Archive for the ‘words mattter’ category

Republicans Got Nothing…

August 13, 2014

So they cheat:

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which came under fire earlier this year for a deceptive series of fake Democratic candidate websites that it later changed after public outcry, has launched a new set of deceptive websites, this time designed to look like local news sources.

The NRCC has created about two dozen of these new faux news sites targeting Democrats, both challengers and incumbents, and is promoting them across the country with localized Google search ads.

The NRCC’s single-page sites are designed to appear to be a local news portal, with logos like “North County Update” or “Central Valley Update.” The articles begin in the impartial voice of a political fact-checking site, hoping to lure in readers. “We’ll take a look at her record and let you decide,” starts one. Then they gradually morph into more biting language. At the very bottom, in a box, is the disclaimer that the NRCC paid for the site.

1534_Cranach_Die_Fabel_vom_Mund_der_Wahrheit_anagoria

This isn’t, apparently, illegal.  But it sure is telling.

The Republican party has a deep, long term problem.  The GOP is wrong on every major policy question.  Economics and recession? Wrong. Environment, climate change, public health? Wrong.  Health care? Wrong. Income inequality? Wrong.  Tax policy? A joke. Foreign policy? Explosively wrong. Infrastructure investment? Wrong.  Border security and immigration? Comically (if there weren’t so often tragic consequences) wrong.  Race in America? Viciously wrong.  Industrial safety? Wrong.  Regulation? Ask the phosphate loving folks of Toledo.  Scientific research? Wrong….and so on.  No links for now because I’m in the middle of day-job urgency, but they’re all there.*  For now, the take-away is that the major policy options that are the central pillars of the Republican party’s approach to governance have a track record, and to a startling degree (not to folks here, I know) those options have failed.  See, for just one example, Sam Brownback’s Kansas.

This is a problem come election season.  The voting – age population nation wide is, as widely documented, moving away from the Republican party.  A focus on certain issues produces real problems for the Republican brand – hence the desperate rush to hide from Obamacare repeal now that the program has actual winners who vastly outnumber any loses.   It’s simply toxic for a Republican to have to answer what he or she would do if the ACA were actually to give way to the status quo ante.  Americans really don’t want to send troops hither and yon…and so on.  Y’all know this stuff Ginger Rogers style:  backwards and in high heels.

So what do you do if you  are a Republican strategist determined to hold on to the House and capture the Senate, knowing that  if Americans were motivated to vote in the proportions that have the full range views on the core Republican policy platform, the Republicans would lose.  To avoid fighting an election on that turf, your weapons are three:

*The gerrymander, to make sure that Republican votes are worth more than Democratic ones in the amount of representation a given vote can “buy.”

*Voter suppression, because it’s always easier to simply deny the vote to the wrong folks than it is to risk even the engineered participation of gerrymandering.

and finally,

*Lie.  Pretend to be something other than you are.  Claim you are a “compassionate conservative” or even better — pretend to be an objective source of facts that are in fact bullshit.

It’s like that old lawyers joke:  when facts and law are both against you, pound the table.

One more thing — here’s the most telling detail in the story of the NRCC’s costly gambit, btw:

[NRCC communications director Andrea] Bozek’s response? “They’re just jealous,” she said, “that they didn’t think of this strategy first.”

Ummm. No. This is a strategy for the desperate, for those with nothing left.  It needs countering, to be sure, but not emulating.

One last note:  the basic GOP approach to elections: to deny the franchise; to construct the mechanics of elections to achieve near-certainty of result; and to create a fictional simulacrum of the media to make reality harder and harder to distinguish — all these are the tools of authoritarians, of one-party states, of dictators.  Which is to say, this is the work of an organization committing treason against the ideal of American democracy.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*I’m actually thinking about a long essay that expands on these one liners, which may someday see the light of day…but probably not soon, given the real world’s claim on my sorry butt.

Image:  Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Fable of the Mouth of Truth1534.

And the Internet Shall Make Us Free, Gender Equity Division

August 12, 2014

I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way).  This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance.  The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience.  Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.  It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts.  What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially.  The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!).  This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone.  And to have fun with it while they’re at it.

