Monday, November 30, 2015

Jonathan Haidt Wants Us to Ignore Microaggressions

I like Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind and find his study of human universals and morality helpful in understanding our current political divide, among other things.

But Haidt’s recent statements against the study of microaggressions have gone off in an odd direction. He receives approval from other social scientists (like Steven Pinker and John McWhorter), and a few days ago, another academic tried to use these words from Ralph Ellison in a 1967 interview to join Haidt in undermining the idea that microaggressions matter:

Any people who could endure all of that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself ... is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization," Ellison said. "I am not denying the negative things which have happened to us and which continue to happen, but I am compelled to reject all condescending, narrowly paternalistic interpretations of Negro American life and personality from whatever quarters they come, whether white or Negro.
The writer, NYU professor Jonathan Zimmerman, continues:
Ellison would be appalled by our current moment on American campuses, where the damage thesis has returned with a vengeance…. black students and their allies are claiming that racist behavior — and administrators' weak response to it — are harming minorities' psychological health. They insist that overtly racist comments as well as "microaggressions" — smaller, day-to-day slights — take a psychic toll.
I think this is a misuse of Ellison’s words; I believe, if faced with a question specific to our current situation and the research on microaggressions that exists, Ellison would see himself on a middle path between victimhood and an insult-proof hero. Of course the depredations of slavery didn’t permanently damage the “black character” — but that doesn’t mean the microaggressions that continue to this day aren’t real and damaging to people. And it doesn’t mean that pointing them out makes people of color wimps or whiners.

This moving article about black historian John Hope Franklin (which connects his work with that of of Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates) supports my belief. Franklin was a productive and revered historian from the same era as Ellison, yet,
The past and present of racial oppression in America angered Franklin. His own treatment in graduate school, in the profession, in humiliating incidents that occurred till the very last years of his life provoked him to express his outrage—in autobiographical writings and in what he called “literary efforts” that he refrained from publishing. He was scrupulous and insistent that such emotions and any of what he called “polemics” or “diatribes” should not “pollute” his scholarly work. Yet he acknowledged that “the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one.”
Franklin died in 2009, so when the writer says “till the very last years of his life” he means about 10 years ago.

Franklin didn’t let those macro- and microaggressions keep him from succeeding, but we all must understand that they weighed on him and caused him damage that someone with white privilege does not experience. Why smart guys like Haidt and his supporters can’t see that and think they're helping matters by harping about whiners and victimhood is beyond me.

Here's an American Psychological Association article about some of the research on microaggressions. And a commentary from the Atlantic that connects microaggressions with implicit bias and calls for recognizing that empathy is what's wanted and needed, not "political correctness."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Last Gasp of "the Gaffe"

Here's a worthwhile thought from journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen:

To an extent unrealized before this year, the role of the press in campaigns relied on shared assumptions within the political class and election industry about what the rules were and what the penalty would be for violating them. This was the basis for familiar rituals like "the gaffe," which in turn relied on assumptions about how a third party, the voters, would react once they found out about the violation.

These assumptions were rarely tested because the risk seemed too high, and because risk-adverse professionals — strategists, they're called — were in charge of the campaigns. The whole system rested on beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump violated all of them and he is still leading.

There's been a cascading effect as conventions that depended an one another cave in. The political press is stunned by these developments. It keeps asking if the "laws of political gravity" (a telling phrase) will be restored, or have they simply vanished?
Comedian Sarah Silverman put it this way:
Remember when Howard Dean said the name of a state with an energetic lilt & had to drop out of the race?
Makes me think that Dean or other candidates could probably have gotten away with their "transgressions" if they had just stuck it out: that it's the media echo chamber that drives people out of the race, and now we can see it because a jerk like Trump just ignored it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Minions: A View from the Top

Minions are not my thing, having not seen any of the movies they're part of. But on Thanksgiving I was visiting with a relative who has a preschooler, and he had a minion doll, rubbery and about nine inches tall, that burbles and squawks when you press a button on its stomach.

This is what the doll, and minions in general, look like:

But you may not have realized, as I had not, that this is what a minion looks like if you lay it on its stomach, spread its arms wide, and look at the top of its head:

Okay, then. I apologize for that bit of rubberized scatological humor.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Late November Tabs

The tabs are not heavy enough to overwhelm the browser yet, but they're heavy in other ways. Time to clear them out of my head and into yours.

In the early years of the Reagan administration, a report called "A Nation at Risk" began our most recent wave of education reform. The report was misquoted, misinterpreted, and sometimes completely wrong. Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report. Diane Ravitch has written previously about the same report here.

Here's a great xkcd-style cartoon about the illogic of conservative Christian fears of Muslims, among other things. It started out as a Facebook post, but when Facebook removed it because of complaints, the writer, Andy McClure, tried his hand at drawing it out. For a more scientific look at why some people fear refugees, here's a Vox write-up on some of the research on that question.

I let it go by at the time, but I didn't want to overlook the "compassionate conservative" response we've been hearing to the criminalization of heroin addiction, now that it's become a more prevalent problem in predominantly white states and communities. "When people of color are using illicit drugs, it’s a character flaw, a lack of integrity, and maybe even an inherent criminality that simply requires the right substance and circumstance to become addiction. Where was the call for leniency then?" By Stacey Patton, writing for Dame Magazine.

The psychology of driving: why is it so frustrating?

The black-white sleep gap: an unexpected challenge in the quest for racial equity. " par­ti­cipants who were denied slow-wave sleep for three nights—re­search­ers would sound an alarm in their ears when they entered this sleep phase—be­came less sens­it­ive to in­sulin, a pre­curs­or to dia­betes." Black participants in the study got 25 percent less slow-wave sleep than white participants, and that gap is significant because the white participants were getting just the amount of slow-wave sleep needed for good health, and the black participants were not. Black folks also got significantly less total sleep (6.05 hours vs. 6.85 hours). "Neigh­bor­hoods also ap­pear to mat­ter when it comes to sleep health. 'I have nev­er seen a study that hasn’t shown a dir­ect as­so­ci­ation between neigh­bor­hood qual­ity and sleep qual­ity,'" said one researcher.

Why the Left isn't talking about rural poverty. From In These Times.

Clean energy creates some jobs and destroys others. Here’s what that tells us about politics. By David Roberts, writing for Vox.

How we became the “Jailhouse Nation”: Historians discuss mass incarceration in the U.S. From the blog of the American Historical Association.

I don't think I've given my opinion here about the kinds of deductibles we face for health insurance these days, whether through self-insured plans or increasingly through employer-funded plans. I don't know about you, but my family-of-three's deductible for 2016 will be $4,700 (with a premium around $1,200 a month). That is a lot of money for household with a pretax income of 77,000, where the ACA subsidies cut out. Some people like to say we need "skin in the game" to make sure we don't overuse medical services, and that's where the deductible comes in. But I think patients don't have enough information to judge which services are needed and which are not. Self-rationing because of cost leads to bad decisions. This recent study, written up by Vox, agrees with me.

How about that gerrymandering? This computer programmer solved gerrymandering in his spare time. I'd be willing to give up the completely "safe" Democratic districts in Minnesota (4 and 5, held by Keith Ellison of Minneapolis and Betty McCollum of St. Paul) to get some fairness in most of the other states whose district maps would be transformed like this:

Next time you have to argue with someone who says the mainstream media have a liberal bias, refer to this article from the Weekly Sift. As usual, it's not as simple as "common sense" would have it.

Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are. The real way to stop violence. "Family murders are preceded by prior domestic violence more than 90 percent of the time. Violent crimes are committed by people who lack the skills to modulate anger, express it constructively, and move beyond it." From Slate.

In case you didn't hear about it in that liberal mainstream media (I didn't), the Koch brothers have a large infrastructure dedicated to spying on "the Left." Yes. They call it "competitive intelligence."

If you want to figure out if a particular electric vehicle is cleaner overall than a gas-powered one, check out this calculator from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It computes everything from the manufacture of the cars to the power sources used by the grid in your location.

Poverty is really bad for people -- especially children -- and just as investing in universal preschool pays back up to $10 for every $1 invested, it seems plausible to me that eliminating poverty would pay off even more. Could universal basic income be the social vaccine of the 21st century? Yes, just give them money. It works. And we could pay for it with higher taxes, and we'd all like it. Really.

One of the ways the poverty undermines poor families and their children is because they have to move constantly. Sociologist Matthew Desmond has been researching eviction on the ground with people who are experiencing it. Here's an article describing some of his findings, and here's the book he's published. (Oh, and great cover, by the way!)

Here's a tab to keep handy: info on how much people pay into Medicare and Social Security (on average) versus how much they get out. Remember this next time someone says they're entitled to "their" Medicare but "those people" who get food stamps are moochers.

And one last insult to my sensibilities: How the “Wal-Mart effect” squeezes workers in the vast infrastructure behind your groceries. Outsourcing distribution has been an effective way for grocers to dump their relatively expensive unionized workforces.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Geographer Puts It in Context

Bill Lindeke, urban geographer and biking promoter, inspires me most days through Twitter and MinnPost, but today it's this longer post from his Twin City Sidewalks blog. He synthesizes the current outrage and protest at the 4th Precinct in Minneapolis with our community's history of segregation: everything from where our highways are to the privatization of public space in the Mall of America.

But in another sense, these [highway-closing] demonstrations were the only way to connect the geographic dots between the problems facing Minneapolis’ segregated communities and the Twin Cities’ suburban infrastructure, a landscape that makes it effortlessly easy to ignore racial inequality. When #blacklivesmatter shuts down the freeway to Maple Grove, not only do they perform a tragically ironic bit of political ju-jitsu by occupying the very freeway that helped isolate the neighborhood in the first place, they make a particular statement about urban segregation:

“Black lives matter, even to everyone driving past on their way to the white suburbs.”
Geography, man. Why didn't I understand what it meant as an academic discipline back when I was in college? Yet another major I never explored.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hammering the Standpipe

I just saw my first Banksy in person:

It's in Manhattan on West 79th Street just off Broadway, near Zabar's (obviously). It was included in the HBO documentary Banksy Does New York, so it wasn't new to me, but it was still a surprise to just come across it while walking down a street.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bad for the Brand, Which Was Already Bad Enough

Am I the only one who thinks that Donald Trump has irreparably damaged his “brand”?

If you had asked me what I thought of Donald Trump before 2008, I would have said he was brassy and tacky, but kind of fun in a way that fits with our celebrity-obsessed media culture. I wouldn’t have patronized any of his ventures (not being into gambling) but I wouldn’t have actively avoided them either.

But since his craziness about Obama’s birth certificate, and even more so since this election cycle, he has careened into a dirty, dirty ditch, and I don’t think people will forget.

Let’s see if he can run his businesses with only his rabid, fascism-hugging supporters for customers. That's about 25 percent of the 25 percent of people who are registered Republicans (6 percent). As Nate Silver points out, that’s the same percent of the population that thinks the moon landing was faked, by the way.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Endangered Stick Figures, Part 2

First it was running them down with a car, now it's devouring them with dinosaurs.

The possibilities for threatening stick figure families are bounded only by the ironic imagination.

Do these anti-stick-figure illustrations seem as mean-spirited as the "my kid can beat up your honor student" bumper stickers? I never liked those, even though I would never have put an honor student sticker on my car.

In some ways the stick figure haters are worse, because their violent endings are worse (death vs. being beaten up). But they also seem more clearly fictitious, while the threat against the honor student appears to be just a bit plausible.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Where to Put the Closets?

Another Sunday, another unnecessarily over-sized house plan in the Star Tribune Home section. But today I wanted to mention a trend I've been noticing for a while in these plans.

Note how the master suite's closets are on the far side of the master bathroom. You can't get to them without walking through the bathroom, essentially making the closets an extension of the bathroom rather than the bedroom.

Am I the only one who thinks that's a bad idea? It assumes that couples want to actively share the bathroom and dressing space at all times (except for that little door on the toilet area. Thanks for that). I know I'm generally not the person these bloated-home-builders have in mind, but I find it hard to believe this way of using a bathroom and dressing space is common among enough people that it would become the primary way of doing things.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

It Hit Me on the Head

This is all I have to say about our current hysteria about a bunch of harmless Syrian refugees:

When did children stop learning the story of Chicken Little?

For more on what I think about all this, but am too annoyed to write myself, I refer readers to John Scalzi's recent post.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Just So You Know, Woodrow Wilson Was a Racist

I wrote a paper about Woodrow Wilson in 11th-grade social studies. I don't remember if the sources I used mentioned that he was an extreme racist even for his time.

Check out this Vox story about how Wilson aided the resegregation of federal agencies like the postal service. Workers had been getting along, side by side, for almost 50 years at this point, but suddenly it was necessary to create separate work and break spaces for the black men. Black supervisors were fired, and in Georgia the head of regional IRS office said

"There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place in the corn field." To enable hiring discrimination going forward, in 1914 the federal government began requiring photographs on job applications.
Add these firings and job exclusions to the list of ways black people have been prevented from building financial equity in our country.

See how Wilson set the standard for tone-policing, followed by many to this day:
In 1914, a group of black professionals led by newspaper editor and Harvard alumnus Monroe Trotter met with Wilson to protest the segregation. Wilson informed Trotter, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When Trotter insisted that "it is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness," Wilson admonished him for his tone: "If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me … Your tone, with its background of passion."
Wilson came from a genteel Southern background and wrote scholarly (!) books that make his sympathy with the Klan obvious. He's even quoted in Birth of a Nation, and showed his approval of the film by screening it at the White House.

Here's what he had to say about black suffrage:
"It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint." He praised those freed slaves who "stayed very quietly by their old masters and gave no trouble" but bemoaned that they were the exception, the being "vagrants, looking for pleasure and gratuitous fortune" who inevitably "turned thieves or importunate beggars. The tasks of ordinary stood untouched; the idlers grew insolent; dangerous nights went anxiously by, for fear of riot and incendiary fire."... In a 1881 article that went unpublished, Wilson defended the South's suppression of black voters, saying that they were being denied the vote not because their skin was dark but because their minds were dark.
Clearly, Wilson was part of the motivated school of thought among historians that painted Reconstruction as a failure of graft and idiocy. Often called the Dunning School, these historians have since been overturned by more careful scholars like Eric Foner. But all of us learned our "truth" in school from Dunning-influenced textbooks, unfortunately, and their influence continues to this day.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Modernist Take on a Modernist Chair

Today, for all of your four-legged needs:

Lovely work from 1984. Just lovely. I wonder who designed it? 

Part of a display of past-exhibit posters outside the Goldstein Gallery at the University of Minnesota's College of Design.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Algebra, Shmalgebra

What and how to teach math to children and young people is one of those topics the rumbles around in my thinking from time to time. Here are two recent articles on the now-common belief that everyone should "know" algebra in order to graduate from high school or be able to move into college courses.

First, progressive education profession Paul Thomas, who questions the premise of having a set body of knowledge generally. A key quote:

The question of whether all children should take algebra is irrelevant as long as we continue to use early algebra readiness to label and sort children, as long as we continue to confuse brain development with smart.
After a lot of thoughtful discussion, Thomas ends with this shocking footnote:
The average age for developing the abstract reasoning ability needed to understand algebra and grammar is 20. Consider how that impacts the labeling and sorting we do to children and young adults throughout schooling.
Second, a letter from CUNY professor of math and computer science Jonathan Cornick, from the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog. Cornick doesn't pull back his viewfinder quite as far as Thomas, but he still questions the premises of "algebra for all," based on research into how people use math as adults.

What math do people use in their wide-ranging jobs and life experiences? According to Cornick,
...almost everything fell into these categories:
  • Percentages – Almost everyone said this.
  • Proportions – this encompasses unit conversion skills related to supplies, materials, costs, nutrition, health, etc.
  • Descriptive Statistics – finding averages, describing distributions as well as being able to understand and interpret data and charts from business, politics, media, etc.
  • Geometry and trigonometry.
  • Inferential statistics.
And in general, the common theme was in using arithmetic and logical reasoning skills in context rather than abstractly. Certainly, some skills from a standard algebra curriculum are needed for the above. I would say:
  • Arithmetic, including order of operations – with a calculator!
  • Simplifying linear expressions.
  • Solving linear equations.
  • Solving proportions, including percentage problems.
  • Geometry including area and volume.
  • Radicals including Pythagorean theorem.
However, I don’t believe operations on nonlinear polynomials, factoring and solving quadratic equations, simplifying complicated exponent expressions, and solving radical and rational equations are vital in order to master the aforementioned skills people use.
Cornick's conclusion is that college students shouldn't be prevented from proceeding with their educations just because they can't find their way out of remedial algebra. The American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges agrees with him that there should be other options for students outside STEM fields.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Renaming, Rebooting, and Just Plain Booting

First there was the story about the Saint Paul apartment building that was going to stop accepting Section 8 vouchers after 30 years. Now there's a new story about an even larger complex in Richfield, a Minneapolis suburb, doing the same thing. This change will force hundreds or even thousands of people to move.

The Richfield complex, called the Crossroads, was built about 50 years ago and is almost all one-bedroom apartments, which currently rent for $900 a month.

The new owners will be installing granite counter tops and a clubhouse spa so they can raise the rent, and they're opting out of Section 8 at the same time.

Most telling of all is the new name the owners have come up with for the complex: The Concierge. Now there's a name that tries to speak to the kind of tenants the new owners have in mind.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Privatizing the Public Sphere, 2.0

More than 30 years ago, when I was still hanging around my undergraduate college the year after I graduated, I got into a public debate with another student about how our student fees were spent.

Let me back up. The year before, I had been financial vice president of the student government, so I was pretty familiar with the student fee, and knew that it was allocated to student groups for activities. Students decided how it was spent through hearings, committee decisions, and finally a vote in the elected student assembly.

The following year, the university decided that it would be appropriate to increase the fee to pay for improvements to the one of the gym buildings. I was outraged. This would be the first time the fee was used to pay for part of the university's physical plant, setting a precedent that, I was sure, would come in handy for the university in the future. Supporters of the plan argued that the gym renovations would benefit students, so using the student fee was fine.

It all came rushing back to me when I read this story, Philanthropies Rise as Source of Revenue for Pressed U.S. Cities. Examples given include:

  • the C.S. Mott Foundation is paying to replace water pipes in Flint, Michigan
  • Detroit foundations pledged $360 million to shore up public-employee pensions
  • an Alabama foundation is buying cop cars for a municipality
And we all know about foundations, entrepreneurs, and corporations that help fund the "public" schools.

All of this would have shocked me 30 years ago, and is an indicator of the privatization of the public sphere since the Reagan years. The key problem with this type of funding is summarized nicely in the story:
The risk for cities receiving foundation assistance is that they become reliant on the kindness of strangers rather than the taxpayers they serve. Rob Collier, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Michigan Foundations, said there is “a huge problem of sustainability” because municipalities can’t assume support will continue.
It's bad enough that nonprofit organizations have to subsist on year-to-year grants with constant begging and staffing structured to write grant proposals that appeal to rich people. (Photogenic children and puppies aren't the only parts of our society that need funding.) It's a corrupting force all its own.

Target's recent decision to yank its Redcard education donations — deciding to reallocate them to wellness charities — is a great example of why public infrastructure shouldn't be funded through charitable giving. As I've said before, philanthropy and nonprofits can't make up for core government programs.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kernza, the Wheat of the Future

There's so much bad news, I thought it was time for a piece of good news. If you don't garden, you may not realize that most of the plant foods we eat are annuals, which means they have to be planted from seed every year. That means more cost to the farmer for seed, fertilizer, and time plowing, plus more damage to the soil and waterways from tilling and runoff.

Perennial food-bearing plants require fewer inputs from farmers. Examples are asparagus, rhubarb, and all of the fruits that come from trees and shrubs. But our staple crops, like wheat, corn, and soybeans are all annuals.

The Pioneer Press recently reported on the development of intermediate wheatgrass (IWG), also known by the trademark name Kernza. It's a perennial grass that can be milled like wheat for flour. Some farmers are already growing it, and food scientists are baking with it to see how it works and tastes. An added bonus for those of us in places with short-growing-seasons is that perennial plants start growing earlier because they're already in the ground while farmers are waiting for the soil to dry out so they can start planting.

The latest Kernza developments are courtesy of the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, which is the same department that developed crops for the 1960s Green Revolution. They're also working on perennial flax and sunflowers, and to improve the nut size from our native hazelnuts.

Full-size images of a wheat plant and its roots (left) and Kernza (right). Source

IWG is already grown as animal feed, and was chosen by the Rodale Institute as the most promising perennial because of its natural seed size and hardiness. Scientists are working to increase the size of the seed heads so that they're closer to those of wheat.

Scientists at the Forever Green Initiative are trying to compress the plant breeding as much as possible with the help of DNA testing, which lets them zero in on desirable traits without wasting time and effort on duds.

"We're probably in the neighborhood of one-third to one-half what spring wheat would yield on the same land," Anderson said. "But remember, we're just in our first breeding cycle here. This is like 1905 for spring wheat."

Wyse said he thinks wheatgrass someday could produce bigger crops than wheat simply because it spends so much more of the year collecting sunlight, nutrients and water.

Wheatgrass doesn't have to outperform wheat in the field to outperform it on the bottom line, Wyse said. It should be more efficient to grow because one planting will produce several years of harvests -- plus haying or grazing -- before it needs reseeding.

"And the farmer's going to have fewer input costs," Anderson said. "No tillage, and you reduce pesticide input to almost zero. Farmers in northern Minnesota that were never organic farmers before are growing it organically."
And less runoff means not just less damaging runoff, but less money going down the river. Runoff costs $125 million directly every year; the indirect cost is much higher, of course, in terms of the environmental damage.

The article reports that the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis will be serving Kernza pancakes and tortillas at breakfast and brunch for the month of November. I'll have to get over there to check them out!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Kantha Animals

On this day after yet another senseless example of humans doing the inhumane, here is some beauty from a part of the world that's often thought of as hopeless and helpless.

Kantha is a form of embroidery that's popular in Bangladesh and the parts of India close to Bangladesh. It's made by women, of course, and so isn't usually valued as art.

These fantastic animals are from an exhibit called A Stitch in Time at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Antics of Movantik

Here's something I noticed during the World Series but forgot to mention: there's a drug called Movantik, advertised during the Series, that treats opioid-induced constipation.

I'm sure it's needed and not funny at all if you have that problem, but wow. Drug advertising has fallen out of its run-of-the-mill crass world into a bizarro land where they name a drug Movantik and think no one will laugh at them.

Here's a bit of Movantik's accompanying artwork.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ben Carson Forgets a Few Things

In the debate Tuesday night, Ben Carson once again showed he knows (or cares?) nothing about history when he proclaimed that from 1776 to 1876, the U.S. became the greatest economic engine in the world, surpassing Britain, because of our entrepreneurship and risk-taking.

He made no mention that it was an economy largely built on the slavery of his own ancestors, which was pointed out by Trevor Noah last night on the Daily Show. Free labor from people who have to work in whatever conditions their owner requires sure makes it a lot easier to rev up an economic engine. Shipping those people from Africa to North America also paid to build Northern cities and our banking system. And even their babies provided collateral for more economic expansion.

He also forgot about the stolen or at least vastly under-paid-for land our country was built on, as well as the native people we took it from. And the way Americans chopped down every tree in sight, destroying a major part of the world’s forests. Or how we mined and drilled without any controls, starting the path toward climate change. "Free" natural resources make it a lot easier to build an economy, too.

Oh, and the fact the U.S. up until the mid-1870s let in every immigrant who wanted to come (including Asians, who were later restricted). They generally weren’t treated like citizens once they were here, of course, but they contributed to that economic boom.

So aside from all of the overt crazy that comes out of Ben Carson’s mouth, don’t forget to watch for the things that seem reasonable but reveal his world view and indicate how he would govern. (Shudder).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gish Gallop

Last spring, I mentioned a Nightly Show panel discussion on vaccines. It aired as that story was cresting with the measles outbreak at Disneyland. One panelist was a strident anti-vaxxer, and I wrote at the time:

one of the panelists was a spewer of misinformation, and the medical doctor chosen to represent the science-based side wasn't up to the task of challenging her. In my opinion, it is irresponsible to give deluded people a national megaphone.
Well, I recently learned there's a term for the tactic this panelist used, and that it's generally popular with anti-science and pseudo-science speakers and debaters. It's called a Gish Gallop, named for creationist Duane Gish and coined by Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education.

I learn something new every day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Red and Green Isn't Enough for Them

I am NOT following the made-up argument that seems to be going on right now about Starbucks and its holiday cup, but can anyone help me out by explaining why the "war on Christmas" partisans are so upset?

The 2015 cup is red with a green logo. Past cups appear to generally be red with a green logo plus some other elements on the red background. Most of the time those elements have something to do with winter symbols: stylized flakes, ice skating, winter animals, and snowmen, mostly.

Since when are snow, winter activities, and snowmen the property of Christmas exclusively? Was Jesus born while it was snowing, or did the three Wise Men stop outside to roll up a few balls of the white stuff before coming in to deliver the gifts? Maybe the shepherds were ice skating when they heard the news?

How come no one complained before when there weren't overt Christmas symbols on the cups? They're still red and green, for goodness' sake. Does Starbucks have to include a baby in a manger to make the Christmas warriors happy?


After writing this, I found one other person who has more-or-less written what I'm saying, and she says it better with more samples.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Face of the Porcelain God

Yet another face where I didn't expect to see one:

It was pretty funny-looking when the water ran out of its nose.

Oh, and bonus points to this sink because its knobs (or should I say eyes?) turn in the opposite direction from the way you'd expect them to.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee

Erika Lee's The Making of Asian America is pretty much what I expected: a thorough, chronological discussion of how many different groups of people made their way from parts of Asia to North (and sometimes South) American, the discrimination and abuse they faced, and what has become of them and their descendants.

Some facts I didn't know at all:
  • Asian immigrants were common in Central and South America. There's a road in Baja California from Acapulco to Veracruz called El Camino de Chino (the Chinese Road) because moving Chinese immigrants inland was its main purpose. Chinese and Indian workers were also common in Cuba and the Caribbean.
  • The workers in these countries came in with indentured status and the understanding they would work five years at 10 hours a day, six days a week, with housing and food provided. They were to be paid 16 to 24 cents a day and have their return passage paid. Instead they worked as much as 20 or 22 hours a day, seven days a week, and then were not released when their contracts were up. Others were kidnapped outright and brought to work in these conditions.
  • Almost all of the 19th century Asian immigrants were male. This has been true of most other Asian immigrant groups into the early 20th century, when more women began to come just in time for the whole thing to be shut down by the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. It wasn't until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Asian immigrants could once again come into the U.S. in any numbers.
  • The creation of Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants did not come from an existing tradition in Chinese culture. Instead, Chinese men took the only business niches that were available to them: women's work in laundry and cooking. In San Francisco in the years after the Gold Rush, the price of laundry was astonishing ($8 to wash and iron a dozen shirts, the equivalent of $225 today). There was a lot of room for the immigrant Chinese to compete with that high price and make a decent living.
  • The concept of birth-right citizenship, while grounded in the 14th Amendment from 1865, was not fully established until 1897 when a U.S.-born American citizen of Chinese descent took his case to the Supreme Court. He had left San Francisco to visit China, and when he returned he was denied reentry because his parents were immigrants and customs said he wasn't a citizen. His case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, affirmed that anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen, regardless of parental status. (Notably, this finding was just a year after the Plessy v. Ferguson separate but equal finding, so the justices were probably the same men in both cases.)
  • More civilians were killed during the U.S.'s secret, illegal bombing in Cambodia, 1969-1970, than American soldiers were killed in the entire Vietnam war.
Some facts I already knew that Lee's book illuminated further:
  • You can't understand our current immigration debate without recognizing the ways Asians were excluded from immigrating, starting in the 19th century.
  • There were no "coolies" in the U.S., but the term was often used in the ongoing fight by white Americans against Asian immigration. (Coolie, ironically, is derived from the Urdu word kuli, which means day laborer. The people in these types of positions in the Western Hemisphere were anything but day laborers; they were in perpetual servitude.)
  • The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was initially opposed by the Attorney General and even the Secretary of War. But West Coast politicians and media pressured the federal government about "military necessity." People in Washington, Oregon, and California had their property taken from them without compensation as they were moved inland to desert camps. Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, though, were "allowed" to remain in Hawaii because their labor was needed there. Somehow they weren't threatening if they were needed as workers, but if they were successful businessmen or farmers, as on the coast, they couldn't be allowed to stay.
  • The head of the Western Defense Command, Lieutenant General John DeWitt, is quoted as saying one of the most illogical things I've ever heard. He started proposing removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans just after Pearl Harbor. "When asked to explain his rationale in light of the fact that there was no evidence of actual incidents of sabotage by Japanese Americans, DeWitt later told a Congressional committee that 'the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will take place'."
All in all, The Making of Asian America is a fine history reading, full of insights and little-known facts. I can imagine it as a classroom text or reference for anyone who cares about American history.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Reefer Madness: Visual Proof of Its Racist Underpinnings

The early 20th century moral panic about drugs, which led to making them illegal, had unintended consequences (as discussed by Johann Hari and described in this earlier post about his book). As Hari and other writers, including Dr. Carl Hart, have said, there was a clear racialized component to the moral panic incited by media and thought leaders of the day. Hart particularly talks about a 1914 New York Times article that described Negro cocaine fiends who were immune to pain yet somehow had improved marksmanship.

The movie Reefer Madness, which opened in 1936, was part of turning opinion against marijuana. I've never seen the film, so I don't know if the film itself makes a racialized argument against drugs. But check out this poster, which was recently reprinted from wood carvings made at the time to promote the movie:

While it wasn't uncommon to portray or describe Satan as black in other settings (such as the Salem witch trials), this visual representation is an overt rendering of the essential white male Southern fear: a big black man carrying off a pure white woman for his own uses. Not to mention the handy verbal reminders of SIN and DEGRADATION. The pointy ears are pretty much an afterthought.

When it was just white people that were using cocaine (at their dentists or in their Coca Cola) or marijuana or opioids in the early 20th century, no one thought much about it. But once black or Latino users were mentioned, "something had to be done about it" and we veered onto the path toward the drug war and our current situation.


The Reefer Madness poster was recently printed at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, using plates they just acquired from a long-defunct Cincinnati printer.

Friday, November 6, 2015

IRS Not Guilty

Here's an article to keep handy for those times when someone insists the evil IRS singled out the Tea Party. It's a commentary by someone named Paul Gutterman, director of the business taxation master's program at the University of Minnesota business school. So not exactly a shill for the Democratic Party.

Gutterman writes,

...the Justice Department not only specifically absolved the [IRS] unit’s director, Lois Lerner, but found that she was in fact the first official to recognize the problem and tried to correct it. Yes, this is the same Lois Lerner that Republicans have railed against and wanted prosecuted the past two-plus years.

Of course, none of this is very surprising. In a commentary at the time, I opined that there were no overt political overtones to the alleged scandal, but simply IRS personnel trying to prioritize their workflow because of a lack of resources due to budget cuts...  The irony of this whole episode, I noted, was that Congress caused the very thing of which it bitterly complained about by cutting the IRS budget to the bone....

The truth is that the IRS is probably the most efficient bureaucracy in the world. It costs the agency only 41 cents to collect $100 in revenue. Increase its enforcement allocation and the government is likely to get over a 10:1 return....

In any rational world, Congress apologizes to all involved and restores the IRS budget to at least what it was before the nonscandal began. After all, Justice and the FBI interviewed more than 100 witnesses and reviewed more than 1 million pages of IRS documents to conclude that there was not a single “allegation, concern or suspicion that the handling of [any IRS function] was motivated by political bias, discriminatory intent or corruption.”
But that won't happen, of course, and people on the Right (and way too many people in the middle) will continue to rip the IRS just for existing because they don't like the idea of taxes. For some reason they don't understand that taxes, as Oliver Wendell Holmes and many others have said, are what we pay for civilized society.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Goodness from Pacific Standard, November 2015

I've said it before: I love Pacific Standard magazine. Here are a few cool facts from their November-December 2015 issue.

Two heads aren't necessarily better than one: In experiments, teams of two people were asked to solve a simple visual puzzle. Each person answered separately. When their answers were different, "one member was shown the other's answer and then made a final decision... The low performers took the high peformers' input less often" and the high performers took the low performers input more often. Oops. Chalk one more up to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

We don't even know how we pass on gender roles: "In a study of gender difference in the play of migrant workers' children, researchers found no differences between girls and boys in classroom play or during unstructured play at home. This is in contrast to research showing gender differences emerging in play behavior in non-migrant American children as young as two."

Are religious people healthier? Usually this is the finding when social scientists look into the question. But there's an asterisk: "For people who live in more secular societies, the impact appears to be small. This suggests the salutary effect of religion is the result of fitting in with one's surroundings and the reduced stress levels this produces."

A retired Baltimore cop working to change the pack mentality: Michael Wood, who retired from the Baltimore Police Department in 2014, has been eroding the thin blue line since the Freddie Gray killing last June. Full story here.

Why are we fatter? An entomologist started out studying locusts and ended up with a hypothesis about what's causing our current obesity epidemic. It has to do with climate change, too. Way to tie it all together, Stephen Smith!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Walking Turkey

Here's my fall image of the day: six wild turkeys making their way through a front "graveyard."

These teenage avians, which probably weight close to ten pounds each, give new meaning to the phrase "bird watching" as they parade around the neighborhood.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why Are Some of Us Dying Younger?

Without meaning to, I'm continuing on the theme of people dying too young. MinnPost's Susan Perry today told of a recent study that found white people 45–54 years of age are dying at an increasing rate over the past 15 years, compared to earlier years and compared to other demographic groups. Basically, everyone else is becoming less likely to die.

Perry's write-up doesn't mention a gender breakdown, but I wonder if it's men in that age group who are skewing the numbers.

The findings are startling, for in other racial and ethnic groups and in all other age groups, deaths rates continued to improve in the United States during that same time period. Furthermore, no other wealthy country has experienced a similar turnaround in the death rate for its middle-aged adults, the study’s authors report....

Exactly why white middle-aged Americans have experienced such a marked reversal in their death rate is not entirely clear, but the study suggests three main factors: substance abuse (alcohol, prescription opioids and heroin), suicide and chronic liver disease.

The study also found that the increase in the death rate among white middle-aged adults is occurring mostly among less educated Americans, those with a high school degree or less.
Closing the longevity gap the wrong way

Perry continues,
The data revealed that the overall mortality rate for all middle-aged Americans fell 44 percent between 1970 and 2013 — an average of 2 percent a year. Similar drops also occurred in other wealthy countries....

But that is not what has happened for white Americans aged 45 to 54. After 1998, their death rate began to climb an average of half a percent a year, the analysis by Deaton and Case revealed. That reversal did not happen in any other wealthy country. Nor did it happen to Hispanic middle-aged Americans, whose death rate declined an average of 1.8 percent per year from 1998 to 2013, or to black Americans, whose rate declined an average of 2.6 percent per year during that same period.

The mortality rate for middle-aged black Americans is still higher (581.9 per 100,000), however, than for whites (415.4 per 100,000), but that gap is narrowing. Middle-aged Hispanic Americans have a significantly lower mortality rate than either their white or black peers — 269.6 per 100,000.
As I've noted before, Latinos are less likely to die early than anyone else in this country. Black folks have the shortest life spans, but white folks are closing the gap because of this sudden shift.

Maybe it's the loss of pensions?

The study authors examine a bunch of possible explanations.
...drug and alcohol poisonings overtook lung cancer in 2011 as the leading cause of death among white middle-aged Americans. Suicides are about to follow.

The study also found that middle-aged white adults are reporting a greater decline in physical and mental health and a greater increase in chronic pain than did previous generations at this age. In addition, these health problems are making it more difficult for them to work or to carry out daily living tasks....

Deaton and Case say the disturbing trends uncovered by their study may have their roots in the economic insecurity of the middle class that has been building up in the United States over the past few decades.

“After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents,” they write. “Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education.”

Still, as the economists point out, other wealthy countries have experienced even slower growth in median earnings, “yet none have had the same mortality experience.”

Deaton and Case suggest one potential explanation for this difference: “The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm. Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers, if they perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.”
Stress, stress, stress. Loss of status as middle-class people, loss of sureness about the future... so many variables. Or, the snarky voice in my head says, maybe it's all the fear-mongering from Fox News that's contributing. Fifteen years ago just about marks the rise of Fox as a major force in our politics. Living with the chicken heart every day takes a toll.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

I'm having a tiring, emotional day (following the death of a friend yesterday), so instead of using my own brain I'm going to share Cory Doctorow's write-up of a book I recently finished.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora is a big book, and while I enjoyed it, it was nowhere near my favorite among his works. I think Doctorow is a better judge of it than I, though. His words (example: "This is a novel that turns much of sf on its ear") make me appreciate the book much more, especially its place in the distant-space-travel subgenre within science fiction.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Minnesota Monthly, the Sell-Out's Sell Out

Minnesota Monthly began life as the monthly program guide to Minnesota Public Radio, back when it was just a couple of stations that broadcast classical music most of the time, with the NPR news shows during evening drive time and a Prairie Home Companion on Saturdays. Over the years it became a real magazine, part of the regional lifestyle category of publications, the ones that usually have a city name for a title. It competes with our local version of New York or Chicago, which is awkwardly named MplsStPaul magazine.

I realize times are tough for print publications that rely on advertising, and Minnesota Monthly has long carried special sections on the best doctors, the best dentists, the best plastic surgeons, all in pursuit of advertising dollars. I scarcely look at it when it arrives in the mail, generally.

But the most recent issue got my attention.

Things like this red Maserati are Worth the Slurge!, we're told.

Luxuries! Extravagances!

Treat yourself. Clearly, you deserve it! (Deserve: not one of my favorite verbs.)

The editor's note by Rachel Hutton, headlined How to Spend Minnesotan, is both self-congratulatory and fake-apologetic:

Responses to this month’s cover story, more than any other in the magazine’s recent history, perhaps, may overwhelm our postman’s mailbag and crash our email server. No, the subject isn’t politics, or religion, but something even more effective at triggering Minnesotans’ ire: conspicuous consumption.

This aversion is rooted in a cultural discomfort with receiving gifts — and, even more so, treating oneself. (See: Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan for a primer on the practice of refusing food three times before accepting it.) And then there’s the Midwestern ethos of practical thrift, which favors good value and modesty over flashiness and flaunting….

Because Minnesota Monthly is a lifestyle magazine, we cover a mix of serious issues and lighthearted fun. If our recent features on the education bubble and gender equality in the workplace were oat bran and kale, “Splurge!” (page 68) is a Manny’s behemoth brownie, a $24 dessert nearly the size of a car battery.

Is the mere mention of such decadence causing your (long) undies to bunch? If so, let me assure you that our intent is simply to inform you of these unique indulgences — for example, the historic mansion you can rent for $8,000 a week, domestic staff included — and there’s no obligation to partake. Simply reading about the stunning Gucci frock that Cate Blanchett wore on the red carpet won’t somehow siphon $4,900 straight from your bank account into Nordstrom’s cash register. Minnesotans many not be known for their extravagance, but they do have a reputation for generosity. So consider using this guide to splurge on a gift — surely you know someone deserving.
I don't know whether to be more annoyed about the misuse of the critique of conspicuous consumption or the blatant attempt to appeal to advertisers chasing the dollars of the 1 percent. Minnesotans aren't any more opposed to conspicuous consumption than anyone else: It's always been in bad taste everywhere. That's why the term was created.

Indulgences... decadence... comparing real journalism to oat bran or kale. Thinking that this crap is "fun." I like fun as much as the next person, but this isn't it. While income inequality keeps increasing and Minnesota has almost the biggest racial equity gap in the country, it's in more than bad taste to flaunt the flashiness of a bunch of junk no one needs.

I wish Hutton would have just been honest and said, We have to run this crap because it sells ads. Not pretend she has some kind of defensible reason for the section, let alone lecturing us about how we're being sanctimonious and have our long underwear in a bunch.