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September 2008


Time for another episode of the excellent documentary series The Planets, this time on the Sun. Titled Star, the episode captures the magnitude of several “Eureka!” moments, as when Angelo Secchi, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, realised the blinding disc in the daytime sky is another one of those points that twinkle at night. As with previous episodes, there’s plenty of rare footage and some interesting characters, not least Kristian Birkeland, who created laboratory auroras while wearing a fez to protect his brain from radiation.

Part 1:

Splitting light. Secchi’s discovery. A makeshift umbrella. Twisted magnetism.

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Part 2:

Artificial auroras. Comets and clues. Force field. Heliopause. The stuff of life.

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Related: Astronomical Odds, Craters, Freefall.  (h/t, The Thin Man.)

Rebellion, Revisited

The issue of classroom political advocacy crops up here quite often and Evan Maloney’s documentary, Indoctrinate U, illustrates just how far advocacy can go, and how corrosive to probity it can be. A key scene in Maloney’s film concerns psychology professor Laura Freberg, who faced a campaign of harassment by left-leaning colleagues and was told, “We never would have hired you if we knew you were a Republican.” Freberg’s students later admitted they’d known she was a “closet Republican” precisely because she didn’t use the classroom to air her political views.

A recent post on classroom advocacy at Crooked Timber, a site popular among left-leaning academics, has prompted some interesting comments: 

There’s really just the media and you, the universities, between civilization and chaos, and you are natural enemies because reality is liberal and media is corporatist. […] If we lose to McCain, at some point you can say goodbye to your pretty little university system. […] I’d say meet in darkened caves in the middle of the night if that’s what it takes to get out the truth.

Some take a more nuanced view:

I expect my students to respect my statements in class as authoritative (although not necessarily correct), and so I have a responsibility to limit what I say in class to what is warranted by my expertise. Since candidate preference is not a matter of expertise, it would be remiss of me to indicate a preference for a specific candidate when teaching. However, this doesn’t apply to my non-teaching related interactions with students at the university where I teach.

It’s not all bad, of course.

Indoctrination only makes sense if you believe reasoning won’t actually win over the students.

But even if we set aside the not insignificant issue of whether professors of, say, literary criticism have any business trying to “win over” their students and mould their political outlook, reasonably or otherwise, there is another problem. Is the student-professor relationship sufficiently equal and reciprocal to ensure evidence and reason prevail? Is there no pressure on students to defer, to please? Can we simply assume that improper leverage will never be brought to bear – for instance, in terms of grading or more subtle signs of displeasure? And isn’t there an unavoidable air of… predation?

Continue reading "Rebellion, Revisited" »

Friday Ephemera

PETA wants ice-cream made with human breast milk. To spare those little cow teats. (h/t, Dan) // Woman trapped in home by giant pig. (h/t, Ace) // A house made of cellophane. (h/t, Coudal) // “Researchers have created a balloon-like membrane just one atom thick.” // Nanosoccer. // The shorter thesaurus. Big words made small. // Interstellar Sugar. Or some other powdery substance. // The bathtub planetarium. A partial success. // Handblown lamps. // McCain supporters visit New York’s Upper West Side. Umbrage ensues. “Nazi Germany!” // Great moments of symbolic failure. // When kickboxing goes horribly, horribly wrong. // “You use your left hand and yet you claim to hate Satan?!” // Designer yachts. // UPL8 TV. Stupefying stuff. // Rubik’s cube for the blind. // Tetrapod erasers. // Piano and light painting. // Hamlet and Facebook, together at last. // Chimps quite skilled at buttock recognition. // And, via The Thin Man, it’s Mr Willie Dixon.

Mixtape (2)

A few more ditties from the ephemera archives.

Grace Jones: The Apple Stretching. (1982)

Mohammed Rafi: Jaan Pehechan-Ho. (1965)

Charles Trenet: Boum. (1938)

Valaida Snow: I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants). (Circa 1933-36)

Washboard Sam: Diggin’ My Potatoes. (1939)

Johnny Cash: One Piece at a Time. (1975)

Ray Charles: Night Time is the Right Time. (1959)

Sly & the Family Stone: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). (1969)

Julie London: Black Coffee. (1960)

Penguin Café Orchestra: Music for a Found Harmonium. (1984)

Use them wisely.


A few days ago I received a drive-by email – i.e., one intended to convey emphatic displeasure and have the last word rather than hang around for a reply. I’ll spare you the more colourful bits; what matters is the question that was fired my way:

How can you – an atheist – defend Sarah Palin?!

There’s a lot crammed into those eight words, almost all of it mistaken. Firstly, I don’t recall “defending” Sarah Palin. I recently quoted Camille Paglia’s comments on Palin and noted reactions to the governor from large parts of the left and the feminist sisterhood. In recent days reactions have scarcely been more temperate. For instance, Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, yesterday offered this:

Please understand what you are looking at when you look at Sarah “Evita” Palin. You are looking at the designated muse of the coming American police state… Under the Palin-Rove police state, there will be no further true elections. 

Given the illegal hacking and distribution of Palin’s private email by leftwing activists, perhaps Ms Wolf should reflect on her convictions that,

[Palin] uses mafia tactics against critics.


Under the Palin-Rove police state, citizens will be targeted with state cyberterrorism.

And while it’s true such hyperbole is noted with more than a little amusement, I don’t think that technically qualifies as my defence or endorsement of any particular candidate. Though perhaps it lends weight to my suspicion that Palin’s most vehement detractors may prove much more revealing than Palin herself.

Secondly, I don’t recall ever referring to myself as an atheist. If pressed for a label, I’d probably opt for agnostic, insofar as there doesn’t appear to be a satisfactory answer to the question of a benign and ultimate cause intrigued by human beings, which is at least part of what the word “God” seems to mean. Regular readers will know I’m sometimes unkind to religious claims of entitlement and preternatural knowledge. If a person believes that the origin and nature of reality has much to do with the sadistic ravings of a Bedouin pirate, that person is ignorant, probably foolish and possibly unwell. And if a person doesn’t realise that the Biblical Jesus is, at best, a quasi-fictional amalgam of much earlier myths and stories, that person should read a little pre-Christian mythology and note the similarities.

But not being impressed by Islam’s warlord prophet or Christianity’s patchwork messiah doesn’t in itself address the question of how everything that exists came into being and whether or not its existence has numinous connotations. If a person maintains that the Bible is an original, non-fictional account of actual paranormal events, I’m not likely to take that person terribly seriously. If, on the other hand, a person has an ill-defined belief that the universe has some kind of agreeable cause – one not readily expressed in rational terms – then, whether or not I agree or grasp what’s allegedly being perceived, I can’t dismiss the claim in quite the same way.

It’s surprising what you can squeeze out of eight indignant words.

Fish, Fried

Professor Stanley Fish is often to be found on the wrong side of an argument. Formerly an avowed postmodernist and now just a professional tenured contrarian, Fish once told his students that theorising and deconstruction “relieves me of the obligation to be right… and demands only that I be interesting” – an endeavour in which he, like many of his peers, has all too often failed. As, for instance, when Fish rushed to defend Social Text from the ridicule of Alan Sokal. More recently, Professor Fish excused the ongoing creep of campus speech codes with the most glib and dismissive of arguments, airily untroubled by the practicalities of what he was defending.

Fish’s latest campaign targets Salman Rushdie and his criticism of the withdrawal by Random House of Sherry Jones’ novel about Muhammad’s child bride, Aisha.

Over at B&W, Ophelia Benson is none too pleased:

Stanley Fish is a smug bastard. This is not news, but he’s smugger than usual in his New York Times blog post on Rushdie and Spellberg and Jones. The first sentence is a staggerer.

Salman Rushdie, self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment, is at it again.

That just irritates the bejesus out of me. Self-appointed? Poster boy? At it again? Excuse me? He could hardly have been less self-appointed - it was the Ayatollah and his murderous illegal bloodthirsty ‘fatwa’ that appointed Rushdie a supporter of free speech, not Rushdie. And Rushdie defends free speech in general, not the First Amendment in particular; how parochial of smug sneery Fish to conflate the two. And ‘poster boy’; that's just stupid as well as insultingly patronizing: Rushdie doesn’t swan around with a crutch, he makes arguments in support of free speech. And ‘at’ what again? ‘At’ saying that publishers shouldn’t give in to threats either from Islamists or from academics speaking for notional Islamists or ‘offended’ Muslims who in some distant subjunctive world might be ‘offended’ by a novel about Muhammad’s child ‘bride’? Now that’s ‘self-appointed’…

It gets better.

An example of Salman Rushdie “at it” can be found here.

Friday Ephemera

Klaatu barada nikto.” Keanu Reeves isn’t quite human. // Rooftops, NYC. // Inflatable church. // Portable fish bowl. // “Those on a meat-free diet [are] six times more likely to suffer brain shrinkage.” (h/t, Lasso of Truth.) // Great moments in horror kitsch: The Fly finale. (1986) // Dissecting toothpaste. (h/t, Quipsologies.) // The evolving anus. // Bits of things. (h/t, Coudal.) // Tetris tiles. Go quietly insane. // The undersides of aircraft. // Where is your surname popular? // Soundscapes of vanishing habitats. // More academic impartiality. (h/t, Lurker24.) // Presidential campaign commercials, 1952-2008. // Spanking for beginners. // One track mind. // Bond. // Obotek rayguns. // Art with extra duck. (h/t, Tim239.) // And, via The Thin Man, it’s Ms Grace Jones.

Womanier Stuff

The comedic potential of academic feminism will not be unknown to regular readers of this site. Some of you may have fond memories of Dr Sandra Harding, an alleged “feminist philosopher of science,” who claims that Einstein’s theories of relativity are “gender-biased” and thus disreputable. Ms Harding famously described Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual” and claimed that rape and torture metaphors could be used to usefully describe its contents. Harding’s most famous “work” is essentially a pile of unsupported claims, false equivalences and comical non sequitur. That she’s employed in academia is, or should be, a minor scandal. Before you snigger too much, though, it seems Ms Harding’s worldview is not entirely without influence. Over at B&W, Ophelia Benson has been trawling through a Women’s Studies discussion group and unearthed the following gem:

Biology is a socially constructed concept too - dated. It categorizes and defines ‘organisms’ a certain way - not wholistically - and not the only way possible, I might add.

I am no science major,

A shock to us all.

but I know Einstein’s theories and physics has already proven most of the fundamentals of biology to be faulty.

Readers may be wondering how exactly the theories of General and Special Relativity - or some unspecified “physics” - have “proven most of the fundamentals of biology to be faulty.” Alas, our Women’s Studies devotee doesn’t seem to know and so, alas, nor will we. 

I admit, I am a science heretic. It is a belief system and I’ve confronted it’s [sic] limitations - quite soundly and concretely - for my own understandings...

This is a surprisingly popular assertion – that the scientific method is a “belief system” and thus, allegedly, no better or more deserving of “privilege” than whatever it is it suits one to believe. As, for instance, when the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting told her readers that “rationality is a social construction” while taking umbrage with the Enlightenment on grounds that it was now “being used against Islam.” This, one must suppose, is a very bad thing and to be avoided at all costs. To suggest that someone is wrong on points of fact or incoherent or amazingly credulous would be terribly unfair.

I was once told that “science is based on assumptions; an assumption is essentially a belief, so science is based on belief.” But the scientific method is actually based on the testing of formal hypotheses, as opposed to beliefs, which are not the same thing at all. Strictly speaking, a scientific hypothesis must be self-consistent, must explain existing observations and must predict new ones. These formal obligations and restraints are not comparable with the acceptance of erroneous or unverifiable assumptions as a priori truth. The scientific method is one of the best practical lessons in intellectual humility. As the mathematician Ian Stewart pointed out: “Science is the best defence against believing what we want to.” And the willingness to defer to evidence – as opposed to one’s own preferences – is the antithesis of fundamentalism, whether religious or political.

Continue reading "Womanier Stuff" »

Elsewhere (6)

Jonah Goldberg on Sarah Palin and the Feminist-Industrial Complex

Gloria Steinem, the grand mufti of feminism, issued a fatwa anathematizing Palin. A National Organization for Women spokeswoman proclaimed Palin more of a man than a woman. Wendy Doniger, a feminist academic at the University of Chicago, writes of Palin in Newsweek: “Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretence that she is a woman.” […] Feminists have argued for decades that womanhood is an existential and metaphysical state of enlightenment. But they have no problem questioning whether women they hate are really women at all.

Fabian Tassano on the politics of the World Health Organization

By arguing that health is ‘political’, they are admitting that they themselves have a political agenda. And this is difficult to dispute when you look at the some of their statements, which can best be understood as expressions of a political position: “Where systematic differences in health are judged to be avoidable by reasonable action they are, quite simply, unfair.” “Reasonable action” here, it should be noted, includes more taxation, more state intervention and a bigger public sector. Beyond using the phrase “quite simply”, however, it is not explained why such differences are unfair.

Matthew Sinclair on Sharia in Britain:

These are not the fuzzy sort of judgements that apologists for the Archbishop promised would be the only ones Sharia courts could make. These are women being denied a fair share in inheritances or not having their complaints of domestic abuse followed up (after they have been pressured into accepting that they are not victims of a crime deserving of punishment).

Peter Risdon on political empathy:

I wondered whether conservatives and right-liberals understand left-liberals better than they are understood in return because many of them used to be left-liberals.

Please feel free to poke about in the archives or peruse the greatest hits.