Friday, August 10, 2012 4:52 PM
Remember back in 2009 when
Texas Gov. Rick Perry almost-but-not-quite
said his state should secede from the union? The small media blitz that
followed dramatically illustrated that even in the 21st century, the
South retains a good deal of its separateness, and its bad rap among
Northerners. After all, America’s
most populous region was the last holdout for slavery and segregation. And among many Northern liberals, the South’s
recent recasting as the low-wage, anti-union Sunbelt
hasn’t helped its standing. The solution? Let them
go, says writer Chuck Thompson, who’s written a tongue-in-cheek book
arguing for southern secession. The upshot, says Thompson in an interview with AlterNet, would be a mutual breakup,
hopefully without all the fuss of a civil war. Oh, and they can take Utah.
And speaking of culture
wars, what kind of sandwich defines you as a voter? In the wake of the
Chick-fil-A firestorm, it may come as no shock that restaurant preferences can
say quite a lot about a person’s politics. That’s the idea behind a graphic
posted on Sociological Images by
Gwen Sharp that charts customers at a handful of restaurants against their voting
behavior and political outlook. As with almost everything else in 21st
century, there’s a pretty clear partisan divide here. But what’s really interesting,
says Sharp, is what the results say about the class dimensions of voter
turnout: patrons at sit-down restaurants, whether liberal or conservative, were
in general much more likely to vote than fast food customers. It also points
out an irony of the Chick-fil-A controversy: while Chick-fil-A customers are in
general very conservative, they’re not among those most likely to vote. Whether
the restaurant’s recent politicization changes this, is hard to say.
“Quick, Henry, the Flit!” Long
before Horton the Elephant and Yertle the Turtle, Theodore Seuss Geisel made a
name for himself in advertising
and political cartoons, says Josh Jones at Open Culture. One of his most famous ads for Standard Oil’s Flit
insect repellant went about as viral as anything could in the 1930s, and Geisel
was soon called on to devote his artistic skill to the Allied war effort. Following
the war, and after recasting himself as Dr. Seuss, Geisel devoted himself to
somewhat more high minded themes and ideas. But these early works still retain
a kind of surreal Seuss magic, especially when you consider the context. Here’s a link
to some more.
Turns out dirty elections
go back a long way. In 1758, while running for the Virginia House of Burgesses,
George Washington buttered his voters up with free beer on election day. That’s
the first milestone on Mother Jones’
money timeline, beginning with the American colonies. But of course, it
only gets worse from there.
With or without a heat
wave, most Americans are probably not taking to the beach this summer. That
Americans have less vacation days than workers in most other rich countries is
no surprise, but it turns out most of us don’t even use the time we get. A
recent survey by Right Management found that American workers leave an average
vacation days unused each year, out of fear of being fired, says Kathy M.
Newman in Working Class Perspectives.
The survey also found that two thirds of American workers avoid taking lunch
breaks and many avoid taking sick days.
And many companies are
starting to take notice. But rather than provide better working conditions,
firms like McDonald’s and Applebee’s are tapping into worker fatigue in
advertisements, Newman says. In one recent ad for VisitLasVegas.com, a Norma
Rae-looking scene unfolds in which a woman in an office attempts to organize her
fellow office workers to, well, visit Las
Vegas. Whether the woman is later fired for taking her
vacation time is hard to say.
Image by eyeliam, licensed
Friday, July 06, 2012 4:46 PM
Environmentalism has a very
different meaning for indigenous farmers in Guatemala. Last year, hundreds of
Maya Q’eqchi families were evicted from their farms in Guatemala’s Polochic Valley
to make way for corn fields, says Treehugger’s
Brian Merchant. But instead of hungry people, that corn is destined to feed the
growing demand for ethanol and other biofuels, especially in Europe.
Evictions like this one have increased
dramatically since the EU announced a plan to get 10 percent of its transportation
energy from biofuels, reports John Vidal of The Guardian. The farmers’ struggle to reclaim land continues, but
the affair raises deeper questions about the direction we’re taking toward
sustainability, says Vidal.
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a person from California.
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The Midwestern heat wave
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Video: some gorgeous
and diverse Algerian music, in honor of 50 years of independence.
Islamophobia in the U.S. has
ignited controversy recently, but its
roots go deeper than you might think. Washington has a long history of suspicion
toward Islam, especially political Islam, says Edward E. Curtis IV in Religion & Politics. That suspicion
reached a new level in the 1960s, when COINTELPRO mobilized the FBI against groups
like the Nation of Islam that sought to connect the civil rights struggle to a
larger Muslim identity. The pervasive fear of Arab Islamism is much more
recent, and demonstrates just how absent Muslims remain from the public arena. Recognizing
this, says Curtis, means recognizing that Islam—even political Islam—is a lot
less foreign to the U.S. than many people think.
Image by Jack Liefer,
licensed under Creative
Commons. Editor’s note: this image is of a Guatemalan farm, though not in the Polochic Valley.
Wednesday, June 06, 2012 3:33 PM
There’s been a lot of talk
today about what Scott Walker’s victory means for progressives. There are a lot
of potential takeaways. The Citizens
United decision allowed Walker
outspend his opponent, mostly from out-of-state donors and independent
expenditures. Unlike the RNC, national Democrats (and the president) were conspicuously absent during the race, indicating that Obama may be unwilling
to take a stand on workers’ rights during an election year. Turnout
yesterday was unusually
high for Wisconsin,
which says a lot about how contentious the election really was. And other
Republican governors, who have watched the race closely, may now be planning
similar policies in their own states.
All that may spell big
trouble for workers across the country. But there’s another lesson we may be
forgetting: organized labor’s campaign against Walker was its largest and most significant
in decades, and Tuesday’s results are only a small part of that. Historically, elections have been a pretty minor part of most social movements—especially
labor. And activists in Wisconsin
know this history very well. When the state legislature cut
off citizen testimony on Walker’s
budget proposal early last year, their response was not a petition or an
official complaint, but an occupation. As Allison Kilkenny points
out in TheNation,
Alienation from the traditional leftist institutions was the cause of the
original occupation of Wisconsin's
state capitol, followed by a slew of occupations all across the country, and
the world. Burnt by the Republicans and abandoned by the Democrats, protesters
turned to nontraditional forms of protest, including camping in public spaces
and refusing to leave.
Until the recall campaign
officially began several months later, those nontraditional forms of protest
made up most of the progressive response to Walker. Citizens sent sarcastic
valentines to the governor’s office, closed
public schools, and revealed Walker’s
baser intentions in other creative
But by far the most significant action was the occupation of Wisconsin’s state
capitol, which connected the struggle both to Arab Spring demonstrations, and
later to the Occupy movement it helped inspire. There's also its
connection with labor history—it was hardly the first time citizens occupied
the capitol in Madison.
In 1936, more than a hundred WPA workers and their families camped
out at the state house to protest low wages and inconsistent pay. That
year, sit-down strikes (“occupations” in 2012-speak) erupted in dozens of
factories, plants, and workshops across the country. The next year, there were nearly
Then as now, a stalled recovery threatened a double-dip recession, and many
Americans wanted to see more action from a divided government in Washington. (This was
less than a year after the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Administration unconstitutional.) Wisconsin even had a
leftwing governor from a radical third party, but like many people throughout
the country, the WPA workers still chose to work outside the system. Last year
we saw a similar (and somewhat smaller) wave of organizing and action in dozens
of cities, including Madison,
and it’s hard to know exactly where all of that will end up.
The recall in Wisconsin gives us some
idea of that, but not a complete picture. The Tea Party is still clearly an
important political force, and many ordinary people remain suspicious of the
intentions and tactics of organized labor. But the situation is far from black
and white. Last night’s numbers make it easy to claim a resounding defeat for
organized labor, but the last 16 months seem to show the opposite. It would be
a shame, for instance, if the recall vote overshadowed recent labor victories,
like when Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to restore
collective bargaining last November. And let’s not forget that Dems
took the Wisconsin senate yesterday in another recall, which may create
some hurdles for Walker’s
more conservative planks.
But even more than that, with
or without a successful recall, the fight in Wisconsin was a significant step forward for
organized labor. Unions have been steadily losing strength for decades, and its
mobilization in Wisconsin
was pretty unprecedented. Writes
For those who see democracy as a spectator sport with clearly defined
seasons that finish on Election Day, the Wisconsin
results are just depressing. But for those who recognize the distance Wisconsin… and other
states… have come since the Republicans won just about everything in 2010, the
recall story is instructive.
Walker’s February 2011 assault on union rights provoked some of the largest
mass demonstrations in modern labor history, protests that anticipated the
“Occupy” phenomenon with a three-week takeover of the state Capitol and
universal slogan “Blame Wall Street Not the Workers,” protests that both drew
inspiration from and served to inspire the global kicking up against austerity.
And that kicking up is far from over. As
Peter Dreier points out in Common Dreams,
Walker spent 88 percent of the money
in yesterday’s recall to get 53 percent of the vote. In 2010, when Walker faced the same
opponent for the same office, his campaign spending was a small
fraction of what it was this year. In Wisconsin, as in many other parts of the
world, austerity may require much more convincing than it did two years ago. In
spite of the recall results, Wisconsin
may represent less an end than a beginning.
Institute on Money in State Politics.
Image by WisPolitics.com,
licensed under Creative
Tuesday, May 22, 2012 4:51 PM
Mark Twain to censors: “I wrote
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for
adults exclusively.” After hearing that his books had been censored by the
Brooklyn Public Library’s Children’s Department in 1905, Twain got his sarcasm
on in this one-of-a-kind letter to a librarian there. “The mind that becomes
soiled in youth can never again be washed clean,” he snidely continues. “I know
this by experience.” Read the rest of his delightful scorn, here.
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Why LSD is more likely to block
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Solitary confinement is more and more common
in American prisons, even though it defies common sense.
Why we should really be taking the
Unabomber more seriously. Ted Kaczynski, the
math-genius-turned-domestic-terrorist probably has every reason to stay in
prison. But his manifesto on the dangers of technology dependence is gaining
more ground among academics and philosophers. Find out why, here.
Friday, May 11, 2012 3:13 PM
Available From Detroit Documentary Productions
There are few cities that
have experienced American history as dramatically as Detroit. During most of the 20th
had a reputation as a model city, and during World War II, as an arsenal of
democracy. Through the 1950s, the city’s largely integrated industrial
workforce supported a prosperous middle class. At its peak population level in
1950, the city’s median household income was a third higher than the nation’s. With
these facts, Deforce begins a
heartbreaking history of decline and violence that not only helps explain Detroit’s current crisis,
but also deeply challenges our understanding of poverty, urban politics, and
Deforce is a legal term
meaning unlawfully holding the property of others—in a larger sense,
displacement, alienation, loss of meaningful community. This idea of deforce,
the film argues, is central to Detroit’s
history, and the larger urban American experience. This is particularly true in
poor black neighborhoods, where police violence, a lack of basic municipal
services, and pervasive blight have damaged any connection to a larger
community. Today the effects are vividly felt in a city with a higher murder
rate than wartime Iraq or Northern Ireland.
And while it’s tempting to view Detroit as
remote or anomalous, Deforce situates
it well within the history of suburbanization and the 21st century
politics of urban America.
At the same time, for all
its devastating perception, Deforce
does not succumb to defeatism. Residents interviewed for the film talk as much
about the city’s resilience as about blighted structures or food deserts. And
it’s in this feeling of resilience that the film places much of its forward
momentum, rather than in particular goals or proposals. There is an
unmistakable sense that, even if displaced or alienated, Detroiters feel strongly about where
they come from.
reluctance to offer specific solutions is unfortunate, but it shouldn’t
overshadow the larger narrative. In exploring the deeper roots of Detroit’s ongoing crises,
the film asks difficult questions of its audience that seek to break down a “conspiracy
of silence about urban issues.” The implication is that urban communities
across the United States
suffer from some of the same illnesses, and it’s only by addressing these in a
direct and meaningful way that we can begin to move forward.
Tuesday, May 08, 2012 1:16 PM
Just over half of Americans
say they wouldn’t buy a food they knew was genetically modified. Another 87 percent
say they want to see GM labels at the grocery store. That’s one reason why Connecticut’s
recent failure to require labeling is so surprising, says Treehugger. Now, genetically-modified
food is controversial among consumers, farmers, and scientists, and it’s difficult
to find a consensus on GM benefits and risks. The World Health Organization,
for instance, while noting some potential human health hazards like gene
transfer, maintains GM
safety is a case-by-case issue.
But the biggest opposition
didn’t come from scientists. The reason the bill failed appears to be pressure
from Monsanto, which reportedly threatened state legislators with legal action.
This was the
same tactic that got a GM labeling provision thrown out in Vermont last
month, as the one thing cash-strapped states don’t need is a big lawsuit.
Back in 2007,
then-candidate Obama said he supported labeling requirements for GM foods. But
after years of silence and a high-profile
national campaign last fall to get action from Washington (and another
one earlier this year), many states have taken matters into their own
hands. Mostly, it’s been slow going. In Minnesota,
a bill requiring labels failed in
March. Legislators voted
down a similar bill in Washington
state recently, reportedly after facing pressure from, you guessed it, Monsanto
and other biotech firms.
But in California, voters have the ability to
bypass their legislature in statewide ballot initiatives. Last week, they filed
almost a million signatures to do just that, and this November, a GM labeling
requirement will be on the ballot. The campaign took a
swift ten weeks, says MarketWatch,
and culminated in rallies across the state. Given that a clear majority of
Californians support the initiative, it seems likely to pass.
What happens in the rest
of the country is less certain. Even as state activists and legislators debate
GM safety and labeling, the Department of Agriculture is set to approve a new
GM corn crop which poses potential health hazards to farmers and consumers. The
crop is resistant
to a herbicide called 2,4-D, a chemical now used on golf courses to kill
large weeds, reports Huffington. 2,4-D,
an active ingredient in Agent Orange, has been linked to health problems like
cancer and birth defects, but now may coat millions of acres of modified corn. GM
safety may be a case-by-case question, but many
scientists are concerned about this one.
And for the USDA, and Obama,
all this is nothing new. According to the San
Francisco Chronicle, the department hasn’t
denied approval for a GM crop since they began appearing in the mid-1990s. Last
year, after Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack got cold feet about a White House plan to
allow unrestricted GM alfalfa, he fell
back in line almost immediately. The reason, says Tom Philpott in Grist, was almost certainly political
pressure from an administration with strong ties to agribusiness and biotech.
Even if states like California can enforce
labeling requirements, changing how we grow food to reflect people’s
concerns about GM is much more difficult. What all this means is that GM
skeptics have an uphill battle, not just from big chemical companies or
inactive state legislatures, but also from the federal government.
Image by Darwin Bell,
licensed under Creative
Monday, April 30, 2012 5:10 PM
The idea of a general
strike has a lot of resonance in the Occupy Movement. Last November, thousands
of activists converged on Frank Ogawa Plaza
in Oakland for a localized strike that
eventually shut down the Port
of Oakland. For many, it was
the most iconic moment of the movement thus far. When occupiers again shut the
Port down on December 12 in a coordinated West Coast action, the idea of a May
Day strike was born. Since then, Occupy groups in more than 100 cities have
signed on, and each with a unique set of tactics and goals. So far, those
tactics have been surprisingly diverse, from anti-foreclosure occupations to
marches and sit-ins, to strikes.
So what exactly is gonna
go down today? It’s hard to say. Though Occupy groups in more than 100
cities have all signed on to the May Day strike, each one has a different set
of goals and tactics. Some plans have been disparate and freewheeling, and some
much more coordinated.
As in the fall, the two
most dramatic focal points will likely be New
York City and the Bay Area. In New York, plans are nothing if not
ambitious. Occupiers have scheduled dozens
of simultaneous picket lines in Manhattan
and Brooklyn, many led by local unions like
the Teamsters and the UAW. Activists also plan to occupy Manhattan’s Bryant
Park throughout the day, and hold working groups, assemblies, and rallies
throughout the city—some legally permitted, some not. Aptly named teach-ins
like “How to Keep Your Cool and Occupy: Understanding Aggression” will also
take place. Amid so many diverse actions, the eyes of a lot of media outlets and
police will be on a march from Brooklyn to Union Square, and
then on to Wall Street beginning at 10:30 ET.
Likewise, activists in the
Bay Area have quite a lot planned. And unlike the November 2 strike, this time
around, organized labor is playing a big part. Although bridge workers in San Francisco have scrapped their proposal to shut down
the Golden Gate Bridge, they have no plans to return to
work. Having seen negotiations with management fall apart, they plan to shutdown
buses and ferries in the city as part of a larger strike. Some say blocking
the bridge is altogether off the table, reports Truth Out. Likewise, unions that stopped short of endorsing the
November 2 strike are calling on workers to participate. More than 4,000
members of the California Nurses Association will walk out. SEIU workers plan
to occupy city hall. On the East Bay, longshoremen will shut down the Port of Oakland for the third time in six
Francisco, Occupy events will also include rallies at Delores Park
in the Mission, and beginning nearby, a “Bike
Cavalry” critical mass ride to the Golden
On the East Bay,
rallies are planned throughout Oakland,
culminating in a March
for Dignity and Resistance, from the Fruitvale BART station in East Oakland
to Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Elsewhere, actions may be
less visible on national media outlets, but no less significant. In Chicago, immigrants plan to play a major
role, mirroring 2006’s extraordinary Day Without Immigrants, which also
occurred on May Day. In Los Angeles, occupiers
have organized a series of four bike and car caravans to the financial
district from places as far flung as Santa
Monica and South Central. Eventually, they hope to
make downtown inaccessible. Occupy DC organizers are planning a daylong festival with
teach-ins and performances to highlight the history of American labor.
Many of these actions have
happened before, at various times throughout Occupy’s brief history. It’s hard
to know how big tomorrow’s events will be, and yet, as Nathan Schneider of Yes! Magazine argues, there’s a good
chance it’ll be something
entirely new. Last October, demonstrators in over 900 cities around the
world participated in actions in support of Occupy. But even then, Occupy was
less than a month old, and activists hadn’t had the benefit of months
of training and planning—or such extensive support from organized labor. What
sets today apart is a level of coordination and planning that Occupy hasn’t
If, like us, you’re away
from the coasts and other Occupy hubs but still want to follow the action,
check back at Utne.com for the latest rumors, links, and second-hand
Image by Brian
Sims, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wall Street, Truth
Oakland, Chicago Spring,
Occupy May 1st, Occupy DC, Yes!,
Thursday, April 19, 2012 9:54 AM
Money in politics is a murky subject. The line between an official campaign and a Super PAC is blurry at best, and the "revolving door" between lobbies, bureaucrats and elected officials seems to grow wider with every election. Voters are overwhelmingly opposed to corporate influence in elections and decisions like Citizens United, and yet, there is a good deal of evidence that such big spending really does work.
Take state elections. A website
called Follow The Money has produced
a number of fascinating
graphics that chart the role of money in recent state-level contests. The site
is run by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and provides a
nice companion to Open Secrets,
which focuses more on federal races. Now, most of the 2012 data aren’t
available yet, but many of the maps and charts go back as far as 1996, and
paint a pretty clear picture of how significant big money can be.
One measure, called PULSE,
charts campaign contributions in state elections using a couple of
box-and-whisker plots—one for winners, one for losers. The 2008 results from my
home state of Minnesota
are above, showing all state offices that were up for reelection. Each dot is an individual candidate, with red for GOP, blue for Democrats, and green for third parties (the
yellow centers indicate incumbents). As you can see, the winners as a group
spent much more money trying to, well, win. This group is also full of outliers
who spent a lot more than the winners’ average, while the losers’ outliers tend
to go in the opposite direction.
In Minnesota at least, money seems to determine
a lot. But what’s interesting is that these are actually really good numbers
compared to other states. In California,
which has much less competitive races in terms of campaign contributions, the
charts looks very different:
Winners here spent
hundreds of thousands more, rather than just tens of thousands, and in 2008, only
one incumbent lost. And unlike in Minnesota,
both winners and losers skewed much more to the higher numbers in their
outliers, even though winners spent much more on average.
What future elections will
look like is hard to say, but it probably depends on what campaign finance law
looks like. The continued rise of Super PACs will undoubtedly have a big impact
across the country, but local elections are still generally cleaner than federal.
As Follow the Money notes, public financing has a big impact on these numbers.
which introduced public financing in 2000, the median gap between winners and
losers dropped by a factor of more than three, compared with the 1996 cycle.
Right now, only a handful
of states and local governments have similar measures—including Maine, Connecticut, and Portland, Oregon—but
more could be on the way. Reform advocates like MoveOn.org and Demos are
seeking to establish
public financing in New York State, while West Virginia has already launched a similar
program for this year’s contest. Nationally, the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill
introduced last year into the House and Senate, would allow members of Congress
to take public campaign cash.
And in Montana, where no public financing system
exists, legislators have nevertheless challenged the Citizens United decision by barring corporate donations. Earlier
this year, after the state’s high court struck down a challenge to the new law,
the Supreme Court suspended the decision, possibly pending further
consideration. According to the Brennan
Center for Justice, the law’s best chance is another high court showdown,
where reformers could have another
crack at the landmark 2010 decision.
How all of that shakes out
exactly is anyone’s guess, though odds are the Roberts Court will be hard to sway. That
being said, with such
a large number of people opposed to the decision, local and state election
law may become a greater battleground. In places like Arizona
and Portland, 2012
doesn’t have to be the year of the Super PAC.
Images by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sources: Open Secrets, Public Campaign Action Fund, National Institute on Money in State Politics, Brennan Center for Justice.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 4:02 PM
Baghdad’s beautiful, enduring street
Why bachelor pads changed
American culture forever, and why no one actually has one.
The Twitter account that won
a Pulitzer Prize.
How to get a price tag to tell the full story.
A veteran climate activist
in the towel.
Why that shiny new iPad isn’t
as clean as you may think.
Why tax day can be downright
dangerous for drivers.
Was Ben Franklin secretly a serial killer?
Probably not, but his friend liked to rob graves.
How to take a bike from a perfect
stranger (and eventually give it back).
What the Affordable Care
Act looks like as a map.
earthquakes? In the Midwest, a recent
uptick in seismic activity has geologists stumped, but new data from the USGS
suggests that fracking may have something to do with it. The same is true of
underground wastewater disposal, a much more common practice that usually
accompanies the fracking process. Yet another reason why fracking is a totally
awesome and sensible idea.
Image by Tom Murphy
VII, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, April 16, 2012 2:23 PM
Last week, Fannie Mae (via MarketWatch) reported that Americans were warming
up to the idea of homeownership for the first time in years. After a
behemoth of a housing crisis, 73 percent of Americans now believe that it’s a
good time to buy a home. If the housing market is ready for a turnaround,
prices will only go up, and Americans seem ready to embrace a return to
There’s just one problem:
there’s a good chance it won’t matter. Aside from the fact that polls like this
can be very misleading (last April, Gallup came up
similar numbers), the housing market faces a demographic problem that isn’t
likely to go away any time soon.
Since 2006, exurbs and
outer-ring suburbs have been losing residents as families move into large
cities in greater and greater numbers. This is first time in decades that many
suburban counties have seen a loss in
population, reports Urbanland.
Part of this has been the housing crisis. Exurbs dotted with subprime developments
have been hemorrhaging residents for years, but this won’t go on forever. A
greater problem, says John K. McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, comes as boomers retire. Baby boomers created
the strongest demand for housing in American history, but their offspring are
not likely to do the same. Generation X is far too small to make a similar
impact, and Millennials (the echo boom) so far don’t seem all that interested
in homeownership, or suburban living. This means that, even if the housing
market gets going again, there’s no chance for demand to reach pre-recession
The larger issue is that
suburbanization as a social and cultural process is designed for a bygone era.
The postwar years were a deeply unequal period of American history, and suburbanization
reflected that, especially in terms of race. Redlining—segregating
neighborhoods based on race—was federal policy through most of the postwar
boom, and segregation remains
a serious problem in many areas. But the 1950s and 1960s was also a time
when the environmental impact of development was not really a consideration. With
and more people and local
governments interested in transit, cycling, and walkability, car-dependent
suburbs seem increasingly out of place.
But what’s really
interesting about this trend is that it’s not the result of any actual federal
policy. Since the end of World War II, federal dollars planned, created, and
maintained suburbia, through public highways, home mortgage insurance, tax
deductions for homeowners, and other incentives. As John D. Fairfield points
out in 2010’s fascinating The Public and
Its Possibilities, in the years following World War II, federal money made
suburban homeownership actually cheaper than renting in large cities—at least
for the white middle class.
And since then, the
fundamentals haven’t changed all that much. The FHA still subsidizes suburban
homeownership (albeit more equally), and federal highways and infrastructure still
make suburban life possible. Obama has signaled that he’d like to rethink
some of these policies, including getting rid of Fannie and Freddie and reducing
mortgage subsidies for new buyers, but actual changes are not likely soon. In
the meantime, we may see even more people defy government incentives to settle
away from urban centers—young people, especially. If these trends continue,
cities could look very different over the next generation. Homeownership may
remain an American Dream, but suburbs may not.
Society Pages, Treehugger,
Atlantic, the Public and Its Possibilities, Huffington.
Thursday, April 12, 2012 4:52 PM
It’s been a bad week for
corn. Less than a month after the Midwest heat
wave threw a wrench into this year’s growing season, high-fructose corn syrup
has been the subject of several scathing studies on its damage to the
environment and human health.
In the first two,
researchers at Harvard sought to find out why beehives were disappearing, says the
Christian Science Monitor.Since 2006, honeybees have been
abandoning otherwise perfectly healthy hives in record numbers across North
America and Europe. The culprit? Of all
things, high-fructose corn syrup. After harvesting a hive’s honey, many
beekeepers augment the hive’s supply with a sugary sweetener (HFCS, being
cheaper than real sugar, is a common go-to). The problem is that corn farmers
typically treat their crop with a powerful insecticide called neonicotinoids,
amounts end up in the corn sweetener, which then infects the hive. The upshot,
the Harvard studies found, is Colony Collapse Disorder, in which the hive’s
countless worker bees fail to return after foraging for pollen. This isn't good at all for the species, and in larger terms, a sudden loss of such a critical
player in the ecosystem could be devastating for environment and agriculture
The third study addressed
the rise in autism in the U.S.,
especially over the past decade. Between 2002 and 2008, the disorder jumped 78
percent, reports Civil Eats, and new
evidence points to a food-related cause. The study, which was originally
published in Clinical Epigenetics,
looks at high-fructose corn syrup’s tendency to deplete zinc and calcium in the
body. Without these, we have a
harder time getting rid of heavy metals and toxins—like the kind that can
impact early childhood development and lead to disorders like autism. While it
can be difficult to nail down a single cause for the rise in autism,
researchers are confident that the sweetener is a big part of the equation.
But to be fair, corn has
had a big PR problem for a while now. Ethanol—once the darling of green-minded
policymakers and consumers—has been shamed by soaring
world food prices. In recent years, the crop’s most important product,
high-fructose corn syrup, has been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes—and
may even have addictive
qualities similar to recreational drugs. It’s no wonder then that the Corn
Refiners Association wants to rebrand the sweetener as “corn
sugar” (something the sugar lobby will not take lying down).
What this really speaks
to, however, is just how dependent we are one crop—or, one product of one crop.
According to Food Fight, Daniel
Imhoff’s fascinating new book on agriculture policy, U.S. farmers devote about 90
million acres to growing corn. This “area roughly the size of Montana” depends on billions of dollars
worth of farm subsidies, and compromises 60 percent of the world’s corn supply.
It can be really hard to find a food that is not in some way corn-based, but
even then, we’re not seeing the whole picture, says Imhoff. Most corn goes into
things like animal feed and biofuel, but of course that doesn’t mean it has no
effect on humans. The Harvard study illustrates how potent this dependence can
be, even when humans aren’t consuming anything. The bottom line is that,
with the farm bill up for renewal in September, 2012 is a very good year to
begin rethinking what we grow and why.
Science Monitor, Civil
at Princeton, Huffington,
Image by Ingeniero
hidr., licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 4:50 PM
Why honeybees haven’t been
Is Google erecting its very
Recreating San Francisco streets with
toothpicks and an incredible level of commitment.
Why are so many solar
panels made in
Do Americans believe race
relations are getting
A house in Japan blurs
the line between living room and garden.
How fictional sociopaths captured our
What dachshunds can teach
us about the public sector.
Sherman Alexie on why
banning a book only makes it more
Five economic ideas more
important than GDP.
What to say if you offend
century Chinese dinner guests.
Why a really good
belongs in the circus.
A nifty infographic on why
How to own your
very own one-horse town in Wyoming.
Sneetered by a
snollygoster, and other truly
wonderful phrases from across the country. The new Dictionary of American Regional English has picked up on hundreds of local gems like these, from the great state of Kentucky. But if you aim to make use of these whoopensockers, be warned: most have multiple spellings and a handful of contradictory definitions. Which of course makes them that much more fun.
Image by Christopher Down, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, April 06, 2012 1:28 PM
In July 2010, Pew Research Center released a report
on the online habits of Millennials. The experts involved in the study, who
were mostly academics and leaders at companies like Google and Microsoft,
concluded that social networking will only grow in importance despite privacy
concerns. In particular, many argued that sites like Facebook had created new
social norms around which the barriers
between “public” and “private” information were being recast. The study
echoed a controversial statement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg made
earlier in 2010—that, among young people, privacy
is no longer a “social norm.”
That argument may be a
little harder to make today. In addition to debates over Facebook privacy
settings, over the past several weeks, controversies have erupted in a number
of states over employers
and schools asking for Facebook passwords from applicants, employees, and
students. And while everyone seems to agree that those employers are
overstepping their bounds, actually doing something about it is tougher than
you might think.
For one thing, legislation is woefully outdated,
says the Electronic
Center, or EPIC. The
closest thing to a law protecting online privacy is the Electronic
Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986—a good 10 years before
widespread Internet use, not to mention smartphones and other new media. So
most of the law’s provisions apply only to landline phones and physically
stored data, rather than the smartphones, social media, and “cloud” storage
that have become such a large part of 21st century life. For
something like email, the rules are complex and cumbersome, reflecting an early
understanding of the technology, says the Center
for Democracy and Technology. If you happen to store your email on a home
computer, it is fully protected and requires a warrant to be searched. But if
you use a cloud computing service (say, Gmail), anything you store online can be
accessed without a warrant. That includes webmail, photo sharing sites like
Flickr, spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs—basically, much of what now makes
up many people’s personal and professional lives.
The rules for social
networking sites are even more complicated. While law enforcement generally needs
a search warrant to access a suspect’s social network account, they can do so without
the knowledge of the suspect, reports GOOD.
Facebook actually seems to be alone on this policy, as Twitter and Google have
their own rules about notifying their users of law enforcement action. In fact,
Twitter had to fight for its notification rule against a federal court ruling
in Virginia. And,
according to EPIC, at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has an
ongoing program of setting
up fictitious user accounts on Facebook and Twitter to follow suspects’
posts (also without their knowledge).
Whether or not the DHS
program is legal or constitutional is not all that clear. Without more relevant
legislation, no one really knows where to draw the line—high courts being no
exception. In 2010, the Supreme Court heard two cases on email privacy, and both
times, they chose
not to address constitutional privacy issues, reports the National Legal Research Group. Wrote
Anthony Kennedy in the first case’s majority opinion: “The judiciary risks
error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging
technology before its role in society has become clear.” The implication
apparently being that until innovation stops and lets us take a breather, we
should be careful about fleshing anything out too much.
To be fair, Congress has
(half-heartedly) taken up some of these issues. Late last month, Democratic
Congressman Ed Perlmutter proposed an amendment to the FCC Process Reform Act
called “Mind Your Own Business on Passwords,” says The Atlantic. While the
amendment—which was almost immediately voted down—did not address government
snooping, it would
have prohibited employers from asking for workers’ passwords on sites like
Facebook. The strange reality is that, because of the vote and Facebook’s
own reaction to the controversy, the social networking site now has
stronger privacy rules than the U.S. government—at least when it comes to
That fact should be pretty
alarming. But if we go back to Zuckerburg’s “social norm” argument, it does
make some sense. Because technology moves so quickly, and because it has such a
big influence over our lives, it’s easy to simply accept new customs and rules
without seriously thinking about their impact. The Facebook password cases are
unique because they don’t involve government agencies or third parties breaking
and entering to access private data. Rather, they involve users willingly
giving up their privacy when pressured by people in positions of power.
The real danger here is
that social media are still very new, so if a practice like that became more
accepted, it could be difficult to undo. Laws and court rulings can be
repealed or overturned, but social norms can be much more permanent. Challenging
them might mean rethinking our place in the brave new interconnected
Research Center, The
Guardian, Electronic Privacy
for Democracy and Technology, GOOD,
Legal Research Group, The
Image by rpongsaj,
licensed under Creative
Tuesday, April 03, 2012 12:55 PM
Why America’s schools are doing better
than you think.
The world’s first comic-book
A new map helps community
gardeners find vacant
land in New York City.
The full-size office that doubles
as a giant suitcase.
37 million people try to
access the 1940 census archives at
the same time.
The House of Commons hacks
Why the subprime mess was bad
A nifty graph on copyright
law and the midcentury
My Liberal Party MP can
beat up your Conservative Party Senator.
A college professor wants
you to go to school.
A Japanese photographer floats
across Tokyo (or so it seems).
Why NPR owes a lot to the sinking
of the Titanic. Like much of the ship itself, the Titanic’s radio equipment
was among the most advanced in the early 20th century world. It’s
failure to properly alert maritime authorities was something of a wake-up call
for radio engineers to develop a more reliable and more standard system of
Image by Andrei
Niemimäki, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 30, 2012 1:44 PM
Perhaps fueled by increasing
gridlock in Washington,
lately there have been a lot of studies published on why people form and keep the
political beliefs that they do. While none are particularly encouraging for those who want to see government work, the findings offer some insight on why politicians reaching agreement is tougher than it sounds. A couple of weeks ago, Psychology Today reported that researchers at the University of Nebraska
have pointed to a
biological basis for ideology. In general, they reported, liberals have a
deep psychological propensity to focus more on positive forces and outcomes,
while conservative minds are more occupied by what is potentially threatening. These
tendencies, the researchers said, may go beyond environmental factors like
geography or parenting styles.
Haidt agrees that deeper forces are at play. Earlier this year, he told Bill Moyers (and Company) that human
beings are not well designed for objective or rational analysis. It turns
out we’re much better at choosing a side, and finding evidence and arguments to
support it. In other words, cognitive dissonance plays a much bigger role in
how we understand politics than we may have thought. In a recent book, The
Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are
Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt outlines his view that
conscious reasoning has very little to do with how we form our ideas about the
This would certainly concur
with new research from Duke
University. There, psychologists
found that potential
voters consistently prefer candidates with deeper voices. As Futurity reports, participants were
asked to choose between a number of voices saying “I urge you to vote for me this
November.” The participants consistently preferred the deepest voices, and that
was true whether the choices were male or female. Participants also chose the
deeper voices when asked to identify voices with traits like strength,
competence, or trustworthiness. This was especially true of men, leading
researcher Rindy Anderson to speculate on whether women’s higher voice pitch
had something to do with the glass ceiling.
Of course, none of this
bodes well for actually getting things done, but does help clarify the past several
years of partisan bickering. We tend to blame ideology for a lot of political
problems, but it’s hard to see how we could escape it.
But here’s my favorite
explanation: a study by Scott Eidelman, a University of Arkansas
psychologist, recently found that conservatism
may be most people’s first instinct in how they view the world. According
to Miller-McCune, when distracted or
performing more than one complicated task, participants were more likely to
express conservative ideas and beliefs. These included, according to Eidelman, “an
emphasis on personal responsibility, an acceptance of hierarchy, and a
preference for the status quo.”
In another portion of the
study, Eidelman asked participants to drink heavily before completing a survey
measuring their politics. Amazingly (read: wonderfully), this experiment produced
the same results, as did pressuring participants with time constraints, and distracting
them with repetitive tape loops.
What this exactly means is
hard to say. Eidelman argues that the results will satisfy no one: the research
implies that conservative ideas are instinctual, but also somewhat knee-jerk. And
of course, it’s just as likely that a liberal will hold hasty or unexamined
beliefs, whether or not they’re inebriated or their favorite candidate has a
deep voice. What these findings may speak to, then, is a growing fascination
with ideology at a psychological or biological level—a sense that gridlock in Washington, like say
policy, must have some deeper
& Company, Futurity,
(now Pacific Standard).
Image by Tom
Arthur, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, March 29, 2012 4:13 PM
Later this year, the
federal Farm Bill that was enacted in 2008 is set to expire. Although Congress
already has plenty on its plate—not to mention the ongoing kerfuffle over
Obamacare at the Supreme Court—there’s a good chance they’ll make room for
this. Because of its size and scope, the direction the Farm Bill takes has a
big impact not just on agriculture and farming communities, but also on environmental
policy, trade, and the overall health and safety of Americans. Subsidies and
payments to farmers and farming communities may be the most contentious
portion, but the bill also doles out money for programs like food stamps,
disaster relief, and conservation. Essentially, this is where the debate on U.S. food policy
And every five years or
so, when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal, that debate ignites again. A look
at the most recent cycle gives some idea of what’s ahead. At the end of 2006, Oxfam published a briefing on the
politics surrounding the then-current Farm Bill, which was set to expire the
following year. For decades, the report argued, the Farm Bill has been skewed to
benefit mostly the largest and most profitable farmers, at the expense of the
little guys. Commodity subsidies—which make up the second largest chunk of the Farm
Bill’s budget—go overwhelmingly to the small number of conventional, large-scale
farmers who grow the “program crops” of corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and
rice. The roughly 75 percent of farms that grow and sell other products (or
program crop growers that are too small to collect support) receive just 8
percent of the Farm Bill’s subsidies. As a result, over the course of several
generations, farms have become much bigger, and many smaller farmers have been
pushed out. Oxfam also pointed to the underlying health effects of conventional
and factory farming, and a food system that relies on processing artificially
cheap foods like corn.
Oxfam’s warning fell
mostly on deaf ears. Especially in terms of crop subsidies, the 2008 bill was
remarkably similar to the 2002 bill, with no big rethinking going on in
Congress. A report by the Land
Stewardship Project, while outlining some progress on conservation
programs, criticized the bill’s overall failure
to address the growing corporatization of agriculture. Tellingly, much of
the problem lay with crop subsidies.
But even more revealing
was the contentiousness surrounding the plan. Even though the 2008 bill
differed little from a version passed uneventfully in 2002, the later version was only passed
overrode Bush’s veto. Interestingly, while new conservation programs were
indeed controversial, much of the Republican opposition came from concern over
the total size of the bill, and just where those big crop subsidies were going.
Will this year be any
different? Public awareness of these issues is growing. As Oxfam points out, fresh
fruits and vegetables are increasingly more popular than over-processed corn
and soybean creations. Organic farming is ever more fashionable, though many
small farmers still struggle with how costly it is. CSAs and farmers’ markets
are commonplace in urban areas throughout the country. Despite its low cost,
Americans are much less enamored with processed food than they once were. Could
a new Farm Bill reflect these trends?
It’s possible. As Huffington points out, when
negotiations over the 2012 renewal began two years ago, organizations like the
Environmental Working Group and the Land Stewardship Project seemed poised to make
a larger impact on the new version. Predicting that commodity subsidies may
be on their way out, the National
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition proposed rewarding green farming
practices, rather than subsidizing conventional techniques. As NSAC noted last
week on its blog, recent Senate Ag Committee hearings seem to
be moving in the right direction. While nothing is written yet, Senators
were reportedly sympathetic to conservation concerns and farmers’ proposals to
cut crop subsidies in favor of less constraining crop insurance programs. The committee
may also be interested in reforming crop insurance to reflect environmental
concerns and better serve beginning farmers. Such modest changes would be
welcomed by millions of small-scale farmers.
But this is where things
get complicated. While the Senate Agriculture Committee debates conservation
policy, tea party Republicans in the House are set to challenge much of the
current Farm Bill from an entirely different angle. Opposition to the 2008 renewal
united an unlikely crowd, from small farmers to conservationists to fiscal
conservatives, and that last group has lost none of its zeal. It may be hard
for some to take the new
GOP budget proposal all that seriously, but it does represent a potential
challenge to decades of more or less bipartisan farm policy. For instance, under
the GOP plan, says Think Progress, food
stamps would be converted to a series of block grants to the states. So
rather than a federal program that grows and shrinks by public need (as it did
during the recession), SNAP would have a fixed limit, whether more people
needed it or not.
Even more importantly, says AgWeek, the new Republican plan would
cut commodity subsidies by a third, and cut the Farm Bill itself
by $180 billion. Now, logistically all of that is very unlikely. Unlike the
House, the Senate has a Democratic majority, and their version of the Farm Bill
so far looks very different. What’s significant is that one of two parties in Washington wants to completely reshape U.S. food
policy, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how much they want it. As Grist notes, there is a plan in place
if both houses can’t reach an agreement, a little like that whole sequestration
debacle last year during the deficit talks. In this case, however, the
automatic changes would bring
us back to 1940s-era policies that have very little relevance to the 21st
century. Such a scenario could be downright dangerous.
So what exactly happens
over the next several months is difficult to say. During the deficit talks last
fall, Republican freshmen in the House proved that they are more than willing
to double down on principle, even when high stakes call for pragmatism. At the same
time, conservation groups and small farmers see 2012 as a moment of opportunity
to reshape some of the Farm Bill’s most pressing anachronisms. It’s hard to
predict how all this will shake out, what deals will be struck before or after
the September deadline, and how much of this will be drowned out by looming
elections. We could end up with a radically different food policy in this
country, one that affects everything from school lunches and poverty programs
to how we respond to the emerging threat of climate change. It’s a conversation
we should begin soon.
Sources: Oxfam, Land
Stewardship Project, Thomas, Huffington,
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Christian
Science Monitor, Think
Image by Saffron
Blaze, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 10:38 AM
Beautifully captured stop-motion
How social networks make
it tough to see ourselves as part of a larger group, like say, a class.
A NASA project that studies surface-level ocean currents is
Gogh’s Starry Night come to life.
Why thinking green could actually be bad for
What 2050 may really
look like (minus the flying cars).
Backronyms and downright falsehoods: debunking linguistic
The specifics on our brave
new digital world.
What house mice can tell us about where
the Vikings have been.
New research on the other
How the heat wave in the Midwest
NOAA’s climate software.
David Foster Wallace wants you to turn
the music down.
A new app lets Facebook users “enemy”
instead of “friend.” The app, developed by a University of Texas researcher, is called EnemyGraph, and purports to encourage a more accurate reflection of our social lives than the "friending" and "liking" can.
Image by Andreas Bauer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 23, 2012 4:50 PM
The physics of fiction, or literature
as a moral vehicle.
Repress U and the homeland
security campus, updated for the Class of 2012.
Why thousands of Christians are giving
up carbon for Lent.
The Republican Party’s problems
with geography will only get more significant.
Absolute ultimate (Bonsai)
Yet another reason to stress
out about stressing out.
Something we should really start telling our
How to go from the Driver By Truckers to Of Montreal in three moves or less.
The insider story on the Easter Bunny’s checkered (and very
Evolution might be why we
can’t agree on anything—including evolution.
Would you let your school login
to your Facebook account? In an alarming new trend, universities and employers are asking to login to students' and employees' Facebook accounts.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012 2:55 PM
Finding good composting options can be tough, especially in suburbia. What’s even tougher is finding a compost hauling service that’s also eco-friendly—that is, outside of Kirksville, Missouri. There, students have formed an innovative team of bicycle couriers to collect their neighbors’ compost. The group is called the Rot Riders. As GOOD reports,
…cofounders Jonathan Lessing, Rodery Riney, and Allison Sissom developed the idea... as a project for a student-led grassroots environmentalism course at the local college… Now a community-centered group, Rot Riders involves a pack of five core riders, plus or minus a few volunteers, who break up into pairs, divide the route, and collect buckets of compost left on porches. The rotting goods are taken to Truman’s University Farm compost pile, where they're mixed with other ingredients like campus food waste, leaves, straw, sawdust and manure. The resulting compost takes roughly three months to break down and is made available to all local gardeners.
Combining elements of bike commuting, grassroots organizing, and community gardening, the project came in a close second in this year’s GOOD Citizenship Challenge. And far from being alone, the program has much in common with services in Burlington, Vermont, Victoria, British Columbia, and St. Paul, Minnesota’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood. And as Treehugger reports, the popular Mac-Groveland initiative may even expand into a full-blown municipal program.
The popularity of recent projects like these attest to the growing importance of urban cycling culture in cities throughout the U.S., a culture that is as innovative as it is tenacious.
Source: GOOD, Treehugger.
Image by Mick, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 3:20 PM
The bike lanes and pathways of Minneapolis are a local source of pride, and rightly so. The city’s majestic 50.4-mile Grand Rounds pathway system connects countless neighborhoods together in a cohesive, reliable network that’s as user-friendly as it is beautiful. In 2010, Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the #1 Bike City in the U.S., citing innovations the city’s bikes-and-peds-only below-ground Greenway through the center of town. But most important in the decision was the biking culture that goes along with innovations like that: the bicycling couriers, the dozens of bike shops, the relentless winter commuting. In places like Minneapolis, cycling is not just a hobby or subculture—it’s a legitimate alternative for getting around, on par with public transit or driving.
But like other bike-friendly cities, Minneapolis owes a lot to federal investment in cycling infrastructure. And that investment looks perilously insecure.
Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to eliminate federal funding for bicycling projects and infrastructure. As PRI reports, last year, federal support amounted to $1.2 billion—less than 2 percent of all transportation spending—that went toward projects like the Safe Routes to School program as well as Complete Streets initiatives aimed at maintaining safe spaces for bikes and pedestrians on roadways. In the House Committee version, all of this would have been taken out. To the relief of many, a Senate version introduced early in March restored this funding, and it is likely to pass this week. The close call served as a reminder of how important federal dollars are in maintaining and expanding cycling options for city dwellers—and how much Washington’s spending priorities have recently shifted.
For the past 20 years, federal support for bicycling infrastructure has steadily gone up. As Urbanland points out, biking in any major U.S. city wasn’t so easy before 1991 when Congress (and then-President George Bush Sr.) earmarked federal dollars for cycling infrastructure for the first time. The bill allotted less than 2 percent of federal transportation funding to expand bicycle infrastructure, but that was enough to completely reshape the look and feel of many cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon (another recent #1 Bike City winner). And as The Nation reports, on the grassroots side, the Complete Street Movement has been advocating safer and more expansive bike routes for years. Governors in a number of states have approved their proposals, including Minnesota, and Complete Street language has found its way into federal legislation. In 2005 Minneapolis was also the recipient—along with Sheboygan County, WI; Marin County, CA; and Columbia, MO—of a $25 million federal grant for a pilot program to further development biking and walking paths over 10 years.
The multi-city grant will not be affected by whatever happens in the House and Senate this month, but funding in other parts of the country is less secure. This year is a critical one for transportation funding, as benchmark legislation enacted in 2003 is set to expire soon. And unfortunately for cyclists, it’s also a big year for fiscal conservatism. As Huffington reports, The February House bill was only the latest in a series of barebones transportation proposals that have sent biking infrastructure to the chopping block. Fully three transportation bills introduced last fall would have cut or eliminated funding for cycling projects, the latest a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in November. At issue is whether states can afford to set aside money for these initiatives, when so much of our nation’s (cars-only) infrastructure is in disrepair. Misunderstandings are also rife, says Huffington’s Joan Lowy: in defending his legislation, Paul said that states’ priorities should not be focused on “beautification,” which apparently includes things like bike safety projects.
Paul’s attitude about urban cycling may be a harbinger of a changing dynamic in Washington, one that sees government spending on almost anything as suspect. While much can change over the next five months, right now it seems like the G.O.P. will likely retain the House, and even have a decent shot at the Senate, according to The Hill. Should this happen, transportation policy could look very different this time next year.
But urban cyclists are nothing if not committed. Already, three-time Cyclocross champion Tim Johnson has begun a 520-mile trek from Boston to the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., scheduled for later this month. The trip and the summit are meant to raise funds and awareness on bike politics and safety, reports Slowtwitch. The Summit also aims to push Congress toward action on the Senate bill, which may stall due to lack of support in the House, says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. Whether that happens will depend on whether cycling enthusiasts can muster enough of a presence in Washington later this month, writes Clarke in the League’s blog.
For years, funding for cycling infrastructure has been more or less below the mainstream radar. It is, after all, a tiny percentage of federal transportation spending, and bikers themselves are a growing, but still small, group of people. But as gas prices approach potential record highs this summer, cycling may enter the national conversation in a bigger way. Whether we can repeat success stories like Minneapolis and Portland may have a lot to do with what happens this year.
Sources: Bicycling Magazine, PRI, Urbanland, The Nation, Bike Walk Twin Cities, Huffington, The Hill, Slowtwitch, League of American Bicyclists, NPR.
Image by jglsongs, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 12, 2012 11:21 AM
It was not hard to find Daylight Savings Time detractors this morning, in person or on the Web. For my part, I was surprised to find my morning bike ride plunged into darkness, and even more surprised that I was getting up almost two hours before dawn (which sounded a lot worse than it was).
I was not alone. A new blog post on Freakonomics argues that the lack of Monday morning sleep has a measurable effect on productivity, as tired workers are more likely to slack off than rested ones. The blog pointed to an average of 40 minutes of sleep lost as our circadian rhythms adjust to the time change, which makes groggy workers more likely to surf the Web and waste time. Pointing to the same study (originally published in the Journal of Applied Psychology), Patrik Jonsson wrote in Christian Science Monitor that there are also negative health effects to worry about, such as impaired immune responses and sleep deprivation. Huffington has even pointed to a possible increase in missed appointments, heart attacks and traffic accidents. Reportedly, the Applied Psychology researchers have called on Congress to rethink the anachronistic practice, as the costs outweigh any potential benefits.
For years people have put up with this imbalance mainly because DST was supposed to save on household energy consumption. But as Freakonomics coauthor Stephen Dubner pointed out in 2008, new evidence puts the old argument on shaky grounds. While people tend to turn off indoor lights during the now-sunlit evening hours, the benefits are offset by increases in heating and cooling during the morning twilight. The net effect, according to an NBER working paper was a slight overall increase in energy use nationwide.
So why do we still observe it? The practice isn’t all bad, says Nick Sawe of Stanford magazine. During the 1970s energy crisis—when DST was finally put into permanent practice—Americans saved “the equivalent of 10,000 barrels of oil a day” over a two-month period. The Department of Transportation also saw a decrease in auto accidents and crime. And some recent studies suggest that the old rationale that DST lowers energy use is right on—but only if DST is extended year-round. During the early 2000s energy crisis, California tried this approach with surprising success, a result the whole country saw when it increased DST by a month in 2007.
There is also a positive impact on renewables, says Sawe. Because DST reduces peak demand for energy—especially in the evening—it puts less stress on renewable sources like solar and wind that may be less consistent due to weather or other factors. And, as National Geographic’s Brian Handwerk reveals, while DST energy savings is marginal to nonexistent nationwide, it’s much more measurable in areas outside the Deep South, like the Midwest and California coast. This is mainly because people in cooler regions are less likely to use air conditioning.
As controversial as DST is now, it’s hard to imagine how we’d ever get to observe it year-round. Ironically, this means we may never see the system’s greatest benefits. In any case, there is something to be said for an extra hour of sunlight in the evening—summer seems that much closer. Mornings will be tough for a while, but it won’t be dark forever.
Sources: Freakonomics Blog, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, NBER, Stanford, National Geographic.
Therese F (Photographerpandora) licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, March 12, 2012 8:34 AM
The whole Kony 2012
debate has gotten me thinking about how activism has changed over the past few
years, especially with the explosion of social media use. Back in 2010, Malcolm
Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in The New
Yorker about the so-called “Twitter
Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran the previous year. Many observers had
jumped to the conclusion that social media had reinvented grassroots activism,
that, of all things, Facebook and Twitter were now powerful tools for populist
change. But as Gladwell argued, activists’ use of Twitter in both countries had
been way overblown, and in fact, it
was hard to see how social media could ever live up to claims like that.
Historically, most social movements, like civil rights in the U.S., had been
based on what sociologists call “strong ties”—activists were more likely to
commit time, energy, and personal safety, if they belonged to a strong,
cohesive group of like minded friends. By contrast, social media are based on “weak
ties” with very low personal commitment required of participants. Facebook
users were more likely to belong to a “Save Darfur” online group than to make
protest signs or risk arrest. If social media were having an impact on young
people, it was not in terms of civic engagement.
A lot of things have happened since then, most importantly
the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Both made heavy
use of social media to organize, communicate, and get the word out to a
larger public. Facebook allowed activists in Tunisia to coordinate and plan
the radar of a clueless and very 20th-century regime. A new
smartphone app allowed activists in the U.S. to broadcast episodes of
police brutality as they were happening. And, yes, Twitter let demonstrators
communicate in mass numbers quickly and effectively (some state prosecutors
have even subpoenaed
Occupy protesters’ Twitter feeds in recent months).
But, in spite of those developments, Gladwell’s argument
still has a lot of validity today. The fact is that the basic elements of
grassroots activism have not changed since the invention of Twitter. The role
social media played in Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square was to facilitate and
streamline on-the-group organizing, not to take its place. The important
flashpoints in those movements were still physical, and involved the same
dynamics as previous grassroots struggles. And as The Atlantic’sNathan
Jurgenson has argued, Occupy
was in many ways explicitly low-tech, from the (entirely print) People’s
Library, to general assembly hand signs, to the iconic human microphone. While
Occupy made use of new media to organize and coordinate with itself, once
organized, it behaved much more traditionally.
And yet there are many activists and groups that still seek
to address very real issues entirely through social media. Over the past decade
or so, Facebook has probably been the most notorious. Especially in the U.S.,
issue-oriented Facebook groups have a history of being very popular, very good
at raising awareness, but
very bad at raising cash and affecting change, says Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy’s Net Effect blog. Like Gladwell, Morozov points to a brand of
activism that is low-risk and essentially unconnected with larger groups or
experiences. A powerful illustration is the group a Danish psychologist started
in 2009 to address a problem that didn’t actually exist (the group opposed a
never-planned dismantling of a fountain in Copenhagen). Within a week, the
group had 28,000 members. And interestingly, activists in the Global South seem
to be much better at translating digital participation into physical action. An
Facebook group in Colombia got hundreds of thousands of people to march
against the guerilla force in almost 200 cities in 2008. This may be because while joining a political Facebook
group from Bogota or Cairo can be a brave act of personal conscience, in the
U.S., there is very little danger. And in a network of weak ties, low personal risk means low personal investment.
This brings us to the now-ubiquitous Kony 2012 campaign, a
movement that has generated quite a bit of awareness
and controversy over the past few days. A viral video on the group’s
website has already garnered tens of millions of views, but many observers have
criticized the film’s overly
simplistic portrayal of Ugandans and the larger conflict. Spending only a
few of its thirty minutes on East Africa, the film’s moralistic message seems more
akin to White Man’s Burden than humanitarianism—and many have criticized its
commodification of the conflict, especially in light of Invisible Children’s allegedly
shady finances. The group has certainly accomplished its stated goal of
raising awareness about Kony, the LRA, and child soldiers in Africa, but it is
hard for many to connect the film’s slick simplicity and the group’s
consumerist message with facts on the ground.
But more broadly, Invisible Children’s use of social media
has much more in common with groups like “Save Darfur” than with genuinely
grassroots battles like Occupy. In the film, the campaign’s founder Jason
Russell talks about the need to “make Joseph Kony a household name.” To do
this, they want to get the attention not only of the American public, but also
of “20 culture makers” and “12 policymakers,” including Bill Gates, Lady Gaga,
and Ban Ki-moon. While Russell urges ordinary people to call their
representatives and poster their neighborhoods, it’s these 32 people that he
believes will have the most impact. “We are making Kony world news by
redefining the propaganda we see all day, everyday, that dictates who and what
we pay attention to,” he says.
But it’s hard to see how this redefinition plays out,
especially as the campaign relies almost exclusively on the “weak ties” and
low-risk participation that generally have very little social impact. If it’s
our job to spread the video, buy
the “Action Kit,” get the attention of celebrities, and not much else, what
exactly are we redefining? In the film, Russell laments that “the few with the
money and the power” tend to frame and address issues in their interests, but
that’s exactly what Invisible Children is seeking to do. In encouraging young
people to participate in clearly delineated ways for clearly delineated
reasons, the group ignores the critical thinking and bottom-up organizing that
made other movements so successful—with or without social media.
Of course, all this has to do with what Invisible Children
hopes to accomplish. If their goal is to “make Joseph Kony a household name,”
then they did a fine job. The popularity of the group’s film was unprecedented,
speed with which it spread was astounding. As a result, tens of millions of
people know more about Uganda and East Africa than ever before. However, if the
group wants to work out some of the complicated questions that have surfaced
over the past week about Uganda’s own
poor human rights record, or the U.S.’s equally poor history of
humanitarian intervention, or the neocolonial
dimensions the campaign has assumed, then more bottom-up methods of
organizing may be a good place to start. As Occupy and the Arab Spring have
shown, young people have a lot more to offer than their money and their
Sources: Kony2012.com, Christian
Science Monitor, The
New Yorker, Wired,
Jazeera English, Huffington
Daily Beast, Amnesty
Thursday, March 08, 2012 3:19 PM
Communicating negative feelings to others can be tricky. Oftentimes, social pressure pushes our expressed moods upward, making it difficult to articulate feelings honestly—outside of easily classifiable events like the death of a loved one or a painful break-up.
The stigma around negativity comes from a cultural obsession with optimism, psychologist Aaron Sackett of St. Thomas University told Psychology Today. For its first hundred-odd years, psychology focused almost exclusively on dysfunction—that is, what was clinically wrong with us. In the 1990s, the positive psychology movement reacted against this trend by emphasizing how otherwise healthy people could psychologically grow and thrive. As Psychology reporter Annie Murphy Paul argues, this idea was a perfect fit for the booming nineties, but cultural and social changes since then have made the message resonate less. And now, new research suggests that optimism and positivity may be less useful than once thought.
Rather than incessant positivity, Paul maintains, a more useful attitude is a balance between positive and negative mindsets, with an emphasis on flexibility. And while optimism can often be a good motivator, pessimism can be equally powerful and valuable. “Pessimism is an ego-protection strategy,” Sackett told Psychology. It can also motivate us to work harder to avoid potential setbacks, and allows us to carefully navigate uncertain conditions.
Blind positivity, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect. As Paul notes, a recent study published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Developmentfound that optimism at the wrong time can lead to depression. This is especially true in situations where people were not prepared for inevitable outcomes, such as the death of an elderly friend.
At the same time, most of us seem to be hardwired for exactly that kind of blind optimism. As Andrea Anderson reports in Scientific American Mind, researchers at University College London have found a persistent “optimism bias” among a large majority of people. Fully 79 percent of participants were found to underestimate their chances of having negative experiences and overestimate their chances of positive ones—despite receiving evidence to the contrary. According to Anderson, being aware of the optimism bias may be essential to avoid its potential pitfalls, as unreasoning optimism can be dangerous. The findings were so consistent, in fact, that researchers speculated that they could “signal anxiety or depression” among the fifth of participants who responded differently.
And, as psychiatrist Neel Burton argues, also in Psychology Today, depression may be a more useful state than previously thought. While depression can be painful and debilitating, it can also provide a window to process and rethink complex or changing circumstances. And because depression has clear genetic causes, and because it has not receded in the larger population over time, Burton hypothesizes that it may produce some adaptive advantage. Just as sickle-cell anemia also produces the clear evolutionary advantage of immunity to malaria, depression may confer empathy and thoughtfulness in its sufferers—traits with obvious social and personal benefits. Without the cloud of incessant optimism, people with a tendency toward depression might see the world as more realistic, even more meaningful.
But, as Burton maintains, that is not to say that depression is on the whole good or necessary—just that it may hold some positive aspects that have mostly gone unnoticed. As The Atlantic reminds us, like many mental illnesses, depression remains mostly untreated among Americans. But real treatment means more than blind optimism and positive thinking. It means wrestling with personal barriers and social expectations that generally don’t match one another, especially in a culture of relentless optimism.
As Aaron Sackett told Psychology Today, “In America, optimism is like a cult.” There is indeed a power in positive thinking, but blind embrace of ideas like happiness and optimism may cloud a larger picture.
Sources: Psychology Today, Scientific American Mind, The Atlantic.
Image by Filosofias filosoficas, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, March 06, 2012 10:48 AM
The practical and moral implications of erecting a paywall are not easy to untangle. So it’s no surprise that even the big important sources like the New York Times have gone back and forth. Back in September 2007, NYT announced that its entire print edition would be available online free of charge. The risky move made a big splash in the world of online news as other less profitable papers weighed the benefits and costs of following suit.
Like a lot of news junkies, I was delighted by the decision. In fact, the idea of paying for information seemed a little absurd to me at the time. As a student at the University of Minnesota, I had complete access to databases like JSTOR and LexisNexis. I relied on the fact that if I needed a book that Wilson Library or Andersen Library didn’t have, I could order it free of charge through Inter-Library Loan. And a surprising number of assigned readings had the familiar Modern History Sourcebook URL—a huge online database of primary history—free to all.
That the New York Timeswas also free to online users made perfect sense. The Internet offered free access to dictionaries and encyclopedias—why not newspapers? Why should information and news be reduced to a buyable, sellable product? What did subscription charges and advertising revenue have to do with reporting the news anyway?
Of course, the answer is quite a lot, especially to an industry in crisis. What’s more, it seems the free content party may be coming to an end. Last week, the Los Angeles Timesannounced that it was erecting a paywall for its online edition, thereby joining the litany of other sources like the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the dozens of local papers owned by Gannett that have already done so. Similarly, broadcasters plan to stream NCAA March Madness tournaments and analysis behind a paywall of their own.
The NYT window itself lasted just over three years. Last year—amidst critical reporting from the Arab Spring, no less—the paper announced the return of its pesky paywall, and that was the beginning of the end. But if smaller publications breathed a sigh of relief, the respite probably didn’t last.
For a struggling paper or magazine, the less consumers expect to get free content, the better. Newspapers have been hemorrhaging revenue since the late nineties, and it’s difficult to see how a traditional business model can respond to online content. But at the same time, many have become dependent on the very media that so threaten their existence.
Take bloggers. As Kevin Drum argues in Mother Jones, bloggers, like himself, rely on an enormous pool of free online content to glean and contextualize information. It’s a role created by a media landscape that couldn’t possibly be replicated any other way. But it’s also a role that many newspapers and print magazines have embraced, and now may need to preserve.
Even more traditional journalistic tasks are beholden to the Internet. When I was an intern at In These Times back in 2010, we relied on free online content for fact-checking. That academic journals, government databases, and newspapers were digitally at our fingertips made checking accuracy much more efficient and organized. And while In These Times and countless other publications certainly conducted fact-checking before the Internet came around, many of them also had larger staffs then—even whole fact-checking positions. Today, smaller staffs and fewer resources mean efficiency is at a premium, which again makes online all the more essential.
Similarly, the Internet’s rise has enabled and perhaps compelled the explosion in freelance and contract labor in journalism and publishing (not to mention those tricky unpaid internships). And now, proofing, copyediting, and fact-checking are even being outsourced from struggling newsrooms to foreign countries, reports Megan Tady of FAIR Extra.
“A new era of journalism is certainly upon us, where a newspaper simply can’t be successful without an online presence,” she writes. “Many journalists like to think that they’re irreplaceable, while media companies are beginning to think that they’re outsourceable.” In more ways than one, the rise of the Internet is responsible for this crisis, but ironically, the Internet is also necessary for the freelance editing and outsourcing that a lot of papers rely on to stay alive.
And of course, it wasn’t always about survival. The costs of doing business in the new era are wreaking havoc on what used to be essential for good journalism, writes former Inquirer reporter Chris Satullo. “Your real worry should not be whether newspapers survive,” he argues. “What you should worry about is the future of newsrooms, those buzzing, resourceful dens of collaboration that make everyone who works in them better than they could be alone.”
Newspapers and magazines do have choices, but not many. If more of the big names rebuild their paywalls it may take some of the pressure off smaller and more local publications to provide free content. The alternatives—relying on unpaid labor, scattering newsrooms across the country and overseas, dumping foreign correspondents and bureaus—are not pleasant. The trouble is no one wants to be first to take the plunge. When the London Times imposed a paywall in 2010, they lost ninety percent of their online readership in less than three weeks, apparently proving the theory that online users will simply go somewhere else to avoid paying.
But so far, the New York Times’ model has fared much better (even as some readers beat the system), and this is good news for smaller sources. If consumers can get over their abrasion to paying for news, and if news sources can get over their fear of asking for it, the Internet may be a far less threatening place for journalism.
Sources: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Gannett, All Things Digital, Mother Jones, FAIR Extra, Newsworks, PBS, American Journalism Review, The Guardian, Columbia Journalism Review, Wired.
Image by SusanLesch, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, February 27, 2012 3:01 PM
Remember those historical maps of European languages in the decades before World War I? They’re pretty common, especially buried in the Bargain Books section of Barnes and Noble. Anyway, the premise was that, by the middle of the 19th century, Europeans were beginning to identify more with their own nationality and language than with their imperial governments. Anachronistic states like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire had a hard time dealing with passionate nationalist movements erupting in places like Greece and Serbia, and a lot of this had to do with language.
The maps themselves are pretty telling. The boundary between, say, Russia and Austria is a single red line, thin and elegant. But large colored sections with labels like Ukrainian and White Russian straddle the borders, and form large, amorphous blobs across much of Eastern Europe. Because people are less predictable than countries—or at least less tidy—there seems to be little rhyme or reason. Pockets of Finns and Estonians color northern Russia, Greeks go as far east as the Black Sea, and Germans are everywhere.
From this information, it’s clear in hindsight that big changes were in store for Europe.
Today, borders are a lot less important. Innovations like the Schengen Area have made a ghost of centuries of European warfare, and trade pacts around the world further delegitimize official boundaries. A lot of this change is based on communication. By the numbers, Facebook is the third largest country on earth, and Verizon is (economically) bigger than Peru.
Aside from their sheer size, it’s also clear that social media networks, like European languages, are making political boundaries even less significant. Two maps on Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps blog come to mind. The first is a visualization of Twitter languages across Europe, which looks something like a multicolored “Europe at night” photo. As Jacobs notes, the maps illustrate not only that Twitter has expanded well beyond the English-speaking world, but also that languages are no more tied to national borders than they were in the 19th century.
In the U.S., language is a little more homogenous. But patterns of communication are just as messy and unpredictable as in Europe. Another Strange Maps creation superimposes pockets of cell phone “communities” on U.S. states, which, surprisingly, changes their layout quite a bit. Because people in southern Illinois are more likely to call St. Louis than Chicago, Missouri has grown in size, even taking parts of eastern Kansas. Minnesota has taken western Wisconsin and connected with Iowa, and one of the Carolinas has annexed the other.
Boundaries, even between states, still profoundly influence our lives, and it’s especially hard to deny their importance during a federal election cycle. But the way we connect with one another is not so clear cut, and that’s likely to inspire ever more complex ways of viewing the world around us.
Strange Maps, BBC, The Economist, Mongabay.com.
Image by Andrei Nacu, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, February 23, 2012 4:01 PM
Back in January, Will Oremus of Slate posted a “horse-race” animated video based on the Republican nominating contest so far. Complete with a checkered-flag delegate count and a news ticker with headlines like “Romney and Perry Are Neck and Neck,” the cartoon is a surprisingly good overview of the past twenty-three months of indecision. It’s also a vivid symbol of the current state of electoral politics. As Oremus concludes, “If people want a horse race, why not give them a horse race?”
True enough. But which people are we talking about? From the media blitz of biweekly debates, daily front page stories, and ubiquitous attack ads, you’d think prospective voters would be turning out in record numbers. But participation in caucuses and primaries has so far been dismal, begging the question of whether this election cycle is more about entertainment than participation.
Compared with 2008, turnout has been down in almost every state nominating contest, from a 7 percent drop in Colorado, to almost 25 percent in Nevada, Minnesota, and Florida, to more than half in Missouri. And even in states where numbers were more or less the same as in 2008, the share of registered Republicans among participants has dropped off. In New Hampshire, this group made up 17 percent less than during the previous cycle. South Carolina is the only state to see a substantial increase from 2008, despite the fact that overall spending and media attention was higher in other states like Florida. As Barry Sussman of Nieman Watchdogpoints out, this downward trend is occurring despite the fact that there is no Democratic contest to siphon off moderates and independents.
But what is really surprising about the current election cycle is the level of spectacle it is assuming. Voter interest may be down across the board, but viewer interest is way up. Ratings for the almost biweekly Republican debates have dwarfed 2008-cycle numbers, and have gone up since the beginning of the year. Millions have tuned in to watch the slick pageantry—which for some reason usually includes studio audiences—and comparisons to reality TV are not hard to find.
Some observers say that the unending debates this year have had a positive impact, perhaps making spending on ads less attractive if candidates can get their message out in a kind of public forum. This may be a valuable tool in the immediate aftermath of the Citizens United decision, goes the argument. Fair point. But with such low turnout in the political process itself, does it really matter where the media blitz is coming from? If candidates are just going over rehearsed sound bites and attacking each other, how valuable is it?
The real danger is an election cycle in which people are more interested in passive entertainment than active participation—and a media system that enables this turnover. The overwhelming media circus is what Tom Engelhardt of The Nation calls a “too-big-to-fail juggernaut,” divorced from voters as well as reality.
Slate’s horse race video is a good metaphor, taking us through the nearly two years of PR campaigns, personal attacks, and candidacy announcements that we’ve seen so far. The actual general election—the part where a group of people who are definitely on the ballot compete for actual votes—lasts just under ten weeks. But in order to get to that point, we need to endure another six months of increasingly nasty debates, slick attack ads, and endless dispatches from the Derby infield. Don’t forget the popcorn.
On The Media (NPR)
Sam Ross-Brown is an assistant editor at Utne Reader.
Image by Howcheng, licensed under Creative Commons.
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