Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Westing Game, In Person

The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin is home to the manuscript of Ellen Raskin's Newbery-winning The Westing Game. Because she was a UW alumna, Raskin wanted the CCBC to have the papers, and brought them to the Center before she won the award.

The CCBC has posted some nice samples from the collection, as well as audio of Raskin talking about the manuscript when she delivered it to them. I wrote about this earlier, including some samples of the materials and quotes I transcribed.

Today I got the chance to visit the CCBC to see the manuscript for myself. Here are a few photos of parts I thought were particularly inspiring. (They can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Handwritten notes by Ellen Raskin
The papers are stored 50 pages per folder, with each manuscript revision in its own box. When Raskin brought the materials to the Center, she wrote a cover note for each manuscript. At left is the one from her original 50-page sample, written to get a contract with her publisher. Seeing this, I realized how thrilling it was to see her handwriting in person!

At right is the sheet from the second draft. Written in the lower portion, it says "Still rough -- working out story & characters. Showed this one to editor, Ann Durell, who suggested I include Turtle in more of the action. Also she found some confusion between Bertie and Mrs. Baum. Suggested I make their names more different from one another. Also get into the story more quickly."

In the next draft, "Bertie" became Berthe Erica Crow, and Mrs. Baum became Flora Baumbach.

Typed sheets of character names and Westing's will
These two items were in a folder labeled "author's notes." The left one is a list of the characters' names (and if you're read the book, you know the names are important). The right one is the text of Sam Westing's will, which is read aloud in the story but never shown.

Handwritten note by Ellen Raskin
This sheet identifies all the people who left notes on the final draft, including Raskin's typesetting specifications, which are very detailed. There are a lot of notes, and as CCBC director Kathleen Horning told me, this was before Post-It notes, so the pink slips from editor Ann Durell are glued on.

Seeing all of Raskin's papers reminded me how the writing process of present-day authors is less likely to be kept for posterity, since the authors probably aren't keeping multiple versions. Possibly even the authors won't remember how a story came to be written the way it turned out. I know I'm not the first person to think of this, but Raskin's manuscripts brought it home for me.

End papers of Figg's and Phantoms, signed &llen Raskin with the fancy ampersand used in the cover typography, which looks like an E
Close up of the title of Figgs & Phantoms, showing the fancy ampersandOne last photo. In a locked cabinet, the CCBC keeps signed copies of some books, including this one of Figgs & Phantoms, with a special ampersand-initiated signature and Raskin's drawing of the book's Newbery Honor Book seal.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Madison: Out and About

Once again, it's time for a spring break road trip, this time to beautiful Wisconsin.

Oh, wait, I went to Wisconsin last year for spring break. Well, this time it's a different part: Madison and parts southwest of there. Today, a look at Madison.

Cartoon of Mo sitting at a cafe table in a bookstore
An informal comic drawn by Alison Bechdel for the staff at A Room of One's Own bookstore. Framed and displayed in the store.

Archway that looks like a mouth with two windows above that look like eyes, cars in the mouth
Watch out, this house is hungry for cars!

Two hand painted figures shaking hands on a wall
One of the many German-themed paintings inside the Rathskeller at the University's Memorial Union.

Giant mosquito with a bee-like tail
Down the hall from the Rathskeller is the Paul Bunyan room, decorated with paintings created by James Watrous from 1933-1936, under the auspices of the WPA. The murals generally show the eponymous Paul, along with Babe the Blue Ox, but I especially liked this painting of the Mosquito Bee, with a stinger at both ends. Sounds like Wisconsin has the same state bird as Minnesota.

Green octopus sign, holding bucket, sponge and cloth
You know you're in a good town when you see a revolving Octopus Car Wash sign. (Minneapolis lost its octopus some while ago, unfortunately.)

Vintage ad promoting Wisconsin Worm Candy for children
All the best treats can be found in Madison...

International Harvester ad for refrigerators, claiming they are femineered well as the best kitchen appliances for women...

White plaster statue of Joe McCarthy
...and even the best politicians (Joe McCarthy, cast in plaster at the Wisconsin Historical Museum).

Monday, March 29, 2010

We're All Different, We're All Individuals

Way to stand out on the newsstand! Let's see:

  • Bold sans serif type
  • Set in all caps
  • Tinted in 100% process yellow
  • Accompanying a head shot of Sandra Bullock
As the one brave soul replied to the group chant for individualism in Monty Python's Life of Brian: "I'm not!"

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Message About Mildred

There's an art form known as postal art, which consists of creating visual or sculptural art and sending it through a government-run postal system.

Is there such a thing these days as email art, or particularly, spam art?

This is the text of an email I received recently, with the subject line "Mildred." No links or anything else that would normally be present in spam:

But she must not think of herself. Harold will help. Every woman should learn a trade. Set me down in the monster's vicinity. It is my honor.

Nothing would have changed for me. You've turned me a point or two. Do tell us what has happened. He had need of her. Proudie is his name. Zane had forgotten her presence. How sweet and kind of you! You will be cold.

