(ESSAY) Safety Not Guaranteed

November 4, 2012                                                                          Religion Dispatches

Looking at the online flood zone map of our neighborhood, I feel calm.
NYC Flood Zone Evacuation Map
I’m a bit of a map freak and I appreciate how clearly this one presents the information and how easily I can navigate within it. I know, vaguely, that the East Village is vulnerable to flooding from the East River but now I can see the facts. Zooming in, I see the exact boundaries of Zone A—the mandatory evacuation zone. It extends from the river up to the public housing blocks along FDR Drive, to the German Biergarten on Avenue C, up to Sheens on Avenue B, the bodega where you can spend $8 on a carton of milk and toilet paper.

We live just to the west of Avenue B—bright red on the map, along with everything to the east. Mayor Bloomberg has ordered everyone living in the Red zone to evacuate. The storm looks big on the satellite images, really gnarly.  (more)

Today’s Vineyards, Yesterday’s Tall Oaks

 April 21, 2012                                                  New York Times/The Bay Citizen

On a recent sunny day in the Napa Valley, Robin Grossinger cupped his hands around his eyes and surveyed the landscape. He said the scene gave him “a feeling of grandeur.”

Tidal marshlands. Courtesy CA Historical Society
He was not talking about the vistas of hillsides draped in vineyards, with their gnarled vines tinged green with new growth that by fall will be laden with the valley’s renowned cabernet sauvignon and other grapes. Mr. Grossinger, a scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and author of the new Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas, had turned his gaze onto another charismatic species: a small line of valley oak trees. 

While today’s visitors — around five million annually — come to drink wine and soak up the beauty of Napa’s viticultural landscape, past visitors came to marvel at the majestic oaks. 

The area where Mr. Grossinger was standing, near Oak Knoll in the southern end of the valley, is where travelers entering from the south first took in the beauty of the oak savannas that defined the valley floor, bursting with wildflowers in the spring. The trees at Oak Knoll supported abundant wildlife and created shade in the heat, among other benefits, prompting the California State Senate in 1858 to declare them “at once an ornament and a blessing.” (more)

Berkeley Group Digs In to Challenge of Making Sense of All That Data

April 7, 2012                                             New York Times/The Bay Citizen

It comes in “torrents” and “floods” and threatens to “engulf” everything that stands in its path.

 No, it is not a tsunami, it is Big Data, the incomprehensibly large amount of raw, often real-time data that keeps piling up faster and faster from scientific research, social media, smartphones — virtually any activity that leaves a digital trace. 

The sheer size of the pile (measured in petabytes, one million gigabytes, or even exabytes, one billion gigabytes) combined with its complexity has threatened to overwhelm just about everybody, including the scientists who specialize in wrangling it. 

“It’s easier to collect data,” said Michael Franklin, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, “and harder to make sense of it.” (more)

Law, Order and a Life in Robes

 March 23, 2012                                                             New York Times/The Bay Citizen

As he had many times before, Judge Vaughn R. Walker — impeccably dressed in a gray suit and muted red tie — took command of the room.

It was not a courtroom, but the Verdi Club, the site of a law-and-order-themed evening of storytelling hosted by San Francisco’s Porchlight storytelling series on Monday night. 

Judge V. Walker takes the stage.  Photo by Adithya Sambamurthy
 Judge Walker, recently retired from Federal District Court, became something of a local celebrity after his 2010 ruling that Proposition 8, the voter-approved California measure that banned same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. He became even more of a lightning rod after it was revealed that he is gay. So expectations ran high when he took the stage under yellow and purple lights and the flash of a disco ball, telling the crowd that he had been told not to expect a typical legal audience. “That, I assume, was a compliment to you,” he said. 

He quipped about how, in the courtroom, he was not used to being accompanied by a piano player, particularly “one that I know when I go on too long is going to start playing.” (more)

A Performance of Relentless Stillness, With Live Score

March 16, 2012                                                The New York Times/The Bay Citizen

Eiko, the female half of Eiko and Koma, the contemporary movement arts duo who have performed together for some 40 years, hurled her small frame onto an oblong pile of canvas and feathers on the floor of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
“Naked, naked!” she said mischievously, gesturing to herself to indicate how she and Koma will appear in “Fragile,” a new four-hour performance with a score performed live onstage by the Kronos Quartet at the arts center through Saturday. 
Photo by Anna Lee Campbell
 The evening was an informal preview of the couple’s two-week Yerba Buena residency, which also includes performances of three iconic early works and a series of workshops and other events.
Just as quickly, Koma darted from standing to lying down on the opposite side of the nestlike pile. Then he jumped up again and ran to the other side of a large backdrop covered in feathers and salt suspended from the ceiling. 

“This is what people do who don’t want to see the naked bodies,” he said with a teasing tone, peeking back at Eiko through one of the many holes in the canvas as if he were embarrassed. 

If anything characterizes Eiko and Koma’s art, it is the slow, even glacial pace of their movements — sometimes so slow they are almost imperceptible, like ice melting. They describe their work, which evokes a deep connection with nature and deals with elemental themes like nakedness, hunger and death, as “infused with relentless stillness that subverts and transcends our everyday notions of time and space.” (More)

(ESSAY) Bob Carroll and the Art of Dying

Break Brick, Break Bread, Break the Mold

January 28, 2012              The New York Times/The Bay Citizen

Art and food mixed at a dinner last Thursday at Engine 43, a private residence and social club in San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood, in the form of bricks served on a bed of hay.

Using small hammers, a group of about 40 diners smashed the bricks until the clay fell away to reveal a pouch of steamed hen-of-the-wood mushrooms. The dish, intended “to spark erotic dreams,” emanated earthy smells that were enhanced by a handcrafted perfume that had been placed on each person’s wrist.

The course was only one of many served up by Max La Rivière-Hedrick and Julio César Morales as part of “The Alchemy of Dreams,” an evening-length food performance that immersed the audience in the world of Remedios Varo, the surrealist artist who died in 1963 and was known for her playfulness, wit and intense engagement with dreams, science and the occult. 

The piece was commissioned by the Frey Norris Contemporary and Modern gallery in San Francisco, where Varo’s work is on view through Feb. 25. The two artists have pulled off a handful of other special dinners, each with a different theme.  (more)

Live Hip-Hop Music, an Airport Amenity That Can Lure Even Non-Travelers

December 9, 2011         The New York Times/The Bay Citizen

Mark Braun had just landed at San Francisco International Airport after a business trip to Florida. But rather than heading directly back to his home in Burlingame, he found himself lingering. “Normally I’m ready to get out of here,” he said, standing next to his roller bag.
Photo courtesy of SFO Museum.

Like hundreds of passengers that evening, Mr. Braun stayed at the airport for an unusual reason: to be entertained.

Although the airport has an extensive program of art exhibitions — it’s the only airport in the country with an accredited museum — and presents live music during the winter holiday and summer seasons, last Friday night featured something special: a free performance by DJ Qbert, the legendary hip-hop artist and turntable master.

Dressed in a blue plaid shirt, jeans and bright red Giants cap, Qbert, or Richard Quitevis, a San Francisco native, used the mezzanine level of the grand lobby of the recently remodeled Terminal 2 as his stage. He played his signature free-form scratch over funk, hip-hop and other beats on two STR8-150 turntables with people watching behind him and in the vast hall down below.

It was “a groundbreaking event,” said Nicole Mullen, associate curator of exhibitions, who estimated the crowd at 250 to 300.  (more)