Roberts, Race and Physics

Posted December 23, 2015 by Tom
Categories: physics, Race, Science, Things that actually matter, Two Cultures, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

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

Posted December 22, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Evil, Picking sides, The Way We Live Now, Thieves, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

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

Posted December 6, 2015 by Tom
Categories: rare sincerity, Uncategorized

Tags:

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!

Posted December 4, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Guns, Religious follies, Republican follies, ridicule, Uncategorized

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

Posted December 3, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Guns, religion, Religious follies, Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

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.

A Shuttered Past

Posted November 21, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Cool Images, History, Race, Republican knavery, Technology, Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

I think we need some antidote to the depths of derp we’ve seen (and on this blog picked over with all the horror that follows a good look at last night’s supper this morning) coming from the Syrians Are Coming brigade of bed-wetters.

So, instead, let’s take a look at someone who used their media smarts for good — and, in doing so, helped forge the chain that led to the fact (glory be) that we have the president we do right now, serving as a bulwark against the stupid that would have toppled a lesser person.

That would be this man:

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

That’s Frederick Douglass, of course, in a shot taken in the 1860s.

Here he is as a younger man:

Unidentified_Artist_-_Frederick_Douglass_-_Google_Art_Project-restore

And in old age:

Frederick_Douglass_LOC_collodion_c1865-80

Those are three of the 160 surviving photographs taken of Douglass — a figure that currently ranks as the most confirmed separate portraits taken of any American in the 19th century.*  Scholars John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste Marie-Bernier have a new book out, Picturing Frederick Douglass,  In it they use a sequence of images to drive a new biography of Douglass, and in doing so allow us to see technological change as it was lived — and used — by a brilliant observer of his own life and times.  As the authors write in the introduction, Douglass loved photography, and saw it as an exceptionally potent tool for making the world a different and better place. Douglass loved the fact that

What was the special and exclusive of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago.

In that context Stauffer, Trodd and Marie-Bernier make the case that Douglass saw photography as  tool to alter social reality:

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers–and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see the what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

Such reasoning (and more besides) led Douglass to the photographer’s studio over and over again, actively seeking out the camera as a tool that could help him create the reality of African-American humanity, presence, significance.

Photography allowed him to be seen.  In that determined, asserted presence,  you have (it seems to me) an early herald of of the circumstances in which Barack Obama could become president.  Alas, in the fact of the racist and vicious forces with which Douglass had to contend, we can be similarly reminded that in our times the sight of a black man commanding our gaze drives too many among us into spasms of demented, terribly dangerous rage.

But put that aside for a second, and look at some fabulous images of an extraordinary — and extraordinary-looking — man.  (A few more examples.)

And if you feel the need for some open thread, well take that too.

*The runners up are cool too:  In the research for this book, the authors found George Armstrong Custer, that avatar of puffed-up vanity taking second place, with 155 portraits.  Red Cloud came next at 128, followed by Whitman and Lincoln at 127 and 126, the poet and his captain connected again.  It seems likely, according to these writers, that when further work is done, Ulysses S. Grant may trump them all, but that doesn’t change the point of what Douglass set out to do.

Images:

1.  c. 1860s

2.  c. 1850, daguerrotype

3. before 1880, Brady-Handy collection.

If The Phone Don’t Ring…

Posted November 18, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Foreign Policy, Last resort of scoundrels, Middle East, rare sincerity, Republican knavery, seriously, Unsolicited Advice

Hey everyone!

I’ve got a message for you:

Pick up the damn phone.

The backstory:  I heard last night from a valued reader with connections to the Hill reminded me that there is more this crowd can do than point, sigh, and mock the GOP pants-wetters (abetted by an increasing number of feckless Dems) who so fear the widows and orphans from the latest spasm of our long decade of war in the Middle East.*

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_052

What to do about the attempt to make fear the ground state of American policy?  What to do about the spreading political meme that the proper exercise of US state power is to bar the door to Syrian refugees? How should we stand with President Obama when he says of the fear mongers “that’s not who we are”?

Pick up the damn telephone.

Call your Congressional representatives in the House and the Senate.

You know the drill:  Speak your mind, politely, respectfully, but firmly to whoever you get on the phone.

My reader emphasized, and my own distant memory of an internship on the Hill concurs, that these calls really matter.  House and Senate staffs keep notes and logs.  There are regular reports of how many calls came in, on what side, and with what passion or urgency.  \

Paradoxically, because of the ubiquity of social media, an actual human voice that has taken the trouble to pick up a phone carries a great deal of weight.  So call.

The numbers:

The Senate.

The House.

If you’re feeling extra virtuous — your governor and state legislature representatives would also be worth a call.

We can water the tree of liberty not with blood, but words.

Pick up the damn phone.

PS:  Obama gets it exactly right in this devastating take down of the chicken hawks in the other party.

*Yes, I do know that the conflict there — and “Great” Power strategerizing through its misery — extends well before 2003.  But the Syrian Civil War of the last few years is (at least to me) both a conflict with deep roots and a proximate consequence of Bush the Lesser’s attempt to remake the Middle East into an model US client region.

Image: attr. to Rembrandt van Rijn, The Flight Into Egypt 1627


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