Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's Rational, Not Rationing

One of the best hours of radio I've ever heard: Drs. Steven Nissen and Craig Bowron talking with Kerri Miller about whether routine medical screenings lead to better medical outcomes.

As it's described on the MPR website: "New research shows that many common medical tests and procedures don't save lives and can even be potentially harmful to patients. But the idea that less care can mean better care goes runs counter to the message that screening for disease is inherently beneficial."

Bowron threw out a term that I particularly loved: the "casino effect." Just as we only hear about the people who clean up on the slots or win the lottery -- and never about all the money millions of people waste on those pursuits -- so do we hear from individuals who had a mammogram at 40 that caught breast cancer, or who had a stress test for no symptomatic reason that found heart blockages. Sure, those unlikely events happen, but you never hear about the vastly larger group of people whose test found nothing, or even worse, who were harmed by the test, follow-up tests, and unnecessary procedures.

Listening to Nissen and Bowron, I had the naive thought that if everyone could just hear these guys explain it, maybe we could solve some of the fiscal and medical mess we're in.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August Reading: Heavy, with a Touch of Stupid Fast

Cover of Stupid FastI read Geoff Herbach's YA novel Stupid Fast -- er, pretty darn fast. I heard about it from Molly Priesmeyer on Twitter. Not sure if she knows Herbach personally or what (I don't get the impression she's a regular YA reader), but she had praised it pretty roundly, and I thought it sounded like it would be worth a try. So I stopped by Red Balloon Bookshop, assuming they would have it, and I wasn't disappointed!

I almost left without buying the book when I saw the cover, though: It shows a teen boy in a football uniform, sitting with his back to the viewer. But I held my nose in an effort to ignore my bias against sports novels and picked it up anyway. While I was checking out, the worker at the counter exclaimed over the book and said her son had just read it and was going to be writing about it for a teen book group.

So, without giving anything away, I'll just say: it has a great character voice, Pete Hautmanesque story-telling, and a deft recognition of human complexity. Bonus: It's set in southwestern Wisconsin.

Cover of Twenty Thirty, with 3D glasses made out of the year 2030, one lense is brokenI had to read Stupid Fast to recover from reading Albert Brooks's Twenty Thirty. I like to think I have pretty good taste in books, to the point where I buy them in hardcover and am happy to keep them in perpetuity at least 90 percent of the time. But Twenty Thirty is one of the ten percent that will find its way to Half Price Books soon.

It's near-future science fiction, usually one of my favorites, but Brooks floats a couple of interesting concepts about the coming clash between debt-ridden youth and the Medicare-loving "olds" who seem like they'll live forever, and then flounders through the maze of characters he's created as though he's checking off items on a plot outline. As I read through it, I could never keep track of which character was which, although I usually have no trouble with that sort of thing in books with multiple story lines. Maybe it was all the boring names Brooks gave them, or the fact that they felt like caricatures instead of people.

Nice cover, though -- but not a good example of judging a book by it. I should have trusted my usual mistrust of books written by celebrities. In this case, I thought the celebrity could write, but I guess novels are not his thing.

Cover of the Long Emergency, bright yellow with red and black type, and a caution tape stripe down the sideI may have found Twenty Thirty particularly disappointing because I read it right after reading James Howard Kunstler's doomer bible The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. While Kunstler is harsh, I like to think I was pretty prepared for him, so it didn't depress me too much.

Kunstler's premise, as is pretty widely known, is that we've just passed peak oil, worldwide. He spends his time spinning scenarios of what will happen to daily life and the economy once we no longer have access to cheap, portable fuel. He (somewhat gleefully, it seems to me) shoots down the "cornucopian" arguments of those who think technology will save us (hydrogen fuel cells, as well solar, wind and nuclear power). The upshot: small cities and large towns are the places to be, especially in parts of the country that have access to fresh water and the possibility of hydro power. Hence, his home in upstate New York north of Albany. Do everything you can to be prepared for your new career as a subsistence farmer, or maybe a carpenter or shoemaker.

Some revelations I found in the book:

  • The success of Thatcherism had a lot more to do with the North Sea oil boom (now over) than it did with the correctness of conservative policies.
  • The U.S. energy crises of 1973 and 1979, which I experienced as a teenager, were all about the passing of the U.S. oil peak, and the transition to control of supply by other nations (OPEC). The fact that prices and supplies then eased for such a long time is also explained (see the bit about North Sea oil, above). All of which Americans took as an excuse to forget about energy conservation, building farther out from city centers, flying more and more, moving up to SUVs, and killing what was left of our railroads.
  • The U.S. will never give up its swollen military budget as long as there's a drop of oil to be controlled worldwide. I don't mean to say I didn't realize we've been fighting wars for oil. I just hadn't quite internalized how deep-seated our nation's attachment to its military budget is.
  • Despite the fact that Kunstler wrote the book in 2004, with publication early in 2005, he completely nailed the Wall Street stock casino, the housing bubble and the subsequent implosion. It was eerie reading his description.
When Kunstler tries to explain everything about geopolitics, he can start to sound a bit light on facts. But he sure can turn a phrase:
Our ability to resist the environmental corrective of disease will probably prove to have been another temporary boon of the cheap-oil age, like air conditioning and lobsters flown daily from Maine to the buffets of Las Vegas. So much of what we construe to be among our entitlements to perpetual progress may prove to have been a strange, marvelous, and anomalous moment in the planet's history (page 12).

When media commentators cast about struggling to explain what has happened in our country economically, they uniformly overlook the colossal misinvestment that suburbia represents -- a prodigious, unparalleled misallocation of resources (page 17).

I do not believe that the general ignorance about the coming catastrophic end of the cheap-oil era is the product of a conspiracy, either on the part of business or government or news media. Mostly it's a matter of cultural inertia, aggravated by collective delusion, nursed in the growth medium of comfort and complacency (page 26).

Fossil fuels provided for each person in an industrialized country the equivalent of having hundreds of slaves constantly at his or her disposal (page 31).

Globalism was primarily a way of privatizing the profits of business activities while socializing the costs (page 186).

The dirty secret of the American economy in the 1990s was that it was no longer about anything except the creation of suburban sprawl and the furnishing, accessorizing, and financing of it. It resembled the efficiency of cancer (page 222).
With Michele Bachmann promising $2 a gallon gas if she's elected, and now saying she would drill in the Everglades (while also eliminating the EPA so no environmental checks could be done), Kunstler is more timely than ever. Reading The Long Emergency, I have to say I became convinced that -- barring a cornucopian invention of free flowing energy -- we're about to experience a crashing oil hangover. The best we can hope is that it happens gradually and not suddenly. But given our political climate, I don't think gradual is in the cards.

Monday, August 29, 2011

For Whom the Tabs Toll

I've always been self-conscious about my use (or lack thereof) of whom, especially in spoken English. Now I feel just a bit vindicated. Mike Pope writes that whom is unnecessary in spoken English:

You will not find native speakers hunting around for guidance on the difference between I and me or between he and him. That's because native speakers don't need that guidance. However, there are many pages on the web...that explain the distinction between who and whom. If native speakers of a language — including many people who obviously read and write just fine — need schooling to learn a feature of their native grammar, that feature of the grammar is on artificial life support.
The disappearance of whom would be just fine with Mike:
Some people disagree. For example, some people think that if we lose whom, we lose an important grammatical distinction in the language. My thot: many grammatical features of English have disappeared without damaging the expressiveness of the language: an entire case (dative), all gender distinction in nouns, almost all verbal conjugations in regular verbs (except 3rd singular), and the distinction between informal and formal second person (thou/you). For each of these, you could argue that they represented important grammatical markers, and they were. But they disappeared anyway, and we don't really miss them today.
Now if I can just get it eliminated from the requirements of written English, too.

I quite enjoyed this op-ed by Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect, pointing out the inconsistencies in Republican tax polemics. All taxes are bad, right, including ones that were cut only for a specified time, like the Bush tax cuts. But the temporary decrease in the payroll tax, which primarily benefits lower and middle-class workers, doesn't count somehow:
In an editorial this weekend, the Wall Street Journal termed the payroll tax reduction “an inferior tax cut,” arguing that tax cuts should be “broad-based, immediate and permanent.” Broad-based? The payroll tax cut, which the Journal dismisses so contemptuously, benefits every employed American, while the tax cuts the paper champions — on capital gains and millionaires’ income — accrue to a far smaller group. Immediate? Unlike taxes paid annually or quarterly, the payroll tax is drawn from each paycheck from the moment the law takes effect. Permanent? The payroll tax is the tax that funds Social Security, so reducing it really can’t be a permanent policy. But the impermanence of the Bush tax cuts, which had been set to expire this year but were extended, presented no obstacle to the Journal’s fervent support for them.
Banking economist George Magnus, writing for Bloomberg of all places, made a similar argument in favor of payroll tax cuts. And he even mentioned Marx. Sheesh.

