Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Out of the archives... The Immigrant and the Disc Golfer

I came across this radio piece I did back in J-school at UBC. It won the Mowatt student journalism award for long-form radio documentary in 2007, and was broadcast on CBC that year. I was a little worried to listen to it, but I think it holds up.

The story is of Rosio Jersak, a widow from Mexico who moved to British Columbia and fell in love - with disc golf and with Peter, the man who would be her husband.


I haven't posted here in more than two years... life gets busy. Been working a lot on The Bit podcast, for my employer, Upstream.

You can listen here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What the Quebec train wreck should and should not suggest about the larger oil discussion

The train wreck in Quebec is one of those stories that just gets sadder. I spend all day at work with my head in these things, so I have little conception how big a story it is outside of the business world.

To recap: A 73-car train carrying 72 cars full of crude oil (about 30,000 gallons each, or 715 barrels) broke loose from its braking system late last Friday night and travelled several miles as it gathered speed going downhill. It was unmanned - quite literally a runaway train - and at a bend in the track near the small town of Lac-Mégantic, it derailed. At least five cars exploded, sending a massive fireball into the night sky, and burning or smoldering for days after. This all happened in the center of the town of around 6000, right in front of a bar that was packed for the weekend. Reports said a band had just wrapped their set and people were stepping outside for a smoke break, only to see this runaway train barreling towards them. Some ran, others tried to start their cars and drive away. The explosion probably killed 50 people, but only 33 have been confirmed dead so far. Some are likely never going to be recovered or identified because they were vaporized in the blaze.

I can't imagine what this would be like for the residents of Lac-Mégantic. In a town that small, everyone is almost certain to know one of the victims, living or dead. Thirty buildings were obliterated, including the public library. It's a tragedy beyond the pale.

The implications of this catastrophe stretch far and wide, and stepping back from the devastation a bit, a vexing debate comes into focus. A massive spike in oil production in the US and Canada has strained the existing pipeline capacity, which has required companies producing oil to find new ways of getting their product to market. They have, in fact, turned to quite an old technology: rail. Crude shipments by train have shot up by more than 40% in the US from a year ago and 24% in Canada. That's good for an old school industry, but, it would seem, bad for safety.

In terms of frequency of spills and incidents per mile, transporting crude by rail is far less safe than transporting it by pipeline. In the past several months there have been at least four incidents (before the most recent) where a train carrying crude derailed and spilled. Of course, one major pipeline incident kind of wiped out a lot of the argument. ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas, ruptured and spilled some 5000 barrels of oil and devastated a town. (There were no fatalities, however.)

Examining the worst case scenario of the two methods - Mayflower for pipelines and Lac-Mégantic for rail - the safety verdict almost has to fall on the side of pipelines. Most of the time when oil spill from a derailed train car (or a compromised bridge, which nearly happened during the recent floods in Alberta, thought it wasn't crude oil per se), it's only a few barrels, maybe a couple hundred. But it happens more frequently, and since trains run often through populated areas, the threat to human life would seem higher. Pipelines spill less frequently, but when they do, the spill volume is almost always higher, but the physical danger is less acute (natural gas pipelines or compression stations do explode more often than they should, and that's bad. I am also not including incidents like the one a few years ago in San Bruno, CA, because that would be akin to comparing Mayflower or Lac-Mégantic to a gas station blowing up while filling a car).

Both these incidents, as any disaster, come with several caveats. In Lac-Mégantic, a criminal investigation is focusing on the engineer of the train who may have not set enough hand brakes to prevent this very thing from happening before he went to bed at a nearby hotel for the night. The Pegasus pipeline that runs through Mayflower is more than 60 years old and failed due to defects in the original (outdated) welding technique. Neither of these incidents should have happened, and could have been prevented if the proper precautions were taken.

So, everyone asked in the immediate aftermath of Lac-Mégantic, what does this mean for the Keystone XL pipeline? Probably not much, in the end. It would seem to play into the rhetoric of the pro-pipeline crowd, who say Keystone will be a state-of-the-art transporter that poses no environmental or human danger (though the TransCanada CEO, to his credit, pointedly insisted that the train wreck was not good news for anybody). The anti-oil folks point to the tragedy as further evidence that all forms of oil transport and extraction are dangerous and should be abolished (in favor of what, exactly, is the tough question).

Ultimately, I think this will just go down as an utterly devastating tale of human failure. It was one of the worst transportation disasters of any kind in Canadian history. It raises impossible questions of why and how that simply will never have a satisfactory answer. I hope, if nothing else, authorities come down hard on the people and companies responsible - both in Quebec and Arkansas - and send a message that when you are handling inherently dangerous materials, failure to properly look after them will draw severe consequences. But I'm not holding my breath...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A hot mess of music: remembrances of Summer Fest

"I remember when this shit cost $15."

So read a sign near one of the main stages at the fifth annual Free Press Summer Fest in Houston. I'm not exactly OG FPSF, and did not pay $15 my first year, but I paid far less than the $170 tickets were going for this year before they sold out (I paid about $70, having bought earlyish).

This was my third Summer Fest in as many years, and there is no doubt that it's getting huge. The big joke going around this year is that the organizers are a bunch of sellouts, literally true as tickets sold out for the first time in the event's five-year history. They supposedly sold 100,000 tickets. Wow.

I'm not sure if there were that many people there over the two days on that June weekend, but it was undoubtedly a crowded scene just a few blocks away from the towers of downtown. As the event has ballooned in size, so has the ability of the Free Press folks to deal with the hordes. Last year we waited in line more than an hour just to get in the gates. Breezed right in this time.

But who cares about all that. This is about the music, the quality of which is never in question at Summer Fest. And of course the heat. It was hot and humid as shit, but for us Summer Fest vets, you just gotta bear it and find the shade when it's there...

We rolled in on Saturday in time to see the last half of Japandroids' set. The duo from Vancouver played with happy energy and an overall exuberance that you can't help but enjoy. Nothing about them blew me away, and yet I was thoroughly entertained for the entire 25 minutes or so I watched them.

They wrapped up and I bounced over to the Neptune stage to see Paul Banks, the lead singer of Interpol who has a healthy solo catalogue under his belt (the stages were arranged, accurately, to align with the planets of the solar system, save for earth and Uranus, and of course the rock formerly known as the planet Pluto). I thought of him pretty much exactly what I think of Interpol - some very attractive, hefty riffs that can at times be well complemented and at times overshadowed by Banks' distinctive baritone drone. I really like about half of it, and find myself distracted in the other half.

Next up at the main Saturn stage was the super buzzy Alabama Shakes. It seems like this band has been all over the place, spreading their bluesy gospel rock like, well, the gospel. Early in the day, the frequent refrain was how excited everyone was to see them play, myself included. The proclaimed genre is not really my thing, but damned if I was not blown away. Lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard is the clear attraction. Big, boisterous and every ounce a badass, she commands the stage. She starts singing and there is no fighting the urge to move. Easily the highlight of Day 1. The show was in the middle of the afternoon, and the sun was blazing. Howard was wearing a a big dress and stocking and must of been boiling up there. And yet she said "y'all are stone cold warriors" for grooving with her in the sweltering heat. I'd do it again.

That Shakes, who "really are from Alabama", marked the high point of the day. Arctic Monkeys were forgettable. Action Bronson  was abrasive and loud and just not that entertaining. He came out pulling a seemingly empty roller suitcase behind him, some kind of superfluous prop, I guess. Nearby, on a patch of grass near the stage hidden below an onramp to I-45, a victim of excess substance intake writhed in the shade. (I guess Passion Pit was in there somewhere too, but that experience has completely vacated my mind. Guess they didn't leave much of an impression. Frankly, I'm not surprised...)

