Friday, February 28, 2014

You Saw It Here First (Probably)

Remember this name: pCell.

It's a replacement technology for our current cell-based phone and data service, though it works through the current LTE networks. From a comment written by the founder of the company:

pCell is indeed a much bigger deal than anyone has yet touched on. The "tubes to transistors" analogy is not just marketing speak: Compared to cellular, pCell is far more reliable, enables much smaller and lower power device and can be continually extended in density. Tubes had physical constraints that limited their reliability and scalability. Transistors did not. Cellular (and other interference avoidance protocols like Wi-Fi and cognitive radio) have a physical constraints that limit their reliability and scalability. pCell does not (as far as we know). Cellular has stalled in scalability. There is an entire era of innovation in front of us with pCell.
What does this mean? pCell would allow for much smaller devices because their batteries could be significantly smaller. That also means the batteries use fewer  materials, which are therefore cheaper and better for the planet.

The cell system could completely change because of this. The pCell antennas are very small and don't require line-of-sight, unlike current cell towers. Many more connections and amounts of data can be carried within the same bandwidth. So cities like New York and San Francisco -- where it can be impossible to get good coverage because too many people are using the bandwidth -- would have no problems.

pCell is the technology; Artemis is the company.

pCell would also make it much easier to extend the technology to rural areas because the cost is much lower, closing one part of the digital divide worldwide.

The one negative thing I had to say about pCell was a plaintive wish that people like this would apply themselves to technologies that could help solve climate change. The digital divide is important, but not compared to climate change. (Although you could make the argument that closing the digital divide may extend human potential broadly enough to find a solution to the larger problem.)

Well, it may be that pCell also has applications that are more directly related to energy use. A techie named Imran Akbar, a vice president at Motorola, has posted his thoughts on pCell's possible use as a wireless energy distribution system.

What could that mean? The first thing I thought about was the aging, vulnerable grid. About the huge amounts of energy lost in transmission through physical media. About all the power lines that fall from trees in the winter. And a pCell-based system would be more distributed, meaning power sources could be more distributed as well (which works better with renewable energy sources).

But it also could mean interstate highways studded with wireless power transmitters, with electric vehicles driving without the need for heavy, expensive batteries (that are made from rare earth metals). Therefore less carbon, of course.

Where will it go? It sounds like this innovaiton is going somewhere, and won't just be one of the tech blips you never hear about again. (Of course, it sounds like a tremendous threat to established corporate interests like Comcast and Time Warner. Let's see what happens.)


Here's a video of Perlman demoing pCell at Columbia University (Feb. 19, 2014).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Old Friends

In 2006, elephants were found to pass the mirror test. This video about two elephants being reunited after more than a decade makes it clear they recognize other elephants, too.

After years spent in separate traveling circuses, they were brought together at an elephant rescue sanctuary in the American South.

I tend to not get too choked up about rescue animals, but this seven minute video has stuck with me.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Who's in the Pipeline?

"There aren't enough women in the pipeline."

That's often the explanation for why more women aren't in higher office in this country. Fewer women in legislatures means fewer women perceived as qualified to run for Congress, serve in the Cabinet, or run for President.

Where does that pipeline start? One place is way back in the page programs of the state legislatures.

This photo, from today's Star Tribune, shows some of the new pages for this year's Minnesota legislative session. They're being oriented by a woman, and there is one woman and one man working in the background. But the pages themselves appear to be two white girls, one Asian-American boy, and eight white boys.

Check the pipeline entry point. It may be clogged.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fraternity Used to Mean Brotherhood

So far, I've avoided reading the Atlantic story about fraternities. Maybe it's because I first heard about it on Twitter as the best lede of the year, and then found out it had something to do with a guy shooting a rocket out of his butt. No thanks.

The author was on NPR this morning, though, and what she had to say about the business side of it made me think there's more to it than I thought. Fraternities collectively self insure because otherwise they couldn't afford it. They're one of the worst risks out there, right behind toxic waste cleanup companies, she said.

The number-one cause of an insurance claim against a frat house is assault and battery, followed by sexual assault.

And get this -- if you're a 19-year-old frat brother drinking beer on the first floor when a sexual assault takes place upstairs, you'll not only be hauled down to the police station, your parents' homeowners insurance will have cover any liability. I wonder if the parents know that?

The most expensive part of joining a fraternity is the portion of your dues that go to fraternity insurance. And I think a lot of parents feel calmed by that. What will happen is, if Johnny has made any mistake the night that there's a big incident, if he was downstairs at the fraternity having beers and upstairs someone is getting sexually assaulted, and he's under 21, he's going to be a named defendant. He'll get dropped from his fraternity insurance in a second. The fraternity will probably drop him from the fraternity. ...

It would come from your parents' homeowner policy. College kids' legal address is their parents' home address. Their liability is covered under the umbrella policy of their parents' homeowners insurance. And the fraternity is going to drop them in a second if it possibly can because they don't want to pay their liability once there's been an incident. And if the kid needs a legal defense, his parents are going to have to find the money for that too.
The so-called Greeks (including sororities) house one-eighth of all college students.

What a system. What a bunch of suckers.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Or Does It Explode?

Following up on recent and not-so-recent mentions of guard labor, this from Richard Florida on intentional homicide rates in cities around the world.

What correlates with higher murder rates?

