Archive for March 2012

Welcome to the Romniverse!

March 31, 2012

At last, Mitt Romney explained at the most fundamental level possible:

A bit of context. Before Mitt Romney, those seeking the presidency operated under the laws of so-called classical politics, laws still followed by traditional campaigners like Newt Gingrich. Under these Newtonian principles, a candidate’s position on an issue tends to stay at rest until an outside force — the Tea Party, say, or a six-figure credit line at Tiffany — compels him to alter his stance, at a speed commensurate with the size of the force (usually large) and in inverse proportion to the depth of his beliefs (invariably negligible)….

But the Romney candidacy represents literally a quantum leap forward. It is governed by rules that are bizarre and appear to go against everyday experience and common sense. To be honest, even people like Mr. Fehrnstrom who are experts in Mitt Romney’s reality, or “Romneality,” seem bewildered by its implications; and any person who tells you he or she truly “understands” Mitt Romney is either lying or a corporation.

Exactly so.  There’s even a very helpful Feynman diagram, demonstrating that when a Mitt and an anti-Mitt collide, they annhiliate, leaving behind an electron…and a single $20 bill.

Go read the whole thing to grasp — at last! — the full complexity of the quantum Romney.

(Just as a lagniappe, here’s my favorite of the quantum principles invoked to explain the mysteries of Mitt:

Probability. Mitt Romney’s political viewpoints can be expressed only in terms of likelihood, not certainty. While some views are obviously far less likely than others, no view can be thought of as absolutely impossible. Thus, for instance, there is at any given moment a nonzero chance that Mitt Romney supports child slavery.

Oh.  And a very happy first of April to all of you, too.

Image: Giacinto Gimignani, An Angel and a Devil Fighting for the Soul of a Child, 17 c.

Scary Diseases; Agribiz Denialism; and Why We Need Health Care Reform (It’s more than just coverage)

March 28, 2012

Just a quick heads up.  I’ll be talking at 5 Eastern Time today with Maryn McKenna, aka Scary Disease Girl on Virtually Speaking Science. You can listen, but if you’re a virtual kind of person you can also head over to the open air theater in Second Life see Maryn’s magnificent avatar with its gloriously purple hair.  (One commenter compared the shade to Beaujolais Nouveau, but I’m not so sure.)

McKenna is a science and medicine writer who has focused the last several years of her career on the truly vexing and terrifying issue of antiobiotic resistance, focusing on the scourge of MRSA:  methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or drug-resistant staph.  She blogs at, under a title shared with the book — Superbug — that will be the leaping off point for our conversation.

So check it out, if not synchronously, then via the podcast, available either at Blog Talk Radio (from about midnight tonight, I think, though it may be tomorrow), via the RSS feed, or as found within the greater Virtually Speaking iTunes podcast.

Just to give a tease of the conversation — we’ll start by talking about the great squander:  how, some 75 years into the antibiotic era, we’re on the verge of destroying what had once seemed to be a truly transformative gift, a way to salve so much human suffering…and we will start to look at the reasons why.  High among them will be the area Maryn’s focused on a lot since publishing Superbug, the use of antibiotics in agriculture in a non-therapeutic situations — that is, not as a response to an infection, but either as a prophylactic, or simply to fatten up livestock before slaughter.

There’s been some news over the last week that makes this issue genuinely hot, but the most interesting aspect of it, to me, is the way agribusiness and their congressional allies (on both sides of the aisle, alas) have simply changed a few of the nouns and then copied the denialist playbook written for the tobacco wars, and updated for use in turning the threat of climate change into a world-wide conspiracy of fanatical socialist-facist greens.

Which is to say, as readers of this blog know, the transformation of science from a source of public knowledge into a post-modern body of jargon to be manipulated by those with the biggest and most sophisticated megaphones, is literally killing us — as we will discuss in a bit.

Oh — and one more thing.  One of the key threads to emerge from Maryn’s work is just how badly we are served by the fragmentary system of health care delivery that we now have, that the GOP wishes to preserve, and that Obamacare goes some way to repair.  The lack of uniform systems of electronic charts, the failure to disseminate key medical knowledge outside of its silos — sometimes single hospitals, or even single services within hospitals — the inability to construct a truly national system of health care knowledge and the dissemination of best practices (Death Panels!) all have contributed directly to the deaths of kids, grown ups, grandma and grandpa from preventable or much earlier-treatable MRSA infections, as Maryn has documented — and much else besides.  Remember:  when our friends who decry the fascism inherent in public regulation of a public good seek to repeal without replacing, they are advocating a policy choice that will kill people.  This is a known, predictable consequence of any swerve to the status quo ante.  In other circumstances, taking actions that a reasonable person understands will lead directly to the deaths of others has a name, and the people who do so have names to.  Now we call them GOP Presidential candidates.  Just sayin.

Just the cheery kind of conversation that will set you up for a truly heroic cocktail hour.  May I recommend either one of these…or,  maybe, doses by mouth of this concoction, repeated as necessary.

Image:  Barent Fabritius, The Slaughtered Pig, 1656

Mitt Romney, Visionary

March 27, 2012

From his Leno sit-down:

Though Mr. Romney has devoted much of his campaign to promising to get the federal budget in order, he dodged a question about whether he’ll name the federal agencies he’d like to cut. “Depends on whether I have that answer to that,” Mr. Romney said.



I mean, I know that Romney is trying to do everything he can to avoid the career ending disaster of actually detailing the plans behind the impossible claims he’s made about the taxes, budget, and the stuff he’s going to cut that no one beyond the 27% wants to see drowned in the bathtub.  But even with that goal, this with Leno is simply nonsense, vapor, word salad worthy of a Palin. “Depends on whether I have that answer to that” ! ?

Dude:  you do have that answer. It’s your proposal.  Your campaign.  You can say it:  you’re going to put most of us on the rack so that the Nascar owners and your Malibu neighbors can grab a bit more.  Get it off your chest.  You’ll feel so much better…

Instead we get an answer that is composed of equal parts contempt for his fellow citizens and a banality so deep it blows right past Arendt’s evil and catches up to the absurd well before the ringmaster calls the blow off.

This is the man that thinks he’s suited to the presidency.  And in head to head polls dangerously more than 40% of American voters agree with him.

I’m bringing out the heavy artillery. Brandy till bedtime, my friends.*

*It’s all good news for John McCain.

Image:  Henry Justice Ford, The Circus, 1904

Things To Think About Before We Blow Sh*t Up

March 27, 2012

James Fallows pointed me to this depressingly smart piece by Stephen M. Walt, up now at the Foreign Policy website.  Walt gives us 10 lessons we should learn from our Iraq fiasco, from number 1 — we lost — through the point Fallows highlights, number 3, in which we learn what happens when the political and media Villages rush to outdo each other in feckless groupthink and morally bankrupt cheerleading folly.*

Me, I’ll  pony up Walt’s conclusion:

Because it is not clear if any U.S. approach would have succeeded at an acceptable cost, the real lesson of Iraq is not to do stupid things like this again.

The U.S. military has many virtues, but it is not good at running other countries. And it is not likely to get much better at it with practice. We have a capital-intensive army that places a premium on firepower, and we are a country whose own unusual, melting-pot history has made us less sensitive to the enduring power of nationalism, ethnicity, and other local forces.

Furthermore, because the United States is basically incredibly secure, it is impossible to sustain public support for long and grinding wars of occupation. Once it becomes clear that we face a lengthy and messy struggle, the American people quite properly begin to ask why we are pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into some strategic backwater. And they are right.

So my last lesson is that we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to figure out how to do this sort of thing better, because we’re never going to do it well and it will rarely be vital to our overall security. Instead, we ought to work harder on developing an approach to the world that minimizes the risk of getting ourselves into this kind of war again.

In between Walt’s insistence that we honestly confront our loss in Iraq and this rather pious last hope, this short essay examines many important, depressing truths.  Read the whole thing.  We’ll need to keep reminding selves and others of these desperately hard-won realizations, given that the usual suspects, only to willing to spend somebody else’s blood, are urging us into the next war.

(And yes. I know I’ve posted this tune before. You gonna make something of it?)

*No matter how often I watch the Mustache of Understanding talk about “American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Bagdad,” his faux-macho willingness to send other folks kids to blow up still other folks and their kids makes me mouth vomit.

Image:  Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, (attr.) Laughing Fool, c. 1500.

Live Blog: Telling the Stories of Science Panel Two — Fifty Years Ahead

March 24, 2012

5:37 — and that’s a wrap, folks.

5:33:  Lloyd — don’t wanta quantum laptop just yet (takes a lot of gear just to talk to 12 atoms.)

Sweet spot for qu computing–factoring large numbers, which could break all public key codes. (Talk about disruption.)

5:15: Q & A time:  Belcher and Sharp talk about the sense of science as both a search for basic knowledge and very much an applied endeavor…Lloyd notes that most of the big problems are more political than scientific, but that in the end you still have to do the science to produce any remotely plausible solutions.

Q: Question about whether or not nano materials or organic quantum computers are disposable.  Sharp responsds that the nice thing about biological systems is that they are all pretty much made of stuff (proteins etc) that other creatures can eat.  But it is very important to design in recycleabilty (sp?).

Q:  Issue of framing problems — are we aiming too low, as in, investing in cancer drugs that at best prolong life for a few months.  Seth Lloyd responds:  aiming low is not really a problem at MIT — different calculation at drug companies.  He believes that we should allocate more resources to people trying “crazy” stuff.  Primary leaps for society come from technology that arise out of fundamental research — see e.g. the transistor — and not from incrementalism.  Hence, need to prioritize basic research over the attempt to divine the right applied line to follow.

Sharp: it matters at the highest level who’s setting policy because, yes, framing a problem is crucial; if you have the right statement of the problem you can solve that problem… much harder otherwise.  His example: lung cancer may be best approached by cutting smokng — that might be the right way tof rame the issue.

Belcher: emphasizes the value of interdisciplinarity. Putting her next to engineers at the Koch Center changes her insights, and vice versa.  She remembers her own experience of getting funding despite her “crazy” idea of giving genetic info to a nonliving system.

Sharp adds: origins of molecular biology lie in physics.  People like Delbruck came into physics and disciplined people to look at the simplest organism and work out those problems.  Cross fertilization of ideas and techniques…

Q: are the lawyers going to muck up the future of these sciences?  Sharp’s answer: there is an enormous amount of litigation around the health sciences, and an enormous amount of regulation.  The motivation of the regulation is clear — but you do have to work through/around this reality.

Lloyd asks Belcher, “you’ve patented a gazillion things — what do you think about the IP system.” Belcher — doesn’t have any sense of having been slowed down by litigation.  Maybe material science is easier than say, software.

Lloyd patents everything reflexively — ever since he didn’t patent an idea in quantum computing because, he thought, it’ll never work…which it didn’t until a company in Vancouver dropped $100 million to make it work.  Ah well….

5:02: Lloyd now moves to the specific question of quantum computing.  A quantum computer is wher eyou store and process information at level of individual quanta.

Now we get a delightful introduction to wave particle duality. Lloyd’s aside: it’s a toss up between quantum mechanics and natural selection as to which has more confirmation — and thus isn’t it curious that both are routinely under attack.

This leads to an anecdote about pitching a quantum search device to Brin and Page in a meeting held in a hot tub.  Interesting times…

Lloyd not interested in quantum computing to beat Moore’s law, particularly; rather, Lloyd want’s to understand how information processing happpens, in say, Belcher’s photosynthesizing plants/and/or/nanosystems.

Photosynthesis: take a photon, have it absorbed by a chromophor; it creates and electron-hole pair (exciton — a particle of excitement) which has to hop through the photosynthetic complext until it gets to a reaction center..reaction center is abou 5% efficient, whilst transport is hugely efficient….99 %.  Turns out the transport system involves a quantum biological step as these electron-hole pairs “ooze” (Lloyd’s word) through the complex.

So need insight into quantum information processing to understand what’s actually going on as we speak.

4:46: And yes — my fingers and wrists hurt.  Belcher talks fast.  Now it’s Seth Lloyd’s turn.  His specialty, says my colleague Marcia Bartusiak “All things Quantum.” (She challengers her inner Terry Pratchett, I think.)

Seth Lloyd begins with a shout out to science writing. (Yay!)

Grant writing is advertising — Mad Men without the sex.

Science is a uniquely public form of knowledge, not to mention that the public in this country actually pays for most of it.

A rather small fraction of scientists are good at communicating to that public what they do…and so Lloyd is here because he thinks that what our grads do is great — with which sentiment I thoroughly agree.

Now the talk:  Predicting 50 years is a mugs game.  Agrees w. Sharp that one tends to overestimate what comes in 5 years, and can’t have a clue what will happen in 50 years.

So if the scale of the earth is 10^8 meters (equator to pole via the Paris meridian. to the size of a liter of water…and then down to the atom level — you get the rough equivalence — the number of atoms that fill a liter water bottle is the same as the number of liter bottles that could fill the earth…all this to give a sense of the scale involved in thinking in quantum and or nano terms.

If you think of size not as an absolute measure, but as in relation to the smallest component to which we have access — then a liter bottle has grown very large indeed in the last decade or so.

Key take away — none of this discovery could have been anticipated a decade ago; we had no way to tell what would transpire when we got down to that level.

So Lloyd channels James Brown for his prediction of what will happen in 50 years.  “I don’t know what will happen, but whatever it is will be funky!”

Thinking about Moore’s law…an extrapolation would say computers with single atom components could come around 2050 — except that’s what his group is doing now in quantum computing.

Talking Moore’s law — uncertain as to the details of its future course…but just thinking about the nanoscale discussions by Belcher and Sharp — we know that very funky things will happen as we travel down the slope of scale and speed.

4:39:  Belcher adds that the A123 products went from invention in 2000 to broad commercial use now.

Our whirlwind tour heads now to healthcare.  Cost is formidable 17% of GDP in US will soon go to health care.  Need now for minimally invasive diagnostics and treatment; new and better imaging; and more…nanoscience impinges on the whole sequence: nano probes can take measurements within single cells; nanoparticles are being used to perform rapid diagnostics for particular proteins.

Moving now to ideas about nanotreatment — if you can get nanoparticles with particular properties, can target cells very specifically for treatment.  Neat idea — a nanoparticle that can detect a tumor cell can signal other nanoparticles to deliver a drug or what have you to the cell.

Belcher’s own work is trying to take CO2 from emissions and turn it into building supplies, through an engineered yeast system.  Discusses promise of nanotech for water purification.

Last thought: can give DNA to manufactures; have engineered viruses to make batteries, e.g.

4:27 Say hello to Angela Belcher, MacArthur Fellow and nanotechnologist extraordinaire.

Future of science turns on interfaces: in 50 years won’t say “I’m molecular biologist or engineer ” or what have you — as the fields merge.

Her quesetion:  What does that non-living/living interface look like.  Can we impart to nonliving materials some of the exquisite properties or capabilities that life has.  Can you evolve properties of materials into the DNA coding that indivduals could pass on to their kids?

E.g. — what if you could grow batteries from a dna-located code in petrie dish.  Belcher cites the Feynman idea “plenty of room at the bottom.

Key idea is that nano isn’t just small, but that you can control atoms precisely, make the system do exactly what you want.

Belcher’s motivation:  want to do nano to make the world better/livable for her kids.  Because you can control systems at the atom by atom level, nano has such broad potential — tons of fields.

What’s happening at the nano scale — just in cells, see proteins, Ribozomes, Linear alpha helix collagen, DNA…lots of models for sophisticated functionality at nano level.

See e.g. Bawendi’s quantum dots that use nano properties for a range of properties.  Others are workign on self cleaning solar cells deriving insight from self cleaning lotus leaves that work at nano scale.

Bob Langer is watching how geckos walk up walls and is looking at ways to build better bandages.

Unifiying idea: look at what evolution has produced over millions of years and see what ideas one can steal.

Now Belcher turns to the energy issue; we see a chart look at energy production.  The chart makes it clear that production of renewables is not now close to keeping pace with future need…nanotechnolgy can impinge on the solution to problem, in applications that range from solar — with improvements in efficiency, processing, cost, self-maintenance.  Similarly nano can improve energy conservation (efficiency) — see, e.g. Bawendi et al. quantum dot applications to LED innovations.  Next up:  improvement in battery tech; in which the nano scale can play a significant role — see what’s happened w. MIT spin off A123 Systems.

4:14:  Sharp continues…He co-chaired a National Academy report committee on “A New Biology for the 21st Century.”

Major challenges identified there:  (1) Nearly a billion undernourished in the world i ’07 w. population growth going on:  how do we sustain that population.

(2) Human activities are stressing the environment from which that sustenance must derive…getting worse.

(3) Transportation fuels depend almost entirely on limited non-renewable resources.

(4) Healthcare, which is costly now, and will get more so: so how to make it more effective and cost-effective.

These are the issues that molecualr biology may and will need to address over the next 50 years.

So, what about  the food challenge.  Next revolution — molecular engineering of plants to grow in places and with a control of inputs not now achievable. Turns on genetically informed decisions, which include understanding biodiversity, systematics and evolutioanry genomics.  Think “analsyis fo crops as ecosystems.”

Bad news says Sharp:  we in the US invest trivially in this; center of gravity is in Europe; we just lost the best researcher in this field to UK.

Environment Challenge:

Need a comprehensive and quantitative (my emphasis) meausre of ecosystem services…molecular biology can contribut

Energy Challenge:

To meet hte renewable fuel standard 2022 goal — need 4x increase in ceonomical biofuel production…

To get there must approach biomass to biofuel production process as a systems/engineering problem.

Health Challenge:

We can sequence a genome now for $1,000:  have an incredible ability coming soon to approach your health from a genomic point of view.

Issue — you ahve to participate in this: have your genome on your iPad…If the goal is individualized health surveillance and care.

Some future goals: develop conceptual and technical capacity to monitor metabolome (new term to me — I like it) integrated phenotypic readout.

Many major diseases are already getting tackled death-rates down from cancer etc.  Big challenge: aging.  Sharp expects that in 50 years his grandson will expect to live into the hundreds, being active into his eighties and nineties….

That aging breakthrough, if it comes, carries with it all kinds of social, ethical and practical challenges.

Thus, says Sharp:  hold on to your seats.  Big change at the macro level is coming from revolution at the molecular one.

4:09:  What has happened here over 50 years: first, shifted MIT’s biology dept. from “food processing” to molecular biology — a shift aided by recruitiing Luria to come here.  In 1972, decided to add a Center for Cancer Research — which shifted emphasis from single cell approaches, and to take on the problem of fundamental processes of cancer in humans.

IN 1983, along comes the Whitehead, w. the challenge of understanding how single cells transform into 3 D structures of a complex organism; central problem to how biology works.

in 1993, MIT decided in which biology became a core requirement — a huge shift for the whole institute, as physical scientists and engineers now had to respond to biologically informed questions from their own students…so they had to learn biology to.

in 2000, came the neuroscience complex; followed by the Broad Institute in 2003, which brings big science approaches to biology…and last, the Koch Institute combines the cancer center w. engineers…to mark the latest stage of the evolution of life sciences as a practice at MIT.

MIT is now central to the cluster of life sciences research and industry in and around Kendall Sq. — by far the largest such complex in the world.

4:07: Sharp:  I knew Crick for many years, and had lunch with Watson just the other day — and I can assure you they had no idea what would come from that double helix at the point of discovery.

People overestimate advances in short range; underestimate it over 50 years.  So to get a sense of the scale issue — look at what’s happened at MIT over the last 50 years in molecular biology as a prelude for speculation on what’s to come.

The idea…there is a third revolution coming in a convergence of life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

4:02:  Professor Marcia Bartusiak begins by highlighting both successful predictions — Arthur C. Clarke and satellite tech, e.g. — and less excellent ones, like the original IBM Watson’s declaration that the world market for computers might touch five.  First up, Nobel laureate Phil Sharp on molecular biology

3:58:  Just about to start the second panel in the celebration of ten years of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT.  The panel title:  Fifty Years Ahead: Imagining Nanotechnology, Quantum Computing, and Molecular Biology in 2062

Coming up:  talks from Philip Sharp, Seth Lloyd and Angela Belcher on molecular biology, quantum computing and nanotechnology, respectively.  (No promises as to the order.)

Yet One More Reason To Love Jim Yong Kim

March 24, 2012

Not just for all the very good reasons Zandar advances.

Just look.  He’s having the time of his life:

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Go to around the two minute mark to get to the good stuff.  (Via)

Now try to imagine Larry Summers in the same context.


Faith vs. Reason: Stand Your Ground/Violent Crime Edition

March 23, 2012

Last night the PBS News Hour program held a roundtable on the Trayvon Martin murder.  Ta-Nehisi Coates was on, as were Reihan Salem and Donna Britt.  So was Dennis Baxley, the Florida state representative who co-authored the Stand Your Ground law under whose cloak George Zimmerman stalked and gunned down the 17 year old Martin.

Baxley said — and appeared to mean — the right things about Martin’s death, that it was a tragedy, and that nothing in the law he helped enact should be interpreted to authorize someone to pursue, confront and shoot another.  But Baxley rejected the notion that the law itself might have contributed to the catastrophe, arguing instead that it is a force for good, a way, in his words, a law intended “to empower law abiding citizens to stop violent things from happening.”

What’s more, said Baxley, the law has done just that:

Since ’05 to 2012 we have seen a reduction in violent crime in Florida.  And what I’ve learned from it is that if you empower to stop bad things from happening they will and they do and they have.

Except, of course, those bad things that happen because people are able to claim that a “feeling” of danger constitutes authorization to use deadly force more or less at will.

But snark aside, what of the claim about crime rates in Florida.

Here, I’ll take a cue from Rachel Maddow, and say that Dennis Baxler is lying.

Check out Florida’s crime statistics.  Two things stand out.

The first is that the number of violent crimes has not dropped from 2005 through 2010 (where the data series ends); rather it has jostled about in the noise.  From 2005-2008, violent crime totals exceeded the 2004 tally of just over 124,000; in 2009 and 2010 the totals dropped below that figure. If there’s a clear case for correlation with the Stand Your Ground law, it must exist at some much finer grained level that the invoked violent crime catch-all

So what about murder?  That is, after all, the crime of crimes, and the one for which I think most of us would be most comfortable in giving deference to claims of self defense.  Those numbers make Baxley’s story worse:  the murder total in Florida dropped from 946 to 881 from 2004-2005, and have exceeded the 2004 total for each year reported since, peaking at 1,202 in 2007 — or about a 26% hike from the 2004 number.

The shorter: violent crime numbers do not support a claim that the SYG law has consistently reduced violent crime incidence since 2005.

The other key fact to leaps out from this chart:

The slope of the rate/100,000 (blue) line has been pretty consistent for twenty years.  It gets a little steeper from 2008-2010, to be sure, though not as much as it did from 1997 to 1999 or 2000.  But this picture is consistent with the story in the rest of the country: violent crime is a much less severe problem now than it was decades ago. Any explanation for this ongoing process cannot have anything to do with a law enacted in 2005.  That longer history alone makes a mockery any sudden 9mm ex machina explanation for Florida’s recent and welcome continued reduction in rates of violent crime.  And, of course, any monocausal explanation  is almost certain to be wrong.

Hell, I’ll go further and say that a priori, such accounts are always wrong.

Consider instead another story.  Sometime in a leisure-filled future, (hah!–ed) I do plan to blog this really smart Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker examining research into  what drove crime rates down in New York City over the last several decades.  But for now in this context, take this home:

Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” [Wrote Franklin E. Zimring]…Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.

All of which is to say that when Baxley asserts that Florida is experiencing a respite from violent crime because it now allows citizens to act as amateur law enforcers, empowered to use deadly force as their judgment drives them, he’s not telling the truth.  He’s lying, saying something that is false as a mundane fact and wrong as a causal inference.

Which is why this from Baxley is a type specimen of moral cowardice:

This kind of very unfortunate situation I think is a misapplication of this statute.

If you enact a law that carries with it a predictable budget of unintended, undesired consequences that result from the application of that law in daily life, then you’re not talking about “unfortunate” events, nor “misapplications.”  You’re talking about a murder that was a probabilistically predictable result of enacting a crap law.

I’m sorry Mr. Baxley.

I’m sure you mean well.

I have no doubt that you did not wish the particular child, Trayvon Martin any harm — how could you? You never knew him.

But what you feel in your heart, that regret that someone didn’t behave under your law as you think they should?  Not an excuse. No absolution.  Trayvon Martin is dead because someone empowered in his own mind by the terms of your law stalked down a street, confronted him, and shot that 17 year old kid down.

You own your part of this.

Southern Cuisine?

March 22, 2012

John’s post about the resignation of a blogger who can’t see the racism in dressing up the President of the United States in drag and sitting him down with a bucket of fried chicken is enough to trip the last of my rage+sorrow circuits.  We’re back in Carthage Must Be Destroyed territory with our wingnut friends — and with the party Lincoln would no longer recognize, that G.O.P which has staked its hold on power for four decades with the nod-and-a-wink racism of the “southern stategy.”


I’m sick past endurance with the casual viciousness of our opponents.  Yesterday I blogged about Question Bridge, a project in which Black men get to investigate and reframe what it means to be male and African American in the U.S. today.  As I wrote then, that work performs the remarkable feat of allowing everyone, Black guys and anyone else, to listen in on conversations, feelings, experiences that are not routinely available to most of us in the ordinary business of living in the world.

One of the insights to be gained in doing so comes from direct testimony about a fact we all know, but don’t necessarily nor always feel in our bones if we aren’t ourselves in the midst of it:  that being Black and male and in public is to be constantly under scrutiny.  Not necessarily or even mostly in the horrifying deadly circumstances that Trayvon Martin found himself in, but just in the sense that there’s attention being paid, and that the burden of representing, and not just being, is always there.

And here’s where that bucket of chicken comes in.  That was no joke, not merely “southern cuisine” as the blogger put it.*  And the men of Question Bridge know it:

When I go out to eat dinner, I don’t worry about what the folks at the next table think of my order.  Never occurs to me.  This clip reminds me that this is my privilege, and a measure — an oblique one maybe, but still — of the work we’ve yet to do get over race in this country.

Which, by shoots and roundabouts, is another reason that the “I’m not racist in my heart” nonsense just can’t fly.  I don’t care if you love your kids or even (sacrilege here, I know) are kind to dogs.  If you put the kind of trash John referenced out into the world, you own it; that’s who you are.

*Funny how a Black guy from Chicago eating chicken is just enjoying in southern cuisine.  The first rule of racist club is never to talk about racist club.

Eavesdropping for Effect

March 21, 2012

I haven’t written anything about the Trayvon Martin murder, because I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said.  TNC’s been powerful on this, and I found James Fallows‘ take exactly on point, and what’s been said here speaks for me as well.  If I have any thought it is that if this isn’t our Emmet Till moment, we’re even more desolate as a society than I had feared on my worst nights. (And yes, Charlie Pierce went there, but I was thinking along this line before reading him. It’s hardly an unlikely remembrance.)

Yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but think about Martin’s death after one session of  a conference on the future of documentary.  There, I got the chance to hear, and later to talk to two of the collaborators behind Question Bridge — co-founder Chris Johnson and one of his colleagues, Bayeté Ross Smith.

That project turns on a deceptively simple idea:* find Black men with a question they want another Black man to answer, someone they may not know, someone of a different age, class, location, experience. Have them ask whatever it is while staring straight into a video camera.  The film makers then bring those questions to other men — strangers turned into confidants, who answer.  Again, they speak straight into the lens — or rather, through the camera directly to both the questioner and any eavesdroppers, you, me, whoever decides to click “play.

Here’s a sample:

There are a couple of things to note about the project from in the context of a new media conference.  The first is that this  is incredibly simple film making, as noted above, but that simplicity highlights the rigor of the craft involved, the meticulous attention to what its creators wanted to achieve as an aesthetic (and hence rhetorically) powerful piece of work. Think sonnets:  when you have fewer elements and more formal constraints, whatever you do right or wrong is there for all to see.  Put this another way, as I often preach to my students:  high production values do not mean necessarily expensive production.  It merely means you’ve thought out what you intend to do with great care long before you ever say, “turn over.”

Here’s another taste of the work, from a variant of the project intended explicitly for use in educational settings:

But back to Trayvon Martin.

Certainly, there’s nothing directly linking this project to that tragedy…except, as one of the two presenters yesterday said (I think it was Bayeté, and I paraphrase from memory), that such events are part of the fabric of Black male experience, part of the atmosphere in which Black men move.

In that context, Question Bridge has an explicit mission:  to enable Black men to speak out loud about the experiences and emotions that frame their daily lives.  Big stuff — like the blueprint clip above, or seemingly small (though, I suspect, not really so) matters like the one raised here.  Obviously, when a 17 year old kid is shot down, and the police do worse than nothing, that’s clearly a circumstance in which plenty of questions and answers will resonate — those already asked, and those to come.

Question Bridge is up front and center on this core goal: it aims to connect Black men with each other to address core questions of identity across all the barriers of distance and difference.  But, of course, by its very form as a web/museum/school/socially mediated and sourced effort, it invites others in.  It’s a triangle, built on asymmetries of time and place, questioner at a remove from his respondent, both separated from anyone else in the world who chooses to listen in…all of which adds up to a conversation that can only take place in a documented, enwebbed world.

And speaking now as what I obviously am, a middle-aged white man living a life of great good fortune (so far and mostly), what is likely obvious becomes more so:  there are lots of conversations that I would want to have, that I think our society, our culture needs to have, that in the ordinary course of the way Americans live now are vanishingly unlikely to take place.  But at Question Bridge, they do.  Of course, the exchanges constructed by the artist-film makers involved are just that:  made works of documentary art, constructed out of a whole hierarchy of choices made within the project — and hence anything but a live exchange, with all of the chance and serendipity of face to face talk.

But so what? Or rather, that’s the point.

This work entrains me, anyone, in a chain of thought and reaction, question, answer, argument, that if I were actually in the room would not happen.  And if there is anything to take from Obama Derangement Syndrome, from the seeming mainstreaming of dog whistle racism (and the old fashioned kind) — from Trayvon Martin’s death with its sudden, horrible reminder that possession of skittles can be a capital offense in these United States — then it is that one of the hardest and most vital tasks out there is to allow words that would not otherwise be uttered or heard to find voice and listeners across this wide world.

I don’t want to overclaim.  No video is going to approximate the job of living someone else’s life, and as the men of Question Bridge point out, that’s just as true within a group as varied as Black men as it is outside that particular cut of identity.  But speaking as both a guy living in America right now and as a someone who tries to work with the craft of documentary to shift people’s minds, I have to say that this is one impressive project, a genuinely innovative and (to me, at least) deeply effective use of our new tools to braid human connections that did not exist before they formed in this space.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one last video — the project explainer and pitch:

*recalling, as Richard Feynman put it, that “simple” — or “elementary,” as the physicist put it in the context of an “elementary demonstration” of a proof –does not mean easy. Rather, it means that “very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.”

This is Why the Kristols and their Herd of Rampaging Ilk Haz a Sad

March 15, 2012

ABL and John have already hit this one hard, but, having dealt with the mouth puke that comes from reading the source text “outing” Sandra Fluke’s boyfriend as (horrors!) a Jew, I’m feeling the need to add my $0.02.

It’s probably not worth bothering with the historical idiocy used to underpin that source’s overt anti-Semitism, (no link to the asshole, but check out Tbogg for both righteous smackdowns and the connection if you want it).  But given the time I spent getting to know that notorious Jewish Socialist nutbag and traitor to all that is good and just in the world, Albert Einstein, I can’t pass without comment this one line:

New Bedford, MA, where Raphael Mutterperl ran the family’s manufacturing arm, was a hotbed of  Marxist trade-unionism in early 20th century America. Why? It was easy to “sell” radical trade-unionism to a whole people group who were brought up in the lap of Weimar Marxian ideology, because New Bedford had many new eastern-European Jewish immigrants living there at the time, including, of course, the Mutterperl family.

There truly aren’t enough integers to count the stupid in those two sentences, but just to offer one more of my futile nods to what we laughingly call “reality,” I’d like to point out that the Weimar Republic was, of course, an explicitly anti-Marxist political construction (see, e.g. the the decisions taken by the SPD government during the January Uprising, a of January 1919.

Hint: when the German Communist Party’s campaign to destabilize the the Social Democrat-led government turned into an insurrection, that government called for help from the old Kaiserene military elite, and deployed Freikorps, unofficial units of former soldiers led by right-wing officers, to crush the insurgency.)  The sense (sic!) of the phrase “Weimar Marxian ideology” is roughly analogous to this: “Pentacostal Islamic theology.”


And then there’s the bizarre take on New Bedford as a hotbed of Weimar (read Jewish) degeneracy.*   I actually checked out this fine young idiot’s link, which led me to a truly anodyne pamphlet on New Bedford’s Jewish history.  There, using the man’s own source, I discovered that any German Jews in New Bedford in the early 20th century were mostly descendents of migrant peddlars who arrived in town in the mid-19th century — hardly a likely well spring for “radical trade-unionism” born amongst Berlin Reds in the 1920s.

Eastern European Jews started showing up after about 1875 — but they could no more be Weimar fifth columnists than their predecessors and, what’s more…

…Oh, hell.  Why bother.  You get the idea.  The actual facts about the American immigrant experience hardly matters, not when your eyeballs fill with blood and your eardrums throb and all you can see or hear is Jew, jeW, jEw, JeW, jEW, JEw, JEW.

It is a necessary condition in the formation of this style of antisemitism that bone ignorance be combined with utter certainty, so it’s no surprise that our little friend proves such a putz.**

That he should be shamed, ridiculed, and embarassed to within an inch of his capacity to scribble in crayon is fine by me, but what really struck me on reading his attempt to combine word strings into something that reads roughly like English was that here we have the real answer to the question that sometimes pops up in neo-con Jewish circles:  why won’t their co-religionists join them in voting Republican?

I’ll give y’all a hint:  It’s not because — or not simply because — we think Republican policies violate the injuction to tikkun olam — to heal the world.  Nor that the claims of both tzedek and tzedakah, justice and charity, are ones that the contemporary GOP denies at every turn.  Nor even the argument that reflexive support of the worst impulses in Israel is the surest way to do Israel great harm over time.

No, at least in part, and on some level of deeply sensed distrust,  it is because I and lots of both secular American Jews and deeply devout ones know that when you scratch enough of those with whom our co-religionists would have us ally, you get this kind of dreck.

Put it another way:  listening to a party whose dog whistles against our first African American President have become as audible as air raid sirens, it’s not that hard to remember the rest of the package bundled with such loathesomeness.

There are a lot of reasons to support Barack Obama in the coming weeks and months.  One big one is that you have to remember that the folks putting the hate on what an African American in the White House symbolizes have lots more rage  to go round.  That this lesson gets daily reinforcement helps make this election season at once so fascinating and so repulsive.  For today’s reminder, and for that service only,  I am grateful to the imbecile who decided that the Jewishness of Sandra Fluke’s partner is such a profound mark of shame.

Oh:  and f**k you with a rusty pitchfork, you spawn of history’s sewer.  Also too.

*That’s what I think really lodged in this unfortunate writer’s excuse for a brain: Weimar, we know, is associated with not just Jews, but gay Berlin (oh! That Isherwood fellow again) terrifyingly non-uplifting art (who is this George Grosz and why can’t he paint nice pictures of flowers and birds?) too much sex and who knows what else besides. Anything with that much going on is a priori evil, and given that Marxism is wretched to the root as well, then what the hell….

**And no, I’m not referring to the traditional Amish Christmas nativity scenes.  Why do you ask?

Image: Unknown photographer,  Karl Liebknecht delivering the funeral oration for Spartacist comrades, late 1918 or early 1919.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of an Old Jew, 1654.



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