American Experience The Great War

I’m watching American Experience:

Modern industrial warfare, and all its horrors. Popular heroes of battle. The flu. The treaty of Versailles, planting the seeds of another paroxysm of industrial war. And then racial violence driven by… fear that returning veteran Negros would be a conduit for communism into American society. Wilson’s reclusion, and his destruction of the treaty he had worked for, because of his hatred for HC Lodge. What if the US had been in the League of Nations, when Mussolini and Hitler had arisen?

What is it all for? What is a “just war”?

There are no just wars. Humanity, and humanity’s progress, are destroyed so men in power can strut and talk about ideals. That is in all wars, regardless.

If we need to fight a war, OK, fight a war. But don’t pretend it is a good thing. Don’t make believe the destruction and the loss of human culture and potential is in any way acceptable. It isn’t.

Let’s have done with trying to say any wars are moral, or good, or just. They’re not. Stop glorifying them. Even for good causes, they are a cause for shame.

Maybe if they are properly (de)valued, wars can finally be relegated to the last resort. Maybe then we can start thinking far enough ahead to see them coming, and ante up for a future we can be proud of.

Watch it online

Respecting the emotions of children

I saw a video recently that made me profoundly uncomfortable. It was a little girl coming home to discover a kitten in her bedroom. The caption was something like; “Watch this little girl’s adorable reaction to her new kitten after losing her cat/BFF six months before”.

She picked up the kitten and immediately burst into tears. She asked if they could keep it: “Yes”. And then she just fell to pieces. She sobbed uncontrollably holding the kitten. No doubt she was glad to have the kitten but her expression* was one of inconsolable grief. What’s up?

I can guess the timeline after she lost her cat/BFF.  Her parents were sad of course, but their daughter was prostrate with grief. They were patient for a while, but she soon got signals to the effect; “All right, now, that’s enough.” She wasn’t done grieving but she started damming it up somewhere.

Holding the tiny kitten, she was completely overwhelmed by the flood of pent-up grief. She was absolutely beyond any hope of control. All she could do was hold the kitten and sob. It went on for a long time.

And her parents thought it was a good idea to video the whole thing and post it on the internet.

She certainly needed a kitten*. And there was no chance of her receiving it without falling to pieces. But what are the situations in which it would be OK to invite the whole damn world to watch? Her friends? Her definitely-not friends? For as long as the internet shall remember?

I can think of a few instances where such coverage does make sense. A father grieving after a missile attack. An emotionally and physically shattered child sitting in a helicopter. A little girl running from a napalm attack. In these instances the public has a need, a responsibility, to know, and to face what has happened. It is bigger than the individual’s right to privacy.

But no weighty matter of geophysical politics hung in the balance here. In a few minutes she would ride through the flood, hopefully with her parents. And there would be more moments, in which the kitten would help her to process the experience and come out all right. In such extremes, put the damn camera down.

Children’s emotions are just like those of adults, and they have less of the stabilizing ballast that one gains from life experience. To put it another way, children are riding the same wave in a smaller boat. This is true of joy, grief, love, fear, and more. They face all these emotions with no basis for courage, because for all they know this is all there will ever be. So how’s about some respect?


  • I study photos of people very closely. Over the years I’ve learned to recognize expressions. That was some joy in a tsunami of grief.
  • Many people prefer the company of their cat or dog to that of people. Any people.

Gladly We Learn and Teach

Gladly We Learn And Teach is slogan of Illinois State UniversithyI always liked our university’s motto, but in an age of purposeful ignorance I’ve come to appreciate it even more.

Inspired by Chaucer’s Clerk, the motto means we bow to evidence. It means we understand the present and future by learning history. We will learn science, and weigh the claims of economic interests. We will embrace art, and find joy in human expression. And it means we are all richer for sharing what we learn.

“We” includes everyone: faculty, staff, students, citizens and visitors, men and women, genderqueer, deep scholars and wide-eyed children.

But today we live in a country where science and art are on the chopping block, where super-rich men play golf and talk about who they can exclude from the American dream. Where religious leaders try to take us back to the days when men claimed divine commission to decide what was true.

Our country is in thrall to a gospel of short-term gain. It reminds me of that story about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs: “Can’t we just cut the bird open? All those golden eggs are inside!” But that is is not how golden-egg laying geese, or society, or life, work. Those golden eggs are a product of the care we lavish on the goose.

Chaucer’s Clerk was not wealthy; in fact he lived in a way that was quite out of step with his times. But a whole society of people who are glad to learn, and glad to teach? That’s a different story.


George W Bush speaks to Trump

GW Bush in his art studio
Photo NY Times

Many of my friends are upset by the thought of George W Bush offering advice for #45. I understand that really well; it was Bush’s opportunism in Iraq (body count, 1m and counting) that pushed his party onto my Never list. The man was a terrible president. And yet…

Not completely terrible. He was very specific about religious freedom, then and now, reminding Americans that Muslims are not the enemy. In contrast to his VP he was very quiet during the Obama years. He took AIDS very seriously. He did not attempt to shut down the press then and supports a free press now.

Do these things outweigh Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo? No. There is simply no absolution for what he did. But here’s a moral exercise for the rest of us: can we detect some good in a person whom we despised? Should we? Is there value in leavening words from a terrible president? Do those words place both Trump and Bush in some kind of perspective? There is no rule that a person who did an evil thing must go on doing evil or cannot accomplish some good.

