Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Sword and a Mop

From the art building at St. Catherine University in St. Paul:

The accompanying card reads:

Patricia L. Olson
Feminist Revisioning, 2004

This self-portrait shows the artist in a stance that mimics a figure found in a European heroic painting. In art history, only a handful of paintings have shown women brandishing a sword, two of them being Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes. In these paintings, the posture, along with the sword, imply power and righteous action. Olson feels that both are qualities feminism embodies at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the sword becomes not a symbol of violence, but a metaphor of feminism.

…the artist [also] uses a domestic instrument, the mop… After a person’s head has been lopped off (metaphorically and righteously), someone needs to stick around to clean up the mess. So even as the world changes for the better, there will be real human suffering to attend to, and therefore the mop in this painting is the equal of the sword. The mop head visually resurrects Medusa, whose serpent-hair symbolizes ancient feminine wisdom. Olson feels that the mop, and women’s knowledge of how to use it, is what makes feminism different from all the other “isms” of history.
None of which explains the cowboy boots, I must point out.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Stunned by Two Maps

This Washington Post article promised six maps that would make me rethink the world, but for me, it was just these two:

This is the world with 4°C of global warming. That's me in Minnesota in the spot where it looks semi-habitable along the edge of the desertified entire middle of the country, just south of the new bread basket known as Canada and Alaska.

The second map is of the Arctic shipping channels, and it's not so much those channels that make this map so overwhelming to me: it's the way it presents a vision of the world that orients around the North Pole and the Arctic, since that's where all of the people will be.

Our entire sense of the globe as oriented north-south, with the Atlantic and Pacific as spatially dominant, will shift so that we are circumpolar, with a much smaller version of the same thing around the South Pole.

You can know this stuff and not know it. What are we doing talking about Donald Trump and anything else, really? This is madness.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Old Carvings

I was trapped at an antique show recently and kept noticing the carved furniture. So, for today, I present a lion, a woman, and a flower.

Sorry, the lion is kind of blurry.

My favorite.

The style of these flowers and their foliage makes me think this piece is from the first 10 or so years of the 20th century. Or, at least, it's trying to look like it is.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Racing in the Streets (Not Just a Song)

I live in a St. Paul neighborhood that is bounded on one side by a four-lane, divided highway. As the weather improves, it's common for us to hear cars racing in the later evening and into the early morning hours. These jerks also race on some of the city streets in the south part of the neighborhood. A few weeks ago, one of them was killed driving on the wrong side of University Avenue, which is now divided by a set of light rail train tracks.

All of that is background to a news story from our western suburbs last weekend: a dozen high-priced performance cars, driven by men aged 25 to 54, were racing at speeds over 100 mph on I-394. In daylight.

They were caught (mostly) by state troopers and ticketed. Their names have been in the paper. As far as I know, they will get only fines, and not even very high ones at that (somewhere in the range of $500).

Today's Star Tribune carried this letter, putting all of that in perspective:

I am hoping that the county attorney and local policing organizations will further investigate the illegal and terrorist activity that took place on Interstate 394 by a gang known for its life-threatening behavior involving the use of exotic and dangerous vehicles. I would also hope that we confiscate the expensive equipment it collaboratively used to avoid law enforcement and terrorize the community. The revenue generated from the auction of only one of its cars would support a community-based youth intervention program for a year.

It’s interesting that when dangerous group behavior is committed by middle-aged, affluent, suburban males, the fear generated is nil — and their behavior is described as an innocent lark. However, when less dangerous behavior is attributed to youth who are poor, nonwhite and from urban neighborhoods, the fear generated is disproportionately high — and often accompanied by demands for draconian law enforcement.

David Wilmes, Roseville
If the police can confiscate property from people suspected of drug crimes, can they confiscate cars like this from people found guilty of using them as dangerous weapons? Why can cars (and motorcycles, especially the ones called "crotch rockets") go this fast in the first place?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Tabs on My Mind

The tabs haven't built up as much as usual by this posting, but there are enough, so here goes.

The coddling of the capitalist, white-supremacist, patriarchal American mind, by one of my favorite public intellectuals, Robert Jensen. It includes some of his thoughts about the denigration of microaggressions. (I've had my own thoughts on that topic, here and here.)

