Saturday, December 23, 2006

In praise of Apple's iTunes

Today I downloaded two marvelous compilations by lovely Irish female artists Lisa Kelly and Chloe Agnew. Never heard of them, but a rather random search on the Apple iTunes store unearthed these beauties. Lisa and Kelly are beauties both in terms of their looks and how they sound.

If you scroll backwards on this blog, you'll see that (a) I became an Irish citizen earlier this year and (b) that I'm a very big fan of the Irish band U2 and the equally talented family group, The Corrs. So iTunes led me to Lisa and Kelly, and within mere minutes I had downloaded both their albums. Lovely music indeed, but the bigger story is that iTunes brought buyer and seller together in a way that Borders and Barnes & Noble really can't. Digital music is ultra portable and ultra compact. I have enough jewel cases with missing CDs and as many CDs with missing jewel cases. And while I'm old enough to remember how big vinyl albums are (were), the 'compact disc' is STILL too big in this day and age of MP3s.

Aside from the complete compactness and portability of the MP3 (tracks slide seamlessly from iTunes-->PC-->iPod-->CD), the whole iTunes franchise brought Kelly and Chloe to me. In fact, I'm on a first-name basis with them already...LOL. Seriously, I know that I'd never come across either artist by wandering through my local Barnes & Noble. So, three cheers to Apple and iTunes for developing the de facto standard in modern musical content discovery and delivery.

And while this entry is mostly meant to praise Apple and iTunes, please check out Lisa Kelly and Chloe Agnew from Ireland. My wife tells me that one or both of these lovely ladies appear on PBS from time to time.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Santa's Sleigh is a FedEx DC-10

As sure as the sun rises and sets, today--'Black Friday'--kicks off the Christmas Buying Season. I can get away with saying 'Christmas' in this 'politically correct' culture war because Wal*Mart has decided to call it 'Christmas.' You can count me among those that LOVE Wal*Mart, so if 'Christmas' is good enough for them it's just fine with me. But that's a whole 'nother blog entry.

A strong economy bodes well for this shopping season, which officially starts today. (As an aside, isn't it miraculous that the economy went from being almost moribund before the election to 'robust' and 'hopeful' now? Again, a whole 'nother blog entry). These days, you have much less trepidation from the buying public when it comes to on-line buying. The fear of Internet transaction fraud and credit card theft hasn't kept millions of us from 'pointing and clicking' our way through the cyberspace Mall. I have a bit of selective skepticism, but the key word here is 'selective.' By and large, the catalogs come in the mail and in short order I'm pointing and clicking my way through them. Bricks and mortar, in many cases, have been replaced by broadband and megabytes.

Clear winners in this 'new paradigm' are our friends at FedEx and UPS. You'll see their trucks scurrying about over the next several weeks, filled with packages for under the tree. And those having the luck (good or bad) of living near an airport will see the big jets arrive and depart, chock-full of the kind of things Santa's Sleigh should be filled with. At our own nearby airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, FedEx rumbles in with big DC-10s while UPS does the duty with Airbus A300s and occasionally a Boeing 767. The A300s, while a little smaller than the DC-10s they are being replaced by, are still very large planes. FedEx upgrades the aircraft size at nearly every station it serves to account for the Christmas rush. Our A300s turn into DC-10s while a smaller station like Portland, Maine trades in a still-smaller A310 for the A300. A rising tide floats all boats, and the need for aircraft capacity from sea to shining sea is never higher than it is now.

In writing a couple chapters for a book on the history of Manchester Airport, I was the guest of the fine folks at both FedEx and UPS this past summer. Once I got clearance from corporate (Memphis and Louisville, respectively), the world was my oyster. I was allowed out on the tarmac as the big A300s came in; I was invited onto the planes, to talk to the pilots, and generally see what they do each morning and evening. For UPS, Manchester essentially serves as a mini hub for the rest of northern New England. Rather than fly their own big jets from Louisville, KY to a place like Presque Isle, UPS takes everything bound for the upper reaches of New England and sends that freight to Manchester. One of these A300s comes in at around 6:30 each morning while the second one comes in twelve hours later. Freight for the local region gets placed on trucks, while everything bound for the rest of Maine and Vermont is placed on smaller contracted feeder aircraft.

FedEx does things a bit differently. Their planes come in from Memphis (at 6:30am and again at 6:30pm) and Indianapolis (once, at 6:30pm) filled mostly with mail thanks to a large contract FedEx has with the U.S. Postal Service. But at Christmas time, the mail competes for space with packages from or to Aunt Sally. Or Lands End. Or Plow & Hearth. Or L.L. Bean.

Our 'point-and-click' society and the explosion of 'overnight express delivery' is mostly why FedEx and UPS need big planes. But technology plays a huge role in making sure that Aunt Sally gets her package. The long ILS-equipped runway at Manchester means that the big planes can get into the airport even if morning fog off the Merrimack River causes ground fog. The planes themselves are often repurposed retirees from the passenger airlines yet are outfitted with an incredible array of avionics. This pretty much guarantees an on-time arrival no matter the weather. If the plows can keep the runway clear, you can be sure that FedEx and UPS will find their way to it.

Here's to FedEx, UPS and the big jets they fly: The 'New' Santa's Sleigh!

The people have spoken...

We're a little less than a month removed from mid-term elections 2006. The war in Iraq was correctly seen for what it is, and our sitting president is now a lame duck. 'Milk-and-cookies' diplomacy will now be given a chance, and two years hence--in 2008--we'll have a chance to see whether that was the right course to take. For now, it's hard to argue with those who say change was needed.

At a more micro level, our state of New Hampshire bears watching. We're now much more Democratic than we've ever been. The 'Live Free or Die' State is looking a whole lot like 'Massachusetts North.' In an ironic twist, many folks from Massachusetts--fed up with the goings-on in that Liberally-charged state--are fleeing to New Hampshire. But they're taking their baggage with them. Many of them want the things they had 'back home,' and that means higher taxes.

But the whole issue of 'taxes' has New Hampshire residents in a tizzy. Everything that needs funding here (read: schools) falls on the back of the local property tax. There is no income tax; there is no sales tax. That means there's no way for the State of New Hampshire to play 'Robin Hood.' And to this writer, that's a good thing. While my property tax is rather high, I know my dollars are staying within the town.

As projections and studies point to job and population growth for New Hampshire in the next several years, similar studies are pointing to just the opposite for Massachusetts. It will be interesting to see how our state evolves over the next few years, and whether the 'Live Free or Die' motto falls by the wayside in much the same way our beloved 'Old Man of the Mountain' did a few years ago.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

U2: The Band from The Emerald Isle

U2 plays Boston: October, 2005

Now that I’m a newly-minted Irish citizen, I’ll proudly proclaim being a fan of Dublin-based U2. This isn’t a place to talk about the band, because chapter and verse has been written about Bono, Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton since they released their first album, ‘Boy,’ in 1980. I took a liking to U2 right from the start, and they’ve gotten bigger and (mostly) better over the decades.

U2 came along in the early 1980s, at about the time when ‘punk’ was in full swing. I never latched onto punk rock, because (to me) it was a whole lot more noise and anger than it was music. Although U2 floated in with the punk tide they quickly forged a unique sound and presence that appealed to me. ‘Boy’ drew much acclaim from the music press, and their shows in New York, Chicago, and Boston—big Irish cities all—were always packed. The band toured these and other cities, playing college campuses and little clubs (The Paradise in Boston is fondly remembered by Bono). The crowds were small, but U2 played large. So large, in fact, that U2’s acclaim grew mostly as a result of their legendary live shows. Boston’s WBCN had a DJ by the name of Carter Alan, and he was immediately taken by the energy and power of U2’s live show. At every opportunity, Alan would extol the virtues of Dublin’s new export. “You’ve got to see this band!” he’d exclaim. Alan was a U2 apostle, and the band credits him for their early success in America.

