Monthly Archives: November 2012

Why don’t American physics teachers teach awesome physics?

Good question:

More excellent bite-size science videos over at Minute Physics.

(h/t io9)

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Why libraries matter, cont’d: “A satisfying reversal, a balancing of the power”

Caitlin Moran, author of the very excellent How to Be A Woman, defends and celebrates the endangered small libraries of England — including the one that nurtured her:

Everything I am is based on this ugly building on its lonely lawn — lit up during winter darkness; open in the slashing rain — which allowed a girl so poor she didn’t even own a purse to come in twice a day and experience actual magic: traveling through time, making contact with the dead — Dorothy Parker, Stella Gibbons, Charlotte Brontë, Spike Milligan.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall — the shops — are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power. […]

A library is such a potent symbol of a town’s values: each one closed down might as well be six thousand stickers plastered over every available surface, reading “WE CHOSE TO BECOME MORE STUPID AND DULL.”

The danger:

While I have read a million words on the necessity for the cuts, I have not seen a single letter on what the exit plan is: what happens in four years’ time, when the cuts will have succeeded, and the economy gets back to “normal” again. Do we then — prosperous once more — go round and re-open all these centers, clinics and libraries, which have sat, dark and unused, for nearly half a decade? […] Unless the government has developed an exit strategy for the cuts, and insisted councils not sell closed properties, by the time we get back to “normal” again, our Victorian and post-war and 1960s red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.

And, in their place, we will have thousands more public spaces where you are simply the money in your pocket, rather than the hunger in your heart. Kids — poor kids — will never know the fabulous, benign quirk of self-esteem of walking into “their” library and thinking, “I have read 60 percent of the books in here. I am awesome.” Libraries that stayed open during the Blitz will be closed by budgets.

Read the rest here.

(h/t; image via Cerebration)

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“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”

                                                         The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

This is from the extraordinary poem “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert — which, I think, elegantly and perfectly makes the case for optimism in the face of all the million ways this world can break. It’s worth reading in full here.

In a similar spirit, Bill Hayes offers an appreciation of aliveness:

What is the opposite of a perfect storm? That is what this was, one of those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and display every possible permutation of beauty. Oliver said it well as we took up our plates and began heading back downstairs: “I’m glad I’m not dead.” This came out rather loudly, as he is a bit deaf. Even so, he looked surprised by his own utterance, as if it were something he was feeling but didn’t really mean to say aloud — a thought turned into an exclamation.

“I’m glad you’re not dead, too,” said a neighbor gaily, taking up the refrain. “I’m glad we’re all not dead,” said another. There followed a spontaneous raising of glasses on the rooftop, a toast to the setting sun, a toast to us.

I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.

After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.

The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause —- to memorize moments of the everyday.

The rest here.

More reasons for optimism here.

(h/t The Dish; image via National Geographic)

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The Civil Wars: Thank you for the music

Oh, no! After just one Grammy-winning album and the promise of so much more, my favorite band The Civil Wars have decided, at least for now, to call it quits — citing “internal discord” and “irreconcilable differences of ambition.” A civil war within The Civil Wars: it seems, ironically, that they chose their name well.

I hesitate to ask, but: coming so soon after the election, could the split be due to political differences? Could the self-described “California girl” and “Alabama boy” have fallen out over the Dream Act and the merits of Obamacare? I jest — not too offensively, I hope — because this truly saddens me; Joy Williams and John Paul White have crafted some of the most exquisite music I’ve heard in a long time, and I was SO looking forward to seeing them perform live someday. Their sound is a gift. And whenever personal differences — or any of the other demands and compromises of “real life” — silence that kind of music, it’s a great loss for the world.

If you haven’t heard of them, check out this concert, which showcases what they’ve done so astonishingly well: luminous, heart-piercing songs fashioned with love, joy, and the most ethereal harmonies this side of Simon and Garfunkel.

Thanks, Joy and John Paul. Best wishes on whatever roads you travel. May they someday lead you back to each other and to your music, with which you’ve won so very many hearts.

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What we won

Rachel Maddow lays it out:

What we stopped:

We are not going to have a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade. There will be no more Antonin Scalias and Samuel Alitos added to this Court.

We’re not going to repeal health reform. Nobody is going to kill Medicare and make old people in this generation or any other generation fight it out on the open market to try to get themselves health insurance. […]

We are not going to give a 20% tax cut to millionaires and billionaires and expect programs like food stamps and kids’ health insurance to cover the cost of that tax cut.

We’re not going to make you clear it with your boss if you want to get birth control under the insurance plan you’re on. We are not going to redefine rape. We are not going to amend the United States Constitution to stop gay people from getting married.

We are not going to double Guantanamo. We are not eliminating the Department of Energy or the Department of Education or housing at the federal level. We are not going to spend $2 trillion on the military that the military does not want.

We are not scaling back on student loans, because the country’s new plan is that you should borrow money from your parents.

We are not vetoing the Dream Act. We are not self-deporting. We are not letting Detroit go bankrupt. We are not starting a trade war with China on Inauguration Day in January. […] We are not going to have a foreign policy stocked with architects of the Iraq War.

We are not going to do it. We had the choice to do that if we wanted to do that as a country. And we said no, last night, loudly. […]

What we gained:

So last night, the Democratic senator who was supposed to be the most endangered incumbent in the country not only won, she won by 16 points.

Republican senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who was so stuffed with hedge fund money that he burped credit default swaps […] lost by a lot to the nation’s foremost authority on the economic rights of the middle class.

After marriage rights for same-sex couples were voted down in state after state after state for years, more than 30 times in a row, this year, all change. In Maine, they voted on marriage equality and they voted for it. In Maryland, they voted on marriage equality and they voted for it. In Minnesota, they were asked to vote against marriage equality, and Minnesota refused to ban it. […]

Nevada elects its first African-American congressman this year. America gets our first openly gay United States Senator. America gets our first-ever Asian American woman senator from Hawai’i. Her seat in the House, I should note, gets filled by this woman, a Democratic Iraq War veteran. […] Speaking of Iraq War veterans, Tammy Duckworth, veteran helicopter pilot, she lost both of her legs in Iraq — she is going to Congress, and she is sending home the opponent who mocked her for her war record […]

California relaxed its “Three Strikes You’re Out” law and rejected a law to cripple the political power of unions. Decriminalization of marijuana was approved in Washington and in Colorado. […]

All of those states that went so red in state government in these past couple of years and that then had these big fights inside their states over how Republicans were governing there — in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and we will see about Florida, last night not only did Republicans lose the presidential election in every single one of those states, Republicans lost the Senate race in every single one of those states too. […]

Last night, Democratic women swept every major office in New Hampshire. Last night, California Democrats won a Democratic supermajority in the state house and in the state senate. Not just majorities in California, but supermajorities, wherein, if the Republicans don’t turn up […] they’re completely legislatively irrelevant. […]

More women got elected to the U.S. Senate than at any time in U.S. history. […] West Virginia chose its first gay state legislator. So did North Dakota. […] The proportion of young people voting compared to 2008 […] went up. Same with African-Americans, up from 2008. Same with Latinos, up from 2008 […]

And, oh yeah, this happened. President Barack Obama, yes, will go down in history as our nation’s first African-American president. But he will also go down in history as the most successful Democratic presidential candidate since FDR. President Bill Clinton got re-elected too, I know, but only Barack Obama got re-elected with not just big electoral college margins, but also with majority wins in the popular vote — twice.

As substantial as this list is, there’s more. Watch the whole thing to see Maddow’s take on why the country needs Republicans to come to their senses, burst their bubble of self-delusion, and join the rest of the country in proposing real solutions to real problems.

Big night, indeed.

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“Ripples of hope”: The President thanks his campaign volunteers

This is the man that Republicans think is a cynical, divisive, un-American, anti-American socialist redistributor hell-bent on destroying the nation and everything it stands for? This man?

Clearly, the modern Republican Party has gone utterly insane. Thank goodness most of the country hasn’t.

Whatever people think of his policies, whatever his failures and victories in the last four years (and the next four), this video should make it absolutely clear that President Barack Obama is a good man with decency, empathy, and compassion at his core. That’s important in a leader. I’m very glad we have this one.

Each time a man stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

— Robert F. Kennedy

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The country we carry in our hearts

Springsteen wrote about it a few years too early, but last night was a glorious chance to see that envisioned country, to grasp the promise of that hoped-for America made real. This wasn’t just a victory speech. This was a magnificent affirmation of that shining ideal of E pluribus unum towards which we always look: the beacon, in any and every storm, that guides all our ships home.

Are we divided? Perhaps. But Obama, like Christopher Hitchens, gets it — that debate and argument, even vigorous and bitter ones, are the crucible in which you test the mettle of ideas and eventually (painfully, tortuously) arrive at truth. (“Heat not light” is a misguided dismissal of conflict and confrontation; “heat produces light” is more accurate both as science and as metaphor, as Hitchens often observed.) Yes, this campaign was long, brutal, and sometimes petty and ridiculous — and it was frustrating for all of us who think that our own beliefs and values are self-evidently true and should be universally accepted without complaint. But it’s never a bad thing to revisit first principles — to be forced to settle (or at least reconsider) the existential questions that determine how we treat each other and how we make a nation together. In the President’s words:

That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

The President, of course, points out that argumentation can only be the beginning; that our national debates must never lose sight of the need to seek and find common ground, in order to move forward together. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” said Lincoln after his reelection — and there’s more than a conscious echo of that here:

Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.

But that common bond is where we must begin.

And more than an echo of Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech as well:

But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

He cuts through the clutter and noise to get at the very essence of American community:

This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.

And, like many others, he compellingly makes the case for optimism — not idle Pollyannaism, but clear-eyed hope with a spine of steel:

I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

And in a rousing finale that recalls both his own electrifying 2004 keynote speech and Lincoln’s invocation of “the better angels of our nature,” Obama calls us to be our best and highest selves:

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America.

This speech gave me chills, made me weep, made my heart soar. But don’t take my word for it! Read the entire transcript here. Watch it again. And cherish it. This is one for the ages.

Adding: Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take — nearly as eloquent as the President himself, and always worth reading:

As for the next four years, there is time enough for that. But I stand by these words. And one felt something tectonic shift tonight. America crossed the Rubicon of every citizen’s access to healthcare, and re-elected a black president in a truly tough economic climate. The shift toward gay equality is now irreversible. The end of prohibition of marijuana is in sight. Women, in particular, moved this nation forward – pragmatically, provisionally, sensibly. They did so alongside the young whose dedication to voting was actually greater this time than in 2008, the Latino voters who have made the current GOP irrelevant, and African-Americans, who turned up in vast numbers, as in 2008, to put a period at the end of an important sentence.

That sentence will never now be unwritten. By anyone.


Also adding: Greg Sargent thinks, as I do, that this campaign wasn’t as petty or trivial as it sometimes seemed on the surface. Rather, it was a consequential battle of ideas about the very nature of American society:

1) What is the true nature of our collective responsibility towards one another?

2) What is the true legacy of the great progressive reforms of the 20th century? Should their core mission — and the safety net they have created — be preserved and expanded upon to meet the needs of those who are still being left behind by the private market? Or does that mission need to be readjusted to deal with dramatically different economic circumstances in the 21st century?

3) What is the best way to guarantee shared prosperity and economic security at a time of rapid economic change? Should we take collective action, via democratically elected leaders, to try to guarantee a good life to as many people as possible, and to defend those who are suffering economic harm at the hands of the free market? Or are we currently at risk of overreaching in that direction, doing people more harm than good?

There were many petty-seeming battles throughout this campaign, no doubt, but you can find these questions lurking just beneath their surface. The battles over so-called “gaffes” and controversial remarks on both sides often turned on deeper questions about the nature of the society we want to live in.

More here.

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