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When at the office using Microsoft Outlook, when you are going to be away for a while, there’s a neat feature you can do to let others know that you are going to be gone.

First, you set up a meeting request and invite people to it but you have to do three things:

1. Make sure you uncheck the response options (that is, make sure “Request Responses” and “Allow New Time Proposals” are deselected).

Those are useful when sending a normal meeting request so you can know whose coming, and if they can’t come they can propose a new time for the meeting. But, they are not useful when you are sending a notice that you will be out of the office.

2. Next, make sure that the time shows up as “Free” because since you’ll be adding it to people’s calendars, you don’t want their time blocked

3. Finally, make sure that there is no reminder. You don’t need to annoy people that you’re going to be on vacation

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You then send it to your coworkers so that your out-of-office shows up on their calendars.

 

Second, you create a second appointment (not a meeting) that overlaps with the one from above, but make sure that the time shows up as Busy:

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You don’t invite anyone to this, and then save it. Whenever anyone tries to look at your calendar to schedule a meeting, they’ll see the time is not available. This lets others know that that time slot is blocked, and it’s also color coded.

That’s how you let others know you’ll be away.

 

But what other people do is treat their vacation meeting notices like regular meetings. They’ll send one meeting per the first one above where the time shows up as free, but they allow responses, and also let you propose a new time.

So, every time someone sends me a meeting request that refers to their vacation, I decline it and propose a new time, usually a week or two later. I edit the response before sending, saying “Proposing a new time for your vacation.”

The first time I do this to someone, they universally react with confusion. They say “Did you just decline my vacation and say a new time would be better?”

I say “Yes. Yes I did.”

The confusion gives way to amusement. Everyone always laughs.

And now you know why I send two meeting requests. The one I send to others prevents others from doing the same thing to me (declining and proposing a new time) that I do to them. I suppress the “Decline and propose a new time” option.

A couple of co-workers have learned that I always do that, and changed their behavior.

I consider that a personal victory.

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We discovered over the past couple of weeks that we have a paper shredder in the house.

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This cat sure doesn’t like pieces of paper randomly laying around. She sits on them, chews up the paper, and spits it out.

This was a pamphlet for a cruise (my in-laws get them all the time). I guess the cat is not a fan.

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This past year, the wife and I were in Salzburg, Austria, for a couple of days. We went there while we were making our way through Germany.

One thing I learned while we were there was the historical background of the Christmas carol “Silent Night.” You know the words, it’s that Christmas carol that romanticizes the night of Jesus’ birth.

Silent Night was composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber, in a small town 11 miles north of Salzburg, although the lyrics were written in 1816. That’s a critical year in Austrian history for two reasons:

  1. First, the Napoleonic Wars had completed raging through Europe only the year before, ending in 1815.

    Napoleon had marched through Europe multiple times, and Salzburg had switched sides four times between competing armies. Each time it did, the invading army ransacked parts of it, and deported many national treasures out of the city. Relics were taken back to other cities like Paris and Munich. It is only recently over the past 50 years the Austrian government had been able to recollect some of them and put them on display.

    No doubt about it, Salzburg took a pounding during those wars. When your city gets beaten up as much as Salzburg, it can demoralize the residents.

  2. Second, environmental pressures yielded a bad set of crops that year.

    1816 is known as
    the Year Without a Summer because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.

    The root cause was a volcanic eruption of Mt Tambora in the Dutch East Indies. The resultant cool temperatures and heavy rains caused failures of wheat, oats, and potato harvests all around Europe. This led to food shortages and famines, and the BBC estimates that it led to 200,000 deaths in Europe.

So it’s these two factors combined – a ransacked city and famine around the land – that is the background for the song.

You might think a carol would be composed that reflects the turmoil of the time, and it does… but you have to look really hard. Rather than decrying the circumstances of the time period, Silent Night says “Yes, I know that things are tough, but we can be calm. Look at the miracle that has occurred! Even in the midst of all this turmoil.”

So, the carol’s lyrics are repudiation of the bleakness of the time.

