Archive for February 2009

Metaphors that make you go hmmmm.

February 22, 2009

From SFGate.com’s piece on new Oakland A’s reliever Russell Springer:

“It’s been like that in every bullpen Russell has been in. He’s like the Jell-O between the fruit.”

This is not a happy mental image.

That is all.

Image:  Erich Ginder serving moulded jello shots at opening of his gallery show.  Photograph by Joe Mabel, 4 January 2007.

Typical Sunday Post Brunch Brain Bubbles: Bad Einstein Joke edition

February 22, 2009

From my brother, after a dim sum overdose:

If Einstein were to speculate on the behavior of a donut in free fall in one’s mug of coffee, would it be a gedunkenexperiment?

My apologies to all.

Image:  Ivana Kobilca (1861-1926): Kofetarica (Coffee drinker) 1888.

What Intelligent Design?: Latest Evidence For the Death (or Rage) of God

February 22, 2009

Because no benevolent deity would permit Glenn Beck.

h/t Josh

Image:  Leda and the Swan, a 16th century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo, 1530.

Program Notes: Take a look at this excellent video — which gives me an excuse to pile on George Will and the once-proud Post.

February 20, 2009

For starters, and for yet another reason that you should never trust George Will, take a look at this excellent video.

It’s not just a good piece of reporting, it’s a really smart use of the medium.

A digression, born of my days as a science documentarian:  This short emerged out of some basic production decisions. To my eye, moving images appear to have been shot on a decent cheap camera — a few thousand bucks worth, not more.

The other production resources were even more modest:   stills, acceptable quality sound and nothing else — no lights, no fancy grip gear, nothing.  From the credits, it appears to have been the work of a one-man band:  shot, directed, cut, audio recording all by the same multi-headed person.

And that’s the key:  this video is pleasing as well as useful to watch because the shooter/director did not try to finesse the fact of his production constraints.  Instead, he chose to use what he had to make the best simple film he could.  The most ostensibly “produced” moment in the entire piece is the graphic swoosh of the LA Times logo at the head of the work.

In the body of the video, what you get are well composed shots;  clean, sometimes beautiful images within those frames; a careful, clear interview that produced enough clear narrative to voice the entire piece; and an editing sensibility that emphasized  rhythm and dynamic variation.  Nothing fancy, just solid work in the service of clearly understood production and narrative ideas. This is a glimpse of at least part of the future for science documentary (or documentary full stop).

Meanwhile, its content provides just one more instance among zillions to suggest that George Will is something more or rather less than an idiot:  he’s either deluded or deceitful.

I’m referring of course to sea-icegate.   I know, I know:  I’m way late to the game with the latest Will/Post follies.  It’s partly because I still can’t believe that all it takes for you to get viewed as a serious thinker is the willingness to wear bow ties in public under the age of 75. Will has never seemed to me to be someone to bother with.

More generally, his eminence as an example of a conservative public intellectual has always had the same kind of emperor’s clothes problem that beltway respect for obviously wrong right wing arguments has always enjoyed.  It’s particularly acute when ideology confronts science, as Will’s does here.  A gift for glib phrase making and a capacity to turn out clean prose on deadline is not much help if the actual data are against you.  In such circumstances, it is necessary to have the capacity not to grasp that which is inconvenient to know.  But the problem there is that willed ignorance is another way of saying dumb. Dim-by-choice is still a few bricks shy of a load.

Think of it another way:  there is probably something like a normal distribution, a bell curve, that describes the quality of thought and expression of the punditocracy — MSM or new variant — on either side of the political spectrum.  But one in which someone like Jonah Goldberg (or Rick Lowry) makes as far to the right of the curve as they do, implied by the status of the publications that carry their “work” (sic) suggests to this observer that the entire curve is shifted left.  (Sorry guys. Convention, you know.)

In that context, it doesn’t matter if Will shines in comparison to, say Jonathan Wells when it comes to a discussion of science as it touches public concerns.  Being on the right tail of a bell curve crammed painfully off towards the origin (sorry Jonathan; convention, you know), is not much of an encomium.

So when George Will made a nonsense of the history of climate research, and gave in to the kind of crazed conspiracy theorizing last validated by that noted holder-of-liquor and friend-to-Jesus’ countrymen, Mel Gibson, I couldn’t get much roused.

But as a former fact checker at Discover, some decade or more before the esteemed Carl Zimmer played the same role, I have to say that I have never read anything this pitiful from a media organization that used to have some pride:

George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

(Post ombudsman Andy Alexander, desperately wondering what happened to his youthful faith in the transcendent virtue of journalism in a democracy)

Let me translate:

Will’s employees ask, “Mr. Will:  are you sure about this stuff?”

Will answers:  “I’m George Will.  Of course I know this stuff.”

Employees:  “Ok then.”

Will’s editors say, “George.  Anyone going to sue us over anything in here?”

Will:  “Nope.  Ice floes the size of Texas got no standing.”

Op. Ed. Editor:  “George, this is great!  Real man bites dog stuff.  Anything I should pull for the blow-up quote?”

Will:  “Whatever you like; that’s why they pay you the big bucks.”  (Chuckles.)

Copy Editors:  “Mr. Will. This looks very clean as usual.  You might want to think about this comma splice, though.”

Will:  “Good catch, my bravos.  We keep you alive to serve the machine.” (Chuckles.  Louder as he realizes no one laughs with him.)

This is to say:  Alexander’s is not the description of anything approximating real fact checking.  You need someone institutionally empowered with independent authority to go back to the original sources for each and every claim in a work.  And then that person has to be able to  confer with the writer about how to accomodate what they have learned in the mutual knowledge that nothing gets published until the checker is satisfied.

Carl Zimmer has written to this point already.  Check out what he has to say, it’s a damn good piece.  (Bonus points if you get the joke embedded in the last sentence.)

I’ll just add here an anecdote to illustrate Carl’s point and mine.  Back in the dawn of time, when my computer still had a chisel-and-slate input device, I fact checked the occasional Lewis Thomas column written for Discover. I did what you did:  call everyone, go to the library (chisels/slates, remember) look up the papers.  Once — my first go-round on a Thomas piece —  I found he had got the description of one of his source’s  important arguments wrong.  Not horribly so — but as written it was off, a paragraph that misread one of Robert Axelrod’s claims.  I don’t actually remember the details (this was literally a quarter of a century ago.)

Nervously, I called Dr. Thomas — then as or more famous than, say, Stephen Jay Gould — to tell him what Axelrod had told me.  I waited for the pushback, and got ready to haul in editors as necessary, but I wasn’t looking forward to the exchange.

And then Thomas got on the line.  He was perfectly unfazed, calm, kind and interested in what Axelrod had actually said.  We talked the point through until he was sure he got what the problem was, and then we worked through the changes that would correct the text in ways that would allow Thomas to make his larger argument. As I recall, the emphasis in the piece shifted  a little to accommodate his altered understanding of the work he was trying to bring to light, and after about a half an hour or so we were done.

Over the few months that I did my share of fact checking, I had to look over a Carl Sagan piece, one by Gould, and a bunch by some of the writers who had got to the magazine ahead of me.  Carl could be a job to track down,* and Gould really didn’t like being corrected on the little stuff (but my bosses said I had to; if there were 43 widgets in some corner of Victoriana and not 42, that had to be right and the author informed of the change), but they both understood the process, and each was polite to the very junior person, me or another, nit-picking a path through their prose month after month.

In the years since then, I’ve been fact checked plenty myself, and have been saved from public embarassment more than once by some dogged 20-something who wouldn’t let a sloppy description of, say, adaptive optics, slip into print.

The critical thing to understand here is that neither Gould nor Sagan, (nor, more quietly, Thomas) lacked self confidence.

Will clearly does, and I would say with reason.  What you see in this episode is a kind of cowardice none of those other writers ever displayed.  The only reason you don’t take fact checking seriously is because you do not dare to subject what you think you know to any kind of test.  That’s ok, if suboptimal in private life.  It’s not acceptable when you shout from one of the bully-est pulpits in American media.

Which, of course, brings the matter back to rest with those actually to blame for this:  the people and the corporate culture that allowed Will’s tripe to reach print.  I still romanticize the Post for Watergate; watching the Nixon presidency unravel was the formative political event of my high school years.  The Post has glided for decades on that triumph, and what this episode makes clear is that there’s nothing left of that Institution but the name across the top of the front page.

Sad.  I actually feel for ombudsman Alexander.  It must suck to the dregs to have to stand up on one’s hind legs and utter what one knows to be pure weaselry.

*Carl Sagan was the inspiration for my image of certain people as embodiments of Schroedinger wave functions.  Unless you  perform some kind of physical impounding, they remain oddly distributed over all possible locations.  Y’all know  who you are.

Image:  Jame Gillray, “The impeachment, or “The father of the gang turned Kings evidence,” May 1791.  Those with sharp eyes will enjoy the fact that the image shows Edmund Burke indicting his former co-conspirators (as the cartoonist would have it).  Let the patron saint of conservatism, more cited than read (it was ever thus) chastise one of those many who have for decades taken his name in vain.

Self Promotion: Really, really good wine dept.

February 20, 2009

My friend Abel Pharmboy, host and voice of Terra Sigillata, has just done me the honor of posting an old piece of mine about drinking a legendary wine — Chateau d’Yquem — for the first time.  I wrote I don’t know how many years ago for an airline magazine now long since evansesced.  It’s fun, and if you like reading about conspicuous (and delicious) consumption, go for it.

And while you’re there — if you haven’t checked out the serious stuff that Abel deals with when not thinking about cost-efficient ways to pay homage to Bacchus, dive into the real meat of his blog.

That is all.

Image:  Jan Vermeer van Delft, “Girl with a Wine Glass” 1610.

Headlines that make you go hmmm

February 20, 2009

Try this one.

Memo to self:  the internet is not in and of itself a source.

Somehow, somewhere, William Randolph Hearst is smiling.

What Darwin Said/Wrote on His 50th Birthday.

February 15, 2009

[cross posted at So Simple A Beginning, where a group of us are reading The Origin together.]

Happy Birthday, Charles!  A day or two —  or four late.

With that out of the way, what happened on the great day?  Not quite now, nor then, not 200 years ago, but rather, on Feb. 12, 1859, the day Darwin turned fifty?

That birthday, of course, came nine months before he published the book that is the reason for the odd bit of hullabaloo you may have noticed around the web (and bricks-and-mortar “reality”) as well.

The answer, from Charles’ perspective?

Not much good …

…and the reason for Darwin’s discomfort?

That same, dominating, seemingly terrifying book.

Here’s what Charles Darwin wrote to his cousin, William Darwin Fox, from Moor Park, the water-cure establishment to which he had retreated to secure relief from his persistent stomach troubles:

I have been extra bad of late, with the old severe vomiting rather often & much distressing swimming of the head.

Now, as Darwin points out, this is an old complaint, a re-eruption of the distressing symptoms that he had first experienced in Chile during the voyage of the Beagle. As such, this is mere incident, part of the fabric of a life often lived in great discomfort.

But with Darwin, it never does to ignore the  mind-body connection.  Consider the sequence:  on 18 June, 1858, Darwin received the famous parcel from Alfred Russel Wallace, naturalizing in the Malay archipelago (now Indonesia), which included the younger man’s sketch of a theory that described the mutability of species through a selection mechanism very close to Darwin’s own ideas about natural selection.

Darwin had some hints of Wallace’s interests before, both through Wallace’s published work and in correspondence between the two, but this, coming in the midst of his own attempt to distill a the work of a decade and more into a write up on the species problem, came as a terrible blow.

His friends famously rallied him:  presenting both Wallace’s paper and some of Darwin’s unpublished work to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858 — thus establishing Darwin’s joint priority with Wallace, and laying the ground for Darwin to claim pride of place if he could only present the first fully developed argument for the ideas that he and Wallace had broached…

…which is why, from the summer of 1858 through the autumn 1859  publication of what became On the Origin of Species, Darwin was hard at work, extracting from his proposed much longer work what he called “an abstract” of the larger argument.  It was that effort, much more than any birthday, even so canonically fraught a milestone as the two-score-and-tenth, that consumed Darwin.  Certainly, he had no doubt as to the source of his physical distress:

My abstract is the cause, I believe of the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir…

At first reading, this line  plays to those who retail the conventional account of Darwin as deeply fearful of the dreadful secrets he was about to reveal in The Origin. It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that the man who wrote of confessing to a murder early on in his consideration of the species problem might break under the stress of going public with his conclusions.  And it is true that Darwin did play his cards close to his vest for years, and that he was determined, at the least, not to go widely public with his thinking until he felt his arguments were ironclad.

What then of the long-running argument that Darwin’s illness was not psychological, not a trick played on his unfortunate body by his  conflicted mind?  The most common diagnosis of an infectious cause of  Darwin’s gastric symptoms is that of Chagas disease, which is supported by the fact that Darwin wrote in his journal of the voyage of the Beagle that, one night while naturalizing in Chile,

“I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca (Vinchuca), a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood.”

The Benchuca bug is the insect carrier of  Chagas disease, and the fact that this illness produces many of the symptoms that Darwin endured, plus this gold-standard report of encountering its vector persuaded a number of high profile Darwinists to entertain the suggestion after it was proposed in 1959 by Dr. Saul Adler, a tropical medicine specialist.  Among them — Ernst Mayr, writing in the introduction to the Harvard University Press facsimile of the first edition of The Origin of Species I’m using for this project.

There are, though, serious problems with the diagnosis, not least that Darwin lived a long life characterized by a lessening of the symptoms that seemed to strike at moments of greatest stress with remarkable regularity.  Writing more recently than Mayr, many Darwin experts have come to see the search for a specific point-source of Darwin’s illness to be a mug’s game.  Here is Janet Browne on the subject in Charles Darwin:  Voyaging.

...he only recorded being bitten by benchucas some months after this illness [his collapse on the way from Santiago to Valparaiso in 1834]…and that incident was not followed by any of the fever typical of sleeping sickness [Chagas] infectionsChagas disease was endemic in Chile and the characteristic symptoms of infection…would not have gone unremarked…Yet there was no serious sugggestion that a South American disease could be to blame [for Darwin’s post-Beagle illnesses], although once or twice in extreme old age Darwin attributed his breakdown in health to this Valparaiso attack.  (Voyaging, pp. 279-280).

Browne goes on to suggest that “sour new-made wine seems as good areason as any for disorders in Chile,” while noting that the purgatives he was prescribed for his symptoms “would have incapacitated the hardiest.”

In the end, without exhuming Darwin and being fortunate enough to retrieve enough biological material to run retrospective diagnostics, it is likely that the question of exactly what laid Darwin low on his fiftieth birthday (and all the other times) will remain unsolvable in any absolute sense.  There doesn’t even have to be a single cause, nor an exclusively physical or psychological account.

Still, it is important to pay attention to what Darwin himself tells us.  No man or woman may be a perfect witness to their own state of being, but at least Charles was first on the scene.  He knew, or thought he did, what ailed him: his abstract was making him sick.

But for all the evidence — and there is plenty — of  Darwin’s doubts and even genuine fear of public ridicule or worse in the 1840s, it does not follow that Darwin in the late 1850s, already working on his much longer version of the story he compressed within The Origin of Species, was vomiting up terror at his presumption.

It is always a risky game to psychoanalyze from a distance.  But we do have direct testimony here:  when pressed, not by disapproving public opinion but by the threat of professional eclipse, Darwin turned out to be eager, even swift to write up  his ideas for as wide an audience as he could reach.

It seems to me that Darwin himself gives us a simpler explanation for his manuscript’s role in his illness.  In essence, he had been working too hard.

And in that context, his letter to Fox betrays a hint of relief, and the prospect of better days to come, given that “I have only two more chapters & to correct all, & then I shall be a comparatively free man.” Even better, Darwin told his cousin, his peers were falling into line.  “I have had the great satisfaction of converting Hooker & I believe Huxley & I think Lyell is much staggered.”

This does not sound to me like a man cowering before the enormity of what he was about to do.  This is someone who, when not retching into the bucket by his bed, is getting used to the scale of his achievement.

You go, Charles.  Happy 200th, yet again.

Images:  Charles Darwin at 51.  According to the son of Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin, this portait is by Messrs. Maull and Fox, ; he writes that “the date of the photograph is probably 1854; it is, however, impossible to be certain on this point, the books of Messrs. Maull and Fox having been destroyed by fire.”  Other sources date the photograph from 1859 or 1860.

Map of Alfred Russell Wallace’s travels from his book The Malay Archipelago, 1869.