Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween from the Bat Cat

Black white tuxedo cat with cat-sized Batman mask, including pointy ears
This photo is a fine example of how photographers or other image creators lose their work. There seems to be no way to figure out who originally took this picture.

If anyone has a definitive answer, I would be happy to credit the photographer.

Update: I now have a creator to credit. Commenter peppery found the original image, created by GorillaSushi, as a gift to Jason Sweeney, who had written a post that said he sometimes thinks his cat is batman. The mask is Photoshopped onto a picture of Sweeney's cat, posted on Flickr. It's from March 10, 2010. (I guess I should have looked a bit harder.)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Luck of the Wealthy

I've previously mentioned this quote from Ursula LeGuin's book The Dispossessed. It's the words of a fictional philosopher named Odo, who influenced a revolution that led to the creation of an "ambiguous utopia":

"For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think."
I've always thought that chance had a lot to do with how well any one person does, financially, in our society. Sure, there's intelligence, hard work and perseverance, but even if you have all of those, there are no guarantees. Sometimes it's being in the right place at the right time or sheer chance and butterfly effects that make someone successful.

Well, it turns out Odo and I were onto something. Today's Star Tribune contained an op-ed by local writer Greg Breining, who reports on a mathematical model developed at the University of Minnesota. The model shows that "the fabulously rich get as rich as they do by chance alone."

The model was developed by Joseph Fargione, an ecologist with the U's College of Biological Science, and has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Breining writes,
The link between ecology and economics is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Ecologists had long thought that environmental factors and the characteristics of species would determine the evolutionary outcome of an ecosystem (just as many people insist that talent, hard work, and good decisions determine wealth). Put the same species together under the same conditions, the thinking went, and you'd get a similar result -- again and again.

But in the 1980s, James Drake, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee, repeatedly assembled "microecosystems" in five-gallon aquariums. He found he could add the same pond species in the same numbers under identical conditions -- and get a different result each time. Different species would gain ascendency and dominate the ecosystem -- as if by chance alone.
Fargione did the math and finds that wealth accumulation is like Drake's aquariums:
by the "inexorable effect of chance," and chance alone, "a small proportion of entrepreneurs come to possess essentially all of the wealth. ... The concentration of wealth occurs merely because some individuals are lucky by randomly receiving a series of high growth rates, and once they are ahead with exponentially growing capital, they tend to stay ahead."

According to Fargione, greater variation in rates of return hastened the concentration of wealth. Inequality grows with time. Wealth concentration continues despite periods of recession and depression. And splitting estates among heirs does not appreciably slow concentration.

In the real world, of course, some people are more skilled at making money than others. And business owners who are making a high rate of return, by operating highly successful companies, tend to continue earning high rates of return. And the rich have connections and other means to increase their wealth that most folks lack. "Those other factors would exacerbate the underlying pattern," says Fargione.
One thing that would break up this randomized juggernaut is a substantial estate tax, according to Fargione. Makes sense to me; why should someone be able to inherit money -- which s/he had nothing to do with acquiring -- without taxation? It seems like those who think people on "welfare" are lazy should be equally against anyone being able to live off of inherited trust funds.

In any case, it's hard to get around the argument that the type of income inequality we're experiencing in this country is unhealthy in a democratic republic and bad for the economy, too. Breining concludes with this:
According to economists Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, "In fact equality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth. The difference between countries that can sustain rapid growth for many years or even decades and the many others that see growth spurts fade quickly may be the level of inequality."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Alternate Queens

The AP sidebar that accompanied the Star Tribune's version of the story on the changes to Britain's royal succession could have used a more intelligent alternate historian for a writer.

Princess Royal Victoria in 1867It started off by telling us that Kaiser Wilhelm would have ruled Britain and Germany, since his mother was the oldest child of Queen Victoria, and then followed with this bit of over-simplification: "With Wilhelm II ruling both Germany and Britain, there may not have been two world wars." Clearly, if the princess Victoria had been heir to the British throne, she wouldn't have been married off to another head of state, so Wilhelm wouldn't have existed at all.

After acknowledging that Henry VIII wouldn't have been king since he had an older sister, the story goes on to say that if he had been king, his oldest daughter Mary would have followed him instead of his son. But if Henry hadn't needed a male heir, his son Edward might never have been born in the first place, because Henry wouldn't have had a reason to divorce his first wife. Or even if he did that anyway (and thus breaking with Rome to start the Church of England), he wouldn't have had to behead his second to get something other than a daughter.

This is all starting to sound kind of silly, but such is the risk of this kind of extrapolation. Let's just leave the alternate histories to those who know how to write them, from Phillip Roth to Kim Stanley Robinson, among many others.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Oakland, First Person

A first-person account of the Occupy Oakland police rout from Tuesday night. It's written by a contributing editor from Reason, who lives a few blocks away. In case you're not familiar with it, Reason is a libertarian magazine, so he's not exactly an OWS partisan.

In his recounting, there is no mention of violence toward the police, only tear gas, riot gear and helicopters costing taxpayers millions of dollars. He was 50 to 100 feet away when former Marine Scott Olsen was injured.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Poop, Wretches, and the 53 Percent

Some good reads of late:

All the poop on constipation by pharmacist Scott Gavura over at Science-Based Medicine. I had no idea it could be so interesting. (Though I apologize in advance to my grammarian friends for Gavura's tendency to put hyphens in -ly adverb phrases. He's a a pharmacist, not a copy editor.)

The Ink-Stained Wretch Tax Plan by Eric Black at MinnPost, pointing out that simplification does not equal flat. Although he, like most, is a little thin on the concept of income, as pointed out by Ed Lotterman.

Have you seen any of the photos from the Other 53%, which show people with hand-written messages assailing the Occupy Wall Street/We Are the 99% movement? Here's an excellent response to one of the 53 percenters.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Minding the Reckless Driving Gap

Is there a gap in our laws when it comes to inattentive driving? Where is the line between not paying enough attention and obvious recklessness? And where is the next line, between recklessness and criminal negligence? What types of penalties should be possible for each one?

The Koua Fong Lee case was galvanizing for me. How could a jury, let alone a judge, find a man guilty of criminal negligence when he was trying to stop his runaway car?

Lee, thank goodness, was finally released after serving several years in prison. While he sat behind bars, other Minnesotans who were clearly negligent and others who were only reckless or inattentive were sentenced to less time or no time at all.

Dakota County prosecutor James Backstrom is agitating for a change in the law to create a new gross misdemeanor offense of careless driving resulting in a death. It would include jail time of up to a year.

During Backstrom's decades in office, he's seen the effect on the families of victims, and wants a more stringent sentencing option. He and others, such as state Rep. Pat Garofolo, compare the proposed law to the change that took place over time in our thinking about drunk driving. "A drunk driver rarely means to injure or kill someone," Garofalo is quoted in the Strib story as saying. "We still punish them. This is a problem that needs to be fixed and it needs to be fixed now."

