Archive for April 2013

Up Next: The General

April 30, 2013

So — we know what’s coming up next in Massachusetts: Ed Markey vs. Gabriel Gomez.  Markey’s a 36 year veteran in the House; Gomez is an alledgedly “pure” non politician with all the attributes the national Republican Party wants to see — Latino, a former Seal, private-equity “job creating” vampire.

We’ve seen how this can play out even in not-as-liberal-as-our-rep Massachusetts.  Remember Senator Coakley?

There are real, big differences this time of course.  No Obamacare debate, nor teabagger summer of 2o09.  We’ve seen the Republican party in its howling glory a lot in the last two and half years, and Massachusetts Democrats are profoundly committed to not seeing Scott Brown II play at any multiplexes next year.  Not to mention Ed Markey isn’t Martha Coakley, for which I’m grateful indeed.  But I’m deeply mindful of what about a dozen of us heading out to canvass for Markey on Sunday heard from this guy:

Dukakis crop

Mike Dukakis was a damn good governor, and he would have made a much better president than Bush the elder.  Dukakis is particularly admirable because, in the tradition of the good guys, he hasn’t dropped out of public life or public service just because he’s not running for anything anymore.  And boy does he know his home town.

I’d never met him before, and so after we chatted for a while, he asked me where in Brookline I live.  I’m on a truly minor one block long street which boasts a grand total of, I think, seven houses that actually have addresses on our road (we’ve got a couple more on the corners that the larger through streets claim).  I said the street name and started to explain where it was and he stopped me.  “I know them all,” he said, and I believe the man.

So what did he say?  He told us to get out and knock on every door — not just Sunday, but as much as we could before today, and then again, as much as we can, over and over again between now and June 25th, the day of the general election.  We’ve seen what happens when we don’t, he reminded us — and the he said not to pay any attention to the numbers.  “I’m the guy who was 40% ahead of Ed King with five weeks to go and lost that election.”  (Quoting from memory, backed up by this interview.)

The point is obvious, right?

Ed Markey is a hard core, old fashioned liberal.  The kind of senator we need right now, in ever greater numbers.  He’s going to start out with a substantial lead.  About three times as many Democrats as Republicans voted in this primary.  Markey’s vote total alone exceeds the GOP vote for all three of their candidates.  And he can lose.  If he doesn’t campaign better than Martha Coakley did, he may well lose.  He won’t, both because I think it is actually physically impossible to do a worse job in an election than Coakley did, and because he’s not stupid.  He’s not a charismatic guy at all, but he works and works and works.  Which is all good.

But there are no guarantees.

So my wife and I will be handing over a few more bucks, and we’ll be hitting the phones and knocking on doors.  The state party’s a lot smarter than it was when it let Brown blindside everyone three years ago, and the national party isn’t going to let this one slip either.  But if any of y’all are in the area, we could use your help.  Ask Mike Dukakis.  He’ll tell you.

“You Can Keep The Gun” — Guest Post

April 29, 2013

What follows are friend-of-the-blog Jim Bale’s reflections on our recent bad days in Boston, Cambridge, Watertown and environs.  He picked up the loathesome suggestion by an Arkansas state rep who misunderstands so much about both Boston and the concept of society that I could come up with nothing but sputtering obscenities.  Jim, a better man, has something much smarter to offer.

______________________

Jim Bales here, with thanks to Tom for the loan of his soapbox.

During the hunt for the Marathon bombers, Arkansas State Rep. Nate Bell (a Republican) tweeted:

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?”

Nonchaloir (Repose)

He followed with an apology for the timing of his words, but not the words themselves.

 

I sent him the following email (his contact information is at http://www.arkansashouse.org/member/256/ )

Dear Representative Bell,

I am fortunate to have had multiple opportunities to visit the beautiful state of Arkansas, and to spend time staying with friends and relatives in your state. I was taken aback to read your tweet that you wondered “how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?” I was then saddened to read your apology for “for the poor timing of my tweet earlier this morning.”

