A Year Later, Remembering My Grandfather

A year ago, I lost my grandfather.

There is a story of how he died and there is a story of how he lived.

The story of how he died clouds my memories. The few times I’ve dreamed of him since he passed, it is of the older him, pushing a walker.

The short version of his death is this: Steadily progressing Parkinson’s and a badly shifting ratio of bad days to good. Leg pain that demanded surgical treatment he could not withstand. We didn’t know it at the time, but his stomach was bleeding. He began to faint. After the last episode, he refused to go back to a hospital and I stood up for his right to do so to a team of well-meaning EMTs. He passed out again and vomited blood on the couch. I called the EMTs back and caught up with him at the hospital. We talked about treatment. He told me, “I want to die” with the clarity and conviction of a man who means exactly that. His blood pressure dropped, he crashed, he thrashed, he tore at an oxygen mask. Finally, the doctors gave us a choice: surgery and life support, which he did not want, or easing his suffering.

The last thing I helped him with was a small piece of bandage stuck to his finger. In a sedated haze, he was still trying to take it off — to fix it. I removed it and he relaxed. That piece of bandage sits wrapped in a plastic bag on a shelf in my home, a totem of his battle with a thief of a disease.

So there is that and it is brutal and ugly because death is brutal and ugly. And it’s hard not to focus on his last years. I can’t forget these things. They’re a part of our story and I’m glad I was with him when he succumbed and that his children and grandchildren and their spouses were with him as he breathed his last. He gave us the gift of being clear — abundantly and ceaselessly clear — about his wishes.

A year later, I want to do a better job remembering how he lived.

The Dodge Aries I inherited from my great aunt had failed for the hundredth time. A new radiator might do the trick, Ewell suggested. We were still in the driveway working on the car as the sun set. I suddenly understood why my grandfather was always late to dinner. We were so close to having the thing connected; the meatloaf could wait. Nevertheless, I suggested that we might finish it later with headlamps so the dinner his wife cooked wouldn’t go cold.

Alas, the Aries had deeper problems. I was ready for a new car. We handed it over to the Toyota dealership as part of a misleading deal. A few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail from the Hagerstown police saying the Aries had been left abandoned on the side of the road and I was the last registered owner. Somebody must have bought it at auction and squeezed a few more miles out of it. I shrugged it off, but Ewell was filled with regret. “We should have held onto that car,” he said. “We could have fixed it.” He named one of my cousins, who was about to come of driving age, and suggested it could have been passed to him.

Ewell never gave up on a car.

He could argue, complain, and be stubborn with the best of them, but he always stated his case without embellishment or obfuscation. Everything he argued was the product of reasoning, much of it moral. His instructions, too, were moral. His story of drinking too much at a card game, stopping back by his office, uncertain of his ability to drive. Looking at himself in the mirror, washing his face, trying to sober up and saying out loud to himself, “You fool! You fool!”

His casual moments of tenderness with my grandmother, practiced for more than fifty years. Holding hands, dancing in the kitchen, the occasional peck on the lips and pat on the butt.

Many mornings while living there, I’d awake early for work and he’d be up already. Sometimes, he’d be standing in his underwear, whistling and making breakfast. When I came downstairs, sometimes in a shirt and tie, sometimes also in my underwear, he’d ask, “Want some scrapple, son?” I’m sure I always said yes.

His practical advice, grounded in experience. “Work’s not fun,” he told me when I was younger and complaining about nine-to-five life. “It’s just something you do.”

His great joy in fixing things. As an engineer, he knew everything could break. Thus, he was always fixing things, even things that didn’t seem like they needed fixing. He worked patiently and methodically, measuring twice and cutting once. He taught me a greater degree of patience.

He never stopped till the job was done. He taught me persistence.

He helped keep a roof over my head when I was a child. When it was time to sell my mother’s house in New Jersey, he spent weeks fixing things there. He enjoyed the tasks immensely, but eventually we cajoled him into going home. His wife missed him and he’d been away for quite a while. There was plenty to fix back home, too.

The mix of surprise, gratitude and pride on his face when I gave him a check for the money he floated me in college to keep the insurance on the Aries. He marked the promissory note he’d carefully updated over those years “Paid in Full” along with the date. He retrieved the note from his “Aaron” file, one of many files in two tall cabinets in the office. Files for cars, children, grandchildren, the mortgage, the broker, his wife, dogs living and dogs gone, old bills, strange correspondence.

His occasional whimsy:

The new dog we insisted upon, on his wife’s behalf, after the old one died. We call him “Scout,” but on his registration, Ewell named him “Just Because.”

Going to the bank so he could withdraw a significant amount of cash ahead of my mother’s wedding. “Are we going to Atlantic City or something?” I asked him, skeptically eyeing the wad of hundreds. He grinned, impish and boy-like. “I like cash,” he said, drawing out the last “shhh” with high-rolling largesse.

The money was intended, in part, to pay the officiant at the wedding. My mother married a Navy veteran. After the ceremony Ewell greeted him with a hearty, “Welcome aboard!”

“God bless Obama!” his punctuation to a Thanksgiving blessing, shouted among a family with diverse, divergent and diametrically opposed political views.

His corny humor:

“How are you?”
“40 cents.”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s the fare-to-Midland.”

“‘Balls!’ cried the king, because he had to.”

The way he played poker. Conservatively and with an eye toward snapping off his opponents’ errant bluffs.

Ewell driving his truck to my new apartment and helping me fix the place up. He installed new locks there, the same ones from our old house in New Jersey, which, of course, he had saved, because there’s no reason to throw out a good lock.

I remember how the hugs became more frequent, how he stopped trying to stick his hand out for a shake when I went in for one. How he reacted less and less awkwardly to me telling him I loved him over the years until he finally just accepted it.

His simple grace: “Blessed be this food we are about to receive in your holy name. Amen.”

I remember a strong, proud, direct man. A tough man who screwed up and made mistakes, for sure. A product of his generation and upbringing like the rest of us, for better and worse. But a man who gave constantly to his children and grandchildren: his sweat, his patience, his time, his morals and his considerable expertise. A man who loved us and whom we loved back, through joy and difficulty and time and pain. Pain that stings and fades and must fade for the sake of the rest of him, and the rest of his life, which we loved so dearly.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as Secular Anthem

I don’t love a lot of music, but I love Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The album has a dense emotional range and is based on Anne Frank’s lived and imagined life. In times of gladness and sadness, I go back to it and I cry out “Noootch!” to friends when I think we should listen to it together.

The title track sticks with me the most. In an odd way, it feels like a secular anthem, despite it’s focus on death and the afterlife. For secularists, our afterlife is the legacy we leave: our genetic progeny and the reverberations of our choices that echo long after we are gone. Our existence on the Earth is a privilege and one we’re grateful for. And in the end, we’re not that far away philosophically from some of our religious brethren.

Here are the lyrics and what I take away from them:

What a beautiful face I have found in this place
That is circling all round the sun
What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in a blink of an eye
and be gone from me soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me

We live on a rock orbiting the sun. Everything we love and hold dear could be gone in an instant, as ephemeral as a forgotten dream upon waking. So we hold fast to the beauty we see.

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Love to be in the arms of all I’m keeping here with me.

Despite the absolute certainty of death, we can not let it occupy our minds because all we have are the precious instants and long years of our lives.

What a curious life we have found here tonight
There is music that sounds from the street
There are lights in the clouds
Anna’s ghost all around
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me
Soft and sweet!
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees.

Well, the mention of a ghost throws off my experience with the song, but I take it metaphorically. Life takes us on curious detours and compels us — begs us, sometimes — to notice the details. The legacy of the dead is all around us. In a way they live, invisibly, like music waves propagating through air.

Now how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move
That made your voice so smooth and sweet
And now we keep where we don’t know
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago now he don’t even know his name.

Ah, finally, the topic of so many other songs. The pains, the regrets, the secrets! The controlling, demanding tendencies we direct at the people we love. And yet, we forget the pain. It eventually leaves us, even if we bear its scars.

What a beautiful face I have found in this place that is circling all round the sun
When we meet on a cloud I’ll be laughing out loud
I’ll be laughing with everyone I see
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.

The song’s cathartic release. Finding love, laughing at the banality, grandiosity and absurdity of life. Meeting on a cloud as an angel? Or as another reverberation that bounced up there from the trees?

And finally, my favorite line: the disbelief at the mere fact of existence. To not be a “not!” To be real, to be able to see and think and feel. To be anything at all in a maddeningly beautiful world.

But hey, maybe that’s just me. Good songs are written to be open to interpretation. (I’m reminded of the creator of Hello, Kitty explaining that the character has no mouth so that children can project their emotions onto her.) But that last line….that last line nails it for me every time. And while I’m sure the sentiment it contains is a subject of many philosophical tracts, it’s distillation here is perfect.

Remembering Ewell Hudson Mohler, Jr.

My grandfather, Ewell Hudson Mohler, Jr., passed away on Wednesday, September 19.

Yesterday, my family held a small ceremony at Fairfax Memorial Park. My remarks at his graveside are below. I hope they can help convey what he meant to me and honor his memory.

My mother Jenny and her two brothers, Joseph and Matthew, had just finished telling some incredible stories from their teenage years. My cousin Jeannine also spoke. We’re the two oldest grandchildren and we both lived with my grandfather for a few years. “Marlborough Road” is how we refer to the home they’ve lived in for the past few decades

So I think Ewell’s kids must have sufficiently chilled him out by the time I really got to know Ewell.

A gift that my mom gave me was taking me down to Virginia a lot as a child to hang out at Marlborough Road and we’d probably go once a month or  once every other month. And I remember as a really young child an intense sadness every time we had to leave and go back to New Jersey. And I remember looking around the house and just kind of singing a sad song to myself because they just showered me with unconditional love. And all their grandchildren. Wow, have they showered us with unconditional love. And Ewell included, in his own way. He wasn’t always a deeply outwardly affectionate man, but that affection he had for all of us was so evident in his actions and his deeds and his words, too.

I had this unique privilege of living with my grandparents at Marlborough Road right after I got out of college because I was going to be working in the region. So of course, no questions asked, no rent, here’s free food and housing, you know, you’re our grandchild. And Jeannine had a very similar experience in college going to Mason. That’s a really neat way to get to know your grandparents because it’s not a situation where it’s your birthday, it’s Christmas or it’s a holiday. You’re really there every day getting to know how they live with each other and how they live their life day to day. It became an incredible gift because in a way Ewell became like my buddy. He became just this older guy that I knew who also happened to be my grandfather.

And there’s this conversation we had at dinner one night. I had just gotten started doing the 9 to 5 thing and you know, you go to high school you go to college and everyone says get the degree and get this degree and everything is going to be great. There’s this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and it’s going to be great. And you get to work and, well, I’m sitting at a desk all day, there’s fluorescent lights over me and I’m sitting around in meetings and I’m on the phone and sending emails all day and this doesn’t feel right. And it’s eight hours every day. So I’m saying something along these lines, which, of course, a lot of 22 year old people say, but that perked Ewell up. And it was one of the very few times he just dropped his knife on the table — CLINK — and me and Joan got silent and we look at him and he goes, “Son. Work’s not fun. It’s something you do.”

And it just immediately hit me how much sense that made. And I thought how did I get through high school and college and no one ever told me that who was, like, paid to teach me. But here was Ewell with his wisdom and he was able to pass that on.

I love that phrase. It’s just something you do.

And like Joe and Matt and Jenny have conveyed, Ewell was always doing something. He was constantly in motion. And I think of what Joe said a little bit like he was always reshaping little pieces of the world around him to make them work better. It didn’t matter how big or small his world was. He was going to fix all these little things. He was going to address them. And he did it in such a deliberate, patient way.

And that’s one of the greatest lessons he passed onto me was the value of patience. Because I’m nowhere near as patient a person as he is. And I’ll always carry that with me whenever I’m doing things.

I think so much of how Ewell is a part of me and all his children and grandchildren. I mean at the literal level, we’ve got Ewell DNA in all of us. Right? We look a little bit like Ewell, we act a little bit like Ewell, we have a little bit of Ewell’s hair, a little bit of his gait. There’s a little something about us all where we can just see it. It’s Ewell.

By getting to know him, additionally, what I’ll be able to do is carry Ewell with me for the rest of my life as I go about doing things. And at his core because of that patience and that deliberation he is the most moral man I have ever met. And it was the thinking that went into everything that made him moral.

So his heart still beats inside mine. Still beats inside all of us. And his mind lives on in every decision we make because we carry with us everything that he taught us.

So every time I try to reshape some little part of the world around me, I know Ewell is going to be with me.

And I love him so much and I love you all so much.

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My grandmother, grandfather and me.

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Ewell Hudson Mohler, Jr. December 29, 1929 to September 19, 2012.

Honoring Neil Armstrong at the Air and Space Museum

On Saturday morning, I learned that Dr. Neil Armstrong had passed away. I half-remembered a history I never lived through. I felt a sense of loss for the man. His quiet dedication and humble shunning of the limelight spoke more powerfully to his character than his footsteps on the Moon.

I also felt a sense of loss for an era in which an American president could call us to do something great and trust that we could do it.

“We choose to go to the Moon,” John F. Kennedy told an audience at Rice University. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

It is a wonder to go back to his speech. Kennedy traces the grand scope of history, condenses it into a decade, and places the Moon shot on the next calendar page.

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.

Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson revved the engine of American ingenuity. And they greased the wheels of production. Our best and brightest stepped forward to touch the stars. The ones who made it had the “right stuff.” They were daredevil geniuses and fighter jock book worms with enough tempered steel in their guts to act as if it was just another job.

Still, they suffered and struggled. Some died. Their names grace the sky and mark the peaks of Martian hills.

All so men could set foot on the Moon.

And despite all the technological progress, the seductive wonder of the Space Age and the automated, systemized protocols of check, check and go, no-go, the computers on the Apollo 11 landing craft didn’t respond as expected. Armstrong landed on the Moon through the power of his own mind and his own hands.

I used to work at the National Air and Space Museum. I had a work study job in the children’s gallery in college. I remember walking past the Apollo 11 capsule before clocking in. I also remember when Columbia disintegrated. The museum staff created a memorial space for visitors to leave notes and flowers and to reflect.

So I bought a bouquet of flowers and headed to the museum.

There are amazing artifacts from the Apollo era. A piece of the Moon, the capsule, the spacesuits, food and tools the astronauts brought. Everything packed tight on top of tons or propellant, ready for a trip of uncertain success but certain purpose.

The Lunar Module exhibit on the first floor seemed the most appropriate place to lay the flowers. The module is a wonder to behold and a testament to the careful redundancy that was built into the Apollo program.

A crowd, bigger than usual, gathered around a tour guide. I noticed a man being interviewed by a news crew. I listened and learned he curated the Apollo artifacts in the museum. I spoke to him when he was done with his interview. His name is Allan Needell. I told him what I wanted to do and he agreed the Lunar Module exhibit made sense. To my astonishment and admiration, he took the flowers from me, climbed over the small railing between the visitors and exhibit and placed the flowers at the base of one of the lander’s footpads.

He told those paying attention that he had placed the flowers about where Armstrong would have taken his first step.

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I thanked him – and the museum’s media relations director — profusely. The local ABC station interviewed me and several other patrons.

I’m so grateful to have been able to honor Dr. Armstrong in this way. I spent some time discussing his legacy with Dr. Needell and other staff and patrons.

Armstrong was certainly not the most boisterous astronaut. And others surpassed him in articulating the wonder, horror and joys of space travel.

But he represented the best of us.

I can’t find the original source for this, but it’s my favorite Armstrong quote. Remembering his view of the Earth from the Moon, he expressed incredible humility and humbleness:

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Earthrise over the Moon, 1969.

 


Thank you, Dr. Armstrong.

3,000 Miles of Science, History and the American Experience

I love road trips. And I’m happy to have just completed one that took me on a glorious loop from Washington, DC through Nashville, New Orleans, Savannah, Raleigh and up the East Coast to Delmarva and back to the District again. Along the way, I was joined by one of my best friends, met some great new people, learned a whole lot about science and American history (my faves), had a proper beach weekend and grabbed a slice of the American experience.

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My first stop was in Bedford, VA, home of the National D-Day Memorial. The memorial’s three sections commemorate the planning, execution and aftermath of the largest amphibian invasion in human history. The pool pictured below includes PVC piping that shoots out air to simulate the bullets that strafed Allied soldiers as they landed. The sand in the memorial was imported from Normandy Beach.

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A statue commemorates Dwight Eisenhower’s role as the architect of the invasion. The map in the rotunda represents his invasion plan. Eisenhower had a British toy maker manufacture a map and models to help plan the invasion. The men who delivered and assembled one of his maps had to stay confined to headquarters for more than a year given the powerful sensitivity of what they had seen.

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This French statue of Victory was dedicated to American soldiers in the aftermath of the First World War. In the Second, the statue’s face was blown off. A donor paid to have the statue restored and shipped to the United States.

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Veterans and their families frequently visit the memorial and place flags at its terminus.

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The grand American World War II narrative naturally downplays the role other Allies played in securing victory. Russians, in particular, teach the war very differently since they sustained, by an order of magnitude, the greatest casualties in the greatest war humanity has ever fought.

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Sufficiently unmoored from the present, I further retreated to the Natural Bridge in Virginia, which I’d last visited when I was a child. Rain broke over the mountains. I went to the caverns, which were much smaller than I remembered. The rain would take weeks to get down there. When I descended to the bridge, I passed a couple speaking German and marveled at the alacrity with which scabs can sometimes form over history’s wounds.

When I reached the bottom of the trail, I was gloriously alone, and stood agape at what time and erosion can wring from the Earth.

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George Washington marked the bridge as a young surveyor. I was reminded of Carl Sandburg’s “Washington Monument by Night.”

The name of an iron man goes over the world.
It takes a long time to forget an iron man.

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I wended southwest down the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is among America’s Byways, historical, scenic and lackadaisical alternatives to Eisenhower’s belligerently efficient interstate system. The Blue Ridge extends from the more familiar Skyline Drive and I found its vistas more interesting and less crowded.

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I pushed forward till nightfall and camped at Rocky Knob.

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Next up was Greenville, Knoxville and Oak Ridge. But along the way, I saw signs for the Gray Fossil Site. Intrigued and motivated by an inherent trust of all brown highway signs, I made an ultimately worthy detour to the site, which is operated by East Tennessee State University and contains rare North American mammal fossils.

These are among the new species discovered at the site, including an American panda.

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The site itself stemmed from a discovery in 2000, when the shifting of a highway, declared necessary in the name of public safety, pried open a 5 million-year-old window — actually, a sinkhole — into wild North America. Around that time, our ancestors were just getting the hang of walking on two legs.

The site will produce new finds for years as paleontologists carefully scrape away the muddy shrouds of time.

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They are led by people with, it seems, a decent sense of humor.

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I proceeded to Greenville, Tennessee, home of President Andrew Johnson, who operated a tailor shop there and later bought and improved upon a pretty house thanks to his adept real-estate swapping, which produced his post-Presidency fortune (and later, the fortune of one of his former slaves).

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National Park Service employees there are practiced in the clearing up ongoing confusion between impeachment and removal from office. Johnson, a strict interpreter of the Constitution, was one of those rare presidents who sought to limit the power of his office. Unfortunately, he did so at a time when a strong hand was likely warranted to bind the Union back together. He died, I learned, shortly after being elected to the Senate and after unsuccessful runs for political office post-Presidency. He was buried wrapped in an American flag with his head resting eternally on a copy of the Constitution.

Greenville also maintains a civic museum, which celebrates the town’s broader history, including its citizens’ military service. Eisenhower followed me here, too, via a preserved copy of his order to the troops on D-Day.

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Magnavox was a big influence on Greenville though the plants and assembly lines have gone idle, shipped to other places and other peoples.

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My back was bothering me thanks to a rather silly fall the week before from the surprisingly dangerous perch of an office chair. I had wanted to camp in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but my coccyx protested mightily. I detoured to Knoxville, where I met a man who worked on oil rigs and made the acquaintance of a few law students who showered me with friendliness.

Rested, I departed the next morning to the American Museum of Science and Energy near Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Oak Ridge was a secret town, constructed during the Second World War to refine uranium and produce fissile materials that would be assembled into the first nuclear bombs at Los Alamos. The Manhattan Project was the largest and most expensive scientific experiment in human history. And it was an astounding success.

So secret was its mission that most of the workers there did not know how their tasks related to the projects’ end goals or, indeed, what the end goals even were. When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a great many of them were as surprised as everybody else.

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The military experimented with four methods of refining the uranium, not knowing which, if any, would work and sometimes started building things before the physicists and engineers could finish the plans. The ultimately successful route involved calutrons, machines that vaporize uranium then use magnets to separate its isotopes. The calutrons were operated by a bevy of young women who were told to move dials in response to the swaying of needles. They didn’t know what the needles indicated or the knobs controlled.

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The refined uranium they produced was shipped in secret to Chicago then Los Alamos, in briefcases handcuffed to the wrists of plainclothes military officers.

Thus, were countless deft movements of young women’s hands balled into a nuclear fist, half a world away.

Oak Ridge also offers a bus tour that departs daily from the museum. It includes a visit to a decommissioned graphite-moderated reactor that produced the first sustained nuclear reactions and the first derivation of electricity from nuclear fission.

Workers would manually insert control rods to speed or slow the reaction.

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The control room:

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Port 16 next to the control room was connected to a small engine, producing electricity.

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Oak Ridge is investing in a new education facility, that included this seal from Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, which sought to tame and eventually domesticate the atom.

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Despite those efforts, the atom, and the men who wielded it, nearly set civilization back to its bipedal routes, as discussed in the museum’s exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which included this display of fallout shelter items and the iconic “Duck and Cover” campaign from the Federal Civil Defense Administration. John F. Kennedy aides claim that when the president was briefed on military plans that included a potential surprise first-strike on the Soviet Union, he lamented, “And we call ourselves the human race.”

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The bus tour, which was highly detailed, took us past nuclear waste sites and experimental stations devoted to newer, truly green forms of energy such as switchgrass-derived biofuels. Overwhelmed at the greatness and the terror our intelligence can produce, I took in the landscape. “Oak Ridgers” should be proud of their service, but we should all be scared of our ability to end our own ways of life.

I’ll give the last word on Oak Ridge to its former director, Alvin M. Weinberg.

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Relegated to the less energetic, but still peppy power of internal combustion and gasoline, I departed to Nashville, where I met up with the inestimable Laura M. to celebrate her birthday and the end of her first year of nursing school. I got to socialize with a wonderful coworker, also a “Nashvegan,” as I grilled assorted foodstuff from the gourmands who attended the party.

Nursing school, it seems, is a hard lot and despite the school year’s end, studies and tests continued, so the guests departed early. Laura kindly showed me her neighborhood watering hole. Later, I tried some of the ambitious sangria she had made, but the dehydrating power of wine produced violent hiccups that sent me to the water jug and eventually to bed.

It was worth hitting the sack relatively early…I had more presidential homes to visit!

Andrew Jackson should have lived to appear on Cribs. His home is beautiful and the grounds are sprawling. Like Washington’s Mount Vernon, it is the product of a dedicated association of women who successfully preserved our history. Unfortunately, the home bans photography of the interior. Its most striking feature is a storyboard wallpaper depicting the tale of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. Like Telemachus and Penelope, Jackson’s wife Rachel was forever waiting a soldiers’ return from war.

Laura won the visit by correctly guessing the cost of a post-fire wallpaper replacement and remounting. It is rare to see shock register on the practiced faces of historical home tour guides, especially those in period dress, but she produced it.

This is Jackson’s grave, which sits in the back of a garden. He visited the garden every day, for it was also where his beloved wife was buried.

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From Nashville, we tacked south down the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, another genius project of the National Park Service. The parkway follows a trading and postal route of the Old American Southwest and boasts historical sites and markers every few miles. It also offers the best-designed and most detailed National Park Service map I’ve ever had the pleasure of plucking from a roadside kiosk. It’s many panels unfurl like an encyclopedic Jacob’s Ladder.

The most striking stops are so-called Indian Mounds.

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The mounds are evidence of relatively recent occupation. The land we drove through is among the richest agriculturally in North America. Native Americans lived in abundance here, but European germs killed probably more than 90 percent of them. European guns and steel would do much of the rest. Did I mention I was reading Jared Diamond during this trip? He was a worthy companion, too.

As in all things road trip, we had to forgo many sites. We were delayed in Nashville by the need to assist a friend with car trouble and secure some Nutella-based birthday brownies, which we slowly consumed over the course of the trip. We consoled ourselves by noting that we were, “Making great time,” an affirmation that became the trip’s mantra.

We further delayed ourselves by taking a rightful, but unfruitful detour to Tupelo, Mississippi, through which the trail passes. Although friendly in the Southern manner, citizens of Tupelo are unlikely to be able to direct wayward travelers to the city’s eponymous supplies of honey. Perhaps production has moved elsewhere. We stopped by a sweets shop that promised to carry the goods, but it was five minutes after closing. We also took to bothering a nearby apiarist over the phone, but he couldn’t make an exception for low-volume retail customers such as ourselves. Unnecessary advice: If you ever call a bee keeper, don’t use “Is this the apiarist?” as your opening line. It leads to confusion, dead air and can stretch mightily at the bounds of Southern politeness.

Thus, we made haste down the parkway as the sun set and the vistas, too, closed up shop. We camped near the parkway’s end at Rocky Springs. Along the way, we listened to old folk radio, saw a thunderstorm roll off the Mississippi River, and passed through the aftermath of a tornado that denuded a half-mile-long stretch of swamp along the parkway.

In the morning, we proceeded to the old town site of Rocky Springs, which was abandoned in the 1800s. What remains are eroded building sites, two curious safes and two water cisterns.

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A historic Methodist church is located right off the NPS property. Its congregants disbanded in 2010 because of their shrinking size, but the site remains. Such holy sites must undergo a procedure of “desanctification,” an odd word which made its first appearance to me on a laminated piece of paper inside the church.

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The grounds are startlingly beautiful, with Spanish moss hanging off old trees.

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There is an ornate grave site behind the church.

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Small fences surround many of the graves. This was the most detailed and reflected the moss-laden trees nearby.

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Laura helpfully captured the contemplative pose I tend to assume when confronted with the weight of history and evolution.

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She knew more than a little bit about this marker I spotted. Various types of these small brass plugs are littered through the United States and used for surveying, geocaching, and other purposes.

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Our next stop was New Orleans. Laura activated her support network of foodie friends, thus enlightening my simple-minded palette to the joys of fancy cheeses, gumboes and fried alligator, as well as many proper cocktails and delightful local beer.

Our most satisfying food journey, however, involved a few hours of mass transit tomfoolery and transfers, which brought us — via an ancient trolley car — to Danny’s Seafood (Number 2). Skeptical and running low on protein, I did a double-take at the GPS readout on my phone. Yep, this was the place. Of course, I should have known better. Any recommendation that yields such a divey exterior must necessarily have a rewarding meal buried within.

If you find yourself at Danny’s (the first or second), I recommend the shrimp po’boy.

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New Orleans is a city apart from the rest of the United States, with its strong French influence and the drain of people that followed the drain of floodwater. Evidence of wear hangs on the city like dampness on clothing pulled too soon from the dryer.

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Residents cling strongly to the city’s characteristic dilapidation and its rich and vibrant history.

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We saw many children practicing at the clicking and clanging family of instruments.

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In the offensively modern downtown corridor, we passed a movie set. I’m pretty sure it was a sci-fi film.

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The dilapidation got better and more working class when we crossed the Mississippi via public ferry to Algiers.

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It oddly reminded me of my home in Forked River, NJ. Perhaps it’s because it remains cloistered and very, very white. But it was also the bearing of its people, the quietness of its streets and the smiling, comradely, but distant familiarity with which restaurant patrons greeted one another.

Also, we discovered that New Orleans’ lax open container laws extend to its ferry system, and we were able to enjoy road sodas on the ride back into the hustle and bustle of downtown.

New Orleans is also home to the country’s official World War II museum. Digging ever deeper into my fascination with democracy’s triumph over fascism, we spent several hours there. Left to my devices, I might have spent several more and eventually moved in.

My favorite artifact was a wallet. It belonged to Jack Lucas, a Marine who lied about his age to sign up, was found out and put on truck driving duty. Because he wanted to see combat, he stowed away on a ship not knowing where it was bound. It emptied him out onto Iwo Jima, where he participated in the war’s ugliest battle. During the fighting, he dove on two grenades, saving fellow soldiers, and became the youngest recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He survived, but lost his wallet, to which he had attached a note to help ensure that his mother received the $16 it contained. Decades later, the Marines found the wallet and sent his family a check for $16.

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The museum included Japanese propaganda, which I hadn’t seen before. I call this “Franklinstein.”

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And it had several displays that helped bring the scale of the war down to the visitor. For instance, the relative size of Axis and American armed forces before the war started:

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A diorama depicting the scale of D-Day operations:

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And D-Day and Okinawa’s scale compared to what the Americans thought it would have taken to invade Japan’s home islands:

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Faced with this prospect and armed with an atomic weapon that promised to bring the war to a swifter end, President Truman signed an order authorizing the military to drop the bomb.

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Overwhelmed again by World War II, we grabbed some more food and beverages and enjoyed the peace dividend of lax open container laws. This is the best light beer I’ve ever had. It’s creator wanted to make something he could enjoy while mowing his lawn, the bartender told us.

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And we let our buddy Ben know we were having an okay time.

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New Orleans’ art museum also has an expansive sculpture garden with several ambitious pieces.

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My favorite part of road trips is the easy transition from cities to wilderness. From New Orleans, we traveled to Gulf Islands National Seashore (thanks again, NPS!) outside Pensecola. It was glorious.

Laura taught me two important things:

First, it’s important when enjoying wilderness to stay the hell away from other people. The site we visited was a half mile from the parking lot and we saw some families camped there. So we pressed another quarter mile or so down the beach. Other people thus remained visible, but not necessarily audible. And it’s worth noting that the Pensacola skyline was still in view, too.

Laura had the genius idea of scoring two po’boys on the way out of New Oreleans, which we able to consume on the beach. This yielded my second lesson, which centered on my cooler’s many inadequacies. Laura is known as a two-cooler traveler. One cooler for goods, one cooler for ice. It is a great fault of cooler manufacturers globally that they have not found a way to effectively separate ice from that which must be cooled. Melting ice, after all, has a way of ruining bread, coleslaw and sundry other delicious items. We contemplated drawing up some diagrams and writing strongly worded suggestions to Coleman.

We also had the sublime joy of observing at least four ghost crabs go about their business. The crabs’ eye stems allow them to see 360 degrees, though it can’t see directly above its head. They approached us quite closely, to the point where we thought they might try to snack on our toes. This is a picture from Wikipedia. Alas, I did not snap my own pictures of the crabs, although the moon was bright enough to have perhaps afforded the possibility.

Ghost Crab via Wikipedia

From there, we went to Savannah and met up with Laura’s friend McKenzie, who is a 5th-generation resident of the city and shared some wonderful stories with us. Her grandmother, for instance, helped protect a historic home across one of iconic squares from which she lived. Because it would have been undignified to cross the square on foot to offer tours of the historic home, her grandmother would hire a car to pick her up. But it would have been ridiculous, McKenzie told us, to drive only halfway round a square. Thus, the driver was instructed to circumnavigate the entire square, then drive halfway around to their destination. That’s classy.

The next morning, we made a quick pitstop to Charleston, SC, where I had some generously fat Gulf oysters. The waterfront is interesting, though we didn’t linger there long.

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From Charleston, we traveled to Raleigh, where JB and company showed us the local boom-boom-bah scene. I discovered that travel does little for my appreciation of loud music, which remains quite low. However, JB is an accomplished dancer and he taught me that breakdancing is a misnomer and practitioners refer to it as b-boying or “b-boy” for short. He also provided us with a ghost pepper, the world’s hottest. On Laura’s advice, it was diluted into a pesto (“ghost pesto”), but not before we tried tiny slivers of it. It was HOT and I’m glad none of us were crazy enough to take a sizable bite.

Raleigh boasts a world-class natural history museum, which has a new wing. The establishment has the best-written copy I’ve seen in a science museum, with popping headlines and crystalline and universally accessible prose. They had several beautiful cutaways, including this one of a sand dune:

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And another of North Carolina’s geology:

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The state’s geology, of course, is shifting, thanks to climate change. The museum has several exhibits on climate change and sea-level rise. Ironically, the building is two blocks away from North Carolina’s state legislature, which recently voted to ignore scientists’ projections about rising seas to protect short-sighted coastal property owners. Enjoy it while it lasts, dudes.

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Visitors can make their opinions known.

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Of course, I KNOW sea-levels are rising, thanks to science. As a coastal resident myself, I think it would be just super if we did something about it, as many states have elected to do.

Visitors can also explore the consequences of various decisions about energy use for the atmosphere and the planet’s temperature. Play the game and you’ll find out the only way to “win” and prevent extensive warming of the planet is to throw everything we have at cleaner and smarter energy choices, though you don’t necessarily have to go full bore with more nuclear energy.

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Scientists work in the center, including these excited, but absent paleontologists:

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And these veterinarians, who were helping a turtle with a shell infection:

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There’s also a great right whale exhibit:

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And like all good state science museums, North Carolina proudly displays their Apollo moon rock:

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And, of course, we found some Sagan:

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From there, we went to Fenwick Island, DE to catch the middle end of an in-progress beach weekend with some dear friends, including Ben T. and the about-to-be-married Aaron D. and Lauren R.

We continued our streak of relatively full moons:

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Group photo test shot. We call this “being Aaronic.”

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Actual nice group photo.

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Laura’s total mileage, during which we were able to read aloud most of Tom Robbin’s Jitterbug Perfume.

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And my total mileage, which tracked an amazing trip I won’t soon forget.

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Special thanks to the Corolla. You’ll get your oil change soon, buddy. We made some great times.

Book Review: The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney

The weight of the evidence Mooney presents for the simple idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently is incontrovertible. And in the current political context, those differences are ever more apparent.

Image credit: DeSmogBlog.com

The first thing you need to do when you pick up Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality is get over whatever initial reaction you have to the title.

Partisan labels are so loaded that it’s easy for liberals and conservatives alike to mistake Mooney’s nuanced overview of psychological research for a jeremiad about “stupid conservatives.”

And, in fact, that reaction has typified many conservative and some liberal responses to the book.

Which sort of proves Mooney’s point.

 

Thinking is more important than information

Decades ago, social scientists started tearing down the Enlightenment view that human beings rationally and methodically process information. In the old view, our brains were like filing cabinets into which we inserted new information to synthesize. In reality, we are motivated reasoners: we use facts and information to justify what we want to believe.

In many cases, the more educated or “smarter” someone is, the more able they are to seek out information that justifies their views. There’s a fundamental difference, one of the researchers in Mooney’s book points out, between being stupid and being misinformed.

And Mooney’s book is all about misinformation, the brains it lands in, and how it gets there.

 

What’s the difference between dominant liberalism and dominant conservatism?

One of the chief values that underpins liberalism, Mooney argues, is “Openness.” Liberals are more likely to be open to new experiences, new cultures, and new ideas. They embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and messiness. Conservatives are more likely to exhibit Conscientiousness: a need for order, stability, clarity and cleanliness. As he puts it, people who rate high on conscientiousness are, “highly goal oriented, competent, and organized—and, on average, politically conservative.”

But the other side of the Conscientious coin is a need for “closure” and definitive answers. Often, science doesn’t provide them. And whenever science appears to conflict with the values of someone with a strong need for closure, they’re more likely to reject the science.

 

We are all liberals, we are all conservatives

At various points in the book, Mooney weaves in a more nuanced view of the liberal-conservative divide. Many social scientists rely on four variables, not two, to describe how people view society: a predilection toward hierarchical structures that justify those who succeed vs. an egalitarian view that emphasizes fairness to all and a view of the world that emphasizes individual rights vs. one that tends toward community needs. Ultimately, American political movements have aligned along these four variables in different combinations over the years, but today extreme conservatives happen to be hierarchical individualists while extreme liberals tends to be communitarian egalitarians. While cumbersome, these terms get to deeper truths about how people think about the world.

There are several points in the book where Mooney compliments conservatives for their decisiveness and ability to bring order to the world. For instance, conservatives are more likely to work in hierarchical organizations like police forces and the military. And thank goodness for that. A country full of anti-authoritarians would probably be pretty ripe for invasion. And he suggests that societies are “balanced” by cooperation among conservatives and liberals.

A personal detour

Reading the opening chapters, I found I identified with both Openness and Conscientiousness. I took an OCEAN test online, which measures Openness, Conscientiousness and three other “Big Five” personality measurements. And, indeed, I rated high on both openness and conscientiousness. Certainly, I’m open to new ideas. And the uncertainties and probabilities inherent in life are something I’m happy to take as a given. I assume everyone I meet has a unique and valid life perspective worth learning about. But a look at my office or home will reveal my high levels of Conscientiousness. I like things clean, simple and organized. And if anyone I know ever does anything I consider unethical, they’re kind of dead to me.

Maybe that’s why I like playing poker. I’m happy to operate in a world of probability and uncertainty, but at the end of each hand, there is closure. And over time, you are either a winner or loser.

 

How these personality traits play out in the real world

Mooney’s psychological primer — which is full of fascinating summaries of clever, thought-provoking studies — provides a base layer of understanding as he moves into the changes in American politics and media that have made it easier for misinformation to find a willing home in many Americans’ brains, particularly the most extreme hierarchical individualists that have aligned into the conservative movement.

He covers the assimilation of Southern Democrats into the Republican Party and the resulting polarization in American politics as the country sorted itself along party lines. And he talks about the fascinating political journey Phyllis Schlafley took to illustrate how the conservative movement has changed over her lifetime. He chronicles the rise of the intellectual right and the expanded universe of think tanks that sprang up in the 1970s to provide analysis that justifies conservative ideology and policy.

He also covers the dominance of Fox News, talk radio and partisan blogs as information sources for conservatives. Their combined power and links to think tanks and the Republican Party can create an information bubble that can easily turn into a misinformation bubble.

From death panels to revisionist histories of America’s founding, the misinformation machine is an equal-opportunity weapon against reality. As Shawn Lawrence Otto ably demonstrates in Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, we happen to be living in a time when scientists have discovered problems such as climate change that can hit a lot of ideological buttons and become ready targets for hierarchical / individualist oriented think tanks that feed misinformation into the bubble.

 

But aren’t liberals guilty of the same biases?

Not really, Mooney argues. And certainly, I laugh whenever anyone equates Fox to MSNBC or NPR. Fox is so much more entertaining and delivers a coherent narrative to its viewers. MSNBC and NPR simply have different missions.

Mooney argues that liberals can certainly slip into anti-science and assimilate misinformation. But those anti-scientific views aren’t allowed to dominate the liberal extremes or cross over into the mainstream.

Take the vaccine-autism “debate” for instance. It’s a natural for extreme liberals who fear any possibility of environmental harm to believe misinformation linking vaccine use to autism, Mooney says. But leaders of that movement, including celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, have found their claims rejected by opinion elites on the left. So anti-vaccination attitudes have only gained a tenuous foothold in communities Mooney calls “granola” like Ashland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado.

Mooney credits liberals’ Openness with their faculty for criticizing one another and reining in their extremists. And he points to other examples from nuclear power to natural gas fracking to prove his point. The bad claims and the extremists’ craziest arguments get weeded out of the system. There is, he says, “a psychology of disobedience and anti-authoritarianism on the left that ensures that those making these claims will be challenged, sometimes quite vigorously or even viciously.”

Put another way, when Ann Coulter says something provocative, conservatives share it on Facebook and say “Right on!” When Michael Moore says something provocative, his fellow liberals pounce on him for not being nuanced or accurate enough. If pressed, they will say they pretty much agree with what he says, but they don’t like how he says it.

Mooney puts a finer point on it by telling stories about David Frum and other conservatives who were booted from their movement by being “too open” to new ideas and too willing to criticize their brethren. Meanwhile, Democrats rarely boot apostates from their ranks.

Ultimately, I found the shifting power dynamics of political movements and the media environments in which they operate a stronger explanation for where we stand today than the psychological research. And Mooney acknowledges that some of the most interesting and startling findings from social science research come with a healthy dose of uncertainty themselves.

 

So what do we do about it?

Mooney’s closing chapter contains some concrete suggestions for how to address anti-science. This is a step up from Unscientific America, which he coauthored with Sheril Kirshenbaum. Like many readers, I enjoyed the book, but wanted a lot more discussion about what to do about the sorry state of our public discourse around scientific topics.

First, Mooney argues, we need to come to grips with the fact that more facts won’t win the day if people are predisposed to rejecting or ignoring them. Mooney argues that listening to people and helping them see how their worldview is affirmed – not threatened – by scientific findings is one way to overcome these challenges.

He also encourages journalists to become more conversant in how liberals and conservatives view the world and to communicate that to their audiences. So don’t just tell us there’s a budget disagreement tell us why liberals’ egalitarian values and conservatives’ personal responsibility values are in conflict over spending and debt. In other words, stop letting politicians simply talk past each other.

He says liberals should learn to be more decisive and cites the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ongoing European debt crisis as typical liberal discussion-fests lacking clear leadership, focus or a willingness to make decisions. Heck, the occupiers designed their movement to avoid classic leadership. Sometimes one plan, any plan, is much better than endless debate.

 

Conclusion

Mooney’s book offers a combination of detail, breeziness and narrative that should satisfy anyone who is frustrated by the prevalence of misinformation in America’s political debates, particularly scientific misinformation.

And he offers some tantalizing suggestions for how this might be effectively addressed.

But more importantly, like any good science fan, he calls for more research. And he acknowledges his own uncertainty about his conclusions.

But, overall, the weight of the evidence Mooney presents for the simple idea that liberals and conservatives process information differently is incontrovertible. And in the current political context, those differences are ever more apparent.

And that’s a fact we should all accept if we’re interested in making our democracy stronger.

Notable Excerpts from Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs Biography

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is remarkable on many levels. I was consistently struck by Job’s ability to simplify Apple’s mission and make command decisions about the future of the company. He was also a consistent advocate for the users of Apple products from within his own company.

Below are some selections from the book that stood out to me. Obviously, very few of us are CEOs of major corporations with compliant boards, so it’s hard to imagine many other organizations where someone like Jobs could pull off what he did. None the less, he was a man of incredible vision and he executed that vision effectively and sometimes mercilessly.

I should also note that this is the first time I’ve taken advantage of the Kindle’s highlighting feature as I read a book. All I can say is I wish I had this technology in college. It would have made quote citations in paper writing so much easier.

Jobs advocating for users:

One day Jobs came into the cubicle of Larry Kenyon, an engineer who was working on the Macintosh operating system, and complained that it was taking too long to boot up. Kenyon started to explain, but Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to three hundred million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year. “Larry was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster,” Atkinson recalled. “Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture.”

Jobs radically simplifying Apple’s product lines when he came back as CEO:

“It was insanity,” Schiller recalled. “Tons of products, most of them crap, done by deluded teams.” Apple had a dozen versions of the Macintosh, each with a different confusing number, ranging from 1400 to 9600. “I had people explaining this to me for three weeks,” Jobs said. “I couldn’t figure it out.” He finally began asking simple questions, like, “Which ones do I tell my friends to buy?” When he couldn’t get simple answers, he began slashing away at models and products. Soon he had cut 70% of them. “You are bright people,” he told one group. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on such crappy products.” Many of the engineers were infuriated at his slash-and-burn tactics, which resulted in massive layoffs. But Jobs later claimed that the good engineers, including some whose projects were killed, were appreciative. He told one staff meeting in September 1997, “I came out of the meeting with people who had just gotten their products canceled and they were three feet off the ground with excitement because they finally understood where in the heck we were going.”…After a few weeks Jobs finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted at one big product strategy session. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a magic marker, padded to a whiteboard, and drew a horizontal and vertical line to make a four-squared chart. “Here’s what we need,” he continued. Atop the two columns he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro”; he labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he said, was to make four great products, one for each quadrant. “The room was in dumb silence,” Schiller recalled.

Jobs explaining how making a product you’d want to use yourself can be the standard for success:

The older I get, the more I see how much motivations matter. The Zune was crappy because the people at Microsoft don’t really love music or art the way we do. We won because we personally love music. We made the iPod for ourselves, and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out. If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.

Jobs on constructive vs. destructive politics:

In return for speaking at the [NewsCorp] retreat, Jobs got Murdoch to hear him out on Fox News, which he believed was destructive, harmful to the nation, and a blot on Murdoch’s reputation. “You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” Jobs said he thought Murdoch did not really like how far Fox had gone. “Rupert’s a builder, not a tearer-downer,” he said.

Jobs dealing openly (and harshly) with a failed product:

Jobs was furious. He gathered the MobileMe team in the auditorium on the Apple campus, stood onstage, and asked, “Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” After the team members offered their answers, Jobs shot back: “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?” Over the next half hour he continued to berate them. “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he said. “You should hate each other for having let each other down. Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us.” In front of the whole audience, he got rid of the leader of the MobileMe team and replaced him with Eddy Cue, who oversaw all Internet content at Apple. As Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky reported in a dissection of the Apple corporate culture, “Accountability is strictly enforced.”

Jobs coda to the book about how he wanted to deal with disagreements at Apple:

I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest. I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right. That’s the culture I tried to create. We are brutally honest with each other, and anyone can tell me they think I am full of shit and I can tell them the same. And we’ve had some rip-roaring arguments, where we are yelling at each other, and it’s some of the best times I’ve ever had. I feel totally comfortable saying “Ron, that store looks like shit” in front of everyone else. Or I might say “God, we really fucked up the engineering on this” in front of the person that’s responsible. That’s the ante for being in the room: You’ve got to be able to be super honest. Maybe there’s a better way, a gentlemen’s club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code-words, but I don’t know that way, because I am middle class from California.

Why Are We Paying To Fill Out Tax Forms?

Turbo Tax saves me hours of work, confusion and eye strain every year when I do my taxes. But using tax preparation software always leaves me with the uneasy feeling that companies are making a buck off the government’s failure to make tax filing easy or intuitive.

Turbo Tax saves me hours of work, confusion and eye strain every year when I do my taxes. But using tax preparation software always leaves me with the uneasy feeling that companies are making a buck off the government’s failure to make tax filing easy or intuitive.

How hard is it for the average citizen to file his or her own taxes? In 2008, nearly 58 percent of individual tax returns were professionally prepared. And a 2005 Government Accountability Office report estimated that Americans spend $107 billion complying with the tax code.

Unfortunately, the tax preparation industry has a perverse incentive to keep tax filing difficult. For instance, in 2007 Intuit (worth $5 billion today) and HR Block ($4 billion) actively lobbied against allowing Americans to file taxes online. Unless, of course, taxpayers did so through tax preparation companies like Intuit and HR Block.

That’s a pretty crass move, even for corporate lobbyists. And I imagine if the IRS ever seriously considered creating their own easy-to-use tax preparation software or web forms, the entire tax preparation industry would fight it.

This year, I’m going to pay Turbo Tax $29.95 for a federal return and probably an additional $36.95 for a state return. Do I save more because I use Turbo Tax? Probably. The software takes me through income reporting and deductions in a clear, methodical fashion. I’m sure I would have missed some deductions if I had to do my taxes on my own.

But more importantly, I would have missed a couple hours of my life. I loathe the idea of filling out the IRS’s little boxes and following cryptic instructions, such as this 16-page guide for writing off the interest I paid on my mortgage. In Turbo Tax, I answer a few question and the software does the obtuse “Subtract line 8 from box 3B” work for me.

But still, that’s $70 of “my money” going to Turbo Tax to help me navigate something the government has made too complicated.

Easy-to-use tax forms — and software — should be a basic government service. If we, as citizens, are handing the government thousands of our own dollars, the least the government can do is make that process as painless as possible.

Further, I’m sure the pain and confusion of paying taxes contributes to people’s dislike and distrust of government. Politicians and agencies interested in burnishing the public’s esteem for government, especially the federal government, would do well to focus on making the act of paying our taxes just a little better.

How to Get a Keyboard to Work with a Droid Phone a.k.a The End of a Long Journey in Word Processing

All I’ve ever wanted tech-wise for a long time is a simple word processor. Nothing fancy, just something that converts finger motions into characters that can be stored somewhere. Unfortunately, my tech needs have gone unmet by the computer industry. Through much fruitless searching, I learned that the market for people who want to just write with their devices is limited in scope. In fact, stand-alone word processors seem to be available only for typing classes and other educational purposes, cost hundreds of dollars, and don’t necessarily connect to typical word processing software.

Alack, alack, my tunnels are carpeling!

But, finally, I’ve found a solution. I upgraded my phone recently to a Motorola / Droid Bionic. Like many Verizon phones, it comes with Bluetooth connectivity. I hooked it up to a Motorola wireless keyboard (intended it seems for the Xoom) and voila, I have the power to type into Evernote, email apps and more. The Bionic has a relatively large screen, so I’m also able to edit a bit. But even with an app that handles Office docs, I find that adding track changes and comments into the mix is just too cumbersome for a mobile device. There are other Bluetooth keyboards meant for business travelers — I handled at least one in an airport that was fold-able and full-sized — but the Motorola keyboard is small enough to fit into a carry-on bag.

All told, factoring in the contract and Verizon’s “new every two” policy, the phone plus the keyboard were much cheaper than an iPad, but more expensive than a netbook. And having my phone function as my word processor has a layer of convenience since my phone is always on my person.

There’s also a Bionic accessory — a “lapdock” — that connects the phone to a keyboard and embiggens the screen. At $300 this really didn’t seem worth it to me, especially since the keyboard was a bit on the small side. And at that point, I would have been better off (maybe) breaking down, buying an iPad and reverting back to a brick phone. (Razrs are still cool, right?)

The last nice thing about the Bionic is that Verizon has a case for it that comes with a “kickstand” built into the back that can prop the phone up for comfortable viewing.

I also learned that my older phone, an A855 Droid 1, didn’t want to connect to any Bluetooth-enabled keyboard. At one point, I even paid a Romanian guy for an app that allowed older phones to handle so-called “Bluetooth human interface devices.” But even after learning that PayPal can convert to Euros, I couldn’t get the phone to stay connected to a standard-issue Microsoft Bluetooth keyboard for more than a few minutes. Oddly, even when I got the Bionic, it didn’t want to play nice with the Microsoft keyboard, so I went for the Motorola keyboard and got lucky.

Now that I finally have the portable word processor I’ve dreamed of for lo these many years, I’ve mostly been using it for notes at meetings. Clearly, the magic of having a word processor doesn’t mean I’m going to bust out a novel any time soon, but it’s good to finally have something that works.

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Scrabble Reading on the Highest Score, Word, Game Etc. and Poker

I got lost down a nice Scrabble-related Internet rabbit hole a few days ago. It’s always good to know what a game’s theoretical limits are. It helps you figure out optimal strategy and can often given you deeper insight in the mechanics of the game itself.

Some Scrabble players have constructed boards to answer the question, “What is the highest scoring possible Scrabble play?” Turns out the answer depends on what dictionary you use. It also depends, if you read into the comments, on whether or not one can truly perform the act of “sesquioxidizing” or if one can only “synthesizing a sesquioxide.”

Well, don’t try that at home. But it does demonstrate the value in a regular game of Scrabble of creating more than one word in a single play and exploiting multiple bonus tiles.

Secondly, Stefan Fatsis, the author of an excellent book on competitive Scrabble, also has a nice article about the highest scoring sanctioned Scrabble play and game.

Interestingly, the game was only possible because the players employed incorrect Scrabble strategies that opened up plays known as triple-triples. Michael Cresta, who won the game, passed a turn to exchange letters so he could make what became the highest-scoring play. While strategically incorrect — he had less than a 1 in 500 chance of succeeding– he pulled it off.

This reminded me a lot of amateur poker players, myself included, who have incorrectly drawn toward flushes, straights and other “non-made” hands.

But it’s also interesting that the Scrabble player’s “incorrect” play resulted in a record that will probably be associated with his name for a long, long time. Similarly, poker player Barry Greenstein once used the potential fame associated with a decision — in his case, the largest contested pot in televised poker history — to justify what he acknowledged might not have been a strategically optimal play. Unlike Cresta, however, Greenstein wound up losing the hand in question.