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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 980 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 16 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

A bit sluggish for my liking so we’ll have to up the ante in 2015.  Happy holidays to all!


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“Discovering” the poor?

Jacqueline Novogratz, The Blue Sweater, Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Rodale, 2009.

This book is an interesting example of the oddness of this project – from time to time, I pick up a text that is either on the shelf or near one, and I can’t figure out its provenance.  So, it will sit for awhile in one place or another (The Blue Sweater has been in at least three places over the last 7 months) until such time as I investigate it.  Being away from my office today, picked it up from current location (just below two pieces of fiction, one of which I have read, the other I didn’t feel like reading) and started it on it this morning.

Ms. Novogratz worked as a banker for a few of years before working with UNICEF and the World Bank.  Eventually, she founded Acumen Fund, a venture capital outfit based on a concept entitled “patient capital.”  This concept has been described as a “bridge” of sorts between the traditional “efficiency and scale” of markets and philanthropic efforts.  Essentially, the idea is to invest in philanthropic efforts, hoping for an eventual return, over a long time run.  There will be, in other words, both a return on the investment (accountability) and a thoughtful sustainability to the philanthropy.  An example of this work in action is Water Health International which began as a relatively small investment opportunity for Acumen ($600,000) and has moved towards $30,000,000 in capital raised over the past nine years, all while providing access to safe drinking water (initially in rural India).  I noted that the company has developed a project in Ghana as well, with some help from Coca Cola.  This fact begs a question – given that water has an economic value, and soda uses a tremendous amount of water, is this an odd relationship?  I wonder, but I digress.

In the opening segments of the book, Novogratz expresses her firm belief that poverty can be eliminated, while also offering some thoughts on her own family’s experience as poor people and immigrants.  Novogratz suggests that people should truly be treated as equals in a connected world.  We are human beings and by providing opportunities and choices, we can provide each other with dignity in our lives.  She emphasizes that this is not her story per se (though much of the text is first person) but rather a collection of the stories from others, including monks, genocide survivors, young women, the elderly, etc (xi – xiv).  Also early in the text, Novogratz gives us the reason for her title, The Blue Sweater, in an intriguing and almost unbelievable story of globalism based on a childhood gift, donated to Goodwill, and found by her randomly on a young boy in Kigali, Rwanda some 11 years after she gave it away herself.

Some readers may not enjoy the memoir style quality of Novogratz’ narrative, but in terms of offering readers a personal touch, this tone and content can be effective.  It is particularly moving and arresting in any of the many sections in which she discusses Rwanda and the horrors that befell this nation in 1994.  It was in response to the Rwandan genocide that Novogratz “concentrated on understanding the potential of philanthropy to effect change in the world” (153).  She emphasized that this terrible violence visited upon Rwanda reminded her how accountability and interconnectedness were both important – given opportunities, people will believe in change and their ability to make improvements in their lives. 

The sheer volume of anecdotes and memories of her time before and after creating the Acumen Fund may overwhelm some readers as well, though again, some can be particularly instructive.  For example, Water Health International, I learned, provided water to people in 15-liter plastic containers which I found problematic.  Plastic, and its production, can have toxic consequences.  In this case however, the problem was when people would place the clean water into contaminated clay pitchers.  As I would have hoped, the response was not to eliminate the clay, which had cultural connections and importance, but rather improve education on how the clay containers needed to be sanitized prior to use (270).

Finally, I appreciate Novogratz’ important concluding statements about humanity in general.  We must develop empathy and imagination in order to support change and value in this world.  I emphasize empathy all the time with my teacher candidates – you cannot be an effective teacher if you don’t have some sense of empathy.  It’s not just my idea of course as business leaders, Novogratz herself, and economists/speech writers like Daniel Pink believe in this value too.  Novogratz talked about the “other” in poverty and how it is easy for people to avoid or ostracize the “other.”  In the classroom, we strive to avoid this, though it is easier – we do this in our personal relationships too.  But, points out Novogratz, to give of ourselves without expecting a return, to interact with others looking at each person as an opportunity rather than an affirmation of fearing the “other,” is a difficult task and one that must be embraced.  Ultimately, argues Novogratz, “we are redefining the geography of community and accepting shared shared accountability for common human values” (284).  Perhaps her optimism will not work well for all readers, but I can’t say that I dislike her hope that if we can act with empathy and concern for others, we can see a world where truly, people are created equal.

