Category Archives: The Arts

Human Achievement of the Day: Guitars

When Human Achievement Hour rolls around each year, I make sure to do two things. One is to play an electric guitar. The other is to play an acoustic guitar.

Guitars are simple things. Stretch some thin metal wires over a plank of wood, and you’re most of the way there. Electric guitars add a few magnets wrapped in copper wire mounted underneath the strings, called pickups. This deceptively simple invention is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Music made on guitars has brought unfettered joy to billions of people, most of whom have idea how to play one. Whether you like jazz, punk rock, flamenco, blues, death metal, or classic rock, guitars have enhanced your life. In a way, the guitar is one of the defining objects of modern Western culture.

Regular readers will likely be familiar with CEI’s “I, Pencil” video from a few years ago, inspired by Leonard Read’s famous pamphlet. Nobody can make a pencil on their own. It takes a network of literally millions of people cooperating to make something you can buy in a store for less than a dollar. The network of human cooperation surrounding guitars is arguably even greater.

For example, guitars made by Gibson, such as the Les Paul and the SG, are often made of mahogany wood, which grows mostly in Central and South America. Tennessee-based Gibson has to arrange with people more than a thousand miles away to harvest the lumber and ship it to Nashville, most of whom speak different languages and use different currencies. The fingerboards placed on top of the guitar’s neck are usually made of rosewood, native to Africa and Asia, presenting another coordination problem.

Fret wire, usually made of either nickel or stainless steel, relies on mining and smelting technologies, and requires precise math, skill, and specialized tools to install. Other hardware, such as a guitar’s bridge and nut, pickguard, and tuning pegs, present their own challenges.

Acoustic guitars use a soundboard, chambers, and soundholes in such a way that makes the instruments both loud and tuneful. Electric guitars instead use pickups, potentiometers, wires, soldering, and standardized connections leading to an amplifier powered by electricity. If a pencil is a miracle of cooperation, guitars are even moreso.

Part of the point of Human Achievement Hour is to celebrate modernity. So on March 28, sometime between 8:30 and 9:30, instead of merely leaving on the lights, I will pick up my electric guitar, plug it into my amplifier, and take in the pure, simple joy that comes with banging out distorted power chords. After that, I will pick up my acoustic and admire all the skill, elegance, and mastery of geometry and sound that went into making it. Nobody within earshot may much enjoy my point, but they will likely be thankful for two other human achievements: walls and doors.

Mariachi Band Covers Slayer

There is a mariachi band that performs covers of metal songs. They’re called Metalachi. They recently covered Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” and Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo joined them on stage. It’s a bizarre combination, but they sure do look like they were having fun up there. Click here if the embedded video doesn’t work.

Modern Art

‘Hamburglar’ Artist Throws Gnawed Cheeseburgers at People From Bike

Or if you prefer, here’s a link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online Titian exhibit.

The Arts: Voltaire vs. Rousseau

Voltaire 1, Rousseau 0:

As the history of ancient China, Greece and Rome testifies, by bringing people together in the shared enjoyment of the ‘pure pleasures of the mind’ public theatre renders human beings more sociable in their dealings, more moderate in their behaviour, and keener in their judgement. Those nations that are without it cannot be ‘included in the ranks of civilized countries’. Well, at least the pastors of Geneva now knew where they stood. And Rousseau too. ‘Reading your book,’ Voltaire told him, ‘fills one with the desire to walk on all fours.’

Roger Pearson, Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, p. 248.

The Geneva slur refers to Calvinism, an art-hostile religious doctrine that dominated Geneva during Voltaire and Rousseau’s lifetimes.

Worth noting: Both men were artists at heart. Voltaire first gained fame as a playwright and a poet, and later as a historian and a satirist. Rousseau was a talented musician and composer who later made his name in philosophy.

Strangely, Rousseau was openly hostile to the arts. They are evidence of civilization, a project he largely opposed without any sense of irony.

Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies

This is a beautiful piece of music. I post it for no other reason. Do enjoy, and click here if the embedded video doesn’t work.

CEI Podcast for July 21, 2011: Stopping the Music


Have a listen here.

Tough economic times are forcing symphony orchestras across the country to cut budgets and lay off staff, and in some cases shut down entirely. Labor Policy Counsel Vinnie Vernuccio, who coauthored a recent op-ed in the New York Daily News, finds that labor unions, by resisting necessary changes and limiting organizations’ ability to adapt to hard times, are doing more harm than good for the arts.

The Decline and Fall of Modern Art

Headline: Logger hauls away sculpture mistaken for wood pile

The sculptor told CTV, “I think I’ll have to have a sign put up, but part of the art is to work in harmony with nature surrounding it.”

Fortunately, he seems to have taken the incident in good humor.

International Day of Slayer

Today is the International Day of Slayer.  I’ve been a fan for almost twenty years now — but not quite on the level of this guy.

To celebrate, here is the video for 1990’s “Seasons in the Abyss.” This is the song that introduced me to Slayer, and remains one of my favorites. Unlike much of the music I listened to back then, it has aged quite well. See for yourself:

And just for fun, here is a gospel version of 1986’s “Angel of Death.”

If you like the heavy stuff, and haven’t gotten into Slayer, they have a rich and rewarding catalogue. Everything from 1986’s “Reign in Blood” up to 2006’s “Christ Illusion” ranks with the best of the genre.

And just to tie this in to the immigration issue, drummer Dave Lombardo is Cuban, and singer/bassist Tom Araya is Chilean. Both moved to the Los Angeles area at a young age. If the U.S. had a closed border policy as some conservatives now favor, an entire genre of music might never have been born.

If you like the heavy stuff, and haven’t gotten into Slayer, they have a rich and rewarding catalogue.

Regulation of the Day 108: Murals in Front of Houses

A Los Angeles couple recently paid an artist to paint a mural on the wall in front of their house. As you can see from the picture, it is filled with cute, cuddly forest creatures.

Now the city is threatening the couple with half a year in jail and $1,000 in fines for violating outdoor advertising regulations.

It is worth noting that the mural is clearly not an advertisement. Tacky, maybe. But definitely not an advertisement.

John Stossel has more.

New J. Robbins Song

J. Robbins has played in some of my favorite bands over the years (Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Channels), and worked with still more as a producer (Braid, Shiner, The Dismemberment Plan, et al).

NPR recently stuck Robbins in the same room as Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie, and gave them two days to write and record a song. The result is worth hearing. You can listen for yourself here.

Robbins should have sung lead. His voice is easier on the ear, and at the same time far more expressive than Walla’s nondescript tenor. But the music is good. The main riff is catchy. The rhythm section is sparse yet tight, and provides the perfect staccato contrast to Walla’s legato, almost trance-like guitar lines.  Robbins and Walla combine for some lush vocal harmonies where appropriate. And drummer Darren Zentek (Robbins’ Channels bandmate) shows once again that he is master of the 16th note — just listen to the ghost notes he lays into his snare drum.

And for someone like me who used to put quite a bit of time into writing music and playing in bands, it brings back some good memories of what practice was like.