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MASLIN COPS! With revolution sweeping the world, Janet Maslin makes a striking admission: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2011

SPECIAL SUPER BOWL AUGMENTED EDITION: The analysts have been a bit distracted since last Thursday (see below). Bowing to that reality, we offer a special pre-Super Bowl edition, featuring entertainment, sports and genealogy. All along with our regular HOWLER, including an essay about the way Janet Maslin has recently copped.

Does he need to move his car: Why not enjoy a bit of comedy? To see Jeff Caldwell’s latest Letterman set, you know what to do—just click here. This entertainment is brought to you by the wonderful people at YouTube.

No really—the arithmetic works: Last month, Brother Dick let us know that Grandfather Rufus has hit Wikipedia! (Thanks to one of them perfesser fellers.) This is a very limited history; for example, where’s Professor Wormwood’s Monkey Theater, the show with which he electrified the Maritimes in 1896? Where are the lectures on moral topics? But yes, that actually is our grand-father, despite the birth date (1832). Trust us—the numbers do work.

Sports section: Several Fridays ago, we were scheduled to give you some data about college football. (We dropped the plan when Gabrielle Giffords and all the others were shot.) By now, we no longer really care. But the data were basically good for our side, or we wouldn’t have brought up the topic.

And now, for our regular HOWLER:

Lowry refuses the script: On the level of elected officials, reaction to events in Egypt has bordered on bipartisan, as the New York Times reports. That said, there has been a lot of shrieking on Fox. This produced an intriguing panel discussion on last evening’s HHhHannity.

The discussion started in a familiar way, with Deirdre Imus playing the fool about Obama’s obvious lunacy. Imus is the wife of Don Imus, Frank Rich’s very bright friend:

HANNITY (2/3/11): Here's my fear, and I brought this up with Juan Williams. The U.S. is reexamining its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood wants sharia. The Muslim Brotherhood wants war with Israel.

IMUS: There should be—yes, Obama, I don't know, he's gone crazy.

HANNITY: He's lost it.

IMUS: He threw Mubarak under the bus with grandma.

HANNITY: Great point.

“Great point,” Sean quickly observed, after Imus recalled the script in which Obama “threw grandma under the bus.” But when was it ever different with anyone named Imus?

Things were off to a good solid start. But Lowry, editor of National Review, just kept mucking things up! Kirsten Powers said Obama has done OK concerning Egypt—and Lowry jumped it to agree!

LOWRY: I think Kirsten is right here. Any U.S. government would basically have done the same thing the Obama administration has done. It is very difficult when you have a long-standing ally who is a nasty, cynical dictator with an uprising in the streets. It is basically in our national DNA to side with the protesters.

HANNITY: But you agree with neither—they've been incoherent in their message and it's been changing every 24 hours.

LOWRY: It's very difficult, but I think any government confronted with this situation is going to have some stumbles. Hillary—it was wishfulness on her part to say it was stable when obviously it wasn't. Joe Biden, shooting from the hip as usual. But I think they stumbled towards getting it right.

HANNITY: Stumbled towards it.

LOWRY: Sure. Sean, it’s a hellish week.

HANNITY: Wait a minute. Would Ronald Reagan re-examine his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood?

IMUS: No! I mean again, there’s all these excuses.

HANNITY: What would he do?

Deirdre had jumped in, trying to help. Throughout the panel, she flip-flopped all around, slamming Obama in a range of contradictory ways. But Lowry was being quite difficult.

Eventually, in the panel’s second segment, Lowry really made Sean look silly. This was part of the run-up as Sean’s frustration with the non-scripting grew:

HANNITY: Rich, this president is in so far over his head! As I've been saying, he's been incoherent…I don't think Ronald Reagan would have had a problem handling this as he dealt with the Nicaraguan freedom fighters and—

At this point, Lowry jumped in; the boys began talking over one another, such that the Nexis transcript breaks down at that point. But Lowry really side-swiped Sean—and Sean came off sounding comically bad. We’d urge the Media Matters folk to dig up the tape if they have it.

It’s been a long time since any topic produced so many breakdowns in partisan scripting. Sean was really annoyed by Lowry’s bad conduct! Thank goodness Deidre was there!

MASLIN COPS (permalink): Janet Maslin (almost) did the right thing when she reviewed Brian Greene’s newest book.

Greene’s new book is called ''The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.” By the laws of American journalism, the reviewer is supposed to say how accessible Greene makes modern physics. This convention dates at least to “A Brief History of Time,” the best-selling 1988 puzzler which another top physicist has never stopped “hawking.”

It’s a convention of American journalism! By law, reviewers are supposed to say how easy it is to grasp modern physics, thanks to writers like Stephen Hawking and Greene. But good lord! Breaking every rule in the book, Maslin ended her essay on Greene’s new book with a bit of open rebellion:

MASLIN (1/27/11): Bottom line: It's exciting and rewarding to read [Greene] even when the process is a struggle. This book is significantly more difficult than his earlier ones, but it still captures and engages the imagination. It can veer from eye-glazing passages to simple, crystal-clear thoughts (bubble universes appear finite from the inside but infinite from the outside; got it!), only to get lost again when stringy geometry and sticky branes enter the fray. It can make you wish Tom Lehrer were setting this stuff to music. And it can make you marvel at the thought of a parallel universe in which you read ''The Hidden Reality'' and every word makes perfect sense to you. That won't happen in this one.

Maslin is never quite willing to tell you the truth: You may not understand a darn thing in this book! But throughout this review, she is at least willing to hint at this otherwise hidden reality. A hint even lurks in the headline atop her review (“Multiple-Universe Theory Made, Well, Easier”). And sure enough! Maslin’s switch from “easy” to “well, easier” is conveyed, sotto voce, at various points in her piece:

MASLIN: ''The Hidden Reality'' starts small (sort of) by raising the question of whether space is infinite or finite. Then it segues to the cosmological principle (''the assumed homogeneity of the cosmos'') and that principle's implications for how a multiverse (a plural for ''universe'') might be configured. A little further on in this same early chapter, Mr. Greene, who relies on earthly reference points like ''South Park'' and ''The Honeymooners'' to simplify difficult concepts, imagines a woman who has many shoes. Calling her Imelda, he uses her wardrobe permutations to make a more abstract point: ''an infinite number of appearances with a finite number of outfits ensures infinite repetition.''

This chapter is called ''Endless Doppelgangers.'' It builds upon the idea that infinite variations of ourselves, our lives and our solar system are within the theorist's realm of possibility. Got that? Mr. Greene then moves to ''Eternity and Infinity,'' and soon he is introducing both inflationary cosmology, which is one thing, and the inflaton (sic) field, which is quite another, in a book that desperately needs a glossary. (It doesn't have one. And its illustrations aren't as helpful as they might be.)

“Got that?” Maslin asks, thus hinting that the answer is “no.”

We were pleased to see Maslin suggest and say that this book isn’t real “easy.” We’ll admit it; she didn’t seem to feel she could come out and say that the book is impossibly hard. But in this fumbling step toward the truth, we saw signs of real journalistic progress. Maslin is breaking from one of the guild’s established scripts—something journalists seldom do. And good lord! If journalists can learn to admit that they don’t understand conformally invariant supersymmetric quantum gauge field theory, perhaps they could eventually cop to the many other topics they don’t understand. Perhaps they could drop their scripts in those areas. (We suggest one example below.)

Maslin did anger the analysts once, right at the start of her piece. Knowing she planned to shatter a stricture, she offered this (highlighted) sop to the gods, right in her second paragraph:

MASLIN: It would not be fair to describe the experience of reading the renowned physicist Brian Greene as a battle of wits. It's no battle. Most of the wits are on one side, no matter how nicely Mr. Greene tries to soft-pedal his brilliance. After all, he is the scientist who has written so enticingly about superstring theory, Calabi-Yau manifolds and the goings-on at the Large Hadron Collider. You are the one who gets agitated when Mr. Greene makes reference to ''conformally invariant supersymmetric quantum gauge field theory'' and such.

But there is very good reason to go mano a mano with Mr. Greene when he delivers a new book. He has already written ''The Elegant Universe'' and ''The Fabric of the Cosmos,'' two heady but surprisingly accessible explanations of thrillingly arcane research. Reading them is far more edifying than baffling, even if they have patches of authorial quicksand here and there. Over all, Mr. Greene has a gift for elucidating big ideas and knowing that a bombardment of too many small ones might make the armchair physicist implode.

''The art of theoretical physics lies in simplifying the horrendously complex so as to preserve essential physical features while making the theoretical analysis tractable,'' he writes encouragingly in his latest mind-bender, ''The Hidden Reality.''

There they go again! Were Greene’s first two books “surprisingly accessible”—“far more edifying than baffling?” Maslin undercuts this claim in grafs 1 and 3 with a pair of side-long suggestions about those “agitating” “mind-benders.” But still! Deciding to take The Maslin Challenge, the analysts have spent the past ten days reworking their copies of Elegant Universe, recalling the anguish they’ve suffered, down through the years, at various points in the text.

At various points early on in the text.

Perhaps we should do some “philosopher Fridays,” showing where Greene’s surprisingly accessible text rather plainly breaks down. In fairness, though, we will say this: Skimming the text of Greene’s new book, it seemed to us that his explanation of the iconic “double-slit experiment” may be clearer than past efforts. (Past efforts by him and by others.) Let’s face it. You simply haven’t “made Einstein easy” until you’ve “explained” this famous head-scratcher—with reviewers insisting that you’ve made it amazingly clear! Sorry: In the past week, we’ve let the analysts review Greene’s treatment of this puzzler from Elegant Universe (basically, pages 97-116). Yesterday, they returned from Starbucks at 5, elated but still uncomprehending.

Greene’s treatment in his new book seems promising—but so far, we’ve only skimmed it.

To all appearances, Greene has tried hard to make this material accessible, in his books and on PBS. We have no doubt that he’s a highly competent physicist and mathematician—that he does “understand” this material in the technical ways such folk do. We also like the way he admits, at various points, that he himself can’t quite internalize the oddness of the quantum world—that he can’t quite “understand” it himself. Unfortunately, he usually makes this admission just after a passage in which he seems to suggest that he is in fact making some topic clear. In Elegant Universe, he pretty much admits that he doesn’t really “understand” the double-slit matter on pages 111-112. But this admission follows a dozen pages in which he gives the impression that he is making this abstruse topic clear.

We have no doubt that Greene does “understand” the material. But writers like Greene claim something more; they claim they can explain this confounding material in ways we shlubs can understand. Last week, Maslin suggested that she doesn’t quite understand—and this made the analysts cheer. Who knows? Perhaps some colleague will go her one better! As revolution spreads round the globe, perhaps a brighter day will come—a day when some journalist admits that he doesn’t understand those scripted old claims about Social Security, to cite just one example!

“The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it?” “The left hand is borrowing from the right?” Few journalists have ever understood these claims. Who knows? Post-Maslin, perhaps they’ll admit it!

In this brighter, more glorious day, they might even ask for some help!