Archive for the ‘rare sincerity’ category

For A Good Time On the ‘Tubes: David Dobbs, Sociable Genes edition

September 18, 2013

Dear all,

A little late — but it’s that time of the month again.  I’ll be doing my regular gig as one of the hosts of Virtually Speaking Science this evening at 6 EDT — just a little more than two hours from now.

My guest this time is David Dobbs, a wonderful science writer and (full disclosure) a good friend.  David has been focusing on neuroscience, genes and behavior for some time now.  Some of you may recall his big Atlantic feature on “the orchid hypothesis.”  There, David wrote about a fascinating line of scientific research that, among much else, showed how subtle and powerful the interactions of genes and environment can be.  Nature or nurture, that old debate, turns out (in this and in many other good works) to be a much richer, and much less dichotomized point of inquiry.

Jacopo_Bassano_-_Paradiso_terrestre_ca_1573

Flash forward to now.  David has been working on a book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, to be published by Crown in 2015, that extends the ideas and arguments of that magazine feature into a nuanced (and very tricky to write) account of how scientists are now trying to piece together the gene-to-behavior chain.  Some of that work led to the essay he just published at one of the delightful new web-based venues for serious, long-form public intellection, The Pacific Standard.  In that piece, “The Social Life Of Genes,” David writes about fascinating work on the way experience affects gene expression — which both takes the nature-nurture interaction to new, much more ephemeral time scales (itself a delightful shocker, at least to me) and points to the way the extraordinary advances in genetic and genomic research have reached a peculiar moment.  We know vastly more than we ever have before about the informational content of life.  We have tools that allow us to produce intimate moments in the daily life of genes and attendant molecules.  But that knowledge has gone just far enough to demonstrate how much more complex, intricate and so far ill-deciphered the genetic view of life remains.  We know more — and yet that knowledge leaves us much less certain about how a lot of biology works than we thought we understood a decade ago.

Which, of course, is just great.  (Physicists would kill for such wide open spaces!)  We live in interesting times — which, as I hope this conversation will demonstrate, is not always an accursed thing.

Tune in:  audio and later podcast here.

Also — do check out David’s website. Lots of good stuff there, but I’d draw the attention of any writers (or devoted readers) to David’s links to good work, and to his own  and others’ fine analyses of writing craft.

Image:  Jacopo Bassano, Earthly Paradisec. 1573

Things I Hate With The White Hot Heat Of A Thousand Suns

September 16, 2013

This, for one:

Gary Humes, a programs manager with the Navy, was entering the building where the shootings took place around 8:20 a.m. when he was met by people fleeing the building and warning of a shooter inside. He and more than 100 others ran to another building across the street, while others ran to the Navy museum nearby.

“I decided to go into work a little late this morning,” he said. “I guess God was with me.”” (from The Navy Times story on today’s mass shooting*).

Should we thus infer that God was not with the dead and wounded?

I’m not going to get into the problem of evil in this space.  There are ways religious believers reconcile themselves to the obvious fact that bad things happen to good people — or at least people for whom the evil outcomes are undeserved by any reasonable calculation.  There are certainly logically coherent ways to understand the presence of evil in the world as a strong indicator of the absence of deity actively intervening in human affairs.  Neither of those true statements is in play here.

Rather:  hosannas like the one above are to me the markers of failed religion.  I don’t me Mr Humes himself.  Dodging the kind of horror he did today would make anyone — me certainly – feel an almost giddy (and guilty) sense of relief.  He gets a pass from me on anything he says in the moment.  But it’s still possible to read something in the verbal formula that someone in such straits reaches for in such moments of trial.  And the “God is with me” trope — that to me is the signal of a religious culture thoroughly getting it wrong.

Or, to put it in another frame, what would Jesus say?

Aelbert_Cuyp_-_Landscape_with_cattle_-_Google_Art_Project

This, for example:

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25)

 

Image: Aelbert Culp, Landscape with Cattle,  c. 1639-1649

 

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

 

MIT, At Night, 15 April 2013

April 15, 2013

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

OFcQ41D

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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