A few basic qualities drew me to U2. First, the band members are Irish. That by itself means nothing, but U2 knew that to reach the top perch in popular music they'd have to work hard and work honest. The landscape is littered with rock bands that could manage neither. In the end, the Irish have been known as hard, dedicated workers. Indeed, while none of the band members were really ‘trained’ musicians, they eventually comprised the biggest and most popular band on the planet…by far. They knew that being one quarter of U2 meant more than being one hundred percent of something else. Individuality—going off on solo careers, for example—took a back seat. Second, none of the members of U2 wear the label ‘Rock Star’ on their sleeves. There’s enough of that out there, thank you very much. Third, the whole U2 organization is exceptionally well run. Supporting the four members of the band is Principle Management, led by manager Paul McGuiness. From top to bottom, they are as sharp as they come. In the same way that Disney is more than just the Magic Kingdom, U2 is more than just Bono and his three mates.

In U2’s very first single from 1980 (‘I Will Follow’) I could hear things I never heard before. Bono’s voice had urgency, Edge’s chiming guitar was magic, the Glockenspiel was fresh, Larry Mullen’s drums were steady, and Adam Clayton’s bass was thunderous. I immediately liked U2, and knew that I’d eventually want to see them play live. That chance came in 1983 at The Worcester Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts. This show has the distinction of being U2’s very first arena show, since up to that point the band had been playing college campuses and small clubs. Although several years from capturing widespread acclaim and popularity, U2 still sold out The Worcester Centrum in 1983. With a rather thin catalog of music, U2 closed the show with a true encore…a song played for a second time. But the band raised the roof from their first note to their last at this show, and it wasn’t long before simple momentum—and good management—propelled them to superstardom.

Over the years I’ve seen U2 play several times in and around the Boston area. I’ve seen them in Worcester, in Foxborough, and in Boston. I’ve even seen them in Tacoma. And while the shows themselves have always been magnificent, there’s something else that makes U2 stand head-and-shoulders above all other bands: they stay connected with their fans.

About five hours before the band takes the stage in front of 20,000 or 200,000 people, the members of U2 arrive at the venue for a sound check. It’s their way of making sure the arena or stadium has been sound-engineered for that night’s show. The band leaves nothing to chance, so if they’re playing Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden for a four-night engagement you’ll see U2 arrive at the arena each afternoon at around 4pm. Hard-core fans know the drill, and we all assemble at the point where the entourage enters the arena.

Last year, on two different occasions, I was there to greet the members of U2 when they arrived at the Boston arena. Boston is one of U2’s favorite cities, and they love chatting with fans there. I was lucky enough to chat with guitarist The Edge—a soft-spoken, intelligent Dubliner responsible for U2’s signature sound. Then Bono came out to hold babies, sign autographs, wave to passing Duck Tour boats, and generally hold court. Adam Clayton—the bassist, and probably even more soft-spoken than Edge—came out and did the same. Only Larry Mullen Jr—the drummer—failed to make an appearance. Larry actually founded U2 while at high school in Dublin back in the late 1970s. But being founder means nothing to Larry. He’s the shyest of the bunch, and he’ll usually politely wave to his fans from his SUV and head into the arena.

Bono greets fans in Boston...October, 2005

Adam Clayton, bass player

The Edge, guitar

Ticket autographed by Bono, The Edge, and Adam Clayton

There are probably plenty of people who either don’t like U2 or don’t care about them. But that’s fine with me. Art is a very individual thing. In the same way that I’ll never try to ‘convince’ someone to like U2, I don’t want people trying to convince me to like a particular TV show or book or movie. It just doesn’t work that way. But I’m proud to be one of those card-carrying U2 fans that can say they were there from the start!

Friday, May 19, 2006

What, no Parade?