Michael Friedman, writing an op-ed in response to the proposed law, made a number of excellent points. The title of his op-ed, Tough sentences may feel good, but aren't necessarily a solution, gives the gist. "...if a 90-day sentence is changed by a law to a one-year sentence, who is to say that victims such as the ones pressing Backstrom would be satisfied? Why not two years? Then someone will later decide one or two years is hardly enough; how about five? Sentencing based on the raw emotions of victim pain is not a good basis for policy."

Friedman isn't buying the argument that inattentive driving can be decreased the way drunk driving has been by criminalizing it and increasing penalties, either. "Would we prevent poor driving by criminalizing it more substantially if a death results? How many of us have veered into lanes at the wrong time, gotten distracted by something in the car, taken a turn too fast, not seen a car stopping in front, and so on? Sure, we're infuriated when others who do so put us at risk, but to raise the stakes in sorting through which bad driving behavior is willful and which is just stupid or accidental is not what we want to spend our criminal-justice dollars on. It is not in the long run going to help the emotional recovery of victim families, or improve driving generally."

Friedman closes by calling for a Restorative Justice approach to these cases.

A few days later, Backstrom responded to Friedman in his own op-ed. He insists that "The proposed legislation would apply only to drivers who cause the death of a person while taking unreasonable risks such as speeding, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving, or falling asleep behind the wheel."

That list is pretty interesting. Speeding (how many miles per hour?) or falling asleep are equated with texting or talking on your phone. Hmm. I wonder where some of the recent cases would fall within Backstrom's list of reckless behaviors. Would the young driver who didn't have his lights on at night and mistakenly crossed the center line, but was only charged with misdemeanor careless driving, fall under this new charge? On the other hand, would Koua Fong Lee have been found guilty of the lesser charge, instead of the felony he was convicted of, resulting in only a year in jail instead of eight?

Cathy Waldhauser, writing a letter to the editor in response to both op-eds, had the final word:

Why punish only the unlucky ones?

This is in response to recent proposals to increase the criminal penalties for careless driving resulting in death, and to two excellent commentaries from James Backstrom...and Michael Friedman....

I have been troubled throughout this discussion by the notion that driver-caused accidents resulting in death should be punished far more severely than those that do not result in death, while the actions themselves remain perfectly legal.

If driving while texting or talking on the phone is a mortal threat to others, which it clearly is, then that deliberate action should be illegal and punishable.

Few drivers purposely set out to cause an accident or death, so intent is not a factor. Distracted drivers who do cause an accident were simply unlucky.

Why should only they be treated as criminals while the rest of us are free to gamble with others' lives on a daily basis?

Let's penalize and reduce the controllable activity, not just the random result. My unscientific observation is that 90 percent of erratically driven cars have a driver on the phone -- and they are everywhere.
Waldhauser's point is important. As a driver, I know there are countless times when I have been distracted in a minor way, only to find myself in a dangerous situation. In all of those instances, I have been lucky enough not to have a collision.

Outlawing talking on a phone or texting while driving is probably a good idea. But it won't change behaviors related to other seemingly innocuous activities, like reaching for something that dropped to the floor or changing the radio station. And there doesn't seem to be anything we can do to make sure people turn on their lights at night and especially at twilight, judging by all the people who ignore me when I try to signal to tell them they're driving in the dark.

Maybe we just have to recognize that human beings moving around in two-ton metal boxes at incredible speeds are inherently dangerous, and there's only so much that can be done from a legal standpoint to make everyone as safe as possible.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gail Rosenblum, Fan of Homeopathy?

I've said in the past that I'm a fan of Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum, but today she committed what seems to me a clear case of bad journalism.

Her story was about the recently published research on antidepressant use. The main point of the column is to make sure people realize the study found only a third of people with severe depression are taking antidepressants.

Rosenblum is rightly concerned that this under-usage will be lost in the midst of the more loudly trumpeted news that 11 percent of people over the age of 12 (and 25 percent of women 40 to 59) are taking antidepressants.

Fair enough, and worth a column. But suddenly, about two-thirds of the way through, in a section discussing why women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, comes this paragraph, completely out of the blue:

Homeopathic practitioner Debra Sax Annes agrees that standards and stresses for mid-life women are high today. While not unilaterally opposed to antidepressants, she worries about their limitations and long-term side-effects. Homeopathy, she said, looks at people as unique. "Each depression is different," she said. "Post-partum depression is totally different than the loss of your mother or the loss of a job. We all get stuck with what life sometimes throws us. Homeopathy uses remedies in minute doses to keep people balanced mentally, emotionally and physically."
What does that have to do with the rest of the story? How can a supposedly fact-based writer let pass unchallenged the idea that "remedies in minute doses" can "keep people balanced"? Is Rosenblum a believer in the silliness of homeopathy, which is based on the idea of water memory -- which has no basis in science whatsoever? Those doses the homeopath refers to are not doses at all.

In fact, when homeopathic remedies wander into actual dosages, they get into trouble, as with Zicam, a cold remedy that destroyed the sense of smell in its users. Homeopathy -- which is not regulated by the FDA -- is not just another word for alternative medicine; it's a 200-year-old belief system that predates much of medical science, and which has refused to give up its absurd, unscientific claims.

Here's a video I saw a while ago that treats homeopathy with the level of seriousness it warrants:

So what about it, Gail? What did that little advertisement for homeopathy in your story have to do with treatment of depression?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Even More Heat Surge Absurdity

It almost seems as though the latest Amish heater ad from the Universal Media Syndicate is an attempt to see how many absurd claims can be packed into a single-page ad.

Right at the top is the dumbest staged photo I think I've ever seen: a line of people in a Sears parking lot, standing behind yellow caution tape, dressed in their winter coats as they wait for a crew of supposedly Amish men to unload a few Heat Surge boxes out of the back of a horse-drawn buggy.

Give me a break.

The idea that a huge retailer like Sears takes deliveries from guys in buggies is laughable. The implication that the men in the photo are actually Amish or the people behind the caution tape are customers is equally silly. The only true thing in this photo is the fact that Sears is now selling the heaters; they should be ashamed, in my opinion.

The ad's text is full of the same type of absurdity. The breathless copy crams in so many pseudo-technical terms it's like a Monty Python script. "This is the revolutionary Heat Surge HT L.E.D., the first-ever appliance with Hybrid-Thermic™ heat technology. Hybrid-Thermic heat is an engineering genius so advanced, it actually uses a micro-furnace from the Coast of China and a thermal heat exchanger to perform its miracles. The thermal heat exchanger acts like the rays of the sun to heat you, the kids, the pets and everything else. The micro-furnace then heats all the surrounding air.... In fact, it actually produces Ortho-Thermic™, bone-soothing heat."

Oh, wow, a micro-furnace from the Coast of China! We all know everything that comes from China is good. And a hot LED -- where do they get those? The reason LEDs are energy-efficient is because they don't put out heat. And how many more ™ marks can they use on made-up words like Ortho-Thermic?

A new section of the ad has the bold headline "A Consumer Best Buy," followed by the claim that it "boast[s] an overwhelming Consumer 'Best Buy' on the website." This is clearly supposed to make readers think of Consumer Reports -- the venerable consumer watchdog, which has a history of giving the Heat Surge / Amish heaters a less than warm review. But is a website created by Heat Surge -- it's not an independent review -- so it's full of glowing recommendations. Big surprise.

