Archive for September 2009

Sad. I wanted to see the Grand Canyon again before I die….

September 30, 2009

…but I’m not willing to die to see it, either.

Arizona legalizes the carrying of concealed weapons into bars.

Oh joy.  Nothing like a little bourbon or beer to promote good decision making around tools of deadly force.

New Mexico — hell just about anywhere else — looks better and better.

Image:  David Lüders (c. 1710–1759): Bildnis eines vornehmen Knaben mit Spielgewehr und Hund.

Ridiculously delightful fact of no consequence: Tango, Wales, London, Argentina edition

September 30, 2009

Wikipedia is swamp of delights.

A swamp, for one may enter therein to dally, and get sucked into its twists and byways with no hope of escape.

Delights?  Well consider this.

From the Wikimedia main page an incautious trackpad click allowed me to satisfy my curiousity to see what Wiki life might look like in Welsh, or Cymraeg as the language knows itself.

Pretty cool, even making allowances for sad failure of the vowel harvest in the Brecon Beacons yet again.

But then I noticed the slight nod in the direction of those of us not conversant Celtically, in the form of a paragraph in English which told me that Cymraeg is spoken in the west part of Britain known as Wales, and in the Chubut Vallet in Patagonia, the site of a Welsh colonial emigration in the 1860s.

Which led me to the (English language) Wikipedia entry on the Welsh Argentine, wherein I learned a bit of history, and the fact that between 1500 and 5000 descendents of 19th century Welsh immigrants still speak their ancestral tongue.

I also uncovered this last, truly wonderful fact:  it is as a result of this history that those Londoners who hunger to move their bodies to the beat of the Argentine Tango, find one of the best venues available to them at the Welsh Centre there.

What a glorious weave of history to be traced through, and all first glimpsed in four or five clicks through cyberspace.

Image:  Paul Sandby, “A Welsh Sunset River Landscape,” c. 1775-1800.

Andrew Sullivan Fouls One Off — and Then Grotesquely Strikes Out: God, Evil, and Auschwitz edition, part one

September 30, 2009

Once again, my long promised magnum opus — a shotgun fired at a flea, actually, yet another salvo in the eternal war against stupid at The Atlantic — is delayed to deal with more pressing matters.

This time it’s Andrew Sullivan, and he’s not being stupid — for unlike some of his stable mates he’s not at all slow.  Rather his intellectual wounds are self-inflicted.  I’ve blogged before (and I can’t quite remember where) and no doubt I will again about his tic of dubbing any political act or judgment with which he agrees “conservative,” no matter what its provenance or effect.

But this time, the cuts are deeper, and are much more damaging.  To try to keep my tendency to prolixity under control, I’m going to break up my critique into three bits.  Herewith part one.

Sullivan gets himself into trouble in the midst of a perhaps overly familiar issue,  hardy perennial source of bad reasoning, the theodicy problem:  why would a God worth worshipping (or believing in) permit the evils of the world to exist; why so much human suffering if we are the creation of a loving deity?

Sullivan started this latest effusion of heat-not-light with this post, in which he responded to a reassertion of the problem of evil by saying, in essence, my faith teaches me that suffering is useful, as it opens the believer up to the possibility of surrendering one’s self to God.  Which is fine, as a statement of personal belief.  It is not, however an argument; rather, to those unblessed or cursed by Sullivan’s brand of faith, it reads like a kind of theologically infused experience of the Stockholm Syndrome.

But my goal here isn’t snark. Bottom line for Sullivan himself on the first part of the sequence of posts on this matter: I do believe that each individual, subject to the don’t mess with me/do no harm constraint, is absolutely free to find spiritual comfort or exaltation by just about any act of faith.

But Sullivan gets no pass when he then tries to reason his way through the argument with Jerry Coyne in which he said, in effect, that the allegedly distinctively human capacity to “rise above” suffering (Sullivan’s term), as distinct from mere animal endurance of pain or woe, “is evidence of God’s love for us.”

