All You Need To Know About Paul Ryan

Posted October 11, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Election 2016, Republican follies, Uncategorized

Tags: ,


…the speaker is torn between his personal feelings about the tape showing Donald Trump discussing grabbing women by the genitals and his desire to preserve the historic GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

My reaction:

A) Profile in Courage.


B) Put his picture in the dictionary next to “Party Before Country”

I have many dreams about this election. One that is very unlikely — but less so than a week ago — is that the GOP loses the House, and Ryan loses his seat.

A boy can dream, can’t he?

Image:Éduoard Manet, The Rabbit 1866.

For a Good Time In Radioland (Short Notice Self Aggrandizement)

Posted October 6, 2016 by Tom
Categories: astronomy, good books, Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

ETA: So, we lost the connection to Blog Talk radio.  Jay and I continued the conversation to tape; he’s editing it now and will post the audio as a podcast tomorrow.  I’ll let y’all know when it’s up.  Sorry…


Don’t know if anyone reading this has had their fill of The Hunt For Vulcan, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll be talking soon about that book, missing planets, error in science (and life, perhaps) and more with Jay Ackroyd on his internet radio program, Virtually Speaking.

Time: 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 Pacific (one hour from now!)

Here’s the link.

Tune in, if you’re not absorbed in more down-to-earth matters. (I.e….Go Sox!)

Image:  Gerrit Dou, Astronomer by candlelight1665

Two Things That Happened And One That Didn’t

Posted October 5, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Election 2016, Religious follies, Republican follies


I’m going to keep this short (you’ve heard that before from me) because my disdain for punditry extends to my own attempts.

Still, it seems to me that there is one real measure of success or failure (“winning” or “losing”) for any political event: did what just occurred move votes to one side or the other.  Everything else is just noise, or, as our elite bloviators perform it, theater criticism.


By that criterion there were only two moments that mattered last night, and both did real damage to Team Trump.

The first was obvious from the moment the words left Mike Pence’s mouth: “You whipped out that Mexican thing again.”

I’m sure I’m not alone in my instant reaction:  “He just said WHHHAAAATTTTT!” Latino Twitter was unamused, certainly — and this is key.  There are some constituencies in which Trump cannot fall any further.  The number of Black Trump supporters is hovering around the margin of error — he’s polling between two and six percent nationally.

But there are still Latino votes to lose.  A Univision battleground state poll found Hillary lagging about eight points behind Obama’s numbers in each state, with Florida’s 24 percent gap between the two the narrowest of the lot.  Did Mike Pence help Trump with those voters last night?

The question answers itself.

The other meaningful moment was equally apparent as it happened.  That would be this exchange:

Governor, why don’t you trust women to make this choice for themselves? We can encourage people to support life. Of course we can. But why don’t you trust women? Why doesn’t Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for themselves?

That’s what we ought to be doing in public life. Living our lives of faith or motivation with enthusiasm and excitement, convincing other, dialoguing with each other about important moral issues of the day…

PENCE: Because there are…

KAINE: … but on fundamental issues of morality, we should let women make their own decisions.

PENCE: Because there is — a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn. I believe it with all my heart. And I couldn’t be more proud to be standing with a pro-life candidate in Donald Trump.

One man said that American women are the agents of their own lives.  The other said that they cannot be, that his personal religious commitment pre-empts any decision a woman might choose to make.  All the squid-ink of piety Pence spewed did not obscure the painfully clear: Mike Pence would use the force of law to ensure no woman had more authority over their bodies than the state would.

While abortion remains an issue on which the American electorate is divided, and there are certainly plenty of women who are committed to the anti-abortion cause — and plan to vote accordingly — plenty more voters recoil at the idea of the Trump-Pence punitive approach.  Given the significance (we are told) of the suburban woman and millenials in this year’s swing states, there’s no joy for the Trump crowd here either; shoring up the base that’s already enthusiastically committed to you is less important than giving those who might be persuadable to pull the lever for your side.

To me, everything else that occurred in the debate takes second place to those two brief passages.  Kaine did well, I think, to get Pence on record denying his savior thrice before cock-crow — that helps drive the second day narrative, which is certainly useful.  But in terms of actually grabbing votes?

Further alienating the Latino/a vote and making it ever harder for women to cast a GOP ballot — and not just women, but any man who sees women as actual people —  ain’t exactly a royal road to victory.

And as for the moment that never happened?

We’ve had 180 minutes of debates so far.  180 minutest to go.

As I write this, after the hottest half year on record; after devastating drought; after horrific fires; after record floods; with a Category 4/3 hurricane bearing down on Florida, having already wrecked Haiti — with all this, there have been exactly zero questions on climate change.  Tim Kaine managed to slip in a mention in a national security answer, praising Clinton for forging “strong alliances to battle terrorism and climate change.” Clinton did get Trump to deny saying climate change was a Chinese hoax — as he did.  But that’s it.

This is simply disgraceful.  One more piece of evidence that our elite political media if f**king hopeless.

That is all. [Flips Pundit-Mode to “off”]

Image:  J. M. W. Turner, Shade and Darkness — The Evening of the Deluge, 1843.

Some Stray Reading For When You’ve Finished Your Luke Cage Binge

Posted October 1, 2016 by Tom
Categories: good books, good public communication of science, Stupidity, Uncategorized, Women's rights are human rights

Hey all,

I’ve got a couple of pieces out in what we might call the mainstream media that might reward your attention.

The first closes the loop on that lovely Royal Society award shortlist we talked about a while back.  The winner was announced a couple of Mondays ago and, alas, it didn’t go to The Hunt for Vulcan (which you should still totally read).

Instead the prize went to Andrea Wulf for her intellectual biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature.  It’s a very strong book, as were each of the others on the shortlist.  I commend all of them to you.


The event itself was great, and the organizers made sure that each of the titles in the finals had a chance to shine, and while I was certainly disappointed, I was also greatly chuffed — and why not?  My work had been recognized as among the class of the year, I got to rub shoulders with some wonderful writers, (including a personal hero, the head judge Bill Bryson), and hey — London! What could be bad.

Nothing — until, as I was getting ready to leave that green and sceptered isle, I came across a piece at The Guardian in which the writer argued that there was something dodgy about Wulf’s win — that she had garnered a feminized prize, one that sought to reward a woman’s interest in people instead of a man’s pursuit of “problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.”

I couldn’t let such arrant nonsense fly unanswered, so I wrote up a response for The Atlantic.  In it I drew both on my experience as one of the competitors in the contest Wulf won, and my prior encounter with prize judging as a Pulitzer juror in 2012.  Check it out, if you’ve a mind.

The other article you might find fun is a book review that I wrote a little while ago that went live yesterday at The Boston Globe — my take on James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel.  The shorter is that the book is great, really fine work, and I commend it to you all.  Here’s a sample:

Mostly, though, Gleick leads us on a thrilling journey of ideas. Augustine talks to Robert Heinlein who talks to Kurt Gödel, all the while someone is trying to connect a call between Marcel Proust and the ever patient Sam Beckett. Alongside the big ideas come the odd facts too delicious to leave out, as when we learn that among the audio selections placed on the Voyager spacecraft is the Bulgarian folk song “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin’’ or “Delyo the Hajduk Has Gone Outside.” Pity the alien trying to decipher that code!

So, yeah. I’ve been delinquent in my blogging here.  Think of these as peace offerings.

Have a great weekend, all.  I’m going to continue nursing my dread catarrh; nothing like a full 747 to offer a smörgåsbord of viral delights.  Honey-lemon tea (possibly helped by some bourbon) in my future.

Image: William Harnett, Job Lot Cheap, 1878.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Posted September 9, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Election 2016, Medicine, Science

Tags: , , ,

This is a video that will haunt your nightmares:

Go to NPR‘s story on this for a narrated version of the video — and you’ll find that what you see is a bacterial colony developing extraordinary capacities for antibiotic resistance in a shockingly short time — two weeks, or a little less, to go from a naive, wild-type strain to varieties that can resist 1,000 times or more the dosage that killed almost all of the original microbes.

The video is part of the supporting material for a paper published this week in Science .  In a way, there’s nothing new, or rather, nothing surprising here.  Microbial resistance to antibiotics is a phenomenon as old as antibiotics themselves.  (See Alexander Fleming’s Nobel Prize speech, for example).

What’s revealed in this video — and the reseach behind it, of course — is the obvious.  We ain’t going to win any war with bacteria anytime soon.  But in this political season, I’d add another thought:

There are some things at stake in this election that matter rather more than whether one candidate used a not-according-to-Hoyle email server.  Among them are matters of life and death — and not just in the usual sense of decisions about national security or similar matters.  One party, one candidate takes science seriously right now.  The other doesn’t.  Vote like your — and your kids’ — lives depend on it.

Floor Polish or Dessert Topping: Media Edition.

Posted September 7, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Election 2016, journalism, Journalism and its discontents, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

I think it’s always a serious risk to disagree with Adam; he’s basically always right.  But I do find myself differing from him on one question: is The New York Times actively trying to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency, or are their actions better explained by a less evil, more dangerous tendency?

Adam’s on the overt evil side: they’re trying to shiv her side. I’m thinking that what we’re seeing is an unconscious process, which is actually a much more difficult problem to tackle within elite political journalism.

My view:  I communicate with some NYTimes people, and I’ve known some there for a long time, though I’m not in close touch with that cohort these days.  I don’t have any contact with the Sulzberger/Baquet level, but below that I’m quite confident that there’s no conspiracy going on.  If you could ask just about anybody at the Times, I’m sure they recognize that Trump is a shit show and all that.

But that doesn’t alter the problem there, the way the deck is nonetheless stacked at the Times and other top-echelon outlets.

A big part of the reason, ISTM, is that within a lot of journalism there is a very particular definition of what a story is, and the concept of accuracy is narrowly defined.  A story need not be about facts, but about claims of alledged facts — Clinton’s emails raise pay-for-play concerns; and to be accurate such a story need only rise to the level of “some see in the new email release more indications of a pay-to-play connection to the Clinton Foundation.”   That is — the fact that someone is willing to say such a dreadful deed took place makes the statement and the story “accurate” even if no reasonable reading of the underlying material suggest such nefariousness actually took place.


That paradigm leads The New York Times and the rest of them to make the same mistakes over and over again — and to get played in the same way seemingly every week. The right wing media activist camp — think Judicial Watch and the email farrago — is very good at pushing the story buttons, and you have a circumstance where the Times bites, over and over again, and finds itself once again dipping into  the Clinton well.

What makes that so wretched is that if The New York Times were anti-Clinton in the way, say, Fox News is, there’d be an obvious counter:  consider the source. But because this is done within a framework that the top practitioners believe is the right way to do journalism, pushback often serves to confirm their judgment in their own eyes. If partisans complain, they must be doing something right.  And given that the elite media basically talks to itself, it’s hard to insert a corrective, though I and many others are trying to do so on and off social media.

 It’s also important to note that the Times  did engage the Trump-Attorneys General bribery story today, placing it prominently on the website.  There are some oddities in the story — not uncommon for a publication playing catch-up.  And the test will be the follow up: how deeply the Times chooses to pursue each of the elements of the story in the days ahead.  If they do give it the full effort, then (a) that will be good and (b) it will suggest that much of the crap coverage of Clinton we’ve seen is the product of pre-existing bias (Clintons are yucky) combined with the story dynamics and incentives discussed here.

There’s an interview with Bob Woodward that the Harvard’s press office published today that to me expresses the problem of a Village, an epistemically closed community of practice that can’t easily interrogate the ways its own methods undermine the mission that they do in fact, sincerly, believe they’re pursuing. Woodward says:

Bob Costa, a reporter at the Post, and I interviewed Trump and we published the transcript and there are all kinds of things in there. For instance, he says, “I bring out rage in people,” and he’s proud of it. He forecast a giant recession, he was very pessimistic about the economy, and since then it’s only done better. He was asked, because he was running in the primaries in the Republican Party, a party that contained Lincoln and Nixon, “Why did Lincoln succeed?” And Trump’s answer was, “He did some things that needed to be done.” [We then asked,] “Why did Nixon fail?” “Because of his personality.” And we had to say, “Yeah, but his criminality was part of it.” And Trump said, “Oh, yeah.” It tells you who he is. 

The same with Hillary Clinton. There were just voluminous stories on her. Let me give you an example from The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2016, a two-part series they did on Hillary’s role in Libya. It explains her role, exactly what she wanted to do. At one point, after [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi’s death, it quotes her saying to some of her staff, “We came, we saw, he died.’ There was a series of spectacular Post stories about the Clinton Foundation, about her time at the State Department, and so forth. 

The Trump interview is a story, sure.  It was accurate, in the sense that I’m sure Trump said what Woodward and Costa said he said.  It’s not revealing of very much — like what Trump has done and what his actions in the various enterprises he’s undertaken would tell us about a potential Trump presidency.  But its accurate.

More important for the discussion of Clinton and whether press treatment of her reflects conscious or unconscious bias is the comparison between the kind of material Woodward celebrates as journalism about Trump vs. what he recognized in the Clinton Coverage.  The Libya story he cites is a perfectly reasonable one one, exactly what you’d expect a newspaper to do.  The Clinton Foundation stories…not so much, and so on.

The point’s obvious, I think.  All of the stories listed above are “news” in some way.  They meet (mostly) the narrowest criterion of accuracy.  But they add up to a very different body of work, and evidence of very different approaches to the two candidates, born, I think, of the construct of the “sweet story” much more than of a planned journalistic campaign to derail Hillary.

TL:DR?  You don’t need to invoke malice.  An intellectual laziness* born of bad craft habits and professional norms fully explains what we see — which is bad news, as that’s harder to fix than explicit enmity.

*I don’t mean to suggest that Times journalists and their peers elsewhere are lazy in the sense that they don’t work hard.  They work constantly for (in almost all cases in the print world) relatively short money.  I’m just saying that they don’t sufficiently train the traditional journalist’s skepticism on their own endeavor, and so find it very hard to credit outside criticism, or to recognize what it is in fact they’re doing, not just day by day, but summed over the life of a campaign.

Image: Francisco de Goya, Fool’s Folly, 1815-1819

Dear Washington Post

Posted September 6, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Election 2016, journalism, Journalism and its discontents, McCain, Politics, words mattter

Tags: , , ,

Here’s another slightly edited dispatch from my ongoing off-social-media conversation with some political reporters on the obvious implicit bias I see in coverage of Clinton vs. Trump.  The reporters I’ve engaged publicly and privately don’t see it that way — and they are, I firmly believe, sincere and honest in that belief.  So the task, as I see it, is to build the argument story by story and (as possible) in analysis of the sum of coverage, that they’re wrong, and to do so in a way that honest and expert reporters can read, analyze, and, I hope, become persuaded by.

What caught my eye today was this article in the Washington Post, “Inside Bill Clinton’s nearly $18 million job as ‘Honorary Chancellor’ of a for-profit university,” by Rosalind S. Hellerman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee.  That story has received professional praise as a well reported deep dive — and it is!  Really.

School of athents

By that I mean:  it is definitely a long (2604 words) and detailed dissection of Bill Clinton’s involvement with Laureate University, a major international for profit higher-ed company.  The reporters play fair by the rules of the craft:  they show their work, and a reader can see where each individual fact comes from.

But does that make it a good story, an honest one, or one that within the larger story — that of the 2016 presidential election — meets basic standards of journalism as it serves readers interests?

Not at all.

That’s what I argued below in my note to one of my correspondents.  Here, the point is that the elite political press — like any group of people working on the same stuff in substantial isolation from the outside world — has its own professional criteria for excellence.  They’ve got a value system and an expectation or understanding of what represents good work or bad.  They’re not all wrong in that.

But as far as I can see from the outside, theirs is a bunker-dwelling, mostly technical standard: well reported = good, for example.  I don’t think that there is a conspiracy at the Times  or the Post, or CNN or what have you simply to shiv the Clintons.

But what I think outside the bunker (and please do recall:  a presidential campaign is a mind-and-body deranging experience; these folks really are working without access to a lot of the reality checks that could help) those of us who are looking at the coverage both closely and synoptically see the problem not as one of reporting, but of coverage.

That is, what matters is the way stories are assigned, framed, their narratives interpreted within each piece, how they’re edited and placed (2604 words!) affects the overall message readers and the electorate as a whole receive.

Thus, the ongoing and increasingly inexplicable failure of The New York Times to engage what should be a burgeoning Trump bribery scandal with state attorneys general and Trump U.  Thus all the stories on the Clinton foundation which (a) failed to show what was implied and (b) omitted crucial context, like the Bush Foundation headed by a Powell.  And thus today’s story, in which two good reporters distill what had to have been a substantial amount of work that taken all-in-all demonstrates that Bill Clinton made a lot of money while there was, in the words of the story itself, “no evidence that Laureate received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton…”

What there was, instead, was a reason to ask whether or not such special favors might have taken place.  The answer was no.

There the story should have ended.  But because this was the Clintons, and this is the elite political press, it was impossible to accept that answer.  Hence what is a type specimen for how the press is getting this election wrong — with potentially disastrous consequences.

With that as prologue (I know…logorrhea…), my breakdown of the piece for my journalist-contact.  We began by marveling at the size of Bill’s fee — which truly is pretty astonishing:


I agree with you on the sum, though from where I sit, with my full time job in higher education (and a professor’s kid, and w. two professor-siblings and, and, and…) what bothers me most about that clearly outsize wage is that it is less of an outlier than it should be.  As I’m sure you know, top academic positions at a lot of places are now paid at seven figure levels.  A million or so/year as a college president  is different from $3.6 million/year as an honorary chairman, certainly.  But it’s also true (and a scandal) that higher ed, both non and for profit has headed down the same path for CEO and senior management compensation that large businesses have.  That’s troubling.

But what got me about the story was the contrast between the reporting craft you rightly recognize: meticulous, detailed pursuit of both individual incidents and the financial details…and the lack of any substance to the clear thrust of the story: that this was another example of soft corruption in the Clinton family.  You look at the lede and it clearly asserts a pay-off.  Clinton invites someone to a working dinner who is an FOB, who later hires Bill for lots of money.   Read the rest of this post »