Thursday, October 28, 2010

City vs country

Last month I visited New York City with my partner, and managed to squeeze five blog posts out of a week during which we visited eight art museums. Never did get around to blogging about the two Off Broadway shows we saw, each of them compelling and flawed in ways worth blogging about. Oh well. Maybe I'll work 'em in someday.

This month I spent a weekend with an old friend in his primitive Forest Service cabin on the south fork of the American River. The whole trip, including a few hours up and another few hours driving back, advanced the clock by a bit under 36 hours.

Having a blast in the city, kicking back in the country: all in a season's healthy appetites, I'd like to think.

By "primitive Forest Service cabin" I mean what exactly? Well, the cabin in question -- on Forest Service land, leased not owned -- has no plumbing and no insulation. There's a nicely engineered, self-contained composting toilet that never seems to work quite as advertised, but it beats the heck out of the old outhouse-over-a-pit that the Forest Service insisted be shut down not many years ago. (You really didn't want to go to the outhouse after dark ... for fear of ... The Butt Scratcher, lurking in the muck! Legends were built around The Butt Scratcher ... in actual fact, somebody probably got startled by a mouse once. There were about a trillion spiders, I swear.)

In the absence of plumbing we haul water up from the river in 2-1/2 gallon containers (I prefer two at a time, for balance when walking back up the granite slope). For heat we burn wood in a well-made stove that, weekend before last, kept the embers from Saturday evening's almond logs aglow 'til morning. It was a one-match weekend, there's got to be a merit badge for that. The cabin has electricity, and a two-burner hot plate. We ate very well. It's amazing what you can do with a couple of burners and made-ahead soup and a galette from the bakery down the street from where I live when I'm not skipping among the Jeffrey pines. Oh, not to mention pancakes cooked on an electric griddle in the morning. Bathing? That's what the river is for. It's cold. This is the warmest time of year for a dip in the river, with last year's snow melted and this year's not yet arrived, and it's still a get-in-get-the-hell-out-quick-as-you-can sort of thing. In May there's no way to escape brain freeze.

Let's be clear. I am so so so far from complaining. This little cabin is about as close to a certain sort of paradise as I'm likely to get in the rest of this lifetime, now that I'm too creaky to pack into real back-country. The cabin is quiet, it's comfy, it's got a fabulous deck, there's a great swimming hole just downhill, and it's saturated with great memories of hanging out with some of my best friends in the world. Yeah, sure, there are ghosts. I never saw them myself, but others have. Whatever. I wasn't there (and so I wasn't traumatized) when the bats got in, or when a garter snake slithered out soon after somebody's arrival. (There are rattlesnakes in the 'hood, but we've only spotted them on the far side of the river.)

Best of all in this day and age? In three words: no internet access.

Yeah, there's cell coverage, not that I've ever brought along means to take "advantage" of it. This is not way out in the boonies, you can hear Highway 50 from the deck. If you looked hard I'm sure you could spot the cell towers dressed up as conifers (but why spoil the view for yourself?). So, cell coverage at three or four bars, but I don't have an iPad or any other 3G or 4G or any-G devices, so as far as I was concerned: No. Internet. Access. O, bliss.

In New York last month, Matthew and I stayed in Nolita, a real estate agent's moniker for the blocks NOrth of Little ITAly, west of the Lower East Side, and east of SoHo. It was a great neighborhood, the street we stayed on was quiet as you could reasonably wish for and still be in Manhattan. Great coffee, restaurants, book shops, whatever-you-can-imagine shops, access to transit ... and all those museums & shows. The flat we rented through was comfortable, we had a kitchen ... and ... wait for it ... wireless network too!

My partner has never been up to the cabin on the American River. He doesn't do primitive, jumping into freezing cold river water is not his idea of a good time, and the switch from The Butt Scratcher's pit to the composting toilet didn't change his hell-no attitude. Not even a little bit. City slicker, all the way.

Funny how that is. I wolf down those art museums almost as tirelessly as the painter I travel with. But there's nothing that clears my head better than sleeping surrounded by the sound of a rushing river. With no internet access, thank you very much. (Of course, I do admit it, the return to 'civilization' is part of the fun. The internet and proximity to that bakery down the street does have its advantages.)

Here's a story that, for me, epitomizes the differences in outlook I have with Matthew about vacations in "natural" settings. Imagine your way to Brugge, in Belgium ...

There's a little park in Brugge whose center is "Lover's Lake" in a southern part of the city called Minnewater. Now, if you haven't been there, you'll have to take my word that Brugge is a lovely city, one of those fine, survived-WWII-without-massive-destruction small cities in which it is easy to imagine oneself in an earlier century -- it reminded me, in that respect, of Prague or Perugia. It is not a big city by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a village. Minnewater is a park, it's not the countryside. In fact, Lover's Lake is not actually a lake. It's part of the system of canals that encircle and cut across the city, only widened a bit. The edges of the "lake" are paved. The "lake" is rectangular. The trees alongside the "lake" are planted. They are planted in rows. Straight, neat, unwavering rows. So imagine walking in this lovely, well-groomed park, with one's lover alongside a lake called Lover's Lake, in a charming city in which one's hotel is installed in the building that was once home to Giovani Arnolfini, whose wedding portrait one saw in London a couple of weeks before in the National Gallery (it was painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434). That's just where Matthew and I were some six years ago when he turned to me and said, "I love this place. See? I do like nature!"