The ad refers again and again to a "double coupon" deal, but it never says how much the single coupon is for. The heater costs $398 if you call in the next 24 hours; it's $547 after that, although I had to read it about three times to find that price listed. The only difference from their past ads is that shipping and handling are included with this "coupon." To make up for that decrease, though, the $398 price is almost $100 more than they were selling heaters for last year. Maybe the price went up because of all that revolutionary technology from China.

The ad claims the heater uses $.09 of electricity per hour in "standard mode." It then says "yet it produces up to an amazing 4,606 British Thermal Units (BTU's) on the high setting." No mention of  how many BTUs it puts out on the standard setting, or how much electricity it uses on the high setting. (The Heat Surge website lists the standard setting as putting out 2,303 BTUs, so I would infer it costs $.18 per hour to run it on the high setting.) Note that 4,606 BTUs is less than the amount of heat put out by a 1,500-watt heater, and less than was put out by the version Heat Surge was selling last year. (4,606 BTUs equals about 1,350 watts.)

Just remember these facts:
  • The Amish heater costs $398. Electric heaters that put out comparable amounts of heat can be had for under $100. Even ones that come in furniture-like cabinets cost substantially less than $398.
  • $.09 per hour will be added to your electric bill whenever the heater is used in standard mode. If you run it 24 hours a day, that's $2.16, and if you do that for a month it adds about $65 to your bill. If you run it on high, the electric charges will double. Will your gas or oil bill be decreased by more than that? Natural gas creates cheaper heat per BTU than electricity -- 60 percent cheaper, according to Consumer Reports, so that seems doubtful to me.

Here's some background on the Universal Media Syndicate and Arthur Middleton Capital Holdings, the company behind the Heat Surge ads.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Increase Efficiency with the Wave Disk Engine

I took a few minutes out of work one day last week to watch Maggie Koerth-Baker's presentation at the Future Tense energy conference. Lucky for you, she's posted the text and accompanying graphs on Slate, so you can read it instead of wading through the video.

Essentially, she wanted to take a look at what U.S. energy use would look like in 2030, and came to the conclusion that rather than being startlingly different (in either a good or bad way), it would be kind of boring.

A key change, though, was the need to decrease overall energy use, which will lead to decreases in oil and coal use, while natural gas and solar/wind/alternative energy use will go up a bit, though not tremendously.

Maggie Koerth-Baker's 2030 stacking bar chart, comparing that year if types of energy use is unchanged, vs modest changes in efficiency and type of fuel

Norbert Müller with a model of the wave disk engine
The most recent Discover magazine included an article describing a range of energy solutions in development. One that was listed is the wave disk engine, which could be an important part of that decrease in energy use. This is what the writer, Elizabeth Svoboda, had to say about it:
Inside your car's engine, combustion gases expand as gasoline is burned, creating force that drives a piston. It is an effective system, but it converts only about 15 percent of fuel energy into propulsion. Michigan State mechanical engineer Norbert Müller aims to do far better with his wave disk engine, in which a rotating wheel sucks fuel and air into small internal channels. As the wheel spins, ports on the outer rim of the engine block the fuel-air mixture from flowing out of the channels. The blockage creates shock waves, and the resulting pressure helps the fuel to ignite, pushing against curved blades on the disk and causing it to spin. Müller says his engine has the potential to be 60 percent efficient. He hopes to finish a prototype large enough to power an SUV by next year.
Other parts of the article described an MIT scientist working on a utility-scale battery and advances in growing algae as a biofuel.

Koerth-Baker has a book in the works that I'll have to read as soon as it comes out: Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. It's due in April 2012 from Wiley.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Troublesome Words, Part 2

I've finished Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting It Right, so it's time for a recounting of the M - Z words that surprised or informed me. (Here's my earlier list of words for A - L.)

manner born, to the -- Bryson writes, "Not manor. The line is from Hamlet." This fact is known by .000002 percent of the English-speaking population (a percentage that did not include me), and anyone who writes it correctly will be thought to be wrong by 99.999998 of readers. So probably best avoided.

minuscule -- I could have sworn that it was spelled with a second i rather than a u. Bryson suggests, "Think of minus, not mini."

moribund -- I think I used to know this word means "dying or at the point of death," but I've seen it used so often to connote a negative-but-not-terminal condition that I forgot it.

nauseous vs. nauseated -- "As Bernstein put it, people who are nauseated are no more nauseous than people who are poisoned are poisonous." Which makes sense, but I think this one is a lost cause in real-world usage.

numskull -- No b! I had no idea.

postmeridian, post meridiem -- Now that's a silly distinction. The former means happening in the afternoon; the latter is what we abbreviate as p.m. when listing a time in the afternoon. I think we could do away with one word or the oher, and while we're at it, also dispense with the typographic style command to set a.m. and p.m. in small caps, as Bryson does and the Chicago Manual of Style insists. It's never going to happen, especially in the age of the interweb, and the abbreviations look even worse when set in all caps (A.M./P.M.). As part of the informalization of society, let's just let them be lower case, okay?

repel vs. repulse -- An army repulses an attack, it doesn't repel it. "Repel is the word for causing squeamishness or distaste." Although, in my defense, I am correct in thinking repulsive means to cause repugnance.

sacrilegious -- I would have had the i and e transposed if I were given that word in a spelling bee. My Webster's Collegiate informs me it derives from sacer + legere, to steal -- in other words, it's related to stealing holy items.

sneaked vs. snuck -- Bryson says that sneaked is the real deal, but as with shined vs. shone, I have a hard time adding ed onto the end of verbs that clearly seem like they come from Old English. So I'll stick to snuck, thanks. Not that it comes up all that often. (Bryson allows either strived or strove, by the way.)

stationary vs. stationery -- There is no etymological basis for the difference between the two spellings. Both originally meant "stand in a fixed position." Huh.

stupefy -- Note the e, and don't "confuse the spelling with stupid."

ton, tonne -- How dumb is this? A long ton equals 2,240 pounds, a short ton weighs 2,000 pounds, and a tonne is a metric ton, or 2,204 pounds.

turgid vs. turbid -- The first means "inflated, grandiloquent, bombastic. It does not mean muddy or impenetrable, which meanings are covered by turbid."

until, till, 'til, 'till -- Bryson says the first two are acceptable and interchangeable, the second two illiterate. That judgment seems unnecessarily strong to me -- why is 'til illiterate, when it's clearly a shortened version of until? I see in Webster's that till goes back to Old English til. Someone added an l to it along the way for no good reason.

utilize -- As I already knew, utilize is almost always best replaced with the simpler use. What I didn't know was utilize "means to make the best use of something that wasn't intended for the job."

whose -- I now have Bill Bryson's blessing to use whose for objects in constructions such as "The book, a picaresque novel whose central characters are...". I always wondered about that.

And there were a few more items where Bryson sides against the grammar prescriptivists:

over vs. more than -- "The notion that over is incorrect for more than (as in 'over three hundred people were present at the rally') is a widely held superstition." He traces it to Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right (1909), "a usage book teeming with quirky recommendations, many of which you will find repeated nowhere."

shall vs. will -- no longer enforced or enforceable.

split infinitives --  "Almost no authority flatly condemns it."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Motha, a Mindless Mother, and the Misnamed Median

A few bits of media weirdness and misinformation for a sunny October day, just above freezing here in the upper Midwest.

Cover of Martha Stewart Halloween magazine with Martha in ice-blond wig and false eyelashes made from half a huge moth on each eye
I don't know if this special edition of Martha Stewart Living is a dadaist prank or a sign of the impending apocalypse. Yes, that is Martha Stewart in heavy makeup and wig, plus the partial remnants of a dead member of the order Lepidoptera standing in as false eyelashes. (Okay, so it's probably not a real dead moth, but still!) This qualifies as a "flight of fancy" in Marthaland instead of signaling a psychotic break.

Star Tribune headline On night / baby last / seen, lots / of wine and Pioneer Press headline Mom drunk when baby disappeared
Dueling headlines from Tuesday's Star Tribune and Pioneer Press.

I saw the Strib headline first and had no idea what it meant. It's partly the short line breaks, I think: On night / baby last / seen, lots / of wine. Baby last? And the dangling word "lots" brought to mind the real estate meaning for me. The deck, "Mother admits she may have blacked out," is what finally made me understand what the heck the headline writer meant. The PiPress wording is much clearer, although the use of "disappeared" gives it a kind of magical quality.

Pioneer Press AP story with highlighting, showing the wording: While the average income was X the mean -- the figure where half earn more and half earn less -- was X
But all is not well in PiPress copy editing land, either. This bit of errata from an AP story in today's paper -- which I assume was read and approved by editors at AP before it ever got to the PiPress copy desk -- completely undermines the point of the story. Average and mean are the same thing, people. The word you were looking for was median, the midpoint in a range of data such as incomes in this case. How can we expect the public to understand the use of statistics of journalists and copy editors don't?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Defining Income, Redistributing Income

I can't promise this will be my last post on Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, but here are two more relevant things to know.

First, Ed Lotterman weighed in on the plan this morning. Gee, I sure love him. He points out that "income" is not the simple thing one might generally think it is, and the details are essential to understanding what a plan like Cain's would mean. Does it include payments for rent or royalties, or for entitlement payments like Social Security, or other sources such as student financial aid and scholarships? Would employer-provided health insurance be considered income?

He writes, "if you exempt one source of income from capital or property, you set up all sorts of incentives for legal finagling to convert higher taxed income to something in an exempt category. The existing provision that lets hedge fund managers treat their earnings as a lower-taxed capital gain is the most notorious example, but there are many others."

And continues: "Cain would exempt Social Security benefits, but this is another slippery slope. If even well-to-do retirees could get $2,000 Social Security payments tax-free, why should a blind person have to pay on her $600 SSI check? And if SSI is excluded, why not the value of food stamps received by the same handicapped person?"

Second, a brilliant data visualization by Brian Highsmith of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, showing the redistribution of wealth from the plan. And that's redistribution as in robbing the poor to pay the rich, not the other way around. It starts out like this:

And then the graph continues for another 8 or 10 screens worth of those two red bars: the one for the top 1% finally runs out at a savings of $240,000, while the bar for the top .1% goes on all the way to a savings of $1.35 million.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apologies for the Ear Worm

If you're anywhere close to the right age, you know the Roger Miller song "King of the Road." Daughter Number Three-Point-One recently showed me this graphic from a Tumblr blog called Big Big Truck:

(Click to enlarge, as always.)

DN3.1 knows the song because she grew up with the songbook Rise Up Singing, but the comments on Tumblr lead me to believe that other members of her generation were not similarly blessed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More on 9-9-9 plus the Retirement Heist

Well, the 9-9-9 plan has been taking some hits. The Tax Policy Institute says it would raise taxes on 84 percent of Americans -- and that would be all of us from the lower end of the income scale, of course. The annual increases mentioned range from $2,700 for people making under $20,000 to $4,500 for people making $40,000 - $50,000. Have you got that laying around your house?

So here are my suggestions if anyone really thinks this 9 fetish is the way to make policy:

  • Exempt the first $20,000 or $25,000 in income for every household. (It would be very important to index that amount to annual inflation.)
  • Exempt food from the sales tax and keep Cain's exemption for used goods. You can buy used clothes, but you can't buy used food, Herman.
  • Add an additional 9 percent tax on earned income over $250,000 (okay, maybe that income number could be a bit higher if someone insists $250,000 is just too low).
  • Include a 9 percent capital gain and a 9 percent inheritance tax.
I still have no idea how a tax plan like this would come out in terms of revenue, but clearly it would be more fair to taxpayers than Cain's plan. And we could call it the 9 plan, which would get away from the the 999 > 666 problem.


I finally watched the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job the other day. Michael Leddy at Orange Crate Art also watched it very recently, and he summed it up for me: "Want to get angry, or angrier? Watch it."

Just when I thought my jaw couldn't drop any more from the incompetence and avarice of Wall Street, I saw this last night on the Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Ellen Schultz
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

To summarize, investigative journalist Ellen Schultz' book Retirement Heist documents how large U.S. corporations purposely gutted their workers' and former workers' pension funds, in effect stealing the money to add to their profit margins or fatten their executive pension funds. They did this by lobbying Congress to change pension law so they could "safeguard" the pensions. Watch the video if you want to get really angry.

An op-ed from today's Star Tribune, which gave a brief history of clashes between American populists and corporations, made the point that we don't seem to use terms like "robber baron" anymore.

But I'd say Retirement Heist and Inside Job make a good case for bringing it back into common usage.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Tattooed Twins and Other News

I used to have a severe Law & Order addiction. I followed the show in its classic and SVU flavors, sampled episodes of Criminal Intent, and watched reruns of classic on TBS or some other cable channel almost every day for years. Heck, I even gave Trial by Jury a chance. Not too many people can say that, since it was canceled almost immediately.

I quit cold turkey about five years ago, just before Sam Waterson's Jack McCoy finally became DA. I somehow came to the conclusion that it was a net negative in my life: too much focus on violent crap I don't need to know about, making for my own little piece of the scary world hypothesis.

All that is context for my relapse last week: I watched Law & Order SVU because T.R. Knight was the guest star/suspect. He's originally from Minnesota, and I liked him when I watched the early seasons of Grey's Anatomy, so I thought, Why not?

TR Knight as an accused rapist on Law & Order SVU, being interviewed by Richard Benjamin and Ice-T
Well, as the saying goes, that's 45 minutes of my life I'll never get back; the show has clearly gone down a steep hill. The episode was a mess of long-lost evil twin absurdities not to mention every retrograde stereotype about adoption. Knight's character is a youngish family man, working in sales, who's moved from city to city until recently landing in New York. He has a distinctive tattoo on his neck, and right off the bat we're shown a rape where the attacker has such a tattoo. Then we conveniently find out there's a serial rapist on the books from several other East Coast cities who has the same tattoo, and those cities all coincide with places the salesman has lived. And then there's a DNA match from one of the earlier rapes.