I occasionally engage in what I guess could be considered criticism (with a capital C), though I have no bona fides that qualify me to do so. John Scalzi schooled me today on the four possible goals of criticism: consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemic. All in typical Scalzian style; well worth a read.

If you have time, check out this video of James Baldwin debating William F. Buckley in the U.K. on the question of whether the American Dream is predicated on the subjugation of "the Negro" (my recollection of the question, not exactly how it was worded). This short segment shows only Baldwin's response... I have to dig up the other parts as well as find the time to watch them all.

What would it take to make clean drinking water available to everyone? Not much, as it turns out.

A friend clued me in to inventor and water engineer Michael Pritchard's Lifesaver bottle. Their filters remove everything down to 15 nanometers, which includes all known bacteria and viruses. Pritchard describes and demonstrates the bottle at a TED talk, complete with rabbit poop in the water. The bottle filters come in 4,000 and 6,000 liter models; the larger jerrycans in 10,000 and 20,000 liter models, the latter of which would supply enough water for a family of four over three years.

Michael Pritchard with his Lifesaver bottle
While the bottles and jerrycans are not super cheap (you can buy one for between $160 and $400, depending on the model, with replacement filters a bit cheaper than that), they're commercially available and cheaper than the projected price of Dean Kamen's Slingshot water purification system, which up until the Lifesaver had sounded like the best distributed system.

Maybe the Gates Foundation will pull a few billion dollars out of funding dysfunctional school testing efforts and put clean water in the hands of those who need it most. As Steward Brand wrote in Whole Earth Discipline, "It is so important to free up newly urbanized women from their traditional role as fetchers of water and fuel that, as the UN report drily suggests, 'the provision of water standpipes may be far more effective in enabling women to undertake income-earning activities than the provision of skills training'."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Reply All" and the Downfall of Civilization

In Mary Renault's The King Must Die, there comes a time when the hero, the Greek mythological figure Theseus, has attained fame as a bull leaper in the court of King Minos of Crete. As a celebrity of sorts, he attends the parties of the court and sees how debased the culture has become.

Their pottery, for example, had been the finest: "the colors are more and richer than ours at home, the patterns gay yet free, and full of harmony.... It was a pleasure to take their pots in your hands, to feel the shape and the glaze." But by the time Theseus was in Crete, the pots were being decorated into uselessness. At one dinner party, the host shows off his potter's workshop, and while the guests exclaim over the wares, Theseus makes a small clay bull, like a child might make from mud, but he knows it's badly done. "Just as I was about to roll it up again, there was a crying and twittering, my host and his friends holding back my hand, and crying out that it must be fired. 'How fresh!' they said. 'How pure!' (or some such word). 'How he has understood the clay!'"

Theseus thinks they are making fun of him, but they insist not. They swear "they had spoken in earnest, and that I had done what their very newest craftsmen were winning praise for. To prove it they led me to a shelf, covered with such wretched botched things as you will see at home far up in the back hills..."

This example of cultural decline stuck with me since I read it as a teenager. Because I feel drawn to folk art, I'm a bit sensitive to the high culture/low culture implications of Renault's point, but at the same time, I recognize the validity of questioning fashions that devolve into ugliness.

I'm afraid that was a heavy, tangential introduction to the latest daily comic added at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It's called "Reply All" and is created by Donna A. Lewis, who has a day job as a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security.

Reply All 6 panel strip about bikinis and sunscreen
The strip is staggeringly badly drawn. Not to insult teenagers, but it looks like something done by a talentless one.

Lewis makes free use of cut and paste so she won't have to draw quite so much. Note the same exact drawing of the brown-haired character in panels 4 and 5. Panels 3 and 6 also use an identical drawing, except the character's mouth is open.

Close up of a panel showing the bad type and word balloon style
While I can't stand anything about how it's drawn, I hate the type even more. You may have noted that comics are hand-lettered, or, these days, use fonts that are based on hand lettering. "Reply All" disposes of that convention, substituting generic Arial instead. And Lewis has no concept of spacing: The type bangs into the unneeded, heavy black rules that border her word balloons, making it feel cluttered and incompetent. Yet the space between the lines of text is much larger than it needs to be, interfering with the coherence of the block of type.

