Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Inskeep's love story

This book has been a joy to write, even though it tells a difficult story. It is about my country, which makes it a love story. Of the many ways to show one's love, one of the best is to tell the truth.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 354

Idea, discovery, invention, innovation

By the middle of the twentieth century, the  words "innovate" and "innovation" were just beginning to be applied to  technology and industry. . . . If an idea begat a discovery, and if a discovery begat an invention, then an innovation defined the lengthy and wholesale transformation of an idea into a technological product (or process) meant for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, could not alone create an innovation. The task was too variegated and involved.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 107

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Writer's block overcome

People have writer's block not because they can't write, but because they despair of writing eloquently. That's not the way it works, and one of the best places to learn that is a newspaper, which in its instant obsolescence is infinitely forgiving.
Anna Quindlen, "The Eye of the Reporter, the Heart of the Novelist," in Writers on Writing Volume II (2003), p. 197.

This tech prediction didn't pan out

[Julius] Molnar, the Picturephone's primary champion, believe do hat  by the year 2000, "Picturephone will be the primary mode  by which people will  be  communicating with one another."
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 236 (quoting a talk from 1971)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Tech predictions are dodgy, but you need a plan

The future of technology is never particularly easy to discern. That was why John Pierce never ceased to point out that anyone in the  business of making predictions was destined to make a humiliating false step. And yet if you worked at Bell Laboratories, and were therefore entrusted by the United States government with the future of telecommunications, you still had to have a plan.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 234

Liberal arts vs. research university

The foundational compromise of modern American higher education—the idea of housing a liberal arts college within a research university‐have provided to be untenable. Because a single faculty exists for both, and because professors are trained and rewarded for research, the values of the university have inexorably won out over those of the college.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), pp. 62

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Edison read

It was not true, as his onetime protégé Nicola Tesla insisted, that Edison disdained literature or ideas. He read compulsively, for instance&mash;classics as well as newspapers. Edison often said that an early encounter with the writings of Thomas Paine had set his course in life. He maintained a vast library in his laboratory and pored over chemistry texts as he pursued his inventions. At the same time, however, he scorned talk about scientific theory, and even admitted that he knew little about electricity.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p.

Pet owl's chief occupation

Mumble's most constant occupation, from which all other pastimes were temporary distractions, was simply observing. Her job, her hobby, her passion was watching things—which is hardly surprising, given her place in the natural order. From her various preferred vantage points around the flat she kept constant surveillance over her environment, and when she detected any hint of sound or movement her evaluation of it was presumably based on the central question of any carnivore's existence: Can I jump on it, or is it going to jump on me? 

If it was small and mobile (which, in a seventh-floor flat, meant it was an insect), then it could travel only a matter of inches before Mumble arrived like a Stuka; but if it sat still, being enigmatic, then she might settle down to out-stare it. This balancing of boldness and caution in the face of the unrecognized cannot have been learned in her own short, prtected lifetime, so it was clearly part of her genetic inheritance.
Martin Windrow, The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), p. 214

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Smelly Edison

[Thomas Edison] had the Victorian aversion to water, and throughout his life took at most one bath a week . . . [his] appearance was often accentuated by a pungent odor of things organic and inorganic.
Robert Conot, A Streak of Luck: The Life and Legend of Thomas Alva Edison (New York: Seaview Books, 1979), p. 86, quoted in Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 367.

We can't all wax rhapsodic

Below the lodge, an unsurpassable panorama of mountains, valleys and plains stretched out before our eyes.

We gazed out upon this marvellous vista for some minutes, and then I broke our respectful silence by challenging Kevin to put his feelings about it into words. He pondered a moment, and then offered "Nice!" When it comes to nature, Kevin can be awfully plebeian sometimes. He has no soul.
Frank Kusy, Kevin and I in India (Grinning Bandit Books: 2013), p. 54 (first published 1986)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Computers let writers keep too much

For reasons of high aesthetic principle, I do not write on a computer. Writing on a computer makes saving what’s been written too easy. Pretentious lead sentences are kept, not tossed. Instead of sitting surrounded by crumpled paper, the computerized writer has his mistakes neatly stored in digital memory.
-- P. J. O’Rourke, "Computers Invite a Tangled Web of Complications," in Writers on Writing Vol. II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times (introduction by Jane Smiley) (New York: Times Books, 2003), p. 181.