Slam dunk, right? Well, no -- the salesman insists he's completely innocent and can't believe this is happening to him. The way it's written, the audience is encouraged to believe him. So I thought, either there's a secret twin or he's got a split personality. Take your pick of two stupid TV tropes.

When it turns out the salesman has an iron-clad alibi for one of the earlier rapes, we are left with the evil twin hypothesis. And darned if we don't find out the salesman was adopted just at that point in the plot. Then all of the other obvious parts fall into place: He was adopted by a middle class family, while his twin was placed into some kind of harsh family situation, culminating in his mother killing his father, with him as a witness.

The detectives interview the twins' birth mother, who is portrayed as the scum of the earth, an unnatural mother. The deviant son had tried to reconnect with her when he was a young adult, but she ducked him, after telling him he had a twin. So, rather than connect with his brother, he for some reason turned all of his rejection against the one person who might have wanted to meet him. Supposedly out of jealousy, the deviant twin got the same tattoo as his brother and then raped women in places where his brother lived, hoping his brother would be caught. (You see what I mean about Law & Order focusing on violent crap I don't need to know about.)

Why the deviant twin thought his brother would be caught instead of him is never explained. The episode ends with a confession from the evil twin and a bunch faux sympathy about his terrible upbringing from one of the detectives.

There is one good thing about my Law & Order relapse, though: It connects well with a study I just heard about last week. According to the Los Angeles Times, genetic research has found that some people are more susceptible to bad parenting than others.

There are three varieties of the 5-HTTLPR serotonin transporter-promoter gene. "About 1 in 5 children are born with a variant that, according to past studies, makes them highly sensitive to the effects of neglectful, insensitive or abusive parents," according to the Times. The most recent research found that same 20 percent of children "when blessed with especially warm and supportive parents . . . were disproportionately likely to be very happy and well-adjusted."

So clearly, that's what the "ripped from the headlines" writers of SVU were trying to allude to in their clumsy, oversimplified way: They were creating their own one-off separated twins study.

I've just recently gotten my hands on a copy of Judith Rich Harris's book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, which I understand makes the case that genetics is more than half of why each of us is the way we are, while the other parts of why are something other than parenting. The book is over 10 years old, so I'm not sure any of this 5-HTTLPR research was done by the time it was published, but it will still be interesting to see if Harris has anything to say about cases like Law & Order's tattooed twins.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Newspaper Round-Up

Nicholas Kristof (once again) wrote a good intro to the Occupy movement, including this tip for another great read: "In his important new book, The Darwin Economy, Robert H. Frank of Cornell University cites a study showing that among 65 industrial nations, the more unequal ones experience slower growth on average. Likewise, individual countries grow more rapidly in periods when incomes are more equal, and slow down when incomes are skewed." Income inequality is the enemy of democracy and prosperity, and if we have to occupy parts of every city to point it out, it's worth it. (And check out this semi-rant by a "reformed broker," addressed to his colleagues on Wall Street.)

Today's Pioneer Press informed me that it makes a big difference how you donate clothes and used goods to nonprofits. If you put your stuff out curbside for a pickup service (such as the ones in my area for the Lupus or Epilepsy Foundations), the nonprofit receives only -- get this -- about 4 percent of the value! They're paid by the pound, which for clothing tends to be pennies per item, and then the for-profit pickup service turns around and sells the clothes at prices in the dollars. And if maximizing the value of your donation isn't enough of a motivator, remember this: Your tax deduction is supposed to be based on the fair market value of your stuff, so if the nonprofit only got a per-pound rate for it, that's what you're supposed to deduct as well. (I take my stuff directly to Goodwill, which has the added benefit of doing job training for people who need it.)

A Star Tribune health care op-ed by geriatrician and palliative care specialist Victor Sandler started out slow but built up a list of health facts we all should know:

Few people realize that having health insurance in the United States confers no mortality benefit. People with health insurance do not live any longer than those without health insurance. That is what Dr. Richard Kronick uncovered in his seminal article published in Heath Services Research in 2009.
Sandler continues with facts like this: "patients hospitalized with exacerbations of serious chronic illness (e.g., heart failure, emphysema, cancer) on average live longer if they choose hospice care." And this: "As an added bonus, patients in hospice live better until they die and experience more comfortable deaths. Their surviving family members are healthier. And they cost the health care system a lot less."

The Star Tribune included this Catch-22 story about a metro-area woman whose time in jail is greater because of which county she lives in and the fact that she's a woman. Here's the deal: Dakota County resident Felicia Reinke was sentenced to 27 months with jail time of 12 months. Dakota County doesn't have enough female inmates to house them efficiently, so they contract with Ramsey County. Sounds good so far, but the problem is that Dakota County's jail has an early-release program that would have gotten Reinke out of jail by now. But because she's in a Ramsey County jail, she wasn't eligible for the program. Ramsey County allows its inmates to serve the last 150 days on supervised home monitoring, but Reinke wasn't eligible for that either because they don't want to monitor her since she doesn't live in Ramsey County. Reinke is (appropriately, in my opinion), suing both counties under the 14th Amendment equal protection clause. And that's all outrageous enough, but the thing that spurred me to write about it here, instead of just shaking my head, was this sentence: "But because Dakota is among the counties in the state suffering from low jail populations, Reinke was sent to Ramsey County, where Dakota pays to have its female prisoners kept at a cost of about $500,000." Suffering?!? from low jail populations? I always thought low crime was a good thing, but I guess these day's it's just another problem.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Megan Moore at the Birchwood

It's been a craaazy day, overflowing with intellectually stimulating stuff I'm too buzzed to write about. So it's time for an art break.

painting by Megan Moore of yellow honeysuckle blooms with a blue background and the plant name lettered in black across the bottom

Painter Megan Moore has a nice collection of highly graphic botanical works up at the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis. Stop by if you're in the mood for some good real food and beautifully composed homages to our friends the flowers.

Friday, October 14, 2011

9-9-9 and the Other Shoe

Herman Cain doctored photo with shoe falling in front of him, trailing dollar signs
I've been waiting for that metaphorical shoe to drop on Herman Cain, whose 9-9-9 tax plan gives a new meaning to "retail politics." I'm not able to analyze what the effect of such a plan would be on tax payers or the deficit, but I know there are many wonks out there who can, and I've been hoping to hear from some of them.

An AP story in the Star Tribune quotes a Bush (the first) Treasury official as saying "The poor would pay more while the rich would have their taxes cut, with no guarantee that economic growth will increase and a good reason to believe the budget deficit will increase."

The biggest surprise in the story was that the 9 percent corporate income tax would apply to payroll costs -- in effect, the cost of employees is not considered to be a part of the cost of doing business. For many types of companies -- especially professional services -- payroll is 80 percent or more of expenses. How does that make any sense?

