I’ve written once before about the reasons I run marathons on this blog, but considering that I just ran Paris and the events yesterday in Boston, I wanted to add something more.
Last time I mentioned that part of my love for these races is in their democracy and openness. There are no other sporting events where amateurs get to compete on the same course and at the same time as the world’s best. We don’t get to pitch to Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium or bike up the Alps in the Tour de France. At a marathon, everyone gets a bib, everyone faces the same course, and everyone gets the same fans. And we all get the same medal at the end. It’s the most open sporting competition we have, and yet, (almost) no one is competing against the runner next to them.
Paris was my first time running a marathon not in New York and it was also my first time running alone. Being alone and away from my home course, I spent more time talking with other runners than my previous races. I spoke with runners from around the world in French, Hebrew, and English. I talked to a guy wearing the same 2011 NYC marathon shirt that I was wearing. We agreed starting at the Arc de Triomphe sure beats taking a ferry to Staten Island at 6 am. I struggled mightily to explain in French the benefits of running in the Vibram barefoot shoes. A guy next to me kept me from falling when I slipped on an orange peel (like I tweeted, cartoons have it all wrong – orange peels are way more slippery than banana peels). Mostly, I chatted with whoever was next to me, and we talked about how our races were. Runners support each other. Runners help each other along. Runners are rooting for everyone to hit their personal best.
I don’t know why, but there is an instinctive investment in not just your race, but other runners’ races too. When friends are running races in far off cities, I always follow along.
This is why yesterday was so hard for me to see. It’s why I’m so sad today. I believe that these races are society at its best: openness and equality among competitors, people striving beyond themselves for new accomplishments, and absolute communal cooperation. And those are just the runners. We have fans spend hours lining city streets to support total strangers from other countries. That is a world I want to live in.
It is openness, community, and cooperation that were attacked yesterday. This microcosm of a better society was attacked, and I feel worse for it. But I’ll keep running. New York in November. Maybe Boston next April. When I hit mile 26, I will help the runner next to me with their final push, and think of Boston.
I just read that Inequality for All, a film by Jacob Kornbluth starring Robert Reich was acquired for $750,000 by a Weinstein brothers subsidiary. And I am kind of pissed about it. When I first saw their Kickstarter I thought, wow this is great. Reich is a smart guy and a passionate and interesting lecturer, and we need more discussion about the mechanisms behind US economic inequality.
And then I saw their backer rewards.
A $100 pledge was required to get a digital copy. For a movie about economic inequality. Someone must have saw the irony, right? Apparently, financing their movie earns you the right to pay eight times the price of admission in a movie theater. But hey, for $50 you got to watch a whole scene! It was beyond offputting to see a man who makes $250,000 a year, has several best selling books, has a speaker fee of over $40,000, and surely has plenty of loaded friends, ask the crowd for money, and offers them almost nothing in return.
But to clarify, its not because Reich is rich or even that the movie could have gained financing elsewhere. What’s problematic is that this movie is clearly intended to be a money making endeavor and is using charity to get there. The movie is already being favorably compared to Inconvenient Truth, which made almost $50 million dollars at the box office.
Of late, there’s been some confusion about Kickstarter in the press, with headlines like “Why Would You Ever Give Money Through Kickstarter” and “Is it OK to Use Kickstarter to Make Money”. (Quick answers: to buy shit* and yes, that’s kind of the point). I think the confusion comes from not understanding how free market behavior and altruistic behavior can coexist on one platform. I don’t see why it’s so confusing. I can back a project as a way to pre-order a product (and, because I’m taking a risk and saving the creator money on the cost of financing, I expect some sort of discount). Or I can back a worthwhile project without financial viability, from a patronizing-the-arts motivation. The problems arise when project creators blur those lines. There’s no problem with people starting businesses or money making projects on Kickstarter. It’s a problem when their rewards don’t reflect that motivation.
People are free to do what they want with their money. I’m just offended that 451 people gave between $5 and $49 and only got a thank you (ok, half got a thank you and their name in the credits). These people gave money to a project that could have easily rewarded backers with a copy of the movie or something equivalent. Instead, the filmmakers protected their ability to sell the rights to the movie at later date by limiting the number of viewers of the film.
When I wrote about Girl Walk All Day and Kickstarter over a year ago, what I found so exciting was that the movie was flipping the media model on its head. Movies and music traditionally maintain value by limiting access, GWAD made their movie free and found ways to make money through movie related experiences and merchandise. Instead of limiting access, they made the movie as accessible as possible. That was the only way to find people willing to pay for the experiences they were offering. The people behind Inequality for All are doing the opposite. They’re maintaining the old way of doing business, limiting access to to their creation, all while posing as a group that just needs your help to get a message out.
And this is where I have a suggestion for Kickstarter. I think along with disclosures about project risks, there should be a disclosure about future financing and business plans. I want to know the price that will be attached to the product I funded. I want to know what the project organizers’ plans are long-term for the project, and I want to know why they think $100 is the right price to get a digital download of their movie.
Clearly the market did not agree with me on this one (Inequality for All exceeded their $75,000 target), but I would wager that some of their backers would be less than pleased to hear about the movie’s acquisition. And will probably be even more displeased when it’s making bank at the box office and they have to fork over full admission to go see a movie they themselves financed.
* Shit doesn’t just mean stuff, also included is the emotional satisfaction you get from helping create something wonderful. But mostly stuff.
This Week in Old New Yorkers is pretty self explanatory – but here’s my intro if you’re confused.
We recently went to the Museum of Arts et Metiers in Paris, and part of the museum has early French flying machines – most of which never actually succeeded at flying. They were awesome to look at (think bicycles with giant wings based on various flying animals), but there was also a tinge of sadness. These devices were built to reach new heights and instead ended up in a museum in a former French church. They are footnotes to the progress of science.
I knew I was in the for that same sense of disappointment when I started reading a John McPhee profile in the Feb 24th, 1973* New Yorker about Aereon, a company trying to revive airship technology. Considering airships were a mostly abandoned technology in the 70s and still are today (Goodyear blimp notwithstanding), it was clear this company wouldn’t be changing aerospace history even before the end of the article.
The company’s story on the other hand, had everything; an overzealous, borderline criminal founder who over-hypes the technology to the Wall St Journal, an ensuing SEC investigation once the first tests fail, and an evangelical Presbyterian minister taking over the company as a way to serve God. The minister’s redirection and funding for the company culminated in several suspenseful tests taking the model airship to the air.
Despite the test flight’s success, the company never secured additional funding to develop their airships. By the end of the article, the Aereon 26 test airship is sitting in a hangar in New Jersey, where it still sits today. William Miller, the minister who took over Aereon, is still running it 39 year later, though not much has happened since the test flight.
Oddly, as soon as I started reading John McPhee’s Areon profile, I found three different blimp related articles in my twitter feed. Proving that a) the technology isn’t completely dead and b) anything and everything is being discussed on the internet at all times, and you’re probably not paying attention. In the last week, the US government announced its decision to stop funding the last spy blimp (who knew we even had a spy blimp?) due to military cuts; and the Canadian parliament launched a study of the viability of airships for reaching northern communities that may be stranded by climate change-driven ice-road melting. They’ve already given a grant to a Canadian startup Solar Ship that integrates solar power into its airship design. Another company in California has recently finished construction of a 17 story airship for the US military that’s intended to be used for air freight.
I guess this goes to show that maybe the technology isn’t dead. Maybe Willaim Miller is right for continuing to fight the good fight 30+ years after Aereon’s successful test flight. Maybe science and industry made the wrong choice in abandoning the airship, and maybe that’s changing now.
* The article is actually the third in a series on the company, all part of a book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, which I now fully intend on reading
Last week I was in the car with my company’s CEO. It was night, and all of a sudden he takes out his phone to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower as we drive by. I was completely taken by surprise A) because he was driving and Parisian drivers are crazy enough as is and B) because he’s a life-long Parisian so what the hell was he doing? Turns out his family has a thing going on where whenever they have a good view, they take pictures of the Eiffel Tower at night, and email it to eachother.
He started talking effusively about the Eiffel Tower and began lamenting how society stopped building these types of ambitious projects solely for the sake of beauty. I was a bit taken aback because six or seven years ago I had the same exact conversation (though in a different language) with a college photography professor about the St. Louis Arch. This man loved the Arch like nothing else, and would go on and on about its beauty and form and how terrible it is that we’ve stopped pursuing grand projects, which serve no purpose except as communal art.
To a certain degree they were both right, we don’t do these things anymore. Instead, most ambitious building projects from cities these days are giant ferris wheels (seriously, what’s with all the ferris wheels? It’s terrifying up on those things).
Beyond art though , the Arch and Eiffel Tower both have an economic aspect, and it’s interesting to compare them. The Eiffel Tower was supposed to make money from the beginning. Gustav Eiffel put up the majority of the money (1.3M out of 1.5M francs) to fund the project in exchange for collecting ticket revenues for the monument’s first twenty years. He set up a management company and from the first day, admission was charged, and almost from the get go vendors relentlessly sold keepsakes. It’s no surprise that the Eiffel Tower has been self funding. In 2005, the city of Paris continued this tradition by transferring management to a public/private partnership that has raised prices, renovated the restaurants and increased revenue. In 2009, they took in 65.7M Euros in revenue, giving 8.5M to the city in royalties, and keeping 3.3M in earnings to reinvest in the tower.
I happen to think the Arch is just as strikingly elegant as the Eiffel Tower, but its management pales in comparison. For the three decades it took to plan and build the Arch the focus was on raising money for building and acquiring the land. Seventy five percent of the money was raised from the federal government with the rest coming from a joint Missouri/Illinois organization. There were no plans for operations funding. And while the National Parks Service created a small sub-organization to manage the Arch, several organizations were always involved, and tensions between the city and other involved organizations existed from the planning stages . Without a sole management body, and a small federal government organization in charge, the Arch grounds have been largely neglected. Despite its overwhelming awesomeness, the Arch is not a great place to visit. Getting there is difficult and involves crossing over an open highway and the park itself is small and uninviting. The structure itself is dealing with rust and decay. In the last few years a public/private non-profit launched a design competition to reconstruct the park and a local sales taxes was passed to help raise funds, but – just as it was when the Arch was originally built – the focus seems to be on drawing up plans and raising money, no on sustaining the long term aesthetic and financial health of the Arch. Plenty of people are unhappy with the plan and its unclear who is in charge and if the project is proceeding on time. The Arch itself is amazing, and it brought economic development to downtown St. Louis in the 60s, but it’s shadow of what it could be.
These types of monuments are great investments. If done right, they certainly pay for their construction costs through on site revenue and nearby economic development. They inspire locals and define cities. I want more of them – just like my professor and my boss – I just want them managed like the Eiffel Tower and not the Arch.
If you don’t know about This Week in Old New Yorker - here’s my explanation
This is the opening of Jonathan Schell’s 1986 New Yorker piece on the Polish opposition movement;
“Rarer by far than originality in science or art, is originality in political action. And rarer still is original political action that enlarges, rather than blights or destroys, human possibilities. The opposition movement in Poland — which remains active four years after General Wojcieh Jaruzelski declared ‘a state of war’ and banned the independent trade-federation Solidarity — has made, it seems to me, such a contribution to the world”
That’s a very bold statement to make, and it quickly had me hooked. Here’s how Schell explains the above sentiment during his introduction:
“Inasmuch as it has not overthrown, or even sought to overthrow, the state, it might be said to have fallen short. Yet as though to make up for that deficiency, it has been all the more thorough, in other areas of life – the social, the cultural, the moral, the spiritual. In no area, however has it been more thorough than in the area of its own practices. In that respect, it is not just a revolution; it is a revolution in revolution”
Schell’s argument throughout the article is roughly as follows: because of nuclear weapons, the effectiveness of violence has been muted and thus there would be no military invasion to end totalitarianism in Poland. The opposition knows this and also knows that they could never hope to make progress by fighting the government with violence or becoming a part of the totalitarian system.
Instead of attempting to overthrow the government and then implement their desired policies, Solidarity worked outside of government focusing on building up their desired elements of civil society. They did this where government was absent and simply acted “as if” the limits on their freedom didn’t exist. Solidarity adopted policies of operation exactly opposite to the elements of the government they opposed. They insisted on militant transparency and openness. Their behavior was as much a part of their defiance as what they were building. The means were themselves part of the ends.
I spent a lot of the article thinking about the Occupy movement. I’m clearly not equating opposing totalitarianism with Occupy, but it’s easy to see how much of a debt they owe to movements like Solidarity. Most importantly, I think Occupy has evolved toward ways of addressing their biggest issues outside of government–after finding little room for progress within the intractability of our political system.
One example, and possibly my favorite thing to happen in 2012, is the Rolling Jubilee. Instead of attempting to protest and lobby government for tighter regulations on predatory debt collectors, Rolling Jubilee addresses the issue by buying debt for pennies on the dollar and forgiving the purchased loans. Since November, they’ve raised over $500K to forgive $11M in distressed medical loans. Instead of fighting, Occupy is acting as they would like the financial establishment to behave, and in the process highlighting for the broader public the insanity of a system where collectors can buy loans for pennies on the dollar and then harass poor families for full repayment. They published a manual for handling debt, a counter force to the obfuscation of fine print. Occupy also followed in Soidarity’s footsteps with their tremendous response to Hurricane Sandy, they filled the roles left vacant by government and clearly demonstrated to the broader public how the recovery response was lacking.
Throughout the article, it was striking to me – with the benefit of hindsight – how much Schell and his subjects completely underestimated the probability of change occurring. The general sense in the article was that with nuclear weapons in existence the world order was not going to change anytime soon. The opposition was resigned to a long-term existence with totalitarianism and working around the edges of government to make change. A crippled Soviet Union falling within the decade was not on anyone’s mind. Our assumptions about the pace of change are often radically wrong; something that Solidarity – then – and Occupy – now – should keep in mind.
In my parent’s basement, more than anything else, there are New Yorker Magazines. In fact, there is every New Yorker starting from sometime in the 1970s. When I was younger, I would only occasionally pick up old issues. Usually I was be drawn in by the covers, and completely terrified of knocking over a chronologically ordered stack. More often than not, I would pretty quickly give up because, well, 12 year old boys and 20 year old New Yorkers rarely go together. But I always felt bad. All those magazines just sitting, waiting, never being read – despite (most likely) being full of better material than whatever was being read upstairs. I started thinking about all this the other week with Jason Kottke’s post about a three part New Yorker profile of Hitler from 1936.
The internet has done my parent’s basement one better and made the entire New Yorker archive available online to subscribers. And much like in my house, I imagine the thousands of articles and stories largely go unread. The size and speed of the internet has created two somewhat contradictory developments: vast amounts of historical and archival information is readily available and yet – because information travels so fast – anything more than a few days old seems incredibly stale. I find that unfortunate. I like reading old blog posts and magazine archives. More often than not, there’s a whole lot more to learn than from whatever is being published today.
In an effort to make amends to all those old magazines in my parents basement and to take a very tiny stand against the short term consumption patterns of the internet, I’m starting a series on the blog. I’m going to pick a New Yorker article from this week in a previous year, point you in it’s direction, and write down a few thoughts. Here we go.
I realize the blog has been dormant the last few months. But we’ve been getting acquainted with France. And frankly, given the choice between enjoying France and writing the blog, it wasn’t very close. But I figure its time to get going again.
Transportation costs a lot more in France than it does in the US. Drive the 200 miles between Poitiers and Paris and the tolls cost 36 euro (~$48). Alternatively, you can drive the entire 1,925 miles of I-95 from Maine to Florida for $35.25 (and a third of that – sadly – goes to New Jersey). Gas costs $7.84 a gallon in France right now compared to $3.64 in the US.
An applicable cover from Soulive while you read:
Given all of that and the train system, it’s not especially surprising that France’s car ownership is 578 cars per 1000 people, whereas in the US it’s 812. But people still need to get places and in the last several years rideshares have become very popular here thanks to the magic of the internet, specifically the dominant website, Covoiturage. I’ve long lamented the lack of ridesharing in the US. Every time I’ve had the misfortune of being in a car during rush hour in New York, I’ve found myself amazed at the fact that nearly every car has only one person in it. But in France, with these prices, not posting a ride share is straight up financial negligence for most drivers. A driver can feel the costs of four empty seats burning through his wallet. And that’s a good thing, because those are four wasted seats.
Covoiturage has made traveling around France without a car exponentially easier for us. It’s frequently cheaper than the trains and has let us get to places outside of the standard rail network. It’s easy to use and there’s almost always a ride going where we want to go. Each time we’ve used Covoiturage, our drivers have basically all said the same thing: It costs a lot to travel, but they have to do it and this is a great way of making back the money. In other words, price matters. Similarly, at the grocery store here, shopping bags cost an extra 25 euro-cents. It’s not a huge cost by any means, but it certainly encourages people to bring reusable bags. When you slap a price on something, people become much more cognizant of their consumption decisions.
This is all just really a long way of me saying I’m sad that these things are free in the US. I’m sad congress won’t get its act together and pass a carbon tax. Or that cities and states won’t implement congestion taxes. Not just because raising prices decreases use, but because innovation needs the right market environment to take hold. Technology isn’t what’s holding the US back from something like broader adoption of ridesharing. Subsidized roads and the ability to freely emit carbon is. French people are not especially into hanging out with strangers in their cars, they just face a market that makes ridesharing, and reducing carbon emissions in the process, a cost effective way of traveling.