Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween

Two friends for today:

I'm not big on Halloween decorations, but a rubber rat is always a good thing.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bugs that Talk

Oh, the things you learn every day. I just found out that the original "keys" used by telegraph operators had a major problem: they caused repetitive stress injuries.

Not a big surprise once I hear it, of course. Sitting with your arm in one position for hours on end pressing down your finger so that a button makes contact over and over again sounds like a perfect recipe for arm problems. I also learned they used to call the injuries "glass arm."

A solution wasn't found until after the turn of the century, when the semi-automatic key was invented, then improved over the next decade or so. These keys went sideways instead of up and down, with the Morse code dots automatically created in one direction and the dashes made manually in the other.

I don't claim to fully understand it, but the upshot was not only fewer arm problems, but also much faster sending, which increased the pay of operators (at least for a while) since they were paid by the word.

Here's what one kind of automatic key looks like:

The increase in speed and ease of use inspired a lot more people to go into the business, and soon they were adopted by amateur radio operators as well.

All of this was inspired by finding this logo for the Vibroplex Company, maker of keys:

Keys are also called bugs, hence the charming logo. How did the word "bug" come to be used? According to the Vibroplex Collector's site,

In those days a poor telegraph operator was called a “bug,” and some operators bought a key from Vibroplex or a competitor and started using it without much practice. The result was poor sending, and the keys themselves became known as “bugs.”
Now the term is used affectionately, rather than pejoratively.


1844 key photo from the history page.

Semi-automatic key photo from the site of amateur radio operator AC2C, where you can find more photos of keys.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fishing for Stupidity

Listening to commercial radio is not normal for me. In my home market, I only hear MPR (KNOW news and information, if we're getting specific). But while on the road, there aren't so many options if you want to fill the emptiness in the car while driving alone.

So for the past few days I've been listening to classic rock station in a small market near my ancestral home. Fine, fine. Pretty inoffensive stuff. Van Halen is one act that I remember hearing.

The ads, though, are another story. It appears the only people who listen to this commercial radio station are fat, broke, desperate losers who fall for completely obvious bad deals. (Well, I could say the advertisers assume they will fall for bad deals. Maybe they don't. But then why would scammers keep advertising on the station?)

Today I heard two sets of ads for two products/services that each varied in how the offer was made.

First was a magical weight-loss capsule that guarantees you will lose 30 pounds of fat. The ad I heard around midday said you take two pills a day, but if you lose "too much weight" (!) that you should cut back to just one pill. The version I heard in the evening told you to take one pill each morning, but, again, if you lose too much weight, you should take a pill only on alternate days.

The other set of ads was for a debt-forgiveness "nonprofit" organization. They implied they could get up to half of your debt magically forgiven, with no mention of any cost to you. In the daytime ad, the minimum debt was said to be $2,000. In the evening ad, it was $10,000.

What was the point of these weird differences? All I can think is that they're doing A/B testing to see which message (and time slot?) draws more fools to call in. One of the ads even ended by saying "phone lines are open for the next five minutes" so they can track the response. I don't remember if the other version had that or not.

All in all, it made me want to run back to public radio.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Funny Figures

Within the space of about a hundred feet, I saw these two signs, first within a parking garage staircase:

And then on the way to the restrooms in a bar/restaurant:

I wonder if they get together and party when no one is looking.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Twitter: October 2014

I have purposely not written about Gamergate, but I'm afraid it crept into my Twitter favorites for October. If you don't know what it is, consider yourself lucky. If you do, here are just a few tweets that aren't about the details of the ridiculous situation, but more about the larger story:

I think part of the harassment problem might be that we-as-a-culture use baby words (trolls, haters) instead of real words (sociopaths).
By Kyle neath

"Creeping misandry" = "war on cars" = "war on coal" = "war on Christmas." The hypersensitivity of declining hegemons is something to see.
By David Roberts

2014: the year of destabilized privilege punching down. Because it’s not feminists or black people who are the real threat to the privilege of gamers or cops or whatever cishetwhitemale class. But the forces pushing those people down into the precariat with us are too huge to confront and too smoke-like to punch.
By Keith Bolland
I also liked multiple tweets about the coverage of the Keene, New Hampshire, pumpkin riot (as it compared with the coverage of protests in Ferguson, Missouri):
White privilege is destroying tons of property, turning over cars and laughing at police and having CNN call it "unruly" vs. "riots."
By Beyonce Nawles

