Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ludwig Schaffrath and Johannes Schreiter: Motion, Rhythm and Harmony in Glass

To many, stained glass brings to mind intricately crafted, multilayered richly colored warmly glowing, glazed opalescent lamps held together by copper foil and solder, of Louis Comfort Tiffany.  Others conjure mental images of the spectacular rose window in stunning blues at the Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1260, 42 feet across with the row of apostles standing at attention below.  As beautiful as these works are, there is much, much more to architectural art glass, as I and many others have learned from Ludwig Schaffrath, who died this past February in Bardenberg, Germany at 87.  Here I belatedly celebrate his remarkable contributions and passing.

 I first became enamored with architectural art glass in 1978 when enrolled in an evening glass offered at Monarch Studio, a commercial glass studio in St. Paul, MN. I had enjoyed watercolor and acrylic painting as an adolescent and in college but had long stopped producing art.  I had convinced myself “I had more serious concerns,” as my professional career as an academic research psychologist was emerging.  Essayist Joan Didion, wrote, "I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends." That is what happened one evening when I propped up a dozen or so old paintings I had made years before in my living room, studying them one after the next, walking from one to another, wondering why I had stopped doing what I had enjoyed so much.  The works differed in medium, some were watercolor or gouache, others pen and ink and still others acrylics.  Some were highly abstract others representational, but all shared one feature in common. Each painting, at least the better among them, were images divided into relatively discrete patches of color, some with dark lines separating adjacent areas, very much like a stained glass window or a mosaic.  Only I had never worked in stained glass, and had spent very little time in churches, so that seemed an odd predilection.  Nonetheless, those prescient images suggested the direction my artistic efforts would unexpectedly take.
I began to make amends for my artistic absence.  Learning the rudiments of the craft of stained glass contributed to my passion for that art form, but was only a small part of a major change in my life. Before long I was devoting most Saturdays at Monarch Studio, generously tolerated by three gifted glass artists who eventually assigned me a table in the rear of the studio as my own, on which to construct my glass designs.  I pestered Michael, David and Tom relentlessly with foolish and occasionally unanswerably complex questions about glass art, not realizing which was which.

While Michael Pilla and his colleagues held in high regard the stunning Chartres, York Cathedral and Chagall’s Jerusalem windows, their studio was most influenced by several contemporary German stained glass designers of whom I had never heard.  Among the most striking designs were those of Ludwig Schaffrath, huge walls of parallel lines of swirling and intersecting rows of colored textured glass, combining and diverging unpredictably. Schaffrath’s designs created paradoxes for a seemingly rigid, fragile material, for in his hands the designs became almost magically fluid. It reminded us that glass actually flows over many years, becoming thicker at the bottom of a large window-pane. Schaffrath’s work compressed that time frame, reminding us of glass’s fluidity.

Ludwig Schaffrath’s designs have a remarkable visual cadence much as music has metrical properties, synchrony and asynchrony, and creates harmonies and occasionally startling visual effects, much like listening to Bach’s First Bandenberg Concerto with the opening theme played by the entire ensemble, then returning in part in different keys throughout the movement, allowing the themes to emerge unexpectedly into the solo parts in Rondo.  Such interwoven predictable and irregular patterns were integral to Schaffrath’s work, with increasing boldness in his palate, especially in his later windows.  But from almost the first moment, I found myself drawn into Schaffrath’s often breath-taking designs like no other art form I had experienced. 

As I ploddingly designed and fabricated windows, occasionally one appeared on my table that was not too bad, my passion for the art form grew.  Saturday afternoons we spent hours poring over the images of Schaffrath’s windows in his book, Glass Malerei + Mosaic published in 1977 in German and English.  

In the mid-1980s, Anneke, my wife and I, were on a family holiday trip to Switzerland, and on our way stopped in Germany to experience first hand some of Schaffrath’s work.  We visited Ludwig Schaffrath’s studio in Alsdorf, North Rhine Westphalia, and though regrettably he was unexpectedly called away the day of our visit, Frau Schaffrath kindly took us on a guided tour of some of his installations in Eschweiller, Duren, Ubach-Palenberg and Monchen-Gladbach, not far from the Dutch border. 

The glass wall of the indoor swimming pool at Ubach-Palenberg built in 1973, a smallish city of 20,000, was absolutely stunning, composed of fluid swirling parallel lines blues, blue green and white opalescent and clear hand blown glass meandering from one window panel to the next, accentuating the sense for the aqueous setting, and at the top, a lightly opalescent reamy textured border like sunlight shining through shimmering water (Shown here).  [Reamy glass is hand made by mixing together two or more molten glasses of intentionally mismatched compositions which resist being mixed together and don't homogenize easily. The result is a characteristic coarse textured pattern depending on the two glasses that were mixed.]  We stopped at a small, renovated parish church in a mining region with an interior painted starkly white with natural birch pews.  Each of Schaffrath’s Roman arch windows represented a different type of ore mined in the region, honoring the lives of the people who worked there (shown here is copper).

