Archive for October 2009

For a Good Time in Pasadena: Newton and the Counterfeiter Edition…

October 29, 2009

Thanks to physics blogging major domo Sean Carroll, I’ll be chatting tomorrow at Caltech in a presentation prompted by my recent book (I’ve mentioned it once or twice), Newton and the Counterfeiter.  (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders,John Smith & Son)

I’ll be speaking about what  Isaac Newton’s work as a currency cop, investigator and prosecutor can tell us  about the scientific revolution as lived experience, and not just as some disembodied sequence of ideas and discoveries.

Reckless finance; seventeenth century sex toys; the experimental method and more.  If you are in the neighborhood of 201 East Bridge on the Caltech campus tomorrow at 4 p.m., stop on by.

Further Must Watch Video: No on 1 dept.

October 27, 2009

Getting my orders as usual from GOS, specifically Bill in Portland Maine, I follow BiPM’s link to this video:

I don’t think I need for this blog’s readership to talk  about the biology of sex and sexuality.  I don’t think I need talk about the dangers of simple minded appeals to what I think of as cottage evolutionary arguments (see this post by PZ Myers for a dissection of just such arguments.)  I don’t think that the folks who cluster around this little campfire need a lecture about the dangers of universalizing particular individual claims of religious belief or obligation.

But I do think it is important — surpassingly so — to articulate in as simple and as direct terms as possible why same-sex marriage matters to the entire American polity.  That is because if the idea of inalienable rights has any meaning, rights must be rights. Which is what Paul Roeddicker is saying above.

No on 1.


Is Fox News, News? No…A proof.

October 26, 2009

…well, not formally so, but I think what follows could well fall into the bounds of an argument constructed to the requirements of informal discourse — and what could be more devoid of formality than this here blog?

The proposition, that Fox News is not a real news organization has been put forth, forcefully, by members of the Obama administration.  It has been disputed, vehemently, by Fox employees and network supporters — including some who should definitely know better.

Some might say that the nature of those defenses confirms the original proposition:  to compare a public statement that a given media organization is biased is obviously not the same thing as constructed and concealing an enemies list of people and organizations targeted for disruption and retribution.*

The former is a “we report, you decide” moment; the second is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.  Further support for this kind of dispositive dismissal of Fox’s defense comes from a couple of very recent media tempests, most notably the false claim that Fox was singled out for exclusion from an administration media event, credulously picked up by other media outlets.

But all of this is inferential.  After all, it’s just possible, I suppose, that Fox’s pattern of talking points – driven coverage slanted in favor of one party and against the current administration is simply the result of meticulous news gathering producing the patterns presented as news on Fox.

So, given that a theme of this blog is that the point of understanding a bit about science is to help one think about what’s going on around us, I decided to see if I could find some empirical measures to test the claim that Fox is not truly a news gathering institution.

So, in my ongoing tribute to Warner Wolf, let’s go to the videotape (or teh Google, as we now all bow to the sovereign of  the intertubes).

How can we determine whether or not Fox is a news organization?  Let’s try a version of the what in arithmetic would be called the transitive property.  If we can agree on the notion that some other entity nominally comparable to Fox or two are real news services, then we can see how well Fox matches up with them.  If Fox and its competitors are recognizably similar as institutions, then we can say that just as if a = b and b= c, then a= c, Fox is a real news enterprise.  If not, not.**

So let’s see, shall we?

According to’s latest review of the state of cable news, (from which most of the figures below have been drawn, unless othewise linked) Fox lags behind CNN and ahead of MSNBC in the raw calculation of budget for news — though with the major caveat that MSNBC uses the news-gathering apparatus of its sister organization, NBC News as its major source of journalism.  In what follows I’ll focus on the CNN vs. Fox comparison almost exclusively.

CNN had in 2008 the highest budget of the cable nets, coming in at 686 million and change.

Fox’s total was 521 million and change:  notably less, but still substantial.

