Monday, March 26, 2007

West Coast Terrorist Threat Level: Green

I took this photo in 2003 on Market Street at the San Francisco anti-war protests. Protest is always at its best when served with a dollop of humor, and there was plenty of humor (see below), but as always at these events, it was offset by the parade of po-faced speakers. At the end of the day, this guy was getting the most attention and the best laughs.

Detailing my feelings about the last four years would take way more time and energy than I have right now, and anyhow, I vowed when I started the blog, I wasn't going to get bogged down in politics. In short, I wasn't a citizen when George Bush was first elected, but if I had been I would never have voted for him. Even though his politics are not mine, I never thought we would see the mind blowing levels of arrogance, intransigence and incompetence that his administration has achieved. This is beyond politics. For the record, I am a socially very liberal, but am fiscally centrist even mildly conservative. I'm as green as they come, but I don't think you can force people into environmentally sound behavior, you have to give them options, and making their lives less comfortable or impoverishing them in the process, will never work. I don't really trust the government with my money, but I think government is important as long as it is balanced by a free market, (the opposite also applies.) Somethings are so big that only government can tackle them. The Readers Digest version: I am all over the shop politically.

Regardless of my politics, I have always opposed the Iraq war, and I think I accidentally called it four years ago, when in an argument with a friend, I said this would turn into Northern Ireland on steroids. I was, and still am, a big supporter of the war in Afghanistan.

I still think the US is a great country, both in its incredible physical beauty and its aspirations. It has many faults, but in my experience, few places match it. It depresses me, though, how much this administration has sullied its reputation, and I suspect it will take a long time to repair the damage - it seems we really did misunderestimate Bush.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Rockin' The House on Paddy's Day

Yours truly on the mic on Paddy's day, wearing the obligatory green (in this case, a Guinness t-shirt). I was again playing Lindsey Boullt's Musician's Showcase (that's Lindsey in the background, handing out shots of Jameson to the band). This is such a cool event. There is none of the competitiveness you can often find at standard gigs, just a fantastic atmosphere of support and camaraderie. This is my third showcase, and the best part is hanging out with folks I don't get to see the rest of the year. I think this photo was taken while I was playing one of my own songs "Outside Looking In." I posted some MP3s on the blog last year, but you can download the final mastered version here.

Warning guitar geekery ahead:
For those interested, the guitar I am playing is a Line 6 Variax, a totally new type of digital guitar. It has an on board computer and can model twenty two classic guitars. For example, it can sound like a 58 Les Paul, the original of which wouldn't leave much change out of $30k - if you could find one. And this guitar cost me $400! The sound modelling is spot on, and it seems to have already revolutionised the guitar world. Mind you, it doesn't look nearly as cool as a 58 Les Paul, but I am never going to own one so...

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different...

In contrast to yesterday's post - here's a picture of a cute little birdy - who was a product of natural selection as opposed to the spontaneous creation of an omnipresent creator.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Public Atheism

This is great, finally a US congressman has the balls to admit that he is an atheist. That congressman would be Rep. Pete Stark from Fremont, a local Bay Area city. Anywhere else in the western world, this would not be much of a news item, but given the general religiosity of the US, and the prejudices that atheists struggle against, this is relatively big news. If Pete Stark were not a long standing congressman (18 terms), in a heavily Democratic urban area, his chances of re-election after this declaration would be nil. The balance in the US is seriously skewed, to the point that many people believe that atheists are immoral by their very nature. This, despite the fact that many of humanities greatest crimes have been perpetrated by deeply religious people. Even Hitler on occasion used the guise of Christianity and Catholicism to justify national socialism. Morality really has nothing to do with religion - the universal tenets of love, kindness, and justice apply whether one is a believer or not.

This argument has been of great interest to me lately. I've just finished Richard Dawkin's book, The God Delusion, although I admire his stand and I largely agree with his reasoning, I have never quite made the jump from agnostic to atheist. I suspect his book is aimed at people like me, people who are on the fence, but don't believe in any way in a personal god, and have a deep respect for natural selection, and its inherent meaning and beauty. In fact, my sister bought it for my Christmas present (yes I see both the irony and the contradiction), saying it had my name written all over it.

I was brought up in a pretty religious (but very tolerant) family, although that was not unusual in the Ireland of the time. Everyone was, in appearance at least, religious; however, I never bought it. From a pretty young age, I thought it was all a little ridiculous, childish, and superstitious. As a child, I never really got why God, this all powerful being who created everything, needed us to pray to him. That would be like the cloned sheep, Dolly, praying to the scientists who created her. I know religion is more complex than just that, but every time I examined the logic of religion, it just tied itself up in knots. The truth is, I never found any meaning in it - at least any meaning that I could have found elsewhere, outside of religion. It all seemed like so much theater, but as history has proved, it was dangerous theater. The least of its sins was that it crippled Ireland's maturation as a country, and the biggest was that as an institution, it was complicit in the worst criminal activity - sexual abuse of children.*

At the end of the day, while I can't really believe anything that the major religions espouse, most of all the core belief of a personal God, I haven't quite made the jump to outright atheism. I like the comedian Bill Maher's take - he believes in a supreme being, but doesn't feel the need for a giant bureaucracy between him and it. I'll settle for that for now, although every day I edge closer to the precipice. Ultimately in the interest of our survival as a species, I think atheists making themselves more visible in society is a good thing. Some hard scientific logic would not go astray in these days of fundamentalism, spin, and deception.

*My father always points out that without the religious orders, most Irish children would never have been educated, as the state just didn't have the resources in the early and mid 20th century. Credit where credit is due, but, and it's a biggie, Irish society abdicated oversight of education, and as a result many children suffered both physical and sexual abuse. Religion is just like any other form of power, unchecked it runs rampant over the weak.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Spring Forward

11. Stowe Lake Walk_20070304_0024_1

The hour jumped forward last weekend, in these here United States of America. This is much earlier than in previous years - by government fiat. By and large, I think this is a great idea. More sunshine in the evening is always a good thing. The weather seems to have gotten the message and has been only feckin' gorgeous for the last three days.'s a nightmare for software companies, and I work for a software company. Every teeny piece of software has to be patched to change time properly. I run technical support, which means I ended up on a few more conference calls on Sunday that I normally like to (zero being my favorite number of work related calls on Sundays, so this wasn't good). This was more than your regular working-on-a-Sunday-pain-in-the-ass. I am playing at a musicians' showcase next Saturday, which by coincidence, is Paddy's day. So while taking conference calls, I was simultaneously rehearsing for the show. Not an ideal situation, but all is well now.

Spring is well and truly sprung around here. In the Golden Gate Park, birds and animals are throwing each other sultry come hither looks, while flowers are budding all around. Actually, while walking around Stowe Lake with the kids last weekend, I noticed plenty of humans also come hithering to each other.

The above picture was taken during that walk.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

An Almost Five Year Old's View of Vegetarianism

Shane: "Daddy, why don't you like pigs?"

Me: "Huh? I do like pigs. They're kinda cute and VERY smart. Why do you think I don't like pigs?"

Shane: "Weeeell, because you won't eat ham."

Me: "That's because I would prefer not to have a pig killed so I can eat."

Shane (slightly exasperated): "But you don't have to kill it, Daddy. It's already dead!"

Note: I am a vegetarian, Tash is mostly, the only meat we serve the kids is fish, but they can eat what they want at other people's houses. That way they can make their own choices as they grow up. Shane loves the rashers he gets from my dad when in Ireland; he also discovered a love of tea. This is not surprising - he is half-Indian, half-Irish.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Music in Advertising

While watching The Oscars last week, I was about to leave the room when a Cadillac ad came on featuring The Pogues' "The Sunny Side of The Street." It took me by surprise. Caddy's seem more the provenance of blinged out rappers, rather than drunken Anglo-Irish poets. It's a great song, but the only lyric you hear is the final line of the chorus (not surprising, given the boozy lyrics).

Seen the carnival at Rome
Had the women I had the booze
All I can remember now
Is little kids without no shoes
So I saw that train
And I got on it
With a heartful of hate
And a lust for vomit
Now I'm walking on the sunnyside of the street

Stepped over bodies in Bombay
Tried to make it to the U.S.A.
Ended up in Nepal
Up on the roof with nothing at all
And I knew that day
I was going to stay
Right where I am, on the sunnyside of the street

Been in a palace, been in a jail
I just don't want to be reborn a snail
Just want to spend eternity
Right where I am, on the sunnyside of the street

As my mother wept it was then I swore
To take my life as I would a whore
I know I'm better than before
I will not be reconstructed
Just wanna stay right here
On the sunnyside of the street

A few days later, I was again watching TV when a Mitsubishi car ad came on with a great, driving, crunchy bass line. I had seen the ad before, but it hadn't dawned on me who wrote the music. I was shocked when I realised that it was The Fall's "Clasp Hands" from their great last album, "Fall Heads Roll." Mark E. Smith's long running band of chaotic art rockers were the last people I expected to license their music to an ad - for a fucking car! However, this really shouldn't be that surprising, given that Smith has made a career of doing the opposite of what's expected of him. Not surprisingly, again, the idiosyncratic lyrics and Smith's barking voice are barely featured. His voice kicks in just as the ad ends.

Like I said, I was somewhat taken back. I always feel a little let down when my favorite bands shill for a car add (The Who for Nissan, The Buzzcocks for Subaru, Led Zepplin for Cadillac). However, despite the fact that it sticks in the craw to hear a song that means a lot to you selling a car, I ultimately have nothing against bands "selling out." If most people knew how hard it was to make money from records, they wouldn't be so down on bands that sell their souls for a little mammon. Many musicians, even those that "make it," never make a whole lot of dosh - most bands don't make a dime from record sales. The record company has to recoup costs first. Apparently it took Wilco four albums before they made money from album sales - and even then it was because they self-released the record.

Selling a song to an advertising company is a good way to make cash. Especially if you have had some hits, but your career is over in terms of record sales. Most bands, even those that are successful, continue playing live long after their album sales have lagged behind (example number one, The Rolling Stones). Live shows, although the heart of music, are a massive undertaking, slow ticket sales could leave a band in serious debt. Kicking back, while one of your tunes services the sale of a car, can hedge against these losses, and in many cases, make an artist more money with less effort.* However, I suspect the main reason many musicians hock their wares to advertising is not so much for the filthy lucre, but for the attention. Sting is on record saying that one of his albums was a non-starter in the sales stakes until he shilled for Jaguar. John Mellencamp sold that awful, if well-intentioned "Freedom Song" to Chevy and has seen some of his best album sales in years. At the end of the day, whatever about these dinosaurs, the more people who get to hear a great, truly indie band like The Fall the better.

Still... The Fall in a Mitsubishi add. We are a long way from my college years when even a sniff of "selling out" could doom a band to eternal unhipness.

Anyhow, here's the ad:

For good measure, here's the Cadillac ad:

* My understanding is that this is not a decision an artist makes alone. The record company almost always owns owns the master recording, and the publishing company will own a portion of the writing royalties. In many cases, the artist has the least control over what is sold.

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