Meeting Alison

acilius:

I wish I’d been in New Zealand to see brilliant young cartoonist Sarah E. Laing meet her hero, comics titan Alison Bechdel.  Exxtraordinary to compare the photo below with the comic Ms Laing is giving Ms Bechdel- powers of prophecy that one has.

Originally posted on LET ME BE FRANK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gw_K_XjvFA

This is the trailer for The Curioseum – what do you think? I was pretty excited to see all my illustrations animated, albeit in a low-fi way.

Also, I gave Alison Bechdel my Metro comic, the one with her in it.

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She seemed pretty excited to see herself there, and she accepted my bundle of Let Me Be Frank comics, but I think I scared her with my enthusiasm. When I saw her at the NZ comics panel the next day she looked a little guarded and apologised for not reading my comics yet. I told her it was ok – she could throw them in the recycling if she liked – but I hope she doesn’t. I felt a bit sorry for her – she probably has half-crazed cartoonists foisting comics on her all the time and she’s too nice a person to tell us to piss off…

View original 47 more words

“A fan base primarily comprised of people who got to the store after Mad sold out”

Contrary to the cover, it is very unlikely that anything funny was going on there.

I just stumbled on the Wikipedia article for the late, unlamented Cracked magazine.  It’s hilarious, 10,000 times funnier than anything that ever appeared in Cracked magazine, on a par with the best material that appears on that magazine’s descendant, Cracked.com.  Who could fail to laugh out loud at an article that includes this sentence: “In Germany, there were three publications that included Cracked reprints. First was Kaputt, which ran from 1974 to 1983; it was followed by Stupid, which ran from 1983 to 1984, and, finally, Panic.”

Considering what happens to interesting writing on Wikipedia, it will probably be deleted and replaced with something unreadable by the end of the morning, so I’ve preserved its text here, after the jump.   (more…)

Ecce Crock

I read Josh Fruhlinger’s mockery of the day’s newspaper comics at his mighty website every morning.  This morning, he included today’s Crock:

Mr. Fruhlinger’s remark on this piece was:

So … I’m assuming there’s, like, a handyman who endorses things on TV by saying he’s a handyman? Like Schmeese does in the throwaway panels here? Damn it, I hate being made to feel like I’m missing some pop cultural reference, and being made to feel like I’m missing some pop cultural reference by Crock is particularly humiliating.

I commented on his post: “This morning’s Crock is certainly an unconventional retelling of the Easter story.”

Today is Easter.  The strip shows a man of humble social station tied to a wooden stake, in the process of execution by the representatives of an imperial power.  The man proclaims that his execution will be merely a prelude to the realization of his great project.   In the words, “You always thought I was the dumb one,” he tells his executioners that they know not what they do.  Schmeese’s contemplated postmortem advertising campaign for the bullets that will have killed him evokes the Church’s traditional veneration of the cross and the other instruments of Christ’s Passion.

 

 

 

 

The world’s fastest manhole cover?

Tuesday, xkcd’s What-If mentioned the story of a manhole cover that may have gone into space before Sputnik:

A brief story:

The official record for fastest manmade object is the Helios 2 probe, which reached about 70 km/s in a close swing around the Sun. But it’s possible the actual holder of that title is a two-ton metal manhole cover.

The cover sat atop a shaft at an underground nuclear test site operated by Los Alamos as part of Operation Plumbbob. When the one-kiloton nuke went off below, the facility effectively became a nuclear potato cannon, giving the cap a gigantic kick. A high-speed camera trained on the lid caught only one frame of it moving upward before it vanished—which means it was moving at a minimum of 66 km/s. The cap was never found.

66 km/s is about six times escape velocity, but contrary to the linked blog’s speculation, it’s unlikely the cap ever reached space. Newton’s impact depth approximation suggests that it was either destroyed completely by impact with the air or slowed and fell back to Earth.

This remark includes a link to a post about the test on “Notes from the Technology Underground.”  A comment on that post takes some of the fun out of it:

It probably never left the atmosphere. As Newton found, a projectile penetration into a medium is proportional to their relative densities, times projectile bodylength, quite irrespective of projectile velocity.

Here we have steel projectile (8 g/cm3), thrust into air (0.001 g/cm3), meaning that the projectile will only travel 8000 times its bodylength into the atmosphere.

If it was 4 foot across, weighted 2 tons (I think I saw that figure somewhere else), and was roughly circular, this works out to thickness of 22 cm. So face up, it coul travel 1 760 meters high. If it somehow turned to its side and stayed in that position, it could travel 4 feet (120 cm) * 8 000 = 9 600 m high. Even this best case scenario is short from leaving the atmosphere. Thinning of air as you get higher is obviously not considered, but I don’t expect it would change the results much.

