Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gary Schwitzer on MPR

Gary SchwitzerGary Schwitzer, creator of the great site, was on MPR's Midday program yesterday. I missed the middle of the show, but came back in time to get the idea he had criticized Katie Couric for her first-person colonoscopy report a few years ago.

Not because she did a bad job of representing the process -- he acknowledged it had a value in that sense -- but because she had no reason to get a colonoscopy at the age she was then, and thus misinformed the public about the need for the test. We already have people getting MRIs and CTs they don't need; no need to have legions of younger boomers and Gen Xers demanding colonoscopies early. Even though her husband had died of colon cancer at age 42, that had no bearing on her own health, or the recommendations on when people in general should be screened.

Schwitzer's critique of Couric ties into our tendency to think all screening is good, when actually that's not supported by the evidence. As with the brouhaha about mammogram recommendations, it's important to balance the number of people "saved" by screening against the number harmed by unnecessary, invasive procedures that result from false positives. That's what the age-50 recommendation for colonoscopies (and mammograms) is meant to accomplish.

Schwitzer spent more of his time on the show explaining the criteria his site uses to evaluate medical reporting, and noting that 70 percent of the coverage fails to meet even the first three:

  • What's the total cost?
  • How often do benefits occur?
  • How often do harms occur?
  • How strong is the evidence?
  • Is this condition exaggerated?
  • Are there alternative options?
  • Is this really a new approach?
  • Is it available to me?
  • Who's promoting this?
  • Do they have a conflict of interest?
Schwitzer said: "When you take those three things, if you're failing seven times out of 10 on costs, harms and benefits, you're giving the American public a kid in a candy store view of U.S. health care, where you make everything look terrific, risk-free, and without a price tag. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Well worth a listen, and his site is one to check frequently.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Prisoners of Spenda

A Thursday Star Tribune story described proposed cuts to the state prison system budget. The accompanying number box told us that Minnesota is ranked 49th for both its incarceration rate and the amount of money it spends on prisons. The box also compared the number incarcerated in Minnesota vs. Wisconsin (9,650 vs. 22,212) and the amounts spent by the two states ($465 million vs. $1.279 billion). For those keeping score, Minnesota has 57% fewer prisoners, but a 64% lower budget.

(In case you were thinking Wisconsin has a correspondingly higher overall population, you were wrong. Wisconsin has only about 400,000 more residents, 5,686,986 vs. 5,303,925.)

That's the good news. The bad new is that Minnesota's prison population rose 39 percent between 2002 and 2010, while crime rates were down.

On the state level, the corrections budget seems to me metaphorically similar to the national defense budget -- unassailable because it "keeps us safe." But I guess not. Tony Cornish, the Republican chair of the House Public Safety Committee has proposed a $26 million cut to the budget (and this after $109 million in cuts that have happened over the past eight years).

Cornish has some interesting ideas about ways to make that work: He wants low-level offenders (drug dealers, thieves, burglars) to be eligible for early release into community corrections programs and for the state to release elderly inmates to keep medical costs down.

Reasonable sounding, even to me. But the flip side of those proposals is that low-level offenders won't get any help finding a job, either before they're released (through vocational programs) or afterward (through placement) since that money is also cut, so it seems pretty likely they'll soon reoffend and victimize someone else along the way. And the same budget would eliminate drug treatment for inmates. That sounds cost-effective.

But what about the idea of releasing the sick, elderly inmates to nursing homes?

All that does is move that cost burden to someone else's budget (Medicaid?); plus, released offenders are difficult to place, as the story says, "because families of other residents fear their relatives would be endangered."

Even with all that, I couldn't help dividing Minnesota's corrections budget by the number of prisoners to find out that we currently spend $48,187 per inmate per year. Like many another, I find it irresistible to compare that to our per-pupil K-12 spending of around $10,000. Just a guess, but maybe it would work best to keep as many people as possible from going into the prisons in the first place.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jeffy Meets Zippy

Cleaning out your basement has its rewards, such as finding this 1995 Family Circus cartoon.

Family Circus cartoon of Jeffy sleeping and having dreams of Zippy the Pinhead

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bring Me the Head of Rin-Tin-Tin

Note to self: Stop reading the Homes section of the Sunday Star Tribune.

You'd think it would be possible for them to come up with content about something as important as home is to all of us that didn't cause gagging, but apparently not. If it's not a floor plan no one would even consider building these days, for a five-bedroom, exurban home with game room, media room and a "lanai" balcony, it's a photo exhibit of a $2 million mansion for sale.

Case in point, the April 24 edition. It told of a historic house for sale in South Minneapolis, which went from single-wealthy-family home to nursing home to vacant, until it was bought in the late 1970s by a small business owner who has lovingly restored it as a home for his company. So far so good. The house is up for sale now because the market has changed and the company has shrunk. It was nice to see that the house has been preserved.

Newspaper photo of an older man among taxidermied antelopes and lions
But it wasn't possible to show photos of the house without also showing the over 200 dead animals on display, evidence of the owner's days as a big-game hunter.

View of a large ornate sunroom with dozens of dead animals standing on the floor and mounted on the walls
Animal heads on walls. Everywhere.

So I think I can be excused for the fact that, a few minutes later as I picked up the Travel section, I misinterpreted this photo:

Malamutes and huskies with their heads sticking out of holes in a wall, looking as if they were taxidermied
I wonder if anyone else thought the same thing?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's Just a Gut Feeling

Two pieces of science news about.... well, guts last week that shook me up.

First, this bit on Boing Boing by my hero Maggie Koerth-Baker:

Do Bacteria Control Your Brain?

