Archive for June 2009

And another thing: Unexamined assumptions get my goat too.

June 24, 2009

Just following up on the last post.  I almost never watch TV news — and especially not the local options.

Leaving the TV on after the Obama town hall special reminded me why.  First Dr. Tim Johnson opines that compromise on health care is needed to achieve a bipartisan solution, without anyone asking him why bipartisanship is a necessary criterion for a health care system.  Shouldn’t efficacy, efficiency, quality of care and outcomes come first.  (Stupid question…)

Seriously: Tim Johnson is billed as ABC’s medical editor.  Why he feels it necessary to parrot the glibest of political bromides instead of weighing in on either side of the public/private debate is a mystery…or not.  It really is a symptom of the terror at the thought of analytical thinking in the creation of a news story.

More of the same followed (this all on WCVB, Boston’s Channel 5 and the local ABC affiliate) with a completely cotton candy interview with soon-to-be ex-Senator Judd Gregg (Checking Out-NH).  He was allowed to assert that the inevitable consequence of public competition with private insurance was single payer/government controlled health care.  He then said that would lead to delays, and a health care system like that of Canada.  No follow up questions, like — how does the Canadian system compare with our own on the usual measures of public health — infant mortality, say, or life expectancy…and so on.

These are, of course, crude measures, with all kinds of confounding factors that may affect these catch-all numbers.  But still, there is no prima facie case to be made that Canadian health care is worse for Canadians than US health care is for us down here…quite the reverse.  Would it be so hard, just once, to put this fact to someone making the reflexive “Canada bad!” argument?  Just one time only?

Then there was the piece by Channel 5’s ever smarmy political editor, in which he said, in effect, we shouldn’t care about Gov. Sanford’s difficulties with his trousers — nor Senator Ensigns — because Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton (not to mention Edwards) were all philanderers.

This misses, of course, the crucial distinction between Vitter, Sanford, Ensign and those Democrats who have been lousy husbands.  The recent GOP adulterers are all those who have taken a public, political stance that says, in effect, it is permissable for the state to intervene in the private lives of adult Americans.  Sanford voted to impeach Clinton on 3 of 4 articles.  All three have been DOMA supporters, anti-gay marriage folks, all the usual stuff.

These people have argued, in effect, that state regulation of marriage and private affection is legitimate as a defense of “traditional” marriage.  Well, a) that defense doesn’t seem to work so good and b) it seems a legitimate public distinction to make between the private behavior of those who seek to regulate others’ private behavior…and those who say that not only their own, but everyone’s consenting-adult sex life is each person’s own business.

False equivalence is easy.  It’s also stupid and debasing of public discourse.  TV is a f*cking desert.

This is, of course, as striking as any Dog Bites Man story.  But its my blog, I’m pissed, and its late.

Image:  Gustave Courbet, “Woman with Parrot” 1866.

Factoids piss me off: Health Care Special edition

June 24, 2009

Watching, post Red Sox, the ABC/President Obama town meeting on health care.  As they went to a commercial just now, up flashed this datum:  59% of Americans get health insurance through their employer, with a citation of the US Census Bureau 2007.

Two things give me heartburn.  First, no context means no meaning.  Seriously.

What does that number mean?  Anything?  41% of Americans are thus un or otherwise insured.  How does that compare with other nations? What impact does this breakdown have on our (comparatively poor) raw health care outcome statistics?  And so on.

Then there is the assumption that the category of employer-supplied health care is a sufficiently consistent phenomenon across employers to form a coherent group.  My employer health care is moderately expensive (I pay about 35-40% of cost of my HMO premium, compared to an individually -bought family policy, but I have considerable choice among plans and expense levels and access to just about anything the Boston medical community has to offer).  Other plans are much more limited, more expensive or both — and those distinctions are meaningful to determinative.

And even more, note the date: 2007, during a period of relative economic prosperity.  Anecdotally, I’ve been reading of all kinds of cuts in benefits, and when you have unemployment jumping from under 5 % in 2007 to 9.4% in the latest month for which there are statistics.

To put it another way:  the statistic posted in the break was not just meaningless, but almost certainly wrong.  Enough people have lost jobs,and enough businesses have had to cut benefits in the last two years so that the fraction of Americans receiving health care through employers is highly likely to be smaller than it was in 2007.

The use of that number therefore is at best useless – an isolated number whose import is undiscoverable– and at worst a false and overoptimistic claim for the robustness of the private medical care system.

I hate factoids.  I hate silly and thoughtless producers who use them as design details on the bumper screens in and out of program sections. This is the plague of news-as-entertainment.  This kind of text-used-as-graphic element is something you do as part of what’s called the packaging of a program.  It’s not meant to have meaning, but it’s terribly easy to get into trouble when you use text that does in fact hold, or appear to contain, some actual relevant information.