In fairness to Sullivan, taking the view that one must argue against the best construction of someone’s argument, he spends most of this post recounting the source of his personal credo:  his own suffering brought him to the point of Jesus on the cross:  “…why have you forsaken me,” and then to a more emphatic restatement of that murdered Jew’s final, ambivalent resolution.  For Jesus, it was “it is accomplished.”  For Sullivan, his faith tested by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the personal losses he suffered, it the path he found in the midst of sorrow/anger unto death, on which “God lifted me into a new life…”

All of which is, again, fine.  His response to his pain is his; it’s real, and if it is not universalizable — that is, if it has no more standing as a response to the problem of God amidst evil than another person’s experience of the humanist’s revelation, that there is in this world only that good we are capable of creating ourselves — still, Sullivan gets to experience comfort and more as he can.

But where he goes astray, of course, is exactly in the attempt to universalize a particular, subjective, and wholly interior process.  He writes,

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world.

I do note, as Sullivan rather waspishly enjoins his critics to do, that he qualifies his universal claim with the phrase, “For me…”  But his intent is clear when he speaks of “human capacity,” or “why we are here”  or “God’s love for us” (italics added)…for us, and not simply for Andrew. This is a claim made for humanity, and not simply for the one man recounting his story of despair and redemption amidst the plague.

The issue, beyond the fact that this is an example of the argument by analogy, with all of its pitfalls — I, Andrew, am human.  I, Andrew, experienced the love of God through suffering; therefore, by analogy, all humans encounter God through suffering — is that he makes a specific empirical claim, one that can be interrogated not by logic chopping, but by observation and experiment.

That is, Sullivan asserts that the evidence for God’s love despite the existence of evil, of undeserved suffering, lies in the fact that human beings experience the horrors of existence and mortality in ways that animals do not.

With that, Sullivan has fallen into a very old trap for apologists.  This is mutton dressed as the lamb of God (sorry — couldn’t resist).  What you have here is the old God of the gaps argument all decked out in an invocation of the allegedly bright line between human beings and animals.

Except, of course, that the line isn’t bright, and there is a library full of work in evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, and much more, especially ethology, that has exposed the close kinship not just at the level of base pairs, but in what has validly been called culture in both animals and human.  (See, e.g., this landmark of a book, The Evolution of Culture in Animals, published all the way back in 1983.)

Animals have ethics — as the study of altruism in animals demonstrates.  Animals possess technology. They experience the teacher-student relationship that no less than Jesus recognized as primary among human bonds.

And so on:  the notion that there is an unequivocal divider between animal experience and human has become increasingly blurred over the last several decades.*  It is certainly true that the emotional life, and certainly any inner spiritual experience of a chimpanzee, say, is closed to us, opaque.  But so, at some level, is that of even those closest to us, the beloved next to whose body we conform our own each night.  To bet your God on the claim that an animal does not merely endure (Sullivan’s word in a later post) but retains some transcendent goal — perhaps the care of one’s young — is a sucker’s wager.

Centuries ago, another devout Catholic, Galileo Galilei, wrote a letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in which he counseled her on the proper relation of faith to science.  In 1615, defending the notion that he had uttered no heresy in his observations of the moons of Jupiter, and in support he thus derived forf the Copernican heliocentric universe, he wrote:

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense ­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.

That is, to modernize the argument: no claim of God is secure when it rests on some claim about the behavior of the natural world; whatever someone may experience as sacred resides — and Galileo certainly, profoundly believed in the existence of divinity — in its own realm.   But inexorable and immutable nature does not permit the claim that  within what we do not know about, say, the inner life of animals, therein lies God.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” 1897

Getting Ready To Atone — So Here’s a Completely Snark/Aggro Free Amazing Vid. to Enjoy

September 27, 2009

Got to the film maker via Sully’s paean to a Burning Man video. But this one is better: Also Sprach…, Brazil, and coral. What more could you desire?

Truly, time lapse artist/film maker Ben Wiggins has done an amazing job — enjoy:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Getting Ready To Atone — So Here’s a…“, posted with vodpod

Friday Mental Health: Must watch sandpainting video

September 25, 2009

So — what work of art have you created today?

Watch World War II unfold in eight minutes, in sand, hands, light and music:

(h/t NPR, via my beloved’s attention this evening)

Self Aggrandizement Alert: More cool Newton and the Counterfeiter talk: Chris Lydon/RadioOpenSource edition

September 24, 2009

Old friend and former WGBH-mate Chris Lydon, now the creative intelligence behind one of the web’s really exciting attempts to create global conversation,  Open Source, came by a couple of weeks ago to record an interview with me about that book I might have mentioned around here once or twice — Newton and the Counterfeiter(Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders,John Smith & Son)

Chris is a wonderful interviewer, creative, always looking for the angle to evoke a response the interviewee hadn’t thought of ahead of time, really an intellectual partner in each of his recordings.

