Marketplace - American Public Media

Alison Bechdel on storytelling "for the forces of good"

Tue, 2015-03-17 04:01

This week Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas every year.

We spoke with cartoonist and memoirist Alison Bechdel, who came to SXSW to talk about telling stories that work “for the forces of good.” For 25 years, Bechdel chronicled the lesbian community in her comic strip "Dykes To Watch Out For." Since then, she has published her second graphic memoir, won a MacArthur Fellowship, and watched the Bechdel test take on a life of its own. We talked with her about record-keeping, Google image search,and putting Silicon Valley through the Bechdel test.

I want to ask you something about record keeping. This is something you have done since you were a kid. Diaries, pictures, stuff like that. It’s informed your work. How do you keep records now?

A lot of my record keeping is now digital. I’ve got email, photos and I keep my diary on my computer. Somehow that doesn't make it any easier to find anything. I thought it would but...

Do you have a folder that says "diary"?

I do. Sort of, yeah. My archives are just proliferating. The older I get, the more stuff there is. It's sort of like my aging brain. It gets harder to find stuff.

Do memoirs matter in a world where Facebook summarizes your year for you every year?

Well, yeah. you can't reflect meaningfully on something that you're posting in half a second. I think memoir is still really an important act.

I want to ask about your process a little bit. How has technology the cartoonist’s job since you’ve started?

Oh man. It’s changed it on every level, profoundly. I started way before the internet, way before photoshop when I drew stuff by hand and you copied at the copy shop and put it in the mail. I think the most profound shift for me has been Google Image Search. If you wanted to find out what a 1968 Oldsmobile looked like, you had to go to the picture file at the library where someone hopefully had clipped out a photo of that car. Now that I can draw anything in the universe, my tendency is to want to draw everything in the universe, which is its own sort of problem, but I’m working on that.

Do you get more sleep now that you’re a MacArthur “genius?” Or did you get more sleep before?

I definitely got more sleep before. It’s a very nerve-wracking experience. I am still adjusting to it. But it’s really making me feel like I better up my game.

What are your plans for upping your game?

I don’t know. I’m just working. I’m trying to work harder.

This is something you’re probably very bored of talking about, but I wanted to ask you about the…

The Bechdel test

Yes.

This is my great legacy.

How do you feel about that?

At first I was sort of bewildered by it and didn’t feel like it was really mine. It was an idea I stole from someone else who probably stole it from Virginia Woolf. But now I am very proud of it. I feel like it reflects the idea that a woman can be a human, a fully human character and subject.

You may have heard that there is a diversity problem in the tech industry.

Oh really...

This may come as a shock to you. But I wanted to ask you if you would consider what a Bechdel test might be for a company?

Are there more than two women in managing positions?

We would hope so.

Do they talk to each other? I don’t know. But it’s a good template that you can apply to any  number of fields.

I think we are at a good moment right now. In the tech industry but also in the media. We are becoming more aware of white male hegemony. How do straight white men help to create a society where there is more power sharing with people outside of their group?

The fact that we are even able to see this, that people are aware of it is because that hegemony is not as hegemonic as it once was. The demographics of this country are really changing. I guess just to examine your privilege. It’s very hard to see what privilege is. We all want to believe that we deserve everything we have. And we don’t all have the same chances. So just looking carefully at that, I think, is the most anyone can do.

We’re asking people while we're here about their pitch...

Yeah. I am on a panel about storytelling and I want to talk about what makes a story good. Not just a compelling story, but what makes a story a story that works for the forces of good.

What is a story that works for the forces of good?

Oh, anything. You know most things. Advertising, propaganda...I think it’s important for any kind of story, especially journalism or non-fiction storytelling, to allow for its own possibility of being wrong.

Alison Bechdel on storytelling "for the forces of good"

Tue, 2015-03-17 04:01

This week Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas every year.

We spoke with cartoonist and memoirist Alison Bechdel, who came to SXSW to talk about telling stories that work “for the forces of good.” For 25 years, Bechdel chronicled the lesbian community in her comic strip "Dykes To Watch Out For." Since then, she has published her second graphic memoir, won a MacArthur Fellowship, and watched the Bechdel test take on a life of its own. We talked with her about record-keeping, Google image search,and putting Silicon Valley through the Bechdel test.

I want to ask you something about record keeping. This is something you have done since you were a kid. Diaries, pictures, stuff like that. It’s informed your work. How do you keep records now?

A lot of my record keeping is now digital. I’ve got email, photos and I keep my diary on my computer. Somehow that doesn't make it any easier to find anything. I thought it would but...

Do you have a folder that says "diary"?

I do. Sort of, yeah. My archives are just proliferating. The older I get, the more stuff there is. It's sort of like my aging brain. It gets harder to find stuff.

Do memoirs matter in a world where Facebook summarizes your year for you every year?

Well, yeah. you can't reflect meaningfully on something that you're posting in half a second. I think memoir is still really an important act.

I want to ask about your process a little bit. How has technology the cartoonist’s job since you’ve started?

Oh man. It’s changed it on every level, profoundly. I started way before the internet, way before photoshop when I drew stuff by hand and you copied at the copy shop and put it in the mail. I think the most profound shift for me has been Google Image Search. If you wanted to find out what a 1968 Oldsmobile looked like, you had to go to the picture file at the library where someone hopefully had clipped out a photo of that car. Now that I can draw anything in the universe, my tendency is to want to draw everything in the universe, which is its own sort of problem, but I’m working on that.

Do you get more sleep now that you’re a MacArthur “genius?” Or did you get more sleep before?

I definitely got more sleep before. It’s a very nerve-wracking experience. I am still adjusting to it. But it’s really making me feel like I better up my game.

What are your plans for upping your game?

I don’t know. I’m just working. I’m trying to work harder.

This is something you’re probably very bored of talking about, but I wanted to ask you about the…

The Bechdel test

Yes.

This is my great legacy.

How do you feel about that?

At first I was sort of bewildered by it and didn’t feel like it was really mine. It was an idea I stole from someone else who probably stole it from Virginia Woolf. But now I am very proud of it. I feel like it reflects the idea that a woman can be a human, a fully human character and subject.

You may have heard that there is a diversity problem in the tech industry.

Oh really...

This may come as a shock to you. But I wanted to ask you if you would consider what a Bechdel test might be for a company?

Are there more than two women in managing positions?

We would hope so.

Do they talk to each other? I don’t know. But it’s a good template that you can apply to any  number of fields.

I think we are at a good moment right now. In the tech industry but also in the media. We are becoming more aware of white male hegemony. How do straight white men help to create a society where there is more power sharing with people outside of their group?

The fact that we are even able to see this, that people are aware of it is because that hegemony is not as hegemonic as it once was. The demographics of this country are really changing. I guess just to examine your privilege. It’s very hard to see what privilege is. We all want to believe that we deserve everything we have. And we don’t all have the same chances. So just looking carefully at that, I think, is the most anyone can do.

We’re asking people while we're here about their pitch...

Yeah. I am on a panel about storytelling and I want to talk about what makes a story good. Not just a compelling story, but what makes a story a story that works for the forces of good.

What is a story that works for the forces of good?

Oh, anything. You know most things. Advertising, propaganda...I think it’s important for any kind of story, especially journalism or non-fiction storytelling, to allow for its own possibility of being wrong.

Why are razor blades so expensive?

Mon, 2015-03-16 13:15

A trip to the local drug store prompted listener Paul Fuligni to wonder why razor blades are so expensive, such that they’re now often in locked containers or behind the counter at the drug store.  

It turns out, lots of people have thought a lot about the pricing of razors and blades. There have been dozens of academic papers written about it and any good MBA student will have studied it.

“This tends to be called 'razors and blades pricing' or a 'two-part tariff',” says Richard Schmalensee, an emeritus professor of economics and management at MIT and the author of his own paper on razor blade pricing.

Companies woo customers with an inexpensive, maybe even below-cost product (like the razor handle) and then charge more a related good (such as the refill blades). It’s a way to lock customers into a product line, but Schmalensee says it’s also a way to charge higher prices for customers who use the product more often.

“The person who uses a new blade every day, that’s a person who values a close shave and that’s the person I, as the manufacturer, know would pay a high price,” he says. “And I’d be happy to charge them that high price.”

A slew of other products use the razors and blades model: Video consoles and video games, printers and ink cartridges, e-readers and e-books, and even in some ways, phone carriers who subsidize a cell-phone handset when purchased with subscription to their service.

However, there’s another reason why blades are so expensive.

“Razor blades are really, really difficult to make,” says Jeff Raider, the co-founder of Harry’s, a start-up that sells shaving products directly to customers through its website.

Raider says before he started Harry’s, he had no idea how complicated razor production would be or that there’s only a few companies in the world producing blades. He wound up purchasing a German factory in order to get the blades and quality he wanted.

 “It actually starts with buying really fine razor steel,” explains Raider. “You have to grind steel so that it’s very sharp at its tip and very strong at its base. That gives it both stability and a really crisp cutting surface.”

The combination of strength and precision minimizes the risk of nicks or razor burn.

The metal is then heated and cooled, “actually changing the molecular composition of the steel,” says Raider. Next it’s ground at “specific angles that are proprietary to the razor blade manufacturer, in machines that the manufacturers actually make themselves.”

Because creating the blades is an intricate, complicated, expensive process with high barriers to entry, the few companies that make blades have an advantage: Without many competitors, they’re able to charge higher prices.

“Historically, the companies that have known how to make razor blades have been able to charge people vastly different prices for razor blades than the actual cost,” say Raider.

Police don't ask: Why are we getting sued?

Mon, 2015-03-16 12:05

Cities across the country have paid out large sums for police misconduct lawsuits. Chicago, for one, paid out more than half a billion dollars over 10 years. However, many cities have not taken a step that seems like common sense: Looking for data that could help them avoid future lawsuits. 

Police liability is Lou Reiter’s turf. He’s a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who trains police officials on “liability management,” and he’s been an expert witness for both plaintiffs and police departments in misconduct cases.

He says police departments rarely ask themselves: What could we have done to avoid this lawsuit?

"Most departments that I’m familiar with simply say, 'Oh it’s that wishy-washy court,'" he says. "Or: 'They don’t understand our problems. We’re not doing anything wrong.'"

So, they don’t ask, for instance:  Is there one group of officers who are getting us into trouble?

In Chicago, law professor Craig Futterman found the answer to that was "yes."

Futterman, who runs the University of Chicago's Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, has won some cases against police. For one such case, he got the numbers on whether some officers had an unusually-high number of complaints against them.

As it turned out, a relative handful accounted for almost half of all complaints, and they were almost never disciplined.

"There’s a small percent who have been allowed to just do this with darn near impunity," he says. "Despite the bills racking up, and despite all the complaints."  

He also found that the Chicago Police Department had never run the numbers to identify those officers.

UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz says this is not unusual. In fact, she says, Chicago keeps better records than a lot of places.

For one study, Schwartz asked 140 law-enforcement agencies — including 70 of the biggest ones —  for information about police-misconduct cases. A common answer: We don’t know.

So, she asked the law departments, everybody. Which didn’t always help.

"Eighteen of the largest cities and counties," she says, "and these are cities that include San Diego, New Orleans— counties like Harris County, Baltimore County— they reported that they had no records in any government agency or office reflecting how much they spent in lawsuits involving the police."

One might think they would want to know: What do we even get sued for?  

"You would think," says Schwartz. "And in other kinds of industries— certainly in medicine— there are risk managers who are tasked with doing that very thing."

She thinks if settlements came out of the police budget —  instead of the general fund — departments might be more cost-sensitive.

An environmental movement is awakening in China

Mon, 2015-03-16 11:51

China’s Premier Li Keqiang said this week the government is serious about cutting smog and will impose harsher fines on polluters. Keqiang's comments came after the online release this month of a groundbreaking — at least, for China — documentary on the country’s air pollution crisis, called “Under the Dome” (video).

The country’s environment minister compared it to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the book that paved the way for the U.S. environmental movement, but Chinese officials have been silent on the film since — and it’s even been taken offline in the country, presumably by government censors.

Still, China observers say this may be the country’s “Silent Spring” moment.

“The Chinese public has come to believe they have a right to a clean environment,” says Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center. 

Like the early U.S. anti-air pollution movement, mothers worried about pollution's health effects have initiated much of the dissent, and big polluting industries are resisting change. Change in China is complicated by the fact that powerful local governments have little incentive to curb the dirty industries that fuel their economies, and often try to skirt the central government’s regulations.

Some same-sex couples still struggle at tax time

Mon, 2015-03-16 11:30

Last month, a federal judge made Alabama the 37th state where same-sex marriage is legal. Weeks later, the state Supreme Court put an end to that. Filing taxes as a same-sex couple is also confusing — not to mention costlier.

Eva Walton and Kathryn Kendrick dated for three years. They got married in Washington D.C., and last September, they had a big wedding in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Just a few years ago, there weren't many places where same-sex couples could get married, especially in the South. Since then, gay couples in dozens of states have gained the right to marry, the latest of which was — briefly anyway — Alabama, where Walton and Kendrick live.

“So the marriage equality boom that's happened since we started dating really opened up our options for what marriage would look like,” Walton says.

They had no idea what their taxes would look like. They spent most of last year in Georgia, where same-sex marriage still isn't recognized. They moved to Alabama in December and had one month of income there. Just as soon as she got W-2's in the mail, Kendrick got to work.

“I went onto TurboTax and you know you go through these series of questions, like, 'Have you had any major life events lately? Have you moved states? Gotten a new job? Purchased a house?' And you know, I was just marking yes to all of these things. Then it asked, "Is this a same-sex marriage?' When I selected yes," Kendrick says, “TurboTax said ‘You will need to download this file instead of continuing because you live in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriages.’ But federally you were recognized, and so it was just a separate packet and I couldn't continue doing the online registration.”

And that was the end of simple online tax returns.

“I just felt like it was completely unfair,” Kendrick says, "and I also thought, 'I have to hire someone to do this because I don't know if I'm going to get everything right.'”

It's frustrating, says Robin Maril, senior legislative council at the Human Rights Campaign. “It's been pretty confusing for a lot of folks given the patchwork of marriage laws.”

Federal taxes are pretty straightforward, the government has recognized same-sex marriages since last tax season. Things get muddy if a couple marries in one state, but lives in another where same-sex marriage isn't recognized, or when couples move from one state to another.

And they get even muddier in states like Alabama. The Alabama Supreme Court month halted same-sex marriages this month, just a few weeks after it complied with a federal judge's ruling to allow them.

But even when couples are clear on what to do, it's still a headache. “The biggest hurdle is couples that live in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, they could be looking at filing up to five separate tax returns,” says Cindy Hockenberry from the National Association of Tax Professionals. 

Not to mention the worksheets, doing and undoing their federal returns to arrive at Adjusted Gross Income as singles and as a couple.

“Yup, more dividing more adding, more double-checking your calculations to make sure you didn't transpose numbers, put the wrong income on the wrong return, that kind of thing.”

There's more potential for error and preparing the returns costs more, she says. And figuring out who gets to claim the mortgage interest or the kids as deductions? It’s sound kind of like a divorce.

“It kind of is!” Hockenberry said. ”Because you're going from joint income to separate income.”

Ahead of a close election, Israel's Netanyahu buys bread

Mon, 2015-03-16 11:26

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have a little trouble getting to sleep tonight.

On the eve of the country’s elections, early reports show him trailing in the polls.

He’s got a long record as a political strongman. He’s touted his foreign-policy credentials for months. And in a last-minute attempt to woo conservative voters, the incumbent today withdrew support for a plan that would have created a separate Palestinian state.

But these Hail Mary attempts to sway the election seem to indicate how out of touch the PM may be. For Israelis, it’s all about the economy, stupid.

“You talk to Israelis privately and many of them will feel that they live from month-to-month on credit-card debt,” says Kevin Connolly, Middle East correspondent for BBC. “You buy something with a credit card in Europe, it’s a one-time transaction. Buy something with a credit card here [in Jerusalem] and you’ll be asked if you want to split the cost of that sweater or new pair of shoes into maybe 10 or 12 payments.”

Connolly says the cost of living is very high in Israel, causing many people to turn to credit just to put food on the table. While economic woes have always been a big political issue, it would seem that Netanyahu got that memo a bit late; he now appears to be changing the tone of his campaign.

“He released some television footage … He was going around one of the big markets in Jerusalem buying bread. The signal was that he gets it on the issues of the economy,” says Connolly.

Still, it’s hard to know what impact this shift will have until Israelis go to the polls tomorrow.

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