Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Best of Twitter

Twitter is not everyone's cup of tea. It's not always mine either, as I skim through retweets of people I don't follow and try to ignore football games.

But I do like it enough to keep doing it, mostly because it's a place where some very clever writing can appear at any time.

Here are some of my recent favorites:

Thinking everyone should be able to go to college: snob. Thinking my religion should decide if you get birth control: freedom.
By Pete Nicely

How exactly does Ann Romney drive a couple of Cadillacs? Does she tether them on a yoke and drive between them in a chariot?
By Peter Cohen

"Global warming is bullshit," said my neighbor who believes a man built a boat & rescued every animal on earth from a flood.
By Danny Zuker

Pretty sure the "Pinterest user and '90s Beanie Baby collector" Venn diagram would show two mostly overlapping circles.
By Jason Kottke

The New York Times is like Pinterest for stuff that happens.
By Mike Monteiro

I'm giving up "loaned" for "lent."
By Jason Sweeney

If you prefer your revolutionary graffiti artists more community-minded, you should check out Credit Unionsy.
By Scott Simpson

Someday we will look back on all of this and laugh. And then we will go back to foraging for food in the post-apocalyptic hellscape.
By Tom Tomorrow

The "pencil skirt" sounds...painful.
By Andy Kroll

57%: What's a phone book? MT @brookejarvis 43% think people randomly selected from phone book would do better than this Congress.
By Chris Steller

We made the IKEA run in less than 12 parsecs.
By Paul Ford

Pacifists are due some fat refund checks: “@RickSantorum: Government cannot force you to pay for something that violates faith or beliefs”
By ‏Chris Adams‎

Sometimes, when I don't want anyone to talk to me, I stand on a busy street corner with a clip board.
By Tim Siedell

Siri reminded me to "change the catheter" and I've never felt so fortunate to be changing cat litter.
By Daniel Jalkut

I like to imagine that the Better Business Bureau was started by disgruntled former employees of the Good Business Bureau.
By Tim Carvell

Cats only pretend to be afraid of vacuums so that you never ask them to do it.
By Bailey Siewert

I just touched my eye in a Chuck E. Cheese's. So I guess this is goodbye.
By luckyshirt

We buy animals to put inside our homes and then pay poor people to hook them to a rope and walk them outside. Civilization was a mistake.
By Scotty L.

No one should hate the rich. Everyone should hate the inevitable corruption of democracy when wealth is concentrated at the top.
By Robert Reich

Don't get a dog to see if you wants kids. Get a giant incontinent bear who just drank a keg of beer and is dragging around a dead hobo.
By Heather Armstrong

I don't know. We've done pretty well for a bunch of monkeys wearing pants.
By Frank Chimero

Watching halftime show on YouTube all I could think about: every flash going off in the crowd is someone with no idea how a camera works.
By Steven Frank

The phrase Middle Class is now a stand in for "patriotic," "tax-paying," "playing by the rules." The implication about poverty is striking.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. Plus a social media overreaction.
By Tim Siedell

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Happiness Maps, Then and Now

I wrote a few years ago about the American states where people reported being happiest, comparing that statistic with crime rates and food stamp usage. Those were self-reports of happiness, and that 2009 study found that the top-10 happiest states were mostly in the South (exceptions: Hawaii, Maine, Arizona, and Montana).



Well, today's happiness map isn't based on self-report. It's a combination of factors devised by Gallup that analyzes things like "emotional health, work environment, physical health, life evaluation, healthy behaviors, and access to basic resources." Perhaps better labeled as a map of well-being than happiness. And there's nary a southern state in the top ten. In fact, many of the happiest of all states in 2009 are among the least happy now:



Louisiana went from #1 for happiness to being one of the bottom 15; other former top-10 states that are now in the bottom 15 are Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee. Montana and Hawaii, in contrast, are the only two states to made it into the top 10 on both maps.

States like New York, which was at the very bottom of the 2009 happiness list, are in the midrange in 2011. Massachusetts went from the bottom 10 to the top 15.

So what does this mean? I assume the objective reality in these states may have changed a bit, since it's two years or so later. But there's more to it than that.

One possibility is that ignorance is bliss; some folks aren't aware that their lives suck, objectively. They're in the poor-but-happy group. The flip side of that is the idea that some people don't know how good they've got it, maybe because they've got a case of unfulfilled rising expectations. (If you live in New York and see the 1% driving past in a limo every day, you might be more resentful of your circumstances than a person who is objectively less well off than you but who's surrounded by people who are similarly hard up.)

Or maybe people in the usually blue states are more likely to feel free to complain about their troubles to a pollster, while those in the normally red states (or at least southern states) put up a brave front to the outsiders on the phone.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Losing Track of the Trackers

GPS tracking device placed inside a car's bumper
The Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago that, after the Supreme Court decision outlawing warrantless GPS tracking of vehicles, the FBI turned off 3,000 of the little buggers.

They had 3,000 of these things on cars without a warrant. That's just the FBI, not state or local police.

And now -- get this -- they can't find them.

It might have been a good idea to go retrieve them first, then turn them off, hey? Unless the reason for leaving them where they were was so they can be turned back on again once they have a warrant. (Or whenever they feel like it even if they don't have a warrant; but that's just me being paranoid.)

Via Boing Boing

Photo from the Security Blog on Jammer-Store.com

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oh, Those Centuries

We've had an unwinter this year in Minnesota, so that's newsworthy, I guess. The Pioneer Press's story on Saturday included this graph of the snowiest and least snowy winters on record. Last year was the fourth snowiest, this year the fifth-least snowy:

Bar graph with ranged year labels for winters below the bars
The thing I noticed about the graph was the labels below the bars. The 20th century years after 1912 require only two digits, while the 19th and 21st century years (and 1901-02) have four digits for the first year in each set of two.

Obviously, they did it this way to differentiate 1894 from 1994 and 1901 from 2001. But still, it seems a bit odd.

The layout had already allowed enough space for six digits and a hyphen, turned sideways, so why not set all of the year ranges that way? Switching the orientations back and forth makes it harder to read and calls extra attention to the five year ranges that are set sideways.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reading The Handmaid's Tale in the Time of Santorum

Spoiler alert: This post discusses details of the plot and writing of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
_________

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale, showing two women in voluminous red dresses and white  headdresses against a stone wall
The Handmaid's Tale is all about concealing and revealing.

The story line is concealed, the events that led to the narrator's present situation even more so, as much as her body is concealed inside a voluminous red dress and her head within a white winged headdress. Key points in the narrative are revealed intermittently, achronologically, until we finally understand, about two-thirds of the way through the book, how women were stripped of their rights and a theocracy named Gilead was established in what used to be the northeastern United States.

The biggest reveal of all -- that the story we're reading is a transcript made from cassette tapes found in Maine, where they had been left two hundred years earlier -- comes in the epilogue, framed as a presentation at a conference of academics who study past repressive religious states like Gilead and late-20th-century Iran.

Reading The Handmaid's Tale is almost like enduring Cormac McCarthy's The Road. You feel buried and terrified the whole time, but end with a sense of possible hope, unsure if it's justified.

I wanted to reread the book, though, given everything that's been happening lately in American politics with women's reproductive freedom. While I first read it in 1986, I can't remember my impressions of it. I'm still not able to write a literary treatise of it, as I might have been able in my college days, but I wanted to share some of Atwood's beautiful language, as well as her chilling premise.

Gilead Rising

How did the U.S. become Gilead? An insurgent religious Right is part of it. An overt coup happens, in which the president and most members of Congress are killed. (A bit far-fetched, yes, but it doesn't take a lot to imagine things akin to this in some of the rhetoric these days.) After a state of emergency is declared and the Constitution suspended, the regular people huddle in their houses, hoping not to be affected; only a few go into the streets to protest, and are rounded up. Porn and obscenity are outlawed, its sellers and makers disappeared. The regular people don't mind about that too much.

By the time of the coup, everyone was spending their money by using the equivalent of debit cards instead of cash, so one day the new government transfers all women's accounts to their nearest male relative, and commands that they be fired from their jobs. The narrator, whose only name is Offred, as far as we know, remembers:
I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same streets, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it. (page 33)
Environmental devastation is a little-described background to the action. Birth defects are rampant and male fertility has been affected by pollution and radioactivity, but it's women who are blamed for these failures. And so women like the narrator have been turned in Handmaids, whose qualifications are that they have given birth before, but were unmarried or in something other than a first marriage (no longer recognized as a marriage by the zealots in control of the government). They are turned into chattel, kept in the households of men from the Gilead hierarchy. When they reach their fertile time each month, they must lie between the legs of the Wife while the husband does his duty.

Gruesome, you bet.

Despite the fact that Gilead's women live in an almost completely separate sphere from men, they are not in any kind of solidarity. Instead, they stay within their rigid categories of Handmaids, Wives, Marthas (servants), and Aunts (indoctrinators and enforcers). Wives think the Handmaids are whores, even though the Handmaids have no choice in the role. When the Commander makes Offred visit him in the evenings in his study, she has no choice but to comply -- she has no power in the relationship. It's not even a relationship. But when the Wife, Serena Joy, finds out, she is outraged at Offred, not at her husband Fred. "How could you be so vulgar?" "Behind my back…. you could have left me something." "Just like the other one. A slut." The Marthas of the household, Cora and Rita, also look at Offred with narrow eyes and distrust for the most part, definitely not sympathy. Even the other handmaids are standoffish to each other, unsure who can be trusted in a society where secret police and spies are everywhere.

Atwood's use of language 

Yet throughout, there is beautiful language. And so many insights.
In the curved hallway mirror I flit past, a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraith of red smoke. I have smoke on my mind all right, already I can feel it in my mouth, drawn down into the lungs, filling me in a long rich dirty cinnamon sigh, and the the rush as the nicotine hits the bloodstream. (page 270)

Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. (page 275)

There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities about those in power. There's something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It's like a spell. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. (pages 287-288)
During one of Offred's sessions with the Commander in his study, he lays out his perspective on how things used to be. It's like reading a page from Rick Santorum's script:
We've given them [women] more than we've taken away, said the Commander. Think of the troubles they had before. Don't you remember the singles' bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don't you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn't? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns…. This way they all get a man, nobody's left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they'd have to go on welfare. Or else he'd stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they'd have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they're protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. (pages 283-284)
At the end, Offred -- whose real name we never learn -- escapes from the Commander's house into the hands of the underground movement, but we are not told whether she got out of the country or not. The epilogue follows, telling us that she made it at least as far as Maine, and recorded her memories. The epilogue is full of wry inside jokes about academia, including this slap at cultural relativism (in the voice of the editor of Offred's tapes):
If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (page 383)
Clearly, Gilead was a flash in the pan, historically, from the point of view of Atwood's year 2195, and that is reassuring to read after so much emotional trauma and ugliness.

But I disagree with the historian's statement that it's wrong to pass moral judgment on the Gileadean way of doing things. Destroying freedom and replacing it with repression and control is an essential negative, and understanding it does not necessitate excusing it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bisecting Heads for Ron Paul

We had about three inches of heavy, wet snow a couple of days ago, bringing our total for this super-warm, dry winter to about 18". Yesterday I saw this along the streets of St. Paul:

8 foot tall snow man with Ron Paul campaign sign bisecting its head
This snowman is about 8 feet tall. Imagine what they could have done if it had snowed a foot.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Art Against Voter Suppression

Red circular sticker that says $ Voted instead of I voted
The Hip Hop Action Coalition has set up voterid.us to share artistic works calling attention to the repressive Voter ID laws being considered in Minnesota and other states. They're open for submission of poems, songs, cartoons, posters, murals, dances, skits and videos.

So far, these are the two best posts.

I'm not sure who created the altered "I voted" sticker above, but this retro poster is by artist Ricardo Levins Morales:
1950s ad style poster of a white woman with a sparkling white men's shirt. Headline says Voter ID Brand, with lines that say Poll Whitener and Voter Deterrent
I have to get busy and make them something.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Few of the Many Tabs

Diane Ravitch recently had two essays in the New York Review of Books, related to the publication of Pasi Sahlberg's book about the highly successful Finnish schools. Part one is a neat summary of the critique of the school reform movement. Part two nails New York's recent move to evaluate teachers based on testing and objective criteria, even in art and gym.
______

A Modest Proposal to create eternal copyrights. After all, "How can our laws be so heartless as to deny [your great-great-great-grandchildren] the benefit of your hard work in the name of some do-gooding concept as the 'public good', simply because they were born a mere century and a half after the book was written?"
 _____

Freelance science writer Kevin Zelnio tells what it's like to be uninsured and have your six-year-old hospitalized for pneumonia. I suppose at least a few people in the audience at tonight's Republican debate would yell out "Let him die!"
_____

I hope to soon read Laurence Lessig's One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republic. According to Boing Boing, it offers concrete changes we could make to our laws to repair our damaged democracy.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Morality Backed Up with a Gun

Some of my muttering at the newspaper lately has been about a Republican-proposed change to Minnesota's "castle doctrine." This is the state statute that makes it legal for you to kill someone who breaks into your home if you feel you or your family are in danger.

Our House and Senate Republican majorities want to change the law so that it applies not just inside your house but anywhere. You wouldn't have a duty to try and retreat to safety before using deadly force, and you wouldn't be held to a "reasonable person" standard either. The cases would hinge on the killer's state of mind, their subjective sense of what's reasonable. (See this op-ed by Dakota County prosecutor James Backstrom for more details.)

Jerry Dhennin of Coon Rapids had an excellent letter in today's Star Tribune, which said exactly what I have been thinking:

'Shoot first'
Supporters seem not to know existing law

Those writing letters in favor of the "shoot first" bill apparently haven't bothered to check out existing relevant law.

It is clear, in my opinion, that Minnesota statutes 609.06 and 609.065, taken together, authorize a person to use force, including deadly force, that is reasonably necessary to prevent an offense upon that person, or when assisting another.

Not written into these statutes is the requirement to first "retreat" from a confrontation if it is reasonable and safe to do so. Importantly, the requirement to retreat does not apply in one's home.

Minnesota's self-defense laws have worked very well for a long time. No one is in prison for acting reasonably in defense of one's self or home. There have been several cases in recent years of the use of deadly force by a person in defense of their home, and the defenders were not charged with any crime.

The bill proposed by Rep. Tony Cornish would seriously alter long-accepted standards of reasonableness, to the detriment of our citizens and the safety of law enforcement officers.

Our legislators would better serve if they paid heed to the positions of Minnesota's Police Chiefs, rank-and-file law enforcement officers and our state's County Attorney's Association, all of which adamantly oppose this bill.
Clearly this change in the law is meant to allow vigilantism, like the guy who shot and killed armed robber Darren Evanovich in South Minneapolis a few months ago. The shooter, who has not been identified, witnessed the robbery and pursued Evanovich, rather than retreating. According to the Star Tribune:
The witness, who had a permit to carry a handgun, drove up to Evanovich and asked for the purse back. Evanovich pointed his gun at the man and told him to mind his own business, and the man, still sitting in his car, aimed his own weapon and fired, according to a criminal complaint.
Prosecutors have decided not to charge the shooter, and that's under the current law. Clearly, there is no need for a change to make it even easier for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands. As Steven Pinker put it,
The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest (The Better Angels of Our Nature, p. 622).
Two updates: Former Champlin police chief Dale Kolb had a letter in the Strib a few days later in which he said: "Every three months I receive my NRA magazine in the mail, and I dutifully read the section about ordinary citizens who defend themselves with firearms.... As a cop, I always read them with our current law in mind. I have never read such an example that would not be allowed under our current law."

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Senate passed the revised castle doctrine bill on February 23 (the House had already passed it). The Strib story on its passage included this incredibly simple-minded quote from Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria):
"Why wouldn't we let citizens ... protect themselves wherever they are in the state of Minnesota?" asked Ingebrigtsen, a former sheriff of Douglas County. "This bill is about good folks and giving them an opportunity to defend themselves."
Ingebrigtsen's inability or unwillingness to think of unintended consequences shows that he has no business working public policy.

I'm assuming Governor Dayton will veto the bill, but it wouldn't hurt to give him a call.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Romney Logo: Wimpy and Unclear

A friend and I were comparing the campaign websites of Obama, Romney, Santorum and Gingrich today, and I was reminded again how much I dislike Romney's logo.


First, as I've said numerous times before, it takes a lot for a non-letter to read as a letter. This R does not pass the test. It's easier to read the word as OMNEY than it is ROMNEY. And we all know you don't  have to try very hard to accidentally transpose the O and M and get a Freudian-slip-of-a-name.

Second, it's an odd, wimpy shape. It barely reads as an R at all because of the strange curve along the bottom. Why doesn't the red shape extend along the left vertical axis?

Third, the R doesn't have the graphic weight it should or the width to make sense alongside the wide letters in the rest of the name.

Fourth, it's set in Trajan, the over-used typeface of every movie poster in America.

Fifth, I didn't realize that the red, white, and blue shapes were supposed to be people until my friend pointed it out. Or maybe I kind of did, but it was a really weak association.

But I suppose it could be worse. It could tell an uncomfortable truth about Romney, as in this parody version I found on a Democrat-leaning website:



A few professional design observers gave their opinions of the major campaign logos here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Act of Grief in the Age of Social Media Reproduction

Death has always been with us, but in the age of the interweb, its social boundaries have shifted.

In the past, when a friend's relative died, you might have heard about it directly, through other friends, or by reading the obituaries in the newspaper. These days, the most likely place is Facebook. And it's that same friend who posts it, leaving you with the dilemma of whether to respond with a comment. Somehow, the phatic phrases that are acceptable when written on a card or said in person sound worse than empty in the house that Zuckerberg built. But not commenting seems awful, too.

When someone famous died in the past, you would hear through television, newspapers, or magazines. A person who was well-known within a niche area might not get any coverage. I remember when Audre Lorde died in 1992, I didn't hear about it for days. But when Gil Scott-Heron died last May, suddenly I found out how many people were fans as the RIP messages bled across the Twitterverse. (And let me add, those three capital letters should be laid to rest once and for all.)

This video by Scott-Heron fan Jay Smooth does a better job of talking about this than I can. Even if you know nothing about his music, it's worth watching. Smooth deals with the way that celebrities' lives feel personal, the mediation of experience, and the hipster reactions that are hard to suppress:



"If you love her so much why weren't you grieving for her when she was alive?"

O brave new world, that has such people in it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Virginia's State-Sponsored Rape Law

I'd heard vague mention of Virginia's proposed "Want an abortion? Have an ultrasound" bill. I admit it didn't get far into my consciousness. I thought it was just another unreasonable impediment placed in the way of a woman wanting to do what she thinks is best for herself. It was obviously worse than a 24-hour waiting period or a forced reading of a fake side effect list, because it would cost money.

But I didn't realize how much worse it was.

Because if your pregnancy is at less than 12 weeks gestation -- as most terminated pregnancies are -- the ultrasound that's required isn't the familiar technique where a technician moves a sensor around on the woman's stomach. No. It's this:

Medical diagram of transvaginal ultrasound, with ultrasound wand inserted into a woman's vagina
The medical term is "transvaginal ultrasound,"and it is just what the picture shows.

Now, I'm a 50ish woman and I've had my share of pelvic exams. The speculum took a little getting used to at first, back when I was about 20. I've given birth, with all of the attending loss of body modesty that accompanies pushing out a 10-pound baby.

But having this type of ultrasound (which I had about a year ago) is the worst medical procedure I've had that I've been conscious for. Because of the shape of the "wand," as it's euphemistically called, the feeling that it's unwanted intercourse is pretty hard to avoid.

And I was voluntarily having the test, to find out something I needed to know. Hearing about the Virginia law, which is hard to call anything but state-imposed rape, literally makes my heart pound as adrenaline or stress hormones or something begin to spill into my system. My hands are shaking.

Virginia's legislature passed this law last Monday and the governor has spoken of it favorably.


Cartoon by Clay Bennett of an armored Christian crusader -- shield labeled Culture War -- with his morning star bashing in his own head
Pictured above: The the only possible upside of this law. (Cartoon by Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Arne Duncan Faces a Real Interview

Last night's Daily Show interview subject was Arne Duncan, secretary of education. Duncan carries the ball for the "reform" cause in the Obama administration, particularly Race to the Top.

I had such high hopes for education change when Obama came into office, and I have to say it's one of the areas of the most disappointment for me. (Right after raiding the homes of antiwar activists on the pretense that they give aid and comfort to terrorists.)

John Stewart -- who, as he is wont to remind us -- has a mother who is a teacher, and she has friends who are teachers. And so it's not surprising that they call John about this education reform thing. And they call a lot, it seems, because he's very well informed.

Stewart did a great job of not letting Duncan get away with platitudes, much as he tried.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Arne Duncan Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Some other recent education-related reading goodness:

Diane Ravitch giving a succinct primer on her critique of education "reform," plus a review of a new book on Finnish schools -- the right model for U.S. education.

A critique of the Chetty value-added study (that's the one that "proved" having just one great teacher leads to higher incomes).

A wonderful interview with Nancy Carlsson-Paige on what's wrong with testing mania and what kids need. (I know it's silly, but knowing that she's Matt Damon's mother made me wonder what she had to say. More importantly, she's a professor emerita of early childhood ed at Lesley University.)

Apologies for all of the air quotes.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Book from the Past

After today's Congressional hearing about contraceptive coverage in health insurance, which featured an all-male list of witnesses, I thought it was time to share this photo I took in an antiquarian bookstore while I was back home at New Year's:

Antiquarian book with title Woman: Her Condition, Prospects, &c

Some folks seem to think we're living in the same era when this book was published.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bubble Kids

On the subject of testing, this cartoon by David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:



In case you can't read it, that banner outside the window is labeled "The Arts."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Judging Local Books by Their Covers

I'm glad Pioneer Press book reporter Mary Ann Grossman plays up local and independently published books, but each time I see one of these articles I can't help but focus on the covers and how (usually) dreadful they are. They scream "self-published" and "I have no idea how to reach an audience."

Last Sunday's story included five covers of works by four authors. One was good, two were trying but still unsuccessful, and two were just bad.

The covers of cancer survivor Christine K. Clifford's books look like do-it-yourself pamphlets rather than book covers, particularly Laugh 'Til It Heals. The Clue Phone's Ringing is a bit better, but still has a hopelessly naive quality to it.


If I saw these books in a bookstore, I would not pick them up because I would assume the content was no better than the covers.

Robert MacGregor Shaw's book, The Bachelor Slob in the Kitchen, was the only successful cover shown.


Now that's a book you'd want to peek into to see what it's about. It's a simple concept with catchy photography and fun, readable typography.

And that's exactly where Gerald Anderson's Murder in Bemidj or Paul's Bloody Trousers fails. Neither the title nor author name is readable because they're set in red on a colored background, and in a font that's a bit hard to read in the first place. A yellow outline was added around the letters in hope of making the words stand out better from the background, but it doesn't help enough.

I give the Murder in Bemidji's cover designer credit for working with a decent illustration, but it's as if there was no consideration at all given to how the art and display text would be used together.


Finally, the cover design of Dennis Nau's book (left) is simple enough, but it makes some key mistakes in its typography. First of all, what is the purpose of those ellipses? They make me think the writer doesn't know what he's doing.

Second, there's way too much leading (or linespacing) between the title lines, as if the designer thought the whole space needed to be filled. Finally, the author's name is much too small.

A revised version (right) fixes those three errors, and also switches the typeface to one that's condensed so the type can be bigger, fit into two lines, and have more visual impact. It's nothing great, but it looks competent and doesn't undermine the content of the book.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Op-Ed Balance Test

I've started a little content analysis project at my dining room table. For the next month, I'm going to read every op-ed and political cartoon in the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press and assign each a political label. At least to start, those labels are R (Right or conservative), L (Left or liberal), or N (neither). I may add more labels if it makes sense, given the content that appears.

My hypothesis is that the Pioneer Press will have a much higher percentage of conservative content.

I decided to start this project after I realized over the past week that the PiPress seems, at least on many days, to run exclusively right-wing writers, while the Star Tribune (sometimes called the "Red Star," believe it or not, by our local right wing fringe) never runs all lefties, and frequently runs conservatives. This isn't news, of course; the PiPress has always been regarded as the more conservative of the two papers, but lately it seems more pronounced.

But since I know about confirmation bias, I'm counting the articles to make sure I'm not jumping to the conclusion that serves my point of view.

I'm not including editorials or letters to the editor. I wasn't going to include cartoons, either, until this one from Saturday's Star Tribune whacked me in the eyes:


Wow, that's about the most biased cartoon I've seen in a mainstream newspaper in a long time.

Talk about a false dichotomy. On one side we have a holy commandment about not killing -- which makes up one sentence in a book full of commands from God to scourge and kill nonbelievers and even disobedient children -- and on the other a quote from a single human being who represented no one but herself. Yes, I'm sure each individual woman chooses to use contraceptives because she thinks she's part of "the unfit." It couldn't have anything to do with already having children to take care of, being in school, having an illness that makes pregnancy dangerous, or just thinking the world has enough people already. I'm glad we've got Mr. Mike Lester to tell us women what it means to have choices about our own bodies.

Part of the problem with this false dichotomy is that the angel seems to be referring to abortion, while Sanger was talking about contraceptives. Does the cartoonist belong in the "every sperm is sacred" camp that thinks preventing conception is somehow murder?

(Looking into the cartoonist, Mike Lester of the Rome [Georgia] News-Tribune even a wee bit reveals that he thinks Obama is a socialist, so that tells you something about his judgment. )

With cartoons like this, no one can say that the Strib is a clear voice of liberalism. And that's probably the point of it. It seems to me that the editors are trying to atone for this recent L.K. Hanson cartoon that's been drawing irate letters from Christians and members of the D.A.R. lately:

Quote from poet Joseph Brodsky on extreme individualism as a defense against evil, juxtaposed with a drawing of a Nancy Reagan-type woman with a pointed party hat and round clown nose, wearing a cross and DAR, USA, and Just Say No button
Illustration by L.K. Hanson; used by permission.

I fail to see the equivalence between Hanson's gentle sarcasm and Lester's sledgehammer methods. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reading Is Not Fundamentalist

Reading the Star Tribune's article this morning on building preschool reading skills almost made me physically ill. I'm all for quality early childhood education and reading to kids -- that's a given. But this new emphasis is on early drill and kill -- learning letters, learning to write, doing work in preschool or kindergarten that used to be saved for first grade. It's not the way to make sure kids read proficiently by third grade, and definitely not the way to make sure they love reading.

After putting them through the mill in preschool and kindergarten, the program will top out in third grade when "schools have to report reading scores to their communities and have a specific literacy plan. They will receive $85 for each third-grader who passes the state reading test or shows growth in reading."

I wonder how that incentive will get twisted, as it seems all incentives attached to educational attainment do.

As college professors Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols recently noted, third grade reading tests don't necessarily measure the ability to read. Instead, they offer questions that have more than one legitimate answer:

The first section of the test comprised reading a short story and answering six multiple-choice questions about it. The story, concerning a pair of tiger siblings (an older sister named Tikki and a younger brother named Mista), was short and simple.

“Tikki eyed Mista, her little brother,” it began. ” ‘You sure don’t say much,’ she said.”

In the course of the story Tikki gets annoyed with her little brother because he can’t talk yet, attempts to get him interested in looking for bugs, then joins him in tearing bark off a log.

She tries to instruct him in this task, but discovers to her surprise that he is better at it than she is.

The first question asked, “What is this story mostly about?” and offered four choices:

A) what tigers like to eat
B) how tigers tear bark off logs
C) how two tigers get along
D) what tigers like to do

An intense literary debate followed the reading aloud of the story and this first question. In fact, we never got beyond it. One of our party felt that B, “how tigers tear bark off logs,” best summed up the action-oriented nature of the story, while another thought that C, “how two tigers get along,” best highlighted the interaction between the two animals.

The third felt that the story was mostly about sibling relations, and fretted that there was no E) none of the above.

And, predictably, the fourth felt that all the possible answers had merit: F), or all of the above.
So a child who doesn't pick C as the correct answer on enough questions is labeled as not reading at grade level.

I think teachers working with students every day know which students are not reading at grade level. They don't need a standardized test that's reported to the community, with penalties and rewards attached to the outcome, to know which kids need help.

Whether they have the time to give that help is another story, but not one that most education reformers seem interested in addressing.

Rather than drilling 4-year-olds in letters, I'd rather see preschools and kindergartens using the Tools of the Mind curriculum. Tools of the Mind doesn't address specific knowledge content so much as it uses structured dramatic play to foster self-regulation. This in turn is what leads to students who have the self control to do school work successfully.

Some kids read at the age of 3 on their own. I've known kids like that. Daughter Number Three-Point-One, on the other hand, knew all the letters, loved books and being read to, and liked to try her hand at writing, but she had absolutely no interest in reading on her own. In fact, she seemed almost resistant to it until the beginning of first grade. Then, suddenly, she was reading in about two weeks.

Would DN3.1 have been "better off" if someone had forced her to read when she was 4, 5 or even a younger 6 (she has a fall birthday, so she started reading just a month or so shy of her 7th birthday). I don't think so, and possibly the opposite. I don't think it's any different for kids who come from less advantaged homes than hers. They need enrichment and dramatic play, not spurious testing.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wrong House

From today's Star Tribune, this doozy of a correction:

Newspaper correction notice saying they incorrectly said The House on the Rock was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was designed by the unknown Alex Jordan

For those unfamiliar with the House on the Rock, saying that it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is a bit like saying a Thomas Kincade paintings was done by DaVinci.

Yet another example of the Strib's loss of quality control. Or that their quality control is done by people not from the area... possibly as far away as India.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Jonathan Haidt: Morality and Demonization

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was on Moyers & Company this week, talking about his forthcoming book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. It's an attempt to document the cultural divide in America, connecting it to the differences in moral psychology between people on the right and left.

Haidt explains when politics began to shift from two parties that each had conservative and liberal wings to our current bifurcation: The 1960s, in large part because of the civil rights movement and changes in laws that made it possible for black people to vote. As LBJ said to Bill Moyers (who was his press secretary at the time), "I think we've just turned the South over to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours." That, combined with generational change to the Baby Boom and increasing class stratification in where we live, has led to our current divisions.

Haidt, a professor at the University of Virginia, said he started out as a liberal, but that in studying the issue he has become a moderate, finding value in many conservative perspectives. He emphasizes six primary moral concerns, and finds that liberals and conservatives consistently rate differently on them, based on surveys and analysis of writings:
  • Care, compassion
  • Liberty
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Sanctity
Still frame of bar graph showing liberals with high bars for Care, Liberty and Fairness, conservatives with moderately high bars for all six moral areas
Liberals are at the top of the chart for care, and also score pretty high on liberty and fairness. They come out very low on the last three, however. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to score at about the same fairly high level on all six.

What a liberal and a conservative mean by the terms can differ. For instance, conservatives think of fairness in terms of self-sufficiency and free riders. Everyone needs to contribute, and no one should get anything for "free." Moyers played the clip from that 2011 Republican debate where Ron Paul was asked if a hypothetical 30-year-old man who had decided not to get insurance, but now faces a grave illness, should be left to die. You know, the one where a couple of audience members responded with a loud "Yes!" Haidt compared it to the Aesop's Fable about the grasshopper and the ant; conservatives believe it is only right, only karma, for the grasshopper to die. A liberal would call all of that unfair.

Haidt's discussion of Grover Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge as an example of sanctity run amok was particularly interesting. 

What Haidt is most down on is Manichean thinking, the tendency to take groupness to the extreme of thinking those outside the group are evil.

Haidt had a lot to say about humans' inherent lack of rationality, in keeping with recent work in psychology. His book includes this beaut: "Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason." Moyers asked him about that:
BILL MOYERS: So what ...did the Hebrew prophet mean when he said, "Come now, and let us reason together." Are you saying we can't get at the truth that way?

JONATHAN HAIDT: No. That actually is very wise. Because what I'm saying here is that individual reasoning is post-hoc, and [self-]justificatory. Individual reasoning is not reliable because of the confirmation bias. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people.

So, if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other's reason. And this is the way the scientific world is supposed to work.

And this is the way it does work in almost every part of it. You know, I've got my theory, and I'm really good at justifying it. But fortunately there's peer review, and there's lots of people are really good at undercutting it. And saying, "Well, what about this phenomenon? You didn't account for that."

And we worked together even if we don't want to, we end up being forced to work together, challenging each other's confirmation biases, and truth emerges. And this is a place where actually I think the Christians have it right, because they're always talking about how flawed we are. They're encouraging us to be more modest.

And from my reading, these apostles of reason nowadays, they're anything but modest. And they think that individuals can reason well. Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other. That's what our political institutions used to do, but they don't do anymore.
The interview ends with Haidt proposing two areas that we all could work on to improve the situation, citing other social changes like attitudes about sexual harassment or smoking to show that it is possible for things to change. The two areas are:
  • For all of us to call each other on it when we demonize other groups. (Demonize the demonizers, I guess.)
  • "Until we develop a massive groundswell of public revulsion at the fact that our Congress is bought and paid for… So perhaps there's some norms that we could develop that will put some pressure on Congress to clean up its act."
His message to Democrats was clear: Republicans are better at making their point of view into a coherent narrative. "I think the Democrats need to be developing a credible argument about fairness, capitalism, American history. They need to be developing this master narrative so that when they then have an argument on a particular issue, it'll resonate with people. And they're not doing that. But the Republicans have."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Simply Unnecessary

"Simply" is a word that makes me cringe.

It's not the word "simple" I dislike; that's a lovely adjective. But something about that adverbial "ly" suffix, combined with the way the word is used, bothers me.

Unlike many of the other words I hate, which often earned my contempt decades ago, my dislike of "simply" started only about five years ago. I was laying out recipes for a client when I felt what is now a familiar surge of bile. I don't remember the exact words she had written, but they were pretty similar to this:

When the water boils, simply turn off the stove.
The urge to remove that extraneous adverb was almost overwhelming.

Soon I noticed that "simply" usually appears in instructional contexts like this, where it adds nothing more than an air of condescension.

What function does it serve? Is it trying to indicate that you don't need to do this step carefully, that there's no way you could do it wrong? Is that helpful?

It's not just recipes that suffer from "simply." Instructions for how to do just about everything are littered with them, many describing activities that are not simple at all:

Google screen snapshot reading, These are the instructions for the Aquarium Pharmaceuticals Ammonia Test Kit. For the color chart, simply save the picture to your computer, then print…
Google screen snapshot reading, For detailed instructions, simply click on the link for the section you need help with.
Google screen snapshot reading, To locate an Assembly Manual for your product, simply enter the item's SKU and click Search.
Google screen snapshot reading, Whenever you wish to use AmphetaDesk, simply double click the .exe…
Google screen snapshot reading, To store the Tape Guide, simply clip it onto the support bracket…

Some uses were extra-clueless:

Google screen snapshot reading, Simply hold mouse over arrows to move floor plant left, right, up, down, or to either side…. Simply follow the directions.
Oh, simply follow the directions. Thanks. I hadn't thought of that.

Google screen snapshot reading, To lower the pitch simple unscrew the Bottom Section anti-clockwise out of the Mid Section….
Sounds simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, For DNS veterans, switching to Internet Guide is easy. Simply replace your current recursive resolvers with….
Oh yes, replacing my recursive resolvers is always simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, To lower blind, simply pull down using the grips on the bottomrail. To raise the blind, simply guide the blind to the desired position by gently lifting the bottomrail.
If you have to write instructions on how to use window blinds, it isn't simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, After the ball is let loose from the obstacle by simply moving the guide rod to the side on the left, activate rewinding the nylon line to bring the ball into the ideal…
Whaaa?

Google screen snapshot reading, Simply follow the instructions for the shopping cart, entering your custom text where appropriate.
As everyone knows, e-commerce is something users have no trouble with, because it's so simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, While sitting on the toilet or an equally relaxed position, simply insert the folded cup completely into your…
Ouch!

While looking for examples, I also discovered there are a large number of writers on the interweb who don't know the difference between "simple" and "simply":
Google screen snapshot reading, When you are ready to submit your file follow these simply instructions.
I can think of a few cases where the word doesn't bother me much, if at all. If you search "simply" on my blog, you'll find it used mostly in quotes from other sources, but a few times I've used it in a way that seems to work:
Much as I liked the editorial, I thought Steve Sack's cartoon from a few weeks ago probably made the case against the bill more simply and effectively....
or
Daniel Shaw, a speech language pathologist from Minneapolis, wrote simply of the divergence between "my" children -- who have been nurtured and prepared for school...
or
Too often, a concisely written essay is graded lower simply because it's short.
The last of those examples comes the closest to using the word in the way I don't like, and I might have been better off using "only" or "merely" (although I don't like "merely" much either).

It's simple. It's important to be careful using "simply."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Thoughtless Headlines

I'm not sure who's writing the headlines at the Star Tribune these days, but today's metro head about the Anoka sexual orientation policy got my attention:

Star Tribune headline, Anoka sexual policy advances
Really, Strib, is that the best you can do? It's not a sexual policy. It's about whether teachers can talk with students about the students' sexual orientation if the students bring it up. The headline makes it sound much more salacious than it is.

Last week the Strib ran this bit of smear: Amy Senser's Lawyer Claims Hit-and-Run Victim Was on Drugs. That headline wasn't inaccurate (the lawyer did claim just that, according to the story), but it blames the victim in large type.

The Pioneer Press's headline went at it differently: Attorney Says Man Amy Senser Hit Was Camouflaged by Orange Barrels. I don't think that's quite what they ran in the newsprint edition, but it definitely didn't refer to drugs. In fact, the PiPress story doesn't report on the drug claim at all.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Early February Media Goodness

IDs not so easy to come by: A Pioneer Press letter in today's paper from a woman who has worked with people trying to get photo IDs shows just how hard it can be:

In my work assisting adults with various services, I assist in obtaining a picture ID - whether it is a Minnesota driver's license or ID card. Some folks at our Legislature say it is easy to acquire a picture ID card. If one has needed documents, it may not be difficult. However, the operative word here is "if."

I work in a bureaucracy, a county agency, and to assist persons with this, I need to work with two other bureaucracies, the state of Minnesota and Social Security Administration. The dilemma is this: To obtain a picture ID card, one needs a certified birth certificate with the embossed seal (not a copy) and an original Social Security card. In situations I worked with, the adults did not have an original Social Security card or the needed birth certificate. However, to obtain a Social Security card, one needs a picture ID card and a birth certificate. So, you can see the problem.

It is not always easy to obtain a birth certificate. And there is the cost, which is prohibitive to some people. Minnesota Vehicle Services has a "variance request form." This also involves providing a certified birth certificate. If Minnesota Vehicle Services grants the variance, the adult is able to obtain a Social Security card - if he or she also has a certified birth certificate. This all takes time, and not all people have professionals to assist them.

If this law were to go into effect, it would greatly discriminate against many of our fellow Minnesotans - elders, poor, disabled and homeless. My hope is that Minnesotans do not want to do that to their fellow citizens.

Jean Anderson, North St. Paul
Talking about the local landscape: Architectural historian Larry Millett, dean of the architecture school at the U of M Tom Fisher, and Jay Walljasper, promoter of the idea of the Commons were on MPR's Midday last week, discussing reuse of empty buildings in Minnesota. A conversation to warm the heart of James Howard Kunstler.

The imprisonment of America: An absolutely stunning 45 minutes of radio this morning on Midmorning. Two guests revealed the excruciating state of incarceration in America, including the fact that 50 percent of black men without a high school diploma are in jail. When the show started, I thought the fact that one guest calls it "the new Jim Crow" was a bit strong, but I left convinced. And the rise of for-profit prisons and other businesses selling services to prisons only makes it less likely that anything will change.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Big Event

  • It happens once a year.
  • Leading up to it, competitors meet to bash each others' brains in, with one side coming out the winner.
  • Strategy and good coaching make all the difference.
  • It fills many pages of the newspapers. Reporters are assigned to cover it to the exclusion of anything else, becoming experts on the major players.
  • Radio talk shows are devoted to discussing mistakes that were made each week.
  • Television analysts tell us about who was blindsided, who fumbled, and what was a game-changer.
  • People discuss it around the water cooler, at lunch, and on Facebook. Each person has a favorite.
  • Finally, only two competitors are left.
  • And then on the first of November, we go and vote.
What, you thought I was describing the Superbowl?

I realized today (yet again, but in a new way) that my interests are completely inverse to those of many other people. I have no interest in football, and in fact would not know who is playing in today's Superbowl if John Stewart didn't keep mentioning the Giants and Patriots on The Daily Show.

If a local team were in the game, however, I would probably pay more attention. For instance, I did watch every game of the two World Series that included the Minnesota Twins.

Many other people feel the same way about sports as I do about politics. While I can't help wishing for a shorter election season, I admit I have a very high threshold for sustaining interest in all the details. Even when it starts two years before the date. Sports fans, after all, have an on-going interest in the stats of players and even create fantasy teams, right?

My almost-grudging participation in the Twin's World Series' appearances is similar to how some folks feel about voting. They do it, but only in presidential elections, and they spend a minimum of time considering their vote. Others don't do it at all.

Because of my bias, I can't help thinking that our general level of interest in these two parts of American life is exactly backwards. Or that, at a minimum, it would be better if we could manage to find an interest in both, as some people do. It's our government, after all -- the way we work together to make common decisions that affect us all.

But I'm afraid it's the sports fans who'll have to acquire a new interest in elections, because it's very unlikely I'll suddenly begin to find professional sports fascinating.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Repression 1, Free Speech 0

Photo of Josh Fox being handcuffed by a Capitol police officer
It's bad enough that journalists have been and are being excluded from covering police actions against the Occupy movement and that the World Press Freedom Index downgraded the U.S. from 20th to 47th, but now it's even happening in the halls of Congress.

The First Amendment is a bit open to interpretation, but the part that says "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom...of the press" seems pretty clear.

Tell that to the chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. He ordered an Oscar-winning documentarian arrested last week, after denying him and his crew credentials to film at an open committee hearing. The hearing wasn't mobbed with crews wanting to film, so limited space -- the only legitimate grounds to deny a journalist access to an open hearing -- was not the reason. It was clearly a political rejection. Details here.

The filmmaker, Josh Fox, is known for the HBO documentary Gasland, which turned a critical eye on the use of hydraulic fracturing as a natural gas drilling method. Fox is working on a sequel and wanted to film a hearing on links between fracking and water pollution in Wyoming.

He had applied through the proper channels and was refused. According to the Huffington Post:
Fox asked to attend when the hearing was announced on Monday. By Tuesday morning, he had been refused by Republican leadership on the committee. Fox appealed to the chairman, but did not hear back before the hearing. His crew, he said, was told, "If you're working for 'Gasland,' just forget it." Any credentialed reporter working on the documentary "will have their credentials jeopardized," he said the crew was told.
There were reports that an ABC crew, with the proper credentials, was also denied access to the room. (CSPAN was filming, but it only shoots in low resolution, and ABC and Josh Fox wanted better footage.)

By the way, no one stopped the Congressional staffers who hauled out their iPhones to film Fox's arrest. I guess only journalists are prohibited from filming in the halls of Congress.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Morons Marching Away from Omelas

Recently I amused myself by thinking of a situation where two short stories -- "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula LeGuin and Cyril Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" -- were read aloud at the same event. The result was a matter/antimatter explosion that could have been featured on Star Trek.

I've written about "Omelas" before (as has John Scalzi, among others). It's a secular parable, basically in the vein of Christ's reminder, "Whatever you did unto one of the least, you did unto me."

"Morons," on the other hand (perhaps it would be more accurate to say, "on a hand on a different body"), is an antecedent to both Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and the works of Charles Murray. In it, a Rip-van-Winkle-like character named Barlow awakens to find himself far in the future, when the population of the world has been dumbed down because of too much breeding among the "undesirable." The few intelligent people left run everything, but they let the stupids think they're in charge. In the end, Barlow comes up with a plan to convince the populace that we're colonizing Venus and everyone is going, when in reality the rockets the "morons" board are actually sending them off to their deaths in space.

The story (and Kornbluth, one infers) has no affection for Barlow's final solution, but at the same time the whole thing is premised on the idea that disposing of the undesirables was a necessary evil.

This kind of thinking is contrary to the fact that IQs have been going up for the past century, as Steven Pinker reminds us. As PZ Myers put it,

The other premise of the marching morons scenario, that the underclass would sink deeper and deeper into stupidity, is completely absurd. There aren't any human subcultures that don't value problem-solving and cleverness, where apathy and dull-wittedness are desirable traits in a mate (again, there are individuals who are contrary, but we're talking about populations here.) Growing up [working poor, sometimes called white trash], I experienced that social pressure that makes getting good grades in school a problem for fitting in with a certain peer group — but that isn't about despising intelligence, it's about conforming to the trappings of your group and not adopting the markers of another class, especially when that class has a habit of treating you like dirt and talking abstractly about how to expunge you, your family, and your friends from the gene pool.

And no, eating brie, going to Harvard, and reading the Wall Street Journal are not indicators of ability — they are properties of class. Drinking beer, learning a trade, and reading Sports Illustrated doesn't mean you're dumber, or that there are genes driving your choices — it means you are the product of a particular environment. Yet we all practice this fallacy of judging someone's intelligence by how they dress or their entertainment preferences, and society as a whole indulges in the self-fulfilling prophecy of doling out educational opportunities on the basis of economic status.

There are mobs of stupid people out there. Sterilizing them or shipping them off to Venus won't change a thing, though, no matter how effective your elimination procedures are, because you'll just breed more from the remaining elite stock. Similarly, lining up the elites against the wall won't change the overall potential of the population — new elites will arise from the common stock. The answer is always going to be education and opportunity and mobility. That's what's galling about Kornbluth's story, that it is so one-dimensional, and the proposed solution is a non-solution.
It's easy to get bent out of shape by dreck like Murray's or provocation like Kornbluth's. Myers wrote a stirring response to it, as Scalzi has to Atlas Shrugged. (Interestingly, Scalzi and Myers both grew up poor or working poor, so their perspectives have extra resonance.)

But possibly we (or our blood pressure) would all be better off if we just made fun of these ideas, as Douglas Adams did in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe with his own parable of the Golgafrinchans. In what must have been a reference to "Morons," Adams told of a society that had fooled all of its "useless" people into heading off into space for a one-way trip to nowhere. All of the telephone sanitizers, hairdressers, management consultants and marketing executives boarded a ship, thinking they were the first wave of colonization.

All was well for the smarties until they were all killed by a virulent disease spread on contaminated telephone receivers.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wrong Place, Wrong Kind

Imagine you're driving down a stretch of urban interstate and you see this billboard:

Lavender billboard with a cartoon hammer and the word Hammered?
What would you think it was for?

Unconsciously processing the cheery, script typeface and happy-faced tool, I had the vague idea it was for a home handyman service or a contractor. (Maybe one owned by gay men, since the background is lavender.)

Nope.

Close up of the billboard showing it's for a cab company, looking for business from people who are drunk
Keep in mind the traffic is going past at 55 to 65 miles an hour most of the time, and the billboard is not even right next to the highway. That type is completely unreadable, except the word "Hammered" and the phone number. (I got off the highway onto an exit ramp to take the photo, and even then it wasn't all that close.)

Not to mention that if you're seeing the billboard, you're already in a car, given that you're on a highway. Does the cab company think drivers are going to memorize even a simple phone number on the off chance they're drunk some other time and want to call a cab? I could understand this billboard if it were redesigned a bit and put somewhere that people are already likely to be drinking, but on an interstate?

And maybe it could have a different background color... maybe something like blue to reinforce the name of the company? Just an idea.

Shot at I-94 and Cretin Avenue in St. Paul.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lots of Dots

A letter in yesterday's Star Tribune by Steven Boyer of St. Paul included this fact I never knew:

We have 400 military bases in Afghanistan. That's a base for every 629 square miles. If they were evenly spaced around the country, no base would be more than 25 miles from another; in fact, there would be four bases 25 miles away and another four bases 35 miles away from each of the 400 bases.
Because I lack imagination, I wanted to map that spacing onto a geographic region I'm familiar with, so I picked Minnesota:

County map of Minnesota with a grid of blue dots at 25 mile increments
Thirteen bases in St. Louis County alone.

Remember, Minnesota is about one-third the size of Afghanistan.