a friendly reminder
fake christmas tree?
pick a lane!
fido could teach us
flying over speed humps?
if it involves men...
it's gotta be big
past this gridlock
my scientist
chick flick
the tie is dead
throwing a wrench


Throwing a wrench into perfection
Sacramento Business Journal
April 29 , 2005

In technology, gizmos have to be designed and assembled with mathematic perfection or they just won't work. But in messier areas, like art and music, and in life, really, technical perfection is a notion which sometimes is best tossed out the window.

Sure, it can be a worthy goal. In sports, technical perfection is the perfect golf swing, the perfect high dive, the perfect batter's swing.

Having a perfect life might sound good on the surface, with the perfect mate, kids, dog, job, car, truck, motorcycle, house, lawn, vacation. But a Stepford Wife life can also be too rigid, too predictable and just a major yawner.

It's our creativity that gives us our biggest grins; when we do things that don't necessarily fit into the cookie-cutter mold of how we're supposed to do things; when we beat our drum just the way we want to.

Take David Byrne. He's the musician/songwriter/ author who gained fame as leader of the '80s rock group Talking Heads. He's discovered how technical flaws in a gizmo can accidentally produce an artistic effect he likes.

He used a glitch-heavy but arty PowerPoint presentation to promote his book, "New Sins." He recently told The Onion publication how he hooked it up to the video monitors of the Conde Nast building in New York City. The cranky old software made for less-than-perfect pictures.

He described the look and feel of his techno-artistic show, "where the dissolves were so imperfect that it would do this very complicated destruction of the image before the next one cleared. To do that in another program would be really, really time consuming -- to make something look this bad, but in a particular way."

Why didn't he use better software, a computer techie there wondered. Then he'd get perfect dissolves. But Byrne said his presentation was in "an art gallery context."

Perfection wasn't what he was after here.

"I like the limitations and the faults and the clunkiness of the program," he added. "I love the fact that it eliminates choices of what you can do, because there's so much you can't do. And having stuff that can do everything is not always a good idea. Having unlimited choices can paralyze you creatively. ..."

That reminded me:

I have a steel-string acoustic guitar I've played for more than 30 years; a cheap Japanese knockoff of an elite guitar brand. When I first bought it, it was the best-sounding guitar I'd ever played. I just told myself it sounded just as good as the best ones.

But over the years as I played it and learned new tunes and techniques on it here and there, I got intimately familiar with all its tonal flaws. It produced nice high notes, clear and clean. But its bass notes came out flat and muddy, even with new strings.

I discovered those flaws after playing my brother-in-law Tony's guitars. He's a professional musician and his guitars always sounded better than mine. Maybe because they were.

But I just kept playing mine, loyal dog that it was. And almost by default I learned to play around its flaws, or only tunes that sounded good on it. I'd coax out its best notes, and use its muddled lows as a muted off-beat feature.

Then, about a year ago, I'm in a music store checking out guitars with a buddy. The sales guy is an out-of-work rocker who knows all about guitars. He sees me perk up around his best models, so he does something to get me off the fence. He hands me one he thinks I'll like, and talks it up. I sit down and play it.

And I can't believe how good it sounds. Every note comes out fat, rich and resonant, even better than Tony's guitars. I sit and play and play; every tune I can think of, comparing this perfect sound with my guitar's sound, which is etched in my head. I hear superiority at every note, every chord, not even close. I buy it.

I play it now, having pretty much retired my old guitar. But the Cadillac doesn't make me work nearly as hard for a sound as the old beater did. Yes, it sounds better, but in a weird way it's sometimes not as rewarding to play. Working with flaws, or as David Byrne says, fewer choices, requires more imagination. Nope, gritty, soulful music isn't always technically perfect.

Byrne's thoughts brought another scene to mind.

Years ago, an artist who painted elaborate designs on motorcycle helmets told me about a client who came to his shop to pick up his perfectly painted and polished helmet. The guy looks over its flashy artwork and nods admiringly. Then he raises the helmet over his head with two hands and slams it hard off the shop's concrete floor.

"What the BLEEP are you doing?" the painter shouts, mouth agape.

The motorcyclist calmly picks up the helmet and eyes its new flaw.

"Now," he says, "I don't have to worry about chipping it."