at a higher price—more informed coverage of all this—than local television news is paying right now.

I mentioned “consideration” earlier. Subtlety of thought is a requirement of living in a complex age. One-question, multiple-choice polls are not the way to inculcate that process. But frankly, encouraging subtle thinking would likely be a form of suicide for local TV news programs.

We the public should demand better use of our bandwidth if we are going to allow the use of it for profit. Mindless entertainment is fine—let’s hear it for Downton Abbey!—but as occupiers of television bandwidth granted by our government on our behalf, local news organizations are intermediaries in serious affairs that affect us all. Here’s my review (in the entertainment section) of their performance in this role: epic fail.

You name it

But good luck getting your colleagues to buy it.

Today, we visit the wonderful world of product naming, an exercise that can make Sisyphus’ job seem like something he could do with his left hand.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine on this subject brought back memories of standing before a whiteboard, trying to impose rigor on conference room cacophony, as opinions flew and attendees sought the perfect five-letter word with six different meanings.

With so many experts in the room, this should be easy, right? Wrong. As smart as the usual suspects in a product naming meeting are in their own fields, what is often heard are uninformed ideas, shibboleths, and wishful thinking.

Believe it or not, there is some rigor involved. The NYT article described how product naming at at high level (of expense, at least) gets done. Believe me, in the Big Leagues it’s more than two hours of free-associating in a conference room, after which the highest ranking person chooses the winner because it reminds him of his favorite car.

In a former life as a marketing services manager in a manufacturing company large enough to need this sort of thing, I was often dragooned into such meetings, and my experience in them led me to develop, as a defense, some guidelines that would take participants past the my-idea-is-just-as-good-as-yours level of debate. What the party needed was rules, and God bless ‘em, what engineers and technical people do really well is follow rules. Holding up a piece of paper and pointing out that “…it says here…” was often effective at bad-idea control.

As the article pointed out, a big challenge is just finding a word that can be used as a trademark. The rate of name consumption worldwide makes product namers wish for an alphabet with about twenty more letters, but the challenge is making do with what you have.

Nearly every useful word in the dictionary has been used. I’ve preached to many groups (and as confirmed by the Times article) that made-up words are the surest path to success.

That’s all I’ll say about what to do—hey, we’re talking about my IP here—but I’ll let on about some things not to do. These are things that pop up in every naming meeting I’ve conducted or attended.

Top of the list: acronyms. In technology companies, people have a fetish for them. It’s a form of clever that people enjoy practicing, and it can be easy. The problem is, when the word formed is translated, the acronym blows up. Let’s say my product is a big ugly machine. One acronym could be “BUM,” which seems somehow descriptive. But when BUM is translated to Portuguese or something, what the resulting letters stand for and the meaning they carry disappear. That’s another reason made-up words are useful—besides being available, they are untranslatable.

Another magnet for bad ideas is pop culture. References with leg-slapping cleverness in the United States, even in the Internet age of information ubiquity, can come across in another part of the world as baffling or worse. There’s a reason Exxon was named Exxon—the perfectly inoffensive name had no meaning to anyone, anywhere, in any age.

This may be the worst approach: holding a naming contest among your employees. It’s guaranteed to irritate all but one of them—the winner. If there is one, that is; a lot of their ideas will contain the first two do-nots guaranteed, along with other submissions unacceptable for various reasons. But don’t get me wrong; I don’t discount serendipity. It’s just that the odds are low. So… if you’re thinking about a name, get some professional help.

An associated problem is what to name. Some companies like to trademark everything in sight, but you may want to consider the advantages of fewer but more powerful and recognizable brand names versus a zillion trademarks that nobody inside or outside the company can keep straight.

I was pleased to note in the article that my methodology differed from best practices of the product naming big boys mostly in degree, and by the resources available to throw at the problem. These people will gin up a thousand choices at the start of the winnowing process; I never had that luxury. But at both my level and theirs, there’s one thing in common: fear of client whim. This X-factor can undermine all of your most brilliant ideas, but so it goes in selling the intangible. There’s not much job satisfaction in such a case if you’re the namer. All you can do is congratulate yourself for at least leading them to the point where a decision was actually made.

For the companies that will have to live with it, making a decision on a name is like deciding whether or not to marry somebody you think you love now, but there’s that weird little thing they do, and well, you’re not sure if it’ll last…

While naming is often difficult, the effort can can pay off with the satisfaction of creating something of potentially great value, using only a whiteboard, marker, and a lot of creative thinking. In this sense, it relates to fields like literature and art, whose magic is almost alchemic—creating something from nothing. Doing that is my idea of job satisfaction.

It’s about jobs. Or is it?

Always the first justification for enterprises that might otherwise seem of questionable benefit to the country (or world) at large is this: [Name goes here] will create [number goes here] jobs. Just listen to advocates in two current cases before the court of public opinion: Keystone XL pipeline in particular and the plastic bag industry in general.

Frankly, if job creation trumps any other effect, then perhaps prostitution or heroin should be legalized. Surely, a spike in employment would result, especially among those not equipped or motivated to seek more conventional careers.

Their true value to the general public is grist for another mill, but pipelines and plastic bags seem to be meager permanent job creators, with large and not so desirable side effects. After all, in a nation of 250 million people, how many could possibly be directly employed in the manufacture of plastic bags. How many—once the digging and welding are done—could possibly be needed to make a pipeline function?

The American Progressive Bag Alliance is concerned, they say, about the negative impact a proposed law in California would have on the nearly 2,000 workers in the California bag manufacturing industry. And, Keystone supporters make their claim (on keystone-xl.com): “During construction, the project is expected to create over seven million hours of labor and over 13,000 new jobs for American workers.”

In these two instances, the concern of corporations and governments at various levels for the employment of 15,000 people is touching, but it makes me wonder: A single oilfield services company recently announced that it intended to terminate 9,000 of its employees worldwide—about 70 percent of the number of jobs in the cases cited above—in one whack. Where are the apoplectic lobbyists and crusaders of worker well-being here?

By the way, you may be asking what happens to the 13,000 pipeline construction jobs after pipeline construction is finished. They go away, to be replaced by a much smaller set—you may be sure the operator desires as small a set as humanly and technologically possible—on a longer term basis. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of jobs after all, then you’re missing the Canadian Energy Research Institute’s prediction that “…Keystone XL will add $172 billion to America’s gross domestic product by 2035 and will create an additional 1.8 million person-years of employment in the United States over the next 22 years.”

The “1.8 million person-years” stat is an almost comical attempt to mislead. It seems intended solely to add a very large number to the plus side of the argument, without adding a thing to the discussion in terms normal people use.

These are stupendous numbers for what may seem, in the case of a pipeline, like a small screw in the world economic engine. (The plastic bag industry has its own claims of outsized benefits.) But such is the magic of calculations of “indirect” benefit. Your pipeline worker buys my hamburger, I then buy that other guy’s car, ad infinitum. This process seems open to manipulation and hard to conclusively prove. Actually, it seems like the ultimate lobbyist card trick and sets off my baloney warning light.

Job numbers can be debated but economic benefits certainly will be generated by our two examples. The question is, to whom do these benefits accrue? And, is the gaining of these benefits worth the costs, which seem to be more widely distributed than the benefits, to the rest of us? Environmental destruction enabled by the Keystone pipeline and the introduction of a new invasive species—urban tumbleweeds—in the case of plastic bags do not seem worth the very small number of direct jobs they purport to create. In any event, one could make the case that neither are needed for for the purposes they are intended to serve. Oil and gas are plentiful, and many ways exist to transport your six-pack from store to home.

There is a much better way than these two cases to create jobs, and it can spread benefits across a wide swath of the population. And, it is proven to work. In fact, it is arguably the most wildly successful jobs creation program in our nation’s history. No need to grab my lapels and shake the answer out of me—I’ll tell you: it’s the Works Progress Administration.

According to pbs.org, “Of all of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is the most famous, because it affected so many people’s lives. Roosevelt’s vision of a work-relief program employed more than 8.5 million people. For an average salary of $41.57 a month, WPA employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports.

“The WPA supported tens of thousands of artists, by funding creation of 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture that decorate public buildings nationwide. The federal art, theater, music, and writing programs, while not changing American culture as much as their adherents had hoped, did bring more art to more Americans than ever before or since. The WPA program in the arts led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

You may never see the Keystone pipeline or derive any directly traceable benefit from it, but WPA, Public Works Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps projects are ubiquitous, even now. Ironically, if the CCC existed today, it would almost certainly be put to use cleaning up the vast amount of litter generated by those job-creating plastic bags. The pipeline may be invisible to most, but plastic bag detritus seems inescapable.

I’m an unabashed fan of the WPA. Some argue against its value, but 8.5 million employed in dire economic circumstances, as part of a much smaller population, with such enduring benefits to the nation, speaks for itself. Of this I am sure: the current state of our politics and economics has nothing to do with the former existence of the WPA. If it’s really about jobs, then perhaps the WPA should exist again.

We’ll never run out of energy

Converging in August 2007 were a feisty mood, controversial book, and blank screen where a column needed to be, with this result:

How’s that for provocative? Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills are pleased to tell you why they think so in “The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, The Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.” It’s a book that even large-scale thinker Bill Gates said is the only one “…I’ve ever seen that really explains energy.” In it, Huber and Mills demolish a catalog of shibboleths with “…seven great energy heresies we propound in this book.” They are:

• The cost of energy as we use it has less and less to do with the cost of fuel.

• “Waste” is virtuous.

• The more efficient our technology, the more energy we consume.

• The competitive advantage in manufacturing is now swinging decisively back toward the United States.

• Human demand for energy is insatiable.

• The raw fuels are not running out.

  • America’s relentless pursuit of high-grade energy does not add chaos to the global environment, it restores order.

They’re pretty hard on most of the energy literature generated since the landmark crises of 1973 (the first oil embargo) and 1979 (Three Mile Island). “They are all wrong, except where they are not even good enough to be wrong, which many of them aren’t, most of the time,” the authors say. “The best that can be said in their defense is that it is easy to be wrong when writing about energy.” They cite Richard Feynman, who observed, “Energy is a very subtle concept. It is very, very difficult to get right. What I mean by that is it is not easy to understand energy well enough to use it right, so that you can deduce something correctly, using the energy idea.” The authors pile on: “Most of what most people think they know about energy is so very wrong that their convictions, heartfelt though they may be, lie beyond logical contradiction or refutation.”

It’s a safe bet that few people with any knowledge of the subject would have said to the great physicist directly, “Feynman, you’re a nitwit,” so maybe there’s something in what he and the authors are on to.

“What most of us think about energy supply is wrong,” the authors say. “Energy supplies are unlimited; it is energetic order that’s scarce, and the order in energy that’s expensive. Energy supplies are determined mainly by how cleverly we’re able to impose logic and order on the mountains and catacombs of energy that surround and envelop us.”

You can guess their opinions of efforts to regulate energy consumption. They call proponents of such efforts “Lethargists” and quote professional doomsayer Paul Ehrlich, who once said, “Giving society cheap abundant energy at this point would be equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

An opposing camp, the “Cornucopians,” proposes energy efficiency as a path to less energy use. Although the authors cheerfully support energy efficiency, they say the Cornucopians are wrong in a “spectacularly self-defeating way — energy efficiency leads to more consumption, not less…”

Huber and Mills have much more to say (and numerous statistics to present) in an interesting and entertaining read that will make you think hard about your arguments no matter what side of the debate you are on.

Do you know how much your car cost?

Of course I do, you knucklehead, I hear you muttering under your breath. But before you jab your finger at the sales contract, let me stop you: that number in the lower right hand corner is not the correct answer.

As a car enthusiast since junior high school—with an oeuvre of study hall sketches to prove it—who has owned forty-plus cars (I lost count), I’m sometimes asked by friends for guidance on car buying. This has happened often enough for me to observe repeating notions about the car-buying process. For many, a big chunk of the process has to do with emotion, expertly pandered to by the car makers. I offer no advice there. But it has to be paid for, and that’s where the rubber meets the road, as it were.