Last year, I decided to tackle a project: I wanted to become an Irish citizen. I didn't necessarily want to move to Ireland; I just wanted to honor my Irish-born Grandmother. Thousands of U.S. residents pursue Irish citizenship each year, and it takes some doing. You have to prove your heritage, and that means collecting all sorts of documents. Birth certificates. Marriage certificates. Death certificates. There's a sense of accomplishment in getting all the necessary papers in order, so I was pretty proud of myself on the day I put my hands on the last document and prepared my application. My sister decided to apply as well, since one set of documents could serve us both.

So the magic day arrived. December 12, 2005. We had an appointment at the Boston office of the Consulate General of Ireland. Armed with all our documents---originals, duplicates AND triplicates--my sister and I proudly walked through the front door of the office building and into the elevator. I don't know what my sister expected, but I was ready for shamrocks and Irish music (U2, of course) and pictures of Aer Lingus jets and pints 'o Guinness. The whole nine yards. But as we entered the elevator and headed up to the Consulate General of Ireland, there was nothing Irish about any of it.


In fact, we exited the elevator and walked into the office without seeing one shamrock. And the Boston edition of the Consulate General of Ireland is essentially a one-room affair with minimal reminders of Ireland. A brochure here and a pamphlet there. That was it. A rather spartan waiting room is pretty much all there is to the place. That, and a door leading 'somewhere else.' I was sure that beyond this door is where they kept the shamrocks. The Guinness. Our 'Official Welcome Kit to Ireland.'

So, after a short stay in the waiting area my sister and I were summoned to go through the door and into the promised land. Remember the scene in 'The Wizard of Oz' when the house crashes down onto the poor Wicked Witch of the East? When everything turns from black-and-white to glorious color as Dorothy opens the door? You never forget that moment, and that was going to be our moment.

So, from Kansas to Oz we went. Through the Technicolor door and into...

A tiny little room that had two chairs, a small shelf, and BULLET-PROOF GLASS!

It was a horrible, pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain moment. And to make matters worse was this: The woman who tended to our affairs (she being behind the bullet-proof glass) had more of a Braintree accent than an Irish one. We had to pass our papers through a secure drawer and watch...and watch...while she dutifully looked at our originals and stamped the copies. Then she asked for a pile of money...and disappeared behind another door with papers and money. Gone, no doubt, to Emerald City. Although we didn't say it, my sister and I both thought the same thing: 'We've been had.' Not even a receipt. Even Wal-Mart makes sure you get one of those.

So the whole thing was completely underwhelming. No fanfare. No 'Welcome to Ireland!' Nothing. We were told to expect our papers in six months. But my sister and I had nagging doubts about that. For all we knew, our money was on 'Lucky Leprechaun' in the fifth race at Suffolk Downs later that same day. Still, we held onto the belief that the Irish are good people (even the ones from Braintree). I rationalized that our expectations for the whole appointment ( expectations) were just way too high. Not that I expected Bono of U2 to greet me or 'Riverdance' to be playing on a TV, but I expected something more than we got.

The epilog to the story is, of course, that we did get our papers. They came after only three months, not six. So my sister and I are now proud Irish citizens; our status immortalized on the rather underwhelming papers we received. Unimpressive as they may be, these documents prove our dual citizenship.

In all honesty, the benefits of Irish citizenship are marginal: I can head to the shorter line when getting off the plane in Ireland, and I can probably get a resident fishing license rather than the more expensive non-resident one. And, of course, I can live and work and travel throughout Ireland and the EU much easier than I could without Irish citizenship. But none of those are reasons why we did this.

We did it to honor 'Nana.'

Alien Nation

I went into a Wendy's last weekend. The girl at the counter asked me a four-word question: 'Can I help you?' Those were the ONLY four words of English I heard. After taking my order, the girl started speaking in Spanish to all the other workers...Mr. Drink, Ms. Burger, and Ms. French Fry. Not a word of English among them. Upon leaving the counter with my bagged order, other workers in the restaurant spoke to each other in Spanish, too. After 'Can I help you?', everything else was in Spanish.

