Sunday, August 30, 2015

Despite flaws, science isn't a big mess

Science is not broken. Lest the above [discussion of errors and sloppy results] worry the reader, science is far from a giant erroneous mass. 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 8

The Bible's secretaries

Secretaryship is one of the great shaping forces behind the King James Bible. There is no authorship involved here. Authorship is egotistical, an assumption that you might have something new worth saying. You don’t. Every iota of the Bible counts but without it you count for nothing. The secretary knows that. 
Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Perennial, 2004), p. 184.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Predicting death

We have no reliable way of ascertaining when someone will die. Even with the best medical predictors—physician assessments and statistics—there is often a huge gap between perceived dying and the actual imminence of death.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 7

Friday, August 28, 2015

Stereotype threat shapes identities

Being threatened because we have a given characteristic is what makes us most aware of being a particular kind of person.
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 73
What raises a characteristic we have to a social identity we have are the contingencies that go with the characteristic, most often threatening contingencies.
Id. at 74

Know the illness you face

When we are familiar with the patterns of the illness that afflicts us, we disarm our imaginings. Accurate knowledge of how a disease kills serves to free us from unnecessary terrors of what we might be fated to endure when we die. We may thus be better prepared to recognize the stations at which it is appropriate to ask for relief, or perhaps to begin contemplating whether to end the journey altogether.
Sherwin Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 143.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Romancing a poet

As for Mayakovsky, his infatuation had deepened when he discovered Tatiana's extraordinary knowledge of Russian poetry. Sitting with him at the various cafés they frequented—La Coupole, Le Voltaire, La Rotonde, Le Danton, La Closerie des Lilas—she recited poetry by the hour. How could he not have been seduced when he heard her speak out the whole of his own "The Cloud in Trousers," some seven hundred lines long? 
Francine du Plessix Gray, Them: A Memoir of Parents (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 56

Doctors watch people

Doctors—like writers, artists, and spies—are professional people-watchers. More specifically, a doctor's work relies on the ability to discern, among thousands of biological cues, the underlying pathology. It is a skill that is part art, part science; and the more we can see, and sense, and sort, the better our care.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 6

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sacks's lifetime of journals

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs.
. . . The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.
My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special indispensable form of talking to myself.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Interesting, but who wants to be in group 3? Yay science.

Just by using this orbital position sonic algorithm, a simple ambient music piece began to do something weird: control how people thought they were moving in space. So we decided to ramp up the evil meter to 11 by slowly changing the modulation rate for different frequency bands. We thought a piece that used this algorithm would make people feel like they were moving but confuse them when some of the sound elements seemed to move one way and some the other. We lovingly titled this "The Vertigo Tour" and unleashed it as a track on our CD.

Despite the fact that I knew I was torturing my listeners, I begged and pleaded for feedback from anyone who got a copy. It broke down in an interesting fashion. After a few minutes of listening, about one-third of the listeners felt like they were moving when the amplitude and phase were synchronized, another third thought the music was moving through the sound field, and the final third got violently ill. Yay science. We had figured out how to induce auditory motion sickness.

Unfortunately, the chair of my department at the time, a dedicated audiophile whose sound system was worth more than my salary, fell into the third category.
Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), ch. 8

Monday, August 24, 2015

Cherokees accepted civilization, to whites' disappointment

The Founding Fathers had offered civilization as a means to humanely pacify and displace the Indians; Cherokees accepted the offer and used it to strengthen themselves in place. The 1827 constitution claimed for Cherokees a permanent place in the American union, with inviolable borders under the auspices of the federal government, somewhat like the new territory of Florida or the new state of Alabama. When it became apparent what the Cherokees were doing, white leaders were shocked. Cherokees were acting as if federal Indian policy meant what it said, rather than what it actually meant.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 121.

We're smug about English's global vocabulary, but why?

