Allen Toussaint, RIP

Posted November 11, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Music


The death of Allen Toussaint at age 77 is a profound loss for American culture.

I saw him perform in 2011, and it was my favorite concert of the year.

Here’s what I said in a year-end music piece for Isthmus’ website:

1. Old Man River

Allen Toussaint, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Jan. 14

The crowd broke into “Happy Birthday” when Toussaint announced he had turned 73. Like a handful of other living legends I’ve seen (Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard, Alberta Hunter at the Cookery, Stephane Grappelli at the old Capitol Theater), Toussaint came joyously alive on stage, the deprecations of age seemingly banished by the magic of his art. This New Orleans icon was surrounded by an all-star band, featuring traditionalist trumpeter Nicholas Payton and hipster sax player/clarinetist Don Byron performing the wondrous songs on the Joe Henry-produced Bright Mississippi. This was an elegiac performance ranging from Louis Armstrong’s foundational “West End Blues,” to Toussaint’s own syncopated hit “Night People.” A sly and encyclopedic pianist (he mixed in a few classical licks on a long solo), Toussaint was the embodiment of American musical history. I left the show elated, knowing how lucky I was. When Toussaint passes, an era will pass with him. That’s why finally seeing Allen Toussaint was my most memorable concert of the year.

– See more at:



UW Tech Transfer: Challenge and Promise

Posted October 15, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Development, Education, Tech,

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Few things are as important for energizing the listless Wisconsin economy than capitalizing on the great research conducted at UW-Madison. I write in this Isthmus cover story:

A game-changer is what UW-Madison sorely needs. Historically one of the nation’s leading research schools, the campus secures more than $1 billion a year in research grants. Yet between 2009 and 2014, Wisconsin ranked 42nd among the states in patents issued, according to federal data. And we were dead last in a survey of entrepreneurial activity taken by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Reality is that despite Dane County’s tech-led boom, the Wisconsin economy is in parlous condition. The state suffered the largest percentage decline of middle-class households in the nation between 2000 and 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. Median Wisconsin household income in this period dropped from $60,344 to $51,467 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Obvious questions follow: Why isn’t all this UW research igniting a wave of business and tech startups across the state? Why hasn’t the UW dynamo reversed the state’s economic decline?

UW-Madison, it’s fair to say, is feeling the heat.

The hostility of the ruling Republicans at the Capitol is as plain to see as the UW System’s $250 million budget cut and Gov. Scott Walker’s initial plan to gut the Wisconsin Idea, the university’s once sacrosanct pledge that its “beneficent influence” would extend statewide.

But that notion of “the boundaries of campus are the boundaries of the state” draws a sharp retort from skeptics who think UW-Madison’s reach seems to abruptly end at the Dane County line. Local folks may be proud that Dane County claims 73% of the new jobs created in Wisconsin over the last 10 years, but outstate observers see this as evidence of how UW-Madison beneficence is highly parochial.

Enter UW-Madison’s Discovery To Product program. I write how this bootcamp for campus entrepreneurs has nurtured a potential breakout campus discovery. Researchers Mark Cook and Jordan Sand have come up with a technique that could dramatically reduce the pervasive  use of human antibiotics in animal feed. That farm industry practice is blamed for producing deadly drug-resistant superbugs.

To read more about their discovery and the complaints that insiders make about UW-Madison’s hostility towards commercializing research, please go here.

Free Concerts Are Bad For Madison Music

Posted August 26, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Music, Tone

Tags: , , ,

Madison is a great town, but not always for artists. Most people seem to like their art free or cheap, if at all. That’s one reason we’re blessed and somewhat cursed by the cavalcade of free music each summer. Finding that dark cloud on a sunny day, I write in the online arts journal Tone:

[T]hese free shows… have a downside. A serious one, I would argue. They undercut the economic viability of the local music scene. When so much great free music is available from regional and even national groups, why should fans dig into their wallets to hear a local band at a corner pub? Usually they don’t, unless it’s a weekend. That’s why I sat on the deck of Mickey’s not long ago, listening to the fine gypsy swing/Hawaiian group Mal-O-Dua without paying a cover.

Yep, there was a tip jar, but that’s demeaning. Musicians shouldn’t be expected to work for charity, any more than plumbers or lawyers should. Here’s the problem. In Madison, music is often considered a free (or “nonexclusive,” as economists would say) public good. Like the Fourth of July fireworks, the parks, clean streets. We all get a free pass to share them.

