kottke.org posts about USA
I do not officially have a bucket list1 but if I did have one, watching a total solar eclipse would be on it. Was just talking about it the other day in fact. Well. I am pretty damn excited for the Great American Eclipse of 2017!
In August 21, 2017, millions of people across the United States will see nature's most wondrous spectacle -- a total eclipse of the Sun. It is a scene of unimaginable beauty; the Moon completely blocks the Sun, daytime becomes a deep twilight, and the Sun's corona shimmers in the darkened sky. This is your guide to understand, prepare for, and view this rare celestial event.
It goes right through the middle of the country too...almost everyone in the lower 48 is within a day's drive of seeing it. Cities in the path of the totality include Salem, OR, Jackson, WY, Lincoln, NE, St. Louis, MO (nearly), Nashville, TN, and Charleston, SC.
Weather will definitely play a factor in actually seeing the eclipse, so I will be keeping an eye on Eclipser ("Climatology and Maps for the Eclipse Chaser") as the event draws near. Early analysis indicates Oregon as the best chance for clear skies. Matt, I am hereby laying claim to your guest room in three years time. So excited!!
 Also on this hypothetical bucket list: dunking a basketball, going to outer space, learning to surf, and two chicks at the same time. ↩
For the New York Review of Books, Gordon Wood reviews Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. Any review that starts "This is a strange and remarkable book" is worth paying attention to.
This is a strange and remarkable book. There must be dozens of books on the Declaration of Independence written from every conceivable point of view -- historical, political, theoretical, philosophical, and textual -- but no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like this one. If we read the Declaration of Independence slowly and carefully, Danielle Allen believes, then the document can become a basic primer for our democracy. It can be something that all of us -- not just scholars and educated elites but common ordinary people -- can participate in, and should participate in if we want to be good democratic citizens.
Over the past century, adult per capita cigarette consumption in the US rose from nearly nothing in 1900 to a peak of more than 4000 cigarettes per year in the early 60s and then fell to the current rate of around 1000/yr. Currently, smoking in the US correlates highly with level of education and poverty.
Smoking, as it happens, also appears to be highly correlated with both poverty and education levels in the United States: 27.9 percent of American adults living below the poverty line are smokers, while just 17 percent of those living above it are, according to the CDC; 24.7 percent of American adults without a high school diploma are smokers, while 23.1 percent of those with one are. Only 9.1 percent of those with an undergraduate degree, and 5.9 percent of those with a graduate degree are smokers.
According to Wikipedia, the US is 51st among nations in annual smoking rates. Eastern Europe and Russia hold all the top spots, but their per capita rates (~2800/yr) are all lower than the rate in the US in the 60s. But that's nothing compared to Scotland...their rate was once 7000 cigarettes per year. (via @dens)
What's your best guess without looking: How many US states are at least partially north of the southernmost part of Canada?
(It's probably way more than you think.)
Ok, I'll give you two hints...
1. Wyoming is almost *entirely* north of the southernmost point in Canada.
2. Part of a state that borders Mexico is north of the southernmost point in Canada.
One more big hint: more than 25% of US states are entirely north of Canada's southernmost point.
So, here's the answer:
27 US states, more than half, are at least partially north of Canada's southernmost point. (via @stevenstrogatz)
From the NY Times' new site, The Upshot, a bunch of maps showing the borders of baseball team fandom, with close-ups of various dividing lines: the Munson-Nixon Line, The Molitor Line, The Reagan-Nixon Line, and the Morgan-Ripken Line.
The NYC and Bay Area maps are so sad...the Mets and A's get no love. (via @atotalmonet)
American favorites (blue jeans, whiskey, burgers) have been embraced by the Japanese, who have been turning out improved versions of the originals.
In Japan, the ability to perfectly imitate-and even improve upon-the cocktails, cuisine and couture of foreign cultures isn't limited to American products; there are spectacular French chefs and masterful Neapolitan pizzaioli who are actually Japanese. There's something about the perspective of the Japanese that allows them to home in on the essential elements of foreign cultures and then perfectly recreate them at home. "What we see in Japan, in a wide range of pursuits, is a focus on mastery," says Sarah Kovner, who teaches Japanese history at the University of Florida. "It's true in traditional arts, it's true of young people who dress up in Harajuku, it's true of restaurateurs all over Japan."
It's easy to dismiss Japanese re-creations of foreign cultures as faddish and derivative-just other versions of the way that, for example, the new American hipster ideal of Brooklyn is clumsily copied everywhere from Paris to Bangkok. But the best examples of Japanese Americana don't just replicate our culture. They strike out, on their own, into levels of appreciation and refinement rarely found in America. They give us an opportunity to consider our culture as refracted through a foreign and clarifying prism.
Another example, not mentioned in the piece, is coffee. From the WSJ a couple of years ago:
"My boss won't let me make espressos," says the barista. "I need a year more, maybe two, before he's ready to let customers drink my shots undiluted by milk. And I'll need another whole year of practice after that if I want to be able to froth milk for cappuccinos."
Only after 18 years as a barista in New York did his boss, the cafe's owner, feel qualified to return home to show off his coffee-making skills. Now, at Bear Pond's main branch, he stops making espressos at an early hour each day, claiming that the spike on the power grid after that time precludes drawing the voltage required for optimal pressure.
According to an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the obesity rate of American 2- to 5-year-old children has dropped from 14% in 2004 to 8% in 2012.
Children now consume fewer calories from sugary beverages than they did in 1999. More women are breast-feeding, which can lead to a healthier range of weight gain for young children. Federal researchers have also chronicled a drop in overall calories for children in the past decade, down by 7 percent for boys and 4 percent for girls, but health experts said those declines were too small to make much difference.
Barry M. Popkin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has tracked American food purchases in a large data project, said families with children had been buying lower-calorie foods over the past decade, a pattern he said was unrelated to the economic downturn.
He credited those habits, and changes in the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, for the decline in obesity among young children. The program, which subsidizes food for low-income women, reduced funding for fruit juices, cheese and eggs and increased it for whole fruits and vegetables.
Kevin Drum calls the drop "baffling".
While they still represent a small overall number, the popularity in the US of naming children after guns (Colt, Remington, Ruger, Gunner, Beretta) is up in recent years.
In 2002, only 194 babies were named Colt, while in 2012 there were 955. Just 185 babies were given the name Remington in 2002, but by 2012 the number had jumped to 666. Perhaps the most surprising of all, however, is a jump in the name Ruger's (America's leading firearm manufacturer) from just 23 in 2002 to 118 in 2012. "This name [Ruger] is more evidence of parents' increasing interest in naming children after firearms," Wattenberg writes. "Colt, Remington, and Gauge have all soared, and Gunner is much more common than the traditional name Gunnar."
The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has turned more attention towards America's growing heroin problem, where the gateway drug is often a prescription painkiller. From PBS Newshour: "Why more Americans are getting high -- and overdosing -- on heroin."
As I mentioned at the time, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State to the "full-blown heroin crisis."
We are divided by an increasingly wide income gap. Often, this gap can be seen from across a street or park (even if we sometimes try not to look). The NYT takes us for a journey into the world of a homeless girl named Dasani in a multipart piece called Invisible Child:
On the Brooklyn block that is Dasani's dominion, shoppers can buy a $3 malt liquor in an airless deli where food stamps are traded for cigarettes. Or they can cross the street for a $740 bottle of chardonnay at an industrial wine shop accented with modern art.
Here's David Simon, creator of The Wire, on the two Americas:
I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It's astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.
Leo Tolstoy probably wasn't thinking of an American Thanksgiving when he opened Anna Karenina with this line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." These days, all families -- happy or not -- are less alike than ever. In the NYT, Natalie Angier takes a look at the changing definition of family:
Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago -- than even half a year ago. In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows.
And they're all coming over to your house for Thanksgiving, which brings us to another quote -- this one from Oscar Wilde: "After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations."
Buzzfeed asked some Brits to label states on a US map. They didn't do so well:
My favorite is "Further South Dakota". In fairness, most US citizens would be hard pressed to name any of the counties of England, much less place them on a map.
Update: See how Americans fared on placing European countries. (Not well.)
You've likely seen the various dialect maps of the US...the Coke/soda/pop maps. The Atlantic Video team did a wonderful thing with them...they called native speakers around the country and asked them to pronounce some of the words featured on these maps.
It's one thing to read the difference between the pronounciations of "route", it's another thing entirely to hear them. I haven't lived in the Midwest since 2000 and I have since transitioned from "pop" to "soda", "waiting in line" to "waiting on line", and am working on switching to "sneakers" from "tennis shoes" (or even "tennies"). But I was surprised to learn that I still pronounce "bag" differently than everyone else!
Writing in the Times, Frank Bruni notes the increasing tendency in the US to provide various levels of service for money.
Much has been made of commercial flights these days, with all those divisions between first class and coach. For various supplements or with various deals, you can get a few more inches of legroom or, shy of that, a prime aisle seat. You can get to board earlier or later, and thus hoard or miss out on the overhead bins. Will it be long before there's a ranked queue for the bathroom? I'm not even sure I'm kidding.
It's not that pecking orders or badges of affluence are anything new. Our homes, cars, clubs and clothes have long been advertisements of our economic clout, used and perceived that way.
But lately, the places and ways in which Americans are economically segregated and stratified have multiplied, with microclimates of exclusivity popping up everywhere. The plane mirrors the sports arena, the theater, the gym. Is it any wonder that class tensions simmer? In a country of rising income inequality and an economy that's moved from manufacturing to services, one thing we definitely make in abundance is distinctions.
Reminds me of Tom Junod's piece in Esquire about waiting in line as an expression of American democracy.
Apparently, an Englishman named Leonard Sim took his family to Disneyland a few years ago, and his vacation was ruined by waiting in line. He invented something called the Flash Pass, and then sold it to an English company called Lo-Q -- as in "Low Queue" -- which contracted it to Whitewater. So now, when you go to Whitewater and many other American amusement parks, you pay for parking ($15, at Whitewater), and then for admission ($37.50, for any human being over 48 inches tall), and finally for a locker ($16), and then, once you're inside, you can pay an extra $30 for a "standard" Flash Pass or $40 for the "gold." And then you can cut the lines.
It sounds like an innovative answer to the problem that everybody faces at an amusement park, and one perfectly in keeping with the approaches currently in place at airports and even on some crowded American highways -- perfectly in keeping with the two-tiering of America. You can pay for one level of access, or you can pay for another. If you have the means, you can even pay for freedom. There's only one problem: Cutting the line is cheating, and everyone knows it. Children know it most acutely, know it in their bones, and so when they've been waiting on a line for a half-hour and a family sporting yellow plastic Flash Passes on their wrists walks up and steps in front of them, they can't help asking why that family has been permitted the privilege of perpetrating what looks like an obvious injustice. And then you have to explain not just that they paid for it but that you haven't paid enough -- that the $100 or so that you've ponied up was just enough to teach your children that they are second- or third-class citizens.
This month, Smithsonian magazine tells the story of America using 101 objects drawn from the 19 musuems and research centers of the Smithsonian Institution. Among the objects are the original Star Spangled Banner flag, the passenger pigeon, the polio vaccine, the pill, and Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity.
A companion book, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, is available.
Using data from the 1860 US Census, the Department of the Interior made this map showing the percentages, by county, of the slave population of the southern states.
Though this map was simple, it showed the relationship between states' commitment to slavery and their enthusiasm about secession, making a visual argument about Confederate motivations.
Schulten writes that President Lincoln referred to this particular map often, using it to understand how the progress of emancipation might affect Union troops on the ground. The map even appears in the familiar Francis Bicknell Carpenter portrait First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, visible leaning against a wall in the lower right-hand corner of the room.
Here's a larger version. The numbers in some locations are staggering and sickening -- in many counties 75% of the population was enslaved and the rate is over 90% in a few places.
For the Journal of the American Revolution, Todd Andrlik compiled a list of the ages of the key participants in the Revolutionary War as of July 4, 1776. Many of them were surprisingly young:
Marquis de Lafayette, 18
James Monroe, 18
Gilbert Stuart, 20
Aaron Burr, 20
Alexander Hamilton, 21
Betsy Ross, 24
James Madison, 25
This is kind of blowing my mind...because of the compression of history, I'd always assumed all these people were around the same age. But in thinking about it, all startups need young people...Hamilton, Lafayette, and Burr were perhaps the Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg of the War. Some more ages, just for reference:
Thomas Jefferson, 33
John Adams, 40
Paul Revere, 41
George Washington, 44
Samuel Adams, 53
The oldest prominent participant in the Revolution, by a wide margin, was Benjamin Franklin, who was 70 years old on July 4, 1776. Franklin was a full two generations removed from the likes of Madison and Hamilton. But the oldest participant in the war was Samuel Whittemore, who fought in an early skirmish at the age of 80. I'll let Wikipedia take it from here:
Whittemore was in his fields when he spotted an approaching British relief brigade under Earl Percy, sent to assist the retreat. Whittemore loaded his musket and ambushed the British from behind a nearby stone wall, killing one soldier. He then drew his dueling pistols and killed a grenadier and mortally wounded a second. By the time Whittemore had fired his third shot, a British detachment reached his position; Whittemore drew his sword and attacked. He was shot in the face, bayoneted thirteen times, and left for dead in a pool of blood. He was found alive, trying to load his musket to fight again. He was taken to Dr. Cotton Tufts of Medford, who perceived no hope for his survival. However, Whittemore lived another 18 years until dying of natural causes at the age of 98.
Perhaps inspired by All Streets, Ben Fry's map of all the streets in the US, Nelson Minar built a US map out of all the rivers in the country.
Minar put all the data and files he used up on Github so you can make your own version.
There's been a lot of discussion recently about government programs like PRISM and how, according to defenders of such surveillance, they "only" collect metadata related to communications and not the content of the communication. In a clever article, Kieran Healy uses only the membership lists of various Boston-area organizations in the late 1770s to find out quite a lot about who might be the leaders of the nascent revolutionary cell. Even with this simple analysis, Paul Revere's name pops out of the data.
The analytical engine has arranged everyone neatly, picking out clusters of individuals and also showing both peripheral individuals and-more intriguingly-people who seem to bridge various groups in ways that might perhaps be relevant to national security. Look at that person right in the middle there. Zoom in if you wish. He seems to bridge several groups in an unusual (though perhaps not unique) way. His name is Paul Revere.
Once again, I remind you that I know nothing of Mr Revere, or his conversations, or his habits or beliefs, his writings (if he has any) or his personal life. All I know is this bit of metadata, based on membership in some organizations. And yet my analytical engine, on the basis of absolutely the most elementary of operations in Social Networke Analysis, seems to have picked him out of our 254 names as being of unusual interest.
Now, the Crown may have suspected Revere of anti-Royalist leanings without this analysis. But with the analysis, they all but know. Get Revere and a few other highly connected nodes into jail on some trumped-up charges and, voila, maybe the American Revolution never happens or is quickly quashed. Revere and the American Revolution is an extreme example of what Moxie Marlinspike is getting at in We Should All Have Something To Hide: that breaking the law is sometimes how society moves forward.
Over the past year, there have been a number of headline-grabbing legal changes in the US, such as the legalization of marijuana in CO and WA, as well as the legalization of same-sex marriage in a growing number of US states.
As a majority of people in these states apparently favor these changes, advocates for the US democratic process cite these legal victories as examples of how the system can provide real freedoms to those who engage with it through lawful means. And it's true, the bills did pass.
What's often overlooked, however, is that these legal victories would probably not have been possible without the ability to break the law.
The state of Minnesota, for instance, legalized same-sex marriage this year, but sodomy laws had effectively made homosexuality itself completely illegal in that state until 2001. Likewise, before the recent changes making marijuana legal for personal use in WA and CO, it was obviously not legal for personal use.
Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in MN, CO, and WA since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?
What if journalists from foreign countries wrote about the US the way US newspapers and magazines cover events in foreign countries?
On a recent visit to the United States by GlobalPost, signs of the increased security apparatus could be found everywhere.
At all national airports, passengers are now forced to undergo full-body scans before boarding any flights. Small cameras are perched on many street corners, recording the movements and actions of the public. And incessant warnings on public transportation systems encourage citizens to report any "suspicious activity" to authorities.
Several American villagers interviewed for this story said the ubiquitous government marketing campaign called, "If you see something, say something," does little to make them feel safer and, in fact, only contributes to a growing mistrust among the general population.
"I've deleted my Facebook account, stopped using email, or visiting websites that might be considered anti-regime," a resident of the northern city of Boston, a tough-as-nails town synonymous with rebellion, told GlobalPost. It was in Boston that an American militia first rose up against the British empire. "But my phone? How can I stop using my phone? This has gone too far."
In a book called Three Felonies A Day, Boston civil rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate says that everyone in the US commits felonies everyday and if the government takes a dislike to you for any reason, they'll dig in and find a felony you're guilty of.
The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have exploded in number but also become impossibly broad and vague. In Three Felonies a Day, Harvey A. Silverglate reveals how federal criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected from the English common law tradition and how prosecutors can pin arguable federal crimes on any one of us, for even the most seemingly innocuous behavior. The volume of federal crimes in recent decades has increased well beyond the statute books and into the morass of the Code of Federal Regulations, handing federal prosecutors an additional trove of vague and exceedingly complex and technical prohibitions to stick on their hapless targets. The dangers spelled out in Three Felonies a Day do not apply solely to "white collar criminals," state and local politicians, and professionals. No social class or profession is safe from this troubling form of social control by the executive branch, and nothing less than the integrity of our constitutional democracy hangs in the balance.
In response to a question about what happens to big company CEOs who refuse to go along with government surveillance requests, John Gilmore offers a case study in what Silverglate is talking about.
We know what happened in the case of QWest before 9/11. They contacted the CEO/Chairman asking to wiretap all the customers. After he consulted with Legal, he refused. As a result, NSA canceled a bunch of unrelated billion dollar contracts that QWest was the top bidder for. And then the DoJ targeted him and prosecuted him and put him in prison for insider trading -- on the theory that he knew of anticipated income from secret programs that QWest was planning for the government, while the public didn't because it was classified and he couldn't legally tell them, and then he bought or sold QWest stock knowing those things.
This CEO's name is Joseph P. Nacchio and TODAY he's still serving a trumped-up 6-year federal prison sentence today for quietly refusing an NSA demand to massively wiretap his customers.
You combine this with the uber-surveillance allegedly being undertaken by the NSA and other governmental agencies and you've got a system for more or less automatically accusing any US citizen of a felony. Free society, LOL ROFLcopter.
Update: For the past two years, the Wall Street Journal has been "examining the vastly expanding federal criminal law book and its consequences". (thx, jesse)
Joshua Katz has been studying American dialects and has made more than 120 maps of some of the differences in American speech. Here are a few examples:
Update: As he notes on the site, Katz's maps are based on the research and work of Bert Vaux...Vaux's maps of the same data can be found here. (thx, molly, margaret, & nicholas)
Surprisingly entertaining article about better choices for the state birds of each of the 50 US states.
4. Arkansas. Official state bird: northern mockingbird
Christ. What makes this even less funny is that there are like eight other states with mockingbird as their official bird. I'm convinced that the guy whose job it was to report to the state's legislature on what the official bird should be forgot until the day it was due and he was in line for a breakfast sandwich at Burger King. In a panic he walked outside and selected the first bird he could find, a dirty mockingbird singing its stupid head off on top of a dumpster.
What it should be: painted bunting
More hilarious science journalism, please. Yes, in addition to the excellent What If? (via @jessamyn)
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." And I'll give them heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a shorter lifespan. A growing body of research suggests that there is often a high health toll when it comes to coming to America.
A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And while their American-born children may have more money, they tend to live shorter lives than the parents.
The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country's 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.
The national rates of gun violence and homicide in the US have fallen significantly in past 20 years, but most people are unaware. From a recently released Pew Research report:
Nearly all the decline in the firearm homicide rate took place in the 1990s; the downward trend stopped in 2001 and resumed slowly in 2007. The victimization rate for other gun crimes plunged in the 1990s, then declined more slowly from 2000 to 2008. The rate appears to be higher in 2011 compared with 2008, but the increase is not statistically significant. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall also dropped in the 1990s before declining more slowly from 2000 to 2010, then ticked up in 2011.
Despite national attention to the issue of firearm violence, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is lower today than it was two decades ago. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, today 56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower.
The whys behind the drop in gun violence (and in crime in general) are more difficult to come by:
There is consensus that demographics played some role: The outsized post-World War II baby boom, which produced a large number of people in the high-crime ages of 15 to 20 in the 1960s and 1970s, helped drive crime up in those years.
A review by the National Academy of Sciences of factors driving recent crime trends (Blumstein and Rosenfeld, 2008) cited a decline in rates in the early 1980s as the young boomers got older, then a flare-up by mid-decade in conjunction with a rising street market for crack cocaine, especially in big cities. It noted recruitment of a younger cohort of drug seller with greater willingness to use guns. By the early 1990s, crack markets withered in part because of lessened demand, and the vibrant national economy made it easier for even low-skilled young people to find jobs rather than get involved in crime.
At the same time, a rising number of people ages 30 and older were incarcerated, due in part to stricter laws, which helped restrain violence among this age group. It is less clear, researchers say, that innovative policing strategies and police crackdowns on use of guns by younger adults played a significant role in reducing crime.
(via hacker news)
A list of the northernmost, southernmost, easternmost and westernmost cities/towns/villages in all 50 US states.
Vermont -- Northernmost: Derby Line. Southernmost: Vernon (specifically South Vernon area). Easternmost: Beecher Falls. Westernmost: Chimney Point.
California -- Northernmost: Tulelake (note: Fairport is more northerly but is considered a "former settlement") Southernmost: San Diego (San Ysidro District). Easternmost: Parker Dam. Westernmost: Ferndale.
New York -- Northernmost: Rouses Point. Southernmost: Staten Island-New York City (Tottenville Neighborhood) Easternmost: Montauk. Westernmost: Findley Lake.
US currency is already embarrassing and this new design for the $100 bill is not helping.
This may be worse than the horrible US passport.
After an exhaustive search, I have decided this photo most exemplifies life in these United States during the 1980s:
And if not that one, then one of several other possible candidates from Roger Minick's Sightseer project, for which he took photos of tourists at popular US tourist destinations during the early 1980s and into the 2000s.
When I approached people for a portrait, I tried to make my request clear and to the point, making it clear that I was not trying to sell them anything. I explained that my wife and I were traveling around the country visiting most of the major tourist destinations so that I could photograph the activity of sightseeing. I would quickly add that I hoped the project would have cultural value and might be seen in years to come as a kind of time capsule of what Americans looked like at the end of the Twentieth Century; at which, to my surprise, I would see people often begin to nod their heads as if they knew what I was talking about.
Slate did a feature on this series last week.
If this photo series from 1950 of the interior of the White House being ripped out so that the building could be structurally reinforced isn't an apt metaphor for the current state of American politics, I don't know what is.
Experts called the third floor of the White House "an outstanding example of a firetrap." The result of a federally commissioned report found the mansion's plumbing "makeshift and unsanitary," while "the structural deterioration [was] in 'appalling degree,' and threatening complete collapse." The congressional commission on the matter was considering the option of abandoning the structure altogether in favor of a built-from-scratch mansion, but President Truman lobbied for the restoration.
"It perhaps would be more economical from a purely financial standpoint to raze the building and to rebuild completely," he testified to Congress in February 1949. "In doing so, however, there would be destroyed a building of tremendous historical significance in the growth of the nation."
So it had to be gutted. Completely. Every piece of the interior, including the walls, had to be removed and put in storage. The outside of the structure-reinforced by new concrete columns-was all that remained.
This Justice Department memo about when the US government, without hearing or trial or due process or whatever other "rights" we as a country hold dear, can kill US citizens is fucking bullshit.
A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be "senior operational leaders" of al-Qaida or "an associated force" -- even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.
The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration's most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.
The whole memo is here. A staggering disappointment from a man many think is better than this. See also: Obama's lethal Presidency.
According to Google's search tracking, this is the worst flu season in more than 6 years.
Google's trends tend to follow the official CDC data closely and indeed the CDC concurs about the scope of the flu this year but their data is lagging behind Google's by what looks like about 2 weeks. See also my post on how flu vaccines are made. (via @kellan)
During her reign, Queen Elizabeth II of England has met 10 sitting US Presidents, every one from Eisenhower to Obama except for Lyndon Johnson. She also met Harry Truman as a princess in 1951 and former President Herbert Hoover in 1957.
You can see the entire progression here or here. QEII is more definitely a human wormhole.
BTW, Elizabeth is creeping up on Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning British monarch, just another two-and-a-half years to catch her. Victoria reigned during the terms of 19 different Presidents but never met any of them and had an unfair advantage...lots of short terms and one-term Presidencies back then. (via mlkshk)
From Stone, the NY Times' blog of philosophers writing about current events, a post by Firmin DeBrabander about what sort of society (polite? uncivil? safe?) an armed society is.
Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name -- that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.
This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.'s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly -- not make any sudden, unexpected moves -- and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.
Jon Lee Anderson asks, in reference to mass shootings, "What does it take for a society to be sickened by its own behavior and to change its attitudes?"
When will we Americans realize that our society is an unacceptably violent one, that this is how the rest of the world sees us, and that much of that violence is associated with guns? Will it be the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Where is our threshold for self-awareness?
When God said in the Bible "you shall have no other gods before me", one of the gods he was referring to was Moloch, an Ammonite god worshipped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites who was associated with the sacrifice of children by his followers. In a short essay for The New York Review of Books, Gary Wills singles out the gun as America's Moloch.
Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains-"besmeared with blood" and "parents' tears." They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily-sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children's lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).
The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?
From Pro Publica back in July, the best reporting on guns in America.
In the wake of last week's shooting in Aurora, Colo., we've taken a step back and laid out the best pieces we could find about guns. They're roughly organized by articles on rights, trafficking and regulation.
More facts about guns in America from Ezra Klein, beginning with the sad fact that "shooting sprees are not rare in the United States".
If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation's security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.
Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that's unacceptable. As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn't "too soon." It's much too late.
From the New Yorker back in April, Jill Lepore wrote about the history of guns in America.
There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane's parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather's barn.
The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.
Earlier this morning in a post about Apple manufacturing their products in the US, I wrote "look for this "made in the USA" thing to turn into a trend". Well, Made in the USA is already emerging as a trend in the media. On Tuesday, Farhad Manjoo wrote about American Giant, a company who makes the world's best hoodie entirely in the US for a decent price.
For one thing, Winthrop had figured out a way to do what most people in the apparel industry consider impossible: He's making clothes entirely in the United States, and he's doing so at costs that aren't prohibitive. American Apparel does something similar, of course, but not especially profitably, and its clothes are very low quality. Winthrop, on the other hand, has found a way to make apparel that harks back to the industry's heyday, when clothes used to be made to last. "I grew up with a sweatshirt that my father had given me from the U.S. Navy back in the '50s, and it's still in my closet," he told me. "It was this fantastic, classic American-made garment -- it looks better today than it did 35, 40 years ago, because like an old pair of denim, it has taken on a very personal quality over the years."
The Atlantic has a pair of articles in their December issue, Charles Fishman's The Insourcing Boom:
Yet this year, something curious and hopeful has begun to happen, something that cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers. On February 10, [General Electric's Appliance Park in Louisville, KY] opened an all-new assembly line in Building 2 -- largely dormant for 14 years -- to make cutting-edge, low-energy water heaters. It was the first new assembly line at Appliance Park in 55 years -- and the water heaters it began making had previously been made for GE in a Chinese contract factory.
On March 20, just 39 days later, Appliance Park opened a second new assembly line, this one in Building 5, to make new high-tech French-door refrigerators. The top-end model can sense the size of the container you place beneath its purified-water spigot, and shuts the spigot off automatically when the container is full. These refrigerators are the latest versions of a style that for years has been made in Mexico.
Another assembly line is under construction in Building 3, to make a new stainless-steel dishwasher starting in early 2013. Building 1 is getting an assembly line to make the trendy front-loading washers and matching dryers Americans are enamored of; GE has never before made those in the United States. And Appliance Park already has new plastics-manufacturing facilities to make parts for these appliances, including simple items like the plastic-coated wire racks that go in the dishwashers.
and James Fallows' Mr. China Comes to America:
What I saw at these Chinese sites was surprisingly different from what I'd seen on previous factory tours, reflecting the political, economic, technological, and especially social pressures that are roiling China now. In conjunction with significant changes in the American business and technological landscape that I recently saw in San Francisco, these changes portend better possibilities for American manufacturers and American job growth than at any other time since Rust Belt desolation and the hollowing-out of the American working class came to seem the grim inevitabilities of the globalized industrial age.
For the first time in memory, I've heard "product people" sound optimistic about hardware projects they want to launch and facilities they want to build not just in Asia but also in the United States. When I visited factories in the upper Midwest for magazine stories in the early 1980s, "manufacturing in America" was already becoming synonymous with "Rust Belt" and "sunset industry." Ambitious, well-educated people who had a choice were already headed for cleaner, faster-growing possibilities -- in consulting, finance, software, biotech, anything but things. At the start of the '80s, about one American worker in five had a job in the manufacturing sector. Now it's about one in 10.
Add to that all of the activity on Etsy and the many manufactured-goods projects on Kickstarter that are going "Made in the USA" (like Flint & Tinder underwear (buy now!)) and yeah, this is definitely a thing.
As noted by Fishman in his piece, one of the reasons US manufacturing is competitive again is the low price of natural gas. From a piece in SupplyChainDigest in October:
Several industries, noticeable chemicals and fertilizers, use lots of natural gas. Fracking and other unconventional techniques have already unlocked huge supplies of natural gas, which is why natural gas prices in the US are at historic lows and much lower than the rest of the world.
Right now, nat gas prices are under $3.00 per thousand cubic, down dramatically from about three times that in 2008 and even higher in 2006. Meanwhile, natural gas prices are about $10.00 right now in Europe and $15.00 in parts of Asia.
Much of the growing natural gas reserves come from the Marcellus shale formation that runs through Western New York and Pennsylvania, Southeast Ohio, and most of West Virginia. North Dakota in the upper Midwest also is developing into a major supplier of both oil and natural gas.
So basically, energy in the US is cheap right now and will likely remain cheap for years to come because hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking aka that thing that people say makes their water taste bad, among other issues) has unlocked vast and previously unavailable reserves of oil and natural gas that will take years to fully exploit. A recent report by the International Energy Agency suggests that the US is on track to become the world's biggest oil producer by 2020 (passing both Saudi Arabia and Russia) and could be "all but self-sufficient" in energy by 2030.
By about 2020, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer and put North America as a whole on track to become a net exporter of oil as soon as 2030, according to a report from the International Energy Agency.
The change would dramatically alter the face of global oil markets, placing the U.S., which currently imports about 45 percent of the oil it uses and about 20 percent of its total energy needs, in a position of unexpected power. The nation likely will become "all but self-sufficient" in energy by 2030, representing "a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries," the IEA survey says.
So yay for "Made in the USA" but all this cheap energy could wreak havoc on the environment, hinder development of greener alternatives to fossil fuels (the only way green will win is to compete on price), and "artificially" prop up a US economy that otherwise might be stagnating. (thx, @rfburton, @JordanRVance, @technorav)
According to CEO Tim Cook, Apple will start making some of its computers entirely in the US.
Apple CEO Tim Cook announced one of the existing Mac lines will be manufactured exclusively in the United States next year. Mac fans will have to wait to see which Mac line it will be because Apple, widely known for its secrecy, left it vague. Cook's announcement may or may not confirm recent rumors in the blogosphere sparked by iMacs inscribed in the back with "Assembled in USA."
Well, those iMac pretty clearly state they are assembled in the US. And look for this "made in the USA" thing to turn into a trend...I think companies are finding that making stuff in the US is not as expensive as everyone thinks it is.
Update: BusinessWeek has a long interview with Cook about US manufacturing, among many other topics.
It's not known well that the engine for the iPhone and iPad is made in the U.S., and many of these are also exported-the engine, the processor. The glass is made in Kentucky. And next year we are going to bring some production to the U.S. on the Mac. We've been working on this for a long time, and we were getting closer to it. It will happen in 2013. We're really proud of it. We could have quickly maybe done just assembly, but it's broader because we wanted to do something more substantial. So we'll literally invest over $100 million. This doesn't mean that Apple will do it ourselves, but we'll be working with people, and we'll be investing our money.
To answer the question, "If every state of the USA declared war against each other, which would win?" Quora user Jon Davis went way in-depth writing "the accounts of the Second American Civil War, also known as the Wars of Reunification and the American Warring States Period." It's sort of a mix between World War Z (oral histories) and the post on Reddit being turned into a movie (realistic seeming discussion of military action). I am a sucker for this kind of fictionalized future-history stuff.
First came a period of massive migration back to the homelands. Facing the newly invented discrimination that will be created many felt the need to go back to their own people. While the individual states retained all military assets they couldn't control the individuals who fight. A Texas Marine stationed in California, would not fight for California. A soldier in New York would not fight against their home in Virginia and a sailor in Houston would not fight against their home state of Florida. The warriors returned to their home states and the states had to re-consider that when they measured troop strength of their new nations. Ultimately, they measured troop strength by how much of the population would return home.
Of the current 200 nations in the world, the British have invaded all but 22 of them. The lucky 22 include Sweden, Luxembourg, Mongolia, Bolivia, and Belarus. The full analysis is available in Laycock's book, All the Countries We've Ever Invaded.
Stuart Laycock, the author, has worked his way around the globe, through each country alphabetically, researching its history to establish whether, at any point, they have experienced an incursion by Britain.
Only a comparatively small proportion of the total in Mr Laycock's list of invaded states actually formed an official part of the empire.
The remainder have been included because the British were found to have achieved some sort of military presence in the territory -- however transitory -- either through force, the threat of force, negotiation or payment.
Incursions by British pirates, privateers or armed explorers have also been included, provided they were operating with the approval of their government.
The US currently has military personnel stationed in all but 43 countries.
For instance, as of Sept. 30, 2011, there were 53,766 military personnel in Germany, 39,222 in Japan, 10,801 in Italy and 9,382 in the United Kingdom. That makes sense. But wait, scanning the list, you also see nine troops in Mali, eight in Barbados, seven in Laos, six in Lithuania, five in Lebanon, four in Moldova, three in Mongolia, two in Suriname and one in Gabon.
But the presence in most of those countries is due to diplomatic usage of military personnel. (thx, aaron)
The Dust Bowl is a four-hour documentary by Ken Burns airing on PBS starting this weekend.
The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the "Great Plow-Up," followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Vivid interviews with twenty-six survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance. It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us -- a lesson we ignore at our peril.
You can watch the first five minutes of the film on the PBS site.
It was not my intent to be so politically oriented this morning but here we are. This is a chart that tracks the ideologies of the Democratic and Republican members of Congress from 1789 to 2010. As you can see, the shift away from the center by the Republicans since 1975 is unprecedented, perhaps matched only by the shift toward the center by the Democrats beginning in 1921 and ending in 1945.
This reminds me of a timeline created circa 1880 for a book called Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government:
Bigger version here. (via @joecarryon)
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In commemoration of the event, the JFK Presidential Library & Museum presents Clouds Over Cuba, a tense and engaging presentation on the Crisis and, even more strikingly, a dramatization on what might have happened had things gone differently. This is really well done and worth taking 10-15 minutes to watch/listen. (via @alexismadrigal)
A group of citizens is attempting to change Columbus Day to Exploration Day. Columbus Day has always been a weird holiday, what with CC's slavery and genocide and all, so this seems like a good idea to me. Maggie Koerth-Baker makes the case over at Boing Boing.
The logic is quite neat. Columbus Day is about one guy and the (actually untrue) claim that he was the first person to discover America. Inherently, that's pretty Euro-centric, which is a big part of why it sits awkwardly in a pluralistic country. But exploration is inclusive. The ancestors of Native Hawaiians were explorers who crossed the ocean. The ancestors of Native Americans explored their way across the Bering land bridge and then explored two whole continents. If you look at the history of America, you can see a history of exploration done by many different people, from many different backgrounds. Sometimes we're talking about literal, physical exploration. Other times, the exploring is done in a lab. Or in space. But the point is clear: This country was built on explorers. And it needs explorers for the future.
If you want to help out, sign this petition to Congress or this one to the White House.
Starting with a blank map of the US, the object is to place each state in its proper place.
My average error was 8 miles. A better test would be to start each state with the blank map...placing Colorado in the western part of the country without any guide is much tougher than doing it last. (via @notrobwalker)
In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert says that, "with the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France", American kids might be the most spoiled kids in the history of the world. Strong words but not without merit.
How did parents in different cultures train young people to assume adult responsibilities? In the case of the Angelenos, they mostly didn't. In the L.A. families observed, no child routinely performed household chores without being instructed to. Often, the kids had to be begged to attempt the simplest tasks; often, they still refused. In one fairly typical encounter, a father asked his eight-year-old son five times to please go take a bath or a shower. After the fifth plea went unheeded, the father picked the boy up and carried him into the bathroom. A few minutes later, the kid, still unwashed, wandered into another room to play a video game.
In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she demanded, "How am I supposed to eat?" Although the girl clearly knew where the silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her.
In a third episode captured on tape, a boy named Ben was supposed to leave the house with his parents. But he couldn't get his feet into his sneakers, because the laces were tied. He handed one of the shoes to his father: "Untie it!" His father suggested that he ask nicely.
"Can you untie it?" Ben replied. After more back-and-forth, his father untied Ben's sneakers. Ben put them on, then asked his father to retie them. "You tie your shoes and let's go," his father finally exploded. Ben was unfazed. "I'm just asking," he said.
From Quora, some interesting answers to the question "What facts about the United States do foreigners not believe until they come to America?" The economics of food was a popular response:
Fruit and vegetable prices, compared to fast food prices:
A bag of grapes: $6
A box of strawberries: $7
1lb tomatoes: $3
Big Mac : $1 ( I think. I don't go to McDonalds though)
HOW DOES THAT EVEN WORK?
At the same time, there are things that you wouldn't associate with first-world countries:
It is hard to believe that a first-world country has non-progressive ideologies, especially that hurt women (the vaginal probes and other abortion related woes). Not only that, the belief in Earth's age, talking snake etc. Being from India, it is even harder for me to understand this. I expected US to be more progressive. It is not as crazy as back in India but still something that I think is enough to be detrimental to the progress.
Others are pleasantly surprised:
Many Indians are very surprised to find out that there are large numbers of Americans who actually love their parents and siblings and wives and children and have normal, healthy relationships with them. Our media has them convinced that all Americans are very self-centered people who throw their kids out of their homes after high school, don't care for their parents, and divorce their spouses. And, I swear, it is literally true that many Indians do not believe that this is not true until they have been to the US and seen examples of good healthy family relationships themselves. I have had heated arguments with people who've never been to the US, but can give lectures on how screwed up family values in the US are.
But we could also use some improvement:
There actually is an accepted piece of clothing called a 'wife-beater'.
Max Fisher has a piece at The Atlantic about what travel guidebooks tell foreign visitors to the US.
Politics get heavy treatment in the books, as do the subtleties of discussing them, maybe more so than in any other guidebook I've read (what can I say, it's an addiction). Lonely Planet urges caution when discussing immigration. "This is the issue that makes Americans edgy, especially when it gets politicized," they write, subtly suggesting that some Americans might approach the issue differently than others. "Age has a lot to do with Americans' multicultural tolerance."
Rough Guide doesn't shy away from the fact that many non-Americans are less-than-crazy about U.S. politics and foreign policy, and encouragingly notes that many Americans are just as "infuriated" about it as visitors might be. Still, it warns that the political culture saturates everything, and that "The combination of shoot-from-the-hip mentality with laissez-faire capitalism and religious fervor can make the U.S. maddening at times, even to its own residents."
Having recently published a book about Paris, France, Rosecrans Baldwin visited a number of towns named Paris around the US to see how Americans perceive the French here in 2012. Here's part one of his report.
The survey has eight questions ranging from general opinions to particular trivia. For example, "Whose side was France on during the American Revolutionary War?"
Sixty-six percent of respondents get it right: our side. Twenty percent are wrong. Incorrect answers include "the British," "England," "the opposite side," and, oddly, "the French." Other responses: "History was not my class in school -- I hate it," and "I am averse." My favorite comes from a gas station attendant in Lexington, Ky., who writes: "I refuse to answer the rest of this survey. I love the French language. I have had many French friends."
One guy in a parking lot outside a Dallas strip club says, "This has got to be a trick question." And there's another person, at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, who will ask me, "You mean our American Revolutionary War?" Which appears to be a general concern -- of the 55 people, at least 10 ask me to which American Revolution I am referring. Two people say, "But we didn't have a revolution."
The Morning News is serializing the other parts of this story all this month but you can get the whole thing right now on the Kindle.
Lakhdar Boumediene was imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for seven years on no charge and with no trial.
On Wednesday, America's detention camp at Guantanamo Bay will have been open for 10 years. For seven of them, I was held there without explanation or charge. During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as "undeliverable," and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.
This is deeply deeply shameful.
In a piece for Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen argues that for the first time in recent history, American pop culture (fashion, art, music, design, entertainment) hasn't changed dramatically in the past 20 years.
Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there's the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what's odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past -- the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s -- looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.
Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There's no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972-giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps-with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock 'n' roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins-again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising -- all of it. It's even true of the 19th century: practically no respectable American man wore a beard before the 1850s, for instance, but beards were almost obligatory in the 1870s, and then disappeared again by 1900. The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives, our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.
This map of the US was made by David Imus -- he worked seven days a week for two years on it -- and it won the Best of Show award at the Cartography and Geographic Information Society competition for 2010. Here's why.
According to independent cartographers I spoke with, the big mapmaking corporations of the world employ type-positioning software, placing their map labels (names of cities, rivers, etc.) according to an algorithm. For example, preferred placement for city labels is generally to the upper right of the dot that indicates location. But if this spot is already occupied-by the label for a river, say, or by a state boundary line-the city label might be shifted over a few millimeters. Sometimes a town might get deleted entirely in favor of a highway shield or a time zone marker. The result is a rough draft of label placement, still in need of human refinement. Post-computer editing decisions are frequently outsourced-sometimes to India, where teams of cheap workers will hunt for obvious errors and messy label overlaps. The overall goal is often a quick and dirty turnaround, with cost and speed trumping excellence and elegance.
By contrast, David Imus worked alone on his map seven days a week for two full years. Nearly 6,000 hours in total. It would be prohibitively expensive just to outsource that much work. But Imus-a 35-year veteran of cartography who's designed every kind of map for every kind of client-did it all by himself. He used a computer (not a pencil and paper), but absolutely nothing was left to computer-assisted happenstance. Imus spent eons tweaking label positions. Slaving over font types, kerning, letter thicknesses. Scrutinizing levels of blackness. It's the kind of personal cartographic touch you might only find these days on the hand-illustrated ski-trail maps available at posh mountain resorts.
Fuck Yeah Made in USA is a collection of videos showcasing products that are made in the US. These are chock full of "how things are made" goodness.
From Lapham's Quarterly, Christopher Hitchens on capital punishment in America.
Since then no country has been allowed to apply for membership or association with the European Union without, as a precondition, dismantling its apparatus of execution. This has led states like Turkey to forego what was once a sort of national staple. The United Nations condemns capital punishment-especially for those who have not yet reached adulthood-and the Vatican has come close to forbidding if not actually anathematizing the business. This leaves the United States of America as the only nation in what one might call the West, that does not just continue with the infliction of the death penalty but has in the recent past expanded its reach. More American states have restored it in theory and carried it out in practice, and the last time the Supreme Court heard argument on the question it was to determine whether capital punishment should be inflicted for a crime other than first-degree murder (the rape of a child being the suggested pretext for extension).
Hitchens, as you may have guessed, pins much of the blame on religion...after all, the US is the most (or only?) fundamentalist country in the West. (via ★interesting-links)
For this coming weekend's NY Times Magazine, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas shares the story of his Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.
One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver's permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. "This is fake," she whispered. "Don't come back here again."
Vargas won a Pulitzer and wrote this article about Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker. I hope he can work out a way to stay in the United States...we need more people like him on our team.
The US military is often thought of by many Americans as being identified with conservative politics, making it an unlikely blueprint for progressive reform. But a recent pair of articles demonstrates that the US as a whole might have something to learn about the US Armed Forces' liberal leanings. In the NY Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the US military's universal healthcare and focus on education is worth looking at as a model:
The military is innately hierarchical, yet it nurtures a camaraderie in part because the military looks after its employees. This is a rare enclave of single-payer universal health care, and it continues with a veterans' health care system that has much lower costs than the American system as a whole.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the American military isn't its aircraft carriers, stunning as they are. Rather, it's the military day care system for working parents.
While one of America's greatest failings is underinvestment in early childhood education (which seems to be one of the best ways to break cycles of poverty from replicating), the military manages to provide superb child care. The cost depends on family income and starts at $44 per week.
And the WSJ recently covered remarks made by Sgt. Maj. Micheal Barrett, the top non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps and general all-around hardass, about gays in the military:
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution is pretty simple, It says, 'Raise an army.' It says absolutely nothing about race, color, creed, sexual orientation. You all joined for a reason: to serve. To protect our nation, right? How dare we, then, exclude a group of people who want to do the same thing you do right now, something that is honorable and noble? ... Get over it. We're magnificent, we're going to continue to be. ... Let's just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let's be Marines.
Now that's some semper fi I can get behind. (thx, meg)
This is an amazing statement:
For the second year in a row, the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Always a fun read: The Beast's list of the 50 most loathsome Americans of 2010. The idiot Alaskan lady is a mere sixth on the list; #1 is "you":
Your brain's been cobbled together over millions of years of blind evolution and it shows. You're clumsy, stupid, weak and motivated by the basest of urges. Your MO is both grotesquely selfish and unquestionably deferential to questionable authority. You're not in control of your life. You wear your ignorance like a badge of honor and gleefully submit to oppression, malfeasance and kleptocracy. You will buy anything. You will believe anything. You believe that evolution is a matter of belief. You likely scrolled down to #1, without reading the rest, because you're an impatient, semi-literate Philistine who's either unable or unwilling to digest more than 140 characters at a time.
Before looking, see if you can guess the only US state currently without snow on the ground. The answer, from the NY Times:
With the arrival of snow in New York and the unusually severe storm in the South - which dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas -- the National Weather Service said an unusual nationwide occurrence had taken place. There was now snow on the ground in all 50 states - including Hawaii, where snow fell on a volcano -- except for Florida.
Dorothy Gambrell looked up all of the state names on Google and made a map of what the autocomplete suggestions were. Here's part of it:
Lots of sports and schools.
Larger version here. Other stereotype maps are available, including Europe According to Bulgaria and Europe According to Gay Men.
Vanity Fair has a really interesting but depressing look at how The President of the United States spends a typical day navigating the upfuckedness of national American politics and its capital, Washington DC -- which Rahm Emanuel calls Fucknutsville.
We think of the presidency as somehow eternal and unchanging, a straight-line progression from 1 to 44, from the first to the latest. And in some respects it is. Except for George Washington, all of the presidents have lived in the White House. They've all taken the same oath to uphold the same constitution. But the modern presidency -- Barack Obama's presidency -- has become a job of such gargantuan size, speed, and complexity as to be all but unrecognizable to most of the previous chief executives. The sheer growth of the federal government, the paralysis of Congress, the systemic corruption brought on by lobbying, the trivialization of the "news" by the media, the willful disregard for facts and truth -- these forces have made today's Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place. They have shaped and at times hobbled the presidency itself.
For much of the past half-century, the problems that have brought Washington to its current state have been concealed or made tolerable by other circumstances. The discipline of the Cold War kept certain kinds of debate within bounds. America's artificial "last one standing" postwar economy allowed the country to ignore obvious signs of political and social decay. Wars and other military interventions provided ample distraction from matters of substance at home. Like many changes that are revolutionary, none of Washington's problems happened overnight. But slow and steady change over many decades -- at a rate barely noticeable while it's happening -- produces change that is transformative. In this instance, it's the kind of evolution that happens inevitably to rich and powerful states, from imperial Rome to Victorian England. The neural network of money, politics, bureaucracy, and values becomes so tautly interconnected that no individual part can be touched or fixed without affecting the whole organism, which reacts defensively. And thus a new president, who was elected with 53 percent of the popular vote, and who began office with 80 percent public-approval ratings and large majorities in both houses of Congress, found himself for much of his first year in office in stalemate, pronounced an incipient failure, until the narrowest possible passage of a health-care bill made him a sudden success in the fickle view of the commentariat, whose opinion curdled again when Obama was unable, with a snap of the fingers or an outburst of anger, to stanch the BP oil spill overnight. And whose opinion spun around once more when he strong-armed BP into putting $20 billion aside to settle claims, and asserted presidential authority by replacing General Stanley McChrystal with General David Petraeus. The commentariat's opinion will keep spinning with the wind.
A very nice US currency redesign by Dowling Duncan.
When we researched how notes are used we realized people tend to handle and deal with money vertically rather than horizontally. You tend to hold a wallet or purse vertically when searching for notes. The majority of people hand over notes vertically when making purchases. All machines accept notes vertically. Therefore a vertical note makes more sense.
The note imagery relates to the value of each note:
$1 - The first African American president
$5 - The five biggest native American tribes
$10 - The bill of rights, the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution
$20 - 20th Century America
$50 - The 50 States of America
$100 - The first 100 days of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Needs more guilloche but other than that: fire up the presses.
The story of the emigration of Morris Moel and his family from the Ukraine in the 1910s/20s demonstrates what an amazing pull America then had as the land of opportunity.
My father was here [in the USA]. He came in 1913. We didn't hear from him for many many years during World War I, and after this the revolution in Russia. Things were terrible. So we didn't hear from my father for 12 or 13 years. We finally got a message. It came through from Warsaw, from HIAS, the Hebrew immigration society. So my mother went to Warsaw, she left us with my grandmother. She was there for two months, three months, and during that period my grandmother passed away, and my older brother who was 17 became our mother and father. And one winter day a big sleigh approaches the houses and a man comes out and asks if we are the Moel family. "We're here to take you to the mother."
Michael Crawford monkeys around with a map of the US. This piece is called Los Angeles Getting More Annoying as We Speak:
I also liked his alteration to a Chuck Close portrait: Rauschenberg Minus Nebraska.
If the population density of the United States was equal to that of Brooklyn, the entire US population would fit into New Hampshire.
The state would be ruined, though (imagine a Brooklyn-like sprawl of that size), but the rest of the country would be green and pleasantly devoid of people!
If you used Manhattan's population density, Dense US would shrink to more than half that size, roughly the area of Teton County in Wyoming. Manila, the capital of the Philippines, has the highest population density of any city in the world (111,000 people per square mile)...if the US was that dense, the population would fit into any number of tiny Alaskan islands you've never heard of or a square 52 miles on a side.
Lots of information and graphs about the changing eating habits of Americans over the past 100 years. More cheese, fewer eggs, and lots more chicken:
Chicken availability over the past 100 years illustrates the effects of new technologies and product development. Increased chicken availability from 10.4 pounds per person in 1909 to 58.8 pounds in 2008 reflects the industry's development of lower cost, meaty broilers in the 1940s and later, ready-to cook products, such as boneless breasts and chicken nuggets, as well as ready-to-eat products, such as pre-cooked chicken strips to toss in salads or pasta dishes.
Data from Facebook reveals how the United States is split up into different regions like Stayathomia, Greater Texas, Dixie, and Mormonia.
Stretching from New York to Minnesota, [Stayathomia's] defining feature is how near most people are to their friends, implying they don't move far. In most cases outside the largest cities, the most common connections are with immediately neighboring cities, and even New York only has one really long-range link in its top 10. Apart from Los Angeles, all of its strong ties are comparatively local.
Seven myths about the history of the American Revolutionary War, including "Great Britain Could Never Have Won The War" and "General Washington Was A Brilliant Tactician And Strategist".
Washington also failed to see the potential of a campaign against the British in Virginia in 1780 and 1781, prompting Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French Army in America, to write despairingly that the American general "did not conceive the affair of the south to be such urgency." Indeed, Rochambeau, who took action without Washington's knowledge, conceived the Virginia campaign that resulted in the war's decisive encounter, the siege of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.
The eggs for the swine flu vaccine are produced by dozens of farms classified by the US government as part of our country's "critical infrastructure".
To ensure it had enough eggs to meet pandemic-level demand, the government invested more than $44 million in the program over five years; more than 35 farms are now involved in this feathered Manhattan Project. No signs advertise the farms' involvement in the program, and visits from the outside world are discouraged. The government won't disclose where the farms are located, and the farmers are told to keep quiet about their work -- not even the neighbors are to know.
These don't exactly sound like free-range operations:
After nine months of service, [the chickens] are typically euthanized because they can no longer lay "optimal eggs," Mr. Robinson said. "They've served their government," he said.
Twilight of the American newspaper tells the story of San Francisco and its newspapers. And in that tale, a glimpse that we might be losing our sense of place along with the newspaper.
We will end up with one and a half cities in America -- Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between "conservatives" and "liberals." We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is "not a really good piece of fiction" -- Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill. -- two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.
This clever graph by National Geographic shows the cost of healthcare compared to life expectancy in a number of countries. The way that the US healthcare expenditure is pictured entirely outside the confines of the graph's scale and legend is a particularly effective design decision. (thx, jim)
Loosely based on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, The People Speak is a show that features well-known actors reading famous speeches and letters from American history.
Using dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries and speeches of everyday Americans, The People Speak gives voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history, forging a nation from the bottom up with their insistence on equality and justice.
The show starts airing this Sunday but many of the performances are already available online.
New-ish thing from fake is the new real: outlines of the 100 most populous areas in the US. Some are cities and some are states.
The fifty largest metro areas (in blue), disaggregated from their states (in orange). Each has been scaled and sorted according to population.
By themselves, the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metros are the three most populous areas in the US. (via snarkmarket)
Maira Kalman wonders about the patterns of food consumption in the United States, whether it is democratic or not, and how we might want to change.
Every one of her essays is outstanding; I can't stop linking to them.
The most striking feature of the H1N1 flu vaccine manufacturing process is the 1,200,000,000 chicken eggs required to make the 3 billion doses of vaccine that may be required worldwide. There are entire chicken farms in the US and around the world dedicated to producing eggs for the purpose of incubating influenza viruses for use in vaccines. No wonder it takes six months from start to finish. But we'll get to that in a minute.
The most commonly used process for manufacturing an influenza vaccine was developed in the 1940s -- one of its co-inventors was Jonas Salk, who would go on to develop the polio vaccine -- and has remained basically unchanged since then. The process is coordinated by the World Health Organization and begins with the detection of a new virus (or rather one that differs significantly from those already going around); in this instance, the Pandemic H1N1/09 virus. Once the pandemic strain has been identified and isolated, it is mixed with a standard laboratory virus through a technique called genetic reassortment, the purpose of which is to create a hybrid virus (also called the "reference virus strain") with the pandemic strain's surface antigens and the lab strain's core components (which allows the virus to grow really well in chicken eggs). Then the hybrid is tested to make sure that it grows well, is safe, and produces the proper antigen response. This takes about six to nine weeks.
[Quick definitional pause. Antigen: "An antigen is any substance that causes your immune system to produce antibodies against it. An antigen may be a foreign substance from the environment such as chemicals, bacteria, viruses, or pollen. An antigen may also be formed within the body, as with bacterial toxins or tissue cells." So, when the H1N1 vaccine gets inside your body, the pandemic strain's surface antigens will produce antibodies against it.]
At roughly the same time, a parallel effort to produce what are referred to as reference reagents is undertaken. The deliverable here is a standardized kit provided to vaccine manufacturers so that they can test how much virus they are making and how effective it is. This process serves to standardize vaccine doses across manufacturers and takes four months to complete. WHO notes that this part of the process is "often a bottleneck to the overall timeline for manufacturers to generate the vaccine".
Once the reference virus strain is produced, it is sent to pharmaceutical companies (Novartis, Sanofi Pasteur, etc.) for large-scale production of the vaccine. The companies fine-tune the virus to increase yields and produce seed virus banks that will be used in the bulk production.
And this is where the 1.2 billion chicken eggs come in. A portion of the seed virus is injected into each 9- to 12-day old fertilized egg. The virus incubates in the egg white for two to three days and is then separated from the egg.
For the shot vaccine, the virus is sterilized so that it won't make anyone sick. This is the magic part of the vaccine: it's got the pandemic virus antigens that make your body produce the antibodies to fight the virus but the virus is inactive so it won't make you ill. For the nasal spray vaccine, the virus is left alive and attenuated to survive only in the nose and not the warmer lungs; it'll infect you enough to produce antibodies but not enough to make you sick. Either way, the surface antigens are separated out and purified to produce the active ingredient in the vaccine. Each batch of antigen takes about two weeks to produce. With enough laboratory space and chicken eggs, the companies can crank out an infinite amount of purified antigens, but those resources are limited in practice.
[Side note. You may have noticed that the H1N1 vaccine has been difficult to find in some places around the US. The vaccine manufacturers have said that the Pandemic H1N1/09 virus when combined with the standard laboratory virus does not grow as fast in the eggs as they anticipated. The batches of antigens from each egg have been smaller than expected, up to five or even ten times smaller in some cases. Hence the slow rollout of the vaccine.]
The purified antigen is then tested against the aforementioned reference reagents once they are ready. The antigen is diluted to the required concentration and placed into properly labelled vials or syringes. Further testing is performed to make sure the vaccine won't make anyone ill, to confirm the correct concentration, and for general safety. At this point clinical testing in humans is required in western Europe but not in the United States. Finally, each company's vaccine has to be approved by the appropriate regulatory body in each country -- that's the FDA in the case of the US -- and then the vaccine is distributed to medical facilities around the country.
Sources and more information: WHO, WHO, WHO, WHO, CDC, Time, Washington Post, The Big Picture, Influenza Report, NPR, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia.
Update: Included in a recent 60 Minutes segment on the H1N1 vaccine is a look at the manufacturing process. (thx, @briandigital)
How did the Byzantine Empire stay around so long? A look at the answers might hold some lessons for the present-day United States.
Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time. Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times -- but do not be eager to fight. The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight.
In the US, when you make under $20,000, there are government subsidies available to help you out. Between $20-40,000 per year, those subsidies are less available, which makes it difficult for people to cross the gap between one and the other.
In fact, until you get past $40,000 a year, any raise or higher paying job you get might actually sink you deeper into poverty.
Map of the US Interstate system in the style of the London Tube map.
Go large for detail. (via coudal)
In the early days of the United States (and even in the colonial days), there were struggles about how to handle healthcare. Was it the responsibility of the federal government, the state government, or the individual?
Health care in Colonial America looked nothing like what we'd consider medicine today, but the debates it triggered were similar. The danger of smallpox and the high cost of its prevention led to divisive questions about who should pay, whether everyone deserved equal access, and if responsibility lay at the feet of the individual, the state, or the nation. Epidemics forced the early republic to wrestle with the question of the federal government's proper role in regulating the nation's health.
A recent blog post by Roger Ebert shows that more than 200 years later, we're still having this same basic argument.
I am told we cannot trust the government. I believe we must trust it, and work to make it trustworthy. We are told the free enterprise system will sort things out, but it has not. When insurance companies direct millions toward lobbying and advertising against a health care system, every dollar is being withheld from sick people. When it goes to salaries, executive jets, corporate edifices and legislative manipulation, it isn't going to Amy Caudle.
Rich Cohen has a really fantastic article about the American history of the automobile and car salesman in the September issue of The Believer.
The history of America is the history of the automobile industry: it starts in fields and garages and ends in boardrooms and dumps; it starts with daredevils and tinkerers and ends with bureaucrats and congressmen; it starts with a sense of here-goes-let's-hope-it-works and ends with help-help-help. We tend to think of it as an American history that opens, as if summoned by the nature of the age, early in the last century, when the big mills and factories were already spewing smoke above Flint and Detroit, but we tend to be wrong. The history of the car is far older and stranger than you might suppose. Its early life is like the knock-around life one of the stars of the '80s lived in the '70s, Stallone before Rocky, say, picking up odd jobs, working the grift, and, of course, porn. The first automobile turned up outside Paris in 1789, when Detroit was an open field. (The hot rod belonged to the Grand Armee before it belonged to Neal and Jack.) It was another of the great innovations that seemed to appear in that age of revolution.
Cohen references one of my favorite pieces from a few years ago, Confessions of a Car Salesman, in which a journalist goes undercover for three months at a pair of Southern California car dealerships. Required reading before purchasing a car.
Cohen's article also reminded me just how many of the American cars on the road today owe their names to the people who actually started these companies and built these cars back in the early days. Ransom Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Walter Chrysler, Horace and John Dodge, Henry Ford, David Buick...some of these read like a joke from The Simpsons. Here's Louis Chevrolet racing a Buick in 1910:
Looking overseas, there's Karl Benz, Michio Suzuki (who didn't actually start out building cars), Wilhelm Maybach, Ferdinand Porsche, and many others. In an interesting reversal of that trend, Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (which eventually became part of Daimler-Benz) built a custom sports car for Emil Jellinek, who named it Mercedes after his daughter. Jellinek was so fond of the car that he legally changed his last name to Jellinek-Mercedes and thereafter went by E.J. Mercédès.
To get to a McDonald's in the lower 48 United States, it's never more than 145 miles by car. And the McFarthest Spot in the US is in South Dakota.
For maximum McSparseness, we look westward, towards the deepest, darkest holes in our map: the barren deserts of central Nevada, the arid hills of southeastern Oregon, the rugged wilderness of Idaho's Salmon River Mountains, and the conspicuous well of blackness on the high plains of northwestern South Dakota.
See also maximum Starbucks density and Starbucks center of gravity of Manhattan.
Update: The distribution of McDonald's in Australia is a bit more uneven. (thx, kit)
What I Learned Today has an excerpt from an article by William Falk of The Week (not online) that suggests, tongue in cheek (I think), that the red parts of the USA should secede from the blue USA.
In a new nation fashioned out of the current red states -- call it, for the sake of argument, Limbaughland -- the federal tax rate would be cut to 10%, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security would be abolished, abortion would be illegal, gays would be closeted again, and Christianity would be the official state religion. Anyone could buy any kind of gun, no questions asked. In the current blue states, which we will call ObamaNation, the federal tax rate would top out at 90%; all employers would institute quota systems for minorities, women and less-abled persons; and you'd get your health care form a single-payer system like Canada's. Fast food and guns would be banned, while gay marriage and marijuana would be legal.
Tyler Cowen takes a crack at defining American conservatism.
Fiscal conservatism is part and parcel of conservatism per se. A state wrecked by debt is a state due to perish or fall into decay. This is a lesson from history. States must "save up their powder" for true crises and it is a kind of narcissistic arrogation to think that the personal failures of particular individuals -- often those with weak values -- meet this standard.
Cowen did the same for progressivism a few weeks ago.
Progressive policies offer more scope for individualism and some kinds of freedom. Greater security gives people a greater chance to develop themselves as individuals in important spheres of life, not just money-making and risk protection and winning relative status games.
Atul Gawande and some colleagues searched the US for healthcare successes -- hospitals and clinics where costs are relatively low and quality of care is high -- and came up with a few lessons.
If the rest of America could achieve the performances of regions like these, our health care cost crisis would be over. Their quality scores are well above average. Yet they spend more than $1,500 (16 percent) less per Medicare patient than the national average and have a slower real annual growth rate (3 percent versus 3.5 percent nationwide).
I wanted this article to be much longer than it was with breakouts of each of the ten lessons with lengthy explanations.
In a week-long series for Slate, Josh Levin asks: how is America going to end?
Hurricane Katrina proved that modern America is resilient. It didn't prove that we'll be around forever. After watching the place where I grew up avert total annihilation, I can't help but wonder what course of events will eventually wipe out New Orleans and America as a whole. When it comes to human civilization, entropy conquers all: Rome fell, the Aztecs were conquered, the British Empire withered, and the Soviet Union cracked apart. America may be exceptional, but it's not supernatural. Our noble experiment, like every other before it, has to end sometime.
Can you put a dollar value on a human life? Peter Singer writes that the US needs to do just that if we're serious about making our healthcare system work.
You have advanced kidney cancer. It will kill you, probably in the next year or two. A drug called Sutent slows the spread of the cancer and may give you an extra six months, but at a cost of $54,000. Is a few more months worth that much?
If you can afford it, you probably would pay that much, or more, to live longer, even if your quality of life wasn't going to be good. But suppose it's not you with the cancer but a stranger covered by your health-insurance fund. If the insurer provides this man - and everyone else like him - with Sutent, your premiums will increase. Do you still think the drug is a good value? Suppose the treatment cost a million dollars. Would it be worth it then? Ten million? Is there any limit to how much you would want your insurer to pay for a drug that adds six months to someone's life? If there is any point at which you say, "No, an extra six months isn't worth that much," then you think that health care should be rationed.
In an attempt to answer that question, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a gaggle of books in this week's New Yorker. (This is only part of the answer.)
According to what's known as the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis, early humans compensated for the energy used in their heads by cutting back on the energy used in their guts; as man's cranium grew, his digestive tract shrank. This forced him to obtain more energy-dense foods than his fellow-primates were subsisting on, which put a premium on adding further brain power. The result of this self-reinforcing process was a strong taste for foods that are high in calories and easy to digest; just as it is natural for gorillas to love leaves, it is natural for people to love funnel cakes.
Kolbert's article is a good overview of the current popular views on obesity. Related: Scientists Discover Gene Responsible For Eating Whole Goddamn Bag Of Chips.
I've got two follow-ups to share with you regarding Atul Gawande's New Yorker piece about healthcare costs in the US (kottke.org post). In the Wall Street Journal, Abraham Verghese argues that in order for a healthcare reform plan to be successful, it has to include cost cutting.
I recently came on a phrase in an article in the journal "Annals of Internal Medicine" about an axiom of medical economics: a dollar spent on medical care is a dollar of income for someone. I have been reciting this as a mantra ever since. It may be the single most important fact about health care in America that you or I need to know. It means that all of us -- doctors, hospitals, pharmacists, drug companies, nurses, home health agencies, and so many others -- are drinking at the same trough which happens to hold $2.1 trillion, or 16% of our GDP. Every group who feeds at this trough has its lobbyists and has made contributions to Congressional campaigns to try to keep their spot and their share of the grub. Why not? -- it's hog heaven. But reform cannot happen without cutting costs, without turning people away from the trough and having them eat less. If you do that, you have to be prepared for the buzz saw of protest that dissuaded Roosevelt, defeated Truman's plan and scuttled Hillary Clinton's proposal.
In Gawande's example, what Verghese is saying is that you can't just make McAllen's healthcare system adopt an El Paso type of system without a whole lot of pain.
Gawande addressed some of the criticisms of his article on the New Yorker site. One of the major criticisms was that McAllen's higher costs were associated with higher levels of poverty and unhealthiness:
As I noted in the piece, McAllen is indeed in the poorest county in the country, with a relatively unhealthy population and the problems of being a border city. They have a very low physician supply. The struggles the people and medical community face there are huge. But they are just as huge in El Paso -- its residents are barely less poor or unhealthy or under-supplied with physicians than McAllen, and certainly not enough so to account for the enormous cost differences. The population in McAllen also has more hospital beds than four out of five American cities.
Atul Gawande discovered that McAllen, Texas spends more per person on healthcare than El Paso (which is demographically similar to McAllen) and set out to find out why. Along the way, he encounters a curious relationship between the amount spent on healthcare and the quality of that care: higher spending does not correlate with better care.
When you look across the spectrum from Grand Junction to McAllen -- and the almost threefold difference in the costs of care -- you come to realize that we are witnessing a battle for the soul of American medicine. Somewhere in the United States at this moment, a patient with chest pain, or a tumor, or a cough is seeing a doctor. And the damning question we have to ask is whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, first and foremost, or to maximize revenue.
There is no insurance system that will make the two aims match perfectly. But having a system that does so much to misalign them has proved disastrous. As economists have often pointed out, we pay doctors for quantity, not quality. As they point out less often, we also pay them as individuals, rather than as members of a team working together for their patients. Both practices have made for serious problems.
Obama, you're reading this guy's stuff, yes? Get him on the team.
Update: Dr. Peter Orszag is the Director of the Office of Management and Budget for the White House and is working on some of the problems that Gawande talks about in this article. Here's a 40-minute video of Orszag speaking on "Health Care - Capturing the Opportunity in the Nation's Core Fiscal Challenge". (thx, todd)
I changed the bit in the first paragraph about El Paso and McAllen being "nearby". Funny, I thought 800 miles in Texas *was* nearby. (thx, stephen)
I also changed "lower spending correlates with better care" to "higher spending does not correlate with better care"...those two statements are not the same. I misread the results of one of the studies that Gawande mentions. (thx, patrick)
Richard Smith is hosting the Dollar Redesign Project, which is starting to attract some interesting redesigns of American paper currency.
Ministry of Type has some further analysis, including a comparison to European bills.
Georg Jensen aruges that the USPS has, in effect, turned into a huge mail spamming operation (among other problematic aspects of the organization).
Just as General Motors has in effect subsidized Big Oil by continuing to build gas-guzzlers in recent years, so has the USPS continued to subsidize Big Mail by shaping its operations to encourage what it now calls, revealingly, "standard mail" -- that is, advertising junk mail. Most American citizens are blissfully unaware of the degree to which USPS subsidizes U.S. businesses by means of the fees it collects from ordinary postal customers. For example, if you wish to mail someone a large envelope weighing three ounces, you'll pay $1.17 in postage. A business can bulk-mail a three-ounce catalog of the same size for as little as $0.14.
Atul Gawande branches out from his usual excellent writing on medicine and turns his attention to solitary confinement in America's prison system. Gawande likens extended solitary time to torture.
This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America's moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement-on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.
This likely will not change until Americans start to believe that rehabilitation and not punishment is the primary goal of prisons. So, probably never.
The results of a survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences reveals that Americans don't know a whole lot about science.
- Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
- Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
- Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water.*
- Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.
I bet this got cumulatively 10 seconds of coverage on the major "news" networks, if that. Compare with the endless airtime given to this AIG business and then pull your hair out until you resemble Bruce Willis. (via clusterflock)
Pew Research Center's interactive maps of migration flows in the US are pretty interesting. The region map makes it seem as though the Northeast is rapidly losing population to the South but the states map clarifies the picture...the flow looks to be hundreds of thousands of retirees moving to Florida and Georgia.
Some think it's unfair that the former president of Countrywide Financial, a mortgage company that played a big (and negative) role in the subprime mortgage debacle, is now the head of a company making big money buying troubled mortgages from the US government for cheap and then refinancing with the owner, making big money in the process.
But as a Baltimorean explains to McNutty in the very first scene of the first episode of The Wire, that's how America works.
McNulty: Let me understand. Every Friday night, you and your boys are shootin' craps, right? And every Friday night, your pal Snot Boogie... he'd wait til there's cash on the ground and he'd grab it and run away? You let him do that?
Suspect: We'd catch him and beat his ass but ain't nobody ever go past that.
McNulty: I've gotta ask you: if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away... why'd you even let him in the game?
Right or wrong, How the Crash Will Reshape America, Richard Florida's analysis of how different areas of the United States are going to be affected by the current financial crisis, is full of fascinating bits.
The University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared that the spillovers in knowledge that result from talent-clustering are the main cause of economic growth. Well-educated professionals and creative workers who live together in dense ecosystems, interacting directly, generate ideas and turn them into products and services faster than talented people in other places can. There is no evidence that globalization or the Internet has changed that. Indeed, as globalization has increased the financial return on innovation by widening the consumer market, the pull of innovative places, already dense with highly talented workers, has only grown stronger, creating a snowball effect. Talent-rich ecosystems are not easy to replicate, and to realize their full economic value, talented and ambitious people increasingly need to live within them.
But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America's tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix -- that is, with housing and suburbanization -- the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what's produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.
Others have written about it elsewhere, but the few paragraphs Florida devotes to Detroit are stunning. (thx, peter)
America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else; when discovered it was not wanted; and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy.
That's Samuel Eliot Morison, author of several books of history, including The European Discovery of America, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and The Oxford History of the American People.
From the New Yorker last week, Atul Gawande on how the US should nationalize healthcare. His answer: nationalize slowly, use what's already in place, and don't rebuild the whole system from scratch.
Every industrialized nation in the world except the United States has a national system that guarantees affordable health care for all its citizens. Nearly all have been popular and successful. But each has taken a drastically different form, and the reason has rarely been ideology. Rather, each country has built on its own history, however imperfect, unusual, and untidy.
As usual, Gawande makes a lot of sense. Whatever the solution, we should be doing all we can to avoid something like this from ever happening again:
"When I heard that I was losing my insurance, I was scared," Darling told the Times. Her husband had been laid off from his job, too. "I remember that the bill for my son's delivery in 2005 was about $9,000, and I knew I would never be able to pay that by myself." So she prevailed on her midwife to induce labor while she still had insurance coverage. During labor, Darling began bleeding profusely, and needed a Cesarean section. Mother and baby pulled through. But the insurer denied Darling's claim for coverage. The couple ended up owing more than seventeen thousand dollars.
Here's a small and nerdy measure of the huge change in the executive branch of the US government today. Here's the robots.txt file from whitehouse.gov yesterday:
And it goes on like that for almost 2400 lines! Here's the new Obamafied robots.txt file:
That's it! BTW, the robots.txt file tells search engines what to include and not include in their indexes. (thx, ian)
Update: Nearly four months later, the White House's robots.txt file is still short...only four lines.
Obama made a small error in the first part of his inaugural speech. He said:
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.
Because of Grover Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms, there have been 44 Presidents but only 43 people have held the office and taken the oath. I'm surprised his speechwriters didn't catch that little detail. Of course, I think of Al Gore as an ex-President so maybe that's where it came from.
Slate has a slideshow of the most gerrymandered Congressional districts in the US. Gerrymandering is the practice of redistributing electoral boundaries in order to achieve a political advantage, often without regard to geography.
From The Last Traffic Jam in The Atlantic.
Unless we exercise foresight and devise growth-limits policies for the auto industry, events will thrust us into a crisis that will lead to a substantial erosion of our domestic oil supply as well as the independence it provides us with, and a level of petroleum imports that could cost as much as $20 to $30 billion per year. (This in turn would produce a staggering balance-of-payments problem for the United States, and give the Middle Eastern suppliers a dangerous leverage over our transportation system as well.) Moreover, we would still be depleting our remaining oil reserves at an unacceptable rate, and scrambling for petroleum substitutes, with enormous potential damage to the environment.
In short, common sense dictates that we begin a transition to policies designed to avoid an energy impasse that could cripple out transportation system and imperil our economy. We must set growth limits that will allow the automobile and oil industries to maintain economic stability while conserving our resources and preserving our environment. Of course, such a reorientation will require statesmanship as well as public pressure. It will not happen unless corporate self-interest yields to a responsible outlook that serves the broader interests of the nation as a whole. Above all, this shift requires a thorough redirection of the aims of these two industries.
Believe it or not, those words appeared in the magazine in 1972. These views would have seemed out-of-date and old fashioned just a year or two ago but now all those chickens are coming home to roost.
Aired a few weeks before the 2008 election, The President's Guide to Science is a 50-minute video featuring several prominent scientists -- Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, etc. -- offering their advice for the incoming US President, basically what they would teach the President about science. (via smashing telly)
StateStats is hours of fun. It tracks the popularity of Google searches per state and then correlates the results to a variety of metrics. For instance:
Mittens - big in Vermont, Maine, and Minnesota, moderate positive correlation with life expectancy, and moderate negative correlation with violent crime. (Difficult to commit crimes while wearing mittens?)
Nascar - popular in North and South Carolinas, strong positive correlation with obesity, and and moderate negative correlation with same sex couples and income.
Sushi - big in NY and CA, moderate positive correlation with votes for Obama, and moderate negative correlation with votes for Bush.
Gun - moderate positive correlation with suicide and moderate negative correlation with votes for Obama. (Obama is gonna take away your guns but, hey, you'll live.)
Calender (misspelled) - moderate positive correlation with illiteracy and rainfall and moderate negative correlation with suicide.
Diet - moderate positive correlation with obesity and infant mortality and moderate negative correlation with high school graduation rates.
Kottke - popular in WI and MN, moderate positive correlation with votes for Obama, and moderate negative correlation with votes for Bush.
Cuisine - This was my best attempt at a word with strong correlations but wasn't overly clustered in an obvious way (e.g. blue/red states, urban/rural, etc.). Strong positive correlation with same sex couples and votes for Obama and strong negative correlation with energy consumption and votes for Bush.
I could do this all day. A note on the site about correlation vs. causality:
Be careful drawing conclusions from this data. For example, the fact that walmart shows a moderate correlation with "Obesity" does not imply that people who search for "walmart" are obese! It only means that states with a high obesity rate tend to have a high rate of users searching for walmart, and vice versa. You should not infer causality from this tool: In the walmart example, the high correlation is driven partly by the fact that both obesity and Walmart stores are prevalent in the southeastern U.S., and these two facts may have independent explanations.
Can you find any searches that show some interesting results? Strong correlations are not that easy to find (although foie gras is a good one). (thx, ben)
Alex Tabarrok proposes that now is a good time for the US government to form the Buffalo Commons, a huge nature preserve in the western US.
The western Great Plains are emptying of people. Some 322 of the 443 Plains counties have lost population since 1930 and a majority have lost population since 1990. Now is the time for the Federal government to sell high-priced land in the West, use some of the proceeds to deal with current problems and use some of the proceeds to buy low-priced land in the Plains creating the world's largest nature park, The Buffalo Commons.
According to this map, the US government owns more than 50% of the land in some western states (Nevada 84.5%, Utah 57.4%, Oregon 53.1%, Arizona 48.1%, California 45.3%).
There are likely many benefits of an electoral college voting system, but I would still like to see it dead. Because this is just crazy:
The presidency could be won with just 22 percent of the electorate's support, only 16 percent of the entire population's.
That is, you could lose 78% of the popular vote and still gain The White House! Is that even correct? This seems insane to me. (via jake)
Michael Pollan, who I have spoken of previously, wrote an open letter in a recent issue of the NY Times magazine to the whoever prevails in the November presidential election. Pollan is concerned with contemporary American food policy.
There are many moving parts to the new food agenda I'm urging you to adopt, but the core idea could not be simpler: we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. True, this is easier said than done -- fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.
This is a really long piece but essential, important reading dripping with great stuff. If you don't have time to read it, Michael Ruhlman summed up Pollan's main points in a more bite-sized form. An even more abridged version of Pollan's recent food advice would be:
For people: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
For the United States: "We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine."
The more I read of Pollan's writing, the more I wish he were the Secretary of Agriculture or the head of the USDA or something. Paging Mr. Obama...
HBO is developing a series set 25-40 years in the future when Americans are fleeing the country en masse and settling elsewhere in the world.
In his research for "Americatown," Winters had explored possible nightmare scenarios that could bring the U.S. to a collapse decades down the road, like the price of oil skyrocketing and natural disasters reaching catastrophic proportions. Then suddenly oil hovered near $150 a barrel this summer, floods hit the Midwest and the South and Wall Street crashed under the weight of the mortgage crisis.
(via bygone bureau)
More new work from the busy Phillip Toledano: America the Gift Shop.
If American foreign policy had a gift show, what would it sell?
I like the Cheney shredding secret documents snow globe.
The New Republic on the demographic inversion of the American city.
In the past three decades, Chicago has undergone changes that are routinely described as gentrification, but are in fact more complicated and more profound than the process that term suggests. A better description would be "demographic inversion." Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city -- Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center -- some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white -- are those who can afford to do so.
Update: The WSJ wrote about this issue a couple of weeks ago.
'Mericans today are eating 1.8 pounds more food per week than in 1970, including an extra 1/2 pound of fat. Check out the chart for more info on how we've changed our diet. (thx, meg)
A very interesting graph of the estimated ideological positions of US voters, senators, and representatives shows that members of Congress are much more liberal and conservative than are US voters, who fall somewhere in the middle. (via 3qd)
After the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in late 1957 awoke the US to the possibility of a developing outer space "gap" with the Russkies, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law on July 29, 1958, thereby creating NASA. Only 11 years later, NASA landed men on the moon. Happy birthday, NASA.
Population densities in the United States vary over nine orders of magnitude.
In case you're wondering, the most densely populated block group is one in New York County, New York -- 3,240 people in 0.0097 square miles, for about 330,000 per square mile. The least dense is in the North Slope Borough of Alaska -- 3 people in 3,246 square miles, or one per 1,082 square miles. The Manhattan block group I mention here is 360 million times more dense than the Alaska one; population densities vary over a huge range.
That's approximately the same range from the height of an iPod to the diameter of the Earth. (via fakeisthenewreal)
Christopher Hitchens writes about getting waterboarded for the July issue of Vanity Fair.
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it "simulates" the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning-or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The "board" is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered.
As you can see in the video, Hitchens maybe lasted 15 seconds or so.