Friday, January 28, 2022

Two Eyes and a Mouth = Male

I've lost count of how many times I've posted about pareidolia (the human tendency to see faces in inanimate objects). Yesterday I learned that Americans tend to assume those faces are male.

Looking back through the photos in my posts, I see some where I do read the face as male, but in the majority I see it as ungendered or sometimes as an animal. I don't see any of them as female, I don't think. 

It doesn't mention in the write-up of the research whether ungendered was a choice allowed, which makes me suspect that it was not — that the research subjects were forced to choose one or the other, female or male. 

I don't know what I would have done in that case if I were part of the study, since I really don't see it in many of the cases, such as this one from the researchers' slides


Thursday, January 27, 2022

Thanks, Amy!

For the past few months, a bright spot of my day has been watching Jeopardy! because Amy Schneider has been winning, and winning, and winning.

Well, it came to an end yesterday, as you probably already heard if you care about such things. She ended her run with the second-most wins of all time. And I will be a little bit sadder. 

But thanks to Amy for keeping it going so long and even more for being willing to be in the spotlight.

She'll be back for the Tournament of Champions later in the season, which will also include the number-three all-time winner, who I also liked watching. I feel sorry for the other contestants.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Victor Berger (Not an Insurrectionist)

I'm watching for news of the challenge to Madison Cawthorn's ability to run for reelection to Congress, based on his support for the January 6, 2021 insurrection. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says that "no person may hold political office 'who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress ... shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion.'"

Cawthorn, among others in Congress, showed clear support for the insurrection. And it turns out that North Carolina, particularly, has a state law that makes his path to reelection even more fraught. It asks only that challengers establish a "reasonable suspicion or belief" that a candidate isn't qualified to run. After that, the burden of proof is on Cawthorn.

A story I saw today (originally from the New York Times, but I saw a version in the Star Tribune) included this paragraph:

The lawyers challenging Cawthorn's eligbility are using an amendment last invoked in 1920, when Rep. Victor L. Berger, an Austrian American socialist, was denied his seat representing Wisconsin after criticizing the United States' involvement in World War I.

I don't think it's confirmation bias for me to say that Cawthorn's support for people who attacked the Capitol while trying to stop the electoral process sounds like insurrection, while Berger opposing U.S. involvement in a war does not.

But that quote from the Times led me to want to know who Victor Berger was. 

It didn't shock me to hear this happened to him at that specific point in U.S. history, since I already knew about the jailing of Eugene Debs and the suppression of The Masses magazine for the same reason. I'm mostly surprised that I've never heard of him, given that I've lived not far from Wisconsin for 30-plus years.

Berger was co-founder of the American Socialist Party, along with Debs. (Source.) After immigrating to the Milwaukee area as a young man around 1880, he was a teacher and then worked at a newspaper. He later served in a local elected office, which led to a run for Congress as a Socialist. He won, beginning a term in 1911. He lost after one term, but won again in 1918. 

This election was just at the time of the Armistice, remember. The House refused to seat him when the new Congress took office in early 1919 because of his outspoken anti-war positions, using the squishy logic that criticizing the war effort was giving aid and comfort to the enemy and therefore constituted disloyalty under the language of the 14th Amendment. 

After a few more twists and turns, Berger finally was seated after a later election in 1922 — which would appear to prove that it was post-war political fashion that kept him out earlier, rather than a real violation of the 14th Amendment. He then served for most of the 1920s before he was killed by a passing trolley in 1929.


Image from the of Library of Congress.


Here's a past post about Madison Cawthorn, in case you missed it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Causes, Solutions

Since the pandemic, there's been an increase in some kinds of crime, fairly consistently across the country.* (Note that other kinds of crime are flat or ignored, like wage theft and crime by police themselves.) We hear a lot about car-jacking, homicide, and organized smash-and-grabs, for instance. Some people blame "defund the police," even though police funding is at an all-time high.

Over the last week, the Star Tribune has had an op-ed and some letters in response, attempting to address the "root causes" of all this. The initial op-ed was by a retired judge and it was all too typical, blaming single-parent households. Well hey, judge, has there been a big increase in the number of single-parent households since 2020? 

I don't think so. 

The solution offered by writers like this is always to lock ’em up. After my many years, it's really tiresome to read that again as if it's thoughtful, because it's not. 

Finally, today there were several letters in response that brought a helpful perspective to the discussion. The best was from Richard DeBeau of Northfield:

I am a retired independent clinical social worker, family therapist and drug and alcohol counselor with 40 years' experience working with emotionally and behaviorally disturbed adolescents and their families.