CNN’s staff totaled about 4,000 last year.

Fox’s US staff was 1200, and while I could not readily find Fox’s overseas’ totals, these matter less than one might imagine, for reasons to be explained below.

For  a broad comparison, NBC News’ staffing total, as of the most recent round of cuts, is somewhere in the neighborhood, probably slightly below 6,000.

So:  in budget terms Fox is a competitor, though not the leader, but it’s staffing totals hint at a different story. Remember that news gathering is a labor intensive business — you need producers and associate producer/reporters to actually find out stuff that can make it on air — and the fact that Fox has one third the numbers of its rival CNN is suggestive.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the suggestion becomes a little more solid.

Back at, the budget totals get broken down into two broad categories: programming and general/administration.  These aren’t terribly informative categories, but let’s just look at the breakdown.

Fox spends 2/3rds of its budget on programming, about 316 million, leaving only 156 million for everything else.

CNN flips that ratio, almost, spending 273 million on programming and 380 million on G/A.***

Why does this matter?  Because, while it is difficult — impossible really — to get into the weeds of either CNN or Fox’s detailed spending priorities with this kind of top level numbers, broadly speaking, programming is not news gathering.

What it certainly covers is the cost of the on-air talent and the production of the stuff you see on screen.  And the disparity in spending totals and staffing priorities reflected in the CNN vs. Fox comparison reveals both a lingering effect of the history of each network, and the blunt fact that Fox is in at least one crucial way different from CNN.

The  history:  CNN as it was first conceived and executed by Ted Turner and his team followed the strategy of emphasizing the brand and the product and not personalities.  No one anchor or on-air personality was supposed to be seen as the face of the network; no one was to have the power of a Chronkite or a Jennings.

That’s changed, somewhat, obviously, with a prime time lineup including the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs, and Larry King.  These, however loathesome (and yes, I’m looking at you, Lou), are stars and are paid accordingly, costs attributed to the programming in CNN’s cost structure.

But the daytime lineup and the bulk of the news programming (as opposed to the talk/opining side of CNN), is not so personality driven, and the cost of on-air talent follows that relative (and deliberate) lack of star power. From 9-4 on weekdays, the net offers programming under a single title — “CNN Newsroom” — with multiple hosts, and a corresponding and house-culturally appropriate emphasis on the brand and the activity.  Follow that up with three more hours of “The Situation Room” and precede it by three hours of “American Morning” and you get the idea.

Fox, by contrast, emphasizes its on air talent throughout its schedule.  Fox shows with the names of the hosts attached start at 1 p.m. and continue with reruns through till the 6 a.m. debut of “Fox and Friends.”  It’s signature hosts command formidable salaries.  Bill O’Reilly, for example, is estimated to take in an approximate 10 million dollars a year under his latest Fox contract.

Whatever you think of O’Reilly, that is not an outlandish number by the outlandish standards of media star salaries.  Contrast that with Jay Leno’s reported numbers at the end of his Tonight Show run: a cool 27 million; or perhaps a more direct comparison would be to Katie Couric’s salary of approximately 15 million.

But if O’Reilly’s take-home and that of his fellow Fox headliners is in line with the prices networks are willing to pay for ratings success and advertiser interest, such sums still put an enormous amount of pressure on the total budget for a news operation.  Something has to give.

Just as one last illustration of the point.  When NBC recently cut about 5 percent of its news division staff — 300 people, it tried to whack those least likely to affect its capacity to gather news.  Dateline, a magazine program, got hammered — but the rest of the news division was to be left mostly alone.  Expensive talent was let go to preserve producer jobs — and those producers are the front line journalists in TV news.

At Fox, by contrast, its budget priorities emphasize on-air vs the nuts and bolts of actually gathering news.  This is where those staffing numbers begin to take shape.  Why, with  70% of the budget does Fox only deploy on the order of 1/3 the staff CNN does?

