Archive for April 2013

Damn. Just Damn

April 19, 2013

Just checking in, really.

Some notes — first, thanks for good thoughts sent our way via twitter, Facebook and all the rest. My family and I are all OK.  We actually are visiting a very ill relative out of town, so nowhere near any of the mess.  All my wonderful students are OK, I believe, though I can’t imagine their state of mind.

I note that the MIT first year students who are finishing up their freshman year have now seen a terrorist attack, a murder on campus, a town in lockdown — and have as some of their formative childhood memories the fall of the towers when they were around six years old.  They’ve spent almost all of their lives watching the unfolding of wars of choice fought in the case of Iraq on false pretexts.  They seen torture routinized and the only political process they’ve witnessed is one of persistant anti-democratic manouvering pursued by one of the two major parties in our system.

They remain enormously optimistic (or at least have been in my conversations with them up till the last couple of days). They are phenomenally smart, gifted, optimistic. I damn well hope they stay so.  We need them.

Die_Fleißmedaille_Waldmüller_Kopie_um_1830_ÖMV

Next:  I’m heartsick at the death of the MIT police officer.  I am for the marathon victims as well of course, and more abstractly for the dead on the street in Iraq, in Mogadishu, in…  But I’m like almost everyone, I think; those losses that strike closest to home color the emotions in a particular way.

Campus cops have a strange, really difficult job:  they have to both police and protect in a hothouse setting full of young (and often insufficiently wise older) folk who are not always sure that the rules and norms of the wider world are more than advisory.  Our force at MIT manages that balancing act really, really well, especially given their charge within a university whose traditions that include translocating cop cars to, shall we say, interesting coordinates.*  From the report it sounds like our man was gunned down, really just executed, and I couldn’t be more enraged nor heartsick.  I’ll save for a different post the political point I think most of you can probable guess. This isn’t the time.  But you know I’m thinking it.

More close to home stuff.  One of the graduate students in my department, a really sweet, good guy, turns out to have been long time friends with the Richard family and their eight year old son, Martin, killed  in Monday’s bombing.  The connections which bind us all run through all kinds of chance links, but through that pathway that already horrific loss comes closer.  Any murder is hateful, but the killing of kids….I’m not going to write down the words that flow through my head as I cycle back to that.  But I can tell you that, however irrational it may be, my sense of wretched, futile anger ramped up when I learned of the loss refracted through the sorrow of someone I know.

That student and other friends of the family have set up a fund to help the Richards directly — the intention is to cover medical expenses, funeral costs, and whatever else it takes to get through the various horribles coming up over the next while. I’ve thrown a bit that way, and I offer the link up here if anyone feels so moved.  The “One Fund” to offer help to those affected by the bombings (and, I’d guess though I don’t know, those affected by last night/today’s evens) is here. I’d note that folks in town and around the country have already been phenomenally generous, and I’ll add my private thanks to the much grander and more official ones I’m sure will follow.

Last utterly meaningless coincidence.  The manhunt in Watertown going on as  I write this is right smack in the middle of the neighborhood I lived in until 2009.  My wife just picked up a facebook post of a couple of hours ago from  the friends to whom we sold our apartment.  They were as of that time  hiding down in the basement with their two kids.  They’ve been there all night, since they heard the explosions, and they are trying to figure out how to get the little one to sleep, while easing the fear in their older child.  Again, close to home.

I write all this aware that around the world what is striking me as an utter derangement of the way life ought to be is simply the status quo.  I know that the US in general is a phenomenally lucky country, spared so much of the horrors visited on folks around the world — sometimes by the explicit policy and actions of the United States of America. (No need to shout DROOOOONES at me, folks).  And you know what?  I think mine is the right reaction.  This stuff is wrong, unacceptable, to be pushed back at home and everywhere.

I’m rambling. I’ll stop.

I thank everyone for their good wishes, your anger,  humor, and perhaps as much as anything else, your simple presence. It’s good to be able to shout, and not simply into the void.  Tip of the hat to y’all — and hug those you love, two footed and four, spend time talking to folks…do all that human stuff.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_Le_Moulin_de_la_Galette

*Other first responders are not immune, either.

Images:  Ferdinand Waldmüller, The First Day of School, 1830

Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Galette, 1875

 

For Good Times In Cambridge, Redux

April 16, 2013

A reminder, for Boston-area folks in need of something other than our public miseries to ponder.

Tomorrow, Wednesday April 17, at 7 p.m., we got this:

Seth Mnookin and Ta-Nehisi Coates talking with David Carr, the New York Times’ media critic, on Wed., April 17, 7 p.m. in MIT’s building 6, room 120 (6-120, as folks in the Shire reckon addresses — click on the link for an interactive map).  The event is running under the title “The Future of Print in the Digital Age” and is sponsored as part of the Writer’s Series within MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, its Graduate Program in Science Writing, and the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society.  To repeat myself  from last week’s notice:  This should be a very smart evening; Carr’s one of the really good ones.

Note:  6-120 is a reasonably large room — about 120 seats, I think — but this is one that should get a lot of interest, so if you want to be there, allow a little extra time.

Последний_час

Next, the day after, Thursday, April 18, my former student Emily Anthes is coming back to MIT to speak about her new book Frankenstein’s Cat. You might recall that Emily and I had a conversation about the book last month (podcast here).  Emily has taken a serious and very well researched look at the intersection of biotechnology and the animals closest to their human partners/owners/users.  The result of that work is a gracefully written book that wears the author’s knowledge lightly, and argues its point — the technological manipulation of animals is both inevitable and at least potentially a benefit to both parties to the deal — with grace and rigor.  She’s got a lot to say, and she says it well.  If this is the sort of thing you like to engage, this will be a fine evening too.  Her talk is the day is also at 7 p.m. in yet another of MIT’s utterly impenetrably named venues, 56-114 — building 56, room 114.

Fun for the whole family, with decent pizza nearby for afters.  What could be bad?

(Note:  I’ll be at the event tomorrow, but will have to miss Emily’s reading, as I must be off to visit a very ill relative in the mud-season be-mucked north.  If you make it tomorrow, say hi.)

Image: Unknown artist, The Final Hour!” c. 1920

MIT, At Night, 15 April 2013

April 15, 2013

Here’s Building 54 on the MIT campus, more or less right now:

OFcQ41D

As some commenter somewhere on the ‘tubes pointed out, this facade is more often used to play tetris.  But not tonight.  Usually I  sneer at Bldg 54 as I. M. Pei’s worst building — which it may well be. (It’s primary users, the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science folks, loathe it for its resistance to collaborative schmoozing.  It’s only real virtue is as a pretty good  perch from which to watch the July 4th fireworks.)  But tonight the crazy MIT kids wanted to make a statement, and have.  Good on them.

Talk about whatever.

PS: the Brooklyn Academy of Music — BAM! before Emeril ever sniffed a TV camera — is doing us proud tonight too.

Stray Boston Marathon Bombing Notes

April 15, 2013

Theodore_Robinson_-_Beacon_Street,_BostonHey everyone.

Anger. Grief. Frustration. Rage. Sorrow.

Been cycling through those for the last hour or so, ever since my wife shouted down stairs to check Twitter.*

We’re all OK — thanks for the expressions of concern for Boston Balloon-Juicers in John’s thread.  [Anne Laurie — check in, please.] I live close to the Marathon route and about 2-3 miles from the finish line, and you can hear the sirens going back and forth, but no one in my house is fit enough to take part in the event, and we didn’t stir ourselves to watch up in Coolidge Corner either.  (Some benefits to sloth there are, Yoda says.)

I just had a walk with my son and his friend ninja-ing behind and around me.  It was astonishing.  There were lots of people on the streets between my house and the little park and pond we often stroll around.  Everyone — and I really do mean just about everybody — was walking with their heads down, peering at a smart-phone screen.  I’ve never seen anything like it; there was a kind of hunger for news, for connection, for … perhaps a reminder that the person holding the phone was both still here and connected to others in town.  I was doing the same, reading the comments on John’s post.  When I got to the end, I hit refresh and read the next twenty, a cycle that took me through the half hour walk.

Despite the head-in-screen hunger, folks were eager to make eye-contact.  Boston isn’t quite New York in its studied avoidance of direct gaze, but we’re not by reputation exactly the most outgoing, hey-shucks-how-are-ya-stranger kind of place either.  But today, we were nodding at each other, saying a couple of words of greeting, even being welcomed, as I was at one corner, to eavesdrop openly on a phone conversation one young woman was having, describing the way the explosion looked from where she saw it — a tube of smoke straight up, then blossoming out.  Her two friends were with her, and we kind of ducked and shrugged at each other, and I just listened while someone narrated the event.

I stopped to talk briefly with two runners from the event, a couple.  They had both made it most of the way, but were stopped, of course, as soon as word of the bombs passed, and were walking to the apartment belonging to the female half of the pair.  I asked them if they were OK, and they were glad of an excuse to stop and repeat (perhaps to themselves) that they were, that they’d turned safely away from the disaster.  I asked them if they needed help.  It was kind of a stupid question on the face of it, as they were both hale and walking towards the comfort of home — but for all that I winced inside as I fumbled the question, they seemed glad of being asked, though indeed there was nothing they needed, at least not that I had to give.

The two of them were moving strongly.  The woman was wrapped in one of those metallized blankets they hand out, and she looked a little more bent over than her companion, but it was clear to me that they had pretty much run a marathon and were doing OK. But there faces  were grim, fallen — nothing like you see in my part of town every year but this one.  Usually, even the folks who really strain across the line get that “I did it!” look.  This year, not a chance.

I’m sad as hell, of course, especially as the expected-but-hoped-against reports of deaths as well as injuries are coming in.  And I’m enraged: how the fuck dare some assholes do this to these people, to my town, to all of us.

I have no idea who did this, of course, and I’m not going to begin to speculate.  I am going to note, with my usual historian’s reflex, that the disruption of civil society by thugs who crave notice and power is not a unidirectional process.  We’ve dealt with fuckers like this in the past — see the 19th century anarchist tradition, or the abortion bombers, the inept Weather folk, or McVeigh and his penumbra of deadly idiots.  The Europeans have had it worse.  Enemies internal or external may seek to derange us.  We get to decide the timing and thoroughness of their failure.

Last notes:  best news I’ve had so far, beyond that of family and nearby friends being OK is that all my current graduate students check in fine.  I hope the same is true for all those close to you (and me!).  And my deepest sympathy and regard for those caught up in the blast, their families, loved ones, and their circles of community.

*Oh brave new world and all that. It literally did not occur to either of us to check the actual TV until a friend came over to drop off her son for a play-date and wanted to check the up-to-the-second stuff.  It truly never crossed my mind.  I think back to when Challenger blew up, and the speed with which I got the ‘tube up, and its one more measure of how swiftly our lines of communication and connection have shifted.

Image:  Theodore Robinson, Beacon Street, Boston, 1884

For Good Times In Cambridge

April 11, 2013

Three quick notices of fine talks to attend at MIT over the next week:

My colleagues Ta-Nehisi Coates and Seth Mnookin will be tag-teaming Mark McKinnon — yeah this Mark McKinnon — in just a little bit, 5 p.m. this afternoon.  Ta-Nehisi will be conversing/interviewing McKinnon, and Seth will moderate in this latest in the MIT Communications Forum series of talks. It’ll be happening up in MIT’s new Media Lab building, which is a beaut, on the sixth floor, or, in MIT speak, in E14-633.  The interactive map is your friend.

Here’s the abstract for the event:

In the 2012 presidential campaign, a handful of media outlets deployed “fact-checking” divisions which reported the lies and distortions of the candidates.  Some commentators have argued that these truth-squads exposed the inadequacy of standard print and broadcast coverage, much of which seems more like entertainment than news.  This forum will examine the changing role of the political media in the U.S.  Is our political journalism serving democratic and civic ideals? What do emerging technologies and the proliferation of news sources mean for the future?

It should be interesting, and, of course, for the Balloon Juice snarlers, McKinnon’s role as a founder of the No Labels brand of (in my view) faux centrism might elicit some fun questions.  One note:  the room is fairly small, and while I don’t think this event has been hugely publicized, there might be a premium on seating.

Self-portrait_by_Salvator_Rosa

Next, (and giving y’all a little more notice) Seth and Ta-Nehisi will converse with David Carr, the New York Times’ media critic on Wed., April 17, 7 p.m. in  Building 6, room 120 (6-120, as folks in the Shire reckon addresses.)  The event is running under the title “The Future of Print in the Digital Age” and is sponsored as part of the Writer’s Series within MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, its Graduate Program in Science Writing, and the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society.  Should be a very smart evening; Carr’s one of the really good ones.  Again 6-120 is a reasonably large room — about 120 seats, I think — but this is one that should get a lot of interest, so if you want to be there, give yourself a little extra time.

Finally, my former student Emily Anthes is coming back to MIT to speak about her new book Frankenstein’s Cat. You might recall that Emily and I had a conversation about the book last month (podcast here).  Emily has taken a serious and very well researched look at the intersection of biotechnology and the animals closest to their human partners/owners/users.  The result of that work is a gracefully written book that wears the author’s knowledge lightly, and argues its point — the technological manipulation of animals is both inevitable and at least potentially a benefit to both parties to the deal — with grace and rigor.  She’s got a lot to say, and she says it well.  If this is the sort of thing you like to engage, this will be a fine evening too.  Her talk is the day after Carr’s, April 18 at 7 p.m. in yet another of MIT’s utterly impenetrably named venues, 56-114 — building 56, room 114.

Fun for the whole family, with decent pizza nearby for afters.  What could be bad?

Image:  Salvator Rosa, Self Portrait, 1645.  The caption reads in translation: “Be Quiet, Unless Your Speech Be Better Than Silence.”

120,461

April 9, 2013

That’s the minimum number of years lost to guns in the United States of America in the 99 days of this blood-soaked year.  Click the link for an amazing data visualization that captures the loss of lives and  years to homicides (and some suicides) thus far in 2013

Edouard_Manet_059

The scandal, of course, is that the last three months or so is no more crimson than any similar slice of time in recent memory.  Here’s the 2010 version of the same data visualization, representing homicides only (and not quite all of them, if the CDC is to be believed).  The tally that year:  9,595 people, robbed of 413,838 years.

Ass long as the rump of gerrymandered Confederate and exurban white voters can be turned to provide the .01% sufficient political power to keep on robbing us blind, there is seemingly no end in sight.  Guns trump vaginas, non-pale folks, even moochers as the eternal touchstone of aggrieved right politics.  And until that chain that binds power to the untouchable civic virtues of 30-round clips, we’ll continue to live in a country where some 30,000 people each year will fall too soon to the wrong end of a gun.  That most of them will be gun owners themselves; hell that most of them will take their own lives [PDF — see p. 19] makes no difference to the debate.

One hundred and twenty thousand, four hundred and sixty one years that will never pass.  2,739 of our fellow citizens gone.  Obama is still trying.  Reid is still trying.  Maybe they’ll be able to rescue a life or two.  But not if the leaders of the  Party of Death have their way.

It’s gorgeous outside my window as I type this; sunny, 70 degrees and something, convertible top down weather.  Why does it feel so damn grim in these United States?

PS:  Optional soundtrack for this post.

Eduoard Maney, The Suicide1877-1881.

Just Another DFH

April 4, 2013

Over at Balloon Juice, DougJ got the day started with yet more evidence that the Republican Party remains committed to a program of immiserating the miserable.

Hendrick_ter_Brugghen_-_The_Rich_Man_and_the_Poor_Lazarus_-_Google_Art_Project

I dug into my note pile to find yet one more DFH squealing his soft-headed liberal pieties in the face of such intellectual courage:

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconvenience to the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, laborers, and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.

The liberal reward of labor, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labor are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the laborer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious than where they are low.

Who wrote such bilge?

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, Book I chapter 8.

Image:  Hendrick ter Brugghen, The Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus 1625.