Reporter Beheaded in Ferguson

A reporter writing for a German newspaper was arrested, then beheaded, while attempting to cover the ongoing protests in Ferguson over the shooting of Michael Brown. DC-based journalist Herrmann Muenster was arrested after he allegedly jaywalked, then failed to follow police instructions to vacate the empty street.

About a dozen journalists have been arrested or detained since Aug. 9 when officer Darren Wilson fired six shots at unarmed jaywalker Michael Brown, killing him. Many on-the-street reporters say they have been harassed or physically threatened as well.

Missouri feels strongly about jaywalking. State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said Tuesday that security forces have repeatedly asked reporters and other media personnel to vacate the streets for the sidewalks, for their own safety. Captain Johnson feels that this beheading will send a strong, clear message: “We are cops. If you don’t want to get beheaded, don’t jaywalk and don’t challenge us.”

Handling the Fergusons

Many pundits have pointed out that the situation in Ferguson has been “mishandled.” Somehow that brought to mind a snippet I read somewhere about Southern slaveowners criticizing another owner because he didn’t know how to handle his slaves.

The situation in Ferguson, and places like it, has been brewing for decades. Some smart fellow on the news pointed out that the violence in Syria was largely a result of the drought, but few people are pointing out that the situation in Ferguson is largely about managing the results of a growing drought in the middle class lifestyle. Minorities have been in the vanguard of that drought, but it is spreading deeper into all colors of the 99.9%, and that combination seems to be scaring the pants off of the officials that are supposed to keep order.

Regarding Michael Brown, John Oliver and others insist that his robbing a convenience store has no bearing on the shooting. Others say that the presence of cannabis in his blood has no bearing. I tend to think everything has some bearing. A slightly buzzed man who just strong-armed a clerk is more likely to get defensive with a police officer than a clear-headed man who has done nothing wrong. That hardly justifies firing six shots, but it may have contributed to escalation with an officer that was primed to establish his authority.

Police escalation was the spark that led to the Arab Spring.

US to Send Advisers to Ferguson

The US plans to send military advisers to the city of Ferguson in the St Louis County region of Eastern Missouri, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says.

“The marines and special operations forces will assess the humanitarian situation and will not be engaged in combat. This is not a combat boots on the ground kind of operation,” Mr Hagel remarked from Camp Pendleton in California.

These “assessment team members” were already in the city of Ferguson to “give more in-depth assessment of where we can continue to help,” he said.

Another official said the US government would continue to explore ways to support “citizens affected by the ongoing fighting in Ferguson”, and to prevent “potential acts of genocide” by the Ferguson Police.

Mourning Robin (and Michael)

Fans are mourning Robin Williams after he was gunned down by a policeman. Friends say that the officer – whose name has not been released – warned Williams about being politically incorrect in public. Williams responded by dropping into a good ol’ boy persona, and drawling, “Waal, shoot, Ah’m jest gittin stahted heah …,” at which point the officer angrily threw open the door of his truck, which bounced off Williams. After being pushed back by the door, the funnyman morphed into a tuning fork impression. The enraged officer left the vehicle and fired a shot – hitting Williams, who ran limping away, expounding, “Cry havoc, and who let the dogs of war out? Huh, huh, huh-huh?” About thirty feet away, Williams then turned, raised his arms and in a high voice sang, “Raise your hands if you’re sure!,” Despite Williams being unarmed, the officer fired several more times, killing the 63 year-old actor and comedian.

The comedy community’s claims that police are deliberately targeting funny people are becoming difficult to ignore. Just last week Louis CK was taken down by several NYPD officers after telling a few masturbation jokes on a NYC sidewalk, and died in a chokehold while gasping, “C’mon, it was rhetorical …” Earlier Gilbert Gottfried was shot repeatedly in a WalMart toy section after picking up a stuffed duck and shouting “AFLAC!” Officers insisted they thought that nearby children were in immediate danger.

Swimming with Unreasonable Sharks

We are back from summer vacation, and boy do we have slides to show you.

As we did last year, we joined my wife’s daughter and her family in renting a beachside house. Oak Island NC is a barrier island – separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway – and is near Myrtle Beach SC. The ocean side shoreline runs East to West, and faces South, so you can sort of watch both the sunrise and the sunset. We drove in through lightly-flooded West Beach Drive just as the weakling Hurricane Bertha was passing far out to sea. Last year the air was hot and the water was chilly. This year the air was warm and the water was mild. So I was not surprised to read, New Study Sees Atlantic Warming Behind a Host of Recent Climate Shifts, in Dot Earth:

Using climate models and observations, a fascinating study in this week’s issue of Nature Climate Change points to a marked recent warming of the Atlantic Ocean as a powerful shaper of a host of notable changes in climate and ocean patterns in the last couple of decades — including Pacific wind, sea level and ocean patterns, the decade-plus hiatus in global warming and even California’s deepening drought.

Other climate scientists question whether the Atlantic is actually a mover and shaper, or just part of a complex system, but the article confirmed my sense that the ocean felt like bathwater this summer. Once Bertha moved away we had clear sunny days, but fewer and fewer strong waves to surf.

The house was ten lots away from the one we had last year, and far more comfortable. I would wake up, lurch into the surf and swim up and down while trying to forget all the media buzz about Jaws and sharks and gators. One doesn’t have to venture far out to feel terribly alone in the water. After breakfast I would surf the internet and read. After lunch we men would pile into the waves for body-surfing. Rinse and Repeat. Sometimes the women interrupted our swimming, eating, drinking (and my reading) to drive them places. The idea is supposed to be that everyone gets to relax, but in practice the women kept busy planning and preparing meals, dressing to hunt shells on the beach, dressing to go shopping for t-shirts, dressing to sit on the beach, dressing to go to the Food Lion, etc. And the boys dragged their poor grandmother out to the mall or the WalMart or the Surf Shop.

When they weren’t in the water, the boys played an online war game called Call of Duty almost constantly. I think we had a connection delay because our guys could run around a corner and empty a clip into an opponent – who, unbloodied, would then take them down with one shot. That game features a background voice that barks commands at the players as they coordinate an assault in an urban battlezone. I grew to hate that voice. “Domination!” “Secure the objective!” “We’re losing A!”  “We’re falling behind!” “We’re being dominated!” That insistent voice reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s Twilight Zone episode, Soldier, where Michael Ansara is a heat ray-wielding warrior from the future, wearing an earpiece that urges him, “Find your enemy. Attack, Kill. Attack, Kill.”

We didn’t see any loggerheads hatch this year. Around high tide, we watched brown pelicans diving for fish and flying in tight formations against the wind, and looser formations with the wind. The pelicans were frequently escorted by gulls. Around low tide, tiny Sanderlings and longer-legged and -beaked Willets would scour the beach for anything that might be edible. The women noted that there weren’t as many shells to pick from this year. Once while they looked for conch, whelk and scallops shells, I scored a Corona bottlecap, a rubber band, two rubber hairbands and a charred cigarette. One of the boys found an almost full plastic bottle of Mountain Dew. In the low tide surf there was also a lot of what appeared to be clear, decomposed plastic foam, much like you’d find in the Pacific and Gulf dead zones. My wife found an intact crab, and was wondering what killed it, but we didn’t see any live crabs in the surf.

Last year we went to Pelican Seafood, picked through all sorts of seafood and had a great dinner at the house. This year, Pelican said the boats only brought shrimp, scallops, one salmon and one snapper. It could have simply been a slow day, but it made me wonder what will be available next time. In The Bottleneck Years, HE Taylor’s speculative fiction novel (also posted on Science Blogs), the recently deceased author predicts that the fishermen will sink their boats complaining that the sea had become populated by nothing but jellyfish.

I first read the next chapter of Brown Dog,  a collection of James Harrison’s stories – tall tales really – about a simple soul who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, passes himself off as Native American when it suits, works only when he must, drinks when he can and chases pussy when it wanders too close. Then I started Unreasonable Men, Michael Wolraich’s third person omniscient retelling of the rise of the Progressive Movement in the early 1900s. I met Michael and many other folk online several years ago at the defunct TalkingPointsMemo Cafe. Sometime later he invited me to join his political blog, dagblog, which I did for a few years. I eventually met him in person when he presented his first book, Blowing Smoke, at a Washington DC bookstore.

Unreasonable Men is well organized – each chapter has a clear date, and many omniscient assertions about the inner motivations of Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, Senate Leader Nelson Aldrich, House and Senate Gadfly “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, President Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft are supported with footnotes. Michael’s assertions may open him to challenges from conservatives who interpret history differently, but the active voice does make one feel in the moment and moves the story along. His descriptions, citing of facts and use of quotes bring life to figures that usually repose in the dust of the passive tense.

Michael opens by describing a political landscape in 1904 that could easily be mistaken for 2014. Rich vs poor, dwindling resources, financial crashes, and congressional paralysis sound like topics on Meet the Press, The Daily Show or Democracy Now. But in telling about the past he leaves us to make our own comparisons with the present. I knew from high school that Roosevelt had fallen out with Taft, and had started the Bull Moose Party, and I knew that Taft eventually became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but Michael fills in the back story. Learning about Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot’s breakneck assignation of 16 million acres of woodlands into the US Forest Service’s national reserve before an appropriations bill stripped them of that power was worth the whole book. Conservatives lost interest in conserving when it became clear that the land wasn’t being set aside for their future exploitation.

While reading about the tariff debates, I was reminded of a press conference at the Green Party Convention in 2012, which I covered for dagblog:

Each time, as [Dr Jill] Stein or [Cheri] Honkola was answering a question, [Ben] Manski was floating behind, waiting to add a few comments. I stopped trying to figure out the signals and simply raised my hand. Based on Manski’s comment about corporate money, I asked whether the Green Party had accepted or would consider accepting contributions from an environmentally-responsible corporation, if say, Patagonia wanted to support them. Stein hurriedly said that they accepted no corporate contributions or PAC money, and that even if money was found to be from a high ranking company official it would be returned. Manski chimed in that corporations had offered money in the past, but that Patagonia had not.

At the time I wondered which of us was being naive. In my opinion, government serving only business is a kind of fascism, but for government and business to be completely independent would be wasteful if not chaotic. Unless you favor anarchy, the trick seems to be a balancing act between corporate fascism and populist chaos. LaFollette and his brethren led a Progressive movement of the middle class against too much business interference, but one wonders if there is any sort of mechanism to do that today when every politician depends so heavily on corporate contributions to stay in office.

Was Feynman a Fine Man?

What a hornet’s nest!

Back in May 2014 I posted The Neg, in which I compared the Pickup Artist technique to Richard Feynman’s account of picking up strippers from his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. I am no scientist, but I enjoy reading about science, and have read The Feynman Lectures, Six Easy Pieces, the Krauss bio and the comic-style illustrated bio of Feynman.

My opinion was that following his long courtship of, and brief marriage to, the terminally-ill Arline, he immersed himself in meaningless sexual experimentation for several years, and a bad second marriage. I was disappointed to read about his affairs with the wives of coworkers, but it did seem that he had finally settled himself with a third marriage.

On July 11th 2014, Ashutosh Jogalekar posted, Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon – a far more critical, but well-reasoned, take on the famous man. I only found it from links on the Galileo’s Pendulum post. Scientific American, however, soon removed Jogalekar’s post … then restored it some time later:

The irony thus seems to be that, just like Feynman was fond of generating cherry picked anecdotes about himself, we seem to be fond of generating skewed, cherry picked anecdotes about him that accuse him of sexism. … My own perceptions of Feynman have changed, and that’s the way it should be. At first I idolized Feynman like many others, but over time, as a more careful reading of his life revealed some of the unseemlier sides of his character, I became aware of his flaws. While I still love his lectures and science, these flaws have affected my perception of his personality, and I am glad they did. There are things that he said or did that are clearly wrong or questionable at the very least, but we can at least be grateful that we have evolved to a stage where even the few instances of his behavior that have been documented would not be tolerated on today’s college campuses and would be instantly condemned. As a man I do not now admire Feynman as much as I did before, but I am also glad to have a more complete understanding of his life and times.

At The Curious Wavefunction, Jogalekar explains why his post disappeared and reappeared:

Here’s the gist of the story:

1. I host a guest post on women in science and later, I write a post on Wade’s controversial book (these are 2 of almost 200 posts on a variety of topics I’ve written for SciAm).
2. In response to criticism of the two posts on social media, SciAm issues a public statement. The blog editor asks me to run “controversial” posts by him. No specific guidelines are discussed (something I now regret not doing).
3. I write a post about how my perception of Feynman has changed and how we need to judge historical figures in their entirety and understand the times in which they lived. I do not think the post was “controversial” in the least and therefore do not run it by the editor.
4. The post elicits both positive and negative responses on Twitter, blogs and email.
5. The post is taken down because the editors find it “controversial” and think that I should have run it by them. I am told that it would be best to part ways with the network.
6. SciAm resurrects the post with a note containing what I would consider an accurate, but incomplete, description of events.

Two days later, Matthew R Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum posted, The problem of Richard Feynman. Francis didn’t think Jogalekar went far enough, but many commenters asserted that Feynman was just a normal guy for his time being accused under modern political correctness:

Feynman doesn’t need us to defend him, anymore than Einstein does. Their legacies in science are secure, so it doesn’t behoove us to defend their often less-than-stellar personal lives, especially when they did damage to people less powerful than themselves. It certainly does nobody any favors to say, as Ash Jogalekar did in a blog post for Scientific American, that Feynman was no worse than anyone else in his era. The post was removed by the editors (and I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s a good tactic or not; I have mixed feelings myself), but several people archived the text before it vanished. [The post is now back. See the Update below.] While much of the post is valid — Jogalekar doesn’t deny a lot of Feynman’s bad behavior — he ends up falling into the same pit of excuse-making. Worse, he implies that Feynman’s “game” is probably universal and necessary for men to play.

On the same day another Sci Am blogger, Janet D Stemwedel, posted, Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach – essentially echoing Matthew:

While it is true that much of what we know about Richard Feynman’s behavior is the result of Feynman telling stories about himself, there stories really don’t seem to indicate awareness of the harmful impacts his behavior might have had on others. Moreover, Feynman’s tone in telling these stories suggests he assumed an audience that would be taken with his cleverness, including his positioning of women (and his ability to get into their pants) as a problem to be solved scientifically.

And a day later, Mathematigal posted, Feynman is not my hero:

… every time I hear someone in my department or in one of my classes go on about how Feynman was so awesome I mean he was kind of a jerk to women but whatever, I file him (and it is almost always always a him) away as someone who would have sided against me in every single one of the situations I’ve mentioned. Every time I see a joking tweet or post about how Feynman’s second wife divorced him because she didn’t like that he was always doing calculus in his head, while totally ignoring the fact that the divorce papers indicate that he would fly into a rage, attack her, and break furniture whenever she interrupted said mental calculus, my world gets a little bit smaller.

I can vouch that a divorce action is not always the best source of facts. And it is not unusual for many men to want to sleep with women, and for some women to accommodate them. But as I have looked at the Polanski, Cosby, Allen and now Richardson and Charney stories it is clear that a lot of successful men that have preyed on women and girls will be granted the benefit of any doubt by other men, and even some women that admire their work.

So I will now think about Feynman a bit less charitably. But it isn’t just the famous that get a pass. The leading story in the NY Times last week was about a first year student who was raped at a party soon after arriving at Hobart and William Smith College.

It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus.

The Fault in Our HBD

I recently blogged in HBD vs DNA, about how PZ Myers – who blogs Pharyngula at ScienceBlogs – took Nicholas Wade to task for The hbd delusion. HBD is short for human biodiversity, but also code for a reaffirmation of the belief that race is easily discerned by appearance, that the DNA of races are profoundly different, and that some races, “are more equal than others.”

Wade writes about science for the New York Times, so one might have expected his book to get some consideration in its Sunday Book Review. In, The Fault in Our DNA, however, David Dobbs instead relentlessly savages the basic premise:

… in “A Troublesome Inheritance,” Nicholas Wade, a longtime science writer for The New York Times, says modern genetics shows that “the three major races,” Africans, Caucasians and East Asians, are genetically distinct races that diverge much as subspecies do, and that their genetic differences underlie “the rise of the West.” …

Wade runs into much trouble making this argument. He indulges in circular logic. He tells just-so stories. While warning us to avoid filtering science through politics, he draws heavily from conservative historians who minimize the roles played by political power, geographic advantage, momentum, disease and dumb luck. Conveniently, this leaves more historical questions for genetics to answer. …

If Wade could point to genes that give races distinctive social behaviors, we might overlook such shortcomings. But he cannot. …

The result is a deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book. Its most pernicious conceit is that it’s finally safe to talk of racial genetics because “opposition to racism is now well entrenched.”

It does seem that some Homo Sapiens, after leaving Africa, intermarried with Neandertals while others intermarried with Denisovans. Many sources affirm that about 1 to 4% of European DNA may be Neandertal and some 4 to 6% of some Asian and Melanesian DNA may be Denisovan. So if everyone had stayed put a few thousand years ago, there might be some truth to the idea that there are fixed differences between the races. But groups of humans kept migrating, conquering and intermarrying to the point where there is more likelihood of greater biodiversity between two ‘black’ people than between some black and white people. Among scientists without a racist agenda to grind, terms like ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘asian’ have no useful scientific meaning.


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