So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading.  Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus,  both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a  guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.

My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share.  One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book.  The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do.  And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would:  ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.

Then this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.14.25 PM

Oops.

Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised.  Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.

La_Leçon_d’astronomie_de_la_duchesse_du_Maine_-_François_de_Troy

Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.

One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas.  Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some  books.

The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-“optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large.  That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves.  But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched.  Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:

One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

And so they do.  And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.  La lucha continua, as we used to say.

Discuss — and go buy some books.

*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?

Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704

David Brooks Goes One Toke Over The Line

January 4, 2014

This story has been covered plenty, and the deep problems with David Brooks and Ruth Marcus and their takes on marijuana legalization lie with the actual policy — the racism built into drug prohibition in the US, the folly and cost of the drug war, the relative risks of cannibis vs. such legal drugs as tobacco and the demon rum and all that.  David Weigel nailed both Marcus and Brooks for many of those stupidities yesterday, and there’s plenty more good work showing just how awful was the work issuing from these supposed paladins of public intellection.  I’ve got another axe to grind, perhaps just a hatchet, though, and it doesn’t seem to have been given much internet notice, so I’m back on my David Brooks is Always Wrong™ beat.

I have to admit, what first got me going on this one was Brooks relentless self-righteous self-congratulation — to wit:

We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

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I don’t have much to say there — others said it better* — and anyway, I couldn’t get much past thoughts of Brooks engaged in anatomically improbable auto-erotica, possibly involving oxidized farm implements.

Worse, to me anyway, was how swiftly this “moderate” least-government possible type went  for the jackboots.  He wrote about folks’ “deep center” and the moral decay that comes when we fail to do the right thing, like continuing to criminalize America’s favorite weed.  To Brooks, what’s wanted is

…government [that] subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

So much fail in so little space. You could fisk this almost word by word for the craptastic silliness on display.

I could go on.  As Weigel and many others pointed out, favoring prohibition is fundamentally racist; as Maia Szalavitz writes at Time.com, Marcus and Brooks are deeply, profoundly ignorant of basic science of marijuana use and its impacts.

Shooting one’s mouth off in the absence of any real understanding of a subject is the mark of the pundits that dominate so much of Washington discourse.  It’s a profound sin to me, a betrayal of the central obligation of any journalist: to get it right for their readers — where right doesn’t simply mean avoiding trivial errors of fact, but distortions of the frame of the story that leaves “accurate” quanta of knowledge utterly misrepresented.  Unfortunately, there’s no real penalty in modern elite journalism for simple deception, as long as Politifact doesn’t actually find out that you weigh less than a duck.

But Brooks did cross another journalistic line in this column.  In one six word phrase Brooks goes all Reefer Madness on his readers, emphasizing the damnable fury of ol’ Mary Jane.  He writes  in a list of the bad things about marijuana “that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers”…

That’s the complete quote, by the way.  I’m not leaving out any modifiers or expanded context.

And here’s the thing:  its simply wrong — and should have been obviously so.

I think I know where Brooks got his 1/6 figure.  One quick bit  of Googling led me to this summary from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  It states:

It is estimated that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it. The number goes up to about 1 in 6 in those who start using young (in their teens)…

Already, you can see the error.  Brooks says marijuana is addictive for 1/6 teenagers, full stop.  Not so: it’s only 1/6 of those who use the stuff.

Neufchâtel_-_Bildnis_des_Nürnberger_Schreibmeisters_Johann_Neudörffer_und_eines_Schülers

Go one step deeper into the literature.  In the underlying paper [PDF/paywall] to which the NIDA document refers, it turns out

The lifetime risk of dependence in cannabis users has been estimated at about 9% rising to one in six in those who initiate use in adolescence.

Same problem: the risk of dependence is only for those who use.

Note one complication:  there’s an issue with what it means to use here.  Daily? Weekly? Annually? This paper implies that the term refers to at least a weekly date with Mssrs. Zig and Zag, but the underlying source for the figure on adolescent dependence is a book to which I don’t have ready access.  So take that as a bit of unfinished business.

In case a little more context might help, one more turn to the internet turns up the invaluable Monitoring the Future folks, who provide a wealth of data about what Kidz Theze Dayz are really thinking and doing.  (Thanks again to Maia Szalavitz for help getting to the right sources for this post.)There you find that regular (daily) teenage marijuana use (PDF) runs about 1% for 8th graders, and rises to about 7% for high school seniors.  Loosening the definition of user to all those who blow a little dope once a year, (PDF) you get the scarier numbers — about 17% for the younger cohort and close to 40 % of twelfth graders.  Those numbers still don’t get you close to any reasonable interpretation of Brooks’ throwaway remark.

This isn’t rocket science.  Rather, we’re talking journalism 101.   That line should have tickled any experienced newshound’s bullshit detector.   If you read Brooks as claiming that one in six teenagers will be addicted then you run up against the actual lifetime risk for marijuana dependence, which, depending on the study, runs between 4 and 8 % of the population.  You just can’t get from here to there.

And if you read him as saying that there’s some independent measure that whether or not they actually smoke, still, if they did, one in six kids would be unable to control their ganja jones, you have to ask, how could you know that?  What possible experiment could show how many of the majority of teenagers who do not use marijuana even once a year would nonetheless be utterly unable to control their urges after that irreversible first toke?  It’s just nonsense…

…which makes me wonder, first does no one edit the Op-Ed. pages anymore?  Even if Brooks can’t or won’t do the work needed to deliver a minimally competently reported piece, someone else had to have read it before it hit print.  If I were the boss of the Times, I’d be asking who missed what and why.

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The thing is, Brooks commits sins like this all the time, but usually disguises them better.  Here he just flat out blew it, which makes it easy to say that this is the kind of crap journalism a place like The New York Times simply shouldn’t allow to reach the outside world.  But don’t mistake this as an aberration; this is how Our David rolls.  The wonder is that the Times seems willing to trade little bits of its credibility with each new BoBo-ism for the clicks and visibility that the mysteriously but undeniably influential Brooks delivers.

Sad…and in the long run a bad bargain for the Grey Lady, if you ask me, which they didn’t — and won’t.

*Weigel really did nail it, but for sheer awesomeness, no one did better than Gary Greenberg, whose remembrance of bonging with Bobo had a lot of folks fooled earlier in the day.  Check this out:

…let’s just say that when Dave wrote this morning that in a healthy society “government subtly encourages the highest pleasures” I remembered a time we were parked out at French Creek and he stood up on top of the Vista Cruiser and gave a speech to us about what Jefferson really meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” and how a government should uphold our right to get as high as possible, and how George Washington grew pot and old Edmund Burke must have smoked it, and I wondered if Dave was sending his old posse a secret message.

Read the whole thing. Really. Just great stuff.  (Also — what’s great is the list of folks who believed Greenberg’s piece was true.  Andrew Sullivan, for one (appending a correction to his post after a bit) but my favorite reaction came from Tim Carney, who snapped at  those ridiculing the gullible, tweeting, “That’s about a dozen good journalist friends of mine you’re talking about.”

‘Bout sums up the state of the too much of the media, wouldn’t you say?

Images:  Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants Drinking and Making Music in a Barn, c. 1635.

Nicolaes Neufchatel,  Portrait of Nurenburg Schoolmaster Johann Neudörffer and a student, 1561.

Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.

 

 

Today in GOP Sociopathology

December 20, 2013

We’ve got two headliners today.

First up, child labor cheerleader Jack Kingston, a congressman from Georgia now looking for a promotion to the Senate, claimed that he’s no hater of the poor for saying this:

“Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria — and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money,” Kingston said at a Jackson County Republican Party meeting, according to video surfaced by the Huffington Post. “But think what we would gain as a society in getting people — getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch.”

But nah, that wasn’t aimed at shaming and constraining the poor, swears Kingston (R-eternally misunderstood).  Rather,

“This is not targeted to any one group,” Kingston said. “It would be very helpful for kids in any socio-economic group to do chores and learn the work ethic….I never did say poor kids.”

Over to you, M. Anatole France:

Thomas_kennington_orphans_1885

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

And then there is that noted scholar of the Civil Rights era, Ian Bayne, a Republican candidate running for the nomination to challenge Rep. Bill Foster, an actual smart person and a Democrat representing Illinois’s 11th district.  Mr Bayne identifies the ties that bind two characters most observers of lesser penetration would never have uncovered:

“In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians,” Bayne wrote in the email. “What Parks did was courageous.”

Bayne added in the email that “what Robertson did was courageous too.”

That would be Duck Dynast Phil Robertson, who, as we all know, is convinced that African Americans with whom he worked in the pre-Civil Rights era were, as he put it “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”  And who says in the context of a current civil rights struggle, that gay men and women are bound not for equality before the law, but for Sheol:

“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers–they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right. [via Ta-Nehisi Coates]

So, let’s recap:  Rosa Parks risks jail, bodily harm, quite possibly death to secure the minimal rights of citizenship for Americans who have been subjugated through a reign of terror for a century since the end of outright chattel slavery.  Some guy spouts hate at blacks and gays.

Just the same.

Ladles and Jellyspoons:  Your modern GOP.  A party that does not vomit out such characters cannot be allowed anywhere near the reins of power.

Or, as my man Cato would say, Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est

Image: Thomas Kennington, Orphans,1885.

For A Good Time In Cambridge, Take Two: Hendrik Hertzberg-Ta-Nehisi Coates edition

October 23, 2013

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Once again:  all y’all in the greater Boston area, something surpassing cool to do next Tuesday, October 29. Ta-Nehisi will be talking with New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg at 7 p.m.  The event description isn’t up on the MIT calendar yet, but it’ll read something like this:

Hendrik Hertzberg has been one of the most influential opinion writers in and around Washington for decades. Most of his career has been spent at the home of the monocle and the top hat (The New Yorker), but he’s also had two stints as editor of The New Republic, during which he led the publication to three National Magazine Awards.

Hertzberg returned to The New Yorker for good (so far) in 1992, and is now senior editor and staff writer (mostly of the Comment section  in Talk of the Town).  He’s won yet one more National Magazine Award — in 2006, for his opinion writing.  In between writing gigs, he’s also worked as a speechwriter for President Carter and has done a pair of tours as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.  He has three books to his credit, including the 2009 reissue of his 1976 prefiguring of data journalism and visualization, One Million.

The other thing to know about Hertzberg is that he is one of those writers on whose work other writers take notes.  Ta-Nehisi Coates and he will talk about how writing opinion can and/or should be informed by the practices and habits of journalism — and much more, including, no doubt, something about what to make of the current predicaments of American politics.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences to tell you that Ta-Nehisi basically reveres Hertzberg — for the reason hinted at above.  Hertzberg works his writing.  Don’t be fooled by the light touch of which he is capable: that comes from the kind of effort John Kenneth Galbraith had in mind when he said (I paraphrase from memory) “the treasured note of spontaneity critics find in my writing comes in between the seventh and eighth draft.”

The_writing_master_thomas_eakins

Ta-Nehisi and I talk a lot about that:  how to write with honesty, passion, and perhaps above all a love of beauty in words that isn’t just about aesthetic — it’s how you infuse your argument with power and meaning both.  I’ve never met Hertzberg, but Ta-Nehisi tells me that it’s that kind of thing that he studies in the work.  So those of us who love the craft, who want to get better at it, should have a lot to chew on Tuesday night.  And, of course, Hendrik Hertzberg has a bit to say about the bitter comedy that is contemporary American politics, so there’s that — should be good for this crowd.

A couple of housekeeping notes.  I’ll be moderating the event, so it’ll be good to put faces to names/handles of any Balloon-Juicers in the crowd.  Another thing:  last time I promoted one of these in this space we had Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi together in a hall waaaaay too  small for the crowd, and too many got turned away.  We’re in the biggest lecture hall in MIT’s Stata Center this time, (r00m 123) three times bigger than that first venue, so don’t be deterred.

I’ll probably be posting a reminder or two a little later, but for now, consider yourself invited.

Images:  Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement,1866

Thomas Eakins, The Writing Master, 1882

Not All Harvard Cocktail Parties Are A Waste of Time

October 7, 2013

We can’t just live on a diet of alternating snark and rage at the feral Republican children trying to burn down the House.  Rather, we could — but that’s like suffering the health effects of a day-after-day Super Size Me diet of political high fructose corn starch and a bucket of Krispy Kreme’s — and I, at least, need some happier stuff from time to time just to remind me that the world isn’t simply a playground for the worst of us.

Hence this delightful tale, via my science writing friend David Dobbs, who led to this gem from David Quigg, proprietor of the Two Many Daves blog. The link takes you to a post ostensibly about Quigg’s ongoing pursuit of Ernest Hemingway’s FBI file — in which he’s making progress, but still faces G-manned roadblocks between him and what he really wants to know.

Quigg (deliberately, I suspect) buried the lede.  Hemingway’s a side show.  The really sweet tale he’s managed to extract from the Great Redactor introduces a new character, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley.  Shapley had a mixed record as an astronomer — he picked the wrong side in the famous Curtis-Shapley debate on whether or not the spiral nebula that had been observed by 1920 lay inside or outside our Milky Way galaxy, and he rather unfortunately thought Edwin Hubble had committed junk science.  But he had the right enemies.  A political liberal and friend of Henry Wallace, he was targeted by Joe McCarthy,* which is what landed him in the FBI files that Quigg received.

Seeing a now rather obscure name in the history of astronomy turn up in the file led Quigg to the magical Google machine — and that’s where this story goes from curious to great:

According to Dr. Shapley, he and Frost met at an annual faculty get-together during one of Frost’s stints as poet-in-residence at Harvard. Frost sought Shapley out, tugged at his sleeve–figuratively, if not literally–and said something like, “Now, Professor Shapley. You know all about astronomy. Tell me, how is the world going to end?” [1] Taken aback by this unconventional approach, Shapley assumed Frost was joking. The two of them chatted for a few moments, but not about the end of the world. Then they each became involved in conversations with other people and were soon in different parts of the room. But a while later, Frost sought out Shapley again and asked him the same question. “So,” said Shapley to his audience in 1960, “I told him that either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth.” Shapley went on to explain, as he had earlier explained to Frost, why life on earth would eventually be destroyed by fire or ice.

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_016

“Imagine my surprise,” Shapley said, “when just a year or two later, I ran across this poem.” He then read “Fire and Ice” aloud. He saw “Some say” as a reference to himself–specifically to his meeting with Frost at that gathering of Harvard faculty.

I should add that the anecdote comes from Tom Hansen, who recalls hearing Shapley lecture about (inter alia) his conversation with Frost.  Hansen doesn’t dispute Shapley’s memory of the encounter, but he does point out that the poem itself is not a versification of cosmology, and hence, that Shapley’s puff of pride at his muse’s role is very likely (IMHO too) misplaced.

In any event one may — I do — kvell at the thought of those two mutual incomprehensibles sipping sherry whilst thinking such different thoughts fashioned out of the same words.

Beats trying to deal with the Repblican’s Boehner problem, that’s for sure.

*Shapley’s line on McCarthy’s accusations:  “the Senator succeeded in telling six lies in four sentences, which is probably the indoor record for mendacity.”  Not bad for an ivy covered professor, I’d say.

Image:  Francisco Goya, The Snowstorm (Winter), 178-1787. (This is a bit of Goya juvenalia, as far as I’m concerned — but even before Goya became GOYA, he still could paint a bit, wouldn’t you say?)

Please Proceed, GOP

October 6, 2013

Josh Marshall over at TPM picked this up, but I can’t stop myself from echoing his thoughts here.

The only actual pleasure I’m taking out of our current circumstances — in which one major political party has decided to refight 1861-5 via the legislative process* — is the degree to which or Republican friends are exposing their political id ever more unmistakably.  Instance(n)** for your delectation:

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 8.52.35 AM

Like my grandmum would have said, if she said such things:  should the FSM feel moved to give you enemies, oh, please, dear Noodly one, make them stupid.

R’amen.

*Really, this is more like the late stages of the 1840-ish to 1860 maneuvering of the Southern rebels, attempting to achieve their aims by procedure as the gateway drug to armed treason.

**where (n) is an arbitrarily large number.


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