Answer number one is what is already obvious in the disparity in the programming expenditures of the two nets: Fox has a more expansive on-air operation than CNN does.  It relies on stars, and it has a very high standard (in cable terms) of production values on set — another expensive programming choice.

And the corollary of that is that the actual work of finding the news counts for less…with the confirmation coming directly from one of the few available direct measures of new gathering capacity, the number of bureaus a network supports.

Fox has been increasing its bureau coverage — as of 2008, it maintained 17 bureaus, up from 12 in 2007.

CNN, by contrast, staffs 46 bureaus, up ten from 2007.

Crucially, Fox maintains a risible international presence:  just six overseas offices with none in Latin America or Africa, just one in Asia — and that Hong Kong, and not Beijing or Tokyo,or Delhi, or Islamabad –only one in the Middle East (Jerusalem, and not Baghdad or Tehran), to accompany the usual suspects in Europe — London, Paris, Rome and Moscow.


Even little, last place MSNBC does better, and CNN completely rolls up the pretender:  five bureaus in Latin America, seven in Europe, including Istanbul, which geographically straddles the line between that continent and Asia, six in the Middle East…and you get the picture.

So, to wind this up.  Is Fox News a news organization with sizzle?  Or is it sizzle in drag as a journalistic operation.

And the answer is that with some exceptions, (I’m looking at you, Shep Smith) Fox is not a news producing organization.  I wouldn’t call it talk radio either, pace the President.

Rather, Fox News is best understood as an entertainment service.  The way it spends its money is the way that entertainment divisions of networks parcel out the bucks.

They pay for high-profile, highly rated on-air talent.  They dress up that talent in the sets that look like a news operation — but then, so does Jon Stewart, so does Stephen Colbert, (hell, so did Lou Grant).  They do hire some folks to dig up stories, and they broadcast their work in the quietest moments of the day…but that’s a relatively low cost trick to apply the costuming of news to an operation designed mostly to engage the emotions of their audience, and not to inform them — which is, of course, the classic dividing line (honored often in the breach, to be sure) between entertainment and news.

But when it gets down to where they actually put the bulk of its resources, Fox News behaves strikingly different from  CNN and broadcast network news divisions.

They don’t put in the hours, the dollars or the people to do what they claim to do.  They decide (what to cover)…but they do not report, at least with nothing like the level of effortof their competitors.

So, to the proposition that Fox News is not a news organization: it has been shown that Fox News differs substantially from CNN in its journalistic efforts.

As CNN generally regarded is a news organization, then the fact that Fox does not compare with its rival demonstrates that it is not a conventional journalistic operation.

That which to be proved has been demonstrated…or more briefly …


Update: There is, of course, a reason that Fox has opted for the entertainment model over the news organization approach.  It works.

*Just in case you were wondering about what that distinction means in practice:  Obama and his aides say they take extra precautions when dealing with Fox, viewing them as an advocacy outlet for their political opponents.  Nixon’s men wanted to unleash the IRS (and CIA-trained burglers) on those that offended them.  What part of that difference is hard to understand.

**And yes, I do understand that applying the transitive property to objects like news operations, putative or otherwise, contains pitfalls not found in arithmetic.  Just havin’ some fun, y’all; don’t get too literal on me here.

***These numbers don’t match the above totals because they reflect the original budget plans for 2008, and the totals above reflect actual expenditures; I don’t have access to the updated breakdown, but the points that follow track the decision making of the networks, and these budget intentions contain the decision makers priorities.

