Archive for June, 2011

Start Me Up

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I asked the other day whether there’s a nostalgic mode of philanthropy, and I’m beginning to think that there is (well, there are likely several). I participated in one recently when I gave to the Kickstarter campaign to revive the Parkway Theater in Oakland. The Parkway was a second-run theater near Lake Merritt that served pizza and beer. You could order a pizza at the counter, get a pitcher of beer, take it up to your seat (which was an old couch), and they’d bring you the pizza. Heaven. On. Earth. They showed playoff football games too, and one of my top 5 sports experiences is watching the thrilling, heartbreaking, down-to-the-last-play Titans-Rams Super Bowl in 2001 or whenever it was, on the big screen from one of the couches with pizza and beer. Such a classic neighborhood institution.

The thing is, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for seven years. It’s been three or four since I last went to the Parkway. But I want to live in a world where the Parkway exists, and others can enjoy the great times I did. (And so I can pop in on a future trip to the Bay Area.) So when I saw the Kickstarter link on someone’s Facebook wall, I clicked and gave my 50 bucks just under the wire.

I haven’t looked what other kinds of projects are on Kickstarter, so I don’t know how many are like “Bring Back the Parkway,” but I wonder if Kickstarter’s success and promise aren’t at least in part because it enables a nostalgic mode of philanthropy.

I’m reminded of campaigns to save TV shows like Jericho or Roswell. Fans get very creative, and once in a great while, they win, and the show gets another chance. Then a mechanism problem kicks in. How to attract enough fans to keep the show going? I wonder if Kickstarter doesn’t answer that question in an indirect way. Like a Groupon for attention – if enough people commit to doing X, the provider will see that it’s worth it. But what would a Groupon for attention look like, how could you commit credibly?

Better minds than mine are working on this in the halls of marketing-landia, I’m sure. But the upshot for funding, particularly of the arts, is that there’s now at least one way to make a nostalgic mode of philanthropy possible. As a hopeful future Parkway patron, I have to believe that’s a good thing.

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Meeting Across the River

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

(About the title: One of my recent vinyl purchases was “Born to Run.” The title song is of course a timeless classic that’s also musically about a couple of time periods (50s and 60s rock and R&B), but this track on the second side is a keeper too. Not one of Clarence Clemons’ (RIP), but enhanced by soulful horn playing.)

It’s frustrating to me that so many of our theories of human behavior are just so dumb and literal-minded. Take this piece in yesterday’s NYT about the return of genetic explanations in criminology:

A rash of new research has focused on self-control as well as callousness and a lack of empathy, traits regularly implicated in the decision to commit a crime. Like other personality traits, these are believed to have environmental and genetic components, although the degree of heritability is debated.

Why not just say, “we have no idea how these things are connected, so we’re going to make some stuff up based on our immediate cultural milieu and take the unspoken assumptions that govern our own behavior as the default for human nature”?

It’s like there’s no imagination about the complexity of human motivation. Get some Jonathan Franzen in there.

I get that you need to simplify to make predictive models work, but does the simplification have to be to models that are so boring and pedestrian? The model of simplicity you’re looking for here is Emily Dickinson, not Jack and Jill.

It’s one thing when this happens around the dinner table and your uncle sounds off in a cringe-inducing way. It’s another when these just-so stories are hidden in the assumptions of analyses that end up shaping policy. From the same NYT piece:

One gene that has been linked to violence regulates the production of the monoamine oxidase A enzyme, which controls the amount of serotonin in the brain. People with a version of the gene that produces less of the enzyme tend to be significantly more impulsive and aggressive, but, as Ms. Moffitt and her colleague (and husband) Avshalom Caspi discovered, the effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences.

“The effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences”? Come on now, we have to be able to do better than that. What’s the mechanism here – is stress about a certain kind of intensity of emotion – but that can be good or bad? Intense experience? Intensely negative experience? Or can euphoric experiences generate a stress-like spike in emotion, like when people bust up a downtown after their team wins a championship? (Ah, Vancouver, I so enjoyed my trip to you last month, why do you have to go and be a counterexample to the point I’m trying to make?)

I think we need to keep pushing to put some more imagination and ethnographic detail into our assumptions about the dynamics of human motivation. They’re called “microfoundations” in economics, but they don’t have to be small-minded.

All of which leads to a recurring topic on this blog, people’s motivations for giving. To be continued….

Seems Like Old Times

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Philanthropy is often about solving problems. Which sounds future-oriented: make a better tomorrow.

But sometimes the problem is loss: a way of life, a community, is falling apart, and needs preservation.

Is there a nostalgic mode of philanthropy?

Historic preservation, cultural continuity – is this inherently conservative? Or is there something progressive in fighting the worst tendencies of the day? We’ve become accustomed, in the current political discourse, to think of fighting the future (demographic change, diversification, growing immigration) as hearkening back to a distant past (the 50s). But what if there’s a way of fighting the future, of seeking to conserve, that’s about preserving elements of the current social contract that deserve to endure? (Like, I dunno, Medicare.)

Everything old is new again, but some things that were new deserve to become old – and constant.

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s well-reviewed new movie, is about a struggling author whose first novel is about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. The arc is that the writer has to learn to live in the present – by understanding that every age has a time about which it’s nostalgic, so there’s no point living in the past. But is that the lesson? Or is it that there are elements of the past that are worth preserving, even against the tide of the constantly new.

What’s different about the current moment is we have more power to preserve than ever. Our Facebook accounts, our cameraphones – this blog – capture moments, feelings, thoughts, that were once ephemeral. I wonder if the artists of this new medium will be the nostalgists, the ones who find a way to extract the solid core from the swirl of data and hold on to it, even for a little while….

Beyond the Thunderdome?

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

(Hint: Remember the original title of Mad Max)

I’ve just gotten back from another road trip for work. By my count, there have been five weeks since the beginning of the year in which I have NOT had a trip of some kind. (Which has something to do with the reduced frequency of posting as of late.) This week makes six, and I’m getting back to posting.

I’m very grateful to get to do the work I do. But stuck in O’Hare last Thursday with swarms of other white-collar road warriors, I was struck by how tiresomely physical so much travel is. Lugging suitcases around, sitting still on planes for so long. Uch, makes me feel sweaty just typing that. The stereotype of the white-collar worker is that their hands are smooth. This is my right hand after six months of lugging my suitcase around the country.

I guess I take the calluses as a mark of pride, I’m not sure. But as I think about LA, Denver, Louisville, Alaska, SF, Vancouver, Chicago, Philly and lots of DC, and the exciting work my clients are doing and the great team members I get to collaborate with…yeah, it feels good. I’ll still get some hand cream, though.

Shipbuilding? or, What kind of industry is philanthropy?

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

I’ve always been interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of collective creative endeavors (film, TV, music, theater). For example, the person with the job title “producer” has very different jobs in film, TV, music, and theater. In film, they’re often the person who comes up with the idea, hires the writer and director, and sees the project through filming to editing to release: Scott Rudin, Jerry Bruckheimer, etc. In TV, the executive producer, or the “showrunner,” is often the creator and the head writer: Joss Whedon, Chuck Lorre, etc. The director in film is lauded as the auteur; in TV, they’re a hired hand who are there to implement the showrunner’s vision. In music, the producer helps the artist or group find a particular expression of their “sound.” The complicated nature of capturing performance in digital bits (I was going to say, “on tape”) makes them part arranger, part sound engineer, part motivator, part songwriter. In theater, the producer is the money, plain and simple.

So I wonder, what kind of industry is philanthropy? Is it perhaps a creative industry? If so, the grantmaker may in some ways be like the producer. But as we’ve seen, that role can take on many aspects. Are different kinds of grantmakers like different kinds of producers – TV vs. film vs. music?

In future posts, I’ll consider this question further. I’ll also look at other industries that philanthropy might be an example of; such a list might include:

  • Financial services
  • Service (as in, “a service industry”)
  • Knowledge

To be continued….