Archive for June 2009

DADT is a national security issue: Stonewall Riot anniversary repetition of the obvious

June 30, 2009

Courtesy of the AP (don’t sue me, bro!):

“More than 13,000 homosexuals have been discharged from the military because of their sexual preferences.”

This in the context of reporting on President Obama’s reception commemorating the Stonewall Riot, a social event at which Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach told the President “that I’m being thrown out as we speak, and that there was a sense of urgency for me.”

Given that a significant subset of those discharged were Arabic linguists, the rationale for reversing the policy, whatever the brass may think (the public and the rank-and-file* do not care, broadly speaking) seems obvious.  We are engaged in a long term strategic relationship — good and bad — with a lot of Arabic speaking countries, and it would seem we need all the dedicated service people we can get….not to mention the personnel needs implied by six years and counting of difficult and often unpopular war.

Why this in a (nominally) science/history of science blog?

First and most important:  because it seems to me that this is one of those “I demand that the Torah not be read” issues, hence supervening any mere demand for consistency.

Second:  because DADT is based ultimately on a claim about human nature, human biological nature — and this is unequivocally a place where an intersection of the scientific world view and the public square does indeed occur.

DADT only makes sense if, in some sense, sexual identity is seen as a measure of the degree to which one is fully human, fully a member of a social group.  Straight men and straight women are “full” humans.  Anyone else may participate in the group only if they conform to the outward appearance of that fully human ideal.

And yet we know from all kinds of studies, not to mention the personal experience of those whom we know, love, and/or hate…the full spectrum of emotion being available, always… that the full spectrum of the human capacities for sexual desire and love are deeply embedded in the biological history of our species and many others.  See, for just one amongst an ecosystem of research, the old but still lovely work of UT’s David Crews, discussed on this blog here.  (Few things give me greater pleasure than the opportunity to make reference to sneaky f*ckers in a non-political context.)

So, to sum up:  DADT is a sop to the worst elements in our polity, that, stripped to its bare essentials, requires us to differentiate between the authenticity of the human experience of two groups.  That differentiation is contradicted by the science — a wide range of sexual desire is clearly the outcome of a history of selection that has acted much more subtly than the naive “if it don’t produce kids it can’t be real” nonsense of the biologically illiterate position.  Unless we want to go back to arguing that dividing groups of humans into a hierarchy of evolutionary perfection is a good idea, then DADT violates what we understand from the research point of view.

(Not to mention the fact that the consenting adults rule obtains: if it doesn’t penetrate the public sphere, what one does in the privacy of one’s own bedroom between consenting adults is almost without exception nobody else’s business.**)

And then there is  simply the appeal to the rule of reason:  we live in what our conservative friends (and not only them, to be sure) constantly remind us is a dangerous world.  It is simply stupid to disarm unilaterally in such a world.  And yet, to belabor the obvious, that is exactly what we are doing.

13,000 men and women eager to serve, gone.

More, decorated, experienced, uniquely skilled going.

You know who should be hoping we let homophobia hang on as long as possible?

Osama Bin Laden…Khameni and Ahmedinijad…Kim Il Jong.  You name the nemesis of the month, and they’re happy the longer we allow our military to root out some of our best soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

In other words…it would be good if Congress walked through the door President Obama has opened for them.  Unless and until they do, though, the Commander in Chief has the duty, in my view, to take those actions within the law that he can to enhance the security of the United States.  The time is coming — really, the time has come — that as a matter of national security President Obama should order that the military suspend DADT hearings pending congressional action.

*Two recent online polls report a much higher level of support for retaining DADT amongst serving military. The problem with them is that they were very poorly constructed and executed measurements.  The broader range of evidence, including explicit statements on the issue like this one, suggest that the military, reflecting the culture at large, is breaking rapidly towards an inclusive view of fitness to serve.)

**The one argument to keep gay men and women out of the military that some people thing has significant weight is that if members of a combat unit can form romantic and sexual connections to one another, unit cohesion will suffer if the suspicion arises that one member or another is protected from a dangerous mission or the like by such a relationship.  However, as my career officer uncle explained to me, his opposition to gays in the army on that grounds had ended pragmatically years before*** and in principle once women began to serve in combat support roles.  If the potential for gay couples threatens unit cohesion, straight relationships do to — and are (a) more common (at least overtly) and (b) are subject to a combination of military rules and norms that seem to work.

***My uncle as a very young and green officer commanded a towed gun that fought its way across northern Europe in 1944-1945.  He discovered that his driver and his loader were sharing both a tent and a sleeping bag.  He reported this terribly shocking news (he’d had if not a sheltered, then a blinkered youth) to the battery adjutant, who asked him, “is your vehicle in good order?”

“Perfect,” my uncle replied.

“Is the ammunition properly cared for?  Has your gun ever malfunctioned.”

“Never.”

“And what was it you wanted to report to me?”

My Uncle, never a stupid man, answered directly:

“Nothing.”

Image:  Maurycy Gottlieb “Jews Praying in Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” 1878.

The Bees of Brookline…Real Estate Schadenfreude Post

June 30, 2009

This is just a little gift to y’all, or at least any of you enmeshed in house-renovation hell.

My wife and I just completed the purchase of a house in the Boston-area city town of Brookline, noted for its truly first class public schools — a relevant fact for parents of an elementary school kid nudging up to the not-wonderful middle school in our current town.

It’s a nice place, or rather it will be after we deal with the consequences of the previous owners’ 2 + decades of more or less complete neglect.  As far as we can tell, they spent exactly nothing on making sure that a 1920s house did not rot, serve as lunch for social insects, or simply settle under the weight of 20 years or so of dust and grime that never, seemingly, suffered an encounter with a wet rag.

But even as we marvel at various decor details — the coffee cans in the lighting track above the stove are a particular favorite — and check and re-check to ensure that previous waves of termites are not in fact being followed by that last push over the top of the sort the Germans hoped would finally crack the fortress at Verdun, we were truly flumoxed by only one discovery.   Check out these photographs:

Hive in full

How would you like to find four feet or so of working honey bee hive inside the wall of your house?

What gets me is that there were several tens of thousands of bees that called my new address “home” up until last Saturday.  The hive was in the stairwell between the second and third floor, basically, next to and slightly above the previous owner’s bedroom.  Given that you don’t get a fine piece of modular hexagonal construction like you see there in ten minutes, don’t you think  he might have noticed just a bit of noise (not to mention a ton of six legged friends flying past his windows) at, say the four a.m. summer wake up call?  Just asking…

And if you were laboring under the misapprehension that the above was a disused or dead hive, check this one out:

live bees

This isn’t to say that it wasn’t kind of cool to think of our house as a shared domicile with our apian friends.  Honey bees are, after all, potent symbols, creatures of myth, generally associated with all kinds of good things — eloquence, well ordered social life and so on.  For a dwelling to be home to a writer and a family, that’s not so bad…

Als0 — I have to say that it was fascinating to take a look at the intricacy of a hive from such an intimate vantage.  For example — I never even knew that there was this to see:

Queen cells

Those protuberances on the side are queen cells, where potential successors to the sitting queen gestate.  The first one out massacres the rest, a not unknown precaution in human families of consequence, and then occupies the vacancy left by the death or departure of her mother.

And speaking of departure, check this out:

Swarm

It’s hard to see at internet quality, but that big black blob in the center is the swarm.  Just as the bee keeper arrived and started cutting into the wall, the reigning monarch took off with about half the hive.  They hung out near the top of the maple next to our new house for a couple of hours, sending out scouts.  And then, suddenly, a suitable new location having been found, they all took off.  Somewhere in a mile or two radius in the Coolidge Corner area of Brookline, a hive is born.

Note that I said “bee-keeper,” and not exterminator.  By local law, you can’t just kill honey bees (and if you did so without opening up the wall, you’d end up with as much as fifty or sixty pounds of honey melting down the interior of your house too, with consequences I don’t want to think about).  Instead, you have to find someone who specializes in bee removal who comes by, equipped with the appropriate armor and a very gentle sort of shop-vac kind of thing to remove the bees alive:

Vacuuming the bees

It’s a good deal for the bee keeper, in this case a delightful and extremely mellow young man named Jean-Claude:  he gets paid skilled rates for the removal (you don”t think that it makes sense to seek out a discount bee-wrangler, do you?  Not in my house…) and he gets to keep the bees, putting them to work in his own apiary.  (This is why he was a bit put out by the sudden decision to swarm; he was left with many fewer bees than he had hoped.) I don’t begrudge the craftsman’s gleanings — I don’t want them, certainly, but it did both de-and impress me that I have to put myself on the waiting list to sample Jean-Claude’s honey production.  He’s already oversubscribed.

That leads to the last note I’ll add:  the high point of the morning was when Jean-Claude pulled off some honey-bearing comb and handed it round.  It was unlike any other honey I’ve ever tasted — Cuvee Brookline, perhaps — and certainly the freshest I’ll ever taste.  It was composed of who knows what:  the choke cherries in our back yard, the neighbor’s English garden flowers, just about anything in a mile or so radius of the house.  It had a sharp, spicy flavor, lots of orange in it, and not so sweet as commercial honey.  Wild.  It really exploded in the mouth.  We grabbed a couple of pounds of comb for later, and as we share it with friends we can truly say it was home-made.

So that’s it.  Enjoy a little schadenfreude at my family’s expense.  I’d venture to say that we were the only folks on our block with our own bee-hive, however briefly.  So for all you home-renovators out there, as you contemplate medieval plumbing and knob-and-tube wiring, reflect on the fact that at least you didn’t have to confrong 40 or 50,000 six legged room mates in your walls.

And now back to the serious stuff…unless something else weird this way passes.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 10.0: A Tale of Two Covers

June 29, 2009

A book’s cover is important, for all the false folk wisdom that you may have had.  The more so if you can actually get your local book store to turn your treasured work face out, which is pretty much the only way a casual browser will find it.

But however valuable a striking design may be, the cover is famously one of those elements in book publishing over which authors who don’t answer to Leonard, Gladwell or the like have essentially no control.

I have sought and gained in each of my contracts the right of cover review — thus giving me at least the de jure right to see what some designer hath wrought before it gets set in stone.

Strictly speaking, this right and a token gets you on the subway (showing your age there, eh what? — ed.)  No one at the publisher has to respond to whatever howls of despair and rage I may vent.  But at least I can vent.

But in fact, I’ve had pretty good luck over my career.  My first cover was fine, simple, but graphically effective.  My second, the hardcover dust jacket for Measure for Measure remains my favorite.  I can’t find a copy of it on the web but it was cool, trust me:  Robert Hooke’s flea, over which was superimposed the first page of the score from Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen, a bass clef and symbols Dalton used for his first tabulation of the elements.  Busy, I guess, but I love it.

The two covers for Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) capture the author’s difficulty here.  First, note, that unusually I do have two to comment on, as this book was sold simultaeneously in two different markets, the US and the UK.  The US publisher, Houghton Miffllin Harcourt chose a slightly early pub date than the UK’s Faber & Faber — June 4 vs. August 20th, so this is the cover I got to see first:

Levenson.Newton+Counter US cover

When I say “first,” I dont’ mean early…or at least not represented as early.  I think I got to look at this in November, for a June pub date, and I looked at it for a day or two, and liked it, pretty much.  It’s got a good feel to it, an atmosphere of threat, and it is unmistakably a London scene, and the type really pops. (You can’t see it so much in this rendering, but on the book itself the letters are treated to be shiny and a little raised, making them really commanding in person — a nice touch.)

Problems?  A few — and not to few to mention.  It is, IMHO, a little dull, a little generic.  In its final rendering, the atmospheric beige is a little less warm, more washed out…just a bit flat.  On reflection, though the thought did not quite occur to me at the time, it’s all a little Masterpiece Theater-ish:  worthy, respectable, and a little fusty.

But the biggest issue, which did occur to me at the time, came into sharp relief when I got to see Faber’s design:

newton english cover

The obvious, first:  That’s got some punch to it.  Black and white for maximum contrast, swords, coins, crowns and blood — and another image, showing the Tower of London, that unmistakably places the story in its geographical setting.  As far as I am concerned, this is a superior bit of book-art, one that will help sell the book when it appears in its market.

Oh — and one more thing.  It makes sense.  It’s historically accurate.  It draws on an engraving of the Tower that is period appropriate, entirely consistent with the late-seventeenth/early eighteenth century period of my story.

By contrast, the American cover is a Victorian pastiche inspired more by some half conscious memory of Sherlock Holmes than that of William and Mary’s London.  Every  man-made element on view is nineteenth century:  the Houses of Parliament, begun 1836; Big Ben, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the Embankment, construction starting  in 1862, Westminster Bridge, the second on this site, also begun in 1862, even — especially — the gas lights.  Gas lights!  That technology spread rapidly once the first gas – producing company got its Royal Charter in 1812 — but Londoners could not possibly have walked the streets in the glow of  gas-lamps before that year.  What was the designer thinking?

What was I thinking, to let this pass?

Well – I did call my editor, and noted, mildly, that the entire cover was anachronistic.  I conceded that the atmospherics were fine, but the actual historical detail was simply wrong.  My editor, still, at that point, Becky Saletan, told me not to worry — no one would notice, and it was the design, the look of the thing that matters. Besides, I was told, it was late in the game to seek a major redesign.

I caved.  I shouldn’t have, but I did. And much as I love Becky, and I do — as you will see if you follow the link above, she was dead wrong too. People do notice, and for those that do, it casts a funny light on the trustworthiness of the book.  I’ve been fielding some e-mails and have been pushing the blame onto my evil publishers, which is mostly fair, but not entirely.

So, just to break into the narrative here:  two morals so far.  One — you must demand right of review, as I did…and you and your agent have to be proactive enough, as I was not, to review at a stage when the design is not all but locked.  I ought to have taken part in some earlier stage, seen sketches, had some chance to push on the importance of historical accuracy for a book in which I took a lot of pains to make as persuasively connected to the past it attempts to vivify as possible.

Second:  don’t do what I did, and cave.  It wasn’t too late. It was November, for crissakes — seven months before publishing, four months or a bit more before the actual final mechanicals were set for the cover.  We could have gone through two or three more iterations…and yet, I caved.  Do what I say; don’t do what I did.

There was one last hiccup to the story.  When Becky resigned and Deanne Urmy took over the project for HMH in January, I told her that the cover was, in historical terms, a mystery wrapped in an enigma — or something like that.  Basically, that it was an anachronistic catastrophe.  She took it in, told her design department, who overnight shot back two new possible covers, both variations on a single theme:  a period – appropriate painting of some detail in a town or village setting, with title and author in type against the monochrome color field that framed the image.   Basically, a sixties era Penguin series design idea.  Not terrible, just aesthetically out of date and desperately ordinary.

I made the choice that interesting and wrong was better than worthy.  I had one last arrow to my bow:  I sent Deanne the Faber cover, saying, how about something like this — and meaning: why not just do a deal with Faber and use their cover, full stop.

I was either (a) too subtle or (b) treading on some incredibly triple top secret designer’s taboo that you can’t just choose the better of two pieces of work and call it done.  There is certainly a lot of investment in the idea that the British and the American markets are different, which is surely true — but I’m not sure if the difference extended to the point of sticking with a design known to be in error, given that the UK version is certainly, purely as a visual experience, certainly (to my eyes at least) striking enough to grab a browser’s attention.

So:  in sum.  I screwed up, and I learned, again, that the right of review is almost no right at all — unless you are prepared to go to the mat.  I should have.

There is one justification for the American cover, and its pitifully weak.  The subtitle of the book “The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist” evokes deliberately, the great fictional scientific detective, Sherlock Holmes.  As noted above, it’s that connection that animates this cover.  I guess you could say that the cover is supposed  to make that connection visually — and draw people in to read the historical story that anticipates the fiction.  Or not.

That said — what’s between the covers is a damn fine piece of work, if I say so as shouldn’t, so don’t be deterred by gas lights out of time.  And do, if you are getting ready to publish your own work, make sure that your editor lets you see what will be wrought in your name with enough advance warning to make a difference.  And even then, be prepared for an uphill fight if a fight is necessary.

Everyone Else Is Done With Mirrors: Michael Jackson/Diana Ross coincidence edition

June 26, 2009

It is a tiny world when it wants to be.  Just twelve people, as they say, with the rest filled in with mirrors.

I’d just finished my morning coffee and computer-parts run at the little shopping area on Memorial Drive in Cambridge (Our Fair City) when, just backing up my car out of my parking space, an older gentleman flagged me down.  He had locked himself out of his car, he told me, and asked me if I would drive him to a gas station to get help.

Which I did.  On the way we talked, and first he told me that being 80 was tough, which, when I told him I knew, he responded that I had no idea, which is true.

Then we just chatted a bit, and it came up that he had lived in LA for a while, had something to do with show business, and had just called an old buddy on hearing of Michael Jackson’s death.

Then he told me this story:  Back in the early sixties– 1964, I think he said — he had been involved in running something called the Carousel Theater in Framingham, MA.  He and his partners had booked Diana Ross and the Supremes for a show, and had brought in the Jackson Family as the opening act.

Michael was five at the time, and for most of his siblings’ performance he sat with his parents in the audience.  Then, just as the Jacksons were wrapping up, his parents let him go, and he ran down to the stage and did his number — singing in that high, kids voice and dancing as he always could.  It brought down the house, said my passenger.

And after the headliners had gone on and come off, Diana Ross herself came back to the manager’s office.  “I’m never going on after that kid again” she said — or so my new friend told me.  I believe it; or rather, it has all the attributes of  story that could be true.

We got to the gas station in a few minutes — time enough for me to hear about the risk my friend had taken when he laid down $25,000 to bring the Beatles to Suffolk Downs in 1966.  McCartney, he said, was very nice, a real pleasure to meet, unlike some of the other rockers he had known.

Was all this for real?  I don’t know.  I think so; the dates match up, and I hadn’t prompted him on any of this.  He told me his name, but I didn’t write it down soon enough, so there you have it:  a chance met stranger, an old man with a story to tell…which I’ve now told you.

Image:  John William Waterhouse “Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus,”  1900.

Michael Jackson RIP

June 25, 2009

I have nothing to add to the gazillions of trees killed to discuss all the nooks and crannies of Michael Jackson’s life.  50 is too young.  Without any evidence I’ll venture to guess that he led a life that was hard on his body.

I wasn’t a fan of his music; I’m not that into pop.  But his work, his best work, was in its moment a breakthrough, and formed — forms — part of the furnishings of my life.  For which my thanks.

To which I have nothing to add.  Let me give Jackson the microphone.

Sanford Reax

June 25, 2009

John Cole props Dickerson’s piece at Slate.  I think Dickerson is very wrong in one part of his argument…this one:

The snap judgments failed to acknowledge a grain of the fundamental human carnage we were witnessing. You can laugh at Sanford, as you can laugh at a video of a wrecked Amy Winehouse falling all over her house. But at some point, even though they did it to themselves, you have to feel sorry for them as human beings. You can do that, I think, and not be a fan of adultery or drug use.failed to acknowledge a grain of the fundamental human carnage we were witnessing.

This is, frankly, bullshit.  Not the last sentence or two — but the claim of fact in the first one.  It is simply untrue, though it certainly fits Dickerson’s seemingly pre-arranged narrative.  Take, for example, Josh Marshall’s response.  Marshall takes second place to no one in his eagerness to mock the mockably corrupt and hypocritical — and Sanford is certainly the latter.  But here’s what he had to say as part of his live blog of the now-notorious Sanford presser:

2:28 PM … This is genuinely painful, sad … moving on to discussion of “God’s laws”.

****

2:38 PM … In what I can only call a very human discussion, Sanford is explaining that he went to Argentina on this trip was essentially to break off or end the relationship with the woman in Argentina and that he’s committed to trying to reconcile with his wife.

And here’s Josh’s immediate post-presser reaction:

Well, I’d say that that presser definitely answered a lot of questions. In fact, while Sanford probably saw the end of his political career today and obviously deceived a lot of people — and just acted profoundly irresponsibly with respect to his job as governor, let alone with respect to his wife and family, which is his own business — I can’t not give the guy some real credit. Unless there’s a lot more we don’t know, and it’s hard to imagine what more there could be, he just came up there and leveled with his constituents. I’m not sure he had much choice. But that sounded pretty frank and total.

It’s not a matter of ignoring or papering anything over. But it’s worth remembering whoever it was who said that none of us deserve to be known or remembered only for our worst moments.

The very first comment on the Daily Kos liveblog of the presser was titled “Trainwreck” and read, in its entirety, “I feel for his kids.”

And so on.  There are certainly a lot of mocking comments around the web, and a lot of “Sanford has been throwing stones for a while” comments — a true statement.  More pointedly, John Cole’s commenters make the obvious point that the damage Sanford has done to his wife and especially to his kids with his presser performance was entirely self inflicted.  No one made him get up there and tell the world his business in the way he chose, or felt compelled to do so.  A simple  “I messed up my marriage, now hope to repair it, and am resigning my governorship to do so…good bye…” would have got him out of the public eye on his own terms.  If there hasn’t been enough sympathy for Sanford to suit Dickerson — well the explanation may not be simple meanness.

But all that is besides the central issue for this post.  The point is that Dickerson has chosen to spin at least part of the assignment of moral failing in this story to those unnamed cruel folks who did not meet his standards of human charity.  And to do so he has chosen to ignore those prominent examples of people who did extend Sanford the kindness of acknowledging, amidst all of his real, not-going-away sins, pride, bad governance, bigotry, sexual authoritarianism (no gehs need apply, and all that), that this was a very sad man who had f*cked up in ways that humans do.

All this to advance a false narrative:  that the story here is that people on the left are mean, and not that another politician who has built his career, in part, on ostentatious piety and an intolerance for those who lead lives different from his own, has in his own life demonstrated the ill-match of those “values” with human existence in the real world.

No, no, no, no.  The old doctor’s aphorism is appropriate here:  the patient is the one with the disease.

And last:  I feel for Mr. Sanford’s family.  I sympathize with the pain he is himself going through.

But remember:   it is long past time to note that the fact that even those who most stridently speak of “values” can’t keep their pants zipped confirms what our side has been saying:  no one’s consenting-adult private life is the fit object of state power.  That’s why gay civil rights matters, that the meaning of supporting a woman’s right to decide what happens in her own body, the whole shebang.  Mr. Dickerson:  keep your eyes on that prize, and don’t worry if those of us who oppose what Governor Sanford has worked for don’t share your vision of proper table manners.

That is all.

Images: Jacques de Gheyn, “Venus and Cupid,” c. 1605-1610.

John William Waterhouse, “Psyche Opening the Door into Cupid’s Garden,” 1904.

Brain/Eye Candy

June 25, 2009

“Flying” … a video by Sam Fuller

more about "Brain/Eye Candy", posted with vodpod


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