Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fooled You . . .

Ha, ha, for the past two days, when you thought I was home posting More Fun With Republicans and Videos Worth Watching, I was actually at the beach.

Well, near the beach to be more precise. I was at Hilton Head Island in lovely and wacky South Carolina for a professional conference, but it was too hot (temperatures over 100 and the air supersaturated with humidity) to bother going outside to the beach. Even a refreshing plunge into the Atlantic Ocean didn't warrant the sweaty walk under the sun from the beach-front hotel to the actual beach.
After having put up and post-dating last Tuesday's and Wednesday's posts, I left Atlanta Thursday afternoon and drove with a co-worker down to Hilton Head, a five-hour car ride. The conference itself was as much a junket as a professional meeting, with lots of time off (the proceedings ended both Friday and Saturday by noon to give the participants plenty of time to golf, swim, shop, or whatever they chose to do with their free time in the sultry summer heat).

I chose to a aimlessly burn fossil fuels and possibly exacerbate the problem by driving around the island in the air-conditioned comfort of my rented SUV looking for something comfortable to do. I learned that despite my best attempts, it's impossible to get lost on the island; all the public roads curve back in on themselves, and many of the other roads are blocked by security posts for gated communities. However, I did see plenty of open marshes around the island, shady streets, and trees dripping with spanish moss, and eventually found a Starbucks to relax in for a while.

This was the closest thing to a vacation that I've had since the year began. While I'm not the biggest fan of meaningless leisure, I have had to postpone any time off from work for now as I try to reboot my career. Since I've joined the new firm, I've been more focused on new projects, meetings, and conferences (such as this one) than vacations.

This was the view outside from my hotel window:

The drive back home took a lot longer than the drive down. Somewhere between Savannah and Macon, Georgia, the entire highway was shut down due to an accident involving a 16-wheeler and eight passenger cars. All traffic was halted and directed off the highway and onto local, two-lane roads, before being allowed back onto the highway about five miles later.

Later, as we approached the metropolitan Atlanta area, the traffic inexplicably slowed to a crawl for 20 or so miles before resuming normal speed. There was no apparent accident or other bottleneck slowing traffic down - the slow-down appeared to be merely the result of a combination of high traffic volume and low driving competency. I did eventually make it home, however (obviously), but only after stopping for a few beers at a Midtown brew-pub so that my passenger and co-worker could meet up with her boyfriend and catch a ride to her home.

I've been attending this summer conference on the coast for a number of years now. The venue's been changed from year to year, but I've attended the meetings at Saint Simon's Island in 2004, and at the same Hilton Head resort as this year back in 2005. I believe I was in attendance in 2006 as well, although I apparently didn't blog anything about it, but was absent from 2007 through 2009. This was my first year back after a three-year hiatus - it, and I, hadn't changed much since then.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

More Fun With Republicans

Karen Handel, Republican candidate for Governor of the State of Georgia, has picked up the endorsement of former Massachusetts Governor and one-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Handel had already picked up endorsements from former half-term Alaska Governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, as well as xenophobic Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Her opponent in the August 10 primary run-off election, former Rep. Nathan Deal, is backed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented Georgia’s sixth congressional district for two decades. The eventual GOP nominee will face former Gov. Roy Barnes in the general election.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin issued one of her typically cliched "tweets," saying Handel was going to "‘Bring it on' in a runoff against career politician!" Handel continues the "career politician" theme in her latest television ad, contrasting the two candidates in the run-off as "One carries a purse, the other carries baggage." She's also started a line of attack about his age, referring to Deal as a “Corrupt Relic.” She made a vague attack on him earlier by saying he “forgot” something, but it was likely because he was just “tired.”

But Deal continues to define himself as the only conservative left in the race. He is framing the run-off campaign as being conservatives versus non-conservatives in the party, and has made no question about where he and Handel fall on the spectrum.

Handel was the only Republican candidate in the primary not endorsed by the Georgia Right to Life PAC and Melanie Crozier, the PAC's director, said that her organization will back Deal in the run-off. In a particularly ugly move, Crozier wrote an article in Politico that claimed "[Palin] has a son with Down syndrome, and under Karen Handel’s laws, Handel would have felt like it was OK to go in and abort that child." Ouch.

Handel has denied the claim.

This is wedge politics, in which each side tried to drive a wedge between the other candidate and their constituents, and in this case, their endorsers. This is the self destruction of the Republican Party, and it's not only happening here in Georgia. Elsewhere, wingnut favorite Michelle Bachman has gotten herself in trouble for endorsing an out-of-state candidate who was not hand-picked by the Tea Party movement.

