Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Energy Crisis: Just What We Need

Necessity is a mother, all right ...

I'm in denial about the oil shortage. I've put myself on a budget where I'm only allowed to put $30 worth of gas in my tank each week and then I try to make it last by planning my travel and using public transit sometimes. That way I can ignore the fact that filling up would cost me over $60, though I remember filling my 1960 VW for about $4.50.

Seems like nationally we have really short memories. On the news the current prices are being compared to those "much lower ones" of a year or two ago, back when it was below $3.00 a gallon, as if that's as far back as the records go. But you don't have to be very old to remember when it was way less than that. On the famous date of 9/11/2001 we were paying about $1.50 a gallon on average. And just a few months later, around New Year's Day 2002, I visited my family in Central Florida where the prices are somewhat lower and seized the opportunity to fill my tank for only 99.9 cents per gallon, just so I could tell people back home that I had done it. But the joke was on me -- if I'd waited till I was a few miles down the road I could have had it for 97.9 cents!

An interesting footnote to this is that while I was at the gas station I picked up a bottle of water for the trip and paid $1.29 for a liter -- approximately $4.96 per gallon. For water! Well, at least it was chilled. Personally I'd rather pay 5.00 for the gas and 1.00 for the water. Maybe we'll get there someday when world economics have sorted this mess into something more sensible.

Of course, us old timers can remember prices that make even 97 cents seem outrageous. When I was a kid in the early 1950's competing stations sometimes had "gas wars," driving the prices down to unbelievable levels. We're talking less than 20 cents per gallon at a time when a loaf of bread was about 15 cents. Maybe that's a measure of what the price should be: 1 gallon = 1.33 loaves of bread.

Once my father asked the station owner how he could make any money with the price so low. The guy just grinned and confessed that he and his "competitor" on the opposite corner had worked a deal where they would take turns having the lowest price. The "Gas War!" signs that they both displayed were a great way to bring in customers for both of them. At last, an honest man!

There have certainly been times when the situation was lots worse than it is now. How about gas rationing during World War II, when you couldn't get gas at all without your coupon? Or the shortage during the Iran crisis in 1978-9 with gas lines and limits on how much you could buy?

But we seem to sense that the situation now is something new and different. It's pretty clear that prices will remain high and the supply will continue to shrink as we approach the final end of what we can pump out of the ground. With both China and India rapidly catching up to our own flagrant consumption levels, the situation can only get worse from here on out.

Which brings us to why this crisis is exactly what we need. Let's face it, we don't do anything in this country until it becomes a crisis. But when we do, we often surprise ourselves with what is possible. During that shortage in 1979 I read an interesting magazine article called "The Great Energy Crisis of 1550." The author's point was that back then the problem was that Europe was out of wood, and wood was everything -- both the principle fuel and building material of the age. It was one of the main reasons for colonization, to insure a supply of fresh forests once Europe was denuded of them. The tallest and straightest trees in North America were soon marked as reserved for the masts of the Royal Navy.

The unforeseen development of course was that technology was about to move into a new age of coal and iron and steam and mass production. And after only a century of that it was time to start burning oil instead, and then driving everything with electricity. Meanwhile Europe reforested to the extent that there are more trees in it now than there were 400 years ago. If history is any gauge then we are due for another and even larger shift into using the raw energy of the sun itself, as well as other resources that cannot be depleted, such wind and waves and tidal forces which also derive from the sun. Beyond that may lie even more incredible options -- maybe creating our own suns with water and nuclear fusion.

So cheer up, fellow travelers -- the worse it gets, the faster we'll have to invent our way out the mess, and the sooner we can get on with the next stage of civilization. Meanwhile, keep this card ... you may need it.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Powers of Ten

My first day at the Unitarian church school a volcano erupted. But that wasn't what caught my attention ...

I walked into the tiny classroom, scarcely more than bedroom-sized, to find the center of it occupied by a scale model of a volcano sculpted of papier-mache. The class had been working on it for weeks, and today was the day for the eruption -- a satisfying ooze of orange chemistry that dribbled down the sides from the cauldron at the top and buried a small plastic dinosaur that was grazing peacefully at the bottom. Cool!

The teacher--an immense kindly man who taught junior-high science during the week--sized me up and set me down in one corner with a book. I suppose I looked like a bookish sort even at the age of ten. The book was called Cosmic View and once I opened it I embarked on a journey from which I did not return until it was time to go home an hour later.

