Thursday, December 15, 2005

Literary Theory in Crisis. yawn

Either literary theory is dead, or it's invincible. It all depends on who's talking. When Jacques Derrida died last year, The New York Times declared the end of the era of "big ideas." In April 2003, the Times had run an article about a University of Chicago symposium on the state of theory headlined "The Latest Theory Is Theory Doesn't Matter." More recently, a November 17 essay in the online magazine Slate mourned "The Death of Literary Theory."

Others say that theory has never been more perniciously alive. These critics persist in arguing that it is no longer possible to study literature for its own sake.

Just this summer, Columbia University Press published Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. The volume collects 30 years' worth of contrarian arguments with theory — make that Theory with a capital T — and takes as its premise the notion that "the rhetoric of Theory has been successful in gaining the moral and political high ground, and those who question it do so at their peril."

A long article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education (the college and university trade mag) on "What Happened" to literary theory. As someone who actually studied this stuff fairly seriously back in my college days, I have to wonder, "Who the hell cares?"

I mean, we might just as well spend our time worrying about the crisis in pigeon fancying for all it means even to me--someone who has actually read (God help me) Derrida and De Man and Baudrillard and Barthes. Someone who knows the name Shoshana Felman and has some idea what she's about. Someone who is not particularly scandalized by anything these folk have to say. Even I am utterly indifferent to literary theory and its possibly being in a crisis.

Of course, I no longer have any direct involvement in the field, but any field that has no importance to anyone not directly involved should seriously think about pigeon fancying and why the government doesn't give comparable funding to that hobby.

The only thing one is inspired to wonder reading this Chronicle piece is "Why are we paying people to research this stuff?"

Well, no that's wrong, one might also wonder "Why are we requiring students to study this stuff?"

It's hard for me not to look on people who still tool away at this stuff as nothing more than thieves of education funding that would be far better spent on primary school kids. But maybe that's just me.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Evil: David Brooks on Munich

David Brooks' editorial piece this Sunday on Steven Spielberg's new movie Munich is an interesting case study of the conflict between idealism and realism in amongst US conservatives.

Brooks, like most conservative pundits, likes to come off as a hard-headed fellow, not one to be put off the game by misty abstractions. But, on the other hand, he insists on using, and on other people using, a term which I'm betting he has no definition for: evil.

Spielberg's film is centered on the terrorist murder of 10 Israelis and one American at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the reprisals that arose from it. Spielberg uses these events as a springboard to deal with larger issues like the Arab/Israeli conflict more generally, and perhaps all seemingly intractable human conflicts.

Brooks seems to think the film is well-done, but he has a major complaint with the world-view behind it. Brooks contends that by setting the film in 1972, Spielberg can avoid acknowledging and dealing with "evil," which for Brooks is embodied in radical Islamic groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Setting aside the question of whether the 1972 terrorists are any more sympathetic than 2002 terrorists, one has to remark at how many conservative commentators today seem to hold up the acknowledgement of evil as the sine qua non of realistic discussion of practically any issue.

I find quite the opposite to be the case. "Evil" is generally used, like Brooks uses it, as an empty signifier which the reader may insert whatever he or she most fears in the context in which it is used. And generally speaking, whenever we hear someone going on about "evil" in a foreign or public policy debate, we are sure to hear all sorts of speculation, contrafact and pure fantasy from the same source.

Take our president for example: he starts off warning us of the (cue reverb) "Axis of Evil," and soon enough we're hearing about chemical weapons stockpiles, yellowcake buys, dire threats to American well-being, rose-petal-strewn streets, quickly returning American GIs, etc., etc.

Well, we know how all that turned out.

What we should really hear when we hear a policy wonk say "evil" is "I am attempting to justify what I fear I cannot otherwise justify by making reference to this shibboleth. Surely you aren't heretic or heathen enough to keep questioning me now!"

Mr. Brooks' article shows every indication that he has not the least notion of what he means when he says "evil." Of course, he can identify certain parties who are evil (radical Islam), but can he tell us what evil is more generally? I doubt it.

For instance, Brooks points out that one of Spielberg's terrorists makes a speech which "sounds like Mahmood Abbas," implying that somehow this makes for a sympathetic villain. But Abbas is the head of an organization (the PLO) which has killed innocents by the score, including those Olympic athletes, sometimes with sickening arbitrariness and viciousness. Not so long ago it was the PLO which led the list of the "evil" organizations that could only be eliminated, not negotiated with. Now their leader is the model for sympathetic insurrection?

On the other hand, hard-headed Brooks tells us that Spielberg's refusal to acknowledge evil means he gets his Israeli hero wrong, too. Far from being the conscience-ridden hero of Spielberg's film, real Israeli assassins are "less sympathetic" and "hard." Hard enough, one wonders, to kill or torture innocents? I think we already know the answer to that. You gotta crack some eggs and all that. There's probably an Arabic equivalent to that expression.

Are those Israelis really heroes? Or are they evil? Or is the small evil they do OK because it is done to benefit a larger, good, cause. But Bin Laden thinks he has a good cause, too, doesn't he?

And if, as Brooks implies at another point, evil is to be measured by one's intransigence, what are we to think of the zealots on the Israeli right, who don't really keep much of a secret of their determination to eliminate all those who oppose their vision of Zion. Are they evil?

My answer is "maybe" and "from a policy perspective, who cares?" The thing about evil and extremism is that it is everywhere: we've got extremists in the US, they're there in Israel, and they are amongst the Palestinians. In fact, we can probably just go along with what many Christian philosophers say and agree that all of us harbor evil in our hearts. The trick is to not let it get the upper hand: to rue the small evils that we do and to always be uncertain of the great goods we expect to arise from them. And most of all, perhaps, not to justify our own actions because our enemy is "evil" and anything we do against him is therefore acceptable. That is fairly close to the philosophy of the Bin Ladens.

The big trouble with the Palestinians and much of the Arab world is that extremism (or, if you insist, "evil") is not under control, as it generally is in the US and Israel. But this doesn't mean that those societies are inherently evil, or that we should never make any compromise with any of them. It means that we have to start trying to create the conditions under which consensus in those societies moves away from the extreme, where the populace will be less willing to look the other way or tacitly approve when they encounter atrocities, where extremism will pose a threat to them as well. In short, we have to give these people something they value which they might lose, we have to give the moderate less excuse to see us as evil, and we have to stop giving ourselves excuses to act out evil ourselves.

Our problem, though, is not our failure to acknowledge evil, it is the fact that we use it too much. We use the word evil when we want to leave our own motives unexamined; we use it when we want to ignore the legitimate grievances of others; and we use it when we want to justify our own evil acts.

I am far, far from saying that America is itself "Evil." I think that would be a stupid thing to say regardless of what we might be doing. I think we are the "good guys." I, for one, love this country enough that I do not have to lie and obfuscate to justify that love--I can love us imperfect as we are. But I think nothing is gained by idealizing either ourselves or our enemies. Let's have a cold honest look at ourselves and our situation and do what's needed to win. And let us, please, dispense with the childish need for unambiguous heroes and unambiguous villains so long and so assiduously cultivated in us by Mr. Spielberg and his Hollywood colleagues.

Mr. Brooks, it's time to grow up, forget about the boogie man, and face up to the ugly task of fighting a real, human conflict. It's time to let "evil" be a greater part of our private reflections and a much lesser part of our sometimes fatuous public discourse on the war.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Sprawl? Good?

Sprawling into controversy
Professor and author Robert Bruegmann is defying conventional wisdom with his claim that suburban creep is both an ancient phenomenon and a beneficial one.

By Scott Timberg
Times Staff Writer

December 9, 2005

Professor and author Robert Bruegmann is defying conventional wisdom with his claim that suburban creep is both an ancient phenomenon and a beneficial one. At first glance, Robert Bruegmann --— a childless academic whose modernist apartment building sits in a dense, upscale Chicago neighborhood --— seems like the kind of guy who'd hate the suburbs. His peers and predecessors have, for decades, decried the unplanned, low-density, auto-dependent growth of shopping malls and subdivisions.

But he's emerging as the unlikely champion of what we've called, at least since the 1950s, "sprawl." His counterintuitive new book, "Sprawl: A Compact History," charts the spreading of cities as far back as 1st century Rome, and finds the process not just deeply natural but often beneficial for people, societies and even cities.

The Boston Globe has called Bruegmann "the Jane Jacobs of suburbia," after the urban historian who celebrated the serendipitous, high-density warren of Greenwich Village and other old neighborhoods.

"Sprawl has been as evident in Europe as in America," he writes, "and can now be said to be the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live."

Debates over sprawl and urbanism tend to be very emotional and morally tinged to the point of moralism. Another new book, Joel S. Hirschhorn's "Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money," blames sprawl not only for social isolation but also for traffic accidents and untimely death caused by sedentary lifestyles. On the other side of the aisle, libertarians often excoriate sprawl's opponents as uptight liberal "elitists."

Though Bruegmann--a professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago-- is making a bold, even contrarian argument, he discusses it with an art historian's detachment.

Bruegmann has always been interested in the built environment and urban change. "When I went to study this," he says by phone from Chicago, "I went to a department of art history, because that's where people talked about architecture. It probably wasn't the most logical place for me to go, because when I got there I had to learn about Nativity scenes and the Madonnas of 15th century Florence.

"However, it gave me something that I think is invaluable: a broad panorama of what people have thought about aesthetics over the last couple of thousand years. And because a lot of social scientists don't have that, they're often very puzzled by arguments that truly are aesthetic and metaphysical in nature but are disguised as being pragmatic and about objective things."

He's a historian of the beautiful, documenting something often taken as the height of ugliness. And the issue, he says, really is aesthetic at base. "And aesthetic judgments are not very susceptible to explanation or argument. That's why it's so hard to talk about."

Part of what's startling about the book is its defiance of the idea that sprawl was birthed in the postwar U.S.: Sprawl is not just bad but "American bad," architecture critic Witold Rybczynski writes in a recent Slate review, blaming it, with tongue in cheek, for everything from McMansions to the disappearance of countryside to an oil-driven Gulf War. "Like expanding waistlines, it's touted around the world as an example of our profligacy and wastefulness as a nation."

But Bruegmann's book is grounded in a history lesson--one that finds the roots of present-day Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles in Augustan Rome or Restoration London. People of means, he writes, have always tried to get some distance from urban centers, often inhabiting villas outside city walls.

"I'm sure you would have found it in the very first city ever established," he says. "Living in cities has almost always been unpleasant and unhealthy--not something most people wanted. If you were in imperial Rome, crowded into dark, dingy, polluted apartment buildings, it would have been a nightmare. Most cities I looked at had just crushing density until about the 18th century."

In the Middle Ages, most cities in continental Europe had walls to protect them from wars and invasions, keeping them concentrated and providing relatively sharp distinctions between the city proper and the suburbium, as Romans called it, outside.

But a quirk of geography, and the nation's early-modern political unity, led London to become the first metropolis to sprawl massively. The fact that Britain was surrounded by water protected its capital from foreign invaders, so the city stretched beyond its medieval walls as nobles and burghers built country palaces in once-distant western reaches now woven into the city's fabric. As London became Europe's most populous and dynamic city, it grew horizontally.

Like London, whose unchecked growth was denounced by the intellectuals of its day, Los Angeles was deemed a sprawling, tacky, man-made disaster. Norman Mailer, for instance, described the "pastel monotonies of ... Los Angeles' ubiquitous acres ... built by television sets giving orders to men."

But L.A. was on its way to becoming highly dense, and greater L.A. is now, at more than 7,000 people per square mile, the densest urban area in the United States. (Unlike most East Coast cities, even L.A.'s outlying areas are very tightly packed.)

"Los Angeles is the most staggering thing," Bruegmann says of the city's vertical growth since the early '70s. Since then, he says, cities like San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego have become what he calls "hyper-versions of the rest of the country."

And while the traffic, pollution and housing prices may dismay residents, Bruegmann insists that "the problem of Los Angeles is the problem of success: It's become so attractive that everyone wants to live there." And it's done this, he says, without paying the environmental and aesthetic price of more wide-open cities like Atlanta and Houston.

By contrast, he argues, the "smart growth" policies of Portland, Ore., have been ambiguous. Portland is eminently livable but has not reduced sprawl and remains a low-density city. As its density starts to climb, he says, housing prices are going up.

One of his most shocking assertions is that suburban spread helps cities and their urban centers: Look at the way immigrants and the poor moved out of Lower Manhattan, for instance, only to have the area later reborn as a chic living space for artists and young people. It wouldn't have happened, he argues, if the highways and houses beyond the city center hadn't siphoned off population, allowing these neighborhoods to be reborn.

Even fans of Bruegmann's book blanched at this notion.

"It's certainly true that deindustrialization of any downtown presents some opportunities," author and journalist Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in an approving review in the trade magazine Governing. "But for every inner-city district that has emptied out and retooled, many more have been emptied out and are waiting desperately for the revival to begin. Abandonment is an awfully high price for the chance to start over. I wouldn't expect the leadership of Detroit or St. Louis to find Bruegmann's long view of urban history very consoling."

But Bruegmann points at downtown L.A., where he sees this process, despite some rough years, bearing fruit.He has some emotional sympathy with anti-sprawl critics, just as he does with environmentalists. But he thinks both groups are a little shortsighted when it comes to the real costs of their programs.

"By trying to stop sprawl, you'll be doing something very beneficial to the incumbents' club," he says. "It stops change and makes it harder for people to get onto the middle-class ladder. It has a definite effect on social and economic mobility."

Sprawl may not be inevitable, but it is, he says, "completely essential" to the functioning of a free society. "It goes absolutely to the heart of people's aspirations--— what it is they want to be, of how they want to live," Bruegmann says. "And tampering with that is very, very fraught."

If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at

This is interesting. I'm no big fan of abandoned cities or low-density stripmalldom, but the idea that change has to happen, and that this sort of moving about is the best way to get it done is an interesting proposition. A lot of folks who are against sprawl seem very little concerned with change, or things like inexpensive, convenient housing, or things like startup businesses.

This point-of-view is more or less an intelligent articulation of the seemingly mindless growth boosterism one often runs into at the local chamber of commerce. Maybe it's not really so mindless.

While we may not agree that sprawl is good, we may agree that some of the things thatfacilitatesltitates are good, and that plgovernmentsernemnts and environmentalists ought to be thinking about them.

Follow link to an exerpt from Bruegmann's book. Thanks to Dean.


Here's one way to get a committee off the dime

Bribe them!

Transportation group offered incentive
State offers money if group takes some action

Record-Eagle staff writer

TRAVERSE CITY - The state of Michigan is dangling $25,000 before a local transportation study group to jump-start a process several members acknowledge is stalled.
"We're starting to hear grumbling in the community that (we) aren't doing anything," said Ken Kleinrichert, a member of the Land Use and Transportation Study group. "People are losing interest."
Eight months after their appointment to study and recommend a long-term remedy to the region's burgeoning transportation woes, the 29-member group has failed to agree on the scope of work they want studied or how the study should be designed and implemented.
A proposal mandating that a timeline be in place by February for hiring a consultant was defeated Tuesday by a lone member.
Under the proposal, if the timeline is missed, TC-TALUS, the governmental organization responsible for spending up to $3.3 million in federal money on the study, would create the schedule.
"If we have a group that can't even put together a timeline, then TC-TALUS steps in and sets it," Kleinrichert said. "Otherwise, we are going to go in circles for the next five years."
Ken Smith of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council objected to TC-TALUS directing the group.
"If we can't be accountable to ourselves, then why do we have to have TC-TALUS tell us," Smith said.
The Michigan Department of Transportation said it will authorize $25,000 for TC-TALUS to hire attorney Robert Grow to coach the transportation group to design its study process and hire a consultant.
"They've been at this for quite some time and we haven't seen any movement," said David Langhorst of MDOT. "We're looking to make something happen and this is a good way to do it."
Grow, co-founder of Envision Utah, a nationally recognized regional planning effort, spoke recently at a retreat for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.
Members of the LUTS group and MDOT said Grow impressed them.
What's still to be determined, though, is if Grow is interested.
Langhorst said if Grow doesn't take the job the LUTS group needs to find someone like him.
"I believe this will be money well spent," Langhorst said. "We have a special opportunity here and we should take it."

© Traverse City Record-Eagle

The Land Use and Transportation Study group is an interesting study in how NOT to do inclusiveness. This is a group that includes every elected official imaginable as well as a bunch of unelected and unaccountable representatives from groups like the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Nothing against the groups, but they belong on the outside of decision-making bodies, not on the inside. No one elected these folks, and they shouldn't be deciding the transportation future of the region, especially when some of them seem to perceive their role on the transport committee as making sure nothing happens. I don't think any more government money need be spent buying these people off.

Whatever the committee decides on, there will be lawsuits filed. So long as people give money to support groups whose sole purpose is filing obstructionist lawsuits, there will be obstructionist lawsuits.

There's been a lot of complaining from the paper (and other folks up here) about how secretive and non-participatory government can be up here. But letting in more special interest groups IS NOT the answer. The answer is being open to the public at large, and justifying your actions to the public at large. Right now the public interest is basically being held hostage by conflicting interest groups. It's time to kick them off the committee and let the elected public representatives do their business.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Google and Books

George Dyson on Google book scanning: "The Universal Library"
excerpt from an essay by George Dyson on edge:

Digital coding is the universal language allowing free translation between abstract information and physical books. Once upon a time, if you wanted the information, you had to physically possess (or borrow) the book. If you wanted to purchase a new copy of the book, the title had to be "in print."

This is no longer true. Scan the text once, digitally, and the information becomes permanently available, anywhere, no matter what happens to physical copies of the book. Search for an out-of-print title and you will now find bookshops (and libraries) who have copies available; soon enough the options will include bookshops offering to print a copy, just for you. Google Library and Google Print have been renamed Google Book Search--not because Google is shying away from building the Universal Library (with links to the Universal Bookstore) but because search comes first. To paraphrase Tolkien: "One ring to find them, one ring to bind them, one ring to rule them all."

Why does this strike such a nerve? Because so many of us (not only authors) love books. In their combination of mortal, physical embodiment with immortal, disembodied knowledge, books are the mirror of ourselves. Books are not mere physical objects. They have a life of their own. Wholesale scanning, we fear, will strip our books of their souls. Works that were sewn together by hand, one chapter at a time, should not be unbound page by page and distributed click by click. Talk about "snippets" makes authors flinch.

I am . . . what? fascinated? puzzled? flabberghasted? by the response to the whole Google Books project.

Seemingly intelligent people are taking up stances that make no sense whatsoever, or ones that seem to run directly contrary to their own interests. George Dyson, for instance. I imagine he's a smart guy. And I love books, too. But everything what he's written on Google of late (this piece and "Turing's Cathedral," available at The Edge) seem almost unbelievablyy beside the point. Yes books are physical objects. So what?

The reaction to Google's ambition to index everything bears a lot of similarity to the popular-intellectual response to cyberpunk writing and the emergence of the Internet.Rememberr all the half-informed drivel written about something called "cyber space" which was going to replace all genuine, authentic experience with a simulation. Luckily, somehow that didn't happen.

New media and the availability of new ways to use new media do not spell the disappearance of old media and old ways. Mr. Dyson and book lovers everywhere (including me) will continue to buy, store and cherish books. Probably moreso than we did before with the (perhaps Google-supplied, perhaps not) ability to find books we'd never have come across otherwise.

The thing with Google is this: it is a means of access to information and a powerful one. They are not without competitors, and they will probably never be without competitors. They are never going to be the one entity that absolutely dominates everything on the web. And anything they propose to do is can probably be duplicated by one of their competitors. Google isn't the millennium, it's just a good search tool.

Copyright holders who deny the fair use of their material (let's leave the legal nitpicking aside here and just say that searchability and the display of excerpts is fair: it will cause few or no loss of sales (actually quite the opposite) and will certainly lend to the propagation of knowledge), with few exceptions are slitting their own throats. Because the big threat to books isn't being digitized. It's not being digitized.

There is an incrediblee wealth of knowledge now in print, but not available for search. And that fact will make the world of print increasinglyy the domain of odd ducks like me. While this might make people like me more special, if you are truly interested in books, you'll be more supportive of the reasonably regulated digitizing of print.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Interlochen Backs Out

Interlochen backs out


Photo: Record-Eagle/Tyler Sipe

Interlochen Center for the Arts no longer plans to run the State Theatre in downtown Traverse City.

TRAVERSE CITY - Interlochen Center for the Arts no longer plans to run the State Theatre as a performance place, and several groups are negotiating the future of the historic movie house.

The front-runner could be the Traverse City Film Festival. The State was the marquee venue last summer for the first film festival. It budgeted $1 million next year for the "purchase, operation or renovation" of the Front Street theater, according to festival co-founder Doug Stanton.

"That would be our hope, but negotiations are ongoing, and we just need to be positive," Stanton said.

The State currently is owned by the nonprofit State Theatre Group, which in 2003 announced a partnership with Interlochen. The plan was to raise $6.5 million in 12 months to upgrade the theater to allow for many types of entertainment and live performances.

The funding hasn't materialized and Interlochen backed away from its plan to run it once renovated.

"It appears to us the resources to create the multiple-use performing arts center and the momentum for that do not exist at this time," Interlochen spokesman Paul Heaton said.

Interlochen is still involved in planning for the theater's future and hopes to use it for some performances, Heaton said.

The State Theatre Group, Interlochen, Rotary Charities of Traverse City, the film festival and the Traverse Symphony Orchestra are among those discussing what's next.

"We are all talking and trying to figure out what is going to work best," said Marsha Smith, Rotary's executive director.

The orchestra hoped to make the theater its new home if the full plan had been instituted.

The orchestra board hasn't ruled it out, but Interlochen's diminished involvement "has resulted in a reassessment that is ongoing," TSO spokesman Andy Buelow said.

State Theatre Group chairman Charles Judson said the owners are trying to "put together a plan" and won't actively fundraise until it does. The group is out of cash, Smith said.

"Everybody is being very cooperative," Judson said. "We definitely want there to be a future for it. We're trying to reach a shared vision."

Rotary gave $750,000 in grants to the State project to date, said Smith. It holds a $250,000 lien on the building.

City records placed a $670,000 value on the theater and the property in 1996. It has not been assessed since then because of its nonprofit status.

Film festival spokeswoman Tracy Kurtz said the festival invested more than $250,000 in donated materials and labor to spruce up the theater for the festival's inaugural run.

The festival envisions using the State to show movies, host concerts and provide a venue for other arts groups, Stanton said.

"The theater can be an incredibly attractive magnet for downtown and benefit the entire community," he said.

The festival's plans for the theater are "simple, small and local," he added.

"We are really excited about the opportunity to preserve this important downtown landmark," Stanton said.

I must be psychic!

Seriously, though, this is for the best. Interlochen doesn't have what it takes to make the State the sort of grassroots, hip, funky, more-with-less operation. The Arts Center folks may have some experience along the "more with less" lines, but their legacy is high art. Their programming selections have consistently run to very well established Arts Center fodder (with a few exceptions, what you see booked at Interlochen is the same "certified by the cultural elites" stuff you see booked at Arts Centers everywhere). Their image is, quite frankly, somewhat snobbish. Grassroots, hip and funky they are not.

The film festival on the other hand has some promise as a platform on which other community groups might put together a program (or programs) that will both bring the people in and give them something that goes beyond standard issue high culture.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Michael Moore to Buy TC's State Theater?

As Traverse City readers will already know, Michael Moore held a successful film festival here in Traverse City last summer, but he's been running into some trouble lining up venues for a repeat performance next year.

Some time back I wrote this about Moore and the State Theater:
In 1996, plans were announced to convert the theater and the former Kurtz Music building next door into a $6.9 million community arts and performance complex.
A legal dispute between the State Theatre Group and Barry Cole, who donated the building to the group, held up the project and it was scaled back to $4.6 million before it again stalled.

In 2003, the State Theatre Group and Interlochen Center for the Arts announced a partnership to renovate it. [Interlochen's contribution being . . . no cash whatsoever and two years of nothing much happening.]

The group has about $6.5 million yet to raise for the $10 million renovation, Interlochen spokesman Paul Heaton said. [The preceding from the TC Record-Eagle. ]

Back in 2003 the big excitement was that the Interlochen Arts Academy was partnering with the Sate Theater group to get this project rolling.

Two years and nothing happened until Michael Moore came along.

One has to wonder what's going on with the people supposedly in charge of this potentially quite valuable space. Why is the famously self-serving Interlochen now being given power over the space when they refuse to invest any money in it and seem to have so little power to re-invigorate the project.

Why does TC think that having an Interlochen outpost in town is such a grand thing for the city (as opposed to Interlochen itself)? Aside from providing a home for the Symphony Orchestra--which I and the vast majority of area residents have zero interest in--what is the vision for this place? How can it be made to be a community resource aside from handing it over (for nothing!) to an Arts academy that has never shown any real interest in the local community.

Perhaps we ought to consider turning the thing over to Moore, who has an equal reputation for being self-serving, but who can at least get some things done.Well, it seems that there's to be an announcement of an "acquisition" by the Traverse City Film Festival (otherwise known as Michael Moore) tomorrow morning.

I'm betting they bought the State. And I'm hoping that this will end Interlochen's tie to the theatre, as well. Interlochen booking the State Theatre is no blessing: just look at how unimaginative their own festival booking has been over the past several years. An Interlochen logowear store is no blessing to the State Theatre. And effectively selling tickets doesn't take genius, it just takes the promise of profit.

A film-festival-led effort to completely take over this facility, though, could be a wonderful thing for the community. Imagine this facility with strong links to a wide-range of local and grassroots organizations through town: the food co-op, churches, political organizations, the community radio station, TCTV 2, the library, 54-40 or Fight, the locally-owned bookstore . . .

This could really be something if Moore is willing to risk his prospects of getting into Traverse City's Rotary Club (seriously, he really seems to want to learn the TC secret handshake!).


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sex or Death?

No, it's not another Woody Allen film. It's the dilemma faced by social conservatives with the development of a vaccine against the sexually-transmitted virus responsible for most cervical cancer. Surprisingly, many don't seem to see the dilemma: Death before sex, any day! (Unless of course the sex in question is just to propagate the species and no fun is involved and everyone is married to everyone else.)

A Traverse City area physician (Dr. Meg Meeker) was at the forefront of bringing the HPV virus to public attention, which was a good thing. However, Dr. Meeker persistently overstated the risks the virus posed, and I always strongly suspected that her real objective was to discourage pre-marital sex, and that she secretly looked upon HPV as a heaven-sent stratagem to keep people from having sex for the fun of it.

Well, I haven't heard what Meeker thinks, but other conservatives definitely seem less than thrilled with the recent development of an HPV vaccine. So concerned are they for the moral purity of our womanhood, they'd rather they die of cancer than send a subtle message that sex is OK.

I think if Meeker is really just the concerned doctor she tries to pass herself off as, she'll condemn these heartless prudes in no uncertain terms.

Cervical Cancer Vaccine Gets Injected With a Social Issue
Some Fear a Shot For Teens Could Encourage Sex
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005; A03

A new vaccine that protects against cervical cancer has set up a clash between health advocates who want to use the shots aggressively to prevent thousands of malignancies and social conservatives who say immunizing teenagers could encourage sexual activity.
Although the vaccine will not become available until next year at the earliest, activists on both sides have begun maneuvering to influence how widely the immunizations will be employed.
Groups working to reduce the toll of the cancer are eagerly awaiting the vaccine and want it to become part of the standard roster of shots that children, especially girls, receive just before puberty.
Because the vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted virus, many conservatives oppose making it mandatory, citing fears that it could send a subtle message condoning sexual activity before marriage. Several leading groups that promote abstinence are meeting this week to formulate official policies on the vaccine.
In the hopes of heading off a confrontation, officials from the companies developing the shots -- Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline -- have been meeting with advocacy groups to try to assuage their concerns.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Local Currency

The following guest editorial just appeared in the local paper:

Bay Bucks is one truly bad idea

In the Record Eagle's Oct. 16 edition, the community was introduced to the concept of "Bay Bucks." The idea of Bay Bucks is to circulate a local currency in competition with the U.S. dollar that is only accepted by local merchants and force the holders of Bay Bucks to buy locally. While encouraging local citizens to buy from local merchants is a great goal, using Bay Bucks is a bad idea.

The United States government and the U.S. Department of Treasury devote considerable efforts to fight the counterfeiting of the U.S. dollar.
Hold up a $20 bill to the light and notice all of the measures used to fight counterfeiting. U.S. Treasury agents hunt down counterfeiters and throw them in jail. Any high school student with a color copier can counterfeit Bay Bucks! Will any law enforcement agency stop the counterfeiting of Bay Bucks?

As a consumer, if you own Bay Bucks you cannot use them to pay federal taxes, Michigan taxes or local property taxes. You can't pay mortgage payments, car payments, credit card payments, insurance payments, utility bills or rent payments. No major grocery store or gas station accepts Bay Bucks, so you can't buy groceries or gasoline. You can't deposit Bay Bucks into your checking account.

Bay Bucks will be a burden, not a benefit, to local merchants. The accounting systems of local merchants are not designed to process an alternative currency.
The typical local merchant deposits his currency receipts into his bank account every day. Then the merchant uses his bank account to pay employees, suppliers, landlords, etc.

Any local business collecting Bay Bucks will have to set aside that currency and then look for suppliers who are willing to accept the Bay Bucks currency. Warning: If you own a local business, don't agree to accept Bay Bucks until after you speak to your CPA or accountant about the cost and risk of accepting Bay Bucks.

If a local currency helped local businesses, every state in the union would issue its own currency. All of us in America benefit from having one currency, protected by the power of the United States of America.

None of the respected local institutions have endorsed Bay Bucks. There is no regulation by local government. There is no endorsement by the Chamber of Commerce. There is no clearinghouse by local banks.

The promoters of Bay Bucks will go into our community and sell these nearly useless pieces of paper to our citizens in exchange for real U.S. currency. What a deal! What are they going to do with the real money?

If we want to support local merchants (and we should) then we should buy their products and services with real U.S. dollars and we should give the waiters and waitresses real money, not pretend money, when we leave a tip.
Bay Bucks is a bad idea.

Now, I am far from thinking that Bay Bucks are going to have a huge positive impact on Northern Michigan, but Cline really ought to get his facts straight before sounding off on Bay Bucks.

For one thing: US currency has, up until very recently been widely reputed to be the most easily counterfeited in the world. I have both a ten and a twenty in my pocket right now that have zero security measures visible when I hold them up to the light.

Can any high school student make a color copy of a Bay Buck? Sure. But that student can just as well make a copy of a US twenty. And have just as much chance of getting away with passing it.

Bay Bucks DO include a number of security provisions, including being made of high quality paper, being difficult for color copiers to scan, and having a watermark. One wonders if Mr. Cline actually looked at a Bay Buck before writing his screed.

As for local businesses accepting the currency: there are, of course, considerations and provisions to be made in accepting an alternative currency. No one says otherwise.

As far as "respected local institutions go." Well, all local business are free to choose whether they want to take on the second currency in order to help out a local initiative. And Oryana Food Coop has chosen to do so. And amongst the folks likely to be interested in Bay Bucks, there's probably no more respected and heavily patronized business than that. I don't think anyone really cares whether Mr. Cline thinks the Bay Bucks buyers and sellers are a bunch of rabble. If Cline doesn't like Bay Bucks, he can decline to accept them and continue to congratulate himself on his irreproachable respectability.

Is a local currency a miracle cure for all of your local economic problems? Of course not: unless you are an economic crackpot, you see that there are benefits and drawbacks to local currencies (some have been pointed out by some economic heavies like Bernard Lietaer, former high official with the Belgian Central Bank. (Whom I do not agree with on many things, but the point is local currency is a matter on which intelligent people can disagree, rather than one on which ignorant people may scoff.)

As Mr. Lietaer points out, ALL money is "pretend money." The only thing that makes a little piece of ugly green paper with a plastic strip in it from the US government worth something is that most everyone has agreed that to pretend it is. It's all based on human opinion, as the founding fathers of economics tirelessly pointed out many many years ago.

Mr. Cline really ought to read some Adam Smith before waxing philosophic.

Here's a wikipedia article on "complementary currencies"


Monday, July 25, 2005

Interlochen and the State Theatre

There's lots of buzz around town about Michael Moore's TC Film Festival, which, considering what a lightening rod (or trouble maker, depending on your views) Moore is, has been remarkably apolitical.

One of the really good things the festival has done was featured in the Record-Eagle over the weekend: it has brought new hope and attention to the State Theatre project, which has languished for years.

TRAVERSE CITY - Delbert Dalzell's first date was at the State Theatre to see "South Pacific."
Now he's one of several volunteers working to fix up the classic movie house in time for the Traverse City Film Festival initiated by filmmaker Michael Moore and set for July 27-31.
"I walked her through that door," Dalzell said of his date as he stood near the State's Front Street entrance.
Dalzell worked to replace floor tiles in the front of the theater and mend holes in its metal facade. He said it fits in well with his occupation as a designer and builder of businesses and homes.
He's among about 30 people who have lent a hand in some way, and among about a dozen who have returned several times over the past three weeks, said Tim Hall, who is coordinating the effort.
"It's been really cool, because for the most part, the people showing up here read about it or heard about it from somebody else," he said. "And about 90 percent of the people here, I've never met."
Volunteers have worked several nights a week sprucing up the concession stand, putting in ambient lighting at the sides of the screen, replacing floor tiles, cleaning marquee letters and organizing the storage area for them.
They've repainted the back wall of the auditorium and touched up a cherry-tree mural on the sides. They've updated electrical wiring and plumbing and had the roof repaired.
And they've replaced the bulbs in the flashing marquee.
Hall said they couldn't have done it without donations of time and materials. Two paint stores combined to donate about 50 gallons of paint.

. . . .

In 1996, plans were announced to convert the theater and the former Kurtz Music building next door into a $6.9 million community arts and performance complex.
A legal dispute between the State Theatre Group and Barry Cole, who donated the building to the group, held up the project and it was scaled back to $4.6 million before it again stalled.
In 2003, the State Theatre Group and Interlochen Center for the Arts announced a partnership to renovate it. [Interlochen's contribution being . . . no cash whatsoever and two years of nothing much happening.]
The group has about $6.5 million yet to raise for the $10 million renovation, Interlochen spokesman Paul Heaton said.
While current fixes are largely cosmetic, Heaton said they will help achieve the permanent renovation.
"It's very significant in terms of getting people in so they can see the potential this building has of becoming a core of our performing arts community," he said.
Kathryn Dalgliesh, a 21-year-old volunteer, has never been to the theater for a show, but senses its importance based on comments from passers-by.
"We've had a lot of elderly people come by here and just to hear the things they remember about it is fun," she said. "It's really great that we're recreating memories for people and not just recreating the building."

Back in 2003 the big excitement was that Interlochen was partnering with the Sate Theater group to get this project rolling. Two years and nothing happened until Michael Moore came along.

One has to wonder what's going on with the people supposedly in charge of this potentially quite valuable space. Why is the famously self-serving Interlochen now being given power over the space when they refuse to invest any money in it and seem to have so little power to re-invigorate the project.

Why does TC think that having an Interlochen outpost in town is such a grand thing for the city (as opposed to Interlochen itself)? Aside from providing a home for the Symphony Orchestra--which I and the vast majority of area residents have zero interest in--what is the vision for this place? How can it be made to be a community resource aside from handing it over (for nothing!) to an Arts academy that has never shown any real interest in the local community.

Perhaps we ought to consider turning the thing over to Moore, who has an equal reputation for being self-serving, but who can at least get some things done.


Monday, July 18, 2005

But what about the chilllllllldren?

Well, just when you thought you were living amongst grown-ups comes the (national!) furor over the fact that local officials are actually naked underneath that boring gray flannel.


LELAND, Mich. (AP)- The caretakers of the school gardens in this northwest Michigan town wanted an attention-getting way to raise money. They got it. A calendar featuring photos of 12 well-known area men posing naked with carefully placed props is being noticed — and criticized.

The 2006 "Naked Gardener" calendar isn't affiliated with the Leland Public Schools. But much of the concern stems from schools Superintendent Michael Hartigan's inclusion in it.

"Is this an appropriate role model for our children?" said Janice Blackburn of Leland, whose children attend Glen Lake schools. "I think he crossed the line. The public perception is that it's associated with the school."

Whether or not the officials in question would be appropriate role models would depend on whether the children are male or not. But, then, with modern surgical techniques current gender status needn't stand in the way, either.

I mean, come on! Just how uptight are we here? What I'm concerned about is what kind of role model are the all-atwitter parents? Are children to adopt their neurotic-obsessive denial of all things having any connection to genitalia. Or maybe it would be better for them to acknowledge that even overweight officialdom is not just a bunch of stuffed . . . shirts.

You just have to love parents who think they are doing their kids a favor by being prudish and overprotective, shielding them from everything unseemly or unpleasant. They're not.

Not everyone in the world is a role model for your children. Years ago basketball star and otherwise un-exemplary human Charles Barkley made the same point: Parents are the primary role-models, not whoever happens to be represented in the media.

So, parents, stop using your kids as an excuse to act like a bunch of uptight yahoos! You're setting a bad example.


Saturday, May 28, 2005

Independents or cranks?

Below is an editorial letter I sent to the local paper recently.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle is the major news outlet up here, and of late they've been on the warpath against the way things have always been done up here: behind closed doors, for the most part. Sometimes they seem to be on the side of the angels vis-a-vis opening up the town to contributions from new quarters, as I urge in my Creative Class article.

At other times, though, they seem to be both myopic and obsessed: endlessly beating on one small issue while letting the real story get away.

For instance, in a long series of articles last year, the paper brought forward a curious feature of the town's "Cool City" grant: a lot of the grant money was going to end up in the hands of the local chamber of commerce. The purpose of the grant was to set up an institute for creative entrepreneurship in the brand new Chamber of Commerce Building in town, and a lot of the cash from the state was going to end up going toward the rent for the offices.

Now, as a general idea--setting up an office to make it easier for people with cool ideas to cut through the red tape, communicate with potential investors, and imagine new markets--this was great. I had some problems with the details of the plan and how certain local interests groups were getting an inside track on the thing (e.g. the local "stop development" group), but all in all it seemed like a good idea.

The paper, though, went ballistic throwing around innuendo that the whole thing was setup as a cash bailout for the egotistical chamber, which had built its expensive downtown castle and now couldn't find anyone to rent the extra space in the building.

While the situation could certainly be construed in this way, the trouble was no one with any direct knowledge of the players involved (not even anyone at the paper, I'd guess) actually believed this to be the case.

Some months after the paper broke this story, the state suddenly decided that the proposed use of the grant was not consistent with the Cool Cities program, so they pulled the plug on the grant. The paper then proceeded to fulminate about how such a thing could possible happen and to question the competence of the folks who wrote the grant proposal and planned the spending. The net result was that in their dogged pursuit of cronyism and behind-closed-door decision-making, the paper ended up burning the grant writer, the least old-school public official in the area.

And because they were so terribly obsessed with tarring as many local officials as they could, the paper never asked some pretty basic questions of the state, like "How was it that it took you months to figure out how the city wanted to spend your grant money?" or "What were your officials doing when they came on officials visits to the grant recipients? Didn't they look at the spending plans, or did they just pose for photos? Why did it take you months even after the paper reported the story to find out how the grant money was to be spent? Why didn't the grant materials spell out that rent was not an eligible cost for grant spending?"

That was where the story was, and no one at the paper seemed to have the least curiosity about it.

The Record-Eagle has also reported on things like the financial situation of the local community college without having the least notion of how college finance works. They've reported, for instance, that certain departments are "losing money" when the fact of the matter is that tuition doesn't cover costs in any department across the campus. The whole point of giving the college a county millage and state grant money is to keep tuition low--to keep it from reflecting the true costs of running the college.

Every academic discipline "loses money" by design. The paper has written several articles on the school in a blissful state of unawareness of this fact.

One has to wonder what lets them think that this kind of reporting is OK: Laziness? Ignorance? Low staffing levels? A fear that accurate information kills drama?

I don't know the answer. But I do wish the paper would hold itself to some higher standards on these sorts of stories, rather than avidly trumpeting half-baked local scandal stories.

There's been some equally half-baked local opposition to the paper, one example of which you can find here

You can read the paper's coverage of these two issues by searching "cool cities" in its 2004 archives or "MTEC" in its 2004 and 2005 archives. The Record-Eagle search page.

Anyhow, here's the letter.

Independents or cranks?
One really has to wonder where the editorial writers of the Record-Eagle gain their uncommon wisdom and insight.
For instance, the May 22 editorial embrace of the Anne Melichars of the world. I would have thought that folks like Melichar and Jasper Weese were what are known as "cranks"; people who, as a matter of ego, are willing to ride their personal hobbyhorses at public meetings until an unruly mob or Robert's Rules of Order makes them stop.
But the Record-Eagle apparently knows better: these folks are actually freedom fighters, our own Yodas and Obi-Wans fighting against an evil empire of consensus.
All fun aside, I think it is time that the newspaper put aside its own hobbyhorse and admitted that Traverse City is not the last bastion of the Masonic Conspiracy, and that Know-Nothing obstructionism is a bad thing for local commissions, not a good thing.
When the public asks "Who's lobbying for us?" I think they generally have better sense than to answer "the local civic egomaniacs." The jury is still out on what to think of a newspaper that at the moment seems to be far more dedicated to self-aggrandizement than to things like "critical thinking."
Oran Kelley
Traverse City

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bertrand Russell

Yesterday was the birthday of this great mathematician, logician and philosopher of liberalism.

So I thought I'd post a little something from the large Russellian ouvre that caught my eye of late, from his History of Western Philosophy.

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, whose fundamental certainty is the existence of himself and his thoughts, from which the external world is to be inferred. This was only the first stage in a development, through Berkeley and Kant, to Fichte, for whom everything is only an emanation of the ego. This was insanity, and, from this extreme, philosophy has been attempting, ever since, to escape into the world of everyday common sense.

With subjectivism in philosophy, anarchism in politics goes hand in hand. Already during Luther's lifetime, unwelcome and unacknowledged disciples had developed the doctrine of Anabaptism, which, for a time, dominated the city of Munster. The Anabaptists repudiated all law, since they held that the good man will be guided at every moment by the Holy Spirit, who cannot be bound by formulas. From this premise they arrive at communism and sexual promiscuity; they were therefore exterminated after a heroic resistance. But their doctrine, in softened forms, spread to Holland, England and America; historically, it is the source of Quakerism. A fiercer form of anarchism, no longer connected with religion, arose in the nineteenth century. In Russia, in Spain, and to a lesser degree in Italy, it had considerable success, and to this day it remains a bugbear of the American immigration authorities. This modem form, though anti-religious, has still much of the spirit of early Protestantism; it differs mainly in directing against secular governments the hostility that Luther directed against popes.

Subjectivity, once let loose, could not be confined within limits until it had run its course. In morals, the Protestant emphasis on the individual conscience was essentially anarchic. Habit and custom were so strong that, except in occasional outbreaks such as that of Munster, the disciples of individualism in ethics continued to act in a manner which was conventionally virtuous. But this was a precarious equilibrium. The eighteenth century cult of 'sensibility' began to break it down: an act was admired, not for its good consequences, or for its conformity to a moral code, but for the emotion that inspired it. Out of this attitude developed the cult of the hero, as it is expressed by Carlyle and Nietzsche, and the Byronic cult of violent passion of no matter what kind.

The romantic movement, in art, in literature, and in politics, is bound up with this subjective way of judging men, not as members of a community, but as aesthetically delightful objects of contemplation. Tigers are more beautiful than sheep, but we prefer them behind bars. The typical romantic removes the bars and enjoys the magnificent leaps with which the tiger annihilates the sheep. He exhorts men to imagine themselves tigers, and when he succeeds the results are not wholly pleasant.

Against the more insane forms of subjectivism in modem times there have been various reactions. First, a half-way compromise philosophy, the doctrine of liberalism, which attempted to assign the respective spheres of government and the individual. This begins, in its modem form, with Locke, who is as much opposed to 'enthusiasm'-the individualism of the Anabaptists-as to absolute authority and blind subservience to tradition. A more thorough-going revolt leads to the doctrine of State worship, which assigns to the State the position that Catholicism gave to the Church, or even sometimes, to God. Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel represent different phases of this theory, and their doctrines are embodied practically in Cromwell, Napoleon, and modem Germany. Communism, in theory, is far removed from such philosophies, but is driven, in practice, to a type of community very similar to that which results from State worship.

Throughout this long development, from 600 B.C. to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them. With this difference others have been associated. The disciplinarians have advocated some system of dogma, either old or new, and have therefore been compelled to be, in a greater or less degree, hostile to science, since their dogmas could not be proved empirically. They have almost invariably taught that happiness is not the good, but that 'nobility' or 'heroism' is to be preferred. They have had a sympathy with the irrational parts of human nature, since they have felt reason to be inimical to social cohesion. The libertarians, on the other hand, with the exception of the extreme anarchists, have tended to be scientific, utilitarian, rationalistic, hostile to violent passion, and enemies of all the more profound forms of religion. This conflict existed in Greece before the rise of what we recognize as philosophy, and is already quite explicit in the earliest Greek thought. In changing forms, it has persisted down to the present day, and no doubt will persist for many ages to come.

It is clear that each party to this dispute--as to all that persist through long periods of time-is partly right and partly wrong. Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments. Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers; ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible. In general, important civilizations start with a rigid and superstitious system, gradually relaxed, and leading, at a certain stage, to a period of brilliant genius, while the good of the old tradition remains and the evil inherent in its dissolution has not yet developed. But as the evil unfolds, it leads to anarchy, thence, inevitably, to a new tyranny, producing a new synthesis secured by a new system of dogma. The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation. The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma, and insuring stability without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community. Whether this attempt can succeed only the future can determine.

Liberalism has often been disparaged as a dishonest, half-measure sort of political philosophy, but it seems surprisingly strong in Russell's presentation.

Russell is definitely someone who is worth a read. A brilliant man in a number of different fields. One good place to check him out is Cosma's site down at the U of M. He's posted a bunch of interesting texts, including a fair many by Russell (you'll have to scroll down the page to find the link to the Russell material).


Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Finished the Pears (last week actually!). Not much of an ending really. As I wrote earlier, this novel is a long monologue and there got to be a point perhaps 20 pages from the end where the novel stops elaborating a point of view and begins to provide a motive for murder . . . and here is where it begins to break down a bit. The very human motive is believable, but it just seems to be beside the point.

As we read, the monologue is spoken to a portrait sitter who is also an art critic. And much of the monologue is about the critic. The novelist (and the reader) want the critic to die for our own reasons. I think the book would have been much truer to itself if it would have dispatched him for his crimes as critic, rather than throwing a few graver sins in just to make sure no one felt guilty.

Anyhow, still a fine book. Well worth the short time spent reading.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Portrait, pt. 2

Oddly enough, as The Portrait starts working around to its climax there is a crucial part of the story that occurs exactly 95 years ago:
I think it's time to tell you what made me leave England. You'll love it; it will appeal to your egotism. You did. It began at half past nine on a Tuesday morning, May 10, 1910 . . .

I can only suppose Pears set this up so on Tuesday morning, May 10, 2005 someone like me might read it. Well, it worked, though I read it a tad earlier than 9.30.

Not quite finished with it, so I won't say too much here, but it's been a fascinating read and a good way to reflect on my own experience with art, the academy, fashion and earnestness.


Monday, May 09, 2005

The Portrait -- Iain Pears

I'm reading Iain Pears new book The Portrait.

It's a long monologue by an artist spoken to an old friend/enemy who is a prominent art critic.

I'm about halfway through and I am really happy with the way pears deals with a lot of the issues surrounding aesthetics that have very little to do with art itself--rivalry, in-groups and out-groups, fashion, Oedipal feelings, salability . . . some of the things I'll end up writing about here quiote a bit, I suspect. The best thing is that it's presented with a generous (but far from non-judgemental) understanding.

A short and fast read, to boot.

Pears is the author of a series of art history mysteries and of Instance of the Fingerpost (mystery set amongst the scientists and spies of seventeenth-century England. Like Stephenson's Quicksilver, but better written) and of Dream of Scipio, which I haven't been able to finish yet but which seems to be about the parallel declines of a) Roman Culture b) Medieval Christianity c)the French Third Republic and d) Us.

Anyhow, so far I can give this one a strong recommendation.


Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere has a new book due, called The Long Emergency. An excerpt from it has been printed in Rolling stone and various other places, including our local weekly, The Northern Express.

Essentially Kunstler claims that petroleum production has already peaked, and that supplies will be well short of demand quite soon, and that the suburban middle class economy that has been built around cheap oil is going to collapse, along with civilization as we know it.

None of these things is terribly far fetched (though Kunstler's more particular predictions, like complete social collapse in the South, are more suited to speculative fiction than speculative non-fiction), but the truly disturbing thing about the book is the relish with which Kunstler seems to anticipate all the death, destruction, poverty and displacement he predicts. His Long Emergency essay, like his Geography of Nowhere book, is strongly marked by hate--a hate that sometimes echoes Hitler writing on the same subjects (architecture, the depravity of modern life, the looked-forward-to day of reckoning, etc.) [More on this later.]

I don't think Kunstler is a little Hitler, but I do think he needs to give a thought to whom he sounds like and think seriously about whether he really hates white upper middle-class folks enough to cheer while they starve in their remote gated communities.

And I think he should start to wonder whether a lot of his predictions aren't just wishful thinking. Does he really think oil supplies are going to fall so fast that the rich won't be able to make adjustments? Does he really think oil supplies will follow a bell-curve pattern when the bell curve really applies to populations, not to single measures taken over time (like oil supplies) and when there are good arguments that oil supplies DO NOT conform to a bell curve? Does he think that it will be impossible to rebuild hub/spoke transportation infrastructure in the next twenty years when it only took 20 years (circa 1950 to circa 1970) to go from hub/spoke to ringroad sprawl?

But one gets the feeling that this is not a writer terribly interested in details when they get in the way of drama.

Of course oil supplies are running low, and of course as we exhaust the finite reserves of oil, current supplies will begin to fall, but what's the point of dragging the "bell curve" into it except to impress the unknowing with a sense of inevitability and predictability. In fact, we can't predict the details of the decline in oil supplies. It'll happen--maybe quickly, maybe slowly, we don't know--or at least we don't know without an awful lot of careful study, which Kunstler's essay shows little evidence of.

We should remember that the "great changes" in our economy and society that Kunstler now predicts will happen by 2020 he predicted for 2010 just a few years ago in the Geography of Nowhere. 2010 now being uncomfortably close, catastrophe has been deferred for another decade by our author. I'm glad to see he has some mercy on us.


Sunday, April 03, 2005

New book

Been a while! Sorry!

I've been reading a new book recommended to me by Stephen Budiansky, who, among other things, wrote a interesting skeptical/sympathetic book on environmentalism called Nature's Keepers.

The book Budiansky recommended is called Uncommon Ground. It's a collection of essays on what we mean when we say "nature." It looks to be a pretty interesting meeting place between hard science and epistemologically sophisticated approaches to the humanities.

I've seen a couple of web reviews which dredge out the tired old "humanists denying reality" argument in opposition to this book, but that certainly isn't an adequate response to what the book says. For one thing the essays I've read seem perfectly willing to acknowledge that reality exists. They only question our grasp of it. In other words they question whether every timne someone says the word "reality" or "nature" that the precise same thing is meant.

We all know that it isn't. This book is an exploration of how our conceptions of "nature" or "underlying reality" are different, and how they often carry a lot of baggage: wishful thinking, ideology, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.

I'll be linking a few reviews and such here as I make my way through the books and the reviews.


Monday, March 14, 2005

High Cultural Fraud

I have a soft spot for Paul Fussell. Though he can be a bit cruel. Though he can be a bit cocksure. Though he's really turning into an old crank . . . in spite of all these things I still can't help but love the man who wrote Class, that most insightful dissection of 1980s American culture.

His newer book along the same lines is BAD. He's still got his ear to the ground, but his hearing isn't quite as keen, especially when it comes to pop culture. BUT he's still got the gift when it comes to things like manners and what passes for high culture these days, and that is more what the book is really all about.

Something like wrestling is, for Fussell, "merely bad." But something bad and pretentious, like a mediocre, expensive and snooty restaurant--well that's BAD.

One of the things Fussell jumps on is classical music and the cult of the conductor. He attacks Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, saying they are basically frauds preying on a classical audience that can't tell the difference between the fraud and the real thing. He also attacks abstract public sculpture for the same reasons.

I got to thinking that art, as depicted by Fussell, looks a lot like a bureaucratic product--and indeed we do have a lot of bureaucrats working in the arts world these days, and a lot of the artists who do well seem to do well by scoring cushy gigs with government or quasi-governmental organizations, and certainly I look at a lot of the products of our official, grant-supported "high" culture these days as being to art what bureaucratic double speak and ass-covering is to leadership.

This I think is the real dirty secret of the arts world. People like Mapplethorp who create outrage may be tiresome and old hat, but they are much to be preferred as artistic poster boys than the master grant applicants who make up most of the arts world.

How much would we lose (and what would we gain), I wonder, if we just pulled the plug on all arts funding with the exception of arts education and things like community theatre. Not to save the money, but to save art.


Monday, February 21, 2005

More on Global Warming

A brief note for people interested in science:

This month's issue of Scientific American has a couple of interesting articles on the general topic of global warming.

SciAm March 2005.

First, there's "How Did Humans First Alter Global Climate?"
By William F. Ruddiman. "A bold hypothesis suggests that our ancestors' farming practices started warming the earth thousands of years before industrial society did" according to the magazine blurb. I found the ideas in it to be thought-provoking, though we're a long way from proving that agricultural land use changes marked the true beginning of global warming.

Unfortunately, you can't read the entire articles without subscribing, but this issue might be worth picking up for those interested.

There is also "Behind the Hockey Stick" which can be viewed for free.

It's a short interview/feature on Michael Mann, the scientist who has become more or less the poster/whipping boy of global warming.

Mann is also one of the founders of the RealClimate site I recommended a few episodes ago. RealClimate has a new primer on climate issues especially tailored to scientific amateurs like myself. I am looking forward to perusing it tonight.


Monday, February 14, 2005

Can we be cool

Below is a piece I wrote for the Northern Express as a follow-up to a "Cool Cities" article I had already written. The proposed title was "Adverse City," so in some ways it was a precursor to this blog. It's tone is a bit on the provocative side. But don't get mad, write a response!

Adverse City

The "cool cities" craze has more behind it than coffeehouses and sunglasses. The big issue at hand is whether your kids will be able to earn a decent living in Michigan.

by Oran Kelley

A few weeks ago I wrote in this space about Richard Florida's book The Rise of the Creative Class and its considerable influence in Michigan, most especially in the governor's “Cool Cities” campaign. The association of the word “cool” with Florida's work has tended to give it an air of frivolity. But Florida's points are actually in deadly earnest.

While new lifestyles are important to his work, the reason why the book is important is not because it defines who is "cool." Florida is an important read because it attempts to define who will flourish and who will languish in an economic world that is still in the process of emerging. To translate to the Michigan idiom, “cool” is living in an area with a wide variety of satisfying and good-paying jobs. Less cool is living in an area whose economy depends on providing inessential, low-cost services to the "cool" folk.

Florida uses a great deal of economic, demographic and cultural preference data to demonstrate his point about the emergence of this new class. It is important to note, though, as with seemingly all statistical studies, Florida's argument is a matter of interpretation, and some experts have questioned Florida's arguments. But I'd argue that, regardless of some of the arguments over detail, there are some important take-home messages for northern Michigan in The Rise of the Creative Class.

It is of course impossible to do justice to Florida's work in a short article such as this (even when there are two episodes!), but I think I can boil down his important points to this: we are living in a time when two significant changes--one economic, one cultural--are happening in our society, and one of the important effects of these changes is the emergence of a new class of workers: the Creative Class.

The "core" of this new class is composed of "people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and/or new creative content." Join to these the creative professionals, "a broader group ... in business, finance, law, and health care [who] engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital."

The Creative Class constitutes 30% of the US workforce, but almost half of its earnings. The future promises more jobs and an even more disproportionate share of earnings for the Creative Class.

In addition to identifying a type of job (creative), a working style (relatively independent, tending toward entrepreneurial), and a number of preferred areas (San Francisco, Austin, and Ann Arbor being among them) which will help shape the economy of the future, Florida also identifies a number of cultural characteristics that help define the new class.

Here’s a passage from an essay Florida wrote on his research for Washington Monthly:

The Creative Class tends to favor ”active, participatory recreation over passive, institutionalized forms. They prefer indigenous street level culture a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between performers and spectators. They crave stimulation, not escape. They want to pack their time full of dense, high quality, multidimensional experiences. Seldom has one of my subjects expressed a desire to get away from it all. They want to get into it all, and do it with eyes wide open.

The most highly valued options [for Creative people] were experiential ones interesting music venues, neighborhood art galleries, performance spaces, and theaters. A vibrant, varied nightlife was viewed by many as another signal that a city "gets it," even by those who infrequently partake in nightlife. More than anything, the creative class craves real experiences in the real world.

The creative class people I study use the word "diversity" a lot, but not to press any political hot buttons. Diversity is simply something they value in all its manifestations. This is spoken of so often, and so matter-of- factly, that I take it to be a fundamental marker of creative class values. Creative minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different
kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, trade views and spar over issues.

Creative class people value active outdoor recreation very highly. They are drawn to places and communities where many outdoor activities are prevalent both because they enjoy these activities and because their presence is seen as a signal that the place is amenable to the broader creative lifestyle. The creative class people in my
studies are into a variety of active sports, from traditional ones like bicycling, jogging, and kayaking to newer, more extreme ones, like trail running and snowboarding.

Another point Florida makes is that the usual thinking on regional development (attract the businesses and the workers will follow) seems not to apply with the new Creative economy. Here, attracting creative people is primary. The businesses then follow (or even arise out of) the workforce.

So, if the road to economic prosperity may lie through the creation of "cool" cities, does Michigan stand a chance? Michigan's economy definitely is at something of a disadvantage in converting to Richard Florida's new, information intensive economy. Until recently, Michigan's economy was still strongly based on heavy industry the car industry most prominently. (But, to look at the bright side, the severe industrial job losses we've been experiencing lately may finally take care of that!)

Also, Michigan has been doing a pretty bad job of retaining its college graduates, and its cities performed terribly on Richard Florida's "Creative Index" a list calculated to gauge the economic vibrancy of urban regions.

But there is hope for Michigan, I think. But it does not lie in the "more of the same stuff we've always done" attitude being pushed by civic and cultural officialdom here in Michigan. Florida is quite explicit about this. The Rise of the Creative Class is not a feel good book for our political and cultural leaders, because most of them have been doing a crummy job of building the social and cultural infrastructure that will attract the creative class.

But if we need to change the direction of the civic freight train, we're a lot better off if the train is a small one rather than a big one. Which is one reason why I think Michigan's best chance of attracting and retaining the creative class lies with its small cities rather than its big ones.

In his analysis of employment and income trends, Florida divides the economy into three basic sectors: Industrial, Service and Creative. Looking at the future prospects for each of the three, I think we'll see that it is highly desirable that Northern Michigan ought to pursue the course Florida recommends with some avidity.

Northern Michigan does not stand much of a chance to grow very much in the realm of manufacturing. One area, construction, is already a major employer here, but one has to be skeptical that this is truly a growth industry for this area: there is a finite amount of construction we can have in Northern Michigan before we remove the incentive for people to move here, and if we remove the incentive for people to move here, there will be little call for new construction. Construction then is a self-limiting industry in this area in a way that it probably isn’t in New Jersey or Connecticut. The main incentive for building in these places is to create more new homes in proximity to New York City. New Jersey and Connecticut will always be near New York, no matter how much construction goes on there, so construction there does not interfere immediately with the direct incentive for growth. People move to Northern Michigan in large part to get away from the sort of explosive growth seen in the major metropolitan areas, so growth in construction in Northern Michigan has to be contained in order for it to continue at all.

This should not be seen as a justification for the selfish, Luddite, close the door behind me attitude so often found among Northern Michiganders. What is needed is a rational policy of containment and controlled growth, not the systematic and irrational obstruction of any proposal that provides for growth. The reason I call this attitude irrational in addition to being selfish is that the growth will happen to some extend no matter how little we prepare for it or how rude we are to newcomers and tourists. The best way to prevent this area from turning into the sort of suburban/exurban wasteland we see in so many other places is to direct growth to places where it makes sense. The best way to do this is to optimize development in core areas, like Traverse City itself. A clever long-term growth strategy can give us both a town with some critical mass and a lot of nearby wilderness and open space.

Northern Michigan also stands at a disadvantage in other areas of industry. The new economy makes great demands on manufacturers. With the emergence of economies like India and the Philippines as industrial powers with large, well educated, English speaking populations, the main long term advantage a domestic manufacturer will have in the future will not be the quality of the American workforce, it will be flexibility contingent on proximity. In an atmosphere where everyone's goal seems to be keeping inventories to an absolute minimum domestic manufacturers will thrive on their ability to produce new items quickly and to make delivery of items with the lowest possible lead time. Being five hours from the nation's main drag will always keep Northern Michigan at a competitive disadvantage in this manufacturing environment. For orders where time is not of the essence, the new industrial economies will dominate because of their ability to deliver adequate or better product at very low prices.

On the other hand, Traverse City will probably have a plethora of jobs in service industries. With good stewardship, we can probably be more of a tourist destination in the future than we are today, and with an aging population, there will be a lot of jobs in the medical field, as well as in areas like institutional food service.

The trouble with service jobs, though, is that they don't pay well. There are exceptions, of course, nurses being the most obvious example. But, by and large, the service economy is by its very nature labor intensive and it depends on low labor costs to stay competitive.

The service economy faces several areas of pressure in the future: first, services that can be exported telephone marketing and call centers, for instance are quickly moving offshore to the same developing economies mentioned above. Second, many of the services offered by the service economy are inessential: people don't need to purchase them; they merely elect to purchase them. In this arena, cost becomes a very important deciding factor in whether or not a service will be adopted or put aside.

Even where a service is essential there is a tolerance level beyond which society begins to seriously question costs and benefits of services. In spite of all the valorization of doctors and medical science, in spite of the seemingly universal desire to live forever, in spite of all our efforts to hide the costs of health care through government shell games, we are now beginning to face the question of how much this service is really worth to us.

When the service being offered is not something essential, say, a luxury vacation or a dinner out, cost can very quickly become an incentive for people to simply opt out and pursue lower cost alternatives.
In the service industry, the main way to keep those costs low is to keep employee compensation low. And the downward pressure on wages gets to be even more intense if there are relatively few employment alternatives in the geographic area you live in.

Florida’s schema makes it clear where development efforts ought to be focusing: on creating a workforce capable of filling the jobs of the Creative Economy, jobs involving lots of skills and lots of creative thinking.

The trouble with a lot of the planning and investment that has taken place up till now is that it has been planning and investment in economic dead ends: Traverse City will never be a major manufacturing center, and the service industries that many civic leaders seem to count as our economic future are never going to provide very many good jobs.

In other words, a lot of our efforts at regional planning and employment development have been preparing for a future in which college graduates from this area will be forced to move elsewhere to work, and where Traverse City will be a distinctly second-class or even third-class economy.

It might at first seem counterintuitive to suppose that small cities like Traverse City have any choice but to accept third-class-status in the new economy Florida envisages. After all, the things that attract the creative class are the sorts of things to be found in places like New York City, things that can only exist where there is a huge market.

To a certain extent this is true. Traverse City will never have the Metropolitan Museum. And Traverse City is not likely to have a Chinatown section anytime soon.

But, Florida's creative economy does hold some promise for Northern Michigan. Much of the creative economy delivers information and expertise rather than goods, which means creative businesses can run anywhere, so why not here? And many of the creative businesses that do deal in goods deal in specialized, high value added items, the sort of items where issues other than labor cost become crucial to market position.

So why not here? The immediate answer that springs to mind is "Because Northern Michigan is about as different from the urbane, tolerant places the creative class likes as can possibly be imagined. This is the backwoods.”

But, as important as that backwoods image might be to some folk who live up here, Northern Michigan is not completely populated by former extras from Deliverance. We actually live in a relatively talent rich area with many potential attractions for the Creative Class. Once all the pluses and minuses are accounted for, Michigan's best hope for retaining more of its native creative class and attracting out of state creative types may be in small cities like Traverse City rather than with big cities like Detroit and Flint.

But, the Creative Class is moving back to the big cities, right? Yes, but not to all big cities: Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids are not drawing them. Detroit and Flint because these cities have huge social and economic problems which no one from city authorities on up to the Federal government seems ready to address.

Grand Rapids probably has a better balance of potential and problems. While the downtown revitalization efforts underway seem to hold up a candle of hope for the town, Grand Rapids still seems (at least from a distance) to be a city dedicated to the sort of boring respectability best personified by GR native Gerald Ford. There are developing problems, as well. For instance, elements of the religious right seem to think of Grand Rapids as a Great Lakes Colorado Springs: an outpost from which it can wage its cultural wars state- and even nation-wide. (Go here for some words on this. It isn't the conservatism of West Michigan as such that is the problem, but the particularly intolerant brand of it that seems to be taking hold there. The creative class can thrive in a free-market, libertairian environment, but not in an intolerant one.)

But, you ask, all those downstate problems aside, what has Traverse City got that these places don't?

For one thing, our problems are on a manageable scale, and they can probably stay that way with some forward-looking governance. Another potential we have is for strong regional development strategies. There are deep conflicts between Detroit and its suburbs, for instance. At this stage, voters and politicians in Northern Michigan can probably be convinced that there is a great deal of community of interest between town and country here, and a coordinated development strategy would go a long way to giving this area an edge in winning over the creative class.

Another thing we've got is nature and all of its attendant recreational activities: cross-country and downhill skiing, canoeing & kayaking, biking, camping fishing, etc. While they are gravitating toward cities there is a decided proclivity amongst the Creative Class toward outdoor, participatory, physical activities. We've got that.

Another strength we've got is the Internet: we are a well-wired community with lots of bandwidth per capita and lots of talent in networking and programming. We ought to make every effort to make sure that that remains the case: computer networks will be the backbone of the creative economy here in Northern Michigan. The stronger that backbone, the better our chance will be.

We also have a disproportionate number of artists and creative people here, who have already been attracted by our landscape and by the lifestyles they feel they can lead here. We can begin to list the national level musicians, artists, writers and academics that live here but, for fear of leaving someone out, we'll refrain. BUT, in spite of the sometimes pervasive contempt for the familiar many of us have, we should give credit where it's due: there's a lot of talent up here.

Lastly, we have a nascent "street culture" developing. Most obviously in Traverse City, but in other places across the area as well. But I'll reiterate a disputed point from my prior story: this has happened in large part in spite of rather than because of the efforts of the holders of the cultural purse-strings in this area, and that's only now beginning to change.

There is still altogether too much effort being put at the extremes of the cultural spectrum here in Northern Michigan: a seeming obsession with the lowest common denominator (and sometimes this is very low indeed) on the one hand, and an fixation on boring high cultural respectability (and, dare we say, cronyism) on the other. What is needed is a bit more concentration is the vital center: emerging artists and emerging markets and casual venues. This, of course, requires some risk, and it involves supporting artists and entrepreneurs who aren't already friends with all the right people.

But if our cultural leaders aren't willing to take risks then we'd all better start trying to figure out where our children will have to move to get a decent job.

Another area where we need work is diversity and tolerance. This is one of the whitest places in the country, and for some of us who fled from Detroit or Flint to avoid having to see any dark complexions or hear any exotic accents, this is a fine thing. But if we want our area to be economically viable, we're going to have to start changing our tune. One of the strongest factors related to economic success in Richard Florida's research is diversity: ethnic and sexual. There is certainly a vocal and visible cohort of our neighbors who are foursquare in support of diversity, but this isn't quite the norm here. While some may prefer to forget, the "We Are Traverse City" sticker was officially repudiated by our civic elders, and that proposal to officially limit the rights of homosexuals it was endorsed by the establishment candidate for mayor. If we want our region to be amongst the economic winners in the next 25 years or so, we will make Northern Michigan into a place that openly welcomes difference, rather than one that is decidedly ambivalent about it.

Keep in mind the next time one of your neighbor spouts off about gays: this isn't just a peccadillo, this is bigotry. And it's bigotry that may cost you or one of your kids a chance at a decent living up here. If you aren't inspired by common decency, let yourself be inspired by enlightened self-interest: Intolerance is economic sabotage!

Politicians here still seem to cater first to their friends and second to the white flight folk. The booboisie who seemingly are first and foremost concerned with then internal combustion engine in all of its most extreme permutations: the stock car, the Hummer, the overpowered snowmobile, the exceedingly loud motorboat all necessary perhaps to escape at a moment's notice the much feared incursion of non whites or gays into our snowy white enclaves. But, in more than one way these gas guzzling, under mufflered engines represent the past of our state, our region and our country.

The future of Northern Michigan lies in another direction: tolerance nay, embrace of diversity; and emphasis on physical, participatory activities; the growth of Internet and talent intensive jobs, and a lively cultural scene that happens at street level, not in the rarified ether of "high culture" or on the increasingly degenerate ether of television broadcasts.

In short, the future of Northern Michigan lies in emphasizing and caring for what we ran toward, not what we might have run away from.