His conceit for our conversation was to see what would happen if I tried to follow his imagination and lead Isaac Newton around my MIT.  Along the way we talked about God, alchemy, Newton’s qualities of mind, the terrifying (to some) success of materialist interpretations of mind and much more besides. Hilarity ensued, in other words.

Listen for yourself, if you’ve a mind to do so….it was fun, at least for your not always humble interlocutor.

Image: Ralf Lotys, photographer.  Street art in Frankfurt, 2006.

UPDATE: [Simulated] Cruelty to Animals as a Wingnut Theme: Truly unbelievable, and hideously funny (except for the frog) Glenn Beck monent

September 24, 2009

Update 3  (At the top, because that’s where corrections should go): This was, as I should have known, not frogicide, but performance art.  I’ve deleted the misleadingly edited clip below.  The full clip shows what the abbreviated one below does not:  that Beck tells you that the frog in the pot was a fake.  (See about 4:40 et seq.)

I should have known better; I am supposed to recognize that stories too good to check should be checked.  I apologize both to Mr Beck (not that he cares, I imagine, or can possibly be assumed to be aware of either the initial insult or this correction) and to the readers for the error.

None of this, of course, alters my opinion of the content of Mr. Beck’s commentaries — vapid, uninformed, dangerous, wrong and all the rest.  But he didn’t kill a frog to make a point


I swear I’m working on some blog magna opera, but (a) I’ve got this day job, and (b) I keep getting distracted by stuff like this:

Surely this must be a grotesque fake, a parody?

Or, FSM help us and save us, is this real?

In any event, if anyone over at Balloon Juice is listening, I say “Forget the Frog” needs to hit the dictionary.  Definition:  epithet to describe another massive wingnut fail in confrontation with the liberal bias of reality.

Update: I see this has already hit pretty much everywhere that snark lives on the intertubes.  Well, one more won’t matter.  After all, I did find watching the video coke-through-the-nose funny, even if I hated myself after.

Update 2: The more I  look at this the more horrifying it gets.  Funny as hell the first time, just watching Beck’s attempt to recover from his failed schtick/amphibicide.  But then you realize.  This ass*ole just executed a perfectly innocuous animal on screen for no damn reason at all:   “Hey guys, I’ve got this gimmick — let me kill something to show you how bad it is to be led by that deeply tanned dude in the White House.”

Useless tool. Scum.  (Fixed) Performance Artist. (Fixed by update 3.)

We Will Fight Them On The Beaches!: Why Does The Atlantic Hate Science so Damn Much Edition.

September 21, 2009

I know that I’ve been on blog hiatus for a while, and as my minions* have the troubling property of non-existence, I can’t opt for the Sully option of serving up a welter of outsourced stuff to hold down the space.

But I’m trying to dig out from under the delights of start-of-term and all that.  To do so, I’ve decided to re-enter the fray with a kind of series, or at least a loosely-agglomerated guilty-by-association stack of posts to do with a real sorrow of mine, the decline of a once-great American marketplace of ideas, The Atlantic Monthly.

I’m going to indulge in my usual blog pleasure of burying the lede, so just to flag why you might want to wade through (or jump past) what follows, here’s my claim:  no one at The Atlantic understands — or at the very least, cares to engage — science, whether as a mode of thinking or as a body of actual knowledge.

But, of course, The Atlantic as a brand is supposed to convey seriousness of thought and purpose, so they can’t actually ignore science altogether…and what has happened, as I hope to document, is that the place has become a playpen full of science-y stuff; appeals to the sound and appearance of rigor that masks business as usual…about which, details below.

To be fair-ish:  the place  still attracts good, some great writers:  James Fallows is the genuine article; Ta-Nehisi Coates is putting together a world-beating career; Corby Kummer has been a favorite for a long time.and in my own area of particular interest, science writing, two or three articles from the mag show up every year in the “Best of” collections.  I’m sure if you dig through the website long enough you’ll find plenty of other stuff that won’t make your eyeballs bleed.

