Archive for August 2009

Best Recent Save the Planet Idea…Water Use Division

August 5, 2009

Heard on the BBC World News broadcast on the local NPR station a few minutes ago in response to a story about reducing water use by peeing in the shower, a quote (from memory) from an emailer:

“I no longer add splash water in my whiskey.”

No need for aqua in aqua vitae, I always say…;)

Image:  Political cartoon on the Temperance Movement, “Woman’s Holy War,” 1874.

In Which I Bring Down the Wrath of Godwin on Myself: Teabagger Breach of the Peace/Last Days of Weimar edition

August 3, 2009

Just to be clear.  I do not think that the month of August, 2009 in the United States bears any deep resemblance to Berlin in September of 1930, just after Hitler’s National Socialists achieved their first real election breakthrough.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the teabaggers — and even more, their pay-and-puppet masters, are using tactics that the worst of Berlin’s political actors that month would have understood and applauded. The sustained, organized disruption of ordinary political discourse is a time-honored tool of the authoritarian insurgent.

To those engaged in these attempts to disrupt the ordinary conversation between representatives and those whom they represent, the notion that there could be argument and dissent — an exchange, however heated — is for the weak, for fools (and for those foolish enablers of the bully-boys who wallow in false equivalencies).

Their purpose — stated bluntly in this strategy memo is not to engage, but to delegitimize, to render not just individual small (d) democracy voiceless, but to derange the whole notion of democratic process.  The goal is to seize power, not to win it.

The worst of those on the right are quite open about it, and that includes House Republican leader John Boehner,  gleefully endorsing the planned campaign of disruption of Democratic Representatives’ attempts to engage their constituents.

So far all this is simply my gloss on a story already reported all over the political blogosphere.  All I have to add to the conversation is the explicit reminder that none of this is new.  It is straight out of the playbook of the Berlin Gauleiter, Joseph Göbbels, masterfully amplified by his boss, Adolf Hitler.

Some years ago, I spent a lot of time wallowing in this particular historical cesspool as part of my research for Einstein in Berlin — the book I wrote using Einstein’s 18 years in that city to provide a novel vantage point on what actually happened to transform an ambitious Imperial capital into the heart of darkness that Einstein had to flee.  Here’s a taste of what I found in the immediate aftermath of the 1930 Reichstag elections:

Shortly after the September elections Thomas Mann gave a lecture that took the threat of his rise to power very seriously, yet, repeatedly interrupted by Nazi heckling, he could not resist expressing a kind of bemused contempt, dismissing  Hitler as a figure of “politics in the grotesque style, with Salvation Army attractions, mass fits … and dervish-like repetition of monotonous slogans until everyone is foaming at the mouth.”

Perhaps so, as Count Kessler had acknowledged in his very depressed diary entry on election day.  National Socialism, he wrote, was “a delirium of the German lower middle class.”  But madness or not, he added,  “the poison of its disease may, however, bring down ruin on Germany and Europe for decades ahead.”

Between the campaign of 1930 and the climactic struggles of 1932 and January 1933, the Berlin and the national Nazi parties mastered the art of disrupting the basic idea of democratic politics.  They set out to produce not just disorder, but the impression that no order — no basic safety and security in the ordinary business of every day life — was possible in so bathetically weak a society as that subject to mere democracy.  Here’s an account of an episode in 1932, and Hitler’s own inversion on the question of the real victims of Nazi fanaticism:

Hitler continued to remain largely above the fray, while his aides stage-managed the steady campaign of street fighting, periodic brawls and rehearsed outrages.  By the 1930s, Hitler had refined his image.  In public he was the visionary, the mesmerizing leader, a conjurer of visions of a greater Germany, above the fray. He could use the riots and murders his followers provided him with to drive home his Führerprinzep, his claim that Germany could only be saved by his own, unquestioned, transcendent genius for leadership.  Absolute loyalty to the absolute authority of the Führer was all it would take to save the nation – and he, uniquely among the rabble of Germany’s failed democratic leaders, was prepared for the role.

