Happy Old Decade!

numbers
Listen, I’m not a Left Brain person. When I look at bank statements, Excel spreadsheets, those huge lighted signs at the airport showing flight numbers and departure and arrival times, my head goes all fuzzy, like it’s filled with cotton balls, my eyes cross, and the numbers seem float up from the surface and scramble. (I wouldn’t call it dyslexia, though, because I got an A in Statistics at Rutgers in 1988. Chuckle, chuckle.)

Anyway, if it weren’t frustrating enough to do things like payroll at work or balancing a checkbook, there’s the whole numbers and time and calendars thing, which Wikipedia attempts to make clear:

The Julian calendar was used in Europe at the beginning of the millennium, and all countries that once used the Julian calendar had adopted the Gregorian calendar by the end of it. So the end date is always calculated according to the Gregorian calendar, but the beginning date is usually according to the Julian calendar (or occasionally the Proleptic Gregorian calendar).

Crystal clear, huh?

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading all these Best Of lists, not just for 2009, but also lists of what folks consider the Best Of the first decade of the 21st Century.

And as I think about this, my Right Brain orientation doesn’t want to trust my subordinate Left Brain when it screams out that it’s a bit premature to declare an end to the first decade of the 21st Century.

I’m reminded of similar brain hemisphere confusion in the run-up to January 1, 2000. The Y2K Bug hype was in the air and much of the world seemed determined to celebrate the coming of 2000 as the beginning of the Second Millennium. After all, 2000 is such a nice round number, isn’t it? It’s just so Second Millennium-ish!

And yet, if you ask an astrophysicist at NASA, well, it’s not.

Question: I’m 17 years old. I’d like to know when the new millennium starts. Isn’t it Jan 1st, 2001? Why do people get excited about 2000 then? How can I explain this to my friends? Please help.

Answer: You are right that the millennium starts on Jan 1st 2001. There is no year zero, so the first millennium started on January 1, 1 C.E., the day after December 31, 1 B.C.E. The first millennium ended 1000 years later, on the night of Dec 31, 1000/morning of Jan 1, 1001, and the second millennium ends 1000 years after that, on Dec 31 2000/Jan 1 2001.

The main reason people will celebrate the millennium on the night of Dec. 31 1999 is to hold big parties, and to hold them a year sooner than they would otherwise. I expect that, around February, 2000, people will start coming around to the belief that the millennium does indeed start with 2001, and plan their next party accordingly.

By the same highly educated reasoning, this would mean that the first decade of the 21st Century doesn’t end until January 1, 2011.

And so, while I’m happy to have evidence that I can still manage to utilize both sides of my brain, I still intend to party tonight like it’s 2011.

Happy New Year!
Happy Old Decade!

Design: Capitalism’s Redeeming Value

coke adds life
I admit it. I’m not a big fan of capitalism. I don’t see its rising tide lifting all boats, and I don’t see prosperity trickling down.

That said, I love art, and I would be intellectually dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that commerce has been a venue for a lot of artists working in the fields of graphic and industrial design.

Artists have to make a living, and many hone their skills and create legitimate art designing everything from new products, to packaging, to advertisements in the public, private, profit, and non-profit sectors. Sometimes works that came to life for commercial purposes are right at home in an art gallery, and certainly art galleries and museums are filled with pieces that incorporate aesthetic elements inspired by or reminiscent of commercial designs.

My own awareness around this didn’t really sink in until I learned about the Industrial Design program at the university where I work.

About 9 years ago, a colleague and fellow bicycle commuter and I were lamenting how most of the bicycle racks on campus offered little to no shelter from the rain, a painful irony, given that Bellingham is, well, kind of known for being a rainy place.

Long story short: My friend suggested that we talk to the Industrial Design (ID) department to see if they would be willing to have their students do a class project, developing some design concepts for sheltered bike racks. The idea went over so well that the Junior class did indeed do a project, and I was able to organize a team of folks from the departments needed to fund and take the designs from the drawing board to working prototype and eventually to the fabrication and installation of dozens of bike shelters all across campus.

As a result, I had the opportunity to tour the ID studios, to see some of the tools and processes used to develop designs, and most importantly I had the pleasure of meeting some incredibly creative and talented students, artists in every single sense of the word.

Ever since, whether I’m looking at a Coca-Cola poster like the one posted here, admiring the sleek, minimalist design of Apple products, or simply noticing an everyday logo, I’m less inclined to take their appearance for granted and more inclined to appreciate the creativity involved.

Recommended sites:

designboom
Core77
MoCo Loco
Yanko Design

Zen and the Art of Radiohead


When I said in a post last month:

I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that discovering great music, literature, and visual art saved my life.

…it was with the utmost seriousness. That said, I sometimes feel like I have to defend my praise of pop music artists, partly because the “pop” stands for “popular”, and for hundreds of years the music that was most popular wasn’t always good. On the contrary, it has often been the case that the most popular music has been irritatingly shallow crap, serving merely as a vehicle for an equally shallow celebrity.

And so, I always get a thrill when I read something about a popular musician whose work I admire that supports my assertion that pop music can be as artistic an any other medium.

    Rolling Stone: Do you feel more or less empowered than you did in 2000 — as a musical concern, as a band trying to make art in a strange world?

    Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien: On a more personal level, if you went back nine, 10 years, you’d find that external events exerted way more influence. Imminent war — things like that affected us much more. Now, I feel more empowered, that these things cannot create heaven or hell within me…

    In terms of the band…one of the things is we do things without fear. A lot of where we come from — our education, our upbringing — manifests itself in the shadow of fear… And in a sense, I don’t think it served us too badly. It kept us on our toes. It kept us trying to seek new areas artistically.

    The trouble is, as you get older, fear is not a great motivator. If you have fear, you can’t relax…

    What we’re trying to do now is make art without fear. You’re relaxing. There is more joy in what you do.

Wow. Ed’s a rock star? Really?!

Seriously, what he said really resonates with me. While I can’t say that I’m consistently successful at preventing external events from creating heaven and hell within me, I do feel that I’m heading in that direction. I’ve written here several times already that I made a conscious decision to quit being a primarily political blogger, most recently pointing out that one of my main reasons for doing so had to do with self-preservation. Blogging about politics, indeed, was a very effective way of letting external events create a hell within me.

Radiohead first artistically distinguished themselves in my eyes when they did what all great bands have done: they evolved. After early success as a heavily guitar-oriented rock band, rather than giving in to the temptation to continue with the formula that made them money and won them fans, starting somewhat with their third album, OK Computer, and in earnest on their fourth, Kid A, they risked the alienation of their fanbase, and therefore the support of their record label, by eschewing the guitar-centric sound for a more orchestral approach, introducing more ambient and electronic elements.

The risk paid off big time, with critical acclaim, chart topping, and Grammy Awards. They might have lost fans of their earlier music, but they most certainly gained plenty of new fans to compensate.

Now, back to me. Because politics is so drenched in drama-inducing polarization, it’s not that difficult for a political blog to draw traffic. My former blog, at one point, was attracting hundreds and hundreds of hits a day. But, all I had to do was give a blog post a headline like “Republicans are Evil” in order to guarantee a lot of visits from folks on both sides of the political dichotomy, and sometimes they’d battle it out in the comments section.

I feel a kinship with Radiohead. While the scale is nowhere near the same, I did give up all that sure-thing political traffic in an effort to evolve. Consequently, despite having had two spikes of traffic — 134 views one day, 191 on another — most days see a yield of no more than 40 views.

So, I’m standing by, ready for those Radiohead-esque rewards for my artistic courage and integrity to come rolling in…

…um, I’m still waiting!

Blogging Forecast: sporadic

blogging

If I was single, childless, and a professional blogger, you could count on Fish & Bicycles content to continue flowing this week.

Rather, I’m none of those things. And so, between a few more days of work, the usual shuttling of my son to his numerous rock climbing activities, a Solstice party, last minute Christmas shopping and wrapping, loading up the sleigh, driving to Seattle, partying with the family, skiing at Stevens Pass, and far from easy access to the interwebs…

…the Fish & Bicycles forecast is: sporadic.

If anyone stumbling upon this post would like to pay me to blog professionally, I will consider offers.

However, reading through that list of potential obstacles to blogging this week, don’t even think of counting on me starting until after the New Year.


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Video Fridays: Monty Python

Oh, Monty Python, how do I love thee?

Let me count the ways!

I shall count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number I shall count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four I shalt not count, neither shalt I count two, excepting that I then proceed on to three. Five is right out!…

Ok, while this might be the first Monty Python clip in the Video Fridays series, I can pretty much guarantee that I will eventually post more than three, even though I risk the wrath of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

And now for something completely different:

Rockin’ the zodiac

virgo
Last week I wrote about a recent Free Will Astrology horoscope, and while I wouldn’t normally do another astrology-related post so soon, I couldn’t pass this up:

Twenty-two percent of American rightwing fundamentalists believe that Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ. On the other hand, 73 percent of the people who read my horoscopes think that if there were such a thing as an Anti-Christ, he would be an American rightwing fundamentalist. But I’d like to discourage speculations like that among the Virgo tribe in 2010. According to my reading of the omens, you should take at least a year off from getting worked up about your version of the devil. Whoever you demonize, just let them alone for a while. Whatever you tend to fault as the cause of the world’s problems, give your blame mechanism a rest. As much as possible, create for yourself an Enemy-Free Zone.

I’m pretty proud of the fact that, back in October, I was able to pull myself out of the cesspool that political blogging can become. As I said in my inaugural Fish & Bicycles post, I’d grown so narrowly focused on writing about politics that I was betraying my original vision for the blog, a vision that included writing content on a wide variety of topics.

But what I didn’t mention in that post was just how demoralizing it was to be a political blogger. After all, in order to do it well, one must spend hours every single day reading about all the crap going on in Washington, around the country, and all over the globe. While I’m no advocate for living with one’s head in the sand, I am also not a masochist, and I really think you either need to be a masochist or you need to have a much thicker skin than I do in order to write about politics long-term.

And this idea of Brezsny’s of an Enemy-Free Zone is nearly impossible to create and sustain if you are an opinion blogger, as far as I can tell or could experience.

The cool thing is that my decision to stop being a political blogger has spilled over into my offline life as well. I’m incredibly hesitant to enter into political discussions even with folks who I know are of the same liberal persuasion as I am, and a recent incident at least temporarily avoided co-creating another enemy.

I was at a holiday party, sitting around a firepit, the beer and wine was flowing, and folks, some I knew, some I didn’t, were making casual conversation. Eventually, the discussion turned towards politics and I felt the red flag go up. I observed how the mood degraded from friendly and festive towards frustration, bitterness, betrayal, and anger. I kept quiet and didn’t engage, hoping the topic would run its course quickly and return to lighter, perhaps more frivolous fare.

Then, suddenly, this exchange happened:

    Guest #1: I’m so sick and tired of Rush Limbaugh!

    Guest #2: What’s so terrible about Rush?

    Guest #1 Are you serious?!!

    Guest #2: Totally serious. I like Rush Limbaugh!

    Me: Excuse me, nice talking to you folks, but I’m going get a refill and find someone to talk about skiing with.

Ok, so, I didn’t actually say that bit about finding someone to talk to about skiing.

I just excused myself and walked away.

It felt great!

Apple and Google apparently don’t need me anymore


I’ve been a Mac user and Apple fan for many years.

My first Mac, a Macintosh Classic, won me over with its simple, intuitive user interface, and its compact, all-in-one package, and my most recent, a 12-inch Powerbook G4, has been the perfect notebook for me.

All along the way, I’ve drooled over the new releases, loved Apple’s sleek, modern design sense, bought an iPod Touch, coveted the freedom of the iPhone, and I always agreed with friends who would say that the best anti-virus software ever created is OS X.

But then, in June of 2008, it was revealed that the then-upcoming newest release of OS X, Snow Leopard, and therefore all subsequent updates, would only work on the new generation of Macs with Intel processors.

Apple essentially gave my Powerbook a death sentence.

And now, adding considerable insult to injury, Google, whose search, Gmail, and Docs products I use every day, has offered up a long-awaited Beta version of its Chrome browser for Macs…

…BUT, it only works on Intel Macs.

My Powerbook is five years old and starting to show its age and act funny.

A new aluminum MacBook Pro, which I’ve been longing for, would cost me $1,200 minimum.

It’s getting harder and harder to justify going there when I could get a decent laptop and a free copy of Ubuntu for half the money.

Apple? Google? Are you listening? Do you care?


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Six Degrees of Cameron Crowe

almost famous
Well, it’s that time of year and journalists are writing their reflection pieces, covering the best and worst that 2009 had to offer. (Pitchfork is a good example, with their lists of best songs, albums, and videos, and worst album covers.)

But we’re also, according to the media (post refuting this claim soon to follow), at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, and yesterday I came across a curious cross-reference: Rolling Stone magazine has published their Best Music of the Decade, Salon is doing a series called Films of the Decade, and R.J. Cutler writes about how one of the Films of the Decade, former Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical Almost Famous from 2000, was not only about Cameron Crowe, it was about R.J. Cutler as well.

Well, what Cameron Crowe and R.J. Cutler both don’t realize is that Almost Famous was actually about me.

I’ll explain.

There’s a scene near the beginning of the film, when young William Miller’s older sister, Anita, leaves home (cue Sgt. Pepper, Track 6), after a quintessential late-1960s culture gap conflict with their overbearing mother. William is Crowe at 11 years of age, and right before Anita gets in the car to leave, she whispers in his ear, “Look under your bed. It’ll set you free.”

That evening, William locks the door of his room, reaches under his bed, and finds a stash of records that Anita had left for him. He flips through them, and we see some of the greatest albums of the era, albums that exemplified a time of revolutionary music, film, art, politics, and culture, and as he’s flipping through he comes to an album by The Who, where he finds a note from Anita that reads, “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”

William lights a candle, places Tommy on his turntable, and as he drops the needle on the vinyl the spacey glory of the song Sparks fills the room, a song from an album, a rock opera, that was an allegory for the kind of consciousness breakthrough that so many experienced at that time, a consciousness breakthrough that Anita obviously experienced, and one that, as we see in the next scene, a jump forward in time of 4 years, William has experienced, as is evident by his obsessive doodling of rock band logos on his school notebook.

Now, while some of the details were different – my older sister didn’t leave because of a conflict with my parents, she left our home in New Jersey to attend the University of Georgia; she didn’t leave me her albums, I stole some of them from her; I didn’t become a writer for Rolling Stone or Salon, I write a blog – Tommy WAS one of the albums I got from my sister, and it did blow my mind and set me free, and I too would eventually obsessively doodle the logos of my favorite rock bands on the brown shopping bag covers on my text books in school.

Just the other night, I was at Bellingham’s great local bookstore, Village Books, where I invariably end up spending some of my time browsing the titles in the music section. I came across a biography of Led Zeppelin that I’d never seen before, Mick Wall’s When Giants Walked The Earth, and as I thumbed through the pages and looked at the photos, I was instantly taken back to my childhood, feeling that amazing sense of awe and wonder that the music of that time evoked, and an unwelcome voice in my head said, “When the HELL are you going to grow up?!”

Then a competing voice said, “Your 45-years old, happily married, the father of an incredible 12-year old son, you work at a university, play guitar and sing in a band, and you write a blog.”

If that’s not growing up, well then, I hope to God I never do.

The love and hate of Christmas

xmas tree
Let me tell you a dirty little secret that you’ve probably already heard from someone else who was raised Jewish:

Jews, including me, LOVE Christmas.

Not all of us will admit it, and many of us have actually convinced ourselves that, far from loving it, we HATE Christmas for typical woe-is-us-the-constantly-oppressed reasons: Christmas is everywhere; it’s assumed that everyone celebrates it; it’s all a materialistic orgy; it’s a right-wing conspiracy to Christianize America; it forces us to eat Chinese food and go to movie theaters when everyone else is eating ham, drinking egg nog, and giving presents to each other; Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Dylan are Jews, so what are they doing recording Christmas albums?… etc.

My love of Christmas started with a perfect storm of holiday TV specials and next-door neighbors who, year after year, celebrated with quintessence. My best friend lived next door, we did everything together, and so I helped put the lights on the house and helped decorate their tree, every year until they moved to Cleveland the summer before I started high school.

I knew all the lyrics to all of the Christmas songs and carols, and I would have worn a Santa hat everyday if I owned one.

Then, one year, we took the train into Manhattan, as we’d done many times before, but this time it was Christmastime, and we walked down 5th Avenue, past all the famously decorated shop windows, we went to Rockefeller Center (pictured here) and beheld the most magnificent sight, the biggest Christmas tree ever, towering over the most idyllic skating rink you could imagine, we ate hot roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, we walked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was all decorated out and a choir was singing Christmas songs…

…it was absolutely magical!

Meanwhile, in our home, we did a very strange thing. My parents, obviously, didn’t want me and my two sisters to feel totally left out of the season, so along with lighting the menorah, reciting the blessings, eating latkes, and playing dreidel on Chanukah, my dad would read us “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve, and in the morning, in our living room, there’d be presents laid out…

…not under a tree, but on and around our coffee table. No Christmas decorations anywhere else in the house, but the gifts were all wrapped in traditional Christmas wrapping paper.

It was confusing to say the least, but we got presents, so who were we to complain? Am I right?

Still, I wanted a tree SO badly. And one year I did a completely crazy thing.

We lived across the street from the elementary school I went to, and the school had this big, flat lawn in front of it that was perfect for playing football on…

…except for that small tree growing right smack dab in the middle.

We had all sorts of collisions with the damned tree, going long for a pass and suddenly not going anywhere but down to the ground, hard, as the ball soared overhead.

It wasn’t my fault that this tree just happened to be an evergreen, with a distinctly Christmas tree shape to it, and so one winter’s night a couple of weeks before the holiday, my friend and I sneaked across the street with a pruning saw, we ran from bush to bush on the way, and then we crawled, soldier-like, across the frozen lawn, and once at the tree we cut it down as quickly as we could and ran, dragging it across the street. It eventually ended up in our basement, where we were confronted with the fatal flaw of our plan. We had no idea what to do next.

Needless to say, it ended badly. I tried some good old-fashioned Jewish guilt tactics, telling my parents that it was all their fault because they wouldn’t let us have a tree of our own, but that didn’t work. I don’t really remember the punishment, but I do remember feeling a little bad about having killed that tree, and justice was ultimately served, as we ended up tripping over the stump we’d left just about as often as we’d collided with the tree, during our epic half-time football games in those often bitter cold New Jersey winters.