Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stripping Wallpaper II

I know that the world is waiting to find out how our wallpaper stripping project turned out ... wait no more.

The good news: it turned out better than Mr. Sun's garage cleaning project. (Unfortunately, my graphics are not as good as his.) We even had unsolicited participation by teenagers, who could not resist the impulse to apply sharp instruments to the hated Persian Rose paper.

There was actually a little surprise underneath those 3 recalcitrant, unregenerate, prideful layers of paper, but I didn't notice it until the job was done. Actually, I didn't notice it at all -- Laurette did. If you look carefully, you can see it in this photo.

Notice the ghost of a horizontal stripe around the wall, showing that the room originally had a picture molding. One of the small rewards of renovating old houses (and being married to an archaeologist with a good eye for traces of the past) is discovering nice little bits like that. We're definitely restoring the molding after the plaster gets repaired.

We also learned (pathei mathos: "learning comes from suffering") the three rules of effective wallpaper removal:

(1) Perforate the paper with this. More time perforating means less time scraping. Perforate about 3 times as much as seems necessary, especially if your wallpaper has been painted over or is vinyl. The little holes allow the magic of the next step to work.

(2) Soak the paper with a solution of DIF using this, liberally. Keep soaking. More soaking, less scraping. DIF has an enzyme that eats wallpaper paste. It's almost as much fun as using paint stripper on old woodwork, except it doesn't cause cancer.

(3) When it's time to scrape, don't even think of using anything but something like this to scrape with. Get the kind with replaceable, razor-sharp blades. You may cut yourself, but bleeding a little is preferable to unneeded scraping.

In sum, better wallpaper removal through chemistry and physics.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

More on the Young and the Restless

The NYT has another story about the fierce competition for young talent that cities like Greensboro are waging:

Mobile but not flighty, fresh but technologically savvy, “the young and restless,” as demographers call them, are at their most desirable age, particularly because their chances of relocating drop precipitously when they turn 35. Cities that do not attract them now will be hurting in a decade.

“It’s a zero-sum game,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, noting that one city’s gain can only be another’s loss. “These are rare and desirable people.”

They are people who, demographers say, are likely to choose a location before finding a job. They like downtown living, public transportation and plenty of entertainment options. They view diversity and tolerance as marks of sophistication.

The problem for cities, says Richard Florida, a public policy professor at George Mason University who has written about what he calls “the creative class,” is that those cities that already have a significant share of the young and restless are in the best position to attract more.

“There are a dozen places, at best, that are becoming magnets for these people,” Mr. Florida said.

Then Greensboro had best get busy marketing itself to woo these desirable young people, right? No.

What we’re seeing is the jury of the most skeptical age group in America has looked at Atlanta’s character and likes it,” Sam A. Williams, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, said.

But Mr. Williams acknowledged the difficulty of replicating that phenomenon on purpose.

Had the chamber tried to advertise Atlanta, he said, “we might have screwed it up —because they’re much more trusting of their own network than they are of any marketing campaign.”

“You can’t fake it here,” he said. “You either do it or you don’t.”

Similar sentiments have recently been voiced locally in the comments at Hoggard's blog.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Stripping Wallpaper

"I hate that color."

That's what I said when we first looked at this house, and my opinion didn't change after we moved in 13 years ago. I think it's called Dark Persian Rose.

But we didn't get around to removing it in this room until now, because it had been painted on top of three layers of wallpaper, and we knew that underneath it lay some serious plaster repair.
But the moment is now. We had at it with spray bottles, sponges, scoring tools, and scrapers for about seven hours today. It's a messy job.

This is what we accomplished today:

At least someone got to relax.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Providence or Luck

The afternoon plan was for me to put the turkey in the oven at 3, then the whole family would enjoy the new Bond film while it was roasting. We spent the morning in the kitchen making mashed potatoes, sweet and otherwise, and a pumpkin pie.

We made it to the theater, but just as the Rocky MCMXVII trailer was ending, daughter II whispered to me, "I think I left my hair straightener on, lying on my dresser." No way I could sit through a movie thinking about that.

Good thing, too, although she hadn't left it on. The convection oven cooked our oversized turkey about twice as fast as predicted, so I was taking this picture of it at about the time James was probably enjoying the pleasure of some satin sheets with a friend in his suite at Casino Royale.

Now, how do I keep the dogs from eating the turkey while I pick the family up at the theater?

Happy Thanksgiving From the South Pole

My cousin Dan Wharton sent me this photo of himeself, along with this message: "Greetings and continued optimism from the bottom of the World! Happy

He's down there doing software support for the University of Wisconsin's Ice Cube research project, which is hunting the elusive neutrino.

He's a very cool guy -- in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

New Look

Since I recently passed the two-year mark writing this blog, I thought it was time for a little home renovation.

Hope you like the look. Let me know if it causes you any problems in reading.

Two things strike me after I've fiddled with the HTML for a couple of hours:

(1) Christmas is coming!

(2) These are the same colors I painted my house.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"You've Had Your Fun, Now Pay For It."*

I've spent the last couple of years quietly gloating to myself about the fun I have driving my scooter to work, and chuckling inwardly (ok, sometimes not so inwardly) when gas prices rose to near $3 a gallon, whileI was getting 80 mpg on my Kymco ZX50 Super Fever.

But the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, and this afternoon I had to drive home in 30 mph winds and 38-degree-Fahrenheit driving rain.

Do you know what cold raindrops feel like when they hit your face at 60 mph?

Flying needles!

*The headline quotation is from Disney's Pinnochio, when the boys on Pleasure Island are turned to donkeys.

Scientism, Old and New

This afternoon, after I finished teaching my (sparsely-attended, pre-Thanksgiving) Ancient Cosmology class about the atomic, materialist philosophy of Titus Lucretius Carus, I couldn't help but have a plus ├ža change feeling when I came across two articles on the web as I ate my lunch.

The first of them wins the good headline of the day award ("Think Tank Will Promote Thinking"), and it starts out like this:

… a group of prominent scientists and advocates of strict church-state separation yesterday announced formation of a Washington think tank designed to promote "rationalism" as the basis of public policy …. The brainchild of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry-Transnational, the small public policy office will lobby and sometimes litigate on behalf of science-based decision making and against religion in government affairs.
Then there was this from the Times, in a story about a conference on science and religion::
Dr. Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on cosmology, “The First Three Minutes,” that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” went a step further: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”
People tend to believe (I think) that this kind of passionate commitment to rational empiricism, in opposition to religious thought, is something new. But it's not. Here's Lucretius (in my own rather free and abridged translation), writing in the 1st century BC::
When human life lay sordidly prostrate over all the earth, oppressed by religion's heavy weight – religion, which reared its head with a horrifying face, glowering from the heavens at mortals – a Greek man, a mortal, dared to raise his eyes and oppose it, and neither the reports of angry gods, nor threatened lightning bolts and thunder could stop him. Instead, they pushed him on to greater efforts, and the power of his supple mind conquered the secrets of the universe … and so religion in turn is crushed beneath his feet, and in his victory he raises us to the stars. (De Rerum Natura I.62-79):
Lucretius was writing about his hero Epicurus, whose materialist philosophy is remarkably similar in some ways to that of the people quoted above, and of others like them such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.

Like the modern materialists, Lucretius was passionately dedicated to spreading the truth of his philosophy, and to explaining how it explains everything. Also, like the modern materialists, he was not very successful at persuading most people that he was right, and that was probably a source of great frustration to him. St. Jerome reports that Lucretius eventually killed himself (though the veracity of that information is doubtful; Jerome, the translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, was quite hostile to pagan atheistic materialists).

What's interesting to me, though, is that I think Lucretius understood the ethical implications of a purely materialist philosophy somewhat better than his modern progeny do. Lucretius's Epicurean ethics told him that pleasure was the highest good that a human living in such a cosmos could attain to, and true Epicureans retreated from the world of politics and public life, knowing that those pursuits are not only pointless but inherently painful.

The idea that those who know about the physical processes and laws governing the universe should be able to impart any policy advice about war and peace, wealth and poverty, or any of those other transitory states of affairs that arise from the random interactions of atoms in the great void, would be purely laughable to Lucretius.

And I wonder: if Dr. Weinberg is correct about the pointlessness of the universe, what is the meaning of a concept like a "great contribution to civilization?" In an infinite, material universe, the activities of human beings during a minute interval of time, on the surface of an infinitesimally small bit of cosmic debris, amount to precisely nothing. So if Dr. Weinberg's position is something like, "life and the universe are essentially pointless, but nevertheless you need to get on board with my meaningless program for civilization," it shouldn't be very surprising to him if a lot of people take a pass.

It also doesn't help the scientists' case that some of the great public policy disasters of the 20th century, like "scientific" Marxism, ended up killing more people than a thousand Spanish Inquisitions. Other, "science"-based programs like eugenics, simply make us shudder and avert our eyes.

It's not that I'm anti-science. I LOVE science. I'm enthralled with modern cosmology, and loved studying physics and biology in school. And I think that the government should listen closely to the best scientists it can find.

But what does a scientist, qua scientist, have to say about the value of free speech, or the right to a trial by one's peers, or the right to bear arms, or the right of assembly, or the right to practice my religion freely?

Precisely nothing.

And if Richard Dawkins were in charge, I think he'd take that last one away.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


According to the N&R, the Greensboro city council is contemplating paying about a third of a million dollars to purchase horses for a downtown mounted patrol, and another third of a million every year to pay for the mounted officers and care of the horses.

That's $650,000 in the first year, and $300,000 a year thereafter for extra police protection in a low-crime area, because downtown property owners and merchants are afraid that something bad might happen.

But there are plenty of areas in Greensboro where bad things are happening, and the council hasn't been talking about increased police protection for them. And this is going on just a week after a building-maintenance bond failed with the voters, saddling the council with some expensive budget items in the upcoming fiscal year.

Can anyone provide a reasonable explanation of this obvious disparity in the proposed distribution of law enforcement resources?

Because it looks to me like upper-middle class council members want to spend scarce law enforcement dollars on people who are like them with respect to race, class, and social connections, and are ignoring people who are different from them in those respects.
Update: Councilman Tom Phillips writes in the comments, "The Council to my knowledge is not considering this. The first N&R article indicated that it was Mike Barber's idea, but he immediately denied it. I was surprised to see that there would be a demonstration on Friday and I don't know who is pushing this. The Mayor may like it, but I can't imagine this having any momentum."
Update II: Councilwoman Sandy Carmany concurs: "I echo Tom's statement - city council as a whole has NOT discussed this Only one, Mike Barber, has mentioned it, but as Tom noted, Mike says it wasn't his idea. My opinion? If the downtown business district folks want to use THEIR extra tax collections on a horse patrol, that's fine with me, but pay for it out of the city's general fund when we have so many other needs, NO WAY!"
That's good news.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Flyover County

Guilford County, that is.

I was reminded by a story in this morning's newspaper that FedEx will soon be opening a hub here in Greensboro.

I recently took the photo above of the FedEx Institute of Technology in Memphis, where FedEx has a huge hub. At 4 in the afternoon, it wasn't hard to get shot of it with a FedEx jet flying over, because one was leaving the airport about every two minutes. At other times of the day I didn't notice so many.

But when the jets were flying, they were loud and noticeable. FedEx will definitely make a dent in the quality of life for people living near the airport in Greensboro.
Here they come ...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Percy Walker Discovers Richard Florida

Greensboro's most charming billionaire writes,

Fact: The average income of adult gays is $53,500 (compared with $32,000 for the general population).With that kind of brain power and economic clout, shouldn't we be recruiting more gays to move here? Yes, we should! ...

First, get the NC legislature to pass pro-same-sex marriage legislation. Second, offer $100,000 to every gay that moves to Guilford County ($50,000 if they are only bisexual).
Ed Cone wryly calls this a "bold new plan." Bold, yes!

But it's not new. Economic development maven Richard Florida has been saying for years that gays are an important part of the "creative class," and constantly emphasizes that communities who want to keep up in the information-based global economy need to be friendly to gays. He wrote in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class,
My list of the country's high-tech hot spots looked an awful lot like [Gary Gates's] list of the places with highest concentrations of gay people. When we compared these two lists with more statistical rigor, his Gay Index turned out to correlate very strongly to my own measures of high-tech growth. Other measures I came up with, like the Bohemian Index---a measure of artists, writers, and performers---produced similar results.
Action Greensboro has been pursuing the "attract the creative class" strategy already for several years with the formation of its SynerG group, "an active organization that supports progressive cultural and policy-based initiatives in order to help build a city that is dynamic, vibrant, and diverse."

But other recent news from Greensboro shows that Percy and SynerG have their work cut out for them.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Does Anybody Like the New Harris Teeter in the Shops at Friendly?

Update: The N&R's Lorraine Ahearn went shopping too, and feels about as I do: she calls the new store the "Trump Taj Mateter."

I went to the new HT this afternoon (Sunday) at about 5, along with about 5,000 other people.

It seems clear that HT is trying to capitalize on its upscale customer base in its new incarnation. The expanded wine gallery takes up a lot of real estate in the middle of the store, the prepared foods section is greatly expanded in size and variety, and the produce area is huge, with more kinds of exotic produce than you could find in the old store.

But despite all the square footage, I felt cramped in the new store. They've hung a ton of junk from the industrial-style ceiling, such as fake pergolas in the wine section and over the check-out counters. And instead of two-dimensional signs for the aisles, they've hung large cubes decorated with heavy cornices and fluted columns, which just seemed kind of bizarre to me. (Are they flying Greek temples?) All of this makes for a lot of visual clutter that kind of presses in on you.

Maybe it's because the store was so crowded while I was there, but the aisles felt narrower than in the old store, and navigating them with a shopping cart was sometimes annoying. I stopped once to let a woman merge into cart traffic and she said, unbidden, "this store is giving me an ulcer."

I asked the checkout staff what people were saying about the store, and they said the most common word they heard was "overwhelming."

The overall quality of food and service still seem to be excellent, however, which is why most people shop there.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Murder and Property Maintenance

This evening I attended the prayer vigil that Ben Holder organized for murder victim Lavelle Williams and her children, two of whom were wounded in the attack.

Ben believes that poor property maintenance contributed to the murder. He told me that a third of the Madison Park Apartments are unoccupied and unsecured. I can't verify that, but he did show me the apartment next to the murder scene, which was lacking any kind of deadbolt to keep vagrants out -- there was just a hole in the door where a deadbolt should be.

If the alleged murderer got access to the victims, as Ben believes, by squatting in a nearby unsecured apartment where he could observe the family, at the same time staying under the law-enforcement radar (since the accused suspect is a convicted sex offender), then I think the property management firm is probably criminally negligent.

The whole situation reminds me of a conversation (more like a confrontation, really) that I had with a representative of TREBIC when the city was considering adopting an ordinance to require rental properties to be inspected on a regular basis. TREBIC opposed the ordinance.

When I said that good property maintenance was important in neighborhoods that are plagued by crime, and help to prevent it, the TREBIC representative said "that's just an aesthetic issue."

Well, no, it isn't. A mother of three is dead and two of her daughters were wounded, and it looks like responsible property management might have prevented it.

Ben is going after this case like a bulldog. I wouldn't want to be the owners of the Madison Park Apartments right now.

But they at least are better off than Lavelle Williams and her family.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006


Well, then.

Not only did the World War Memorial Stadium bond go down to defeat this evening, it went down in flames. As of 10:45 p.m. tonight, it received a lower percentage of votes than did any of the other 10 bonds on the referendum: 37% voted in favor, 63% against.


I spent most of the evening at a bond-referendum election-night get-together at the War Memorial Auditorium (whose bond also went down to defeat).

It was a providential blessing for me that the Greensboro Symphony happened to be rehearsing Verdi's Requiem in the auditorium, as the bond promoters watched the election results in the lobby.

I slipped into the back row, and listened in the dark to that solemn, sweet, and sad requiem as I said goodbye.

Vote Today!

Almost exactly 80 years ago today, on Armistice Day, November 11, 1926, Mayor Edwin Jeffress dedicated World War Memorial Stadium with these words:
And so the stadium has been built by children’s and widows’ and wives’ and rich men’s wealth. It is here for the use of the coming generations; the soldier boys said they wanted no hollow granite, no useless monument to decorate our street corners, even no statuary or brass to remind us of those who have passed along after doing life’s full duty, but they wanted something that would be useful; that would help develop mind and body; that would in this way be a perpetual memorial to those who have passed…, that those of us who follow should use our best efforts to make ourselves physically fit to answer any emergency;…; and when the call to duty comes, answer with a clear, strong voice, “We are ready to do our bit”
I'm heading out now to vote in favor of the War Memorial Stadium bond. Hope you will, too, Greensboro.

Monday, November 6, 2006

The Power of Public Spaces

You can't study the culture of Rome without being struck by how much the Romans built and used public spaces like theaters, baths, parks, temples, arenas, and monuments. Roman cities are littered with that stuff, and a lot of it is still standing in Europe.

The spaces were well used. Prof. Herbert Bernario gave a nice talk at CAMWS about how ordinary Romans used public parks like the Camps Martius for exercise: wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, boxing, and riding for young men; ball-playing, walking, and swimming for everybody, including the elderly. Even Cicero had a workout routine.

The public baths also provided space for exercise as well as personal hygiene. They were a sort of ancient YMCA with free, or very cheap, admission.

The Campus Martius was scattered with all kinds of public monuments of a civic kind, such as the Ara Pacis in the Age of Augustus, so that as people did their daily workouts they were reminded of their own history and national accomplishments.

Putting aside the highly political nature of what got built in Rome, especially after the fall of the Republic, it strikes me that we don't use our public spaces very well, and that we're not building them even up to earlier American standards.

Rather, we've turned the building of public spaces over to private developers, and have replaced the forum and the agora with the mall and the lifestyle center.

Malls are nice things to have, but abandoning the public sphere entirely to private developers deprives us of opportunities to come together as a civic body to express our common ideals. We lose chances to remind and educate ourselves about our own culture and accomplishments, both local and national.

These are the kinds of thoughts that are on my mind as I get ready to vote on Greensboro's bond issues.

Sunday, November 5, 2006


Ed Cone wrote a good rant about iPods, cellphones, DVD players in cars, and the virtues of silence, contemplation, and conversation.

Those last three are all good things, but so can the first three be, if used in the right way.

The title of this post is Greek for "nothing too much," which was inscribed on the entrance to Apollo's temple at Delphi (along with GNWTHI SEAUTON, "know yourself," another pretty good piece of advice).

Like Ed, I prefer to run in silence through Country Park; I resent annoying, public phone conversations; I enjoy car conversations with kids.

But there's nothing like Rachmaninoff's Vespers for contemplative bedtime listening when your spouse is already asleep; there's nothing wrong with the kids enjoying Elizabeth Bennet's rejection of Darcy's proposal during a long car trip; and there's nothing like a cellphone when you're trying to juggle the schedules of two working adults and three teenaged children.


Saturday, November 4, 2006

Elvis, Ribs, and John's Taxi

Yesterday some friends and I skipped the afternoon session of CAMWS and headed for Graceland. After lunching on Elvis's favorite sandwich (fried banana and peanut butter) we climbed on the shuttle bus with the other pilgrims for the economy tour of the hero's shrine.

There was plenty there to sneer at (if you wanted to) in terms of tackiness, kitsch, and just flat-out bad taste, but I found that I kind of liked the house, and would certainly have enjoyed living in it when I was a kid in the 70's. In fact it seemed to me like it had been decorated by a kid who was decorating just to please himself and his friends.

Though I've never been a huge fan of The King, I left Graceland with a real affection for the sweetness and simplicity of his personality. As Ed Sullivan said, "this is a real nice, good boy."

Afterwards, a friend and I hired John's Taxi to go out for ribs. The taxi ride was better than the ribs; it turned out that John the taxi driver is John Baker, who ran in the 1994 Tennessee Republican primary against Fred Thompson and lost, though he got 35% of the vote. and won east Tennessee.

He told us some good stories about Fred and about Tennessee politics, but it would be unseemly to repeat them.

The ribs at Rendezvous were disappointing. Maybe I just don't like the dry-rub style of cooking them, but they were dry and a bit tough, though the rub spices were tasty.

But that's OK; the ribs were just the background to dinner with an old friend, a great scholar and a superb conversationalist, who occasionally writes reviews for the Weekly Standard, even though he's a thorough Democrat.

After that, another taxi ride with John back to the hotel.

A good day.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Welcome to America's Distribution Center

That's what's on the big sign over the main concourse in the Memphis, TN airport.

OK, then -- that slogan's taken. I guess Greensboro will have to keep looking for a good branding phrase. Hope the Memphians didn't pay the consultants too much for that one.

I'm at the University of Memphis, about a $20 taxi ride from the airport, and when I went for a walk at about 4 p.m. this afternoon, there was hardly a moment when I couldn't hear and see a FedEx jet in the sky.

I asked a student if the jets fly over all the time like that. "Yes, they do."

Anynow, I'm here for this, and I'll be talking about color terminology in Latin on Saturday.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Did The N&R Do Its Homework?

Mr. Sun wonders in his comments at Hoggard's whether the N&R editorial board did sufficient research before making its bond endorsements. I'll add to his list with a few more questions about how the board went about researching its decision regarding WWMS.
  • Did the N&R read the nomination document of the stadium to National Register of Historic Places in order to find out what makes it historically significant?
  • Did the N&R read the Sutton-Kennerly engineering report on the structual decay of the stadium to find out whether it needs more than a "facelift"?
  • Did the N&R read the stadium task force's report on the recommended best uses of the stadium before doubting publicly that it will be used much?
  • Did the N&R read the report produced by Walter Robbs Calahan Pierce for the city, detailing three possible renovation scenarios?
  • Did the N&R talk to anyone in the department of Parks and Recreation, the Greensboro Sports Commission, or anyone from NCA&T, Greensboro College, or the Pony and Palomino leagues about how much they use the stadium?
The wording of their non-endorsement indicates to me that they didn't do any of these things.

If they didn't, then I have to I wonder, in the words of a friend who emailed me, "What do they do in these editorial meetings if not assemble facts?"

And is this the level of research they did for the rest of the bonds?