Archive for January 2014

A Lesson In Compassion (From Within A “Family Values” State)

January 30, 2014

Nothing says the dignity of humanity; nothing says kindness; nothing says how a high level of public religiosity makes for a better society than literally ripping  food out of hungry kids hands, and, in front of them, throwing it away:

Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts — a move that shocked and angered parents.

Max_Liebermann_Kindervolksküche

“It was pretty traumatic and humiliating,” said Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter had her cafeteria lunch taken from her as she stood in line Tuesday at Uintah Elementary School, 1571 E. 1300 South.

Eleven years old!

I’m a dad, as y’all probably know.  My kid is 13 now.  He’s a total pain in the ass about food right now — won’t touch most stuff, including his school’s cafeteria fare.  He takes food from home and we top him up when he gets home.  But he used to get some stuff there.  I remember topping up his account once or twice when I dropped him off — we’d either crossed over into the red or come too close to it.  No one at his school would have dreamed of grabbing his bagel; we’d get a note asking for another five bucks for the system.  That’s how you do it.

If anyone had stopped my son in the middle of the cafeteria line, grabbed his tray and dumped his lunch?

I can’t imagine what I’d have done and said.  I can imagine what that experience would do to my child — to any kid.  Public poor-shaming –turning some little kid, with no power, no agency, no ability to defend or deflect or do anything, into nothing more than your prop in some twisted morality play about the undeserving proles.  I’m sorry about the run-on there. The rage and refracted sorrow/sympathy for the chidren some asshole(s) decided it was OK to hurt just overwhelms my ability to calm down my syntax.  But you get the point:  this  is no way to teach an 11 year old anything.  Or rather it’s just the right way to learn both that child and all her or his peers how to be the worst we can be.

One more thing:  I’m slamming on Utah in the headline, because I’m sick of sitting here in godless Massachusetts listening to folks from the religiousist corners of our country tell us how we all need to emulate the values in which such places are alledgedly rich.

But I take this personally too.  This isn’t just Utah.  An action like this is the logical endpoint of a culture that frames all things as the battle of the individual against society.  I like living in a social setting.  I think the genius of American democracy in the abstract is that it provides a once-novel way of mediating between levels of association from village on up and the individual.  So when  I hear the words “American exceptionalism,  I’d like them to have some other meaning than that we are exceptional in our capacity to be cruel to hungry children.

Image: Max Liebermann, Kindervolksküche, 1915

Schadenfreude: It’s What’s For Dinesh

January 23, 2014

Oh, the FSM smiled on me today:

Conservative author Dinesh D’Souza has been indicted on federal charges of violating campaign finance laws, the the U.S attorney in Manhattan announced on Thursday.

William_Hogarth_-_Soliciting_Votes_-_WGA11457

D’ Souza is accused of

“making illegal contributions to a United States Senate campaign in the names of others and causing false statements to be made to the Federal Election Commission in connection with those contributions.”

If I were a much better person than I am, I’d suppress the grin that seems to have pasted itself across my mug since I read that over at TPM.

Still smiling…

Image: William Hogarth, The Humours of an Election:  Soliciting Votes, 1754

In Preparation For This Afternoon’s American Rugby-ish Semifinals

January 19, 2014

Given that the recreational enjoyment of that ever-popular friend, Mary Jane, is now legal in both the states in which NFL conference championships will be decided today, I can’t think of a better musical commentary than this one:

Party w. discretion y’all, mindful of the state of the law in the state you are.
Oh, and of course:  Go Pats! Go Niners!

What Else Is Wrong With Bill Keller’s Cancer-Shaming

January 18, 2014

By now, just about everyone has weighed in on the Kellerdammerung, the his and hers columns striving to cancer-shame of Lisa Bonchek Adams — criticism for the sin of not doing cancer the “right way.”  Beyond what’s been written on our home turf, I’d point you to this and this and this and this and this and this roundup or more recent scorn– and especially this, from The New York Times‘ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. (For a contrary view, check out longtime friend-of-the-blog TBogg, who doesn’t think the Kellers’ sins, if any, should have earned the ire of the ‘net mob.)

Sullivan’s piece is so interesting because it is (ISTM, at least), as direct a condemnation of Bill Keller’s column as one could expect from within the organization he used to lead.  She writes:

In this case, I’ll go so far as to say that there are issues here of tone and sensitivity. For example, when Ms. Adams has made it so abundantly clear in her own work that she objects to the use of fighting metaphors in describing experiences with cancer, it was regrettable to use them throughout a column about her, starting with the first sentence. It suggests that Mr. Keller didn’t make a full effort to understand the point of view of the person he’s writing about on the very big and public stage that is The Times. And although I haven’t read all of Ms. Adams’s writing, readers are complaining about other examples of this disconnect. The Times should consider publishing some opposing points of view, possibly in the form of an Op-Ed column from a contributor.

In addition, Mr. Keller’s views here fall within what journalists would call “fair comment” only to the extent that they are based on facts.

Whap!

I know that to an outsider (like me) it might have been nice if Sullivan had gone all chapter and verse on the many flaws in Keller’s piece, but I can tell you with real certainty that within the building, that last line kills.  A humiliation, very public, and immediately understood by Keller and every one of his former subordinates.*

At this point, a bit of housekeeping:  I’m not going to engage Emma Keller’s column at all; it’s been taken down, and the essential point — if you feel uncomfortable at someone else’s presence and material on social media, don’t f**king read it. Unfollow.  Take the blog off your RSS feed.  There.  Was that so hard?  (See also the Guardian’s official explanation for why the piece vanished from the site.)

I’m not even going to try to parse the rich vein of fail Bill Keller manages to mine.  The undertone (not very under-, actually) of “won’t this irksome woman please shut up” is ugly enough.

Smierc_Tomasza_Becketa

The conflation of an “incurable” diagnosis with an asserted fate of imminent death is intellectual sleight of hand of the least honorable stripe.  The factual errors in Keller’s account, noted by Sullivan above, are troubling as hell.  The implication, that there is one “right” way to engage cancer, and that Adams was failing in her obligation to meet death with due deference, is both wretched as a direct comment on a single life, not just wrong, but cruel — and, of course, makes it much harder to get to what Keller claims is his point, that the modern American medicine does end-of-life poorly.  There’s a lot to talk about there, to be sure — but Keller doesn’t actually get to that, so busily does he scold Adams for failing to conform to his expectations.  (You may take from this that I don’t agree with TBogg and Soonergrunt that Keller was more awkward than awful.)

But all of that and more has been amply discussed already.  What I want to add at this point is a gloss on something Times’ Public Editor Sullivan wrote:

As a columnist, Mr. Keller – by definition – has a great deal of free rein. As I’ve written before, Times opinion editors very rarely intrude on that process by steering a writer away from a topic or killing a column before it runs. It’s a columnist’s job, in short, to have an opinion and to speak it freely. That’s as it should be.

A line often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator, makes this point well: “You’re entitled to your own opinion; you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

And therein lies the nub:  (many) opinion columns and columnists are accurate but wrong. Factual mistakes are bad (and they are legion), but the deeper problem is the distortion field of isolating facts from the patterns that give them meaning.

That is:  Keller’s largest failings in his column weren’t his point-by-point errors, the kinds of things that can be addressed by simple corrections.  They were rather lapses of reporting and analysis.  He asserted rather than established that Lisa Adams was (a) dying and (b) “fighting” her disease — and but what was worse, used those two obvious misreadings of Adams own work to make unsupported claims about the American approach to end-of-life.  He gets to do that move, according to Sullivan, because it’s his job to have an opinion.

And so it is — but still, what should Keller know and be able to state about, say, where the US goes astray in end-of-life care?  What does he need to do beyond get excited by (to be charitable here) a misreading of his source?

Well, paraphrasing Henri Poincare here, it falls to the thinker to decide which facts are worthy of inclusion into the argument — which is to say that facts gain meaning and their connection to truth or falsity, by the structure of argument we build around them.

Leonardo_Anatomy_of_the_Neck,_c._1515

Keller was a crap journalist who arrived at an unsupported conclusion not because he got how long Lisa Adams had endured stage 4 cancer wrong, but because the nuggets of fact he deployed — both the ones he got right and the other ones — were already lodged in a flawed argument, that the specific experience of his father in law adequately frames any circumstance in which one faces an incurable illness.

There’s lots more one could ask, and then pick apart. But the point isn’t that Keller did a hack job, though he did. It’s that these kinds of issues are the stuff of elite opinion “journalism.” It’s how you get a David Brooks column on inequality that conflates arguments about the 1 % and the 5 %.  It’s how you get the Washington Post op-ed page more or less in its full glory (sic!).  The problem lies with the assumption that facts are discrete — quanta of reality.  The ones that go wrong can be corrected, and as for the rest, they can be organized anyway an opinion holder chooses to no ill effect.And that’s where editors need to intervene.  Not to tell Keller he can’t write about end of life, or Bobo about income inequality, or Douthat about lady bits, or Will about climate change or Rubin about anything.  But they have to do so in a way that stands the test not merely of simple accuracy, but of robustness.  How easy is it to knock the piece to shreds?  Too easy?  Get me rewrite!

Ultimately, while it’s great that Sullivan publicly eviscerated someone who, not that long ago, ran the Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St….she still gives too much license she gives not just Keller but the whole stable on the back pages of her paper. I get to joke that David Brooks is always wrong — but I’m not nearly as far off as I should be.

So, yeah, I’m pretty appalled that the Kellers both thought that shouting at a cancer patient was a clever way to frame something deeper they thought they were saying — but I’m at least as depressed that the system of journalism in which they are both embedded both enables and rewards such crap.

*I also love that Sullivan managed to get an elegantly sly slam on both BoBo and Dowd into her stiletto work on Keller:

I don’t make a practice of commenting on whether I agree with columnists, or if I like their columns in general or on a particular day, whether it’s David Brooks on pot-smoking or Maureen Dowd on Chris Christie.

Softly, softly…

Images:  Tommaso Dolabella, Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, 1627

Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomy of the Neck, c. 1515

Your Morning Awesome

January 16, 2014

Thanks to increasingly indispensable blogger Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, who pops up every week or so over at Charlie Pierce’s joint, I just watched this:

Because I am a kind and generous soul, now you can too.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project

The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

My Review of Megan McCardle’s Upcoming Opus (Further to the Megan McCardle Is Always Wrong chronicles)

January 13, 2014

I learned — or rather was horribly brought to recall, after having labored hard to unknow the hideous realization, that Megan McArdle is coming out with a book on how failure propels success. (Sic!)  This grim fact was brought to my attention by a co-blogger at Balloon Juice, DPM (Dread Pirate Mistermix), and to my horror, my many enablers in DPM’s thread have noted that news of McArdle’s upcoming volume might be “worth” reviewing.  One even suggested a basic format.
First:  you all are horrible people, wishing upon me or anyone the evils of (a) reading McArdle at book-length and (b) spending the time it would take to disembowel the work honorably.

Second: I’ve already completed my review, along the precise lines recommended within the Balloon Juice comment thread:

Please suggest other one line/haiku McArdle reviews; it’s a rich vein of snark I’m offering here.