Monday, May 31, 2010

I'm sincerely sorry to see that the Gulf oil slick has grown considerably since the last I looked. I have a little to say about it, both as a Zen Buddhist and as a geologist.

I'll start with the latter first. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I didn't work in the oil industry during its late 20th Century heyday, having chosen instead to work in the field of environmental geology. So while I've overseen many water wells being drilled and know a little more about deep drilling than the average citizen, I'm no authority on oil-well drilling by any means. This much, however, I can say: the much-reported "top-kill" procedure should have worked and I'm at a loss to explain why it didn't. But I can also say with much conviction that the plan I've heard floated around among my co-workers will not work. Based on his 11-year-old son's statement that the Russians tried this once and it worked, one of my colleagues has convinced many others in my office that all we need to do is hit the well with a tactical nuclear bomb.

I trust that I don't need to explain the many shortcomings of this plan to the readers of WDW.

But what would the Buddha have thought about this? I'm sure that first of all, he would not have been surprised. A nation that has built both its economy and its lifestyle around oil could have expected that eventually that same oil would inevitably come lapping up on its shores. This isn't karmic retribution but just the inevitable outcome of our choices, just like firemen ultimately suffer burns, electricians get shocks, and shop teachers lose fingers. If you're going to handle millions (billions?) of gallons of oil off of the shore, don't expect that shore to remain pristine forever.

That may sound heartless, but it's actually just being realistic. However, the Buddha would not have been without sympathy. Upon encountering a sickly monk one day, the Buddha expressed his sincere wish that he would get better, and upon learning that the prognosis was for the monk not to get better any time soon, the Buddha hoped that the condition was not getting him down.

The Buddha dharma is often thought of as accepting things as they are, and although the Buddha certainly understood that sickness, old age and death were an inevitable part of the human condition, he still expressed his wish that the monk would get better. This is realistic - people do, of course, often recover from illnesses. It would not have been realistic to wish that he got better and then never got ill again, or aged, or died, and that's not the wish that the Buddha expressed. When it was revealed that the monk was not expected to recover, the Buddha expressed his sincere hope that the monk not add to his own suffering by wishing that it were not so. He went on to give the monk a profound teaching on the dharma.

So millions of gallons of oil have spilled from an uncontrolled well on the floor of the sea, and the oil is poisoning the eco-system, fouling the shoreline, and spreading beyond our control. It is not realistic to wish that it were not so, or that it would all just miraculously disappear. But it is realistic to sincerely hope that the well be stopped, that what can be cleaned up is cleaned up, and that the suffering of the affected fish, birds, and other sea life, including people, is limited as much as possible.

But to add to the suffering with anger and rage toward BP and toward the government just adds suffering on top of suffering, an unnecessary extra layer of pain that is not needed. It is normal and it is human to wish that someone were to recover from a disease and to grieve for someone who is not expected to recover, but it only adds to our grief and suffering when we also choose to hate the causes and wish they did not exist. It is only normal and human to hope that the flow of oil from the well could be stopped and to feel sorrow and pity for the suffering to wildlife caused by the flow, but it only adds to our grief and suffering when we choose to also feel anger over the causes.

Personally, I hope that some new technique is identified soon to shut off the well, and I feel sorrow for all of the people and animals made sick from the oil. But rather than hate BP for the short-sighted greed that apparently caused the leak, or the government for not performing miracles and making everything go away, I sincerely hope that our nation chooses to use this experience to re-evaluate its reliance on petroleum and its worship of short-term profit.

And I will not be surprised when we instead choose to accuse and blame and create scapegoats, and then continue in our former ways until we encounter the next inevitable outcome of our own behavior.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Talking Head

When David Byrne speaks, it's a good idea to listen, because he usually has something interesting to say. Last year, Byrne chronicled his thoughts about how cities could change to better accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders in his book The Bicycle Diaries. He recently visited Atlanta for a bikes-and-cities panel at something called the Congress for The New Urbanism, a conference put on with the assistance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I encourage you to read his interesting remarks in their entirety, but here is what he had to say about the Georgia capital:
"As the taxi pulled up to the Atlanta Hilton, I was surrounded by smiling, handsome black men in a variety of doorman outfits. All charming, and all welcoming me effusively to Atlanta. Southern hospitality — what a change from New York! As I passed through the double doors into the massive lobby, suddenly all the people around me were white. Or at least that was the initial impression. It was like I’d gone through some magical portal — with one group left outside, and another inside. The black people of Atlanta have all the social service jobs and are largely kept separate — outside, if possible — from the white masters. I’m exaggerating, but this is the first impression one gets.

It’s horribly insulting, but it’s as if the masters have created live lawn jockeys, welcoming visitors to their property. Now, to be fair, Atlanta had Andrew Young as a mayor and has a whole slew of black universities, as well as quite a few major music artists of note; but, well, this was my perception."
A fair enough observation, and one that touches on the sensitive subject of race in Atlanta, an issue that even now lies just beneath the surface of much of Atlanta's urban policy. Not only have the scars from much of the civil rights movement of the 1960s not completely healed here, there are some here who are still holding grudges about the Civil War of the 1860 and the subsequent Reconstruction. Byrne goes on to identify one of the factors that doesn't allow those wounds to completely heal, starting with the observation that Atlanta has some of the worst urban sprawl in the country:
"In Atlanta, as in many other US cities, in the ’60s, white flight accelerated — fear of a black planet, as the Public Enemy record is titled, had taken hold in a big way. The cities were where you lived if you couldn’t afford to get out. John Portman, the architect and developer, began building massive, futuristic hotel complexes in the center of town. They were so big that once inside, one never had to leave. A fellow conference attendee compared the Marriott Hotel, one of Portman’s projects, to the extraordinary sets for the old sci-fi movie Things To Come, a film directed by William Cameron Menzies.

05_26_10_b_things

05_26_10_c_marriott

This shit is real! The future is here. . . and it’s white! (This is the interior of the Marriott that he built.)
I have heard it said that Portman, once celebrated as the Michaelangelo behind Atlanta's renaissance of the 1970s, actually did as much to destroy this city as General Sherman did a century earlier. Portman's big downtown developments, like Colony Center, are totally self-enclosed complexes which make absolutely no concessions to pedestrian access. City streets became solely for cars to shuttle between the suburbs and these complexes, and sidewalks were nothing but inconvenient obstacles that cars had to pass over to get from the streets to the complexes. Outside, there was no meaningful street life, no sidewalk cafes, no exterior newsstands or kiosks at which to linger. As Byrne notes:
In Atlanta you can walk for blocks in the center of downtown and find no shops — not any visible ones anyway. There are some restaurants and bars, but no other establishments. There might be interior courts with drug stores, stationary stores, copy shops, newsstands or clothing stores, but access to these from the street isn’t possible. . .
How can places like Atlanta bring some life into their urban center? I think it’s a long haul, and they should…umm…think small. When I was there, I asked if there were some neighborhoods and communities that might become less car dependent and more people friendly. A couple, maybe, was the reply. I don’t know where they are, but in the center they are not.
Unfortunately for Byrne and his readers, but fortunately for Atlanta, the city does in fact have a few (although not nearly enough) such in-town neighborhoods and communities, notably, Virginia-Highlands, Little Five Points, and East Atlanta Village, interestingly, also the very communities in which most of Byrne's fan base probably live. And new proposals like the Atlanta Beltline and Byrne's fellow panelist Charles Brewer's Glenwood Park are also trying to take the city in the pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly direction that Byrne envisions. For what it's worth, my civic efforts have been in trying to bring my local communities like Collier Village and Brookwood in line with this New Urbanist/Smart Growth vision. But as Byrne concludes, "If those options or others aren’t available soon, I would suggest that Atlanta residents move to nearby Athens or Savannah if they want a more pleasant life."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nashville . . .

. . . and back. Driving. Four hours each way.

Got home in time to see the Boston Celtics suffer two concussions and a Game 5 loss to Orlando.

A long day.

Monday, May 24, 2010

How strange . . . to be a Boston transplant raised on Long Island teaching an ancient Japanese tradition originating in India to a group of students in the Deep South of the U.S.

As a young child, I certainly didn't see that one coming!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Recycling . . . I "borrowed" a story that I heard in a podcast by Insight Meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal and worked it into my talk last Sunday at the Atlanta Zen Center, workshopped it a little last Monday night, and then re-told it today up at Chattanooga. It's really more of a thought experiment than a story, but here you go:

Imagine a room with a beautiful wooden floor. You can imagine it a parquet floor in celebration of the Celtics 3-0 lead over the Magic in the Eastern Conference Championships if that makes it easier for you (there, got that off my chest!).

Now imagine that a party is thrown in that room, and when I say "party," I mean "par-tay." Kegs of beer, barrels of peanuts, and lots and lots of pretzels and popcorn, all of which get dropped on that beautiful wooden floor along with cocktail napkins, paper plates, crushed plastic cups, and various other detritus.

What would happen if no one bothered to clean that floor, and the next week another party was held? We can imagine that the party-goers would trample over the previous week's trash and grind the trash from that week's party into the underlying filth.

Now, imagine that this happens week after week, and no one cleans up. Ever. More and more trash builds up over that lovely parquet floor until it is no longer visible. Further imagine that the parties become so popular that they just continue every week for years and years, and eventually the next generation takes over and continues the tradition, and then their children and then their children's children, and so on.

What would the floor look like then? We can imagine a layer of hard-packed soil made up of peanut shells, popcorn, and paper products, cemented together with dried beer, and incorporating everything dropped onto the floor over the generations. Eventually, that layer of filth would get several feet thick, and no one would even remember that there was once a parquet floor under that thick layer of trash.

Now, one day, one of those great-great-grandchildren reads in a book that the party room once had a parquet floor and maybe even sees a picture of it. He gets to wondering if he dug down through the by now almost clay-like sediment if he couldn't see the parquet floor for himself and verify its existence. Everyone else tells him he's crazy - they all know from their experience that the room has a dirt floor and believe it's always been that way. But the person who read the book is not so sure and is really curious, so he clears off, say, one square foot of floorspace and starts digging down.

The experience is a mixed one - as he digs, he comes across interesting newspaper articles, nostalgic CD covers, old Polaroids, and other interesting stuff, but he also encounters squashed bugs, vomit, and excrement (how did that even happen?). But he is not deterred and keeps digging, regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant.

And eventually, he reaches the floor and clears off the little square foot of parquet. With a little polishing, it still shines and now he knows that the floor is real. He's confirmed this for himself - he's seen it, he's touched it, he's even polished it. No one can ever convince him now that there is no parquet floor.

Then looking around the room, he sees that the parquet probably once extended from wall to wall, from east to west, from north to south. He sees that it might take a lifetime, but if one were to continue the excavation, soon the entire, original floor in all of its natural beauty would once again be manifest.

This, obviously, is an analogy to spiritual practice. Our true nature has become buried under a lifetime of various delusions until we no longer even know that there's a true nature beneath all of the accumulated sediment. But we might be lucky and come across the teachings of a spiritual teacher, either from direct contact or reading, or word of mouth, or some other means, and if we get curious enough about it, we might start a practice of digging down through those accumulated layers. In Zen, that practice is sitting meditation.

And then one day, lo and behold, we get a glimpse of that true nature, a taste of our reality. And at that point, there is no turning back. Our life practice becomes digging and excavating (zazen), strengthened by the unshakable faith created by our direct experience. A Buddha can be said to be a person who has completely removed all the sediment from wall to wall without a speck remaining. If it's not taking the analogy too far, a bodhisattva can be said to be a person who has stopped short of complete excavation in order to encourage and help others remove the soil from their floors.

It's a fun story to tell because it can so easily be embellished as the audience's attention demands, and it lends itself to several different levels of interpretation. I bow in deep gassho to Sensei Fronsdal for posting the podcast and sharing the story with the virtual sangha on the internet. I hope that my re-telling here provides someone else with another tool in their toolkit for spreading the Buddha-dharma.

By the way, it was a nice summery day for a drive up to Chattanooga and back and I was home by a little after 4:00. Also, Eliot and I saw the fox again today.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

AM & Josh Rouse at Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, May 21, 2010

Josh Rouse, formerly of Nebraska and Nashville but now living in Spain, played Atlanta's Variety Playhouse last night. His original tour plans only had him playing in New York and the West Coast, and I wondered if I wouldn't have to travel to Portland to see him, but following a travel snafu caused by the Icelandic volcano, he launched a southern leg to his tour.

New Orleans' AM opened the show with a great set of well-crafted and intelligent pop songs. They were a bit of a discovery for me - I've heard, and liked, one song of theirs (It's Been So Long), but didn't know anything about them. AM, apparently, is not the band but the singer, who also plays acoustic and electric guitars, as well as a ukulele on one number last night, and the letters are both his initials and a reference to the pop influences on his music. His touring band last night consisted of a drummer and keyboards (no bass), and everybody in the band (including AM himself) had mustaches and/or afros, giving them a '70s-style appearance, which matched their sound quite well.

AM included a pair of instrumentals in the middle of his set, including a nice cover of a samba by Carlos Jobim. But the highlight, at least for me, was It's Been So Long, the one song that I knew, played near the end of the set and featuring a solo conga introduction. Here's a version of the song with Angela Correa (of Correatown) on backing vocals as performed on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic:


But the evening's main attraction was Josh Rouse, who put on an outstanding show with his new, Brazilian/Spanish band, featuring a drummer, a bass player, a combination keyboardist and guitarist, and a fourth musician playing a traditional Brazilian instrument (a cavaquinho?).

They played several songs from Rouse's new album, El Turista, and also covered songs from his many previous albums. A lot of the fun was hearing how the old songs sounded when played by the Spanish-influenced band. The set opened with a Spanish song before switching to English and a performance of Lemon Tree from the new album.

video

After Lemon Tee, the band performed a lovely version of Rouse's poignant Pretty Boy, and then I Will Live On Islands from El Turista, probably the cheeriest prison song ever written (listen to the lyrics).

video

Rosue encouraged - and received - audience participation on several songs, including a sing-along on the exhilarating Las Voces. Other highlights of his set included Hollywood Bass Player from 2007's Country Mouse, City House, Valencia from El Turista, and Quiet Town from 2006's Subtitulo.

For the encore, Rouse took the stage alone and played Love Vibration from the 2003 album 1972 (the first Josh Rouse album that I heard). His keyboardist then joined him on stage to play the title song of the same album, before the rest of the band joined him on stage for the finale.

There's an emotional depth to many of Rouse's songs that puts his music in a special place in my heart. It was great to finally see him performing on stage, and to hear and see the carefree joy contained in his new Spanish-influenced songs.

Rouse's tour is going to take him up to Asheville tonight and then home (so to speak) to Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee, before performing at a free festival in Louisville and then on to Chicago and the Midwest. I would love to be present at his Nashville homecoming gig, and coincidentally, my job will be taking me up to Nashville next Wednesday. Unfortunately, the concert is Tuesday night.

One final note: the sound quality for both bands was outstanding last night. Variety Playhouse has good acoustics and the engineers kept the sound clear and crisp, so that all of the nuances of all the instruments were clearly audible and nothing got lost in the mix. Nice touch, guys.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rodrigo y Gabriela perform during the State Dinner reception for President Felipe Calderon of Mexico and his wife, Mrs. Margarita Zavala, in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House, May 19, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's probably already apparent to you, but it's finally beginning to dawn on me that this blog might be something that I will only find the time to update on weekends.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

No wolves (fortunately) or coyotes (yet), but the fox seems to have made an abiding home in the backyard. When I got home from zazen this morning, he was back by the shed again.

Eliot the cat is very, very interested in watching this interloper, and stares outside anytime the fox is visible. In fact, I usually can tell when the fox is outside by observing the cat. Understandably, when the fox is around, Eliot doesn't plead to go out like he does when he sees a chipmunk, squirrel, or another cat. He just stares outside in rapt attention.

Later, the fox took a little stroll around the house, casually walking along the edge of the retaining wall. Eliot and I stalked him from room to room, following his progress.

So is Eliot in any danger from our new neighbor? My knowledge of foxes and fox behavior is pretty much limited to what I learned watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox, so I did a little research on the internet. Stories of foxes eating house cats are generally dismissed as urban myths (although coyotes will definitely eat cats) , and a search of videos on YouTube shows numerous encounters among foxes and house cats, with the cats either victorious or at the very least holding their own, or the two animals studiously avoiding each other. I learned that although foxes are capable of attacking and even killing cats on occasion, those occasions are rare. A study in England questioned more than 5,000 householders about the number of pet cats killed by foxes each year, and determined that on average an adult fox kills about 0.17 cats each year. To put it another way, any given fox would kill one cat every six years, and most of those were cats less than six months old. In fact, fox cubs are sometimes killed by domestic cats.

One night several weeks ago, I was calling Eliot in for dinner, when I heard the unmistakable sounds of a catfight. I walked down the street to investigate, and thought that I saw some larger animal retreat into the woods in the corner of my eye. It was twilight and getting dark, though, so I couldn't tell for sure. When I finally found Eliot, he was sitting down inside a storm gutter, only his head visible above street level in the little box, almost like Pennywise the Clown in that Steven King novel, and wouldn't come out. I had to get down on my knees to lift him out by the scruff of his neck and then carry him home. I wonder now if that wasn't his first close encounter with a fox.

Eliot still has all his claws and is in good shape, and so should be able to defend himself if needed. The yard is his home territory, and he knows all the safe spots and secret retreats in which to hide, if necessary. Tomorrow, he gets his rabies shot, which should be fun (taking him to the vet is always an ordeal, and if he puts up half the resistance to a fox attack that he usually puts into avoiding being placed into the cat carrier, he should be fine). And finally, I try not to leave food outside that might lure the fox into a close encounter with my pet.

So no fear: Eliot is outside now as I type, hopefully not getting into any altercations with wildlife. I will keep my ears open, though, for any sounds of struggle.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hooray!

Intepid Australian teenager Jessica Watson has completed her solo journey sailing around the world and is now back on terra firma for the first time since October 16, 2009. She has set a new world record as the youngest ever solo circumnavigational sailor.

You can leave her a "welcome-home" message at http://jessicawatson.com.au.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Foxes

This morning, as I was dressing for work, I noticed the cat staring intently out the window. I looked out to see what he was looking at, and saw a young red fox in front on my storm- and rain-damaged shed.

I watched him (or her) for a while as he (or she) played around. As soon as I rattled a door knob, though, it darted underneath the shed through a small hole in the latticework.

Cool. Wild foxes living in my backyard. I feel somehow honored that wildlife has chosen my property in which to make their home. I also realize that this is going to make the eventual repairs to the storm- and rain-damage that much more complicated.

Juvenile foxes also mean that larger, adult foxes are (or will soon be) around, and that Eliot the cat is never going to get outside again.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Priorities

It might sound from recent posts that I've been going to a lot of concerts this year, but the truth of the matter is, well, I have. Muse, Meyer Hawthorne, Xiu Xiu, Spoon, the xx, Phoenix, Owen Pallett, and more. But there have been so many great shows to go to this year, and I've only sampled a relatively small percentage.

This evening, though, Atlanta's hosting a virtual embarrassment of riches. Almost right around the block from me, Brooklyn's Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are playing at Center Stage, the main venue at the CW Midtown music complex, with either LA's Fitz & the Tantrums or "Blinky Griptite & the Mellomatics"opening, depending on whether you believe the venue's website or the print ads. I'm not sure if "Blinky Griptite & the Mellomatics" isn't someone's too-clever euphemism for "Fitz & the Tantrums" or not, but in any event, a Google search reveals that a band of that name has been touring with Sharon Jones this year.

This should be a great show, a bona fide rhythm & blues revivalist in the tradition of Aretha and Tina Turner, with a great blue-eyed soul opener somewhat similar to Detroit's Meyer Hawthorne. I saw Hawthorne this year at The Loft, the CW Midtown venue right up above Center Stage, and this very evening, on the same night that Sharon Jones and, well, somebody, are playing downstairs, Chicago's OK Go and Earl Greyhound are playing upstairs at The Loft. So that's two great shows, both on a Thursday night of all nights, at the same location.

But wait, there's more. Further downtown, in Little Five Points, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter is performing tonight at Variety Playhouse. Idaho's Ritter is probably at a creative peak right now, and Variety Playhouse is a perfect venue to showcase his talent.

And as if all of that wasn't enough to choose from, the greatest draw of all to me is probably Ontario's Caribou and South Carolina's Toro Y Moi at The Earl. The Earl is the bar in East Atlanta where I saw Owen Pallett a few weeks ago, and Caribou's new album Swim has been at the top of my new iPod's playlist since I bought it.

So, with all of this to see and hear, which did I choose tonight? Well, the Caribou concert is sold out, and next weekend I'll be seeing another Josh (Josh Rouse) at Variety Playhouse, so I'll pass on Josh Ritter for right now. So that narrows it down to the CW Midtown complex and either Sharon Jones downstairs at Center Stage or OK Go upstairs at The Loft.

So which did I choose? None of the above. Tonight is Game 6 of the Celtics-Cavaliers playoff series, with the Celtics up 3-2 and going for the series win on their home court.

You gotta have your priorities.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Local Natives at Masquerade, Atlanta

Saturday before last, I saw L.A.'s Local Natives play at Masquerade, the site of the old Excelsior Mill.

Masquerade is not my favorite venue for music. The club is laid out in three levels, Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, and for some reason, Local Natives were assigned to the lowest level, Hell. Some metal band was playing upstairs in Heaven, and the thump of the bass and beat of the drums reverberated through the walls literally down to the depths of Hell. And although a large crowd turned out to see Local Natives, club management kept the crowd in Hell waiting for a full hour and a half for the show to start while the metal band upstairs played on and on. And on.

In addition, the sight lines in Hell are terrible. The room is narrow and contains several large structural support columns, and the stage is only elevated a few feet above the floor. The result was that when the first band, Brooklyn's Suckers, finally took the stage, only a dozen or so people who had been standing right in front of the stage for 90 minutes or so had a good view, but most everybody behind them could only see the tops of the bandmember's heads. People in the back of the room could only see the backs of the heads of the taller persons in the audience.

I had manged to find a fairly good line of sight off to the side and a little behind of the stage, but I was also behind the PA system, so the sound wasn't very good. I could only hear the music as it ricocheted off from the back of the cavernous room, so the bass was grossly amplified and the harmonics were lost almost entirely. But I still did enjoy their set, which featured some quirky song structures, three or so members singing in what I could only assume was harmony, and even a little trumpet.

However, after the long wait for the first act, Local Natives didn't waste much time at all taking the stage, and opened with one of my favorite songs so far this year, World News. I stayed at my stage-side spot long enough to take one of my trademark grainy photos (see above) and then abandoned my post to the couple pressing in behind me to go to the back of the club for some better acoustics.

The sound was much better back there, and I wound up right by the mixing board, where I guess the sound would be balanced the best. Although I could only get occasional glimpses of the band from back there, they sounded great and I thoroughly enjoyed the set, despite the setting. They sang in their Beach Boys-style harmonies, and even covered a Talking Heads song (I heard that David Byrne checked out their New York show to hear their cover). They closed their set with Sun Hands, a rousing number that brought Suckers onto the stage with them, before the crowd finally spilled out of Hell into the balmy Georgia night.

Local Natives are a relatively new band and have just released their first album, Gorilla Manor, but they seem destined for greatness. A few nights after their Atlanta show, they appeared on Craig Ferguson's late night television show performing the song Airplane. Here's their performance in case you don't yet know what they sound like.

video

In summary, I saw a great set from a brilliant new band in a second-rate venue, but the former (great set, brilliant band) far out-shined the latter (second-rate venue), so, in all, it was a good evening.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Technology

First of all, before I forget: happy Mother's Day, Mom! I'll call you later tonight.

There was no post here Thursday because I took a long drive from Atlanta to Decatur, Alabama - about the same length as last week's trip to Savannah, Georgia. Another meeting with another client, et cetera, et cetera, and next week I have another, somewhat shorter, trip to Augusta to make a marketing call on a former client out there.

The trips themselves have been uneventful, but I didn't get back home on Thursday until late and had no energy to blog. Friday was a sort of burn-out day after the drive and nothing got posted here, and by Saturday I had fallen out of the habit (funny how that happens) and didn't write anything.

But the trips themselves aren't what I wanted to write about. Instead, I want to talk about my new toys. A couple weeks ago, I finally splurged and bought myself a new iPod - a new, 3rd generation, state-of-the-art, 32-GB, Apple iPod Touch, to be precise. It looks and feels like an iPhone and has almost all the same functions, except, of course, the phone, as well as no camera. It's only a couple millimeters thick and weighs a mere 4 ounces, and yet it can not only store and play my music, but can also surf the web and retrieve and send my e-mail (provided that I'm in a wi-fi hot spot). With additional calendar and calculator functions, as well as the availability of all the iPhone's infamous apps, it's truly a pocket computer.

It arrived on my doorstep via UPS and I was disappointed to see that the box had no instruction manual. All that was in the box was the iPod itself, a pair of earphones, and a single cable. I had no idea of how to charge the battery, no idea how to load my music, no idea, basically, what I needed to do at all. But talk about intuitive - all I could do was plug one end on the cable into the iPod and the other into my computer, which I did, and the iPod automatically found the iTunes program on my computer, grabbed an update, loaded some music, and opened up a website for me with the basic operating instructions. For the record, the iPod recharges through the computer using the same cable that it uses to load music.

I've been a dedicated PC user all my life and enjoyed teasing Mac fans about their brand loyalty, but now that I've finally broke down and bought an Apple product, I have to admit, okay, I get it. The iPod touch is as elegant, intuitive and useful an electronic gadget as any I've ever purchased. My only complaint, and it's a minor one, is that the shape of the earphones doesn't fit the shape of my ears very well and they keep falling out every time I move my head. Although I do take the iPod along with me on walks, I can't imagine the earphones staying in while jogging or exercising.

But it doesn't have a phone or a camera. I don't want an iPhone - which has those functions - because of my brand loyalty to Verizon, so instead, the week before last I finally broke down and replaced my old Motorola Razor with the HTC Droid Incredible. Although immodest in name, the phone boasts a 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, 8GB of internal storage, 748MB of ROM, an 8 megapixel autofocus camera with dual LED flash, a 480 x 800 touchscreen, and the Android 2.1 operating system (okay, I'll admit I cut and pasted most of that from the technical specs). Like the iPod Touch, it's totally internet-capable but uses Verizon's 3G network, so I don't need to rely on finding a wi-fi hotspot. With all that computing power, though, it does go through the battery's power pretty quickly, definitely needing a re-charge every evening.

The Droid also arrived via overnight courier (Federal Express this time) but, despite ample documentation and manuals, was not nearly as intuitive to use as the iPod. It's been over a week, now, and I'm still on the learning curve as to what it can do and how to use it. And I'll also admit that I like the iPod's on-screen keyboard more as well as the overall feel of the Apple on-line experience, but that comparison aside, the Droid is awesome. There's virtually nothing I can't do with it, and technically it could replace my new iPod, although I still prefer the way the iPod does what it does over the way that the Droid does those things that the iPod does.

Having all my music in my pocket and access to my email has subtly changed my behavior. Free at last from having to constantly access desktop computers, even a laptop, to stay in touch with the world, I can roam freely and still be in communication. Technically, I believe I can even update this blog remotely, although I haven't tried that yet.

But the true utility of my new toys became apparent during last Thursday's drive to Alabama. Before I left work on Wednesday, a client called and asked me to set up a meeting among the EPA and an out-of-town expert assisting us on a project. I was able to do all of this while riding on the highway (someone else was driving) using both the phone and the email applications on the Droid. When we got stuck in traffic in Birmingham (there was some sort of fuel spill on the highway that had traffic backed up), I was able to use the Google Maps app on the Droid to find an alternate route through some back roads to avoid the bottleneck and get on down the road. And finally, on the way home, I was able to relax and let the time pass by plugging the iPod's earphones in and closing my eyes as I listened to a few podcasts (NPR's All Songs Considered) I had downloaded while on the road earlier in the day.

To an old man like me, who still remembers making frequent stops at pay phones while on business travel, all of this is, dare I say?, incredible.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Questions For Sarah Palin

How's that whole drilly-spilly thing working out for you?

Did you know that Sinclair Lewis once said that when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross?

Do you know who Sinclair Lewis is?

Monday, May 03, 2010

There was no Monday Night Zazen last week (at least for me), as I was on a business trip to Savannah, Georgia - a four-hour trip each way. Still, I got home by 8:30 p.m., if somewhat worse for the wear. The group, apparently, got along fine without me.

This week, I attempted something different. After the usual two periods of zazen, instead of reading a chapter from Shobogenzo Zuimonki and then leading a follow-up discussion, I played a podcast of part of a dharma talk by insight meditation teacher Gil Frondsdal, inserting occasional comments and discussion. The change in format was well received.

Last evening, a terrific rainstorm drenched Atlanta, dropping over two inches of rain in just a couple of hours. It woke me up at 4:00 a.m. and sounded like someone had directed a fire hose onto my roof. I didn't really get back to sleep for all the racket it made and was tired and groggy all day today. It was probably just as well, then, that I got someone else to do the Monday night talk for me, even if that "someone" was only there virtually.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Geology of Georgia

Part Two of a Very Occasional Series:
Oil


It's a well known fact among geologists that there are no producing oil wells in the State of Georgia. This is a little odd, as there is at least some oil in adjacent Alabama and Florida, but there has not yet been a producing well drilled in Georgia. I've heard that there is a one-million dollar award for the first producing well in the state, but at today's costs that's really superfluous - the oil would be its own reward, but the prize itself might cover one day of drilling.

But there are abundant oil reserves beneath the Gulf of Mexico and, unfortunately, now floating on the Gulf of Mexico. All of the major oil companies have reserved drilling rights for exploratory wells at the available off-shore tracts, and recently the Obama Administration has opened up the rights to drill on new tracts along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, a move criticized by many environmentalists.

Despite the catastrophe from BP's Deepwater Horizon, I do not share that criticism, and my reasons are not just cynical more opportunities for geologists. The nation absolutely has to ween itself from our addiction to oil, but the reality of the situation is that even as we develop alternative fuel sources, the economy has to continue to function. And for that to happen, we will continue to need some oil, and it's better to develop reliable domestic sources than to continue to send our money off to unstable parts of the world.

Politically (and this might be a somewhat cynical opinion), it was a shrewd move by Obama. The opening of some tracts was probably inevitable anyway, but by taking the initiative and proposing it first, Obama defused some of the criticism from the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd and positioned himself smartly to begin the debate on a national energy policy.

But most importantly, one has to realize that the oil companies haven't nearly begun to explore the tracts to which they've already secured rights to drill. There are huge swaths of already authorized off-shore tracts to drill, but the oil companies are leaving them in reserve, even as they encourage Washington to open up new areas.

So why is that? Why do they want to buy the rights to drill in new areas when they haven't even got their money's worth from the areas to which they've already purchased drilling rights? The reason is simple: having "potential reserves" on their books increases the book value of their corporations and hence their stock price, bringing in more revenue. And that, in turn, creates bigger bonuses for the oil executives. It doesn't matter in the least whether there's oil out there or not, or if they ever intend to drill for it at all. What matters is that they can show that they have x-million barrels of potential reserves available to be developed, and the value of that is instantly realized on their balance sheets.

So the reality of the situation is that Washington can sell drilling rights to as many areas as they want and collect some handsome revenues at a time when they need them, and it is highly unlikely that we will see drilling rigs on those tracts anytime soon. And as we develop new alternative energy sources and petroleum becomes more and more economically unattractive, the potential for new drilling continues to go down. As does the potential for another Deepwater Horizon disaster.

So the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd are not actually cheering for more abundant petroleum and lower prices for gasoline at their fuel pumps (although that's obviously their hope), but instead for greater profits for the petroleum companies. And it should be noted that they've been recording record profits recently.

As for the Georgia coast, there's no evidence to suggest that there's any oil at all out there, so the potential for massive oil slicks to wash ashore on Tybee, Cumberland, or St. Simon's Islands is pretty near zero, even in the highly unlikely event that any of the oil companies were so foolish as to decrease their profit margins by actually spending money for off-shore drilling on top of the dollars already spent to secure the drilling rights.

Now, as for the BP Deepwater Horizon slick, my heart goes out to the residents of the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coasts who are going to be hit by a release that looks like it's going to be larger than that of the Exxon Valdez. I saw first hand some of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and even at that, I was not at the hardest hit areas, and I cannot image the additional hardship 5,000 barrels a day of crude washing on shore will create. I understand that fishing has already been banned from Louisiana to Florida, which will only increase the difficulties in an area already racked by higher-than-average unemployment.

As the picture above suggests, the slick can already be seen from space. U.S. EPA is concerned about the impacts to air quality the slick will cause, and I wonder about the release of greenhouse gases, especially following the massive release from the Icelandic volcano (perhaps you've heard about that one, too).

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Music Reviews

Last Saturday, as reported, I saw Two Door Cinema Club and Phoenix at The Tabernacle, and although not previously reported, I saw Snowblink and Owen Pallett at The Earl last Tuesday night. Brief reviews follow.