According to the PiPress story about the new strip, Lewis is primarily a writer. Okay, I thought, maybe it will be well-written and funny, even though it's hard to look at.

But no. I looked through a couple of weeks worth of strips and didn't laugh once. It's full of obvious observations that lack the twist required to make you laugh.

Googling the strip, I found the Washington Post describing it as "fabulous." Compared to what? There are hundreds if not thousands of talented cartoonists out there -- as evidenced locally by the recent City Pages comics issue. You can't tell me the PiPress couldn't have found a better strip than this, even in syndication.

Yeah, I know I'm exaggerating about the downfall of civilization. But "downfall of the comics page" wouldn't be going too far.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Riverside Plaza, for Piet's Sake

Heading back into town, I noticed that the new paint job on Riverside Plaza is underway:

Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis with most of the panels painted white, blue, yellow and red, some in the background in dark peachy tan
The building in the foreground sports the new color scheme, which is a restoration of the original Mondrian design of architect Ralph Rapson. The one in the background still shows the hugely ugly paint job that was imposed ten or twenty years ago.

While there are many arguments to make about whether the buildings were ever successful as places for humans to live, or if they should have even been built in the first place, it's obvious they look immeasurably better with their panels in bright colors than they did when painted to look like giant "flesh"-colored Bandaids.

Who picked that color, anyway? It's about the worst possible choice: too similar to the concrete, but not similar enough, so that it's jarringly ambiguous.

A recent post on Boing Boing told of a street art fair in Bristol, England, in an area of "brutalist" architecture built around the same time and from the same aesthetic as Riverside Plaza. The snip by writer Tim Maughn said:

Graffiti artists not just from Bristol but around the globe descended on Nelson Street, transforming the whole area from drab, urban decay into what feels like a new -- almost virtual -- space...

It is yet another example, amongst the hundreds that dot the urban landscape of Britain, of 1950/60s post war planning and architecture that aimed to herald a new, futuristic, technology-driven utopia. But of course the future's greatest strength is that it can never be predicted and tamed, let alone designed or planned. The town planners and architects failed, and as the decades passed they watched their dreams descend into decay, shunned by popular taste and left to become associated with poverty, depravation and failure. And to add the ultimate insult to their injuries, they saw their utopian designs become the defining science fiction image of a dystopian future.
Crowds walking between concrete walls that have been painted with brightly colored graffiti-style images, varying greatly
That's another way to change the paint job!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Lauritzen Gardens: Big Heads, Little Buildings

I'm not one to mix gardening with blogging, but while in Omaha I did spend a morning at the Lauritzen Botanic Garden. It's only 10 years old, which makes it an interesting place to see how a huge landscape project can be implemented over time -- leaving room to grow, but starting off with lots of beautiful vistas, glades and pocket gardens.

This summer, the Lauritzen is featuring the giant bronze head sculptures of artist Jun Kaneko.

Huge pink head sitting on a green grass lawn
They make a striking statement wherever they're placed.

Cobalt blue giant head in a garden
Each one is about ten feet high.

Black and white checkered giant head in a garden
I can't put my finger on it, but every time I came across one I had the feeling I was in a science fiction movie... Zardoz? Or maybe something to do with The Prisoner?

Given my obsession with miniature buildings, the train garden was, naturally, a favorite.

Model train bridges made of large twigs, with rocks and waterfalls
But I think it was actually nicer than the average bunch of tiny buildings because all parts of the layout were made with natural materials. The G-scale trains gad about on a series of terraced levels connected by twig trestles.

Model of the Durham Museum in natural materials
There was a model of the Durham Museum (the former Union Pacific train station)...

Red covered bridge made of rough pieces of wood
...a classic covered bridge...

Miniature grain elevator with a train on the siding
... and a grain elevator.

Small town train station with water tower
The structures were created by landscape designer Paul Busse and his company, Applied Imagination. Never heard of them before, but their website tells me they've done lots of buildings like this for botanical gardens and flower shows all over the country.

Building with the word Omaha in 19th century lettering on the side
You can see an extensive series of photos of the Lauritzen installation here. Wow.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Omaha Overview

There may be one more Omaha-themed post still to come, but this is the round-up of the miscellaneous images and impressions I can't fit in elsewhere.

