Saturday, December 31, 2011

2012 – the International Year of Cooperatives

The United Nations has named 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. It's good timing, because these days, we need solutions and not just complaints about the state of things. Co-ops are a business model that works within capitalism in a new way, one that can work for Occupy as well as Republicans.

Lately I've been finding out about the work of historian Gar Alperovitz. Among many other things, he's been pitching in on the formation of the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. Evergreen provides a range of services, including dry cleaning, solar power, and locally grown food, to hospitals, universities, and the city.  Recently, Alperovitz had this to say about it:

The attempt is to use the quasi-public market - the anchor institutions, in this case - to help stabilize these cooperatives and undercut some of the driving forces that they encounter as necessary pressures of the open market. I use "somewhat undercut" because I think you can't do it totally or you will end up with the problems of traditional socialism, in which the market is so stable, so guaranteed, that there's no incentive to innovate. So, there's a balance that we're trying to achieve where there is partly an external market which includes the usual market forces. But there is also a more stabilizing market - that's the role of the quasi-public market. So, we're looking to try to do that, and I think it's an important principle to experiment with, develop and define further.
The Twin Cities are known as a co-op haven when it comes to retail food stores, but there are a lot more ways co-ops can make community ownership and democratic control of business a reality in 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Fun with Grocery Signs

Yes, I really did see this sign at a grocery store:

Sign in a meat cooler reading Cooks Butt / Portion Hams
I still don't know what that is supposed to mean.

Then there's a series of signs I saw at a Weis grocery store. I had the chance to go into their backstock area today, since it's the only large grocery store I've seen that doesn't have a public restroom. Instead, you have to go through a door that says "Employees Only," climb two flights of narrow stairs, and go along an almost catwalk-like platform past some employee lockers. It's right next to the employee break area, which consists of a small picnic table with two chairs, a microwave, and a bunch of signs from the Department of Labor.

On the way back down the stairs, I noticed this series of three signs:

Cartoon superhero made out of a CFL lightbulb with admonition, Captain Wattely says TURN OFF THE LIGHTS

Captain Wattely says TAKE OUT THE RECYCLING

There was a fourth sign that said "Wattley Says Keep This Door Closed" -- taped onto an open freezer door. Though for all I know there was someone working in there who needed to have it open.

The design of the signs is okay -- about the best you could expect for an in-house sign -- but the thing that I noticed about them was the condescending tone. "Captain Wattley" -- really? How old are the people who work for the chain? Do these signs have any positive effect on behavior? Seems doubtful.

And why does "Wattley" (or, as it reads in the last sign, "Wattely") have an "e" in it? It isn't necessary to make the name read clearly and makes the reference to "watt" more remote.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Cup Full of Shakespearean Insults

Visiting family and I came across this mug of Shakespearean insults. It brought more than a smile to my face.

My favorites:

  • All eyes and no sight
  • Not so much brain as ear wax
  • Canker-blossom (eeeewwwww!)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

No Place Like Homeland

If you had told me in 1999 that there would be a poster that used the term "homeland security" in a serious way within the boundaries of the U.S., I wouldn't have believed you.

Poster from Homeland Security Department

That is all.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

He's the Un Leader

From the Pioneer Press last week:

Pioneer Press news brief with headline North Korea's Un buffs up image, consolidates power

Note to the copy editor (at AP? or at the PiPress?) who wrote this headline: Korean (and Chinese) names place the family name first, so Kim Jong Un's shortened name here should be Kim.

And his given name is Jong Un, so referring to him as Un is pretty wrong. It's akin to referring to someone named Mary Anne Smith as Anne on second reference.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day Tabs

A possible cure for insomnia that worked, in studies, for 75 percent of insomniacs, vs. only 25 percent helped by current treatments. And it's not a drug. Amazing.

There's no reason to turn off an iPad or Kindle during takeoff or landing.

If you've ever wondered what the difference is among geek, nerd, dweeb, and dork, this is the Venn diagram for you.

In a recent Mother Jones story about Highland Park, Texas, the most Republican of all zip codes, I noticed that the sidebar table had some unexpected factoids to share. Comparing Berkeley (used as the antithesis of Highland Park):

But notice -- most of the listed cultural affectations one generally associates with Berkeley are instead true of Highland Park, and vice versa: Highland Park leads in yoga and natural/organic food buying, while Berkeley leads in golf-playing and belonging to a religious club. Who would have thought it?

Tom Stites, writing on the Nieman Journalism Lab site, proposes the idea of co-ops as the new business model for journalism.

Jonah Lehrer has written a few times lately on how science is beginning to fail us. Here's his piece from Wired.

Charles Mann (author of 1491 and 1493) visits a busy airport with security expert and skeptic Bruce Schneier to witness the security theater and ruminate on all the wasted money (the four ins: "ineffective, invasive, incompetent, inexcusably costly"). As Mann quotes Schneier: “The only useful airport security measures since 9/11,” he says, “were locking and reinforcing the cockpit doors, so terrorists can’t break in, positive baggage matching”—ensuring that people can’t put luggage on planes, and then not board them —“and teaching the passengers to fight back. The rest is security theater.”

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Songs and Thoughts

I love most Christmas music, including the strongly religious carols, even though that's not much of a fit with the rest of my life. So I was very struck by this song I just discovered by Tim Minchin, called "White Wine in the Sun." It might become my new Christmas anthem.

Or if not that, the song "Birth of the Rebel Jesus," which Google tells me was written by Jackson Browne. The recording I've heard is by the McGarrigle Sisters.

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants' windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by 'the Prince of Peace'
And they call him by 'the Savior'
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgment
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There's a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

As Occupy Denver sent out today in honor of Christmas:

Today, some are celebrating an underprivileged mom giving birth in a stable to a baby who grew up to be a prominent activist for peace, love and anti-capitalist values; who preferred the company of honest prostitutes, the poor and the disabled than that of the religious or financial elite; who partook in radical direct action against the banking system and who, at the conclusion of his life, was executed publicly as an enemy of state. Jesus was a revolutionary.

An Illustrator Who Turns Heads

Lorna Landvik is a well-known writer of fiction in these parts, so it wasn't surprising that the Star Tribune asked her for a holiday-themed short story to run in today's paper. It tells of a girl who receives a doll almost as big as she is, and how she takes it to school after Christmas for show and tell.

I probably wouldn't have read the story if it weren't for the illustration that accompanied it. Not because it attracted me to the story -- rather, I couldn't figure out what was going on in the picture, and so had to read the story to get a clue. Sort of the opposite of the usual purpose of illustration.

illustration with girl carrying doll on her back, with girl's head turned unnaturally around so it looks like she's walking backwards
The girl (she's the slightly larger of the two figures, in case you can't tell) is walking toward the viewer's right, as indicated by the direction of her feet. But her head is turned beyond the point a human neck allows, so it looks like she's walking toward the left with her feet on backwards.

The way her shoulders and arms are drawn doesn't help clarify -- she has no elbow and her lower arm has disappeared, somehow. Try covering up her lower body at the pocket of her coat. She looks perfectly correct for a left-facing posture.

The bad execution isn't the end of the problem, though. Looking at this picture, I got the impression the girl was perfectly happy walking down the street, a la Linda Blair in The Exorcist, with her doll on her back/front. But that's not what the story says at all. In fact, the whole point of the story is how hard it was for the girl to get the doll to school. The illustration is meant to render this bit of the text into imagery:

 ... I turned both her and myself around so that we were back to back,  my arms behind me and clasped around her waist. With my head down and hunched against the pelting snow, I trudged blindly ahead, a Sherpa struggling to get a disabled climber back to base camp.
She finally arrives at school "perilously close" to tears.

The illustrator, Tyson Smith, doesn't work for the Star Tribune; this piece was specially commissioned for the story, I assume. That's relatively unusual in the newspaper world, since they have people on staff who usually illustrate stories; hiring an outsider costs extra money.

Smith is a freelancer with a professional representative who sells his work. From looking at his portfolio, he does a fair number of commissions. But if this Strib illustration is any indication, he's not adept at capturing the meaning of the story and he doesn't draw well enough to represent reality, even cartoonishly. I wonder how that fit into the Strib's design budget?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Film for the Season

A few facts I never knew about It's a Wonderful Life (from Newsday):

  • It was launched at a badly thought-out time of year. Premiering on December 20 seems reasonable enough, but like many movies that open late in December, it only played in New York at first, and so the rest of the country didn't get a chance to see it until several weeks after Christmas. Duh.
  • Compounding that marketing error, the film was promoted in a way that is laughably stupid: It was spun as a light-hearted romantic comedy. "The lobby card featured [Jimmy] Stewart and co-star Donna Reed in full smooch, with the tag line 'They're going steady -- straight to your heart!' "
I first heard of the film while I was in college, around 1980, from a fellow student who had been watching it each year on one of the local New York City independent stations (WPIX, I think). Because it had fallen out of copyright and could be shown for free, it became a staple feature on some stations around Christmas time. But I don't think I saw it until several years later.

My earliest familiarity with the story was a 1977 TV remake called It Happened One Christmas. It starred Marlo Thomas and Wayne Rogers, with Thomas reverse-gender-cast in the Stewart role, although her name was still Mary and Rogers' character's was George. Their last names were switched, though, so she was Mary Bailey Hatch and he was George Hatch.

I remember liking the show at the time, but I saw it again a few years ago and it seemed god-awful. Orson Welles plays Mr. Potter, Christopher Guest is Harry, and Cloris Leachman is "Clara" Oddbody, the guardian angel. In theory, it could have been good, but it wasn't. I think it was too faithful to the original, if anything. They could have played with the effects of the switched gender a lot more than just showing George's alternate life-path as a grease-covered, loutish car mechanic.

Here's the last seven or so minutes of the film, from the point where Mary finds out she's still alive and back on the bridge. It's amusing to watch Thomas, with her 1970s flowing hair, run through a 1940s town in the snow:

 Oh, and by the way, It Happened One Christmas is a terrible, generic title.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lotterman, Soucheray Talk Taxes

Everyone knows I love the writing of economist Ed Lotterman, so it's no surprise I found his recent column Property Taxes Prove to Be a Reasonable Burden persuasive. In it, he described his own taxes as a resident of St. Paul and what he got for them (kids educated, streets he can drive on, etc.).

Because he also owns a farm outside of the cities, he has a pretty good idea what it costs to fix paved surfaces and deal with water and sewage (he's spent $40,000 over the past few years). Comparatively, the $3,251.76 he pays to the city seems reasonable to him.

Lotterman wrote the column as a response to another Pioneer Press columnist, Joe Soucheray, who is one of our home-grown, anti-government cranks. Soucheray had written recently that proposed property tax increases in St. Paul indicated bloated government and that they would drive people out of the city and turn it into (in Lotterman's words) "another Detroit."

Soucheray answered Lotterman in print a few days ago, and I (believe it or not) found one argument in Soucheray's column persuasive:

...Lotterman lives in an old house in St. Paul and enjoys moderate property taxes that he does not find burdensome. He spends his a farm, $40,000 in the past three years. I venture to say that if Lotterman had spent the $40,000 improving his Como Avenue property, he would be singing a different tune.

You can choose to spend your money any way you want. But if you live in St. Paul and improve your property, your taxes will skyrocket. But your neighbor can take the same amount of improvement money and fly to California four times a year, play Pebble Beach on each occasion and leave behind on each trip his money in California. Meanwhile, back home, his property taxes remain static or even decline because that property is flying under the radar of the assessors.

You don't have to play Pebble Beach. You can play farm.

You're both getting the same fire protection, police force, education and plowing, but the preference of one is to spend money at Pebble Beach, and the preference of the other is to improve his property in St. Paul.

And those who improve their properties in St. Paul pick up the tab for people who use their money to play Pebble Beach or buy a farm.
It does seem a bit odd that the city, in effect, penalizes people for improving or maintaining their property, while simultaneously supporting the local economy. The same money spent on other items locally would bring in sales tax, which mostly goes to the state, rather than the city; or if spent outside the area, brings in no revenue to the city at all, as Soucheray points out. That is a definite disincentive to maintain the property base of the city.

However, if Soucheray, in his earlier column, hadn't been so quick to discard the important point about state-level funding of Local Government Aid to the city, perhaps we wouldn't be having this discussion. Decades ago, the Minnesota legislature made the decision to decrease property taxes overall, transferring the burden to the income tax -- precisely because the income tax is less regressive. But during the Pawlenty years, and especially since the Republicans got control of both legislative houses in 2010, LGA has been gutted, transferring the tax burden off the income tax and back onto property taxes.

I'm hoping Lotterman has a response to Soucheray soon.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Santa Runs Like a (rein)Deere

Art cars, it seems to me, tend toward over-the-top, but here's a more subtle one I spied on the streets of St. Paul this week:

Green car with a yellow hardtop and yellow side stripe, plus John Deere logo
It's painted like a John Deere tractor.

Close up of the grille, with yellow around the headlights and a retro Santa wreath at center
And its seasonal centerpiece was a nice bit of color contrast. The retro Santa face seemed like a perfect fit with the car's design era, too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Tab Roundup

A few short items for my currently short attention span:

I may just have to print this and hand it out on street corners.

Did you hear this? UC Davis Chancellor Katehi repeatedly ducked calls from one of the students who was pepper-sprayed. Then denied she ducked the student. Then finally met with her, but walked out. Really.

A model of journalistic behavior on MPR's Midmorning: Propublica writer Nicholas Kusnetz answered questions on all aspects of the fracking controversy in an even-handed, informed way. Way to go, Kusnetz and MPR.

Interesting to see what was changed in Shepard Fairey's person of the year cover for Time magazine:

Original photo is a white woman with a knit hat and 99% stenciled on her face covering, no background in focus; cover illustration has no 99% on covering and added elements of conflict in background
I thought Fairey's illustrated version was meant to represent an Arab woman. Did I just read that into it? What did you think? I didn't even notice it was a knit cap, though it clearly is.

I personally don't have a problem with the removal of the 99% from the bandana, partly because I can see it's problematic from a layout perspective, and partly because the story is about protesters generally, not just the Occupy movement. But it makes for an interesting contrast. (Via Twitter user Rachael Christine)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Throw Your Rascal Out

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Congress has a 9 percent approval rating. We all know that.

But that's not going to result in equivalent turnover at the polls next November, since attitudes toward Congress are similar to the third-person effect: Congress sucks, but my representative is okay, so I'll vote her/him back in.

Right? Isn't that how you feel, for the most part? I do (although Amy Klobuchar's vote for the NDAA has me pretty steamed).

I'd like to think I'm wrong. The recent Pew Research Center poll found that, while 67 percent thought most members of Congress should be voted out, 50 percent think their own member deserves another term. Only 33 percent want their representatives replaced.

But I have to remind myself that's still a record high -- tied with 2010 when, as Pew reminds us, "fully 58 members of Congress lost reelection bids -- the most in any election since 1948."

Also, this:

Nearly half of Republicans (44 percent) disapprove of the Republican leadership, and 70 percent of Republicans want to see most members of Congress replaced (compared to 60 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of independents).
I could see voting in term limits, as long as ex-members are barred from lobbying or anything similar to lobbying. That, combined with the end of corporate personhood and real campaign finance reform, could result in a completely different Washington.

The full report from Pew can be found here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Good News/Bad News Insect Repellant

Mosquito sucking blood from a human
Researchers at Vanderbilt University are on the trail of a breakthrough in mosquito repellants. Up to 100,000 times as effective as DEET, the new compound -- called VUAA1 -- is much less harmful to humans and, once in production, could be substantially cheaper.

Use of VUAA1 could make a major dent in the malaria problem, even if a vaccine isn't found. The chemical works by overstimulating mosquito smell receptors so they can't find blood (or anything else they locate by smell).

The compound appears to be effective on ants, flies and moths as well, so its discoverers are looking into its application as an agricultural pesticide. That sounds worrisome to me, since moths are pretty similar to butterflies, right? (There was no mention of its effects on bees.) And generally, there have to be unintended consequences if a wide range of insects can't find their food sources.

So it's with a bit of worry as well as hope that I make note of this development. I wonder if it will make it to market, and when.

Via Discover magazine, January 2012.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Break Foot at Tiffany's

Full page newspaper ad for Tiffany & Co. with light turquoise, black and white color scheme, showing a young man and woman walking up a snowy staircase toward an arch with snow-covered trees
My first thought about this ad from the Star Tribune: What a beautiful ad, even on dull old newsprint. The blue color, the atmosphere, the arch above them sheltering the sky like a snow globe, the swing of the woman's coat...

My second thought (almost as quickly but not quite, I admit): I really hate how jewelers exploit visualized romanticism to sell things no one needs that are made from raw materials dug out of the ground in the most vulnerable countries.

And then third: What is she wearing on HER FEET?

Those shoes have something like a 6" spike heel. That young woman is basically walking on her tiptoes up a snowy staircase. No wonder she's clutching that guy's arm so tightly.

And what are her shoes made of? They would be ruined the second they touched that snow.

Close up of Tiffany & Co. ad showing the woman's shoes with 6 inch spike heels
A different cropping of the same image is used on the home page of the Tiffany & Co. website:

Wider shot of the couple on the staircase, horizontally arranged, with website navigation at right
It's also used as the final shot from a video on the Tiffany website:

Video still of the couple on the snowy stairs
The video shows her taking a few steps, so I guess it is possible to walk in the shoes without falling as long as you have a guy to hold onto.

All and all, it almost makes me wish I had a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany and Co., like some people I could name.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

PiPress Wins Koch Headline Contest

The Minnesota Republican party has been self destructing lately, and part of the action was the sudden resignation on Thursday of Amy Koch, the Senate majority leader.

Then yesterday, a bunch of her Senate colleagues announced she had been involved in a vaguely described "inappropriate" relationship with a staffer.

This led to the following headline showdown between the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press this morning:

Pioneer Press headline Koch in alleged 'inappropriate relationship', Star Tribune headline Koch quit over 'inappropriate' tie

To which I can only respond:

Photo of Amy Koch speaking at a podium, wearing a dark suit with a Photoshopped bright pink plaid bow tie

It's clearly sexist that a woman leader has to dress in coordinating colors to stay in office these days.


In case you were wondering, Koch is (according to the Wikipedia) "a strong supporter of family values and, in 2009, had coauthored a bill (S.F. No. 1975) to amend the Minnesota Constitution declaring 'A marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in Minnesota.' "

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Four-Year-Old Is in Charge Here

Four young girls, one highlighted, all in footed pajamas sitting on a couch
Four years ago today, I took on the identity of Daughter Number Three. Since then there have been 1,568 posts.

This photo is from Christmas morning when I had recently turned 4, right in the midst of the Mad Men era. Check out that slot car track; you never saw so many girls (and a woman, my mom) who liked miniature cars that could go fast.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

All in the Family of Man

The other day, Daughter Number Three Point One mentioned that a friend of hers was watching The Waltons with her mother. Only DN3.1 pronounced the name as The Waldens.

Feeling every year that separates our generations, I told her that it's Walton with a "t" (like the Waltons who own more wealth than 30 percent of America).

And then I followed up with my take on the signature closing lines from The Waldens:

"Goodnight, Henry David."

"Goodnight, Ralph Waldo."

Side by side pictures of John Boy Walton and Henry David Thoreau, each with a sprig of grass between his lips

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How the Other Half Thinks

You know how humans have a tendency to listen to people who agree with us? Well, John Scalzi busted that today by asking his readers who consider themselves to be Republicans to post what they're thinking about the field of candidates they have to choose from in the upcoming primaries and caucuses. (Scalzi clearly has identified himself as a non-Republican on a number of occasions.)

Over a hundred people responded, and it is a mannerly, thoughtful bunch of writing.

What I learned from it:

  • There are lots of libertarian-leaning people who read Scalzi's blog. Probably not super-surprising given that he's a science fiction writer who attracts geek readers, and the libertarian force runs strong in geekdom.
  • Lots of those same libertarian-leaners think Ron Paul is a bit too much. (Too socially conservative, too isolationist, too unable to do anything realistic if he got elected, what have you.)
  • Scalzi's readers are not representative of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party. They generally are economic conservatives and civil libertarians.
  • There's a guy named Gary Johnson, whom I've barely heard of, who's running for the Republican nomination.
  • An alarming number of people seem to think Newt Gingrich is very intelligent.
One commenter named Joshua Herring posted this neat analysis of the state of the Republican party:
I’m a Libertarian with Republican leanings, but more out of expediency than sympathy. I think the Republican Party has long been an uneasy, mutually antagonistic coalition of three wings (fascist, theocratic, free-market fundamentalist), and the antagonism was papered over by being the perpetual minority party. Now that they’ve had some back-to-back majorities in Congress, the cracks are starting to show, the discipline that goes with being a perpetual minority party is fading, and the coalition is starting to break up. (The Democrats manage it because their disagreements are mostly about degree, not fundamentals. They’re an ideologically more unified, but less disciplined party. But the ideological unity counts for a lot.)

Since the Republican Party is breaking up, now is the time for the libertarian branch of the three to start asserting itself and negotiating for better terms. So, I would vote for Gary Johnson in the Republican primary (and I will be volunteering for his campaign if he seeks and gets the LP nomination), regardless of his chances of winning, on the theory that the more votes he polls, the more cards the libertarian wing has in its hand. I’m not motivated by who wins this time around (since I think a Republican winning the big election is probably not in the stars this time around anyway) but rather what direction the party takes from here. Preferably a more libertarian one.
Worth a read.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Another Decline in Violence

Nag, nag, nag, I know. I sound like a broken record about Steven Pinker. But did you hear about the latest U.S. child abuse statistics?

A.P. reports that (despite the down economy, which is generally thought to increase family stress, right?) child abuse was down about 8.5 percent between 2008 and 2010, "reaching the lowest level since the current tracking system began in 1990." The number of fatalities has decreased a bit more, about 9.3 percent.

Sexual abuse is also down, having dropped 55 percent since its peak in 1992.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jack Cameron, Recycling Hero

What a great job the Star Tribune's Neal St. Anthony has: He gets to write about the cool things local businesses are doing. (Earlier stories of his I've noted were about Ever Cat Fuels and youth mentoring.)

Today's story tells about a guy named Jack Cameron, who started a two-person company 35 years ago with the intent of reusing and recycling kitchen appliances to keep them out of landfills. Over the years Cameron has connected with the big home hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot, plus the utility companies that work with homeowners to replace their appliances with more energy-efficient ones.

Now his company, Appliance Recycling Centers of America, has over 500 employees. 20 percent of the appliances they handle get refurbished and sold as used, while 80 percent are sold for scrap, after their contaminants are removed. ARCA also owns ApplianceSmart, a seller of energy-efficient appliances and scratch and dent models.

And Cameron, according to St. Anthony, "was the lowest-paid CEO in the Star Tribune's most-recent ranking of the 100 highest-paid Minnesota CEOs" -- clocking in at just $263,278. That's significantly less than the salaries of several heads of small private schools in the Twin Cities.

Cameron sounds like a guy who can sleep at night, knowing he's done what he can to make the world a better place.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Depressing Stuff, Past and Present

This story from yesterday's New York Times is one of the most depressing ones I've seen in a long time. I know that's saying a lot, and I'm not completely sure why it hit me so hard. It's not like I haven't been disappointed about other actions taken by our government since January 2009. But this one reminds me of how essentially screwed up our law-making process is.

In a nutshell, the Times tells how the Obama administration had set out to take on for-profit colleges that rip off their students. In response, the "colleges" bankrolled an army of lobbyists who used to be Democratic members of Congress (like Dick Gephardt) or aides to Democrats to beat back any meaningful changes. Kaplan University (owned by the Washington Post Company, by the way) hired Obama's former communication director. The founder of the University of Phoenix didn't have to hire anyone; he's a close personal friend of Nancy Pelosi.

In all, industry advocates met more than two dozen times with White House and Education Department officials, including senior officials like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, records show, even as Mr. Obama has vowed to reduce the “outsize” influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington.

The result was a plan, completed in June, that imposes new regulations on for-profit schools to ensure they adequately train their students for work, but does so on a much less ambitious scale than the administration first intended, relaxing the initial standards for determining which schools would be stripped of federal financing.
The final plan affects only 5 percent of the schools -- the very worst of the worst -- instead of the 16 percent that would have been motivated to change by the original plan.

The revolving door in D.C. needs to be nailed shut. It's bad enough having lobbyists who outnumber members of Congress by more than 30 to 1, but at least we should change things so they aren't former members of Congress or even their staff, exploiting their connections.

The Metropolitcan Building in 1960, 12 stories of dark stone and castle-like towers
Enough about the present. Today's depressing story from the past is from the Star Tribune, where Rick Nelson writes about the destruction of Minneapolis's Metropolitan Building in the early 1960s. It's already a locally famous case; if the building -- the first skyscraper built west of the Mississippi -- were still around today it would be home to all those creative businesses Richard Florida says make a city vibrant. Instead, it was torn down, along with about a third of downtown Minneapolis in the age of "urban renewal."

What Nelson added to the depressing file of knowledge I already have about this debacle were quotes from Ben Palmer, general counsel for the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Agency, who led the campaign to tear it down:
While describing the building's exterior as "a monstrosity in the eyes of most observers," Palmer noted that Sheraton, IBM and other top-tier tenants would steer clear of the [urban renewal area] if their modern structures sat adjacent to something so old-fashioned. The CEOs of both businesses issued contrary statements shortly thereafter.

"Thirty years from now the buildings in the renewal area will be 30 years old, while this one would be 100 years old and showing it." Palmer wrote, a bitter irony given the brief lifespan of many of the [replacement] throwaway structures. (IBM was razed in 1985 after just 22 years, and the 27-year-old Sheraton went down in 1990.)
And what replaced the Metropolitan, which was called "A fantasia in glass and cast iron" as late as 1955 and which took almost a year to demolish?

A parking lot. For almost 20 years.

Finally, in 1980 it was replaced by a "relentlessly banal office building... a dose of the suburban blahs plopped onto the streets of downtown Minneapolis."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Even the Absurdities Have Hit a New Low

This from last Wednesday, December 7, on the Huffington Post:

HuffPo screen snap of headline and picture of Japanese-looking food, headline reads Conservatives Criticize Pearl Harbor Day Lunch at Obama Kids' School

In the story, HuffPo reported that Sidwell Friends School had served a meal that included dangerous foods like teriyaki and edamame (in addition to non-Japanese foods like Szechuan tofu and regular old fried rice). It was part of an Asian food day menu created by their food contractor without regard to that date that lives in infamy.

So it wasn't intentional. But so what if it had been? Isn't the fact that anyone could plan a meal like this on Pearl Harbor Day a sign of progress, that we are not in any way at war with the Japanese? Couldn't it be an actual attempt at reconciliation through food appreciation?

As Steven Pinker says, all too often phrases like "Remember the Maine" (or the Alamo or Pearl Harbor) are "not advisories to brush up your history but battle cries that led to Americans' engaging in wars" (page 493 of The Better Angels of Our Nature). Sharing culture, including food, is one way to break down the distances that separate us and therefore allow us to dehumanize the other.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Cold Day; Some Frosty Tabs

When I was in college, my drink of choice was Tab (I actually liked the aftertaste of saccharin). Now I realize that the habit does not go away, but is transformed into electronic tabs that linger in my browser.

Vowel habits -- NPR's Robert Krulwich discusses why the shapes we make with our mouths affect how we think about what the words we're saying signify. Plus fun illustrations by Krulwich.

Charming line art sketches of a woman saying Cheese and Boo, showing the different positions of her lips for each
Getting to know you're relative -- Dane Smith of Growth & Justice writes in the Twin Cities Daily Planet with a round-up of articles assessing where we all fall in terms of relative income. He recommends the Wall Street Journal's quick calculator to see where your family's income falls within the 99 percent (or the 1 percent, maybe). Americans, it seems, are very bad at realizing how they stand in comparison to others (usually thinking -- like Joe the Plummer -- they're better off than they are, or are more likely to be upwardly mobile than usually happens). Smith writes, "Maybe if more wealthy folks knew exactly how many Americans ranked below them, they wouldn't be so hostile to paying more for the social contract. And if more voters knew how far behind the top tier they are, the less they would empathize with that advantage."

Mr. President, I Apologize -- A mom with recently diagnosed breast cancer writes about what it's like to be without insurance, how it happened, and what effect "ObamaCare" has had.

New uses for old plants -- The New York Times on how former auto plants are being repurposed around the country. We've got one closing this month here in St. Paul, sitting on what should be prime real estate if it's not too contaminated. Hopefully it won't take as many years to figure out as the former breweries.

Giving and taking states -- The Same Rowdy Crowd's Joe Loveland gives a nice capsule of a Minnesota 2020 piece, which visualized data from the Tax Foundation. The upshot: two graphs that show "blue states" are much more likely to pay more in taxes to the federal government than they get back, while "red states" get back more; in some cases, way more. North Dakota, for instance, which is held out so often as an example of rural, self-sufficient hardihood, is one of the biggest takers. (Orange bars represent swing states that voted divergently in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections; the Giver Score is in dollars, so that, for instance, -0.4 means 40 cents came back to the state, while 0.2 means 20 cents left.)

Graph of blue and red bars showing most blue states pay more while red states receive more
I've combined the two graphs here, which makes the giver states' IDs impossible to read even if you view the larger image. But it allows for a better sense of the relative scale of disparity than the separate versions of the graphs (which you can see in all their detail on the Same Rowdy Crowd). As Loveland writes, "In other words, giver states, like Minnesota, usually vote to give more government support, to their financial detriment. At the same time, receiver states, such as Mississippi, usually vote to give less government support, to their financial detriment. It’s the opposite of what you would expect, if self-interest were driving voting decisions."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jim Kruse -- Hey, He Used to Be Part of the 99 Percent!

Did you see the video a week or so ago of a "1 Percenter" who opined on camera that no one great ever came out of the 99 percent?

Like just about everyone who's seen it, I couldn't believe how stupid he was to think that, let alone say it out loud on camera. What about all those paragons of business virtue like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Larry Ellison who came from the middle class or less? In fact, Bill Gates is one of the few 1 percenters I can think of (and even he might be a 2 or 3 percenter) who would be considered "great" by the average person.

This guy was so flagrantly stupid, in fact, I half wondered if he was real. Maybe he's an actor and it's a setup?

I guess not. He's been identified as Jim Kruse, senior managing director for CB Richard Ellis, a Los Angeles-area commercial real estate agency. Jim is responsible for Beverly Hills, among other areas of south L.A.

You'll notice that the photo of Jim used on his CBRE page is probably over 10 years old. Oddly, he looks younger in that picture than he does in this photo, used to announce he was joining CBRE back in 2003. But you can tell it's him, despite the golden hair, now gone to silver.

Jim went to the University of California Irvine (not usually the academic choice of the 1 percent), where he did well enough in water polo to serve on the U.S. Olympic team.

Sounds like he considers himself a self-made man, yet somehow he's forgotten that all the self-made came from the 99 percent. And that they usually took advantage of tax-funded infrastructure like the California state universities, which cost just a few hundred dollars a year when Jim was in school.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When Is a "Person" Not a Person?

As we know, corporations are people, according to the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. Well, check out this snip from an NPR story on the Massey mining settlement in West Virginia:

The settlement extracts from Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy earlier this year, nearly $130 million for mine safety training and major safety equipment improvements. Although the settlement blames Massey for the conditions that led to the deadly explosion, Alpha will pay nearly $35 million in fines for Massey's safety violations. As much as $1.5 million will go to each of the families as restitution.

In return, no criminal charges will be filed against Alpha. That angers Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician whose brother Dean died in the disaster.

"Justice is not if you have enough money to pay off your heinous acts then you may go free," she said. "And that's what's happening here. They have enough money, they have the wherewithal, and mind you, it's done on the backs of people whose lives were lost, but they have enough money to pay away their sins."

[U.S. Attorney Booth] Goodwin said there are limited ways to punish a corporation.

"It is not a life. It is not a being. It can't go to jail," he said. "The only thing that it can do is help make sure something like this doesn't happen again."
Perhaps that's because a corporation is not a person. Maybe someone could tell the majority on the Supreme Court.


The only possible good news in NPR's Massey story:

Goodwin said his office is still considering criminal charges against former Massey executives and managers responsible for the Upper Big Branch mine. They can be charged, despite the settlement. He said the investigation has revealed criminal conduct but declined to be more specific.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stickers of Late

My most recent bad habit is taking pictures of bumper stickers. Bear with me.

I hate to break it to you, but my tractor is worth more than your fancy car.
On a big, glossy 4x4 truck.

A taxpayer voting for Barack Obama is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders
Taken across the street from my house. Really.

Recall Scott Walker
Why, yes, I do live near Wisconsin. Why do you ask?

Love People -- Cook them tasty food
Based on my hasty and incomplete reading, this one brought to mind Damon Knight's classic science fiction short story To Serve Mankind.

Past bumper sticker posts:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Weapons of Moose Destruction

It was good to see the Star Tribune editorial against a bill that would erode environmental protection along the U.S.-Canada border by handing control over to the Department of Homeland Security.

For those not familiar with northern Minnesota, much of it a wilderness area called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), where no mechanized vehicles are allowed. The proposed changes would allow DHS to put in roads at will and drive wherever they they see fit to prevent terrorists or whoever from wandering in from Canada. Right.

Much as I liked the editorial, I thought Steve Sack's cartoon from a few weeks ago probably made the case against the bill more simply and effectively:

4 panel cartoon showing Predator drones (mosquitoes), roadside explosive devices (skunks), sleeper cell activity (bears in hibernation), weapons of moose destruction (DHS bulldozer bearing down on a frantic moose)

(Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Make Magazine

My house used to be awash in magazines flowing through the front door via U.S. mail. There were over 50 a month, but now it's down to about a dozen and a half. (In fairness to me, about two-thirds of those remaining are computer or design rags read only by my better half.)

One magazine that's been here for a few years without much attention from me is Make, founded by Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing fame. I know, I know, you'd think I'd read that, but it disappears into the magazine maw and I never see it.

Well, after looking through issue 28, I have decreed that when it arrives, it shall be left somewhere that I can find it. I know I'm not likely to become a maker at my age, but there are lots of articles of interest to those of us who are afraid to use a soldering iron.

Like Is it time to retool public libraries as TechShops? That's the kind of thing that would never occur to me. Or this idea for creating (or converting) a swingset from a billboard. I won't make one, but it inspires me to know that there are people who have.

There was even a short bit on creating a life-size Mousetrap game. After a long day of social networking, comment flame wars and political pandering, who wouldn't like to relax by rolling a ball down a chute so ends up in a bathtub?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Good News Tabs

The bomb in Obamacare: A blog post from Forbes, of all places, noting that today is the beginning of the most important change caused by the new health care law: the requirement that all for-profit insurers spend at least 80-85 percent of premiums on health care for their customers, rather than on overhead like marketing and sales. The writer, Rick Ungar, is skeptical that insurance companies will be able to do this while maintaining the profit margins they've come to expect, and that it will lead to a single-payer system.

Beyond beer-battered fish: A guy is planning to use the old Hamm's Brewery on the east side of St. Paul as an indoor fish farm, on the model of Growing Power in Milwaukee. Tilapia (and later trout), with lettuce, basil, and other greens growing above the tanks.

Regrets only: Journalist Kathryn Schulz gives a TED talk (video) about the value of regret. One point she makes is that regret is generally only studied within the field of behavioral economics, mostly examining it in the context of financial decisions. But people list financial regret as only a minor part of their experience (3 percent of the time), while things like education, career, and romantic decisions loom as the largest moments of regret. Yet no one studies those things.

If you've got some time on your hands and you're stuck near a computer, there's not much better you can do than look for TED talks that interest you. Or the Big Think -- that site is amazing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

More on Modern Source Amnesia

How hard is it to cite the source of a clever aphorism? Apparently, pretty hard.

Yesterday Jason Kottke, who considers himself a professional link finder, noted the recent proliferation of tweets and retweets of this pithy reworking of a common bit of self-help advice:

Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank and he can rob the world.
I think I've seen it a few dozen times on Twitter and Facebook, all unattributed.

Kottke reports that it originated with a Twitter user named Bonoboism, whose profile says "Bonoboism is a spiritual doctrine based on the social behavior of the bonobo--matriarchy, liberal sexual behavior, egalitarianism, some vegetarianism, pacifism."

Examples like this (and an earlier tweet-anonymization of a guy named Joel Housman) remind me how hungry we seem to be for any bit of cleverness, and how hard it is for a saying to stay connected to its author. It only takes a few people repeating it without the author's name before the unattributed saying runs around the world multiple times.

Is it so much to ask that people get credit for their words? Nobody wants to pay for writing any more, it seems, but they can at least be acknowledged for it. Geez.

BBB Denounces the Scammers from Canton, Ohio

Thanks to Twin Cities Daily Planet editor Mary Turck for her write-up on the Amish heaters, and for letting us all know that the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota has issued a press release decrying Arthur Middleton Capital Holdings for its deceptive advertising.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Another "Pure" Miracle Heater, What a Surprise

Another day, another full-page ad for a miracle heater with a limited time and quantity offer. This time it's the Living Pure Heating System, promising to lower your heat bills by sucking down $.18 of electricity per hour. (Multiply that by hours, days, and months and see where it gets you.)

The thing that irked me the most about the Living Pure ad was that it didn't even bother to include the price of the product -- instead, it asks for $39 "plus three low monthly payments" (but hey, it offers free shipping).

So I called to find out what the price was and found it's the same as is advertised on their website: $399. (Although I have to point out that the guy on the phone gave me a bunch of psychological spin about the price being $699 with a $300 instant rebate. That way, everyone feels like a winner, I guess.)

Those low monthly payments? They're $120.32 each. Three of them. If you pay the whole amount up front, though, they'll knock off another $25, bringing the price to $374.

So, in a nutshell, that's more expensive than the Amish fireplaces or the EdenPure heaters -- both of which cost substantially more than lots of other heaters that put out comparable amounts of heat, available at your local retailer.

I should note that the Living Pure heater includes a humidifier, air filter, and UV purifier in addition to the heater. But I would advise anyone considering buying it to read up on humidifiers (to make sure it isn't making your air more unhealthy) and filtering (does it really make a difference in air quality?).

Available in black or woodgrain, though. Ooo, I always wanted some fake woodgrain.