Friday, January 31, 2014

I am nothing without pretend

MD's two-piece Wye Oak play "Civilian" live on the radio. Drone-y and buzz-y and closes with a sweet guitar solo.
You can download the album track here.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Young Earth Blues

A couple of years ago I got into an animated discussion with an acquaintance who is an honest-to-God young earth creationist.  He's a young guy, a huge computer geek and really smart.  In fact he's geeky enough actually sit down and add up the dates in the Bible to get his own estimate for the biblical age of the universe, and to defend his estimate in a highly detailed manner.  Like Bishop Ussher and Isaac Newton before him he estimated that our universe was more or less 6,000 years old.

Clearly this was not the type of conversation I had in grad school, but in a lot of ways this guy was "my people."  I recognized in him a lot of the same mental habits and personality quirks that you find in people who do science for a living. Geeks like me, in other words. But for various reasons he had never really studied much science and had instead read widely on intelligent design and creationism.

The interesting thing about our conversation is that he wasn't really opposed to the idea of evolution. He basically admitted that going forward into the future, species would slowly evolve in response to the environment and natural pressures. The sticking point really was that 6,000 year old universe, and the need to defend a "literal-factual" interpretation of the Bible. Disbelief in macro-evolution flowed directly from there simply not being enough time to get it done. And he's right!  If the universe were only 6,000 years old there wouldn't have been time for humans to evolve from simpler life-forms.

Still, my friend had the whole ID/creationism talking points down pat, starting from the old parable about finding a watch on the beach and "knowing" that it must have been designed rather than evolved. Of course, relying on human intuition about how the world works is pretty much why we believed the Sun went around the Earth for millennia.  (I mean, just look at it! It goes in a circle, right?) My mind naturally rushed to the astronomical objections to a young earth, i.e. the known distances of objects that we can see and observe. (Of course there are LOTS of good arguments against creationism, this was just what came to my mind). I mean, the vast majority of stars in our own galaxy are farther than 6,000 light-years away, to say nothing of distant galaxies or the CMB.

For example, the remnants of the stars that went supernova and were observed in A.D. 1006 and 1054 are located at a distance 7,200 and 6,500 light-years, respectively. Their observation by ancient astronomers, plus the light travel time from the object, already puts the age of the universe older than 6,000 years.  The center of our Milky Way galaxy is at 27,000 light-years. Every time we observe objects orbiting the central black hole we are looking at the universe as it was 27,000 years ago.

Obtaining distances to even more distant objects is a little bit complicated and not necessarily intuitive to a layperson. Let's just say it involves a lot of calibration. (In fact, determining the rungs of the "distance ladder" is one of the great accomplishments of modern astronomy.) But in case you don't buy all that calibration stuff, we have direct, "intuitive," geometrical distance measurements (via parallax and the Hipparcos satellite) for most bright stars within 1,600 light-years of earth (and the recently launched Gaia mission will be able to measure accurate parallax distances out to 30,000 lyrs).

So unless you think scientists are lying about the speed of light, it's clear the universe is pretty big and pretty old -- far older than 6,000 years. But of course my friend knew all this and had an answer waiting. And it was pretty jaw-dropping (to me at least). The apparent answer to all these objections was that our enormous universe was created 6,000 years ago with the light from those distant galaxies already streaming en route towards us. Zoink.

In one respect it's a superficially clever response, as it it severs the link between distance and time and allows you to accept (more or less) most of modern astronomy. But in another respect it's a disaster. The universe in this tale is basically just an illusion, a film projected on a screen, a visual trick that God is playing on humanity. It's hard to reconcile this vision with a reasonable God, not to mention that it's completely extra-biblical (which we were presumably trying to avoid from the start). We started the conversation by appealing to human intuition and now find ourselves arguing something utterly non-intuitive.

I had never heard this argument before and it seemed pretty silly to me, but apparently it has a long heritage among creationists. It is sometimes referred to as the Omphalos Hypothesis (from the greek word for navel) and it belongs to an infinite class of totally un-falsifiable ideas about the universe. Maybe we are just brains in vats being manipulated by an evil demon? Maybe we all live in the matrix? Who knows.

However, apparently not all young earth creationists subscribe to this idea. And this is where it gets even weirder. The big creationist site Answers in Genesis comes down against the idea that God would be deceptive in this way, and instead rounds up a bunch of poorly understood ideas from relativity and cosmology in order to cast doubt on the basic idea that light travels at a constant velocity. For example, this:
Since time can flow at different rates from different points of view, events that would take a long time as measured by one person will take very little time as measured by another person. This also applies to distant starlight. Light that would take billions of years to reach earth (as measured by clocks in deep space) could reach earth in only thousands of years as measured by clocks on earth.
Yeah, no. Relativistic time-dilation doesn't make the universe 6,000 years old. It just doesn't work like that. But there are words written on the page that sound like science, and if you hadn't studied physics it might even sound convincing.

Anyway, it was an interesting conversation and it helped me learn a little bit about where our teaching and public talk about science runs aground. More importantly I think it's good to get outside the bubble and have genuine conversations with people with radically different world views. I doubt I changed his mind during our chat (or he, mine), but I hope maybe I planted the seeds of the idea that you can in fact reconcile science and religion, you just have to read the Bible more metaphorically.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The closing of tabs

Some science linkage:

Satellite images of California in Jan 2013 vs. Jan 2014 show the extent of the current drought. (Yale e360)

Every Earth view from Gravity identified in Google Earth. You'll be shocked to find that the orbit doesn't make any sense. (Ogle Earth)

A recent Type Ia supernova in nearby galaxy M82. This one won't quite be bright enough to see with your naked eye (8th magnitude at peak), but still very close-by -- a mere 12 million ly away! (Bad Astronomy)

A skeptical look at D-wave, allegedly the first commercial quantum computer. Doesn't go into very much physics detail about the current challenges, but still interesting. (Inc.)

The Social Life of Genes. (Pacific Standard)

Annnd, here's a cool graphic of the ranking of U.S. cities by population over time. Caveat emptor when it comes to using rank data, but it's a cool looking graph. (peakbagger)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hot Knife Fiona Apple.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of undergrad a capella groups across the nation are performing this song right this very minute. You know they are. Still, I love the mix of minimalism and chattering complexity. And of course, Fiona's vein-popping emoting and her willingness to risk dorkiness in service of a great song. I suspect the undergrads might keep singing it for a good long while.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Red vs. Green

There's an interesting conflict brewing in Ecuador these days. In December, the Correa government moved to dissolve an environmental group, the Pachamama Foundation, after accusing them of participating in a violent protest against oil extraction in the Amazon region (which the group denies). Although staffed by Ecuadoreans, the Pachamama Foundation is a group founded by U.S. citizens with considerable funding from foreign donors (including, allegedly, from USAID), and so some have defended the Correa government's move as a legitimate defense of Ecuador's sovereignty. NACLA has a good summary here presenting the two sides of the issue. The Morales government in Bolivia also expelled all USAID funded groups, and USAID voluntarily pulled out of Ecuador around the same time.

But that may not be the end of the story. Amazon Watch passes along the recent news that the Correa government is also cracking down on Ecuadorean indigenous groups opposed to increased oil extraction:
The Secretary of Hydrocarbons has filed a formal complaint against eight indigenous leaders who have dedicated their lives to defending the Amazon, including Franco Viteri (President of GONOAE), the presidents of the Achuar & Zapara nationalities, the president and vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and pioneering female leaders Patricia Gualinga from Sarayaku and Gloria Ushigua of the Zapara.
If carried out, this would be a much more serious crack-down on democracy and dissenting voices.

Naturally there is a long history here. As we saw on our trip in 2009, certain parts of Ecuador have been quite heavily polluted by decades of oil extraction, while untouched areas have fought to avoid the same fate. The Correa government had previously put forth a creative plan to avoid having to extract oil from pristine parts of the Amazon. The plan was for wealthy governments who care about climate and the environment to pay Ecuador to leave the oil in the ground. Despite some hopeful signs, the plan failed to gain nearly enough pledges. So the Correa government has decided to go ahead with at least some oil development in Yasuni over the objections of some (but not all) of the indigenous residents of region. Upsidedownworld has a long analysis here of the plan and its fallout.

All this highlights what may be an emerging trend in Latin America, that of a Red vs. Green split. The last decade has seen a number of left governments come to power: Chavez in Venezuela, Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua, Lula and Roussef in Brazil and others. Add Pope Francis to the list and you've got a region moving to the left on economic issues. Traditionally green groups have been part of the left coalitions that support these governments, but there have been tensions and conflicts.

Here in Nicaragua, Ortega is planning a trans-oceanic canal which looks to bring him into conflict with environmentalists. Bolivia's Morales has had his own conflicts with indigenous groups over environmental issues, and even Chavez's Bolivarian revolution was fueled by massive oil revenues. The environment poses a problem for all forms of extractive societies, no matter how they distribute the profits after the fact (see Jacobin for more thoughts on this). So I kind of expect these tensions to keep simmering in the future. Something to keep an eye on.

Friday, January 10, 2014


This song from Chvrches (chuh-verches? cherv-ches? chever-ches?) is a total earworm. It's been synth-ing around my head all week.
CHVRCHES | The Mother We Share from Sing J. Lee on Vimeo.

Related: why does the vimeo player suck so much? is it that hard to queue the video properly without hanging? is it just that my internet and computer are super-slow?

Also: this live version of Tightrope is pretty awesome as well.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Magnificent Seven

Check out The Clash playing a live version of "The Magnificent Seven." The Clash recorded this song in early 1980 -- as the 3rd single off their epic 4th album Sandinista! -- way back when hip-hop was still just a local New York thing, and maybe even just a Bronx thing, not the global behemoth it is today. It has the somewhat asterisky distinction of being the first rap song performed by a white group. (The slower album version can be heard here. ).

Even more amazing is that it's kind of awesome. ("Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)", the other rap track on Sandinista! is also pretty great.) Joe Strummer is clearly rapping in the style of early old-school hip-hop, but you don't want to cringe (at least I don't). It's not just that he sells the song, but that he gets it, he understands the power of this new form, way more than you would think a white Brit in 1980 would get it. He absorbs something from old-school rap and melds it to the collection of sounds and riffs and beats that make up the usual Clash style. It's rap, but it's also a kind of spoken word rant, a furious announcement over the PA. It feels organic and very Clash-like, consistent with their own artistic trajectory and not just opportunistic mimicry of a new style.

The Clash, of course, had always been fascinated with black music, especially reggae and dub. All of their albums included covers of reggae songs, like Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," and Sandinista! in particular goes deep into those styles, turning its back on the punk that made them famous.

The DJ and filmmaker Don Letts is often hailed as one of the people who introduced The Clash to London's black music scene. Letts also directed a pretty cool documentary about The Clash, Westway to the World, which you can watch for free online at Open Culture [*]. I've always felt that The Clash's openness to a variety of music and their solidarity with England's black and immigrant communities is a huge part of what made them such a great band. It sharpened their politics and kept their music diverse and interesting.
White youth, black youth, Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood and ask him for some wealth distribution?
In his fantastic political history of hip-hop, Can't Stop Won't Stop, Jeff Chang describes this brief historical moment in the early '80s after hip-hop's emergence when it caught on with the downtown punk and art scene in NYC, a meeting of the minds between the Bronx and Manhattan. New wave bands like Blondie recorded rap tracks and members of the Talkingheads played as session musicians on some early rap tracks. The Clash, when they came to America, were also huge fans, apparently. They had Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as their opening act for several NYC shows, and actually had to reprimand their fans for booing and throwing shit on the stage.

The moment didn't last forever. And of course the idea of a white band taking a black musical subculture and appropriating it to sell records is rock and roll's original sin. Just ask Mos Def.

I was thinking about all this after reading my friend Sandhya's typically thoughtful post on cultural misappropriation, and how difficult it is to distinguish misappropriation from sincere cross-pollination. She teases out a lot of the ambiguities in the question, and provides a good rule of thumb: don't use someone else's culture as a costume. I don't think that's what The Clash are doing on this track, but maybe I would think differently if rap had been less of a brief detour for them and more of a business plan. Like all many great bands, the Clash had the good sense to break-up before fading away. Who knows, maybe with time and more commercial success, they would have turned into U2: sincere, but increasingly corporate. Maybe the follow-up to Sandinista! would have been Rattle & Hum (an album I enjoy, but let's face it, cultural appropriation is basically it's whole reason for existence).

At its best cultural cross-pollination is a two-way street. And indeed, punk did influence black music as well, one example being the 2 Tone ska revival in Coventry, England. The biggest hit to come out of that scene is also pretty topical -- "Free Nelson Mandela." [via Africa is a Country.]

[*] Open Culture actually has compiled a list of over 600 movies that can be watched for free online (and by free I mean, you know, legally). There's a lot of old classics that have fallen out of copyright, including a fair selection of Hitchcock, silent movie classics, old westerns, as well as more recent documentaries and other stuff.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Science Year in Review

Science Magazine published their annual Breakthrough of the Year for 2013. The winner this year is cancer immunotherapy -- various therapies for directing the human immune system to fight cancer itself. The editors seem a little tentative about the status of the work:
In celebrating cancer immunotherapy—harnessing the immune system to battle tumors—did we risk hyping an approach whose ultimate impact remains unknown? ... Ultimately, we concluded, cancer immunotherapy passes the test. It does so because this year, clinical trials have cemented its potential in patients and swayed even the skeptics.
The runner-ups were mostly biology as well (more proof we are living in the Biological Century), although two physics breakthroughs did make the list. One, the Fermi satellite's discovery of pi-zero decays in the spectra of supernovae, indicating that SN do in fact accelerate protons and are in fact the source of cosmic rays. Two, the development of a new technology for solar cells made out of perovskite crystals that are competitive with silicon cells in terms of efficiency, but are much cheaper and easier to manufacture. Anyway, here's the video:

If you want more physics, Physics World has their own roundup, naming the Ice Cube discovery of cosmic neutrinos as Breakthrough of the Year. Elsewhere, Ed Yong rounds up his list of the Top Science Longreads of 2013.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy 5605!

Vienna Teng has a new album out -- Aims -- which I confess I haven't listened to in its entirety yet. But the video for the song "Level Up" is really lovely.

It's really a New Years sort of song, in a way. Letting go of fear, moving forward, leveling up. She has always been a great writer of optimistic, hopeful songs (the Atheist Christmas Carol is another favorite of mine). It feels like an appropriate way to start off a year where we will be returning to the United States, settling into a new life, new house, new city, new jobs, new schools, moving to the next stage, whatever it may be.

Somewhat apropos, lately I've been missing coding. Strange, I know. I did a lot of programming in grad school. And I mean, a lot. But that was years ago and my life has been flooded by mental challenges of a different nature in the years since -- writing, learning spanish, raising kids. For me, debugging code has always had a kind of meditative quality that only writing comes close to. With code you can keep iterating until you get it just right, just how it ought to be. Within the realm of the computer you can make something perfect, exactly matching the vision in your head. How many other parts of your life can you say that about? I've made a lot of mediocre dinners where I wished I could have debugged and re-compiled them them after the first draft. Alas.

So I thought I would learn a new language. In my grad school days everything I did was C or shell scripting on a linux platform, but I've been hearing people gush about python for years so I thought I would give it a whirl. (Also doing this with half an eye for entering the job market this coming year, so if anyone has any recommendations for the hot new language to learn, let me know.) And yep, python is very pretty, like shell scripting but more elegant without all the ugly awk/grep kludges you usually need.

Anyway, the first script I wrote in python was for calculating numbers in bases other than base 10. Which is a long way of saying, Happy 5605 (base 7)! It's going to be a totally crazy year, no avoiding it!