The book began with a drawing of a girl in a field, seen from overhead. With each turn of the page the view zoomed out by a factor of ten, and showed with a small box the area of the preceding picture. The girl quickly shrank to invisible dimensions, and soon the whole Earth did as well. The zooming went on and out until the sun was lost in a crowd of other stars and dust, and soon our whole galaxy was just another tiny patch of light amid a host of others.

If this wasn't breathtaking enough, the process began again with the girl in the field but this time zooming in by ten times with each page. A mosquito probing a cut on her hand became a doorway into the tissues of the body, the structures of the cell, the molecules that made them up, the atoms that comprised the molecules, the particles in the nucleus of the atom.

As you can see if you visit the book online from the link above, the science is dated now (the book was published in 1957) and the illustrations are primitive, but the sheer fact of the huge range of size both above and below the human scale was awe inspiring. Mercifully, the teacher let me borrow the book for the week so I would not have to let go of it right away. At home I spent hours flipping the pages, zooming in and out, out and in, rearranging the order so I could go all the way from the very large to the very small in one big zoom.

Evidently I was not the only one so impressed. Twenty years later, in 1977, the book was made into a film called Powers of Ten, and other book and film and Internet versions have been produced since, adding the benefits of further scientific discoveries and the wonders of modern visual techniques. Any way you look at it (try Powersof10.com), the results are still as awesome as they were fifty years ago. Isn't it amazing that the human scale lies so equally between the very large and the very small? Coincidence, or part of the grand cosmic design?

Recently I had the great pleasure of rediscovering the experience with my grandson. We were poking around on astronomy websites and stumbled across a link that said "How big is the universe?" Clicking on it brought us right into a version of Powers of Ten that we could explore together. Just as it had happened with me so long ago, his young mind quickly grappled with and grasped the grandeur of the vision.

So what's the answer? How big is it? Does it ever come to an end, or does it just go on forever? Young Vincent's opinion at the age of seven is that it must come to an end somewhere, because everything comes to an end, and I'm inclined to agree with him. But let's hope the wonder of it never ends.

If you like that, our friends at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology have a new wrinkle for you -- Powers of Ten in Time. They take you backward in time by factors of ten, then challenge you to imagine the future in similar gulps going forward. Ten and a hundred years are easy ... but try imagining things a thousand years from now, ten thousand, a hundred thousand ... you get the idea.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Back to the Classics

"If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die."

Like many others in Miami I grieved over the loss of WTMI, our only classical radio station, when it got sold and transformed into something ugly back in 2006. There was a glimmer of hope afterwards when someone tried to transform an AM news station into a classical music one, but this was doomed to fail. Few of the advertisers who had kept TMI afloat were interested in the wasteland of the AM dial, and the poor sound quality of AM was one of the reasons for inventing FM in the first place--not to mention stereo.

I'm old enough to remember our first classical station, WVCG, "The Voice of Coral Gables," that dates back to the 1950's. That's where my parents whiled away Sunday afternoons with the Metropolitan Opera, and where our family launched into mornings with the program deliciously titled "Burnt Toast and Coffee." Quite likely my lifelong addiction to caffeine can be traced back to this childhood first impression.

WVCG abandoned the classical format in 1967, though I have to say I didn't notice because I was too caught up with rock and folk at the time. Hey, it was the sixties. There was a 4-year hiatus until WTMI started up in 1971, just in time to feed my renewed interest in building my own collection of classical recordings.

For 30 years they served us faithfully, even as cities like Chicago and New York lost their classical stations. The program quality was always excellent, with the hosts dishing up as much information as music and serving as a resource both educational and entertaining. The format focused on complete works instead of fragments -- you were more likely to get the full symphony instead of just the adagio, which would leave the knowledgeable listener waiting for a climax that never came.

WTMI was also the home of Alan Corbett, who added his own light touch as a DJ. Following a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Night on Bald Mountain for example, he once came on to announce, "That was Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra" -- but in the voice of Mickey Mouse, a nod to its appearance in Disney's Fantasia. "Thank you, Mickey," he then added in his own voice.

Alas, Corbett is no longer with us, nor is WTMI, which was sold in 2006 and converted first to a pulverizing techno-rap format, then Caribbean, and now, with new call letters, "black talk." Talk about an identity crisis!

But this time we only had to wait less than two years for a replacement, thanks to the good people of American Public Media, who also bring us things like A Prairie Home Companion on Public Radio.

Classical South Florida is on the air as WKCP 89.7 FM in Miami and on a repeater station at 101.9 in West Palm Beach, not to mention 24/7 streaming on their website. Which brings up an interesting question: Now that we are consuming our music through the Internet and carrying it around with us in matchbook-sized iPods, is radio still relevant? Even the old network of shortwave broadcasts, which used to be the only way to get a world-wide audience, is being dismantled because the Web offers greater availability, higher reliability, and better sound quality.

I used to have a shortwave receiver myself, and would while away hours on it, laboriously fine-tuning to pick a station out of the radio noise, and getting a kick from hearing the BBC, Radio Moscow, and Middle-Eastern music from Turkey. But that radio died years ago, and I haven't missed it. Online you can tune in anything from anywhere at any time.

As I write this I'm listening to a recent live performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony by the Minnesota Orchestra, which was readily available by browsing the archive of past broadcasts. The sound is great in 128-bit MP3 format, which is Linux and Mac-friendly, and I had the chance to hear it when I had a block of time available, rather than being a slave to a radio schedule. I can even pause it or hear it again if I want to.

So the answer to the question is, first of all, that radio has become more than it used to be. A "station" is no longer just a spot on the local dial, but a nexus of connections on the web of the Internet--connections between performers, listeners, sponsors, venues, reviewers--and not just local ones but national, international, global. The station can offer content of its own, too, such as live broadcasts not available elsewhere. As radio, like TV, goes digital, a single station can even broadcast multiple program streams at the same time.

And second, call me old fashioned perhaps, but as much as I like to manage my own music library and choose what to listen to and when, there is still a place for a steady background stream of news and music, a soundtrack for our lives in which we have a chance to discover something new and unfamiliar as well as old favorites.

I can pull my van onto the road and punch a button. One says "talk to me," and WLRN and National Public Radio let me know the news and tell me what it means. Another says, "I feel jazzy," and WDNA, the local affiliate of Public Radio International feeds me a diet of jazz by those I know and those I do not yet know, with BBC news on the hour.

And the newest addition says, "play me something beautiful, I don't care what," and in the words of Shakespeare that they are so fond of quoting on the air,

"Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony."

Saturday, June 07, 2008

On the Road (Again)

No, it's not about Willie Nelson ...

Sure, you read On the Road once, but have you read it lately? I decided it was time for me to look at it again after a pause for reflection that lasted about forty years.

The first time I read it I was in high school. Overlooking the fact that Jack Kerouac was the same age as my parents, I regarded him rather as an exciting big brother who was exploring the world ahead of me and sending back reports.

In this way I was like my buddy Jerry whose older brother was in college, had served in the Coast Guard, played folk guitar, and who introduced us to the Beats by passing along his cherished recording of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl with Kerouac reading from Visions of Cody on the flip side.

It's impossible to overstate the impact this had on us--though I think it had a greater effect on me, as an aspiring writer. This stimulus was all it took to send me out to the book stores in search of more material. Eventually I found On the Road as well as The Dharma Bums, The Subterrraneans, and an incredible collection simply called The Beats, which I still own, and which contained book extracts, articles, and poetry from a long list of authors including Diane DiPrima, Phillip Whalen, and many others. I also discovered a novel by Jean Genet and the hair raising Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, and Naked Lunch and Nova Express by William Burroughs. It was a whole new world.

Just a few years after I discovered him, and only twelve years after the publication of On the Road, Kerouac died at the age of 47 in St. Petersburg, a couple of hundred miles from my home in Miami. Over the years he and the rest became a fond memory, though periodically I revived my interest in their work.

Once, a recollection of Diane DiPrima's "13 Nightmares" sent me back to look at The Beats again. Then an article in The Herald about a visit to Kerouac in his last days by journalist Jack McClintock (who I met once) became the inspiration for a story of my own, called "Stalking Jack." In my version the first person narrator is a hippie whose encounter with his idol is both a disillusionment and a foreshadowing of his own dissolute future, a generational passing of the torch.