What you don’t seem to understand that your words themselves are offensive and ignorant, no matter when expressed. I urge you to take the time to reflect upon your words, and try to wrap your head around the fact that the good liberals in Boston (and I am one of them) recognize that only a fool believes that a personal firearm is a magic talisman that makes one safe.

Our safety is based on our recognizing that we are a Commonwealth that our individual well-being is strengthened by our commitment to each other, through our words, our deeds, and our taxes. We put our tax money into training and equipping our law enforcement officers. We put our trust and our support behind them. We don’t try to do their job for them, and we understand that possessing an AR-15 cannot magically make us invulnerable.

And so, because we have faith in our law enforcement officers, we did not cower in fear behind a firearm. Rather, we calmly stayed home, were alert, and stayed out of the way of our brethren in law enforcement.

I urge you, in your capacity as Member of the House of Representatives of the great State of Arkansas, to review the support your state gives its law enforcement agencies, and (if necessary) vote to increase taxes to ensure that the good people of Arkansas can reasonably enjoy the same level of faith in those agencies as we in Boston (and Massachusetts) enjoy in ours.

Trust me; having competent, well-trained and well-funded law enforcement is far more reassuring than holding an AR-15!

Image:  John Singer Sergant, Repose, 1911.

 

Best,

Jim Bales

 

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

April 26, 2013

So, I’m on this antibiotic resistance kick these days.

Actually — this is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while.  The blunt truth is that it was when I first started reading about Vancomycin, a pretty damn nasty drug, originally discovered in 1953 but largely shelved until it became a drug-of-choice as a last line of defense against largely intractable MRSA (Methycillin-resistant S. aureus  infections.  That started to happen in the 70s, and I guess I began to notice some press on this at the start of my professional career as a science hack, sometime in the early 80s.

It struck me then and at intervals since that I — and most of you, almost certainly — have lived entirely in this really atypical period in the history of human-microbe relations.  Antibiotics first became fairly broadly available in the midst of World War II — 1943 or so.  Since the fifties, diseases that routinely killed some large percentage of their victims simply ceased to be meaningful threats.  My grandparents grew up in a world in which you could die from a scratch, one in which TB killed half of those (or more) who developed active disease.

Cristobal_Rojas_37a

Theirs was one in which the dangers of surgery included real, scary risk of dreadful illness and sometimes death from post-op infection.  Mine — ours — is not.

That’s changing now, to the point where we may look back on the last half of the 20th century and two, maybe three decades of this one and see it as this almost Eden-like mirage, that brief time in the garden when humans and microbes could co-exist peacefully. Then…Boom!

Michelangelo,_Fall_and_Expulsion_from_Garden_of_Eden_02

If antibiotic resistance progresses in the way it’s been going — well let me turn to Maryn McKenna, the journalist who more than any other has made this story current for me, and follow the links from  a post she put up last month  to these words from a genuinely serious person:

“Antimicrobial resistance poses a catastrophic threat,” said [England's chief medical officer Dame Sally] Davies. “If we don’t act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics. And routine operations like hip replacements or organ transplants could be deadly because of the risk of infection.”

That struck a chord because I’d already been thinking about a CDC-published field report from South Africa, documenting 17 cases of what seem to be TDR-TB, tuberculosis that has evolved Total Drug Resistance — which is just as grim as it sounds.  That finally prompted me to get off my ass and start reporting and writing, which has now generated a piece over at The New Yorker’s new science and tech web vertical (what we used to call a section, I suppose).

WPA_Tuberculosis_poster_-_original

Go over there to read the whole thing, but for what I think of as the heart of the matter, there’s this:

Working against pathogenic microbes is not simple altruism. Keeping the lid on bad diseases in the age of air travel is a matter of self-interest, at least as much as it is a duty to our neighbors. And the invisible hand of the market is not currently taking care of this particular business. We are in the midst of a persistent antibiotic-development drought—only two new classes of the drugs have been identified in the last thirty years or so. Drug companies have been withdrawing from antimicrobial research for several reasons…For…perfectly rational economic reasons, the pharmaceutical industry is unlikely to keep pace with the need for a social good whose benefits don’t translate into profits that can be readily captured. That makes this a political matter: some other institutions will have to do the work.

Friends and readers here can guess at where the political theme leads…

In this context, I also was eager to have my second on-the-air/web conversation with McKenna about TB and much else this last Wednesday.  I posted about that in advance (barely) of the broadcast — and now the podcast is available.

This is serious sh*t folks.  We’re facing more and more resistant diseases – here’s a piece about completely resistant gonorrhea that should make the adventurous among us check the sell-by dates on their condoms — and we are devoting less and less social attention to the problem.  I really don’t want to be 80, and in need of a hip replacement, and have to weigh a 1/n (where n is a small number) chance of dying from a bug against my ability to walk into senescence.  Or to die coughing in my bed.

I’ll probably be beating on this drum some more, you know. It has (perhaps literally) gotten under my skin.

Cheers everyone.  Happy Friday.

Images:  Cristobal Rojas, La Miseria,  1866

Michaelangelo, Expulsion from Eden from The Sistine Ceiling, 1509-10

WPA poster created between 1936 and 1941.

 

Not Quite Getting It…Or the Perils of Village Life

April 25, 2013

I usually think well of Garance Franke-Ruta’s work over at The Atlantic, so what follows isn’t so much a “pox-upon-her-house” screed as it is a cautionary tale.

Vice President Joe Biden came to my patch yesterday,  MIT, to play his familiar role as consoler-in-chief at the memorial service for Sean Collier, the MIT police officer murdered last week.

Édouard_Manet_-_The_Funeral

His speech was vintage Joe, powerful, direct, colored by emotion expressed bluntly, clearly, without (seeming)* artifice.  It was aimed carefully — if you actually listened –  towards at least two audiences: not just the sea of police and students spread out before him, but also the Republican party, and the American people beyond.

That’s what Franke-Ruta missed as she chased a tired meme.  Hers is the artless Joe, who genuinely, if perhaps a little embarassingly, is all raw heat, no reflection — the administration’s “id” as her headline would have it.  The comparison to be drawn is obvious, and Franke-Ruta does so in her first sentence:  Joe’s the man with real-people responses, which  his boss, the President is too cool (read, not quite human) to deliver.  From there, her analysis dives even deeper into conventional wisdom:

Today’s example was Biden unleashing a stream of wholly warranted invective at the Boston Marathon bombers. Speaking at memorial services for slain M.I.T. police officer Sean Collier, he called bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev “two twisted, perverted, cowardly knock-off jihadis.”…

Some asserted he was insensitively diminishing the attack by calling the attackers “knock-off.” But there was no question that in repeatedly calling the suspects “perverted jihadis,” Biden was once again taking on his designated role as senior administration official who gets to sling it.

Fortunately, Franke-Ruta posted a video of part of Biden’s speech, so her readers could check her exegesis.  Listen, and you’ll certainly hear Biden excoriate the Tsarnaevs.  But the guts of his argument are to be found in what Biden said next, about the right — and wrong — ways to respond to the acts of terrorists, hard core or mere knock-offs:

The truth is on every frontier, terrorism as a weapon is losing…and what galls them the most is that America does remain that shining city on a hill. We are a symbol of the hopes and the dreams, the aspirations of people all around the world…our very existence makes the lie of their perverted ideology.

So the only way they can gain ground is to instill fear that causes us to jettison our values, our way of life, for us to change.  The moment we change, the moment we look inward, the moment we get in a crouch and are defensive, that’s the moment they win. What makes me so proud of this great state, and the city of Boston and Cambridge and all those involved and the students on this campus, what makes me so proud to be an American is that we have not yielded to our fears; we have not compromised our values, we have not weakened our constitutional guarantees. We have not closed our borders.

I can surely argue that some of that is more aspirational than hard fact.  Post-9/11 and continuing into this decade, we have yielded some guarantees.  We have allowed our fears to legitimize laws like the Patriot Act, to allow torturers to thrive in our dark rooms, to sink to force feeding prisoners starving themselves to escape the legal purgatory that incarcerates without providing any avenue for either exoneration or certain punishment.

