Thursday, December 23, 2010

What's the best kind of gift to receive?

I don't spend a lot of time deciding what to wear in the morning. I usually already know what I want to eat when the waiter asks for my drink order. I've been known to purchase shoes and even furniture on impulse. All in all, I'm a pretty quick decision-maker. But when it comes to buying gifts for others...I'm p-a-i-n-s-t-a-k-i-n-g-l-y...s-l-o-w.

I can't help it. I love to give gifts. But just any gift won't do. I have to find THE gift. I envy people like my mother, who picks up random items all year long whenever she comes across a bargain. She has drawers full of gloves, sheet sets, baby blankets, etc. So, whenever an occasion arises...BAM! She's ready at a moment's notice. I've tried her philosophy. I really have. Even this year. Finding myself in IKEA a few months ago I loaded up on candles, linens, and other versatile the hopes that, come Christmas, I could match them up with an appropriate recipient. No such luck. I have a hard time giving someone something while at the same time knowing in my heart that I didn't buy it specifically FOR them.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes I have no choice but to resort to the more generic gift options. For instance, this year the majority of my husband's and my grandmothers are getting scarves, and...drumroll, please...SOCKS for the granddads! What's not to love about socks?! Everything. That's what. Socks aren't fun. They aren't personal. They reflect a failure on my part to know what the person needs or cares about, as well as possibly a deeper seated need for approval. But that's another post.

So, what DOES make for a good gift?!
I wish I knew. I just want it to be what the person WANTS.

Ask someone like my husband what he wants for Christmas/birthday/anniversary/etc. He'll answer..."nothing." When I'm insistent for him to tell me something, ANYTHING, he then replies..."less debt." Joking aside, though, what he really wants in a gift is something that he would have ended up having to buy for himself eventually, but would rather just get as a gift in order to eliminate the extra cost associated with him buying both the needed thing AND me buying him a gift (e.g. boots to replace the ones he's worn out, a bedliner for his new truck, or a pressure washer).

I, on the other hand, am just the opposite. What I'm seeking is something I would NEVER have considered buying for myself. Frivolous little things (not necessarily expensive, just unnecessary) that I'll probably keep a long time and that I will never forget the occasion for which they were given. What I should receive this year (if the hints have worked): cowboy boots, a tambourine, and tickets to the National Championship game (ok, so maybe I've given up on the last one).

One of my favorite gift-giving tales is a story by one of my favorite authors, O. Henry, called "The Gift of the Magi." It's about a young couple, scrounging to make ends meet, who desperately want to buy each other something grand for Christmas. The wife, with no other available options for raising funds, sells her gorgeous long hair in order to buy her husband a chain for his watch, his prized possession. She does so only to have him come home to surprise her with beautiful combs for her hair, which she'd been eyeing for some time in a store window, but of course could no longer use. How did he afford such an extravagance? You guessed it...sold his watch!

The Magi referenced in the title are actually the wise men who brought gifts to the newborn baby Jesus. They appear (perhaps erroneously, as it would have taken them years to travel to where Jesus was) in Christmas pageants, nativities, and stories we tell as we reflect on the true meaning of this season. So, technically speaking, I submit that they could indeed be the first-ever givers of a Christmas gift. Or are they?

Back up a few years. A few thousand years. (As it were, the first Christmas was a long time in coming.) And, if necessity is a factor in determining the worth of a Christmas gift...then, MAN, were those Israelites needy! Because, while focusing on the real story of Christmas and the baby in the manger, it's also important to remember...the story didn't start there.

It started in the Garden of Eden when man gave in to temptation. It continued as God's people were overwhelmed by their inability to atone for their own sins. It escalated as they cried out for the Savior who had been promised, who would deliver them once and for all from sin and death. It was fulfilled in a stable, by a simple girl, giving birth on an ordinary night.

So, why the wise men? Why the gifts? Was it because a King had been born into royalty? No. He wasn't. Was it because there was a great banquet at the palace to celebrate His birth? No. There was none. So, why then?

It was because the prophecies of thousands of years had been fulfilled! The answer they'd prayed for had come! Their most desperate need had been met! Talk about gratitude! (Oh, how it shallows my request for boots.)

I said the story didn't start in the manger, but more doesn't end there.

Jesus was sent for a singular purpose. Not to be born into a brief life on earth, but to die for something eternal. This baby would take on the sins of the world (past and future), endure the wrath of a loving yet just God, and forever atone for a people who could never do enough to achieve holiness.

Merry Christmas to all, as we celebrate the birth of the One who satisfies every needs for those who believe and follow Him.

Q: What's the best kind of gift to receive?
A: A sacrificial One.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is the Music Genome Project?

Anyone who's used Pandora is probably familiar with this term. It's part of the explanation given when you try to dig down into the deeper reasoning behind why Pandora chose a particular song to be a part of your station. For anyone who isn't familiar with the Music Genome Project, or Pandora for that matter, here's a crash course. Pandora is an internet radio station that selects music that it thinks you'll enjoy based on a favorite song or artist that you have provided. The Music Genome Project is the tool that it uses to accomplish this feat. Similar to the study of genetics in plants and animals, the project identified 400 "genes" or characteristics of songs. Any given song is analyzed by one, or sometimes more, musicians to identify the genes present in the song and assign them a value between 1 and 5. Based on the set of genes/values identified in a song (its "vector") a distance function creates a list of similar songs. Pretty complicated, huh?

I must say it's fairly effective. When I plug my iPhone into my car stereo, fire up my Pandora app, and tap Matt Nathanson Radio...I get a pretty good playlist of songs that I enjoy. Their explanation, when I tap the Song button, usually tells me they chose a song based on characteristics such as "a vocal-centric aesthetic, mellow rock instrumentation, folk influences, a good dose of guitar pickin', a breathy male lead vocalist, etc." Sure, all traits that I enjoy. But there are still a lot more factors that cause a song to make it onto my personal playlist. I mean, sure I like songs that fit those criteria, but that list isn't exhaustive. Where are the characteristics like "songs I like to sing at the top of my lungs in my car," "songs I'd love to pretend were written about me," and "songs that have that one perfect line that fits so well with that haunting cord progression"? Show me the musician who's going to sit down and quantify THOSE things. (Some good examples of those, respectively, are "High Enough" by Damn Yankees, "Endlessly" by Green River Ordinance, and "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables...none of which will ever make an appearance on Matt Nathanson radio.)

Now, I'll address another entity that parades itself as being an expert on what it is that I might like to listen to...the iTunes Genius feature. If the genome project could be defined as complex, then I'd have to say that Genius is nothing short of...creepy. Genius anonymously sends your iTunes library to Apple's database and uses algorithms to determine which songs to play, based on similar findings in other users' libraries. However, now that the Genius sidebar has been replaced with the Ping sidebar, Genius no longer recommends songs for you to download. So its suggestions are all based on the songs that are already in your library. This helps me ZERO. Also, seeing as how I'm generally embarrassed for anyone to see what all is in my music library (OK, so I like John Denver and ABBA?!), it pains me to think my eclectic song choices are being sent out into cyberspace.

Contrast this with another music persona who, until recently*, had fallen silent on Birmingham airwaves...Scott Register, or "Reg" as he was known to listeners of his shows Reg's Coffee House and The Morning Blend. Reg built quite the name for himself by identifying musical talent and introducing it to the masses. I can honestly say I have him to thank for so many of the artists I've grown to love today...artists I would likely have never heard in the absence of his show (The Airborne Toxic Event, Benjy Davis Project, The Civil Wars). I first came to "know" Reg when he appeared on 107.7 during my late high school/early college years and then later on the breath of fresh air that I like to call Live 100.5...which [scary bagpipes...then...dun, dun, dun...] met its demise earlier this year.

To this DAY I can't understand how a city this size can sustain, like, 10 country music stations (no, THAT part I get...keep reading)...yet not even ONE decent alternative/indie/folk radio station that was hands-down the best thing to happen to Birmingham radio in a decade! Or longer! Anyway, I digress.

So, in the absence of a hard-working, well-rounded, forward-thinking, talent-recognizing entity to single-handedly build my iTunes library on my behalf...I'm instead forced to do so myself. What has resulted is a tireless array of Pandora bookmarking, Shazam tagging, friend polling, and iTunes searching. All in search of my "new favorite song/artist." Why should I have to go to all this trouble?! I need an app that can do it for me! I need Reg! Better yet...a PERSONAL Reg! A music shopping assistant who can read my mind, interpret my tastes, and go out and download the perfect selection of music to serve as the soundtrack for my morning commutes, my jogs, my cooking frenzies, and my wistful evenings alone.

Until then...has anyone heard any good music lately?!

Q: What is the Music Genome Project?
A: A good start!

*I learned today that Reg and his show are back as a part of "The Mountain," a new internet radio station. I'll be curious to see how this venture fares.