Archive for May 2010

Dennis Hopper, RIP

May 30, 2010

This one is a real loss, as many more than I have said. What I loved best about Hopper’s work is what most people did, I think: the combination of deeply realized characters and the strain of pure crazy Hopper could maintain through even the most seemingly straight persona. He could seriously act.

The only momentary oddity I can add to the general remembrance is that I actually met Hopper once, in a truly weird concatenation of worlds. In 1988 (sic! we did in fact have television back then, folks) I was working as associate producer on a NOVA documentary about the then hot topic of chaos (as in the mathematical and physical concept, and not that which pertains in, say, Afghanistan right now).

I and my boss, the BBC Horizon producer Jeremy Toye (I hope I recall his name correctly after this span of years) were in LA to interview a mathematician who had been doing some work with a bunch of cardiologists on chaos in heart rhythms (I have no recollection if the idea worked out or not). Our guy was at UCLA, but he was much too cool to live in Westwood, so we met him at his apartment in the beach block of one of the roads that dead ends into Venice Beach. (Yes, I’m still covetous.) He lived opposite one of the canonical dives of the day — it might have been the Beach Cafe, and he was one of its regulars, and he paraded us across the street to take our meeting (we were in LA, after all), in his haunt.

As we walked in, around eleven in the morning, there were just a few folks in the place. One was at the very end of the bar, back to the door. Our guy, Alan, said something like “Hey, Dennis!” and started striding over to one of the other Venice regulars of the day, none other than Dennis Hopper. Alan entrained Jeremy and me in tow behind him, telling us he wanted us to meet his bud, and we dutifully followed. Hopper looked up, saw three men coming at him, backlit against the door, and coiled up. His face, just for a moment, had the full Hopper feral threat written across it, a kind of fight or flight statement written in the cast of his eyes and the tensing of his muscles.

Then he saw it was his cafe friend Alan, and two kind of dweeby PBS guys and he relaxed, said hello, shook hands, and turned back to his meal.

At the time, I just thought how extraordinary it was that Dennis Hopper in person could project that sudden and frankly terrifying shift of feeling so precisely similar to what came through on the screen. Over time, my reaction shifted. This was the moment that I first got a visceral feel of how f***ing hard it is to be someone on whom masses of strangers paint emotional connections. Hopper was just having a late breakfast in his usual spot, and he could not, it seemed, fully relax even there. Lots of good things come to the fortunate, the talented and the famous. But we do put a bite on those thus blessed.

All that aside: I’ll miss what he could put on screen.

Not Dead Yet….Just Resting/Beautiful Plumage Edition

May 23, 2010

Blogging is conspicuous by its absence.  I plead end-of-term disasters, combined with the long dark tea-time of the soul.

Been feeling grim lately, and lacking the oomph to blog, I channel my inner Ishmael:

… I find myself growing grim about the mouth;
whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I
find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses,
and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet;
and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me,
that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from
deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking
people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea
as soon as I can.

But I do see some possibility of returning to civil conversation, probably after my next two talks, both in the LA area tonight (LA County Library downtown) and tomorrow (the OC — at the National Academy facility at UC Irvine), so please consider this a hiatus rather than a quietus.

And in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure, those clips that inspire this title.

and

And Why Should the Brits Have All The Fun? Weird Election Video/Return of the Demon Sheep edition

May 6, 2010

From the California Democrats comes a reprise of what I must admit is a true surrealist classic, Carly Fiorina’s Demon Sheep spot.

This one is derivative of course, and nowhere near as powerful vision of the Bizarro World that California Republicans seem to occupy, but it still made me smile:

The Glamour of Politics, UK Style (Fish in a Condom edition.

May 6, 2010

A glimpse of what it’s really like to run for office — or cover it, as they do it across the pond.

From the Guardian comes this video of Cartoonist Steve Bell mano a mano — or flipper a flipper — with Tory leader David Cameron.

Don’t know if this tickles your funny bone, but it did mine.

Go to the jump for the video…

(more…)

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics: Andrew Sullivan, Brit Election edition

May 6, 2010

Update:  The original of this post mischaracterized the Treasury figures for government spending as a percentage of GDP; I repeatedly referred to them as the percentage of GDP due to the deficit year over year.  It’s been corrected below, and thus, in fact, tracks the figures Sullivan was citing.  The argument remains the same, though in a post piously demanding attention to what numbers tell you, I can’t say I’m not embarassed.  Do not blog after too effusive a dinner party the night before; that’s my motto.

Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Lovable Liberal for the catch.

Andrew Sullivan has been blogging the Brit election extensively, and his reflexive loathing for Labour has come through on a number of occasions.

He has some considered loathing too, I’ll grant you, but he admits that “in my native land, unlike America, I have residual partisan loyalty…” to the party of his youth.

That means its just a bit hard to assign a root cause for his rote repetition of a favorite anti-Labour meme, that the party is a bunch of big government spendthrifts.

It could be Sullivan’s difficulty in dealing with facts presented in the form of quantified data (see for example, this old chestnut). Or it could be a leap to unexamined conclusions propelled by his self- acknowledged Tory partisanship. Or, perhaps most likely, both.

In any event, he parrots the charge that the 13 years of Labour government produced a spending regime that has dramatically changed the size and cost of British government.  He writes:

Britain’s debt piles higher – because 13 years of Labour’s reckless spending has neither solved the country’s social problems nor stabilized the country’s economy….

…And then he attempts to put meat on the bones of that “reckless spending” cliche by borrowing from The Wall St. Journal vie The Corner:

Since 2000, public spending in Britain has grown faster as a share of GDP than any other country in the 28-member OECD — up 17 percentage points to 53% of GDP, compared to 15 points for Ireland and 10 points for Iceland

Sullivan might have wanted to consider his sources.  Doesn’t he know that any statistic with political consequence that emerges from The Wall St. Journal has to be considered guilty until proven innocent — that is, checked for oneself?  And by all that the FSM considers holy (semolina, for one), he of all people has had enough experience of The Corner to realize that they are what Ronald Reagan should have been talking about when he said “don’t trust and verify.” (What — RR didn’t say that? Sorry — ed.)

Shoulda, coulda, woulda … but here, he takes on face value a number that should have provoked more scrutiny.

That would be the date for the start of the time line, 2000.  Why 2000?  First because that marked the lowest deficit figure for all thirteen years of Labour governance — and thus choosing that date, rather than the start of Labour rule in 1997, would make any increase since that time loom larger in percentage terms.  This is called gaming your data.

And then there is the question of context and trend.  What should we make of that one number for a deficit in 2000?  Was it much different from other years’ and other governments’ budget work?  Did what come after trace a steady trend, or were there distinct outliers that need particular explanation?

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I am an expert, or even knowledgeable about British state finances.  But even from a state  of near total lack of information, it just isn’t that hard to find the broad outlines of the history of UK government deficit spending.  A moment with Teh Google, leads one, for example, to this.

So what happened?

Well, from 1997 to 2007-8, the Labour government spent at levels that ranged between a low of 36.6.% to a high of 41.1% of GDP

From 1990-1997, a Tory government led by John Major, ran budgets that ranged from a low of 39.4% of GDP in the year he took over from Maggie Thatcher, to a high of 43.7% in 1993, from which it declined slowly to the number he handed off to Tony Blair.

Go back to the Thatcher years, and you see the same story.  She inherited a budget that accounted for 45.1% of GDP in Fy 1978-9.  She brought in a slightly reduced percentage the next year, her government’s budget spending coming in equal for 44.7% of GDP in FY 1979-80, but that figure rose for the next several years, and only dropped to the level she inherited in 1985-6.  Her high was 48.1 percent of GDP, and her best year was still above that best number achieved by Blair, with Brown as his Chancellorof the Exchequer — right around 39% for the Tories, compared with the Labour best figure of roughly 36 1/2 percent.

In other words:  for most of its time in office, Labour budgets included deficits well within the historical range established over the previous 18 years of Tory rule.  Just not much change in it — and often below that of their Tory predecessors.

Repeat:  for most of Labour rule, budget deficits were in a very familiar range.  You can debate whether Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown were all drunken sailors ashore, but that’s a different question than whether or not Blair/Brown/Labour have a distinctively different record on spending than their friends on the right.  You can argue who will best deal with the situation going forward, Cameron, Brown or Clegg — and that’s a different question.  Nothing I’m writing here bears very much on that question (except, perhaps, to call into question the presumption that Cameron will be more fiscally responsible than his peers — but others have much more directly made that same point).

But hold on to the key point:  Most of the recent Labour record is one of ordinary, familiar approaches to the broad outlines of what British governments have approached spending levels for more than three decades.

Still, there is no doubt that the budget deficit is huge now, and the leap in government spending over Labour’s starting point quite noticeable.   From spending 41.1 percent of GDP of 2006-7, Labour governments produced a budgets amounting to 43 percent of GDP in 2008-9, with spending levels that are projected to rise as high as 48.1% in 2009-10 and 2010-11 — the same level as Thatcher’s high.

So, yes, a leap in government spending under Labour in 2008-10 period, just as there has been a leap in spending and deficits under Obama’s adminstration around the same time.

Now, refresh my memory:  what happened in September of 2008?

Oh yeah. The global financial system went into cardiac arrest, the American real estate bubble burst, and economies around the world shuddered under the impact.  US and UK governments responded in classic Keynesian fashion, perhaps not expansively enough, and spent much more than they had to pump capital into the banking system and cash into the daily economy.

Sullivan, of course, has lauded this on the American side, in grand tones and  little posts.  He does not do so for poor Gordon Brown.

Why he didn’t isn’t really that important.

The fact that he didn’t is, as it is a specimen of a dangerously common failure of modern political reporting.

Here’s my credo:  Numbers matter.  Understanding what they do and don’t tell you in any encounter with them is the crucial task for any would-be serious political journalist — hell of anyone who wants to take him or herself seriously as an observer of contemporary life.

Failure to do so means that you will get lots of your writing wrong — and you won’t know it, you can’t know it — until rude and wordy bastards like myself point it out (and one deigns to notice such gnats gnawing on the body politic).  But it matters, to audiences and to any writer who takes their craft seriously.

And in this story, here’s the bottom line:  it is certainly true that government deficit spending in 2010 in Britain (and the US) is much higher as percentage of GDP than it was in 2000.  But it is so for a reason, and that reason is not the one either Brown’s or Obama’s critics say it is.  Stating that out loud, as often as needed, ought to be the job of someone who aspires to be “of no party or clique.”

That is all.

Image:  Martina Schettina, “Fibonacci’s Traum (Dream)” 2008.

Epistemic Closure, Lantsman Version

May 5, 2010

A digression from the usual themes of this blog:

From JJ Goldberg’s excellent piece in Ha’aretz (h/t M. J. Rosenberg at TPM Cafe), comes this –

Many synagogues actually welcome dissenting views (though that often means welcoming only the dissenting ideas, not the ideas they dissent from).

Heh.

I do recommend Goldberg’s piece, as it is an important corrective to the notion that AIPAC = American Jewish opinion and votes.  (See this post of mine for a look at the kind of derangement that follows from the cognitive dissonance felt by those who feel that one minority view of both Judaism and the meaning of the phrase “support for Israel” is the only possible one.)

And I recommend the piece to myself for the reminder that it is not AIPAC’s fault that it is taken more seriously than it deserves.

I am to blame, and so are those whose views fall into the same quadrant as mine, as long as we, as Goldberg points out, fail to show up to make our disagreement obvious.

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

Adventures in Lede Writing, Or Don’t Try This At Home Folks, NY Times Sports Page Department

May 4, 2010

The first two paragraphs of today’s Times piece on the Boston Celtics victory over King James and his Cleveland court, presented uncut, for your edification:

When the Boston Celtics sputtered through the regular season, they were dismissed with descriptions appropriate for a high-mileage car. They were old, slow and unreliable.

They might have leaked leads often this season — particularly in the fourth quarter — but they are still effective in large doses, and Rajon Rondo, their point guard, remains a blur on the court and a pest to opponents.

Mix metaphors much?*

This blog is ostensibly about science, especially in its intersection with public life.  It does a fair amount of politics/critique of political coverage (in which I try to nod, at least, at something informed by science defined pretty damn loosely). But every now and then the reader and writer in me just gets loose.

This is one of those times.

So, to recap:  the Celtics are a malfunctioning car; they leak (which I suppose a car could do, but is something I associate more with boats and buckets), they are a drug, an optical illusion and must be very well dressed, for a key player is identified as quite gnatty. (Sorry.)

Oh FSM, is this bad writing.

Not only do the images collide into incoherence, the whole thing just doesn’t make sense.  How does being a drug that is effective when consumed with Belushi-like incaution fix leaks? I mean, huh?

I know that sports pages have long been an incubator for self-consciously edge-teetering writing/writers.  Some of the habits have infected other sections, some places (see, e.g., the metaphor happy stylings that shows up from time to time in Science Times.)

But while the play of images can truly transport a reader into the world of the story, you have to remember:  you, the writer are the master and commander of that transport, and not the other way round.  The author of the passage above had long since lost control of his charges.  What you see there is what happens when the inmates (swarming one’s brain) take over the asylum.

Ah.  That feels better.

*I know, I know. But I got my professional writing start at Time Inc., where not only backward reeled the sentences until boggled the mind, but alliteration alleviated that aggravations of the day. Sometimes the apple just doesn’t fall that far from its aboriginal arborial accomodations.

Don’t forget to tip the nice people bringing you drinks — and come back, y’all.  I’ll be here all week.

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, “The Fifth Plague of the Egyptians:  The Plague (die Peste).”  1800.  O.K.:  I know it’s a reach. But I love Turner, and the title almost gets us there, and heck, it’s no more a non sequitur than anything in the original, so there.  Plus, it’s my blog. Also.

The End of Climate Science (and much more besides) in the Commonwealth of Virginia

May 2, 2010

Via Doug J, who got it from Thers, this report out of Virginia tells of the assault on (a) climate science and (b) academic freedom at the hands of Virginia’s new and very dangerous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

The report itself is a bit annoying — it refers to a “smoking gun” coming out of the so-called climategate emails, for example.

That would be the smoking gun widely trumpeted by denialist blots (I actually like that typo, as I look at it, though I do mean “blogs”), and credulously repeated by some in the traditional mediahat has so far failed to materialize in two actual reviews so far conducted into the affair.

But perhaps the most insidious implication of Cuccinelli’s demand for…

…any and all emailed or written correspondence between or relating to Mann and more than 40 climate scientists, documents supporting any of five applications for the $484,875 in grants, and evidence of any documents that no longer exist along with proof of why, when, and how they were destroyed or disappeared….

…is that I can’t see how this doesn’t ensure the Virginia’s public universities will be unable to recruit top talent not just to climate studies, but to anything that could be imagined to deviate from the proper political line.

Anyone good enough to attract any other offer would be nuts to accept a publicly funded research job in the Commonwealth:  who knows when every three a.m. frustrated email may yet serve to identify your disloyalty to the Soviet the Attorney General’s office, or the legislature, or the Guardians of the Faithful the Virginia Republican Party.

Seriously, no snark at all: science has certain norms. High, really chief among them, is the commitment to free enquiry.

The reason is, or should be obvious:  once you start telling folks which answers are acceptable and which are not, you’ve just told those scientists under your power that they can’t think without thinking first whether those thoughts are acceptable.

And another thing: Cuccinelli may think he’s just stuffing climate change back in a box where it belongs.  He may actually hope that hounding Mann may scare others off from daring to probe temperature records, or increasingly detailed global models or what have you.

He probably has, in fact, at least in VA.  As noted above why would any atmospheric scientist, any geologist any planetary scientist whatsoever want to risk the career trashing experience of a full-on state-sponsored attack on your work, your records, your colleagues and students — just the time, years perhaps, lost to demonstrating to the political officer the orthodoxy of your views would be intolerable.

But why stop there:  how much of biology falls afoul of one unshakable principle or another?  I’m not sure Ken Cuccinelli knows how much of molecular medicine turns on evolutionary biological ideas, but the researchers know, and they may well wonder what part of that work might suddenly fall afoul of the legislature or law enforcement.

The long and the short of it:  I know that if I were the department head of research departments at major universities, I’d be eyeing Virginia’s schools with a view to poaching top talent.  If I were a young scholar being recruited by Virginia, I’d look at all my other options — even if one imagined that the crazy would never envelope, say, a lab studying quantum dots, who wants the aggravation?  Who would want to work at a place where a fair number of your colleagues are cowering, hoping that the wrath of the AG never descends on them?

I believe the technical term is a chilling effect.

And above all, if I were an aspiring graduate student with chops — why on earth would I think of signing on to a place where I never could know if or when my lab would shudder under siege for years in some know-nothing’s crusade?

I love Virginia.  I’ve got some family down there; U. VA is one of the nation’s historical and architectural jewels; the place is beautiful and so on.

But none of that pays the rent, or creates the environment in which killer labs do great work (and, in many fields, spin off ideas that turn into companies and useful things that lead to the betterment of the human condition).

The impact of this latest nonsense won’t be felt all at once…and if the pushback is really vigorous, it may not be nearly as dire as I’m imagining it now.  But it doesn’t take that much to turn a first rate research institution into something much less impressive.  And Cuccinelli is sure doing his best to set that process in motion.

A parting thought: not to go all quasi Godwin on you, but for a more extreme example of what happens when you go down this road, you might find Loren Graham’s underappreciated book The Ghost of the Executed Engineer instructive.  It tells the story of the most significant victim of Stalin’s cleansing of the ranks of his engineers of any deviant thought.  After that job was done, the Soviet Union continued to turn out extraordinary numbers of academically trained engineers.  They just weren’t much good, most of them.  The consequences of being too good were too obvious.

Image:  Fra Angelico, St. Lawrence before Valerius, c. 1440


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