Archive for October 2008

A Milestone — and an apology

October 27, 2008

Milestone first:  On Friday, this blog, in existence since early December last year, crossed the magic (well — not really) 100,000 visitor mark, a number which, if I interpret my WordPress stuff right, does not include any of you wonderful subscribers.

It ain’t quite in the big leagues yet — but I feel like we are together making good, steady progress up the system.  If I can make the leap from Portland to Pawtucket over the next year, then it’s all good. (A little local color for those of you not familiar with the Red Sox farm system.;)

Thanks to all who have taken a look.  May your tribe ever increase — and for my part, I’ve got some thoughts as to what to do to make this blog a continuingly useful place to come after next week.  Any suggestions gratefully received as well.

And that leads to the apology: I’ve gone into complete neurosis mode on the election.  The only  treatment I know (there is no cure) is to get my butt out and do something — anything.  So from Wed., every hour that my family does not need me and that my job does not require is going to be spent up in New Hampshire at the disposal of the Salem Democratic/Obama HQ.  I’ll try to get some stuff up, but blogging’s going to be a bit light from now through the fourth.

Best of luck to us all — and thanks again to all my readers.

Image:  “A Game of Baseball at the Polo Grounds...” engraving from Harper’s Young People, v. III (1882), p.524,

Program Notes: Technology Review/Former Student Props edition

October 26, 2008

A little suggested reading, combined with some love for recent graduates of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — the little corner of the Institute which it is now my honor to direct.

First up, the cover story in the current Technology Review, “Sun + Water = Fuel” by Kevin Bullis, who completedthe grad program in 2005.  It tells the story of a discovery by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has found a catalyst that may (note the conditional) make it possible to separate oxygen out of water at a cost that would make that energy source competitive or better with fossil fuels.

I had thought to blog this finding when the press release hit my inbox, but now I don’t have to.  Kevin has done an excellent bit of reporting, explains what’s going on clearly, and writes it up with, I think, the correct balance of optimism and the always needed skepticism in the face of technological predictions.  (See the comment thread on this article for an illustration of the line Kevin tried to walk.)   He’s a writer to watch — graceful and stylish, with a true love of tech.

Then there’s this story, “The Flaw at the Heart of the Internet.”  Erica Naone is another one of our stars.  She graduated from our program in 2007.  This story is chilling in its account of the near miss in which Dan Kaminsky identified a significant vulnerability in the way the web matches more or less plain  language names, the DNS monikers like “inversesquare.wordpress.com” with the numerical addresses by which the internet itself identiies for the locations thus named.  That flaw would allow attackers to hijack DNS information and replace the intended material with content of the marauder’s own.

While Black Hat 2008 awarded Kaminsky its Pwnie Award for “Most Overhyped Bug,” Erica’s piece gives you a very good argument why (a) you should have been at least retrospectively, very, very afraid; and (b) more generally, to remember the eternal truth most vividly expressed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that the internet is not a benign playground.  There be dragons out there.*

On that note — a third article in the current Tech Review that is a true must read comes from my old friend and long-time MIT guy Simson Garfinkel. (If there were anyone with beaver-blood running in his veins, its Simson, a four (or more, I can’t keep up) Institute degree holder who is as far as I can tell, perfectly adapted to MIT’s unique intellectual island ecosystem.)

The piece, “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth,” Simson has written what seems to me to be a very important article that emphasizes the Wikipedia’s appeal to authority as its ultimate standard of what merits inclusion in what is rapidly becoming the default web-based repository of recognized knowledge.  A must read, IMHO.

(And I have one anecdote about the pitfalls of the imputation of authority of printed sources.  I wrote an article not that long ago for a national publication not to be named here.  The fact checker called me up to confirm some detail.  I said, basically, that it had come out of my own research.  She demanded a published source.  I asked if my own book would do.  She said yes.  Sic.)

*The other pleasure of Erica’s article for me was that I finally got a semi-definitive (at least Wikipedia-worthy) pronounciation for the web-slang term “pwn” — which apparently rhymes with “own.”  I had previously suggested at least partly tongue-in-cheek that it might derive from the Welsh use of the “w” as a vowel. The Welsh “cwm” pronounced “koom” exists as a loanword in English (and has also be transcribed as Comb or Coombe). Given that earlier this year I offered the suggestion/question whether or not pwn should be pronounced “poon,” following the Welsh example, and evoking Neal Stephenson’s use of the word in Snow Crash to describe what his character Y.T. does when she uses her magnetic harpoon to attach to the vehicles that can pull her along on her Kourier rounds.  Sadly, inventive as that may have been, it appears that my attempt at etymology is not just wrong, but terribly, terribly so.

Image:  J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” 1845.

Suspicious self aggrandizement watch: Megan McArdle edition

October 24, 2008

Today on her blog, noted business school graduate turned economic philosopher Megan McArdle explains herself:

why do the better class of critics, left and right, generally fail to engage the lunatics on the other side?  I do it to. (sic)

I’m not sure from the construction if she means that the better class of critics perform one action, and she, not a member of that class, also performs that action, or if she, as a member of that better class acts in accordance with class norms.

