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Book Review: "Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy" Posted - Feb 27, 2021
What can William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan playwright of some of the most tragic and violent plays in the English language, teach us about kindness and empathy? A great deal, according to Shakespearean scholar Paula Marantz Cohen. Ms. Cohen began as a professor of nineteenth-century romantic literature. While she had read the major plays of Shakespeare, she didn't begin to fathom his depths, until she was asked to replace the Shakespeare expert at her university, who had retired. Teaching Shakespeare on a regular basis, she came to appreciate his greatness in a new way, namely the way Shakespeare's characters made her feel, and how feeling that way made her "a better person." At 146 pages, her book is not long. Nonetheless, it is well-written think-piece that requires careful reading.

Quoting literary critic Harold Bloom, she says Shakespeare, "invented the human"–a reference to the rich interior lives of his characters. She adds: "We are living in a time when empathy seems in short supply–when our nation and our world are riven by polarities and misunderstandings. If we can learn to pause and think about where others are coming from, we may begin to heal the wounds in our communities and make more endurable the pain that we all face as mortal beings . . . "

To drive home the point, she limits her analysis to two plays: "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello". Both plays revolve around what she refers to as "the other", characters whom we are "superficially unable to identify with and feel for." In "The Merchant of Venice" 'the other' is a jewish money-lender, named Shylock, who has been made a villain by the Christian society that mistreats him. Shlock knows this all too well, and laments: "(the merchant Antonio) hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies–and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?–fed with the same food, subject to the same diseases, hurt with the same weapons, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

In "Othello" Shakespeare extends the same idea into a new context. Othello is a Moorish general in the Venetian army who wins over the love of a well-bred Venetian woman, named Desdemonia. But Iago, a junior officer, preys on Othello's insecurity as a Black man in a white society, suggesting that Desdemonia's decision to marry him is "unnatural".

The author writes: "What is often missed in the play is how much the scheming, villainous Iago is also a target of prejudice . . . Shakespeare offers clues that the character's malevolence is generated by a deep sense of grievance." Early in the play, Iago, a coarse, lower class soldier explains that he is deeply resentful at having been unfairly passed over for promotion: "Tis the curse of service,/ Preferment goes by letter and affection,/ And not by gradation." The man promoted in his place is the inexperienced but more refined Cassio, whom Iago convinces Othello is having an affair with his wife.

Iago drives Othello to such jealousy that Othello, as a Black man, comes to believe his wife cannot possibly love him the way she would someone of her own background. Driven to a fit of rage by Iago, he murders his wife. Writes the author: "Iago becomes a villain because as a man without polish or pedigree, he believes he has been disrespected and overlooked: 'I know my price, I am worth no worse a place,' he says. Today, we understand the racial injustice that lies behind Othello's fate but we are likelier to remain blind to the class prejudice that instigated Iago's behavior."

Iago's wife Emilia has a speech that echoes Shylock's: "Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them: they see, and smell/ And have their palates both sweet and sour/ As husbands have." In the end, she is another of Iago's victims, stabbed to death after she reveals her husband's treachery.

The author also examines eleven more of Shakespeare's plays ("Richard III", "Richard II", "Henry IV Parts 1 and 2", "Henry V", "As You Like It", "Hamlet", "King Lear", "Measure for Measure", "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Winter's Tale"). Having said that, the reason to buy this book is for her insight into "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello."

She concludes: as Shakespeare developed as a playwright, "(he) became increasingly aware of the prejudices and exploitations of his society . . . In doing so, he makes it possible for us to understand the point of view of marginalized characters, such as Shylock and Othello. She also writes: "When we address one another with empathy, disagreements don't go away, but compromise and unity are easier to reach."

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Book Review: Rivers of Power
Posted - Feb 12, 2021
Throughout history rivers have been the lifeline of civilization. In "Rivers of Power" author and geophysicist Laurence Smith shows how rivers helped to create early civilization. He says we need rivers not just for our livelihood but for our mental well-being. He also shows how rivers not only renew themselves, but maintain their river beds, as they descend mountains on their journey to the sea, by filling in low spots with rocks and sediments. He even discusses how outer space technology is helping humankind to better understand and maintain the health of earth's rivers and lakes. Indeed, Smith's narrative is one part physics and one part metaphysics. "Rivers of Power" is (pardon the pun) never dry, but informative and entertaining–a lively journey that follows our understanding, use, and need of rivers.


