Archive for March 2009

Why you should always read Cosma Shalizi

March 27, 2009

Reading Delong reminded me that I had not been to Cosma Shalizi’s Three Toed Sloth lately, so I rectified that error and was reminded again why this is a bad mistake to mix.

Read this post.  It captures quickly and utterly intelligibly what I spend much more time arguing with much less clarity:  you don’t need much math to gain a great deal of insight into our shared world.  What you do need is the habit of using what math you do know as a guide to your thinking.

As Hillel would say at this point:  the rest is commentary….now go and study.

In brief, Shalizi is wondering why there are so few steelworkers these days, compared with a half century ago.  Is it because of foreign competition?  Or is it because the demand for steel in the United States has not kept up gains in productivity per worker?

With nothing more than arithmetic and a little data that can be sucked up from the web in very little time he came up with a pretty persuasive answer:  productivity exceeding demand accounts for most of the loss of the 400,000 or so US steelworking jobs that disappeared over the last fifty years.

It is not, as Shalizi emphasizes, the answer; he performed a back of the envelope calculation and he identified a couple of Rumsfelds* to think about in weighing just how solidly grounded his analysis might be.  But it’s good enough to serve as a working hypothesis, subject to more detailed examination as needed.

For more detail on how this happened, and why Shalizi is very likely right on this, you can turn to a book that I’ve long felt was basically missed by its audience — Richard Preston’s second, called American Steel.  It’s not an analytical work; no math at all.  Rather, it tells the story, in Preston’s familiar deep-inside journalistic style, of a then-young and brash steel company called Nucor as it tried to build the first continuous slab casting steel plant in the world.

In the event, American Steel virtually disappeared in the marketplace, the victim of an earlier wave of publishing dislocation, but it’s worth seeking out.  In the context of Shalizi’s argument it provides an account of the productivity boom as lived.    It still won’t give you the synoptic view of the data Shalizi has said he doesn’t have to hand — but it is both a good read and way to get a qualitative sense of the argument Shalizi makes more abstractly through the numbers.

Put it another way: if you have even a modest willingness to entertain numbers, (more than the Congressional GOP seems to, which is a point to be repeated, I’m sure, lots and lots as we watch that once-respectable organization masticate its own intestines), you have the ability to take tales of the sort that Preston tells and fit them into a larger understanding, some sense of how change in the world happens.

Of all the aims I have for science writing, my own, my students’, anyone’s, it would be to get the pleasure and power of number so deeply intertwined into our culture that nonsenses like yesterday’s GOP budget charade would simply not occur.  I don’t know how to get there, but I care more about that than any number of facts one might lump into a sack called scientific literacy.  But all that’s grist for another day’s post.

*Shorthand for “known unknowns” — a coinage in honor of the only time on record when I feel are former and unmissed Defense Secretary was unfairly ridiculed.

Image:  Soviet airport mural “Steel makers

And Further to the implied Ovine insult to my GOP friends…some brain candy

March 26, 2009


Trust me on this.  You want to watch this one.

Update: Doesn’t often happen, but beat Daily Kos by three days on this one.  Got to note it on the rare occasions when I’m even slightly ahead of the zeitgeist.

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” — GOP “budget” edition

March 26, 2009

I feel for Bohner et al.

Much fun has been had with the sheer comic absurdity of the GOP “Budget” proposal announced with such fanfare today.  As TPM notes at the prior link, Ezra Klein has perhaps the most fun it is possible to have with this one whilst fully clothed.

I’m not going to do much more here than send you there, except to add this thought from within the main thematic preoccupation of this blog.  One of the fundamental problems in the Washington faction of the GOP in particular, and what its adherants mislabel as American “conservatism” in general is the disdain not just for science as an enterprise, but scientific thinking as a way of making sense of such basic tasks, as, you know, counting stuff.

The “budget” offered today as the GOP alternative contains, as Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted, more pictures of windmills (1) than numbers (0) than did the Republican “budget” — as, in fact, does this sentence.

The budget — no, I’m not going to call it that, for to do so is to be an accomplice after the fact of the brutalization of an innocent English word after the fashion that Orwell warned against…the document that the Republican congressional leadership presented today is one that believes in magic.

It says, in effect, we’ll do some stuff (we’re not sure what) and good things will happen (where not sure exactly what here either, or when, or how much, but it will be good).  I won’t belabor the point — this is one of those times when I think it is impossible to parody an event that was its own mock.  Or perhaps rather, Stewart and Colbert will have their way with this, but I lack their gifts, and know better than to punch that far above my weight.

But I will say that for all the difference in methods and approaches and even the cultures of different disciplines (and even different labs within the same or closely allied fields) the one thing  you learn within weeks of diving into a serious scientific education is that for an idea to have meaning it has to be subject to tests of applicability that anyone — and not just the first one to think of whatever it is — can perform and interpret.  Take for example, this story, just published in The American Scientist (and by one of the current students in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, if I may toot a horn).  There is an argument made here, with elements drawn from observation and from theory-based calculation.  The reasoning is explicit, and there are real world consequences that can be assessed and incorporated into whatever comes next in the field under scrutiny (quantum computing, as it happens).

Now imagine someone who can think like that confronted with the GOP fig leaf.  It’s not even English, really (Orwell’s ghost again).  It’s a kind of text that seems like it ought to be a statement with meaning in a known language.  But try as you might, nothing adds up.  It’s like one of those sentences from introductory linguistics courses.  Think “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

And the point here is that this problem, this essential meaninglessness, does not seem to have occurred to any of the “leaders” presenting the GOP response to the Obama budget today.  It didn’t bother anyone that they were bringing to the public a document that was not in fact a budget, a quantified policy proposal, something that could actually be understood and argued about.  And that, I think is the real problem with the not-quite-sure-if-it’s-loyal opposition right now.  If it can’t even make sense at the policy level — and even more if it can’t recognize that it is publicly and humiliatingly hawking nonsense — then they simply can’t be allowed close to sharp implements and heat sources.

And more broadly:  this is why scientific education for everyone matters.  This is why it is actually worth fighting the evolution wars and all the rest.  Because remember — these guys were in charge less than one hundred days ago.*

A last note:  for those of you who like such things, my first thought for a title for this piece proposed a slightly different diagnosis of the source of the GOP’s problem:  A Severe Case of Localized Acquired Volar Hypertrichosis:  GOP Wank Edition

*Or at least one of these guys was the one presenting budgets to Congress.  I do remember what happened in November 2006.

Image:  Anton Mauve, “Sheep on a dyke” 19th c.

Tiptoeing back into blogging and I stumble upon…

March 23, 2009

this comment thread responding to DougJ’s Balloon Juice post on Michelle Bachmann’s call for an armed and dangerous Minnesotan citizenry to rise up against energy legislation. Standing out among much fine snark,  Kommrade Reproductive Vigor writes:

If you could weaponize idiocy Michelle would be a one woman arsenal of doom.

Precise, accurate, delightful.

I have missed the intertubes…

Image: Antonio Canova, “Perseus holding Medusa’s head.” ca. 1800.

Heads Up! — Pigeons on the Loose at So Simple A Beginning

March 23, 2009

It’s not just this blog that has suffered a bad case of the slows lately; so has So Simple A Beginning a group-ish effort to blog against The Origin of Species in anticipation of that books 150th anniversary coming up this November.

But now I’m pleased to report that we’re finally getting on to Chapter one, starting off with a wonderful post by science writer Courtney Humphries.  Humphries, a graduate of America’s Finest™ Graduate Program in Science Writing — that at mine own institution,  MIT — is the author the acclaimed book on pigeons in all their glory, Superdove, published last year.  Check out what she has to say about Darwin’s use of the descendents of the humble and ubiquitous rock pigeon, Columba livia.

Image:  Anonymous, “Young Woman in Oriental Dress with Pigeon Post.” 19th century.


March 23, 2009

For near total blog silence over the last month.  The hideous realities of academic admin have overtaken me, and I’ve almost forgotten how to spell my own name.  (X….his mark — ed.)

But with spring break upon us, and a temporary respite from all the delights of just one more, I-promise-you-it-will-be-quick-meeting, blogging resumes. It’s a target rich environment out there on the science and politics front…so I hope to be back in regular mode within a day or so.

Again, my thanks to all those who’ve been patient with my unaccostomed quiet.  Time now to both rock …and roll.