Four years ago, I wrote at length for Isthmus on the failure of the local music  to take off. You’ll find that cover story here.

If you’re interested, you can search this archive to find my annual roundup of favorite concerts. This is the 2014  story.

Organic Valley At The Crossroads

Posted July 28, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Development, Local Food, Organic Farming/Local Food, The Progressive

Tags: , , , , ,

The Organic Valley farmers coop has been a huge success. With national sales hitting almost $1 billion, this upstart challenger of conventional agriculture has helped create a massive consumer market for chemical-free farming. Small family farmers in Wisconsin and across the nation have gone organic because of the premium prices their milk, eggs and meat attracts in the organic marketplace. But in researching this story for The Progressive magazine I found the coop in a surprisingly precarious position. I write:

Surging consumer demand for organics has created supply shortages for dairy products, and immense opportunities for profit. That has attracted some of the nation’s largest American food corporations to step up an already sizable investment in organics. These aren’t people motivated by protecting the environment, says David Kaseno of the National Farmers Organization. They are “people who think: ‘Hey we can make a lot of money in organic milk.’”

The $46 billion merger of Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Co. in March will prompt its rivals to bulk up by buying fast-growing organic food labels, both The New York Times and Bloomberg News predicted. The food giants already produce a stunning 70 percent of the items stocked in a typical co-op grocery, says Philip Howard,a Michigan State University professor who tracks corporate consolidation in the organic world.

For organic industry observers, this poses stark questions for Organic Valley: Is it smart enough and big enough to compete with the corporate giants? Will it yield to the temptation to compromise organic standards to maintain market share? More to the point, will it hold on to its all-important dairy members, who have been abandoning the co-op for the significantly better pay offered by some Organic Valley competitors?

This is the paradox of Organic Valley: At a moment of great success, it faces something of an existential threat.

To read more, please go here.

I interviewed a ton of people for the story, including Organic Valley CEO George Siemon. Some of this views can be found in the story. I wrote an online sidebar that touches on other matters. I suspect that some people will be surprised at his positive impressions of Walmart. You can read about it here.

I also wrote about the Organic Valley coop for Isthmus. You can find those earlier stories from 2007 and 2008 here and here and here.

UW Loses Key Leader

Posted June 29, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Education,

Tags: , ,

I profiled David Krakauer, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, in January 2013 after periodically talking with him  and observing his campus talks in 2012. I wrote then in Isthmus:

Krakauer’s message “is a brash call for UW-Madison to reimagine its place in the world. Above all, it is to climb out of the silos of intellectual pursuit and embrace a more creative mash-up of disciplines — hard scientists working with poets working with social scientists working with entrepreneurs.

“’David’s task of bringing people together across disciplines is an assignment in cultural change,’ affirms Francois Ortalo-Magné, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.

“But given that great universities are almost medieval in their reverence for tradition, Krakauer faces a hellaciously complicated task. It’s ‘a bit of the immovable object against the unstoppable external forces,’ admits Mike Knetter, president of the UW Foundation.

“The fact that Krakauer is such an unbuttoned figure in the buttoned-down world of university administration may prove exactly the jolt that UW-Madison needs. Anyway, that’s the high-stakes bet UW execs made in selecting him to run a showcase experimental lab as part of the $210 million Discovery complex, which brings together researchers and entrepreneurs.

My followup story caught Krakauer as he was leaving UW-Madison to lead the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. The story, which appeared in Isthmus, begins:

One of UW-Madison’s change agents, David Krakauer, is departing on June 30, proud of his work as head of the edgy and multi-disciplinary Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, but deeply frustrated by his dealings with the campus bureaucracy.

“They like to use the word ‘innovation’ a lot, but they don’t want to act on it,” he says. “I think this is a culture that is really intolerant of taking risks.”

He adds: “The UW is very large. Things move slowly. It’s very difficult to respond nimbly and build up roots quickly to address a particular problem.” Still, Krakauer is careful to note that the WID “had some dispensations. We had freedoms. We didn’t cleave exactly to the dominant culture. We did a lot of good stuff. It was very unorthodox.

To read more, please go here.

My take on Krakauer’s departure? It’s a huge loss for the university. Next to Jim Graaskamp, the late head of the UW-Madison real estate department, Krakauer is the most compelling and charismatic campus leader I’ve interviewed.

To be sure, there are lots of really bright people on campus, but often they can’t convey their work to an interested layperson in a convincing fashion. They lapse into impenetrable jargon, or they’re painfully shy, or they’re Midwest modest, or they can’t speak English well. Krakauer is very different. He has the rare public intellectual’s ability to explain  complex ideas. He can do a 360 review, describing all the facets to a lay audience and in the process convey their importance and his enthusiasm.

Madison will miss him. I describe Krakauer’s ideas for bringing UW-Madison into the new century in this online sidebar.

Advice For Democrats

Posted April 6, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Labor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Politics, Tech

David Haynes’ column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel got me thinking about the need for political realignment in Wisconsin. The paper’s editorial page editor recounted the dismal electoral standing of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and argued the faltering Dems need to rethink and rebuild their party.

I offer my two cents in a guest column in the Journal Sentinel:

First, dial back the vitriol. The hatred and contempt [the Democrats] show for Gov. Scott Walker has been repudiated by the voters. Instead, they should stick to the issues. Look to the future. Embrace the millennials. Champion the tech sector. Celebrate start-ups and entrepreneurs. Support the Ubers of the sharing economy. Get real about unions. Give tough love (and financial support) to public education. Welcome immigrants. Offer a helping hand to the poor.

Most of all, accept the necessity of change. Wisconsin hasn’t. Too often, our political and economic leaders act as if they’re historical re-enactors at Old World Wisconsin. They refight the old battles when the world — and the economy — has moved on.

I made many of these points in a story (see below) that appeared earlier in Isthmus. To read more of my Journal Sentinel piece, please go here.

Old School Politics And The New Economy

Posted March 19, 2015 by meisen
Categories: Development, Politics, Tech,

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The disconnection between Wisconsin’s growing tech sector and the state’s governing political dynamic has never been greater. This Isthmus story discusses how the Legislature’s decision to enact union-breaking “right to work” legislation left Madison area tech leaders puzzled and dismayed.

“As an employer, I can tell you this has zero bearing on my decision to stay in Wisconsin or to hire more people,” Dan Wilson, a founder of Moxe Health, told me. Other leaders had similar comments.

I write:.

It’s tempting to dismiss the comments of the techie execs as inconsequential because they represent startups and boutique businesses with small workforces. They are midgets compared to the titans of Wisconsin industry who have promoted right-to-work through their powerful lobbying arm, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

But ignoring the new kids is a big mistake.

“In every single state, in every single metro area, young firms create the most jobs. That’s true everywhere,” says Dane Stangler, vice president of research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which advocates for startup businesses.

The tech component has certainly paid off in Dane County.

It’s fueled, of course, by homegrown Epic and its rise as the dominant electronic health records vendor in the country. The workforce tops 8,000. Revenue in 2014 reportedly hit $1.8 billion. And because founder Judith Faulkner insists on running the entire operation through its fairyland campus in Verona, the region has boomed economically. Epic alone accounted for 27% of all the new jobs created here from 2001 to 2012, according to Kennelly.

The city staffer’s presentation on the Madison area’s economic dynamics makes a persuasive case that the Dane County metro area is impressively outperforming the rest of the state. With 10% of the state’s population, Dane County accounts for 12% of the state’s jobs, 15% of its economic output and 16% of the businesses created since 2000 and 73% of the net new jobs created in Wisconsin between 2004 and 2014.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentineldiced the numbers in a different fashion and came to the same conclusion: Dane County led the state in job creation between 2003 and 2013, with nearly 20,000 new jobs. That’s three times as many as second-place Waukesha County. Milwaukee County lost 19,000 jobs in the same period.

For anyone who still sees Madison as a cossetted government town — well, they need to think again. Kennelly’s report shows that the private sector is driving job and wealth creation in Dane County. “Our government workforce is effectively flat,” he says.

Even better, the growing industries here support good-paying jobs, namely in the biomedical/biotechnical and information technology business clusters.

“The Madison area is really an economic engine for Wisconsin,” Kennelly says. “State policymakers sometimes like to pick on Madison. A more constructive approach would be to say: ‘What are they doing right, and how can we replicate it in other parts of the state?'”

To read more, please go here.


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