But, but, but…much of the place has been turned into what aspires to be an upper-middle-brow advocate of right wing politics, and that beast uses the brand and something of the language of The Atlantic Monthly-as-was to obscure a fundamentally flawed understanding of what actually happens in the real world…because, as is well known, reality has a long-established liberal bias.

For a first example of this kind of rot, consider the Atlantic 50, a ranking of what that rag’s editors considers to be their “all stars,” (sic), “the fifty most influential commentators” in the country.

I got to this through DJ over at Balloon Juice, and he makes the necessary point that the list is bullshit — with a thumb on the scale to tilt the claim of influence towards The Atlantic’s pre-existing politics.  As he writes,

Of the first 13, there are 9 conservatives, two liberals, and two other (Tom Friedman and David Broder).

It gets worse when you dive into the weeds of the list of course.  Josh Marshall comes in at 29, which doesn’t seem hopelessly stupid…until you realize that Kathleen Parker is listed at 21, eight spots ahead…and there is simply no rational measure by which to justify ranking a middle-level member of a stable of writers at a declining venue above someone like Marshall, who is both redefining the form and the institutional structure of journalism, and has had demonstrable, potent impacts on daily political life.

Even more risible, Jonah Goldberg (thx, JRE),  whose primary venue is a hack site overtly preaching to its choir, and is besides a writer whose influence even among his co-conspirators is muted by the fact that his writing is consistently awful, whether measured on prose style or clarity (or even detectability) of thought, weighs in (sorry) at number 34.  Meanwhile, look for the ranking of, say, Markos Moulitsas….and you find it nowhere.

I mean, seriously guys.  This isn’t even laughable as an editorial judgment.

It’s pathetic.

Examining the rankings as a whole, it’s hard to avoid the sense of it as The Atlantic’s circle jerk — a celebration of those folks it likes whose influence is on each other.

Now, if The National Review, for example, were to publish a list of influential opinion leaders, one would expect it to have a bias in this direction — and no one would regard that as particularly untoward.  (Worthy of sarcasm, perhaps, but not in itself risible behavior.)

But all of that is not what excites my scorn.  The Atlantic is free to name whoever it wants as the people it wants to listen to.

What does push my snark button is the desperate plea to be taken seriously in its celebration of its own image in the mirror.  Read this description of the rigor with which this list was compiled:

…our team spent months collecting and analyzing data, tracking a group of 400 names that eventually became our 50. Our in-house methodology relies on three streams of information:

  • Influence: A survey of more than 250 Washington insiders – members of Congress, national media figures, and political insiders – in which respondents rank-ordered the commentators who most influence their own thinking
  • Reach: Comprehensive data collection and analysis to measure the total audience of each commentator
  • Web Engagement:  In partnership with PostRank, a company specializing in filtering social media data, the Wire analyzed top commentators on 16 measures of webiness, including mentions on Twitter and performance on popular social media sites like Digg and Delicious

The final list is the result of an algorithm that brings together these three factors.

There are problems with each bullet point — and I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to tease them out.

But the point of this whole long screed, rests on very last line of the self-justification quoted above.

We are supposed to trust this list, to credit it with meaning, because all these essentially subjective factors of influence have been laundered through “an algorithm.”

I am so relieved.

I know this tune.  It’s a rocker; it’s got a beat; I can dance to this fine, sexy algorhythm.

Give me a freaking break.

Bluntly:  I believe the author(s) of that sentence may not know what an alogorithm is, or if they do, they’ve deliberately misused a technical term in a semi-technical context to obscure what they are actually attempting to describe/conceal.

The concept of an algorithm as used as a term of art in technical fields resists formal definition.  But as a working notion, algorithms involve at a minimum, explicit instructions that can be carried out by a person or a machine which specify operations iterated through a sequence of steps, and produce an unambiguous correct answer (for a certain value of “correct”) within a finite time.

Algorithms in computing meet this cartoon definition.  To put it even more simply:

“In computer systems, an algorithm is basically an instance of logic written in software by software developers to be effective for the intended “target” computer(s), in order for the software on the target machines to do something.”

That’s what The Atlantic’s people appear to have done:  they wrote, or hired done, a program that took the numerical inputs – the measures of the three criteria above – calculated a single number for each candidate object (a pundit) based on a weighting scheme of The Atlantic’s editors’ devising, and then organized those numbers into a rank ordered list based on those numbers.

