Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Fables of the Reconstruction, Part Deux

August 15, 2014

If you’re reading this, you owe it to yourself to check out my Balloon Juice colleague Richard Mayhew’s post on the con in conservative proposals for health care reform.  Shorter:  the “reform” is to make sure the wrong people get less and more expensive care under the guise of a variety of measures claimed to be (but not) free market efficiencies.  Also too, why Avik Roy isn’t an expert, but a marginally policy-literate hack.

With that out of the way, more on the joys of home renovation.

First the good news.  It turns out that this problem — the wire formation inside our kitchen walls that I’ve since dubbed “Cthulu’s Hairball” — isn’t actually live electrical wires.  Instead, its what you get before you texting became the way to call the kid to dinner.  Before the internet, kiddies, it turns out, people networked their houses in other ways — including setting up, in 1920, a house-wide intercom system.  “Come, child!”

So, not the fire hazard general wiring nightmare we expected.  We’ve still got plenty of knob and tube spread round the place — wiring we’re replacing in bits as we work on the house.  But Cthulu sleeps.

However…and as those of you who know, know, there’s always something.

Check out this:photo-2

That’s what you get when you open up the wall, and find a sill that has been so chewed up by termites you can sweep it away.  I mean, with a broom.  (We did chunk up the rotten timber a bit, before getting out the sweepers, but still.)

Which is to say, it seems our house was holding itself up out of habit.

Here’s another view:

photo-1

That’s the post at the end of that run of sill.

Ah, our six-legged friends.

What’s bugging y’all today?

Random Monday Thoughts, Pasta In All Its Glory Edition

August 5, 2013

With a hat tip to my science writing friend, the inimitable Steve Silberman, here’s a story about a Czech citizen who has won the right to wear a colander on his head in the photo on his government ID.

The reason?  He’s a pastafarian, which makes the issue the Czech equivalent of a first amendment issue:*

Czech officials ruled that the nation’s religious liberty laws required this result. According to a government spokesperson, Novy’s request “complies with the laws of the Czech Republic where headgear for religious or medical reasons is permitted if it does not hide the face.”

As a langiappe:  In today’s image — a pasta/founding father connection:

Pasta_machine_Thomas_Jefferson

Got some more substantive stuff going for this space, but couldn’t resist this little niblet.

What’s saucing your spaghetti today?

*Full disclosure:  the Think Progress piece at the link connects back to the Daily Mail, and I have presumption of distrust at anything from that particular source.  But there is a category of journalistic endeavor known as the “too good to check” story — and in my view, this is one of those.  You’ve been warned.

Image:  Thomas Jefferson, Design for a maccaroni (sic) making machine, c. 1787.

Because…Freedom! or Guns Can’t Shoot No NSA Sweep…But They Do Just Fine Against WAGs

June 9, 2013

Via The American Prospect’s incredibly valuable E. J. Graff, this:

Waronwomen

You can have my metadata, but you will pry the projectile fired by my  [firearm of choice] out of my cold, dead partner.

Not to mention this.

This is not to diminish the implications of Osama Bin Laden’s victory — his ability to terrify the US into surrendering willingly what we have long said was worth fighting for.  That’s been coming a long time –see this ProPublica timeline (h/t TPM) for a quick overview of just how we’ve done it to ourselves over the last four decades.  But, I can’t cease getting heart sick at each new anecdote, each new framing of the rolling massacre that takes Americans by the dozens every damn day of the year…every year.

So, for those who declare the 2nd amendment the one sure bulwark against tyranny, I have a question:

Where were you when the surveillance state was forming?  What are you going to do about it now?  What tree, exactly, has been watered by the blood of all the men, women, and children lost to suicide, to partner-murder, to bad luck, to whatever.

Feh.

Update: On tweeting this post I got a message from Chris Clarke, who made this chart and posted it to his Facebook page almost exactly a year ago.  I’m glad to be able to make the acknowledgement here.

Traitors in our Midst

May 4, 2013

I know John posted on this already, but I was struck again this afternoon by the actual meaning implied by incoming NRA president James Porter’s assertion that Barack Obama is a “fake president.”

95.339

Let’s review.  In 2008 Senator Barack Obama and his running mate Senator Joseph Biden received 69,498,516 votes, accounting for 52.93% of the total ballots cast.  Their principle opponents, Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin (yes, that happened) garnered ten million fewer votes, for a 45.65% of the total.  Obama and Biden took electoral college victories in 28 states, the District of Columbia, and in Nebraska’s second congressional district, to capture a total of 365 electoral votes out of 538 available.

In 2012, lest anyone has forgotten, Obama/Biden again won an absolute majority of votes cast — 65,910,437, or 51.1% to Romney/Ryan’s 60,932,795, accounting for 47.2% of the total.  The President took 26 states and the District to the Republican ticket’s 24 states, and the victors captured a commanding 332 electoral votes to the losers 206.

In other words, Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States, earned and retained his office by every legal measure — handily at that.  There’s a strong case that George W. Bush, “43” was, if not a fake, an illegitimate claimant to that office, losing as he did the popular vote in 2000 while gaining his electoral college victory by a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court that one at least of those in the majority now regards as an error.

But Obama?  If you accept the idea of small “d” democracy, if you believe that the casting of ballots amounts to an expression of public will, then Obama is as real as it gets.

Which, of course, everyone in eyeshot of this post gets.

So what that’s the corollary to that positive statement?

Easy:  anyone who denies the reality of Obama’s right to his office is telling the majority of the American electorate that their votes are fakes too.  That public decisions don’t count.

That — given that we’re talking NRA here — the armed rump of the American right, among whom are over-represented amongst those who want to refight the Civil War, are the arbiters of who gets to hold power, and damned be to the rest of us.

I don’t know what you all call an armed minority spreading such stuff, but to me?  Well, it ain’t treason until someone actually takes up arms and attempts to enforce that view…but it sure is dancing near that line.

I’m not simply name calling here:  this is dangerous talk. There is a responsibility that lands on the elected leadership of the right to reject such talk, to dismiss it, to banish it from public discourse, because the failure to do so expands what Obama wonkishly termed the permission sphere for anti-democratic behavior — along with increasing the potential for political violence itself.

It may be all fun and games for a Republican party that gets to say “hell, we aren’t shooting anyone, so denying voting rights is OK, right?” But if the elected leadership — looking at you Boehner, McConnell, not to mention the 2016ers — fails to shut this kind of talk down, they will be complicit in the results.

Image: Toyohara Kunichika, Sen Taiheiki gigokuden, 1890(Description, via Wikimedia Commons: Taira Masakado (901-940), an evil usurper of the throne, charges into battle surrounded by look-alike decoys.)

In BoBo’s World, Pointing Out How Much The GOP Hates Data Is Bad Manners

May 1, 2013

I don’t even know how to begin with this.

Republican members of the House of Representatives have decided that knowledge of what actually is happening in US society and its economy is just too….

I don’t know what…

Inconvenient?…Unfortunate?…Too…useful?…Too important to the actual act of governing?

That last is the one, I think.  Representative Jeff Duncan, out to make sure that his great state of South Carolina doesn’t lose the lunacy title to its sibling to the north, has introduced a bill that would bar the US Census [PDF] from conducting any surveys or censuses except for the constitutionally-mandated decennial one.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Census_at_Bethlehem_-_WGA03379

What would that mean?  Over to this report from the Huffington Post:

Such a step that would end the government’s ability to provide reliable estimates of the employment rate. Indeed, the government would not be able to produce any of the major economic indices that move markets every month, said multiple statistics experts, who were aghast at the proposal….