Early societies depended on rivers for their very survival, not only to supply an endless flow of fresh drinking water, but to irrigate their fields for growing food, as well as to provide a convenient means of transportation, and to act as a barrier against hostile neighbors These early societies expanded water usage by digging canals to irrigate even larger growing fields, thus increase yield that in turn created a surplus for trade. They also channeled the river flow to harness energy, and thereby free themselves to master intellectual pursuits–to develop writing, arithmetic, and laws to govern themselves–and ultimately to create cities and civilization. These early societies developed on the wide, fertile river valleys of East Asia, the Middle East, India, and North Africa, and were so dependent on rivers that some historians now refer to them as "hydraulic societies."


Very much a part of the story is how pollutants have negatively impacted water sources, and of how quickly rivers recover their health once the polluting is stopped. The author cites two recent examples. One is the Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio, that once was so badly polluted that incredibly it caught on fire. Once the polluting stopped, the Cuyahoga cleansed itself. Today, it's once again home to beavers, bald eagles, blue herons, and more than sixty varieties of fish. Another example is a toxic waste dump in Buffalo, New York, on a short waterway cut into the east bank of the Niagara River, infamously known as Love Canal. Thanks to an Act of Congress, which created the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), Love Canal was cleaned up and is now certifiably restored to health. Which is a promising start to a larger national problem yet to be tackled. As of the writing of this book, the author tells us there remains another 1,337 toxic dumps still to be cleaned.


Also investigated by Smith are a number of large-scale public water works projects, in China (the creation of the massive Three-Gorges Dam); in the Ethiopian Highlands (the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Damn); and in California (the building of an extensive network of a canals and pipelines to transfer fresh drinking water from streams in Northern California to the desert that is Southern California. Added to this is yet another canal that connects Southern California with the Colorado River. Despite these vast quantities of fresh water, Southern California's thirst for water is not easily slaked. Recently it has sought additional sources of water, including recycling waste water into drinking water.

Smith points out that dams have been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that they prevent surprise flooding, while storing vast quantities of water as a hedge against droughts. A curse in that they upset age-old ecosystems, such as preventing fish from swimming upstream to their native spawning waters.

Today's dams not only store untold quantities of fresh drinking water, but also produce relatively cheap hydro electric power. On the downside dams capture vast quantities of gravel, rocks and silt, that reduce capacity, and from time to time must be dredged out.

In the early part of the 20th century many dams were built, up and down the west coast of United States. For a variety of reasons, a number of these have been torn down in recent years. What's interesting, is how quickly these rivers recover once the dams are removed. Sandy marshes below once existing-dams return to wetlands, providing green foliage that prevents erosion, while giving refuge to a variety of wildlife. Also, fish (notably salmon) return to these streams and migrate back up to their former spawning waters, as if nothing had happened.

The author also cites a number of studies that reveal that water, particularly rivers, promote good mental health. Water, and the sound of it flowing over cataracts and rocks, tends to sooth frayed nerves. It turns out people need water not for all the obvious reasons, but also to regenerate their souls and lead happier lives. Studies show that living near water actually revitalizes people. For this reason, a number of large river cities, particularly those with decaying shipping and industrial centers, are being cleared of aging infrastructure and renewed by developers to create recreational green spaces with access to water, as well as waterfront buildings for offices, for retail, restaurants and housing.

A notable example is Battery Park City, in downtown Manhattan. Once a thriving shipping center on the Hudson River, the area has been cleared of docks and warehouses, the murky waters backfilled, to create new green space for parks and recreation. I visited this site in 2005, and watched a baseball game played by city residents on a public baseball diamond, as the sun gradually set over New Jersey.

The same phenomenon has been taking place in cities all over the world, in Chicago, in London, in Seattle, in Shanghai, China, and in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is not exactly known for its river, which for most of the year is dry. The Los Angeles River had once been a broad wetlands (that would overflow and flood the city, whenever it rained heavily) until it was paved over, and enclosed within high banks, to prevent flooding. Today, the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration project is being carried out to "restore a natural riparian ecosystem along an 11-mile stretch through downtown Los Angeles." Part of the project includes the purchase of an abandoned freight-switching rail yard. This 42-acre riverfront property is considered to be a critical part of the overall river revitalization plan. Says the L.A. mayor; "This vast site can transform how Angelenos connect with the natural world, because it will allow for habitat restoration and open more than a mile of direct access to the river for communities that have been cut off from it for too long."


Smith has long been associated with the preservation of rivers and lakes, including a connection with NASA and their ongoing project of photographing the earth (beginning immediately in the aftermath of Sputnik, back in 1957). Today's forthcoming space effort is the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite mission, scheduled for launch in 2022. A joint collaboration between the USA, France, Canada, and the UK, the SWOT satellite will track water level changes in the millions of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, thus radically improving our ability to monitor freshwater sources globally. Once classified, NASA's photographs of earth can be obtained online for free.

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Book Review: "Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe"
Posted - Jan 29, 2021
Who knew? Who knew that the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe, so deeply associated with christianity, were in fact inspired by Islamic architecture? Who knew? Christopher Wren knew. Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was the English architect who was commissioned by King Charles II to spearhead the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral, which had been nearly destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in 1666. Christopher Wren is among the heroes of "Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe" by Diana Darke. If you have the slightest interested in architecture, in world history, or in religion, you'll find much to enjoy in this imminently readable book. The author is a first-rate historian who specializes in Middle East studies and in ancient architecture, and a fine writer to boot. At 390 pages and beautifully illustrated, this book is as much a feast for the intellect as it is a visual treat for the eyes.

The original St. Paul's Church was one of the more majestic examples of Gothic architecture in Europe. Unfortunately, Christopher Wren did not appreciate Gothic architecture–which favored ornate pinnacles, slender towers and prickly steeples, and in their place erected a majestic dome–an engineering triumph that made him the bane of parishioners, who wanted their cathedral rebuilt exactly as it had been before the fire. Nonetheless, Wren's dome lived on to become one of London's most iconic landmarks.

Christopher Wren was as much a student of architecture as he was England's greatest architect. It was he who discovered that Europe's majestic christian cathedrals were in fact inspired by the Mosques the Muslims had been building for hundreds of years in the middle east. He wrote, "the Gothic style should be more rightly called the Saracen style" (note, the word 'Saracen' has dropped from our vocabulary, but in Wren's time it was commonly used as a pejorative term to describe Arab Muslims, particularly Spanish-Arab Muslims).

Writes the author: "While recognizing the Saracen origins of Gothic, Wren himself was no fan of the Gothic style, dismissing its weak roofing, its poor construction, and its fiddly decor and ornamentation. . . ." Further on, she writes: "If Wren's theory is right, that the origins of Gothic are Islamic, it would mean the Muslims provided the inspiration for what Christianity regarded as its own unique architectural formula–a most inconvenient truth."

The author spends much of her book proving that Wren's theory was indeed right, and traces how it happened, beginning with the collapse of the Ulmayyad dynasty in 750 CE. The Ulmayyads were builders, who created a rich legacy of architecture in the Syrian city of Damascus–mostly mosques and grand palaces, as well as a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs to capture, store and transfer fresh water into the desert city. After their violent overthrow, the surviving Ulmayyads fled Damascus, crossed over Northern Africa, and relocated in Spain, where they established a new political base in Cordoba. There, they built a number of mosques and grand palaces, many of which still stand today.

Having gained a foothold in Spain, their architectural influence soon spread into Northern Europe, beginning in 12th century France, with the construction of the famed St. Denis Basilica. As with so many Gothic cathedrals to follow, the stone masons who designed and built it were Muslim craftsmen who had followed the Ulmayyads into Spain, and who passed their knowledge onto a host of European apprentices. They had long since mastered the art of stone-cutting and sophisticated building techniques that, in the centuries to follow, would lead to ever taller and more dramatic Gothic cathedrals, far surpassing anything seen up to that time.

In the early chapters the author examines middle east architecture and how it evolved from ancient civilizations, and came to full flower during Islam's Golden Age (900–1300 CE). Interestingly, a number of mosques started out as christian churches and, curiously, as rulers came and went, switched back and forth between the two faiths. A prime example is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which the invading crusaders mistook for Solomon's Temple, and therefore believed it was a Christian church. Writes the author: "The Dome of the Rock represents the first power statement, a monument deliberately conceived to impress the mark of Muslim identity on Jerusalem and to proclaim Islam's dominance over the formerly Christian city." The building's magnificent golden dome was one of the engineering wonders of its day, and would prove highly influential on the many European buildings to follow.

Another influential structure was the Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Christian church in sixth century Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). A complex structure topped by an elegant dome that dominates Istanbul's skyline, today it serves the followers of Islam as a Mosque. When designing the dome for St. Paul's cathedral, Christopher Wren used the Haglia Sophia dome as one of his models, in particular the interior framing. Such were the complexities of building a dome, the author devotes an entire chapter to how the engineering was developed and applied by master engineers, such as Christopher Wren. Wren's counter-part in the middle east was an architect and civil engineer named Mimar Sinan (1488–1588) who lived roughly a century before Wren. He was hailed as the Euclid of his time and one of its greatest engineers. Writes the author: "His contributions in the advancement of dome technology was of huge direct relevance to European architecture, since it went on not only to inform the techniques of Christopher Wren in building the dome of St. Paul's, but also to influence aspects of Italian Renaissance architecture."

One of Sinan's engineering breakthroughs was the double dome–two half-shell structures–one fitting within the other, each one strengthening the other–that made giant domes such as St. Paul's possible.

To Sinan and Wren the dome serves both mosque and church as a means of letting in more light, either through a central oculus or through windows in the vertical section supporting the dome, or indeed both, as at St. Paul's.

The author describes the dome's effect on true believes thusly: "From the inside, the worshippers could gaze up and marvel as his spirit rose, enjoying a sense of harmony and the sacred. From the outside, the dome was the embodiment of God's presence and power."

Further on she writes: "Everyone built on everyone's knowledge in a constant synthesis of all the techniques and materials on hand, but East and West each interpreted their Romano-Bysantine inheritance in entirely separate ways. While European architecture after the Renaissance became endlessly focused on designing facades using the antique orders so beloved of Wren, Ottoman architecture under Sinan instead concentrated on achieving perfectly centralized unified domed spaces filled with light. Sinan's was a single-minded search for geometric purity of form, textured by masterful fenestration (i.e. the arrangement and proportion of windows) and the control of light and shade into a centralized space.

The reason Middle East architects were able to build such complex structures–such as balancing a heavy dome on thinly supported walls– was by their mastery of geometry. Indeed, Islam's Golden Age was a time of scientific advancement, financed by world trade. Through trade their ideas reached European centers of commerce such as Venice, as well as Spain and Sicily, and from there they spread into greater Europe. Another of their advancements was the development of glass, which would prove critical to the grand stain-glass windows that are the hallmark of Gothic cathedrals.

The author sums up: "My purpose had been to show that no one 'owns' architecture, just as no one 'owns' science. There is no property in a scientific discovery. Everybody builds on what went on before. Once made, a discovery can be used and built upon by people from other cultures, and where it came from is, in a sense, ultimately irrelevant. When people talk about 'Greek science', 'Islamic science' or 'European science', this does not change the fact that whatever Greeks, or Muslims or Europeans discovered in the way of science is ultimately science, pure and simple. Double domes, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, etc. are all discoveries of architectural techniques that will, of course, subsequently be used and developed across cultures.

"Except that architecture is not just science. Neither is it aesthetics. It is a deliberate choice, reflecting self-image, and in the case of public and historic buildings, it is closely tied to national identity. As such, architecture can be, and clearly already has been, co-opted into culture wars. Such wars can play out within cultures, such as the Neo-classicism versus Neo-gothic that Wren struggled with all his life when building St. Paul's which (and here she quotes Wren), being contrived in the Roman style, was not so well understood and relished by others, who thought it deviated too much from the old Gothic form of cathedral churches, which they had been used to see and admire in this country. Others observed it was not stately enough and contended, that for the honor of the nation, and the city of London, it ought not to be exceeded in magnificence, by any church in Europe."

Such is the price of being ahead of your time.

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Book Review: "Caste: The Origins of our Discontent"
Posted - Jan 22, 2021
It seems we live in a caste society. This is the message of "Caste: The Origins of our Discontent" by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She cites a number of sources to support her thesis, the most compelling by historian Nell Irvin Painter, who says simply and succinctly: "Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition." The author also makes the point that racial prejudice is not healthy. Indeed, she cites clinical evidence that harboring racial hatred can shorten your life, and ultimately kill you. At 388 pages the book is not overly long, and reads quite easily. However, as well as the author makes her points, she often overstates the case, with repeated stories that after awhile become tiresome. Having said that there is much here to be learned, and I recommend the book heartily.

Our nation has been long divided by race, dating back to 1619, when the first slave ship made port in Point Comfort, Virginia, and unloaded about twenty chained Africans, destined for slavery. Up to this point the concept of "white" and "black" people was unknown. The colonies were comprised of Europeans (mostly Englishmen) who did not think of themselves as white. And the arriving African slaves certainly did not think of themselves as black, but as Igbo, Yoruba, Ewe Akan, and Ndebele. White and black people were concepts that developed over time. Writes the author: "There developed a caste system, based on what people looked like, an internalized ranking, unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about living their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously to this day."