Researching the story led me to consume several Kerouac biographies. Perhaps the best is the one by Ann Charters, who knew him well, but Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia is also great reading. This took me to some of Kerouac's other work that I had not read before: Tristessa, for example--a memoir of a sojourn in Mexico City in which the first 60 pages take place in the same hovel of a living room with Kerouac seated in the same chair, yet which is compelling to read. And his shorter pieces like "In the Railroad Earth," about his time with the Southern Pacific Railway, are some of his finest writing. Recently I re-read The Subterraneans, supposedly written in two weeks, which may be the best example of his stream-of-consciousness style.

At last I found my way back to On the Road where it all began--not his first novel, but the one that made his fame and the one that ignited the concept of the "beatnik" in American culture.

[Historical note: the -nik suffix was added to "beat" after the launch of Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1959. The media meant it in a derogatory way, much the way "hip" and "hipster" became transformed later into "hippie." The origin of "beat" is attributed to Herbert Huncke, one of the less savory members of Kerouac's circle of intimates. Kerouac always claimed it meant beaten down in a saintly way, "beat as in beatific," which is how he described it in On the Road.]
All I remembered from my first encounter with the book was racing back and forth across the continent with Dean Moriarty (AKA Neal Cassady) in an orgy of wine, women, song, and life. So my first surprise was that Part One, the first 90 pages, is about Jack's own solo journey across America and back. By bus and hitching rides he makes his way to Denver to link up briefly with Dean and company, then on to San Francisco, which is revealed to be amazingly hip seeing as it is only 1947 (the year I was born). Bebop is in full swing at the jazz clubs, as is the drug culture that has not yet gone mainstream everywhere else.

Still restless, he decides to join Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) and Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) down in Louisiana. However he is quickly waylaid by meeting a cute Mexican girl on the bus, and instead ends up living with her in Southern California, hanging with her family and doing backbreaking work as a cotton picker for a buck fifty a day--that's one dollar and fifty cents, kids.

This interlude contains some wonderful lines, such as, "I made love to her under the tarantula." Naturally, because in the barn where he was staying a giant spider lived in the rafters overhead. This foreshadows the later memoir of his daughter, Jan [see Baby Driver], who lived for a time in Mexico in a thatched hut the roof of which was infested with scorpions.

Or how about this, as they are breaking up: "We turned at a dozen paces, because love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time." But Kerouac sneaks another peek at a hundred feet and sees her walking back to her life as he goes back to his.

Money wired from his "aunt" (actually his mother) back in Patterson NJ buys him a bus ticket most of the way home. He says he has a book with him that he stole back in Hollywood, "but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along." And transcribing it pretty well, I might add.

Incidentally, the Hollywood connection is that back in SF a friend had encouraged him to write a screenplay that he would help him sell to the movie studios. Kerouac went along with the idea but thought his attempt was "too sad" and did not expect success. Weeks and months later, after working in the cotton fields with the Mexicans, he drops by Columbia Pictures "just in time" to pick up his rejected manuscript, then it's off across the country again. The image of mad Jack scurrying unnoticed around the feet of the movie moguls is priceless.
[There's a movie we'll never see -- On the Road, starring Marlon Brando as Sal Paradise and James Dean as Dean Moriarty, that might have been directed by John Huston or Orson Welles. Just think.]
I'm leaving out so much -- like the connections and allusions to Steinbeck and the Grapes of Wrath dust bowl, Okies going west, grafting Jack firmly onto the American literary tree while rooting him with the working class he felt most at home with. Living with the hobos he is never a college boy slumming it. His affection for, and comprehension of, these people is always genuine and heartfelt.

"They thought I was a Mexican," he says of the townspeople when he was picking cotton. "And in a way I am."

Then along comes Part Two and the slim book gathers itself, winding up like a spring, for the Dean Moriarty voyages that will propel us to the end, six thousand miles and a hundred sixty pages further on. There is an orgiastic explosion up ahead in Mexico, and a crash of mutual abandonment in the end. But I'm going to leave you right there as they are poised to take off:

"He and I suddenly saw the country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there."

A repetition that would only occur to the poet that Jack was.

*Footnote: Just learned that in August Viking will be publishing the original version from the famous scroll -- one of the most unique artifacts in recent literary history -- so we'll get to read it yet again as if for the first time. Stay tuned.