Saturday, October 19, 2013

All This from a Pile of Newsprint

You wouldn't believe the mound of newspaper clippings on my desk that await write-ups. In fact, it's so unbelievable I feel the need to include a photo:

These are in roughly reverse chronological order, since that's how it works when you deconstruct a mound.

Judge OKs extension of NSA phone-monitoring program (New York Times via Star Tribune). Two different FISA court judges (both women, grrrr) found that the NSA can collect phone call metadata because the Supreme Court in 1979 allowed police to get phone usage records for people being investigated for a crime. Seems to me like a pretty big difference between that and getting usage data on every person in the country. The reasoning in the 1979 case rests on the idea that you can't have a reasonable expectation of privacy for this data if the phone company has records of your usage. A 2012 Supreme Court decision, which found that a warrant was required to put a GPS tracker onto a suspect's car, would seem more applicable, but the second judge ruled that precedent didn't matter in the NSA case for no apparently good reason. It's time for the courts to catch up to technological change and give up on notions premised on the horse-and-buggy days.

Women scientists targeting Wikipedia (Associated Press via Star Tribune). Targeting, in this case, means holding an edit-a-thon to add or flesh out Wikipedia entries on women scientists. Get this: One example is Ingeborg Hochmair, "who does not have a page even though last month she won the prestigious Lasker Award for medical research for her work developing the modern cochlear implant. By contrast, her husband, Erwin Hochmair, an accomplished engineer who helped develop the device but did not win a Lasker prize, has his own page." And this: "Sara Hartse and Jacqueline Gu, both Brown freshmen and computer science students, said they first became aware of gender inequity on Wikipedia during an uproar in the spring when someone began systematically moving female novelists including Harper Lee and Ann Rice off the 'American Novelists' page and onto the 'American Women Novelists' subcategory."

Report: Fast-food wages have high cost (Washington Post via Star Tribune). The seven largest fast-food companies made $7.4 billion in profits last year. 900,000 of their employees (half their workforce) use federal safety net programs like SNAP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Medicaid, amounting to $6.8 billion in taxpayer subsidies to the corporations.

This reminded me of a link I never managed to post about six months ago: Apple, Walmart, McDonald's: Who's the biggest wage stiffer? The answer depends on how you measure it. Walmart underpays the most people, McDonald's pays the lowest wages, and Apple makes the most per employee without sharing it with the employees (half a million dollars per employee... and that doesn't count the subcontracted workers in the Chinese factories, of course).

A nifty, somewhat lengthy article from the Pioneer Press on whether to decrease city and suburban speed limits from 30 to 25 miles per hour: Neighborhood speed limit fight stuck in neutral. I'm a fan of lowering speed limits (or heck, let's ban private cars inside city limits), but the article gives a good explanation of the case against it, as well as the one for it. Police, surprisingly to me, are against lowering limits because "enforcing it would drain time and resources." The DOT says lowering the limit will create an unsafe mix of low and high speeds. Wisconsin, which has 25 mph speed limits in its towns and cities, has much higher rates of injury and fatalities in pedestrian crashes than Minnesota. Things are never as simple as they seem. As shown in Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic, wider roads make people drive faster. So maybe we need to narrow lanes and make things more complicated for drivers, not less.

Your state wants no part of Obamacare? Have it your way (Star Tribune commentary by David Morris from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance). Written during the government shutdown, Morris has a plan to let states opt out altogether if they meet three conditions: 1) They have to go without any provisions of the law, including no exclusion of preexisting conditions and allowing young adults on their parents' plans. 2) States that are implementing the law can have greater latitude to design their own, including single-payer now instead of waiting until 2017, as under the current law. 3) People in the opt-out states have to approve the opt-out by referendum, their legislature must approve it, and their governor must sign it. And how about we hold those referenda in 2014. Then, as Morris says, "the United States will become the world’s biggest social laboratory. Some states will operate under a pre-2009 health structure with large numbers of uninsured and a system dominated by private insurance companies. Others will create systems that provide universal access, likely with a public option."

What to do today if tomorrow never comes? (New York Times commentary via Star Tribune). Philosophy professor Samuel Scheffer ruminates on the importance of knowing that humans in general will continue after we're gone, rather than the need to believe there's a personal afterlife. "The knowledge that we and everyone we know and love will someday die does not cause most of us to lose confidence in the value of our daily activities. But the knowledge that no new people would come into existence would make many of those things seem pointless."

Pills made from poop cure serious gut woes (Associated Press via Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel). I already knew about fecal transplants, but I hadn't heard that advances have been made on turning the transplants into individualized pills. "Donor stool, usually from a relative, is processed in the lab to take out food and extract the bacteria and clean it. It is packed into triple-coated gel capsules so they won't dissolve until they reach the intestines." After downing two or three dozen of these capsules, all of the 27 trial patients with Clostridium difficile infections were cured.

Charity: Cargill skirting land laws. Oxfam says large land buy in Colombia illegal (Pioneer Press). Colombia passed laws over the past few decades to sell state-owned land to small-scale farmers in order to counter the country's extreme levels of land-ownership concentration. To grab land in spite of those restrictions, Cargill (a privately held, Minnesota-based ag company) set up shell companies to acquire over 125,000 acres of land. "Each of Cargill's 39 adjoining tracts shares the same address, same board member and same economic activity -- growing corn, soybeans and other crops." Nice move, Cargill.

Male sensitivity written in genes (New York Times via Star Tribune). "...the gene responsible for activating male development is surprisingly unstable, leaving the pathway to male sexuality fraught with inconsistency, a study finds.... This tenuous switch is what underlies the variability of testosterone secretion in utero,” he said, producing men with a wide range of gender styles and capabilities that can help ensure a community’s survival."

Guess what? The world is an improving place (commentary from Foreign Policy via Star Tribune). The number of democracies has nearly doubled in the past 25 years. Per capita income has increased from $6,200 to almost $10,000 since 1985, literacy rates have risen from 75 to 85 percent in the past 20 years. And smart phone adoption rates in developing countries put many people into touch with the web of innovation. It's like a page out of Steven Pinker's notes.

To that irritated lady at the store...I'm sorry—I should have told you to your face you were being presumptuous (commentary by Minneapolis resident Sue Bulger from the Star Tribune). Bulger was shopping for food for her adult disabled son, using his EBT card, when she was disparaged by a nearby shopper for using food stamps. "I thought I could handle your disdain, since I am a professional working at a local corporation where I am surrounded every day by people who respect me and care about me. But it still made me feel a little dirty — unworthy — and I still went home and cried in the privacy of my shower so my family would not know I was hurt by you."

I really don't get why people feel the need to police the payment methods and basket contents of people in line next to them. A recent Facebook post by a relative of mine went like this: "I was in line at the grocery store yesterday...... I noticed the woman ahead of me was using food stamps. Then I noticed she was in work clothes used by those in the medical profession. Then I noticed she had a stethoscope around her neck.... and a badge from [particular health care organization]. None of my business but I thought nurses made pretty good money." Followed by, of course, lots of comments from her right-wing friends about fraud. Until I shared a link to Bulger's Star Tribune commentary and another relative who uses WIC commented. That shut everyone up.

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