Hitch 22

I thought Christopher Hitchens was on the wrong side of the aisle. For example, he was scathing in his opinions about Bill Clinton, during the sex scandal over Monica Lewinsky. Not that I approved of Clinton’s dalliance, but still I thought it was a grotesque over-reach by the Republicans to impeach him, and I felt that Hitchens was helping the wrong people. In his memoir Hitch 22 (Twelve, New York, 2010) he says almost nothing about his stance on that, but he repeats many of his other criticisms of the former President. Nevertheless he approved Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Bosnian war.

Hitch 22 goes back to Hitchens’ school days and rolls forward through a journalistic career that took Hitchens very far afield, and brought him into contact with some of the brightest lights in literature and politics of the last half century. He goes into depth about these encounters, keeping careful score of what was said by whom and who turned out to be right or wrong. Some of these accounts are droll, such as the time when a famous female politician swatted him on his backside in public, others sad, but all interesting. The book shows, step-by-step, how Hitchens went from being an active socialist to a neocon critic, defender of Bush I and II for intervening in Iraq, while criticizing their incompetence – Bush I for failing to take out Saddam, and Bush II for botching the occupation of that country.

In a number of places he refers to his well-known atheism, but he also writes of having learned as an adult that his mother was Jewish, and how he did some research on the origins of that side of his family. His criticism of what he called Islamo-fascism preceded 9/11 and was based on his observations as a journalist covering events in the Middle East, especially Iraq. He was active in promoting the idea that Iraq would have to be invaded, long before 2003.

A quick wit on television, Hitchens had what his friends called a Rolls-Royce mind. His books on religion and Thomas Jefferson showed his commanding intelligence and that is on full display in Hitch 22 as well. The depth and seriousness of the reading he did as a boy and as a student are impressive, and the content very different from what Americans are given to understand as the accepted canon. One might think that language differences were the main reason for variation in education in different countries, but if Hitchens is any example, the real reason is that people in different countries give different books to their children.

Hitchens’ principles were libertarian to a large extent, and his reactions to infringements were visceral and sharp. This sent him down a surprising path, given his early socialist leanings.



Krauthammer on Free Speech…

Friday Charles Krauthammer came out with a column criticizing the left for its alleged penchant for suppressing free speech. Well, I guess we cannot expect him to criticize the right for the same thing. Try teaching evolution in Saudi Arabia, for example - or some places in the US for that matter. What Charles seeks to obfuscate is that the reason for suppressing free speech is usually to retain power, and the sinners can be either on the right or the left. Now I hold no brief for loonies on my side of the political spectrum. But I think we do not let them dictate our policies. Which is more than one can say for, um, John Boehner!

Update on this: a terrific letter to the editor appears in the April 18 edition of the Albany Times Union, by Karl Felsen of Guilderland New York:

Letter: The pot calls the kettle totalitarian

Charles Krauthammer is right that the greatest threat to progressivism is its growing intolerance for civil discourse and diversity of opinions. But this trend has been metastasizing for some time.
When Democrats were soundly defeated by the scorched earth tactics of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, instead of finding their own way to victory, they adopted the Rovian way. When viciously pilloried by the rabid ranting of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, instead of turning the other cheek, they sought champions who could mindlessly scream as loud.
And when it comes to silencing dissent, the right, although still using boycotts, petitions, Darrell Issa hearings, talk radio, Fox News, etc., has pioneered a much more efficient technique.
Voter suppression is the most effective silencing tool of the modern age. No one can say with a straight face that these new laws are meant to deal with voter fraud. As one Pennsylvania Republican official unwittingly admitted on camera, these laws are intended to keep people who don’t look like, or agree with, me from exercising their right to vote. I hope the progressives never abandon democratic principles so completely, as to follow the right in suppressing the right to vote. But as Krauthammer’s column points out, modern progressives are willing to imitate and adopt the undemocratic, uncivil tactics of the right without a glimmer of recognizing the hypocrisy and moral decline they are engaging in.
I know Krauthammer was as shocked as Captain Renault in Casablanca at the intolerance displayed recently by progressives, but isn’t his column just a good example of the pot calling the kettle totalitarian? Or might it not have been better slugged, “Embrace conservatism or just don’t vote.”
Karl Felsen

In Search of Lost Genomes

I was in search of a book for my wife in the science section of Barnes and Noble tucked way in the back, opposite children’s books, and along the way picked up a copy of Svante Paabo’s Neanderthal Man, subtitled In Search of Lost Genomes (Basic Books, 2014). It is a compelling read, although too long to absorb in a single sitting! As a young man Paabo began studying Egyptology, but found it too static. He went on to molecular biology, but did not drop his interest in ancient humans. He got the idea of looking for DNA in mummies, and from there pursued an increasingly successful career in studying ancient genomes, both of mammals and humans. In this book he describes the intense effort over a four-year period to decipher the genetic material of Neanderthals. Unlike many popular books on science, this one leads the reader into the intricacies of analysis, describing in detail the painstaking process of going over and over the ground, searching for errors in his team’s procedures, interacting with other groups, trying out different techniques, discarding the failed ones along the way, and finally getting the key methods and the sought after information. It is a remarkable story. The principal result is that when comparing the Neanderthal genome to those of several other modern humans and, for reference, the chimpanzee, Paabo’s team discovered that a significant percentage of the DNA of Europeans and Asians derives from Neanderthals. But none is detected in Africans. This answers an important question in paleontology that scientists have debated fruitlessly on anatomical grounds: whether Neanderthals mixed with modern humans. The simplest explanation is that modern humans migrating out of Africa encountered the Neanderthals in the Middle East and mixed with them before spreading to Asia and Europe. The Neanderthal genome is now publicly available for anyone to reference, and people are already doing that in diverse projects. To quote a blurb from Ed Wilson on the jacket: “..if you want to learn how real science is really done, I suggest you read it.”

Proust in Search of Redemption

I have been re-reading “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” recently, and during this time I found on the internet a couple of interesting pieces by Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire, a French poet and essayist. After leaving some comments on her blog I was very pleased that she took the trouble to write back to me. She wrote a book “Proust- ou la recherché de la redemption” which I ordered through Amazon and devoured in a single afternoon, as I found it impossible to put it down. The book has two parts – one devoted to Proust himself, and the second focused on the core of Proust’s message in the Recherche, which she thinks is fundamentally religious, something that had not occurred to me before. As she notes, certainly Proust writes very often about churches, but his hero and his characters do not talk much about religion. Instead Proust pursues the goal of immortality by resurrecting the past, both by overt recollection of the past, and by celebrating the famous involuntary memories (déjà vu), touched off by sounds or tastes, sometimes by sights, which evoke with amazing completeness specific moments of the past. She notes that many turn away from Proust, unwilling to spend time on what they feel is an excessively detailed recitation of the inner life of the hero, a sensitive and sickly person, a close observer of others, who feels a vocation for writing but does little to pursue it, because he cannot think of a subject. In the last chapter of the Recherche, Proust apparently speaks through his hero, and describes how he came to realize what he had to write about – namely his own internal life, with all the complex relationships that connected it to the worlds of art, literature, and even science, as well as the people he knew. This will bring back the past in a real way for him, allowing him to dwell in multiple times, and allow him to speak to future generations, the closest we can get to eternity in the real world. It is this sentiment, so powerful that it led Proust to live his final years as an ascetic, that Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire finds religious.

This reminded me of the poem by Horace (3.30)

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

reglalique situ pyramidum altius…

Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei

vitabit Libitinam…

« I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the royal structure of the pyramids…I shall not wholly die and a greater part of me will evade Libitina (Goddess of Death)… ».

I can add to this example the Shakers, the religious sect that thrived in the northeastern United States from the late 18th to the early 19th century, who thought that their celibate way of life, organized around common labor and housing, was a paradise on earth.

Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire writes at the end of her book on Proust: “Listen to him.” I have to agree with this; this is an immense and influential work,very worthwhile to read, and more than once. For the artist, and as Proust conceded, for the savant, work is a kind of salvation from obscurity. We want our lives to have meaning in the real world, and those who can create something for future generations to use or treasure are more likely to succeed in this than most.

Cosmos Revisited

Neil de Grasse Tyson is hosting a new version of Cosmos, the documentary on the universe originally produced by Carl Sagan (Sundays 9 PM on Fox; Mondays on National Geographic). The first episode was disappointing to me, for two reasons. First, it was excessively simplified. Although Tyson covered many important points about the history of the universe, it was rare that he offered evidence for them. One exception was when he mentioned the background radiation left over from the big bang. The other disappointment was the frequency of commercial interruptions. These were very intrusive, and sometimes deceptively so, such as the ad from Boeing, which had some of the graphic aura of the documentary. There is a simple solution for me, and that is to record the show on my DVR and fast-forward through the commercials next time. Still, it is annoying. I understand that PBS made unacceptable demands for editorial control of the program, but the demands of commercial television do not fit very well with my idea of a documentary. Another feature that some might not like is the use of animated cartoons to depict the story of Giordano Bruno. This was a good topic to tackle, illustrating the negative role of religious dogma. Bruno was a visionary, not a scientist, and he had little evidence to back up his radical views on the infinite character of the universe. From the lens of today, burning at the stake seemed truly an unjust punishment. Tyson is not a polemicist, but this was a hard shot at dogmatism. On balance using a cartoon and not actors and sets to illustrate a straight historical narrative seemed to work. Not everything need be a movie. So I reserve judgment. I am planning to watch the next episode, but I hope it gets into details and evidence and not just fancy graphics embellishing the narrative history. The whole point is to convince people that they should believe the narrative; only the most naïve will accept a bald story.

La Belle Personne

« La belle personne » est un film de jeunesse (2008). (Alerte Spoiler – toute l’histoire est racontée ici). L’histoire commence avec Junie, une jeune fille qui arrive à un lycée à Paris. Elle a perdu sa mère récemment et elle habite avec son cousin Matthias, aussi un étudiant au lycée. Elle assiste à des classes. On perçoit immédiatement qu’il y a un instituteur d’italien, de Nemours, un jeune homme beau et un séducteur et des étudiantes et des institutrices !!

Un jeune homme qui s’appelle Otto tombe amoureux de Junie, et après un peu d’hésitation, il se dit amoureux d’elle. Elle lui donne des baisers, et demande qu’il lui reste fidèle. Or, personne  ne sache que de Nemours lui aussi est tombé amoureux de Junie. De Nemours rompe avec toutes ses maitresses, institutrices ou étudiantes, sans explications.

Matthias, le cousin de Junie, est gai, et il est poursuit par un jeune homme dont il n’est pas amoureux. Matthias aime un autre jeune homme et il écrit une lettre d’amour ni adressée ni signée, mais indiscrète, qui tombe dans les mains de tout le monde, mais que tout le monde pensent ait tombé de la poche de l’instituteur,  de Nemours. L’amant de Matthias demande à l’instituteur de réclamer la lettre à Junie, qui était la dernière d’avoir lu la lettre. Mais il demande que de Nemours dise que la lettre est vraiment de lui-même, d’éviter l’embarras pour Matthias. C’est ce que de Nemours consent à faire. Mais Junie dit qu’elle a déchiré la lettre. Alors elle, l’amant de Matthias, et l’instituteur récrivent la lettre en effet. L’histoire passe en avant.

Le jeune homme qui n’est pas aimé de Matthias, qui n’était pas convaincu par cette fausse histoire de la lettre, attaque Matthias et lui blesse avec des ciseaux. La police l’arrête, mais il est relâché peu après.

Junie déclare à Otto qu’elle va partir, parce qu’elle a peur de quelqu’un. Otto n’accepte pas cette histoire. Elle explique finalement qu’elle a peur de tomber amoureuse d’un homme, qu’elle ne nomme pas. Elle lui donne un petit livre et invite franchement des caresses d’Otto. Le lendemain Junie reste absente de la classe d’Italien. Otto demande à un autre ami d’espionner à Junie. Il voit Junie et de Nemours parlant ensemble. Cet ami stupidement donne à Matthias un rapport assez inexact que de Nemours et Junie s’embrassaient.

Le lendemain matin Otto se suicide en sautant d’un balcon à l’école. L’instituteur d’Italien donne sa démission en effet, afin de faire ses attentions à Junie. Mais elle, amoureuse de lui mais craignante son infidélité, décide à fuir la situation. C’est la fin.

C’est fondé en partie sur une ancienne histoire attribuée à Mme de Lafayette, « La princesse de Clèves. »

Dirigé par Christophe Honoré

Junie – Léa Seydoux

Nemours – Louis Garrel

Otto – Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet

The Rhetoric of Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer’s column that appeared in the Albany (NY) Times Union February 24 is a fine example of rhetoric in service of bias. He begins by asserting his neutrality on climate change (neither a believer nor a denier, he!). Then he sets up a Straw Man, decrying scientists who claim to predict what will happen, based on models of climate change. Then he introduces a Scare and Contempt Factor: these guys are wearing white lab coats! This distorts climate modeling. A good model will describe accurately what has happened in the past, and then extrapolate events to come, based on a variety of assumptions. It is correct that these models do not predict the same scenario, because the assumptions and equations may differ. No realistic modeller will bet heavily on the accuracy of these extrapolations. However, it is noteworthy that the models project continued increases in temperature. The trend of increased temperature is significant and extends back in time for many decades. The alleged stasis of the last 15 years is not significant by comparison with this trend. Citing this is another example of rhetoric in service of bias – Cherry Picking a small data set to discredit a large data set. In case you should think Mr. Krauthammer ill-qualified to pronounce on climate change, he introduces an Appeal to Authority: the opinions of two atmospheric scientists who have critiqued the accuracy of these models. And if you think they might not count for much (given that hundreds of other climate scientists support the idea that climate is changing), he doubles down on appealing to authority by citing the opinions of the Very Famous Physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson also criticizes the consensus view on climate change, even though you might wonder if Dyson is more qualified than Krauthammer to comment on the results of people working in a totally different field than his own. Rather than give us a chance to consider why many climate scientists might legitimately adopt a single position on the issue, Krauthammer implies that they are all in a Conspiracy with one another. His final rhetorical flourish is to call those he wishes to discredit a nasty name. Krauthammer chose the word “Whore”. It is hard to imagine anything more contemptible.

Teach students truth about life

The Associated Press item on the Faith and Values page “Evolution debate draws full house at museum,” Feb. 8, covered in three uncritical paragraphs the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham and left the last word to the creationist Mr. Ham.
That Mr. Nye “the Science Guy” could fill an auditorium at the Creation Museum is hardly surprising. What is more interesting is that Christians were disappointed in Mr. Ham. The Rev. Alan Rudnick, a blogger on timesunion.com, faulted Mr. Ham for doing a bad job.
The results of debates like this do not matter much. All of us rely on the results of evolutionary research, for example, when we take our annual flu shots, or when we wisely refrain from asking for antibiotics to treat a viral infection, or when we eat one of the many products derived from corn. To insist that teachers tell public school children that all this is based on an illusion is to advocate lying to them at government expense. To the contrary, we need to teach them about humanities, history, mathematics, and science, as they really are.

This appeared in the Albany Times Union, February 17.

Leaving Out Extremists

I have not been following the news closely, so I did not know what all the fuss was about when people started writing letters to the editor about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reported statements that there was no place in New York for extreme right wingers. He meant those who oppose abortion, support gun rights, etc. My wife explained to me that Cuomo was right. The conservative press and politicians, however, are taking this to the bank, that is, they think it is good material for rallying their allies. Even the centrist press thinks that Cuomo made a mistake in saying this. The Mayor of New York, however, supported Cuomo. He observed, and I think there is little dispute about his accuracy, that most New Yorkers support a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy, and oppose the easy access to firearms that we have. I wondered if Cuomo had made these statements in his official speech the other day about the State of the State. So I looked up the text for the word “extreme” and found it in just one place, where he was talking about “extreme weather”.  This of course is something that conservatives deny has anything to do with policy; still it is hardly offensive. In other places in his speech, he talked about welcoming all sorts of people to the state, regardless of their race, religion, or wealth. Nothing controversial there, I hope. Continuing to search for articles,  I learned that the remarks about “extreme conservatives” took place during a radio interview. So, maybe they were a slip-up on Cuomo’s part. On the other hand, maybe they reflect a shrewder calculation. Cuomo is not what I would call a really liberal Democrat. For example he is proposing huge tax cuts that will benefit wealthier New Yorkers. He needs to rally the left a bit, but without giving them much on policy. The Mayor of New York City, Bill DeBlasio, is a liberal Democrat, who wants to put a surtax on the rich people in the City to pay for kindergarten schools. And he is supporting the Governor in this affair. Hey – that fits with our theory!

Poll on ACA

Like a lot of people, I was sorry to see the messed up inauguration of HealthCare.gov, the federal health insurance website. Normally, heads would roll as a consequence of such a debacle in industry, but little along those lines has occurred. Instead, and sensibly enough, the decision was made to fix it ASAP.

Another disappointment to me was to read repeatedly in the press that the American people disapprove of the ACA. So it was interesting and a bit of a relief to read about a poll that looked into the reasons behind this disapproval, and found that a considerable number of those who disapprove do so because they think the ACA is not liberal enough. In fact, if you combine those who approve with those who think it is not liberal enough, it comes out to a hefty majority of 54% who favor universal health insurance.

In my opinion, as the number of people enrolled under ACA continues to mount, the movement on the right to repeal it will become untenable. When it gets to the point that millions of people would lose insurance because of the repeal of ACA, it will be game over.

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