Image: Norman Rockwell, “Fact & Fiction,” cover illustration for  Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, vol. 124, no. 3201, 11 January 1917

Brain Candy Whilst More Serious Posts Gestate: Really, Really Bad Parking Day`

October 26, 2009

Via Jonathan Turley, this is yet another reason to sneer at SUV drivers.  Truly, kids, don’t try this at home:

In Defense of Reading: Jim Lefferts Guest Posting On Books That Will Reward Your Gaze

October 25, 2009

Jim Leffert, a fellow member of perhaps the most broad-spectrum Jewish congregation in existence, Harvard Hillel’s Worship and Study Minyan, reads more than almost anyone I can think of, and writes about his voracious and small “c” catholic habit for the benefit of that congregation and on GoodReads.  His latest is below.  Winter’s coming…stock up on books.  (And no, I didn’t post this because of the mention in passing of my latest book below, but mention it he does, for which my thanks.)

If I were to weigh in, I’d add that I fully share Jim’s enthusiasm for Stone’s Trial of Socrates — perhaps more than fully, given that I didn’t feel the book slowed down at all; I found it gripping throughout.  I haven’t read the new Ian Pears, but I think I was somewhat less caught up in his Instance of the Fingerpost than Jim was.  Reading his comments below, though, makes me think I should take a second look.  And my thanks to Jim for alerting me to the Sister Pelagia stories.  I’d never heard of them, but they sound like the kind of haute beach reading I truly love.

Anyway — the point of this all is to celebrate the book any which way we can, so read, then read.

The Trial of Socrates

By I.F. Stone

So you think that Socrates is deservedly one of civilization’s culture heroes for his pioneering use of the dialectic method in philosophy and for being a martyr for philosophic inquiry when he ran afoul of the Athens city fathers, who sentenced him to death by swallowing hemlock? I.F. Stone doesn’t think so, and in this book he lays out evidence to explain why the democratic government of Athens tried and executed him. Stone may not excuse the decision to execute Socrates but he makes a case for why it happened.

Analyzing a variety of ancient sources, he demonstrates that Socrates had great contempt for Athens’ democratic form of government and continually ridiculed it to his young tutees; energetically advocated an “enlightened” rule by autocratic dictators; did little or nothing to speak out against or stand up against the dictatorial regimes that periodically took over Athens; and points out that his tutees, who were all from the aristocratic class, included two of the main dictators.

Stone also argues that had Socrates wished to, he could have persuaded the jury to give him a lesser punishment. Instead, because Socrates wanted to die, he baited the jury and goaded them into imposing this unusually severe sentence. Stone comes out swinging on the first page of this book and never lets up. He fires away: Socrates loved to poke holes in others’ reasoning to make them look stupid but did not offer a viable alternative to others’ thinking; furthermore, he didn’t take his wife and children’s well-being into consideration when he goaded his captors into making him kick the bucket. The book moves a little slowly in some places, but all in all, it offers an enlightening analysis of Greek philosophy, politics, literature, political history, and legal practices as he explicates the most memorable legal case of the 5th century B.C.E.

Molly and Me

By Gertrude Berg

Aviva Kempner’s fine documentary about Gertrude Berg, titled “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”, led me to check out Berg’s 1961 memoir. According to Kempner, Berg was an important culture hero who translated the immigrant Jewish experience into a prime time nationwide radio and later television show that lasted a quarter of a century. A creative force acknowledged as the inventor of the sitcom, Berg conceived the characters, hired the actors, and wrote every episode.

Molly and Me is a charming, entertaining, and at times poignant portrait of Berg’s immigrant family’s struggles and strivings (sort of an “All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown”), her experiences growing up at her family’s Catskills hotel, and her entry into and life in show business. Unfortunately, about 60 pages before the end, the book runs out of steam. By now, she is a famous and accomplished performer and the only suspense she offers is how much will she worry and sweat and, by her own account, torment the people around her as opening night approaches, before finding out that she is again triumphant.

It turns out that the real reason that the book sags is that Berg omits the heartbreaking story of how the blacklist claimed her co-star, Philip Loeb and led eventually to the demise of her show, despite Berg’s efforts to protect him and keep the show going. For this story, you’ll have to go to Kempner’s fine film, to Glenn Smith’s biography of Berg, or to the thinly fictionalized account offered in the film The Front, in which Loeb’s best friend Zero Mostel portrays a character based on him.

Stone’s Fall

By Iain Pears

With The Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears created a new kind of masterwork—a historical novel constructed intricately to work like clockwork, which glides sequentially from one subjective narrator to another, so that each section unveils new explanations that upend the previous narrator’s picture of the characters’ motivations and actions . In addition, this remarkable novel draws the reader deep into 17th century England’s skullduggery and political and geopolitical machinations.  A subsequent novel, The Dream of Scipio, presented three stories, spanning 15 centuries. Continuously inter-cutting from one story to another, that book intertwined the three human dramas as it brought to life the political and ideological backdrop of each story and era.

Pears’ latest novel, Stone’s Fall, is as ambitious as An Instance of the Fingerpost. Three sequential sections, each with a different narrator, piece together a story that continues from 1867 until 1910 (the sections are in reverse chronological order). The mystery to be explored (as introduced years later in the early 1950’s) is why British titan of industry John Stone plummeted from the window of his town home in 1909. Was it an accident? Suicide? Was he pushed? Stone’s alluring and mysterious widow hires a crime reporter from a London newspaper not to solve this mystery, but rather to tie up a serious loose end that is critical for unblocking the disposition of Stone’s estate. The reporter is seriously mesmerized by the widow (leading me to wonder at times if the book was going to turn out to be a remake of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), but the twists and turns of their relationship merely set off the labyrinthine plot.

As if A Tale of Two Cities was insufficient, Pears gives us three—London, Paris, and Venice–plus side visits to the provinces. The book is a rich brew that includes not only the characters’ personal dramas, but also crises in the British and European financial system (in this respect, the book is a sequel to Tom Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter), industrial and technological history of the late 19th and early 20th century military industrial complex (a la Richard Powers), geopolitical machinations, scandal, skullduggery, and many other ingredients that convey a sense of time and place. At times, the characters go into overdrive in order to an ending that left me disappointed, but Stone’s Fall is an absorbing and rewarding read nonetheless.

Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockeral

By Boris Akunin

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

Boris Akunin (the pseudonym of Georgian writer Grigory Chkhartishvili) has written 11 detective novels, taking place in the 19th century, which feature Russian secret agent and detective Erast Fandourin. Five of these novels have appeared in English. The present book is the third volume in a more recent series that takes place in the waning years of the Russian Empire—around 1910—and that feature an inquisitive and adventurous nun, Sister Pelagia, as the hero.

Having missed the first two installments, I am unaware of the extraordinary and tragic events that led young Polina Andreevna to take up the habit and retire to a convent in rural Zavolzhsk by the Volga River, where she serves as headmistress for the local school. In this book, however, Sister Pelagia soon leaves the monastery and travels far afield, as she seeks to solve the murder of a man believed to be Manuila, a charismatic Russian preacher and founder of a sect of Russians who want to live like Jews and travel to the Holy Land. Manuila is despised both by xenophobic and anti-Semitic elements

in Russia and by the established Jewish religious community, but the reasons for his attempted assassination are unclear. When the murdered man turns out to be a sect member who was posing as Manuila for security reasons, Sister Pelagia resolves to find the real Manuila in order to protect him from harm and to resolve the mystery of who is after him. SisterPelagia is also vexed by a vision that she has involving a cave and a red cockerel.

Sister Pelagia’s ally in her detective efforts is Matvei Bentsionovich Berdichevsky, a public prosecutor who is himself an assimilated Jew who has converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Berdichevsky’s zeal to get to the bottom of this mystery is amplified by his infatuation with Sister Pelagia. As Berdichevsky pursues his leads deep into the heart of reactionary governmental and quasi-governmental circles, we encounter the political convulsions and intrigues of the time, and particularly the anti-Semitic hostility that boiled over periodically into pogroms and later, into the infamous Beiliss blood libel trial (as detailed in Maurice Samuel’s fine book, Blood Accusation). While Berdichevsky investigates in Zhitomir and St. Petersburg, Sister Pelagia, forced to flee Russia, travels to the Holy Land, where she encounters a group of Zionist Halutzim, a Palestinian Arab guide, a group of homosexuals who are re-establishing Sodom with the help of an American millionaire, and the assassin, who is determined to eliminate her and Manuila.

I was impressed by Akunin’s extensive use of material from Jewish sources throughout the story. The twists and turns of the tale are truly impressive, and one may find humor, pathos, rationalistic ratiocination, political intrigue, and spiritual mysteries nicely brought together.

Jim Leffert is a psychologist who practices in Cambridge and Framingham, Massachusetts.

Image:  Lilly Martin Spencer, “Reading the Legend” 1852

Live Blogging President Obama’s Energy Address At MIT

October 23, 2009

Star studded crowd.  Gov. Patrick, Sen. Kerry, and local congressman Mike Capuano are here.

12:45:  Obama takes the podium.  Wild applause.  This is Obama country.

First words:  Thank you MIT!

In joke:  “I’ll be here a while.  I understand a bunch of engineering students have put my motorcade on top of Building Ten.

Reference image:

12:49:  Politician shout outs are now over.  Now the president is touting all the lovely things being done at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).  Makes the link to the notion of Americans as innovators willing to take risks on projects that might fail — and on the US as a place willing to support such efforts.

References Lincoln’s move during the Civil War to establish Land Grant Colleges; Roosevelt’s signing of the GI bill; after Sputnik, US invests in space technology….

So, the claim is being made that we have always been about innovation; that ambition is “in our DNA” — a phrase I understand and loathe.

But now — the economic challenges are huge.  “Economy in which we all share opportunity is one in which we all share crisis.” Said in context of globalized economy.

Says:  Energy that powers our economy also undreminse our security and threatens our planet”

12:53  Nation that gets to clean energy wins the next economic revolution “I want America to be that nation.”  (applause)

That’s why, he says, the stimulus act has more clean energy funding than ever appropriated before…summarizes what the 89 billion bucks in the stimulus packae will go to fund.

Talks about a Massachusetts project — a test facility for wind turbine blades.  It is notable that Obama so readily digs at least one layer down into the technical details; its a rhetorically powerful way to claim not just support for a good cause, but the real value of that cause, the notion that we are spending cash on things that matter.  Smart guy, I’ve heard.

Many props to Governor Patrick — local Mass politics are a subtext here.

12:59:  Pivot to the comprehensive legislation we need and discussing the implications of Kerry’s climate change bill.  Mentions cleaner fossil fuels; biofuels, nuclear, wind, waves and sun.

Saying that there is a long, planned, intelligible path from an economy powered by fossil fuel dependence/carbon pollution threats to one that is sustainable; not making the claim that we can get there in one swoop.

Talks about DOD and business leaders and others coming round to the notion that global warming and dependence on fossil fuels is a national security and economic threat…making the case for the necessity, not merely the desirability of action.

Again, it’s an interesting strategy rhetorically; it seems to me that he is working hard to box in opponents to a smaller and less defensible position.  I hope it works.

He says explicitly that the opponents are being marginalized — but that they will fight harder as we get closer to a bill.

“They will say that we are destroying our eocnomy…when it is”what we got now that’s threatening it.

“We’re going to have to work on those folks.  But there is a more dangerous myth — because we are all complicit in it.”

That there is nothing we can do “it’s pessimism” …that politics are broken etc…

1:01:  That implies we can’t solve problems any more, says POTUS, and he knows that can’t be true….we’ve seen it at MIT and elsewhere…we’ve done it before (electricity) etc.

Writing teacher here.  This is an ugly phrase:  of innovators “they will lead us in the future as they have done so in the past.”

Can’t quite get my head around that one.

Ends with a pep paragraph…we can do this…we’re Americans, and we’re damn good at this kind of thing.

Last thoughts from your blogger:

He’s a good speaker, which we knew.  He’s smart as hell, which we also knew.  He’s a political process man.  This had no new initiatives or proposals in it, nor even a central, strong outline of how the specific actions discussed add up to the path to a sustainable energy future some decades out.

Rather, this speech seemed more or less to lay down a marker:  we’ve got some things going…we need now to pass the next piece of legislation — Kerry’s cap and trade plus other stuff bill is the one the President specifically referenced, along with the House bill already passed.

The praise for the various specific projects and research initiatives were designed to answer critics who say that we can’t escape fossil fuel use Most of the speech by running time was devoted to various general and specific paeans to the capacity of Americans to get this part of the job done.

Given that everybody, and especially me, are critics, here’s what I thought the speeh missed most:  I wanted to hear in this context a real and dire description of what failure here would mean, not just for the environment, but for the economy and safety of US citizens en masse and individually.

That is — I think it’s pretty well established that projecting the dire consquences of a 4 degree warming is still a hard thing to grasp (though this map is a good place to start).  But if you talk about the cost of wars, or even merely of the budget  year over year for Centcom…if you talk about clean energy jobs lost to other nations even now (see e.g. this story on the Chinese vs. American economic edge in solar energy products.)…if you talk about the lives lost here at home through the pollution being caused now by our current energy use pattern (18,o00 a year according to this report, about the same number as homicides for the last year I could pull the data quickly.  (See this CDC fact sheet and click through to the PDF  listed as the source for the summary numbers.)…if you go after the harm we suffer now through our dependence on our current energy mix, then the urgency for change and the willingness to assume risk in the service of that change will go up.

To be fair:  he did very clearly make the case that powerful interests in this area, like DOD, understand the implications of inaction and now favor significant energy policy change.  But he didn’t bring the reasons why home and down to the you and me level as sharply as I would have liked.

President Obama has the best pulpit in the world to preach this.  He has the right temperament too, by which I mean not his famous cool, but his genuine optimism, his sense that no problem is too hard for us to tackle.  That side of him was on display in full measure today, and I liked it.  But I think he needs to light more of a fire under us (sorry) on the other side, to remind us the most dangerous option we have right now is to stand pat.

And that’s my $.02

I know it’s a serious subject, but…

October 22, 2009

This line cracks me up for all the wrong reasons:

“Music should never be used as torture,” said [Roseanne] Cash. “It’s beyond the pale. It’s hard to even think about.”

Now I like Roseanne Cash’s music, and her dad is a god to me…

…but really, if the music business does not wish to get entangled in torture, we’d never hear stuff like this. (funny bad — maybe the Geneva Conventions don’t apply)

Or this. (really, really, awful.  Warm up the courtroom at the Hague.)

Or, especially and always, this. (You know what’s on the other side of that link. Don’t go there. Just don’t.)

My Workplace Is Cooler Than Yours: Fun With Light And Bullets Edition

October 22, 2009

So, a couple of days ago I post some distressingly entrancing video of bullets punching holes in various things.  That attracted the attention of the most excellent Jim Bales, Assistant Director of MIT’s Edgerton Center, which is one of the real jewels of the undergraduate experience here, and the heir and monument to one of the Institute’s patron deities, Doc Edgerton himself.  (Some sample images here, a few of the iconic ones here.)

Jim extended hospitality, in an exchange of emails that evoked one line I never expected to hear within the academic cloister.  As a result, yesterday morning, I made my way up to the eyrie on the top floor of MIT’s central campus to witness a little of the sweet, stop-motion Edgerton magic in action.  And today, I received the product of the work done whilst I marvelled.

I bet this has never happened to your business card:


And just in case that’s not cool enough, how about this:*

three crayons bullett

So what did you do at work yesterday?

*Instructions given before the shot:  “When shooting crayons (or eggs), keep your mouth shut.”

Good advice.

Images:  “Sic Semper BFOs”  (BFO=Business Fetish Object)

“But Is It Art? (AKA Garfunkel’s Blues)”

Both photos presented here courtesy of the photographers:  Jasmin Baek, Elizabeth deRegt, Eric Fernandez, and Brandon Pung, none of whom are to blame for my titling whimsy.

Look below the fold for a bonus photo.


Not My Usual Patch…but this line brought back such fond memories

October 21, 2009

2nd Update: I realize I wasn’t being entirely clear. What’s striking about Siskind’s nonsense is not simply its content, wild enough, but that she wrote this not in the heat of the election and/or its immediate aftermath, but this month, after the spectacular melt down of whatever remained of temporary-Governor Palin’s plausibility. That’s what made Siskind’s doubling down so engrossing, in the same way one can’t look aside from a seven car pileup in the next lane.


Led to the astonishing (I’m in my first-cup of coffee glow, still, hence the politesse) Amy Siskind by Steve M., I chanced to bask in the glory of this line:

“I am a lifelong Democrat who for the first time in my life voted Republican in the 2008 elections. I did this for one reason: McCain selected a woman as his running mate.”

Has Ms. Siskind forgotten that Samantha Bee had nailed this argument long before?

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Has Ms. Siskind really concluded that there is no bar so low that she would choose chromosomal complement over any judgment of fitness for the job?

Does she really, in this October of our discontents actually think that the Sara Palin of fact, rather than form and fantasy, would as Vice President allow her to sleep soundly at night?

If so, I’m impressed.

Horrified, but impressed.

That is all.

Update: It seems to me that Siskind is an example of what DougJ correctly excoriates as the jackass quality of high-Village contrarianism.  Siskind is a dull writer (not terrible, just not capable — or interested, perhaps — in delivering any pleasure in her use of language); she’s a deeply pedestrian analyst (Palin trumps Obama because he merely celebrated the NCAA women’s basketball champs, whilst she actually played XX chromosome prep ‘ball); and she’s prone to twisting her facts to and past their tensile limit to defend her “daring” challenges to alleged conventional wisdom (Palin is “open-minded, a centrist and a party noncomformist,”  except, of course, she’s not*.)

But she’s a playah, Daily Beast and all that, because she’s hit on that tired old formula that turns on the embrace of (false) intellectual courage.  Kaus, as DougJ points out, is the past master this — but so is the laughable Jonah Goldberg, for those that care about the company they keep.

These are the folks that will say whatever it takes (as long as it is satisfying to that section of the elite that signs big paychecks) to paint the other side as dupes and/or liars.

Everyone thinks that climate change is a problem?  They’re wrong — and only, say, Leavitt and Dubner have the intellectual chops to see through the delusions.

Everyone believes that Obama will serve the cause of gender equality more than a McCain led, Palin involved adminstration?  They’re wrong — and only Siskind has the courage to point out that Palin is a woman…or something.

It’s a great tactic if all you want is a gig.  But beyond that, you’ve got to remember a couple of things.  You get a choice:  you can either resign yourself to the soul-eroding cynicism of knowing that you are uttering nonsense for the money/fame/cocktail party acclaim (are you listening, Peggy Noonan?); or you have to train yourself into belief, which means you have to be willing to will a noticeable drop in your intelligence, your ability to take the measure of the actual world around you in order to preserve that belief inviolate.

*This last link just to illustrate that whatever else she may be, Palin is not a “party nonconformist,” but rather a face of a recognizable wing of the GOP.

Now That’s a Class I Might Just Not Want To Teach…

October 20, 2009

My post of what Lovable Liberal called “bullet porn” has attracted some curious readers to this blog.  One of them emailed me today, with a line I truly never expected to read within the academic cocoon.

It read:

“I’m not  ready to trust my TA with a rifle.”

Now that’s a what I call a tough university.

Image:  Lorna Doone – Jan Ridd learns to fire a gun – from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore