Saturday, July 31, 2010

Library Crisis Hits the Press and the Blogosphere

The looming controversy over the Jones Library that I recently mentioned has now reached the press and the rest of the blogosphere.  Meetings of the Jones Library trustees on Thursday afternoon and evening attracted unusual public attention and at least two newspaper articles that I've seen.

As Diane Lederman of the Republican reports, the 4:00 meeting drew an uncharacteristically large turnout for what would otherwise have been a rather arcane and mundane matter:
A Select Board member [NB: not I] who attended the meeting called the process “bizarre.”

Former trustees, the president of the Jones Library Friends and other residents turned out to hear the evaluation of Bonnie J. Isman, who has been at the library for more than 30 years.

But trustee Carol J. Gray, a member of the three-member evaluation sub-committee, said the meeting with Isman needed to be held in closed session because they were talking about the process of the evaluation and not the evaluation itself. The subcommittee did not even allow other trustees to remain in the room.
Lederman goes on to cite various citizens who questioned the handling of the matter, including longtime former trustee Nancy Gregg, who said that the evaluation process had in the past been handled more expeditiously and without contention. This year, according to Lederman, the subcommittee "has met dozens of times" since January, "sometimes twice a week." The subcommittee insists that it is simply attempting to be methodical and bring new rigor to the task.

Writing in the Gazette, Scott Merzbach summarized the concerns of dissenting trustee Chris Hoffmann:
"The damage this power struggle has caused to staff morale, and the damage to our ability to serve our patrons, continues to mount," Hoffmann wrote. "And now a person's reputation and career are in danger of being destroyed."

He argues that a performance evaluation should be positive, citing accomplishments of the director, while also containing constructive advice when there is criticism.

"The written evaluation of a director is supposed to be the formal record of an ongoing, collaborative process of feedback and suggestions," Hoffman [sic] wrote. "It is not supposed to be an ambush sprung after seven months of planning."
Lederman's account adds:
In an e-mail, Hoffman [sic] said Gray told him that “once the director read everything they were planning to put into their report she was hoping that, given her (Isman’s) age, the Director will prefer to retire quietly rather than take on the members of the Committee and dispute its report.”

He said Gray had researched Isman’s contract, town personnel policies, and Isman’s employment history, and estimated the amount of pension Isman could receive for retiring at various dates. “Based on this, Trustee Gray thought she could make Director Isman announce her retirement before the end of the year.”
I was not able to attend the afternoon meeting—ironically or appropriately enough, because I was enrolled in an intensive two-day workshop on  book conservation techniques for librarians and binders (more on that later, on the book blog)—but when I learned of the 7:30 session upon my return, I headed downtown to the community room of the Police Room, where an audience at least as large as the previous one had gathered.  Members of the public repeatedly pressed the subcommittee on the issue of openness. In response to persistent questions, trustee Carol Gray, with equal persistence, defended the need for executive session on the grounds of confidentiality pertaining to personnel issues, as confirmed by Town Counsel.

One Town Meeting member noted a paradox:  the interviews with employees were said to have taken place in open meetings—so that a newspaper reporter (or blogger) could in theory have recorded and published the entire discussion verbatim—and yet the subcommittee refused to release even the summaries of the interviews on grounds of confidentiality:  was this correct?  The affirmation by the subcommittee met with derisive laughter. Several employees, whose complaints had already led to letters of protest by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), revealed that they had been refused the right to see notes or transcripts of their own interviews.  When asked why they would need to do so, they explained that it was because they were not confident their remarks would be cited accurately or in the spirit in which they had been made. The subcommittee pointed out that all commentary in the evaluation would be without attribution and that confidentiality was in any case a requirement here.  Some members of the public again reacted with laughter.  The conversation continued for a while longer in this vein, and then the trustees turned to their regular business, from the need for a long-range capital plan to the desirability of staff name tags.  (Director Bonnie Isman arrived only after this point.)

Further developments

Local blogger Larry Kelley picked up the story on his widely read "Only in the Republic of Amherst" and in addition posted Chris Hoffmann's document (see my previous post) in its entirety.

As a result of the controversy over  the review of Library Director Isman, the Select Board has already received one inquiry regarding the recall process for elected officials.  The answer we gave is that we have none.  (The proposed Charters that failed to secure public approval in recent years included such measures, but the current Town Government Act [p. 77] does not.)

Underlying Issues and Implications

These issues surrounding the relationship between the trustee subcommiteee and Director Bonnie Isman are of interest to me not only because of my involvement with books and libraries in professional and personal life, or because they implicitly affect all of us who live here, but also for more abstract reasons.  I have served or continue to serve on the boards of several small non-profits and work with directors of such groups.  I am also acting co-chair of a presidential Governance Task Force at Hampshire College, and as a result have been reviewing all our governance documents and procedures as well as reading the literature put out by the Association of Governing Boards.  I have therefore been thinking a lot about authority, democracy, procedures, transparency, fairness, and the like.

It is frequently the case that there is, at best, confusion, and at worst, conflict, over the nature and boundaries of the "governing" versus "managing" functions of museums, libraries, and similar non-profit organizations. In academe and citizen government, the problems are somewhat different but nonetheless related:  there, an ethos of participatory democracy sometimes leads to confusion or disagreement between administrators and other groups over the meaning of "shared governance."  Admittedly, conflicts are most likely when individuals are ill-informed or show insufficient respect for boundaries, but even under the best of circumstances, problems can arise because of the need to reconcile several essential but at times competing interests:  participation vs. efficiency, confidentiality vs. accountability, and so forth.

Even the standard job performance review common to all these organizations has become increasingly controversial. I recently shared with Task Force colleagues an interview with UCLA business professor Samuel Culbert, who provocatively argues that annual performance reviews should be abolished.  "'First, they're dishonest and fraudulent. And second, they're just plain bad management,' he says."  You really need to read it for yourself, but in essence, he argues that, although some form of assessment is essential, our standard "periodic reviews create circumstances that help neither the employee nor the company to improve." "[W]hile the alleged purpose of performance reviews is to enlighten subordinates about what they should be doing better, the real purpose is intimidation aimed at preserving the boss's authority and domination in relationships." (As I said, it's controversial.)

I know that I'll continue to think a lot about these issues in the coming weeks because, as chance would have it, the Select Board has begun the annual process of reviewing the Town Manager's job performance, in which I will be taking part for the first time.  An article in the current Bulletin describes the overall process and requirements of confidentiality, identifies some representative goals, and explains how the public can participate.  Perhaps the coincidence of these two reviews will provide a salutary opportunity for all of us to consider the principles and mechanisms of such processes and how they can best serve the needs of the employees in question and the town as a whole.

One may dare to hope that the evolving Library controversy will turn out to be ultimately instructive rather than purely destructive. We all have too much at stake. 

Media coverage:

• Diane Lederman, "Controversy surrounds evaluation of director of Amherst's Jones Library," Springfield Republican, 29 July
• Scott Merzbach, "Amherst librarian's review spurs dustup for trustees," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 30 July
[note: subscriber wall may limit access]

[Sat.: updated links]
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Friday, July 30, 2010

Looming Library Crisis in Amherst

As the proverbial wisdom has it, it takes longer to write a good short piece than a long one. Unfortunately, in attempting to cover a breaking story, one is often in a hurry.  And long ones at least have the advantage of being better able to incorporate  complexity and nuance.  The reactions of several friends (all of different political persuasions, I might add) indicated that portions of a post on the breaking news about a crisis at the Jones Library yesterday had been misunderstood.

Evidently, I tried to cover too much ground in too short a space, which, among other things, seems to have blurred for them the distinction between my views and views of others that I was summarizing. And trying to inject a note of humorous relief, e.g. by drawing the title from an innocuous  recent satirical piece that used the word, “three-headed shitstorm,” led some to think I was calling names, which I most assuredly was not. It was simply that the slang term, “shitstorm,” seemed applicable to the topic:
• “A course of action that would appear to lead to a good outcome, but when undertaken, leads to a situation that is utterly out of control beyond human comprehension”
• A screw-up of epic proportions
• “An extremely bad situation”
Obviously, the last thing I want to do is to complicate that already “extremely bad situation,” so I am perfectly happy to take down the original post and replace it with one with a less flamboyant title, if that allows me to make my points more clearly here.

They are few and simple:

(1) The heart of the piece was news of a crisis at the Jones Library:
Town officials and the press tonight received a devastating 22-page report from trustee Chris Hoffmann, detailing—painfully and painstakingly—his concerns over improprieties in the performance review of Director Bonnie Isman, and in the general behavior of the three trustees on the Evaluation Committee: Carol Gray, Pat Holland, and Sarah McKee.

Here are some highlights of the most egregious charges:

• failure to follow proper procedures in dealing with both the Director and the other trustees in the course of the review process
• attempting to coerce employees into giving negative evaluations of the Director
• misrepresenting what employees actually said in the interviews
• more generally, interfering in labor relations issues that are the preserve of Town Hall and not the trustees
• as a result, incurring two formal complaints from the Library employees' labor union
• finally, and most ominously, a heavy-handed attempt to force to the Director—whom peers regard as one of the best in the Commonwealth—to retire precipitously at the end of this year
Because the document was sent to the Jones Library Trustees, the Town Manager, the Town Clerk, the Assistant Town Manager and Finance Director, and the Select Board, it immediately became part of the public record. It was in addition sent to representatives of the press. Its content will be in all the papers soon. My post was advance reporting of important news, plain and simple.

(2) I moreover made no personal accusations against any of the trustees. My only collision with the individuals in question occurred well over a year ago, in the context of a dispute between the Historical Commission and the trustee leadership over Community Preservation Act (CPA) appropriations. The Historical Commission stands by its account of those events, which are a matter of public record. It is also water under the bridge, because we moved on. Indeed, I have worked amicably with the Trustee leadership in several capacities before and  even since that time. This spring, for example, both the Historical Commission and Select Board gladly and successfully supported additional CPA appropriations for the Library. That, too, is a matter of public record.

I referred to the incident in question, along with others, only in order to make a larger point: (a) Even as the trustees have laudably tried to serve as tireless boosters of the Library, they have also found themselves embroiled in controversies that detracted from their core mission and tarnished their reputation with a growing portion of the public. (b) Those controversies often involved conflicts over jurisdiction with other Town bodies or with other individuals and groups within the Library and thus furnish some of the essential background to the current controversy. That was a simple description of the history.

If my reading of those events was a distraction from the important issue at hand, then I am happy to omit it and refer readers directly to the relevant press reports (below).

(3) I concluded that it was dismaying to see a beloved institution torn apart and its dedicated Director treated in what seems a very shabby manner.

I stand by that, too.

I will simply add: few things would make me happier than for my fears to be proven wrong.

Press coverage of the Library:

• Bonnie Isman utilized as expert respondent in Marylaine Block, The Thriving Library:  Successful Strategies for Challenging Times (Medford, NJ:  Information Today, 2007)
• Bonnie Isman cited in Roger Mummert, "In the Valley of the Literate," New York Times, 16 Nov. 2007
• Diane Lederman, "Historical funds OK for library," Springfield Republican, 1 April 2009
• Diane Lederman "Library budget tops plan limit," Springfield Republican, 10 June 2009
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst's Jones Library Trustees to seek state waiver on funding level," Springfield Republican, 25 June 2009
• Scott Merzbach, "Library trustees eye investment shuffle," Amherst Bulletin, 17 July 2009
• Diane Lederman, "Jones Library backing sought," Springfield Republican, 22 July 2009
• Scott Merzbach, "Town Meeting OKs reduced schools' budgets," Amherst Bulletin, 26 June 2009
• Scott Merzbach,  "Suggestions sought for bequest:  Jones Library, Friends invite ideas," Amherst Bulletin, 29 April 2010
• Nick Grabbe and Scott Merzbach, "Jones seeks comments on library issues," Amherst Bulletin, 2 July 2010

[updated links]

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Three-Headed Shitstorm" on the Horizon: Library Scandal and Outrage in Amherst

Friday evening update:

Little did I think when I put up a short piece here Thursday morning that it might cause offense.  Nonetheless, several high-minded friends and acquaintances told me that they found the title and tone too flippant or disrespectful.

It was helpful to receive their feedback and learn that some passages, however intended, might have been misinterpreted.  As the great German dramatist and radical political activist Georg Büchner (1813-37) said—and I wholeheartedly agree with his entire statement—"to insult someone is cruelty."

Because I have no desire for distractions such as these to get in they way of serious (in the proper sense) consideration of the major issue in question, I took down the original post and restated the points more simply here.  They remain the same, for the background facts, the new information conveyed, and the opinions of others there described have not changed.
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Coming Attractions: Amherst College Proposes to Demolish Historic Fence

The Historical Commission has received a request from Amherst College (the property owner) to demolish the historic fence of the Greek Revival house at 74 College Street.
The house was the home of Edward Hitchcock, Jr. (1828-1911).  An early graduate of Amherst College, he returned here after receiving a Harvard MD to take charge of the first Department of Physical Education and Hygiene in the United States.  He is particularly known for his work in comparative anatomy and anthropometric measurement.  He was, however, involved in a broad range of College and civic life, and his "Memorabilia Collection" of Amherst College materials was the origin of today's Archives and Special Collections.