A new study [reported in Scientific American] has found evidence suggesting that you are not what you eat, so much as you are what's living in your gut. In mice, at least, the presence of normal gut bacteria has a significant impact on how an individual mouse behaves, and how its brain develops.
From the Scientific American article:
The scientists raised mice lacking normal gut microflora, then compared their behavior, brain chemistry and brain development to mice having normal gut bacteria. The microbe-free animals were more active and, in specific behavioral tests, were less anxious than microbe-colonized mice. In one test of anxiety, animals were given the choice of staying in the relative safety of a dark box, or of venturing into a lighted box. Bacteria-free animals spent significantly more time in the light box than their bacterially colonized littermates. Similarly, in another test of anxiety, animals were given the choice of venturing out on an elevated and unprotected bar to explore their environment, or remain in the relative safety of a similar bar protected by enclosing walls. Once again, the microbe-free animals proved themselves bolder than their colonized kin.
Adding bacteria to the guts of adult mice had no effect on their behavior, but if the intervention happened while the mouse was immature, they then exhibited normal mouse behavior. "This suggests that there is a critical period in the development of the brain when the bacteria are influential." The article then describes what genes and neurotransmitters appeared to have been affected.

Mix that with this piece from the New York Times, which tells of the recent discovery of "enterotypes" -- kind of like how human blood can be classified into types, but instead, a way of stratifying our gut bacteria ecosystems. After studying the flora of 400 people from a range of countries (and ages, health conditions, weights and genders), scientists have found that there are three enterotypes, each with different bacteria dominant.

This discovery is so new that no one knows what to do with it. Exploration needs to be extended to much larger populations, and to reach people who don't eat a Western or Japanese diet, for instance. Even so, I expect some astounding medical work to come out of it. And combined with the mouse study, it makes me wonder how long it will be before someone does a study correlating personality traits (like the big five) with the enterotypes.

And I also absorbed this astounding fact from the Times article: There are 10 trillion human cells in each of us -- but there are 100 trillion microbes. According to the Scientific American article, there are 30,000 human genes in each of us, but more than 3 million bacterial genes per person. So depending on which of those facts you emphasize, we're each only 10 percent human or 1 percent human.

Which makes me feel just a bit more complacent about our genes being 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal.

Monday, April 25, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Barbara Burchill of Winona, Minnesota, had a letter in the Star Tribune on April 23 that both moved and disturbed me. It wasn't the usual partisan stuff, but instead a personal story we all should know about because it could happen to any of us.

Asked for jarring data during a time of grief

In a recent letter, the writers stated that they "have never heard a family say they were sorry their loved one was a [organ] donor."I'm not sorry my husband was a donor, but I'm not happy about it, either.

My husband died very suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 59. When the coroner asked me if I wanted to donate any of my husband's organs, I wasn't in any shape to make important decisions or to process information. Still, I agreed.

Later that evening, I spent close to an hour on the phone with the organ donation agency and answered detailed questions about my husband's family, travel and sexual history. I was reeling from the shock of his death, and there were phone calls I needed to make.

Instead, I had to try to remember all the countries he'd visited and when he'd been there. I was also asked to consider the possibility of any extramarital affairs he might have had.

Certainly, it's good to know that people may have been helped by my husband's corneas and/or skin tissue, and I understand the need for the information I had to provide. But what was already the worst night of my life was made even more horrific by that phone call.

So if you want to be an organ donor, make sure your family has easy access to a written list of all the traveling you've ever done and all the sex partners you've ever had. And if you don't want to do that, then let them know that they can decide about donating your organs.

It may not cost anything (unless the agency refuses to reimburse the funeral home for any extra "repair" work that needs to be done), but it will take a toll.
I had no idea organ banks needed to collect this type of information. As soon as I read Barbara's letter, I recognized why the banks would need that type of detail, but I think this is an example where the insider point of view from the organ bank and the layperson point of view are completely out of touch with each other.

There has to be a better way for organ banks to get the minimum information they need without afflicting grieving relatives. How many organs are rejected because the information is not available, I wonder? Could you provide this type of detail for your closest family members?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Valley Creek Church: Easter Egg on Face

I've heard the expression "Christ on a Harley," but what about "Christ in a chopper"?

Yesterday, a local, would-be mega-church ran an Easter egg hunt with 10,000 plastic eggs, some of which were dropped out of a helicopter. Each egg held a tiny bit of toy junk, or if you were extra lucky, a coupon for one of the grand prizes -- an iPad, a Wii, an American Girl doll. All available to the first 1,000 children, limit 10 eggs per customer (um, child).

What part of Christianity does all of that fit within? Oh wait, it fits with the part about getting publicity.

Black helicopter with people inside dropping colorful plastic eggs into the air below
I read about the egg drop a week or two ago in the Pioneer Press. At the time I was confounded by the waste of resources and absurdity of it (all that plastic and 'copter fuel in the name of the Prince of Peace), but it got buried in the pile of possible blog topics and I didn't write anything.

Well, it sounds like it turned out even worse than I thought it would, if the comments on the Pioneer Press site are to be believed. All of the advance publicity led to a substantial overflow crowd of disappointed parents and kids who couldn't participate. One of the parents who did get in had this to say:

Parents were told to stay off the field unless it was in the age group of 0-3 years old. Well needless to say as soon as the eggs dropped and it was time for the kids to get to scampering parents totally ruined it by disobeying the rules running out and trampling kids scooping up eggs for their kids. totally took away any fun for the youngsters. plus there was only a 10 egg limit per child. and i can't even count how many kids left the field crying because they didn't even get 1 freaking egg!! parents were even more upset by this. they were also told not to open the eggs on the field and these deehorn parents were ripping them open and tossing them when they didn't find a prize ticket.... not to mention how many kids got lost due to the total chaos and disorganization including one kid who has down syndrome
Valley Creek Church had posted the rules for the hunt on its site, including the 1,000-child limit, the prohibition of adult help for kids 4 and up, and the 10-egg limit. They also said, "Guests are invited to arrive as early as 10:00 am for the festivities. Fun music and Easter Bunny sightings will help keep the children entertained as they wait in joy-filled anticipation for the helicopter to arrive."

The first commenter on the PiPress page wrote that he arrived at 10 a.m. and had to park a half-hour down the road because so many people had gotten there earlier. The "fun music" meant to keep everyone occupied before the egg hunt was, not surprisingly, Christian rock.

Another commenter wrote: "I don't think the church had any idea of the amount of people that the event would draw and were clearly overwhelmed by the turnout. Wonder why this article
paints a such a rosy picture of the egg drop and does not mention what a fiasco it was. I felt all the disappointed children that were turned away."

Which is a good question for the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune about their coverage, which sticks to the simplistic "Ooh, look colorful eggs and kids in rubber boots!" trope.

Children running into a field of green grass to grab eggs while a crowd looks on
I have a lot of sympathy for any organization that tries to run an event that generates a huge response from the public, but in this case, the church seems to have wanted to have their eggs and eat them too -- to get as much coverage as possible but not truly prepare for the resulting crowds.

And, of course, I find the scale and intended spectacle of the whole event bizarre and distasteful. As one commenter on the PiPress site said, "Stay home and be simple -- kids have just as much fun finding eggs in the house or their yard!"

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Whose Entitlement?

Empty highway with sign Ask what you can do for your country; full exit ramp labeled ASK NOT
Ed Lotterman strikes again with his April 21 column on solving the "entitlement problem."

His solution? Last in first out -- which would require dropping the Medicare Part D drug coverage added in 2003 and the Medicare Advantage coverage of the 1990s. These two cuts would reduce deficits by $750 billion over the 10-year period discussed in Paul Ryan's plan.

I'll let him explain his logic:

If you recoil from these suggestions, but are one of the people who have been calling for lower taxes, lower deficits and smaller government, my counsel is simple: Shut up! Abolishing these two entitlements is the most concrete step the nation could take to give you exactly what you have been asking for.

Harsh words? Yes, but there has been so much demagoguery, so much willful fostering of self-serving misinformation around fiscal issues that we are not going to solve these problems without someone's feelings getting hurt.

People have to face realities. But based on the number of emails I get from people who believe that we could balance the budget by cutting foreign aid (0.6 percent of federal outlays) or curbing federal employee compensation (all civilian personnel costs come to less than 5 percent of outlays), it is clear that self-delusion still is rampant.
He continues later in the essay:
Many people did just fine without the [Part D drug] benefit. Indeed, studies showed that paying drug bills posed serious problems for less than 15 percent of Medicare beneficiaries. But most of the rest naturally have been glad to slurp free gravy offered to them....

It is true that, in the past three years, outlays for older programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps) and unemployment compensation also have risen sharply. But increased spending for SNAP stems from more people meeting existing criteria due to the sour economy, not from any major expansion of benefits. If unemployment drops, outlays on SNAP will return to more usual levels.

The same is true for unemployment compensation. New claims will fall if the economy recovers. The initial 26 weeks of coverage is statutory. Anything beyond that, including the extensions of up to 99 weeks of coverage in force at times during the past three years, depends on congressional action. If Congress does nothing, outlays will drop.

So if you are looking for new, big entitlement programs enacted because a special interest group had the power to wrest money for itself from the rest of society, you are talking about Part D Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans....

Other big welfare programs like Medicaid, food stamps or Supplemental Security Income, and even minor ones like the Women, Infants and Children program are means-tested. Unless your income and net worth fall below specified amounts, you don't get the benefit. Medicare Part D and Advantage plans are not tied to need. Warren Buffett or George Soros is as eligible as some widow living on an $800-a-month Social Security check.

This is a litmus test. If you are all for curtailing entitlements, ending deficit spending and cutting taxes, but are unwilling to contemplate ending these two programs, then you are either very poorly educated about fiscal realities or hypocritical about defending your own benefits at the expense of the general good. [emphasis added]
Way to kick some cognitive dissonance butt, Ed!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Are We the Same Species?

Mass transit activists and just regular people who ride the bus and light rail in the Twin Cities met with our governor and some members of the legislature yesterday. They tried to get across what will happen if the legislature is successful in cutting transit as it wishes.

We're talking halving the number of routes available or doubling the fares. And this in a system that already has buses on the busiest routes at 20 minute intervals and fares at $2.25 in rush hour ($1.75 off-peak).

And how do you think Michael Beard, the Republican chair of the House Transportation Committee, responded to all of the evidence of effect provided by real people?

According to MinnPost: "It was actually discouraging," Beard said, "to see how many people are dependent on the government to move them around."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Discover Covers Cooking, Genes and Fracking

The May issue of Discover magazine reveals one insight after another.

The cover story, about the latest findings on our evolutionary ancestors, filled me in on our relatives. DNA analysis has revealed that European and Asian people's genes are between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal, and that people from Papua New Guinea and nearby areas are up to 5 percent "Denisovan," another competing species of Homo that has only recently been identified. I find it amusing that it's African-descended people who don't share the Neanderthal genes, when typical white racists believe that whites are pure and other races are "mongrels."

The article Add a Pinch of Science tells the story of the 40-pound cookbook Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myrhvold, and particularly shares some of its stunning photos, which often feature pans and food cut in half to reveal what's happening during the cooking process. I especially liked the photo of an orange being zested, with the essential oil spray causing a lit match to spew flame. And I learned the most about baking from a photo caption describing how a turkey roasts: "People focus too much attention on how the meat heats, even though how it dries in the oven is at least as important. What actually controls the baking of food in an oven is not the temperature you set but the humidity created by water evaporating from the food. A drier bird cooks faster, so start by using a rack to keep it out of its own juices, and base the bird with oil. This reduces the rate of water evaporation, raises the surface temperature of the meat, and consequentially speeds up cooking."

Fracking Nation gave the best summary I've seen of the contentious natural gas mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. It focused largely on the Marcellus Shale, which lies beneath my hometown in upstate New York and other nearby states. This is the same area that, just today, I heard has been the site of a big spill of the toxic chemicals used in the "hydraulic" part of the equation. Fracking has the following problems:

  • It uses an amazing amount of water (2 to 10 million gallons per well)
  • The water, after use, is contaminated with toxic waste, representing a disposal problem (even when there isn't a spill)
  • The solids it leaves behind are radioactive
  • It may cause earthquakes
  • It's not the carbon footprint panacea everyone thought it was (a recent Cornell University study found that natural gas from fracking results in more greenhouse gas output than coal)
The Barnett Shale in Texas has been the site of fracking since the early 2000s, with over 14,000 wells in the area. According to author Linda Marsa, "Drilling operations have turned some of Texas's most affluent communities into industrial wastelands."

One positive development is noted at the end of the article: Fracking with gelatinized LPG gas instead of water is being tested in Texas. That may sound even worse, but what it means is that the LPG gas can be completely recovered and reused for the next well. No water is needed, and there's no contaminated water to store afterward. From what I can see, though, it doesn't help with the other drawbacks (radioactivity, earthquakes and total carbon output).

And here's one holdover article from the March issue of Discover: A North Carolina State University chemical engineer is working to create solar cells that operate like plant leaves. The cells are flexible and nontoxic, without the cadmium and other materials used in typical cells. They can be used to cover an irregular surface and can even be folded. The hangup so far: the cell is currently vastly less efficient than the best rigid, toxic ones.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


From the sideways mind of Dan Piraro's Bizarro:

Cartoon of 2 guys talking, one says If you could have any superpower, what would it be? The other guy says France
I never saw it coming.

To add to the punch in the punchline: France spends the most on social spending for its people among all the developed countries. (The U.S. is 25th out of 34; here's a brief bit of writing that questions why we spend about the same percent of GDP as Canada and Australia but get less for it.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

From the Annals of Bad Retail Ideas

Store window with mannequins in bras and underpants, window labeled Bra Friends Forever
Because we all have a close, personal relationship with our bras.

Seen in Roseville, Minnesota.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I Am a Graduate of the Public Library

A few weeks back, Peter Sieruta at Collecting Children's Books wrote that children's authors Vera and Bill Cleaver considered themselves to be graduates of the public library.

Bumper sticker: Make your next stop the library
I am a graduate of the public library as well, even though I have degrees from other institutions. The library was my first.

My mother took us to our small-town library frequently when we were young. It's a charming, yellow-brick, red-tile-roofed building with dark-stained pillars between the bookcases and old windows whose glass is irregular and rippled. A twisting staircase leads to the asbestos-tiled children's room in the cool basement. This is the place where I found Dr. Seuss and later juvenile novels that haunt my thoughts to this day.

When we got to be teenagers, my mom paid for borrowing privileges at the libraries of two larger towns about 20 miles away. They had more selection, and my sisters and I took advantage of them both. (My mother did too!)

I took out books about house design, as well as lots of fiction. This is where I found M.E. Kerr, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Ursula LeGuin, and so many other authors I love to this day. After reading LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy, I was browsing through the juvenile novels one day and saw beside the trilogy a new book by LeGuin called The Dispossessed. Misshelved from the adult section it may have been, but it soon became one of my all-time favorite books.

Thanks to Peter for making me think about this. Are you a graduate of your public library?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Where Did My Taxes Go?

I wish every voter would look at the website before tossing out opinions about NPR, Planned Parenthood or any other budget-related topic. It's a neat interactive pie chart: You plug in the amount you made in 2010, and it shows how the money got used.

Colorful pie chart showing federal spending breakdown
Tiny budgetary items like NPR or Planned Parenthood don't show up in it, I admit, but that's only because they're so small.

When you put your mouse over any wedge, it tells you the dollar amount and percentage. If you click, it gives you detail on how that portion broke down, explaining what goes into each.

For instance, I had no idea what "Income Security" meant -- and it was one of the largest parts. Well, here's the breakdown of how the 16 percent of budget called Income Security is spent:

  • 34 percent: unemployment
  • 16 percent: retirement funds for civil servants and military
  • 15 percent: what most people think of as "welfare" in some sense -- food stamps at 9 percent make up most of it, with about 2 percent each to TANF (what used to be called AFDC), rental assistance, and child nutrition (school lunches and breakfasts, and summer food programs)
  • 6 percent: SSI, direct payments to adults with disabilities who cannot work
  • 15 percent: Tax credits to low-wage workers, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, child credit, first-time homebuyers, and other credits you may have just been asked about on your tax forms
  • 13 percent to a variety of smaller programs
Because my mind was on this tool even as I was doing my own tax forms, I couldn't help reading an op-ed in today's Pioneer Press by someone from the Heritage Foundation on the same exact topic. Brian Riedl explains where Federal spending per household goes, but he divides his numbers up differently and even includes some contradictory ones.

Riedl combines Medicare and Social Security into a single 32 percent chunk, I suspect because he didn't want Defense to be the largest single item, as it is in the charts. Even so, his Defense number is higher: 20 percent of the total. His listing of interest on the federal debt is only a bit over 5 percent -- what's up with that big decrease? And somehow, his anti-poverty programs (which include all of the income support items outlined above) are said to account for 17 percent of the total instead of 16, even though he lists unemployment benefits separately at over 3 percent.

How is it possible that these two analyses are so different? I'm not sure, but on the whole, I think I'll take the online tool over Riedl's groupings because its methods are much more transparent and a lot more detail is available.

By the way, despite public misconceptions that NPR (or actually the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which also supports public television) gets as much as 5 percent of the budget, it's actually .01 of 1 percent ($420 million). Planned Parenthood gets even less ($360 million). Each uses the money to support a network of stations or clinics across the country. Ironically, those dollar amounts are very similar to moneys allocated for several Defense line items that even the Defense Department doesn't want, but which Congress has passed anyway.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Can of Empty Carbohydrates

Emergency Food Network dropoff can full of macaroni and cheese boxes
March was Food Shelf week in the Twin Cities. As I've written before, if you want to support your food shelf or food bank, it really is best to give them money because they can get more for it than you can. And they can buy produce or meat -- things you can't just drop off whenever.

But if you want to donate food.... please, no more macaroni and cheese. Everyone thinks it's popular with kids, and it may be, but empty carbs are not what people need.

This entire drop-off can I saw recently appears to be full of (mostly Kraft) macaroni and cheese. Even that white bag on top is full of blue boxes.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Firing a Qur'an in a Crowded Theater

Green Koran with gold foil stamped coverA letter writer in the April 5 Star Tribune wrote that burning a Qur'an is not protected speech, but should, instead, be considered the same type of act as falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.

Ironically, the case where Oliver Wendell Holmes used the "fire" analogy was Schenck v. United States, 1919, where the government prosecuted an anti-draft leafletter during World War I. Holmes and the Court found that the leaflets presented a "clear and present danger" to the government's war effort.

From the Wikipedia:

The First Amendment holding in Schenck was later overturned by Brandenburg v. Ohio, which limited the scope of banned speech to that which would be directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action (e.g. a riot).
The Wikipedia also reminded me that:
In A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn suggested that Schenck's statements were more akin to a person standing outside a burning theater and shouting "Fire!" in order to warn people not to go inside. In other words Europe was the theater, and World War I was the fire, thus warning the American population to not become involved.
Since the Brandenburg decision, the standard has been imminent lawless action as caused by the speech or act.

So what about Qur'an burning? Is it any different from cross-burning, Bible-burning, or flag-burning?

In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that cross-burning is protected speech unless its purpose is proven to be intimidation of the intended viewer. I assume that by intimidation they meant the implied threat of personal violence and property damage that has historically accompanied cross-burning. I don't know how hard it is to prove that type of intention beyond a reasonable doubt; I wonder if any cases have come forward since 2003?

Flag-burning, to me, clearly should be protected... no matter which flag it is, or where it happens. It's not about intimidation at all. The intent of flag-burning could be to insult the society whose flag it is, but it also can easily be meant to express wordless rage at that society. It shouldn't be done lightly, in my opinion, because it brings such a visceral response (and extravagantly negative media coverage). I would never burn a flag, U.S. or otherwise, but I think it clearly can be an expression of speech.

The intent of burning a Qur'an, it seems to me, is not so much intimidation or wordless rage, as it is extreme insult, similar to spitting on the book or grinding it into the dirt. But because flame is the medium, it also destroys it, the ultimate insult. Burning a Bible or any other holy book would be very similar. (And since just about all books are holy to me, that rubric goes a long way.)

But what brings us to the Holmes quote about theaters, or more accurately the imminent lawless action standard, is the reaction to the burning. Is the person who burns responsible for knowing what the reaction to his act is likely to be? A person who falsely shouts fire in a crowded theater can reasonably be expected to know that a stampede will occur.

Would Muslim and Christian riots be the same? What if the riot isn't in the U.S.? Justice Stephen Breyer was quoted as ruminating on this question: "What is a crowded theater today?", implying that, in the age of the Internet, the whole world is the theater.

Science blogger Ed Brayton responded to Breyer's pondering like this:
In the theater hypothetical, it is people acting out of fear that leads to a potentially deadly result; in a situation where someone might react violently to someone burning a Quran, those people are acting for the specific purpose of denying someone their right to express an idea they don't like. In the latter case, it is the job of the government to protect the speaker against a violent response to the expression of their views, not to enforce the anti-speech views of the mob reacting to them.
The case becomes clearer for me if the cause of the riot is something like drawing a picture of someone else's god, whether disrespectfully rendered or not. I'm not prepared to give up that right, even if it does cause a riot.

But why does the fact that burning is involved seem significant to me? The key is the nature of the two acts: drawing is at least minimally creative, bringing a new idea to the exchange of thoughts, while burning can only be destructive. That seems important.

On the other hand, I can see that an unintended consequence of banning the burning of holy books, out of fear of violent reactions, will likely result in more frequent violent reactions to every perceived affront, as a way to restrict speech all the more. And generally, such a ban seems counter to the part of the Supreme Court's ruling in Schenk that the banned act must be directed to the illegal outcome -- in other words, that urging others to illegality was the intent of the burner. Brayton's point that it's the burner who needs to be protected, not the book, resonates with me as well.

Hmm. It's something to be decided by people who are smarter than me, that's for sure.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands

Cover of Atlas of Remote Islands, light blue with a black tape bindingJudith Schalansky's thin volume Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will is an anomaly -- a tiny coffee table book, a carefully executed sketch, a design book about ideas and places.

From the opening essay, where she shares her childhood in East Germany and her fascination with the atlases that represented places she and her parents would never be allowed to visit, to each beautifully rendered map and mini-essay, the book is both light and heavy to read.

After the essay, each two-page spread gives the name and location of an island, what country claims it, how many inhabitants (if any), its size and distance from the nearest land, along with a full-page map and facing text.

The most overwhelming entries, for me, included:

Tromelin (east of Madagascar) -- In 1760, an East India Company ship landed on Madagascar to restock and while there, illegally stole 60 people to sell as slaves. After leaving Madagascar, a storm drove the ship off course and it wrecked on a tiny island (2 km long and 800 meters wide) 430 km to the east. The French sailors built a boat out of the ship wreckage and all of them sailed off, promising to send help (which they did not). Some of those left behind made a raft and sailed off, never to be seen again. 15 years after the wreck, seven women and a teenage boy who was a baby at the start were found by another French ship and brought to Mauritius. They had kept a fire burning then entire time as a signal. The island is named after the captain of the French rescue ship.

Tikopia (east of Indonesia, and part of the Solomon Islands) has been inhabited for thousands of years, but at less than five square kilometers, it can only support 1,200 people who grow yams, bananas and taro, and fish in a brackish lake. I couldn't help seeing the island's people and their survival as a metaphor for our situation here on Earth:

When a cyclone or drought destroys the crops, many islanders opt for a swift death. Unmarried women hang themselves or swim out into the open sea, and many men go out to sea with their sons in a canoe, never to return.

Every year, the chiefs of the four clans preach the ideal of zero population growth. All the children in each family must be able to live from the land it owns, so only eldest sons can start families. The younger sons stay single and are careful not to produce any children. Feeling obliged to hinder conception, the men practise coitus interruptus, and if this does not work, the women press hot stones to their pregnant bellies.

A couple stop having children when the eldest son is old enough to marry. This is when the man will ask his wife, Whose child is this, for whom I must fetch food from the field? He decides whether the baby lives. The plantations are small. Let us kill the child, for if it lives, it will have no garden. The newborn is laid on its face to suffocate. There are no funerals for these children; they have not participated in life on Tikopia.
A patriarchally organized solution, yes, but it makes me think of how the societies detailed in Jared Diamond's book Collapse didn't deal with the reality of their situations. I wonder how contraception has affected these traditions on Tikopia. According to the Wikipedia, it is now common for young men to leave the island for work, which has eased the population pressure.

One final thought from Judith Schalansky:
Those who discovered the islands became famous, as if their achievements related to an act of creation, as if they had not merely found new worlds but actually invented them. Naming geographical features plays an important role in this, as if a place is only brought into existence once it has a name (page 20).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

National Divergency

What if you surveyed people in countries around the world to ask for agreement or disagreement to this statement?

The free market system and free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world.
Not surprisingly, the number of U.S. respondents who agree is high, but it has dropped over the last eight years, and particularly, it fell precipitously in just the last year from about 74 to 59 percent. (Women and people making under $20,000 disagreed by even larger percentages.)

Part of a graph showing data

I had the most fun looking for the extremes in the numbers (be sure to go to the full report to see the whole graph):
  • Most sure the free market is best: Brazil, Germany, then China (with Brazlians feeling the most strongly about it)
  • Most sure it's not best: France, Turkey, then Japan (with the French feeling the most strongly about it)
  • "Communist" China has the lowest combined disagree score (14% somewhat and 4% strongly), but their agree score wasn't quite as high as the one for Brazil or Germany.
  • The Japanese don't feel very strongly either way (they have the lowest numbers for strongly agree and second lowest for disagree).
  • The Japanese showed the most conformity to the questionnaire by selecting one of the four agree/disagree options, with only 1 percent volunteering that the answer depends, that none of the choices was the answer or that the respondent didn't know; Nigerians and Mexicans were next most likely to follow the questioner's lead with only 3 percent falling into the unaligned middle.
  • Chileans were most likely to go off-script and reject the agree/disagree dichotomy (23 percent), followed by the UK with 19 percent.
The low number of disagreeing Chinese may be skewed by the fact that the survey was done by telephone. I wonder what percent of rural farmers and the poorest factory workers have a phone vs. the upwardly mobile populace?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another Minute of Micro-Fame and Source Amnesia

Sunday afternoon, I saw this retweet by Andrew Kroll of Mother Jones, whom I started following during the Wisconsin Capitol protests:

Twitter retweet: Remember when Planned Parenthood & NPR crashed the market, wiped out half our 401Ks and took TARP money? Me neither.
Here's the original tweet:

Joel Housman tweet: Remember when Planned Parenthood & NPR crashed the market, wiped out half our 401Ks and took TARP money? Me neither.
I went to see who this @joelhousman guy was, check out some of his tweets, and decided to follow him and see what he had to say. He's a web developer in the D.C. area whose words tend to cover either politics or his work.

Soon after, I saw this tweet from Housman:

Housman tweet: Pro tip: Political jokes about NPR and Planned Parenthood will get you LOTS of retoots and favorites.
Then, just about 4 hours after his original tweet:

Housman tweet: 642 favorites & retweets so far. Okay, folks - you can stop now.

And a link to this graphic of his Twitter stats:

Twitter stats graphic showing favorites, retweets, etc.
Later that night, I saw this remixed tweet from someone completely unconnected to Housman in my Twitterverse -- one of the teachers from Diane Ravitch's network:

Dave_Orphal tweet: Remember when teachers crashed the market, wiped out 1/2 of our 401Ks and took TARP $$$? Me neither.
Then I saw this on Facebook Monday, from a local friend who has moved to Atlanta, who is neither a teacher nor a web developer:

Facebook post of the same wording as Housman's original tweet.
Then these two today on Facebook:

Facebook post with added words for public employees, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico and billions in bonuses.

Facebook post with added words for oil in the Gulf, billions in bonuses and paid no taxes.

Noticeably absent from all but the first retweet was any credit to the guy who came up with it. I only know Housman is the source because a journalist happened to be the first one I saw to retweet it.

Housman says on his Twitter feed that he had 5,000 retweets, but obviously, those got remixed, changed up, and sent out again by a lot of other people, if it's trickling into Facebook without his name and in different versions.

I'm fascinated by this type of source amnesia.

The best example I know is the case of my friend Nancy, who was a child care teacher and early childhood trainer. She wrote a piece that she used to hand out in her training sessions. At some point, it got typed into a computer by someone who didn't know or care who wrote it, and posted to the interweb, and now Nancy will never get credit for this example of her creativity. Maybe you've heard of it: It's called the Toddler Property Laws (1. If I like it, it's mine. 2 If it's in my hand, it's mine...). 127,000 hits on Google last time I checked.

I wonder how Joel Housman feels about it. From his more recent tweets, I'd say he seems amused and maybe just a bit bewildered. He keeps warning his new followers that he's as much a web geek as a political commentator, so they should be prepared for a wave of HTML5 references -- acknowledging the newly felt pressure to perform in the media circus we live in.

Update: One day after posting this, I've seen it four more times on Facebook. Now is the time where I lose track of the total.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Builders vs. Traders, Makers vs. Takers

Richard Florida, he of the Creative Class, is a frequent Twitter user. Recently he tweeted a link to a Wall Street Journal op-ed called We've Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers. Its author, Stephen Moore, threw out these statistics: In 1960, 15 million U.S. workers were in manufacturing and 8.7 million worked for the government. In 2010, 11.5 million were in manufacturing and 22 million worked for the government. Moore then went on to blame public-sector unions, essentially calling for privatization of policing, firefighting, and public transit systems.

Florida's brief tweet spun Moore's story as builders vs. traders (as well as makers vs. takers). I agree with Florida on the builders vs. traders (traders meaning investment banks and the like, that draw off many of the top college graduates into a parasitic enterprise), but the idea that anyone who works for the government is a "taker" is quite wrong.

Politifact demolished Moore's use of the 1960 and 2010 raw numbers, pointing out that they have nothing to do with those two employment segments as a percentage of the total workforce, a much more accurate way of viewing employment. Looked at that way, government workers went from 15 percent in 1960 to 17 percent in 2010 -- an increase, but a minor one -- while manufacturing faded from 29 to 9 percent.

What was growing? Well, duh, service employment and "business" (where do you think all those MBAs ended up working?). Hospitality went from 6.3 to 10 percent, and the professional business sector from 6.8 to 13.1. Not to mention health care or the entire IT industry that practically didn't exist in 1960.

Politifact summarized: "To us, the comparison of jobs in government and manufacturing looks less like 'an almost exact reversal,' as Moore puts it, than two largely unrelated changes."

Doonesbury Sunday cartoon of a young man becoming a banker, his values gradually changing from fair wage for good work to lots of money for damaging the world
Traders vs. builders, now that's another matter. By builders, I don't mean (and Florida doesn't mean) construction, literally. But builders in the sense of people who build businesses, communities and infrastructure. Traders -- which includes health insurance companies, in my opinion -- are all about extracting value along the path between builder and user, adding as little as possible in between.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Papers of April

I was sorry to read Rubén Rosario's column in the Pioneer Press today, telling his readers that he's been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I figured when I read the headline, Cancer: Now It's My Story to Tell, that it wasn't good news. I hope his chemotherapy is successful and that he's able to keep writing throughout treatment (and remission!). He says he is looking forward to a few things:

I want badly to return to work. I'm like a caged animal if home for too long.

I want to find out exactly how good my insurance plan really is.

I'm now a member of a club I never wanted to belong to, but I'm curious who the other members are, what the dues are and whether I can provide support.
Odd as it might be to say, I look forward to hearing his perspectives on his experience as a member of the cancer club.

Update: David Brauer's profile of Rosario over at MinnPost.

I am addicted to reading letters to the editor, I admit it. The PiPress's letters interest me less than the Strib's, for some reason I've never been able to analyze. Maybe because the Strib runs more of them? Or maybe because it seems like only crazy right-wingers write to the PiPress, while the Strib presents a bit more range.

Today's Strib, though, contained one of those letters that defies any understanding of the editor's intention in selecting it. Rosemarie Mitchell of Duluth wrote:
I first heard of autism in the 1980s when only a handful of children had that diagnosis. Less than 10 years ago, autism affected 1 in 250 children. Now it's 1 in 110. Why isn't there an outrage about the rapid increase?

What's changed since the 1980s? Here are a few things:

1. New vaccines are given -- sometimes as many as nine to infants.

2. There are more chemicals in our food.

3. Room deodorants, scented candles and similar products impact our systems negatively.

4. Parents take more medication, especially antidepressants.

I would gather information on autistic children and seek a common denominator. We need to find the cause. This is an emergency!
The logical fallacies and regurgitation of mindless anti-vaccine drivel are bad enough, but the letter isn't even closely related to the topic it addresses: the Strib's recent series of articles on Medicaid payments for behavioral treatment of autism.

The April 1 PiPress included a graphic in the top left of the front page that still has me scratching my head. Was it misprint? Or am I not seeing the obvious? Maybe an April Fool's joke I am too thick to understand?

Weird pink, fuzzy stripes, kind of like claw marks? at the top of the front page

Close up of the fuzzy pink stripes
What the heck is that supposed to be?

Newspaper story with headline Charges: Kids were whipped for TV changeDid you hear the one about the Roseville dad who whipped his kids for changing the channel away from a Christian television network?


Here it is, then.


Once in a while, there's a story that's so important, it leads both the PiPress and the Strib to run similar front pages above the fold.

On some of those occasions, they even have the same or very similar photos. This is understandable if it's from a distant event, relying on wire photos.

But when the Twins baseball team has a photo op, isn't it reasonable to think the photographers from the two local papers could stand somewhere other than right next to each other, so that they might have a chance of coming up with unique shots?

Front page of Star Tribune with photo of young boy reaching toward baseball player

Front page of Pioneer Press with photo of young boy reaching toward baseball player
There are some interesting differences between the two images, though. The Strib's Brian Peterson captured the background crowd and ballpark environment; the feeling of being in a crowd. The PiPress's Ben Garvin's shot is at a more interesting angle, and focuses more on the main action of the child "flying" out to reach for the ball.

You know how I love advertising, and prescription drug ads particularly. A few days ago a full-page ad for Zetia ran in both papers. It's a new drug that lowers cholesterol by preventing absorption in the intestine, rather than working in the liver as the statin drugs do.

Full page Zetia ad with small oval illustrations
I give the ad points for not showing happy, late-Boomer models looking healthy. Instead, it's composed like a children's science textbook, and written and illustrated at a similar level.

Closeup of one illustration showing food in the intestine
First is this image of the digestive tract, showing tiny little whole chickens, steaks and sandwiches floating through the intestine.

Another illustration with green-walled intestine and yellow globs in middle
Then there's this simplistic image showing the green Zetia barrier, preventing the oogy yellow cholesterol from getting at the walls of your intestine.

But worse (or better?) is the accompanying caption, which says that in all honesty "Unlike some statins, ZETIA has not been shown to prevent heart disease or heart attacks."

Um. Then why would you want to take it? And if you asked your doctor, as the ad next suggests, why would s/he think Zetia "is right for you" if it doesn't prevent heart disease or heart attacks?

In the Op-Ed section, former Strib business writer Mike Meyers had a tight refutation of all the arguments for public support of a new Vikings stadium. As I wrote about a year ago, the subsidy needed amounts to $64 per seat per home game for 30 years.

Let the folks who want to see a game in a new stadium pay the extra markup. How hard is that?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Drug Names: Who Needs Them?

Last weekend's NPR Sunday puzzle with Will Shortz featured a couple as the contestant, the first time I can remember that happening. I always wondered how NPR dealt with the many folks who must do the puzzle together, and because I'd never heard two people do the quiz at once, I had assumed only one could be on at a time.

But of more interest to me was the fact that the woman contestant of the pair said she made her living coming up with names for "pharmaceutical products" -- i.e., all of the brand-name drugs we see advertised constantly.

Now there's a job I wish didn't exist. A world where that job wasn't needed would be a world where drugs aren't marketed to the public (and doctors) like soft drinks. Where millions of dollars of money aren't wasted on said marketing. And where I don't have to put up with hearing names like these, cloaked in pseudo-Latin and Greek:

  • Abilify
  • Ambien
  • Lunesta
  • Avandia
  • Cymbalta
  • Celebrex
  • Elavil
  • Levitra
Old drug names like penicillin, ibuprophen or bactrim don't sound like they're trying to sell you something. Even Prozac seems like it's only meant to be a memorable name rather than a tag line in sheep's clothing.