So, for all that I give ABC props for putting this program on despite Republican fauxrage, they have to learn how to avoid the reflexive tics of the business.

Image: Canaletto,  “Greenwich Hospital” 1752.


June 24, 2009

Sorry for the posting hiatus. I’ve been clearing out a few promised bits of writing in support of Newton and the Counterfeiter (you’ve heard I recently published a book?  Oh.  You have.  Sorry.) and I just hit the point where it was time to put my head down and write the last of them, which I have now done.

So onwards:  more answers to questions nobody asked.*

*The pro’s definition of a sermon.

Image:  Niccolò da Bologna, 1494-1502, J. Paul Getty Trust.  From Wikimedia commons:  This illuminated letter ‘S’ is one of twenty known large historiated initials made for a choir book commissioned by the Carthusian monastery of Santo Spirito in Lucca.  The image depicts the Pentacost, the moment at which the gift of speaking in tongues descends upon the Apostles, enabling them to preach to the nations of the world.

On Wise Latinas, Identity and Experience, Civic Media, and the Lethal Stupidity of the Right

June 19, 2009

Another update from the Knight/MIT Future of News/Civic Media conference.  In the final plenary, one of the speakers noted that one of the ways that local and or civic media engages audience is across common experience.

Well, duh…except that the idea of experience and identity advanced in the comment was one with actual meaning, as opposed to the dangerous (lethal) mindlessness of the view captured in mainstream versions in the  Latina=racist nonsense spewed over the Sotomayor nomination.

Here’s the example:  Imagine someone in town, living on the good side of the community with an annual income of 100K.  Now imagine another person, working poor, renting across town.  Not members of the same community, right?  Different identities across all the “important” axes, perhaps.

Now imagine they both are parents of six year-olds with leukemia.

Speaking as a parent of a (thankfully, touch wood) healthy child, there is no doubt as to the identity of such parents.  They are people with sick kids.  Everything else is secondary.

And there is no doubt that the experience of taking care of your kid, and your spouse, yourself will without doubt give you a quality of wisdom on issues like the current state of American health care, that the parent of a healthy kid will never quite match.  Sympathy is no substitute for empathy (not that I wish the opportunity for empathy in this circumstance on anyone).  Lived experience makes a difference (duh!) and ranges of experience represented in power…and in the creation of media…the consumption and or participation in the making of information … and so on.

And clearly, as a background for creating media applications that have an economic rationale and an intellectual or informative purpose, the most diverse view of connections of identity, self, and experience is not just useful, but essential.

And that’s so airy that I wince at my own words:  but what I’m trying to say is that when I first got involved in pull media, a VOD project called MagRack, the idea was to narrow cast on a very crude definition of interested populations.  We had no real data to help us refine our groups.  Now we do — and clearly one of the pro-active steps we can take to create an economically possible new media environment is to think creatively how to create communities across interests that conventional “census”-like categories (Latino/as, wise or not; RV owners etc.) don’t capture.

That’s still pretty airy, which is a state of mind conferences like these encourage — born in part of a sense of glorious unanchored possibility in everyone’s good ideas.  But I don’t think (I hope not, anyway) that it is entirely stupid.

Image:  “Passer Payez”, a ca. 1803 painting by Louis-Leopold Boilly.

Stray thought from the Knight Future of News and Civic Media MIT conference

June 19, 2009

Just hearing a bunch of proposals for new projects to advance civic media.  Kind of a blur — but much cool stuff.  My ears perked up, however at the mention of, a site that enables the creation of local magazines from blogs or other web sources.

I quickly surfed on over, clicked on the “create your magazine” button, and arrived at this starting point — a list of topics or departments for your new magazine.

Look carefully.

What’s missing?

Science, of course.

Nature, too, any way to connect local news to most local of ways people find entry into science — things like birding or amateur astronomy or weather watching.

All of which is a way of wondering why this most important of stories gets no respect…and to say that I took the opportunity afforded by meatspace meetings to put this to the Printcasting guy here — who promised new categories on the way ASAP.

One small step for a science-literate population…

Image:  John James Audobon, “Carolina Pigeons,” plate 17 from Volume IV, Audubon’s Birds of America.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.1: Voices in my head, or why Neal Stephenson has to stop talking to me.

June 18, 2009

Just a little story here.  Last post I talked about getting blurbs from busy and very accomplished folks.  One of those was Neal Stephenson, author of some of best novels-of-ideas/racing action reads of recent memory.

The connection between his work and Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is pretty obvious, at least if you are (a) familiar with the three volumes of The Baroque Cycle, Neal’s massive fiction on the roots of both the scientific and economc revolutions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and/or (b) have gawked at the leaning tower of manuscript that Neal donated to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.  (Fun venue tucked in Gehry’s worst building, IMHO.)

Most notable, Neal’s characters include one Isaac Newton, whom we first meet as an awkward, prudish, timorous boy at Trinity College in the 1660s.  I understand that Newton acts throughout the whole multi-stranded epic, but I don’t know.

Why don’t I have at least that one fact down?

As I’ve worked to publicize my book, I have gotten asked more than once some version of these questions — have I read Neal’s telling of the story of science and gold?  Is mine a non-fiction version of the history Neal reimagined?  What did I think of Neal’s Newton?

And my answers are:  no, maybe, and I have no opinion…because though I have read almost everything Neal has put between book covers (I missed The Big U., but I have it on very good authority that I may have dodged a bullet there), I put down Quicksilver after I was about 75 pages in.


Because Neal’s Newton was too loud in my ear.  He was a real character; things happened to him, he felt, responded, changed and spoke.  I could see that Newton in my mind’s eye, and the last thing I wanted — absolutely the worst possible thing for a writer — would be to start hearing Neal’s Newton arguing with mine — and I certainly didn’t want his version colonizing mine.

Even more dangerous — Neal’s books are full of incident. Stuff happens all the time.  These three books centered on precisely the historical moments I was interested in, and for reasons that overlap with mine.  It was hard enough to keep track of my sources anyway.  Did I need the grief of remembering whether it was Enoch Root or John Locke that said something or other?

I did not.

So I didn’t just put vol. 1 down, I got it out of the house, as fast as its little legs could carry it.  I’m reclaiming it from my brother now, and look forward to reading the whole trilogy without peril this summer.

One last note:  I happened to meet Neal when he gave a talk at Harvard a couple of years ago.  He was speaking to the History of Science department there, so the bulk of his talk and reading centered on his rendering of the daily life of the scientific revolution within The Baroque Cycle.  Talking to him afterwards I made my confession that I had had to banish that work to the Boston equivalent of Siberia (Brighton, where my brother lives) — and I did receive my dispensation.

And one more last note:  there is nothing new under the sun.  Some version of everything has been written — and if I or anyone were to worry about that, I, we, would never get anything done.  But still, sometimes, it’s better not to read.

Image:  Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton (1738).

What I Said — but from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Isaac Newton and Money Manias edition

June 18, 2009

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I recently published a book (ya’ think? –ed.).  Titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound), it tells a story from Isaac Newton’s second career as boss of the Royal Mint — how he chased down the notorious currency crook William Chaloner in a battle that ranged across London and took two years.

Through that story I get to look at lots of other stuff — the way the scientific revolution worked itself out at street level, connections between ideas of faith, science, and what with the benefit/arrogance of hindsight we call magic (alchemy), and how England for a variety of reasons undertook a financial revolution in parallel to and in part propelled by the same ideas and people who led the scientific one.

In that context I look at some of the stuff that Chaloner counterfeited — truly weird new bits of paper that still represented enormous value — and I trace the evolution of Newton’s thinking about whether or not money is just a thing — a chunk of gold or silver with a pretty design — or something more abstract, more elusive…a promise.  (See this post from last year for more on that subject.)*

And in telling all this I give my readers a glimpse of a true economic and financial wild-west, one in which there is not only a dearth of anything resembling regulation, but in which the meaning and import and dangers inherent in the newborn tricks of financial engineering eluded even the brightest of thinkers, up to and including the great Isaac Newton — who in fact lost one of his shirts, at least, in the infamous South Sea Bubble.

And there I conclude, gently, by implication, that the reason financial regulation with teeth is an essential part of a modern capitalist economy is that none of us, not even the one man in history best placed to see through the fraudulent math behind bubbles, are immune to the derangement of reason that money manias educe.  (I made the same point in this post , in which I discussed both some of Newton’s ideas about money (again) and his troubles in the summer of 1720.)

All this by way of preamble that while all the above is true and, I believe, a strong argument, I can’t suggest that your humble blogger could hold a candle to lighthouse beacon of economic chops in the person of the man who just said this in an interview with The Atlantic‘s Conor Clarke:

Self regulation never worked as far as macroeconomic events — whether we’re talking about post-Napoleonic War business cycles or the big south sea bubble back in Isaac Newton’s time, up to today’s time. The pendulum just swings back in the other direction.

The speaker there would be none other than Paul Samuelson, Nobel(ish) laureate, for years America’s leading Keynsian (or at least, popularizer of Keynes’ work) and author of the single most influential introductory economics textbook since the satraps of Ur first put stylus to clay.

Maybe if Tom Levenson says it, you can consider the source and ignore it.  But Samuelson?  Might as well try to bargain the ten commandments ten down to six.**

*Or, of course, just buy the damn book. 😉

**Old, old joke:  Moses comes down from the mountain the second time and says, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news?  I got Him down to ten.”


“The bad news?…”

“…Adultery stays.”

Rimshot, please

Image:  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, “Moses smashing the tablets of the law,” 1659.