How Woody Guthrie can help us fight for science

Jacqueline M. Vadjunec in Nature:

WVWhen I moved from Massachusetts almost a decade ago to teach at Oklahoma State University, many colleagues were afraid for my career. I work on the human dimensions of global environmental change, and Oklahoma has a long and complex history with science, including climate change. Oklahoma was the first state to ratify ‘anti-Darwin’ legislation in 1923 and today is home to key sceptics in the war on climate change, including Republican Senator James Inhofe and Scott Pruitt, the state’s attorney-general, who earlier this month was nominated to run the US Environmental Protection Agency. These politicized debates trickle down, and both evolution and human-induced climate change remain contested topics, especially in schools. However, Oklahoma is also the home of protest singer Woody Guthrie, a visible example of resistance in the 1930s class and culture wars between rural and urban values.If Woody could use his voice to speak up, so can scientists. In truth, my career is fine, and my colleagues are supportive. I not only manage, but also thrive. And if I can, then so can other scientists who find themselves concerned about the tidal wave of climate scepticism that comes with last month’s election of Donald Trump and his associates. The election might have powerful effects on science, policy and funding. But I want to stress the power and promise of human agency.

In my case, adjustments are minor, but might seem substantial elsewhere. I realize that in my day-to-day actions in the classroom and in my research with family farmers and ranchers, I probably hold a minority viewpoint on human-induced climate change. In the classroom, I am sensitive to the fact that many of my students have family ties to the oil and gas industry. I regularly see them struggle with the local contradictions. I try to create a place of mutual respect to embrace this struggle on their own terms, while also trying to focus on our role as global citizens facing global challenges. It is not always an easy balancing act; these experiences have taught me that most students care about global environmental change, but often have little previous exposure to such issues — in part because of the decisions of local politicians and school boards. In our debriefing at the end of the semester, students often express frustration that they weren’t exposed to many of the issues surrounding climate change at a younger age.

I also learned that actively listening to (instead of talking at) farmers and ranchers who care about sustaining their land and livelihoods is a good way to open dialogue.

More here.

How Christian Wiman made poetry matter

Jason Guriel in Slate:

ScreenHunter_2462 Dec. 20 18.23“I don’t really believe in Collected Poems,” the American poet and critic Christian Wiman has said. “They’re almost always bad.” Wiman has long believed that real poetry is rare. As editor of the prestigious magazine Poetry, a position he held for 10 years, he faced a slush pile so big it had slopes, a base camp. But he still struggled to source print-worthy poems. “If poetry is so rare in the world, if so much of it is dross, just think how much rarer it must surely be in your (our!) own work,” he writes in a provocative editorial called “In Praise of Rareness.” Wiman’s argument—that a person who truly respects poetry will find most of it lacking—is the sort of good sense that nevertheless triggers some poetry readers, who tend to be aspiring poets themselves. People don’t prefer to acknowledge that the art they dabble in is probably beyond them. (Full disclosure: Wiman took some of my poems for his magazine. But he rejected many, many more.)

Unsurprisingly, Wiman’s high-profile editorship came to overshadow his own poems. So, too, did an essay he wrote about his incurable form of blood cancer and his rediscovery of faith. (The piece went viral in 2007, and led to other essays about God, opening up a new readership for Wiman.) But Wiman’s poems, which have been gathered in his new book Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems, deserve our attention, too. By striving to be clear and memorable, they dare to address the needs of that mythical unicorn, the general reader. They prove, as Wiman’s editorship did, that poetry doesn’t have to be a coterie concern.

More here.

The Forgotten Life of Einstein’s First Wife

Pauline Gagnon in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2461 Dec. 20 18.10Today, 19 December, marks the 141th anniversary of the birth of Mileva Marić Einstein. But who remembers this brilliant scientist? While her husband, Albert Einstein is celebrated as perhaps the best physicist of the 20th century, one question about his career remains: How much did his first wife contribute to his groundbreaking science? While nobody has been able to credit her with any specific part of his work, their letters and numerous testimonies presented in the books dedicated to her(1-5) provide substantial evidence on how they collaborated from the time they met in 1896 up to their separation in 1914. They depict a couple united by a shared passion for physics, music and for each other. So here is their story.

Mileva Marić was born in Titel in Serbia in 1875. Her parents, Marija Ruzić and Miloš Marić, a wealthy and respected member of his community, had two other children: Zorka and Miloš Jr. Mileva attended high school the last year girls were admitted in Serbia. In 1892, her father obtained the authorization of the Minister of Education to allow her to attend physics lectures reserved to boys. She completed her high school in Zurich in 1894 and her family then moved to Novi Sad. Mileva’s classmates described her as brilliant but not talkative. She liked to get to the bottom of things, was perseverant and worked towards her goals.

More here.

‘The Metamorphosis of the World’, by Ulrich Beck

0745690211John Fanning at The Dublin Review of Books:

The book also highlights two additional developments that are contributing to a sense of bewilderment and disorientation; advances in reproductive medicine which are changing the nature of motherhood and fatherhood and the extraordinary speed and implications of the digital revolution. Under the first heading Beck discusses the emerging concepts of fertility tourism, transnational motherhood and commodity children and suggests that if the act of procreation no longer requires the presence of two people at the same time in the same place but can be “displaced to a laboratory somewhere in the world in any random rented womb at any arbitrary time” then our fundamental understanding of humanity is in doubt. The effects of the digital revolution have received much more attention but Beck brings fresh insight to the subject, pointing out that we are only just becoming aware of “digital risk”, which interferes with something we have always taken for granted; our capacity to control personal information and protect our private lives. Echoing Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) thesis, he argues that we are all being lured into control by an anonymous digital central power; which doesn’t rely on violence but which “exercises extensive and intensive profound and far-reaching control that ultimately pushes any individual preference and deficit into the open—we are all becoming transparent”. He also notes the unsettling effects of the divide between the “Neanderthals”; the elderly, who were born human beings but who woke up as “digitally illiterate” and the young “Homo Cosmopoliticus” at ease in the new world but in danger of drowning in an ocean of “fragmented, unorganised, context-free knowledge”.

The political reaction to this unprecedented level of disorientation has been one of outrage rather than any coherent attempt to alleviate the problem. The immediate reaction on the right is to circle the wagons and build a wall; against Mexico, Europe, whatever; and on the left to “occupy” Wall Street, any street, whatever. Both reactions allow people to let off steam but are intellectually bankrupt in terms of a solution.

more here.

Juvenile Jane Austen

Randomhouse_loveandfreindship_1_7f2809a3-9869-438b-8a0b-059008ebaffeLouis B. Jones at Threepenny Review:

Let’s not pretend romance isn’t always the most important thing. Let’s not pretend romance is somehow beneath us, or trivial, or just for girls. The choice of a mate is maybe the most consequential decision anybody makes. And this is particularly true in a materialistic, capitalist society, where (this was one of Jane Austen’s constant concerns) marriage is—apart from the love thing, of course, and the religion thing—a civic institution, government-regulated, for the preservation of property, and property’s legal transmission. The most important skill a girl can acquire is insight—insight into men’s true character. And women’s real motives. The precocious experiments that are collected miscellaneously in Love and Freindship: and Other Youthful Writings(where the misspelling of “friendship,” Jane’s own, has been preserved by the editors throughout) reveal that even at the age of fourteen, the girl from rural Hampshire, seventh child in a family of eight, already had the peculiar attitude, mixing deep exasperation with fondness, that characterizes all her later writing. And this Penguin paperback—cheap at sixteen dollars, well bound for longevity, conveniently zuhandlich in its little mass-market trim size, legibly printed on the tender old “Penguin Classics” paper stock, wisely annotated—will make a rewarding addition to any Jane-lover’s library.

Miss Austen rose out of a vast (as she herself saw it) treacle swamp of eighteenth-century female writing and she reordered the genre, reordered it inimitably, so that readers forever after will, in her, treat courtship’s comedy with a little of the deadly seriousness it warrants.

more here.

what is putin up to?

ResetGreg Afinogenov at n+1:

Beyond the question of evidence lies the much more interesting question of what Putin was hoping to accomplish by interfering in US elections. The American public, even the foreign policy-savvy pundit class, has remarkably short memories. Putin can trace his enmity to the Clintons as far back as the 1990s, when the US intervention in Kosovo under the leadership of sometime centrist Democratic presidential hopeful General Wesley Clark nearly sparked a shooting war with Russia. (It was prevented at the last minute, bizarrely, by schlocky pop singer James Blunt, then a captain in the British army.) More proximate causes of enmity lie in Hillary Clinton’s policies as Secretary of State, which added insult to injury by kicking off with a purely cosmetic “reset.” These included US support—real or imagined—for a series of election protests in Russia in 2011, but especially the US intervention in Libya. Russia had abstained from a UN resolution ordering a no-fly zone there, but saw its trust, as Putin sees it, immediately betrayed when the no-fly zone turned into a full-fledged regime change operation.

So why choose this particular tactic to destroy, or at least damage, Hillary? Simply put, Putin (if his media is any guide) believes that the US has already tried to influence Russian elections through leaks. While most Americans have already forgotten about them, the Panama Papers were timed deliberately or accidentally to coincide with Russian parliamentary elections this year. In Russia they are widely seen as having been released by US intelligence to target Putin specifically, because of the $2 billion they revealed to be in the offshore account of a close friend. The hacking operation that targeted the DNC succeeded only two months after the Panama Papers were released. These dots are easy to connect.

more here.

An Invitation for Meaningful Dialogue

Caperton in Feministe:

Cats-and-dogs-together-600x338There’s been a lot of talk lately about dialogue and understanding. Liberals just need to try to understand conservatives, They say. People get defensive when you call them (or, more often, even just imply that they might be) bigots, They say. If we want to get anything accomplished, we need to meet conservatives halfway (in which “halfway” is usually defined as “on their side”), They say. (In this case, “They” for the most part refers to journalists who think that because Their piece is set on a college campus and not a failing coal town in West Virginia, it’s totally novel and not the exact same article journalists have been writing since November 9 and before.) Generally, the response from the liberal camp is, “Fuck that shit,” which is a position I myself have taken before. (I stand by it.) You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. “Actually, no, Latinos aren’t rapists” and “Actually, no, BLM isn’t a terrorist organization” aren’t going to be compelling messages to people who only take those positions to rationalize their own latent (acknowledged or unacknowledged) prejudices. “Supporting a bigoted campaign involves signing off on bigotry” isn’t going to convince someone who is struggling to accept that that’s what they did. It’s hard and unsatisfying, and maybe the New York Times needs to do a Dialogue and Understanding piece about people who are being asked to take on that struggle.

That said, dialogue can happen. Here’s how.

Privileged liberals: Put your privilege to good use.

It’s completely understandable that you might not want to engage with people who either embody or enable bigotry. The ones who embody it are miserable to be around — try spending time with someone who thinks that they’re completely justified in wanting to put Muslims on registries or block LGBT people from services like housing and medical care. And the ones who insist that they aren’t bigoted, because they disagree with registries and religious discrimination, can be almost as bad. For them, having negative feelings about those things, but not to the point that they actually do anything about them, is a mark in the Win column, and asking for anything beyond that — which is what we’re asking them to do — is a direct attack on their character. Having to handle them with kid gloves so they don’t get defensive is a lesson in frustration.

More here.

Scientists Say the Clock of Aging May Be Reversible

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:

AgingAt the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., scientists are trying to get time to run backward. Biological time, that is. In the first attempt to reverse aging by reprogramming the genome, they have rejuvenated the organs of mice and lengthened their life spans by 30 percent. The technique, which requires genetic engineering, cannot be applied directly to people, but the achievement points toward better understanding of human aging and the possibility of rejuvenating human tissues by other means. The Salk team’s discovery, reported in the Thursday issue of the journal Cell, is “novel and exciting,” said Jan Vijg, an expert on aging at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Leonard Guarente, who studies the biology of aging at M.I.T., said, “This is huge,” citing the novelty of the finding and the opportunity it creates to slow down, if not reverse, aging. “It’s a pretty remarkable finding, and if it holds up it could be quite important in the history of aging research,” Dr. Guarente said. The finding is based on the heterodox idea that aging is not irreversible and that an animal’s biological clock can in principle be wound back to a more youthful state. The aging process is clocklike in the sense that a steady accumulation of changes eventually degrades the efficiency of the body’s cells. In one of the deepest mysteries of biology, the clock’s hands are always set back to zero at conception: However old the parents and their reproductive cells, a fertilized egg is free of all marks of age.

Ten years ago, the Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka amazed researchers by identifying four critical genes that reset the clock of the fertilized egg. The four genes are so powerful that they will reprogram even the genome of skin or intestinal cells back to the embryonic state. Dr. Yamanaka’s method is now routinely used to change adult tissue cells into cells very similar to the embryonic stem cells produced in the first few divisions of a fertilized egg.

More here.

‘Fake’ News and the Victorian Gentleman

UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER SIDE: Only a fraction of the articles we post are normally about politics but it is also true that the editors of 3QD are all (to a person) liberal progressives and none of us supported or voted for Donald Trump. In the interest of dialogue and trying to understand the conservative point of view better, I have decided to start occasionally posting relatively well-argued articles from the right side of the political spectrum. Some of these are sent to me by friends who did vote for Trump. (And, yes, I have such friends and hope you do too.) Trust me, it will not hurt you to read them. I hope that people will keep the comments civil and focused on the issues, and not engage in ad hominem attacks.

Matthew Continetti in Commentary:

ScreenHunter_2460 Dec. 20 10.26Donald Trump’s election as president sent the press scrambling for explanations. Few in the media expected Trump to win, an assumption reflected in coverage of the presidential campaign. In the weeks before Election Day, major papers and television networks were filled with stories touting Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall” of states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (oops), and celebrating a “surge” of Hispanic voters that would put Clinton over the top. As it turned out, Trump won more Hispanic votes than Mitt Romney.

Because it is difficult for liberals to understand that people might oppose them on substantive as well as moral grounds, their analyses of the election results were as flawed as their takes on the horse race. Many liberal commentators simply ascribed Trump’s victory to the supposed racism, misogyny, and authoritarianism of his supporters, reducing varied and complex motivations to base, irrational, and impermissible drives. Other reporters, editors, and anchors quickly became enamored of the idea that misinformation on social- media networks and the Internet tricked voters into supporting Trump, that America fell for a con ginned up by liars with Facebook accounts eager to make a quick buck and assisted by cybernauts in league with the Kremlin. Such was the genesis of the controversy over “fake news.”

More here.

A Tale for Our Time

by Holly A. Case

RRH-ImageAn early version of Little Red Riding Hood comes to us from the Frenchman Perrault. In 1697, he published the story in a collection of others. It ends with a moral: “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.” Any story with a moral sets a limit on the reach of progress; the moral implies that the problem confronted in the story is a recurring one. In a little-known annex to the version published by the Brothers Grimm over a century later (in 1812), Little Red Riding Hood, having been eaten by one wolf and saved by a huntsman, is confronted with a second wolf and her knowledge is put to the test. The girl not only repels his advances, she drowns him in a barrel of sausage-smelling water. The lesson has been learned.

But only Little Red Riding Hood has learned it. Although the wolf in the story dies, wolves in general remain at large, and so the tale has to be retold. There will be other young girls who will face other wolves. This fact is not meant to drive us to despair, but to avert a danger. The problem cannot be solved once and for all time, but it can—by means of wisdom imparted before the threat appears—be flagged, so that when some little girl stares a wolf in the face, she won't fall into his trap. Even without concrete experience the girl can learn a lesson.

The fairy tale belies that there can be any progress beyond the personal, but the fact that the story exists and is meant to be handed down as wisdom means that, although wolves have not been abolished, every generation need not perpetually succumb to their tricks. There is another problem, however: since Little Red Riding Hood is saved—variously by a huntsman and a woodcutter—the tale also gives the impression that the danger may not be so great after all. No matter which version you read, the tale promises justice: Little Red Riding Hood lives and the wolf dies. So when the story is told and the little girl gets eaten by the wolf in spite of being warned, and furthermore, no woodcutter or huntsman comes to cut her out of the stomach of the wolf, the scenario is fertile ground for despair.

The tale even primes us for this despair, because for Little Red Riding Hood, there is no better imaginable scenario than one in which nothing bad happens. It's not as though the tale promises little girls transcendence or socio-economic mobility. It only aspires to help them to fend off an almost inevitable danger. If it is successful, that particular harm will have been averted. The tale aspires, at most, to zero, or to the maintenance of the status quo.

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Mark the Janitor, and Other Anecdotes

by Hari Balasubramanian

Il_570xN.338851860I've noticed that it isn't easy to strike up a meaningful conversation with someone who doesn't fit into your professional or social circle. Even among strangers we look for clues and – understandably – seek out people with whom we might have something in common. This behavior appears to erect subtle barriers between groups of people who live or work in the same physical space – say the same neighborhood or even the same building – but hardly interact.

One example of this I experienced dates back to my graduate school days. I worked as a research assistant for six years (2000-2006) on the fifth floor of the engineering building at Arizona State University. I noticed I could easily strike up a conversation with professors and fellow graduate students, who were from very different backgrounds and countries. But I somehow found myself shy in the afternoon and evenings in talking to the janitor who cleaned and maintained the two dozen rooms on our floor. I wanted to connect with him but found it difficult to step out of my comfort zone. I wondered what the reason was. Was it because our work was so different? Because we were from different countries? Would I have managed to strike up a conversation more easily if he too was from India? Was it his personality?

Mark was a constant presence in the hallways and restrooms every weekday from four in the afternoon. Most times you just heard his presence: the clink of his thick bunch of keys; the rumble of the large trash-can-on-wheels; a pause; a knock on an office or lab door; the emptying of trash; and then clink and rumble again before the next pause. And at times you heard an insistent squeak in the hallway – that was Mark using his sneakers to erase a smear off the linoleum floor.

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Monday Poem

The past is inevitable.
…………—Delmore Schwartz, Poet

Hadn’t Thought of it Like That


Though likely, tomorrow is
not set

This day’s loose ends twist in the wind
like kite tails jerked in blue at the end of present’s string
becoming codas no one can sing—
the future’s not something on which you should bet

Only Now sings real arias

If you stand on the bridge in the middle of town
where the river parts at abutments in bow waves
—splits as the bridge’s foot in the stream
becomes a ship’s prow plowing north to nowhere
and gives the early crimson sky
an oscillating rendition of itself in its otherwise slick mirror
you catch a glimpse of your bobbing head
in flames of pleated clouds

You are its aria

As you turn and walk off you get
that the past is inevitable
and set

Jim Culleny

Photo: The Bridge of Flowers
by Martin Yaffee

Data Science and 2016 Presidential Elections

by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad


Much has already been written about the failure of data science in predicting the outcome of the 2016 US election but it is always good to revisit cautionary tales. The overwhelming majority of the folks who work in election prediction including big names like New York Times' Upshot, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and Princeton Election Consortium predicted Clinton's chance of winning being more than 70 percent. This is of course not what happened and Donald Trump is the president elect. And so on the night of November 9th people started asking if there was something wrong with Data Science itself. The Republican strategist Mike Murphy went as far as to state, “Tonight, data died.” My brush with election analytics came in in late 2015 when I was looking for a new job and talked to folks in both the Republican and the Democratic Data Science teams about prospective roles but decided to pursue a different career path. However this experience forced me to think about the role of data driven decision in campaigning and politics. While data is certainly not dead, Mike Murphy observation does lay bare the fact that those interpreting the data are all too human. The overwhelming majority of the modelers and pollsters had implicit biases regarding the likelihood of a Trump victory. One does not even have to torture the data to make it confess, one can ask the data the wrong questions to make it answer what you want to hear.

We should look towards the outcome and modeling approaches for the 2016 US presidential elections as learning experiences for data science as well as acknowledging it as a very human enterprise. In addition understand what led to selectively choosing the data and to understand why the models did not as well as they should have, it would help us to unpack some of the assumptions that go in creating these models in the first place. The first thing that comes to mind is systematic errors and sampling bias which was one of the factors that results in incorrect predictions, a lesson that pollsters should have learned after the Dewey vs. Truman fiasco. That said, there were indeed some discussions about the unreliability of the pollster data run up to the election. Although the dissenting voice rarely made it to the mainstream data. Obtaining representative samples of the population can be extremely hard.

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Reflections on congestion and technology

by Emrys Westacott

Last week I drove from the small college town in upstate New York where I live to New York City. Traffic_330_1a1i8i2-1a1i8i8 We covered the 306 miles from home to the George Washington Bridge, which takes one into Manhattan, in just under five hours. The next 15 miles, through Manhattan to our destination in Brooklyn, with a quick pick up and drop off on the Upper West Side, took an hour and a half. The following day we had a similarly miserable experience driving from Brooklyn to midtown.

I understand that a country mouse like myself is likely to be both not very savvy about and easily unsettled by the ways of the big bad city. Even so, the congestion, the jungle-law etiquette, the impatient honking, the anxiety induced by reckless cyclists passing on left and right, the lanes blocked by delivery vehicles, the need for so many police officers to direct traffic and pedestrians at snarled intersections, the difficulty of finding street parking–all this had me shaking my head. I know that thousands do it every day. Many do it for a living. And a few no doubt enjoy it. But regularly spending hours in congested traffic, even in a taxi on a bus, is no part of the good life in my book. At best, it's a fairly hefty sacrifice for the sake of other benefits the city has to offer.

Strolling around midtown Manhattan, I was struck by how many of the cars on the street were yellow taxis. Apparently there is no official figure for the percentage of New York traffic constituted by taxis, but my impression was that it must be more than fifty percent, especially if one includes cars that provide ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. According to New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission, about 20,000 of the city's 65,000 vehicles for hire are Ubers.

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The Essay and Our Post-Fact Moment

by Mara Naselli


The literary debate over the role of fact and invention in essay now appears to have foreshadowed our own post-fact moment. Suddenly this is not an idle matter. When writers knowingly take liberties with the facts in the name of art, they demote the reader from fellow traveler to spectator. Trust me, they say, it will be fantastic. For those who feel tricked, the betrayal is more than just bad feeling. An essayist who flagrantly manipulates fact fails to appreciate the essay’s greatest strength—the convergence of intimacy and shared inquiry.

The most recent review to enter the fray is William Deresiewicz’s “In Defense of Facts,” just published in The Atlantic. Deresiewicz attacks John D’Agata’s three essay anthologies for many things, notably a disregard for history. Deresiewicz rightly situates the historical origin of both fact and essay in tandem. For they are cousins, born out of the same revolutionizing changes that moved the Western intellectual tradition from the medieval world to the Renaissance. These changes laid the path for empirical science in the process. Montaigne’s “scrupulous investigation,” Deresiewicz writes, was the essay’s distinguishing feature in the sixteenth century.

If we pause to consider Montaigne and his time, we may make an even bolder claim that could renew our own contemporary relationship to the essay as an instrument of inquiry. Montaigne’s inward turn was not simply introspective. His scrupulous investigation was in service to a more ambitious endeavor: the relocation of the authority of judgment from the external authorities of the Church and ancient texts to the inward authority of the self. It was the act of investigation and inquiry toward understanding that made Montaigne’s work so remarkable.

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