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Showing posts from December, 2013

Song of the year

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One New Year's Eve, when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I got caught up in the excitement of listening to a radio station's countdown of the year's top hits, and decided to make my own list. That much is easy to explain; what is less easy to explain is that I've done it every year since. Anyhow I now have a considerable time series of my musical tastes. My early choices tended towards mellow songs ("Stop and Smell the Roses" by Mac Davis was the inaugural song of the year) or novelty records ("Convoy," "King Tut"). Since then I've gotten hipper, or at least less mainstream, but the choices have remained visceral. My criterion seems to be mostly what recording gave me the most pleasure that year, with perhaps an idea that the track would be the most memorable in the future. Often I'm wrong about that. Rare has been the song of the year that is clearly tied to that year. I imagine most of my choices are interchangeable, except that …

A challenge to the Gazette on climate change

The Cedar Rapids Gazette, whose coverage of many issues (including the economy and health care) has been responsible, is creating a misleading impression of the state of debate on climate change. For years the predominant view among climate scientists is that human pollution is accumulating in the atmosphere, and that this accumulation has begun to affect the climate of the Earth. If unchecked, these changes will lead to irreversible damage to the ability of the Earth to support life as we know it. (This is popularly known as "climate change," or by an earlier and less accurate monicker, "global warming." 97 percent of climate scientists endorsed this view in this NASA survey).

The only scientific voices on this subject that I've seen in the Gazette, however, represent the small minority of skeptics. Last Sunday, the International Climate Science Coalition presented its third op-ed column since June by my (non-systematic) count, arguing that "the idea that…

Ending the war on Christmas

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(photo by Jane, from nesmithfamilyblog.blogspot.com)
Once upon a time America was a Christian nation. By that admittedly vague and inflammatory term I mean that when I grew up, people where I lived assumed each other were Christian unless informed otherwise. (Then, depending on who you were, we thought you either exotic or wrong.) I started school in 1964, two years after the Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision on prayer in public schools. While we didn't pray in class, we sang Christmas carols, and prayed before various events. Apollo 8 astronauts celebrated Christmas in their spaceship by reading the creation story from Genesis 1 to an unsurprised nation. Whether going to stores or watching television, it was easy to get the impression that everyone worshiped in the Christian tradition, albeit with varying levels of devotion.
It's hard to say exactly when all that changed. The 1965 Immigration Act opened the national doors to people from non-European parts of the world w…

Judicial activism and gay sex

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(Supreme Court of India, from en.wikipedia.org)
Politics and government are, for the most part, not that weird. Maddening maybe, scary arguably, but most people are used to people making rules and arguing, which is what the President and Congress mainly seem to be for.

But there are weird parts of government, too... the vast array of bureaucratic agencies, for example. This is where vaguely-written laws are turned into specifically-written regulations so they can be put into effect. Yet start talking about the bureaucracy, and most people, including I'm ashamed to say me, drop into the blissful oblivion of deep sleep. The public comment period required for regulations is ignored by most of the public, except for the affected interest groups who raise a big stink and try to get them watered down or eliminated (see Dodd-Frank on financial regulation). The rest of us only notice the bureaucracy when something misfires, such as the first two months of healthcare.gov.
Even weirder, by…

Urban images from Arcadia

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Arcadia is a recent novel by Lauren Groff (Voice, 2012). It is the story of Ridley "Bit" Stone, raised on a 1970s commune in upstate New York, and his life afterwards. It's an interesting psychological study, and her writing is justly praised for its lyrical qualities. Here are two short passages that bear on the urban project.
As an adult Bit gets a graduate degree and takes a job teaching photography at a university. Late one night, he walks through New York City, and stops at a diner: He imagines snapping his fingers, making all the people in the diner stand, at once, and become their better selves. The woman with the cragged oak-bark face throws off her hood and shakes her hair and her age drops off of her like bandages. The man with a monk's tonsure, muttering to himself, leaps onto a table and strikes music from the air. Out of the bowels of the kitchen the weary cooks, small brown people, cartwheel and break-dance, spinning like upended beetles on the ground an…

Gentrification in the Mission District

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(mural in San Francisco's Mission District, swiped from nytimes.com)
One of the key principles of the new urbanism is neighborhood diversity, defined by Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton (The Regional City, 2001) as "mix[ing] different kinds of people and activities in close proximity and provid[ing] places for them to interact" (ch. 2). (Their other core principles are human scale and preservation.) Neighborhoods containing people of different races, social classes, occupations and sexual orientations have more vitality throughout the day, a greater sense of community, and more public involvement. Randolph T. Hester (Design for Ecological Democracy, 2006) urges designers to overcome "shortsighted interest-group divisions" so cities "can be formed as wholes rather than balkanized" (ch. 7). Balkanized, as opposed to diverse, neighborhoods lead to concentrations of poverty which are dangerous and constrict opportunity, and enclaves of the well-off whi…