Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Geographer Puts It in Context

Bill Lindeke, urban geographer and biking promoter, inspires me most days through Twitter and MinnPost, but today it's this longer post from his Twin City Sidewalks blog. He synthesizes the current outrage and protest at the 4th Precinct in Minneapolis with our community's history of segregation: everything from where our highways are to the privatization of public space in the Mall of America.

But in another sense, these [highway-closing] demonstrations were the only way to connect the geographic dots between the problems facing Minneapolis’ segregated communities and the Twin Cities’ suburban infrastructure, a landscape that makes it effortlessly easy to ignore racial inequality. When #blacklivesmatter shuts down the freeway to Maple Grove, not only do they perform a tragically ironic bit of political ju-jitsu by occupying the very freeway that helped isolate the neighborhood in the first place, they make a particular statement about urban segregation:

“Black lives matter, even to everyone driving past on their way to the white suburbs.”
Geography, man. Why didn't I understand what it meant as an academic discipline back when I was in college? Yet another major I never explored.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hammering the Standpipe

I just saw my first Banksy in person:

It's in Manhattan on West 79th Street just off Broadway, near Zabar's (obviously). It was included in the HBO documentary Banksy Does New York, so it wasn't new to me, but it was still a surprise to just come across it while walking down a street.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bad for the Brand, Which Was Already Bad Enough

Am I the only one who thinks that Donald Trump has irreparably damaged his “brand”?

If you had asked me what I thought of Donald Trump before 2008, I would have said he was brassy and tacky, but kind of fun in a way that fits with our celebrity-obsessed media culture. I wouldn’t have patronized any of his ventures (not being into gambling) but I wouldn’t have actively avoided them either.

But since his craziness about Obama’s birth certificate, and even more so since this election cycle, he has careened into a dirty, dirty ditch, and I don’t think people will forget.

Let’s see if he can run his businesses with only his rabid, fascism-hugging supporters for customers. That's about 25 percent of the 25 percent of people who are registered Republicans (6 percent). As Nate Silver points out, that’s the same percent of the population that thinks the moon landing was faked, by the way.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Endangered Stick Figures, Part 2

First it was running them down with a car, now it's devouring them with dinosaurs.

The possibilities for threatening stick figure families are bounded only by the ironic imagination.

Do these anti-stick-figure illustrations seem as mean-spirited as the "my kid can beat up your honor student" bumper stickers? I never liked those, even though I would never have put an honor student sticker on my car.

In some ways the stick figure haters are worse, because their violent endings are worse (death vs. being beaten up). But they also seem more clearly fictitious, while the threat against the honor student appears to be just a bit plausible.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Where to Put the Closets?

Another Sunday, another unnecessarily over-sized house plan in the Star Tribune Home section. But today I wanted to mention a trend I've been noticing for a while in these plans.

Note how the master suite's closets are on the far side of the master bathroom. You can't get to them without walking through the bathroom, essentially making the closets an extension of the bathroom rather than the bedroom.

Am I the only one who thinks that's a bad idea? It assumes that couples want to actively share the bathroom and dressing space at all times (except for that little door on the toilet area. Thanks for that). I know I'm generally not the person these bloated-home-builders have in mind, but I find it hard to believe this way of using a bathroom and dressing space is common among enough people that it would become the primary way of doing things.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

It Hit Me on the Head

This is all I have to say about our current hysteria about a bunch of harmless Syrian refugees:

When did children stop learning the story of Chicken Little?

For more on what I think about all this, but am too annoyed to write myself, I refer readers to John Scalzi's recent post.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Just So You Know, Woodrow Wilson Was a Racist

I wrote a paper about Woodrow Wilson in 11th-grade social studies. I don't remember if the sources I used mentioned that he was an extreme racist even for his time.

Check out this Vox story about how Wilson aided the resegregation of federal agencies like the postal service. Workers had been getting along, side by side, for almost 50 years at this point, but suddenly it was necessary to create separate work and break spaces for the black men. Black supervisors were fired, and in Georgia the head of regional IRS office said

"There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place in the corn field." To enable hiring discrimination going forward, in 1914 the federal government began requiring photographs on job applications.
Add these firings and job exclusions to the list of ways black people have been prevented from building financial equity in our country.

See how Wilson set the standard for tone-policing, followed by many to this day:
In 1914, a group of black professionals led by newspaper editor and Harvard alumnus Monroe Trotter met with Wilson to protest the segregation. Wilson informed Trotter, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When Trotter insisted that "it is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness," Wilson admonished him for his tone: "If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me … Your tone, with its background of passion."
Wilson came from a genteel Southern background and wrote scholarly (!) books that make his sympathy with the Klan obvious. He's even quoted in Birth of a Nation, and showed his approval of the film by screening it at the White House.

Here's what he had to say about black suffrage:
"It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint." He praised those freed slaves who "stayed very quietly by their old masters and gave no trouble" but bemoaned that they were the exception, the being "vagrants, looking for pleasure and gratuitous fortune" who inevitably "turned thieves or importunate beggars. The tasks of ordinary stood untouched; the idlers grew insolent; dangerous nights went anxiously by, for fear of riot and incendiary fire."... In a 1881 article that went unpublished, Wilson defended the South's suppression of black voters, saying that they were being denied the vote not because their skin was dark but because their minds were dark.
Clearly, Wilson was part of the motivated school of thought among historians that painted Reconstruction as a failure of graft and idiocy. Often called the Dunning School, these historians have since been overturned by more careful scholars like Eric Foner. But all of us learned our "truth" in school from Dunning-influenced textbooks, unfortunately, and their influence continues to this day.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Modernist Take on a Modernist Chair

Today, for all of your four-legged needs:

Lovely work from 1984. Just lovely. I wonder who designed it? 

Part of a display of past-exhibit posters outside the Goldstein Gallery at the University of Minnesota's College of Design.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Algebra, Shmalgebra

What and how to teach math to children and young people is one of those topics the rumbles around in my thinking from time to time. Here are two recent articles on the now-common belief that everyone should "know" algebra in order to graduate from high school or be able to move into college courses.

First, progressive education profession Paul Thomas, who questions the premise of having a set body of knowledge generally. A key quote:

The question of whether all children should take algebra is irrelevant as long as we continue to use early algebra readiness to label and sort children, as long as we continue to confuse brain development with smart.
After a lot of thoughtful discussion, Thomas ends with this shocking footnote:
The average age for developing the abstract reasoning ability needed to understand algebra and grammar is 20. Consider how that impacts the labeling and sorting we do to children and young adults throughout schooling.
Second, a letter from CUNY professor of math and computer science Jonathan Cornick, from the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog. Cornick doesn't pull back his viewfinder quite as far as Thomas, but he still questions the premises of "algebra for all," based on research into how people use math as adults.

What math do people use in their wide-ranging jobs and life experiences? According to Cornick,
...almost everything fell into these categories:
  • Percentages – Almost everyone said this.
  • Proportions – this encompasses unit conversion skills related to supplies, materials, costs, nutrition, health, etc.
  • Descriptive Statistics – finding averages, describing distributions as well as being able to understand and interpret data and charts from business, politics, media, etc.
  • Geometry and trigonometry.
  • Inferential statistics.
And in general, the common theme was in using arithmetic and logical reasoning skills in context rather than abstractly. Certainly, some skills from a standard algebra curriculum are needed for the above. I would say:
  • Arithmetic, including order of operations – with a calculator!
  • Simplifying linear expressions.
  • Solving linear equations.
  • Solving proportions, including percentage problems.
  • Geometry including area and volume.
  • Radicals including Pythagorean theorem.
However, I don’t believe operations on nonlinear polynomials, factoring and solving quadratic equations, simplifying complicated exponent expressions, and solving radical and rational equations are vital in order to master the aforementioned skills people use.
Cornick's conclusion is that college students shouldn't be prevented from proceeding with their educations just because they can't find their way out of remedial algebra. The American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges agrees with him that there should be other options for students outside STEM fields.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Renaming, Rebooting, and Just Plain Booting

First there was the story about the Saint Paul apartment building that was going to stop accepting Section 8 vouchers after 30 years. Now there's a new story about an even larger complex in Richfield, a Minneapolis suburb, doing the same thing. This change will force hundreds or even thousands of people to move.

The Richfield complex, called the Crossroads, was built about 50 years ago and is almost all one-bedroom apartments, which currently rent for $900 a month.

The new owners will be installing granite counter tops and a clubhouse spa so they can raise the rent, and they're opting out of Section 8 at the same time.

Most telling of all is the new name the owners have come up with for the complex: The Concierge. Now there's a name that tries to speak to the kind of tenants the new owners have in mind.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Privatizing the Public Sphere, 2.0

More than 30 years ago, when I was still hanging around my undergraduate college the year after I graduated, I got into a public debate with another student about how our student fees were spent.

Let me back up. The year before, I had been financial vice president of the student government, so I was pretty familiar with the student fee, and knew that it was allocated to student groups for activities. Students decided how it was spent through hearings, committee decisions, and finally a vote in the elected student assembly.

The following year, the university decided that it would be appropriate to increase the fee to pay for improvements to the one of the gym buildings. I was outraged. This would be the first time the fee was used to pay for part of the university's physical plant, setting a precedent that, I was sure, would come in handy for the university in the future. Supporters of the plan argued that the gym renovations would benefit students, so using the student fee was fine.

It all came rushing back to me when I read this story, Philanthropies Rise as Source of Revenue for Pressed U.S. Cities. Examples given include:

  • the C.S. Mott Foundation is paying to replace water pipes in Flint, Michigan
  • Detroit foundations pledged $360 million to shore up public-employee pensions
  • an Alabama foundation is buying cop cars for a municipality
And we all know about foundations, entrepreneurs, and corporations that help fund the "public" schools.

All of this would have shocked me 30 years ago, and is an indicator of the privatization of the public sphere since the Reagan years. The key problem with this type of funding is summarized nicely in the story:
The risk for cities receiving foundation assistance is that they become reliant on the kindness of strangers rather than the taxpayers they serve. Rob Collier, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Michigan Foundations, said there is “a huge problem of sustainability” because municipalities can’t assume support will continue.
It's bad enough that nonprofit organizations have to subsist on year-to-year grants with constant begging and staffing structured to write grant proposals that appeal to rich people. (Photogenic children and puppies aren't the only parts of our society that need funding.) It's a corrupting force all its own.

Target's recent decision to yank its Redcard education donations — deciding to reallocate them to wellness charities — is a great example of why public infrastructure shouldn't be funded through charitable giving. As I've said before, philanthropy and nonprofits can't make up for core government programs.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kernza, the Wheat of the Future

There's so much bad news, I thought it was time for a piece of good news. If you don't garden, you may not realize that most of the plant foods we eat are annuals, which means they have to be planted from seed every year. That means more cost to the farmer for seed, fertilizer, and time plowing, plus more damage to the soil and waterways from tilling and runoff.

Perennial food-bearing plants require fewer inputs from farmers. Examples are asparagus, rhubarb, and all of the fruits that come from trees and shrubs. But our staple crops, like wheat, corn, and soybeans are all annuals.

The Pioneer Press recently reported on the development of intermediate wheatgrass (IWG), also known by the trademark name Kernza. It's a perennial grass that can be milled like wheat for flour. Some farmers are already growing it, and food scientists are baking with it to see how it works and tastes. An added bonus for those of us in places with short-growing-seasons is that perennial plants start growing earlier because they're already in the ground while farmers are waiting for the soil to dry out so they can start planting.

The latest Kernza developments are courtesy of the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, which is the same department that developed crops for the 1960s Green Revolution. They're also working on perennial flax and sunflowers, and to improve the nut size from our native hazelnuts.

Full-size images of a wheat plant and its roots (left) and Kernza (right). Source

IWG is already grown as animal feed, and was chosen by the Rodale Institute as the most promising perennial because of its natural seed size and hardiness. Scientists are working to increase the size of the seed heads so that they're closer to those of wheat.

Scientists at the Forever Green Initiative are trying to compress the plant breeding as much as possible with the help of DNA testing, which lets them zero in on desirable traits without wasting time and effort on duds.

"We're probably in the neighborhood of one-third to one-half what spring wheat would yield on the same land," Anderson said. "But remember, we're just in our first breeding cycle here. This is like 1905 for spring wheat."

Wyse said he thinks wheatgrass someday could produce bigger crops than wheat simply because it spends so much more of the year collecting sunlight, nutrients and water.

Wheatgrass doesn't have to outperform wheat in the field to outperform it on the bottom line, Wyse said. It should be more efficient to grow because one planting will produce several years of harvests -- plus haying or grazing -- before it needs reseeding.

"And the farmer's going to have fewer input costs," Anderson said. "No tillage, and you reduce pesticide input to almost zero. Farmers in northern Minnesota that were never organic farmers before are growing it organically."
And less runoff means not just less damaging runoff, but less money going down the river. Runoff costs $125 million directly every year; the indirect cost is much higher, of course, in terms of the environmental damage.

The article reports that the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis will be serving Kernza pancakes and tortillas at breakfast and brunch for the month of November. I'll have to get over there to check them out!