Tristan Rader for Lakewood City Council

A few days ago, I was out walking and had this feeling like I was coming out of a trance… to find that four months had passed.

I have written here about similar feelings twice in the past 13 months, so all I can really say is that this was a similar experience with a new intensity.

I looked around me and saw trees at the very end of their fall-color peak period. Then I thought back and could recall no other sense of the season, equally solid, since the beginning of July.

I recall being in Lakewood’s July 4 parade…

…then I was out for a walk and autumn was into its downhill half.

The best way I can think to describe it is that for the first several months of this year, it was like life was on fast-forward. It felt like time passed more rapidly than normal, but I could still perceive events around me, at an accelerated pace. Then since this post, it became more like just skipping from brief glimpse to brief glimpse, with everything in between jumped over entirely.

This was basically a year of my life. I sacrificed the year, to political action of various types, but above all to Tristan Rader’s campaign for Lakewood City Council.

Kristine, Tristan and me back at the campaign’s formal kickoff

Imagine my reaction since, entirely contrary to my expectations, we succeeded.

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First alumnus to be Iowa State president…

Iowa State University announced a new president this past week.

Others have written more insightful comments about the choice of Wendy Wintersteen than I can. But I did want to report on my own small contribution to the broader historical record; that contribution was simply maintenance, but it seems that such maintenance is needed.

In perusing the online reactions to this announcement, I happened upon a story by the Iowa Informer. I was vexed to see Wintersteen described as the first Iowa State alumnus to become its president.

I knew for a fact that Iowa State’s 10th president, James Hilton, was an alumnus.

Happily, the Informer was responsive on Twitter and updated the story. I remain a bit resistant to their assertion that “alumnus” is gender-neutral… but they did change the story, not only to use the modern, gender-neutral “alum” but to describe Wintersteen as “the second” such. Cheers.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to take their word that “multiple sources were saying she was the first.” It wasn’t correct, but I’m aware that such historical record “resets” happen. In fact, this is the second time I have been involved in pushing back against one which involved a central-Iowa university…

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Hilton Madness, 1954

I like to think that Iowa State president James H. Hilton would have been both honored, and a little amused by the adoption of his surname for “Hilton Magic,” “Hilton South,” etc.

I suspect that he might have gotten a big, big smile at the fact that Hilton Coliseum—the best known feature of the Iowa State Center—is in the 21st century home to something called “Hilton Madness.”

Because most people thought the whole Iowa State Center was madness, when Hilton first proposed the concept.

President Hilton’s suggestion that Iowa State College (as it was then) should build a whole new cultural center with a theater, large auditorium and coliseum was widely called “Hilton’s Dream” in the early years. It was also called some other things that suggested he was just dreaming in many people’s opinion. The whole thing was completely unrealistic, the money would never be available, it was delusional.

It might as well have been Madness.

Hilton took all of the doubts and ribbing in good humor. He was confident he would find a way, and over the course of the next 15 years he did so, largely by building a permanent fundraising program at Iowa State from the ground up.

They called it a dream. Hilton saw the dream turned into concrete reality. Now Iowa State announces every year that this concrete reality is the site of “Hilton Madness.”

I think he would have smiled.

Hilton in front of Hilton Coliseum

James Hilton in front of Hilton Coliseum, early 1970s

For more about President Hilton, the transformation of Iowa State College into a university, and the battles which accompanied it, see Hancher vs. Hilton: Iowa’s Rival University Presidents.

It was just 2016 a month or so ago I swear

Summer has basically been and gone since my last entry here. It feels like autumn already, too. With hurricanes, fire or drought afflicting much of the U.S., I have no complaints at all about an early autumn, itself, certainly.

But honestly, I scarce know where this year went.

Since… I think it was with the real intense push against Trumpcare in the Senate that things “went to 11” and stayed there. Since then, life has just been full, whatever happens. All day, every day of the week, every week.

I have obtained more than 130 signatures for the Fair Districts ballot measure. And that’s like a when-possible activity, that fits into such “gaps” in my schedule as I can identify.

This past week was relatively calm. Yet it included

  • distributing literature for Jeff Johnson’s campaign
  • handing out dog biscuits at the Lakewood Dog Swim
  • Live-tweeting a City Council meeting
  • an interview about Hancher vs. Hilton with Iowa Public Radio
  • Dropping by an open house about the Icebreaker offshore wind power pilot project
  • Visiting Senator Portman’s office (once again) to express my opinion
  • Putting together two extensive e-mail newsletters

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Cotton’s Memory Palace

One recurrent theme in the literature on Sir Robert Cotton’s library is the idiosyncratic arrangement of his collection, a feature which still persists in various ways 400 years later. Within this theme, the two big questions are probably “why did he do it that way,” and “how did users find things, before the library’s first catalog?”

Scholars propose that other people mostly found things by consulting Cotton. He acquired the documents, arranged and bound them to his liking, and thus had intimate knowledge of the collection. This has seemed adequate explanation to me.

Some while back, though, an erudite reader suggested that Cotton also built a mnemonic device into the library itself. The layout of Cotton’s library, suggests Mr. Mark Kindt, was a real-world memory palace.

You can read about the memory palace technique in many places. But the basic concept of memorizing information by mapping it to physical space is, at least, suggestive in light of what we know about Cotton’s library.

Cotton organized his manuscripts into physical niches, each adorned by the bust of a Roman emperor or other figure from antiquity. This curious sorting eventually joined the first catalog, and all those which have followed up to this day. (The Beowulf manuscript is still “Vitellius A. xv,” from its onetime position as the 15th item on the first shelf under a bust of Emperor Vitellius.)

But what if this wasn’t just a novel convention drawn from a purely decorative foundation?

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I talk with KWIT about my book

A few weeks ago I had a delightful conversation with Mary Hartnett of Sioux City, Iowa’s public radio station KWIT. She read my book Hancher vs. Hilton and reached out to interview me.

Well yes, of course. And thank you.

Our conversation aired on KWIT at some point, but Ms. Hartnett also kindly provided me with a recording of the interview. The file begins without any preamble, but it probably requires little more than “I’m talking with Matt Kuhns, about his book Hancher vs. Hilton: Iowa’s Rival University Presidents. Matt, tell us a little about Virgil Hancher…”

Activism and Organizing

People ask me if I’m working on another book. I suppose that this is natural enough, after I have written three within barely five years.

It’s nice also, certainly, that these seem to be inquiries of real interest, which presumably means that people enjoyed one or more of my books.

At the moment, though, I’m afraid that Book Four isn’t even on my long-version to-do list.

Our society being, in my estimate, in the midst of an ongoing emergency, I’m focusing a lot of my time and energy on activism and organizing. After last fall’s election, many people said “organize!” After the Women’s March, people said “take the next step and organize.” Well, I’m working on that.

I’m co-chairing communications for Lakewood’s Democrats, performing  various advisory and communications roles for a city council campaign, and playing smaller roles in a handful of other groups and campaigns. Plus trying to do my bit to support local citizen journalism. Ongoing phone calls, letter-writing, demonstrations and other activities fill in most of whatever gaps might be left.

I feel like I can manage this, but it’s definitely a life rather than some kind of sideline at this point. I don’t have any specific ideas for a next book pulling at me anyway, so far, but I have no idea when I might pursue one should it occur to me.

So, thanks everyone who asks. For the time being, it’s kind of like this:

Sorry for the inconvenience, we are trying to save the world

I would say that this suggestion has now expanded well beyond TTIP or CETA to a general-purpose context.

David Frum and Finest Hours

The fact that I now follow David Frum on Twitter, little more than a year after writing an entire post of condescending sighing about one of his articles, has demanded a bit of reflection.

Granted, we live in a time of strange portents. Still, I wondered whether or not I was too unfair. Frum is now one of a small number of prominent Republican critics of the Trump presidency, and seems to be doing a fine job of it. Certainly I appreciate that. But does it suggest that I was unfair to judge him so harshly before, especially as it seems like only integrity can motivate his current defiance of partisanship?

I don’t know. I can’t really see much fault in my assessment of his November 2015 article. Re-reading my post, meanwhile, I find that I did characterize him as a consistent and sincere critic of party dogma, overall, and allowed that even the article in question began with an unusually thoughtful basic idea (for either major party).

So, perhaps I wasn’t entirely unfair; if it was still a bit unbalanced for my only mention of the man to be in so negative a context, I can correct that now. Though massively long, Frum’s recent essay “How to Build an Autocracy” is lucid, somewhat frightening and perhaps just a little bit inspiring.

From a practical standpoint, I was particularly interested by a conservative Republican’s version of the “resistance checklist” which has appeared so often from the left these past few months:

  • Get into the habit of telephoning your senators and House member at their local offices, especially if you live in a red state.
  • Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected.
  • Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily.
  • Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well.
  • Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens.
  • Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets.
  • Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders.
  • Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.

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Danger Man

A lot of people know, or know of, exceptionally weird TV series The Prisoner. “I am not a number. I am a free man!” etc. But before Patrick McGoohan gave the world Number Six, he spent a few years in the lesser known role of secret operative John Drake (who may or may not have been the same character).

Titled Danger Man during the British-only first outing, Drake’s adventures later continued in the United States, as Secret Agent. Lakewood Public Library has most of the show’s run on DVD, and over the past year I have grown rather fond of it.

Streamlined storytelling. Danger Man is, in a lot of ways, elegantly simple. Beyond “John Drake is a Western-powers secret operative,” it scarcely has any kind of premise or continuity. (Drake’s employer, his formal role, and his nationality are all questionable.) Every episode seems to work on its own. Characters are built-up afresh in each story, including Drake to a great extent; his is nearly the only recurring character, and even he goes through little in terms of episode-to-episode character building.

For me, this stripped-down approach is part of the show’s fascination. It comes across as almost an exercise in short-story elegance: a demonstration of how good writing can deliver interest again and again, without employing soap-opera story arcs or world-building. (Possibly this is why I enjoy the initial half-hour episodes most of all, and feel that the longer subsequent episodes are good but stray just a bit from this minimalist charm.)

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Status in summary

Details aside, this is it exactly right now.