“It’s hard to take this seriously because they’re really saying also they don’t want GDP. They want no facts about what’s going on in the U.S. economy,” said [Maurine] Haver, [founder of business research firm Haver Analytics and a past president of the National Association for Business Economics]. “It’s so fundamental to a free society that we have this kind of information, I can’t fathom where they’re coming from. I really can’t.”

“It’s so unimaginable. It would be like saying we don’t need policemen anymore, we don’t need firemen anymore,” said [Ken] Prewitt, [the former director of the U.S. Census who is now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University]. “To say suddenly we don’t need statistical information about the American economy, or American society, or American demography, or American trade, or whatever — it’s an Alice in Wonderland moment.”

I get Duncan’s reasoning, by the way.  It’s a simple syllogism.  If the data show that tax cuts, or austerity, or universal gun ownership don’t actually solve all economic and social ills, then, who needs data?

Ladies and gentlemen, your modern Republican party.

Oh, and with a nod to Mr. David Brooks and his paean to disinterested opining:  this is engaged writing.  I got a horse in the race.  I think the Republican party in its present form constitutes a clear and present danger to the Republic.  I believe it needs to go the way of the Whigs, so that we can go about the business of constructing an actual second party to engage the necessary debate our politics requires.

It is in the context of that belief that I certainly pay attention to stories like this one.  This is the anecdata that, as it accumulates, tells you the problem is real; the Republican party is increasingly simply a freak show, divorced from any conception of governance.  But it ain’t my fault — and it is no indictment against this or any other comment like ti that the Republican party continues to advance my argument.

Another thing:  I’d vastly prefer it didn’t.  But the problem isn’t that I don’t — because I can’t — say that the Democrats are just as bad on, say, anti-empiricism, for example, or that the issue of paying attention to what happens in the world is kind of important in modern political and social life.  Rather, it is that in this reality there are consequences when a failed party retains its access to power — and hell, may very well expand its reach.

IOW, pace BoBo, I believe it is my patriotic duty to point in horror at the crater that is all that remains of the Party of Lincoln.

Image: Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Census at Bethlehem, 1566.

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.

 

For Good Times In Cambridge

April 11, 2013

Three quick notices of fine talks to attend at MIT over the next week:

My colleagues Ta-Nehisi Coates and Seth Mnookin will be tag-teaming Mark McKinnon — yeah this Mark McKinnon – in just a little bit, 5 p.m. this afternoon.  Ta-Nehisi will be conversing/interviewing McKinnon, and Seth will moderate in this latest in the MIT Communications Forum series of talks. It’ll be happening up in MIT’s new Media Lab building, which is a beaut, on the sixth floor, or, in MIT speak, in E14-633.  The interactive map is your friend.

Here’s the abstract for the event:

In the 2012 presidential campaign, a handful of media outlets deployed “fact-checking” divisions which reported the lies and distortions of the candidates.  Some commentators have argued that these truth-squads exposed the inadequacy of standard print and broadcast coverage, much of which seems more like entertainment than news.  This forum will examine the changing role of the political media in the U.S.  Is our political journalism serving democratic and civic ideals? What do emerging technologies and the proliferation of news sources mean for the future?

It should be interesting, and, of course, for the Balloon Juice snarlers, McKinnon’s role as a founder of the No Labels brand of (in my view) faux centrism might elicit some fun questions.  One note:  the room is fairly small, and while I don’t think this event has been hugely publicized, there might be a premium on seating.

Self-portrait_by_Salvator_Rosa

Next, (and giving y’all a little more notice) Seth and Ta-Nehisi will converse with David Carr, the New York Times’ media critic on Wed., April 17, 7 p.m. in  Building 6, room 120 (6-120, as folks in the Shire reckon addresses.)  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.  Should be a very smart evening; Carr’s one of the really good ones.  Again 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, give yourself a little extra time.

Finally, 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 after Carr’s, April 18 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?

Image:  Salvator Rosa, Self Portrait, 1645.  The caption reads in translation: “Be Quiet, Unless Your Speech Be Better Than Silence.”


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