Trump is literally an existential threat to our global civilization. Bush was not. He went into the presidency with certain ideological convictions that played out very badly. I have no idea what his convictions are now (and it hardly matters to his victims), but I am damn selective about who I honor, who I disdain, and who I actually hate. His voice in the GOP makes space for other Republicans to actively oppose Trump. That is not a small thing.


Anti-intellectualism vs higher education

One of the first things any authoritarian regime tries to do is get higher education under its strict control. Usually this is done with some narrative about professors being elitist and subversive. And I certainly hope professors are subversive. Let me explain.

It is a professor’s job to subvert the equation of authority with Truth. A professor is tasked with getting students to think, to get evidence, to doubt, and if necessary to reject the party line. To get rid of “capital-T” Truth. If you think about it (pun intended) this is how all progress is made. Not by some strongman or beloved leader twirling their finger in the air and saying; “I alone can solve.”

In the Soviet Union, official Truth elevated a single party functionary, Trofim Lysenko, to the level of Truth in the understanding of genetics, and it hurt Soviet agriculture so badly that it fell behind Western agriculture.

In Nazi Germany, relativity was opposed as representing a “foreign spirit” and to be rejected as such. I suppose we should be grateful for whatever extent it delayed their creation of an atomic bomb, but they did pay a strategic price for that politicization.

China’s Cultural Revolution insisted that university professors go harvest grain. Their economy suffered and thousands starved.

Republicans have been loud in rejecting Michael Mann’s climate warnings as “politicized science”. We are just beginning to pay what will be a staggering cost for that denialism.

And now the new Secretary of Education , Betsy DeVoss, says college professors are indoctrinating students. Telling them what to think. A college professor (I have preserved their anonymity) responds:

The Trump administration has now just directly addressed me. Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, included in her speech at CPAC on Thursday:

“The fight against the education establishment extends to you too [college students]. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”

Like most of what the Trump administration says, this is a ridiculous lie. Having taught for over 20 years now, the single political thing I have ever uttered in the classroom is to understand BOTH SIDES of the Affordable Care Act – to actually consider the other side’s argument for or against Obamacare (which Republicans are finally starting to realize).

The goal of every college professor is to get people to actually think rather than just accept what is said. Which might help shed light on why our president at one time proudly exclaimed that he “loves the poorly educated.” But I digress…

More importantly, the ridiculous statement by DeVos, like the cries of fake news by this incompetent group of liars, is a direct attempt to slander me and my colleagues. This administration has a short history, but already an unblemished and sustained record of hostility toward many groups of Americans (e.g., immigrants, women, minorities, LGBT, the press, etc.). They taunt and disparage our own people. I find it completely offensive and unacceptable. And now they add educators to the list of people to blame? Emphatically: No.

It’s just become personal.

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On photorealism, color, and dynamic range

(Putting this on my blog so I can find it again)

Here’s a great discussion of dynamic range, color profiles, color rendering and brightness, the purpose of that weird “false color” setting, and the generosity of one of imaging’s most advanced leaders.  I don’t do any rendering, but if you are involved in imaging at all, this is worth your time.

Don’t trust jump drives

Using a pencil tip to restore power flow to damaged jump drive
Jump drive CPR… with a pencil

“Is there any way to restore files from a jump drive?” asked the professor. He was very insistent, and a little panicked. His graduate assistant had stored ten hours of work on the drive, and now it wouldn’t read.

I plugged the jump drive into the USB extension cable that is always threaded through my monitor stand. There was no Windows sound, and the drive didn’t light up. The USB plug on the drive was slightly bent.  “It appears to be mechanically damaged,” I said. I took out my Swiss Army knife and folded out the can opener attachment. Swiss Army Knife with can opener attachment openIt’s a perfect little tool for prying open plastic cases.

The little circuit board appeared normal. On one side was a large memory chip, with no brand name. On the other side was a tiny quartz oscillator, a control chip, and an LED. The USB plug, like most jump drives, was soldered directly to the delicate circuit traces of the green board. This is where leverage on the plug most commonly damages the circuit.

I folded out a magnifying glass. At close range I could see a tiny crack in the lacquer surrounding the 5V lead of the USB plug. I plugged it into the extension again and propped it up on a plastic pen. Then, using the tip of a pencil, I pressed gently down on the trace inside the boundary of the crack. Instantly, the circuit lit up, and Windows announced the detection of a jump drive.

“Hold gently down on the pencil, and don’t move,” I said. Then, I began working the mouse and keyboard as quickly as I could.

Window+E brought up Windows file explorer. I clicked on the drive. Its contents appeared in the preview window.

Ctrl+A selected all. Ctrl+C copied all. I used the mouse to click on the C: drive, then the \Temp folder. Then Ctrl+V started the files copying. The Windows dialog box showed a progress bar as almost two GB of files were copied from the drive.

“Don’t move,” I said. The professor held still, keeping gentle pressure on the pencil for almost four minutes. Finally, the progress bar announced 100% files copied. Lucky professor, lucky grad student.

I motioned for the professor to lift the pencil. Instantly, Windows sounded the removal, and the drive circuit went dark for the last time.

Jump drives seem durable, but they’re not. Don’t rely on them. Use them for carrying copies of files. Don’t save work-in-progress on them. If you do, copy to a backed-up drive or cloud storage as soon as possible. Two locations is a lot better than one.