A quick thought today on science — specifically solar power

First, check out this story in the LA Times today, which I think we can trust because it doesn’t have anything to do with obsessive fanboys in jail:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Southern California Edison plan to announce today the country’s largest rooftop solar installation project ever proposed by a utility company. And on Wednesday, FPL Energy, the largest operator of solar power in the U.S., said it planned to build and operate a 250-megawatt solar plant in the Mojave Desert.

The projects would help California meet its goal of obtaining 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. In 2006, about 13% of the retail electricity delivered by Edison and the state’s other two big investor-owned utilities came from renewable sources such as sun and wind, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Energy experts were struck by the size of the two projects, which would bolster the state’s current total of about 965 megawatts of solar power flowing to the electricity grid.

“Five hundred megawatts — that’s substantial,” said spokesman George Douglas of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Projects of that size begin to show that solar energy can produce electricity on a utility scale, on the kind of scale that we’re going to need.”

The Edison rooftop project will place photovoltaic cells on 65 million square feet of commercial building roofs in Southern California. The cells will generate as much as 250 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 162,500 average homes, based on the utility’s estimate that one megawatt would serve about 650 average homes.

This excites me for a lot of reasons, so to backtrack a bit — in the late seventies, perhaps the last (and only?) time there was a sense of general societal alignment all around on the matter of energy efficiency and renewable resources, solar power was present but for a lot of reasons didn’t get the traction it should have done. Saying Reagan’s administration killed off a lot of the enthusiasm overstates but not by much — in contrast, I remember writing for and getting a kid-friendly ‘Welcome to the White House’ brochure in 1979 or so, which contained a photo of Carter showing off a solar panel that had apparently been installed in one area of the building itself.

Meantime, there were a few Disney tie-in comics around the time — the kind of gently cheap and cheery things that the company did pre-Eisner — where Mickey and Goofy encountered Enny, a sunlike creature whose name was short for ‘energy,’ of course, and he taught them about doing things like not washing one sock at a time. (Goofy was apparently prone to doing just that, the poor sap.) Then there was Sunshine Porcupine and…well, I could go on.

For me, this is all part and parcel of the general sense of dreamy sf/utopian wonder that to me was just part of how people thought at the time, at least from my eight year old or so perspective. I mean, who wouldn’t want O’Neill-style space stations and mass drivers on the moon? With time I can look back both with fondness on it all and how my thoughts (and the many dreams put forward) were only so much conditional evanescence, as much driven by the impulse of getting out of dreary reality into a future that was still heavily Star Trek-centric in the mass mind as it was based in serious considerations.

However, sometimes that intertwining is necessary — I’ve been reading an excellent book, After Sputnik, which is the tie-in volume to a Smithsonian exhibit covering fifty years of the space race since the launch of said satellite, and a bit of trivia was discovering that the original serious rocket pioneer, Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, credited his initial explorations into such matters due to a mass media smash hit of its day, Jules Verne‘s From the Earth to the Moon. The question of art inspiring science inspiring art etc. is its own one but it was intriguing to realize how the cycle had been in placed from the start — as was noted with Arthur C. Clarke’s recent passing, he credited the pulp fiction of his own era for driving his own impulses forward, and similar stories can be told on a variety of fronts.

Solar power is by default a much more grounded affair — gathering the energy from the sun we orbit around and converting it into use here — but like many things sf dream has become simple and basic reality (as I think I remember reading in a piece some years back, we are all nerds now — my getting the iPhone was just me waiting for the best level of nerdery to come along, really), and seeing that this project is about to launch makes me pretty thrilled. It’s not a magic bullet, but it is a concentrated step forward that we’ll see repeated more and more — one of my friends was seriously considering a solar panel installation at his house a few weeks back, and there’ll be other stories to come.

And right now it’s a beautiful day out. Perfectly appropriate timing!

Lee Abrams is a curious person

I take no credit at all for finding out about this in a timely fashion — if anything the meme’s a couple of weeks old now — but now that I have learned, I must share. Here’s the deal.

Lee Abrams is…a character. I don’t mean this in an entirely positive sense, shall we say. I’d been vaguely aware of the name due to his role at XM for many years but I learned earlier tonight that more than any other person he basically transmogrified rock radio as an admittedly imperfect ideal (freeform, deep album cuts, not much in the way of genre definitions) to the kind of tightly formatted and deadening sludge that basically made a lot of my generation hate anything tagged with the term ‘classic rock’ (well, hate is a strong word — but basically, a lingering distrust of a deadened and dull mindset endlessly repeated). Dave Marsh had some things to say about him back in 1980, and whatever the many differences Marsh and I have in musical taste, he sure seems spot on here.

So anyway, he’s been recruited by the Chicago-based Tribune Company, one of the bigger media conglomerates out there (newspapers, TV stations, etc.), as part of the eternal effort to turn sagging fortunes around — ain’t that the way. Well and good, I suppose. However, the initial humor had to come from the fact that he was named their ‘chief innovation officer’ — one of those phrases where you know that the equivalent of ‘minister without portfolio’ was thought about first. Definitely read that press release, it’s classic boilerplate — ‘remarkable opportunity for Tribune,’ ‘pump new life into our content,’ etc. Switch around some names and specifics and this has been released by everybody over the years about every new high level recruit, so no matter.

But then Abrams sent around his note of introduction to everyone, describing himself as the ‘innovation chief.’

If you can make it through a read of all that without breaking down in hopeless laughter even once, I salute you — you’re either more cynical than I’ll ever be or you have remarkable self control. If you’ll allow me to quote one part in particular:

Average sucks. Best to be brilliantly good, or SO bad, it’s engaging. It’s
that evil zone of average that American Media is stuck in. WE MUST not accept average. Fight it! It’s gotten to be accepted that average is fine. No it’s not…it sucks!

Theater of the Mind. We have to play there. We gotta deliver the magic that gets in people’s heads. As a kid I’d have dreams about comic characters that I’d read in the Tribune. We need to have such an impact on the imagination that people dream about us. Sounds spacy and obscure? It is.

This was the point where I thought to myself, “You know, Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock mode would be perfect at reading these lines.”

I try to make allowances for folks as I can — I don’t always succeed, I should add. But in this case, what’s to allow? In reading through it all — besides the fact that it’s painfully long and half consists of quotes in an endless cascade — I feel a combination of goony-eyed sugar rush, endless hot air, buzzwords grabbed from thin air and slapped around where needed and the kind of buddy-buddy chatting that my friend Dan B. parodied years upon years back when he would widen his eyes and say, with the fakest smile ever, “Hey! *claps hands together* Did you catch my MEMO?”

So, this being the modern world, the memo got around and got out to everyone, thus my link above (and the ones to follow). Unsurprisingly, Gawker was all over it in their usual fashion, and that would have been the tip of the iceberg. Getting word of this and other reactions, Mr. Abrams apparently felt he needed to clear things up a bit.

Well, the reaction to my introduction letter was interesting. Ranging from “Appalling” to ‘exciting’ to …’huh’? That’s understandable. Without diving in, talking and exchanging, it all probably seems pretty obscure…but it’s really all about one thing: Opportunity.

Of course, the letter ended up on the Internet, feeding wild misinterpretations.

Of course. We, the collective people of the world, apologize for misinterpreting lines like “Web as an Information Disneyland” as anything but a mindless bunch of drivel.

Elsewhere in this second memo, this gem:

Then there’s certainly some “What does this guy know about our business”?! Well, I’m IN your business now. You should have heard the record industry laughing at the idea of some computer guy trying his hand in music. While the Apple guys may have had one of the most important ideas of the century, the point is that they had out of the circle thinking driving it. I don’t fault the record industry guys, it’s just that they were SO busy running their business that they initially missed the iPod. Maybe I can help one of us have an iPod idea or three.

At least he said ‘maybe’ rather than ‘definitely.’ Truth in advertising, at least — if generously stretched.

Well, feeling his oats, yesterday Abrams sent out his third e-mail to all and sundry — and I’ve no doubt at this point all Tribune employees on the receiving end of these were looking forward to these mails with a kind of mixture of catharsis and frivolity. This time around, it was time to talk think pieces:

I start April 1st but I’ve been pretty engaged from afar. Thought I’d share some observations on TV, web and print. Small stuff, “think pieces” more than anything…not end alls, but when we re-think and maximize hundreds of little pieces within the framework of bigger pieces and it could be part of the blueprint for something very powerful:

–NERVE TOUCHING. This is where you get people to stand up on their
chair because you touch a nerve. One underused way is simply to play to passions. For example:


(As it was, he goes on to explain what he means in more detail — not very well — but I am convinced that had he ended there, then scribbled out a resignation notice on a wad of toilet paper and lobbed it into the Tribune office building, he would go down as one of the truly great art terrorists of our time. Alas for what might have been.)

All of this prompted me to see if, like yours truly, he had a Wikipedia page. He does — and if there’s ever any doubt that Wikipedia pages can be prone to bias, that doubt should be put to bed by this, because if this isn’t some cut and paste job from a PR release about himself — and doubtless written BY himself — I’d be rather surprised.

Where this goes, who knows. But let it continue. Because more batshit insanity is just what the world needs right now…right?

Mid-week meanderings and mumblings

As it were. As mentioned, this is a bit of a big work crunch time for me so my usual disquisitions are going to be at a premium for a bit (however, stay tuned for the end of the week, in that I’ll be doing some further experimenting with the blog on a couple of fronts). So for the moment, here’s some quick things noticed here and there:

  • This story about a library employee in the Central Valley is a striking one, and now that I’m more aware of the case I’ll be following it as I can. More than anything else, I hope it illustrates to folks who might think of librarians and library assistants as simply people who get the books and tell people to shush — or whatever other stereotype you might care to put into play — as people who, on all levels in a library system, can deal with vexing questions that relate to both many levels of the law as well as social standards.
  • The grinding out of the 2008 Democratic primaries, while expected at this point, is starting to become something worthy of one of my favorite phrases, ‘savage torpor.’ There’s a combination of ennui and passion at play which in combination with the calendar has produced a feeling of suspended animation on the one hand and a near-reflexive lashing out on the other. Most of the commentary out there reflects this, to one extent or another — and quite understandably, really. As ever, I am keeping my eye on other factors — and the big Iraq news of the day is disheartening all around — and hunkering down a bit as we wait.
  • It’s been a very good year for music so far — lots of excellent albums out — but nothing as yet is a core album/performer/song of the year for me. One quarter of the way down and more to go, of course, but I’m not surprised that the full process of hearing record after record without time or inclination to regularly return to something has reached this state for me. Mine is a very specific context, though — active listener who does a lot of freelance writing and all — so I’m not pretending that this signals something beyond my own ears and thoughts. It’s still an intriguing if not surprising development, though, and I’m not surprised that my concomitant interest in a variety of other things has increased alongside this change.
  • It’s spring and it’s beautiful outside. And sometimes that’s more than enough!

More soon!

I pledge allegiance to the what the hell?

Idolator found this sucker:

'Got the devil on my shoulder...'

I would, of course, be quite happy to take the Jonas Brothers over the real thing at this point. But does said real thing have to imitate Cheney’s ‘I’m going to lurk here like the puppetmaster for a while’ pose while he’s at it?

[UPDATE: WHOA, never mind. Just found something even better:

Bunny love

It…says so much.]

Meanwhile, for all you Bauhaus/Love and Rockets fans…

David J’s best of LA. You know, I’m still annoyed I’ve never seen him do one of his solo sets. I need to fix that. (One of my greatest concert regrets: missing a small show at the Roxy or Whisky back in 1992. Opening act? PJ Harvey. You KNOW that ruled.) Much as I love the work of all four members of Bauhaus, collectively or individually, David’s work has always seemed the most underrated seemingly by intent, a deceptive downplaying of flash in favor of his calmly artistic presentation of style and self. I strongly suggest checking out his homepage, where among other things he’s started to stream a variety of rarities and experiments; meanwhile, his latest project, a musical based on the life of Edie Sedgwick called Silver for Gold, has just finished an initial LA run with plans to go off-Broadway in the future.

Nothing more much than this to say in this post, so as a bonus, the fun video for his almost solo hit back in 1990 “I’ll Be Your Chauffeur.” There’s something sweetly breezy about the visuals here, matching the enjoyable song equally well. The album it’s from, Songs From Another Season, is one of those understated delights that I forget how much I enjoy until I give it another listen. (You can find my AMG mutterings from some years back here.)

Anyway, the video:

Think not of the body count, but of those gone

Elsewhere, you will read and hear quite a bit about a certain figure reached in terms of certain casualties in a certain country. Set that aside.

Instead, I direct your attention to something else, related to that of course but much more than that. It’s a collection of pieces over at the LA Times where staff writers and photographers talk about military members they met and knew, either briefly or over a period of time, who are now gone.

I have said, quite simply and forthrightly over the years, that we must remember the dead — and that the dead are not simply those who have served in our military. The exact number is and will forever be in dispute but many, many thousands more have died in Iraq for no reason other than being born, raised and having lived there. This is always best remembered, no matter what angle you come from, or what you conclude, or you think our presence or absence would have changed that. I could say more but again, set that aside.

Turn instead to the stories I’ve linked — and note. The men you see talked about there, the men and women who are writing about them, neither are caricatures nor stereotypes. The servicemen are neither paragons of righteousness nor blood-soaked meatheads. The reporters are neither aggressive crusaders for truth nor tools of a mass media conspiracy.

No, they are human, and they are there, and they talk and think and differ and agree, and some are there because of one thing and some for another. The servicemen may have guns but they have brains and souls. The reporters may not fight but they put themselves at risk — and they too have brains and souls. Do I mention one group and your hackles rise? Do I mention another and cause scorn? If so, why so? At what do you react? An objective truth you somehow possess, or a perception based on indirect experience?

These are pat statements on my part, cliches, obvious observations. I pretend nothing in them of remarkable depth or insight. And I fall prey to errors and quick judgments as much as anyone, there is no excusing of that here. There is however a reminder:

Remember the dead. Remember the living who speak about them here. Create no plaster saints, no effigies to burn. No whitewashing, no tarring and feathering.

The numbers will yet rise. And that is all that can be concluded.

[UPDATE: The New York Times has a piece in a similar fashion, though in this case drawing on a variety of blog posts and letters from six soldiers now passed. Read, reflect, remember.]

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A pleasure, a wayward distraction

As I continue in my slow but sure project to reduce down the amount of CDs I have around — to constantly and continually turn away, let go, to stop hoarding — I still allow for those occasional ones I will add to the collection or else trade up for. But some things I wasn’t going to replace even though I loved them dearly because I already had them in a way I could work with — thus Joy Division, whose box set Heart and Soul contained just about everything I could have wanted from them. So when the word of the reissues came out last year, I thought, “Eh, well…I don’t need to re-replace everything, and live sets aren’t necessarily enough.” I’d heard the live disc from the box, of course, as well as two further separately released live sets in later years, most sourced from any number of bootlegs long familiar to hyperfans (I could never count myself among them, much as I love them and New Order both — but a dedicated fan, yes).

Then Dr. C on ILM mentioned that the live discs for both Closer and Still were both fantastic, superb, ‘as good as it gets.’ Hmm, I thought, and made a mental note. Up in LA yesterday dumping off some stuff at Amoeba I ended up with more credit to spare than I had first guessed and decided to browse a bit — and found both of those reissues used, meaning I could get them for nothing and still have a lot left over. Hurrah for fortuitousness.

I’m not positive but I’m pretty sure I first heard of Joy Division in specific via an issue of Musician magazine from early 1988, which I picked up because of the Pink Floyd story on the cover (as I said a little while back, this was part and parcel of my high school classic rock phase in senior year, but at the same time I wasn’t limiting myself to just that, thankfully). The story was by Robert Palmer (not THAT one, the one who was the writer) and while bits of it seemed a bit forced then and still do now, overall it fulfilled its brief very well, namely talking about both Joy Division and New Order in a context that an older-than-me music-following audience unaware of either might get to grips with.

I’d already heard about New Order for a couple of years before then. That was the point, everyone had, or so it seemed. Four songs in particular — “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “Shell Shock,” “True Faith” and “Blue Monday” — had received enough airplay even on local San Diego Top 40 radio to get my attention, while doubtless my many classmates who openly worshipped at the altar of 91X knew them all a lot more than I did. I remember seeing people carrying around the cassettes of the then newly released Substance for their walkmen at school and then there was also the video for “True Faith,” all over MTV and which was so much odd nonsense (but in the context of the many videos done for the band over the years, surprisingly apt, another cryptic dodge that didn’t so much work with the band as around it). Soon after we got a CD player one of the first ones I picked up was Brotherhood, an album that I retain a particular affection for still, as partially detailed in this old ILM thread. So encountering this article, and learning, as mentioned pretty much for the first time, about this earlier band was instructive.

(Just typing all this makes me laugh a bit at how things have changed in terms of finding out about bands, or anything else you’re interested in. That iPhone story I linked the other day shows that much. But I’m not going to venerate some sort of golden age of spending a lot of time to find out about something — it’s not the means, it’s the person. There are, for instance, approximately eight million trillion bits of information I could find out about NASCAR right this second should I so choose, but I don’t care about NASCAR.)

Anyway, thanks in part to a couple of interestingly odd Anton Corbijn photos to go with it, the article stuck in the mind, as did mentions of the fact that Joy Division themselves were going to get a collection of their own coming out soon, also called Substance. Though I didn’t know it at all at the time, I was the unwittingly beneficiary of something that apparently had long been asked for by fans — a proper overview of the group’s many singles, including a nearly impossible to find release of “Atmosphere” and “Dead Souls.” The vinyl release had ten songs but the CD release had seventeen, so being able to hear all this stuff made me all the more interested, and so soon thereafter I had my copy of it. I remember being initially surprised and confused by the earliest songs like “Warsaw,” thrashy, strange, somewhat contextless beyond the vaguest of impressions. But as the disc progressed, things became…not more familiar, but more understandable, and further relistens of everything over and again helped bring it all more to life.

Turning this all into a full discussion of my sinking into Joy Division is actually not my goal here, though — better to briefly say that within a year or so I owned the initial Warners reissues of Unknown Pleasures and Closer, as well as the two Peel Session EPs, while sometime after that I first taped Still from a roommate at UCLA then found a CD copy on import. To say that I grew fascinated by and reasonably knowledgeable about the story of Joy Division — building up of course to Ian Curtis’s suicide and the aftermath — is true, yet both music and story were not, I think, as overwhelming presences to me and my way of thinking about things musically as many other things were. They were a strong part of it, as was New Order, but both their presences have felt, after that initial series of exposures, constant instead of overwhelming — and yet always somehow core, deeply felt and understood but not worn on my sleeve (or on a T-shirt, though I do have a knockoff of the Unknown Pleasures image that features on an old shirt for the now departed Costa Mesa record store Noise Noise Noise).

In ways, though, my acting diffident on this matter is a bit of a runaround — there’s a lot I could say about Bernard Sumner in particular, whose tragedy-driven forcing to the center stage after initial unsureness turned him into an anti-icon icon, somebody whose essential everydayness, but not without a quiet sense of style, makes him this compelling figure that has had more of an impact than I think a lot of people will fully allow for, including himself. But this is a long brewing piece for another day (seriously, I’ve been thinking about it on and off for about two, three years now!).

As with much I heard back then, the presence of Joy Division in my regular listening is low — it’s comfortable, familiar, brought out only every so often, and much new and old that’s unknown to me is what I hear most now. But the indulgences of a reissue that had been so praised had to be obeyed in this instance, and so I bought and listened and read.

Read, very importantly — there were liner notes for both of the ones I got (doubtless for Unknown Pleasures too) and perhaps unsurprisingly Paul Morley did the ones for Closer, along with all the bandmembers minus the obvious, while Jon Wozencroft did the honors for Still. Both live up to their reputations, providing information while simultaneously obscuring some details and demystifying others, such as how Wozencroft heard himself on a bootleg that ended up being the source for the bonus disc material, as well as being able to meet the original record of that tape and to get his words on the matter.

And the live bonus discs — as advertised, quite good. Audience recordings that aren’t muffled except by the inevitable limitations of the original recording equipment; I’m sure I’ve heard far worse ‘official’ live recordings from bands over time. The struggles between band and producer Martin Hannett to get their sound captured in a way they liked are part of the legend so at base hearing more of what the band sounded like to themselves, at least in some form, is of definite interest. There’s actually more going on in those live performances which paralleled the eventual releases than the band might have recognized at the time, or even now.

It’s also fascinating to see what the band brought to their setlists — on both these live discs, done a few weeks before Closer was even recorded in one intense two week session in London, the band sticks almost entirely to that new material as well as other new songs, notably “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “These Days.” On one disc the only Unknown Pleasures song that appears is “Insight,” on another “Disorder.” And the crowd, far from being restless, audibly loves all the new stuff, as it would have been then. Not a unique situation, but still something that happens less often than might be hoped, even now.

It’s getting late and I do need to wrap up — the work grind tomorrow calls — but hearing all these familiar-yet-different songs remind me how I can still be surprised, even from a supposedly well-known source. As I said the other day, I’m glad to be living in 2008 rather than 1988, but I’m more than happy with this particular flashback. Even down to that goofy cover of “Sister Ray” that surfaced on Still.