This is getting ugly, and it can only work to the benefit of the Democrats and the Obama Administration. And that's a good thing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gulf Update

Before suspending operations due to tropical storms, Development Driller III had drilled the first relief well to a depth of 17,864 feet below the Gulf surface and Development Driller II had drilled the second relief well, a redundant measure taken at the direction of the Obama Administration, to a depth of 15,963 feet below the surface. As shown above, back on July 10 (i.e., two weeks ago), these wells were 17,810 and 15,961 feet, respectively. Storm and other delays have resulted in a total of only 56 feet of drilling in the last two weeks.

DD II is currently holding operations and waiting on the results of the DDIII relief well. DDIII has latched onto the wellhead, and is preparing to remove the storm packer and perform a well conditioning run before drilling down to 18,000 and intersecting with the damaged Deepwater Horizon well. Should DDIII fail for any reason, DDII will resume drilling.

Since the leaking well itself has now been capped, it’s somewhat less urgent to complete these operations quickly, so BP can afford to exercise a little caution while completing these final maneuvers. Also, it’s been reported that the oil slick on the Gulf is breaking up faster than expected, an encouraging sign relative to protection of the shore, but not necessarily to marine life.

In their response, the Obama Administration and BP made the perhaps unconscious decision to prioritize protection of the shore, beaches and wetlands over protection of marine life and the food chain. The released petroleum can take one of two forms – either as separate-phase oil floating of the surface, the visible slick, or as hydrocarbon molecules dissolved in the ocean water, the so-called “plumes.” The former is visible and easily confirmed; the latter is invisible and BP has even denied its existence. The response actions to date have largely centered around the use of skimmers, booms and on-shore actions to recover the separate-phase oil.

But the response has also made extensive use of chemical dispersants to accelerate the conversion of separate-phase oil into dissolved-phase hydrocarbon plumes. This puts the visible slick out of sight and possibly out of mind, but does not get rid of the problem. The hydrocarbons dissolved in the ocean water are not only toxic but also include known and suspected carcinogens such as benzene, ethylbenzene, and various polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), such as naphthalene.

Marine life, from microscopic phytoplankton to the largest of fishes and mammals, can absorb the dissolved hydrocarbons through a variety of tissues, including the body surface, gill structures, and the digestive system, and the hydrocarbons thus enter the food chain. The hydrocarbons also have a tendency to bio-accumulate in various organs and membranes, so that as the smaller fish are eaten by the larger fish and so on, the hydrocarbons are passed on up to higher-level predators, including sharks, some whales (other whales feed at the bottom of the food chain and get their hydrocarbons directly from the plankton), dolphins, sea turtles, and man.

Worse, the dispersants themselves, such as Nalco’s Corexit, also contain toxic and potentially carcinogenic hydrocarbons. According to the New York Times, the ingredients in the Corexit 9500 dispersant, the primary chemical product used, include the solvent propylene glycol, light petroleum distillates, and the detergent dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate. Material Safety Data Sheets released by Nalco identify the three substances as potentially hazardous, advising users to avoid getting the dispersant "in eyes, on skin, on clothing."

According to marine toxicologist Susan Shaw, "Corexit dispersants used in the Gulf contain solvents – petroleum distillates that are animal carcinogens – capable of killing or depressing the growth of a wide range of aquatic species. For vulnerable species such as phytoplankton, corals and small fish, the combined effects of Corexit and dispersed oil can be greater and last longer than the effects of oil alone."

Approximately 1.84 million gallons of dispersant have been applied since the release began - 1.07 million on the surface and 771,000 to the sub-surface. In essence, we’re adding hydrocarbons to hydrocarbons to make the visible plume disperse and preserve our beaches, but in the process we’re poisoning the Gulf.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

During difficult economic times, people tend to isolate certain minority groups, usually immigrants, as an outlet for their angers and frustrations, and there's a certain type of demagogue who often rises to stoke these feelings. During the Reconstruction of the American South following the Civil War, the unfortunate people victimized by this process were the blacks, the unwilling immigrants who had recently been freed. In the 1920s and 30s, Adolph Hitler stoked antisemitic feelings among the German working class, and during the Great Depression, various immigrant groups including Jews, Italians, and the Irish were ostracized in America. These anti-immigrant backlashes were associated with periods of unemployment or underemployment, popular anxiety, and a fear of displacement by strangers. They depend on woeful narratives of national decline, of which there is no shortage in America lately. During these times of rampant unemployment and epidemic foreclosures, the group currently being singled out as an outlet for America's frustration appears to be the Mexicans. Brown is the new black.

Fears and anxieties about illicit border crossings are statistically unfounded: according to the Border Patrol, since 2000, the numbers are actually down by more than 60%. In a recent Talk of the Town editorial in The New Yorker, William Finnegan notes that the southern border, far from being “unsecured,” is actually in better shape than it has been for years - better managed and less porous. The border has been the beneficiary of security budget increases since 9/11, which have helped slow the pace of illegal entries, if not as dramatically as the economic crash did. Last year, there were 550,000 apprehensions at the border, the lowest figure in 35 years. Additionally, violent crime, though rising in Mexico, has fallen on this side of the border. According to F.B.I. statistics, the four safest big cities in the United States—San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, and Austin—are all in border states.

But right-wing fear-mongering still works. Even as illegal immigration is falling, polls show that the number of Americans who consider immigration a “very serious problem” is rising—from 54% in 2006 to 65% this May.

The real problem of illegal immigration isn’t a matter of violent criminals storming the walls of our peaceful towns and cities. It’s a matter of what to do about the estimated 11,000,000 unauthorized residents who are already here and apparently here to stay. On the one hand, they are essential to large sectors of the economy. Atlanta's dirty little secret is that the building boom of the 1990s and first half of the 2000s would not have been profitable without the supply of cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants. The Department of Labor calculates that more than half the crop pickers in the United States are undocumented.

However, on the other hand, dirt-poor newcomers lower wages in some industries. State and local budgets suffer when workers are paid under the table. The fact that eleven million people lack legal status is itself disturbing.

Some of the more vociferous opponents of illegal immigrants denounce their presence as a national-security threat. I have heard a large number of people claim that they had no problem with Arizona's new law on the basis that if the immigrants are here illegally, then they should have no legal protections. But this view ignores the fact that if the presence of these illegal immigrants is such a threat, then the need to draw the undocumented out of the shadows and into the sunlight of official registration and legal status is all the more urgent. And if violent crime in this community is a problem, then a law that drives the community deeper underground only makes police work and crime fighting that much more difficult. Already, a number of police chiefs have been arguing against measures like Arizona's new law because they amount, in essence, to racial profiling, poisoning community relations.

Still, politicians are quick to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. Roy Barnes, the Democratic Party's candidate for the Governor of Georgia, in an apparent effort to win over some conservative votes, said he would sign an Arizona-type law to use state officials to crack down on illegal immigrants, but added that he was reluctant to use state dollars to pay the costs of incarcerating the illegal immigrants. A Republican candidate claimed that if elected governor he would not only round up illegal immigrants but was ready to build prison camps to house them for deportation. “If we have to set up a Guantanamo Bay of Georgia," he said, "I would do it.”

The problem of illegal immigration has been left to fester for decades and every effort to address it has provoked a groundswell of angry obstructionism and demagoguery. To his credit, George Bush pushed hard during his second term for serious immigration reform, but was defeated by his own party’s right wing.

Barack Obama had promised to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, but last spring, after meeting with Republican senators, he instead ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the southern border. He gave his first major speech on immigration earlier this month and made a powerful case for reform, but was careful to distance himself from the idea of simple amnesty. People will have to “get right with the law,” he said. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been cracking down on employers of the undocumented and has been increasing criminal deportations.

The President blames, quite rightly, congressional Republicans for blocking reform, but according to The New Yorker's William Finnegan, plenty of Democrats, both in Congress and in the statehouses, have no stomach for tackling the issue, either—certainly not in an election year. "Given the emotions that the topic arouses," he writes, "the battle to pass immigration reform may end up making the struggle over health care look mild. It is time, nonetheless, to try to finally bring millions of men, women, and children in from the dark."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's Hot . . . .

It's hot outside today, but I went up to Chattanooga anyway for my monthly Zen service there. The picture above is from my dashboard as I was driving home at around 4:00 p.m. That's 39 degrees Celsius for those non-U.S. readers.

Before the service, I stopped as I almost always do at the Landmark Diner in North Chattanooga. I usually order a blueberry waffle and coffee, but today their waffle maker was broken and I had to make do with a blueberry pancake instead. No big sacrifice.

While sitting there, I noticed a graffito on the wall, one I hadn't seen before. Turns out, it wasn't actually graffiti, but an autograph by country-music singer Wynonna Judd (now just "Wynonna") next to her photograph taped to the wall. I snapped a quick picture - sorry that it's a little out of focus, but what she wrote was "Love, Wynonna 2010" and beneath that she wrote "Terry is crazy" for some reason.

Now, you might have your own feelings about Wynonna or the Judds or country music in general, but although nobody puts the South down more than I do (mostly for political reasons), you have to admit that without this region, American culture wouldn't have much to show for itself. Take my adopted home state of Georgia, for instance: not only has it produced Ray Charles, Little Richard, and James Brown, but the Allman Brothers, REM, and the B-52s as well. Not to mention Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, Outkast, Usher, Ludacris, T.I., the Indigo Girls, Neutral Milk Hotel, Mastodon, and Deerhunter. Georgia's contribution to literature goes well beyond Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind) but also includes Flannery O'Conner, Erskine Caldwell (the father of my hydrology professor in college!), James Dickey and Alice Walker. Meanwhile, Chattanooga's produced more than just Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle), but also baseball players Harmon Killebrew and Willie Mays, jazz musician Yusef Lateef, actress Lori Petty (Tank Girl), and Samuel L. Jackson, arguably one of the coolest persons on Planet Earth. The lists go on and on, but you can Google them just as well as I can.

My point is this: as I was sitting there in the Landmark Diner in Chattanooga, Tennessee, eating my blueberry pancake, Wynonna's autograph reminded me of just how rich this area's cultural history actually is, and how thankful I am for living here.

Despite the heat.

Thanks, Wynonna!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Signs Of The Times

Driving around town from one meeting to the next today, I ran across a crowd of about 200 holding a rally in front of the Wachovia/Wells Fargo Bank at Atlantic Station. In addition to signs simply saying "Foreclosed," other signs read "When Bankers Cheat, Families Are Dumped On The Street," and "Wachovia/Wells Fargo Guilty Of Ripping Off The Poor & Seniors."

The protesters were demanding fair treatment of people facing foreclosure, including loan modifications that reduce principal and interest, and for the banks to make low interest loans available to communities. As of May 2010, Wells Fargo had only permanently modified 40,579 mortgages, while an estimated 182,067 mortgages are eligible for the federal Home Affordable Modification Program. Wachovia has an estimated 31,084 eligible mortgages, but had only permanently modified 1,211 or 4%.

This protest is not untypical for any American city these days. Unemployment is around 9.5 percent nationally, slightly higher in Georgia. People who have jobs are afraid to leave them. The housing market is recovering slowly, but millions of Americans are still facing foreclosure despite being employed full time. This crisis has cost us approximately 8 million lost jobs and $17 trillion in lost retirement savings and net worth.

The House and Senate are set to vote on an extension of unemployment insurance benefits this week that would last until Nov. 30. This measure would offer continued assistance to about 2.5 million unemployed Americans whose benefits have run out. Republican leaders in both chambers oppose it on the grounds that extending these benefits will unacceptably increase the national budget deficit. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D - Arizona) offered the following comments on this situation in the Huffington Post:
Let's put the GOP's version of fiscal responsibility in context. The House-Senate compromise bill extends federal funding for unemployment benefits for four months. The final cost is expected to be about $34 billion. Compare that to the combined cost of a single month's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan: $12.2 billion in February, according to Pentagon figures. As I write this, our presence in Iraq has cost us $734.5 billion - the number will be higher by the time you read it. The figure in Afghanistan is $284.6 billion.

Which is the more responsible path? We can tell our unemployed neighbors "Tough luck, you're not trying hard enough," or we can start looking at the real reasons for our budget anxiety. Any member of Congress who claims to be fiscally responsible can't turn that responsibility on and off like a faucet. The costs of our wars - not to mention the unnecessary defense contracts that have no bearing on national security - are a blight on the national ledger. But no supposed deficit hawks have been willing to say as much. Instead, the unemployed just need to tighten their belts, be more responsible and suck it up.

There's another important comparison to that $34 billion figure: the cost of fully extending Bush-era tax cuts, as Republican leaders in the House and Senate have called for. Those cuts were enacted with sunset provisions that will make them expire at the end of this year. Republicans don't want to let that happen, even for the major tax cuts on the top few income brackets. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, extending the cuts would add $2.56 trillion to the deficit by 2020. Even Alan Greenspan, one of the architects of Bush's fiscal policies, now believes they should be ended. As he said in a July 17 interview on Bloomberg TV, Congress "should follow the law and let them lapse. . . . The problem is, unless we start to come to grips with this long-term [budget] outlook, we are going to have major problems."

Again, which is more responsible: spending $34 billion to make sure people have grocery money, gas money and enough to keep a roof over their heads for another few months, or spending $1 trillion on two wars without any exit strategies and $2.5 trillion on tax cuts that were designed to end in the first place? It's no contest. Yet those who want to help the unemployed are tarred as irresponsible, out of touch and not to be trusted with the federal budget . . . Those who don't want to extend benefits often paint unemployment insurance recipients as lazy, unmotivated slackers who just need to get off the couch. This may be a comforting illusion if you oppose unemployment assistance for ideological reasons, but it's nowhere near the truth. The reality is much harder to face.
Right now, there are five unemployed people for every available job nationwide. Far from being lazy, unemployed job seekers are having to hustle like never before just to stay ahead of the next guy in line. What are we going to tell them? We can't afford to lend them a helping hand when the economy crashed due to no fault of theirs?

No wonder they're picketing out on the streets.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Son of Political Post

It's a fun week to watch politics in Georgia. On top of some sort of bizarre scandal involving an Agriculture Department employee here, Roy Barnes easily won yesterday's Democratic primary to run for Georgia Governor as widely predicted. Over on the other side of the aisle and also as widely predicted, Sarah Palin-backed candidate Karen Handel will have to face a run-off election against Newt Gingrich-backed candidate Nathan Deal to see who will get to lose to Barnes in the general election.

Here's the fun part: when Palin learns that her "mamma grizzly" is actually an abortion-rights proponent and a gay-rights supporter, she'll begin to act like she's never even heard of Handel. Meanwhile, Handel will be proclaiming herself as the true-blood conservative in the race, as opposed to Nathan Deal, who switched to the GOP when the State started to move away from the Democratic Party and it became politically expedient for him to do so. Deal also has skeletons in the closet back in Washington that Handel will be glad to rattle. But Deal and Gingrich, in turn, will continue to paint Handel as some sort of baby-killing, sodomite liberal. The two sides will spar over ideological purity, confusing Georgia's right-wing voters, and whichever candidate emerges to run against Barnes will have been sorely damaged by his or her primary opponent.

I do admit to having strong feeling about some of this, mainly because I think this State can do a lot better than it has for the past eight years.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Political Post

Georgia has had nothing but Democratic governors from the early days of Reconstruction until 2002, when party-switching former Democrat Sonny Perdue pulled off an upset of incumbent Democratic Governor Roy Barnes by running as a Republican. Barnes had lost support from teachers, whom he infuriated in 2002 over reforms that he was pushing similar to No Child Left Behind. Following the subsequent furloughing of teachers by Governor Purdue and the Republican legislature, however, I’m pretty sure the teachers that supported Purdue that year have long since regretted their choice. Barnes had also inflamed the right that year by retiring the confederate flag as the state flag. Arguably, those two positions cost him the Governorship in 2002. But 2002 was also the year Republicans captured the state Senate and knocked off Sen. Max Cleland, winning the House two years later.

But Sonny Purdue is now term-limited against running again and Roy Barnes is back in the race for Governor, so this morning I drove over to the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center, my local polling place, and voted in the Georgia primary, mainly with the intention of getting Barnes back into office. Barnes has been the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary all along - the main mystery has been whether he could be forced into a runoff.

His primary opponent, Thurbert Baker, is a former State Attorney General who refused Gov. Perdue’s order to initiate a lawsuit against the government over the recent Federal health-care reform. Baker’s a good man, but it is important for the welfare of Georgia that the Republican stranglehold on the state government be broken, and despite having once alienated the teachers and the hard-core right, Barnes has a better chance of beating the Republic candidate, most likely former Secretary-of-State Karen Handel, than Baker.

Although Handel may be better than Purdue (it’s hard to be worse), there are compelling reason to not want her in the Governor’s House. Her signature accomplishment was passing a controversial photo-ID requirement for voting, a measure considered by many to discourage mainly poor and minority voters, and much of her political career has been built around the virtually non-existent issue of “voter fraud.” Handel has been identifying herself as a "conservative reformer," taking on the corrupt and ideologically suspect good ol' boys, what with their party-switching and all. To her credit, she has endorsed gay/lesbian rights early in her career when she was running for office in relatively liberal Fulton County (she once made a small contribution to the Log Cabin Republicans, not a popular group among Georgia conservatives). She also got hit hard by Georgia's influential right-to-life lobby, which blasted her for supporting rape-and-incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban, and for opposing proposals to sharply restrict in vitro fertility clinics.

The immigration furor touched off by Arizona has become an important issue in the Georgia gubernatorial race (not a surprise, since Georgia is a state with a highly visible but politically weak Hispanic population). Handel scored a coup late in the campaign when she was endorsed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (a former fellow Secretary-of-State). Sadly, Roy Barnes has also indicated support for an Arizona-style immigration law, although adding a few caveats later.

Finally, Handel has advocated the abolition of the state income tax, which accounts for about half of all state revenues. She has not made it clear what, exactly, she would do to replace those revenues, and how, if she were to succeed in abolishing the state income tax, she would not have to massively increase sales taxes, especially given recent chronic state budget deficits. Abolishing income taxes, though, strikes a very strong chord not just with long-time "Fair Tax" fans, but with Tea Party activists. So on the one hand, she is running on tax cuts and fiscal responsibility, but on the other, she can't provide specifics on how she will achieve that responsibility if she does get the tax cuts. Keep in mind that Georgia is a state running deeply in the red and cutting everything across the board, starting with education and most "entitlement" programs that Republicans hate. I’m not sure what else can be cut and still have a functioning government. So it’s sort of hilarious to see Handel make these promises that a) can't be done and b) the state can't afford.

To top it all off, former half-term governor of Alaska Sarah Palin gave Handel priceless free media by endorsing her last week. It is amusing that Handel was the only Republican candidate not endorsed by the Georgia Right to Life organization, yet she was the one who got Sarah Palin's endorsement. Palin has even recorded robocalls defending Handel as a "pro-life and pro-family" conservative.

Handel’s primary opponent, former Republican Congressman Nathan Deal, immediately encountered with an endorsement by Georgia's Newt Gingrich, who has also cut an ad for his former House colleague. Deal has been hit with ethics problems, allegedly resigning early from Congress to curtail an investigation of a state contract obtained under questionable circumstances by one of his companies back home. However, he has intensified his attacks on Handel's social views, presumably trying to counteract the impact of the Palin endorsement on hard-core social conservatives. The rhetoric has grown very heated, with Deal running ads calling Handel a "liberal."

There's little question Sarah Palin will get a lot of credit, deserved or not, if Handel romps to a strong first-place finish in the Republican primary today. If she winds up in a runoff against Nathan Deal, we'll see a rare and fascinating surrogate confrontation between two potential 2012 presidential candidates, right on Newt Gingrich's home turf, and it could get very, very ugly.

Which, of course, bodes well for Barnes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

One day Dogen instructed,
When Kaimon Zenji was the abbot of Tendo Monastery in China, there was a shuso called Gen. He had grasped the dharma and was awakened to the Way; his practice surpassed even that of the abbot. One night, he visited the abbot’s room, lit incense, prostrated himself, and asked to be allowed to be the shuso of the rear-hall.

At the time, the master wept, “Since becoming a novice, I have never heard of such a thing. For a monk practicing zazen, it is a great mistake to ask to be the shuso or to receive the title of Elder. You have already awakened to the Way more than I have. Do you seek the position of shuso for the sake of promotion? I would allow you to be the shuso of the front-hall or even the abbot. Your attitude is low-minded. Indeed, by this I can see why the rest of the monks have not yet attained enlightenment. The decline of the buddha-dharma can be seen from such an attitude.”

Afterwards, he shed tears and wept with sorrow. Although Gen left ashamed of himself and actually declined the position, the master appointed him as the shuso. Later Gen recorded the conversation, shaming himself and showing his master’s excellent words.

When I think about this, I see that the ancients put people to shame if they wanted to make themselves important, to become head of the people, or to attain the title of Elder. Just awaken to the Way; be concerned with nothing else. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 3, Chapter 5)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Walk In the Park

My more-or-less daily workout routine involves a walk along the new Memorial Trail through Tanyard Creek Park and the new Howard property park. The picture above shows the trail through the Howard property as it approaches the bridge over Tanyard Creek.

Tanyard Creek, a north-slowing tributary to Peachtree Creek, which in turn flows to the Chattahoochee River (which becomes the Apalachicola River when it crosses into Florida and empties into the poor, suffering Gulf of Mexico), is a surprisingly scenic little river for such an urban environment. The trail runs along the creek as it cascades over bedrock of what I guess is the Clairmont Formation. The falling water was once used to power Collier's Mill, formerly located where the creek crosses what is now Colliers Road. Today, however, the creek suffers from releases of sewage and has sky-high levels of fecal coliform, so it's a creek best enjoyed visually and not by wading (I don't think there's been a live fish in it for years now).

It rained this weekend, and as always, mushrooms immediately pop up following the rain.

Mushrooms pop up and branches fall down after a rain. Here's a not untypical limb blocking the trail through what's sometimes called the Cathedral Woods portion of the trail.

Here's the southern part of the trail in Tanyard Creek Park. The open field was a Civil War battlefield, part of the larger Battle of Peachtree Creek, the Confederacy's last defense of Atlanta before it was burned to the ground by Union troops. At Tanyard Creek, 4,000 soldiers lost their life in one day of fighting. In that one field, 4,000 lives lost, leading Union General JD Cox, himself a grizzled veteran of many Civil War battles, to state, "Few battlefields of the war have been strewn so thickly with dead and wounded as they lay that evening around Collier's Mill." God-damn war.

The City originally wanted to put the trail through the middle of the field, but the strenuous efforts of many residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and historic preservation groups eventually convinced them to just skirt the edge of the field, and run the rest of the trail along the creek as shown in the photos above. The result was the preservation of the only remaining open battlefield of the Battle of Peachtree Creek, and an overall more scenic and more interesting trail.

It must be interesting - I walk it nearly every day.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Please Share This Video

"This video was made as a response to the G20 Summit in Toronto June, 2010.
The rest speaks for itself.
It was sent to us by a lover of our music who wants to remain anonymous.
We are very proud to share this mash-up with you."
-Broken Social Scene
"Please share this video."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros - Variety Playhouse, Atlanta

Back on March 5, I posted some vids as part of my Friday Night Videos series by a few of my favorite bands of that moment: Twin Sister, Broken Bells, Josh Rouse, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I still haven't seen Twin Sister in concert, but since the time of that post, I've seen Josh Rouse (May 22) and Broken Bells (June 10), and last night I saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros perform at Atlanta's Variety Playhouse.

They were fantastic.

The first thing one needs to know about ES&TMZ is that there is no Edward Sharpe in the band: he's a fictional character, reminiscent of Gong's Zero the Hero. Apparently, after breaking up with his girlfriend, moving out of his house, and joining a 12-step program for addiction, lead singer Alexander Ebert began work on a story about a messianic figure named Edward Sharpe. According to Alex, Sharpe "was sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind...but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love."

The ES&TMZ story is told in a feature-length movie being released in a dozen installments. The first segment, below, opens with home footage shot by Alex's mother of his father holding baby Alex while chanting in Monument Valley (what do your home movies look like?). This first segment is about Alex's reckoning with the middle name his father secretly wrote on his birth certificate, a Native American word meaning "Devil," or "Demon" (hey, before you pass judgement, remember that the Buddha named his son Rahula, which means "fetter").

The second chapter of the story has a more cinematic look and feel than the first. In this part, the Edward Sharpe character pays for his shocking act of patricide in the first segment, but eventually he leads a revolt and escapes from prison and is joined by a deserter, a conscientious-objector guard. I'm not aware of any subsequent installments in this series, and would appreciate it if any kind readers could point me toward any more parts.

Anyway, none of this is in any way necessary to watching and enjoying the band in concert. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are an expansive hipster collective of 10 to 12 musicians who apparently are not very big believers in boundaries - between the performers and the audience, between the warm-up acts and their band, or even between who is and isn't in the Magnetic Zeros.

Last night's concert opened with a set by Atlanta's Tyler James, a veteran of the ATL indie scene, a self-described veteran of local venues like Eddie's Attic and Smith's Old Bar, and an occasional member of ES&TMZ. James kicked off the evening on guitar, leading his 5-piece band through some original compositions.

After the first song, James moved over to the piano, where he played most of his set.

After a couple of songs, however, James brought out a a guest player, Aaron Embry, another occasional member of the Magnetic Zeros. Embry sat at the piano for one song while James went back to playing the guitar, and he stayed on stage when James returned to the piano and closed the set with Billy Preston's Nothing From Nothing.

The second act of the night was James' guest performer, Aaron Embry, who initially took the stage alone. I don't know much about Embry, but it's telling that the only thing posted on his My Space page is Yukoku, a 1966 Japanese art film.

After introducing himself and his polka-dot shirt to the audience, he played one solo number on piano, and then called the rest of "his" band on stage, which was actually the Magnetic Zeros, including their charismatic back-up singer Jade Castrinos.

By the third song, Alex Ebert, Mr. Edward Sharpe himself, came on stage, completing the ES&TMZ line-up. Wearing his characteristic flowing white shirt and with his partially-braided hair tied up in a bun, Alex has been described as looking like someone just back from an ashram. He sat cross-legged on the floor but I couldn't see what he was playing as my view was partially obscured by the heads of the taller persons in front of me. I think I counted 10 people on stage, including players on trumpet, bass, percussion, drums, accordion, a couple guitars, piano and vocals, and whatever the hell Alex was doing on the floor. Tyler James from the first act even came back on stage for a song or two.

This middle set, then, was basically Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros performing the music of their piano player, Aaron Embry. For some reason, though, after that set was finished, they took an almost 40-minute break before coming back on stage as ES&TMZs. Since the whole band had already been on stage, and their instruments were already tuned and ready, I don't know what took them so long to come back. "How long can it take to get high?," a person next to me asked, apparently not aware of Alex's participation in a 12-step program.

But they finally did come back on stage, Alex now shirtless, and performed a joyful and moving, nearly 90-minute set. Early on, but not as the opener, they played their song Janglin', the one you might have heard in the Ford Fiesta commercial, and toward the end, but not as the closer, they played Home, the song you might have heard in the trailers for the movie Cyrus. At any given moment, anywhere from 10 to 12 musicians were on stage, including Alex, Jade, Aaron and Tyler, giving the performance a loose, almost Prairie Home Companion feel.

Alex worked the crowd well, chatting sincerely with those standing near the stage (rather than shouting the gratuitous "How ya' doin', Atlanta?" to the crowd), holding hands offered to him from the audience, and even crawling off stage occasionally to sing in the mob around him. When they all sang "We come back to heal ya" during the joyful chorus to Janglin', the concert began to feel like an old-time medicine show or a revival. There were times when I got goosebumps and there were times when tears came to my eyes, and some of those times were one and the same.

The audience was enthusiastic, which Alex noted and appreciated, saying that the evening was special, a "50-50 effort." He probably says that, or something similar, to every audience every evening, but it still felt and sounded sincere. Obviously, they got called back for an encore, and Alex admitted they they would have come back on stage even if we had been silent, but that he and the band were touched by both the volume and the enthusiasm of our intervening cheering.

They played nearly a half dozen songs during their encore, including a lovely tribute to Jade ("Yes, Jade is the girl of the hour"). Ms. Castrinos is as natural and unaffected a singer as one can hope to see and hear. She's the kind of person whose hands subconsciously grip the hem of her skirt as she sings, and wraps the material around her fingers like a shy little girl. The audience cheered loudly every time she took the microphone, and had called for both the person and the song Jade during the encore.

For the last song, Alex did something I've never seen a performer do before in my nearly 40 years of attending concerts, and he may be the only one who could pull it off. Like a few times earlier, he climbed off stage and into the audience, but this time he got everyone to cooperate and sit down around him on the dirty and sticky floor. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of a circle of admiring fans, he sang a simple song, accompanied only by a single guitar.

As I said earlier, they aren't about boundaries, and after blurring the distinction between bands by all playing and supporting one another, they broke down the final barrier between performer and audience as Alex sat shirtless and sweaty on the unwashed floor in the middle of the crowd. No one tried to interrupt this final song and no security was needed, but instead we all just sat as one communal group, an extension of that expansive collective known as The Magnetic Zeros.

At various times, several performers made references, most explicitly by pianist Aaron Embry and more obliquely by Alex Ebert, to a conviction that we are all one, similar to the Buddha's teaching that self and others are not two separate things. I don't normally buy concert merchandise, but as we left the show and I saw a black t-shirt bearing the words "We Are Each Other" and a picture of a seven-fingered hand (a composite outline of a right- and left-hand) , I had to buy one, even though they didn't have it in my size and I have to squeeze into a medium.

The current ES&TMZ tour continues through the South before the band performs three shows in New York City on July 21, 22, and 23, and wraps up in Denver on August 11. I recommend that you see then if you can.

Postscript: This evening, HBO selected an excerpt from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros' song 40 Day Dream for the closing music on their comedy, Hung.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

So back on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, if I had gotten around to posting, I was going to say something about how approximately 230 years ago this nation declared itself independent from British rule (or from taxation without representation, or just for a bunch of rich, white slave-owners wanting to increase their personal wealth, depending upon your political perspective). It wasn't easy and it required much sacrifice and the waging of not one but two difficult wars against a mighty Empire that by all rights should have been able to crush the fledgling nation (later followed by a Civil War that nearly destroyed the imperfect union), and resulted in a massive redistribution of wealth, but the Founding Fathers persevered in their vision and the United States of America was born.

Today, America needs to declare itself independent once again, not from the British Empire but from British Petroleum - BP - as well as from Chevron, Citgo, Shell and all of the other petroleum companies. It won't be easy and it will require much sacrifice, and, yes, some wealth will be redistributed, but hopefully no war will be necessary other than a war against fossil-fuel dependence.

This country has always excelled at innovation and invention, and a retro-fitting to renewable energy sources will give our sagging economy a much-needed boost and create employment and opportunities for engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and an army of construction workers, support services, and other workers. Not that there won't be any losses to those currently enjoying the wealth derived from oil, but I think they've had a long-enough run, don't you?

We can start by cleaning up the Gulf Coast of the filthy British petroleum fouling our shores and by boycotting BP. Anyone with me?

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Fifth of July . . . the day after Independence Day here in the U.S. and a holiday for many (myself included), since the 4th fell on a Sunday. Only two people showed up for Monday Night Zazen tonight, so naturally, we went extra long.

In the motion picture Back To the Future, the character Doc sets the time clock in the Delorean to a date twenty-five years in the future.

Today is that day. July 5, 2010.

What did you do with it?