It was dinner time and I was scorched and weary, so I did not pay close enough attention to the ageless wonder Iggy Pop & the Stooges, slithering shirtless, sweaty all over the Neptune Stage. I was there long enough to hear him play "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (the name of which I did not know until I looked it up just now and realized I recognize it from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Surprising since I have not seen that film in well over a decade... great track though). A friend later told me that she saw the guitarist from Japandroids standing in the rafters backstage dancing and singing all the words to every song Iggy played. That's cool. I wish I had stayed...

... but I had to go see The Postal Service, out of obligation more than anything. I have spent a fair amount of time with the duo's one and only record, the decade old Give Up. It's a pretty solid piece of music making, and is legitimized, in my mind, by the fact that the top hit, "Such Great Heights", was covered so effectively by Iron & Wine that most people think Sam Beam wrote it. Both versions are superb. Less superb, however, is the experience of watching Postal Service live. I think they made the right decision not touring initially. The music, for one thing, feels dated. I begrudgingly admit that Ben Gibbard is a fantastic lyricist and his voice is not awful. But he's so damn... Ben Gibbardy. Just very into his own vibe, kind of falsely modest and, at this point, way too fancy for himself. Death Cab For Cutie was a great band when they were young, and I still enjoy cuts from those early records. But it was so easy to lose interest; they just kinda hit the stratosphere and vanished from the realm of relevance (to me). But I digress - nothing about the Postal Service's performance moved me. (They did play a cover of "Our Secret" by Beat Happening, which was probably their best song of the night.) Indeed, it is now more than a month later and Postal Service has since appeared on The Colbert Report. It was just flat out boring. Great record though...

Day Two

The second day was hands down more enjoyable than Day One - a rainstorm had cooled the climate, the bands were way better and there were way less people.

I made it down relatively early for Baroness, a solid stoner rock foursome that just blew me away. I had listened to their recordings a few times and been a bit ambivalent. That sound is very tough to pull off on record without sounding like Creed or Staind, and while I don't equate Baroness to any of th
at drivel, it's just not my favorite thing to listen to. Live, however, they totally kill it. Intricate mathy passages and sick interplay between lead man John Baizley and lead hair guy Peter Adams - awesome. They play sensitive stoner riffs disrupted by sludgy blasts and soothed out by edgy moments of calm clapalong. Dressed in requisite all black, Baizley chugged a bottle of water and exclaimed "Wow! It's hot!" So true. Watching Baroness was the first time all weekend I got chills, and it was in the upper 90s.

Mavis Staples
Out of curiosity, I trucked over to watch Mavis Staples perform. She's been kinda the rage lately after putting out her latest record with Jeff Tweedy, and has since been all but omnipresent. But at the point of Summer Fest, she was still just a legend slumming on the Mars stage at 2pm. But man, I was transfixed. She just has that thing. I'm no gospel fan, but damned if I wasn't there clappin' and cheering at every chance. Sister's got soul, alright. It's not every day that you get to see someone who can legitimately invoke Dr. King and call for us to keep pushing until his dream is realized. Sing it! Later in the set she pulled out a cane for
some support - I think a 73-year-old woman deserves that much. "I rebuke you, Satan!" she cried. "I'm going to Houston, Texas!" And she wasn't above giving us a little ribbing (despite the adoration that was pouring forth toward her). When she asked for a cheer she told us we sounded more like Midland, Texas. Ouch. She got a big one after that. Even the police/security guy back stage was smiling and taking pictures.

Cat Power
I have, of course, known of Cat Power for years, but it kind of surprised me when I realized that I had never knowingly really listened to her music before. I was trying to explain to someone what she sounded like and discovered that I had no idea whatsoever. Whatever the case, she opened up with a track that completely took me off guard with its heaviness and angst. It was nasty, and had me spinning.   The set continued on like that, with very few lulls, just power. All the more surprising as she came out with a cup of tea, which she placed on the ground and sipped between numbers. She later revealed that her back was in a bad way, entirely evident by the way she hobbled around the stage. "Is anyone a homeopathic chiropractor?" she asked at one point, wincing in pain. "I've got a problem." What a trooper. She blew me away. (I caught part of Of Monsters and Men, heard the hits, moved on. I must say that I find the song "Little Talk" more appealing now than I did previously. I guess that says something. I also managed to catch Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis just in time for them to play "Thrift Shop". Way too crowded to get even within sight of the stage, but it's a fine song.)

The two bands I wanted to see most - indeed, the acts that convinced me to buy the tickets in the first place - were cruelly scheduled to overlap on separate stages. TV on the Radio, who was the one band I could not miss, played first. We camped out for an hour after Cat Power to get decent positioning, and it was well worth it. My notes on the performance are not good, so all I can say is that it lived up to my high expectations. They have such an unusual sound, and to see them reproduce it live is really quite something. One moment I did transcribe was when they were playing "Staring at the Sun," right at sunset, with a picture of a sunset on the backdrop. It sounds less impressive written down, but at the time it was a real Ouroboros moment.
TV on the Radio

The final act of the marathon, for me, was the last half of Gogol Bordello, the definitive gypsy punks. They were just awesome, in every meaning of the word. You've never seen an accordion rocked out so hard. With nine band members on stage (or so; I lost count), they are just, collectively, a writing ball of energy. The most memorable moment, which I gather is a fairly regular occurrence for a Gogol Bordello show, came during the song "Start Wearing Purple" where lead gypsy Eugene Hütz chugged a bottle of red win, vertically, spit some of it out in a purple spray in the direction of the audience, poured it all over his naked chest, drank some more, splashed the remaining contents onto those in the front row, and then started banging the bass drum with the empty bottle. Wild.

Life changes and new life forms may prevent me from attending Summer Fest next year, but it really does seem to get better each year. We're a far cry from when it was just 15 bones. As long as I don't get priced out - an increasingly likely scenario - I will try to be there.

Gogol Bordello

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Basketball Jones - bringing it for 1000 episodes and counting

I would be remiss if I did not give a shoutout to Skeets, Tas, JD and the rest of the guys at The Basketball Jones, who celebrated their staggering 1000th episode today. The Jones daily podcast is must-listen/watch material for any NBA fan.

I've been tuning in since 2008, when it was just three guys with a high-quality audio recorder in some dude's apartment in Toronto. Even then in its rawest form, The Jones delivered the most entertaining 15-20 minutes of most of my days. These days, I try to not miss an episode.

It's astounding what they have done, and what they continue to do, living the DIY success story. It so obviously took lifetimes of sweat and tears to get to the point where they are now, internationally acclaimed hoops gurus. I still remember when Tas shook of a shattered femur to bring the insight for one season. Legendary.

Congrats, fellas. Everyone should check them out. The list of videos in this post is solid.


Bidadari Disc Golf course still generating media buzz in Singapore

We've been following the development of the Bidadri Disc Golf Course on these pages, and not too long ago it got recognized by one of the media powerhouses on the island - Singapore Press Holdings, publisher of the Straits Times newspaper.

My former employer, managed through high-ranking national elites, has several media arms. One of them, Razor TV, ran a two-part 10-minute news story about this crazy new game in Singapore, and the course I threw together back in 2009.

Thanks for the shoutout, Lance!

Part 2 below the jump.

It's the second time of late that the course has gotten some public attention, having graced the pages of Timeout Singapore late last year. Sadly, Bidadari's days as a disc golf home are likely in the final stages. The development board seems to be moving fast, and already missed a deadline to break ground at the end of last year. The course will most likely be buried, where 100s of other restless souls lost their eternal home when the land was exhumed more than a decade ago...

Coincidentally, long time groundsman Isaac Souweine is on his way back to North America and should be packing it up any day now. I'm sure the course will remain in good hands until the end.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Grizzly Bear roars into Houston (belated)

Now, almost "two weeks" more than three weeks later, I wanted to jot down some thoughts from Grizzly Bear's stirring performance at the House of Blues in Houston on April 9. Yes, the band has moved on to play a couple weekends at Coachella and beyond by now, but I'm going to indulge myself all the same.

