You are here

Steven D. Brewer's blog

Death visits Amherst

Yesterday, I spoke briefly at the funeral for Tom Lindeman. I knew Tom through the Faculty Senate at UMass Amherst. I met him 1997 or 1998, when I attended the Senate for the first time. The Faculty Senate is a highly polarized body where the faculty on sit on one side and the administration on the other. I inadvertently sat on the wrong side, and I think it was Tom who recognized a newcomer and came over to tell me that I might be more comfortable sitting on the other side. At that time, Tom had no official role at the Faculty Senate. He came every month because it was a way to stay in touch with the University community and to learn about the intentions of the administration. Tom took an interest in me and we shared lunch together a time or two to talk about our paths through life. Tom had served in the United Christian Foundation at UMass in the late 60's and early 70's, during the upheaval of the Vietnam War. I like this picture of him from 1974. We all should hope to have looked so cool in our 40's. He told me that parents supported the foundation because they were concerned about their children's moral direction but that the ministry felt compelled to line up with the students in activism against the war, which disillusioned the parents — and jeopardized their funding. He had left the area afterward and returned only after retirement. But he maintained his connection through the Faculty Senate. In 2014, thanks to Dick Bogartz, the Rules Committee (of which I was proud to be a member at the time) nominated Tom to be an honorary member of the Faculty Senate, to recognize his service and give him the right to speak. I believe that Tom was genuinely moved by the recognition and appreciated it very much. Tom did not speak often, but he did occasionally rise to remind the Senate not to get caught up only in the polemics of the moment, but to remember our grounding principles and all of our stakeholders, especially those who might be disenfranchised or unable to participate in our proceedings. He served as our conscience and many of us will feel his loss. As I was leaving, someone came up to me — I think one of the family — to thank me for my remarks and to comment that Tom had told everyone how much being made an honorary senator had meant to him and to thank all of us for our actions.

This is after Thursday, when I attended the calling hours for Larry Kelley, a local blogger and community activist who was killed in a car accident. Larry attended many town meetings and wrote posts about many town events. His coverage was both news and editorial in varying measures but, with the decline in local journalism, often the best coverage available. And always interesting. One of his abiding passions was to have the town make shows of patriotism, through parades and displaying US flags. A controversy that went on for years was Larry wanting the Town to display the flags for the annual remembrance of 9/11. Last year, Alisa persuaded the Select Board to make it happen. After Alisa learned that Larry had passed away, she requested the Town fly the flags in honor of Larry for his wake and funeral. Many, many people appreciated the gesture. And I'm sure Larry would have been tickled, if he could have known.

It's always a bit jarring for me to attend religious services. It's not a habit of thought with which I am familiar. However, I always appreciated the personification of Death in the Terry Pratchett novels.


Now there's a sentiment I think I can agree with.

Delegitimizing science

Recently the President of the United States accused the main stream media of being "enemies of the American People". In response, journalists have engaged in a certain amount of hand-wringing about being delegitimized.

Science has been confronting this issue for a generation. And the media has not always been an ally.

Journalism, in the US, is largely a business. And businesses have to make money. For them, there's been more money to be made in controversy than in just covering the facts. But now the shoe's on the other foot.

Educators and scientists have been demonized as the enemy by the right wing for a long time. Now, perhaps, journalists will recognize that everyone with a commitment to the truth needs to come together and stand up for honest dialog. There is room for differences of opinion in honest dialog. And for differences in goals and values. There is no room for people who lie, who intentionally seek to deceive their interlocutor, or reject the possibility of agreeing on a shared body of facts to support their argument. Dialog is not possible with such people and they must be resisted to the utmost.

This is not to say that science is truth. Or that data can't be misleading or incomplete. But for many years the Republicans have been seeking to undermine the foundation of the enlightenment: that reasoned dialog and inquiry can take us toward the truth. The alternative is fascism, a "cultural revolution", and a plunge into the dark ages. Resist!

Limits of persuasion

Recently, on Facebook, I was forced to acknowledge that a "friend" — a former roommate from college — was trolling me. He would pretend to engage with me, like he was interested in having an actual discussion when, in fact, he was simply posting false, inflammatory articles just to see if he could get me to waste my time responding to them. I say that because it requires little effort to investigate the reputation of the authors or the sites distributing the posts to determine that they are, in fact, specious. And he's a lawyer and clearly capable of performing the necessary due diligence.

Another so-called "friend" rejects science and shares pseudoscientific racist posts from neo-nazi websites, but in his case, he may simply be too limited to understand what he's looking at.

But I'm left with a quandary. Many people I know simply block or unfriend people like this. I haven't wanted to do this because like Steve Randy Waldman, I genuinely believe in persuasion: The greatest mistake we can make, in my view, is to not try to persuade.

Persuasion is not about elegant logic or Oxford-style debates. It is about interacting, with good will and in good faith, with people who look at things differently, and working to understand how they see things so that you can help them understand how you see things. Persuasion involves a meeting of minds, and very frequently alterations of circumstance and behavior by all involved.

Then today, I saw Quinta Jurecic's Bannon in Washington: A Report on the Incompetence of Evil:

Trolling reflects a profound lack of sincerity, even a hostility to sincerity. It allows the speaker to make an offensive declaration and then insist that his or her (usually his) statement was just intended to make you mad—that you’re the real fool for taking this seriously. The speaker gets to say the thing and also gets to deny responsibility for it. The troll believes that people who care about things are chumps and that the only wise way to go through the world is with a level of ironic detachment that borders on nihilism. Trolling isn’t just about being offensive. It’s about being gleefully offensive.

And that sounds exactly like what I'm seeing.

Persuasion requires good will and good faith on both sides. Don't feed the trolls.


Many years ago, I subscribed to an early internet group called comp.risks. It was a group of smart people who were always thinking about subtle risks of technology. I learned a lot reading posts in the group, especially about how poor humans are at assessing risks. A classic example was people trying to make infants safer on planes by requiring infant seats. The upshot was that you could make infants safer that way — in the extremely unlikely event of a plane crash — but requiring people to purchase a plane ticket for an infant would result in many more people traveling by car, which is much less safe that air travel, which meant that infants were at a substantially greater actual risk.

Recently, the Trump administration, decided to ban Muslim refugees claiming that they posed an increased risk to Americans for terrorist attacks. Congressman Lieu from California pointed out that your chances of being killed by a refugee committing a terrorist act is 1 in 3.6 billion. Politifact finds that statement mostly true and points out other unlikely events (like being struck by lightning twice) as being significant *more* likely than this.

Unfortunately, the media doesn't get it and I've hear journalists asking what could be done to reduce the risk of terrorist attack. This is the wrong question. What they should be asking is "what are the actual risks that people face and how can we reduce those?" The actual risks that Americans face are mostly due to disease and accidents. We could reduce risks of disease by ensuring that everyone had good health care. And we could reduce a lot of accidents by having better gun control. Those are obvious things that could reduce premature deaths by thousands every year.

But what if we *really* want to reduce those 1 in 3.6 billion odds… How about these:

  • When you walk by someone smoking on the sidewalk, walk one extra foot away.
  • Wash your hands for one extra second once a day.
  • Wear a bicycle helmet while driving your car.

These probably still make you safer than Donald Trump's muslim ban, but at least we're getting close in terms of absolute reduction in risk. But unfortunately these all fail the key test that Republicans want, which is to demonize and punish The Other.

Blog Updated

I first started blogging using a wiki and, after two or three years, switched to Drupal. Since then, Drupal has gone through several major version changes, each requiring a more or less painful transition. I had been holding off waiting to see if I should switch from Drupal 6 straight to Drupal 8. Eventually, I decided that D8 isn't ready for me to use. And I migrated to Drupal 7.

It took a few tries to get this far. I was able to get the content (mostly), although I discovered that the migration tool had renumbered all of my nodes, which is what I had been using for "permalinks". It seemed stupid to lose all my permalinks, so I spent another 5 hours or so figuring how out to make that work. In the process, at one point, I accidentally trashed the database of my Drupal 6 system, so it required another hour to reconstruct the site from backups. But eventually, I have a new site, with a responsive theme, with most of my previous data. There are still some things left to sort out, but whatever: it's enough for moving forward with, so I've switched the new site to be my live site. Yay.

Defending Science

A March for Science is being planned for April 22, 2017 -- Earth Day. Initial messaging suggested it would be a "Scientist's March on Washington" which provoked some reactions like this one from scientists who like to see their work as apolitical.

It is a common attitude among scientists that their work is apolitical and has inherent value. They believe that reasoned dialog will lead to common understanding, because reality is on their side. They are wrong. This is a war between Romanticist and Enlightenment paradigms which are incommensurable.

It is fundamentally political to use data, rather than dogma, to make decisions.

It is fundamentally political to use reason to persuade, rather than fear to compel.

Unless we advocate for and demonstrate the importance of science, we can lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the people in the United States who are inclined to see both enlightenment and romance thinking as equivalent ways to make sense of reality.

If we lose the battle, the United States will plunge into a new dark age. You don't need to look farther back than the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to understand what the shape of such a dark age can look like. The reality of a 9-mm brain hemorrhage is no less a reality than any other.

We should march. We must march. The stakes have never been higher. This is the moment for which every educated person was educated. Education, reason, and dialog must be defended vigorously. We must not fail to recognize the existential threat that faces us and assume that reason will carry the day.

Life goes on

When the BCRC was renovated a couple of years ago, we had to give up the room where we'd had a coffee maker. I tried using the café one floor down, but they were closed at inopportune times (like "summer" and "holidays" and "night"). So I ended up getting a Keurig coffee maker.

I was skeptical about the Keurig model -- indeed the inventor of the Keurig system regretted creating it. At home, I won't use one -- I much prefer to having a pot of coffee and being able to just pour myself a cup. But, without a sink to easily clean and fill a coffee pot, the Keurig is a necessary evil.

My colleague and I often try different kinds of coffee. (Usually whatever is on sale from week to week). I often get the inexpensive grocery store brand of coffee — which has many varieties. I noticed, however, when I recently went to switch from one variety to another, that although the boxes are different, the "pods" instead look identical. And I wondered if they were really different.


This morning, I can attest that they are, in fact, different. Quite different. And that this one (the "house blend") is extremely nasty as compared with the Sumatran. I won't be getting this one again.

Science and Politics

As a child, as the son of a scientist, I grew up in a scientifically literate family. At first, I wanted to be a scientist myself but, even in college, I could see that the funding priorities for science were shifting.

Science used to be about basic research. Scientists trained for many years and then, having proved their judgement through education, dissertation, and the tenure process, were given free rein to pursue their own agenda, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. Most basic research is incoherent to anyone outside of a field. A naive person will scoff at what seems like the pursuit of silly or trivial questions, but many of our key innovations and advances derive from research that began this way.

It's sometimes difficult to disentangle innovation in science from engineering. The advances during World War II in both gave us unimagined new destructive powers, as well as many other capabilities in sensing (RADAR) and information processing. The synergies of these innovations have given us the modern age. And there was a time that people understood that.

Growing up in the 1960s, we were bombarded with popular messages about the primacy of scientific understanding. Tennessee Tuxedo had Phineas J Whoopee. Gumby had Professor Kapp. Einstein was beatified, if not deified. Science was respected by popular culture.

Part of this push toward science, it turns out, was driven by a lie. In the late 1950s, the US and Soviet Union saw themselves in a race to develop ICBMs. The Soviet Union succeeded in orbiting a satellite first, leading to great angst that the US was behind in the "space race". This led to a huge surge in investment in science teaching and research -- and undoubtedly influenced the public perception of the importance of science. But in point of fact, the US could have put a satellite up first. Eisenhower intentionally held back military efforts, because he wanted either civilian efforts, or Soviet efforts, to succeed first.

During the 1970s, there was a growing scientific understanding of the limits of the earth to accommodate human activity. Environmental regulation based on science were put into place to reduce pollution. But corporations weren't happy with restrictions on their ability to extract profits while shifting the costs, through environmental degradation, onto the public.

In the 1980s, Reagan was elected, who took a dim view of science and just hated government. This was when the trend began of shifting all of the growth in the economy away from government and working people to put in the hands of the very wealthy. The government was invoked as a bogeyman to explain why there weren't jobs or people couldn't be paid more.

I've always been horrified by presidents singling out particular scientific projects to mock -- not just Republicans, but Democrats too. Bill Clinton mocked a grant to study the blood of horseshoe crabs -- like it was something crazy -- and evidently not understanding that the horseshoe crab immune system has unique properties that make it essential to medical testing. George W. Bush mocked a homeland defense bill that included a line item to create a new building to house the nation's collection of "bugs and worms" -- not understanding the important of bugs and worms to agriculture and that they're stored in alcohol which, if attacked could cause the whole building to go up in flames.

Today, science is under siege. Basic research is all but dead. Wisconsin has undermined tenure. And the current president rejects science on climate change as a "Chinese hoax". His "ban on Muslims" is already blocking scientists coming to study here.

In World War II, the Germans killed off and chased away their Jewish scientists -- including the man who first envisioned the possibility of creating a nuclear bomb, Leo Szilard. Einstein was also a Jewish refugee. And many, many others.

Science is not perfect: It is a human endeavor. Science sometimes fares badly when paired with journalism, which is more interested in headlines and controversy than the long arc of theory. Or when used as a substitute for ethics. But science is the best we've got if we want to take reality into account when making decisions. And we ignore it at our peril.

National Handwriting Day

Today (Jan 23), for National Handwriting Day, I will write a postal letter, by hand, to send to my brother. But that's not a fluke or one-off event.

Over the past several years, I'd noticed that my handwriting had degraded. In college, I could fill multiple blue-books for an hour exam. But in January, I wrote two thank-you cards to relatives for Christmas gifts and could barely write a paragraph without my hand cramping. Phil and I decided to do something about it and began exchanging postal letters.

So far, I've written 6 or 7 letters. It also gave me an excuse to look for appropriate stationery (A J Hastings, in Amherst, has a very nice selection) and to get some new pens (the Pilot Varsity is nice — and even cheaper at Hastings). My handwriting has already improved somewhat and my hand doesn't hurt as much when I write.

Phil has gone farther and is working to relearn cursive. I learned cursive in elementary school, but reverted to block printing as soon as it was no longer required. I fear that I'm far too lazy to relearn cursive now.

While I was in Boston recently, we stayed at the Hilton and I had imagined that I would find a few pages of stationery and envelopes -- as was traditional at a good hotel. But I was disappointed to find nothing to write on but a tiny note pad by the phone. I asked at the desk, where the friendly lady sounded like she'd never heard of stationery before. But she helpfully gave me a business envelope a few pages of printer paper (that were evidently from the recycle bin, as they had some printer garbage on them -- just a few characters on each page as sometimes happens when a laser printer has an error.) But they were sufficient to write a letter.

Afterwards, I went to the post-office in the Prudential Center and asked to buy some "pretty stamps" to mail my letter. The young woman seemed mystified. "You mean, like, to send a birthday card?"

"Well, no," I replied, brandishing the envelope. "It's just a letter. Do you have any pretty stamps?"

"Yes," she said. Then she just sat there looking at me.

"Um. Can you show me some?" She looked irritated and began casting around herself as though it was a totally novel question. I spotted a commemorative sheet of stamps behind her and asked to see it. She passed it over and it was perfect enough that, after paying and then affixing one to my letter, I left with a warm glow.

Writing letters is fun. Silly, perhaps, and not particularly useful. But fun.

Next thing, I'll be digging out my old sealing wax and seals.

Moss Terrarium

Moss Terrarium

For several years, I kept an Emperor Scorpion named Muffy in my office. When he died, I put the terrarium on a shelf. I would notice it every so often and think of ways it might be made useful again. I thought about creating a terrarium with moss and had seen some places up in Pelham where I thought I might be able to collect some mosses to put in it. But it was never convenient.

Today, I noticed that, under the melting snow, there was a big flat piece of moss that had been scraped up off the driveway during snow shoveling which looked relatively intact. And I saw another spot where another big piece could be collected. I darted back into the house, grabbed an old grocery bag (the kind that is now illegal in Amherst), and grabbed the mosses before running for the bus.

I laid down a layer of potting soil, soaked everything pretty well, and then arranged the patches of moss to cover the interior.

Inside Moss Terrarium

At some point, some colleagues and I ordered some things from Small Dog Electronics which included little statuettes of dogs with the product. I had put them in to keep Muffy company years ago, but now they have a new, green lawn to populate. I've put it out in the BCRC and I hope the students will also find it restful to look at during the long winter months to come.


Subscribe to RSS - Steven D. Brewer's blog