Archive for August 2014

And the Internet Shall Make Us Free, Gender Equity Division

August 12, 2014

I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way).  This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance.  The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience.  Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.  It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts.  What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially.  The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!).  This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone.  And to have fun with it while they’re at it.

So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading.  Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus,  both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a  guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.

My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share.  One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book.  The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do.  And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would:  ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.

Then this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.14.25 PM

Oops.

Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised.  Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.

La_Leçon_d’astronomie_de_la_duchesse_du_Maine_-_François_de_Troy

Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.

One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas.  Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some  books.

The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-“optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large.  That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves.  But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched.  Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:

One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

And so they do.  And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.  La lucha continua, as we used to say.

Discuss — and go buy some books.

*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?

Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704

Welcome To Hell’s Nightclub

August 9, 2014

Ladles and Jellyspoons!  I give you 36 seconds of the Guitar Center in Times Square.

(h/t @jodyavirgan)

Pity the poor workers there?

In that vein:  what’s the worst job you ever held? How long did you last?

Everything’s Bigger In Texas, Even The Stupid…

August 8, 2014

….hell, especially the stupid.

Exhibit ∞:   A top Texas official just announced that the state plans both to sue the EPA over its new carbon rules, and just because nullification has always worked out so well, ignore the hell out of them too [vie The Hill]:

The top environmental regulator in Texas said the state may choose not to follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants.

At a policy event Thursday, Bryan Shaw said he is concerned the rules “are only the camel’s nose under the tent,” according to the Texas Tribune.

Edward_Lear_-_Camel_studies_-_Google_Art_Project

There are any number of ways to plumb the pure cretinism on display here, but if Mr. Shaw is really concerned about a camel proboscis poking across the line, he might want to think on this:

If Texas ignores the rules and refuses to write a plan to implement them, the EPA would have to step in and write a plan for the state.

IOW: stupid has consequences, as Texans have reason (if not apparently the willingness) to know:

Texas also ignored a 2010 federal rule requiring new industrial plants to obtain greenhouse gas permits. The EPA took over, leading to years-long delays for permits, which caused industrial interests to blame the state for its decision.

If they had Darwin awards for states…

Image:  Edward Lear, Camel Study, 1867

Bonus camel image after the jump: (more…)

The Lambs Still Scream…

August 7, 2014

…for the performance artist formerly known as Ann Coulter [via TPM]:

In the column, titled “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded To ‘Idiotic,’” Coulter called Dr. Kent Brantly’s humanitarian work in Liberia nothing more than the efforts of an ego-driven Christian and “the first real-world demonstration of the economics of Obamacare.”

…Coulter then said Brantly left the country to provide health insurance for Liberians because he wanted “his membership in the ‘Gold Humanism Honor Society.’”

“There may be no reason for panic about the Ebola doctor, but there is reason for annoyance at Christian narcissism,” she wrote.

I guess this is what you write when you hear that anguished sound inside your head, the one that asks “why aren’t they paying attention to MEEEEEE!!!???”

At least that’s what I hope.  Worse, by far, would be the thought that what Ann Coulter says does in fact reflect broader opinion; that within our great polity, a substantial number of people believe that the suffering of others merits no concern; that there are “right” people to care for, distinguished from those wrong ones — wrong by geography, class, color, what have you.

I’m no Christian myself, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, and in the tradition that I inherited we have a term “tikkun olam” — to heal the world.   From earliest Hebrew School — at least at the commie-liberal orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, California in which I was brought up and become bar-mitzvah — we were taught to view tikkun loam as the singular obligation (one most of us meet terribly imperfectly, of course — but it matters that it’s there as the challenge/demand).  I’ve spoken since with rabbis and other teachers who render the essential demand of Judaism on its adherents in almost-Christian terms, a formula in which the law secondary to action:  keep the Sabbath* and do tikkun olam.  That much, and there you have the sinews of a good life.**

571px-Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_9_(Canto_III_-_Charon)

There is, of course, a Christian formulation of the same idea, one that comes to much the same point.  Matthew 25:34-40 puts it pretty plainly:

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Which leads me to a last thought.  If Ann Coulter thinks that the Jesus of Matthew 25 is a narcissistic Christian, and she does in fact speak for any recognizable segment of the American conservative movement, then you know all you need to know about the theology of those self-proclaimed guardians of values.  If there is in fact a Christian God, a Christian heaven, and especially, a Christian hell, then it would take a Dante to describe the destination for which Coulter and her ilk are bound. It’s beyond me.

*Which I also do most indifferently, though I find that creating what Abraham Joshua Heschel Abraham Joshua Heschel called sacred time is always restorative, on those rare occasions when I can actually bring it off, even for a couple of hours.

**And so it is, I believe; certainly, as an atheist Jew, that’s where my religious tradition retains its claim on my head and my heart.

Gustave Doré, illustration to Dante’s Inferno. Plate IX: Canto III: Arrival of Charon“And lo! towards us coming in a boat / An old man, hoary with the hair of eld, / Crying: ‘Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!'” (Longfellow’s translation), 1857