Archive for January, 2007

Wheels Within Wheels

TomIf not for the kindness and protection of Tom Zimberoff, my first studio guest on tonight's episode (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30), I suspect that I may have been forcibly abducted into a biker gang. At least, that's the vibe I got at the Cow Palace's recent motorcycle show, which I attended with a large amount of trepidation. Tom was there, showing off his beautiful new book of photographs of custom-made motorbikes, Art of the Chopper II -- and he was kind enough to introduce me to some fine artistic people sporting impressive tattoos. There were some enormous, heavily bearded folks at the Cow Palace that day who looked like they might like to eat me for brunch -- and I'm just talking about the grandparents! But with Tom at my side, they began to cotton to me -- and by the end of the day I'd achieved a certain level of popularity (though not, to be sure, as much as the Oakland Raiderettes and Hooter Girls, who also were in attendance and didn't need Tom to help them draw a crowd).

Joe & JacquieIn the second half of tonight's show, I had a great time talking with two local pioneers in the field of human-powered two-wheeling: mountain bike visionaries Joe Breeze and Jacquie Phelan. Back in the day, Joe cobbed together what was arguably the very first mountain bike; now he makes "Breezer Bikes," which are designed to make self-powered commuting as convenient as humanly possible. Jacquie -- who was in the vanguard of women mountain-bikers -- is one of those people whom you might take, at first glance, to be "wacky," but is in fact incredibly thoughtful. (And yes, okay, she's also pretty wacky.) One of Jacquie's ongoing projects is WOMBATS: the Women's Mountain Bike & Tea Society -- an organization so delightfully utopian that (to my relief) both men and coffee are heartily welcomed.

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2 comments January 29th, 2007

Peeling Back The Onion

I first became aware of the satirical newspaper The Onion a few years ago, when my sister gave me a year's subscription to the print version. This was during dark times politically -- oh, wait, they're still pretty dark right now! But back then I guess the times seemed somewhat darker. Quickly I came to rely on my weekly dose of The Onion to reassure me that (a) other people shared my horror at current events and (b) some very talented people were actually able to make brilliant humor out of those same events.

ScottNow our country's greatest fake newspaper is available online and in various eateries throughout the country, including the Bay Area. Sometimes the stories are good, and sometimes they're amazingly great -- but I'm always grateful for their wry perspective, which provides inoculation from not just frustration but also self-righteousness. So it was a joy to meet Onion editor-in-chief Scott Dikkers, who managed to give me some insights into the nuts and bolts of his job while also being, for the most part, extremely silly.

Scott & PeterBut I'd have to say Dikkers was a model of sobriety compared to my other guest, Peter Hilleren, his collaborator on the faux presidential memoir Destined for Destiny: The Unauthorized Autobiography of George W. Bush. I highly recommend that you take in this literary work the way I did, via audiobook -- that way, you can enjoy Dikkers's spot-on impersonation of our president. (I've also been enjoying the weekly fake presidential radio address that these two have been putting out -- again featuring Dikkers's wicked vocal stylings.)

All in all, the thing I'm proudest of from this interview is that neither of my guests chose to sue me for my reckless onion-juggling. Comic relief is nice; legal relief even more so.

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January 22nd, 2007

Counter Culture

Tonight's episode, a tasty rebroadcast from earlier this season, is titled "Food and Wine Challenge." (It airs tonight at 7:30, and will repeat itself -- like history -- on Friday night at 10:30.) But perhaps since my thoughts today have been focused on Martin Luther King Jr., I've been reflecting on a much more serious "food challenge" -- one that changed history, in fact: the early-'60s series of sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counters throughout the country. Recalling these actions by nonviolent protesters -- and the often-violent reactions from the forces of segregation -- in turn reminds me of a great quote from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose writings were a major influence on Dr. King: "Man's inclination to justice makes democracy possible; but man's capacity for injustice makes it necessary." Amen.

