What To Do About the Aliens?

MarsAttacks2 Last night, we snuggled on the sofa with Steve snoring in the corner and watched the Discovery Channel just in time to hear Stephen Hawking's advice about dealing with an eventual encounter with aliens. I explained to Jonah who Hawking was and why he has that robotic voice. I'm quite sure that Jonah thought that Hawking was an alien; he wasn't buying my story that Hawking was a really smart guy.

Hawking said that there is no doubt that life exists on other planets. The aliens would probably be a lot like us and that we should keep our distance.

Candy for bloggers. Aliens are better than zombies. So, the blogosphere weighs in. Dan Drezner applies lessons from international relations to this new threat. Glenn Reynolds. Rob Farley.

Animal Rubber Bracelets

DSC_0067 Jonah and his buddies are completely obsessed with Silly Bandz, which are rubber bracelets that spring into animal shapes. They get them from the video game store and from 7-11 for a few bucks and stack them up their wrists. They trade them after school. Jonah and other tweens around the country are completely obsessed, until the next dumb craze starts up next month.

DSC_0008 There are a couple different companies that sell them, but as Steve learned from the clerk in the video game store, both companies are owned by some dude in Oklahoma who punches them out of rubber that gets from China. He's made millions.

Why can't I think of something like this?

Making Money with New Media

Iphone4_gizmodo_300 How about that schmuck who left the prototype of the new iPhone in a bar? Was it a cool marketing ploy or was the guy loaded?

Have the bad jokes started yet? A rabbi, a priest and a drunk Apple engineer walk into a bar and….

And how about the Nick Denton who bought the iPhone and put it up on his Gizmodo website? He says that he didn't end up making money from the huge traffic upsurge that day. The advertising space was pre-paid. But a fraction of those new visitors will show up again. He's just permanently increased his traffic numbers and he can raise advertising rates for the future.

UPDATE: Police seize computer of Gizmodo editor.

The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home & Home Becomes Work

Officespace_lumbergh A month ago, I picked up The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work from the town library. I read a few chapters, but it threw me into a tailspin of despair and I had to skip to the last chapter.

Hochschild interviewed all levels of employees at unnamed corporation on one of those meticulously landscaped office parks that are nestled into suburban communities. She wanted to find out how the workers juggled their lives at work and at home and whether they took advantage of the company's work-life programs. In addition to in-depth interviews, she followed them around the office and observed them at home. It was certainly thorough research.

She found that few employees were taking advantage of the company's work flexibility packages. Some really needed that flexibility, but couldn't leave work because of old stodgy bosses. Others didn't leave work early, because they didn't want to. They liked their neat and tidy lives in the office. Their officemates had become their family. Their real family was needy and demanding and complicated. It was much nicer to come into the office with tidy clothes and leave the kids and their spouse behind. 

Hochschild is very pessimistic about these developments. You feel her sympathy for the abandoned families and her disgust at people who have sold their souls to the company. There were too many forces working against change in the workplace. By the end of the book, a downturn in the economy meant that the flexibility program was entirely discarded.

She has wonderful little observations about corporate life. For example, she notes the differing ways that people display pictures in their office. The lower level workers, such as the secretaries, had informal pictures of their kids taped discretely to their computer screens, so they could look at their kids while they worked. Upper level management did things differently. The men had formal shots of their kids in expensive frames on credenzas behind them. The pictures were for other people to look at, like trophies. The female managers had no pictures of their children in the office at all.

While these sorts of case studies are wonderful for providing thick descriptions, I was left unsure of how typical this office was. What happens in other companies, in other industries, in other parts of the country? The book was published in 1997, which isn't that long ago, but I worried that the findings in the book were a little dated.

Life As A Crap Shoot

We got a phone call from one of Steve's old friends from Cleveland last night. One of his old gang from high school became a dad two months ago to identical twins. One of the boys was diagnosed with leukemia. The poor baby is going to be tortured with eight months of chemotherapy and still only has a 25 percent shot at survival.

When we were getting ready to get married, Father Ashley had us fill out a questionnaire about our future plans and goals. It was part of the precanna process to make sure that we had similar priorities. One of the questions was where do you expect to be five years from now. Steve and I were both writing our dissertation proposals at the time, so we wrote that in five years, we expected to both have tenure track jobs somewhere.

That was twelve years ago. Now, Steve is putting in twelve hour days on Wall Street and I'm making sure the kids know how to spell "monotonous" and "sprawl" for the next day's spelling test.

When I was pregnant with Jonah, my aunt the midwife had me practice all those breathing exercises in her brown basement. I read volumes and volumes of books about natural childbirth. Nine months later, I got an emergency C-section, and my kid arrived with gouges on his head from the forceps. The C-section chapter was at the end of all those birthing books, and I hadn't read that far.

The parenting magazines and books showed pictures of lovely, smiley, golden-haired children listening attentively to their parents, who had miraculously shrunk back to their pre-pregnancy weight within weeks of giving birth. There weren't any pictures of miserable, speechless toddlers with unkempt moms.

One of the lessons that we've had to learn since we've had kids is to give up control. We don't know what will happen when all that DNA is mixed together. I have smart friends, but their kids struggle in school. I have friends that hoped for girls and got four boys in a row. I have friends that were shocked by their infertility. Our own lives have also taken many surprising twists since we filled out that questionnaire for Father Ashley. Ah, what babies we were at that time.

It's hard for us for us to let go of events and let them unfold on their own, especially when we've been so successful and so sheltered by protective families. I think it would be better for us if we had been prepared for randomness and the messiness of life. At too old of an age, I had to learn how to appreciate the unplanned, to brace myself for tragedy, and to treasure imperfection.

My heart is in Cleveland this morning.

Local School Budgets

With Gov. Christie cutting back on state funding for schools, every town in New Jersey just held a vote to increase local taxes to schools. Our town was one of the few in our county to vote down the tax levy. As a result, a bunch of teachers are going to get fired and the school district is going to move to half-day Kindergarten classes. Special education will be cut. Property values will probably go down.

Even though the tax increase would have only have increased taxes by $20 per month, people voted it down. Why? We have a lot of seniors in our town who don't think that the schools benefit them and believe that the kids are spoiled. Sexism plays a role, because education is still a female-dominated profession. There are a lot of people who are genuinely struggling in this economy, and $20 is a lot for them.

One of the biggest problems in getting these local tax levies passed is the fact that school elections are held in April. Only the die-hard voters show up; the die-hard voters tend to be seniors. A lot of parents are too busy to show up to vote. School elections have been run at odd times for a hundred years in this country, because they were set up by the Progressives who wanted to isolate the schools from the corruption of regular politics. That tradition has lived on, because school board officials want to keep their elections uncompetitive. If school elections and tax levy votes were held in November, it would be much better for our schools.

It's interesting looking at the voting results for these local towns. The elections were decided by a couple hundred votes. This is one case when it highly rational to vote. Your vote really does make a difference. But only a fraction of the voters show up at the polls. Apathy wins the day.

It's not just the towns in New Jersey that are facing major cuts in schools. The New York Times reports that this is a nation-wide problem.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
estimated that state budget cuts imperiled 100,000 to 300,000 public
school jobs. In an interview on Monday, he said the nation was flirting
with “education catastrophe,” and urged Congress to approve additional
stimulus funds to save school jobs.

The U.S. government has bailed out Wall Street and the auto industry. Is it time for a national bailout of schools? Shouldn't our schools be too important to fail?

Spreadin’ Love 433

Emily Gould responds to two recent pro-marriage books.

Hanna Rosin gets points from me for the Romy and Michelle line.

Liesl Schillinger makes an interesting connection in this New York Times piece: Sarah Palin and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann,
the Romy and Michelle of conservative politics, have—to their great
horror—something in common with Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy
Pelosi. They are all ubermoms, with precisely five children. “Could it
be that the skills of managing sprawling households translate well into
holding office?” asks Schillinger. “Or that such a remarkable glut of
mom cred makes a woman’s bid for external power more palatable to

Interesting research on the starting pay gender gap and the haggling gender gap.

The Dark Side of the Anti-Obesity Movement

Fat-person When I was in grad school and working in a policy center, one of my friends went to the corner where an outdoor vendor sold some wonderful Indian chicken and rice. He cooked raw chicken out there in the open sun on the streets of New York, but our digestive systems were young enough to withstand it.

When my friend came back into the office to eat her chicken and rice at the desk, she told me that some stranger on line turned to her and said "you shouldn't be eating this." My friend was overweight, and frequently had random people come up to her on the street who felt that it was important to point out this fact to her. Like she didn't know.

There are two dark sides of the anti-obesity movement. The first dark side is shame. Now, shame in some cases can be a very effective method of reducing undesirable behavior. It has helped millions of people quit smoking or at least hide it from others. But there's something icky about it, too, especially when it's heaped at kids who don't have control over what is served for dinner and who have been cursed with slow metabolisms.

Marc Ambinder did an excellent job discussing his own battle with obesity and the humiliations that he faced as an over weight man in America. 

The other dark side of the anti-obesity movement is that many people are simply unable to control their weight. Diets and exercise don't work. Ambinder only conquered his weight through surgery, which reduced his stomach to the side of a walnut. How useful is it for Jamie Oliver to be yelling at schools about french fries, when for many people, the problem is deeper than french fries? Ezra Klein thinks that the forces that create obesity are so strong that "a mix of surgeries and pharmaceuticals eventually becomes our society's answer to obesity."

Klein also writes,

Obesity is much more structural than it is personal. That's why it's so
depressingly predictable. It afflicts certain communities, with certain
socioeconomic characteristics, and it has only really emerged across a
certain time period. Those communities contain a lot of different
individuals, but their environments and their time and money stresses
and their transportation and grocery options and their street safety
and exercise opportunities are broadly similar. How we live has changed
much more quickly than who we are, and no effort to turn back the tide
on obesity will succeed without an accurate understanding of what's
made us obese.

In other words, beating obesity means a complete overhaul of society from transportation to grocery options to healthcare. A jog on the treadmill isn't going to change anything.

The Beverage Tax

Oil-Coke--32112 One of the many proposed policies aimed at reducing obesity is a beverage tax. New York State has proposed a one cent tax on sugary drinks.

Coca Cola and their lobbying group, the American Beverage Association, are fighting it hard. They've been running commercials about how this is going to cost working families more money and how they're putting in better options into the soda machines at schools.

Supporters say that a beverage tax is no different than the tax on cigarettes, which has helped reduce smoking. It can raise billions of dollars that can be used for good programs. If the tax money that is raised goes directly to the communities that consume these beverages, then it's not a poor tax, like the lottery.

In Diane Sawyer's documentary of Appalachia, she has a long discussion of how the huge consumption of Mountain Dew in that area results in horrible tooth decay by age 30. 

There's a 7/11 about 50 yards from Jonah's middle school. After school, hundreds of kids load up on Slurpies everyday on their way home. A good number of them drink Slurpies for breakfast before school as well. 

Jane Brody from the New York Times reports, "In the last half-century, consumption of sugars by the average American
has increased by more than 24 pounds a year, expanding waistlines and
crowding out more nutritious foods." She discusses the latest research on the problems with soda.

A one cent tax alone isn't going to change consumption habits and probably won't make anyone thinner, but it will raise some good money and help raise awareness that soda shouldn't be an everyday habit. Fast food restaurants should also be pressured to not make soda the default drink in combo specials. Soda machines should not exist in schools. I want the same anti-soda messages in health class at school, just like the anti-smoking messages that my kid has had to learn about since first grade.