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William Safire
“Threat to family values isn’t coming from same-sex marriage,”

from the New York Times,
published in the Star Tribune July 1, 2003

Why do too many Americans derogate as losers those parents who put family ahead of career, or smack their lips reading about celebrities who switch spouses for fun? Why do we turn to the government for succor, to movie porn and violence for sex and thrills, to the Internet for companionship, to the restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner—when those functions are the ties that bind families?

I used to fret about same-sex marriage. Maybe competition from responsible gays would revive opposite-sex marriage.

Topics:

Marriage

Same-sex marriage

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The Saint Paul Press

Miscellany
December 2, 1862

The celebrated portrait painter Stuart, once met a lady in the street in Boston, who saluted him with “Oh, Mr. Stuart, I have just seen your miniature, and I kissed it, because it was so much like you.” “And did it kiss you in return?” “Why, no!” “Then,” said Stuart, “ ’twas not like me.”

Topic:

Kisses

text checked (see note) Oct 2008

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Robert M. Sapolsky
“For some people, lying is electric”

published in the Star Tribune June 11, 2012

In a 2010 report in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard psychologists Joshua Greene and Joseph Paxton asked a great question: When people are confronted with the opportunity to lie, what differs in the brains of people who succumb to the temptation and those who don’t?

For the study, each subject was placed in an MRI machine, a scanner that indicates the ongoing levels of activity in different brain regions. The volunteers had a simple task. There’d be a series of virtual coin tosses by a computer, and before each one, the subject had to predict the outcome. Guess right, and there’d be a financial reward.

But there was a twist. Subjects were told a great piece of nonsense, namely that the purpose of the study was to determine whether people had better paranormal powers at predicting the future when the predictions were made in private. To examine this, scattered through the series of coin tosses would be the occasional instance where instead of a subject entering the prediction before the toss, he would privately make his prediction. Then, after the toss, he’d be asked: So, did you guess right? In other words, people were given the opportunity to lie.

Coin tosses being what they are, predictions could be expected to be correct roughly half the time. If the success rate skyrocketed when there was the opportunity to cheat, odds were that there was a liar in the brain scanner.

To start, here’s some demoralizing news – fewer than half of the people were in the clear-cut-honest range, with success rates remaining around 50 percent when they had the chance to cheat. About a third seemed to be lying often enough that their success rates were well above 50 percent at those times. The remaining subjects had success rates that were somewhere in between, and thus hard to classify.

Central to the results was a region called the prefrontal cortex, or the PFC. This is one interesting part of the brain – it’s all about self-discipline, gratification postponement, emotional regulation, control of impulsiveness. It’s the part of the brain that makes you do what’s hard to do when it is the right thing to do. It’s bigger and more complex in humans than in any other species, is our most recently evolved brain region and is the last part of our brains to fully mature.

So when the opportunity to cheat arose, the activity in the PFCs of liars shot up like crazy. The scans showed the trace of an epic moral battle – do it, don’t, yes do it, no don’t – that the liars lost.

Topic:

Lies

Greene and Paxton present two differing views in moral philosophy about honesty: Is honesty an act of will? Does it require a person working hard to refrain from doing the wrong thing? Or is it an act of grace, effortless because temptation isn’t tempting? In the study’s paradigm, it was grace all the way – among the unequivocally honest, there was no increase in PFC activity when the chance to cheat arose.

In the face of real life’s temptations, a majority of us are not going to get by on pure grace. We ooze our human frailties.

Yet there are those who glide through minefields of enticement, doing the difficult, rare, brave, correct thing as naturally as breathing.

“Are you naughty or nice? (Don’t think twice.)”

published in the Star Tribune January 11, 2013

Do we tend to become more or less noble than usual when we must act on rapid intuition?

Light is shed on this in a recent study by David Rand and colleagues at Harvard, published in the prestigious journal Science, and the research is relevant to recent tragic events. The authors recruited volunteers to play one of those economic games in which individuals in a group are each given some hypothetical money. Each person must decide whether to be cooperative and benefit the entire group, or to act selfishely and receive greater individual gain.

A key part of the experiment was that the scientists altered how much time subjects had to decide whether to cooperate. And that made a difference. When people had to make a rapid decision based on their gut, levels of cooperation rose. Give them time to reflect on the wisdom of their actions, and levels of cooperation fell.

With a different set of volunteers, the authors also manipulated how much respect subjects had for intuitive decisionmaking. Just before playing the economics game, subjects had to either write a paragraph about a time when it had paid off to make a decision based on intuition rather than reflection, or a paragraph about a time when reflection turned out to be the best way to go. The result? Bias people toward valuing quick, intuitive decisionmaking, and they acted more for the common good in the subsequent game. But bias people in the reflective direction, and “looking out for No. 1” comes more to the forefront – something the authors termed “calculated greed.”

Topic:

Ethics

Now, kids don’t learn to act for the common good through moral reasoning – 5-year-olds don’t think, “My goodness, if I act with self-interest at this juncture, it will decrease the likelihood of future reciprocal altruism, thereby depressing levels of social capital in my community.”

Kids don’t learn to care for the well-being of others by thinking. They do so by feeling – imagine how that person feels, imagine how you would feel if that were done to you. Barney and Mister Rogers, rather than Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard. A world in which goodness is an act of intuition, rather than of reasoning. As well as a world in which cynicism and distrust are not yet commonplace.

This must do interesting things to an adult who spends lots of time around young kids, this world of trust and intuition-based decency.

Topic:

Children

text checked (see note) Jul 2012; Apr 2013

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Robert Saxton
“Dear conservative-leaning friend...”

Star Tribune, September 28, 2012

So, why have we spent all the time and money to place the question on the ballot this November? Well, the stated reason is to protect marriage from the scary, deviant gays who will surely do something terrible to the institution by, well, honoring it. [...]

So, let’s summarize: If you vote yes on the marriage amendment, gays will still be here. They will still have relationships. They will still have ceremonies, pledging to love and honor one another, and will still adopt, bear and raise children together — as a family. That horse, you should have noticed by now, has already left the barn, jumped the gate, run down the road — and is looking fabulous.

Here, then, is what a yes vote will do: It will make sure that these families can never share health insurance. Or have guaranteed hospital visitation rights. Or allow their estates to automatically go to one another in case of death. Or buy a family fishing license. Or a joint college savings account. The list goes on. [...] Do you really care if a gay couple gets to file their taxes together or buys a family fishing license? Because when it really comes down to it, that’s all they want. Whether we call them married, coupled, partnered or unioned is beside the point. They’re going to use whatever term they feel like using, and nobody can do squat about it.

Topic:

Same-sex marriage

text checked (see note) Oct 2012

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Bob Shanks

interviewed by Neil Justin, and quoting George S. Kaufman
[The incident recounted was from The Tonight Show, with host Jack Paar.]

“ ‘20/20’ and more: Lunch with a TV legend you’ve never heard of” by Neil Justin

Star Tribune, November 20, 2005

[...] Jack asked him if he had ever gotten any great advice from anyone. Kaufman said, “Yes, as a matter of fact. My grandfather said, ‘Son, try everything in life except incest and folk dancing.’ ”

Topic:

Advice

text checked (see note) Nov 2005

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Jim Souhan
“As we depart, one final ‘Prego’ ”

Star Tribune,
February 27, 2006

At their best, the Winter Games are strange. The definition of a winter sport is what your parents told you never to do — dance on ice, ski with guns, throw yourself off a mountain. What’s next, two-man running-with-scissors?

Topics:

Winter

The Olympics

text checked (see note) Feb 2006

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Star Tribune editorials
“(Relatively more) peace on earth”

December 25, 2011

Measured against the sweep of history, we live in extraordinarily peaceful times, perhaps in the safest and most tranquil era that humanity has ever enjoyed. Going back 5,000 years to human prehistory, then moving through ancient Greece, the epics of the Hebrew Bible, the birth of Christ, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and into modern times, violence has unevenly but steadily declined, and not just by a little.

As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker recounts in his convincing and exhaustive new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” violent death in 14th-century Europe was 50 times more likely than it is today. Through nearly all of human history, life fit neatly into the Hobbesian summary: nasty, brutish and short. Tribal warfare, genocide, savagery, torture, slavery, blood feud, the rape of women and the mistreatment of children prevailed far beyond what we imagine today.

VIOLENT DEATH
A ranking, proportional to world population:
  1. An Lushan Revolt (China, eighth century)
  2. Mongol conquests (13th century)
  3. Mideast slave trade (seventh-19th centuries)
  4. Fall of Ming Dynasty (China, 17th century)
  5. Fall of Rome (third to fifth centuries)
  6. Timur Lenk conquests (Central Asia, 14th-15th centuries)
  7. Annihilation of American Indians (14th-19th centuries)
  8. Atlantic slave trade (15th-19th centuries)
  9. World War II (20th century)
  10. Taiping Rebellion (China, 19th century)
Source: Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”
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Star Tribune news items
“Too many zeros add up to big problems in Carver County”

By Herón Márquez Estrada
Dec. 7, 2007

The clerk filled in the $18,900 proposed valuation, but then mistakenly hit the key to exit the program. The computer added four zeroes to fill out the nine numerical spaces required by the software, thus indicating the value was $189,000,000.

Note (Hal’s):
The error was not noticed quickly, so the county had to decide whether to raise everyone’s taxes or cut spending to cover the $2.5 million shortfall from an uncollectable property tax bill.

Topic:

Bugs

WALES
“Road Sign became lost in translation”

credited to “news services”
Nov. 1, 2008

In English, the road sign was just fine, warning drivers that the route ahead is not suitable for heavy trucks. But the translation in Welsh didn’t work so well. “I am not in the ofice at the moment. Please send any work to be translated,” it said. The Swansea Council said the error occurred when officials didn’t realize an e-mailed reply from a translator said he wasn’t available, and was not the wording to be used on the sign.

Topic:

Translation

“Juniors dodge math-test bullet”

By Sarah Lemagie and Emily Johns
June 6, 2009

Minnesota needs to resolve its testing “wars,” Pekel said, so the state can move on to more important questions, such as how it can do a better job actually teaching students. As he put it, “Weighing the cow doesn’t fatten it.”

Note (Hal’s):
Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium, made the comment.

Topic:

Education

“Enough new State Fair food to shake a stick at”

By Rick Nelson
June 27, 2013

Culinary brainstorming of the highest order has yielded deep-fried pumpkin pie, deep-fried meatloaf on a stick, deep-fried olives and, yes, cheddar cheese bits that are breaded in Cocoa Puffs and — you got it — fried.

[...]

Antacids are sold at Steichen’s Grocery & Deli in the Commissary Building.

Topic:

Food

text checked (see note) Dec 2007; Nov 2008; Jun 2009; Jun 2013

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Joel Stein
“Dept. of Plenty Money”

from the Los Angeles Times;
printed in the Star Tribune
February 7, 2009

During the shoot, Plies rapped in a room filled with fake cash. But when he threw the money in the air, he used a completely real stack totaling $10,000. You can study economics from books all you want, but unless you’ve been on a rap video set, you’re not going to know that fake money doesn’t throw right.

Topic:

Money

text checked (see note) Feb 2009

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Charlotte Sullivan
“An unavoidable truth”

Star Tribune,
September 16, 2007

The secret to perpetuating bigotry is to make those in positions of power and privilege believe they are the ones under attack. [...] Bigotry turns the perpetrators of violence and discrimination into the victims themselves, in their own minds.

Topic:

Bigotry

text checked (see note) Sep 2007

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Cass R. Sunstein
“Would you have sought out this story? Which others?”

Bloomberg

published in the Star Tribune,
August 13, 2013

Newspapers create what we might call an architecture of serendipity, in which readers encounter all sorts of stories, facts, ideas and opinions that they didn’t select. Much of what they encounter seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing.

Topic:

Journalism

Why shouldn’t people see what they want?

The best answer is that in communications, as in daily life, serendipity is highly desirable — an important part of freedom and self-government, not an obstacle to them. Those who read only what they identify in advance end up narrowing their horizons; they may create echo chambers of their own designs.

This is a social problem, not merely an individual one. When like-minded people speak only with one another, they tend to go to extremes, thus aggravating political polarization. An architecture of serendipity can reduce that effect. It can also create a kind of social glue, by creating common understandings and experiences for members of a highly diverse nation.

It is ironic that old-fashioned newspapers served some of their most important social functions only because of technological limitations, which prevented them from giving their customers only what they want. Those limitations are a thing of the past. [...] Whatever their emerging form, it is critical, for individuals and societies alike, that they continue to provide readers with the experience of serendipity.

text checked (see note) Aug 2013

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Background graphic copyright © 2003 by Hal Keen