January 19, 2010

Down The Drain

Outside, on 29th, a homeless woman who's inhabited the area around the 7-11 for the last few months has built a small fleet of origami boats that she's placed in the gutter and on the grate over the storm water drain next to the street. The effect is desperately sad: this woman is quite crazy — she talks to herself, she sleeps on the bus stop benches in elaborate cardboard-and-umbrella structures, she wanders into the traffic, she verbally attacks you if you show any interest in her — and the sight over the past week or so of these little scrap-paper things sailing away in the garbage-strewn gutter just underlines too much about life in a society too drained of decency.

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December 05, 2009


One of the words I often feel driven to retake from the hard right is "decency". As in, "a minimally-decent society is one that strives to ensure that the circumstances of one's birth, upbringing, and genetics — the things you have no control over — do not determine your access as a member of that society to the basics: health care, education, and justice (the things that most affect the course of your life)".

Fat chance, of course. It's a word that's as loaded and tarnished in this country as "liberty" or "patriotism".

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November 13, 2009

That Positivist Eschatology

Along with a handful of other people I spent an enjoyable few hours last weekend showing John Wilkins the Sights Of The City (and Berkeley). John's a real philosopher and historian of science, a field I really only dabbled in at university, and the various conversations over lunch or bagels or out in the streets ranged from mathematical models used in cladistics through species concepts and the storybook version(s) of science history taught to scientists, to what a positivist eschatology might look like (OK, that one was inspired by a previous comic non sequitur over a beer, but never mind), to Australian accents (his accent's noticeably more authentically Australian than mine; I think my accent's sui generis now, it doesn't belong to any country or region any more, which is a little unsettling). And he knew who the real Jimmy Little is, which was somewhat impressive for a philosopher (I was there as the Real Me, fortunately).

John's book Species: A History Of The Idea has just been published here by UC Press. One of John's arguments (at least as I understood it), which got aired on the weekend, is that the notion within biology that earlier scientists or philosophers — Linnaeus or Aristotle, for example — used essentialist conceptions of "species" is wrong, and that the notion that they did use such conceptions is itself a modern misconception, one that's been rather influential in modern biology and history and philosophy of science (HPS). A more nuanced look at what earlier scientists and philosophers actually meant when they used the term "species" suggests that few if any earlier such usages were essentialist.

That intrigues me, and might help explain a few things that have puzzled me about the history and sociology of modern biological; but I guess what I've always been most interested in with things like this (and what motivated me to do HPS at university) are the sociological and psychological reasons how and why such an idea might spread and take hold in intellectual circles (and anti-intellectual circles, for that matter) — and how such ideas die out or marginalised. History and sociology often only make sense to me when taken with a healthy dose of psychology (tempered with a great deal of skepticism); I can't help feeling this is one of those cases.

I've ordered his book; it turns up in the mail today or tomorrow; let's see how much of it I can misunderstand or misconstrue….

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October 24, 2009

Unclear On The Concept

Our local upscale supermarket is having a weekend "Buy Local" promotion with all sorts of stalls and counters outside in the parking lot. Right in the middle there's a stall selling some sort of organic drink with a whole bunch of claims about how it helps the body; bang in the middle of the other signs there's one saying "Made In New Zealand!!".

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October 13, 2009

Don't Rain On My Parade

Today, another early first rain. At least this time it tries to be convincing, but it's never rain enough to match the media hype, the scrolling "Stormwatch!" crawls on the TV newscasts, and the breathless live news reports of sundry battening-down and sandbagging across the region after the long dry season. But at least it did rain, and while (as always) there was no "storm" in any sense recognisable outside coastal California usage, there was a bit of wind and low cloud with the rain, and the puddles were fun to walk through. In my experience early first rains tend to presage a dry wet season; we've had three or four dry seasons in a row, and if I have to go through another rainless wet season with people cheerily commenting on the "beautiful weather" again, I think I'll scream. Water crisis? What water crisis?

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October 10, 2009

Mystical Maths

In Moe's this morning I buy a copy of Alain Badiou's "Number and Numbers", and present it to the clerk, a guy who's sold books to me here for years.

Him: "Ah, Badiou! Man of the moment!"
Me: "But I bet you thought you'd never sell any copies of this book…".
Him: "It's Berkeley. Someone's going to buy a copy eventually…"
Me: "Yeah, that someone's me, I guess. I just love reading stuff like this to see what happens when philosophers try to take on math; it's nearly always some sort of semi-mystical train wreck."
Him: "Ha! A friend of mine used to read Badiou — and Deleuze and Derrida and all those guys — a lot, but he was always high, and he never stopped giggling and chuckling his way through it all. Made me kinda wonder what was in those books."
Me: "Yeah. Treating it as a species of entertainment is probably the best way to cope."

I'm hopeful of a little bit more than entertainment, though: there's evidence in a quick flip through the book that Badiou's not just interested in waving his hands ostentatiously in front of the usual mathematically-ignorant philosophy types. We shall see….

Later, in the supermarket, with some typically overheated Dylan song supplying a smooth soundtrack, the (huge) woman behind the deli counter has a (huge) black and white badge on her chest that says "God is good — all the time!". Somewhere out there, God's rolling in his grave.

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September 27, 2009

Little Scotland

It's starting to look like Scottish independence referendum time again, and, as always, I'm forced to think about where I fit into things like this. Not about the Big Picture (the Union's been pretty good for Scotland over the centuries, despite the latter-day wingeing, and the push for independence often has a faint whiff of belligerent self-pitying Little Scotland Scottishry about it), but about my own nationality. I'm that deeply-unfashionable thing, a Briton, and "British" is probably all you could really call me (you could have plausibly called me a Londoner as well in the past, but not nowadays). I still have no idea what I'll do if I'm forced to chose a specific nationality rather than leave it "British". (On the other hand, if I were forced to chose between California and the US, that would be no choice at all: I'm unequivocally a Californian, but not at all an American).

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September 20, 2009

The Fall

Off Ramshorn Road, somewhere around here, I fall a couple of metres over a dry riverbank while taking a photo some distance away from my car and the "road" (a rough dirt track, in reality). I land on mixed sand and rock, and sprain my right wrist and ankle, bruise my shoulder, cut my arm, graze my leg, and tear my jeans (and just avoid destroying my camera, somehow, which was all that really mattered at the time). I can't seem to use my right arm properly to get me back up to the car (it's partially paralyzed). When I do get back up I sit on the dirt road in the shade next to the car thinking I'm the dumbest guy I know: I just casually broke every one of my own rules for wilderness work on my own, and damn nearly ended up with a bunch of broken bones (or worse) in the middle of nowhere without anyone having a clue I was even in the area; and it's possible no one would have come across me for days.

I drive very slowly back out over the bumpy dirt road towards civilisation and just as slowly the shoulder and right arm start working again, and by the time I'm back in Mt Shasta, I feel sore but fine, and I can joke about it to the supermarket checker as I'm buying bandages and antiseptic. I must look a sight — I have blood on my shirt, and my hair's a matted mess of sweat and blood (mostly from my arm as I brushed the sweat away). I've bought some Hello Kitty bandages along with the more serious stuff, just to cheer me (and anyone who sees me) up. The checker — a woman about my age — looks at the HK package and then up at me, and says conspiratorially "Hello Kitty will fix anything, won't she?".

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September 04, 2009

What's Going On?

In the hot dawn air on that ragged block of East 7th up past 23rd, someone's playing Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" loudly through the open windows of a parked car, that smooth deliberate fluid propulsive drive and repeated gunshot crack reverberating off the idling trucks and half-lit cinderblock workshops and ramshackle houses, sending shivers up my spine.

One of those Oakland moments, I guess…

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August 30, 2009


One of the joys of having my sort of background is receiving a steady stream of junk mail from the professional societies with sentences like these in the body:
"Design and synthesis of ICs considering factors such as: signal integrity, transmission line effects, POC, phase shifting, and sub-wavelength lithography [...] spare-cell strategies for ECO, decoupling capacitance and antenna rule fixing [...] Reliable clock tree generation and clock distribution methodologies for Gigaherz designs [...] EDA tools, design techniques, and methodologies, dealing with issues such as: timing closure, R,L,C extraction, ground/Vdd bounce, signal noise / crosstalk / substrate noise [...]"
Yes, all this from a flyer aimed at getting me to attend some international symposium or other last week. The really sad thing is I understand (or at least recognise) nearly all of what's written in these things. Getting a life's a low priority, I guess.

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August 18, 2009


I sit across the desk from the friendly-but-reserved sales guy trying to sell me a new car (he succeeded), dying to ask him the obvious question while he rattles on about accessories and options: what was it like growing up black in the suburban Arizona of the sixties? Instead, we smalltalk about local politics (a much safer topic). A few minutes later S. (from Ethiopia via London) finalizes the finance deal with a quiet but heart-felt rant about Americans and their (our) idiotic health care system and our self-destructive populist politics; it's all I can do to stop myself from asking how a ruthless uber car salesman and finance guy like him can profess such views in an industry like his. He shakes my hand and tells me I'll like my new car (I do). Damn the car, though — it's much less interesting than the stories lurking in the salesroom….

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August 15, 2009


Someone asked me the other day whether I'd ever get a Kindle. I suspect she thought I'd disdain the idea, that all the books I'm surrounded by in my studio speak to a love of the old technology. But much as I like books, I'm not sentimental about them: it's words I care about. I'd have a Kindle in a second if I thought I could really afford it.

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July 18, 2009

Big Digger

I live in a tug spotter's paradise, with sea-going tugs, tractor tugs, barges, lighters, floating construction cranes, etc., moored on or working the Estuary a few minutes walk from my studio. It's common to see barges in from Seattle or Alaska or LA, but every now and then you see something home-ported at a place you've never heard of and wonder how the hell it got here. For the last week or so there's been a heavy construction barge and associated floating crane moored here from Evansville, Indiana, somewhere deep in the midwest. I'm still nerd enough that this sort of thing always amazes me: this barge has presumably been tugged down the Ohio and the Mississippi, across the Gulf, through the Panama Canal, then up the rough cold west coasts of Mexico and California (at least), to end up moored a block from my front door. Half makes me want to visit Evansville (the long way).

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July 11, 2009

Moe Day

Moe's is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary today. It's sobering to think that I've been going there at least semi-regularly for nearly half that time, and first bought a book there in 1985. Moe's and the Milano (and Cody's before it went belly-up) have defined my Saturday mornings for twenty years now….

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July 05, 2009

Endangered Species

In the Milano this morning a studious old guy in a tidy denim jacket and half-moon glasses, surrounded by overflowing shopping bags of belongings on the floor around him, makes laborious notes while reading a hardback King James bible, a paperback copy of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks on the table next to the bible.

It's such a blast from the past, it stops me dead: twenty years ago you saw sights like this all the time in Berkeley coffee shops (except it was more commonly an old hippy ostentatiously reading Marcuse while bending the ear of anyone unlucky enough to sit within a metre or two of him), but nowadays it's like the reappearance of the Spotted Owl or Bald Eagle. Not sure what to make of this isolated sighting amongst the clacking laptops and the wordless mumbling homeless slumped over the benches…

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June 27, 2009

All That Jazz

It's hot, at least by Bay Area summer standards (20C by 10am, but probably at least 40C just twenty minutes' drive over the Hills), and they've thrown open the roof and front walls of the Milano for the breeze. At the back of the upper level three very nerdy and earnest-looking students are gathered around a laptop and a textbook labeled "Modern Piano Jazz" (or something like that), absent-mindedly drinking coffee. At one point one of them looks up and loudly says to no one in particular "E9th!" as though he's had a revelation. I can't help hearing it in my mind as played up the neck on my old blue Strat.

Down the street at Moe's a Famous Author who I don't recognize but feel I should is bantering with the staff. They know who she is; me, I just trawl through the architecture section for low-price gems. There's a large cut-price hardback on Frank Gehry which I just have to buy — you can't spend much time in LA without running across his buildings, where they tend to seem more at home and less forced than in the wider world. As I leave the Famous Author glances at the book under my arm and asks whether there are any Gehrys in the Bay Area? I'm ashamed to say I don't actually know, which feels weird.

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May 25, 2009

Blue Gum Blues

"The hated Tasmanian blue gum tree — better known as a variety of eucalyptus — has been blamed for virtually every evil short of snatching babies out of strollers […]" (the lead sentence from a front page story in today's SF Chronicle).

To an Australian, that seems a little rough, but it's essentially true (if nothing else the blue gums certainly contribute disproportionately to bush fires (brush fires) here due to the way they drop their branches and bark, and the various flammable oils they produce). Out here in the SF Bay Area, as the article says, gums "breed like rats", and you can't help noticing gum trees are everywhere, especially on the hillsides. That little thrill of recognition and familiarity disappears after a while when you realise they're deeply destructive alien species brought over here during and after the gold rush, and have basically taken over the coastal hills in large parts of California — even the native coastal Redwoods don't do as well as the gum trees. So you learn to grit your teeth and ponder your loyalties every time you walk through the many beautiful tall groves of blue gums here, and not to get too bent out of shape over your breakfast bagel or laptop latte by articles like that.

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May 15, 2009


Swanning around the bright spacious well-peopled aisles of Fry's in Fremont on a Friday evening in search of NAS drives and eSATA cables: what else is there to do in the Valley? I'm such a nerd.

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April 28, 2009


From the side of US 95 in Nevada, a spooky glimpse of a Predator drone taxiing quickly along a runway at Creech, then a line of black pickups with federal plates and dark windows pulls out onto the highway ahead of me. A Nevada Highway Patrol car flashes past me at twice my speed, silently. I bumble on towards Vegas.

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April 18, 2009

Cal Day

It's Cal Day at the university, and Berkeley's being overrun by good cheer and sunny futures. At one of the stands a young guy's hawking silly hats with floppy ears and a big Cal bear on them: "Cal Hats! Cal Hats! Get your Cal hat here! All proceeds to charity!" He locks eyes with me as I wander past and says "Sir! A Cal hat for you?!" I can't help smiling and responding with "Do I look like the kind of person who wears a silly hat?!" He squints at me, pauses, then grins back, doing a pretty good imitation of my Anglo-Australian accent "Yyyyeeeeeessssss... why yes you do, mate! You could wear it while lecturing!"

A decade or two of being mistaken for a professor while walking through Berkeley does the ego a lot of good; I buy a hat. Surely the right thing to wear while reading Baudrillard at The Milano; an Irony Hat in mufti, I guess.

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April 11, 2009


Downtown Berkeley, 11am, an older white woman (at least 70, I'd say), dressed in classic expensive Californian upper-middle-class clothing, stands beside me waiting for the lights to change on Shattuck. Apropos of nothing at all she looks up at me and says "The last time I was here it was full of people protesting gay marriage!" I look around at her, smile sweetly (wondering where this was leading), and say cautiously "Yeah, it's Berkeley…". She goes on: "They're nuts! They're bigots! Can't they see even their god created everyone, straight and gay! I had a great time screaming back at them. If anyone thinks being gay's a choice I'll scream at them too!". She smiles broadly, steps off the street as the lights change, and strides off towards Wells Fargo.

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March 29, 2009

The Trance

"Composers often do not hear the music that is being played… We are listening to something and at the same time creating something else." Lutosławski quoted in Alex Ross's "The Rest Is Noise". I never thought of myself as a photographer until the day I realised I often lost the original completely in a reverie of imagining my own way through a scene or situation.

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March 21, 2009

My Oakland

All afternoon as I lounge around my studio recovering from two debilitating weeks of bronchitis and more there's a more than usually-urgent stream of sirens and rushing police cars and ambulances past my place on the freeway and along the Embarcadero, but I don't think too much of it: that's my Oakland, I guess. Ditto the helicopters.

And then the news, three OPD officers shot dead, a fourth dying, all in the same extended incident: just another day in Lovely East Oakland. I guess.

From the NYT's current take on the story, the other side of this same Oakland: "The Associated Press reported [...] that people lingered at the scene of the [...] shooting. About 20 bystanders taunted the police." Nothing to do with the police is ever simple here.

In other news, an unnamed man was shot dead here in the Fruitvale district earlier this morning. No one's too clear on the story; I doubt they ever will be (his body was found by a woman retrieving her garbage bin from the street). Last week another man was shot dead in broad daylight near Fruitvale BART in a brutal street robbery on a route I walk occasionally. Unbelievably, the shooting stats are actually somewhat better so far this year than last.

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March 08, 2009

Life On Mars

In Moe's I stumble upon Felix Guattari's "Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977" (Semiotext(e), ed. Lotringer, natch), a book I just have to buy after a quick skim, if only because the blurb describes "Anti-Oedipus" as one of the most important books of our time, and because in one of the chapters Guattari, when asked for a brief overview of something or other in an interview, goes on for several unstoppable pages (unintentional comedy is always the best comedy).

I've long had a soft spot in my intellectual heart for Guattari — his analysis of R.D. Laing's Kingsley Hall anti-psychiatry adventures (included in this collection) is characteristically perceptive and droll, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to an agenda that attempted to get psychology (as a practice, if not a science) out of the whole claustrophobic Oedipal thing and more engaged with broader social and institutional contexts (at least). But this collection was written at a time when it was possible to discuss psychiatry and psychology in great detail without once even mentioning neuroscience or neuropathology (except dismissively in passing), and to talk about something like schizophrenia entirely in social or institutional terms. Not that Guattari himself does this (at least not here), but this was a time when it was even possible to straight-facedly discuss "curing" schizophrenia using Freudian analysis; reading bits of the collection over the past few days has been a sort of mental Life On Mars for me.

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February 22, 2009

Alien At Home

Whenever I drive out into the hinterlands, into sub-suburban and rural California, I’m always struck by a bunch of things, mostly contradictory: how familiar this landscape and culture is, how at home I am in it, how much an alien it makes me feel, how changed it is from when I first drove out here, how vast the landscape and so much in it is (the huge agricultural machines, huge truck stops, huge SUVs, huge freeways, huge mountains…). It so often just reduces me to lists….

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February 05, 2009

25 Things (About The Real Me)

I got hit by that latest Facebook tag meme, in this case the "25 Things" thing doing the rounds where you have to list 25 things about yourself that your long-suffering Facebook friends might find illuminating (or more likely not). Since people do actually sometimes ask about my real-life me (usually in email), here's the rather hurriedly-put-together Facebook list of 25 things you may or may not already know about my real-life self (slightly edited):

1. My real name is J. Orbison Legrande III.

2. I once piloted Air Force One.

3. I can speak eleven languages fluently; five more with some difficulty.

4. Most of my photos are fakes — I spend literally months drawing each one in excruciating photo-realistic detail by hand, then use Photoshop to make them look like photos.

5. I was born in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, up near Shreveport.

6. I swim to work most days.

7. I write for the New Yorker under a pseudonym.

8. When I was a teenager I made a living composing heroic poetry to order in a traveling sideshow. Two bucks a poem. It was an OK living, but that sort of thing really takes its toll after a while.

9. My Australian accent is totally fake; I've never even been there, let alone lived there long enough to get an accent.

10. My father knew Lloyd George.

11. I never eat pasta; it's a religious thing.

12. A friend of mine is afraid of butterflies.

13. I made up the whole "Woy Woy" thing (with the help of Spike and some other co-conspirators who I'll name in my memoirs) — it's all fake. There's no such place (the name's a bit of a giveaway, isn't it?).

14. I feel really bad for making up the Woy Woy thing. It's sort of exploded out of my control and taken on a life of its own; I wish I could take it back.

15. When I lived in northern Minnesota I used to pretend to like ice fishing just to get on with my colleagues.

16. My first kinetic sculpture exhibition was raided by the Carabinieri because a jealous ex-lover had told them it defamed the Pope.

17. When I taught classical philology at Oxford I was known as "The Hammer".

18. I have twelve siblings. Two of them are currently in Antarctica.

19. For the first few months I feared that I would never get used to living in Ittoqqortoormiit, but after a few years it started to feel like home.

20. There's a prime number named after me.

21. I now deeply regret inventing the amphibious car. It's been the bane of my life, in ways too numerous to mention.

22. I once weighed more than 300 Kg.

23. I'm mortally afraid of aspergilla. Well, only the metal ones.

24. The Angry Penguins were my idea.

25. I have never told a lie.

So now you know.


February 02, 2009

Rudderless Oakland

An already-tainted and overwhelmed police force under FBI investigation, with the police chief suddenly resigning in a hissy fit; a huge and unexpected budget shortfall (over and above the normal recession problems) due to incompetence or fraud (no one's quite sure which just yet); continuing destructive riots and civil unrest downtown in reaction to a brutal shooting that's got almost nothing directly to do with Oakland; the predictable (and predicted) bungling of the case against the alleged assassins of Chauncey Bailey; a deepening recession that not even the Port can help us with now; a drought that's breathing hotly down our necks; allegations of rampant nepotism in the city's workforce; and an ineffectual mayor who doesn't bother to come in to his office except when he feels like it (tying up business for days on end)… at least the homicide rate is down compared to last year.

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January 26, 2009

Horse Trailer Day

Celebrate! I'll be doing my bit by taking fairy bread to work. Thanks to the ever-reliable Spike for reminding me of that great Oz (and NZ, I suspect) delicacy….

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January 08, 2009

14th and Broadway

Massed TV news helicopters in the skies over Oakland are never a good sign; especially when they're over your neighbourhood. Last night, sporadic rioting, arson, vandalism, and protests in response to the Shooting (it's increasingly being capitalized around here); tomorrow? Who knows. What I think I most worry about is what's going to happen when the officer either isn't charged or is found not guilty after trial. That won't be sporadic….

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January 04, 2009

On Home Ground

At about 2am New Year's Day, at my local BART station (Fruitvale), BART police shot and killed a passenger while he was face down on the platform in custody and being stood over by several BART police officers; he was not at that point apparently being violent, nor was he armed; the guy had been in a fight in the train. BART stonewalled about the shooting. So far, so normal.

But since it all happened in front of a BART train full of people, cell phone videos of the actual shooting and the associated mayhem have started to emerge, and dozens of witnesses have come forward saying essentially the same thing — that the victim was shot fatally in the back once by a police officer who was standing behind and above him while he was on the ground, in custody, and not being violent. You can see the mayhem yourself on YouTube without a lot of effort: this is the "semi-official" version (taken from a KTVU interview with the woman who took it)), but the more incriminating video also shown on TV news last night (where you see the actual shooting itself, with both the cop involved and the victim quite visible) doesn't appear to have made it to YouTube. BART's still stonewalling — something that's not so smart in the age of cellphone video and YouTube, maybe.

(Fruitvale BART station has a long history of violence, and shootings there aren't exactly novel, but I think what I don't understand is why there wasn't a riot at that point and why the police officers weren't simply ripped to shreds or thrown off the raised platform by the crowd…).

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December 23, 2008

Advance Notice

[Note: edited 09-01-05 to reflect new start date — JL]

A bit of advance notice that my real-life self will be having a small art photo exhibition at Kefa Coffee (a really good local cafe / coffee shop) for a month starting sometime early February; details when I know 'em (including whether or not there'll be any sort of opening reception, something that currently seems unlikely given the lack of notice and the small size of Kefa…). Today, West Jingletown; tomorrow the world…

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December 20, 2008


Upstairs in the Milano a skinny young junky with stereotyped glassy eyes, greasy hair, and tats down both arms twitches in the corner badly out of place bent over a weeks-old newspaper. After a while he starts trying to hit up the nearest tables for money for a bagel, people look the other way or move downstairs, he slowly makes his way my way until he's close enough that I can see the letters "J U N K" tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand in gothic script. Just before he gets to me he stumbles and knocks someone's glass onto the floor, looks around startled, and flees past me downstairs and out onto the street. Upstairs we start relaxing again. Outside, the vendors on Telegraph keep on setting up the stalls for the holiday bash. In Moe's there's a row of art books on urban graffiti; one of the covers has a photo of a 1980's New York subway train, the graffiti along its length looking like the tats on the junky's arms, right down to the gothic script of one of the tags.

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November 14, 2008

The Big Country

The grandly-named Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (actually a nook in the mall at Orlando Airport) sells (amongst a large array of other merch) plush cuddly little official NASA space shuttles. I buy one; it'll go nicely with the friendly over-fed knitted pink and white Dalek I have back in Oakland.

At Denver we land in the teeth of a bitterly-cold strong northerly wind that's sending tumbleweeds rolling across the runways and ramps; it's snowed here earlier this morning, but it's blowing dirt and sand and stray bits of scrap paper right now. The crowds hanging around the gates waiting to board West Coast flights always seem visibly different to the rest of the vast mass of people that flows through this huge airport every day (this has often been the first sign of home for me over the past decade). At the western end of the long concourse you can see the beginning of the Rockies through plate glass picture windows; at the other end there's no view at all of the Great Plains sloping invisibly back through the haze towards the Mississippi and Back East. It's a state of mind, I guess, along with the "Tornado Shelter" signs pointing to the reinforced toilet structures every few tens of metres along the way.

Later, Boulder, the Front Range, snow-covered oilfields, the scoured scarred badlands of Western Colorado (a place with unlikely family connections for me), mesas, the Wasatch, Great Salt Lake, the endless sharp ranges of the Great Basin desert, snowcapped against a desert of rilles, craters, dry lakes, power stations, and mines in the middle of nowhere, Mono Lake and the Sierras (at last!), Mighty Modesto, State Route 99, Interstate 5, Mt Diablo and the Bay… we land into a very dry but mild mini Santa Ana that's turned the twilight bright orange and purple and the brush fire danger to bright red. Back to reality, I guess.

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October 30, 2008


Barack Obama Bread from the Feel Good Bakery, Alameda, CA

Obama bread, the very latest in comfort food from the guys at the Feel Good Bakery just across the bridge in Alameda's Marketplace. Yes, I just had to buy a loaf (this one's about a foot (30cm) across); they sell out early in the day, with Obama outselling McCain something like nine to one (big surprise there).

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October 22, 2008

Helter Skelter (By Any Means Necessary)

It's difficult to convey to outsiders just how paranoid, oppressed, and alienated you can feel during an election like this in this God-washed country, a place where Belief often breeds a breezy contempt for thoughtfulness or fact, where brightly-polished lies are the much-traded currency of an artificial economy of fear, where semi-official campaign robocallers slime your voicemail with racist or borderline lunatic conspiracy theories viciously demonizing people who, you quickly realise, are stand-ins for yourself, where TV spots attack you and your beliefs every few minutes with a sustained seething haze of brazen smears and deniable innuendo (all done with a polite authoritative tone), where your mail box is soiled day after day by anonymous coded attack mailers full of cowardly insinuations or outright lies, where every second email is a naked appeal to put thought and reason aside and take up arms (real or not) to defeat some enemy or other… all that and a third term still seems a distinct possibility (the real local and personal tragedy will be Proposition 8 passing).

It's easy to say the electorate gets the election it deserves, but what did the rest of us do to deserve this way of choosing a president?

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October 12, 2008

What A Difference A Month Makes…

I had lunch with a bunch of techie friends and colleagues in Silicon Valley late last week; as usual with these things, none of us was US-born, and I was the only native English speaker (and, for that matter, the only white boy (or girl)) in the group. A fairly diverse set of people, in the way of the Valley, and (given the middle-class Indian, Asian, and African immigrant experience), a fairly conservative bunch as well (more so than me, especially). What amazed me was that everyone in that group supported Obama; no one could manage a good word for McCain (and some went a lot further than that, with some serious scorn for McCain and his more rabid supporters). Almost no one there could imagine McCain as an enlightened and effective president; everything in this discussion revolved around "character" (rather than identity), and about seriousness, credibility, and believability — Obama has it all, if you listen to this bunch (even if many of us believe it won't make much short-term difference just how good the new president will be). I was astonished: even four weeks ago this lunch would have had a very different tone to it.

But then none of us at that lunch lives in "America"; we live in the Bay Area, a very different place. All of us have founded or helped found startups or businesses (successful or otherwise), but for all the financial conservatism that tends to go along with that, most us around the table are pretty comfortable with things like gay marriage, socialised medicine, or government-led anti-global warming initiatives.

In other words, we're not typical. Nobody out there beyond the Valley cares less what we think. And in any case, it fundamentally just doesn't matter how we vote: we nearly all live in some of the most Obama-centric electorates in the nation. And what scares us isn't what scares the US populace as a whole Out There: stupid scare stories about Obama's supposed connections to aging domestic terrorists don't scare us nearly as much as the feeling that out there beyond the bubble, the US has lost the plot completely, that the US populace just doesn't understand what's hit it (or what it hit itself with again and again over the past decade or so). What scared us most at that lunch was the idea that the US electorate as a whole might actually fall — again — for all the same sort of idiotic scaremongering that produced the real problems in the first place. What scares us is the still-prevailing attitude Out There that things will just go back to the way they used to be and everything will be OK again without anyone having to make any sort of real sacrifices or changes to their lives. Now that's scary.

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October 04, 2008

Waiting For Rain

Another early first rain, even earlier than the previous earliest I can remember, the first rain at all in at least six months. Big news: it topped the local broadcast TV news last night with dramatic scrolling "Stormwatch" graphics and even beat out the Bailout for the first five minutes. As always, there was no storm, just some light overnight rain; but we need every bit we can get, and self-absorption tends to be its own reward. Early first rains here tend to be harbingers of dry years; we shall see….

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October 03, 2008

Nucular Winter

I was pretty much permanently wiped out financially by the last US recession (the dot.com bust, which indirectly destroyed several businesses I was part of and damn near bankrupted me as an individual); but for most of the people around me who weathered that whole time without too many problems or down years, it all probably seemed (and seems) a curiously distant sort of experience (even as it was happening), a time that seems easy to understand (all that dot.com bullshit! Even though that had little to do with the recession itself…) at the same time as being a little mysterious in the way it actually affected life. People (like me) just quietly dropped out of sight or disappeared without trace (or at least without making too much of a fuss); most people seemed incurious, unconcerned; few people seemed personally much affected, at least directly. Many who didn't go under then still seem to have no real idea what it was like or what happened to many of us.

It all feels a lot closer and more urgent this time around, but there's still definitely that air of unreality and distance. I don't know, but I guess that it'll start hitting a lot harder for most of us in three to six months' time, maybe further down the line — and the effects are going to be much (much) longer-term and deep-seated. Many of us will be paying for this for the rest of our lives, one way or another, but the winter's going to be long and cold, that's for sure.

But who to blame? The populists are already figuratively putting the administration, the bureaucrats, and the Wall Streeters up against the wall, but W was reelected twice in popular bursts of belligerent nationalism and anti-intellectualism, and after eight years of doing exactly what he said he'd do, the results have been predictable, a definitive end to the American Century. Fire the people, maybe.

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October 01, 2008

The Attack Of The Annoying Blog Memes…

I've been implicitly challenged by The Aviatrix (a person I've met in real life) on one of my other blogs to list three things I've done that I think none of my readers will have done, but I'd rather do it here pseudonymously, so here goes:
  • I've piloted a plane upside down over California (both plane and I were upside down in controlled flight, and this wasn't a momentary aberration, it went on for quite some time);

  • I've been run over by an airplane (yes, really; but the details aren't as interesting as the precis makes it sound; at least one of my semi-regular readers saw the pathetic aftermath the same day);

  • I've been interviewed at some length by the BBC. What on earth could the BBC possibly turn to me for as a source of inspiration or authority? I'll leave that as a poorly-kept secret…

So there, is all I'll say. I've done my blogistic duty…


September 28, 2008

California Zephyr

Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Marysville, Yuba City, Chico, Red Bluff, Anderson, Redding, Lakehead, Castella, Dunsmuir… From the comfort of the vista dome, unstable little homeless cities of huddled tents, out of sight in the dry riverbeds and ravines of the Valley, dull blown-about trash strewn across thorns, levees, dead grass, the dry glare of desperation in backyards and dead cars, palm trees, clapboard, boarded-up brick, rusted rails, broken fences. Outside, an entire family looks up from picking over garbage next to the railway and waves at us as we pass by; inside, most seem to be incurious or untouched by the landscapes hustling past.

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September 19, 2008

Es Mi Barrio

Es mi barrio

Why I have tremendous mobile phone coverage in my studio… (the view from my front door).

(Click on the image to see a much larger version).

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September 01, 2008

It's A Dirty Job…

Mars is telling me that "Space Is The Place" (come on guys, you did that one last year) but on Telegraph it's usually more of a void, and in Moe's remainders section I buy one of those unintentionally cute authoritarian tracts on Architecture (with a capital "A"), "New Architecture 5: Truth, Radicality, and Beyond in Contemporary Architecture" (capitalisation normalised for readability), published before-it-all-went-wrong to celebrate the radical future Architecture and Architects were planning for us all back in 2000 (one of the buildings discussed is metaphorically on my front doorstep, so it cuts close to home sometimes). It's got a foreword by Baudrillard (of course!) with whole paragraphs of things like:
Does architecture peter out in its reality, in its references, in its procedures, in its functions, in its techniques? Or does it go beyond all that and lose itself in something else, which is perhaps its own end, or something that might permit it to go beyond its own end? Does architecture exist beyond truth, beyond its own truth, in a sort of radicality that challenges space — rather than controls it — that challenges society in its obedience of its conventions and insititutions, that challenges the very creation of architecture and the creative architect with his illusion of control.
Super! Pure poetry!

Allusive words, meaningless in their ability to mean almost anything; in fact the whole foreword is a sort of densely-packed tar pit of phrases that evaporate when exposed (and that I just know I'm going to return to over and over…). The engineer in me wants to say that these are the words of someone in love with the sound of words (and in love with the sound of themselves); the architect in me says that both the foreword and the tract itself show that it's infinitely easier to construct whole shining cities full of seductive phrases than it is to create a single building worth inhabiting — and seemingly impossible to write simply and thoughtfully about architecture's products from the potential user's point of view….

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August 24, 2008


On the beach, Gualala

Thick fog creeping across the cliffs, dark sand, driftwood, poppies and thistles, sequoias and ghost gums, turkey vultures, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, oases of floating kelp, furtive abalone divers, surfers shivering in wetsuits… and hordes of aged geezers on ear-splitting Harleys stopping to have coffee at places with slogans like "Not just a cup of coffee — a just cup of coffee", or dropping in for dinner at Pangaea.

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August 22, 2008

Beyond Sebastopol

On the Gravenstein Highway just beyond Sebastopol a spindly young black guy wearing a grey suit with a straw hat and a huge bass saxophone strapped across his back rides slowly through the dry shimmering; it seems too true to be real, but it's one with the Zen center, the Sensuality Shoppe, and the roadside bars here, I guess. This time the anti-war signs are faded, torn, shabby, a little less abrasive; in any case, no one's honking as they drive past any more as far as I could tell (did they ever?).

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August 01, 2008

In Search Of Lost Times

It's telling and (for me, at least) depressing that the ethnic and racial makeup of the residents of the large old building I live in in Jingletown has changed markedly over the past few years. Right up until about two years ago it often came pretty close to reflecting the larger surrounding Oakland neighbourhoods in that a near majority of us were African-American and Latino; the rest of us (myself included) were an assorted hodge-podge of white, Asian, Indian, and (as one neighbour put it), "Lord-knows-what". Nowadays we're almost completely white and Asian.

The change coincides almost exactly with the change in the immediate neighbourhood from being a mostly-anonymous industrial area dotted with shabby artists' studios, working lofts, the occasional large industrial plant, lots of odd small businesses, little islands of public housing, and bad karaoke bars, to being an officially-proclaimed "arts district" with new lifestyle lofts, galleries, hipster cafes, and hordes of self-righteous cyclists riding through the 'hood in their bright spandex clown suits.

It's also telling that right up until about two or three years ago the majority of the residents of my building — a place explicitly zoned live / work, where you're supposedly legally required to have a business license in order to live there — were artists, musicians, graphic designers, art restorers, etc.; nowadays they're almost all just lifestyle lofters. I think there are only three other tenants (out of nearly two dozen) besides myself who actually do anything creative in their units or who actually have businesses now. The new residents are the sort of people who will probably protest the return of what some of us fondly remember as the Jingletown Express, lumbering laboriously down Glascock Street a couple of times a week until fairly recently.

People seem to be taking the whole slightly-ludicrous Brooklyn West thing seriously: the newest two tenants are both actually straight from New York; their cars still sport the Empire State license plates, and they seem oblivious to the life around them much beyond the obvious. Plus ca change and all that, I guess. Time to move on before I'm moved….

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July 16, 2008

The Smartest Guys In The Room

A (true) story: about a dozen or so years ago, as the result of a company takeover, I worked for a large company that had bought out the much smaller company (a typical high tech startup) that I'd been a part of, and as a result I'd been granted quite a lot of stock options in the larger company (as happens here, usually — as in this case — as a sort of deferred salary). Enough to buy the better part of a house, cash (even in San Francisco!), at the price the larger company paid — but only if the larger company's stock price held, or at least didn't lose too much of its value, for a few years. There was no reason to think there'd be any real problems, as the larger company's financials seemed pretty plausible, and the auditors and banks had all signed off on the books, etc., and senior management at the larger company seemed to be doing well; and the tech economy was years from the dotcom meltdown (not that we knew that at the time, of course). Few of us in the smaller company much liked the larger company's top management; if nothing else, they lacked the sort of refinement and technical nous that our own upper management was known for, and in comparison to our management's general verbal and mental flair, their management seemed to have trouble holding their own against anyone who used words of more than one syllable. But we all stood to earn a fair bit of money from the deal, and we really didn't spend too much time worrying about it all.

Then one day I was in a meeting with a Larger Company Senior Management Type where he was explaining to us engineering rubes why this quarter's financial results were not what had been forecast, and why, consequently, the stock price was slowly declining on a daily basis (but still not at a worrisome level). Our European guys, he said, had screwed up — they'd forgotten to factor in the Easter holidays and we hadn't been able to make the revenue forecasts because of the unexpected days off. I was incredulous. I asked whether they really expected us to believe that crap? Like almost any Briton or European, I would never forget Easter was coming up — it's our major holiday, dammit. It's like an American waking up one day and realising he or she forgot Thanksgiving. Lame. He straight-facedly insisted that that was the real reason, and that there wasn't any bigger thing going on. Easter isn't any sort of holiday here in the US at all, so it probably sounded plausible to the US engineers, and for the next few weeks we just muttered about idiot managers and left it at that (I was, in fact, semi-officially censured for publicly doubting upper management's competence). It seemed like a temporary stuff-up, probably caused by incompetence at the top level, but nothing endemic.

But we got more and more of these odd little excuses and financial hiccups over the next few months, none of them quite adding up, and none of them really raising a red flag on its own, but all of them increasingly fishy. Some of us were also uneasy because the stock price was declining along with the hiccups, but even with the decline, we still stood to get a fair bit of money. We couldn't actually sell our stock for a while in any case, because most of us were barred by contract from doing so until at least a year after the buyout.

And then one day it was over: the stock plummeted to near nothing as the massive fraud behind the Larger Company's last few years worth of sales was revealed. The lucky survivors from the smaller company (myself included) simply ended up with nothing; the unlucky ones ended up with huge tax bills for paper "profits" they'd never see (sure, they got that tax back a year later, but they typically had to borrow literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the immediate bill). Almost all of us lost all the many years' worth of deferred salaries or direct investments the options and stock represented to us Smaller Company workers. The resulting litigation dragged on for years (for a while I was in the weird situation of working for a company that I was, as part of a then-unprecedented class action, suing), and I think I managed to get a few cents on the dollar from the settlement. Enough, especially by the time it was all over, to maybe buy a doghouse for cash in San Francisco (not that I have a dog, but it's the thought that counts). Five years of work and savings down the drain. Such is life, I guess, in the high tech world. Easy come, easy go.

Many years later, the CEO was finally convicted, and sent to jail for a little while. He's out now, and — incredibly — earning money back in the industry. He didn't lose it all; he came out just fine, by the looks of things, or at least compared to most of the rest of us. It turns out he had form, if you know what I mean. To my knowledge, none of the banks or auditors or oversight committees, etc., ever admitted to dropping the ball, let alone to incompetence or responsibility in any form (par for the course, of course).

Whenever we survivors from the smaller company get together (as many of us do, at an annual BBQ) we ruefully and rather bitterly talk about how we always seem to be working at the cutting edge — in this case, working for the Enron-ahead-of-its-time. I lost pretty much all my putative savings in that one; I still think of all the what-if's and might-have-been's; it's one of the central facts of my financial life, and has helped directly and indirectly determine the shape of the past decade for me.

* * *

A few years later, along with a lot of other Californians, I endured the power cuts and outages (such a lovely word; a bunch of us also coined the word "innage" as a result) that plagued California after its pioneering power industry deregulation and privatisation. The deregulation debacle ensured that while tens of millions of us lost power semi-randomly, a few companies and individuals made, well, tens of millions. Or even billions. Most of us at the time chalked the problems up to political incompetence (the whole process was a spectacularly stupid idea incompetently legislated and implemented, but sold to the public with the usual enthusiastic boosterism, those smooth, well-practiced half-truths and outright lies that seemed to dominate that era), mixed with the undeniable fact that Californians are basically clueless about limited resources, and use electricity like it's going out of fashion, even when to do so is either counter-productive or even suicidal. So it was actually quite plausible that we'd brought it all on ourselves and that we'd just have to grit our teeth and muddle through for a few years until it all sorted itself out (how very British).

What most of us didn't know then was that a large company not a lot of people had heard of at the time called Enron was — along with a bunch of witting and unwitting co-conspirators — actively manipulating the power supply and resulting prices in ways that the new deregulation regime made easy, or even encouraged. A lot of the brownouts and blackouts were actually the side effect of, or the catalyst for, blackmail done in the name of deregulation, and we Californians were basically just pawns, hostages, or collateral damage in the larger game.

At the time, any attempt to get behind the scenes and discover whether there was any sort of collusion or manipulation by suppliers and distributors nearly always met with official derision or worse. Well, we know better now. The whole episode, and Enron itself, is even one of the main reasons we have a high-profile Governator rather than the more typical gray bureaucrat we had at the time. We still face the fallout from the deregulation debacle in our daily lives here, whether we know it (or think about it) or not.

* * *

So for one reason or another, Enron's been a part of my life for quite a while.

And finally, a few years even further down the road, I finally get to see "The Smartest Guys In The Room" on DVD. It explains a lot. Or, more accurately, it illustrates a lot, a lot that's close to my heart, anyway. Yes, I already knew almost all that was in the film — all the facts and figures and overall narratives, anyway — but it's great to see it so well depicted and articulately explained.

The film's probably an acquired taste: it's visually mannered, with a lot of semi-ironic sandwiched visuals (extreme sports, reflections, etc.), visual cliches that highlight the cliches and ordinariness of so much of the story with a sort of meticulous off-handedness about the way the visuals work together. It's got a good soundtrack: cooly appropriate, a sort of dumb greek chorus of Tom Waits, Billie Holliday, Marilyn Manson, Glass, etc., aural motifs or icons, and the movie itself is so often literally and figuratively about face (and reflections and surfaces and movement in front of subjects), a story about people, human nature (self-delusion, why ask why?), shamelessness, victims, self-pity, arrogance, surreal denial, not money as such. The depressing message is that so many of the people who made money more or less got away with it; complicity pays, collusion pays — but I guess I already knew that. From personal experience, of course.

(Part of Flix).

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July 04, 2008

I Love My Country

I think I'm sort of with Edward Said: "I still have not been able to understand what it means to love a country." (quoted in Tony Judt's "Reappraisals"). Of course it's not exactly clear what "my country" would be, but never mind; at least I have a few; Said really didnt have any.


June 21, 2008

Behind The Image

In the cavernous old Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley the clerk behind the desk looks up at me looking up at the huge photo murals by local lad Ansel Adams on the wall behind her (not the usual Saint Ansel images, but the more subtle and interesting stuff you don't normally see in places like this); when I look down again she smiles and says quietly that she wished they'd put photos of photographers up there instead of the photos themselves. She says she's rather see who's behind the photos than the photos she sees every day, she wants to see people instead of rocks and buildings (later, she shyly admits to being a photographer herself).

It's unusually hot and sunny outside, and in the Milano they've opened up the roof and the entire folding front wall, and the place is full of light, soft breezes, bright Conjunto… and a smattering of students, studying for summer courses (one of the reasons I've kept coming back to the Milano is that it's so often full of hard-working students clacking away at laptops or earnestly discussing molecular structures or l'Hospital's rule over lattes and bagels — such a contrast with the Mediterraneum, which is always full of aging loud damaged hippies and boomers talking at the top of their voices about stale politics and dead icons). Outside on the street, Mars is telling us it's "Cheap But Not Easy"; beneath the Mars sign there's an old homeless guy splayed face-down across the sidewalk asleep next to a carpet of glass, totally naked except for an old pair of embossed cowboy boots and a small beach towel someone probably placed across his arse. I don't have the heart to take a photo. A few minutes later there's a flurry of police and an ambulance, and a short walk later there's nothing to see at all.

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June 12, 2008

Wall and Piece

Kennedy Street, Oakland, CA

I've got a real soft spot for Banksy. (Assuming "Banksy" is a "he", and is just one person, which seems a dangerous assumption, but never mind) his stuff is smart, witty, funny, thoughtful, clever, well-targeted, visually appealing, and (for me, anyway), motivated by just the Right Stuff. As he puts it in Wall and Piece, "Mindless vandalism can take a lot of thought". And that's kind of the key, no? Living in a neighbourhood increasingly suffocated by gang (and wannabe-gang) graffiti, his stuff often makes me ache for something other than the omnipresent thoughtless scribbled dog-piss graffiti 'round here.

He says "People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access." (in his "Advice on painting with stencils"). Well, maybe. Of course, 'round here people look at graffiti and wonder whether it means they're in norteño or surreño territory, or whether that little bit over there is E14th gang graffiti or A-town Runners graffiti, or wonder whether the huge gang sign graffiti repeated endlessly along the wall on E 7th means there's a hope in hell their car won't be graffitied the next night, or wonder why they have to clean the graffiti off their windows every damn week for the rest of their lives...

"Crime against property is not real crime." (ditto) But a lot of graffiti isn't resented by the graffitiist's targets because it's a property crime (the most graffitied neighbourhoods rarely have many property owners who are directly affected by it), it's because it's a visceral reminder that most of us have little control over our external visual environments, and a scary sign that gangs control the streets late at night (I'm guessing Banksy doesn't live in a place where gang-related gunshots are heard every night, but never mind, it's the thought that counts, right?).

Graffiti's no more inherently subversive than painting (or, for that matter, Frisbee golf). Graffiti's a medium, not a coherently-motivated and targeted act. It's OK to take a positive or at least indulgent attitude to graffiti when it's either thoughtful and clever (think "Banksy", of course…) or somehow subversive, but when its intention is simply to make us feel unwelcome or intimidated in our own environments, or to mark territory, it's a little disingenuous to proclaim it as a revolutionary or liberating thing as such. Sure, there's graffiti and there's Graffiti, and I sometimes long for the witty (or at least provocative) political and anti-commercial graffiti that used to pop up in inner-city Sydney and London, but that's not the reality most of us live.

(There's just no way to write something like this without sounding Pooterish or school-marmish, is there?).

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May 09, 2008


Death and destruction in Oakland: the SF Chron's map of homicides in Oakland, 2007 and 2008 (so far, anyway; you have to check the 2007 box to get the 2007 icons to show up as well).

As one of the news items linked to a North Oakland shooting on the map for this year puts it, "[Oakland] Police on Monday were investigating a string of weekend shootings in Oakland that killed seven men, and authorities tried to reassure residents that the city is a safe place to live and work". Riiiight. At least there was only one homicide in my immediate neighbourhood, a very recent and rather unusual once-off, luckily enough (I walk past where it happened almost every day). There hadn't been any before that since the Brinks guard shooting in 2006 (which was big news even in Oakland), then none before that for quite a while, at least on this side of the railway.

Just to (once again) put this into perspective: the area covered on that map is physically about the same size as inner Sydney.

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April 28, 2008


Getting coffee this morning I (almost literally) stumble into local Oakland council legend (and my council member), Ignacio de la Fuente. He's sitting in a corner, out of the way, with a rather dark "don't bother me now" scowl on his face while he reads a bunch of papers, so I don't bother him. But it's definitely kind of funny (or maybe just odd) seeing this very high profile and famously-controversial political animal utterly ignored in the corner of an obscure local coffee shop (and it's not like there'd be too many people within five miles who wouldn't immediately know who he was). If I didn't know better I'd say he was actually just out getting breakfast….

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April 17, 2008

In The Flesh

I finally got to see a typical selection of Lee Friedlander prints at an SFMOMA retrospective the other day, and in many ways I wish I hadn't. It wasn't that the images were bad or disappointing, it's just that the best of them seem to work so much better in his books than hanging there isolated on the gallery walls. They're icons that want to be lovingly pawed over or casually flipped through in dense thickets or looked at in real-life contexts much more than they want to be respectfully gazed at framed on nice white walls in a nice little cultural castle like SFMOMA.

They'd work much better as book or magazine prints torn out and tacked to those same walls.

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March 01, 2008

Fair Trade

I live in a neighbourhood that's now officially designated an "Arts District". This seems to mean that all the artists have been priced out of the area by an influx of galleries. There's art here alright; just not too many artists any more.

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February 27, 2008

Short Shameful Confession

I wouldn't miss the TV version of TMZ for quids.

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February 17, 2008


Doing my grocery shopping in Berkeley at Andronico's yesterday I stumble across something called a "Woolloomooloo Bar", and just have to buy it. It's an upscale self-described "exotic candy bar" apparently made in Chicago with a bunch of unlikely ingredients that don't immediately bring to mind the down-at-heels Woolloomooloo of earlier times, or the New! Improved! Woolloomooloo of today, let alone the University of Woolloomooloo (still remembered with affection in this overgrown college town). "Looks like something from down your way…" the checkout clerk says from the other side of the checkstand with an ironic smile (I'm sure she's thinking "Bruce!").

Well, maybe. I seem to have a studio full of American Australiana or fake Australian products now, from the Aussie Land "Blue Mountains" shampoo I found in Oakland a few years ago to the plastic boomerang I bought at Stone Mountain outside Atlanta a decade ago, through the Wallaby Yogurt in my fridge (every time I see it I struggle with the temptation to mutter the obvious slogan "made from real wallabies!") and the "Aussie Sun-Touched Shine" conditioner in my shower ("Add some Roo to your do!", as it says on the container (Urgh! I'm not making this up, you know)), to the very Californian-looking (read: clean, lean, fat-free, organic) pies advertised as "Authentic Aussie National Food!" in a local deli the other day. It all seems so exotic.

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December 08, 2007

Deep Springs

Deep Springs Road

A few years ago in the middle of nowhere — a dozen or so miles further down the remote desert road in the California / Nevada border region shown above — I was taking photos of dead cars and things like that off the side of the road. I rarely saw another (live) car while I was in the area. It was hot, very dry, and, as always out there, windy. After a while I noticed something moving a mile or so away on the side of the road — a sign flapping in the wind? Some discarded clothes stuck on a fence? I didn't think much more about it and turned back to taking photos.

About twenty minutes later I looked back at the road again. The distant movement had turned into a tall, wiry, bearded guy maybe fifty metres away striding purposefully along the side of the road towards me (and, presumably, towards Big Pine, the nearest settlement, some forty miles further up the road). He looked fairly well-dressed and healthy, with a little pack on his back. He ignored me.

I made the mistake of shouting across the road to him: "Need a ride to Big Pine?" Without looking at me, he gestured and yelled "Fuck Off!" (in what sounded suspiciously like an Australian accent). Okaaaaayyyyy, I thought... and turned back to the photo work again. The next time I looked he was a couple of miles up the road towards Westgard Pass, still striding steadily. I never saw him again.

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November 10, 2007

Back To Normal

It's a home game day at Berkeley (a lopsided USC Trojans vs. The Bears game up in the stadium, apparently), and in the Milano some sort of American Modernist classical piece on the radio competes with the Asian drums out on Sproul and the marching band warming up nearby. The effect's like Ives coliding with a gamelan, something Our Charles would approve of, for sure.

Outside, in the drizzle on Telegraph, a young homeless guy asks me for change for coffee. He looks like he'll actually get coffee with it, so I give him four quarters and terse smalltalk, and a minute later he's disappeared into the Mediteranneum. Me, I disappear into Moe's and end up with Luca Frei's "The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg — An interpretation", a book full of the sort of throwaway apercus like "Sleeping: is that also part of culture?" and "Of all the insults and the accusations that have been thrown at us, that of parasitism fills me with joy [...]" that I suspect will either quickly get very tiresome or will suck me right in (there's a thin line between attitude and ambition)

Back on Telegraph, Mars is now saying "Fabulous clothes for naked people". With Mars it's not so much an ad as a proclamation, or even a command. I wish I could comply. On the other side of the street the coffee guy's sitting on an abandoned doorstep drinking coffee; he sees me and waves. On my side a tall skinny guy in a yellow hoodie under an immaculately-tailored and buttoned-down dark blue Cal sports blazer topping ironed jeans and a pair of docs sweeps by to great effect. I don't have the guts to take his photo.

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November 06, 2007

Around Jingletown

As some of you already know, I've put up a new photo blog, "Around Jingletown", to document the Jingletown (and Oakland and Berkeley and Emeryville and …) Experience, at least in images (and yes, it's under my real name). Some of it will be familiar if you've seen my earlier Tight Sainthood Jingletown piece, but it will definitely be going a lot further than that, and a lot more obsessively, too. Have at it… (or not), but treat it gently: it's not entirely ready for prime time just yet.

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November 02, 2007


Long shadows, a pale sun, the container cranes lost in the mist, the estuary like a mirror, the familiar hum and shudder of the Park Street bridge against the soles of my shoes, the line of concrete trucks outside my studio, the noise next door… home, I guess.

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October 23, 2007

The Anti-Telegraph (Lismore)

In the Co-op on the plaza at Southern Cross University I pick up a remaindered Les Murray biog; I just have to find out where that huge well of self-pity comes from. This anti-Telegraph Avenue seems to be a good place to start, surrounded by a weird mix of homeopathy schools and redneck trucks, strutting Aussie battlers, beautiful old houses, verandahs, lush greens and bright colours, backroads restaurants, cattle, heat, humidity, rainforest, fibro shacks ….

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October 22, 2007


The ghosts are thick on the ground here, names like Murwillumbah, Byangum, Goonengerry, Mallanganee, Gundurimba, Wooyung, Dungarubba, Goonellabah, Nimbin, the Clarence, the Tweed, Pimlico… (the taxi from Erko to the airport has a loud American accented GPS on the dash, which adds to the ghostliness). My Jetstar boarding pass has a coupon for $5 off Barbie products at Target. How did they know?

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October 20, 2007

Where I'm From

Lion Island from Umina Beach

Or one of the places, at any rate. And Spike does this sort of thing a lot better, but those odd little holdovers from the past (plain ugly or not) like the one below still crop up on the walks through streets now mostly populated with far uglier and much larger places that absolutely strive for mediocrity. There's no There, There, in almost all of my hometowns now.

(And no, this particular house in Ettalong was not my childhood home, but it surely typifies some part of my childhood).

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October 18, 2007


Pale skins, British faces, narrow streets, crowded footpaths, old shops with awnings, terraces, fleeting accents… not so much a homecoming as … well, what? I'm a foreigner with a native accent.

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October 06, 2007

All Warm And Fuzzy

In the Milano they're playing a light, unfamiliar, flowing Spanish-language cover of the old Pretenders song "Back On The Chain Gang" with a very different set of lyrics in the chorus, I can't get it out of my head all day, later I discover it's one of Selena's, something I hadn't quite expected or known. Down Telegraph, Mars is now telling me I make their sweaters feel all fuzzy, which seems a little unlikely, but they know best. You can't argue with an oracle.

At Moe's I pick up two remaindered coffee table books on late modern (but not Modern) architecture: I seem to look to architecture (rather than photography or painting, etc.) for visual inspiration nowadays. And not just the architecture in books, but those concrete images talking to each other across the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Los Angeles… (there's not a lot of capital "A" Architecture in the Bay Area, so you have to go looking for architecture in the small, in the unexpected detailing above a shopfront in Oakland's uptown district, or the way the Transamerica Pyramid is so often visible at street level only by reflection, or in the overall effect of a streetful of shabby Victorian terraces). There's more to chew on there than in most of those capital "A" art books I can't help also browsing….

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September 23, 2007

El Cerrito Plaza

"Man", he says, looking at me unreadably from the other side of the checkstand, "you'll never know what it was like for this Oakland boy to walk Black through the Plaza the first time". He mimes the reactions: panicked phone calls to the police and other merchants, squinting shop-keepers following his stroll from behind the blinds and counters. "That's the best reason to go to Wal-Mart — they don't give a shit that I'm black, only that I spend money and I'm middle class. And they don't do none of that bullshit Berkeley 'hug a black man' crap".

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September 12, 2007

Four For The Price Of One

East Oakland

Four local East Oakland / Fruitvale / Estuary icons for the price of one: Nikko's 24 HR Cafe Shop; the friendly guy who stands guard over 880 and East 7th; the old Lucasey factory; and St Joseph's. Just the condensed glimpse I get from the walkway coming off the Park Street bridge on my way home each day, captured with a longer lens….

(Click on the image above for a much larger version).

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September 08, 2007

No One Reads Newspapers Anymore…

I got a short letter to the public editor published (under my real name) in last Sunday's New York Times and no one noticed. Humph.

But that doesn't surprise me at all — who really reads newspapers anymore? Who even skims them? For years now my main sources of news have been online (I mostly use Google's news aggregator), and my subscription to the paper version of the NYT is mostly for reading in the Milano over weekend breakfasts, or late at night, long after the front page became yesterday's news (I've been subscribing pretty much as long as it's possible to have been a subscriber in Northern California; I read the analysis and longer background articles only, and maybe try to keep up with the local news from New York). Long before the web (from the early 1980's up until about 2000), my main source of science and technology news and gossip (and, oddly, classical music theory and criticism) had been Usenet, now just a backwater of spam and endless flamewars (I keep thinking of those mythical rivers that caught fire due to the amount of toxic waste dumped into them). So I don't really read coherently (or otherwise) edited newspapers (in print or on the net) so much as I read a melange of articles from disparate sources; the little pictures don't always quite cohere as a Big Picture.

Unlike a lot of people I know, I'm just not nostalgic for newspapers as such, though — I don't think I'd mourn the passing of the print edition of the NYT at all, as long as I had something a little less irritating than my laptop to read the online version with while on BART or sitting at a cramped table in Berkeley, or lounging around in my studio. It'll happen; and sooner rather than later, I hope. And then I'll be able to complain crankily that no one reads at all, any more.

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September 01, 2007


Cafe Milano, Berkeley

Saturday morning, breakfast, Cafe Milano, Berkeley, looking south (for the Berkeley nostalgists out there who tend to look the other way)

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August 25, 2007


Fleeing through SoMa pursued at every corner by those velvet Elvises of the hipster art world, the omnipresent Frida Kahlo self-portraits…

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July 30, 2007


One of my fave words.


July 20, 2007

Night Flight

Camarillo, 10pm

10pm, Camarillo airport (Ventura County, outer LA), after a 200 mile drive through the heat of the Valley from Oakland to Sacramento and back, and a two hour flight down in a rented Mooney, I watch The Boys work on 75T in front of the hangar.

Ahead: a two hour formation flight through a smooth dark moonless night over rugged high terrain with Tight Sainthood as the lead pilot and navigator, another way-past-midnight return, a major tremor epicentered beneath Oakland… what else?

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July 19, 2007



"Camarillo Tower, Cirrus 75 Tango, we're going to have to make an immediate return to the airfield. We've got an electrical problem up here…"
"75 Tango, understood. Confirm that's you 5 northwest?"
"Affirmative, 75 Tango."
"75 Tango do you need any assistance or want to declare an emergency?"
"75 Tango… nah, I think we've just lost our alternator. We'll debug it on the ground. If you don't hear us again that'll be the reason."
"75 Tango, understood. If you lose the radios, look for the lightgun."
"75 Tango, will do, and thanks."
"75 Tango, cleared to land 26, wind 240 at 15, traffic on the upwind is a Cessna in the pattern."
"75 Tango, cleared to land 26, traffic in sight."
"75 Tango, exit at Charlie, ground point eight, and, um, good luck!"
"75 Tango, ground point eight, and thanks. I'm sure the owner's going to be thrilled…"

* * *

CH-46 Sea Knight

I watch the LAPD and Ventura County Sheriff's Department cars careering around chasing each other in the shimmering haze out beyond the runway in what's apparently a special car chase training area on the airport. They've been doing this for hours. I've been sitting here in the airport cafe for hours, waiting for The Owner to call back. There's a growing noise of military helicopters and out of nowhere three large grey-painted USMC CH-46 Sea Knights descend in formation into the heat at the far end of the ramp, out beyond the parked airplanes. The noise is deafening. They descend in a cloud of dust and blown-around trash, with all the smaller planes rocking around on the wash, and in a minute or so the loadmasters lower the back ramps and three or four dozen marines in fatigues line up on the ramp. After what looks like a short briefing the marines stroll briskly across the ramp towards the cafe. I ask the cafe owner what's happening. "Oh", she says, "they've just flown in from Edwards. They've reserved the entire front patio. It's Tri-Tip treat day for them!". Cool, I think, as I watch them rush in like excited kids.

No, I've been here a couple of decades and I didn't know what Tri-Tip was either.


(Ch-46 image from the US Navy via Wikipedia).

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July 18, 2007

The Home Of The Homeless

Santa Monica, 7am

Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Back Alley, 7.50am

One of the things I've always liked about Santa Monica (and Venice) is the shady, grimy, muggy, truck- and garbage-strewn urban alleys, so much like the back lanes of the inner-city Sydney of my memory. Around the corner, Third Street gets creepier every year, a sort of clean shiny Disneyfied Telegraph Avenue with the homeless sitting in tidy chairs and street crews cleaning up every morning. And there's almost nothing there any more except large chain stores and generic restaurants.

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July 17, 2007



Tight Sainthood does Van Nuys ("One Six Right" territory for the aviation nerds like me Out There).

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Level at 7,000'

Tight Sainthood 7,000' over the Central Valley (dig those classic retro steam gauges! No, TS usually does the glass cockpit thing nowadays…).

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July 11, 2007

Short Shameful Confession

I'm not a Starbucks kind of guy (except in an emergency), but there's a new Starbucks that's just opened on the edge of the Estuary about ten minutes' walk from my studio. Nothing surprising about that, given the way they've sprouted in even the roughest parts of Oaktown in the last few years, but this one's actually a pleasant place to be: it's right next to the water, in a fairly quiet spot, and you can sit in the sun at the outside tables overlooking the Estuary with your feet up watching the boats go by only a few meters away. Not bad. I may even go there again one day.

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July 07, 2007

Three Genres

I've never been at the cutting edge of music (I've never been at the cutting edge of anything), so I'm always one of the slowest and last to pick up new musical styles or trends. But when I did eventually pick up on them, three genres in particular really affected me: reggae, rap, and western swing.

Reggae hit me at just the right time — the bottom fallen out of punk, and New Wave and post-punk gathering steam. I'd known about (and heard) Bob Marley, of course, but hadn't really listened to it at all — and most of what I heard sounded like just rather pleasant pop ("I Shot The Sheriff"…), and the association with bands like The Clash really didn't help either. And then I heard, in quick succession, Culture, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Peter Tosh. Nothing too hardcore or adventurous, but what got me immediately was the sense of rhythmic and harmonic space — especially obvious in the dub versions — that allowed for so much subtlety and complexity in the background or in little bursts here and there (listen to what's going on in the background of a good Toots album one day…). It's the old story that everyone knows: complex effects through simplicity — but I'm a little slow, so it was a revelation for me. And hearing Sly and Robbie play together so … intuitively … in a way that anchored everyone else in space was another revelation. How could you do so much with space?! I started playing a lot less, and listening for the spaces. I started thinking about rhythm as elision as well as propulsion….

Rap: I remember the first time I heard what I think must have been The Sugar Hill Gang. I wanted to jump up in the air and shout it was so good, so different — shit, how did they do that?! The scratching, the beats, the toasting, the sampling — it both hit me like a wall, and seemed like such an obvious alternative to reggae toasting. I always knew I could never do anything like that, but I always knew it would lodge there in my mind for the rest of my life, even if the genre faded or changed out of all recognition. I suddenly knew what you could do with raw materials, raw sources, I suddenly knew you could work all this stuff into something exciting, I suddenly knew you could do so much musically with basic technology and a driven will… it seemed like punk's basic lessons all over again, ten thousand kilometres away. Someone else had picked up the torch….

Western Swing: I remember doing my engineering homework late one night in Redfern listening to Double Jay when this enthusiastic mixture of Jazz and Country came on. Christ, what the hell was this? A guy fiddling away like Stephane Grappelli over a basic country song while the guitarist noodles around with weird jazz scales and chords behind a hick singing about lost love in Texas? Pedal steel and exuberant horn lines? Country with rhythm? I phoned Double Jay to ask what the hell it was (I used to know several staffers there and thought I'd ask one of them). Mac Cocker himself answered, which was a little like talking to God. "It's Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys — it's called 'Western Swing'". OK, I wrote it down and went back to my homework. Years later I still marvel at how a bunch of Okies and Texas good old boys picked up on the jazz and blues coming out of New Orleans and Memphis and just made it work so naturally with basic country music. Yes, it later underwent a rather twee revival during the 1990's that destroyed it a bit for me, but that crossing of two quite different genres always struck me as one of the better examples of the musical melting pot. Plus for me there's personal resonance in the Oaktown and Bakersfield connections — two cities that have played very different roles in my life over the past fifteen years and that both became Western Swing and Country centres in their own ways.

(Part of Punk (and Later)).

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June 15, 2007



Just a morsel, an obsessograph from the sublime, a day in my studio last year…

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May 27, 2007


In the runup to the recent local elections in Britain, Neil Ascherson wrote a piece in the LRB about how "Britishness" as a self-description is falling out of favour with the British, and how more and more self-identify as "English", or "Scottish", or "Welsh", etc. — there's definitely an air of inevitability about the centre not holding….

Personally, I think the question for me boils down to: if Britain disolves and there's no longer any such thing as a British passport, what passport would I get? What would I want? Unlike most Britons, I really don't feel properly anything more specific than "British": it'd take a lot of chutzpah to claim I'm particularly Scottish (despite my name, ancestry, and the fact that I've actually lived there); I'm definitely not English (London's hardly "England", and un-London England's a place I disliked intensely for the most part); and nothing else really fits the bill either (and what to make of those who think I'm Australian?). It's tempting to riff on Arendt's riffing on Hillel (quoted in another recent LRB): "As Scots we want to fight for independence because 'If I am not for me — who is for me?' As Britons, we want to fight for Britain because 'If I am only for me — who am I?'" In London I often felt more European than British, and definitely more British than Scottish or English — and more Londoner than anything.

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May 20, 2007

Short Shameful Confession

I always thought (and still think) that Frank Zappa was a smug old bastard; his music always seemed too contrived, too hectoring, too knowing, too... 1970's Californian. Very much a music of its time and place, I think.

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May 10, 2007

Three Years

Tight Sainthood has been plodding on earnestly now for three years, which seems a long time — I don't have a clue whether I'll keep on for another decade or just another week. I still know of only a handful of regular readers, all of whom I've met at one time or another in real life, but there's definitely a few lurkers Out There.

As with this time last year and the year before, googling for the word "pudenda" is still by far the most common way people get to this site, followed — still! — by "flying car", and now by "woy woy". As with the last time, I still don't really know quite what it all says about Tight Sainthood — not a lot, I'm guessing.


May 05, 2007

Longer Days

Mars tells me now that Longer Days Mean Shorter Skirts, but all I see is bondage gear in their windows and the usual derros, ancient hippies, and ageing self-important boomers strewn along the begarbaged blocks of Telegraph. In Moe's I buy a cheap remaindered paperback of Adorno's collected essays on music, a rich collection of easy targets. Adorno's writings on music are one of those sprawling guilty pleasures for me: he's so certain of the details (and so often right about the details) that he seems to completely miss the bigger picture. He's a Man On A(n Aesthetic) Mission, and he never lets us forget it — and like reading any literate True Believer, reading him is like entering another universe, something as entertainingly off-kilter in its way as Ben Marcus (an author Our Theodor would Not Approve Of, I'm sure).

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April 29, 2007

Tough Town

Until maybe Trona, but definitely somewhere before Barstow, the appropriate soundtrack for the trip always seemed to be classic Country (the corny fun melodic stuff of the various Hanks and Johnnies, at least); by Barstow, it had slipped into something a little darker, the sort of bad sub-classic rock male primal scream music you associate with aggressive resentment and loud self-pity. Huge SUVs, ATVs, RVs, jacked-up pickups, assault stereos, windowless clapboard houses, in-your-face Confederate and US flags, dark glasses and bristling moustaches, tats and bare flab, people as fat as their cars; Barstow's a tough town. I leave it for Oakland.

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April 28, 2007

Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino

Cady Mountains, Route 66

Cady Mountains, Route 66.

Ludlow, Route 66, California

Ludlow, California.

Ludlow Crossing, Route 66, California

Ludlow Crossing, California.

Siberia, Route 66, California

Siberia, California.

Bagdad, Route 66, California

Bagdad, California (yes, that Bagdad, even if the film was actually made 50 miles up the highway at Newberry Springs…).

Roy's, Amboy, Route 66, California

Roy's, Amboy, California. When I first drove through here nearly twenty years ago, I knew nothing about the place. Roy's was still owned and run by Buster Burris back then; he actually owned the entire surrounding "town" of Amboy as well, and later tried to sell it en masse (but no one bought it). I stopped and went in to the cafe for a soda. It was small and deathly quiet; I was the only customer there. There were several hand-drawn and autographed pictures of Ronald Reagan on the wall; the decor was retro-kitsch without the "retro" (or the quotes), barstools, plastic-topped tables, etc. I got my soda from the rather nice old woman behind the counter and fled, which seems a stupidly-wasted opportunity in retrospect….

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North American

North American

Pisgah, California

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April 27, 2007

Sidewinder Road

Sidewinder Road

Beautiful Mt Stoddard from Sidewinder Road, Barstow.

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Desert Blooms

Desert Blooms

Another desert icon, in full spring bloom along Sidewinder Road near Barstow.

Desert Blooms

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