Ink meeting the sales contract is more to the (ball)point, and here is where the wheels often come off, as you travel the road to acquisition (to flog the metaphor).

But let’s say that road was successfully navigated, and you arm-twisted the dealer to get what you consider a great deal. That’s what the car costs, right? Actually, no. Consider this: Why are you buying the car, anyway? The answer: You’re buying it for transportation. There are peripheral, soft-dollar benefits a specific car conveys to the buyer, such as status or pleasure, but only you know the value you choose assign to such things. What we are addressing here is the hard-dollar side.

This conversation doesn’t include such people as collectors, who buy cars for other reasons. If you bought your car to decorate your driveway, that’s one thing, but for the rest of us, cars are used to go places. And going to these places adds up to a national average of ~13,500 miles per year for each of us, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

If the car (or anything else) you buy, lease, rent, or steal is used for transportation, then the metric is simple. What you are paying for is… drum roll… cost per mile. Period. That’s it.

So… how is cost-per-mile calculated? Easy. Add every direct cost you paid out: acquisition, insurance, fuel, maintenance, repairs—everything. Subtract from this total the amount you received upon selling (or trading) it. Divide into this result the total number of miles driven. Voila! That’s what your car cost you.

In case you’re wondering, this figure, for most cars driven by most people, is in a range of $0.25 to $0.75 per mile. A question I hear you asking: What good does it do me to know cost per mile if I can only figure it in hindsight? Well, for one thing, knowing the true cost of anything as expensive as a car, which is the second most expensive thing most people ever buy, is always useful data for whatever purposes you choose to put it.

On the know-it-before-you-buy-it side, sources such as edmunds.com can help. Edmunds is an excellent source of this kind of information. Edmunds doesn’t pay me to endorse them—they don’t even know who I am—but as one who studies car sites at practically the Talmudic level, I have found them to be authoritative.

By the way, other questions people often have about car buying, e.g., lease or buy, new or used, have to do with cash flow, not the true cost of the car. This will always be how much you paid minus how much you sold it for divided by how far you drove it.

That’s the real number in the lower right-hand corner.

The Art Car Parade isn’t

…a parade of art cars, unless your definition of “art car” is broad enough to include such works as beaters festooned with plastic fruit and ersatz parade floats with mundane themes. Mine isn’t.

Maybe I’m misreading the title, but what’s missing from this annual Houston parade of the pointless and tacky is the “car” part. Notwithstanding a few I once owned, cars generally move under their own power, and should not require towing like a parade float (grounds for disqualification, in my view).

But that’s not my main gripe. This is: the application of the pretentious and grandiose label of “art car” to objects that mostly fall well short. “Goofy Car Parade” or Car-toon” would better meet truth-in-labeling guidelines.

Don’t get me wrong; the parade is great fun nonetheless, and a few diamonds in the stream of costume jewelry flowing by save it (barely). Anyway, part of the art car experience is watching authentic and would-be Art People leavening the crowd. People-watching is an area where the ACP delivers the goods, but if you came to see art cars, at least in some higher sense of the idea, you’re out of luck.

You’re out of luck at the ACP, at least. But if looking at art cars is your ambition, then I have good news: every year, starting on Thanksgiving Day, Autorama displays a stunning collection of custom cars, hot rods, race cars, classics, antiques, and other wheeled vehicles that far eclipses the Art Car Parade in every aspect, including sheer quantity.

What you see at Autorama are art cars that rate the label. Some are simply spectacular. These cars are examples of automotive-based creativity, style, and craftsmanship done at the world-class level, and some have to be seen to be believed. An element of humor is often present that’s as least as funny—and not nearly as slapstick—as anything I’ve ever seen at the ACP. Eyewitnesses will testify I have nothing against lowbrow humor, but that’s mostly where ACP’s wit dwells.

Another difference is this: almost all of Autorama’s cars can move under their own power. Boy, do they ever—no matter what else gets done, at the top of the to-do list for most of these projects is Make It Go Faster.

So… If these are art cars, then who are the artists? Good question. The custom car and hot rod world is dominated by some real celebrities. George Barris, Gene Winfield, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth arguably are the three giants of what could be called the High Classical Period of custom cars. Tom Wolfe once called Roth the Salvador Dali of custom cars. If that’s the case, then George Barris is the Da Vinci, and Gene Winfield is the Michaelangelo.

Over years of attending Autorama I managed to meet all three. When I was a high school car junkie drooling over the magazines—Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, and Car Craft—I never imagined I would someday meet the guys celebrated in these pages. I later became a foreign car snob and eschewed the “dirty tee-shirt crowd,” as we called the hot rodders. This attitude was inflamed on a monthly basis by a new set of magazines: Road & Track, Car and Driver, and Sports Car Graphic. But I retained respect and admiration for what Barris, Winfield, and Roth—and many others—accomplished. It’s still a blast to see it now.

You may not know the artists, but it’s possible you know the art. Southern California-based Barris and Winfield created many cars for movies and television, including the Batmobile, Jed Clampett’s jalopy, the Back-to-the-Future De Lorean, and many more.

The custom car and hot rod “scene” has been a part of American life for many decades. Art cars as conceived by the Houston parade have a lot of catching up to do, and at the rate they’re going it’s not going to happen. At least not until art cars produce giants like the “Kings of the Kustomizers,” as they were called. Otherwise, they should be called what they are, not what they aren’t.

As the role of cars evolves and impressionable teenagers continue to retreat inside digital devices, it’s easy to imagine this world waning. But I wonder. At Autorama this year, Gene Winfield, in his 80s, could be seen performing a demonstration in his booth. As the Master effortlessly created a perfectly curved lip on a piece of sheet metal and fitted it precisely to a custom car in progress, a new generation of students watched in rapt attention.

What, me worry?

For equally persuasive reasons, life can make one either an optimist or a pessimist. Even if it’s true that when you’re a pessimist everything always comes out better than you expect, I’m generally on optimism’s side. Regarding energy in particular, I offer some reasons why in a January, 2008 column:

As his motto suggests, Alfred E. Neuman, cartoon icon of Mad, the legendary satirical humor magazine, didn’t sweat much. But unlike fictional dimwits, real people worry a lot.

There seems to be a lot to worry about these days, particularly in the energy department. The drumbeat in the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” popular media is a relentless rhythm of high prices, dire predictions, corporate shenanigans, geopolitical machinations, and technology gone bonkers.

But there are eddies of optimism in the current, so to speak, of current events. One such is a certain magazine devoted to popularizing science. (You’ll never guess the title.) The magazine is as upbeat as the news media is not. And why not? It’s practically a technology party in there. A catalog of what’s new in just one recent issue would optimize anyone’s outlook. For example:

Imagine a solar panel made by coating a metal substrate about the thickness aluminum foil with a layer of “solar absorbing nano-ink” using what is essentially a printing process. Nanosolar, the company that developed the technology, says panels created with this process are about three times as efficient (on a cost per watt basis) as coal. The process does not use silicon, 70% of which is said to be wasted in manufacturing. The ability to print rolls of the material portends a ubiquity for solar panels not previously possible.

A plug-in hybrid automobile concept called the Volt (too bad General Motors passed on naming it the Voltswagen) is a twist on current hybrid thinking, where the electric motor assists the engine. In this case the engine assists the electric motor, the primary propulsion device. GM claims that the car will manage a 40-mile (64-km) round trip on electricity alone and says this will allow 78% of Americans to commute without burning a drop of gasoline. When parked, it can plug in anywhere and fully charge in about six hours.

It may seem like a parlor trick, but a microwave emitter that extracts oil and natural gas from anything made with hydrocarbons is getting serious notice. Frank Pringle, the inventor, has signed a research agreement with Penn State University to conduct research on commercializing its patent-pending microwave technology to extract hydrocarbons from oil shale. Meanwhile, Pringle says the first commercial application of this technology will extract 17 million BTUs worth of energy from ten tons of plastic, vinyl and rubber auto waste (while consuming 956,000 BTUs to run itself), in one hour.

How many of the tech tricks under development out there will achieve commercial success in a free market? It’s hard to say. While the ultimate destination of a lot of gadgeteering seems to be The Sharper Image catalog, the impact of other developments may be much more profound. The point here is not to handicap the race but to observe that a great deal of “energetic” creative thinking is going on. With this much swinging for the fences, there will certainly be a few out-of-the-park home runs.

And then we decided to go to Acapulco…

If you think air travel sucks, what follows is reassurance that it’s still not the worst way to get someplace.

This is a contemporaneous account, scribbled on the blank parts of a guidebook and lightly edited here for readability, of a trip a girlfriend and I made in the 70s, when rural Mexico didn’t seem to be so dangerous as the media portrays it now. The account is contemporaneous because shortly into it I realized I was never going to remember all the things thwarting our attempts to get to Acapulco from the Pacific-coast beach village of Puerto Angel, about 300 miles south. But as college-age, summer-vacation Bohemians (admit it—when you were in college you were either a Bohemian or wanted to be) we took it all in the spirit of adventure. That’s certainly what it was, as you will see…

After a week in Puerto Angel we decided to make our way to Taxco by way of Acapulco. We got up early one morning to be greeted by a pouring rain (the first since our arrival). We stumbled into town from our hotel through the rain and arrived at the Blue Restaurant in plenty of time for the bus. The minutes passed… Hour and a half later we were told that the bus had left for Pochutla from another spot today instead of the customary place opposite the B.R.

We finally score a ride to Pochutla from passing young Mexicans—so we arrive within minutes of the departure time for Puerto Escondito bus (we planned to stop in Puerto Escondito for a day or two on the way).

Now since Escondito is only 57 miles away from Pochutla we had high hopes of getting there in one day, for a change. We were also excited about the fact that the road was paved all the way, an unusual situation in Mexico. This further added to our hope of arriving before dark, since we left at noon.

The driver took one little detour off the main road as part of the regular schedule. It was on this road that he got the bus stuck in mud. Two hours later after we all helped extricate the bus we took off for Escondito muddy but relieved (the rain raged on). Got to Escondito just before dark and found a room. Fifty-seven miles in six hours.

Next day… waiting on the side of the road (in the rain) for the Acapulco bus. After being told by the hotel management that buses ran there on the hour, a passing truck tells us there are no buses today because the rain washed the bridge out. They offer us a ride, which we accept.

So off we go in the back of a stake-bodied truck, in the rain, getting soaked. We’re dropped off in some little town whose name I don’t remember. We then pay a local dude to take us to the river that lies between us and our objective (Acapulco). He tells us that once we’re there we might be able to take a boat across. As it happened, when we arrived a temporary bridge was erected (I suppose it was temporary, although I didn’t see anything around that looked like a permanent bridge). At any rate we walked across this 50 yd. long rapidly disintegrating pile of railroad ties and sand (you could see the river through the holes). There was a bus on the other side of the river, which incredibly enough was going to Acapulco—all the way—we truly had it made now, we thought.

We blast off for Acapulco soaked, and, after the driver ripped us off for the tickets, with no Mexican money either. One bit of good fortune though—the driver stops in this town, which has a bank in it, long enough for us to do some more traveler’s checks. We walk into the bank [five] minutes before closing. It’s Friday.

Driver blasts off again—to make a long story short, when I began to write this we were sitting on the side of the road after the bus engine quit running. They finally got it going again but as I write this we are stopped behind a pile of other buses with word of another washed out bridge drifting back—will continue after something happens—we still aren’t there yet. The total distance from Puerto Angel to Acapulco is less than 300 miles. We’ve been on the road two days now…

Five minutes later… the bridge looked okay—we heard someone remark that the last people to try to cross didn’t come back, but I optimistically took that to mean that they made it and continued on their way—we are now under way again… later… we get to the bridge and see a couple of buses stuck in water up to the tops of their wheels, as well as one leaning over at a precarious angle. Driver and several passengers on our bus take their clothes off and walk across the road, encountering water up to their chins—we decide not to walk across.

Return to the town (Marquelia) where we are told that the bus will be there all night and we can sleep in it. We got out to have supper (taking our gear) and as we are eating noticed that the bus had disappeared, along with it the 20 pesos they owed us for not taking us all the way. So we ask another bus driver if we can spend the night in his bus, which he allows us to do.

Now, this morning we are riding another bus to Ometepec (back in the direction from which we came) in order to get to the airport there to fly out. Houses this A.M. within two blocks of where the busses were parked were flooded by the water. We are now on our way to Ometepec…

Later… we got to the town and found out that “the guy sold the airplane”… We are going to stay in Ometepec till the weather clears… Miracle! The bus station says the weather is good enough to let buses go as far as Cortez, where we can walk across a bridge and catch a bus the rest of the way to Acapulco, which is only 25 miles away. We don’t even have to spend the night in this crummy town! We are now sitting on this bus, ready to split…

A few minutes later… We see the bus that we were supposed to sleep on last night drive up in front of us. The bus that also has the money we paid to get to Acapulco that we never got back. We hassle with driver, who grudgingly agrees to take us from Marquelia to Cortez free, although we still have to pay from here (Ometepec) to Marquelia.

Once again, we are sitting on the bus, waiting to split… well, we left and began traveling an uneventful ride, until we came across the bridge that was out. The bus stopped, and we walked across this makeshift bridge made of a huge pile of dirt stacked by bulldozers on top of what remained of the bridge. Of course the dirt was mud by now and it was also dark. There was, wondrously, a bus on the other side waiting to take us the rest of the way to Acapulco. However, it was turning around, getting ready to leave, and, since I had no desire to be stranded on this road in the middle of nowhere at night for I didn’t know how long, we made a hundred yard sprint with full packs and just barely caught it. This bus, I’m happy to announce, took us the rest of the way to Acapulco (25 miles) with no problems—we made it!

Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Twenty Feet From Stardom

These two documentary titles fit together nicely, as you’ll see.

Add to these “Muscle Shoals” and “Sound City”—two more great music industry documentaries—and you get a fascinating look at the pop music recording industry in the pre-digital age.

Two themes dominate: First are the stories about the unsung, so to speak, singers and studio musicians standing in the shadows, twenty feet from stardom, busily going about making artists either famous or even more famous.

And boy, were they busy. According to the documentary credits, the Motown studio musicians informally known as the Funk Brothers played on more hit records than Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones—combined.

Speaking of the Rolling Stones, they thought enough of an anonymous group of studio musicians and the “magic” of a particular building to travel to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record some of their best-known stuff. So did a constellation of pop music stars. If the first theme is the people, then the second theme is the place.

Thumb your collection of 70s rock and roll albums (you still have your vinyl record collection, don’t you?) and see how many times you see “Recorded in Muscle Shoals” or something like that. Same goes for all the Motown hits—they all came from one place, backed by the same musicians.

If what can be seen in the documentaries is any indication, the physical facilities weren’t scientifically designed spaces with ultimate acoustic perfection. Actually, they looked like dumps. But these studios had a certain something that made for a great sound. The important thing to note about the recording industry in the analogue age is the fact that, dump or not, the recording studio was a place people went to, as a group, to record.

As a cathedral of sound, the Sound City studio in L.A. had its own altar, you might say, that many recording artists almost literally worshipped: the legendary Neve hand-wired analogue mixing console designed by the English electronics engineer Rupert Neve, for high-end recording studios during the 1970s.

Digital tools have eliminated such analogue consoles and have made the presence of all musicians, producers, and recording engineers at the same studio, at the same time, an option rather than a requirement. But to many, that’s not an improvement.

My friend Wayne is an attentive student of this stuff, and he describes the change well: “Another really good documentary is ‘Sound City’ about the Sound City recording studio in California. Among the big groups that recorded there were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac. It’s really a shame that recording studios are dying out. Today, everything’s being done digitally. It used to be a band would get in a studio and play a song live until they got a take they and the engineer were happy with. They might go back and dub additional parts, but for the most part it was the band all in the studio together. Now they might have the guitar player do a track  and then have the vocalist add his part, sometimes two thousand miles away. The other parts are added one at a time without the musicians ever being in the studio together. With Pro Tools they tweak it until every part is perfect, but they take all the soul out of it.”