You aren't supposed to put them back. The keg never empties. Thus his enemy had scored. Where have you been? It failed just like the first. Reginald Bell began to act. That nerved him. In a moment he had it figured. But the Magician had remained active. Crystals of ice formed. There was nothing to do but wait. The Demon lacks human emotion.
Digital Dada? Or possibly an encrypted code message broadcast to sleeper Al Qaedites?

You be the judge.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

This Is a Job for Bob Fletcher

A letter from today's Star Tribune:

Will the combined law enforcement agencies of federal, state and local governments pursue the organizers and participants in violence against health care supporters with the same tenacity that they pursued protesters at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul?

Will there be prison time for those who are inciting violence, making threats and breaking windows?

Let's hope so.

--Joe Gerber, Menomonie, Wis.
Maybe we can send our beloved sheriff Bob Fletcher to the FBI to head the case.

Friday, March 26, 2010

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

I got a good but pained laugh out of the Onion story Like Hell I'm Going to Let Some Black President Help Me Pay for Dialysis.

There are some things that are hard to parody, but the Onion's "writer" Dan Laird gives it a good shot:

Obama needs to know that there's still one American willing to watch his body drown in its own deadly internal toxins rather than have long-overdue reform crammed down his throat.

Fact is, nobody wants some too-big-for-his-britches black president butting in to suggest that everyone, including me, needs to be treated with dignity. Yet this Obama thinks he can just waltz in and and tinker with a health care system that destroys people like myself every single day.
Then I saw a brief mention on BoingBoing about Mike Vanderboegh, a blogger-militiaman-self-proclaimed-Christian-libertarian who is calling on his readers to smash windows at Democratic party offices across the country in response to the passage of health care reform legislation.

Guess what? According to the Washington Post, Vanderboegh lives off of government disability (I assume it's Social Security) because of congestive heart failure, diabetes and hypertension.

I wonder if Vanderboegh has met Laird. Maybe they belong to the same militia.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Clint, You Need to Change Your Name

Handwritten sign with names written in all caps, sans serif, so the LI in CLINT in looks like a U
As seen on the door of the Ginkgo Coffeehouse, Snelling and Minnehaha, St. Paul.

I've written before about the problem with Clint... and Arial.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pink and Blue and Gendered All Over

When my daughter was young, I fought the good fight on gendered clothing and toys. From what I can tell, it may have been a bit easier to find relatively neutral clothes in the '90s -- baby and toddler apparel seems even more gendered today than it was then.

People in the '90s weren't having any of that gender-neutral crap, however. My daughter was continually thought to be a boy by the unknown people who continually interact with parents of young children. And I remember the early years of gendered fast food toys, too.

I was reminded of all this while reading a Psychology Today blog post by Sam Sommers, a social psychologist at Tufts University. (Ironically, the link was sent to me by my now-16-year-old daughter.) Sommers, who has two young daughters himself, makes some well-worded points about his experience with being asked to identify his children's gender at a fast food drive through:

What I did say was "two girls, but why do you ask?" He explained that he needed to know which toys to include with their meals. Presumably he was hoping to avoid the embarrassing mistake he had made a week earlier, when he had given a Fisher Price's My First Testicular Self-Exam Kit to a girl who would have much rather had a Magic Ovary-Shaped 8-Ball.
He also shows a photo of the label placed on one of his daughters' hospital bassinets, where the words I'M A GIRL are larger than any of the other, more pertinent, information (blood type, parents' names, among other things):
And I actually think there is something to the bassinet photo. It speaks to what seems to be a pressing need people have to know instantly the gender of babies they meet. My experience as a parent of newborns is that most strangers I met would have been happier had I stapled the pink "I'M A GIRL" card to my daughter's scalp for the first several months of her life....

...where does this insatiable need to know gender come from, if not, at least at some level, an inclination to act on preconceived notions or societal stereotypes? Psychological studies have shown that new parents' perceptions of their newborns vary by gender, with parents seeing daughters as smaller, more "fine-featured," and less attentive than sons, despite the absence of any objective gender differences among said newborns. Parents also react differently to their children's behavior depending on gender. So I think there's a case to be made that unnecessarily emphasizing a child's gender is not innocuous.
The article closes with an example of two alphabet quilts from the same manufacturer, which were given as gifts to his daughters. Because the gift-giver didn't want the girls to have matching quilts, one child got the "girl" quilt and the other the "boy" quilt. The boy quilt includes letter/image matches like P/Pencil, R/Radio and S/Star while the girl quilt has P/Purse, R/Ring and S/Shoes.

Which brings me to the work of JeongMee Yoon. Her Pink and Blue Projects have been ongoing for the last five years, as she documents the color divergence she sees in the lives of children.

Two photos of young children, girl on left surrounded by pink toys and stuff, boy on right surrounded by blue
That's a whole lot of color applied to enforce a part of identity that's supposedly a "natural" to each child's identity. As Yoon tells the history of how these colors came to be used this way:
Pink was once a color associated with masculinity, considered to be a watered down red and held the power associated with that color. In 1914, The Sunday Sentinel, an American newspaper, advised mothers to “use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” The change to pink for girls and blue for boys happened in America and elsewhere only after World War II.
So all this is not to say that some little girls don't honestly like pink, while some little boys like blue. But I think it's hard to tell why someone likes something when they've been conditioned to like it and see it as a part of their identity since birth.

