Column: How Many Daves of the Condor?

Wherein it's proven that we're not dumber than a bag of hammers

“I’m smarter than you.”

That’s an idea that defines the character of Ann Arbor better than anything you might read in a brochure, or see in a Pure Michigan video.

Likely a condor.

Photo by Ward 2 Ann Arbor councilmember Jane Lumm, taken in summer 2012. She reports that a ranger at the Grand Canyon identified the bird as a condor. The plausibility of this being a condor has also been checked by a guy I know who is way smarter about birds than I am.

If you didn’t already know that, well, I guess that makes me … an Ann Arbor resident.

Besides writing op-ed pieces adorned with footnotes [1], another way Ann Arbor residents prove they are smarter than you is to deploy extraordinary words you’ve never heard before, possibly from a dead language – with an ever-so-slightly aggressive nonchalance, calculated to elicit from their listeners some kind of concession like “I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with that term.” [Alternatively, super-long, syntacticky sentences.]

And then the conversation may continue along the lines of, “Oh, I’m sorry – I thought that expression was so common. But there I go again, just assuming that everyone is as … much a resident of Ann Arbor as I am.”

And those of us who observe these interactions, which depend on a carefully scripted casualness, wonder smugly to ourselves, “Does he not realize everyone can see exactly what he’s doing? I mean, it’s like he thinks he’s the only … person who lives in Ann Arbor!”

Many elected officials in Ann Arbor have a variant on this gambit, which involves not extraordinary bits of vocabulary, but perfectly regular words – to which some special technical sense is given, outside of any reasonable expectation. By way of example, the word “regular” itself has (apparently) a technical sense that can transform a special meeting of the city council into a “regular meeting.” That technical sense  of “regular meeting” can be paraphrased roughly as: Any meeting the city council chooses to label as “regular” by voting to label it as such in a formal resolution. [2]

Given that we all live here in Ann Arbor – i.e., we are all smarter than each other – local governance leads to arguments about the meaning of words, even those that are perfectly ordinary. By way of additional examples (beyond “regular” and “special”) these pairs might sound familiar to some readers: “sell” versus “lease”; “opinion” versus “memo” [3]; “committee” versus “work group” [4].

But at the most recent meeting of the city council, on Aug. 20, 2012, part of the argument at the council table depended crucially on the meaning of the word “many.” I’m not making that up. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) disputed a contention made by Jane Lumm (Ward 2) that began “Many Ann Arbor residents believe …” The nature of their disagreement can, I think, be analyzed in terms of a numerical understanding of “many” compared to a proportional one.

It’s actually a standard puzzle from the sub-field of linguistics called semantics, which I have studied at an institution of higher learning. Otherwise put, I live here in Ann Arbor even more than you do. And the standard example sentence used by semanticists to illustrate the meaning of “many” involves condors.

So let’s begin with a treatise on condors. The bird with the Latin name Gymnogyps californianus … Heh. I’m kidding.

By “kidding” I mean “not actually totally kidding.” See, you need to understand something about condors before you can understand the example. One thing you probably already know is that condors don’t live in Ann Arbor. 


California condors are rare – only about 220 of them exist in the wild. Another 180 or so of the birds exist in captivity. This is up from a total of 22, back in the late 1980s when all of them were captured and put into a breeding program to try to boost the numbers. Among the treats in the Wikipedia article on California condors is this: “…  biologists began removing the first egg from the nest and raising it with puppets, allowing the parents to lay another egg.”

Due to some unfortunate encounters with power lines out in the wild, condors are now conditioned in captivity to avoid them, before being released. Ann Arbor condors, if they existed, would likely not need that kind of remedial training.

I was not able to determine the exact numbers for the California population of condors, but it looks like well over half live in California.

Many Condors

With that background, would you say that (1) is true or false?

(1) Many California condors live in California.

In this context, the word “many” has for most people two different understandings: (a) a cardinal, or numerical understanding based on whether the actual number is sufficient to merit the description “many”; and (b) a proportional understanding, where we judge the merits of “many” based on some proportion being sufficient to be called “many.”

So (1) – relative to the numerical interpretation of “many” – can be false, because there are so few condors, period. But relative to the proportional understanding of “many,” (1) can be true, because the proportion of condors in California is so substantial.

The sentence (2) is thus not a logical contradiction:

(2) Many California condors live in California, but there aren’t many California condors that live in California.

Many Ann Arbor Residents

The sentence that councilmembers were squabbling over was this one, from the “whereas” portion of a resolution that would have directed the city’s legal staff to draft ordinance language to repeal the funding mechanism for the city’s Percent for Art program.

(3) [M]any Ann Arbor residents believe the allocation of capital project funds to public art represents an inappropriate and unrelated use of dollars raised through tax millages and water and sewer system funds that they believe should be fully dedicated to their primary streets, parks, water/sewer, and solid waste purposes;

For readers unfamiliar with the basic format of city council resolutions, they consist of “whereas” clauses followed by “resolved” clauses. The “whereas” clauses are a recitation of facts that provide relevant background – they are supposed to be uncontroversial. The “resolved” clauses are the bits that state the specific action the council is taking.

