Monday, January 30, 2012

World gone dark

Apologies to readers: I am not able to blog this week.

SP, BK: R.I.P.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Charlotte's Web in Berkeley (or, the Spider in the Hall)

Okay, there's no pig in this post, so the title is a bit of a stretch. But here's the thing.

In October I started a Tumblr. (It's called One Finger Clicking, get it?)

My second photo posted to the Tumblr (at right) shows a spider that I'd noticed hanging out on the landing of our small apartment building's stairwell. The spider had been there for a couple of weeks at the time I took the photo. That was on October 21st, a little more than three months ago, so figure it's been about four months since I first saw the critter.

When it comes to spiders we're a live and let live bunch of apartment-dwellers here in my building (less so when it comes to rats). The spider in the hall last October wasn't going to hurt anybody, her web was tucked into a corner that's mostly taken up with a potted plant (a spider plant, natch), so nobody messed with her.

The thing is ... how long are spiders supposed to live, anyway? 'Cuz what I'm here to tell you today is that this very same spider has been living in our hallway all this time, since early October. Yup. She's still weaving away.

I know it's the same spider because I see her just about every day, as I'm walking up the stairs. The web is always in about the same place from day to day (the spider has shifted location slowly over time, probably in response to changing weather and the fact that the window is usually closed now instead of usually open a few months ago). She's always perched right smack in the center of the web; sometimes it looks as though she hasn't moved for days on end.

Those stretches of immobility make me wonder sometimes if she's finally died and gone to spider-heaven, whether it's just a soulless spider husk clinging to the web. At such times I restrain the ten year old boy still lurking inside me (deep, deep, deep inside) and refrain from poking to see if she moves. I give it a day or three, and eventually the spider changes position just a wee bit ... or maybe she makes an obvious move and I find her curled up around some hapless little fly, sucking its guts out. Hey, that's what spiders do...

I'm not an experienced spider classifier, but this one seems to be a pretty classic orb weaver. Maybe it's the European garden spider, Araneus diadematus. Whatever the genus and species, we get zillions of these spiders every fall in Berkeley. Out-of-towners can get a little freaked out, because they're highly visible, some of them get pretty meaty, even, and they and their webs are everyplace. They seem to have lasted an especially long time this year -- perhaps because we had an unusually dry December and first half of January.

The 2003 photo by Johan Van Hoecke on the UC Berkeley BioKeys Orb-weavers page (available on the date of this blog post) looks like a pretty good match. Nick's Spiders has a lot of photos of this species if you're interested in lots more.

So ... apologies to Wilbur's fan club for the reachy title of this post, but I just had to give a shout out to the tenacious little arthropod in the hall.

[Charlotte's Web, written by E.B. White and published in 1952, is one of my favorite children's books of all time. If you have kids and they haven't read it, do 'em a favor and put it in their queue. If you're an adult and haven't read it, don't think for a moment that it's too late: head out to your nearest independent book store and pick up a copy this week.]

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Monday, January 23, 2012


Chun Jie Hao (春節好 or 春节) to all -- Happy Spring Holiday. It's the Year of the Dragon today, which means that last night was Chinese New Year Eve, which means that Matthew made dumplings for our dinner.

There are three fantastic things about Matthew making dumplings. First, they are delicious. Second, he makes about a scillion of them. Third, there's always leftover filling, which means he makes them again, and soon.

The filling is a secret mystery, which is to say that Matthew always makes it solo. I do know there are a lot of garlic chives involved. And shrimp, chicken, and eggs. Beyond that, I leave it to the expert.

Sometimes I'm permitted to help fill the dumplings. Matthew uses store-bought gyoza skins, which seems only safe and sane given a production as labor-intensive as dumplings. In Shenyang, China, Matthew's family does the same. Now that's a serious production, aunts and uncles making plate after plate after plate of dumplings.

Anyway, store-bought skins is authentic enough for me. This year I was responsible for finding the dumpling skins at the grocery store, because the legendary Berkeley Bowl is on a major rearranging-everything kick and the refrigerated case where they usually live was missing the other day. I found them, no worries. But that's as far as my responsibilities went in dumpling assembly this time around: as you can see from the pre-cooked photo, each and every dumpling is perfectly formed. That means Matthew stuffed them all.

I did cook them, however. There I seem to have sufficient talent to be permitted a role. I lightly oil the pan, let the dumplings sizzle for a bit in the oil, then add just enough water and cover the pan so that they steam. I let the pan go dry, and the bottoms of the dumplings do that lovely crispy-carmelization thing on the bottom.

Okay, so it wasn't a scillion, it was four dozen on the nose, you can count them in the photo. We ate ... most, but not all of them (there was more to dinner than dumplings, natch, we're talking holiday here, right?). And there's the true beauty of homemade dumplings. You eat and eat 'til you can't eat no more.


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Thursday, January 19, 2012

De-occupying the web equals general strike?

So many people have written about what went dark on the web and why yesterday, you'd think there'd be nothing left to say. Well I'm going to give it a shot.

First the sound-byte version of the context of yesterday's blackout, taken from Wikipedia, perhaps the most visible and important site that participated in (led, really) the action:
Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge

For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.

Google's TakeAction page posted yesterday -- titled "End Piracy, Not Liberty" -- gives a slightly more contextualized explanation of what it was all about ... this is the page that came up on 18 January (yesterday) if you clicked on the blacked-out Google logo on the search engine's U.S. home page:
Two bills before Congress, known as the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, would censor the Web and impose harmful regulations on American business. Millions of Internet users and entrepreneurs already oppose SOPA and PIPA.

The Senate will begin voting on January 24th. Please let them know how you feel. [...]

Both of these sites gave visitors an easy path to express their opposition to PIPA and SOPA: a petition to sign in Google's case, and a quick link to contact your representatives in the House and Senate in the case of Wikipedia. What fascinated me most about this was the huge range of individuals in my Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ circles who posted in support of the blackout: from the most libertarian Republicans I know (yes, I do know more than a few), to the anarchist lefties.

So that's all great, and you probably heard all about it already. I hope you signed Google's petition or someone else's, and found your way to your Congressperson and Senators' in-box ... if you haven't, it's not too late. Yes, I contacted my legislators, and was interested to see that Senator Diane Feinstein's "E-Mail Me" page was down in the morning, so I had to come back for a second visit last night. Heavy traffic, you might imagine...

But here's a sampling of the 'little stuff' you might not have noticed unless you are one of the web's bazillions of content providers beyond Wikipedia. You know, if you tweet, blog, tumbl, share photos or video, and so on.

Were there other ways for individual content providers to participate in the content blackout organized to protest SOPA and PIPA? Oh yes, indeed. Check out's These Websites Are Going Dark... article of 17 Jan for detail. Did the blackout have any effect? Check out this from the NY Times article In Fight Over Piracy Bills, New Economy Rises Against Old:
When the powerful world of old media mobilized to win passage of an online antipiracy bill, it marshaled the reliable giants of K Street — the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Recording Industry Association of America and, of course, the motion picture lobby, with its new chairman, former Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat and an insider’s insider.

Yet on Wednesday this formidable old guard was forced to make way for the new as Web powerhouses backed by Internet activists rallied opposition to the legislation through Internet blackouts and cascading criticism, sending an unmistakable message to lawmakers grappling with new media issues: Don’t mess with the Internet.

As a result, the legislative battle over two once-obscure bills to combat the piracy of American movies, music, books and writing on the World Wide Web may prove to be a turning point for the way business is done in Washington. It represented a moment when the new economy rose up against the old.

So this all gets me to thinking:

Wikipedia serves community-generated content, and is one of the most visited sites on the intertubes.

Tumblr, Flickr, Wordpress -- ditto, in a much more distributed, everybody-says-their-own-piece kind of a way. And these sites get a lot of eyeballs too, day in and day out.

So what we had yesterday was a political action that was, in some very significant venues, enabled by technology companies that are big and staffed and funded and organized to fight for its own self-interest ............... but that was realized by the individual writers, photographers, and videographers who pulled their contributions for the duration of the action.

That, methinks, looks a lot like a general strike.

Somebody calls a general strike. Unions and other organizations may help to make it easier by providing food, signs, organized pickets, and so forth ... but it's the people who walk off the job who make it happen.

What was proven yesterday was that an online general strike can have real political effect in the highest levels of government. Again, from the same NY Times article quoted above:
First, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising Republican star, took to Facebook, one of the vehicles for promoting opposition, to renounce a bill he had co-sponsored. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who leads the G.O.P.’s Senate campaign efforts, used Facebook to urge his colleagues to slow the bill down. Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina and a Tea Party favorite, announced his opposition on Twitter, which was already boiling over with anti-#SOPA and #PIPA fever.

Then trickle turned to flood — adding Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Representatives Lee Terry of Nebraska and Ben Quayle of Arizona. At least 10 senators and nearly twice that many House members announced their opposition.

That's pretty interesting, wouldn't you say? Seems there are a fair few people who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore.

What next?

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Melancholy popular music: Lana Del Rey and her antecedents

A week and a half ago I stumbled on a phenomenon that pretty much every music insider has been over and over again lately: Lana Del Rey, whose image and story will grace the cover of Billboard magazine's upcoming issue (21 Jan 2012), and who performed on Saturday Night Live this past weekend.

I stumbled on Del Rey's single Video Games ten days ago, when a DJ queued it up on the radio station I had playing on a drive north from Santa Cruz. I'd just gotten off the freeway in Oakland, I was nearly home.

The song first went viral as a YouTube video (embedded below) before its strong release as a single in October. That first time I heard it, in the car, I was blown away by the plaintive melancholy of the artist's vocals set against the swells and ebbs of a partly-synthesized wall of sound, all in the service of some serious romantic longing -- for a fellow she had? had and lost? had and feared losing? never really had at all? (I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a lyrics person, so, yes, I was listening to the words). In any case, I couldn't get the song out of my head. When I got home I found it on YouTube and watched, more than a few times.

I'm not convinced that Video Games is about a whole lot more than adolescent mood swing (Del Rey is 25 years old, FWIW). But even though my adolescence is long past (chronologically speaking, anyway), the song is just cryptic enough to encourage even an actively curious listener. Meanwhile the music insists one put aside curiosity and just ... listen.

The Billboard cover story (or maybe that's just an on-line story about the cover story? dunno) is all about stuff that doesn't move me much: authenticity, the artist's identity, what recordings she released when and where, the label that signed her, how well or poorly she performs live, blah blah blah.

Bottom line, the song pulled me right in when I heard it. As Kathy Iandoli, a contributor to the Village Voice blogs, wrote last month, "The comment-board fights and blog posts don't detract from the fact that she can actually sing."

(And neither, I would add, am I put off by her much-criticized and, honestly, well-below-expectations performance on SNL the night before last. I saw the performance on video the morning after. Del Rey was clearly nervous as all get out, but ... so what? She can still sing, even if not in a live television performance on the eve of an album debut, her first.)

Listening to Video Games has me thinking about melancholy popular music in general. One song that's more-or-less recent and falls into this melancholy category, as I categorize anyway, is Lost in My Mind, written and performed by The Head and the Heart.

It's another song whose topic and meaning is a bit opaque. It moves from a clearly melancholic mood at the start to something almost rolicking at the finish, but it stays grounded in a mournful emotional key (I love the burning piano at the end of the video).

Thinking about songs I would categorize with these two, the ones that come to mind are mostly from way-back-when, but share a quality with both Video Games and Lost in My Mind: they sound sad, no doubt of that ... but they also express deep and muscular passion. They're not depressed. Depressed is something different, and not what I mean by melancholy music in the sense I find compelling.

I'm thinking of songs from yesteryear like Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Sandy Denny, performed with Fairport Convention, 1969); Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young, 1970); Everything I Own (Bread, 1972); Angel from Mongomery (John Prine, performed by Bonnie Rait, 1974); Sara (Bob Dylan, 1976); Fast Car (Tracy Chapman, 1988); She Talks to Angels (The Black Crowes, 1990); Guess I'm Doing Fine (Beck, 2002). The list could be endless, of course, but each of these qualifies for my iPod's "Melancholia" playlist.

One of the first songs of this type to which I was drawn was Crystal Blue Persuasion, performed by Tommy James and the Shondells. I must have been nine or ten when I first heard it on the radio. Ah, bubble gum... From the same band, an even better example of passion wrapped in mournful sound is Crimson and Clover:

When I listened to Crimson and Clover the other day on YouTube it was hard to stay in a teary mood. Why, you ask? Well, look at the ad Google decided to serve alongside it:

Is it Christianity? Or is it a porn site? I didn't click to find out....

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