Archive for February 2010

Short Friday Reading Notes/List

February 26, 2010

Amidst the ruins of the day (and it’s only 10:24 a.m. as I start this!) just a quick note to highlight some stuff I hope to blog at greater length about soon.

First:  Just this early a.m. finished Masha Gessen’s Perfect Rigor, about Grigory Perelman, the Poincare Conjecture, the nature of mathematics and mathematicians, and the last days of the Soviet empire.

Readers of this blog from back a year or so ago will know that I am serious fan of Masha’s, and have recommended her previous book, Blood Matters as the best account I’ve seen of the science, personal and social implications of genomics as applied to human health and well being.

Perfect Rigor is a very different book, of course, but it captures such a range of human experience:  passion and/or obsession, the cost of purity, the vicious absurdities of Soviet history, utopianism within mathematics, greed, envy, desire:   the whole shooting match, all centered on a deceptively simple-seeming statement about the nature of a shape we almost — but can’t, really — see in our mind’s eye.  It’s great historical writing; it’s a test of the limits of biography (what do you do when your living central character will not talk, not to you, not, anymore, to anyone?); it’s subtle blend of memoir, history, and contemporary conflict evokes a comparison with another book I’ve recently read and admired, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcksand I want to write about all this with a bit more depth soon.  But for now, take my word for it:  Masha is a fine, fine writer, with an economy and elegance of style to match the intelligence and — her word applies here — the rigor her subjects demand.

Another book I’ve just begun and have not yet fully digested, but am loving, is just out:  Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty.  Tim and I are old friends, and I’ve been hearing about this book for years; it’s the product of years of thought and reading.  I’m just getting started, so I don’t have a detailed comment yet, but it is as beautifully written as the best of Tim’s prior work, and it is smart as hell.  I’m going to be curious when I get to Chapter Ten, “Totalitarian Antiscience,” to place Tim’s thinking in the context of Loren Graham’s very nuanced studies of Soviet science — the disasters (see The Ghost of the Executed Engineer) and the surprising moments of accomplishment, (see What have we learned about science and technology from the Russian Experience?).  But that’s the pull of this book for me: Tim’s not trying merely to write descriptive history.  He wants to argue with his reader, to persuade, and I am interested in both his subject and the structure of his thinking.

Last, for this Friday at least, some pure fun:  Elif Batuman’s The Possesssed, a memoir/polemic/picaresque of reading and thinking and graduate school (not always conducive to either) and Russian literature.  Batuman is a craftsman of sentences (and she would loathe hearing herself described so, given her brutal dismissal of what she rather inaccurately terms a specifically New England tradition of writing instruction), and as craft does in the hands of artists, those sentences become beautiful, singly and in combination.

She’s also a viciously, hilariously acute observer, of herself and of anyone or anything in range.  It’s a serious hoot, with equal emphasis on both adjective and noun.  Plus the one thing taken deadly (but not humorlessly) seriously throughout is great fiction by dead Russians, works which accumulate into one of the mother lodes of investigation of the human condition.

Worth your time, in other words…have fun.

Image: Nicolas Neufchâtel, “Bildnis des Nürnberger Schreibmeisters Johann Neudörffer und eines Schülers,” 1561.

The GOP War On Knowledge…or how the skids are being greased for America’s decline and fall.

February 25, 2010

I’ve got a backlog of stupid and dangerous ideas and claims out there I want to blog about — one of the nice things about being a self-selected watchdog for duplicity and useful ignorance on the web means I’ll never lack for targets — but I want to highlight a theme that links a lot of what I’m raging about these days.

That would be the escalation in the Republican and right wing’s Thirty Years War on the idea of knowledge and the significance of expertise in public life.  You can see it everywhere these days, and I’ll be blogging over the next several days about the latest forays in this from all the usual suspects in this, from the incomparable (and I don’t mean in a good way) George Will, to that genial tribute to mediocrity in high places, David Brooks.

Those tw0 — and many others — share this particular incoherence:  they stake their claim to authority through an assertion of a peculiar kind of expertise, in particular, the ability to interpret technical knowledge and to divine social patterns, while at the same time decrying the authority of the more specialized skills that produce facts and interpretations with which they disagree.

