Works in Progress II: Prison stats

When I found out that a friend of mine was imprisoned at San Quentin I was reading Dreaming in French. The book talks about Angela Davis’ experience with the Soledad Brothers at San Quentin. When I saw that she would be speaking in my area I bought some books for her to sign. ‘Are Prisons Obsolete‘ was short enough for me to finish in the week leading up to her talk. It reminded me of this clip from black power mixtape:

The introduction to the book was full of mind-boggling statistics. For my job I had been using the d3 library to make data visualizations, so this seemed like a great opportunity to make a compelling infographic about these statistics. I haven’t done so yet, but here are some of the stats I want to use:

-Only 5% of world population lives in the US, but it holds 20% of prison population
-There are 2x as mental mentally in in prisons/jails than in all psychiatric hospitals combined
In 1990 1/4 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 have been incarcerated…
by 1995 it was 32.2%
-Many minorities are more likely to be in prison than educated

Fastest growing portion of the prison population is black women
Up 78% in 5 years
-There are more women in prison now than in the entire decade of the 70s

California Statistics

in 2002:
there are 157,979 people incarcerated
20,000 for immigration detention
35.2% Latino
30% black
29% white

I’d like to make a CA prison timeline, showing their proliferation during the Reagan Era and how they continue to be built at alarming rates:
1852 San Quentin
1880 Folsom
1952-55 9 prisons built
1962-65 3 jails
1980s (Reagan Era) 9 prisons
90s 12 new prisons
Takes 100 years for 1st 9 prisons, last 9 in 10 yrs
Now 33 prisons, 38 camps, 16 correctional facilities and 15 prisoner mother facilities

Aesthetics and the Mark of Cain

I once took a class where we studied monsters and early geography. Our teacher argued that the reason Americas Most Wanted publishes pictures of criminals is that we like looking at faces for signs – we want to know that we can recognize a criminal just by looking. This curiosity is as old as the bible, wherein God marks the first murderer for all to see. We look for outward signs of inner demons, particularly on the face.

The irony here is not just that we can’t judge character based on facial features, but that if I we were to do so, the only thing I know for certain is that the most beautiful people can get away with murder (though not literally). It’s the beautiful people who don’t have to do as much, they don’t have to be smart or clever to be treated well. I hold beautiful people to a higher standard because they can coast because most people see no blemishes in the outside and assume there are none in he inside.

Which brings me to why I have trouble with looks-based compliments. When someone says you’re hot they’re saying you’re worthy of attention. They may or may not believe that because I have a cute face, I’m good on the inside. I’m not saying I’m not worthy of attention or that I’m not good on the inside, but the stranger giving me the compliment doesn’t know (and if I really am as good looking as you say, I probably don’t need to be good on the inside). Unlike Mindy Kaling, who argues in her recent book that a man should compliment how you wear the item (your body) rather than the item you’re wearing, a man after my heart would compliment my fashion sense. I can’t really help what my face looks like, but I can chose the glasses I put on in. For me, that seems to get a little bit at what’s between the ears.


Last week I saw Paranorman, the new animated film by Laika, the makers of Coraline. The movie was kind of a (now) classic story of a child bullied because he is different, but then his gift ends up redeeming him in the bullies’ eyes. This narrative has become a trope in the past 30 or 40 years, from Carrie, to Revenge of the Nerds. SPOILER ALERT: The twist here was in the denouement, instead of just having the movie end with the rubble of the destroyed town, or the underdog who gets the girl, the movie ended with a lesson about forgiveness. If you destroy your tormentors, you’re no better than them for trying to destroy you; you can’t let your pain turn into a monster and take away the empathy you yourself were denied. As much as I appreciate the idea that everyone has a special gift, and that it’s often the same thing that people make fun of you for; it’s really never that simple. Telling nerds that they’ll become the next Bill Gates and girls that’s they’re just too mature for their peers only serves to isolate them further as the think they’re the smarter than everyone else (and as someone pointed out to me, that’s how we end up with the Columbine shootings). No one has a monopoly over pain, popular girls and bullies can feel bullied and misunderstood too; no one survives adolescence unscathed.

I think the diversity conversation that this country has been having since the 60s needs more of this. One interpretation of Obama’s poor performance at the last debate was that he became placid as a reaction to the angry black man trope. Identity politics can be incredibly useful to create a home and a community for people who feel undermined. But we also have to acknowledge the flawed and frustrating world we live in, we have to accept that sometimes we have to live with our oppressors and find some common ground.

Life is messy, people die before their time, people are mean, people are crazy and relationships end. We can be angry and upset, and we have a right to be, but we also have to move on because we’re only as strong as the things that pull us down.

Longtime readers might notice that I’ve written about this before. Also, how come no one ever clicks on the links in my blogposts?

Measuring Pain

Not all pain is visible. There are many different kinds of intense internal pain. The way that pain was always explained to me is as swelling of some sort, some organ or vessel is engorged enough to be too big for its container. There are other types of pain, (strains, psychological pain, etc.), but it seems to me that this type of pain would be good to measure. If you told a doctor you were in pain and then you gave them a measure of it, they’d be more likely to believe you and treat you. If, you weren’t able to measure it using that pain measuring device you would know that it was a different kind of pain and they would be able to treat you better because of it. win-win

Why can’t we measure pain? We understand a lot about pain these days, how it works in the brain, different mechanisms for its transmission, yet we rely completely on patient assessment for pain reporting. It is important (probably the most important thing) to take that into account, but it should not be our sole source of information.

Also this article is amazing:
No Evidence of Disease

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

I’m out of town for my brother’s graduation, which hasn’t stopped me from participating in a month of letters. I’ve said previously that I like letters best. And it’s true, I love stamps, and fountain pens, calligraphy, stationary, envelopes, and as you probably know by now, babbling about minutia. Letters are one of my favorite types of future garbage. I’m not going to rant about how kids these days can’t write in cursive, or how sad it is that the USPS is going out of business (oops, too late?), I just hope the letters speak for themselves.


Sounds of ourselves

I took an anatomy class in high school and was amazed by how much my body was doing without my knowledge. “Thanks body,” I found myself repeating, after learning about the workings of my heart and lungs, my toes pulling up, my esophagus pushing down, and everything in between. Like so many other things, we don’t seem to understand or appreciate them until we start to lose our faculties. The fact that our bodies seem so silent and symetrical is a testament to how cleanly our body is functioning, every day.

I talked to a neurobiologist friend today who said that brains sound like a low clicking, and that the ringing in our ears is the sound of hair cells dying and our hearing range diminishing. In quiet moments I’ve been thinking lately about how the pitch of the ringing in your ears creates the harmony that you hear throughout your life. In moments of pain, when all you can hear is your body it seems to cry and scream, like a child demanding attention. Other times it is quieter, but no less busy. The breathing, pumping, generating, destroying, reinforcing, exploring, it’s not silent, nor is it forgettable.

Does aging have a sound? Does the voice in your head grow older as you do? Who else can hear if your bones click and creak? Do men sound different from women?

The things that will kill us

Cigarettes, mercury, and radium are just three examples of deadly things we once thought were healthy and even medicinal. What are the things we do today that will kill us?

Sci-fi futurists have often imagined an iteration of the future wherein a machine can predict the way you will die, Ryan North and co. have pondered this question recently with the Machine of Death. While he and the Twilight Zone focus on the somewhat absurd, machines in movies like Gattaca focus on the more mundane probabilities, like heart disease. (I’ve always suspected that someone will accidentally lean on the keyboard of such machine, thus spelling my name, and learning my life story)

The big scientific breakthroughs always seem to come as a shock, so I don’t think it’s anything people suspect, TV, cell phones, microwaves, gmo corn, gluten, coffee or sugar. My guess is that sitting and staring at screens all day is a very unhealthy thing that most everyone does; but this is common knowledge. What everyday thing do you think will prove to be a silent killer?

…the Britannica has systematically, relentlessly, eroded my faith in doctors. That’s what will happen when you read page after page of bloody and bloody ridiculous medical history. I knew about leeches and bodily humors but that’s just the start. I’m still unsettled by trepanning—the primitive practice of drilling a 2-inch hole in the skull to let out the evil spirit. I’m sure during the heyday of trepanning the chief resident for trepanning at the Lascaux Grotto Hospital was very authoritative and assured his patients in a condescending tone not to worry about a thing. We’re professionals here, he said, as he smashed their skull with a rock.

Okay so that’s too easy. But medicine here in the postscientific age isn’t much more heartening. Here’s a quote that took me aback: “I believe more patients have died from the use of [surgical] gloves than have been saved by their use.” That’s one of the leading medical experts of the 20th century weighing in on the surgical glove controversy—a controversy I didn’t even know existed. In my encyclopedia, I wrote a little note in ballpoint pen next to that quotation: “Doctors don’t know shit.”

That was an overreaction of course. They do know a little shit.

A. J. Jacobs, The Know-it-All