Friday, July 31, 2015

Understanding decision-making with help of many disciplines

I decided, after a couple of years of thinking about decision-making and time, that in order to understand these concepts we should not look only to psychology or behavioral economics or neuroscience or law or finance or history—we should explore them all simultaneously.
Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), Introduction

Biological diversity? Look to the genitals

[O]f all the organs than an animal is provided with, the greatest differences between species are not in their brains or beaks, or in their kidneys or guts, but in their genitals. This applies to cave beetles, bumblebees, and elephant shrews, as well as to velvet worms, land slugs, water and rove beetles, small ermine moths, daddy longlegs spiders, banana and hover flies, egg parasitoid wasps, aquatic annelid worms, hoofed mammals, sharks and rays, primates, guppy fish, damselflies, land planarians, nematode worms, trombidiform mites, and harvestmen. To name but a few.
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. 34

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Liberian constitution and "democracy"

The author of the [Liberian] constitution was Simon Greenleaf, a Harvard professor who had never set foot on the African continent. He lacked any direct knowledge of the indigenous  people who would be "governed" by the constitution, let alone the complex political systems they had developed. . . .
At its founding, the government in Liberia professed to be a representative democracy, while it was in fact a one-party semifeudal state. It would take a century before indigenous Liberians would be granted suffrage. Even then the political elite remained entirely Americo-Liberian for 132 years, a ruling minority of  2 percent that was attached to  the  mainline Christian churches and Masonic societies, unwilling to yield their political power.
Johnny Dwyer, American Warlord: A True Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), ch. 2.

Americo-Liberian society, 19th C.

[B]y the late nineteenth century, Americo-Liberian society had become a grotesque mirror of the one the  settlers and left behind in the American South, This was particularly apparent in Monrovia, where plantation  dress and lifestyles had become the norm among the nation's elite.
Johnny Dwyer, American Warlord: A True Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), ch. 2.

Growth and modernization can be positive overall

If the growth and modernization of a city means you get rid of the Klan but have to endure bad condos, I say so be it.
Ann Patchett, "Tennessee," in Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey eds., State by State: A Panaramic Portrait of America (2008)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

War and capitalism

"If you are going to try to go to war, or to prepare for war, in a capitalist country," Henry Stimson reflected, "you have got to let business make money out of the process or business won't work."
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 18

Dull Hull

Dogged, conscientious, and dull, [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull was a plodding bureaucrat, a predictable thinker, and a boring public speaker. He worked six full days a week plus Sunday mornings, took a briefcase of papers home every evening, and shunned the capital's social life. His only recreation was an occasional game of croquet on the lawn of Henry Stimson's estate. Washington insiders called him "Parson Hull." 
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 15 

Rowing for the sake of rowing

I had the water and the sky, the sun and the palm trees. That was enough. I lifted the oars and rowed on a little slower to make my trip last longer. Rowing for the sake of rowing was my only purpose. I wanted only to feel the water passing close beneath the hull of my boat, to hear it swilling around my oars. 
Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007), p. 220.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gems in the methods section of scientific papers

Scientific research papers are usually not particularly riveting reading material. The Materials and Methods section is often the least appealing, easily skipped in pursuit of more enticing bits. But it is in the "M&M" (as scientists call it) that, hidden under dull jargon and cloaked in the passive voice, the jewels of original scientific research lie. Condensed beyond recognition into terse, matter-of-fact sentences are days, months, sometimes years of hard, enjoyable, or exhilarating (but often also mind-numbingly dull) labor, moments of despair and jubilation, false starts, near give-ups, luminous ideas, and innovative inventiveness. And not infrequently a generous helping of courage.
Menno Schilthuizen, Nature's Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), p.59

WWII and big corporations

The war thus made the nation's biggest corporations bigger, and considerably richer as well. The pattern of military contracting intensified the tendency toward oligopoly in large sectors of American industry. Firms with fewer than one hundred employees accounted for 26 percent of total manufacturing employment in 1939 but only 19 percent by the war's end.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 18

Easier to spread error than check facts

[T]he reason these errors spread is that it's a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact. 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 5

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lord Peter Wimsey notices subtle lapses in housekeeping

He glanced round the room, and his quick eye noted its curiously forlorn appearance. It was not untidy, exactly; it told no open tale of tumult; but the cushions were crushed, a flower or two here and there was wilted; there was a slight film of dust on the window-sill and on the polished table. In the houses of some of his friends this might have meant mere carelessness and a mind above trifles like dust and disorder, but with Mrs. Farren it was a phenomenon full of meaning. To her, the beauty of an ordered life was more than a mere phrase; it was a dogma to be preached, a cult to be practised with passion and concentration.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), Kindle location 1003 (orig. pub. 1931).