Bohemian Cafe sign in black letter, with hand-painted tiles around
Omaha (and Nebraska in general) is home to a large population of Czech-descended people. South Omaha, particularly, was a Bohemian center. The Bohemian Cafe is one of the few obviously Czech businesses remaining in the area. Its sign and beautiful facade were created in 1959 and maintained by the same family ever since.

Brick warehouse with faded letters of a 19th century sign running between the windows of all the floors
This is one of the gorgeous buildings in the Old Market area.

Mutual of Omaha headquarters and sign
If you're an American baby-boomer, you probably remember the television show Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I found myself explaining to a young Omahan that everyone over a certain age knows about Mutual of Omaha because of that show -- though she had never heard of it.

Statue of a hip hop kid with neon red O on his chest, leaning on a sign
This kind of clueless sculpture is on the edge of the Old Market area. It faces away from the street corner, toward a parking garage. It's sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and there are a few tables and chairs on the plaza. I'm not sure what it means.

Shadows of tree branches on a sidewalk
Cool shadow photo number one.

Shadows of fire escapes on a brick building
And cool shadow photo number two.

Cartoonish lumpy figure with two mouths and four eyes
A compelling bit of graffiti art.

Cadillac art car with giant fins and a big paper mache hand on the side
An art car near the Old Market.

Then there was suburban Omaha, which seemed about 10 percent more soulless than Twin Cities suburbia. Although I'm sure that's just biased.

But did you know there isn't a retail shopping area in downtown Omaha? There's the Old Market, which has a scattering of boutique retailers among a bunch of restaurants, but the street that used to house the city's key retailers is empty of stores. You can't buy men's clothes in downtown, for instance. There's not a department store of any size. Everything is in the malls, and the malls themselves are really far to the west of downtown.

CrossRoadS Mall sign
This mall with the unfortunately capitalized name is within the city limits, I think, but it's not actually a mall as I think of them. It's a bunch of big box stores that are near each other.

Black and white harlequin checked building with sign above saying just FUN with an arrow pointing downward
Who could resist a photo of this place? Not me.

Front page of the Omaha World-Herald
Finally, one thing I enjoyed while in Omaha was reading the daily paper, the World-Herald. For some reason, I don't remember hearing of it before this visit.

I found it to be a newspaper of good proportions (its pages, both in scale and number don't appear to have shrunk as much as the papers around the Twin Cities) and high quality. Looking into it a little further, I think I may have found the reason: The paper is employee-owned, and so hasn't been raided by venture capitalists. It's the largest employee-owned daily paper in the U.S.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Omaha Monuments

First National Bank is the tallest building not only in Omaha, but also the tallest between Chicago and Denver. In addition, FNB is the largest privately owned bank in the U.S., with over $17 billion in assets.

They spent some part of that money on two parks and sculpture gardens in downtown Omaha. Now, generally, I'm all for sculpture gardens, but I guess I'm more a fan of gardens that show a range of artists, materials and approaches.

What FNB commissioned is a monument to the white settlement of Nebraska and the West. It's full of chunks of rock and larger-than-life-size bronze settlers, working their way through the ruggedified landscape.

Bronze pioneer wagon with human figures nearby
The first group of works is called Pioneer Courage, the second the Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness. In effect, the Conestoga wagons, horses, oxen and people of Pioneer Courage are shown driving the previous inhabitants (the buffalo and geese of the Spirit of Nebraska's Wilderness) ahead of them through the streets of Omaha, until they reach a second small park space and then finally the "winter garden" attached to the FNB skyscraper. (Photos of each sculpture can be seen here.)

Pioneer girl running beside the wagon
When I started examining the sculptures up close, the first thing I noticed was that the people all looked way too happy. Imagine you've been walking 20 miles a day for weeks. It's hot and humid, with gnats and mosquitoes. You may or may not be sick, you may or may not have had enough to eat. Would you be running and laughing?

Pioneer boy's face close up, open mouthed, as if he's gazing at a beautiful scene
This boy's face looks a bit neutral in the photo, but in person it struck me as happier. Even the adults in the family looked like they were cast from a stock photo archive. A bit farther up the train of people, there were two girls who were carrying baskets of flowers.