I think (3) is true – relative to a proportional understanding of “many.” That is, I think if you ask those Ann Arbor residents who have any opinion or awareness at all about the manner in which the Percent for Art program is funded, a sufficient proportion of them have the belief described in (3) to make (3) true.

In the recent city council elections, candidates who I would describe as sympathetic to the belief described in (3) all had solid showings: Two of them won, a third came within 18 votes of winning, and a fourth polled 43.5%. That’s evidence that (3) is plausibly true, relative to a proportional understanding of “many.”

Hohnke objected to the inclusion of (3) in the list of “whereas” clauses. From The Chronicle’s Aug. 20, 2012 meeting coverage:

He dismissed that assertion by saying, “Many Ann Arbor residents believe yada yada yada. Many Ann Arbor residents believe a whole bunch of things and you can insert whatever you want.” He contended that the evidence is to the contrary. In the repeated conversations the council has had, he continued, the council had heard overwhelming support for the public art program. So he felt the statement was not an accurate reflection of the facts.

Of course it’s not true, as Hohnke contends, that you can insert anything after “Many Ann Arbor residents believe …” and get a true sentence. For example, I don’t think it’s true that “Many Ann Arbor residents believe they are no smarter than a bag of hammers.”

Hohnke could plausibly contend that (3) is incomplete, but by claiming (3) is not accurate, he’s reaching. And I use that word “reaching” intentionally, because that’s how Hohnke signs off in his “monthly” emailed updates to constituents that have arrived in my email inbox only about half a dozen times in the last two years: “Let’s keep reaching together.”

Rather than try to argue that (3) is not accurate, Hohnke might have maintained a more sensible level of discourse by simply acknowledging that (3) is true, yet incomplete, because it does not include (4), which is also true:

(4) [M]any Ann Arbor residents support public art in the city, with either no understanding of its funding mechanism or also with the full understanding that the allocation of capital project funds for public art comes through tax millages and water and sewer system funds;

Instead of keeping things sensible, though, it was apparently important to Hohnke to hammer Lumm with the vague implication that she was being dishonest.

And then Hohnke escalated his rhetoric to suggest that the Percent for Art program isn’t actually controversial. Instead, he claimed that any controversy has been “manufactured” by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and a “small number” of other folks. Rhetorically, this is effective, because (5) can certainly be true, on a numerical understanding of the phrase “small number”:

(5) A small number of Ann Arbor residents think the Percent for Art program is problematic.

The number of Ann Arbor residents who have any kind of view on the Percent for Art program is surely small – I’d guess fewer than 10,000. So I’d guess the number of Ann Arbor residents who think the funding mechanism for the Percent for Art program is problematic could be less than 1,000. So (5) is plausibly true, relative to the numerical understanding of “small number.”

But whatever the actual number is, it’s proportionally sufficient that elected representatives have represented that view at the city council table.

And that is the actual point of this column, if it has one at all – that the views represented by other “electeds” at the council table should be acknowledged as the legitimate reflection of the views of “many residents.”

This should be a basic axiom for those who serve on an elected body like the city council:

My colleagues were elected by people who are just as smart as the people who elected me, and who are all smarter than me.

That axiom should not be hard to embrace here in Ann Arbor … because if you sit on the Ann Arbor city council, you were elected by Ann Arbor residents, who are all smarter than you: They got you to do this terrible job. QED.


[1] This is an example of a footnote.

[2] “regular” versus “special”: We all know what a “regular meeting” is. If a public body schedules an additional meeting – one that’s not on the regular meeting calendar set at the start of the year, and does not fit any pattern of regular meetings – and if the public body does so in order to handle one specific piece of business, then that’s a “special meeting” of that public body.

But almost a year ago now, on Oct. 3, 2011, the city council voted to add a meeting to its schedule for Oct. 24, which did not fit the pattern of regular meetings described in the council’s rules, and was added for the sole purpose of contemplating a rezoning request. At the time, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) reasonably objected to calling it a “regular meeting,” saying it was a “special meeting.” But unless the council labeled it a “regular meeting,” it could not accomplish what it potentially wanted to achieve at that special, regular meeting – namely, the enactment of the zoning change associated with the Heritage Row development. That zoning change had to take place at a “regular meeting” – based on city charter requirements. So the council added this additional “regular meeting” to its schedule through a resolution that labeled it a “regular meeting.”

The whole thing turned out to be moot, as the Heritage Row development did not go forward.

[3] “committee” versus “work group”: Back in 2009, the city council appointed a committee of its members to negotiate a revision to the contract under which the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority manages the public parking system. By standing city policy, the “committee” would have been required to meet under the same constraints as a public body under the Michigan Open Meetings Act. But beginning in early 2010, members of that committee met with their DDA counterparts under the guise of a “working group,” thus escaping the requirement of the administrative policy – that their meetings be noticed and open the public.

[4] “opinion” versus “memo”: When a city attorney writes out an analysis of a piece of legislation – say, for example, on the membership eligibility requirements of the local officers compensation commission (LOCC), the content of that analysis is in the public interest to know and should be available for third-party use. For example, it’s a fair question for any citizen to ask: Does a member of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meet the eligibility requirement of the LOCC – that “No member or employee of the legislative, judicial or executive branch of any level of government … shall be eligible to be a member of the commission.”

I don’t think a member of the DDA board meets that eligibility requirement. Yet Ann Arbor’s LOCC includes a member of the DDA board. If city attorney Stephen Postema adhered to the city charter requirement that his “opinions” be filed with the city clerk’s office, we might know what his legal analysis is that allows for a member of the DDA board not to be considered a member of a branch of government for the purposes of the LOCC. But the city attorney is especially keen not to call anything he writes an “opinion,” lest someone insist that he meet that charter requirement. By calling his opinions “advice memos,” he believes he is avoiding the charter requirement. And the public is left in the dark about this, or any other issue that could easily be illuminated by the city’s legal staff.

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  1. September 1, 2012 at 8:37 am | permalink

    Love that word “snytacticky.” I’d never heard it before. Obviously you are smarter than me.

  2. By Christo
    September 1, 2012 at 8:48 am | permalink

    We could a lot more articles like this. I love and have contributed financially to Ann Arbor Chronicle; it is one of the most useful and complete sources of information available to Ann Arbor residents, and I think ALL web-enabled residents should look at it at least once a week to keep tabs on the goings on of the people in charge.

    It seems odd, with today’s dearth of unbiased journalism, to call an opinion piece refreshing. But in the A2 chronicle, for so long I have seen such complete and excellent transcription and reporting, with never a “can you believe this is actually happening,” or “wow, most of these people should be fired,” that I find this glimpse into the journalist’s take on things exactly that; refreshing.

  3. September 1, 2012 at 9:47 am | permalink

    Re (1) At risk of being typical Ann Arbor, shouldn’t that be “syntacticky”?

  4. By George Hammond
    September 1, 2012 at 11:31 am | permalink

    Wow. Epic verbosity.

  5. By Mary Morgan
    September 1, 2012 at 11:33 am | permalink

    Re. “shouldn’t that be ‘syntacticky’?”

    Yes, it should. Now that we know everyone is awake, alert and paying attention – including us – it’s been changed.

  6. September 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm | permalink

    Yeah, this has nothing to do with the article but have you all seen the movie Three Days of the Condor? Before I saw it, I dreamed up the scene where the guy goes out to get lunch, gets back and everyone has been killed. When I saw the movie, I was like, “You yanked my story idea!” Then I realized that the movie was made when I was 3 and realized I’m not so smart/creative after all!!! :)

  7. By anna ercoli schnitzer
    September 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm | permalink

    Double wow! I have always been intrigued by your editorial erudition, logic, rhetoric, and sense of humor in the past, but now I am REALLY impressed (and, no, I am not being sarcastic, and, yes, this is my *real* name)!

  8. September 1, 2012 at 3:35 pm | permalink

    Postema’s artificial distinction between an “advice memo” and an “opinion” would never survive scrutiny by someone in a black robe.

  9. By John Floyd
    September 2, 2012 at 2:22 am | permalink

    Apparently, someone is feeling a tad defensive about the % for Art program – or at least its funding.


    A resident of Vulcan would tell you that “The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few”, suggesting that “Many” refers to more than 50% of a referent population, and that “Few” refers to less than 50%. Is that proper usage?

    And speaking of the meaning of words, I recall that The Many of our valiant council commissioned a “Financial feasibility study” of a possible Library Lot Convention Center. When the consultant’s report omitted this central task of the RFP requirements, it was announced that the report was not a “Financial Feasibility” study, but rather an “Economic Viability” report, as if those phrases expressed meaningly different concepts. Curiouser and Curiouser.

    From time to time, it has come to my attention that some other pieces of your writing also have had a point. Thanks for helping us to not overlook that this was one of those pieces.

    Are you sure that many Ann Arbor residents live in California?

  10. By Rich
    September 4, 2012 at 12:57 pm | permalink

    Though I lived in Ann Arbor from 1976-85, few of the “smarts” rubbed off on me. It took a careful reading of “Daves of the Condor” to fully appreciate the gist of the column. What attracted my Google “alert” was “condor” and so the Ann Arbor Chronicle popped up in my email. I just want to add some condor “stuff” to the comments. “Many” is a complicated term when it comes to California condors, as the population has grown from a low of about 22 birds back in the 1980′s to a current population of 417. This dramatic increase, 19X, is a direct result of the dedicated work of the wildlife biologists and the commitment of facilities and resources at the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos. Their efforts have been supplemented by newer programs at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise (operated by the Peregrine Fund) and the Oregon Zoo in Portland. There are about 232 birds flying free in the wild, of which about 77 are flying in the Grand Canyon population. You had an amazing opportunity to see these birds in the Grand Canyon and even more amazing to come away with a photo! 130 birds are in California (that’s “many”) and about 25 are in a wild population in Baja, Mexico. These are incredible birds and it was fun to see them cited in a story from Ann Arbor. Rich UM’s School of Natural Resources MS 1978