How far is too far?

I just read this article over at The New York Times that says, starting tomorrow, police will be randomly checking people’s bags on the subways and perhaps the ferries and buses as well. In the article, Bloomberg says, “We live in a world where sadly these types of security measures are necessary. Are they intrusive, yes, a little bit. But we’re trying to find the right balance.” New York City Police Comissioner Kelley added, “No racial profiling will be allowed. It’s against our policies. But it will be a systematized approach. We’ll give some very specific and detailed instructions to our officers on how to do it in accordance with our laws and the Constitution.”

I’m trying to figure out how randomly searching people’s bags as they go to work is in line with the Constitution. Now, I understand that prudence is necessary. From this morning’s events in London it is clear that copycats and/or repeat attacks are a real threat, but at what point do we draw the line and say, “In a free and open society, we’ll forgo elements of our own safety to maintain the freedom we hold dear.” Personally, I have nothing to hide, and if an officer asked to search my bag I would offer it up without begrudgement. But I could see how some people might find this a severe invasion of privacy. The article does mention that “people who do not submit to a search will be allowed to leave, but will not be permitted into the subway station.” I find it difficult to believe that an officer would just let someone walk away if they didn’t submit to a search. No mention is made in the article about how long this procedure will last. One person interviewed said, “In general, people will accept it. The government has the right to try and protect us.”

To me, that kind of thinking is a fallacy, as it is admitting to the fact that the public is “powerless” to do anything about it, and only by handing over more power and authority to those already in charge can we feel “safe.” This type of thinking leads to abuse of power and laws that curtail our basic American rights. My question then is, where does this cycle end? Will we only feel safe when everyone is tagged and accounted for, when every package is scanned inside and out, when all privacy is completely eradicated from our lives? And I musk ask too, does such a thing as total safety exist? Do you truly believe that we can remove every terrorist from the face of the earth? At some point, we as citizens of a free and open democracy, must draw a line. But where that is, I don’t yet know.

The Voice From Above (or Why it’s good to bash Dave Letterman)

Guitar PlayerThere is this Kabbalistic idea called Bat Kol, or “Voice from Above.” Supposedly, once a day, God speaks to you and offers you a free for the taking gift from above with the added benefit that if you take it, you improve your relationship with him and the universe. Now, this “speaking”, it is said, is not some booming voice crashing down from the heavens but a quiet inner urge to do something unexpected. So there I was, yesterday, walking down Broadway in Manhattan, passing 54th street. I had much time to kill and I was content to just weave my way down to Times Square and (ahem) bird watch. I came upon 54th street, the same street where I used to take guitar lessons, and an idea came over me. I could go visit my old guitar teacher. But part of me didn’t want to. I was cranky, hot, and tired, and not really in any mood to be social. Also, I thought, perhaps he wasn’t even there. I didn’t know if the guitar center even existed anymore. I was unsure of what to do, and that’s when I looked up and saw the Dave Letterman Theater before me. Just that morning I had blogged about how much I loathe Mr. Letterman’s late night show. It was almost like a sign that said to me: “Don’t go this way.” So I turned, instead, and headed for the guitar center.

I signed in at the lobby’s front desk, not sure if I even remembered the floor (it had been a few years since I had been inside), went up to the sixth floor and looked around for my old teacher, Jon. I had a vague recollection that he had moved offices, but I wasn’t sure where. And the guitar center’s main office had obviously moved as well because there were sheetrock and steel rods strewn about the floor with the signs peeled off from the door. I was ready to give up and head back downstairs when just as I was about to leave a man I recognized popped out of one of the rooms. I said to him, “Does Jon still work here?” And he said, “Yes.” “Is he here today?” “I think so,” he said. “Let’s go find out.”

He led me around a corner and showed me the new office, stuck in an odd corner I hadn’t thought to check. There he introduced me to the administrator, a woman I had met a few times when I took classes at the center. “Oh, Jon speaks very highly of you,” she said. How odd, I thought, that she knew my name since I hadn’t been to the center in years, nor had I seen Jon in quite some time. “I’ll call him,” she said, reaching for her cell phone. As it turns out, Jon was in the building, and a few moments later comes bursting through the door with a beautiful girl at his side. Her name was Amanda.

We shuffled down the hall into a practice room with walls covered with soundproofing, hanging with guitars, and floors filled with audio equipment. Amanda, as it turns out, is a singer, and Jon was accompanying her voice with pieces he wrote for the piano and guitar. We sat down and he handed me a guitar. “Play something,” he said. I proceeded to play one or two songs I had writen. Then he took the guitar and together, he and Amanda played a mournful song. I sat and listened, getting chills as they played. She had a beautiful voice and I was instantly mesmerized. They played a few more times, and I just sat there, transfixed as he played and she sang. Then he handed me the guitar for one of the songs she had written.

“F-C-C-G,” he said, teaching me the chords and the rhythm. In a few minutes, we were all playing together, Amanda singing beautifully, Jon dancing over the keyboard, and me fingerpicking the guitar. It was magical. After a few more run throughs, Jon paused and said to me, “You know it’s so perfect you stopped by today,” and then to both of us he said, “And it’s great to see that all of us are creating, doing what we love. This is a very spiritual moment. I don’t know if you see that, but I do. I mean that, really.” And I thought, yeah, that if I hadn’t taken that right turn, if I went straight toward Dave Letterman and said, “Oh, maybe another time,” instead of listening to that small voice inside me that said “turn right,” then I wouldn’t be sitting here, talking with an old friend, making music with a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice, I would just be walking and wandering and wondering along the streets of Manhattan, surrounded by noise and people, but in reality quiet and alone. It might just have been fortuitous luck, but I think I’m going to believe, just for a little while in the magic of the Bat Kol.

Why I Like Conan

Conan O'BrienAdmittedly, I’ve had little time to think about what I was going to blog this morning and even less time now to write, but I thought I’d share with you my feelings about late night TV in the USA.

David Letterman: He’s a sardonic arsehole. There’s not an ounce of joy left in the man (at least none that exudes from my TV set). Every joke uttered from his lips reeks of, “Oh, this job sucks, but I get paid a lot for it, so why not?” My rating: acerbic.

Jay Leno: Treats America as if we’re all morons with a third grade education. He can’t speak about a minority opinion for more than five seconds before he has to rebut with, “But most people think that…” He has no sense of humor, no sense of timing, and we can easily see through his faux amusement when his guests are not interesting. My rating: imbecile.

Jimmy Kimmel: Four words: Stay off the pot man. Jimmy always looks like he just rolled out of bed, rolled a joint, and came to work, and perhaps that’s what the ABC execs like about him because it gives him that frat boy I-don’t-give-two-sh*ts attitude, but it just makes for mediocre TV. He’s not really funny unless you think that guy who just drank a funnel of beer and threw up in your bathroom is funny. My rating: schlep.

Craig Ferguson: Not bad, in a “Well-it’s late-and-no-one’s-watching” kind of way. He’s a pretty good comedian and his timing’s usually on the ball, but the show’s producers know they’re going against the king of the 1230am time slot (Conan), and hey, they just don’t care. You can tell by the small sets and the lack of camera angles that this is a low budget show. My rating: mediocre, but not necessarily Craig’s fault.

Conan O’Brien: Superb. And not just because I started watching him back in college when I should have been in bed or studying. He’s been doing this for more than a decade and he’s still on the ball. Last night with Martin Short, Conan totally went off the script of questions because Short is so eccentric, and yet Conan adapted instantly, completely unfazed, even when they slipped into awkward pauses and odd timing. His skits are also mostly fantastic (although they bomb from time to time). But the non sequiturs are what makes this show special in my mind. Conan has joy in his work, unlike Letterman. Conan has respect for his audience, unlike Leno who treats his audience like school kids. Conan dresses sharp and his eyes aren’t half-lidded or bloodshot from too much partying, unlike Kimmel. And he’s got the big budget to make his show sing, unlike poor Ferguson, who has a lot of potential but little support. My rating: Conan, you rock.

Peculiar People

So we went to Peculiar pub in the West Village of Manhattan on Saturday and we sampled several dozen of their four hundred or so bottles to choose from. Microbrews often taste wonderful, but to save on bottling costs they’re often unfiltered, so one’s head starts throbbing from all that extra debris that your body knows shouldn’t be there. It was okay though, as yesterday I got to swim in my brother-in-law’s pool while a thunderous storm dropped icy cold water on top of us. It was quite exhilarating, especially when my cousin wouldn’t get out of the water even as the thunder tumbled right through the neighborhood. “What are the chances lightning will strike here?” he said.

Zork!I found this book at a used bookstore in Hoboken and I couldn’t resist. Who could forget the wonderful Choose Your Own Adventure books which combined the forking logic of the video game mentality of the day with the literary form creating what I believe to be classic works of art (nevermind they were designed for children)? To compete with the ballooning sales of the Random House books, Tor released their “What-Do-I-Do-Now?” books, hardly an eloquent paraphrase of the much better Choose Your Own Adventure books, but they offered more of the same. This one at left is based on the text based fantasy game called Zork, which, as the website suggests, requires 32 K of memory to run. Ladies and gentlemen, the image of the cover you see here is about 124 K. I find it amazing that these programmers could fit an entire game in such a small amount of memory. Lately, however, I’ve been reading the more popular, “We’ll-pick-the-ending-for-you” books of which Barnes and Noble seems to have many.

And, if you haven’t seen this yet, you must. The computer geek that I am, I still hadn’t ventured over to Google Maps to see what it could do until my brother-in-law showed it to me yesterday. No longer do you have to be a CIA operative to see such detail across the globe, although I did notice conspicuous lapses in places like Israel and across the mideast. My parents’ home from up high, so green and lush from ground level, looked nearly urban from space. And take a look at central park (zipcode 10024) in satellite mode. Because it’s difficult to map the entire earth at once due to various weather, angle, and lighting conditions, one part of the park was photographed in winter, the other in summer. Cool stuff.

The Humdrum Universe

Inner Solar SystemWhile reading through the morning headlines on my rss aggregator, I came across this heading on Space.com: Moon to Cross a Star – For the third time this year, the Moon will occult Antares. (For those of you who don’t know what occulting is in astronomical terms, it means that one stellar object will pass in front of the other and block its light). And I read that headline and new instantly why most people don’t give a frog’s arse about the unexplored vistas above us. Who the hell wants to bother about the third occulting of a non-descript little star (besides the astronomer/geeks among us who of course might know the difference between a Plossl and a Schmidt-Cassegrain, myself included). If you want to get people into space, to get people to look up at the heavens and say something else besides, “Wow, they’re really far away,” then you must inspire.

Years ago I pointed up at the sky and explained to a friend the basic premise of the universe, how it all exploded some 14 billion years ago, has been cooling and swirling ever since, forming stars and galaxies, and how each pinprick of light could swallow the earth thousands of times, and how their light takes thousands, sometimes millions of years to arrive at our eyes. And he said, “Makes you feel really small.” And for some reason this angered me, and I responded, “How does this make you feel small? In all this vastness, in all this swirling chaos, the universe still conspired to make you and me.” Now, of course, it didn’t come across as eloquent when I first said it (and we may have been inebriated as well), but I remember my friend still didn’t see it from my point of view.

Deep Impact Hits CometNow, this picture is what gets me excited: slamming a projectile into a comet travelling thousands of miles per hour just to see what nice particles get ejected from the mash. And I like to remind people as often as I can that we have not just one, but two rovers exploring Mars right now, each roaming for more than 18 months on a planet 40 million miles away. Try running your RC car for more than twenty minutes! Not to mention the Mars Odyssey, the Mars Global Surveyor, and the Mars Express, all orbiting Mars this very instant. We’ve got a probe called Cassini making rings around Saturn that sent its own probe deep into Titan. And I just love this animation of Cassini flying by Saturn’s moon, Hyperion. And all this is going on while I drink my coffee! The universe may be huge, but to me, that’s what makes it exciting, because that means there is that much more out there to explore.