Saturday, December 30, 2006

R.I.P 2006

President Gerald Ford was among the latest notables in the history of our time to die in 2006. Those I wish to remember now include Coretta Scott King, peace activist William Sloane Coffin, economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith, Texas Governor Ann Richards, Texas Senator and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen,and author Betty Friedan, for their contributions to the soul of our lifetimes and the soul of the future.

On the other side of the ledger, some of the world's most murderous tyrants of our time also died this year: Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.
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R.I.P. 2006

The American theatre lost one of its most important and creative elders in 2006--Lloyd Richards, who changed American theatre at Yale, the O'Neill Center and on Broadway. He directed the first plays of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, and was instrumental in bringing African-American voices to the American stage, where they will be forever. Richards set standards for playwriting and the integrity of theatrical creativity at the O'Neill Center that the American theatre ignores at its peril.

American theatre also lost playwright Wendy Wasserstein, a pioneer voice for women on the American stage, where they will be forever.
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R.I.P. 2006

A number of well known actors died in 2006. Jane Wyatt, pictured here with Ronald Coleman in her first major motion picture, "Lost Horizons," became best known for her role on TV's Father Knows Best but was also much beloved for her recurring role as Spock's mother in the Star Trek saga. Her first picture was directed by Frank Capra; her scene in her last, Star Trek IV, was overseen by assistant director Frank Capra III.

Other actors who died in 2006 include June Allyson, Maureen Stapleton, Glenn Ford, Red Buttons, Arthur Hill, Don Knotts, Jack Palance, Chris Penn, Moira Shearer (who danced in The Red Shoes), Jack Warden, Shelley Winters, Barnard Hughes, Dennis Weaver, Tony Franciosa, Eddie Albert and Peter Boyle.

Film directors Robert Altman and Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green), TV producer Aaron Spelling and TV talk show host Mike Douglas also died in 2006.
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R.I.P. 2006

Not all that well known in the U.S., Russian novelist Stanislaw Lem was highly influential in contemporary science fiction worldwide. He wrote "hard" technically oriented sci-fi, sc-fi with humor, and stories and novels with imaginative vision, such as one of his most famous works, Solaris.

Novelists and fictionists who made important and lasting contributions to literature, and who died in 2006, include William Styron, Muriel Spark and Frederick Busch.

Stanley Kunitz, who was considered among the best American poets for about a half century, died in 2006 at the age of 101. He was writing to the end.

Other well-known figures in the arts who died in 2006 include video artist Nam June Paik and photographer Arnold Newman.
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R.I.P. 2006

Billy Preston, seen here with George Harrison and Gerald Ford, was one of the prominent musicians who died in 2006. He was the first outsider to be a featured player with the Beatles (for their last released album) and continued his career (with less hair) into the twenty-first century.

James Brown, Lou Rawls, early rocker Gene Pitney, Wilson Pickett, June Pointer, Georgia Gibbs, country singer Buck Owens and classic jazz singer Anita O'Day also died in 2006, as did Ali Farka Toure, a great African musician (brought to world attention by Ry Cooder.)

The founder of Atlantic Records, which featured so many black artists, Ahmet Ertegun died in 2006.

Other media figures include New York Times reporter R.W. Apple, international journalist Oriana Fallaci, TV newsman Ed Bradley and CBS news chief Frank Stanton.

Sports figures who died in 2006 include baseball legend Buck O'Neil of the Negro League, fighter Floyd Patterson, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and announcer Curt Gowdy.
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R.I.P. 2006

There were some people important to the soul of our times and the soul of the future that haven't typically made it onto the lists of prominent people who died in 2006. This is Jane Jacobs, who changed the way just about everyone involved thinks about cities and urban life, with The Death and Life of Great American Cites and a series of related books. Her last book, Dark Age Ahead, was not so immediately influential when it was published in 2004, but I predict it will be one of the most prophetic and studied books of our time. Jacobs was both visionary and precise; she saw the big picture and details, and best of all, she saw the big picture in details. The world lost one of its great intelligences.

Ellen Willis was an excellent journalist and writer, especially perceptive about the 1960s. Clifford Geertz was an influential figure in anthropology.

Here on the North Coast, among those we lost in 2006 were Tim McKay, a stalwart environmentalist and community leader who founded the North Coast Environmental Center more than 30 years ago. Randy Stemler was another environmental leader, Violet Super was an important Karuk elder who worked to preserve her language and who was much loved by her family and the community, and Eric Rofes was an education activist who organized the valuable North Coast Education Summit here, and a gay activist well known on the East Coast as well.

And although she was pretty famous, Dana Reeve, the heroic wife of Christopher Reeve, fits no category but she was a special soul whose presence among us will be missed.

May we remember them all and continue to learn from them, and be graced and inspired by what they left behind. And may they all rest in peace.
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Thursday, December 28, 2006

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Is the Polar Bear the Ping-Pong of the Climate Crisis?

For years the U.S. officially declined to admit that China existed. Communist China, that is. China was treated as Cuba was and still is--no travel, no diplomatic relations, and no official recognition. The change came in the Nixon administration. Nixon had been a leader in denying China, a "hard-liner." Eventually he would be the first U.S. President to officially visit Communist China, beginning the relationship that has become so important to both countries. His prior hard line, many said, made him the appropriate president to do so, since he was above reproach politically on this matter. Hence the Vulcan proverb, "Only Nixon can go to China."

But before Nixon went, the first sign of a new approach, the first test of a new relationship, was the seemingly innocuous exchange of ping-pong players, a very big sport in China then. When American ping-pong players played the Chinese in China, it was a cautious first step.

For its entire time in office, the Bush administration has denied the reality of the Climate Crisis. It has prevented scientists from warning of its dangers and its causes, and it has opposed all efforts to regulate the principal cause, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning, because doing so, Bush said, would wreck the U.S. capitalist economy. Among the world's nations, Bush's America has been just about the last remaining hard-liner.

But Wednesday the Bush administration announced it would seek to declare the polar bear a threatened species. To do so, it had to say why the polar bear is threatened with extinction. And this led to what the Washington Post described as "the first time the administration has identified climate change as the driving force behind the potential demise of a species. "

As the Post story notes, the polar bear is among the best known and best loved animals in the world, especially by children. The story also notes that some environmentalists and wildlife biologists believe this is too little too late. I heard one say on TV yesterday that he doesn't see how the polar bear survives--that its extinction is almost certain.

But it will be interesting to see if admitting that the Arctic is getting warmer is linked to the generally recognized reason. As the Post put it, Because scientists have concluded that carbon dioxide from power-plant and vehicle emissions is helping drive climate change worldwide, putting polar bears on the endangered species list raises the legal question of whether the government would be required to compel U.S. industries to curb their carbon dioxide output.

Whether the federal government is required by law to regular CO2 emissions is in fact the issue in a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. How all of this plays out in the days and months ahead will tell us more clearly what this move means--and whether this was an attempted ping-pong play leading to recognizing the reality of the Climate Crisis, and taking action.

This North Coast Place

Why the apocalypse will not be broadcast

Humboldt cut off from the outside world said the headline in the Eureka Times Standard. On Tuesday, we had our annual Christmas week storm and power outage. I'm not entirely kidding--all the serious outages I recall in the past ten years have been between Christmas and New Years, including the immense storms that caused a lot of flooding and destruction as 1996 became 1997--and literally did cut us off from the rest of the world for awhile (Rt. 101 was closed in both directions, as were portions of other roads, and planes weren't flying into or out of the airport.) Last New Years Eve there was another storm that left us without power for days.

This time it was the day after Christmas, and a night and morning of wind and rain left us without electricity for several hours. But that wasn't what the headline was about. Late in the day we lost all Internet connections and all long distance phone service. There was "a problem" somewhere north of here, but perhaps the most disturbing thing the paper said was that no one knew what it was or exactly where.

I'm not sure exactly when Internet service was restored because in the interim we lost our electricity again. Winds raged through here all night and well into the morning--up to 50 mph. The power went down at abot 2:30 am and wasn't restored until Wednesday nightfall, just as we had the fireplace stoked up and were getting the candles in place.

The most maddening thing about this again this year was the lack of information about what was going on. When I lived in Pittsburgh, I could be confident that no matter how silly local radio and TV got--and they were getting increasingly silly---they would all have complete information in any emergency. Some stations would go to an all news format, while others would extend their regularly scheduled newscasts. Because they had regularly scheduled newscasts--on radio stations, at the top of every hour usually, or five minutes before. And probably news headlines at half-past.

But here on the North Coast we have no reliable source of news and information from any radio or television station. My guess is that there are three basic problems. First, conglomerates bought up local stations and ditched local news. With little or no local presence they are unable as well as unwilling to fulfill their public duty, which I would argue they are required to do by law since they are using our public airwaves.

Second, this is a small media market that has trouble getting and keeping experienced newspeople. It's easy to make fun of the teenagers who staff the news shows, with their fake media voices trying to make fluff and half-baked stories sound important. But in emergencies, when the public needs accurate information, it's not funny. The lack of it has a real potential to compound tragedy, if not cause some.

The third reason is that local media don't take the responsibility to inform the public seriously. Where are the regularly scheduled radio newscasts ? And if they can't afford to do them every day, how about scheduling news in times like this, on the hour and half-hour, so listeners will know when to tune in?

What did I hear on the battery-powered radio today? A couple of guys grudgingly offering a few tidbits of info as part of their Studio 60/Daily Show repartee, in the midst of the discussion that really interested them: have any good bands ever come out of Ferndale? And a few mumbled sentences in the local break of All Things Considered, when we were told that power might or might not be off in some places, and if it was, it would be restored as soon as possible.

Isn't anyone being trained to make phone calls and insist on answers? Is it too much to ask to be able to get that information without listening for it amongst hours of music you may not really want to hear?

As beautiful and virtuous as it is, this is a vulnerable place. We are rather easily cut off from the world. We expect a major earthquake that can come at any time, probably accompanied by tsunami. Yet we have no system of obtaining information when we will most need it. There seem as well to be no clear lines of authority for those emergencies, which is something that ought to interest the local print media more than it seems to.

This week wasn't bad. But the ease with which we lost power and Internet and long distance should be sobering. It's not a joke anymore, if it ever was.

Being without the Internet for a day was interesting in itself, especially considering that it wasn't even much of an issue in the storms a decade ago this week. It felt like longer than a day, for one thing. At least until I finally got to check my email, and it looked pretty much like my snail mail, and you know what that looks like these days. As for this blog, the number of hits on the day I didn't post actually went up. Maybe that should tell me something.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Posted by PicasaMerry Christmas from redwood country... BK photo.
Christmas Thoughts

Happy Christmas, but unfortunately the war is not over, no matter how many Americans say they want it to be. And there's even a new one starting, while the death toll of Americans in Iraq passes that of 9-11.

But we were told in 2001 to fight terrorism by Christmas shopping and we haven't slackened. When I was out and about covering seasonal shows for my Stage Matters column in the past few week, I looked in on the real theatre of the season, the Retail Drama at the mall. While the decorations and events at our local mall this year was nowhere near the splendor and intensity of the Greengate Mall Christmases that remain legendary in western PA, there were appropriate touches of glitz and glitter. And while nobody was into the Cybernation Ride (which looks to be like riding in a tin can while it's being violently shaken) I did notice that Hometown Buffet was rockin.

As much as some of us try to keep the gift thing under control, financially and psychologically, it's always there. Our feelings as well as our values, and especially our childhoods even more than our adult selves, get engaged. My adult self has long made a practice of Christmas gift acquisition that goes like this, in rough order of priority: 1. Make stuff (in my case, little books, CDs and mixes, etc.) 2. Buy from Good Causes and authentic sources, like Native American stuff from Native American artisans. 3. Buy recycled (thrift store treasures, etc.). 4. Buy local. And in all cases, as ecologically sound as possible.

This year I did fairly well--gifts from Save Darfur and the Dharma Shop (crafted by Tibetan Buddhist exiles in India). A few homemades, a few used books, the rest locally made, except for what I just couldn't find anywhere but one of our local Big Boxes. I would have preferred to buy from Costco but Target had the items I needed. In terms of what we received, however, it was impossible not to notice that nearly everything was marked Made in China (including a ceramic Buddha, ironic indeed since the Chinese killed thousands of Buddhists in Tibet.) I also didn't drive myself crazy or broke trying to buy for everybody. I bought for my nieces, grand-niece and grand-nephew, and my partner. When I happen on something I suddenly feel is right for someone else, I've given it, even if I didn't gift that person the year before, or the year after. There's just so much sweating it I'm up to these years.

But as for the child in me--well, I've stopped pretending he doesn't exist, for inevitably the gifts not received or the wrong gift received revive emotions of disappointment and bewilderment, among others, from childhood experiences. This year I did consciously what I've done reflexively sometimes in the past: I bought myself Christmas gifts I wanted that no one else would get me, and had them well in advance of the Day. Then I could just relax. Ironically, of course, for having done that this year, I actually got great gifts.

We had a quiet Christmas at home, visiting with family by phone. My family back in PA had the usual blizzard of activities and meals, though nothing like the Old Days. This year my one tenuous connection with Christmas pasts was making my grandmother's recipe for jumbalone.

As for the Big Picture, there were the usual heartwarming pre-Christmas stories in the news--like the Santa who collapsed and died while giving out toys to kids, or the Santas that got their jollies from armed robbery. And the repeatedly phony and pernicious, inane and insane foaming at the mouth over the delusional war on Christmas. It's such an amazing shame that the message of compassion associated with this day has been subsumed especially in most of what we see and hear from Christianity. While the person who has given the most vitality and meaning to the message of compassion in a public way is the Dalai Lama. As a Tibetan Buddhist but also beyond any religious faith, he argues for the practicality and the necessity of compassion. Buddhists with different practices, such as Pema Chodron, or the Zen teacher, John Daido Loori, really make compassion the center of their concerns.

They aren't talking Christmas soporifics, but profound and complex commitments. They aren't passing off Christmas sentimentality and wan wishes for a supposedly perfect world where peace and compassion are automatic and easy, nor the once a year yearning for what is clearly impossible or just impractical, but the process of accepting paradoxes and ironies and contradictions, yet making compassion a practice, not a wish, within a context that accepts the relative world. Yet even in a time and place when Christianists as well as Islamicists insist on choosing up sides, this wisdom should not seem so alien to Christians. "When giver and receiver merge, there is no giving and no receiving," John Daido Loori says. "That's the essence and function of compassion." It may also be the daring meaning of "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Unintelligible Design

So folks are opening their high tech gifts and good luck to us all. I just perused a book called The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda of MIT's Media Lab, which is a designer's response to new devices that are too complex, like DVDs with multiple menus and nifty little electronics that come accompanied by manuals way bigger than they are. It's not a bad book--I especially liked the chapter on Emotion (you can see the Laws for yourself at but it doesn't really address the problems I have.

It's not that devices are too complex (though they are) but that their most basic functions are increasingly difficult to use. Maeda praises the simplicity of the Ipod dial, which may or may not be so (I don't have one) but I have reason to doubt this is a real solution. One major problem with small devices is that the buttons and dials that operate them are very, very small, and often the "simple" design hides them. Screen menus, also very small. Plus they are dominated by "simple" icons. My lovely little digital camera has a little thing you move that puts you into "portrait" mode (as distinguished from "image" mode. Because of course a portrait isn't an image.) Then you press Menu and up comes a screen full of row upon row of indistinguishable icons that you need to decipher in order to control light and exposure and focus, pretty important when you're taking pictures. But not only do I need extra-strength magnifying glasses, I require the assistance of perhaps an Egyptologist skilled in the peculiar hieroglyphics of this particular camera brand and model.

The problem of buttons that are too small to distinguish and often to find, plus too small to see, is perhaps more a problem for aging baby boomers than the original target market for these devices, although since there are thirty billion of us (approximately), more than any other age cohort, it might be a good idea to keep us in mind. Devices to hear music everywhere, to edit video and sound, etc.--we've been dreaming of this stuff since the 60s. We're primed. And quite clearly, we're being dissed.

But it's not just age-related. How many of these devices do we use when we're supposed to be looking at something else--car music systems are perfect examples. If you've rented cars you know how insane many if not most if not all of these systems are, and how insane they make you. Just trying to figure out how to turn them on (or off!), change the station, get the station back you were listening to before, or switch to a CD etc. is difficult enough when you're looking right at it, but here's a newsflash for designers--people who use them are quite often DRIVING. Their attention--and their eyes--are needed elsewhere.

And there are other circumstances in which we'd like to turn the volume up or down, or whatever, by touch. I've got a portable CD player (I know, how quaint) that works admirably--good sound, doesn't skip--or not much--when I'm moving. But the various functions are scattered all over it, the play and stop are on top, the volume control is on the side, and is indistintinguishable (even when you're looking at it) from the control that pops open the lid of the CD. It's a nightmare, especially since the controls are very sensitive to touch, and if you brush the wrong one, you're screwed.

But don't worry--I've got a hot design idea for these devices--it may sound radical, but hear me out: How about an actual on/off button that's the biggest button on the thing, and a nice big red light to say it's on. Or even better--a dial that when you turn it to the right, clicks on with a discernable sound, and as you keep turning it to the right, it increases the volume. And put this dial on, say, the far left of the device. Then on the far right, another dial that allows for manual control of things like radio stations. And if you must, you can put a bunch of other buttons in a row between them. But the real key is, this design is the same on every device, no matter the make or manufacturer, so we all have a clear idea in our heads of how it operates, and we can do the most important functions without looking, even in the dark, even without taking our eyes off that idiot weaving into traffic in front of us.

I know it sounds far out--oh, wait--isn't that exactly the configuration that's been on every audio and video device since the dawn of humanity, until quite recently? I wonder why?

I understand as well that these devices are made for the mass international market, so they come loaded with icons and with manuals providing the same noninformation in six languages. So icons may be a fact of life, but how about a few words here and there? I'm willing to learn the Spanish for "low light" or the Chinese for "daylight." I already know the French for "night."

And if you want to work on a real design problem, how about earphone wires and other wires that don't make it their life's mission to tangle up and intertwine? There are times they seem to exhibit the only signs of intelligence these devices can offer: the clear intent to make things difficult for me.