We later drove the short distance to Aachen on the Dutch border, to view some of Schaffrath’s earliest works, the colorless textured glass of the 32 enclosed cloister windows of the Aachener Dom, the famous medieval cathedral of Charlemagne which still showed scars of allied bombing in WWII.  The windows enclosed the arcade through which the monastic brothers and choiristers walked on their way to services that circumnavigated the church courtyard.  Schaffrath designed and oversaw the fabrication of the Aachen cathedral windows from 1962-65.  The stone window frames are from two Gothic periods with suggestions of late Roman influence.  After much reflection, Schaffrath decided to design the windows with colorless textured glass, fine and coarse reamy, fine and coarse seedy with fine bubbles, and nearly smooth colorless hand blown glass.  Each window serves as an epitaph as though inscribed on one person’s tombstone. The lead varies from an inch wide to 1/8th of an inch creating a striking irregularly graphic effects, and in each case suggests, but not represents, the deceased, with all of their individualities an unpredictable qualities of a unique person who is buried in the courtyard behind the glass.  In some respects these early windows were among Schaffrath’s riskiest. 

One cannot fully appreciate Schaffrath’s work without seeing in its architectural setting, on the scale of a building wall 30 to 60 feet high and extending across the entire front of the church or other building.  His later designs such as the train station window in Tokyo Omija Japan and the city hall windows (bottom red) at Weisbaden (top blue) illustrate the powerful use of color.

In the mid-1980s, Michael Pilla, my friend and stained glass mentor and I co-hosted a conference at the University of Minnesota, “Light and Glass in Architecture,” and  had invited a remarkable cast of American and European stained glass expert presenters, including the Americans, Robert Sowers and Ed Carpenter and Ludwig Schaffrath, master of German contemporary architectural stained glass. During the two-day conference we had the opportunity to speak with Schaffrath and hear his thoughts on his own work and future plans as well commentary on the state of architectural art glass. He did not suffer fools gladly, and had an often deservedly dim view of much of American vernacular stained glass, though he held the work of several Americans glass artists, including Sowers, Carpenter, vonRoenn and Leighton in high regard.

Schaffrath had originally studied with Anton Wendling in 1954, Chair of the architecture and drawing department of the Rheinisch-Westfalisch Technical School in Aachen.  Part of German government’s restoration effort following WWII involved replacing many of the stained glass windows that had been destroyed by bombing during the war.  Wendling and Heinrich Campendonk had been the fountainheads of modern German architectural art glass, who in turn, were greatly influenced by the Dutch-German painter and glass designer, Johan Thorn-Prikker.  Thorn-Prikker’s abstract glass designs were reminiscent of Piet Modrian’s De Stijl paintings.  Campendonk created stained glass in the Blau Reiter expressionist oil painting tradition, wildly colorfully different from his contemporaries.  Replacement of damaged and destroyed windows provided a vehicle for these young budding artists to try their hand at radical new approaches to architectural art glass. 

The other distinguished German glass artist whose work emanated from Wendling’s teaching was Georg Meisterman, as much a painter as a glass artist.  His complex, rich abstractly organic and often representational work greatly influenced younger up and coming glass artists. Within Germany, Meisterman is better known as a painter than glass artist.  Where Schaffrath’s designs were distinctively architectural, especially his earlier work, Meisterman’s were paintings made with glass, that almost incidentally, happened to be part of the building’s architecture.  The embedded photo is from one of Meisterman’s windows in the Cologne Cathedral.

While Schaffrath’s contemporary, Johannes Schreiter is a deeply religious man in a mystical Catholic tradition, and his richly colored abstract window designs are filled with symbolism (see the Frankfurt Cathedral window below, blue on Right), Schaffrath had a much more cerebral abstract architectonic approach to his work, often with a subtler palate.   Some years later I had the very good fortune to spend a day with Johannes Scrheiter in his studio in Langen, a town outside of Frankfurt, Germany.  Schreiter’s window designs are stunningly different from Schaffrath’s, as illustrated by this window hung in a museum in Langen (Left blue and orange).  Schaffrath’s designs have an analytical quality, while Schreiter’s reach down in side you and tug at that part from whence your emotions emanate. Both are incredibly powerful in their own way.