My own daughter's favorite color from toddlerhood until preadolescence, on the other hand, was green.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bottled Water Boondoggle

BoingBoing recently posted a new video by the makers of The Story of Stuff, this time about bottled water.

I've written before about the Story of Stuff. It makes what I found to be a very clear, straight-foward argument for consuming less stuff. It didn't seem controversial to me. But, of course, it has been attacked by Glenn Beck and Fox News in general.

The Story of Bottled Water, like its older sibling "Stuff," seems uncontroversial to me:

Recently, though, the Minnesota Republican party has been attacking Minneapolis and its mayor, R.T. Rybak (a Democrat who is running for governor) for spending money to promote the use of Minneapolis tap water. Local blogger Ed Kohler has written a number of posts on this, including pointing out that it's in the city's interest to discourage bottled water because of the cost of getting rid of the bottles.

Which brings me to the photographic work of Chris Jordan. As he describes it, his series, called Running the Numbers (newly released as a book):

looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on.

My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month.
This image shows "two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes":

Blurry, dull colored mass of something in a photo

Partial zoom:
Oh, it's plastic bottles. Lots of them.

Detail at the actual size of the huge photo:
Lots of water and soda bottles

Two million plastic beverage bottles. The number used in the U.S. every five minutes.

Then, as The Story of Bottled Water says, many of these bottles are shipped to India or other developing countries, where they're either "down-cycled" or put in the trash.

And all we have to do to stop this whole chain of stupidity is to drink from the damn tap.

Here's another past post about bottled water.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Care Reform Roundup

Some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers sound off on the health care reform vote:

George R.R. Martin -- recounting specific cases of self-employed writers who could not get insurance, writing with anger, grief and relief.

John Scalzi -- analyzing the politics of the situation.

Plus an excellent chart from the L.A. Times that summarizes what will happen when, with more detail than most things I've seen.

And a nice summary of the law from Women's Voices for Change.

A CNN Money story on what the bill means for small businesses.

Walt Handelsman and the Sausages

It's a fine political cartoonist who can manage to create a cartoon that's funny for both sides of an issue.

Obama at his desk, buried in paper, while an aide says The sausage makers of America are demanding an apology
This one, by Walt Handelsman of NewsDay, was published on Thursday last week, when it looked like the Democrats would use the "deem and pass" maneuver. No surprise, Handelsman is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

You can see more of Handelsman's work on the Chicago Tribune site. (NewsDay has set up its infamous paywall, so you can't see Handelsman there.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How the Other Half Feels

The government rushes, seemingly inexorably, toward a policy decision with huge financial repercussions.

I disagree with that decision to the core of my being. It will kill human beings and possibly bankrupt our country, affecting our economy and way of life for decades to come.

But Congress acts anyway, despite huge, heartfelt protests. I feel helpless, angry, and so anxious I can't sleep.

Protesters are ejected from the gallery as they try to disrupt the proceedings, and I understand their behavior, even though I can't quite condone it.

You might think that I'm suddenly admitting I'm part of the Tea Party movement, but actually, what I'm relating is the way I felt during the winter of 2003, as we heard about "weapons of mass destruction" and the U.S. Congress committed our country to invading Iraq.

So I do understand how people who are opposed to the health care reform bill feel. All too well. It's a terrible condition to be in, and I extend my sympathies to them, even though I can't be sorry at this particular outcome.

PowerPoint, No!

The University of Michigan's Mark Goetz has come up with the ultimate PowerPoint critique:

Stylized infographic reading Everytime you make a PowerPoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten

Goetz works in user experience and information design, so of course he knows a lot about Edward Tufte, as should we all.

Morbid, I know... but funny!


Saturday, March 20, 2010

I've Opted Out!

Yellow paper door hanger with a picture of the YellowBook on it
Well, it took six months, but it appears I have successfully opted out of Yellow Pages deliveries! Instead of books, I got this door hanger a few days ago, informing me that "Our records show that you have chosen to stop receiving the SuperYellowPages®."

No more piles in the entryway, waiting to go out in the recycling. (And even once they would make their way to the green truck via the blue bin, it was all too soon before the next multi-ream bundle of unneeded tree fibers would arrive.)

Ed Kohler's The Deets blog had a recent comment from a woman named Stacey Smith, who claimed to be a past Yellow Pages ad rep. She said "the Yellow Pages in Phoenix for Dex has had approximately 30% declines now for the last three years." If Stacey is right, Dex has only 35 percent of the revenue from ads it had in 2007.

Unlike newspapers, there won't be much to miss about the Yellow Pages, as far as I'm concerned.

A related post, including opt-out links

Update: Today (March 23) I actually got a call from a human being at the SuperYellowPages making sure that my request to opt out had been honored. Good for them.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Heart Beat Diaries

Logo from Euan Sharp's Heart Beat Diaries blog
Last week's episode of House concerned a young woman, a blogger, who fell ill with some mysterious condition that nearly killed her. Throughout her ordeal, she blogged every detail, pulling her computer to her bedridden lap as each new symptom developed.

