Flashback Friday.

Two of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Quirks and Quarks, have stories bout how inertia and reliance on technology can inhibit our ability to find easy, cheap solutions to problems.

Story One

The first story, at Radio Lab, was about a nursing home in Düsseldorf, Germany.  As patients age, nursing homes risk that they will become disoriented and “escape” the nursing home.  Often, they are trying to return to homes in which they lived previously, desperate that their children, partners, or even parents are worried and waiting for them.

When they catch the escapee in time, the patient is often extremely upset and an altercation ensues.  If they don’t catch them in time, the patient often hops onto public transportation and is eventually discovered by police.  The first outcome is unpleasant for everyone involved and the second outcome is very dangerous for the patient.  Most nursing homes fix this problem by confining patients who’ve began to wander off to a locked ward.

An employee at the Benrath Senior Center came up with an alternative solution: a fake bus stop placed right outside of the front doors of the nursing home.  The fake bus stop does two wonderful things:

(1)  The first thing a potential escapee does when they decide to “go home” is find a bus stop.  So, patients who take off usually get no further than the first bus stop that they see.  “Where did Mrs. Schmidt go?”  “Oh, she’s at the bus stop.”  In practice, it worked tremendously.  This meant that many disoriented patients no longer needed to be kept in locked wards.

(2)  The bus stop diffuses the sense of panic.  If a delusional patient decided that she needed to go home immediately because her children were all alone and waiting for her, the attendant didn’t need to restrain her or talk her out of it, she simply said, “Oh, well… there’s the bus stop.”  The patient would go sit and wait.  Knowing that she was on her way home, she would relax and, given her diminished cognition, she would eventually forget why she was there.  A little while later the attendant could go out and ask her if she wanted to come in for tea.  And she would say, “Ok.”

Listening to this, I thought it was just about the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard.

Story Two

The second story, from Quirks and Quarks, was regarding whether it is true that dogs can smell cancer.  It turns out that they can.  It appears that dogs can smell lots of types of cancer, but people have been working specifically with training them to detect melanomas, or skin cancers.  It turns out that a dog can be trained, in about three to six weeks, to detect melanomas (even some invisible to the naked eye) with an 80-90% accuracy rate.   If we could build a machine that was able to detect the same chemical that dogs are reacting to (and we don’t know, at this time, what that is) it would have to be the size of a refrigerator to match the sensitivity of a dog’s nose.  When it comes to detecting melanomas, dogs are better diagnosticians than our best humans and our most advanced machines.

Doggy doctors offer some really wonderful possibilities, such as delivering low cost cancer detection to communities who may not have access to clinical care.  A mobile cancer detection puppy bus, anyone?

Both these stories — about these talented animals and the pretend bus stop — are fantastic examples of what we can do without advanced technology. I fear that we fetishize the latter, turning first to technology and forgetting to be creative about how to solve problems without them.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

According to Vox, the U.S. has 4.43% of the world’s population and almost 42% of the world’s population of civilian-owned guns.

This is your image of the week:


It’s hard to say exactly, but there may be as many guns as there are people in the U.S., or even more guns than people. Since not everyone is a gun owner, that means that the typical gun owner owns more than one. In fact, they own, on average, 6.6 guns each. Two-thirds of the guns in the U.S. are in the hands of 20% of the population. Gun manufacturers know this and market accordingly.

Gun ownership is correlated with both gun homicide and suicide. Accordingly, we also have the highest rate of gun violence of any developed country. In 2013, there were 21,175 gun suicides and 11,208 gun homicides.


This data was collected by the UNODC and compiled by the Guardian.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Adolf Hitler targeted the Jews in the Holocaust not simply out of hate, but for strategic reasons. Describing his plan to take over Germany, and then Europe, he wrote:

I scanned the revolutionary events of history and… [asked] myself: against which racial element in Germany can I unleash my propaganda of hate with the greatest prospects of success? …I came to the conclusion that a campaign against the Jews would be as popular as it would be successful.

Jews, Hitler figured, were already well hated and, thus, would lend themselves to demonization quite easily.

Once it was decided that the Jews would be targeted, wrote Ronald Berger writes in his essay The “Banality of Evil” Reframed:

the most immediate difficulty that confronted the Nazis was the construction of a legal definition of the target population.

Who was Jewish?

At first, the Nazis defined Jews as non-Aryan. But this became problematic because nations with whom Germany wanted to ally (e.g., Japan) were arguably non-Aryan.

So, the regime settled on a definition that linked non-Aryan-ness to religion. Both racial and religious characteristics could qualify one as “Jewish.”

Like the rules of hypodescent that separated black from white in the U.S. during and after slavery, the Nazis had rules as to what percentage of Jewish blood one needed to have to be truly Jewish. Berger explains that a Jew was defined as a person who was 3/4ths Jewish or more. The term mischling worked like the U.S. word mulatto to identify a person with mixed blood (in this case, someone who was 1/2 Jewish and also was married to a Jew or practiced Judaism).

The next step was measurement. In confusing cases, how could the Nazi’s prove that someone was Jewish or mischling? They developed instruments. These photographs (mine) are from a museum in Munich that has collected some of the instruments used to place a person on the Aryan/non-Aryan spectrum.

An instrument for measuring facial features:


Instruments for measuring skin, eye, and hair color:



This is just one more example of the way in which racial categories are constantly being invented and reinvented, usually for reasons related to power. For others, see our recent post on the deracialization of Irish dance, the shifting meanings of Creole, and the way Census data collection changed race in an instant.

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

The U.S. once led the world in middle class affluence, but thanks to a recovery from the Great Recession that involves giving all the money to the already-rich, we’re losing that distinction.

“In 1960,” said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, “we were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s, we were still richer.”

Not so much anymore. This chart shows that many countries have been closing the gap.


Good for them, of course, but the American middle class is struggling, too. Pew Research Center demographer Conrad Hackett summed it up:


Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

I found this 1917 advertisement for swastika jewelry while browsing through the NY Public Library Digital Gallery. The text reads in part:

To the wearer of swastika will come from the four winds of heaven good luck, long life and prosperity. The swastika is the oldest cross, and the oldest symbol in the world. Of unknown origin, in frequent use in the prehistoric items, it historically first appeared on coins as early as the year 315 B.C.

As this suggests, while the symbol of the swastika is most frequently associated with Hitler and Nazis during World War II, and is still used by neo-Nazi groups, the symbol itself has a much longer history. From wikipedia:

Archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates from the Neolithic period. An ancient symbol, it occurs mainly in the cultures that are in modern day India and the surrounding area, sometimes as a geometrical motif and sometimes as a religious symbol. It was long widely used in major world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Before it was co-opted by the Nazis, the swastika decorated all kinds of things.  Uni Watch has tons of examples. Here it is on a Finnish military plane:

A Boy Scout badge:

A women’s hockey team called the Swastikas from Edmonton (from 1916):

Another hockey team:

In the comments, Felicity pointed to this example:

She writes:

My mom is a quilter and collects antique quilts (when she can afford them). She says that while in general, antique quilts and quilt-tops have gone up a great deal in price over the decades, there’s still one sort you can pick up for a song — swastika quilts.

It’s kind of sad to think of somebody in 1900 putting all that time and hand-stitching into a ‘good luck’ quilt that is now reviled.

All of these examples occurred before the Nazis adopted the swastika as their symbol (and changed it slightly by tilting it on a 45-degree angle). Of course, the original meaning or usage of the swastika is beside the point now. Because it is so strongly associated with the Nazis, it’s impossible to use it now without people reading it as a Nazi symbol. And in fact it’s unimaginable that a group in the U.S. or Europe would use the swastika today without intentionally meaning to draw on the Nazi association and the ideas espoused by Hitler and his party.

Wendy Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University whose specialty includes the intersection of gender, war, and the media.  You can follow her on Twitter.

On average, U.S. workers with jobs put in more hours per year  than workers in most OECD countries. In 2012, only Greece, Hungary, Israel, Korea, and Turkey recorded a longer work year per employed person.


A long work year is nothing to celebrate. The following chart, from the same Economist article, shows there is a strong negative correlation between yearly hours worked and hourly productivity.


More importantly, the greater the number of hours worked per year, the greater the likelihood of premature death and poor quality of life.  This reality is highlighted in the following two charts taken from an article by Angus Chen titled “8 Charts to Show Your Boss to Prove That You Can Do More By Working Less.”

1 (2) - Copy

1 (2)

In sum, we need to pay far more attention to the organization and distribution of work, not to mention its remuneration and purpose, than we currently do.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Before the Olympics, we often hear a fair amount about the preparations for the games — how much is being spent, the facilities being built, whether the city will have everything ready in time. But once the Olympics end, we hear very little about what happens to the infrastructure that millions or billions of dollars were spent on.

John Pack and Gary Hustwit’s The Olympic City project documents the life of Olympic infrastructure once all the spectators pack up and go home. As they explain,

Some former Olympic sites are retrofitted and used in ways that belie their grand beginnings; turned into prisons, housing, malls, gyms, churches. Others sit unused for decades and become tragic time capsules, examples of misguided planning and broken promises of the benefits that the Games would bring.

Flavorwire published some of their photos, mostly of sites that have been left to decay, leaving a long-term mark on the landscape of the locations that host the games.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Posted last year, but I love it, so here it is again!

In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.

Also from CGP Gray:

Via Blame It On The Voices.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.