He was the son of Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) and Orra White Hitchcock (1798-1863). Edward Hitchcock was professor of both theology and natural science at Amherst College, as well as its President.  He is known in particular for his pioneering work in geology and paleontology.  The greatest discoverer of dinosaur footprints (preserved in the Amherst College  Museum of Natural History), he struggled to reconcile the emerging geological and fossil record with his religious beliefs. Orra Hitchcock, an educator and a scholar in her own right, was moreover an accomplished artist, who also furnished illustrations for many of his works.

The reason given for the demolition request is that:
"The fence is falling apart and its necessary removal will be part of clearing away material and plantings that have come to obscure the house."
Any proposed demolition of a historic structure (historic, in professional and governmental preservation terms, is defined as at least 50 years old) has to come before the Historical Commission for review.  Our first step is to decide whether a hearing is merited. Then the actual hearing eventuates in one of several possibilities ranging from outright granting of the demolition request to imposition of a one-year delay, and various intermediate courses of action such as permitting demolition with conditions attached.

Because the demolition delay bylaw is our only tool for the enforcement of preservation needs, and because the public is generally not acquainted with the principles and processes, I'm planning to do a little piece on several cases (once all are completed of course).  Often, the choices are difficult ones, so the purpose of the piece will be to explain the perspectives of both applicants and preservationists and how we attempt to reconcile them.

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Coming Attractions: Amherst and the Immigration Law

Today's decision by a US judge to grant the federal government's request for an injunction against putting into effect the controversial Arizona immigration law is important. It also suggests it may be time for an accurate look back at what the Amherst Select Board did or did not do when it endorsed a boycott of Arizona in June.

Stay tuned:  a post will follow soon.

* * *

August update: that post is now up here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

27-28 July 1794 (9-10 Thermidor, Year 2) Fall of Robespierre and His Allies (I)

Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre, oil on ...Image via Wikipedia
On the night of 9 Thermidor, Year 2 of the French Revolution (27 July, old style), Maximilien Robespierre, who had only recently been elected President of the National Convention (legislature) by an unprecedented majority, was shouted down and, together with his key allies, placed under arrest.  Ironically, it was exactly a year after he had joined the Committee of Public Safety, which, along with the Committee of General Security, exercised de facto authority over the course of the Revolution and war.  At dawn on the morning of the 10th, he went to the guillotine.
I've posted documents and observations on the event for the past two years (1, 2), so I won't repeat everything I said there.  Suffice it to say that the reputation of Robespierre as either power-hungry or murderous is unfounded.  To be sure, he was a man with flaws, personal and political, but his enemies blackened his reputation. Those who overthrew him were in many cases venal whereas his reputation as "The Incorruptible" was deserved.  And whereas he defined "terror" simply as severe and inflexible revolutionary justice, many of them were bloody-minded men with far more blood on their hands.  His career was a tragic one because it embodied the contradictions and tragedies of the Revolution itself.

This year, I decided to post (serially) a detailed contemporary account that connects the continents.  It fills an "extraordinary" (as in the proverbial news seller's cry, "extra, extra, read all about it!") issue of our own Massachusetts Spy,of Worcester, which the American Antiquarian Society aptly characterizes as "one of the most important and long-lived of American newspapers."  The AAS should know: The founder of that elite organization was none other than Isaiah Thomas, patriot and printer-publisher of the paper. The paper began to appear in Boston in 1770 but on 16 April 1775, as conditions grew more dangerous, he took his equipment westward to the safety of Worcester, which in any case needed a patriot press in both senses of the word.

In fact, it is still possible to see the press on which this issue of the newspaper may have been printed.  Thomas always retained a special fondness for his "Old  'No. 1'," as he called the instrument on which he had learned his trade, and later produced the Spy. He willed it to the AAS, where it is on permanent display.[1]

Typical issues of the paper were 2 quarto sheets (four pages).  This one, though of the same size (approximately 9 x 11 inches, untrimmed), consists of a single leaf.  Presumably it was of some importance to the owner, for it survived, but not without some rough use.  Not only is it browned, soiled and ragged.  Someone—perhaps the person who wrote his name on it in what appears a youthful hand, did mathematical calculations in the margins.

As for the content:  newspapers did not have professional correspondents in that day, so they relied on private contacts or simply reprinted or adapted material from other publications.  Such is the case here, for we are told, "The preceding account was translated from a paper printed near Hamburgh."  There is some ambiguity here.  Normally, I would have bet that the source was the Hamburgischer Unpartheyischer Correspondent, the most thorough and widely circulated newspaper of the day—but since the description says near rather than in Hamburg, one thinks of Altona, a center of publishing.  And if we take "paper" in the loose sense, it might refer to a journal rather than a newspaper. I haven't had time to pursue the matter further. At the least, one sees how long it took news to travel across the Atlantic, for the report is dated July 30, but the newspaper is from the middle of October.  Clearly, the tone of the article is generally hostile, which is not surprising.  Many educated Germans had greeted the revolution as a sort of triumph of philosophy, and so, radicalization and revolutionary violence proved disillusioning.

First installment:

Massachusetts Spy, Extraordinary.

European Affairs.
Decapitation of Roberspierre, & c.
PARIS, July 30.

The day before yesterday were led to the place of execution, and executed, the following persons, viz. Maximilien Roberspierre, aged 35. He had defended himself in a fracas, which had happened in the Commune, with a knife, which took off one half of his face, after which he was carried to the Convention, and was refused to be admitted ; he was then sent to the prison of the Conciergerie, where he was detained until his execution—his head was shown to the people.

  The brother of Roberspierre, who had broken both his legs, as he attempted to escape.
  Couthon, aged 38.
  Saint Just, aged 33.
  General Henriot, aged 33.
  General Lavalette.
  Dumas, President of the Revolutionary Tribune. His head was shown to the people.
  Fleuriot, the Mayor of Paris.
  Fayen, a National Agent ; and twelve Members of the Commune of Paris.

Yesterday, the 29th, 70 conspirators were also executed. The Revolutionary Tribunal, composed for the most part of creatures of Roberspierre, and who pronounced at the least signal he gave, sentence of death upon any one who was pointed at, has been replaced by other Judges. From the 25th to the 27th, 135 people had been sent to the guillotine, by those Judges, who are now deposed. Among them were found, Baron Trenk, the Princess Chiday, de Grunaldy, Princess Monaco, the Countess Marbonne, Countess Perigord, Countess Dossin, the Countess St. Simon, Marquis Dussin, Marquis Montalembert, Duc de Clermont Tonnerre, Count de Thiare, the Bishop of Agda, the learned Chenier, the celebrated Bishop of Montmorency, and the wife of the Marshal d’Armentere.

The very remarkable circumstances which led to the downfall of Roberspierre, who had arrived at the supreme power by the most cruel and bloody means, deserve to be immediately detailed. It is observable, however, that the principal cause of that extraordinary event, is yet buried under the veil of darkness.

Note: I may try to add some annotations, time permitting.

* * *

[1] American Antiquarian Society, Old "No. 1": The Story of Isaiah Thomas & His Printing Press (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1989)

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Credo quia absurdum (2): Karen Armstrong Gets Her Comeuppance

I was beginning to despair and think that I was the only literate person who found Karen Armstrong banal, dreary, and vacuous. Well, thankfully, some intrepid bloggers came to my rescue this month. (That's one of the nice things about the internet.)

First, Shiraz Socialist complained, in the exquisitely entitled, "Karen Armstrong: liar or idiot?":
The easy ride that ex-nun and ecumenical apologist for religion, Karen Armstrong, receives in the “liberal”/”left” press (New Statesman, Graun, etc), never ceases to amaze me. Below is an exception: John Crace’s concise demolition of her book “The Case For God,” in The Graun: [the latter, for the uninitiated, is the increasingly ludicrous Guardian; JW]
The piece then goes on to reproduce the review, a few choice passages from which I will excerpt:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart make Dawkins and Hitchens burn in Hell, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

Much of what we say about God these days is facile. The concept of God is meant to be hard. Too often we get lost in what Greeks called logos (reason) rather than interpreting him through mythoi - those things we know to be eternally true but can't prove. Like Santa Claus. Religion is not about belief or faith; it is a skill. Self-deceit does not always come easily, so we have to work at it.

Our ancestors, who were obviously right, would have been surprised by the crude empiricism that reduces faith to fundamentalism or atheism. I have no intention of rubbishing anyone's beliefs, so help me God, but Dawkins's critique of God is unbelievably shallow. God is transcendent, clever clogs. So we obviously can't understand him. Duh!

I'm going to spend the next 250 pages on a quick trawl of comparative religion from the pre-modern to the present day. It won't help make the case for God, but it will make me look clever and keep the publishers happy, so let's hope no one notices!
. . . .

The modern drift to atheism has been balanced by an equally lamentable rise in fundamentalism. Both beliefs are compromised and misconceived. The only logical position is apophatic relativism, as stated in the Jeff Beck (1887- ) lyric, "You're everywhere and nowhere, Baby. That's where you're at."

I haven't had time to deal with the tricky issues of the after-life that some who believe in God seem to think are fairly important.

But silence is often the best policy - geddit, Hitchens? And the lesson of my historical overview is that the only tenable religious belief is one where you have the humility to constantly change your mind in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

God is the desire beyond this desire, who exists because I say so, and the negation of whose existence confirms his transcendence. Or something like that.

And if you believe this, you'll believe anything.
The next day, PZ Meyers (already gratefully cited as a source of the announcement for the science poetry contest), implicitly picking up the liar/idiot theme, trashed a book that Karen Armstrong had praised, thus in effect killing two birds with one (kidney?) stone:
The last time I got a glimpse of the wretched new book from Marilynne Robinson, the review was sufficient to dissuade me from bothering to ever read it. Now we have a positive review from Karen Armstrong, and I am now convinced that if ever I am confronted with this work, the only appropriate response would be to unzip my fly and piss on it, on the spot. Only my deeply ingrained social conditioning would hinder me. Dammit, why can't I live freely and express my primal impulses without these nagging voices in my head?

Once again, her thesis is that her own twisted version of science, which is always reductionist and ignores the forest for the hadrons, baryons, and mesons that make it up, is a curse upon civilization that destroys all beauty and aspirations. How dare we turn a critical eye upon good ol' subjective superstition? And besides, science completely ignores the mind and art and strangeness and doesn't encourage people to ever think long, long thoughts.

How's your bladder holding up?

This, of course, is entirely copacetic with Karen Armstrong's views. It isn't civilized if it isn't wallowing in the subjective and whining piteously about all those investigators of the real with their bright lights and poking fingers harshing her mellow and demanding that she say something sensible, clear, and objectively verifiable. In order to make her complaints justifiable, though, she has to lie about science. Oh, wait — perhaps I should be more charitable. She is obstinately ignorant of science, so she isn't exactly lying…she just makes fantastic nonsense up about it.
(read the rest; he even quotes her inane drivel)
I'd be the first person to admit that Dawkins (a great scientist) and Hitchens (a great essayist and provocateur) are anything but subtle and often less than sophisticated in their reasoning when they talk about religion.  They are quite capable of giving atheism a bad name.  Still, when one looks at their opponents. . .

One Michael Billington (again, in the Grauniad. See what Shiraz Socialist means?) further illustrates the point:
In the book world a fierce debate rages between polemical atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and eloquent champions of faith like Karen Armstrong. Yet, for the most part, the theatre steers clear of religion or, as with Pautz's play, sidesteps big questions. Where is the modern equivalent of Brecht's Galileo, which pits science against religion? Or of Shaw's Saint Joan, which both puts the case for its heroine's direct access to God and explains the need for her political extinction? No one can write masterpieces to order. But since we are confronted by the tensions in organised religion and the vacuum created by unalloyed materialism, isn't it time faith made a comeback as a fit subject for drama?
First of all, anyone who calls Karen Armstrong eloquent is not fit to be taken seriously (vide supra). Second, note the bias in the language: advocates of superstition are "eloquent," but their critics are merely "polemical." There are "tensions" in religion but a "vacuum" created by materialism.  What if it's the other way around—in both cases? And what about that slick elision?  Maybe "faith"—since when has religion been relegated to that narrow pen? now who's a reductionist, and an ethnocentric one, at that?—just isn't quite the compelling problem that it was in the 1920s or the 1940s. But to understand that would require a sense of history—and reality.   We do need Brecht, though his play cannot be reduced to that puerile dichotomy. It's a living and compelling work because it is also about the responsibility of science and the politics of dissent, but the Grauniad essayist wouldn't understand this. We don't necessarily need more plays about religion. If we did, presumably someone would write them.  We are surrounded by superfluity: 500 channels and nothing to watch, and hundreds of flavors of shampoo when a dozen would do.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance who is deeply religious.  Worrying that, ages ago, when he was young, he had perhaps allowed his personal views to intrude ever so slightly upon his duties as a teacher, he castigated himself for an ethical failure that he described in traditional theological terms as the sin of "thievery," i.e. receiving pay for his work but not fully living up to his obligations.  It was a statement infinitely more profound and religious than anything the Karen Armstrongs of the world will ever write.

So, you see, this is not about opposition to religion.  On the contrary:  Religion is sometimes too important to be left to clerics and people who natter on about "spirituality."
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Credo quia absurdum? More bad science: Der Spiegel denounces the homeopathy hoax

From the sublime to the ridiculous, poetry to poison.  One of those topics one just loves to hate.

I've always been fascinated (in a horrified sort of way) by the European gullibility concerning "alternative medicine."  Such products, for both good and ill, are more readily available there, and are part of the accepted training of physicians and pharmacists.  Now, I know the issue should not be caricatured; let's make that clear.  Many "traditional" medicines and practices have proven to have value.  (As I've pointed out before, quoting Steven Novella, herbal drugs are "are, after all, just pharmaceuticals in unpurified plant form.") "Many of the more "scientific" ones have drawbacks ranging from side-effects to expense.  And in the US, the combined policies of the big pharmaceutical companies and the stringent testing requirements of the Food and Drug Administration often seem to stifle innovation or slow the adoption of new products.  No argument there.  But here's the thing:  any "alternative" medicine or medical practice that can demonstrate its efficacy and safety will in principle eventually win the seal of approval.  Most "alternative" medicines in fact cannot, and their adherents don't care—and that's the distinction defining the chasm between science and bullshit.

One of the ironies of this system (as I have likewise noted) is that medicines, and food products that have not yet been proven to cause any harm (such as irradiated meat and genetically modified foods), are strictly regulated, whereas the world of alternative medicines is totally unregulated:  so-called "health food" or "whole food" stores can sell practically any concoction—some of which are useless, and others of which are downright harmful—as "supplements" provided they make no definitive claims about health benefits. It is insane. Still, it's our way of life, and there is a method to this madness: that nostrums proliferate is regrettable, but this is not a totalitarian society, and the main thing is that the boundaries of medicine are strictly enforced.  As the blogger PalMD puts it:
There is no "alternative" to medicine. There is simply that which can be shown to work, and that which cannot. The humane application of what we know is the art of medicine. The humane application of alternative medicine is quackery with a smile.
Europe is insane, and in an illogical way.  The worst quackery of all is homeopathy. It's a plague on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly over there.  I am always amazed when I talk to otherwise highly educated people who swear by it.  People who evince a healthy skepticism or scarcely concealed scorn for "traditional religion" show no such hesitation when it comes to this unsubstantiated doctrines that likewise rests on faith alone.  We know—because we can prove—that homeopathy is a fraud. We have no way of proving religion to be true or false.  Maybe that should be a new marketing slogan: "Homeopathy: it's more dangerous than organized religion!"  Oooh: Transgressive!

I noticed the cover story on the German edition of Der Spiegel right away, but it took a while before it appeared on the English-language web site, and then I got distracted. At any rate, as the title—Alternative Medicine or Witchcraft? Europeans Cast Critical Eye on Homeopathy—suggests, it's well worth the read.  The story begins by recounting a dramatic gesture of protest:
It was the kind of humor that the British love. In several cities across the country, mostly young crowds marched into their local branches of the drug store Boots. Each purchased a small bottle of the homeopathic remedy Arsenicum album, which is used in the treatment of anxiety and food poisoning.

At 10 a.m., they all opened their bottles, full of remedy globules. One man wearing a hat shouted out that he was sacrificing himself for the sake of science. On command, the entire crowd began swallowing the globules -- not two or three of the small pills, but the entire bottles. "Mmm, delicious," some said. Others just laughed.

But nothing happened. And that was exactly what the demonstrators had hoped to prove. Not a single member of the "Overdose" Campaign documented on the website, was poisoned or injured in any way.

The campaign had been organized by a network of British homeopathy skeptics. "We wanted to show that homeopathic globules contain absolutely nothing but sugar," said co-organizer Simon Singh, a former BBC journalist and author of the book "Trick or Treatment," which has become the standard of critical books on the use of alternative medicines.
Of course, the Spiegel gets it wrong here on two counts:

1) As I have noted before in these pages, Belgian skeptics actually did this years ago (life imitates art? maybe it's like the Agatha Christie mysteries in which the British police have to learn from Hercule Poirot). We have to cut the authors some slack, though. As an entirely foreign phenomenon, humor has never been the German strong suit, so they probably just think of it as "typically" British.

2) Also, the event took place at 10:23 a.m., not 10:00. This is not a quibble, or at the least, it is relevant. actually alludes to the superscripted 10 to the 23rd power, as in Avogadro's constant (remember your high school or college chemistry?), 6.022 x 1023, referring to "the number of "elementary entities" (usually atoms or molecules) in one mole, that is (from the definition of the mole), the number of atoms in exactly 12 grams of carbon-12" of a given substance. That is crucial here.

Homeopathy, as the Spiegel goes on skillfully to explain, is based on two nutty principles: the law of similars and the principle of dilution (even the names are stupid).  The first holds:
the cause of a symptom should also be treated with the cause. When treating someone, a homeopath considers which substance would cause the same symptoms in a healthy person. Arsenicum album, for example, which the activists in the campaign tried to overdose on, should in theory cause restlessness and nausea in a healthy person. But in an ill person, it is supposed to heal exactly these symptoms.
Dumb and baseless.  Still, the second is, if possible, even stupider:
The more a medical ingredient is diluted and shaken, the stronger its effect will be -- at least that's the assumption. But most homeopathic substances are so strongly diluted that molecules of the active ingredient can no longer be traced. Homeopaths still believe in the effects because they are convinced the water has a "memory."
Scientists shake their head in disbelief, for here's where Avogadro's constant comes in, as this graphic makes shockingly clear.

In other words, they're selling you very expensive water.

That's really all you need to know. 

The estimable Bob Park has been pointing this out for years (though nowadays he has to spend a lot of his time fighting the idiotic belief that cell phones cause brain cancer).

Still, read the rest. It's well worth it. There, you will see that sales of homeopathic remedies in Germany have risen from 148 to 267.8 million Euros (an increase of 81%) since 1993, and the number of German doctors with additional homeopathic training has reached 421,686: an increase of 203 percent over the same period.

Stupidity is tragic.  Duping people out of their money is tragic. Giving them false hope and perhaps shortening their lives by duping them out of their money is criminal.  And the larger tragedy, of course, is that, even as our modern welfare states are facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis driven in part by rising health care costs, societies are squandering precious resources on these frauds.

Bottom line: If you believe in homeopathy, you believe in a doctrine that violates the fundamental laws of chemistry and physics, and that's pretty scary. Do what you want to yourself, if you must, but I sure hope you are not preparing my food or designing my car.
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

27 July 1793 Robespierre Joins the Committee of Public Safety

On this day in 1793, Maximilien Isidore Robespierre joined the Committee of Pubic Safety.  A year later, to the day, his opponents arrested him and then sent him to the guillotine.

The Committee had been created in April, and then reorganized on 10 July at a time of crisis, when Danton's government fell. The French Revolution was threatened by an ongoing and disastrous foreign war and civil war at home.  The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat (13 July) only increased the tensions and fears.

As R. R. Palmer put it in his classic study of the Committee, Twelve Who Ruled:  The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (1941; rpt. 1969):
Anarchy within, invasion without. A country cracking from outside pressure, disintegrating from internal strain.  Revolution at its height.  War.  Inflation.  Hunger.  Fear.  Hate.  Sabotage.  Fantastic hopes. Boundless idealism.  And the horrible knowledge, for the men in power, that if they failed they would die as criminals, murderers of their king.  And the dread that all the gains of the Revolution would be lost.  And the faith that if they won they would bring Liberty, Equality and Fraternity into the world.
This was the situation in which the twelve men who came to the green room acted.

As for Robespierre, Palmer points out that he was not, contrary to popular belief, a would-be dictator or even a man with a plan.
In four years of revolutionary activity he had never held official power.

Robespierre had no detailed or specific program at this time.  His economic ideas were unformed.  He gave expression to the feelings that patriots most widely shared, glorifying the people, calling for vengeance upon aristocrats and traitors, urging that government bodies be purified, branding as counter-revolutionary both middle-class moderates and proletarian malcontents.  Eagerly heard at the Jacobins, respected as a democrat by the Commune, he was an idol, not a master, for the unruly cohorts from which he drew his strength.

He had a sense of the responsibility of government. Time and again he defended the Committee, even before he became a member.  He resisted the proposals of some excited contemporaries, when they suggested that the constituted authorities be cashiered wholesale, or that the Jacobins keep running to the Committee with petitions and advice, or that the Committee deliberate in public where all citizens could hear its plans.  He was aware, when he saw it in others, of one of the most unsettling of Jacobin proclivities, the habit of loose and unfounded denunciation, which undermined all feeling of confidence and security.  He noted, in others, the extravagance of oratory, the use of 'wild hyperbole and ridiculous and meaningless metaphors.' He believed that 'new men, patriots of a day, want to discredit in the people's eyes its oldest friends.'  Calling for order, authority, confidence, unity and efficiency, Robespierre was ceasing to be a revolutionary in the old sense of the word.  The term 'revolutionary' had itself undergone a change.  When men asked for revolutionary measures in 1793 they meant speedy and effective measures, not sweeping innovations.  'Revolutionary' referred to the stabilizing of an accomplished fact, the Revolution.
Robespierre expressed some of his own views in his defense of the Committee in 1793:
I know that we cannot flatter ourselves that we have attained perfection. But when one must support a republic surrounded by enemies, arm reason in favor of freedom, destroy prejudices, render void individual efforts against the public interest, moral and physical forces are necessary that nature has perhaps refused both to those who denounce us and those we combat.

. . . .

for two years, 100,000 men have been killed by treason or weakness; it is weakness before traitors that harms us. We are tender towards the most criminal men, towards those who deliver the fatherland to the enemy’s steel. I only know how to be moved by the fate of a generous people who are slaughtered with so much villainy (applause).

I add a word on our accusers: it cannot be that, on pretext of the freedom of opinion, a committee that serves the fatherland well should be slandered with impunity by those who, being able to crush one of the hydra heads of federalism, did not do so due to an excess of weakness,  . . .(applause.)

I say that it is not necessary to believe in probity in order to suspect the Committee of Public Safety (applause). That the tyrants who hate us, their salaried slanderers, the journalists who serve them so well spread those falsehoods to vilify us, this I can conceive. But it’s not up to us to ward off such charges and respond to them. It’s enough that I feel in my heart the strength to defend unto death the cause of the people, which is great and sublime. It’s enough for me to hold in contempt all the tyrants and the rascals who second them (applause).

I summarize and I say that all the explanations that have been given are insufficient. We can hold the slanderers in contempt, but the agents of the tyrants who surround us observe us and gather all they can to vilify the defenders of the people. It’s for them, it’s to ward off their impostures, that the National Convention must proclaim that it maintains its confidence in the Committee of Public Safety.

(Perils of Wikipedia:  I am in general a big fan of Wikipedia and its underlying principles, but I am also all too aware that many articles are shallow and shoddy (perils and pitfalls here, for example). The current entry on the Committee of Public Safety is a case in point, and a ratherpedestrian scribble. About the only sensible and meaningful statement in it is the explanation that the Committee was created at a time of national crisis. Someone, please fix this.)

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A Tale of Three Poetry Contests (hmmm . . . what rhymes with Jerusalem, entropy, and free trade?)

I know it is often said that poetry is hot again, so perhaps I should not be surprised at the appearance of several poetry competitions reaching well beyond the usual circles.

• The first is the more expected, socially engaged in an uplifting way (is there any other?):
Galway’s literary events organisation, Over The Edge, is looking for poems from poets worldwide on any aspect of the Israel-Palestine issue. The poems can be from any point of view. The only criteria being that they must work as poems and be in some way relevant to what has been happening in that part of the world.

We also welcome poems from those living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank on any aspect of life as it is lived there.

We will publish the poems as part of a special feature on the Over The Edge website.

The title of the project Will Days Indeed Come: I Come From There is borrowed from the titles of two poems: Will Days Indeed Come by Leah Goldberg and I Come From There by Mahmoud Darwish.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES: Poems should be e-mailed, both in the body of the e-mail and as an attachment to Poets should also simultaneously send a bio of no more than thirty words in the same format.  [h.t.: Harry's Place]
In the talkbacks, the organizers assure the curious and skeptical that they really do welcome all points of view.  It's easy to imagine how a topic such as this could generate all sorts of propaganda, so it's good to see the insistence that this be real poetry and not just activism in weak verse. (Heinrich Heine taught us that lesson more than 150 years ago, but some have yet to learn it.)

I suppose any starting point for such a contest would be that infamous old couplet:
How odd of God
To choose the Jews
Hard to be more concise and provocative than that.

• The second competition is a bit less conventional:
A Poetry Contest for science nerds

Category: Art
Posted on: July 25, 2010 2:11 PM, by PZ Myers

Dr Charles is having a Poetry Contest, with wonderful prizes to be awarded to the winner with the best poem about "experiencing, practicing, or reflecting upon a medical, scientific, or health-related matter."

It sounds great until you realize you're probably going to have to compete against the Cuttlefish.

• The third really rather takes one by surprise. 
Test your poetic skills in a competition organized in the context of the WTO Open Day on 19 September 2010. Put pen to paper and craft a poem on the WTO or international trade. Those of you who feel more at home with music can try your hand at a rap or slam poem. The competition is open to one and all. (details)
(h.t.: OD)
(That's: World Trade Organization, in case you didn't know.)

One's first reaction has to be: Is this a joke?  Second:  Are they really desperate, ow what?

As Shakespeare sighed in Sonnet 100:
Where art thou Muse that thou forget'st so long,
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
As for science verse,  I imagine the result as something like the "Square Root of 3" poem from "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay":
I’m sure that I will always be
A lonely number like root three

The three is all that’s good and right,
Why must my three keep out of sight
Beneath the vicious square root sign,
I wish instead I were a nine

For nine could thwart this evil trick,
with just some quick arithmetic

I know I’ll never see the sun, as 1.7321
Such is my reality, a sad irrationality

When hark! What is this I see,
Another square root of a three

As quietly co-waltzing by,
Together now we multiply
To form a number we prefer,
Rejoicing as an integer

We break free from our mortal bonds
With the wave of magic wands

Our square root signs become unglued
Your love for me has been renewed
(YouTube won't let us embed the code for his one, but you can view the clip here)

And then, there's that Cuttlefish guy again.

In all honesty, though there's more out there than you'd imagine.  My favorite recent science poem actually combines my love of science and book history.  It's a collaboration between poet Brad Leithauser (of neighboring Mount Holyoke College) and his brother Mark (an artist and curator at the National Gallery), published by the incomparable David Godine.

The opening poem of Lettered Creatures is entitled, "Alphabets:  A Greeting":
It seems we're each a sort of book—
  As scientists now say—
Composed in the four-letter alphabet
  Of our DNA;
Or call it a book-with-printing-press,
  Since we share the common fate
Of going out of print unless
  We manage to duplicate.
(It appears that Nature's Imperative
  Consists of one rule only: Live.)

So what does it mean—that we are books?
  Perhaps that you and I
(Along with the Mouse, the Moose, the Muskrat,
  Spider and Hangingfly,
The Ground Sloth and the bounding Gazelle,
  The neighbor
s ungodly Dog,
Some mite-sized Creature in a shell
  Under a fallen log,
The Eagle and the Bottom Feeder)
  Are each a writer and a reader.
Top that one, I dare you.

In point of fact, though, there is an honored tradition of science poetry, going back at least to Lucretius. Not all of it is great, but there was a time when science writing was not dry and technical and approached the lyrical, and when poets found the truths of science aesthetically compelling.

Who, for example, could forget Pope's immortal:
Nature and nature's laws lay hid in Night.
God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light"
or Voltaire's poem on the Lisbon Earthquake?

Of course, astronomy has perhaps always had a special appeal, though science here sometimes becomes an excuse to leave the analytical world of classroom and laboratory and return to unadulterated nature (old theme), as in Whitman's

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired, and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Speaking of Whitman and astronomy, Jay Adler recently called our attention to Whitman's striking "Year of Meteors" (1859-60), in which he combines his assessment of the natural and social worlds, linking the great meteor to the abortive rebellion of John Brown. An excerpt:
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange!—lo!
  even here, one equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this book,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?
At first sight, it's a bit hard to see how the WTO poems could compete with products from the other contests, but we should not be too quick to dismiss the possibilities.  Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1714) is a foundational text of capitalism.  Shakespeare, as is well known, is replete with references to the power of money, though that's only one reason that Karl Marx, who described his "favourite occupation" as "Book-worming," so admired him and drew upon his images and metaphors.  And, once you start to poke around, you can find economic references everywhere in the lyrical realm, from Swift's "The Run Upon the Bankers" (pretty obvious) to Shelley's "Queen Mab" (less so) and Allen Ginsberg's  "American Change" and Howard Nemerov's "Money: an introductory lecture" (on the "Indian Head Nickel" of yore). We don't even need to mention Ezra Pounds's fulminations on usury.

Coming up with poems on international trade could be a bit tougher, but I'll start you off with Schiller's "The Merchant" (1796), set in Classical Antiquity:
Der Kaufmann
Wohin segelt das Schiff? Es trägt Sidonische Männer,
Die von dem frierenden Nord bringen den Bernstein, das Zinn.
Trag’ es gnädig, Neptun, und wiegt es schonend, ihr Winde,
In bewirthender Bucht rausch’ ihm ein trinkbarer Quell.
Euch gehört der Kaufmann, ihr Götter. Er steuert nach Gütern,
Aber, geknüpft an sein Schiff, folget das Gute ihm nach.
And, more recently (1936), Carl Sandburg, portraying economic competition as tragic rather than heroic (the difference between those two ages), observed:
Money is power: so said one.
Money is a cushion: so said another.
Mnoney is the root of evil:  so said still another.
Money means freedom: so runs an old saying.

And money is all of these—and more.
Money pays for whatever you want—if you have the money.
Money buys food, slothes, houses, land, guns, jewels, women, women, time to be lazy and listen to music.
Money buys everything except love, personality, freedom, immortality, silence, peace.

Therefore men fight for money.
Therefore men steal, kill, swindle, walk as hypocrites and whited sepulchers.
Therfore men speak softly carrying plans, poisons, weapons, each in the design:  The words of his mouth were as butter but war was in his heart.

Therefore nations lay strangle holds on each other; bombardments open, tanks advance, salient ares seized, aviators walk on air; truckloads of amputated arms and legs are hauled away.

Money is power, freedom, a cushion, the root of all evil, the sum of blessings.
Probably not exactly what the WTO wants to hear, but you get the idea. Now, off you go:  write!

Wait: I almost forgot two crucial details.  The WTO poems must be:

• limited to 110 words:
now where did that number come from? Admittedly, you can fit in many a decent sonnet. Shakespeare's # 100 happens to contain 111 words.  Close, but no cigar.  And Kumar's lyrical masterpiece weighs in at a chunky 127.  Bummer, dude!  I guess there's always the rap song to shoot for.

• and written in Engiish, French, or Spanish.  Seems a wee bit ethnocentric to me.  Let's just forget the land of Dante, Goethe, and Pushkin—not to mention much of the "Third World." (Is that revealing, or what?)

Robert Frost managed to write poems about both astronomy and economics—separately, of course.

Come to think of it, though, it should be possible to come up with a poem that one could submit to all three contests:  say, about Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on wind turbines or green building.  Or perhaps an encomium to those two technocrats, Salam Fayyad and Shimon Peres.  Maybe the possibilities really are endless. (oh, yeah:  except that you couldn't use Arabic or Hebrew, of course)

In the case of all the contests, just two reminders:

1) In the eighteenth century—that greatest of eras, populated by more great intellects than any before or since—almost every author tried his hand at poetry, but much of it was garbage.  Being smart doesn't make you poetic.

2) Everyone can try to be a poet, but as the saying goes, "everyone is a critic."

So, write boldly, but carry a big stick.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cannibalism: Is it good for Amherst? ("Give me your zombies, your gore . . .")

Tartar cannibalism from a MS of Matthew Paris,...Image via Wikipedia

So, I'm sitting here working and I get a call from one of the newspapers.  The Town Manager was unavailable, as was the Select Board Chair (thanks, Stephanie), so I somehow ended up next on the list. It must have been a slow Friday all around.

At any rate, the reporter, Fred Contrada, had heard that the producers of a horror film involving cannibalism were thinking of filming either in Greenfield or in Amherst, and he wanted to know whether I had any comment. Obviously, he was looking for something provocative.

Now, one of the of the drawbacks of being an elected official—the Select Board is our collective chief executive officer, as the Town website explains it—is that you can't just say or scribble anything you want, because it might reflect on the Town as a whole.  I therefore had to stifle the urge to come up with several bad jokes, though given the persistent level of acrimony over such issues as Planning Board membership (1, 2, 3, 4) and the politics of the Amherst and Regional School Committees (1, 2, 3, 4, 5,), gory violence sometimes seems the only element lacking in the drama.

Anyway, here’s the backstory. Forty-four of the fifty states—Michigan and Massachusetts among them—offer subsidies to filmmakers who want to shoot there, as part of their economic development and tourism programs. As Michael Cieply of the New York Times observes, “Whether such payments ultimately benefit a state and its economy has been the subject of ferocious debate.” Reason magazine was more blunt: for Michigan to spend $ 132 million per year to support the film industry when its 14-percent unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, is “stone-crazy.”

Be that as it may, debate in this case turned on a specific film. As the Times explained, Andrew van den Houten “became one of the first to take advantage of Michigan’s generous subsidy . . . when he made 'Offspring,' a cannibalism-themed horror picture." (Plot summary:  "Survivors of a feral flesh-eating clan are chowing their way through the locals.")  However, when he attempted to secure similar support for the sequel, entitled, ”The Woman,” the Great Lake State turned him down.  Mr. van den Houten felt it was about content.  The Film Commissioner said it was about financing but was also quoted as criticizing “this extreme horror film’s subject matter, namely realistic cannibalism; the gruesome and graphically violent depictions described in the screenplay; and the explicit nature of the script,” as a result of which “This film is unlikely to promote tourism in Michigan or to present or reflect Michigan in a positive light.” Puzzled and hurt, the filmmaker assured the Times interviewer that the new film was less gory than its predecessor. “We had babies in the first movie,” he added, helpfully.

Enter Massachusetts.  Herewith some relevant excerpts from Mr. Contrada's witty piece in the Springfield Republican:
Director Andrew van den Houten movie cannibals hunger for Western Massachusetts
Published: Sunday, July 25, 2010, 7:00 AM

GREENFIELD - Michigan didn’t have much of an appetite for it, but Greenfield’s mayor finds it quite palatable that his town might be the setting for “The Woman,” a movie filled with cannibalism and more cannibalism. Whether the project would be tasteful in Amherst is another question. . . .

According to the film company, both Greenfield and Amherst are in the running as production sites. . . .

Whether or not “The Woman” will stimulate tourism in Greenfield or Amherst is anybody’s guess. Greenfield Mayor William F. Martin said he has heard little about the project but is not pre-judging it.

“If they’re going to make a (Martin) Scorsese film in town or this one, it’s not something that’s going to have a huge impact on our economic base,” he said. “I can’t judge it without seeing it. If they’re here, fine. I hope they like the area.”

Amherst Select Board member James J. Wald said he has heard nothing about the movie but doubts it will taint the town’s reputation for peace, tolerance and whole foods.

“ ‘Godzilla’ and ‘King Kong’ didn’t make a big difference in Tokyo and New York,” he said. “As long as they’re not showing Amherst people as cannibals.” . . .

The New York Times reported this week that “The Woman” could begin shooting Aug. 2.

Officials from the Massachusetts Film Office could not be reached Friday. Massachusetts offers filmmakers a 25 percent tax credit on money spent in the state. In recent years, that has been enough to draw movies like “Shutter Island” and “Gone Baby Gone” to the Bay State. In 2008, parts of the Mel Gibson movie “Edge of Darkness” were filmed in Northampton and Deerfield. Although Gibson’s character shot and punched numerous people in that film, he did not eat any of them.
Can't remember whether I actually made reference to peace, tolerance, and whole foods, but if I did, it was certainly tongue-in-cheek.  Bottom line: I can't seriously imagine that the location of a horror film affects how people view that place in real life—I mean, if we're talking about a town or city and not The Bates Motel.  And that applies to real crime stories, too.  Now that the fuss has died down, Jack the Ripper actually seems quite a tourist draw for London.

The jokes have already begun.

Among the top talkback's to Fred's piece:
"I've BEEN to Greenfield. There's NOTHING worth eating up there! ;) "
"Amherst is the perfect setting for a film about cannibilism. Residents have been full of themselves for as long as I can remember."
Michael Cieply, writing in the Times media blog, suggested a new tourist slogan: “Come to Massachusetts: We Love Cannibals!” (eye-catching, though not particularly witty).

Of course, if we're going to take cannibalism, film, and cultural tourism seriously, we'll need to do it up big, and really re-brand ourselves.  I could imagine a big statue in Boston harbor, with an inscription:
The New Anthropophage

. . . . . . . . . .
. . . Give me your zombies, your gore.
Your people-eaters yearning to eat men,
Send these, the hungry, horrible to me,
I lift my fork beside the holding pen!
Seriously, as long as they "spell our name right"—and, if speaking it, do not pronounce the "h"—most people around here will be satisfied (or is that:  satiated?)

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iPhone GIS app—plus great new web interface for Amherst mapping

There's a new iPhone app that lets you access the world of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and is already getting good reviews.

GIS-Administrator Mike Olkin of our own Town IT Department, who draws our attention to the above, has also helpfully put up links to both aerial and property maps for our own area. You can see his impressively convenient and useful multi-base local map (web-accessible, requires no special software) here.
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