There’s an anachronistic vanity in the satisfaction we take in our swollen wordbooks, as if English speakers in Des Moines are enriched every time someone in Dublin or Delhi coins a new slang word for ne’er-do well. It’s the last residue of the imperial pride that used to swell in British bosoms at the contemplation of all the bits of the map that were colored pink.
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Size Doesn’t Matter,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), p. 18 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Andrew Jackon's negotiations with Indians

Jackson's style of negotiating was frank and coercive. In talk after talk over the years, he told native leaders he was their friend, and that he wanted to pay for their land—but that if they failed to sell, white settlers would take their land for nothing.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 90.

James I fantasizes about life in a library

Were I not a King, I would be a University-man. And I could wish, if ever it be my lot to be carried captive, to be shut up in this prison, to be bound with these chains, and to spend my life with these fellow captives which stand here chained.
King James I, on visiting Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1605, which kept its books chained to shelves, quoted in Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Perennial, 2004), p. 151.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Stereotype threat around the world, in lots of contexts

In the nearly fifteen years since its first demonstration was published, research on stereotype threat effects has blossomed throughout the world. The effect has been observed in women, African Americans, white males, Latino Americans, third-grade American schoolgirls, Asian American students, European males aspiring to be clinical psychologists (under the threat of negative stereotypes about men's ability to understand feelings), French college students, German grade school girls, U.S.soldiers on army based in Italy, women business school students, white and black athletes, older Americans, and so on. It has been shown to affect many performances: math, verbal, analytic, and IQ test performance, golf putting, reaction time performance, language usage, aggressiveness in negotiations, memory performance, the height of athletic jumping, and so on. no special susceptibility is required to experience this pressure. Research have found but one prerequisite: the person much care about the performance in question. That's what makes the prospect of confirming the negative stereotype upsetting enough to interfere with that performance. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), pp. 97-98

Privilege to be free to read

The library system here comes to me once a month with twenty books and I gobble them all down. It is a wonderful privilege to be free to read as much as I want.
Betty Mobley, letter to Mary Whisner, Oct. 20, 2002

Indians want full price?!

A group of men from Jackson's home county sent a "remonstrance" to Congress. Indians must be pushed farther away so that white citizens could travel without "the risk of being murdered at every wigwam by some drunken savage." The same document contained a revealing accusation against the Cherokees, calling them "so tenacious" that "they would not surrender one acre without receiving what would be the value of the land." It was, in other words, unacceptable for white men to contemplate the possibility that they could be forced to pay full price.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 89.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Science not broken, just hard

Science isn’t broken, nor is it untrustworthy. It’s just more difficult than most of us realize. We can apply more scrutiny to study designs and require more careful statistics and analytic methods, but that’s only a partial solution. To make science more reliable, we need to adjust our expectations of it. 
Science is not a magic wand that turns everything it touches to truth. Instead, “science operates as a procedure of uncertainty reduction,” said [Brian] Nosek, of the Center for Open Science. “The goal is to get less wrong over time.” This concept is fundamental — whatever we know now is only our best approximation of the truth. We can never presume to have everything right.
Christie Aschwanden, "Science Isn't Broken," FiveThirtyEightScience, Aug. 19, 2015.

Jefferson lays out plan to obtain Indian lands

[F]rom the Secretary at War you recieve from time to time information and instructions as to our Indian affairs. These communications being for the public records are restrained always to particular objects and occasions. But this letter being unofficial, and private, I may with safety give you a more extensive view of our policy respecting the Indians, that you may better comprehend the parts dealt out to you in detail through the official channel, and observing the system of which they make a part, conduct yourself in unison with it in cases where you are obliged to act without instruction. [The] system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them, by every thing just & liberal which we can [offer?] them within the bounds of reason, and by giving them effectual protection against wrongs from our own people. The decrease of game rendering their subsistence by hunting insufficient, we wish to draw them to agriculture, to spinning and weaving. The latter branches they take up with great readiness, because they fall to the women, who gain by quitting the labours of the field [for] these which are exercised within doors. When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms & families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands which they have to spare and we want for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands. At our trading houses too we mean to sell so low as merely to repay cost and charges so as neither to lessen or enlarge our capital. . . . In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States or remove beyond the Mississipi. The former is certainly the termination of their history most happy for themselves. But in the whole course of this, it is essential to cultivate their love. As to their fear, we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only. Should any tribe be fool-hardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the siezing the whole country of that tribe and driving them across the Missisipi, as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.

. . . I have given you this view of the system which we suppose will best promote the interests of the Indians and of ourselves, and finally consolidate our whole country into one nation only, that you may be enabled the better to adapt your means to the object. For this purpose we have given you a general commission for treating. . . . I must repeat that this letter is to be considered as private and friendly, and not to controul any particular instructions which you may receive through an official channel. You will also percieve how sacredly it must be kept within your own breast, and especially how improper to be understood by the Indians. [For] their interests and their tranquility it is best they should see only the present [stat]e of their history. 

Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Henry Harrison, Feb. 27, 1803, in Logan Esarey, ed., Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison, vol. 1 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Comm'n, 1922), pp. 70-73, quoted in Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 64.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Stereotype threat's toll

[A] mind trying to defeat a stereotype leaves little mental capacity free for anything else we're doing.  
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 123

Turing liked the way math is independent of human affairs

[In the mathematics degree course at Cambridge, Turing was] one of those who could feel themselves entering another country, in which social rank, money, and politics were insignificant, and in which the greatest figures, Gauss and Newton, had both been born farm boys.
Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Centenary Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), p. 60
Alan responded with joy to the absolute quality of mathematics, its apparent independence of human affairs, which G.H. Hardy expressed another way: 317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is so, because mathematical reality is built that way.
Id. (citing G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology (Cambridge University Press, 1940))

Surgeon torn between human emotions and professional duties

I want to cry for those in whose bellies I find disseminated tumors, but cannot for fear of being unable to see clearly enough to sew them closed. I want to sit and linger with my patients, but know that such inefficiency would never work in the clinical world. I want to be able to soothe my patients' suffering without the burden of knowing the inexorable future course of their diseases.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 6

Read widely to write stylishly

[A]cademic authors whose writing is praised by their peers . . . read widely across disciplinary lines, and it shows. Equally important, they also think across disciplinary lines, as evidenced in the wide-ranging nature of their work. Chicken and egg are difficult to distinguish here: do these authors read widely becaue they are inherently interested in a variety of disciplines, or do they think across disciplines because they read so widely? Either way, their stylistic and conceptual elasticity is evident everywhere in their scholarly prose.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 14

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How was the movie? Huh?? HOW WAS THE MOVIE?

There have been several studies carried out on current films that have shown that the loudness in most major theaters is well above suggested levels for being able to hear the next movie you see.
Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), ch. 7, note 43

Noise can be bad for child development

Exposing children to cluttered noise for an extended period of time—even the background noise that comes with urban living—is enough to hamper their intellectual development.
Adam Alter, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave (New York: Penguin, 2012), ch. 8 (citing S. Cohen, D. C. Glass & J. E. Singer, "Apartment Noise, Auditory Discrimination and Reading Ability," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 9, pp. 407-33 (1973). (I haven't red the original study, but I wonder whether they controlled for lead pollution. The apartments on lower levels would have also been exposed to more lead in the atmosphere from traffic as well as more noise.)

Codebreaking is fun! (for a brilliant guy like Turing)

[A]t the higher levels, the cryptanalytic work was intensely enjoyable. Being paid, or otherwise rewarded, seemed almost a curiosity. It was also something of a holiday even from professional mathematics, for the kind of work required was more on the line of ingenious application of elementary ideas, rather than pushing back the frontiers of scientific knowledge. It was like a solid diet of the hard puzzles in the New Statesman, with the difference that no one knew that solutions existed. 
Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Centenary Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), p. 192

Deconstructing patients

We dismantle people as art experts deconstruct paintings. Instead of seeing families gathered by the lake of a park or the stars in the sky, we see the purple and pink dots, the gray shading, and the yellow highlights.

