Thursday, October 25, 2007

It Was Ever Thus

[London fire of 1666, unknown artist, Wikimedia Commons]

One morning last fall Dave and I found ourselves in The City--the part of modern London that lies within the Roman wall and is the heart of the financial district--staring up at the London Monument. The Monument, as it is commonly referred to, is a massive Doric column, designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, commemorating the fire of September 1666.

The fire, which displaced most of the 80,000 residents, began in a local bakery after a period of drought. One reason the fire was able to overtake the entire area was the density of the wooden buildings--many in which projecting upper stories almost met in mid-air. And there was a dry easterly wind. The official casualties were very low, although it is now believed that many deaths went unrecorded. For contemporary accounts of the event, we are fortunate to have diary entries from both John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys.

Now, in 2007, what are probably the worst firestorms in California history are flashing across our television screens. Every casualty is a tragedy, but we must be thankful that measures adopted after the 1991 Oakland fires and 2003 Cedar fires have saved many lives this time around.

For up to date information, go to the CA Office of Emergency Services website:

There are thousands who need help in the wake of these fires. Go to:

For information on a current restoration project at the London Monument, go to:

Monday, October 22, 2007

Philosophy on the Radio

What is philosophy? Well, in Greek it means a love of wisdom. The contemporary definition is not so easy to summarize. I would posit that philosophy is the practice of asking, "Why is it this way?" in regards to how we perceive life and the cosmos. See, it's getting complicated already...but not really. Another way to put it might be: "What are my assumptions, and how did I get them?"

If your brain is booted up by 10:00 on Sunday morning, and you are philosophically inclined, tune into PHILOSOPHY TALK on KALW (Bay Area) at 91.7 FM. It is held by two Stanford philosophers, Ken Taylor and John Perry. Here is a blurb they posted for yesterday's show:

October 21: Predicting the Future. People who predict the future well are sometimes said to be psychic. But we all make predictions about the future, with more or less success. We confidently predict the sun will rise tomorrow, that ice will be cold, etc. But maybe we're not quite as good at predicting the future as we think. Is the stock market predictable? The weather? Political upheavals? Or is life just too random to make good predictions? John and Ken predict that Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, will join them to consider the extent to which we can forecast the future.

I was particularly interested in this show, since I had read Taleb's book this past summer. Taleb's book is concerned with how the direction of life/society has (in his theory) become increasingly ruled by unpredictable developments "Black Swans," such as the rise of the Internet and companies such as Google. He calls this phenomenon "Extremistan," and maintains that biologically we are adapted to less frequent discontinuities ("Mediocristan"). The most interesting part of Taleb's thesis for me was about how financial markets cannot be predicted using the Gaussian bell curve and that most stock predictions are at best pseudo-science. He's getting a lot of press on this.

For more on Philosophy Talk, go to:

For more on Taleb, go to:

Friday, October 19, 2007

Adio to Greece, for a While

[Chania, Crete, from Wikipedia Commons]
We've been home for two weeks, and the disc with my photos is running late. Guess I will put them up on Flikr when they come, or at least the ones of note.
The trip is settling into memory for me. I'll journal one more time at home and that will be all for this year. Since blogs (I surmise) should be current, this will be the last posting on the trip, with one more photo from Wikipedia Commons.
I was walking the other day to Whole Foods with Cristina. Talking about Brazil trips for her and Greece trips for me. Is it really the magic and wonder of these places that is so invigorating or does a large part of it have to do with being away from the office and calling your time (and money) your own, if only temporarily? I am sure it is a bit of both. If I were working in Greece, the daily impediments to sanity would wear on my brain, I'm sure. And yet...
When I think about Greece it always comes back to the people. Sure, there are bad Greeks and good Greeks, just like anywhere else. But on a daily basis it seems you are presented with people who are simple in the very best sense of the word: warm, hospitable, without guile. There is a Cretan word for it: philoxenia, the love of strangers. It is considered an honor in Crete to host a traveler in your home, give them the best chair and the best from your table. It is humbling to be received by such people as these.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Art is Not a Hobby

This was printed on a bumper sticker on a locker at the CREATIVE GROWTH ART CENTER, located in Uptown Oakland, just a few blocks from my office. I've known about the Center for years but had never ventured in until just this week, when my friend Peter took me inside. There is a commercial gallery/store, which is open during the week after 11:00 am, showing their artist-clients' work and also putting up curated shows with art from artists with special needs as well as allied artists from the greater world of art.

I must thank Brendan, of the Center, for showing me around and answering all my questions. Today I got a hall pass and got to walk around and visit as the artists were finishing lunch.

Creative Growth is a non-profit, serving artists with physical, emotional, and developmental disabilities. It has been in operation for 30 years and is arguably the first and best of its kind, anywhere.

The work on view (and under production) defies easy description, because the artists themselves are so varied. I will leave that exploration up to you. I did feel an immediate affinity for the work of William Tyler. His beautifully crafted drawings often combine texts with images of the artist and his twin brother as they navigate through a life that requires both ordering strictures and accidents of whimsy in order to progress. I am a lover of drawings and these are dazzling.

The gallery store also sells cards, t-shirts, multiples, and other wonderful things. For more on upcoming programs as well as special events for the holidays, go to:

Creative Growth Art Center
355 24th Street (at Valdez)
Oakland, CA 94612

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Morning Walk in Akrotiri

When I am in Greece I have no trouble getting up in the morning. Unless they have to be out and about for work, the Greeks are prone to stay close to the hearth in the morning hours, so it is usually quiet--wonderful for walking and observation.
A few weeks ago, while staying near Akrotiri, Santorini, I got up at dawn and walked through the old hill town. On the way, I met a big yellow dog who decided he wanted to be friends. We walked together up the hill toward the lighthouse, looking over the cliffs to the caldera and to the town of Oia and Thirassia Island in the distance.
I should say I was looking. My new dog friend, really a very large puppy, was chasing birds and the occasional cat who crossed our path. On the south side of the road there was a magnificent set of new houses going up. They looked like second homes for wealthy people.
The present-day town of Akrotiri is set on a promontory at the southern tip of the island. It is dense and typically Cycladic in its organization. We walked to the top and then wound our way down to the main road through the maze of lanes. In the cool morning air people were just beginning to stir: hanging out laundry or starting out on an errand. In the labyrinth of Akrotiri our hushed greetings felt almost conspiratorial.

[This and the previous photo are from Wikipedia Commons.]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Buying Poems on the Street

Last weekend I met ZACH HOUSTON, who was amiably hawking his impromptu poems at the Rockridge Bart Station in Oakland.

He writes them on what appears to be an Olivetti portable typewriter from about 1974. I paused when asked for a subject, and then blurted out, "cubicles." Here is the resultant poem, which appeared pretty fast.


or sealing

the deal


an official

legally un



of war or at

least gentle


hostility to


myself at

least not in


space rather

the fractal

which doesn't

have any walls


look up

Zach is an artist and writer living in Oakland. His ephemeral poetry project intrigues me. I don't think I could let my poems fly away like that; guess I'd need a carbon sheet in the typewriter.

For more on Zach, go to:

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Looking Back: Santorini

As I said below, I will be posting some things in retrospect over the next few weeks.

I am so glad we went to Santorini this time. It had been four years for me and I had begun to miss it. Greece is a place where, if you are alert and do a little reading beforehand, you can be rewarded with the sense of living both in the present and in history at once. Nowhere is this more dramatically played out than in Santorini, where signs of the Minoan, Classical, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian, Ottoman and modern areas abound.

The most famous of these, besides the crater that silently witnesses the blast that destroyed it, is the Minoan (or Minoan-related) city of Akrotiri, which is being slowly being excavated in the south of the island. See for more.

We stayed nearby in a beautiful, spotless hotel, called "Kalimera."

More on Santorini next time.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Safe at Home

We are back!
I was on the road for almost 24 hrs due to a layover in Newark. At one point I was standing there in the airport and realized Henry Winkler (of Fonzie fame) was standing near me. Gradually the airport staff realized it too and started taking his photo with their cell phones. He seemed like a very unassuming and kind person, surprised by the attention.
Look here for some retrospective accounts of the trip. I should be getting the photos soon and will post some of those.