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Data on "mass stabbings" in the U.K. and U.S.

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Data assembled in response to Marjorie Taylor Greene's* assertion to a U.K. reporter that while the U.S. has mass shootings, “You have mass stabbings, lady.”  Note the chart numbers are adjusted for population size as incidents per million residents.  More info and analysis at The Washington Post.
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mareino
1 day ago
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How to Make Abortion Pills More Available Post-Roe

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Medication abortion isn’t a magic solution to the likely end of Roe. But it can blunt the fallout.
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mareino
1 day ago
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The template is marijuana legislation. Blue states can and should make abortion pills easy to obtain without a prescription. And if a pill happens to be mailed across state lines, well, that's interstate commerce, red states can't interdict the mail.
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Maine’s End Run Around the Supreme Court Is an Example for Other States

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The move in a religion case offers hopes to those worried about the dominance of the court’s conservative majority.
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mareino
1 day ago
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Time to grind
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A $50 Smart Gadget Transformed How I Do Laundry

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Connected Life Labs, the company behind SmartDry, announced it is ceasing operations on June 17, 2022. They have already discontinued all SmartDry products, including the laundry sensor featured in this blog post. Cloud services and apps for SmartDry products will continue to work until September 30, 2022, after which they will no longer function correctly and should be recycled where possible.

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mareino
4 days ago
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Yet another product gets bricked because it unnecessarily depended on the cloud.
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Nerd

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
We have to start now while we can still be dicks.


Today's News:

OK, friends. I’ve figured out how we’re going to do this.


I’ve gotten a surprisingly large number of positive responses to the blog. I have no idea if this represents a large group, because you are all the type of weirdos who read the blog on a comic, or else use rss. Because no consumes Internet in this form anymore, it’ll be a sort of secret newspaper. Here’s how it’ll work.


I’ll post entries from time to time. You can write in through my email, and if it sounds fun, I’ll post what you wrote and respond to it. If you want to post a notice, such as a birthday greeting or congratulation to someone, you can send that as well and I’ll drop it at the bottom of the blog.


This will continue until such a time as it stops being fun. If it continues to be fun for a long time, I’ll look into starting a newsletter or blog or something. Anyway, here we go.


On Cucurbits as the Ideal Living Organism


These days, I live on an old farm. Very little farming is done on the old farm, other than the one or two times a year when a local actual farmer hays some fields. 


But, I do keep a garden. An underappreciated fact about gardens is that they closely reflect the mental state of the gardener. Mine is currently going well overall, but covered in weeds because I haven’t had time to pull them. Plants in need of affection are doing without and stubborn unwanted weeds are doing better than they ought to. Still, I have some corn, beans, eggplant, tomatoes, and a few other things, but my most doted on plants - the ones I pause to examine several times a day instead of pulling stray grass from around the tomatoes - are the cucurbits.


I first encountered the word cucurbit, I believe, in Burton’s translation of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Burton is a great way to learn new words because he employs them liberally in translation, and he has quite a lot to translate. The other one that sticks with me is the beautifully trochaic “caravanserai.” Anyway, I believe Burton used “cucurbit” to refer to a hollow gourd used as a canteen. However, it has a broader botanical meaning, referring to the types of plants usually called melons, cucumbers, and gourds. The cucurbits. Watermelons, pickling cucumbers, luffas, birdhouse gourds, pumpkins, and points in between.


If you’ve grown them, you know they’re related. They have the same look and the same growth pattern. They put out big leaves forming a sort of half-dome around their base until they’ve captured all the sunlight, at which point they fire off long runners that can be twined up fences and poles. Kelly and I have a joke about how they always seem to put out a bunch of male flowers first before finally agreeing to make female ones when they find no takers. As if they’re saying with their flowers “anyone going to let me get away with this? No?”


Cucurbits have two qualities I’m excessively fond of. First, they put out little feeler vines that whip around in circles until they get ahold of something. This is why they gracefully grow up fences, but it’s also how they situate themselves on the ground. If you have a long runner and you remove the feelers, the whole runner flops over. Before having this garden I always thought the vines were for growing up, but they also serve a more basic function of orienting the leaves so they gather light. The amazing thing is that if you remove the vines, causing the runner to fall on its side, new runners will come out to fix things, just like a fallen animal righting itself. Now and then, the vines fail to get a grip on anything, and then they sort of flail around, reshaping into little infinities and helices and tangled springs. Their behavior is so varied and so searching and almost animal-like that they become endearing in a way other plants, in mechanically following their simple leaf-flower-fruit pattern, never achieve.


The second delightful quality of cucurbits is surprise. Cucurbits are the animals of the garden. They hide things. If you pull aside a pair of cucurbit leaves near the base of the plant, you’ll find a universe in miniature. I sometimes try to imagine an ant under a cucurbit’s canopy. All around you there are these huge green trunks that arc upward toward great shadowy-green leaves where little stomata concentrate carbon dioxide out of the air. Under those leaves, the world is cool and moist, even on hot days. The air is gentle, even on windy days. When storms come, the spade-like leaves funnel water down the trunks, so that I suspect if you were an inch tall you could find a good dry spot even in a torrent. And here and there, like eggs of a bird you never see, you find fruits. Only, you don’t always find them. 


I once grew Armenian cucumbers, which are actually a type of melon, but with the flavor of cucumber. They taste good of course, but the fun thing is that they grow enormous. In good conditions, the fruit will get up to three feet long, looking just like a gigantic pale cucumber. The ideal harvest length is at about 2 feet long, because then the flesh is soft and the skin is edible. The year I grew them was the first year of covid, and the garden was as always a reflection of my mental state - a planned large garden had been killed by lack of time and worrying about my family, so that the only surviving plant was one that just refused to stop. It grew almost wild, and I remember at one point having to eat about a pound of cucumber a day just to keep up with its extravagant production.


As the summer was easing into fall, I walked out one morning, and beneath a leaf, in the hidden world of ants, there was an entire perfect cucumber - just about a foot and a half and ready to pick. It had gone through the entire process - a female flower growing up green and patient, fading to yellow petals, opening, fertilized with the aid of an and or a beetle. The bud would’ve fallen off as the fruit grew elongated, filled up with sugars built from air and water drunk from earth. I had missed the whole miracle of this unfolding algorithm until, in that way only plants can do, it announced itself with a change of color and texture.


It takes a lot to make an adult happy, but when something like that happens, you get to feel the kind of happiness normally only reserved for kids. Happiness because your entire sense experience resolves itself within a single adored object that belongs to you. 


This is the strange thing about being a little animal experiencing the world. Things that don’t really affect your life can move you in ways that the vortex of history doesn’t. The metaphor I prefer for this is vision. Because you look at the world through eyes, and not through a giant matrix of parameters, small close objects cover as much of your field of view as large distant ones. But there’s a danger in obsession with the large and distant, which one sometimes sees in friends who’ve become obsessed with current events or online chatter. Their reality becomes virtual - the field of vision is filled, but nothing can be touched. Everything is vast and far, and nothing is close enough to smell.


This year I have 7 cucurbits. Luffa, bottle, and bushel gourds; jack-be-little, fairytale, and mammoth pumpkins; and some mystery cucurbits that sprouted in compost, and which I suspect are some kind of cucumber. This fall, if things go well, the pumpkins will be decorated by kids or made into pies and cakes. The gourds will be hung to dry and then made into sponges and pots and toys next summer. The cucumbers will be long gone. And, I will have touched and smelled and been briefly and happily resolved into every last one.


Thanks for reading,

Zach


Now then, the mailbag:


Ross Presser responded to the post about peak authorial expansiveness occurring in middle age with some good points:


“One thing you haven't accounted for is that when looking at published authors, you have a remarkably narrow selection of the gamut of humanity.  Most people are not published writers. You've noticed that the published writers who continue to publish into old age are less reflective than they were in middle age. This says nothing about writers who stop publishing after middle age -- or those who die during middle age, for that matter. And it says less than nothing about people who never publish at all.

 

>>> But the recompense is that you expected old age to be miserable, and in fact it isn’t.

 

Again, this can be true for elderly published authors. But not all elderly people are happier than middle aged ones. Many elderly people are truly in misery for the last decade or decades of their lives. They don't tend to publish much.


Another aspect of the same point is that authors who get more and more gloomy as they age may have a harder time selling their work.

 

A third aspect of the same point is that a famous, elderly published author gets a much lighter hand from their editors than a struggling or mid-list younger author.

 

Anyhow ... I love your work, keep it up!


-- Ross Presser”


I especially appreciate the point about about selection bias here. I wonder if a better model would be that there’s a misery sweet spot. No misery, no reflection. Too much misery, no will to communicate? I’ve noticed in my own work that there’s a kind of ideal stress level. Too little ease and somehow the really clever ideas don’t come. Too much stress and you can’t pursue ideas through the forest of internal screaming. 


Probably the answer is that it’s complicated and none of these models are very good. Ah, well, it’s fun to think about.


One more interesting email I got was from John Nagy:


>>> "Perhaps the older authors simply feel less need, or perhaps just less inclination to make reality cough up a reason."


Neither, I think. At 69 myself, I found my 30's to drive home my impending failure to be miraculous. This made my 40's and 50's a time to try to make up for it or set worthwhile goals I could actually reach.


Now approaching 70+, there's no less need or inclination to wrestle with reality. Just experience with what I get when my reach exceeds my grasp.


I have much more to say about this but there is a squirrel outside my window.

SO CUTE!


This is a perfect email, and I have nothing to add, other than that I’m pleased to note how well it fits with my cucurbit story.


That’s all for now. Thanks to everyone for writing in - please know I read every word of every email but I don’t write back because I don’t have time and because I don’t want it to become an obligation.

<3

Zach

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mareino
4 days ago
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Zach has started a secret blog for RSS readers!
Washington, District of Columbia
jlvanderzwan
4 days ago
If only he didn't hardcode the font color into the paragraphs (the black font is ruining my dark mode)
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Legalize housing, not tent encampments

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As a first-year college student, I shared a two-room suite with another guy.

We set our space up as one small bedroom containing two single beds, and a living room with our desks and a television, which is how most students with similar setups arranged things, though you of course could have done it as two different bedrooms one of which you’d need to walk through in order to get to the others. Other students were assigned to the first-year dorm in which everyone just got their own tiny bedroom. Either way, most of us had to use shared toilet and shower facilities in the. You could have a mini-fridge in your room and a microwave to heat up a frozen pizza or burrito. Some of the more enterprising students had electric kettles which could be used not only for tea but also to make instant ramen or even boil an egg. Traditional electric hot plates are a fire hazard in that situation, but today an induction burner would probably be useful.

While living arrangements like this are still common for college students, they used to be reasonably common for other people, too. As Payton Chung recalls, in the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” an alien escapes from Walter Reed Medical Center and decides to try to blend in with everyone else in Washington, DC.

To do so, Klaatu checks into a boarding house at 14th and Harvard in Columbia Heights. Each room houses one or two people, and as such there’s scant privacy to be had: everyone overhears everything.

This is convenient for Klaatu, who knows little of Earthlings’ simple ways, but probably annoying for the Earthlings. Conditions like these were common in DC homes at the time.

The 1950 census found 14.1% of the District’s 224,142 occupied housing units to be “overcrowded” (with over 1 person per room). By 2011, that figure had fallen by 2/3, to 4.7%, similar to the 5.3% of homes in 1950 that were extremely overcrowded (more than 1.5 occupants per room).

This decline in housing crowding is in part a triumph. Our society has gotten richer, our homes have gotten much larger on average, and material living standards have improved.

But in addition to reducing housing crowding through economic growth, the United States has also waged a multi-faceted war against the legality of small dwellings, with boarding houses and single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels driven out by zoning codes. But rather than improve life for those who would have previously lived in these accommodations, the move has largely shifted people into homeless shelters or sleeping on the street. As long as the unhoused are in shelters, they are largely out of sight out of mind as far as the electorate is concerned. But a mix of objective scarcity of shelter space and rising drug addiction has helped increase the number of visibly homeless people sleeping rough in American urban centers.

And I think one lesson urban politicians are going to take from Chesa Boudin’s recall is that as they try to help central business districts recover from the pandemic and the Zoom Shock, voters want them to be less tolerant of encampments and other manifestations of homelessness-related disorder.

And in that context, I hope we can get cities to reconsider some of their post-Klaatu choices. Criminalizing homelessness is not a real solution. But rather than legalizing tent encampments, we should be legalizing housing.

The virtues of the flophouse

As Paul Groth writes in his book Living Downtown, “a good hotel room of 150 square feet — dry space, perhaps with a bath or a room sink, cold and sometimes hot water, enough electric service to run a [light] bulb and a television, central heat, and access to telephones and other services—constitutes a living unit mechanically more luxuriant than those lived in by a third to a half of the population of the earth.”

Now would you want to live in a room like that? I would not.

But it is a lot better than sleeping in a car or in a tent. And an accommodation that you actually pay for and rent has considerable advantages over a shelter. It’s your space on your terms and you can keep your stuff there.

A market in low-end housing, as opposed to a network of nonprofit- or government-operated shelters also accounts for the fact that tastes and preferences differ. Some people might prefer to stay in an SRO with very strict rules as a way to protect themselves from disorder and nuisance. Others might prefer much laxer rules so they could indulge in alcohol or other private vices.

So what happened? Well, we made cheap units illegal. According to the dwelling unit factors in the current New York City zoning code, the smallest allowed is 680 square feet per apartment. As Nolan Gray writes in his excellent new book Arbitrary Lines: “Single-room occupancies (SROs) — which allow a resident to lease a private bedroom with a shared bathroom and kitchen — historically served as an invaluable source of affordable housing at the bottom of the market. Indeed, SROs kept millions of Americans off the street. Yet new SROs are nearly always banned by zoning. Policymakers could change that tomorrow.”

The decline of cheap housing

It’s worth underscoring that the problem here is fundamentally deliberate. If you read the American Planning Association’s 1957 report on rooming houses, they are quite clear that the minimum quality standards are largely pretextual, writing that “besides protecting the roomers, enforcement of these codes can do a great deal to assure that rooming houses do not harm districts in which they are properly located.”

Moore’s Rooming House; Elko, Nevada (Library of Congress)

The main thrust of the report is the idea that it is challenging, logistically, to come up with a viable way to define and ban rooming houses which they characterize as attracting “real down-and-outers” that serve “as both symptoms and causes of neighborhood decay in many cities.”

One suggestion they have is that since college students are not down-and-outers, towns should encourage universities to build on-campus housing so that there’s no need for the regulatory scheme to permit student-friendly housing that could also be accessed by non-students. There’s also a lot of talk about where it is and isn’t appropriate to let a fraternity house operate. They celebrate the potential to use regulatory parking minimums as a way to discourage the operation of rooming houses, and argue that “since conversions are the usual source of additional rooming houses, it is particularly important that off-street parking requirements not be limited to new construction.”

In other words, they say towns should adopt laws that requiring anyone subdividing a large single-family home into multiple small rooms with individually locking doors and shared washrooms to increase the number of off-street parking units associated with the building. Since in most cases this will not be possible, you will have de facto banned conversions.

Their broader concern is that it was long customary in the United States for people with room to spare in their home to occasionally supplement their income by taking in boarders. So a young person new in town might rent a bedroom from an empty nest couple. Or a family in need of extra resources might make the kids double-up in a room to free up space for a boarder. One countermeasure they advise is to make it illegal to advertise your willingness to accept a boarder.

To really and truly clarify the intention, they specifically praise an ordinance adopted in Chicago in 1957 that, in certain areas, requires everyone living in the house be part of the same family — but with an explicit carve-out for servants.

A “family” consists of one or more persons each related to the other by blood (or adoption), together with such blood relatives' respective spouses, who are living together in a single dwelling and maintaining a common household. A “family” includes any domestic servants and not more than one gratuitous guest residing with said “family.”

The 1970s featured some interesting litigation on this. In Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, a 7-2 Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of rules barring unrelated people from living together. In dissent, Thurgood Marshall (joined by William Brennan) argued that this was a first amendment issue that violated people’s freedom of association. A few years later, the case Moore v. City of East Cleveland involved a grandmother who ran afoul of the local zoning code by living with her grandson.

In this case, Brennan and Marshall reiterated their view that this use of zoning power was an illegitimate violation of people’s associative rights. John Paul Stevens said this “restriction on appellant's right to use her own property as she sees fit” constituted an illegal taking under the fifth amendment.

But the controlling swing votes were justices Powell and Blackmun who distinguished the case from Belle Terre by saying that family-only zoning was fine but that you couldn’t implement it in such a way as to rule out the grandson. I think we’d be in a healthier place as a society if the courts had shown more interest in Stevens’ view of this. Instead, rooming houses were purged from America and urban renewal set about tearing down old SROs while banning the construction of new ones.

A choice of nuisances

My general view is that homeowners should be YIMBYs, and I think it’s mostly incorrect that barring homeowners from increasing the development intensity of the land we own boosts our property values.

In the case of rooming houses and SROs, I do think one should concede that the classic NIMBY is probably correct. Having an SRO go up on your block raises poses downside risk to quality of life and property values while offering little upside benefit. So I don’t think citywide SROIMBY is a very viable political agenda and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone run on it. But scaling back the midcentury anti-boarder craze seems perfectly reasonable to me. American houses really are, on average, bigger than ever, and we also have more empty-nesters than ever. AirBNB and other technological and cultural shifts have really changed the whole context around this, but we should really let people lease a spare room if they want to.

I also believe that general YIMBYism — kill parking minimums everywhere, let everyone build SROs, embrace new condo construction, etc. — reduces overall housing scarcity and therefore reduces homelessness and overall pressure on the social services sector. Making housing more abundant also means we get more for our buck in terms of section eight vouchers and can keep more people housed.

But I also think that it should be possible to convince people that bringing back SROs in a considered way is the lesser of three evils. At the end of the day, one of the good things about America’s urban electorate is that we are simply too squishy and liberal to be completely indifferent to the problems of homeless people. In the suburbs, they really do “solve” homelessness just be throwing you in jail and kicking you out of town. When liberal cities get tired of encampments or homeless people sleeping on the subway or whatever else, they tend to go in for a limited crackdown that basically just pushes the problem somewhere else.

And at the end of the day, while SROs pose some nuisance risk to the people who are nearby, it is still better for everyone than a park full of tents. It’s a safer, higher-quality, more sanitary dwelling for the occupants and the neighborhood gets its park back.

A conversion opportunity

Already, of course, street homelessness is largely happening in downtowns rather than in residential neighborhoods.

But this is part and parcel of the post-Covid American downtown being in rough shape. Right now there are tons of half-empty offices and vacant storefronts because the office workers aren’t around, but also lots of hotels that continue to be economically important for the city, and then also also lots of homeless people. Common sense is that we should repurpose some of this land for housing and everyone who hasn’t looked into it closely at some points asks, “Why don’t we turn some of these office buildings into housing?”

The problem is that this is actually hideously expensive for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that the plumbing stack is located all wrong for an apartment layout and you don’t have gas lines and ventilation set up for kitchens.

But to return to the beginning, Matthews Hall had a centralized plumbing stack and no kitchen ventilation just like a modern office building. And it seems like it would probably be a lot simpler, logistically, to transform office buildings into big rings of small bedrooms surrounding shared washroom facilities than into real apartments. To do it economically, you’d probably need to allow some of the bedrooms to be windowless — those would be the really cheap ones. But while sleeping in a small, windowless bedroom sounds pretty bleak it’s not dangerous per se and there are a lot of people in need of cheap housing these days. You could imagine experiments with a bunch of different models for this kind of thing. One would be fairly upscale dorms for recent college grads that would have lots of common facilities and social experiences — probably incorporating a floor or two of actual office space as co-working facilities for white-collar remote workers. Another would be something much more like the classic SRO catering to people who can’t otherwise afford rent and recently arrived immigrants.

The whole concept might totally fail to pencil out, but I think it would probably work — certainly in cities like New York, San Francisco, and DC that continue to be very expensive or ones like Denver that are actually booming on the housing side even while its downtown ails. At a minimum, it shouldn’t be illegal to try. Because if it worked, it would help get people off the streets, would help stabilize the commercial real estate market, would help ensure more foot traffic downtown, and would allow social service providers and law enforcement to focus on people who really need help or are really doing crimes rather than people who just need a place to sleep. Since World War II we’ve made it harder and harder to find that simple dry space with heat, electricity, and access to a bathroom that can make all the difference in the world.



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mareino
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