Cain's 9 percent sales tax would apply to everything, including food -- with an exception for purchases of used goods. I kind of like that exception, since I think Americans would be well-served to reuse more of what we already have instead of buying new. But applying the tax to food means middle- to low-income people will be paying taxes on every cent they make, since they're pretty likely to spend ever cent they make. For those readers who don't know it, we here in Minnesota still exempt clothing from our state sales tax, which is also a boon to those with lower incomes, so we feel pretty strongly about exempting necessities from sales tax. (Although I would consider adding a state luxury sales tax for clothing over a certain price.)

Another thing I didn't realize about Cain's plan is that (according to the AP article) it would eliminate the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare. That makes sense in terms of trying to enact a sweeping reform, but it clearly would leave both programs even more underfunded than they already are.

Today's Strib included a story called 7 Things to Know About Cain's 9-9-9 Tax Plan. Item 4 is "How would it affect the wealthy?"

"People at the top end pay 20 or 21 percent in income and payroll taxes now," [Roberton] Williams [of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center] said. "This plan zeroes out their payroll tax and suddenly their tax is down to 9 percent. Then, like everyone else, they pay 9 percent on what they spend. But the rich don't spend everything they earn."
Plus there are no capital gain or inheritance taxes, so imagine what Warren Buffett would say -- he'd be paying even less than he is now. And nonprofits who benefit from extra largesse from rich donors, who are trying to avoid taxation, would clearly suffer.

We all know the tax code is a mess, and changes have to start somewhere, but can't we do better than Cain's over-simplified 9-9-9 plan? Simplicity is sexy, but life is complicated, and adults should be able to deal with that.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Little Free Libraries

This is the type of story that should take up a much larger percentage of media space (leaving a bit less news hole for over-represented violence and horse-race politics).

A guy from Stillwater, Minn., named Todd Bol started building miniature libraries. They look a bit like an extra-large bird house, but they hold books instead of nests.

Woman looking into wooden house with books inside it
(Star Tribune photo by Richard Tsong-Taatarii)

It's a completely decentralized happening -- both the building of the libraries and the way books just show up to fill them. While the nonprofit organization started by Bol builds the boxes and then distributes them to neighborhoods that sponsor them, it also shares the plans so anyone can make one.

The books are there on a "take one, leave one" basis. I wonder if there's one in my neighborhood? There are definitely a few books around here I would put in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Herman Cain: Money and Connections

I've been reading up on Herman Cain lately, and finding him a bit hard to parse. On one hand, he seems like a guy with real-world experience who might bring something useful to the office. On the other hand, he says outrageous things about Muslims and the people at Occupy Wall Street.

But there was one thing about him I thought I could like on a simple, human level, and that was his (so far) successful battle with stage IV colon cancer. According to the Wikipedia, he has been cancer-free since 2006, and more power to him, I thought. It gave me hope for a friend whose recent diagnosis sounded a lot like Cain's.

That was until I read this story from Mother Jones. Cain, it seems, trumpets his survival as a message from God that He is not finished with Cain yet. He also proclaims that he would have died under Obamacare.

As MoJo writer Stephanie Mencimer shows, however, God had nothing to do with it, and if it had been in existence at the time, Obamacare wouldn't have, either:

  • Because of his personal wealth, Cain never had to worry about how he would pay for his care. He had the best of everything.
  • He got immediate access to one of the best treatment centers in the country after his friend T. Boone Pickens made a call. (Pickens was on the board of the Houston-based center).
  • He got a free second opinion from a Savannah doctor who was an admirer and supporter.
  • He was able to leave Houston a week early during his recuperation because "one of the companies on whose board he sits dispatched its private plane to fly him back to Atlanta so 'we did not have to endure the stress of commercial travel.' "
It's not uncommon for people who have near-death experiences to think God had something to do with their survival, and that God has a purpose for them. But as I've written earlier, such thinking implies that all the people who do die had no purpose in God's eyes, or that it was somehow their fault. The illogic reaches mind-boggling proportions almost instantaneously.

In Cain's case, though, it's even worse because the reason for his survival is right in front of his face: money and connections, baby. How hard is it to be honest about that?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Who Are the 1,400?

A recent analysis by the Detroit Free Press (reprinted in the Pioneer Press today) found that an increasing percent of those people the Right loves to hate -- you know, the ones who pay no federal income tax -- are making incomes that would generally be considered middle class if not upper-middle or beyond.

According to the story by Todd Spangler, "As of 2009, more than 20,000 filers making more than $200,000 a year...owed no income tax..." Of those 20,000, 1,470 brought home more than a million dollars a year, income-tax-free.

Most of the people who pay no income tax have only modest incomes (76 percent make under $25,000; 83 percent have adjusted gross incomes under $30,000). But the share of the non-payers who are better off has been increasing each year.

How does this happen? The story offers a sidebar with three scenarios, but only one of them describes a family making more than the median household income. In that scenario, a married couple filing jointly, with income of $100,000 and three minor children (one of whom is in college despite being under 18) managed to deduct their way out of taxes through a combination of mortgage interest, college and child care expenses, IRA investments, and medical expenses. Clearly, this is an unusual family that has both child care and college expenses, and if they really have all of these expenses, they don't have a whole lot of money to spend. So it almost makes sense that their income taxes would bottom out.

Essentially, it's an example of the Bush tax cuts at work. The cuts reduced rates, but also doubled the child tax credit, got rid of the "marriage penalty," and cut capital gains taxes. Under Obama, other smaller breaks have been added, such as Making Work Pay and new college credits. 

But what's up with the 1,400 millionaires who pay no income tax? Do they each have 20 children with a quarter of them in child care, a quarter in college, and two who have super-high medical bills? And does their income all derive from capital gains, which are taxed at a much lower rate?

I'd love it if someone could find out the answer to that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Anti-G.I. Bill

Star Tribune letter writer Paul Perkal of Robbinsdale made a keen observation in today's paper:

Things have changed since the last century

It just occurred to me, after hearing about yet another student with a debt of well more than $100,000, that the situation is almost exactly the opposite of that during the days of the G.I. Bill. Then, returning vets were able to get sizable subsidies for higher education, and that often resulted in better careers and better lives for their families.

These days, intelligent young people are out of work (or way underemployed) for long stretches. Their college debts are way beyond the size of a down payment on a house, and the law prevents them from renegotiating, deferring or discharging these debts through bankruptcy. Basically, they're indentured servants, except without work.

I think this is one reason our economy is shot. Surely we can come up with a way to allow former students to manage this debt.
I read a book a few years ago (can't remember the name of it for the life of me, though) that discussed how student debt was influencing, or even corrupting, the career decisions of young people, leading them to parasitic jobs on Wall Street or to become ambulance-chasing lawyers.  These days, all too often former students can't find jobs at all, or at least not ones that have a career path (do you want fries with that?).

Neither outcome is good for these young people or in our country's long-term interest, and I can't help wondering how hard it would be for this country to make higher education available at no cost to a much wider range of students. It's a question of priorities.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Brown vs. Warren and the Innuendo of Class Privilege

While I find Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown's casually sexist response to rival candidate Elizabeth Warren unacceptable, there's something else in Brown's response and additional defensive moves that I dislike even more.

Background: Brown helped pay his way through law school by posing nude in Cosmopolitan. Last week, Warren was asked about that in the first senatorial debate of the Massachusetts race. Questioner: "Your opponent posed in Cosmo to help pay for college. How did you pay for school?" Warren: "Well, I kept my clothes on." (Audience laughter.) Warren then continued to explain that she went to a public university, took out loans, and had a job. The next day, Brown was on Boston radio station WZLX, on a show that sounds like it's a typical morning drive-time zoo. The host asked him, "Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren’s comment about how she didn’t take her clothes off?" Brown laughed and then said, "Thank God."

I've heard that radio exchange described as fraternity humor, which seems like a pretty good way to characterize it. But Brown then went on to say, "You know what, listen, bottom line is I didn’t go to Harvard. You know, I went to the school of hard knocks and I did whatever I had to do to pay for school."

These words imply that Warren (who until the last few years was teaching at Harvard) attended Harvard, and with that carry the meaning that she is part of a privileged elite, while poor old Scott is part of the regular people.

While doing damage control after his attempt at humor, Brown drummed up defensive statements from two women senators, Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, who criticized Warren for "mocking" or "belittling" Brown over the choices he made to pay for school. I know it's a question of personal taste, but I didn't find Warren's repartee particularly mocking or at all belittling -- just lighthearted, which seems like a bit of grace under pressure during a debate -- while Brown's clearly was both belittling and mean-spirited.

But worse, again, were the class and privilege innuendos in a statement by Brown's campaign manager, Jim Barnett: "It's elitist of Professor Warren to look down at the decisions Scott Brown made to put himself through college and rise above the circumstances of his life. Scott has fought and scraped for everything he's got."

Everything about Barnett's statement implies that Warren is the opposite of Brown -- she's a professor (and he's a regular guy), she has no idea what it is to rise about the circumstances of your life, she never had to fight to get where she is.

For the record:

  • Elizabeth Warren is from Oklahoma City. Her father had a heart attack when she was 12, which led to large medical bills and the loss of their car. Her mother went back to work answering phones and the teen-aged Elizabeth worked as a waitress. She went to the University of Houston, a public four-year school while also getting married at 19 and having a child not long after. She went to Rutgers University Law School (the public university of the state of New Jersey). She started teaching law at Rutgers a few years after graduating when she was asked to come back and teach as an adjunct. She worked her way "up" to Harvard Law School in the classic sense of the American meritocracy.
  • Scott Brown had a tough early life, with a lot of divorces, family upheaval and abuse followed by teenaged run-ins with the law. His father was a city councilman in his home town, while his mother is said to have "received welfare" at some point. He joined the National Guard and then the ROTC, graduating from Tufts University for undergraduate study (private) and Boston College Law School (private).
  • Susan Collins (R-Me.) comes from a family that has operated a lumber business in the town of Caribou in northern Maine, since 1844. Both her parents have been mayor of the town and her father served in both houses of the Maine legislature. She went to St. Lawrence University (private).
  • Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) went to Penn State University for undergraduate (public) and Villanova University School of Law (private).
  • Jim Barnett (who is, by the way, a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity), went to American University (private).
So who are the ones who went to elitist academic institutions? Who are the ones attacking a candidate whose life story represents the American dream of success based on your merits and hard work? Why can't Scott Brown and his campaign manager just promote Brown's life story and hard work without knocking Elizabeth Warren's?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Occupy Minnesota

How could I stay away?

Minnesota folks got organized and set up an occupy site in the plaza between the Hennepin County Government Center and Minneapolis City Hall. Spokesperson Osha Karow was on MPR on Thursday, and I thought he did a great job of explaining a necessarily messy event.

According to MPR, about 160 people slept out Friday night. I stopped by on Saturday morning, and I would urge anyone interested to stop by any time. The focal events tend to be later in the afternoon so far, so I missed those, but it was still well worth it.

What's It Like at Occupy Minnesota?

The official welcome table is on 5th Street, right near the light rail stop:

Occupy Minnesota welcome table with large sign that says welcome to the people's plaza
I wasn't sure what to expect, but while I was there, the feeling was less like a protest than a laid-back occupation. I suppose that's appropriate.

People and tables
The large fountain in the middle of the plaza has been turned off, which leaves a big, ugly, unusable space right in the center. But at least it affords a lot of places to sit down:

People sitting on the stone edge of a fountain

One thing that impressed me was how much people were talking to each other. I struck up conversations with at least a dozen people in the hour or so that I was there, and as I walked around, I saw people who didn't know each other talking about all sorts of issues.

The occupation is functionally very organized, down to the impromptu recycling containers taped to all of the trash cans. Only blue painters' tape is allowed by the county:

Stone trash container with cardboard box taped to it with blue tape, labeled Recycling

And important info: There are lots of port-a-potties along the edge of the plaza.

The county shut off the power today, but Occupy Minnesota countered with a donation of solar panels, which they were installing while I was there.

Man and two solar panels

The county has prohibited the occupiers from using a generator, although the county is using one (white box near center bottom of the picture below) to run the surveillance camera up on the pole.

Minneapolis city hall with a white generator and black 2-story tall pole with camera on top

Still, a lot of stuff is needed for hundreds of people to occupy the plaza. At least during the weekend, donations can be dropped off on the 4th Avenue side of the plaza without having to pay to park. That's near the donation desk. (Go down the left side of 5th Street from the Dome, turn left on 4th Avenue, and then stop alongside the plaza.) When I swung back to drop off some water, tape and trash bags, the sheriff's deputy who was watching the area had no problem with me carrying my stuff in while parking illegally.

White board with hand-written needs list
The full list of items needed is here.

The OccupyMN Facebook page is very up-to-date, especially if you're trying to figure out how to help out in any way. There is a live video stream on the OccupyMN website (a general assembly meeting is going on this evening as I write this).

What the People Had to Say

As with the Rally to Restore Sanity and the Wisconsin union rally, I couldn't help but take photos of the great signs.

Sign saying when the planet is trashed, the 1% will realize they can't eat money

Some folks just wanted to show their signs to passing cars...

Man walking with sign reading Save the American Dream
...or anyone who was nearby. The guy above was just slowing walking around the fountain.

Handmade sign saying We do all your work for you and guard you at night, don't fuck with us
I talked to this guy for a while. He's a security guard, and I shared information on Samuel Bowles, whose research shows that as many as 1 in 4 Americans is employed in "guard labor" -- from retail to movie theaters to security guards -- protecting the property of owners from people who might take it.

Two young guys talking to a guy in a tie, one young guy with small sign that says Kill corruption not people
That sign says "Kill corruption not people."

Woman holding sign that says the the idea corporations are people idea undermines democracy
The "corporations are people" travesty was on a lot of people's minds.

Monopoly's Mr Moneybags with words Public ignorance is corporate bliss

Students are people, not consumers

Your house of credit cards is collapsing
Love this one, since as regular readers know I am no fan of credit cards.

Three guys in red t-shirts with an IBEW flag
A few union folks were in evidence, like these guys from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Whiteboard with message 1% fed, 99% fed up

Man sitting, slumped and possibly asleep, holding a sign on his shoulder that says We Create Jobs
I hesitate to post this photo, since it could be misused by the wrong elements, but it captures something about the wearying nature of occupying an outdoor space.

Corporate Greed Runs Our Schools into the Ground

Dear 1% if you want a country go buy an island
This sign belonged to a guy named Doug. We talked for quite a while.

Why are people the only species that has to pay to live on the earth?

Our forefathers died for freedom and all I got was this lousy two-party system

Stop calling economic extortionists 'job creators'

99% of the cookies are eaten by 1% of the monsters, with photo of Cookie Monster
"Occupy Sesame Street" appears to be a meme running around the interweb today. On Facebook, I saw doctored photos of Grover being wrestled to the ground by police.

Young woman with sign reading Poverty is not the American dream

Profits privatized losses socialized

The Top Two

In my opinion, the two best things I saw today at Occupy Minnesota were:

Man with black shirt, white letters, reading Tend Errorism
Probably the best shirt ever.

Young man with sign reading A protest can be about many things and ONE THING (with the O in One the planet earth)
An answer to those who don't know what to make of a leaderless, multi-issue protest.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Late-Night Post About Bears and Pools

Black bear climbing out of a home swimming pool with white type above, Watch out for the drain!
What does the Pool and Spa Safety Act of 2007 have in common with Hope the Bear?

The irrational nature of the human mind.

Hope was born on camera a few winters ago in a northern Minnesota den. Thousands of people watched and waited for her birth over the interweb. Well, Hope has recently disappeared, probably shot by a hunter. And people are sad about this, writing letters to the editor -- many of whom don't think twice about every other adorable bear that's shot, let alone the cute cows, pigs and chickens they eat every day.

At the time Hope was born, I thought about writing a grouchy post here, but talked myself out of it. It reveals my antisocial side, I know. But this recent news brought it all back.

Ed Lotterman, on the other hand, highlights the irrationality of people who say they want less government regulation, but then turn around and pass a bill requiring all pools to be retrofitted to prevent swimmers from becoming stuck in the drains. A Minnesota child died this way, you see, so there ought to be a law. According to Lotterman, "Drain-related accidents commonly account for less than five of the 2.4 million deaths in our country each year."

Risks are not real to our impaired human brains unless we can see and, ideally, imagine ourselves hugging the thing that's threatened. And it's even better if the threat is posed by something tangible, like a drain you can fix for $3,800 a crack or a mean old hunter.

But a company that spews pollution that will make us all sick some time in the future or that wants to mine the Boundary Waters Canoe Area --  hands off of them, because they're job creators! Let alone the risk of climate change -- that's way too abstract. Unless it involves some bears. Hence the news about polar bears stranded on ice floes, surrounded by water.

Somehow, it always comes back to bears and water.


Some of the best writing on our all-too-human irrationality can be found at YouAreNotSoSmart.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Week of Losses

So many deaths this week. Steve Jobs, 56, is the most obvious one, but before that there was:

Peter Benson, 65, founder of the Search Institute, a Minnesota-based research and social change organization. Benson was responsible for exploring the concept of "community assets" -- the positive features of a community that make it likely its young people will grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults.

Judith Martin, 63. A geographer, Martin headed the Urban Studies Program at the University of Minnesota and had, over the years, a strong influence on planning in the Twin Cities. You could always count on her to bring clarity and a big-picture view to any issue of the day.

Janet Spector, 66, was a feminist archaeologist at the University and one of the founding professors in the field of women's studies there. Her book What This Awl Means was ground-breaking in focusing on the meaning of everyday objects among Native American women.

Derrick Bell, 80. As the New York Times put it, Bell was a "pioneer of critical race theory — a body of legal scholarship that explored how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, even many of those intended to redress past injustices."

I didn't know any of these wonderful people, but I'll miss all of them and what they brought to the world. And every one of them died of cancer.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Inside the Box

Am I the only one who — upon hearing the NPR sponsorship blurb for that says "Helping doctors, lawyers and business professionals protect their online reputations" — instantly gets the song "Little Boxes" stuck in my head?

As Malvina Reynolds put it:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
I know the wording is not identical, but the rhythm of "executives" and "professionals" makes it feel the same.

(Full lyrics here.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Cash-Carrying Member of the Consumer Party

Remember this ad for the Visa check card?

It ran on national television before I started this blog, or I imagine I would have written about it here to criticize its purpose (to encourage people to use plastic instead of cash) and the stupidity of its main argument (that it's faster for cashiers to swipe a card than to make change). I don't know about you, but the cashiers I see tend to be faster with cash than they are with cards.

Well, Mary Hunt, the Everyday Cheapskate, recently wrote a column, saying just about what I would have said. She points out the way our brains process the spending of cash vs. the use of credit (the first causes us a sense of loss and the second doesn't) and the manipulative nature of the ad.

She concludes:

There is no doubt that cash is inconvenient. It makes spending a bit more difficult. And that is a wonderful safety measure. It makes you plan ahead. You can't spend more cash than you have in your possession. You have to think -- something that Visa and MasterCard don't want us to do.

I say we band together to become the consumer credit industry's worst nightmare: cash-carrying consumers.
Yes! Now I just have to follow my own (and Hunt's) advice.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Thought for the Day

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." 

John F. Kennedy, at a White House reception for the diplomatic corps of the Latin American republics, address on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, March 13, 1962. (source)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Apple Picking, Without Apples

An annual ritual: Go out to pick apples at an orchard east of St. Paul. Past years' visits have been good for photos from the pumpkin patch and recycling cans, and this year is no different in its lack of apple photos.

First there is this, from the petting zoo area:

Hand-painted sign with horse cartoon and the following text: We are all tame/and/We're glad you came/but/We're animals, dude/Your fingers could look/Like food
This bit of doggerel (horserrel?) struck me funny, especially the line breaks.

Then some of the non-apple tree foliage:

Bright red five-leaved vine with small purple fruits, like tiny grapes
I knew Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quniquefolia) had beautiful red fall color, but I've never noticed that it had dark purple berries.

And finally the silent, brooding Gas Cans of Easter Island.

Pink and red plastic gas cans turned with their handles facing the camera, which makes them look like brooding, heavy-browed faces

In pink and red, no less.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Nostalgia for Lunchboxes

The Vermont Toy and Train Museum, next to the Farmers Diner in Queechee, Vermont, is the place to see vintage lunchboxes.

I found that my camera mostly wanted to shoot two genres of boxes. First, ones that showed television shows I watched:

My favorite show in about third grade.

Remember that creepy Mrs. Beardsley doll?

I can't get over how inappropriate the typeface choice is on this lunchbox. It's a classic example of how historical shows can't help but try to seem current instead of historical.

Second, lunchboxes that were intended for girls:

A few others caught my eye:

From the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. I remember these Cartoon Modern figures from something, but I'm not sure it was a lunchbox.

I probably like this Dick Tracy lunchbox best of all. What a vision of the future!