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More on Cartoons and our visit with Louis Masur

Our day began with a seminar from political cartoonist expert Richard West explaining lithography and other 19th century cartoon work.  West is the owner of Periodyssey, a western Massachusetts-based business dealing in older American periodicals.

Lithographic cartoons appeared in the 1820s, eventually replacing the more expensive copper plate engravings.  The cost and time of production was so much cheaper that talented artists in larger numbers began to come to the career.  The field was dominated by H. R. Robinson, John Childs, O. H. Bailey, and of course Currier and Ives.  The Civil War period saw about 200 lithographs produced, with about half coming from the workshops of Currier and Ives.  West discussed several additional sources of political cartoons, including Punch and Fun.  Vanity Fair was the only comic weekly published at the beginning of the war and political cartoons were generally published on the backs of illustrated news editions.  Additional sources included six New York based humor magazines with an additional two starting up printing during the war years.

West gave us a chronological overview of the cartoons, starting with the election of 1860.  These cartoons run the gambit of portraying the candidate in ways that modern political junkies are no doubt familiar to fairly blatant racist cartoons like “Heir to the Throne.”  This cartoon, highlighting what West called “the pizza and beer” of the day, was a humorous look at Abe Lincoln devouring opponents.  The timidity of James Buchanan’s leadership is clearly on display in “South Carolina’s Ultimatum,” but so too is the foolish nature of South Carolina’s decision to secede!  When Abe Lincoln came into Washington, DC there were concerns about assassination attempts – this image poked fun at Lincoln’s caution.  Once Lincoln was in office, his main commander was initially seen as strong enough to hold Jefferson Davis at bay.  Finally, there was some sympathy towards the South as they are viewed in this piece as foolhardy – there’s nothing angry in the cartoon, but rather a note that indicates leadership must be a bit stronger to keep the southern states in the union.

In discussing ribald imagery, West used several examples that were of varying degrees of “offensiveness” to both the nineteenth century and modern day viewer.  This piece from the 1852 presidential election is both visually funny and pushes the bounds of good taste with a double entendre.  Another example, also featuring Winfield Scott poked fun at Scott’s age, strategy for defeating the south, and held a clear double meaning about opinions on Jefferson Davis and the respect with which he should be regarded.

The idea of using images of the devil appealed to cartoonists as well as we can see in several instances.  “The Southern Confederacy, a fact acknowledged by a mighty prince and faithful ally” uses a frightening figure of the devil and demons alongside known imagery of southern leaders, supporters, and markers of warfare.  In “The latest from America or the New York eye duster to be taken every day” which appeared in Punch, the portrayal of Lincoln holds a vaguely demonic look as his unruly hair is brought up to resemble horns.  Adelbart Volck, a rare known artist who was sympathetic to the South, drew this piece critiquing Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  In it, he suggests that Lincoln was in league with the devil – in the background pictures of John Brown and the slave rebellion in Santa Domingo hang on the walls.  West explained to us that in reality, Volck’s work was not seen by more than a couple hundred people during the war years.  When his work was reprinted in the 1880s it became much more widely known.  In “Masks and Faces,”  Abraham Lincoln stands accused of being the devil in reality – again the cartoon was a response to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation -itself could be found to be treated in both a serious manner and a humorous way.   All in all, as West pointed out, there were, no doubt, mixed feelings about the fate of slaves and African Americans in general.

There were a core number of artists who worked on these pieces.  Most of these men worked within a block or two of each other and knew each other, drank together, etc.  The entire publishing industry was running here in New York City, and that is hard on some levels for us to conceive.  William Newman is often asserted as the most important because he was before the public eye the most, though his story was not well known in the aftermath of the war until West did some research.  Frank Bellew was the second most famous and was a great character.  He tended to sign his works with a triangle and apparently he did not feel a lot of passion for his subjects.  Frank Beard , perhaps more famous to us after the war, was a young guy at the beginning of the conflict.

Louis Masur
Pr. Masur reminded us that of course images matter but that the historians in the room need to remember that we cannot become obsessed with using images to only illustrate rather than interpret.  In his talk with us, Masur focused on on images of the runaway in print as well as portrayals of the negro population in the Reconstruction era.

He began with three examples of the runaway taking us from the colonial era with the convention of the profile view and running figure to the early nineteenth century.  A third example played off of these original designs and was the cover to sheet music for “The Fugitve’s Song.”  This choice showed more than just a human profile, but rather a specific person, in this case Frederick Douglass.  All images discussed had these similar ideas of movement, running, carrying clothing, and a somewhat rural scene.  This remained true after using more human features.

While some images of fugitive slaves have these similar ideas even after using more human features, they may contain deeper levels of meaning as well.  In some cases, the impact of the fugitive slave law on multiple classes brought home the point that slaves were not only human beings of varying backgrounds, but that in some instances they were wrongly pursued in relation to prosecution of the law.  When examining the image of emancipation too, historians find that there are both humanistic images and stereotypes of the supplicants, the minstrel type, etc.

The Eastman Johnson painting “Ride to Liberty” is marked on canvas that he was witness to the event near Centreville, 1862.  Masur speculated as to whether we were still nervous about images narrating reality?  Were the figures in Johnson’s piece truly becoming free?  In Kaufman’s “On to Liberty,” the figures are coming out of darkness into the light – the label at the Met describes it as a “rocky road” to freedom.  There remains a question as to who these people are and that to which they are headed?  The artist was supportive of black rights but were the figures, as speculated re: Johnson, actually going to be free and what would freedom look like?  A different type of runaway narrative offered by Thomas Moran gives the viewer a deeper, darker, more uncertain portrayal of what it meant to flee slavery.

Masur spent time on the famous Gordon photos – we looked at two different exposures of Gordon’s scarred back, clarifying along with Masur that the third image was a ‘doctored’ version of one of the first two.  Gordon’s story not only is part of a longer history of ‘before and after images’ but highlights such severe suffering that his plight and the pictures tell a story both didactic and reflective in nature.  William Carlton’s “Watch Meeting” was briefly discussed as another image of freedom as well as Susan Schulten on maps and visualizing slavery.

We closed with several images that focused on the emancipation theme – the mystery and hope of it all perhaps captured by H. W. Herrick and Thomas Nast.   Finally, we noted images of emancipation that evoked some degree of controversy such as Pezzicar’s sculpture at the Centennial in 1876 or “Freedom to the Slaves”.  Both images evoked controversy for different reasons (style, the message, in the case of the latter, authorship) and yet both purported to celebrate this massive transition in American history.  What remained unspoken in much of the art examined and in our conversation is what will happen next for the freed slaves.

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I may not be Mike Fink…

…but I ran across the Ohio River today.   Ok…I had some help from a bridge!

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Arriving in a space/place can be an interesting part of the journey.  At times arrivals are unexpected pleasures such as a surprise visit from a friend while at other times, arriving is as simple as showing up where you’d planned all along.

On the journey today, arriving meant something a bit different.  It meant embracing opportunity to arrive at a place somewhat unexpected:

Newark Earthworks

The prehistorica construction at Newark, OH

While driving along Interstate-70 this morning, it occurred to me that I had neglected to look up the location of the Hopewell mounds in Ohio.  It then occurred to me that perhaps we would pass near some of the constructions and be able to take a look.  When my friend used his GPS effectively to locate some nearby sites, we hopped off the big highway and in a short drive located some fascinating sites.

The Great Circle at Newark

Me, walking near the eastern 'gate' of the great circle

This largest grouping of geometric earthen shapes, apparently in the world, was constructed about 2000 years ago.  While its exact purpose is a mystery, there are some guesses as to the purpose of these structures.  Their size is impressive and cannot be understated.  I’m walking in the Great Circle, an area containing at least 30 acres and some 1200 feet in diameter.  The original circle included a low, earthen wall that surrounded the entire circle as well and connected the spot to other areas in the complex.  While what has been preserved is remarkable, much was destroyed by years of farming and the construction of a canal line, a portion of which is now Ohio state route 79.

The oddest portion of the complex is a slightly smaller circle attached to an octagon.  At our first stop, images indicated to us that we were in for a bit of a surprise regarding where the octagon was located.

First, I should point out, that all of these earth works are largely in neighborhoods which is remarkable in and of itself.  The octagon though, has a different story – if you’ve clicked on the previous link, you’ll understand that this has been saved, but in an odd manner.

The octagon and smaller circle were refurbished by the Ohio state militia in the 1890s and the space was used as an encampment.  After 1910, the octagon was leased by a country club and a golf course runs inside the circle and octagon.

As Tom and I said to each other – ‘only in America.’  On the one hand, the idea of a century of golf played in what appears to be a sacred space seems problematic to say the least.  On the other hand, the space has been preserved which, given the farming and other construction over the years, is remarkable.

The trip concluded in Louisville today without too many major events – there was some road construction, singing the WKRP theme song, a sighting of the professional sports team homes in Cincinnati, an excellent Chick-Fil-A sandwich, or two, and in conclusion, enjoyment of what should be Kentucky’s state drink.

All in all, I’d say we’ve arrived.

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Summer travels

For a number of years, back into childhood really, I’ve traveled in the summer months to various locations.  As I’ve grown older, that has meant varied locations, further distances from home, and doing a lot of driving on my own or with friends.

Several months ago a long time friend proposed a trip connected to our early summer job grading Advanced Placement US History exams in Louisville, KY.  “Let’s drive,” he suggested, “And if we do, we must go to the Altoona Curve.  No, not that one – this one.  I hemmed and hawed, didn’t fill out my paperwork in time for the grading, finally got it done and here we are having completed phase one of this trip.  We’re resting up just outside of Wheeling, WV and I’m reflecting on yet another roadtrip.

The first trips I remember, I actually don’t remember.  It’s one of those classic examples of misremembered personal history when you’re show pictures of an event enough times and it is described to you so you begin to believe you have a memory of the event itself.  It’s not unlike the concept featured in last year’s film, Inception.  At any rate, one of these first trips was to Canada.  There’s pictures of me in the backseat of a 1970 Plymouth Valiant and apparently I have just painted the driver side passenger window with an ice cream cone.  Ok – I was about one at the time and while my memory is good, it’s not that good.  So maybe we won’t count that fully as a roadtrip memory because most of it was ‘implanted’ later in life.  But – perhaps the experience was an important one as it led to more trips (sometimes called mystery rides in my family) to all kinds of locations including Tanglewood, Mt. Desert Island, Bennington Museum, Fenway Park, grandma and grandpa’s house, etc.

Once I was driving on my own, the trips were usually connected to concerts or sometimes random wanderings up and down streets of summer beach communities with no particular purpose in mind.  We didn’t think much about things like the price of gasoline (generally .87 to .99 a gallon near where I was in school) and we certainly didn’t consider the amount of time/energy used in keeping the cars in working order.  Occasionally, these trips would morph into something bordering on legendary and sometimes it was my car, not me, that was directly involved – see, for example, a trip to Freeport, ME involving a large number of my choir friends, the Maine state police, L.L. Bean’s and a beach in York I believe.

One of my favorite road trips was one that never occurred.  A plan was hatched to travel to Graceland in the spring of 1990.  The only problem was a lack of a car but we believed we had solved that problem by finding a car rental agency that was ok with renting to someone below 25 provided that the car stayed in New England.  That’s a problem because – well, as most of you recall, Graceland is in Memphis.  So we decided we could cover this problem by claiming that we drove to Caribou, ME and back twice during the rental period.  Hmmm…

Then there were some fantastic trips to Canada that I do remember, several long range drives either across the country or across vast portions of the country, and a long move of my entire family and dogs from California to North Dakota to Massachusetts – but I digress and these memories will have to be raised at another time.

Today, my friend and I began the drive to Louisville and as promised visited the famed horseshoe curve at Altoona.  Along the way, we stopped in Scranton and enjoyed some Ocean Water at Sonic.  The curve was designed to help the Pennsylvania Rail Road get trains over the mountains on their way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.  Getting to the base of this engineering marvel that opened in the 1850s, is not too far out of the way when traveling to Louisville via car.  Otherwise?  It’s kind of out of the way – though we did see State College prior to arriving.  The football stadium there rises out of the hills and farmland like an Imperial destroyer.

At any rate, the curve is an interesting stop – in the future, I’d definitely check a train schedule to see when an actual train is headed through the curve which causes the vehicle to look like it is looping back on itself.  I should note that the preceding video was taken some time ago – as my friend pointed out, the trees have grown up so high around the curve that it’s hard to see the right of way.  But still, standing at the top of the viewing area, watching a repair truck go around the tracks and looking back over the reservoirs, it was fascinating to think about the imagination that led someone to think about building tracks to hug mountains and fight elevation in a different manner.

This road trip is not over yet and we’ve found out you can buy all sorts of stuff at places called Sheetz and that Hoss’s Steak and Sea in Wheeling isn’t open on a Tuesday after 9:00.  We’ve missed out on Chik-Fil-A thus far which is a disappointment, but we’re hoping to rectify that situation on day two.

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