To ready the ground for the Nazi rise to ultimate power, the party raised level of violence witnessed by ordinary Germans with each passing month.  An incident on June 10, 1932 was typical of the strategy.  That afternoon, several hundred members of the Nazi SA and SS private armies invaded the working class district of Berlin-Wedding.  The detachment split up:  two platoons blocked the ends of a stretch of road, while the main body marched along it, chanting anti-Semitic slogans and in a more or less random display of thuggery attacking anyone luckless enough to be out and about.  The Nazis beat up some thirty locals, including several old people and one pregnant woman, who was hospitalized in dire condition.  When the police arrived, the Nazis barricaded themselves in several buildings and opened fire; it took six hours to clear the entire street.

It was a meticulously calibrated provocation, not quite an outright revolt, for the SA did not target the government directly, or neighborhoods of people rich or powerful enough to make their complaints stick in official quarters.  But it lent credence to the perception that life for ordinary Germans was getting more chaotic, more dangerous, ever more out of control.  Malevolently and masterfully, Hitler was able to portray the Nazi creators of the violence as both admirable and the source of the ultimate solution to the chaos.  In January, 1932, he had told an audience of wealthy industrialists that “I know perfectly well, gentlemen, that when the National Socialists march through the streets and there is a sudden tumult and uproar, the Bürger …looks out and says ‘they’re disturbing my rest again.’”  But, Hitler pleaded, “don’t forget that it is also a sacrifice when hundreds of thousands of men of the SA and SS have to get into trucks every day to protect meetings and make marches.”

One of the persistent tropes of the crazy right in this country at this time is precisely this claim of the victim’s mantle.  When leading voices call Sonia Sotomayor a racist; when one of the most popular radio and television hosts in the country tells his audience, in all seriousness, that President Obama “hates white people;” when senior members of the disloyal opposition dally with wild conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace to prove the illegitimacy of the twin horrors — contained in one skinny frame! — of an African American and a Democrat in the White House — when all this is pouring out into the public square — then you have an assault on Obama, those who voted for him and on the whole idea of a democracy in which elections mean something.

It’s a grand old tactic; it’s one that worked in Germany in the early thirties.  The consolation is that it did not in more robust democracies.

Image:  William Hogarth, The Humours of an Election series, “The Chairing of the Member,” 1755.

Students making good alert, or why the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT is teh awesome.

August 3, 2009

Writing in Popular Mechanics, 2007 MIT Grad program in science writing alumnus Andrew Moseman, has a fine piece up on the hit Jupiter (and the rest of us) didn’t see coming.

The piece earned a genuine internet accolade, front paging* (at least for now) on Huffington Post.

*I deem verbing a venial, not a mortal sin.

Image:  NASA IRTF image of Jupiter imapct.

Isaac Newton, God and the eternal war between faith and science: Killing the Buddha/Newton and the Counterfeiter edition

August 3, 2009

Just a quick heads’ up:

I have a new essay up at Killing the Buddha on Isaac Newton, God, and the unintended damage done to faith by Newton’s personal commitment to a divinity immanent throughout nature.

The piece, adapted that opus readers of this blog may have heard of — Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowells,Barnes and NobleIndiebound) — argues that the proper way to understand the full (and astonishing) range of Newton’s interests and creative output is to recognize that all of it was directed to the same end:  to know (in Hawking’s anachronistic phrase) the mind of God.

It was a grand ambition, a passion, really, in all the resonance of that term.  It was also, I argue, one that was bound to end in tears.  Newton told the clergyman Richard Bentley in anticipation of the first Boyle Lectures that  “When I wrote my treatise upon our System, I had an eye on such Principles as might work with considering men fore the beleife of a Deity”

But, of course, it was easily grasped at that time and ever after, that the principles of natural philosophy do not, in themselves require the active presence of a god concerned with space and time….and from thence all our quarrels flow.

Go check it out.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Michaelangelo, Sistine Ceiling “The First Day of Creation,” 1509

McArdle follow up.

August 3, 2009

I know, I know.  As the parent of a young child, I’ve internalized the lesson that one should not reinforce bad behavior by reacting to it; inappropriate cries for attention need to be tamed, not rewarded.

But without such pleas for notice, where would Megan McArdle be?  Peacefully enjoying her vacation might be one answer.

But no.  There is no rest for the loud, uninformed and beleaguered.

