A new definition of pain and suffering

My friend’s post about recycling at the local football stadium reminds me of a story I saw last week in the university’s newspaper. Apparently the football stadium is the nexus of all sorts of good-doing: there are plans to build a seating area for child patients from the university hospital. From what I can see, though, there hasn’t been a marriage of good ideas and good design. Some of the conceptual drawings look like how I always imagined the insides of a sarlacc, where sick children will be “slowly digested over a thousand years.”

Back to the drawing board, please.

Leave them teachers alone

A story on NPR about research into motivating teachers got my attention. Researchers experimented with offering Chicago-area teachers different types of bonuses to see how they affected student performance (as measured by test scores). They found that test scores improved the most if the bonus was given to the teachers up front with the threat of taking it away when students didn’t perform.

(So what group of right-wingers conducted this research? Let’s see…, oh, economists at the University of Chicago. Figures. Wait, didn’t Milton Friedman already come up with the solutions to all of our economic problems? No?)

A couple of things gall me about this story. Why did the researchers choose teachers? Why not experiment on people in the Chicago area who are legitimately overpaid like hedge fund managers or CEOs or Theo Epstein? Take their perks away and see how they perform. But teachers are popular punching bags theses days, and no one needs an excuse to draw the inevitable conclusion that they don’t work hard enough. It won’t take a lot of imagination for someone to suggest dispensing with the bonus and simply take teachers’ pay away when the test scores don’t triple every year. Maybe the real problem with teacher motivation is the blame they get for your and your kids’ educational shortcomings.

Then the reporter admits at the end that the results have not been replicated or sustained. I can’t tell if this is bad research or bad reporting. Either way, NPR’s selection of which research breakthroughs to report on could be a little more rigorous.

Sneaky bitter berries

We have a small package of fresh blueberries in the fridge. Except upon closer inspection they are not blueberries. Nowhere on the label does it say “blueberries.” Turns out they are “aronia berries,” a fancy name for chokecherries, fruit from a wild shrub. Some clever local native fruit farm grows and sells them. The berries are inedible raw (they make your mouth dry sort of like persimmons). We’ll try to throw them into some pancakes this weekend and hope the pancakes are not worse off because of them.


During presidential election years the news media treats us to repeated reminders about why we should care about Florida. It’s a swing state, or “battleground” state, if you prefer applying warfare terms to everything unlike war. The Economist this week, as it does quadrennially, summarized the demographics that make it such a crucial place.

I find this all puzzling. I do not see how Florida, despite its recent performance in presidential elections, in any way or form could be considered a swing state. One wonders where all these Florida Democrats have been lately. The Florida legislature appears to have become a single-party Republican state. Would a state that votes for 21st century Democrats also have a skinhead governor and a gun law that amounts to a do-it-yourself lynching program?

Perhaps Florida doesn’t really matter all that much.  If voter suppression laws are the types of things Florida Democrats vote for, we’re just as badly off leaving the state to the Republicans in November. Then our president could stop worrying about what white Baby Boomer retirees in The Villages who don’t like black presidents and don’t want to pay taxes but want the rest of us to pay for their Social Security and Medicare think of him, and start focusing on more sensible states, if there are any left.

He’ll never wear that shirt again

I noticed yesterday on both PBS and CBS that whenever one of the Democratic National Convention speakers mentioned legalizing gay marriage or repealing don’t-ask-don’t-tell the cameras showed a hipster-looking guy in the audience wearing a lavender shirt. The producers must have been like, “Get a shot of that guy in the lavender shirt. He simply loves gay rights issues. He must.”

The convention speech

President Obama’s convention speech sounded a lot like his other speeches, but he said something tonight that I’ve been waiting a long time for him to say. He often says, like he did tonight, that “government can be a force for good”– a wishy-washy rationale of his platform. But he also said:

But we also believe in something called citizenship– a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.

I added the emphasis to the excerpt above because Republicans talk about government as if it is alien and not about citizenship or democracy. What they never say about government is that it is our government, that in our democracy we the people have the right and the duty, to leverage our government against threats to our justice, peace, liberty, and well-being.

When Mitt Romney said “corporations are people,” I understood that he meant corporations are organizations comprising individuals much like me who work hard and may even believe that what they do is important and right and good. I’ll grant him that if in return he grants that “governments are people” in the same way but with one important difference: a government, unlike a corporation, is ours– all of ours, equally. When conservatives complain, for example, that our health care system is being subsumed by a voracious federal bureaucracy they neglect to mention it is at least our bureaucracy and not somebody else’s. In our government, unlike in a corporation, our votes are equal, not proportionate to a (probably unearned) share of the wealth.

The Democrats— and this president has been characteristic of them— are forever ceding philosophical ground to Republicans. They have let the conservatives define the debate about the role of government in American lives for far too long. Tonight the President only touched on the duties of citizenship and the responsibilities of living in a democracy. I wish he had gotten to it earlier and hammered it home harder. I wish he had said more about “the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” Because what the Republicans dismiss as “government” is really self-government. When citizens seize control of their lives from predatory, neo-feudal corporations, that is self-government.