Archive for November 2008

Remind Me Again: Why Is David Brooks?

November 15, 2008

This is now very old business, at least as measured in blog-years, but David Brooks’ column the day of the elction set at least one new low, even for that genial crater in the right’s intellectual desert.

“A Date With Scarcity is a Brooks classic, one in which a truly impressive range of writerly faults and intellectual bad faith on display.

The tell comes early.  Consider the voice of the following:

The baby boomers, who entered adulthood promising a lifetime of activism, have been a politically undistinguished generation. They produced two presidents, neither of whom lived up to his potential. They remained consumed by the culture war that divided their generation. They pass their political supremacy today having squandered the fat years and the golden opportunities. Month by month, frustration has mounted. Americans are anxious about their private lives but absolutely disgusted by public leaders. So change is demanded.

Oh, those damned baby boomers, politically indistinguished; whose two Presidents — Clinton and Bush-the-self-made-son — are equivalent in their disappointment; whose quagmire of a culture war is somehow a fact of nature, and not a highly successful element in a 50 + 1 electoral strategy; that generation that must be at fault for the squandering of opportunity that has nothing to do with specific, identifiable policy positions championed by the party so recently in power.

And then the passive voice:  “Change is demanded.”

This is how you tell when a writer does not have the goods.  If Brooks actually had a body of real facts at his disposal, he wouldn’t need to play coy, and pretend we all know who he is talking about.  It is, of course, those darn Obamabots whose reaction to financial crisis is to be answered by change.

The bad faith of the writer permeates the rest of the piece.   He writes

Barack Obama is a child of a child of the 1960s. His mother was born only five years earlier than Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s mother was born in 1942.  I do not know of any person who pays attention who thinks that someone who was eighteen in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency is “a child of the 1960s.”  It’s typical Brooks.  He has one incredibly simple (simple-minded) mold into which he squeezes all manner of analysis, and by God he will push or pull whatever he needs to make it all fit.  Again, ask yourself why someone who knows the facts cannot bring himself to grasp them — or would rather mask them under the screen of the kind of construction that gives a date in the form “five years earlier than another event, year unspecified.”  Bad faith.  Lying by carefully constructed “accurate” falsehood.

Then there is the scribe of Bobo-land‘s penchant for meaningless pop-sociology.  Obama himself is a member of the post sixties generation, (a generalization so vapourous as to defy attempts to ridicule it), defined by Brooks as

…a generation of sunscreen and bicycle helmets, more anxious about parenthood than anything else.

As I said…impossible to parody: how can you belittle a claim that reads as its own reductio ad absurdem.  But hold the guffaws for a second and read it again.  What on earth is Brooks saying here?  That Barack Obama and those who voted for him shouldn’t put sunscreen on their kids?  That it makes sense to be an organ donor on your way to work* to demonstrate your lack of prudential caution?

More to the point, is he trying to argue that our predicament today derives somehow from the suggestion that the Obama family — and my own, with my eight year old son to think about, cannot hold at once, and distinguish between private and communal, public matters of concern?  (And if so, then with the corollary that our parents gave not a fig for their kids as they figured out how to chase the Nazis across Europe or the Communists out Hollywood.)

This is an example of someone who is clever — for Brooks is certainly that — but for whom reality has become so painful that he now chooses not to think.

Does he have any data to suggest that the people he describes are real?  Of course not — at least none on display.  Amazingly, though, the piece gets worse, Brooks analysis more unhinged.  He writes, for example, that Obama “has lived his entire adult life within a few miles of one or another of the country’s top 10 universities.”

Yeah.  So?  The same could be said of George Bush the elder, for example, or for a bunch of wiseguys with the middle name “the”** — the whole membership of the Winter Hill Gang of my own geographical locale spent their entire lives within a very few miles of  Harvard and my home institution of MIT (at least those portions not given over to enforced state-funded domiciles).

The fact that Obama has lived in big cities is somehow an indictment of … what, exactly?  That he is well educated, and hence somehow imperfectly prepared for contemporary challenges?  By this standard a candidate who took several years to make it through five institutions with a final degree in broadcast journalism might in fact be preferred to a Harvard Law Graduate turned constitutional law professor — but I submit that such an argument, implied or overt, tells you more about its utterer than its object.

