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One Detroit House

September 28, 2009 1 comment

detroithouse

[Photos from the Wall Street Journal]

Can a house’s history tell the tale of an entire city? That it can is the premise of a fascinating front page piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. (See too the accompanying slide show.)

The city is Detroit; the house is 1626 W. Boston Boulevard. It “has watched almost a century of Detroit’s ups and downs, through industrial brilliance and racial discord, economic decline and financial collapse. Its owners have played a part in it all. There was the engineer whose innovation elevated auto makers into kings; the teacher who watched fellow whites flee to the suburbs; the black plumber who broke the color barrier; the cop driven out by crime. The last individual owner was a subprime borrower, who lost the house when investors foreclosed.”

I’ve written several times about Detroit, first following two trips there last winter and most recently in my post on Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. I believe that Detroit’s fate will continue to provide important clues about our country’s society. The WSJ article is a good short introduction to where Detroit is today and how it got here.

In the rest of this post, I’ll review some of the highlights of the article. If you have access to the article, skip what follows and read it instead. Read more…

Categories: Culture, History, House

Video Calls

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment

brooksmother

Albert Brooks’ Mother is high on the list of our favorite movies. After watching it years ago, we immediately added one of its phrases to our vocabulary: protective ice. This is the phrase that the Debbie Reynolds character — the mother — uses to describe the crystallized layer of ice on top of the ice cream in an old container that her son — the Albert Brooks character — takes out of her freezer. We remember with equal fondness her failed efforts to use a new video phone. Her performance would convince anyone that however the technology evolves, we won’t be making video calls in the future.

Then came Skype. And iChat. And a variety of other programs to make free video calls via computer — free, that is, once one has a computer and high-speed internet access. Who doesn’t make video calls now?

Well, we didn’t. Our two most likely skype partners, my sister (in Paris) and Joel (in Boston), weren’t too keen to do it. Gail skypes from time to time with our friend Carol in Edinburgh. But my sister and I still use the phone, or email, and Joel prefers regular phone calls or texting. He may figure that the less we see of him, the better.

But that has suddenly changed, now that Joel is in Grenoble. Given the cost of international calls on his iPhone, even after we added the international calling option with AT&T, it just makes more sense to use the internet. As a result, we have had two video conversations with him in the last ten days, using both Skype and Apple’s video iChat.

No big deal, I know. But what interested me in thinking about our chat yesterday was a completely natural occurrence that almost surely wouldn’t have happened in an audio-only call. Joel is living with a host family. Unlike in the standard host model, his family consists of just a single individual, a young man with a two-bedroom home. What happened during yesterday’s chat was that as we talked with Joel, the host’s girlfriend came in, and Joel asked her if she wanted to say hello. She walked closer to his computer and there we were, on screen, saying hi to her. She speaks French, of course. I said a few words in poor French that she may or may not have understood. Then they called her boyfriend (Joel’s host) in, and we met him too. We didn’t say much. They said goodbye after a few moments and left us with Joel.

Can you imagine how weird this would have been if we were on the phone with Joel? Had his host or the girlfriend come in, he wouldn’t have suggested that we say hello. The difference, no doubt, is that people are accustomed to casual hellos and goodbyes in person, with visual cues allowing introductions to be made while minimizing the need for any substantive verbal conversation. That’s how it felt yesterday. Just a normal introduction to new people. On the phone, in contrast, we would have had to rely on words alone, and even without the language barrier, that would have been awkward.

We look forward to seeing our new acquaintances in person next month, when we visit Joel in Grenoble.

Subway Yearbook

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment

In June I had a couple of posts (here and here) about the inspired work of Improv Everywhere. They hadn’t posted any new missions since then, until yesterday. The latest mission may lack the conceptual brilliance of the surprise wedding reception or the JFK welcome, but it more than compensates with its heartwarming results. You can watch the video above. (Go ahead. Stop reading and click the play button.) But then, after watching it, read more about the mission at Improv Everywhere’s website. The still photos of the mission are a good complement to the video. But best of all is the subway yearbook shot. I could say more, but just see for yourself.

There are many wonderful reasons to live in New York. (And, yes, some reasons not to.) But one reason to live there is to have the opportunity to participate, wittingly or not, in Improv Everywhere’s missions.

Categories: Arts, Culture, Transportation, Video

The Republican Vision

September 4, 2009 Leave a comment
Bobby Bowden

Bobby Bowden

The daily sports article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, titled “Why Your Coach Votes Republican” focused on the conservative nature of many NFL and major college football coaches. I’ve been happily ignoring the approach of football season, and ignoring all the more these overpaid preeners, but no more. The college season is upon us, with controversy created already in Boise State’s victory over Oregon. Here in Seattle — I’ll be in New York by then — my own team hosts LSU tomorrow night.

But back to the WSJ, from which we learn that “[s]ome coaches display their largely conservative instincts in non-financial ways. Jack Del Rio of the NFL’s Jaguars led the crowd in the pledge of allegiance at a Sarah Palin rally in Jacksonville last fall. Longtime Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs addressed last summer’s Republican National Convention. Lou Holtz fired up congressional Republicans with a pep talk in 2007 and recently flirted with running for Congress in Florida. Ralph Friedgen, the portly University of Maryland coach, good-naturedly called one of his Canadian players a socialist last fall.”

Let’s dig a little deeper.

[C]ould it be that football coaches, just by the nature of the job, are more comfortable on the right end of the political spectrum?

“I’d say that sounds likely—very likely,” said Bobby Bowden, the longtime Florida State coach and an outspoken Republican.

Mr. Bowden, a 79-year-old native Alabaman, describes himself as a lifelong conservative who—like many white Southerners of his generation—migrated from the Democratic Party to the GOP a few decades ago. There is, he says, a natural connection between his political and coaching philosophies.

“In coaching, you’ve got to have more discipline and you’ve got to be more strict and just conservative, I think. It fits with the Republicans,” he said.

Mr. Holtz, who coached Notre Dame to its last national championship in 1988, draws a parallel between the standards and rules that most coaches set for their players and the Republican vision of how American society ought to operate.

“You aren’t entitled to anything. You don’t inherit anything. You get what you earn—your position on the team,” Mr. Holtz said. “You’re treated like everybody else. You’re held accountable for your actions. You understand that your decisions affect other people on that team…There’s winners, there’s losers, and there’s competitiveness.”

So let’s see. Republicanism correlates with the belief that people should be treated equally — competing on a level playing field and having to earn what they get rather than inheriting it.

Huh?

Perhaps it is worth observing that Bobby Bowden’s son Tommy was head coach at Clemson for a decade, before being fired last October. Here in Seattle, the coach of our NFL Seahawks is Jim Mora, son of another NFL coach, also named Jim Mora (and famous for his “Playoffs?” rant).

And while we’re at it, let’s not under-estimate the role inheritance has played in political success in this country, whatever the party. On the Republican side, need one say more than “Bush”? In what universe would George W. Bush have become president without his father leading the way. For that matter, the same statement applies to George H.W. Bush.

As usual when it comes to just about any issue in politics, Glenn Greenwald says what needs saying better than I ever could. Last Sunday, he wrote about American royalty in response to the news that Jenna Bush Hager had been hired to be a correspondent on NBC’s Today Show.

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from. There’s a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

Amen.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Sports

Why Educate?

August 27, 2009 Leave a comment

harpers

When the September issue of Harper’s arrived at the house the week before last, I immediately read Mark Slouka’s article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School. I was going to write about it at the time, but the website still had the August up. September is online now (though you may need an account to read the full article). If you can get access to the article, I recommend it. Slouka makes a good case for the dangers of de-emphasizing the arts and humanities in favor of math, science, and preparation to participate in the market economy. I think he mis-represents the nature of mathematics at times. Whether he does so out of ignorance or in service to his argument I have no way to tell. But any errors in this direction shouldn’t distract from his larger warning about an imbalance in US education, with which I largely agree.

It is difficult, indeed unwise, for a university administrator to resist the temptation to build strength in disciplines that have the potential to bring in external research funding (at a major research university anyway). But at least when one makes such decisions, one should be aware of the issues Slouka raises. After the jump, I’ll quote some passages from the article to give an idea of his argument.

I am reminded of my son Joel’s initial first grade homework assignments years ago. On the first evening, he was to establish a location in the house where he would put his completed homework, so that he would be able to remember on a consistent basis to bring it to school each day. There was a similar assignment the next night, maybe involving setting up a regular work location. I had the sinking feeling that the underlying goal was to train him for the workforce rather than educate him. A year later, at our parent-teacher conference to review his work, I was struck even more forcefully by the realization that that teacher’s concern was his success at developing proper work habits, as opposed to his giving free rein to his curiosity.

This is an old tension in education, workforce development and socialization versus creativity and imagination. Many have written far more eloquently about it than I can, Slouka in particular. So I won’t say more. Except to note that science and math are not on one side of this. They are very much a haven for creativity and imagination. The problem that arises is how to respond when business and legislative leaders argue that math and science, as the areas most likely to lead to new business opportunities and most in demand by highly desirable businesses, should be given extra funding so that a university can train more students to prepare for careers in these fields. This is a good problem. Yet, it can open the door to mis-understanding about what a research university’s mission is, what the larger benefits of math and science education to all citizens can be, and how important arts and humanities are as well for an educated citizen.

Let me leave it at that. Here are representative excerpts from Slouka’s article:
Read more…

Categories: Culture, Education, Math, Science

Penney’s Takes Manhattan

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

jc-penney

Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column in Sunday’s NYT surprised me. He chose to address the apparent furor over Cintra Wilson’s Critical Shopper column two weeks ago on the opening of J.C. Penney in Manhattan’s Herald Square, right by Macy’s famed flagship store, ultimately judging her as crossing the line from edgy to objectionable. I read the article online the evening before it was printed, and I didn’t feel that way. I enjoyed it. Am I becoming dangerously inured to snark?

See for yourself. Read Wilson’s column, then Hoyt’s critique. Here is how Wilson opens:

J.C. Penney has broken free of its suburban parking area to invade Herald Square, and the most frequent question on New York’s collective lips seems to be: Why?

Why would this perennially square department store bother to reanimate itself in Manhattan — in the sleekest, scariest fashion city in America — during a hair-raising economic downturn, without taking the opportunity to vigorously rebrand itself? Why would this dowdy Middle American entity waddle into Midtown in its big old shorts and flip-flops without even bothering to update its ancient Helvetica Light logo, which for anyone who grew up with the company is encrusted with decades of boring, even traumatically parental, associations?

J. C. Penney has always trafficked in knockoffs that aren’t quite up to Canal Street’s illegal standards. It was never “get the look for less” so much as “get something vaguely shaped like the designer thing you want, but cut much more conservatively, made in all-petroleum materials, and with a too-similar wannabe logo that announces your inferiority to evil classmates as surely as if you were cursed to be followed around by a tuba section.”

I love it. But Hoyt writes:

Or, as one reader, Daniel Harris-McCoy of Boston, put it: How do writers “navigate the fine lines between observation, satire and snark,” and when should editors step in to restrain them?

Although Trip Gabriel, the Styles editor, said the lines can be blurry, it seems to me that they were crossed and left far behind in this case. Wilson’s editors should have saved her, themselves and the paper from the reaction they got from readers, who concluded that the humor was at their expense, not for their benefit.

[NYT executive editor Bill] Keller said, “The key, I guess, is to imagine that you are writing for an audience with a broad range of views and experiences, and to write with respect for them.” Dismissing a point of view “with a contemptuous sneer is not only bad manners, it’s bad journalism.”

Hmm. Hoyt had already noted earlier that “Keller said his mother was a Penney’s shopper for much of her life, and she would have found the review ‘snotty.’ He told me that he wished it had not been published.” Harsh.

Speaking of harsh, remember that Keller believes (and Hoyt agrees) that torture, when performed by the CIA, should be called “harsh interrogation.” In contrast, when done by Iran on protesters, it gets to be called torture. (See Glenn Greenwald last month on this point.)

Categories: Clothing, Culture, Journalism

Bureaucratic Play

August 21, 2009 Leave a comment
French consulate regions

French consulate regions

It’s hardly news that bureaucratic functionaries love to toy with people. Who can blame them? One has to have some fun in one’s life. As a result, I’ve been anxious for months about Joel’s need to get a student visa for his time in France this fall. It’s required for any stay of over 90 days, and Joel will be studying in Grenoble from early September through December 19. The rules are that you need to show up in person at the consulate to which your home region is assigned, do so at least two weeks ahead of departure, and bring a long list of documents.

My first worry was, is Joel eligible to submit the application at the Boston consulate? If they insisted that Seattle is his home address, he would have to go down to San Francisco. (There seems to be no way around showing up in person at one of the ten consulates around the country. See the map here, also copied above. Notice that Louisiana gets its own consulate, which I suppose makes historical sense. So does Florida. I can’t imagine why.)

My second worry was that Joel would get around to it too late, especially if he showed up for his appointment in Boston and was told they can’t do it, he has to go to SF. My third worry was that he’d have failed to comply with some paperwork requirement, as interpreted by the fonctionnaire. And my fourth worry was simply that they’d screw him, just for the heck of it, like a cat toying with a mouse.

So anyway, Joel flies out of Boston a week from Sunday, nine days from now, to London and then Paris. That means to meet the two-week-prior requirement, he should have been to the consulate by last Friday at the latest. It didn’t work out that way. When he got around to making an appointment, the best he could do was three days ago, Tuesday morning of this week. In Boston. He had other things on his mind, like finishing up his summer half-term classes a week ago. This would be the week to deal with visa and apartment. Gail flew to Boston Monday, arriving that night, and got up way early (Seattle time) Tuesday morning so she could accompany him to the consulate. One of the paperwork requirements was a document attesting that your parents could provide for you financially, so what better way was there to do that than to have a parent present?

I wasn’t there, so I’m not the one to tell the consulate story. The main point is that the consulate official, noting that Joel had not met the two-week requirement, said that the best she could do is get the visa sent to us at the end of next week. Next Friday. It could be sent FedEx. Indeed, that’s the only option, and one of the items you need to bring is a prepaid FedEx mailer, which fortunately Joel arranged to get on Monday afternoon. That night I gave him our account number so it could be charged to us. Now, the thing is, it would be sent Friday to Seattle and Joel would be flying Sunday to France. That doesn’t quite work. Unless we pay extra for FedEx Saturday delivery, which we agreed to do. And even that doesn’t work very well. It means Joel can’t fly from Seattle back to Boston that Saturday morning, and flying out Sunday morning wouldn’t allow him to catch the 6:00PM flight from Boston to London. Well, there’s always overnight, and that’s what I booked him on, once we had all the information. The plan, then, was: visa sent Friday, visa arrives Saturday, Joel takes off Saturday night, arrives in Boston Sunday morning, kills 10 hours, takes off for London Sunday night.

I could say more, but again I wasn’t there. Like, there was the mother and daughter who cut in front of Joel and two other parties, all having 10AM appointments at the consulate. There is no first-come, first served apparently. Some fonctionnaire, ready to take the next case, asked for a 10AM appointment, and this mother jumped. But the galling thing is that they got their visa immediately, because there wasn’t enough time to send it, whereas Joel couldn’t even have his shipped a day sooner to simplify life.

Okay, so here’s the punch line. The visa came. An hour ago. The doorbell rang, I saw a FedEx truck out the window, I ran like hell to the front door so I wouldn’t miss him. I took the envelope from him, opened it up, and there was Joel’s passport, with visa glued to a page.

Let’s review. The consulate got his application Tuesday. They processed it Wednesday. They shipped it Thursday. It arrived Friday. No big deal. But we were told they wouldn’t ship it until next Friday. Our mild effort to ask if it could be sent sooner was met with the observation that we were late in getting there. Tough luck. We would have to pay the FedEx Saturday delivery fee, and if something went wrong, Joel wouldn’t be making his flights. Plus, because of the anticipated Saturday delivery, I had to book Joel on an overnight flight to Boston through JFK.

It’s here. We can relax. That’s the important thing. But what was the point of all the toying with us? Oh, I guess I already answered that at the beginning. Just because. One has to have some fun.

Further good news is that Gail and Joel have succeeded, as of 2 hours ago, in emptying Joel’s apartment, turning in the key, getting rid of the rental car, and checking out of the hotel room. Three days of hard work. Now they just have to wait for tonight’s flight, already scheduled over an hour late, with an arrival time in Seattle after 1:00 AM local time. It’s going to be a long day.

Categories: Culture, Family, Government, Travel

Tasing

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment

taser

Digby, guest-blogging at Glenn Greenwald’s site today, has a post on police overuse of tasers. It addresses some concerns I have had of late, especially in light of last week’s widely reported incident in which
Mobile, Alabama, police officers, responding to a complaint about a man who had locked himself in a store bathroom for more than an hour, used a tire iron to crack open the door, sprayed pepper spray through the crack to subdue him, and tasered him when they got inside. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, but a magistrate refused to issue a warrant. It turns out that the man was deaf, mentally disabled, and understandably scared to death.

Digby addresses this incident and more. Here are excerpts:

In our apparent acceptance of torture as a legal method of interrogation, the bar of civilized official behavior has been lowered to the point where we are accepting torture in everyday life as if it’s nothing. Indeed, we are using it as a form of entertainment.

I’m speaking of the ever more common use of the Taser, an electrical device used by police and other authorities to drop its victims to the ground and coerce instant compliance. The videos of various incidents make the rounds on the internet and you can see by the comments at the YouTube site that a large number of Americans find tasering to be a sort of slapstick comedy, the equivalent of someone slipping on a banana peel, with a touch of that authoritarian cruelty that always seems to amuse a certain kind of person. “Don’t tase me bro” is a national catch phrase.

Tasers aren’t benign however. They kill people. … . As awful as the possibility of death is, tasers would be a blight on any free people even if they weren’t so often deadly. Tasers were sold to the public as a tool for law enforcement to be used in lieu of deadly force. Presumably, this means situations in which officers would have previously had to use their firearms. It’s hard to argue with that, and I can’t think of a single civil libertarian who would say that this would be a truly civilized advance in policing. Nobody wants to see more death and if police have a weapon they can employ instead of a gun, in self defense or to stop someone from hurting others, I think we all can agree that’s a good thing.

But that’s not what’s happening. Tasers are routinely used by police to torture innocent people who have not broken any law and whose only crime is being disrespectful toward their authority or failing to understand their “orders.” There is ample evidence that police often take no more than 30 seconds to talk to citizens before employing the taser, they use them while people are already handcuffed and thus present no danger, and are used often against the mentally ill and handicapped. It is becoming a barbaric tool of authoritarian, social control. …

Representatives of the government torture innocent citizens into unconsciousness, on camera, in United States courtrooms with tasers. They use them on prisoners and on motorists and on political protesters and bicycle riders, on mentally ill and handicapped people and on children. And it’s happening with nary a peep of protest.

America’s torture problem is much bigger than Gitmo or the CIA or the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The government is torturing people every day and killing some of them. Then videos of the torture wind up on Youtube where sadists laugh and jeer at the victims. It’s the sign of profound cultural illness.

Categories: Culture, Law

Wink Wink

August 10, 2009 Leave a comment

uhawaii

When I read the story a couple of week’s back about the use of a gay slur by University of Hawaii football coach Greb McMackin at a press conference, I didn’t think too much about it. Business as usual. Coach makes remark he shouldn’t have, apologizes for it, says he didn’t mean it, of course he meant it, will be punished, won’t do it again. For some reason, the word he used is so sensitive that newspapers can’t even print it, which leaves us guessing (though it’s not hard to guess) just what he did say and doesn’t advance the cause of serious discussion of the issues.

But then I heard his remarks (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan), which you too can listen to, here, and I discovered how much worse his remarks were. The thing is, he didn’t just describe the Notre Dame chant before last year’s Hawaii Bowl game between Notre Dame and Hawaii as a faggot [yes, that’s the word] dance — eliciting laughter from some of the audience. A minute later, after talking about the game against ND, McMackin went on to ask the press to cover for him and not repeat his faggot dance comment, saying it in a sneering tone and eliciting still more laughter. Hearing the actual words makes it difficult to take his subsequent apology with any seriousness at all. (See an AP story here for coverage of his apology and the penalty the university is imposing on him.)

ESPN senior writer Jeff MacGregor had an excellent piece last week on the incident. An excerpt:

Let’s be clear before we go on that this word, “f*****,” is a slur, is a crude blunt instrument of language used to hurt, and is, in and of itself, undeniably hateful. Whether or not it’s the gender equivalent of “n*****” I can’t say. There’s no consensus on the matter. It certainly seems so. Especially insofar as its power and its ugliness and its use as a kind of rhetorical jiujitsu within the very community it is most often used to denigrate. But as Chris Rock asks, is it OK for a white person to use the word “n*****?” Not really. Is it OK, therefore, for a straight person to use the word “f******?” Not really.

Now take a breath.

Think of it this way:

If Mr. McMackin had used the word “n*****” instead of the word “f*****”, he’d have been fired before he stepped away from the podium.

So, yes, I feel bad for Greg McMackin, undone in public by his own clueless ignorance and insensitivity.

But the bone-deep homophobia of the football locker room is well known to anyone who’s ever walked into one, from Pop Warner to the pros, so none of this should come as a surprise.

Now I don’t doubt for a moment that Mr. McMackin is a very nice man who meant no hurt to anyone. But Mr. McMackin is also the perfect product of his lifetime environment, a genial boob in the moral and cultural vacuum of football who can’t imagine a world in which the word “f*****” used as an adjective would ever trouble anyone.

And see also an earlier piece by MacGregor’s ESPN colleague LC Granderson on the significance of the reaction by the media in the room to McMackin’s remarks.

Categories: Culture, Language, Sports

Do I Feel Lucky?

July 30, 2009 Leave a comment

feelinglucky

I haven’t posted a Ted Rall cartoon in over three weeks, so maybe I can get away with posting one again. His latest is above.

Um, do I need to explain anything? You see, there’s Skip Gates. And Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department. You know them. And there’s this famous movie, Dirty Harry, with Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan. In the movie, well, see for yourself in the clip below. The key lines start at 1’35”, but the entire clip is useful for context.