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I'm Loyal to Nothing Except the Dream

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There is much I take for granted in my life, and the normal functioning of American government is one of those things. In my 46 years, I've lived under nine different presidents. The first I remember is Carter. I've voted in every presidential election since 1992, but I do not consider myself a Democrat, or a Republican. I vote based on leadership – above all, leadership – and issues.

In my 14 years of blogging, I've never written a political blog post. I haven't needed to.

Until now.

It is quite clear something has become deeply unglued in the state of American politics.

As of 2017, the United States, through a sequence of highly improbable events, managed to elect an extremely controversial president.

A president with historically low approval ratings, elected on a platform many considered too extreme to even be taken literally:

Asked about Trump’s statements proposing the construction of a wall on the US-Mexico border and a ban on all Muslims entering the country, Thiel suggested that Trump supporters do not actually endorse those policies.

“I don’t support a religious test. I certainly don’t support the specific language that Trump has used in every instance,” he said. “But I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.”

The billionaire went on to define how he believes the average Trump supporter interprets the candidate’s statements. “I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

A little over a week into the new presidency, it is obvious that Trump meant every word of what he said. He will build a US-Mexico wall. And he signed an executive order that literally, not figuratively, banned Muslims from entering the US — even if they held valid green cards.

As I said, I vote on policies, and as an American, I reject these two policies. Our Mexican neighbors are not an evil to be kept out with a wall, but an ally to be cherished. One of my favorite people is a Mexican immigrant. Mexican culture is ingrained deeply into America and we are all better for it. The history of America is the history of immigrants seeking religious freedom from persecution, finding a new life in the land of opportunity. Imagine the bravery it takes to leave everything behind, your relatives, your home, your whole life as you know it, to take your entire family on a five thousand mile journey to another country on nothing more than the promise of a dream. I've never done that, though my great-great grandparents did. Muslim immigrants are more American than I will ever be, and I am incredibly proud to have them here, as fellow Americans.

Help Keep Your School All American!

Trump is the first president in 40 years to refuse to release his tax returns in office. He has also refused to divest himself from his dizzying array of businesses across the globe, which present financial conflicts of interest. All of this, plus the hasty way he is ramrodding his campaign plans through on executive orders, with little or no forethought to how it would work – or if it would work at all – speaks to how negligent and dangerous Trump is as the leader of the free world. I want to reiterate that I don't care about party; I'd be absolutely over the moon with President Romney or President McCain, or any other rational form of leadership at this point.

It is unclear to me how we got where we are today. But echoes of this appeal to nationalism in Poland, and in Venezula, offer clues. We brought fact checkers to a culture war … and we lost. During the election campaign, I was strongly reminded of Frank Miller's 1986 Nuke story arc, which I read in Daredevil as a teenager — the seductive appeal of unbridled nationalism bleeding across the page in stark primary colors.

Daredevil issue 233, page excerpt

Nuke is a self-destructive form of America First nationalism that, for whatever reasons, won the presidency through dark subvocalized whispers, and is now playing out in horrifying policy form. But we are not now a different country; we remain the very same country that elected Reagan and Obama. We lead the free world. And we do it by taking the higher moral ground, choosing to do what is right before doing what is expedient.

I exercised my rights as a American citizen and I voted, yes. But I mostly ignored government beyond voting. I assumed that the wheels of American government would turn, and reasonable decisions would be made by reasonable people. Some I would agree with, others I would not agree with, but I could generally trust that the arc of American history inexorably bends toward justice, towards freedom, toward equality. Towards the things that make up the underlying American dream that this country is based on.

This is no longer the case.

I truly believe we are at an unprecedented time in American history, in uncharted territory. I have benefited from democracy passively, without trying at all, for 46 years. I now understand that the next four years is perhaps the most important time to be an activist in the United States since the civil rights movement. I am ready to do the work.

  • I have never once in my life called my representatives in congress. That will change. I will be calling and writing my representatives regularly, using tools like 5 Calls to do so.

  • I will strongly support, advocate for, and advertise any technical tools on web or smartphone that help Americans have their voices heard by their representatives, even if it takes faxing to do so. Build these tools. Make them amazing.

  • I am subscribing to support essential investigative journalism such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.

  • I have set up large monthly donations to the ACLU which is doing critical work in fighting governmental abuse under the current regime.

  • I have set up monthly donations to independent journalism such as ProPublica and NPR.

  • I have set up monthly donations to agencies that fight for vulnerable groups, such as Planned Parenthood, Center for Reproductive Rights, Refugee Rights, NAACP, MALDEF, the Trevor Project, and so on.

  • I wish to see the formation of a third political party in the United States, led by those who are willing to speak truth to power like Evan McMullin. It is shameful how many elected representatives will not speak out. Those who do: trust me, we're watching and taking notes. And we will be bringing all our friends and audiences to bear to help you win.

  • I will be watching closely to see which representatives rubber-stamp harmful policies and appointees, and I will vote against them across the ticket, on every single ticket I can vote on.

  • I will actively support all efforts to make the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact happen, to reform the electoral college.

  • To the extent that my schedule allows, I will participate in protests to combat policies that I believe are harmful to Americans.

  • I am not quite at a place in my life where I'd consider running for office, but I will be, eventually. To the extent that any Stack Overflow user can be elected a moderator, I could be elected into office, locally, in the house, even the senate. Has anyone asked Joel Spolsky if he'd be willing to run for office? Because I'd be hard pressed to come up with someone I trust more than my old business partner Joel to do the right thing. I would vote for him so hard I'd break the damn voting machine.

I want to pay back this great country for everything it has done for me in my life, and carry the dream forward, not just selfishly for myself and my children, but for everyone's children, and our children's children. I do not mean the hollow promises of American nationalism

We would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

These ways of thinking—cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on— have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

… but the enduring values of freedom, justice, and equality that this nation was founded on. I pledge my allegiance to the American dream, and the American people – not to the nation, never to the nation.

Daredevil issue 233, page excerpt

I apologize that it's taken me 46 years to wake up and realize that some things, like the American dream, aren't guaranteed. There will come a time where you have to stand up and fight for them, for democracy to work. I will.

Will you?

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samuel
8 days ago
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This is incredible and considering the source, it's going to be read by a lot of people.
The Haight in San Francisco
bjtitus
6 days ago
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Nashville, TN
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StunGod
6 days ago
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Sharing, in case it causes one more person to read and be moved to do more than complain on the internet. Really a powerful essay.
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth
moschlar
20 days ago
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… but the enduring values of freedom, justice, and equality that this nation was founded on. I pledge my allegiance to the American dream, and the American people – not to the nation, never to the nation.
Mainz, Deutschland
wmorrell
23 days ago
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And the nerds start to get a little more woke.
pmac
23 days ago
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Powerfully well said.
Atlanta, GA

Photo

4 Comments and 16 Shares


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bjtitus
6 days ago
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Nashville, TN
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11 days ago
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StunGod
10 days ago
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I'm an American, and I'm a fixer.
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth
digdoug
11 days ago
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13bats is a friend of mine. In a weird coincidence, it turns out he actually took my wife to her prom, (about 20 years before I met her)

He's flummoxed by the viral take off of this image. He posted on Facebook and it has like 35,000 shares.
Louisville, KY
wreichard
11 days ago
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Damn right.
Earth
jhamill
11 days ago
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Not bad
California

Butcher: which part of the leg do you want? Me: All of it, in five pieces please

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This ABC News chart seemed to have taken over the top of my Twitter feed so I better comment on it.

abcnews_trumptransition

Someone at ABC News tried really hard to dress up the numbers. The viz is obviously rigged - Obama at 79% should be double the length of Trump's 40% but not even close!

In the Numbersense book (Chapter 1), I played the role of the Devious Admissions Officer who wants to game the college rankings. Let me play the role of the young-gun dataviz analyst, who has submitted the following chart to the highers-up:

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_accurate1

I just found out the boss blew the fuse after seeing my chart. The co-workers wore dirty looks, saying without saying "you broke it, you fix it!"

How do I clean up this mess?

Let me try the eye-shift trick.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_hollowfave1

The solid colors draw attention to themselves, and longer bars usually indicate higher or better so the quick reader may think that Obama is the worst and Trump is the best at ... well, "Favorability on taking office," as the added title suggests.

Next, let's apply the foot-chop technique. This fits nicely on a stacked bar chart

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_onecut1

I wantonly drop 20% of dissenters from every President's data. Such grade inflation actually makes everyone look better, a win-win-win-win-win-win-win proposition. While the unfavorables for Trump no longer look so menacing, I am still far from happy as, with so much red concentrated at the bottom of the chart, eyes are  focused on the unsightly "yuge" red bar, and it is showing Trump with 50% disapproval.

I desperately need the white section of the last bar to trump its red section. It requires the foot-ankle-knee-thigh treatment - the whole leg.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_onebigcut1

Now, a design issue rears its head. With such an aggressive cut, there would be no red left in any of the other bars.

I could apply two cuts, a less aggressive cut at the top and a more aggressive cut at the bottom.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_twocuts1

The Presidents neatly break up into two groups, the top three Democrats, and the bottom four Republicans. It's always convenient to have an excuse for treating some data differently from others.

Then, I notice that the difference between Clinton and GW Bush is immaterial (68% versus 65%), making it awkward to apply different cuts to the two neighbors. No problem, I make three cuts.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_threecuts1

The chart is getting better and better! Two, three, why not make it five cuts? I am intent on making the last red section as tiny as possible but I can't chop more off the right side of GHW Bush or Reagan without giving away my secret sauce.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_fivecuts1

The final step is to stretch each bar to the right length. Mission accomplished.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_fivecuts_rescaled1

This chart will surely win me some admiration. Just one lingering issue: Trump's red section is still the longest of the group. It's time for the logo trick. You see, the right ends of the last two bars can be naturally shortened.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_fivecuts_logo1

The logo did it.

***

Faking charts can take as much effort as making accurate ones.

The ABC News chart encompasses five different scales. For every President, some percentage of dissenters were removed from the chart. The amount of distortion ranges from 15% to 47% of respondents.

Redo_abcnews_trumpfav_distortion1

 

 

 

 

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bjtitus
6 days ago
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christophersw
7 days ago
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"Faking charts can take as much effort as making accurate ones."
Baltimore, MD
fxer
8 days ago
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where is the Broadcast Television Graphic Artist Intern Code of Ethics we so desperately need
Bend, Oregon

Alchemy and the Transmutation of Ignorance Into Truth: Lewis Thomas’s Prescient 1983 Manifesto for the Humanity-Saving Value of Social Science

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“In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.”


Alchemy and the Transmutation of Ignorance Into Truth: Lewis Thomas’s Prescient 1983 Manifesto for the Humanity-Saving Value of Social Science

Perhaps the greatest hubris of historical hindsight is knowing that everything we call progress has been made by systematic trial and error, yet tending to dismiss — even scoff at — the errors as embarrassments to the process of progress rather than essential parts of it. Take, for instance, Joseph Weber, whose spectacle of failed experiments made him the most derided scientist of his time yet paved the way for the detection of gravitational waves — one of the most monumental discoveries in the whole of modern science, as full of potential for revolutionary knowledge as the invention of the telescope. We rarely know which missteps will become stepping stones in the advancement of knowledge, for the pursuit of truth requires a certain discipline of deferring judgment for periods longer than our appetite for instant answers allows.

That’s what the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) explores throughout his timelessly rewarding 1983 essay collection Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (public library).

Lewis Thomas, 1983 (Photograph: Thomas Victor)

Although Lewis was educated at Harvard and Princeton, served on the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and presided over the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, he wrote humbly and poetically from the self-described position of “a citizen and a sometime scientist.” In one of the essays, titled “Alchemy,” he starts someplace unlikely and leads us someplace monumental:

Alchemy began long ago as an expression of the deepest and oldest of human wishes: to discover that the world makes sense. The working assumption — the everything on earth must be made up from a single, primal sort of matter — led to centuries of hard work aimed at isolating the original stuff and rearranging it to the alchemists’ liking. If it could be found, nothing would lie beyond human grasp. The transmutation of base metals to gold was only a modest part of the prospect. If you knew about the fundamental substance, you could do much more than make simple money: you could boil up a cure-all for every disease affecting humankind, you could rid the world of evil, and, while doing this, you could make a universal solvent capable of dissolving anything you might want to dissolve.

With an eye to our haughty hunger for deriding yesteryear’s errors, Lewis reminds us that every error inches us closer to the truth, but not all errors are created equal — those undergirded by a great deal of scholarship and earnest scientific effort are more likely to yield byproducts that can eventually be transmuted into some proto-truth. Noting that the alchemists were serious professionals in their time, who honed their skills through “long periods of apprenticeship and a great deal of late-night study,” he writes:

We tend to look back at them from today’s pinnacle of science as figures of fun, eccentric solitary men wearing comical conical hats, engaged in meaningless explorations down one blind alley after another. It was not necessarily so: the work they were doing was hard and frustrating, but it was the start-up of experimental chemistry and physics… They never succeeded in making gold from base metals, nor did they find a universal elixir in their plant extracts; they certainly didn’t rid the world of evil. What they did accomplish, however, was no small thing: they got the work going… As time went on and the work progressed, error after error, new and accurate things began to turn up. Hard facts were learned about the behavior of metals and their alloys, the mathematics of thermodynamics were worked out, and, with just a few jumps through the centuries, the helical molecule of DNA was revealed in all its mystery.

[…]

[Now] alchemy exists only as a museum piece, an intellectual fossil, so antique that we no longer need be embarrassed by the memory, but the memory is there. Science began by fumbling. It works because the people involved in it work, and work together. They become excited and exasperated, they exchange their bits of information at a full shout, and, the most wonderful thing of all, they keep at one another.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage pop-up children’s book about Leonardo da Vinci

With that singular superpower of the essayist to draw connections between the seemingly unrelated, Lewis pivots to his central point — a point tenfold more relevant, urgent even, three and a half decades later:

Something rather like this may be going on now, without realizing it, in the latest and grandest of all fields of science. People in my field, and some of my colleagues in the real “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry, have a tendency to take lightly and often disparagingly the efforts of workers in the so-called social sciences. We like to refer to their data as soft. We do not acknowledge as we should the difference between the various disciplines within behavioral research — we speak of analytical psychiatry, sociology, linguistics, economics, and computer intelligence as though these inquiries were all of a piece, with all parties wearing the same old comical conical hats. It is of course not so. The principal feature that the social sciences share these days is the attraction they exert on considerable numbers of students, who see the prospect of exploring human behavior as irresistible and hope fervently that a powerful scientific method for doing the exploring can be worked out. All of the matters on the social-science agenda seem more urgent to these young people than they did at any other time in human memory. It may turn out, years hence, that a solid discipline of human science will have come into existence, hard as quantum physics, filled with deep insights, plagued as physics still is by ambiguities but with new rules and new ways of getting things done. Like, for instance, getting rid of thermonuclear weapons, patriotic rhetoric, and nationalism all at once. If anything like this does turn up we will be looking back at today’s social scientists, and their close colleagues the humanists, as having launched the new science in a way not all that different from the accomplishment of the old alchemists, by simply working on the problem — this time, the fundamental, primal universality of the human mind.

In another essay from the collection, titled “Making Science Work,” Thomas revisits the subject, reaching across time and space to shake us out of our present cult of “big data” and remind us of the significance of small, humane data:

The social scientists … may be up to the most important scientific business of all… Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and almost entirely unaccountable of all the phenomena with which we are obliged to live. In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself. We need, for this most worrying of puzzles, the brightest and youngest of our most agile minds, capable of dreaming up ideas not dreamed before, ready to carry the imagination to great depths and, I should hope, handy with big computers but skeptical about long questionnaires and big numbers.

In yet another prescient essay titled “Basic Science and the Pentagon,” Thomas stresses the urgency of funding basic science — science marked by “the absence of any predictable, usable product,” carried out “in an atmosphere of high uncertainty,” and built on “What if?” questions rather than “How to?” questions — and the importance of incorporating social science into our most pressing research priorities. He writes:

The present administration has no special fondness for the social and behavioral sciences, and the National Science Foundation is sharply reducing its funding — never generous at best — for these stepchildren of scholarship. Very well, the country will survive, and the disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and their siblings will have to eat grass until their time comes again. But the basic research enterprise involved in thermonuclear warfare contains a staggering array of behavioral research questions, the purest kind of social science, questions never before asked about human behavior, deep ambiguities approachable only in an atmosphere of almost total uncertainty.

[…]

Who will be bringing in the data telling us what to expect when, say, five million of us vanish in twenty minutes and another five million are left behind with bone marrows burned out and skins in shreds, looking at what is left of the dead and waiting to die? Or, to magnify the problem to what will more likely be its true dimension, what will the few million survivors say to each other, or do to each other, at the moment when the other hundred millions are being transmuted back to the old interstellar dust? This, it seems to me, requires study; mandates study. Will no one be casting an anthropological eye at the dilemma to be faced when human beings cease being human?

Every single piece in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a superb read in its entirety, just as timely today and perhaps even timelier than when Lewis first committed these incisive thoughts to words decades ago. Complement it with Eleanor Roosevelt on the necessity of bridging science and the humanities, then revisit Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge.


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bjtitus
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Hidden Figures

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I finally got the chance to see Hidden Figures the other day. Recommended. It’s a science/space story in the vein of Apollo 13, but the twin engines of the film are the three excellent lead actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe — and the persistent portrayal of the systemic biases of segregation and sexism. You watch this movie and think, how much higher could the human race have flown if women and people of color had always had the same opportunities as white men?1 How many Katherine Johnsons never got the chance to develop and use their skills in math, science, or technology because of their skin color or gender? Our society wastes so much energy and human lives telling people what they can’t do rather than empowering them to show everyone what they can do.

Hidden Figures was adopted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. The film takes some dramatic license with the timing of certain events but overall is historically accurate.

The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”

You can view Johnson’s published reports on NASA’s site, including her initial technical report from 1960 on the Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.

  1. I’m using the past tense here, but I am definitely not saying that women and people of color now possess those same opportunities. Take a quick look at the current racial and gender wage gaps in the US and you’ll see that they still do not.

Tags: books   Hidden Figures   Katherine Johnson   Margot Lee Shetterly   movies   NASA   racism   science   sexism   trailers   video
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Plus, time's all weird in there, so most of it probably broke down and decomposed hundreds of years ago. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to get in touch with Yucca Mountain to see if they're interested in a partnership.
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bjtitus
17 days ago
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JayM
38 days ago
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Ha! Love the hover text.
Atlanta, GA
tante
38 days ago
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Trash
Oldenburg/Germany
Covarr
38 days ago
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Don't be silly, Aslan can traverse worlds whenever and however he wants. Interdimensional travel is one of the perks of being God, I hear.
Moses Lake, WA
alt_text_bot
38 days ago
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Plus, time's all weird in there, so most of it probably broke down and decomposed hundreds of years ago. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to get in touch with Yucca Mountain to see if they're interested in a partnership.
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