Later:
'I like to have everything orderly and clean,' said Mrs. Farren.
'There is a real beauty in cleanliness and decency. Even inanimate things may breathe out a kind of loveliness if they are well cared-for. Do you not think so?'
Id. at loc. 1587.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Libraries keep minds in the game

A mind can be lost without its owner's death. A mind that no longer questions only fulfills the rudimentary aspects of its function. A mind without wonder is a mere engine, a walking parasympathetic nervous system, seeing without observing, reacting without thinking, a forgotten ghost in a passive machine.

The mind that asks and experiments and evaluates will die one day, but will provide a richer life for its owner. The mind that does nothing but rest inside the brain doesn't sidestep the puddle. It's sitting in it.

. . . . At its loftiest, a library's goal is to keep as many minds as possible in the game, past and present, playful and in play.
Josh Hanagarne, The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family (New York: Gotham Books, 2013), pp. 208-09

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Everything in the library is yours!"

I love to tell kids that everything in the library is theirs. "We just keep it here for you." One million items that you can have for free! A collection that represents the answer to just about any question we could ask. A bottomless source of stories and entertainments and scholarly works and works of art. Escapist, fun trash and the pinnacles of the high literary style. Beavis and Butt-Head DVDs and Tchaikovsky's entire oeuvre within ten feet of each other. . . .
Josh Hanagarne, The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family (New York: Gotham Books, 2013), p. 205

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ego in writing

It’s embarrassing for a veteran writer like me—one who has always considered his writing to be above all else a spiritual activity—to admit that such a crass element as ego has anything to do with his creativity. In filching the title of one of her essays—"Why I Write"—from George Orwell, Joan Didion says the reason for writing is obvious from the sound of the pronoun "I" in all three of those words. Her remark is more than clever: after all, one writes for an audience and is imposing (particularly in an essay) his or her views on other people. Even a writer whose wish is to subsume the "I" into something larger—call it humanity, the natural world, or the universe—can’t dismiss the centrality of the self to such a desire. 
James McConkey, "Nurture for the Damn Ego," American Scholar, v.73 n.4, Autumn 2004, at 123, 124.

Lots of scientists don't read what they cite

Simkin and Roychowdhury conclude, using some elegant math, that only about 20 percent of scientists who cite an article have actually read that paper. This means that four out of five scientists never take the time to track down a publication they intend to use to buttress their arguments. 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 5 (citing M. V. Simkin & V. P. Roychowdhury, "Stochastic Modeling of Citation Slips," Scientometrics, vol. 62, pp. 367-84 (2005))

Yes, cats do that!

A cat sprang up upon the bench, stretched herself, tucked in her hind legs under her and coiled her tail tightly round them as though to prevent them from accidentally working loose.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death (1927) (Kindle ed. 2014)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Pinker on writing to your audience

Every audience is spread out along a bell curve of sophistication, and inevitably we’ll bore a few at the top while baffling a few at the bottom; the only question is how many there will be of each. . . . The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014), ch. 3

Stupid even with a computer

It is just as easy to be stupid today, computer or no, as five thousand years ago in the streets of Ur.
Bill Katz, Cuneiform to Computer: A History of Reference Sources (Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998), p. 15

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Adlai Stevenson's Baffling Appeal to Women

One notable exception to the chauvinist tradition was Adlai Stevenson. Women enjoyed Adlai. In the end, my mother, my daughter, and I all had close friendships with him. Clayton Fritchey once told me a story that helps explain Adlai’s appeal—and that contrasts it with what many of us felt about other men in the Kennedy administration, including the president himself. About three weeks before Kennedy was assassinated, Clayton saw the president in New York, at a time when Adlai was the ambassador to the United Nations and Clayton was his deputy. The three men were together at a party, and Clayton was helping himself to a drink on the balcony overlooking Central Park when the president came up behind him and said, "We haven’t had a chance to talk much tonight, but we've got a good subject in common," meaning Adlai. The president then told Clayton he didn't understand the hold Adlai had over women, commenting on how much Jackie liked and admired him and confessing that he himself didn’t have the ease with women that Adlai had. "What do you suppose it is?" he asked, adding, "Look, I may not be the best-looking guy out there, but, for God’s sake, Adlai's half bald, he's got a paunch, he wears his clothes in a dumpy kind of way. What’s he got that I haven’t got?"

Clayton's response hit on what I think women saw in Adlai and what they shied away from in other men of that era. "Mr. President, I’m happy to say that for once you have asked me a question I’m prepared to answer, one I can answer truthfully and accurately. While you both love women, Adlai also likes them, and women know the difference. They all respond to a kind of message that comes across from him when he talks to them. He conveys the idea that they are intelligent and worth listening to. He cares about what they’re saying and what they’ve done, and that’s really very fetching."

The president's response was: "Well, I don’t say you're wrong, but I'm not sure I can go to those lengths."
Katharine Graham, Personal History (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), pp. 190-91.

George Eliot is for grown-ups

One of the harshest indictments of contemporary society is that there seems to be no place in it for George Eliot’s novels. The Edwardians rejected Eliot as a sensibility against which they needed to rebel; she was the antithesis of the experimental styles and iconoclastic politics of modernism. But our society has not rejected her on esthetic or ideological grounds. Her moral seriousness simply doesn’t register on our cultural landscape; most people don’t have the time or patience to read her "baggy monsters."

Ironically, she still appears in the one place she ought not to be: the high school curriculum, which often insists on assigning Silas Marner to 10th graders (when it is not performing the greater error of assigning Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome). As Virginia Woolf observed, Eliot wrote novels for grown-up people. Our society and our relationships would be saner and better if more grownups read her.
-- Paula Marantz Cohen, “Why Read George Eliot?” Am. Scholar, v. 75 no. 2, Spring 2006, 129, 132.

Consumerist history

For some people, history is what your wife looks good standing in front of. It's what's cast in bronze, or framed in sepia tones, or acted out with wax dummies and period furniture. It takes place in glass bubbles filled with water and chunks of plastic snow; it's stamped on souvenir pencils and summarized in reprint newspapers. History nowadays is recorded in memorabilia. If you can't purchase a shopping bag that alludes to something, people won’t believe it ever happened. 
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant’s House (NY: Avon, 1997), p. 9.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Amused by gadgets

The present generation is losing the capacity of enjoying life from within. They are sacrificing the delight in handicrafts born with every child to machine products. They want machines to sing, play, talk and read to them. They demand to be amused instead of amusing themselves.
Helen Keller, 1936 (quoted in Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), p. 263)

Not easily satisfied

"[L]awyers, sharks, and leeches, are not easily satisfied, you know!" 
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 52 (Uriah Heep speaking)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Uriah Heep, asleep

There I saw him, lying on his back, with his legs extending to I don't know where, gurglings taking place in his throat, stoppages in his nose, and his mouth open like a post office.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 25  (describing Uriah Heep)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Slugs as Lab Rats

I once watched an Irish mollusk researcher, in a fit of slug chauvinism, try to convince an audience of biologists that slugs are superior lab rats. "Behaviorally speaking, a slug is basically a rat," he told them. "Cover a rat in slime, amputate its legs, pull its genitalia up behind its right ear, and film it in slow motion, and you've got a slug!"
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. 168 (quoting Anthony Cook at the World Congress of Malacology in Siena, Italy, in 1992)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sacks discovers thoughts by writing

It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing. Occasionally a piece comes out perfectly, but more often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better . . . .  All this creates problems of organization. I get intoxicated, sometimes, by the rush of thoughts and am too impatient to put them in the rights order. But one needs a cool head, intervals of sobriety, as much as one needs that creature exuberance.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

Just when you think the author has made his point . . .

[I]t may seem that we have a satisfactory outline and that the rest is just details. But when all seems crisp and clear and yet you're only halfway through a book, a plot twist lies around the corner.
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. 107

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pinker ♥ dictionaries

If I were allowed to take just one book to the proverbial desert island, it might be a dictionary. 
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014), ch. 6

Why basic science? Entertainment!

Like art, music, and sports, basic science exists to provide a form of entertainment for the rest of humankind.
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. 184

Lobbyists against financial reform

According to one source, the financial industry was spending more than $1 million a day on lobbying and campaign contributions during their drive to kill any meaningful financial reform.

I still wonder how such a thing is possible.
Elizabeth Warren, A Fighting Chance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), ch. 4


Thursday, July 16, 2015

It takes more than Spam to make friends

"We’ve lost millions of people, and they want us to crawl on our knees because they send us Spam," one Russian groused about the Americans [in 1943]. 
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 17

Scientists cite only a fraction of prior studies

Scientists cite fewer than 25 percent of the relevant trials when writing about their own research. The more papers in the field, the smaller the fraction of previous papers that were quoted in a new study. Astonishingly, no matter how many trials had been done before in that area, half the time only two or fewer studies were cited. 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 6 (citing Karen A. Robinson & Steven N. Goodman, "A Systematic Examination of the Citation of Prior Research in Reports of Randomized, Controlled Trials," Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 154, no. 1, pp. 50-55 (Jan. 4, 2011))

Awakenings, a page at at time

[B]ecause my impulse to cross out or fiddle with what I had just written was so great at this time, we agreed that I would slip each page under the door [of my editor] as it was written.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)


Why bother working on sentences?

Remember, stylish academic writers spend time and energy on their sentences so their readers won't have to.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 5

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How to write 500 pages? One page at a time.

[S]uddenly the United States became huge beyond belief and impossible ever to cross. . . . It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing. 
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 23 (orig. published 1962)

Shaped by Seattle

I live in the Puget Sound region—a land of clouds, salmon, Orca whales, congested traffic, and double-leaved bascule bridges. Like many Seattleites, I grumble at the excessive sunshine in mid-July. I like foghorns and ducks and snow-capped mountains. Rainy Seattle with its cafés and bookstores is a perfect reading-and-writing city; and I am happy here, happy as a coot bobbing on Green Lake. My place, the Pacific Northwest, affects who I am.
Priscilla Long, “Genome Tome,” American Scholar, vol. 74, no. 3, Summer 2005, p. 36

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Oppression bears fruit

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Third, ch. XV

Vengeance and retribution require a long time

"You are faint of heart to-night my dear!"

"Well, then," said Defarge, as if a thought were wrung out of his breast, "it is a long time."

"It is a long time," repeated his wife; "and when is it not a long time? Vengeance and retribution require a long tim; it is the rule."

"It does not take a long time to trike a man with Lightning," said Defarge.

"How long," demanded madame, composedly, "does it take to make and store the lightning? Tell me."

Defarge raised his head thoughtfully, as if there were something in that too.

"It does not take a long time," said madame, "for an earthquake to swallow a town. Eh well! Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?"

"A long time, I suppose," said Defarge.

"But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not seen or heard. That is your consolation. Keep it."

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second, ch. XVI

Stereotype threat like a loose snake

Identity threat is diffuse—as I've said, like a snake loose in the house. Our bipolar student has to remain vigilant to her social world, combing over it for evidence of how people feel about people who are bipolar. Where will the snake be? How bad is its bite? Will she lose a job or educational opportunities, be shunned, and so on? 
A diffuse threat is preoccupying. And it preoccupies one with the identity it threatens. . . . Identity threat, diffuse and Delphic though it may be, is nonetheless powerful enough to single out an identity and make it the center of a person's functioning, powerful enough to make it more important, for the duration of the threat at least, than any of the person's other identities—more important than her sex, her race, her religion, her being young, her being a Stanford graduate. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), pp. 70-71

Monday, July 13, 2015

Nightingale's terrific letters

Florence Nightingale was so interesting, daring, and intelligent that reading her letters I had begun to feel, by comparison, frivolous, meek, and not terribly bright. 
Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007), p. 39. (Mahoney enriches her travel writing with quotations from earlier travelers. Florence Nightingale’s published letters are impressive.)

Ordinary life not so simple for Turing

He had wanted the commonest in nature; he liked ordinary things. But he found himself to be an ordinary English homosexual atheist mathematician. It would not be easy.
Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Centenary Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), p. 115

Turing not an intellectual snob

Perhaps this was the most surprising thing about Alan Turing. Despite all he had done in the war, and all the struggles with stupidity, he still did not think of intellectuals or scientists as forming a superior class. The intelligent machine, taking over the role of the ‘masters’, would be a development which would cut the intellectual expert down to size. As Victorian technology had mechanised the work of the artisans, the computer of the future would automate the trade of intelligent thinking. The craft jealousy displayed by human experts only delighted him. In this way he was an anti-technocrat, subversively diminishing the authority of the new priests and magicians of the world. He wanted to make intellectuals into ordinary people.
Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Centenary Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 363-64

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Miserable British public school education

The great thing about a public school education is that afterwards, however miserable you are, you know it can never be quite so bad again.
Alan Turing, quoted in Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Centenary Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), p. 381

Vowell ♥ research

For as long as I can remember, one thing that had always lifted my spirits is research. (In San Francisco, that sentence is supposed to end on the words "sailing," "gay sex," or "driving down to Carmel for the weekend.") I find looking things up consoling.

Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 69

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sacks wasn't cut out for research

Perhaps I had never really expected to succeed in research. In a 1960 letter to my parents, wondering about doing research in physiology at UCLA, I wrote, "I am probably too temperamental, too indolent, too clumsy and even too dishonest to make a good research worker. The only things I really enjoy are talking . . . reading and writing."
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) (ellipsis in original)

E. B. White ♥ Maine

The pollen county has been high, and my hay fever has raged quietly all through the customary membranes. It's suicide for me to arrive here on July first, but I do it anyway. I would really rather feel bad in Maine than good anywhere else.

E. B. White, Letter to Charles G. Muller, July 11, 1937, in Martha White ed., E. B. White on Dogs (Gardiner Maine: Tilbury House, 2013)

Lord Macauley on Samuel Johnson's depression

A deep melancholy took possession of him, and gave a dark tinge to all his views of human nature and of human destiny. Such wretchedness as he endured has driven many men to shoot themselves or drown themselves. But he was under no temptation to commit suicide. He was sick of life; but he was afraid of death; and he shuddered at every sight or sound which reminded him of the inevitable hour. In religion he found but little comfort during his long and frequent fits of dejection; for his religion partook of his own character. The light from heaven shone on him indeed, but not in a direct line, or with its own pure splendour. The rays had to struggle through a disturbing medium; they reached him refracted, dulled and discoloured by the thick gloom which had settled on his soul, and, though they might be sufficiently clear to guide him, were too dim to cheer him.
Thomas Babington Macaulay, First Baron Macaulay, "Johnson, Samuel," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8th ed., vol. 12, p. 794 (1856)

Part of this was quoted in A.J. Jacobs, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), p. 81 (citing the 11th ed.).

Specialties in biology can limit

It is often not realized that the basic source of inspiration in biology, namely the endless diversity of life, is also one of its greatest handicaps. Biologists, much more than, say, chemists or mathematicians, tend to be divided by invisible barriers. Those barriers are held in place by expertise with a particular kind of organism. More often than not, biologists identify themselves as entomologists if they work with insects, or as botanists if plants are their thing. Or even as copepodologists, coleopterologists, or cecidomyiidologists (if their creed be copepods, beetles, or cecidomyiid gnats, respectively). And each organism-based field has its own congresses, professional societies, and journals, further affirming separatism. . . .

Biology really moves ahead when somebody dares to cut across all these different subfields and look for general patterns.
Menno Schilthuizen, Nature's Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), p. 4

Friday, July 10, 2015

Xenophobic and racist rant by Ben Franklin

And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply'd and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors [Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.
Benjamin Franklin, "Observations Concerning the Increasing of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, &c." (Boston: Printed by S. Kneeland, 1755) (quoted in Kenneth Prewitt, What Is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press: 2013),   p. 153

Speech is more than words, words, words


“How embarrassing it is to try our knowledge of a foreign language in the land where it belongs, and to discover that the natives seem not to be saying any of the individual words we got out of the dictionary. Our impression is correct; the man who speaks his own tongue is talking less in words than in a tune. But since the tune can't be written down, we can't find it outside of the spoken word.”

-- John Erskine, “Do Americans Speak English?,” 70 Nation 409 (15 Apr. 1925) (as quoted in The Ordeal of American English 8, 9 (C. Merton Babcock ed., 1961)). (Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day)

Why Vowell likes French Revolution, Puritan New England & Civil War


The historical periods I like to learn about aren't so much costume dramas as slasher flicks. The French Revolution is a favorite because it features the beloved plot of carnage in service of democracy, but I prefer American history. And if I had to pick my pet domestic bloodbaths, nothing beats Salem or Gettysburg. I'm a sucker for Puritan New England and the Civil War.  Because those two subjects feature the central tension of American life, the conflict between freedom and community, between individual will and the public good.
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 33

Librarians annotate, offer good & bad info

I am a librarian, and you cannot stop me from annotating, revising, updating. I like to think that—because I am a librarian—I offer accurate and spurious advice with no judgment, good and bad next to each other on the shelf. 
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant's House (NY: Avon, 1997), p. 7.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Thurgood Marshall on Port Chicago "mutiny"

Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP, declared: "This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward Negroes. Negroes in the Navy don't mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading! They want to know why they are segregated; why they don't get promoted, [and] why the Navy disregarded official warnings by the San Francisco waterfront unions . . . that an explosion was inevitable if they persisted in using untrained seamen in the loading of ammunition."
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 21

For more on the 1944 Port Chicago disaster and the mutiny trial of the African American sailors, see Barry Bergman, War, ‘mutiny’ and civil rights: Remembering Port Chicago, UC Berkeley News Center, July 10, 2014; Port Chicago Mutiny (1944), BlackPast.org.

Pinker debunks paragraph "rule"

Among the many dumb rules of paragraphing foisted on students in composition courses is the one that says that a paragraph may not consist of a single sentence.
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014), ch. 1

Death penalty in 18th C. England

[A]t that time, putting to death was a recipe much in vogue with all trades and professions, and not least of all with Tellson's [Bank]. Death is Nature's remedy for all things, and why not Legislation's? Accordingly, the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson's door, who made off with it, was put to Death; the coiner of a bad shilling was put to Death; the sounders of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death. Not that it did the least good in the way of prevention—it might almost have been worth remarking that the fact was exactly the reverse—but it cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else connected with it to be looked after.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book the Second, ch. I

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Pinker says read with a dictionary

Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand (several are available as smartphone apps), and writers should not hesitate to send their readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again.
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014), ch. 1

Words can hurt, but dogs don't speak

A hurtful word can live a long time in the heart of the receiver, and influence the relationship forever after. In the case of dogs, perhaps it's easier to ignore an irritation here and a ruffled feather there, because our dogs can't put words to them. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" may be a common refrain, but it's not based in reality. Words can cause terrible damage, sometimes lasting a lifetime, and the fact that dogs can't use them may be a blessing.
Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., "Love Is Never Having to Say Anything at All," in The Editors of the Bark, eds., Dog Is My Co-Pilot (New York: Three-Rivers Press, 2003), p.134 (essay runs pp. 130-35). (Editors are Claudia Kawcynska and Cameron Woo.)

Oppressors as witnesses for freedom

Though for now the mainstream—black as well as white—considered him crazy rather than prophetic, Shuttlesworth had understood early that the oppressors were essential "witnesses" for freedom, their wickedness often more eloquent than the victims' virtue. Now he would assume the lead in the greatest theater of the civil rights era, Shuttlesworth versus Bull Connor, who was sworn back in at city hall in November.

Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001, with 2012 Afterword), pp. 110-11.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lopate ♥ confessional writing

As for the influence of psychotherapy on my writing, I would say that it has confirmed and deepened tendencies already inside me. From adolescence on, I was attracted to the confessional mode in literature and, with it, the whole dynamic of confidingness, rationalization, unreliable narration, and self-aggrandizement versus self-disgust. I ate up Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Gide's The Immoralist and his autobiographical writings, Saint Augustine’s Confessions, Rousseau’s Confessions, Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno, DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Celine’s oeuvre, Henry Miller’s, Kerouac’s. . . . I eagerly read the work of the so-called ‘confessional poets,’ such as Berryman, Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and disagreed with their detractors who found something unclean about their self-revealing verse, just as, some decades later, I could not agree with critics who lambasted the memoir genre for being too narcissistically self-indulgent. It seems to me that if anything, what is wrong with many memoirs and autobiographical poems is that they are not confessional enough. They do not go far enough. I am endlessly interested in the wormy little thoughts and regrets and excuses that people have for their behavior. "Confessional" is a descriptive, not derogatory, term in my eyes. (My first novel was called Confessions of Summer.) It was inevitable that I should be drawn to the personal essay, the form with which I am now most identified, because of its conversational and confessional attributes. So, too, psychotherapy, which gives one the chance to confess and converse at the same time. 
Phillip Lopate, “Couch Potato: My Life in Therapy,” in Jason Shinder, ed., Tales from the Couch: Writers on Therapy (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), essay at 75-87, quotation at 85. (Ellipsis in original)

Monday, July 6, 2015

History of the New World in a mocha (Vowell)

The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories. Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks . . .. I was enjoying a chocolatey caffé mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much. 
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 42

Big book by forty

[My editor] suggested postponing publication [of Awakenings] so that sections could be prepublished in The Sunday Times, but I was strongly against this, because I wanted to see the book published on or before my birthday in July. I would be forty then, and I wanted to be able to say, "I may be forty, have lost my youth, but at least I have done something, I have written this book.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

MLK as tourist in life

Martin Luther King sometimes seemed like a tourist in his own life, overwhelmed by the itinerary life had handed him.

Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001, with 2012 Afterword), p.102.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Better measurement, better science

Inscribed on the University of Chicago's Social Science Research Building is a saying by Lord Kelvin: "When you cannot measure, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory." . . .

Sinan Aral, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, has stated: "Revolutions in science have often been preceded by revolutions in measurement." From the incorrect number of chromosomes to the misclassification of species, our increased preoccupation with measuring our surroundings allows us to both increase our knowledge and find opportunities in which large amounts of our knowledge will be overturned. A corollary to Lord Kelvin's adage: If you can measure it, it can also be measured incorrectly. 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 8

More of the Kelvin quotation:
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.
Baron William Thomson Kelvin, Popular Lectures and Addresses: Vol. 1, Constitution of Matter,  2d ed.  (London, Macmillan & Co.: 1891), pp. 80-81 (lecture delivered May 3, 1883).

Sacks says to learn from older works, too

At UCLA, we residents had a weekly "Journal Club"; we would read the latest papers in neurology and discuss them. I sometimes annoyed the group, I think, by saying that we should also discuss the writings of our nineteenth-century forebears, relating what we were seeing in patients to their observations and thoughts. This was seen by the others as archaism; we were short of time, and we had better things to do than consider such "obsolete" matters. This attitude was reflected, implicitly, in many of the journal articles we read; they made little reference to anything more than five years old. It was as if neurology had no history.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

What bugs Elizabeth Warren about the bailout

[W]hat really ate away at me was that we were never able to get the Treasury Department or the White House to do something meaningful about foreclosures. The president chose his team, and when there was only so much time and so much money to go around, the president's team chose Wall Street. America had the biggest bailout fund in history, and the Goliaths of banking gobbled it up. Meanwhile, millions of people lost their homes, and even now, years after the crash, millions more are scrambling to pay down underwater mortgages. 
Elizabeth Warren, A Fighting Chance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), ch. 3

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Americans are Americans

For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners. And descendants of English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Polish are essentially American. This is not patriotic whoop-de-do; it is carefully observed fact. California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart. And this is the more remarkable because it has happened so quickly. It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman like the Cockney, or for that matter the Lowland Scot like the Highlander. Is is astonishing that this has happened in less than two hundred years and most of it in the last fifty. The American identity is an exact and provable thing.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 210 (orig. published 1962)

GWB: some doubt the promise & justice of the USA

While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country.
George W. Bush, First Inaugural Address, quoted in Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 98; also available here.

LBJ wanted to library to include controversy

I tell Harry Middleton [the director of  the LBJ Presidential  Library] that I heard a rumor that in the initial exhibition at the LBJ library, there was little or no representation  of Vietnam and that the  president himself came to the  library and insisted that that part of the exhibition should be beefed up.

Middleton nods. "To a certain extent that's true. There was a representation of Vietnam. But nothing that showed the controversy of Vietnam. And when President Johnson walked through the library just before it was to open, one  of the things  that he  commented on was that the library did not indicate how contentious that time was. He said to me, 'That was a very  controversial period. We've got to make sure that people know that we understand that.' He said to me, 'I don't want another damn credibility gap.'"
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 24

Vowell makes friends through nerdiness

Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject,  is the best way to make friends I know. For me, the spark that turns an acquaintance into a friend has usually been kindled by some shared enthusiasm like detective novels or Ulysses S. Grant.
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 91

Research interests make shy Sacks chatty

I am shy in ordinary social contexts: I am not able to "chat" with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people . . .; I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. . . . Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner . . . . But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests—volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever—then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation (though I may still fail to recognize the person I am talking to a moment later).
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

Washington's roadside political messages

Olympia's bio-diesel-converted Mercedes and Subaru Outback driving populace advertises its philosophy in the most concise means possible: the bumper sticker. Whether it's IF ONLY CLOSED MINDS CAME WITH CLOSED MOUTHS, PRACTICE RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS AND SENSELESS ACTS OF BEAUTY, or VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS, only in a place where the assumption was that the driver behind you would nod their head and say "Right on," would one so unabashedly turn one's means of transportation into a thought bubble on wheels. The sheer number of liberal bumper stickers plastered on the back of a Washington car is also an act of effacement, as if to cover up the shame that one is driving a vehicle at all.

But leave the (semi-)urban environment, and the political and cultural slogans shift toward the right. In Chehalis, thirty miles south of Olympia, is a the notorious Uncle Sam billboard, which was originally put up by a farmer named Alfred Hamilton when the freeway was built on his land. . . . [The sign's] succinct messages have been inflaming lefties for years, inspiring rage before the drivers calm themselves with a "free speech for all, free speech for all" meditation. 
Carrie Brownstein, "Washington," in Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey eds., State by State: A Panaramic Portrait of America (2008)

Friday, July 3, 2015

On tooting your own horn

[John L. Lewis's] ego stretched as far as the undulating Iowa corn fields of his youth, and he made no apology for his incessant self-aggrandizement. "He who tooteth not his own horn," he declared in his trademark vernacular, "the same shall not be tooted."
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 11 

Jhumpa Lahiri ♥ the ocean

Thanks to its very lack of welcome, its unwavering indifference, the ocean always made me feel accepted, and to my dying day, the seaside is the only place where I can feel truly and recklessly happy.
Jhumpa Lahiri, "Rhode Island," in Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey eds., State by State: A Panaramic Portrait of America (2008)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Steinbeck doesn't ♥ submarines

I wish I could like submarines, for then I might find them beautiful, but they are designed for destruction, and while they may explore and chart the sea bottom, and draw new trade lines under the Arctic ice, their main purpose is threat. And I remember too well crossing the Atlantic on a troop ship and knowing that somewhere on the way the dark things lurked searching for us with their single-stalk eyes. Somehow the light goes bleak for me when I see them and remember burned men pulled from the oil slicked sea. And now submarines are armed with mass murder, our silly, only way of deterring mass murder.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 21 (orig. published 1962)

"the past flares to life like a match in the darkness"

To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story. There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life like a match in the darkness. On one visit to the Chicago Historical Society, I found the actual notes that Prendergast sent to Alfred Trude. I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper.
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), p. 396.

Oliver Sacks ♥ the OED

Fifty pounds came with the Theodore Williams prize [in anatomy, at Oxford]—£50! I had never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell's bookshop (next door to the pub) and bought, for £44, the twelve volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, for me the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf, now and then, for bedtime reading.
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Scholars: take a look at work in other disciplines

I want to encourage readers to look beyond their disciplinary barricades and find out what colleagues in other fields are up to. Like surgeons who believe they have nothing to learn from pit stop mechanics, academics who think they have nothing to learn from researchers outside their own discipline risk missing out on one of the greatest pleasures of scholarly life: the opportunity to engage in stimulating conversations, forge intellectual alliances, and share ideas with people whose knowledge will nurture and stimulate our own.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 2

"there are book buyers and there are book lovers"

One of the things I’ve learned since getting involved with books and authors is that there are book buyers and there are book lovers. The book business is growing at an enviable rate—some 8 percent annually; yet 40 percent of all books bought in the United States are bought in the fourth quarter—the holiday season—and half of the books bought are never read. By contrast, Booknotes viewers are readers. We know because we hear from them often with their suggestions for our program.
Brian Lamb, Booknotes: America’s Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas (New York: Times Books, 1997), p. xviii

Send in the frumpy old maid

"Miss Climpson," said Lord Peter, "is a manifestation of the wasteful way in which this country is run. Look at electricity. Look at water-power. Look at the tides. Look at the sun. Millions of power units being given off into space every minute. Thousands of old maids, simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and communities and hostels and posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community, while the ratepayers' money is spent on getting work for which these women are providentially fitted, inefficiently carried out by ill-equipped policement like you."

. . .

". . . Just think. People want questions asked. Whom do they send? A man with large flat feet and a notebook—the sort of man whose privae life is conducted in a series of inarticulate grunts. I send a lady with a long, woolly jumper on knitting-needles and jingly things around her neck. Of course she asks questions—everyone expects it. Nobody is surprised. Nobody is alarmed. And so-called superfluity is agreeable and usefully disposed of. One of these days they will put up a statue to me, with an inscription:
"'To the Man who Made Thousands of Superfluous Women
Happy without Injury to their Modesty or Exertion to Himself.'"
Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death (1927) (Kindle ed. 2014)