  • Income inequality (also the culprit when it comes to guard labor)
  • Gender inequality 
  • A high score on the "macho index"
The latter two are hallmarks of honor culture as well, which makes sense. As Steven Pinker pointed out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, the New England states, which have murder levels almost as low as Europe's, see just as many people killed in robberies as the Southern states. It's killings that start from arguments and maintaining honor (as described by Carl Hart when talking about his upbringing) that make much of the South more violent than much of the North.

Florida closes with this:
It's important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, but, overall, it is certainly intriguing to note that inequality, rather than poverty, appears to be associated with higher levels of violence — and that pride and machismo appear to be significant factors as well. Not surprisingly, the more that proud people are reminded of how powerless they are, the more likely they are to explode.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lights Out

It's not the funniest lit sign failure I've seen, but for Twin Cities residents, this is a pretty good one:

Edina (pronounced ee-DINE-uh) is a ritzy suburb southwest of Minneapolis. I don't know what "Edina Real" is, but I'm sure it's something for the well-off aspire to.

Seen in Highland Park, Saint Paul.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Poem About Periods (Not Punctuation)

I don't remember when I first heard a man say, "Never trust anything that bleeds for seven days and doesn’t die." It was a long time ago, and it's even possible I read it rather than heard it. Maybe it was a comedian? I'm not sure. Such is the state of memory.

I had forgotten about it until I ran across this poem by a writer named Katherine Tucker. I apologize for the swearing in it, but not for the feeling behind it.

What To Do When Your Boyfriend’s Asshole Best Friend Says, “Hey, Never Trust Anything That Bleeds For Seven Days And Doesn’t Die, Right?”
OR The Only Poem I’ll Ever Write About Periods.

Don’t excuse him because he’s had
at least three lite beers
and is sweating through his black button down
that his mom or exgirlfriend
probably bought him.
Don’t excuse him because he’s been turned down
by the last six girls he went on dates with
after meeting them on tinder
with a picture that’s seven years old
Don’t excuse him because
he’s usually such a nice guy
because you don’t want to be a bitch
because you don’t want to cause a scene
because when you were seventeen
your sister told you
no one likes an angry feminist

Tell him,
Hey, Asshole:
Let me explain something to you.
Every goddamn motherfucking month since I was eleven,
a part of me
tore itself to shreds
ripped itself apart inside me
and then remade itself.

So yes, I bleed for seven days
and I don’t die
You know what else can do that?
Immortal beings.
Things of legend.
Fuck, I can even
create life.

So I say, never trust anything that can’t
bleed for seven days and not die.
You know what that makes it?
So let’s see, hon,
What you’re made of.
If you can bleed for seven days
and not die.

Rip out his jugular with your teeth.
And when he bleeds for seven seconds
and dies,
spit on his corpse and say,
I thought not.
Angry, yes. But a bracing example of turning a premise on its head.

Friday, February 21, 2014

You Won't Believe the Tabs

The U.S. now employs "as many private security guards as high school teachers." That doesn't count police, members of the military, prison and court officials. Does that seem right? "The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890 — a year when, in case you were wondering, the homicide rate was much higher than today." From One Nation Under Guard, New York Times Opinionator, by Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev (here's a past post about guard labor and Bowles's work).

A newly found Tumblr full of laughter to tears to the point of pain: I give you Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos. The photos are bad, sure, but the genius is in the captions. Just one excerpt:

After days of waiting this agent’s patience is finally rewarded. Weak with thirst, a pair of wild mattresses appear at the watering hole.

By the great David Cay Johnston: the myth of health care's free market.

China has approved a huge increase in coal-fired power plants, which is not good, though also not a shock. But there was one fact right in the lead that put it into perspective:

China approved the construction of more than 100 million tons of new coal production capacity in 2013, six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 percent of U.S. annual usage, flying in the face of plans to tackle choking air pollution (emphasis added).
So China, with more than four times as many people as the U.S., is being called out for daring to build 10 percent of what we use. Don't get me wrong, I don't want anyone to build or continue to use coal-fired power plants, but isn't this hypocritical?

An academic study from an urban planning journal (pdf): Secessionist Automobility: Racism, Anti-Urbanism, and the Politics of Automobility in Atlanta, Georgia. The writer defines secessionist automobility as "using the car as a means of physically separating oneself from spatial configurations like higher urban density, public space, or from the city altogether."A quote from the abstract: "Secessionist automobility is bound with the blunt politics of race-based secession from urban space, but also more subtle forms of spatial secession rooted in anti-urban ideologies."

According to CNN, Americans spend $18 billion on Valentine's Day, or $131 per person. We also spend $6 billion on Halloween. For comparison, total spending on the 2012 presidential election, the most expensive one on record, was just under $6 billion. So don't tell me we couldn't have public financing of elections.

I'm not the only one obsessed with letter shapes and plants. Meet Ana Bangueses, who has created an alphabet based on the design of the Bodoni typeface, but rendered in plants. This is her take on Wisteria:

She calls the work Herbarium Typography. Here she is drawing ginkgo leaves for the G:

Bangueses is a 21-year-old graphic designer living in Barcelona.

Living in a violent neighborhood is as likely to give you PTSD as going to war (from Mother Jones).

How to build a solar furnace for under $300. Really.

Hari Kondabolu, one of the writers on W. Kamau Bell's now-defunct show Totally Biased, puts on a short bit about race in America as we head toward 2042, when white people will become a minority in the U.S.

Orange juice is not health food. It was promoted based on misinformed and unscientific thinking and now it's supported by a huge industry that's contributing to the sugar-fueled sickening of our people. Stop it right now.

Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson recently unveiled a 50-state plan to transform U.S. energy use to renewable resources. More details at The Solutions Project (click the 50 Plans link).

If you ever hear someone from the Employment Policy Institute arguing against raising the minimum wage, remember their "think tank" is a front for the restaurant industry.

From Forbes (of all places): In the World's Best-Run Economy, house prices keep falling -- because that's what house prices are supposed to do. (Which economy are they talking about? Germany's.)

Bad news: shrinking household size may offset progress in curbing population. Fewer people living in more space and buying more stuff. (And eating more meat, of course.)

And some good news: a new ‘pomegranate-inspired’ design solves problems for lithium-ion batteries.
While these experiments show the technique works...the team will have to solve two more problems to make it viable on a commercial scale: They need to simplify the process and find a cheaper source of silicon nanoparticles. One possible source is rice husks: They’re unfit for human food, produced by the millions of tons and 20 percent silicon dioxide by weight. According to Liu, they could be transformed into pure silicon nanoparticles relatively easily...
One more for my Florida, WTF? file: Until 2011, Florida was still placing young male offenders in a labor camp where black boys were essentially treated as slaves doing hard labor, while white boys got wood shop and vocational education. Mother Jones recently returned to the place with several retirement-age black  men who spent their teen years there, often for "crimes" as minor as truancy.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reign of Error

For two-thirds of her book Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch lays out what's wrong with constant student testing, evaluating teachers based on those tests, and privatization of and profit-making from schools. Great stuff, of course, but the part I like the best is the last third, which tells us what we should be doing in schools.

The gist of the solutions is this:
Poor and immigrant children need the same sorts of schools that wealthy children have, only more so. Those who start life with the fewest advantages need even smaller classes, even more art, science, and music to engage them, to spark their creativity and to fulfill their potential. (page 8)
More on the solutions later. First, some great nuggets from "the problem" chapters:
[On the NAEP tests] black student achievement was higher in 2009 than white student achievement in 1990. In addition, over this past generation there has been a remarkable decline in the proportion of African American and Hispanic students who register as "below basic," the lowest possible academic rating on the NAEP tests. If white achievement had stood still, the achievement gap would be closed by now... (page 56)
[Education department analyst Keith] Baker looked at per capita gross domestic product of the nation's whose students competed [on international achievement tests] in 1964. He found that "the higher a nation's test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth--the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen." The rate of economic growth improved, he held as test scores dropped. There was no relationship between a nation's productivity and its test scores. Nor did high test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or livability, and the lower-scoring nations in the assessment were more successful at achieving democracy than those with higher scores. (page 71)
High school dropout rates have declined strongly, though you wouldn't know it from any of the regular media. For people between school age and 24, the percent without a diploma in 1972 vs 2009 were:

Whites — 12 percent, decreasing to 5 percent
Blacks — 21 percent, decreasing to 9 percent
Latinos — 34 percent, decreasing to 18 percent*

From the chapter on teachers and test scores:
Certainly, there are many people whose lives were changed by one teacher, but their stories typically describe teachers who were unusually inspiring,  not "the teacher who raised my test scores to the top." Teachers do have the power to change lives. But after more than a decade of No Child Left Behind, researchers are still searching for a nonselective school or a district where every student, regardless of his or her starting point, has achieved proficiency on state tests because that school or district has only effective teachers. (page 103)
On the results of Teach for America:
Careful reviews of research have concluded that TFA corps members get about the same test score results as other new and uncertified teachers. Some studies show that TFA teachers get small but significant gains in math but not in reading. One of the most positive studies found that the students taught by TFA teachers increased their math scores from the 14th percentile to the 17th percentile, which was significant but very far from closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their high-income peers.

...When compared to beginning teachers who were credentialed... "the students of novice TFA teachers performed signficantly less well in reading and mathematics." (pages 137-138)
If they continue as teachers, TFAers can close their own achievement gap, but 50 percent leave after two years, and 80 percent after three years, and that turnover, of course, has its own cost to the schools.
The claims made by Teach for America distract the nation from the hard work of truly reforming the education profession. Instead of building a profession that attracts well-qualified candidates to make a career of working in the nation's classrooms, our leaders are pouring large sums of money into a richly endowed organization that supplies temporary teachers. (page 143)
Anyone who thinks charter schools, and particularly for-profit charters, are a good idea should read Reign of Error's chapter 16. It's a nightmare of facts about corporate influence, pushing costs down by limiting instruction, and weaseling around regulation. Not to mention political influence peddling.

That's enough of the problem. Ravitch provides a detailed outline of the solution, summarized and somewhat oversimplified as follows:
  1. Prenatal care and high-quality early childhood education that is child-centered and not test driven.
  2. Balanced curricula with arts, physical education, science, and history—not just math and reading.
  3. Class sizes comparable to those in elite private schools.
  4. Charter schools on a completely even playing field— not allowed to cherry-pick their students. No for-profit charters. And locally controlled only.
  5. Wraparound services to compensate as much as possible for the effects of poverty. (Since that is the real problem, as shown by U.S. students' international test scores when schools are matched by the percent of students living in poverty.)
  6. Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and use tests as they should be used: to assess individual students' weaknesses in order to provide appropriate instruction.
  7. Strengthen the professionalism of teachers, as in the Finnish example.
  8. Protect local control of schools through local school boards, including fighting the influence of external money in these elections.
  9. Implement national, regional, and local policies to end housing segregation and eliminate poverty.
As she says, "Are all of these changes expensive? Yes, but not nearly as expensive as the social and economic costs of crime, illness, violence, despair, and wasted human talent" (page 299).

Education is a public good. It’s part of the commons that make for a civil society. We need to start acting like that’s what we believe.

* These stats mirror a story from today's Star Tribune about Minnesota's graduation rates: Dramatic gains push grad rate to 10-year high. In the last 10 years, the overall percentage of students graduating on time has increased from 72.5 to 79.5, with the largest gains among students of color (from 33.4 to 58.3 for Latinos, from 36.4 to 57 for African and African-Americans, from 37.9 to 48.7 for American Indians, and from 63.6 to 77.7 for Asian-Americans).

Note that those are students graduating on time -- not at age 20, or getting a GED. Ravitch's numbers include everyone who has a high school diploma by age 24, no matter which path they followed to get it. Since Minnesota's on-time graduation rate is several points higher than the national average, it may be that our 24-year-old diploma rate is also better than the numbers Ravitch cites for the country as a whole.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Those Are Some Bad-Looking Babies

As with most things in the age of the interweb, if you notice some oddity, it's pretty likely someone has already created a website about it. I wrote a while back about the strange depictions of the baby Jesus I saw at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Well, it turns out there's a whole Tumblr devoted to ugly Renaissance babies. Here are a few.

Well, at least he resembles his mother.

Proof that Jesus and Mary were, indeed, aliens.

Doesn't he look like Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner?

Glad to have that out of my system!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Some Actual Facts on Marijuana Effects

Here's one to file away where you know you can find it: Information on the difference between driving under the influence of alcohol vs. marijuana. By the unassailable Maggie Koerth-Baker, no less.

Some researchers say that limited resources are better applied to continuing to reduce drunken driving. Stoned driving, they say, is simply less dangerous.

Still, it is clear that marijuana use causes deficits that affect driving ability, Dr. [Marilyn A.] Huestis said. [Huestis is a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.] She noted that several researchers, working independently of one another, have come up with the same estimate: a twofold increase in the risk of an accident if there is any measurable amount of THC in the bloodstream.

The estimate is based on review papers that considered the results of many individual studies. The results were often contradictory — some of the papers showed no increase in risk, or even a decrease — but the twofold estimate is widely accepted.

The estimate is low, however, compared with the dangers of drunken driving. A recent study of federal crash data found that 20-year-old drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent — the legal limit for driving — had an almost 20-fold increase in the risk of a fatal accident compared with sober drivers. For older adults, up to age 34, the increase was ninefold.

The study’s lead author, Eduardo Romano, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said that once he adjusted for demographics and the presence of alcohol, marijuana did not statistically increase the risk of a crash.... [emphasis added]

The difference in risk between marijuana and alcohol can probably be explained by two things, Dr. Huestis and Dr. Romano both say. First, stoned drivers drive differently from drunken ones, and they have different deficits. Drunken drivers tend to drive faster than normal and to overestimate their skills, studies have shown; the opposite is true for stoned drivers. 
It's pretty clear which drug is the real problem.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter Wins

Okay, that's it. Winter has won for this year:

The edger we use for chipping ice snapped in two yesterday.

And then there's this unhappily owlish piece of garden art:

In warmer weather, this is what the owl looks like. Not much happier, really, but more colorful and a lot taller.

I hear it's going to warm up (maybe for good) this week -- highs in the mid to upper 30s. Which means snow, of course, since snow is what happens when it's above 20 degrees for more than a few days.

I remind myself of the historical nature of winter in these parts, as exemplified in The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This ain't so bad. Though the owl may not agree.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Books on Ice

This is the winter that seems like it won't end, so in response, one person has done what's necessary: A Little Free Library made out of the material at hand.

Although I hear it may be in the mid-30s this week. "Where were you when the library melted, Pa?"


Via Twitter user @globalhighered, Kris Olds, a geographer and planner in Madison, Wis.

Friday, February 14, 2014

One of the Real Monuments Men

I must have seen the preview for the new movie Monuments Men at least ten times since last summer and fall, after it began saturating movie theaters. (This tells you how often I go to the movies.)

But now that the film has finally opened, it turns out there's a bit of a controversy. It's not really history, you see -- the handful of art experts shown in the film, played by George Clooney, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and others -- were really 350 experts. The film characters are completely made up, as recounted by Lucia Wilkes Smith in an op-ed from Tuesday's Star Tribune.

Wilkes Smith knows this because she's the great niece of a real Monuments Man, a Minnesotan named Walter Huchthausen, who was one of only two members of the unit to be killed in action. She was invited to the opening events.
This movie is based on The Monuments Men and Rescuing da Vinci, nonfiction accounts written by Robert Edsel. He was at the [film premiere] party, too, and I asked him how he felt about the Hollywood-ization of his books. His face crumpled for only a moment before he regrouped. Edsel said he understands that the characters were developed to be interesting and compelling for audiences. He believes that the movie will inspire people to want to learn more and to investigate the history through the Monuments Men Foundation.
I hope that's true.

One other notable thing about Huchthausen: He was a first-generation German-American who arrived in 1923 at age 18, along with his parents. Isn't it interesting that the Army had no compunction about sending him off to wander around occupied Europe, at the same time second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans were sitting in internment camps because they were considered a threat to U.S. security?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

One in Eight!

When I found out you didn't really need to use a No. 2 pencil on standardized tests (it just had to be No. 2 or darker), it shook my world. Finding out this week that one in eight Minnesota drivers is driving without a valid license is more important and just as foundation-shifting.

Statewide since 2008, there have been nearly 310,000 convictions for violations related to driving without a valid license

The 2008-2013 convictions include learner's permit violations, as well as convictions for driving with a suspended, revoked, cancelled or disqualified license or no license at all. The records also show thousands of repeat offenders - drivers who have been convicted more than twice of some type of driver's license violation.

Drivers in the seven-county metro area accounted for more than half of the total convictions.
More than 300,000 convictions in six years -- 50,000 a year! Almost a third of them in Hennepin County. And way too many of them are repeaters who somehow manage to keep driving.

According to the Star Tribune's blog post about the stats, "motorists with invalid licenses are twice as likely as those with valid licenses to be involved in a fatal crash." Not too surprising.

Having no license means you have no insurance, either, of course.

Is this true in other states, or is Minnesota somehow particularly full of rule violators? I would have thought we would have fewer scofflaws than the average state (given the Lake Wobegon effect). But maybe not.

I hope other states don't have so many dangerous drivers on their roads.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Get the Insurance!

Tuesday's Star Tribune article about a young family trying to decide whether to buy health insurance was instructive on several levels.

Beyond the topic itself, I found by googling the couple's names that I know the husband's sister (which I realized because I can see her as a mutual friend on Facebook). So chalk up another one to life in the age of the interweb.

On the topic, though, Jamie and Wesley Ward put themselves out there in the paper, sharing their circumstances: Two children under three. One job (his). Low enough income to qualify the kids for Medical Assistance, but not low enough to qualify the parents.

A plan they found through MNsure would leave them with a monthly payment of $347 (just over $4,100 a year), which as a payment for two adults, one of whom has asthma, seems pretty reasonable to me. You could spend that much on one emergency room visit.

But Jamie is quoted as saying in the story that she "did the math," even consulting a financial planner, and "It might be cheaper to pay a hospital bill if something happens than to pay a premium every month."

Yeah, it might. In some years. And this from an asthmatic woman who has been rationing her inhaler use since she lost the insurance she had at her old job.

I was disturbed to read this in the article, though:

MNsure’s website gave the Wards hope, telling them they qualified for a tax subsidy to reduce the cost of premiums for plans they could purchase on the exchange. Later they learned that was incorrect.

Families generally qualify for subsidies when premiums eat up more than 9.5 percent of their household income; the Wards’ income put them just above that threshold.
So if $4,100 is just less than 9.5 percent of their income, that means they're bringing in about $43,000 a year.

According to the MNsure fact sheet families of four with incomes up to $94,200 qualify for tax credits. So what's up with that? And there's even supposed to be additional cost-sharing for families of four earning up to $58,875.

I wonder if they didn't get some bad advice somewhere along the way. Or is it because the children aren't on their plan?

I hope they find this out and get some insurance.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Updating a Classic

Remember the red-haired girl with the multicolored Lego blocks?

Someone tracked her down (now 37 years old).

Her name is Rachel Giordano and she lives in the Seattle area, working as a naturopathic practitioner. In the current photo (right), she's holding one of the pinkified Lego sets that currently afflict us.

Writer Michele Yulo, writing at, came up with her own update on the classic Lego ad, juxtaposing her daughter holding some current "boy" Lego blocks:

I learned from the first article that the new "girl" Lego pieces are not interchangeable with the "boy" or regular blocks. Even worse.

Monday, February 10, 2014

This Is How It's Done

Just a little more whining about Star Tribune illustrator-in-name-only Eddie Thomas. In the last month or so, the Strib gave us a nice example of the contrast between Thomas's work and that of an actual illustrator, Eric Hanson.

Hanson doesn't work for the Strib, but was commissioned specifically to do this art. Hanson's and Thomas's two sets of illustrations make a nice case study of the difference in artistic abilities, because both articles are about seasonal topics that newspapers run and try to refresh year after year, and both include a front page illustration and smaller, secondary illustrations that accompany the article jump.

Thomas's pictures ran with an article about hangovers just before New Year's:

As usual, he gives us a painfully ugly and badly drawn disaster in pseudo-3D.

While Hanson was asked to jazz up a food article about Superbowl parties:

Hanson's style is loose, playful, and expressive. He uses flat color to good effect.

Each illustrator was also tasked with multiple secondary illustrations:

Thomas attempts humor (mostly inappropriately) but doesn't succeed. And he switches to one of his other inept styles, which I have come to call bad flat cartoon.

While Hanson's individual food items exude charm and a sense of unified variety (a tough combination).

Which art would you rather look at? Which one has a style that's coherent between the primary and secondary art? Which one adds an appropriate sensibility to the article?

Whoever hired Hanson for the Superbowl article clearly knows how it should be done.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Psychopath Inside Comes Out

Unlike much of the public, I don't have a lurid fascination with psychopaths. I don't like true crime novels or television shows, and when I've occasionally read novels from the point of view of a psychopath (such as one of the earliest John Rebus novels by Ian Rankin), I resented the author for it.

