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Learning Some Science, At Last

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I have some blogging topics queued up (as is generally the case) but I can’t resist this one, which showed up in my Twitter feed this morning. It’s an update from Rupert Pennant-Rea in the UK – former editor of The Economist, former deputy governor of the Bank of England, and many other positions besides. Last fall, he announced that since he had never had any sort of scientific education whatsoever, he was going to sit down and learn some at the age of 70. Growing up in what was the Rhodesia, his boy’s school put him to studying ancient Greek instead of learning anything about science, and his later education at Trinity College (Dublin) and Manchester Univ. had no such requirements, either:

I am already enchanted by the topics in the syllabus — photosynthesis, molecules, membranes, ionic bonding, halogens, electrostatic force, ultraviolet, the list goes on — all of which I have heard other people mention, and now at last I will find out what they mean.

I also have a secret weapon: my wife. She is a proper scientist, who sees the world in ways I have begun to dream of. When we met a few years ago, she was appalled by my ignorance. Things came to a head when she told me I was a mammal and I thought she was joking. It is high time I returned to my childhood and started again. It is never too late.

Well, I’m also appalled that someone can get to his level without knowing the first thing about any of these, naturally, but then I’m a scientist. At the same time, I’m extremely happy that he’s doing what he’s doing. Pennant-Rea quotes from C. P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” essay/lecture, as well he should (the part about asking people about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which as Snow put it is the scientific equivalent of asking them if they’ve ever read any Shakespeare). And he agrees with Snow. He’s well aware that there’s a major gap in his education and his picture of the world, and he’s doing something about it, so good for him. Update: see Neil Withers‘ timeline on Twitter for a host of British reactions to the article!

But is that ever some gap. In the latest article, this is what immediately caught my eye (and made me catch my breath):

My particular favourite is the periodic table, which I had never even heard of a year ago. In its layers of engrossing detail it resembles a great painting or symphony, and Dmitri Mendeleev, who created the grid of elements, surely deserves to be as well known as Rembrandt or Beethoven.

Emphasis added, as if it needed any. I’ll bet that even C. P. Snow would have felt wobbly after hearing that one. I’m still getting over the idea that a well-educated pillar of the British establishment could have made it so long without ever hearing word of the periodic table. Actually, my bet is that he’d heard it mentioned over the years, but that he had a long-trained reflex to let any scientific references wash over him without retention, as if you occasionally came across people speaking a language that you didn’t know and had no need to ever learn. Even common phrases in Icelandic or Khmer wouldn’t ring a bell with me.

But I can’t resist sharing this opinion of chemistry – which needless to say, I share:

So far I have found physics relatively straightforward, because (at this level anyway) it has a lot of maths in it. Biology is not far behind, as it seems to be mainly about animals and plants. But chemistry, always mysterious to me, is pure revelation. It is making me look at so many everyday phenomena with far more interest and, yes, even understanding. A few weeks ago my tutor, John Harris, handed me a proper white overall and we spent a happy hour in his kitchen mixing acids and alkalis with the juice from a cooked red cabbage. Elementary stuff, but to me it felt like grown-up research.

Again, good for him. This is exactly what learning some science does for a person, and why it really is an essential part of any good set of mental furniture. The topic has come up here a couple of times of just how much chemistry (and how much science in general) the average person needs to knowm, or at least to have had taught at them. And while there is room to argue about where that line should be drawn, I hope that people will agree that it should be somewhere past “Never having heard of the periodic table”. I’m very happy that Rupert Pennant-Rea has chosen to fill in his knowledge of science, and that he’s finding it interesting and revealing. I love the stuff myself, and there’s no one who doesn’t feel happy seeing someone else discover and enjoy something that they enjoy themselves. Here’s a standing offer: Mr. Pennant-Rea, should you find yourself over in the Boston-Other Cambridge area, I will be happy as a chemist to say hello and show you the labs. Welcome to the club!

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wmorrell
1 day ago
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«Emphasis added, as if it needed any.» It does stand out quite a bit all on its own.
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Is Our Media Learning?