Hence the post linked above, emerging from what I hope (truly!) is a secure, undisclosed beach.  In its one paragraph she responds to (one) of her critics, Ben Domenech, defending herself by linking to a post by the delightfully named Derek Lowe,*  a scientist involved in commercial drug discovery.  That post specifically responds to Domenech, unfortunately mostly with anecdote, not data (which may be why McArdle finds his writing so congenial), and I think it does much less for McArdle’s case on the one point in dispute than she would have her readers believe.** More significantly, this “defense”, does not address the many, substantive eviscerations of McArdle’s maundering about health care reform as opposed to drug discovery.  See, e.g. Ezra Klein’s takedown as a type specimen of the genre.

But what is most striking — almost Palin-like — is that with each iteration of McArdle’s attempt at argument, a new howler turns up.***  This time, with only  a paragraph to work with, she still managed to throw in this line:

The broad point is that basic research and developing a working drug are two different activities, and neither is “real” innovation.


I was fairly gobsmacked by the paragraph in her prior post on this topic, when she (somehow) derived from the fact that we are all going to die that we should not express concern about global warming if we don’t also do so about medical innovation.

dada ain’t in it, man…not even at the climax of the great race between the sewing machine and the typewriter.

But this one tops that prior remark for sheer uninterpretability.

Take it bit by bit:  basic research is an activity….check.

drug development is an activity….check.

They aren’t the same…check…sort of.  (It’s a subject for a different post, but one of the most striking features of modern biology is the permeability of what were once clearly distinct intellectual categories.****)

And now to the conclusion of this syllogism:  neither new knowledge developed by fundamental research nor new useful inventions to be released to the world are innovation — at least not the “real” kind. (Scare quotes in the original.)

It doesn’t make any more sense laid out on the slab, does it?

If the identification of therapeutic targets and potential compounds to address those targets is fake innovation, and if the transformation of basic knowledge and technique from a range of disciplines into clinically available therapies is also fake innovation, what the hell is real?

Maybe I’m just too much a muggle.  Maybe the only true innovation McArdle would recognize is the magic wand she waves in this post, the one that makes her errors of fact and interpretation somehow simply vanish.   Here it is, the errant and erring bloggers analogue to that first spell with which novice wizards and witches learn they can defy the constraints that bind those among us more tediously grounded to mere fact.  She writes:

Such is blogging.

Well so it is, if you do it badly, with contempt for your audience.

*Every time I read Lowe’s name or byline, I can’t help wondering what this genial fellow is doing branching out into such a distinctively different endeavor than the one in which in 2004 he warmed the heart of every Boston sports nut.

**In essence, Lowe defends McArdle’s description of the drug development process against Domenech by arguing that drug companies do engage in more than mere industrial research, that they do in fact perform real science of one sort or another.  Which is another way of saying that McArdle got both sides of her false dichotomy wrong:  not only do academic and government researchers advance specific compounds towards clinical applications, big Pharma has a (self) interest in research at least fundamental enough to understand the critical ideas driving new clinical approaches.  Fail twice.

That said, I think Lowe is skipping over (and why not, given that this is all an at least partly polemical exchange) a basic fact of modern biomedical research:  a lot of what happens to drive an academic idea to a commercial application occurs in institutions neither he nor McArdle discusses:  the small biotech companies founded straight out of academic labs and or built up in intimate partnership with such labs.  These are not academic institutions; the people involved are in it for twinned reasons:  making money and providing the entrepeneur/researcher with the creative satisfaction of seeing an idea become a thing of value in the world.  (Trust me (the Hollywood term for f*ck you, I know)…both motivations powerfully drive folks in this area).

Such companies, if the work pans out, often become acquisition targets for big Pharma and big Biotech.   (See, e.g., this deal.) All of which is to say that the link between fundamental work paid for by the taxpayer mostly, and big profit-making concerns is both more complex and much more intimate than Lowe describes — and certainly than McArdle expresses.

***This quality of McArdle’s writing gives me an excuse to link again to one of my favorite texts, this collection of actual quotes from British military fitness reports.  Several could be said to apply to McArdle’s efforts, though perhaps this one is most appropriate at this juncture:

When she opens her mouth, it seems that this is only to change whichever foot was previously in there.

****It makes much more sense to say that much basic research in molecular biology is now clearly understood as the first step in a wide range of drug development programs.  For one example at the top of my mind due to some recent digging:  Protein folding questions have long been seen as basic research of the most fundamental sort, not least because of their complexity and intractability.  And yet, research now on the genetics and molecular sequence of events driving protein misfolding is leading directly to the identification of potential drug candidates for devastating disease, among them Parkinson’s…as documented in the brief films by my students to which I linked in my last McArdle screed.  That’s one example among thousands, just the one closest to my recent reporting.

Image:  Advertising postcard for the Blickensderfer typewriter, undated, via the Virtual Typewriter Museum.

Further to the Washington Post’s Bitchgate: Alastair Cooke is Spinning in His Grave

August 1, 2009

One of the most depressing things about (a) being a certain age and (b) watching what passes for elite journalism these days is the memory of what was.

Not what might have been — though I’ve occasionally pined for mythical glories of the days when giants walked the earth and E. R. Murrow swept all before him (before being rudely dealt with in the way that media proprietors have always dealt with the help that gets above themselves).  But rather what was, in the specific context of Dana Milbank’s and Chris Cilizza’s now notorious beer sketch.

All the stuff people are saying about it is true:  it’s sexist; it’s moronic on its own terms (seriously — this is the kind of stuff that hits the floor at high school humor mags); it’s poorly produced (guys, there’s this thing called lighting…and you might want to think about the framing from cut to cut before abusing your viewers with serial close ups of two such unappetizing faces….); and worst of all — for Milbank and Cilizza — it is such a brutally sharp spotlight on the qualities of their own minds.

That is:  You would have to have a supreme sense of your own perfection to think that such an amateurish and painfully unwatchable piece of dreck should see the light of day.  Even if you think calling the Secretary of State a “mad bitch” is acceptable (or wise, given that journalists do not usually profit from so publicly slagging powerful sources) there was nothing about the video that approached the level of competence either in video craft or that dreadfully difficult business of comedy.

But what got my goat, old bat that I am (mixed metaphor alert –zoology division–ed.) is the shame Cilizza and Milbank bring on themselves by the implicit comparison they make between themselves and the late, truly great Alistair Cooke.

Cooke for most Americans of a post WW II/post Bobby Kennedy age was simply the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, the program being parodied, down to a reworked version of the music and opening pan in Milbank and Cilizza’s pathetic “Mouthpiece Theater.”

In that program, Cooke played a part:  the epitome of  of upper-crust British taste and elegance, the bearer of civilization to the hungry-for-cultured entertainment.  And he did so with such perfection that he received the true accolade — a magnificent parody by the good folks on Sesame St., where his alter ego, Alistair Cookie, could be found introducing quite intriguing versions of some familiar classics.

(Note to Milbank and Cilizza — when the Cookie Monster eats your lunch, you know you have massive fail.)

But, as any of my mother’s generation knew, Alistair Cooke was a real journalist, with one of the great careers in cultural and news reporting ever achieved.  Click the Wikipedia link above for the details, but this is the guy who interpreted America for the Brits and Britain for the Americans in Letters to each — the American version of which he wrote and broadcast for fifty-eight years and almost 3,000 episodes.  He was foreign correspondent for The (Manchester) Guardian for 25 years, and performed the same service for The Times of London as well.  He was within a few feet of Bobby Kennedy when he was shot.  He became an American citizen six days before Pearl Harbor, and then promptly turned around and over the next two years toured the American countryside, producing the only major journalistic account of the American home front from that period.

He worked his craft,  he made every public performance look effortless — the product of who-knows-how much sweat and thought out of sight of the microphones — and he was never, ever, careless rude or publicly boorish.

The thought of Cilizza and Milbank pirating Cooke’s mantle as an interpreter of our times simply stinks — especially coming from two whose failure as real reporters during the Bush years and whose desperate condescension to those trying to do real work now has had seemingly no consequences,

One last note: they will say, I’m sure, that they were merely telling funnies, and that everyone should be able to tell the difference between parody and what they really think.  To that I say that the grim secret of comedy is that it holds up what the comic and the audience that laughs recognizes as unspeakably true — unless wrapped in a joke.*

When your audience doesn’t laugh, all you are left with is the horrible fact of your own miserable reality.  Live in it, boys, but don’t come bugging me no more.

Oh, and just to complete the necessary formalities…this is another in a seemingly endless series of posts echoing the DeLong question:  why oh why can’t we have a better press corps/Washington Post Crashed and Burned dept.

*see, for a less than life and death example, this clip for which I am always looking for an excuse to post: