Archive for December 2015

Happy Newtonmas

December 25, 2015

Let us raise a toast to a fatherless child, born on this day (sort of — given that Julian-Gregorian kerfluffle) who would one day bring a new revelation into the world.

Isaac Newton Kneller portrait 1689

Happy birthday, my man Izzy!

Top of the day to everyone here, in every mode of celebration.

Image: Sir Godfrey Kneller, Isaac Newton, 1689. (This one is likely a copy)

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A 21st Century Mother-and-Child

December 24, 2015

Thought I’d try one post this year without politics or snark, and this is it.

A couple of weeks ago I put this up at The Boston Globe‘s site — and it is, I believe, behind a pay wall.  The Globe is kind enough to release the material back to me to post after a bit, as long as I credit and link back to the original posting (see what I did there) — so here it is.  If the image has any resonance this time of year for you….good.  And if what its maker has to say about the multiplication of possibilities it embodies adds a little joy to the picture?  So much the better.

_________________________

A mother cradling her infant child.

If the better angels of human nature were to prevail, this picture could become one of those pictures — a single frame that captures an essential piece of the 21st century.

Two human beings, stripped way past bare: two brains, connected in a universal human pose, a mother cradling her infant child.

SaxeTakahashi_MRI_April2015

Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist (and my colleague) at MIT, is a maestro of the camera that can make such images, the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI. To create an fMRI portrait, a subject must lie still inside a narrow cylinder, the inside of a giant electromagnet. The artful manipulation of electromagnetic fields catches the brain in the act — not quite the act of thinking, but of working, nerve cells grabbing oxygen to power the action that ultimately adds up to an idea, a gesture, a feeling.

Making a functional magnetic resonance image demands a lot of its subjects. In a return to the earliest days of photography, you have to lie still for minutes to allow the fMRI machine to complete its tour of your skull. “Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen,” as Saxe writes at Smithsonian.com. “The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.”

Saxe’s work centers on a fundamental question: How people grapple with the realization that other people have thoughts inside their heads — an area of research called “theory of mind.”

Becoming aware of the fact that people around you are thinking and learning to analyze what those thoughts might be, is a capacity that human beings develop over time — which has led Saxe to attempt to make fMRI images of ever younger children. That allows her to track how growing brains, growing people, form the ability to imagine the reality of other’s minds.

There’s no science in Saxe’s picture of herself with her son — or rather, there’s no data to be used in any formal extension of her theory of mind research. Instead, one reading of the image is simply as a marker, a measure of the current state of a scientific project. Saxe writes that the juxtaposition of her mature brain with the just-getting-started one of her son is the “depiction of one of the hardest problems in neuroscience: How will changes in that specific little organ accomplish the unfolding of a whole human mind?”

That is: This picture captures a key step in the process of discovery — the moment when a human invention extends the reach of human senses into realms that were until then not just unexplored but unreachable. New instruments don’t just reveal more of something, more detail, better precision, or what have you. Often, as here, they open windows onto whole new vistas. We’re a very long way yet from answering Saxe’s question, but in the sight of her and her son’s brains we can recognize that an answer is possible.

That’s reason enough to borrow an afternoon of scanner time — but that’s not the whole story behind this picture. Saxe says she and her colleagues made this particular fMRI image “because we wanted to see it.” She reads in it a specific story, an argument. Mother and Child is an old, old trope, in art and in human experience, and as Saxe writes, there is a reflex to elevate “the maternal values, and the women who embody them” to the exclusion of the possibility (or propriety) of those same women exercising their smarts in any out-of-the-home role.

Mary_Cassat_-_Mothers_Kiss_-_NGC_29879

Saxe with her son, depicted and depicting — as she writes, neuroscientist and mother — collude in the same single frame. That was the goal, to create “an old image made new.” And there it is, in the traditional gesture of a mother kissing her child, and the utterly new view of that caress from the inside out.

To me, for all that Saxe’s gloss is so clearly readable in her picture, there’s a yet broader idea expressed. There’s a lot of loose talk around the so-called two cultures of the humanities and sciences, often presented as two sharply distinct ways of making sense of the world. Saxe’s picture gives the lie to that simplistic framing. Art does many things, but certainly one of them is to give us images that confront us with shards of the strange experience of being human. Science, an artful craft, can do the same — as it does here.

_______________________

Back to regularly scheduled rage, weariness, snark, schadenfreude, celebrations of the discomfiture of our adversaries and random brain bubbles after this.  Happy Saturnalia, all.

Image:  Mary Cassatt, Mother’s Kissbetween 1890 and 1891.

Roberts, Race and Physics

December 23, 2015

I’ve been stewing for a couple of weeks about what was said by Fat Tony and Chief Justice Roberts during oral arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest attack on affirmative action.

Scalia’s hankering after the good old jurisprudence of Plessey v. Ferguson receive much notice, but I was (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my day job) at least as troubled by Roberts’ musing on the importance of diversity to a physics classroom.

Much of Roberts’ train of thought was no doubt shaped by prior jurisprudence on the criteria by which preferences could be accepted, but his specific choice of the physics classroom as a presumed space in which diversity would not show a particular benefit to the assembled students seemed to me to reflect a common and pernicious mistake, and error about both the practice of science and the ways diversity actually produces its effects.

So I wrote about it — and The Atlantic put it up on their site today.  Here’s a taste:

Roberts’s question about the “benefits” minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge. That is, at best, a fatally narrow view. Roberts is thinking only about the answers, not the process of arriving at them. Actually doing science involves everything about the person doing the work—as, for example, the way Einstein turned his anger and pity for his father, a casualty of the rat race, into the goad that led him to so much of modern physics.

The piece turns on two stories: that told by Einstein in what he called “Notes for an Autobiography” and another, by the physicist Kaća Bradonjić, whose history I learned last week at a Story Collider performance.  She talked about childhood, war, exile and general relativity — and it was both wonderful, and the crystallizing narrative that captured, for me, the difference between thinking about physics (any inquiry) as a body of results, and physics (any inquiry) as it’s being done, contingent in time, space, and the individual minds and lives of the people doing it.

Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery

Anyway — y’all might enjoy, and if you’re interested, now you know where to go.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

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Gas Up Your Tumbrels

December 22, 2015

I think that this has already been discussed in a comment thread or two, but today (a) The New York Times reminded us that it can do essential, truly top-notch journalism and (b) exposed truly grotesque practices within a “justice” system that offers scant justice to anyone that doesn’t sport “Inc.” as a last name:

Encore and rival debt buyers are using the courts to sue consumers and collect debt, then preventing those same consumers from using the courts to challenge the companies’ tactics. Consumer lawyers said this strategy was the legal equivalent of debt collectors having their cake and eating it, too.

The use of arbitration by the companies is the latest frontier in a legal strategy orchestrated by corporations in recent years. By insertingarbitration clauses into the fine print of consumer contracts, they have found a way to block access to the courts and ban class-action lawsuits, the only realistic way to bring a case against a deep-pocketed corporation.

Their strategy traces to a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 2011 and 2013 that enshrined the use of class-action bans in arbitration clauses.

The result, The New York Times found in an investigation last month, is that banks, car dealers, online retailers, cellphone service providers and scores of other companies have insulated themselves from challenges to illegal or deceptive business practices. Once a class action was dismantled, court and arbitration records showed, few if any of the individual plaintiffs pursued arbitration.

Bottom feeders buy old debt.  They sue to collect.  Doesn’t matter if the debt is too old legally to collect.  Doesn’t matter if the sharks don’t have proper documentation. Doesn’t matter if they string up little old ladies by their big toes.  (Hyperbole alert).

Rembrandt_Christ_Driving_the_Money_Changers_from_the_Temple (1)

Crappy judges at the trial court level, insulated — guided — by crappy justices with robes, lifetime appointments, and no moral compasses whatsoever, make sure the Man gets his cash:

In the cases that The Times examined, judges routinely sided with debt collectors on forcing the disputes into arbitration.

In Mr. Cain’s case, Midland Funding, the unit of Encore Capital, persevered despite originally lacking a copy of a Citibank arbitration agreement they said he signed in 2003. Instead, the debt collector presented as evidence a Citibank contract that one of Encore’s lawyers signed when he opened an account.

In Mississippi, Midland Funding won a court judgment to compel Wanda Thompson to pay more than $4,700 on a debt that was too old to be collected under state law, court records show.

When Ms. Thompson filed a class-action suit on behalf of other state residents, Encore invoked an arbitration clause to have the lawsuit dismissed. Ms. Thompson’s lawyers argued that the company had clearly chosen court over arbitration when it sued her to collect the debt. By going to court, the lawyers said, Encore waived its right to compel arbitration.

Unpersuaded, the judge ruled that Encore’s lawsuit to collect the debt was separate from Ms. Thompson’s case accusing the company of violating the law.

I can’t put into words my revulsion for the people who steal from the weakest in our system, except to note that my loathing of those who enable these pen-armed robbers is far greater.  The GOP  hopes most people will be too scared of Syrians, gun-grabbers, and the Kenyan in the White House to notice who’s doing what to whom.  There’s an opening here for our side — and an obligation to take it.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ driving the money changers from the temple, 1626.

Some Happy News

December 6, 2015

This:

Former President Jimmy Carter announced Sunday that his brain cancer is gone, NBC News reported.

Carter, 91, said an MRI earlier this week revealed the good news, which he broke to a Sunday school class he teaches in his home state of Georgia, according to NBC News.

Masolino_Brancacci_Chapel_01

Not even remotely a cancer doc, me, but I do know that while a clear scan does not mean one is cancer free forever — it sure as hell is better news than the alternative.

Jimmy Carter is a great human being, the best ex-President in history (and much maligned, and under-valued in his presidency as well, IMHO).  It has to count as very good news to know we’ll have him on the planet with us longer than might have been expected after the news of the summer.

Image: Masolino, The Healing of Tabitha, c. 1420s.

Now This Is How You Prayer-Shame!

December 4, 2015

Mike Lukovich:

Lukovich prayer

And I’ll note that the good Dr. Pierce still has his fastball:

​Have you noticed? There’s a new thing that progressives should not do, because it will scare the horses and frighten the children, and harsh the holy mellows of the various tent-show evangelicals currently at work in Republican politics. It is called “prayer-shaming.”  It became a thing in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, when Republican candidates immediately leaped onto Twitter to send “thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.” This time, however, a  great number of people, most notably Senator Chris Murphy and the editors of the New York Daily News, decided that up with this pious swill was something that they no longer would put.*

Jean_Béraud_The_Magdalen_at_the_House_of_the_Pharisees

Well, Charles.  Tell me what you really think:

I am heartily fed up with this nonsense. I am heartily fed up with people whose personal relationships with their personal Lords And Saviors lead them to knuckle the poor, subjugate women, brag about their gunmanship, and topple inconvenient regimes that happen to be sitting on an ocean of oil. I am heartily fed up with people whose support for Israel is based on a couple of misunderstood passages from the craziest book in the Bible in which Jesus comes back to Earth as an X Man and gets into some enthusiastic disemboweling. …

There’s more stupid out there today on this heinous sin of identifying ostentatious piety as the gun-murder-enabling horse hockey it is. But we are none of us surprised, are we?  Channelling my inner (and likely apocryphal) Abe L., if the [insert favorite conception of the deity here] were to exist, we’d know s/he’d love hypocrites, ’cause s/he made so damn many of them.

So let’s just chat among ourselves, shall we.  Today’s prompt:  which ethnic or racial group do you think Trump will insult next?  Bonus points for the most authentic sounding Trumpismo gibe.

 *Not to go all style police or anything (FSM knows, glass houses and all that), but my Brit mum used to attribute that construction to Winston Churchill in the original form “This is the kind of chicken shit up with which I shall not put,” and that’s how I think it ought to read here.
Image:  Jean Béraud, The Magdalen at the House of the Pharisees, 1891

“Prayer Shaming”? Jesus — and Isaiah — Wept

December 3, 2015

I identify as an atheist these days, but to be clear, I’m a Jewish one.  By that I mean that the religious education I received and the ongoing value I find in some ritual and more reading and thinking about the tradition to which I’m heir inform a lot of the way I try to understand and act in the world.

That’s the framework in which I found myself gagging and raging at the nonsense behind this “prayer shaming” horse hockey.

My response?  Ein bischen Deuteronomy:

29 The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever…*

That I (and many exegeses I’ve heard on this verse, which is slapped all over the Jewish High Holidays liturgy) gloss as that which we know, that which we see in the world — that’s what it falls to us to repair.

Then there’s James 2:14-16 — of which I was reminded by a Twitter correspondent when I started slinging scripture there earlier in the day:

14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

Rembrandt_The_Hundred_Guilder_Print

To those of us whose scriptural knowledge resides mostly in the Jewish bible, the echoes of Isaiah 58: 3-7 are inescapable.  (This is another one of the greatest hits of Yom Kippur):

Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.

Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

All of which points to a conclusion obvious to the non-sociopathic: prayer is a conversation one has in private. It does not exhaust — it does not begin to meet — the sum of what a would-be good person must do.  And not just that:  Jewish scripture and Christian testament, and a metric fucktonne of secular reasoning all come to the conclusion that public piety is meaningless without the actual work of repairing the world (the Hebrew phrase is tikkun olam).

Which is why I find the crap purveyed by gun-murder-enablers suggesting that religiosity is no substitute for actually taking action so hateful, even vicious.  If I were a believer I would say that there are circles of hell for those who know why innocents are slaughtered, and yet do nothing, actually bar the way to doing anything, to prevent those deaths.

And yeah — I know that this is belaboring the obvious. But what’s a blog for, if not for the endless flogging of deceased equine quadrupeds?

*You may notice that all these quotes come from the King James version.  A heterodox choice for one who identifies as Jewish.  But oh, my friends, and ah, my foes, that music!

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Hundred Guilder Print  (also: Christ Preaching and/or Jesus healing the sick) c. 1646-1650.