I was reminded of this tonight when reading one of my favorite bloggers, Ms. Sparrow. She wrote of another writer, a young man named Euan B. Sharp who had been awaiting a heart transplant. Euan had just died, Ms. Sparrow wrote, as she linked to his last post.

It is beyond strange to see this snapshot of what Euan was thinking as he awaited his final surgery, to read his last tweet ("Called to heart transplant @ 1:29am. In hospital getting prepped. Let's hope it's third time lucky!").

I don't mean to turn Euan's tragedy and his friends' and family's grief into a cold, sociological case study. Reading his words makes him real enough to bring tears to someone who never knew him in person.

But after reading his blog, I can't help thinking Euan might be interested in the same angle if he had the chance.

In a February post, Euan wrote about the role of social networking technologies in the lives of people like him, the sick and housebound:

That’s the injury of undergoing a long, slow and steady decline in your health. Besides the obvious losses, like stamina and strength, there are the invisible ones. The wounds to your social life. The loss of contacts. The falling by the wayside that inevitably occurs when you can no longer attend get togethers and have to opt out of most social engagements. Gradually you’re overtaken by a creeping irrelevance, until the point that you actually begin to feel like someone’s distant memory.

At least Facebook and Twitter are able to keep you in the ongoing conversation. Probably more important than actually ‘being there’ is being thought of, being considered. And that’s where social networking has saved the day for us chronic “sickos”.
All that connection has a downside, he goes on to say:
While it’s an amazing way to still be heard despite your physical absence, you also get a front row seat to what you’re missing out on. So-and-so has a birthday coming up? Too bad, you won’t be going to that. What’s-his-name got drunk and fell down the stairs at last weekend’s shindig? That must’ve been hilarious! Sucks that you missed that one. While Facebook can certainly keep you in the loop, you’ll still miss out on the fun.

The biggest bag over the head and kick to the gut, however, is the phenomenon of watching other people enjoying their milestones while you sit waiting quietly, patiently on the sidelines. I’ve read them all: A new baby is born. A new house is bought. A new job is landed. With each announcement I hear, I can’t help but feel my life, my life force, that which drives me upward, is stagnating and deminishing. Like a rocket launched from a pad that’s run out of fuel mid-flight. Have I reached my apex? Is this all there is for me now? My peers are slowly pulling away from me. Leaving me behind, step by step, accomplishment by accomplishment. Won’t anyone wait for me?

One day my hope is that I’ll get to rejoin them in life’s ascent.
But on March 16, Euan got the call to go to the hospital for his heart transplant. I don't know what happened, but something went wrong and it wasn't successful, and he died. And now this artifact of his life and thoughts is left up in the WordPress ether, to be found by other heart transplant patients or people who ruminate on the way of life and death in this age.

It's one piece of immortality.

One final thought: What Euan -- a Canadian -- didn't appear to worry about in his blog posts was paying for his medical care. I'm glad for him and his family that they knew he could get care that extended his life from his earliest heart problems as a child into his late 30s.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Artifacts of Makeup and Manicures

A few recent photos that suddenly seemed to share a theme:

Magazine with two full-page ads. Left ad is a pretty model accidentally putting lipstick onto her right cheek because she's so distracted by what's going on on the other page. But the other page is another ad, this time for a frozen diet dinner.
Two ads inadvertently juxtaposed in Entertainment Weekly. Maybe the model was hungry.

Update: Commenter Mark Simonson points out that the left-side ad is a fake, meant to draw attention to the right side ad. The web address provided for the lipstick product goes to a page about the food product. Clearly, I should have thought a little harder about this one!

A pyramid of disembodied fingers each with a different colored nail, pointing up toward a red bottle of Sally Hanson nail polish
Fingernails worshiping at the foot of that false idol, Sally Hanson (seen at Walgreen's, Roseville, Minnesota).

Plastic fingers on stands with protruding fingernails, sitting on a retail window sill
Hideously amputated digits, displaying something, but I'm not sure what. (In the window of a nail salon in Roseville, Minnesota.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mapping the Census

Because I always love a county-by-county map of the U.S., Tuesday's AP map in the Star Tribune couldn't help but grab my attention. (See the story here, but they didn't put the map on the website.)

It shows participation in the 2000 Census, with black areas reflecting 75%+ participation and the lightest gray areas indicating an under 50% participation rate.

Map of US counties 2000 census participation, showing high participation in the upper Midwest, low in the southeast

The pattern seemed pretty similar to what I recalled of the food stamp map I wrote about in an earlier post. Here's that map again: In this map, blue areas, and particularly dark blue areas, indicate higher levels of food support use.

Food stamp map, showing low particiapation in the upper Midwest and high in the southeast, among other areas

So under-participation in the Census correlates with poverty. I suppose that's not a big surprise.

But it's interesting to compare another map, which was prepared by the Census Bureau to predict participation in the 2010 census. (Map from USA Today, March 3.) They based their predictions on 12 factors, including poverty, ability to speak English, and home ownership.

