Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Let's Get Rid of Right Turn on Red

Right turn on red laws seemed like a good idea at the time. Why not save a little gasoline by letting cars go instead of waiting for the light to turn?

When I drive and take advantage of the option, I sometimes appreciate it. But at other times, it makes me anxious, knowing there are cars behind me that want me to turn even though I can't see well enough or can't judge the speed of an on-coming car. It would just be simpler to have to wait for every red light than judge when it's safe to proceed. As we've all seen, there are all too many cars that use it as an opportunity to roll through a red light or race an on-coming car that has the right of way.

I had already come to a soft conclusion that we'd be better off without right on red, and then I read this case against it by Sam Rockwell from StreetsMN, via MinnPost. Now I'm even more sure we should do away with it.

It's not just that pedestrians and bicyclists get hit by turning drivers who don't yield the right of way:

Even when someone on foot or a cyclist is not hit by right-turning vehicles...right turning vehicles still do a significant disservice to vulnerable users. Right-turning vehicles often pull into the crosswalk so that the driver of the vehicle can actually see oncoming car traffic. As a result, people crossing the intersection on foot lose that small stretch of street that is supposed to be temporarily theirs. That person must then walk around the front or the back of the imposing vehicle.

If the person walks in front of the vehicle, he or she must be on guard in case the vehicle attempts to leap into traffic. If the person passes behind the vehicle, he or she must weave between multiple vehicles, any of which could move. Therefore, right turns on red mean that people can never walk across the street, even when they have the right of way, as if they own the space. People on foot must be constantly aware of their vulnerability, can never go on a walk and let their mind wander.

Shouldn’t pedestrians – people – be able to simply be in their community without wearing “light colors” and “retro-reflective materials,” as the State of Minnesota suggests?
Right on red does save a bit of fuel, but Rockwell makes this excellent point:
The Federal Highway Administration estimated that right turns on red would save between 1 and 4.6 seconds for each driver at a red light.

While turning right on red does in fact save fuel for car drivers, the Massachusetts DOT points out that “[t]he best way to reduce fuel use is to drive less.” With 65% of trips under a mile in the U.S. made by car, improving the experience of being a pedestrian or biker, as well as improving actual safety, could result in significant fuel savings by encouraging people to walk and bike more.
 Let's get rid of right turn on red.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Recommendations from Jo Walton

I don't think I've ever read a novel with so many recommendations for other novels in it. Jo Walton's Hugo- and Nebula-winner Among Others deftly integrates critiques of much of the science fiction published before 1980. Written in diary form, it seems like a natural way for a voracious reader like the main character, Mori, to express herself.

I'm not sure what it would be like to read this book if you were new to science fiction, but for someone who has read pretty widely, it's like talking to a friend about books you didn't know anyone else had read.

Ursula LeGuin, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Silverberg, Susan Cooper, C.S. Lewis, Roger Zelazny, John Brunner. The authors and their books go whizzing past.

One of the things I loved about the story, and Mori, was her total innocence about how publishing works. If she had read one book by an author, she didn't know how to find out whether the writer had published other books (it takes place in 1979-80... so no internet for Mori). But then she starts to go to the library and finds out about inter-library loan. Soon, the books are flying out the door.

And now I have to go find copies of books she mentions that I've never read, despite the fact that they're by some of my favorite authors:
  • The World Inside and Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
  • Time Without Number by John Brunner
  • Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh
  • Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny
  • Babel 17 and Triton by Samuel Delany. I was scared off of Delany by a mistimed attempt at reading Dhalgren when I was 18. But Mori describes Triton as Delany's response to LeGuin's Dispossessed, so how can I not read that?
  • Pavane by Keith Roberts (an author completely new to me)
  • The Charioteer by Mary Renault. I know, it's not science fiction, but Mori shares my affection for Renault's ancient Greek stories and I haven't read this one.
Time to go check the used book stacks at Uncle Hugo's.

Oh, and one last bonus: Mori dislikes Thomas Hardy, too.


There are three books that Mori never mentions, and whose omissions seem odd, given her interests. I wonder if they were not available in the U.K. at the time?
  • The King Must Die by Mary Renault (though she specifically mentions the sequel, The Bull from the Sea)
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (a much better book than Creatures of Light and Darkness, which is discussed)
  • The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner (one of his very best)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Who Decides When a Hyphen Dies?

It was fun to read Stephen Wilbers's business writing column from today's Star Tribune. He tackled the question of compound phrase and words: when to use a hyphen or not, and when to use a space or not.

Over time, adjectival usages tend to go from hyphenated to a single word. Sometimes it happens with nouns, too -- he gives the example of weekend (which went from week end to week-end). Though, he notes, "Curiously...certain compounds such as high school resist evolution. Go figure."

