Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The rape thing

"I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you… rape victims should make the best of a bad situation." Rick Santorum, January 2011

THIS PAST SUNDAY, October 28, John Koster, who is running for Congress from the state of Washington, added his voice to the growing Republican chorus that believes women who are raped and become pregnant should have the baby and realize that they've been given a "gift". 

John Koster

Before you hear Mr. Koster's opinions, you might like to know what the prevalence of rape is in the US. But perhaps those toiling at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the organization that compiled these statistics, needs Missouri Republican Congressional candidate, Todd Akin, to review each victim's case one by one so he can decide whether the rapes they suffered were "legitimate". 

Chart compiled by RAINN, The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Below is an article by written by Laura Bassett about candidate Koster that appeared today on the Huffington Post. Women: is he, and all the rest of the Republican penises who feel similarly, really who you want running the country? I'm thinking "no".

John Koster, a Republican congressional candidate in Washington state, said Sunday that "the rape thing" is not a good enough reason for a woman to have an abortion, the Associated Press reported.

Asked at a campaign fundraiser whether he supports abortion rights in some situations, Koster replied that he only supports abortion in cases where a woman's life is in danger.

"Incest is so rare, I mean, it's so rare," he said. "But the rape thing-- you know, I know a woman who was raped and kept the child, gave it up for adoption, and she doesn't regret it."

He added, "On the rape thing, it's like, how does putting more violence onto a woman's body and taking the life of an innocent child that's a consequence of this crime -- how does that make it better? You know what I mean?"

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What the GOP actually thinks about rape

"I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Richard Mourdock, Indiana Republican candidate for US Senate

HERE'S A CHART to review from the Daily Kos as you think about whom to trust with your vote. Below that is an LA Times cartoon by the brilliant David Horsey

David Horsey titled his cartoon — October surprise: What the GOP actually think about rape.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Voter suppression

"Voting is the most precious right of every citizen, and we have a moral obligation to ensure the integrity of our voting process." Hillary Clinton

THERE ARE TWO things that are important to know about voter ID laws that are being passed in states around the country:

1) They are first and foremost a way to suppress the vote in low-income and non-white voter segments. 

2) Voter fraud happens so infrequently, that it's a non-problem.

Using IDs to combat voter fraud sounds so reasonable on the face of it. 

As Benjamin Ries, a writer for the Vanderbilt University student press, put it, "The recent wave of voter ID laws enjoys widespread popular support because of the intuitively harmless nature of the idea."

He goes on to ask, "Doesn’t everyone, after all, have easy access to valid forms of ID? And aren’t these ID laws a logical solution to the serious issue of voter fraud?" 

Here's why the answer to both questions is "NO!"

The first no:

A July 5 Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that "758,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania do not have the ID a new state law requires to vote." 

Benjamin also points out that ". . . many elderly voters in some states were born when birth certificates were not kept. Obtaining one often requires the payment of a fee. Another problem to many potential voters is that poll workers occasionally do not know the law. Just last week, a Tennessee State employee tried to use her state-issued employee photo ID to vote and was unlawfully turned away. In Ohio, organizations routinely challenge the voting registrations of citizens, who are then required to show up in court to clear their name."

Here's the second no:

"According to a Department of Justice study, out of the 197 million votes cast for federal candidates between 2002 and 2005, only 40 voters were indicted for voter fraud (and) only 26 of those cases, or about .00000013 percent of the votes cast, resulted in convictions or guilty pleas." (ABC News 9/12/12)

What's more, voter ID laws would counteract only one type of voter fraud known as in-person voter impersonation. 

How often does that happen?

"The analysis of 2,068 reported fraud cases by News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative reporting project, found 10 cases of alleged in-person voter impersonation since 2000. With 146 million registered voters in the United States, those represent about one for every 15 million prospective voters." (The Washington Post, 8/11/12)

"Over the past decade Texas has convicted 51 people of voter fraud, according to the state's Attorney General Greg Abbott. Only four of those cases were for voter impersonation, the only type of voter fraud that voter ID laws prevent." (ABC News 9/12/12)

So what are voter ID laws really designed to do?

They're designed to engineer elections by suppressing voting by groups that traditionally have been more likely to vote Democratic

As Benjamin Ries wrote in his October 29 column, "Voter ID laws do virtually nothing to prevent fraud while unfairly burdening the poor, the elderly and minorities. They are part of an elaborate con job aimed at convincing well-meaning Americans that large-scale voter fraud exists and that voter ID laws address this problem."

According to the Department of Justice, data from South Carolina indicate "minority registered voters are nearly 20% more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters." (Media Matters

In Florida, a big prize in the presidential election just one week away, Republican Gov. Rick Scott led the State Legislature in a successful effort to diminish early voting opportunities. The New York Times writes that they were able to "eliminate six days of early voting this year — including the Sunday before Election Day, which had been the traditional day to mobilize black congregations. In 2008, black voters cast early ballots at twice the rate of white voters, and turned out in significant strength on the Sunday before Election Day." 

If you think this is an isolated incident, think again. 

Here's a report from Think Progress written a week ago that ought to make you want to take to the streets:

With two weeks to Election Day, voters in critical swing states are being inundated with false information and intimidating messages meant to discourage them from voting. While shenanigans have been reported in every election, voting rights advocates say efforts to confuse and intimidate voters are taking an even more prominent role this year.

Phone voting. 
Residents in Florida, Indiana and Virginia are receiving mysterious phone calls telling them they can vote by phone instead of going to the polls. Virginia’s board of elections has received at least 10 complaints, mostly from seniors, though the total number of people affected by these calls is unclear.

Fake voter purge letters. 

Also in Florida, a mass mailing of fake letters questioning voters’ citizenship is being investigated. The letter, written on fake letterhead of a local county’s Supervisor of Elections, tells recipients in 23 counties to fill out a “voter eligibility form” with their Social Security information, Florida drivers licence number, and addresses. The letter claims the recipients must send the form to the Supervisor of Elections within 15 days or be purged from the rolls — mimicking actual purge letters ordered by Florida governor Rick Scott (R) challenging 200 Floridians’ citizenship.

Intimidating billboards. Dozens of billboards warning that voter fraud is a felony popped up suddenly in predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio earlier this month. The message, which includes the prison sentence and fine for voter fraud, is likely targeting former felons who do have the right to vote in Ohio. The company, Clear Channel Outdoor, announced they would take down intimidating voter fraud billboards after the sponsor refused to come forward. The company is also donating 10 billboards declaring, “Voting is a Right. Not a Crime!”

Photo of a billboard that appeared in Cleveland, OH.

Misleading voter ID ads. Though a judge ruled that Pennsylvania voters without a photo ID could still cast a regular ballot, state-sponsored ads have continued to tell residents they must show an ID. These ads are aired on television and radio, at posters at the DMV, and were mailed to thousands of seniors via a state prescription drug program. A billboard targeting Spanish speakers also continues to misleadingly promote the ID requirement.
Employer pressure. Several CEOs are pressuring their employees to vote for Romney by suggesting they will be forced to fire workers if Obama wins the election. While employers used to be banned from directly expressing political opinions to employees, the Supreme Court changed that with its 2010 Citizens United ruling. Workers have reported being pressured to vote, donate, and attend Romney rallies by their bosses.

If you're not steamed, why aren't you?? Is this or is this not America? Below is a map from the National Conference of State Legislatures showing which states have enacted voter ID laws and what each state is requiring. 

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Thursday, October 25, 2012


Quote for the day:
It was almost too wonderful for belief; and it was with the greatest effort that she could remain in the room, preserve an air of calmness, and answer the common questions of the moment. Jane Austen, Persuasion

I AM ROUGHLY two thirds of the way through memorizing chapter 18 of Persuasion by Jane Austen. You may recall that I have no good reason whatsoever for doing this; nevertheless I am: five and a half pages memorized with three to go.

With such unflagging pursuit of an utterly useless attainment, you can imagine the disbelief and humor with which Paul and I greeted an article he came across quite by accident in the Stanford University News written by Corrie Goldman entitled This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes

I've excerpted it here. Perhaps next they will study how memorizing Chapter 18 of Persuasion effects the brain.

They had subjects read Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, but you and
I know they would have gotten much better results reading Persuasion. 

Stanford Report
September 7, 2012

This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes

Researchers observe the brain patterns of literary PhD candidates while they're reading a Jane Austen novel. The fMRI images suggest that literary reading provides "a truly valuable exercise of people's brains."


The inside of an MRI machine might not seem like the best place to cozy up and concentrate on a good novel, but a team of researchers at Stanford are asking readers to do just that.

In an innovative interdisciplinary study, neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars are working together to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction – by reading Jane Austen.

Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for "executive function," areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project.

During a series of ongoing experiments, functional magnetic resonance images track blood flow in the brains of subjects as they read excerpts of a Jane Austen novel. Experiment participants are first asked to leisurely skim a passage as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam.

Phillips said the global increase in blood flow during close reading suggests that "paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions." Blood flow also increased during pleasure reading, but in different areas of the brain. Phillips suggested that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain that are "far more complex than just work and play."

The experiment focuses on literary attention, or more specifically, the cognitive dynamics of the different kinds of focus we bring to reading. This experiment grew out of Phillips' ongoing research about Enlightenment writers who were concerned about issues of attention span, or what they called "wandering attention."

Phillips, who received her PhD in English literature at Stanford in 2010, is now an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. She said one of the primary goals of the research is to investigate the value of studying literature. Beyond producing good writers and thinkers, she is interested in "how this training engages the brain."

The researchers found that blood flow in the brain increases during such leisurely reading, but in different areas of the brain than when the subjects read the novel more closely.

Pioneering in a number of respects, her research is "one of the first fMRI experiments to study how our brains respond to literature," Phillips said, as well as the first to consider "how cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it."

Critical reading of humanities-oriented texts is recognized for fostering analytical thought, but if such results hold across subjects, Phillips said it would suggest "it's not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that's of value, and that literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people's brains."
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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Maya Angelou

Quote for the day:
Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage. — Maya Angelou 

HEY, if Maya Angelou tells us to do it, we'd better give it serious consideration! I'm a big time fan of hers, but then I'm also a President Obama supporter. 

The divine Miss M.
Dear Kelly,

I am not writing to you as a black voter, or a woman voter, or as a voter who is over 70 years old and six feet tall. I am writing to you as a representative of this great country -- as an American.

It is your job to vote. It is your responsibility, your right, and your privilege. You may be pretty or plain, heavy or thin, gay or straight, poor or rich.

But remember this: In an election, every voice is equally powerful -- don't underestimate your vote. Voting is the great equalizer.

Your vote might make the difference. Don't fool around with this: You can vote early in Iowa, so find your early vote polling location and do it now.

Once you've done that, make sure your friends know exactly where they can vote early, too.

As a country, we can scarcely perceive the magnitude of our progress.

My grandmother and my uncle experienced circumstances that would break your heart. When they went to vote, they were asked impossible questions like, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" When they couldn't answer, they couldn't vote.

I once debated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about whether an African American would ever be elected president. He believed it would happen within the next 40 years at the time -- I believed it would never happen within my lifetime.

I have never been happier to have been proven wrong.

And since President Barack Obama's historic election, we've moved forward in courageous and beautiful ways. More students can afford college, and more families have access to affordable health insurance. Women have greater opportunities to get equal pay for equal work.

Yet as Rev. King wrote, "All progress is precarious."

So don't sit on the sidelines. Don't hesitate. Don't have any regrets. Vote.

You don't have to wait until Election Day. Voting has already begun in Iowa -- so go, rise up, and cast your ballot early:

And make sure everyone in your life knows where they can vote early, too:

Your vote is not only important. It's imperative.

Thank you,

Dr. Maya Angelou

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sunlight and vision

“There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind.” — Annie Dillard, American author and poet

I BOOKMARKED THIS article from the New York Times almost a year and a half ago and forgot that I had until recently when Paul found it in my saved file and read it. He thought it was quite interesting, as did I when I originally read it. I'm sharing it with you.

Postscript: I've been reading other studies that support the thesis that exposure to outdoor sunlight can help prevent myopia.

Here's what The American Academy of Ophthalmology had to say about it on May 1, 2013.

"Two new studies add to the growing evidence that spending time outdoors may help prevent or minimize nearsightedness in children. A study conducted in Taiwan, which is the first to use an educational policy as a public vision health intervention, finds that when children are required to spend recess time outdoors, their risk of nearsightedness is reduced. A separate study in Danish children is the first to show a direct correlation between seasonal fluctuations in daylight, eye growth and the rate of nearsightedness progression. The research was published in the May issue of Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology."

The Sun Is the Best Optometrist

By Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang
June 20, 2011

WHY is nearsightedness so common in the modern world? In the early 1970s, 25 percent of Americans were nearsighted; three decades later, the rate had risen to 42 percent, and similar increases have occurred around the world.

There is significant evidence that the trait is inherited, so you might wonder why our myopic ancestors weren’t just removed from the gene pool long ago, when they blundered into a hungry lion or off a cliff. But although genes do influence our fates, they are not the only factors at play.

In this case, the rapid increase in nearsightedness appears to be due to a characteristic of modern life: more and more time spent indoors under artificial lights.

Our genes were originally selected to succeed in a very different world from the one we live in today. Humans’ brains and eyes originated long ago, when we spent most of our waking hours in the sun. The process of development takes advantage of such reliable features of the environment, which then may become necessary for normal growth.

Researchers suspect that bright outdoor light helps children’s developing eyes maintain the correct distance between the lens and the retina — which keeps vision in focus. Dim indoor lighting doesn’t seem to provide the same kind of feedback. As a result, when children spend too many hours inside, their eyes fail to grow correctly and the distance between the lens and retina becomes too long, causing far-away objects to look blurry.

One study published in 2008 in the Archives of Ophthalmology compared 6- and 7-year-old children of Chinese ethnicity living in Sydney, Australia, with those living in Singapore. The rate of nearsightedness in Singapore (29 percent) was nearly nine times higher than in Sydney. The rates of nearsightedness among the parents of the two groups of children were similar, but the children in Sydney spent on average nearly 14 hours per week outside, compared with just three hours per week in Singapore.

Similarly, a 2007 study by scholars at Ohio State University found that, among American children with two myopic parents, those who spent at least two hours per day outdoors were four times less likely to be nearsighted than those who spent less than one hour per day outside.

In short, the biological mechanism that kept our vision naturally sharp for thousands of sunny years has, under new environmental conditions, driven visual development off course. This capacity for previously well-adapted genes to be flummoxed by the modern world can account for many apparent imperfections. Brain wiring that effortlessly recognizes faces, animals and other symmetrical objects can be thrown off by letters and numbers, leading to reading difficulties. A restless nature was once helpful to people who needed to find food sources in the wild, but in today’s classrooms, it’s often classified as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When brains that are adapted for face-to-face social interactions instead encounter a world of e-mail and Twitter — well, recent headlines show what can happen.

Luckily, there is a simple way to lower the risk of nearsightedness, and today, the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — is the perfect time to begin embracing it: get children to spend more time outside.

Parents concerned about their children’s spending time playing instead of studying may be relieved to know that the common belief that “near work” — reading or computer use — leads to nearsightedness is incorrect. Among children who spend the same amount of time outside, the amount of near work has no correlation with nearsightedness. Hours spent indoors looking at a screen or book simply means less time spent outside, which is what really matters.

This leads us to a recommendation that may satisfy tiger and soccer moms alike: if your child is going to stick his nose in a book this summer, get him to do it outdoors.

Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, are the authors of the forthcoming “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College.”

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Going their separate ways

"When people divorce, it's always such a tragedy. At the same time, if people stay together it can be even worse." Monica Bellucci, Italian actress

RECENTLY WE LEARNED that a couple we know well is divorcing, and even though in this case the only surprise is that the marriage lasted as long as it did, still I feel sad. I'd hoped to be proven wrong. Invariably, after learning about the divorce of someone I know, even if it's only my dentist, I have unsettling dreams for a night or two. What can I say, I'm a sensitive soul. 

One interesting phenomena is the "late in life, after many years of marriage" divorce. It seems like there have been quite a few of them in the news lately. Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito are divorcing after 30 years together. Word has it that Rhea finally got fed up with his womanizing ways. Yup. He has a lot of power in Hollywood and apparently doesn't mind using it to bed starlets. That divorce falls into the category of "what took you so long?" His bedding of starlets falls into the category of "Eewwwwww!"

Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Also in WTYSL category Maria Shriver and Aahnold. She should have given him the heave ho long ago IMHO. She started dating him in 1977 and married him in 1986. Amazing that it took her 34 years to finally have had it with his extracurricular activities. It's not like there weren't plenty of clues along the way what with the spate of sexual harassment claims made against him.

Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Al Gore and Tipper; that was disappointing. They were high school sweethearts and married for 40 years. I guess you can't take anything for granted even after that long. Though they're just separated, not legally divorced yet, still the buzz is that they're both dating other people. 

The famous kiss.

I was also sad to see Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon hit the skids. I had a definite vested interest in rooting for that long-term relationship. She's 12 years older than he is, and I'm 13 years older than Paul. They were together for 23 years; we've been together almost 21. So no falling down on the job for either one of us!

Susan and Tim. I was sorry to this one fail.

And then there's Mary Ann Mobley and Gary Collins. Gary passed away October 13. They had been married for 45 years, separated in 2011, but reconciled in 2012. The separation might have had something to do with his alcohol consumption. He was convicted of drunk driving for the second time in 2008, and he had a third conviction in 2009 with a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. In 2010 he was charged with and paid a fine for leaving the scene on an accident, and in 2011 he was charged with a felony for walking out on a restaurant bill. 

Gary Collins and Mary Ann Mobley.

I was once told by someone knowledgeable that 80% of women stay with their alcoholic husbands, whereas 80% of men leave their alcoholic wives. I don't know if it that's exactly accurate, but it feels about right.

To my young friend, currently married to an unfaithful alcoholic who drinks and strays while she takes care of their two daughters and works to support the family: I hope you'll be one of the courageous 20% and leave. Squash any guilty feelings you might have about separating the girls from their dad — he's not actually "there" anyway, and think instead of how important it is for your girls to see you model self-determination and self-respect instead of perpetual victimization. You can do it, Ally.
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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bring me a bucket of it

"You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six." Yogi Berra 

THURSDAY NIGHT WAS the opening concert of the Turner Center Jazz Orchestra season. It was especially well done, in my untrained opinion. I certainly enjoyed it at any rate, and so did the audience. If you live in central Iowa, you really ought to try to catch the next concert in November.

Paul and I had forgotten to eat before we went to the Turner Center and were positively ravenous by the time things wrapped up about 10:30. We drove to Jethro's Barbecue on Forest Avenue and got a whole chicken and four sides to go. 

Mmmmm mmmm, mmm, those side dishes were good! We got four different things to try: mashed potatoes and gravy, baked beans, macaroni and cheese and cold slaw. The mac and cheese is a standout!! I don't know what different kinds of cheese they're putting in it, but it's different than any mac and cheese I've ever had. Just bring me a gallon bucket of it and give me a spoon. The mashed potatoes and gravy were extra good; so was the chicken.

Speaking of food, Wig and Pen in Ankeny has the best pizza in and around Des Moines. Paul used to work at Giordano's in Iowa City and in Des Moines, when they had one here, and he says it's exactly Giordano's famous Chicago-style recipe.

Friday night Paul and I saw Argo in the theater. It's gotten great reviews, and it really is worth watching — very engrossing, suspenseful and well-acted by everyone. We've never been Ben Affleck fans, but after seeing this movie, we may change our minds. He directed it, co-produced it with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and he stars in it. Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman add color and chops.

Ben Affleck

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Thursday, October 18, 2012


"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." — Albert Einstein 

THE ONLY UPSIDE of occasional bouts of insomnia is that I end up reading things that I might otherwise miss. Below is an intriguing article by David Bornstein, who writes an online column called Fixes for the New York Times

Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web

October 17, 2012
Social Change’s Age of Enlightenment
By David Bornstein

One of the benefits of writing a column about solutions is that it offers an alternative lens through which to view the world. This week is the second anniversary of Fixes. Much of my time over the past few years has been spent talking to people about the creative responses to social problems that are emerging across the country and around the globe. It turns out there’s no shortage of these stories. I’m often struck by how much ingenuity is out there and being directed to repair the world, and how little we hear about it.

As a result, I often find myself out of step with friends whose views are shaped by the big news stories — money-driven politics, unemployment, war and violence, seemingly irreparable education and health systems. After looking at hundreds of examples of social change efforts, I see a side of reality that goes unreported: namely, that we’re getting smarter about the way we’re addressing social problems. In fact, I would go so far as to say we’re on the verge of a breakthrough — maybe even a new Enlightenment.

If that sounds like an overstatement, consider the comparison. The Enlightenment was a period in history when fanciful thinking gave way to a more rational understanding of cause and effect. It promoted the scientific method, challenged ideas grounded in tradition, faith or superstition, and advocated the restructuring of governments and social institutions based on reason. (It was not always so enlightened, however. While Enlightenment thinkers sought to advance the public good — producing documents like The Bill of Rights — they also used reason to justify colonialism and slavery.)

Today’s Enlightenment stems from new understandings and practices that have taken hold in the social sector and are producing better and measurable results against a range of problems.

In Fixes, for example, we have asked questions like: Is it possible to systematically increase empathy and cooperation in children? Is there a way to teach math so virtually all children become proficient? Can we prevent thousands of cases of child abuse without removing children from their parents? Can we dramatically reduce — or come close to eliminating — chronic homelessness from every city in the United States?

What’s surprising is that the answer to these and many similar questions is yes. This is not wishful thinking. We know how to do these things; in fact, we’re currently doing them at significant scale (although nowhere near the scale of the problems). We’re accustomed to hearing that our problems are intractable, that social programs inevitably disappoint. So what’s different today?
Looking across many initiatives, I’ve found several patterns — strategic insights — that jump out. (In my previous career, I was a systems analyst, and I remain a wonk.) In the months ahead, I plan to explore some of them in depth. For now, here are three themes to ponder.

We are not econs 
It may sound strange, but we are increasingly addressing social problems with the recognition that human beings don’t behave rationally much of the time, or even most of the time. Recent research from behavioral psychology and neuroscience has shed light on the different ways that emotions, unconscious drives, group identities, and situational cues guide human behavior. (My colleague Tina Rosenberg has written extensively about this.) In short, we’re learning more about how people really work — and we’re applying the knowledge to solve problems.

And it makes a difference. We’ve seen, for instance, that if we want to mobilize people to protect the environment, it’s probably less effective to issue dire warnings than to organize campaigns that tap people’s sense of pride in their heritage. We’ve seen that we can increase desirable behaviors — recycling or hand-washing in hospitals, for example — by changing the context so the behaviors become more reflexive or culturally reinforced. In schools, organizations like Playworks are showing that, if you want to reduce bullying, increase students’ readiness to learn and give teachers more time to teach, one of the most sensible strategies is to improve recess — so that it becomes a period in which children learn, through play, how to control their impulses and get along with others. In vocational training programs, we see that one of the best ways to increase the odds of career success is to teach the so-called “soft” relational skills alongside “hard” job skills.

In these and other areas, groups are increasingly applying knowledge about how humans work. Like Enlightenment thinkers, they are being more rational about cause and effect.

Just the facts 
Alongside these behavioral insights, we are increasingly using data, well-conducted studies, and evidence-based decision making to evaluate and sharpen the effectiveness of social interventions. This, of course, is nothing new. Some 150 years ago, Florence Nightingale revolutionized medical care in England the same way. We think of Nightingale as a kind lady with a lamp, but she was closer to a data analyst. She wrote: “To understand God’s thoughts we must study statistics.” And she used data to force changes that substantially cut death rates in hospitals and military barracks and led to the formalization of nursing.

Today, the social sector remains far from evidence-based. For example, much of the math and writing instruction in American schools is not supported by evidence of what works. Even in medicine, the evidence-based movement is only two decades old. (It was only in the 1960s that the U.S. government began requiring pharmaceutical companies to demonstrate “substantial evidence of effectiveness” for new drugs.) Since the 1970s, a few standout groups like MDRC have pushed for more rigorous testing of social programs. But until recently, if you ran an after-school or Head Start-type program, or a program that claimed to reduce juvenile crime or prevent teen pregnancy, you could keep turning the crank for years without having to furnish proof that you were achieving results.

That is still possible, but it’s getting tougher. Private and public funders, as well as groups like M.I.T.’s Poverty Action Lab, the Cochrane and Campbell Collaborations, the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, are increasing demands for more, and better, evidence.

The upshot is that we’re now in a better position to recognize what works and what doesn’t in a variety of areas — like which methods to reduce child abuse and prevent unwanted teen pregnancies appear most effective, or what studies tell us about how to improve the teaching of math or writing, or which police tactics are most effective at reducing crime. In both the Bush and Obama administrations, we’ve seen early efforts to incorporate evidence in policy making at the national level. People with good intentions have long worked on social problems in the dark; increasingly they are being asked to prove that they are getting somewhere. This is a departure from the past. And like the scientific revolution, if the movement grows, it should foster considerable innovation.

The Integration of Labor 
For the past century, society has grown ever more specialized and balkanized. Today, we’re getting smarter about bringing people back together to build comprehensive solutions. This is a shift away from a trend that can be traced back to Adam Smith, who wrote in the very first sentence of “The Wealth of Nations” that the greatest gains in productive power come from the “division of labor.”

Smith famously showed that a pin factory could multiply its productivity many fold if each worker specialized on one narrow aspect of pin making. Henry Ford adopted the principle and invented the assembly line. Modern society is full of “pin factories” — inward looking agencies and organizations that operate in silos and bounce people back and forth like pinballs.

The problem is that social issues are multi-dimensional. If you want to fix the health problems in a low-income community, you have to fix the housing problems and the access to healthy choices. If you want young people to graduate from college, it’s best to get started when they are in preschool, or better, in utero.

And that’s how more people are beginning to think about problems. In a number of areas, we’re witnessing the sewing together, or integration, of social functions that have for decades been handled in piecemeal fashion. One of the best examples of this is the strategy that has come to be called “collective impact,” through which scores or hundreds of organizations in a city agree to coordinate their work, aligning behind an agreed set of measurable goals. In education, cities are building end-to-end “cradle to career” pathways.

Groups like Health Leads, staffed by volunteers, are working in hospitals, side by side with health care providers, to address the social determinants of health — malnutrition, housing, poverty — that underlie or directly cause many medical emergencies. The 100,000 Homes Campaign, directed by Community Solutions, has developed a model that assembles all the players in a city who, collectively, redesign the housing placement process. Cities soon discover they are able to multiply the number of people they house and cut the time it takes by 70 percent or more. (To date, the campaign reports that close to 21,000 people have been housed.)

More and more, people are taking up the challenge of connecting the dots. In doing so, they find they can address problems in more sensible ways — and achieve results.

In future columns, I’ll explore other ways that we’re getting smarter. Here’s a preview of three more:
— We’re recognizing that a key to social change is to turn great ideas into great institutions. And one way to do that is to begin by identifying and supporting talented entrepreneurs who are driven to build social change organizations (just like we do in business).

— We are beginning to finance social change more rationally, moving away from capricious, fragmented, short-term funding towards financing that is tied to success and, like in the private sector, allows top performers to grow rapidly.

— We are harnessing the power of everyone. Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems observed: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Recognizing that fact, we are increasingly using open innovation models to identify powerful ideas wherever they may be found.

Most of these changes are still in their early stages. To be sure, they are far from standard practice. But even as scattered examples, the innovations show what’s possible, raising expectations and creating pressure for others to respond. This is not to say that issues like education and health care will become depoliticized or ‘rational’ anytime soon. However, the more society becomes aware of the remarkable potential we have in our hands — the more we hear about post-Enlightenment programs that are achieving their goals — the more we can make sense of why they are working — the less legitimate it will be for those with vested interests to defend the status quo.

It won’t happen overnight. It took two centuries after Copernicus for the world to acknowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe. But, as they say, the truth will out.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

My day just got worse

"Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit." — Mahatma Gandhi 

JUST WHEN YOU think you haven't had that bad of a day, you look at the news and change your mind. At least that's what I am doing right now. I'm upstairs hanging out with Anaya, and as usual, checking the news online before bed. And what do I find? Two depressing stories.

One story is about a flier that was posted in a men's bathroom in a residence hall at Miami University of Ohio titled Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape. How do you even describe how despicable such a thing is?

The other news item details how an anti-bullying initiative for schools offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center is being demonized by a group called the American Family Association, a right wing 'Christian' organization, as "a thinly-veiled effort to promote homosexuality" when in reality (literally, as in where the rest of us live) it's a program promoting kindness, inclusiveness and understanding as a means of combating bullying — something apparently this 'Christian' group is sorely lacking.

The stories are below if you can stand them.

Good Morning America/ABC News
Oct. 15, 2012

Officials at Miami University of Ohio are investigating a flier titled "Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape" posted on the bathroom wall of one of its residence halls.

The tips included such graphic advice as encouraging men to have sex with unconscious women because it "doesn't count," drugging women with "roofies," and slitting women's throats if they recognize their attackers.

The tip sheet replaced a university-sanctioned "Top 10 Ways to Prevent Sexual Assault" poster on a men's bathroom wall in the dorm, which is coed by floor, according to Claire Wagner, spokeswoman for the school. There was also graffiti that was sexual in nature around the bathroom, she said.

Residence life staff alerted university police after finding the flier on Oct. 8. Wagner said that police believe one person acted alone in creating the tip sheet, and the school's Office of Ethics and Student Conflict Resolution, which handles judicial affairs, is working with the police department to find the culprit.

The university, including representatives from the police, the student counseling department, and student groups, held a mandatory meeting for all male students at the dorm building after the flier was reported. The meeting was educational in nature, Wagner said.

"We have a very strong program advising how to prevent sexual assault," Wagner said, noting that there are student and peer education groups on campus, as well as sexual assault prevention programs put on by the university police in residence halls.

"Interestingly enough, in 2011 we had far fewer sexual assaults reported than in '09 and '10," Wagner said.

The school is also searching for a full-time sexual assault prevention coordinator, a position for which they've launched national searches in the past but failed to find a suitable candidate.

Good Morning America/ABC News

Oct. 15, 2012

A national campaign encouraging kids to befriend other kids who are different from them has come under fire from a conservative family group, which claims a pro-gay agenda is being foisted upon American children.

The American Family Association has taken issue with the annual "Mix It Up" Day organized by Teaching Tolerance, the anti-bullying project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, said the group started the national campaign 11 years ago, organizing it so that schools can participate on their own terms by encouraging students to sit with those they don't normally hang out with during lunch.

"Hey, the cafeteria is in fact where kids tend to self-segregate," she said. "We're trying to get them past the idea that you have to distrust people in another group. So we started Mix It Up Day. For one day, kids will be assigned to randomly sit with other people who they wouldn't normally sit with."

Costello said that thousands of schools and millions of children have participated in the program over the past 11 years, and another 2,500 schools have signed up to participate this year.

But schools that had signed up with the SPLC to host Mix It Up Day this year have become the target of a campaign that views SPLC as a "fanatical pro-homosexual group."

"The Southern Poverty Law Center is using this project to bully-push its gay agenda, and at the same time intimidate and silence students who have a Biblical view of homosexuality," the AFA wrote on its website on Oct. 1.

The group called for parents to keep their children home from school on Oct. 30, the national day when schools can implement Mix It Up activities. They also prompted their supporters to write letters and place phone calls to participating schools encouraging them to pull the plug on Mix It Up Day plans.

"The problem is pushing the normalization of homosexuality in schools," said Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the AFA. "You see the same thing happening with anti-bullying legislation. It winds up being used as a hammer to silence Christian students who oppose normalization of homosexuality. If you say a word criticizing homosexual behavior, you get accused of hate speech."

"This is a thinly-veiled effort to promote homosexuality," he said.

The group said the "radical" SPLC was using the anti-bullying campaign as a "gay indoctrination" program.

"It was just so bizarre," Costello said of the AFA's criticism of Mix It Up Day. "You could look through every page of Mix It Up (materials) on diversity, and the only reference to LGBT issues is that at some point we have an activity that helps kids end their use of comments like 'don't be a retard' and 'that's so gay.' That is it. That is the sum total."

"We don't tell schools what to do on mix it up day. We suggest activities, none of which have to do with sexual orientations. We used to focus on divisions of race and social class, but now we encourage schools to focus on what they're own school issues are," she said.

The AFA has asked the SPLC to publish a disclaimer making it clear that Mix It Up Day "should not be construed to imply the endorsement or support of homosexual behavior," Fischer said.

The Teaching Tolerance program countered with their own publicity materials, pointing out that AFA has been named a "hate group" by SPLC for their views on homosexuality, she said. Fischer called that an "entirely false designation."

Some 200 schools have asked to be removed from a public list of participating Mix It Up schools since the AFA launched their protest, Costello said.

In the same two-week span, 180 schools have signed up to participate, she said.
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