Saturday, February 28, 2015

Only 28 Days, But Lots of Tweets

February 2015 ends today. Not so many big topics dominating my Twitter feed as in other recent months.

There were a few about measles outbreaks and vaccine refusers:

America: where minorities, for good reason, fear their kids getting shot, and white people, for no reason, fear their kids getting shots.
By God

I look at the incredulity and anger the chattering class directs toward anti-vaxxers and I think, why is climate denial any different?
By David Roberts

If so many people believe vaccines cause autism, why can’t we spread rumors like “SUVs are bad for the environment” or “guns kill people?”
By Adam Isacson

I'm really $*%ing sick of the slut shaming that goes along with most mentions of Jenny McCarthy in vaccine advocacy. Stop it.
By Maggie Koerth-Baker
And just a few about the terrible shooting of three Muslim students in North Carolina:
When you think about it, Hitler was also mad about there not being enough "parking spaces" for Germans.
By Alex Pareene

If you kill three Muslims for parking space, how many Muslims would you kill for oil fields?
By Jamal Dajani

To be clear: I think responsibility for Chapel Hill murders lies with the person who did it, not those who share his beliefs: a good principle.
By Glenn Greenwald
And just a couple about Brian Williams' and Bill O'Reilly's problems with the truth:
So Brian Williams is ruined, yet every week Dr. Oz has a new "Eat pencil shavings to lose weight!" and we're all "Shhh the doctor's talking."
By Karen Kilgariff

The people gloating about it already knew Bill O'Reilly was a liar, and the people who need to know won't care.
By Joshua Lyman
There was a long tweet storm from David Rogers about the Netflix series House of Cards and how it's a bad cartoon about politics:
I think the naive view of politics, on both left and right, is that someone is in control -- probably someone hidden, *secretly* in control. And thus, the best way to understand politics is to figure out who’s really running things — whose agenda really rules.

But as I got closer to politics, started following it, talking to those involved, tracking results, I came to a different conclusion: Nobody’s in charge. Nobody is really running things. Nobody has the real, true, insider knowledge. Everyone is improvising, reacting, based on the same flawed, limited information available to anyone with an internet connection. The beast has no head.

This revelation is in many ways *far more terrifying* than the idea that there’s some secret, shadowy cabal in charge. At least in theory, one can expose a cabal, reach it, reason with it, influence it. But if NO one’s in charge, who do you talk to? How do you make change? Where are the levers, if not in the hands of some cabal?

In truth the U.S. political system, like any complex system, displays emergent properties with no simple causal chains or agents. Shit just happens.

This is not to say we can’t identify forces and people exerting particular kinds of influences on the system and hold them responsible. But the bracing truth is that no one is really uber-confident and in control like Frank Underwood.

Everyone’s winging it, in a fog of uncertainty, cross-cutting incentives and tribal loyalties. No one is rationally maximizing anything.

I side with [the show] Parks and Recreation. To me the proper response to the sheer absurdity of the human endeavor is more compassion and patience. Whereas House of Cards and the like foster our worst empirical and moral habits with regard to politics.
And then the general run of topics like education, climate change, feminism, anti-racism... and fun, too.
I'm contractually obligated to tweet a picture of this NO CUPCAKE PARKING sign every time I see it:

By Chris Steller
Thatcher, Reno, Hillary (all women whom I have no love lost for) are all called "things." Not women. And it bothers me to see feminists saying it. Because I will go to the mat for what I believe in, but you don't uphold feminism by deciding who's a woman.
By KillerMartinis

You don’t simply get to say you’re not a racist — or a sexist or a homophobe. It's an arudous, constant process of unlearning.
By Arash Daneshzadeh

"A lot of the sharing economy is about rebranding precarity as entrepreneurship." -- Molly Crabapple
By Paul Thomas

The federal government owns 28% of all U.S. land, including 85% of Nevada and 69% of Alaska:

By Sudeep Reddy

Data on [education] vouchers shows half are just free money for people who never had kids in public school.
By Mr. Purdy

Donald Trump is like if the comments section were a person.
By Laura

It is really sad that we teach boys to be ashamed of empathizing with girls, of thinking girls have worthwhile stories. Then we wonder why sexist attitudes are so hard to uproot. We tell boys from birth that girls get GIRL stuff, but boy stuff is for everyone. Girls get the same message: Stereotypical femininity is less than, other. Stereotypical masculinity is the norm from which women deviate. And that message is reinforced in everything from advertising to food packaging to entertainment media. We are saturated in it.
By Bailey

It’s almost as if everything we intuitively take as simple and self-evident were actually a rich, complex product of conflicting perceptions
By Tim Carmody

We all want "more rigor" but what they really mean is just more worksheets/definitions/homework/exercises. Not rigor.
By Julie Golden

How re-districting can steal elections:

By Christiane

I’d bet money that lobbying for Keystone created more jobs than the pipeline itself would.
By David Roberts

Study by Daphne Bugental et al: People who "see themselves as lacking power are most likely to use coercive control tactics" with their kids.
By Alfie Kohn

The key problem with Walmart is that it systematically depends on the poverty of communities.
By Charles Marohn

This turtle has a cool algae mohawk! Other incredible turtles you won't believe exist:

By Strange Animals

Crazy idea: What if instead of delivering content to kids that we know they'll just forget, cuz all us adults did, we do something different?
By Sisyphus38

Let’s come together around our goals of moving the country in diametrically opposed directions. What could go wrong? "We want a 21st century social democracy." "Oh? We want a 19th century social darwinist economy run by theocrats." "Hey, let’s compromise!" I would love for the parties to come together. Come on over to modernity, cons! The water’s fine.
By David Roberts

Private sector things like defined-contribution pensions and even health insurance are a hell of a lot more convoluted than public versions.
By Matt Bruenig

This may not be politic to say, but I kind of think the Department of Homeland Security could vanish entirely w/ no deleterious effect on the country.
By David Roberts

By snipe ツ

"Downtown St. Paul has two of the nicest downtowns in America, unfortunately separated by the ­middle part.”
By William Lindeke

Hold still kid, I'm trying to wrap this curriculum around you.
By Sisyphus38

To paraphrase Dr Phil Goff at the Police Taskforce -- when there is no metric for trust there is no incentive to make it a goal of policing.
By WalterWKatz

Standardized tests are ruining our education system. Being defined by a few numbers is so anti-holistic learning.
By James Farnsworth

I believe in: kids' ability to lead their own learning, free play teaching much of what kids need, love and cooperation. People call me a cynic.
By Sisyphus38

There is nobody on earth who has exploited 9/11 more frequently, shamelessly and self-servingly than Rudy Giuliani.
By Glenn Greenwald

Well my phone's "airplane mode" turned out to be a big disappointment.
By Jemaine Clement

Yup. Why Fahrenheit is better than Celsius:

By Patrick Ruffini

Here's your friendly reminder that The Sound of Music is still one of only 4 Best Picture winners with a female protagonist.
By Zack Ford

Youth of color know that schools have more in common with military camps/prisons than with other institutions, hence their cultural mistrust.
By Arash Daneshzadeh

A woman over 65 is less likely to be cited as an expert in the media than a boy 13 to 18.
By Patricia Cohen


By Uplcchicago

What's the German word for when the snow melts and everywhere is a minefield of dog poop?
By Aaron Sarver

It's amazing how people want to make maiming or killing people with the legal right of way no more than an oopsie. [After a bus killed a pedestrian in Brooklyn.]
By Brooklyn Spoke

Chuck Todd said Kentucky Senate candidate Allison Lundegren Grimes's comment "disqualified" her, but Giuliani's comment "brings out worst in the press." Wow.
By Frank Conniff

Evil shoes:

By Halloween Costumes

"Scalability" of curriculum is a euphemism for homogenizing learning as profit-sharing with textbook corporations, in the name of efficiency.
By Arash Daneshzadeh

Cycling has predominantly been seen as for *radicals and recreation.* Time to normalize cycling as transportation.
By jennifer keesmaat

Elephant Hawk Moth:

By Strange Animals

"Do you feel pressured to write strong male characters?" asked no interviewer ever.
By Saladin Ahmed

We think it's very important for you to know a whole bunch of stuff that virtually all adults you know no longer know.
By Sisyphus38

Fifty Shades of Grey is romantic only because the guy is a billionaire. If he was living in a trailer it would be a Criminal Minds episode.
By emre

Too many people -- white, Black, and everybody else -- view MLK and Malcolm X as extreme opposites. People latch onto that false dichotomy and truly believe if they're just nicer (like MLK) racism will disappear.
By Angry Black Fangirl

Huge if true:

By Tom Hamilton

Very often... The outspoken women are painted as angry and bitter spirits. The outspoken men are praised as revolutionaries and heroes.
By solange knowles

“Negroes - Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind.”
— Langston Hughes, Warning
By Hannah G.

"Truth about getting older:...fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there's nothing you're sure you'll never be." -J Offill
By Alfie Kohn

Given early brain development, it's concerning that babies have poverty rates 40% higher than teenagers.
By Michele S Parvensky

Everything is not about race. But those things that are ARE. --Rev. Dr. Renita Weems
By Brittney Cooper

Hate American poverty, militarism, imprisonment? You hate America. Hate American taxation, gun laws, welfare state? You love America.
By J.A. Myerson

"Children grow into the intellectual life around them" - Vygotsky:

By Neil Stephenson

It's ok not to love America, by the way. Loving human beings is about 100 million times more important, and the two often conflict.
By Saladin Ahmed

I figure Walmart is like a discount club (a la Costco) except we're all automatically signed up and pay via taxation.
By Leon Horsley

Is there a technical term for a group of cartoonists? Like, A Depression of Cartoonists, or An Unemployment of Cartoonists?
By davegolbitz

"When the Student is ready the Teacher will appear." WRONG!!! The Teacher is here...ready or not, we have a test to prepare for.
By Sisyphus38

We must change how we define "successful." It perpetuates our competitive consumerism culture and is toxic for all.
By Sisyphus38

My window faces the Griffith Observatory, so I get to watch the flashes of idiots who think their iPhone flash'll help them capture LA at night.
By Janine Brito

Moneyless classless stateless communities of humanity in creative, harmonious cooperation, this is horizontal harmony:

By Rafael

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" "An honest, brave, compassionate human being." "No…I mean, how do you want to sell your labor?"
By Existential Comics

Islamic State is probably best understood as part of a global, millennia-old cult of bullying, controlling, killer masculinity.
By Saladin Ahmed

The internet: Where people who have never tried feel perfectly justified lecturing best practices to those who do it every day.
By jayewells

Freire taught 300 illiterate workers how to read and write in 45 days by making connections and using vocabulary relevant to their lives.
By Nikhil Goyal

Why do people who think it would be easy to adjust to major climate change think it would be intolerably painful to adjust to costly energy?
By Mark A.R. Kleiman

See the massive bureaucracy for auto licenses? That is Auto Sprawl Subsidy.
By Free Public Transit

My frustration at the ridiculously high cost of daycare sits side-by-side with my deep feeling that daycare providers are underpaid.
By Maggie Koerth-Baker

He's an angry fellow:

By Halloween Costumes
So, Islamic fundamentalists are somehow simultaneously medieval, 'just like the Nazis,' and an unprecedented evil. Neat trick, that.
By Saladin Ahmed

Even the most outspoken woman you know is suppressing like 70% of what she really thinks because it's just not worth it.
By dolly m

I love the idea that AP American History is itself unpatriotic, because you can only love America if you know as little about it as possible.
By Red Durkin

I'm cultivating a theory that Myers-Briggs is just star signs for smug people who don't believe in astrology.
By Aimee Nichols

Government assistance to the poorest Americans declined dramatically between 1983 and 2004.
By Sean McElwee

New Study Finds Therapy, Antidepressants Equally Effective At Monetizing Depression [from the Onion].
By Ryan Dow

When you understand slavery you know we shouldn't be ashamed of what they did to us. They should be ashamed of what they did.
By Lurie Daniel Favors

A rare encounter of a baby gorilla and chimpanzee examining leaves at the Evaro Gorilla Orphanage in Gabon:

By Strange Animals
It took Lord Grantham two episodes to figure out his dog was dying. No wonder the British aristocracy fell. #DowntonAbbey
By Robert O. Simonson

I don't believe in nationalism; it gives a false sense of belief that you rightfully inherited that which was stolen.
By Sisyphus38

Is it ironic or hypocritical to teach kids about democracy and freedom while they have no choice but to sit and listen to it?
By Sisyphus38

The design of our streets must forgive the mistakes of the most vulnerable, not just the automobile driver.
By Charles Marohn

Let's pay women less, sexually harass them, punish them for being assertive and then tell 'em that there's a confidence gap holding them back!
By Chloe Angyal

We like Americans as heroes. Not as slave owners or brutal colonialists or criminal employers.
By Ira Socol

Calls for "accountability" empower those who use that term because it's applied to people down below. - L. McNeil
By Alfie Kohn

Then there is this guy who hasn't aged in 450 years. Life is so unfair:

By Dead Kid

"The test scores of 15-year-olds have nothing to do with the productivity of a nation." -- Diane Ravitch. My hero.
By Mitchell Robinson

Idea: A poorly run discount air carrier called JoanJett with terrible service. They would not give a damn about their bad reputation.
By Chris Steller

This may be TMI, but without my cleanroom gear on, my body would emit 100,000 particles a minute by just standing there. [Referring to his show How We Got to Now.]
By Steven Johnson

The U.S. lead in per capita GDP largely goes away on a per hour basis and subtracting waste in health care system.
By Dean Baker

The world is full of plausible sounding ideas that aren't true. Be forewarned.
By Josiah Neeley

Outstanding Academic Title 2014: "De-Testing and De-Grading Schools" (Peter Lang).
By Paul Thomas

While close reading fairy tales, a student said, "I notice being an ugly woman in a fairy tale automatically means you're bad."
By Jessica Lifshitz

A lizard that looks like a dragon:

By Strange Animals

This is the flaw of "respectability" politics. The opposite of a negative stereotype isn't a positive one. The opposite is complexity.
By jelani cobb

If your movement relies on the oppression of other marginalized groups, your movement is doomed to fail.
By Son of Baldwin

I tried to explain the growth mindset to the gifted class. They just stared and blinked, fearful of the idea that the "normals" could catch them.
By Sisyphus38

True story: my 11-year-old cannot believe people ate Campbell's Soup. He thought it was something Andy Warhol made up!
By Helaine Olen

The whole notion that Washington is "broken" is absurd - it's a well functioning machine that delivers riches and power to the rich and powerful.
By David Sirota

Today in unnecessarily gendered products: the Earth:

By Julien

With unbending certainty that data and tech would save our children, Gates Foundation's education wing accidentally fed teachers into a woodchipper.
By John Kuhn

Rich people get far more out of government than poor people. Far more.
By David Kaib

Keynes: "Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will work for the benefit of all."
By Nikhil Goyal

Almost every major patent concept from the 1930s was in chemistry. Today, all software.
By Derek Thompson

Impostor Syndrome is a small problem. Blowhard Syndrome is a big one.
By debcha

holy shit this perfect painting of a perfectly happy solitary woman single-handedly redeems all of western art:

By Mallory

Jails are warehouses for people too poor to make bail, and the seriously mentally ill who need treatment.
By Uplcchicago

The U.S. wants you to hate Muslims so they can kill them for oil because the U.S. elite has trillions of dollars locked in auto sprawl investment.
By Free Public Transit

"Last year, U.S. Special Operations forces conducted secret military missions in 133 countries." [citing The Nation]
By Nikhil Goyal

Nothing says "manly" like buying a truck because a commercial said a focus group said the guy with the truck was manly.
By Tom Tomorrow

The "Welcome to the best part of your day" line in the Taco Johns commercial is profoundly depressing
By Jim Hammerand

Beautiful Velvet Snail from Australia:

By Strange Animals

Stereotype Threat is my favorite California-based early 80s thrash band whose T-shirts are currently available at Target.
By Chris Steller

Hey, I just noticed something... Most of the kids that struggle in school are poor. Has anyone else noticed? Maybe there is a connection.
By Sisyphus38

The only way children are going to learn how to live in a democratic society is by practicing democracy.
By Nikhil Goyal

Kenji Ekuan, designer of the ubiquitous soy dispenser, died yesterday. Respect to people who make everyday things:

By Brendan Cormier

What does it mean if a high percentage of people I know hire math tutors for their kids? Why must they pay extra to pass math?
By Sisyphus38

Another point (apparently unknown to most policy experts) is that "fertility of the poor" is often just "fertility of young adults." Our child benefit discussion could greatly benefit from life-cycle income stuff here. You ain't depriving the poors, but rather the youngs.
By Matt Bruenig

As a share of the economy, the federal budget now spends 3X as much on seniors as kids. [citing the National Journal]
By Ronald Brownstein

When job openings go unfilled during a weak labor market, companies may be holding out for overly qualified candidates at cheap prices.
By Elise Gould

Baby wombats look a bit like old Kung Fu masters:

By Stevie

"Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping."
By Paul Lewis

It's odd that an industry that prizes college drop-outs and autodidacts also blames the lack of diversity on a lack of female and people of color STEM grads.
By Ⓘⓢⓐⓐⓒ

Branding used to mean burning an animal's flesh with a hot iron to claim it as your property. #business #metaphors #brands
By The Wordmonster

Suggestion: "Named" and "Naked" should be more than one letter apart.
By Chris Steller

If we look at the civil rights act of 1875 and its evisceration in 1883 it highlights exactly what we're dealing with now.
By jelani cobb

Our well-regulated militia:

By Ken Paulman

"Gay" is often a stand-in for "might think about me the way I think about women," which is a killing offense to some.
By Josh Jasper

Before Darwin, the idea was that blacks had "degenerated" as humans. After Darwin, the idea was they weren't highly evolved.
By Eric Kleefeld

Call it "Obamacare” and 85% oppose it. Call it "Insure Tennessee” and just 16% oppose it.
By Sahil Kapur

My 4-year-old son said the word prototype. When I asked him what it meant, he said "People are a prototype" and I was too scared to ask what he meant.
By Kristin M-F

You should have to go to a welfare office to collect the Mortgage Interest Deduction.
By Sean McElwee

The endless blacktop era is over. Cities can rebuild their streets in living color. Coenties Slip, Manhattan:

By Janette Sadik-Khan

In every field, students on RateMyProfessor are more likely to call men geniuses.
By Justin Wolfers

A life filled with drama indicates that a person is disconnected from purpose and meaningful goals. People with a purpose don't have time for drama.
By Life Advice

Amazing if really true: About 2/3 of rich Chinese already have emigrated or want to, mostly to North America.
By Charles C. Mann

Quick fact: George Wallace's "Segregation Forever" speech has 27 allusions to "God." He calls activist government "the very opposite of Christ."
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Someone finally said it:

By President Mikayla

Our parents paid a quarter what we do for major milestones - college, housing, childbirth and care. I mean, come on. Who can compete?
By KillerMartinis

Do the most important academic journals know how obscure they really are? Do they know how important they could be without pay-walls?
By John Roman

Let's create an urban agenda that links sustainability with shared prosperity.
By jennifer keesmaat

Blaaarg. Living in this country is like being trapped on a high-tech submarine, forced to share the controls w/ poo-flinging toddlers. We can’t get out, they can’t get out, we can’t drive properly, they need warm milk and a f*cking nap.
By David Roberts

A non-tech alternative to self-driving cars is walkable cities. But those sound hard.
By Eric Gilbert

"This gay marriage thing has happened very quickly." - People who believe homosexuals were invented in 1997
By Guy Branum

"In the absence of disruptive, active leadership, all organizations evolve to maximize the short-term comfort of managers."
By David Roberts

This whole room of people is one Excel spreadsheet. Imagine all the middle-class unemployment Excel created:

By Benedict Evans

But he can't make time for global poverty? "1 in 4 Americans believe God helps decide who wins...the Super Bowl."
By Tom Zeller Jr.

We don't pay enough attention to how race/racism are made and re-made; wired very early, in the private realm, at home and amongst family.
By Sharon H Chang

What do people in Europe think when Prince says, "Act your age not your shoe size"?
By Chris Steller

The motive for "irregardless isn't a word" is same as "Kwanzaa is made-up." Sanctification of power.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

It's funniest to me that the "not a word" brigade rarely takes on corporatespeak. Their focus is only everyday language.
By David Crockett
The worst thing about people who seek to uphold hierarchy is not they are upholding hierarchy. It's that they won't admit it.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Happy little heater:

By Halloween Costumes

I can't think of a more disingenuous, easily disproven, intellectually bankrupt way to grub for votes than Scott Walker's drug testing idiocy. I just really don't get hating poor people enough to be willing to embarrass yourself on a disproven program. There are not, I promise you, thousands of unfilled unskilled jobs, simply waiting for a sober awake person to waltz in and take them.

It's possible that maybe he can't read, though. Have we considered this? Anyone who can read knows how badly this went for Rick Scott. Like most of the people on food stamps aren't employed already. YOU CAN'T READ BASIC DATA. Don't come at us and call us dumb. We can read.
By KillerMartinis

Was gonna watch the film adaptation of The Hobbit but I didn't have time so I just read the book.
By Sean Thomason

The Andromeda Galaxy's actual size if it were brighter:

By Andrew Rader

Working on a laptop that's connected to the internet is like trying to write on a typewriter that's been welded to a circus.
By Andrew O'Neill

Friday, February 27, 2015

What Would I Say?

All unsuspecting, I came across a car with this on its bumper the other day:

I'm not commenting on the coat of salt, as you may imagine. No, it's the bumper sticker (combined with the Christian fishy).

It made me think about what I could possibly say to this person if we were put in a room together. How do you even start a conversation (about anything other than the weather and all the salt coating our cars) with someone whose world view diverges so much from your own?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Save the World, One Pair of Glasses at a Time

From my local AMC theater:

Of course I'd rather have people drop their 3D glasses in the box than throw them in the trash can, but is it too much to ask AMC to describe that action as something other than "saving the world"?

