Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Good News In Science

The scariest part of following the science on climate change is the revelation of positive feedback mechanisms like the release of methane deposits that will accelerate warming. So it is always heartening to hear of scientific news that suggests other forces at work that will give us more time to address climate change. A letter in Nature: Geoscience suggests that natural aerosols emitted by plants that mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases will increase with warming, a negative feedback mechanism.

And in other news, a recent advance in nanotechnology, an area of science that promises to advance every other area of science, has produced nanostructures that can significantly increase solar cell efficiency.

And finally, the completely awesome Nest thermostat just got another update.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Courage, Cheerfulness, Resolution

In my last post I noted that one of the uglier aspects of tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings was the immediate exploitation of the events by low-class ideologues and I cited John Dickerson's recent article in Slate. In making his case, Dickerson recommended that politicians and pundits heed the instruction of the (now ubiquitous) British World War II propaganda poster that advised its readers to "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Good advice. Everyone loves that poster. I think, at least in part, the slogan has become so popular—it is now reproduced on everything from hoodies to iphone cases—because it brings to mind that splendid equanimity that served the British so well in the adversity of the war years. There is great comfort in the memory of the indefatigable Londoner taking cheer, as the bombs rained down, in their afternoon tea. Sure enough, after Boston a host of slogan spin-off images, the same font on Celtic green, made their way around facebook, "Keep Wicked Calm and Carry the Hell On."

Less well known is the curious minor history behind the poster, which was in fact never publicly distributed by the British Ministry of Information during the war. It was only discovered in the year 2000 as the third in a series of propaganda posters:

Although the other two posters were produced and widely circulated (earning a fairly negative reception from the British press, who considered the posters a waste of money), "Keep Calm and Carry On" was held in reserve by the Ministry to be used in the war during a moment of great crisis. The story is well told in this lovely three-minute film by Studiocanoe:

(Sidenote: I love the trains in the bookstore.)

It is the messages on the other two posters I find most interesting this week, not so much because of the Boston bombings but because of the collapse of gun control legislation in the Senate. For the rabid defenders of gun rights, the second slogan, "Freedom Is in Peril; Defend It with All Your Might" is exactly how they see the discussion—any discussion—about gun control. Their politics exists in a tautology of conspiracy and reckless liberalism. Government is nefarious, always drifting towards tyranny, and citizens require guns to prevent the hegemony of the state. Any attempt to limit gun rights is prima facie evidence of the tyrannical intention of the government. The response to such encroachment of liberty must be extreme: defend it with all your might. Were they aware of the fuller meaning of the term jihadists, Wayne LaPierre and his NRA allies might recognize that that's precisely what they are.

The question that gun control advocates—and by that I mean the ninety-odd percent of people who support background checks—have been asking since the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed is how gun control of any kind can ever get passed if so popular a measure went down to defeat? Some people blamed the four Democrats who voted no, although I tend to agree with Dave Weigel that that is an unpersuasive reading of the politics. The bottom line is that Republicans filibustered a bill that has enormous popular support. There may be electoral fallout from the vote, but that is unlikely... pro-gun Republican Senators remain safe in their relatively uninhabited red states. Only a few right wingers have called out these Senators for their extremism. (Adolphus Busch resigned from the NRA over the vote, in a letter reminiscent of George H. W. Bush's resignation from the organization in 1995.)

So we are left with the status quo: gun deaths every day, no hope of legislation in the near future, and the same question, where do we go from here? One part of the answer seems to me to be this: if substantial movement to the most moderate of positions on gun control, expanded background checks, was met with a filibuster, then in the future there appears to be no reason to concede much ground at all. Having offered nothing to Democrats or, indeed, the nation at large in the way of compromise, they have committed themselves to fighting this battle again and again and again. And when they lose, they will lose far more than if they had bargained in the first place, a lesson they ought to have learned from health care.

In the meantime, "Courage, Cheerfulness, Resolution." Let those be the watchwords for those in pursuit of a sane policy on guns.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Terrorist and the Lone Gunman

Making sense of the past week—the horrors in Boston, of course, but also the vote against gun control and the ongoing debate about immigration—has been difficult. There is a peculiar frustration when rational minds encounter what seem to be irrational events. Our urge to comprehend always outpaces the subtleties of fact and meaning. (That, I suppose, is why history is important.) Ideologues have already used the Boston bombings to peddle their own agendas without real care for responsible readings of the story, a pattern that John Dickerson at Slate has appropriately chastised.

But it is equally irresponsible (and really a form of intellectual cowardice) to dismiss political issues that arise out of tragedy because they arise out of tragedy. Some of the anti-gun control crowd is guilty of this, like Mark Begich, Democratic Senator from Alaska, who explained his vote against the Toomey-Manchin background check amendment with this statement:
It’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment. Because human emotions then drive the decision. Everyone’s all worked up.
Had the Congress scrambled to put together a massive gun control bill or for that matter a conceal-and-carry bill in the days right after Sandy Hook, Begich might have a point—might. But the gun debate has been ongoing for four months. By comparison, the Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001, just forty-five days after the September 11th attacks. My memory of October 2001 was that emotions were still running high. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, elected officials have to do their jobs when the electorate is emotional. If Congressmen and Senators feel unprepared to weigh emotional issues, they should let their constituents know and they can vote someone else into office. That's how it rolls in a democratic republic. Besides, as Bill Keller was quick to point out in The New York Times, the "it's too emotional" line, used by many Republicans as well as Begich, was a canard. The pro-gun lobby does everything in its power to inject emotion into gun control debates. That's one of the ways they win. This past week, the NRA convinced these Senators to vote no using emotion, paranoia, and deceit. It sees appropriate to me that gun control advocates respond with fury, activism, and truthAt least 3500 people in America have been killed by guns since Newtown, a death toll higher than the September 11th attacks. Can we imagine a time that the gun debate will not be emotional?

Which brings me back to Boston, another terrible event in which detaching emotion from reason will be nigh impossible for a long time. There is so much fodder in the story of these two brothers and so few facts, a dangerous combination. People have begun to ascribe motive to the criminals when at this time we have little sense of why they did what they did. Congressman Peter King, for instance, has already called for the nation to "stop being politically correct" and acknowledge that "we're at war with Islamic terrorism," I'm not sure why that statement is helpful—it certainly isn't for all the brown-skinned Americans who suffer the mistreatment of nativists and racists charged up by comments like that. Even if it turns out to be true that these brothers were motivated by fanatical Islamism, why not wait to know with greater clarity why they did what they did?

Strange, how we immediately look for political motives after bombings, but quickly imagine that shooting massacres are devoid of political meaning. Bombers must be connected to some larger entity, a web with strands, however tenuous, that stretch to other dark corners of the world where dark people plot against us. Implicit in the term terrorism is the acknowledgment that more of it will come. So, wisely or foolishly, we pass the Patriot Act, and then we renew it, and we prepare, and we become hardened. We struggle (as we should) with the question of safety versus civil liberties. But mass gun violence, we so often conclude, is the domain of madmen. The lone gunman is a different figure, one warped by his isolation moreso than by any ideology. There is no shadowy network of people or ideas behind the shooter, so there is no sustained impetus to respond beyond the routine processes of the criminal justice system. It is a singular consequence of the apolitical identity of mass shooters that the debate over guns and public safety takes place on a radically different spectrum that the debate over terrorism and public safety.

I wonder if these profiles of the Terrorist and the Lone Gunmen are going to be complicated or merged by the information we gather about the Tsarnaev brothers? The 2009 Fort Hood shooting of Nidal Malik Hasan and the 2011 case of Anders Breivek in Oslo, which was a bombing and a mass shooting, have already illustrated the severe limitations of such archetypes. Terrorists are sometimes shooters; social alienation and extremist politics seem to go hand in hand. There appear to be elements of both profiles in what we know of the Tsarnaevs. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo wrote after the photos of the brothers were released that what struck him most was their identity as young men:
But when I did see those pictures and see what looked more like frat kids than jihadis or white supremacists the thought that came to mind to me was Columbine — no clear ideology just the hard underlying precipitate of young male alienation, cockiness and aggression.
I have the same reaction looking at their photos, an association with Adam Lanza and all the others going back to Columbine. That made me recall those voices in the wake of Newtown who were not only calling for gun control, but for a national dialogue about masculinity and violence. Something is not right in our raising of young men.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

158 Miles from Augusta National...

Students in Wilcox County, Georgia are trying to organize an integrated prom—you read that correctly—and Nathan Deal, Governor of Georgia, has refused to support the effort. His comment:
This is a leftist front group for the state Democratic Party and we're not going to lend a hand to their silly publicity stunt.
You read that correctly too.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Terrible Day in History

On this day...

Confederates fired on South Carolina beginning in earnest the Civil War. And 84 years later...

FDR died as the agony of World War II continued.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Brain Revealed

Reader GT, a neuroscientist by training, advises that a paper published in Nature yesterday represents a massive breakthrough in the field of brain research. The implications for biomedical brain research are profound. As I understand it, using a technique called CLARITY researchers have succeeded in rendering transparent once-opaque brain tissue by dissolving away the fats that otherwise insulate and shroud the neural material scientists want to examine. Without the fats, brain cells dyed with fluorescent markers may be visualized and traced to illuminate neural pathways in remarkable definition and, most importantly, the same tissue can be explored using different dyes multiple times. The New York Times reported on it here. The MIT Technology Review has a shorter summary that includes the full video that accompanied the original Nature article.

Update: Edited at 2:20pm April 12 at the suggestion of GT to address inaccuracies in the description of CLARITY. GT additionally adds about the chief author of the paper: "The potential impact of this technique's development cannot be overstated. If his previous development of a whole new field of neuroscience (optogenetics) were not enough, CLARITY renders Karl Deisseroth eternal. This is in less than 10 years as a principal investigator."

Bowdoin Responds

Thanks to reader AL for alerting me to the President of Bowdoin's response to the NAS hit-job.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Right-Wing Education Fetish

Reading conservatives lament the state of education in America, one comes away with a sense that two thousand years of accrued knowledge has been cast aside in some kind of Maoist attempt to brainwash the nation's youth. Apparently American schools and universities are awash in a sea of liberal guilt. The academic left, which functions as an auxiliary to the Communist Party, is hard at work manipulating impressionable young minds with Marxist propaganda about diversity, privilege, sustainability, and the unholy triumvirate: race, class, and gender. Washington Post columnist George Will, who was himself educated in the late Pleiocine period, is the latest to sound the alarm. His column of April 3 begins:
The real vocation of some people entrusted with delivering primary and secondary education is to validate this proposition: The three R’s — formerly reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic — now are racism, reproduction and recycling. Especially racism.
Say what you will, but at least the new three R's actually begin with the letter R, so there's been progress on the spelling front. I must also profess confusion about the last one: are we really going to include recycling in this rant? In the raging right-wing anti-progressive outrage over white guilt and abortion, recycling makes the final cut for the threesome? Or was Will, having already decided to disguise his pretension with a clever-but-folksy opening play on the three R's, struggling to find another left-wing R word to make the list complete? "R-r-r-radical, revolution, rappers, rights, race! (no, I used it already), rutabega, recycling... recycling!" Deadlines are tough.

Will is airing a tired complaint. Conservatives have whining about academia for decades. Heather MacDonald has been venting the same effluvia every few weeks since the 1990s, like in this particularly nasty piece where she targets a high school student. What a classy journalist. And the National Association of Scholars, an ultra-conservative organization determined to expose, root out, or counterbalance liberal bias in academia, dates back to 1987, when Reagan was still in office and it was still morning in America. They are going strong today, funded by wealthy conservatives. The same day Will published his column, the NAS turned their guns on Bowdoin College. They have produced what I'm sure is in the authors' minds an exhaustive report on the cancerous liberalism that has spread to every part of the once-proud liberal arts college. Slowly but surely, they claim, academics are destroying the legacy of the Western canon and the foundation of liberty and freedom throughout the galaxy, or something on that scale.

Not so. Reading the report, one becomes more and more aware of the vacuity of its authors. And as offensive as they are, eventually it is difficult not to be embarrassed for them. Consider, for instance, their indictment of gender studies (p. 17):
Not noticing is more serious than the Bowdoin community realizes. Bowdoin ought to
teach students the discipline of reasoned argument and the habit of mind that reflexively looks
for reasoned argument. Regrettably, Bowdoin too often fails to cultivate that. For example, the
2012–2013 Bowdoin College Catalogue explains:

Courses in Gender and Women’s Studies investigate the experience of women and men in light of the social construction of gender and its meaning across cultures and historic
periods. Gender construction is explored as an institutionalized means of structuring
inequality and dominance.

Here Bowdoin flatly announces that gender is a social construct, the sole purpose of which is to
subjugate women. Is gender, according to this view, entirely a social construct? “In light of the
social construction of gender” seems to say so, and at the very least it forecloses any interest in
other possibilities, such as biology.
If you're going to try to criticize something, at least learn the terms. Had the authors of the study availed themselves of even one introductory text in gender studies, they might perhaps understand that gender is, by definition, a social construct. Biological distinctions do not go unacknowledged—they fall under the category of sex and Bowdoin covers that subject too... probably in the Biology Department.

Three pages further, the authors take on gay and lesbian studies in an equally foolish critique
One First-Year Seminar offered fall 2012 but struck from the list because too few Bowdoin students signed up for it was “Queer Gardens,” which:

Explores how the garden in Western literature and art serves as a space for desire. Pays
special attention to the link between gardens and transgression. Also considers how
gardens become eccentric spaces and call into question distinctions between nature and
culture. Examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal
identities find expression in specific garden spaces. 

Courses like these illuminate an important pedagogical problem. Critical thinking has to be thinking about something in particular, whether it is Euclidian geometry, the characters in Middlemarch, the tactics of the Civil Rights movement, Native American stereotypes, the sexual life of colonialism, or modern Western prostitutes. As indicated by this list of required courses that are designed to teach critical thinking as well as by official statements, Bowdoin has adopted the position that any subject is as good as any other when it comes to learning how to think critically. But “Queer Gardens” does not teach critical thinking as well as Plato’s Republic. We can say this with confidence because “Queer Gardens” has at best a very limited community of discourse and no canon of works that embody exemplary achievement in the difficult dialogic task of critical thinking.
I can understand the knee-jerk reaction of a traditionalist dismissing queer theory and coursework—I disagree and I think it probably stems from latent homophobia, but I get it. The logic here, on the other hand, is befuddling. They are contending that gardens as a space of desire, transgression, and expression "has at best a very limited community of discourse and no canon of works"? Have they read the Bible? It seems not. They have read, however, the professor's complete course description because they selectively cut the final two sentences. A quick glance at the original source, the Bowdoin course catalog, gives us the "Queer Gardens" course description in full:
Explores how the garden in Western literature and art serves as a space for desire. Pays special attention to the link between gardens and transgression. Also considers how gardens become eccentric spaces and call into question distinctions between nature and culture. Examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces. Reconsiders one of the founding myths of Western culture: the idea of a lost Eden. Authors and gardeners may include Marvell, Lanyer, Pope, Seward, Dickinson, Burnett, Carroll, Sackville-West, Nichols, Jarman, and Pollan.
Uh oh... turns out this IS a course about Western culture referencing the Judeo-Christian origin-myth with canonical names scattered among the list of authors. Better, I suppose, to omit those unfortunate facts and press on to proclaim (ironically, as it turns out) the importance of the "dialogic task of critical thinking."

There's at least two hundred other moments of distortion, dishonesty, and stupidity on display in the report, so in the interest of time I'll skip to the conclusion:
What does Bowdoin not teach? Intellectual modesty. Self-restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad framework of intellectual history. Survey courses. English composition. A course on Edmund Spenser. A course primarily on the American Founders. A course on the American Revolution. The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present. A course on the Christian philosophical tradition. Public speaking. Tolerance towards dissenting views. The predicates of critical thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from triviality. Wisdom. Culture.
Utterly ridiculous in all its pseudo-grandeur (full of sound and fury, if I were to get canonical), the list reveals all one needs to know about its authors. There is no educational vision here, just the right-wing fetish for a pre-1960 world before the Great Society, the Civil Rights Movement, and Feminism ruined America. Like other fetishes, this one is laden with irrationality and delusion. In itemizing the qualities of "intellectual modesty, self-restraint, hard work, virtue, self-criticism, [and] moderation," they seem to have confused college with an episode of Little House on the Prarie. They desire a course devoted to Edmund Spenser, while earlier in the report they single out a professor for his focus on James Baldwin. They believe a vast survey on the entirety of Western Civilization will provide "a coherent body of knowledge." They want Bowdoin to teach "Culture" but they despise multi-culturalism. They see no connection between a diversity of student and faculty identities and the "tolerance towards dissenting views" they demand. They flee complexity in the pursuit of better learning. For all their talk of critical thinking, they see the history of the West as an altar before which students should prostrate themselves.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Roger Ebert

It is a strange thing that Roger Ebert has passed away. Now he and Gene Siskel are both gone, and gone with them one of the cultural touchstones of growing up in the 80s and 90s, the two-thumbs-up movie era.

Truth be told, I never really looked for Ebert's reviews or intentionally tuned into his tv show. His name and the general direction of his thumb was always out there when new blockbusters hit the theaters, but if I heard his opinion it was probably by chance. In the last ten years or so, if I were looking for a film review to read it would have been the razor-sharp, often brilliant reviews of Anthony Lane at The New Yorker, who really is in a class by himself. (Read, for instance, Lane's dismantling of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith.)

But in the year 2000 I discovered the political side of Roger Ebert, which has been remembered with fondness in many of his obituaries. In December of that year, Ebert wrote a column about the contested election in Florida for his paper, the Chicago Sun-Times. Not pulling any punches, he titled it: "GOP Won By Planting Seeds of Deception." Here is part of his diagnosis of the result:
Bush became the "winner" of a dead heat, in the midst of an incomplete recount, when a premature victory was declared on her own unnecessary deadline by his Florida campaign co-chairwoman, who also held the crucial post of secretary of state. Once this bogus "certification" was final (Ms. Harris signing several copies on TV, including a valuable souvenir for herself), the Republicans referred to it endlessly as a valid event, even though it was clearly a shameless ploy to slam the door before the election escaped. A meme was born.
That was one of many instances in which Ebert interrupted his film column and his newspaper blog to offer political commentary. He spoke out on climate change and on LGBT rights. In October 2009, when the health care fight was at a fever pitch and scare mongering on the right was at a McCarthy-like level of deception, Ebert penned a column called "The Anger of the Festering Fringe," taking aim at the paranoid right wing that was hijacking American political discourse in their fanatical opposition to Obama:
Racism plays a role, but conspiracy theories themselves have an addictive quality. They appeal to a personality type. Many of those who take nourishment from them have, I suspect, a bitter resentment against authority. They don't want anyone telling them what to do. They're defiant. Anyone who is in power is lying to them for evil motives. Nothing they learn from the mainstream media can be trusted. Some people may think they're so smart -- but these conspiracy insiders know the real story. They learn it from each other, they embellish it, they pass it around, they "document" it with invented connections, they bond among themselves, and they live in a closed system that seems to validate them.

They lack common sense. Their conspiracy theories cannot tolerate it. Most reasonable people, when they heard Obama wanted to kill their grandmother, simply smiled, because -- well, because they knew he didn't. But the conspiracy people Know Better. That's the whole point. That's where the fun comes in. They have a peculiar intensity in their circular reasoning. They cite facts that are not facts, supported by authorities who are not authorities. As my grandmother freely said of perhaps too many people, "They don't have the sense God gave them."
There are, I imagine, a fair number of people who would be outraged that a film critic would dare to publish political commentary—"By what right?!" and "He's abusing his position!," etc. etc. Those are failed arguments. Ebert knew that in a democracy, we are all obliged to speak out when we recognize the poison in our politics. For my money, Ebert's political columns were the best writing he produced.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

On Repeat

"Oh Mary Don't You Weep" by The Swan Silvertones.

In the history of great falsettos, the Reverend Claude Jeter's has got to be among the best.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Some items of note in the news:

At Talking Points Memo, the theory has been floated that Chief Justice John Roberts is trying to pull Justice Kennedy back from the DOMA cliff that the four liberal justices are ready to jump over. Meanwhile, the junior Senator from Illinois, Mark Kirk, has endorsed gay marriage, bringing the number of Republican Senators on the gay marriage train to 2.

I mentioned in an earlier post that political scientists and others made a case in Foreign Affairs for a broader discussion on geoengineering and more research four years ago. The same authors have written a postscript in the most recent Foreign Affairs reaffirming their original message while noting that chatter about the subject has exploded while research has remained relatively stagnant.

The good news of the week: another major advance in energy storage. Battery research and breakthroughs in the next five years may have us on the threshold of a renewable energy transformation.