Saturday, April 28, 2007

Wag the Dog Right

One of the most e-mailed NY Times stories this week was one about dogs' tail-wagging habits. Apparently, if your dog likes you, he'll wag his tail to the right. If he doesn't, he'll wag it to the left.

Since I am a dog nut and the owner of two Belgian Malinois shepherd dogs, this paragraph caught my eye.

When the dogs saw their owners, their tails all wagged vigorously with a bias to the right side of their bodies, Dr. Vallortigara said. Their tails wagged moderately, again more to the right, when faced with an unfamiliar human. Looking at the cat, a four-year-old male whose owners volunteered him for the experiment, the dogs’ tails again wagged more to the right but in a lower amplitude. When the dogs looked at an aggressive, unfamiliar dog — a large Belgian shepherd Malinois — their tails all wagged with a bias to the left side of their bodies.
I just don't get that. How could you not wag right for a face like this?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

And Now for a Little Sublimity

After a bit of absurdity (see previous post), sometimes it's nice to have a bit of sublimity.

Here's Glenn Gould playing Bach. No commentary necessary.

Monday, April 23, 2007

National Poetry Month Smackdown

National Poetry Month is almost over, which means it must be time for me to call Mr. Sun out for a poetry smackdown. Let's start with a limerick.

Sun's been served with a rhyming subpoena
to compete in the poet's arena.
Though he'll try to contend,
he will fail in the end,
'Cause he rhymes like a drooling hyena.
This is going to be easy, because he's getting lazy -- all he does is post music videos from YouTube on his blog.

Previous entries.

Update: Uh, oh. Mr. Sun thinks he's coming on strong, attacking my hobbies and profession:

Classics and historic preservation
For Wharton, are the path to elation
To the past, he is tethered
To the last, he has treasured
Ancient forms of self-gratification
The cocoon of your ivory tower
Is a womb for your false sense of power
With delusions of grandeur
You come at me to slander
Hear me, Wharton: this Sun will not cower!
Not bad. Some good moves in there. But now let's switch forms. Haiku!
Debbie and Swiss Miss
spelling bee teenaged girl
Sun is so lonely
Update II: Sun writes, As you wish. You are no match for my crane-style haiku. Your Master did not teach you as well as my Master taught me. Your Master is lame. My Master is like when Butch Harmon was teaching Tiger Woods, and I'm talking about at the very peak of his fame. My Master is red hot and you're Master ain't diddly squat. We sit around and laugh at your Master, sometimes calling him names and questioning his skills as a lover. You think you have stung me, but soon you will experience the pain of my stanzas of fury!

As long as we're talking about jobs, Sun ...
In a tall glass box
Talk to people on the phone
I am important
And you know what else? I've met Butch Harmon. Butch Harmon gave golf lessons to members of my family. Butch Harmon and me and members of my family sit around and have drinks in the clubhouse and play rummy and we don't laugh about you -- we don't even think about you.

Update III: Sun comes back with some hard shots to the head!
See my soul, do you?
No. What you see is rubber
What you are is glue

When we meet for lunch,
and you arrive on
scooter -
I die a little

Why do I vex you?
Is it my thick head of hair?
Oh yes, I
went there

Let me take my gloves off for a moment, and reflect:

We are proud of this
What does that say about us?
Something bad, I bet
OK, one last response from me, and it's going to be the knockout punch:

Last night I had a dream
When I got to town
I had a hell of a rumble!
I had to beat Sun's big behind
for claiming to be king of the jungle!
For this fight
I rassled with alligators
I tussled with the whale
I done handcuffed lightnin
And put thunder in jail!
You know I'm so bad
I have murdered a rock,
I injured a stone
and I hospitalized a brick!
I'm so bad I make medicine sick!
I'm so fast man
I can run through a hurricane
and don't get wet!
When Mr. Sun meets me,
he will pay his debt!
I can drown a drink of water
and kill a dead tree!
Wait til you see ...

