What I Know: An Opinion


I am catching up on some Daily Show episodes I missed when I was away for a week and I was particularly taken by one of their pieces on the recent Brexit vote. It was interviews with a dozen or so people who had “voter remorse” and explained that they had not expected the “Leave” side to win so felt safe to vote Leave as a protest vote.

I was in Ireland during the vote and saw some of the coverage there with my Irish friends. For a moment I felt like that gave me some “special” knowledge about it because I was “there.” As I saw the coverage here I realized it was much the same. It’s certainly true that the impact on Ireland is orders of magnitude greater than here in the US, but that didn’t mean the coverage was different. It got me thinking once again about the information I use to form opinions.

The Daily Show coverage resonated with me because it fit in with my view of the world. I viewed the “Leave” case as being based on partial truths and lies and appealing to people’s discouragement with government. Much of the coverage I saw, or at least saw and remembered, supported this point of view.

The question I started asking myself was, “What do I really know about the EU and Britain’s relationship with it?” The answer to that is fairly straight forward: I know what I hear on the media streams I choose to glean for information. For me, National Public Radio is my most trusted source of information. I find its coverage “unbiased” but that is only because its biases are in harmony with my biases. Fox News seems biased because the conclusions they arrive at are different than my own and I suspect they report things that aren’t true. To a lesser extent MSNBC and Democracy Now don’t resonate either, but I don’t mistrust their “facts.”

Having said that, I wonder how I came to that conclusion? Did I “fact check” Fox? Probably not, instead I probably heard it fact checked on some other media stream. Do I fact check NPR? No. How does one “fact check” anyway? I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Iraq or Nigeria or even Flint, MI. I can only check “facts” that are reported by someone else. Ultimately we have to use the preponderance of evidence rather than facts, but more often than not, what we believe is based on who we believe.

Fiction (aka lies) aside, there are a vast number of facts and experiences that have relevance to a story and reporters and news curators must make decisions on which ones they report and send on to the audience. Judgments must be made and these result in an inevitable bias. As one journalist once said, “We can never be unbiased; the best we can do is to be ‘fair.’”

More than ever, media covers the “impact” of an event as much as the facts. Mass shootings are covered with interviews with the victims’ families, funerals, the outrage. More than facts this visceral reaction stimulates our emotional reaction. These visceral reactions can lead to good legislation, but Hitler rose to power not on facts but on emotional appeal.

So where does this leave me? First, it leaves me less confident that I know much of anything. To those who know me, this may come as a surprise as I do tend to state my opinions with confidence. I’m a master of self-deception. A mentor once said to me, “You said that with a lot of authority. Are you sure that’s true?” It was a pivotal moment for me. I realized that the less sure I was of something, the more authority I would add to my tone of voice. To this day, I use it as personal BS meter: I’ll say something, hear that tone of authority, and say, “Wait a minute, I take that back. I think I’m extrapolating beyond the data.”

Clearly this revelation has not stopped me from developing opinions. What it has done is help me remember that they are just opinions, not some ultimate truth. I still have trouble reinterpreting facts to allow my opinions to evolve and change, but I’m getting better at it.

Ultimately it’s how this plays out in how I live my life, that’s important. As someone who was once a strident activist, how do I approach controversial issues? Over the last 5 or 6 years I have been teaching (read learning) alternative and renewable energy at SUNY Canton. One of the biggest issues facing the North Country is wind power. At a cursory glance, it’s hard to see what’s not to like; the wind is there, why not use it? It’s not like we are going to slow down the spinning of the earth by adding air resistance (or at least we don’t think so).

However, there are significant issues, both for the community it’s sited in and the environment at large. And then there’s the wind business itself. What determines a person’s opinion about wind is as much how they weight the downsides against the upsides as it is the facts (and fictions) that they believe. One technical method for this weighting is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It tries to take into account the long term costs of development and weigh them against the benefits. I like this method not because it arrives at some unassailable answer, but because it attempts to look at the big picture and it serves as a model that can take into account new information.

Where does it break down? There are two places: the accuracy and even availability of the data, and how “intangible costs” (like environmental, health and social impacts) are weighted. As wind farms have developed, there is more and more data on things like bird kill, but there is little quantitative data on health and social effects. Recent work on the impact of wind farms on property values, much of it done here in the North Country by Martin Heintzelman and his colleagues at Clarkson University, is starting to paint a picture, but it’s not a static picture.

Health effects, on the other hand, are primarily anecdotal. Another North Country resident, Dr. Nina Pierpont, has written a book on Wind Turbine Syndrome, but the dominant opinion is that health effects are rare. It is unfortunate that no one has seen fit to do a broader epidemiological study of potential health effects because as we know from tobacco, dominant opinions can be catastrophic.

In addition, there are social and economic factors that come into play. What is the value of the viewscape of hundreds of turbines? I can’t imagine getting approval for overhead powerlines today if none existed, but now we take them for granted. Leases are given for a relatively small plot around the base of a tower, but the impact goes far beyond the base and there is no requirement that impacted neighbors be compensated, partially because we haven’t quantified the impacts on them.

Wind power is an emerging industry and, like all other renewables (with the exception of large hydropower), is not competitive with traditional fossil fuels without government subsidies. Without these subsidies, new renewable energy sources wouldn’t develop until the depletion of fossil fuels raised their cost to a point where renewables could compete. Government incentives are designed to fast track the industry and get it competitive long before market forces could, maybe even before the world experiences serious impacts from climate change.

Finally there is the business of wind. Most of the wind power developed in the North Country is being done by Iberdrola, a Spanish company that dominates the wind industry worldwide. As with many controversial developments, these companies are less than transparent and tend to seek a foothold before going public with their plans. They have been accused of clandestine tactics such as offering leases to government leaders even if the potential for wind on that land is minimal. They operate in secrecy, insisting that lease holders sign non-disclosure agreements about what they are paid. All of these things raise red flags.

I’m sure that there are many other factors, some of which may turn out to be much more critical than the preceding inventory, at play. So I’m left with two options: evaluate the scanty evidence, weighted to my biases, and come up with an opinion, or withhold judgment. Opinions, flawed and otherwise, are what shape our future. Not having an opinion is like the “no-action” alternative, it plays a role in shaping the future, too.

At this point, I support wind power in general but there are places where it’s not appropriate.  I believe there should be changes in the process of development to address local concerns and openness would go a long way to allow the development of wind in a harmonious and appropriate manner. And I remain open to new facts and new points of view.

Wind power was a good issue for me to use to demonstrate the shift in my process. The progressive faction with which I identify is somewhat split on the issue, so like a good statesman, I am held upright by forces from both sides. On other issues, I have not yet become so pliable. On taxation and the redistribution of wealth, for example, I’m pretty dogmatic, supporting Bernie and Elizabeth Warren without a lot of fact collection and analysis.

I want to leave you with what started this inquiry back in 1974. I was listening to the ZBS radio serial, The Fourth Tower of Inverness, and one of the last parts was a reading of Hsin Hsin Ming. This quote stuck like a grain of sand in my shoe.

“If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”

Hsin Hsin MingVerses on the Faith Mind by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau


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A Visit to Abby Island


After dinner Finbarr took me to see Abby Island. It is no longer an island–the small gap between it and the mainland has been bridged–nor is it still an active Abby, as you can see from the distinct lack of roof. Instead it serves as an active graveyard both inside and outside the walls of the ruined buildings.

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Paddling in Kerry


This morning Finbarr drove us down to his place in Castle Cove on the Ring of Kerry. It’s what you think of when you think of Ireland but, today anyway,  without the rain. What you can’t see in the photo is the seals that are basking on the narrow rock behind the large one.

After lunch we took the kayaks out and paddled out past them to the Kenmare River, really a bay on southeast side of the Iveragh Peninsula that the Ring circumnavigates. When we swung out into the incoming tide, it and the wind carried us back to his front yard where we started.

As we returned, so did the sun. A beautiful afternoon!

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Off to Ireland


I’m off to County Cork, sporting my locally made SkySkarf, to visit Finbarr, my graduate school housemate, and Janet, his lovely wife. Since I last saw them in 1985, they’ve lived in Seattle, Berkeley, moved back to Cork, and raised 3 children.

Finbarr is the smartest and most hospitable man I have ever met. If I arrived home while he was eating, there was a plate set for me before I got my coat off. When my brother and I visited him and has parents in 1983, they took my to his brother Dhiarmuid’s house in Kerry where they took us around the bay by boat. When he had to return to Madison, his friend and family continued to take us around and would, no doubt, have continued to host us had we not attempted to hitchhike to Galway…but that’s another story.

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Quartet Z: Benefit Concert for Potsdam Central Schools’ Music Friends

Quartet Z are

Laurel Kuxhaus, oboes
Theresa Witmer, saxophones
David Katz, bassoon, contrabass
Christina Xydias, cello, piano
And Special Guests

Music by
Fasch, Gershwin, Pärt,
Schickele, Wolfe
and premiering a composition by
Paul Steinberg

 Saturday, May 14, 4:00 pm
at the home of Robin McClellan

You may remember these fine musicians from last year, performing then as the Unnamed Quartet. I’m looking forward to having them return again this year, now christened Quartet Z. I understand why they have chosen the enigmatic name Quartet Z, as describing their music is virtually impossible.I can tell you though, that they create some of the most beautiful and interesting music you will every hear.

I hope you will join me for this benefit for the Music Friends of Potsdam Central Schools.

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Mary Ann Casale’s CD Pre-Release Party with Tas Cru

Sunday, March 6
2 PM
Robin McClellan’s

Admission $5 or non-perishable food item to Food Pantry

CDs will be available (God willing and the Creek don’t rise) for $10

I hope you will join me to help celebrate the imminent release of Mary Ann Casale’s newest CD, Restless Heart.

This concert is close to my heart. I remember listening to Mary Ann in the seventies, in the days of the Wild Oat and Django’s (two legendary establishments that brought great music to Potsdam). She set aside performing in public for 30 years and only started writing songs and performing again a few years ago. Even with her talent, it takes a lot of courage and strength to swim in today’s current of talented local musicians all vying for space on the stage. But she is a musician’s musician and has benefited from the support of many local performers who she plays regularly with. Key among them is international bluesman and producer of this CD, Tas Cru, who will join her for the release.

Restless Heart is her second CD and you can hear a sample at: http://www.maryanncasale.com/

Once again she is doing this as benefit for the local Food Pantry. I always find it terribly ironic that hunger is as much an issue in this agricultural area as it is in cities, but it is. Equally ironic is that it is starving musicians who volunteer to help raise money for food pantries. It’s difficult to compete for money with the presidential candidates and national causes, whose ubiquitous fundraising emails crowd our inboxes, so food pantries, with no budget for real fundraising, can’t keep up with the needs.

So come on out and enjoy yourself while helping out your community!

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Alex Smith – CD Preview Party

Close to Home

Friday, November 13
7:30 PM


Robin McClellan’s, Sanfordville

I’m honored that Alex wanted me to host one of his regional CD preview parties. I’ve known his father, Mason (Tim) Smith, and his uncle, Everett Smith, for many years. They are a part of this region’s folklore both being, among other things, boat builders, while Mason writes plays and novels set in the area. His mother was a historian and the Director of the Adirondack Museum for many years. Following in their path, but not necessarily in their footsteps, Alex writes songs that bring history to us in a way that connects it to the present and he delivers them in a deep, resonant voice belying his youth.
Alex Smith Promo Two - scaled
He grew up in Long Lake, in the heart of New York’s Adirondack Park, and his music strives first and foremost to echo the culture of that area. He builds songs from a blend of traditional folk harmony and strikingly modern lyrics, confronting today’s most pressing issues with grace while paying homage to the musical tradition of the region.Smith’s characters, though fictional, live and breathe a balance between beauty and imperfection. His stories draw on the triumphs and hardships of friends, relatives, and neighbors near and far, and he has worked tirelessly to carry the music of northern New York to audiences nationwide.

I hope you will join me in celebrating the imminent (it doesn’t look like it will be quite ready by 11/13) release of his newest project, Close to Home.

Alex Smith Promo Three - scaled
“Alex is a wonderful poetic writer who captures words full of meaning, matching them with creative music that creeps quietly into the past at the same time as dancing with the present, and sneaking a peek at the future.”
    – Bob Everhart, Country Music News International
“Alex is a natural storyteller with a rich voice who is creating poignant songs rooted in the heritage of his Adirondack home.”
    – Sarah Craig, Caffe Lena (Saratoga Springs, NY)

For more information about Alex and his music, check out these websites:

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RE-stock 2015 – Mary Ann Casale and Tas Cru

House Concert to Benefit Local Food Pantries

Featuring music by Rick Bates (aka Tas Cru) & Mary Ann Casale

Sunday, November 1 at 2 PM
(Note that daylight savings time ends 10/31!)

At Robin McClellan’s house in Sanfordville.

These two talented and generous musicians are once again playing to raise money and food for the food pantries. This is the fourth year that Rick and Mary Ann have performed to benefit the local food pantry. I hope you will come and listen to their beautiful music and support the less fortunate in the community. The suggested donation is $10, but non-perishable food items will be gladly accepted instead. You can reserve a seat in advance (and make an extra donation to the food pantry if you so choose) hereme and rick robin's

Since they last played here, Rick has released his CD “You Keep the Money” which is the hottest debuting blues album of 2015. Released December 30, 2014, it has been either at or near the very top of every major blues chart through mid-May, 2015 and is still getting extensive worldwide airplay.  It actually debuted at # 1 on the Roots Music Report and eight of its 12 songs have been in the top 25. The album debuted on the prestigious Living Blues chart at #2.  Blues djs and reviewers agree that this album shows Tas Cru “at the peak of his formidable talents as a performer and songwriter.”  –Graham Clark

As I write this, Rick is still on tour with his Band of Tortured Souls and will return only a few days before he plays here so make sure you ask him about the tour, I’m sure his stories of life on the road will be entertaining.

Mary Ann is back in the studio recording Restless Heart. Almost two years in the making,a fine line-up of musicians join her on this project with a whole new sound as genres collide in a mix of blues, folk and jazz. Rich vocal backing add to the soulful sound she is known for.

For more information click here to go to my website where you will find directions and click here to reserve a seat in advance.

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Peter Phippen, World Flute Specialist

Concert Benefit for the Alzheimer’s Association
Friday October 23, 7:30 PM
Trillium Yoga Center, 25 Market St., Potsdam
Admission – $12

When Peter called me a few days ago and said that he wanted to play here, I was thrilled. I met Peter only through an email introduction from a mutual friend so his call was out of the blue. I have always liked the kind of ethereal music he plays, but his version is some of the best. He refers to his approach as “experiential,” but this term falls short. He draws on a number of folk traditions to create music that bridges the space between earth and spirit.

Like so many of the musicians who have played here, he is a native son, growing up only a few miles from here. And like so many of the musicians who have grew up here, Peter left the area to make ends meet as a professional musician. Thankfully, the community hasn’t left his heart and he returns to bring his music to us. In the past, he has played at SUNY Potsdam and twice at the Norwood Village Green as well as touring elementary and high schools in the region.

As I was putting the concert together, I thought this would be a perfect fit for the new Trillium Yoga Center in Potsdam. I contacted Shannon Miller, Jeanne Benvenuto and Teri de la Vega and they were thrilled to host the event. Another connection is that the Yoga Center is located in the building that once housed Northern Music where Peter was once a regular customer. I will miss hosting, but the stars were clearly aligned!

In addition, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.



Grammy Award nominee and four-time Native American Music Award nominee, Peter Phippen is a nationally and internationally respected world flute specialist, recording artist, scholar, educator, and producer. In his approach to world flute performance, he is an experiential, natural folk musician with a penchant for creative and artistic musical improvisation.

Currently, two of his songs, “Night Song” and “Lullabye,” were featured on the Digital Download Compilation, “Native American Flute Music for Meditation” released on Canyon Records of Phoenix, Arizona. As of Sept. 22nd, 2015 “Native American Flute Music for Meditation” is #48 on iTunes World Music.</div>

Critical Acclaim

“Traditionally, the Native American flute has a sound that could be characterized as haunting. Few flutists, however, bring as much warmth and richness to a single tone as Peter Phippen does. His playing is earthy, improvised and impressionistic, offering listeners a beautifully serene atmosphere for meditation and reflection.” – Music Design

“Like a call in the wild, the alluring, soothing, hypnotic tones of the wind instruments lulled and enchanted.” – Dunn County News, Menomonie, Wisconsin

“Phippen’s tune, Lascaux is a shaman’s dream.” – RJ Lannan Zone Music Reporter

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Paul Meyers and World on a String Trio: Benefit Concert and Master Class

Benefit Concert for the Potsdam Humane Society

Saturday July 11
7 PM
at Robin McClellan’s

I hope you will come out and enjoy some wonderful jazz for the benefit of the Potsdam Humane Society. I know there will be a lot of competition for your attention on Potsdam Summer Festival weekend but I can assure you that this is a rare opportunity. To see for yourself, check out this video of the trio that was shot at the Jazz Masters Series at Sara’s Wine Bar, March 29, 2015.  Not only will you experience superb music, but a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Potsdam Humane Society’s wonderful work  providing shelter and medical care for homeless animals in our community.

Paul Meyers Vanderlei leo traversa 01a

The trio is Paul MeyersVanderlei Pereira and Leo Traversa. Paul is a world-renowned jazz guitarist who has played with a long list of jazz greats and toured with Jon Hendricks and Andy Bey. Vanderlei is a Brazilian drummer, percussionist, composer and educator based in New York City and leads the Brazilian jazz group Blindfold Test. Leo is a musician, educator and author with broad experience in various musical cultures and the author of Afro Caribbean and Brazilian Rhythms for Bass.

Can’t tear yourself away on Saturday evening? The trio will also be performing at the Edwards Opera House on Sunday, July 12 at 5 PM. For more information about that show, go to the Edwards Arts Council’s website.

Master Class in Brazilian and Latin Music/Jazz!

Saturday, July 11
3 PM
at Robin McClellan’s
Cost: $30

Led by the amazing Brazilian drummer and percussionist Vanderlei Pereira from Rio de Janeiro, the group will give a 2 hour masterclass demonstrating a wide variety of Brazilian styles and rhythms, from samba and bossa nova to baiao, chorinho, afoxe, frevo and more. As Vanderlei says: “I believe that the key to performing Brazilian and Latin music authentically lies in the ability to hear and analyze the various rhythms of each genre and to understand the connection between the percussive and tonal instruments in the ensemble.”

The group will demonstrate examples of these styles and will talk about some of the important ideas to apply to their own instruments. We’ll have group participation also, with attendees learning the rhythms of the styles by clapping patterns from the important percussion instruments that are the foundation of each style. There will be handout that can be taken home with the rhythms explained and practice patterns for guitar, piano, bass and drums/percussion, as well as a list of great resources, CDs and books, that can be used to continue working on the music.

This video gives a taste of the musicians and some of the music styles they’ll be teaching.

The trio is offering a discount package: Class and concert for $35! 

To reserve a spot for this class, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1771561.

For more information please contact Paul Meyers at paulclarkmeyers@gmail.com (973-722-1354).


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