Saturday, September 30, 2006

The ideal city: "Everything's waiting for you."

In an essay called "The Ideal Community and the Politics of Difference," the late Iris Marion Young makes claims for the city as potential site for a radical practice of true mutuality and difference. Recognizing that the direction of her thoughts may be "hopelessly utopian," given "the very size of populations in our society and most other nations of the world, coupled with a continuing sense of national or ethnic identity with millions of other people" (which would work against encountering individuals as truly individual), she continues to sketch a notion of the "unoppressive city."

The temporal and spatial differentiation that mark the physical environment of the city produce an experience of aesthetic inexhaustibility. Buildings, squares, the twists and turns of streets and alleys offer an inexhaustible store of individual spaces and things, each with unique aesthetic characteristics. The juxtaposition of incongruous styles and functions that usually emerge after a long time in city places contribute to this pleasure in detail and surprise. This is an experience of difference in the sense of always being inserted. The modern city is without walls; it is not planned and coherent. Dwelling in the city means always having a sense of beyond, that there is much human life beyond my experience going on in or near these spaces, and I can never grasp the city as a whole.

Precisely what Petula Clark said.

A warm thanks to Mr. Sun for this blast from the past.

Friday, September 29, 2006

"Prize" within reach again

A year and a half ago I joined the chorus of complaint about the unavailability of the landmark documentary series "Eyes on the Prize," a situation created by expired copyright licenses. Earlier this year, PBS announced that, with the help of the documentary series "American Experience" and Blackside (Henry Hampton's production company), the first six episodes would air this fall. A reader writes to note that they are scheduled for October 2, 9, and 16.

Fact vs. fiction

As a coda to the post below, there are always those on fact patrol to try to make sure that the dramatic artist does not range all that "freely . . . within the zodiac of his own wit." (Or: Is Trollope really talking about how to write a novel that avoids the "legal difficulties" of a lawsuit?)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Beyond the back door

My talk on The Voice at the Back Door and the Carrollton Massacre yesterday went nicely. I was lucky to have a good crowd of folks who were interested in the subject and eager to talk back! The questions were large and thought-provoking. It's not exactly staircase wit, but a good night's sleep allowed me to think of some better answers to a couple of the most challenging ones.

Lloyd Kramer, noting that my talk was first about a novel, then--using the standard tools of historical research--about a historical event, asked what was the relationship between history and fiction. A large question, for which we could go all the way back to Sidney's Defense of Poetry. For a great latter-day discussion of this question, see E. L. Doctorow's recent essay "Notes on the History of Fiction."

Common to all the great nineteenth-century practitioners of narrative art is a belief in the staying power of fiction as a legitimate system of knowledge. While the writer of fiction, of whatever form, may be seen as an arrogant transgressor, a genre-blurring immoralist given to border raids and territorial occupations, he is no more than a conservator of the ancient system of organizing and storing knowledge we call the story. . . .

A proper question here is whether his faith in his craft is justified. Whereas the biblical storytellers attributed their inspiration to God, the writers since seem to find in the fictive way of thinking a personal power -- a fluency of mind that does not always warn the writer of the news it brings. Mark Twain said that he never wrote a book that didn't write itself. And no less an enobler of the discipline than Henry James, in his essay "The Art of Fiction," describes this empowerment as "an immense sensibility … that takes to itself the faintest hints of life ... and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations." What the novelist is finally able to do, James says, is "to guess the unseen from the seen."

The Voice at the Back Door is remarkable for the way in which it accurately "guesses the unseen from the seen." It isn't real history, certainly. But historians who sit down to think about it will recognize that history too is a form of narrative, and thus also, in the end, derives from "a personal power." Doctorow continues,

Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn't. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. "There are no facts in themselves," Nietzche says. "For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning." Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning. The cultural matrix in which the historian works will condition his thinking; he will speak for his time and place by the facts he brings to light and the facts he leaves in darkness, the facts he brings into being and the facts that remain unformed, unborn. . . . This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.

An audience member, Joe Glatthaar, was too quiet in this discussion. His 1985 book on Sherman's march to the sea was an important source for Doctorow's latest novel, The March.

A second good question: Maria Winslow wondered if there was danger in keeping old history too much alive. In an email message to me she clarified the two-part question she was trying to ask:

1. As a 6-year-old child going to the first integrated school in town [Edenton, N.C.] (remember this would have been 1972!), did having no knowledge of segregation and its supporters for the next few years make it easier to break a history of racism?

2. Many of the mean bastards who protested are still alive - who are they (and in a tolerant moment, how has their thinking changed)?

To part one, Elizabeth Spencer referred to Tim Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name, a good choice because in it Tim says things like this:

We cannot address the place we find ourselves because we will not acknowledge the road that brought us here. Our failure to confront the historical truth about how African Americans finally won their freedom presents a major obstacle to genuine racial reconciliation.

It would be nice if we could all wake up in the morning (I've heard Tim say this) and determine to exist in a world in which racism never figured. But in the only world we've got, that's not possible. To "transcend our history and move toward higher ground," as Tim (son of a preacher) urges, we first have to reckon with that history and especially what it has meant to African Americans.

To part two: I can't speak for anyone in Edenton, but it is possible to know what some of the more nortorious of the men of the old order continued to think as they got older. The Alabama state trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death sparked the Selma march, spoke on the record for the first time in 2005, and he didn't seem particularly repentant; he seemed indifferent at best to the possibility that the murder case would be reopened, as it has been by now (by Alabama's first elected black district attorney). Byron de la Beckwith, convicted in 1994 in the murder of Medgar Evers, is another example. We can only hope that the thinking of many others has indeed changed.

Do the math.

For an 8th grade math project, Tucker translated the costs of the Iraq war into more familiar terms. He started with a cost of

$ 318.5 billion= ~$91 billion/year

based on the estimate for Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year. That number translates as follows:

13,765,235 years of (out of state) tuition at UNC-CH
28,210,806 years of in-state tuition at UNC-CH
~ 7,962,500 years of tuition at Duke University
2,576,860,841 24-hour days at NC minimum wage
7,059,893 years straight of work at minimum wage (not counting leap years)
31,103,516 miles of $1 bills end to end
This would go around the world 1,249 times
87,771,538 tons of pennies
At average single-family house price, 1,206,439 houses
116.67 billion gallons of gasoline (average price as of Sept. 6)
6,835,204 teachers for one year at national average salary
1447.778 times the international gross of the film Fahrenheit 9/11

Percent of the National Debt as of 9-5-06:

Percent of money spent on WW2 (by all countries, adjusted to 1990 dollars):

867.3 times the amount spent by George Bush on his 2004 election campaign

976.3 times the amount spent by John Kerry on his 2004 bid for president

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

CSAS talk today

At 3:30 I'll be speaking in the Center for the Study of the American South's fall lecture series. My topic is Elizabeth Spencer's Voice at the Back Door and the Carrollton Massacre. The best thing about it is that Elizabeth herself will be there. Join us if you can.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Picture this.

On Saturday night Paul and I zipped over to Greensboro to meet up with Ed Cone and his talented spouse Lisa Scheer to see her photography exhibition at the Green Bean coffeehouse. The Green Bean is a neat place. Paul and I wondered about the closed-off room with table and chairs. It's a conference room that's rentable by local businesses! So, for your your next meeting, you might walk down the street and sit around an interesting table with good coffee. By day it's a coffeehouse, by night it's a bar, and the walls are devoted to art exhibitions--like Lisa's photographs.

Which are wonderful.

While we were there we saw part of a documentary film on the labor abuses at the Smithfield Packing Company down east in Tar Heel, N.C. This article from The Nation--by Eric Schlosser, who ought to know--captures it pretty well:

Since George W. Bush took office in January 2001, the meatpacking industry has wielded more power than at any other time since the early twentieth century. The Bush Administration has worked closely with the industry to weaken food safety and worker safety rules and to make union organizing more difficult. The US Department of Agriculture now offers a textbook example of a regulatory agency controlled by the industry it's supposed to regulate.[*] The current chief of staff at the USDA was, until 2001, the chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Meanwhile, the sort of abuses criticized in the NLRB's Smithfield decision are still being committed. A recent Human Rights Watch report on the US meatpacking industry found "systematic human rights violations." Lance Compa, the author of the report, teaches labor law at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Compa interviewed many workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel. What's happening there, he says, is "a modern-day version of The Jungle."

*The nuclear industry is another.--SG

After seeing as much as we could stomach of this enlightening film, we went out for sushi.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Shearon Harris: beneath the spin

In response to this week's events, the community relations manager of Progress Energy was kind enough to write yesterday in an effort to persuade me that the Shearon Harris plant is safe and law-abiding. But I am sorry: this version doesn't fit the facts. Here is Mr. Clayton's memo, annotated by Pete MacDowell of NC WARN.

To: Sally Greene
Chapel Hill, Town of

From: Marty Clayton
Progress Energy

September 22, 2006

The Harris Plant has been in the news this week and we want to make sure you have the facts.

Harris Plant outage

The Harris Plant tripped offline at approximately 10 a.m. Tuesday morning when a relay device inside the plant’s generator failed. Nuclear plants are designed to automatically shut down when components fail in order to protect plant equipment and to ensure the health and safety of the public. Shutdowns are the result of properly functioning safety systems.

The cause of the outage was an electrical problem, similar to tripping the breaker in your home, and was not related to the reactor or the nuclear side of the plant. After conducting extensive precautionary testing on the relay and other nearby components to ensure the relay was the sole cause of the outage, the device was successfully replaced Thursday afternoon.

The plant began startup procedures Thursday evening, and began making and sending power to our customers again early this morning.

Petition to suspend the Harris Plant’s license

NC WARN and others filed a 2.206 petition on Wednesday, which is a mechanism the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) established to allow the public to be involved and engaged in its oversight process. We expect the NRC will review the petition to determine its merit.

Progress Energy and the Harris Plant will work with the NRC in the appropriate manner to address this petition.

Fire safety at the Harris Plant

Allegations of inadequate fire safety at the Harris Plant are simply not true.

It’s interesting that he is saying the company regards their fire safety as “adequate.” Unlike spokesperson Julie Hans, he is not claiming here that they are in compliance with the fire regulations.

There are multiple layers of fire protection barriers in place at Harris. (Multiple layers of inadequate fire barriers that don’t meet safety regulations is not the path to safety. I wouldn’t walk into a fire in a multi-layered paper fire suit – regardless of the number of layers.) Fire-sensitive cables are wrapped in fire retardant material (that is Hemyc, which failed to meet NRC requirements), surrounded by automatic detection devices (fire detection is not fire suppression) and sprinkler systems (sprinkler systems do not satisfy the regulations), and are located in rooms separated by thick concrete to prevent the spread of any fire (the Thermolag, Hemyc, and MT retrofitted and inadequate fire barriers were installed to make up for the fact that cable trays were too close together and were in the same rooms). Additionally, we employ human fire protection, with an on-site fire brigade and teams of individuals (six to eight per shift) who work around the clock, walking the plant in search of fires or fire hazards (these are roving fire detection people who may be in a given area a minute or two an hour and plant firefighters who are hardly an adequate substitute for required in-place fire barriers).

Over the last several years, the NRC’s regulations for fire protection have changed – the Harris Plant has been responsive to the NRC’s requests every step of the way and is making modifications to meet new NRC requirements in the time allowed by the NRC. With compensatory measures, the NRC considers the Harris Plant to be within guidelines for safe operation. (The basic fire safety regulations have not changed and Progress Energy has fought coming into compliance every step of the way. The NRC’s willingness to not enforce its own fire safety regulations for the last 14 years is the ultimate problem. It is the public that is at risk. And it is the public that has to effectively insist that this potentially catastrophic risk is minimized.)

It is our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the public and we take that responsibility seriously, as do the nearly 450 highly qualified and experienced plant employees. They work here and raise their families in this community. The last thing our employees would accept is an operating condition that presents a danger to themselves or the public.

If you have additional questions about these or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you,

Marty Clayton
Manager - Community Relations
Progress Energy

On Agate Hill

Lee Smith's new book, On Agate Hill (Algonquin), is her first historical novel, and it is wonderful. I've started it already. Listen to her hour-long WUNC interview from September 20.

She says that growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, she didn't spend much time thinking about the Civil War. That all changed ten years ago when she and her husband Hal Crowther bought a grand old house in Hillsborough that was built in 1870, with a Civil War cemetery out back. Just down the street is the town's historical museum as well as the Burwell School historic site, where she came upon the diary of Anna Burwell. And the rest is fiction.

All of us who know her grieved with her when her son Josh Seay died in 2003. In the interview, and in an essay for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she talks about how hard it was to climb out of that grief far enough to write this book, which is dedicated to Josh.

UPDATE 09/24: Smith's essay also appears in today's News & Observer.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Car free day

Today is Car Free Day internationally and in Orange County. I'm going "car lite." Paul dropped me off at Cafe Driade for a coffee appointment and then I took the bus to campus. I kind of need a couple of things from home and could borrow his car to go get them, but I'm resisting. You can call it just a symbol or a token, but it does make you think. We've got a great bus system, but we need to keep working on all fronts to get people out of their cars.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Over troubled water

A reader writes to note an interesting story from earlier this week in the small community of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Ferry service across the Alabama River, closed since 1962, reopened on September 18. What used to be an hour-long trip to the grocery store suddenly became a good bit shorter. If you suspect from the year (1962), and the place (Wilcox County, Alabama, just sound of Dallas County, of which Selma is the county seat) that it had something to do with civil rights, you'd be correct.

The ferry service shut down in 1962 after "Benders," as residents are known, were emboldened by a visit from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to cross the river to register to vote.

Gee's Bend has a long, rich history. A writer for the Christian Century observed in 1937,

Gee's Bend represents not merely a geographic configuration drawn by the yellow pencil of the river. Gee's Bend represents another civilization. Gee's Bend is an Alabama Africa. There is no more concentrated and racially exclusive Negro population in any rural community in the South than in Gee's Bend.

Many residents even today are named Pettway, for the plantation owner who kept 10,000 persons enslaved.

For the Farm Security Administration, in the 1930s Arthur Rothstein photographed Gee's Bend.

gee's bend
Cabins and outbuildings on the former Pettway plantation

At a site maintained by the University of Virginia, Pat Brady has an interesting interpretation of this picture.

The dilapidated shacks are surrounded by leafless trees, dead and dying grass, and a cold, unremitting sky. At the center of the picture stands a tiny figure, its impotence mocked by the giant landscape that surrounds it. This far away shot of Rothstein's removes the power and endurance from the figure, because unlike the resonant pictures of pioneers, one is unable to spot any resilience in the figure's face--or even the figure's face at all. This shows the powerlessness of the central figure, a fitting illustration of the black's near impossible struggle to escape the long shadow cast by slavery.

True enough, this is not one of those Walker Evans photos of indomitable humanity (though he has those too). In Rothstein's eye, few things are indomitable.

Pettway home
Former home of the Pettways, 1937.

I thought I'd never heard of Gee's Bend until I realized that wasn't strictly true: a few weeks ago I bought these stamps:

gee's bend

The Gee's Bend Quilt Collective carries on a long and beautiful tradition that in recent years has been recognized for its artistic merit. Maybe the new ferry will give them more time to do what they love.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times published a series on Gee's Bend that won a Pulitzer for feature writing in 2000. The whole series in online and worth reading.

Gee's Bend is where the Civil War came and went, but the slaves stayed, and their children stayed, and their grandchildren stayed, and their great-grandchildren, and so on, until today, Mary Lee and 700 of her kin cling to this bulb of bottom land their ancestors were chained to. They bear the surnames of the last slaveholders to live here. They grow corn near the slaveholders' headstones. They come and go amid the ghosts and dust devils that dance on the site of the old Big House.
The South was once dotted with such places, where slaves lingered long after Lincoln freed them, most famously the sea islands off Georgia and South Carolina. But Gee's Bend is the only place anyone can think of where the slaves did more than linger. They conquered. They outlasted the masters, bought back the plantation and lived upon it in blissful isolation, not a collection of historical anomalies, but a vast family, sharing the same few names and the same handful of fables, like some hybrid of Alex Haley and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Fair WARNing

Tonight I went to the briefing in Pittsboro on the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant, its serious and repeated fire safety violations, and the legal action that was taken today by NC WARN, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and the Union of Concerned Scientists to seek an emergency enforcement action from the NRC. Here's the demand:

As industry watchdogs on behalf of the public, we hereby submit a 2.206 Emergency Enforcement Petition, concluding and demanding that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must:

Issue an Order requiring the immediate suspension of the operating license for the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant until such time that all fire safety violations affecting safe shutdown functions as designated under current law are brought into compliance. This shall be accomplished without reliance on regulatory bypasses, such as indefinite compensatory measures.

Or in the alternative:

Issue penalties to the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant for the maximum allowable amount of $130,000 for each and every violation for each day the plant operates until compliance with the fire protection regulations is achieved and verified by NRC.

Said environmental lawyer John Runkle on behalf of the petitioners, "It's an unprecedented step, but it's been an unprecedented risk for 14 years." Based on its research, NC WARN calls Shearon Harris one of the most dangerous nuclear power plants in the nation. Four serious fires have happened in its history already.

Public officials were urged to pass resolutions in support of the legal action filed today. I certainly will advocate for quick action on this at the Chapel Hill Town Council. Here's the text of the news release filed by NC Warn today:

Groups Demand N-plant Suspension, Fines for Fire Violations

NRC Plans to Allow Harris, Others Nine Years to Comply With Safety Regs

DURHAM, NC – Insisting that nuclear safety must become a priority – not just a corporate slogan – a trio of state and national watchdog groups filed legal action today calling for federal regulators to take emergency enforcement measures at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant. The groups revealed that Harris has been in violation of fire safety regulations for 14 years, and that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has arranged a scheme to let the plant study fire vulnerabilities – a top risk factor for nuclear meltdown – for at least nine more years.

NC WARN, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed a legal action against the NRC today, demanding the agency suspend the Harris license until the plant corrects multiple fire safety violations, or levy the maximum fine of $130,000 per violation for each day the plant operates. The watchdogs said Progress Energy plans to apply next month for a 20-year extension to Harris’ operating license, which currently runs until 2026, without correcting its fire violations. The groups told NRC and Progress that they will resist that plan to the fullest extent “via all available legal and civic avenues.”

“Shearon Harris is relying on last-ditch efforts – instead of front line fire protection features – basically to save money,” said Paul Gunter, Reactor Safety Director of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service.

A briefing tonight in Pittsboro for state and local elected officials will feature Gunter and another Washington-based nuclear expert, David Lochbaum of UCS. (7pm, Central Carolina Community College) The three groups released a report today, “Delaying With Fire: The Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant and 14 Years of Fire Safety Violations.” It details how the NRC has allowed dozens of nuclear plants to repeatedly delay correcting widespread flaws in fire protection equipment.

Harris ranks worst in the nation in two fire violation categories: use of failure-prone fire barriers, and reliance on illegal, unverified “compensatory measures” to bypass regulatory compliance. The groups said: “Just like the small spare tire on a car, such actions were intended to be used for hours or days – not 14 years. NRC admits these measures add risk, but allows plants to operate without restoring full fire protections as required by law.”

Fire at nuclear power plants represents up to 50% of the risk for catastrophic accidents according to federal studies, a calculation that assumes fire rules are being obeyed. Each plant contains hundreds of miles of electrical cable. Fire or shorts can cause operators to lose control of the myriad pumps and valves that operate the reactor and safety systems, leading to overheating of the reactor fuel and a large release of radioactivity.

UCS’ Lochbaum released a separate report Monday that blew a hole in industry claims that nuclear plants have grown safer over the years. His study showed that 51 plants have been shut down for at least a year to restore minimum safety levels, a scathing indictment of the NRC’s regulation of the industry. “Plant workers and the public are protected from a Shearon Harris fire – unless a fire actually occurs,” he said today. “If NRC does its job, Harris should join the list of plants shut down to restore safety levels.”

“Both Progress Energy and the NRC can act quickly when revenue is at stake,” said Jim Warren, Director of NC WARN. “After each of the nine sudden reactor shutdowns at Harris between 2002 and 2005, Progress worked expeditiously to restore operations within days or weeks.” “Delaying With Fire” notes that Progress spends tens of millions on executive salaries and influence-peddling each year, but makes a business decision to continuously delay correcting the fire safety problems. “It is apparent that safety is not the $9 billion/year corporation’s “top priority” as so often claimed by its officers and 50-person public relations team,” added Warren today.

The groups say the NRC is among the growing list of federal agencies that, in recent years, have neglected to protect the public against weakened levees, poor emergency planning, mine disasters, leaking oil pipelines and other hazards. “The industry has had so many near-misses already; will the NRC lead the next post-disaster ‘lessons learned’ exercise?” Warren asks. Harris had yet another sudden shutdown yesterday.

The groups told NRC: “We are willing to negotiate allowing the plant to remain open based on a firm timetable for Harris to correct its multiple fire violations no later than its next refueling outage in the fall of 2007. This allows sufficient time to plan the work needed to correct fire violations, and may require an extended outage … Any further ‘study’ of the Harris fire problems is irresponsible.”

“I think most people can agree that federal fire safety regulations are in place for a good reason and must be complied with,” said Margie Ellison, a Chatham community activist who works with WARN. “Our safety is more important than Progress Energy’s wish to avoid spending money to fix all these problems. That company has a lot of audacity to even suggest adding 20 years to that plant’s license without correcting its fire safety violations.”
The report emphasized that if a plant isn’t protected against fire, it is not protected against internal or external attack. Paul Gunter added, “Fire protection is crucial security infrastructure at nuclear power plants. In a post 9/11 world, we cannot afford to gamble on fire safety at nuclear power plants.”

UPDATE 09/22: At last night's assembly of governments meeting, all of us vowed to support this petition as strongly as we possibly can.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Shorter New Yorker

Incredible. Somebody has time to not only read The New Yorker but also condense it into haiku.

Monday, September 18, 2006

What's in a name?

Council public hearing tonight. That's when we hear about, but don't vote on, proposed development projects.

One project, a small subdivision off Pinehurst Drive adjacent to a part of the Country Club golf course, in a lowland part of town well known for flooding, is called "Aquabella." The applicant wanted to call it Waterbury Way, but that was deemed too close to Waterford, which already exists. The next thought was New Water Way, but that gave way to Aquabella (beautiful or maybe bellicose water). This is supposed to emphasize the proposed low-impact stormwater drainage solution, which is a "rain garden."

Another project, much larger, proposes to demolish a sixties-era apartment complex near downtown and replace it with a dense high-end development called "The Residences at Grove Park." Many things were commented on except the name, perhaps because we have little control over it. But the only Grove Park I know of is way out to the west of us.

The preposition "at" is a particularly trendy way to travel long distances in the domestic imagination. Try your hand at it!


Names of housing developments are all about the market value of dreams.

House wide open

I caught the tail end of the open house yesterday at 603 Nunn Street in Northside. This newest Land Trust house is a beautiful Craftsman-style house that feels bigger than its 1,300 sq. ft. The open kitchen and dining room span the length of the house down one side--living room on the other side of the handsome wooden staircase. Light pours in from every direction.

Empowerment had an open house at the same time on a property next door, also placed within the land trust for permanent affordability. A total of four lots on what had been a very troublesome patch of vacant land are being developed for home ownership.

The Northside neighborhood conservation district was created in 2004. It was one of my first Council votes; I'd served on the committee for it as a planning board member. It limits the size and scale of houses and makes design recommendations as a way to retain the look and feel of the old neighborhood. I think it's working the way we hoped. As you can see from the pictures Ruby took during the NCD process, there was room for improvement on many levels.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Amuse yourself

Susan Davis' reading from her first book of poetry, Gathering Sound, at Market Street Books tonight was quite lovely--and really well attended. Congratulations to her!

If you missed it, you can catch up with some working poets--follow them while they work, it's really cool--at Quickmuse. (Via ae.) I love the Pinsky riff on Miles Davis on Charlie Parker.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Does Wikipedia's history make the grade?

A data-driven comparative analysis of the usefulness and reliability of Wikipedia as historical reference source. The verdict: it's pretty decent, unless you care about good writing.

Compare, for example, Wikipedia’s 7,650-word portrait of Abraham Lincoln with the 11,000-word article in American National Biography Online. Both avoid factual errors and cover almost every important episode in Lincoln’s life. But surely any reader of this journal would prefer the American National Biography Online sketch by the prominent Civil War historian James McPherson. Part of the difference lies in McPherson’s richer contextualization (such as the concise explanation of the rise of the Whig party) and his linking of Lincoln’s life to dominant themes in the historiography (such as free-labor ideology). But McPherson’s profile is distinguished even more by his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln’s voice, by his evocative word portraits (the young Lincoln was “six feet four inches tall with a lanky, rawboned look, unruly coarse black hair, a gregarious personality, and a penchant for telling humorous stories”), and by his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words (“The republic endured and slavery perished. That is Lincoln’s legacy.”). By contrast, Wikipedia’s assessment is both verbose and dull: “Lincoln’s death made the President a martyr to many. Today he is perhaps America’s second most famous and beloved President after George Washington. Repeated polls of historians have ranked Lincoln as among the greatest presidents in U.S. history.”

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Looking for longleaf, sometimes finding it

Lawrence Earley, author of Looking for Longleaf, spoke today in the "Centering the South" series sponsored by the Center for the Study of the American South. Actually Harry Watson announced at the beginning that the series will hereafter be named the James A. Hutchins Lectures, for a 1937 UNC graduate and football star in whose name a portion of the renovations at the Love House are also being made.

I blogged about Earley's book when it came out. It's a fascinating story of a major historical feature in the landscape of North Carolina and much of the South. His slide presentation told the story beautifully, especially about the production of industrial turpentine and the damage and waste that resulted. He said that if he'd been writing the book 15 years ago, he could not have subtitled it the "fall and rise" of the longleaf pine--more like the fall. But an amazing turnaround has happened: the trees are being valued for what they are, in some cases even replacing the faster-growing loblolly. Tree farmers are realizing that there are other uses their property can be put to while they wait for the slow harvest: leasing for hunting rights, for example. It's not a terribly optimistic picture, but I think it qualifies as good news.

My turn in the Centering the South/James A. Hutchins Lectures is up on September 27, when I'll be speaking on Elizabeth Spencer's novel The Voice at the Back Door. I'm delighted that Spencer, just back from a trip to England, is planning to be there too.

Friday, September 08, 2006

At Ground Zero: "a dismal failure of imagination"

Almost five years on, utter confusion in the process of rebuilding and memorializing at Ground Zero. Writes Paul Goldberger, "Amid all the squabbles and revisions, it’s unsurprising that so many people who once cared passionately about Ground Zero have simply lost track of the developments there and have stopped caring." I'm afraid I'm one. I blogged and blogged and blogged about it, but I got tired of trying to keep up with all the squabbling.

UPDATE: The Onion elaborates.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Redcoats are coming!

The capture of Hillsborough, N.C., by David Fanning's Tory troops will be reenacted this weekend, marking the 225th anniversary of the event. The town will be engulfed in two days of Revolutionary fervor.

On Sunday, in the midst of battle, St. Matthew's Episcopal Church will hold services according to the 18th century prayer book. The ministers will wear period vestments. Paul and I are ushers. Assuming we can get there safely, what should we wear?

Monkey business

My husband, just back from the Himalayas where monkeys are both godlike and devilish, has bested the competition and surprised even himself to win both first prize and runner-up in the sock monkey naming contest at the School of Information and Library Science.

First for Louis Round Wilsock; second for Beverly SILS.

Here's what I'd like to wear to the awards dinner.

Via Feminist Law Professors.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Civil War Memory blog

If every American high school student had a history teacher like Kevin Levin, keeper of Civil War Memory, the world would be a better place. Today he's continuing his previous discussion of the new interpretations of Civil War battlefields, a cause that Jesse Jackson Jr. has been advocating for awhile now. Jackson "introduced report language into the National Park Service appropriation budget that encouraged National Park Service Civil War park superintendents to expand the scope of their interpretation to include the discussion of such topics as slavery." How subversive! As Jackson put it,

When I go to Vicksburg or Manassas, or any other battle site, I ask what is the historical significance of this particular site. The park service superintendent responds saying right here was a left oblique and right there was a right oblique. So, the historical significance of Vicksburg is about an oblique. . . . At these sites, nothing tells us that there were no more Federalists or Whigs, and the Democratic Party was split in two, North and South, because of slavery after Lincoln won, or that we ended up with a two party system, Democrats and Republicans, based on the legacy of slavery. Nor is there anything to say that Lincoln ran on a certain campaign platform, and that South Carolina and other southern states said that if he won they would leave the Union. Then, when Lincoln took office he said he would put eleven stars back on that flag. All that has more to do with the history of Vicksburg and Manassas than a left or a right oblique.

Might as well turn the battle sites over to the Army, Jackson concluded.

A lot's at stake in these very public interpretations. Writes Levin,

As we approach the sesquicentennial it is safe to conclude that we are still wedded to an interpretation that treats the war as part of a broader narrative of American Exceptionalism or as an arena where the virtues of courage and steadfastness were practiced by men on both sides. From this perspective little has changed in how we view the war over the last one hundred years. According to this view our Civil War is something to celebrate rather than explore by continually asking new questions. Slavery and emancipation play almost no role since it forces us to address the tough questions of what caused the war, how the war evolved, and its short- and long-term consequences. No, better to keep our attention on the battlefields where such messiness can be avoided.

Now the National Park Service is broadening its horizons, bringing civilians in to its narratives, trying harder to do "good history."

Monday, September 04, 2006

What's on tap at Diner's Journal

I've been enjoying the NYT dining blog by restaurant critic Frank Bruni. But I'm having a hard time sympathizing with these diners who have to have their tap water. Fair warning of the restaurant's policy, sure, that would be nice, but this is a culture clash pure and simple, and it seems to me that the restaurant owner is entitled to act on his philosophy about what kind of water is fit to drink with his food.

Many years ago on a college trip to Europe, one of the first restaurants on the Continent that we experienced was in Bruges, Belgium. Naive, ugly Americans, college students on budgets, we asked for tap water. An indignant waiter responded in broken English, "You want tap water, go to the bathroom and drink it!"

All Durham all the time

Brooklyn College/CUNY history professor and Cliopatria blogger K.C. Johnson has a blog dedicated to the Duke rape case: Durham-in-Wonderland.

Design standards

Someone at Design Observer posted the poem "Design" by Billy Collins.

A commenter said that Frost's poem of the same name was "much better."

The commenter was right.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Up from the recycle bin floats a page containing a letter that Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth, a friend and also a writer, on July 24, 1940. With her Jewish husband, Woolf she spent the last months before her suicide dodging German bombs.

I'm here at the moment--here being a place much visited by German raiders. Its odd, rather satisfactory, how soon one gets accustomed, at least to their neighborhood, and the sound of a bomb or two dropping over Brighton. If they dropped in the garden, doubtless this facade would break; and out would tumble a coward.

I wish I hadn't let a whole week of incessant human voices--London last week--come between me and your book. However, it survives; and in answer to your question, about sequacious (a word Coleridge uses) it means connected; and I used it to indicate a quality of currency, flowingness, in this book, which, though I didn't find it so crested and high stomached, as some of yours I liked. For so the characters come together more subtly: thats I think why I grasped H B more firmly this time. He was too quiet and many tinted to survive the abandonment--emphasis of the other books. Here you let him grow. I never agree that one book is "the best." Unless of course one's Shakespeare--and how few of us are!--I believe every book is only a fragment; and one may be a brighter or bigger fragment; but to complete the whole one must read them all. Certainly you got things said in this one that you didn't in Imp [
Impressions That Remained 1919]: and t'other way about. Thats, partly, why I want you to continue. Because you do continue, thank God, not a finished precious vase, but a porous receptacle that sags slightly, swells slightly, but goes on soaking up the dew, the rain, the shine, and whatever else falls upon the earth. Isn't that the point of being Ethel Smyth? Now Vernon Lee, I daresay, completed her shape, and was sun dried and shell like. Well, I musn't run on inordinately.

No, I shan't send you R.F. [her biography of Roger Fry]: because, dear Ethel, its no more your book than Maurice Baring was mine. And I don't like to think of you rubbing your spectacles and screwing up your forehead. No, let it lapse; and one of these days I'll write something you'll take to like a duck: or so I hope. I cant say what I'm doing next week: alls a vast leap in the dark. So I'll leave it to the moment and the telephone, as before.

Now its clouding over: is there time for a game of bowls? Thats my passion.


Woolf and Smyth had a complicated relationship, Woolf betraying in her creative work little of the ego that Smyth did.


Woolf's "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid" (August 1940), written for an American audience while in the same mood of futility and frustration with a political situation she is powerless to influence, ends with plaintive urgency:

Let us send these fragmentary notes to the huntsmen who are up in America, to the men and women whose sleep has not yet been broken by machine–gun fire, in the belief that they will rethink them generously and charitably, perhaps shape them into something serviceable.

Friday, September 01, 2006

OK Lego

The thoughtful Lego response to the funky new exercise video that's sweeping the web.

These Lego people are obviously taking a break from church. (No, not that church.)

More on photography

Take a leisurely scroll through the wonderful world of early photography.

County homelessness plan advances

We had a good meeting Wednesday night of the steering group for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness. Over the summer, subcommittees met to work on specifics to be proposed for the plan. The capable Stan Holt of Triangle United Way, who has also been involed in Raleigh and Durham County's plans, did an excellent job of synthesizing and presenting the recommendations.

Those of us who are not professional service providers are learning as this process goes along how complicated it's going to be to coordinate the existing services and integrate new ones. There are gaps everywhere (only getting worse given state "reforms" in mental health plus federal cutbacks in social services). For example: a teenager who runs away from home and is under 18 will be turned away from a homeless shelter. It's the law.

The steering committee was generally receptive to the current state of the plan but for good reasons wants more details about how to make it work.