Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Exaggerated Language

Here are two instances of exaggerated language from the Star Tribune in the past week or so.

First, the use of the word "climb" to describe a 1 percent increase in violent crime.

What do you think of when you hear the word "climb"? Is it an increase of 1 percent? To me, it implies more than that, especially when crime rates are at a historic low. If your broker told you your stock portfolio had "climbed" 1 percent, wouldn't you feel a bit duped?

Then there's the "surge" in injuries to workers at the state's Security Hospital:

Check out that graph at right. Yes, there's been an increase in injuries between 2013 and 2014, but there was a decrease the year before, and it's been up and down each year. There's no trend in that graph, let alone a surge.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tubs of Tabs

Here are the latest from my dissheveled pile of tabs.

LIFO isn't the culprit in poor student achievement by a veteran Minnesota teacher (from MinnPost). LIFO = Last in First Out (when teacher layoffs are needed). "There is a teacher shortage in Minnesota ... and North Dakota ... and South Dakota. The problem isn’t getting rid of experienced teachers who performed for many years and show commitment to the school system and community. The real problem is finding any teacher at all. When a new teacher showing great ability and dedication leaves a school system it is rarely because of classrooms occupied by deadbeats; it is because of a lack of funding, and/or declining enrollment, or a choice."

This Long-Lost Constitutional Clause Could Save the Right to Vote (from The Nation). "According to Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, any state that denies or abridges the right to vote for any reason must have its congressional representation reduced in proportion to the number of citizens it disenfranchises. Arguably the most radical clause in the Constitution, it was designed to remake the government and the country. It has never been enforced."

Something to keep on hand: a chart of median incomes by education level.

In which you can see notable facts, such as: An African American person with an advanced degree makes less money than a white person with just a bachelor's degree. And the gap between men and women with advanced degrees is larger in dollars than any of the other gaps between men and women. As I have learned in reading The Long Shadow (a post is coming soon about the book, I promise), this tendency to break data into male vs. female vs. each racial group (which misses out on the interaction of race and gender) is less helpful than it could be, but still.

In school discipline, intervention may work better than punishment (from the Seattle Times). New research correlates zero-tolerance punishment with lower academic outcomes, even for kids who never step out of line. What works instead? Restorative justice programs. But they take -- guess what -- resources.

Why Rand Paul Is Wrong About Social Security Disability by the great Dean Baker. It's not back-aches and anxiety that drive people to apply for disability support, Rand.

The Real Education Crisis? by Paul Thomas. "Impoverished children have overwhelming life conditions that inhibit their ability to learn at the same rates and in the same ways as their more affluent peers. Children in poverty do not need harsh and intense educational experiences (harsh and intense often characterize their lives, and are thus the conditions muting their learning); they do not need high-stakes tests and punitive consequences."

What's the trade-off in tax dollars? What could we fund with the amount of federal money that goes to oil and gas company give-aways? This interactive infographic gives you facts like: 561,000 children could get health insurance through the CHIP program for the amount we spend on the Manufacturing Tax Credit, which was meant to keep jobs from being off-shored, but which instead has become a subsidy for oil and gas companies.

Did you hear about the woman who sat in a bathtub full of milk and Fruit Loops, yet who was selected to interview President Obama after the State of the Union address? Conservative friends got their dander up about that on Facebook. He's undermining the dignity of the office, they moaned. Yeah, not so much. As Hank Green says in that piece: "Legacy media isn’t mocking us because we aren’t a legitimate source of information; they’re mocking us because they’re terrified."

If you ever hear a millionaire or billionaire education-reformer claim that "throwing money at poor schools doesn't fix the problem," remember this: "Increases in per-pupil school spending lead to higher graduation rates and, when the students become adults, greater earnings and fewer cases of poverty. The benefits were particularly large for low-income students." From recent research on school funding and outcomes, written up on The results are from longitudinal data on more than 15,000 children born between 1955 and 1985 and followed into adulthood, called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Shut Out of the Doors

The elevator doors in St. Paul's city hall are a beautiful rendering of noninclusion. Because the building was constructed in 1932, I suppose it's not possible to have hoped for more. But it's jarring, nonetheless.

First is the mostly naked native man. Not a woman, of course. And given the climate in Minnesota, how likely is it that native men dressed like this more than a few weeks of the year, if at all?

Next, there's the heroic (white, male) farmer.

Then a black man, laboring to load something (probably grain) onto a river boat. I give the designers points for including him, even though he looks like he came right out of a production of Showboat. Most people seem to think there were no black people in Minnesota until the 1980s or so.

The railroads, industry, and research are next.

Followed by a heroic sky-scraper-building white guy, plus Mike Mulligan's steam shovel.

I'm not totally sure what this final set of doors is supposed to represent, or what spot it should hold in the clearly chronological order of the other five pairs of doors. My guess is it's meant to express our state's commitment to its natural resources and parks.

The thing that's most notable about the six sets of doors is that there isn't a single female human shown. Aliens, arriving tomorrow with only these doors to use to interpret our culture, would have no idea that women exist.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Government Is Not a Business

Each of us has unexamined beliefs that started in childhood. It can't be helped. One of mine is the belief that we're all better off when we pool resources to provide for common goods.

I first encountered a person who didn't believe that while working in student government as an undergraduate. This was right around 1980, as Reagan was rising to power. I was shocked that this guy thought the way he did, but assumed he was misguided. (I looked him up recently, and guess what his job is? Lawyer. Big shock.)

After living through the Reagan years (several of them up close and personal while living in Washington, D.C.), I was less surprised. Graduate school found me participating in student groups at the University of Minnesota, including allocating the mandatory student fee, which funds health care, student recreation, student government, and budgets for a smattering of other student groups.

Once again, I encountered students (more numerous by this time) who basically didn't believe in common funding for common problems. I remember discussing this essential difference of world view with another advocate for the student fee. The idea of shared costs was so obvious to us that it was hard for us to defend it.

Recently on Twitter, I watched a tweet storm unfold from attorney Alan Mills of Chicago. He's the good kind of lawyer; he runs the Uptown People's Law Center, which represents poor tenants and people who are getting screwed over (outside the criminal courts). He started tweeting in reaction to an article about Illinois's new governor, Bruce Rauner, who has promised to run Illinois "like a business."

That promise felt very similar to my earlier run-ins with people who couldn't see the value of funding government services with common money.

Mills put it this way (storified here):

In the end, a business is about generating a profit; government is about making people's lives easier. Businesses are hierarchical; there is a clear chain of command from owner to management to employees. Power in government is diffuse -- "checks and balances." Legislature, governor, judges are all independent.

Illinois has huge financial problems. Gov. Rauner highlighted these in his campaign, and successfully blamed incumbent(s) but offered no solution. Instead, he promised not to touch health care, and to increase funding for education.

Realities are that pensions (which the court ruled untouchable), education and healthcare account for 75% of budget at the same time! And he promised to CUT taxes. These promises simply do not add up -- they're mathematically impossible.

So, Rauner cannot have meant what he said to get elected. What he actually intends to do remains a mystery. What we know is that his history is the private sector, and privatizing government services is the hot trend. But I believe privatization is a false solution, and ultimately hurts the worst off.

My biggest fear is that he views government through that private sector lens -- and will judge success by profit.
Thanks to Alan Mills for formulating my thoughts for me.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dr. Steven Miles and the Scourge of Football

Dr. Steven Miles is one of Minnesota's treasures. I first knew of him as a gerontologist (or geriatrician?) and ethicist in the early 1990s, when he spoke to a group about ageism and medical treatment, death and dying. He ran for governor on a pro-universal-health-care message in the year 2000. He came out as being bipolar during that campaign, and has advocated for more understanding of that condition.

Since then, he's traveled widely to investigate the role of doctors in torture around the world. He spoke out most recently on the CIA's torture regime.

Today he has a commentary in the Star Tribune calling for the abolition of high school football and rugby.
The evidence is compelling and disturbing. The risk of traumatic brain injury from full frontal contact sports is unavoidable, even though it can be somewhat reduced by headgear, rule changes or even electronic sensors that measure head slams as they happen.

The Illinois High School Association faces a class-action suit for concussions. (Young brains are more, not less, likely to be injured.) The number of high school students showing up for these sports has fallen by half, because parents are steering kids to safer activities. National Football League (NFL) players have sued their league for concealing the injuries. The tragic suicides and disabilities among pro and school athletes mount.

Even Mike Ditka, who could fairly be called America’s “Mr. Football,” says he would not let his own son play. “I think the risk is worse than the reward,” Ditka said. “I really do.”

School football culture is in deep denial. Coaches and administrators know that the risk of severe brain injury is unavoidable. They know it is uninsurable. They know that the conflict of interest of team physicians is entrenched and that the sport will send players with concussions back into play with impaired judgment and therefore increased risk.

A pro career is largely a mirage that lures students. College athletes from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division II and III rarely go pro. Fewer than 2 percent of the players on Division I teams like the University of Minnesota Gophers are offered a first-year pro contract. Only a few of those get a second year. The average pro career is less than three and a half seasons.
Parents should follow Mike Ditka's advice. Schools should stop arranging their homecoming events around football. There's a lot to change.

The rest of us can do our part by changing our lives so that we no longer watch pro football, as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates did several years ago, after the suicide of Junior Seau. No Superbowl. Not even the ads.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Nottingham Free People, After the Sugar Death Camps

The following is reprinted directly from Maggie Koerth Baker's weekly newsletter, the Fellowship of Three Things, in which she reports briefly on three things that caught her attention during her year as a Niemann Fellow at Harvard.

The First Thing: The First Free Town

I went to the British Virgin Islands over my winter vacation and was shocked at the way history is presented to tourists in that overwhelmingly tourism-driven economy. Everywhere we went, "history" of the region began in 1493 or thereabouts, and then jumped immediately from European settlement to swashbuckling pirates to modern times.

The fact that the British Virgin Islands (and, really, the entire Caribbean) were once sugar plantations/death camps for African slaves was pretty much left out entirely. I don't use the term "death camp" flippantly here, either. Sugar manufacturing was extremely dangerous work and the people forced to do it died in droves. Here's an excerpt from Slavery, Smallholding, and Tourism by Michael O'Neal, a book I ran across in a coffee shop in Road Town, Tortola, and which was virtually the only mention of slavery that I saw during the trip.

At virtually every stage of the plantation productive process, the health of the slaves was in jeopardy: Setting off for work in the chilling predawn mists, the field slaves were alternately broiled and soaked with tropical sun and rain, with no protection save their hats of felt or straw or the flimsy shelters erected at the edge of the fields. Factory slaves were shielded from the rain, but the hellish heat and stink of the boiling, curing and distilling houses were scarcely more healthy than the fields. In all phases of work, pulmonary infections and fevers had ideal conditions in which to flourish and spread. Given such conditions, it should hardly be surprising that by the time they had attained the age of forty-five, most slaves, especially those involved in the productive process, were considered to have passed their prime ...
Sometimes, O'Neal writes, slaveowners would rid themselves of these "past their prime" slaves by accusing them of crimes like striking a white person or attempting to run away...crimes that were punishable by death, after which, the owner was refunded by the colonial government for the loss of the executed property.

But O'Neal's book is also where I learned about the Nottingham Free People – a community of freed slaves that is possibly the oldest free black community in the Western Hemisphere. Released from bondage en masse in 1776, the community initially consisted of 25 slaves who were granted not only their freedom, but also the land they had worked – 50 acres on the island of Tortola, the entirety of the former plantation of Long Look. (It's likely they weren't actually freed until about 1790, thanks to delays in communication and the legal upheaval the declaration caused when it finally reached the island.) By 1823, the community had grown to 43 and was successfully governing itself and providing for itself, despite a devastating hurricane and drought in the intervening years that ground agriculture on the island down to a near stand-still. That year, according to a recent story in The Virgin Islands News Online, a white man named John Dougan wrote a glowing report of the Free People:
So quiet and retired had these Persons lived there, that although I have been for many years residing in the Island, yet I derived no knowledge of the Situation and Circumstances regarding these People ... Not one of them is in debt, and their Property is free from all Encumbrance That 12 of the grown up Persons are admitted Members of the Wesleyan Methodist Society, and with their Children attend regularly the Methodist Chapel at the East End of the Island... since their Emancipation to the present Day none of them have been sued in Court, or brought before a Magistrate to answer a complaint against them. One of them once obtained a Warrant against a Person who had assaulted him, who begging his Pardon, He forgave Him."
Today, many descendants of the Nottingham Free People still live on and own the same land.


More on sugar and slavery.

Sign up for the Fellowship of Three Things here.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Little Alphabet by Trina Schart Hyman

A recent find in my basement: A Little Alphabet book by Trina Schart Hyman, a favorite illustrator from my youth.

It's about 4 by 5.5 inches. Note the cat — one of Trina's favorite subjects — along the top of the cover border.

Each spread displays two letters, illustrated with up to a dozen items that begin with the featured letter:

Dig, dog, dirt, dragonfly, daffodil, dandelion, daisies, dungarees. And egg, eat, elbow, Easter basket, eye, eggcup, ear, eyebrow, evening primrose.

I appreciated the inclusion of black kids throughout:

The book was published in 1980... which may have been the high-water mark for inclusivity in children's books, sadly. (Lily, lick, lollipop, lace, lips, lantern, lime, lizard, ladybug, lemon, lean, leaf, lashes... moon, mist, mask, mouth, mushrooms, mouse, moth, milkweed, marsh, mosquito.)

Bees, beehive, boy, bird, berries, basket, barefoot, buckle, brow, brambles and clouds, cricket, cape, curls, checks, cake, candle, crocus, cat, cage, canary, collar, cheek.

I especially love the composition around the letter P, with a porcupine just above the head of the child. Plus pine trees, pine cone, paddle, pineapple, percolator, pack, plaid, pie, pan, pear, plum, perch, pond, peaks and the adjacent queen, quince, quilt, Queen Anne's lace.

The pictures include lots of plants. This was partly an opportunity to pack in more alphabetical goodies, but I like to think it also reflected Trina's love of botanical illustration.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Eight Mice, Two Monkeys

In case you ever wondered, these are the creatures that live just below my computer monitor:

Yes, those are the mice from Mousetrap.

I'm not sure if they're having a conversation or holding a worship session.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Cure for Everything

It's one part magnificent bit of Americana, one part letterpress printing artifact, and two parts utter B.S.: the "Doan's Directory of the United States," printed in 1922.

Featuring an illustration of the Lincoln Memorial on the cover in two colors, and inside a list of every town or city in the country with a thousand or more residents in the United States. (Click any image to enlarge.)

Oh, yes, and even more pages of ads and advertorials for Doan's various placebos and patent medicines.

It sounds like the basic Doan's Pills are actually classified as an NSAID by the FDA these days, along with aspirin, ibuprophen, and naproxen; the active ingredient is magnesium salicylate, which is similar to aspirin, although possibly even harder on the stomach.

So they may have an effect on back pain or headache. Seems like bloating, dropsy, and the many other ailments mentioned in the booklet are dubious, however.

"Happy mother tells of remarkable recovery: First four births brought serious kidney sickness. Fifth child died in infancy; last birth normal. Child and mother well and strong."

"Clergyman thought death was near; now enjoys vigorous health." The subheads throughout the text include "Dropped to his knees," "Helplessly crippled," "Death was expected," and "Now well and strong." Well, thank goodness. No — thank Doans, I'm sure.

"Is constipation spoiling your appetite, health and happiness? You can't feel well and be well without a regular, daily bowel movement." Well, no worries, "Doan's Regulets soften the clogging masses and tone and regulate the bowels and liver." The clogging masses... I wonder if they yearn to breathe free?

In case you were wondering, that 30 cent price tag for Regulets would be a bit over $4.00 in 2013 dollars. Actual size!

What a magnificent center spread, done as a "double truck" layout. I'm not sure what the chain border is supposed to symbolize. "Do urinary disorders bother you?" "Do colds settle into your kidneys?"

The back cover illustration is clearly meant to refer to menstrual cramps, without saying so. Inside, one section is titled "Sound kidneys lighten women's trials." The text tells us: "The monthly sickness... is [often] due to weakened kidneys and would be avoided if the kidneys were kept well and active." The copy goes on to recommend Doan's just as strongly for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and menopausal women. Why, if you take Doan's, you won't know you're a woman at all!

All in all, a big stinking pile of nicely printed B.S. with lovely graphics. These days, Doan's is owned by the pharma giant Novartis, which has been brought up before the Federal Trade Commission multiple times for its claims that Doan's are more effective on back pain than other NSAIDs. The tradition continues, it seems.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sealed with a Rifle

This, believe it or not, is the Minnesota state seal:

Yes, it shows a white settler plowing a field while a native man rides past. The settler has his rifle handy, leaning on a stump, for just such an eventuality.

This is a simplified version of the seal I saw recently on the wall at a Smash Burger restaurant in the Saint Paul suburb of Roseville:

In reducing the graphic complexity of the original, they have turned the rifle with powder horn into something that looks more like a hoe. They've also made it look as though the native rider is brandishing a weapon of some sort (although he also appears to have no head). So the poor defenseless farmer is now being threatened by a headless Indian.

It's also of note that they got rid of the waterfall -- a key Minnesota feature -- and made the hills in the background much larger. I don't think we have anything in the state that approaches that kind of height relative to our fruited planes.

Not to mention the way the whole thing looks like an inverted Target logo.

So overall, it's not an improvement, in my opinion. And this is a state seal that could use a re-do. As design blogger Steve Lovelace put it,

By showing a Native American riding off into the sunset while a white farmer tills the soil, the Seal of Minnesota is stuck in a 19th century worldview. Even if you interpret it more innocently, it’s still too...complex [of a] design...
 Most attempts to redesign the seal or the state flag involve the North Star (we are L'Etoile du Nord, after all). I'd probably go with the loon, myself, maybe with a waterfall in the background. It emphasizes the lakes and natural habitat of the state without excluding anyone. It's aspirational, saying, "We will take care of our environment for future generations." No rifles needed.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Star and Tribune Building, 1949

For years, the Minneapolis newspaper, the Star Tribune, editorialized for a new football stadium. Not coincidentally, the paper is located near the stadium site and owns lots of land (currently parking lots) that would become more valuable in the midst of the redevelopment that, in theory, accompanies a stadium.

Then it turned out that the Star Tribune's own building would be part of the redevelopment area, so they're moving to one of the city's anonymous glass towers. The building they're leaving to the wrecking ball should (but won't) be saved. As Steve Sande writes in the MinnPost article linked,

the building's dominant motif [is] its massive horizontal lines. The Star and Tribune Building is intended to register like a perspective drawing best viewed from the corner of Fifth and Portland. There (near the complementary WPA Moderne Minneapolis Armory), those alternating bands of black- and cream-colored brick have their most dramatic effect....

Mass is the message of this building. Atop its five-story section along Portland Avenue, above polished slabs of black granite that tower over pedestrians, the newspaper proudly proclaims its name in colossal letters. That message is none too subtle: Take heed, puny humans, for we are the Fourth Estate.
I recently found (in my basement explorations) a 1949 special section of the Sunday Tribune, marking the opening of the building. What a difference an era makes.

This rendering highlights the horizontal lines Sande described, and also shows the building's overall Moderne style.

The lower half of the front page includes two aerial shots of the block and how it's situated in Downtown.

This 1949 photo is shot from just the angle that Sande recommended.

Just a few years earlier (but before World War II), the building lacked the four-paneled windows and concrete arch surrounding them, though it had the alternating stripes.

An even earlier structure. It appears they added the striped facade to this building in the 1940 renovation, as well as adding onto the left side and back.

Note that each time they rebuilt, the architectural indication of the entrance got bigger, in scale to the larger structure.

This was the entrance of the 1949 building, located to the right of the four window panels. These stylized doors, as well as the decorative embellishments above and the funky metal lettering, were all removed at some point; my guess is that it was after the paper's major, modernist redesign in the early 1970s. The most recent, generic iteration is visible in the MinnPost photo; one commenter on the article remarks on how the building needs a bigger statement at the door.

A couple of other notable images from the insert. First, the newsroom. Note the horseshoe-shaped copy desk in the right foreground. The guys sitting around the outside were editing copy and writing headlines around the "rim," and the copy chief,  seated at the center of the horseshoe, was in the "slot," the final position of power over a story's content. Each large newspaper in America had one of these desks.

Every person in the photo is a white man except possibly the three people I've circled in white -- one black man on the right side of the rim (at least I think so, click the image to zoom in and see if you agree) and two white women back in the reporters' area (mostly identifiable because they have more hair).

Where were all the women? Taking want ads, of course:

The "girls," who all appear to be white, provide "fast pleasant service" while sitting at "26 specially-designed desks.... The single-position desks are equipped with noiseless typewriters. A total of 44 incoming calls can be handled at once in the soundproof room."

One final note on the insert: It's full of ads from the many construction companies that worked on the building.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Large Format from Basement

My basement also holds lots of large rolls of paper, long neglected. Here are a few; click any image to enlarge.

First, a calendar poster from Savran's Books:

Savran's was an institution in Minnepolis's West Bank neighborhood, very near the University of Minnesota. The illustrations of the bearded guy (created by L.K. Hanson) were ubiquitous when I first moved here in the late 1980s. The store went out of business around 1990, though it was later replaced by another bookstore (Mayday Books) and the Hub Bike Co-op, so it's wasn't a total loss. It's amazing how little there is on the Interweb about Savran's, by the way.

Next is a poster I made in high school:

That's watercolor and ink. The hard-to-see words are my attempt at calligraphy. Incongruously, I chose Speedball uncials to render the Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem "Constantly Risking Absurdity." (I still like that poem.)

Last of all, a poster I've been saving since 1982:

It was hanging in the hall of my college's student union for weeks. I waited patiently until the march had passed to snag it. This was the famous U.S. Out of El Salvador march. While I sympathized with the cause, I must admit I was more interested in the poster's design, and especially the typeface. It was the first time I had ever noticed Eras.