Archive for August 2008

One Last Sunday Post…Lest We Forget Thursday Night Edition

August 31, 2008

This is truly off theme for this blog — but reading Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday I came across this post on his (and my) most remembered Martin Luther King speech.  The post resonated later in the evening as, I listened to Tavis Smiley’s show on NPR and heard one his guests argue that Obama’s nomination acceptance on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech did not sufficiently emphasize the Blackness of the Civil Rights struggle and of King’s message.

Smiley and several of his other guests disagreed, but the comment made me go back and listen again — second time in a day — to the clip Ta-Nehisi posted, the key passage in the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before he was assassinated.

Listening and watching again — especially with the foreknowledge that MLK seemed to have of what was coming so unbelievably soon — crystallized why I thought Obama got his note just right in his acceptance speech.  He spoke of King not by name, remember, but as the Preacher from Georgia.

The Preacher — someone who teaches, persuades, one whose success is judged by what his or her words inspire their listeners to do.  The rhetorical idea was obvious, and I think right:  Obama was saying that King’s words belong not just to one man, time, and struggle, but form a teaching that transcends those particulars.

And in that context, the Mountaintop speech is as important, maybe more so, than the visionary and uplifting Dream.

Remember, King really was a preacher, steeped in Bible.  He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the image of the mountaintop.  His predecessor there was Moses — not like Jesus a messiah, divine and already at least in one attribute an inhabitant of the world to come, but a prophet, a teacher, a mortal man with great flaws to accompany his strengths, who had done his best by his stubborn and stiffnecked people.

Moses had led that people for a long time; at the threshold of success, of labor’s end, he learns he will not complete the journey.  Most of the book of Deuteronomy is devoted to Moses giving the last lessons he can to his people, uplift and threats, and a final admonition:  “Therefore choose life.”  Then he climbs to the mountain peak, looks over the land promised the Jews, and dies.

The full range of meaning and feeling in the old tale of work transcending death is what makes King’s reworking so powerful.  This is what great speakers and teachers do:  they endow their words not just with overt meaning, but with a layered wealth of story, more meaning, more stuff for their listeners to chew on.

Obama in a literally mundane context turned his speech on the same idea.  He’s a great speaker in the same vein as King, not because he can deliver a line well, but because the speeches he writes and delivers as well as he does have both sound and meaning — a very carefully constructed web of references and connections to other stories we have told each other.  The Preacher from Georgia was a great way to frame the memory of Dr. King, that is, IMHO, not because in anonymized him, making him safe for white America — King is too strong a figure to be overtaken by his epithet, and Obama knows it.  Rather the trope works because it demands we pay attention to the full meaning of both King’s words and Obama’s.

In other words, what a great speech, for what it said, for what it demands of its listeners, (all 40 million of us) and what it requires we remember.

So:  for your viewing pleasure:  “I’ve been to the mountaintop” excerpt (the full text and video can be found at the link above); “I have a Dream” and the last section of Barack  Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in which the young preacher from Georgia makes his appearance.  (Full forty-five minute version here):

More Sunday Blogging: Who Said Physicists Can’t Dance?

August 31, 2008

Presented, without comment, The Large Hadron Rap:

Book Notes: “Boids…

August 31, 2008

...filthy, disgusting boids” edition.

One of the pleasures of being a teacher is seeing the success of students.*

So check out this review in today’s New York Times of Courtney Humphries’ new book on pigeons, Superdove:  How the Pigeon Took Manhattan…and the World.

(Self-serving alert here.)  With this impressively positive review Courtney  becomes the latest advertisement for the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, from which she received her MS in 2004.

I can’t yet comment myself on Courtney’s work yet, but the reviewer, Elizabeth Royte gives it a rave, and as soon as the looming semester gets past the first flurry of insanity, I’ll read and report.  In the meantime — check it out yourselves, and remember:  new good authors need even more reader love than the writers you already know you like.   Take a flyer on this (heh).

*Sadly, my pride in Courtney is entirely institutional; she graduated from our program the year before I arrived here.  But pride it is — it is always great to see good young writers from one’s own shop do well.

Image:   Jiang Tingxi, “Eleven Pigeons.”  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Most Astonishingly Wonderful Palin Snark Award Goes To….

August 31, 2008

Tim over at Balloon Juice, who writes:

Thinking that she’s qualified to lead the United States only makes sense if you subscribe to the fringe partisan view that virtually anyone with the right ideological purity is qualified to do important jobs. Apparently 29% of Americans think that, which means that Sarah Palin polls one point worse than human papillomavirus.

I hope Tim values this rare and prestigious prize — which also allows me to welcome him back from a post-doc imposed blogging hiatus.  You’ve been missed.

Image:  Wakalini, “Thumbs Up,” 2006.  Used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License (cc-by-sa-2.0).  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: Now That’s a Race — Drivers, Bait Your Traps edition.

August 30, 2008

If you want some Sunday listening to take your mind  off of the awful prospect that there is a substantially non-zero chance that Sarah Palin could actually be within a sand wedge shot of the Oval Office check this out from NPR’s Only A Game.

Scroll down to the story titled “Lobster Boat Races.”

As an occasional hanger-out at the Sheepscot River in Maine, let me assure you that the idea is fully as wierd as it sounds.t

On to the substance of the Palin pick

August 30, 2008

Update 9/1/08:  Ta-Nehisi Coates puts a spin on the same idea developed below shorter and stronger:  We aren’t saying that Palin is dumb, but that she’s either ignorant or playing on the ignorance of the rest of us.  Either way, not good.

I realize that there is probably something of Palin fatigue already weighing  in; my tours of the blogosphere and the MSM have been all Sarah, all the time for the last thirty hours or so.

So this is something of a placeholder for a longer, more considered post sometime next week.  But the topline I want to put out onto the intertubes is that the Republican ticket is now the most anti-science put out there by any national party since William Jennings Bryan headlined the Dems more than century ago.  (And, for all kinds of reasons, I fear I being unfair to the old bi-metallist, but that’s a post for a very different day.)

The troubles for science begin at the top.  I wrote about McCain as a hazard to the national science enterprise a few months ago in this post.  Short form:  after eight years of a range of assaults on science from the Bush led GOP — attacks in which McCain either acquiesced or participated — McCain’s budget priorities as laid out in his speeches and his issue statements would hit the American science in the gut, with its funding at great risk.

At the same time, this danger comes in the context of McCain himself appearing to be much more disinterested in than actively hostile to the actual content of science.  That is, he has a disdain for expertise — just see his repeatedly willed ignorance on such technically informed subjects as the gas tax holiday and energy policy.  But beyond that  “don’t bug me with the facts” reflex, McCain himself has not said anything that suggests he thinks the law of gravity was passed in the 81st Congress or anything like that

So the prognosis as I saw it in May was that a GOP win in November was for an ongoing cash decline of a thousand cuts, and neither rhetorical support or attack on the underlying ideas of science.

Then came Palin.  My first reaction was like that of a lot of people:  whaaat?  And then — this is an embarassment to the idea or brand of John McCain.  After a week in which Democrats rag on his judgment  he confirms his loose cannon label with this?

But the risk of such reactions is the Dan Quayle problem.  We’ve seen some very unlikey people get within a flat EKG of the Oval Office.  Palin is not just a reflection on McCain; she’s a suddenly potentially very powerful person whose own views, beliefs, and judgment matter.

There will be a lot of folks concentrating on filling in the Palin blank state, and early reports on the conventional political fronts are not promising — from her abuse of power scandal/investigation to stories of managerial incompetence as mayor of a small town; to the shock and dismay of those who politically know her best at the thought of her in the White House.

I’ll leave all that to the kind of folks linked to above.  Here, I just want to remind folks that her creationism and her global warming denialism are not just isolated oddball beliefs.  They are windows into the qualities of her mind, how she thinks and reasons.

And in the shortest form, what it tells me is that she is not someone who eagerly confronts harder truths.  It is certainly possible to have deep faith and understand the overwhelming explanatory (and useful) power of modern evolutionary biology and all its related fields.  But doing so requires hard thinking, and a willingness to sacrifice the simple comfort of Biblical literalism.  Simply saying saying that a creator did it is not the answer.

It is equally possible to have all kinds of doubts about the actual risks involved in global climate change, the scale of probable changes, and the appropriate policy response to the problem. But all but the flat-earth rump of the scientific community agree that anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases does/will produce some impact on the global climate system — even so well known a skeptic as my  MIT colleague Dick Lindzen says so, while dismissing the problem as both too uncertain and too minor to merit a policy response.  (I disagree — and have for a long time — but that’s not the point here.)

By contrast, Palin’s bald denial of the role of human actions in climate change just gives her an easy way out of confronting the complex and hard arguments about the scale, dangers, and responses to global warming.

And yet, the fact that a President Palin wouldn’t take global warming seriously  doesn’t bother me as much as the thought that the easy way out would be her preferred route on all the issues the occupant of the Oval Office has to confront.

This is tooth fairy thinking — if I want something to be true badly enough; if it is convenient or useful or comfortable for something to be true, then true it must be.

That is:  lots in the blogosphere and the mainstream media have questioned Palin as a candidate because her experience does not make her a plausible President on day one.  But on day two of the Palin era, what scares me much more is not the fact that she hasn’t done very much, nor even that she doesn’t know very much, but that the handful of data on the record that gives insight to her thinking about science tells us that her capacity for judgment is poor.

Which is, of course, exactly the same argument the Democratic National Convention made against her much more experienced, fully formally qualified running mate, John McCain.  McCain/Palin:  the Tooth Fairy ticket.

Oy.  More to come on this theme as the shock wears off.

Image:  August Malmström, “Dancing Fairies” 1861.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Simpler Palin and the Numbers fiasco post.

August 29, 2008

Update: For perspective, by all means check out Sarah Palin’s new blog. (h/t Kevin Drum)

I just posted 1300 words trying to find a new angle to suggest just how bad John McCain’s judgment was in choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate.  Two quick hit follow ups:  the key to remember is that this choice reveals more about McCain’s fitness for the office he seeks than it does about Palin’s for hers.  Andrew Sullivan calls this an F.U. choice and that seems to me to be about right.

And as I was hitting “publish,” it occured to me that there was a really simple numerical comparison that would suggest which level she has reached in her climb through the minor leagues of American politics.

That is, while it seems at least plausible that someone with the title “Governor” might be a reasonable potential President, someone who has been the mayor of a middle sized city for twenty months would never have been considered a viable Vice Presidential nominee.

The American city nearest in population to the state of Alaska is Fort Worth, Texas.  It’s budget of 1.2 billion dollars is about one fifth the size of the state’s.  San Francisco’s budget of about 6.1 billion is right in the ball park

So try it on just for the sound of it.  How does “your next Vice President of the United State’s, Fort Worth Mayor Sarah Palin” sound?  Not so plausible?  Or, “Twenty months into her first term leading the City and County of San Franciso, Mayor Sarah Palin is ready to lead the free world?”

Alaska is a little state.  It’s not easy running anything — I sucked wind trying to keep my tiny, tiny little production company going.  But there is  an enormous qualitative difference between Governor Palin’s existing base of knowledge and that required to play in the Show.  She’s been playing in the Cape Cod League until now — maybe batting clean-up, but still, you don’t leap from the Brewster Whitecaps to the Washington Nationals in one step.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “Baseball players practicing,” 1875.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

How Numbers Help Make Sense of Things: The Palin Pick edition

August 29, 2008

I’ve hammered on the theme that the goal of getting the public to understand science has little to do with specific facts or even ideas, and much more with helping folks master analytical tools that will help make pull the signal out of the noise of events and the day-to-day business of living.

I’ve argued that such an effort begins with developing a familiarity not so much with math as scientists and technologists think of field, but with much simpler approaches to quantification.  A little arithmetic goes a long way, as does what is to me the single most important idea:  this kind of basic math creates abstractions that, properly employed, allow us to find deeper points of contrast or similarity between disparate events than raw facts, even raw numbers ever could.

The best example (IMHO) that I’ve come up with came in this post.  But John McCain’s to-me bizarre selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate provides another opportunity to deploy some simple quantification to provide a little insight into how odd — and ultimately, how bad — a choice that was.

The basic argument against the Palin choice is all over the blogosphere.  You can look Steve Benen (from the left), Andrew Sullivan from the non-base right, and Ramesh Ponneru enjoying a moment of clarity in the opium – den end of wingnut right for variations on the theme. They all argue, and I agree, that the choice is a bad one from  because she is in fact desperately unprepared for the job.

The reasoning behind that argument is pretty simple and to my mind compelling:  leadership in her local PTA, a mayorality in a small town, a couple of stints on appointed state boards and something like 20 months as governor of a state whose population — 683,000 or so, is less than that of the Boston metro area in which I make my home– doth not a potential president make.  Lots of specific issues are already coming up, but that’s the basic story.

But there is a counter argument: conservative hacks (Ralph Reed on NPR this morning, for example) are trying to suggest that her executive experience as Mayor and Governor make up for her deficiencies in national security, international affairs, national issues and so on.

It’s a pretty risible argument, but how ridiculous it is can only be seen with  a clear idea of the scale of the jobs she has done so far to see just how much love to give her, and McCain, on this score.

So, at last to return to the premise of this post, that a little help from numbers can reveal a great deal, what can we find that would help place Palin’s level of competence in context?

First let’s constrain the analysis and accept the apparent McCain campaign judgment that especially after the events of the last week or so, a female veep selection was essential.  That leaves several potential picks mentioned over the last week, perhaps the most prominent of whom was Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Now whatever you may think of her views (not much, from where I sit), Hutchinson is a conventionally serious choice: she had executive responsibility as Texas State Treasurer (briefly, but longer than Palin has been governor of a state with the population of one of Houston’s suburbs); she’s into her third term in the Senate with big time committee appointments (on Appropriations, Veterans Affairs and  Rules and Adminstration, ranking member of Commerce, Science and Transportation); she’s won elections in a large state; and she knows how Washington works.

Seems like an obvious choice.  She did not light a fire under the anti-choice base, but there is no doubt that she is a national figure dead in the mainstream of the Republican party.  Her resume trumps Palin’s in every particular.

But let’s give McCain the benefit of the doubt on another constraint.  In a change election, watching Obama driving the message home brilliantly over the last week that Washington insiders are the problem, it is a plausible argument that the woman the campaign concluded it needed had to be someone from beyond the Beltway.

So far, Palin meets these criteria:  she’s definitely got a pair of X chromosomes and Juneau is about as far (barring Honolulu) as you can get from Washington in American politics.  Maybe, following this decision tree, once you impose these narrowing filters, Palin was as good as it gets.

Or not.  Another name that came up from time to time in the search was Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO.

Now this is a harder comparison to make between than that between Hutchinson and Palin — after all, how do you rate corporate life to work in government?

You look to the numbers.  Both Alaska and HP are economic ecosystems.  They generate wealth, must be governed, have operations and a bottom line.  The comparisons are imperfect, but they give an idea, most importantly of scale, of how big a job each of these executives have performed.

In 2005, (the last year for which I could find the data in a quick troll) Alaska’s gross product – all of its economic activity — totaled just a whisker less than 40 billion dollars.  For 2005 — the last year during which Fiorina worked for the company, HP’s total revenue — the value of all its economic activity — more than doubled that number, topping  86 billion.

That comparison drastically understates the disparity in managerial responsibility between the two.  Last year, Palin signed into law her first budget – Alaska’s largest ever :  6.6 billion.  For 2005, HP made a profit of 3.473 billion, which, deducted from gross revenue, leaves about 83.5 billion out of the revenue total that had to be spent to make that money.

Certainly there would have been passive expenditures there, already agreed interest on loans, for example, as there are certainly automatic payments within a state budget.  But broadly speaking the comparison is overwhelming:  a CEO of a major company has much more fiscal responsibilty and a much larger economica strategic burden to handle than the leader of a small government administration — by about 13 to 1 on the numbers in this case.

Now this is not an argument that Carly Fiorina should have been standing next to John McCain today.  That there are all kinds of considerations that go into such decisions has been amply demonstrated by the choices of both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

But if you are trying to get a handle on just how far Palin’s experience has been from the level of responsibility that goes into leading the United States of America, it is worth remembering that in her one supposed area of expertise is as an executive.  And in that role, her 20 months of running the Alaska budget is loosely equivalent to the mangerial task of handling the revenues of the 348th largest company in America, which in 2007 was the Ball Corporation, the fourth largest packaging and can company in the country.

And in case you were wondering:  the 2007 budget for the United States of America topped 2.7 trillion.

Just to finish this off:   McCain, Obama and Biden have never had to adminster an operation larger than their Senate offices, or for McCain, a peacetime bomber squadron.  But they didn’t claim that attribute, offering instead claims of judgment, experience, temperament, knowledge of the affairs of the nation and so on.  By contrast, “executive experience” is Palin’s only alleged skill in governance.

So the two points I hope this post makes are (a) that there are ways to think about making rational comparisons between potential leaders, and they include at least some willingness to think if not mathematically, at least arithmetically…and (b) that as expected from a first review of her resume, this just slightly deeper look into the numbers supports the proposition that Sarah Palin is  the most unqualified Vice Presidential candidate in living memory.

David Brooks Steals His Paycheck

August 29, 2008

Nothing about science, or much at all in Mr. Brooks latest effort, but as readers of this blog know of my admiration for the plucky uber-class pundit’s ability to spin dross out of gold, I thought I’d try to be the first to suggest that this column is so empty of both thought and style that if I were an Ochs or a Sulzberger, I’d demand my money back.

Seriously, Brooks has achieved a parody of opinion writing.  This is what you get from a hung-over freshman who forgot to do the reading.  It is to funny as groat clusters are to food.  (h/t Firesign Theater.) This is truly is one of those so-bad-it-should-be-in-a-museum efforts.  Read it and weep.

I wish I had the wit, stamina or stomach to analyze it more deeply. I don’t, and I confess that I suspect the deficiency may not lie with me.

Image:  Cornelis Vroom, “The Highway Robbery,” c. 1625. Source Wikimedia Commons

More on Right Wing Science-Phobia: Up from comments edition

August 28, 2008

A post or two below I tried to tear a strip or two off a new, conservative Slate wannabe site called Culture 11.

In that post, I asserted that the new webzine’s launch with zero science content illustrated a broader problem of current American conservatism refusal to confront the significance of science’s methods and results in any account of the ideas that matter in modern thought, not to mention daily life.  I also suggested that this was so because facts inconveniently muddle what I see as the fantasy life that passes for intellection on at least the web-cages of the right.

To his credit, one of the site’s editors, Conor Friedersdorf, responded with a polite comment, suggesting that as feature editor he would willingly entertain and commission suggestions for “worthwhile” (his loaded word) science stories.

I answered with a long comment saying, in essence, he couldn’t ask for others to do his job for him, but commenter JRE later said it better, which is why I’m excavating his comment for your reading pleasure here:

If Conor Friedersdorf is serious about being serious — that is, if he really wants to examine the triple point where culture, politics and science come together, there are some superb examples out there he might consider as templates.
For example, in his book The Republican War on Science Chris Mooney has argued (persuasively, in my view) that the conservative movement has become actively hostile to, and destructive of, the scientific enterprise. Crooked Timber got an entire seminar out of it.

Now, I’d expect that Mr. Friedersdorf might have a different take from Chris Mooney, and maybe he could scare up some smart conservatives who believe that they are, too in favor of real science — and, in the process, let us how what they think about developmental biology, climatology, and a host of other topics. Because, to be frank, every time I hear another conservative claim that mainstream science is politicized from root to branch, and it’s the right wing that’s carrying the torch of dispassionate inquiry, I think that I don’t know of a time when one party has been so identified with vain, ignorant, dishonest windbaggery.

But this is Conor Friedersdorf’s chance to prove me wrong. How about it, Mr. Friedersdorf?

Image:  Carl Spitzweg, “The Alchemist” c. 1860.  The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.


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