Map of predicted 2010 census participation

While there are a lot of counties on this map whose participation matches their 2000 participation, there are also many that do not. Check out Wyoming, for instance. It had pretty darn good 2000 participation, but is predicted to be unlikely to participate heavily in 2010. Or the southern half of California -- its 2000 participation was not bad, relative to Texas or Louisiana, but the prediction is that it will be dismal.

I wonder if something has changed in these places, or if the predictive model is just wrong?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Deadly Crashes, Disparate Justice

The Star Tribune's recurring articles on drunken driving, called Smashed, have been a don't-miss part of the paper lately. From frequent briefs focusing on one individual with repeat offenses to the recent story on Ramsey and Anoka counties' successes with repeat offenders, it's always eye-opening.

Today's paper carried a related story that had me shaking my head, particularly in light of the recent story of Koua Fong Lee, who was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to 8 years in prison despite the fact that he was clearly not culpable in the deadly accident.

Contrast Lee's sentence with that of Kristen Driscoll, who was so drunk that she passed out while driving, hitting and killing a man who was sitting at a bus stop. Driscoll, who was on her way home from her daughter's high school graduation last June, is white, middle-aged, female and from a well-to-do neighborhood in Minneapolis. What was her sentence?

8 months in the county jail, of which she was supposed to serve 4, then spend the latter 4 months on work release during the day. But today's paper revealed that the Hennepin County workhouse has been letting her out during the day for the past few weeks to work at the library.

At the time of her conviction, prosecutors asked for a 4-year sentence. But Driscoll's contrition and fine civic reputation (aside from driving drunk) must have swayed the sentencing judge.

Lee, on the other hand, had the temerity to claim he was not at fault for his terrible crash, and that, combined with the fact that he's not a nice white lady from a rich neighborhood, put him in jail for 8 years.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Another Reason to Like Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth WarrenI stumbled across an interview with Elizabeth Warren on the Guernica magazine website today (interview by Harry Kreisler). I've written about her before, but this interview added to my appreciation of her.

First was the fact that the research that led to her book The Two-Income Trap began in a way that shows it was actually research and not just someone intent on confirming her biases:

I did my very first empirical study looking at the families who were going into bankruptcy back in the early ’80s, and I’ll tell you, I set out to prove they were all a bunch of cheaters. I was going to expose these people who were taking advantage of the rest of us by hauling off to bankruptcy and just charging off debts that they really could repay, or who’d been irresponsible in running up debts.

I did the research, and the data took me to a totally different place. These were hardworking middle-class families who by and large had lost jobs, gotten sick, had family breakups, and that’s what was driving them over the edge financially. Most of them were in complete economic collapse when they filed for bankruptcy. They would never pay these debts off. Realizing this changed my vision.
Second was the detail given about her background. If I had thought about it at all, I would have assumed that Warren, a professor of law at Harvard, had come from some level of privilege -- at least middle class, or perhaps she was the child of other academics. Instead, I found out that her parents were Oklahoma dustbowl survivors who never recovered from the Great Depression, and that while she did go to college right away, she married young and had her first child soon after graduating.

She didn't start law school until several years later, had her second child right after law school graduation, and only fell into teaching because her law school alma mater, Rutgers, called her and asked if she wanted to teach a class for someone who hadn't shown up.

In the interview, she summarizes the evidence about bankruptcies that makes The Two-Income Trap so compelling to read:
Starting in about 1970 a fully employed male’s wages completely flattened out, and in fact, a fully employed male today, on average, earns about eight hundred dollars less than his dad earned a generation ago. Unlike the first seventy years of the twentieth century when wages grew as the economy grew, now the family does better only if they can put two people in the workforce. Millions of mothers poured back into the workforce...

Start with the consumption. This is what everyone in the popular media [supposes] is the reason for people getting in trouble: too many Game Boys, too many iPods, too many two hundred dollar sneakers. In fact, families today, adjusted for inflation, spend less on clothing, less on food (including eating out), less on furniture, and less on appliances than they spent a generation ago. Where they spend more is for the three-bedroom, one-bath house....

Families with children have seen a 100 percent increase in housing costs since 1983. Why? Not because families with children have a bigger need for granite countertops or spa bathrooms, but because housing is the substitute way to buy into a decent school system. This is white families, African American families, Hispanic families, Asian families, it’s across every spectrum. Families with children are tightening the belt one more notch, are working extra hours, are sending both people into the workforce, to try to get into the best possible school district for their children. Families are in financial trouble not because they’re irresponsible but because they’re too responsible. They’re trying to do it for the kids.
Check out the full interview. It's well worth the time.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Off with Their Subheads

The Onion deftly skewers people like me and my attitude about text formatting in the story Nation Shudders At Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.

Of course, the idea of breaking up text and offering readers multiple access points with subheads, pull quotes and bold lead-ins existed long before the interweb. But I definitely have lost my tolerance for long paragraphs in the last few years.

An excerpt:

Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.

Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.

"Why won't it just tell me what it's about?" said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. "There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I've looked everywhere—there's nothing here but words."
Read the rest

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Quick Brown Fox Meets the Professor

You never know what topic someone will blog about. I just discovered The Daily Pangram by Craig Eliason, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Here are a few of his recent alphabetical explorations:

Jaded cops know that text messages frequently utilize abbreviations.

