Thursday, December 8, 2011

Climate Change Subject Causes More Heat Than Light


(From the December 8, 2011 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking about “global warming” recently, as the weather gets colder.

Currently the mantra of climate change is that the earth is warming significantly, and that man is the cause. Others have doubts about the particulars behind this claim and the projections that come from it. But attempts to discuss the topic rationally seem to generate more warming instead of illumination.

In spite of Al Gore and others trying to settle the issue rhetorically by asserting oversimplified mantras, there is much about the science of climate change that is still open to rational and scientific consideration.

Attempts to persuade people to the global warming cause by demonizing those with doubts can only be counter-productive because that’s more propaganda than science. No one likes to be told to accept something “because I said so.” This may be why a Pew Research Center poll last week showed that those who think global warming is “very serious” or “somewhat serious” is down from 79% in 2006 to 65% this year, and those who think there is solid evidence that the earth is warming due to man-made activity is down from 47% in 2006 to 38% currently.

The discussion needs to continue and should do so productively, which is best done by employing the scientific method. Since the early 1900s, thanks to philosopher of science Karl Popper, scientific theories were considered more legitimate if they could not be “falsified.” In other words, attempting to disprove science is part of science, not a denial of it.

In that spirit, we can consider a list of reasonable questions about the claims in the climate change mantra.

Is the current observable temperature warming trend significant? Some high temperature records have been set in the past decade, but records have only been kept for 150 years. Temperatures were much higher in earlier eras, and consequences were not catastrophic. Read on.

A related question has to do with man being the cause of global warming. The Keeling Curve is a measure of the parts per million of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere measured since the late 1950s. The scale does go up since the first measurements, but one can wonder if the span of 60 years is long enough to assert that this spike will continue to go up or whether it will level and reduce again in the future. Such a question is reasonable given that, as pointed out in an article in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic, there was a massive surge of carbon in the atmosphere 56 million years ago in what is called the Paleocene-Eocene era. The magazine rightly notes that this carbon increase is unexplained, and certainly was not the result of man-made causes. We have to consider that the increasing temperatures in merely the past 60 years have multiple causes with some of them being natural. While humans burning fossil fuels may be part of the cause, the natural scientific question would be what percentage of the variance in global temperature increase is explained by man-made causes?

That leads to a long-standing scientific caution about correlation and causality. Just because the increase in the number of factories and automobiles correlates with increased C02 in the atmosphere, it does not necessarily mean than one is the cause of the other. And again, if it is causal, what portion is caused by humans and what are the other variables?

Measurement error is another scientific reason for skepticism. There have been more than 1 billion temperature readings, but the whole earth’s surface has not been measured. Measurements have been taken in different ways in different countries, potentially leading to inconsistent data. The “urban effect,” in which a concentration of tall buildings increases surface temperature, could skew data. And the satellite data and computer models used versus actual thermometer readings in many cases could be inaccurate.

The question of whether all scientists agree, a common assertion, is also cause for skepticism. Leaked emails from climate scientists—one in 2009 and another just last month, as reported in the Guardian in the U.K.—shows efforts by some scientists attempting to publicly “smear” their skeptical colleagues, control who is part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and expressing doubts about the conclusions and predictions of some climate change studies. Those expressing science-based skepticism include professors of atmospheric science, directors of centers on climate science, and state climatologists for several U.S. states. They stress that water vapor accounts for five-sixths of warming attributed to greenhouse gases and that extreme weather is not increasing to any significant degree.

If you want to win climate change arguments by saying you believe the scientists, you’ll have to specify which scientists you believe, and on which aspects of climate research.

The bottom line is that the subject of climate change should be based on science, not assertion, over-simplified rhetoric, or blind belief or denial. Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made this point especially well in his recent guest editorial in the Wall Street Journal: “Global warming alarmists betray their cause when they declare that it is irresponsible to question them.”

Indeed, most academic journal articles include a section called “limitations,” in which authors recognize potential flaws in the research method or conclusions. If more climate change scientists would acknowledge limitations, it’s more likely that citizens would acknowledge the parts of their work about which we can be certain.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Newspaper Changes Can Feel Personal


 (From the November 10, 2011 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It is like the casualties of war. First you hear general reports of American soldiers killed in a far-off country. Then you read a profile of a soldier from a town nearby who made the ultimate sacrifice. Finally you know someone who lost a family member, or that family member was your own. That’s when it becomes what we call “personal.”

While certainly not as serious as death and war, watching the slow decline of the newspaper industry has parallels. First there are general stories about the news media outlets in general struggling to retain audience in this Internet era. Then there are reports of lost advertising revenue. This is followed by noticeable differences in the size and number of pages in some national newspapers. Then some staff at a nearby newspaper are let go. Then home delivery is reduced or eliminated. Finally, the “paper” exists online only if at all.

Such was the case with the shocking yet what seems inevitable announcement that a nearby newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press, will only deliver an actual paper three days a week beginning early next year. I teach and study media, and I have watched and commented on the changes in media for several years now. But this? The first newspaper I read with regularity? The paper that I wrote for briefly as a young college graduate with a journalism degree? Going from a “daily” to delivery only three days a week?

This is personal.

I grew up in Grand Rapids. A newspaper landing on our front stoop is one of my early memories. My parents didn’t allow us to watch much television, and there were no video games, internet, texting or other distractions young people have today. So after doing my homework and playing while there was available daylight, I often would hang out in the living room and read the paper. I started the habit watching my dad, a plumber, come home from work and retire to a lazy boy chair, his thick gray socks sticking out over the pull-out foot rest, a copy of the paper held in the air. It would be about 20 minutes before he put it down and dozed.

I picked up the newspaper the first time out of boredom and curiosity. But soon it was a habit. I had a natural interest in what was going on in the community and the world. As someone who loved to read, I was fascinated that you could have a job doing that for a newspaper. Journalism became my first career calling. Plumbing was never a consideration.

Since then I’ve moved into public relations and education. But I never lost my love of a newspaper. I’m happy to say some of my students share that love. Not enough of them, according to conversations I have with classes as well as national survey data about newspaper readership. However, some of them not only read online, but love an actual paper newspaper. They love the tactile pleasure of newsprint in hand. Several even said they love the smell of a newspaper. I smiled to hear one say that a cup of coffee and a newspaper remain one of life’s simple pleasures.

But all that’s changing. The paper you are reading now still is delivered six days a week. But it is also available on computer and mobile device, in various formats. In one sense this sounds like progress. But I also worry. What about people who can’t afford computers or aren’t technically adept enough to read online media? What about the online environment in which we are overwhelmed with content but nevertheless can feel less informed? Will newspapers be able to survive economically, or will they move to the Internet and then one day just cease to exist altogether as a cacophony of bloggers take over?

Perhaps I worry too much. There is much to gain from technological advances. I enjoy accessing the Tribune wherever I am around the world when I travel. The multi-media content, such as video clips and links to related content, enhance the original reporting. The ability for readers to comment on articles, and each others’ comments, adds a whole new community feeling to a community newspaper. It actually could improve what media scholars call the “public sphere,” in which journalists report and society discusses politics and other relevant information of the day.

I don’t really think newspapers are going to die. But they are changing. Maybe “casualties of war” is too strong a metaphor. It’s more like the feeling I imagine my friends have when their children leave the home for college or a job. There is excitement and pride about inevitable progress and change. But there is also a nagging, nostalgic twinge in the heart about losing something special.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Being Available is More Than It Seems


(From the October 13, 2011 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Earlier this fall a retired campus minister told me that, in looking back on his long career of working with the campus community, the most important thing he ever did was simply to “be available.”

However, as is often the case with wise people of faith, what seems simple can actually be profound. Maybe it was coincidental, or maybe it was a case of having that conversation on my mind, but my wife and I recently experienced the realities of ‘being available’ in multiple ways. Being available has had us involved with neighbors, co-workers and total strangers. We have interacted with people from the Tri-Cities and West Michigan to Temecula, California and Vestavia Hills, Alabama. We’ve even encountered people from locations as exotic as India and Kalamazoo. They have ranged in age from toddlers to senior citizens.

Near the end of the summer, we were available for some long-time neighbors and good friends who were in the final preparations for a move to Temecula, California. We spent a good part  of the day with their young daughters, Marian and Carol, while their parents and brothers finished packing. They played with our cats, and we played with them. We fed them lunch. And we talked more in a few hours than we had in years. It was sad to see them move across the country after we felt like a friendship had been tightened. We already miss talking with them, and hearing Carol “cheer” for us as we are going for a run.

Another neighbor recently returned for a visit from Vestavia Hills, Alabama. She had moved there several years ago after her friend she was caring for in our neighborhood died. We were available for her back then, as my wife took our snow blower to clear the driveway for her. She said thank you in her sweet Alabama accent. We were hooked. We were available to her in many ways after that, listening to her struggles in dealing with the passing of a friend. We chatted at our houses and went out to dinner. I joked I would buy the Rosetta Stone for “southern” so we could communicate even better. When she returned recently and we learned she had never been to Mackinac Island in her 70-plus years, we got an extra room at a hotel and took her with us for our annual trip there.

We’ve also been available to co-workers and old college friends. We know two couples going through a divorce. We’ve had several meals with one to listen and encourage her. Another friend from Virginia stayed with us for a few days this past summer, a time during which we did a lot of listening.

Another co-worker of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s not in a job description to hug a crying co-worker, but it happened. My wife, a medical social worker, was helpful in being available with information and encouragement. Another co-worker suffered the sudden death of her brother, in India. This is her second brother to die in a few years, and she had to travel there unexpectedly to deal with this situation and return with her father who has no one there anymore to care for him.

We were also available to a complete stranger. We were talking with a clerk we know in Barnes and Noble when a young woman with two young children came in and approached us. We paused to let the clerk answer her question. But it was not about books—she asked if there were any shelters in the area. This perked us up. Again, my wife the social worker went to work with active listening to learn the details of the situation and try to direct her to resources. It turned out she was from Kalamazoo, and her father in Muskegon had a heart attack. But by the time she got to Muskegon he had been moved to a hospital in Grand Rapids. She had little money for a hotel and no gas to get to Grand Rapids. Shelters in Muskegon and north Ottawa were full. In the end there was a shelter in Grand Rapids near the hospital with room for her, so we bought her gas, gave her a hug and our encouragement, and led her to find the way to Grand Rapids.

Being available seems simple because we can’t really do anything to heal or fix situations of the people we meet. Just being available means listening, or doing small things. But that has turned out to be profound. Being available isn’t just about helping others. It’s about being open to new relationships, or deeper connections with people you already know. That’s the part that has been profound, because even in difficult situations we have felt enriched by the fact that these other people were ‘available’ to us. As the Bible notes in the Book of Acts: “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9-11 10 Years Later Still Close to Home


(From the September 8, 2011 Grand Haven Tribune)

It started out as such a beautiful day. The air was still warm but not so hot and heavy with summer humidity. The air was crisp without being frigid. It seemed you could see for miles across a sky more blue than seemed normal or possible.

Soon, everyone was looking into that blue sky, but for reasons wrong and terrible. It was not to appreciate the beauty but to wonder at the horror that ripped it. Two planes flown into the World Trade Center towers. Nineteen previously unknown men with a wicked plot. Three thousand unsuspecting men and women thinking they were at the beginning of a day at work and suddenly realizing they were at the end of their lives.

All of these numbers are remembered now collectively as “9-11,” the latest date of infamy our country has experienced. It is a tragic date comparable to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, or the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, on April 4, 1968, or the space shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.

People usually say they can remember where they were and what they were doing on such momentous and terrible dates. I recall that ten years ago on the morning of September 11 I was trying to fax something to New York City for a freelance client. Because I was on deadline, I had not watched TV news or read news online that morning. Instead I got right to work in my home office. I remember being surprised that the fax was not going through to New York. I knew New York was a busy city, but after multiple attempts at faxing I grew frustrated and turned on my computer to do some other work before trying the fax again.

A freelance artist I work with had emailed me to say he was a little behind on getting some work finished for me on account of “being preoccupied by the World Trade Center news.” This guy had a nutty sense of humor, so I grinned to myself thinking he was making a bizarre excuse referring to the 1993 Trade Center bombing. I kept trolling through emails. Then I saw a headline in an e-newsletter mention the World Trade Center and I thought this was too much of a coincidence. I clicked on the link and read the story with my mouth open. Then I ran to the TV to see the live coverage of the horrible event. I tuned in just before the second plane crashed into the towers.

Instantly, my perspective on what was important that day changed. The fax I had been trying to fax was a news release about a client. I don’t even remember that client right now. But I do remember talking to friends in the media in the days and weeks that followed and asking how long they thought it would be before the news was not dominated by the Trade Center story. Six months seemed to be the consensus reply. Word of my client’s news would have to wait or be communicated in other ways than the news media.

The fall of 2001 also was my first year as a full-time faculty member at Grand Valley State University. I was asked to participate in a “teach-in” on campus, which consisted of me and two of my faculty colleagues speaking to students at an outdoor stage on campus about the tragic news. Jonathan White, who is both a pastor and criminal justice professor with expertise on terrorism, spoke about why terrorists would do such a thing. He subsequently was a consultant with the federal government on this issue. Grand Haven resident James Goode, a history professor with expertise on the Middle East, spoke about Middle Eastern history and the possible motivations a few extremists from that part of the world would have for attacking the U.S. I spoke about the media coverage of the event and how students should inform themselves carefully and intelligently about matters related to 9-11.

Many of us thought we were far removed from this ugly event. But I saw “ground zero” in New York in person at least twice since then and was struck by the enormity of the tragedy. A student of mine had a sister who worked in the Pentagon and was injured the day of the attacks. Another student lost her fiancĂ© in the war in Iraq that followed. We all have dealt with the increased airport security and become more familiar with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Al Queda.

Several years ago I toured the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii. The remains of sailors who died on the USS Arizona remain entombed inside the ship where it sank in the harbor, and oil still leaks out of the ship around the flag bedecked shrine built over it. That event will never be forgotten. Even now, the memorial and new towers continue to be built in New York. Far away from there, as I write this and look at the flag on Dewey Hill, the tallest point of our much smaller city, I think we will always remember 9-11 as well. Our feelings may change from rage to grief to somber reflection, but we will always remember. I don’t know how we can not.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Train Travel Has Its Advantages


(From the August 11, 2011 Grand Haven Tribune)

ST. LOUIS—It sometimes seems that traveling by train has lost its appeal. Americans either drive because of their love affair with the automobile, or they fly because of their need for speed. Trains seem to be an artifact of previous centuries for the majority of us.

This point is illustrated in Grand Haven, where a stationary train is preserved on display near Chinook Pier. The former Grand Trunk Railroad depot now at the corner of modern day Washington and Harbor serves as a museum. The building itself is a sentinel to earlier days when trains were primary modes of transportation.

Historical records show that the last passenger train left Grand Haven on April 30, 1971, with 200 people aboard. The tracks had been built in the 1870s; the depot was built in the 1920s. A line ran through Grand Haven from Muskegon to Allegan as part of the Pere Marquette system until passenger service was taken over by Amtrak.

Amtrak named the train that now runs from Grand Rapids to Chicago the Pere Marquette. We who live in the Tri-Cities have to drive to Grand Rapids or Holland to board. I got on the train in Holland recently as part of a trip to St. Louis. I was originally thinking of flying as usual, but booked the train instead on a whim. I am glad I had the experience.

