Friday, July 30, 2010

Letting Go

Letting Go, another great New Yorker article by Atul Gawande.  Be aware that the piece is emotionally hard to read.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yet Another Top Ten List™

We have deliberated over the songs, movies, books, presidents and more. I'd like to try yet another top ten list™ —the top ten ideas. I'll modestly present only a couple of my favorites to start. Please add your entries in the comments or in a separate post.

1. The Market Place of Ideas (or simply the dialectic)
Perhaps no idea is more important than the open discussion and debate of ideas. Despite the short term appeal of a 'philosopher king' and the frustration of the 'noise' of the marketplace, the well being of humanity depends on open debate. Indeed, we really don't know the meaning of 'well-being' without it.

I recently read an article about an optical physicist who developed, theoretically, a new microscope imaging technique which would reveal features in cells which otherwise would be physically impossible to see. He and his team of 4 to 6 scientists spent 2 years testing this theoretical technique against any kind of objection, trying to prove themselves wrong. Then they published the technique and explained it in a conference lecture to a packed room of interested fellow scientists. Sure enough, after the session, a scientist came up to them and explained in no uncertain terms why it would not work, and his objection was valid. They needed to go back to the drawing board.

Our own self bias is too strong to allow even the best of us to be impartial. The Market Place of Ideas is necessary for our own well-being.

2. The Pygmalion Principle
The Pygmalion Principle states that people succeed when someone they admire believes that they can. There is a significant caveat—the person they admire or teacher can not be pretending. Typically another can see through that. They must truly believe the other person is especially capable of the task at hand. I have detailed many examples of this in the past so I won't bother to give more. I believe this belongs in the top ten because it is fairly powerful and is vastly under utilized.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Some four or five years ago, I learned that perhaps the most interesting part of the London Review of Books was its personal ads section. The personals were initially made a part of the magazine, I suppose, to help literary lonely-hearts find each other. But somewhere along the line, the British – who find self-promotion distasteful to begin with – discovered that perhaps the most fertile ground out there for parody were personal ads. And then, back in 2006, someone published a collection of the ads, They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books. To get a sense of these, here are all actual ads paid for and published in the London Review of Books:

Woman, 38. WLTM man to 45 who doesn’t name his genitals after German chancellors. You know who you are and, no, I don’t want to meet either Bismarck, Bethmann Hollweg, or Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, however admirable the independence he gave to secretaries of state may have been. Box no. 5739.

I wrote this ad to prove I’m not gay. Man, 29. Not gay. Absolutely not. Box no. 7471.

In France, it’s just a kiss. In England it’s just a muffin. In Belgium it’s just a waffle. In Germany it’s just a shepherd. You know what I’m saying. Man, 41. Box no. 5520.

I like my women the way I like my kebab. Found by surprise after a drunken night out, and covered in too much tahini. Before long I'll have discarded you on the pavement of life, but until then you're the perfect complement to a perfect evening. Man, 32. Rarely produces winning metaphors.

Bald, fat, short, and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.

I was recently victorious in a small claims court and with my compensation cheque I’d like to take you (F to 48) on a weekend bicycling trip to the Lake District Centre Parc. This offer doesn’t include meals or alcoholic beverages. M, 53.

I tested well with the 38-50 demographic. The same demographic also enjoys healthy cereal breakfasts and is open to product offers from financial institutes. If you’re 38-50, like museli, and would consider a savings account that gives you a 6.1% return on balances over £5000, write now to Eddy ‘Babycanon’ Mulligan.

Blah blah, whatever. Indifferent woman. Go ahead and write. Box no. 3253. Like I care.

Now, it turns out that the literary people on this side of the pond are catching on. For reasons not entirely clear even to me, I happened to check out the personal ads in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, and discovered that even Americans, who too often take themselves too seriously, are now writing some interesting personal ads. These from the July 15 issue:

FRISKY COUGAR, 84, seeks dude, 72 to 76, share walks from parking lots to doctors’ offices. Must like detailed descriptions of illnesses; enjoy matinee “naps”; daytime driving essential; relishes grandchildren’s pictures. Limited flatulence, clacking teeth ok. Don’t anticipate LTR. NYR Box 54260.