More simply:  no one knows anything except me.

The animating motive behind such bathos is not simply self-aggrandizement (though that is surely a feature and not a bug).  Rather it is aimed at discrediting genuine expertise, actual specialized knowledge and/or craft skills.  Both men (and many others) are actively and overtly trying to reclaim power for an aristocracy of birth, institutions, or certain interests, and hence find claims of authority independent of unearned descent or association a deep threat.

Simply:  as long as, say, Paul Krugman, exists to tell them they don’t know what they are talking about, then those who would rather accelerate the transfer of wealth from the middle to the top, have to find ways to deny his credibility, his authority-born-of-knowledge to label their stupid claims for the folly they are.

More broadly, the game now is to paint one side — the side that did not author our current disaster — as a hopelessly out of touch and inherently incapable group of impractical experts, folks who know only theory and have none of the so-called common sense needed to recognize that the succour of the rich and powerful is the alpha and omega of sound policy.  It’s Spiro Agnew updated for the digital age, with the pointed headed intellectuals now turned into mindless social engineers recrafting America to match some abstract (probably French) social theory.

A type specimen of this kind of “thought” (sic!) comes from one of the perennial suspects, Michael Barone, of Town Hall.  You know you are in for a familiar ride when  you get an invocation of both the patron (if more admired than read) saint of self-styled American conservatives, Edmund Burke…and a peculiar (given Burke’s essentially elitest bent) appeal to mass opinion.

In one of the more mindlessly dog-bites-man bits of analysis  he writes that the reason Democrats lost in Massachusetts, and will and should lose this fall, is because they are too slavishly antipathetic to Edmund Burke’s view of governance.  That’s right — according to this giant of the political idea wars, the reason the Democratic Party is in trouble is because it is still paryting like it’s 1789

…. they take the very un-Burkean view that those with elite educations can readily rearrange society to comport with their pet abstract theories. These often secular Americans have a quasi-religious faith in government’s ability to, in Barack Obama’s words to Joe the Plumber, “spread the wealth around” and to recalibrate the energy sector to protect against climate dangers they are absolutely sure are impending.

Ordinary Americans, even in Massachusetts, may not have heard of Edmund Burke, but they share his skepticism that self-appointed experts can reengineer institutions in accordance with abstract theories.*

That is:  a party that seeks to return the regulation of the financial markets to the American norm of about 1988, say…and to introduce into oligopolic structure of the American health insurance market just a smidgeon of quality control and the possibility (not the certainty) of price competition in certain areas, not to mention access for those increasingly pushed out of a shrinking employer-provided health care system…and to construct a market structure for pricing known externalities of energy use has gone all Rousseau and Robespierre on us, instead of presenting what is barely distinguishable from a plausible Republican party platform from the 1950s through at least the candidacy of Gerald Ford.

Of course it’s nonsense, and I’d even wager that Barone in some lizard brain moment of intellection might realize that while what he spouts are words, they lack any meaningful connection to the reality he purports to document.

But that’s the point.  It’s not that what my party wants to do is so dangerous, in fact.  It’s that the existence of an alternative claim on reality  – or rather, reality itself — is unacceptable…so instead of engaging in an argument one might lose,  the real mission is to make sure that the whole idea an argument is possible (much less a loss) gets destroyed.

So, despite the fact that the right is exercising a near monopoly on abstract theories (tax cuts raise revenues, e.g.) that engineer institutions (think, for example an explicitly anti-market Medicare drug benefit, and/or a non-regulating financial regulatory apparatus) to produce through massive transfers of both wealth and power from the middle and poor to the rich…it’s imperative to ensure that folks who actually know stuff in detail about the critical decisions we are in fact making don’t actually get a place at the table.

Because we know what happens when they do.  Folks like the ones Barone wants to see in power get their heads handed to them.

This is what is going to make today’s farrago so fascinating, by the way.

Here’s hoping for a massacree.

PS:  As an extra special bonus, how about a little reality check on what today’s faux Burkeans are actually asking us to accept, in the words of the great man  himself.

Burke gets a lot of props, and not just from self-styled conservatives, for his writing on the American Revolution, his support for the idea that Englishmen abroad, or their descendents, safely Protestant ones, at least, should be able to exercise the rights Englishmen at home enjoyed.  And there is a lot that he writes that can be assimilated into a plausible modern political philosophy, if one is willing to do the historical heavy lifting of investigated the world as Burke experienced it within the specific context of the working out of the political implications of the last successful foreign invasion of England — by William of Orange, way back in 1688 — neatly spun as “the Glorious Revolution.”**

But Burke did not cease to write or think come 1783.  He had the French Revolution to chew on too, and in his Reflections on the Revolution on France he delineated the limits of his willingness to cede power to different conceptions of “the people.”

He wrote (via that ever reliable source…Wikipedia):

“We fear God, we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected”

This is no reflexive “that which governs least, governs best,” conservatism of the kind invoked (as they undermine it, usually) by its very priests and preachers.  Rather it is what it seems:  a deference to authority.  That’s the key:  it’s not that self-styled Burkeans want to deny a privileged decision making status — the right to engineer society — to everyone.  They just want to make sure, as the powerful and their sycophants always have, that only the right people have access to the tools needed.

It’s worth listening to the source again to understand what is required to reserve such power for those who should be undisturbed in its exercise:

Burke defended prejudice on the grounds that it is “the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” and superior to individual reason, which is small in comparison. “Prejudice”, Burke claimed, “is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit”.

Prejudice:  that which is known without questioning the means of its knowing, and which serves to reinforce truths that thus need not be tested against reality at the moment of decision.

This is the kind of approach that asserts, despite all evidence and experience to the contrary that, say, the correct response to the near destruction of our financial system in 2008 is increased power and decreased regulation of the actors who brought about the disaster in the first place.  Because it is known, rather than investigated, that markets never fail, then the failure of a market can only be due to its deviation from the Platonic ideal of Marketness.  And as we know this, we have incorporated it into our body of prejudice, now, at the moment we must choose, we know what to do:  Free the Banksters!

Or perhaps a more homely***  example will do:  it is Burkean, if one wanted to push the words quoted above not that far beyond the limit of their plain meaning, to extend the prejudice that rendered African men three/fifths of human being at the political settlement of the revolution that Burke endorsed to an unconsidered belief that it remains illegitimate for an African-American man today to claim supreme executive authority today.

Hence, while it remains on the fringes (but sadly, not beyond them) of respectability to assert that President Obama is a foreign born agent of foreign powers, or simply a lesser human (think the witch doctor images and so on), how could any Burkean condemn such sentiments as anything more than an expression of what that foundational prophet of conservatism would have applauded as benign–nay beneficient — prejudice.

And yes, I know that I am quote-picking here.  And I’m not suggesting a Burke thinking and writing in the 21st century would have found Obama’s rise to power illegitimate.  (Though I do think the 18th century Burke would have been unable to imagine an Obama’s presidency — remember:  the past is a different country).  What I am saying that dressing oneself now in the cloak of Burkean virtue is a tricky business — and that’s putting it nicely.

*This post isn’t about that, but while it’s fair to say that anti-incumbent sentiment and some populist resentment played a significant role in Brown’s victory — it’s worth noting that Brown was exceedingly fortunate in his opponent.  I’ve volunteered on Democratic campaigns in MA since 1976, and nothing has approached Coakley’s for shambolic ineptitude…and I speak as one who made calls for some pretty clueless folks in my day.  Counterfactuals are odious, but I find it hard to believe that if Mike Capuano had been the Democratic candidate the Brown campaign would ever have been given their open playing field.  That said — Brown certainly ran a very good campaign, which he would have done against anyone.  But if you actually pay attention to what happened on the ground here in MA, it is absurd to read in the results of this special election a grand philosophical revelation, and those who do are either or both deluding themselves and trying to argue for something that they cannot otherwise defend.

**To be fair, one can just as well term the conflict a civil war — though that overstates the degree to which the Stuart side mounted anything like an active defense — or, perhaps better, as a coup with Parliamentary interests aligned with those of major magnates and against an erratic and totalizing monarchy.  It was revolutionary only in the most limited sense.  It did alter the succession of the monarchy, and it certainly shifted the balance of power between Parliament and the hereditary executive.  But for all that William III was in some sense the first English monarch to be hired as a kind of proto civil servant, the decapitation of the Stuart monarchy and the expansion of Parliamentary control of governance was as evolutionary as it was transformative.

**In every sense of the word.

Image:  Dósa Géza “Gábor Bethlen among his Scholars” 1870.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Ralph Stanley

February 25, 2010

Born February 25, 1927.

This needs no words from me:

Bonus banjo track:

Because I Love You All, More Brain Candy Edition: Santana Meets Tuvan Throat Singing Edition

February 24, 2010

One of the things I love most about MIT is the odd nooks and crannies of knowledge one’s colleagues can lead you to at any moment.

Case in point…thanks to the documentarian and social historian Vivek Bald, one of my colleagues in MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (a small but valiant band of brothers and sisters that punches way above its weight, artistic/aesthetic/scholarly speaking), I now know about this:

Enjoy.

Update: per Bingo’s comment below, Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” is a cover too, of course, which I would have remembered if I were not from childhood blinded by my Bay Area upbringing, at just the time when Santana’s sound was first ringing through town.  Peter Green wrote the song, of course, and it was originally recorded by the what was then the band with which he played:  the Ur version of Fleetwood Mac.  So, as a couple of bonus tunes, here’s Peter Green and Santana together on the piece:

And here’s Green himself, back in the day:

Great Read: MacFarquahar on Krugman in the current New Yorker.

February 24, 2010

Larissa MacFarquahar’s profile of Paul Krugman is worth your attention.  It’s a substantial tome, full of good stuff, from a portrait of the economist as a young smart guy to the sequence of what I wouldn’t call radicalization, but his conversion to the assumption of a kind of moral duty to speak.

But while the meat of the piece in many ways lies with this latter end of Krugman’s career, the bits where he tries to speak truth to power whilst educating the rest of us, the parts of the profile I like best are those that give insight into the practice and competences of economics as an aspiring science.

Krugman acknowledges what his “fresh-water” former friends (go to the piece if the term isn’t already known to you) mostly don’t:  that much of what economics tells us is obvious, that  economists know less that is true than people realize, and conversely, that much of what they do know isn’t true — and that’s a feature, not a bug.  In discussing one of the key pieces of work that secures Krugman’s reputation as a top-flight economist, Macfarquahar write:

Again, as in his trade theory, it was not so much his idea that was significant as the translation of the idea into mathematical language. “I explained this basic idea”—of economic geography—“to a non-economist friend,” Krugman wrote, “who replied in some dismay, ‘Isn’t that pretty obvious?’ And of course it is.”

As an aside, I can affirm the more general truth of this anecdote.  I had the chance to sit in on some of the promotion and hiring reviews pending at MIT’s economics department (coincidentally, Krugman’s former intellectual home) and while there were certain appointments in which the mathematical sophistication and abstraction from recognizable real-world issues was beyond not only me, but just about everyone in the room too, there were others in which the key ideas were rigorous and meticulous demonstrations of pretty obvious ideas.

The reason such work was seen as good was not because it presented a fundamental new insight, but because it presented that insight with a particular body of data and methodological rigor. (To add — there are other ways of demonstrating some of these facts; historians and anthropologists, for example, can and do observe the same phenomena as economists might. There data may overlap, but not be identical, and their interpretative tools may — often do — yield similar conclusions by their different routes…but all this is a digression.)

To get back on track:  MacFarquahar then expands on why economists bother with formalizations of penetrating glimpses of the obvious — and or why other disciplines might know things that economists had forgotten.  She writes:

Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn’t know what to do with it. His friend Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley, had a collection of antique maps of Africa, and he told Krugman that a similar thing had happened in cartography. Sixteenth-century maps of Africa were misleading in all kinds of ways, but they contained quite a bit of information about the continent’s interior—the River Niger, Timbuktu. Two centuries later, mapmaking had become much more accurate, but the interior of Africa had become a blank. As standards for what counted as a mappable fact rose, knowledge that didn’t meet those standards—secondhand travellers’ reports, guesses hazarded without compasses or sextants—was discarded and lost. Eventually, the higher standards paid off—by the nineteenth century the maps were filled in again—but for a while the sharpening of technique caused loss as well as gain.

The point being that economists, for good reasons, often need to rebuild a structure of known facts and ideas — not because they could not know these things by other means (like a good cartographic historian would) but because for economists to talk to each other, they need to express the objects of their curiosity in a form that their colleagues can understand. So far so good — but such mutual comprehensibility can come, as MacFarquahar documents Krugman discovering, at the expense of insights available for the taking. This is what I mean when I say, as I have on occasion that economics is an aspiring, or simply a young discipline

That is:  economics as practiced in the academy is in possession, its practitioners believe (and I mostly do too, not that my opinion matters) of a body of methods and a growing number of results that suggest that it is a powerful way of analyzing certain kinds of human behavior, and for making useful predictions about some things.  But it is far from as comprehensive in its explanatory power as some of its practitioners — and many more in the economic pundit class — would have one believe.

What’s more, it’s important to remember that there is a difference between a valid result and an empirically valuable one.  More bluntly: it’s not just possible, but common to come up with something that is absolutely “right” within the framework of economic thinking that is simply false in the real world.  MacFarquar writes:

The most successful paper Krugman ever wrote was about target zones, and it was completely wrong. In the years before Europe adopted the euro, it was thought that establishing something between floating exchange rates and fixed ones—a “target zone” within which a currency would be allowed to float—might reap some of the advantages of each. He estimates that by the time the paper was officially published, in 1991, some hundred and fifty derivative papers had already appeared. “Empirically, it doesn’t work at all,” Krugman says. “People loved it as an academic thing, but it had some very strong predictions about interest rates inside target zones. Those predictions all turned out to be wrong. But nobody attacked me for that. I was showing that if target zones worked the way that people say they’re supposed to work, then this is how it would play out.”

Economics — academic economics — “knows” much more than it knows…and that’s perfectly alright for the development of a body of thought.  The problem only surfaces either when economics results are given more credence than they deserve in the making of public policy and/or opinion.  I’d blurt “supply side” here, except that this was explicitly controversial within the profession, and so the history of supply side policy is not simply a story of a consensus too confidently achieved, but rather of the catastrophic process by which bad ideas are transformed into political certainties…which leads directly to the second half of my diagnosis of pathologies…

…and that would be when economists  — or political/ideological allies — present as settled conclusions that are either uncertain or false.

You see that a lot these days with deficit hawks — those folks who know what ain’t so, which is that deficit spending in the context of below-capacity employment and production can’t spur growth.  It’s a view associated with the freshwater school, and disputed hotly by the saltwater crowd, and by reality…and it is discussed amongst much else by Krugman himself  within his now famous (or notorious) article “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong.

All of which is to say:  1) Read the profile,

.and 2) remember:  economists, especially those who tell that GOP tax and budget policies will get us out of a recession, match Martin Rees‘ definition of cosmologists:

Often (always?–ed.) in error … but never in doubt.

Image: Jan Vermeer, “The Geographer,” 1668-1669.

The Still Digging Out From Admissions Season Brain Candy Post: Dead Milkmen Edition

February 17, 2010

I’ve got lots to say, no time to say it in (more McArdle gigging tomorrow, I expect), but until I get the hour or so free I need, the smile raised by hearing the tag end of song on my way into the office today will have to do.

Enjoy:

A bit of brain candy whilst waiting to post after admissions heck…Russian Tank/Personal Transport Edition

February 16, 2010

Via Automotto, this.

I want one.

(h/t Gizmodo)

A Sad Note Sent to Mr. David Broder

February 10, 2010

Here is a slightly edited text to an email sent to David Broder, on the occasion of reading his thoughts (sic) on Sarah Palin’s ascent to political heavyweight status.  (h/t Josh Marshall)

Dear Mr. Broder,

I know it will pain you to hear this from a 51 year old reader, but I grew up on your political writing.  You were the best, and I learned a great deal that I’ve put to use in a writing career of my own.

But you share this with another former champion who fears the effects of too many more blows to the brain, Kurt Warner.

It’s time to retire.

Speaking, no doubt, as one of the elitists — or at least, certainly, as a member of an elite — excoriated by Ms. Palin, your assessment of the half-term governor missed on three levels.

1)  You got the affect wrong.  You have a sense of what is off in Palin’s presentation in your remark that she wore poorly in the suburbs in the last election.  Hers is not a populism of the mass against the few, but rather of one pissed-off minority against the many…and that’s what wore so ill last time out.

Her line “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for you” is not how Huey Long rallied his supporters, nor John Edwards, nor the best high-low campaigner of a generation, Bill Clinton.  Rather, it’s the language of the mean-girl clique in high school, striking out at those less fashionable than they, whom they yet suspected might win the marathon of life, however many high school sprints they lost.  Those who were stung by such jibes then haven’t forgotten, and there were a lot of them/us.

That’s why Tina Fey was so destructive to Palin — she has that vibe pitch perfect, and she knows why it grates….that you don’t suggests your ear is going…and that’s death for a columnist of the zeitgeist.

2)  You underestimate the meaning of seemingly minor slips.  That handprompter stuff matters for the same reason that Gerald Ford’s stumbles did, or Quayle’s “pototoe” gaffe did.

No one thought those were essential to the quality of either man, but they reinforced already present impressions:  those guys were dumb.  The dominant perception of Palin at the end of the campaign was of someone with enormous performance skills who was out of her depth as an actual prospective leader.  She’s already compounded that by her inglorious exit from a governorship that was already, within Alaska, seemingly taxing her powers.

Now, seemingly, she needs to be reminded that she is supposed to be able to talk about energy.  It may seem trivial to you…but when those Americans not overwhelmed by her ability to read a prepared speech think about Palin not as a kind of political entertainment — a role at which she undeniably excels — but as an actual leader tasked with, say, dealing with the Iran nuclear buildup or ensuring that FEMA doesn’t blow the next Katrina, then stuff like this matters. And it does, as I know you once knew, for reasons the “dean of the Washington press corps” shouldn’t need reminding:  because it reinforces what we already, as an electorate, think we know about Palin, which is that however rousing she may be on the stump, she’s a lightweight.

3)  You underestimate the American voter.  You quote her (and I’m editing the quote a bit) as saying:

“And then I do want to be a voice for some common-sense solutions. I’m never going to pretend like I know more than the next person. I’m not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I’m going to fight the elitist, …I want to speak up for the American people and say: No, we really do have some good common-sense solutions.”

Well, fine.  But even if the Republican Party is putting this notion to the test, still, in bad times even more than in good, there comes a point in any campaign when you have to say more than you will provide common sense solutions.

You actually have to say something about what those solutions are.

In fact, Mr Broder, if you approached the job the way you once did, you’d wonder:  what would a President Palin do about the fiscal ramifications of the status quo in health care and pensions?  What does Palin plan for Iran and Afghanistan and relations with China., or salaries for Wall St. execs…and so on.

And you’d find out either that she wouldn’t tell you…which, over time, becomes an enormous vulnerability that a candidates as sophisticated as, say, Mitt Romney would exploit with glee..or that she would, which is, as you know, death to a persuasive populism, (and would give a debater as thoroughly expert as President Obama an enormous opportunity).

So — what I’m trying to say is that this column is both wrong and sad.  Wrong, because you have no idea what Palin sounds like outside the circles in which you already know all the changes to be rung.  You take a speech to 1,200 paying customers as an indication of her ability to transcend enormous real and atmospheric limitations…and you don’t ask if there is any other source of insight beyond your own gut feeling, and those of the same people you’ve hung with for way too long.

And that’s what makes it sad. You used to be a contender.  Hell, you used to be the champ — and that for years.  But this is tomato-can stuff.  There is no actual reporting (which is what made your old punditry so strong, that base of actual non-obvious information and experience sought from the ground up), there is no actual analysis, there is no thought given to whether Palin’s attempt at populism is modeled on the same lines as successful populist insurgencies of the past.  There’s nothing, in fact, except some guy’s response to an energetically delivered nasty speech.

You used to be good.  You could be still — but only if you put in the same kind of effort and distilled the insight captured in the arc that connects the two artworks I’ve chosen to illustrate this post.  But you’re not even trying anymore.  It’s time to go fishing.

Sincerly, and regretfully, from someone who’s read and admired you for the better part of four decades.

Tom Levenson.

Images:  Tintoretto, 1518-1594, “Self Portrait as a Young Man,

Tintoretto, “Self Portrait,” 1588.

On Memory, Memoir, and Rebecca Skloot’s journey with and to Henrietta Lacks

February 9, 2010

It’s harder than I thought it would be to weigh in with a blog-review of Rebecca Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It’s not that I don’t like the book – it’s wonderful, and I highly recommend you all go read it.

It’s not that I don’t have some thoughts about the work.  It offers plenty of grist for engagement, from its compelling story to some formal considerations in the writing, to the practical lesson Rebecca is giving us all on what it takes to promote a book in this late-stage of the traditional approaches to publishing.

It’s not that there isn’t a wealth of material to talk about.  Rebecca has written a compelling story, a genuine page turner, populated with characters – people – whom you come to care about deeply, that is at the same time an important inquiry into issues of race, class, personal autonomy and the claims of authority in America.

It’s just that all of this has been said already.  I agree with the assessments of the host of reviewers and bloggers who have already weighed in on the book:  it’s a great achievement, it’s a compelling read, and it is at once emotionally moving and intellectually demanding, which is my idea of a fine, fine book.

So what to add?

Well, I’ve got one thing to say more from my perspective as a writer who also teaches writing than as a straight reviewer/critic.  At least one of Rebecca’s choices of technique in this book was hard won, complicated, and very  important to the ultimate power of the work.

That is:  a number of people have noted what they see as the use of some of the story telling tools from fiction in the tale – and that’s certainly fair.  Her telling of scenes from the story of Henrietta Lacks herself with a novel’s third person, seemingly omniscient narrator is a case in point.

But to me the dominant source-genre for the book is not fiction but that very tricky approach to non-fiction that falls under the umbrella of memoir.

I heard Rebecca tell Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that she resisted inserting herself into the story until it became inevitable, until her odyssey with the Lacks family became so intimately intertwined with what she thought her formal narrative to be that she had to emerge as a character in her own book.

That decision shapes the entire work, much for the better I think.  We enter the tale with her 16 year old self, a not-entirely successful high school student, catching a stray remark in a biology class about an important line of cells, and their source, Henrietta Lacks, of whom the instructor said, as an aside, “she was a black woman.”

With that we’re off, and we are able to understand the entire work that follows as a journey undertaken by a maturing Rebecca to come to grips with that sudden, strange, and almost comically opaque revelation.

That journey is not undertaken by an omniscient narrator, for all that the device shows up here and there; we don’t have a Virgil on this sometimes infernal journey.

Rather, we have Rebecca herself, a changing person and voice, someone with accumulating, always incomplete knowledge.  Most important for the power of the book, Rebecca is implicated in the tale:  each discovery she makes has both an explanatory signficance and an emotional one, for her. And hence for us, once we’ve invested our concern in the teller of the tale.

By the way, in this I don’t mean that Rebecca comes to dominate the story.  Henrietta herself, and even more, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, are the emotional centers of the story. But that’s how memoirs work.  They are not simply, or even mostly (in the best ones) about the author; rather, they provide a bridge through the author to sympathy with the people and experiences encountered on a life’s journey.  A keen memoirist uses what she or he knows to be a subjective view to create a connection between the reader and both what and the way she or he sees the world.

That’s what makes the most controversial scene in Rebecca’s book so valuable, narratively.  At one point, in the midst of Henrietta’s family, Rebecca experiences a kind of exorcism.  She’s a rationalist, a science writer, for heaven’s sake.  And yet this experience is real, felt and…as written, present for the reader.

All of which is to say, that memoir isn’t just a “what I did today” account of a life:  it is a conscious and complicated narrative stance, which, when wielded by a writer of skill and sensitivity constructs a world fo feeling out of an account of fact – or what seemed like fact as lived.  Doing it well is really hard – and having done so is one reason that Rebecca produced a book that works so well.

Image: Ary Scheffer, “Dante and Virgil encounter the ghosts of Paulo and Francesca” 1854.

A quickie Saturday post with a brief answer to the question: how do I become a (better) science writer?

February 6, 2010

It’s reasonable, I guess.  My day job has me running what I can confidentyl say is one of the best science writing programs in the country.* So I often take part in some version of this email conversation I had recently with a graduate student in one of the physical sciences.

This student told me that “Though I am currently studying experimental science, one career path I am interested in is science writing or journalism.”

To which I said, in effect, “Great!”  We need good science writers more than ever, and someone committing to the field from a base of advanced training as a bench scientist is a clear win, from where I stand.**

The next question is the one they always ask…beyond or until they can sign up for a class or a program, “If you have any other advice as to how I could learn more about this field I would greatly appreciate it.”

So, just in case anyone out there may also wonder, here is what I wrote back, the short form of a theme on which I expand (as my students can certainly tell you) at much greater length when I have a captive audience:

The most immediate way to learn about writing about science for the public is to read a lot of it.  I’d go to the “Best American” series of science writing — there are actually two, Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing, published every year. While one can argue about some of the selections, the worst of the pieces there are not bad, and some are superlative.

Read like a pro — don’t just focus on the content, what you are learning — but try to analyze how the pieces are written. What’s the structure involved.  How do the different writers use sentence length and rhythm; what kind of voices do different writers employ.  How present are they in the piece — how present do they demand their audiences be — and so on.

You could pick up a copy of A Field Guide For Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig.  That gives you a  good overview of the field and some basic techniques.  Though it is a bit long in the tooth, I like Elise Hancock’s Ideas Into Words. Follow the Knight Science Journalism Tracke, http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/ — a good aggregator blog that offers some commentary on good and bad science writing.

I’d add that there a bunch of excellent science blogs out there on which one can see others honing their craft (and talking a ton of science).  But actually, I think blogs are better to read as you write one, or are working on traditional articles.  I’d say that for someone first trying to get one’s ear and eye in on the forms and styles of good writing about science it’s better to read pieces crafted with a view towards a longer life than a blog piece.  Perhaps this is just projection, for though I do spend quite a bit of time on much of my writing for this blog, I also know that I don’t work the prose the way I do when I’m writing a book or an article intended to stand on its own, without the fabric of the ongoing conversation of the blog to sustain it.

But in any event, the core message is to read and read and read — but always like a pro.  There’s an old joke:  Q: What do writers talk about when they converse among themselves?  A: Money.  What else?

Within that truth, this one — writers as writers don’t read for pleasure.  They read to learn, to steal.  If you want to be one, in any genre, start taking apart your pleasure.  It will be less short-run fun to open a book, but much long-term gain to come.

And now, off to drink a very nice bottle of wine with a couple of very smart Harvard Med types…and talk a little science.

*Actually, of course, I’m sure it is the best, full stop — just as I know my son is the most wonderful boy in the world and that my cat is a prince among felines.  These are beings under my care, and if my connection to them is more immediate than that of an institutional responsibility, still, the same emotional logic applies.

**Though some of you know from my exchanges with Bora among others that I don’t think that such advanced training is a requirement for science writers.  This is a long conversation, but the gist is that whether you enter this field as a turn from the bench or towards it, there are distinctive strenghts you bring with you, and particular weaknesses as well.

Image:  Gerald Dou, “Portrait of an old woman reading (also, Rembrandt’s mother reading),” c.1630.


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