Monday, July 09, 2007

Five More Thoughts: Five Columns o' Crap Edition

By Keifus
(Keywords: science, death, witchcraft, innovation, bullshit, Italians, standards, stupidity, litigiousness, fun.)

PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF MASSACHUSETTS - Normally, I don't read the newspaper very much. Given an inexcusably long commute, I prefer to multitask my news intake via radio. I will peruse any number of online sources, and I'll dutifully skim Time at home since it comes there. The remainder of my information comes from specific research projects (sometimes assigned), and a smattering of television that depends on my state of boredom, drunkenness, and/or fatigue. When I go to the can, I try to make a point to skim a journal article.

But traveling, even traveling for vacation, is newspaper time. You can hardly avoid it. The USA Today slipped under the door is execrable reading, but since the ink doesn't come off in your hands, it makes a fine accompaniment to a continental breakfast, and it stashes cleanly under your arm on the way to the airport or train terminal. When I visit my parents in central Connecticut, the newspaper hangs around the house all morning, and I like to leisurely sip too much coffee and lounge with it until everyone gets up (and usually longer). The local fishwrap is surprisingly good for a small-city rag, but on the other hand its editorialists are the only people I've caught disavowing the voting rights act of 1965 in writing, right there in black and white.

I have trouble with such absolutes myself. Here are five more newspaper-inspired thoughts, delivered right to your doorstep in two shades of gray.

1. From the Obituaries
Cable television came late to my neighborhood, and even later to my parents' home (about ten years after I moved out), but my grandparents were early adopters, and on those occasions when my brother and I visited, we'd often spirit ourselves downstairs to catch whatever was on the fledgling Nickelodeon network. I remember the wholesome feeling in those days of limited marketing--only the kids cereals had broken in--and a whole bunch of polite English-flavored children's' broadcasting completed the genial mood. One of the shows I was happy to catch was Don Herbert's reprise of Mr. Wizard. He died last month.

Hard as it may be to believe, the production values on his original show were reportedly even worse than those from his swan song on basic cable, but Mister Wizard was never about flash. He was as calm and informative and approachable as Mr. Rogers, but unlike the good reverend, a subtle knowing smile wouldn't be out of place on Herbert's face if something were to safely get blown to bits in the kitchen lab as the kids aahhhhed on cue. You had to like that. As a working scientist (or one avoiding work) I remain amazed that his shit always worked, even, I understand, on his many live shows. I can't imagine.

I've got some issues with the 1950s vintage representations of scientific discovery (a little more on that below), but Mr. Wizard's stressing of observation and inquiry and reasoning were brilliant, not a promoter of revelation so much as one of deduction. If there were more teachers like that, the world would be a less stupid place. God rest his soul.

2. Editorialists who should know better
During my lengthy science education (nine years of college down the drain), a great deal of stress was placed on counterintuition. You'd need the math or the principles to predict something that wouldn't be obvious from more quotidian observation (i.e., you'd think this, but the answer was really that). I admit it was fun, and I can be a contrarian prick myself sometimes. Okay I can be one often, but my point here is that too many lessons in this vein can lead to shitty intuition, and even though all that education felt like job training, what it really taught was the most valuable thing an engineer has: a good bullshit detector. While it's true that people believe a lot of stupid things that are wrong, it's also true that just because an answer looks obvious doesn't mean it is incorrect. There's a counterfactual culture that's positively damaging to honest debate, an endless succession of smug gotchas, a cacophony of logical-sounding attitude by which actual logic is dwarfed. Too many people wrongly think they are gifted in knowing what bullshit smells like.

In the local Connecticut paper on Sunday, an editorialist chirped in a global warming denial (here's the article scanned on the right, and now online (thanks hipp)). There's a lot of consensus about climate change these days, and as such, gotchas that look too easy should be questioned. This guy should really know better. He's a chemistry professor, teaches courses on phase equilibrium, and has published textbooks. I may even have one boxed in the basement. In the editorial he plays the usual retarded "a-ha, but did you consider this" game, hinting that the ocean is a big-old sink for CO2, making everything all OK.

Part of me is happy to see anyone resisting the urge confuse correlation with causation, but he's brushing away the important correlation between warming and the fact that people have liberated 300 million years worth of carbon from the earth into the atmosphere in a geological instant--something on the order of 500 billion tons of CO2. He is not wrong to cite that increasing ocean temperatures will result in lower CO2 solubility, but that's one variable of many, and it's hardly independent of anthropogenic effects. This is why climatologists develop fairly sophisticated models to predict global climate trends, and why, despite whatever comforting stories may be told on the editorial pages, it's not likely to be refuted by a smug and casual onlooker, even one who has basic thermodynamics at his grasp. To put it another way, while there is valid debate and some inconsistency between models, there aren't legions of climate scientists slapping their heads in a collective V-8 moment at the alleged revelation shouted from the fucking peanut gallery.

Evidently this guy has a side gig as a credentialed denier. Mr. Wizard is building up some early posthumous angular momentum.

3. What a difference a century makes
Strictly speaking, this wasn't on any opinion page I thumbed through this past week, but based on a conversation. If you're worried about my thematic integrity, go ahead and open dig for three seconds on Google to find the appropriate opinion piece on immigration and how it sucks. "They all should learn to speak English," my friend said. I owe august (couldn't find the link, sorry) for the comeback that their children surely will, going on to note that I knew any number of European grandmothers that were illiterate enough in the common tongue.

My friend is Italian (and I probably should have been more tactful). Casual analysis of my old hometown paper will reveal an editorial board rich in Italian heritage as well, with some Polish names thrown in there, quite like the city itself of a couple generations ago. That editorial board sure is uncomfortable with the crop of Spanish-speaking immigrants that's in there now and I for one don't understand why they don't see more of their grandparents echoed in that community. The American dream narrative from the old European influx goes something like this: arrive penniless, work hard, and make a better life for your children. I think the resentment of Latin Americans comes not from the illegality, not from the jobs they do, hell, not even from the suntans. I think what pisses off the more acclimated Americans is the standard of living that they are willing to accept. Work for shit, live like shit in crowded houses behind nasty lawns with cars parked on them. A lot of editorial crap complains that the new immigrants feel entitled. It might be projecting. I think the writers are frustrated that they don't they feel as entitled as the rest of us.

4. From the classifieds
Thankfully, USA Today publishes its dreck online so I don't have to scan. Here is an article they published about a "real life Q" working on interesting and often secret projects under the Department of Homeland Security. Toning down the rag's exclamatory prose, I'm wondering how one single guy got some magical carte blanche where the government is willing to fund any cockamamie proposal that he can write in crayon on a dirty napkin. Because let me tell you, I have some fucking brilliant ones. DARPA doesn't even work this way, and in my limited interaction, the DHS is not terribly likely to fund any research that hasn't already been solved. Maybe they waste all their funding for forward-looking innovation on that one guy.

I mentioned my distaste for teaching by counterintuition. I have similar issues with presenting scientific research as a collection of unlikely gadgetry and Eureka!-style breakthroughs. As though it's not ever a tough incremental slog. As though the environment for crazy somehow prospers when you need money to do work. Some people out there really are a fountain of brilliant ideas, but I've got a deep suspicion of researchers who advertise themselves as such. (As do a lot of people. "Edisonian" is not a compliment in science circles.) I still haven't decided whether to submit a resume to one of those companies founded by a "serial entrepreneur." Maybe he actually is so chock full of brilliant ideas that he leaves a trail of companies behind him like deershit through the forest, but I've been in the innovation game too long to really believe it. More likely he's a top-notch gladhander. Research brilliance can only be a distant second.

5. Scoop! Somewhere out there kids are having fun
One of my fond memories from high school (one of the few) is of driving out with some friends to a local reservoir on a dirt road, clambering up the path to a rock bluff, and jumping in. It was about 15 feet, not particularly safe if you were dumb enough to go head first I suppose, but what a find it was! It was on the back end of little-traveled maintenance road, hidden from the highway and from the dam itself. Good, clean, mildly dangerous fun.

It went on for a whole year of summer weekends, but eagerly driving up the reservoir path next June revealed a giant tree felled directly under the outcrop, making it dangerous for real, and prohibitively so. (I don't know if they left it in there long enough to become submerged and invisible.) Undeterred, one of the local hooligans scaled a different tree on the opposite bank (real danger in that too) and set up a rope swing. It was even better than jumping off the cliff, but you had to swing way the hell out to avoid hitting the bank way below, and it wasn't quite as safe as the cliff had been. The town caught wind of that too of course, and before long the swing tree was cut down too. I spent the rest of the summer experimenting with alcohol, which worked out fine, shut up.

Thanks to USA Today's breaking news reporting, I know that kids in Arkansas are doing it too. Go to the link and look at the photos. Jesus, it looks like fun, but someone got hurt, and even worse, someone could get really hurt, and well, you know. Despite libertarian fantasies (maybe I should start using the word "glibertarian" for this subset of ideas) in which litigation improves freedom, the perpetual fear of litigation is a hallmark of the dreaded state nannyisms, and it sure sucked the life out of a teenage summer.

I'm looking at it from the other side these days, and it sure ain't easy being a parent, especially now that we're all so worried about everything. I hope I can give the girls the tools and the confidence they need, at the very least to remain calm about all the crap they read in the papers.



Archaeopteryx said...

I gotta tell you there, Keif--your writing is what mine would be like if I were smarter and could think straight. I'm going to quote your bit on global warming deniers over on Faith-based. It's funny and true.

Keifus said...

Well, obviously you're exaggerating, especially since I just stole the trash-the-local-blowhard bit from you. (But it did piss me off, because yes, he should know better.)

Thanks for the comment. If you're going around quoting it, I fixed a sentence or two of bad editing.


Archaeopteryx said...

You know, being the local blowhard is what I aspire to.

Keifus said...

Are you saying that your aiming for a columnist gig? That's cool. (For the life of me, I don't know how those guys manage to come with that much material. Makes me slightly more forgiving than I'd otherwise be, believe it or not.)

Thanks for the traffic, btw. I broke my rule and rated your fray post.

Archaeopteryx said...

No, no...just want to be a blowhard.

hipparchia said...

oh dear, i have photos somewhere of one of my teenage summers: cliffdiving. if you jumped, you were a sissy.

barrante's editorial [lte?]
barrante's contribution to the scientific literature
barrante himself

doesn't look like a whole lot of output. and even *i* could write an elementary chemistry text.

so, an x-ray crystallographer[?] nmr spectroscopist[?] can be forgiven for having an inexpert knowledge of oceanic and atmospheric biogeochemistry, but he shouldn't be setting himself up as an expert advisor to the rest of us yay-hoos, enlightening us about those fields.

i was thinking about your cheese-in-a-can post earlier today, as i was reading one of ioz' posts, where he mentions something about smoking, as an aside to whatever it was he was writing about.

y'know, i'm supremely jealous that i missed the mr wizard tv shows.

i think this is my favorite one of your 5 things posts so far. possibly it's all the science and jumping off of cliffs that i like.

ps. it's summer. i was planning to hold off on the homework assignements for now, but if you're looking for something to do...

ywneov: [yawn] end of verbiage

Keifus said...

Thanks, hipp.

I can imagine you as a teenager: smart and dangerous. I hope you used those powers for good.

That's the article, it must have come up after I posted. (I wonder if they will publish my letter.) You nailed the dude pretty well, and it looks like he's published a whole series of denials that rely on him being smarter than his readers. (Of course, here I am shooting holes in his writing from the peanut gallery, so irony noted and all.)

I caught Mr. Wizard Two in the early eighties, but I was almost too old for it.

(and i make no guarantees about assignment completion anyway.)


hipparchia said...

[the kittehs eated my homewerk.]

link us to your letter, if they publish it. i wasn't looking for it specifically, it just showed up when i googled.

you're probably smarter than barrante and all his readers put together, at least on climate science. i don't enough about x-ray crystallography to know which of you two is smarter on that score, but i'm thinking it doesn't matter much. i'm also thinking i could run rings around him on oceanography.

fydzpp: fluffydizzypuppies

hipparchia said...

ps, i did, mostly [use 'em for good]

hiaqzde: halogenated quinolone azides
[i made that up]

Keifus said...

What, and reveal my precious biographical tidbits?! (I wonder if there's any I've failed to let slip at one point or another over the last couple of years. But people should have to work for htat stuff, right.) I don't know if they'll publish it, they've contacted me in the past and still haven't this time. I signed it with a phd, just to be obnoxious.

ps. good.

pps. I'm not a big fan of quinolines.


hipparchia said...

ppps. i love the smell of creosote.

i was thinking of quinolines [as in tar] but typed quinolones [which do at least exist].

good point. no link then.

befvcpx: beef vaca place for boox

Keifus said...

Okay, that was funny.

I was going to link to the source of my quinoline aversion (crappy paper), but on that note, suffice to say that I worked with the stuff in grad school, and I think I developed a sensitivity. Some derivatives bother my nose something awful. (Creosote doesn't.)

hipparchia said...

pesticides it was for me, back in the lab days. i used to recognize them all by their odor.

first cleanup i went out on: creosote. second: mercaptans.

ukvtc: you kvetch

Keifus said...

kvetch-a? You betcha.

Bleh. I wish I wasn't thinking about all this identity crap. I could throw a mercaptan-related paper at you too. I can see how creosote is like roses by comparison. Although I'll say that the mercaptans have interesting odors, if they weren't so chokingly intense, from onion to egg to pure evil.

Cleanup sounds not overly safe, but a whole lot more morally satisfying than what I do now. (and I could be an engineer!) I'm considering a post in that regard, but I think it'd lose a lot of the audience.

hipparchia said...

i'd read that post, but possibly not the paper.

it wasn't entirely safe, which is part of why it was so interesting.

ysrzvale: yessirree zelda, valediction

Keifus said...

Jesus, I wouldn't ask anyone to actually read it. Really more lookit, lookit me! stuff.

hipparchia said...

dude. if it's got words on it, i can't help myself, i'll read it.

crlfhcii: answer = crucifixion ii; question = what happens after the second coming of christ?