There's a growing unease about the 'Press 1 for English' America we live in now. Back at the turn of the century, everyone crowed about the marvelous vision of 'The Global Economy.' To be sure, we've enjoyed the dividends of that. But what I encountered last weekend was also a by-product of this 'global economy.' And what struck me most was that this Wendy's wasn't in Dallas, or San Diego, or Los Angeles. It was right here in New Hampshire! Since the genie can't be put back into the bottle, one wonders what kind of 'America' we'll have ten years out or twenty years out.

The biggest irony of all: A mile or two down the road from this Wendy's sits an abandoned...Taco Bell.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

To the Trucking Industry: We Thank Thee

Decades ago, freight largely moved by rail. I remember growing up in suburban Boston and watching long freight trains roll by our house on their way to Mechanicsville, NY and then further west. I'd count the rail cars, with my high-water mark being a 158-car freight train back in the early 1970s.

Today, of course, most freight moves over the road rather than over the rails. There are probably a whole host of reasons for this, but the railroad industry--at least in New England--is nothing like it was 'back then.' So, the 'silver lining' is that we have miles and miles of abandoned railroad lines that lend themselves perfectly to the development of recreational biking paths. Once the rails and wooden ties are removed and pavement put down, you give birth to a 'Rail Trail.'

The Nashua River Rail Trail is one such example. The Trail is completely paved along its 11-mile length, which runs from Nashua, New Hampshire down to Ayer, Massachusetts. When it was active many years ago, the rail line served as the Hollis Branch of the Boston and Maine railroad. It was part of a main rail link between Worcester and Nashua, and the very last freight train rolled over these rails in 1982.

Turning abandoned rail lines into 'Rail Trails' seems like a great thing to do and an easy thing to do. The former is true; the latter is not. Railroad right-of-ways necessarily weave through many towns. In the case of the Nashua River Rail Trail, that means Pepperell, Groton, and Dunstable (all in Massachusetts) in addition to Nashua and Ayer.

Five towns.

Politics being politics, you can easily grasp the complexities involved with getting five towns to agree on anything. In New England. Who will fund the paving? What happens if Pepperell agrees but Groton doesn't? How about maintenance? Parking? You quickly realize that everyone has to be on board for such an effort to get past the 'good idea' stage.

The trail opened in 2002, and kudos go to everyone who worked tirelessly to make that happen. Since then it has been hugely popular with bikers, roller-bladers, runners, and walkers. Quite simply, it's a great way to spend quality outdoor time, and you can do the entire 22-mile round-trip in about two hours...if you don't stop to admire the scenery and wildlife along the way. On nice weekends I'll often ride the trail twice, usually early in the morning before it starts getting busy. Since it spans an abandoned rail line, the Trail is flat and mostly straight. No hills of Kilimanjaro here, which might disappoint true mountain-biking enthusiasts. But let them go to Kilimanjaro; we'll take the Nashua River Rail Trail, thank you.

If you'd like to learn more about the Trail and its history, click the link on the right.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Time Capsule: May, 2006

The Forsythia ushers in another New England spring. Interesting times. Can you be for a free-market society and against 'big oil?' Another question: Why does everyone focus on the nine cents that oil companies take from a gallon of gasoline but turn a blind eye on the fifty cents that government takes in taxes?...Bumper sticker: Press 1 for English...On the streets of Boston they are giving away the Boston Herald to anyone and everyone...I think it's hilarious to see the mainstream media seething at the success of Fox News...'United 93' tops at the box office...I have never once seen an episode of American Idol and I have never missed an episode of 24...The problem isn't high gas prices now; it's all the exploration and R&D and focusing on alternatives to foreign oil that we didn't feel the need to do many years ago. We're reaping now what we didn't sow then...

