Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Connecting the Dots of Failure

A commentary from today's Star Tribune summed up a lot of my thinking about what you might call the crisis of leadership in our current democratically elected government institutions. Minneapolis architect George Hutchinson connects the dots between our own desire for superheroes, Fox News, and the no-new-taxes mantra, among more nebulous things.

My favorite might be this one:

Dot No. 4: Competence breeds complacency. By some fluke of history, there have been some marginally competent big public programs that work — Social Security, the military, the interstate highway system. The apparent success of these projects lulls us into thinking that all public programs should always work. Never mind Dots No. 1, 2 and 3, and the disdain visited upon public service by the ghosts of heroic entrepreneurs. We think because we can drop missiles on desert despots from thousands of miles away that the Department of Motor Vehicles should process our license renewal expeditiously. False but attractive syllogisms replace clear thinking.
The world is a complicated place and simplistic ways of thinking don't make anything better. Thanks to George Hutchinson for putting it into words.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Four Years Is Not Long Enough for Paul D. Thompson

What is the purpose of prison, and how long should sentences be?

I generally favor restorative justice and rehabilitation over retribution (gee, there are so many "re" prefixes when it comes to incarceration). I tend to think negligence is barely criminal and intention matters a lot. That said, premeditated murder and rape seem like the crimes that should have the longest sentences.

Why, then, is four years the maximum sentence allowable for the recently convicted chiropractor who admitted raping his 80-pound woman patient? Is it because his abuse of her trust (and the fact that he "groomed" her for the attack for years) don't constitute the type of violence some bunch of old, male lawmakers had in mind when they came up with the Minnesota penal code? He didn't jump out at her from an alley or hold a knife to her throat, so four years and an insulting $9,415 payment of restitution just about does it?

What is $9,415 supposed to represent in the life of the woman, who, according to her sister, "was suicidal, hospitalized twice and suffers depression and post-traumatic stress disorder"?

The chiropractor-rapist, Paul D. Thompson, is 54 years old. I have an idea for our criminal courts: When fully adult people commit heinous crimes like this, they should get longer sentences than young people because, by damn, they should really know better. They should have the executive function parts of their brains in working order, unlike the 15-year-old boys we seem to be so fond of sentencing to life without parole.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Where Have All the Women Gone?

Maybe you've seen this graph, which has been making the rounds on social media for the past few days:



It shows that the proportion of women majoring in computer science began to decline in 1984, at the same time that women in other professional and scientific fields continued to increase.

NPR's Planet Money wondered why there was such a difference between the fields of study, and they've come up with the answer. You can listen to it here (it's about 17 minutes long):


Or visit the NPR site to play it.

But the short answer is that 1984 was just a few years after personal computers were becoming common, so by that time, some of the college students studying computer science had, in effect, taken unofficial prerequisite courses in programming. Those were the students who had computers as teenagers.

The story then addresses why those students were likely to be men. Ads, media portrayals, Radio Shack exclusivity, and gendered family assumptions about who should have the computer all played a part.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't deal with the other aspect of the digital divide, which is income. Middle-class girls were shut out by the unofficial prerequisite, but so were low-income girls and boys, which includes the majority of students of color.

So there's more to the story. But still, worth a listen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fall in Minnesota, 2014

It's too beautiful a fall day to do anything but post a few photos of what it looks like all around me.

Minnesota is having the most colorful fall I can remember. Not sure if it was caused by the relatively even rainfall over the summer or the deep dormancy of our last, extra-long winter, but the trees are at their best and the sun keeps coming out to add highlights.


A ginkgo tree all in yellow.


One of the many sugar maples.


Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), which is not a fern, but is native to sandy places here to the East Coast. I had forgotten or never noticed that it turns into this beautiful range of colors. And if you see some of this low shrubby plant, be sure to lean down and rub the leaves with your nose nearby.


A red oak (with orange leaves) and the kind of blue sky Minnesota seems to have all the time lately.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

About Those Approval Ratings

Star Tribune letter writer Owen Hecht of Hastings, Minnesota, brings a reality check to the constant message that President Obama is unpopular and Democrats are running away from him (as in the cartoon from the Strib just a few days ago, in fact).