Now, I can imagine that kids would sometimes do that, of course, but choosing to show girls who've been picking wild flowers creates an image of almost idyllic conditions that have nothing to do with the reality we all can imagine from the Oregon Trail game.

Bronze cow struggling against its lead
This cow sculpture better expresses a sense of what it would have been like, in my opinion. Nearby, there's a wagon that has one of its wheels stuck in a rut, with a male figure trying to push it out -- that evoked a sense of reality as well.

Buffalo partially submerged in stone building corner with calf just behind
The pioneer wagon train extends across one city block. Just ahead of them, across the street, are these two buffalo -- an adult (hard to see in my photo) busting through the corner of the building, followed by its calf.

Buffalo calf cavorting with its mother in a field of grass
At the next block, the buffalo get a little bit more space to roam.

Male buffalo bronze with geese taking flight in the background
And they run beneath flocks of geese, which spread from a fountain to each of the corners at the nearby intersection.

Stainless steel geese overhead inside a curtain wall atrium
Finally, the geese transform from the bronze that was used for the outdoor versions to stainless steel when they reach the final point of their migration, inside the FNB Winter Garden (a glassed-in atrium with an internal balcony that's designed to look like a wooden boat).

On the whole, the various parts of the two sculpture gardens left me feeling unsettled. The idealized people, moving through an almost-empty landscape... what was missing? Could it be... Indians?

You know, the people who lived in this "empty" place before the pioneers arrived to show their courage?

Partway through Pioneer Courage there are plaques with statements from the artists, mounted on the rock faces. One of them reads:

Three and one-half centuries after Columbus's voyage to America, pioneers began to discover the vastness and unlock the secrets of the great American West.

The opening and settling of the American West is a record of heroism and human sacrifice that speaks to the heart of the world. Unequaled anywhere as to its complexity and scale, Pioneer Courage memorializes the countless thousands who forged their way westward to define the great American dream.

As an artist, and as a descendant of pioneer ancestors, this project represents the culmination of a personal lifelong devotion to depicting the history and spirit of the American West through sculpture. It is my sincere hope that whatever I have done will serve as an inspiration to people and children everywhere to work hard, make the best of life, and cherish the sacred blessings and responsibilities passed down to them from their forebears.

Edward J. Fraughton
This statement, from its opening reference to Columbus to the use of the term "opening" the West to its embarrassingly unconscious use of the term "human sacrifice," is overtly political and full of American exceptionalism. America is the greatest country in history, it's easy to infer, just as the sculpture is unequaled in scale and complexity. If everyone would just work hard, like these idealized pioneers (who died by the countless thousands, by the way), everything would be perfect in our society.

I have no idea what it cost to commission and build these two sculpture parks. The three artists involved worked on it for at least 10 years, plus the labor and materials for landscaping the two outdoor spaces and fabricating the sculptures themselves. That has to be a serious financial investment.

Meanwhile, on the north side of Omaha, there's another monument that could use just a bit of that money.

Small white house with red trim
North Omaha is the birth place of Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little). This isn't his house -- that was torn down decades ago -- but I thought I'd include a photo of one that's nearby to give a flavor of what the area is like.

The Malcolm X Foundation has been working since the early 1970s to create a memorial to his birth in Omaha. The most visible symbol of their work is this plaque:

Photo of the Malcolm X birthplace plaque with preteen boy reading it
(This photo is from the Malcolm X Foundation website.)

They've worked diligently to raise money and start work on the multi-acre site, with plans for an amphitheater and educational facilities. They hold cultural events and work with youth in the community.

But when I visited, all I could see was a small parking lot in the middle of a field, surrounded by a chain link fence, and this message:

Chain link fence with parking lot visible through it, and sign giving the Malcolm X Foundation web address
Seems like the people of Omaha (and, hey, corporations are people, too!) could help fund this bit of real Omaha history, just as they funded the bronze and stone commemoration of Manifest Destiny downtown.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Omaha Union Station -- An Art Deco Monument

If you asked Daughter Number Three-Point-One about her family's travel habits, she would tell you that we visit food co-ops and college Student Unions wherever we go. Lately, she would have to add train stations to her list of sites visited.

Omaha is no exception. The city's former train station, now the Durham Museum, opened exactly 80 years ago, and was in operation until 1971 -- just 40 years of use for a beautiful Art Deco landmark.