Monday, April 24, 2006

Brown Trout, who art in heaven...

Stowe, Vermont is a lovely place in any season. My wife and I went up there in the fall of 2004 and we loved it. Absolutely loved it. We decided to return in 2005, this time with the kids. I must thank my sister for convincing me to try a winter resort for a summer vacation. We stayed at the Grey Fox Inn, which has a deserved reputation for gargantuan breakfast pancakes.

Stowe may be a skier's paradise, but there's great fishing in the little streams that weave through the town. During our 2004 visit the fishing would have been great--if only I had brought my tackle. Although I didn't forget my fishing rod in 2005, the deep pools from 2004 were reduced to mere trickles in 2005. That's what a summer-long drought will do. Discouraged but armed with a non-resident Vermont fishing license, I nonetheless decided to try my luck at spots that looked even remotely promising. In most places the water was shin-deep and hardly trout-worthy.

After walking about a mile downstream somewhere in Stowe, I saw a large tree shielding a modestly deep and slow-moving pool of water. There's a silent creed among fishermen suggesting that a good fishing spot should only be defined as being 'somewhere.' I reasoned that this 'somewhere' was the best-looking spot of all, so I tossed a silver-and-blue Rooster Tail spinner about 100 feet and right under that 'somewhere' tree. Instantly, a brown trout of about four pounds slammed the shiny lure.

I'd like to say that this trout fought gallantly and forever. But then I'd have to go to confession, and I haven't been in such a long time...
In reality, the poor fish succumbed after a two- or three-minute tussle. A sad ending for such a magnificent fish. A much better ending would have been for my Salmo trutta to fight proudly, pose patiently for pictures, and then swim off into the sunset.

Alas, it was not to be. Please bow your heads in prayer.

The Pink where a Yellow should be

It's fitting that iKaleidoscope's first entry has something to do with color and shape.

My sisters and I summered at our family's seaside home in southern Maine back in the 1970s. My best friend was Gordon, who lived with his family across the street. Gordon and I would do all sorts of stuff together: fish for mackerel, fly kites, water-ski, swim, sail, and fish for mackerel.

Our house was a peachy 'beachy' house. Sand dollars and dried starfish on windowsills; lobster bouys and a lobster trap here and there. And hanging on a staircase wall was a large, colorful beach towel. It depicted an illustration of the sun crafted from mosaic pieces of different colors and shapes. We had no lack of towels, so this particular specimen served its life as a piece of wall art for all to see and admire. It really was a beautiful towel, and Gordon always thought so too.

One day we decided to have a little fun with Gordon. I pointed to the towel and said, "You know...there's a defect in this towel. In one spot, the color scheme doesn't quite follow the pattern...There's a pink where a yellow should be." My mother and sisters, eager to earn their 'co-conspirator' badges, nodded in agreement: Yes, there was a pink where a yellow should be.

Well, Gordon stared and stared at that towel. He stared at it that day. He stared at it that week. That summer. And summers that followed. It was Gordon's Rubik's Cube; his Da Vinci Code. Surely there was a logic to the color scheme that would blossom in a magnificent 'Ah-HA!' moment. But from one summer to the next, he never could find the pink where the yellow should be.

Of course, the pinks and yellows were exactly where they should have been all along. But thanks to a code of silence and straight faces all around, Gordon never did discover the truth until many years later. It was harmless fun, good fun...and a memory that will always remain with us and (especially) with Gordon.

Why iKaleidoscope?

The kaleidoscope is a wonderful device. A simple tube, mirrors, and colorful chips. That's it. Kaleidoscopes create multi-hued snowflakes with no two ever the same. A simple yet marvelous creation: no batteries needed, no assembly required.

I created iKaleidoscope as a place where I could post my favorite anecdotes and memories for the enjoyment of friends and family alike. Some entries will be round and others square; some will be blue and others orange or green or red; some will be big and some will be small. But in the end, it's my chance to put into words all the little things that make me 'me.'