It seems every day I read about President Obama’s dismal job approval ratings. Here are the lowest approval ratings for the past nine presidents:

Obama: 38 percent, in September 2014.
George W. Bush: 25 percent in October 2008.
Bill Clinton: 37 percent in May 1993.
George H.W. Bush: 29 percent in July 1992.
Ronald Reagan: 35 percent in January 1983.
Jimmy Carter: 28 percent in June 1979.
Gerald Ford: 37 percent in March 1975.
Richard Nixon: 24 percent in August 1974
Lyndon Johnson: 35 percent in 1968.

Obama’s approval ratings this month have been above 40 percent.
I assume that Hecht has used the lowest approval ratings of each president. Most of these numbers are not from a mid-term election period (Nixon and Bush 1 are).

And, of course, remember that Congress's approval rating was at 14 percent in September.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ursula LeGuin, Introducing Him/Herself

It's no secret that I love the writing of Ursula LeGuin. When asked for the title of my favorite book, I have a hard time coming up with anything other than The Dispossessed, even though I first read it when I was 15.

Despite my love of LeGuin, my knowledge of her complete works is less than perfect. I just found out about an essay she wrote in the late 1980s called Introducing Myself, which makes me appreciate her writing even more, if that's possible. In it, she deals with age, gender, and the presentation of the self with such humor that I can't even say anything worth saying about it. Here's one excerpt:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old.
I'm not sure how much of the essay is included on the linked site (Brain Pickings). I guess I'll have to check out a copy of the book of essays where it was published in 2004, The Wave in the Mind.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Poor Little Rich Girls

Looking through blog post drafts that never made it, I came across these two quotes from 2013 a Psychology Today article:

But there are double standards based on gender. Particularly distressing are the double standards about physical appearance: Peers place an enormous emphasis on attractiveness among affluent girls. Across the board, the more attractive kids— boys or girls, rich or poor—are more likely to be most popular with their peers. But for girls of high socioeconomic status, the onus on being attractive is incredibly high. In our research, we have found that links between peer admiration and beauty were almost twice as strong among affluent girls as compared with affluent boys, and also compared with inner-city girls and boys. Looking "like a scrub" is simply not acceptable for well-off young women.

The enormous pressures that girls face from the peer group are matched by the impossibly high demands from adults to succeed in domains that are traditionally male, such as academics and sports, and also in the "feminine" domains of caring and kindness. They must not only be highly accomplished but also polite and likable, and they are expected to master the competing demands without any display of visible effort. Daughters of the rich, therefore, strive for effortless perfection—which is not merely challenging to their well-being but ultimately soul-draining.
And:
Enter envy. My colleagues and I recently found that, compared to inner-city counterparts, students at elite, upper-middle-class schools, especially girls, experienced significantly more envy of peers who they felt surpassed them in popularity, attractiveness, academics, and sports.

At the same time, the intense push for superachievement deprives affluent adolescents of one of the critical safety valves of life—the deep social connectedness of friendship. The very path they take for success inhibits the development of intimacy. The durability, sustainability, and strength of relationships are constantly threatened by competition for highly sought-after goals. There's only one valedictorian. How can two people be friends if the self-worth of both depends on being the one chosen for a sought-after goal? One's gain is the other's loss.
 It reminds me of a recent Pacific Standard article that's been sitting open in my tabs: Savor Extraordinary Experiences, Feel Worse Afterward. "Harvard researchers find painful feelings of social exclusion are the unexpected price one pays for having amazing adventures."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jesus Delivers in the Twin Cities

Another photo from the streets of the Twin Cities:


The side of the truck reads "Jesus Delivers."

And he does it in a truck that looks like it's accustomed to hard work, represented by a font that usually is found on movie posters.

Jesus Delivers, it turns, is a rolling, faith-based food pantry.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Constructing Criminality and Racing to Incarcerate

In case you've never noticed, in the right sidebar of this blog, just below my queen-of-spades profile picture, there's a spot where I list what I'm currently reading.

Right now it's the scholarly historical book The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Muhammad, which documents the way dark skin and socially constructed blackness came to represent criminality in the U.S.

This reality has direct implications for the War on Drugs and recent and ongoing killings of black people by police and civilians. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, John Crawford -- all were assumed to be dangerous and criminal because of what they looked like.

I wanted to read Muhammad's book because it connects with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which I've written about before. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, located in Harlem, is a somewhat frequent guest on the Melissa Harris Perry show. I'm always impressed by his ability to make connections in few words.

While reading his book, though, I came across a graphic retelling of another landmark book, Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer. This book, originally published in 1999, was news to me, and it sounds as though it might be on the academic side. An artist named Sabrina Jones recently worked with Mauer to turn it into a more accessible format.

It's pretty successful. Here are some facts from it that sprang out at me.

The increase in crime rates of the late 1960s and 1970s -- which was the excuse for the rise in incarceration rates and the War on Drugs -- was partly the result of increased reporting by local police agencies, which had received increased federal funding to track statistics. As with the autism rate, it's hard to say how much something has increased if you don't have accurate numbers for the earlier years. (page 26)

Reagan's War on Drugs meant federal money flowed everywhere. Twelve regional drug taskforces were set up with a thousand newly hired agents and prosecutors. (page 41)

A 1983 study by Reagan's justice department found that incarceration "does not appear to achieve large reductions in crime" even though it "can cause enormous increases in the prison population." But policy makers ignored that finding, preferring a flawed 1987 study that found each prisoner saved taxpayers over $400,000. The totality of the Reagan-Bush era, 1980 to 1993, saw a 521 percent increase in corrections spending, while cutting employment and training programs in half. (pages 46 and 47)

Bill Clinton danced along the sword blade of "tough on crime," while making noises about drug treatment and community policing. During the 1992 campaign, he flew home to Little Rock to watch an execution of a "mentally impaired black man, [who] had so little conception of what was happening to him [that] at his last meal"  he asked "Can I save my dessert for the morning?" Clinton didn't want to be seen as soft on crime, so too bad for that guy. He was executed.

Alberto Gonzalez, while counsel to George W. Bush as governor of Texas, never showed Bush mitigating evidence or presented a single petition for clemency in a death row case. 152 people were executed in Texas while Bush was governor, more than any governor in 50 years. (page 68)

New York City saw a huge decrease in crime, starting in the 1990s.


Despite this, New York's prison population grew much less than the nation's as a whole, and its jail population actually decreased. The book posits the idea that because the city had spent money stabilizing housing, it reaped the benefit, as compared with Chicago "which let its housing decay, and put its money in law enforcement." (pages 77 and 78)

Now it's time to get back to The Condemnation of Blackness, which supplies the footnotes and proof.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Scary Milk Jugs

One of my favorite outrageous facts is that Americans spend $6 billion annually on Halloween, roughly the equivalent of all the spending on the 2012 presidential election.

I can't even figure out how that's possible. But then again, we also spend $13 billion on Valentine's Day, so maybe I should forget about Halloween.

Anyway. Here's my idea of what Halloween decorations should look like, which wouldn't add a thing to the annual spending:


Yes, those are plastic milk jugs, connected with string.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Discover Again

I used to post a list of articles from the latest issue of Discover magazine somewhat regularly (such as here, here, and here), but over the past year or even two, it seems as though their stories have been less compelling.

Until the November 2014 issue, which just arrived. There were half-a-dozen noteworthy articles or short entries.

It took a village. New research indicates that early hominid mothers shared baby-wrangling duties, including shared breast-feeding. And that this was a major factor in the increased size of brains as we evolved toward Homo sapiens: babies could be born increasingly unable to take care of themselves for a long period of time, which allowed more brain development to happen after birth. So, in essence, cooperation among females came first, creating what we think of as humans.

Stinking to high heaven. In keeping with the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, researchers recently found that smelling a putrid odor primes people to respond more strongly from disgust when asked about socially controversial issues. They "subsequently expressed dramatically more conservative attitudes about premarital sex, pornography and religion -- including increased belief in Biblical truth -- than those who sniffed an odorless concoction. The topic of same-sex marriage proved especially repugnant to those who had been subjected to the stench." So perhaps all the manure in rural areas contributes to making rural people more conservative... huh. I wonder if this holds up for people who live around chemical plants. What about Gary, Indiana, for instance? The whole place smells revolting.

Bye-bye birdies. Whenever you hear someone say that wind turbines kill birds, remember these two graphs:


Cats kill 2.4 billion birds a year, vs. 234,000 birds a year for wind turbines. That's more than 10,000 times as many. That's why the wind turbines aren't even visible in their spot on this bar graph. It's just too small an amount, relative to the giant killer-cat bar.


So you might say, there aren't that many turbines yet. Doesn't that account for the low absolute numbers? No. Each cat kills almost seven times as many birds as a wind turbine. And our cars and the trucks we depend on for delivering goods kill twice as many as those killer cats, if you compare a mile of road to a single cat.

Conversation's gender gap. I hate the sexist doofery that proclaims women talk more than men, when my experience in mixed groups is that men talk more and don't listen even when the women do talk. A recent study put some numbers to the question by eavesdropping on different types of conversations, and found that "in a laid-back lunchtime atmosphere, men chatted just as much as women; in a cooperative, task-driven environment, women won out -- but only in small groups. Men out-talked their female peers in groups of six or more..."

Trial and error. The most disturbing story of all in the issue was a longer piece describing a crisis in cancer research practices. Lines of cancer cells (like HeLa) are propagated and shared or sold by researchers. So if you want to test a new thyroid cancer treatment, for instance, you need thyroid cancer cells to try out your treatments in a petri dish before you can move to animal or human trials. However, for the past 10 years or so, scientists have begun to realize that the cell lines they were distributing are not the types of cancer they thought they were -- that through contamination or mislabeling, they are other types of cancer, most often melanoma or cervical cancer, which propagate more readily. So all too often, treatments for one kind of cancer were tested on the wrong kind of cells.

Once this type of contamination was recognized as a problem, you'd think that -- being scientists! -- the researchers would come up with a way to fix the problem, but no. Too many people's publications and research careers have been built upon work with a faulty foundation. Systems that would counter the problem -- such as requiring testing of the cell lines to assure they are the correct type of cancer before exposing them to experimental treatments -- for too long were not required for funding or publication. It's only in the last year or so that journals have begun to require this obvious standard before accepting a paper for publication. The NIH still doesn't require it for funding.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Yes, Art Is a Business

I posted back in April about the tax problems of local musician/performer Venus DeMars. In short, DeMars and her wife (a poet) were raked over the coals by the Minnesota Department of Revenue for years because someone in the department thought they weren't really professional artists, and therefore weren't allowed to take tax deductions they had taken.

Happily, they were finally vindicated back in May of this year.

I wondered at the time what the law or policy was at the federal level, though, and today's newspaper delivered the answer, in the form of a New York Times article about the case of painter and printmaker Susan Crile. Crile teaches full-time at Hunter College in the studio art department, a position that requires her to show art, but not sell it. Her work is in the collection of the Met, the Guggenheim, and other major museums.


She has been an artist for 40 years, including at least 10 before she joined Hunter part-time and 20 years before she was tenured. She has grossed close to $700,000 from art during her career, but only made a profit in three years. The types of expenses she has claimed include art materials and food and travel expenses related to showing her work.

The IRS wanted $81,000 in back taxes for the years 2004 to 2009. They cited her lack of a business plan as evidence that her art is not a business. (!!!) They declared that her claim to be an artist and a teacher was "artificial." Her expenses, the agency said, "should have been filed not as business expenses but as unreimbursed employee expenses."

The case was just decided in the U.S. Tax Court by Judge Albert G. Lauber. He ruled that Crile had "'met her burden of proving that in carrying on her activity as an artist, she had an actual and honest objective of making a profit' and therefore under tax law should be considered a professional artist."

The story ends with these paragraphs:

Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, who testified on Ms. Crile’s behalf, said Monday that the ability to deduct art-related expenses — in art careers that might generate little money — was “one of the last remaining areas where the federal government cuts artists any slack to allow them to do what they do,” and that its protection was crucial.

Micaela McMurrough, a lawyer... who represented Ms. Crile, said one of the key points argued in the case was that “art is not a business like other businesses.” “And I think that’s what this decision reflects, to a large extent,” she said....

Ms. Crile said she was relieved by the decision, for herself but also for many other creative professionals it might affect. “I think this was an attempt to get rid of a whole category of people from being able to take tax deductions,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of political work that is not so easy, and it’s not easy to show or to sell. But I’m an artist. And if I’m not considered one, then I don’t know who could be.”
I'm generally pretty supportive of the IRS and its mission. I believe in paying taxes for the common good. I think they get used as a political strawman way too often.

But this is one type of case where I'm glad they've been told to back off. From now on, I hope they refocus on going after people who are cheating in a big way, not artists who just barely are getting by.