Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From the Annals of Cyber Monday

When it's too late to take the stitch in time that would have saved nine ...

I've had better Mondays. Coming off the Thanksgiving weekend I spent my re-entry day dealing with two critical problems where I work. I started thinking that instead of "Cyber Monday" it should be called "Blue Monday."

The first issue was that one of our printers, an expensive laser photo-imaging device, was down. Indications were that one or more of its lasers were not working (it has red, green, and blue ones). There are also three computers driving this beast. The first prepares images to be printed, the second is dedicated to feeding them to the printer because it's a delicate operation that requires tight synchronization. Neither of those systems had any problems, but the one that sends the images lit up with a warning screen about the bad lasers.

A call to tech support for the printer reminded me to check the third computer, which is tucked away inside the machine and normally not used by the operator. Unlike the first two computers, which run HP Unix, this shy unit runs a command-line-only version of ... you'll never guess ... Windows 98! Which kind of shows how old the whole thing is. Anyway, this computer has a job to do in controlling the lasers, and it was simply powered off.

But why? It's supposed to come on when you start the machine. Turned out the little button battery that keeps the CMOS memory alive when it's powered down had finally run out of juice. (That's where all the BIOS settings are saved.) After all, it was at least 10 years old. Apparently when that computer failed to boot up properly the system just shut it down. Tech support coached me on how to put the BIOS settings in manually so we could get up and running, and we sent out for a replacement battery. For want of a $6 part the whole thing was dead. Problem solved.

In the middle of all this the second problem came up. One of our Mac users couldn't get on the network. I couldn't find any obvious reason. Then a Windows user came to report that he had the same problem -- in fact "the whole network" was down. Well, I knew that wasn't true because I'd just been on the network at my desk. And the Mac user confirmed that at least some of the other Macs were not having any problem. While I was looking into the network settings on the Windows machine it suddenly started working again. So, maybe a temporary glitch? But no, the other computers were still having problems.

We now had a select group of Windows PCs, Macs, and even one Unix machine exhibiting the connection problem, and scattered between our two buildings. It couldn't be a network switch, because most likely that would have affected all the computers connected to it, but I restarted the switches anyway. No help. We tried our wireless access point and could connect to it, but could not access the Internet, so it seemed to be having the same problem -- it couldn't connect to the network gateway to the Internet. It seemed like it had to be something on the server, but the server appeared to be working normally and to have Internet access itself. Time to call in our friendly IT support company which does all the heavy lifting on our server issues.

Meanwhile I noticed that all the machines having the problem had similarly misconfigured IP addresses. Our network uses 10.1.1.x addresses, and these all had 192.168.3.x addresses. I tried manually configuring one of them with a correct address. It still didn't work, but now we were thinking about DHCP.

[If you want to know, that stands for Dynamic Host Control Protocol, which is simply a procedure by which a server can control the addresses of the computers on its network. When each computer starts up it shouts down the hallway, "Hey, I'd like to join the network -- what address can I use?" Everyone else on the network ignores this request, but the server shouts back something like ""]

The first thing the support tech told me was that the DHCP service was not running on the server. Aha! that made sense. Only those computers that had recently rebooted, or whose addresses had to be renewed, were having connection issues, because they couldn't get an address on the network. All those that had been left on over the weekend were still running normally. So, just as simple as starting the DHCP service up again, right?

Not really. Because we didn't know what had caused it to shut down. And we didn't know where those bogus IP addresses were coming from. Normally if the computer asks for an address and can't get one, then it simply has no address; it doesn't substitute a different one. The network engineer deduced that something else on the network -- either an unauthorized device or a piece of malware -- was acting as a DHCP server. If that was the case, then it would cause the Windows server to stop its own DHCP service to avoid conflicts. And it would explain where all those similar IP addresses were coming from.

We had not added any new equipment, so the only thing to do was try to find out which machine was the culprit. Time to play detective. The engineer began unplugging one system at a time from the patch panel in the server room. After each one he tried to connect to the network with his iPad. As soon as he was unable to get an address, he knew he had unplugged the offending device. The answer was port 18 on the patch panel. Using our sketchy documentation of our wiring plan we located the guilty party.

If your prejudices are like mine, you probably think that either someone had plugged in their own router somewhere, or else one of the Windows machines had gotten a virus. But surprise -- it was a Mac Pro workstation.