Other examples are still in transition, such as health care -- which Mayo Clinic, for instance, has transmuted into healthcare. This appears to be a common practice in health industry writing (when they're talking to each other).

In my work, I frequently encounter the question of when to make a compound into a single word. In writing or designing for an industry or trade audience, there are many usages that begin to make sense as a single word. A couple I've come across:

  • Foodservice -- the industry that makes food for large numbers of people, whether in an institutional setting or in grocery store prepared foods.
  • Fairtrade -- the movement to pay producers, usually in developing countries, a fair price for their goods and work with them to build their businesses and economic power.
  • Layout -- part of what a designer does. This becomes two words when used as a verb, but as a noun or adjective, it's one word.
  • Startup -- whether talking about new tech companies or new food co-ops, I lost patience with hyphenating this one.
  • Proofreading -- funny, I know, but I never feel quite confident about this one. Maybe it's that fread combination that looks like a strange word.
Wilbers discusses log on/in and set up and decides that they're all comparable to my usage of layout -- two words as verbs but one word as adjectives (and nouns, if appropriate). Why do login and setup sound wrong to me as verbs, when proofread doesn't?

It's a mystery how or when it becomes acceptable to make a formerly hyphenated word into a single compound word. My guess is it starts with writers addressing specialized audiences, then moves to the more general rules once it's recognized by dictionaries and style guides.

Who decided that nationwide and worldwide were one word, but city-wide wasn't, for instance? Is there a committee meeting in an obscure room of the New York Public Library?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Three for Easter

I toyed with the idea of finding out if that local megachurch would be dropping eggs from a helicopter yet again this year, and going to see the spectacle of all those parents jockeying to put their kids first. But nah. It's too nice outside.

So here are a couple of Easter tweets instead:

Just took my kid to an Easter egg hunt, which I’m realizing is basically just training for a Black Friday sale:

By Khoi Vinh

Jesus is like Frank Zappa: a talented, forward thinking guy with insufferable fans.
By rachel lichtman
And this from Mac Danzig:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Peeps on the Ceiling

I imagine tomorrow's Pioneer Press will include the winners of the paper's annual Peeps diorama contest. But before those are announced, I wanted to share a couple of photos of one that I saw while wandering around the studio art building at Macalester College.

The title: Michelangelpeep's Peepstine Chapel Ceiling.

Here's a close-up of the ceiling and the artist, lying on his back atop the scaffolding with his paint pots:

God, Adam, and everyone else gets the Peep treatment.

The accompanying card reads:

As the peeple of Rome peep in, Michelangelpeep puts the finishing touches on the Peepstine Chapel ceiling. His Holiness Peep Julius II looks on, accompanied by the College of Cardinals and guarded by the Swiss Peeps.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Down Is Up at Reuters

Did you hear about the odd chart that ran on Business Insider, though it was created by a Reuters graphic artist?

This graph accompanied a BI story about gun deaths in Florida after the passage of the nation's first Stand Your Ground law. The text of the story makes it clear that deaths went up suddenly after the law passed. But looking at the chart, you would think just the opposite happened.

That's because the Y axis runs in the opposite direction than it does conventionally. Here's a version submitted to BI that fixes it:

Oh, right, there's a spike after the law passes, not a decline.

Was this just a ploy to make it look as though the law decreased violence, kind of like the Fox News graph that truncated the ACA enrollments so it looked like hardly any had happened?

No, it appears to be a case of an incompetent graphic artist. Reuters designer Christine Chan said on Twitter that she was inspired by this graphic, which depicts the death toll of the Iraq war:

(click to see it larger)

Which would be all well and good, except for several major differences:

  • The Iraq art is a bar graph, not a fever graph. The many bars, with their rounded ends, look like dripping blood, which of course goes down, not up, and therefore makes the inversion make sense. Chan's fever graph, with its black line and big black dots at the data points, doesn't look like blood. There's no reason for it to be upside down.
  • The Iraq graph puts the Y axis labels at the top to call the reader's attention to it and make the inversion more obvious. Chan's does not.
  • The Iraq graph puts other graphs, in gray, over the white space, making it clear that white = background and red = foreground. On Chan's Stand Your Ground graph, it's reasonable for readers to see the white as foreground since there is no reason not to, given the usual up-down conventions used in graphs. 
 This is where an editor should have stepped in and required changes to the graph.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hoping for a Speedy Recovery, Diane Ravitch

Education historian Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error, took a fall a few days ago and is probably going to have to have total knee replacement. She's cancelling pretty much all of her public schedule for the next few months.

Get well soon, Diane!

In the meantime, a photo of two of my favorite hell-raising women together in February:

(This way we can be sure they are not the same person. Except Photoshop. Hmmm.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More on the Case for Government Programs

If you haven't yet taken the bait from one of my recent posts mentioning writer Matt Bruenig, here's another chance. He recently published a piece called The one part of the charity vs. social welfare argument that everyone ignores.

It's about status quo bias and the effect it has on policy debates. Basically, it's harder to take away a benefit than it is to prevent one from being given because "the way things are" has a lot of power with the human brain.

My favorite quote:

If you believe, as most claim to, that the aged and infirm should not die hungry on the streets, why exactly would you want to take their existing public benefits from them, give the money to other people instead, and then hope that those other people give it right back to the aged and infirm through charity? Even if it did somehow work out as planned, it would be a whole bunch of work to arrive at the same outcome.
That's based on not only status quo bias, but also on the efficiency argument.

A couple of other recent pieces on the question of the best way to provide a humane life to the most people:

Does Christianity really prefer charity to government welfare? "While often overlooked, there is a strong Christian case for their coexistence." By Elizabeth Stoker.

The Voluntarism Fantasy. "Conservatives dream of returning to a world where private charity fulfilled all public needs. But that world never existed—and we’re better for it." By Mike Konczal.
...the Great Recession offers the perfect case study in why the voluntary sector can’t solve these problems. If people like [Utah Congressman] Mike Lee are correct, then the start of the Great Recession would have been precisely the moment when private charity would have stepped up. But in fact, private giving fell as the Great Recession started. Overall giving fell 7 percent in 2008, with another 6.2 percent drop in 2009. There was only a small uptick in 2010 and 2011, even though unemployment remained very high. Giving also fell as a percentage of GDP (even as GDP shrank), from 2.1 percent in 2008 to 2.0 percent in 2009 through 2011.
The problems of philanthropic insufficiency were on parade in that example. But there are also philanthropic particularlism (giving to the "deserving" is common, for instance) and philanthropic paternalism. "As the judge Richard Posner once wrote, a charitable foundation “is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody” that closely resembles a hereditary monarchy. Why would we put our entire society’s ability to manage the deadly risks we face in the hands of such a creature?"

Plus my earlier ruminations on the question of private charity vs. government programs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

These Problems Are About Policy

The first time I read Eli Saslow's now-Pulitzer-winning article on a family that gets by using government programs, including SNAP (food stamps), I was a bit depressed by the reality of it. The family just seemed like they weren't trying to get out of the trap they were in.

The second time I read it, though, several passages stood out that are both more important and more actionable. The mother in the family, Raphael Richmond, who is 41, has six children of her own (ages 11 to 25) and also feeds other kids from the neighborhood and her extended family.

Only once, when [Raphael] was in her early 30s, had she lived without government assistance. She had moved her children into a two-bedroom apartment near the Southwest waterfront and signed a lease for $925, working as a home health aide during the day and as a prep cook at RFK Stadium at night. "Climbing the ladder," she said, but then came the reality of what that meant. The increase in her income disqualified her from food stamps, and buying food with cash left nothing to pay the gas bill, and cutting off the heat made the winter seem endless, and the combination of the cold house and the 60-hour workweeks aggravated her arthritis, damaged her heart and compelled her to quit work and apply for disability.

After nine months, she packed three duffel bags and took a bus to the homeless shelter. Her family spent two months in the shelter and two years in transitional housing and then received a voucher for a four-bedroom house in Anacostia with a leaky ceiling and a front-porch view of a highway underpass. The subsidized rent was $139 a month.
This bit of detail points up a problem that is fixable. Why don't we figure out how to better cushion those transition points when benefits cut out, so people can continue to make progress to self-sufficiency, rather than driving them back to survival mode?

The other passages concern Raphael's daughter Tiara:
For 22 years, Tiara had successfully avoided what she referred to as the "ghetto woman traps." She had arrived at adulthood single and childless, a talented musician with a high school diploma and a clean record - "a miracle," Raphael called her. And yet none of those successes had earned her anything like stability, and she had little in her life that qualified as support. Her mother, fearing the next trip to the emergency room, had made her the default guardian for four younger siblings. Her absentee father, a Puerto Rican, had given her nothing but smooth brown skin, soft dreadlocks and, with some reluctance a few years earlier, a phone number where he could be reached in case of emergencies. Believing her life consisted of one long emergency, Tiara had called him the next day, only to learn the number was fake.

At the moment, the only "options" she could list for her caseworker were the new EBT card with her name on it and a food training class hosted by DC Central Kitchen. The class was free, but it was also three months of training that didn't guarantee a job. The class flier had been sitting on the kitchen table for weeks. "Must be able to lift 50 pounds," it read. Must stand for hours. Must work in a noisy environment.
The ads made it sound so easy to get a job in the budding economic recovery of 2013—"Hiring now!" one read; "Start tomorrow!" promised another—but recent experience made Tiara believe she had better odds "playing lotto," she said. The unemployment rate in Ward 8 was 24 percent, triple the national average, and there were an estimated 13 job seekers for every open position. She had been offered a security job, but first the company wanted $500 to train her. Marriott had openings at a new hotel, but the application required her to submit a background check online. So she had gone to the police station and paid $9 for a form showing that she had no criminal record. And then enrolled with a nonprofit group that gave out free computers and scanners, since the ones at the nearby library always seemed to be broken. And then learned that she could only pick up the computer in Rockville, four bus transfers and a Metro ride away.

The latest advice from a caseworker assigned to help with her job search was to "make a list of options" and "stay prayerful"...
Yeah, stay prayerful, Tiara. That'll help. But not as much as if we were using the federal tax dollars that go to subsidize oil companies, agribusiness, and other big corporations to instead fund a jobs program like CETA.

These problems are about policy. As Matt Bruenig points out, single motherhood doesn't have to cause child poverty. That's something we as a society let happen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Immigration Detention: An Invisible Assault

A young woman named Cynthia Diaz is on a hunger strike in front of the White House. She's going hungry to protest the detention and incarceration of her mother, who was picked up by Immigration and Customers Enforcement in May 2011.

Watching this interview with Diaz on Melissa Harris Perry's show Saturday was painful. Did you know that mothers with legal-resident and citizen children and husbands are being held in prisons for nothing more than having come into the country or overstayed a visa?

Adding to the Diaz story was the report in Sunday's Star Tribune that ICE in Minnesota contracts with jails that put detainees in with the general jail population, including the case of one 18-year-old man who was housed with a sex offender who repeatedly molested him.

Sherburne County, a northern exurban county, makes money by renting its underutilized (taxpayer-funded) jail space to ICE. It has 85 ICE detainees, 183 other federal prisoners, and 136 state (not county) prisoners. Sherburne County is paid over $11 million a year for all this incarceration, with about $900,000 in profit. Who needs private prisons when counties can make the profits instead, right?

According to the Strib,
The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed Congress unanimously, set a “zero-tolerance standard” for prison rape. It created guidelines to hold correctional facilities accountable for protecting inmates.

Until recently, though, the rules didn’t govern immigration detention facilities overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
The story goes on to say,
ICE does not prohibit the mingling of its detainees with prisoners, including at its contracted facilities like those in Minnesota.... Pat Carr, Sherburne County’s jail commander, said the jail’s classification officers make a determination about who can be put in the same cell.

Carr said the staff will take action if informed that detainees are threatened. Detainees can report threats or accusations of abuse directly to staff, through a telephone hot line, through ICE grievances and communication forms, Sherburne County grievance forms, and in letters to the jail administration or to ICE.
Yet the young man in this case was left in the same sell with sex offender for eight days after he complained of the abuse, according to the Strib.

The 2 millionth person to be "detained" since Barack Obama became president was picked up last month, according to 1,010 people per day. That's more than were picked up in all the years of George W. Bush's presidency.

This all-but-invisible assault on common decency has to stop. It not only does no good, it actively does harm to millions of people and their families.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

An ACA Anecdote

At dinner last night with a friend I haven't seen in about 10 years, the conversation turned to the effects of the Affordable Care Act. She's been self-employed for decades, so I wondered what she had done since the launch of MNsure.

She signed up in October, she said, having some trouble with the website, but not having any difficulty figuring out which plan she wanted. So she contacted the company directly and signed up, no problem. That way of signing up is possible for anyone who isn't eligible for subsidies. Because of her method, she's not sure if she's been counted in the state's enrollment numbers.

She had been paying $400 a month for a plan with a 20 percent deductible. Because she is about to turn 55, she had been told that the cost under her old plan would be going up to $700 a month.

Her new coverage under the ACA still has the 20 percent deductible, but costs her $325 a month. So she's saving either $75 a month or $375 a month, depending on how you look at it.

That's my contribution to the "plural of anecdotes equals data" effort.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dinosaurs Afloat

From the National Geographic Twitter account @theretronaut:

Showing a barge moving the Sinclair Oil dinosaur statues that populated the company's display at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.

I was 4 years old during the fair, and was a fan of the Sinclair "brontosaurus."


An earlier encounter with the World's Fair.