Having Already Posted This Oddity Before (Obama/Emerald Isle edition)…

March 17, 2009

I’ll merely allow you to blame Brad DeLong for this earworm.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

I know I’ve been AWOL and this isn’t about science at all, but…

March 17, 2009

I do find it really odd (I’ve just taken my medication for the day, and so can express myself so mildly) that the members of the same mass media organizations that worry whether or not President Barack Hussein Obama (I still love writing that) has taken on too much as he attempts to undo the disasters left for him by the previous criminal conspiracy administration [too many to link — ed.] actually complain when President Obama’s spokesman pokes a little fun at the previous administration’s consgliore Vice President after said consigliore eminence grise attempts to portray Obama’s efforts to stop torturing people is a bad thing.

So, it’s ok to accuse someone of endangering the country because he won’t destroy the ability to prosecute terrorists by torturing them to the point of insanity, but it’s not OK to compare the worst vice president in history to a drug dependenent, grotesquely obsese, yakmeister most-popular conservative entertainer in the country?*

[I never pass up a chance to post this portrait of the de-facto dear leader of the Republican Party–ed.]

And, by the way, to fret when the new President shows himself able to actually think about two matters in the same day?

There are lots of structural reasons why the main stream media is falling apart.  But the truth of the matter is that every major dead-tree and traditional broadcaster/cable net had, not too long ago, a serious brand, a name that could be seen as a destination.  CBS, the home to the correspondent who was shocked, shocked, to learn that the Obama administration might not take the former grossly over-promoted button man vice president seriously, was once the Tiffany Network, the place that Murrow and Cronkhite called home — the network that proved it was possible to do real news reporting in that gossamer medium with all those moving pictures.

Now?  With honorable exceptions, its a self-parody, in which the only consolation is that it is not yet Fox “News” [sic — ed.].  (Late breaking:  ABC and MSNBC pile on to defend poor little Dick’s honor, with no sign that they saw anything amiss, or a mite disrespectful,  in Mr. Cheney’s original feral fantasies.

These are all still influential venues, which is of course the problem.  But, speaking as someone who grew up personally and professionally in the traditional medium (stints, early on, at Time magazine and all), this smells to me like the end game.  The institutions that are trumpeting this stuff the loudest are economically and psychologically tied to the idea of being platforms of mass media.  This kind of partisan commentary masquerading (poorly) as commentary is the staple of niche media.  And in that space, there is already plenty of competition, lean, mean and ready to eat the dinosaur’s lunch.

So the next time someone complains about the fate of newspapers or the decline of venues for national conversation, you may (and I do) agree that there is a real loss there.  But recall as well that the supposed moderators of that national agora chose to piss it away in defense of an oilpatch chickenhawk with an eagerness to trade in other’s pain.

*Limbaugh apparently pulls a rating of around or just below 6 — as in 6 percent of radio listeners tuned in to anything at the time of his broadcasts are listening to him.  That’s a serious number. Still, as this report shows, there are some curiousities lurking beneath the gross figures that undergird the fat man’s fat paycheck.

Image:  Cornelis de Vos, “The Triumph of Bacchus,” 17th c.

Comrade Fidel Hearts Him Some Statistical Reasoning

March 11, 2009

Who knew? (h/t Tom Verducci.)  Fidel intelligently criticizing play in the World Baseball Classic by the Japanese team and his own Cubans with a nod to the insights gained from sabremetric approaches to the game.

Ordinarily I ‘d go on here with some pieties about the importance of statistical reasoning, and note that baseball’s mathematicians have actually brought this notion into common public understanding more swiftly and completely than decades of science writing about risk and confidence and all the rest.  (Thank you Bill James, and all your intellectal heirs.)

I might be tempted to talk about the difficulty of modeling the kind of dynamic system that baseball represents, with its enormous range of possibilities to which is added the complication posed by the fact that the responses of people to the knowledge gained by the statistical study of baseball alters that terrain.

But I’m just going to sit back in wonder.  Fidel Castro has a blog?*

Either this means our brave new world (that has such digitalia in’t) is truly manifest…or else all of us here in bloggy pastures have truly jumped the shark.

Good morning, all.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “Baseball Players Practicing,” 1875.

*The site seems legit, but I’m no kind of a Cuba expert, and I could see the joy possible in a fake Castro blog.   For the purposes of this post, I’m prepared to file this in the too-good-to-check bin of blogospheric delights.  but as with any claim on the internet, if you need to know the material contained within, channel a (very) little bit of Ronald Reagan here and Trust, But Verify.

Because it’s Friday: One Giant Step For Who? department….

March 6, 2009