So now we knew where and what, but not how. Why would one of the Macs suddenly decide to start acting as a DHCP server? Consulted by phone, a Mac guru identified the problem by that "3" in the IP address, which is not commonly used. It's an address range used by the Internet connection sharing service on the Mac, by means of which one computer can share its network access with a group of other computers, and which works by acting as a DHCP server.

But why would this service suddenly be switched on? We questioned the users -- had they made any changes, had network problems that they tried to solve? No, but, now that we mentioned it, the only unusual thing about that Mac was that over the weekend it had been moved from one desk to another, so it was plugged into a different port on the wall. But why should that change anything?

Of course, it shouldn't. But the Mac Pro has two ethernet ports on the back which can be configured differently. Sure enough, the other port did NOT have Internet connection sharing enabled. All that had happened is that when the computer was moved the network cable had been switched to the other port, with all the resulting complications. Normally it would not have been a problem, and everything would have "just worked" as Macs are famous for. But somewhere in the past someone must have configured that other port for some long-forgotten reason, and it had emerged to bite us.

They say you're always supposed to learn from your mistakes, but that implies that you can figure out what your mistakes were. What we learned from this is that the littlest things -- like that bad CMOS battery -- can have far reaching implications. In an organization of any size, where the network must run smoothly, even a small glitch can bring everything to a standstill. In this case, we lost several hours of impaired production time while we tried to find something that should have been apparent as soon as it happened.

If an IT support person -- me, for example -- had moved the Mac instead of one of the users, then the problem still might have come up. After all, there was a 50/50 chance that I might plug into the "wrong" ethernet port, and even if I were careful about testing the connection the problem might not have been noticable on that computer because it was the one causing the problem. But at least I would have known that this was the last thing that had changed on the network, and I could have started looking there. I might have just disconnected it, and when that solved the problem we could have left it disconnected until we had a chance to get down to the source of the problem. Instead, since I was working in the dark, we had to take the long way around to the solution.

What else could we have done? Well, if time travel was an option, I would suggest going back to when that second ethernet port was configured to support some external device. Then we could document what was done, and why. We might even label the port as being dedicated to a specific purpose in the hopes this might prevent someone in the far future from trying to use it to connect to the network.

The moral, I guess, is that the future arrives sooner than we think, and the past -- in which all mistakes happen -- is right now.

Friday, November 11, 2011

In His Own Words

Yes, war is hell. Take it from someone who knew ...

On some previous Veterans Days I've taken the opportunity to remember my father, who, among other things, fought and was wounded in the largest and deadliest war in history. This year I thought I'd let him speak for himself. The following piece from his posthumous collection of poetry contains everything he had to say on the subject of war.

Like many veterans of World War II he seldom spoke about what had happened to him. But I remember him reading this poem to my mother when he wrote it, probably ten years after the war had ended. It was as if everything he had bottled up inside spilled out.

In it you can see the cynicism about organized religion that let him to question his faith and to abandon the Church. (He had been born and raised a Catholic.) But there is also, I think, an undercurrent of an abiding faith in the power of the natural world to heal and restore us if we will only allow it.

      Your Wars

Go on and fight your wars
Pseudo-Christians, cowards all,
Professing meek cheeks,
Afraid to sheath your swords.

I've seen every war since your God forbade them,
Astonished at your unstrained compromise,
And I've seen enough:
The distraught of men before the firing,
Of other men before our firing,
And I mourn these young men
Dying before their works are done.

One I hardly knew fell across my path,
Unwilling mutant, an extra mouth
Newly dug above his ear.
What words from that eloquent mouth!
But never mentioned little cakes or chasubles.
I still see his questioning eyes.

One sought cover beneath a tank
Which, seeing the fire it drew,
Backed without warning, its steel teeth
Chewing his brain to pulp on icy ground.
Farmers no doubt wondered
At that especially fertile spot.

One oblivious to the fighting
Sat clutching himself to himself,
Cupping the ragged remains of genitals
In bloody hands. Impassioned bullet
To engage in such sadistic intercourse.

A woman sprawled broken among the rubble,
Breast suckling the air, legs undecorous.
We forgave her impropriety,
In unknowing embrace with fornicating death.

And I've seen the children.
Have you seen them, never young?
Eyes wondering?
Legs wandering?
Grimy claws sifting garbage,
Scraping maggot off?
Don't worry, belly-bloated child,
There's plenty of food in heaven --
By the way, have you been baptized?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.
Amen. There. Now you can die.

