Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sanity Signs: Zero Spelling Errors

Correctly spelled sign, marker on corrugated cardboard
I just got back from the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear). With apologies to Stephen Colbert, I'm much more a supporter of the sanity side. I love satire, but can't sustain it to its Swiftian ends. It hurts too much.

Cooperate and nobody gets hurt, 11x17 laser print
This is my sign. I think it wasn't too clever, since hardly anyone took my picture, but I liked it. (This line was borrowed from a Linden Hills Co-op T-shirt.)

My general thoughts on the event are that it was very well-written and super-organized. I was close to tears several times (yah, I'm a big baby [boomer] that way... Yusuf/Cat Stevens' appearance really got me, as did John Stewart's closing speech).

If there had been only 150,000 people attending, it would have been perfect, but there were at least 215,000 in the immediate vicinity (counted by the same guy who counted the Glenn Beck and inauguration crowds), and it doesn't seem as though the organizers, the Park Police or the city of Washington thought that many would show up.

Keep in mind, that number doesn't include the many, many people who never got down to the Mall at all. My unscientific guess -- based on the people I talked to while walking around in the hours afterward or whom I personally know were there and tried to attend -- is that there was at least a 1:1 ratio between people in the immediate vicinity and those who were in the surrounding area but never made it near the grass to be counted. Students who came by bus from St. Louis who arrived at 2:15 and couldn't get close, folks who never left the Gallery Place metro stop, friends from Philadelphia who watched on a T.V. in a sports bar five or six blocks away. It was pandemonium in D.C.

If you've got three hours to spend, I recommend watching the show online. Even the music is generally worth listening too, including Kid Rock, believe it or not.

These photos are primarily from just one area of the mall, about one-eighth of the official, permitted area. A few were taken after leaving the rally, walking toward Capitol Hill.

60ish white man holding a tiny sign that says This is what the silent majority looks like
Joshua Green from the Atlantic seems to think the crowd was mostly 20-30-something hipsters, but I'd say the crowd near me was at least 30 percent over 40, with many over 50. What I saw the fewest of were teenagers and preteens.

Elderly woman in wheelchair surrounded by other people over 50
This woman had on a name tag saying she's 88 years old.

The percentage of clever signs was damn high. (Mark Twain says to substitute the word "damn" every time you're inclined to use the word "very.") Many of them were about Christine O'Donnell or tea partiers, but I have declined to show those because they get a bit repetitive.

I'm a Mama Berenstain Bear, colored marker on white poster board

I'm so angry I could vote, black marker on yellow poster board

Why don't we all just take a nap, color ink jet printout

Moderation or death (or cake), marker and collage on poster board
A couple of other signs I saw but couldn't get a picture of said:

  • Dare to be diffident
  • You either support false dichotomies or you're against us
  • If we don't have something nice to say, why do we keep saying it?
Give us back the colonies, we'll give you health care - with Union Jack, color ink jet printout
Fight apathy with irony, black marker on white poster board

Jesus, protect us from your fanclub, black and blue marker on white poster board with yellow highlighting

We have everything to fear and fear itself, black marker on white poster board
I loved looking across the crowd on the Jumbotron shots and seeing all different types of signs, rather than a sea of identical, printed placards, as we see too often at conventions or rallies. Even when it's a cause I agree with, it's distressing to see sincere sentiment appear to be manufactured.

Some were quotes from the past:

Anger is not an argument, Daniel Webster, black marker on yellow poster board

Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed - Michael Pritchard, printed laserprinted type pasted to white poster board
A few signs were subtle, and a number verged on DaDaism.

The word FACTS inside a heart shape, black marker on white poster board

Could you restore my hair, too? black marker on white poster board
Some folks wore preprinted shirts or other garb. While these weren't original creations, I hadn't seen them before:

Green t-shirt with white letters, reading SCIENCE It works, bitches

Knit cap with the word HATE embroidered on the edge. The E is crossed out with red, so it now reads HAT

Dark t-shirt with white letters reading Don't make me use my librarian voice
There were a number of signs specifically aimed at Fox News:

Think outside the Fox, red and blue marker on white foamcore board

Sheperd Fairey-style illustration of Glenn Beck with text, CHANGE the channel
Plus the one I saw but couldn't shoot, which said "More Sanity, Less Hannity."

And finally, a sign that wasn't trying to be clever, but that expressed one of the things I most hoped to help amplify by being part of the rally:

All Americans are REAL Americans, black, red and blue marker on white poster board

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Keep Your Hair to Yourself

I recently saw six adults from a family at a restaurant, gathered around a table. There was a little girl with them, maybe three or four years old, who had beautiful, long curly hair.

Their waitress came by the table with a dessert and jokingly said to the little girl, "Can I have your hair?" She went on to compliment her on it further.

The grandpa leaned forward across the table and said, "What do you say, Maya?"

The little girl responded: "No."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Finally, a Use for Set Theory

Like all things that are just too true, this one can be bought on a T-shirt.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pre-Election Ferment

I should stop reading in the weeks before an election. It just makes me anxious and sickened. But here are a few good pieces I've seen in the last couple of days.

How Entitled Are Entitlements?

I appreciated Ed Lotterman's thoughts today on how eliminating entitlements is a misunderstood concept. Entitlements are any government-run program whose spending is not capped, but is instead based on supplying services or money based on a set of criteria. If you meet the criteria, you get the services or money. This includes everything from Social Security to Medicare to farm subsidies, as well as the "usual suspects" indicted by conservatives (such as food stamps or the much-shrunken descendent of AFDC/"welfare").

Bear with me while I repeat some of Ed's numbers. All entitlements account for $2.3 trillion of the total $3.8 trillion in federal spending. Of that $2.3 trillion, $1.23 is Social Security and Medicare, which not many people (including the Right) seem to plan to cut if they want to get reelected. So cutting entitlements won't eliminate the $1.4 trillion budget deficit unless Social Security or Medicare are part of the cuts.

But say we cut everything except those two -- that would get rid of 80 percent of the deficit, right? Here's what Ed has to say about that:

...this would mean complete elimination of Veterans Administration health services, now strained by veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would mean total elimination of all federal funds for unemployment benefits.

It would eliminate Supplemental Security Income for hundreds of thousands of people with Down syndrome, severe spina bifida and other serious disabilities. It would end all Medicaid funding of nursing home bills for hundreds of thousands of the elderly. For thousands of nursing homes across our country, Medicaid is by far the largest source of funding. And it would eliminate all federal student aid.

Confronted with these real-world choices, many ardent advocates of slashing entitlements start to backpedal and talk about cutting welfare payments to illegal immigrants. But the facts are that such outlays are tiny, not even a rounding error in relation to the gap between revenue and spending. The choices simply are harder than many want to admit.
I don't pretend I have all the answers to hard questions like this. I took a stab at the My Minnesota Budget calculator to see if I could fix our state's budget deficit, and it's impossible to do without either substantially raising taxes or taking an axe to programs that directly affect people's lives (K-12 anyone?). Only 12 percent of the people who balanced the budget with the calculator used only spending reductions. 23 percent used revenue increases only; 65 percent combined the two.

All those who seems to think it's easy to decrease the size of government should have to put a real proposal on the table so everyone can respond about the reality of what the cuts mean. That seems to be what Wisconsin's Paul Ryan has done with his Roadmap of America's Future, much as I disagree with it.

Do We Want Change?

Neal Gabler ruminates on how Americans have never really wanted their government to get anything done. Going all the way back to the Federalists and the Republicans (who later became the Democrats), only a national crisis makes it possible for things to get done:
For better or worse, Americans are a timorous bunch who press their government to act only when they think national security is at stake. That's how Eisenhower sold the interstate highway system, how LBJ sold Vietnam and how George W. Bush sold the Iraq war. When we aren't defending ourselves, government just can't seem to muster a consensus to do much of anything.
Do We Want Competent Leaders?

Stephen Budiansky discusses the long-time tension in American electoral politics between anti-intellectualism and the need for competent governance, including this gem:
Ironically, it is conservatives who are the first to scream at the idea that standards or qualifications are being compromised in the name of affirmative action or "political correctness"; yet when liberals dare to suggest that, frankly, you might ought to know something (or even read a book or two, including one by someone you might disagree with) before you shoot your mouth off about economic policy, immigration reform, or foreign affairs, that is "liberal elitism."
Cui Bono? (Hint: That's Not Spanish)

Plus the incredible story from NPR this morning showing how the Arizona immigration criminalization law was created with the help of a for-profit prison corporation that hopes to cash in on a "new market" for its services.

Let's see if that story gets picked up in the media more broadly.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Brief Tour of Iowa

As I mentioned, I made a brief trip into part of Iowa over the weekend. Mostly Iowa City (home of the University of Iowa and its famous Writers' Workshop), but also Mount Vernon.

Engleart theater marquee lit at night
Sporting one of the nicest marquees I've seen, the Englert Theatre offers a range of programs.

Iowa City Gas & Electric name in dime tile floor outside a door
It's always worth it to look down when entering a business in a historic downtown.

B. Patterson in dime tile outside a business door
I love dime tile.

The Blank Honors Center sign at the University of Iowa
An inspired choice of names.

A yellow pumpkin cut as a jack-o-lantern on a porch
A nonconformist pumpkin.

Bridge Community Bank sign in Solon, Iowa
Aagh, my eyes, my eyes! What do all those swooshes mean, and why is the trademark symbol their final destination?

Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon, Iowa
If you're ever in Mount Vernon, be sure to eat at the Lincoln Cafe. It's the kind of place you always hope you'll find in a smallish town, where they make everything from scratch instead of waiting for the Sysco truck to drop off something that can be deep-fried.

Coverof a brown Living Bible - Paraphrased
Antique shopping in Iowa is different than it is in Minnesota. This Bible made me wonder if it was meant for those who take the great book literally. Guess not.

Wooden Radio Shack sign
Is it possible to make a quaint Radio Shack sign? Yes.

Antique safety pin box, named Defender Safety Pins with illustrations of knights on horseback
Those must be some extra-long and pointy safety pins.

Bright red barn
Welcome to the nicest rest stop in America, just south of the Minnesota border on I-35. There are two stories inside, with a gift shop, snack bar and tourist info upstairs. I think the Men's Room was in the base of the silo at left.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

$500,000 per Conviction; Now Don't You Feel Safer?

Sheriff Bob Fletcher Photoshopped to wear yellow dollar sign glassesBack in early 2009, I wrote about the cost of arresting over 800 people at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and speculated on what the cost per final conviction would be.

Well, the RNC8 cases have finally been settled or dropped, so we're very close to having the final numbers. $50 million was spent, which came to $61,125 per arrest. As I wrote earlier, "Each remaining arrest [in February 2009] now carries a price tag of about $245,000 (not counting prosecution costs), and I'm still betting we'll get up to at least $1 million per arrest for each conviction."

How many of the 818 people arrested finally pleaded guilty or were convicted of something? 16 on the county level (10 felonies and 6 gross misdemeanors) and 87 on the city level (source). That's about one in eight of the original arrests -- or just about $500,000 per conviction, not counting additional prosecution costs. A number of those are petty misdemeanors.

Yet another reason to vote Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher out of office next Tuesday.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Jonathan Stewart at MCBA

The gallery at Minnesota Center for Book Arts has a show that closes on Halloween, titled Prints: Now in 3D! There are a number of striking pieces in it, but the ones that captured my imagination the most were these reimagined Lego boxes by Texas screen printer Jonathan Stewart.

Lego man receiving a rejection letter
Stewart's artist statement reads: "I am primarily concerned with how history, experiences, and emotions are packaged for consumption. My boxes point toward a marketplace where these characteristics are bought and sold."

Male and female figures with pregnancy test. The box is pink
The juxtaposition of the comically shaped Lego humanoids with these examples of painfully human moments made me sad and amused at the same time.

Leaving with the Kids -- woman with young boy and baby walking away from open front door of house, man inside waving goodbye
Check out the expression on the woman's face and the man's plaintive wave. Imagine walking across the plastic yard, which grasps at your feet with each step.

Solitary Lego bestubbled figure on a bench beside two pine trees, sack of belongings, trash can titled Nowhere Else to Go
The ultimate: a homeless Lego figure.

Miscellaneous Tidbits

If you've ever wondered why Facebook doesn't show you updates for all your friends, this is the article to read.

Just read an excellent MinnPost interview with Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and Design. It was a tonic for me and my tendency to get a bit depressed about the perceived devolution of our society:

"We live in an incredibly exciting time," he tells me. "We're at the cusp of a renaissance, but we don't know it yet." Old hierarchies and compartments are breaking down, he says, and we're discovering that everything is related to everything else. The world, he says, is less like a conventional machine than like an ecosystem — or like the Internet, made up of infinite connections. Innovation is something that's bound to happen, he says, as long as we come to terms with the flaws in our past thinking.
An excellent read, especially in conjunction with today's Midmorning program topic: Is America Really in Decline?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Columnists

Ed Lotterman head shotThe Pioneer Press's Ed Lotterman is retiring soon, and once he does, the paper's readers will have lost a voice of reason. The good news is he's spending his last months at work turning out columns that should be compiled into a book of economic sanity.

Today's column is titled Reality of Federal Spending Doesn't Fit Myth, and I'll quote it completely since the PiPress has the annoying habit of taking their stories down after they've been up for only a few weeks:

Charles Mackay wrote his book "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" 170 years ago, but the phenomenon is alive and well today.

The fact that people cling to beliefs that are at odds with readily available data might be amusing if the social costs in terms of bad government policies driven by voter ignorance were not so high.

France faces this right now. Protests, peaceful and violent, are part of French national culture, but any dispassionate observer can tell that nation's current work and pension system is fiscally unsustainable. The longer they delay reform, the harder the adjustment will be.

Many in the United States snicker at the French but cling to their own denial about the choices we face. People who think we simultaneously can lower taxes and eliminate budget deficits while not cutting Social Security or Medicare or other widely supported programs are as misinformed as any marching French citizen.

Since we are just over a week from the election, it is useful to look at the actual data related to some of these popular misconceptions. To do that, we turn to two sources: the Economic Report of the President, 2010, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Department of Commerce.

For example, the idea that federal taxes and spending grow inexorably, year after year, is widely accepted.

Yes, both have grown in dollar terms, but relative to the overall size of the economy, the changes are much less striking.

One can "prove" that government outlays relative to GDP have mushroomed by cherry-picking specific years. For example, from Fiscal Year 1950 to FY 2011, federal spending as a percentage of GDP grew from 15.6 percent of GDP to 25.1 percent.

But if one takes average by decade, the change is less dramatic. In the 1950s, the average was 17.6 percent, rising to 22.2 percent in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, it fell to 20.7 percent and was an even 20 percent from 2000 through 2009.

Yes, the average for 2009, the last Bush budget year; 2010, the first Obama one; and projected numbers for FY 2011 that started a few weeks ago, is 25 percent of GDP. But that is skewed by the $700 billion TARP program initiated by Bush and Obama's $787 stimulus program, along with sharply higher outlays for unemployment benefits.

But these recession levels are only slightly above the 23.5 percent in Ronald Reagan's third year in office. No president until Obama had average outlays as high as the 22.3 percent average for Reagan's eight fiscal years. A growth of 2.7 percent of GDP in 30 years is hardly explosive.

Federal taxes relative to GDP are remarkably stable, tracking from 17.2 percent to 18.5 percent of GDP over six decades. At 14.8 percent for 2009 and 2010, they were the lowest since the recession year of 1959 at the end of the Eisenhower administration. Some of these low receipts are due to the one-time $116 billion tax cut embodied in the Obama stimulus and delivered through lower withholdings, but most of it is due to recession-driven lower incomes.

Some categories of spending have increased sharply. Defense outlays surged after 2001 and have grown as a share of GDP in the two Obama budgets. This is due to large inflation-adjusted dollar increases but also to the fact that the denominator — GDP — remains below 2007 levels. Yet at 4.9 percent of GDP, 2011 defense outlays are a full percentage point lower than under Reagan and half of what they were in the 1960s.

Health is the one area that does increase inexorably in both absolute dollars and relative to GDP. There are two categories — Medicare, funded through FICA taxes, and "health" that is primarily Medicaid but includes the VA and Indian Health systems and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Inflation-adjusted Medicare outlays for 2010 were 5.4 times as high as in 1980, and all other health grew by a factor of 6.1. The average annual growth rates were 5.8 percent and 6.2 percent respectively, while inflation-adjusted national output only grew 2.8 percent annually.

So health spending outpaced real GDP growth while federal outlays as a proportion of the overall economy remained constant. This means federal spending on other items is dropping in relative terms. All government outside of health care fell steadily from a post-World War II high of 20.6 percent in the Reagan administration to an even 15 percent for 2000-2009. In the Obama budgets, it is back up near 20 percent but will fall if the stimulus package and defense increases are not renewed.

"Tea party" enthusiasts often argue that burgeoning federal spending is driven by exploding "entitlements" but then stridently deny that Social Security and Medicare fall into that category. As the expression goes, "Against ignorance, even the gods struggle in vain."

Yes, "income security," the category that includes unemployment benefits, food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, rent subsidies and other programs thought of as "welfare," has grown slightly faster than GDP, if one includes the big unemployment and Food Stamp increases since the current recession began. But otherwise, outlays relative to GDP in 2000-2007 were exactly equal to the averages under three presidents from 1980-1999 and only slightly above levels in the 1970s under Nixon, Ford and Carter.

The important fact remains that even with sharply increased spending in the past three fiscal years, if one excludes medical spending, the relative size of government is smaller than in the last major recession. With medical programs included, it is only 2 percentage points of GDP higher.
A few miles up the river, Katherine Kersten writes in her Star Tribune column about a new book that's probably getting lots of attention on Fox News, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism. Kersten describes its writer, Stanley Kurtz, as if he were an impartial academic (gee, he has a Ph.D. from Harvard!) who had an open mind going into the project, never mentioning the fact that Kurtz is part of the Hudson Institute and the Hoover Institution, two conservative think tanks.

I haven't read the book, obviously, since I just heard of it today, but Kersten's column is full of quoted terms such a "hard Marxist," followed by her own use of heavily connoted words like "cronies" to describe Obama's advisers. She then goes on to write one of the most astounding statements I've ever seen, even from her:
We see [Saul] Alinsky's ghost in Obama's tactical ruthlessness, and his ferocious, unprecedented demonization of opponents.
Obama Photoshopped to look like the devil with the caption It wasn't Obama who wrote the book on demonizationUnprecedented demonization of opponents!? Obama, who can't even put on a good fight against the Party of No? And Kersten pretends to think he tops the demonization work of Republican operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove? Not to mention the literal demonization seen in the many images of Obama as the Joker, the devil, and Death.

If Kersten really wanted to know if Obama is a socialist, she wouldn't have to rely on a book like Kurtz's. She could just ask people who are socialists if they feel like Obama is carrying out their agenda. The answer would be a big red no.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bars, Pies and Charts that Mislead

David Steinlicht rethinks the New York Times chart on recent campaign spending, leading to clarification and even (bless me) insight.

NYT bar chart overlaid with revised pie chart
As an unrelated aside: Isn't red a terrible color to use in graphics? When you tint it using a half-tone screen, it turns to pink. I wonder what the Red States think of that?

Friday, October 22, 2010

J.R.R. Tolkien Was Father Christmas

I'm in Iowa City (possibly more on that later), but the biggest find of the day started at the Iowa City Public Library. It's a lovely, brand-new-looking building, which has been in use for six years.

Miniature house made out of stacked books, with books for shingles on the roof
My favorite part of any library is the children's room. The first thing I saw there was this house built of books. Kids probably love it, although it made me a bit sad, even knowing these copies would have been discarded because of wear. (I saw at least two Newbery-winners in the walls.)

Cover of The Father Christmas LettersI wasn't looking for anything in particular as I walked among the shelves. Then I stumbled upon a book I'd never heard of. Published in 1976, the thin volume contains the text and illustrations of all the letters J.R.R. Tolkien (aka Father Christmas) sent to his children between 1920 and the early 1940s.

As the book says, "Sometimes the envelopes, dusted with snow and bearing Polar postage stamps, were found in the house on the morning after his visit; sometimes the postman brought them; and letters that the children wrote themselves vanished from the fireplace when no one was about."

Ornately lettered address to the Tolkien Family
In the letters, Father Christmas's dramatic foil is the North Polar Bear, shown here after falling down the stairs with an armload of packages (1928)...

Watercolor illustration of a polar bear at the bottom of a long staircase, Father Christmas at the top looking down at him
...or here causing a flood onto the gifts, after falling asleep in the bathtub with both taps open (1936):

Sectioned illustration of polar bear in an overflowing bathtub, Father Christmas one floor below outraged as water pours out of the ceiling onto the gifts
Father Christmas's envelopes included hand-painted stamps and often had fanciful endorsements:

Letter endorsement: By gnome-carrier, Immediate haste!
I especially liked the 1934 illustration:

Illustation of a Christmas tree with Father Christmas, polar bear and others dancing around it
The final letter, from the early 1940s, says:

I am so glad you did not forget to write to me again this year. The number of children who keep up with me seems to be getting smaller. I expect it is because of this horrible war, and that when it is over things will improve again, and I shall be as busy as ever.
Then, after a charming story about the North Polar Bear's misadventures, Father Christmas continues:
Well, that will give you some idea of events and you will understand why I have not had time to draw a picture this year -- rather a pity, because there have been such exciting things to draw -- and why I have not been able to collect the usual things for you, or even the very few that you asked for...

I suppose after this year you will not be hanging your stocking any more. I shall have to say 'goodbye', more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the names of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children...
Tolkien's youngest daughter was in her early teens by this time, and the tradition ended. He had already written and published The Hobbit, but had not yet begun the Lord of the Rings.

After taking these photos, I reluctantly put the book back on the shelf, and we left the library. I thought I'd never see it again.

A few hours later, though, I was wandering through a used bookstore and what did I find on the shelf but another copy of the The Father Christmas Letters. For $7.00!

Thank you, Iowa City!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

More from the File

Here's what caught my eye yesterday... there was a lot of good (although sometimes depressing!) writing:

Why don't Americans get angry about this type of thing as much as we should? Why do some of us seem to think people like this are entitled to "their" money?

One of my heroes, Dan Gillmor, on how anonymous cowards are buying the 2010 election.

ProPublica now has a place where you can look up your doctors to see if they are taking payola from the pharmaceutical industry.

A rigorous critique of the documentary Waiting for Superman by an authentic education expert who has worked for both Republican and Democrat administrations. The movie's problems? Oversimplified, omitting and sometimes just plain wrong.

The NPR ombudsman explains the network's policy on whether to use "troop" and "troops" when talking about individual soldiers, Marines or sailors. A voice of sanity, unlike the Star Tribune.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

At Home with Bill Bryson

Cover of At Home by Bill BrysonI already knew Bill Bryson's recent book At Home sounded intriguing, though I hadn't thought much about it. He's one of those writers I've never read, but who provide a constant faint reminder, like someone standing on the edge of your peripheral vision with a sign that says "Read Me."

Bryson was on MPR's Midmorning show today discussing the book, so now he's standing right in front of me, jumping up and down with the Read Me sign painted over with red letters.

In writing the book, which was inspired by the 160-year-old rectory where he lives with his family in England, Bryson researched the history of home life and came up with many intriguing facts. Here are a few:

  • Medieval and Renaissance-era Europeans didn't wash their bodies very often. I already knew this, but I didn't know there are multiple recorded instances of native New Worlders exclaiming how much the Europeans stank.
  • Lighting in the home was incredibly bad until gas lights became common in the latter half of the 19th century. Again, this was not news. But Bryson writes about what it's like to actually read by candlelight (both dim and annoyingly flickery). He pointed out that the amount of light cast when we open our refrigerator doors is more than an average middle class family would have shared in the evening. And that the furniture in houses was usually left pushed up against the walls so that no one would run into it when crossing rooms in the dark.
  • While there is lots of information on food and eating available to historians, there's almost none on what people used for toilet paper.
  • Even lower-middle-class English people would have had at least one servant. Paraphrasing, Bryson said that servants were the equivalent of home appliances. Again, not really news to me, having read a lot and watched the 1900 House, but I didn't have the detail. Churchill's estate (which is not anywhere near the largest) would have had a hundred servants inside the house and up to several hundred in the stables and gardens. The servants got up before the master's family and went to bed after them, and their work hours and conditions were completely unregulated. The only break they got was that the master would split his time between the country house and the London house, so the servants had it easier when the family was not in residence. Despite all this, working as a servant was cushy work compared to factory work. (Or coal mining, I'd imagine.)
All that in just a few minutes of listening between pledge drive pitches!

All of Bryson's other books sound interesting, but the one that I'd like to read after At Home is the Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right.