Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Magnificence and Value

Many years ago, I had some friends who worked for the actor Gene Hackman, who owned a house on the coast of Big Sur in California. While visiting one year, they let me into the house so that I could see how the other half lived. The house sat on the top of a cliff, and a big picture window in the master bedroom looked out over a small rocky island just offshore. I stood at that window for about 2 minutes, watching waves roll in from the deep Pacific Ocean, crashing against the picturesque shoreline, sending up plumes of spray. Seagulls wheeled through the skies, while dozens of California sea lions basked on the island, barking in the distance. It was, in a word, magnificent.

But after 2 minutes, it got a bit tiresome. The waves didn’t stop, the seals wouldn’t shut up, the seagulls crapped on everything and there was nothing else to see. I wondered how much that house cost, and it occurred to me that a house without a magnificent view is probably a better value.

While I am on the subject of magnificence and value, earlier this year, my wife proposed a vacation involving an Alaskan cruise. Due to the economy and some rather unfortunate events involving cruise ships recently, the prices have been dropping. I have always been skeptical about cruises, because I don’t see the point in moving the hotel from city to city while the guests are locked inside. But I reluctantly agreed, because it seemed like a good value.

We did our research and booked some excursions (none through the cruise line) and settled on a voyage from Anchorage, Alaska to Vancouver, Canada. We allowed some time at either end of the trip to do some exploring and activities.

When we landed in Anchorage, I took one look out of the terminal window at the snow-capped mountains, and declared it to be magnificent.

Mountain Palmer 2
Wherever we went, the view was just breathtaking and spectacular. It never got tiresome. Maybe it has something to do with context. Living in flat Florida, even the small, rounded hills of Appalachia look magnificent. I suspect Alaskan natives are quite sick of having to drive around the rugged mountainous terrain, and think Miami Beach is magnificent.

The word “magnificent,” like art, is difficult to define – you just know it when you see it. Value, on the other hand, is easy to define. It is a combination of three characteristics: Utility, Desirability and Rarity. Something that is useful, desirable and hard to find has great value. Diamonds, for example, are useful in industry, desirable for jewelry, and the DeBeers cartel ensures that the supply never exceeds the demand.

Alaska is vast, which is the worst word in the English language. Why would you use a one-syllable word to describe something enormous? Alaska is also missing a lot of things that those of us living on the east coast take for granted. Like shopping malls, large cities, crisscrossing networks of expressways, etc. There is more nothing in Alaska than any place I have ever seen. One guy I met said that residents of his town take a 3-hour ferry ride to shop at Wal-Mart. Because Wal-Mart offers low-cost items that are useful, desirable and hard to find in rural Alaska. And there is a buttload of rural Alaska.

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