A Shuttered Past

Posted November 21, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Cool Images, History, Race, Republican knavery, Technology, Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

I think we need some antidote to the depths of derp we’ve seen (and on this blog picked over with all the horror that follows a good look at last night’s supper this morning) coming from the Syrians Are Coming brigade of bed-wetters.

So, instead, let’s take a look at someone who used their media smarts for good — and, in doing so, helped forge the chain that led to the fact (glory be) that we have the president we do right now, serving as a bulwark against the stupid that would have toppled a lesser person.

That would be this man:


That’s Frederick Douglass, of course, in a shot taken in the 1860s.

Here he is as a younger man:


And in old age:


Those are three of the 160 surviving photographs taken of Douglass — a figure that currently ranks as the most confirmed separate portraits taken of any American in the 19th century.*  Scholars John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste Marie-Bernier have a new book out, Picturing Frederick Douglass,  In it they use a sequence of images to drive a new biography of Douglass, and in doing so allow us to see technological change as it was lived — and used — by a brilliant observer of his own life and times.  As the authors write in the introduction, Douglass loved photography, and saw it as an exceptionally potent tool for making the world a different and better place. Douglass loved the fact that

What was the special and exclusive of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago.

In that context Stauffer, Trodd and Marie-Bernier make the case that Douglass saw photography as  tool to alter social reality:

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers–and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see the what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

Such reasoning (and more besides) led Douglass to the photographer’s studio over and over again, actively seeking out the camera as a tool that could help him create the reality of African-American humanity, presence, significance.

Photography allowed him to be seen.  In that determined, asserted presence,  you have (it seems to me) an early herald of of the circumstances in which Barack Obama could become president.  Alas, in the fact of the racist and vicious forces with which Douglass had to contend, we can be similarly reminded that in our times the sight of a black man commanding our gaze drives too many among us into spasms of demented, terribly dangerous rage.

But put that aside for a second, and look at some fabulous images of an extraordinary — and extraordinary-looking — man.  (A few more examples.)

And if you feel the need for some open thread, well take that too.

*The runners up are cool too:  In the research for this book, the authors found George Armstrong Custer, that avatar of puffed-up vanity taking second place, with 155 portraits.  Red Cloud came next at 128, followed by Whitman and Lincoln at 127 and 126, the poet and his captain connected again.  It seems likely, according to these writers, that when further work is done, Ulysses S. Grant may trump them all, but that doesn’t change the point of what Douglass set out to do.


1.  c. 1860s

2.  c. 1850, daguerrotype

3. before 1880, Brady-Handy collection.

If The Phone Don’t Ring…

Posted November 18, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Foreign Policy, Last resort of scoundrels, Middle East, rare sincerity, Republican knavery, seriously, Unsolicited Advice

Hey everyone!

I’ve got a message for you:

Pick up the damn phone.

The backstory:  I heard last night from a valued reader with connections to the Hill reminded me that there is more this crowd can do than point, sigh, and mock the GOP pants-wetters (abetted by an increasing number of feckless Dems) who so fear the widows and orphans from the latest spasm of our long decade of war in the Middle East.*


What to do about the attempt to make fear the ground state of American policy?  What to do about the spreading political meme that the proper exercise of US state power is to bar the door to Syrian refugees? How should we stand with President Obama when he says of the fear mongers “that’s not who we are”?

Pick up the damn telephone.

Call your Congressional representatives in the House and the Senate.

You know the drill:  Speak your mind, politely, respectfully, but firmly to whoever you get on the phone.

My reader emphasized, and my own distant memory of an internship on the Hill concurs, that these calls really matter.  House and Senate staffs keep notes and logs.  There are regular reports of how many calls came in, on what side, and with what passion or urgency.  \

Paradoxically, because of the ubiquity of social media, an actual human voice that has taken the trouble to pick up a phone carries a great deal of weight.  So call.

The numbers:

The Senate.

The House.

If you’re feeling extra virtuous — your governor and state legislature representatives would also be worth a call.

We can water the tree of liberty not with blood, but words.

Pick up the damn phone.

PS:  Obama gets it exactly right in this devastating take down of the chicken hawks in the other party.

*Yes, I do know that the conflict there — and “Great” Power strategerizing through its misery — extends well before 2003.  But the Syrian Civil War of the last few years is (at least to me) both a conflict with deep roots and a proximate consequence of Bush the Lesser’s attempt to remake the Middle East into an model US client region.

Image: attr. to Rembrandt van Rijn, The Flight Into Egypt 1627

For Good Times in Brookline And Cambridge

Posted November 11, 2015 by Tom
Categories: good books, good public communication of science, Self-aggrandizement, Stuff to do, television

Tags: , ,

A few events tomorrow and Friday for your infotainment pleasure.

First, I’ll be doing a reading/book talk on The Hunt for Vulcan at Brookline Booksmith, a fine indy bookstore in scenic Coolidge Corner.  (279 Harvard St., to be precise). That would be tomorrow, Thursday November 12 at 7 p.m.  Books to be signed, of course.

I have to add that Tikka’s grown tired of waiting for his:

Tikka and HUnt

For some background on the book and the events that drove me to it, here’s a Boston Globe piece I published a few weeks ago on Einstein’s general relativity at 100; here’s a piece that went up yesterday at The Atlantic‘s joint that gives a taste of the story the book tells; and here’s a similar piece at Gizmodo that adds a little background into how and why I actually got off my ass and wrote the damn thing. (Spoiler alert:  I blame someone often discussed on this site.

Next, in semi-direct competition with my gig at the bookstore…(See! I can rise above shameless self-promotion on rare occasions) my department at MIT is putting on what looks to be a really interesting event:  an MIT Communication Forum presentation on “Women in Politics: Representation and Reality”


Think Veep comes to Washington.  That’ll take place at 5 p.m., tomorrow, November 12, so I guess if you were a glutton for punishment you could take that one in, dash across the river, and still get in on some planet Vulcan action.  Shameless I am.  The forum is free and open to the public, and will take place in MIT Building 3, room 270. (That link takes you to the MIT interactive map. Basically Building 3 is the second hallway on your right off the long (Infinite!) corridor that starts at the main entrance to campus at 77 Massachusetts Ave. Go upstairs and wander down — towards the river —  till you find room number 270.

Finally, on Friday, November 13, the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society and the Physics Department are hosting a sneak preview of the NOVA film “Inside Einstein’s Mind.”


The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the film and on the centennial of the discovery of the General Theory of Relativity.

That part of the evening’s festivities will be moderated by your humble blogger and will feature my colleague, physicist and historian of science David Kaiser, joined by two of David’s physics colleagues, Tracy Slayter and Scott Hughes, science writer Amanda Gefter, and NOVA’s Chris Schmidt.  It all happens between 7 and 9 p.m., in room 32-123 — which is the big auditorium on the ground floor of the Stata Center, the great big honker of a Gehry building at the intersection of Vasser and Main Streets.  Interactive map advice here.

Come to some, come to all, and if you can’t (or won’t) you can still get your hands on the book, online* and/or at the local bookstore I thoroughly encourage you to support — and then watch the film on Wednesday, November 25th at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

Images: Tikka, of course, photographed by yours truly.

Henry Gillard Glindoni, John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I, by 1913.

Thomas Bartholin, Head transect from Anatome ex omnium veterum recentiorumque observationibus, 1673.

Barnes and Noble/Nook here; iBooks here.

Today’s Episode Of “Stick A Fork In Him He’s Done”

Posted November 10, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Republican follies

Tags: ,

Via Martin Longman writing at Washington Monthly, this by Michael Bender and Ben Brody over at Bloomberg:

In Alabama, one of the Bush campaign’s top targets in March, Bush has endorsements from a member of Congress, a handful of state legislators and statewide officials. Yet, in contrast with Donald Trump or Marco Rubio, Bush wasn’t able to find a full slate of delegates to run on the ballot by Friday’s deadline.


As Longman notes,

This obviously undermines Jeb’s main arguments for his own candidacy. He’s supposed to be competent and experienced. His team is supposed to know what it is doing and have a shot at matching the team the Clintons will bring to the general election contest. He’s supposed to have enough establishment support and resources to not have to worry about things like ballot access that can be a real challenge to cash-strapped and little-known candidates.

The whole Bloomberg piece is worth a read.  The TL:DR version is that while the Bush folks can talk a plausible game about a targeted strategy aimed at amassing delegates (which sounds on superficial reading like an echo of the Obama 2008 mastery of the caucus/primary mix, but isn’t), life on the ground looks very different, and thoroughly unpromising for Team Exclamation Point.

That said, the clown car is full of clowns, so who knows which GOP jester will actually get to 1237 delegates.  I don’t — but a while back I was willing to bet lunch money against Jeb.  I’d lay more now.  Quite a bit, in fact, were I a gambling man.

Image: Willem Corneliz Duyster, Carnival Clowns, c.1620

Nutpicking Can Be Fun…

Posted November 5, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Religious follies, Republican follies, seriously, Stupidity


…until you realize that these guys, were they to be nominated would get 45% of the vote just for showing up.

But still, some mid – day recreation, first from the kiddie table:

In a fundraising email flagged by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel on Thursday, the Republican candidate bragged about his ability to take on “radical world leaders.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 1.33.20 PM

Damn, women can be pretty terrifying, eh, Ricky my boy?

Alright.  I admit that the closest Santorum is going to get to anything oval will be if he sits on a hula hoop, but still, that’s a Republican former senator who made an actual impact, for a time, on the presidential race as recently as four years ago.  That he’s not been gently, kindly escorted off stage in a nicely padded and very secure topcoat is a measure of how batshit insane half of the American body political has become.


But not as terrifying a measure as the current status of our next contributor:

Carson also defended the idea Wednesday evening when asked by reporters about it.

“The pyramids were made in a way that they had hermetically sealed compartments. You wouldn’t need hermetically sealed compartments for a sepulcher. You would need that if you were trying to preserve grain for a long period of time,” he said, according to MSNBC.

The only consolation I can take from the fact that the current GOP frontrunner doesn’t want you to pay any attention to that stupid archaeology stuff is that it isn’t just climate expertise he disdains. He’s an equal opportunity science denialist.

OK.  That’s no consolation at all.

I’d point and laugh — but then you’d see my own terror in the trembling of my finger tip.

Seriously:  that people like Santorum and Carson matter even momentarily in a presidential race is more than just a measure of GOP pathology.  It’s a sign of its own version of endtimes.  I think I want to save the full thumbsucker for another post, but the derangement of so much of the electorate (Houston voters freak out over even the remote possibility of a penis in a women’s bathroom?!) is not just-a-once-every-four-years freak show.  It’s not even on some level political, or not entirely so.  The world is apocaplyptically misbehaving for a lot of folks, and Carson and Santorum are as much as anything the straws in the wind of that much greater dislocation.

And with that, I’m galumphing into dread pundit territory.  Run away! (and talk amongst yourselves).

Image:  Antonio Parreiras, The crazy man from Chevillat, 1920.

For A Good Time In Cambridge…Tonight!c

Posted November 3, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Albert Einstein, astronomy, good books, Isaac Newton, science writing, Self-aggrandizement

Tags: , ,

So it’s here — Publication Day! The Hunt for Vulcan is now live.

There’s a bit of backstory on how the book came to be over at Gizmodo. Spoiler alert: Ta-Nehisi Coates bears part of the blame.

More backstory on Einstein’s role in all this here.

And last, tonight (in an hour and a half actually) this:


If that doesn’t read too well: I’ll be talking about the book with my colleague, the wonderful physicist and historian of science David Kaiser at 6 p.m. We’ll be at the MIT Museum — free and open to the public.

If you can’t make it, there will be alternatives.

And with that: shameless self promotion at least temporarily brought to a halt.

The Love Song Of David Brooks, Or Who You Gonna Believe…

Posted October 30, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Journalism and its discontents, MSM nonsense, Republican follies, Republican knavery


Bobo, or your own lyin’ eyes.

Amazingly enough, I’m not going all John Foster Dulles on Brooks’ latest grotesquerie:  all you need to know can be read in this brief passage:

At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable.  What matters is how a candidate signals priorities.

Umm. David.  We remember George Bush’s plans.  They signaled his priorities just fine…and he proceeded as promised to turn a robust budget surplus into the biggest upwards income redistribution in memory, along with deficits from here to Atlantis.

I had thought to fisk the whole damn column, which is full of low-hanging fruit.  But really why bother?  It’s all there in that don’t “get too worked up “by what alledged “wonks” actually say about the policies they wonkishly espouse.  Because it’s not like they mean it.

Except they do.

And once again we see:  David Brooks is a terrible public figure not because of his politics but because of his character, his willingness to be a loyal apparatchik transcribing whatever counts as pravda in that universe in which Republicans are the natural party of power.


Or to put it another way: he both is and broadcasts a stupid person’s idea of what a smart conservative sounds like.

PS:  Krugthulu agrees.  What I like best about this is the absence of even a shred of collegial courtesy.

Which is as it should be.  If you’re going to opine in public, then it’s your job to do so by saying what you really think.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, Dutch Proverbs — The Topsy Turvy World. 1559.  I highly recommend checking out the image at the link.  The notes embedded in the picture explain it’s relevance here.  See, e.g. the roses before swine above.



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