Which Americans Shirk the Census? – Slate Magazine

29 May 2012

Census response rates: Midwest high; South, West low - Slate Magazine

A poor map for at least two reasons.

The map doesn’t answer the question posed in the headline. It shows, instead, which Americans take part in the census. If you want to highlight the shirkers,use darker colors to represent them.

What in the world is the Democrat/Republican distinction supposed to be? This map does not indicate that Democrats and Republicans fill out the American Community Survey in equal numbers: it’s just a quick mash-up of old election results–squeezed into a binary–with a “high or low” response to the survey. Couldn’t at least one of the variables represent a range of values?

Census response rates: Midwest high; South, West low – Slate Magazine.


The Proposed Reading Viaduct Park in Philadelphia

8 May 2012

Little noted in the excitement here about building “our own High Line:” The Reading Viaduct, unlike anything in Manhattan, will connect the parts of Philadelphia with the greatest densities of Black (orange)  and Asian (blue)  residents, and makes a turn toward the Hispanic (green), too.


A River Still Runs

8 May 2012

I grew up near the Piscataquog River in New Hampshire, and have been pleased to see it’s been well protected from development. This map shows how well.


1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann

13 March 2012


imageClose your eyes and picture this: You’re staring from the deck of a small ship at the land now known as Virginia. The year is 1607, and you are Capt. John Smith. What you see in your mind’s eye is probably something like the images that open Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World: a virgin forest of stately trees bathed in that certain slant of light. What you’re ignoring is the understory.

In the science of forestry, the understory is the mix of seedlings and saplings, shrubs and herbs and all the smaller trees that grow happily in the shade of the bigger trees or wait patiently for wind or fire to expose them to the sun.

In the discipline of history, “understory” doesn’t mean anything. I wish it did, because the word would elegantly describe Charles C. Mann’s 1493, which is about some of the people, animals and plants ignored by “world history.” Mann’s previous book, 1491, drew attention to Native American societies before the European conquest. (The reason that the English walked so easily through the Virginian understory was that it was anything but virgin: it had been worked for generations by the natives.) Now, in 1493, Mann lays out the ecological and economic interplay of the European and, importantly, African arrival in America; Mann’s epic ambition spans continents, themes and five centuries of history.


Walking Tour of the Low Line Philadelphia October 15

25 October 2011

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“Where the Skills Are:” But You Can’t See Them

23 September 2011

Richard Florida offered an interesting take on the importance of  “social skills” in Where the Skills Are – Magazine – The Atlantic.

The map that illustrates the article is merely that: an illustration. We have –and I mean, I have–the technological skills to create maps that can be used as tools. Whatever you call this particular hodgepodge, it fails as a map, as a chart, and frankly even as an illustration. It presents no visual information, no way to tease out any information, and yet, does offer shadows of an impossible early-morning sun.


Too Many Laws

10 June 2011

Philanthropist George Soros has not communicated his opinion of state laws that restrict telephone use by automobile drivers. But his latest essay, “My Philanthropy” (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011, Vol. LVIII No. 11), offers a hint of how this fascinating wealthy man would prefer to see scientific research driving public policy.

As I see it, mankind’s ability to understand and control the forces of nature greatly exceeds our ability to govern ourselves. Our economy has become global; our governance has not. Our future and, in some respects, our survival depend on our ability to develop the appropriate global governance. This applies to a variety of fields: global warming and nuclear proliferation are the most obvious, but the threats of terrorism and infectious diseases also qualify; so do global financial markets.

Global governance could improve our response to infections disease, and to public health more broadly, no doubt. But mere national governance, in the United States, would go a long way toward, say, making our highways safer by prohibiting cell-phone use by drivers. As it stands now, according to recent research sponsored by Public Health Law Research,

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have at least one form of restriction on the use of MCDs [mobile communications devices] in effect. The laws vary in the types of communication activities and categories of driver regulated, as well as enforcement mechanisms and punishments. No state completely bans use of MCDs by all drivers.

(A map accompanies this paper. I have tried to map cell-phone driving laws by state, and it is neither simple nor clear, because the laws are a mess. Feel free to create a better map: the data that Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer collected are freely available there and here.)

Ibrahim, Anderson, Burris and Wagenaaer conclude that

State distracted-driving policy is diverging from evidence on the risks of MCD use by drivers.

despite the availability of data. This is where I turn to Soros, whose essay is as much about “why I love humanity” as it is “why I give away money.” Soros, like many of us, once learned that ” free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma.” But…

If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. [The] hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the “Enlightenment fallacy.”

Soros, notorious for his distaste for George W. Bush, FOX News, and Karl “We create our own reality” Rove, explicitly calls out the Republicans for their manipulation of the public, but recognizes that it’s a bigger problem. He concludes that the message he is trying to communicate is “a profound rethinking of the workings of our political system.” He could invest  some millions in the dautning task of changing the public attitude toward public health and public policy.


ResearchBlogging.orgIbrahim, J., Anderson, E., Burris, S., & Wagenaar, A. (2011). State Laws Restricting Driver Use of Mobile Communications Devices American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40 (6), 659-665 DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.02.024