What are your wars for?
I see only one good in them --
A speedier evolution to weed out the unfit --
The cowards yearning for death
Who fight and die for make-beliefs.
It's living requires courage -- living never tried.

So go on and fight your wars.
Your countries will go, and your rich kings,
Leaving only the unturmoiled world.
Marked only with natural boundaries
Her hair grows green and luxuriant,
Her tears wash over ancient festers, healing them,
Leaving only the brave, holding hard to nebulous dreams.

So go on and fight your wars,
Expunge yourselves, become vague specimens
In future museums: "Here is Acquisitive Man
From the Age of Veneers, offshoot of Homo Sapiens.
Note the small braincase and large grasping hands."

So go on and fight your wars,
Churchmen send them out on new crusades,
Pray of the Peaceful Prince luck in the kill,
Satraps continue doing foolish things in duty's name,
Drape the hallowed bunting on the deluded slob's eternal bed,
Safe old men, cheer them on,
tear in eye, drink in hand.

-- "Scott" Donachie, 1922-1973

See Also:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Joys of Reading Long Books

There was a time in my life when I found books of a certain size intimidating. Maybe it goes back to my attempt, at the age of twelve, to absorb my father's copy of War and Peace when the only adult literature I had read until then was science fiction. I remember getting to the end of chapter one and feeling like I'd just eaten way too much chocolate cake. I knew it was good stuff, on a level above anything I'd seen, but I also knew I wasn't ready for it.

By the time I reached high school I was able to plow my way through not only Tolstoy but Dostoyevsky, and not only Russians but Americans like Steinbeck and Faulkner -- even Absolom, Absolom with its pages-long sentences. In my college years Hermann Hesse came into vogue, so I consumed most of his works including the monumental Magister Ludi (or The Glass Bead Game) which is supplemented at the end by a sort of appendix of poetry and three short stories  purported to have been written by its main character, a wonderful example of a book that contains other books. I also developed my fondness for philosophical works by digesting William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Aldous Huxley's The Perrenial Philosophy. Both of those are heavy wading, but they made an interesting pair since they shared the idea that all the world's religions have much in common, an idea that appealed to me as a Unitarian who was destined to become a Quaker.

Then, as happens to many of us, I became so caught up in the world and the need to make a living that I found less time for reading. I returned to my first love of science fiction for recreation, and gravitated toward short stories that were quicker to consume. I lost my taste for big thick books that revealed from their sheer bulk the amount of time and attention that would have to be give to them. It was so much easier to take two hours to absorb a movie or a magazine.

I suppose it has just been reaching a later stage of my life that has drawn me back to those substantial works I had avoided for so long. But the pleasure of discovery -- or rediscovery -- has been well worth the wait. Armed only with the willingness, I launched into such projects as reading the twenty volumes of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels, and Neal Stephenson's trilogy of 700-pagers set in the Baroque period. I also got an ebook reader and have been using it to catch up on many of the classics that I had somehow managed to overlook, things like Moby Dick, The Magic Mountain, and the other wonderful novels of Joseph Conrad which are not called Heart of Darkness.

Having acquired the taste, it is now one of the most satisfying feelings I can imagine to sit down and crack the covers on something that measures a couple of inches in thickness. I'm finally reading Shadow Country, Peter Matthieson's final version (900 pp.) of his legend about Mr. Watson, the backwoods killer who was shot down by his neighbors in the Florida Everglades.

And, just to keep things interesting, I've also started in on the three volumes of Shelby Foote's definitive account of the Civil War. Something wonderful happens when you realize the author will take as much time and space as it takes to give you the full picture. Thus we begin with two capsule biographies of Lincoln and Davis, the rival Presidents, and proceed at leisure up to the first conflict at Harper's Ferry.

The reader can sit back with a sigh, confident in the hundreds of pages remaining to unfold the whole tale, and comforted by the other two volumes still waiting on the shelf. When you're having this good a time, the best news you can hear are the words, "To be continued ..."

Friday, July 01, 2011

Last Thoughts on Mahler

This is it, I promise ...

Just because Michael Tilson Thomas is blabbing to the whole world about Gustav Mahler on Public TV (see Keeping Score) there's no reason I can't add the rest of my thoughts as a kind of footnote. So here in no particular order are some further impressions that came out of my recent immersion in those nine symphonies.

Beginnings: Out of the silence, grandeur. Some of them emerge like pale shapes swimming up out of the depths of a dark ocean. Others begin in medias res, sort of like, "So as I was saying ..." or "Then the next thing that happened was ..." It feels like the composer was so familiar with his material that he could begin that way, fully confident of where he was going.

I'm reminded of something a friend said after listening to part of Wagner's Ring cycle in Germany: "It goes on forever, but then every once in a while there's this incredible music." (It's also been said that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds.")

While building familiarity with Mahler I sometimes felt that way, impatient to get to my favorite parts. But eventually I understood that these choice moments had been set up by the texture of everything that went before. The music is a continuum, an environment in which one wanders, stopping here and there to enjoy the expansive views. Clouds and fields of sound, oceans to swim, forests in which to wander. He's created an entire world, the way a novelist does.

Vocals? In a symphony? Yes, and not just material from his lieder, but soloists and whole choruses stray into the orchestra pit and demand to be heard. Melody is not enough, he seems to say. I must put a voice to the deep feelings here. It's another example of the great range of expression to be found, from the collosal augmented orchestra down to the intimate scale of chamber music. When is the last time you ran into an extended duet for violin and french horn in the middle of a symphonic work?

A lilting tune that becomes too much for itself, strains, develops discords, turns anguished. ... Wait, is that "Frere Jacques?" Yes, but in a minor key and reduced to only two parts while being scored for a hundred instruments.

All the time in the world, no rush to get anywhere. Endless brooding, currents and counter currents. And now it sounds so nostalgic, like "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places ..."

And again, there's comic relief in the form of Jewish folk dances, or circus-style marches that sound like they belong in a Fellini film.

Long endings. Really long. Endings that make you consult the minute hand of your watch. One time in particular I sensed the vast gathering of forces that signals a Coda, the grand finale ... except instead of the usual thirty or forty seconds it was fully eight minutes until we got there.

And now here we are.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Learning How to Listen

One thing leads to another ...

Coming as I do from a home in which classical music was always prominent, with both of my parents playing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Grieg on the solid upright piano in the living room, it's not surprising that I have grown into an avid collector and appreciator of such music. What's got me stumped is how it could possibly have taken me so long to get around to one of the most monumental composers of the last century and a half.

Granted, it takes time for musical tastes to mature. It was not until my teens that I started making my own selections of what to listen to and forming my own collection of recordings. As I recall I began with Gershwin, having got there through jazz, then moved on to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the Romantics being among the most accessible.

Then my interest in learning to play the recorder sent me on a musical odyssey through the middle ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. There I crashed head first into Johann Sebastian Bach and fell down on my knees, awestruck -- a condition that continues to this day.

Once so afflicted, a person is probably doomed to move on to all the other gods in this pantheon of human achievement. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Telemann, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Stravinsky, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Bernstein ... all these and more came crowding around me, demanding to be heard. They all got their chance, and I was seldom disappointed. I even tried some things that are darn hard to like, such as the clinically atonal works of Schoenberg and Berg, which sort of feels like wandering in a surreal desert. And as a technology buff I collected examples of the new art of electronic music way back before modern synthesizers had been invented.

It wasn't until recently, while trying to round out my collection through eMusic, that I ran into a speed bump by the name of Dmitri Shostakovitch. I already owned the set of 24 preludes and fugues -- one in every possible key -- that the 20th century Russian had been the first to attempt since the time of good old Bach (who did it not once but twice). But, suddenly appalled that I knew nothing about his 15 symphonies, I set out to listen to them all.

I was puzzled to find how impenetrable they seemed. Words like ponderous, harsh, chaotic, directionless, and unmelodic came to mind. I remember thinking, "This sounds like something enormous is being hauled by a cast of thousands tugging on ropes into a giant public space -- like maybe Red Square in Moscow."

It took a few more months, but I finally found out what my problem was. I had skipped someone. Someone important. Someone whose work both anticipated and laid the groundwork for those who came after. Someone in whose work lay the key to understanding.

That someone was Gustav Mahler. My curiosity about him had been piqued by an upcoming performance of the New World Symphony with the redoubtable Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. I was pleased to find that all of his recent recordings of Mahler with the San Francisco Symphony were available at eMusic, so I grabbed them all and started to absorb them.

It's hard to describe what an unexpected pleasure this was. Imagine going through your whole life in ignorance of Beethoven, and then suddenly discovering what you'd been missing. I had no idea that at this stage of my life there were any more such pleasant surprises to be found, but here it was.

I loaded them all onto my phone and started listening to them one after the other as I made my way to and from work each day. They became like a single huge opus divided up into chapters and books, one continuous stream of invention. This is a good analogy, because Mahler's music is literary, a composition consisting of long sentences and paragraphs that take their time to fully explore each idea. And absorbing them all is like working your way through a multi-volume set of novels, such as Patric O'Brian's seafaring yarns or Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

Moody doesn't say half say it. These things wallow in mood. And there are wonderful recurring devices such as the dying crescendo -- kind of like saying "TA-DAAaaaa-ohhhh wait a minute I didn't mean to sound so positive about it ..." There is no excitement that can't be moderated, no sadness that may not turn triumphant, no exaltation that does not turn frenetic and threaten to self-destruct.

You can't help thinking of film music, because several generations of movie composers from Bernard Herman to John Williams have sat at Mahler's knee, learning from the master how to push the emotional buttons of their audiences on demand. But if you follow the rest of 20th century music you will also hear shades of Prokofiev, Aaron Copeland, even Bernstein ... and Dimitri Shostakovitch.

Fortified by my months-long immersion in pools of Mahler I ventured into Shostakovitch again, and this time found him readily accessible. Mahler had shown me how to listen and left me wanting more. The saga continued, as it has for centuries, as the thread was picked up by a new voice. Lead on.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mahler Under the Stars

Remember drive-in movies? Like that ...

A couple of months back I reported on the debut concert of the New World Symphony in their new home on South Beach. Last weekend we got it into our heads to catch the final performance of the season, Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which was given outdoors as a Wallcast.

From Mahler Under the Stars

The whole idea of the Wallcast is a signature feature of the Frank Ghery-designed facility. What it does is to turn the concert hall inside out, transforming what used to be a closed performance for a select audience into an open one for the public at large.

Of course there is a long history of public concerts going back long before bandshells and bandstands in parks, and certainly before outdoor rock concerts. Mozart, for example, composed one of his finest wind serenades for such an event. It was so popular with both performers and the public that the musicians played it over and over again -- even late at night in front of the composer's balcony as a way of saying thank you.

But projecting the event from inside the building onto its exterior as it happens is a new wrinkle. So is the construction of a public park from which to enjoy the concert, including a permanently installed high quality sound system. We decided this was something we had to see -- and hear.

Apparently close to a thousand other people had the same idea. By the time we arrived, about 15 minutes before concert time, the grass between the tubular stereo speaker systems was packed with people, many with blankets and lawn chairs. (My advice -- arrive well in advance to stake your claim.) We found some space where the Wall was only partially blocked by a palm tree and settled in.

A bit after 8:00 the 5-storey screen bloomed into imagery with the colors of the sunset sky still fading behind it. Applause greeted the gigantic spectacled face of Michael Tilson Thomas as he launched into a brief introduction to Mahler's opus, including his own playing of a few bars on the piano. These commentaries before each of the four movements were brief but enlightening, and served to further open up the music to a wider audience. (They also demonstrated that there was at least a short delay between interior live performance and the external video, because indoors the audience did not see or hear those introductions.)

And what can you say about Mahler? (Actually I have so much to say about him that it will have to keep for another time.) Hearing the spacious majesty of this century-old music as it spilled out beneath the stars seemed somehow perfectly appropriate. The Sixth is all about Fate, from the ominous opening march to the fall of the famous hammer blows in the finale -- yes, that's a hammer, a big one, landing on a big rectangle to create a concussion unlike anything else in the orchestra. WHAM!

So, a good time was had by all, including a pair of toddlers trying to dance as if it were a rock festival, and one of the most well-mannered dogs I've ever seen -- and in spite of a smattering of those whose cell phones or private conversations were considered too important to postpone. But hey, that's the great American outdoors. I only hope that they absorbed something of the music, if only unconsciously.

Wending our way home we marvelled at the human ability to perform as well as to absorb such a complex tapestry, but even more the ability to conceive of it in the first place and to be able to write it all down for the ages. Mahler's music is fraught with meaning and portent. Composing this in 1903-4, he seems to sense the approaching doomsday of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon that were only decades away.

Hearing it now, we can only hope there are not more such events heading our way, perhaps only a matter of years in our own future. Mahler originally put three hammer blows into this work, but later took one of them out as if he couldn't bear it. Maybe in this he was being merciful, or maybe it was an expression of hope. I'd like to think so. Maybe that last strike of the hammer is the one that hasn't happened ... yet.

[Mahler specified the sound of the Hammer -- "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)" -- but not how to produce it. Apparently lots of things have been tried, including just a large bass drum, but the prevalent solution seems to be a big wooden sledge hammer hitting a resonant wooden box. The one the New World used was, shall we say, very effective.]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Man in Space

So what were YOU doing that year?

In April of 1961 I had just turned 14 and was entering a phase of historical and political global consciousness. I was caught up in the ideological struggle of the Cold War, and I was also a science fiction nerd who avidly followed developments in rocketry and space exploration.

Every day as soon as I got home from school I spread out on the floor the morning Herald that had been carefully re-folded by my grandmother, and read through all the stories that I found interesting, which were a lot of them. I prided myself on knowing the names of the Presidents, Premiers, and Prime Ministers of foreign countries, as well as being aware of the many fronts where the forces of Communism and Capitalism were facing off.

But on April 12th I didn't have to go any further than the front page, where the smiling image of Yuri Gagarin announced that those durned Russians had beat us again. Sputnik had been bad enough. Only four years earlier we'd all been amazed when the first demonstation of orbital flight had been acheived without warning, like a premonition of the kind of nuclear sneak attack that we lived in fear of.

After excitedly following the ironically named American effort, "Vanguard," I had a vested interest in its success. I felt personally shamed when "our" rocket was not only beaten to the punch but then blew itself up on the launch pad -- not once, but twice. Before Dr. Von Braun and his Army missile team from Alabama managed to put something up there (Explorer I), the Russians had launched a second satellite containing the first living organism to travel in space -- Laika, the dog -- in a 13-foot-long capsule that dwarfed anything the US would be capable of launching for years to come.

In the four years that followed, the Mercury program was put into high gear. America had astronauts in training, a batch of test pilots with "the right stuff" to fly the US into space. In 1961 the first sub-orbital test flights were to be made using the same Redstone rocket that had put up Explorer I. Meanwhile the Atlas ICBM was being tested as an orbital booster -- with a disconcerting record of its own explosive failures. And then ...

Gagarin. It was Sputnik all over again. Before Alan Sheppard could take his 15-minute peek into space, Gagarin's one-orbit flight was followed by Titov's of 17 orbits -- a full day in which he travelled over most of the entire planet.

It all sounds so quaint now, and hard to understand why we took it so seriously. What we were witnessing was the first baby steps to be taken on our inevitable journey as a species into a wider environment. Now, along with our Russian (no longer Soviet) friends, we can celebrate the daring and achievement of all those pioneers, not just the ones of our own nationality.

Oddly enough, if I could pluck my 14-year-old self out of that past and whisk him into my present, it would not be the state of space exploration that would amaze him. Given the rapid advancement from Sputnik to Cosmonaut, he would probably expect us to have not only a space station but permanent bases on the moon and maybe even Mars by now. He would be surprised at the way we lost interest in the moon after visiting it a few times, and how we have backed away from larger challenges. He would be suitably impressed by the space shuttle, but puzzled to learn how old the design is, and that it has yet to be replaced by something newer and sleeker.

He would be impressed too at the advances that have been made with computers, lasers, and astronomy. Video conferencing, cell phones, and 3D televisions would be science fiction dreams come true. Electric cars -- OK, but no flying ones yet? What would absolutely knock him out, though, is the demise of the Soviet Union.

That thoughtful and tentative youth -- the same one who was going to have to deal one way or another with the military draft and the Vietnam war only six years in his future -- expected that the USSR would be there throughout his lifetime, and that it would continue to threaten nuclear Armageddon perhaps for centuries to come. He would have thought that if a lasting peace agreement were ever to be reached, it would be an agreement with the Soviet government.

All of which goes to show that it is usually easier to predict technological progress than social revolution. Witness what happened in the American colonies, or what's going on right now throughout the Middle East. Sure, we're still moving into space. But what will really happen to us is bound to be far more interesting ... and unexpected.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Birthday Wish

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me ...?"

According to this card in the year of my birth
the transistor was invented, making possible
a radio with no vaccuum tubes. Chuck Yeager flew
faster than sound in a rocket propelled airplane,
and the Dumont Television Network inauguerated
broadcast news from Washington, D.C.
If you had gone to the ball park all the players
except Jackie Robinson would have been white.

