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How to Win Millenials: Equality, Climate Change, and Gay Marriage


Two months ago, Derek Thompson walked readers through the results of a huge new survey by the Pew Research Center on Millennials and their attitudes and opinions. As he noted, this generation, roughly defined as people between the ages of 18 and 33, is the object of almost obsessive levels of scrutiny and observation.

Now, another new survey—this one from Harstad Strategic Research, Inc.—adds to what we’re learning about Millennials, especially their views on political issues. That’s important, because this generational cohort now accounts for about one-fourth of the voting age population—a voting bloc even larger than senior citizens.

Harstad, a firm that mostly conducts surveys for Democrats (including Barack Obama), conducted the poll in March and April for the Youth Engagement Fund and Project New America. You can see the survey instrument itself, along with results and an explanation of the methodologyhere. The results are presented in graphic form here.

One big takeaway is that Millennials are strongly supportive of governmental intervention in society on a wide array of issues:

Harstad Strategic Research, Inc.

A different question produced similarly strong opinions about their preferred role for government:

The survey also suggests Millennials place a high value on equality. Respondents were given a list of values and asked, “Which TWO are most important given the challenges we face as a country?” This bar chart shows the percentage citing each value in response, with equality and economic opportunity mentioned by the largest percentage of respondents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents who identified themselves as Democrats prioritized equality and opportunity while self-identified Republicans ranked personal responsibility and accountability higher:

The poll results show Millennials to be overwhelmingly supportive of progressive policies that promote opportunity and economic security:

According to this poll, members of Generation Y are overwhelmingly progressive on key issues like gun safety, climate change and renewable energy, and access to abortion:


Although Millennials are lopsidedly progressive in their views, there is still a fair amount of variety in their views, based partly on their demographic and life-situation characteristics. The pollsters used the results to develop seven different attitudinal clusters or segments among Millennials:

The analysts explain those attitudinal clusters this way:

The poll also tried to measure what kinds of issue-related messages especially resonate with Millennials. The survey instrument presented respondents with paragraph-length position statements that potential congressional candidates might take. Respondents were asked to say how persuasive they found such a position. (The statements below are much-abbreviated summaries of those position statements.) The results show that if Democrats are looking to maximize their support among Millennials, issues of economic opportunity and pocketbook security are the ones to emphasize:

But Republican candidates won’t have much to fear from this portion of the electorate if Democratic campaigns cannot get these voters to register and turn out to vote. Twenty-six percent of Millennial respondents report that they have not registered to vote:

And while a slim majority of Millennial voters claim they are certain to vote in the 2016 election, they report that the likelihood of their turning out to vote in the midterm elections is much, much lower:

As noted at the outset, interest in the political attitudes of Millennials is nearly obsessive. In addition to the mammoth Pew Research poll mentioned above, yet another survey of Millennials and their political attitudes was released this spring by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Although it is not easy to make direct comparisons across polls (most obviously, because of differently worded questions and other methodological issues), it’s worth noting some general points of similarity, as well as some differences, emerging from each of these big surveys:

  • Although all three polls see Millennials as more aligned with Democrats on political issues, the Pew survey found that 50 percent describe themselves as political independents, compared with 38 percent in the IOP poll.
  • All three polls found high levels of support for same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana.
  • High levels of student debt emerged as a prominent concern in all three polls.
  • Despite facing economic hardships (like high student debt and a tough economy), respondents in all three polls report high levels of optimism about their economic futures.

In general, both the Pew poll and the IOP survey were much more ambitious and more comprehensive than the Harstad poll—and, at least in my view, used preferable polling methods.

But the Harstad survey, commissioned by organizations that have overt political agendas, offers something interesting the other two polls lack. Because the researchers were tasked, in part, with finding out how particular political messages resonate with Millennials, their results give us an especially illuminating window into the strategies that progressive Democratic organizations and candidates may use this fall to win support from this important electoral bloc.


This piece originally appeared at

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The Future of Retail Checkout: No Checkout at All?


“People have said when checkout is working really well, it will feel like stealing. You grab a pair of shoes and you just walk out.” That’s how Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, describes the retail-checkout experience in your not-too-distant future.

This coming transformation in the way you pay for items in bricks-and-mortar stores will occur through a network of sensors placed strategically around stores, which will enable retailers to recognize you (through your smartphone or other devices) when you walk through the door. Inexpensive sensors also will be attached to (or embedded in) items available for purchase. And the stores will already have your preferred payment information on file, so when you exit the store with your chosen merchandise, you’ll simply be billed automatically, totally skipping any traditional checkout experience.

Many restaurants are already in the vanguard of transforming the checkout experience. As Alexis Madrigal explained two years ago here, a growing number of restaurants are using iPads or other tablets to have diners place their own orders and then check themselves out at the end of the meal. If such a change becomes widespread, as Madrigal pointed out, the implications for waitstaff employment will be profound.

Retail stores are heading in that direction too. According to M.V. Greene, writing inStores, a trade magazine for retailers:

The “Internet of Things,” where objects in the physical world are connected to electronic virtual networks, is poised to turn retail on its head. Not since the introduction of online shopping – and before that credit and debit cards for purchasing – has something in retail had the potential to be so transformative.

Usually, when we think of “transformative” changes, we’re talking about things most people didn’t even anticipate coming at the time: examples include the radio, the atomic bomb, the Internet. But this coming change in our retail experience is, I would guess, something that many people wouldn’t find all that surprising. After all, the history of retail shopping is one of task-shifting.

In the last century, the big change in retail checkout came by having the customer do more of the work. In the original model of, say, the grocery store, a person went into a general store, where the owner or clerk stood behind a counter and retrieved items the customer wanted from behind-counter shelves, then packaged those items and billed the customer or accepted payment. But that retail model was gradually replaced by the “supermarket” model, which put products out on customer-accessible shelves. Now, the customer did the work of selecting items he or she wanted and taking them to a cashier for payment. Efficiencies galore.

More recently, efficiencies have built on that model of having the customer do more of the work, now augmented by technology. For example, a growing number of grocery chains have “intelligent” carts that can total up items as a customer moves through the store, tracking movement and making recommendations. And in many stores, especially grocery and drug-store chains, customers can use self-checkout kiosks. In Apple stores, for a couple of years already, you’ve been able to buy off-the-shelf items using an app on your smartphone and walk out of the store with your merchandise, having never interacted with a salesperson.

But just because the coming changes in retail checkout aren’t beyond our imagining doesn’t mean that they’re unimportant. For one thing, they’re likely to have profound effects on retail employment. In fact, according to data from The Economist, retail workers are among those whose jobs are most likely to be displaced by digital or computer-related technologies in the next 20 years. (I should note that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics holds a different view, projecting that growth in the number of retail-sales jobs is likely to hold steady—at about 10 percent—over the next decade. Your guess as to who is right may be better than mine, but I’m putting my money with the folks at The Economist.)

Apart from employment concerns, the vision of a digitally-automated retail future provokes unease about privacy issues. As M.V. Greene notes, “a major hurdle for brands and retailers is to gain the trust of consumers when their personal data is flying back and forth in real-time across networks.” Greene quotes David Dorf, a Senior Director of Technology Strategy at Oracle Retail, who says retailers have to be worried about a “creepiness factor” related to the privacy of consumer data.

Dorf advises merchants to avoid a “stalker” configuration as they deploy these new technologies and adopt a “butler” configuration instead. “The stalker wants something from you and typically is trying to get as much information as possible and wanting to directly impact you.” By contrast, “The butler is kind of always in the background, always helping you, pointing things out that might be of interest, trying to make your life easier.”

“If retailers can focus on this butler mentality,” Dorf predicts, “the Internet of Things has a lot of potential to make the customer experience more rich and engaging, and loyalty will ensue.”

It’s oddly reminiscent of another Internet-enabled butler, the early search engineAsk Jeeves. It could take a few years, but we may soon see how a Jeeves-like digital figure fares in the brick-and-mortar world.


This post originally appeared on


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Which States are Givers? Which are Takers?


Maps showing regional differences among Americans are all the rage these days, such as this depiction of the contours of baseball fandom, or this one of the beers we’re alleged to favor, or this showing the places in America where none of us lives, or this creative video/map showing where Americans use different words for common things such as soda.

For my money, one of the more interesting maps appearing recently came from the personal-finance website Wallet Hub. Analysts there set out to determine how states compare in terms of their reliance on federal funding. The states deemed “most dependent” by the analysis are bright red on the map, those “least dependent” are bright green. You can move your cursor around on the map to see how each state ranks. (There were some ties.)


The Wallet Hub analysts essentially asked how much each state receives back as a return on its federal income-tax investment.  They compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia on three metrics: 1) federal spending per capita compared with every dollar paid in federal income taxes; 2) the percentage of a state’s annual revenue that comes from federal funding; and 3) the number of federal employees per capita.  The third measure received only half the weight of each of the others in the calculation.

What the resulting map shows is that the most “dependent states,” as measured by the composite score, are Mississippi and New Mexico, each of which gets back about $3 in federal spending for every dollar they send to the federal treasury in taxes. Alabama and Louisiana are close behind.

If you look only at the first measure—how much the federal government spends per person in each state compared with the amount its citizens pay in federal income taxes—other states stand out, particularly South Carolina: The Palmetto State receives $7.87 back from Washington for every $1 its citizens pay in federal tax. This bar chart, made from Wallet Hub’s data, reveals the sharp discrepancies among states on that measure.

On the other side of this group, folks in 14 states, including Delaware, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio, get back less than $1 for each $1 they spend in taxes.

It’s not just that some states are getting way more in return for their federal tax dollars, but the disproportionate amount of federal aid that some states receive allows them to keep their own taxes artificially low. That’s the argument Wallet Hub analysts make in their 2014 Report on Best & Worst States to be a Taxpayer.

Part of the explanation for why southern states dominate the “most dependent” category is historical. During the many decades in the 20th century when the South was solidly Democratic, its congressional representatives in both the House and the Senate, enjoying great seniority, came to hold leadership positions on powerful committees, which they used to send federal dollars back to their home states in the form of contracts, projects, installations.

Another part of the explanation is easier to discern. The reddest states on that map at the top—Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, Maine—have exceptionally high poverty rates and thus receive disproportionately large shares of federal dollars. Through a variety of social programs, the federal government disburses hundreds of billions of dollars each year to maintain a “safety net” intended to help the neediest among us. Consider, for example, the percentage of each state’s residents who get “food stamps” through the federal government’s SNAP program. This chart tells the story.

Another way of getting at the same point is to map the percentage of families in 2012 with incomes below the federal poverty level (according to the Census Bureau’s ACS five-year estimate). This map, made through Social Explorer, shows the data at the county level: the darker the shading, the higher the percentage of impoverished residents.

You can go here to see an interactive version of this map that enables you to scroll your cursor over counties and get pop-up information showing the percentages for any specific county. You can also change the map view, showing the data at different levels, ranging from states all the way down to individual census block groups. (To see the mapped data at sub-county levels, you have to zoom way in to particular areas.)

There are various ways of thinking about what Wallet Hub’s “state dependency” map tells us. One approach is to shine light on the red-states-as takers paradox: Dominated by Republican voters who profess their distaste for the federal government and its social programs, these are the very states that rank highest on the dependency index.  That, for example, is how Business Insider handled the story:

[W]ho really benefits from government spending? If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you might think it was those blue states, packed with damn hippie socialist liberals, sipping their lattes and providing free abortions for bored, horny teenagers. . . .

As it turns out, it is red states that are overwhelmingly the Welfare Queen States. Yes, that’s right. Red States — the ones governed by folks who think government is too big and spending needs to be cut — are a net drain on the economy, taking in more federal spending than they pay out in federal taxes. They talk a good game, but stick Blue States with the bill.

Fair enough. That’s a catchy perspective. And there are few things more fun than exposing hypocrisy.

Alternatively, we could use the “state dependency” map as an opportunity to reflect on a different paradox—the longstanding  role of the far-away federal government as an agent of community. Because of federal programs, people in places like South Carolina and Mississippi are getting a helping hand not from their neighbors a few blocks away or in the next county over, but from residents of Delaware, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska. Whether you like that idea depends, in part, on how you personally reconcile the tension between two long-cherished, core American values—our passion for individualism and our regard for community—and whether you see “community” as encompassing the whole country.

That’s a far more interesting thing to think about (though perhaps less viscerally satisfying) than which states are moochers or freeloaders and which are getting fleeced.


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Building a Museum in Small-town Maine


If you’ve been following the reports at by Deborah and Jim Fallows in their American Futures series, you know that the small city of Eastport, Maine, a town that has faced hard times in the past, is a place with lots of good things going on. Most recently, we’ve learned from Deb about the positive, “yes-we-can” attitudethat has become widespread there, reaching into (and being reinforced by) the language people use. And from Jim, we’ve heard about efforts to build harbor traffic for the deep-water port there and an ambitious, large-scale project to harness the hydro-kinetic power of ocean tides and river currents.

Now let’s look in on another bold venture in Eastport, this one of much smaller scale and different orientation, but no less important in the way it’s helping to revitalize this coastal community. This is the story of how an art museum — The Tides Institute & Museum of Art — got started there in the past decade, and what it’s come to mean in the life of this small community of 1,300 people.

Hugh French, an Eastport native, and his wife, Kristin McKinlay, were living in Portland, Maine, in 2002 when they decided — in the great American spirit of mobility — to move. Where, they weren’t exactly sure.

The former Eastport Savings Bank building before renovation.

But on a visit back to Hugh’s hometown, they saw an old, dilapidated building for sale, the former home of the Eastport Savings Bank, and decided, virtually on the spot, to buy it and create an art museum there.

Laughing at the memory, McKinlay told me: “We went through the building. It was in dire shape, and yet we came out saying to each other, ‘We have to do this.’” Laughing harder, she said, “It was somewhat a matter of putting the cart before the horse.” What she meant was that they hadn’t previously made a conscious decision to move back to Eastport, much less looked for or purchased a home there, but they bought the building anyway, planning to create a museum. Their thinking, I realized as McKinlay explained to me the origin of the Tides Institute, was akin to Ray Kinsella’s inspiration in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

Workers removing bank vault from building.

They saw something in that run-down building: hope — and a future. “We realized there was a need here for the kind of cultural institution that could help revitalize the town,” French said. “We knew that Eastport needed a cultural anchor; that was the genesis of the concept. Of course, we knew it would be hard: the town has a small population, there’s little money here, and there’s no big urban center nearby.” But they went ahead anyway, believing in the project — and in the town. “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t feel Eastport was already moving in a positive direction,” McKinlay said.

They started out, McKinlay told me, by “putting up a website first. We did that even before we moved from Portland to Eastport. We wanted to elicit responses from people up here about what was needed. So, having a website made it useful to gather ideas about collections, research resources, and so on. Also, potential funders were able to look at it.”

They chose the name with deliberation: rejecting Eastport or Passamaquoddy in favor of Tides, thinking it to be less limiting geographically, but still suggestive of the area and the community’s aspirations for connection to the world beyond. (“Tides connect everywhere,” French noted.) And they chose Institute because they felt it implied the kind of innovative institution they were hoping to create, with an educational mission and “an open-ended institutional capacity.” French explained, “We didn’t want to needlessly box ourselves in.”

Painting by Arthur Cadieux, in collection of Tides Institute.

Thanks to family heritage, French already had a collection of objects on which to build — paintings, historical photos, oral histories, and the like — much of this, cultural material about the sardine canneries that once dominated the economic life of Eastport. But they knew that building a museum meant they’d have to add substantially to their collection.

Helping to make that happen was the French family name, well known in town. McKinlay explained: “It’s been crucial to our success to have a known quantity in town doing this. Previously, there wasn’t an institution here that people knew and trusted, so people who had artwork, documents, or other valuable things to donate sent their items elsewhere – to other museums around the state or beyond, to the archives of their alma maters, etc. But because people knew Hugh,knew the Frenches, they were willing to give us their items of value. So, things started coming in.”

Main Room in the Tides Institute and Museum of Art

The museum’s collections cover different time periods and places, but are regional in many respects. Included among the kinds of items in the permanent collection are Native-American basketry, hand-painted ceramics, boat models, portraits of ships, and photographs from the sardine canneries. The total museum space is allocated roughly evenly between the permanent collection and special exhibits.

Native-American basket in collection.

Once their extensive reconstruction of the building was completed, French and McKinlay started doing exhibits right away. That helped to build the collection, too. “People would come in to see exhibits and say ‘Oh, I have something you might want to add to your collection.’”

One of their recent exhibits showed the work of Andrea Dezso, a well-known artist who happened to come through Eastport, saw the museum, and approached French and McKinlay, saying, “I’d love to work with you.” So, she put together an exhibit based on her research on the area. Some of her work was her take on the imagination of a child working in the sardine canneries, one piece of which is shown below.

Eastport school children viewing TIMA exhibit of work by Andrea Dezso 

Another exhibit, this past summer, featured the installation of a separate structure on the plaza in front of the museum, containing a large camera obscura. McKinlay said that the exhibit, called Vorti-Scope, was “terrifically engaging to people of all ages.” (This video shows Vorti-Scope when it was installed in Fredericton, New Brunswick.)

When the Tides Institute first opened, it was one of the few places in Eastport open on Sundays. Sometimes the fledgling museum had only one or two people come in over the course of a Sunday – or nobody at all. Now, on Sundays in the summer, it’s not uncommon for as many as 150 people to come through.

Pottery by Tom Smith 

Apart from building their collection and attracting an audience, another constant worry for French and McKinlay has been financing. But they’ve had some encouraging success on that score, too. For example, they applied for funding from ArtPlace, which is a collaboration of national foundations, banks, and the National Endowment for the Arts, aiming to promote public interest in the arts, encourage “creative place-making,” and support efforts to transform communities that are making strategic investments in the arts.

When French and McKinlay applied for an ArtPlace grant a couple years ago, theirs was one of approximately 2,200 initial applications, out of which 200 were invited to make final applications. Only 47 grants ultimately were awarded – one of those (for $250,000) to the Tides Institute. “We’re the only institution in Maine ever to get money from them,” French told me, attributing that success to the attractiveness of the idea behind one of the Tides Institute’s missions, “to build connectedness and engage people in the community, including across the border in Canada.”

New StudioWorks building, under reconstruction.

The ArtPlace grant helped subsidize the restoration of another old (1887), rundown building nearby that French and McKinlay acquired. This second space, now renovated, houses their StudioWorks facility, providing studio space, with print-making equipment, a letterpress, and assorted digital resources. The building also serves as home to an artist-in-residence program that has grown rapidly in popularity, receiving 70 to 80 applications for the four sequential residencies available this past summer. The program is attracting the attention of artists, in part because it provides recipients with a stipend, along with free housing in an attractive space a block away.

Artist Christine Wong Yap, at work in new StudioWorks space.

The artist-in-residency program is dear to McKinlay and French because it helps meet their purpose of engaging the community. They want people to see artists at work in a studio, and they ask the artists to do work that people can participate in. Similarly, they run an educational program that, in addition to bringing school kids into the museum on field trips, also sends artists into the local schools to talk to kids about what artists do and to show some work. “We want kids to know that becoming an artist is one potential path ahead,” said McKinlay.

In the spirit of trying to strengthen the bonds of community, another important venture of the Tides Institute is its New Year’s Eve Celebration, which started about six years ago. French told me, “We commissioned an artist to create an 8-foot sardine that gets lowered from the roof of the museum at midnight, like the crystal ball at Times Square. It’s a very popular event. Hundreds of people come out for it.”

New Year’s Eve celebration, 2012, in square in front of TIMA’s main building in Eastport

Looking back on what they’ve accomplished, French and McKinlay are proud of seeing their two buildings restored and happy to see how their efforts are contributing to the growing vitality of this small city. They’re gratified, too, French said, at how the Tides Institute & Art Museum has “encouraged cooperation and exchange among communities here on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.”

Brochure created by TIMA and community partners. 

Not only would they do it all again, despite the formidable challenges they’ve faced, but they’d offer encouragement to others considering starting new ventures in the arts. As McKinlay put it. “I’d say to them, Youcan do it. You can be creative. Youcan be innovativeYes, it’s true: you have to be a little crazy. And you have to be willing to make some sacrifices and take some risks. But there’s a great opportunity to make a difference, especially in small towns.”

French and McKinlay are the first to say that they didn’t do all this on their own. “This is a tight community. People here work together,” McKinlay told me. “But I think it’s true everywhere that people will try to be helpful when they see something coming along that promises to be beneficial to the whole community. That’s certainly what we’ve found. So, my message to people would be: Take that gamble.”


This piece originally appeared at

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The Monotony of Conformity


I taught at an all-girls high school for the past ten years. Almost all the girls were in lockstep conformity with one another, especially their hairstyle — long, straight hair hanging on both sides of the face past the shoulders. I always found so refreshing those rare occasions when some intrepid girl would show up at school with a stylish short cut. You’d think that by the time most young people are away at college for a year or two they would have enough self-confidence to adopt their own personal style — that is, to step away from the crowd a bit in terms of hairstyle, clothing, etc. Apparently not. Here’s a photo (at left), taken from a friend’s Facebook feed, of a group of sorority girls at Wake Forest. (Click on the photo to bring up a larger version.) Notice the hairstyles. Amazing. I don’t understand it.

17zSUBKARLIE-articleLargeThen I saw this item from today’s New York Times about the ‘Karlie,’ the “cut of the moment” belonging to Karlie Kloss. Very nice. You’d think more young women would want to distinguish themselves from the crowd by having a distinctive cut. Guess not.

What does all this suggest? Nothing other than that I apparently have too much time on my hands.

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Can Your Kid Read Charts and Graphs? Better Hope So

Presidential candidate Ross Perot: 1996

Presidential candidate Ross Perot: 1996
















You probably have a pretty good idea how well your teenager can write, how good her reading comprehension is, and how easily she solves math problems. But here’s a question to consider: Can your high-school student extract the meaning from a chart or graph?

Okay, let’s stipulate that your kid probably can. What do you think about your neighbor’s kid? Do you think he knows how to read a visual display of quantitative information? There’s a very good chance he can’t. And that’s a problem.

The education world seems always aflutter with controversies over how best to teach students to write or what’s the most effective way to teach mathematics. While these are important matters, involving real problems, there are other gaps and failings that also deserve attention.

I taught for the past 10 years in an independent high school for girls. Not long after starting there, I discovered that many of my students had limited ability to derive and summarize the main message from fairly straightforward charts and graphs like this one, comparing the crime rate to unemployment in the US over a twenty-year period:

A Collaboration Between Good and Part & Parcel

When I raised the subject at a faculty meeting one day, my comment elicited wide agreement. The ensuing discussion revealed that kids handled these kinds of tasks well in science and math classes, but the skills didn’t seem to transfer over to other subject areas such as the social sciences and history.

Now, this problem is surely not universal. There are certainly students who can handle these cognitive tasks well in any context. But an alarming percentage cannot. (I have not been able to find hard numbers on this and will be grateful to anyone who can provide them.)

Part of the explanation, I suspect, is a simple aversion on the part of many to anything that smacks of math. I know; I’m in that category. I’m one of those people whose skills at extracting information from graphs and charts are stunted because I avoided developing them, preferring to rely on the accompanying text to tell me the important points I needed to know from a complicated table or graph.

Another obstacle is that we all find it harder to extract meaning from graphs and charts in subject areas new to us. One study I found indicated that this is a widespread problem, showing that even professional scientists’ abilities to interpret graphs “are highly contextual and are a function of their familiarity with the phenomena to which the graph pertains.”

Still another reason for the difficulty some students have with visual displays of quantitative data is that many of the old standbys — pie charts, line graphs, dot charts and point plots, histograms, pictographs, etc. — are getting more complicated and are being supplemented, if not supplanted, by a mindboggling array of complicated and sophisticated new graphic forms, like this network diagram, showing the relationships, based on data about recorded meetings, between UK governmental ministers and British lobbyists:

Screen Shot 2012-10-30 at 6.43.57 AM.png

Tony Hirst at

These graphics are obviously the result of technological advancements, which make it easier to produce more complex graphs. (See Tony Hirst’s description of the computer work involved in producing the diagram above.)

Newspapers and magazines carry more graphic representations of data than they used to, and the Web is full of this stuff. Another example:


Global Web Index

The New York Times regularly provides good examples of these cutting-edge graphics.  See this interactive chart, for example, which shows how swing states have shifted between the Republican and Democratic parties over the years.

As these visual displays become more and more ubiquitous, it is all the more important that students know how to read, interpret, and summarize the information presented. It’s become an essential element of overall literacy.

But instead of working more aggressively to nurture this set of educational skills, we seem to be headed in precisely the opposite direction. The lead writers of the Common Core standards in English/language arts and math, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, dismiss the need to teach 5th graders about data and bar charts and graphs, saying such activities amount to a “fake version of developing young scientists.”

Instead, they want elementary-school kids to focus on fractions. Nobody can be opposed to that, but surely there is room for both kinds of emphasis.

As students get older, it’s important for them to learn not only how to be intelligent viewers of graphic representations, but wary and cautious viewers. While charts and graphs obviously are a boon to our ability to communicate information about large numbers or complicated relationships, there are also hidden pitfalls.

Statistics, like any other kind of information, are open to manipulation and distortion. We want our kids to be literate in this material so they can avoid being hoodwinked by those who use statistical figures carelessly or unscrupulously. Students need to learn how the creators of charts and graphics can misrepresent the truth: altering the baseline, changing units of analysis and comparison, using averages or means when they are misleading, not using constant dollars, not showing populations as a percentage of the base, or implying causality where none exists.

Unfortunately, unless your high school student takes a statistics course — and onlyabout 11 percent do — she or he is unlikely to learn all this. So, what can you do to help your teenager develop this particular kind of literacy?

First, ask her teachers what they’re doing to address these concerns in her classes. Push them on it. And teaching this sort of literacy should not be seen as the exclusive duty of math teachers or science teachers. Instructors in all subject areas where graphs and charts show up should be helping students with these skills.

Second, and more importantly, take an active role yourself in educating your kids how to read charts and graphs. Show them interesting ones. Talk about them. See if they can extract the important meaning from them. See if they can summarize the main point. If they can’t do it, help them figure out how. Show them the problems with graphs that are misleading. You can start by showing them this graph that Jim Fallows posted late last week as part of a piece here on what sorts of factors predict the outcome of presidential elections.


See if they know, from just looking at the graph, what he means when he says the graph is distorted because it makes the stock-market rise look bigger than it should. (And if you feel like probing a whole other matter, see if they can explain coherently what it means to say there has been a “rise in the stock market.”)

The main point to impart to your kids is that this kind of literacy is important. They shouldn’t shrug it off, nor should they be afraid of it. Show them how this kind of material can provide fascinating insights into things of real interest, with graphic representations like these:


This piece originally appeared at

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Recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis


Fifty years ago tonight, President John Kennedy went on television and told the American people that he had ordered a blockade of Cuba. The purpose was to prevent the Soviet Union from successfully completing the shipment there of parts for ballistic missiles that could be used to strike the United States. It was a perilous moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for the next seven days Americans and others around the world nervously waited to see what would happen.

Would Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev instruct Soviet ships to try to run the blockade? Would the Soviets launch a preemptive strike against the United States? Would American naval destroyers or Air Force jets sink a Soviet freighter, sparking a Soviet reaction? Would any of these possible events — or some error or miscalculation — lead to nuclear war?

It’s often said that the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of events that brought humankind to the brink of nuclear conflagration, marked the most dangerous moment so far in human history. The decisions and actions of American and Soviet leaders during those tense two weeks in October 1962 have been the subject of dozens of books and articles. We know a lot, and are learning more, about what went on in the meeting rooms and corridors of power. (For an interesting look back on those events, watch this video from a new National Archives exhibit.)

Thinking about the arrival of its 50th anniversary, I realized that I knew surprisingly little about what ordinary Americans did during that crisis period. How did they behave? How did they react to those frightful events? There’s almost nothing written on the subject. The notable exception is a fine book by Alice George, Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis.Here’s part of what I’ve learned from reading George.

Most people, of course, did absolutely nothing. They didn’t plan out ways to flee to “safe” areas; they didn’t stockpile supplies; they didn’t discuss with family members what to do in the event of attack. Partly, this was because of massive denial; partly it was a recognition of the futility of action. People understood that all-out nuclear war was not something they were likely to survive. Other people chose inaction not because they were in denial, but because they assumed the crisis was overblown political theater or that it would not lead to war.

My own family, living in Denver, did nothing. I don’t know if it was because of denial or a belief that war was not on the horizon. I recall sitting in front of the television as my family watched Kennedy’s address to the nation on the night of the 22nd. And I remember going to school the next day, afraid that missiles might blow us all up at some point in the following days. Out on the playground at lunchtime, the macho fifth-grade boys joked about kissing our asses goodbye, but there was genuine anxiety lurking behind our usual bluster. George reports that the common joke among youngsters — a joke that said a lot about that generation’s world view — was “what are you going to be if you grow up?”

We were a generation of schoolchildren steeped in the civil-defense ethos of the time, which consisted of simple-minded platitudes concerning preparation: We were taught to seek cover under our desks in the case of incoming missiles. We knew by heart certain passages from the ridiculous “Duck and Cover” film that was staple fare in schools in the 1950s. Bert the Turtle modeled the desired behavior:

Alice George’s research reveals that, during the missile crisis, Americans matured, moving beyond the “duck and cover” mentality of the previous decade. They came to realize that their government was unprepared to protect them in the event of nuclear war. Despite Cold War nervousness and the wisdom of planning for a nuclear conflict, civil-defense spending had been minuscule.

Consequently, public civil-defense shelters were relatively few in number and were woefully equipped. Newspapers published lists of designated shelters, but unfortunately most people would find no room there if war broke out. Worse yet, the shelters were drastically under-supplied: “None had been stocked with supplies in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Camden, Newark, Louisville, El Paso, Denver, Des Moines, Wichita, Salt Lake City, Long Beach, Sacramento, Phoenix, or Seattle. The District of Columbia, with a population of 784,000, had enough stocked shelter space for 5,514.”

George writes that “a reporter checked one of Denver’s ‘stocked’ shelters and found two dozen chairs, twelve empty 17.5-gallon water cans, several hundred boxes of survival crackers, fifteen stretchers, first-aid and radiation-detection kits, and civil defense literature.” This was 16 months after the US started construction of the the North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD] center in Colorado Springs, 68 miles away. So the Denver metropolitan area might well have been considered a prime target.

Some people had built bomb shelters in their homes, but the actual prospect of survival in such shelters was slight, and other citizens saw such behavior as irrational: “Almost 60 percent believed that family shelter owners would have to fight to keep neighbors out if war began, and 64 percent said that living in a shelter for a long time would drive many people insane.”

While there were civil-defense sirens in most places, and a national warning system that would sound in the event of approaching missiles, “for most people in target areas, this would provide only a few moments for desperate measures and prayers.”

As the crisis went on, many Americans began stockpiling in the event of war, but such behavior was uneven. In San Francisco, Columbus, Boston, and Chicago, there were no reports of such behavior. And people who were proactive were not always practical. George cites the case of a woman who reportedly bought 40 jars of instant coffee. When asked what she would do for water in the event of a nuclear attack, she replied that she had never thought of that.

In some cities (Dallas, St. Petersburg, FL, and Charlottesville, VA), gun sales were brisk. In New Orleans, it was transistor radios; in Houston, batteries; in Columbus, SC, auto tires; in Denton, TX, new cars (somewhat inexplicably). In Fort Worth, TX, the civil defense director observed, after noting a rush on grocery stores, “The idea is to survive — not to get fat.”

In short, with little realistic prospect of surviving an attack, most Americans, especially those in likely target zones, appear to have done nothing other than face the crisis with a grim fatalism, and the kind of false bravado displayed by my fifth-grade friends. One wonders how Americans today would face such terrifying prospects — and whether the government is really any more prepared to defend us now than it was then.


This piece originally appeared at

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Further Proof That More Political Paralysis Lies Ahead

As we await news of today's results in the Wisconsin election that will decide Governor Scott Walker's political fate, let's ponder the latest confirmation of just how polarized the U.S. has become politically in recent years.  Take a look at these results from a report issued by the Pew Research Center, showing the widening differences in political values between Democrats and Republicans:

And if you don't feel like reading the report itself, here's a short take on it by the Washington Post's Don Balz.