Molly Priesmeyer is the co-owner of Good Work Group, a creative and storytelling consultancy dedicated to helping mission-driven businesses and organizations succeed. Her stories on everything from arts to culture to the environment have appeared in the Star Tribune; Pioneer Press; City Pages; Rolling Stone; Mpls. St. Paul Magazine; MinnPost; and more. She has been working on her best-selling novel "Why Me? A Martyr's Guide to Life" since fourth grade.

In defense of commercial radio

Posted by: Molly Priesmeyer Updated: July 20, 2014 - 10:54 PM

The first time I went to an all-inclusive resort it was the last time. Not that it was terrible. I just felt like I was in a pen where they served canned Mexican food at a trough. At home, I have a very demanding and very specific daily routine of a black Lab. But when I travel, I prefer to be outside of my comfort zone/pen and to be a little uncomfortable in my own skin—or a little squirmy in my black Lab fur.

I once chose, for example, to forego a visit with a dear high school friend at a paid-for resort in Orlando in favor of riding through the flooded-out dirt roads of the Honduran jungles with a Harley-loving Texan who spit-shined his machete so the "banditos" could see his bad-assedness reflecting off the dashboard of his ancient, sputtering truck.

Perhaps that penchant for the unexpected when traveling is why internet radio on road trips feels like the music/culture equivalent of an all-inclusive resort. 

Personalized programming like Pandora, Rdio, and I Heart Radio offer up the perfect kind of self-controlled "surprises" a control freak like me can easily embrace. There's an uncomplicated beauty when José Gonzalez pops up on the Low Pandora station as you're rollercoastering through valleys. It's all perfectly reasonable and expected and within the constraints of a clearly defined algorithm. In nature terms, it's like catching a blurry glimpse of a deer's tail while hiking in the woods. Oh, that was nice.

But when you're traveling through parts unknown and you press that scan button on the old-school car radio, landing on Tears for Fears or Queen or Foghat or Stevie Wonder or Foghat again, it's like dipping your toes in the lake of organized chaos. 

At worst, the stations are programmed with back-to-back praises of America and heartbreak dramas. At best, they're unique glimpses of culture and people you can't observe through the bug-carcass-stained windshield of an all-inclusive resort automobile.

We might be speeding through town, but when that scan button lands on Creedence Clearwater Revival and segues into an ad for Connie's Carpet and Window World ("We like nice things!"), it's a little like getting a mobile mini tour of town. 

Where else can you hear a live broadcast from a county fair, brought to you by Tractor Central, where a woman running for state senate confesses that she's consumed so much she is now "eating her forehead off?" Where else can you hear a promo for a chicken dinner to be held in the parking lot of the hardware store benefitting the Ladies' Gun Club? ("Bring your own gun!") Or an ad for a Saturday night supper club prime rib dinner read by a human imitating a frog? ("Ribbit...tonight!")

With that scan button, you're like a superhero mobile interloper who can experience the town and its people without even stopping. And for a recovering control freak just passing through "anything goes," it's the ultimate road trip. 

Privacy matters: Are we unpaid labor in social media?

Posted by: Molly Priesmeyer Updated: July 14, 2014 - 9:34 PM

Recently, news that Facebook had set out to manipulate the emotions of more than 700,000 unwitting "psychological study subjects" (read: its users)  in an effort to better understand how they respond to certain content and, in turn, better monetize said users, set off a firestorm about who owns what, when, and how. Are we just finger-tapping pawns in their giant hive machine? Are we being taken for a ride on that Great Monetizing Ferris Wheel, being flipped upside-down until every last penny falls from our pockets?

Probably, says Ken Doctor at the Neiman Journalism Lab. Facebook and Google, he notes —which now control 49 percent of the $50 billion U.S. digital ad market and about 68 percent of the $32 billion global mobile ad sector — are also in the business of customer mind control. From Doctor: 

That market power is a big concern, but the two recent mind games that have surfaced (are there more?) raise greater questions. As odious as the NSA’s spying on Americans (and everyone else) has been, the potential implications of mood control strategies could be far larger. Sensory manipulation is no longer sci-fi; Aldous Huxley’s soma is going digital. What was the Facebook experiment on us about: gauging the power of “emotional contagion through social networks.” Imagine the uproar if Fox News or MSNBC had done that, or politicians.

Rob Horning at the New Inquiry also explores how the mood-manpulation study is of serious concern, but takes it one step further to ask: As continuous participants in Facebook—which is expected to take in $4.8 billion in digital ad revenue this year alone—to what extent are we not only potential study subjects for advertisers, but also unwaged labor?

Until two years ago, Facebook didn't have digital ad revenue. But only a year later after going public, in 2013, it controlled 15.8 percent of all internet ad revenue shares. And, as Horning notes, Facebook and its ad revenue exist solely because of the content its users provide. From Horning:

Facebook takes our friends’ efforts to communicate with us and turns them into an entertainment product meant to make Facebook money....

Getting you to be a more profitable user for the company is only a matter of affective optimization, a matter of tweaking your programming to get you pay more attention, spend more time on site, share more, etc...

Facebook has incentive to make us feel like consumers of its service because that may distract us from the way in which our contributions to the network constitute unwaged labor.

What do you think? Do you feel like you are being manipulated or used by social media? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

Hey, who wasted all this food? How Twin Cities households toss out nearly $100 a month

Posted by: Molly Priesmeyer Updated: July 10, 2014 - 9:35 AM

Food waste? Don't blame us. At least that's the sentiment of a majority of Americans, according to a survey released this week by Harris Poll. The survey found that 63 percent of consumers are concerned about food waste—making it a bigger issue for them than pollution and climate change—but only 34 percent believe it to be an issue in their homes. 

Here's the thing: It is. Just look in your trash can/compost bin. 

As a June report by the Committee on World Food Security notes, there are a number of serious issues that affect food waste at every stage of its life, including harvesting, processing, storage, transporation, packaging, retail, and consumption. Yet here in the States, food waste at the consumption level—when people discard it in their homes or during foodservice—accounts for 60 percent of total food loss. 

The Food Policy Research Center at the U of M released a report in April outlining some of the problems with food loss and waste in the United States. Among the key findings:

Roughly 40% of the United States (US) food supply (1500 calories/person/day) is never eaten, which is among the highest rates of food loss globally. Addressing this loss could help reduce food insecurity and the environmental impacts of agriculture.

Tremendous resources are used to produce uneaten food in the US: 30% of fertilizer, 31% of cropland, 25% of total freshwater consumption, and 2% of total energy consumption.

Food waste generated when people discard food in homes and foodservice accounts for 60% of food loss, is mostly avoidable, and is under-emphasized as an opportunity to improve the food system.

Targeting efforts on reducing waste of meat has great potential to benefit both the environment and the household budget.

How much food do we waste in the Twin Cities? According to Eureka Recycling, more than 31 percent of Minnesota's waste is food and non-recyclable paper. The organization's most recent data shows that, on average, Twin Citians waste about $96 worth of food every month.

Nearly $100. That's enough to invest in the next Twitter. Or to buy a cheap kayak. Or to magically turn into $52,000 in 20 years... Or, more realistically, to help feed the 842 million people who don't get enough to eat every day, and to help provide food for a planet expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. 

America by the numbers: Fun with maps

Posted by: Molly Priesmeyer Updated: July 3, 2014 - 2:21 PM

If you're anything like me (and again, my sympathies), you love maps. Not of the historical kind, but of the visual storytelling kind, the number of which continues to rise thanks to a new era of data visualization. 

Below are just a few digital snapshots that have been released in the past month or so. (Map of "Map Demand By State" forthcoming.) 

In honor of the Fourth of July holiday, a look at America by the numbers. 

Fireworks Regulations by State 

 
 

Well-Being Index by State 

(Source: Washington Post

Opportunity Index by State 

Largest Company by Revenue in Each State 

People Living in Poverty by State 

Key takeaway: One-quarter of Americans live in "poverty areas." (Source: Slate.com.)

Cause of Death Most Disproportionately Affecting Each State 

 

Days Each State Will See Over 95 Degrees in the Coming Decades

Governors by State who Accept Climate Science 

Happy Independence Day! 

Do you have a favorite map from the past month? Post it to the comments! 

We're reaching peak firefly in Minnesota

Posted by: Molly Priesmeyer Updated: June 29, 2014 - 2:36 PM

A recurring conversation I have with people every year goes something like this: "Are there fireflies in Minnesota?" It's a process not unlike the annual quesion I ask the same group of friends whenever concentrated amnesia strikes: "Do you make your bed every day?" 

I can never really remember the answers, because, until recently, my visual evidence (e.g. actual fireflies seen X random beds seen) was generally lacking.

On a recent trip back from Mankato, I was convinced dashboard lights were causing flashing optical illusions in my periphery. When I stopped to inspect the glint, I discovered thousands of fireflies exposing their little lights to one another in the knee-high grasses. The marshy ground mirrored the millions of stars in the sky. 

The frogs sang. The fireflies flashed. The tall grasses danced. My conclusion: Fireflies, at least this year, are lighting up New Prague like a nature rave. 

The thing is, a big part of our knowledge about fireflies in Minnesota is purely anecdotal, and often contradictory. And the last few years or so we hear a similar thrum: "Fireflies were everywhere when I was a kid. But now I don't really see them." 

The etymology of the word "firefly" is around 1650. (See what I did there? You thought I was going to talk about "entomology.") Yet despite our fascination with them, there is little known about their history or why they seem to be disappearing. 

A featured paper from the Museum of Science in April suggests that, along with increased use of pesticides, light pollution might be to blame for the decline of the firefly, "yet there is no experimental data to support this view."

That's why the authors encourage students/the curious to build their own experiments to determine if fireflies are deterred by artificial light. The museum, in a project with Tufts University and Fitchburg State College, has enlisted more than 700 volunteers across the United States and Canada to be a part of "Firefly Watch," a project tracking firefly activity.

It's a widely held belief that fireflies don't exist west of the Rocky Mountains, but it turns out that they do, they just don't glow. (Is a firefly still a firefly if it doesn't glow in the woods...or anywhere else?)  

That lack of light might explain why the current "Firefly Watch" map reveals a distinct firefly border that travels from Texas, follows neatly through eastern Kansas, and splits Minnesota down the middle. More than a dozen species of fireflies have been recorded in Minnesota, and around the world more than 2,000 species light up the skies. 

All throughout Japan, where the firefly has come to symbolize both love and war (their lights were once considered to be the souls of dead soldiers), the months of June and July are dedicated to the little twinkling winged-beings, with festivals around the country honoring their mysterious light.  

Here in Minnesota, as we still struggle to understand them, there is one thing we know for certain: Fireflies reach their peak around the week of the 4th of July. And given that they seem to be dwindling as fast as summer, now might be a good time to make your way through the blanketed woods for a private firefly festival filled the greatest light show you might ever see. 

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