Before this year you could not clean your sink
with Ajax or mix a batch of orange juice
from a tiny frozen can because those things
did not yet exist. The Department of War became
the Department of Defense, anticipating
the Newspeak of George Orwell who had not yet
published 1984. Princess Elizabeth got married.

The Atomic Energy Commission was formed
in an attempt to keep the lid on Pandora's Box,
the Marshall Plan began to rebuild Europe
while Radio Free Europe broadcasted to the East
and President Truman asked Congress for funds
to fight what he called "the Cold War."

So it was all set in stone, the story
of my life, beginning with the boom
of babies they could never build
enough schools for, continuing through
the years of Conelrad and bomb tests,
clouds of strontium-90 settling over
Mid-West cow pastures and seeping
into the wholesomeness of our milk,
of air raid drills, hiding under our desks,
the Sunday afternoon sirens, the missle gap,
the arms race, the space race, the moon race,
The Korean War, the Berlin wall, Cuba,
and Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam --
the entire agony of Communist hysteria
that mutated into Peace and Love
through a purple haze of electric
guitar music, then collapsed into a stupor
of sated Capitalist moneygrubbing,
Internet boom and bust, as we squandered
what was supposed to be the "peace dividend"
awarded to us as the righteous victors
by mortgaging our homes and building
an army so intent on finding a new enemy
that it did at last exactly that.

Now here I am, supposedly old enough to
know better, studying the accumulation
of my retirement funds and estimating when
the final payment will be made on my house,
wondering, if that day ever comes, how much
longer I will have to live. All around me
the world spins in confusion, lurching
from one disaster to the next like a drunk
wondering when he'll finally hit his bottom --
from which point there is only UP to go,
from where Salvation can be found,
and where life, as with the coming
of grandchildren, may reveal, finally,
its rewards.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Feline Dreams

A visit from an old friend ...

My cat who died last year came to me in a dream. Since he left he'd been looking for me everywhere and had finally found me. "Hi, Steve," he said in his small voice. He sounded a bit like our grandchildren.

I wasn't at all surprised to hear him speak. He'd always done his best to communicate, approximating multi-syllable words like "hungry." I picked him up and stroked his fur. It was all smoothed down, almost as if wet, because he'd been swimming through the dark beyond. His eyes were wild with what he'd seen, or what he'd been unable to see. I petted him and called him "my kitty" and "old fuzzyhead" the way I used to.

All I could think of was how I'd been mourning the recent loss of my other cat, the last one, and how I'd been feeling alone. "How could I think that when I'll always have you?" I asked him.

On waking I took him with me, a small warm presence who will always be at my side. Once I wrote this about him:

Feline Dreams

My cat has nightmares. This I know by how
he lifts his head from slumber, turns it side
to side while blinking, body still supine
as if still sleeping from the neck on down.

I know it by the way he issues forth
a plaintive call as if say where am I?
or to bring me to his side the way
a child beckons parents in the fearsome

dark. I know it, too, by how he likes
to be picked up, embraces me, and rests
his head upon my shoulder, softly purrs
as if to say it all was just a dream.

What could so strain a feline mind is likely
something I will never know. I wonder,
does he see his sister's death, the shining
chrome that knocked the life from out her head
the way a flame, when blown, departs the candle?

Or is it just some rival beast, a dog
perhaps, or nasty tom, who plagues his rest?
His brain, all cerebellum, no cerebrum,
lacks the convolution needed for
such pondering. He seeks alone the comfort
I provide, then lies content, far more
at peace than you or I will ever be.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Cadillac Lady

Like two ships passing in broad daylight ...

I first spotted her when I began taking the train to work, which meant I had to walk the last few blocks to my office. I only  noticed because she was parked in a big black Cadillac, shiny and new, with the engine running. So that first impression symbolized American wealth and extravagance, idling a big V8 engine just to keep the sole occupant of the car comfortable in the heat.

As time went on I realized I was seeing her almost every day, parked in the same spot. It was right in front of a big picture framing store, so she might have been a wealthy patron having some of her art collection framed. But not even a museum would have enough work to keep her there day after day, and always so early in the morning.

It didn't take long for my writer's instincts to kick in. Part detective, part fantasist, that side of me filled in a picture. It had to be her store, her business, that she was keeping an eye on. Maybe her husband used to run it, but he's dead now, and she's in her old age, hanging on to what she has left. Naturally that means making sure the employees are on the job and not stealing from her, that the manager gets there and opens up on time.