Grizzly Bear, with jelly fish
Grizzly Bear is probably my favorite band that I have started listening to in the last four years or so. Prior to the release latest record, Shields, they had played only a handful of shows and had not toured at all. I was as excited to see them as I have been for any band in recent memory.

They did not disappoint, in fact, it's one of those shows that I just can't get out of my head.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Keeping faith at the 11th hour - Sacramento vs Houston

I'm not yet ready to believe that I just saw my last Sacramento Kings game.

Jason Thompson, the consummate King.
Nothing but love, bro. Been a rough go...
It's a big week for Sacramento fans. Thursday and Friday are the days of the big NBA Board of Governors meeting, when the entire relocation fiasco should get settled. Word is that the decision is much closer than it seems in the days following the announcement that a group from Seattle was going to buy the team and move it north. Sacramento has a competitive counter-bid, and the city has proven itself far from a pushover.

Ballmer and co last week raised their bid price by $25 million to $550 million, compounding what was already the highest valuation of any NBA franchise. That complicates matters, but as the blessed homers at Sactown Royalty suggest, it could be a sign of panic. The Seattle group sees Sacramento as a real threat now, and is leaving it all out on the court, so to speak. Let's hope so.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Finding a way through the woods...

Johanna's big meeting with the doctor was today, and it sounds like it could not have gone much better, all things considered.

Obviously great to hear she is in sound spirits. And thanks to everyone who expressed support. It's much appreciated. All about chopping down those trees so you can get out the damn woods!

She's clearly the best informed, so head over to Life Meets Ministry to get up to speed on that inevitable question, "How's she doing?"

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Fuck Cancer, again

Those of you who keep an eye on this blog would probably be interested to know a rather unsavory bit of personal news.

It seems my dear sister has once again been diagnosed with cancer. She writes an excellent blog about her life, and now, her travails. It's hard to recommend it more strongly.

Johanna, of course, fought and conquered Hodgkin's lymphoma when she was a teenager, just beyond driving age. Her bravery was on full display in that battle. It was never even really a question, for her, if she would beat it. Her confidence proved not only well-founded, but immeasurably therapeutic, to her I'm sure, but most notably to those of us who watched her kick that cancer's ass.

Unfortunately, it was the more traditional therapy - the radiation to her upper chest - that would strike a blow felt after more than a decade of healthy living. Last year, in a routine check-up, they found some irregular growths in one of her breasts. They turned out to be laced with ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS. It was not full-blown cancer - and being "in situ" had no danger of spreading into her bloodstream - but it was not benign, and far enough down the road that fairly immediate action was required, especially given her history. She did a lumpectomy, removed the bad tissue and was declared cancer-free, again.

Then last week, following another routine exam, they found some more. As Johanna points out, since the original DCIS was successfully removed, and thus cured, this is now the third time she has had cancer.

The only real option right now, in terms of treatment, is a mastectomy. The only question is when, and whether she cuts off just her infected breast now or takes them both off right away rather than prolong that eventuality. The one good thing - or 12 good things, as she has so wryly observed ("Most women want perky boobs. I'd like to think instead about the perks of NO boobs!") - is that once the operation is complete, she will be cured yet again, and it really should be for good this time.

Of course, it's all complicated by a number a factors, not least of all that she's just a few months shy of 30 and wants desperately to have children and, preferably, breast feed them. (If she was 40 and in the same circumstance, she likely would have gotten the double mastectomy last year.) She's also getting married in August and obviously would prefer to fill out her wedding dress. It's awkward timing, to say the least.

I (again) strongly suggest checking out her blog, called Life Meets Ministry, both to get the technical lowdown and to immerse yourself in the raw and heartfelt musings of a woman who has faced the worst and come back smiling. It is very inspiring stuff, especially for the more religiously inclined. She's angry right now, frustrated and pissed, but never bitter. She's gracious and thoughtful and living proof that quitting is the never an option.

Here is just a small passage that kind of perfectly exemplifies Johanna's unmatched spirit in this whole ordeal:

But they still couldn't be sure, so the doctor wanted to do a biopsy - that's #5 for me, folks. Someone jokingly asked if I brought my punch card, so I could get my free one soon. While I waited, Dr. Skinner stopped by to check in with me. It was fun to see her! We gave her a save-the-date for our wedding, as well as one of the nurses - both were very touched.
Note the dramatic shifting of tone within just a couple sentences. That's Johanna in a nutshell: She gets beat down and pops right back up with selfless grace.

This all could not be happening to a less deserving person. But she's also the person I know who will be able to put this in the rear view faster than anyone else. Her story has already inspired thousands. As the plot churns on, so many more will no doubt learn life-long lessons from her tale. I just wish it didn't have to come at so grave a cost to her.

Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The battle for Milby Park, Houston's next disc golf course

A couple weeks ago the Houston Flying Disc Society (HFDS) put on a "mini" tournament at a disc golf course that does not yet exist.

The venue was Milby Park, a strip of green in the far southeast corner of the 610 Loop along Sims Bayou, in the shadow of pluming refineries and surrounded by industrial wasteland. And while that doesn't sound like an idyllic setting, the park itself is quite lovely.

A player at the inaugural Milby Park mini tees off on the back 9
People organizing the tournament told me that the grounds of Milby Park comprise the old estate of Charles Milby, a hotelier and general entrepreneur who was a major figure in Houston in the early 20th century. What is presumably the estate house, constructed of stone bricks and scattered shell fossils, still stands in the center of the park. The park itself is made up of rolling hills and majestic centuries-old oak trees. In short, it's perfect for a disc golf course.

Course designers Derek Lang and Paul Williams discovered the park a few months ago and have laid out a challenging 18-hole course. Saturday, March 2 was the first time there had ever been 18 baskets out there. About 25 people showed up to play. It was a blast, even though I lost my most cherished disc  in the toxic bayou waters - an old Z-Buzzz that my wife won when she was crowned the Victorian State women's champ in Melbourne, Australia, in 2008. (I had two aces on that disc, including a $450 ace pot a couple years ago... Goodnight, sweet disc.)

The course is as shovel-ready a project as there is. The layout is just about perfect and HFDS has the funds to buy all the baskets and install them today. Once installed, it would instantly be the best disc golf course in the Loop area. But there's a catch.

Derek and Paul have gotten provisional approval from Houston Parks and Rec to build the course. But, according to them, one member on the board, once he heard there were plans afoot, announced that he had been planning to turn the unused land into soccer fields (it is located in a Hispanic part of town and soccer fields, presumably, would be popular for the local community). The board member is thus blocking full approval for the park.

According to Derek and Paul, the board member has no concrete plans, just a distant desire to build the soccer fields, unlike HFDS which is ready to build this course today. Furthermore, dude's plan would presumably require the leveling of all the hillsides and the felling of dozens of ancient trees. The City of Houston is currently spending millions of dollars to replant trees that were killed in the devastating drought of recent years. These trees survived. To spend tens of thousands of dollars to kill living, thriving trees that likely predate the city itself would not only be a colossal waste of cash, it would be a reprehensible act against nature and common decency.

It beggars belief that this could actually be true, and frankly, I don't know the whole story. But there are several indisputable facts: Milby Park indeed already has a few soccer fields (and tennis courts) that don't look like they've been used in years. The course as its laid out would not impede on those existing fields, and both sports could easily co-exist. The course layout also takes advantage of a part of the park that, judging by the lack of litter, is rarely visited (the only park-users I saw on the windy late winter day I was there were a handful of fishermen, casting reels into the bayou sludge). Disc golf may not be an economic revitalizer, but disc golfers are generally good stewards of the land. If Parks and Rec turned Milby into a disc golf course, traffic to the park would skyrocket. If nothing else, let HFDS build it's course and see what happens. If it's a dud and the soccer players revolt, bring in the bulldozers. It seems like a no brainer. (We'll ignore for now the consequences of playing an aerobic game like soccer only 1000 yards or so away from a bank of oil refineries.)

As a disc golfer and as a citizen of this city and a user of its parks, I hope Parks and Rec gets their priorities straight and lets this project go ahead.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Knowing Unknown Mortal Orchestra at Fitzgerald's

The other night we went to Fitzgerald's to check out Portland-based Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Their recorded work is solid - restrained, lo fi production of catchy riffs in airy expanses, packaged in tight digestible nuggets.

A sound like that, though, while quite appealing on record, is difficult to reproduce live, I think. Downstairs at Fitzgerald's, it's almost impossible. As Ra Ra Riot rocked upstairs, UMO tried to bring the noise to a stage that normally hosts local nu metal and talent-free punk outfits - acts that don't rely on the tender nuances of soundscapes to get their point across. In a more controlled setting, this could have been a decent show. In practice, it was just too loud.

Not that they were going for quiet, exactly. While lead man Ruban Nielson, decked out in a black skull cap and some sort of be-rosed bullfighter cloak, sung on a heavily reverbed mic, drummer Riley Geare made full use of his substantial kit. I'm usually a fan of aggressive drumming, but Geare tends to overplay and goes a bit overboard on the butt rock fills. The songs where he is the most restrained, playing a steady supportive beat, are unquestionably the strongest. Nielson, lathered up by the constant "tequila and orange juice" he kept ordering from the stage, sang his quirky melodies well and showed nimbleness on his delicate guitar riffs, but too often the drums overwhelmed.

Maybe I'm just getting old and am less tolerant of "loud" music. But I maintain, I don't mind loud if it sounds good. I wouldn't mind seeing UMO in another setting. Their fan base seems robust, judging by the capacity crowd and oozing excitement at some of the hits. But I think my days of seeing shows downstairs at Fitzgerald's might be numbered.

(Sadly, my half-asses attempt at a photo did not turn out well enough to display here. The Houston Press has a review (a much different take than mine) and a photo, if you care. And here is someone else's YouTube video from the show.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Singapore's Bidadari Disc Golf Course makes media splash

A little disc golf project I started a few years ago in Singapore is starting to gain some traction. With some major upgrades and savvy promotion, current Bidadari Disc Golf Course caretaker Isaac Souweine has considerably raised the profile of the only disc golf course in Southeast Asia. Check out Time Out Singapore's solid write-up of the course.

Isaac has done some real heavy lifting, perfecting some of the hole layouts and most notably installing PVC targets to replace the taped sticks that used to protrude from the ground. And now he has listed in on the venerable DGCourse Review. By my count, that makes it official. Check it out, wish list it.

Judging by the Facebook page, more improvements are being made all the time. Keep up the good work, fellas. Wish I could be out there with you. I spent so many hours out there when I lived in Singapore. It is undoubtedly my favorite place on the island. Check out this Leaner archive - my blog's most-read posting to date - for some reflections on the course's early years.

I hope the course can survive until the next time I make it out to Singapore, whenever that happens. It is squarely in the sights of residential developers, and it overdue for groundbreaking, apparently. It makes sense why - it's a stunningly beautiful place. But let's hope they can keep the green stretch of land truly green, and peaceful, and open for chucking plastic.

(And please, if anyone has or can solve the mystery of the disc golf basket near downtown Singapore that predated even the Bidadari course, please let me know.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The 49ers and the vital pain of evolution

These are dark days. The pain may subside, but the disappointment still swells. Storming all the way back from 22 points down. Four shots from seven yards out to win. It was the most exciting Super Bowl ever until... darkness.

My man Jesse - consummate party host and true Niner disciple if there ever was one - put it best on Monday: It's like a deep serotonin hangover. Even after Jacoby Jones ran back that absurd and record-setting kickoff return to open the second half, we knew we could come back. And while it didn't come as a real surprise - massive holes and bigger comebacks having been established as this young 49er team's M.O. - that comeback march was one of the most exciting series of sports moments I've witnesses in recent memory (amplified by my Niner bias, obviously). It seemed like destiny, fate, inevitable. The mind substances were pumping through our synapses, turning to satisfaction, joy, exhilaration. It swelled all through that final goal line push. Fourth down and it all still seemed so possible. Even through the (begrudgingly clever) Raven safety and the meager punt return that sealed the deal, destiny continued to beckon.

And then nothing. Only darkness. The serotonin mainline was abruptly severed, and we were left with only anger and confusion. Unanswerable questions like How? Why? The emotional roller coaster derailed and crashed into a bitter abyss.

The win seemed like a given, the appropriate cap (Kaep) to what has been nothing short of an evolutionary NFL season. This year's quarterback class represents the future of the position, and the read-option looks to be the way to win moving forward. Fragile RGIII may have brought it to the fore, but Colin Kaepernick and Russel Wilson have the bodies to make it unstoppable (Andrew Luck, a modern QB in nearly every sense, suddenly seems like a throwback). But Kaep is clearly the most dangerous weapon of them all. With the speed of a cheetah, the grace of a gazelle and an arm as powerful as an elephant gun, he is the evolution.

We were obviously anxious for the evolution to take hold immediately - and it almost, almost did. If our resident bigot Chris Culliver could have just laid a finger on the sprawled-out Jones (and not gotten his ass burned) in the first half. If Randy Moss had tried to get his own finger on a badly thrown and intercepted ball. If the refs had called Ed Reed offsides on the Niners 2-point conversion attempt. Or the holding. Or the pass interference. Or the holding. Or if we had just punched it in with Frank Gore - or at least tried - there at the end.

San Francisco simply did not play well enough to win, and a bunch of dubious records are the result: First 49er Super Bowl loss, first 49er Super Bowl interception, first 49ers coach to lose... and so on. We were so quick to jump into neo-dynasty mode that we forgot the toil necessary to evolve. Yes, a couple different bounces of the ball and the Niners could be working on their 3-peat next year. But apparently it will require more pain.

Perhaps it took those tragic blemishes on the franchise annals - a bloody break from the past - to truly begin the evolution. Nature is a violent killer and monumental changes can't happen all at once. It was never reasonable to expect a wet-behind-the-ears Kaep to find the promised land in just his 10th professional start. By next season he'll have the chops, and his team is built to win for years to come.

On paper, it seems indisputable, the Niners are the best team in football, and up until darkness fell on Sunday, just a touch too inexperienced. Shockingly, they are not the favorite to win it all next year. It's the Patriots on 7-1 odds. Niners are 8-1. I like those odds.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Kings are dead. Long live the Kings!

And so these old emotions are dragged up again. The air of inevitability lingers as it always has, with only the desperate hope that this time, once and for all, something will be settled.

Of course, the Maloof brothers - mercilessly at the center of this deeply sordid tale - will no doubt continue to squeeze every last ounce of joy out of an NBA franchise that was once such a pleasure to support. They will be waiting, grinning and greasy, at the seemingly inevitable bitter end.

To recap: Depending on whose sources you trust more, the MaGoofs are either a couple of signatures away from selling the Sacramento Kings to a group in Seattle that will uproot the team and move them north, or they have again backed out of a "handshake" commitment and are no closer to selling the team than they were when Jason Williams was dropping ridiculous behind-the-back dimes to Chris Webber in the glory days.

The smart money is on the first option, one that would net the Maloofs a tidy $500 million, give or take $25 million, and make the Kings the most expensive NBA franchise ever to be sold. (No way they deserve that title in their current state, but still.)

I know I am not alone in my deep ambivalence about these latest rumors. We've all accepted the fact that the Kings were on the move for years now. What is so awful is to have this process dragged out for so long and to see the Maloofs single-handedly disgrace the NBA while shitting all over a city that has done nothing but support their increasingly pathetic product.

I have nothing but love for the Kings, and I have no problem supporting them, even as they continue to play at the level of a mediocre Division II NCAA team. I've supported them through thick and thin, and I have only one particular reason to stop doing so - the aforementioned MaGoofs. They are despicable, disgusting. They exemplify everything that is wrong with professional sports. They are greedy and incompetent. They ran a casino that went bankrupt. How is that even possible? They are in debt to the NBA and the city of Sacramento to the tune of well over $100 million. It's not just that they're greedy fucks - they are incompetent, useless assholes, born with silver spoons, pissing away daddy's money. It seems to me that the only reason they haven't sold the Kings yet is because it's the only asset of value they have left.

It pretty much all started when the Maloofs unfairly (and, obviously, foolishly) forced out Rick Adelman, the best coach to ever sit on a Sacramento bench, and still one of my favorite coaches - of any team - of all time. The Kings made the playoffs every year he was there, and have not sniffed the postseason since. The situation has just bottomed out since then. Sure there are some good players on the roster, but it is so awkwardly put together that there is no semblance of a "team". They basically have three players in 12 bodies - a shoot-first, non-passing point guard, a non-shooter swingman, and an undersized power forward forced to play center. Individually there is a lot of talent. Together they are a (sleep) train wreck.
Stooges: the Maloof princes, who cares which is which

(One stat that seems to say it all: John Salmons averages 3.3 assist per game, the team's highest. Every other NBA team has at least one player on it averaging at least 4.4 assists. That is bad teamwork.)

And really, was there anything worse, more heartless or just outright ugly than what happened a year ago, with Joe and Gavin at center-court with Mayor Kevin Johnson, hands raised triumphantly at the news that an arena deal had been struck and the Kings would be in Sac for the next 30 years? Oh, right - a Maloof handshake is followed up by the classic pull-away, hand through hair... too cool! (That's via someone on Twitter whom I can't remember, but spot on.) Dicks.

All hope is not lost. Put Geoff Petrie out of his misery, hire a real GM, and overhaul the team. It'll be a painful few years (no more so than the last 10), but there are assets that can be turned around in the right hands (provided there are owners willing to expend the effort). Any future success, though, is predicated on the Maloofs getting the fuck out of the picture and starting from scratch.

Sadly, that future may well be in Seattle. That city got totally screwed out of their team, and I ache for them. But to 'steal' another city's team to make up for past wrongs just feels dirty. Seattle should get theirs, but they should not get ours.

On the other hand, what if the Kings did move? The truth is that back in 1985 Sacramento 'stole' the team from Kansas City, which had 'stolen' the team from Cincinnati before that. In fact, if the Kings move to King County in Washington, they will become the most nomadic franchise is US sports history. Cold comfort perhaps, but it makes me think I still might support them if they were in Seattle. (That would not be the case in Anaheim or Virginia Beach, however.)

Whatever the case, it's pretty clear that the best choice is staying in Sacramento (not that I expect the Maloofs to make the best choice). The city and the fans are doing everything they can to hold on, and more power to them. There is, of course, the petition that was put out moments after news of the move to Seattle broke last week. Please sign it here. There is also a campaign to get as many people and businesses signed up for season tickets and sponsorship for coming seasons. According to Cowbell Kingdom, that group has already raised almost $4 million in promises if the Kings stay. Cowbell Kingdom is also reporting that the NBA has given Sacramento a chance to counter any offer made by Seattle. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens...

Whatever happens, it's already been too much, and the emotional culmination has already occurred. Everyone has seen it, but it's always worth watching again (below). I will be stoked if the Kings manage to stay in Sac, but it will be subdued joy. I have already grieved, I have already rejoiced. The Maloofs have zapped my passion, and that is the greatest sin of all. The best thing about this whole ordeal, whether it ends in Seattle or in downtown Sac or at the railyards, is that the Maloofs will be out of the NBA for good and we will never have to think about those disgusting douchebags again.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

An interview with Josh Klinghoffer

A friend of mine has recently launched a new quarterly e-mag called Gearphoira that covers all things guitar gear - pedals, amps, vintage bodies... everything. It is evolved from the website formerly known as What's That Dude Play?, which I occasionally wrote for during my interminable Leaner hiatus.

Gearphoria released its second edition last month and it features a fairly lengthy interview (and small write up) I did with Josh Klinghoffer, the most recent guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His latest effort is a side project called Dot Hacker, which is definitely worth checking out. Josh is a great guy, a friend of many of my friends, and he was very generous to lend me his time.

Check out the interview in the latest edition of Gearphoria.

I have one other piece in this edition as well, a review of a film called Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film. I was not really familiar with Bill prior to seeing this film, but he is quite an interesting musician and the film is nothing short of captivating. (Read the review here.) It's also fun because Nevada City native Neal Morgan shows up frequently in the film since he toured with Bill as the band's drummer. What's up, Neal?

Apocalypse won't be easy to find as it is without a distributor and shows up only at film festivals for the time being. But it's a solid watch and highly recommended. Here's a trailer:

Thursday, December 27, 2012

World premieres headline Hospitality House benefit concert

Should have posted this much earlier, but if you happen to be in the Grass Valley area on Thursday, come check out trombonist Eric "Red" Starr in A Benefit for Hospitality House as he and pianist Paul Perry perform the world premieres of two new classical pieces.

Click here to read the press release, the first ever such document I've ever composed. I've read countless, but never tried to write one. Also reprinted below.

Also, I also had no idea until a few hours ago that the great Utah Phillips was a co-founder of Hospitality House, the eponymous beneficiary of Red's recital. It's a group that seeks to house the Nevada County homeless on frigid nights like this one.

A great cause, and a chance to support contemporary classical music.

Monday, December 17, 2012

No one dies in knife attack at Chinese elementary school

The tragic carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday is too devastating for words. It's just disgusting that we're almost to the point of being numb to events like this (and that we are already numb to the dozens of individual murders that happen on US streets every week). And nonsensical claims that this should not be an opportunity for a political discussion are infuriating.

The argument against using something like another mass shooting to illustrate why our maniacal gun culture needs dramatic reform often says something to the effect of: "Well, if this guy wanted to do something like this, he would have just used a knife. It's not the gun's fault."

On Friday, we happened to get this scenario in clear juxtaposition. Thousands of miles away, and hours before Adam Lanza went on his heinous spree, another man, Min Yongjun,  stabbed and slashed 23 children at an elementary school in Henan province, China.

The difference between the two? No one died in the Chinese attack because Min did not have a gun. Guns are simply more destructive, and when they are used in mass attacks, the death toll is certain to skyrocket.

The attack in China is no less heinous than the one in the US, and is actually the latest chapter in a disturbing trend of mass knife attacks in the Asian country. But the questions and incomprehensibility that underlie both of these incidents is the same - why would someone do this? The answer, if there is one, will be found in a tough examination of mental health on an individual and community basis. The answer may very likely never be found. In the meantime, attacks will no doubt continue. The question that must be answered immediately is: Do we want potential attackers to have easy access to guns with which they can shoot up a school, or a mall or a theater. Or should we force them to find some other, probably less deadly, means of carrying out their terror plots? It's a grim choice, but is not a difficult one.

For the US, that pesky second amendment will continue to complicate efforts to reach a sensible solution. I have no idea how it will happen, and like President Obama said tonight in a tear-jerking vigil  for the 26 murdered victims in Newtown, Connecticut, there is no single law or policy that will change the situation we currently find ourselves in. It will take a cultural shift.

Meanwhile, there are recent indications that the rock-solid foundation of the gun lobby is fracturing ever so slightly. In many southern states where gun laws are very lax, conservative politicians are being forced to choose sides in measures that would make it legal to keep guns in a car in parking lots while people are at work. The business communities in many of these states, heavily courted by so many conservatives, are not pleased with the potential laws, saying they infringe on their private property rights, according to the Wall Street Journal. Who knows what this means in the larger context. But a divided front could potentially open up some movement in a conversation that has been dominated so much by the one side as to render the 'debate' stagnant.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Losing Omar again

Omar is dead.

Fans of The Wire and the world at large have lost Omar Little, for real this time.

Donnie Andrews, the man who was a primary inspiration for one of the most beloved characters on one of the most acclaimed TV shows works of literature in a generation passed away last week at age 58.

Donnie and Fran
If you are unfamiliar with Donnie, he played one of the guys who protects Omar when he goes to prison in Season 4, and then teams up with the stick-up boy later when he's out for revenge. (One of my favorite scenes in the series remains the one where Omar and Donnie are sitting in a car on a stakeout and Donnie is singing along with the radio. Just so sweet and simple and illustrative of an inherently benevolent soul.)

He, among others, was the inspiration for David Simon and Ed Burns when they conceived of the Omar character - a street thug with a conscience who robs drug dealers with high-calibre firearms.

Donnie's story is one that deserves to be preserved in the annals of literature (he did, in fact, survive a jump/fall from a six-story window to avoid a shootout). Turn to the pros for the details - the Baltimore Sun has the most comprehensive obit; the New York Times does a solid job too.

This, from the Times, would seem cheesy and contrived if it was in a TV show. As a true event, it's devastating:

Mr. Andrews was known for drug dealing and audacious robberies in West Baltimore in the 1970s and early ’80s. In September 1986, he agreed to kill a drug dealer for a rival to support his heroin habit. It was his first murder.
“My gun jammed,” Mr. Andrews told The New York Times in 2007. “So the guy was lying on the ground, and it gave him a chance to look me in the eye, and he said, ‘Why?’ ”        
Mr. Andrews killed the man but was haunted by his question. Months later, he turned himself in to Edward Burns, a Baltimore homicide detective. In 1987, he was sentenced to life in prison.    

Donnie would go on to reform himself in prison, working from inside to stop the violence on the streets and reaching out to youths and drug addicts to help get them on the right track.

My favorite arc in Donnie's story is a relationship he developed with another of Simon's protagonists, Fran Boyd from the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (if you have not read it yet, just do it).

The Times has covered this story very well, and you should read about it here. The short version is that Simon and Burns put Donnie in touch with Fran while she was in the throes of drug addiction. They talked regularly while he was still in prison, and it was partly his inspiration that helped her get clean. She, Simon and others lobbied hard for his early release, which he was granted in 2005. In 2007, Fran and Donnie were married, and David Simon was the best man. Read the wedding announcement in the Times here.

Unfortunately, it has been an increasingly difficult year for poor Fran. In August, her son DeAndre died at age 35 of an apparent drug overdose. DeAndre was another of the protagonists in The Corner and he lived a life that vacillated, almost moment to moment, between hope and despair (he also appeared in The Wire (as did Fran) as Brother Mouzone's bodyguard, Lamar, incidentally). Read David Simon's heartbreaking obituary of DeAndre here. This is real life that still aches beyond fades to black.

My sincerest thoughts and prayers for Fran. She is a survivor and a hero. Let her strength endure.

(Picture is from Donnie's anti-violence organization Why Murder?)

Friday, December 14, 2012

'You are trying to experience disorientation and panic': a lesson in helicopter survival

In the event that I am aboard a helicopter that crashes into the sea, I can survive. I'm certified.

Last week I took a trip over to Robert, Louisiana, where Shell Oil has a large training facility for most everything related to offshore oil production. It was the command center when BP's Macondo well blew out, sunk a rig and led to one of the worst oil spills in history. It's a place dedicated to education and safety - you are even required to back in to all parking spots to minimize the risk of auto collisions (a requirement, a later learned, that is actually common at work sites throughout the oil industry).

It is also home to one of the Gulf Coast's most renowned centers for HUET training, or Helicopter Underwater Egress Training. It is a class required of most everyone who might ever go offshore in a helicopter. Of course, that population is made up almost entirely of people who work in the oil industry - not just the roughnecks and roustabouts that work on the drilling rigs and production platforms but also the crews of supply ships and support vessels for those same facilities. And of course the parasite reporters who cover such things.

Shell had invited me and a couple other reporters to come check out the Noble Bully I drillship, which is drilling for the oil company about 70 miles off the Louisiana coast at the Ursa/Mars prospect in the Gulf of Mexico. It would take about a day to get there by boat, but only an hour or so by helicopter. Since we'd be flying over water - and since helicopters have a nasty habit of, well, crashing - we needed to be trained in escape.

The class kicked off around 7 am and began with a few terrifying videos of sinking sea ships and fleeing sailors. That was enough to get us to pay attention. The instructor said, quite soberly, that the most important thing you need to have in order to survive is something worth surviving for. For him, it was his wife, kids and grandkids. Maybe it's a girlfriend, he said. Maybe it's a cherry car. Whatever it is, you need to keep that thing in mind at all times if disaster does strike.

We proceeded to learn some nifty survival stats and strategies. The instructor extolled the virtues of life jackets, which may seem kinda obvious. But it turns out that, especially in cold waters (less than 59 degrees F), a life jacket can triple your chances of survival. In waters that cold, you won't survive more than one or two hours because the coldness will wear your body down. But with a jacket, even in frigid seas, you can survive up to six hours. Don't take 'em for granted.

Other tips: If there is a group of you lost at sea, lock arms in a circle and kick in three- to five-second blasts to create a pulse effect. It creates a target of whitecaps visible from the air. Kick in short bursts so it looks like a signal. Also, beware of static electricity caused by chopper blades when they lower a cable to pull you from the water - it'll travel right down the cord and the hook. Let the hook hit the water first so the static electricity dissipates.

That's all helpful info, of course, but that is not the aspect of HUET that gets the people buzzing. In the afternoon, we moved to the pool. We performed progressively harder underwater tasks like swimming through doors, inflating our coveralls as a flotation device, and so on. Then came the main event - the dunking.

The pool is equipped with the shell and spartan innards of a faux-helicopter cabin attached to a mechanism that lowers and spins the whole contraption upside down. Four of us at a time sat in seats inside, strapped in by a seatbelt, and were instructed on how to jettison the windows and the doors. After punching them out, you must find and grip a reference point so you don't get more disoriented and can find your way out when the frigid seawater rushes in (although we were in a heated pool during training).

"You are trying to experience disorientation and panic," the instructor told us.

And so there we were, strapped in to our simulated disaster cab. "Brace for impact!" someone shouts.

"Brace! Brace! Brace!"

We clutch our seat belts for dear life as the vessels crashes into the surface of the water. The cabin quickly fills. It's up to our ankles and then our knees, and then the whole thing starts to flip. Stomach, shoulders, neck - quick! take a breath because it may be your last! - and we're submerged, and still flipping.

Air bubbles everywhere as the water shoots up my nose and into my ears. The disorientation is kicking in heavily now. We must wait before the violence subsides and the vessel comes to rest before we can punch out the windows. We must remain strapped in even through this so the rush of water does not throw toss us around the cabin.

I'm upside down and searching for the handle that's supposed to jettison the door. I can't find it. Panic is beginning. Somehow my hand glances it and I'm able to push it open as my stolen breath moments earlier at the surface is reaching the end of its life span. I weakly get the door off and clutch for the seat belt latch. It comes off stubbornly and, using the reference point of the top of the open doorway, I push myself out and barely make it to the surface - arms flailing, as instructed, to clear the path of any potential debris from the crash - and gasp for breath. Safe. Alive.

Click here to see my video of what happens (on the surface). 

This is not embellished. I actually needed a little assistance from the scuba team that served as a safety net for this particular run-through. I had to do it again in order to pass the class, and pulled it off slightly smoother, or at least with less panic and no help from the scuba guy. The upside down thing is tough because, to jettison the door, you have to reach down a bit to find the latch. When upside down, you actually have to reach up a bit. It's tricky when disoriented to begin with.

Nevertheless, I am now certified. Two days later, I and some of my classmates flew out. We made it to the rig and back with no problems, thankfully. But I knew that, if we ditched, I would have shit my pants.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Tales of a plumbing refugee

We have been having plumbing problems for a while at our house here in Montrose. It's the bottom floor of a rented duplex on Sul Ross & Hazard. It started with a backed up sink, and then a backed up shower. As the problem worsened, nastier and nastier water started to fill the various basins in the house. A plumber would come and clean out the pipes, the problem would subside for a few weeks, and then it would return.

Fast forward to last week. We had spent Thanksgiving break in Big Bend National Park, which is pretty much the most incredible place I've ever seen. But it's a long way away. So after driving in the car for about 10 hours, we got home a little after midnight to find the plumbing issue had come to a head.

A foul odor was coming from the bathroom. I turned on the light to find the tile floor crusted about a half-inch think with... raw fucking sewage. It was mostly toilet paper, caked and soggy, but there were unmistakable globules of feces scattered about, as if some deranged easter bunny had come in and shit in secret corners and left his deposits there to crust over. The toilet and floor were covered in this stinking sludge. A thick black gunk covered the bathtub, which would not drain. It stunk. It was one of the most disgusting scenes I could imagine. (The image to the right was taken several weeks ago, but that is the sludge that had been flowing into our tub every so often. We came home to find our entire bathroom covered in this stuff - plus shit.)

Our landlord has been handling it, to her credit. She sent over a cleaner who spent about two hours scrubbing the shit out of the bathroom (literally) with a big bottle of bleach. She has put us up at a nice bed and breakfast just a block down the street, the Modern B&B, which is quite a nice place (and recommended). The chef makes the best omelet I've probably ever had, made to order. It all seemed well and good, just a relatively minor (if momentarily repulsive) inconvenience. Until...

Late Thursday afternoon I got a panicked call at work from the landlord. The plumbers had to replace a chunk of the sewer line because a tree had grown up right on one of the connections to the house and the roots had run rampant over the tree's 30-year lifespan. Obviously a substantial operation that required permits from the city because of nearby power and gas lines.

"Is the dog inside?" my landlord asked. Yes. "Can you come and let him out? I don't have a key and there's a gas leak. The fire department is here." I was about 30 minutes away. She said she would break down the door and rescue the dog if she needed to. This minor inconvenience had just turned into a life-threatening emergency.

CenterPoint, the local utility, had come the day before to mark off where the gas and power lines were. But apparently they mis-marked. The plumbers, digging with a shovel, nicked a gas line. It started spewing gas; apparently you could hear the hissing. You could smell it five blocks away. When I got home, fire trucks and policemen had blocked off the road for a block in both directions. The house next door was evacuated (ours was empty aside from the dog). Eventually the leak was stopped and the house was deemed safe to re-enter. Inside I had a newspaper, unread at the time, with a story about an explosion, initially blamed on a leaking gas line, that leveled an entire neighborhood in Indianapolis. O saw the story the next day, and shuddered.

Thankfully, the story remains only a frightening hypothetical. But it could have been devastating, and an unforeseeable conclusion to what started out as a simple plumbing annoyance (maybe not so simple, but still). We are still staying at the B&B; the plumbers, I think, were spooked because they have not been back to work since. I'm pretty sure the sole blame lies with CenterPoint because of their shoddy marking job. That's inexcusable. What's worse, when the landlord called them immediately after the leak was discovered, it took them more than an hour and a half to show up and set things straight. Luckily the fire department was able to stop the leak, but how that doesn't qualify as an urgent emergency that requires immediate action, I have no idea.

Anyway, we are all safe, and still essentially homeless, or, at least, unable to use what is actually now a very clean bathroom.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Deerhoof is the perfect band

Somehow I forgot how much I love Deerhoof. I was lucky enough to catch them on their way through Houston earlier this month at the new Walter's near all the art studio/warehouses on the north end of downtown.

It was not a full house. A friend who was potentially going to come along (and did not, his foolish mistake) asked if it would sell out. I was couldn't say for sure. In retrospect, I guess Deerhoof is not exactly the kind of band that packs 'em in. Their shows are a sort of performance art, from the awesome arm-pump-leg-kick dance moves of lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki to the furious and fascinating drum explosions of Greg Saunier. What's happening on stage somehow perfectly describes the chaotic but carefully crafted soundscape that emerges from the four band members. Deerhoof is often noted for being difficult to classify or described. I find myself experiencing that difficulty this very moment...

In Houston, they dished out generous helpings of what I consider their hits from The Runners Four and Friend Opportunity, as well as some of the hottest tracks from their latest, Breakup Songs. For me it was just one euphoric explosion after another, experienced in the tight three-minute pop-song format that they have upended, reassembled and reinvented into something wholly unique. There is no one else like them.

Pre-show, my wife and I were lingering around the merch table when Satomi casually seated herself and remarked on my wife's shirt. We realized who she was and couldn't help but relay to her that we had seen them twice in Vancouver, six years ago, with the first show being the first concert we had ever attended together. She seemed pleased to hear it. On the table were the usual vinyl recordings and T-shirts, but also something that is truly a blast from the past - a cassette tape containing the band's latest album, for $6. If you buy the tape you also get the mp3s, so it's actually a better deal than iTunes, plus you get a hardcopy. We were swayed.

Leave it to Deerhoof to take an idea that seems abrasive and turn it into something that's just perfect.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Halliburton exec gets off

In a truly unexpected turn of events, given the circumstances, the Halliburton tax executive who got caught with his pants down (allegedly) trying to solicit a prostitute north of Houston has had his court case dismissed.

A Harris County jury came back hung after prosecutors presented the case, which hinged on a sting operation by the Sheriff's department. It seemed fairly straightforward: cops pose as online hookers, find johns willing to pay them, set up a meet, agree to swap cash for services, handcuffs come out, and that's that. This time, somewhere along the line, the case fell apart.

CultureMap reported that Joseph Andolino's lawyer said the undercover officer who testified against the senior vice president of tax was not a credible witness. The lawyer accused her of altering officer reports and destroying evidence. The upshot: Andolino is a free and, in the eyes of the court, innocent man.

Not much more has emerged from the case than this, and you can be sure that Halliburton is happy to have it swept under the rug. If nothing else, it's some pretty rock-solid lawyering.

One other amusing part of the story, as the Houston Business Journal reported: This alleged solicitation, assuming it actually happened in the first place, would have occurred right around lunch time no a Thursday afternoon (Andolino and six others were arrested at 1pm). Let's just say that is a helluva lunch meating (or would/could have been).

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Add Minus the Bear to your list of live bands (or: How to find a paying fan)

Minus the Bear has for years been on my list of band to see live. Their entry onto that list and my introduction to them occurred simultaneously. I have always remembered it as an example of the right way to disseminate and monetize music, proof that even in the era of post-physical music media, there is a way to cheaply find new - and hopefully paying - fans.

It was the summer of 2006 and I was making the drive from Northern California to Vancouver, BC, where I was a grad student. Minus the Bear's eponymous classic Menos El Oso had recently hit stores. I was only vaguely familiar with the band by name only, but somehow managed to get an in-studio performance they did at KEXP in Seattle downloaded onto my iPod. (I think I had subscribed to the radio station's podcast feed and it magically appeared there.) I decided to give the 30-minute podcast a shot and was subsequently blown away by what I heard. The podcast host was very enthusiastic about the band as well, which no doubt colored my impression. But it was undeniably good, unique and interesting music. Before I busted across the border, I decided to rid myself of the remaining American cash I had and headed to a record store somewhere there in the Pacific Northwest. The glitchy delays of "The Game Needed Me" from the in-studio were still echoing in my mind and I happily threw down enough bones to buy the CD (as well as The Avalanche by Sufjan Stephens, which is also solid). It's a purchase I never regretted, and those tunes carried me throughout my final year of J-school.

Fast forward to last Thursday and I found out with only a few hours to spare that Minus the Bear would be playing that night at Warehouse Live in Houston. With nothing better to do, I went and checked them out.

First of all, I had no idea they had such a dedicated following. That's a hard venue to sell out, and I don't think it did, but the place was utterly hopping with gleeful fanatics - people packed in, just giddy with anticipation. It was one of those electric pre-show atmospheres where people are just so excited to see the band that they let out a pre-emptive cheer before anyone is even on the stage. When the band finally did emerge, almost every song turned into some sort of singalong followed by sincere, unadulterated gratitude in the form of ovation. 

And they deserved it. They were tight.  Guitarist Dave Knudson is the real deal, a joy to watch and listen to. The most telling sign of the loyalty of their fan base (or perhaps an indication of the crowd's intoxication level, which was notably high) came when the band seemed to fuck up the end of one song. Not being very familiar with many tracks other than those from Menos el Oso, I didn't notice anything at first. But the song did seem to end rather abruptly, and the band members were looking around a bit sheepishly. It was then that a deafening uproar arose from the crowd, possibly the loudest moment of the night. Slightly baffled at this reaction, lead singer Jake Snider just kind of laughed, amazed. "Most people woulda said, 'I caught you,'" he said, still riding the wave of support the crowd was offering. The band then proceeded into the next song as if nothing had happened, and no one seemed the wiser.

As I said, I recognized a total of maybe four songs, including "My Time", which I had listened to for the first time only moments before I left for the show. While enjoyment of a concert is usually directly proportional to one's familiarity with the music, I still had a blast. I would see them again. The enthusiasm of the crowd definitely helped. There was more crowd surfing than you might expect from a mathy stoner-rock band like this one. There must have been a half dozen bodies hoisted up to ride the sweaty whitecaps, all told. Houston is apparently some sort of bastion of Minus the Bear fandom. The band acknowledged as much at the end of the show.

For me, it was the climax of a simple story set in this unsettled era of popular music - I heard the band in a promotional spot, liked the music, bought the music, enjoyed it, and then went to seem them play it.  If nothing else, it offers hope to young bands out there trying to make it. I guess it helps if you have something original to offer, as Minus the Bear surely does. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Giants win the pennant! - a fairweather reflection

I've been a fan of the San Francisco Giants my whole life, but I still like I'm fairweather.

It's just hard for me to follow baseball anymore. I invest so much time and energy into the NFL and NBA seasons, I feel like I need to take the summer off. Baseball is the biggest grind - day in, day out - for both the players and the fans. The game, to me, is compelling for its tradition, its longevity, its role as the presumptive pastime of our nation (even if that unofficial role was usurped by football long ago).

I took my wife to the first baseball game she had ever seen. It was in Beijing, during the Olympics. The match was between South Korea and the Netherlands (the Asians mercy-ruled the poor Europeans in four or five innings I think). She grew up in China and had absolutely no concept of what was happening - the strike count, a fly ball, running the bases, all abstract nonsense. These are things that most Americans seem to understand at birth. But when I tried to explain it to her, I found myself getting confused when trying to describe even the most basic concepts. It's a game that is incredibly intuitive in a lot of ways, but to explain it somehow saps it of its magic. It's really quite ineffable, and is much better experienced sensually and through cliche - the crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, the hot summer evenings, the fleeting moments of intense focus broken up by zen-like re-adjustments of a glove or tracing shapes in the dirt with your cleats. It's because of those things, and not my failed attempt to explain what was actually happening, that my wife had a blast that day - just a nice afternoon at the ballpark. It's simple, possibly even pointless, but so much depends on it.

But I digress - the fact is that the Giants are world champions for the second time in three years, which incredibly puts them in league with some of the greatest teams ever to swing the collective bat. (I can't help but wonder what would have happened last year if Buster Posey hadn't suffered that brutal leg injury... I want to say three-peat.) They are a thrilling team to watch, packed with colorful characters, and so obviously a cohesive unit. A model sports franchise, in my opinion. I just wish I could consider myself a bigger fan.

I did go watch them play when they were in Houston for a series late in the summer. They won, obviously, and by the 8th inning, there were only Giants fans left at Minute Maid Park, quite a few by my counting. Now the Astros are moving to the American League, which disgusts me partly because I have no use for the AL and its ridiculous DH, but mostly because that leaves me with precious few opportunities to see my favorite team play in the flesh, save for the odd inter-league series every few years.

And one more thing - the Giants' championship run this year made me a little sad because it came only a few weeks after my cousin, who was just a few months older than me, passed away after a painfully short battle with cancer. He was one of the biggest Giants fans I knew, and he deserved to see them win one more. The romantic in me assures the cynic that he was watching from some cloud up there, or perhaps from a different dimension entirely. And maybe he was. It's just too bad his physical self was not here to join us in rejoicing. He would have led the cheers. We miss you Nathan.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Downhole services - Halliburton tax man gets stung near Houston

A senior Halliburton executive got caught with his pants down in a seedy area north of Houston this month when an online dalliance led to handcuffs and a mugshot.

Joseph Andolino was allegedly soliciting the wrong kind of downhole services and found himself snagged in an undercover prostitution sting that netted six other men, according to a release from the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

He appeared in court on Friday and his lawyer said he was not guilty. A hearing was rescheduled for October 30.

Halliburton tax man Joseph Andolino, caught
allegedly soliciting illicit downhole services
The 59-year-old is listed among the oilfield-services giant's top corporate executives with a title of Senior Vice President - Tax. The company has confirmed that Andolino "is a Halliburton executive".

It was unclear whether Andolino's time with the pressure pumping pros would have a happy ending.

"We expect our officers and employees to maintain high standards of professional and personal conduct, but we do not comment on personal matters," a Halliburton spokesman said.

In the sting, female deputies with the vice squad posed as online escorts and arranged to meet Andolino, among others, at a location near north-bound Interstate 45 and Farm-to-Market road 1960, an area near Houston known for whores and human trafficking.

"Once the suspects arrived and made an agreement with the undercover deputies to receive sexual services in exchange for money, they were arrested," the Sheriff's department said, adding that all seven men nabbed in the sting were charged for prostitution.

Forays into sexual transgression is not exactly an uncommon thing in the oil industry. Just consider the names of some old and existing oilfield outfits and brands: BJ Services, Thrustmaster, Ballgrab... the list goes on. Back in the day, oil conferences were not the stuffy corporate glad-hand parties they are now, but flesh-fests teeming with loose and busty women selling the hottest downhole tools. 

I heard one story the other day (unconfirmed) of a top executive with one of Halliburton's competitors who was sent to Venezuela to negotiate a contract. Business is apparently still done the old-school way down there, and the executive was surely treated to the finest food and the tastiest strip clubs Caracas could offer. One particular pole dancer mesmerized him, and he fell madly in love. Apparently his wife and kids were in town along with him on a work holiday of sorts. the exec divorced his wife within days, swearing his love and life to the woman who had captivated him so by stripping on stage and shaking her stuff. 

Ballgrab, for offshore mooring
Oilmen are probably no more likely to have a dirty sex streak than other professionals. Anytime a buncha dudes sit around for days on end without a female for miles will give in to unhealthy urges of varying shades of moral gray. The booming Bakken oilfields of North Dakota are not just putting the nation's roustabouts to work; prostitutes are flocking from across the country to ply their trade in the man camps up north.

I guess there is something about guys who make a living probing holes deeply with powerful tools to the point of a sticky liquid explosion, all over your hands, your face... It's hard work.