Eventually we apply these skills not just to diagnosing but also to interpreting everything in our clinical world. Deconstruction becomes our professional tool of understanding, and we rely on it to absorb increasingly complicated clinical problems. A patient in multisystem organ failure, when reduced to bodily systems—neurologic, pulmonary, cardiac, and so on—becomes manageable for even the most junior of residents. . . .

In the course of my training, I actually came to enjoy this deconstructing. It was mentally satisfying, like taking a box of jumbled puzzle pieces, organizing the, then arranging them into a perfect picture. The only problem was that I could not stop doing it. I did it almost constantly at work and then would find myself still doing it during my time off. I saw people in the grocery store or at restaurants, and my eyes would fixate on the loping gait, the barrel chest, or the finely wrinkled skin. Stroke, emphysema, big-time smoker, I would think. It was strangely thrilling, the way having X-ray vision might be.

Then one day my Aunt Grace, my mother's younger sister, asked me for some medical advice. . . .

. . .

The skill that had once simplified my life now left me very much alone, and the profession that had once promised the power of cure now made me utterly helpless.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 6

It can be better not to rely on memory!

[R]ather than relying on memorizing often out-of-date facts, and still usually only half-remembering them, embrace the idea that we have the Internet at our disposal, with search engines at our fingertips that enable us to search for any fact we need anytime.

This is already happening. A recent paper in the journal Science finds that people are coming to rely more and more on search engines rather than their own memory. When the study was released, many people fretted about this and how it is hurting our brains and making us dumber. While this is certainly a common argument, I took away the opposite conclusion. Paradoxically, by not relying on our own memories, we become more likely to be up-to-date in our facts, because the newest knowledge is more likely to be online than in our own heads.
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 9 (citing Betsy sparrow, Jenny Liu & Daniel M. Wegner, "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips," Science, vol. 353, no. 6043 (2011), pp. 776-78)

M and M as death ritual

Our fingers, no matter how nimble and graceful, are always tangled up with the fate of our patients, and when one of those patients dies, it is impossible to divest ourselves of that sense of responsibility. We torment ourselves with the what-ifs. Perhaps, if we had put that stitch in just a little differently or removed that cancer a little higher up or worked a little longer, then maybe our patient's course might have been different.

. . . M and M requires a public accounting of loss and, in so requires a public accounting of loss and, in so doing, reconstructs the death into an event that affirms a core value of our professional identity: the need to be infallible in a highly variable world. In this way, M and M is like death rituals in other cultures; it seeks to transform death's loss into an affirmative experience.

. . .

By defining death only as the result of errors, we erase the face of our patients and insert our own fiercely optimistic version of immortality.

Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pp. 118-19.

Extinct? Maybe not

The coelacanth is an example of what are known as Lazarus taxa: living things that are presumed long extinct until contrary evidence is discovered. Of course, predicting whether a single extinct species will one day be rediscovered living in some corner of the planet is nearly impossible. But if we look at large groups of species we sometimes can determine, in aggregate, how many species might actually not be extinct after all, and how often facts are incorrect and need to be overturned.

In 2010, two biologists at the University of Queensland . . . tabulated all the mammals that have very likely gone extinct in the past five hundred years. This yielded a list of 187 species. Then they checked to see how many were eventually recategorized as nonextinct. The answer: More than a third of all mammals that allegedly were lost to time in the past five hundred years have since been rediscovered.
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 3 (citing Diana O. Fisher & Simon P. Blomberg, "Correlates of Rediscovery and the Detectability of Extinction in Mammals," Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (Sept. 29, 2010))

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Prof's gift to students: a green pen

For years now and in every course I teach, I have given each of my students a tool to help them collect the data of their experience: a green ink pen.

I recommend that students do advance preparation for their classes in writing. This becomes data that is observable to self and others. By collecting and analyzing this data, a student becomes his own coach. Data helps to counter what I call our "normal neurotic" tendencies such as confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and overconfidence. Because if you don't write it down, it doesn't exist. I tell my students to take their written analysis and their green pen to study group meetings and class. With preparation only in their heads, they can fool themselves into believing that they also thought all those really smart things that other people said during the discussion. But, with the data of their analysis in writing, any gaps in their thinking are clearer to see. Those omissions can be jotted down in the margin of their paper in green ink, collected, and analyzed over time.

This gathering of data is important because insight skills are necessary to learn the right lessons from experience. With their green pen, students can extract more value from their everyday experiences and begin to change their behavior by experimenting, practicing, collecting feedback, and reflecting. Why green? The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said that he wrote in green ink because green is the color of esperanza—hope in Spanish. I tell my students that I give them green pens with the hope that they will use them as a tool to be wiser, younger.
Linda E. Ginzel (professor of management psychology, "In the Classroom: The Green Pen", Chicago Booth Magazine, Winter 2015

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A surgeon starts to write

Soon after that procurement [of organs from a young woman], I began to write stories. Not much, for when faced with a decision between eating and sleeping for the first time in seventy-two hours or writing, the primal needs won out every time. But when I finished my training a year later, fortified with the relatively regular meals and sleep of an attending surgeon, I began to write with some consistency. To my surprise, the writing seemed to pour out from a locked-up data bank within, oftentimes in unmitigated, logorrheic, and exhausting bursts. And the fictional stories I thought I was creating were almost always thinly veiled narratives about my patients, many of whom had passed away sometime in the last decade.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 9

Friday, August 14, 2015

No due process in the Reign of Terror

Before that unjust Tribunal, there was little or no order of procedure, ensuring to any accused person any reasonable hearing. There could have been no such Revolution, if all laws, forms, and ceremonies, had not first been so monstrously abused, that the suicidal vengeance of the Revolution was to scatter them all to the winds.

Every eye was turned to the jury. . . . The whole jury, as a jury of dogs empannelled to try the deer.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Third, ch. IX

Law students should learn legal research

A lawyer's books are more than merely the tools with which he works. They are the field which he must cultivate, the mine which he must explore. Obviously, therefore, it is of the first importance that a lawyer should know how to get at the material stored away in the volume at his hand. The law student cannot learn all the law during the two or three or four years of his legal studies, and it is an important part of his work to learn how to use lawbooks.
Edward Q. Keasbey, Instruction in Finding Cases, 1 Am. L. Sch. Rev. 69, 69 (1906*)

The American Law School Review was published by West Publishing Company 1902-47. Edward Q. Keasbey, of the Newark, N.J. Bar, was chairman of the American Bar Association's Committee on Law Reporting and Digesting.

*HeinOnline says the volume covered 1902-1906. This article was in vol. 1, no. 3. Since a note on p. iii of the volumes says that vol. 1, no. 2 was issued in Nov. 1906, I'm going with 1906.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Americans and our trash

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index. . . . I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness—chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in sea.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 26 (orig. published 1962)

We want to understand the brain and the mind

No one person, lab, or field understands the brain or the mind. But with 30,000 neuroscientists attending the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference, you get a feel for how incredibly deeply we want to understand it.
Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), ch. 11

The down side of more humane resident hours

While residents these days do spend less time in the hospital than those who trained even a decade ago, the change has had some unpredictable repercussions. The increased "free time" has left residents with less time to form bonds with their patients. The pressure now is to squeeze as much experience as possible into the time limitations, usually at the expense of patient relationships. The transient physician-patient relationships of residency have only become more fleeting.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 8

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Keep readers past the first paragraph!

An effective first paragraph need not be flashy, gimmicky, or even provocative. It must, however, make the reader want to keep reading.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 7

Compelled to write? Fame not guaranteed

The urge to write stuff and put it between covers is powerful, as one can see by the godawful books that emerge every day—vanity, thy name is publishing!—and anybody with the authorial urge ought to visit the underground stacks of a major public library and feel the chill of oblivion. 
Garrison Keillor, "Bonding Through Books," Chicago Tribune, Dec. 2, 2005, p. C19

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Flirting vs. lecturing

There is value in sequencing information—not dumping a stack of information on someone at once but dropping a clue, then another clue, then another. This method of communication resembles flirting more than lecturing. 
Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House, 2007), ch. 2

A key professional habit could be wrong--surgeon changes hand-washing routine

The ten-minute scrub was one of the earliest rituals I had learned, and I thought that it was essential in surgical antisepsis, a crucial step in preventing my patients from developing debilitating postoperative infections. I had believed that my dedication to this operating room rite made me a good and responsible surgeon, but the research contradicted that belief. Suddenly my blind trust in the practice seemed almost foolish.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 97. (After years of scrubbing for ten minutes with brushes, Chen read CDC guidance that recommended five minutes and said soft sponges were as useful as brushes.)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Trying hard isn't enough to overcome stereotype threat

[At Berkeley, math professor Philip Uri Treisman] saw black students—in an effort to succeed where their abilities are negatively stereotyped—following a strategy of intense, isolated effort, a strategy that often set them up for defeats and discouragements. They were trying hard, they were taking my father's advice (and probably their own father's advice), but they were trying to do it all by themselves, in a class where other people were working more happily and efficiently together, pooling their intellectual resources. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 103
People experiencing stereotype threat are already trying hard. They're identified with their performance. They have motivation. It's the extra ghost slashing that is in their way.
Id.,  p. 112

Young doctors get little guidance on the dying

As young students and doctors in the midst of profound sleep deprivation and chaotic personal lives centered on work, we are eager to find easy truths or at least comfortable lessons in patient care. Soon enough, however, we discover that death among patients is an inevitable part of our profession. We look to our attending physicians for guidance and we learn that many of them have not only their own difficulties in dealing with death but also little insight into how these attitudes affect the care they give terminal patients. Even our textbooks, usually overflowing with data, provide us with little or no help with the dying.

Thus, without guidance or advice, few of us ever adequately learn how to care for patients at the end of life.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 61.
Despite our best efforts to improve, our apprenticeship system continues to produce doctors who are unable to care humanely for the dying. The attitudes we physicians have toward death become reinforced each and every time we learn from our attendings and then go on to teach others.
Id., p. 73.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Rockets can never work

On January 13, 1920, the New York Times ridiculed the ideas of Robert H. Goddard. Goddard, a physicist and pioneer in the field of rocketry, was at the time sponsored by the Smithsonian. Nonetheless, the Gray Lady argued in an editorial that thinking that any sort of rocket could ever work int he vacuum of space is essentially foolishness and a blatant disregard for a high school understanding of physics. The editors even went into reasonable detail in order to debunk Goddard.

Luckily the Times was willing to print a correction. The only hitch: They printed it the day after Apollo 11's launch in 1969. Three days before humans first walked on the moon, they recanted their editorial with this bit of understatement:
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
Samuel Arbesman, The  Half-Life of  Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 9 (citing "A Correction," N.Y. Times, July 17, 1969).

Eureka! or slow development?

The "invention" of the Post-it® is often told as a eureka story, as if the Post-it was an instant and brilliant idea, an epiphany like Newton's apple or Edison's lightbulb.

The facts are different. The innovation that led to the Post-it was not like flipping a switch. It was a long-term, multistage process that took more than a decade. It was a slow hunch.
Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: Public Affairs, 2012),  p. 226

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Go ahead: enjoy the gossip you hear

Since even the most fastidious among us can rarely escape hearing salacious local gossip, it is as well to enjoy what cannot be avoided . . . .
P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), p. 79

News media, past and present

Everything we hate about the media today was present at its creation: its corrupt or craven practitioners, its easy manipulation by the powerful, its capacity for propagating lies, its penchant for amplifying rage.

Also present was everything we admire—and require—from the media: factual information, penetrating analysis, probing investigation, truth spoken to power.

Same as it ever was.
Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011), p. xiv

Friday, August 7, 2015

"Ill-timed" civil rights demonstrations

Shortly after, at ten-thirty, the President greeted the civil rights leaders. He was legitimately concerned that the March on Washington would give fence-sitters in Congress a "not at gunpoint" excuse to vote against his—their—civil rights bill. King agreed that the march might seem "ill-timed." But he had never engaged in a direct-action movement that did not seem ill-timed. "Some people thought Birmingham was ill-timed," he said.

"Including the attorney general," the President said, and added, "I don't think you should be totally harsh on Bull Connor. After all, he has done more for civil rights than almot anybody else."
Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001, with 2012 Afterword), pp. 449-50.

Who's US media afraid of?

The American media are not afraid of the government. They are afraid of their audiences and audiences. The media do not control you. They pander to you.
Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011), p. xiv

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Family memoirs pierce parents' silence

And as I wrote my first nonfiction portrait of [my mother]—"Growing Up Fashionable," which was published in The New Yorker and is now diffused throughout several passages of this book—I realized why so many writers have turned to the family memoir and seen it as an essential part of their oeuvre: whether we are Colette, Vladimir Nabokov, Maya Angelou, or Harold Nicolson, the process of piercing our parents' silence, of unraveling the webs of deceits that they spun about their true selves, and often ours, is not only a way of bringing our beloved dead back to life: it can also offer us a greater measure of retrospective clarity, of self-knowledge, than any other literary form.
Francine du Plessix Gray, Them: A Memoir of Parents (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 2

Fast food and cultural pursuits

People today read less, take fewer museum trips, and attend fewer concerts. Is that because these activities aren't as fun? The decline in the number and quality of our cultural experiences can be traced, at least in part, to unconscious stimuli that make us live faster. As [Sanford] DeVoe told me, "There are ironic consequences to time-saving devices. Fast food might save us time. But it also leads us away from the activities we might enjoy during the time we save.
Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), p. 58

Teacher sizes up little Oliver Sacks

When I was twelve, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report, "Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far," and this was often the case.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What jingles do

[A] jingle is not just a way to sell you a thing—it's about linking an object with an emotion and transferring it to your long-term memory without requiring you to pay attention to it.
Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012)

A boring life story

If somebody wrote the story of my life before James (and it would be a short book, repetitious and unillustrated), I would not buy it; I would not have it on my shelf. It would be a waste of the budget. 
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant’s House (NY: Avon, 1997), p. 25.

Sacks ♥ quotations

I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board. When I lived in City Island, my office was full of quotations, bound together with binder rings that I would hang to the curtain rods above my desk.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A judge long-winded but respected

Dr. Clitheroe was a distinguished lawyer respected beyond the borders of his native Derbyshire, and accordingly regarded s an asset to the bench despite his garrulity which arose from a belief that the validity of a judgement was in proportion to the length of time spent in arriving at it. Every nuance of a case with which he was concerned was scrutinised in meticulous detail, previous cases researched and discussed and the relevant law propounded. And if the dictates of an ancient philosopher—particularly Plato or Socrates—could be seen as adding weight to the argument, they were produced. But despite the circuity of the journey, his eventual decision was invariably reasonable and there were few defendants who would not have felt unfairly discriminated against if Dr. Clitheroe had not paid them the compliment of at least one hour's incomprehensible dissertation when they appeared before him. 
P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), p. 79

A book is a pleasure to share

If you read a book and it influences you greatly, or even if you just enjoy it very much, you long to persuade others to read it too. A book is not just to be read privately in the evening in front of the fire. It is a pleasure to be shared, it is the cement that bonds person to person in greater sympathy and understanding. 
Christopher Milne, The Enchanted Places (1974), p. 144

Monday, August 3, 2015

Good work for a lawyer

I asked Mr. Spenlow what he considered the best sort of professional business? He replied, that a good case of a disputed will, where there was a neat little estate of  thirty or forty thousand pounds, was, perhaps, the best of all. In such a case, he said, not only were there very pretty pickings, in the  way of arguments at every stage of  the proceedings, and mountains upon mountains of evidence on interrogatory and counter-interrogatory (to say nothing of an appeal lying, first to the Delegates, and  then to the Lords),  but, the costs being pretty sure to come out of the estate at last, both sides went at it in a lively and spirited manner, and expense was no consideration.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 26

More valuable time, but less? Wages and happiness

As we make more money, we perceive, correctly, that our time has higher value. But as a result, we also feel like we have less time.
Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), p. 205
 [E]ven just thinking about our hourly wage impairs our ability to enjoy leisure time. In one experiment, [researchers] asked people to estimate the number of hours they expected to work in a year, as well as their expected annual salary. Half of the group also was asked to calculate their hourly wage. Everyone then spent ten minutes on a pleasurable leisure activity, playing a game or communicating with friends. The subjects who were asked to calculate their hourly wage reported feeling less happy. The mere act of dividing their salary by the number of hours to figure out their hourly wage made their leisure activities less fun.
Id. at p. 206 (citing Sanford E. DeVoe and Julian House, "Time, Money, and Happiness: How Does Putting a Price on Time Affect Our Ability to Smell the Roses?" Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 48, pp. 466-67 (2012))

Bernstein's recipe for achievement

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.
Leonard Bernstein, quoted in Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), p. 168

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The fun of watching others work

'I think the most joyous thing in life is to loaf round and watch another bloke doing a job of work. Look how popular the men are who dig up London with electric drills. Duke's son, cook's son, son of a hundred kings—people will stand there for hours on end, with their ear-drums splitting—why? Simply for the pleasure of being idle while other people work.' 
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), Kindle location 3800 (orig. pub. 1931).

A first book is hard

A first book is a very hard thing to write, especially when it involves something yu feel passionate about. It requires bringing together elements scattered over decades of experience and interactions with a huge number of people, places, and things, living and otherwise.
Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), Foreword and Acknowledgements

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Why do academic articles have such bland titles?

Thanks to recent advances in electronic search technologies, titles no longer provide the only or even the principal means by which researchers in many disciplines locate relevant articles. Yet academics remain shackled to the notion that titles must always include major keywords. Roughly 80 percent of the articles in the journal Social Networks, for instance, contain the word "network" or "networking" in their titles.
Cultural theorist Marjorie Garber notes that "for a journalist to describe a a scholarly book as 'academic' is to say that it is abstruse, dull, hard to read, and probably not worth the trouble of getting through"; conversely, for an academic to describe a scholarly book as "journalistic" is to say that it lacks "hard analysis, complexity, or deep thought." The same tension applies, on a microcosmic scale, to scholarly titles. A "journalistic" title—one deliberately designed to attract the reader's attention, in the manner of a newspaper headline or magazine feature—operates for many academics as a marker of intellectual shallowness, whether or not the content of the work bears out that prejudice. Yet a worthy, pedestrian title offers no compensatory guarantee of research quality. Indeed, a formulaic title carries a potentially crippling subtext: "I am a formulaic thinker." And formulaic thinkers, by and large, are not the ones who set the world on fire with their research innoations.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 6 (quoting Marjorie Garber, Academic Instincts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001), p. 33)

Oliver & Steve: intellectual brothers

[When a television] producer asked if I knew [Stephen Jay Gould], I had replied, "I've never met him, although we've corresponded. But nonetheless, I think of him as a brother."

Stever, for his part, had written to the producer, "I desperately want to meet Oliver Sacks. I see him as a brother, but we've never met."
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)