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GP 11 June 2008: Two Steps Forward; One Step Backwards

Inching Forward.  We’ve had a dreadful time getting our arms around the 21st century, and 2008 still finds us wistful about the 20th.  With the end of the Cold War, we had a magnificent opportunity to get on with things, but our leaders in politics, business, education, religion, and so forth, dragged their feet.  Both the Clintons and the Bushes muffed it, and they will be known sadly as opportunists who did not seize on golden opportunity.  We have experienced twenty years of inertia, always looking backwards. 

But the forces of the mind, of nature, and of history’s dialectic will not be denied, and the little dramas that have been happening in the wings are about to move onstage. History does not shrink from its task, and it is bursting out.

1. Up Against the Wall.  The world’s most important corporation is beginning to change by fits and starts.  We have been keeping track of this for you on “Watching Wal-Mart.”  It is extraordinarily provincial, headquartered in the Clintons’ Arkansas, and it has not changed its formula to adjust to a changed world and to its hugely influential position in that new world.  As we have hinted time and again on the Global Province, the task of the modern corporation is to become ever more global and to realize that it is here to make society work rather than to simply make shareholders happy. 

Wal-Mart is beginning to do that, though many of its detractors have not caught on.  Even the New York Times is beginning to see that it is getting greener and a bit more socially responsible as recounted in “Wal-Mart’s Detractors Come in from the Cold” (June 5, 2008, pp. C1 & C4).  It’s thought that the appointment of a next-generation Walton, Gregory B. Penner (see the Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2008, p. B1) suggests that the company is getting off its duff.  The new improved Wal-Mart “Reaches out to Candidates, Congress” (see WSJ, June 7-8, 2008, p. A6), promising to be a partner on social issues.  We would caution investors, however, not to be carried away.  There were “Smiles All Around at Wal-Mart’s Annual Meeting” (WSJ, June 7, 2008, p. B2), with good feelings about its social stance, stock price, and rebounding growth.  The euphoria is too heady, even if Sam Walton’s place is becoming a somewhat better citizen.  Its strategy and its operations are still not at all straightened out, and long-term investors should be wary.  Its dilemma can be summed up easily.  Its low cost, sub-par quality mantra is still in place, and it’s the wrong goal for this global giant.  Until Wal-Mart provides an equitable mix of good quality and reasonable cost—like the Sears of old—it will not be a healthy company.  Two steps forward. One step backwards. Its naysayers, correctly, are still at the wailing wall. 

2  Infrastructure.  Again and again on the Global Province, we have suggested that our country’s infrastructure is worn out and outdated.  Because of horrendous federal policy, even our new pathways for cell phones, broadband, and cable are being built in the worst possible way—with different, conflicting technical standards that are not aligned with what is happening outside U.S. borders.  As well, wasteful duplication and lack of universal coverage have been cultivated by shortsighted telecommunication providers.

Nonetheless, the question of infrastructure, a step at a time, is moving to the center stage. Some realize that something far better is needed.  For instance, “Water-Starved California” has slowed “Development” (New York Times, June 7, 2008, pp. A1 & A13).  “Water authorities and other government agencies scattered throughout the state … have begun denying, delaying or challenging authorization for dozens of housing tracts and other developments under a state law that requires a 20-year water supply as a condition for building.”  In the South and Southwest, politicians are popping up who are trying to restrain the suicidal growth that is making an economic and environmental wasteland of both regions.  Cary, North Carolina, for instance, has elected a slow-growth mayor.  There are no particular signs that we are beginning to construct the right kind of infrastructure, but at least citizens are starting to kick back against the rape of the land.

The key to better infrastructure design lies in the substitution of software for physical resources that are costly and limited.  It is clear, for instance, that smart systems can take 25% out of building energy costs.  Or that water can be used more thriftily when systems on the shelf are pressed into use.  Or that internet connections are the way to spread practical know-how, preventive healthcare, and a host of  vital public services throughout the states, all of which are short on cash.. More about this in future letters.

3. Portland-City of Roses.  You never know who has a foot in the future, who is chained to the past.  But amongst those who speculate about such things, we hear that Portland is the go-forward city in the United States.  According to Wikipedia, it is “noted for strong land-use planning and investment in public transit, supported by Metro, a distinctive regional-government scheme.”  “This climate is ideal for growing roses, and for more than a century, Portland has been known as ‘The City of Roses’ with many rose gardens—most prominently the International Rose Test Garden.  Portland is also known for its large number of microbreweries and its coffee houses.” 

“Portland’s urban growth boundary, adopted in 1979, separates urban areas (where high-density development is encouraged and focused) from traditional farm land (where restrictions on non-agricultural development are very strict).  This was atypical in an era when automobile use led many areas to neglect their core cities in favor of development along interstate highways, in suburbs, and satellite cities.”

We hear frequently from our readers about Portland.  One lady, a recent émigré there, writes of a SoHo type of improvement:  “It's called the Pearl District and it’s kind of like the South of Market area in San Francisco—it used to have a lot of warehouses/industrial buildings and they’re turning them into lofts and they have also built a ton of new buildings—condos—down there.  Very urban and hip—it’s a lot of fun.  They may be overbuilding, as they usually do, but it’s all good right now.   Lots of great restaurants here, as well—some rather famous like Wildwood, Paley’s, Blue Hour, and one of our favorites is an Italian place called Serratto.  An investment banker (and his wife) who used to work for Montgomery Securities in San Francisco bought it a few years ago hoping to fuse his love of food and wine with a good business and I think he has.”

To grasp further what Portland is trying, see “Is Portland Winning the War on Sprawl?”  As a practical matter, today’s challenge is to deal creatively with large populations which, for our health and for our pocketbooks, means building high density clumps interspersed with areas that are virtually development free.  It also means heavy use of sidewalks and bicycle corridors in urban areas, something embraced by Enrique Penalosa, the onetime mayor of Bogota.  Intelligent planning of urban spaces has a great deal to do with knowledge transfer and middleman-free commerce, the fastest creators of wealth in the modern nation.

4. Brain Cancer.  A number of friends near and far have been taken down by brain cancer in the last 5 years.  But we’re making headway, as you will find in Brain Stem and Stitch in Time on the Global Province.  Several aspects of treatment have become much more sophisticated as indicated by the recent operation on Senator Ted Kennedy at Duke University.  We would caution sufferers against treatment at Duke because of repeated instances of hospital error there, although its brain cancer effort is celebrated around the country.  We will be putting up many entries about new brain cancer treatments and new discoveries on the Global Province, including the use of viruses to eradicate cancers and to provide immunization.

Very significant is the recent appointment of Max Wallace to head up Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure-ABC2.  Steve Case, the force behind AOL, has put money and effort into brain cancer ever since the untimely loss of his brother to brain cancer.  With ABC2, the Cases hoped to speed things up through better funding, cutting some bureaucratic knots, and backing the right horses.  Wallace, onetime head of a couple of Research Triangle companies, as well as an administrator at Duke, has a penchant for moving research out of the ivory tower into the marketplace.  In fact, he has worked on a number of accelerator schemes, trying in particular to move biotech ideas into the marketplace, even though they do not offer the short term speculative gains that well up from electronic innovations.  Wallace begins at ABC2 in August.  More seamless connections between universities and the marketplace promises to accelerate innovation in several spheres. What’s at question here is how we really make global knowledge management really work well enough to make good things happen.

5. Spreading the Word.  Despite ever more complex communications networks and supposedly competitive media empires, it is interesting and perhaps refreshing to know how news and culture and thoughts spread.  Even with newspapers and TV networks and round the clock cable-TV gossip, the reporting and opinion about the presidential contests have been trivial.

So you have to root around to find the informal resources that are offering us far more. One surprise, for instance, has been the Democratic Convention Watch blog.  There you can find the most accurate take on the delegate count.  It is about the only place where you can easily find out that Obama had 2243 votes lined up for the Convention as of June 6.  Or that delegate Senators Carl Levin and Joe Biden, former VP Al Gore, Representative Ed. Markey of Massachusetts, etc. are busy sitting on the fence and not voting for anybody, and might be labeled politicians of low conviction.  We hope somebody will do something equivalent for the Republicans.  It is reported that some college students are suffering from extreme news fatigue, and hoping that more intelligent reporting will come along to replace the din spewed out by newsmouths.  Interestingly, new, largely unpaid blogs and the like are filling the void left by the official media.

Likewise, it is not the Voice of America nor our universities that transmit American culture to the world.  Nor CNN.  Not even our moviemakers.  Foreign rock bands and the Soviet Army chorus joyfully carried America into Finland and the Russian land mass.  For instance, we can recommend the rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama”  performed by the Leningrad Cowboys and the Soviet Army Chorus.  Who would have dreamed that “Sweet Home,” when set loose on the world in 1974, would have made it across several cultural divides?  But it and several other recherché American favorites have made it through Northern spheres courtesy of musicians from abroad.  That’s how things get around the world.  Unexpected, somewhat spontaneous, channels are springing up to move information hither and thither, as official channels stumble and fail to do the job. In general the several arts—music, painting, photography, literature—are the media that most help citizens cross boundaries and overcome alienation.

Ties in Retreat.  We have rhapsodized here about all the signs of progress that we are loathe to report on the occasional decline and fall in the West.  It turns out that we have had a recent catastrophe that ranks right up there with the introduction of the typewriter or the invention of the telephone—both of which have weakened Western Civilization.  Men’s neckties are going the way of manners, and thank you notes.  It is reported that the Men’s Dress Furnishings Association has shut its doors.  It represented all the tie makers, who, as it turns out, are in a downward spiral.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of men wearing ties to work has dropped from 10% in 2002 to 6% last year, and sales have halved since 1995.  As well, foreign competition has annihilated domestic producers.  Now we are to confront yet more obese, tired-looking men sans ties and more during dress-down Fridays and even at the clubs, who already look to be the victims of God’s wrath, shamelessly displaying folds of flesh on face and belly, forgetting that only formality and style and ties can hold together their wretched selves.  At least Mr. Obama proudly sports a tie on most occasions.

P.S.  We are recommending bow ties for men of mettle.  We remember that the historian and New Frontiersman Arthur Schlesinger wore bow ties, and they even gave him a one up on the Kennedy crowd.  Perhaps the nicest of all were fashioned by Design Research, now defunct, with fabric from Marimeko.  Bow ties also make your martinis taste better.

P.P.S.  The list of infrastructure problems grows longer by the day.  Garbage dumps will no longer suffice to hold our garbage.  Naples has run out of room for its outpouring.  Temporarily it is sending train loads to Hamburg, Germany—a city that has tamed its refuse with 3 modern incinerators and a rigorous recycling program.

P.P.P.S.  Over the years the Duke public relations department has done a wonderful job convincing the national press that the DUMC (Duke University Medical Center) walks on water.  None has fallen for its siren call more than Time Magazine, which devoted an issue to its wonders.  The press has not looked carefully enough.  Duke has badly botched transplants and has washed its medical instruments with hydraulic fluid.  Duke does much interesting medical research, but its everyday procedures and organization would appear to be flawed.  It badly needs to read and absorb Atul Gawande’s thoughts on checklists as a means of stemming hospital error.

P.P.P.P.S.  It’s blazing out there. Put on your sunscreen.  The dermatologists seem to be recommending Kinesys.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Portland has all manner of interesting hotel.  The Ace tantalizes, if one needs offbeat.  Others, such as the Benson, offer comforts not available a decade or so back.


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