Smells like teen algorithm to me:  iterated calculations over a body of data yielding a definitive answer – a “correct” one in the sense that the list corresponds to the appropriate numerical sequence from high to low calculated based on the inputs supplied.

Readers attuned to the rhetoric of science, and especially of popular communication of science will have long since gotten to where I’m going with this.

The use of the word “algorithm” on its own puts some English on the ball:  it sounds authoritative, and is deployed in the same way and for the same purpose that Smartwater applies the epithet “vapor distilled/electrolytes” to justify charging a gazillion bucks for its carefully formulated dihydrogenmonoxide.

At a slightly deeper level, the fraud turns on the specific property of algorithms:  they always give an answer, one that is true within the parameters of the calculation:  if Paul Krugman’s calculation gives him a score of 1 (on a scale of 0-1) and Rush Limbaugh weighs in (sorry again) at .997, then Krugman is more influential than Limbaugh and the list will reflect that in its first and second place rankings…accurately, given the constraints, the data, selected as inputs in the first place. [Made up number alert.]

That correctness, that certainty, gives the term “algorithm” it’s fine glow.  We don’t just get answers, ma’am, they’re the right answers – and we know that this is so because we’ve poured secret algorithm sauce into every bottle.

That’s the emotional affect of the word, certainly that sought by The Atlantic in its cheerfully sophomoric defense of the methods behind its list.

The reality, obvious I’m sure, is that which left so many traders wondering what happened when all those funny investments in the mortgage markets went to sleep with the fishes, after all their wonderful proprietary algorithms had declared them safe as houses.

Any computational algorithm contains a formalization of the assumptions of its authors, their perceptions and judgments about the nature of the reality of whatever is to be analyzed.

Any algorithm can produce valid results given such own assumptions, and, yet, as here, remain utterly unconnected with what those of us who live in it laughingly call “the real world.”

In other words: The Atlantic’s list is an exercise in conventional wisdom laundered through code.  Its authors want to cloak themselves in the image of science without actually doing the work – or more accurately, without gambling that their presuppositions might not survive contact with experience.
And this is  a trivial example of the  way in which The Atlantic, and by extension a great deal of the right-web, has a problem with science — and hence, I would argue (will argue in some upcoming posts on problems more substantive than a gimmick-list of rank-ordered jaw-flappers) — prefers to treat it as a fashion accessory.

To take science  seriously would require too much work, and would be inconveniently likely to confound certainties too good to check.

*One of my favorite words, with this definition from the sixteenth century:  1501, “a favorite; a darling; a low dependant; one who pleases rather than benefits” [Johnson], from M.Fr. mignon “a favorite, darling” (n.), also “dainty, pleasing, favorite” (adj.), from O.Fr. mignot, perhaps of Celt. origin (cf. O.Ir. min “tender, soft”), or from O.H.G. minnja, minna “love, memory.” Used without disparaging overtones 16c.-17c.

Images:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel” 1563

Scott Feldstein, Bottles, 2005

Morning Link: Start-the-week with beauty/Gorgeous Photography edition

September 21, 2009

Both sturm und drang promised for this space this week — but before we get to the ritual gnashing of teeth over the mendacious folly of the plague of politico-scientific culture warriors infesting the intertubes these day, a moment of sheer, breathtaking, astonishing beauty-and-terror to be found in these photographs.

Look at them all; virtuouso photographic technique combined with exceptional artistic reach in the images themselves — and all the wonder of the human-and-the-sea connection in a mere fifteen frames.

And credit where credit is due:  give the great grey lady (no longer) of 43rd St., the embodiment of MSM-hood itself, The New York Times credit for getting these to us.

Happy Friday Morning Moment

September 18, 2009

Entirely personal, and of no real interest to anyone, but my son just gave me a writing-father’s moment of joy.  His fourth grade homework was to enumerate ten rights that everyone in his classroom should enjoy.

I helped, but for the last one I made an extra effort to hang back.  He despaired, just a little — after all, aren’t nine rights enough?

So I asked him, “what do you think everyone in your class should have the right to do.”

“Read books,” he answered.

That’s my boy!

Image:  Matthais Stom, “Young Man Reading by Candlelight,” before 1650.