This website is accident-free, with 187 teeter totter rides and zero recordable injuries.


Links to Last 10 Talks

Bill Merrill

Chris Carey

Jim Ottaviani

Dante Chinni

Robb Johnston

Nick Prueher

Steve Bean

Devon Persing

Gareth Morgan

Brian Kerr

Complete link list
of all the Talks


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October 2010 -- Present Archive

permanent link 27 November 2012

(Retaining Talent on the Totter)

In the last few years, I've spent more time riding the hard wooden benches in the Ann Arbor city council chambers than I have straddling the teeter totter board. So last month I was glad to have a chance to take a ride with Bill Merrill, a software developer I met for the first time four or five years ago on a Ride Around Town (RAT). That was a monthly event that the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition used to sponsor.

If Merrill had ever addressed the Ann Arbor city council during public commentary, then he could have reasonably begun by saying something like, "I came to Ann Arbor to attend school, but I stayed. And I've owned my house across from Allmendinger Park for almost a decade."

This would, of course, be a standard gambit for public commentary--not just in Ann Arbor but probably in most every community--establishing your bona fides by appealing to longevity and rootedness in the community.

Home ownership is not just a way of saying to Ann Arbor city councilmembers that you've been here long enough to count. It's also a way of saying, "I'm one of you." All 11 members of the council are homeowners, even though less than half of Ann Arbor residents own the place they live.

In my time covering the city council for The Chronicle, Merrill has never addressed that body during the time allowed for public commentary. In that way he is like most other Ann Arbor homeowners--or for that matter, renters. Most of them, like Merrill, do not ever in their lifetime head down to city hall on the first or third Monday of the month to tell the city council what they think.

But the fact that he's now sold his house and left Ann Arbor--even though he's not leaving to take a job somewhere else or to follow a spouse, or for any other specific reason--makes Merrill different. It makes him different in a way that is likely not what the Pure Michigan campaign had in mind with its Ann Arbor slogan: "Ann Arbor does it up different." That advertisement is supposed to make the "talent" want to come live here, not pick up and leave for no particular reason.

Merrill has more options than most people. He earns his livelihood working on software for a virtual cable operator Zattoo--a company with customers mostly in Germany and Switzerland, with the slogan "Internet TV Anywhere." And it turns out that Merrill can do his job with Zattoo anywhere--including not in Ann Arbor. On why he decided to head out west for a while, Merrill had this to say on the totter:

The way I kind of think about it, it's work anywhere to maintain your life, and make friends, and do things. I have been running the Ann Arbor game for a long time--which is meeting the new cool people who come to town, becoming friends with them, and then saying goodbye when they shoot out the other end to wherever they're going. And every year you have a couple of really good friends who take off, and it hurts. And so I just want to try a different game. I also want to try living in a big city. Secondarily, I'm excited to try living without a car. ...

I'm going to go live in places where my friends are and see what they are like and see if I get tired of living out of a couple of bags. I imagine eventually I will settle down somewhere. So my plan right now is in Seattle, then San Francisco, then I don't know what is next.

From the point of view of "economic development," Merrill probably still counts as a success story--because Ann Arbor managed to retain him for around a decade, instead of losing him immediately after graduation.

Whether a guy like Merrill stays or leaves Ann Arbor ultimately isn't up to folks--like me, for example--who'll likely serve out their productive lives here. But I think we'd probably "do it up" better if we measured success not by how long people like Bill Merrill choose to stay, but by how open we are to hearing their thoughts while they're here--whether that's a short time or forever.

I'd like to hear someone introduce their remarks to the city council by saying, "Hello, I live here now, and that's all that matters."

For more details on Merrill's television-watching habits, smartphone replacement strategy, and transit preferences, read Merrill's complete Talk.

permanent link 30 November 2011

(Culture of Spending: JunketSleuth)

Even if all you do is stare right into your own belly button, you can still wind up thinking about drinking too much Diet Coke out of a hotel minibar in Tel Aviv.

Let's start close to home, at 618 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor, Mich. That's where local developer Dan Ketelaar is currently planning a six-story residential project--it will consist of about 180 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.

It's also the former location of Fox Tent & Awning.

Gazing into my navel, I think of Teeter Talk's history with that business. Back in 2007, I pedaled my bicycle trailer, loaded with a wooden teeter totter, into Fox Tent & Awning. There, Lynda, Don, and Diane measured out and sewed together a custom canvas cover for the totter plus trailer rig. Teeter Talk was ready to leave my back yard. It was ready to travel.

That's right, travel. Ever wonder how much the U.S. government spends on travel to Ann Arbor? Maybe you never wondered that because you figured the answer is hard to find.

Yet in about 15 minutes, using an online searchable repository of federal travel records available on JunketSleuth.com, here's what I learned: For a roughly three-year period from 2008 to 2010, at least $847,970 in federal money from 11 different federal agencies was spent on 970 trips to Ann Arbor, Mich. [Google Spreadsheet with summary Ann Arbor JunketSleuth data]

Chris Carey is editor and president of BailoutSleuth.com, which operates JunketSleuth. And Carey lives in Ann Arbor, so it worked out that he was able to join me as a guest on the teeter totter back in mid-October.

Now, the financier of the enterprise, Mark Cuban, is to my knowledge not fascinated with a little college town like ours. So the point of the JunketSleuth enterprise is not to document federal spending on travel to Ann Arbor. JunketSleuth describes itself as an "independent Web-based news site aimed at exposing travel patterns of U.S. government employees." So JunketSleuth.com is more interested in looking at the travel patterns of people--people like Securities and Exchange Commissioner Kathleen Casey, whose bill at a Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel included (for one day) $24 worth of Coke and Diet Coke.

To summarize, traveling from my belly button to Tel Aviv cost you right around 350 words--a real bargain by Chronicle standards. For readers whose final destination is actually Carey's complete Talk, thanks for flying with The Chronicle. At your final destination, you'll find topics like the challenges facing journalists today, how Carey wound up in Ann Arbor, and what he has in common with Chronicle sports columnist John U. Bacon.

For those who are continuing on The Chronicle, I've pulled one theme out of his Talk to highlight there: the culture of spending taxpayer money. [complete essay as published in The Chronicle]

permanent link 27 September 2011

(Superman, Spiderman, Feynman, Councilman)

For a graphic novel with a title like "Feynman," my smart-aleck reflex is to pronounce the word silently to myself with deliberately wayward stress--so the final vowel gets its full flavor, instead of an unstressed schwa.

That way, it patterns with Superman, Spiderman, Aquaman, Ironman, Batman and other comic book heros. And that allows me to wonder what special powers this Feynman might have, how he got those powers, what his home planet was ...

Of course, the Feynman in Jim Ottaviani's recently published graphic novel is actually not a comic book hero. It's Richard Feynman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work on quantum physics. (So Feynman's home planet was Earth, you see.)

Ottaviani explained during his teeter totter ride a couple of weeks ago that he'd not intended the title of his most recent graphic novel to be a word play. It was the publisher who had chosen the title, when Ottaviani had "punted" on that task.

Soon after talking with me on the totter, Ottaviani left town for a book tour. He'll be back in Ann Arbor in a couple of weeks when he gives a talk on "Feynman" in the University of Michigan's Hatcher Library Gallery, on Oct. 13 at 5:30 p.m.

To prepare for his talk, you can buy "Feynman" at Nicola's Books.

To me, the most interesting part of my conversation with Ottaviani involved the graphic novel as a mechanism for telling a story--in the case of "Feynman," it's a physicist's biography. There's nothing particularly novel about that--Ottaviani has covered scientific subject matter before in comic book form. His previous work includes a number of books that contain episodes from the lives of Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Marie Curie, among others.

But that led me to contemplate a different idea. What if one of the staples of Chronicle coverage, a government meeting report, were presented in the form of a graphic novel?

Ottaviani's reaction to the idea: "Do that, please, is all I can say." At least the title of that comic book (with apologies to Sabra Briere, Margie Teall, Sandi Smith and Marcia Higgins) would be straightforward: "Councilman."

Though I can't draw, I did take a shot at creating two panels of "Councilman."

Ann Arbor city council comic

Ann Arbor city council comic

The images in those panels are constrained by the limits of my "artistic" ability as expressed by software made by Adobe. That's not how Ottaviani works, of course. He describes each panel in detail, and that description is eventually handed off to the illustrator, who actually draws what Ottaviani has visualized. The illustrator for "Feynman" was Leland Myrick.

How big a project would a city-council-meeting-as-graphic-novel be? The last city council report published in The Chronicle came in around 13,000 words. A rule of thumb for comic book panels, Ottaviani told me, is that each panel should have about 35 words of dialogue. That would work out to 370 panels--if every word in the report were included as dialogue. But clearly, not every word would need to be included as dialogue. Much of the meaning could be conveyed through the illustrations.

In thinking about how to make a comic book out of a city council meeting, I paused to reflect on how The Chronicle approaches meeting coverage. While we include a considerable amount of descriptive detail about the meetings, as well as background to orient the reader, there's also a lot of material that gets pared away.

Some of the material that gets pared away might be arguably be less important than material we include. For example, why include a photo of a helium balloon trapped against the ceiling of the city council chambers (with a joke caption), but not a description of a liquor license transfer? After riding the totter with Ottaviani, I was rummaging around the Internet for some information about Feynman, and found a succinct answer to that question. It's in Richard Feynman's lecture, delivered on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize. From his introductory remarks:

I shall include details of anecdotes which are of no value either scientifically, nor for understanding the development of ideas. They are included only to make the lecture more entertaining.

Included in Feynman's introductory remarks is the expression of another basic tenet of Chronicle reporting--we're committed to telling readers what we did to "get to do the work." So if we had to email or call a source after the meeting, in order to pin down a fact, we'll tell readers that up front. We think our reports are a plenty dignified way to tell readers exactly what we did. If we didn't attend a meeting, we won't report on it as if we did. In Feynman's Nobel lecture, he puts it this way:

We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover all the tracks ... So there isn't any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work ... So, what I would like to tell you about today are the sequence of events, really the sequence of ideas, which occurred, and by which I finally came out the other end with an unsolved problem for which I ultimately received a prize.

Jim Ottaviani's complete Talk is worth a read. If you'd prefer to see him talk live, person, he'll be talking about "Feynman" at the University of Michigan's Hatcher Library Gallery, on Oct. 13 at 5:30 p.m.

permanent link 13 April 2011

(Balancing Ann Arbor, Detroit, Vision)

"I don't want to be another city. I resent the fact that we are compared to other cities when projects are being proposed."

That was Ali Ramlawi, owner of the Jerusalem Garden on South Fifth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor, addressing the April 4, 2011 meeting of the Ann Arbor city council. He was criticizing the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and advocating against a proposed conference center and hotel project on the Library Lot--the council voted the project down later that evening.

"Ann Arbor will change ... but it won't become Detroit."

That was Dante Chinni, while riding the the teeter totter on my front porch last Thursday afternoon. Chinni has made it part of his job to compare communities like Ann Arbor--Washtenaw County, actually--to other places in the country.

Who is Dante Chinni? And why should Ann Arbor care what he thinks?

On his website, Chinni describes himself as a "a card-carrying member of the East Coast Media Industrial Complex." The part of his job that lets him compare one place to another--in a statistically sophisticated way--is a project Chinni conceived called Patchwork Nation. It's funded by the Knight Foundation. The effort has already produced a book, which he co-authored with James Gimpel: "Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the 'Real' America."

Washtenaw County is featured in the chapter that introduces readers to the concept of a "Campus and Careers" community type. The classification, as well as a read through Dante's Talk, confirm that mostly what defines Ann Arbor--at least for people on the outside looking in--is its place as the home of the University of Michigan. And certainly for people on the inside, it's difficult to argue that UM isn't currently the single most important institution in the community.

But some insiders--and by this I mean not just people who live, work and play here, but actual Ann Arbor insiders--are starting to float the question of what else Ann Arbor might aspire to be besides home to "the most profound educational institution in the Midwest."

Vision of Ann Arbor: Non-Physical (DDA Partnerships)

"The most profound educational institution in the Midwest" was David Di Rita's description of UM, which came in the context of a meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority's partnerships committee on Wednesday morning, April 13. Di Rita, a principal with the Roxbury Group, served as a consultant on the RFP review process for the Library Lot, which the city council terminated two weeks ago.

The partnerships committee meeting was one of insiders--both at the committee table and in the audience.

At the table besides Di Rita were: DDA board members John Mouat, Russ Collins, Gary Boren, Sandi Smith, Bob Guenzel and John Splitt, along with Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, and city councilmember Tony Derezinski. Invited to the table mid-meeting were Josie Parker, executive director of the Ann Arbor District Library--who brought along AADL board member Nancy Kaplan--and Jesse Bernstein, chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board.

In the audience sat other easily recognizable names: Vivienne Armentrout (former Washtenaw County commissioner), Peter Allen (developer), Mary Hathaway (prominent activist for peace and social justice), Alice Ralph (former candidate for county board, city council, and author of a community commons proposal for the Library Lot), Tom Wieder (local attorney and long-time city Democratic Party activist), John Floyd (former candidate for city council), and Sabra Briere (city councilmember).

Part of the committee's agenda was a discussion of how to approach beginning a process that the city council has agreed to let the DDA lead. The process could result in the development of different uses for four city-owned downtown parcels currently used for surface parking: the Kline Lot on South Ashley, the Palio Lot at Main and William, the old Y Lot at Fifth and William; and the Library Lot on South Fifth. The Library Lot is actually currently a construction site--the DDA is building a roughly 640-space underground parking garage on the site. [Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Council Focuses on Downtown"]

Bernstein weighed in for a process that would begin with figuring out a vision: Where do we aspire to be in 30 years? He pointed to the AATA's process of developing a transit master plan--still in the works--as an example of that kind of approach. [Chronicle coverage: "'Smart Growth' to Fuel Countywide Transit" ]

Parker shared some of the hurdles that are inherent in the library's future plans for its downtown building--plans that are currently on hold. Those challenges involve the historical relationship between the library and the Ann Arbor Public Schools (the district has a right of first refusal on any offer to sell the building) and the need to ask voters to increase the library millage in order to fund a new building. [Chronicle coverage: "Citing Economy, Board Halts Library Project"]

Remarks from Mouat, a DDA board member, seemed to resonate with Allen, a developer seated in the audience. [Allen has long called for the master planning of the whole area around the Library Lot, not just the Library Lot itself. Chronicle coverage: "Column: Visions for the Library Lot"]

Mouat suggested that the process could include developing a vision for Ann Arbor that is not physical. To explain what he meant, Mouat noted that Austin is known as a "music capital" and Boulder is known as a "recreation capital." Ann Arbor, he said, is known as the home of the University of Michigan--but what is Ann Arbor beyond the university? he asked. He said that for his part, he could imagine Ann Arbor becoming some kind of "food capital."

Vision of Ann Arbor: Third Base, Caboose, Engine

Compared to Mouat's vision of Ann Arbor that is distinctive, but not based on the presence of the university, Di Rita's take on Ann Arbor seemed closer to building that vision based on the university connection. In assessing the Library Lot location, he noted that its three major advantages are: (1) the nearby location of other institutions--the library and the transit center; (2) the nearby location of the restaurant and entertainment district; (3) the short walk to the university.

Di Rita sees Ann Arbor as being born to hit a triple--now it's standing on third base. The question is: Does it want to run home? Ann Arbor could really take things to the next level, he said, but the question is whether there's a community desire to do that. He said that based on the major stakeholders in the community he'd spoken with, there's support among them to head towards home plate.

Di Rita noted that one of the things that makes Ann Arbor distinct is that even a person who lives out on Scio Church Road might have strong objections to a proposal for downtown Ann Arbor. In other cities, he said, it's sometimes the case that only the immediately adjacent neighbors have objections. But that's not the way Ann Arbor works, he said, and you have to "play the ball where it lies."

Di Rita sees growth for Ann Arbor, even if it just stands on third base as far as its vision for itself--buildings are going to get built, he said.

Dante Chinni didn't attend the partnerships committee meeting--by then he had returned to Washington, D.C. But I can imagine him agreeing with at least some of what Di Rita had to say. To Chinni, the most salient distinctive part of Ann Arbor is the university. And he sees Ann Arbor's growth as fueled by growth at the university. The Patchwork Nation analysis slots Washtenaw County into the "Campus and Career" community type. But Ann Arbor is surely much more than just the university, right? What does Chinni know--he's not from here.

But Chinni actually is from here--or more accurately, from around these parts: He grew up in Warren. So he's at least not as susceptible as other east-coast media types to thinking of Michigan as one place, typified by Detroit. From his Talk:

I mean, most people who don't live here view Michigan as Detroit. They don't even really think of the northern part of Michigan. And when you tell them that, Oh, no the county right next door to it, the unemployment rate is really only about, what 6 or 7 percent ...

When Chinni was in town two years ago, Ann Arbor was being described by our local officials as a life preserver for the rest of the state. A couple of weeks ago, at a different meeting of Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board members, mayor John Hieftje described the state of Michigan as a train, headed over a cliff. But Ann Arbor was the caboose, Hieftje said, so we'd be the last to go over the cliff. On the totter, Chinni and I agreed that maybe that train metaphor needs tweaking a bit--instead of a caboose, maybe Ann Arbor should be compared to an engine hooked to the other end pulling Michigan's train away from the cliff. Specifically in the recovery of Detroit, Chinni sees a role for Ann Arbor:

This is what I think is going to happen: It's not going to be that Ann Arbor's just going to grow and grow and get really big and Detroit is to get smaller and smaller and smaller and all the people to move out here. Ann Arbor is going to become a bigger and bigger economic force and eventually that will rub off on Detroit.

And as Ann Arbor becomes a bigger and bigger economic force, Chinni thinks Ann Arbor will change:

Ann Arbor will change as part of that, but it won't become Detroit. If Ann Arbor is successful at helping Detroit become what it can become, Ann Arbor will change, too. People who don't think it's been a change, Ann Arbor has changed since 1980. It has. I know people here don't want to hear that, but it has changed. It is not the same city as it was back then. I mean politically, the student body has changed--it's a different place.

So as Ann Arbor changes, I think it's worth asking if the residents of Ann Arbor will be able to reach a consensus on a vision of this place that might help guide that change. And it looks like an attempt to find that consensus will be part of the DDA-led process to look at those four downtown parcels.

I hope that people who participate in the process along the way are prepared to accept that the community consensus vision might be different from their personal vision.

Patchwork Politics

It's worth noting that Patchwork Nation is not a project borne out of desire to help Ann Arbor figure out its vision. It was born out of a desire to understand politics in the U.S. on a more detailed level than the red-state/blue-state maps the media tends to use around election time.

That goal led Chinni to take a county-by-county approach, which resulted in an analysis of each U.S. county as one of 12 types: Boom Towns, Campus and Careers, Emptying Nests, Evangelical Epicenters, Immigration Nation, Industrial Metropolis, Military Bastions, Minority Central, Monied Burbs, Mormon Outposts, Service Worker Centers, Tractor Country. [For interactive maps of the Patchwork analysis, visit the Patchwork Nation website.]

I've written about the book before, when then-candidate for mayor Steve Bean graced the other end of the teeter totter last fall.

As Chinni pointed out during his ride, everything that's said about the community types is more true of the type than it is about individual places categorized by a type.

Still, I think it's natural for anyone who picks up the book to find their own community and decide if Chinni and Gimpel got it right. What will also be interesting to see is if the Patchwork approach begins to serve as a reliable tool for getting more insight into national-level politics.

On the totter, Chinni described how he'll be partnering with the PBS Newshour on upcoming 2012 election coverage, offering insight on those races from the Patchwork point of view. It's possible we'll start to see the Patchwork analysis seep into the approach taken by the media to its election coverage and analysis in 2012.

For Chinni's views in more detail and context, read Dante Chinni's Talk.

permanent link 6 February 2011

(Talking Trees, Leafing Through Archives)

Last week, Robb Johnston rode the AATA bus from Ypsilanti into Ann Arbor and walked from downtown to my front porch take his turn on the teeter totter. [Robb Johnston's Talk]

Johnston has written and illustrated a self-published children's book called "The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree." And whenever anyone pitches me Chronicle coverage of a project they're proud of, my first thought is: "Can I get a teeter totter ride out of this?"

Before Johnston's ride, I test-read his children's book the best way I could think of, given that my wife Mary and I do not have children: I read the book aloud to her, and did my best to pretend that she was four years old. It was my own first read through the book, so I was satisfied when I did not stumble too badly over the part of the woodcutter's refrain that goes, "Thwickety THWAK, Thwickety THWAK."

Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" notwithstanding, I think it's fair to expect that a children's book with a title like "The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree" will end well and leave everyone with smiles all around. And it does. So it's not like I was truly surprised when I turned that one page near the end that reveals exactly how the final encounter between The Most Beautiful Tree and the Woodcutter ends.

But the book's text and its illustrations pull the reader along to that point, and suggest so unmistakably a dark and dreadful ending, that when I did turn that page, I gulped a genuine breath of relief that she did not wind up getting milled into lumber at the end. [The tree in Johnston's book is female.] Well, yes, you might conclude that I am just that dopey. Or more generously, you might try sometime reading aloud a book you've never seen before.

But speaking of things we've seen before, some Chronicle readers might be thinking: Haven't we seen this guy Robb Johnston before? Why yes, you have.

Once Johnston arrived for his totter ride, pre-tottering conversation revealed how The Chronicle had previously encountered him. In April 2010, in his capacity as a temporary city worker in Ann Arbor's natural area preservation (NAP) program, he had been helping a group of volunteers clear brush on the Argo earthen berm. I'd run past on the path and stopped to inquire in hey-mister-whatcha-doing fashion. And I'd logged the encounter as a Stopped.Watched. item--he's mentioned there by first name only.

Later when I searched through The Chronicle's archives for "Robb," I learned that a few days before the Argo encounter, we'd published an article about the controlled burns conducted by NAP, which mentioned Johnston and includes a photograph of him.

Johnston is currently on his regular extended break from the city, which is part of what defines him as a temporary worker. He'll start back in a few weeks.

This totter-ride encounter with a city worker, in his guise as a children's book author, reminded me of some text that was included in the original About The Chronicle section, when we launched this publication in September 2008 [the text has been revised since then]: "... every day we encounter eccentric, enterprising, or regular people doing the remarkable or even the routine." My recollection is that the sentiment was meant to reflect the idea that our appointed and elected officials are regular people, whose work for the public is a part of the routine--and that's exactly why it's worth documenting, just as other routine activity by regular folks is also important to document.

To be clear, Johnston does not strike me as eccentric. He comes across as a regular guy. And he's now found his way into The Chronicle doing both the routine (his job as a city worker) and the remarkable (writing and illustrating a children's book).

I'd like to wrap up this introduction to Johnston's Talk by making a suggestion to those Chronicle readers who still think that an actual children's book is a routine part of childhood that makes for remarkable memories. You know the kind--a big book that small hands can still handle, with painstakingly hand-drawn illustrations, the kind that you can read aloud and turn pages together with your kid or your spouse, if you don't have kids. That suggestion is this: Buy the book and read it to a kid. And there's no reason to wait for Christmas--it has a Christmas ending, but I wouldn't call it a Christmas book.

For readers who'd prefer not to order online, it's available at two bricks-and-mortar locations: Vault of Midnight at 219 S. Main St. in downtown Ann Arbor, and Fun 4 All on 2742 Washtenaw Ave.

In thinking about how to read this particular book to children, I'd like to share an insight: I have to think that reading this book on a teeter totter with a child would be a mistake. Depending on the child's ability to appreciate irony, awkward questions could arise: Isn't this board made out of a tree? Did a woodcutter chop her down to make this teeter totter?!

What, if anything, is there to say to that? Sorry, kid, but not every tree is The Most Beautiful Tree. So maybe it's better to just choose a comfortable chair.

permanent link 10 November 2010

(Found Footage, Teeter Tottered)

Last Thursday afternoon, I wheeled the mobile teeter totter down Liberty Street to the Michigan Theater, to the exact spot where John Roos [proprietor of Roos Roast Coffee] and I had tottered back in the spring of 2008.

The occasion was a ride with Nick Prueher, who together with Joe Pickett co-founded the Found Footage Festival. The festival is a celebration of old, found VHS tapes. It has toured the country for the last six years--each year Prueher and Pickett curate a new show. The 2010 edition passed through Ann Arbor last Thursday.

Imagine an exercise video featuring Angela Lansbury in a bath towel giving herself a massage. Or imagine a sexual harassment training video--how to recognize and avoid it, not how to perpetrate it--featuring a guy in a lunchroom holding up a piece of fruit and asking, "What do you think of my banana?"

These are the sorts of videotapes that Prueher and Pickett have sifted through by the thousands. They culled out the very best to make a part of their show, which they host and comment on live in theaters across the land.

On the totter, Prueher discussed with me the requirement that the videos they collect be "found." The story of how the tapes were found--in many cases in thrift stores--are as important as what's on the tape, he said. They've been producing the Found Footage Festival for long enough that people now send in videos they've found--and the story of how they're found is archived along with the contents of the tape.

But Prueher described on the totter how there could be a kind of "taint" attached to a collection, if someone just sent in, say for example, a bunch of training videos that they themselves produced and directed back in the early 1990s. He also talked about his internship on Mystery Science Theater.

It was the notion of an authentic "find" that I found most intriguing. So I'd like to tie that into a short reflection about The Chronicle's Stopped.Watched. section and The Muehlig Funeral Chapel at Fourth and William Street in downtown Ann Arbor.

Several days ago, a remarkable addition was made to the roof of The Muehlig Funeral Chapel. It's not accidental that I choose "remarkable" to describe this addition. I mean it simply in the sense that it caused someone to remark on it--in the form of an observation filed by a Chronicle Stopped.Watched. correspondent: "[William & Fourth] Crazy contraption on the roof of Muehlig Funeral--art on a stick gone wild. Have I just never noticed it?"

Several readers left comments to the effect that they, too, had noticed it and wondered if they'd just missed it before. Except for the fact that I wanted to write about the rooftop art for this column, I would have been content not to call up Muehlig Funeral Chapel and ask them about it. To me, it's enough that it's there, we see it, we add it to our visual memory, we go on about our routine. Until we see something else remarkable, and then someone will remark on the new thing.

But I did call. I spoke with Clayne Frazer, one of Muehlig's directors, who told me that a general manager, Kevin Jacobi had conceived it.

He'd purchased the piece from one of his favorite artists, Andrew Carson, who exhibits at the annual Ann Arbor art fairs. The concept, explained Frazer, is eventually to commemorate Carson's piece as a kind of tribute or memorial to all the folks Muehlig has served over the years.

So why were Chronicle readers offered a snippet about a new piece of art atop Muehlig Funeral Chapel in the first place? It was not because Muehlig sent out a press release. [Please make a note of that, all of you public relations folks, who spend hours crafting words and images to put into an email to convince someone that the thing your client is doing is remarkable enough for someone other than you to remark on it.]

Muehlig simply installed it, along with the lights that illuminate it at night. A Chronicle reader, Matt Hampel, "found" it in the wild, and remarked on it by filing a Stopped.Watched. item. That's when Stopped.Watched. is at its best, I think. My very favorite Stopped.Watched. items are those that are observations made in the course of someone's regular routine, and because it is their regular routine, they notice something's different--something different enough to remark on.

The difference between that kind of Stopped.Watched. observation--unplanned and uncalculated--and a presentation based on a press release or an official statement, is something like the difference between spotting something in the wild and looking at animals in a zoo.

Apropos of zoos, another recent Stopped.Watched. observation serves to make the same point: "[Fifth & Ann] Amusing new sidewalk 'petting zoo' of retired, gilded hydrants, outside fire station [photo]." The new fire hydrants had actually been a part of the Downtown Development Authority board discussion at its Nov. 3 meeting, and I'd included the description of that discussion in my board report. But it inadvertently was cut during a reorganization of the piece. Here's how it would have read:

Fifth and Division: Fire Hydrants Besides the underground parking structure construction, the other major project the DDA is working on is the Fifth and Division street improvements. [John] Splitt reported that construction on the project is 85% complete. Leah Gunn said she thought the new fire hydrants in front of the fire station along Fifth Street were "great." Susan Pollay indicated that they'd been sourced with the help of the new fire chief, Dominick Lanza, and Mike Bergren, a former city employee in the field services unit who works for Park Avenue Consulting, which is helping to manage the Fifth and Division project. Pollay described how the fire hydrants were part of an effort to establish some sense of the firefighters' commitment to their job. There will also be some pieces of granite installed, one of which will commemorate fallen firefighters. The "plasticky" looking red sign will also be replaced, Pollay said.

That piece of "found footage" serves, I think, to illustrate what we'd lose without Voxphoto's Stopped.Watched. observation: We'd miss the practically poetic "petting zoo" description of the hydrants. Plus--with all due respect to DDA board member and county commissioner Leah Gunn--some skeptical readers of that passage would have simply concluded she was remarking on the hydrants, because, well, that's what politicians will do. Maybe because she was looking for the firefighter vote. Or maybe pandering to dog owners in some weird, oblique way. Cynical Chronicle readers, and apparently there are a few, can probably come up more possibilities.

But Voxphoto's Stopped.Watched. item validates the remarkableness of the fire hydrants. Because as far as I can tell, the guy is not seeking public office--he just enjoys interesting images.

Not every one of The Chronicle's Stopped.Watched. items is a perfect gem. But the vast majority reflect the fact that correspondents grasp what that section of our publication is trying to achieve in these very short observations from correspondents' regular routines. This might be considered fairly surprising, given that The Chronicle did not go to the trouble to shoot a training video on how to be a Stopped.Watched. correspondent.

But there could be a connection between training videos and Stopped.Watched. You know the guy with the banana who starred in that sexual harassment training video that was part of an earlier edition of the Found Footage Festival? I think we might have documented his whereabouts here in Ann Arbor--in a Stopped.Watched. item: "[Fletcher & Palmer] Cereal banana killer strikes again. Fletcher parking structure stairwell. A nearly weekly tragedy. Why isn't this making the news? [photo]."

For the complete interview with Nick Prueher, read Nick's Teeter Talk.

permanent link 12 October 2010

(Economy Teeters: We May(or) May Not Be Set)

The crash of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 was the best thing that ever happened to the Teeter Talk interview series. Why? Because the word on everyone's lips two years ago was ... "teeter," which gave the awkward and vaguely dirty-sounding word some well-deserved airtime. On Oct. 12, 2008, the BBC reported the remarks of Dominique Strauss-Kahn this way [emphasis added]: "The world financial system is teetering on the 'brink of systemic meltdown,' the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned in Washington."

Closer to home, a week earlier, on Oct. 3, 2008, a dozen distinguished alumni from the University of Michigan Department of Economics had gathered for a panel discussion focused on the financial crisis. Linda Tesar, department chair and professor of economics, stated that "the financial markets are teetering." [Chronicle coverage: "Economists Gather, Talk About Markets"]

That same financial crisis still persists, and it's occupying a lot of Steve Bean's attention. Bean is an independent candidate for mayor of Ann Arbor--the election takes place on Nov. 2. We talked recently on the totter, a few days after the League of Women Voters mayoral candidate forum. During our talk, he spoke about the need for the city to prepare for various worst case financial scenarios on the national financial scene--dramatic inflation or deflation. The coming decade could be worse than the last one, he believes, and that could be exacerbated by diminished worldwide capacity for oil production.

So if there's a large theme to his campaign, it's about the challenge of translating national issues to the local level in a way that best prepares our community for whatever unfolds in the next 10 years. Presumably, the way that Ann Arbor prepares for the next decade might look different from the way other communities prepare. Bean and I touched on that idea in the context of some recent environmental commission deliberations. Bean chairs that city commission.

At their Sept. 23, 2010 meeting, the commission discussed a recommendation to the city council to create a task force to educate the community about peak oil. [Peak oil is the idea that worldwide oil production capacity will soon peak, if it has not already peaked, and then begin to taper off.] The resolution got support from only three commissioners--Bean, Kirk Westphal, and Anya Dale--and did not pass. One of the suggestions during commission deliberations was that commissioners could simply read the reports that other communities had produced about what local strategies would be appropriate--instead of asking the city council to appoint an Ann Arbor task force.

Portland, Oregon, is one such community that has produced such a report. But Portland's population of more than half a million residents--compared to Ann Arbor's 114,000 or so--makes Portland a substantially different kind of community from Ann Arbor, doesn't it? Well, buried in the appendix of a new book--"Our Patchwork Nation" written by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel--is a way of looking at Portland and Ann Arbor that makes the Ann Arbor-Portland comparison ... still seem a little crazy, but perhaps a little less so.

The Portland-to-Ann-Arbor comparison is one that has appeared in the pages of The Chronicle before--Republican city council candidate for Ward 5, John Floyd, took up the issue during public commentary at the city council's Jan. 4, 2010 meeting:

Floyd thanked Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) for clarifying at the council's Nov. 16, 2009 meeting that Hohnke saw Seattle, Portland and Boulder as models for Ann Arbor to emulate. Floyd then asked Hohnke if he thought that Ann Arbor should change to resemble Seattle and Portland by increasing its population to upwards of half a million people.

Floyd and the Democratic incumbent, Carsten Hohnke, are contesting the Ward 5 seat in the general election on Nov. 2, along with independent candidate Newcombe Clark.

So what do Chinni and Gimpel have to say in "Our Patchwork Nation" about Ann Arbor compared to Portland? Nothing specific, actually--even though the second chapter is devoted to Ann Arbor. But they do have something to say about all 3,141 counties in the United States. [That struck me, on reading it in the book, as a surprising number--for two reasons. First it seems small to me. Off the top of my head, I would have guessed 10,000 or so. Second, 3141 is the same way that π begins. How Chinni and Gimpel resisted the temptation to insert jokes about slicing up the country's "pie"--that's more than I can fathom.]

Chinne and Gimpel have analyzed all 3,141 counties in the U.S. as belonging to one of 12 community types: boom towns, campus and careers, emptying nests, evangelical epicenters, immigration nation, industrial metropolis, military bastions, minority central, monied burbs, Mormon outposts, service worker centers, tractor country. It's worth noting that by "analyzed" I don't mean that the authors made up these categories and then went through and just introspected about which category each county belongs to. The categories emerged from a very complex and involved statistical technique with prodigious amounts of data called exploratory factor analysis.

For the purposes of the book, each county is assigned to just the one category where it fits best--that's the category on which it scores highest in the factor analysis. But that means that every county got some score or other for each of the other 11 categories, too. It turns out that Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is located, fits best in the category "campus and careers." And Portland's Multnomah County fits best in the category "monied burbs." But after "campus and careers," Washtenaw County fits second best into the category "monied burbs." So from the factor analysis point of view, it might make some sense to talk about the similarity of Ann Arbor and Portland in terms of their monied burbi-ness factor.

Now, if you're like me, you'll buy your copy of "Our Patchwork Nation" at Nicola's Books--that's where Chinni will be talking about his book later this month--and you'll open it up to page 25 and read every word on the next 10 pages to see how Chinni answered the question: How did Ann Arbor get to be awesome enough to be included in this book--a book that Ray Suarez, PBS senior correspondent, describes in the forward as "a handbook for understanding your own country." [Notable local quotables include: mayor John Hieftje; Jesse Bernstein, who's now Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board chair, and at the time he was interviewed, Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce president; Jane Coaston, editor of The Michigan Review; and Paul Dimond, who worked in the Clinton administration and is now senior counsel with the law firm Miller Canfield.]

I believe that if Suarez thinks of "Patchwork" as a handbook for understanding the country, then he means for us to read more than just the chapter about Ann Arbor. Following the 12 chapters that illustrate the community categories come three chapters that tackle general themes, using the heuristic of the patchwork: the economy, politics, and culture. The chapter on the economy concludes with a passage that, I think, sums up the kind of question that Steve Bean is trying to grapple with as a candidate for mayor of Ann Arbor: "Dramatic economic changes of one kind or another are coming, probably sooner than we expect. The question is, What will they be where you live?"

For more details on Bean's thoughts on local and national issues, read Steve Bean's Talk.


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