January 15th, 2007

Step It Up 2007

My pal Scott Rosenberg -- whose terrific book about the perils of software-writing, Dreaming in Code, arrives in bookstores this week -- passes along an email from his friend Bill McKibben. (Scott and Bill are part of a frighteningly talented group of writers who all went to Harvard together while some of of us -- cruelly rejected by Harvard -- were reduced to wandering through the educational wilderness, gathering nuts and berries and occasionally reading "Family Circus.") Bill's 1996 book The End of Nature was, to my knowledge, the first account of the global-warming crisis written for the general public. Now he's got a new project: Step It Up 2007.

In typical Bill fashion, the project is both modest and ambitious, and very well thought out. The text of his email follows (minus all those weird symbols that tend to accrue in forwarded emails, which -- as a small gift to the struggle -- I have deleted):

Dear Friend:

I'm writing to ask your help. I know you've already made changes in your own life to deal with climate change; I'm guessing that, like me, you feel a little helpless about the scale of the problem. Some of us who are eager to do something more are organizing a day of demonstrations for April 14. We're calling ourselves, and we need you to be a vital part -- to organize a rally in your neck of the woods. If everyone pitches in, we'll have by far the largest action yet in this nation about global warming -- large enough that Washington will notice and start to act. It's going to be an unusual day. People will be rallying in many of America's most iconic places: on the levees in New Orleans, on top of the melting ice sheets on Mt. Hood and in Glacier National Park, even underwater on the endangered coral reefs off Key West and Hawaii. But we need hundreds of rallies outside churches, and in city parks, and in rural fields. It's not a huge task -- assemble as many folks as possible, hoist a banner, take a picture. We'll link pictures of the protests together electronically via the web -- before the day is out, we'll have a cascade of images to show both local and national media that Americans don't consider this a secondary issue. That instead they want serious action now.

We're not an organization -- we're, in essence, a few people sending out invitations to a party. A potluck. This is going to be a homemade day of action. So go to our website at and say, "Here's where I live -- I want to help organize." We'll coordinate the responses, introducing you to others from your area, and give you everything you need to be a leader, from banners to press releases. You don't have to have ever done anything like this -- you're not organizing a March on Washington, just a gathering of scores or hundreds in your town or neighborhood. We need creativity, good humor, commitment. If you are active in a campus group or a church or a local environmental group or a garden society or a bike club -- or if you just saw Al Gore's movie and want to do something -- then we need you now.

And by now, we mean now. The best science tells us we have ten years to fundamentally transform our economy and lead the world in the same direction or else, in the words of NASA's Jim Hansen, we will face a "totally different planet." We're calling for 80 percent carbon cuts by 2050, which would be a good first step to warding off that future. But the exact numbers are less important than the underlying message to Washington: get serious. The recent elections have given us an opening, and polling shows most Americans know there's a problem. But the forces of inertia and business-as-usual are still in control, and only our voices, united and loud, joyful and determined, can change that reality. Please join us.

Bill McKibben

P.S.: It would be a great help too if you could forward this plea to anyone you think might embrace it.

January 13th, 2007

Fashion Backward

I'm kind of on the run this evening, so I'll only jot down a quick item to mention that tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30) is a proud rebroadcast of an episode from a few months ago in which I visited with some local icons of fashion. They were very nice to me, but somehow I sensed that my red socks were not being regarded as "fashion forward." Still, it was lots of fun. ...

By the way, during the show I asked the incredibly well-dressed Joseph Pineda to explain the old-fashioned term "shooting your cuffs." He was unable to oblige me, but after the program aired I received many helpful messages telling me it involved pulling out your shirt cuffs so they showed just the right amount beyond your jacket sleeves (this, of course, assumes that you'd be wearing a jacket in the first place -- in which case, I'm guessing you wouldn't be wearing bright-red socks). So once again, thanks to my viewers for continuing my education as a grown-up!

And thanks to my other guests, talented local designers Umay Mohammed and Marie Biscarra of Nisa, for making me feel kind of glamorous -- perhaps a bit like the great model Iman might feel if she were a middle-aged bald Jewish guy who knew nothing about fashion. ...

If you want to read the original blog item I wrote about this episode, just click here.