Really, for Pete's sake, quit jabbing me with overwaxed zucchini.

"Polly want a Ritz," the brand-conscious parrot squawked, "Just fix me a V-Eight!"

Downing shots of Mexican tequila, Billy Joe realized nirvana. Then puked.
If you want to try writing your own pangrams, it's a lot easier with this Pangrammer Helper.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Toyotas and Teachers

It was a good day on the Star Tribune op-ed page.

Michael Fumento's piece, originally from the Los Angeles Times, raised some good points about the magnitude of the Toyota problem:

Sudden acceleration in Toyotas over the last decade has been linked with -- which doesn't mean "caused" -- 52 deaths, according to NHTSA. A Los Angeles Times investigation brought it up to 56, including those culled from lawsuits. Whatever the count and cause, that's too many. But it's also out of 20 million Toyotas sold, and out of the 420,000 Americans NHTSA says died in motor vehicle accidents that decade.

And although Toyota had almost 17 percent of total U.S. car sales in 2008, it accounted for merely 8 percent of total claims for deaths and injuries in the first quarter of that year, according to NHTSA. found that while Toyota was third in U.S. car sales from 2001 through 2010, it was 17th in NHTSA complaints.

Thus, even if every sudden-acceleration complaint proved valid, Toyotas are among the safest cars made.
I suppose one could argue that Toyotas are bought by people who tend to be safer drivers... but even so, those are some pretty compelling numbers. And I say this as a Toyota owner who has had her share of fear of the accelerator lately. (By the way, it sounds like the San Diego man with the most recent runaway accelerator story is in it for the money or the fifteen minutes.)

The other piece worth reading on today's op-ed page was by Dick Bernard, a retired teacher and Education Minnesota (union) representative. He recalled the days of public schools before teachers had tenure -- not something I've ever thought about a whole lot:
During my growing-up years..., we moved to eight communities. In each, Dad was called superintendent, but actually was a teaching principal, the administrator who was accountable to the local school board....

My parents were outstanding teachers and outstanding citizens of their communities. I know. One or the other was my teacher for my last five years of public school....

But we moved often, and very often that move was necessitated by Dad being fired, in one or another odd and sometimes innovative way.

These were the good old days of "at will" contracts. All it took was some disgruntled citizen who knew the right people to dispatch these outsiders at the annual contract renewal time. (In my files I have nearly every one of those single sheet "contracts" signed by my parents in their careers.)

Dad always took a philosophical view of the firings, but down deep, I think they hurt him deeply. Recently I came across an essay he wrote about the various ways he was fired during his long career. It was funny, in a very sad way.

Protections that are revolting to some -- things like due process, seniority, continuing contract -- came about because of abundant abuses in those good old days when the teacher was, literally, a "public servant."
I wish I could read Bernard's dad's essay, and that an objective journalist or even a historian would document what it was like to work as a teacher in the pre-union days. (Perhaps someone has. If you have a source to share, post it in the comments.) I, for one, had never devoted much mental energy to it, but now I wish I had.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Seeds of Greed and Stupidity

The Survival Seed Bank is certainly getting its moment in the sun. Maybe with a little water it will bear some fruit, but I think it's doubtful.

Their ad during the Glenn Beck show got picked up on BoingBoing on Tuesday, then last night was ridiculed on the Colbert Report.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Survival Seed Bank
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

Surival Seed Bank's website was actually set up in 2008, back when we were experiencing the highest food prices on record, driven partly by the corn ethanol market. It's classic fear-mongering:
You don't have to be an Old Testament prophet to see what's going on all around us. A belligerent lower class demanding handouts. A rapidly diminishing middle class crippled by police state bureaucracy. An aloof, ruling elite that has introduced us to an emerging totalitarianism which seeks control over every aspect of our lives.... If you don't have the ability to grow your own food next year, your life may be in danger.
And what's the answer to this impending crisis? A can full of vacuum-sealed seeds, priced at somewhere around 200-300 percent over their value. (22 varieties of seed for $149 = $6.77 per variety.) They actually say "If you purchased these same seeds 'retail' you could very well pay over $600, if you can even find them. That makes the Survival Seed Bank package a ridiculous bargain." You could pay any amount retail; that doesn't mean you would, or anyone is actually charging that amount.

These aren't just any seeds, no sir. They're "open pollinated... super seeds, grown by small, fiercely independent farmers." The site goes on to say, "It's been very difficult to acquire high quality, open pollinated seeds lately." The seeds were "Grown in remote plots, far from the prying eyes of the big hybrid seed companies..."

Now, I'm all for open-pollinated seeds and therefore the ability to save seeds from year to year, but this sales copy makes it sound like it's some kind of secret technology that's hard to get. You can buy open-pollinated seeds many places, including Seed Savers Exchange, whose copy the Survival Seed Bank is obviously quoting in at least two places (for the Druzba tomato and the Jimmy Nardello pepper).