And amazingly, Brooks plumbs yet new lows, (reminding me of the possibly apocryphal British armed services fitness report that stated something like “since his last review this officer has struck bottom and begun to dig.”)

Brooks writes, after noting that Obama’s upscale, educated cohort has supported him, and is now poised to become the ruling class (as if the well educated and wealthy across several fictitious “generations” don’t make up the ruling class now), that.

Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply.

What’s with this “favored by genetics” stuff?  Is Obama the President-elect because of his miracle brew of Kenyan and American genes?  My wife, daughter of the Mayflower (in potentia) on one side and Lithuanian Jew on the other — she is somehow favored above all others?  And so on.  Really, this is simply nonsense.  Literally.  What on earth does Brooks mean by his claim of a genetic glow over Obama supporters?  In fact what’s going on is a familiar enough, of course:  the simple-minded recourse to genetic determinism is what people do when they don’t have anything coherent to say about the actual group under scrutiny.

Finally, as this screed has gone on too long, so I’ll just note that Brooks finished his column with yet one more lie, a statement that only makes sense in the context of the narrative Brooks wants to be true, rather than the one that on the evidence is actually unfolding before us.  He writes that

We’re probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.

Well, part of that sentence is true enough:  the smart folks now taking the reins from one of the most self-congratulatory stupid administrations in history will face enormous problems with constrained resources.  But does Brooks really mean to say that Obama, his circle, and much more broadly, his voters do not recognize the disaster we face?  Has he not noticed that there is a broad plan being proposed?  It may or many not work, but Obama has been clear for two months or more now (and really throughout the campaign) that there is a ton of work to be done to dig ourselves out of a mess created over many years of misrule.

Brooks has to know this.  He can read; he has ears to hear; he has watched what’s been going on this election season.  Yet he chooses not to credit the evidence of his own senses.  He is the columnist equivalent of the little child who thinks that the world can be made to conform to whatever he says it is.  In Brooks’ imagination, Obama and his supporters are not legitimate heirs to the establishment that ought to rule, no matter how incompetent they may been.  So it must be, because he thinks so.

Remind me again:  why does the New York Times bother with this stuff?  Or as Brad Delong is wont to say:  why, oh why can’t have a better press corps.

(And let me say — I don’t object to Brooks’s politics.  It’s the contempt for his audience on display in the because-I-said-so content-free arrogance of his writing.  There are conservative thinkers who actually pay attention to the real world who could make much better use of his real estate. Tyler Cowen comes to mind, for just one example — and the weekly dialogue that would result from his and Paul Krugman’s presence on the same page would be worth the price of admission.)

*a phrase used in my hearing by a former e.r. doc to describe those who ride two wheeled vehicles without helmets

**see, e.g. Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi.

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty: Exoplanet Dept.

November 13, 2008

Too cool not to add to what will be a veritable howl of bloggy love:

The first direct images of a planet outside our solar system, a Jupiter-class object orbiting the star Formalhaut, about 25 light years from our present location.  The planet, Formalhaut B, can be seen in the white box at the bottom right of this image:

Dennis Overbye over at the NYT website has a nice story up about the finding.

For my part, I’ll just get this up with the note that (a) unmanned space exploration has been one of the great cultural contributions of the United States for more than forty years — representing in my view one of the true claims my country has as a major contributor to the store of human civilization in that period…and (b) any reworking of NASA that pursues the Bush Moon-Mars space roadmap at the expense of next generation great  observatories would be an obscenity.

For a Good Time in Cambridge: Politics Junky Edition

November 13, 2008

Just in case you had not had enough of polls, electioneering and the mechanics of campaigns, MIT’s Communication’s Forum along with its partners, the Center for Civic Media and the Technology and Culture Forum  are putting on the second program in its The Campaign and the Media Series tonight, from five to seven p.m.

The focus in on new media and the election.  The speakers will be Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic; Cyrus Krohn, Republican eCampaign; Ian V. Rowe, MTV.  Henry Jenkins, the redoubtable director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT will moderate.

As readers of this blog know, I haven’t always had the kindest of things to say about Marc’s work, so I plan to be there to hear his account of what he does, what its constraints may be and what he might do differently (if anything) going forward.  I’ll ask him about it if it doesn’t come up in the course of events.  I should say that in email exchanges, Marc is a good guy, and as deeply immersed in his obsession as even those most  habituated to the intellectual culture of MIT.  So it should be good fun.

Come if you can’t get enough of the last several months.

The event takes place in the Bartos Theater, which is in the basement of the Media Lab building, designated in our own peculiar Institute convention as building E15-070. Click the link to get an interactive map.

Mental Health Break

November 11, 2008

Because anything is better than fixing bad footnotes written and forgotten 18 months ago:

Veteran’s Day — nee Armistice Day — poem and remembrance

November 11, 2008

Update: Check out Lovable Liberal’s remembrance too.

Michael D. over at Balloon Juice has dredged up the inevitable In Flanders Fields as a token of memory on this sad day.

I have to confess I hate John McCrae’s poem because of the third verse, with its appropriating of the dead to keep the torch burning that consumed so many young men in a truly pointless and brutally mis-led war.  It’s home-front poetry, for all that it was written by a man who fought and died in the conflict — by which I mean that it plays on the familiar tropes of glory and honor deemed suitable for the consumption of those gentlemen and ladies then a-bed safely removed from the horror and squalor of the trenches.*

In the comment thread, one reader offers up Owen’s equally famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an antidote — and it certainly does offer the honest soldier’s counter argument:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

For my part, two thoughts:  first to McCrae himself.  The poem was born of his direct experience that was fully immersed in the bloody and in-the-moment pointlessness of the war as anything Owen wrote.  Read the story of how the poem came to be here.  The third verse that so offends me?…I have no doubt that it was truly felt, the more so that the poem was written in the spring of 1915 — the first full campaign season in the trenches — and before the grinding fact of the four-year meatgrinder could fully crush its schoolboy bravado.  In any event, he was there, he saw what he saw and felt what he felt, and he gets to express that emotion any way he damn pleases.

It’s the use of the poem by those who have not earned that authority in the same way that gets me, especially now, in the wake of five years of war when my friends on the other side of keyboard wars have so often called for sacrifices as long as others make them.  Maybe I’m the one fighting old battles here, in the new world after November 4, 2008, but I don’t think so.

(Note that I haven’t even begun to write about the collective criminal folly that permitted the trenches to consume so many men for so long.  For a lucid professional’s take on that question, the best place to start is the classic:  B.H. Liddell Hart’s seminal work Strategy.  My own take on it can be found in, interspersed with other stuff, in chapters 3-12 of this book.**)

Second thought:  here is one more poem just to make sure that I  drive home the point about the cost of stupid decisions in war.

This is another by Wilfred Owen, much less well known, perhaps less well made than Dulce…. but in its own way yet more wrenching:

S. I. W.

“I will to the King,
And offer him consolation in his trouble,
For that man there has set his teeth to die,
And being one that hates obedience,
Discipline, and orderliness of life,
I cannot mourn him.”
W. B. Yeats.

Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace, —
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers — would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y.M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
For torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.

He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!”
So Father said.

One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident? — Rifles go off . . .
Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.
Against the fires that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death’s perjury and scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling.

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”

*There is no shortage of great prose accounts of the disasters of the Western Front.  The first I read were by two of the War Poets — Robert Graves, in Goodbye To All That, and Siegfried Sasoon in his trilogy collected under the title George Sherston’s Memoirs, now out of print.  The central work of the trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, can still be found.

**Here’s a passage from my attempt to capture the relentless pointlessness of the so-called Great War at the level of the battlefield.  The incident described took place 90 years ago to the day.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

Image:  Red Poppies at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.  Photograph taken on March 11, 2006.

More on a Modest Proposal

November 10, 2008

In this post, I laid out a first marker for what the new administration could do for science, calling  for an expansion of support for young scientists and engineers — grad students, post docs and new principal investigators.

For the new PIs, I suggested an increase in the number and shift in the emphasis of what are now called Faculty Early Career Development Program grants, arguing that the availability of no-strings attached discretionary research funds for young scholars would have a disproportionate bang for the buck.

It seems like a no-brainer to me (sorry), but I realize that I didn’t explain clearly enough what I meant by “no strings” after an email exchange with Balloon Juice’s estimable Tim, himself a young scientist at precisely the point in his career I would aim to boost with such an initiative.

Tim told me that he was troubled by my suggestion because he sees a competitive process for funding to be essential.

I agree, and here’s what I did not make clear:  the grants should be highly competitive, and awarded as nearly meritocratically as any selective process staffed by humans can be.  But the criteria for selection should, imho, be different from the common run of federal grants.

Currently 425 early career grants get made each year, with up to twenty getting the honorary distinction of being “Presidential.”

The grant applications require a very specific description of the planned research and educational goals of the grantee.  In exchange, the winners get approximately $80,000/year for five years to advance those goals.

What I’m suggesting is that in addition to these conventional grants we add more — maybe a hundred or even more.  Rather than supporting specific projects or proposed experiments, these grants should be awarded on the basis of demonstrated intellectual excellence — the best arguments pi’s can make for their approach to their discipline and research program.

Once awarded, these grants would be true discretionary money — that’s where the no-strings business comes in.  This is intended to fund the best ideas people can come up with as they do their work, day to day, month over month.

But getting the money — that should be competitive as all hell.

Also, as an addendum.  On my previous post, commenter Upnorth Minnesota asked “Just wondering if you see any place in this incentive plan for people who are thinking, creating, inventing outside the hallowed halls of academe? or is their work to hard to legitimize?”

Two answers:  I can see places for people here in institutions other than universities — but I don’t think that the Salk Institute or the Institute for Advanced Studies, e.g., is quite what you had in mind.  I think that researchers who are both outside the academy and industry are hard to evaluate, unless they take part in the daily life of academic science to the extent of submitting work to peer review, attending conferences and so on.  If someone is actually doing good work at the stages of their careers that I’m talking about here, I find it hard to believe that they could not forge some kind of association with the academy.

(Also as a blunt problem of logistics, you have to house the grant somewhere, and it’s far easier to do so through an institution that is familiar with the mechanics of accounting for federal money than trying to do so on your garage laptop.  Believe me, as an occasionally NSF supported film maker, I know.)

One thing I do believe is that this idea is not appropriate for industry based scientists, even those doing basic research.  The goals and culture of knowledge exchange of commercial labs are appropriately different from those of the academy (though I know the distinction is narrowing in all kinds of ways).  There are pathways for federal funding of innovative or speculative research within the private economy — see the NIH’s SBIR program for an example.

In that context, I’d prefer to see the kind of true blue sky money proposed above reserved for that part of our scientific research community already most licensed to pursue curiousity without regard for specific commercial outcomes — and for all the industry/academy ties that certainly muddy the picture, that still means the university/not-for-profit research world.

Image:  “Boyle’s Self Flowing Flask” Scanned without alteration from Fig. 54 in Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume’s Perpetual Motion, the history of an obsession. Allen & Unwin, 1977, St. Martins Press, 1977. It also appears in Dirck’s books and many other places.

RIP John Leonard

November 7, 2008

The world is just a little bit too quiet suddenly.

Leonard had a voice.  He didn’t write book reports and it never was all about him, two of the common sins of cultural criticism.  Books are a very strange way to make a living — I should know, as I’m about to embark on my fifth willing suspension of disbelief.  People like Leonard are essential to writers of books because he/they provide hints in contradiction to the evidence that the effort matters.  That’s true, except, of course that there aren’t people like him; the whole point of Leonard’s work is that his was an individual sensibility — what he thought and felt, he himself, and not some congealing of herd reaction.

It’s getting too quiet around here, and I haven’t even got to my thoughts on the loss of Studs Terkel yet.

A Leonard credo can be found here.

More links to his work and other commentaries on his life and writing can be found at the bottom of this moving remembrance by Edward Champion. 

(h/t bkcdgrd)

Image: Gustave Courbet, “Portrait of Baudelaire,” 1848.