Hot, Flat, and Crowded

“Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, Thomas L. Friedman’s authoritative and literate call to decisive action on climate change and energy policy, impressed me very much. Citing numerous sources in business, government, academia, and civil society, Friedman turns his consideration of various global environmental problems into a coherent vision for turning the crisis of climate change into an opportunity for renewed American leadership. The practicality and benefits of solving the riddle of climate change are matched only by urgency.

Adventures in recycling

Every few months I have to remove the accumulated buildup of recyclables from my apartment. I rarely drink soda, but I recently discovered that a nearby Chinese take-out place sells Hawaiian Punch in cans (I refuse to drink it from plastic), so I had a handful of 12 oz. cans to recycle.

Apparently, and I would have known this if I’d bothered to read the cans, cans of Hawaiian Punch don’t qualify for the five cent deposit. Or as the machine at the supermarket put it, “This type of can is not redeemable.” That’s a hell of a way to talk about Hawaiian Punch.

Apparently the kid at the customer service desk didn’t know that either because when I returned some milk bottles he credited me for the cans as well.

Nice day for a ride

The wind yesterday was ridiculous, gusting up to 30 miles per hour. Today was calm, so I rode my bike down to Lone Tree today, about 40 or so miles there and back. Lone Tree is a very small town, but the convenience store at the gas station there was like Grand Central Station today.

The warm weather hasn’t broken out yet for good yet (there was supposed to be a low of 34 degrees this weekend), but we have a nice week ahead of us. I haven’t taken my bike to work yet this year so I might be able to get to it now. A lot of people were out today fishing, riding, playing ball.

This is graduation weekend for the University of Iowa, and thus the kickoff of that pleasant summertime lull when the local residents take the downtown back for themselves.


Somebody in this building was evicted today. I saw the notice posted a few days ago. Today when I came home there was a big pile of furniture and boxes of stuff by the dumpster. I’m tempted to say this is a “sign of the times” but aside from it being a cliche I have no idea if it’s true.

Trying another photo gallery plug-in

I’ve been trying out NextGen Gallery, a WordPress photo gallery plug-in. You can see a couple of test galleries on the Photos page.
Though it has improved much over the last several upgrades, WordPress’s ability to organize and display photo albums is still limited.

NextGen Gallery has some good features and a lot of potential, except for me it has two problems. It can import the photos I’ve already uploaded but not the titles and descriptions or any other data already entered into my database. So I’d have to re-enter all that for the 800 of so photos I have posted here. I’ve done that a couple of times now as I’ve tried different plugins and I don’t want to do it again. The other problem with plug-ins is that they’re not supported by newer versions of WordPress, so I could be out of luck later if the author stops supporting it. As it is NextGen Gallery’s documentation is pretty sparse. I’ve had to learn it on it my own (which was good because I’ve discovered it’s limitations too).

I’ll keep messing around with it, and hope WordPress comes up with something better.

American Sphinx

“American Sphinx” is the other book by Joseph J. Ellis that I’ve been reading; this one is about Thomas Jefferson. I’ve always been a little ambivalent about Jefferson. He always seemed to me the symbol of America not living up to its expectations: promising freedom but owning slaves. And he didn’t just own slaves, he guaranteed that he would always own them by meticulously running up greater and greater amounts of debt. His slaves had to work off the debt he would never be able to pay off. Such a tale of personal dependence from the standard bearer of independence.

To Ellis, the contradictions don’t add up to hypocrisy as much as they demonstrate the ability of a very intelligent mind to reconcile “different versions of the truth.” For example, Jefferson could abhor slavery and own slaves if he believed that whites and blacks could not coexist peacefully; continuing slavery might be a temporary solution until a complicated scheme of compensated emancipation and expatriation of blacks could be effected. This strikes me as simply first-order rationalization by a first-rate mind, but Ellis sees it also as the symptom of a personality pathologically averse to confrontation. Contradiction, according to Ellis, is of Jefferson’s legacy:

Jefferson created a particular style of leadership adapted to the special requirements of American political culture that remains relevant two centuries later. It is a style based on the capacity to rest comfortably with contradictions. If you begin with the conviction that government is at best a necessary evil, then effective political leadership must be indirect and unthreatening. It must cloak the exercise of power from public view, appear to be a tamer and more innocuous activity than it really is.

In his attempt to sort out the meaning of Jefferson’s legacy, Ellis points out that alone among the Revolution’s greatest thinkers, Jefferson unyieldingly emphasized individual sovereignty. This type of individualism pervades our modern American ethic, though Jefferson might find our materialistic pursuit of unlimited consumption both a perversion of “the pursuit of happiness” and disturbingly close to home.

It might be helpful to untangle Thomas Jefferson the man from his ideas. Jefferson sought a system that could extract the highest good from people by unshackling them from state and religious tyranny. Maybe these mighty ideals impose a burden on our expectations of him as a person. But could it be also that this ideal which guides our nation–the total liberation of the individual for the purpose of releasing the most positive and benevolent energies–is his reciprocal burden on us?

I see Ellis has written a few other books about the founding of the United States, including one about George Washington. I look forward to reading them later.

John Adams

Do you like John Adams? I do.

I read David McCullough’s “John Adams” a few years back. I guess I thought I was done reading about him forever until a colleague recommended “Passionate Sage” by Joseph J. Ellis.

But first…

I borrowed “John Adams”, the HBO miniseries based on McCullough’s book, from the library. Paul Giamatti plays Adams. It is very good. I like Giamatti. Maybe I can identify with him because he’s short and bald. I think it lands him too many loser roles, though. Giamatti is a good Adams, and Laura Linney (another actor I like) is a good Abigail.

In “Passionate Sage”, subtitled “The Character and Legacy of John Adams”, Ellis first tries to get into Adams’ head and then explain what that meant for the United States of America. Because the Declaration of Independence has become known as the defining moment of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson is regarded more prominently while Adams’ contributions tend to get overlooked.

Adams’ theories of government advocated a mix of liberty and authority, and so tended to be more realistic than idealistic. His personality was bombastic and blunt but also iconoclastic and objective; he snarled at the mythologizing of the Revolution and was only cautiously optimistic about the republican experiment. Ellis argues that while Americans historically identified with Jeffersonian ideals of individualism and limited government, Adams’ more practical approach better describes the attempt to balance democracy and stability:

In his political thinking, to be sure, Adams did embrace two of the central tenets of the liberal tradition… the notion that political power ultimately derives from the people, and the principle of equality before the law… Beyond these seminal commitments, however, he was unprepared to go. He was, in all other respects, the archetypal, unreconstructed republican, fundamentally resistant to an individualist ethic, as well as to the belief in the benign effect of the marketplace, to the faith in the infallibility of popular majorities, to the conviction that America enjoyed providential protection from the corruptions of history, to celebrations of freedom undisciplined by government or, at the personal level, the release of passionate energies unmitigated by internal checks and balances.

I’ve always been fascinated by the founders. I know that contradicts my usual distaste for the dead white man approach to history, but they were a most remarkable coincidence of minds and personalities. John Murphy, my high school history teacher, used to ask, “Why did they get Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and James Madison and we get George Bush and Dan Quayle?”

I’m also reading another book by Ellis, about Thomas Jefferson.

Online social networks

I’ve been involved in some discussion within our agency about how to use online social networking (the shorthand for it is usually Facebook, but it could be YouTube, Flickr, craigslist or whatever). On one hand, something really bothers me about the government belatedly oozing into what people have been doing just fine without it. On the other hand, online social networking could be a powerful tool for engaging (a popular buzzword) the public. To what end nobody can really explain to me. All I hear is “we have to go where the people are.” Go and do what? Nobody knows yet but it ought to be good.

I use Facebook a little bit (at home), for no other reason than most of my friends are on it. E-mail wasn’t helping me keep up anymore. But I find Facebook to be shallow and proprietary. Fine, I’ve taken some movie quizzes and had a sheep thrown at me. But I can’t communicate into or out of it, so if a friend isn’t using it I’ll have to keep up with him some other way (back to e-mail anyway). If I understand their business model, in return for free use of the site they are putting all that personal information to use somehow.

Also, I maintain this blog at some personal expense of effort (and a little of money). Facebook allows you to import blog entries but they seem to discourage it and it seems to not work all that well anyway. I’d like to be able to share my writings and photos with my friends without signing them over to some business.

In the future, online social networking ought to transcend proprietary sites like Facebook by being more portable and by respecting the users’ ownership of their information.


Yesterday, the first day of May, was cool and cloudy and windy, just like April. And then: this morning is warm and sunny and calm. The dogwood or crab apple whatever these trees are planted all over town are in full bloom.

Could it be… spring?