Best of Fish & Bicycles: Happy Old Decade

Originally Published: December 31, 2009

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!

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Consider The Bald Eagle

Originally Published: January 5, 2011

The current surge of anti-government sentiment in the U.S. — the government is too big, too intrusive, markets should be totally free from government regulation, there should be little or no taxes, etc. — amazes me on so many levels, and today I came across an article that really highlights the folly of those attitudes.

The ideas that Americans don’t need the government telling them what they can and can’t do, and that anything the government does the private sector can do better, really don’t square with what usually happens when American behavior goes unchecked.

Case in point: The Bald Eagle.

Designated as the U.S. national symbol in 1782, included in the Great Seal of the United States, the Seal of the President of the United States, and on much of our currency, you’d think the country actually cared deeply about the animal and its wellbeing.

Well, as it turns out, no. Left to their own devices, the American people, through hunting, habitat destruction, and pesticide use nearly drove the Bald Eagle to extinction in the lower 48.

According to Wikipedia:

It is estimated that in the early 18th century, the Bald Eagle population was 300,000–500,000, but by the 1950s there were only 412 nesting pairs in the 48 contiguous states of the US.

It took the government stepping in — declaring the Bald Eagle an endangered species in 1967 and banning the pesticide DDT in 1972 — to keep the country from destroying its own mascot.

Now, I live in eagle country, and knew about the dramatic recovery of the population here, and with friends in Maine knew about a similar success story there, but now this:

But even the most optimistic could never have predicted the resiliency of the birds and the ferocity of their comeback. In Iowa, hopeful environmentalists set a goal of 10 or 20 nests by 2010. But exponential population growth took the Department of Wildlife by surprise. Last year, federal staffers lost count at 254 nests, nearly as many as once existed in the entire continental U.S. The bird left the Endangered Species List in 2007.

Iowa?! I didn’t even know there were ever Bald Eagles in Iowa!

Governments, historically, are never perfect and frequently the opposite, but what we need is better governors not less government. And since we are our own governors, it’s up to us.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Portlandia: Why Am I So Defensive?

Originally Published: January 20, 2011

Listen, I don’t even watch TV, except the occasional episode via Hulu.

But, when a new series comes along set right here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s impossible to not hear about it, and when everyone around me is talking about this great new thing, I have to admit that I invariably cave and at least check it out. (Sometimes it sticks and I’m hooked: 30 Rock. Sometimes it doesn’t: Modern Family.)

Anyway….(geez! sometimes I even get tired of how long I take to get to the point)…I’ve now watched the inaugural episode of the new comedy series Portlandia, starring SNL’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney fame, which is set…painfully obvious…in Portland, Oregon, and while I laughed heartily throughout, I had a curious delayed reaction.

This morning, Salon has an article posted titled Can The Left Laugh At Itself?, and the premise of the article is summed up nicely at the very end:

Armisen and Browstein’s masterstroke is showing how certain flavors of modern leftist sensitivity/engagement can seem (to outsiders) like passive-aggressive self-absorption laced with contempt for the unenlightened.

Now, I can get behind the value of an ego check for us well-meaning lefties, and I realize that the best comedy makes us laugh when we recognize peculiarities, not just of others, but of ourselves.

However, I have to say that I did find my defenses rearing up as I watched the show and read reviews that applaud the lampooning of the left. I very clearly saw aspects of myself in the show’s characters, folks who are earnestly trying to be part of the solution rather than the problem, by buying local, buying organic, eschewing their cars in favor of bicycles and transit, challenging our culture’s tendency towards homogenization by exercising their right to adopt an alternative, non-9-to-5-ladder-climbing lifestyle, etc. In my mind, we need more people like this, and if we are marginalized we’re in deep trouble.

Hilariously, the Salon writer has me pegged:

The series rather pointedly teases a core section of IFC’s audience — a portion that will watch Armisen and Brownstein’s antics very closely, with an eye for accuracy, and then either roar with recognition and approval, or go on the Internet immediately and write a blog entry about how “Portlandia” doesn’t get Portland, or Oregon, or feminist bookstores or urban bike culture.

Now, I laughed a lot as I watched the show, and I’ve watched the clip of just the opening song, The Dream of the 90s Is Alive In Portland, numerous times because it’s so freaking funny, so it doesn’t seem like my sense of humor is lacking.

Rather, it’s impossible for me, a 46-year old lefty, to watch Portlandia and not think about how soundly the 60s counterculture had its ass kicked by anti-hippie backlash, by many in the movement hypocritically transforming from hippie into yuppie, and how lefties are still so easily marginalized and dismissed by the right simply by calling them liberals.

Additionally, it seems all the more concerning to me that, in the case of Portlandia, young artists like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who have both been part of the counterculture dream of the 90s, might be contributing to their own marginalization, rather than letting the right do all the work.

So, I’ll definitely be watching more episodes, and I’d really love to hear what other lefties think about the mixed feelings I’ve expressed here. I mean, I’m always open to good reasons to lighten up.

In the meantime, I think I’ll watch the video of that opening song one more time.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Video Fridays: Andrew Bird

Originally Published: June 6, 2010

I first heard Andrew Bird on NPR over a year ago, and I was struck by how beautiful his music is, how refreshing it was to hear whistling and a plucked violin.

But after the NPR piece was over and my life reclaimed my attention I forgot about Andrew Bird, until, thankfully, a student employee I supervise mentioned how his favorite Pandora station is built on Andrew Bird.

Wow. The guy is a true mad genius.

In today’s Video Fridays installment, Andrew builds a song with a violin, guitar, whistling, and vocals using a loop machine in a stunning one-man-band performance.


Best of Fish & Bicycles: A Rock & Roll Elder’s Beginner’s Mind

Originally Published: September 21, 2010

Like most guys of my generation, I spent a considerable portion of my youth listening to Led Zeppelin. I didn’t really have a choice. I had an ear for music and I had testosterone.

Now, all these years later, I’m a 45-year old frustrated musician, harboring a dream to be in a performing band, having worked at the guitar for over 20 years, particularly over the past 5 years, and yet I can’t seem to find bandmates. My recent Craigslist ad, the language for which I crafted over several weeks, yielded not one response. For the first time in years, I walk past my guitar these days, sitting on its stand, and I don’t feel an intense magnetic pull. I’ve started to question whether or not I should even bother. Perhaps, I think to myself, I should just settle for the occasional jam session that I attend, or the occasional campfire that I strum and sing around.

But then, last night, I heard a delightful interview with Robert Plant on NPR, and I was particularly struck by this exchange (my emphasis in bold):

Melissa Block: Do you think that you started thinking of your voice, maybe, as an instrument, in the way that Jimmie Page’s guitar was an instrument in Zeppelin?

Robert Plant:Yeah, it was a thing to play off of, definitely. But, it’s a weird thing to do, because the voice doesn’t have that kind of flexibility. I wanted my voice to be a tenor sax, really. I wanted to be Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to be Dexter Gordon. I just think that certain instruments have so much more chance of following the electric charges in your mind. When you’re listening to people play the post-bebop stuff, you can hear this great instrumentation. But for a singer, you’ve got to work with syllables; you’ve got to work with themes and lyric. I’ve got to learn to play something soon.

Sure, a cynic could write this off as a kind of faux humility that comes with the privilege of being a superstar. Certainly, Plant doesn’t have to learn to play an instrument. He’s set for life.

But for some reason, his comment struck me as a genuine expression of Shoshin, the Zen Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

There’s a film I saw in 2002 titled Fierce Grace, a documentary about Ram Dass. The film is part biography and part exploration of Dass’ experience of a massive stroke he had suffered. Near the beginning of the film, Dass explains that when the stroke hit he was struck by how he — a world famous spiritual teacher, a former Harvard professor and devoted student of Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba — at a moment of being very close to death had no connection to spirit, had no spiritual thoughts whatsoever, that as he laid there all he noticed were the pipes on the ceiling above, and he thought to himself: I have some work to do. (You can see this very moving scene, as well as the entire film, split up into nine parts, on YouTube.)

And when I think about the writing of my Craigslist ad, I realize that it was written from an expert’s frame of mind. Of course I’m no true expert at anything, and yet, as I was writing the ad, I was thinking of my musicianship as having achieved a degree of expertise and that I required bandmates to have an equal degree of expertise or higher. While there’s a fairly thoughtful and practical motivation behind that approach – to filter out musicians who won’t be very compatible with me due to their lack of experience, thereby saving their time and mine – I can’t help wonder whether or not this expert mind energetically turned off potential bandmates.

Maybe, like Ram Dass, I have more work to do. Perhaps I should take some lessons, to finally learn all those alternate chord forms that I’ve coveted for so many years.

It could be fun to be a beginner again!

Best of Fish & Bicycles: There Goes The Neighborhood!

Originally Published: August 5, 2010

No, the following headline is NOT from The Onion:

IHOP mascot Suzie Pancake assaulted at Bellingham restaurant

BELLINGHAM – IHOP’s mascot Suzie Pancake was assaulted by a bystander at about 3 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, outside of the restaurant at 3619 Byron St., according to Bellingham police.

A 19-year-old woman dressed in the pancake suit was outside the IHOP, waving at passers-by, when 22-year-old James Manas approached her and began yelling at her and hitting the suit with his hand, Bellingham Police spokesman Mark Young said.

A passer-by stopped Manas as he tried to hit her again; Manas then walked to a nearby bus stop, said Young.

Disturbing. I know. It’s the kind of thing you never think will happen in your town. It’s so A Clockwork Orange!

It’s funny, right after I read this story in the Bellingham Herald this morning, I started to take off on my bicycle for work and found that our car, which we park on the street in front of the house, had had both front windows wide open all night. Truth is, this is a common occurrence, arguably foolish complacence for sure, but crime is, fortunately, incredibly rare in our neighborhood.

Question is: Now that Suzie Pancake has been assaulted here in Bellingham, will all that change? I mean, what’s next? Will Ronald McDonald go on a crazed vigilante binge seeking revenge on Suzie’s behalf?

Best of Fish & Bicycles: The Fragile Male Self

Originally Published: August 10, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, our cat came scurrying into the house from the backyard, with this in her mouth:

I know. Before you’re able to settle into how cute the baby squirrel is, you find that it’s actually kinda painful to look at. How vulnerable. How fragile?!

And, it’s one thing to just look at the photo, another entirely when you need to figure out what to do with the poor little thing.

No, it wasn’t dead. The eyes, like those of other baby mammals, hadn’t opened yet. As far as I could tell, the cat had not injured the tiny squirrelet, and it didn’t seem, however skinny it appeared, to be particularly weak, as it squirmed around considerably, repeatedly wresting itself from the hand towel I tried to wrap it in to keep it warm.

I couldn’t return it to its nest, or whatever you call it, because I had no idea where that might be. And even if I could, I remember reading somewhere that the mother will reject the baby if she detects a human scent, and I rushed to hold the baby in my hands to keep it warm, because I read somewhere else that this would prevent the animal from going into shock.

Thank goodness for the NW Wildlife Rehabilitation Center! I called at 5pm and they were open until 8pm. Awesome! They were a 30-minute drive out Mt. Baker Highway, but they told me it’s baby squirrel season, they have 6 others from the past week, and they have a very good success rate rehabbing them and releasing them out in the wild.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a 12-year old son, and there’s no one who looks at him, either in repose or while rock climbing or skimboarding or etc., and thinks he’s fragile in any way.

According to Michael Gurian, however, author of A Fine Young Man: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Adolescent Boys into Exceptional Men, nothing could be further from the truth. Through review of extensive research and research of his own, Gurian presents conclusive evidence that, while boys outwardly exhibit bravado and toughness, contrary to sexist stereotypes that women are the weaker sex boys are actually more mentally and emotionally fragile than girls.

It’s this disconnect between what boys feel they need to be and who they are that makes the time of adolescence so incredibly difficult for them, and I certainly see my son struggling with that all the time.

Now, don’t think for a second that there’s a simple solution. You don’t just coddle and tell your son, “Honey, you don’t have to pretend.” Some of the posturing they do, Gurian suggests, is actually healthy and it’s a matter of finding a positive outlet for it, through sports or other male activities.

Anyway, there’s much more to it than that, and there’s much more to my son for sure.

(Oh, by the way, the little squirrelet was a boy and he’s doing very well.)

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Hot Metal Action

Originally Published: May 24, 2010

This past Saturday, the family unit and I attended what may be the coolest event in a town that has a thing for cool events.

The Welding Rodeo, held at Bellingham Technical College, is, if anything, a celebration of creativity. For I would wager that most people, when they think of art, don’t think of suede-clad teams of individuals wearing masks and wielding sledge hammers and welders. The Welding Rodeo shatters the cliché of the beret-wearing, palette-holding intellectual, dabbing oil paint delicately at a canvas with sable brushes.

Think of it this way: In high school, you’d usually have no problem distinguishing between the kids in metal shop and the kids in life drawing, the former destined for an auto repair shop, the latter for an art gallery. No such segregation at the Welding Rodeo.

The event’s format is simple. Teams of four have eight hours to fabricate a metal sculpture using only the scrap metal available to them at the 8am scrap dive:

The teams retreat to their booths with their materials and go to work, sparks and hammers a-flyin’.

Slowly but surely, the sculptures start to take shape, all of them, in some way, representing the theme chosen ahead of time. This year’s theme: Human Form.

One of the teams has traveled to the Welding Rodeo five years in a row…

…from Denmark!

A bonus for the day: anyone who wanted to try welding could sign a waiver and get a taste for the metal-on-metal action. Here’s my son Julian going for it:

These few photos really can’t do the event justice, so you either need to come to the rodeo next year or check out the extensive photo galleries they already have posted.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Design: Capitalism’s Redeeming Value

Originally Published: December 30, 2009

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:

MoCo Loco
Yanko Design

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Stuff We Need: Electric Roadways

Originally Published: November 4, 2010

I read some great, hope-inspiring stuff on the automotive front today.

While I’m a big fan of mass transit, I tend to think that sustainable transportation plans that aim to eliminate cars altogether face way too much resistance. Car culture is just so firmly embedded in the human psyche, and not just in the U.S.

And so I like to watch the trends in electric car technologies, and I came across the following items making my regular rounds at Inhabitat.

First up:

Sweden-based architect Mans Tham went halfway around the world with this design for a serpent-shaped solar skin for the Sana Monica Freeway…

From afar the solar structure looks like a long scaly serpent winding its way through the stucco and palm tree studded neighborhoods. Inside is a shaded tunnel-like roadway. Outside is a massive array of solar panels that produce a peak of 150 mWhs of clean energy for the local population.

An intriguing idea for sure, and the computer mock-ups are incredibly cool-looking:

And yet, I don’t really see much chance of L.A. residents supporting the idea. With the amount of time the average person spends stuck in traffic during their commutes on the Santa Monica Freeway, I can see folks complaining that they can’t at least enjoy unhindered scenery while they creep along. Others might complain of claustrophobia, since even the longest road tunnel to-date is only 15.2 miles long.

So, one of the commenters at Inhabitat, possibly thinking about these issues or others, provided a link to an article on what seems to be a better solution:

Putting the solar panels on the road itself:

“Julie turned to me and said, ‘Can’t you make those electric roads you’ve always dreamed of out of solar panels?’ At first I said, ‘No. Solar panels are very fragile and you can’t even step on them, let alone drive on them.’ So we started batting this idea back and forth and thinking of things like a black box on an airplane. That’s a little case that houses sensitive electronics through the worst of airplane crashes and protects them. If we could make a bigger version of that—a structurally engineered compartment for solar cells that would withstand the beating of an 18-wheeler—then, yeah, we could make a solar panel that you could actually drive on…

On the visit to the University of Dayton, Scott found them working on what was called bomb-resistant glass; for vehicles in war scenarios, a bomb could go off at point-blank range and the glass wouldn’t blow inward creating shrapnel for the vehicle’s occupants. One researcher on that project looked over Scott’s specs. “He said we could take that formula, tweak it a little bit, lay it down on the road and it would take anything an 18-wheeler could do to it,” Scott recalled. “That was exactly what I wanted to hear.”

The project began progressing from there. “I knew then that we could take this glass surface and put solar cells underneath it,” said Scott. “They wouldn’t be touched by the traffic and they would just collect power from the roads that are baking in the sun anyway.

To sum up the rest of the article, they got funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, determined that the roads could actually pay for themselves over a projected 20-year lifespan (they generate very valuable electricity, after all!), they’ve built a prototype, and now they’re in search of more funding in order to move the idea forward.

Now, in that article, Scott Brusaw relates that his idea grew out of childhood memories (memories I have too) of a toy racing car track that had electrified grooves in it. The toy cars, then, had small metal pieces that protruded out from the bottom, the cars would be placed on the track with the metal piece in the electrified groove, and a handheld controller with a trigger allowed the “driver” to control the flow of electricity, making the car move, and the more you pulled the trigger the faster the car went.

Well, back at Inhabitat, there’s this news that electrified roadways may soon be a reality for more than toy cars:

World’s First Wireless Electric Car Charger Launched In UK

The company (HaloIPT) is planning to electrify parts of England’s M25 motorway by using magnetic induction, a principle that was first discovered in the 1800s. The Inductive Power Transfer system allows a car fitted with a simple integrated receiver pad to be charged automatically when parked or driven on roads with HaloIPT’s special charging pads beneath their surface. If major road routes such as the M25 are ‘electrified’, then it will greatly increase the range and the appeal of electric vehicles.

The IPT is designed to be compatible with all vehicles (including eBikes and heavy goods vehicles), and it has been designed to function under any weather conditions — even if the driver doesn’t align the car properly with the pads embedded in the asphalt. The system was tested by HaloIPT on a Citroen C1, named Evie, to see the charging performance of the IPT. It took six hours to fully charge Evie from 20 percent capacity, with the energy sourced from a regular household socket. The company also says their system can charge even at distances of up to 40 centimeters.

“We’re using IPT to break down the barriers to mass-market adoption of electric cars,” says HaloIPT’s CEO, Anthony Thomson. “Keeping electric vehicle costs down is a key priority for us.”

Now THAT is exciting!