Neil Young has a lot to say on the subject of soulless music in the digital days, and he says it emphatically in “Muscle Shoals.” Young and many others think the digital recording algorithms are fundamentally flawed and have degraded the recorded quality of music. The surface noise of vinyl records may be gone, but gone with it are the warmth and hard-to-describe sound quality of having the entire waveform (and not just a sampling of it) present on the recording.

With about 2,500 vinyl albums in my own collection, I stand with Mr. Young. And don’t get me started on what we gave up with the demise of the record jacket…

Downton Abbey, you’re under arrest!

The charge? Not telling the truth about life in England before World War II—not the whole truth, anyway. The arresting officer? Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, of the Hastings Police, the central character in Foyle’s War, the British television series I’m binge-watching on Netflix.

As an on-and-off, I-never-watch-it TV snob, I’m coming around to the idea that this is in fact the second golden age of television. Foyle’s War is further proof, following Breaking Bad, my last TV binge and a series I was slow to notice.

Each episode in Foyle’s War is about ninety minutes long and presents a mystery deftly solved at the end, Hercule Poirot style, by Foyle. He’s ably and essentially assisted by Sergeant Milner (serving as Robin to Foyle’s Batman), a policeman before the war who lost a leg in Trondheim, and Samantha Stewart (played by the delightfully named Honeysuckle Weeks), a young woman seconded from the British Army motor pool to be Foyle’s driver. The reason why Foyle doesn’t drive but seems capable of it has not yet been stated, but unless it got past me I suspect it will be revealed later that it has something to do with his late wife.

Foyle, perfectly underplayed by Michael Kitchen, is reluctantly employed by the police in his hometown of Hastings, located on the southern English coast and thus at the front lines of the air war just starting. A WWI veteran, Foyle’s attempt to join the fight has been frequently and finally rebuffed by his superiors, who see his sleuthing skills better suited to the civilian side.

The irony of investigating murders during a war is not lost on Foyle, and for such a small town, business is good. The stories are clever, well-crafted, and woven into the larger tapestry of England at war. Although the viewer often sees the villain first, how Foyle detects and arrests him (and frequently, her) in the denouement can sometimes cause head-slapping surprise.

Beyond the stories, the series has more to offer. A lot has been made of Mad Men, with its spot-on, no-detail-left-out clothing, furnishings, and other props of the giants-of-Madison-Avenue milieu. It’s well done, but much of it could have been accomplished by a few trips to the Goodwill store.

Foyle’s War raises the ante on verisimilitude. This story is of much larger scope and set in a time and place harder than early-sixties New York to replicate. The series adds period cars—including a Humber Super Snipe, my all-time favorite car name—as well as a wide assortment of oddball buses, lorries and other wheeled vehicles; trains; military gear (up to and including multiple Supermarine Spitfires); and everything else large and small, posh and shabby, one would encounter in that time and place. Movies do this all the time, of course, but what impresses is how a TV series has gone all out to do the same when, unlike some movies, the setting is not the star. In fact, the series seems to make an effort to include the setting rather than employ workarounds like low-angle shots.

The series also employs what seems like every unknown British character actor in the business. They are all top-notch, and the roles they play are mostly well-drawn and three dimensional. There are some exceptions; senior military officers usually come across as upper-class blowhards, but in sum the characters portray a wide swath of the population in believable ways. This is important, because the Foyle’s War backstory is how the war is affecting people caught up in it against their will. Not all of it is good, and those effects are cleverly woven into plot lines. One of the most interesting parts of the backstory is how “a nation of shopkeepers” (as Napoleon allegedly described England) is portrayed fighting the war in large and small ways.

Downton Abbey is fine—I enjoyed every episode of it—but its theme of traditional upper class life in transformation between the wars is only a sideshow in Foyles War, in which the war—hence the title—plays a much larger role, as it did at the time. If Downton Abbey deserves the cheerleading it gets, then so does Foyle’s War. A fan website (www.foyleswar.com) is a good place to get on board. If you’re a fan of well-done drama and history in detail, then you should grab your remote and enlist in Foyle’s War.