Archive for December 2009

Another Commercial Interruption: Newton and the Counterfeiter on dept.

December 30, 2009

Just in case you are one of those who can’t resist having books read to you (my son, e.g.; me too), I just got word that has included Newton and the Counterfeiter in a “buy bestsellers for cheap” promotion — my humble offering apparently being one of their better sellers in the physics category.

So, if you like audiobooks, and what to pound the gym to the sound of Isaac Newton chasing bad guys through the mean streets of can happen, for the surprisingly (to me) modest sum of $7.49.

Image:  Gerard ter Borch, “The Letter,” c.1660-1662

Best line of recent memory

December 30, 2009

I wish I’d had Aimai’s succinct wit on this story, but I didn’t, so go chuckle with her.

Image:  Priapus fresco at the Casa de Vetti, Pompeii.

We Pause for this Commercial Interruption: Newton and the Counterfeiter/Kindle redux edition

December 28, 2009

Well, that was an annoying ride.

I mean the seemingly endless saga of achieving the possibilty of Kindle/ebook sales for my poor but honest offering, Newton and the Counterfeiter. (Dead tree versions here:  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at, and John Smith & Son.)

Loyal readers may recall that it took more than six or seven weeks between delivering the file to Amazon (a bit late, but not that late, in the context of the hard cover pub. date).  Amazon is, apparently, notoriously slow and creaky around at least some of its interactions with publishers.  (I do know that it took a very long time to get this book-promo video up on the US site…and that the interaction between my British publisher Faber & Faber and Amazon UK went much more smoothly than the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/ pairing did.)

But then came an email from old friend and former MIT colleague (not to mention tech/net education guru, Phillip Long, who complained that he could not get a Kindle edition of the book until next April, coinciding with the paperback release.

Apparently Amazon got its algorithm in a twist once HMH uploaded data about the upcoming new edition of an existing title.

Somehow — and I truly don’t understand how this could have happened, because it’s not exactly a new phenomenon in publishing to have a soft cover version follow a hard cover one into the wide world — my poor little book, highly praised though it may be, had to be denied the chance to take part in the day Kindle sales beat dead tree versions on the Amazon site.

Not for lack of effort on the part of HMH’s team, I must say.  I notified my peeps over there as soon as Phil let me know of the glitch, and they’ve been working on it for at least three weeks.  And today, I’m happy to say, HMH electronic stalwart Sanj Kharbanda was able to report success.  Now, at last, you can get your Kindle edition of Newton and the Counterfeiter.

So: all of you gifted (that unlovely neologism) with Kindles (or the Kindle app on your iPhone, and soon, on your Blackberry!) in recent memory may now load up your new gizmo with your own personal copy of that thrilling true crime tale that both tracks Newton as he tracks the dapper don of his day — and that tells a tale of how the scientific revolution got mixed up with the financial one — to our continuing gain and sorrow.  Seriously, it’s a great read, I’ve been told, and if you want to test that claim electronically, by all means, be my guest.  (Not for a a moment to disparage dead tree versions of course, for those (like me) that still love that sense of time measured in turning leaves.)

There.  I think I’ve shilled enough for one day.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, “Two Old Men Disputing,” 1628.

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition, part one

December 28, 2009

Alright.  The title is, perhaps, a little hyperbolic.  But, channeling my inner McArdle, such is blogging.

This recent little gift from McArdle is not quite as disastrous as it could be, in fact…but I do want to pick up a little bit of the folly within because I think this post captures so much of what makes her such a bad and, in real ways, such a damaging participant in our public discourse. (You’ll find part two of this screed here.)

The short form, to enable those with day jobs to ignore the tome that follows, is that McArdle argues that “the obvious solution” to the problem that not all advanced degrees sought by serving members of the armed forces are as rigorous as they might be, is to end the practice of encouraging service members to seek such degrees.

That is, to this as to all other issues raised by interactions between the state and private institutions, McArdle already knows the answer:  government can’t do nuthin’ right.

But of course, her treatment of this issue is simplistic, second hand, ignorant of the actual complicated ground of real experience involved and largely wrong. But no matter:  Given the fundamental truth of government incapacity, there is no need, in the McArdle alternate universe, to test assumptions about the failures of public action and the necessary virtues of private endeavor.

I’ve been criticized before for dissing McArdle through arguments from authority, for suggesting that even in her area of supposed expertise, economics, McArdle has essentially no formal training.  Some may see the above as a reiteration of that argument.

But that’s not right.  It is true that McArdle doesn’t possess academic training in economics in any significant degree — but I and many others I know write about lots of things in which we were not professionally trained.  We do so, though, in the context of the practices of research and journalism: we report, we hit the library, we check facts, we call people.

My argument about McArdle is in fact one of negative authority:  given her unwillingness to expand her competence, it’s a pretty good default to assume that pretty much anything she says is false, unless it is corroborated three ways from zero.  In other words, it’s not that her qualifications are not sufficient to evoke trust in what she says; it is that she refuses to do that without which no amount of qualifications could justify such trust.

More broadly:  McArdle is not the real problem. She certainly commands an audience, but I don’t know that she’s genuinely influential.  She preaches to a choir, and for all her efforts to engage folks who actually do know what they’re talking about on policy, political economy, and so on, it doesn’t seem — to me at least — that she’s risen above the background pop poli-culture noise.

But even if I’m right in seeing her more as a court jester than a privy councilor, she’s a symptom.  (Very mixed metaphor alert — ed.)

So take the mountain of verbiage that follows as an attempt to illustrate what has happened to, say, the health care debate, in which the endlessly repeated lie that a publicly-run insurance plan is “socialism” had such impact.  In that debate, this claim did not need to be “proved” by anything remotely resembling actual evidence.  Rather, it was presented as an axiom that government action in the face of social problems is both illegitimate and ineffective.

So even though McArdle is not in fact worth the mountains of effort her errors evoke in those who would correct the record, it still seems to me important to point out that the way she and others achieve whatever influence they possess is both driven to error and is disastrous.  Constant vigilance and all that.

So here goes, much too much gnashing of teeth at her post on the problems in the system by which the Department of Defense attempts to educate in-service enlisted members and officers.

McArdle’s post was prompted by a piece by James Joyner in which he discusses whether or not military-funded higher education for its soldiers and officers is delivering on its various promises.

There is in fact something of a real story there: the Department of Defense has a significant pool of money to spend on tuition support for higher education for its uniformed personnel, and as Joyner says, incentives exist for soldiers and officers to seek such education.  Field grade officers need advanced degrees to enhance their chances for promotion to the upper ranks; senior NCOs and Warrant Officers need at least some post-high school education for their advancement; and many recruits, even those not planning extended military careers, seek useful education/training to give them a leg up on civilian life.

There are certainly flaws in Joyner’s post, however, mostly due to his selective reading from the main source of his post.  But at least he read that source and engaged it.  The divine Ms. M. M., commits the greater sin when she takes that misreading at face value, however, declining to interrogate the underlying story…and the results are not pretty.

She writes,

I get the impression that the primary market for diploma mill degrees is in various branches of the government.  The civil service system, the army, and various local departments like teachers, all automatically reward you with higher pay if you get a degree.  Since they don’t distinguish between the caliber of the schools, the obvious solution is to find the easiest course you can.  Undoubtedly this happens in private organizations too, but since the purpose of a degree in the private sector is signalling rather than box-checking, there is some incentive for gravitating towards higher-quality degrees.

Well, there is a carload of sly in there, so let’s break it down just a little.

I’m going to save the first for later — that “I get the impression” business — because that line is the key to so much of McArdle.

Instead, let’s pick up the thread at “diploma mill degrees.”  Here she picks up a phase Joyner also uses, and it is one that is designed to maximize the onus against the kinds of distance learning programs the uniformed military might undertake.  It is a tricky phrase.

For example:  there is no doubt that plenty in higher education would argue that the term covers an operation like one cited the article that evoked Joyner’s pice — the University of Phoenix, with its horde of students and array of programs and degrees/certificates and what not to sell them, all owned by a publicly traded corporation with a keen eye for the bottom line.

But the University of Phoenix, like all institutions that meet the US military’s requirements for general higher education service providers, is an accredited institution.*  Degree or diploma mills conventionally understood are unaccredited purveyors of meaningless credentials.  A diploma mill degree from any of these institutions would not provide any advantage to a military career, while accredited institutions, even ones you may not think terribly highly of, must provide some kind of instruction to go along with the credential.

In other words, you’ve already got a bit of a common McArdle trope here, that rhetorical sleight of hand deftly used to make a bad day worse.

That said, McArdle might argue, pointing to Joyner’s post and its examples, that this is a distinction without much of a difference, because students at places like the University of Phoenix and other, worse actors, aren’t getting any worthwhile education despite the fact of accreditation.

But either McArdle did not actually read the Bloomberg article by Daniel Golden that Joyner used, selectively, to underpin his personal take on military education — or she did and chose not to pay attention to those parts of the piece that contradict preconceived certainties.

There, she might have found that the issue Golden documents is the damage the profit motive does to the delivery of useful education to the military — and not, as she goes on to criticize, the notion of in-service higher education at all.

For as Golden documents, but McArdle does not appear to have grasped or even noticed, not-for-profit, government-funded educational institutions do a much better job.  But that’s a story that violates McArdle’s essential understanding (expressed in the quoted paragraph above) that nothing the public sector may set out to accomplish is as wonderful as what the private sector does without trying.

The moral:  If you don’t want to know, you won’t try to find out; and if you don’t, the likliest outcome is that what you write will be wrong.

Or to flip the point:  if you already know that profit maximization is the one true road to any desired end, then heaven forfend that you actually come to grips with the facts presented on the specific questions to whose answers your faith has already guided you.

And with that…on to part two!

*See, e.g.,this statement of the requirement from Army Regulation 621-5, most recently revised in September, 2009:  “Institutions offering ACES postsecondary programs will be accredited by national or regional accrediting agencies recognized by U.S. Department of Education (ED).”

Image:  Dosso Dossi, “Portrait of a Court Jester,” 16c.

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Megan McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition (Part 2)

December 28, 2009

So, further to the piece begun below.  There, we left matters at the problem of McArdle’s unwitting conflation of education provided to the military by for-profit and not-for-profit. (Part one of the piece here.)

Next:  McArdle says “the civil service system, the army, and various local departments like teachers, all automatically reward you with higher pay if you get a degree.”  This is only at best partially true, and it is largely off the point of the underlying Golden piece.

Partially, in the case of the military, the issue is not simply pay, but access to promotion/avoiding of reductions in force.  Possession of advanced degrees in that context may help but guarantees no automatic rewards.  That is:  McArdle simply does not know enough about the institutions she is criticizing here to make the broad claims to which her presumption of public sector=bad drives her.

More deeply she misreads or simply ignores the main point of the Golden article:  that for-profit universities are defrauding their students because their credentials do not in fact provide the civilian world benefits implied…which is not the same thing at all as claiming that the idea of offering educational benefits to our military is good or bad for careers within the military itself.

If anything, Golden’s piece presumes the importance of doing this job well, and hence there is a need to regulate closely providers of educational services to our serving men and women.

McArdle might argue that she isn’t really talking about Golden’s piece, nor the problem of enlisted service members trying to get an Associate degree, but rather, following her source, Joyner, complaining about the use of advanced degrees as a “box checking” credential for within-the-military advancement, especially (given the context of what Joyner said and McArdle cites), for members of the officer corps.

If so, then she’s doing so on the basis of essentially no demonstrated knowledge.

To deal with this I need to cycle back to the phrase I left behind up above.  “I get the impression,” McArdle writes, “that the primary market for diploma mill degrees is in various branches of the government.”

Nice phrasing, that.  She gets that impression…from where, exactly?

From a bodily orifice that this is too much of a family blog to mention, I’d guess.

This is the real problem with the entire concept of McArdle as a serious person, someone who has the chips to play at the grown ups’ table of public discourse. She does not, on the evidence of her work, know much more than how to write tolerably smooth copy.  And unlike the rest of us, me included, who may not know much about the range of stuff that interests us, she does not appear willing to do the work to arrive at even minimal competence.

“I get the impression!”  My FSM!  That’s a firing offense, or should be, in any real journalistic enterprise.  At the very least it’s a clear “pay no attention to what follows” tag.

It is, of course, something of a commitment actually to report on the stuff one writes about.  It certainly is beyond my ambition to re-report McArdle to track down each error, wilful misrepresentation, and or flat out falsehood.  But what’s so annoying about this kind of thing is that it takes so little work, really — it would have taken McArdle next to no effort — to test at least some of the assumptions contained in that innocent-sounding impression.

For example to the question of who seeks out degrees from the kind of institution Golden investigates, McArdle’s mis-labelled “degree mills”:  a quick check on the University of Phoenix’s enrollment shows that there is indeed a substantial military contingent among its student body, with about 29,000 active duty service members, veterans and spouses enrolled as of 2008.  That sounds like a lot, unless you compare it to the total enrollment there, a few hundred short of half a million undergraduate and graduate enrollees.

Which means that whatever the issues may be with members of our military receiving crappy education from the University of Phoenix or any other for profit institution, it is simply false to say that federal, state and or local government employees represent the primary market for their services…as seconds of online research would have told her.

But that’s something of a quibble.  The meat of McArdle’s claim is that military educational programs are worthless because those — officers at least — who take part in them are mere careerists with no thought for actual intellectual development.  They are, in her phrasing, “box checkers.”

I’ve written before (and above) in the context of McArdle that there is this thing that real journalists do when they seek to make claims of fact.  They report.  They call people.

She doesn’t.

I thought I should.

Again, my goal here is not to write the story McArdle should have written, if she cared to be an honest disputant.  So I’m not going to claim that I properly reported the question of whether or not the officer corps’ pursuit of advanced degrees is as McArdle alleges — pure credentializing and nothing more.  But I did want to get at least a feel for the story.

So I called someone I’ve never met, but whose work I admire, who has direct knowledge of the officer corps and its behavior. That would be Professor Andrew Bacevich, now Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, formerly Colonel, USA.

He is, of course, not a box checker.  His BS comes from West Point; his MA and Ph.D from Princeton.

It wasn’t hard to find such a source.  I reached him quite easily (within five minutes of the impulse to find him), and when I did,  I asked him about the substance of McArdle’s claim that members of the military (not just the “army” which, in her intellectual sloth, seems for her to be an all purpose stand-in for the various branches of American armed services) seek any old masters degree to ensure advancement and/or survival in the military hierarchy.

He couched the conversation summarized below by saying that he was telling me what he saw, and that he was not the source for a current, synoptic view of the programs that provide education to the serving military.  With that caveat…let’s go.

That answer he gave me was that there is some truth to that claim. (See Ms. McArdle — it doesn’t hurt to try this sometimes.)

At certain moments, Bacevich told me, particularly during reductions in force like the one that followed the end of the Vietnam War, those who had become or risen as officers without advanced, or even completed college degrees scrambled to fill the gap, and those that did not were seriously at risk.  More recently, he said, it’s true that the fact of a masters can matter more than the substance or the school for certain kinds of advancement, Majors seeking the next step to Lt. Col. and so on.

At the same time, though, Bacevich said, that what I read to him of McArdle’s piece (all the paragraph above) misses as much as it hits.  It does not account for those like Bacevich and others (another Princeton Ph.D, General David Petraeus for a contemporary example, or that product of the rather more cosmopolitan Ivy, Columbia*, Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, to name the first scholar-general officer I had the good fortune to meet, way back in 1977), whom the military funds and gives the time to complete absolutely first class advanced academic training.  Those recognized as potential intellectual leaders of the US military, that is, are supposed to go get their education at, as Bacevich put it, “the best institutions that they can get into.”

To add yet more nuance:  those members of the officer corps seeking education on their own, either with DOD financial aid or on their own dime, do look for the most efficient way to get the job done.  But this is not, in general, a class of folks who like to waste time.  A major or a commander doing a tour at the Pentagon may seek a part time program in more or less anything nominally relevant to their military career from a local university — but this is a far cry from the kind of abuses of the system that Golden laid at the feet of corrupt for profit institutions.

Last, Bacevich spoke specifically to the quality of military students seeking advanced degrees, at least as he encounters them.

There are always, he told me, a couple of mid-ranking officers enrolled in the program in international relations in which he teaches at BU.

They are different from the civilian students. They tend to be older, and unlike their classmates, who are still in many cases trying to figure out what interests them in the world, the serving military students are clear on why they are there.

It’s “teach me everything about Latin America, because my next posting is as defense attache in Brazil,” Bacevich told me — which exactly tallies with my own, much more limited contact with military students on TDY to the academy.  As such, these are not exactly the efficient income maximizers of McArdle’s impoverished imagination.  Efficient, yes — but to a different end, one for which citizens may indeed feel grateful that they pursue.

Oh, and one more thing:  I asked Bacevich about that distinction McArdle tried to draw between military “box checkers” and private sector “signallers.”  He concurred, echoing with relish, my characterization of that claim.

Again this is a family blog, so just pictiure what emerges from the south end of  a north facing bull.

And so, after all this, what of McArdle’s conclusion, that it is “obvious” that the military should do away with “box checking,” or else set the bar higher?

Well, she says, it’s impossible to raise standards.  Why? Because, (remember, this is McArdle’s cosmos through which we slog), we confront the inherent corruption of public service: “the people who already have bogus degrees from diploma mills are senior, and therefore, have some power with which to block such an initiative.”

She knows this… how? That “impression?”

She is of course, simply wrong, and in her wrongness has chosen to slander the entire senior military hierarchy, not to mention the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense.

She’s wrong on individual facts — as noted above, senior military leaders do not merely sport Aspen State Teacher’s College parchment, but rather, in many cases, degrees of significantly more import that McArdle’s (and mine).

And, unsurprisingly, she’s wrong in the most elementary and fundamental way.  As Daniel Golden reported, and as she would have known had she bothered to do the least quantum of journalism,**/*** the military has already set in motion the process by which standards for online education will be set and reviewed.  Golden wrote that the process has been slow and the results are “a year away from being implemented…” according to the civilian deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, Tommy Thomas, with whom Golden corresponded.

That is hardly a complete response to the range of problems Golden documented.  But it is at least part of what needs to be done.

Last — lest I be charged with malice by ellipsis, here’s the phrase I cut out of McArdle’s conclusion, as quoted at the top of this piece:

The problem is, realistically many people (like active duty military) do not have time to get a real degree.

No. Not at all. Or at least, not evident in the data available to her.

On the contrary — as we see at just about every major university in the country, some officers receive release time to work as full time students.  Many more, especially those on US tours, seek out real education the same way lots of Americans have, by working, in essence, two jobs, their day work and their education.  But the only problem for which McArdle’s seemingly unread source provides actual data is that profit maximizing institutions are cheating the US taxpayer and individual members of the armed services by offering education that does not deliver what is promised.

But if you already know that profit maximization is the one true road to any desired end, then heaven forfend that you actually come to grips with the facts presented on the specific questions to whose answers your faith has already guided you.

*So sayeth this extrusion of the Kremlin on the Charles, unwilling to let go entirely of undergraduate snark, lo these many decades gone.

**bonus prize to the identifier of the deliberate usage error in that clause.

***another bonus to anyone who comes up with the best unit name for that quantum unit.  That is:  if the quantum of electro-magnetic radiation is the photon, could the quantum of journalism be, say, the Hildy? And if so, should its antiparticle be the McArdle?  Take it from there….

Images:  Ilya Yefimovich Repin, “Demonstration on 17 October 1905,” 1907-1911.

Francisco de Goya, “El Aquelarre,” 1797-1798.

Albert Einstein’s Christmas Message: the Modern GOP Fail/Health Care Reform edition

December 24, 2009

I’ve been reasonably obsessed about the health care debate — its certainly had an impact on my blogging output, among much else.

Like many of us, I suspect, I got trapped in the horror/fascination of the battleground within the Democratic party:  what would happen to the public option, abortion language, why we can’t offer Medicare to more Americans and so on.  I felt the surges of joy (yay! I”ll be eligible for Medicare in a few years) and rage, (Joseph *#@!*& Lieberman did what?) and wailed that even after a legendary shift in nominal party power we Democrats couldn’t get the most basic plank of our platform erected in good order.

But now, with the latest (and perhaps the tallest) hurdle leapt, with the prospect of a highly imperfect but much-better-than-what-we’ve-got-now approach to health care in this country that much closer to hand, I’ve remembered what should have been at the front of mind throughout.  Bad as the Democratic party has handled at least some of this, the real revelation of this entire season has been the moral desert that is the contemporary GOP.

Recall that this is, more than ever, the party of ostentatious Christianity.  Prominent Republicans have never been bolder in asserting claims of superior values, truer faith, as against their presumptively impious Democratic rivals.  I’m racing family celebrations and a nine year old who wants to play Vikings with me (let us smite!), so I’m not going to dig up the links we all know anyway — the nonesense that Sarah Palin utters any times her lips are seen to move; Huckabee’s self righteousness; name your Senator (who will never, ever, comment on the GOP values represented by Messrs. Ensign and Vitter), and so on.

And in that context, thinking today of the ceremonies to come in honor of the traditional anniversary of Jesus’ birthday (and yes, I certainly know of the ahistoricity of Christmas), I am once again stunned, as only someone who is much younger and less steeped than I in the hypocrisy of the travesty that the GOP has brecome should be, at the extraordinary gap between the Republican Party’s leadership and base assertion of Christian righteousness and an approach to governing this country that would make Jesus weep.

Which is to say:  whatever you may wish to argue as a policy wonk about the best way to fix American health care, no sentient being can argue that the current system is anything but a moral evil.  I mean that literally:  any system which by its design, by what happens if it works as each component is supposed to, must kill tens of thousands unnecessarily each year, seems to me as clearly seen as evil as any human act.

Add to that all the sorrow and woe that comes from the system short of death, and the daily erosion of our economic and political power that ensues as a result of such a misallocation of capital and government resources.

So, looking back on the last six months or so, what truly stands out, for all the tumult and gnashing of teeth on the Democratic side of the aisle, is the total, unanimous, undifferentiated rejection of any attempt to change that situation for the better by Republicans who are, after all, putting themselves forward as those who should return to governing power within a year.  It’s not that they had different approaches to this problem.  It is rather, as everyone by now has noticed, that their only answer to Democratic proposals was to say, in effect, the status quo, the murderous, costly, America-weakening status quo is just fine.

Recall:  not one GOP senator proposed a meaningful amendment in the recent process.  No one came forward and said if you address this or that concern, I’ll cross the aisle to permit more American families to gain access to hospitals and doctors and the rest.  Even that allegedly thoughtful GOP solon, Olympia Snowe could not in the end vote for a bill that had answered every objection she raised during months of negotiations…because it was, she said, too rushed a process.

In that context, it is clear to me, at least, that for every church service the GOP leaders and its base may attend over the next 24 hours; for every swelling in their hearts they may feel as they contemplate the birth of that figure said to have formed the essential bridge between flawed humanity and divine perfection; for every time any of them condemns any Democrat for failures of faith or patriotism…

…those who chose to answer the question of can we do better by ourselves and our fellow citizens with such an unrelenting “No!” have some ‘splainin to do.  Not to me, but to that figure three kings are said to have travelled far to adore.

Or, as Albert Einstein put it when asked his opinion of what was going on across Europe not too long before the Christmas season in that grim year of 1915:

Why so many words when I can say it in one sentence, and in a sentence very appropriate for a Jew: Honor your Master Jesus Christ not only in words and songs, but rather foremost by your deeds.

That is all.

Image: Quentin Massys, “The Adoration of the Magi,” 1526

Self-Aggrandizement Alert: Newton and the Counterfeiter/New York Magazine edition

December 24, 2009

Well, this was a nice way to start the holiday week.  New York Magazine named Newton and the Counterfeiter one of the ten best books of the year — number five in fact.

To allow the Devouring Culture Vulture, AKA Sam Anderson to deliver words that would make me blush to write, this is what he had to say in support of his choice:

Levenson gives us a historical metamorphosis you’d never believe if it weren’t so well-documented: Isaac Newton — the antisocial human calculator who revolutionized Enlightenment science — as badass London supercop. In the 1690s, England faced a financial crisis that almost destroyed the country: Newton aimed his genius at the problem while tracking, Law & Order style, a counterfeiting supervillain. The plot is fast, loaded with rich pockets of history (gravity, alchemy, bubonic plague), and strangely resonant with current affairs. Imagine Stephen Hawking solving the global financial meltdown while also busting Ponzi schemers.

I blush.

As always, should you feel moved to take the next logical step at this point in the post, Newton and the Counterfeiter can be found at all the usual sources:  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at, and John Smith & Son.

Image: Adelaide Hanscom and Blanche Cumming, “The Earth Could Not Answer,” 1905, illustration for “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” tr. Edward Fitzgerald, 1905.

Does Andrew Sullivan Know About This? Or Tbogg?

December 23, 2009

Personalized artwork made from your DNA — or, as in the photo accompanying this article, of your beagle’s DNA.

Bonus aside: don’t be fooled by the excesses of cute displayed by beagle – owners.  These are nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw critturs.  Make no mistake. Hug a beagle and you caress a killer:

Image:  Bruno Liljefors, “Beagle and Fox,” 1885.

Another Megan McArdle post — but only a little one

December 18, 2009

Not the promised mountainous tome, but via Sadly No, I find that the Divine Ms. MM has taken up comedy writing.

Her attempt at humor?

…it’s kind of funny that Al Gore’s speeches and summits like Copenhagen seem to have an unfortunate tendency to be beset by cold snaps and blizzards.

Ah yes.  Snow in Denmark in December is funny as long as it falls on that notorious meanie, Al Gore.  It does provide a chuckle, I guess — if you’re sense of humor never made it past a third grade playground.  My son, in fourth, is already beyond this kind of stuff.  He’d never attempt the following dialogue:

“It’s cold today.”

[Editor's note:  this is a true fact.  17 F, - 6.3 C as I dropped my kid off today at school]

“Yeah.  But yesterday we were talking about how the earth is getting warmer in our Communist-conspiracy dominated third grade science lesson.”

“Teachers are dumb.”

“Yeah. Do you want to be Jedi or Sith this time?”

[Alright.  He'd ask that last question.  Not the rest, though.-- ed.]

I mean, seriously.  Did McArdle not get enough mean-girl action in high school?  Or was she in an out clique, perhaps, and is getting her revenge now by being willfully stupid through a big megaphone? (Call this the Joe Lieberman theory of the diaper-brigade of modern right wing bloviators.  Too much disdain thrown their way in their teens turns into a flattery-by-imitation style and a deep, insatiable hunger for revenge.)

The best part is that in the comments thread someone actually goes to say it’s all Rachel Carson’s fault — and environmentalists have killed lots of people because they outlawed DDT for malaria control.

Except, of course, they didn’t.*

Which is the point:  a lot of McArdle’s stuff, to the extent that I can hold my nose and read it, has about that level of intellectual rigor.  She is a lazy writer, as I’ve documented before at tedious length.

Most of the time, the consequences of such sloth are negligible.  There are lots of bad writers in the world,but almost all don’t get read enough to matter.  But if you are sloppy in useful ways — and there never much more useful idiots than Ms. McArdle — and you can write with superficial polish, then you can find a platform in which you can do real harm.

How much harm?

I don’t know.

I’ve come to think that McArdle is in fact rather like a high school in-group kid.

She’s risen as her talent, such as it is, and certain kinds of luck have taken her.  But she persuades only the persuaded, as far as I can tell, and if the above is any indication of her grace with language and the native bite of her wit…I’m coming to think that she resembles no one so much as Plankton in my son’s favorite show, SpongeBob SquarePants.

(For those of you unitiated in the ways of Bikini Bottom, know only that Plankton is loud,  ever-certain and always wrong —  the butt rather than the bearer of the joke.)

*The DDT/malaria story is complicated, as you might expect (though you would never learn from McArdle or her claque), but the very short form is that what was outlawed was the use of DDT as an agricultural pesticide, for reasons that I know of no one disputing today.

However, DDT has remained in constant if debated use in an indoor application to defend against malaria-bearing mosquitos where it counts, and there is considerable evidence that it has real value in that venue.

At the same time, as critics of the use of this known human toxin have pointed out, some countries,  have achieved even better anti-malaria results through the comprehensive use of coordinated public health approaches emphasizing bed nets and targetted in home spraying with non-DDT insecticides. Vietnam is the poster child for such approaches, but anti malarial success stories are not limited to that nation.

So, to the off repeated lie that Rachel Carson killed millions, with her anti-DDT Birkenstock-wearing zealot-hippie followers wielding the knife of a DDT ban, wrong on all counts:  DDT wasn’t banned as an anti-malarial tool; and DDT is not the without-which-die weapon in the malaria wars its Curtis LeMay-like proponents would have you believe.

In fact, if you see a kind of “bomb the village/kill a million Iraqis” in order to save them mentality here, I sure wouldn’t say you were wrong.  Some people out there can only tolerate the simplest of solutions to complex problems, and some others make too good a living off feeding their fantasies.  (Are you listening, Thomas Friedman?)

Image:  Vincent van Gogh “Snow-covered field with a harrow (after Millet),” 1889

If They Can’t Handle Pelosi…

December 18, 2009

How on earth can the American people trust the GOP to stand up to an actual, you know, adversary?

See this from TPM for the latest in utterly pathetic weakness from the party of nursery school.

Consider this a keep-the-blog-fires burning post while I finish up another one of my steaming heaps of verbiage on that old faithful target for scorn, Megan McArdle.

Image:  Georgios Iakovidis, “Cold Shower,” 1898.


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