ARMCHAIR RADICAL (M, 25) seeks dialectical synthesis with street-credible jacobin (F). Must have nothing to lose but chains. Absence of property a plus.

PORTLY, HANDSOME MAN, 81 summers, some hair and teeth, ample supply blue pills; seeking 90+ foxy cougar, to snuggle under afghan, swap podiatry, colonoscopy, and dental stories; knowing “Hut-Sut Rawlson” and “Mairzy Doats” a plus. Large type for response. NYR Box 54262.

SQUALID SYDNEY WOMBAT (M), striking natural dirty digger seeks beckoning, foxy NYC squirrel (F) for trans-Antipodean roo, pert exchanges, and postmodern “Murdoch-She-Wrote” contemplations of retrospectives in hot metal prints. NYR Box 54275.

WORN-OUT HUSBAND, friend to his wife’s nerves and father to five silly daughters (the two eldest excepted) for almost a quarter century, seeks wealthy, titled, childless widow of an unentailed estate for long walks across ha-ha’s. NYR Box 54272.

ANTEDILUVIAN MARINER (M) seeks attractive coxswain (F) to put in at terra firma amidst coming torrents. Long-term relationship inevitable. Will steer clear of Mount Ararat in protest of Armenian genocide. Mont Blanc? Open to suggestions. NYR Box 54270.

FANNIE MAE with troubled assets, bored with Freddie Mac, seeks well-regulated stimulus package from counterparty too big to fail. No cash for clunkers.

DISPROPORTIONATELY BLESSED GENERALISSMO, deposed by an ungrateful peasantry, languishes in luxurious tropical exile. Seeks a talented contortionist with low morals and high pain threshold for long-term relationship, satori, and maybe a little narco-crime on the side.

I’ll let the reader judge for him or herself, but my view is that the Brits still have the edge on cleverness. After all, they’ve had about a 1000 year head start on us. But, I’d say, we’re not far behind.

Sergio Mendes 40 Years Later

Back when I was in junior high, one the the older boys (Bill, perhaps?) discovered a group called Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. This was not music that any kid was listening to: it was sort of a Latin jazz-Latin pop-lounge music-soft rock kind of band -- you know what I'm saying. I'm not sure quite what the attraction was, but for a brief yet intensive period I spent a good part of my time deepening the grooves in their one vinyl album that we owned. In case you're wondering whatever happened to Sergio Mendes, well, he's still making music (up to 35 albums now) in a variety of musical incarnations. Quite by chance, I ran across the music video below, from a CD released in 2006. I think Sergio is the guy on the triangle.

Note: check out crazy dancer in the skeleton outfit.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cafe Bruges

Tonght, Sue, Ellen and I are headed to a place called Cafe Bruges for dinner in Carlisle. This restaurant post-dates our dinners with Ted -- it opened about a year ago. But it's our first time there. I don't know if it was inspired by the movie In Bruges, but we're kinda hoping that it was.

Not only does the restaurant offer traditional Belgian fare, but it also also features an ever-changing selection of Belgian beers and ales, considered to be among the best in the world. Here's the problem: I've looked over the beer selection, and I must confess, nothing looks all that familiar. So, I'm providing a link so people can look it over and make recommendations -- I'm thinking in particular Pete the Younger and Joe the Brewer. And everyone should try to remember that I'm in my IPA period right now. Anyway here's the beer selection: Beers & Ales. I'll be checking the comments before we leave.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Yell fire in the crowded internet

I dutifully watched live blogging of Apple's press conference concerning the iPhone 4 and the 'death grip' dropped calls issue. (Basically, it's an issue for all smart phones, but Apple will give a free cover to anyone who wants one; or offer a full refund.) The issue is a tempest in a teapot, but Jobs did say something interesting in response to questions after the conference.

It was this: (as recorded by Ars Technica) "sometimes I feel that, in search of eyeballs, people don't care what they leave in their wake. this is a new phenomenon."

What he means is that sometimes he feels bloggers and websites will go to extreme lengths to attract readership. I think he may be right in that, in the past, companies and news outlets had reputations to consider when posting news. Now a website or an individual can post pretty much anything to get readership (and ad money) without worrying too much about reputation—just start a new site if things go bad.

While freedom of speech and the democratization of news is unprecedented on the web, will it become a place where people continually get trampled when someone yells "Fire"?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hitch Review

I tried responding to Myk in the comments, but I was again thwarted by Blogger's comment word limit. Maybe that's a sign I should be more concise.

I enjoyed that review too. My one tiny quibble is actually with that specific paragraph you excerpted because it parrots many the too-vague criticisms of Hitchens (invariably regarding Iraq and Islamism). I've been reading a ton of reviews about his memoir, and it seems that no critic can write an article about the guy without using the following boilerplate construction: "Hitchens is a smart dude and has some trenchant things to say about most things, but then something snapped in his brain after 2001 and he went crazy and became a Republican warmongerer." Buruma's paragragh almost suggests that Hitchens has turned into a frothing, reactinary conservative. It's like reading a lament about a smart friend who got addicted to drugs, or a loved one descending into senility.

But I really believe that labelling him a "neo-con" or a "strident patriot" actually simplifies him at exactly the point which demands the most complexity. And it's often used to dismiss his arguments before engaging them.

For instance, he mentions specifically the idea of patriotism (and group identity) in his memoir:

"It used to be a slight hallmark of being English or British that one didn't make a big thing out of patriotic allegiance and was indeed brimful of sarcastic and critical in remarks about the old country, but would pull oneself together and say a word or two if it was attacked or criticized in any nasty or stupid manner by anybody else. It's family in other words, and friends are family to me. I feel rather the same way about being an American and also about being of partly Jewish descent. To be any one of these things is to be no better than anyone else, but no worse. [emphasis his]. When confronted by certain enemies, it is increasingly the "most definitely not worse" half of this unspoken agreement on which I tend to lay the most emphasis. (As with Camus's famous "neither victim nor executioner," one hastens to assent but more and more to say "definitely not victim.")

It seems to me that this measured, considered take on what exactly national identity entails is anything but the words of "a strident American patriot." Keep in mind this is the same guy who wants Kissinger indicted for war crimes, supported the VC during Vietnam, and dearly hates Clinton. In fact, his take seems to me the precise opposite of American patriotic stridency: a consistently self-critical attitude built over time and experience, based on evidence and history, and always tempered by the understanding that one is not granted special allowances based on place of birth.

Another great review for those interested, which addresses many of his contradictions.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Scientist vs. Gravity

From the I Thought This Was Settled Department: A Scientist Takes On Gravity.

More on Hitch

It just so happens that I picked up a copy of the New York Review of Books today, and it just so happens that the magazine had a review of Hitchens' memoir, Hitch-22: "The Believer" by Ian Buruma. Buruma definitely takes Hitchens on here, mostly lamenting his transmogrification into a warmonger and American toady.
I have watched with a certain degree of dismay how this lifelong champion of left-wing, anti-imperialist causes, this scourge of armed American hubris, this erstwhile booster of Vietcong and Sandinistas, this ex-Trot who delighted in calling his friends and allies “comrades,” ended up as a loud drummer boy for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, a tub-thumper for neoconservatism, and a strident American patriot.
I'll let you read the review, except to point out two things. First, for some reason, every critique I have ever read of Hitchens are all leveled by people who count him among their friends: whether it's Thomas Eagleton or Jeffrey Goldberg. This Buruma guy is no exception. Indeed, he begins, "Like many people who count “Hitch” among their friends...." Either Hitchens is one of those people who every likes to imagine is their friend, or he is a genuinely gregarious and amiable fellow.

Second, apparently, Hitchens in his memoir, borrows a writing technique from the Homeric tradition. The Homeric epithet is a tag or nickname for a character that can be used on its own or together with the real name. Epithets add a bit of color and also fill out the meter when the name on its own doesn't quite fit. And so, for Homer it's never just Achilles, but swift-footed Achilles. It's Hector, breaker of horses; bright-eyed Athena; Agamemnon, lord of men; the resourceful Odysseus. Hitchens puts the technique to excellent use. As Buruma says, for Hitchens, "it is always the 'habitual and professional liar Clinton,' 'the pious born-again creep Jimmy Carter,' Nixon’s 'indescribably loathsome deputy Henry Kissinger,' the 'subhuman character' Jorge Videla.

I'm impressed.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I assure you, sir, because of my intimate relations with the Almighty, if you write a good prayer, we'll have good weather

By special request of his father, I post for California James the following meditation from Jeffrey Goldberg :

Bastille Day party - a little late

A l’occasion de la Fête National Française, nous vous invitons à nous rejoindre le 24 juillet, 19h pour une soirée originale.

Nous avons un programme divertissant à vous proposer qui devrait plaire a tout le monde, que vous soyez français ou pas.

Chez Eddy Harvey

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What was once a dream, now reality

For all you CS Lewis fans out there who believed the only way to honor a man or woman is to name a college after him or her, your wishes have been fulfilled: This will be a Christian-based school in the Great Books tradition (think St. John's in Maryland) in the wilds of rural western Massachusetts. Go figure.

I'm not even sure what to do with this post, I simply found it interesting (maybe we can start Tolkien University? Any takers?)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

David Brooks -- Today's Man for All Seasons?

First-rate profile of my buddy David Brooks in New York Magazine: A Reasonable Man.

Best lines: His moderate conservatism—a synthesis of conservative giant Edmund Burke and Ur-centralizer Alexander Hamilton that has earned him the label of “liberals’ favorite conservative”—may be anomalous, but it allows him a kind of freedom that other, more partisan pundits lack. He’s a party of one, without followers. This is Brooks’s central paradox: He’s both the essential columnist of the moment, better than anyone at crystallizing the questions we face—ones for which there are often no good answers—and also, somehow, totally out of step.

Nonsense on Stilts

Chemists should be forced to mark 'nonsense' homeopathic remedies as 'placebos' to stop customers being misled

Favorite line-
Dr Tom Dolphin, from the BMA's junior doctors committee, said that he had previously described homeopathy as witchcraft but now wanted to apologise to witches for making the link.

I thought I had found an advantage to the US healthcare system over Britain's NHS, that at least my tax dollars weren't being used so some person could get free quack medicine.  Then I stumbled onto the NCCAM, a department of the National Institutes of Health, spending $132 million on quackery, far surpassing Britain's £4 million.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's Out. The Siena Research Institute's 5th Survey of U.S. Presidents

Just in time for the 4th of July, the Siena Research Institue has published it 5th presidential survey based on the input of 238 presidential scholars. The Roosevelts get top honors: FDR is #1 and TR is #2, followed by Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (notwithstanding the Texas School Board's efforts to vote him out of history). Obama comes in at 15th out of 43. George W. is 39th. Bill Clinton is 13th. G. H. Bush comes in at 22. See American Presidents: Greatest and Worst. The complete rankings here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

game theory and PKs

Martin has been fascinated reading Soccer Economics which contains a chapter analyzing the stats of PKs. Here's a good exchange on the subject with a Spanish soccer fan/player and econ professor. No doubt there's a grad course(perhaps degree) offered somewhere on the subject.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy Tenth Real Birthday to Big Brother Bob

Once again this year Bob is a "Yankee Doodle Dandee". This is the tenth time that Bob celebrates his true birthday--being born on the Fourth of July and July 5th at the same time. Enjoy those fireworks, Bob. This one's for you.