I nearly fell in the canal laughing.

To Matthew, "nature" is a meticulously groomed park in a pretty little tourist city. Forest Service cabins within earshot of a federal highway, then, are uncharted wild wild wilderness? And actual wilderness? Nice people who grew up in cities of eight million people don't think about things like that, I suppose.

Our differences aren't the problem one might imagine, actually. We had a great time in New York together last month, as I said, and even took a walk across Central Park (which is less not-nature than Minnewater, but, sorry, it's still an artifact of city planning). I'm permitted to visit the Forest Service cabin wilderness with my granola-head California friends, so long as nobody exerts pressure on anybody else to come along.

It is remarkable how universally it's true: there's no accounting for taste.

For the record, Matthew gave me permission to tell this little story on him, though he maintains that there's no story to tell and that our experience in Brugge did indeed demonstrate his love for nature. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the cell phone tower image. Yeah, it's from New Hampshire not the Sierra Nevada, but it sure gets the point across. Also for the photo of Minnewater in Brugge.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mental floss

Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting a grip on attention span

Last week I had an exchange with Steven Long, the proprietor of and a member of my on-line writing group. Earlier this month Steven posted Krakatoa Katy, a piece about the particular ways he is haunted by a Mighty Mouse cartoon released in 1945, called Krakatoa, and what that particular haunting suggests about what endures in memory.

I enjoyed reading Krakatoa Katy, but was bothered by an omission, an odd omission to my way of thinking, in its presentation. Though published on a website that is powered by Wordpress -- that is, the piece was published as a blog post, meant to be viewed in a web browser -- the author didn't include a link out to the cartoon that seeded his meditation. Not even to an article that would contextualize Mighty Mouse for readers who know little or nothing about the cartoon, or a link to the Mighty Mouse in Krakatoa entry on IMDB.

As readers of this blog know, I'm pretty liberal with hyperlinks. Not everyone will care, but readers might become curious about this or that reference, and the blogging medium -- hypertext -- lends itself to relatively painless slaking of that sort of curiosity. So, wondering about Steven's choice, I started a dialog in the post's comment thread. Steven wrote that he did think of including a URL to the cartoon on YouTube, "but ultimately decided it would be more of a distraction." I replied: "I suppose one could blog as a text-purist, but I think that in a hyperlinked medium it’s not so fitting — it’s almost inconsiderate? — to refer to linkable stuff without linking it."

We went on a little bit from there, and Steven did cough up the YouTube URL as soon as I asked for it -- but the core of our exchange is in those initial, short comments:

To what degree should a writer expect and attempt to control a reader's mode of engagement with her/his work; and to what degree does medium shape message?

These are some of the issues at the core of the tsunami of change sweeping the world of published text -- a.k.a. books -- in recent years.

One of the cozy things about books printed on paper and bound into a volume of pages is that they're wonderful vehicles for slipping into richly rendered worlds that are seeded by an author's imagination and craft, and brought to life by readers' imagination and experience. The medium is available to anyone able to read, and interesting to anyone who gets a kick out of participatory exploration of a world. A skilled author provides a rich framework for imagined experience, and a reader meets the experience partway, filling in a skein of image, gesture, smell, sound, taste, memory, and resonance that can be suggested by words, but not actually rendered. One could argue that books are the closest humans have gotten to the Vulcan mind-meld.

Blogs, tweets, links posted to Facebook, hyperlinked books published on web sites, and what people are imagining for internet-enabled reader devices like the iPad are a different story. In fact, they're a different form of story. What makes them different is that the medium itself enables readers to go traipsing off in directions that tickle their fancy, most often to other stories, perhaps in other media (e.g., from essay to cartoon). They might come back to a blog, tweet, Facebook page, web site, or e-published text once their fancy is satisfactorily tickled. And they might not.

The experience is no longer one between an author and a reader; or even between author, reader, and a background murmur of secondary criticism, interpretation, and scholarship -- the way, that is, one might read scripture, Homer, Shakespeare, or Joyce. Instead, it's a reader's world. The reader sticks with an author (or cartoon producer, or ...) until curiosity or whimsy or boredom sends her attentions elsewhere. She can stick with the author's presentation all the way through, or easily explore the byways.

I love reading books, and writing long-form fiction really floats my boat. The deep synergy between author and reader, and the satisfactions of deeply imagined and considered idea and emotion that arise from reading texts with engaged attention have yielded some of my life's richest pleasures. I don't think I'd trade a bookish mode of reading for anything.

At the same time, I read and write and surf hyperlinked-space too, and get a great deal from it. One thing leads to another, in ways that constantly surprise and educate me.

So it was interesting to see in a post -- Steven's Krakatoa Katy -- a piece that I might have been happy to read as plain old text in a magazine or a book, but that seemed somehow off when it was presented in a hyperlinked medium because it failed to take advantage of that medium to ease a reader's path to its referenced subjects or antecedents.

In last week's New Yorker, Richard Powers published a short story titled "To the Measures Fall." It's a romp through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, through the prism of an obscure novel by an obscure British author (fictional fiction) -- the title of the story is the title of this made-up book. The story is its narrator's account of her personal, romantic, and academic attachment to the Wentworth novel from age 21 until the brink of death. In the course of framing her life in terms of this object of obsessive attention, Powers' unnamed narrator describes the rise of the internet: "Overnight, the World Wide Web weaves tightly around you. A novelty at first, then invaluable, then life support, then heroin. [...] Your online hours must come from somewhere, and it isn't from your TV viewing. [...] The last print newspapers head toward extinction. More words get posted in five years than were published in all previous history. [...] Name the book that best captures life as now lived."

We're living that story now. What hypertext does to bookish reading is a history unfolding even as I type.

And, of course, there are a raft of judgments one might make about the value of bookish reading vs. hyperlinked reading, and the trends in so-called content consumption that follow the evolution of technology. Many have made such judgments, and some have changed their minds about those judgments as time and technology move along. If you use a search engine and follow the links you can find new judgments every day, in every corner of every venue of content creation.

I'm going to steer clear of that swamp in this post. But feel free to sound off in the comments!

Thanks to Knut Nærum, Øystein Backe, Rune Gokstad and the Norwegian Broadcasting show Øystein og meg for "Medieval Helpdesk" (2001).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Crowd-sourcing editorial feedback: a novel approach

Rafael Lima is an author, screenwriter, and lecturer at University of Miami in Ohio. He's been selling a draft of his novel-in-progress on Amazon for $0.99 (as an e-book for the Kindle) in order to "crowd-source" responses that he has been using to refine his manuscript. Lima's novel ploy for soliciting editorial suggestions on his novel manuscript came to my attention last week via Jennifer Howard's blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a post titled Finding an Editor -- or Lots of Them -- in the Crowd.

According to Ms. Howard's post, "Having watched the shrinking of the publishing industry and the dwindling of old-school editors, Lima didn’t like the odds of getting much creative help with the book if he went the traditional route. He uploaded a draft of the book to Amazon’s Kindle store as a 99-cent download and invited readers to tell him what they liked and what they didn’t."

I've had twenty or so readers of my own current novel project, Consequence, a dozen of whom have read the full mss. in one or more of its incarnations. Their feedback has been beyond helpful, it's been essential to refining my manuscript. Some have given big-picture feedback (this character is superfluous; that chapter sticks out like a sore thumb; the core plot is terrific but that sub-plot needs to be yanked; are you nuts? -- etc.). Others focus on the small stuff (word choice, the verity of a line of dialog, even the fine points of punctuation).

Much more often than not, a reader's suggestions help me out ... sometimes in ways they didn't necessarily intend. One reader, for example, told me that Consequence gave her nightmares. I jumped for joy! Not because I'm mean, but because her experience told me that my characters were real. They got under her skin.

But the art of interpreting readers' feedback is often complicated. In general, I'd guesstimate there's about a 15-30% chance, depending on the draft and the pool of readers in play, that if two people comment on the same aspect of my mss., their opinions will diverge. Now, don't get me wrong! Even that divergence is valuable. It's an essential reminder that I have ultimate responsibility for filtering feedback and measuring it against my own intention and craft. While my readers often lead me to see a sentence, scene, or chapter in a new and improvable way, sometimes a reader's opinion is, well, idiosyncratic. Sometimes, for example, readers fixate on exactness in rendering of place that is not so important to my story, or in rendering an obscure historical event -- to the detriment of drama that is better supported by a sprinkling of poetic license. Sometimes they want me to write a different book than the one I'm writing.

Making the most of my readers' feedback takes time and attention. And I do want to make the most of it, especially considering the hours and effort I know that each of them has so generously given to responding to my work-in-progress.

Rafael Lima, who not only solicits feedback from Kindle readers of his $0.99 draft but also from the students he teaches in the School of Communication at University of Miami, receives feedback from all angles. His mss. for Screenwriter hit "number 27 on the Kindle Store’s list of most-downloaded paid-for titles," Lima says (it has since come down several orders of magnitude, but, hey, life is flux). So when I read in Ms. Howard's post that Lima says of his experience, "There’s all these pluses, and I have found no minuses in the experience at all" I've got to wonder: how does he do it?

It sounds straightforward the way Lima explained the process to Jennifer Howard -- opinions that pop up frequently are the ones he pays attention to -- but I have a hard time imagining tracking and filtering dozens or hundreds of converging and diverging opinions coming at me from all sides. Three or four or five at a time is about as many as I can productively juggle.

I'm curious what other writers think. Is crowd-sourced editing something that would help you refine your novel? Would it distract? Confuse? Clarify?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Things people believe

Well, there's no denying it now, campaign season is upon us. You noticed, right? The election coming in two weeks and a day?

Some wonder if the campaigning ever ended, others are so exhausted with perennial lies and blather that they've flipped the la-la-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you switch.

Here in California, tied-for-332nd-richest-in-the-U.S. candidate for governor Meg Whitman has, last I checked, put $119 million of her own money into a campaign to defeat Jerry Brown (who is a former governor, son of a former governor, former Mayor of Oakland, and current Attorney General, but who didn't make the Forbes 400 list).

In this largest state in the union, it's only possible to ignore the campaign if you (a) turn off the radio; (b) turn off the TV; (c) refuse to answer the phone at any hour; (d) stay away from the internet; (e) don't even think about newspapers; (f) let the mailbox overflow. That is to say, it's impossible.

And paying attention to some of the BS being peddled as Facts One Should Know strikes a person with wonder. I mean, who believes that stuff in campaign ads? Sometimes, dazed and confused by the o so many media channels, I wonder about that. And then I think again.

Consider The Onion. Not the bulb, but the newspaper. The Onion published one of their best parodies ever on 22 September, titling it Poll: 1 In 5 Americans Believe Obama Is A Cactus. There you have it, in an onion skin.

I mean, if a person is willing to believe that a native U.S. citizen was born in Kenya, a neo-liberal capitalist is a socialist, or a practicing Christian is a Muslim -- let alone all this about the same neo-liberal, capitalist, Christian U.S. citizen, if you know who I mean -- why not believe a POTUS is, as The Onion put it, "a water-retaining desert plant"?

The very next day, the New York Times published an article titled Recalls Become a Hazard for Mayors. Michael Cooper reported that recalled-mayor Daniel Varela Sr. of Livingston, California "was booted from office last month in a landslide recall election" because he "had the temerity to push through the small city's first water-rate increase in more than a decade to try to fix its aging water system, which he said spewed brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes."

Hmmmm. Fixing broken infrastructure. Isn't that what we elect mayors to do?

What does the recalled mayor have to say for himself? "Those are unpopular things, not things that anyone likes to do, but sometimes in a community you have to step up and do what has to be done," Mr. Littlefield said. "I hope that the recall environment does not become so pervasive that it discourages people from doing the right thing."

I'm not saying that running crooks out of office isn't ever the right thing to do. As a citizen of the state that contains the city of Bell within it's borders, that would be foolish. Have you heard about that Orange County locale's Mayor Victor Bello -- a case of nominative determinism if I ever saw one -- and his city manager Robert Rizzo? Rizzo stands accused of siphoning even more than the $800,000 (sic!) salary he was paid to run a city of 40,000 (ack!!). According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the complaint said Rizzo made $4.3 million by paying himself through different employment contracts that were not approved by the City Council."

The mind reels.

But look again at the Times article: "Over the last two years, failed recall campaigns have sought the ouster of mayors in Akron, Ohio; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Flint, Mich.; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; and Toledo, Ohio, among other cities. Next month the voters of North Pole, Alaska, 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle, will vote on whether to recall their mayor."

What kool-aid are people swallowing that is causing them to kick up that much dust? Remember, people, we live in a nominal democracy. These mayors were elected. And they face re-election, every four years in most cases, sometimes two. Sure, there are exceptions to the general rule that it makes sense to wait 'til it's time to vote laggards out of office. But ... so many exceptions? All at once?

The sad fact is that people swallow kool-aid in a lot of flavors, both here in the U.S. and internationally. Some of the new century's favorite flavors:

  • Same-sex couples who marry are a threat to heterosexual relationships
  • Nothing consequential will happen if humans continue to burn lakes of oil and mountains of coal, and dump tens of thousands of tons of plastic into the deep blue sea
  • A few cranks disagree with thousands of educated scientists -- whose desirable, professional standing depends on their impartial evaluation of empirical evidence about climate change -- and this constitutes a 'rift' in the scientific community
  • Eliminating federal estate tax and lowering taxes paid by earners of more than $250,000 per year is going to improve the lives of 99.9% of taxpayers who will get the short end of the stick if former-Prezident Shrub's tax cuts are made permanent (Paul Krugman calls this a "War on Arithmetic").

Of course, the twenty-first century isn't the first in which people proved P.T. Barnum's point (though it may have been someone else's) that there's a sucker born every minute. In the previous century, we had a senator from Wisconsin who believed the U.S. government was 'riddled' with communists, and, with millions of suckers at his back, ruined thousands of lives. Before him, we had The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a plagiarized pastiche of satire framed as antisemetic lies and peddled by hateful liars.

Heck, in the 17th century people paid guilders for tulip bulbs that would have bought as much as 50,000 pounds of butter in the shop next door.

Modern fascination with Holland's Tulip Mania is discussed in a book published in 1841 by Charles Mackay, a copy of which was given to me by a friend a couple of decades back. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, more recently published as Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, is great stuff if you're a misanthrope. If not, the volume might just convert you.

Don't forget to vote next month! If you fail to exercise your franchise as a citizen, imagine what extraordinary delusions will carry the day.

Thanks to CharlesFred for the flowers.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Meditations on blogging

Seventy-five. It's not really so round a number, but it's not square either. This is my 75th blog post. It's not the 100th, and I'm only 2/3 of the way to my blog's first birthday. So I'll try not to draw too many insupportable conclusions on this fraction of an occasion.


Here's a bit of what I wrote in that first, Hello World post to One Finger Typing on the day I came home from the San Francisco Writer's Conference: One of the conference's many take-aways was that if you want to get read you have to develop an on-line presence. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before. [...] But somehow, this weekend was my tipping point. So. Here I am...

Energized by the conference, I was convinced that "you have to develop" ought to begin right away, so I might have a backlist, as it were, by the time one of the Six Sisters started doing handsprings over my novel manuscript. I still have a bit of time, I think, on those handsprings. But the backlist is coming along. And it turns out that posting a couple blogs a week has yielded some unexpected benefits.

Some costs too.

The major cost is obvious. It takes time to blog. Lots of time. Lots and lots of time in my case, because I'm the kind of person who revises everything, even e-mail. So there's the madly typed idea; then letting it percolate a bit; then maybe jotting down a few bullets to organize my thoughts; then the draft; then the revision; then the second revision in the course of which I wonder whether I really believe what I wrote; and then the two or three or six passes to get the sentences right. I don't always get the sentences right. Some might say that I don't always get my thoughts organized either. Anyway, another reason it takes lots and lots of time because I do go on. I mean, yeah, sometimes I can slip a quick one by whatever part of my brain is forever bolted into the "bloviate" position, but mostly my blogs run long (this month so far: 1544, 861, and 985 words before today, and 1119 today).

But, from the perspective of someone whose writing activity and interest revolves around fiction, here are some pretty nifty benefits:

Deadlines. Okay, I didn't see that coming, not as a benefit ... but in retrospect -- duh! I took eight years to give up on my first fully-developed novel manuscript (220K words, four or five file boxes of notes and drafts in the back of a closet). It's been fewer than that many years actively drafting and editing Consequence, a far slimmer manuscript, but not so very dramatically fewer. Let's just say Consequence has taken more than a year to write. More than three. More than ... well, let's just say never mind the strict accounting. In any case, writing a novel takes orders of magnitude more time, and involves a whole lot more meandering around and tweaking and fiddling and razing and remodeling than a person has time for if the goal is to post two coherent pieces of eight or twelve hundred words every week. Pumping out the volume means that self-imposed blog deadlines sometimes feel like they're crowding out my fiction time. Except that they're not. In fact, what's happening is that I'm getting a lot better, and a lot faster, at editing chapters. Why? Probably a few reasons, but one of them has to be that it's hard to get too attached to your words when you're letting them go every few days. As I put it to a writer friend this past weekend, blogging has hardened me so that it's a whole lot easier to dump the words that aren't working in my fiction. Just pick up the red pen and .... don't worry! There's more where those came from. I demonstrate that twice a week, on

Multiple tracks. For a writer of fiction, this one really shouldn't be understated. I've known for a long time that there's value in switching focus: I work part-time, usually splitting my days, so that my morning's work (writing fiction) refreshes my focus and freshness for my afternoon's work (playing Professional Geek at a local university), and vice versa. Augmented by caffeine, this arrangement is a great way to stoke the workaholic fires. And, it turns out, writing blog prose is a great way to refocus in a third direction, one that has a whole different feel from writing and editing fiction manuscripts. Even better? More often than not, blogging is an excuse to work out ideas that are substrates of my fiction. How sweet is that?

Readers. Thank you readers! It's a fine thing when somebody reads your words. It's even finer when they leave comments, as I've explained in posts past. I've had a bit of work published in that old timey, pre-digital way -- that was pretty fabulous, and I'm looking forward to more. But this on-line business let's you see right away that people are paying attention, through tools like Google Analytics and Feedburner, and the comments people do leave on your blog, and retweets, and Likes on Facebook. Nice!

It wouldn't be a truly genuine One Finger Typing blog post if I didn't go off on a bit of a tangent. Today's tangent is lifted from Mark Sample's blog of a couple weeks back in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The topic on 27 September was A Rubric for Evaluating Student Blogs. What do you think of this scale ProfHacker and others use to "quickly and fairly evaluate blog posts"?

4 - Exceptional. The blog post is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. The post demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications, and it considers multiple perspectives when appropriate. The entry reflects in-depth engagement with the topic.

3 - Satisfactory. The blog post is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. Fewer connections are made between ideas, and though new insights are offered, they are not fully developed. The post reflects moderate engagement with the topic.

2 - Underdeveloped. The blog post is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas. The post reflects passing engagement with the topic.

1 - Limited. The blog post is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of [...] engagement with the topic.

0 - No Credit. The blog post is missing or consists of one or two disconnected sentences.

So -- setting aside what all this bloviating does for me -- how do you think I'm doing?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Breaking into cars

It's pathetically inefficient to break into cars. I don't mean always, I mean mostly.

I don't mean only that it's a pain for the person who owns the car; nor do I mean solely that the thief often gets little for her/his trouble. I mean both. And, on a societal level, I mean big-picture: it's an inefficient way to transfer wealth.

This was brought home to me for the Nth time recently, soon after our household acquired a brand new car. Well, brand new to us. As I explained in Elegy for a manual transmission, my partner and I bought a 1991 Subaru wagon with 60,000 miles on it this summer. Those numbers are a decided upgrade, given that our former sedan, an '85 Volvo, was pushing 190K. We don't drive much, it would have been silly to buy a new vehicle.

A few weeks after we bought the Subaru, somebody broke into it and stole the following:

  • a couple bucks in change
  • a few dollar-tokens for the self-service car wash down the road
  • a simple folding knife suitable for picnics

The thief left the plastic-handled corkscrew, the tire pressure gauge, and a dozen or so cassette tapes (yes! people who drive 20 year old cars still have and even occasionally play cassette tapes!). S/he didn't leave a mess. Not even a broken window or a jimmied lock. I suppose the thief was good at picking locks, or had a master key.

The worst part? The ceiling light was left on, so by the time we realized the car had been burglarized the battery was dead. I got a jump start from a neighbor, drove around to build up the battery's charge again, we were good to go. Not a big deal.

When it happened again two weeks later I started to get annoyed.

Worse for the thief, we hadn't restocked. Didn't refill the little compartment thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer for parking meter change. Didn't buy a replacement folding knife. Hadn't been to wash the car in a while. Bottom line, this time the thief walked away with zilch.

But. The burglar left the ceiling light on again, so our battery was dead. Again. This time I took the ungainly thing out of the engine compartment, lugged it up to the apartment, and charged it overnight.

The one-two punch got me thinking. Thinking and counting, actually. Self, I asked myself, how many times has some foolishness like this happened in the course of five used cars and 28 years of lifetime automobile ownership? The answer was six, including the two break-ins this summer:

  1. Hatchback: rear window smashed to steal a half-empty case of 20-50 weight motor oil
  2. Hatchback: hotwired, stolen, crappy stereo ripped out, abandoned, towed
  3. Hatchback: hotwired, stolen for 2nd time in a month, abandoned several blocks away, recovered before the tow trucks swooped in
  4. Sedan: door pried open, crappy stereo ripped out of the dash
  5. Wagon: no-damage entry to steal parking meter change and a folding knife ... battery dead
  6. Wagon: no-damage entry to steal nothing, 'cuz the car was cleaned out by the prior theft two weeks before ... battery dead again

#4 was the weirdest. The door (front, passenger side) was literally pried open, from the top of the frame. Didn't even break a window, the thief just bent the almost-tinfoil frame enough to reach in and unock the door. The owner of a local body shop -- nice guy, big belly and biceps a gym bunny would kill for -- he took one look at my sad little Honda, asked if I had insurance that would cover the damage (negatory), and bent the door back into shape with his bare hands. Sent me packing, wouldn't take a dime for his trouble.

If you've been driving and parking on a city street for any length of time, I'm guessing you have similar stories. Unless the break-in involves smashed windows or broken locks, there's not a lot of expense involved on the car owner's end; but I assure you that smashed window at the top of my little list cost a lot more than half a case of motor oil. That was a little crazy-making. An inefficient way to transfer wealth, as I was saying.

Mostly what the car owner is in for is a waste of time. The thief gets a few bucks, maybe.

I have neighbors who leave their cars unlocked to avoid the smashed windows & locks routine. Sometimes the vehicles get slept in and they end up with stinky car syndrome, but they're not out the cost of a window each time somebody gets a hankering for parking change or the five bucks a fence will fork over for the rare car stereo that isn't factory-installed (the ones that come built into your dashboard are pretty much unfencable).

Small apartment buildings in my part of town tend not to have enclosed parking facilities. Even most of the single family homes around here lack garages.

Car alarms? Please. That's just a way to guarantee your neighbors want to hurt you.

Round the clock armed vigils? That would be, um, disproportionate.

I have to say, if there were a way I could bribe these wee-hours thieves, modestly, to leave my car alone ... only I can't think how without inciting mass bribery-cheating. Is that a real concept? The immorality of taking protection money when you weren't going to do anything naughty in the first place?

In a world in which cars are parked on the street, and the best legal options for some people to get what they need involve standing outside a supermarket all day to sell a dozen newspapers for a dollar each ... well, somebody's bound to figure it's worth their while to nick a few quarts of motor oil or a small handful of coins out of a parked car.

Thanks to Twanda Baker for the arty Flickr photo of a common misfortune...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

You can't click your way to social change

Malcom Gladwell wrote a terrific article in this week's New Yorker: Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. In it, he incisively draws distinctions between virtual activity -- Tweeting, 'liking' a Facebook page, blogging, and so on -- versus effecting social or political change. Gladwell's argument punctures some of the breathless It Changes Everything hype we've all been reading about the interactive web these past five or so years, and reminds the reader of the grit and the real -- not virtual -- relationships that have enabled successful political movements in the recent and distant past.

The compressed story Gladwell tells: there's a difference between relationships that those who study social networks call "strong" vs. those they call "weak" ties. Weak ties, like those one makes when following somebody on Twitter or liking a Facebook page, can be quite effective in getting people to do stuff that takes only a little bit of commitment (like clicking a link or entering a name and e-mail address on a petition). To elicit deep commitment, and the kind of risk-taking that is necessary to change a society's deeply rooted structures or practices, requires strong ties -- the types of relationships that are forged among people who live, work, and/or struggle together, like those fostered in military training, college dorms, families, and, well, corporations and disciplined party organizations.

Gladwell uses the Greensboro sit-ins and the larger history of civil rights organizing in the American South as an exemplar of strong-tie organizing, explaining how the deeply resonant sit-ins at a Woolworth's lunch counter were seeded by recent civil rights history and initiated by a group of young men who had each other's backs in a serious way.

Here's a paragraph from Gladwell's argument that gives a flavor of the difference he's asserting between Facebook- and Greensboro-quality relationships and effect:
The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

The article doesn't argue that on-line organizing is worthless. That would be silly.

Look, for example, at, an organization formed in response to attempts by the Party of No to derail the Clinton presidency (by impeaching him on charges of perjury & more arising from his inability to keep his zipper zipped). Begun as an on-line petition (weak ties), the group has gone on to raise millions of dollars for political candidates; provide endorsements that significantly influence elections; buy print, billboard, and broadcast media to advance its members' positions; run phone banks and door-to-door canvassing efforts to mobilize voters; and regularly facilitate house meetings in many many locales, around issues of immediate moment. MoveOn's primary modes of internal communication remains e-mail, the group's website, and social networks (as is the case for nearly every 21st century organization); but the group also fosters stronger, face-to-face ties within communities and realizes boots-on-the-ground political engagement from its on-line membership.

Gladwell's article reminds me why I love to read The New Yorker. With so much hype, silliness, and downright disinformation in news, political campaigns, and certainly in the blogosphere, hanging out (mentally speaking) in an oasis of carefully developed and well-articulated thought is refreshing, nurturing, and real. I don't mean to suggest that The New Yorker is the only venue for that kind of immersion in reality! Nor am I saying that the liberal perspective of most of that magazine's writers and editors is the only point of view that can generate clear, reality-based ideas. But I do believe that, whatever one's political leanings and mode of engagement, everybody who aspires to responsible citizenship needs to step back on a regular basis from hype and partisan yammering in order to do a bit of thinking. If you don't like The New Yorker, read The Economist.

But, even if you read The Economist, have a look at Gladwell's article. It's well worth your time.

Thanks to Pop!Tech for the photo of Malcom Gladwell.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Property: thoughts on Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Last Monday I described the experience of viewing Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I at the Neue Galerie in New York when I visited recently, and a quick sketch of the painting's history. I ended by referring to the arbitrated, 2006 recovery of this painting by Maria Altmann -- a niece of the painting's subject and her husband Ferdinand, and one of his heirs -- as a "depatriation" (the country in question being Austria). This work's ownership has presented a tangle of difficult-to-resolve principles, and today I'm going to delve a bit into these complications in the frames I considered as I viewed the painting last month.

From my cultural and historical perspective I would have a hard time arguing against the Bloch-Bauer family's right to recover possessions stolen less than 75 years ago as part of a state-run, genocidal, 'ethnic cleansing' program. My point of view is certainly influenced by the fact that I would have been subject to Nazi genocide myself had I lived in Europe during the thirties and forties.

But seeing Adele Bloch-Bauer I, having followed press coverage of Altmann's attempt to recover the portrait and sister-works, and reading the Neue Galerie curator's summary of how the painting came to New York, all set me thinking about culture, time, and property rights.

This seemed a fitting set of ideas to mull over at the end of a week's visit to eight museums and dozens of galleries up and down the island of Manhattan. Two of the museums I visited were once the palatial homes of colossally wealthy families (those of J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick) whose personal art collections form the heart of these museums' holdings. Another was built to house the collection of another colossally wealthy family (the Guggenheims), and that museum's collection was also seeded with the personal holdings of the family patriarch (Solomon R.).

The Neue Galerie itself was brought into being by contemporary wealth of wallet-numbing scale: that of Ronald S. Lauder, son of the founders of the Estée Lauder Companies. This prodigal son purchased Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I for the Neue Galerie from Maria Altmann for a rumored $135 million, then the highest price ever paid for a painting. Lauder, by the way, was chairman of New York's Museum of Modern Art for ten years, and ran for mayor of the city in 1989; he served as ambassador to Austria before that, appointed by Ronald Reagan. Forbes ranked him #124 in its most recent list of the wealthiest Americans (down one from his 2009 ranking).

Highly-regarded art inevitably hangs in the corridors of wealth (and its corollary, power) because it becomes so valuable that only very wealthy individuals and institutions can afford to buy it. As in the case of Klimt's portrait -- not to mention many cases of antiquities currently the subject of petitions and lawsuits demanding repatriation to Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Italy, and elsewhere -- valuable art also changes hands when crime and political power come into play.

Standing in the Neue Galerie I was thinking about the journey that Klimt's portrait took through two world wars and their still unsettled wakes, but also about the many, much older works of art, from antiquity to the Renaissance, that I'd been privileged to see in the the Frick Collection, the Morgan, the Cloisters, and the Met during the week I visited New York. One could think of these works as riches that, yes indeed, were amassed by ancient royalty, the Roman or Orthadox Catholic churches, seventeenth century traders, or nineteenth century industrialists -- sometimes all of these, in successive handoffs -- and now are held in trust (public or private) for access by whoever is interested to spend time viewing them. (It's worth noting that Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I was on-view at Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna for decades prior to the settlement of Altmann's claim.)

In the long view, then, what does it mean for an individual (Maria Altmann, in this case) to assert her ownership of art that is publicly accessible? Does the calculus change when that public access was enabled by a wrenching, forced, or stealthy kind of transfer, "unfair" in any frame that respects property-rights, to which a large fraction of valuable art has been subject over the centuries? What if that transfer happened at some remove from the person or institution that currently holds the work?

When does -- or should -- the "right" of an original owner to a specific work of art give way to the "right" of a people to access defining artifacts of its culture? Should the model be anything like copyright of published works, which, under U.S. law, originally expired after a maximum of 28 years, and now, under the terms of a 1998 extension to the law often referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Act," protects work for the life of its author plus 70 years?

And ... with respect to the "right" of a people ... which "people" are we talking about here? Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer were human beings, Austrians, Jews, members of an upper economic class, and also members of a society of artists and patrons that constituted an early twentieth century avant-garde. Which facet of their identities corresponds to the "people" for whom Klimt's portrait is a defining artifact?

Questions with murky answers, I'd say.

And murkier still when one attempts to reconcile the principles one might apply to ownership of art with those applied to ownership of businesses, buildings, or land. As Fortune Magazine reported, "one of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's palaces" housed Austria's state railway office until 2006, when his heirs recovered it; the building was used during World War II as a depot to send Austrian Jews to Nazi death camps.

How does all that fit in the larger picture, as it were? How might principles that permitted Bloch-Bauer's heirs to recover Nazi-confiscated art and real estate apply to land and business appropriated over the long and cruel course of history by other individuals, states, and cultures?

Do the tribes who "sold" the island of Manhattan to Peter Minuit -- or the tribes living there in 1626, which were not necessarily the same -- have a reasonable right to recover that real estate?

What of Palestinians who fled ancestral land during the "Nakba," the 1948 war that cemented the claim of the modern Israeli state to its "green line" borders and simultaneously dispossessed hundreds of thousands whose families had lived within those borders for generations? Do heirs to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel -- dispersed first by the Babylonians, then, in the first century C.E., by the Roman empire -- have precedent rights over this territory, as some assert? And what about heirs to Canaanites living on the land before the ancestors of those Judeans and Israelites, led by Joshua of the Old Testament, smote their cities with swords? Or those who were already established on these lands when Abraham first hiked down the dusty road from Ur?

My reading group happens to have chosen Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City for discussion in late October, so I'm reading it now. Perhaps his meditation on the 1453 "Fall of Constantinople" (to Westerners) or "Conquest of Istanbul" (for Easterners) as it applies to questions of property, culture, power, and the changes wrought over time is worth considering here. Pamuk writes, in Chapter 19 of his mournful memoir:

"It was Westernization and Turkish nationalism that prompted Istanbul to begin celebrating the 'Conquest.' At the beginning of the twentieth century, only half the city's population was Muslim, and most of the non-Muslim inhabitants were descendants of Byzantine Greeks. When I was a child, the view amongst the city's more vocal nationalists was that anyone who so much as used the word 'Constantinople' was an undesirable alien with irredentist dreams of the day when the Greeks who had been the city's first masters would return to chase away the Turks who had occupied it for five hundred years -- or, at the very least, turn us into second-class citizens. It was the nationalists, then, who insisted on the word 'conquest.' By contrast, many Ottomans were content to call their city Constantinople. [...] Neither President Celal Bayar nor Prime Minister Adnan Menderes attended the 500th anniversary [of the Ottoman conquest] ceremonies in 1953; although these had been many years in the planning, it was decided at the last moment that to do so might offend the Greeks and Turkey's Western allies. [...] It was, however, three years later that the Turkish state deliberately provoked what you might call 'conquest fever' by allowing mobs to rampage through the city, plundering the property of Greeks and other minorities. A number of churches were destroyed during the riots, and a number of priests were murdered, so there are many echoes of the cruelties Western historians describe in accounts of the 'fall' of Constantinople. In fact, both the Turkish and Greek states have been guilty of treating their respective minorities as hostages to geopolitics, and that is why more Greeks have left Istanbul over the past fifty years than in the fifty years following 1453."

Culture, time, property rights, power. There's a lot of resonance that can accrue to a couple square meters of canvas.

This post is the second in a two part series. The first, Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga, was published on 27 September 2010.