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Apparently not:

Those both sides won’t do themselves.

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wmorrell
10 days ago
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And don’t forget her emails! 🙄
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awilchak
10 days ago
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this is insane
Brooklyn, New York

Drones Ground Flights at Gatwick Airport ‘Deliberate Act’ of Disruption

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BBC News:

Tens of thousands of passengers have been disrupted by drones flying over one of the UK’s busiest airports. Gatwick’s runway has been shut since Wednesday night, as devices have been repeatedly flying over the airfield.

Sussex Police said it was not terror-related but a “deliberate act” of disruption, using “industrial specification” drones. About 110,000 passengers on 760 flights were due to fly on Thursday. Disruption could last “several days”.

Drones are super cool, and it’s amazing what footage talented drone operators can capture. But I keep wondering how long they can remain legal. This massive travel disruption at Gatwick is bad enough — I can only imagine how furious the passengers are whose flights have been grounded by this stunt.

But how long until someone uses a drone to try to hurt people?

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wmorrell
30 days ago
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«But how long until someone uses a drone to try to hurt people?» WTF seriously? How about the entirety of the last two decades. Only difference now is this stuff is happening outside of "war zones".
sherif
29 days ago
You are intentionally misinterpreting what he said. Yes, both the flying boxes people use for photography and the small, powerful, unmanned planes used for warfare are called "drones", but there is enough of a distinction between the two, and it's clear to any reasonable readers with remotely good faith that Gruber means the former as separate from the latter. Come on.
wmorrell
29 days ago
Yes, a perfect stranger on the internet knows all of my intentions. The only differences between war machine drones and the toys available to consumers is that development of one enabled the price drop on the other. The engineering that went into both is the same, one just has a bit more explody bits.
sherif
29 days ago
Fair point about your intentions. My apologies. I think the critical difference is that (as far as I know) no average civilian an buy a UAV/military drone. The problem is any person with innocent (or crappy as in this case) intentions can get the toy ones and do whatever with them. They're different situations, and it's one thing that the government has used UAVs in warzones, and another that anyone can do this to Gatwick with a credit card.
sulrich
29 days ago
isis, et al have been actively modifying consumer-grade drones for combat applications for a few years now. it's only a matter of time before this moves outside of warzones. https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2017/01/drones-isis/134542/
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Visiting the Whitney Plantation/Slavery Museum

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Statues of the children that lived and died on the plantation were ever present throughout the grounds and our entry badges contained the stories of each one of them

When I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy a few years ago, I remember being shocked not just by the stories about today’s justice system, but the revelation that the first slavery museum in the US was opened to the public just a few years ago. Hundreds of years of detailed, brutal history and zero museums dedicated to it before 2014? I knew the next time I went to New Orleans, I would visit the Whitney Museum, and today I finally got to experience it.

I’d read Just Mercy, I’ve read the People’s History of the United States, I’ve read a bunch of Ta-Nehisi Coates, so I naively thought I had some idea of how bad slavery was.

After visiting and hearing the stories from my guide and seeing the displays, I really had no clue.

Think of the worst thing you can possibly imagine that one human being might do to another and know that what really took place was a hundred times worse.

It was a real journey today that I’m still processing. But it began immediately with a memorial showing the names of all the slaves that lived and died on the property, as it went from farming indigo to sugar cane.

Name after name after name, almost all of them anglicized to remove their history, family, and heritage. To remove their humanity. To reinforce they were property. To make it clear that they were little more than machinery for the farm. For profits. People can do horrible things to one another when their overseer doesn’t consider their slaves to be human and instead treats them like cheap, replaceable farm equipment.

In another memorial, we visited the results of a genealogy project that displayed 107,000 names of recorded slaves between 1719 and 1820 in Louisiana (this misses the 45 years at the height of slavery that followed). It was a tremendous amount to take in at once, just slab after slab of granite etched with thousands and thousands of names going all around a big open field around you.

Late in the tour, a third memorial was devoted to the 2,000 children who died on the plantations in just the local parish (parishes are treated in counties in Louisiana, there are 64 total). There we learned the birth rate on the plantations around New Orleans was -13%. That for every 100 children born into slavery, 113 died before they reached the age of an “adult” which is ten years old. This was the second time I cried this day.

The darkness and brutality of slavery was evident from start to finish on the tour. In the “Gold Coast” around New Orleans, slaves lived for only 7-10 years after arriving on plantations in the region, no matter what their starting ages were. Slave owners insured their property (including their slaves) and would get up to 75% of their investment back when slaves died, so plantation owners had every incentive to work everyone to death, making many times over what they paid thanks to their free labor and when their slaves did die, owners were rewarded by recouping most of their original investment. The entire economic system was designed to support it.

The utter danger of plantation work was made clear. Slaves on this plantation had to weed 1,800 acres of cane fields by hand, frequently encountering venomous snakes. Sugar cane was harvested with long sharp blades that could easily slice you open or take off a foot accidentally. Sugar cane processing started with huge grinders which caused gruesome accidents.

The worst was hearing that pressed and ground sugar cane had to be boiled down in these large, wide vats, going from largest to smallest as they boiled off all the water to get sugar. Anyone that’s ever done any kind of candy making today knows that getting just a drop of molten sugar on your skin can burn it deeply and severely. Imagine people tending boiling vats of sugar 24 hours a day in shifts for several months a year. Mixing and mixing around the clock, being exhausted, and trying not to make a mistake that can instantly kill you.

Slave quarters were appalling. And we learned there was no metal in the buildings, which were assembled with tongue-and-groove woodwork along with wooden dowels to hold beams together, as nails and spikes could be used as weapons, so they were completely omitted from construction.

I didn’t know most plantation owners and their families typically only visited during harvest, to oversee the most valuable part of the work from about October through December. All that pomp and circumstance of constructing those opulent buildings but they only got used a fraction of the year, with most rich families living in fancier New Orleans houses, or spending their summers on the coast to escape the heat and bugs on the farms.

The most disturbing aspect of the entire tour was hearing about the slave rebellion of 1811. It was the story of an elaborate escape, and the freeing of slaves at other plantations, but also their eventual capture, and their sentencing to death, and their decapitation, then finally the story of plantations mounting their heads on pikes to display along the river, to serve as a lesson to others to never try anything like it again.

Other things I learned that were new to me:

  • Automation revived slavery in the early 1800s. As the indigo trade was dying, it wasn’t economical to keep slaves, until the cotton gin and the paddle wheel steamboat and other processes to increase output made agriculture profitable again.
  • African resistance to diseases like malaria made them ideal slaves over any Europeans or indigenous people more susceptible to disease.
  • Today’s racists try to revise history to make slavery seem less barbaric because even they are aware in hindsight that slaves were humans and the actual practices that took place were almost unbelievably brutally barbaric.
  • In the 1800s you received more whips as punishment for having a pencil and paper (even if you were illiterate) than for escaping from the plantation.
  • Brooks brothers had a line of clothing for slaves to dress them up for auction day to fetch the highest price.
  • Plantation houses are placed, built, and landscaped to optimize for cool breezes off the river, and all those ideas were taken from their African slaves. African homes were constructed in these ways to keep homes as cool as possible in summers.
  • The blacksmiths and the cooks were the most valuable slaves on a plantation, and both had multiple apprentices aged 10 and up, there to learn the trade in case anything happened to their mentors so they could replace them quickly.

It’s fascinating to think how all of this history could be so easily forgotten, due to how little records were kept. The Whitney plantation has records on their slaves due to a variety of unusual circumstances. There was a lawsuit between two descendants of the family fighting over their fortune in the 1800s that introduced all their slave record keeping as evidence in the case. The children who died were recorded in church documents for their parish. The WPA did first person interviews in the 1930s with former slaves (who were all in their 80s and 90s) and recorded their stories of being children at the Whitney Plantation. Without any of these, details are forgotten and 200 years does a lot to soften memories. It’s abhorrent that we don’t have museums dedicated to this subject all over the country. Or that the first one in America opened in 2014.

Our guide Ali, was incredible. In fact, I’d suggest you phone ahead to make sure he’s your guide when you visit. He told grim stories and always broke them down to their elements. How people were separated and pitted against one another. How a tiny minority controlled a vast army of slaves. How you keep oppressed people down, how you keep them away from education, how you remove any shred of self-worth, and how you make it seem like there’s no other option.

He also connected those lessons to today. How we still continue to repeat these brutal processes to keep much of humanity down. How we live in a country where 1% controls the other 99% and makes laws to benefit the 1% and the other 99% go along with it. How tools of oppression worked then and still work today (we passed a large for-profit prison on the way to the plantation, which provides a sub-minimum wage workforce to companies and offers little-to-no rehabilitation to help prisoners escape the system)

Overall, it was a sobering and haunting day, and I’m still weighing the gravity of the visit. I would recommend anyone wanting to know more about slavery should visit the Whitney Plantation.

It was an incredible experience I won’t ever forget.



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wmorrell
43 days ago
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emdot
47 days ago
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Whoa. Wow. This needs to be seen by everyone. Our history is appalling.
San Luis Obispo, CA
digdoug
64 days ago
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Man I wanna go to there. (Once)
Louisville, KY

Trolls

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I’ve decided that life is too short for me to deal with any more trolls. From now on, I’m following the same zero[1] tolerance policy regarding blog comments as I do on other social media. Snarky trolling comments will lead to an immediate and permanent ban from my comment threads.

More generally, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to look at the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ and what remains of the Republican intellectual class is the light of my experience as a blogger.
Put simply. the IDW and others are trolls. Their object is not to put forward ideas, or even to mount a critique, but to annoy and disrupt their targets (us). As Nikki Haley observed, a few months before announcing her resignation as UN Ambassador, it’s all about “owning the libs
Once you look at them as trolls, it’s easy to see how most of the right fit into familiar categories. They include

  • Victim trolls: Their main aim is to push just far enough to get banned, or piled-on, while maintaining enough of an appearance of reasonableness to claim unfair treatment: Christina Hoff Sommers pioneered the genre
  • Concern trolls: Jonathan Haidt is the leading example. Keep trying to explain how the extreme lunacy of the far right is really the fault of the left for pointing out the lunacy of the mainstream right.
  • Quasi-ironic trolls: Putting out racist or otherwise objectionable ideas, then, when they are called out, pretending it’s just a joke. The alt-right was more or less entirely devoted to this kind of trolling until Trump made it acceptable for them to drop the irony and come out as open racists.
  • Snarky trolls: Delight in finding (or inventing) and circulating examples of alleged liberal absurdity, without any regard for intellectual consistency on their own part. Glenn Reynolds is the archetype in the US, though the genre was pioneered in UK print media by the Daily Mail’s long running obsession with ‘political correctness gone mad’
  • False flag trolls: Push a standard rightwing line, but demand special consideration because they are allegedly liberals. Alan Dershowitz has taken this kind of trolling beyond parody
    From what I can see, the latest hero of the Dark Web, Jordan Peterson, manages to encompass nearly all of these categories. But I haven’t looked hard because, as I said, life is too short.

fn1. Not quite zero. Commenters with a track record of serious discussion will be given a warning. But, anyone who wastes my time will be given short shrift

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acdha
45 days ago
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Washington, DC
wmorrell
45 days ago
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DGA51
62 days ago
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Typology of Trolldom
Central Pennsyltucky

Karl Marx Gets a Job

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When communism comes, everyone will greet everyone all the time, and the brandy will be free.
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wmorrell
46 days ago
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I want that watch.
jlvanderzwan
45 days ago
Ah, the perfect insult to Karl Mark: the commodification of the revolution!
popular
46 days ago
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tante
46 days ago
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Karl Marx gets a job
Oldenburg/Germany
jlvanderzwan
47 days ago
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"Don't you know anything about freedom?"

Getting a little to real there
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