Going to see a 3D movie is in no way related to saving the world, even if you do recycle your completely unnecessary, headache-inducing glasses.


An earlier post complaining about trivialization of real problems at an AMC theater.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Goodbye and Thanks to Zilpha Keatley Snyder

I somehow overlooked the news that children's author Zilpha Keatley Snyder died in October 2014. It's one of the many times when I've missed the late Peter Sieruta and his blog, Collecting Children's Books. I'm sure he would have let me know in a more timely manner.

She was 87, and published her last book in  2011. I confess I lost track of her books some time around the Green Sky trilogy in the mid-1970s, but her earlier work was a key part of my childhood reading. (The obituary in the New York Times says the trilogy explores "ideas involving utopian culture, social engineering and the control of violence," though, so maybe it's time I read it.)

I think I read The Velvet Room (1965) first, but didn't know that it was by the same author when I later picked up The Egypt Game (1967). Others from that era that I love are The Eyes in the Fishbowl (1968) and Season of Ponies (1964). The strangeness and refusal to say what was real and what wasn't in the latter two books was probably my introduction to magical realism.

My favorite among her books, though, has to be The Changeling (1970). I identified so much with the main character and so wished for a friend like Ivy that it almost hurt to read. At the same time, it examines issues of class and bullying without being heavy-handed.

For some reason, Keatley Snyder's most award-winning books, like The Witches of Worm and The Headless Cupid, didn't grab me. (I do like the Newbery-winning Egypt Game almost as well as my favorites, though the sequels leave me cold.)

But I could reread The Changeling or The Velvet Room any week. The Velvet Room creates a particularly resonant version of a Depression-era California migrant worker story, set near the part of California where Keatley Snyder grew up, and again touches on class differences, all wrapped around a mystery.

Here's one thing I learned about Keatley Snyder from her obituary:
"Disney wanted to option [The Egypt Game] for a film but wouldn't guarantee a multiracial cast," her longtime editor Karen Wojytla said in an interview. "She was very forward-thinking, and wouldn't sell them the rights."
Go, Zilpha. You are a model for writers to this day.


I would be remiss if I didn't mention illustrator Alton Raible, whose work accompanied the editions published back in my day. There's just about no information on his life within this thing called the interweb... just a brief mention on the Green Sky wiki that says he was born in 1918 and implies that he's still alive.... if so, live long and prosper, Mr. Raible.


Apologies to Pete Hautman for categorizing Snyder under my Reading YA tag, but since I'm not writing for a specialized audience of YA readers -- and because my favorite Snyder books predate that category, and probably helped create it with their edgier topics like lurking child molesters and teens vandalizing high schools -- it seemed okay.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Two letters on the same topic from today's Star Tribune. The subject: an upcoming legislative attempt to change our schools' teacher retention rules so recently hired teachers aren't the first ones laid off when budgets are tight.

A strategy of undermining seniority wouldn’t appear to add up

What is your goal? I ask this question of Minnesota legislators who are introducing bills to revise the teacher seniority laws. The Star Tribune reported that “[b]etween 2008 and 2013, nearly 2,200 Minnesota teachers were laid off under the so-called ‘last in, first out’ [LIFO] provision in state law” and outlined data showing about 550 rookie teachers laid off per year. There are approximately 50,000 public school teachers in the state of Minnesota, so this accounts for about 1 percent of all teachers.

So is it possible that a small fraction of the 1 percent of teachers who were laid off were truly better than the more experienced teachers? It is possible. However, given choice between the skills of a veteran teacher and a rookie, I will place my faith in experience every time. But even if you disagree, I ask you again, what is your goal? Is it to debate laws that focus on a fraction of 1 percent of all teachers, in the hope of improving the overall performance of Minnesota students? If so, your math doesn’t add up. But what do I know? I’m just a veteran teacher.

Brian Swiggum, Hopkins

• • •

You can’t have it both ways. Either the worst, least experienced teachers are trapped in high-poverty, high-children-of-color schools by seniority laws that allow senior, more proficient teachers to choose schools that are mostly white in middle-class neighborhoods, or more senior teachers are deadwood that can’t be eliminated because of seniority laws, leaving talented less experienced teachers to be laid off.

Which is it?

Carol Henderson, Minneapolis

Both Brian and Carol make excellent points. I wonder if states where teachers have no tenure protection provide a better education to students... What, the answer is no, you say? I'm shocked. I thought this one change was going to solve all our problems.

I guess LIFO should be better known as GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

Monday, February 23, 2015

Tons of Tabs

So much to know and read. I know, I know. Imagine; these were all in my browser until just now.

Florida Deputy: “Planting evidence and lying is part of the game!” An interview with an anonymous cop who details how evidence is planted on people who aren't guilty (but are guilty in the cop's mind), including this charming quote: "I wouldn’t say [we] target based on race but it is, you know, um, it is much easier to do this on a black person because they have no credibility anyways."

Followed by this for a chaser by Mychal Denzel Smith writing for The Nation about James Baldwin, who was unapologetic in his description of police as an occupying force in black communities.

When shirts cost $3,500 from Boing Boing. "An eye-popping parable about the benefits of automation: 200 years ago, it took 479 hours worth of labor to make a shirt (spinning, weaving, sewing), or $3,472.75 at $7.25/hour."

How America's "love affair with the car" was created. Quoting a historian who's written a book on the subject,

"When I actually looked into the history record, documents from the time, I found just the opposite,” Norton says. “What Americans in cities wanted in the ‘20s was to get the cars out.”

Media at the time recount pedestrians ranting against the automobile as an intrusion and an undemocratic bully. Newspapers contained cartoons portraying rich drivers in luxury cars running over working-class kids. Three-quarters of traffic fatalities at the time were pedestrians.
A depressing article: Police reform is impossible in America. "In a country that has identified black people as its criminal element, public safety (and perceived security) is more tied to the suppression of blacks than it is to the suppression of crime. And as long as the public insists on its myth of black criminality—almost as an article of faith—police practices will be impossible to reform."

And this less depressing video...

Why are we blaming technology for our lack of focus? from Pacific Standard. The article says it's not technology per se. It's our
pathologized FOMO (fear of missing out) rather than a change in our neural circuitry. “Digital devices are not eating away at our brains,” he argues near the end of the op-ed. “They are, however, luring us toward near constant outwardly directed thought, a situation that’s probably unique in human experience.”
Yes, that's how I experience life in the age of the interweb.

Students most effectively learn math working on problems that they enjoy, not drills or exercises. "While research shows that knowledge of math facts is important...the best way for students to know math facts is by using them regularly and developing understanding of numerical relations. Memorization, speed and test pressure can be damaging..."
"Math facts are a very small part of mathematics, but unfortunately students who don't memorize math facts well often come to believe that they can never be successful with math and turn away from the subject," [Boaler] said.

Prior research found that students who memorized more easily were not higher achieving – in fact, they did not have what the researchers described as more "math ability" or higher IQ scores. Using an MRI scanner, the only brain differences the researchers found were in a brain region called the hippocampus, which is the area in the brain responsible for memorizing facts – the working memory section.

But according to Boaler, when students are stressed – such as when they are solving math questions under time pressure – the working memory becomes blocked and the students cannot as easily recall the math facts they had previously studied. This particularly occurs among higher achieving students and female students, she said.

Some estimates suggest that at least a third of students experience extreme stress or "math anxiety" when they take a timed test, no matter their level of achievement. "When we put students through this anxiety-provoking experience, we lose students from mathematics," she said.
All of which is backed up in this Boston Globe op-ed by a mathematician, The real reason why the U.S. is falling behind in math:
We are pretty much the only country on the planet that teaches math this way, where students are forced to memorize formulas and procedures. And so kids miss the more organic experience of playing with mathematical puzzles, experimenting and searching for patterns, finding delight in their own discoveries....

When students memorize the Pythagorean theorem or the quadratic formula and apply it with slightly different numbers, they actually get worse at the bigger picture. Our brains are slow to recognize information when it is out of context. This is why real-world math problems are so much harder — and more fascinating — than the contrived textbook exercises.

What I’ve found instead is that a student who has developed the ability to turn a real-world scenario into a mathematical problem, who is alert to false reasoning, and who can manipulate numbers and equations is likely far better prepared for college math than a student who has experienced a year of rote calculus.
From the World Health Organization: Seven million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution. That's one in eight of global deaths. And, of course, "“Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry. In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains."

I recommend this Toronto Star story about a family with young kids who went carless. Obviously, there are many families who have to be carless because they can't afford one, but this story gets at middle class assumptions about having a car, the idea that having kids = having a car (or a minivan), what bike infrastructure should look like, and a lot more.

The death of American unions is killing American marriage. "Poverty itself, it seems, is the chief agent of marital decline among the poor. This is especially true of falling wages among working class men, who have borne the brunt of the right-wing war on labor unions." (By Eliabeth Stoker Bruenig, writing for the new New Republic.) Because, as we all should know by now, it's not marriage that causes economic security -- it's economic insecurity that prevents marriage.

Aside from unions, what could encourage marriage? Universal benefits, argues Matt Bruenig.

The enormous racial opportunity gap in America's metro areas (from Vox). "In the nation's 100 largest metro areas, about 40 percent of black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children live in the lowest-opportunity neighborhoods in their areas, compared to just 9 percent of white children.... White children don't experience this debilitating disadvantage even in the cities where they're worst off."

Related: How black middle class kids become poor adults. "Experts" can't explain why. Duh.

Not to mention this: Americans overestimate class mobility. (That study looked upward class mobility... everyone underestimates downward class mobility also.)

More evidence of wage theft (which I've discussed earlier here and here): "Most recently, a careful study of minimum wage violations in New York and California in 2011 commissioned by the Department of Labor determined that the affected employees’ lost weekly wages averaged 37–49 percent of their income. This wage theft drove between 15,000 and 67,000 families below the poverty line. Another 50,000–100,000 already impoverished families were driven deeper into poverty." Note that the study only looked at people earning the minimum wage, so it vastly underrepresents the extent of wage theft from people who make more than the minimum.

How to topple a dictator (peacefully). Something for activists to reread frequently. From the New York Times.

And this from one of my favorite writers, Helaine Olen: Stop trying to make financial literacy happen. "It’s a noble distraction from actual consumer protection. That’s why the financial services industry loves it."

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Welcome to 1957

From the basement, the fall 1957 welcome edition cover of the Minnesota Daily,  newspaper at the University of Minnesota:

This cover makes me feel several things.

It calls to my nostalgia for that kind of cartoon modern illustration, and even just for the use of illustration on the cover at all. At some point someone did a focus group and decided audiences respond more to photography (especially if overlaid with yellow type), and since then covers have taken on a sad sameness.

The illustration also makes me appreciate the reality of diversity. In 1957, this illustrator and his (I assume his!) art director thought two white guys could represent the range of in-coming students as long as one of them looked like a studious nerd and the other like a jockish future frat boy.

What a set of assumptions underpins that decision. Oh, and neither guy looks remotely like an 18-year-old.

The items used to detail the frat boy are notable. He's wearing argyle socks and short pants (really?), while carrying a tennis racket and golf clubs. With a boutonniere, of all things. And (gasp) three changes of clothes. So many! Not to mention a Date Book in his pocket.

Though I fully appreciate the Zip-a-Tone used to create the patterns on their suits (another item you can find in the obsolete art supply aisle). And the way the green and red spot color inks are used. It's really a beautiful piece of work, frozen in its particular time.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

No Duh

Your emails from the last year or five years ago are constitutionally protected from government snooping, right? As much as anything else is protected.

Well, no. In 1986, Congress passed a law declaring files like that (which barely existed at the time for the vast majority of people) "abandoned" if they are more than six months old. Despite the fact that dead letters at the Post Office are still protected.

There's a bill in Minnesota that would change our state's constitution to correct this bit of stupidity, and it sounds like it has a good chance of getting passed in the legislature so we can approve it on our next ballot.

That can't happen soon enough. But how stupid is it to have to amend our constitution to make it the way everyone assumes it already is under the Bill of Rights?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Space: A Nice Logo

Here's another one for the Good Logo file:

It's an Omni Theater film, showing at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

What a nice example of a simple type manipulation, making a connection to the film's content.

The use of a typeface that echoes a Star Trek aesthetic is also appropriate, though I'm glad they used one of the more restrained versions of the usual space-faring fonts.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Our Cars, Ourselves

I'm having one of those moments of frustration in the age of the interweb. A couple of days ago, I read a quote about why cars were such a successful invention. It said something like,

There are two important things humans want that cars provide: to be safe and secure and to see lots of new things as we move freely in our surroundings. Cars are a metal cocoon that protects us as we travel through the world.
That is not the wording as it was graciously written by the original author, just my best attempt to remember the gist of it. I think I saw it on on Twitter and it was an image of a paragraph from an article or book written in the 1970s.

I can't even remember any specific words that were in the quote, other than "car." Even that might have been "automobile." I'm pretty sure "cocoon" was part of it, but when I search that in Google, it keeps turning up links to child car seats.

At the time I thought, Yeah, ain't it the truth, but for some reason I didn't save it in any way that I could find later. And now it is lost in the ether so I can't cite the author or even get the wording right.

The closest I've gotten is this quote from young-adult author Barry Lyga:
Cars are little privacy cocoons that we take with us. If you could refuel while driving you could, theoretically, stay moving forever.
But that is not it. Just a bit similar.

Oh, and by the way, did you hear that fatal road rage incidents have increased tenfold over the past decade (from 26 to about 250)?
As a barometer of highway rage these numbers are a drastic undercount: They include only fatal accidents, not nonfatal ones. Cases like the one in Nevada also wouldn’t be included because they involve shootings, not car accidents. And they don’t reflect the thousands of unkindnesses drivers inflict on each other daily that don’t end in violence.

These figures roughly comport with Washington Post surveys on driver rage. Between 2010 to 2013, the percentage of Washington-area drivers who say they often felt “uncontrollable anger toward another driver on the road” doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent. Commuters are more likely to experience blinding rage than non-commuters, the young are more angry than the old, and, politically speaking, Democrats are the political group least likely to drive angry, while independents are the most.
Which makes me wonder if Democrats are less likely to have bumper stickers, too?


Update: Well, darn, I found it. Here it is:

The human animal has two profound and conflicting impulses; he wants to be safe and warm, snug, enclosed, 'at home.' And he wants to roam the wide world, to see what is out there beyond the horizon. The automobile is a kind of house on wheels, but it will take you anywhere you want to go. You can conduct your sex life in it, you can eat and drink in it, go to the movies, listen to Vivaldi or the Stones, and you can dominate others, if you have more power and are adept with the gearshift lever. It is a whole existence. Or it is till the gas runs out.
--McDonald Harris, New York Times, May 16, 1979
So aside from the use of generic "he" (in 1979! was it the NYT style?) it's pretty good.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

New York Underwater

Back in December 2014 in one of my Twitter round-ups, I posted this from Amazing Maps:

With this comment:

All of those lightest green areas will flood if the sea level rises enough. Ursula LeGuin's book Always Coming Home takes place in a post-climate-change Northern California that has an inland sea just like the one that this map shows could exist.
I felt a little weird posting it back then because I didn't have any links to back up what I said about flooding in the lightest green areas. So when I saw today, I was happy. Oh, no, wait, I wasn't happy because this map is bad news, but I was glad to get a visualization of what happens when the sea level rises:

This is a map of the New York City area if the sea rises 100 feet, made by a geographer named Jeffrey Linn for his website Spatialities. 100 feet is the amount the seas will rise if/when one-third of the world's ice sheets (in Greenland and Antarctica) melt. No one thinks that kind of melting will happen soon, but we're definitely accelerating the process.

The projected flooded areas come from the USGS, which has data on what it would look like from this 100-foot rise up to 250 feet. At that level of increase, all of this part of New York and New Jersey is under water except the Palisades.

More on Linn's maps (and ones of other cities) can be found in this story on

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Laugh for Today

I've been reading some really depressing stuff lately, so instead of any of that, this is what I have for today:

put a wig on the dog and frightened the crap out of the postman.

From Steve Joy, @annoyedwasp of Wokinham, England.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Another Example of How Implicit Bias Works

You can intellectually believe that all people, in the abstract, are equal and still reach points in your interactions with actual people where you think of them as less than human. (It's not uncommon for men to do this in their interactions with women, for instance.)

Having a bias against difference -- a bias we all have as humans, and actively need to work to counteract -- will come out in times of stress. It's part of what makes cops shoot black men and boys when they have no reasonable need to. "He looked older than he was." "He was going for a gun."

Craig Hicks, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shot three people who were clearly identifiable as Muslims. It may have been in the context of a "parking dispute," since it sounds like he had problems with lots of other people in his complex and many were afraid of him. Carrying a gun on you while acting like a jerk can have that effect on people.

But the human beings he shot were the ones who looked different from him and who thought the most different from him. And that's not a coincidence.


Note: North Carolina is a "stand your ground" state. My prediction is that Hicks will say Deah Barakat threatened him to the point where he (Hicks) feared for his life. How he'll explain shooting the two women is another story... maybe they "reached for their waistbands."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Not Any Better the Second Time

They got me again: Today's Star Tribune commentary section had an interesting story about how insurgent religious groups recruit people who are incarcerated in prisons.

Unfortunately, it was accompanied by this illustration:

Look familiar? That's because they've used it before, though it was in black and white the other time.

But either way, it still looks like a d#*%khead when it's printed on newsprint.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Johnny Carcinogenic

I've been working feverishly on a big project today, which means listening to music to take the edge off. As usually happens at times like this, I found myself particularly noticing a song I already knew but hadn't fully appreciated.

This one is by Billy Bragg:

The Johnny Carcinogenic Show

Saw some guy on the TV yesterday,
He's selling poison by the ton.
"How can you do such a thing?" a woman asked.
And he replied, "Well, the secret is to hook 'em young.
Look, I'm not responsible for the lessons children learn —
I'm just responsible for giving my investors some return."

Here's a message from
The sponsors of The Johnny Carcinogenic Show
The sponsors of The Johnny Carcinogenic Show

Well, you'd never believe how much effort goes into
Adding some glamor to the brands
To distract you from the damage that they do
Putting their product in your hand.
What other industry could ever get away
With contaminating their best customers this way?

Here's a message from
The sponsors of The Johnny Carcinogenic Show
The sponsors of The Johnny Carcinogenic Show

Here's a product that promises to do nothing
But take your money and your soul.
Poverty is toxic, everybody knows —
No need to help it take its toll.
Who will profit from the misery they sow?
Not the grandchildren that you will never know.

Here's a message from
The sponsors of The Johnny Carcinogenic Show:
Poverty is toxic.
The sponsors of The Johnny Carcinogenic Show:
Poverty is toxic

(fades out on that refrain)
And it sounds good, too.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Two Unrelated Items from the Basement

One funny, one not so funny.

First, the Fighting Nun:

It's a stick puppet. You put your hand into the black robes, up from beneath, to hold the stick vertically and then, with two fingers, press down on levers that make her arms fold out into a punch. When we were in our 30s, doing this could make us laugh hysterically.

Second, the Time magazine O.J. Simpson cover:

It don't believe the artist, Matt Mahurin, whose work generally involved making photos look dark and moody, intended anything by it. The editor or art director who picked Mahurin was probably working from unconscious bias. People were not wrong to be outraged over it.

It's kind of the opposite of the Bobby-Jindal-as-white-guy portrait, now that I think of it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Is Truncating the Y Axis Misleading?

Some say no, but how many?

From the Tumblr of the excellent radio show and podcast, 99 Percent Invisible.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why Do We Need to Know Who Everyone Is?

Have you heard the story of 19-year-old Alecia Pennington (born Faith Sublett), whose home-schooling, Christian parents reportedly live so far off the grid of government interference that she was never issued a birth certificate (let alone any other government-issued documents like a Social Security card or driver's license)? It got me thinking about why we're so obsessed with being able to prove who everyone is.

A significant number of black people over 60, born in the South when their mothers were not allowed in white hospitals, have no birth certificates, for instance, which is part of the reason voter ID laws are a bad idea. But no one seems to care that they don't have ID. They got issued driver's licenses and voting registration cards without birth certificates, I imagine, because people knew who they were. Do they have Social Security numbers?

If we weren't concerned about "illegal" immigration, we wouldn't have to worry so much about birth certificates. If voting was open to anyone who lives in the country -- immigrants, ex-felons, everybody -- then proving who people are wouldn't matter. You could register on the same day with either documents showing your address, like a utility bill, or with someone to vouch for you (that's how we do it in Minnesota!).

Alecia got by until now, living in the state of Texas, because she was a kid and because she was white. Being able to live until the age of 19 with no ID is the ultimate white privilege.

The freak-out over keeping Social Security numbers secret began with the IRS change in the 1980s to require an SSN to claim your children as a deduction, and with the rise of credit cards and credit ratings. Now with someone else's SSN, you can steal something you're not entitled to (their tax refund or goods bought with their credit).

Why should it matter that anyone has my SSN? They can't retire on my money until I hit at least 62 years of age since the government knows how old I am. When that time comes, the government has a process for ascertaining you are who you say you are.

Why is the SSN used in so many ways that it's basically become a national ID number? Whose interest does that serve? As the main character declared in the classic television show The Prisoner, "I am not a number, I am a free man!" But that doesn't seem to be true any more.


Alecia has six or seven siblings still at home. She was helped to escape from her parents'  home by her maternal grandparents. As Hemant Mehta says in the linked story above, there are some nebulous details involved, but I wonder if this family isn't due a visit from Child Protective Services and the IRS (have they been filing taxes?).

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Another Argument for Spelling Reform

I've long known that English language readers are much more likely to be dyslexic than readers of languages where the spelling closely mirrors pronunciation. (Here's an earlier post that includes that fact.) But this recent article from the Atlantic made me realize that English is a dead weight tied around the necks of American (and Canadian and British) students.

Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society and author of the book Understanding English Spelling, analyzed the 7,000 most common English words and found that 60 percent of them had one or more unpredictably used letters. No one knows for sure, but the Spelling Society speculates that English may just be the world’s most irregularly spelled language.

Mastering such a language takes a long time and requires abilities that most children don’t develop until the middle or latter part of elementary school. Many children struggle to meet unrealistic expectations, get discouraged, and never achieve a high literacy level—all at an enormous cost to themselves and to society.
The story included some cool facts I'd never heard before (or don't remember hearing), despite a college class on the history of English and reading a number of books on the topic:
The first English printing press, in the 15th century, was operated by Belgians who didn’t know the language and made numerous spelling errors (such as "busy" in place of "bisy"). And because they were paid by the line, they sometimes padded words with extra letters; "frend," for example, became "friend." In the next century, other non-English speakers in continental Europe printed the first English Bibles, introducing yet more errors. Worse, those Bibles were then copied, and the writing became increasingly corrupted with each subsequent rendition.
The effect of all this:
...languages such as Finnish and Korean have very regular spelling systems; rules govern the way words are written, with few exceptions. Finnish also has the added bonus of a nearly one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters, meaning fewer rules to learn. So after Finnish children learn their alphabet, learning to read is pretty straightforward—they can read well within three months of starting formal learning, Bell says. And it’s not just Finnish- and Korean-speaking children who are at a significant advantage: A 2003 study found that English-speaking children typically needed about three years to master the basics of reading and writing, whereas their counterparts in most European countries needed a year or less.

Moreover, English-speaking children then spend years progressing through different reading levels and mastering the spelling of more and more words. That means it typically takes English-speaking children at least 10 years to become moderately proficient spellers—memorizing about 400 new words per year—and because they forget and have to revise many of the spellings they’ve previously learned, "learning to spell is a never-ending chore," Bell says.

On the other hand, the American concept of "reading level" doesn’t even exist in countries with more regular spelling systems. (emphasis added)
The solution, other than a complete overhaul of English spelling, which doesn't seem very likely?
Bell...says a good "tidying" will suffice while ensuring that nearly 600 years’ worth of modern English literature remains accessible. She advocates tweaking the 2,828 most-common irregularly spelled words to align them to conform with the main English spelling patterns.
There's also a techie solution that's described at length in the article.

Fascinating. Make it so!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Bad Precedent

Some people think it might be a good idea to do some kind of mileage charge for car drivers, rather than try to pay for roads through gas taxes. That seems like a question you could look into and assess based on facts, but some members of the Minnesota legislature have introduced a bill to prevent any publicly funded academic institution from studying the question.

I may have an opinion on the question, though I'd sure prefer to have an informed opinion based on some facts. But these legislators want to make sure there are no facts.

That's bad enough, but the precedent such a bill would set is even worse. Imagine legislating what subjects professors at public universities are allowed to pursue.

"We don't believe climate change is real, so you're forbidden from looking into that."

"We believe the sun revolves around the earth, so all you astronomers, get in line with us."

Where do these people get their ideas from? Maybe ALEC. Or maybe they're just straight out of the pre-Galileo Middle Ages.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Green House Gas Emissions in Minnesota

Here's a good piece of info to keep handy from MPR, which just finished a week-long series on climate change.

State leaders talk about Minnesota's emissions in four different areas. Think of them as four unequal legs of a stool.

The power sector is the main one, making up 31 percent of Minnesota's emissions. Since 2005, Minnesota has reduced emissions in that sector by 17 percent.

The next longest leg of that stool is transportation, accounting for a quarter of Minnesota's emissions. Emissions from cars and trucks are down, even though Minnesotans are driving the same number of miles, because vehicles get better gas mileage.

But the state has made less progress on the last two legs of the stool: agriculture and buildings. Agriculture makes up 19 percent of emissions. It's the burping cows, but also fertilizing crops, which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. And tilling soil releases carbon dioxide.

The buildings category includes everything from heating homes to running factories.

Thornton says those last two stool legs are going to be much more difficult to deal with.

In the power sector, "there's only a handful of utility companies, and it's much easier to get your arms around that sector," he said.

For transportation, there are millions of cars and trucks but only a handful of manufacturers, he said.

But when it comes to getting individual farms, homes and buildings to change, he said, "you're dealing with just millions and millions of people and it's so much more difficult."
So, 31 percent for power, 19 percent for agriculture, and 25 percent each for buildings and transportation. And from what the story says, that pie chart's wedges are shifting, with power and transportation getting smaller while agriculture and buildings grow, relatively, because they are not decreasing their output and so become larger, relatively.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Idiomatic Words

It's probably because of my phone's autocorrect, but I've been thinking about in and on a lot lately. (Not to mention if and of.) Why, oh why, did the devilish English language have to evolve these often-used small words to the point where their spellings differ only by one vowel? And why do those vowels have to sit next to each other on a standard keyboard?

I'm sure it's an exaggeration, but it seems as though half the messages I write on my phone say in when I meant on. You see, the "o" is just a bit further from the center line, so my clumsy finger drags over the "i" first and Apple's vaunted autocorrect feature can't sort out whether I want in or on.

But then, why should a phone be able to sort out that choice when the reason for it often doesn't make sense anyway?

Why do we ride on a bus even though we are inside it?

Why am I on my computer right now? (Although I guess it's better than being in my computer.)

Why do we wait in line, unless we're in the New York City area, in which case we wait on line? (I wonder if America Online had trouble selling connections in the New York area, because everyone thought it had something to do with waiting.)

Boats can be in or on the water.

With dates it gets even more complicated: You'll arrive in August but on August 23.

These choices are based on nothing except convention. I'll bet they're hard for new English speakers to learn and remember since they're essentially arbitrary.  Daily Writing Tips gives these guidelines: In relates to place, time, manner, and reference, while on indicates place, time, reference, and condition. See how three of the four for each are… the same? Yet as a native speaker, when I look at their examples, I have no trouble sorting them out:

Place: He lives in the country vs. He sat on the fence.
Time: I'll be there in an hour vs. He was not thinking well on that occasion.
Reference: In my opinion we need a referendum vs. We'll hire him on your recommendation.
It's funny to think of sitting in the fence or living on the country — though you can be on the lam in the country. Living on the country even has connotations of living off the country's taxpayers.

To make the boat example even trickier, Daily Writing Tips says:
As for the example about the boat, either is correct, according to what is meant:

    The boat is in the water. (As opposed to being on dry land for the winter)
    The boat is on the water. (Look at all those boats out there on the water!)

However, it would be unidiomatic to say The ship is in the ocean or in the sea, unless you mean that it has sunk. The ship is on the sea.
Whew! Watch out for in and on -- one wrong letter and you can sink a ship.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Let the Feds File Our Taxes

These two stories greeted me on the front page of today's Star Tribune's Metro section:

What they have in common: criminals are filing false tax returns in order to rip us all off, in one case by exploiting low-income people (the felony indictment) and the other by electronically filing false returns with stolen Social Security numbers and names.

I'll leave aside whether the state could do more, systemically, to catch the false Turbo Tax filers before accepting their returns. (I can think of lots of ways that they could do that). What I want to say about this problem is that there is a clear solution: have the federal government prefill everyone's income taxes (federal and state), based on the information they already have on file for income, name, address, and so on.

It's done this way in Denmark. It won't work for everyone, of course -- you pretty much have to be working regular jobs from employers who issue W2s -- but it would work for a lot of people, and for those with more complex situations, they can modify the return or completely redo it, however they see fit.

But it would keep crooks from filing before the real people get the chance, and cut down on the opportunities for criminal preparers as well. It would also be a good transition for young people with their first jobs -- no need to figure it all out right off the bat, but instead get up to speed as your life and financial situation becomes more complex.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Jo Walton's The Just City

Thrilling is an over-used word, washed out by roller coasters and horror movies. But its meaning -- a deep, stirring, positive feeling -- can best be applied to reading good fiction, full of ideas and challenges to the reader's world view.

Jo Walton's latest book, The Just City, is what made me think of this bit of definitional territory-marking. Films, at least for me, can't come close to equaling that deep thrumming reverberation inside myself.

The Just City is aptly, if a bit boringly, named. It's a real-world fantasy where the goddess Athene brings people from many eras to a single point in time to create Plato's Republic. They were chosen because they all speak or read classical Greek and at some point prayed to her to make the Republic real. They become the teachers for ten thousand 10-year-old children who are bought from slave markets throughout time.

The story takes the points of view of one of the teachers, a Victorian-era woman, and two of the students, a boy and a girl. From the start, you know it's going to be a book that challenges you when it's pointed out that the teachers' purchases of 10-year-olds at slave markets has created a market for 10-year-olds at slave markets, and caused children to be abducted.

Some of the themes and questions the book brings to life, despite the way they lie flat on my page as I write this:
  • Women are people (and making that as clear as it can be)
  • No means no (and yes means yes)
  • What are freedom and liberty?
  • Are there "natural" slaves? Are there tasks that each of us is "best fit" for?
  • Is there a utopia that can be achieved by humans?
Not to mention what can happen when Socrates gets to say what he thinks about Plato's works.

My only disappointment with the book was that it ended too quickly, but I soon found out it's the first of a trilogy. The second book will be published in July and the third (I hope) soon afterwards. I will withhold judgment on the ending of The Just City until I've been able to read all three.


Here's what Jo Walton has to say about her own book, including a link to the first three chapters.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Nationwide: It's a Co-op

I didn't watch the Superbowl and so have only heard about the Nationwide dead child ad second-hand through social media and the Daily Show. I don't know what it would have been like to see it as it aired in the midst of chicken wing consumption, beer commercials, and touchdowns, or especially what it would be like to watch it if I had a child who had died young (or at all, I suppose).

People seem to think the company was trying to sell insurance by exploiting the death of a child, but I'm not so sure. Nationwide has been promoting tools to help reduce the rate of accidents in the home for more than 50 years. Maybe that's partly because it's co-op, owned by policy holders, and not a publicly traded company, beholden to shareholders. Maybe they actually want you to be safer and for your kids to not die because they don't exist to create a profit for the shareholders, but rather a social benefit to their members, and by extension, society as a whole. "Nationwide is on your side," as the slogan goes.

Yes, the creative team could have thought harder about how the ad would play in the context of the biggest consumerist television extravaganza in our consumerist country. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea. But their motivations don't have to line up with many people's worst suspicions.


But don't get me started on their logo. I've never understood that empty picture frame... is it supposed to be a mirror where you see yourself? It just seems like a vacant concept that came out of a committee.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Resembling a Fat Little Walrus

I originally had a Ms. Magazine-like "No Comment" reaction to the recent brouhaha over the obituary for novelist Colleen McCullough. But then I saw this piece from the Washington Post (reprinted in the Star Tribune), and thought it was worth a repeat.

Obituaries for women never go viral for the right reasons. Last week, an Australian obituary for a female novelist and neurophysiologist made the rounds of the Internet. Given that it began with the words “Colleen McCullough, Australia’s best selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth,” you can see why it might have sparked indignation and even a hashtag, #myozobituary.

I did not realize that this was how we were now beginning obituaries. Now that I know, here are some obituaries for men, updated lest we fall behind the new standard.

Teddy Roosevelt: Resembling a fat walrus in little spectacles, he was, nevertheless, president at one point or another.

Charles Dickens: Definitely balding, with an increasingly visible comb-over and facial hair that looked like a sloth had crawled onto his face and died, this gentleman nevertheless wrote a thing or two.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Though he looked like a wrinkly potato that had not slept in six years, some people liked his social policies OK.

James Joyce: Despite a marked resemblance to Henry Bemis in that “Time Enough At Last” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” nevertheless, this unappetizing little fellow wrote a couple of books.

Ernest Hemingway: This man looked like a big drunk cat. Contributed to literature in some way, possibly.

Charles Darwin: This man looked like something that came out of the ice just slightly to your left on the evolutionary scale, which was strangely apt, given what he spent his life doing.

Albert Einstein: Although he looked like a monkey that had stuck its head through an old straw hat and been electrocuted, he was, I guess, OK once you got to know him and might or might not have done some science that doesn’t really make sense to me.

Thomas Jefferson: Although a ginger, this man had good handwriting.

Abraham Lincoln: This man looked like Frankenstein’s monster but with more wrinkles and bigger bags under his eyes. This man had an unflattering chin-beard, and if he went on a dating show where all the other contestants were zombies and people with horse-heads, the odds are high that you still would not pick him. He was so physically hideous I can’t even begin to remember what he did with his life. Probably nothing.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Two Schools, Different Realities

I'm having an unusually busy day, so all I've got for today is this recent article from the Star Tribune, which gives the kind of perspective it seems I almost never see on what it's like to be a teacher. And how the economic base of the students is key to student outcomes.

Parent involvement is key, it seems, but what makes parent involvement possible? Stable lives and housing, which are directly related to stable, adequate incomes.

Nearly every student at Bethune Community School lives in poverty. At least a quarter are homeless or at risk of losing their housing. Test scores are among the worst in Minneapolis, with only a tiny fraction of students performing at grade level.

Across town at Hiawatha Community School, outbursts and unruly behavior are rarely a problem. Classroom activities are often filled with parents. Students often score higher on their standardized tests than most schools in the district.

Bethune and Hiawatha embody the divide that has gripped Minneapolis schools for decades as leaders grapple with one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.

In November, a Star Tribune analysis found that teachers at Hiawatha had the highest evaluation scores in the district, while Bethune had the lowest. 
It's a wonderful story that, despite the final sentence of that quoted section, does not demonize the teachers at the "low-performing" school. Instead, the writer works to understand the conditions of the school and the students' lives.

Part of it involves socks.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Doodles from a Decade

I've recently culled my class notebooks from graduate school. I'm sure there's interesting stuff in there, but deciphering my handwriting isn't worth it, and if I don't want to do it, who will? So into the recycling bin they went.

But I did see a few things that seemed worth preserving: doodles.

My usual doodles consist of arrows going in different directions, or yin/yang symbols. That tendency goes back to high school, I think, but it really picked up steam in grad school. So I'm not showing those.

These doodles are more interesting than repetitious patterns. Some are related to the class content:

Some have an element of almost Dada poetry, or maybe it's just free association:

This one may have been a comment on graduate school, or the state of the human condition as it seemed at that moment:

Others are just... whatever:

I really like this guy in a suit.