In retreat you destroy stuff so the enemy can't use it, but...

To a good artilleryman, it seemed almost sacrilegious to destroy the guns he had so lovingly fussed over for years. As they smashed the breechblocks and destroyed the dial sights, many were openly crying.
Walter Lord, The Miracle of Dunkirk (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2012), p. 54 (copyright 1982)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What do you say about a book or poem?

[M]y poorest grades in college had been in English classes; I rarely found anything to say about a book or a poem other than "It’s beautiful" or "It's really not very good."
Mark Oppenheimer, "Bright Union Years: A Graduate Student’s Ambivalent Journey, American Scholar, v.72 n.2, spring 2003, at 17, 21.

Universities have forgotten larger educational role

Universities, writes Harry R. Lewis, the former Harvard dean, "have forgotten their larger educational role for college students": to help them figure out who they are and what their purpose in the world should be.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), p. 60

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bad information spreads and spreads

Bad information can spread fast. And a first-moved advantage in information often has a pernicious effect. Whatever fact first appears in print, whether true or not, is dry difficult to dislodge. Sara Lippincott, a former fact-checker for The New Yorker, has made this explicit. These errors "will live on and on, . . . deceiving researcher after researcher through the ages, all of who will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on into an explosion of errata." 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 5 (citing Michael J. Mauboussin, See for Yourself: The Importance of Checking Claims (Legg Mason Global Asset Management, 2009))

Life began with reading

The most useful thing I brought out of my childhood was confidence in reading. Not long ago, I went on a weekend self-exploratory workshop, in the hope of getting a clue about how to live. One of the exercises we were given was to make a list of the ten most important events of our lives—the key moments that brought us from birth to wherever we are now. Number one was: "I was born," and you could put whatever you liked after that. Without even thinking about it my hand wrote, at number two: "I learnt to read." . . . Begin born was something done to me, but my own life began—I began for myself—when I first made out the meaning of a sentence.
-- Nuala O’Faolain, Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999), p. 24.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The curse of knowledge leads to bad writing

The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day.  And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014), ch. 3 (footnotes omitted)

View of Indian issue affected view of slavery issue

The moral argument was having intriguing effects, influencing not just the people who heard it but also the people who made it. It was causing some to rethink another issue, slavery. Until the 1830s, . .  . the notion of immediately abolishing slavery was widely regarded as extremist, illegal, and impractical. The more socially acceptable alternative was gradually freeing slaves for transport to West Africa, but some activists opposing Indian removal now had to wonder. If it was wrong to solve white people's problems by removing Indians, was it any better to solve white people's problems by removing black people?
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 204
After 1830 some activists concluded that if Indian removal was wrong, so was African removal. The old antislavery movement had recognized the rights of slave owners, cast them as victims of history, and promised that unfettered black people would not be left in their midst. Now a new movement declared that slaves should be immediately emancipated and allowed to live free in the United States. Activists cast slave owners as evil and challenged white Americans to rethink their views about race.
Id. at 226.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tempting books for a future writer

I seem to have had a fortunate childhood for a writer. My grandfather, Sam'l Hamilton, loved good writing, and he knew it too, and he had some bluestocking daughters, among them my mother. Thus is was that in Salinas, in the great dark walnut bookcase with the glass doors, there were strange and wonderful things to be found. My parents never offered them, and the glass door obviously guarded them, and so I pilfered from that case. It was neither forbidden nor discouraged. I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 37 (orig. published 1962)

History like a thriller

Mary Louise Kelly quit NPR to write thrillers, and knowing a thriller writer made me aspire to tug a reader into my story as strongly as I was drawn into the world of her novels.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 352

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Thanks for the books, Mom and Dad!

The death of my father, Roland, while this book was being written gave occasion to recall that he and my mother, Judith, bought the books that began my love affair with history.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p.352

Modern journalism's tone

Time shaped the pervasive tone of modern journalism—knowing, distanced, superior, and a little cynical.

. . . As Time used them, archness and irony were devices for accommodating and diministhing the more unpleasant realities of the world.