The city of Langen has dedicated a floor of the old city hall (Rathaus) as a museum for Schreiter’s works.  When visiting Schreiter’s studio, I watched with him page through his bound notebook with numbered pages, with text down half of each page and pencil sketches with notations on the remainder, notes and images based on conversations with clients about projects, or ideas that came to him suddenly as he was mulling over an idea.  We looked together at a very colorfully painted cartoon of one of his windows proposed for a project that never came to fruition, and discussed what he was trying to achieve, which not surprisingly he found very difficult to put into words, though fluent in English.  I asked Schreiter how he knew when he was done with the design process for a new window.  After a lengthy pause, he replied, “When any further changes would detract from the creative emotional impact.”  I have asked my glass artist friend Michael Pilla the same question many times in various iterations, and received a similar answer.  That process is very similar to the question a scientist asks when he or she is trying to decide when nearly all of the pieces have fallen into place in a scientific puzzle, and suddenly it all makes sense.  Has order been established, creating a new sense of enlightenment, in the mind’s eye?  And in Schaffrath’s and Scheiter’s case another part inside us that makes each of us tick.

Ludwig Schaffrath and Johannes Schreiter were, and have been highly regarded in academic circles in Germany.  Schaffrath was professor and head of the program in glass design at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart from 1985 to 93.  Johannes Schreiter was professor at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Frankfurt am Main from 1963-1987 and from 1971 to 1974 its rector. Today Johannes Schreiter age 81 lives in Langen, Germany.

Johannes Schreiter, like my friend Michael Pilla (see embedded blue and gold window) was very generous and forgiving of the naivite’ of amateur stained glass artist acolyte-psychologist, while Schaffrath was a bit less approachable, though his remarkably powerful work speaks for itself. Michael Pilla spent a week at a workshop with Schreiter in 1994.  Schaffrath and Schreiter changed the world of architectural art glass and our understanding of art more generally, for which we are eternally grateful. 


Meisterman, G.  (1986) Die Kirchfenster (The Church Window) Freiburg: Verlag Herder Freiburg im Breisgau

Schaffrath, L. (1977) Ludwig Schaffrath: glasmalerei+ mosaic (stained glass and mosaic). Krefeld, Germany: Scherpe Verglag, (Text by Konrad pfaff)

Schrieter, J. (1988) The stained glass art of Johannes Schreiter.  Darmstadt, Germany: Verlag Das Beispiel GmbH

Friday, May 27, 2011

Magical Thinking and Vulcanesque Language

Behavior analysis methods have proven very helpful to many young children with autism spectrum disorders, but continue to face cultural and individual challenges in communicating with the world about the approach.  There is a great deal we can do when we directly communicate with parents, teachers and other professionals about our work with children, students or clients, to which I’ll return shortly. But we also face broader cultural challenges that collide with our basic scientific approach to working with children with autism, which is the topic of his article.

We are still living in an era in which some people believe that exorcism will free their family members from the grip of the devil.  Many others count on angels to look out for their welfare.  In a study by Rodney Stark of Baylor Univ he found 55% of Americans reported believing they are protected by angels.  George W. Bush lent presidential legitimacy to disregarding empirical evidence, which won him the hearts, minds and votes of evangelical Christians as well as many others who wanted to continue polluting the environment for profit.

Discovering Your Child Has Autism: Consider a typical scenario. Would-be parents had hoped and prayed for the birth of a healthy, typical child during a woman’s pregnancy. When the baby was born, with great relief, Mom counted his fingers and toes, and was delighted with the baby’s Apgar Score.  Everything looked fine.  Early on in the child’s development the child’s parents had an inkling something was wrong, but tried to pretend otherwise, like whistling a happy tune as they walked past the cemetery.  When the child was exhibiting no eye contact, not beginning to speak words, and exhibited repetitive non-functional routines, flapping his hands and staring at spinning objects, interspersed with severe tantrums, they were pretty sure something was amiss.  Around three years of age the pediatrician delivered the terrible news that their child had autism. In almost an instant, the healthy, happy, normal child whose future they had already been planning, disappeared before their eyes.  He wasn’t going to be quarterback on the high school football team, or be accepted at an Ivy League college, or open a medical practice with a prestigious clinic or get married and live with his wife and children in a white picket-fenced house in an affluent suburb.  Parents began dreading the worst.

Telling Stories & Magical Thinking: In her book of essays, The White Album, Joan Didion aptly observed, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live."  Parents of children with autism tell themselves stories about the loss of their normal child so they can survive, tales of alien causes and magical mystery cures.  And they tell other parents those same stories because they are reassuring, and they know the pain their friends, parents of a little girl with autism, are suffering.  And their friends who are parents of children with autism want desperately to believe that chelation, probiotics, hyperbaric oxygen or dietary supplements will return their normal child to them.  Others are equally certain clay baths, neurotherapy, sensory integration or chiropractic alignment is guaranteed, to be 100% effective in curing autism, really, 100%, no exceptions. Deep down, of course, parents know that there is almost no likelihood their beloved typical child will be returned to them, but it is easier to engage in magical thinking than face the reality that their child has and will continue to have autism at least to some degree, so they continue to live in a world of illusions.

 In her widely read book, The Year of Magical Thinking of reflections on her husband’s death, Didion wrote, “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."  And so parents keep looking through the doorway expecting that suddenly their bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked typically developing child will enter the room asking for Mommy to give him a hug.  Dad sits with his head in his hands muttering, “There must be something we can do.”  That something, is too often a magical mystery cure.

Magical Mystery Cures: Especially in the first few years after diagnosis, parents cling desperately to the idea that somehow, somewhere will be a treatment that will restore the normal healthy boy who had disappeared before their eyes, the one who they thought had developed autism on the doctor’s examining table within minutes of his MMR vaccination.  Of course he didn’t develop autism because of the MMR vaccine, but it is important to parents to have a specific cause to blame for their child’s condition.  Blaming some crazy error, a mutation transmitted by their own genes, is far too painful to contemplate. Parent internet listserves are a mixed blessing, providing moral support through difficult daily trials and tribulations of parenting a child with autism intermixed with incorrect and often blatantly misleading information, frequently expressed with anger and seeking a target to blame, further encouraging magical thinking.

Today Occupational Therapists administer the Sensory Profile test instead of telling fortunes from cards or casting stones, and conclude a child has a sensory processing disorder and requires Sensory Integration Therapy for the remainder of his natural life, and perhaps well into the hereafter (if they can continue collecting insurance reimbursement).  Few doubt that children with autism over-react to various sensory inputs, but in reality there is no credible evidence sensory integration has any lasting positive effect on functioning of children with autism.  Nonetheless, nearly every child with autism receives some form of occupational therapy including sensory integration therapy.  The approach is not very different from our ancestors who first settled this country and believed in witchcraft.  It is much easier to believe people have souls that need exorcizing or psyches that require ever-so gently brushing, kneading or massaging, than it is to believe that the most effective course of treatment involves systematic application of applied behavior analysis principles, which seems to by-pass the soul and goes directly to how and why the child behaves so oddly. 

Mental & Emotional Machinations; Each of us has a mind of his or her own, and we tend to think we are experts on that subject.  The Norwegian proverb tells us the eyes are the windows to the soul.  Remember when George W. Bush remarked on meeting Vladimir Putin, 'I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy….I was able to get a sense of his soul." [George W. Bush, after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, June 16, 2001]. Nostrums that appeal to parents entirely understandable desire for a normal affectionate bond with their child, called social emotional relationship therapies, are incredibly appealing, whether they are effective or not.  Not only are they appealing in principle, they are enjoyable to parents who are professionally encouraged to engage in spontaneous playful, enjoyable activities with their child (which they already wish they could do), which create the illusion that they are developing a normal parent-child relationship.  It’s fun to play patty-cake and give your child a hug, though it generally contributes minimally to overcoming his core autism symptoms.

Vulcanesque Language: Behavior analysts have a problem with the language used in describing our procedures.  When someone we love has had an especially difficult day, do we say, “Tell me about your schedules of reinforcement and punishment?” or “That sounds awful, You must feel terrible. Tell me what happened.” Many of us in the field of behavior analysis have a compulsion to prove our scientific bona fides by using off-putting technical jargon when talking to parents, teachers and professionals from other fields. 

Consider for a moment how physicians typically talk with their patients or parents of child patients.   They say things like: “So she’s having lots of pain?” rather than, “Looks like she’s hyperalgesic?”  “You must have caught a bug,” instead of,  “You have viral nasopharyngitis.” “He’s sick to his stomach and vomiting,” not “Looks like he has gastritis.”   We seem to be intent on convincing parents, teachers and others who will listen, that we attended the Star Fleet Academy along with Spock, which accounts for our resulting Vulcaneque communication skills.  When talking with parents, teachers and other professionals, we insist on saying things like:  “Emitting mands,” instead of “making requests”, “Motivational operations,” instead of  “Make sure he’s hungry.” Or “Extinction,” instead of  “planned ignoring.”

“How Do You Feel?” Observeables are essential to us, though they are largely irrelevant to most other people with whom we speak, especially parents and media reporters.  We tend not to ask parents or children how they feel.  We prefer to ask them what they did or will do.  We say, “For extinction to work, it’s important that you ignore Johnny when he’s having a tantrum.” rather than “How do you feel about ignoring Johnny when he’s having a tantrum?”  The implication of the latter is that you understand it is going to be difficult for Mom, and you can put yourself in her shoes.  We understand her perspective.  We should commiserate with how difficult it will be, especially in the beginning, but reassure parents we will be by their side, and though it’s tough, we’re confident she can do it.

Graphs Versus Quality of Life: When we tell a reporter how well the kids we are working with are doing, we seldom indicate how wonderful that is for the quality of life for child and her family, and how terrific it is that they could all go camping together for the first time. We show the reporter graphs of the percent of goals reached as though we were presenting a scientific talk at a conference.  No wonder they question what planet we’re from.  The Floortime therapist waxes eloquent about the joy on Mom’s face and the laughter from the child with autism, as we point at the slope on a graph.

We are eager to show parents the amount of improvement in spontaneous requests, and the decrease in crying over the first few sessions, but don’t realize that all they see is that their child still has autism.  Their goal is to make the autism go away not change the line on a chart.  In talking with parents, I find it useful to use analogies from physical medicine, like Gabby Gifford’s painstakingly slow recovery from the gunshot wound to her head.  By reminding parents that a fuller life for their child is like Gabby’s recovery, it is the endpoint way, way down at the end of a long pain-staking road that requires perseverance and work every step of the way.

Effortfulness of Treatment:   Ignoring a child while he or she is crying is contrary to most parents’ concepts of being a good parent, regardless of culture, but we ask the families we are working with to do exactly that. It feels much better to pick your son up and give him a hug, even if you know intellectually that is probably a mistake.  Parents hate it that they know they are doing exactly what they should not be doing, but they do it anyway.  We need to help parents come to the conclusion we are helping them do what they want to do, not what we want them to do, and that we will be there with them to help them through that trying time.

The things we ask parents and teachers to do as part of behavior analytic intervention are extremely demanding and time consuming.  We ask teachers to ignore a child’s screaming and throwing her pencil when the teacher makes a request… that’s easier said than done. “By the way, be sure to keep your data sheet up to date.” We ask parents to practice repeating a conversational exchange with their child with autism at every meal, three times per day.  That can be very difficult when there are other kids vying for attention and parents need to talk about who is taking their daughter to soccer and their son to piano lessons.

It’s much easier to give a pill twice a day, or take their child for sensory integration therapy twice a week, than day in and day out follow the prescribed behavioral intervention plan from awakening to bedtime.  The RDI therapist comes twice a week for an hour and shows Mom how to emotionally bond with her daughter, which is lots of fun through playing games, giving kisses and hugs, and Mom is absolutely sure its helping with her daughter’s autism symptoms. Actually, it’s helping Mom feel she is being a good mother and probably not hurting her daughter much, though it may make her tantrums worse.

Many of the things we ask families to do don’t fit in very well with their daily routines, which can be frustrating to families.  They may be asked to set aside 8 or 10 three-hour blocks of time over each week for therapy, which is often very difficult for families.  In the end, they usually feel good about having done so, but they need to know we understand the sacrifice they are making.

Summary:  We are facing cultural challenges exacerbated by the growth of the Religious Right in America.  The fact that major political leaders share those beliefs and cater to the antiscientific views of many of their constituents is a constant test of wills.  Parents of children with autism often engage in magical thinking because it is too painful to do otherwise.  They need a solution that is consistent with their world view and the personal pain they are experiencing.  We need to stop contributing to these problems by the language we used and failure to express our understanding of parents’ perspectives.  When a brain-injured physical therapy patient finally walks and talks, laughs and gives her kids “high fives,” the physicians and nurses who cared for her and oversaw the years of laborious physical therapy, never discuss the gains in technical medical terms.  They do so in the language of humanity.  We should do the same.  

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Making Stuff Up: Myth of Uncertainty

Businesses tell financial reporters that they aren’t hiring because of “uncertainty” about the future economy.  “Uncertainty” is one of those code words, like “welfare queen” that all of the insiders understand but won’t explain to the general public.  “Uncertainty” is code word for the possibility Barrack Obama will be re-elected and the Democrats will gain seats in the Senate and House in 2012, and businesses will no longer be able to count of outrageous corporate tax loophole rip-offs, and will face regulation of outsourcing of American jobs and controls over destroying America’s air and water. In short, the prospect they’ll have to reign in unfettered corporate greed for another four more years. That is what they mean by “uncertainty.”  Many American businesses are holding the country economic hostage.

One of business’s biggest complaints is rapidly rising health insurance costs, which really are enormous. They say they are “uncertain” about health care costs.  They blame those costs on President Obama.  But why have health insurance costs skyrocketed?  Because their business friends who run private health insurance companies are intent on ripping off private individuals and businesses as long as possible before the Affordable Health Care Act provisions kick in 2014. About that they are certain. They will kick in.  There is no realistic hope House Republicans will be able to reverse the Democratic health care plan.  Starting in 2014 if an employer doesn’t offer insurance, workers will be able to buy insurance directly in an Exchange -- a new transparent and competitive insurance marketplace where individuals and small businesses can buy affordable and qualified health benefit plans.  Exchanges will offer people a choice of health plans that meet benefits and cost standards which will put an end to gouging small business owners and private individuals.  At that point there will be few incentives for health insurance companies to continue attempting to squeeze American businesses or individuals, because everyone will have less costly options. At least that's what the Congressional Budget Office predicts.  About that there is little uncertainty. What IS uncertain is how much they will be gouged by their friends in insurance companies from 2011-1013. 

There is actually little uncertainty about most of the economy, which all economists agree is gradually recovering. The only question is how rapidly.  To be sure, it is not improving rapidly enough, but the recovery is clear from nearly all measures, even employment which lags behind other measures. (see famous Rachel Maddow "Bikini" unemployment chart that has been updated. Red refers to Bush administration figure, Blue to Obama administration figures).

So what’s all the “uncertainty” we keep hearing about. In reality there IS uncertainty in the housing and construction markets because of the ghastly irresponsible home loan fiasco foisted off on America by Wall Street.  As a result, there actually IS uncertainty in many retail businesses that count on consumers who are no longer able to buy as much as before because of losing everything on those disastrous loans, and construction workers laid off from the home construction business. Much more needs to be done to address this situation by Congress and the President. 

Many businesses make products that are not sold to everyday consumers like you and me, such as tractors, pipes, wire, Ethernet cable, commercial cleaning products, office supplies, road graders, packaging and containers, paper and paper products, rubber and plastics, yet those businesses are not hiring either. Many companies specialize in services to large and small companies, not individuals, like Wi-Fi, Ethernet and “cloud” networking services, but their hiring is also anemic. Wholesale trade accounts for 22% of total US sales, manufacturing 19%, finance and insurance 13%, and construction 7%, (the total is more than 60%), while retail trade accounts for 14%.   Why not make more stuff that doesn’t count on consumer spending, like rebuilding American infrastructure? Time to invest in America!

Many larger businesses are sitting on huge surpluses, which they are using to purchace their own stocks, thereby artificially inflating their value, instead of expanding and hiring more workers. By inflating their own stock values, they and their stock-holders get rich in the short term without doing anything, and not a single person is hired.  

Banks are sitting on jillions of dollars and not lending it to business that actually need loans to expand their businesses, but those banks make oodles of more money on gambling on Credit Default Swaps and other Derivatives, so they don’t need to loan to businesses to make a lot of money.  Why invest in a business with a 10-20% investment return when you can gamble and make 150% on stuff that doesn’t involve any products or services.  It’s betting on how much money someone will make or lose by a given date without the banker having to dirty his or her hands with actual products or services that are beneficial to anyone else. If they didn’t have this bizarrely unethical way of making money, they would be forced to invest in their own country's future instead of lining their own pockets.

You might assume businesses would build more stuff and provide more services if they could make money doing so, but look at it this way.  Most businesses don’t need to hire more full-time workers, at least in the near term.  As long as they can underpay current workers who have no choice but to accept meager pay (why do you think Republicans are attacking unions?), hire part time workers with no benefits (including illegal immigrants), force existing workers to work overtime to avoid hiring more workers, they can continue to make out financially without hiring. Remember, blood out of a turnip?

Many corporations avoid hiring American workers nearly altogether by outsourcing their manufacturing or services to China, India, Korea or the Philippines.  The strategy is to squeeze every ounce out of American workers for another 18 months, thereby assuring stinky employment figures and promoting a sense of national economic angst running up to the 2012 presidential election.  

That way the Koch brothers, Karl Rove and the Chamber of Commerce figure, they have a shot at defeating Barrack Obama in 2012.   If they succeed in electing Mitch Daniel, Tim Pawlenty or Jon Huntsman, they figure they’ll have it made. Their outrageous corporate tax cuts will be secure, they can continue to disenfranchise American workers with impunity and no one will monkey with their ability to make billions of dollars betting on other people’s finances, further undermining the American economy. Then, they figure it’ll be time to start hiring a few more Americans so it looks like any employment turn around was due to getting rid of Obama.

Many of these people didn’t major in business in college, they majored in cynicism, What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Oscar Wilde

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead!

Remember that song from the Wizard of Oz, “Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch! Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead. Wake up - sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed. Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead. She's gone where the goblins go… in the bottom of the Arabian Sea.” (I just added the Arabian sea part).

Ding Dong Osuma’s Dead… but regrettably, his disastrous economic legacy is alive and well in America.  One month after 9-11 in his first video comments released by Al Jezeera, he said the main goal of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks was to bleed the American economy to bankruptcy. You and I were devastated by the loss of loved ones and our fellow Americans, but Bin Laden had no interest in them.  Killing thousands of Americans was only a means to end for him.   Bin Laden was only interested in bankrupting the United States of America, and long after he is dead, his plan will continue draining our resources, unless we do something to change course.   

It is estimated the actual 9-11 attacks themselves, cost Al Queda around $500,000, a drop in the bucket to his Saudi and other wealthy Gulf patrons.  Think about how much money the US has spent as a result of those attacks.  The direct economic consequences of the 9/11 attacks has been estimated to be between 1.2 and 2 Trillion dollars (Inst for Analysis of Global http://www.iags.org/costof911.html ).The numbers defy the imagination. The initial direct costs of the attacks is multiplied by the continued extraordinary military and security spending the trauma triggeredTime to wake up and give some really serious thought to American military and security options. 

We can’t afford to keep doing what we have been doing.  American defense and security spending has been far beyond what has been necessary to meet our security need. Bin Laden understood the American proclivity for over-reaction and overdoing nearly everything.  Whether it’s the size of Whoppers or HumVees, more is better.  If the Army needs 50 HumVees for a new military base, then the DOD asks Congress for money for 500 HumVees.  If we need to beef up our airport security by 100%, then we increase security spending by 500%.  Bin Ladin read the American ethos very well.  He assumed we would react irrationally, so that every time one of his mindless, usually bumbling followers was found with explosives in his shoes or underwear, that was good for another billion dollars in US security and military spending.  Great cost-benefit ratio for Bin Laden's side. 

 It is time we prove Osama Bin Laden’s vision of America is wrong.  We need to think more clearly about what it takes to defeat terrorists, while simultaneously rebuilding our own economy at home.  Whether he is dead or not, Bin Laden wins if our economy continues in its current downward tailspin.

Consider a few numbers and you will see what I mean.  George W. Bush’s disastrous War in Iraq has cost nearly $800 billion dollars for which there was no federal money appropriated.  The war in Afghanstan has cost $400 billion so far, and still counting. We have very limited tangible results to show for all that money and a lot of dead and severely injured young Americans.  Global military expenditures stand at over $1.6 trillion in annual expenditure at current prices for 2010, and has more than doubled over the past decade. US military spending has increased from $330 billion in 2000 to $690 billion in 2010. 

The annual cost of US Security agencies is $80 billion per year, including military intelligence and $53.1 billion covers the CIA and some of the other 16 intelligence agencies. An independent report by M.G.Steward and J. Mueller concluded that “An assessment of increased United States federal homeland security expenditure since 2001 and expected lives saved as a result of such expenditure suggests that the annual cost ranges from $64 million to $600 million (or even more) per life saved.”  Compare that with a cost of 10 cents per life saved by requiring seat belts in automobiles or $9.90 per life saved by setting an asbestos occupational safety limits (Assessing the costs and benefits of homeland security spending. Research Report. No. 265.04.08, ISBN No. 9781 9207 01 96 3).  The authors argue that “the sky’s the limit” mentality has led to totally undisciplined irrational spending with no regard whatsoever to possibly more benficial alterantives.  To wit, there are 26,391 private national security companies in the U.S.  That means, figuratively speaking the populations of Ham Lake, Minnesota, a 9 by 9 block area of Manhattan, New York City, and Forrest City, Arkansas, each has the equivalent of their own private security company, if you see what I mean.  Seems a bit excessive, don’t you think?

It we do nothing about this outlandish growth in military and security spending, Bin Laden will have achieved his goal of bringing the US to its knees by utterly unaffordable defense and security spending, by scaring the pants off us.  There are three major consequences of this irrational, outlandish, profligate spending: (1) the country’s level of debt has drastically skyrocketed, meaning the US has become economically dependent on our Chinese bankers, which poses serious long term political and military consequences, (2) there is no money for critical domestic spending to rebuild decaying American infrastructure, which is essential to the country’s future, and (3) the American middle class is being decimated because of unemployment, low wages and loss of benefits.  Lets begin by considering #2 and #3.

Consider infrastructure.  The American Society of Civil Engineers, a non-profit professional society has evaluated the status of US infrastructure, and it is not a pretty picture. These independent engineering professionals have studied a wide range of the basic stuff that makes the country tick, such as Drinking Water, Wastewater, Bridges, Dams, Roads, Hazardous Waste, Airports and Transit.  The Civil Engineers’ average grade for the American infrastructure is a D on an A to F scale.  Those in the worst shape are Drinking Water, Roads and Wastewater, that all got D-.  They estimate $2.2 Trillion would be needed to bring our most basic infrastructure up to a passing grade necessary to secure our country’s domestic future http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/    In short, the country is in big trouble, and wearing blinders doesn’t help solve the problem. 

If only a fraction of excessive military and security spending were reallocated to building roads and bridges (which are falling down, remember the collapse I35W in Minneapolis killing 12 people), replacing the rickety power grid which is prone to attacks and blackouts, to accommodate wind and solar energy, replacing dams that are at risk of bursting and flooding downstream towns and cities, (e.g. the Missouri Taum Sauk dam in 2005, the 2008 East Lake Dam on Indiana, the 2006 Needwood Dam in Gaithersburg MD, and on and on, totaling 77 dam failures in the past ten years).  Some of that excess military and security spending could be diverted to investing in development of fuel cells for electrically powered automobiles, trucks and buses, and installing internet networks throughout underserved areas of the US as is occurring in most developed countries. This is the country that developed the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway system, at one time the envy of the World.  No more. We are lagging far, far behind our competition.  If we used our heads, our employment problem could be solved for many years to come, while overall, reducing federal expenditures and the national debt.

The nay sayers in Congress may be willing to cooperate in reigning in the disastrous course the country has taken in unwise military and security spending.  They will, of course, look out for their buddies in the military and security contracting industries in their home states who have given them bushel baskets of campaign money, but even military apologists have some sense when it comes to balancing greed against the deficit, though admittedly not much. As the federal budget negotiations move forward, military and security spending have to be near the top of the list for cuts.  To be sure, there will be lots of terrifying claims of impending disasters and rationalizations for continuing outrageous spending, but as the Wizard said in the Land of Oz, “Some people without brains do a lot of talking.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

Autism & Making Hay While the Sun Shines

According to Ousseny Zerbo, a fifth-year doctoral student in the graduate group in epidemiology in the Department of Public Health Sciences in the UC Davis School of Medicine, children who were conceived during winter have a significantly greater risk of autism. The risk of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder grew progressively throughout the fall and winter to early spring, with children conceived in March having a 16 percent greater risk of later autism diagnoses, when compared with July conceptions.  So that raises the question, “Should would-be parents abstain from sex in the later Winter months to prevent their potential child from developing autism?”  If so, perhaps they could plan ahead for a late winter drought, by making up between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Just a thought.

Hmm, let’s see, I wonder whether there is really something to this seasonality business?  Disanto and colleagues reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry that they found an excess of anorexia births from March to June (i.e. individuals who starve themselves, must have been conceived in June to August).  Schwartz recently reported in Medical Hypotheses, that being born in the winter and spring, (as with autism), significantly increases one's risk for developing schizophrenia. He says this birth seasonality may account for as many as 10% of all cases of schizophrenia. And Makino and colleagues in Japan found that risk of primary childhood brain tumors was also seasonal (published in Children’s Nervous System).  A Spanish group headed by Fernandez de Abreu reported in the journal Multiple Sclerosis, that there was a significantly reduced number of individuals born in November who were later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (February conception protects against MS). A research group in Israel, headed by Lewy, reported in Journal Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, that girls with the diagnosis of Celiac disease and children of both sexes with a family history of Celiac disease have a different pattern of seasonality of birth from the general population, with a peak of diagnosis being in July and August, corresponding with September or October conception. Do you see an overall seasonal pattern here? Me neither. 

My grandfather, Raymond Raymond Thompson (that was really his name!) fathered ten children with his wife Elizabeth, none of them had autism, schizophrenia, anorexia or brain tumors, though they all had callouses from working on the farm.  As far as I could tell Grandpa Ray and Grandma Elizabeth didn’t pay a lot of attention to the calendar when creating their family.  They were of recent Scot and English descent, and apparently believed that procreation was an activity that one simply had to tolerate, regardless of the season, as long as the woman’s health held out or she died of child birth.  Grandpa Ray Ray used to remind us grandchildren that a man had to make hay will the sun shined, so maybe there was a degree of seasonality after all.

A statistician colleague at the University of Minnesota was fond of reminding students in his classes that there was a high positive correlation between the number of churches and the number of bars in towns in Wisconsin.  At that point during his lecture, he typically put on a wry smile, gave a wink and then speculated aloud that perhaps religion drove people to drink.

As long as I can remember, well back into the 1960s, various researchers periodically reported correlations between birth season of the year, and one or another health condition.  Nearly always, after publishing one or two articles, the researchers moved on to another topic, since almost never did anything come of such birth seasonality findings, though they were always intriguing, leading to a lot of speculation and suggestive cocktail conversation.

If a relation between birth season and autism prevalence is ever firmly established, which I doubt, it will be small and very likely a proxy for some other factor, such as Vitamin D levels, which vary with exposure to sunlight. If there is any relation, it will only apply to a small subset of individuals with autism. So far, nothing much has come of those Vitamin D and seasonal viral autism hypotheses, though you will find lots of them out there on the internet if you do a Google search. 

So if you know someone who is planning to go on their second honeymoon next February or March, you can tell them it’s probably safe to start checking out resorts in Oahu, Cancun or Capri.