Archive for November 2013

Monty Python’s Holy Grail…

November 26, 2013

…was a documentary:

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And hell, you think that’s bad, check this out:

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Holiday brain sploosh has already begun chez Levenson (first relatives show up in minutes), so killer rabbits somehow seem…

Appropriate.

BTW: there are a bunch more medieval psychoses on display at Tom Kane’s site, who, it seems, has come up with a socially useful application of writer’s procrastination syndrome.  My awareness of all this comes via @PZMyers, who got it from @SirWilliamD.

And with the honors thus done, you may consider this a “how weird will your holiday get” post.  Add your own notions in the comments.

Images:  Axe-rabbit comes from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 14th century.

Rabbit murderers lurk in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300

Your Daily Apocalypse, Outsourced Antibiotic Edition

November 21, 2013

Go read this piece by Maryn McKenna — who is, in my never humble opinion, one of the handful of very best reporters on matters of infectious disease, global health, and really scary stuff.

I was born in 1958, fifteen years into the era of clinically-available antibiotics.  I was my mother’s third child.  Had we shifted that timeline back a few years, that would have meant that there would have been a measure of luck in mom simply making it to and not through her third lying in.  As Maryn writes, before antiobiotics, five out of 1,000 births ended with the death of the mother.  No worries by the time I popped my head out into the maternity floor at Alta Bates.

But this a must read not because of any remembrance of the pre-antibiotic era, but because Maryn plausibly analyzes a post-antibiotic future.

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Here’s a sample:

Doctors routinely perform procedures that carry an extraordinary infection risk unless antibiotics are used. Chief among them: any treatment that requires the construction of portals into the bloodstream and gives bacteria a direct route to the heart or brain. That rules out intensive-care medicine, with its ventilators, catheters, and ports—but also something as prosaic as kidney dialysis, which mechanically filters the blood.

Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. Those bacteria are benign in their regular homes in the body, but introduce them into the blood, as surgery can, and infections are practically guaranteed. And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics

Dr. Donald Fry, a member of the American College of Surgeons who finished medical school in 1972, says: “In my professional life, it has been breathtaking to watch what can be done with synthetic prosthetic materials: joints, vessels, heart valves. But in these operations, infection is a catastrophe.” British health economists with similar concerns recently calculated the costs of antibiotic resistance. To examine how it would affect surgery, they picked hip replacements, a common procedure in once-athletic Baby Boomers. They estimated that without antibiotics, one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die.

As Maryn reports, the problem is tangled and complex — but there are clear actions that could be taken and aren’t, most obviously ending the reckless use of antibiotics in agriculture, which consumes something like 80% of the total produced.  But don’t waste time here: go read the whole thing. Get scared; get mad; call your congressfolk.

Image: Josse Lieferinxe, St. Sebastian prays for plague victims, 1497-99.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics*

November 20, 2013

It’s that time of the month again.

This afternoon at 5 ET I’ll be doing my internet science radio gig as one of three hosts on Virtually Speaking Science.  The others, btw, are Alan Boyle and Jennifer Ouellette.

My guest will by my MIT colleague Allan Adams.  Allan is a physicist — a string theorist, AKA someone who works on problems that have been famously twitted as having no rea world test or validation.

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That’s a misleading claim on a bunch of levels, some of which are implicated in some recent work Allan and several colleagues have done.  The latest, reported in a paper in Science last summer, uses math derived from string theory that’s been applied to the study of black hole dynamics to investigate what happens as a superfluid — a frictionless fluid whose behavior is described by quantum mechanics — displays turbulence.

That’s a mouthful, to be sure.  Here’s the nub:  a mathematical description of one kind of physical system — a black hole — turns out to explicate the behavior of a very different one, that, as it happens, can be produced, observed and analyzed right here at home.

Think on that for a second.

This is an instance of the most …

…miraculous is the wrong word for it, so perhaps better, astonishing fact about modern science:  it really, really works, and it does so through a path that mathematics opens up.  We can make sense of our surroundings because of what seems to be an invention of the human mind, a system of logic rigorously expressed that can describe and evolve the relations between ideas, concepts and things in the world.  But here’s the weird bit:   that tool, that invention of thousands of years of human culture, does so across every more disparate, ever more encompassing domains — from the lab bench to a collapsed star, for example.  Mathematics as a creation of fallible humans seems to be in some sense an intrinsic property of the universe, which is a much more banal statement than it appears, in one sense, since what it really says is that  mathematical accounts do what people were trying to do with the stuff:  find ways to construct   arguments in forms that can be checked for accuracy and internal consistency that satisfactorily describe, say, the flight of a cannonball or the path of a planet.

So Allan and I are going to talk about all that:  his recent work as an example of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics; about how physicists actually use math — what kind of thinking actually goes into doing this kind of work;  and about why string theory, for any paucity of new prediction or unique evidence in its favor is still such a fertile field of inquiry — and what that fact tells you about how science actually advances.

Heady stuff, I know, but I, with my physics degree from the school of having things fall on my head, will keep the conversation working as a way to see into what (a) physicist does.  Allan, you’ll find, is great value, that most fortunate of human who finds nothing but joy in the work he does. That’ll come through — the great pleasure of my work is to get to spend time with people who know cool stuff, find out more, and can’t stop talking about it. That’s what you’ll get in just a little while.

Tune in if you have a chance, or stop by the Second Life live studio experience, or catch it later as  a podcast.

*The phrase “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” was the title of an essay by Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner.  Highly recommended.  It’s concluding thought:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

Image: Jan van Bijlert, Musical Companybefore 1671.

Don’t Need To Quit You (Cheney Follies, Contd.)

November 18, 2013

Following on the schadenfreude of this morning, a couple of larger points about the Cheney clown car ride in the Wyoming senate race.

The first is that I don’t buy the reflex assumption of many here — and, I think, Liz Cheney’s camp — that Wyoming is fertile ground for gay-baiting and a bolted-horse-barn-door take on same-sex marriage.

It’s not.

In a poll from last summer with a sample that identified itself as 55% somewhat or very conservative, 62% Republican vs. 22% Democrat (and, in a marked display of either bravery or foolhardiness, in which 54% of respondents would accept an invitation to go hunting with Dick Cheney), 28% of Wyoming-ites support gay marriage, while 36% support civil unions.  Only 32% opposed any recognition of same-sex relationships.

Mull on that for a moment:  politically Wyoming is just about as red as it gets.  Hilary Clinton doesn’t get with 20 points of any Republican in 2016 matchups.  There’s nothing of Montana’s purple hue spreading over the Grand Tetons (except when sunset hits just right).  But still 64% of that very conservative electorate isn’t bothered about the idea of gay folks forming legally recognized households.  I get that civil unions are either a fig-leaf for and/or an unacceptable diminution of same-sex marriage…but I don’t see how you can look at those numbers and not see the fact that increasingly, most folks in Wyoming seem to have figured out that gay couples and families are here, they’re ordinary, they’re not going anywhere, and their legal status will in short order match that of opposite sex relationships and families.

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I give it a year before the “opposed” group hits 27%

More, the trend in Wyoming is exactly what it is everywhere else.  A group doing a poll analysis has both attempted to determine the level of support for gay marriage state by state as of 2012 — and to look back at 2004, to see how things have moved.  By their method, Wyoming support for same-sex marriage hit 41% year ago, up fifteen points since 2004.

Also of note:  the real hold-outs on gay civil rights live (no surprise here) in the deeper-south neighborhoods of the old Confederacy. Even there, though, the trends tell the story, with double digit moves in favor over eight years.To the point of the Cheney race, Wyoming is only the 30th state out of fifty in same-sex marriage support.  It leans against the tide of history on this one, but not with much conviction.

Which is what makes the Cheney family fight so damn odd, as well as hateful.  Increasingly, it appears that outside of the hard core religious right redoubts of the south, the zest for the fight on this one is waning, even if there is still some unease (that 36% civil union number) with invoking the word “marriage” in this context.  What I take out of all this is that the Cheney family record of fail is in no danger of breaking here:  Liz C. has chosen an issue to break up her family over about which her (alleged) state seems not to be terribly bothered.

Hence my other take-away:  I’ve read the murmurings of a rat f**k here, the notion that this is all a put-up job, that the Cheney sisters have agreed to a public feud to bolster Liz’s capital with the bigot wing of the Wyoming GOP.

Maybe I’m just too old-fashioned to get how things get done these days, but I can’t see any upside to that.  This seems more an evil-stupid thang here, and rather than anything Machiavelli would have nodded at in approval.  It takes a particularly honed toned deafness to think this would play well to non-insane people:

“Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage,” the vice president and his wife said in a statement on Monday according to The Hill. “She has also always treated her sister and her sister’s family with love and respect, exactly as she should have done. Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter and Liz’s many kindnesses shouldn’t be used to distort her position.”

“Compassion?” “Kindnesses?” Is Mary Cheney some kind of whipped mule for which her sister must care?  Not quite human, but still worthy of Liz’s to-be-granted-or-withheld kindness?

Again: however “culturally conservative” (“conventional” in Richard-Cohen-speak) one may be, I just don’t see how one sister on the make referring to her hale and seemingly happy sister as in need of compassion sits well.

Mary, it seems, agrees:

Mary Cheney later told the New York Times that she would not be seeing Liz Cheney at Christmas.

Yup, nothing says family values like making sure on sibling and her kids don’t feel welcome at the holidays.

Thanksgiving is around the corner. One thing we can all be thankfull for (while offering Mary our compassion on this one point alone):  We’re not related to Dick, Lynn, or Liz.  Hoseannas!

Image Li Gonglin, Beauties on an Outingbefore 1106, after an 8th century handscroll painted by Zhang Xuan.

Work the Referee

November 15, 2013

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Following DPM’s post below on Michael Shear’s ACA website woes = Katrina piece, let me urge y’all to let Mr. Shear know directly of the problems you find in the piece.

Click on the link just below his bio to email him.  Again, please do so firmly, but politely.  The goal is to get better work out of Mr. Shear in the future, not to leave him in a “f**k the hippies” state of rage.

What I told him, more or less, is that most of his piece ain’t bad — he does note, albeit not strongly enough for my taste, that a crappy website aint’t a physical disaster, and that Republicans have set obstacles in the way of fixing Obamacare, a level of obstruction that Bush never had to deal with. The biggest problem lies, I said, with his lede, his framing of the story as one in which Obama’s troubles are the same as Bush’s accepts the premise of the Republican opposition. Instead, I said, he should have begun by asking if that attempted framing were true…and then the rest of the story would have followed a much more sensible (and useful) path

In other words: the goal is to get Shear from building stories on crap foundations — and if you can let him know you noticed this time in a way that suggests he can do better — that can  help.

Work the refs people. It’s part of politics these days, and if we want out side to come out on top, we gotta do so.

Image: Thomas Eakins, Taking the Count1898.

Not With a Bang

November 14, 2013

How would football die?

Not by defections from the NFL — either of players or audience.  News like this is (so far) falling into  the business-as-usual folder for most who love the pro game, inside or out.

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No.  If football as it is now played is going to die, it will be because this becomes a growing trend:

The nation’s largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, a sign that the concussion crisis that began in the NFL is having a dramatic impact at the lowest rungs of the sport.

According to data provided to “Outside the Lines,” Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.

The ESPN reporters who wrote that, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada report that without being sure what drives the decline, the threat of long term brain damage is likely part of what’s keeping parents from enrolling their kids in the sport.  Sounds right to me — as the parent of a sports-averse 13 year old, I haven’t had to weigh in on this, but there isn’t a chance at all that I would let my kid play tackle football (and I have my doubts about soccer, too, as it happens).  I’m sure I’m not alone.

The article goes on to talk about some changes the Pop Warner folks are thinking about — the big one being a suggestion to ban the three point stance for linemen.  That move isn’t happening very quickly.  It may come about, and such a change might tip the scale for some families.

But let’s say football goes some large part of the way towards boxing, becoming (what it once was) a more minor, more geographically constrained sport — especially for the youth and high school game.  Say a couple of  school systems, and maybe a few universities, get sued for malign neglect of their student-atheletes’ interests.  Suppose insurance companies start hiking the charges for liability coverage — or dropping it altogether — for the less financially robust nodes of the football-industrial complex.

Won’t happen fast. Could come faster than many of us (me) imagine.

Right now, like lots of folks, I’m still drawn to football.  I still feel excited if I’m at a bar and see someone break something big.  But increasingly I can’t sit down and watch a game.  It feels like I’m looking at slow-motion executions, and I don’t like that one bit.

Not with a bang, folks.  With some moms and pops deciding not to sign a permission slip. With an insurance bill that the (X) Unified School District can’t pay.  And yeah, in part, with just a little too much prime time exposure of still young men who can’t remember why they got into the car to go they can’t remember where.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight1765.

No Country for Old Pundits

November 12, 2013

It’s only Tuesday, but this week’s I Am Not A Racist sweepstakes may just have a winner.  Ladles and jellyspoons, I give you Village Media Star, Washington Post columnist, and inexplicably influential Richard Cohen:

People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

I’m going to try to be fair to a man who seems conspicuously challenged when it comes to writing about race.  That sentence comes in the context of explaining why many members of the Republican Party may have trouble getting behind Chris Christie. Cohen’s not suggesting he personally has a problem with the De Blasio marriage, not even for its yet more outré (to him?…perhaps slightly more “conventional” than even he wants to own?): “(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)”

But reading more deeply doesn’t help.  Here’s the context Cohen provides for his claim that “conventional” types might have trouble with inter racial stuff.  The paragraph in which that quote comes begins like this:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled —

About what, you might ask? Cohen kindly answers:

 — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde.

How convenient.  Nothing about the current occupant of the White House, nor….

Oh hell, let’s get on with it. Next up, the assertion about the nausea induced by the De Blasios.  Cohen then finishes his “thought” here:

This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

But no:  Southern Republicans, the Tea Party, cultural conservatives are not racist.  They’re just “conventional.”

Cohen’s no stranger to … awkwardness … on race.  Just last week he wrote that it took the movie 12 Years a Slave to help him grasp that,

 …slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.

Well, yeah. Better late than never, to be sure.  But 2013, and seventy-two tours around the sun is damn late indeed to be figuring that one out.

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To be clear:  I do not think Cohen holds any racial animus against New York’s mayor-elect and his family; I doubt he’s troubled by interracial relationships; I don’t actually care whether or not “in his heart” Richard Cohen has trouble with people of color.

But words matter.  When Cohen asserts that the bluntest kind of old-school racism, the rejection of the possibility of two people of different colors loving each other, is “conventional,” he gives aid and comfort to that view.  He mainstreams it:  what could be more down the middle of the discourse than something “conventional?”

To put it another way: we know Cohen is clueless* — there’s no other explanation for his self-described late aspirations to wisdom on the matter of owning other human beings.  But mere obliviousness still can’t excuse malice — and that’s what flows with granting any respect at all the view that the sight of a white man and a black women sharing their lives in marriage should make one gag.

To put it yet one more way: this is Cohen’s argument stripped naked:  Thesis one:  the GOP is not racist. Thesis two: a key element of the Republican Party is racist. Conclusion three: well, maybe the GOP has a racism problem it’s OK (sort of) because those nice conventional folks are simply mourning the fact that most Americans no longer tolerate such crap.

How does that add up?  What kind of mind writes that paragraph and doesn’t go “Wut?” … and try again.

Last question:  Cohen is a terrible columnist, a weak thinker, a man suffocating in swaddling of past-its-sell-by-date received wisdom and second-hand knowledge.  But the Post chooses to employ him and you’d think they’d have the compassion, (not to mention the self interest) to protect him from himself.  Shorter: Don’t they have any editors down there any more?  Who the f**k let that “conventional” slip by?

*One more in the annals of general cluelessness.  In this column Cohen goes on to argue that the reality for the GOP is that its core recoils from modernity and is now spasming in its rage. To drive the point home, he writes this:

As with the Dixiecrats, the fight is not over a particular program — although Obamacare comes close — but about a tectonic shift of attitudes.I thank Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, for leading me to a live performance on YouTube of Merle Haggard singing “Are the Good Times Really Over.” This chestnut, a lament for a lost America, has been viewed well more than 2 million times. It could be the tea party’s anthem.

Uh, Richard. In these dayz of the intertubes, two million views over five years is…not impressive.  Hell, I’ve been listening to some Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros lately (now there’s a band on the zeitgeist, right?), and the official video of their folk-groove song “Man on Fire” has scored over three million hits in the last eighteen months.  You want to talk about music at the point of cultural confrontation that Cohen’s talking about? Well then, how about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s hit “Same Love feat. Mary Lambert” (which features and interracial gay couple, btw)?

Almost 95 million views on Ryan Lewis’ channel alone, and many more millions elsewhere.

It’s not that Cohen’s wrong on the basic point. Running through the GOP’s current turmoil there is a profound rejection of the whole broad politics and culture that flows from (inter alia) the real advances in civil rights we’ve seen in this country.  But this business of making cultural commentary about a Youtube video isn’t about that argument.  Instead, this is a question of whether or not Cohen is up to his job.  Here, he doesn’t seem to have the basic contextual understanding he needs to draw any inference from a data point like 2 million Youtube views.  It’s not just the “conventional” racists who don’t recognize this country.  Cohen’s making heavy weather of it too.

Image: Charles Towne, Old Billy, a Draught Horse, aged 62, 1823.