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Saturday, December 28, 2013


“There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures.”
James Thurber

This might explain why Catholics light Advent candles during December to commemorate the arrival of the child they acknowledge as the Light of the World. Homes and businesses are decked out with glaring electric luminescence, but it’s the glow of the candle that matters at Christmas.

Here on Cape Cod, light has always been a part of the character of the place. In my forthcoming novel, Cold Stun, I tell the story this way:

At least 250 generations of Native Americans had lived on Cape Cod before the Europeans eliminated them. These indigenous dwellers took as their name Wampanoag: “People of the First Light.” They were isolated from any neighboring tribes. Of them it was said: “They avoid the mainland, because they have become one with the eastern ocean, and it is their delight.” With no human contact beyond their borders, their belief was that they saw each day’s sunrise before anyone else. So they thought themselves a chosen people. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a study determined exactly where in the United States the sun’s first rays fell each morning. The Wampanoag believed correctly.

Cape Cod’s unique light is legendary, and a significant reason why so many people have conferred on this transcendent sandbar the status of “paradise.”

This is especially true of the countless numbers of artists whom Cape light has attracted for more than a century. Our light made the Outer Cape – Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown – home to the nation's oldest art colony and a microcosm of American 20th century art.

Why? Because -- to paraphrase French novelist Paul Bourget -- light is to painting as ideas are to literature.

Cape light has been described by painters as reminiscent of the south of France or the Greek islands.

The light here is “legendary to the point of cliché,” the curator of Truro’s Highland Museum once said.

Even Cape Cod’s gray light provides uncommon opportunity to create works of surpassing beauty, like this photograph -- "Gray Light at Mill Creek" …

Ziegmont Guzikowski, Cape Cod Art Association

The artistry of Hans Hoffman sparked the first American art movement -- abstract expressionism. Hoffman founded a Provincetown art school that attracted innumerable painters, many of whom went on to make significant contributions to American art. He taught that, “In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light.”

Imbuing a painting with light is no easy matter. “Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else – by color,” Paul Cezanne said. “So that light does not exist for the painter.”

Cape Cod’s winter light is no less spectacular than summer’s.

“The light in winter is most varied; there are days when it's clear and bright, carving the earth into light and shadow like a razor,” landscape painter Peter Fiore says. “Yet, at times, the light can be soft and quiet as a whisper, with color of the most intense chromatic variations anyone could ever need.”

I can attest to that. The most beautiful sunsets I witness from my home in Truro occur in winter.

December sunset at my Truro home.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod and the Cotuit Center for the Arts are opening a combined winter exhibit on January 11 -- in the melancholic depth of our winter.

It’s titled “Seeing the Light.”

In my next blog, “Always the Beginner”

Saturday, December 21, 2013


“Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself.”
Henry Beston
The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod

The Outermost House before it was swept out to sea by a 1978 hurricane.

In Truro, a 50-mile drive east-northeast from mainland Massachusetts, we will suffer sunset at 4:12 on this, the shortest day of the year – and the longest night.

Night visits special terrors on some.

Here’s how I described one such night of torment in my forthcoming novel, Cold Stun:

The darkness of Jenny’s bedroom was as absolute as an amusement park horror house, and the quiet of the place was as deep as its darkness. The only sound she heard was her own pulse where her ear pressed the pillow, and she shifted her head to silence the cadence. She drew up her knees and tugged the duvet high on her face. She knew her wide-awake mind would start racing with overwrought scenarios and exaggerated rages – all the incubi that had become nocturnal visitors since her breakup.

For others, as Rod Serling wrote, “there is nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on.”

Many find dark a place of transcendence.

Vincent van Gogh was one: “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”

If we agree with Henri Matisse that “a picture must possess a real power to generate light,” we have to ask -- what about dark? What power must a painting possess to depict dark?

Here is how van Gogh answered this question in 1888, painting at night and directly from nature …

Starry Night over the Rhone”

Terror, transcendence -- even humor -- can be found when we toy with day and dark, light and night.

Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, wrote this ditty famous for its winsomeness:

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

Jersey Tomato toyed with the subject:

“Lincoln studied by the light of a fireplace. Mozart composed by candlelight. Galileo invented by oil lamp. Didn't they ever think to do their work during the day?”

And the late George Carlin joked:

“Why is it called 'after dark' when it really is 'after light'?”

So what is dark? Is it after light? Is it absence of light?

The difference between light and night might come down to nothing more than one letter of the alphabet.

Then why the eternal joust between light and dark?

Fearing the descent of endless, unmarked days of darkness, J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937 -- on the eve of World War II.

The newly released second installment of The Hobbit movie trilogy crystallized Tolkien’s anxiety. The Dark Lord Sauron confronts Gandalf the Grey: “No light, Wizard, can overcome the darkness.”

Some 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi glimpsed a different outcome in the contest between light and dark.

Christmas was his favorite day, and in 1223 he conceived the idea of celebrating the Nativity by reproducing the Bethlehem manger scene in a church at Greccio, Italy.

It was he who gave us the devotional tradition of the crèche that brightens so many homes and places of worship during this Christmas season.

And it was St. Francis who promised us:

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

In my next blog, “Light”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Let’s Strangle Siri!

Siri: “Beautiful woman who leads you to victory.”

When I worked at IBM’s development laboratory in Poughkeepsie a long, long time ago, I wrote about the company’s efforts in speech-to-text. The development engineers told me speech-to-text would be a long, long time coming. Now, with the Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface embodied in the newest versions of iPhone, such an advance seems facile.

I recently bought myself an early Christmas gift -- an iPhone – at the Cape Cod Mall in Hyannis. But I’m looking forward to getting back to Vieques to give Siri a run for her money with questions like, “Which of the 36 Puerto Rican holidays are we celebrating this week?” … and, “Are the ferries from Fajardo running on time today?”

As with any emerging technology, Siri is taking her share of lumps.

She’s been dissed by late-night comics and taken jabs from The Simpsons.

Al Pacino reportedly stomped his iPhone into pieces in a Hollywood eatery last summer during a fit of anger at Siri.

Even Steve Jobs wasn’t entirely happy with her. He didn’t like the name, but he couldn’t come up with a better one before launch.

From what I’ve read, it seems that Dag Kittlaus, one of the founders of the original Siri app purchased by Apple, named the service after a woman he worked with in Norway.

In Norwegian, Siri means "beautiful woman who leads you to victory."

But in Portuguese, siri means crab.

So before you give your kid a Siri-enabled iPhone for Christmas, think again.

·     Because of calculators, lots of young people can’t do arithmetic.

·     Because of word processing, schools are walking away from the teaching of cursive writing.

And -- guaranteed -- Siri will cause proper punctuation to become as obsolete as diagramming sentences.

“Just speak naturally,” Apple’s promotional copy directs you. “Instead of typing, tap the microphone icon on the keyboard. Then say what you want to say and iPhone listens. Tap Done, and iPhone converts your words into text.”

And that’s all true. Siri can search the web for you. She can place phone calls for you. She can even spell the spoken word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious perfectly.

But she can’t punctuate!

You have to tell Siri where and what type of punctuation you want to use in your messages -- by speaking the punctuation during the composition of your message.

For example, to get Siri to write this:

Hi. How are you? Did you see the game last night!?

You have to speak this:

Hi period how are you question mark did you see the game last night exclamation point question mark.

If I want to dictate the title of this blog post, I would have to speak:

Caps on let’s strangle siri exclamation point.

Can you imagine any kid on Planet Earth doing this?

Young people – most of whom already know less about punctuation than they should – will speak their messages without a thought to punctuation. As a result, their messages will appear as one, long, run-on sentence. We will enter an era of stream-of-conscious writing worthy of James Joyce. If you dare to criticize them for their ignorance and their laziness, their defense will be, “Well, you know what I mean.”

In my next blog, “Dark”

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Stealing Paradise

Dapple made flesh
Stolen, not scanned
Better use a cattle brand.
           Haiku by Tom Torkildson

I’m awed at the creativity of the criminal mind. Just when you think every conceivable scam has been exploited, you hear about something like this – the theft of $20,000 worth of koi by two guys posing as employees of an “aquatic solutions” company, complete with uniforms and business cards.

They stole about 400 koi from the pond at a corporate park outside Washington, D.C., pulling off the heist in broad daylight, in sight of security guards and office workers who didn’t realize what had happened until after the culprits were gone.

The corporate park pond where $20,000 worth of koi were stolen.

Koi theft is more common than you’d think, but typically under-reported by the media. Some other recent examples: $8,000 worth of koi stolen from a New Jersey garden center … a burglary of $10,000 worth of fish from a home garden near Oklahoma City … eight koi from the University of Wisconsin …nine from a Florida woman … 25 from a family pond in Scarsdale, N.Y.

And it’s happened to us in the tranquil paradise of Cape Cod.

My wife, Jo Anne, tends to some three dozen ornamental goldfish and koi in the ponds at our  Truro home. While we were away, the koi were taken. Only the koi -- so we know the thief was not a heron, raccoon, cat or fox.

Ours was more than a financial loss, even though we don’t consider our koi to be investments. They were our pets. Each had been named by my wife: Old Yeller ... Sarge … Princess … Iris … Creamsicle … Ringo … Cardinal Wolsey … Marigold … Boston Blackie … Glitter. Each was individually chosen by Jo Anne from koi farms on Cape Cod. Many were with us for more than a decade. Some, like Old Yeller, had grown to 16 inches or more in length and $2,000 or more in re-sale value.

“Old Yeller” is prominent in this family photo from happier days.
Why all this fuss over a fish you can't even eat? Because collectors will pay as much as $25,000 for a single championship koi. They enter their prized specimens into competitions. And with increased use of water features and oriental themes in landscaping, these gorgeous members of the carp family have gained popularity in American gardens.

Call the criminals what they are – koi kidnappers. These aren’t opportunistic thieves. They come fully prepared to steal our pets. 

Even if your koi pond can’t be seen from the street, your fish aren’t safe. Koi ponds can be spotted via Google Maps and earmarked for savagery.

Although our ponds can’t be seen from the street,
the bad guys found them—and took the koi.

How to stop these criminals?

Micro chipping has been around for a while, which is an effective way of identifying koi. Now a new technique has been developed – “fingerprinting” koi with their DNA, as is done for dogs and cats.

As for the Yaremkos, we’re in the process of installing hidden video surveillance cameras that will capture a crook’s face – whether in daylight or dark of night -- on a flash drive we can hand to the Truro police.

Message to koi kidnappers whoever you are: you can’t steal paradise, not even a piece of it! 
In my next blog, “Let’s Strangle Siri”