Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tomato Sauce Fingers

Harold Pollock writes of his experiences with his brother-in-law with an intellectual disability.  He finds that lower-class restaurants seem more forgiving than those of the well-to-do:
I hate taking Vincent to pricey restaurants mostly filled with my own educational/income peers. People say all the kind things. Yet it’s not uncommon for customers at nearby tables to make us feel uncomfortable when a few chunks of Vincent’s chicken ends up on his shirt or to visibly fidget when he detracts from their elegant dining experience by allowing his fingers to migrate into the tomato sauce.
I was at an IEP meeting yesterday at a largely upper-SES middle school.  So far the child, who suffered greatly from anxiety, was having a terrific year.  The special education coordinator, new to the area, commented at how impressed she was by the tenor of the school: there was just a polite, friendly atmosphere among the students.  In fact, her friend, a substitute teacher, simply refused to take assignments anywhere else.

I was immediately reminded of the experiences I had teaching in various different schools, in various SES populations.  At the "nice" schools (read wealthier, whiter, parents more educated, etc.) one entered a campus of relaxed kids relatively calmly, playfully chatting before hustling up their well-organized bags when the bell rang.  At the "poor" schools (less income, less education, minority), the mood was tense, louder, argumentative, with negative comments and hostility in the air.  You can imagine how this carried over into the classroom.  Often the "best" teachers in the poor schools were those comfortable with an authoritarian, implicitly violent attitude that demanded (and got) obedience.  In the "nicer" schools, the teachers could be jovial, nurturing and compassionate and the students would generally respond in kind.

So these idyllic upper-SES communities are indeed delicate flowers in many ways.  The greatest irony of my life is for all my passion on issues of SES inequality, I send my two kids to upper-SES public schools surrounded by children who come from intact families, who were read to every night by parents who are doctors, lawyers, business-owners or otherwise highly educated.  Yet after having spent so much time in classrooms filled with children who come to school stressed-out, with not enough sleep, and not enough academic, emotional or cognitive preparation, and how this creates a learning environment in which a teacher is so overwhelmed in dealing with students with such need that s/he can only offer a lowest-common-denominator education, how could I in good conscience send my precious angels into such a mess?  I would be sacrificing my childrens' education at the altar of my political morality.

If everyone like me did the same, we wouldn't have this issue; the pain of inequality would be spread evenly.  But it is not.  I would vote for socio-economic integration in a heartbeat, because it would represent a collective will to change the system.  But there is a limit to one's personal political sacrifice, and this is especially true when the sacrifice is one's children.  Morally, I could do much to align my actions with my thoughts: go without most of my possessions, move to a poor neighborhood, volunteer my time for good causes, take in foster-youth, take in more shelter animals.  We could all follow Ghandi and live morally perfect lives.  I don't have the best answer for why I do not, other than to say I do what I can, and try to do more every day.

My children will grow up to be less comfortable with rough behavior.  Yet they will also grow up in many ways stronger for having been nurtured.  My hope is that they will thus be able to leverage their own strength to do better in the world.  In my own work, I deal with families who experience extreme hardship in caring for children with disabilities.  I do my best to relate my children my stories and experiences to impart the wisdom it has provided me - to be compassionate, accepting and supportive to the needs of others; to look past the discomfort, and to the beauty within us all.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Reed Dees Pook

I'm finally nearing the end of The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker.  I picked it up after reading Warner Hertzog praise it on a Reddit AMA.  An intense book about falcons.  I could picture his gravely, accented English languorously describing dark talons and feathers.

How delightful, I began reading.  

Yes, lots of talons and feathers here.  Each sentence is a real spurting climax of enthusiastic nature poetry.  Let's see, there are about 12 sentences per page.  There are 191 pages in this book.  That leaves the reader, sent up into Baker's blood red verbal sky, more than 2000 sentences to devour.  Or - oh no! - to be devoured by.  

The project began friendly enough.  But as the thing went on, I began to feel nauseated.  Plover.  So much plover...  Who knew there were so many ways to describe a passing cloud, or a country road, or the white bones sticking up out of a carcass?  No plot.  No knowledge (save for a few teasing sprinkles in the first few pages).  No character development.  No insight.  No reflection.  Just words.  

An endless, relentless torrent of damned words.  No shape, color, texture or anthropomorphic emotion was safe from Baker's incessant adjectival assault.  His metaphorical meandering bent a supposed natural world into a craggy mass of verbal gymnastics that resembled not so much the relationship of birds to limb and sky but Baker’s own solipsistic ambition.  The grand irony: a book so completely and utterly about nature that it becomes about nothing more than man.

I began to suspect the book was an act of terrorism: a bomb carefully designed to ensnare the poor human unlucky enough to be attracted to it's promise of beauty, yet it's real purpose to take the words of man and stuff them into his greedy, fallen throat.  Take that yee vile polluter.  Choke on this ugly human scum.  Read my book.  Read it!  

American Mind Control

Like everyone else this election, I'm obsessed with the answer to this question: what is driving Trump supporters?

Is it economic anxiety?  Is it loss of white, Christian identity?  Is it simple bigotry? Is it authoritarianism?

My own current theory is that it isn't based so much on any of these things, as so much as an ideological narrative that has been stewing and metastasizing for decades, propagating largely via conservative media outlets, but thriving in the oxygen-rich environs of isolated rural and suburban America - church to church, gun show to gun show, Cabellas to Cabellas, racetrack to racetrack.

Would it be possible, I ask, for an ideological narrative to develop that isn't actually based on facts in reality, but rather on facts that are assumed by its own mythology?

The clearest example of this is the world of conspiracy theories.  Despite no evidence - and often times direct evidence to the contrary - a certain type of person continues to buy in to the larger story.  The belief is thus sustained and maintained over time.

You also see this in religion, where certain areas of inquiry are immune to contradiction.  The more insular and extreme the religion, the greater the immunity.  The pure example of this is the religious cult, where almost all sense of normality is overridden by dogma.

In general, we view people who go down these rabbit holes as abnormal, and generally psychologically flawed in some way.  Yet how so?  I'm not very familiar with the literature here, but my guess is that there a lot of theories but nothing conclusive.  At any rate, these types of people have generally been considered a small, deluded, (yet strangely persistent), segment of the population.

Yet historically we can find examples of ideological movements that are not abnormal to the population, but rather the norm.  Nazi Germany comes to mind.  Anarchists at the turn of last century.  Fundamentalist Islam is a more contemporary example of an ideology that is quite popular in many regions of the world.

So how possible, then, might it be that contemporary conservatism has normalized a form of hysterical, at times conspiratorial thought?  I realize that this line of argument could easily become a cheap form of ad hominem dismissal of valid political arguments.  But what we have in Trumpism are not valid political arguments.  The bile that has been spilling from AM radio for at least 40 years - throughout the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's and 2010's is not valid argument but demogoguery and conspiratorial falsehood.  Fox news, and social media have only spread the narrative's reach.

Michael Savage:
"…You have to explain this to them in this time of mental rape that's going on. The children's minds are being raped by the homosexual mafia, that's my position. They're raping our children's minds."
Glenn Beck:
“President Obama, Tim Geithner, Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, all the other lawmakers are going after the blood of our businesses, big and small. Who's next? They have their fangs in the necks of everybody, and nothing's going to quench their thirst…There's only two ways for this movie to end: Either the economy becomes like the walking dead, or you drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers.”
Bill O'Reilly:
"I just wish Hurricane Katrina had only hit the United Nations building, nothing else, just had flooded them out, and I wouldn't have rescued them." --Bill O'Reilly on his radio show, Sept. 14, 2005
Sean Hannity:
"Halloween is a liberal holiday because we're teaching our children to beg for something for free. … We're teaching kids to knock on other people's doors and ask for a handout." —Fox News host Sean Hannity (October 31, 2007)
Ann Coulter:
"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"
Rush Limbaugh:
"A feminazi is a woman to whom the most important thing in life is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible are performed. Their unspoken reasoning is quite simple. Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren’t necessary. Nothing matter but me, says the feminazi; the is an unviable tissue mass. Feminazis have adopted abortion as a kind of sacrament for their religion/politics of alienation and bitterness.”~Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought To Be, p.192-93 , 1992
The problem with people in cults or who buy into conspiracies isn't the specific beliefs they hold.  They are often innocuous enough.  Rather, it is the mental state within which they are interacting with the larger world.  The sense of measured, reasonable,  epistemological skepticism is gone.  Truth becomes "truth", and one becomes incredibly susceptible to manipulation, as long as the sense of anger, fear and often hatred, is fed.

It doesn't happen in a vacuum.  People just don't wake up one day and decide to join a cult.  But with enough isolation, social reinforcement, and limited knowledge, and desire for some kind of affirmation of values, the ideology seeps in, puttying the gaps with its insidious dogma.

The number one priority in cults is to develop in the individual a lack of faith in outside authority.  Don't trust your family.  Don't trust the government.  Don't trust outsiders.  This enables complete mind control.  Paranoid conservatism has slowly been developing a similar tactic: don't trust the government, the media, scientists, academics, or outside culture in general.  What is left is a form of mind control in which only paranoid conservatism has any authority.

So is it economic anxiety, bigotry, loss of White Christian identity, or authoritarianism?  We've all felt economic anxiety.  Having bigoted thoughts - fear of the "other" - is a natural part of being human.  We live in a pluralistic country that values personal freedom of religion and diversity.  Authoritarianism seems as much a value as anything else that becomes socially reinforced.

What stops us from allowing these things to rule our lives and destroy our objectivity is a faith in the outside world, a maintenance of continuity with our past, and trust in institutions that have stood the test of time.  There are certainly legitimate critique of the authority of government, media, science or academia.  But each are only as good as we make them, and themselves come from principles that we ignore at our peril: democracy, objectivity, empiricism, and study.  Cultish conservatism seems diametrically opposed to each of these.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

But Isn't Trump a Free-Trader?

Something that's baffled me in this election is how much Trump's campaign seems to be built around the notion that part of "making America Great Again" is bringing back jobs that have been lost overseas due to manufacturing.  Aside from how much this is actually true, isn't a fundamental tenet of conservatism a belief in markets, free trade, and that workers simply need to adapt?
Matt Yglesias argues that this is exactly what workers have been doing, and that manufacturing, per say, hasn't really been in decline at all.  He points out that perception could be misguiding us because we tend to focus on all the consumer goods we say that don't say "made in America" on their tags.
Consumer goods and cars are two big things people buy, and both of them are things the US imports more of than we export. 
Consumer goods and cars are two big things people buy, and both of them are things the US imports more of than we export.
Meanwhile, 65 percent of our exports are either capital goods or industrial supplies — in other words, machines and equipment that companies buy to conduct their businesses. Sometimes that's something like a computer that might also be sold to a consumer. But more typically we are talking about products that aren't sold in stores or marketed to normal people. You've probably never bought a Boeing 737, for example, and almost certainly never will. But airplanes are very expensive. The sale of a single new passenger jet contains as much value of industrial output as a truly tremendous pile of shoes or toys or other consumer goods.
He also provides a couple of interesting charts:

We don't seem to see here the kind of devastating losses we all imagine when we picture rusty, hollowed-out factories.

This one gets at a better picture of what we mean when we say "manufacturing" and talking about imports and exports.
I haven't been paying enough attention - but isn't Trump pretty anti-free trade, and is this just another thing conservatives are holding their noses from? Last I checked, conservatism was all about embracing creative destruction - halcyon me remembers well listening to AM conservative radio in the 90's telling displaced workers to get over it, quit bellyaching and get retrained.
However it seems progressives are the ones who've wanted to embrace a compassionate free-trade in which government tries to facilitate the retraining and support of the displaced. Trump I understand wants to keep the jobs from leaving simply through protectionism and tax breaks. Not sure this is a very accurate vision of how economic paradigm shifts actually occur - see: automation, AI, etc.  

Personally, I'm all for disruption. But I want to make sure people get the support they need in the process.  I'm reminded of the Oregon law that required gas be pumped by employees, not customers.  I found this idiotic, as someone perfectly capable of pumping gas myself.  As much as I sympathized with the poor sap pumping my gas getting employment, the sad reality is that he made a poverty wage doing a job that was unnecessary.  I would much prefer it if he had access to job training that would allow him to find long-term, useful employment.  Barring that, a government works program that provided a non-poverty wage doing something actually useful would be a good start.  Lord knows there was infrastructure in Portland that could have been serviced while I had nothing better to do than sit on my ass in my car for 5 minutes.

Of course, Trump, as a "conservative", wouldn't go for any of this.  It is much easier for him to simply punt to the notion of tax cuts solving everything.  But he appears to be in a bind here: he gets to sell himself as the avatar of the displaced working white man, and all the racial resentment he can squeeze out of that, but without being on the hook for any actual solutions.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Peering Into Our Machines

Would it be an overstatement to say that cellular biology is the most amazing thing in the universe?  It is the basis of all life.  Zoomed in.  Right down to the atomic level, where the elements are combining and recombining, swapping electrons, trading polarities.

I was fortunate to have been able to teach basic science at the high school level without any real university study.  I was able to brush up enough to pass the basic exams for credentialing.  I sometimes felt bit fraudulent - I really didn't have the proper training.  But they needed science teachers, and I was able to pass the basic requirements.

Science is like a giant puzzle - the chemistry, the physics, the biomes, the geology - it all fits together.  And you can always go deeper.  Centuries ago, a single individual could reasonably learn all there was to know about the natural world.  Yet today, our scientific knowledge has become so deep and specialized that no one could possibly hope to know everything even in one's own sub-sub discipline.

Even if I had majored in biology I don't think I would have gotten into anything very meaty until grad school.  Even then, I would only be scratching the surface of the cell.

Today I happened upon a field I honestly wasn't quite aware exited: biophysics.  As it's name implies, it is a field that seeks to bridge biology and physics, using our knowledge of both to better understand the fundamental processes and mechanics at work.

Something had always puzzled me about cellular mechanics is how in the heck we have actually made the discoveries that we have.   How did we learn the shape, structure, and operation of organelles like mitochondria, chloroplasts, or ribosomes?  How the heck were we able to determine how Rna transcription was taking place outside the nucleus?

I used to show my students the famous digitally animated animated short film "The Inner Life of the Cell", a collaboration between Xvivo studio and Harvard.  Created in 2006, it takes the viewer on an amazing tour of some of the basic operations of animal and plant cells.  The animators worked with scientists at Harvard's Molecular and Cellular Biology to create the most scientifically accurate representations possible - with the obvious concessions for things like clarity and illumination.  But allows one to visualize what it must be like to see all this stuff in action.

However, without a deeper understanding of the work involved, one's jaw is left on the floor, pondering how it is they could possibly know this stuff.  How is it that they discovered what kinesin proteins likely look like as they make their way down a microtubule, a giant vesicle in tow?

I know that these structures are incredibly tiny, and you simply can't see them at work.  Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix only came after an analysis of Rosalin Franklin's resolution of DNA molecules through Xray crystallography.  Thats a far cry from what you can see being put forth in the film.

But like I said, I'm no expert.  I assume theres some kind of dyeing and chemical inference going on, all via very complex and painstaking analysis of extremely isolated samples.  But how exactly.  Would I never learn without attending a graduate seminar at university?

Thank to google, I came closer in my understanding tonight.  I found this article, part of a lecture on Molecular Machinery on the Institute of Physics website.  It's all rather complex and a bit much to try to go into here.  I encourage readers to check it out for themselves.  But I did enjoy mention of a particle of gold being used to demonstrate the process by which molecules can be transported throughout the cell.  One of the most astonishing portions of the Inner Life film is indeed that little protein that seems uncannily to be "walking" along a microtubule.  Well, this seems a good descrition of how they can show that process:
 The 40 nm gold bead scatters light very efficiently and the position of its centroid in a dark-field image can be fitted with nanometre resolution, even with frame rates close to 10 kHz. This small label exerts much less drag than the fluorescently labelled actin filaments (microns long) that were first used to prove that F1-ATPase is a rotary machine (see ‘Biological Energy’ Lecture 2). Combined with the fast video rates, this permits measurements with submillisecond time resolution that reveal substeps in the rotation of the stalk (rotor).

An illustration is helpfully provided.  As you can see, the gold bead is held in place, attached right to that little protein!  Marvelous!

So, it had been a while since I checked in to see what the Xvivo animation studio has been up to.  The Inner Cell was produced nearly ten years ago.  Both molecular biology and computer graphic design have surely improved greatly since then.  Boy, have they.   Their newer work is absolutely stunning.  I found this video of their work.
I'm especially impressed with the attempt to portray the stochaistic, or randomness with which the molecules bounce around against each other, jostling and jigging until their polarities match up and their function can begin.  I look forward to viewing more of their videos.  The future is just incredible.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Conservatism's Odious Upper Lip

Japanese Farting Contest (c. 1700)
Fascinating article in Cracked, of all places.
The theme expresses itself in several ways -- primitive vs. advanced, tough vs. delicate, masculine vs. feminine, poor vs. rich, pure vs. decadent, traditional vs. weird. All of it is code for rural vs. urban. That tense divide between the two doesn't exist because of these movies, obviously. These movies used it as shorthand because the divide already existed.We country folk are programmed to hate the prissy elites. That brings us to Trump.
I'm not quite sure how to process it. My main pushback is that rural Trump supporters have been sold and bought into a narrative that pits them against cosmopolitan liberals, when the conflict largely isn't so meaningful: Mexican immigrants slaughtering meat and picking crops in your town, gay marriage, Muslims, atheism doesn't have to be a bad thing, unless you buy into an ideology in which it is. So, to what extent are rural anxieties born out of actual experiences, and to what extent are they the product of the embrace of an ideology designed to inflame these anxieties? Trump sells solutions tailor-made to fix fabricated issues. My guess is that most of the issues Trump supporters complain about have little to no actual impact on their day-to-day lives, and yet somehow believe they do. White, Christian heterosexual men are not under actual assault - merely maybe some of their assumptions about how they could treat others. Neither is Christmas. But there is a "sense" in which they are. What if they simply treated others - women, gays, immigrants, Muslims, with respect? Problem solved. Ironically, one of the issues du jour - "safe spaces", trigger warnings, PC - could as easily apply to these old chauvinist attitudes. When conservatives tell fainting lefties to "get over it", one might as easily return the phrase.

The salient point in the Cracked piece is how much rural America feels condescended to by the cosmopolitan.... I'm tempted to add "elite". But that is an adjective loaded with baggage from the resentment narrative. Are they actually "elite"?

Websters defines elite in a few ways:

  1. the best
  2. the socially superior part of society
  3. a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence

This is obviously somewhat arbitrary - who decides what or who is superior?  There are indeed more elite members of society: journalists, academics, public speakers, media writers/creators, politicians. Historically this has been the city/townie schism.  

Rural resentment seems primarily motivated by civil rights resentments: religion, immigration, traditional sexual and gender roles.  Yet what is cast as a function of the elite telling urban liberals what to think, is as easily a function of the reverse.  One of the most striking elements of the gay rights triumph of the last decades has been how gays being "out" has simply shown the rest of us how normal and non-threatening in fact they are.  Larger cultural change in this way came not from the top-down but bottom up experiences in household across the nation.  The normalization of non-traditional sex roles and minority status is hardly different.  Institutional, constitutional reforms were vital -but one could argue they followed popular support as much as set popular opinion.

The use of the term "elite" signifies a power relationship in which the "non-elite" is being oppressed or disadvantaged.  As such, it is a morally righteous political attack.  It is certainly the case that there exists an urbane cultural and political elite who hold ideas that are threatening to the rural narrative of oppression.  However, it is not the elite who is doing the oppressing, but rather that larger cultural shifts that have occurred - with help from elite power,  but at least as much as the hearts and minds of individuals.  

When a rural white Christian male complains that people are speaking Spanish at the grocery store, that they can't mention Jesus in his son's homeroom, that his teacher is gay, that city-council members are openly atheist and women's basketball is being played at the boys and girls club, he is not being oppressed by elites.  He is being "oppressed" by the experiences of cosmopolitan gentry who have lived and worked with Mexicans, gays and atheists, and determined that they are deserving of respect and an equal place at the table.  

I place oppression in quotes because it isn't really oppression, is it.  Someone speaking spanish in line in front of you is not oppression.  However, if you have bought into a story that this is a bad thing,  then I could see how uncomfortable you might feel.  Yet the discomfort is of your own making.  If I decided that perfume and cologne smelled like farts, I suppose the environment might begin to feel quite toxic - oppressively so.  My that would be my problem.  

There's an old saying that expresses this quite nicely.  And it comes in language the emotionally and philosophically underdeveloped Trump supporter might understand:

He who smelt it, dealt it.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Dilema for Conservatives

Antoon Claeissens - The Judgement of Solomon (c.1536)

The election is so weird. I try to put myself in the shoes of reasonable conservatives. What if the Democrats had someone who was so ridiculous, but for all the character flaws (ego, racism, misogyny, ignorance, sadism) at least had a somewhat progressive agenda, while the opposition was going to cut taxes on the rich, appoint conservative justices, eviscerate regulations, etc.? Who would I choose?

It's so hard to separate the personal from the policy in Trump, as often his policy (mass deportation of illegal immigrants, intensifying torture, Muslim ban) directly evidences his character. What would a democratic party that elected such an asshole even look like?

This article runs commentary on the transcript of the debate. When you see his words in print, they come across as even more inane than when delivered from his beefy face, which we've all grown somewhat used to.

I suppose if ever there would be a time to "send a message" to my party, this would be it. But of course, the problem isn't "the party", it is the great masses of Republicans who want this sort of man to represent them.

I'm not sure how many people read this blog, but it would be interesting if any were conservatives who are sympathetic to the dilemma I've described. How would one go about separating out the agreeable policy in a candidate from the disagreeable policy - especially when it is backed up by an obviously vile character?