Geoffrey Nunberg, “The Style is the Mag,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), p. 23

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Gotta have numbers to measure success

If an organization's use of the wrong numbers,or its erroneous use of the right numbers, can do enormous damage, it is equally true that no organization can succeed without using numbers to judge its success. Numbers may not tell the whole story, but they tell part of the story in a way that words alone cannot, even in organizations for which profit is not a performance goal. Attendance at church services is certainly not a complete measure of the spiritual health of a congregation, but it is an essential number for the parish leaders to know.
Charles O. Rossotti, Many Unhappy Returns: One Man's Quest to Turn Around the Most Unpopular Organization in America (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005), p. 111.

Inskeep's daughter helped!

[My daughter], Ava, asked to assist with the book, and occasionally took dictation. In several instances, when nobody was looking, she typed the word "Fart" in the manuscript. I may have caught them all.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 351

Friday, September 18, 2015

Education for low status

"Father and me was both brought up at a foundation school for boys; and mother, she was likewise brought up at a public, sort of charitable, establishment. They taught us all a deal of umbleness—not much else that I know of, from morning to night. We was to be umble to this person, and umble to that; and to pull of our caps here, and make vows there; and always to know our place, and  abuse ourselves before our betters. And we had  such a lot of betters! Father got the monitor-medal by being humble. So did I. Father got made a sexton  by being umble. He had the character, among the gentle folks, of being such a well-behaved man,  that they were determined to bring him in. 'Be umble, Uriah,' says father to me, 'and you'll get on. It was what was always being dinned into you and me at school; it's what goes down best. Be umble,' says father, 'and you'll do!' And really it ain't done bad!"
It was the first time it had ever occurred to me, that this detestable cant of false humility might have originated out of the Heep family. I had seen the harvest, but had never thought of the seed.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 39

Academics as partisans

Academic writers often strive to convey a completely neutral perspective . . . . Yet that neutrality, when examined closely, turns out to be something of  myth. All academics are partisans, after all, arguing for the validity of our theories, the accuracy of our data, and the strategic importance of our own narrow neck of the research woods.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 8

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Another limitation of scholarly publications

These data rarely make it into publication—I'm sorry to report that we don't yet have research journals that embrace multimedia enough to reproduce audio recordings. Admittedly, it's a very particular complaint, but I've always thought this is a shame. 
Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), ch. 11

Presiding over a trial is a remarkable experience

“The whole experience of presiding over a trial in court is a remarkable experience. You see every kind of human emotion and human value expressed and you see people in very tense situations and you listen in detail to some remarkable problems and situations of every kind. . . . You have an inside look at crime and the kind of criminal behavior that we’ve all wrong our hands in an effort to stop. . . . There are moments of great pathos in a courtroom and there are moments of levity and there are moments of boredom.”
Sandra Day O’Connor, quoted in Joan Biskupic, Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), pp. 65-66 (quoting Linda Kauss, “A Day in Court With Judge Sandra O’Connor,” Phoenix Gazette, Sept. 11, 1974).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A new school year

There is nothing more promising or hopeful than the start of the academic cycle: another chance for self-improvement, for putting into practice what one learned—or failed to learn—during the previous year.
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2014), p. 49

Novelists get the girls, scholars get the footnotes

“You,” Father said with a sad smile to his friend Israel Zarchi, “write a new novel every six months, and instantly all the pretty girls snatch you off the shelves and take you straight to bed with them, while we scholars, we wear ourselves out for years on end checking every detail, verifying every quotation, spending a week on a single footnote, and who bothers to read us? If we're lucky, two or three fellow prisoners in our own discipline read our books before they tear us to shreds. Sometimes not even that. We are simply ignored.”
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Nicholas de Lange trans., 2003), p. 133.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Messy US history

American history is a quagmire, and the more one knows, the quaggier the mire gets.
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 156

The difference between literature and life

'It's a special form of scholarly neurosis,' said Camel. 'He's no longer able to distinguish between life and literature.'

'Oh yes I can,' said Adam. 'Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.'
David Lodge, The British Museum Is Falling Down (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1965), p. 63.

Monday, September 14, 2015

How college admissions system builds cynicism

Beyond the junior careerism, the directionless ambition, the risk aversion, and the Hobbesian competitiveness, the [college admissions] system cultivates a monumental cynicism. Whatever the motives out of which they were established, the old WASP admissions criteria actually meant something. Athletics were thought to build character—courage and selflessness and team spirit. The arts embodied an ideal of culture. Service was designed to foster a public-minded ethos in our future leaders. Leadership itself was understood to be a form of duty. Now it's all become a kind of rain dance that is handed down from generation to generation, an empty set of rituals known only to propitiate the gods. Kids do them because they know that they're supposed to, not because they, or anybody else, actually believes in them. . . . The process takes activities that used to be ends in themselves and reduces them to means. . . .

Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), pp. 56-57

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Moving out Indians was "natural" said Wilson

Division and Reunion, a popular history of the United States published in 1893, declared that white men "very naturally" would not tolerate red men setting up a government in their midst. The book all but excused subverting the law to remove them. The author was Woodrow Wilson, and his history was still in print after he was elected president in 1912.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 349 (citing Woodrow Wilson, Division and Reunion, 1829-1889 (New York: Longmans, Green, 1893))

Saturday, September 12, 2015

WWII and taxes

The Revenue Act of 1942 . . . permanently revolutionized the American tax system. . . . Despite the alleged fiscal promiscuity of the New Deal, to all but a plutocratic few Americans the prewar federal tax system was an utter irrelevancy, or at most a decidedly minor nuisance. All that now changed, forever. By lowering the personal exemption to $624, the 1942 law immediately brought thirteen million new taxpayers into the system.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 18 

Language of King James Bible: English, but special

These scholars were not pulling the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Bible are just as much English pushed towards the condition of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into English. It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishmen would have written, and that secretarial relationship to the original languages of the scriptures shaped the translation.
Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Perennial, 2004), p. 211

Friday, September 11, 2015

Vanity and pride

“The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions--may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke." 
"Certainly," replied Elizabeth—‘there are such people, but I hope I am not one of THEM. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, DO divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without."
"Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
"Such as vanity and pride."
"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ch. 11 (colloquy between Elizabeth and Darcy)

Education without education

Teachers are trapped in the system, as well, as one of them told me. A veteran of many years, she has watched her institution [an elite high school] evolve in the direction of a customer-service mentality: give the parents what they want, no matter what's good for the kids. Don't challenge them intellectually, don't encourage them to engage the material, don't even try to insist on academic rigor.

That may be the most damning thing about these schools, so full of smart teachers teaching the smart children of smart parents: that they finally don't care about learning at all. . . . Everybody wants their child to get an education, but nobody wants them to get an education education.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), p. 49

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fun with footnotes

[F]or many academics, footnotes and endnotes offer an unmowed corner of grass where they can let their proverbial hair down and run wild.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 12

Lafayette on solitary confinement

These respectable friends of humanity have thought to do still better [than other prison reformers], and by resorting to solitary confinement, which leaving the prisoner to his reflexions, or to those which may be suggested to him, and separating him from other convicts, offers more chances of his amendment. In consequence, and as no expense frightens the Americans when they are once convinced of any great public good, they have built at a great cost, near Philadelphia, an immense building with its court yards and cells, where every prisoner may be separately shut up, and where from the form of the edifice, an easy and continual watch may be kept up.

This superb establishment was still unfinished, when general Lafayette, accompanied by the committee appointed to do the honours of the city went to visit it, and were received by the respectable directors and managers, who explained to him the improvements made. One must have courage to venture upon contradicting men so virtuous and experienced, as generous in design as in the execution of their benevolent works. The frankness and conviction of the general, overcame his repubnance, and with all the regard and respect which were due, and which his personal situation rendered still more necessary, he represented to them that solitary confinement was a punishment which should be experienced to be rightly appreciated; and that the virtuous and enlightened Malesherbes, who during his administration under the monarchical government of France, had ameliorated the condition of prisoners of state, regarded solitary confinement as leading to madness. The general observed that during his five years' captivity, he had passed an entire year in solitary confinement, and another part of the time seeing a companion but during a single hour, and he added, smiling, that he had not found it to be the means of reformation, since he was imprisoned for wishing to revolutionize the people against despotism and aristocracy, and passed his solitude in thinking upon it, without coming out corrected in that respect. He made some observations on a too assiduous watchfulness, such for example as that he had been subjected to, during the early part of his captivity, when he was constantly guarded by a sub-officer who remained in sight of him, and was relieved every two hours.
A. Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825; or Journal of a Voyage to the United States (trans. John D. Godman) (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1829), vol. 1, pp. 154-54, cited in Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 144

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Parents support a child, later a writer

My parents have been supportive of this project all along, having read multiple drafts, for which I am incredibly appreciate. But more important, they instilled in me a love of learning. I have strived to live by their daily exhortation to be before heading off to elementary school: "Think, have fun, and be a mensch."
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), Acknowledgments

Andrew Jackson, newspaper reader, information manager

Jackson, though not known to read a great many books, was the quintessential newspaper consumer. In the 1820s he subscribed to as many as seventeen papers at a time, and did not like the throw them away. He might go through them later, seeking clippings he wanted to pass to a friend or use to smite an enemy. The papers piled up so high that his household began having them bound—huge volumes, each with a year to a year and a half's worth of issues and as oversize as the broadsheet papers it contained. The information in those volumes could be instruments of power. And Jackson the collection of newspapers was also a collector of newsmen. Once he became president, Jackson would draw newspaper editors into his circle of intimate advisors . . . .
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 174

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Interventions to fight stereotype threat make a big difference

[A] psychological intervention that leaves minority students less susceptible to negative stereotypes about their group's abilities can significantly improve their performance in real schools for a long time.  
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 177

Teen eager for science journal

I was only thirteen at the time, but I do remember reading about it [entomologist Jonathan Waage's 1979 paper on damselfly sex], probably  in Kijk, the  Dutch high school science and technology monthly that I used to devour the moment it landed in our mailbox.
Menno Schilthuizen, Nature's Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us Abut Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), p. 109

(Kijk is apparently still going strong. Google tells me it means "look" in Dutch.)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Importing farmworkers

I've seen many migrant crop-picking people about the country: Hindus, Filipinos, Mexicans, Okies away from their states. Here in Maine a great many were French Canadians who came over the border for the harvest season. It occurs to me that, just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 64 (orig. published 1962)

A Note-Taking Prize?

I find the idea of a Note-Taking Prize enormously appealing. Were UCSF to resurrect it, I have no doubt the winner would be Ming, a pharmacy student I've gotten to know over the past couple of months. Her notes make mine look feeble, although, granted, our styles differ greatly. During the minilectures in lab, I simply jot words and phrases onto a small pad that fits into my scrubs shirt pocket while Ming records sentence after sentence on sheets of graph paper in tiny, perfect print. She uses a four-color Bic pen, the kind I have not seen since junior high—red ink for notes on blood vessels, black for nerves, green for muscles, blue for organs—clicking from one to another with barely a glance up.

It was over the topic of note taking, in fact, that Ming and I bonded during one of the first labs. I happened to be standing next to her and saw her in action.

"Those notes are beautiful," I said in all sincerity in a pause between her clicks.

"Oh, these are just rough," she replied, and not out of false modesty. Ming planned to rewrite them once she got home, combining her lecure and lab notes and supplementing them with snippets from the textbook. She would then transfer those to a three-ring binder, color-coded by course subject. Now that's my kind of obsessiveness.
Bill Hayes, The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), ch. 5. (This passage comes after a discussion of a speech by Sir Benjamin Brodie to medical students in 1850 in which he emphasized the importance of good note-taking and says that he awards a prize each year to the student with the "best series of clinical notes.")

Sunday, September 6, 2015

How we act varies with setting

These studies tell us something profound and perhaps a bit disturbing about what makes us who we are: there isn't a single version of "you." When you're surrounded by litter, you're more likely to be a litterbug; when you're walking past building with broken windows, you're more likely to disrespect the property that surrounds you. These norms change from minute to minute, as quickly as a New Yorker walks from one part of the city to another.
Adam Alter, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave (New York: Penguin, 2012), ch. 8

The forces in Drunk Tank Pink affect us every day: at work, at play, when we're alone, when we're interacting with other people, and when we're making decisions that range from the trivial to the life-changing. And once we know that they exist, we're better placed to capitalize on them when they help and resist them when they hurt. Request a hospital room with a view; pay more for an urban apartment on the top floor—not just because of the view, but because you'll be farther from the noise below; and keep in mind that your decisions are likely to change as you move from Chinatown to Little Italy, from summer to winter, and from rooms painted blue to rooms painted red. No matter where you go, Drunk Tank Pink and other cues will follow—and, having read this book, you'll be in a much better place to identify them, recognize how they'll affect you, and harness or overcome them to maximize your health, wisdom, wealth, and well-being.
Id., Epilogue

Hometown reaction to big city writing coup

Being published in The New Yorker was a milestone for [James] Wilcox—an affirmation, of sorts—and he happily sent a copy of the magazine to his parents. But the piece didn't exactly cause a stir in Hammond, Louisiana. "Jimmy sure has good punctuation" was one neighbor's only comment.
James B. Stewart, "Moby Dick in Manhattan," in David Remnick, ed., The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence (New York: Random House, 2000), pp. 247-48

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The power of vocabulary

He [CC Too Sweet, a prisoner] had no use for guns—these were for people who didn’t know how to use words. Or, to quote him, "I don’t need no Smith and Wesson, man, I got Merriam and Webster."
Avi Steinberg, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2010), p. 306.

Best treatment in 17th century? Prayer

[O]n Henry's second Sabbath, the infant appeared to slip away. Samuel knew from experience that his best option now was prayer. A seventeenth-century doctor could do little or nothing for a seriously ill newborn. Boston had few physicians, and those few men who had come from England with university degrees in "Physic"—the study of the ancient writings of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen—could offer no effective treatments for most illnesses the Sewalls faced: smallpox, influenza, other viruses, and dysentery. Prevailing treatments included bleedings, purgings, the ingestion of concoctions of lavender and other herbs or oil of amber, and for a sore throat the application of the inside of a crushed swallow's nest. The medical profession in its modern sense did not exist.

Samuel was desperate. He wrote notes to the Reverends Samuel Willard and Joshua Moody . . . asking for public and private prayers. A servant raced to deliver the notes. 
Eve LaPlante, Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall (New York: HarperCollins e-books: 2007), p.  17

Friday, September 4, 2015

Feedback that works for black and white

[O]ne form of feedback did work, for both black and white students. I will call it the Tom Ostrom strategy. The feedback giver explained that he "used high standards" in evaluating the essays for publication in the teaching magazine. Still, he said, having read the student's essay, he believed the student could meet those standards. His criticism, this form of feedback implies, was offered to help the student meet the publication's high standards. Black students trusted this feedback as much as white students, and trusting it powerfully motivated them to improve their essay. For black students, the Ostrom style of feedback was like water on parched land—something they rarely seemed to get, but that, once they got it, renewed their trust and ability to be motivated by the criticism. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), pp. 162-63

Salem witch trials compared with European witch persecutions

Massachusetts has been a target for caustic comment for centuries because of the hysterical and brutal outburst of the witchcraft trials and executions in 1692. But it is forgotten how short it was—but five months—with only about a score of hangings, as compared with the thousands burned, hanged or drowned in Spain, France, Germany, England and Scotland in much longer periods. And nowhere, except in connection with Salem, did any of the actors in the tragedy have the moral courage to admit that they were wrong.
Frank Grinnell, secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, at the 1942 dedication of a State House mural depicting the repentance of Judge Samuel Sewall. Quoted in Eve LaPlante, Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall (New York: HarperCollins e-books: 2007), p. 1

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Well-travelled English words

In fact okay is far from being the most widely diffused English word—that honor would probably go to either Coca-Cola or CIA.

But there's something comforting in the idea that okay is America's most successful linguistice export—it lets us believe that the triumph of English reflects the allure of our popular culture rather than our economic or political clout.
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Size Doesn’t Matter,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), p. 19

Dying can be full of potential

Perhaps all those scientific advancements have given us more than the panoply of treatments and longer life expectancies; they have created an impetus to reappraise how we live. By accepting the reality of dying rather than the misconception, we paradoxically give ourselves the luxury of time. The process of dying can be cast as full of potential rather than as devoid of any final opportunities. There is a chance for real interpersonal reconciliation and emotional expression rather than the hasty symbolic gesture of aggressive treatment.

It is this opportunity, then, and not necessarily the hope of cure, that is the final gift of the medical revolution of the last century.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 7

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A positive way to fight stereotype threat

The racial segregation of friendship networks in college life means that when it comes to personal conversations, blacks talk mainly to blacks and whites to whites. Black students, then, might not be able to see that white students have problems similar to their own. And not seeing this, along with being more racially vigilant in light of the broader cites in the setting, they might see race as playing a bigger role in their experience—as something that would sustain greater vigilance toward the racial aspects of their experience. The talk sessions corrected this. They revealed that the stresses of college life—a lower test grade than expected, an unreturned call to a teaching assistant or classmate, an unfriendly interaction with another students a chronic shortage of cash, and so on—happen to everyone regardless of face, This fact changes black students' narrative; it makes racial identity less central to interpreting experience and increases trust in the university environment. Having a narrative that requires less vigilance leaves more mental energy and motivation available for academic work and thus improved the grades of black students in the program. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 167

World War Two in reality and in popular memory

Americans could not see that future clearly in 1945, but they could look back over the war they had just waged. They might have reflected with some discomfort on how slowly they had awakened to the menace of Hitlerism in the isolationist 1930s; on how callously they had barred the door to those seeking to flee from Hitler's Europe; on how heedlessly they had provoked Japan into a probably avoidable war in a region where few American interests were at stake; on how they had largely fought with America's money and machines and with Russia's men, had fought in Europe only late in the day, against a foe mortally weakened by three years of brutal warfare in the east, had fought in the Pacific with a bestiality they did not care to admit; on how they had profaned their constitution by interning tens of thousands of citizens largely because of their race; on how they had denied most black Americans a chance to fight for their country; on how they had sullied their nation's moral standards with terror bombing in the closing months of the war; on how their leaders' stubborn insistence on unconditional surrender had led to the incineration of hundreds of thousands of already defeated Japanese, first by fire raids, then by nuclear blast; on how poorly Franklin Roosevelt had prepared for the postwar era, how foolishly he had banked on goodwill and personal charm to compose the conflicting interests of nations, how little he had taken his countrymen into his confidence, even misled them, about the nature of the peace that was to come; on how they had abandoned the reforming agenda of the New Deal years to chase in wartime after the sirens of consumerism; on how they alone among warring peoples had prospered, emerging unscathed at home while 405,399 American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen had died. Those men were dignified in death by their service, but they represented proportionately fewer military casualties than in any other major belligerent country. Beyond the war's dead and wounded and their families, few Americans had been touched by the staggering sacrifices and unspeakable anguish that the war had visited upon millions of other people around the globe.

That would have been a reasonably accurate account of America's role in World War II, but it did not describe the war that Americans remembered. In the mysterious zone where history mixes with memory to breed national myths, Americans after 1945 enshrined another war altogether. It was the "good war," maybe the last good war, maybe, given the advent of nuclear weapons, the last war that would ever be fought by huge armies and fully mobilized industrial economies in a protracted contest of attrition. The future of warfare, if there was one, lay not on the traditional battlefield but in cities held hostage by weapons of mass destruction that the war had spurred American science to create.

Americans remembered World War II as a just war waged by a peaceful people aroused to anger only after intolerable provocation, a war stoically endured by those at home and fought in far-away places by brave and wholesome young men with dedicated women standing behind them on the production lines, a war whose justice and necessity were clinched by the public revelations of Nazi genocide in 1945, a war fought for democracy and freedom and, let the world beware, fought with unstinting industrial might and unequaled technological prowess—an effort equivalent, one journalist wrote at war’s end, to "building two Panama Canals every month, with a fat surplus to boot."

David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), Epilogue

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Let's take care of people and have great schools (professional sports optional)

I think that no matter what the color of the people I'd feel better if I thought everyone, especially the people who don't have enough, were taken care of; if I felt that the government, the city government, the federal government were doing all that they could to help them.

When I go to readings around the country, people have been asking me about the baseball team. "Aren't you excited about the Washington Nationals?" they say. Well, no, I'm not. I have a friend who's been teaching elementary school for the last five or so years. I tell them that every year, she has to buy 500 dollars of school supplies for her kids, because she doesn't have enough. She and I spoke last week, and she said actually it's 2,000 dollars' worth. I had been using the 500-dollar figure, because she and I had once gone into an Office Depot and that's how much she spent. My problem is that you can be excited about the Redskins, excited about the Nationals, but the school system is going to pot.
Edward P. Jones, quoted in "Afterward: Washington, D.C., A Conversation with Edward P. Jones," in Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey eds., State by State: A Panaramic Portrait of America (2008) (responding to the question, "Do you feel proud about living in one of the great majority black cities in the United States?")