Archive for August 2012

How To Botch A Job Interview

August 31, 2012

I didn’t watch the RNC.  Not a minute.

Wait!  To avoid a Kessler spanking, I should admit that when I turned the TV on Wednesday night looking for a west coast ball game, I found the cable set to one of the network stations.  So there was that glimpse of the convention floor — maybe a few seconds while fumbled for the mute button, and a few more while I tried to punch in the channel I wanted.  There’s that…

But, after I got back from the dinner welcoming our new victims graduate students to campus last night, I had a great time following the comment threads around the web on the trainwreck of Romney’s big night.  And as the hilarity over the Eastwood fiasco played out — a little sadly for me, because he’s done some great work on both sides of the camera — and as the clock relentlessly ticked on and as Rubio made it at least 3 if not more in the list of prime time speakers beginning now in their primary campaigns for 2016 and then as Romney finally tumbled onto stage with only 20 minutes or so left in prime time, and bumbled through much of that precious time before apparently finding his rhythm a bit after at least a chunk of his audience had been switched to local news, or the last beer, or bed — and then to face that fact that when all was said and done on this evening that was supposed to build a bond between the last three true swing voters in the United States and the remarkably sophisticated simulacrum of a human being operating under the code name Willard Mitt Romney, the only thing anyone actually remembered was a kind of recognizable weird old guy channeling the signals picked up by the filling in tooth 31 to drive his argument with an empty chair…

…as all that took place, I thought, W. Mitt Romney has just crashed the last remaining claim he has to the notion that he could do the presidency, even should he (FSM forbid!) manage to occupy it.

Consider:  when one runs for President there are only a few things over which the nominee has true total control.  Really there are only two:  the choice of a running mate, and the production of the wholly staged kabuki of the nominating convention.  The Ryan selection was botched, just from a technical point of view – a Friday evening news dump, the awkward pas de deux in which Romney and Ryan both tried to assert that the Ryan plan wasn’t really the Romney one and so on.  Leave aside the merits or not of Ryan as a running mate, just the way that the choice oozed out into public discussion was weak.

And now this.  The convention was rough from the start — and while you surely can’t blame the Romneybots for Hurricane Isaac, Chris Christie’s giant raspberry, spraying Jersey bluster all over Ann Romney’s red dress was not exactly what the Cyborg/Grannie Starver ticket had in mind.  Then you get to the mostly forgettable second day, made extraordinary by Paul Ryan’s delivery of a speech that was, in the end, an indigestible bolus of falsehood .  As someone pointed out at a link I’ve now lost, you’d think a properly run convention would have given Ryan sufficient guidance to make the lies just a little less obvious — just enough to provide cover to the both-sides-do-it/boys-will-be-boys school of coverage.  But noooo…with the result that what was supposed to be a day of media praise for Ryan’s extraordinary powers of intellect and his courageous embrace of hard truths…and of anticipation of the launch of the Romnoid’s Human Emulation software update…became instead a chorus of disdain — one that even reached the Fox News website!

Amazingly, all that pales before the my-eyes-deceive-me spectacle of Clint Eastwood trading implied obscenties with an empty chair…dragged out so long that the nominee himself was forced into that one true sin of convention production values:  crossing over out of prime time into the local news slot.

Holy Rotini, FSM! that’s just elementary.  Incredibly bad planning.  Grotesque management.  A failure not of ideas or character or of policy analysis or even emotional persuasion…but of the pure, basic demand that someone who wants to run something should, you know, actually do so.

And that for me is the lasting message of this convention.  Mitt Romney presents himself as the controlling intelligence whose experience as a top manager prepares him to run a more effective government than that of slacker/community organizer/government hack/oh, by the way – President Obama.

Remember, Romney isn’t running on his record in Massachusetts because it (a) largely sucked and (b) because the point at which it didn’t — with the passage of Romneycare — is the one that he just doesn’t seem to recall.  He isn’t running on Bain directly, because that record has messy details in it that accompany exercises in vampire capitalism.  He can’t do much with the Olympics because, you know, he didn’t build that.  So all that’s left is this general claim that he’s got the leader stuff down, that he can run things, that he’s a deciderer, and what he decides goes, and goes right.

And now this convention.

Seriously:  you can’t put on a three hour television show, you can’t run the country.  It’s as simple as that.

Images: Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Apotheosis of the Spanish Royal Family, 1762-1766

Roland, The Campus Thomson Gunner

August 30, 2012

Add any Colorado public university as a place I do not wish to teach:

Jerry Peterson, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and chair of the Boulder Faculty Assembly, said he would cancel classes if he found that someone had brought a firearm to class, according to the Daily Camera.

Although Peterson said he was only speaking for himself, Philip P. DiStefano, the chancellor at UC-Boulder, sent out an e-mail Tuesday to faculty members that they could not shut down a class if a student with a concealed carry permit brought a gun.Uh.

I really don’t know what to say.
I’m just not sure how it improves the educational environment if during a discussion session, a student might hesitate to criticize an idea from someone packing a Glock.
How about having to decide which kevlar print went best with my slacks on days I was handing back papers?  A “C” can powerfully irritate some folks, I know…
Of course, any constraint on the pedagogical process is secondary to the exercise of Founder-given rights, right?  So said the Colorado Supreme Court last March, thus ensuring that all Colorado public higher ed students can go to class every day secure in the knowledge that if a psycho shooter does show up, they can expect defense in the form of fellow students with much less firearm and incident training than, say, the New York Police Department offers its officers.
I mean, seriously.  What the F**k, America.  You don’t think that there is any zone in which the imminent threat of deadly force might be, you know, inappropriate.
Not to mention the inherent badness of the idea of putting young folks, stress and all the powerful emotion and mood swings that college can evoke in close proximity with firearms.
Holy FSM, am I glad I live in the great pagan-pinko-commie-health-care-providing-gay-marriage-pioneering non-gun-fetishizing Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  The winters may suck here, but sweet baby Jeezus and his dumber younger brother,* at least I don’t have to check my students for holster bulges.
I’d make a crack about Darwin awards and all that, but this really is too damn depressing to think about.
PS — Other states are crazy this way too.  It’s not going to be that long before I’m actually going to check on each institution’s policy before deciding whether it’s prudent to accept speaking invitations. Consider this bit of woe:

More than 200 campuses in six states currently allow concealed carry in some form, Burnett said, be it campuswide or only in certain areas.

*The one who turned wine into water.
Image: Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, The Suicide, c. 1836

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

August 29, 2012

Just a quick heads up for fans of smart (I hope) talk.  In just about an hour, at 5 p.m. EDT (10 GMT, 2 PDT) I’ll be trading views with science writer Jennifer Ouellete (AKA Jen-Luc Piquante), proprietor among much else of Cocktail Party Physics, which gig gives me the excuse for this pic:

The conversation will take place over at my more or less regular monthly gig on Virtually Speaking Science.  Listen live or later here. Alternatively, come join the virtually live audience in Second Life.  Podcasts of VSS, including the work of my co-host, Alan Boyle, can also be downloaded at the iTunes store.  Lots of back issues there — of particular current interest, you might check out my conversations with climate scientist Michael Mann; science studies scholar Naomi Oreskes, and science journalist and “framing” advocate Chris Mooney.

Jennifer and I will be leaping off from the impulse that led her to write her most recent book, The Calculus Diaries. That’s her account of being an admitted math-phobe coming to grips with the beauty and practical value of what is truly one of the handful of greatest human inventions ever.  As I blurbed for her — calculus allows one to think rigorously about change in time and space; it just doesn’t get bigger than that, really.

We’ll go from the book to the latest kerfluffle about what kinds of math should be taught in school (see the algebra controversy sparked by this piece. For a good reply, see this.)  More broadly we’ll use the question of how to present the actual importance of thinking mathematically in everyday circumstances to think out loud a bit about an issue that is bugging me more and more these days.  To put it in personal terms — I’ve been doing science writing/film making for public audiences for just about 30 years now.  Looking at the convention of one of our major political parties in which that party declares its denial of anthropogenic climate change, evidence based medicine, investments in science education and research and so on and on and on (without even going into the anti-evolution lunacy, nor the pseudo-science with which it justifies government regulation of ladyparts and … you get the picture) — looking at all that and more, it’s depressingly easy to conclude that my career has been a net negative.

Yes, I know, correlation is not cause, which is why some of us still believe that milk drinking does not  lead to heroin addiction. But really, for all that we live in something of a golden age of popular science writing and communication other media, it is past time, in my ever-so-humble opinion, to think about what, if anything, we should be doing to reach a mass audience we clearly have not fully attracted, much less persuaded.

Finally, Jennifer is near the end of a book that has proved much more challenging to write than she blithly thought going in.  I’m just starting a book I’m convinced I have got under control. (Thus every folly begins, in innocent confidence…) So we’re going to talk just a bit of shop:  how every book project trips you up, and what you can do about that terrible moment when you are finally, utterly, deeply certain that you computer is going to reach through the display and throttle you; just put you out of your and everyone else’s misery.

Should be fun.  Check it out when and as you have a notion.

PS:  As a DEW — Sunday, September 9, 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MT, I’ll be talking one of my old books, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science with the incomparable Desiree Schell on Skeptically Speaking. I’ve been on the show once before as a guest of Marie-Claire Shanahan, and it was a lot of fun.  Desiree is a fabulous interviewer, so I’m looking forward to this one too. But it’s relevant to the post above, if only because the book that both nearly killed me and most taught me to write was Measure…in which I succumbed to what I have decided is the dreaded second book syndrome.  More to come…

Image: Edgar Degas, L’absinthe, 1876

The Clear and Present Danger Chronicles: Goldbugs, GOPsters, The Ryan, and Oh Dear FSM Are They Really That Dumb?

August 25, 2012

I really have to get on with my day job, so I’m going to try to avoid the blogging itch as much as possible over the next while.  But I just can’t stop myself over the latest GOP flirtation with goldbuggery.

As you probably have heard, the Serious, Bold, Sober Party of Fiscal Discipline™ has at least in draft platform language asserted that it is the policy of the Republican party to explore the idea of restoring the US currency to the gold standard.

Y’all can stop laughing — or crying– now.

Paul Ryan, that intellectual powerhouse, the brilliant force that so-kicks-liberal-ass-in-the-gym-and-in-the-head-so-there is on board.  He might try to defend himself by saying that he supports basing US currency not on gold per se, but on a basket of commodities.

But as Yglesias points out, that’s a distinction without a difference. And it’s not even really true.  Dave Weigel notes that Ryan himself locates the root of his thoughts on currency to yet one more bit of Ayn Rand undigestible prose, the Francisco d’Anconia speech in which Rand’s “character”* declares

“It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears nor all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor – your claim upon the energy of the men who produce.”

Yup.  Not just a gold standard, but, as Krugman marvels, a gold coinage.

Just to pause on the deep, limpid, unruffled well of stupid required to advocate a gold coinage in place of folding money as an instrument of daily exchange, consider this.  At this week’s prices the lightest US coin, the dime, would, if made of gold, be worth around $120.  A gold quarter would run over $300.  I know that no one — not even the most whacked out GOPsters I’ve been able to find — actually expects us to walk around with socks full of gold dust to trade, but given Ryan’s declared love of this particular passage of Randsanity, I think it worth noting that the reason folks outside the asylum don’t ever take Rand seriously is that the stuff is absurd on every level.  It’s turtles all the way down.**

As you can tell from the linkage above, the whole notion has come in for the a surfeit of ridicule, astonishment, and a general reminder from lots of folks about just how radical, reckless and plain dumb is the GOP, Ryan and Romney approach to the real world.  Ezra Klein’s take is a fine place to start.

So no need to repeat what others have said on this:  if you can’t figure out why the gold standard is such a crap idea, then I’m not going to make any more impact on you than any of the rest of experience.

Instead, I want to pose a choice.  If one were to think about national problems, who should one trust:  Paul Ryan or Benjamin Franklin?

Here’s Franklin, writing on the need for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to issue paper money to make up for a shortage of metal coinage.  First up is a passage from near the beginning of his landmark pamphlet from 1729, The Nature and Necessity of a Paper-Currency:

All those who are Possessors of large Sums of Money, and are disposed to purchase Land, which is attended with a great and sure Advantage in a growing Country as this is; I say, the Interest of all such Men will encline them to oppose a large Addition to our Money. Because their Wealth is now continually increasing by the large Interest they receive, which will enable them (if they can keep Land from rising) to purchase More some time hence than they can at present; and in the mean time all Trade being discouraged, not only those who borrow of them, but the Common People in general will be impoverished, and consequently obliged to sell More Land for less Money than they will do at present. And yet, after such Men are possessed of as much Land as they can purchase, it will then be their Interest to have Money made Plentiful, because that will immediately make Land rise in Value in their Hands. Now it ought not to be wonder’d at, if People from the Knowledge of a Man’s Interest do sometimes make a true Guess at his Designs; for, Interest, they say, will not Lie.

No flies on Ben.  Not to mention, the more things change…R-Money represents those with money, and everything he and his party advance should be viewed with that in mind.

And here’s Franklin’s conclusion:

Upon the Whole it may be observed, That it is the highest Interest of a Trading Country in general to make Money plentiful; and that it can be a Disadvantage to none that have honest Designs. It cannot hurt even the Usurers, tho’ it should sink what they receive as Interest; because they will be proportionably more secure in what they lend; or they will have an Opportunity of employing their Money to greater Advantage, to themselves as well as to the Country. Neither can it hurt those Merchants who have great Sums out-standing in Debts in the Country, and seem on that Account to have the most plausible Reason to fear it; towit, because a large Addition being made to our Currency, will increase the Demand of our Exporting Produce, and by that Means raise the Price of it, so that they will not be able to purchase so much Bread or Flower with £100 when they shall receive it after such an Addition, as they now can, and may if there is no Addition: I say it cannot hurt even such, because they will get in their Debts just in exact Proportion so much the easier and sooner as the Money becomes plentier; and therefore, considering the Interest and Trouble saved, they will not be Losers; because it only sinks in Value as a Currency, proportionally as it becomes more plenty. It cannot hurt the Interest of Great Britain, as has been shewn; and it will greatly advance the Interest of the Proprietor. It will be an Advantage to every industrious Tradesman, &c. because his Business will be carried on more freely, and Trade be universally enlivened by it. And as more Business in all Manufactures will be done, by so much as the Labour and Time spent in Exchange is saved, the Country in general will grow so much the richer.

Philadelphia, April 3. 1729.
Among his scary list of superlatives, I’d rank Franklin as the first and probably the most significant thinker on currency and finance British America produced (placing Hamilton in the federal era…).  He was also, unlike both Romney and Ryan, a working independent businessman, someone who grew rich off actually making things.  In his case that would have been the products of his printing shop, in which, inter alia, he turned out much of the paper currency issued by the mid-Atlantic colonies over a couple of decades.  He experienced what tight money means on Main Street, and he understood very clearly who gained and who lost under different currency regimes.  When money grows scarce, as he says clearly above, the few with hard cash get rich at the expense not just of the many, but of society as a whole.
As it was, so it will be.
Bonus smart guy on monetary policy!  Here’s Isaac Newton on the use of paper and the merely notional solidity of metal money:
“If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work…the only proper way to lower it is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money.”  Radically, he added that “Tis mere opinion that sets a value upon [metal] money,” adding “we value it because we can purchase all sorts of commodities and the same opinion sets a like value upon paper security.”¹
(Isaac Newton was not anti-commodity based money. He was in charge of the Mint as Britain moved from one metallic standard to another, swapping silver for gold.  He remains a man of his time, not Franklin’s or the present day.  Even so, he had a better grasp of the basics of monetary policy than almost all of his contemporaries — and too many of ours.)
So that’s it.  Your choice.  Bet on R-Money and Republican deep thinkers — or stand with Ben and my man Izzy — and, as Krugman reminds us, a couple of centuries at least of practical experience as well.
*I use scare quotes because it makes Cervantes and Defoe weep to think that centuries of the development of the idea of representing human experience in the novel have come to this hideous end.
**Yup.  I do know that what I’m talking about is not the infinite regress problem properly.  But I’m thinking this way:  part of the issue with GOP craziness as it mainstreams is the layered nature of the crazy.  You pull apart one absurdity only to discover the next, perhaps more fundamental one down.  So it is here.
¹Newton quote as reported in G. Findlay Shirras; J. H. Craig, “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency,” The Economic Journal, Vol. 55, No. 218/219, pp. 230-231.  Self promotion alert: the passage above and Newton’s views on paper and credit are discussed in my book Newton and the Counterfeiter.  It’s stuff like this that is the leaping-off point for my next book project.
Images: Peter Paul Rubens, Ceres and Pan, 1615.
Quentin Massys, Unequal Marriagebetween 1525 and 1530.

 

China’s Car Dealers and the threat from R-Money: A Clear and Present Danger

August 24, 2012

I didn’t get to this yesterday, but The New York Times reminded us why, for all the justified scorn that can be heaped upon much of its Op-Ed team and the occasions when the Village consumes its straight journalism, it remains essential.

You just don’t get this kind of article without a large, well-resourced commitment to sustained coverage.  It tells us something we simply wouldn’t know — in any kind of broad public way — without their effort.

And the piece offers a model that the Village itself would do well to study:  it provides a strong basis of fact with which to think about broader problems, and it suggests without dictating where that focus of interest might reside.

The piece, you see, is about something that sounds kind of mundane:  an inventory overhang in China’s domestic market.  A huge one:

The glut of everything from steel and household appliances to cars and apartments is hampering China’s efforts to emerge from a sharp economic slowdown. It has also produced a series of price wars and has led manufacturers to redouble efforts to export what they cannot sell at home.

The severity of China’s inventory overhang has been carefully masked by the blocking or adjusting of economic data by the Chinese government — all part of an effort to prop up confidence in the economy among business managers and investors.

But the main nongovernment survey of manufacturers in China showed on Thursday that inventories of finished goods rose much faster in August than in any month since the survey began in April 2004. The previous record for rising inventories, according to the HSBC/Markit survey, had been set in June. May and July also showed increases.

Now, China hands — some of them, at least, including folks I talk to — have been arguing for some time that China’s economy and society are much more vulnerable than some popular accounts have suggested.  The social/political sensitivity of exactly this problem — the need to keep growth roaring to prevent the uneven distribution of the new China’s rewards from inciting real anti-government action — is likely as much why the central leadership has been hiding the numbers as any attempt to boost business confidence.*

There are lots of implications one may draw from the underlying circumstances reported here.  China, as the article’s author, Keith Bradsher, notes, has been one of the few functioning economic engines pumping during the Great Recession. Significant problems there, Bradsher writes,

…give some economists nightmares in which, in the worst case, the United States and much of the world slip back into recession as the Chinese economy sputters, the European currency zone collapses and political gridlock paralyzes the United States.

China is the world’s second-largest economy and has been the largest engine of economic growth since the global financial crisis began in 2008. Economic weakness means that China is likely to buy fewer goods and services from abroad when the sovereign debt crisis in Europe is already hurting demand, raising the prospect of a global glut of goods and falling prices and weak production around the world.

There is, as suggested above, another reason to pay close attention to this story.  For example, if you credit  the argument/research [pdf] advanced by my MIT colleague Yasheng Huang, China after Deng Xiaping has seen a growing gap in rural vs. urban wages, and a shift away from the incredible burst of local and rural entrepeneurship that Deng’s government engendered in the ’80s.  Huang’s work suggests that the long-running theme in Chinese history, center-periphery tension, is experiencing increased strain right now.

While I haven’t heard anyone predicting significant political/social disruption in China is imminent, the risk of destabilization in China is something to be watched.  It’s a country trying to do something very tricky indeed — maintain political structures within a context of enormously rapid economic change and social re-stratification.  It’s a country with which we very heavily engage on a lot of axes, not just economic. Bradsher and theTimes here help their public grasp some of what that readership — us — ought to be paying attention to.

So props to the Times, and do go read this story; as the processes it describes play out, this may have as much impact on our material well being as anything Congress may do quite a while.

And now to my headline:  why does this story reinforce my view that Mitt Romney represents a serious danger to America and the world?

Simple:  he’s an blustering foreign policy ignoramus completely unprepared to deal with the kind of complexities stuff like this pose.  Ryan’s as bad, possibly worse.  Seriously.  This is the weakest foreign policy ticket of my lifetime.  Neither man has any serious time abroad, except for Romney’s mission years in France, which do not  in my view count for much.**  Neither man has done anything in his life that requires navigating complicated intersections of interests across language and history barriers.  Both have had sheltered and shielded lives.  Neither have made a study of any significant international or foreign policy tangle.  They don’t know sh*t. So they rely on advisors — the same crew, for the most part, who performed with such notable skill during the Bush-lite years.

Which is why you get easy braggadocio like this:

If I am fortunate enough to be elected president, I will work to fundamentally alter our economic relationship with China. As I describe in my economic plan, I will begin on Day One by designating China as the currency manipulator it is.

More important, I will take a holistic approach to addressing all of China’s abuses. That includes unilateral actions such as increased enforcement of U.S. trade laws, punitive measures targeting products and industries that rely on misappropriations of our intellectual property, reciprocity in government procurement, and countervailing duties against currency manipulation. It also includes multilateral actions to block technology transfers into China and to create a trading bloc open only for nations genuinely committed to free trade.

Why does Romney think that the last several presidents of both parties have not done this sort of thing?  Lots of reasons.  The multilateral actions proposed are fantasies, for one.  The unilateral ones assume that we face no consequences for such actions.  Not exactly a safe thought.  And finally — moves that at this moment pushed a struggling Chinese economy into worse shape, as Bradsher’s article helps one to grasp, have plenty of unintended consequences that would make most leaders think hard.

Romney is not most leaders.    he is through both life and professional experience astonishingly unprepared for the job he seeks.  When you actually stop and think about what it would mean to sit him opposite the Chinese leadership, your first reaction should be terror.

Of course he does look the part.***

So that’s OK then.

*For one thing, business folks can generally look out over their own car lot/warehouse and kind of see the excess supply themselves.  They talk to each other too…which all reminds me of this true classic of a Doonesbury strip

**Why not?  Because of what he was trying to do in France:  evangelize. The conventional purpose of a Grand Tour or junior year abroad or some such is to expose yourself to the way a culture not your own does things.  Mission activity attempts to express the desirability of your own culture as a replacement for that in which you travel. Very different mental/emotional circumstances.

***Read: white, older, tallish, male, good hair.  He is, to reuse a tired by still marvelous on point phrase, someone to be taken as potential leader only through the subtle bigotry of exceptionally low expectations.

1:  Yes, I am old enough to have read on its first release a comic from Nov. 10, 1973.  What pleases me, lo these many years on, is that I am not so old as to be unable to remember doing so. ;)

Images:  Evert Collier, Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, c. 1699

Ma Yuan, Dancing and Singing (Peasants Returning from Work), before 1225.

Of E-Books, Reviews, And the ReMaking of Literary Journalism. (Shameless Self and Project Promotion…)

August 23, 2012

Hey all –

For those that might be interested, I’ve got a review up of TED Senior Fellow Alanna Shaikh’s What’s Killing Us:  A Practical Guide to Our Biggest Global Health Problems.  It’s good-not-great IMHO, for reasons I go into with my usual gift for brevity.  I’ll post the full review below the jump — but I urge you to click on the link, as it will take you to the Download the Universe site, which is the project I’d like to bring to your attention.

DtU is the brainchild of uber-science writer Carl Zimmer, who while talking on a panel about e-books at last January’s Science Online conference was challenged to do something about his complaint that popular science writing lacks the community and infrastructure that the romance and mystery/thriller worlds have used to great effect.  On the spot he agreed to get something going.  He got in touch with some of his colleagues, me included, and we all agreed to put together (under Carl’s leadership) a site that would review as many e-books/apps/shorts and the like as we could.  The site’s been running since the beginning of the year; the editorial board, present company excepted, of course, is solid gold; and we’ve built up a reasonable archive of takes on stuff you might like to read.    For the snarkaholics among us, let me point  you to a couple to get started:  David Dobbs ripping several new orifices in Ron Gutman’s TED offering Smile; and Carl himself rendering  bodily harm to another TED published work (a theme here?) on Zimbardo and Duncan’s ghastly-sounding The Demise of Guys.

There were works we liked too.  Some favorites?  Steve Silberman’s take on the rescue of William Craddock’s psychedelic classic Be Not Content; Carl again on the app-book Leonardo which he asserts is “the first great science e-book;” Ed Yong on  The Electric Mind, an Atavist app-and-e-book; Deborah Blum on one of my all time favorites, Michael Faraday’s  Chemical History of a CandleThere are lots more.  Again, this site is populated by as fine a list of popular science writers as I can imagine; I’m honored to join them.

Here’s the thing.  These writers have come together because we are in the midst of a revolution in the way we talk to each to other– the existence of this blog is an example of communication and community that would not have been possible a very short time ago.  One consequence of that change is that models for making a living through the craft of writing are being remade.  Publishing has been disintermediated, which to my mind is mostly a very good thing indeed.   (I do know that all this is old hat to everyone reading this.)  But DtU came into existence because such disintermediation makes it harder to get the word out about good stuff.  So as science writers, working in an area we think surpassingly important (and lots of fun) we’ve taken matters into our own hands, as the technology requires us to do.  So, if you do have an interest in the construction of a culture of smart lay conversation about science, Download the Universe may be very useful to you.  I hope so.

Shameless self-and-other promotion complete.  As promised, the review of Shaikh’s work, complete with all the DtU apparatus, follows below the jump.

Image:   Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (Marat assassiné), c.1693. (more…)

Send In The Clowns

August 22, 2012

I’m late to the Ferguson party, partly because I’ve been travelling, and partly because I can’t easily get past my initial reaction:  it’s Ferguson, dudes.  Of course he’s a hack, someone who’s been trading on attitude and an accent since he arrived on these shores (and before, of course). But I want to pile on just a little bit, for a reason that I hope will become clear a little later on in this post. (And, as I look at the blog, later still.)

Still, just to refresh everyone’s memory after a couple of days of Akin folly, Ferguson attempted in the pages of Newsweek to disguise a polemic as an argument for Obama’s replacement by his preferred Ryan-Romney ticket. (Note — I’m not making an error in the order there.  Again, wait for it below.)  He lists a series of alleged policy failures and promises, now much debunked — Ezra Klein’s  more-in-sorrow flensing may be the best place to start, but Fallows, whom John linked, and Krugman, and Delong, and …. hell, perhaps most devastatingly Andrew Sullivan* have managed to shred whatever remains of Ferguson’s reputation.  It all gets worse in the “defense” Ferguson (no linky) has vomited up across the Newsweek/Daily Beast site, in which the angry not-so-young man Niall “demolishes” folks like DeLong by complaining that the UC professor hasn’t written his book fast enough for his taste. (See Fallows for a round-up of the derision the belligerant Scot’s second bite at the apple has earned.)

But all of Ferguson’s wind and wheeze can’t mask the underlying reality: he wrote a deliberately deceptive piece and his attempt at defense merely has us pondering which of these British officer fitness reports best applies to him.  I’m partial to number 12 (obvious, really), but on reflection, I think I’d go with 5.  Number 2 ain’t bad either.

But I digress.

Here I just want to look at one key point.  And that is that Ferguson, sorry as he is, is literally the best the Right has got when it comes to intellectual credibility.  So it’s worth looking at what now represents the gold standard of rigorous thought on the right.

Ferguson actually starts from a perfectly acceptable premise:  the economy sucks, and the Obama administration has not accomplished as much as Candidate Obama had hoped and predicted.  What Ferguson does with that premise is what has been so thoroughly demolished by just about everyone, so I’ll pass over most of what he wrote in silence.  Here, I just want to turn to his one affirmative argument:

Now Obama is going head-to-head with his nemesis: a politician who believes more in content than in form, more in reform than in rhetoric. In the past days much has been written about Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate. I know, like, and admire Paul Ryan. For me, the point about him is simple. He is one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who is truly sincere [italics in the original] about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.

Note that Ferguson has Obama confronting Paul Ryan, not the emasculated and irrelevant Romney.**  And note too Ferguson here signs on to the favorite lie of the right-wing commentariat.  Let me illustrate.

What do you call a person who’s budgetary plan increases the federal deficit by $2.6 trillion over its first ten years?  Bonus question:  what do you call that person who has proposed such a fiscal Molotov cocktail in order to provide the richest among us with a tax cut?  Double Jeopardy round:  what do you call such a person who does so despite a rich trove of academic work demonstrating that the US is well below the revenue-maximizing top tax rate even keeping the current baroque tax code?***

If you are a member of the reality based community, one who retains honor enough to allow words their common meaning and actual data their sway over even cherished contrary preconceptions, then you would say that if that man claimed to be a serious fiscal thinker he was at best delusional, and much more likely a simple liar. A thief of sense.

OTOH, if you’re Niall Ferguson, you call that man, Paul Ryan, “sincere.”

On reflection, if Niall were right, that would be worse, certainly for Ryan (sincere buffoons are still risible), and, as it turns out, for Niall himself.  What does it say about a “historian” who so ignores the easily accessible world to spin a fantasy of saviors on their white steeds, ready to defend us from the usurper in the White House?

Nothin’ good.****

One more thing, really, the buried lede (or lead, if that’s how you roll) for this whole post.  Ferguson himself is just the insult to honest sex-workers that DennisG’s post describes.  The real insight we gain from his massive embarassment is what it tells us about the state of Republican intellectualism.  And what should scare you is that Niall is truly the best they’ve got.  Here’s The New Yorker’s John Cassidy thinking along the these lines:

Where are the real conservative intellectuals these days? Surely there must be some, but sometimes it seems like all the right has to offer is a soap-box mountebank like Ryan, a trio of embittered Supreme Court Justices, and a few gnarled old Washington fixtures like Bill Kristol, George Will, and Charles Krauthammer. Given this vacuum, it’s relatively easy for an energetic and disputatious blow-in like Ferguson to emerge as one of Obama’s most visible, if not exactly persuasive, critics.

Chew on that for a second.  What Cassidy is almost saying (though he doesn’t go all the way there, perhaps because he is very much still part of the inside-looking-out wing of modern American journalism) is that modern conservatism in America is simply a failure.  It’s wrong.  It doesn’t connect to the real world.  Its axioms are false and its prescriptions are disastrous, from Niall Ferguson’s unrequited demand that the US behave like a proper empire to the Ryan fantasy that lasting prosperity can be built on growing income inequality — and the earnest claim by so many over there that ours is the nation in which the error of extending the franchise to women can be in part rolled back by denying every double-X agency in their own persons.
It’s all a disaster; wrong, bad for the country, bad for the world, a ticket to Rome, c. 476 CE.

As for the party of the first part?  Pity Ferguson’s students.  And pity the nation that ever takes this hollow man seriously.

*When you’ve lost Sullivan:

As for Iraq, Niall says the exit was premature. It was negotiated by Bush. Maliki didn’t want us there any more. Niall thinks we should occupy a country with all the massive expense that entails – against its will? Seriously? And it’s Obama who is unserious on the debt?

** Does anyone besides me see a longer term problem developing for team Elephant in the steady rasp of that dull saw rowing away on Romney’s nether parts?  The press isn’t even bothering to ask him anymore — it’s what Ryan thinks that matters.  Akin gives him the classic one-finger salute and he has to say “please sir, may I have another.” Ann Romney, poor dear, gets trotted out to reassure a doubting America that he really isn’t a Red Lector from planet ten.  (Still don’t know what’s up with the watermelon.)  And…you get the point.  I’ve never seen anything like this. Is there going to be a recognizable homunculus to vote for come November?

**See e.g., Berkeley economist Emanuel Saenz’s comment in this survey:

Based on best estimates and even with current tax code, US top rate is still significantly below revenue maximizing tax rate

****I get the argument that DennisG channels from Stephen Marche that Ferguson makes much more as a monkey-boy for hedge fund MOTUs, but I do think that Ferguson actually cares a great deal about status; he derives enormous satisfaction from his persona as a credentialed wise man.  It hurts when folks he wants to defer to him instead disdain him.  It doesn’t kill; stacks of Benjamins do staunch the wounds.  But it does sting.

Images:  Alfred Dedreux, Pug Dog in an Armchair, 1853.

Hieronymous Bosch, Cutting the Stone, (alternate title: Extraction of the Stone of Folly), before 1516.  (I know I’ve used it before, but it works here…)


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