She also has an obsession with protecting her parking lot. She's in a neighborhood with scarce public parking and numerous restaurants and night spots. Some business owners might hire a guy to rent out spaces at night, but she puts chains across the driveways and posts WILL TOW signs. When the chains are broken or taken down, she has thicker ones installed, with padlocks. When someone runs into them she has them painted yellow. When the posts are knocked down, a crew is at work the next day installing new ones.

I know the parking lot because I cut through it to save a few steps. At least I used to, before she had additional chains put up to seal off the pedestrian-sized openings that not even a motorcycle could have squeezed through.

Were those chains directed at me? Has she been watching me through the glass of her tinted windows, through a glass darkly, seeing me as a threat? I could jump the chains easily, but I don't. She'd only put up taller ones, like an athletic competition raising the high jump bar till only one person could clear it.

Instead I respect her boundaries, the territory of her own space that she guards so jealously, hands clutching the motionless steering wheel, driving nowhere, eyes behind sunglasses, a cigarette held in her lipsticked mouth as she gives herself a light and fills the hermetically sealed car with a cloud of her own smoke.

When I took her picture this morning, she silently drove away.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Attention to the Details

As Columbo used to say, "Oh -- just one more thing ..."

I just began writing articles for Suite101.com with a review of the opening night concert for the new home of the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. But one small thing I omitted is a wonderful example of the fantastic attention to detail that is evident in all aspects of this project.

You know that chime that tells people to put down their drinks in the lobby and get to their seats? The one that goes "bong ... bong ... bong ..." or maybe "bing bong ... bing bong ... ?"

Well that's not good enough for the New World Center. I was delighted to hear the chimes play an entire little tune. And even more delighted when I recognized it as one of the oldest known pieces of Western music: the "Seikilos epitaph" that was discovered engraved on a tombstone in Turkey, and which dates from over 2,000 years ago.

(If you're wondering how I happened to recognize such an old song, it's because I discovered it while researching the article I wrote about the discovery of some bone flutes from the Ice Age -- perhaps the oldest musical instruments ever found.)

So when you go to the New World Center, even in the act of being ushered to your seat you are being reminded of the wonderfully long and rich history that has delivered us to this new golden age. Here are the lyrics [translated] so you can sing along:

While you live, shine,
don't suffer anything at all;
life exists only a short while,
and time demands its toll.
So in other words, eat, drink and be merry!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

"Art" In Very Public Places

Recently I posted this photo to my facebook pages as an example of what can happen when committees respond to a government mandate to put "art" in public places. Pretty awful, huh?

This glorified hitching post stands about four feet tall at the corner of a medical arts (no pun intended) building in South Miami. Even as a phallic symbol it's pretty wimpy and disgusting. A dish of water at the base seems to allude to it being a fountain, but it more closely resembles some kind of monumental pet feeding station.

You only have to go a few blocks further east to find another such example. When this twenty-foot tall construction was first unveiled -- or perhaps a better word is "installed" -- it was instantly dubbed "The Giant French Fries," or, even better, "MacDonald's After The Blast."

We're told that its real name is "Patience," though there is no explanation of why. Oddly enough the name acquired additional meaning when the, um, sculpture was lost and we had to wait a long time to get it back.

How could we lose something so large, you ask? Simple. Just remove it temporarily (hold that thought) while the ground it was on got razed in preparation for building a low-income housing project. Unfortunately, the contractor involved pocketed most of the money he was supposed to get while going no further than scraping the dirt and putting a chain link fence around it. By the time he'd been prosecuted, the whole idea of putting low-income housing on the site had been abandoned. (Obviously it was way too expensive!)

The earth turned and revolved about the sun, the years passed, and those crumpled Golden Arches became no more than a fond memory. Are you still holding that thought? Then where would YOU put a ton of steel "temporarily?" Give up? So did everyone else who worked for the county.

One day an inspector doing an inventory of the county's art collection discovered the piece had been lost. Then it was miraculously found in a scrap yard, identified as "rusting pieces of metal." To make up for this embarrassment the county took down the fence around the weed-grown construction site, covered it with grass, and placed the prodigal artwork, now decked out with a new coat of yellow paint, on a concrete and gravel pad. This part cost us only $40,000 -- surely a bargain.

Oh, and the place is now called a park. "Patience Park," of course.

Renaissance Florence had the Medici and Leonardo, but we've got Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places and the Professional Advisory Committee to insure that 1.5% of the construction cost of our public buildings goes to acquire, well ... art. Enjoy!