Ireland's Two Door Cinema Club opened for Phoenix last weekend at The Tabernacle in their first American gig. They were scheduled to come to the U.S. a week earlier to start their tour with Phoenix and would have debuted in Chicago, but their flight plans were complicated by a volcano in Iceland (you may have heard about it) and they didn't get to the U.S. until the Phoenix tour had reached Atlanta. This makes the second time I've seen a band premier in the States. Way back in February 1979 (before any of the members of Two Door Cinema Club were even born), I saw a band called Dire Straits (you may have heard of them) make their American debut at the Paradise Theater in Boston. I still have a button to commemorate the event, my little piece of rock 'n' roll memorabilia. However, although they're a fine young band, I doubt Two Door Cinema Club will ever achieved the commercial success that Dire Straits enjoyed. That's not meant as any sort of criticism, just a recognition of the changed economic times and the randomness of the star-making machinery. They seem like sincere young gentlemen and put on a fine show, and I wish them all the luck.

Paris' Phoenix have achieved greater success, including having one of their songs featured in a Cadillac commercial, the pinnacle of success for some bands in these difficult times. Phoenix predictably opened their set with a perfectly acceptable version of their single Lisztomania and closed with their other hit 1901 (the song from the Cadillac commercial). The audience and your reviewer enjoyed the songs in between, although the band never really did anything unpredictable to surprise the crowd, other than have vocalist Thomas Mars leave the stage and wade through the crowded audience on the floor during the encore performance. I was up in the balcony, seated between two young women and a couple of high-school age. During one of Phoenix's songs, the guy leaned over and asked me if I was a big fan of the band, obviously surprised to see some one of my age at the show. I told him that I was, and that simple, binary, yes-or-no answer seemed to satisfy his curiosity.

The Tabernacle is a 2600-person venue, a good place for bands too big to play nightclubs but not yet ready to fill stadiums. But as I've said here before, I prefer to see innovative, up-and-coming acts at smaller venues than watch established stars trot out familiar hits on what is to them just another stop on an endless tour (The Phoenix/Two Door Cinema Club show at The Tabernacle fits comfortably between those two endpoints). I don't know the specific capacity of East Atlanta's The Earl, but it's most certainly on an order of magnitude less than that of The Tabernacle. It's actually just an unpretentious little neighborhood bar with a performance space in the back, but has managed to book some excellent bands over the years. Last Tuesday, the band Snowblink opened there for Owen Pallett. I had never heard of Snowblink before, but they apparently consist of two guitarists and a violin. Vocals are mostly provided by Daniela Gesundheit, whose guitar sports a pair of antlers for some reason. They provided pleasant, if unmemorable, songs to an audience eagerly anticipating the set by Mr. Pallett.

Toronto's Owen Pallett used to record and tour under the name Final Fantasy, but had to drop the name due to a copyright issue with the manufacturer of the computer game. His fans seem to have taken the change in stride. When I got to The Earl, there were few people there, but I got talking to two young men who had rode all the way from Augusta, Georgia just to see the show - a three-hour drive (each way). At least one was an enthusiastic fan (the other was apparently just dragged along for the company), and I got into a spirited discussion with the fan on his enthusiasm for Pallett's music. It turns out both he and his friend were in Military Intelligence (there's a big Army base near Augusta), and discovered Pallett's music while stationed in Afghanistan.

This surprised me, as Pallett's music is complex and cerebral, not the kind of thing one would expect would attract the attention of young intelligence officers stationed in Afghanistan. Pallett plays solo violin and creates dense, orchestral textures by using a sequencer to loop violin and keyboard passages over one another, and then singing and playing over the results. Except for the vocals, Noveller employs somewhat the same approach using electric guitar, but while Sarah Lipstate's interests lean toward nearly ambient soundscapes, Pallett plays in more traditional song structures, so that each song holds up even if one were unaware of the techniques he employs to create his compositions.

Pallett took the stage alone and quickly filled the room with his looping sounds. He was occasionally joined on stage by a second musician, Thomas Gill, who filled in with a little guitar and drums, and occasionally backed Pallett up on vocals. They played several songs from Heartland, Pallett's latest recording, as well as from the Final Fantasy back catalog, and occasionally surprised the audience with covers, such as a very intimate version of Arcade Fire's No Cars Go. To give you some idea of what all of this might sound like, here's a song (The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead) from Pallett's recent set at New York's Webster Hall, just a couple of days before his Atlanta show (that's Pallett and Gill at Webster Hall in the photo above). If you follow along carefully, you can hear how the song builds up from one initial simple violin figure into a full-bodied structure.


So that was my past week in music. Owen Pallett clearly provided the most memorable of the performances seen, although each musician provided a satisfying experience. Tonight, I'm off to see Southern California's Local Natives play in Hell, the ground-floor performance space at three-tiered The Masquerade, the former Excelsior Mill. I'll be sure to report on this show at a later date.

Oh, and Happy May Day, comrades!