Democracy and Design

According to Timothy Egan (writing on his NYT blog), Amazon sold more electronic than hardcopy books during the Christmas season. He goes on to predict that the iPad and other electronic readers will accelerate the closing of brick and mortar bookstores. He writes, “. . . if Denver were to lose Tattered Cover, or Portland lose Powell’s, or Washington, D.C., lose Politics and Prose, it would be like ripping one lung from a healthy body. These stores are cultural centers, shared living rooms; no virtual community on the Web, or even a well-run library, can replace them.”

I agree. I suspect those specific stores will be anomalies, they’ll survive over the medium-term at least as a result of their loyal followings, extensive inventories, and exceptional customer service. The question though is what becomes of the small and medium sized independents who can’t compete on price and don’t have the history or momentum of a Tattered Cover, Powell’s, and Politics and Prose? I hope I’m wrong, but I expect them to go out of business. Does it matter? Is it just creative destruction, a shifting of economic tectonic plates, an inevitable byproduct of free-market capitalism?

Of course, from the perspective of bookstore owners, employees, and loyal customers, it matters. But what about from a socio-political perspective?

Social scientists are telling us what seems intuitive, we’re growing more and more ideologically segregated. I tend to listen to public radio and watch public television, with some Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, and Keith Olberman (in very small doses) mixed in. My right wing friends listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and watch Fox News almost exclusively. Plus, nearly everyone is plugged in to their personal iPods and smartphones making spontaneous conversations with people all but impossible.

Among other things, a vibrant democracy depends on civil discourse, or put more simply, people with differing opinions talking directly to one another. If not at bookstore cafes, or in book discussion groups, or during book reading Q&A’s, when do people truly engage with those who think differently than them? I’ve expressed my opinion before that women are better than men at making time for tea, conversation, and one another. For example, my better half and her friends, “The Clatch”, meet every few months at one of their houses. But I’m only giving them partial credit because they’re all left-of-center libs who think more alike than different.

What becomes of the listening, thinking, communicating, and problem solving skills of people who very rarely engage in civil discourse? For an answer, look at Congress.

Egan’s insight got me thinking about design. Are architects factoring socio-political variables like I’m describing into their designs. And if so, how? How do we design cities or redesign existing ones so that there are inviting public places where diverse people—culturally, economically, ideologically, religiously—are in the same place at the same time?

Tech Notes

Personal record for links in this post.

By the time you read this, I hope Steve Jobs will have changed personal computing again with Apple’s long awaited tablet. I invest in vanilla bond and stock index funds, except for one stock, AAPL. Wednesday night, I expect the value of my AAPL shares to be flat or slightly down due to the Obama-effect, unrealistic, unmeetable expectations. More importantly, I’m hoping the tablet makes reading even easier and more enjoyable, makes flying more tolerable (via a mobile library or t.v./movie viewing), is as simple as a toaster to use, and enables me to reduce my personal tech footprint. Bonus points if it drags me into the 21st Century cell-phoning, texting world.

I recently purchased a desktop computer which, four or five years ago, I swore I’d never do again. At that time, I didn’t factor in my worsening vision. One complication is keeping the university’s laptop and my personal desktop in sync. Apple’s MobileMe program was okay, but I didn’t want to pay $100/year for it. So I resorted to thumbdriving, which is a hassle. Then I read this. Love it. Hard to believe the Late Adaptor is cloud computing. Check it out if you’re digital life is out of sync.

I also joined the DVR-world recently, Tivo more specifically. What was I thinking trying to watch t.v. without Netflix and Tivo? To quote my previously brilliant/illuminating review, “love it.” One unintended benefit. Fourteen is watching a lot more t.v. That translates into worse grades, which translates into a less expensive college. Genius. Sometimes I amaze myself.

The New York Times has announced plans to charge nonsubscribers for some content in about a year. Others have tried this unsuccessfully and I predict this effort will fail too. There’s simply too much competition, meaning substitutes. Tonight in the tub I’ll read an article from GQ and the Atlantic Monthly. That reminds me, I also hope the tablet is water proof.

Lastly, if you fancy yourself a runner, swimmer, or cyclist, check this blog post out. The triathlete author is a blogging and technology savant.


Teaching high school taught me that adolescents can be living, breathing rollercoasters, up one day, down the next. After awhile, I learned not to take the inevitable dips personally.

Which takes us to the other day and my facebooking seventeen year old. “Why are you trying to talk to me?” she asked staring at her laptop. My bad, I’m an awful dad for being interested in last night’s field trip to Seattle.

Fast forward a day. . . the rollercoaster standing in the kitchen, studying page four of my Tacoma Broadway Center for the Performing Arts pamphlet. Gaelic Storm.

I throw caution to the wind. “Wanna go?” “Yeah!”

Surprisingly, she doesn’t get any better offers during the week.

We hit traffic, arrive five minutes late, run through downtown T-town together, and buy two of the last tics.

For the next three hours nagging, tension, and adolescent angst were replaced with clapping, laughing, and singing. Irish music has always moved me in inexplicable ways and seventeen is a talented violinist on a piano playing tear. She was transfixed by Jesse Burns the group’s fiddler who shredded from beginning to end.

Wonderful concert made better by the company.

Fitness Update

Swimming. I’m not a joiner so I surprised myself when I signed up for the January/early February Masters swim team session. Paying extra to swim with other people? New year/decade kind of thing I guess.

I’ve been getting in about 3-3.5k three times a week. 10k, a regular day in the life of a “swimmer”, a solid week for me. Got some grief for not signing all the way on and buying a team suit before the big meet on February 6th, but I was proud of my excuse, “I’m a triathlete disguised as a swimmer.” Same reason I kick with fins!

That’s a versatile one that I’m ready to use with the cycling team.

Speaking of suits (product pimping alert), the other day I was marveling at how long I’ve been wearing my polyester Speedo Endurance jammers. If I had known about these a decade ago, I wouldn’t be driving a Honda Civic.

Flashblack to the first practice of the New Year. I’m hanging on the wall during a rest interval when all of a sudden, the magic jammers up and quit. A fissure of biblical proportions, just tush and water.

When I got home, my best friend who has a lot of friends on the team demanded I tell her exactly what I did next. So of course I had to embellish it. Truth be told, I timed my locker room dash perfectly and kept my privates out of public view. I had a backup suit and was back in the water with only the coach knowing how close a call everyone had.

It’s important to make a good first impression.

Cycling. See my Christmas present to myself below. Now when the rain or snow is blowing sideways I kick on ESPN and laugh at Mother Nature. Oh, the seven? That’s my Lance Pharmstrong impersonation for Lance. Notice the blurred feet, serious power.

Today’s numbers, off a run, 849calories, 219 watts avg., 28.8k in 1:05. 30m warm up followed by 4 on, 3 off. One benefit of the new bike, I can now be a watts geek.

L, G, and I entered a lottery for an epic ride/race that’s not in Washington State. We entered in that order. I may not know until mid-August if signing up was the result of positive or negative peer pressure.

Running. Taught all day Saturday most of the month so my posse is in more disarray than the Democrats. Missed the Saturday 10-milers. Solid week-day routine though, about 25m/week.


Imagine writing eighteen single-spaced pages about your job performance? I’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks writing a 10,732 word self-assessment for promotion to Professor.

The very lucky 17% of higher education faculty in tenured track positions typically begin as Assistants, become Associates at tenure, and then eventually when their hair is mostly gray and their vision is shot, become Professors. Most faculty spend about seven years at each level. Unless you’re the rare all-star that gets recruited by another institution, promotion is the only way to improve your salary.

“Like a lawyer” I had to “make an argument” for myself in light of the University’s criteria for promotion. I embedded the criteria in the first two sentences.

“Through this self-assessment, the letters of colleagues and former students, and the accompanying artifacts, I aim to demonstrate that I am deserving of promotion to Professor. This is due to my record and reputation as an excellent teacher, continual growth in scholarship, and distinct academic influence and leadership.”

I’ll spare you the remaining 10,700 words. I should note though that after reading all 10,732 words my wonderful mother said if she could she’d award me promotion in a “New York Minute”.

Reminds of a classic moment in modern American film. Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, “So we finish the eighteenth and the Dalai Lama’s gonna stiff me. And I say, ‘Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”

So I got that goin’ for me, my mom in my corner, which is real, real nice.

Since no one is perfect, I would have preferred writing about what I’ve done well and what I haven’t done as well. But that’s not what the Rank & Tenure Committee expects.

So after three weeks of writing almost exclusively about what I do well, it’s time to restore some balance in my life and the cosmos by coming clean about my myriad shortcomings to a proxy for the Rank & Tenure Community. . . you.

1. I can be an impatient listener.

2. On more than one occasion, I’ve been wearing a towel when my daughter’s friends come to the house. My “man skirt” or “utility kilt” embarrasses her unnecessarily.

3. I sometimes mistake the family dinner table for a lockerroom.

4. I am indescribably inept at Christmas lights, home repair, laundry, and pruning.

5. I sometimes don’t act immediately on emails, necessitating multiple readings.

6. I regularly cut through the Denny’s parking lot on Pacific and Hwy 512.

7. When it comes to food and drink, I can be too disciplined. My own beloved mother recently said to me, “Sometimes you have to live a little.”

8. My frugality can take completely irrational forms.

9. I received cable for free for a long time and didn’t report myself.

10. When in “writing at home” mode, I can wear the same pair of pants and t-shirt for a long time (purposely vague).

That’s a Lettermanesque start. I feel better. Thanks for listening.

Please don’t forward this link to anyone on the Rank & Tenure Committee.

A Passport and Library Card

This post is only for men under 35, and my brother, “Mother’s Favorite”. If you don’t fall within that demographic, stop reading.

Yes, a happy wife equals a happy life, but what if  you’re single? Singleness is cool, but if you want to marry, get a passport and a library card. Traveling abroad and reading are probably optional. More advice here.

More Product Pimping

First yogurt, now duck tape brand duct tape.

Seventeen is researching college scholarships. Where was this one thirty years ago?

I was no where disadvantaged, athletic, or academic enough to qualify for any scholarships. I might have been able to compete for this one though.

Duck Tape Brand Duct Tape

Scholarship Name: Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest
Description: If you are a fashion-forward high school student who doesn’t mind getting yourself into a…sticky situation, then you have a good chance at winning $3,000 for college. Here’s the deal: Go to your high school prom dressed in duck tape. Yup, duck tape. Winners are picked for their “originality, workmanship and quantity of tape.” That quantity thing is a major piece of the puzzle – don’t just accessorize with the tape. Past winners went for a total duck tape ensemble, so if you’re serious about this fashion challenge, it’s best to go all out.
Award: $3,000
Awards Per Year: 1
Award is Open to: High school students
Major/Field of Study: Open
How to Apply/Contact: Take a picture of you and your duck-taped date and send it into the Duck Brand Duct Tape Stuck at Prom Contest,

The Decade’s First Global News Story

Paul Collier in a January 17th Guardian story.

“Humanitarian crises around the world have shown that, while disaster response is often fast, effective and well-funded, reconstruction attracts fewer resources and, in many instances, fails to deliver an opportunity for a better future. Aceh, on the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and a region often taken as a model for focused development efforts after the 2004 tsunami, now faces new challenges as aid agencies reduce cash handouts and a lack of employment opportunities threatens stability.”

The media spotlight is shining brightly on Haiti just as it did Aceh in 2004. What are the odds that in six years, we will read that Haiti “now faces new challenges as aid agencies reduce cash handouts and a lack of employment opportunities threatens stability.”?

People’s recent generosity towards Haiti strikes me as odd given how little attention most people typically pay to desperately poor people and places.

In the medium and long-term, what impact can we expect an “ignore, give generously, and ignore again” style of philanthropy to make?

We need to commit to more serious and sustained global citizenship that rests on historical knowledge of colonialism, of specific places like Haiti, of globalization and neo-liberal economics, and less on one-off, media-inspired, charitable giving.

I would be more optimistic about Haiti’s future if people checked out books by Sachs, Collier, and other experts on global poverty and formed groups to debate the merits of their proposals for reducing global poverty.

If we don’t press our government to give more generously and intelligently, and we don’t consider changes in our own lifestyles, I can’t help but wonder if we give at times like this out of a sense of guilt.


Now that we’ve fixed pubic ed, we can move on to . . . yogurt.

Eating yogurt, like most of life, entails decision-making. What kind to eat?

Since Lance has recommended more pictures and you’ve been dying to know, here’s a pictorial that represents the yogurt journey I’ve been on.

Initially, my yoggie world was all YoPlait, all the time. It was ubiquitous, I was unsophisticated, and it had lots of sugar. Favorite flav was KeyLime, but French Vanilla rallied and overtook it as the #1 seed.

Everything was copacetic until the wife rocked my yoggie world one summer day by saying, “You know YoPlait has a lot of sugar.” Voice inside my head, “No duh, why do you think I like it so much.” Actual voice, “Mike said Tillamook is very good and has less sugar, maybe we should give it a try.”

And like a dairy Tiger Woods, I began eating around.

What wasn’t there to like about Tillamook? Good taste, less sugar, and two extra ounces.

It was a solid relationship, until, you knew an “until” was coming, until I started to hear repeated references to a different, more exotic and alluring yoggie. . .Greek.

I read references to it in triathlete’s blogs, I heard more and more people talking about it and got wanderlust. Because I wanted to be like the other kids, I instructed the wife to “Bring me some of this magical yoggie of which everyone speaks.”

And so yesterday, with the YoPlait and Tillamook quivering in the fridge, I assembled three versions of Greek on the kitchen island and proceeded to taste each. I was underwhelmed, whelmed, and overwhelmed.

Then I took a look at the nutritional info and understood why: blow those pics up and take a gander at the sugar, fat, protein, etc.

In layman’s term, you could eat the nonfat like it’s Hagen Daz, empty the cartoon, and barely move the needle on the scale. In contrast, you gain weight from the regular, which overwhelmed me, just by glancing at it in the fridge.

But this isn’t a problem, the wide range of choices is quite nice. This morning I ran 10k and then swam 3.5k. I sucked down some regular guilt free. Tomorrow morning, when I won’t have time to workout before teaching, I’ll apologize to my taste buds and probably go with the non-fat.

Imagine if life was so accommodating. I’m sure my wife would love it if she could alternate among three of me. When she hears me pull into the garage, she could say I want non-fat Ron so “Just zip it and listen to me all night.” Or regular Ron, “Okay, talk to me, engage me, make me laugh.” Or low-fat Ron, something in between.

Wondering about the Mountain High? It’s the (mostly summer) smoothie workhorse that the wife gets at the hippy co-op. It’s okay with some of the wife’s all-world granola, but it’s most at home in the blender with ice, fruit, and juice.