Geez, I'm starting to sound like Andy Rooney.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Letters: a Double Dose of Ryans

Two letters from the Friday Strib, both concerning someone named Ryan:

A truly serious plan would focus elsewhere

Three-quarters of Thursday's Opinion Exchange page ("A serious man with a serious plan") consisted of the reactions of nine mainstream newspapers and columnists to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to drastically reduce the deficit by cutting Medicare, Medicaid and other "unsustainable" programs for the poor.

The opinions were fairly well-distributed among Democrats and Republicans. What is outrageous is that except for a single sentence from the St. Louis paper, there was absolutely no mention of cutting defense.

Supporting our troops is such a sacred cow of the mainstream press that it dares not suggest doing what is really necessary to balance the budget: bringing them home, closing the 700 bases we have in more than a hundred countries, and drastically reducing wasteful defense spending instead of slashing aid to the old and needy.

Deharpporte is right: it's time for us to readjust our military commitments around the world. Not even mentioning the "wars" we've got going, but the constant presence in Germany, South Korea and many other places. The U.S. doesn't need to be in charge of the world, and the world doesn't need us to be.

The Pentagon and defense budget is completely unauditable, did you know that? We don't even know where the money goes, and haven't for a very long time, under both Democrat and Republican administrations.

And on the recent coverage of radio station KDWB's Hmong parodies during the Dave Ryan show, a gentle take-down of the over-used term "political correctness":
There are some matters that aren't for laughing

To the gentleman (Letter of the day, April 6) who feels that it is acceptable to "enjoy a good laugh" at the expense of others: I am also a senior citizen who learned political correctness at my mother's knee, except she called it "being considerate of other people's feelings."

The term "political correctness" has only been around for the past 40 years or so and was adopted as a pejorative by people who felt entitled to express themselves regardless of the consequences to others.

They weren't raised by my mother. Or, perhaps, they have forgotten or turned their backs on the lessons of their mothers.

Back in the early 1990s, while still in graduate school, the attack on so-called political correctness got underway (So Graham is a bit off on her 40 year estimate, in my recollection). I kept a file for years full of examples, intending to write about it, but I never did.

Now I wish I had that file not only because of the topic, but because it would be an interesting glimpse of life two decades ago. I wonder if it's still here in a box somewhere?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Chicago Cultural Center and Louis Sullivan

I went to the Chicago Cultural Center to see Vivian Maier, but I came away with even more.

Incredible stained glass rotunda ceiling
The building, which used to be the main library, is spectacular. I hear there are architectural tours; on the next visit I will plan to go on one.

Wooden sign with the word Silence in gold blackletter type
A funny sign referenced the building's bookish past. Across the room is another sign, in the same style, that says License.

In addition to the Maier show, the Cultural Center was hosting an exhibit about the architect Louis Sullivan. I knew a bit about him and his work (I've seen his bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, and the Auditorium Building in Chicago), but little about his career. I won't go into detail, but the thing that struck me most was that he wasn't as successful as I had thought, often scraping by. In fact, his move into designing small-town banks in his later career was a big come-down, although it kept him in business.

Square silver board with decorative pattern kind of like an ornate parcheesi board
But it wasn't as big a come-down as what followed. According to the exhibit card that accompanied this ornate bit of work: "His last commercial job was to create ornamental drawings for inexpensive lithographed metal plates to be placed beneath stoves and space heaters to protect the floor. He reportedly received only $200, and his delicate drawings were clumsily re-rendered by the manufacturer prior to production." (I think my grandparents had one of these.)

The exhibit concludes with the two letters below, the one at left by Sullivan from August 1920 when he was 64, the one at right from his former assistant Frank Lloyd Wright, early December 1922. I wonder if there were letters in the intervening time, or if it took Wright that long to write back.

Two handwritten letters side by side
Sullivan wrote to Wright:

If you have any money to spare, now is the urgent time to let me have some.... I am in a very serious situation indeed it is now a sheer matter of food and shelter.... the immediate problem is to keep on earth.
Wright wrote to Sullivan:
I am going to tell you a secret which I hope you will keep: I am extremely hard up — and not a job in sight in the world.... I am anxious about you.... If things get desperately bad and you are in serious want you must know that I would share my last crust with you and I hope you will always let me know when ever that time threatens.

I enclose something of what I have left to insure you something of Christmas...
Sullivan died alone in a Chicago hotel room in 1924. He was 68.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Finding Vivian Maier

White wall with gray words Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer
Roloflex vertical cameraI admit I envy John Maloof, who discovered the work and negatives of Vivian Maier, because he has found his purpose. Over the coming years, more and more of her work will become available through Maloof's exploration of the archive. I wonder if it is almost too intense for him to bear.

The first U.S. exhibition of Maier's photos was recently completed at the Chicago Cultural Center, and I squeaked in just before it closed.

As a show, it was very understated, which seems appropriate. Two rooms, a single row of photos on six walls, a case in the center of each room holding a few objects from Maier's life.

White walls and square photos evenly spaced along, two bald men looking at them
The wall to the left holds six self-portraits.

Wall of five square photos
The two at left play with Maier's shadow, including the outline of her hat, which has become part of her signature.

Raised glass case with four women's hats in it, one is bright green, the others dull colors
Some of the hats occupied one of the cases. The whole exhibit had such a feeling of grayscale or generally muted tones that the green hat was surprising and interruptive to me.

Photo of a shiny half-spherical sprinkler in grass, woman with camera reflected in it
This is a closeup of one of the self portraits, with Maier reflected in a sprinkler head.

Young women with tousled dark hair photographing herself in a round mirror, set on the ground as if it were a hole in the ground
This one is from her younger, hatless years.

A couple of favorites from the show:

Photo of a man and woman wearing bermuda shorts, knobby leg with socks
There are a lot of legs in Maier's work, but these two pairs are particularly evocative.

Young boy in coonskin cap, squatting beside a car, digging in the dirt, looking up at the photographer almost angrily
This is my favorite of all, through some combination of the boy's challenging expression, the glasses that mark him as a misfit, the fact that he's playing in the dirt with a stick, and, of course, his hat. It was shot while Maier was on a trip to Canada.

Multi-colored film canisters casually arrayed in a case
The other case held a few of her cameras and these rolls of film. I'm not sure if these are some of the undeveloped ones or not.

All and all, a tantalizing glimpse of Vivian Maier's huge body of work.