Archive for December 2011

Program Notes: Tim Ferrris/Virtually Speaking Science edition.

December 19, 2011

Dear all,

I’ve been even more absent than usual, for which I apologize to any who’ve noticed (and cared about the absence) and wish coal-in-stockings for all those who were cheering the blessed silence.

Nothing disastrous has intervened — just a job that continues to kick my ass more than I thought likely, and seems, despite expectations, likely to keep on doing so for a while.  I’ve got a bunch of stuff half written (aka, with a title and or a piece of art cued up, and nothing much else).  But it may take me a while to get any of it out, which is why this bit of self-promotion is even less than usually paid-for by actual content.

But it’s at least plausible that some of you all might be interested in the conversation I’m going to have with science writer Tim Ferris this coming Wednesday.  This will be the third installment of my trial run as a once-a-month host there, and it will go out live at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m PST as a web broadcast on Blog Talk Radio, a Second Life farrago, and ultimately as an archived podcast.

Tim is best known as a writer about cosmology and the history of attempts to figure it all out.  His books include The Red Limit, Coming of Age in the Milky Way and The Whole Shebang to name just three out of a much longer bibliography. He’s a fine film-maker and presenter as well, with three feature docs on PBS to his credit — most recently, Seeing in the Dark, Tim’s love letter to amateur astronomy, cleverly interwoven with just enough memoir to welcome the viewer directly into the passion Tim shares with the subjects of this movie.  (Full disclosure — I worked with Tim on some of the early phases of this project, so I may not be the least biased reviewer…but still, it bears elegant witness to the essential truth that the sky is a pleasure open literally to anyone on earth.)

We will talk about some of this.  It would be foolish not to, given Tim’s wealth of knowledge, and because cosmology is in fine form these days.  But we’ll spend at least as much of the hour, maybe more, talking about Tim’s most recent book, The Science of Liberty, published last year. It is both a historical essay examining what Tim argues is the essential connection between liberalism and scientific thinking (and vice versa)  — and a polemic to advance the view that, as Tim puts it in the last paragraph of the book:

“…science and liberalism have an unequaled capacity for doing good — for reducing cruel ignorance and villainous certitude, encouraging freedom and effective government, promoting human rights, putting food in the mouths of the hungry and attainable prospects in their future.

I have some quibbles with details of his argument that leads to that point — we may get into one or two of them — but to that claim I say, in a perfectly secular way, Amen and Amen.

Come on down on Wednesday.  Should be interesting.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, (I know — but I couldn’t resist the pun), 1642

This Deceased Equine Quadriped Has Been Pretty Well Whacked, But…

December 13, 2011

…I’ve never thought enough was that much better than too much, so here, a brief (for me) reaction about the now-notorious Gene Marks piece in Forbes. (With apologies to ABL, DougJ, and John, all of whom get this “timely” thing waaaay better than yours truly.)

I popped these thoughts up in response to this piece over at WNYC, goaded by Marks’ smarmy attempt to justify himself in the comment thread:

Marks is a condescending twerp who fails to get the key difference between anecdote and data. Sure, the tools he describes are available to all; why then any income/class/social indicator gap?

If you don’t want to go all eugenics here, then the answer is either a noxious culture argument (the David Brooks gambit, frequently debunked) or the actual acknowledgement of social injustice and the impact of discrimination on the poor, the non-white, on the unprivileged.

But if you do that, then you have to acknowledge that some redress– action at the level of society, and not just the individual — is needed to address the reality of that injustice, the practical loss to our society that results, and the moral obligation that flows when you recognize a wrong being done.

But on the strength of his post, and especially on his mealy mouthed comments here and elsewhere, Marks doesn’t want  to obligate himself or his privileged buddies to pony up for such social action. So he chooses to ignore the reality of unequal opportunity.

So even if it’s true that hard work and tech are available to most/all, what Marks doesn’t get is that for many among us, even hard work and the use of all that lovely internet stuff won’t actually overcome the barriers raised by the reality of daily experience for many, many Americans.

Wanker!

Yeah, I know.  Quoting oneself is a sure sign of some kind of pathology. (“Enough about me. What do you think of  my hair?”)

But just to beat this dead horse one last time: I’ve used often enough the line that runs, with some variation, that is is exceptionally difficult to know that which your livelihood depends on your not knowing.  With that in mind, what strikes me most about Marks’ piece is how baldly it goes to the heart of our politics right now.  As noted above, the point of saying that kids of color have all that they need to succeed is both to dodge the bullet of paying for change, and, more deeply, to avoid confronting all the moral complexity of the reality of others’ experience.

Of course, that’s not a two-step unique to Marks.  It’s the core mental operation required to be a member of the “I got mine, Jack” caucus of the GOP.  Which is why it so important to bust apart the concept that individuals can prosper outside of society. I failed meme school — but in the metaphors I trade in day to day, the way I phrase it to myself is that atoms alone have little value; molecules interacting…now you’re talking.  Elizabeth Warren says much the same notion vastly more effectively.  But however we get the message across, that’s what’s up for grabs over the next year.

Image:  Benjamin West, Queen Charlotte,  c. 1776.

Somewhere, Doc Is Smiling

December 13, 2011

To the annals of the unbelievably cool, add this:  a camera that can image one trillion frames per second.  That’s fast enough to make a movie of light in motion.

Let me say that again:  this apparatus is sufficiently precise and capable of such extreme slow motion photography that it can make a moving images of light in transit:

My favorite part of the movie itself (as opposed to the ridiculously cool tech and the gorgeous underlying science) is the choice of target, amidst all that ferociously exact equipment.  Yup.  Coke does rule our world.

From the MIT press release linked above, here’s a basic explanation of what’s going on:

The system relies on a recent technology called a streak camera, deployed in a totally unexpected way. The aperture of the streak camera is a narrow slit. Particles of light — photons — enter the camera through the slit and pass through an electric field that deflects them in a direction perpendicular to the slit. Because the electric field is changing very rapidly, it deflects late-arriving photons more than it does early-arriving ones.

The image produced by the camera is thus two-dimensional, but only one of the dimensions — the one corresponding to the direction of the slit — is spatial. The other dimension, corresponding to the degree of deflection, is time. The image thus represents the time of arrival of photons passing through a one-dimensional slice of space…

…But it’s a serious drawback in a video camera. To produce their super-slow-mo videos, Velten, Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar and Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry, must perform the same experiment — such as passing a light pulse through a bottle — over and over, continually repositioning the streak camera to gradually build up a two-dimensional image. Synchronizing the camera and the laser that generates the pulse, so that the timing of every exposure is the same, requires a battery of sophisticated optical equipment and exquisite mechanical control. It takes only a nanosecond — a billionth of a second — for light to scatter through a bottle, but it takes about an hour to collect all the data necessary for the final video. For that reason, Raskar calls the new system “the world’s slowest fastest camera.”

Bonus  trillion fps eye-candy videos here.

And yup, somewhere, Doc Edgerton is one happy camper.

 

 

Because I am a Kind Man…

December 12, 2011

…And wish only the best for you all, may I present the Honorable Rick Perry, Governor of the Great (Secessionist) State of Texas, tragically mistaken in his quest for the nearest ZZ Top venue.  (The really good stuff starts around 4:45)

My thanks to Marc Abrahams, best known as the impressario of the IgNobels and the Annals of Improbable Research, for turning me on to this forgotten gem.

(To be fair:  Perry does his job just fine here.  Governating puts all kinds of demands on one’s sense of the surreal, and the man with the hair holds up pretty well.  But still.  It really is a moment of high-camp absurdity.)

Man, I Wish I’d Written Something This Nasty

December 11, 2011

They just don’t make invective like they used to.

I am something of an insomniac, and one of my tricks to get back to sleep when those 4 a.m. broadcasts from KFKD* just won’t let go is to pull out at random a volume from my copy of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  That’s the last pre-World War I version, and it contains some truly brilliant Edwardian (and Victorian) prose.  (See, for example, Swinburne’s entry on Mary, Queen of Scots.)

So on last Wednesday or Thursday night — or rather, on Thursday or Friday a.m., 0-dark-hundred — I found myself nose-deep in Volume V, Camorra to Cape Colonyand cam across this in the entry on Campbell, John Campbell, Baron, who in 1841 gained the post of Lord Chancellor of Ireland for a grand total of 16 days.  The controversy that arose over that appointment cast him into mostly self-imposed political exile for most of the 1840s.  As the Britannica entry put it, that was when “the unlucky dream of literary fame troubled Lord Campbell’s leisure.”

Now, y’all may know I enjoy the odd bit of invective.  I may even have been called a bit harsh in some of my commentary on a few of our scribbling friends of the rightish persuasion.  But I can only dream of scorching earth with the zeal, brio and sheer music of this, on Campbell’s project:

The conception of this work is magnificient; its execution wretched.  Intended to evolve a history of jurisprudence from the truthful portraits of England’s greatest lawyers, it merely exhibits the ill-digested results of desultory learning, without a trace of scientific symmetry or literary taste, without a spark of that divine imaginative sympathy which alone can give flesh and spirit to the dead bones of the past, and without whcih the present becomes an unitelligable maze of mean and selfish ideas.  A charming style, a vivid fancy, exhaustive research were not to be expected from a hard-worked barrister; but he must certainly be held repsonsible for the frequent plagiarisms, the still more frequent inaccuracies of detail, the colossal vanity which obrudes on almost every page, the hasty insinuations against the meory of the great departed who were to him as giants, and the petty sneers whcih he condescends to print against his own contemporaries, with whom he was living from day to day on terms of apparently sincere friendship.

Smokin’.  Just an orotund symphony of Victorian disdain.  I love it.

And strangely, I just can’t place who it is amongst us know that this characterization of Campbell’s work calls to mind….

(Don’t tase me, bro!)

Image:  English School, Mary, Queen of Scots, in Captivity, 1575

*Ann Lamott’s name for the radio station in your head

No, No, No, Frothy Mixture. The Question Is: Does Natural Selection Believe in You?

December 10, 2011

Missed this yesterday, but via TPM, this,  from the candidate with the unfortunate Google problem:

Discussing controversial classroom subjects such as evolution and global warming, Santorum said he has suggested that“science should get out of politics” and he is opposed to teaching that provides a “politically correct perspective.”

(From the Des Moines Register.)

Well then, dude.  That settles it.  I guess the Santorum Administration…[pause to quell my alternating gusts of laughter and nausea]…will balance that damn budget by axing the NIH and the NSF, for starters.

I really have nothing else to add, except this:  I just hope (really — I mean this) that no member of the Santorum family ever gets infected with a religiously incorrrect MRSA bug.  Santorum may not believe in evolution, but our old friend staph?  Mr. aureus (et al.)  sure does…

 Image:  Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) 1881

Megan McArdle Orders the Burlwood Dash For Her Tumbrel

December 4, 2011

Blogger’s Note: Zandar (apologies…) and Asiangrrl goaded me into diving once more into the swamp that is Megan McArdle’s prose.  But this is it.  There’s real and much more interesting work to be done out there, good stuff to read and (I hope) write.  And it’s clear that I can’t do what folks like TBogg and DougJ have mastered — the precision strike, 300 words and out, that leave the divine Ms. MM’s latest smoking in the ruins.  There’s no “I can handle just one more toke” self-delusion available to me.

So I’m quitting. Cold turkey.

This is the last McArdle post for at least six months — and I’ve empowered my colleague, Seth Mnookin, to tase me if I slip.

Also:  to steal Cosma Shalizi’s customary phrase, here is an attention conservation notice.  What follows is about 2,700 words vivisecting a 1,000 word or so book review.  It’s John Foster Dulles-scale overkill. It’s just me lancing a boil.  That’s all.  Read it at your own pleasure — but don’t come complaining to me that you’ll never get those minutes back.  We cool?

_______________________

My uncle, the ex RA officer, once told me the grim term-of-art British soldiers adapted to describe IRA bomb-makers inept enough to blow themselves up.  They had scored, it was said, an own-goal.

So it is, (without bloodshed, thankfully) that we must read the latest from our favorite Marie Antoinette re-enactor, Megan McArdle, writing in last weekend’s Wall St. Journal.  (And yes, I know DougJ got here first, along with all you would expect from the Balloon Juice commentariat, but what good is snark without oversnark, I say.  Charlie Pierce too.  (Update: and, of course, the invaluable Susan of Texas.)  Well, say I, a feast is as good as enough, is it not.?

Just to recap:  last Saturday, McArdle wrote what was ostensibly a book review that devolved rapidly into a celebration of McArdle’s own purchasing habits and the particular form of her pursuit of happiness.

There’s a lot that could be said about the miserably parched self-and-world view that informs that defense, but the rest of the column is equally egregious, so, in my usual succinct fashion, I decided to have a whack at it:

McArdle begins by announcing that she has bought herself a $1,500 food processor/cooking robot, a Buck Rodgers gadget called a Thermomix. This machine’s claim to fame is that it combines a chopper/grinder/stirrer function with a precision scale and a heating element.  Toss stuff into its mixer bowl in the right order and in what the machine tells you are the right amounts, press some buttons in the correct sequence, and standardized results accrue.

Now, contrary to the outrage in DougJ’s thread, I’m going to say up front that I have no problem with McArdle lusting after this, buying one — it’s her money to blow, after all — and concluding that this kind of automated cooking satisfies her urges.  I’ve dumped most of my sideways snark on this question to the footnote, for anyone that cares.*

No, what gets me, pretty much as always with this writer’s stuff, is her ferocious disregard for basic craft, and what I think is the essential bargain journalists make with their readers.

So, to begin, here she is, ex cathedra, on the book nominally under review, James Roberts’ Shiny Objects:

It’s a thorough survey of both academic research on consumerism and basic finance advice. Still, I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before somewhere around page 200…

We have a familiar McArdle rhetorical cheat here.  “I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before around page 200…” as if her familiarity with this literature is itself somehow dispositive.  I’ll give you that she’s not quite saying the arguments are wrong, but it is a purely uncheckable diminuition of her antagonist’s authority.

Next:

And well before then Mr. Roberts had fallen into some of the terrible habits of the genre. Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, he still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Oh, snap!  It’s a measure of McArdle’s particular qualities that she manages to transform whatever publication chooses to admit her to its space into that privileged corner of the school steps where the Mean Girls live.

I mean, seriously:  working at jobs we like for money less than that the 1 % can command so warps the character as to turn us unfortunate journalists and professors into hypocritical scolds.  Damn.  I’m short on my month’s quota of vituperation and visible displays of hair-shirt couture.

Of course, this is (a) simple pre-emption:  “I’m not a culinary snob, wielding cash to distract as I chase the lives of my betters.  You’re the snob!  So there!”

And (b) it’s nonsense.  Professors and journalists are not badly paid by any reasonable standard. Roberts himself is a professor of marketing at Baylor, and as of the 2009 mean salary for such faculty was $138,000.   That’s not Prada and hot and cold running Dom rich, but it’s not bad coin by anyone’s standards, and applied to the cost of living in Robert’s Waco, Texas, that’s a sum that will set you up very nicely indeed.

All this is crushing flies with a jack-hammer, I know, but the point is, I think, pretty damn obvious:  McArdle hasn’t or won’t do the work to test the question on the table: whether or not money buys you happiness.  So she throws monkey faeces at the wall instead.

To continue:

Here are some of the things that upset him and that “document our preoccupation with status consumption”: Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

I’ve long noted that McArdle has, to put it kindly, some reading comprehension problems; they are manifest again it this paragraph. She writes down a series of items.  Note that she does not quote — somehow she’s culled this set of items from what could be a single passage, or might be half the book, which would affect the interpretation of what Roberts was actually saying.

Now look at the key claim:  “This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio.”

Do you see a pattern of consumption in that catalogue?  Iphones and McMansions — just points on a single cultural and aspirational continuum, right?  a Gulfstream falls uniquely onto the same folks’ bucket lists as Abercrombie and Fitch products?  This is a set of cultural markers that clearly distinguishes Limbaugh dittoheads from those who shop at Murray’s Sturgeon?

What’s actually going on here is McArdle distorting what Roberts is trying to say, even  within her own skewed presentation of his case, in order to transform that serious argument into a spitball fight about class and privilege.  But everybody wants something on that list, and many of us want a lot of it, which is what I understand Roberts to be saying:  the pressure to consume affects us all, no matter what we got or where we live.  Oh — and I’d have to say — it’s pretty bold, to put the nicest spin on it, for a Manhattan-bred, beltway insider like McArdle to lecture a guy living in Waco about what ordinary Americans want.

Really, McArdle’s rush to contemn her neighbors for the class snobbery she imagines she hears (make the lambs stop screaming!) sounds to my suspicious ears to be something that has crossed the writer’s mind.  There’s just a little too much specific desire in that “bling…plasma…rims” catalogue for me to trust her claim as to who spoke such slurs and who listened.  And as for that ” considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions,” I bet Roberts didn’t mention $1,500 food choppers either.

Onward!

Consider the matter of status competition. Mr. Roberts, like so many before him, argues that conspicuous consumption is an unhappy zero-sum game. But this is of course true of most forms of competition: Most academics I know can rank-order everyone in the room at a professional conference with the speed and precision of a courtier at Versailles.

Oh yeah?  McArdle must know a particularly miserable set of academics, which, now that I think on it, is not that farfetched.  All I can say is that at the conferences I attend, McArdle’s kind of high school (yes, that again) attention to who among us are the kewl kats is not the defining dynamic of the meetings.

Of course, the real stupidity here, beyond the “trust-me” bullsh*t inherent in the “most academics I know” approach to reporting, is the idea that academic exchange is merely the arena in which status competition plays out.  This is the shorthand response, but academics are members of a professional community.  They go to conferences to communicate results.   There is competition, and you notice the Nobels in the room and so on.  But most academics understand that better work by anyone raises the status of the entire group as well as of the individuals involved.  Success in physics or  geochronology or the study of counterfeiting and late 17th century finance (a plug, here, in case you were wondering (Kindle edition too!) is not  a zero-sum game.  That McArdle thinks it is explains much.

Any competition, from looks to money to academic credentialing, both consumes a lot of resources and makes many of the participants feel bad about themselves.

No.  See above.  For a beautiful account of the meaning of competing, and not just the competition, check out what is in my opinion the single best book about a sporting event ever written in America, John McPhee’s Levels of the Game.

Actually, I have to say that to say that this passage from McArdle actually made me feel a ghost of pity for her.  Such a direct glimpse into the poverty of her soul!  Setting aside all else:  what a drag it would be to be her!  (Apologies, Bobby D.)

There’s more — I’ve only covered the first half of a two-book review.  I just don’t have the strength to go through that latter half, beyond noting that it took me all of a couple of moments to find that in trashing his book she makes one claim that is simply at odds with what Rutgers economic historian James Livingston, actually says. It’s not “rich savers,” as she has it, whom Livingston charges with inflating bubbles.  Rather, he argues, “corporate profits …[are] just restless sums of surplus capital, ready to flood speculative markets at home and abroad.”  I have little doubt that similar problems obtain with the balance of her review, but there comes a point where even I can take no more.

So one last thought, really an explanation about why it is McArdle so gets under my skin.

That would be because she so diminishes the craft I have spent decades learning and now teach:  how to write about matters of fact; how to be a journalist.  I’ve detailed some, (by no means all) of the kinds of errors of argument and interpretation in this one little fish-wrap piece that make a mockery of the notion of a bargain of honesty with one’s readers.  But I’ve left till now the tic that McArdle displays over and over again that tells you that she simply can’t be trusted.  And that would be her near-constant invocation of strangely generic sources.

Journalists often use anonymous sources, and it’s always an issue.  But good journalists provide enough of the context of anonymity to give the reader a chance to gauge how likely it is that Mr. X actually said what he is reported to have done, and that Ms. Y is actually knowledgeable enough to be a sufficient authority for whatever the reporter asserts.  The guy inside Philip Morris who’s identified only as a Big Tobacco insider — that’s someone who’s need for anonymity the reader understands, and if he says that the tobacco companies knew about the smoking-cancer connection since the fifties — and oh, by the way, here are the shopping bags full of documents — then you know what you’re dealing with.

But those “neighbors” whom, presumably, McArdle engaged in friendly conversation, no doubt hiding her overflowing disdain with all the subtlety and grace for which she is so well known…I don’t think so.

Rather, whenever you read the broad cultural pronouncements of our Village betters, remember this:  the local taxi driver, the “concerned Democrat,” any of Megan McArdle’s usefully clueless liberal “friends”…they don’t exist.  Not in any meaningful sense, at any rate, and any actual journalist knows this, as does any competent editor.

And in the end, that’s why I’ve got to quit this beat for a while — a long time I hope.  McArdle has disproportionate influence, or at least, a much bigger megaphone than her own merits could command.  But in the end, she’s just not that interesting.  There are better things in life to do than to spend precious moment, much less hours, contemplating the train wreck that passes for her body of work.

Oh — and one more thing.  Whilst I’ll defend to the death McArdle’s right to spend her cash on any damn gadget she wants (see the footnote immediately below), that doesn’t mean I won’t snicker at it.  And yup, a $1,500 kitchen robot is pretty much an après moi, le déluge kind of item.

Me, I’d rather Occupy My Kitchen, and dine (as last night) on roast capon with a pasta-and-sausage stuffing, squash and cippoline onions, sides, and an almond and pear tart, home made.  Did I mention that in bamboozling my beloved into marrying me, I gained a former pro chef as a roommate?  I believe I did.

*Go to it, I say.  I don’t even think that McArdle’s appreciation for what the machine can do is as hopelessly misconceived as her examples suggest. While making a béchamel sauce hardly requires such an investment, still I can see the convenience, and in the right context, some real value of such a device.

That would be in a professional kitchen, where the goal of uniform repetition is paramount.  Once you work out the recipe for something you want your restaurant to add to its menu, a machine that automates the process of turning out consistent results every time has an obvious value.  For the home cook?  Well, Nathan Myhrvold has one, and if you are his kind of cook, one fascinated by the application of technology and precision measurement/regulation to cooking (and with the budget to sustain your fancy), then fine.

If you’re McArdle, less compelled by molecular gastronomy than the kind of kitchen olympics that leads one to write a  phrase like “…perfect hollandaise and flawless béchamel can be produced in minutes with virtually no effort,” then clearly, this kind of robot can help mask any flaws in your basic kitchen technique. And, hell, take her word for it that the gizmo is fast and convenient, and that those qualities enable her to make food she likes more often than she previously could.  As McArdle perfectly correctly says — that’s a boon, for her.

There is a price to be paid, it seems to me:  a tedious leveling of one’s cooking.  Once the robot gets going, all you can do is accept the price of automation:  you get consistent results, but you can only experiment by rerunning the whole process — making the same dish again — for each change that might seem desirable.  When you cook by more pedestrian methods, you dip and intervene.  All in all, it’s a perfect device to turn the ambitious but not-terribly-talented home cook’s kitchen into an amateur version of the sort of restaurant Calvin Trillin marvelously dubbed the Maison de la Casa House.  But all in all, if you’ve got the money and you want the crutch — hell, why not?

Images: Joachim Wtewael, Kitchen Scene, 1605.

Jean Clouet (attr.), Charles IX of France with racket,  1552.

Bartholomeus van Bassen, The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, c. 1620-30.