It gets even less exciting when we look at these old remarks on “Above Top Secret,” based on discussions with Dr Robert Brownlee, the principal investigator behind the test in question (known officially as Pascal-B):

For an authentic account of this incident by Dr. Robert Brownlee himself, this web site is pleased to host:Learning to Contain Underground Nuclear Explosions.

As Dr. Brownlee explains, the figure of “a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth’s gravity” refers to the results of a simulation, that may not of been a good model of the actual test conditions (the actual yield for example, was unknown even if all other parameters were correct). No measurement of the actual plate velocity was made.

If the description of the plate is accurate – 4 feet wide, 4 inches thick and made of steel – then it would weigh about 900 kg (a lower weight is possible if the dimensions are inaccurate or if it was not of uniform thickness). A velocity of 6 times Earth’s escape velocity (67 km/sec, since escape velocity is 11.2 km/sec) would give the plate a kinetic energy 60% larger than the total energy released by the explosion. This is clearly impossible.

Brownlee explained to this author, by email, that the concrete plug placed in close proximity to the bomb was vaporized by the explosion. Thus the propulsion of the plate could be considered to be due to the energy imparted by this expanding vaporized material, rather like the propellant of a gun. From the descriptions available of the plug a mass of at least 3000 kg can be estimated, and if half the bomb’s energy were deposited in it then it would have an energy density of 50 times that of normal gun propellant. From the physics of high velocity guns, it can be estimated that velocities produced by the gas expanding up the long shaft could propel and object to velocities exceeding Earth’s escape velocity, perhaps as much as twice escape velocity.

If by some chance the metal that had made up the manhole cover did escape from the atmosphere (and after all, the atmosphere is thin enough that after less than two seconds going straight up at the hypothetical speed of 66 km/second the blob of molten iron that once made up the manhole cover would be in a near vacuum,) interesting things might have happened.  If it had fallen straight down, for instance, it would have bounced off the atmosphere back into space.  Perhaps it might have repeated that process several times, growing ever hotter.  With each bounce some iron vapor would have been flung down into the atmosphere, some flung outward into space.  Perhaps the bit of the blob that finally crashed into the ocean would have been quite small.

Probably nothing of the sort happened; probably the whole blob dissipated before leaving the atmosphere.  But one does wonder where the metal ended up…

Humanists, Idiots, and the Rest

The other day, Jessica Hagy posted an Indexed comic that made me want to talk about two things:

Regular readers of this site will see the first point coming.  It’s to do with the word “humanist.”  I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933,) an American literary scholar who founded a school of thought sometimes known as “The New Humanism.”  In many of his writings, such as 1908′s “What is Humanism?,” Babbitt concerned himself with the definition of the words “humanist” and “humanism”:

The first step in our quest would seem to be to go back to the Latin words (humanus, humanitas) from which all the words of our group are derived. Most of the material we need will be found in a recent and excellent study by M. Gaston Boissier of the ancient meanings of humanitas. From M. Boissier’s paper it would appear that humanitas was from the start a fairly elastic virtue with the Romans, and that the word came to be used rather loosely, so that in a late Latin writer, Aulus Gellius, we find a complaint that it had been turned aside from its true meaning. Humanitas, says Gellius, is incorrectly used to denote a “promiscuous benevolence, what the Greeks call philanthropy,” whereas the word really implies doctrine and discipline, and is applicable not to men in general but only to a select few,—it is, in short, aristocratic and not democratic in its implication (Noctes Atticae, 13.17).

The confusion that Gellius complains of is not only interesting in itself, but closely akin to one that we need to be on guard against to-day. If we are to believe Gellius, the Roman decadence was like our own age in that it tended to make love for one’s fellow men, or altruism, as we call it, do duty for most of the other virtues. It confused humanism with philanthropy. Only our philanthropy has been profoundly modified, as we shall see more fully later, by becoming associated with an idea of which only the barest beginnings can be found in antiquity—the idea of progress.

It was some inkling of the difference between a universal philanthropy and the indoctrinating and disciplining of the individual that led Aulus Gellius to make his protest. Two words were probably needed in his time; they are certainly needed today. A person who has sympathy for mankind in the lump, faith in its future progress, and desire to serve the great cause of this progress, should be called not a humanist, but a humanitarian, and his creed may be designated as humanitarianism. From the present tendency to regard humanism as an abbreviated and convenient form for humanitarianism there must arise every manner of confusion. The humanitarian lays stress almost solely upon breadth of knowledge and sympathy. The poet Schiller, for instance, speaks as a humanitarian and not as a humanist when he would “clasp the millions to his bosom,” and bestow “a kiss upon the whole world.” The humanist is more selective in his caresses. Aulus Gellius, who was a man of somewhat crabbed and pedantic temper, would apparently exclude sympathy almost entirely from his conception of humanitas and confine the meaning to what he calls cura et disciplina; and he cites the authority of Cicero. Cicero, however, seems to have avoided any such one-sided view. Like the admirable humanist that he was, he no doubt knew that what is wanted is not sympathy alone, nor again discipline and selection alone, but a disciplined and selective sympathy. Sympathy without selection becomes flabby, and a selection which is unsympathetic tends to grow disdainful.

Babbitt’s goal in drawing a sharp distinction between “humanist” and “humanitarian” was in part to efface another distinction.  Babbitt was deeply read in many languages, including several ancient languages of India.  He wanted to find a set of ideas that sages writing in every highly literate culture had expressed.  Indeed, he thought he had found such a set of ideas; by a wondrous coincidence, these ideas, the veritable Wisdom of the Ages, corresponded exactly to the ideas he had been expounding since his first publication, an essay called “The Rational Study of the Classics” that stemmed from a lecture he gave when he was Instructor of Latin and Greek at the College of Montana in 1896.  By laying such stress on the difference between, on the one hand, a “Humanist” who studies great literary works of the past and strives to conform his or her will to the ethical teachings that underlie those works, and on the other a “Humanitarian” who does good deeds to benefit others, Babbitt created a space in which to conflate the idea of a person who studies “the humanities” and a person who emphasizes that which all people have in common.  These two meanings would seem to need two words quite as urgently as do the meanings Babbitt found Aulus Gellius discussing, but by lumping them together Babbitt can lay claim to the Great Books of every civilization and enlist them in his campaign to establish a sort of substitute for religion and nationalism.

The second point I want to make is about the words “Idiot” and “Opportunist.”  Say you are a wealthy, powerful person, in a position to advance careers, allocate moneys, make introductions, and do all the things that patrons do for their hangers-on.  From your point of view, it would be foolish not to suspect a person who is showing you kindness of opportunism.  You will be approached by so many people who simply want hat you can give them, and such a large subset of that group will be capable of doing you real harm if you trust them too far, that you would stand to lose a great deal unless you kept your guard up.

At the same time, it would be natural for you to assume that anyone who is unkind to you is an idiot.  You know what you can do for that person.  The things you can do are valued highly by most people; you probably value them more highly than most, or you would not have succeeded in acquiring the power to give them to your favorites.  However, there may be some people who genuinely do not want the things you have to give.  Irving Babbitt is something of an example.  He alienated several presidents of Harvard and virtually all of his faculty colleagues by his strident criticism of the trends in higher education during his day.  Though his students included men plainly destined by birth and talent for the highest positions in American life, he did not cultivate them, instead building a following among bookish men marked out for academic careers at provincial institutions.  It was a matter of sheer chance that any influential people took an interest in him; if not for that chance, doubtless he would have ended up as a shopkeeper in his native Ohio.  Babbitt was no idiot; he simply did not want the things that powerful people had to offer.  Their position may very well have distorted their vision of him, as it generally does distort their vision of people who lack interest in their bounties.

The political history of the USA in two charts

This chart was published in 1880, in a book called Conspectus of the History of Political Parties, by Walter R. Houghton.  In July, Susan Schulten put it on her blog, Andrew Sullivan mentioned it on his, and I put it up on Tumblr.  Here it is full-size.

This was today’s xkcd comic.  Click on it for a zoomable version.

I think the chart from the Houghton book is more elegant, but this one is nice also.

 

Time and cartoons

In the comic books, Superman is quitting his day job as a newspaperman.  The company that publishes the Superman titles, DC Comics, explains that, as part of an effort to make the character more relevant to “the 21st century,” he will become- a blogger!  Evidently the part of the 21st century they want him to be relevant to is the part that ended about 6 years ago.

Nina Paley summarizes the history of the Levant in 3 minutes and 32 seconds of animation.

Despite what you’d expect from a webcomic with its name, Doghouse Diaries rarely deals with dogs.  Yesterday’s strip is therefore in rare company.

Neither Zach Weiner nor Randall Munroe is at all impressed with the level of statistical discourse in mass media.

 

Laughing at Hitler

It was the first of September, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland; in the eyes of the British and French governments, that event marked the beginning of the Second World War.  By that point, a great many people in Europe and Asia had already for years been fighting wars that would be subsumed in that conflict; a great many more were still years away from being drawn into it.  Nonetheless, that date has come to be widely accepted as marking the first day of the war.

Since it was the late Adolf Hitler who, as they put it in The Rutles, “invented World War Two,” he often comes to my mind on this date.  There’s been a marked trend in pop culture these past few years to laugh at Hitler.  So, about three or four years ago, there was a craze for posting videos on YouTube that added silly subtitles to the scene in the movie Downfall where the Hitler character learns that his plans for the final defense of Berlin have collapsed and shouts hysterically at his staff.  The only specimens I thought were worth watching were this one and this one; this one and this one give the same treatment to other scenes from the movie.

At about the time the Downfall parody craze was at its height, a webcomic called Hipster Hitler made its debut.  I saw a reference to it the other day; evidently it is still going.  I’d thought the first strip exhausted its potential, and as I looked through the archive I found that I was correct.  The image of Hitler in an ironic T-shirt and fedora seems to be making a point of some kind; I’ve spent a fair bit of time wondering what that point might be.  Hitler is a symbol of the evil that extreme authoritarianism makes possible; hipsters present themselves as extreme anti-authoritarians; so showing Hitler as a hipster means… something?  Maybe?  Be that as it may, I doubt anyone actually laughs at the strip.

More recently, there was a short-lived strip on tumblr called Ignore Hitler.  That one was closer to being funny than is Hipster Hitler, although it wasn’t as thought-provoking, or as interesting to look at.

Some jokes involving Hitler do make a clear point.  For example, this video  is a spoof of conspiracy theories concerning the birth of US President Barack Obama, which does some funny stuff with Hitler’s picture.  Some of the theories about President Obama’s birth that people actually believe are just as silly as the one in the video, so the spoof works quite well.

Do fundamentalist students make life harder for biology teachers than for history teachers?

The comment thread on this recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal closed down before I got around to posting a comment, so I’ll make my remarks on it here:


My first reaction to the punchline was this, which I posted on our Tumblr site: “The punchline to this comic strip doesn’t really work.  There are many parts of the world where history teachers attempting to introduce the Holocaust meet with exactly this kind of resistance, and then some.”

I thought a bit more about it, and decided that comment was a false start.  It would be more interesting to take the comic on its own terms and ask what happens when history teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students, as opposed to what happens when biology teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students.

In most school districts in the USA, every time evolution comes up in biology class the teachers have to brace themselves for a vocal onslaught from students who have been extensively briefed in denialist talking points by highly organized groups.  That’s a challenge history teachers don’t usually face in the USA.  Sometimes a history teacher might have to talk about some topic the students find distressing, and they may respond with anger.  But it is quite rare for those angry students to present their views in a form worked out by the kind of ideological apparatus that Creationists have set up for themselves.  There are countries in the world where other forms of denialism are supported by prestigious institutions that drill a mass audience in their talking points, as acquaintances of mine who have tried to teach 20th century European history in the Gulf states can attest.  In the USA, there are political interest groups that would like to establish a presence as widespread as that of the Creationists; for example, a couple of years ago the corn lobby had some success with efforts to punish academics for saying that cows eat grass.  But those efforts have not (yet!) become a routine factor in classrooms.  So, it is fair to say that in the USA, Creationism stands alone among denialist ideologies as a systematic challenge to classroom teachers.

Still, I would say that it is going too far to claim that “Teaching Intro Biology is harder than teaching Intro History,” even in regard to the narrow question of the challenges fundamentalist students present to their teachers.  Fundamentalist students may not come to history class ready to spout ideological boilerplate every time the teacher gets to something interesting, and so they are not as immediately obnoxious a presence there as they are in biology, geology, or astronomy class.  Indeed, I’ve taught many classes on history, and every class has included several fundamentalists.  I can say that fundamentalists are usually very quiet through such classes.

So when it comes to keeping good order and discipline in the classroom and getting through material, fundamentalist students do not represent a special challenge to history teachers.  But if you actually want to engage them in the subject, that’s a different story.  I’m a classical scholar, so when I teach history it is the history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Many times, I’ve put this question on a test: “How did the religious life of Rome change in the second century BC?”  A significant percentage of the students in every class has responded that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  After I’ve graded the tests, I read the question aloud to them, then mention that many of the students said that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  It usually takes half a minute or so before everyone realizes what “BC” stands for and starts laughing.  That’s an example of a widespread problem.  Students from fundamentalist backgrounds simply cannot imagine a world in which Christianity is not the only religion worth mentioning, or even a form of Christianity other than the one within which they were raised.

That problem, in turn, is the tip of a much bigger iceberg.  Fundamentalists realize that science is powerful and important; that’s why they package Creationism as “Creation Science.”  They do not have any reason to believe that history is important, however.  Fundamentalists hold that the Bible or Qu’ran or whatever text is sacred to their religion represents an unchanging truth, complete and identical from one age to the next, and that this is the only truth that ultimately matters.  Not only does the text not have a history, but the interpretation of that text does not have a history.  There is only one right way to read the text,  that is the only way that has ever been or will ever be right, and the right way exhausts the meaning of the text completely.  If you believe that, then the record of history is not part of the ongoing engagement between humanity and the world through which communities are formed and humans  come to understanding; understanding has already come to us, complete and error-free, deposited in your hotel room free of charge by the Gideons International, and community is the byproduct of that understanding.  For people who look at it that way, history  is just one damn thing after another, at best an amusing diversion from the serious business of life.

And of course it gets worse.  Demonstrate that the modern age is an extremely peculiar time, that the ideas which fundamentalists take for granted are possible only in an age of mass-produced books, the nation-state, and rationalized bureaucracy, bring home to them the fact that none of these things existed in the first millennium and a half of Christianity, and they go into an intellectual tailspin.  Some of them do become highly defensive; though they are not armed with the prefabricated circular reasoning of the Creationists, they can make a nuisance of themselves in the classroom.

That, of course, is to say nothing of their written work.  When fundamentalists try to stuff their ideology into a scientific report, the result is simply wrong.  A teacher can respond with a low grade and a reference to the standards of scientific writing.  In the humanities, we have to take a wider variety of writing seriously.  That isn’t to deny that there are standards, or that it is possible to structure an assignment so that you avoid wasting a great deal of time following the deadest of ideological dead ends.  Still, you can’t keep a humanistic discussion alive if you set the bounds as narrow as those in scientific writing.

The humanities, like the sciences,  are possible only where people are prepared, not only to challenge each others’ preconceptions, but also to challenge their own preconceptions.  In science, writing is usually the record of observations, experiments,  and analyses that presented the researcher with such challenges.  In the humanities, writing is not the record of these challenges, it is itself the process by which they are presented.  So, if you make it impossible for fundamentalist students to write fundamentalist essays, you make it impossible for them to profit from an exposure to history, literary studies, or any other branch of the humanities.

A summer sadness

I just spent a few minutes doing various online searches involving the terms “dehydration” and “self-awareness.”  I don’t know anything about medicine or psychology, but I’m pretty sure one of the symptoms of dehydration is a loss of emotional self-awareness.  I was thinking about that this morning; yesterday was a hot, humid day, and I was strangely moody.  Some friends stopped over at our house; I’m always happy when they come, and always miss them when they go, but yesterday I was overjoyed to see them, so much so that I became annoyingly silly, and unreasonably sad when they left, so much so that I had to take a nap.  Neither of these reactions was so far out of the ordinary as to cause a problem; after a few moments of annoyingness, I was able to dial my silliness back, and after my nap, I was no longer sad.  After drinking water and eating fresh fruit, I was fine.

As I reflected on this minor episode, it struck me that my exaggerated emotional responses may have been the result of a loss of self-awareness.  Usually, when our friends showed up, at some level of my mind I would have had a thought like “I’m happy because they are here”; when they left, I would have had some thought like “I’m sad because they are going.”  In my dehydrated condition, that level of my mind seemed to have closed up shop.  If I had been asked why I was happy at one time and sad at the other, I don’t suppose it would have been difficult for me to explain it in terms of our friends’ arrival and departure, but that knowledge didn’t seem to connect with the feelings or to give them the shading that emotions usually have.

Among the most famous lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous “Ode to a Skylark” are these:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Shelley thinks that this marks us as inferior to the skylark, who feels the “clear keen joyance” of one emotion at a time.  Thinking of my summer sadnesses, I disagree.  Drained by heat and squeezed dry by the humidity of the North American interior, I’ve often experienced a loss of self-awareness and a severely simplified emotional life while dehydrated.  The highs can be intoxicating.  I use the word “intoxicating” advisedly;  of course, alcohol consumption brings both dehydration and low self-awareness.

A recent installment of Unwinder’s Tall Comics deals with a similar point:

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