Mar 282014

Switzerland is planning to host the first “Cybathlon”, an athletic competition for people using prosthetics or other augmentive aids. It will include a wheelchair race, an exoskeleton race, and a (gasp!) brain-computer interface race. A better name for this event might be “Meet Your Future Gimp Overlords”. I’m curious to see what kind competition this attracts and whether it will be broadcast on-line. The organizers don’t seem interested in placing any restrictions on the kinds of technology that can be used, so the Cybathlon could be a showcase for the truly cutting-edge.

Attention corporate sponsors: I will gladly wear a sensor cap emblazoned with your product logo as I compete in the BCI races. All I require is a well-appointed training facility and a personal masseuse (whom I interview and hire, of course).

Mar 262014

Kevin Featherly, friend and fellow Humphrey Policy Fellow alumni, recently wrote a profile of me that appeared in Politics in Minnesota. It’s behind a paywall, so I’m linking to a PDF in case you’d like to read it. Technically, I don’t have permission from the magazine to reprint it, but I’m hoping my charm and good looks will keep the lawyers at bay. I also tried to reformat it as webpage, but that induced way too migraines.

Anyway, here’s the article. Kevin makes me sound much smarter than I really am.

Mar 122014

The Times’ David Carr has a difficult time keeping up with all the good stuff on TV. He writes:

I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy.

Something tangible, and technical, is at work. The addition of ancillary devices onto what had been a dumb box has made us the programming masters of our own universes. Including the cable box — with its video on demand and digital video recorder — and Apple TV, Chromecast, PlayStation, Roku, Wii and Xbox, that universe is constantly expanding. Time-shifting allows not just greater flexibility, but increased consumption. According to Nielsen, Americans watched almost 15 hours of time-shifted television a month in 2013, two more hours a month than the year before.

Of course, I can relate. After I finish a few things on-line, this evening will be devoted to catching up on The Walking Dead and The Americans. I might even squeeze in an episode of The Daily Show before trying to make some progress on my book club selection.

I’m old enough to remember when people first started talking about television’s “golden age” in the late 90s, with the rise of shows like The X-Files and The Sopranos. But the proliferation of quality series over the last few years has been remarkable. Players like Amazon and Netflix will only accelerate this trend, throwing more content at me than I can possibly consume. I’m more than okay with that. I still love books and movies and music and comics and games, but serialized TV really has become my primary jam.

Mar 102014

This week’s must-read is a devastating article in the Times about the exploitation of several men with cognitive disabilities who, until recently, lived in Atalissa, Iowa. These men were brought to Iowa from Texas institutional facilities decades ago to work in a turkey processing plant. The company boarded the men in an abandoned schoolhouse and paid them $65 dollars per month to work long hours doing dangerous work that left many of them with serious health problems. At the schoolhouse, they lived in squalor and were treated like children by the live-in supervisor and frequently abused and neglected. They were never given a choice as to where they might live or what other work they might want to do. This mistreatment continued for years despite family members and town residents asking the state to investigate the matter.

The disability rights movement has accomplished a great deal, but like most civil rights movements, its victories have not been evenly distributed. The true scope of the abuse these men suffered was not discovered until 2009. Several townspeople quoted in the article suspected something might be wrong, but said nothing. Some of that can be attributed to plan old Midwestern reticence, but it can also be attributed to the unconscious marginalization of these men because of their disabilities. Nobody intervened because nobody really wanted much to do with these guys. And those attitudes persist far beyond Atalissa’s borders.

Mar 052014

I’m looking forward to the relaunch of Cosmos this Sunday. I have vague but pleasant memories of watching the original Carl Sagan series with my parents and it provided my introduction to the notion of scale; both in terms of the vastness of the universe and the deepness of time. I’m still a bit surprised that Fox and Seth MacFarlane are behind this project, but the early reviews seem positive and make no mention of dick jokes or climate change denialism. The fact that it’s airing on Sundays seems to indicate that Fox is hoping to attract a large audience. I’m skeptical that Americans will watch a general-interest science series in droves, but I would love to be proven wrong.

I should also try to re-read Sagan’s Contact, which made a big impression on me when I first read it back in the mid-80s.

Feb 282014

The Arkansas legislature is currently debating whether to continue the state’s expansion of Medicaid for low-income children and adults. Since this is Arkansas, a bloc of Tea Party legislators has been blocking the extension because it might make the lives of poor people just a bit less miserable. One of the opposing legislators is Josh Miller, who also happens to be a Medicaid beneficiary because of a spinal cord injury sustained in an auto accident.

In interviews, Miller justifies his opposition to the expansion with claims that it would benefit people who don’t want to work or who want to abuse prescription drugs. He also is terribly concerned that the federal government will default on its obligations and he doesn’t want to make promises to his fellow Arkansans that can’t be kept.

People with disabilities span the political spectrum and Miller and is entitled to his opinion. But his stance that some people “deserve” assistance while others don’t is disheartening, particularly given his own experience with public assistance. He isn’t the first person with a disability who wants to protect Medicaid for people like himself, yet his position as a legislator gives him a unique opportunity to shape the programs that benefit him so extensively. It’s an opportunity I would love to have. If he chooses to use that opportunity to deny health care to 100,000 people, that’s his right. A day may come when Miller’s fellow legislators want to save money by trimming benefits for people with disabilities. If that happens, will Miller be as quick to side with his conservative brethren?

Feb 252014

The Minnesota Legislature begins its 2014 session today. Governor Dayton is calling it the “Unsession” because he wants legislators to focus on repealing and cleaning up old, outdated statutes. But legislators will probably be more focused on passing a bonding bill, raising the minimum wage, and repealing some of the tax increases enacted last year.

This is an election year, so lowering taxes will be a popular cause on both sides of the aisle. If the February budget forecast shows another substantial surplus, cutting taxes may be a reasonable policy. Still, no legislator should want to return to the days of budget instability and the fiscal gimmickry that accompanied it. Any desire to cut taxes in the short-term should be balanced against legislators’ responsibility to ensure that the state is on sound financial footing.

Feb 202014

The first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy hints at a movie that offers some goofy sci-fi fun. This may be Marvel’s riskiest film project yet. Unlike X-Men or the Avengers, Guardians isn’t terribly well-known outside comic book geek circles. Disney will have to figure out how to market the movie to mainstream audiences, which could be difficult. When your movie stars a giant talking tree and a raccoon with violent tendencies, you can’t expect audiences to just show up. But the trailer does a good job of introducing the characters and establishing a light-hearted tone. I’ll see it just for the chance to see Chris from Parks and Rec make out with a green-skinned hottie.

Here’s the trailer:

Feb 192014

During my daily commute home, I drive past the Metrodome demolition site. I visited the Dome only a handful of times and I was never terribly impressed with its accessibility. Getting the accessible seating required navigating a maze of tunnels and the spaces reserved for wheelchairs could barely accommodate my bulky frame. According to MPR, the new Vikings stadium (and the new minor league Saints ballpark) will have vastly improved accessibility.

The new stadiums will include many of the accessibility features that have become standard in most modern sports facilities: more accessible seating, closed captioning on the television monitors, lowered concession counters, etc. As the article notes, the new stadiums will also give people with disabilities the freedom to enjoy watching a game with a group of friends. This may seem like a small thing, but plenty of people with disabilities can tell stories about going to a game with friends and being forced to sit in the “handicapped section” with perhaps one companion.

I’m not sure we needed a publicity funded stadium to create a better experience for fans with disabilities, but at least my tax dollars will fund a facility that should be fully accessible to me. I still may need to take out a small loan to buy tickets for the first Packers-Vikings game in the new stadium.