15th Monthly Milestone

On searching, and on finding good comments

Editor’s Note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.

The Cube on University of Michigan Campus

The Cube, by artist Tony Rosenthal, on the University of Michigan campus. (Photo by the writer.)

In a little over a year of operation, The Ann Arbor Chronicle has now published more than 1,000 full-length pieces – that number excludes Media Watch and Stopped.Watched items. And Chronicle readers have posted more than 6,000 comments on the website.

Depending on your perspective, both those numbers might seem rather paltry. But they are substantial enough to raise a couple of issues. First, the volume of archived material has become large enough that we’ve switched from the built-in WordPress search function to Google’s custom site search. It’s not perfect, but it’s a dramatic improvement.

And second, while the mission of The Chronicle is not explicitly about reader comments, we think it’s appropriate to acknowledge the positive way readers have used Chronicle comments as a platform to add information, insight, and additional perspective on Chronicle material. To that end, I may from time to time use a Monthly Milestone column to highlight some reader comments that I think had, for one reason or other, particular merit – starting this month.

But first, a few details on the Google custom search engine that now provides Chronicle site search results.

Google Custom Site Search: The Chronicle

The results provided by the WordPress built-in search were unsatisfactory in several ways. And Google provides custom site search at no cost to website owners. So switching to search results powered by Google was a fairly straightforward decision. When you search The Chronicle using that box in the left sidebar, it’s now Google that provides the results – which are restricted to just articles found on The Chronicle.

Part of the bargain for incorporating a Google custom search engine is that advertisements are included with The Chronicle’s custom search results. For nonprofits, those ads could be turned off. But now is perhaps a good time to remind readers that The Chronicle is not a nonprofit and depends on voluntary subscriptions and advertising to pay its bills.

The Chronicle does not benefit financially in any way from clicks on Google ads supplied with custom search results on The Chronicle. So we suggest treating those Google ads in the same way you would if you encountered them searching from Google’s main search engine. That is, if you feel compelled to click on them, then do so. If not, then don’t. Please don’t arbitrarily click on them with the intent of helping The Chronicle. All that does is needlessly cost some merchant some money.

Google custom site search allows for filtering out certain URL patterns, which we’ve deployed to prevent duplicate entries in results that would otherwise appear due to idiosyncrasies involving WordPress. Here are some examples of patterns currently filtered:







If you notice duplicates in the results, please let us know about them, so that we might come up with a pattern that would filter them out.

The last pattern targets comments. It doesn’t filter out comments from the results, but rather prevents the search engine from thinking of an article with 50 comments as 50 different articles, each of which needs to be presented in search results.

Chronicle Comments

There are, of course, entire comment threads created by Chronicle readers that, taken in aggregate, are worth mentioning as especially valuable. Some notable recent threads include those that evolved on “Does It Take a Millage?” and “Seniors Weigh in on Fate of Center.”

But a few weeks ago, I was struck by what I thought was a particularly apt individual comment, which surfaced in the context of a back-and-forth about the merits of public art. It was, to me, striking enough that I created a file to keep track of such particularly noteworthy comments – without any clear idea of how to implement actually making note of them.

And I was not alone in thinking that this particular comment was noteworthy:

By Rod Johnson
October 27, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Tom, I wish I could “like” comments here. That was good.

The reference to “liking” comments alludes to an option provided by Facebook and other online platforms, where visitors can record their opinion about another person’s comment.

It’s not a priority for The Chronicle to invest time, effort and other resources in providing a more sophisticated commenting platform. But we would like to at least recognize a specific comment or two every once in a while – if only as a way of expressing our general appreciation for the way that readers make contributions to The Chronicle.

And just to be clear: There’s not a monetary award, a trophy, a certificate, or a prize of any kind to go along with this.

Comment on the Cube

Which comment was Rod Johnson writing about? This one, by Tom Whitaker, which he posted to the comment thread on the article “Dreiseitl Project Moves to City Council“:

By Tom Whitaker
October 22, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Walking home from dinner the other night we passed “The Cube” next to the UM Admin. building. My 11-year-old son ran over and gave it a big push, going around and around until he had to stop and rest. I remembered doing the same thing when I first moved to Ann Arbor at age 17, some thirty years ago.

It struck me how perfect this public art piece was for its location: an open, but not particularly busy plaza tucked between campus buildings. It is all-season, interactive, and virtually indestructible. I imagine that UM Plant Operations has to give it a little grease now and then, but probably not much else. No fancy lights, no glass balls, no piping, no water, no pumps or motors. Sustainability is inherent in its simplicity, its durability, and its accessibility. It sits there quietly on point, handsome and still, just waiting for someone to come along and set it into motion. Then its true beauty is revealed as it catches and reflects the light from its irregular faces.

I wonder how much it cost?

corner of the cube

The corners of the cube show years of wear from art appreciation. (Photo by the writer.)

What I liked about that comment of Tom’s was the way it took a step back from the specific point of contention in the comment thread – the merits of investing in the proposed piece of art designed by Herbert Dreiseitl for the municipal center – to share a vignette from his family’s life, and to relate that vignette in a meaningful way to the conversation in the comment thread.

From a writerly point of view, it’s also a fine piece of descriptive work.

Comment on Commissioner Bergman’s Lawn

Another comment I think is worth a special note is one left by Vivienne Armentrout on an article that told the story of a homeless camp that was evicted from the property where it had been set up. She was responding, in part, to a previous comment, posted by Jay Barth, in which he suggested that current county commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman had a lawn large enough to accommodate the homeless camp [emphasis added below]:

By Vivienne Armentrout
September 5, 2009 at 10:51 am

The original discussions about the replacement for the emergency shelter (remember, that used to be on Huron where there is now a yoga studio) were to erect a 200-bed structure that would have included some space for families on county-owned land on Ellsworth. Two things happened: it was considered essential to have the shelter downtown (which immediately places limitations on it) and advocates lobbied to have a restricted number of beds (only 50) with the aim (I believe) of moving shelter occupants into permanent housing more quickly. We actually lost beds when the shelter was moved into the new facility. It is hard to know for certain when making such important decisions what the future effects will be.

Jay Barth’s account seems to have somewhat confused timing. At the time that the shelter on Huron was being replaced, the Y already had 100 units of housing and they remained there for some years afterward. I don’t recall (but memory is imperfect) that the Y was put forth as an alternative at the time.

I don’t consider it fair to pinpoint one commissioner personally. We all made that decision for a number of complex reasons. I found it especially difficult since the eventual location was in my district. The public was divided on the issue, with many advocates for the homeless also living nearby. As a historical note, Mr. Barth ran a general election campaign against me partly based on that issue. I’m grateful that he didn’t mention my lawn, which is larger than Commissioner Bergman’s, and also has a nice vegetable garden.

What impressed me about Armentrout’s comment was not just the rich set of historical facts she was able to add to the conversation from her perspective of prior service on the county’s board of commissioners. What I found particularly compelling was the concluding line – which, to me, struck a deft balance of good humor and critique. It prompted continued conversation from Barth and did not foment a ferocious “debate,” to which online comment threads too often succumb.

Comment on Twinkies

Some fairly long comment threads have been prompted by Stopped.Watched. observations – which goes to show that readers don’t need much more than a short snippet to get a conversation going. But the last individual comment I’m singling out this month was the only comment left on the original observation.

Stopped.Watched. items are short enough that it makes sense to include it here in its entirety:

Overheard conversation between Eberwhite Elementary crossing guards: “You mean you’ve never had Hostess snack products of any kind?” “No, and I don’t plan to ever.” Hmm. Seems early to decide for a life without Twinkies.
– observed by HD on October 23, 2009

And here’s the comment:

By Julie
October 23, 2009 at 8:56 pm
Ha! That was my daughter! (The Twinkie-free one, that is.)

While this is not an obvious candidate for award-winning writing – and I would reiterate that there are no prizes for any of this – that kind of comment serves an important function: It confirms the original observation. It also prompted me to wonder what facts were crucial in Julie’s recognition of her daughter in the description. Absent the geographic location, could she have pegged the Hostess-hater as her daughter?

Twinkie fire. An accelerant was used to enhance the flames for photographic purposes.

Twinkies on fire. An accelerant was used to enhance the flames for photographic purposes. (Photo by the writer)

Another function that particular comment serves is to satisfy what’s become a reader expectation from Chronicle Monthly Milestones – inclusion of a food-related theme. And Twinkies, well, they’re food.

And given that this is the last Monthly Milestone of the year, I might offer that it’s not too soon to start stocking up on Twinkies for your New Year’s Eve party. Soaked in rum or other alcohol, they’re easy to light on fire.

Happy New Year.


  1. December 2, 2009 at 7:46 am | permalink

    Recall that in the movie Wall-E, when virtually all organic material remaining on Earth appears to have decomposed, Twinkies appear to have survived unchanged. We’ll have to hope that the Chronicle shows a similar longevity.

  2. By Kristin Judge
    December 2, 2009 at 9:49 am | permalink

    Thank you for your thorough reporting on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners this past year. It is so important for the residents to understand where their county tax dollars are going how the board works. Washtenaw County residents are being well served by the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Thank you Mary and Dave!

  3. By Anisoptera
    December 2, 2009 at 10:12 am | permalink

    The Ann Arbor Cube is called “Endover”. [Link]

    There is a matching one at Astor Place in NYC called “Alamo”.

    I once took a trip that started at the Michigan Union and ended emerging from from the subway at Astor Place. It was odd to see the same sculpture at the beginning and ending of my journey.

  4. By Julie
    December 2, 2009 at 10:32 am | permalink

    Ha ha! My recollection is that the street corner listed wasn’t quite accurate (or else she’d strayed from her post). So I did ask her before leaving my comment. But I was pretty sure even before I checked. The other crossing guard is a very cute boy, and that exchange perfectly captured their fifth-grade banter. Plus, of course, I know she doesn’t eat Twinkies. Perhaps if they were soaked in rum…

  5. By Joan Lowenstein
    December 2, 2009 at 10:44 am | permalink

    I hope the burning Twinkie photo doesn’t start an urban legend. In Gail Collins’ new book about the feminist movement, she points out that a journalist once equated the feminists to men who burned their draft cards and that launched the colorful but incorrect legend of bra-burning feminists.

  6. December 2, 2009 at 11:35 am | permalink

    Well, rumors of spontaneous Twinkie combustion would probably spread like (ahem) wildfire.

    Thanks for another month of the Chronicle.

  7. By Rod Johnson
    December 2, 2009 at 2:04 pm | permalink

    It’s my 15 seconds of fame!

  8. By Tom Whitaker
    December 2, 2009 at 5:11 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Dave (and Rod). For those who didn’t follow the original thread, I later found out that The Cube was a gift to the University, so the cost was zero. Could it be more perfect?

  9. By David Diephuis
    December 2, 2009 at 6:13 pm | permalink

    The Cube’s artist, Tony Rosenthal, passed away earlier this year. MICHIGAN TODAY had a nice, seven picture slideshow of The Cube in their September issue. Here’s the URL:


  10. By Alan Goldsmith
    December 3, 2009 at 6:26 am | permalink

    Tom, you mean The Cube didn’t come about as the result of a thirty member task force deliberating for two years?