April 2012


I really like this photo…

A cat relaxes on a Buddha-statue’s palm and lap [image credit: amanatsu'tumblr]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I put on a long-sleeved shirt; it was a nice day, with a slight breeze. The morning sun was behind a thin cloud-cover, just above the trees.

Another walker was ambling toward me: he was wearing a toque and a light ski-jacket. His beard was stippled with shades of red ochre.

“Good morning,” I said, raising my right-hand in a half-wave.

His face broke into a wide grin and, through a slight Scottish brogue, he said, “Aye; and a good mornin’ to you.”

Next, I ‘met’ a young man on his first-floor-condo-balcony; he was smoking a cigarette, wearing only boxers and a dark sports-jacket. He told me a joke I didn’t understand, but won’t repeat, just in case its dirty.

I turned west on 108th: a small Asian woman was plucking young fiddle-head ferns along the grass-lined boulevard. She smiled and nodded at me as I passed.

I walked around the block, stopping to sip my coffee every now and then.

It was a good walk.

The Culture is a fictitious, galactic civilization; a hedonistic, socialist utopia, which is populated with intelligent, biological species, but overseen by sapient machines called Minds, which not only rule the Culture, but also control massive star-ship-colonies  that house billions of beings. The Culture books form a ‘series’ of stand-alone novels, written by Iain M. Banks (aka Iain Banks, without the M., when he isn’t writing science fiction, e.g.: The Wasp Factory). The Culture, managed by the machine Minds, sometimes needs difficult, non-Culture-related tasks taken care of, which come under the auspices of Contact. The most sordid activities are directed to Contact’s Special Circumstances  branch. The Culture utilizes psychological and political schemes to ‘persuade’ other civilizations to adopt the Culture’s philosophy as a means to assure the Culture way of life is not endangered; many times, persuasion leads to war.

I’ve read three of the Culture novels. I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, so I began with the first Culture novel published (Consider Phlebas (1987), which I didn’t like much), then I read the second Culture novel (The Player of Games (1988), which I did like), and I just finished the third Culture novel, Use of Weapons (1990), which I think is the best so far, by a country kilometer.

Use of Weapons unfolds in alternating-chapter plot-streams: one plot moves forward in time (chapters one through fourteen), and the other stream flows backward in time (from XIII to I). The forward moving chapters reveal the current activities of Diziet Sma (to be precise, Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da’ Marchehide), Special Circumstances agent,  in her latest assignment as the handler of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a non-Culture, human-norm Soldier-of-fortune/General who does the Culture’s dirty-work. Zakalwe has dark, hidden memories that haunt him, and these memories are motivation to fight for the ‘good guy’, but Zakalwe is forever questioning the tactics of the Culture (do the ends justify the means?), and I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I suggest that Zakalwe is one of the weapons being used. The chapters that flow backward in time move resolutely toward an event that Zakalwe would rather forget.

This book includes graphic violence in several sections, and Mr. Banks’ imagination has a morbid steak, but I enjoyed this book more and more as the plot moved along. The ending was well set-up and presented, and the revelation sent reverberations back through to the beginning of the novel.

If you can manage your way through the plasma-guns, spaceships, and graphic violence, the book is quite enjoyable.

Recommended

Image credit: VPL LSCC

I just came across an interesting list: the 25 most beautiful libraries in the world, as ranked by Flavorpill.

I must admit, the thing that most intrigued me was the fact that the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch, Library Square came in second (the Vennesla Library and Culture House, in Norway, was in first place).

The Vancouver library was designed by Moshe Safdie & Associates’ Downs/Archambault Partners, and the exterior design —  based on the Roman Colosseum (the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome) — was the most radical design submitted to the City of Vancouver, but the design was embraced by the public, and eventually won the competition.

The exterior has certainly made the library a landmark, but it is the interior, Promenade Square that I enjoy the most: this spacious, glass-roofed concourse serves as the entrance to the library and access to offices and retail space. It’s a lovely place to drink a coffee and enjoy a novel.

My only grievance is that the rooftop garden is not open to the public (I’m still awaiting my private viewing if anybody is reading this and can oblige ;))

People Magazine  announced their choice for the world’s most beautiful woman, and there is no doubt that their choice is blessed with many physical attributes that are considered beautiful.

But beauty, to me, is more than a physical construct; it is an indefinable quality that emanates from within and transcends physical ideals. Even in the most beautiful works of art there is an enigmatic characteristic that resides within, and emanates from, the work. It is not just the object itself; rather, there is a metaphysical connection to the soul of the artist: the art is a tangible representation of the beauty within the artist.

[Image credit: Joel Carillet]

And so it is with human beings. A photograph of a person is not the person, and their beauty can only be experienced by bathing in their mysterious emanations (I was once within a few-dozen feet (ten meters) of the Dalai Lama as he spoke, and that was close enough for me to decide that he was a beautiful human being).

I believe that beauty can emerge from the most unlikely places, so I make a conscious effort to focus on the beauty of my everyday world and the beauty that emanates from the people whose lives I share, whether they are my friends, colleagues, family, or a person I meet in passing. Sometimes, their beauty overwhelms me.

The Martini

The origin of the martini is sometimes shrouded in myth, but one popular account suggests that it is the natural evolution of the Martinez cocktail:

— 2 oz sweet vermouth
1
oz gin
1 tsp maraschino liqueur
1 dash bitters
Stir. Strain into cocktail glass.

Garnish with a quarter lemon wheel —

The martini’s popularity skyrocketed during prohibition (1919 – 1933): whiskey took too long to mature; however, gin could be produced quickly and at a low-cost. With the end of prohibition, gin’s quality improved and the classic martini became even more favored by the fashionable crowd.

The concept of a dry martini, contrary to popular belief, had nothing to do with the content of vermouth. Originally, the only available vermouth was a sweet Italian variety. The French, bless them, produced a dry vermouth, which marked the beginning of the dry martini. The concept of a perfect martini has similarly been twisted: the term perfect pertains to any vermouth drink that contains an equal measure of sweet and dry.

So, what is a classic martini? For a start, the martini snob would insist it be stirred: shaking can create air bubbles, which results in a murky drink, indicating that too much water has been released from the ice cubes, causing the gin’s flavor to be ‘bruised.’

I use a metal shaker, but gently swirl the mixture for thirty seconds, which chills the liquid-nectar nicely, but doesn’t ‘bruise’ the gin. I use Bombay Sapphire Gin (not too expensive, pretty smooth), but tastes vary, so you may enjoy another brand more. And I use extra dry, Stock vermouth.

Thinking ahead:

For best results, keep the vermouth in the refrigerator, and cool the gin and the martini glass in the freezer for two hours prior to creation. Also — this is important — have plenty of ice cubes handy (martinis should be cold).  Have your favorite jazz (I prefer hard-bop from the mid-50s) or classical music cued on your sound system (if you must, listen to other music; after all, it’s your life). Some connoisseurs insist that the more formally you dress, the better the drink tastes, but I have no problems enjoying a martini in shorts and a T-shirt.

Ingredients (not quite a classic, but I like the measures below. Currently, I prefer close to a 5:1 gin/vermouth ratio, but please experiment: it’s your drink, for your enjoyment. Some people like to add a dash of Angostura bitters; all the power to them, but I don’t. If you don’t like green olives, you can substitute a lemon twist):

Slightly more than 2 ½ oz gin

Slightly less than ½ oz extra dry vermouth

2 or 3 large green olives (even people who don’t like martinis seem to enjoy the ‘tipsy’ olives. I like to share (but not my drink))

Lots of ice cubes

Standard Operating Procedure:

  1. Fill  a metal shaker (or mixing glass) with ice cubes.
  2. Pour the vermouth and gin into the shaker (or mixing glass)
  3. Swirl the shaker (or stir the mixture) for thirty seconds.
  4. Strain the liquid into a chilled martini glass (gently coax the last three drops out).
  5. Garnish with olives
  6. Enjoy; drink slowly, and your anxiety will dissolve.
  7. Repeat steps 1 through 6 as necessary (but be careful; martinis can be dangerous).

Nothing in the world is weaker than water;

But, for attacking the hard and strong, there is nothing like it!

For nothing can take its place.

That the weak overcomes the strong, and the soft overcomes the hard,

This is something known by all, practiced by none.

From the Tao Te Ching (by Lao Tsu), Chapter Seventy-eight, translated by John C. H. Wu

I also like the edition translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

(with black and white photos by Jane English)

Air (or, Have Not Have) is a science fiction novel that I think non-science fiction readers would enjoy.

The novel tackles many subjects, among them: political power struggles; resistance and/or adaption to technological change; technological based evolution; metaphysics; the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’ of our world; the role and acceptance of prophets; and the sociological issues encountered in any population of humans.

The basic plot involves a near-future when the internet is tested as a direct connection to the mind via Air. The results of an Air test are followed through the lives of a fictional Asian village; and, in particular, through Chung Mae, who acquires profound insights and visions through Air.

It’s all so precious, thought Mae-in-Air, it’s all so beautiful, we have to ignore it all, to get on with the laundry.” (p. 379)

It’s a wonderfully imagined novel: themes are revealed gradually, but effectively. I had some problems getting through the third-quarter of the book (and found it difficult to withhold disbelief in a couple of circumstances), but the end justifies the means; and, as a whole, it is an excellent read.

Recommended

Art Blakey began his musical career at church, where he learned to play the piano.

In his early teens he was the pianist in his jazz band until he was persuaded (purportedly at gun point by the owner of the club where they were playing)  to move from piano to drums (a young Erroll Garner — another jazz giant — took Blakey’s spot at the piano), thus  launching one of the great careers of jazz. And Blakey — in a similar manner to Miles Davis — was instrumental in further launching the careers of many young jazz stars.

In 1948, Blakey was influenced by the polyrhythmic drumming techniques he was introduced to while visiting western Africa, and these influences helped pave Blakey’s path from a bebop to a hard bop drumming style.

In 1954, Blakey, along with pianist Horace Silver, formed the first Jazz Messengers quintet (with Lou Donaldson (alto), Clifford Brown (trumpet), and Curley Russell (base)). It was The Jazz Messenger groups that cemented Blakey’s legendary status in the history of jazz.  Horace Silver left the group in 1956 and The Jazz Messengers were fully under Blakey’s control (for an example of Horace Silver’s oeuvre see, in particular, Song for my Father (1964), the inspiration for Steely Dan’s Rikki Don’t Lose that Number — specifically the base-line).

For me, the highlight of Blakey and The Jazz Messengers came in 1958 with Moanin’, one of my favorite songs. There are other gems on the Moanin’ album (including the lyrical Along Came Betty, and The Drum Thunder Suite, which shows off Blakey’s power and versatility), but Moanin’ is the song that blows me away: it begins calmly and the rhythm roils comfortably, but when Lee Morgan’s solo begins, it transports me to a higher reality. I could listen to the song over and over; and I’m not the only admirer, it’s a hard bop classic.

Art Blakey passed from this world in 1990, but his soulful, powerful drumming — infused with the funky-blues rhythm that helped formulate hard bop jazz —ensures that his spirit will live on as long as we remember, and listen to, his music.

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The Noble Eightfold Path, Part Eight (an introduction, as I understand it…)

Wisdom

1. Right View

2. Right Intention

Ethical Conduct

3. Right Speech

4. Right Action

5. Right Livelihood

Mental Development

6. Right Effort

7. Right Mindfulness

8. Right Concentration

The final principle on the  eightfold path, right concentration, is concerned with developing a focused state of mind. Concentration is developed through meditation; and, through practice, this concentration can be maintained in everyday life.  The intent of right concentration is to focus on wholesome thoughts and actions; to intensify concentration in a willful effort to raise the mind to a higher and more purified state of awareness (an assassin’s focus on a victim can be the epitome of human concentration, but is not the intent of right concentration).

The Buddha likened the untrained mind to a fish flopping on dry land; the mind tends to be distracted, straying from thought to thought, prone to distractions, perceiving a distorted, fragmented reality. In contrast, the mind trained in meditative concentration engenders a peaceful, serene mind that is able to observe an unfiltered reality.

Concentration is attained in stages, but begins with focus — meditation —  on an object; if (when) the mind strays, the meditator notices, and gently, calmly, brings attention back to the object (the breath as it passes the inside edges of the nostrils is one common ‘object’ for meditation).

Meditation is essential, and it is useful even if Buddhism doesn’t interest you (meditation is certainly not a unique, Buddhist invention).

It is best to begin on the right path: if you plan on embarking on a meditation practice, I recommend seeking an instructor; however, there are innumerable books on the subject; and, if  you search carefully and selectively, there are good resources on the web (I would suggest you also search for abdominal breathing techniques, or diaphragmatic breathing techniques).

I wish you success on your journey.

May you be filled with loving kindness

May you be well

May you be peaceful and at ease

May you be happy

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