A few weeks ago, the Weekly Sift included a post about why the lack of a Supreme Court appointment really matters. It's not about the particular cases coming up or even trying to get back to some kind of balance on the court. It's part of the breakdown of judicial appointments at many levels, as the GOP tries to gum up the works of government generally and the courts in particular.

As the federal court system continues to deteriorate, any right those courts enforce deteriorates as well. Little by little, we wind up living in a country where “Yeah it’s illegal, but what are you going to do about it?” is a viable strategy.

That, in turn, creates a temptation to flip the situation around: to get even with your own illegal act, and let the other side beg for justice from the broken courts. And so the back-and-forth of political hardball begets a similar back-and-forth of hardball in everyday life.
Overloaded judges and civil cases that drag on for half a decade are the clearest result. The big picture is the failure of the rule of law and civil society.

Not long after I posted about Trump's followers and the authoritarian mind, Dave Roberts at Vox posted another Trump think piece that was worth sharing, but I felt like I was talking about Trump too much, so I didn't post it. But here it is: White working-class nostalgia, explained by John Wayne. It's a much more sympathetic look at what motivates Trump-backers. As he writes, "This kind of rose-tinted sentimentalism may strike many people — especially minorities and other subaltern groups who were excluded from that American idyll — as silly, even dangerous. But putting the grim historical realities aside, the nostalgia also reflects primal urges that are worth understanding, and honoring."

From the Washington Post, Five myths about public housing.  To cut to the chase, the five myths are:
  • Public housing residents want to escape it.
  • Public housing is crumbling.
  • Public housing assists the wrong people. 
  • High-rise public housing is unlivable. 
  • Public housing is a top-down imposition by government bureaucrats.
But you'll have to read the article to see why they should be considered myths.

From Ensia, As nations pledge greenhouse gas reductions, so should we. Some of the low-hanging fruit: reducing meat and especially beef consumption, limiting food waste, and flying a lot less. (Remember, "one round trip flight between Europe and the U.S. emits the equivalent of a year’s worth of daily commuting by car").

I'm seeing these two stories as related: What would happen if we just gave everyone money? (about the idea of Universal Basic Income from FiveThirtyEight) and Why lots of love (or motivation) isn't enough by education writer Alfie Kohn. Both get at core questions about human motivation. Why do we do what we do, and is there a better way to organize society (and education, as part of society) to maximize human happiness and fulfillment of potential for the most people?

So, I guess somebody published a paper saying there's a sweet spot in the amount of genetic diversity within a geographic region. Too much diversity and people don't get along and it leads to lower prosperity; too little diversity and it leads to stagnation and lower prosperity. They used East Africa (where humans came from, and therefore is the place with the greatest genetic diversity) as the exemplar of the former and Bolivia as the latter. With Europe and the U.S., of course, as the Goldilocks of economic prosperity. Well, I missed the original coverage of this, but when I heard about it I just thought, Well, that sounds like a bunch of post-hoc logic at work. Now some other researchers have come up with a better critique than that.

Thoughts on the nature of property as necessarily rooted in coercion and violence (one of Matt Bruenig's favorite points, though this piece is not by him). "In the modern world we’ve largely outsourced the execution of that violence, the monopoly on violence, to government."

A little-known moment in the Civil Rights movement is used to highlight the under-researched mental health effects of oppression and violence. Did you know that, in 1963, a dozen 12- to 15-year-old black girls from Georgia were locked inside a concrete shack for weeks without charges, or even telling their parents where they were? It's not the main focus of the story, but it reminded me of how little I've heard about that particular moment in our nation's history. That was probably one of the years when some of my fellow citizens think America was "great," and to which they would like to return.

David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporter formerly with the New York Times, explains why You Agree with Bernie Sanders (But You Might Not Know It).

Ari Berman, writing for the Nation, has been essential to coverage of voter suppression this election cycle. Here's just one of his stories: A black man brought 3 forms of ID to the polls in Wisconsin. He still couldn't vote. So, so wrong.

From the Washington Post's WonkBlog: America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality. "The growth of incarceration rates among black men in recent decades, combined with the sharp drop in black employment rates during the Great Recession, have left most black men in a position relative to white men that is really no better than the position they occupied only a few years after the Civil Rights Act of 1965."

Monday, April 25, 2016

Context for the Current News on Death Rates

Some recent media coverage has me thinking about the U.S. death rate from various means. Here are the ones that catch the headlines:

Suicide: 13 per 1000,000 (2014 stats, source), which breaks down to 20.7 for men and 5.8 for women

Overdose: 15 per 1000,000 (2014 stats, source); of those, 8 per 100,000 are from opioids

Homicide: 4.5 per 100,000 (2013 statistics, source)

Car crashes: 10.2 per 100,000 (2014 stats, source), from a high of 25.7 in Wyoming to a low of 4.9 in Massachusetts

Which is close to 43 deaths per 100,000, altogether.

For some perspective, the total number of deaths per 100,000 in 2013 was 725, so those 43 deaths are just about 6 percent of the total. Cancer (167 per 100,000) and heart disease (161) account for close to half the total deaths (source).


An earlier post on suicide and dying before "your time."

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Animation Speaks the Truth

Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to have this animated GIF just show up below, so you have to click the link to see it. But it's short, and it's worth it.

That's it for today. Nursing a migraine, so it's time for a nap.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Sidewalks, the New Evil

I don't have a lot of patience for NIMBYism generally, but the recent fight over sidewalks in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park gives it an especially bad name.

Yes, that really does read "Say 'NO' to sidewalks" on the first sign and "Save our environment" on the second sign. These folks have a narrow idea of what the "environment" includes, if they think driving everywhere is saving the environment.

According to the Star Tribune, some of them also think "St. Louis Park is on its way to becoming 'an inner-city wasteland' with 'hoodlums standing around on the corner to harass the young women.' All because of the lowly sidewalk."

Sidewalks. Yes, they cause crime and street harassment, you know.

This level of stupidity requires its own acronym: NIMFY, or Not in My Front Yard.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Heroic White Men Dominate My City Council

This isn't my first post about the permanent art in my city's most public building, City Hall. Last time, it was the brass elevator doors, with their beautiful renderings of noninclusion.

Today it's the amazing WPA-era paintings from the City Council chambers. I've never been in that room before and didn't know they existed. Guess I should have read up on the building before attending, since the MNopedia knows all about the building's art and other architectural details.

But I discovered them for myself. These four huge paintings by John Norton dominate the ends of the room in chronological pairs:

(click the image to see it much larger)

So we have the voyageur man and the steamboat captain man at one end, with the surveyor man and the railroad worker man at the other. That sure represents the state's history.

The "little people," at the bottom of each painting, have a bit more range, but it's still shockingly narrow:

The voyageur is accompanied by some nearly naked native men, a priest converting the natives, and an ambiguously rendered guy with an ox cart.

Steamboat Willy is paired with a U.S. soldier presenting a treaty to a native chief, a couple of scenes of white men on the Mississippi, and some stoop-backed black guys loading heavy sacks onto yet another steamboat.

Progress! The surveyor stands on a platform above a bunch of laboring white guys.

Finally, the railroad figure towers above a bunch of white guys workin' on the railroad and a well-dressed white woman holding her husband's arm as they follow a black porter past a locomotive.

There are additional figures in each painting above these detail areas, around the knees of the hero images. Those people are rendered in a single color so that they recede behind the dominant man. For the voyageur, it's really hard to make out the figures at all; for the steamboat captain, there are a lot of men in beaver hats and Civil War gear, plus one woman in a bonnet; for the surveyor, it's a bunch of male laborer pulling something with the help of a draft horse; for the railroad guy, it's a bunch of anonymous-looking railroad workers including one black porter.

As the paintings tell us, Minnesota was made completely by men, with white men in all of the roles that are important.

I don't know why I can still be surprised by art like this. The technique and composition are beautiful, but the thinking is shockingly thin. Oh, well.

At least they're consistent with the elevator doors.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince, April 21, 2016

I was having one of those days where you're cut off from the interweb: driving a car with other passengers (so the radio is off), visiting some people, driving a car home, having lunch with several people.

Then it was about 3:00 p.m. and in a brief lull in the conversation I checked email on my phone and saw first a message from the Star Tribune that someone had died at Paisley Park. Then one from the Strib that Prince had died. Then another from the New York Times saying the same.

The people I was with weren't too fazed by the news, not being music fans or having much interest in popular culture. I can't claim to be a major Prince fan myself, but he's probably the best-known cultural figure ever to come out of Minnesota. (Maybe there would have to be an arm-wrestling match between him and Garrison Keillor, though I think they would agree that there's not much overlap in their audiences.) We've heard about him all the time, even during the points when his career meandered out of the national spotlight.