For 20 years I was active in the development of a more than 40,000-case database measuring effectiveness of residential treatment programs (RTC) for adolescents placed in them. The Minnesota Legislative Auditor made use of it in a study about adolescent treatment needs. Annual copies of updates were sent to these departments, each legislator and county social service and court services administrator for more than 20 years.

Among our observations:

1. Nearly all the teens had been manifesting symptoms of disturbance for several years before placement. Home communities lacked therapy resources and prevention programs (and still do) for children, adolescents and families experiencing physical and emotional trauma that later led to serious behavior problems.

2. The county and state and nonprofit agencies charged with providing residential services very often lacked the resources to adequately assess, diagnose and treat of psychological trauma. [gives an example]

3. In a large percentage of the lives of adolescents in this study, there was either no father involved or contact with him was toxic to healthy psychological development. No aftercare was provided for most adolescents and families.

Most of my practice was in rural Minnesota, and most referrals were from court service departments or child mental health social workers and were also characterized by father absence.

The "lock them up for a long time and they will learn to behave properly" dogma has always failed, resulting in high rates of recidivism and cost of serial imprisonments. Over the past 30 years we have become more devoid of resources nationally, not just in Minnesota, that might have moved us toward the goal of enhancing moral decency.

A common argument in favor of eliminating supportive services is that it saves taxpayers money. There are scores of studies showing that hoping to save money by withholding support ends up costing many times more than the services would have cost. The costs associated with gang violence, carjacking, mugging, robberies and theft is an alternate form of taxation.

It is not for want of information that we are experiencing the current crime wave. We have a least 50 years of research and the examples of more successful jurisdictions to inform our decisionmaking. Continued failure to provide timely support guarantees more trouble. (emphasis added)

People need services. Just as the new research on the effect of direct payments to low-income parents of infants showed, and other research on universal basic income has indicated, helping poor people directly with money (instead of or in addition to means-tested "benefits") makes a difference for children. If the outcome society wants is safety and stability for everyone, we know how to get it.

Letter-writer DeBeau doesn't mention the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) framework, but he clearly worked with it in his career. In his letter he didn't get into why the increase in these particular crimes is happening now, exactly, but it seems obvious that we had a significant number of people who were just barely managing to exist in a socially acceptable way before the pandemic, and since its upheaval, an increasing number of them have given up on that acceptability.

It's not that hard to understand; hard to deal with, yes, in the short term. But not hard to understand, especially given the increasing number of guns in society.


* Also in extremely dangerous driving, resulting in a notable increase in injuries and deaths. 

Monday, January 24, 2022

When You Can't Imply a Strongman Is an Ox, What Then?

I hadn't heard about the case of Turkish journalist Sedef Kabas until I saw this in today's newspaper, reprinted from the Washington Post. She was jailed Saturday for "insulting" strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What did she say or do?

While on a television program focused on Erdogan and political polarization in Turkey, she recited this proverb: "When the ox goes to the palace, he does not become a king. But the palace becomes a barn."

In any free country, that would obviously be a matter of opinion, which any person should be able to say about the country's leader.

The story says that "tens of thousands of people are investigated ever year for insulting the president..."

Why is it considered bad to insult the president, let alone a crime? What's the logic?

According to Erdogan's spokesman, quoted in the story, insults like Kabas's have "no goal other than spreading hatred.... The honor of the presidency is the honor of our nation."

All of this sounds familiar in a couple of ways. Donald Trump wanted (wants) U.S. laws to make it illegal to insult him, and he clearly thought that he was the presidency and the presidency was the state. None of which was or is true of our system of government or freedom of speech under the Constitution, of course. So far.

But beyond Trump, the idea that an act of speech that points out a truth (or even makes a metaphorical observation about someone) is bad because it "spreads hatred" sounds a lot like the recent ginned up backlash against teaching the history of white supremacy or the existence of structural racism in this country.

Spreading fear of incarceration for having a negative opinion of your country's dear leader is the opposite of freedom. One would think this was obvious. But nothing that seemed obvious for most of my life  appears obvious to the people who control power in this country anymore.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

So Much Depends Upon a Red Leather Telephone

It was summer at a yard sale. And what was that I saw on the table?

It was a red leather telephone. A round, red leather telephone.

Who knew such a thing ever existed? 