If the former, then I got no problem with her self-description.  If the latter…

Well, as I was brought up, if you have to say how haut monde you are, it tends to confirm the opposite.

Seriously, when someone with McArdle’s training (not in economics) and professional output claims class solidarity with Paul Krugman, you have to wonder if it might not be a good idea to bail out of the echo chamber for a while.

Roger Moore Glandauer:  Red-crowned Amazon (Amazona viridigenalis)

Bad Andrew (and George): Sullivan (and Will) Can’t Do Economics

October 24, 2008

I know, I know — a dog bites man story.

Still, this quote approvingly retailed by Sullivan from Will should win some kind of prize for the most ideologically blinkered thought (sic) of the year:

Hundreds of billions of dollars that the political class would have liked to direct for its own social and political purposes have been otherwise allocated. That allocation, by government fiat rather than by market forces, must reduce the efficiency of the nation’s stock of capital.

It’s hard to know where to begin with so much idiocy crammed into so few Augustan words.

Just two thoughts:

First:  those billions that the notional “political class” would have liked to direct to its own ends did not exist as politically available funds until the crisis occurred.

The notion that in the real world any Congress would have said, hell, just increase the deficit by 150 percent or so to buy cupcakes on the moon is nonsense.  I’d like to think that Will (or Sullivan) knows this, but I’m not in fact sure that either of them do.  Spending too long repeating half-learned shibboleths from decades before tends to reduce your ability to connect ideas with observations of the real world.

Second:  Look at that last sentence in the quote again.  A more or less minor error slips in when Will seems to conflate real and financial capital — true beginners buffoonery. For a bigger howler, consider his complaint about government vs. private sector capital allocation.  If “market forces” were so effective at allocating capital, we would, of course, not be in the position of bailing out private market players right now.

D’oh!

Image:  The Panic – Run on the Fourth National Bank, No. 20 Nassau Street [New York City, 1873.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.  Digital ID: (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3a00900 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a00900. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Against Ta-Nehisi Coates…

October 24, 2008

…or rather, against his defense of white racism. The post is a meditation on why women are, in his perception, so harsh on Sarah Palin; his epiphany came when he tried to imagine a black equivalent to the Palin candidacy — and he couldn’t:

A brother in that position not only would not be considered for 2012, he would be impeached when he returned to governorship for embarrassing the state, and then have his ghetto card revoked for embarrassing the local Negrocracy.

For this, the writer is grateful, which makes perfect sense.  It’s better by far to have a strong sense of standards than some unthinking identity commitment.

That’s the implication of the Yiddish phrase, “A shande fur de goyim” — a shame before the non-Jews. Nothing could be worse than to be such a schande; it’s why Jews, or at least  those I hang with, wince with every Jack Abramoff or, to channel a different era, why Abbie Hoffman’s use of the phrase to describe Judge Julius Hoffman during the Chicago Eight trial was such a potent barb.

More deeply, we have a lot of history that tells us it is better on every level, from the moral to the practical, to be not merely no worse than the majority societies in which most Jews live, but to be closer to blameness, to bring no scandal to our names and homes. So, thus far, I’m with Ta-Nehisi.  But then he goes on to write who he could or would wish to credit for the existence of such internal correctives:

White racists have taken a lot of heat on this blog. But the truth of the matter is that they may be the single biggest promoters of black excellence in this country’s history. There is a reason Tony Dungy was the first winning coach in Tampa Bay’s history–he had to be.

Again, from where I sit looking over the ethnic/race/identity sorrows of history, I know that there is a partial truth here.   I’m enough older than Ta-Nehisi to have Jackie Robinson’s story as the archetype of the pressure on the standard-bearer.  There is no doubt that Dungy did a very hard thing — much harder than most watching him grasped, I think — but Robinson was literally in a league of his own on the need to combine superlative performance with extraordinary internal strength and self-control.  (For the record, I’m not so old that I ever saw Robinson play; but his was the story we read in grade school.)

The same dynamic played out time and again in public and in private Jewish lives — including the importance of public heroes finding someway to express both a particular and a universal greatness; think of Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch on Yom Kippur and you have a hint of the balancing act involved.

But where I think Ta-Nehisi goes wrong is in giving racists themselves credit for the excellence of a Dungy or anyone else.  I don’t doubt that there is a forged-in-fire power to the notion of proving oneself despite the efforts of those with evil intention to thwart you. But Ta-Nehisi goes astray (IMHO) when he writes this:

… A little bit of bigotry would have prevented all of this [the Palin debacle]. So to all the Ferraros out there I have one request–more racism please. It improves our stock. It makes black people, a better people.

No, it does not.  I don’t think you could or should credit racism for what Dungy can claim as his own achievement, nor that of Einstein, perhaps — or more on point for a science-and-public life blog — the life Percy Julian lived.

Percy Julian is not as well known as he should be.  Get introduced to him out here, and or watch the excellent two hour biography that NOVA broadcast a year or so ago.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who plays Julian, is worth the price of admission on his own, and to brag a little, my wife, Katha Seidman won her second Emmy for her design of the show.

The short form:  Julian was one of the pioneering synthetic chemists of the between the wars period and just after WW II.  If you have ever used a cortisone cream, other corticosteroid medicines, or birth control pills, you owe Dr. Julian a debt of thanks.

He had a great career; he was honored (belatedly); he got rich — all good.  He also was bedeviled by racist constraints from childhood through to the time he was getting his own company off the ground, and in particular institutional and individual bigotry kept him from the first career he intended to pursue, that of an academic chemist, pursuing whatever research that seemed to him most promising.

That he made an enormous contribution to his field as an industrial chemist is a tribute to just the kind of determined excellence Ta-Nehisi celebrates in Dungy.  But the price paid, the cost in opportunities not just lost, but actively barred has to be accounted for too.

I’ll stipulate that Ta-Nehisi knows this very well indeed. For my part, I’m lucky that my ethnic identifier, in this country at least, is farther removed than his from our own versions of the ghetto and Jim Crow.  It was my great-grandfather that made it out of the old country, and his stories have not survived the passing of the last of his own children.

I am not completely tone-deaf to irony and sarcasm either, nor the echoes of that supremely useful phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” as applied both to Governor Palin and such sometime-symbolic figures as the athlete formerly known as Pacman and Mike Tyson.

But I still think that Ta-Nehisi is undercounting the persistant tax that bigotry imposes on its targets.  You could call it the Julian tax, the daily toll exacted in the pursuit of excellence constrained within limits not of your own choosing.

I’ll stop here — but for a truly beautiful meditation that touches on this theme (and much else) look to Bill T. Jones’ memoir The Last Night on Earth.

Image:  Ben Shahn “Sign on a Restaurant, Lancaster Ohio” 1938.  Library of Congress [http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/085_disc.html].  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Oh — and one more thing about Palin’s Closet

October 23, 2008

This is really a side show — but you know what really got me about the RNC shmatta shopping spree on Palin’s behalf?

I’ve got some rag trade history in my family — my great uncle Moe was a reasonably successful button and thread man, and my uncle Irving was a sadly rather unsuccessful shoe maker — and what gets me is not that Palin wanted the good stuff.

It’s that she paid retail.

Perspective on Palin’s Shopping Spree

October 23, 2008

This is truly a sideshow in the election — and in fact tomorrow I’ll blog what I think is the basic issue for someone looking at the Presidential choice from the point of view of what’s best for the enterprise of  American science — but one of the problems of making sense of the stunningly tone-deaf decision to cloak Sarah Palin in $150,000 wardrobe is to get a handle on just how much money that really is in the world of fashion.

Fashion isn’t just show; I and my wife have both worked in various nooks and crannies of the film business – and my wife has designed a couple of multi-million dollar productions, so we have some family knowledge of what it takes to make people look good on camera.

It takes a lot.  For example, if you want an extra — an extra! — to look right in a historical drama, budget more than a thousand for, say, a nineteenth century uniform with all the accoutrements.  Leading players need more and better — their clothes have to fit and they have to have enough different costumes to carry them through the entire time sequence of a film.

All of which is to say is that if you want to get a sense of whether or not the McCain campaign’s shopping spree on Palin’s behalf was extravagant, a Hollywood feature is a good place to look.

In fact, a film shoot a pretty precise analogue to the experience of a campaign: major feature shoots run about as long or longer than the Sept-Nov span of Gov. Palin’s run; they both involve repeated changes of scene and clothes, and they are each as merciless as the other in the scrutiny to which the camera subjects its targets.

So — what’s the best comparison between Palin, the unlikely couture poster child and someone in the film business?

IMHO, the best place to start is with The Devil Wears Prada, a film all about aspirational fashion set in the very capital of Unreal America, in the city that happens to be the center of the rag trade.

The character played by Meryl Streep, the devil of the picture (the avatar for Vogue‘s Anna Wintour), was supremely well dressed.  The character character represents an upper bound for measuring just how outlandish the Palin clothing budget may be:  “Miranda Priestly” (Streep) was supposed to look better than the readers of her magazine; she represented more than an aspiration, as understood in a magazine industry that refers to Vogue and similar publications as “fantasy books.”  Governor Palin needs to us fashion to a different end to convey the message of hercharacter within the political drama:  she shouldn’t seem to live in a world completely out of reach, but rather to appear as a slightly larger-than-life embodiment of achievable aspirations.  She needs to look good, but not impossibly so.

So what did it cost to dress someone supposed to embody the pinnacle of fashion?

The budget for Ms. Streep’s costumes was reported to be $100,000.  There was a fair amount of stuff — especially accessories, like jewelry that was loaned to the production, but the core of Streep’s film wardrobe was expected to cost two thirds of what it took to keep the rain off of Sarah Palin.

So, just to belabor the obvious:  yup, Governor Palin’s 150K wardrobe is over the top.  A good film shopper could have dressed Palin for much less — and still left her looking great in all the various settings in which she found herself.  The McCain campaign and its handpicked robo-slime operator turned fashionista screwed up…which I suppose we already knew.

Image:  Day dresses for summer 1919 from Vogue magazine.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons