More on Media Reactions to Ferguson, MO

After waiting a few days, I decided to start looking at media reactions to what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. A lot has happened too: The governor has announced a curfew and the Ferguson police released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. The police also, against the wishes of basically everyone involved, released a video clip they claim shows Brown stealing some cigars (or cigarettes – it’s not really clear) prior to the shooting. They admit that the confrontation between Brown and the officer was unrelated, so this is clearly just trying to defame the victim, who of course can’t defend himself. This is reminiscent of the attempts to ruin Trayvon Martin’s reputation prior to the Zimmerman trial – Trayvon Martin smoked weed sometimes and got into a few fights, therefore the shooting must have been reasonable. We have no evidence that this video is relevant (even assuming the video even shows what the police say it shows), and it will clearly serve to inflame the tension between the community and law enforcement. Given that the Ferguson PD is no longer in control, maybe that was the point of releasing the video.

Most of the major news media have continued to cover the story. I won’t link to most of the pages, but you can look for yourself in the opinion pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, online magazines like Slate and the Atlantic. Some of these articles are from before my initial post on the subject but I’m including them anyway. Most of the media is echoing sentiments similar to those I gave in this post. The militarization of law enforcement and the history of violence and oppression aimed against black communities throughout the United States have prominent places in most of the commentary.

Interestingly, while most of the media has come out strongly against the police, the conservative media is split over which side to support (the protesters or the police). Unsurprisingly, Reason (which is not strictly a right-wing magazine) is emphatically opposed to the police. Given the articles right now on the front page, it looks like Drudge is also on the side of the protesters. The Weekly Standard is doing its best to ignore the issue. The American Spectator is on the side of racism, denying the existence of any racial disparities in the justice system – as if historical context doesn’t matter – and blasting Rand Paul for even suggesting that racism could still exist. In a perfect example highlighting a point I made about President Obama, Ben Stein writes an incredible piece on that same website accusing Obama of hating America. While Stein’s piece doesn’t address Ferguson, it does provide a window into how the people at that magazine think. Stein writes that Obama is an “Angry Black Man” (yes, Stein really uses that term) whose hatred of America is evident in his inability to start enough wars to satisfy Stein’s bloodlust. I guess all Obama (Eric Holder too) has to do to be an “Angry Black Man” is to exist since he’s very carefully avoided giving strong public responses on many controversial issues.

The National Review actually shows some diversity of opinion on the topic of Ferguson. Ever-loathsome commentator Michelle Malkin decided that this was a good time to salute the nation’s police officers. She focuses on the fact that being a police officer is not the safest job in the world (though not the most dangerous either), with a number of officers killed every year. In the process, she uncritically lends support to the idea of American cities as “war zones” and police as a military occupation force. She also uses statistics in a highly misleading and unethical manner. It’s bad enough that I think I’ll write a separate post on lying with statistics. The clear implication of her article is that police should be free to murder citizens without restraint because their job can be dangerous. Jonah Goldberg writes an odd but mostly reasonable article calling to reserve judgment until an investigation into the initial shooting is done but also calls for police to be more sensitive and more responsive to the communities they’re supposed to protect. He also criticizes the attempts by some to blame Obama (why people are doing this, I have no idea) for what’s happening.

Kevin Williamson provides one of the laziest arguments possible: The unrest is (of course) the fault of the Democrats and their liberal policies like support for public schools and public transportation. Similarly to the many conservative figures who coincidentally just happened to discover the evils of Big Government on a certain Tuesday night in November, 2008, Williamson is clearly trying to attract libertarians to his decidedly non-libertarian cause (electing Republicans). To Williamson, redlining, white flight, and urban disinvestment are just natural responses to the excesses of Democratic control (many think that these cause many urban problems and lead to near-permanent Democratic control). Police are bad because they’re the government, and the government is axiomatically bad. Only local government policies matter, not state, federal, or non-governmental policies designed to impoverish certain communities (obviously and dangerously untrue). Giuliani saved New York from becoming a hellish dystopia (he didn’t). It’s almost unbelievable that these kinds of sentiments would come from a person writing in a magazine that once explicitly called for the subjugation of non-white people (conservative intellectual hero William F Buckley, at least during and before the Civil Rights era, was an unrepentant white supremacist). I would have at least hoped that the National Review would be more sensitive to the plight of those it fought so hard to keep in (figurative, if not literal) chains. There are many other articles that I won’t discuss here, but you can easily look for more.


Computer Languages and High Energy Physics

A common question that people who are thinking about going into physics is “What programming language should I learn?”

This question doesn’t necessarily have a good answer. Really, the answer depends not only on what subfield you are interested in but also what experiment you will work on. In the field of experimental high energy physics (i.e. particle physics) there are three languages that are by far the most useful for day-to-day work.

They are: C++, Fortran, and Python.

C++ (or sometimes just C) and Fortran are used because they are fast and already have enormous libraries of optimized code, allowing you to use things like FFTW (Fastest Fourier Transform in the West) and the GSL (GNU Scientific Library). These are older languages and not the easiest to code but allow a lot of flexibility. If you’re doing computationally intensive work, chances are you’re working with one of these languages. In HEP, Fortran is mostly found in older libraries, many of which are being replaced by newer C++ versions. Thus, you get things like PAW, GEANT3, and Garfield – Fortran-based programs found in CERNLIB – being replaced by ROOT, GEANT4 and Garfield++, which are C++ based. Fortran is still used quite extensively, though, and many simulation toolkits continue to be maintained in Fortran. I’m not an expert on what is used in high energy theory, but I believe Fortran is also one of the most common languages there as well (again, due to the huge set of libraries available for scientific computing and due to it remaining one of the fastest languages). C++ has a lot of nice features – it’s always been object-oriented, it includes templates and the STL, etc., and is much newer than Fortran (there aren’t really any obvious vestiges of punch-card programming in C++!).

Python is becoming more and more popular for high level programming. While it’s too slow for many computations, it is a very nice scripting language. You can quickly create programs that will work without needing to deal with Makefiles and compilers. For example, you could create a bunch of C++ programs to process and analyze a dataset using a Python program to control everything. Furthermore, you can even create Python bindings for C++ code (and some other languages too), allowing you to call your C++ functions inside a Python program. This lets you run everything in Python so that the computationally-intensive parts were compiled using C++ code and the rest is just Python.

Another big advantage of these languages is that they are free. Most people in HEP use the GNU compilers gcc, g++, gfortran, etc. to compile the code. These tools and many of the scientific libraries (like the ones I mentioned above) are also free. This is in stark contrast to languages like Matlab and Mathematica, popular in undergraduate coursework and in some other fields but which can also cost hundreds of dollars per user per year. The same is true of IDL, which is popular among astronomers. Python has NumPy and SciPy which mimic much of the functionality of Matlab. Common languages like Java, Perl, and Ruby may be encountered but aren’t used very often by particle physicists. If you’re going to be working with websites or databases, you might also run into SQL, Javascript, PHP, etc, though these are more for “service work” – keeping the experiment running – rather than an actual physics analysis.