Saturday, June 29, 2013

Friday, June 28, 2013


The good folks at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have a nice post offering a reality check on claims that welfare reform was, in Eric Cantor's words, "nothing but a success." The context is the desire of House Republicans to slash the food stamp program (SNAP).

CBPP's criteria for success, however, seem to be different from the House leaders' criteria. CBPP judges the policy in terms of its impacts on employment and child poverty, that sort of thing. House leaders, on the other hand, sometimes talk about the same goals, but their actions suggest that they really care about punishing poor single moms and proving they are tough fiscal conservatives by taking food out of the mouths of hungry youngsters. By these standards, ending SNAP benefits for unemployed families could be a real winner!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Pigpen made o[f] parts of old beds, near Harlingen, Texas, in white migrant camp. Russell Lee, 1939.

Marriage equality!

Well, a lot less inequality anyway. So odd that everything hinged on Anthony Kennedy's view of the world.

Postscript: Not everything... Kennedy was in the minority on the Prop 8 decision, Roberts and Scalia with the majority... go figure.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Carson Pass country, once more

Is it my favorite place in the Sierras? Quite possibly. What does it have going for it?
1. Best wildflower display I know of.
2. Wonderful secluded campgrounds.
3. A fine old California roadhouse, the Kirkwood Inn.
4. Beautiful mountain lakes and wide open high-Sierra scenery.
5. None of the crowds you get in Yosemite.
6. Cool, varied geology.
7. Many attractions along Rte. 88 heading up, most notably super-cute, historic Volcano, CA; nearby Black Chasm cavern (very cool crystalline formations); serene and fascinating Chaw’se, the Indian Grinding Rock State Park; and the up-and-coming Lodi wine region.
8. Lichens!


I am rather fond of spiders, snakes, and millipedes... I have even made my peace with scorpions and centipedes... but not ticks, though I must admit that they are impressive little buggers. I have observed the following behavior many times, most recently along a local trail where a number of them seemed to be on tip-toes at the very end of a tassel of grass arching out over the trail:
Many ticks lie in wait for their hosts in the questing position, holding onto vegetation with their hind pairs of legs and stretching out the front pairs, ready to latch on to a passing person or animal. Depending on the species, a tick can detect carbon dioxide in the host’s breath; odor; heat; moisture; vibrations; or even a shadow.
I managed to squeeze around them this time... I think...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"Kerry Prods India to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions"

Something about this story reminds me of glass houses and stones... not sure what exactly...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The lives of other Bill Sundstroms

Yes, there are others.

This one even looks a bit like me and seems to live in Minnesota (a Sundstrom in Minnesota... surprise surprise!*). He has a link to Democracy Now! so I have a feeling he and I have compatible politics.

* Update: Nope, now lives near San Diego, according to web site.

Here is another one who works with Campus Crusade for Christ in Europe. Not my thing, but I respect that he has followed his calling. He may have Jesus, but I have more hair.

The last in a series...

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tricky ways to pull down a skyscraper

Some day nanobots will eat our old buildings and excrete the recycled materials where we are building anew. But until then, we need Japanese engineers to figure out how to do the job safely and efficiently. Frankly, this video suffers from way too much reporter talking head syndrome... show me the action! But if you skip to the time-lapse footage of the two methods described--basically, top down and bottom up--wow, way cool (roughly minutes 2:00 and 4:00).

On (not) blaming the victim

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice post on the Moynihan Report and a recent update from the Urban Institute. Moynihan notoriously argued that many "current" (as of 1965) problems of African-Americans could be traced not only to active discrimination by whites, but also and perhaps moreso to the "tangle of pathology" associated with black family structure--in particular, single parenthood. That claim certainly smacked of blaming the victims, or at least the victims' culture, but as TNC points out, Moynihan was very clear about the historical roots of "negro" family structure in centuries of racial oppression, and therefore who was to blame.

Moynihan's emphasis on family structure remains controversial, but decades of research leave little doubt that pernicious feedback loops operating between racial discrimination and stigma, poverty, segregation, and family structure and function play a central role in the perpetuation of African-American disadvantage. In his recent posts, TNC has been emphasizing the role of concentration of poverty, segregation, and neighborhood effects, although my reading of recent research on the importance of neighborhood spillovers suggests that the evidence is mixed.

Race still matters, whether operating through present or historical oppression. But could the challenges of racial injustice nonetheless be confronted effectively with "color-blind" or "color-neutral" policy? The practical and political attractions of doing so are pretty obvious, and hence we observe the conversation often shifting from race to poverty, inequality, and class: e.g., class-based affirmative action plans, early childhood interventions, etc. TNC thinks the answer is No: "...liberals today are arguing that 300 years of immoral policy can be undone by changing the subject...."

I remain agnostic. Vicious cycles are vicious, but they offer the advantage that one can try to break the adverse feedback loop in multiple locations. Vigorous enforcement of "color-blind" anti-discrimination law, full-employment macro policy, generously supported universal early childhood development programs, sensible and race-neutral drug enforcement policy, and a stronger safety net... these could add up to a virtuous cycle for African-Americans, and many other disadvantaged Americans as well. A fella can dream, can't he?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Labor of lichen love

I own a fair number of field guides and books about natural history, and as far as I know there has never been another book quite like Lichens of North America, by Brodo, Sharnoff, and Sharnoff (BSS). What exactly is this beautiful thing? It contains detailed descriptions, photos, and identification keys for more than 1000 species, yet weighing in at just under 9 pounds (!) it is strictly infeasible as a field guide unless you have a mule to pack it around for you. As a guide, then, it lends itself to collecting specimens and examining them at home-- and since fairly simple chemical tests seem crucial to identification in many cases, this is how it would often be used anyway. Needless to say, collecting is often to be discouraged, especially given our relative ignorance about the conservation status of lichens. BSS are careful to discuss these issues in their introductory chapters.

The photos, taken almost entirely by the Sharnoffs, are simply stunning. It is mindboggling to contemplate the time, travel, and sheer persistence that went into locating, identifying, and photographing every damn lichen in the book. The heft, page count, and beauty of the photos, drawings, and design cry out "coffee table"... but then, how many folks will allow the lowly lichens to displace their Monet at Giverny, or Earth from Above?

Lichens, as I hope you recall from grade-school science class, are actually the symbiotic relationship between two organisms, a fungus and an alga. I learned something new in the intro, which is that lichens did not evolve from a common ancestor, and therefore "cannot be considered collectively as a single branch on the evolutionary tree" (p. 4). Lichens are also considered useful canaries in the coal mine, given their sensitivity to air pollution. Now that we know that 90% of the human biome consists of "non-human" cells, many of which seem critical to good health, we may have more in common with the humble, symbiotic lichens than we thought.

$107 at Amazon, and worth every penny!

Arctoparmelia centrifuga, from Stephen Sharnoff's web site:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Stephen Sharnoff...

... takes pictures of lichens and slime molds, among other things (formerly in collaboration with his late wife, Sylvia). Wonderful.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Solitary leaking

This David Brooks column about Edward Snowden surely must earn the prize for the most bombastic, Orwellian, and despicable of his career. "From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be..." and off we go! Turning a complex, deadly serious issue involving civil liberties, personal moral responsibility, abuse of executive power, and security against the terrorist threat into a nasty, condescending personal attack and a sort-of condemnation of... what?... the depravities of computer-nerd culture?! But then again, I often cannot bring myself to read his columns, so there may be even better work in his oeuvre that I am unaware of. Does he ever read the morning paper and ask himself: Oh my god, did I actually write THAT?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Serena quote of the day

“I think my winning appetite was really high,” Williams said. Kinda like playing against a hungry t-rex. Only with much stronger arms... and a highly evolved strategic brain...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Daniel Ellsberg on the Manning case

A fantastic interview with an American hero. Every American should read it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Equality of opportunity, II

From Ben Bernanke's recent Baccalaureate address at Princeton:
The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. 
Ben's concept of fairness here appears to rely entirely on noblesse oblige. Sorry Ben, I love you man, but that just won't "pass ethical muster."

UPDATE: Krugman read it a little differently...!