No wonder it was marked at $75.00.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

A Whole Lot of Picnic Beer

I've mentioned before that I don't collect bottles. Here's another one from my non-collection:

The scale is hard to judge, but believe me, that was a half-gallon of beer. In brown glass to keep the light out.

It was brewed and bottled in Fountain City, Wisconsin, one of the river towns north of La Crosse. I think we picked it up in an antique shop there, or maybe another town nearby, about 30 years ago.

I've always loved the label:

The four words of the name were done in lettering, while the rest of the words were set in metal type. The serif is Cheltenham and the sans serif is Kabel, both early 20th-century favorites.

Don't miss the union bug printed just below the word Wisconsin near the bottom right. It's not completely readable even with magnification, but I can at least see that it's from Winona, Minnesota, which is just across the Mississippi and a bit south from Fountain City.

Aside from the label, there are two other reasons this bottle appealed to me and that contributed to its finding its way to my house. I thought the idea of hauling a half-gallon bottle of beer — in glass — to a picnic was culturally particular and noteworthy. By the time we acquired the bottle, that was not a thing anyone would think of doing, even in beer-drinking Wisconsin. And the tiny little bottle opening, relative to the capacious bottle volume, seemed incongruous. It originally had a normal-size bottle cap, I imagine, but compared to the rest of the bottle that opening seems miniature. 

It looks as though someone has tried to resurrect the Fountain Brewing Company, and even this brand. But they don't put it out in half gallon bottles.

Friday, January 21, 2022


I'm having a day where I've done some productive things, but now I can't make my brain do anything else that could be classified with that adjective.

So here is a poem from The Crypto Naturalist, written (in abbreviated Twitter format as a single tweet) by Jarod K. Anderson.

Moss is 300m yrs old.
Home on every continent.
No roots. No towering trunks,
yet it tasted the air before the first feather,
before shrews stirred the leaf litter.
When your mind hisses like a kettle,
look to your elder, to the green lessons
of soft, simple quiet beneath the sun.

Katharine Tree, a respondent to the poem, shared this photo:

Thursday, January 20, 2022

No More Belie, Just Stop

There it was in one of my morning newspapers, a headline using a verb that has lost its meaning:

Have most people ever known the definition of "belies"? I wonder. At this point, though, I think almost no one knows what it means, and those who think they do have it backwards.

As both the Grammarist site and Garner's Modern American Usage say, its meaning is to contradict or to give a false idea to, but it is subject to an extremely common misuse that is just the opposite: to reveal. Both attribute that to possible confusion with the similar word "betray."

In the case of this Pioneer Press headline, it makes some sense if the writer meant it either way, but it can only be a summary of the story with one meaning. It's almost a Mad Lib, since many readers will not know what the word means. "Omicron [verbs] its fatality danger." They would have been better off picking a different word that's clearer.

Omicron reveals its fatality danger
Variant's lower risks are offset by surge in U.S. COVID infections

Omicron hides its fatality danger
Variant's lower risks are offset by surge in U.S. COVID infections

"Obscures" would be a better word than "hides." If the "its" was dropped from the headline, it would fit in the space.

Any of these would have made for a better headline, depending on which one best reflected the content of the story.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Recycled Arguments

If you were old enough to watch Roots when it aired in 1977, what did you think of it? 

I was 17 and I loved it. I learned a lot. I was a kid from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, where literally almost everyone was white. I also remember it was a shared cultural phenomenon across the country.

Well, it turns out there were at least a few white people who didn't appreciate the phenomenon, just as there were lots who didn't appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive. As evidence, historian Seth Cotlar yesterday posted a syndicated column written by a Dartmouth professor at the time, attacking the series for being anti-white:

He also put out a follow-up column with quotes from white people around the country who agreed with him, which Cotlar also included. 

The writer, Jeffrey Hart, was in the Dartmouth English department. He influenced right-wing "greats" like Dinesh D'Souza and Laura Ingraham with his brilliance. In 1980, the Dartmouth Review was founded in his living room, and he was the publication's adviser.

Hart's 2019 obituary (from a right-wing podcast site called Ricochet) describes how he would come to campus in a limousine, given to him by William F. Buckley, and park it so it took up two spaces. Of course, he helped edit National Review when he wasn't publishing in his field. 

He was a Catholic convert because, as the obituary says, "he had concluded ... that the Church’s claims were, simply, true." Well sure!

His Washington Post obituary describes Hart's changing political thinking, starting in the mid-2000s. "He was especially dismayed by the rightward drift of the GOP, steered by ... the 'pestiferous Bible-banging evangelicals, whom I regard as organized ignorance, a menace to public health, to science, to medicine, to serious Western religion, to intellect and indeed to sanity.'" 