When I first heard that story, I thought “Man, why did I never notice it before?” I didn’t have the song memorized, not past the first verse anyway. But when I looked them up, even then it doesn’t jump out at you. I’ve reproduced them below along with color-coding what can be a repudiation of the despair. Obviously, most of the song will have some theological significance, but other parts have clues:

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

A “silent night” where a child “sleeps in heavenly peace” seems paradoxical if your city has no resources and no food. But I think that’s the point of the song.

If you read up on Silent Night on Wikipedia, you won’t read anything like what I just told you.

And now you know.

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(I’m currently writing this three weeks after the fact)

I recently turned 38 years old.

I know that some people lament getting older, and of course, no one likes it because your body starts getting aches and pains; there’s a cult-of-youth in our society; and it means you are one year closer to death.

But, it also means you are still alive, your mind got a little more mature, you got to experience a bunch of new things (hopefully), and you (hopefully) became a little wiser. It’s actually not all that bad.

For my birthday, the wife and I went out to an estate sale. That’s something we started doing this past year, and we’ve picked up a few things like little paintings, a chair, and a bookshelf. The prices are competitive if you go late in the day towards the end of the sale.

We didn’t get anything that day, but we did see these interesting carvings:

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That may be difficult to see, but they are small carvings of dragons. I might have bought them and given them to a friend… if they weren’t going for $400.

Nope.

Later on that day, the wife and I headed down into Seattle to Café Turko, a Turkish restaurant located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

We discovered this place after returning for Turkey. We were like “Are there any Turkish restaurants in the city?” And there were! We’ve only checked out this one, but we liked it a lot.

The wife asked me where I wanted to go out to eat for my birthday, and there were a few places that ran through my mind. But in the end, I went with Café Turko.

Before the meal, we got appetizers – Rainbow Hummus. This is where they give you warm pita bread (I love warm pita bread) with four different types of hummus: regular, beet hummus, olive hummus, and sweet potato hummus. It is super-good, I can’t recommend it enough.

Then we ordered the main course. I can’t remember what I got, or what the wife got, but it was also good.

What I like about this place is that the food is not overly covered in sauce, but instead the meat, rice, and salad are flavored with spices.

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Finally, for dessert, we had Turkish coffee. If you haven’t had it before, it’s super strong coffee. My mother once likened it to putting a spoon in it, and the spoon standing straight up. We have ours with cardamom; and while it is strong, I like it. It’s not a large cup of it, just a little shot glass-sized cup (I guess this is one of the few times I buy coffee, but in my defense it’s Turkish coffee which is something I would never brew at home).

We went to Café Turko somewhat early in the evening (getting there at 4:30 pm) so we got out of there reasonably early. I can’t remember what we did after that, we may have come home and watched a movie, or perhaps went out to see a movie.

One of those two things.

But as you can see, my birthday was pretty low key. But I like low-key things. It’s not a lot of pressure, and you can take things as they happen.

So, a pretty good 38th birthday.

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Did I ever tell you the time I went to a cult meeting?

No?

Oh, let me tell you about it. It was so weird.

It was two and a half years ago, and one of my friends wanted to go to this celebration. A lot of people were going to be there and he wanted a ride, so I said I’d take him. Maybe it would be fun. This was a special occasion as some of the local deities that the cult members worshipped were involved in an annual ritual, and this worship meeting was dedicated to celebrating the deities.

Let me tell you, it was a crazy atmosphere.

There were two groups of deities and the event was televised, but unless you identified yourself as worshipping the local deities, you were ostracized and insulted. Maybe of the worshippers there wore clothing signifying their identification with the group, and some of them even painted their faces.

During the celebration on TV, whenever the deities did something positive, all of the cult members cheered and screamed loudly, giving a chant “SEEEEE… HOX!” They chanted it over and over again.

Many of the members consumed copious amounts of alcohol, and it was encouraged by the other members. Everyone who clearly identified themselves was treated as a valued member of the cult, even if they hadn’t met before. Screaming at the TV was encouraged, and saying a word against the local deities was discouraged regardless of whether or not a competing cult member made a good point.

