Sunday, November 29, 2015

Last Gasp of "the Gaffe"

Here's a worthwhile thought from journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen:

To an extent unrealized before this year, the role of the press in campaigns relied on shared assumptions within the political class and election industry about what the rules were and what the penalty would be for violating them. This was the basis for familiar rituals like "the gaffe," which in turn relied on assumptions about how a third party, the voters, would react once they found out about the violation.

These assumptions were rarely tested because the risk seemed too high, and because risk-adverse professionals — strategists, they're called — were in charge of the campaigns. The whole system rested on beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump violated all of them and he is still leading.

There's been a cascading effect as conventions that depended an one another cave in. The political press is stunned by these developments. It keeps asking if the "laws of political gravity" (a telling phrase) will be restored, or have they simply vanished?
Comedian Sarah Silverman put it this way:
Remember when Howard Dean said the name of a state with an energetic lilt & had to drop out of the race?
Makes me think that Dean or other candidates could probably have gotten away with their "transgressions" if they had just stuck it out: that it's the media echo chamber that drives people out of the race, and now we can see it because a jerk like Trump just ignored it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Minions: A View from the Top

Minions are not my thing, having not seen any of the movies they're part of. But on Thanksgiving I was visiting with a relative who has a preschooler, and he had a minion doll, rubbery and about nine inches tall, that burbles and squawks when you press a button on its stomach.

This is what the doll, and minions in general, look like:

But you may not have realized, as I had not, that this is what a minion looks like if you lay it on its stomach, spread its arms wide, and look at the top of its head:

Okay, then. I apologize for that bit of rubberized scatological humor.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Late November Tabs

The tabs are not heavy enough to overwhelm the browser yet, but they're heavy in other ways. Time to clear them out of my head and into yours.

In the early years of the Reagan administration, a report called "A Nation at Risk" began our most recent wave of education reform. The report was misquoted, misinterpreted, and sometimes completely wrong. Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report. Diane Ravitch has written previously about the same report here.

Here's a great xkcd-style cartoon about the illogic of conservative Christian fears of Muslims, among other things. It started out as a Facebook post, but when Facebook removed it because of complaints, the writer, Andy McClure, tried his hand at drawing it out. For a more scientific look at why some people fear refugees, here's a Vox write-up on some of the research on that question.

I let it go by at the time, but I didn't want to overlook the "compassionate conservative" response we've been hearing to the criminalization of heroin addiction, now that it's become a more prevalent problem in predominantly white states and communities. "When people of color are using illicit drugs, it’s a character flaw, a lack of integrity, and maybe even an inherent criminality that simply requires the right substance and circumstance to become addiction. Where was the call for leniency then?" By Stacey Patton, writing for Dame Magazine.

The psychology of driving: why is it so frustrating?

The black-white sleep gap: an unexpected challenge in the quest for racial equity. " par­ti­cipants who were denied slow-wave sleep for three nights—re­search­ers would sound an alarm in their ears when they entered this sleep phase—be­came less sens­it­ive to in­sulin, a pre­curs­or to dia­betes." Black participants in the study got 25 percent less slow-wave sleep than white participants, and that gap is significant because the white participants were getting just the amount of slow-wave sleep needed for good health, and the black participants were not. Black folks also got significantly less total sleep (6.05 hours vs. 6.85 hours). "Neigh­bor­hoods also ap­pear to mat­ter when it comes to sleep health. 'I have nev­er seen a study that hasn’t shown a dir­ect as­so­ci­ation between neigh­bor­hood qual­ity and sleep qual­ity,'" said one researcher.

Why the Left isn't talking about rural poverty. From In These Times.

Clean energy creates some jobs and destroys others. Here’s what that tells us about politics. By David Roberts, writing for Vox.

How we became the “Jailhouse Nation”: Historians discuss mass incarceration in the U.S. From the blog of the American Historical Association.

I don't think I've given my opinion here about the kinds of deductibles we face for health insurance these days, whether through self-insured plans or increasingly through employer-funded plans. I don't know about you, but my family-of-three's deductible for 2016 will be $4,700 (with a premium around $1,200 a month). That is a lot of money for household with a pretax income of 77,000, where the ACA subsidies cut out. Some people like to say we need "skin in the game" to make sure we don't overuse medical services, and that's where the deductible comes in. But I think patients don't have enough information to judge which services are needed and which are not. Self-rationing because of cost leads to bad decisions. This recent study, written up by Vox, agrees with me.

How about that gerrymandering? This computer programmer solved gerrymandering in his spare time. I'd be willing to give up the completely "safe" Democratic districts in Minnesota (4 and 5, held by Keith Ellison of Minneapolis and Betty McCollum of St. Paul) to get some fairness in most of the other states whose district maps would be transformed like this:

Next time you have to argue with someone who says the mainstream media have a liberal bias, refer to this article from the Weekly Sift. As usual, it's not as simple as "common sense" would have it.

Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are. The real way to stop violence. "Family murders are preceded by prior domestic violence more than 90 percent of the time. Violent crimes are committed by people who lack the skills to modulate anger, express it constructively, and move beyond it." From Slate.

In case you didn't hear about it in that liberal mainstream media (I didn't), the Koch brothers have a large infrastructure dedicated to spying on "the Left." Yes. They call it "competitive intelligence."

If you want to figure out if a particular electric vehicle is cleaner overall than a gas-powered one, check out this calculator from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It computes everything from the manufacture of the cars to the power sources used by the grid in your location.

Poverty is really bad for people -- especially children -- and just as investing in universal preschool pays back up to $10 for every $1 invested, it seems plausible to me that eliminating poverty would pay off even more. Could universal basic income be the social vaccine of the 21st century? Yes, just give them money. It works. And we could pay for it with higher taxes, and we'd all like it. Really.

One of the ways the poverty undermines poor families and their children is because they have to move constantly. Sociologist Matthew Desmond has been researching eviction on the ground with people who are experiencing it. Here's an article describing some of his findings, and here's the book he's published. (Oh, and great cover, by the way!)

Here's a tab to keep handy: info on how much people pay into Medicare and Social Security (on average) versus how much they get out. Remember this next time someone says they're entitled to "their" Medicare but "those people" who get food stamps are moochers.

And one last insult to my sensibilities: How the “Wal-Mart effect” squeezes workers in the vast infrastructure behind your groceries. Outsourcing distribution has been an effective way for grocers to dump their relatively expensive unionized workforces.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Geographer Puts It in Context

Bill Lindeke, urban geographer and biking promoter, inspires me most days through Twitter and MinnPost, but today it's this longer post from his Twin City Sidewalks blog. He synthesizes the current outrage and protest at the 4th Precinct in Minneapolis with our community's history of segregation: everything from where our highways are to the privatization of public space in the Mall of America.

But in another sense, these [highway-closing] demonstrations were the only way to connect the geographic dots between the problems facing Minneapolis’ segregated communities and the Twin Cities’ suburban infrastructure, a landscape that makes it effortlessly easy to ignore racial inequality. When #blacklivesmatter shuts down the freeway to Maple Grove, not only do they perform a tragically ironic bit of political ju-jitsu by occupying the very freeway that helped isolate the neighborhood in the first place, they make a particular statement about urban segregation:

“Black lives matter, even to everyone driving past on their way to the white suburbs.”
Geography, man. Why didn't I understand what it meant as an academic discipline back when I was in college? Yet another major I never explored.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hammering the Standpipe

I just saw my first Banksy in person:

It's in Manhattan on West 79th Street just off Broadway, near Zabar's (obviously). It was included in the HBO documentary Banksy Does New York, so it wasn't new to me, but it was still a surprise to just come across it while walking down a street.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bad for the Brand, Which Was Already Bad Enough

Am I the only one who thinks that Donald Trump has irreparably damaged his “brand”?

If you had asked me what I thought of Donald Trump before 2008, I would have said he was brassy and tacky, but kind of fun in a way that fits with our celebrity-obsessed media culture. I wouldn’t have patronized any of his ventures (not being into gambling) but I wouldn’t have actively avoided them either.

But since his craziness about Obama’s birth certificate, and even more so since this election cycle, he has careened into a dirty, dirty ditch, and I don’t think people will forget.

Let’s see if he can run his businesses with only his rabid, fascism-hugging supporters for customers. That's about 25 percent of the 25 percent of people who are registered Republicans (6 percent). As Nate Silver points out, that’s the same percent of the population that thinks the moon landing was faked, by the way.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Endangered Stick Figures, Part 2

First it was running them down with a car, now it's devouring them with dinosaurs.

The possibilities for threatening stick figure families are bounded only by the ironic imagination.

Do these anti-stick-figure illustrations seem as mean-spirited as the "my kid can beat up your honor student" bumper stickers? I never liked those, even though I would never have put an honor student sticker on my car.

In some ways the stick figure haters are worse, because their violent endings are worse (death vs. being beaten up). But they also seem more clearly fictitious, while the threat against the honor student appears to be just a bit plausible.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Where to Put the Closets?

Another Sunday, another unnecessarily over-sized house plan in the Star Tribune Home section. But today I wanted to mention a trend I've been noticing for a while in these plans.

Note how the master suite's closets are on the far side of the master bathroom. You can't get to them without walking through the bathroom, essentially making the closets an extension of the bathroom rather than the bedroom.

Am I the only one who thinks that's a bad idea? It assumes that couples want to actively share the bathroom and dressing space at all times (except for that little door on the toilet area. Thanks for that). I know I'm generally not the person these bloated-home-builders have in mind, but I find it hard to believe this way of using a bathroom and dressing space is common among enough people that it would become the primary way of doing things.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

It Hit Me on the Head

This is all I have to say about our current hysteria about a bunch of harmless Syrian refugees:

When did children stop learning the story of Chicken Little?

