Archive for January 2010

In Which I Godwinize the iPad — alternatively titled, “Fun with subtitles.”

January 28, 2010

Via Twitter’s #JimMacMillan, I learn that there is a very uncomfortable bunker somewhere beneath Berlin in which the presumed shortcomings of the iPad are being discussed.

Enjoy:

Call Your Senators…

January 28, 2010

Per this post here and that post there.

Here’s a link to the phone number for every Democratic Sen.  You know what to do.

Image:  John Leach, “Fabianus offers peace or war to the Carthaginian Senate,” from A Comic History of Rome, c. 1850.

Words Matter: High Tech, “Feminine Products” division

January 27, 2010

Most of the way through the Greatest Apple Announcement Ever and the#ipad twitter series is deeply fixated on the awesomeness of the fail in giving the new device a name that is such a short leap from a product that has little to do with computing, and a great deal to do, as one of the Twitterers noted, with the desperate shortage of possessors of double x chromosomes in the tech biz.

Just saying….

Image:  Margaret Carpenter, “Ada Augusta Byron King (Ada Lovelace),” 1836

What Tim Says: Contact Your Senators Now About HCR.

January 27, 2010

Tim F. over at Balloon Juice has been fighting the good fight for a while now, rallying that community to whip their representatives, and now their senators, for what appears the only clear path to health care/health insurance reform.

That’s the PTBFWR solution:  Pass The Damn Bill/Fix With Reconciliation approach.

The key is to persuade the House that this is good enough, even if not as satisfactory as the House bill would have been…and to persuade at least 50 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate that it is worth passing a bill through the arcane reconciliation process that fixes some of the more egregious provisions of the Senate version of the bill– the Nebraska sweetheart deal, the “cadillac tax” and so on.

TPM is reporting this morning that the House leadership has signed on to the concept — but doesn’t trust the Senate to deliver on the FWR half of the package — which seems entirely rationale to this observer, far removed from the beltway.  As Tim points out, that makes the next move obvious:  call your Senators. Right now.  Tell them to get on board.  Tell them even if they are GOPers — a little pressure never hurts, and you don’t know in politics what will happen tomorrow. (Trust me — I live in MA, and I really know what I’m talking about on this one right now.)

You could also call your Rep. again to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood — but it is, once again, the Senate that’s where the action is.

So, completing my outsourcing — here’s Tim’s message to you.  Listen to it. Act on it if you can.

Memo from Nancy Pelosi to you: call your Senators and give ‘em hell. You know what to do.

The switchboard: 202-224-3121.

Guide for newbies here.

What he said.

Image:  Gerard van Honthorst, “Solon and Croesus” 1624.

In Honour of Burns Day: more than orthography edition

January 25, 2010

For all my friends (and I have some!) (really — ed?) who plan to celebrate tonight by eating the inner organs of beasts,* (or rather, one organ from one species) irrigated with the distilled essence of barley, this:

And if you really want to go to the grotesquerie end of the scale, consider this early work of that latter day poet, M. Python.

Science and politics are always with us, and shall be blogged anon.  But on this glorious occasion, and a Monday, no less, perhaps a drift into the possibilities of the surreal inherent in Highlands, whiskey and an ever contentious history may ease our way into the week.

I’m thinking today should be the day I lash out for a bottle of Lagavulin.  Wotcha think?

*Warning! Celtic convergence alert, to the undoubted annoyance of both parties.

Image:  Robert Scott Duncanson, “Scottish Landscape,” 1871.

Health Care Reform and 9/11, or yet another way to demonstrate that the GOP and its allies are moral imbeciles.

January 23, 2010

I remember September 11, 2001, very well indeed.  That morning, I’d walked across 12th St. at Sixth Ave. to grab a quick breakfast at Joe Jr.’s.  I even remember what I had:  a toasted bialy with raspberry jam and a cup of coffee.  I was chatting with a couple of other guys at the counter about the Monday Night Football game the evening before — the Giants at Denver.  See — I remember.

Then a guy who looked as if he had lived way too hard during the sixties opened the door and said that a plane had just hit the World Trade Tower…and we didn’t believe him.

I walked out of the diner about five minutes later, looked to my left…

….you know what I saw.

I didn’t stay to the end.  I knew that I was watching people die, and I could not just stand there in the middle of Sixth Ave. — The Avenue of the Americas! — as that happened.

The official figure is that on that day 2,976 innocents died.

It was horrific — a disaster, a tragedy, and a crime.

For the sake of those almost three thousand dead, with the aim of preventing such a loss ever again, the United States went to war, twice.

We have committed an astonishing amount of treasure to those conflicts — about one trillion now, and counting — and  we have asked hundreds of thousands of Americans to serve in truly difficult circumstances to defend us from harm.

We have received that last full measure of devotion from thousands of those Americans — 5,344 members of the uniformed services as I write this – all in response to the loss of those three thousand  taken from us on September 11, 2001.*

Now, in January 2010, we are debating a question that seems far removed from the stark horror and terror of 9/11.

We confront once more the question of whether or not an American’s access to health care should, in this country at this moment, be something every American can expect.

We all know where we are, confronting a Senate bill that is deeply flawed.  It is compromised in a dozen different directions, and it does not deal with several of the root problems in the health care complex that the United States must some day solve.

But, but, but… at its core it does this one thing:  it provides  health insurance to 30 million Americans who do not now have it. Whether or not it can be improved by one legislative maneuver or another, it still does that.

We know one thing about the lack of coverage.  It kills people.

The latest Harvard Medical School Study estimates that 45,000 Americans die each year from lack of coverage.

You can see where this is going, I’m sure.

Thirty  million people is about 1o percent of the population of the United States. One tenth of 45,000 is 4,500.  But of course, it’s worse than that. The US Census estimates that about 46 million Americans lack health insurance each year.  That thirty million who would benefit under the Senate bill account for about two thirds of that total.

If we cannot find a way to pass the Senate bill, with or without changes…if we can’t get this through, then those thirty millions will remain uninsured.  Some of them will die each year as a result.  If the Harvard study is right, that number could be as high as 30,000 Americans gone who did not need to go.

Even if you think the Harvard study may overstate the death toll, then give the number a haircut — say cut it almost in half — and you still have some 18,o00 Americans dead each year from financial arrest.  Six 9/11s.  One every couple of months

We were willing to go to war; we are still willing to spend billions each year on the fight; as a nation we accept the necessity of sacrifice, of the loss of good women and men cut off in their prime, to respond to the criminal tragedy that was 9/11, with its 2,976 men and women killed.

We’re losing many times that many every year that we could save right now….and yet the GOP and its allies think it is more important to win a political battle than it is to prevent this annual massacre.

I don’t accuse our friends across the aisle of a willful desire to kill their fellow citizens in their thousands.  Rather, it is willed ignorance — that’s where I bring them in guilty.

Theirs is a careful not-knowing, a skill that allows them to unsee the unglamorous and unnoticed missed infection here, the unmedicated heart failure there.

But the outcome is the same, and the current attempt to derail the health care/health insurance reform measures available to us now makes those who are doing so accessories before the fact — co-conspirators — in all those unnecessary deaths.

That’s what blocking health care means.  Leave aside the compelling policy argument, all the practical reasons why this makes sense:   if you knew that there was some action you could take to prevent 9/11, what would be the moral cost of choosing not to do so?

That’s what the GOP should ask itself;  that’s what the perfection-at-any-cost wing of my own Democratic party needs to remember.  That’s what the rest of us should be dinning in our neighbors ears:  Those who for financial interest or partisan advantage are lying about health care now are committing perhaps another 9/11 every two months.

Year after year.

We need to get this done now.

*Not to mention, of course, the journalists, contractors, coalition military and above all, civilians who have lost their lives in these conflicts.

Image:  Nicholas Maes, “Christ Before Pilate” (Pilate washing his hands), before 1670.

My Email to President Obama on Health Care

January 23, 2010

Tim over at Balloon Juice is trying to lead in the fight over health care. He’s absolutely right:  we have to contact our representatives and senators as often as we can to reinforce their sense that we have their back if they take action on health care, and we will drop them like a rock if they don’t.

But there is another center of gravity in this debate, and that’s the White House.  It is my hope, if not quite my expectation, that President Obama will use the State of the Union address to lay his markers down.  But I’m growing fearful that what we see in his White House is a political shop that has consistently misread both the mood of the country and the actual dynamics taking place at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  So I think we need to push there too.

If you agree, here’s where you go to send an email.  The comment line phone number, closed until Monday at 9 EST, is 202-456-1111.  I’ll be calling first thing.  The main White House switchboard number is 202-456-1414.  I plan on calling that and asking to speak to someone in the policy shop.  I’ll let you know if I get anywhere.

Here’s what I sent in to the White House today.  Please…keep ‘em coming, and if you do, feel free to post them in the comment thread here.

Mr. President,

I am one of your most ardent supporters, and I spent as much of the summer and fall of 2008 as I could trying to make sure we won, and won big.  Now I have a request to make.

The time for a “hands off” management approach to the health care issue is clearly over.  I ask you to take the lead, using your prestige, your formidable powers of persuasion, and all the levers of power the office of the President possesses to lead the Congress to the passage of health reform.

What I seek is what is being touted as the grand compromise:  the House passes the Senate bill, while, with yours and the Democratic Senate leadership’s public commitment, advancing a bill through the reconciliation process that addresses those of the House’s concerns that can be enveloped in that legislative approach.

There is both moral and political need for you to lead here.  If we fail, 30,000,000 Americans will lack health care that could have it — on your watch — and as we know from studies of the consequences of lack of coverage, thousands of them will die of “financial arrest.”

I do not want that on my conscience as a Democrat — and I’m sure neither do you.

At the same time, as volunteer on Democratic campaigns since 1976, I can tell you that the impact on me and every other grass roots Democrat that I know will be awful if our party, with large majorities in the Congress and your good self in the White House, were to collapse into a puddle of self-pitying inaction because we lost a special election in which our candidate happened to run a truly terrible campaign.

We’ve come too far; we’ve worked too hard — you’ve worked too hard — to let go now.

All this is said in the context of respect for the job you’ve done across a huge number of complex issues, and thanks for your calm and reflective approach in this very dangerous and complex times. But every now and then both the politics and the policy demand something different.  This is such a time.

With all best wishes,

Tom Levenson

Image: John T. McCutcheon. Political cartoon depicting local politicians struggling to keep up with president Theodore Roosevelt during his visit to Chicago. Early 1900s.

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Derive Drunk

January 22, 2010

xkcd to the rescue of a very bad week:

And yes, it was all an excuse for the vile wordplay in the headline, and yes, it doesn’t quite fit the comic, but its my blog. So there.

Poseur Alert (not to mention wallet grabbing): Ken Burns, Baseball and the 2004 magical Red Sox run

January 22, 2010

Here’s the sage of New Hampshire, opining on the spiritual genius of America’s pastime:

Baseball is a precise mirror of who we are, and I can’t recall a time that was more evident, particularly considering the deep emotional, communal, and personal impact, than during the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox overcame the Yankees,’’ said Burns.

Arrrgh!  Bullsh*t.  Baseball is many things, and I enjoy it greatly, and I thrilled to the events of 2004, made yet more rich by the disasters of 2003.  But it is not “a precise mirror” of anything but, perhaps, itself.

It may offer metaphors, of course, and a genuinely penetrating examination of the dynamics of the game and the business of baseball could illustrate a some of what matters in America these days — no exploration of the Red Sox triumph of that year would be complete without diving into the steroid-scummed waters of the performances of Ramirez and Ortiz, for example.

But this malarky about “emotional, communal and personal impact” is an example of why I so loathe much of what Burns does as a historian.  Given the choice between easy myth and stilleto cut to the heart strings vs. actually coming to grips with what happened and why — he goes all kleenex and swelling orchestras on you.  Every time.

His stuff is superficially persuasive.  He’s got that style down, the lugubrious (“serious”) pacing, the soft musical bed, and the one aspect of his practice that is truly first rate, those exceptionally well done interviews stitched together with often brilliantly shaped archival spoken words.  But the substance is designed to coddle his viewers, not to challenge them.  He’s a myth maker, not a historian — and right now, when we are drowning in manufactured myths, just the thought of another Burns’ extravaganza turns my stomach.

And then there is the sheer greed and sloth involved in Burns’ current plans and pleas.  Now that he is no longer the largest receipient of corporate welfare in the PBS system, Burns has decided to milk the regular channels of PBS funding as hard as he can, potentially squeezing out dozens of hours of television in which the equivalent of watching grass grow — those endless pans across sepia photographs — are not actually seen as production values.

For example:  I have heard through the gossip channels that run through PBS that Burns intends to submit funding applications to the NEH in every funding cycle.  This is inside baseball I know (and as gossip, should be accorded the truth value such sourcing always enjoys), but if true, this puts significant pressure on the development and production of novel and original voices.

That’s simply bad, but rational behavior.  Burns likes making films, has certainly earned an audience, if not this pair of eyeballs, and there is no law against seeking any dollar of funds that might conceivably fall one’s way.

But recall that in this particular instance Burns proposes an update of an already broadcast and, IMHO, bloated series on baseball.  He’s doing a bit of an update — got to keep the shop going, after all — but the bulk of this broadcast and something along the lines of three to four percent of PBS’s primetime air for the entire year, will disappear into maw of a massive rerun.

That’s the sloth part — indolence on Burns’ part and on PBS’s.

The greed comes from Burns’ production plea, also contained in the Boston Globe article linked above:

“And one impactful way to capture the essence of that is to feature those personal mementos, the photographs of joy and jubilation, the celebration photos in the immediate aftermath, the fathers and sons and daughters, that picture of a Red Sox cap on a gravestone of a loved one who didn’t live to see the day,’’ Burns added. “Anything that illuminates the feeling and moment of what that was like for those who truly lived for this team, those snapshots and memories, we hope they will generously share them with us. The story can’t be fully told without them.’’

Leave aside the unlovely diction (“impactful.” Pah!) and what you have is a very well-budgeted production seeking unique visual material for free.

Burns is well known around New England documentary circles for this kind of thing, for poor-talking his crew, his artists and his sources of archival material.  I’ve worked with crew members who worked at cut rates for Burns in the wake of his pleas of poverty.  He is very good at striking enormously advantageous deals with young and inexperienced musicians — caveat vendor, of course, but still.

And I’ve run into the consequences of his enormously persuasive gift for getting people who should know better to give him unique visual resources for free.  More than once I’ve had to talk down curators who wanted to get from me all the money they felt they should have charged Burns.

Again, caveat vendor, as they now all do.  The usual grievance was that Burns underrepresented the non-broadcast secondary market into which he planned to sell work that contained images, and people supplying, as they thought, a nonprofit educational venture with material at their nonprofit rates felt deceived.

The archives don’t give that break to  any PBS work anymore — and they shouldn’t. (Or rather, they quote one price for broadcast only — which is nonprofit and educational — and another, higher one if the work is going to be marketed in secondary venues, which it always is.  It gets more fragmented and complicated than that in many cases, but that’s the broad outline.)

So here Burns is turning to another source.  Not newspapers or the commercial or public archives, but you and me.  And he asks for generosity. His prerogative, and if you want to have a shot at getting your pic on TV for a few seconds, go for it.  But don’t forget.  Burns is trying to get something for free that most people pay for.  Nice work if you can get it…but I don’t like it.

There.  I’m not sure if I feel much better, but pouring out a bit of bile helps.

I’ve been grieving this week, and yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, ratifying what will be, I’m afraid, the decisive erosion of both the American claim to exceptionalism and of American power worldwide, has left me almost unable to move one finger after another at the keyboard.

So yes, I know that in the great scheme of things, the success of a minor con man peddling wares to the network that now reaches, on average, less than one percent of American households every night, is less than trivial.  Still it gives me a start.  More rage to come.

Image:  Winsor McCay “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” 1908

Science Online 2010 Brain Bubbles: Duck Genitalia Doggerel

January 17, 2010

As has been amply twittered, (search #scio10), one of the hit of this years Science Online conference has been Carl Zimmer’s account of the extraordinary sexual equipment of ducks.

Not only did it serve as an object lesson (and what an object!–ed.) on the intricacies of science journalism in the age of the web, it became a running theme throughout an evening in which the tool a duck’s penis most resembles received an excellent work-out.

My own response?

Why a limerick, of course.

So, for all of you who sadly had to miss this most excellent meeting, I offer you this take-home.  With no apologies.

There once was a mallard quite amorous

Whose genitalia were certainly glamorous

But its left handed screw

Rotating quite true,

Brought results that were sadly calamitous.*

*The calamity here implied could either be the destruction of the silicone vagina used in early versions of the experiment in question, or from the implications of the idea being tested that the co-evolution of duck penises and vaginas occurred in the midst of sexual competition to enable or prevent forced copulation. For the detailed account of the experiment in question — here’s the paper.

Update: Via @JBYoder, this. You will all be punished until moral improves.

Image: Song Dynasty (960-1229) album painting of a duck.


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