The comments from the BoingBoing post are well worth reading. Here are a few, including mine:

DaughterNumberThree • #2
Funny how their promo copy says "Remember, non-hybrid seeds can be grown practically anywhere and have the ability to assimilate mineral and trace elements from the soil that man made plants just don't seem to have. That's because they were created by God as we read in Genesis" -- when what they're selling are varieties developed by farmers over the years. God didn't make cabbage, people did. [I'm referring to the fact that cabbage, as well as broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, collards and many other plants are all human-created variations of the same much-less-edible species.]

mgfarrelly • #7
Seriously, the notion of the panicked residents of, as Roger Ebert perfectly coined it, Beckistan, digging up their chemically leached suburban backyards when "THE HOUR" strikes and trying to grow enough corn to keep the family fed is...sad.

Gutierrez • #13
Seeds? Gardens? I thought we'd be moving straight back to hunter-gatherer societies. I would think field guides to edible plants and animals would be even more valuable than some piddly can of seeds. Besides, cultivating a plot requires you to be stationary. That makes it easier for the death panels to find you.

Blaine • #14
Yes. Nothing will protect your family during "End of Days" but a fucking produce section, in your front yard, like a giant neon sign saying "KILL US WE HAVE FOOD".

Stefan Jones • #18
I bet Beck's listeners will be disappointed that the collection doesn't include seeds for Tater Tots, Hot Pockets and Little Debbie Zebra Cakes.

Anon • #19 •
I'd be surprised if 1% of the people who jump on this bandwagon have the knowledge, ability, or stamina to work a 1 acre garden! Or to figure out how to make it produce year-round to feed the family. I've spent years perfecting my technique, and I still can't provide for the two of us year-round without outside sources. This is only going to appeal to people who are worried about the future, yet have no idea how hard it really is to farm their own food!

magicbean • #26 •
oh my goodness. I have grown almost all of those varieties. They are about the most common heirlooms you can get, and nothing spectacular, available from Fedco Seeds for under $25 total. And I can say, having grown and personally tested 10 different varieties of dried beans that Jacob's Cattle are the gassiest beans ever. Is that a maybe good defense against invading zombies? Rosa Bianca eggplant are very tasty, but about the worst producers unless conditions are perfect. Same with Pink Banana Squash. Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage is actually spectacular. Costs about $2.50 for 300 seeds.

magicbean • #33
No matter how well you store onions seeds, they lose almost 75 percent germination after a year. It's just the way onions seeds are. Storing up to 20 years at 70 degrees is what the site recommends. And there's dessicant inside the vaccuum packages. The problem with that is seeds do have a little moisture inside them - it's part of what keeps the seed alive. If the seed dries out 100 percent, it will never germinate. It's no longer alive.

And..and..and...i keep thinking of things that don't make ANY sense with this. Like why are there NO root crops in the mix? It's all stuff you have to eat fresh, like lettuce and tomatoes. Why on earth wouldn't you want to grow stuff that keeps forever, like parsnips and carrots? Cylindra beets are yucky.

zikzak • #63
Post-apocalyptic gardens are appealing for the same reason post-apocalyptic armories are: they give us the feeling that we could "go it alone", being independent and self-sufficient when the rest of the world collapses into chaos.

And they're both lies for the same reason: we depend on our community not to kill us, and no amount of self-sufficiency can save us from a community that wants to kill us. Neither bullets and diesel nor hippy gardens and herbal medicine can keep a family alive in the face of large organized groups of people bent on murder, taking your shit, or doing anything else that makes survival impossible.

Once the society you live in includes an organized group that wants to kill you (be it government, religious, tribal, military, or a good old fashioned mob), and there's no stronger group organized to suppress it, the game is already lost.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

As Seen on TV

I am definitely behind the times. I didn't even know that my local Walgreen's drugstore had a dedicated section for products "as seen on tv."

Store shelves crammed with products, sign above says As Seen on TV
This includes those weird plastic Bumpit things that make your hair look like you're a singer from the B52s...

Bumpit boxes on the shelf
...and the latest descendents of the Ginsu knife...

Slap Chop, Egg Genie, and Titan vegetable peeler
... plus that cat-hair magnet known as the SnuggieTM.

Blue Snuuggie in a box
I don't know when I last saw so many unneeded products in one spot.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Some Food Is Cheap for a Reason

There's nothing like a good infographic.

This one is dated August 2007, from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's magazine Good Medicine. It was created before the most recent farm bill, so the data have probably changed a bit. But not nearly enough, unfortunately, to make the overall impression inaccurate:

The food pyramid juxtaposed to a second pyramid showing how farm subsidies are distributed, almost 74% to meat and dairy and .37% to vegetables and fruits

Thanks to CoopEats for the link.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hobbes's Choice

The phenomenon of fan art existed long before the interweb, but it's certainly better known and more widely circulated now. Although I've written before about the ripoffs of Calvin and Hobbes, I wanted to point out that there is a place for art based on other people's characters.

Here are two pieces of fan art that actually continue the conversation instead of just using Bill Watterson's creations.

Illustration of Winnie the Pooh as a giant actual bear facing off with Hobbes, an actual tiger, as Christopher Robin, Calvin and a schoolyard full of children look on
This piece, titled Schoolyard Takedown, is by a Deviant Art contributor named weremagnus. Weremagnus posted sketches and a black and white ink rendering, which I think was then colorized by someone else. Weremagnus writes that "these are outlines/tonal rough for a conceptual piece I'm working on for my Illustration class. the kids' faces will be less stylized on the final bit, I'm still working that out."

Hobbes walking off with a little girl as a youngish adult Calvin waves goodbye. The motivational poster reads The Future. Don't put away childish things. Save them for your child
Cloaked in the trite motivational poster format, this illustration is making the rounds on the interweb, and no one seems to know who created it. It would be sickly sweet except for the expression on Hobbes's face.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Let Koua Fong Lee Go

The car hit by Koua Fong Lee
The Koua Fong Lee car crash in St. Paul a few years ago was heart-rending. In it, Lee's 1996 Camry accelerated off I-94 onto a crowded off-ramp where dozens of cars were waiting for a light. He was going 80-plus miles an hour when he finally stopped by colliding with the Adams family's car, killing or severely injuring everyone inside it.

Why did he do it? Lee's own family was in his car as they headed home from church, so clearly it wasn't intentional. Drugs and alcohol were quickly eliminated as factors. Everyone homed in on the fact that Lee was a relatively inexperienced driver, so he must have had his foot on the gas, even though he insisted he was pushing the brakes for all they were worth.

Now, of course, they're pulling Lee's car out of the impound lot to see if it has the Toyota acceleration problem. (See the Star Tribune article here.)

But my question is, Why was Lee found guilty of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to 8 years in prison in the first place? Everyone agreed he didn't do anything on purpose, and negligence wasn't even the issue, as far as I can tell. What good does it do to put someone away, on the state's tab, in these circumstances?

I know that people were killed. But does ruining this guy's life and that of his young family (wife and four kids under 10, now on welfare) really compensate the survivors of the dead? The jurors interviewed for the Strib sidebar make it sound as though they couldn't consider anything but prison time: "If we had gone with a lesser offense, it was basically 'a slap on the hand. It was almost nothing,' he said. 'Yet we didn't want him to go to prison [for years].' "

The justice system is not supposed to be about revenge. It's supposed to prevent further crime and, ideally, rehabilitate the guilty. Neither purpose is served in this case. If it were my family killed in similar circumstances, I think I would say the same thing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Meta for the Oscars

A three-minute video worth watching more than once to make sure you get every line:

From (yes, I have a teenage daughter who shows me these things), but created by two young comedy writers/directors/actors named Brian and Nick (

Friday, March 5, 2010

There Is No Buzz in "Words"

Carved human figure pushing an envelope
Brooks of Sheffield, the chronicler of Lost New York City, took a moment away from his usual Gotham-specific content to share the reasons he is not successful. Some of them are because he hates to:

  • Brainstorm
  • Monetize
  • Think Outside the Box
  • Push the Envelope
  • Brand
Plus a half-dozen more. And there are some worthy additions from the commenters, too.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Watchmen

I recently received a spam with this reference line:

"Your business partners will stop doubting in you when they see your watches. Authentic jewelry will make others think that you are the boss!"

Now there's an effective sales pitch. I never realized my watch-wearing choices could help me win friends and influence people everywhere I go.

Six Hello Kitty watches in coordinating colors

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Your Oscar Preview

This incredible short animation, Logorama, is nominated for an Oscar. The competition includes Nick Park of Wallace and Grommet fame, so it may not win, but I think it deserves the statue for the way it uses commercial visual language to create a joy-ride of a subversive message.

Warning: It contains language that would be at least PG-13, probably R. And it's over 10 minutes long but well worth it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Talking Back to "My Talk"

Billboard for My Talk 107.1

Another billboard for My Talk 107.1

My Talk 107.1 logo from the website

107.1 is a Twin Cities radio station that has consciously cultivated a middle-aged female audience. It recently rebranded itself as "My Talk 107.1."

This usage of "my" has bugged me for some time now. I first noticed it in the web address "," which was regularly intoned during the sponsorship listings on NPR a decade or so ago. The advent of MySpace reinforced my dislike. (Although I have to admit I've never been fond of the name Facebook, either, for different reasons.)

I'm not completely sure why it gets under my skin the way it does. In a web context, it's clear shorthand for denoting a personalized version of a site. But that doesn't help me overcome my antipathy. Maybe it's because it seems like an attempt to make a virtue out of the worst aspect of toddlerhood.

Even worse than the My Talk name is the accompanying text: "my pop culture, my gossip, my radio station." Because, you know, women couldn't possibly be interested in somebody else's pop culture or gossip. Despite the fact that it's all mass-produced junk from the celebrity machine.

Update: I just finished reading a terrific post on The Bike Garden on the subject of "me-ness," in which Susan Tomlinson writes: "By the way, have you ever noticed how close the spelling of 'me-ness' is to 'meanness?' Again, just sayin'."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Two Generations

Powerbook 145 compared to an iPhone
Recently my father-in-law got out his circa-1992 Powerbook 145, which weighed about 7 pounds, had a tiny black and white (not grayscale!) screen, and cost over $2,000.

It was about 5 percent as "smart" as an iPhone.