I didn’t like the cult mentality. No tolerance for other views, loud people getting in each others’ faces, an atmosphere intended to reinforce all of this.

I decided I wouldn’t go back the next year.

The Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl turned the local fan base’s party into as repressive a cult as any you can imagine.

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Following up from my last post on why we should study art I thought I’d talk about something that has become more relevant to me: Abstract art. If you don’t know what I mean, here’s a couple of examples.

The first one is by the American artist Jackson Pollock painting around the middle of the 20th century:

 

 

Now, if you’re anything like me a few weeks ago, you’d probably look at the first painting and say to yourself "What’s that supposed to be? Is it some sort of those ‘magic eye’ and we’re supposed to find the hidden message? It looks like a bunch of random splatters of paint on the canvas. How is that art?" This one, White on White, is by Kazimir Malevich, a Russian artist who completed it in 1918:

 

Once again, if you’re anything like me – without any background in art history – you would say "Well, I guess it’s a couple of white rectangles with one at an angle. So what? I don’t see the aesthetic appeal in it. I mean, it looks okay. But nothing special. I much prefer things that look like actual things." If you said anything like that to either of the two pictures, that’s exactly what I would have thought.

As I said in my other post, I used to not understand abstract art, and I thought it was stupid. Now, I still don’t quite understand it, but I no longer think it’s stupid.

Why do I think that?

Because now that I have studied art, I realize that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s relative to the period of time that came before it – at least in European art. Successive periods in art are defined by what came before it, and as a counter-reaction to what came before, and what’s going on in society at the time.

So let’s go back to medieval art. Below is a picture that was common in the middle ages. Back in the day, nearly all art was produced because a wealthy patron wanted it. Most medieval art was two-dimensional on a flat surface, like below, and at least in western Europe it usually told passages from the bible because in those times, religion played a major role in people’s lives and most people were illiterate. Art was a tool for learning for people who couldn’t read. You can see in the below that the picture is not "realistic" compared to what comes later (i.e., later in this post).

 

 

 

The Renaissance is where we see a revolution in the way scenes are depicted (the Renaissance is a term that refers to the rediscovery of classical times, that is, Greece and Rome). I don’t have time to go into it (mostly because even I don’t know all the techniques) but you’ll see how everything now exists in three dimensions. In Raphael’s The School of Athens, notice how the scene is depicted as more realistic. Figures in the foreground are interpreted as being closer to the viewer while people in the background are interpreted as being further away:

 

 

Even though we take it for granted, the big shift you’re seeing is one of perspective. Renaissance artists would use a ‘vanishing point’ off in the distance and then draw people along it, moving them up or down to create depth. For example, look at my little stick figure diagram below. Which characters are closes to the audience? Which ones are further away? The pixels are the same distance away from your eyes but you can "clearly" see that the ones that are bigger are closer while the ones that are smaller are further away. Furthermore, from what angle are you, the viewer, supposed to see the picture from? You’re not center on, but looking at it while you are standing on the right with your eyes looking to the left:

 
Simple_perspective

 

To see what a shift this is, just go and do a simple web search for medieval art and then for Renaissance art. This perspective shift that I talk about above for medieval art (composed during that time, not after) is either missing or minimized.

The next major art movement is Baroque Art, and it is a counter-reaction to the Reformation. It is characterized by much more emotion in the picture (from its human subjects depicted in it), as well as movement. Baroque art has other characteristics, but I don’t have time to get into them. The below image shows the story of Daniel in the lion’s den (from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament). Look at the raw emotion on Daniel’s face, he is clearly (?) in fear, or awe, or something or other. Whatever it is, he doesn’t have a straight face.

 

Another characteristic of Baroque art is its lack of clearly-defined lines. Take a look at the background behind Daniel and among the lions. There are shadows everywhere and it tends to blur together the rocks, and even the lions in the back are less clearly defined. You don’t see that so much during the Renaissance.

The term Baroque comes from a translation of a Portuguese term meaning ‘misshapen pearl’, and it wasn’t a term of endearment. But gradually people came to accept it.

 

Skipping ahead many decades and a couple of smaller movements and we get to the Age of Enlightenment, and the Neoclassical Era. This is the time period where we find many of the great writers that the founders of the United States borrowed heavily from – John Locke (natural rights), Baron de Montesque (separation of powers), the need for a strong government (Thomas Hobbes). The Age of Enlightenment and the Neoclassical period was ushered in by the scientific revolution and a callback to the rational times of Greece and Rome, after the Renaissance did it the first time. But the neoclassical era’s art was focused on science and rationality.

The Oath of Horatti by Jacques-Louis David is one of the most famous paintings in neoclassical art. It’s a throw-back to Roman times and the general spirit of the times is rational thought. This is the period of time where writers we associate with the Age of Reason – Voltaire, Beccudia (prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment) – were most active; the American Constitution borrows heavily from this period. The art also reflects this. This is also the period where the Industrial Revolution really took off in full force in Europe. England was first, and later on followed by France, Italy, and Germany (though not necessarily in that order).

 

 

We in the west like to pride ourselves on how we use Reason, but the Age of Reason came to and end with a very strong counter-movement called the Romantic period. Romanticism is still popular today and we can see it everywhere, especially in art. The Romantics rebelled against the stale lack of taste characterized by the Industrial Revolution. Think about the movie Star Wars – the Empire is cold, mechanical, and emotionless and they are the Industrial side. Meanwhile, the rebel alliance is driven by ideals and they represent the Romantic side.

Romantic art tends to minimize its human subjects and greatly play up ideals, emotion, and nature. The Industrial Revolution (and neoclassical era that accompanied it) tended to create new technology but degrade the countryside. Consequently, the Romantics sought to idealize nature. The Sea of Fog is one of the Romantic period’s more well-known paintings. It shows a person in the middle of the picture gazing out, but the person is not the focal point of the picture. Instead, he is gazing out to the true focal point – raw, untamed nature.

 

  

 

This is a recurring theme in Romantic art, but it was a pretty big movement and nature was not the only characteristic of that time period. I’d say maybe 1/3 of the time period contained nature. It was a lot but by no means everything. Above all, Romanticism idealized emotion over reason. For all the progress the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment made, it was rejected strongly by the artists and society eventually followed.

Whew.

I go through all of these art history movements (more quickly than they deserve) to show you how art has evolved. Each movement is a reaction to its preceding movement, and they reflect what’s going on in society at the time as well. Art makes much more sense, or at least is more fun to appreciate, when you understand the context in which it was created. And one big thing that happened in the middle of the 19th century was the invention of photography.

This was a turning point in art history. Whereas before artists used to create paintings that were realistic, after photography came along, artists knew that they could no longer compete with photographs. Realistic paintings were out, and using color to convey emotion was in. Artists decided to use color and created new art styles to convey the emotion of contemporary society, or of themselves. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even today, our artists use color to depict emotion:

 

Leaving the present and coming back to the 19th century, two big movements in using color to depict emotion were Impressionism (which depicted an ‘impression’ of the actual image):

 

 

… and Post-Impressionism (I don’t yet really know what the difference is, but I do know that Vincent Van Gogh was part of this era).

 

You still know what’s there in the picture, but the artist has moved away from a realistic view of the world and is instead using color and painting technique to depict something else about the picture. "If you want realism, take a photograph" says the artist. 20th century art movements continue this move away from realistic depictions of the subjects. Expressionism, Dada, and Cubism are all parts of this counter-movement that was itself a reaction to technology. The White-on-White painting above was painted during World War 1, a time of massive social upheaval. Russia was getting clobbered during the War, and then they experienced the Bolshevik Revolution. In response, the artist painted the picture of two white boxes. They are not the same shade of white, they are off white. They also don’t have clearly defined edges but instead are fuzzy edges (my term). The picture is not necessarily supposed to be something, but instead could be the artist’s reflection on the disjointedness and instability of Russian society during that time.

I think.

That’s the problem with abstract art, I don’t know if I’m reading into it something that’s not there or if I am getting it right. But maybe that’s the point?

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Why study art?

A few weeks ago, for some reason I don’t fully understand, I started learning about European art history. My entire life I had zero previous interest in learning about the history of art. Sure, I enjoyed looking at images and I knew what I liked, but I couldn’t have cared less about the story behind it.

But then I read about a book about European history and art. I didn’t think I would care about the art part, but I did. In fact, I soaked it up like a sponge and I’ve been reading about it and watching YouTube videos (some on Khan Academy) a lot of the past few weeks.

I’ve noticed how my opinions have changed, even over the past few weeks. I used to not understand modern abstract art, and I thought it was stupid. Now I still don’t understand it but, but I no longer think it’s stupid.

So why study it at all?

I study it because it teaches me to be a good observer. Why do I like what I like? what details did the artist put into the picture? And why did he or she do it? Before, I couldn’t have told you. And I still can’t… not entirely, but I’m better than before. But by observing and paying attention to the details in a painting, it trains me to observe and pay attention to the details in real life.

Thus, I study art to get the context of a painting, as knowing the full context trains me to be a better observer.

Below is a picture entitled The Third of May, a painting by Francisco Goya of Spain, completed in 1814.

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You can see the original here.

Now, before when I was just looking at the painting, I’d say “Hmm, well that seems interesting” and gaze at it for 10-15 seconds and then move on. But no more. What do I notice now?

(Before I continue, I am cheating. This is one of the paintings they analyze on Khan Academy so I am remembering this off the top of my head).

First, it’s important to understand the context. During the Napoleonic era, France had invaded Spain. Some Spanish rebels led a resistance and the next day, the French military put down the revolt. This painting commemorates that, and it is the time period in which the painting takes place. It takes place on May 3, one day after the rebellion.

The next thing I notice is the structure of the painting itself:

  • It’s painted with depth. Prior to the Renaissance, paintings were “flat”, that is, in two dimensional space.  You can go here for an example (I’m not putting the picture here because I don’t want to divert attention away from the focus of the above picture). By contrast, in this painting, we can see the town way off in the background in three-dimensional space, the artist is using a technique to give depth that was popularized during the Renaissance.

  • The soldiers on the right are depicted in the shadows while the victims being executed on the left are in the light.

  • The victims on the left of the painting are also trapped in front of a hill. There’s no where for them to run.

  • The scene is depicted as taking place at night.

Next up is the social commentary that the artist is making:

  • The perpetrators in this scene are shown without their faces visible, a common motif in art to depict aggressors, a lot like this.

  • The look of fear is evident on the man whose arms are in the air. However, the artist is depicting him not as a victim in retaliation for leading or participating in a rebellion, but as an innocent victim – either he wasn’t involved or he was involved but the cause he was leading was a just one.

    How do we know?

    First, the man is dressed in white which is a another motif of innocence that is common in art.

    But second and more important, the man has his arms up in a pose that you would see on the image of Christ that you would see on crucifix. The theme in the Christian story is that Christ was an innocent sacrifice who was unjustly executed by an oppressive regime.

    And third, to cement the fact that Goya is drawing an exact parallel between the innocent Spanish resistance and that of the innocent Christ, if you look close-up on the palms of the man with his hands in the air you can see “holes” in the palms of his hands. This is similar to the image of Christ with holes in the palms of his hands on the crucifix.

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Thus, it is clear from the picture of the innocent man in the Christ-like pose that Goya is drawing a parallel between the Spanish resistance and the French putting it down, likening it to a justifiable movement where the ringleaders were sacrificed unfairly.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

All of that analysis wouldn’t have been possible without learning about art history, and now whenever I see a picture I try to look at it and do a quick analysis (actually, it goes pretty slow because I have to consciously analyze it).

It’s my hope that learning about art gives me a more well rounded point of view and that what you see is often just scratching the surface of what’s really there.

 

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