For more on what I think about all this, but am too annoyed to write myself, I refer readers to John Scalzi's recent post.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Just So You Know, Woodrow Wilson Was a Racist

I wrote a paper about Woodrow Wilson in 11th-grade social studies. I don't remember if the sources I used mentioned that he was an extreme racist even for his time.

Check out this Vox story about how Wilson aided the resegregation of federal agencies like the postal service. Workers had been getting along, side by side, for almost 50 years at this point, but suddenly it was necessary to create separate work and break spaces for the black men. Black supervisors were fired, and in Georgia the head of regional IRS office said

"There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place in the corn field." To enable hiring discrimination going forward, in 1914 the federal government began requiring photographs on job applications.
Add these firings and job exclusions to the list of ways black people have been prevented from building financial equity in our country.

See how Wilson set the standard for tone-policing, followed by many to this day:
In 1914, a group of black professionals led by newspaper editor and Harvard alumnus Monroe Trotter met with Wilson to protest the segregation. Wilson informed Trotter, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When Trotter insisted that "it is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness," Wilson admonished him for his tone: "If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me … Your tone, with its background of passion."
Wilson came from a genteel Southern background and wrote scholarly (!) books that make his sympathy with the Klan obvious. He's even quoted in Birth of a Nation, and showed his approval of the film by screening it at the White House.

Here's what he had to say about black suffrage:
"It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint." He praised those freed slaves who "stayed very quietly by their old masters and gave no trouble" but bemoaned that they were the exception, the being "vagrants, looking for pleasure and gratuitous fortune" who inevitably "turned thieves or importunate beggars. The tasks of ordinary stood untouched; the idlers grew insolent; dangerous nights went anxiously by, for fear of riot and incendiary fire."... In a 1881 article that went unpublished, Wilson defended the South's suppression of black voters, saying that they were being denied the vote not because their skin was dark but because their minds were dark.
Clearly, Wilson was part of the motivated school of thought among historians that painted Reconstruction as a failure of graft and idiocy. Often called the Dunning School, these historians have since been overturned by more careful scholars like Eric Foner. But all of us learned our "truth" in school from Dunning-influenced textbooks, unfortunately, and their influence continues to this day.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Modernist Take on a Modernist Chair

Today, for all of your four-legged needs:

Lovely work from 1984. Just lovely. I wonder who designed it? 

Part of a display of past-exhibit posters outside the Goldstein Gallery at the University of Minnesota's College of Design.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Algebra, Shmalgebra

What and how to teach math to children and young people is one of those topics the rumbles around in my thinking from time to time. Here are two recent articles on the now-common belief that everyone should "know" algebra in order to graduate from high school or be able to move into college courses.

First, progressive education profession Paul Thomas, who questions the premise of having a set body of knowledge generally. A key quote:

The question of whether all children should take algebra is irrelevant as long as we continue to use early algebra readiness to label and sort children, as long as we continue to confuse brain development with smart.
After a lot of thoughtful discussion, Thomas ends with this shocking footnote:
The average age for developing the abstract reasoning ability needed to understand algebra and grammar is 20. Consider how that impacts the labeling and sorting we do to children and young adults throughout schooling.
Second, a letter from CUNY professor of math and computer science Jonathan Cornick, from the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog. Cornick doesn't pull back his viewfinder quite as far as Thomas, but he still questions the premises of "algebra for all," based on research into how people use math as adults.

What math do people use in their wide-ranging jobs and life experiences? According to Cornick,
...almost everything fell into these categories:
  • Percentages – Almost everyone said this.
  • Proportions – this encompasses unit conversion skills related to supplies, materials, costs, nutrition, health, etc.
  • Descriptive Statistics – finding averages, describing distributions as well as being able to understand and interpret data and charts from business, politics, media, etc.
  • Geometry and trigonometry.
  • Inferential statistics.
And in general, the common theme was in using arithmetic and logical reasoning skills in context rather than abstractly. Certainly, some skills from a standard algebra curriculum are needed for the above. I would say:
  • Arithmetic, including order of operations – with a calculator!
  • Simplifying linear expressions.
  • Solving linear equations.
  • Solving proportions, including percentage problems.
  • Geometry including area and volume.
  • Radicals including Pythagorean theorem.
However, I don’t believe operations on nonlinear polynomials, factoring and solving quadratic equations, simplifying complicated exponent expressions, and solving radical and rational equations are vital in order to master the aforementioned skills people use.
Cornick's conclusion is that college students shouldn't be prevented from proceeding with their educations just because they can't find their way out of remedial algebra. The American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges agrees with him that there should be other options for students outside STEM fields.