Spring Cleaning 2016

Outlook's Eighth Annual Spring Cleaning
spring cleaning

Ten things to toss: With spring weather finally here to stay, Outlook asked 10 writers to nominate something we're better off without. Here are their picks.

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Published on April 28, 2016

The daily shower

Someone told me about the proprietor of a Toronto perfume shop, an elegant Frenchwoman who regularly railed against the North American ritual of the daily shower. “All you need to do,” she insisted, “is wash the hairy bits.”

She has a point. North Americans are among the world’s most fervent believers in the daily shower. The average American showers most days of the week.

They’re making a mistake.

It’s crucial to wash your hands frequently, but unless you’re a farmer or a manual laborer — jobs with lots of contact with the ground and potential for cuts — you wouldn’t harm your health if you rarely washed above your wrists. (Yeast or fungal infections would be the rare exception.) More damage is done by washing than by not washing, as dermatologists who treat the dry skin caused by enthusiastic showering attest.

Cracked, dry skin makes a good entry point for infection-carrying germs. Even more important, our skin hosts a rich blanket of hardworking microbes, helping us battle disease and stress. Experts say that relentlessly washing them away is not a great idea.

Our great-great-grandparents made do with a basin and ewer in the bedroom and spot cleaning. That’s the perfume shop owner’s prescription, although done at a modern sink — and it works. I spot-clean with soap and water when I don’t feel like showering, and people still invite me to their dinner tables and to the movies. As for sex, sometimes the most erotic odors and flavors are the real ones: Napoleon and Josephine bathed every day but felt there were times when a natural body trumped a clean one. He wrote to Josephine from a campaign: “I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.”

Katherine Ashenburg is the author of “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.” A version for 9- to 12-nine-to-twelve year-olds, “All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean,” will be published this fall.

Out-of-office messages

Not long ago, I received an out-of-office message from a colleague informing me that she’d be away from her desk the rest of the afternoon. It was 3 p.m. Oh, I thought, good for her. I hope she enjoys that spin class. Meanwhile, her email had jumped a queue of messages that snaked around the block of my inbox and into the next town. Why did I need to know that she had knocked off a little early?

The truth, of course, is that I didn’t. Just as I could live without the awareness that a friend would not check emails in Italy, another replied only on Mondays and my dentist had no more appointments today. Out-of-office messages used to be reserved for prolonged absences, departures. They were like traffic cops at accident scenes, directing flow. Now an afternoon’s errand produces the cones, the lights, the whole show.

We all get too much email. According to the Radicati Group, people using their work email accounts will send and receive an average of 131 messages a day in 2016. Automated out-of-office replies needlessly add to the clutter. The cellphone is the office these days, and everyone from construction workers to shepherds to captains of finance carries a smartphone. So what people are really saying is, “I’m reserving the right not to respond,” rather than “I cannot respond.”

There are even services that enable people to set up out-of-life emails to be sent when they die. It’s absurd, but the great email deluge is built on the equally absurd notion that we need to know where everyone is at all times. We don’t. Tell the people who need to know where you’re going, shut down your computer, log off and let the rest of us get on with our lives.

John Freeman is the author of “The Tyranny of E-Mail” and the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual.

READERS' CHOICE: What else should we throw away? Discuss your suggestions in the comments or tweet #springcleaning ideas to @PostOutlook.

Friendly waiters

The question has come to feel as much like a trap as a courtesy. Like when your dentist asks if you floss after every meal, or your mechanic wonders if you’ve checked your car plugs lately: “Have you dined with us before?”

We’ve all been there: Excited to snag a reservation at this season’s trend-setting restaurant, you sit down and are immediately confronted with the Question. Your answer is irrelevant. A lecture will be forthcoming. You may have dined at the finest restaurants in Barcelona — you might be brilliant enough to decode the Kryptos monument without assistance — but it won’t stop your server from explaining that the chef suggests you order two to four small plates per person.

I’ve sat helplessly as a server crowded my table and read from the menu I was holding in my hands, moving from one section to another with robotic efficiency, oblivious to my distress. I still have servers who inform me that small plates arrive “as they’re ready” and are “designed to be shared,” a default speech that treats customers like hayseeds who haven’t set foot in a restaurant in a decade. I’ve even had a server announce, as I’m seated in a Belgian-beer-focused restaurant, that its specialty is — you’ll never guess — Belgian beer.

Enough of this oversharing.

I understand that some restaurateurs are trying to topple the tyranny of the appetizer-entree-dessert triumvirate. They’re searching for new ways to stimulate their staff, their customers and themselves. Bravo.

So how else could chefs communicate their new ideas? Allow me to suggest this radical tool called a menu, and a quiet moment to review it. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote, “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.” If diners don’t understand, they can ask questions, inviting the speech that, at present, starts every meal with a bitter pill to swallow.

Tim Carman is a food writer at The Washington Post.

Polling

On the day of the South Carolina Republican primary, the rate at which the candidates’ names were typed into Google in the state predicted their vote shares, sometimes to within one percentage point. We can build models that forecast Donald Trump’s vote share in a state using nothing but previous election returns and publicly available census data. Online chatter last year was a leading indicator for the GOP race, with Ted Cruz dominating early and Trump running circles around everyone. In fact, the rate at which the candidates were mentioned in the media predicted their polling averages to within one or two points, according to an analysis by Nate Silver.

This campaign is giving us a peek at what a post-polling world might look like. Combining social data, media analytics and statistical profiles of 260 million American adults, we can precisely quantify the drivers of public opinion and predict who’s winning or losing right now, down to the neighborhood level.

As we zero in on the crucial question of whether Trump will have enough delegates to avoid a floor fight for the nomination, traditional polling is less useful. In smaller states and congressional districts, it is difficult and expensive to interview enough voters to yield valid samples. Americans have become harder to reach on the phone, making reliable polls more and more expensive. Campaigns are increasingly turning to statistical models, in which information such as past election results and search data can indicate whether the most likely path to stopping Trump lies in the Republican northern suburbs of Indianapolis or in the heavily Democratic San Francisco bay area.

Polling isn’t dead — not by a long shot. But media polls aren’t very useful; they don’t call off the voter lists that campaigns have, and at this point in the primary race, national polls are surveying people whose states have already voted. The future is a hybrid: We’ll survey less and observe much more, based on billions of digital behaviors already recorded everyday.

Patrick Ruffini is a co-founder and partner at Echelon Insights.

Tenure

We don’t give it to U.S. presidents or to corporate CEOs: Although we install them with great ceremony, in a few years, most are gone. We don’t give it to plumbers or police officers: They have to perform to keep their jobs. Queen Elizabeth II and Emperor Akihito have it, though what they do each day is highly constrained. But university professors can do with it what they wish, without review, for life. We call it tenure.

One hundred years ago, the American Association of University Professors endorsed a “Declaration of Principles” regarding academic freedom and tenure. Academic freedom in the United States has produced 357 Nobel Prizes; 9 of the 10 most innovative universities on the planet, as ranked by Reuters; and a vibrant, creative higher-education system. Academic tenure, meanwhile, produces stultifying intellectual uniformity, protects incompetence, generates mountains of useless “research” and leads to undergraduate teaching done by poorly paid part-time adjuncts and graduate students.

Tenure is not, as was its original intent, protecting the freedom to teach controversial subjects; it is protecting the right to offload teaching onto underlings. This isn’t freedom to pursue research wherever it leads; it’s the right to publish irreproducible studies and uncited scholarship.

Many of my tenured colleagues are excellent undergraduate teachers — when they are not on sabbatical, research leave or an exemption from teaching duty, or leading graduate seminars. Most are outstanding researchers: as good as the untenured staff and graduate students with whom they work, but not worlds better.

Is tenure what motivates and protects their teaching and scholarship? No. Would our universities be more equitable, more agile and more focused on the students who pay the bills without tenure? Undoubtedly. Tenure protects behaviors that diminish our universities. It is an anachronism we can no longer afford. That’s why, when offered, I turned it down.

Academic freedom and tenure are not synonymous. You can have one without the other, and it is high time we did.

David J. Helfand is a professor of astronomy at Columbia University and the author of “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age.”

School suspensions

As a former school leader in the majority-black city of New Orleans, I often saw the same scene play out: A principal barks like a drill sergeant at a black child over some misbehavior, calling him aggressive and telling him that he’ll end up in jail if he’s not disciplined. The principal issues the child a three-day suspension. The child is 4 years old.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, black children represented 18 percent of preschool enrollment in 2014 but 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. The department also found that black students across the primary and secondary grades were suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students, and black girls were suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race.

Black children are more likely than white students to be suspended for nebulous, nonviolent infractions such as dress-code violations and tardiness ; when students commit more objective, violent offenses, schools still suspend black students 88 percent of the time, compared with 72 percent of the time for white children. In response to educators’ irresponsible use of suspensions, the Education Department, in collaboration with the Justice Department, issued a school discipline guidance package in 2014 to help states, districts and schools reduce suspensions and expulsions.

Suspension conveys an important lesson: not how to improve but how to give up. The Council of State Governments found that suspended or expelled students are significantly more likely to repeat a grade, drop out or become involved with the juvenile justice system. No wonder academic achievement lags among black youth — we expect kids to learn how to behave by kicking them out of school.

Schools need to make room for “restorative justice” approaches, which address the root causes of behavior issues by helping students resolve conflicts and repair relationships with their peers inside the school. As more districts have adopted alternate approaches, the numbers of suspensions and expulsions have fallen. Educators need to throw outdated discipline policies, not black children, out of school.

Andre Perry is a columnist for the Hechinger Report and the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University.

Beach bodies

We’ve all seen the ads. “Are you beach body ready?” one typical billboard screams. Conveniently, the way to become beach-body-ready is to purchase a series of weight-loss products hawked to you by the Photoshopped image of a woman who was 30 pounds heavier when she posed in that bikini. Before we dare show our bodies in public, we apparently also need to lengthen our hair, narrow our noses, and paint or plump our lips. We might even need to tan or bleach our way to an acceptable range of beige.

The easy retort is that your body is beach-ready whenever you decide to take it to the beach. But it’s hard to believe that when even celebrities who make “most beautiful” lists are doctoring their “candid” pics on Instagram — trimming their arms, adding thigh gaps — to stem the never-ending wave of criticism from fans and the media. (A Web search for “bad celebrity beach bodies” yields pages of results, mostly images of fit beauties who happen to have a bit of cellulite or, in one case, an outie belly button.)

Enough. This summer, let’s give humans a pass for having human bodies in public. We could spend a little more time minding our own business and not the appearance of others, reading good books and completely ignoring US Weekly’s latest celebrity body-shame fest. I know I’ll be focused on having fun in the sun after a long Chicago winter, instead of evaluating whether the people around me look like an artist’s rendering of humans. And the first body I’ll be going easier on is my own.

Mikki Kendall is a writer living in Chicago.

‘Strong women’

“Here’s to strong women,” the inspirational Pinterest quote goes. “May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” It has no attribution, and it doesn’t need one, because we’ve all heard the sentiment so many times. Our lives are full of women we wouldn’t hesitate to label “strong.” Presidential candidate Ted Cruz recently held a “celebration of strong women” event. Fast Company offers an ongoing series of articles on women in business called “Strong Female Lead.” Actor Chris Hemsworth promoted his latest film by touting its “kick-ass, strong female characters.”

I struggle to name a single weak woman I know. And yet when “strong women” are singled out as exceptional, weakness is the implied norm. A Huffington Post listicle on “dating a strong woman” cautions potential suitors that she won’t put up with disrespect, mindless conversations or “any fluff.” Apparently the typical single woman loves disrespect and inane text messages.

When a woman is singled out as strong, it’s usually not a mere compliment: It’s an attempt to distract from more widespread sexist behavior and casting choices. In Hollywood, where for decades female characters have been more motivated by male approval than by their own ambitions, the “strong female lead” is not just a category Netflix suggests I would enjoy. It’s shorthand for a film that passes the Bechdel test.

In politics and the workplace, “strong women” are used as a convenient cover. Lawmakers invoke the strength of their mothers, daughters and wives whenever their records on reproductive rights or equal pay are at issue. I can’t possibly be a sexist, they imply, because I respect certain women I know. A male boss once defended his choice to interview only male candidates for a job by telling me that his wife was a strong woman who was active in the women’s movement.

Starting this spring, let’s limit the “strong” label to female weightlifters. In all other cases, we don’t need to call it out. “Strong” is synonymous with “woman.” We know them. We are them. We raise them.

Ann Friedman is a freelance writer and columnist for NYmag.com.

Olympic hosts

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896. Which means the economic model for the Games was born in the 19th century. That’s where it belongs.

Until the last few decades of the 20th century, if someone wanted to watch Olympic competition live, the only viable option was to travel to the host city. In such a world, perhaps it made sense to move the whole thing around the globe every four years. Before the big bucks of international television rights arrived, the economic stakes were different, and the International Olympic Committee was far less grandiose than it is today.

Now, it costs $10 billion to $20 billion to host the Games, or even more in cities with underdeveloped transportation, telecommunication, sanitation and hospitality infrastructure. Scholarly studies have consistently shown that the touted benefits — increased tourism, trade and investment — are almost always illusory, as is the supposed sporting legacy. Certainly, Olympic hosts often get some improvements to point to — a modernized airport, a new roadway, enhanced public works — but these are investments that could be made without hosting the Games, and at a fraction of the expense.

Putting on the Olympics comes with steep costs. This summer’s host, Rio de Janeiro, is suffering from, among other depressing news, the eviction of thousands of residents who live in favelas, the city’s shantytowns; the despoliation of anature reserve in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood; fiscal bankruptcy; intensified corruption and instability; and horrific publicity surrounding water quality and shortages, as well as the Zika virus.

It is time to ditch this outdated model. The competition among the world’s cities to prove their worthiness to the IOC is wasteful, exploitative and unnecessary. One option: The IOC could be made to pay for all Olympic construction. Then we’d see a downsizing of its gaudy venues and a reluctance to go to a new city every four years. Global athletic competition can be healthy, but there is no need to ravage a new city every cycle.

Andrew Zimbalist is the Robert A. Woods professor of economics at Smith College and the author of “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.”

Voting booths

I’m writing as I sit waiting for jury duty. I’ve sworn an oath to tell the truth. I’ve handed over my jury card, sent to me in the mail. I’ve been through security twice. No one has asked to see an ID. The court trusts that I’m here to exercise my civic duty, not to meddle with the judiciary.

Voting, too, can be like this — if we get rid of the voting both.

As many as 300,000 Wisconsinites — up to 9 percent of the state’s voters — may be unable to cast ballots this year because of a voter-ID law, according to the Nation. These would-be voters are not alone: They are among 5 million Americanswhose enfranchisement has been limited by restrictions enacted in several states since 2012. Currently, voter-ID laws affect citizens in 33 states. Relying on specious claims of voter fraud, many exclude common forms of identification such as student IDs and Social Security cards, effectively denying those without driver’s licenses — usually minorities — their right to vote.

Instead of long lines (up to seven hours in some precincts), unpaid days off work (only some states offer paid time off to vote, and often only limited hours), distant and scattered polling locations, and ever-increasing voting restriction, let’s do away with the voting booth, and expand our options for voting.

The United States lags most developed countries in voter participation. Online voting presents one promising solution; so do mail-in voting and early voting hours available days before elections. While a recent uptick in fraudulent online tax activity may leave some skeptical about the security of online voting, Web security systems are ever-improving. And there’s always the regular, reliable US Postal Service: All I need to do to renew my New York state driver’s license is to send a form off by mail. Why can’t the same be true of my vote?

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night.”

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