Sign and exterior west end of the Durham Museum
Fortunately, instead of tearing it down or letting it stand empty, the building was immediately deeded to the city, which turned it into a museum of Western heritage.

White exterior above the west doors, engraved Omaha Union Station, with two flanking sculptural figures
Designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the exterior features heroic figures high above the doors. According to one of the explanatory cards in the exhibit, "Underwood wanted to emphasize three characteristics of the railroad in his design: strength, power, and masculinity."

Close up of engineer figure with blunt features, grasping a hammer
This plaster cast of the engineer figure is found within the small exhibit about the history of the station.

The waiting room with long benches, checkered pattern on floor. Two sculptures of soldiers sit and stand as if talking
Twenty years after the museum opened, the building was beautifully renovated, recreating what it must have looked like when it opened. The terrazzo floors shine...

Ticket windows with metal grates. A sculpted woman figure stands at one window
...the ticket windows, which now enclose the gift shop, look like they're open for business...

Sculpted figure of a man stands looking at a large metal sign listing train times
...and even the timetables are in use.

The main train station hall from floor to ceiling, showing the chandeliers and windows
The expanse of the space is inspiring.

Detail of the Durham ceiling with beautiful art deco motifs and colors
The ceiling details include metallic silver.

Detail of the designs, stylized pine trees, kind of zigzag
These stylized trees (and is that a fountain?) decorate the space between the windows.

(By the way, the original soda fountain is still in operation, in case you're thirsty.)

The exhibits are mostly down in the lower level, which used to connect to the track concourses that now are mostly empty of tracks. They include a good overview of Omaha's history, as well as two trains that show Union Pacific cars from a range of eras.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Thoughts on Taxes While in Omaha

Humans exhibit a sense of fairness as young as 6 months of age. We're hard-wired to resent displays of obvious unfairness.

Some adults have managed to drown out that inner voice of fairness, however. Warren Buffett's recent op-ed calling for higher rates of taxation on the super-rich, like himself, met with derision from the likes of Fox News (as so well lampooned by the Daily Show, shown in two parts). But it also was criticized by economists like Jeffrey Miron on MPR's Midmorning, who defended the fact that billionaire Buffett pays a much lower tax rate than his secretary.

Now I must remind myself that Miron is not only from Harvard but also part of the Cato Institute (the libertarian think tank originally funded by the Koch Brothers). What would a more reasonable economist, such as Ed Lotterman, have to say? Alas, since Lotterman hasn't written a response to Buffett yet, I'll have to go it alone.

The vast majority of taxes paid by Omaha's favorite son Buffett are capital gains taxes, rather than income tax on earned income. Because it's investment income, it's taxed at a lower rate. One of Miron's arguments against Buffett is that capital gains have already been taxed on the corporations as corporate taxes (at 35 percent), and so to add anything over 15% would be taxing more than 50% -- a rate that people generally agree is unfair.

Well, yeah, on the face of it, taxing more than half of someone's income seems unfair. But this cobbled-together 50 percent isn't paid by the same person -- part is paid by the corporation and part by the stock owner. Leaving aside the fact that so many large companies seem to get away without paying the 35 percent tax rate in the first place, it's still important to question whether the two separate payments actually count as a single 50 percent payment.

It's kind of like the problem I see with arguments against the estate tax: the Right and libertarians argue it's double taxation, because the dead person already paid income taxes on it. Well, so what, the person inheriting it as income didn't pay income taxes on it, right? If it had been gifted to the heir when the giver was alive, it would have been unearned income and taxed as such.

And what do most stock owners' investments contribute, anyway? Miron said we, as a society, don't want to discourage the rich from investing their money because we need it to be invested. But there are very different kinds of investments, some more valuable to society than others. Economist Richard Florida derides stock and commodity speculators as "traders," as opposed to "builders" who take actual risks to innovate or create something hew.

Marjorie Kelly showed in The Divine Right of Capital how most of the money traded around in the stock market is unproductive, a parasitic waste. Once a stock has been issued, the aftermarket of trading the stocks at sometimes speculative prices only distorts corporate behavior and saps money that could be invested to more useful ends.

As a commenter named Wayne Basta wrote on in response to Buffett's article:

People become rich (if they aren’t born that way) because of drive and motivation (with a certain element of luck). Taxing them more is just like cranking up the difficulty level in a video game. It’s clear they’ve mastered making money at the easy level. Now it’s time to take it to Normal Mode. People will still play the game. They are Achievers and this just makes it more of a challenge. Someone who is rich in an environment with no regulation and no taxes doesn’t have much to brag about. But someone who is rich when there is a 90% tax rate and firm stipulations that they pay their workers well, now that is someone to admire.
See, once in a while it is worth it to read the comments.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Omaha, Day One

People in Minnesota are fond of defaming Omaha, Nebraska. If we lose the Vikings or the Twins because we don't build them a new stadium, they say, "We'll be nothing more than a cold Omaha."

I've always thought that was an odd comparison. The presence of the Vikings and the Twins doesn't have a lot to do with why I like the Twin Cities. So maybe I would like Omaha, too?

This week I am finding out.

Arriving somewhat late on a Sunday, I haven't seen much of it yet, but I can already tell it will have its share of lovely old hand-painted signs and classic commercial architecture.

I knew about Omaha's most famous resident, the tax-loving billionaire Warren Buffett, but somehow I didn't know that it's also home to ConAgra, one of the three agribusiness giants of America. (The other two are Minnesota's Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, based in Decatur, Illinois.)

I've written before about the recently redesigned ConAgra logo, but there it was on the headquarters sign...

Red sign with white letters and logo for ConAgra's headquarters
... and embedded in the pavement, over 30 feet wide:

ConAgra smiley symbol in white within reddish pavement
Right next to the ConAgra headquarters is a large urban green space called Heartland of America Park. It's not my favorite city park, I'd have to say -- too cut off from where the people are. You have to walk down a bunch of stairs or ramps to get to it, and I felt kind of trapped down there, walking around an obviously man-made body of water.

Large fountain in the middle of a man-made lake
This fountain in the lake shoots water up to 300 feet into the air...a possible symbol of Omaha's inferiority complex?

The park, created in 1990, sits on a site that used to be full of "jobber" warehouses in close proximity to the Missouri River. Goods would arrive there and be stored for resale throughout the region. Jobbing was one of Omaha's three main industries (along with cattle stockyards and railroads). Unfortunately, the historic buildings were all torn down in a controversial decision by the city, capitulating to ConAgra's desire for a new headquarters. I get the feeling the park was a consolation prize.

A few blocks west of the park and the ConAgra headquarters is the Old Market Historic District, which is probably similar to what Jobber's Canyon was like: blocks of brick warehouses with huge windows, connected by brick streets. Nowadays, the remaining buildings are mostly loft apartments or restaurants, with a pretty good mix of boutique retailers and a few art galleries. It's a fun area to wander around in. It's full of flowers, and even on a quiet Sunday night, there were a few musicians and performers livening up the corners.

The most interesting place I've seen so far is Fairmont Antiques & Mercantile, in the Old Market area:

Sign reading Fairmont Antiques & Mercantile, Omaha's Ultimate Store - We're Famous
Its sign might sound like an exaggeration, but I'd have to say it's not. The building is part candy store (hundreds and hundreds of varieties), part soda fountain and, mostly, a mid-2oth-century collectible bazaar. Including a theater playing free movies, no kidding.

Pink Cadillac trunk full of metal radios
This pink Cadillac trunk was full of drive-in movie theater speakers.

One of the best things in the whole place was a huge collection of nonelectric pinball machines. At least, I think that's what they are.

Many colorful pinball machines on a wall
From the graphics, I would say they were from the 1930s and '40s.

More colorful pinball machines on a wall
Fairmont is the kind of store that's half museum; I got the feeling these weren't for sale.

Even more colorful pinball machines on a wall
Each one was worth studying, but there were so many of them!

Then, in an area that was marked employees-only, I saw a series of handmade buildings on top of a set of cabinets.

Handmade McDonald's building, circa 1965
Most were models of chain restaurants, like Dairy Queen or A&W, or this fun McDonald's.

White rootbeer stand building
But my favorite was Kurly's Root Beer; I would love to look at it up close. Folk art miniature buildings like these are so appealing to me. I've never understood why, but seeing them makes me indescribably happy.

Four black milk cans, each with one white letter spelling ANTI
Over the entrance to the Fairmont, the row of milk cans may have lost a few of its letters, but the remaining four make an amusing statement.

If the rest of Omaha is half as interesting as the Fairmont, it should be a good couple of days.