1 comment January 8th, 2007

Buck Stopped Here

BuckAt least, that's what I infer from this bit of graffiti on the fence at the end of the Berkeley Pier. My son and I biked back there yesterday, to continue pondering the possibilities of a windmill farm on the Pier. We're hoping that Berkeley will commit to providing its own mostly green energy -- possibly including windpower -- and we're calling our quest Project Quixote.

Will it happen? We don't know. We're not experts. Okay -- we're way not experts. But we want to do something about global warming -- something real -- and this is what we're trying. Plus we dig windmills.

As I mentioned in my previous blog item about this stuff, my son and I recently spent a fascinating few hours with energy expert Paul Fenn, who is a friend of my brother Jake's. Paul and his family live in the Canyon, which I believe is just outside of Berkeley (I'm really bad with geography), and they are totally "off the grid": that is, they receive no electricity from anyone. Their home is lit with kerosene lanterns, and they have no plumbing, so they use an outhouse. (Paul invited us to visit, and we plan to; I just want to fast for about 48 hours beforehand.) The prospect of raising two small children in those conditions is not one that I would wish for myself, but there's something fiercely admirable about their ability to do so.

"How do you use the telephone?" I asked.

Paul explained that the "old" phones supply their own electricity.

Indeed, whenever I've called, I've gotten this tinny, scratchy outgoing message -- it sounds as if they're using some pre-Edison equipment or something.

But even though Paul and his family live in these Luddite circumstances, it would be a drastic mistake to take him for an opt-out, antisocial, anti-government type. Paul writes laws. His "community choice" laws -- allowing each municipality to choose its own energy sources -- are the on the books in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, and (if I'm reading my scrawled notes correctly) Massachusetts. He's also written a bunch of energy laws for San Francisco.

"What about Berkeley?" I asked -- focused as I am on my beloved home base.

Turns out, he said, he tried five years ago to get the Berkeley city government to back his alternative-energy plan, but was unable to get anything going. And the problem right now, he explained, is that there's a window of opportunity that will soon close, due to existing power contracts. In fact, according to my notes -- which, admittedly, became especially scribblicious at this point, as we were now strolling along the Ohlone Greenway -- Berkeley may only have a year or less to act.

San Francisco recently committed to achieving 51 percent green power by 2017. And it seems to me that, given our Free Speech history and the fact that our sandals have 15 percent greater traction, we Berkeleyites ought to be able to match that.

But how? I wondered.

  • Would we need to try to pass some sort of ballot measure?

    No, Paul explained -- our city government could simply take over power-providing duties using its power of "eminent domain."

  • How might such a project be funded?

    Through bonds, which could be secured by ... (Here my notes become somewhat illegible -- possibly a byproduct of the grand mal-type seizures that begin to afflict me whenever anyone starts using words like "fiscal." I realize that this is something that I must get over, if I am to be any sort of a citizenly mensch.) Well, let's just say "bonds" for the moment, and leave it at that.

  • Could all the energy be provided by windmills?

    No -- only about a third (which is a lot, actually!). The rest could be provided by other technologies -- for example, something called a solar concentrator, supplemented by a hybrid steam-gas turbine.

  • Might the windmills be a hazard for birds (as I'd heard somewhere)?

    This, it turns out, was a major concern when Paul approached the Berkeley folks several years ago. He says that there are a variety of windmill designs, and some are bird-friendly.

  • Could Berkeley really do this on its own? (Generating your own power seems like a really big deal.)

    Yes it could, he said. But even better would be a collaboration between, say, Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo, and Emeryville. He explained that it's best to have a wide variety of energy consumers: some residential, some industrial, etc. With several East Bay cities banding together, you could have a nicely diverse assortment of electricity-users.

As Paul drove off in his biofueled car, I thought: Phew! So this is the kind of stuff the grownups have been dealing with all my life!

Pier ViewAnd a couple days later, as my son and I stood on the Berkeley Pier, near the spot where Buck had once stopped and made his mark, I felt giddy -- with excitement at the possibilities, with fear of failure, and with awe at the beauty of this place.

I can just follow my instincts and do my best. Let's see what happens.

3 comments January 3rd, 2007

Annie Get Your Camera

This evening's episode (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30) is a pristine rebroadcast of an interview I did a little while ago with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. We talked about her new book of photos, the massive and moving A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, as well as her very influential magazine work. I found her to be disarmingly down-to-earth: an immensely gratifying person to interview.

Also in this show is a "Wandering Josh" in which -- overcoming daunting obstacles -- I managed to get an on-camera interview with one of my favorite actresses, Helen Mirren, when she was feted at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Dame Helen looked fabulous; I looked just okay, but what can you do?

You can read my original blog item on this episode here.

January 1st, 2007

Project Quixote

Berkeley PierSo first off, Happy New Year! I hope you, unlike me, have not already completely violated your New Year's Resolution (um, getting up early and sticking to a schedule).

But I am hopeful about 2007. And I have a project as well: trying to get my adopted hometown, Berkeley, to commit to 51 percent green power by 2017.

Many years ago, as our family was facing a crisis, a friend of my father's accused him of being quixotic. As it turns out, his friend was wrong: my dad, who did indeed dream many impossible dreams in his short lifetime, was being very practical in that case. His "quixotic" solution to the crisis worked.

Lately I've been reading Don Quixote and thinking about windmills, which the famous knight errant famously attacked, believing them to be giants. And at the same time I've been freaking out about the global warming crisis: scientists say we have 10 years to change our ways, or else disastrous climate change will be inevitable and irreversible. In addition (with continual coffee drinking, much pondering is possible) I've been thinking about what I can do, as a citizen and a dad and a husband and a friend (and eventually as an ancestor), to help solve the problem. ... So naturally my thoughts turned to windpower. Might windmill-generated power help fight global warming? In Berkeley, say?

I called my brother Jake in L.A. He drives a car that's powered entirely by vegetable oil, and tends to know about this stuff. He in turn referred me to a friend of his, Paul Fenn, who wrote California's Community Choice law, which passed in 2002. This law allows cities to choose their own electricity provider. A couple days ago my son and I chatted with Paul and strolled around our neighborhood. I'm still digesting all the stuff he told us, but the gist of it was this: Berkeley can go green with much of its energy -- probably through a combination of wind and solar power.

I asked him where the windmills could go, and he said a great place would be the Berkeley Pier, which gets lots of wind and has a floor made of reinforced concrete, which could support the weight of a windmill farm. The thing for me, aesthetically, is that it would be great if the windmills looked like, you know, "real" windmills -- the picturesque ones I associate with Holland -- rather than the more robotic-looking ones you see at the Altamont Pass. Paul said he thought that might be possible, and agreed that those kinds of windmill are the coolest-looking.

loonYesterday my son and I biked down to the Pier, to do some reconnaissance. Man, it's lovely there! People were strolling, fishing, and -- in one case -- engaging in a tense domestic argument while fishing. A loon was hanging out in the water nearby. A cheerful guy at a hotdog stand wished us a happy New Year. Over in Richmond you could see a huge chimney spewing some dangerous-looking stuff into the sky. But what I grooved on most was all that air over the Pier -- nice, potentially power-providing air.

Could there be a windmill farm here, we wondered? How would it affect the fishers, the fish, the birds? At the end of the walkable part of the Pier we came to a somewhat crude wooden fence. A woman was looking out through the fence at the Bay. We got into a conversation with her, and I mentioned our idea of trying to get Berkeley to go green with most of its power -- possibly including windmills on the Pier. She loved the idea! And, as it turns out, before she retired she used to be a grant-writer. She gave me her contact info, saying she'd love to help.

So now there are four of us: me, my son, Paul, and that woman (her name is Nancy). I think our next big step will be to go to the folks in Berkeley's government and see if they're into the idea.

It feels incredibly weird to try to do something practical about global warming -- rather than my usual, time-honored practice of cycling through anger, depression, and despair. But it also feels good. It feels ... quixotic.

What do you think?

2 comments January 1st, 2007

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