American cantos Health of the Republic politics ramblings

Flags of Freedom

A 35-star version of the US Flag
A US flag with 35 stars in the field, created after West Virginia was added to the Union.

So there’s a controversy with Nike again, because Nike pulled a line of shoes showing the so-called Betsy Ross flag.  (You’ve seen it — it’s the one with a circle of 13 stars.)  It’s not entirely clear why Nike did so.  Some sources says it’s because Colin Kaepernick asked them to (and if so, it’s not clear why he did, although Vox claims it’s because “he argued, is pulled from the era of slavery and doesn’t warrant celebration”).  Further investigation seems to indicate that some white nationalist groups have started using the “Betsy Ross flag” as an emblem.

politics ramblings teaching

Regarding >> “America has a simple ideology”: how one of Russia’s top US experts tries to explain America – Vox

A couple of observations:

  1. What might underlie this Russian perception — which I think is over the top — is something far more threatening to the Russian psyche than the idea that America is scheming and plotting to topple them.  Far worse indeed is the truth, which is that since the end of the Cold War we’ve more or less ignored them.  A lot of what Putin has done, seems to me, to be the geopolitical equivalent of a moody tweener screaming for attention from the once-idolized cool kid who nows ignores them.  Going from being one of two superpowers, where every time the Kremlin caught a cold, Washington sneezed, to a perceived backwater minor power, is bruising.
  2. Having said that, from one point of view, they’re not entirely crazy.  While I think they overestimate the coherence of any “American worldview”, there is a certain evangelizing tendency in American politics.  We’ve solved it, many Americans think, and of course everyone else should reap the benefit of our leadership.  It’s cloying and positive but threatening in its own way.  And the ongoing cultural ascendancy of American media — where our action films and pop fashions rule the world — can’t help anyone feel secure.
  3. It’s hard to see what to do about this.  You can’t convince someone you’re on their side by simply repeatedly telling them that.   And our actual attitude — dismissive neglect — is unlikely to generate either the evidence of a benign attitude or reciprocal respect.  The nigh-complete breakdown of the American political machine implies more neglect and drift, with sporadic and counterproductive engagement mixed with saber-rattling for domestic benefit.  It’s a bind.

Regarding: “America has a simple ideology”: how one of Russia’s top US experts tries to explain America – Vox

American cantos Health of the Republic personal politics ramblings

On riots, protests, and the legitimacy of violence (short)

For everyone who has counseled the citizens of Baltimore (and Ferguson and…) that “violence is not the answer” and that it would be better if everyone just protested peacefully:

1) As has now been documented extensively, the protests were by and large peaceful — and even more by and large, ignored by the national media.

2) Violence certainly is an  answer — and one which history shows can be quite effective in prompting change.  See for proof the French Revolution, or the American Revolution, for that matter.  Of course violence is a random and uncontrolled beast, and the odds are that the reaction it prompts will not be the outcome desired… but usually, something will change.  For people who’ve spent their whole lives trapped in a system crushing them without end, any change might be welcome, at least at first.

Would you prefer peaceful protest to violent outbursts?  Would you see people advocate for the redress of grievances without resorting to threats or damage to property or even lives?  Then address the systemic evils, the in-built hardships and unspoken oppressions, the things done not through active racist thought but through the far worse passive racist without-thought.  You want people to respect the police?  Then demand that the police behave respectably.  You want your cities to be bastions of peace?  Then save them from being cauldrons of hopelessness.

Above all, if you want this problem to “just go away”, pay attention to it — and for love of all that is true, pay attention even when the fires have gone out and the windows have been repaired and the next big distraction comes down the tube.  This problem has been centuries in the making and we’ve squandered five decades or more in addressing it — it won’t ever go away until we finally put it away.

philosophy politics ramblings science teaching

One sentence can pull you out of an entirely fine essay

By Godot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I actually agree with most of what Fareed Zakaria writes in his Washington Post op-ed “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous“.  We need balanced, robust, well-rounded education, not narrow business-driven training.  It will take many different vantages points to see solutions to the problems we face in this hardest century of human history.  Students of mine often express shock (and perhaps a little betrayal) when they complain about, say, their history teacher and ask me “Don’t you think it’s just a waste of time?” only for me to reply that it is one of my favorite subjects.  As a physics guy, I obviously think we need more and better science teaching, but I also think we need more and better teaching in the humanities and the arts.

Having said that… boy, does this one sentence put me in a slow burn:

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.

It angers me that Farakaria, with a vast platform, falls into the stereotypical thinking that these skills — learning, writing, thinking — are somehow not part of the math/science pool.  In actuality, of course, scientists, engineers, and coders practice those skills constantly.  While there are surely scientists who cannot write, there are English majors with the same problem.  STEM thinking isn’t the only kind of thinking we need, but it is thinking.  It is both disingenuous and insulting for him to imply otherwise.

I know it’s a small piece of a larger argument, but it still rankled me.

books personal philosophy ramblings

What is a library?

I am far from the first to ask this question in an increasingly-electronic age, and I am sure that my answer will be far from unique.  But my wife and I have batted the question around a couple of times and I wanted to get my thoughts down.  The proximate cause of our discussion was an meditation on the large space allocated to the library in the school where I teach, the dusty and ill-utilized books moldering there, and the concern that the library might come to be seen as “wasted” space.  The thought of a college-prep school without a library seems equal parts worrisome and absurd, yet it’s hard to argue in favor of the proposition that the stacks continue to serve their traditional vital role in education.  Can the library be saved when books have fallen out of favor?

Health of the Republic personal philosophy politics ramblings

Happy Tax Day!

And I mean that non-ironically.  I don’t like paying taxes, but I am proud to do it.  Taxes are not only necessary to maintain the way of life we value.  They are a direct investment in the very concept of civilization.   Taxes are the explicit statement that we are a community and we have a communal responsibility to each other.  They are also the explicit recognition that no one is in this alone, that no one is solely responsible for his or her own success, and that we are, to some measure, dependent on each other.

Yes, I inveigle against waste and fraud, just like everyone else.  Perhaps even more so, because they are a violation of this trust, that the communal burden be fairly borne and communally valuable — that no individual benefit unduly.  But the current fetish on minimizing taxes (even at the cost of undermining society) boggles my mind.  It reeks of hubris and solipsism.

Taxes are a burden but  not all burdens are bad.  Jingoists like to lecture us “Freedom isn’t free” — and indeed, it isn’t.  Part of the cost — not the lion’s share, but not a negligible one — is directly an economic one: The taxes we pay.  You cannot defend a nation, or provide speedy justice, or protect the innocent, for free.  You cannot offer hope and opportunity, or discover new cures, or build a better future, for free.  The American project, whatever that turns out to be, is bigger than any one person or any one group.  Taxes are part of the sinew that binds us into one nation.

Taxes help make clear: We are all in this together.

So again, I say, Happy Tax Day!

(For your amusement, here’s a link to the original income tax forms.)

personal philosophy ramblings

Art and Design, Fail

I’ve been doing a little reading on the art of design and the failure of art as design.  (For example, see this piece about how objects for human use should be designed for, you know, humans.)  That led me to the International Push/Pull Pictogram Design Competition, tasked with designing exactly what it says: a non-verbal universal symbol to indicate which way to move a door to open it.  Some of them are awfully inspired and some of them are just awful.  But the “winner”, I feel, simply replicates the problem:

Quick: Which of these says “This door opens by pulling”?

I would argue that you can make a case for either one.  The person on the right is clearly pulling, so maybe that means “Pull this door”.  But the door is bulging outward — which says, to me, that the door is not cooperating — it isn’t opening — and so you shouldn’t pull, you should push.  (Likewise, the person on the left is clearly pushing but the door isn’t opening; maybe pushing isn’t the right choice.)

The judges picking the winning logo gave the following explanation (in part):

The push symbol is as if the figure is pushing a car and the pull symbol is a figure pulling as if in a tug of war. For extra clarity and to give the impression of force and movement, the doors being pushed and pulled are bowed-shaped.

But in so doing, they fell prey to the same problem they thought they were solving:  The pictogram needs to be explained, so it is neither universal nor obvious.

Personally, my choice would have been the one to the right of the upper-left corner of the submissions:


This is unambiguous as to how the door moves.  It also serves as a nice warning that the door opens outward, in the second case.  (There was a similar one with hands but I think that is too specific:  The door opens inward whether you pull it or someone pushes on the other side.)

personal ramblings technology

Miracles and Wonder

2013-08-14 15.04.38 I just received the Kingston 64 GB USB flash drive shown above.  It holds (duh) 64 gigabytes of data.  I’ve included a US quarter for size comparisons. My first computer was a Commodore-64, for which I had the venerable C1541 floppy disk drive. That used 5.25″ floppy disks — which were actually floppy, you could bend them (though that was not advised!) — and could cram as much as 165 kB onto each one. Yes, that’s kilobytes. This means that, to hold the same amount as the flash drive, I would need something like 406,721 floppy disks. Laid end-to-end, they would stretch about 33 miles, or half again as long as you’d need to bridge the English Channel. Laid out in a square, they would cover an area of about 1.8 acres or 1.44 (American) football fields. Stacked, they would stand 650 m tall, or about 1.46 Empire State Buildings. A single floppy disk cost about $2.25 (when purchased in bulk, and we would obviously have to do that!). So the cost to own this much storage would be about $915,120. We probably shouldn’t neglect you’d have to buy the drive as well — that would add $400. OK, we probably could neglect that.  Oh, wait. That was in 1982. According to the Inflation Calculator, $915,520 in 1982 would be equivalent, more or less, to $2,144,035 in 2012. (Information not available for this year yet.) I paid the princely sum of $37. And got free shipping. (And don’t need a warehouse to store my 400,000 disks!) My point? We live in an age that would leave Scheherazade a-gasp and disbelieving. We live in an age of miracles.

Also, get off my lawn.

politics ramblings science fiction technology

The buzz about the loop

So Elon Musk has revealed his great new intercity transit idea, the HyperLoop.    It would seem the emphasis should be on the first syllable — to wit, HYPE — but I’ll leave engineering analyses to those far more qualified than I.  My impression is that Musk offers vaporware that over-promises and under-delivers, that will never be implemented and would fail if it were.  (See here for one take-down.)  I’m more interested in how he generated all this buzz and why the media fell all over itself to hype it.

A good starting point is simply that it’s August and the news is slow.  There haven’t been any recurrences of the 2010 summer of rage to capture the media’s attention.  So a guy who’s always been good at self-promotion and who has a flair for the cool can definitely garner a few minutes air time.  But I think there’s more.

First, as a society, we fetishize monetary success and idolatrize those who achieve it.  We assume that anyone who’s made a bunch of money must be intrinsically smart, clever, or wise, and that this means he — and it is almost always a “he” — will magically have expertise in areas far removed from the one in which he made his fortune.  (Not to double-link, but this point really is made nicely at the article above.)  This impulse is particularly virulent in an age when the captains of industry must desperately justify their outsized share of the economy to the plebes whom they stand upon, and since media empires are one of the trappings of those captains, the popular media go along.  We must worship success and idolatrize financial achievers, because otherwise the grueling inequality of our system would make us monsters.

Second, and not unrelated, we live in an age that builds up the private enterprise but denigrates the public work.  An entrepreneur is to be hailed and held up; a privately-funded superssytem is admirable.  But a public/private partnership that slogs through all the legwork of providing a high-speed rail system?  That must be torn down.  It is considered prima facie susceptible to corruption, of course, but it’s even worse if it succeeds.  A successful HSR project would not only pump money into the economy; it would be evidence that government can succeed, and our current political atmosphere cannot sustain that sort of heresy.  (There are definite shades of Atlas Shrugged here, which probably also help explain the positive reception of a subset of the media.)

Third, the HyperLoop idea plays into a creeping anti-professionalism in American culture.  We are more and more convinced that “expertise” doesn’t exist.  Anyone with a big idea can succeed!  Details are for wimps!  This myth comforts those at the top of the pyramid, of course, because it can post facto justify their position and tells them it’s OK to leave the hard work of, say, designing things to others.  (I submit it’s one reason for the idolization of Steve Jobs, whom many have distorted into just an idea guy.  I don’t think Jobs himself fell victim to this; he insisted on solid work and good design.)  The Big Idea myth, ironically, also comforts those not at the top.  They can imagine that, someday, their own Big Idea will come and they will catapult into the stratosphere of the 1%.  They don’t have to work, or save, or plan; they just have to wait for inspiration.  (A twisted version of this is peddled to our youth, who see their way out of the morass in athletic or musical stardom — and again, the assumption is that talent trumps training.)

Finally, and not unrelatedly at all, the HyperLoop ties into the strain of romanticism that infest American pop culture.  We celebrate the dashing hero, the incorruptible outsider, the lone genius.  Our central myth is the rugged individualist.  Of course, our understanding of how the West was won is little more than myth.  Consistent and continual community-building made this country, not loners standing in wastelands.  Our films reinforce this, even in our science fiction, with The Professor the common archetype for the “good” scientist (and the evil genius his dark counterpart):  A man (and again, it’s almost always a man) who stands outside the scientific consensus, sees things no one else can imagine, and single-handedly fashions exotic new technologies and whole worlds from the fruits of his solitary mind.  This is the exact opposite of science, of course, with its community of learners and its painstaking assembly of new knowledge from the pieces contributed by hundreds of peers.  But The Hero is sexier than the team, and so we celebrate that.  We find irresistible the idea that the one guy — a genius or a billionaire — could sweep past the hundreds of researchers, activists, and experts patiently slogging away.  (Any consideration of this fight would be remiss without pointing toward David Brin’s brilliant analysis of Star Wars versus Star Trek and what each says about our values.)

We live in a complex and scary world, with intimidating and complicated problems.  It’s a dangerous conceit to believe that there are simple and clear answers that, somehow, no one’s thought of.  It happens from time to time, of course, but so do lightning strikes.  The human mind amplifies the impact of rare events and accords them a too-great weight in how we plan things.  The solution to high-speed intercity transit is unlikely to come out of the blue from a guy who’d hardly thought about the problem before.

Some people have made dark rumblings that Musk —  a man who’s trying to sell cars and thus has a motive to sabotage trains — might just be committing an underhanded intellectual fraud in pursuit of profit.  I don’t think that’s true.  I think he’s deluded by his impression of his own genius, and his delusions neatly plug into our societal ones.

Health of the Republic philosophy politics ramblings

The defining feature of modern Republicanism

It’s not small-government. It’s not anti-tax screeds or culture war crusades. It’s not being pro-big business or pro-gun. It’s not being anti-choice or anti-gay. It’s not suport of “traditional marriages” or of non-traditional “special interrogation”. It’s not being pro-Gitmo or anti-drone or pro-Keystone or anti-FEMA. It’s not even being sexist or being racist.

It’s a complete and utter lack of empathy, and an unhealthy disdain for the same in others.

How else do you explain the sudden 180=degree shifts in philosophy once the consequence of the party line hits home? Dick Cheney supports gay rights, because his daughter is a lesbian. Bob Portman now supports same-sex marriage, because his son has come out of the closet. Mark Kirk suddenly understands the value of government health care, once he has a brush with death. It’s how Republican governors can decry federal spending on disaster relief… right up until their state needs it.

Republicans like to claim that they’re the party of grown-ups, reining in those rascally irresponsible Democrats. But a hallmark of maturity is the development of empathy — the ability to think beyond the confines of your personal experiences and to imagine, however imperfectly, the life lived by people who are not you. On that measure, the Republican Party is a haven for toddlers and crybabies. I applaud Senator Portman for revisiting his philosophy in light of new evidence, but if we have to wait for a singular personal experience for each and every Republican, it’s going to be a long long slog.