But Biden did limn a present realit as well, in that we still live in a country where a ruling like Hamdan v. Rumsfeld can be both heard and decided against the government.  I live in a town where  police officers tackled a cop-killer in the midst of a gun battle, in the hopes of keeping him alive long enough to face a court.  Here in Boston, Dzokhar Tsarnaev was charged as a common criminal, read his rights (not fast enough for some, but still) and will in fact face civilian charges.  This country are so far from perfect it sometimes feels like we’re can only approachperfection  the long way round — but that’s in the nature of cities on hills.  I’m pretty sure Joe had something like this in mind when he spoke yesterday.

And I have next to no doubt at all that he was scolding that claque of Republican leaders who seem to have lost all courage, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and all the rest.  They’ve been up on their hind legs since Friday,  bellowing the urgency of making sure Tsarnaev face  a jury-rigged military tribunal system, and damned be the American constitutional system and any faith in the power of a jury of Americans to do and be seen to have done justice.

That rebuke is what this speech was about, beyond the pure duty of comfort that Biden handled so well in the first, longer section of his remarks.  He was telling a failed Republican party that America is something other than hollow republic the Bush-Cheney regime sought to build.  He was as well talking to the broader audience through the TV set, making the case (again!) that there is an alternative to a government based on authority granted out of fear.  He was reminding everyone in earshot that the way the Republicans ran the republic — and would do again, if they get the chance — is not just an error; it’s un-American.  This was powerful stuff, and inside the political ring, it was had the power to hurt, a nut-cutting blow.

That is to say:  who cares if Biden used the phrase “knock-off,” or uttered in public the word “perverted?”  Franke-Ruta’s gnawing away on those old bones is a failure of reportorial nose, a misjudgment that obscured the real story right in front of her.

As I said at the top of this post, I don’t think Franke-Ruta’s a bad journalist, not at all. So I take her whiff as an indication of what it costs when you live inside a thought/media/opinion bubble, at the heart or even the outskirts of the Village.  Our Village elders have focused on atmospherics so long (who’d you like to have a beer with, or did he say “terrorist” and such nonsense) that it becomes harder and harder for them –  or their juniors, wallowing in the same mire — to hear, actually to notice, what’s happening right in front of them.

One last thought:  it doesn’t even take malice, nor is it a mark of stupidity, sloth or professional incompetence to fall into this trap.  Group-think happens not because (or not only because) Roger Ailes sends down a memo.  It’s a natural human trait to pay attention to those who do what you do, or hope to.  Reporters read other reporters.  They — we, for I sometimes commit acts of journalism — drink at the same bars. We talk — just like everyone else.   We’ve all, I think, experienced us doing this to ourselves in some context or other.  The failure comes in the inability to acknowledge the risk, and to take conscious action to challenge it.  There’s a lot of that going round these days.

*Biden — and his speech writers, of course — are not amateurs.  He’s a pro, and a much better master of rhetoric than often given credit for (see above).  His speeches are what they seem — expressions of his thought and feeling.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t crafted — which is no bad thing.  As John Kenneth Galbraith is rumored to have said “the treasured note of spontaneity critics find in my work usually enters between the sixth and seventh draft.”)

Image: Édouard Manet, The Funeral, ca. 1860.

A Stray Thought, Plus, For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes, Really Scary Microbe Edition

April 24, 2013

Sad to say, but true, some folks have complained to me that I don’t give enough notice of all the good stuff.  So, as usual around here, the beatings continue until morale improves…

…which is something of an apology for the fact that I’m only now mentioning that at 5 p.m. Eastern time I’ll be talking to Maryn McKenna on my monthly science-radio-web/podcast, Virtually Speaking Science (where I’m one of several hosts as we inch our way to regular weekly episodes).  (You’ll be able to pick up the podcast later at that link, or on iTunes, having searched for Virtually Speaking Science.)

Maryn, for those of you who have for some odd reason not glued yourself to her blog Superbug, or immersed yourself in her book by the same name, is the leading journalist working in the US on problems of antibiotic resistance, infectious disease and similar sources of gnawing (and occasionally acute) anxiety.  She and I have talked before, but, sadly, there’s always more scary bug stuff to talk about.

Flea_Micrographia_Hooke

This time, our focus will be on an under-reported outbreak of (likely) Totally Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (TDR – TB) and on the H7N9 flu story out of China.  But we’ll no doubt talk about antibiotics in agriculture and the way agribusiness and the tocsin of cheap food is posing such a thread.  Should be, dare I say it, fun.  Or at least interesting.  Or perhaps just terrifying.

Oh — and as for that stray thought.  Am I the only one wondering whether The Pet Goat will have a place of honor in Wee Bush’s presidential library?

Thought not.

ETA: Here’s a nice  bit of reporting on potentially untreatable gonorrhea appearing in the US.  I’ll be asking Maryn about this too.

Image:  Robert Hooke, Flea, in Micrographia, 1665

For a Good Time In Cambridge: Philosophy, Judaism, Ferociously Smart People Edition

April 22, 2013

Dear all,

I’ve been a bit slow in posting this one — I was distracted just a bit last week for some reason…but tomorrow evening I’ll be moderating a really fascinating panel (if this sort of thing fascinates you).  The event is titled Hilary Putnam’s Jewish Journey, with a cut line that adds “an exploration of the Jewish strands in the thinking of Hilary Putnam, Harvard Professor emeritus and Rolf Schock Prize laureate.”

A little less formally:  Hilary is on anyone’s shortlist for most significant contemporary philosophers, with an intellectual career that has spanned just about the entire range of questions the last (n) millenia of thinkers have confronted.

Raphael_School_of_Athens

I’ve got a spurious connection to him:  he taught at MIT in the early 1960s, before moving to Harvard in 1965, where he has remained through a career that continues at almost ridiculous spate despite his emeritus status (since 2000).

My real connection is that of one of those very lucky folks who can count Hilary as a friend.  He is simply the most generous and warm great thinker I’ve ever had the good fortune to know.  Every conversation (with just about everyone he encounters) is one in which he speaks to a colleague, a companion, someone with whom he can think.  Just be warned:  bring your A game.  His a formidable intellect.  Trained as a mathematician and mathematically competent philosopher, he was a member of the group that resolved Hilbert’s tenth problem (showing that the problem has no solution).  He’s written more than 20 books on a huge range of philosophical topics, and his “brain in a vatthought experiment is credited as one of the major sources for The Matrix (who says contemporary philosophy has no practical application?!)

He is also someone who has developed a profound commitment and intellectual insight into Jewish thought, life and practice over many decades.  In 2008, he captured some part of that thinking in a book, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life:  Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein — which I can affirm is both well and deeply written.  In celebration of all that and more, several groups have got together to put on a panel to respond to Hilary’s writing, and then hear from Hilary himself as he responds to the responses (a kind of Talmudic approach to such things, actually).  The speakers will be Harvard’s Diana Eck, Boston University’s Abigail Gillman, and Michael Morgan, from Indiana University.  Hilary will listen to what they have to say and then reply.  I’ll be the traffic cop.

Let me say again:  Hilary is at once a brilliant scholar and thinker and one of the genuinely good guys.  You won’t regret time spent in the company of both his ideas and his person.  To drive that point home, I’ll quote from one of my all-time favorite students who just wrote to me, gnashing her teeth that she can’t be there, and that, “I once bailed out on a Violent Femmes concert to hear Hilary Putnam talk at Smith.”  That’s an accolade if ever there was one….;)

The time:  7 p.m.
The place:  Beren Hall, Harvard Hillel (the Moshe Safdie building at 52 Mt. Auburn St. at the corner of Plympton St. in Cambridge.)

We’ll go until about 8:30.  Should be a good time.

Image:  Raphael, School of Athens, 1505.  Cliche, I know, but hey…given the subject it’s hard to avoid.

Love that Dirty Water

April 19, 2013

Obligatory sound track here.

A couple of things:  I want to shout amen and amen to a couple of post here earlier today.  DougJ nailed it with his quote from Ron Brownstein — and even more so with his last line: “This is Jackie Robinson’s country, not Pam Geller’s.” Fuck yeah.*

Bernard reminds us that the political reflex simply gets it wrong in the face of the immediate emotional pressure of tragedy.  We’re fighting folks who are fucked up already. If we transform ourselves into the defensive doppelganger to that offensive failure, we don’t get safer; we get fucked up in our turn.  (And yes, though it doesn’t quite track in terms of sense, the sensibility of this poem is in my head as I write that line.)

And mistermix picks up on what I was going to write about in this post in re Lindsay Graham.  I’ll add just one thought. Speaking as a Boston guy, let me say that the last thing I want to do is honor this guy with anything like combatant status.  He’s not a warrior; he’s got no soldier ethos or ethics.  He’s fucking murderer who takes down kids for … I don’t know what.  Soldiers fight folks who can fight back, at the orders of authority constructed in a legitimate chain of command.  And yeah, I know that oversimplifies, and if the Brits had caught Adams and Jefferson and Washington they’d have dangled at the end of a rope as simple vandals and killers, but you get my drift.  This murderous child is no more a soldier than is my cat, and has less moral capacity.  He’s a criminal, and I want him to face the full material and ceremonial weight of the law.  Anything else in some measure validates a claim to some greater significance.

Dr_Deijman’s_Anatomy_Lesson_(fragment),_by_Rembrandt

That was the bedrock of my loathing for the “War on Terror” and its apotheosis in the Iraq War, the first feeling experienced before any consideration of what a dumb idea it was or anything else.  You don’t elevate murderers to your level; they’re criminals, and should be represented, pursued, and, when caught, treated as such.  That Lindsay Graham hasn’t figured this out yet shows nothing more than that he is hopelessly overmatched by the job he holds.

And now to the tone I want to bring to all this.  I’ve been enjoying — no, revelling — in the face my town is putting on right now.  Here’s one example, via Boston.com:

It was clear amidst the chaos Friday which was the hometown coffee chain.
On block after block of the Boston’s Financial District and Downtown Crossing, Starbucks shops went dark as the city locked down, spurred by a manhunt for the second marathon bombing suspect. Dunkin’ Donuts stayed open.

Law enforcement asked the chain to keep some restaurants open in locked-down communities to provide hot coffee and food to police and other emergency workers, including in Watertown, the focus of the search for the bombing suspect. Dunkin’ is providing its products to them for free.

“At the direction of authorities, select Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants in the Boston area are open to take care of needs of law enforcement and first responders,” spokeswoman Lindsay Harrington explained via email.

And here’s another, from a brilliant blog post by Jim Dowd

Oh man, you screwed up, didn’t you?

Yes, your little RadioShack experiment for evil hurt and killed some people and got you the attention you were obviously so desperately seeking. Point for you there, asshole. But I get the sense you really don’t know what you’ve done here, do you? Are you from out of town? I have the strong sense that you are.

If that is the case, allow me tell you a little something about the city you screwed with. This town is not your run-of-the mill medium sized regional capital…

Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? This small city produced both Stephen J Gould and Whitey Bulger.  This place gave us Leonard Nimoy and Mark Wahlberg.  Southie and Cambridge. Brookline and Brockton. This place will kick the screaming piss out of you, come up with a cure for having the screaming piss kicked out of you, give it to you for free, then win a Nobel prize for it and then use the medallion to break your knuckles. See what I’m talking about?

Read the whole thing. Delicious. Righteous.

One more thing.  I’m still thinking about my friends in my old place, trying to comfort their kids in the basement while bombs and guns were going off in earshot.  I’m thinking about them while trying to figure out how to write something, anything even vaguely printable (a low bar in this day and age, I’ll admit) in reaction to the deep thoughts of one Nate Bell, a Republican Arkansas state rep, who tweeted:

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR 15 with a hi-capacity magazine.

Yo, Nate, you pathetic waste of carbon! Hey Nate, possessed of all the wit of my old pet rock!

MSKG - De idioot bij de vijver - Frits Van den Berghe (1926)

Hey, Asshole! Call on me. I can answer…

And I do:  None.  No one.  In Boston, we actually have enough sense to realize that all the armed men and women along the marathon route couldn’t — and couldn’t have been expected — to stop a murderer with a pressure cooker in a bag.

We recognize that when thugs take down a cop (armed) sitting in his car, that gun didn’t help.  And we know damn well, and are grateful, that we had some damn well trained and equipped first responders taking great personal risk to keep us safe from those thugs — and the last thing they needed was some idiot(s) with a rifle running around playing cowboy while they were on the job.

Oh — and we know too that the people most at risk from such a gun in the house are the folks who live in the house; that acts of vicious and inexplicable murder of strangers are rare — horrible, but uncommon — but suicides and accidents and domestic violence are much less so, and we’d like to keep the body count down in our neighborhoods thank you very much.  And, by the way, that’s what we do — as you’d know  if you’d check out any gun violence map that correlates to states with even remotely reasonable gun control, you fatuous simulacrum of  sentience.

In other words, you can hang on to your  projected feelings of inadequacy in Arkansas.  In Boston, we’ve got business to take care of.

Hell — I guess I’m rambling again.  Time to stop.  Night all.  Thanks again for a great day on the threads.

*Y’all know that I have this habit of bowdlerizing my profanity.  Take that as the measure of general pissed off-edness.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, Dr. Deijmans Anatomy Lesson (fragment), 1656

Frits van den Berghe,The Idiot by the Pond, 1926

Damn. Just Damn

April 19, 2013

Just checking in, really.

Some notes — first, thanks for good thoughts sent our way via twitter, Facebook and all the rest. My family and I are all OK.  We actually are visiting a very ill relative out of town, so nowhere near any of the mess.  All my wonderful students are OK, I believe, though I can’t imagine their state of mind.

I note that the MIT first year students who are finishing up their freshman year have now seen a terrorist attack, a murder on campus, a town in lockdown — and have as some of their formative childhood memories the fall of the towers when they were around six years old.  They’ve spent almost all of their lives watching the unfolding of wars of choice fought in the case of Iraq on false pretexts.  They seen torture routinized and the only political process they’ve witnessed is one of persistant anti-democratic manouvering pursued by one of the two major parties in our system.

They remain enormously optimistic (or at least have been in my conversations with them up till the last couple of days). They are phenomenally smart, gifted, optimistic. I damn well hope they stay so.  We need them.

Die_Fleißmedaille_Waldmüller_Kopie_um_1830_ÖMV

Next:  I’m heartsick at the death of the MIT police officer.  I am for the marathon victims as well of course, and more abstractly for the dead on the street in Iraq, in Mogadishu, in…  But I’m like almost everyone, I think; those losses that strike closest to home color the emotions in a particular way.

Campus cops have a strange, really difficult job:  they have to both police and protect in a hothouse setting full of young (and often insufficiently wise older) folk who are not always sure that the rules and norms of the wider world are more than advisory.  Our force at MIT manages that balancing act really, really well, especially given their charge within a university whose traditions that include translocating cop cars to, shall we say, interesting coordinates.*  From the report it sounds like our man was gunned down, really just executed, and I couldn’t be more enraged nor heartsick.  I’ll save for a different post the political point I think most of you can probable guess. This isn’t the time.  But you know I’m thinking it.

More close to home stuff.  One of the graduate students in my department, a really sweet, good guy, turns out to have been long time friends with the Richard family and their eight year old son, Martin, killed  in Monday’s bombing.  The connections which bind us all run through all kinds of chance links, but through that pathway that already horrific loss comes closer.  Any murder is hateful, but the killing of kids….I’m not going to write down the words that flow through my head as I cycle back to that.  But I can tell you that, however irrational it may be, my sense of wretched, futile anger ramped up when I learned of the loss refracted through the sorrow of someone I know.

That student and other friends of the family have set up a fund to help the Richards directly — the intention is to cover medical expenses, funeral costs, and whatever else it takes to get through the various horribles coming up over the next while. I’ve thrown a bit that way, and I offer the link up here if anyone feels so moved.  The “One Fund” to offer help to those affected by the bombings (and, I’d guess though I don’t know, those affected by last night/today’s evens) is here. I’d note that folks in town and around the country have already been phenomenally generous, and I’ll add my private thanks to the much grander and more official ones I’m sure will follow.

Last utterly meaningless coincidence.  The manhunt in Watertown going on as  I write this is right smack in the middle of the neighborhood I lived in until 2009.  My wife just picked up a facebook post of a couple of hours ago from  the friends to whom we sold our apartment.  They were as of that time  hiding down in the basement with their two kids.  They’ve been there all night, since they heard the explosions, and they are trying to figure out how to get the little one to sleep, while easing the fear in their older child.  Again, close to home.

I write all this aware that around the world what is striking me as an utter derangement of the way life ought to be is simply the status quo.  I know that the US in general is a phenomenally lucky country, spared so much of the horrors visited on folks around the world — sometimes by the explicit policy and actions of the United States of America. (No need to shout DROOOOONES at me, folks).  And you know what?  I think mine is the right reaction.  This stuff is wrong, unacceptable, to be pushed back at home and everywhere.

I’m rambling. I’ll stop.

I thank everyone for their good wishes, your anger,  humor, and perhaps as much as anything else, your simple presence. It’s good to be able to shout, and not simply into the void.  Tip of the hat to y’all — and hug those you love, two footed and four, spend time talking to folks…do all that human stuff.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_Le_Moulin_de_la_Galette

*Other first responders are not immune, either.

Images:  Ferdinand Waldmüller, The First Day of School, 1830

Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Galette, 1875

 

For Good Times In Cambridge, Redux

April 16, 2013

A reminder, for Boston-area folks in need of something other than our public miseries to ponder.

Tomorrow, Wednesday April 17, at 7 p.m., we got this:

Seth Mnookin and Ta-Nehisi Coates talking with David Carr, the New York Times’ media critic, on Wed., April 17, 7 p.m. in MIT’s building 6, room 120 (6-120, as folks in the Shire reckon addresses — click on the link for an interactive map).  The event is running under the title “The Future of Print in the Digital Age” and is sponsored as part of the Writer’s Series within MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, its Graduate Program in Science Writing, and the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society.  To repeat myself  from last week’s notice:  This should be a very smart evening; Carr’s one of the really good ones.

Note:  6-120 is a reasonably large room — about 120 seats, I think — but this is one that should get a lot of interest, so if you want to be there, allow a little extra time.

Последний_час

Next, the day after, Thursday, April 18, my former student Emily Anthes is coming back to MIT to speak about her new book Frankenstein’s Cat. You might recall that Emily and I had a conversation about the book last month (podcast here).  Emily has taken a serious and very well researched look at the intersection of biotechnology and the animals closest to their human partners/owners/users.  The result of that work is a gracefully written book that wears the author’s knowledge lightly, and argues its point — the technological manipulation of animals is both inevitable and at least potentially a benefit to both parties to the deal — with grace and rigor.  She’s got a lot to say, and she says it well.  If this is the sort of thing you like to engage, this will be a fine evening too.  Her talk is the day is also at 7 p.m. in yet another of MIT’s utterly impenetrably named venues, 56-114 — building 56, room 114.

Fun for the whole family, with decent pizza nearby for afters.  What could be bad?

(Note:  I’ll be at the event tomorrow, but will have to miss Emily’s reading, as I must be off to visit a very ill relative in the mud-season be-mucked north.  If you make it tomorrow, say hi.)

Image: Unknown artist, The Final Hour!” c. 1920

MIT, At Night, 15 April 2013

April 15, 2013

Here’s Building 54 on the MIT campus, more or less right now:

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As some commenter somewhere on the ‘tubes pointed out, this facade is more often used to play tetris.  But not tonight.  Usually I  sneer at Bldg 54 as I. M. Pei’s worst building — which it may well be. (It’s primary users, the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science folks, loathe it for its resistance to collaborative schmoozing.  It’s only real virtue is as a pretty good  perch from which to watch the July 4th fireworks.)  But tonight the crazy MIT kids wanted to make a statement, and have.  Good on them.

Talk about whatever.

PS: the Brooklyn Academy of Music — BAM! before Emeril ever sniffed a TV camera — is doing us proud tonight too.


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