She adds, "Caste is not a term often applied to the United States. It is considered the language of India or feudal Europe. But some anthropologists and scholars of race in America have made use of the term for decades." Indeed, the idea of "race", is a recent phenomenon in human history. It dates back to the start of the transatlantic slave trade and thus to the subsequent caste system that arose from slavery.

The word "race" likely derived from the Spanish word "raza" and was originally used to refer to the "caste or quality of authentic horses, which are branded with an iron so as to be recognized," wrote the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley. As Europeans explored the world, they began using the word to refer to the new people they encountered. "Ultimately, the English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist form of race ideology," say the Smedleys. "In the American mind (race) was and is a statement about profound and unbridgeable differences (that) conveys the meaning of social distance that cannot be transcended."

In recent years, geneticists and anthropologists have long considered race as a manmade invention, with no basis in science or biology. In fact, the term "Caucasian", a label often ascribed to people of European descent, is a word invented by a German professor of medicine named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who was so taken with the shape of a human skull he found in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, that he applied it to the people he believed descended from there and settled in Europe.


About two decades ago, an analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. Concludes the geneticist J. Craig Venter: "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world." Which means the entire racial caste system–the catalyst of hatreds and civil war–was built on what anthropologists now call "an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits," derived from "a few of the thousands of genes that make up a human being."

In other words, racism is based on a lie.

As slavery took hold in the Southern colonies, slaveholders began looking to the Bible for justification of their "peculiar institution" and, while conveniently ignoring Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, turned their attention to the Old Testament and learned that back in the Middle Ages some interpreters had described Noah's son, Ham, as bearing dark skin, and thus translated Noah's curse against him as a curse against the descendants of Ham–against all humans bearing dark skin.

They took further comfort from Leviticus, which exhorted them, "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are around you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids." They took as further license to enslave those they considered religious heathens, to build a new country out of the wilderness. Thus, a hierarchy evolved in the New World they created, one that set those with the lightest skin above those with the darkest.

"The curse of Ham is now being executed upon his descendants," wrote Thomas Cobb, a leading Confederate and defender of slavery. "The great Architect had framed them both physically and mentally to fill the sphere in which they were thrown. His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited to the degraded position they were destined to occupy."

Writes the author: "The United States and India would become, respectively, the oldest and the largest democracies in human history, both built on caste systems undergirded by their reading of the sacred texts of their respective cultures. In both countries, the subordinate castes were consigned to the bottom, seen as deserving of their debasement, owing to the sins of the past."

It would take a civil war, the deaths of three-quarters of a million soldiers and citizens, the assassination of a president, Abraham Lincoln, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to bring an end to slavery in the United States. Still slavery would live on in a new form of discrimination–white supremacy.

The southern white supremacists, says the author, "devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly, while a popular new pseudoscience called eugenics emerged to justify the renewed debasement. People on the bottom rung could be beaten or killed with impunity for any breach of the caste system, like not stepping off the sidewalk fast enough–or in trying to vote."

She also points out, that when Hitler and his band of thugs took power in Germany and focused their hatred toward European Jews, who should they turn their attention to for guidance? To the discriminatory race laws of the Jim Crow south. According to Yale legal historian James Whitman, in debating "how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich, the Nazis began by asking how the Americans did it."


"The caste system in America is four hundred years old and will not be dismantled by a single law or any one person, no matter how powerful," writes the author. "We have seen in the years since the civil rights era that laws, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, can be weakened if there is not the collective will to maintain them . . .

"Caste is a disease, and none of us is immune. It is as if alcoholism is encoded into the county's DNA, and can never be declared fully cured. It is like a cancer that goes into remission only to return when the immune system of the body politic is weakened . . .

"To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system–the twelve-year reign of the Nazis–can be created, it can be dismantled. We make a serious error when we fail to see the overlap between our country and others, the common vulnerability in human programming, what the theorist Hannah Arendt called 'the banality of evil.'"

"What's most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon," writes philosopher David Livingston Smith, "is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It is that they were ordinary human beings."


While preparing this review, I ran across this quote by Nelson Mandela:

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

Mandela, it will be remembered, spent 27 years in prison. Later, he was elected as South Africa's first black head of state. Under his watch, the government focused on dismantling the legacy of caste (a.k.a. apartheid) by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation.

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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