Reasons white people riot:
1. their sports team wins
2. their sports team loses
3. no more tickle me elmos
4. tea
5. pumpkins

Your media guide to the differences between #Ferguson and #pumpkinfest:

By Matt Weinecke

Read that the Keene Pumpkin Fest is just "kids being kids." Unfortunately when black kids are being kids they get murdered. #blacklivesmatter
By Nelini Stamp
And then there's ebola, of course. So many tweets about ebola.
Why is anyone surprised a black foreign national with no U.S. health insurance was sent home from a Texas hospital? This is how U.S. health works. Or doesn't work. A proper health care system will always be a societal good, and this just shows that. The employed and insured can still get sick and die from the uninsured. Pathogens don't know your insurance status.
By KevinFox

This disturbing André Carrilho illustration on Ebola, and how the world sees it, is both powerful and accurate:

By Barry Malone

Love hearing folks who oppose all government spending and all health care reform bitching that government can't handle Ebola.
By Frank Conniff

Hey U.S. media! I refuse to be afraid of Ebola... unless of course Ebola is a new chokehold that cops are using in black neighborhoods.
By W. Kamau Bell

If this is how America reacts to Ebola I would hate to be around when climate change starts to kill us all. Anyway, Good morning!
By jamiekilstein

1. Scary brown guys,
2. violating your national border,
3. to corrupt your bodily fluids.
It’s a panic custom-made for conservatives.
By David Roberts

People shocked by the era of mass incarceration should watch the responses of politicians to ebola. This is exactly how it happens. If you look back on any historical policy wondering "How could they do this?", you should just read any ebola story right now. Past ain't past.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I agree with Ted Cruz that there should be a travel ban, so let's start by restricting all travel from Texas to America.
By Frank Conniff

Things more likely to kill Americans than Ebola:
Obama's drones
George Zimmerman
Prescription drugs
Working 3 jobs
Toddler with a gun
By Arun Gupta

Won't it be nice when they develop an Ebola vaccine so antivaxxers can hysterically insists it's more dangerous than Ebola?
By Suzanne Munshower

GOP strategy:
1. Demonize & degrade government;
2. panic at new threat;
3. demand active, competent government response;
4. repeat.
By David Roberts

Spending Columbus Day worried about foreigners with diseases is a cruel irony.
By pourmecoffee

Humans are notoriously terrible at estimating risk, which is the reason we are having an Ebola hearing rather than a climate change hearing.
By Danny Concannon

The CDC showed incompetence at its core mission. It's still stupid to overreact about Ebola. Both of these things can be true.
By radleybalko

Fascinating how quickly the libertarian wing of the GOP is throwing out its hatred of Big Government to demand basically Ebola police state.
By Monika Bauerlein

The right hates government until some scary threat makes it pee its pants and then it wonders where all the government is.
By David Roberts

Every year, John McCain ignorantly mocks silly-sounding but absolutely essential basic science funding and now he is opining on Ebola.
By pourmecoffee
And finally, the general run of tweets about interesting animals, education, climate change, and my other pet topics:
Love this from Banksy:

By stevesilberman

Journalism was once a working class profession. Now it is white-collar profession with poverty pay. Breaking in often requires unpaid labor.
By Sarah Kendzior

Food Stamp fraud costs $750 million. Tax fraud by top 1% costs $300 billion -- 400X more. Guess which one the GOP is willing to let slide.
By Everybody Needs It

The Giraffe Weevil of Madagascar. The neck of the male is up to 3x longer to assist with fighting & nest-building:

By Strange Animals

There'd be way more healthy relationships if, instead of diamonds, we reminded people that babies are forever.
By Janine Brito

Signs you may be a terrorist or narcotics courier: (1) Unusual nervousness. (2) Unusual calmness.
By Julian Sanchez

This is how hate is created:

By banksy

I wish people advocating plans & programs that imply abandoning the 2°C climate target would be explicit about it & what it means. It’s harder to say "I oppose this plan because it has costs" if you have to follow with "therefore I’m willing to accept widespread immiseration."
By David Roberts

Watching this "How We Got to Now" episode & remembering as I occasionally do that in the years before eye glasses I'd have been the village idiot.
By jeff deeney

Hypocritical of Barack Obama to praise Ben Bradlee for telling "stories that need to be told" while pursuing journalist James Risen for doing the same.
By AndrewBuncombe

Not cool of The Atlantic to use this Reuters picture of Muslim women watching an eclipse and suggesting they're ISIS fan girls:

By Andy Carvin

I'm not a scientist, but I do know that politicians who dodge questions by saying "I'm not a scientist" are full of shit.
By Frank Conniff

Stroll through a thicket + birds start warbling Game of Thrones theme song. Bigfoot back out of there slowly. Bad shit was about to go down.
By Bigfoot TheBigfoot

Every time I see investment returns called "earnings," I am reminded of the amusing fact that the government calls them "unearned income."
By Matt Bruenig

I've had a 3D printer in my kitchen for about 15 years, but it only makes waffles.
By 2existential

This is what happens when you take a picture of a kitten going through a dollhouse:

By Ruth Ann Crystal, MD

My hope is that public school grows towards the Sudbury Model philosophy. Until then we can discuss how to do the wrong thing better.
By Sisyphus38

Disney stuffs the minds of children with unrealistic expectations.
By ParentsAgainstDisney

"Please describe your writing skills and developing editorial skills." Wait, how did you know my editorial skills are still developing?
By Chris Steller

George Orwell: "It appears to me that one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself, but by using one's intelligence."
By Charles

By Xeni Jardin

Newest form of white privilege: converting to Islam, committing heinous act, dying, letting all the brown/black people take the heat for it.
By Murtaza Hussain

Republicans seem terminally unable to connect their policy choices (cut, slash, block) with policy outcomes. As though the former = a game.
By David Roberts

Detroit’s water shutoffs raise serious questions about what living in a civilized democracy means.
By Demos_Org

A hearty round of applause for Starbucks, please:

By Lee Roberts

I simply will not concede the argument that affirmation of Black life by itself constitutes an erasure of any other marginalized group.
By Brittney Cooper

You know what no one says anymore? "I like the cut of your jib."
By Chris Steller

Just talked with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. I told him he should stop closing schools and support progressive education.
By Nikhil Goyal

"The threats we face are much, much, much more likely to come from homegrown boorish stupidity than bad guys overseas."-@chrislhayes #inners
By All In w/Chris Hayes

Soda and lawns: two ubiquitous features of U.S. life that, once you leave them behind for a while, begin looking absolutely insane.
By David Roberts

Say what you mean, Texas. The only people you want voting are white men who think the word "Mexican" should only be used to describe food.
By W. Kamau Bell

Here's what a city of ~5 million looks like in the U.S. vs in Spain. Infrastructure decisions matter. -- Bruce Katz:

By Yves Behar

And the suggestion that if these damn teachers would just TRY a little harder, all is solved - well, that's rather insulting.
By Blue Cereal Educ

The asynchronousness of texting is its killer feature.
By Joseph Saia

so many tv shows & movies about genius serial killers who treat killing as art. what about a genius cool person who treats being nice as art.
By Shrill Cosby

70% of adult raccoons carry a parasite that can consume your brains and eyeballs.
By What The F**k!

17 year old child facing prison until age 52, for credit card fraud. The world has gone insane.
By Alan Mills

Want to know what oysters do for the environment? The water in both tanks is the same. The one on the right has oysters:

By Steve Vilnit

Why do we act like schools are natural but learning isn't? It's the reverse. Kids don't need the current model of schools. Schools need kids!
By Sisyphus38

We need some way to break the connection between fear and more revenue for the media. Fearmongering should lower earnings, not raise them.
By mez

The people who refuse to be included in Venn diagrams are the same people who ... Oh wait.
By Chris Steller

The Banded Piglet squid has a transparent body & its pigmentation makes it look like it has a smiley face.

By Strange Animals

Every description of a dress you can buy online needs to include whether or not it has pockets.
By evelyn pollins

Next person who says "do what you love" has to post their tax returns online.
By Austin Kleon

Quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach, that's why I brought this machete.
By Janine Brito

This photo came up in a Getty search for Christian Bale and I cannot stop laughing:

By kateyrich

The Bible is the most intimidating chain letter in history.
By Hemant Mehta

We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.
By Kurt Vonnegut

Results from the CIA's meticulously researched 67-year longitudinal study are in:

By Patrick Collison
Sprawl vs. density is not just a simple lifestyle choice or preference, it is about economic competitiveness. Density is a key factor if not the key factor in innovation & economic growth. Sprawl inhibits competitiveness. So over time, more sprawling, less dense places & the nations that house them will see their economic advantage erode. The U.S. was in an particularly advantaged (hegemonic) position in the post-war years, which enabled its economy to absorb the costs of sprawl. Sprawl was also a spur to the old industrial economy. Buying houses, cars, durable goods created a "geographic Keynesianism." Today's knowledge economy REQUIRES density, so economic logic ultimately favors clustering & density over sprawl.
By Richard Florida

The $3 billion spent in dividends to the Walmart heirs could give their 825,000 low-wage workers a $2.38/hour raise.
By Demos_Org

There will be no "singularity" because we can't even make this printer work.
By Jeffrey Weston

Healthcare is a class marker here. Middle class wants to know they're getting better healthcare than the poor.
By RedwoodGirl

I was wondering what the robot maid has been up to since "The Jetsons"...

By Chris Steller

Mashed cauliflower's great for diets cause it's low in carbs & kills your appetite by making your entire home smell like farts.
By Janine Brito

Once again, a post on RACISM = fewer retweets, less blog traffic + worst of all, comments that offer "Yes, but X is the real problem." *sigh*
By Paul Thomas

If we ask kids to bring their passion to the classroom, should we be grading it? Don't kill their passion with a grade.
By Heidi Washington

No one ever believes this, but it remains true: Kids are not getting dumber, and schools are not failing.
By Monika Bauerlein

Boys get chemistry, engineering, and astronomy. The girls get "science with a sparkle." It's shit like this, people:

By absolutspacegrl

Weird to think
a) humans are horrible at long-time-horizon decisionmaking, but
b) markets, i.e., aggregates of humans, will be great at it.
By David Roberts

Per-capita CO2 emissions. Yay American exceptionalism!

By David Roberts

It's tough to learn much of anything if you're the one that does all the talking.
By Steve Keating CSE

The Appalachian mountains being blown up for coal are the oldest in the U.S. & some of the oldest in the world.
By David Roberts

Let's be clear, the press loves to cover gaffes because they provide the pretense of accountability without having to weigh in on actual policy.
By Reed F. Richardson

Don't use "females" as a noun to refer to people. You sound creepy.
By Josh Barro

Claiming to have discovered a place after wiping out its residents is pretty much the ur-#stuffwhitepeoplelike.
By David Roberts

Can’t be said enough: the GOP has no plan to help dispossessed coal miners. Delaying or defeating climate regulations is not a plan.
By David Roberts

If you think about it, Wikipedia is entirely spoilers.
By Chris Steller

“In general, sociology has considered cars as a neutral technology, engendering forms of life that would have happened anyway” -- J. Urry
By William Lindeke

There is a big difference between mandating every student to do the same thing and inspiring every student to do the right things.
By Joe Bower

I believe the self-help industrial complex is largely a response to Americans' cognitive dissonance on economic inequality.
By Helaine Olen

Why do all conservative pundits with handles like "Wichita_Hangman" look like they eat gluesticks & sleep in bread?

By لا أعرف

Charles Dickens taught us that old white rich men will only care about others if people literally rise from the dead.
By Lucas Neff

Disturbing when white folk are more outraged over the desecration of the American flag than the desecration and destruction of Black bodies.
By zellie

MPR just spent a good 40 seconds reporting on CEO Volunteer Day for Habitat for Humanity. I'm sure hands-on is great, and the publicity is wonderful all around, but donating a day's pay would probably be more effective.
By Chris Steller

While [UK] benefit fraud is 6% of tax fraud, the media talks about benefit fraud 600% more.
By Eadaoin O'Sullivan

The most important message of a crucifix was how cruel supposedly sane human beings can be when under orders from a superior authority.
By Kurt Vonnegut

Cook County jail is the country's largest mental health institution. This is wrong.
By Alan Mills

Who will be accountable if the entire approach of making schools pressure cookers turns out to be destructive?
By Yong Zhao

Imagine if Greens took all that money spent reaching out to sportsmen & evangelicals & spent it mobilizing people who actually support them.
By David Roberts

What % of kids that have received a disciplinary consequence at my school are poor? Hint: about the same % of rich kids on honor roll.
By Sisyphus38

Monkey orchids:

By Halloween Costumes

"Human" is not an apolitical label. In Western thought, it traditionally meant white, male, straight, property-owning, & able-bodied. That one has to assert one's "humanity" attests precisely to that term's long history of excerpting out Black people, women, & LGBTQ people.
By Brittney Cooper

When schools use the words 'performance,' 'targets' & 'work' rather than the word 'thinking' we have a problem.
By Tait Coles

Not sure what that barely audible beeping noise is, but swear to god Bigfoot will totally burn this forest down to stop it.
By Bigfoot TheBigfoot

"I said no pictures!"

By Halloween Costumes

The top 10 weapon manufacturers in the world have made a profit of $2.8 trillion from the 'war' on terror.
By Injustice Facts

I'm unconvinced by recent defenses of football. All the virtues claimed could be achieved through other sports that don’t damage brains.
By David Roberts

People yearning for suburban life is what powers U.S. bombing. Let's offer car-free cities instead.
By Free Public Transit

The first printing press in North America was used in Mexico City in 1539.
By Cassandra Peca

"Officer Safety" is tyrant-speak. Translates to "Submit To My Glorious And Irrefutable Hegemony Or Be Helpfully Corrected."
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Markets are always and already rigged. Rejecting changes in the name of the "free market" = "we like the way it’s rigged now, thanks."
By David Roberts

California Red Sided Garter Snake:

By Maria Boedeker

I love that Sinclair has gas stations because the dinosaur is the perfect symbol for filling up your tank.
By William Lindeke

Good day to mention that same-day voter registration boosts participation at minimal cost.
By Alex Rowell

Appears it's deadline day in a number of states to vote in the November election. Proud to be in Minnesota where we have no deadline.
By Erik Hansen

Chapstick, $195 per pound at Rite Aid:

By Josh Barro

Sunday morning! Time to watch white guys who have never been to war salivate over sending poor people to fight more wars.
By jamiekilstein

If you believe in School Choice how about creating public schools that are completely exempt from testing? I'll bet parents will love them.
By Mark Naison

The same people who will talk about how deranged you have to be to accept stoning women, will accept street executions of Black people by police.
By Chris Chinn


By Becky Hawkins

Want to know the absolute worst place to stand at any party? Follow me!
By Julieanne Smolinski

Anyone that says software is 'expertly crafted' is lying to you. Eventually it is all duct tape and glue.
By Justin Williams

Scientists named a newly discovered species of velvet worm the Eoperipatus totoro! (from My Neighbor Totoro):

By Sofía Gabriela

When unpaid labor and expensive credentials are prerequisites to employment, a job is not a job but a purchased social position.
By Sarah Kendzior

There is nothing edgy about going after oppressed people. Stop pretending you are a shock comic. You are the boring status quo.
By jamiekilstein

"[B]ad luck for the young poet would be a rich father, an early marriage, an early success or the ability to do anything very well." - Buk
By Bukowski Quotes

Chickens have gotten ridiculously large since the 1950s:

By Vox

I never understand Russian complaints that the U.S. is "decadent." As in, not a hellhole?
By Josh Barro
A single big box store in a neighborhood results in a 14% rise in obesity.
By Greg Fowler

Hey, new rule. If you call something that doesn't have two coherently argued sides a "debate" we get to shoot you into the sun.
By Leena

"It always seems impossible until it's done." - Nelson Mandela
By Zephyr Teachout


By Strange Animals

"What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, & that everything has unintentional consequences."
By Helaine Olen

Any law put in place to combat 'terrorism' will eventually be used against minorities and dissidents. Show me where this isn't true.
By Laurie Penny

[Former New York Times editor Jill] Abramson: What went wrong with Iraq war coverage? A big group of reporters became too dependent on specific Iraqi defector sources.
By Maggie Koerth-Baker

I -- no, you know what, that's a perfect metaphor for education, keep it like that:


Are we over how creepy the word "homeland" is? I don't think I'm over it yet.
By David Roberts

Blue footed boobies:

By Strange Animals

The prison system in the U.S. is so morally monstrous on so many dimensions. Hard to fit the scale of it in your head.
By David Roberts

I just misspelled 'transit' and it auto-corrected to 'transient.'
By William Lindeke

Question: is there a point in history, in any civilization, when conservatives were NOT convinced of moral rot, things falling apart, etc.?
By David Roberts
And finally, this couplet:
Is there a word for the seemingly uncontrollable urge in 99% of humans that causes them to crowd chaotically while waiting to board a plane?
By Nick Sherman

By Jaco Burger

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Le Texte Devient Plus

English is generally terser than other European languages. Sometimes I think that's partly a function of translation: Expressing another language's idioms is unlikely to be as efficient in a second language. But there's more to it than that, as can be easily learned by reading any of the popular histories of the English language (Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue or Robert MacNeil's The Story of English come to mind). Over the centuries of mashing up with the languages of invaders and trading partners, English became simplified grammatically (if not in its spelling).

The kind of writing that appears on English-language packaging is an extreme case, though, since it is often ad-speak, which is even terser than normal writing. When that kind of text gets translated into French, watch out:

It just gets worse and worse. Scan becomes seven letters. Join expands to 13. Be Rewarded blows up to 20. And I think we can all agree that "Obtain a reward" just doesn't have the ring of "Be Rewarded."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Three Signs in Saint Paul

I was in a somewhat unfamiliar part of downtown Saint Paul today, which was a chance to see my city as if I were an outsider. First I saw these two while I was walking along the street:

Funky and fun!

I'm not sure what this sign maker was trying to say, but the remnant was amusing.

And then there was this banner from inside the carpenters' union hall:

The reason this one ended up in my post is because of the way the smaller type looks. The designer wanted to use thick horizontal brown bars at the top and bottom, and wanted the state names and skill areas to be centered inside the bars. The words were done in red in a fairly light-weight font.

I'm assuming the contrast between the red type and brown background looked okay on screen. But when they went to print the banner, somebody realized there wasn't enough contrast. Good call.

The problem arose when s/he decided to fix the problem by putting a white stroke around each of the red letters. This not only makes the words very busy and cluttered, it causes them to crash together because the space that used to exist between the letters is now filled with a white line.

The result is pretty much unreadable. A better decision would have been to abandon the idea that the words needed to be red, and just turn the type to white.

Better read than red.

Friday, October 24, 2014

All Kinds of Obsolete

I just found one of those stamp-wetter thingies while going through miscellaneous belongings with my family:

I love this item. It's very heavy for its size (about two inches across), smooth and cool as only ceramics can be.

If you're not familiar with the device, the idea was that you would lift out the cylinder to add water into the rectangular reservoir. With the cylinder back in place, you'd spin it to bring up a little bit of moisture to wet the back of your stamps so you didn't have to lick all that glue.

I'm not sure I ever used one. Maybe in the 1980s when I had to do a large mailing.

For a long time now, stamps have been self-adhesive, and that only matters if you're even going to send something by mail, rather than electronically or by using UPS or FedEx.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Now That's a Definition of Feminism

Would Pat Robertson think feminism was any better if it encouraged women to become lesbians and not leave their husbands?

The cross stitch photo is from Watty's Wall Stuff, tumblr of Alicia Watkins, who does needlepoint epigraphs not usually associated with the craft.

The work is sometimes sold through Etsy and the patterns are often shared along with the photos. Be sure to check out her series of microbes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Connecting the Dots of Failure

A commentary from today's Star Tribune summed up a lot of my thinking about what you might call the crisis of leadership in our current democratically elected government institutions. Minneapolis architect George Hutchinson connects the dots between our own desire for superheroes, Fox News, and the no-new-taxes mantra, among more nebulous things.

My favorite might be this one:

Dot No. 4: Competence breeds complacency. By some fluke of history, there have been some marginally competent big public programs that work — Social Security, the military, the interstate highway system. The apparent success of these projects lulls us into thinking that all public programs should always work. Never mind Dots No. 1, 2 and 3, and the disdain visited upon public service by the ghosts of heroic entrepreneurs. We think because we can drop missiles on desert despots from thousands of miles away that the Department of Motor Vehicles should process our license renewal expeditiously. False but attractive syllogisms replace clear thinking.
The world is a complicated place and simplistic ways of thinking don't make anything better. Thanks to George Hutchinson for putting it into words.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Four Years Is Not Long Enough for Paul D. Thompson

What is the purpose of prison, and how long should sentences be?

I generally favor restorative justice and rehabilitation over retribution (gee, there are so many "re" prefixes when it comes to incarceration). I tend to think negligence is barely criminal and intention matters a lot. That said, premeditated murder and rape seem like the crimes that should have the longest sentences.

Why, then, is four years the maximum sentence allowable for the recently convicted chiropractor who admitted raping his 80-pound woman patient? Is it because his abuse of her trust (and the fact that he "groomed" her for the attack for years) don't constitute the type of violence some bunch of old, male lawmakers had in mind when they came up with the Minnesota penal code? He didn't jump out at her from an alley or hold a knife to her throat, so four years and an insulting $9,415 payment of restitution just about does it?

What is $9,415 supposed to represent in the life of the woman, who, according to her sister, "was suicidal, hospitalized twice and suffers depression and post-traumatic stress disorder"?

The chiropractor-rapist, Paul D. Thompson, is 54 years old. I have an idea for our criminal courts: When fully adult people commit heinous crimes like this, they should get longer sentences than young people because, by damn, they should really know better. They should have the executive function parts of their brains in working order, unlike the 15-year-old boys we seem to be so fond of sentencing to life without parole.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Where Have All the Women Gone?

Maybe you've seen this graph, which has been making the rounds on social media for the past few days:

It shows that the proportion of women majoring in computer science began to decline in 1984, at the same time that women in other professional and scientific fields continued to increase.

NPR's Planet Money wondered why there was such a difference between the fields of study, and they've come up with the answer. You can listen to it here (it's about 17 minutes long):

Or visit the NPR site to play it.

But the short answer is that 1984 was just a few years after personal computers were becoming common, so by that time, some of the college students studying computer science had, in effect, taken unofficial prerequisite courses in programming. Those were the students who had computers as teenagers.

The story then addresses why those students were likely to be men. Ads, media portrayals, Radio Shack exclusivity, and gendered family assumptions about who should have the computer all played a part.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't deal with the other aspect of the digital divide, which is income. Middle-class girls were shut out by the unofficial prerequisite, but so were low-income girls and boys, which includes the majority of students of color.

So there's more to the story. But still, worth a listen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fall in Minnesota, 2014

It's too beautiful a fall day to do anything but post a few photos of what it looks like all around me.

Minnesota is having the most colorful fall I can remember. Not sure if it was caused by the relatively even rainfall over the summer or the deep dormancy of our last, extra-long winter, but the trees are at their best and the sun keeps coming out to add highlights.

A ginkgo tree all in yellow.

One of the many sugar maples.

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), which is not a fern, but is native to sandy places here to the East Coast. I had forgotten or never noticed that it turns into this beautiful range of colors. And if you see some of this low shrubby plant, be sure to lean down and rub the leaves with your nose nearby.

A red oak (with orange leaves) and the kind of blue sky Minnesota seems to have all the time lately.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

About Those Approval Ratings

Star Tribune letter writer Owen Hecht of Hastings, Minnesota, brings a reality check to the constant message that President Obama is unpopular and Democrats are running away from him (as in the cartoon from the Strib just a few days ago, in fact).

It seems every day I read about President Obama’s dismal job approval ratings. Here are the lowest approval ratings for the past nine presidents:

Obama: 38 percent, in September 2014.
George W. Bush: 25 percent in October 2008.
Bill Clinton: 37 percent in May 1993.
George H.W. Bush: 29 percent in July 1992.
Ronald Reagan: 35 percent in January 1983.
Jimmy Carter: 28 percent in June 1979.
Gerald Ford: 37 percent in March 1975.
Richard Nixon: 24 percent in August 1974
Lyndon Johnson: 35 percent in 1968.

Obama’s approval ratings this month have been above 40 percent.
I assume that Hecht has used the lowest approval ratings of each president. Most of these numbers are not from a mid-term election period (Nixon and Bush 1 are).

And, of course, remember that Congress's approval rating was at 14 percent in September.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ursula LeGuin, Introducing Him/Herself

It's no secret that I love the writing of Ursula LeGuin. When asked for the title of my favorite book, I have a hard time coming up with anything other than The Dispossessed, even though I first read it when I was 15.

Despite my love of LeGuin, my knowledge of her complete works is less than perfect. I just found out about an essay she wrote in the late 1980s called Introducing Myself, which makes me appreciate her writing even more, if that's possible. In it, she deals with age, gender, and the presentation of the self with such humor that I can't even say anything worth saying about it. Here's one excerpt:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old.
I'm not sure how much of the essay is included on the linked site (Brain Pickings). I guess I'll have to check out a copy of the book of essays where it was published in 2004, The Wave in the Mind.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Poor Little Rich Girls

Looking through blog post drafts that never made it, I came across these two quotes from 2013 a Psychology Today article:

But there are double standards based on gender. Particularly distressing are the double standards about physical appearance: Peers place an enormous emphasis on attractiveness among affluent girls. Across the board, the more attractive kids— boys or girls, rich or poor—are more likely to be most popular with their peers. But for girls of high socioeconomic status, the onus on being attractive is incredibly high. In our research, we have found that links between peer admiration and beauty were almost twice as strong among affluent girls as compared with affluent boys, and also compared with inner-city girls and boys. Looking "like a scrub" is simply not acceptable for well-off young women.

The enormous pressures that girls face from the peer group are matched by the impossibly high demands from adults to succeed in domains that are traditionally male, such as academics and sports, and also in the "feminine" domains of caring and kindness. They must not only be highly accomplished but also polite and likable, and they are expected to master the competing demands without any display of visible effort. Daughters of the rich, therefore, strive for effortless perfection—which is not merely challenging to their well-being but ultimately soul-draining.
Enter envy. My colleagues and I recently found that, compared to inner-city counterparts, students at elite, upper-middle-class schools, especially girls, experienced significantly more envy of peers who they felt surpassed them in popularity, attractiveness, academics, and sports.

At the same time, the intense push for superachievement deprives affluent adolescents of one of the critical safety valves of life—the deep social connectedness of friendship. The very path they take for success inhibits the development of intimacy. The durability, sustainability, and strength of relationships are constantly threatened by competition for highly sought-after goals. There's only one valedictorian. How can two people be friends if the self-worth of both depends on being the one chosen for a sought-after goal? One's gain is the other's loss.
 It reminds me of a recent Pacific Standard article that's been sitting open in my tabs: Savor Extraordinary Experiences, Feel Worse Afterward. "Harvard researchers find painful feelings of social exclusion are the unexpected price one pays for having amazing adventures."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jesus Delivers in the Twin Cities

Another photo from the streets of the Twin Cities:

The side of the truck reads "Jesus Delivers."

And he does it in a truck that looks like it's accustomed to hard work, represented by a font that usually is found on movie posters.

Jesus Delivers, it turns out, is a rolling, faith-based food pantry.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Constructing Criminality and Racing to Incarcerate

In case you've never noticed, in the right sidebar of this blog, just below my queen-of-spades profile picture, there's a spot where I list what I'm currently reading.

Right now it's the scholarly historical book The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Muhammad, which documents the way dark skin and socially constructed blackness came to represent criminality in the U.S.

This reality has direct implications for the War on Drugs and recent and ongoing killings of black people by police and civilians. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, John Crawford -- all were assumed to be dangerous and criminal because of what they looked like.

I wanted to read Muhammad's book because it connects with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which I've written about before. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, located in Harlem, is a somewhat frequent guest on the Melissa Harris Perry show. I'm always impressed by his ability to make connections in few words.

While reading his book, though, I came across a graphic retelling of another landmark book, Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer. This book, originally published in 1999, was news to me, and it sounds as though it might be on the academic side. An artist named Sabrina Jones recently worked with Mauer to turn it into a more accessible format.

It's pretty successful. Here are some facts from it that sprang out at me.

The increase in crime rates of the late 1960s and 1970s -- which was the excuse for the rise in incarceration rates and the War on Drugs -- was partly the result of increased reporting by local police agencies, which had received increased federal funding to track statistics. As with the autism rate, it's hard to say how much something has increased if you don't have accurate numbers for the earlier years. (page 26)

Reagan's War on Drugs meant federal money flowed everywhere. Twelve regional drug taskforces were set up with a thousand newly hired agents and prosecutors. (page 41)

A 1983 study by Reagan's justice department found that incarceration "does not appear to achieve large reductions in crime" even though it "can cause enormous increases in the prison population." But policy makers ignored that finding, preferring a flawed 1987 study that found each prisoner saved taxpayers over $400,000. The totality of the Reagan-Bush era, 1980 to 1993, saw a 521 percent increase in corrections spending, while cutting employment and training programs in half. (pages 46 and 47)

Bill Clinton danced along the sword blade of "tough on crime," while making noises about drug treatment and community policing. During the 1992 campaign, he flew home to Little Rock to watch an execution of a "mentally impaired black man, [who] had so little conception of what was happening to him [that] at his last meal"  he asked "Can I save my dessert for the morning?" Clinton didn't want to be seen as soft on crime, so too bad for that guy. He was executed.

Alberto Gonzalez, while counsel to George W. Bush as governor of Texas, never showed Bush mitigating evidence or presented a single petition for clemency in a death row case. 152 people were executed in Texas while Bush was governor, more than any governor in 50 years. (page 68)

New York City saw a huge decrease in crime, starting in the 1990s.

Despite this, New York's prison population grew much less than the nation's as a whole, and its jail population actually decreased. The book posits the idea that because the city had spent money stabilizing housing, it reaped the benefit, as compared with Chicago "which let its housing decay, and put its money in law enforcement." (pages 77 and 78)

Now it's time to get back to The Condemnation of Blackness, which supplies the footnotes and proof.