Apparently train travel is more than a nostalgic whim for many other Americans. On Monday morning the platform in Holland was crowded, and the Pere Marquette to Chicago was completely booked. The station in Chicago was crowded, and my train—the Texas Eagle—to St. Louis and ultimately San Antonio was very full as well. Conductors told me this has been typical lately, even though there have been regular reports of financial trouble for Amtrak.

A variety of other people take the train. I met a couple from southern Illinois who had attended a performance by their granddaughter at Interlochen. I also talked with a group of young professionals who had been in Chicago for the Lollapalooza music festival. It was amusing to be on a train hearing their debate about whether or not the aging band called “The Cars” gave a decent performance last weekend. There was a young family moving from Michigan to Texas where they had family and hopes of better jobs. There were also a variety of business people who busied themselves with briefcases, laptops and smart phones.

The obvious drawback to train travel is that it’s slower. Trains on tracks at ground speed can’t compete with the jet engines and as-the-crow-flies routes of airplanes. But that can be an advantage as well. In our fast-paced era of instant gratification and pressure to always go faster, the relaxed pace of the train was like a breath of cool air on a hot day.

Train travel has several other advantages. It beats driving because you don’t have to worry about traffic, directions, staying awake and the other stress of controlling your own car. As far as comparing it to flying, it struck me how many pros came to mind. There’s no invasive security screening (though Amtrak has its own police force and bomb-sniffing dogs and they are watching passengers come through the boarding gate in major stations and occasionally inspect a bag). There is much more leg room, as well as the ability to get up and walk around. On longer trains there is a viewing lounge and a dining car. Every seat has access to electrical outlets to re-charge laptops and phones. Phones actually can be on and they work at ground level.

Even though the train makes frequent stops along the way, the conductors make this an efficient process. I also enjoyed seeing the stops along the way. It was interesting to see everything from one-light towns to capitol cities as the train rolled on through. To me, the view was the best part of the trip. I got lots of reading done, but I found myself frequently looking out the window. On a plane you may have spectacular views from 30,000 feet of mountains, bodies of water, or the Grand Canyon. But from a train you can see the fields of corn and soybeans, backyards, town centers and other sites up close. Clouds out a plane window are only interesting for so long, but out a train window you can watch a group of people leave their old pickups on the curb of small town America as the enter a place called “Old Joe’s.” It’s amazing how fast the time passes with such visual variety.


I know I’ll fly again, especially when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. But travel is more than being transported from one point to another. It’s about seeing everything along the way. Sometimes we save time at the expense of other enjoyable aspects of life. A train ticket can save you money, get you where you’re going, and actually give you back a sense of time and place that is too often as elusive as clouds these days.

Friday, July 15, 2011

We Need a Holiday Re-Focused on Liberty

(From the July 14, 2011 Grand Haven Tribune)


John Adams was in town recently, and did he ever bring back memories.

It wasn’t the actual John Adams, of course. But the historical reenactor who came to Grand Haven as part of the excellent exhibit and series of events sponsored by the Loutit District Library did an excellent job. A small crowd gathered across from the library in central park for a ‘town hall meeting.’ The John Adams actor, in period dress as well as frame of mind, held forth on his life and political philosophy for nearly an hour before taking questions and continuing the conversation even longer.

He concluded with a mantra that defined his life and legacy: “independence forever!” It was noted that he and fellow founding father Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th, the day the nation continues to celebrate our independence to this day. Adams wrote a now famous letter to his wife, Abigail, noting that the celebrations on July 2nd 1776 (the day the Declaration of Independence was  actually signed) would be celebrated for generations. “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more,” he wrote.

That spirit of freedom is the “memory” that Adams brought back for me. But I wonder if the day we celebrate today has the emphasis on freedom that Adams envisioned for future generations. Most
Americans can associate July 4th as “Independence Day,” the day we celebrate our independence from Britain. But it should be more than a historical fact we recognize on that day; it should be a present reality. The emphasis should not be on freedom from a particular government, but the personal freedom we should enjoy to this day.

Unfortunately, our “sweet land of liberty” has soured a bit from Adams’ day. Our liberties have been slowly eroded. In Adams’ time, the federal government collected no taxes from American citizens. 
Today the federal tax code is seven times longer than the Bible. The federal government actually has too many agencies to count. It took a study by a center at Louisiana State University to determine there are more than 1300 agencies and departments across the executive, congressional, and judicial branches of government. More are being proposed even now. While of course some of these government departments are necessary and helpful in our more complicated times, much of what they do is place specific and burdensome regulations on many aspects of our private lives. As Adams pointed out in the park recently, in his day if people needed assistance it was neighbors, the church, and philanthropic organizations who stepped up. Now the government is the first stop for assistance, some of it legitimate but often not.

We also see the loss of freedoms at the state and local levels. Even neighborhood associations prescribe the specific location of fences and height of vegetation. A study by professors at George Mason University ranked the states in terms of fiscal policy, regulatory policy, economic freedom and personal freedom. Michigan is not the worst, but it ranks near the side of the scale for “least free.” The study also shows that states that are most free are attracting citizens from states that are less free. The study also showed that more economic freedom is associated with more personal income growth. Apparently, the spirit of John Adams’ America is alive among citizens at least.

We are supposed to be the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” But increasingly we are looking like the land of the regulated and the home of the “entitled.” Greece, often called the “cradle of democracy” long before the United States began it’s grand experiment in self government, has been growing its own government involvement and entitlements for the past several decades. It is not working out well there.

Years ago, Memorial Day was known as “Decoration Day.” Citizens decorated the graves of fallen soldiers, as well as street signs and house porches. But the focus seemed to be more on the decorations than the soldiers they were meant to honor. So the name was changed to Memorial Day to give renewed emphasis to the holiay’s original purpose.

I wonder lately if we should rename Independence Day to “Liberty Day.” Perhaps then citizens and those elected to serve would be reminded that this country is not just about getting out from under the heavy hand of Britain, but to be more free of government intrusion of any kind. In other words, we don’t celebrate the freedom of our government but of individuals and our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

State Park Passport System Has Pros and Cons


(From the June 9, 2011  issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

If there’s one standard pleasure of a West Michigan summer, it’s going to the beach. The air is warmer, Lake Michigan looks inviting, and the increased number of people in the Tri-Cities seems to validate why we stick it out here through the long winters.

So driving into the local state park has become an annual rite of passage. For as long as I can remember we would buy our state park sticker early in the year and place it in the windshield proudly, knowing we would get our money’s worth.

This year the state has a new system for vehicle access to state parks. The old state park sticker for the front windshield has been replaced by a “Recreation Passport” that gives a vehicle access into all state parks, state recreation areas and state boat launches. Camping fees are extra, as they were in the past. When you renew your license plate and purchase the passport, your new tab will have a special "P" printed on it. The passport costs $10, which is a big savings from the previous $24 fee for an annual state park window sticker.

There are pros and cons to this new system. The obvious positive is the cost savings. Not only is it cheaper, but if you have more than one vehicle you can get passports for both of them cheaper than one old sticker used to cost. In the past, we had to always take the same car to the beach, and if one of us had the car with the sticker the other had to pay the daily rate, walk in from a far away free parking spot, or just not go to the beach.

There’s also the added convenience of getting state park access taken care of at the same time you’re renewing your vehicle license tabs. It’s nice to see government efficiency in action.

I also like to see Michigan residents who live here and pay taxes here year around getting some kind of bonus. We welcome tourists of course, but it is nice to know that our state park access is less expensive and easier to acquire because of our state residence.

The lower cost and ease of purchase also has revenue benefits for the state. It wasn’t long ago that state government budget negotiations had state parks and recreation areas on the table for cuts and sale to private parties. The new passport program with its lower cost and ease of purchase will encourage more residents to take advantage and raise more income for the state park system. Also, if more people use the parks more often, the case can be made that we should keep the park land in state hands.

The only cons seem to be the administration of the new system, at least so far. Recently at the annual kite festival and on Memorial Day the lines to get into the Grand Haven State Park were backed up to Chinook Pier and even as far as US 31 at times. It could be that more people are using the parks than ever before. The fact is that in this first year of implementation of the new program people can get in without a passport until the month their license tabs are due for renewal. In other words, if your license doesn’t renew until September you don’t need to have a little “P” on your tab until you’ve had the opportunity to pay the $10 for it.

But I also think we’re seeing a problem I anticipated when the program was announced. A little “P” in less than 8-point type is hard to see. It’s also on the back of the car instead of the front. So now instead of rangers seeing your sticker and waving you on at the booth they have to ask each and every driver if they have a Recreation Passport. Multiply this times a few hundred and that backs up traffic, especially since lots of people don’t read newspapers and have to have the new program explained to them.

A news release last month from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources noted that each park will handle this differently. Some may let everyone drive right in and rangers will check cars for tabs later and ticket those without a passport. Others will be asking for them at the booth. The problem with the first is a lot of people who haven’t paid will knowingly or not just enter the park. The problem with the second is the added time at the park entrance.

I would suggest new signage that explains what the “little P” is and directs drivers to enter the park if they have the passport and stop at the booth if they don’t would be a big help to alleviate congestion. Otherwise the Secretary of State should send passport stickers for front windshields along with license plate tabs. The passport is supposed to make our recreation easier, not add to time in traffic.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

It Would Be Easier to Run Like a Horse

(From the May 12, 2011 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

My wife and I had just finished our daily run recently when a couple walking their dogs approached and asked us: “Are you two training for anything in particular?”

That’s a polite way of saying “what is WRONG with you? You better have a reason for running. We’re only out here walking because our dogs have to do their business.”

Actually, we are training for the River Bank Run in Grand Rapids. It’s the start of  the running season for us, although believe it or not there are races even in Michigan all year long. We participate in races right through New Year’s Day and are pretty much training for something all year long.

But that couple’s question came back to me as I was watching news about the Kentucky Derby. We keep a training log of how many miles we run, which adds up to an impressive number. Our races are all in kilometers, anywhere from 5 to 25. But these horses, who seem to get far more attention than races involving human beings who run, only run 1.25 miles.

Actually, horse races are measured in furlongs, which are about one-eighth of a mile. Human races are measured in kilometers. So if you say you ran a 25K people are generally impressed, and then you explain it’s 15.5 miles and they seem less so. That’s why I usually just give the kilometer distance and let them think what they want. But furlongs would be even better. I could say I ran “eight” and not explain I’m counting furlongs and that I actual ran only one mile. Then, why not have human races in furlongs? Those horses have it easy. I’d rather run like a horse.

I know what you’re thinking. Pfbbbth (or however you spell that sound horses make).

Sure, those noble beasts can go about 30 miles per hour. It wouldn’t be accurate to say I ran like a horse just by using a different unit of measure. Well, maybe if I knew I only had to go a tad more than a mile I would speed up. Also, if I had a small man on my back wearing a funny polka dot shirt and whipping my flank I could get up to 20 miles per hour. Maybe. I probably won’t test that theory.

Anyway, the Kentucky Derby is called ‘Most exciting two minutes in sports.” For me the most exciting two minutes of sport are the last two minutes of any race I’m running. That’s because I know I get to stop soon, and there will be food. Come to think of it, that may be what the horses are thinking, if they think.

There would be other advantages to making human races more like horse races. Spectators could wear something other than jeans and sweatshirts. They could break out the cravats and broad brimmed hats and floral dresses. I’ll bet 5ks and 10ks would fall out of fashion quicker than a three-year-old thoroughbred. Speaking of bets, spectators should be allowed to bet on human runners. It could cut down on race registration fees and the races that are fundraisers for nonprofits would do a whole lot better.

In horse races the honors go to those that “win”, “place,” or “show.” I’ve heard that’s a fancy way of saying first, second, and third place. I don’t care. I never win. I think it would be an improvement to give awards to people who just show up.

We human runners could even give ourselves funny names like the horses have. An accountant who runs on weekends could call himself “Tax Bracket.” A mechanic could be known as “Front End Alignment.” I have dibs on “Gotta Hurl.”

If we would only be running a few furlongs instead of a bunch of miles or kilometers, we wouldn’t need to drink just water or Gatorade either. We could join the crowd and have a mint julep or something else more tasty and exotic.

This may be one of my less practical ideas. I’ll have to stick to the conventions of human running. I am sort of serious about those mint juleps though. If the River Bank Run has time to make those available at an aid station with about one furlong to go, it could redefine the most exciting two minutes in sports. At least for me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Should the Tri-Cities Become One?


(From the April 14, 2011 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I live in Spring Lake Township. When I go to the bank or the library I’m in the Village of Spring Lake. I pass through Ferrysburg when I drive to church, and end up back in Spring Lake Township. I am writing this column at a coffee shop in Grand Haven.

But in all of the above, I never feel like I have left town.

Maybe you feel the same way. You could live in any one of the local cities, villages or townships, but you really don’t envision yourself crossing borders when you go about your daily activities. When you meet people from somewhere else and they ask where you live, you probably just say “Grand Haven” even if you live in Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, Robinson Township or any other place beyond the technical boundaries of Coast Guard City.

So I started thinking recently about why all these local municipal entities don’t just merge. This idea has taken on more plausibility recently since just to our east a group calling themselves the “One Kent Coalition” has started talking about merging Kent County and Grand Rapids. Advocating for folding the county into what would be a much larger city are some big players, including former mayors of Grand Rapids suburbs and other community supporters. They are still debating it there, and it will be interesting to see if a merger of Kent County and Grand Rapids happens or not.

But either way, it seems to make some sense that we talk about it here. I’m sure there would be some reasonable objections, but there also are reasons that combining municipalities makes some sense.

Among the objections would be the loss of local representation. If you live in Ferrysburg or Spring Lake, you might fear that your civic voice would be drowned out in a larger entity. However, that could be addressed by the structure of a new, merged city. Former separate cities and villages could be considered districts or wards, and a new city charter could stipulate that each district have appropriate representation on a city council.

Similarly, some would worry that one combined city would be difficult given the variety of local ordinances, building zones and laws. But a new city council could either work to derive common laws, or allow separate zoning by district.

Taxes would be another issue I’m sure. With a long history of different local elected officials, and different opinions of local citizens on ballot proposals, special assessment districts, and millages, tax rates are different. Those could be preserved as distinct tax rates as well until certain bonds are paid off, and eventually the new city could work out a common tax code for the newly united city.

That leads to one of the advantages. In a merged municipal entity, services could be combined as well, which would be a case for lower taxes for all. We already have shared police service with Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. Many other services and jobs could be combined as well. I know the people who currently hold those jobs would be understandably upset, but the taxpayers have the say on how many “employees” they need. I heard about another area of the country where there was a municipal merger and costs declined 20% and the number of employees was reduced from 7,000 to 5,000. In an era of constant public budget crisis, that seems like good sense. A Grand Rapids Press editorial pointed out that it takes 537 legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives to run the whole country, but in Grand Rapids alone there are 637 people overseeing local governments. Maybe downsizing is overdue.

Years ago, when Rix Robinson was one of the first settlers to the region, there were no bridges or easy crossings of the Grand River and Spring Lake. It may have made sense then that three separate communities rose up where water clearly and dramatically separated them. But today, with bridges and modern transportation, there’s little reason for separate cities and villages. The local Chamber of Commerce and Community Foundation recognize the obvious reality and serve the whole area. It’s time to at least talk about doing the same with local government.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Branding Grand Haven an Interesting Challenge

(From the March 10, 2011 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

So what is Grand Haven’s downtown brand? Or should I say, what is Brand Haven?

Last week the Grand Haven Tribune reported that Grand Haven is one of four cities chosen to be part of a new downtown branding program run by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). This is interesting because I would not associate MSHDA with downtown branding—a little branding irony there. I also couldn’t find anything about this pilot program on their web site, possibly because it’s still so new. Anyway, the other cities are Boyne City, Clare and Niles. In 16-20 weeks, downtown Grand Haven will have a brand new brand.

So, you’re asking, what does this mean? Well, often branding is little more than a logo. It started years ago when ranchers used hot “brands”—metal shaped into a unique design, such as a “circle T” or a “triple R”—to sear a mark into their cattle to indicate they belonged to their ranch. I don’t think we’ll see hot metal rods or smell the burning flesh of downtown merchants, but we’ll probably be exposed to some unique Grand Haven logo by the time the first summer tourist rolls into town.

Logos can’t be taken lightly. Think of McDonalds’ “golden arches” or the Nike “swoosh.” People see those iconic symbols and associate them immediately with the intoxicating aroma of French fries or athletic prowess. None of the branding literature I’ve read points out that you should not think of French fries while exerting yourself in sports. For that you need common sense.

Common sense helps in branding too. Because you need more than merely a logo to really be successful. This is especially true when branding a city, or a destination. You probably have never overheard anyone say something like this: “If you have to ask me why I’m going to Podunk, you obviously haven’t seen their logo!” This is why highly paid consultants usually recommend... a slogan!

Slogans are short phrases that capture the essence of a brand. Nike made a lot of hay with their “Just do it” campaign. I should know. I just did it. So Grand Haven needs more than a big GH inside a circle or something. It needs a slogan. Something like “Just come here!” Or maybe, “Grand Haven: Between Holland and Muskegon.” I could offer something really compelling, but I am not being highly paid for this column.

I will tell you what some of our neighbor cities did recently, to give you an idea. Zeeland garnered a lot of attention with its “Feel the Zeel” campaign. You can see how that’s going on their blog. Downtown Grand Rapids launched a campaign with a counter-intuitive, reverse psychology slogan of “Keep it a Secret.” If you never heard of it you can see how fabulously successful it has been!

But if brands are only a logo and a slogan, they can really backfire. If McDonalds’ food was overpriced or unsatisfying, if Nike’s products were cheaply made, their logos and slogans would be the source of laughter and not positive association. It’s what those of us who teach and practice ethical advertising and PR call “putting lipstick on the pig.”

So Grand Haven needs more than a logo and slogan. It needs to ensure that the experience people have when they come to downtown Grand Haven is unique, special and positive. It has to be so positive and unique that they tell others about it. This is why the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau recently renamed themselves “Experience Grand Rapids.”

Grand Haven does have some unique characteristics. There already are people who choose to come from Grand Rapids and places farther away to enjoy the area, including downtown. But while logos and slogans are fun and creative, the most important part of branding is often a combination of a unique offering and some very routine basics that will help meet and exceed visitors’ expectations. That means downtown merchants who offer things that people want and they can’t get anywhere else. It means a unique environment, such as the new streetscape and the proximity to the channel and Lake Michigan. But it also means adequate parking, stores that stay open past 6 p.m. and free coffee for college professors. I threw that last one in to see if you’re paying attention. But, it could be a unique part of the brand.

Even more important than all of the above is that everyone in downtown Grand Haven “lives” the brand. That means actually believing in and working to deliver the experience that the final brand proposes to offer. We’re between the windy city and the motor city. We can’t ask people to “feel the zeel” or experience Grand Rapids. But we are who we are.

I’m eager to see and hear what that is exactly.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sustainable movement provides food for thought


(From the February 10, 2011 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Many people don’t give a lot of thought to how the food they eat is made or from where it comes. But increasing discussion of obesity epidemics and rising food prices has given momentum to something called the sustainable food movement. Leaders in the effort describe it as a shift from industrial based agriculture to a food system in which healthy, nutritious food is available to all.

This Saturday, February 12, you can learn more about this concept right here in Spring Lake at C3 Exchange, at 225 E. Exchange Street. The local event is actually part of a national “Change the Way You Eat” event based in Manhattan with live webcasts being shown around the country.

I was asked to be the emcee at the Spring Lake event, but will be in Chicago with a group of students. I thought the least I could do was mention it in my column to help alert people who may be interested in attending. (See the end of the column for details about attending the local event.)

“Change the Way You Eat” is a TEDxManahattan event, so named for the popular TED events around the country. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design and is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “ideas worth spreading.” The scope has broadened from the original three categories, and the “x” events are actually independent from the TED organization. Only 250 people will be live in the event in New York City, so the viewing parties around the country, such as in Spring Lake, were arranged to expand the reach. Renae Hesselink, the vice president of sustainability at Nichols & SustainAble Solutions who is hosting the Spring Lake event, says the local event is limited to 100. But they are working to secure permission to allow more attendees.

In Manhattan, and viewed around the country, speakers with various backgrounds in farming will share their insights and expertise about growing and distributing food. Video clips from the national TED conference will also be shown.

The event in Spring Lake is sponsored by the North Ottawa Sustainability Coalition and the Muskegon Area Sustainability Center. Numerous local vendors will be present to showcase sustainable food initiatives in West Michigan. There will be three local speakers. Attendees can enjoy a “local sustainable lunch” for $5.

So why might you want to attend this event? Well, if you’re like my wife and me, you may wonder why you drive by local orchards only to find cherries and apples and other produce from the State of Washington. With all the asparagus just north of us we were getting it shipped in from South America. No offense to these other places, but we have to wonder what that does to our local economies. We also have to wonder what the processes required to preserve food for a long time to ship them long distance does to our bodies.

Everyone from scientists and medical experts to Oprah have embraced the sustainable food idea. As noted in Oprah magazine, paying more attention to what you eat, where it’s from (i.e. local) and how it’s grown can help you reduce the risk of obesity, avoid chemicals, and wake up your taste buds. As noted in a 2008 article in her magazine, “the food that passes your lips often has as much resemblance to its natural state as a chicken nugget does to a barnyard hen.”

As the New York Times noted in an article on the subject last spring, Americans have become adept at producing food efficiently and cheaply. That may be a good thing, but there are consequences and costs that come with cheap efficiency as well. We may be reaching a point where it makes sense for economic and health reasons to reconsider the food chain we’ve been living with for decades now.

No doubt there will be differences of opinion. Many might just feel uninformed about the contents and origin of their food. That’s why the event this Saturday provides an enticing food for thought.

If you want to attend the event in Spring Lake, you may pre-register by emailing Renae Hesselink at RHessel281@aol.com.  Otherwise, registration on Saturday at the event will be open at 9:30, with the event starting at 10:30. You can also watch from your computer at www.livestream.com/tedx.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Some Banks Now Too Big for Us


(From the January 13, 2011 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Last year’s economic news included stories about large banks being bailed out by taxpayers. Most Americans are not financial experts, but the phrase “too big too fail” entered our vocabulary as we watched huge banks getting cash from the government. Pinstriped big city boys who work with hedge funds getting a hand from the hard earned tax dollars of blue collar workers who trim hedges.
           
The predictable outrage that ensued all across the country led to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The legislation was co-authored by senators Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, who have been the chairs of the senate and house banking committees from 2006 til the recent election changed committee chairs. Dodd and Frank meant well in their legislation, which seeks to ensure that consumers get clear information about financial products such as mortgages and credit card applications, and also puts an end to taxpayer bailout of banks. But it’s hard to be too confident in their reform since these two also assured Americans that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government mortgage and financial institutions, were “financially sound” right before their collapse.
            
Also, while federal laws often have good intentions, there are almost always unintended consequences. So while the Dodd-Frank Act seeks to eliminate “hidden” fees for consumers, it did not eliminate or restrict fees. In fact, the other aspects of the act that add more regulations on banks has led to an increase in banking fees for everyday consumers, the very taxpayers who only recently bailed out these banks.
           
I noticed this recently while going through the mail. There certainly is more transparency from banks. The information about new fees coming to our accounts was in bold. But there are new fees coming, and the ways to avoid the fees are increasingly challenging to everyday consumers.
            
My wife and I have been with the same bank since we were old enough to have jobs and accounts. The bank changed its name no fewer than four times in the past two decades. But we stuck with them. Given the recent changes, however, w are now in the process of changing banks.
            
The bank we are currently with received $25 billion in bailout money. In the third quarter of last year, they had a 23% increase in profit, pulling in $4.42 billion, or $1.01 per share. Their 4th quarter profits rose 47%. They still have challenges, such as lost revenue on defaulted mortgages and loans and regulations on what had been profitable investment banking practices. But they are still the number two bank in the country in asset size.
            
But as it turns out, being big in banking is not an asset or a consumer appeal any more. The law won’t let them be “too big too fail.” But on their own they have become too big for us. For several years now, I have grimaced when looking at my bank statement. The balance seems large to me, but the corresponding interest earned has been a joke. All that money sitting there for them to invest and I can only get a few cents. I understand the market is challenging right now. But banks are not for investment any more. In fact, banks are primarily for the security of keeping money in a safe place and the convenience of being able to write checks or pay bills online. Other than that, cash under the mattress looks like a better option.
            
Recently, the mattress has looked even more appealing. The letters we received from out bank outlines new monthly fees unless you keep a relatively high minimum balance or regularly use other banking services. This means you have a lot of money sitting there just to avoid being charged a fee that is 100 times more than the interest your money earns. Or you get penalized for not using the bank’s services. So many people of average means are faced with having assets that are not “liquid.” Other people who live paycheck to paycheck are being priced out of the banking system altogether. They’ll be forced to cash advance and check cashing businesses for loan and bill payment needs, where they will face additional fees.
            
Fortunately, there is another bank in town that has better options. Their literature seems to speak more to actual banking customers. There are lower minimums, better rates, lower fees and better options to avoid the fees. We’re moving our accounts to them. They are a smaller bank. That’s a big deal.

(Addendum--when we went to move our accounts, we got a small town touch at our big bank. So we did keep two accounts at the big bank, and moved  the others to the smaller bank. Maybe the local bankers can tell the corporate chiefs in the big city what actual customers think).