Uh, damn. I didn't write any of that. This guy did. Sun has bested me in a contest of the dozens. I'm throwing in the towel for this year.
But I'm still hot.
I'm hot 'cause I'm fly
and you ain't 'cause you not.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Dogs Are Good

From today's WSJ (subscription required):

After decades of jogging with friends, colleagues and loved ones, I've come to see that the ideal running mate is a dog. She is not competitive. Your fastest speed is nothing next to hers, so you will never run too fast for her. But neither will she whine about, let alone ridicule, your slowness. The only time she will complain is when you don't run at all, and that type of push is what personal trainers charge money for . . . .

A canine jogging companion can confer health benefits beyond the lift to your workout regimen. A body of scientific evidence shows that pet ownership can protect health. A pet can decrease blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and improve mood, among other benefits, says the Web site of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . . . .

The sheer pleasure that dogs take in running can remind performance-obsessed humans what's really important.
I agree!

Tears and Sadness

I have friends at Virginia Tech who are safe, tearful, and very, very sad. Deepest condolences for the families and friends of those who were lost.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Ordinance Goes To Council

Update (4/18): The ordinance described below was adopted. Hats off to city staff in the HCD and Planning departments, members of GNC and TREBIC who worked in good faith to work out the language, and to city council for voting for it.

The city council Tuesday will have a public hearing, and probably a vote, on an ordinance to allow the creation of Neighborhood Conservation Overlays (NCO) in Greensboro. City staff and various citizen groups, including the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and TREBIC, have been working through compromise language on this ordinance for many months.

The ordinance, if passed, would allow older neighborhoods to develop their own infill development standards regarding things like building height, roof forms, and setbacks, but not the underlying zoning category. The aim of the standards is to prevent new construction that is out of harmony with the traditional character of the neighborhood. In that respect, they would function much like the restrictive covenants that are built into most new developments.

Once the neighborhoods developed these standards, any new construction would be reviewed by city staff to make sure it meets them before any permits are issued; they wouldn't involve an extra layer of review such as the architectural review committees active in most new developments, or such as the Historic Preservation Commission in Greensboro's historic districts.

TREBIC representatives have fought hard both to weaken the kinds of restrictions that can be allowed in NCOs and to make it difficult for neighborhoods to initiate the process and bring a new NCO to a public hearing. The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress has fought hard to give neighborhoods wider powers in the kinds of regulations they can enact and to make it easier for neighborhoods to get a public hearing.

Some distressed neighborhoods have expressed interest in drafting NCOs, notably Glenwood and the Cedar Street area. Cedar Street is under development pressure because it's so near downtown.

But I hear secondhand that the ordinance also has considerable support from people in Greensboro's most prestigious neighborhood, Irving Park, which has experienced some tear-downs recently. What gets rebuilt in neighborhoods like that is often is out of scale with the surrounding streetscape, as the socially ambitious buy small lots, tear down the small houses on them, and put up houses that are out of synch in terms of architectural style and scale (read: big mcmansions on small lots).

[I recently heard two well-connected folks talking about one of these; one described a new "piece of crap" that had been built in Irving Park. The other said, "how can you call a $2 million house a piece of crap"? The reply: "it's $2 million worth of crap."]

However, if the ordinance passes as written, it will be very difficult for Glenwood and Cedar Street, and neighborhoods like them, to use it. TREBIC has lobbied successfully to make sure that no NCO proposal can even get a public hearing unless more than 50% of property owners sign a petition in favor of this.

Since most of the property owners in such neighborhoods are often absentee landlords who usually have no interest in restricting their property rights, it's highly unlikely that these neighborhoods will be able to gather enough signatures ever to get an NCO developed and passed.

That means if the ordinance passes as proposed, it will probably help the people in Irving Park, but not the people in Glenwood or Cedar Street.

I think council should pass an amended ordinance that allows a public hearing on a proposed NCO without the petition; if after the hearing the majority of property owners don't want it, then turn it down. But give the middle and working classes a chance to have the same neighborhood protections that most better-off people have.

Sigourney Weaver vs. David Attenborough

Sam got us watching Planet Earth on Discovery HD, and it is visually amazing. The crew went to incredible lengths to get shots that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes shocking. Watching acres of cranes fly over wetlands is inspiring; watching jungle chimps eating one of their slain enemies is . . . well, you know. Same for repeated slo-mo shots of crocs biting wildebeests.

But the focus of the show is very much on the visuals. Real science content is thin, and unfortunately Sigourney Weaver's narration is nearly affectless. I was hoping for at least a snicker from her during the segment where an invasive fungus infects an ant, and then pops out of its head "like some alien from outer space," but she played it deadpan.

I miss David Attenborough. When our kids were very small, we taped his Living Planet on VHS, and the recording quality was horrible, since we didn't have cable and our reception was rotten. Still, we watched it a few times before the tapes deteriorated, because Attenborough had the gift of being able to communicate the excitement of science and the abstract beauty of biological systems without actually filming anything very spectacular.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Solving the Prius Problem

There's a problem with our Prius, but not with its performance. It gives us just what we expected in that department: great gas mileage, good fit and finish, Toyota reliability.

The problem is what people think of you if you drive one. Everyone assumes you're a pious, self-righteous eco-puritan Democrat, which I am not (even though Al Gore can kiss my carbon footprint). We bought our Prius more for foreign policy reasons than environmental ones.

It didn't help when one of Sam's mischievous school friends painted Democrat and Feminist on the back window. Filling up at the Wal-Mart gas pump that day was a little uncomfortable.

But anyhow, I think we've solved the problem. (Note: the problem-solver is a little hard to read, so I enlarged it and inset it in the lower left corner).

Rockin' F!

We used to turn up our noses at frozen meat, but since we stopped shopping the big H, we've been exploring other options. Our favorite so far is beef from the Rocking F Farms in Climax, NC, which we buy at the Greensboro Farmers' Curb Market

Their frozen hamburger patties are, mmm, beefy, with a a depth of flavor you don't get in store-bought beef. Nice texture and deep, reddish-brown color, too. The lady at the market told me that it's not organic beef, but it's grass-fed and then finished with corn.

It's a lot different from the midwestern corn-fed filet mignon that I had in Cincinnati a couple of nights ago, which was so tender and light that it was almost like eating beef-flavored cheesecake.

Both are good!

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Nose Hairs of the City

WFMY news picked up the lead story from my neighborhood's newsletter and it led on the 11 p.m. news a a few days ago. It was about how we dealt with a panhandler who was knocking on people's doors at all hours of the night.

I was tempted to call the reporter and let fly with some profanity: why didn't he cover the fact that we recently completed an extensive corridor study for Summit Avenue? Or that one of our neighbors won a historic preservation award? Or that we've started a yard-of-the-month beautification contest? Or that we supported the rezoning of one of our properties so that it can become a communal care facility for retirees?

But that's just the way of local news. If it bleeds -- or, in our case, if there is some remote possibility that someone might think about bleeding-- it leads.

Actually, the panhandling problem had been solved for weeks by the time WFMY got hold of the story, and I think the way we solved it is noteworthy.

We have a neighborhood listserv to which most of our homeowners and some of our renters subscribe. When the panhandler in question started bothering people, emails started hitting the listserv fast and furious, with a description of the guy, his car, his m.o., and his licence plate. Our community resource officer, who also is subscribed, weighed in with advice about what to do (short version: don't open your door, offer to call social services if the person is asking for money, call the police).

The neighborhood association put much of this information in the neighborhood newsletter for the neighbors who aren't on the listserv.

The police started tracking down the owner of the car in question, and the guy was gone in short order. The whole episode is a great illustration of how neighborhoods are using technology to help solve their problems.

But I don't suppose the WFMY story did our neighborhood much good in terms of public perceptions. Plenty of people will see that and think that we live in a bad neighborhood.

I understand why a lot of people prefer to live in a "good" neighborhood, if by "good" you mean one where panhandlers and petty criminals never make an appearance.

But I hope people will remember that neighborhoods like mine (and Greensboro has a lot of them) are to some extent running interference for the rest of the city. Or, as my neighbor put it, we're the "nose hairs of the city," filtering out problems before they infect the rest of the body.

And if a "good" neighborhood is one where good people live, I'll put mine up against any neighborhood anywhere.

Netherland Plaza

I'm in Cincinnati for this, staying at the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel.

It is the most well-preserved and maintained Art Deco hotel that I've ever seen. Somehow it escaped the hands of stupid renovators over the years.

Bonus for Graecophiles: the ceiling of its Palm Court restaurant has paintings of Apollo and Artemis. In fact, the entire restaurant (formerly the lobby) has preserved intricate metal, wood, and ceramic decorations that are just breathtaking (click picture to enlarge):

(Photo from Chris Glass, who also links to this article.)

If you're staying in Cincinnati and love Art Deco, you will love this hotel.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks!

The N&R editorial board this morning made a thinly-veiled, vicious attack on me.

(Just kidding, Allen and Doug.)

But this morning's lead editorial was a rather oddly-worded attempted refutation of my earlier post about parks. I say "oddly-worded" because, even though their piece is obviously a point-by-point response to the arguments I made against a new park at Southside, the questions I raised are attributed to vaguely specified persons in the editorial: "Some wonder ...", "But won't these parks ...?" etc.

Narratological issues aside, I don't think the editors make a very compelling case for the Southside park, largely because they don't address the fundamental problem of park planning that Jane Jacobs discusses -- namely, how to create a dense and economically diverse neighborhood around the park. Nor do they take into account the current abundance of parks already in the area, and their closing argument is just a restatement of the fallacy that Parks are Good, supported only by a little Joni Mitchell nostalgia.

The south end of downtown, especially south of MLK Boulevard, is pretty sleepy, and few of the existing buildings there can accommodate much housing. A park there will do nothing to increase intensity of activity, which is the sine qua non of a good urban area.

The editors say the new park will be for "socializing," but you don't need a park to do that; Southside has good sidewalks, shops, and a nice square with a fountain that can easily accommodate that kind of informal activity. I visit that square frequently, but I've never seen anyone in it. If that little square is usually empty, what does that say about the need for a whole park?

I wonder, too, whether the N&R staff has actually looked at a map of the existing parks in that area. Here's one I made for their benefit:

All these parks (existing and proposed) are within a half-mile radius of Southside. Really now, how many parks do you need? And how much are they now used? Take a look at some photos I took of Douglas Park, just a few blocks from Southside, at lunchtime on a sunny, warm spring day.

It's a beautiful, empty park.

The N&R editors, along with the Piedmont Land Conservancy, also stress the need for green space in the center city, writing as if there isn't much of it. In fact, that was the rationale for establishing the now-under-construction park in the Ole Asheboro neighborhood, which is adjacent to Southside and downtown. Here are some photos I took of the area within one block of that new park.

Now, it's not pretty green space, but my point is that this area has way too much under-used land. This area needs buildings, economic activity, and people -- not more parks. (I note in passing that the new Ole Asheboro park does not seem to conform to the park planning principles in the city's Ole Asheboro Redevelopment Plan.)

The current push for new downtown parks is coming from well-meaning nature-lovers and suburbanites, who seem not to understand that central city, suburb, and country are, and should be, very different kinds of places. An abundance of green space and nature has never been a defining feature of successful urban spaces. Have a look at the urban landscape of Florence, Italy, one of the world's best cities:

Notice that the people in these pictures are not hanging out in the small amount of green space available. They are on sidewalks and in squares (which they share with cars, bikes, and scooters), and they are there because of the many cultural and commercial amenities that Florence offers.

The N&R editors write, "There's a lot more to a vibrant downtown than asphalt and brick." Absolutely. Vibrant downtowns have a critical mass of people whose activity and creativity conjure a rich culture that includes business, food, art, music, markets, drama, architecture, dance, festivals -- you name it. A good downtown is indeed a paved paradise. You don't need a park for any of it.

Putting another park at Southside is simply the dullest and least creative solution to the problem of what to do with an empty space in downtown Greensboro.