I had a bit of that feeling while reading James Fallon's The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. Fallon, as I mentioned earlier, realized that the fMRI of his own brain looked a lot like those of the psychopaths he studies. He has no criminal history and has never been violent, though, so it's not the same as being forced to share thoughts with a killer.

On the other hand, he is massively narcissistic, which gets to be a bit much. I'm glad I'm not related to him, and I wonder how his wife (of 44 years) puts up with him. It made me glad it was only 227 pages with the widest linespacing I've ever seen in a book meant for adults.

Despite the annoyances, there are some revelations in the book.

Psychopaths are identified by their scores on something called Hare's Checklist. A perfect (psychopathic) score is 40, with 25 or 30 used as the cut off. The factors are interpersonal (deceitfulness, grandiosity), affective (lack of empathy, lack of remorse), behavioral (impulsivity), and antisocialness.

People with autism are not at all like psychopaths. "People with autism lack theory of mind but not empathy, while people with psychopathy lack empathy but not theory of mind" (page 55).

Fallon is descended from a long line of people who may have been psychopaths, starting with King John I of England, extending to the first matricidal killer in the colonies (Thomas Cornell, 1673), Lizzie Borden of axe fame, various other men (and a few women) convicted of murder, and one string of wife-abandoners. He acknowledges that genetic dilution through the generations makes this a bit dubious, but it's notable, nonetheless.

The so-called warrior gene, identified by Dutch researchers in the 1990s, is X-linked and therefore much more common in men than women. There's a 30 percent incidence rate of the gene generally and for men, but for women it's 9 percent (since we have two X chromosomes and it would have to be present in both). The warrior gene is not the same thing as psychopathy but they can easily coincide in the same person. (The rate of warrior gene incidence is higher among Africans, Chinese, and Maori, he says. He theorizes that it is lower in gene pools that come from places that were geographically protected from outsiders.)

Fallon proposes a three-legged stool as a metaphor for how psychopathy comes to exist in a person: one part genes, one part a particular pattern of brain functioning, and one part early childhood abuse. "I looked at all the case studies I could find...and saw that for all the psychopaths, including dictators, who had psychiatric reports from their youth, all had been abused and often had lost one or more of their biological parents" (pages 90-91).

The earlier the abuse happens, the bigger the effect it has. In-utero stressors would be the worst, but the "fourth trimester," the first several months of life, is almost as important.

Another crucial time is the teen years. It's well-known that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD, and other personality disorders often develop in these years. "Stressful stretches of a young person's life such as college, first marriage, and especially military combat couldn't come at a worse time for the developing prefrontal cortex" (page 101). Fallon agrees with me that "sending kids to war at eighteen is ridiculous" (page 101). He advocates a minimum age of 22 or 23.

Fallon describes, with almost too much painful detail, how he feels about his family and friends, how he manipulates, how he doesn't really care. He then says he thinks of himself as a prosocial psychopath, and that Bill Clinton may be like him (pages 161-162). He also speculates that there may be a "Libertarian brain" that looks a lot like his. My favorite political quote: "I wouldn't let a kid starve right in front of me -- I'm not a monster -- but if I ran the government I would cut out all welfare" (page 164). He goes on to say he thinks it's fine if the "weak" or "lazy" die.

If you've ever wondered who the person is that cuts in line without a thought, who intentionally parks in two or even four spaces, who thinks the rules don't apply to him, it's Fallon and people like him:
When I see a sign directing me to park somewhere proper and legal...I will continue to ignore the rules, knowing that the sign is there to serve whoever put up the sign, and not the rest of us. I'll find a place on the grass or next to a real space close to the door.... While these scofflaw behaviors are not really psychopathic in any serious sense, they do signify I can be a real jerk, or, as less polite people may call me, an asshole (page 207).
He ends the book by speculating on what evolutionary advantage psychopathy offers the human race (because if it didn't have one, it wouldn't be so prevalent). They make strong warriors, for one thing, and probably inventive leaders, since they can disengage emotionally from the action around them and they don't care what others think. (They're unlikely to suffer from PTSD, too. Bonus!)
All combinations of strengths and weaknesses become manifest in humans, and this both helps and harms individuals, but also add to the group. They also add to group diversity, the ability for at least some of us to survive any extremes of plague, climate change, or total war. Within this outlying group are the psychopaths, who in peaceful times act as predators and opportunistic parasites in a society, but under times of tremendous danger may save the day and continue breeding, albeit at the cost of keeping their traits in the gene pool for as long as humans exist (page 225).
Despite its insights, I'm glad to be done with the book and out of this particular psychopath's brain.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The New Jim Crow

I wrote this during the summer of 2013 and meant to add more quotes, but after the recent announcement by the Justice Department encouraging prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses to apply for clemency, I finally thought I should publish it as is.

I confess: I write on the pages of the nonfiction books I read, in part to mark passages for later citation and in part because I see the books as a conversation between me and the author. Brief underlining and side marks for longer passages are common. Occasionally, I'll make an exclamation point at a surprising or alarming fact.

I recently read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and it has lots of exclamation points. But for many of its facts I had to move beyond punctuation to profanity. Littered throughout you'll find the word Jesus! scribbled in the margin.

The book has been out since 2010, so I am very late to this. After hearing Alexander speak on an MPR radio show, I put it on my mental list of books to read, but it took me a while. Its premise sounds outrageous — that the drug war was an intentional means of reincarnating Jim Crow. At first, all you can do is scoff. But Alexander makes the case until there's no way to argue against her.

I encourage everyone to read it because it will completely change your perspective on major aspects of American history we've been living over the last 30 years.

Two things about it both surprised me and haunt me the most. First is just how much I've lived in privilege. Because I'm white, female, and middle-aged, I haven't felt personally oppressed by mass incarceration. Daughter Number Three-Point-One, though young, is white and female, plus she grew up in a neighborhood exempt from [it.] I know better, believe me I do, but if you don't live it, you can ignore it, and I have, to my chagrin.

Second is just how unspeakably bad the Supreme Court has been over the last 30 years. In too many cases, the court has decided in favor of unmitigated state power, leaving us with few clear civil liberties and making a mockery of the fourth and fifteenth amendments.


Related outrages:

Salon recounts the return of debtor's prison.

An Unholy Allliance: Private Prisons and the Christian Right

Did you hear about the 2013 Supreme Court decision that found police don't have to prove their drug-sniffing dogs have any training? So they can just bring their golden retriever along and use it as a pretext to search.

Plus one idea about what we could do with all the former prisons.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Real Skin

If Chris Christie manages to make it out of New Jersey and into the race for the presidency, and you see him in a debate some time, remember that men wear makeup too, especially when on television.

Because this is what his skin really looks like:

(As always, click to enlarge and see the detail.)

I hate to say it, but this picture makes me wonder if he has melanoma in his future. (Oh, and speaking of melanoma, the rates are up almost 25 times (times!) for women over the past 40 or so years, 4.5 times for men. Thanks, tanning salons.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cartoon Modern, Socially Backward

I'm never quite sure: Do illustrations from the 1950s and '60s appeal to me because they're bathed in that "everything was perfect when I was 8 years old" glow, or do they legitimately have some cheery artistic merit? I don't know, but I love cartoon modern drawings.

I found a boxful over the weekend while going through some family files.

These cards are great not just because of the art style, but also for the shocked laughter they provoke. Can you imagine a card like this today?

Sexist and racist -- a Daily Double!

So you're expecting another one! Wow.

This card had a length of heavy thread knotted at the center of the telephone. It ran through the seven other pages of the card, showing all of the people on the phone who were gossiping about you, the card recipient, and your latest pregnancy. (Because of the tightness of the thread, I couldn't open it up enough to get a photo.)

All those well-dressed ladies hanging out at home, leisurely taking a feather duster to their husband's framed photo. Oh yeah, as if that was ever a thing.

When she's not waiting lustily at the door....

...she's burning dinner in the age before smoke alarms.

There was an occasional card that had nice artwork without the reminder of how far we've come:

This one had raised thermographic letters and kind of a silk-screened finish. Not to mention a restrained color palette.

And I would be remiss if I left out the Sears freezer owners' guide, even though it uses photography instead of illustration. Don't we all stand around in our full-length dresses admiring our freezers?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Compared Longevity

I was feeling too tired to write anything, overwhelmed by the runaway tabs in my browser and so many ideas that would take too much time. But then I saw this:

At first I thought Minnesota had the longest life expectancy in the U.S. at 81.1 years, but then realized Hawaii was hiding out down there below Texas with 81.3 years.

But still. Woohoo! We beat Wisconsin by over a year and Iowa by almost a year and a half.

This made me curious about the countries that have higher life expectancies than the U.K. and Minnesota. I knew Japan would be near or at the top, but who else would accompany them?

Here's what the Wikipedia has to say, based on 2013 data:

1 Monaco 86.5
2 Japan 84.6
3 Andorra 84.2
5 Hong Kong China 83.8
6 San Marino 83.5
7 Iceland 83.3
8 Italy 83.1
9 Australia 83
10 Sweden 83
11 Switzerland 82.8
12 Canada 82.5
13 France 82.3 79
14 Israel 82.1
15 Spain 82
16 Luxembourg 82
17 Norway 81.9
18 New Zealand 81.7
19 Austria 81.5
20 Netherlands 81.5
21 Ireland 81.4
22 Cyprus 81.2

All of those countries have longer life expectancies than Minnesota. If we omit the principalities, cities like Hong Kong, and countries with populations under a million, which seem like unfair comparisons with larger and more divergent populations, we're left with:

1 Japan 84.6
2 Italy 83.1
3 Australia 83
4 Sweden 83
5 Switzerland 82.8
6 Canada 82.5
7 France 82.3 79
8 Israel 82.1
9 Spain 82
10 Norway 81.9
12 New Zealand 81.7
13 Austria 81.5
14 Netherlands 81.5
15 Ireland 81.4
17 Cyprus 81.2

So congratulations to those countries with their single-payer medical systems and mostly more relaxed approaches to work. (Italy, I'm looking at you.) Clearly, it pays off.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Chalking Horse

It's the Year of the Horse.

At Rainbow Chinese restaurant on Nicollet in South Minneapolis, they've got some nice chalk art to celebrate with the equinity of it all.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Libraries, Olympics, and Chemical Inspections

Three stories from today's news.

From the Star Tribune, Libraries adapt to a post-book world. From this I learned that people only need to borrow three or four books or videos from the library (vs. buying or renting them) to cover the property tax they pay to support the library.

I also was reminded that libraries (especially here in St. Paul) are beginning to become maker spaces, with 3D printers, sewing machines, and other shared devices. That brought me back to this story about how libraries were the original instance of that hot new thing, the "sharing culture":

The purpose of the public library is not and was never to “lend books”, as is asserted in this myth. It was, and is, to “make knowledge and culture available to as many people as possible at no cost to them.” What’s possible has expanded greatly with online sharing, and it is only proper that we take advantage of this fantastic potential.

The online sharing of culture and knowledge is the greatest public library ever invented, and the ability for all humankind to take part of all culture and knowledge 24/7 is arguably one of the largest steps of civilization of this century. All the technology has already been invented, all the tools have already been deployed, the ability to use it has already spread to all of humanity: nobody needs to spend a dime to make this happen. All we have to do is to lift the stupid ban on actually using it.
From NPR's Morning Edition on the economics of the Olympics: The Games Are a Great Party, But Not a Great Investment, featuring my favorite sports economist, Andrew Zimbalist. (Yes, I have a favorite sports economist, who agrees with my assessment of the Games and professional sports stadiums, too.)
"Most countries end up with a lot of debt, a lot of white elephants, and quite a bit of infrastructure investment that is not ideal for the type of development needs that the city has," says Andy Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Zimbalist says this is a direct result of the way Olympic bidding works.

The International Olympic Committee pits one city against another. In each city, construction and architecture firms that stand to profit from the games push local leaders to make higher bids and more ambitious plans.

"You have cities putting out their enormously complicated and elaborate plan to do everything and more than the IOC ever asked for," he says. "And so the cards are stacked against any host city."

These aren't ideal conditions for urban planning, sometimes on a mass scale.

"And somehow, it happens almost every single [Olympics] cycle," Zimbalist says.
The story goes on to say that there doesn't appear to be a net benefit in terms of promoting the city, either. One study compared Charlotte (N.C.) to Atlanta, Madrid to Barcelona, and Melbourne (Australia) to Sydney after the Olympics was hosted in the latter cities:
They checked for marked growth in construction, tourism and the financial-services sector over a nine-year period — four years before the games, and five years after.

"We couldn't find any difference in terms of building permits, tourism, anything before or after," Sanderson says. "If you masked the name of the cities, you would not be able to tell which of these two cities had the Olympics and which did not."

According to Sanderson, this doesn't mean cities should stop competing to host the Olympics; it just means they should stop claiming that the games make economic sense.

"We do lots of things that don't turn a profit," he says. "We own dogs. We have boats. Those things lose lots of money, but we know it."

So cities, go ahead and host the Olympics. It's a great party.

It's just a terrible investment.
A terrible investment for the people who live there, you mean. Who needs to spend billions of dollars just to have a party? Especially one that means you can't live your normal life for weeks, as your city is overrun by outsiders. No one would be in favor of hosting the Olympics if that was acknowledged to be its only benefit to the area.

(NPR followed that story later in the day with one called Did London Get an Economic Boost from The 2012 Olympics?, a very fair look at a recent study that seems to show London did benefit.)

Then, on the way home, I caught part of an All Things Considered story about the federal Chemical Safety Board, which is responsible for inspecting chemical manufacturers throughout the country, such as the one that blew up in Texas and the one that poisoned Charleston, West Virginia. It's modeled on the National Transportation Safety Board, but it's "understaffed, underfunded and takes too long to finish its investigations, and that its non-binding recommendations are often ignored anyway."

The most shocking thing is that the CSB only has 21 inspectors to cover the entire country. I wonder how many the NTSB has? I'll be it's a lot more than that, and it's pretty easy to argue that chemical safety affects a lot more people than transportation safety, especially because airlines and rail operators, as retail operations, are a lot more sensitive to their public image than chemical companies.

How do you cover a country the size of this one with only 21 inspectors? It takes them years to issue reports. Imagine if it took that long after a big plane crash. No one would stand for it.

It's ridiculous.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Local Logos

As regular readers know, I love to make mean comments about logos (for instance, here, here, and here), so I appreciated a recent StreetsMN discussion with a "real life graphic designer" about local city logos.

I agreed with most of what the RLGD had to say, with two exceptions:

I like the typeface for Richfield, but they should get rid of everything else. And yes, that is Grimace Purple.

That typeface the RLGD likes is Brush Script. And while I suppose it's approximately era-appropriate to a post-war, inner-ring suburb like Richfield, I don't think it does much to make it look like a place where you'd want to live or do business in 2014.

The RLGD also said:
I have always liked the logo of Apple Valley, though I dislike much about the city itself. It’s a nice, clean logo that looks good large or small, whether it’s in color or B+W, easy-to-read typeface, and it incorporates the apple tree without looking cheesy.

I agree that it's a simple concept (which beats a complicated one any day) and that the red and black is clean and snappy. I think the type (a weirdly modified Arial) is badly drawn and the extra tall Ls, especially in Valley, are unnecessary. Plus, it looks dated to the 1970s. I think this one is due for a reboot. Keep the concept and come up with a better execution.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Saturday Photos

A few miscellaneous photos from the last week of January.

Minnesota cookies at Groundswell Cafe, a newly opened place in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood (at Hamline and Thomas):

Mitch McConnell taking a refreshing spritz before the State of the Union address:

And... am I the only one who sees a profile in this garment, casually tossed on a chair?

Or maybe I have pareidolia.