Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween & Do Not Track

First, happy halloween - or should I say: All Hallows Eve. A significant day for Druids and followers of the "old ways." In any case, there seems to be less controversery around this fun and historic day than in recent years when hoards of threatened religious zealots (a lot scarier than a few kids dressed as witches mind you) clammored for an end to it all and the substitution of perfectly horrible harvest festivals. Yech, enough already. Back to the fun. (Image source)

I was very pleased, especially on Halloween, to discover that a group of consumer and technology advocacy organizations have come up with a legislative concept around a much-needed, Internet "Do Not Track" list. It's about time. We've got "Do Not Call" lists, we certainly need an enforceable "Do Not Track" list as a complement. So let's see if we can't build some momentum behind this laudable effort. If you're unclear on the issue at hand, just consider this: the profile that can be accurately constructed from tracking your surfing patterns is a very "intimate" one that reveals way more about your thinking and behavior than most all other data mining efforts. That means a marketing (or government) researcher somewhere tracking your Internet activity could know you a lot better than your friends and family. Now that's a scary thought.

End Cuban Embargo Now

For the 16th year in a row, the United Nations General Assembly urged the U.S. Government to end the 41 year-old embargo against Cuba (sign up for the UN's email newsletter here). This time, the vote was 184-to-4, with one abstention. That's a strong madate from the rest of the world. A clear message to the Bush Administration to do the right thing. The Embargo is neither compassionate, nor conservative. It is punitive and mean-spirited, designed to make life as hard as possible for the people of Cuba, in hopes they will overthrow a government we do not approve of. Hasn't happened in over four decades. You'd think we'd get a clue. If we are really interested in having a meaningful impact on Cuba, soft power is the tactic to explore. And not only in Cuba. Just consider where being the world's policeman and punishing perceived threats has gotten us to date. Not very far, by the looks of all the available evidence. And our belligerent behavior has made us many enemies, where we once had friends. It makes sense to end the Cuban embargo on many levels: humanitarian, ethical, foreign-policy, and of course, musical. The author is anxious to get to Havana in this lifetime; listen to some fine Samba and Merengue; and sample some real Rum and cigars.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Fall Colors & Chanterelles

Though no match for a forest full of sugar pines (see my post on Cape Breton Island), southern Oregon has some beautiful fall colors of its own. Our forests have a number of hardwoods, including Acer-family maples which are small but very graceful. Even the vineyards, and we've got a lot of very fine ones, turn a wonderful shade this time of year.

My partner & I spend a lot of time in the Autumn wildcrafting mushrooms in the woods. It's a great way to get out and reward the taste buds at the same time. We've got the really big, white Chanterelle mushrooms that chefs just drool over. And we generally bring back several pounds from each trip to the woods. Yum. So much better than the storied Matsusaki shrooms.

Chanterelles come in yellow and white, and we've got them both. Though our personal site is a secret (don't even ask), these gourmet culinary shrooms can generally be found in old growth forest under fir trees. They smell a little like apricots and are full of moisture - so they are best sauteed dry. We eat them in eggs, with meat, and in a wild mushroom cream soup we make.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Predatory Business - When Capitalism Fails Consumers

I've posted about predatory business practices before, here. With the sub-prime loan scandal - and it is a scandal - in full swing, my concern seems to be justified - echoed by media and financial pundits across the globe. That's because in previous financial scandals and crises, there has been a single or very few institutions involved. Central bankers and regulators could deal with that kind of scenario. Even the fabled Savings & Loan meltdown decades ago involved a single category of institutions and was more easily addressed than the current economic imbroglio - which is reaching out and touching many. No, we're in for some serious grief behind this busted bubble. And it's all because business got way greedy, and herd mentality took over.

What's it really going to cost us all? We're just getting a sense of that now, and it is a staggering toll. Everybody needs to pay attention. There are, of course, the homeowners and speculators that will loose their properties and a hefty chunk of their worth. But there are many cities, counties and states that rely on property- and development-based tax revenues that will suffer. And when our governments suffer, ultimately we suffer even more as vital services are pared to the bone or eliminated completely. I should know. The county library system where I live in Jackson County, Oregon shut down entirely for six months before we were bailed out by a pittance from the federal government. Now the libraries are open half-time. Law enforcement and health and human services are also suffering. So the safety and health of our communities and families are at risk. Just when a host of superbugs is coming out of the closet.

The thing is: this kind of behavior is not limited to home loans. Credit card providers are spending billions on ads luring new customers with the promise of plastic wealth. Our regional university, in close-by Ashland, even uses credit cards to dispense student grants and loans. What are we going to do when that bubble bursts? Europe is grappling with the problem of the credit culture right now, read about it here. Then there are the "payday loan" or "quick loan against your vehicle title" outfits that can have clients paying up to 375% interest. That's right. We've understood that this is a bad practice for individuals, businesses and for societies since biblical times. Think about it.

In fact, most states have Usury laws, governing legal rates of interest. A quick search of interest rates legal in the 50 states reveals that the average American state has laws on the books making interest above 10 - 12 percent illegal. But of course, many consumers are paying much higher rates than that on a variety of credit cards and loans. That's because the federal government exempted the banks, commercial loan vendors and savings institutions. Uh huh.

Adding insult to injury, large drug companies have suspended research into many needed drugs - to focus on high-margin lines of pharmaceuticals that must be taken daily for life. With Methecillin-resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA) poised to move from hospitals and institutional settings to our communities at large, we can't get Big Pharma to develop any new antibiotics. There's just no real money in it. And then there are the drug patent remedies that are released long before they are proven definitively to be safe. Can you say Celebrex? We've even put private physicians, our family doctors, on the market-model; and as a result they are becoming focused on higher profit procedures, treatments and specialties. The same is true for our community hospitals, even the non-profits. They can't afford not to compete. Competition focuses on the bottom line, not on comprehensive prevention, quality care and patient needs. Does anybody have the brains, vision and guts to say: The for-profit, market model doesn't work well for every situation. It is not a universal solution or panacea.

In the transportation sector, a little more competition might be in order. Predatory American airlines force customers to put up with delays, cancellations, gate changes and surly and uninformed staff when they travel. I can't think of another industry that I spend almost ten grand a year with that treats me that way. Well, maybe my health insurance provider. I'd sure like to see Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Quantas, Lufthansa or KLM serving more U.S. airports. Anything but United, please.

And lately, there have been a spate of companies charged with endangering consumer health and well-being due to lack of quality control and product assurance. Take large Agri-Business and the frightening recalls of tainted food - both fresh and processed - from grocery shelves in your neighborhood. Or toy companies apologizing and recalling millions of potentially harmful dolls, masks and other children’s' items. How about the recent pet-food contamination scandal? From my point of view, these all constitute predatory business practices.

The shrill advocates of unbridled, unregulated capitalism and corporate globalization have a lot to answer for. As a small businessperson, I count on the market and fair competition for my own income. How radical could I be? I'm a Rotarian. But hey, the purists are wrong (again). We need a hybrid system that promotes the low-end of free enterprise and entrepreneurial development, and controls and regulates the means of production; our vital infrastructure system including transportation and communications; education, and the provision of health care. That's pretty close to the European model of "social democracy," and it works a hell of a lot better than the cut-and-run, exploitative capitalism of Reagan neo-liberalism, the current neo-cons and the Bush Administration. That approach, as recent history clearly demonstrates, is turning us into a third-world country in all but appearance. I'll be fleshing-out that assertion in a future post. So stay tuned for the occasional angry rant. Apologies to my readers who prefer posts on music, travel and pop culture.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dr. Paul Farmer - Great Man, Good Read

Tracy Kidder is one of our greatest storytellers. A Pulitzer prize winning author, Kidder first attracted my attention with Soul of the New Machine. I read that chronicle of the birth of a new computer just as I was moving up in the high-tech industry during my career. It was totally inspirational, and captured the energy, excitment and exhaustion that accompanied the technology revolution. So naturally, I was delighted when my eldest daughter gave me Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains to read on my recent holiday.

The entire title is Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. It is classic understatement to describe this book as an inspiration. Dr. Farmer is a saint, nothing less. And the work he has taken on would crush a normal human. Co-founder of Partners in Health, Dr. Farmer is responsible for much of the current attention on drug resistant TB, and his work in the poorest part of Haiti is now legendary. So without furth ado, this is a great story, told by a wonderful biographer about one of the most interesting individuals on the planet. What's not to love? Buy it now. And prepared to be lifted up and inspired.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Authentic Scottish Wool Crafts

One of Cape Breton Island's many attractions - in addition to the music, scenery and lobster - is the ready availability of authentic, hand-crafted goods. The local community has made a commitment to preserving the culture, agriculture and hand-crafts of another era, and they've done a remarkable job of doing just that. In addition to programs in local colleges and universities, organizations like the Lake Ainslie Weavers and Craft Guild continue to teach traditional arts and crafts. Located at the Scotsville School of Crafts, the Lake Ainslie Weavers boast some fine, museum-quality artists and exhibits. I've never seen so many different kinds of looms in a single place as in the Scotsville School.

Our favorite purchase on our recent trip (described in detail in posts below) was made at Bellemeade Farm in Mabou. In a small shop next to the barn on this working farm, we bought several hand-loomed wool blankets that are wonderful additions to our textile collection. Soft and tightly woven, the blankets reflect the values and craftsmanship of a different time. Bellemeade has been a working family farm since 1805. When we arrived, the proprietor was backing the John Deere into the barn and four sheep were mewling in a small pen just next to the shop entrance. Doesn't get more authentic than that.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Celtic Culture on Cape Breton

Nova Scotia, one of Canada's Maritime Provinces on the Atlantic coast, is an authentically Scottish outpost in North America. Nova Scotia means "new Scotland," and early settlers included a number of Highland Clans that emmigrated from their homeland due to religious, political and economic realities of the era. Called the Higland Clearances, it was, at the time, the largest single ethnic emmigration in the history of the planet, with the possible exception of the original exodus of the Gypsies from Rajastan.

Cape Breton Island, on Nova Scotia's northern coast, is very much like Scotland's many islands. The Mackenzies, MacLeods, MacIssacs, MacDonalds, Beatons and Rankins settled there in large numbers - replicating the Clan structure, and agriculture and fishing industries that existed in their previous villages. They brought their language, their religion, their rivalries and their love of family and music. It is possible to get deep into the underlying cultural and demographic patterns in this small piece of paradise. For insight, check out Frank MacDonald's wonderful novel: A Forest for Calum.

Cape Breton Island has villages of Scottish Catholics, descendents of Jacobites who were loyal to the Stuarts and to Rome; and villages of Scottish Presbyterians and Calvinists with a somewhat different take. The Island also has an Acadian coast, with a Francophone population that shares religious tradition with the Scottish Jacobites. And of course there are also Irish and even a town that is largely English. But this much is true, the lifestyle and culture is largely Scottish.

Scots' Gaelic is widely spoken on the Island. Even some street and city signs are in both English and Gaelic. The locals talk of "Fairy Hills" and are all talented storytellers. Storytelling is part of the culture. It connects the young and the old; it captures significant events and individuals in the community; and in some cases, records the drunken exploits of particularly unlucky teenage boys. That's right. If you screw up big time in Cape Breton, somebody's likely to write a song about it and it'll get sung at every party for twenty years.

Though all the province's universities boast Celtic Studies programs, including a notable one at St. Francis Xavier, St. Ann's Gaelic College on Cape Breton is the continent's only Gaelic institution of higher learning. In addition to its fine Gaelic language and history programs, including a traditional craft program; the school is a principal partner in the Celtic Colours festival and the site of the festival club - which runs every night of the event from 11:00 p.m. until, well, sometime the next day. There are even shuttles for attendees that have had a few too many Whiskies. Now that's service. (Image: Gaelic College)

Speaking of service, an army of about 1,000 volunteers keeps the festival running like greased lightening (though some of the venues could have used better signage). Drivers, sound techs, stage hands, managers and ushers are everywhere. They've even got uniformed parking attendants to help negotiate the many fields that fill with cars. We saw concerts at venues like a 160 year old church that still used oil lamps; a town volunteer fire hall, and a community center. Our final concert was on the covered basketball court floor of the Inverness Academy.

So what did we hear? A lot of Gaelic songs, fiddle playing, reels & jigs. And some fine singing from the likes of Fiona MacGillivray and Joy Dunlap. There was an outstanding young piper named Kenneth MacKenzie from Mabou that lit up the hall and more than one a capella group. Guests from Scotland, including a vocal group we saw called the Sangsters, rounded out the musical fare. Big name acts that we did not see included: The Chieftans and Dougie MacLean. We saw entire families of Cape Breton fiddlers, but our very favorite was a fresh-faced, energetic 17 year old named Chrissy Crowley. Be sure to check her out, she's already wicked hot and emotional. And she'll only get better.

The concerts were crafted to show off talent in multiple ways. One of our concerts was called Kinsfolk, and featured brother-sister acts. Another was called "The Young & The Restless," featuring the next generation of Cape Breton musicians doing their thing. Another was titled: The Troubadours, and featured a more folk-oriented playbill - including a rousing maritime pirate song. The most interesting concert was a "milling frolic" that we attended on Christmas Island in the Fire Hall. All in Gaelic, no instruments in the building. Working songs.

Here's how it works. A milling frolic is used to "finish" off freshly loomed wool fabric before it is made into clothing and blankets. A group of ten or twelve family members sit around a table with a long piece of wool and sing while they "beat the wool." The wool is passed through twelve pairs of hands as it rotates around the table and is finished and fined. Each member of the family will take the lead in a song, so that songs are passed along and rotate around the table as well. The unique rhythms of Gaelic song add yet another dimension to the experience. All-in-all, it felt like an authentically historic ritual that evoked a simple, earlier age. The senior singer at the concert was a 95 year old gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and a stong voice. I should do so well, LOL.

Celtic music is unique for a number of reasons, none more important than the way the music captures and communicates the rhythms of life and the land. In Gaelic song, each note is a word - and the rhythm of the mouth music is often more important than the content of the words. Somehow it all works to cast an ancient rhythmic trance that can't help but involve the listener in deep and unexpected ways.

Then there were the Sangsters. Directly from Fife and proud of their lowland Scots heritage and traditions. No, they weren't going to be singing in Gaelic. There's some controversy right now in Scotland, they correctly noted, around just what constitutes "traditional" music. And with that, the group launched into a wonderful "Old-Scots" language version of Bobbie Burns' "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose." I guess they made their point. They were so funny, and irreverant. Their Scots accent was so thick it was, at times, hard to understand. But their harmony was exquisite and they did some great old standards. And one notable new one. One of the group members had received a songwriter's grant which he used to fund an effort to collect and organize village insults from the truly aged - whom he uncovered in nursing homes throughout the region. We're talking about regional insults here, one town dissing another down-the-road. Yo mama. And we all thought they were so proper 80 years ago. Uh-huh, not happening. They were badmouthing each other's turnips at the very least. Great song, the parts I could understand. And particularly appropriate for a Clan- and religion-based region like Cape Breton Island.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cape Breton's Celtic Colours

We're back from a fantastic, highly recommended holiday to the Celtic Colours music festival on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. And yes, Nova Scotia really *is* "New Scotland". The sights, sounds, accomodations and country cuisine were outstanding, as I will detail in future posts. And the music is fabulous, authentic and heartfelt. My partner and I felt like we'd been invited into an intimate, family get-together. A real Celtic Ceilidgh (pronounced "kay-lee").

I'll be posting about the music we heard in five, unique concerts (once I wrangle some authorized images from the media folks at the festival); the Island's history and culture; the array of traditional arts and crafts that are still practiced in this rural setting, and the Eagles that fly over Alexander Graham Bell's home on the Bras d' Or. But I thought I'd start out with a slideshow of pics we took while traveling the Island and its very beautiful and famous Cabot Trail.

Mourning the Murder of Lucky Dube

Respects to the late Lucky Dube, South Africa's magical Raggae master who was murdered in the presence of his teenage children in Johannasburg today. Dube's velvet-like voice and lush arrangements were well-known the world over. He was a personal favorite in this house, where his music is frequently dialed-up on our system. We've been fans for over a decade, and will miss the artist's commitment to social justice, freedom and love. This unfortunate event begs the question: What's up with South Africa? Crime is out of control, as is HIV-AIDS which afflicts fully 30 percent of the population. It is safe to say that ANC leader and President Thabo Mbeke is a very large disappointment. Good warriors sometimes do not make mature, national leaders. That's for sure.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Cape Breton Bound

I just got my tickets to the Celtic Colours concerts we'll be attending next week on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. I posted about the trip when we booked it early in the year. Ten days, six concerts in six nights - and some spectacular Fall colors and seafood to boot. I'll be taking my Clan Mackenzie tartan and looking to hear some great piping. jigs, reels, ballads and laments from the old country on the lake in Baddeck. Hiking on the Cabot Trail. Chilling at the Duncriegan Country Inn in Mabou and hanging out on the harbour at Louisburg. You bet I'm excited.

So I'm taking a couple of weeks off, but will return mid-month refreshed and energized with a whole new list of topics and stories to tell. I will, of course, post a note about the festival and the bands we heard. Since we picked up a new Panasonic Lumix camera for the occasion, I'll have some pics to post as well. C'ya then. --Charlie (Yo-Duh), The Author.

Ghandi's Birthday Today

October 2nd is the birthday of Mahatma Ghandi. Appropriately, the date has been named International Non-Violence Day by the United Nations. A day to celebrate Ghandi's non-violent approach to social justice and societal change, and a day to celebrate peacemakers worldwide.

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations hopes the UN can " stop violence by spreading a culture of peace, promoting tolerance and advancing human dignity." A noble goal for progressive, enlightened people of all races, creeds and nations. Too bad the world's major superpower is working at cross-purposes, bent on maximizing power and profit.