Archive for September 2009

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.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: No, really, I mean it, government services are a fascist plot to make 80 year old grandma’s take a cab…or something

September 17, 2009

Via John Cole at Balloon Juice, this.

Seriously…I keep trying to write long, thoughtful, (or at least sticky-bun-fueled) posts on the fundamental pillars of right-wing fail (check this space in a bit for an example of same), and then I bump into stuff like the complaints of tea-baggers that the government failed to provide enough taxpayer subsidized mass transit to enable them to jump up and down at the bars of the cribs, waving their rattles and whilst stomping their diapered thighs in anguished protest of the fact that….government is too intrusive to permit them the liberties their due as narcissitic spoiled screaming brats patriotic Americans.

You can’t make jokes about these people…they are every comic’s nightmare, the subject that stomps on its own punch line.

And of course, more deeply, they routinely evoke the classic question, the most pertinent ever asked of the American irredentist right:  “Have you no sense of decency?”

Then and now, that query answers itself.

Image:  Unknown artist, “The Swaddled Twins” 1617

Reviews I Love to Read … As Long As It Ain’t About My Book: Wieseltier v. Podhoretz cage match edition.

September 13, 2009

I’m not an unequivocal fan of Leon Wieseltier, but even those whose disapprobation runs far richer than mine would acknowledge that he can sling both words and snarks with the pros.

Case in point, this devastating review of a book that I will not read and an argument that deserves ground-zero treatment:  Norman Podhoretz’s lament and “when-will-they-come-to-their-senses” screed about the odd truth that his co-religionists fail to see religious necessity, obvious to him, in unquestioning support for the worst elements in US and Israeli politics.*, **

But, despite the urge to footnote indulged in below, let me cease by paraphrasing Einstein in his memorable rebuke of (Christian) German militarism:  why so many words, when you can read Wieseltier empty his magazine into the twitching corpse of Podhoretz’s long, long effort to nullify the imperatives within Isiah and Micah.  For a sample, enjoy this:

…this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write.

Yeeow….and that’s only the beginning.  Wieseltier goes on, through two web-jumps, delightfully, playfully, magisterially ripping Podhoretz new orifices into which scorn may flow yet more freely.  Have fun.

(And yes….writers do like reading thorough, relentless, even vicious Cato-like reviews…as long as the Carthaginian text thus ploughed with salt does not issue from their own computer, or that of their friends.***

*OK.  That’s the short version.  But it captures the gist.

**As a Jew with deep Zionist family history (my ancestor, Sir Moses Montefiore, was one of the first sponsors of Jewish settlement outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem), I got no problem with support for Israel — but I’ve never for the life of me understood the sheer folly of assuming “support” = “sheep like endorsement of whatever the government of Israel (or any other nation) says or does.  This is an old and stale argument, but Podhoretz is an old and stale arguer, so I suppose it all makes for a tedious kind of eternal return of the same BS ….

***Making the assumption that such solitary misanthropes as writers have friends, and not just “friends”…in the sense of those to whom one may complain freely of editors, agents, booksellers, and an insufficiently entranced public.  As it happens, as I age, my pleasure in and the number of writers who are genuine friends grows.  One of the compensations for the most annoying property of the arrow of time.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, “Jeremiah lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem” 1630

More Newton and the Counterfeiter action: BBC and Guardian edition.

September 5, 2009

I’ve been almost completely remiss in continuing both my diary of Newton and the Counterfeiter,(Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders,John Smith & Son). and in keeping up to date with the recent flood of reviews.  There is a lot I want to talk about those reviews — thanks to many, especially on the web, who’ve taken notice of the book and written for love of what they found there, good and bad — and some disputes I want to start, by way of talking about a topic of surpassing interest to me:  the information/culture crevasse we’re now straddling as the old review world collapses, but a web-based book culture has yet to reach the point where it can take on the matching of readers to books with the reach the old media possessed.

That’s all by the by the by.  Here I just want to let anyone interested know that BBC Radio 4 has produced, and now finished broadcasting, a five part audio series (75 minutes in all) that is an abridgment of Newton and the Counterfeiter.  It’s five part iteration can be found here, and when the podcast version gets up, I’ll post that link too.

newton english cover

And to make my Labor Day weekend sweet, I checked my Google alerts just now (yes, I am that pathetic) to find that the novelist/literary critic-historian/writing pedagogue Rebecca Stott had lovely things to say about the book in The Guardian.  With that, I believe all the national dailies and Sunday papers in Britain (except The Sun, for whose inattention I am grateful, as I am that of News of the Week) have weighed in, and I’ll be noting others over the next week or so.  But Stott had such nice things to say that I couldn’t resist anticipating those roundups.  Money quotes:

In Levenson’s masterly hands, Chaloner emerges as an audacious criminal genius, a creature of a London described as a series of interconnected webs, a “swaying, shouting, shitting din – exhilarating, terrifying and incomprehensible”….

This is novelistic history writing of the best kind. Admittedly, the connections that Levenson makes – such as suggesting that Newton’s fury was driven by his conviction that counterfeiting was a perversion of alchemical practices – are sometimes overstretched. But the portrait he paints of a seemingly impenetrable London underworld and a genius making his way fearlessly into it in pursuit of a stable currency is mesmerising.

I’ll take that with my morning coffee any day.

Good Work Alert: Another MIT Science Writing Grad Student Making Good.

September 5, 2009

In today’s iteration of this sporadic series, check out some stuff by MacGregor Campbell, the man who is his own clan feud, and the pride of both the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and The New Scientist‘s SF bureau, where he has interned this summer.

MacGregor, who had to suffer through the experience of being my advisee, is one of those polymathic students that can make their teachers feel both delighted and old.  He came to us as a musician and video artist, with a background in math and the teaching of that subject to high school students.  For a feel for his range and the flexibility of his mind, check out his blog, Main Sequence (a little slow to update just now, in the throes of his internship).

You’ll see there links to much of the work he’s done for the NS, along with his own sparks, but I’d like to draw attention to a couple of pieces.

First a little background.  Y’all may have noticed that the media landscape has changed a bit over the last few years.  One of those shifts has been to expect, increasingly as a matter of course, that prose on its own is not enough; the presentation of stories on the web is both enhanced by the incorporation of video, audio, and interactive elements, and it is transformed, at least in part, into work explicitly intended to entertain as well as inform.

More later, I’d guess, on the tension implied in that last statement, but here, just the practical problem for would-be writer/communicators in this evolving beat and medium.

The basic problem is this:  writing, creating good radio/audio, film making, and interactive design are all highly skilled crafts.  It takes time and practice — and talent, and passion, and habits of mind, and sensibility, ways of looking at or listening to the world — to get good or great at any of them.  The more one tries to master both the technical skills needed to, say, light, shoot and cut video, and to tell stories in the very different grammars of two or three different media, the harder it is to hone capacity in any one.

So, to MacGregor’s work:  check out these two interactives on health care, fine examples of why the web is a better delivery vehicle for mildly-enhanced prose than dead trees.  There is a reason traditional newspapers/magazines are bound for dodo-land, and it isn’t just MSM self-regard and feckless business decisions; the digital domain lets you do new, useful, sometimes transformative stuff with the material that is at the heart of the mission o f traditional media:  provide information within an apparatus that actually enhances a reader’s ability to understand what the writer is going on about.

And then look at this:  MacGregor (and friend’s) video on a development in robotics.

After seeing this, I wrote to MacGregor to ask him if the key point of …not quite dispute, but doubt…he and I wrangled over during the term had settled down for him.  I’m old fashioned about video, about new and integrated media in general.  I believe, strongly, in production and in the value of particular skills.  So when it came time to work with the MIT grad students on creating stories in audio and video, I emphasized a formal production procedure and sequence, the significance of writing your piece at every stage, from first story pitch, through articulated phases of treatment, shooting script, paper cut, and then on through the stages of editing and review.  And I emphasized old fashioned photographic and cinematographic skill, the use of a camera, knowledge of its particular properties, and above all, attention to lighting.  One thing we do differently at MIT than at some other programs is we bring in a national-shooter level DP to shoot for two days with our students — and to teach as the shoot proceeds about how to think about light, color, and motion as story telling tools, and not just decoration.

There is another approach that people use — some very well, which worries less about the formal steps in either the writing process or the shoot, and seeks to acquire the material first, and then cut whatever you’ve got, on the theory that what matters most is the event in front of the camera, and not the art, or artifice of the person behind it.  Both views have their merits, and when MacGregor came to MIT, he was definitely more immersed in the latter approach.

So when I saw his robotics video I asked him if the hoops through which I made him jump in the preparation of this documentary whilst at MIT were of any value to him.

To my great satisfaction, he answered yes, for both axes.  The emphasis on formalizing the production and writing process helped him a lot, he said, and he had found from his experience with our cameraman why one might do the kinds of things he had always disdained as a “catch the moment” documentarian.  So I have to say that the links I’ve sent you too above give me pride as well as pleasure; it’s hard to know, sometimes, if anything one tries to teach actually matters.  Here, generously, from MacGregor, I have some confirmation.

(And, btw, if any magazine editors are reading this:  I strongly suggest you think in two person teams, not one-man-bands.  Find those on your staff or in your orbit who love video, and match them up with writers who love prose story telling.  You’ll get more work done at a higher level than if you ask a good reporter to stop thinking about what’s being said to him or her and start thinking about the lighting triangle and whether or not you’ve got a directional enough mike to make that HVAC outlet in the upper corner an solvable problem.  Just my two cents.)

Illustration:  Movie poster for “The Kid,” 1921