A Sunday Nerd Humor Break

Posted January 18, 2015 by Tom
Categories: random humor, Science

Tags: ,

Via the indomitable xkcd: Have to admit that it was…

beat…

beat…

beat…

before I snorted.

Damn that Heisenberg fella, always dodging about.

Got any good nerd/science jokes in your repertory? Put it in the comments, please.

We Are (Mostly) Star Dust

Posted January 17, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Cool Video, good public communication of science, Science, science writing, Talks, TED

Tags:

Have some brain-food-fun this a.m., courtesy of a friend of mine, Ben Lillie, recovering physicist and the man behind the lovely Story Collider effort.  Here he gives a TEDx talk on element number 3, lithium, an audio essay ranging from Evanescence (the band, not the property) to the universe and back to human nature.  Enjoy:

-
Don’t know about you, but every now and then I need a complete break from the not-funny comedy that is current US politics.  This worked a treat for me.
-
Any great science popular media among your favorites?  That’s what comments are for.
-

Offense, Speech, Redress

Posted January 7, 2015 by Tom
Categories: rare sincerity, The Way We Live Now, Things that actually matter

Tags: , , ,

In the thread below yesterday’s post on the shootings in Paris in its Balloon Juice version, a … lively … discussion broke out around various forms of the question of provocation.  No one, I think, suggested that the murders were anything but grotesque, an expression of evil.  But several people noted that they weren’t surprised that the atrocity occurred, given the known impact of the sort of satire in which Charlie Hebdu traded.

That evoked discussion — and sharp disagreement — about the duty of respect, especially to minority views or senses of identity.  (I’m paraphrasing and drastically shrinking the discussion here.  Feel free to correct, demur, dismiss in the comments.)

My view is pretty simple.  The price to pay for living in an open society is suffering the existence and the independence of those who drive you crazy.  Sort of like being the parent of a teenager.

But I digress.

Bluntly:  the appropriate response to speech that pisses you off is speech.  Nothing else.  I am a cultural relativist in my daily work. (What is a historian, even or especially a popular historian like myself, but someone who tries to grasp that foreign country, the past, in its own terms as well as in our own time’s?)

But that relativism has limits.  It commands empathy, sympathy, the effort to understand; it does not require, or even permit any veto on thought or behavior based on the cultural demands of one group over another.

That’s why anti-abortion groups become terrorists when they shoot clinic workers.  That’s why those who provide public accommodations — bakers, for example — no more get to choose to deny a gay couple a wedding cake than they would an African American one.  And so on.

So, no.  I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the contextualization of the murder of foul mouthed, blasphemous satirists as an extreme (and — everyone agreed on this — utterly unacceptable) extension of genuine grievances.  Even if it is true that France treats its former-colonial Muslim population culpably wretchedly.  Speech is speech.  Murder is murder.  The former never ameliorates, much less excuses guilt for the latter.  It doesn’t, really, even make it comprehensible.  Those who kill over cartoons (or use a cartoon as a pretext for a killing for other ends) are neither sembables or frères

That thought is what, earlier today, led me back to one of the monuments of 2oth century American jurisprudence.  It’s only surprising that the William Rehnquist wrote the opinion in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell in light of the current debasement of the Supreme Court.  I can actually remember when the party identification of the appointing President was not a wholly reliable guide to where opinions would land.

The issue in dispute in Hustler v. Falwell was whether or not the egregious preacher was entitled to damages for emotional suffering imposed by Hustler’s publication of a mock advertisement that showed a drunken Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse.

As Rehnquist wrote,

There is no doubt that the caricature of respondent and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above [works by Thomas Nast and others], and a rather poor relation at that.

Boss_Tweed,_Nast

Nonetheless, crappy, nasty, or downright mean political speech is still vital, Rehnquist and a unanimous Supreme Court (Fat Tony included!) agreed, to the point that the no-doubt sincerely pissed off Falwell had to suck it up:

If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description “outrageous” does not supply one. “Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression. An “outrageousness” standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.

Rehnquist was hardly my beau-ideal of a jurist.  But he was always strong on the first amendment.  And in this  opinion, he nailed the essence of what freedom of speech means and requires from a society that values and trusts itself:

France isn’t the US.  I can imagine a different view of what might constitute shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater if one were in Lebanon, say, rather than the Bronx — or the Marais.  But the underlying theme in the Hustler v. Falwell opinion talllies with the way I believe free societies would choose to live.

It remains vital to have enough sympathy to be able to recognize genuine pain evoked carelessly or deliberately by speech.  It’s an important part of living well to model the best definition I’ve heard for what it means to be a gentleman:  someone who never insults another person unintentionally.

But granting the reality of grievance in the face of either deliberate or ignorant disdain, still Rehnquist had it right:

 

“[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection.

Amen and amen.

The full text of the opinion follows below the jump.

Image:  Thomas Nast, Boss Tweed, before 1871.

Read the rest of this post »

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie

Posted January 7, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Evil, rare sincerity, Things that actually matter

Tags: , , ,

By now I’m assuming everyone’s heard about the dreadful attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebo:

Masked gunmen burst into the Paris offices of a French satirical newspaper on Wednesday and killed 12 people, including top journalists and two police officers, before fleeing in a car. The gunmen were still at large at dusk, as an extensive police dragnet spread across a traumatized city.

Among the dead were four prominent cartoonists who have repeatedly lampooned Islamic terrorists and the Prophet Muhammad, leading to speculation that the attack on the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was the work of Islamic militants acting alone or in concert with extremist groups.

The gunmen — reports suggest there were three — are still at large, and, according to Times coverage, it remains unknown what group, if any, organized the attack.

Salman Rushdie knows something about words and art and the threat of deadly violence aimed at suppressing it.  He’s one of many who have responded to the attack.  The statement was apparently up at PEN’s site, but that’s down now, and (via a Neil Gaiman tweet) I found it at the Wall St. Journal.  Here it is:

“Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”  –Salman Rushdie

Bad times, sad times.  My thoughts and deepest sympathy to all the families and friends of the murdered.

More Of This Please

Posted January 5, 2015 by Tom
Categories: bad behavior, Politics, Republican follies

Tags: , ,

Via TPM, this from White House spokesman Josh Earnest:

“Mr. Scalise reportedly described himself as David Duke without the baggage. So it’ll be up to Republicans to decide what that says about their conference.”

There’s an old political story — I’ve heard it told about LBJ — about the candidate who tells his campaign manager to spread a rumor that their opponent enjoys the carnal knowledge of barnyard animals.

“I can’t call him a pig-f**ker!” the staffer replies. “No one will believe it.”

“Sure,” says LBJ (oh heck. Go with it).  “But make him deny it.”*

Darwin_Domestic_102

The beauty here is that there is no phantom pig in the room at all.  There’s no possible denial, just, at best a bit of weaseling:  “I didn’t know; I didn’t mean it; I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”

Republicans are who they are, the people their actions define them to be.  The Democrats’ job is to make sure they own it.  To that end, Mr Earnest, keep stuff like this coming:

“It is the responsibility of members of the House Republican conference to choose their leaders,” Earnest said. “Who they choose to serve in their leadership says a lot about who they are, what their values are and what the priorities of the conference should be.”

*The line works best when you really bear down on “deeeennnnyyyy”

Image:  Charles Darwin, Head of Japan or Masked Pig, Copied from Mr. Bartlett’s paper in Proc. Zoolog. Soc. 1861, p. 263.illustration in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Vol. I, Ch. 3 1868.

Living Large In Football’s Minor League

Posted December 29, 2014 by Tom
Categories: money, Stupidity, The Way We Live Now, Who thought that was a good idea?

Tags: ,

Perhaps the most dog-bites-man headline of this last weekend of regular season NFL play came atop stories on Jim Harbaugh’s move from the San Francisco 49ers to the University of Michigan.  Nearly all of those stories, before and after the news became official, mentioned Harbaugh’s expected salary:  $8,000,000/year, a sum that would make him the highest paid coach in the history of college football, though the latest reports suggest that even that staggering figure is low.

Henri_Rousseau_-_The_Football_Players

Just for the perverse pain of it, I decided to do a few sums.  The University of Michigan charges slightly lower instate tuition for its 1st and 2nd year undergraduates than it does for juniors and seniors.  The average of the two comes to $14,336.  Taking the original $8 million number for  Harbaugh’s salary, that translates into 558 tuition-free rides for Michigan kids.

University of Michigan faculty salaries in 2013 range from an average of roughly $88,000 for assistant professors to an average number around $149,000.  Picking a figure more or less in the middle, and adding in an allowance for benefits, Harbaugh’s reported salary would cover the cost of about 50 faculty — with, among other things, the benefit to the university and society of the research such an addition to the Wolverines capacity to study science, medicine, engineering, social science and the humanities might provide.

To add yet one more comparison:  even in an age of administrative bloat, Harbaugh’s compensation comes to more than the pay given Michigan’s top 16 executives, or all 20 of its deans.

Apples and oranges, football boosters might reply, and they’re right.  NCAA Division 1 football, at least within a major conference, has revenue streams not available to a mere Dean of Engineering or the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.  It’s plausible to me that between TV contracts, merchandise and the rest, the University of Michigan may indeed make a profit on its football operation.  (I’m not sure, though.  I’ve spent enough time in and around the film industry to know that before you simply accept that claim, you have to see the real books on anything as rich in opportunities for financial legerdemain as a big time entertainment business.)*

But even if , as is certainly true, the king’s ransom Jim Harbaugh will now collect doesn’t rob the rest of the university, and would in any event be simply unavailable to any other initiative at the University of Michigan, still, it seems to me useful to pay attention to the scale of that salary against the costs of what are, after all, the core of what a university does.  That would be to educate young adults and to create knowledge valuable in both a practical and liberal sense of value.  Michigan remains a great university, and I’ll be bursting with pride when my nephew graduates in Ann Arbor next year.  And, of course, Michigan is hardly the only football-mad school; it’s just the latest to hit the headlines with a monstrous expression of what it as a microcosm of society prices and hence prizes most richly.

In the end, I guess this whole post is a “get offa my lawn you kids” kind of plaint.  As a society we are so committed to a primitive market view of human relations that I can hear myself telling me that this is simply what the bourse will bear for a top name in a small, big-money field.  There’s a lot of ways to parse that thought for bullshit, of course, but just the fact that I frame it that way before catching myself shows how thoroughly the Reagan revolution has defined our categories of thought.  I will say, though, that the history of decline-and-falls is littered with examples of the already-rich alienating yet more resources from things that actually build the wealth and power of a society.

Oh well.

*I don’t know how to factor in the question of alumni fund raising, because I know of no way to calculate the crowding out problem: how much cash raised for athletics either fosters or crowds out possible support for academics.  If anyone has any insight on this — pop it into the comments, please.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, The Football Players1908  And yeah, I know. Not that football.  But I couldn’t resist such gaily prancing young sportsmen.  Could you?

Merry F**king Christmas, Suckas. (MOTU FU Edition)

Posted December 25, 2014 by Tom
Categories: bad behavior, Decline and Fall

Tags: ,

Bah humbug, y’all.

Or:  here is my reminder that our betters, the MOTU, and their eager servants in the political class never, ever rest from their quest to enrich (themselves) and immiserate (anyone it takes).

Fresh on the heels of the GOP’s decision in the omnibus funding bill to gut one more of the laughingly minor restrictions on bankster crime, we get this Christmas Day report from our friends at The New York Times:

“Turn your car title into holiday cash,” TitleMax, a large title lender, declares in a recent television commercial, showing a Christmas stocking overflowing with money.

More than 1.1 million households in the United States used auto title loans in 2013, according to a survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — the first time the agency has included the loans in its annual survey.

Title loans are becoming an increasingly prevalent form of high-cost, short-term credit in subprime finance, as regulators in a number of states crack down on payday loans.

For many borrowers, title loans, also sometimes known as motor-vehicle equity lines of credit or title pawns, are having ruinous financial consequences, causing owners to lose their vehicles and plunging them further into debt.

In the case with which Times reporters Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Michael Corkery open their piece, a borrower took a $1,000 loan that carried a 171% annual interest rate.  That’s not a typo.  Unsurprisingly, she lost her car and remains about $1,000 in debt on that one transaction.  At that, she got off … well, better than some:

A review by The New York Times of more than three dozen loan agreements found that after factoring in various fees, the effective interest rates ranged from nearly 80 percent to more than 500 percent. While some loans come with terms of 30 days, many borrowers, unable to pay the full loan and interest payments, say that they are forced to renew the loans at the end of each month, incurring a new round of fees.

This isn’t really a banking business (obviously); it’s closer to a combo pawn shop and loan sharking business:

…lenders make the loan based on an assessment of a used car’s resale value, not on a borrower’s ability to repay that money, many people find that they are struggling to keep up almost as soon as they drive off with the cash.

As a result, roughly one in every six borrowers who take out title loans have their cars repossessed, according to an analysis of 561 title loans by the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit in Durham, N.C.

And, of course, something that offers so much easy money to be grabbed from those least likely to find any kind of resource is attracting the finest members of our community:

Jesus_driving_the_merchants_from_the_Temple

The high interest rates on the loans have enticed an influx of Wall Street money. Private equity firms are investing in lenders, and some big banks are ramping up their auto lending to people with blemished credit.

What about regulation? Hah! Vampire squid and masters of the universe laugh at your regulation:

for every state where there has been a crackdown, there are more where the industry has mobilized to beat back regulations.

In Wisconsin, it took the title loan industry only one year to reverse a ban on the loans that had been put in place in 2010. In New Hampshire in 2008, state legislators enacted a law that put a 36 percent ceiling on the rates that title lenders could charge. Four years later, though, lobbyists for the industry won a repeal of the law.

America! F**K Yeah!

It’s ruinously expensive to be poor in this exceptional country.  It’s too damn easy to profit on the bitter hardship of others here.  I’m betting that most of those doing so have today talked pretty about the meaning of Christmas.  If so, let me leave them with Albert Einstein’s injunction, issued almost exactly 100 years ago:

“Honor your master Jesus Christ not only in words and songs but rather, foremost, by your deeds.”*

*Albert Einstein, “My Opinion on the War.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple, 1635.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,067 other followers