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eric

it’s a small world

by Eric on January 29, 2015

California’s measles outbreak has now reached more than 70 cases. 1

Populations especially at risk are those born after 1957 and vaccinated between 1963-1967 or not vaccinated. People born before 1957 would have been exposed to measles naturally and are ok; those not exposed to the virus in the wild will be vulnerable. People vaccinated 1963-1967 might have got the “killed virus” vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control now say is ineffective, and they will be vulnerable.

Unvaccinated people will be vulnerable2 for what ought to be obvious reasons.

California permits unvaccinated students to enroll in public schools if their parents file a form saying their beliefs do not permit vaccination.

The percentage of unvaccinated students in Sacramento-area schools is over fifty percent in some cases.

As the historian Robert Johnston remarks, scholars used to treat anti-vaccination activists as “the deluded, the misguided, the ignorant, the irrationally fearful” but now they command ‘If not sympathy, at least a modicum of respect.”

I suppose we should respect those whom we can rationally fear.



1This is the outbreak that the press keep saying, correctly if punctiliously, began at “Disneyland Park and Disneyland California Adventure,” as if there were some important meaningful reason they couldn’t say “Disneyland”; Disneyland is offering a pretty good discount right now, by the way.

2Rich Puchalsky, I think correctly, points out in comments that all are potentially vulnerable once we drop below a percentage where we have “herd immunity.”

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We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

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Concluding Serial; or, Koenig v. Ranke

by Eric on December 19, 2014

The hott podcast Serial concluded this week with its twelfth episode, an episode that crystallized for me why I like it. For all the complaints – that it is white privilege in distilled radio form; that it is really about its host, Sarah Koenig – it is a pretty good dramatization of the historical process.

And it’s not only because this week one of the intrepid reporter/producers descended into an actual archive to retrieve a critical document and, despite some gratuitous mockery of the archivists, gave a sense of what it’s actually like to do that and why you would want to.

It’s ultimately because Koenig held herself to a standard of argument that’s similar to what historians use. She repeatedly questioned herself as she pursued her research over the course of months; she tried to disprove her hunches even as she followed them, and ultimately concluded with “what we know” – which is distinct from “what really happened” (yes, she goes all Ranke on us).

Here’s how she ends (SPOILERS):

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André Singer (the documentarian who made The Act of Killing) appeared on Radio 4’s Front Row yesterday to talk about his new documentary, Night Will Fall, a film about yet another documentary – this one the previously unreleased German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, the film produced by the Ministry of Information in 1945 to record what became known as the Holocaust.

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, produced by Sidney Bernstein with help from Alfred Hitchcock and a script by Richard Crossman and Colin Wills, was commissioned by SHAEF in April 1945 and meant to be shown to Germans immediately after the war. [click to continue…]

Lincoln in Manchester

by Eric on August 21, 2014

The statue of Abraham Lincoln in Westminster arrived in 1920. The former US Secretary of State Elihu Root presented it in July, noting its place of honor on Parliament Square among “memorials of British statesmen” and in a place “where the living tides of London will ebb and flow about it.”1 The somber and elegant piece is a product of the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens – son of a French father, Root noted, born in Ireland – artist of the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts and the Double Eagle as well as the Adams memorial. Saint-Gauden’s Lincoln is a fine sculpture.

It is also a bit of a cuckoo: it took the place meant for George Barnard’s Lincoln, which now stands in Manchester, because Barnard’s Lincoln was alleged to look like a “tramp with the colic.” [click to continue…]

Coming soon, to a city near you

by Eric on August 21, 2014

The University of California, Davis, is located immediately next to – across the street from – the city of Davis, California. Davis has a population of about 66,000, about 70 percent of whom have completed at least a bachelor’s degree from university. It is a low crime area.

The Davis police force has recently acquired a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle (MRAP) from the Defense Department under the program described here.

The acquisition “is a reflection of the reality that officers need protection as they try to subdue gunmen barricaded inside buildings and elsewhere,” police say.

Ferguson, Missouri, update

by Eric on August 17, 2014

(Previously)

Yesterday evening, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, including a curfew, for Ferguson.

On Friday, Ferguson police had released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. They did not release details of the shooting, but did release a report indicating Brown was a suspect in a strong-arm robbery, including photographs and video showing someone resembling Brown in a physical altercation with a convenience-store clerk.

Last night there were arrests of people violating the curfew.

This morning, on Meet the Press with Andrea Mitchell, Nixon criticized the police report.

Yeah, we and our security team and the highway patrol did not know that was going to be released. I don’t think the attorney general knew that. And quite frankly, we disagree deeply I think for two reasons. Number one, to attempt to in essence disparage the character of this victim, in the middle of a process like this is not right. It’s just not right. And secondarily, it did put the community and quite frankly the region and the nation on alert again. These are old wounds. These are deep wounds in these communities. And that action was not helpful.

Meet the Press included a report beginning with the note, “Prison sentences for black men are 20% longer than those for whites convicted of the same crime. And on average, 100 black people are killed each year by white police officers.”

Also today, US Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a federal medical examiner to conduct a further autopsy of Michael Brown’s body.

Eyewitness accounts of the shooting have begun to emerge.

Some notes on Ferguson, Missouri

by Eric on August 14, 2014

Following the police shooting of Michael Brown, protesters have taken to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Police deployed there wear uniforms and carry weapons that look more like the desert camouflage and armaments of US armed forces in recent Central Asian wars than like the traditional uniforms of American peace officers.

Indeed, military gear used by the US overseas has been finding its way to American streets. Police forces in the US receive surplus military gear from the Defense Department under a program whose motto is “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.”

Proper training in tactics does not always accompany the equipment, according to Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko.

Veterans on Ferguson” has become something of a social media phenomenon devoted to former soldiers’ (and other members of the armed forces) criticism of police tactics in Ferguson.

Last night, Ferguson police arrested reporters and a St. Louis alderman. Network news crews withdrew their satellite trucks, according to at least one account, on orders.

Major news outlets report the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police.

Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has issued a statement of concern and will visit Ferguson this morning.

The governor may relieve the police of duty.

Ferguson’s police chief says “it’s a lot of outside agitators causing the violence.” He also says they police will shortly release 911 recording from the time of the Michael Brown shooting, following the release of what is supposed to be the dispatcher recordings.

US Attorney General Eric Holder has said the Department of Justice will investigate the shooting and is to talk with Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri today.

I don’t see any point in adding my comments, but you should add yours…

The location of memory

by Eric on June 29, 2014

A quick gloss on John’s post below. American educators now and then decry the failure to remember World War I. Of course that’s only an American failure – World War I is etched into the civic landscape of even small villages throughout the British Empire (starting with Canada).

Meanwhile, at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, you will find this exhibit:

Forgotten by whom?

Which is laughable here in California – here that’s the only war we do remember.

It’s terribly easy to find an inadequate memory of one or another war – all you have to do is ask a child, or someone in the wrong region of the country, or of the world. Where would we look to find an adequate memory of the war? Where do we want it enshrined?

Lepore on disruption

by Eric on June 24, 2014

Jill Lepore deserves an award for her New Yorker essay against the gospel of disruption. The last paragraph alone is a sufficiently fine piece of writing to warrant reading the whole thing.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar with the theory of disruptive innovation, it goes like this: Everyone, every institution that is superb at providing a product or service is in truth a Goliath, merely waiting for a little innovative David to topple him with a better way to do his job. Why work up your muscles to carry a cudgel if you can deal death with a slingshot?

Amazon has disrupted book-selling. Online commentary has disrupted journalism. MOOCs will disrupt the university (people swear).

You who are merely doing your job exceptionally well and profitably – you are a complacent fool.

In her essay, Lepore beats the tar out of the scholarship that gave rise to this preaching. Apart from pointing the article out to you, I want to comment briefly on how she says what she says. In truth, Lepore gives two arguments for the price of one, and it’s the second that I find more fetching and worth a little extra remark.

Mainly, and entertainingly, she points out the entire theory of disruptive innovation is bunk on its own terms. It neither explains what it’s meant to explain, nor predicts what it’s meant to predict. It’s a fable that comforts the comfortable, by depicting their rapacious waste as the inevitable manner of capitalism’s progress. I won’t try to summarize what Lepore says about the embarrassing failures of the theory, because she already says it well.

But Lepore makes a secondary argument you could almost miss. She notes that even if the theory of disruption were sound, there are certain human activities to which it should not be applied.

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Lepore says all this, but spends little time on it; having noted that people aren’t disk drives, she spends most of her essay observing that the theory of disruptive innovation doesn’t really apply to disk drives anyway.

I’d hazard a guess Lepore knows her essay works better this way. A significant portion of her readership would find it tedious to be told less briefly that we need to remember, or revive, the language of public trust, public interest, public service.

Lepore’s choice of emphasis reminds me of the origins of American liberalism in a different age. Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit. You had, he said (and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment), to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus. Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

HHhH, by Laurent Binet

I came to Laurent Binet’s book about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich late; it was published in 2012 in English, and attracted largely positive attention then. It takes up the true story of a British-aided 1942 mission by the Beneš government-in-exile to kill Heydrich, then Hitler’s satrap in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as well as SS-leader Heinrich Himmler’s number two (Binet’s book says the title comes from the phrase, Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich: Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). Binet manages remarkably to make the book both a well told thriller and an extended mediation on the writer’s relation to history and the fiction he is making of it.

Together with some other British-trained Czechoslovak commandos on other missions, two assassins – Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík; a Czech and a Slovak – parachuted from a Halifax into a field near Prague, made contact with the resistance, and eventually ambushed and waylaid Heydrich’s Mercedes. Gabčík faced down the car with a Sten gun, which jammed and failed to fire. Kubiš charged from the rear with a grenade, which went off near the car’s rear wheel, driving fragments of the vehicle into Heydrich’s body. The assassins fled. Heydrich tried to shoot Gabčík, then collapsed. Taken to a hospital, Heydrich received good treatment but afterward died of an infection. Hitler and the Nazi high command gave him a martyr’s funeral. On the strength of a spurious connection, the Germans destroyed the city of Lidice, killing its inhabitants, razing it to the ground, and salting the earth. They also named an expanded program for carrying out the Final Solution (of which Heydrich had been a principal engineer) “Aktion Reinhard”. With the help of a parachutist who decided to betray his fellows, the Germans discovered Kubiš and Gabčík, together with a number of their colleagues, holed up in a Church and, over many blundering and violent hours, eventually smoked, flooded, and blasted them out of hiding; the commandos died rather than suffer capture.

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Brother, that’s socialism. You know it is.

by Eric on December 10, 2013

The Guardian carries David Simon’s remarks on the “horror show” that is modern America. These were, evidently, impromptu comments, so no fair, I guess, critiquing them too closely. But it’s hard not to note that Simon has lumped in “I’m not a Marxist but” with the other unpersuasive disclaimers, “I’m not a feminist but” and “I’m not a racist but”.

The political landmarks are implicit in his dates – 1980 was when things began to go seriously wrong, after having taken a turn for the better in 1932.
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The recovery of the degenerate

by Eric on November 5, 2013

German authorities have recovered a cache of modernist paintings from behind a stack of tin cans in a Munich apartment. Many of the works were presumably looted by Nazis as examples of “degenerate” work. You can see one of the recovered Chagalls here.

The pieces were in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, “son of a well-known Nazi-era art dealer.” That “-era” is doing a lot of work in that phrase, one suspects; according to the LAT article, Gurlitt père was “appointed by the Nazi regime” to deal with looted artwork, though the Guardian notes he had lost his post because he was half-Jewish. A complex story, perhaps.

The Guardian also suggests that Gurlitt fils got by over the years by occasionally selling off an unknown masterpiece.

Even very limited experience of the world of collectibles suggests it is full of these dark vortices, open secrets to the cognoscenti but unknown to the wider world, in which strange treasures abide.

I suppose we may be grateful the Nazis did not take the same preservationist attitude to degenerate physics they took to degenerate art. There’s rather a good description of the Nazi “anti-art” displays on Radio 4’s Front Row here.

There is no crisis in crisis-mongering

by Eric on October 31, 2013

The New York Times tells us today that undergraduate interest in the humanities is fading. The basis for the claim is the reduction in interest at Stanford, where the humanities claim 45 percent of the faculty but only 15 percent of the students, and Harvard, which has seen a 20 percent decline in humanities majors over the last ten years.

But Stanford and Harvard are both special cases, and Stanford is especially special.

And as my co-blogger Ari Kelman points out, the overall numbers for the humanities don’t look like they’re in quite a crisis. As Ari says, “in 1970-1971, 17.1% of students who received BAs in the United States majored in a humanities discipline. Three decades later, in the midst of the crisis in the humanities we hear so much about, that number had plummeted to 17%.”

Ari’s numbers come from the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows something more genuinely resembling a crisis in the social sciences, which over the same period have gone from 23% of bachelor’s degrees to 16.4% of bachelor’s degrees.

But the NYT article is right about one thing – some administrators and faculty sure want there to be a crisis in the humanities, because that means they can cut the humanities.

A graph of the NCES data appears below the fold. Clearly the big growth area is undergraduate business and “other” majors. [click to continue…]

You shall know their names

by Eric on October 25, 2013

California just hit up the Koch brothers for a million bucks. The Koch brothers haven’t admitted hiding behind shell outfits while throwing scads of dollars at initiatives meant to break unions and block tax increases in the Golden State, but the fine is part of a settlement in a case launched to find out if they did so hide and throw.

The California group opposed to public goods wanted big money, so they went to the Kochs on the ground that “nobody in California would want to do this[.]” They appear to have viewed the Kochs as a right-wing money milch cow: “dealing with the Koch network … availability of funds never crossed our mind.”

I love with an unseemly passion the – hastily? purposely? sleepily? – inept redaction that allows the Sacramento Bee to make informed guesses about the other donors to the cause of destroying the state parks and public schools as well as killing labor. These guesses include the family that owns the Gap and “Ventura County businessman Gene Haas, who.… served 16 months in a halfway house in 2008 and 2009 after pleading to conspiracy to commit tax evasion.”

The tax increase that passed is the one that led to the state’s celebrated balanced budget. The million dollar fine might help balance the budget a little, too. Maybe we should hope for some more feckless and shady out of state donations, followed by more fines – then perhaps we could restore California’s public services, including her great universities, to the people who live here instead of eroding them to please ideologues from elsewhere.