Archive for January 2013

On England’s Pleasant Pastures…

January 29, 2013

Sometimes the internet is a swamp in which time — hell, vast swaths of life — get sucked into oblivion.  Sometimes the ‘tubes are merely a crush of blinkered Philistine pig-ignorance. I suppose that for some life online is just one long “kidz theze dayz” lament…

And then one comes across something like this:

This is thanks to my Imperial College science writer and twitter buddy, @AliceBell, who has thus introduced me to the bizarre world of BBC weather report homages — of which, without the ‘net, I would never have had knowledge.

(Because I love you: bonus Monty Python sketch with a connection to the post title.)

Latest from the Squid Clouds of Butt Hurt Beat

January 23, 2013

I gotta say, it’s getting bitter out there in the healthy drink world.


That would account for this story of butt-hurt Republican marketing, via the Harpers Weekly Review:

“I’m very open about it, very public about it, that I’m going to charge them a little bit more, and I have liberals come in and pay the extra dollar surcharge,” [George] Burnett said, referring to his unique pricing structure.

Yep, Burnett, the diehard supporter of domestic energy and longtime health food fan, charges those who identify themselves as liberals one dollar more for their drinks. The money, along with any tips received, is donated to conservative causes like The Heritage Foundation. [h/t @DylanByers’ twitter feed]

As Burnett’s shop is in the heart of Utah oil and gas country, it’s not particularly surprising that this isn’t much more than a gum-flapping exercise.  As of the date of this local story (Jan. 14) the smoothie merchant said that “all three liberals have been happy to pay” his liberal tax.

Still, this has to rank as one of the most pathetic forms of political expression I’ve come across in the more than three decades since I first achieved the franchise.  I suppose it may count as smart marketing in Burnett’s catchment area; the crowd that thinks buying cardboard chicken sandwiches in opposition to same-sex marriage is a peach of an idea would no doubt be willing to gulp down some yogurt drinks in solidarity with this attempt to stick it to the Liberal Man.

But as long as our opponents want to emphasize that they see us not merely as political adversaries but as illegitimate others, I’m actually a happy clam.  These are not the actions of a majority coalition.

And if by some sweet chance this guy starts to struggle to make his rent?  No tears, dude:  welcome to the free market.

Image: Pieter de Hooch, Woman Drinking with Soldiers, 1658.

Sermons in Stones

January 22, 2013

Plenty of folks have responded to what seems to me to have been an extraordinary Second Inaugural address by President Obama.  See two Jim Fallows posts for starters.  It was, as Fallows says, a striking speech on at least two levels:  that of content, with the president’s clear and unequivocal declaration of liberal intent; and that of rhetoric with its phrases infused with historical intent, American civic scripture, and compact, elegant, present-day exegesis.

But the symbolism within the speech did one aspect of the speech that hasn’t got much (any?) notice — perhaps because Chuck Schumer told the story, not Obama.

That is:  the setting of the president’s speech, the porch of the US Capitol, provided a visual and material rhetorical grace note to the claims on history and present urgency that President Obama expressed in words.

Here’s the background: design work had begun on a new dome  for the building in 1854, following an expansion of its two wings of the Capitol, completed in 1855.  That work was nowhere near complete on 4 March, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s first inauguration:


Work on the dome — or rather payment for the work — ceased for most of 1861.  The lead contractor on the project had $1.3 million worth of building materials on site — I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that you can see some  of the construction materials for the dome in the foreground of the image above — and decided it was better to keep going and hope that the federal government would pay up in time, which they did.  As the Historian of the Capitol, William Allen, notes the story that the new president himself  [PDF] ordered the continuation of the work is a myth — but the symbolic significance of the project didn’t escape Lincoln either.

The exact form of the Lincoln quote in reply to a question as to why spend money on architecture in the midst of war seems a bit apocryphal to me, but there seems to be a pretty broad recollection that he said something like  “if people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”  Certainly, when I interviewed him for this film, Allen emphasized how potent the ongoing construction was for the troops from all over the Union who mustered on the Mall before marching off to the forward positions of the Army of the Potomac.

The dome wasn’t quite complete in March, 1864, but it looked mostly as it does now — that towering white, grandly neo-classical confection, its domed shape a recognized symbol of the cosmos as a whole — of the order of heaven — in a bit of architectural iconography established at least as far back as the Emperor Hadrian, who so pointedly staked his claim of divine sanction in one of the foundational statements of western architecture.

And of course, to play a little of the political numerology so beloved of pundits, that means that the first Second Inaugural to play out against the backdrop of the dome was Abraham Lincoln’s.  The most recent, complete with language deliberately echoing Lincoln’s, came yesterday.

Schumer’s anecdote played on that connection — that Lincoln asserted the claims of union against the forces of disunion and authoritarian oppression, while Obama yesterday advanced the notion that we are a society, not an atomized cloud of individual secessionists.

We’ve lived a to-me unprecedented four years in which the opposing party has challenged not just the policies or politics of the administration, but its legitimacy, the right to exercise power conferred by democratic choice.  The echoes of race, of secessionism, of the authoritarian claim that the consent of the governed is tolerated only so long as hoi polloi make the right choices are all distant (and not always so muted) echoes of 1860 and 1861.  And yet the black man with the funny name just took the president’s oath for a second time, directly beneath what we might, not quite accurately, nonetheless call Mr. Lincoln’s dome.

This is how rhetoric engages historical change. The meaning of the dome is not the same as it was in March, 1865.  Still, it connects.  And even if President Obama’s opponents cannot bring themselves to accept the blunt reality of a Democrat, an African American, and  a mainstream-progressive (if that characterization makes sense, and I think it does) not just winning, but holding power, the dome is there to remind them of a lesson very similar to what the traitors of 1865 learned to such cost: that the union is not merely the property of entrenched power.

That’s the chief significance of the visual language of Obama’s greying head beneath that wedding cake of dome.  It’s sufficient.

But there is actually one more thing.  Somewhere — it may have been a Balloon Juice comment thread, actually — I read someone quip that with all of Obama’s talk of internal improvements, infrastructure and investments in the future, the man sounded like a Whig…just like that railroad lawyer, the young Abe Lincoln.  In that context, the Capitol dome is a perfect symbol of the innovation and swelling ambition of the nation, then and now.

For the dome is a glorious lie.  It may look like shining marble, a masonry structure just like the grand baroque domes of Europe, St. Peter’s and the like.  It’s not.  The entire thing, inside and out is a jigsaw puzzle of cast iron, painted to fool the eye.  I’ve had the exceptional good fortune to climb inside the dome, between the inner shape you see from the rotunda and the familiar gleaming confection that stands over the mall.  When you do you climb up the stairs there you duck through the ribs that hold up the outer skin and from which rods connect to the (self-supporting) inner one, each made of plates bolted together.


(Don’t be fooled — all those coffers on the inner dome that appear to be pale carved stone in the drawing above are cast iron too, painted a dull grey on the side the punters don’t see.)

The iron segments that accrete into the dome were cast — in NY, I believe, though I’m on the road, away from my notes, and my memory may be playing tricks.  The material was shipped to Capitol Hill and assembled there, like a giant erector set.

The meaning — or at least a meaning?

You see in the fabric of the building at least two connected thoughts:  an object lesson in the sources of the defeat of the Confederacy:  already, by the 1860s, the American metal working industries — largely concentrated in the loyal North —  were advancing to and past the capabilities of the world leader, Britain.  And in our Civil War, Yankee industrial power and skill beat an economy based on the theft of human labor.  Paying attention to science, to technology, to the skills needed to play in the big leagues actually made a difference in that war, logistically, the difference.

Such attention is still all-in-all. . Hence the significance of that portion of President Obama’s campaign and inaugural address that spoke and speak to the need to invest in the brains and the technologies that matter right now.  And all the while he spoke, the dome stood behind him, granting historical assent.

Material objects have always been able to serve as both things and symbols. That China has just opened the longest high-speed rail line in the world is of obvious practical consequence for that nation.  No one doubts it has rhetorical significance as well.  The Mars rover Curiousity is so much more than a go-cart.  And so on.

Symbols as they age change:  they gain resonance; that accumulate layers of meaning, perhaps even some that complicate each other.  The Capitol Dome was completed as an element in the argument over what kind of country the United States could hope to be.

The second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, performed under that great structure, advances the cause of union and of this Union at this precise moment in time.  It is altogether fitting and proper that it should do this.

*Actually, the first dome was a visual disaster all on its own, one of Charles Bulfinch’s least impressive efforts — though it must be admitted that he didn’t have an entirely free hand in his design.

Reasoning With The BlogFather (Or Something Fun To Listen To At 6 P.M. EST Tonight)

January 16, 2013

It’s that time of the month again.

I’ll be doing another one of my Virtually Speaking Science webcasts this evening at 6 p.m. EST/3 p.m. PST.

I’m always excited by my guests — but tonight’s conversation is a particular pleasure.  I’ll be talking with Bora Zivkovic, who should be (though he probably isn’t) a household name.  He’s certainly one of the best known-and-loved member-leaders of the online science community. Bora’s scientific training lies in the field of chronobiology, how animals — Japanese quail in his Ph.D research — tell time. But for something like a decade now he’s been devoting his extraordinary smarts and stamina to the cause of communicating science to ever wider communities that seek or need that knowledge.

He’s made a career out of that goal: he was one of the founding bloggers at the ScienceBlogs network, a gig the helped lead him to his role as online community manager for the PlOS family of scientific journals (working mostly with PlOS 1) — a job that embedded him in the movement to enhance public access to scientific information. Since 2010, he’s been serving  serves as the network pooh-bah for Scientific American’s blog network.

That’s the formal bit of the resume.  Bora is, however, much more than the sum of his day jobs.  He has been relentless as a community builder, a nurturer of talent, and as a thinker about approaches to communication, knowledge, and the dissemination of ideas in our transforming media environment.  He’s called the BlogFather…


…because he has been exactly that with so many of today’s most impressive science communicators — a task he redoubles every year as one of the co-founders and driving forces behind the ScienceOnline conference.  The seventh edition of that meeting is coming up —  it runs January 30-Feb. 2 in Research Triangle, NC — and it is  more than a conference — or rather the much more egalitarian unconference it is; I’d say that it is the single most useful and (at least for me) influential meeting of web-centered public science communicators in the English-speaking world.

There, and in his role at every online venue he’s inhabited, he has pushed his colleagues to explore any approach anyone can come up with to debate, engage, disseminate scientific knowledge, ideas, approaches in collaboration with any audience-participant-co-creator grouping one could imagine.  As that rather unwieldy bit of praise suggests, he’s deeply interested in how exchange happens in the current (and coming) media landscape; he thinks that answers will come from any and all and unexpected talents trying different things, and he’s absolutely committed to open communication and egalitarian information politics.

Bora and I have debated in person and occasionally on the blogs since we first met, at the 2nd Science Online meeting back in the Stone Age 2008.  Bora argued for a long time that the new medium of blogging meant that science journalists were no longer needed — could be in fact an impediment — now that writer-scientists could reach their audiences directly.  He argued against story, as journalists’ desire for framing narratives could (and indeed does) torque the underlying ideas on occasion. We’ve talked about editors; gatekeepers; what the purpose or role of science writing for the public might be; whether or not science (and science writing) is an intellectual or tribal ghetto — and whether or not that matters.  His views have changed — considerably, I would say, since we first locked horns on the matter of non-technically-expert science writers, and mine have as well.

We both have a political edge to our thinking and writing — Bora actually started out as political blogger, in the care of his own blogfather, Publius, later of Obsidian Wings, and well known here, I think.  So we’ve got a lot to talk about.

In particular, I’m doing a lot of thinking about the tribal problem in science (and political) argument.  I’d like to think hard about how to get science ideas out to people beyond the crowds I know will read the usual suspects.  We’ll talk about the real problems in public science communication that I think are out there right now — issues on which Bora, the leader of a rich network of science commentators has plenty to say.  Will talk about lots more — and I encourage you to check it out.  You may not yet know Bora, but you won’t regret in the least committing an hour to his company.

Francis Xaver Winterhalter, The First of May 1851, 1851.  (The picture depicts the Duke of Wellington greeting  his godson, Prince Arthur, on the occasion of the Iron Duke’s 82nd birthday and the young prince’s first.

One More On Swartz (and MIT)

January 15, 2013

I want to respond to a couple of things mistermix wrote this morning over at Balloon Juice about what I had previously written concerning MIT’s response to Aaron Swartz’s death, but first, some preliminaries.

1:  This topic has become a lightening rod for a stunningly unproductive comment war between those who see Swartz as presumptively criminal who couldn’t take the heat his own actions had invited, and those who see him as  a martyr to the positive cause of internet and data freedom and to the defensive one of resistance to overweening corporate and government interests.

My own view is much closer to the side of those who see Swartz as a driven idealist, on the side of the angels, largely unprepared for real life.  It’s overwhelmingly clear that he believed deeply in acting morally according to a particular moral code and that he was aware that this commitment could bring him into conflict with existing legal (and more everyday) constraints. It is clear, to me at least, that his goals, what he thought the good was for which he was willing to enter into such conflict, is in fact a major social benefit:  information, if it doesn’t always want to be free* wants to be genuinely accessible — or rather, we as citizens, members of a polity that utterly depends on an informed electorate, need to have ready access to the words, numbers and wisdom required to perform our civic work.  Does that mean Swartz or anyone else should get out of jail free when they challenge someone else’s intellectual property claims?  No, and Swartz and his legal team did not seek do so, according to the Kevin Cullen/Boston Globe column to which mistermix linked.  For those without access to the Globe, here’s the datum:

Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.

I have no problem with that proposed resolution; seems about right to me.  Much more appropriate than this:


That said, YMMV, on either side.

But here’s my point and my plea:  we’ve had now four threads on this matter.  I get it that some of you think otherwise, and have been fully in keeping with Balloon Juice traditions in the…how to put it…forcefulness of your expression of such views.  Now, please, just consider putting a sock in it.  The young man — I’m old enough to think of him as a very young man — is dead, and clearly suffered distress; whether or not you are convinced he was in the wrong just doesn’t f**king matter.  With absolutely no authority, and no intention of wielding a ban hammer for anything short of heinous, directly personal racism, bigotry, sexism and the like — mere insult and uninventive invective don’t cut it (that’s what pie filters are for, folks) –I’d just ask that you all try to stay on the actual argument, with some respect for the family, friends and those bereft by the loss of Aaron Swartz.  I’m asking as nicely as I can, OK?

2:   And while I’m at it, can I ask for some reflection before anyone spouts off about depression?  I’ve mentioned before that it’s been a big deal in my family, and I’m struck by the degree of careless and uninformed talk that’s run around Swartz’s loss.  No, depression should not be a get out of jail free card.  Yes, it is a serious, potentially fatal illness.  And yes, emphatically yes, I agree with one Swartz’s lawyer’s that the US Attorney’s office could and should have taken the risks posed to their defendent by the combination of a very aggressive prosecutorial approach and Swartz’s mental history:

Andy Good, Swartz’s initial lawyer, is ­alternately sad and furious.

“The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk,” Good told me. “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

It is worth remembering that prosecutors do have specific responsibilities to those under investigation or indictment, and a penumbra of duty that includes moral judgment.  I’m pretty sure the US Attorney’s office in Boston failed to meet at least some parts of that obligation.  But again, whether or not you agree, I’d ask anyone anxious to speak up on the role depression did play in Swartz’s death and any impact it should have had on the prosecution to think hard and write carefully.  This is not an area in which a snappy retort is likely to shed light, or, as important in my book, to contain what should be sympathy in the original sense of the word for a truly terrible and intensely complicated disease.

3:  A couple of links.  There’s a memorial site up for Aaron Swartz that any  so moved might find it worthwhile to visit.  And for those of you interested in actions that honor Swartz’s ambitions, MuckRock, a site dedicated to helping folks file Freedom of Information Act requests is offering free FOIA filing for the day in Aaron Swartz’s honor.

Alright, with those out of the way, onto the argument mistermix advanced in response to my piece about MIT President Rafael Reif’s announcement made in the wake of Swartz’s suicide and his family’s direct indictment of the Institute’s role in that tragedy. On that matter, mistermix writes:

When I read Tom’s piece about MIT’s President appointing a panel to study MIT’s response to Swartz, I figured that President’s haste indicated that there were some dirty hands at MIT who wanted to kick the can down the road. And what better way to do that than to follow the blue-ribbon example of Linda P.B. Katehi, still Chancellor of the UC Davis system, who used a panel to wiggle out of any accountability for her role in the pepper spraying of the Occupy protest on her campus. It doesn’t matter what the panel reports. What matters is that the panel’s report will be a long time in coming. When the report finally arrives, the outrage at those who insisted on draconian punishments for a “crime”–from which Swartz didn’t profit, which was completely non-violent, and which probably had minimal effect on the alleged victim (JSTOR)–will be attenuated by the passage at time.

To which my first reaction is, what would you have President Reif, and MIT do?  Not investigate?  Not formalize the process, identify decisions and the timing of those choices, name names?  That’s what I expect of Hal Abelson’s panel; if that’s not what I get, I will write again in this space acknowledging my error.

But until you see the document, roll with me on my assumption (as discussed in both my prior post and by several commenters in that thread) that Abelson is the real deal, in sympathy (I think) with Swartz’s take on open access, a man of formidable intelligence, as expert as you could hope for in the specific areas of computation and information most important to this case, and of previously tested and affirmed personal integrity and intellectual courage.  He may of course screw up; he may pull punches; he may be undermined by other institutional powers.  We will find out in time.  But for now, the rest of this post follows through the notion that Reif has requested a genuine inquiry and that Abelson intends to deliver one.

Given that, mistermix’s argument boils down to two related planks:  panels are devices to avoid action, and the way that this process arrives at the desired indecision is through delay.


You know what: mistermix is right.  Just not always — and more to the point, some version of this approach is in fact how academic (and other) institutions both work and don’t work.  I can’t speak for other universities, but in the 8 years I’ve been at MIT I’ve come both to know and value its particular data-driven culture.  Assertions do not fly well in governance here — not as rhetoric, and not as robust foundations for the decisions they may be used to justify.

More, if you want to enact faculty governance as something more than form, you have to approach certain questions this way:  I don’t believethe faculty would not accept Reif’s say-so on this or many other matters — for all that he rose to his present position through the MIT faculty ranks.  Rather, on crucial questions, the recognized approach here (and perhaps everywhere else — again, I’m a latecomer to the academy and my knowledge of its practices, as opposed to those of my home institution falls somewhere between very little and none) is to create finders and interpreters (judges) of fact independent of the central administration.

So perhaps a reasonable question is whether or not this process is anything more than form; it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility to think of a committee made up of faculty close to the administration, who could be trusted to keep troubling matters at bay.  But there’s also evidence that the process does not have to happen that way, at least not at the one venue for which I have direct knowledge.

As some of you may recall, a couple of months ago I interviewed my colleague Nancy Hopkins on my internet science broadcast.  Hopkins was the leader of the first panel created to assess whether or not MIT was discriminating against women faculty in ways that directly and crucially affected their research and their possibilities for advancement at the Institute.  Her panel and the one that followed it demonstrated exactly that, and produced both MIT – specific and national results as a consequence.

So, no, I don’t accept as a simple assertion of fact that Rafael Reif’s appointing a committee led by a prominent MIT scholar is prima facie evidence of the desire to kick this matter down the road.

Nor is the issue of time is important; justice delayed and all that.  But first — I don’t know when Abelson plans to report.  My guess is that it would be relatively soon, and speaking purely for me, I’d hope to hear from this panel before the end of the coming spring term in May.  (I know that’s not exactly a blazing pace, but that’s pretty quick by local standards.)

But whether or not that’s the case, its still not clear to me that taking an extended period to come to a conclusion is itself an obvious tell for the desire to sweep matters under the rug.  Rather, the test for me will be in the recommendations that flow from this investigation, and the administration’s response to those suggestions.  And anyway, taking time enough to nail one’s case is not in and of itself a sign of ill faith. Note that the Hopkins committee and its sequels took a couple of years to get their work done.  They did it in the way most likely to persuade an MIT constituency:  to prove the claim that women received less lab space than men under equivalent needs, they went out with tape measures and gathered the dimensions themselves.  That and a host of other efforts to accumulate unequivocal numbers took a while.  When their work was done, the picture was clear, and its implications unmistakable.  That it had taken a couple of years did not diminish it’s impact; rather the reverse.

So many words, when what I’m really trying to say is that simply pointing to the UC Davis travesty (I agree w. mistermix on that one) is not sufficient to arrive at the conclusion that MIT will similarly try to avoid taking institutional note of what happened here and what should be done about it.

*Why yes, damn, straight: I want you to run, not walk, to the electronic book store of your choice and buy my last work, for which I’ll score roughly $3.50 in royalties against a still-unearned-out advance.

**functionally a department, but as a historical rhetoric, MIT still boasts a Department of Humanities, of which several department-equivalents are sections.  A detail of interest to just about no one.

Images: Vincent van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising, 1890

Simon Vouet, Father Time Overcome By Love, Hope and Beauty, 1627

Proceed, Whack Jobs

January 14, 2013

Via TPM, I was sent to this website, [fair warning:  crazy people on the other end of that link] to find this image:


There has been plenty of ridicule directed at the project depicted here — see, for example, posts by others at my alternate blog-home, Balloon Juice.  If you haven’t been keepign up, it’s called the Citadel — that Wingnut fantasy of a Dungeons-and-Dragons-and-Bushmasters retreat in Idaho where no liberals need apply.

All fine — if it were up to me, I’d encourage every gun nut to retreat to their bastions — whether up in the Idaho panhandle, where generations of actually competent folks have found it so easy to construct self-sustaining livelihoods …or in GlennBeckistan, that to-be self-sustaining (sic!) entertainment and intellectual hub to be constructed somewhere in Texas.

Go! Here’s your hat; what’s your hurry?

Seriously:  if they would only do the rest of us the favor of retreating to their own private Somali-o’s, our politics and our societies would be that much saner and safer.

But we knew that already, and that’s not what caught my eye.


Here’s the story:  As I’d just opened the picture above, my son happened to come into my study.  He asked what I was looking at — it seemed to him a sketch from one of the medieval combat games he likes and knows I don’t, and he wondered what would possess me to bother with such a thing.

I told him that, no, this wasn’t history or fantasy,* but rather somebody’s actual idea of someplace that would serve to protect them from an overweening federal government.  He just looked at it pityingly, wondering, and he asked me, “have these folks never heard of cannon?”

And damn if that hadn’t been literally my first thought on reading the caption “Interior Defensive Walls & Towers.”  I mean, artillery much?

The stupid.  It burns. With the white-hot-heat-of-a-thousand-suns.

*Well, it is.  But not that kind.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

January 13, 2013

Via twitterer @Dhunterauthor, we learn that America’s sheriff, Maricopa County’s Joe Arpaio may have some — how should we put this?– issues with his unsolicited provision of defenders of youth.

You may recall that Arpaio, last seen vainly trying to keep Birtherism on life support (whilst the Kenyan Usurper enters his second term of occupation of the Definitely-Not-Black-House) had declared that his posse (his term) of possibly (house) trained armed yahoos would provide a weaponized security presence at local schools, whether or not those schools sought or welcomed such “assistance.”

Nothing to worry about, right?  Nothing says “good idea” like kids and guns.


Let me surrender the floor to Wonkette:

Arpaio told ABC/Univision in December that it was not up for debate whether the schools had posse members posted outside.

“It doesn’t matter whether they like it or don’t,” he said. “I’m still going to do it. I can’t imagine criticism coming when they’re given free protection.”

Well, yeah! Who would object to free protection from volunteers who are no doubt carefully vetted and very responsible and definitely good people to be carrying firearms? Oh wait:

And then there was Jacob Cutler. According to a Flagstaff police report, Cutler threw his girlfriend to the ground and choked her while trying to sexually assault her in 2008. When she didn’t cooperate, he allegedly threatened to call police and said they would side with him, because he “has a badge.” He was a member of Arpaio’s posse at the time.

There’s more, up to and including report that the posse now offering unavoidable “protection” to schools that just happen to be filled with kids (who knew?) includes a member with a record of arrest for “sexual crimes against children.”

So I guess this is the line of reasoning:  more guns, even those wielded by thugs with toy badges, make us safer.  Good to know.

Go get the rest at Wonkette — but better lock the alcohol away first; this is truly one of those drive you to drink stories.

Image: Arthur William Devis, Emily and George Mason, between 1794 and 1795.

Bald Faced Theft

January 13, 2013

Fallows latest is a post titled “The Two Sentences That Should Be Part of All Discussion of the Debt Ceiling,”


In it, he writes:


1) Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.

2) For Congress to “decide whether” to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to “decide whether” to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.
Image:  Victor Debruil, Barrels of Money, c. 1897

In Memoriam, Aaron Swartz

January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday.


Swartz was a prodigy computer science whiz (co-developer of RSS — at 14) and information-should-be-free activist who was facing up to 35 years in jail for downloading the JSTOR archive of about 4.8 million documents.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Swartz was 26, and his death was due to suicide. His body was found by his girlfriend in his apartment in New York, his uncle, Michael Wolf, said on Saturday. He had apparently hanged himself, Mr. Wolf said.

…Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and an online activist, posted a tribute to Mr. Swartz on the blog he co-edits, BoingBoing.

…Of the indictment, he said, “The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.”

…On Wednesday JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.

Swartz had previously written about the vicious embrace depression could wrap around him, so his death cannot be reducded to a decision  “to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them” — not that it ever is (say I, as someone whose family has been very hard it by the pathology of depressive illness).

But I will say that whatever miseries led Swartz to this end, I am sorry indeed to live in a society where the crime of stealing  articles on 18th century monetary policy (inter alia, of course) is treated more harshly than the non-offense of terrorizing a public street through the display of firearms.

Last word: As Doctorow told the Times, we have lost someone to be missed.

Swartz, he wrote via email, was“uncompromising, principled, smart, flawed, loving, caring, and brilliant. The world was a better place with him in it.”

ETA:  Cory Doctorow’s remembrance over at BoingBoing is very much worth a read.  He knew and felt deeply for Swartz, and captures some of the spark there, and provides as well a sober and fair-minded account of the various woes that may have ensnared his friend.  Fallows also has good thoughts.

Image: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event, 13 December 2008.

Getting Harder To Watch

January 10, 2013

It’s now confirmed:  Junior Seau suffered what appears to have been a football-assisted suicide:

The former N.F.L. linebacker Junior Seau had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma when he committed suicide last spring, the National Institutes of Health said Thursday.

The findings were consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE], a degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head, the N.I.H. said in a statement.

Via ESPN, here’s a quick summary of what that diagnosis implies.

CTE is a progressive disease associated with repeated head trauma. Although long known to occur in boxers, it was not discovered in football players until 2005. Researchers at Boston University recently confirmed 50 cases of CTE in former football players, including 33 who played in the NFL.

That gets at what’s most troubling, to me at least, CTE has turned up again and again in the brains of NFL dead:

Since C.T.E. was diagnosed in the brain of the former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters after his suicide in 2006, the disease has been found in nearly every former player whose brain was examined posthumously. (C.T.E. can only be diagnosed posthumously.)

Researchers at Boston University, who pioneered the study of C.T.E., have found it in 18 of the 19 brains of former N.F.L. players they have examined.

I really like watching football.  I’ve dedicated a lot of Sundays to the pleasure.  I’ve got a friend down the block in my new neighborhood with whom I’ve become much more rapidly close that mostly happens with new acquaintances, a bond formed over our regular sessions in front of his TV and scotch bottle.  Last season we caught just about every Patriots game together.


This year not so much.  Partly, real life is to blame — mostly the desire to spend more time with a son on the verge of teenager-hood and the accompanying (and looming) irrelevance of Dad.  But really, I’m finding it harder and harder to recover my eagerness for the sport given this knowledge:  as I watch, say, this Sunday’s Patriots-Houston playoff, I’ll take my enjoyment from a game that — played correctly, within the rules — is doing an increment of what will add up to grievous harm for some of the people I’m watching right in front of me, at that moment.

A little context.  I love great writing more than I love any sport, and I’ve long thought some of the best non-fiction I’ve ever read comes in the form of A. J. Liebling’s boxing essays.  After I read Liebling — way back in the early eighties — I started watching some fights.  At its best, it’s a completely consuming spectacle, full of all that sport is supposed to provide, stories of courage, skill, smarts, human weakness, pure athletic astonishment, the lot.  But I couldn’t stick with it. This was before Muhammad Ali’s terrible decline became obvious, but it doesn’t take such a high profile case to make the point.  They coined the phrase “punch drunk” for a reason, and that reason is obvious to anyone who watches more than a bout or two.

Boxing’s raw, obvious, stripped to the skin.  The point is to render your opponent unconscious, to so rattle his (and now her) brain that he or she falls down.

Football is, of course, not quite so insistent on damage; the hits are in the service of the goal of advancing or preventing the movement of the ball.   But still, stories like Seau’s make clear the risks that flow from the game:   especially at the level where everyone is so ferociously big and strong, there’s a quite possibly large fraction of players who will suffer as Seau did — not to the point of suicide, necessarily, but to some form of damage.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about this a few days ago, talking about his decision to walk away from watching the NFL, reached before this last season.  I didn’t come to his conclusion this last autumn; I didn’t give up on the game altogether.  But the moral and/or emotional logic that moved Ta-Nehisi  is getting harder and harder for me to ignore.  I’m just not sure how much longer I can keep watching.  Might not make it through the weekend.

A last note:  Here’s Tyler Seau on his father’s death (via TNC.)

“It makes me realize that he wasn’t invincible, because I always thought of him as being that guy. Like a lot of sons do when they look up to their dad. You know? You try to be like that man in your life. You try to mimic the things that he does. Play the game the way he did. Work the way he did. And, you know, now you look at it in a little bit different view.”

Tyler added: “Is it worth it? I’m not sure. But it’s not worth it for me to not have a dad. So to me it’s not worth it.”

To get unreasonably personal with you: I lost my dad to an accident when I was 10.  I learned a lot from dealing with the consequences of that event.  I can’t tell you how much I’d rather have foregone that education.  You know what I’m saying?

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, 1765