Archive for March 2013

The Day The Newsweekly Died

March 29, 2013

Let’s say you are the editor of essentially the last rag standing, the final remnant of the once insanely influential tribe of dead-tree general-interest newsweeklies.  Let’s say you are the lord of Time.

Now, we all know Time is increasingly just another one of time’s victims, a dinosaur in a world filled with post-CGI-meteor digital mammals (extended grotesque metaphor in honor of the party of the first part).  So if you’re the editor, you’ve got a tough trick:  how to cut through all those pesky byting insects? (Consistency? we don’t got no consistency.  We don’t need no Kinky People Can Often Find Good Sex consistency!)

And finally, let’s say you have no moral compass; you don’t care about what’s true, or about the pain your decisions could inflict on millions of people touched by the subject of your cover story.

That’s when you come up with this:

Time Cancer cover

It’s not possible. We’re nowhere near what’s promised on that cover.  Hell, even conceptually, you can’t “cure” “cancer.”  It’s a family of illnesses that share certain characteristics (most importantly, uncontrolled cell division) but that present a whole host of different pathologies and possibilities for treatment; no matter what advances may come, no one who can count past three expects some unitary cure.  But rather than rant on, I’m just going to outsource my rage and disdain to my friend (and MIT colleague) Seth Mnookin, writing yesterday in Slate:

 Witness the headline emblazoned in all-caps on the cover of the magazine’s April 1 issue: “HOW TO CURE CANCER.” It’s followed by an asterisk that directs you to a subtitle, just to make sure you get the point: “Yes, it’s now possible, thanks to new cancer dream teams that are delivering better results faster.”

Which, of course, is completely, utterly, inarguably false. The roughly 580,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer know the reality all too well. For some context, that’s more people than will die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, strokes, accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes combined.

According to Seth, the actual story is more a squib than the blatant idiocy implied by the cover, which is a minor relief.  But the cover on its own is hugely damaging — and Seth gets into what makes it so before coming to the heart of the matter:

Which brings us to the real problem with Time’s headline, which is not that it’s wrong, or even that it might create funding problems for future cancer researchers—it’s that in the context of a fatal disease with excruciatingly painful treatment options, it’s simply cruel.

Exactly.  Cancer has harrowed my own family — non-small-cell lung cancer took my mother ten days before my scheduled wedding, for one example — so I know to the bone what it feels like to encounter witless fantasies like this one.  But it shouldn’t require such a loss to grasp the fact that you don’t get to put the word “cancer” and the word “cure” in the same sentence — hell the same paragraph — unless you’ve cleared the wards and are carrying some folks to Stockholm in sedan chairs.  Go read Seth — and spit on the ground in front of the display everytime you see one of these.

Oh…one more thing: if you had any doubt that the newsweeklies had fully and fatally jumped the shark, doubt no more.

It Is What The Holy One Did For Me When We Came Out Of Egypt

March 28, 2013

It’s Passover, as I’m sure y’all know, and tonight we’ll be heading over to a friend’s house for a distinctly unorthodox (and late) second seder.

The seder — the ritual Passover meal — actually follows a Hellenistic form:  it’s a symposium, a feast in which the gathering converses into the night on some topic of interest or importance.

Tiepolo_Last_Supper

When a symposium is a seder the focus is on liberation, on justice, on the meaning of freedom and on the obligations that such a transformation imposes on those who are no longer slaves.  Most important, by long tradition and, in the best of my family’s customs, the Passover story is one to be told and re-imagined in the present tense.  That’s the meaning of the phrase in the traditional text (the Haggadah) cited in the title to this post.  Every year we are enjoined to tell the tale and to discuss its meaning understanding that we ourselves took part in the exodus.  We talk through the ritual of getting up on our own hind legs and moving (fitfully, incompletely) along that long arc that bends towards justice — us, ourselves — with no “as if” caveats involved.

I thought of all this reading Tom Junod’s post over at Charles Pierce’s shop on the gay marriage battle.  In it, he writes of his 28 year marriage, and his understanding that no one else’s nuptials constrain his own.  He writes, rightly, “like anyone who has ever been married, I understood that whatever threat there was to my marriage came from within rather than from without.”

That’s true — or rather, it’s a commonplace, obvious, the baseline of a humane understanding of love, connection and commitment.  But Junod is after more than a well-spoken penetrating glimpse of the obvious.  The meat of his piece lies with his account of the way in which his straight family is, in the eyes of those fighting the bad fight against same-sex marriage, gay as the day is long:

 

…my wife and I are not of the same sex; I am a man and she is a woman. But we are infertile. We did not procreate. For the past nine years, we have been the adoptive parents of our daughter; we are legally her mother and father, but not biologically, and since Tuesday have been surprised and saddened to be reminded that for a sizable minority of the American public our lack of biological capacity makes all the difference — and dooms our marriage and our family to second-class status.

…..before long I started hearing an argument based on biology or, as groups such as the National Organization for Marriage would have it, “nature.” For all its philosophical window dressing — for all its invocation of natural law, teleological destiny, and the “complementary” nature of man and woman — this argument ultimately rested on a schoolyard-level obsession with private parts, and with what did, or did not, “fit.” There was “natural marriage” and “unnatural” marriage, and it was easy to tell the difference between them by how many children they produced. A natural marriage not only produced children; it existed for the purpose of producing children. An unnatural marriage not only failed to produce children; it resorted to procuring children through unnatural means, from artificial insemination to surrogacy to, yes, adoption.

To be clear:  Junod is not pulling a Portman.  He makes it plain that his conviction in favor of gay civil rights derives not from his personal skin in the game as discovered in the “gayness” of his family, but from the idea limned above, that one’s marriage is one’s own business, and the opportunity to experience marriage is a universal right.

No, the point Junod makes here is that the recent arguments have distilled the anti-civil-rights position to its most craven and ugly core. To those seeking to bar same-sex civil equality, the only acceptable form of marriage is one in which children emerge the old fashioned way.  It is one in which the core function for the woman involved is as an incubator.  It is one which denies every other possibility that two people could form a lasting commitment to each other centered on affection, on daily business of making a life across all the dimensions we traverse in this world.  As Junod re-articulates, the campaign against gay marriage is not mere selective disdain for one class of people.  It is (as all civil rights battles are at the root) an affront to everyone‘s claim to full humanity.

 

Mademoiselle_de_Clermont_en_Sultane

Again, that’s the nature of civil rights:  when you deprive people of rights to their own labor, their own person, those slaves suffer the worst of the damage by far — but no one gets out of that relationship unscathed.  Masters and indifferent bystanders suffer diminuition too.  When you deny access to the vote, and hence to power, and hence to practical autonomy…well, hell.  It’s not as if Jim Crow brought the south a dynamic economy or cultural life.

And, as Junod writes, when you demand that some among us must do without the full emotional, spiritual and public benefits and obligations of marriage because only baby factories need apply?  The contraction of human possibility is obvious, and universal.

This all struck home the more because like Junod, my wife and I are adoptive parents.  I try never to discuss personal matters on the ‘tubes unless they belong to me exclusively.  My wife’s life and that of my son are theirs; I try not to trespass there in any matter of substance.  So I’m not going to provide any context, any further information, nothing, except that one fact, and it’s bearing on this issue.

I confess, I hadn’t been paying close attention to the “marriage-must-produce-children” nonsense until reading Junod just now.  First — it seemed purely risible, just monumentally stupid.  Menopausal women and low sperm-count-men shouldn’t marry?–and so on.  The claim reduces itself to absurdity without any external effort.  And second, who needed that deep foolishness to be persuaded of the case for marriage equality?  If I had a damascene moment, it came years ago, in the nineties, when I was working on a book in Berlin, and passed every day the unobtrusive triangular plaque on the side of the Nollendorfplatz U-bahn station, memorializing the 25,000 gay men transported to the camps under the Nazis.  If anything can wake one to the implications of any denial of full civil status, that one does. And there’s always the my-enemy’s-enemies test to fall back on too.

But Junod’s post reminded me of the deeper point.  It’s not that by virtue of being an adoptive parent I share in the stigma that anti-marriage-equality are trying to paint on my gay friends, neighbors, fellow-citizens. Rather, this is what the Hagadah said to me this Monday; what it will say again (eccentrically) tonight.  The fact that my son came to me from beyond the walls of biology is my joy, and it reminds me that this is happening right now — to me as I leave Egypt.

Try to deny that, try to diminish me to some fraction of myself, my procreative possibility or whatever, and I need to demand justice for me and my family.  And, as always, it can’t be justice unless it is not for me alone.  To paraphrase again the words of the old text:

This year we may all be slaves.

Next year may we all be free.

Images:  Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Last Supperc.1750

Jean-Marc Nettier, Madame de Clermont as a Sultana, 1733.

Bitter Lemons

March 22, 2013

From Paul Murphy, writing at the Financial Times Alphaville blog (h/t and lifted bodily from Krugthulu).

Big depositors in Cypriot banks stand to lose circa 40 per cent of their money here, which has drawn plenty of fury and veiled threats from Russia.

Victor_Dubreuil_-_Barrels_on_Money,_c._1897_oil_on_canvas

But what exactly can the Russians do about this? Sell euros? Tear up double taxation agreements? Murder Cypriot bankers? Medvedev and co could not have played a worse hand during this crisis — and it’s not immediately clear why.

Cyprus now has a binary choice: become a gimp state for Russian gangsta finance, or turn fully towards Europe, close down much of its shady banking sector and rebuild its economy on something more sustainable.

The choice is obvious.

Forgive me if I’m just too dense to live, but isn’t this how capitalism is supposed to work?  Yo! Russian travelers:  that citrus you just sucked may be bitter indeed, but you put a bunch of money at in play, and sometimes you lose it.  That has a lot to recommend to our banking sector, of course, but really, if we are ever to have a financial sector that does what it is supposed to do (allocate capital within the real economy and hedge –insure — risk) then we kind bankers to actually bank, and not view themselves as money lenders and casino operators.  I’ve sat in on quant conference tasks (ever want to learn how to trade on derivatives of volatility measures?  Me either), and it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.  Cyprus and naughty Russians are just far out enough on the periphery to stand at ocular risk.  But I do think we would be better off if our galtian overlords had just a bit of healthy fear back-crossed into the breed.

Image:  Victor Dubreuil, Barrels of Moneyc. 1897  And yes, I have used this one before.  Works here too.

On Fluorescent Fish, Pet Prosthetics, Roach Cyborgs, and the Ethics of Engineered Animals

March 20, 2013

Program notes, here. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, which means I’ll be talking to a guest on the Virtually Speaking Science Strand at Blog Talk Radio and in Second Life.

This month my interlocutor will be a first for me: 0ne of my former MIT Science Writing graduate students, Emily Anthes. Emily is (a) great — a fine writer, a ferocious reporter, and someone with a sharp-elbowed, quirky view of the world.

She’s just out with a new book, Frankenstein’s Cat, on what’s happening now — and what the implications may be — in a range of ways we’ve begun to modify our pets and other animals. The book treats of genetically modified fish that glow in the dark; dairy animals manipulated to produce therapeutically valuable proteins in their milk, the concept of editing the genomes of useful (and/or decorative) animals, cloning, brain hacking (that’s the roaches) and more.

Emily is an engaged reporter on all this; she has strong points of view. Broadly, she favors the side of intervention; in part, as she notes, because it’s hardly as if the history of selective breeding leaves us exactly virginal in the matter of using our fellow creatures as means, rather than ends in themselves.

Joannes_Fijt_-_Spaniels_Stalking_Rabbits_in_the_Dunes_-_WGA08353

The question isn’t whether we should manipulate animals, but how, and with what ethical lens — and that’s what we’ll talk about.

We’ll do so both as a live and listen-later audio cast, and in front of a virtually (and virtuously, I hope) live audience in Second Life, tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 4 p.m on that far coast I used to call home.

Should be fun. Emily’s the real deal. Listen in; buy her book; make an old teacher happy.

Image: Jan Fyt, Spaniels Stalking Rabbits in the Dunes, 1658

CPAC, Rendered

March 16, 2013

One of the joys of middle-aged fatherhood is the gift of the absurd — which is to say whatever entertains Kidz Theze Dayz — offered up by one’s sprout.

My son’s a gamer — Starcraft, TF 2 and WoW much of the time, but with an enduring love of Minecraft as well.  He’s an avid consumer of E-sports stuff on the various Youtube channels as well. If you’ve missed names like the Yogcast Yogscast, Day 9, the Cynical Brit (aka Total Biscuit, and known in this household as Whole Crumpet) and so on, you’re (perhaps blissfully) unaware of a huge segment of pop-culture.

I’m not sure I minded my long ignorance of the subculture of ‘casters and pro-gaming as entertainment, but once made aware, I have to admit it’s amazing — if only for the way that the gamer community constructed the entire infrastructure of a sports-entertainment industrial complex substantially (though not entirely) from the grass roots up.

1909_Stag_at_Sharkey's

There are significant sociologial and cultural insights to be gained from understanding that process and its results– or smart colleagues of mine think so:  we talk a lot about the political reach (or not) of the digitization of experience and the rise of social networks, and here’s a whole universe in which this is taking place that one can study absent the confounding variable of political passions.

But forget the high-falutin stuff — given his gaming and Youtube passions, my son regularly expands my horizons by showing me stuff I simply would never think to discover on my own.  And because I’m no sober scholar of modern tech/youth culture, I have my own interpretative lens that colors what he finds.  So, as a non-gamer DFH would-be yobbo anti-pundit, I’ll just thank my son for showing me the 36 seconds that captures the pure essence of CPAC:

 

So, as you read about CPAC neo-confederates wondering how Frederick Douglass had the presumption to forgive his former master, who, in their view, had merely provided food and shelter, think this vid.

Image:  George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909.


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