Friday, April 24, 2015

The Tipping Point of Inequality

Wow. Just wow, Matt Bruenig, writing on our growing education dystopia where poor kids get boot camps and constant testing while better-off kids get art, science, sports, and music:

What's so dystopian about this, initially, is that child poverty and inequality are problems of our own making. Charter school advocates, often because of their conservative temperament, assume child poverty in the background as if it is some natural feature of life. But in reality, the uniquely sky-high child poverty levels seen in the US are a function of the country's uniquely bad economic institutions....

[Followed by a short series of Bruenigian graphs to demonstrate U.S. child poverty and general inequality compared to other developed nations.]

All of this is to say that our child poverty crisis is basically a choice we've made as a society. You pick high-child-poverty economic institutions, and lo and behold, you get high child poverty.
And then there's the part about educational methods:
What this means then...is that we are effectively, at step one, deciding it's pretty cool to go ahead and put huge swaths of the country's children into poverty or near poverty. Then the resulting inequalities of that decision end up so severe that, at step two, we decide ... that the poor kids and the rich kids cannot even go to the same schools with one another. What's worse, we decide that the poor kids (who again are poor because of our inegalitarian system) must go to hellish-sounding boot camp schools for most of their waking childhood life while the rich kids go to much more relaxed schools with greater subject diversity and freedom.

If this Poor Methods theory ends up playing out, truly imagine how dystopian it could get. I can't get out of my head the vision of two schools sitting right by one another. The children of retail and food service workers file into the school using the harsh Poor Methods while the children of professionals and managers file into the school using the relaxed Rich Methods. Then I imagine having to explain to kids as they file into their segregated schools why they have to go through one door rather than the other: "well you see, our system makes it such that some people have a lot while others have very little."....

When you get to the point where your social inequality is so high that 6-year-olds of different classes can't go to school together, you've hit a tipping point that should make you pause and reconsider how screwed up things really are. 
 Yes. That is where we have gotten ourselves.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Crate from New York Mills

I saw this old crate today while at a recently opened restaurant in South Minneapolis:


For those not from around these parts, New York Mills is a town in Minnesota, about 180 miles from the Twin Cities, or three-quarters of the way to Fargo, North Dakota.

I love the human (or American?) habit of naming places after other places, often in modified form. I wonder what about this place reminded someone of New York, or of the mills in New York, at least. As far as I know, New York Mills is a place that's dominated by grain elevators and has a lively arts scene. I don't remember any grain elevators in the parts of New York that I've seen.

But then again, what was it about New York that reminded someone of York?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

No Dogs Were Used in the Making of this Traffic Stop

Good news from the Supreme Court for a change: they ruled 6 to 3 yesterday that police can't call in dogs to sniff cars for drugs during traffic stops without probable cause. The decision was written by the Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), and is one of the few in recent years to cite my beloved Fourth Amendment.

I tried to predict which three justices voted in the minority, and I went with Scalia, Thomas, and Alito. I assumed Kennedy (the supposedly libertarian-leaner) and Roberts would be the two conservatives who joined with the reasonable wing, made up of Ginsburg, Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor.

Well, knock me over with a feather -- Kennedy voted in the minority, while Scalia voted with the majority! Scalia and Thomas split their votes, which I guess is not that unusual, but seldom seems to happen in high-profile cases.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Alex Jacob, Do Something with Your Life

He's a young guy, so maybe Alex Jacob, who just finished a run of six wins on Jeopardy with about $150,000, will still turn his life around and do something meaningful with his gifts. But so far at age 30 he's been a professional poker player and a currency trader; in other words, he's not contributing anything much to the world that I can see.


The sketch of him and his life that I got from the brief conversations with Alex Trebek is this: his parents are both doctors. He took the SAT when he was around 12 and because of that got sent to Smart Camp, where he met his current girlfriend.

I wonder if he's like that character on the television show House who was just so smart that he took medication to make himself less intelligent, so that he could have a life and a little human connection.

Nah, I think this guy is using his smarts to live his life of white male privilege without much of a thought, maybe complaining just a bit about how mom and dad pushed him too much. I caught what I think is a hint of whininess in some of his reactions on the show: once, when he chose a question from the third or fourth spot in a category and got an obscure question, he acted annoyed that the writers would even ask a question like that. (If he had started at the top of the category, however, he would have gotten the pattern and the seemingly hard question would have been a lot easier.) He also laughed at another contestant's answer yesterday in his final game; bad sportsmanship, if nothing else.

His Wikipedia page says he went to Yale for math and economics. Clearly he's a game theorist, and lord knows those are not my favorite people. But I could put up with that if he would do something with his brains other than just make a bunch of money.

I'm being judgmental, I realize. I don't know Alex Jacob or what his life is like. But this is how it seems from the outside.

Monday, April 20, 2015

News About Bleach and Illness

A brief article in the Science and Health section of the Sunday Star Tribune let us all in on this bit of startling news:

Bleach tied to respiratory ills

Cleaning with bleach at home is associated with higher rates of respiratory illness in children, a study found.

Researchers studied the use of bleach in the homes of 9,102 9- and 10-year-olds in Spain, Finland and the Netherlands and assessed its effects on respiratory health. The study is in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

The researchers found that the use of bleach in homes at least once a week increased the risk of respiratory infections by 18 percent overall. But it was associated with a 20 percent increase in the risk of flu and a 35 percent increase in the risk for recurrent tonsillitis.
I wonder about cause and effect, of course -- isn't it possible that people whose kids are sick a lot are more likely to wipe surfaces down with bleach?

But even so, an interesting point. Remember, state child care licensing rules in Minnesota (and probably many other states) require child care centers to clean tables with a bleach and water solution throughout the day, every day. (Alternatives to bleach are allowed, but bleach is the named product, so you can bet that the vast majority use bleach.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Real Laugh

Here are some things I didn't know about human laughter until I read this Washington Post story by a laughter researcher:

  • We've developed the ability to fake-laugh, but people can spot a fake 70 percent of the time. Still, fooling people 30 percent of the time is pretty good, considering...
  • "a fake laugh is basically an imitation of a real laugh...produced with a slightly different set of vocal muscles controlled by a different part of our brain.... if you slow down a 'real' laugh about two and half times, the result is strangely animal-like. It sounds like an ape of some kind, and while it’s hard to identify, it definitely sounds like an animal. But when you slow down human speech, or a 'fake' laugh, it doesn’t sound like a nonhuman animal at all—it sounds like human speech slowed down."
  • Laughter in humans probably evolved as part of our need to play while young. Laughing while play-fighting signals other people that we're playing, not really fighting, and therefore not dangerous. Other primates also make sounds akin to laughing while playing.
  • "Laughter triggers the release of brain endorphins that make us feel good, and it reduces stress."
While the false positive rate for assessing fake laughter may be 30 percent, I'm willing to be the false negative rate is close to zero. That fact is not mentioned in the story, though.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

It's Hard Having to Be Barbie

I am not paying attention to the controversy over how ESPN reporter Britt McHenry berated another woman who works for a company that dared to tow McHenry's car. Well, I guess I am just a little bit, or I wouldn't be writing about it here.

It was covered on All In With Chris Hayes yesterday, so I watched that. And I have to say that -- other than amazement about McHenry's cluelessly entitled, class-warrior mindset -- the thing that struck me most about it was the contrast with another segment on the show.

This is what McHenry looked like during this "bad moment" of her life, captured on a closed circuit system at the towing company:


This is what she looks like when she's been Barbified and sent out to interview male athletes and be eye candy for ESPN's assumed-to-be male, heterosexual viewers:




And this is what Dave Weigel, who was featured in another segment of All In, looks like:


Now I know that it's a bit simplistic to compare the appearance of a sports reporter and a serious policy reporter. But it's just a reminder that the standards for appearance for women in media are just a tiny bit higher than they are for men.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Keep MinnesotaCare: Here's Why

I learned today from the Pioneer Press that Minnesota is unique within the national rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Where most states have a bunch of people who receive Medicaid (called Medical Assistance in Minnesota) and another bunch who can purchase private plans through an exchange (with tax credits if their incomes are below a certain level), Minnesota has a group of people in between.

They're covered by MinnesotaCare, which was started back in the 1990s as the beginning of universal health care in our state. Unfortunately, the forward movement toward full coverage stalled out, but at least we have the beginning of it.

Funded by a tax on health services, it covers people who generally have jobs, but make only between 138 and 200 percent of the poverty level. (That's $16,242.60 to $23,540 for an individual or $33,465 to $48,500 for a family of four -- your typical minimum- or close-to-minimum-wage worker.) When the program started, these were the people who made too much for Medical Assistance, but not enough to afford to pay for insurance without a subsidy, and their employers didn't provide coverage either.

MinnesotaCare has been a tremendous success. It covers 100,000 people at a cost of just over $5,000 each -- a lot less than my private insurance, let me tell you. And the state only pays half of that; the feds pick up the rest, though that subsidy will decrease in the future. (Medical Assistance has a significantly higher cost per person, since it covers many people over 60 and who have disabilities.)

Now our Republican-led House of Representatives wants to kill MinnesotaCare and dump those 100,000 people onto our state exchange. It seems maybe reasonable if you don't think about it too hard... If they can get coverage with tax credits that work out to a net amount of payment similar to their MinnesotaCare premiums, why not?

I'll tell you why not: First, there's no guarantee that the amount they have to pay for premiums (after their credits) will be as low as their current MinnesotaCare premiums, which range from only $15 to $50 a month (that range is based on income).

Second, and probably most important, their coverage under MinnesotaCare covers 98 percent of their health care costs, while the plans under MNSure cover at most 90 percent (for the platinum level). The most popular plan, silver, covers only 70 percent. Where are these folks with their minimum-wage incomes supposed to come up with the difference? If you break your ankle like I did, for instance, you end up paying a whole lot of money out of pocket before you hit your deductible. Under MinnesotaCare, you don't.

So in a state where we have a significant budget surplus, the Republicans are using their new majority to immediately stick it to the working poor in a really obvious and outrageous way. It may not be quite as bad as Kansas and Missouri's changes to their SNAP and TANF rules, but it's bad.

MinnesotaCare should be expanded, in my opinion, not cut back.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

MSP: Leveraging to Elevate

MSP Communications, publisher of Mpls.St.Paul magazine and Twin Cities Business, is a Twin Cities institution. Unfortunately, I guess there's not enough profit in publishing your own magazines these days, so they've put themselves out for hire. (To be fair, they probably did this a while ago; I just didn't notice it.)

To promote their services lately, they've been sponsoring Minnesota Public Radio so this morning I learned MSP is "leveraging" their magazine publishing experience to "create multi-channel content designed to elevate brands."

Oh, please.

That bunch of gobbledegook means they do something I don't want to know about called "brand journalism" plus a lot of other jargony types of communication and advertising work. They have a person whose title is "Director of Analytics and Insights," for goodness sake. As one page on their website informs the reader, "ROI is in our DNA."

And it's snarky to note, but I couldn't help noticing that the copyright notice in the footer of their website says 2014.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cruel and Unusual on the Nightly Show

Credentials first: I loved Larry Wilmore's appearances on the Daily Show as Senior Black Correspondent. From those, I learned his wit was of the stiletto variety, or maybe even the needle type -- slipping in sharp points about race that make white people uncomfortable while raising consciousness. And making you laugh, too. Pretty hard to do.

So I was very happy to hear he would get Colbert's time slot, and for the most part, the Nightly Show has been good enough that I make time to watch it in real time. The format is usually this:

  • Larry spends the first segment framing an issue humorously;
  • The second segment is a panel of three or four guests discussing and joking about the issue;
  • The third segment is Larry quizzing the panel in some way, most often using a "Keep It 100" question, where they must give a true answer to some silly but difficult scenario. If they don't seem honest, they're judged to be worthy only of "weak tea" and handed some tea bags.
I'm starting to get a little tired of the panel format, especially because it tends to weight toward comedians who don't always have very intelligent things to say. Now that they've cut the panels back from four guests to three, the comedians are even more dominant. Despite this, there have been some excellent shows.

There have been two panels that I couldn't stand, though. The first was about vaccines, where one of the panelists was a spewer of misinformation, and the medical doctor chosen to represent the science-based side wasn't up to the task of challenging her. In my opinion, it is irresponsible to give deluded people a national megaphone.

The second panel I couldn't stand was last night. The topic was the death penalty, especially as possibly applied in the case of the now-convicted Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. During the first segment, Larry came out as favoring the death penalty for Tsarnaev, despite acknowledging that capital punishment is often applied in biased ways generally.

The panel included two male comedians and Alex Wagner, an MSNBC host/journalist. After Larry reiterated his belief that Tsarnaev deserved the death penalty, the first comedian said he disagreed. He opined that Tsarnaev should get life in prison, plus a sex change, and then should be left to be raped by the other inmates.

Wagner spoke next and expressed the arguments I would want made against the death penalty. She did it well, I thought, and she got the only major applause from the audience that I noticed.

The second comedian then said he thought Tsarnaev should be killed because even 23 hours in solitary confinement will let him watch cable t.v. and jerk off.

At which point the first comedian reiterated his claim that death was too good for him, that it would be a worse punishment to arrange for Tsarnaev's perpetual rape.

Then I turned the television off.

I heard later that Wagner left the panel after that segment, rather than remain for the final round. I would love to hear her thoughts on the nightmare this must have been to sit through.

The casual use of rape as a punishment is reprehensible in a country where more men are raped in prison annually than the (estimated) number of women raped in regular life. That is not to say that raping women is the way it "should" be -- of course not -- but prison rape is not a joke, it is a human problem, and a problem of giant proportion in the U.S. As Bryan Stevenson describes in his book Just Mercy, young inmates in particular are repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted.

And spinning the idea that the state could force a person to have a "sex change operation" tops even that. This comedian's idea of punishing a man is to turn him (against his will) into a woman so that he can be raped properly. I was aghast at the thought, and that it was presented on television without challenge is beyond belief.

I see no indication from social media today that anyone at the Nightly Show regrets a thing about the content of last night's show. All I can do is shake my head, and write this.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Eula Biss's Book, On Immunity

Back when the California and Illinois measles outbreaks were happening, I read Eula Biss's short book On Immunity, and recommend it highly. It's amazing how the topic has faded with the churning news cycle, but this enduring problem never really goes away, unfortunately.

Biss raises many thought-provoking points, such as the implications of thinking some types of people are at higher risk than you and your child, or that resistance to vaccination is based in the innate human fear of contamination. And she frequently cites the work of the feminist medical anthropologist Emily Martin, whose earlier book The Woman in the Body influenced me as a child-bearing person back in the early 1990s. So big points from me for that.

My favorite part of the book, though, was her analysis of Dr. Bob Sears, who is known for encouraging his patients and readers to delay vaccines.  Sears -- son of the popular pediatrician William Sears, author of The Baby Book -- has used his family brand name to make a bunch of money with his own books and private practice.

In his Vaccine Book, the junior Sears recommends a selective vaccine schedule, which leaves kids unprotected for polio, measles,  mumps, rubella, and hepatitis B. If that's too out there for the reader/parent, he has an additional recommended schedule, which includes all of those but spreads them over eight years instead of the standard two years. He calls the latter the "best of both worlds."

But delaying vaccinations for six years doesn't protect kids during those six years, obviously, so I'm not sure how that's "best." On the hep B vaccine particularly, Sears has written, "This is an important vaccine from a public health standpoint, but it's not as critical from an individual point of view."

Which makes no sense at all, especially coming from a person who has a medical degree. As Biss puts it, "Public health, Dr. Bob suggests, is not our health" (page 109). It's the health of one of those others out there: probably someone who's poor, whom "we" (who can afford to pay Dr. Bob's bills) don't have to care about.

Sears even says as much in his book, which has a section called "Is it your social responsibility to vaccinate your kids?" His answer: "Can we fault parents for putting their own child's health ahead of that of the kids around him?" He goes on to encourage parents to keep their fears of the MMR vaccine to themselves, because if too many people avoid the vaccine, it will affect your own kid.

Wow, those are some bad ethics.

As for the "too many, too soon" school of thought among anti-vaxxers, including Sears, Biss says:
The small pox vaccine my father received contained far more immunizing proteins...than any of the vaccines we use today.... In that sense, a single dose of the smallpox vaccine our parents received presented a greater challenge to the immune system than the total challenge presented by all the twenty-six immunizations for fourteen diseases we now give our children over the course of two years (pages 110-111).
The idea that vaccines are a form of contamination relates closely to the idea that it's not germs that make us sick, but toxins. She writes,
In this context, fear of toxicity strikes me as an old anxiety with a new name. Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world. This is not to say that concerns over environmental pollution are not justified -- like filth theory, toxicity theory is anchored in legitimate dangers -- but that the way we think about toxicity bears some resemblance to the way we once thought about filth. Both theories allow their subscribers to maintain a sense of control over their own health by pursuing personal purity. For the filth theorist, this meant a retreat into the home, where heavy curtains and shutters might seal out the smell of the poor and their problems. Our version of this shuttering is now achieved through the purchase of purified water, air purifiers, and food produced with the promise of purity (page 75).
But we are all, as Biss notes, already polluted. Our bodies are colonized by bacteria that we need to function -- in the gut, on the skin -- and we are full of chemicals, whether naturally occurring or from our environment at birth. There is no purity. We have to get over these aversions that arise from our monkey brains and use the best health practices found through the scientific method.

And we need to recognize that we each are part of a community of immunity, not free-riders taking advantage of the group.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Is Jeb Bush Coy?

From today's Star Tribune, the first of what I'm sure will be many mildly sexist headlines about Hillary Clinton:


Yes, I can imagine the word "coy" being used for a male candidate who waited a long time to declare. But it's a gendered word; one of its synonyms is "coquettish," after all. Why not avoid it?

It could be worse, though. I suppose it could have said, "No longer coy, Clinton is asking for it."