Category Archives: Popular Culture

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

…and the science of smug condescension:

Here we see, in action, the signature scientific style of the Neil deGrasse Tyson era. Present a scientific theory in crudely oversimplified form, omitting any uncertainties or counter-arguments. Pass off complex claims as if they are obvious “basic physics.” Then dismiss any skepticism as the resentment of the primitive, ignorant, unscienced masses against their enlightened betters.

Or, you know, file law suits against critics.

It’s not a very good way to get valid scientific results—nor, for that matter, to promote the scientific method. But it’s what we get when we substitute, in place of respect for the actual methodology of science, an attitude of superior posing and smug condescension.

I’d like to say that I was disappointed with the Cosmos reboot, but honestly, I wasn’t that big a fan of the original. But I’d love to buy Tyson for what I think he’s worth, and sell him for what he does.

[Afternoon update]

Some more thoughts:

It seems to me that Neal deGrasse Tyson is a scientist. Heck, I don’t actually know, because I don’t read technical astronomy papers, but I assume he’s published something somewhere, actually done some science in his life. But that doesn’t appear to be his current day job. His current job, near as I can tell, is carnival barker. He’s a salesman, or an advertiser. That’s not science. Inspiring others to want to learn more may be laudable, but it’s not science. Making crap up isn’t science, either, but I’ll let the serial stalkers at the Federalist worry about that.

But here’s a misconception that I’ve discussed before:

Thing is, I’m no scientist. So while I would like to call myself a Science-ist – that is, one who believes in the nature of science and the good results it can produce – I certainly can’t pretend I am a scientist, which is one who does science. Stuff like collecting data, analyzing it, proposing hypotheses, testing hypotheses. You know, stuff that scientists do. Not just looking at cool pictures of galaxies and pretending that makes me smart. (Um, NSFW language at that link)

No. Science isn’t a profession, it’s a way of thinking about the world, and learning about it. Everyone does it, to some degree or another, every day. Check a door knob to see if it’s unlocked? You just did an experiment.

People who believe in “science” as some kind of special realm that “scientists” live in, and that “science” reveals “truth” (as many global warm mongers do, even though they don’t understand the science or, often, even basic math) are members of a religion, that is in fact properly called scienceism. I believe in science as the best means to learn about the natural world, and as the basis for engineering and creating technology, but I don’t worship scientists, and I don’t delude myself that scientific results are “truth.”

Anyway, finally, note this comment:

you make an ass out of neal tyson when it’s pointed out that he has not, in fact, published A SINGLE PIECE of academic work since having talked some committee into accepting the dissertation it took him 11 years (and an expulsion!) to co-author.

no, seriously. if you don’t believe me, you can put his name into the search bar at arxiv.org, where practicing physicists post our preprints:

“Search gave no matches

No matches were found for your search: all:(neal AND tyson)

Please try again.”

In the next comment, he notes that there is in fact one post-doc paper, but it appears that he’s just participating because the actual authors wanted a bigger name on it.

KSC Versus MSFC

I had an interesting Twitter discussion this morning, that gave me an insight that had been floating around in the back of my mind, but that I’d never articulated, either to myself or others. It sort of crystallized when someone said that Bob Cabana, head of KSC, was an SLS supporter.

One of the tenets of the Apollo Cargo Cult is that we can’t go beyond earth orbit without a really big rocket. The conventional wisdom has been that the biggest constituency for SLS is Marshall, because that’s were it is being developed. But if you think about it, there are a lot of things Marshall could be applied to — it doesn’t have to be developing big rockets (something it hasn’t successfully done in almost four decades). For instance, it could be developing technology and demonstrators for orbital fuel storage and transfer. That would be at least as much in its wheelhouse as SLS.

KSC, on the other hand, has little justification for existence if NASA doesn’t have its own (big) rocket to launch. Without a big rocket, it doesn’t need the VAB, and the VAB and the crawler are really the only unique capability it has, in terms of physical infrastructure. If everything is going up on commercial rockers, even from Pads 39, KSC doesn’t have much to do, other than integrating NASA’s payloads onto them. That’s not a trivial task, but it’s not one that justifies the center’s budget or workforce. So, while Marshall could in theory be redirected to something useful, KSC can’t really. That’s why Nelson supports it so strongly.

It struck me in fact that the VAB is the high cathedral for the cargo cult. What would happen to the religion if it was taken out by a hurricane?

Stick Shifts

What are they worth?

If and when we ever sell our (silver) 2000 BMW, I suspect we’ll be happy that it’s got a clutch in it.

Which is another peeve. Almost every car now (including our new RAV-4) comes with a “manual” option for the transmission, but there’s no shift pattern. It’s like a motorcycle — you have to go through the gears sequentially. And the lack of clutch really defeats most of the purpose.

One other related gripe:

Since dealers are ninety-nine percent of the customer base at an auction, dealer preferences dictate what sells for good money. Fast-turning automobiles in high demand sell for good money, period point blank. No dealer wants to take a risk on an odd color or an unusual equipment group (think: Sebring convertibles with the expensive folding hardtop, stripped-out Explorer XL trims from the Nineties, loaded short-wheelbase S-Classes) or manual transmissions. They’d rather buy what sells easily and go home. Therefore, auction prices reflect dealer desires, not customer desires.

This disconnect between dealer and customer desires punishes the customer at every turn. It’s why Honda and Acura make you take a non-color with a stick-shift Accord or TSX: the dealers don’t want to stock a brown Accord V6 six-speed even if there’s a guy (YO!) willing to buy it. It’s why you see interesting combinations of colors and options in the order brochure but never at the dealers. It’s why the flotilla of individual options that marked the Detroit era of new cars has become a maze of packages and mandatory tie-ins, even when the car in question is manufactured in the same state as the selling dealers.

The dealers want the stuff that turns quickly. That means silver Camrys and red Ferraris and automatic convertible Corvettes and all-wheel-drive S-Classes. Your desires have nothing to do with it. They aren’t listening to you. They don’t care. While you’re busy displaying your autism spectrum disorder by lecturing the salesman about the actual cam lobe profile on a car you’re thinking about buying two jobs from now and for which you expect to pay invoice minus holdback, three families in used SUVs have come in and bought new SUVs and the store has grossed them front, back, used, and F&I. You mean nothing to a dealer. Period.

It drives me nuts that I can’t get a clutch in a car with horsepower, at least with the Japanese. For example, Honda won’t give you a manual transmission unless it’s mated to a four cylinder engine. If you want it on the six you’re out of luck. The only reason I can think of for them to do this is that they don’t want to have to have a beefy enough gearbox to handle the extra power, but I’m not sure that’s the reason.

Joni Mitchell

Her secret torment.

I have to agree with this comment:

As difficult and delusional a person as Joni Mitchell is — and as little desire as I have to actually meet her — I find it extremely hard to harbor any personal animosity towards the person who wrote “The Urge for Going”, “That Song About the Midway”, “All I Want”, “California”, “River”, “A Case of You”, “Free Man in Paris”, “Refuge of the Roads” and numerous other brilliant pop songs, and who also recorded the definitive — indeed, timeless — versions of most of them.

Yes, she was an amazingly talented young woman. I’ve never been able to figure out what she does on guitar, with the weird and haunting tunings. Beautiful voice, beautiful melodies, poetic lyrics, great piano and guitar.

Our Face In The Crowd

Thoughts on Obama’s failing credibility:

On a deeper level, Obama habitually says untrue things because he has never been called on them before. He has been able throughout his career to appear iconic to his auditors. In the crudity of liberals like Harry Reid and Joe Biden, Obama ancestry and diction gave reassurance that he was not representative of the black lower classes and thus was the receptacle of all sorts of liberal dreams and investments. According to certain liberals, he was like a god, our smartest president, and of such exquisite sartorial taste that he must become a successful president. In other words, on the superficial basis of looks, dress, and patois, Obama was reassuring to a particular class of white guilt-ridden grandees and to such a degree that what he actually had done in the past or promised to do in the future was of no particular importance.

Then there is the media, the supposed public watchdog that keeps our politicians honest. In truth, Obama winks and nods to journalists, in the sense that as a good progressive Obama is about as liberal a president as we have ever had — or will have. Obama sees cross-examination as a sort of betrayal from journalists, who, for reasons of some abstract adherence to “journalistic integrity,” would by their own reporting subvert a rare chance of a progressive agenda. Obama’s anger is not just directed at Fox News and talk radio, but rather reflects a sense of betrayal that even slight fact checking by liberal journalists exists: why must Obama tell the truth when he never had to in any of his earlier incarnations?

In A Face in the Crowd, the charismatic Andy Griffith character could more or less get anything he wished by saying anything he wanted, largely because he said it mellifluously and in cracker-barrel fashion of an us-versus-them populism. His admirers knew that they were being lied to, but also knew that Lonesome knew that they did not mind. Lonesome had contempt for hoi polloi, largely because of his own easy ability to manipulate them for whatever particular careerist cause he embraced.

So Obama has disdain for those who passed out at his lectures, who put up the Greek columns at his speeches, who came up with his Latin mottoes, and who gushed at his teleprompted eloquence. He knows that we know he is not telling the truth, but likewise he knows that we don’t care all that much — at least until now. The secret to Lonesome’s success was to hide his contempt for those he lied to. When he is caught ridiculing his clueless listeners, he finally crashes and burns — sort of like Barack Obama serially vacationing with the 1% whom he so publicly scorns, or golfing in the aristocratic fashion of those who, he assures us, did not build their businesses.

It’s a little appalling, and frightening, that almost 40% still take him seriously.

Everything That Can Be Customized

must be.

This is where I differ with Lileks (and Virginia Postrel). I have no desire to customize anything. To me it’s pointless work. Perhaps because I have absolutely no artistic talent (at least visually) or even that much aesthetic sensibility. My computer screen has the same background that was installed with the OS. I did put an effect on my phone when I first got it, because I was playing around with it to see how it all worked, but I’ve never downloaded, let alone paid for, a ring tone. Or a fancy case. I really just don’t care.

Torchy

Lileks, back from his Aegean trip, has started a new B&W series.

Also, summer camp reminiscences. Which makes me happy that the place I went to is still around. I still remember the swimming test. I had just had lessons at the high school, and passed everything to be allowed the run of the lake. One part was treading water for some duration (ten minutes, maybe). Another was diving down deep (maybe fifteen feet) to bring up a handful of muck. Probably with bloodsuckers in it.

Santorini

Lileks takes a vacation in Greece:

A few switchbacks up we found a nice niche that would have been an excellent spot for a small bar; seems it had served that function once, as it had benches and something like a table. We chatted with some Brits who were also dying but cheerful about it. They’d met some donkeys coming down, and the lass astride one of them leaned over and said “Worst Day of my Life.”

We continued on, up the shite-strewn path. By “567 steps” they mean a step, then a yard of irregular, ankle-snapping stone, followed by another step, followed by a yard of irregular, ankle-snapping stone smeared with ordure, and so on. Another herd of donkeys, this one thicker than the last, and not particularly concerned with our presence. Suddenly you realized you had two options: you would be crushed against the wall by donkeys, or pushed over the side by donkeys. Neither seemed appealing, just like the growing belief you would either suffer failure of the heart or the kidneys.

With pictures and video, of course.

Steve Martin At The Hollywood Bowl

In our seats, waiting to hear him play banjo with a bluegrass band and Edie Brickell. Then, the fireworks.

[Saturday-morning update]

What a great show. I hadn’t realized how seriously Martin had gotten into his music in the last few years. He’s equally adept at both bluegrass fingerpicking and clawhammer, and he and Brickell did some beautifully spooky songs in the latter style. He also hasn’t lost his comedic touch. “It’s always been my dream to play the Hollywood Bowl on the 4th of July. Call me crazy, but I feel that, as I step on this stage, I’ve taken a big step in that direction.” (Paraphrase).

Only disappointment was that the show wasn’t long enough, and the fireworks (accompanied by a medley of Sousa tunes from the Air Force Band of the Golden West, ending with the classic Stars and Stripes Forever) less spectacular than I’ve gotten used to in recent years, but still well worth the money and effort to attend.

[Update a while later]

One other thing. Paul Simon made a guest appearance, and sat in for a song.

Mad Men Ads

Lileks (who has finally replaced the irreplaceable Jasper with a new puppie) has thoughts on the decline of advertising and the suckitude of the early seventies:

What’s the opposite of nostalgia? What’s the word for an exaggerated dislike of a particular time? I know I am nostalgic for things I did not experience, and only see through the pop-culture elements left behind, which communicate incomplete and occasionally misleading messages. But I have antipathy for things I experienced at the fringe of adolescence – not because it was a bad time, or I didn’t like them then, but because they seem now to be the products of a culture that was getting cheap and lazy; it was full of gimcrack baubles turned out by an exhausted system that tried to adapt to the times, but had no strength to put forth any ideas or uphold any ideas that went before. The period from 1967 to 1975, with some stellar exceptions, was just a horrible time for everything, and you can reduce it all down to one middle-aged balding dude with wet hair plastered over his head in brown polyester pants and a mustard-yellow shirt approving one thing after the other because the kids will go for it.

That’s a generalization. Somewhat. But. I’ve said this before: “Mad Men”’s exploration of the late 60s somehow avoids the fact that advertising in that era was horrible. Compare an issue of Life magazine from 1968 to its 1958 counterpoint – it’s as if style, color, art, romance, seduction, adulthood, and bright-eyed joy had been drained from the world. The ads weren’t about the product anymore; the ads were about the ads.

[Yes, I know it's not fresh material -- I'd gotten behind on my Bleatage.]