Anyway. All I can say is that when I moved here in 1986 Prince was one of the few things I knew about Minnesota. He's the reason I realized Minnesota wasn't just made up of white people (a popular myth that is increasingly further from the truth). It was impossible to be a young adult in the mid-1980s, at least where I was living in Washington, D.C., and not hear Prince — even if you didn't see his movie Purple Rain (which I still have never seen).

So. I'm sad that he is gone, glad for him that it appears to have been quick and I hope painless.

The best from social media:

Prince changed how I understood gender and pushed back against the idea that masculinity had to look a certain way.

Given how black artists have been exploited & mistreated in American music, Prince taking a stand on ownership is as radical as his songs.

Tonight, the 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis:

Oh, and to white fans who are going on about how Prince was post-racial: Please stop it. Just because you like him doesn't make him not black.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Not Enough Words, Too Many Words

I spent more of last night than I care to think about watching the New York primary returns. Unfortunately, that included having to watch Donald Trump's victory speech.

If I have to listen to this guy speak for the next four or five years, it may do me in (if his actions as president don't get to us all first). As Jelani Cobb put it on Twitter, "Terrific! Tremendous! Great! Amazing! Trump uses adjectives the way low-end restaurants use glossy food photos."

His limited vocabulary is the main thing that gets me. From his speeches, it seems as though he only knows about 150 words.

But there's one area of vocabulary where I don't give him enough credit: insults. This guy spends all of his brain energy on a huge list of insulting nouns and adjectives to apply to his opponents and anyone else who's less than a billionaire businessman doing tremendous projects. These often appear in his Twitter feed.

I have to start keeping a list of the words in alphabetical order, since it doesn't seem like anyone else is doing that important job.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Double Thoughts on Taxation

For these days just after April 15, two posts about taxes.

From Jacobin, Undeserving Capital: This Tax Day, make the wealthy pay. You made them rich to begin with. Which makes the strongest form of the "you didn't build that" argument, and takes on the idea that taxes are taking "my" money in the first place:

The capitalist economy is not self-regulating. The first precondition for firms to earn profits is state-enforced property rights, which give some people ownership and control over productive resources while excluding others.

Second, governments have to manage labor markets to help ensure that the skill needs of firms are met. States do this through setting immigration and education policies. All capitalist states also try to mitigate labor market risks, whether it be the risk of labor scarcity for firms or unemployment for workers.

Third, most capitalists want states to enforce anti-trust, contract, criminal, property, and tort laws, as it makes market interactions more predictable and reliable. And finally, the capitalist economy needs a working infrastructure. Even most libertarians argue that state control over the money supply and interest rates is necessary to spur or slow growth when the economy needs it.

All of this is done with taxes. In short, the very notion of pre-tax income or profits is a bookkeeping trick. A person’s income or a corporation’s profits are in part the result of governments collecting taxes and actively creating the conditions under which they were able to make money in the first place.
Add to that the argument for "freedom to," which often requires governments to spend money, not just "freedom from," and the idea that taxation is negative falls away. How the money gets spent by government to provide "freedom to" is another question, of course.

Then, from Salon, by the contrarian personal finance writer Helaine Olen, One reason tax returns are so complicated? Because H&R Block and other preparers like it that way.
In 1998, Congress ordered the Internal Revenue Service to implement by 2008 a “return-free” system for people with easy filings, likely something similar to what’s now common in other countries. Even before the legislation passed, the tax-prep industry went on the offensive. If the IRS doesn’t “stay out of our backyard,” a high-ranking H&R Block executive threatened, “we will take it up in Congress,” Accounting Today reported in 1998. He meant it. Since then, H&R Block and its peers have spent millions lobbying Congress—$28 million between 1998 and 2013—in what’s been a very successful effort to keep our taxes tangled.

Instead of a return-free system, the IRS has signed multiple agreements with tax-prep giants that bar it from putting together such a plan itself. In exchange, the tax-prep companies have provided the muscle for a free online service for low-income filers that only about 3 percent of those eligible use, according to a report issued by Sen. Elizabeth Warren last week.
As with the other personal finance topics Olen writes about, our system is premised on self-help and do-it-yourself, instead of methods that would ensure people do the right thing in the easiest way possible. And — coincidentally — that leaves lots of room for what I would call unscrupulous people to profit along the way.