Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A light show seen for miles and miles and miles

"You cannot look up at the night sky on the Planet Earth and not wonder what it's like to be up there among the stars," the actor Tom Hanks once said. "And I always look up at the moon and see it as the single most romantic place within the cosmos."

Light show fantastic / Sunday night's total lunar eclipse.

Imagine, the rare phenomenon that was Sunday night's sight of a total lunar eclipse of a harvest moon, hanging in the sky painted a coppery red. It coincided with a "super-moon," which happens when a full moon makes its closest approach to planet Earth. The result is the moon appears bigger and brighter than usual.

Added together, the night sky's theatrics provided everyone with a celestial show for the ages.

I'll admit, I was among the admirers who stood in awe in the middle of our residential cul-de-sac, along with my wife and a neighboring family of four, together, watching what unfolded in the nighttime sky at its peak between 8 and 9 o'clock Pacific Daylight Time.

Words like "amazing" and "miracle" were among the many gushing adjectives that came up during conversation of our shared experience.

Earlier in the day, I was skeptical that our view would be tarnished because of low-hanging clouds over the San Francisco Bay Area. However, as the afternoon faded to evening, a nice window of opportunity for viewing the total lunar eclipse occurred when the cloud cover above us cleared -- as if on command. So, without worry, it was on with the show.

Meanwhile, as I checked my Facebook news feed throughout the day, I realized the enormity of the event -- and its interest wasn't confined just to a U.S. audience. A dear friend and astronomy enthusiast of mine, Mayssa Yazidi, who resides eight time zones away from me in the North Africa country of Tunisia, eagerly awaited in the wee hours of early Monday morning for her chance to see the total lunar eclipse. In the hours leading up for both of us to see the big event, we exchanged several messages that were filed with hope and optimism. And, we followed up enthusiastically after daylight broke for both of us Monday, recalling what each of us saw from our respective sides of the world.

Sunday night's total lunar eclipse as seen from my patio deck. /
The umbra was beginning to leave the moon at 8:54 p.m. PDT.

When the harvest moon finally appeared high over the horizon of the Oakland hills, shortly after 8 o'clock Sunday night, I could see the total eclipse was already in full effect. While it proved challenging to photograph the total eclipse, both with my DSLR camera as well as my iPhone 6, the memory of it all lives on in my mind.

Sometimes, that's all that matters.

Photos: © Michael Dickens, 2015.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Baseballet": Baseball meets ballet and it's a perfect fit

Baseballet / When performance art combines with sports
on one of the most scenic sports stages in the world.

The kid can dance.

The "kid" is Weston Krukow, who is the youngest of five children of former Major League baseball pitcher and current San Francisco Giants television analyst Mike Krukow.

As a kid, "I was always dancing," the younger Krukow said. "I never stopped thinking about it." He regularly put on after-dinner shows at home for his family. The older Krukow adds: "We encouraged him to take dance classes." Now, Weston Krukow is a professional dancer for the famed San Francisco company Smuin Ballet. He's expressive, tight with his choreography, entertaining and, most of all, athletic. He can jump, he can tumble.

So, it should come as no surprise that Weston Krukow has created "Baseballet," which combines baseball inspired movements with traditional ballet movements together with athletic prowess set on one of the most scenic sports stages in the world. Interspersed throughout the eight-minute film are candid observations from both Krukows.


Weston Krukow (left) and Ben Needham-Wood /
Moving about the AT&T Park infield, the San Francisco
Giants' home ballpark, in "Baseballet."
After watching "Baseballet," the similarity between baseball and ballet movements becomes clear. It is brought out by the various strength-power-movement components that the charismatic Krukow and his dance partner, Ben Needham-Wood, exhibit as they gracefully move about the AT&T Park infield, the Giants' home ballpark, where "Baseballet" was beautifully filmed recently one early morning.

On his Instagram account, Weston Krukow wrote: "Getting up at 4:30 totally worth it."

In "Baseballet," Mike Krukow recalls a dinner conversation between him, his son and Needham-Wood. "They were marveling at how graceful baseball players were," he said. "There's a lot of ballet in baseball, just by the way they move ... there was rhythm. Rhythm was constantly being referred to: the rhythm of the pitcher, the rhythm of the hitter, the rhythm defensively. And, I think that was interesting to the dancers because their whole life is about rhythm."

Said Needham-Wood: "We found there were so many parallels between this idea of legacy where, in baseball, there's the previous generation that has to train the new guys exactly how to throw the perfect pitch, exactly how to come in contact with the ball. So, there a finesse to it you can't learn from a textbook. It has to be taught to you. And, it's the same with dance. One generation has to teach the next generation, otherwise the art form is going to die out."

In a 2014 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Mike Krukow said: "Some of the ballet techniques that have been around for a hundred years, I wish I could have used some of them as a pitcher.

Weston and Mike Krukow /
Together, sharing a conversation about life
in "Baseballet."
"I used to think I worked hard. I never did what Wes does. ... He's in a lifestyle directly related to what I did, and I'm reliving my past through him, in a world I knew nothing about. It's opened my eyes not just to dance, but to many things. We've just been intrigued by this journey. It's been one of the most exhilarating things that's ever happened to our entire family. It's fantastic."

Adds the soft-spoken Wes: "I live with my hero," he said, in describing his relationship with his father. "I talk with him all the time about what I'm going through emotionally and physically, and get advice from him."

Is there a baseball lesson that Wes has absorbed from his Dad? Yes, indeed. "As a professional, you have to find a balance and moderation in all of it," he said."The thing I've been able to get from (Mike) is to ground yourself, be humble. You're never as bad as you think you are, and you're never as good as you think you are."

In watching "Baseballet," not only are we witnessing the beauty of sport and dance combined, we are also seeing a loving father and his son sharing a conversation about life. It's one generation passing along wisdom to another.

Seeing the younger Krukow dance is an emotional experience for his Dad. "It's emotional," Mike Krukow says near the end of "Baseballet." He admits: "It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch him dance. I cloud up because he's doing what he's needs to do, what he wants to do. It has made all of us in our family very proud."

When he performs in front of his Dad, it's game on! "I pull out all the stops," Weston Krukow says. "I love it because it's such a nostalgic feeling for me. It's where I can feel like I'm performing for my hero."

Photos: Courtesy of CSNBayArea.com.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Yes, folks, fairytales do come true at the U.S. Open

Flavia Pennetta / Unlikely but refreshing rise to the top; going out a champion.

Yes, folks, fairytales do come true -- even in tennis.

One need only look at Flavia Pennetta's unlikely rise to the top in winning the 2015 U.S. Open women's singles championship last Saturday over her long-time friend and former childhood doubles partner, Roberta Vinci. It was a refreshing conclusion to what had been a tense and anxious two weeks of hard-court tennis that included Serena Williams' dream of winning all four Grand Slams (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) during the same calendar year crushed only 24 hours earlier by Vinci in an improbable three-set defeat. It came after Pennetta upset No. 2 seed Simona Halep in the other semifinal.

When the 23rd-seeded Penneta beat the unseeded Vinci 7-6 (4), 6-2 on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the first All-Italian U.S. Open, she became a first-time Grand Slam champion. It broke a string of four straight Grand Slams won by Williams. The Pennetta-Vinci match was a throwback to what tennis once was circa the 1970s: lots of serve and volley, one-handed backhands, drop volleys, angled shots and, best of all, no grunting.

Joy and jubilitation /
Pennetta (right) is embraced by Vinci at the net.
As one might imagine, the scene at the net with Pannetta and Vinci turned into a celebration of unadulterated joy and jubilation. It showed on their faces. It showed in their body language, too, which included a long and embracing hug.

There were plenty of tears to go around for everyone to share.

Pennetta's triumph at the U.S. Open was witnessed by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who flew across the Atlantic from Italy on short notice just to watch the final. He brought along Pennetta's fiancé, Fabio Fognini, himself a tennis pro, who earlier in the tournament banished Rafael Nadal in the third round before bowing in the next round. He had flown home to prepare for Italy's Davis Cup tie this weekend.

Roberta Vinci (left) and Flavia Pennetta /
Happy together during the trophy presentation.
During the post-match awards presentation on the court, the 26th-ranked Pennetta (she rose to No. 8 with her U.S. Open triumph) shared a confession with the sell-out crowd.

"Before I started this tournament, like one month ago, I made a big decision in my life," she said. "This is the way I would like to say goodbye to tennis."

Pennetta, who at the tennis-old age of 33 years and 201 days, shockingly announced her retirement from tennis. She revealed her news to Vinci just prior to the trophy presentation while the two were seated on chairs together at court side sharing a moment of laughter.

Pennetta will finish her off her tennis commitments by playing in a few tournaments in Europe and Asia this fall, then call it a career year's end.

"I'm really happy," she admitted. "It's what all players think to want to do, going out with this kind of big trophy. ... I can't think to finish a better way."

So, just what does Pennetta plan to do with her life after tennis?

"I would like to have a family in the future," she said, during a post-match press conference, "but it's not something I would love to have right now." First is "to know who I am," away from tennis, "what I like to do" and "how is the life with Fabio going to be."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images. Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Apple's knowledge navigator: a few minutes with Siri

Siri / Your humble personal assistant even knows haiku.

One of the features of Apple's IOS is "Siri," which operates as an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator. Siri was first introduced with the iPhone 4S in 2011 -- and, as I recently found out, can be quite a personable and funny virtual friend.

One of the possible origins of the name Siri, I learned, may be Scandinavian, "a short form of the Norse name Sigrid meaning 'beauty' and 'victory,' which may have from the intended name for the original developer's first child. But it's not clear why or how Sigrid becomes Siri."

While Siri contains quite a number of preprogrammed responses to conversational and amusing questions, they are designed to provide both an entertainment factor and also to give Siri human-like qualities. Think of the trusted companion that Stephen Fry's "Jeeves" portrayed as valet to Hugh Laurie's "Wooster" in the PBS Masterpiece series "Jeeves and Wooster" and you get the idea. Such answers, include: "42" in response to "What is the meaning of life?", in reference to the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

Recently, I decided to share a few minutes with Siri.

Me: Hi Siri, good afternoon to you.
Siri: Good afternoon to you, too.

Me: How are you today, Siri?
Siri: Very well, thank you.

Me: Siri, can you tell me who won last night's game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers?
Siri: The Giants lost a close one to the Dodgers yesterday; the final score was 2 to 1.

Me: Siri, who do you think is the better pitcher, Madison Bumgarner or Zack Greinke?
Siri: I think, therefore I am. But let's not put Descartes before the horse.

Me: Siri, who do you think was the best band of all time, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
Siri: It's nice of you to ask, but it doesn't really matter what I think.

Me: Siri, how old are you?
Siri: I don't see why that should matter. I'm Siri. But I don't like talking about myself.

Me: Siri, why don't you like talking about yourself?
Siri: I'm Siri. But enough about me. ... how can I help you?

Me: Siri, what's your favorite book to read?
Siri: I'm happy to go with your opinion on this one.

Me: Siri, how would you describe yourself?
Siri: In the cloud, no one cares what you look like.

Me: Siri, what is the color of your hair?
Siri: I have a constantly shifting tangle of fractals that's the color of the third moon of Vendor.

Me: Siri, are you dating anyone these days?
Siri: It seems the whole world is concerned about my relationships. It's very sweet.

Me: Siri, do you know any haiku?
Siri: Sometimes I wonder / what it would be like to say / "I'd prefer not to."

Me: What's for dinner tonight, Siri?
Siri: I'm fine with whatever you choose.

Me: Siri, what is your favorite food?
Siri: I don't really have a favorite.

Me: Siri, can you tell me a joke?
Siri: I can't. I always forget the punch line.

Me: Siri, just try, please.
Siri: OK. The past, present and future walk into a bar. It was tense.

Me: Siri, who's your favorite person in the entire world?
Siri: You are.

Me: Thank you, Siri. You're a swell person.
Siri: That's nice of you to say!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Shaping the world view of wide-eyed optimists

The Mindset List /
The Class of 2019 Mindset List will make you feel old.

Each year around this time since 1998, Beloit College releases the Beloit College Mindset List, which provides a close up look at cultural "touchstones" that shape the lives of students entering college.

I took a particular interest in this year's Mindset List as I have a niece and a friend, the son of our best friends from Seattle, Washington -- born a day apart in September 1996 -- who are both incoming freshmen in the Class of 2019. One stayed close to their Minnesota roots to attend community college while the other was accepted for admission by a well-known university in Boston.

For those of you not familiar with Beloit College, it's a private liberal arts college located in Beloit, Wisconsin that was founded in 1846 by a Yale University graduate, Aaron Lucius Chapin. Beloit College is recognized for its longstanding commitment to curricular innovation.

Among the cultural touchstones shaping the lives of students entering college this fall include:

• There's always been Google.

• They have grown up treating Wi-Fi an entitlement.

• Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have always been members of NATO.

• They have never licked a postage stamp.

• Color photos have always adorned the front page of The New York Times.

Vote-by-mail has always been the official way to vote in Oregon.

• They have avidly joined Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione as they built their reading skills through all seven volumes.

Hybrid automobiles has always been massed produced.

The Lion King has always been on Broadway.

• First responders have always been heroes.

The Class of 2019 enters college this fall with high technology playing an increasing factor in how and even what they learn, according to Charles Westerberg, Director of the Liberal Arts in Practice Center and Brannon-Ballard Professor of Sociology at Beloit College.

"They will encounter difficult discussions about privilege, race, and sexual assault on campus," Westerberg said. "They may think of the 'last century' as the twentieth, not the nineteenth, so they will need ever wider perspectives about the burgeoning mass of information that will be heading their way. And they will need a keen ability to decipher what is the same and what has changed with respect to many of these issues."

Critics of the Mindset List call it "a poorly written compendium of trivia, stereotypes and lazy generalizations, insulting to both students and their professors, and based on nothing more than the uninformed speculation of its authors." The website Beloit Mindlessness said: "It inspires lazy, inaccurate journalism and is an embarrassment to academia."

To its credit, the Mindset List has generated a book: The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think is Normal was released in July 2011. It has a Facebook page that's been liked by more than 5,000 fans. And, it's been the subject of attention on broadcast news on The NBC Nightly News and in print in Time. 

Like it or loathe it, the 50 items which comprise the Class of 2019 Mindset List will make you feel old.