I wonder if he ever changed his mind about Roots and the ideas he promulgated about it in the 1970s. It seems unlikely, because those ideas were central to his ideology of Western intellectual supremacy. He didn't see that anti-Blackness is at the core of the rightward drift of the Republican party.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Diptheria, Polio, Relative Fear

I grew up next to a small 19th century cemetery that had a lot of child graves in it. There was one small obelisk that had the names of more than four children on its sides. It's fairly likely that diphtheria killed at least some of them, since it was a major killer of children under 5 before treatments and a vaccine were invented in the 20th century.

I was already planning to write about diphtheria, but discovered yesterday that it killed both Alice Neel's oldest brother and her first daughter, so that compelled me even more.

I started thinking about it recently when I was reading Mary Robinette Kowal's alternate-reality novel The Relentless Moon, which involves a plot related to the polio epidemic. I was born and grew up in the real world during the same years as the novel, and received both the Salk and Sabin vaccines. Despite that, I didn't know until now — as we live through another epidemic — that polio is not all that dangerous (relatively).

For instance, in 1952 when it was at its peak in the U.S., there were 58,000 recorded cases nationwide. Among those, 3,200 people died and 21,000 were left with mild to disabling paralysis.

According to the CDC site, 72 of 100 people infected with poliovirus have no visible symptoms, while about 25 of 100 have flu-like symptoms for two to five days. Many fewer than 1 in 100 (1–5 out of 1,000) develop more serious symptoms of the brain and spinal cord, including meningitis and paralysis. Among those with irreversible paralysis, 5–10% die; among the dead, the incidence rate is about six times higher for adults than children. So my image of the disease as a major risk to children was exaggerated.

South Dakota had the highest rate of the disease of any state. According to the South Dakota Argus Leader newspaper, part of the reason there was such a freak-out over polio was that the cause of its spread was unknown:

One of the many reasons why polio was such a feared disease is that no one knew how the disease was spread.... in spite of how dangerous and dreaded polio was, many doctors disliked all the emphasis placed on polio because it drew attention away from more serious health threats. Doctors knew that most of the people who had polio didn’t even know it, and those that did, most recovered with no disability.

They felt a much larger health threat was tuberculosis, which 34,000 people died from in 1950. Also, the deadly flu epidemic of 1957 killed 62,000. By contrast, 3,200 people died during 1952, the worst year of the polio epidemic.

Strangely enough, though, research showed that poor immigrant children who lived in unsanitary conditions were exposed to small amounts of the virus and became immune at an early age. Children from clean, middle-class homes, on the other hand, were at much greater risk of paralytic polio.

So it appears to be another example of the hygiene hypothesis. The transmission method, we know now, is oral-fecal. (Source: WHO

Diphtheria, on the other hand, had been a major killer of children long before the period of the big polio panic. It's from a bacteria spread through the air in respiratory droplets and from touching open sores. (Source: CDC) An untreated person is infectious for two to three weeks. 

The disease creates a toxin that kills healthy tissue in the respiratory system and forms a thick coating in the throat and nose, making it hard to breathe and swallow. The toxin can get into the bloodstream and cause organ and nerve damage. Without treatment, 1 in 2 people die.

According to History of Vaccines, in 1921 in the U.S., there were about 200,000 cases and 15,520 deaths. Effective diphtheria immunizations became available starting in the 1920s. Antibiotics were not used to treat it until the late 1940s, but there was an antitoxin that became available around the turn of the century. In 1921, death rates ranged from about 20% in children under age 5 and adults over age 40 to 5–10% for people ages 5–40. "Death rates were likely higher before the 20th century."

Alice Neel's brother died in the early 1900s and her daughter, Santillana, in 1927.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Anarchic Humanist Alice Neel

Today's rabbit hole is brought to you by the painter Alice Neel.

On Sunday I happened to hear part of an episode of Freakonomics Radio on MPR. Its purpose was to examine the oddity of the art market, and that's a fine topic in its own way. But I was more interested in the exemplar they were using: Alice Neel, whose painting Dr. Finger's Waiting Room recently sold at auction for $2.5 million, in contrast with the lack of value placed on her work during her life (1900–1984). 

Before that episode, I had minimal knowledge of Neel and her work. I knew I liked what I had seen of it, that she often painted people in nonliteral ways. I had a vague idea that she was associated with feminist artists. Daughter Number Three-Point-One likes her. That was about it.

The part of the Freakonomics Radio show that sent me down the rabbit hole was about why Neel's work didn't take off during her lifetime. I had assumed it was run-of-the-mill sexism, but that wasn't the only reason. 

Neel was a painter of social realism, depicting everyday people in everyday struggles. According to the show and the critics it cites, she was sidelined by the rise of abstract expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s, which was considered more cerebral (and masculine, it's worth noting). On top of that, the curator of the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective on Neel is quoted as saying:

The Cold War instrumentalized abstraction by museums and US government... [abstract paintings were] displayed as symbols of democracy and capitalism. 

The State Department and CIA promoted exhibitions of abstract expressionist paintings as if to say, see, American artists are so free they can do stuff like this that no one understands! You couldn't even dream about doing this in a Communist regime. Again, quoting the curator: "And Neel was a communist and had been a communist since 1935."

Reading through the extensive biographical material on the Alice Neel website,  I learned about the kind of woman who many people of recent decades assume didn't exist in the early to mid-20th century, one who did what she wanted with whomever she wanted. (If she couldn't dance, she didn't want to be part of your revolution.) She paid a price for it, physically, emotionally, financially: with deaths of children, suicide attempts, and physical abuse at some points, but she did it. And she painted what she wanted to paint, despite the Catholic Church, the WPA, the FBI, and anyone else. It sounds like her parents were always supportive, at least, and she seems to have been good at making and keeping friends and creating community. 

A few moments to note.  

Neel's painting from a New York group gallery show in 1936 was called "Nazis Murder Jews." Here's how reviewer Emily Genauer described it in the New York World Telegram

Alice Neel brandishes aloft the torch which she and the members of the Artists Union along with her hope will eventually lead to enlightenment and the destruction of Fascism. One, depicting a workers’ parade, would be an excellent picture from the point of view of color, design and emotional significance if the big bold black-and-white sign carried by one of the marchers at the head of the parade, didn’t throw the rest of the composition completely out of gear by serving to tear a visual hole in the canvas.

Well, okay then. Note that the purpose of the exhibit was to "achieve unity of action among artists... to fight War, Fascism and Reaction, destroyers of art and culture." Sorry if you see that as a "hole in the canvas."

Between 1933 and 1943, Neel was paid (most of the time) by the WPA or one of its other letter-combination-versions, though the amount of money varied and they sometimes yanked their sponsorship. When the program was ended by Congress, she went onto literal public assistance through the mid-1950s.

An ArtNews review of one of her infrequent solo gallery exhibitions in 1944 was withering, saying her paintings have a "deliberate hideousness" and that the "intentional gaucherie of her figures" doesn't lend them expression.

A 1950 review of another solo exhibition compared her work to that of Munch (which seems apt to me). The reviewer wrote: her "portraits ... are almost vivisections." In a Daily Worker review of that show, written by a friend, Neel is quoted: "There isn’t much good portrait painting being done today, and I think it is because with all this war, commercialism and fascism, human beings have been steadily marked down in value, despised, rejected and degraded."

In October 1955 she was interviewed by FBI agents, having been under investigations since 1951. They described her in their files as "a romantic Bohemian type Communist." She asked them to sit for portraits. "They declined." 

In 1968 Neel was part of a protest at the Whitney about the lack of representation of African Americans and women in a show covering 1930s painting and sculpture in the U.S. (In the years following, she was part of other protests there and at the Met and MoMA.) She painted a 1970 Time magazine cover of Kate Millett for an article on the Politics of Sex. 

The last decade of her life started with a Whitney retrospective in 1974 that included 58 paintings. The next year there was a larger retrospective in Athens, Georgia, and six other solo exhibitions. She was very busy, and even appeared on Johnny Carson twice in the year before she died in October 1984.

The title of the recent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which filled five galleries, was called The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. Steven Dubner from Freakonomics Radio asked the show's curator why now was the right time for the retrospective, and she said it was a combination of factors. There was enough "out there" about Neel, but not too much. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice are seen as important. And there hadn't had a large show of her work since the Philadelphia centennial exhibit in 2000. 

An anarchic humanist. For a person with that descriptor, it sounds as though the Met exhibit tried to put Neel in a box too much (as this article makes clear). And it's ironic that rich people are now collecting the work of an anti-capitalist for its increasing value, made more valuable by the big retrospective show. 

But the upside of it all is that her work is being seen more than ever. 

Here's one more painting, of writer Alice Childress, from 1950. I imagine they knew each other in Harlem at the time: