A New Yorker Misstep

On the left-hand side of The New Yorker website is a series of sections: Goings-On, In This Issue, Cartoon Caption Contest, and so forth. Pretty standard stuff. Then comes a section called Awards:


Lawrence Wright has won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Looming Tower.” Read “The Master Plan”; watch an excerpt from “My Trip to Al-Qaeda.”
The New Yorker has been nominated for a Webby Award for Best Copy/Writing. Vote for us at webbyawards.com.
The New Yorker received nine nominations for the National Magazine Awards. View a list of finalists and read nominated articles.

I wouldn’t be so casual about such great accomplishments. Such things — at least for most of us — are more noteworthy and wonderful than what’s In This Issue.

Speaking of missteps, I mentioned a few days ago how New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put in his blog a letter from a University of North Carolina student that was more interesting and insightful than anything in the NY Times in a long time. If someone wrote a letter like that to me, I would have begged her to allow me to use her full name so that she would get credit for her brilliant comment. I would have responded to it, not just printed it. I would have gotten other people’s reactions to it. I would have gone on and on about it.

Maybe I should have titled this post Too Little Emphasis on Success to go with Too Much Emphasis on Failure.

Addendum: Kristof has now posted the student’s full name: Loren Berlin.

What Should I Learn About Writing From This?

I think could read the New York Times for a hundred years and not come across anything as well-written as this gem of a blog post by Joyce Cohen, who writes The Hunt column in the Times. I love her column — but this is better. It’s about something I don’t even care about, New York real estate.

By incredible coincidence, Nicholas Kristof’s most recent blog entry (April 17, 2007) is also better, in my opinion, than essentially everything that appears in the Times (or any other paper). Kristof reprints a letter to him from a student that makes an extremely important point about Africa coverage in the Times (and, probably, all other Western newspapers): It is unceasingly focussed on failure. I wonder why.

Birth of a Website

Several months ago I got this email from someone at the Seed Media Group:

Thank you for your interest in being hosted by ScienceBlogs. In the last couple of months, we have received well over a hundred queries from bloggers representing an impressive breadth and depth of science
expertise. However, as we are trying to maintain a sense of community at ScienceBlogs, we are able to extend only a small number of invitations at a time. . . . In light of the very limited number of spaces we have to offer, we regret to inform you that we cannot extend you an invitation at this time.

This was sent to about 50 people. Their email addresses were visible. One of the recipients thought that we, the rejectees, could form our own umbrella website and wrote to us about this. I replied:

I love the idea of a form rejection letter leading to the founding of a competitive website — count me in!

Four months later I got an invitation to join the result, www.scientificblogging.com. It is now a well-functioning website with lots of interesting stuff.

Language That Should Exist (punctuation)

I showed something I’d written to Marian Lizzi, my editor at Penguin. She advised me not to quote someone: “It sounds like you’re sneering at them,” she said. She was right — it did sound that way, although I didn’t want it to. Unfortunately, there was no alternative punctuation that conveyed neutrality or respect. It was sneer or nothing.

So here’s my proposal: Let the number of apostrophes indicate degree of respect for the speaker. Like this:

1. Single quotes = disrespect. Example: ‘Has a good chance of working’? You can’t be serious.

2. Double quotes (normal American usage) = neutral. Example: “We’re running out of working waterfront,” said Jim Barstow.

3. Triple quotes = respect. Example: According to a recent research report, “‘40% of the subjects failed to seek help.'”

4. Quadruple quotes = great respect. Example: According to Jane Brody, cataract surgery “”can be life-changing.””

Life is Complicated

Yesterday morning I listened to Ira Glass. Yesterday evening I listened to Bill McKibben. And I reflected:

1. Bill McKibben wrote a whole book, The Age of Missing Information (1992), about the malign influence of TV. He spent a year watching a single day’s output of the 100-odd channels of one cable company. TV makes people self-centered, he decided.

2. Ira Glass said we are living in a Golden Age of Television and listed a handful of current shows — including The Wire, The Daily Show, Colbert, Friday Night Lights, Project Runway, Entourage, House, and “anything with Ricky Gervais” — in support of his claim. He has just spent a year starting a TV version of This American Life.

3. Bill McKibben wrote an article (in The Nation) praising This American Life to the skies.

I think of McKibben and Glass as the two Boy Geniuses of American intellectual life. (Curiously I cannot think of any Girl Geniuses.) Both of them did great work while really young. When McKibben was in his twenties, he wrote a long series of editorials in The New Yorker that were inspiring. (They were unsigned. I found out who wrote them by writing to the magazine.) His first book, The End of Nature (1989), about global warming, was prophetic. I think it was the very first general-audience book on the subject. As for Glass, This American Life was terrific right from the start, twelve years ago. He was 36 when it started.

At the Berkeley Farmers’ Market

Yesterday I went to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market and had a very interesting conversation with one of the vendors.

1. Whole Foods had called her and asked her if she would like to put her product in their stores. No thanks, she said. “Are you kidding?” they said. No, she said. She didn’t want to put her product in their stores because she didn’t want that sort of volume. She was more interested in supporting smaller stores. She told me that Whole Food’s increased interest in local vendors had come about because of Michael Pollan’s criticism of Whole Foods in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (Pollan had coined the term Big Organic and wondered which side — the more virtuous or the less virtuous — Whole Foods was on.)

2. The vendor next to her, The Fatted Calf, who sell salami, beef jerky, sausage, duck confit, and other meat products, had been forced to stop selling to stores and restaurants when someone called the USDA to complain that they didn’t have an office for the USDA inspector. That’s right: no matter how small your business, you must have an office for the USDA inspector. It’s an absurd burden to put on a small business. As I have heard others say, big businesses welcome government regulation. Because they can afford it and their potential future competitors, now tiny, cannot. Supposedly the regulation protects consumers; it may or may not but it certainly protects big businesses. (Does requiring an office for a USDA inspector protect consumers? I think not.) We need organic consumer protection. The current version is like heavy-duty insecticide. It kills small businesses.

More about Pollan and Processed Food

A reader named Shawn made an interesting comment on Michael Pollan vs. Processed Food:

I’d like to point out that your example of fortifying flour (white flour, actually) is not really that great, since in this case they are simply adding back some (but not all) of the nutrients that were destroyed in processing. Whole wheat flour does not have to be fortified because it has those nutrients to begin with — which actually supports Pollan’s arguments against food processing.

That’s true, it does support Pollan’s argument against food processing. More detail will help make my underlying logic clearer. Flour is milled for several reasons, the details of which don’t matter; let me just say that white flour is more profitable than whole wheat flour, thus can be sold at a lower price. In terms of price, milling is win-win: the supplier makes more profit and the customer gets cheaper flour. But when you consider nutrition — milled flour less nutritious than unmilled — it is not clear at all that milling is win-win. B vitamin supplementation, by cheaply replacing what the milling took out, moves us back to win-win. Not milling is not win-win: It is nothing-nothing.

When you process food based on a correct theory — an accurate understanding of how our bodies work — the result is often win-win. When you process food based on a wrong theory, it is much harder to reach that result. This is what Pollan didn’t understand. As usual, Jane Jacobs said it best. In response to people who said that Problem X or Problem Y was due to overpopulation — just as Pollan is anti-food-processing — Jacobs said the problem is not too many people, the problem is the undone work. In the case of food, the problem is not too much processing, the problem is the undone work — the undone work of coming up with good theories to guide the processing.

Mr. Dezenhall, Meet Mr. Orwell

To deal with the threat posed by open-access journals (which I praise and have published in), a group of scientific publishers including Elsevier has hired Washington public relations consultant Eric Dezenhall to help them. According to this article, Mr. Dezenhall has

encouraged his clients to “develop simple messages,” such as “public access equals government censorship”

Orwell’s 1984 includes long excerpts from a fictional book with chapter titles such as “War is Peace.” The book explains the term doublethink like this:

Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.

Secrets of a Successful Blog (part 3)

Brad DeLong, Berkeley economics professor and very popular blogger, on what makes a blog successful:

1. First-mover advantage. Brad’s was one of the first economics blogs.

2. Regularity of posts. Brad said he writes several posts during one hour in the evening to be posted at intervals the next day. At least that is the ideal, he said.

3. Communicate effectively on things people want to learn about.

Tyler Cowen and Aaron Swartz on this topic.

I learned this last week when Aaron Swartz and I stopped by Brad’s office. I had put the odds of him being there at 50 to 1. Speaking of supposedly-low-probability events, yesterday at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market someone recognized me from the photo on my book. The previous day I had said that would never happen.

Science in Action: Omega-3 (background)

The omega-3 story began with the circulatory system. In the 1960s, two Danish scientists wondered why Eskimos rarely die of heart disease. Could the answer explain the sharp decrease in heart disease mortality in Norway during World War II? In spite of this promising beginning, the heart and mortality benefits are still not clear. A 2006 meta-analysis of heart disease studies concluded that “omega 3 fats do not have a clear effect on total mortality, combined cardiovascular events, or cancer.”

You can find lots of recommendations to consume omega-3 fats in various forms — fish, supplement, and so on. On the other side, Marion Nestle, the author of What To Eat, seems to believe the advantages claimed for omega-3 are “hype.” Most researchers are less certain. From a recent New York Times article about Martek, a company that makes an omega-3 food supplement:

“A lot of the claims made for DHA [a form of omega-3] are in the realm of hypotheses,” said David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization based in Washington. “They are certainly worth pursuing, but there’s not yet enough proof to warrant telling people to go out of their way to take DHA.”

The exceptions, Mr. Schardt said, are people with a history of heart disease and premature infants, who need an extra boost of DHA for proper brain and eye development to compensate for their early exit from the womb.

Martek’s scientists, when pressed, generally agreed with Mr. Schardt. The data showing any health benefits of DHA beyond those related to the heart or premature infants, while encouraging, is not quite conclusive, they say.

The typical experimental study of omega-3 takes two groups of people with a pre-existing problem, gives one group omega-3 and the other group a placebo, and measures outcomes several months later. A 2005 study in Pediatrics, for example, compared two groups of children (n = about 60/group) with Developmental Coordination Disorder. Most of them had ADHD. One group was given an omega-3 supplement; the other group was given a placebo. The children were tested before treatment and after three months of treatment. (The reading, spelling, and behavior scores of children in the supplement group improved more than the scores of children in the placebo group.) Studies like this are hard.

In summary, there is considerable uncertainty about the effects of omega-3; and the methods used to reduce that uncertainty are slow and difficult. This is why self-experimentation might help.

My recent data. The Queen of Fats (2006) by Susan Allport, a science writer, is an excellent introduction to the subject.

How Good is Food in Berkeley?

From an interesting NY Times article about difficult people comes this:

“She’s a superior human being, and she comes from a superior area — Berkeley, Calif.,” Ms. Rothman said. “She has told me many times that there are only two places to get good food. One of them is Berkeley, and one of them is France. And France is only second to Berkeley.”

Huh? I love Chez Panisse but otherwise that makes no sense at all. San Francisco has more great food than Berkeley. So does Los Angeles.

A Curious Academic Career

From Wikipedia:

He had no talent for teaching. He was dismissed by [Johns Hopkins University] after one semester. . . . On leaving JHU, he took a position . . . at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where it became clear that he was no better at teaching advanced students than freshmen. . . . He was let go by Brown, being hired after a trip to Europe by Yale University . . . He quickly showed at Yale the same traits he had at JHU and Brown: he . . . was incapable of giving a lecture at a level that a student (even a graduate student) could comprehend. He was also unable to direct the research of graduate students . . . At age 70, [he] was involuntarily retired.

Which makes me want to learn more about the physical chemist Lars Onsager, who won a Nobel Prize in 1968.

Procrastination (cont.)

A just-published review article (abstract only) on procrastination, which looks good, and an interesting talk by the author of the review, Piers Steel, a professor of business at the University of Calgary. No mention of an evolutionary explanation.

Update of my earlier post about procrastination: To keep my email In Box un-jammed and my kitchen table unembarrassing, I now realize I must play a few games of Sudoku every day.


Is There a More Original American Journalist Than Philip Weiss?

Today, on Tom Brokaw. An outdoor tragedy in Oregon (one of several posts). College students showing the way. Tolstoy and the New York Times. Relationship advice.

I loved his columns for the New York Observer but I think the more flexible and personal blog format allows better use of his talents.

The Decline of Harvard

In high school, I learned a lot from Martin Gardner‘s Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. I read it at the Chicago Public Library on my way home from school while transferring from one bus line to another — thank heavens transfers were good for two hours. In college, it was long fact articles in The New Yorker. Now it’s Marginal Revolution, where I recently learned:

Harvard has also declined as a revolutionary science university from being the top Nobel-prize-winning institution for 40 years, to currently joint sixth position.

The full paper is here.

What should we make of this? Clayton Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (excellent) and a professor at the Harvard Business School, has been skeptical of Harvard’s ability to maintain its position as a top business school. He believes, based on his research and the facts of the matter, that it will gradually lose its position due to down-market competitors such as Motorola University and the University of Phoenix, just as Digital Equipment Corporation, once considered one of the best-run companies in the world, lost its position. A few years ago, in a talk, he described asking 100 of his MBA students if they agreed with his analysis. Only three did.

How would we know if Harvard was losing its luster? Christensen asked a student who strongly disagreed with him. Harvard business students (except Christensen’s) are taught to base their decisions on data. So Christensen put the question like this: If you were dean of the business school, what evidence would convince you that this was happening and it was time to take corrective action?

When the percentage of Harvard graduates among CEO’s of the top 1000 international companies goes down, said the student.

But by then it will be too late, said Christensen. His students agreed: By then it would be too late to reverse the decline.

Christensen’s research is related to mine, oddly enough — we both study innovation. For explicit connections, see the Discussion section of this article and the Reply to Commentators section of this one.

Secrets of a Successful Blog (part 2)

Aaron Swartz is an excellent software developer (co-founder of reddit), a creative and interesting writer, and a successful blogger, judging by number of comments. I asked him what makes a blog successful. Three things, he said:

1. Persistence. Readership builds over time.

2. Frequency. The more often, the better. It is pure operant conditioning (although Aaron, a fan of anti-behaviorist Alfie Kohn, did not use that term): When people check your blog and find new content they are rewarded, and keep checking. If they check and find nothing new, they stop checking. Although Aaron uses an aggregator (which does the checking), only about 15% of blog readers do so, he said. (I use Sage, a Firefox add-on.) Aaron posts every day or so.

3. A distinct voice. When people visit your blog they should know what to expect. When he started he blogged about all sorts of things but has become more consistent from one entry to the next.

Part 1 (Marginal Revolution co-author Tyler Cowan’s view) is here, with comments here.

American Haiku

The American version of haiku, I submit, is a Priceless ad. My contributions:

The Shangri-La Diet: $15 (including shipping)
bottle of grapeseed oil: $6
additional groceries each month: -$200
not worrying where your next Yodel is coming from: priceless

Note to SLD dieters: The reference to grapeseed oil dates this. I now drink refined walnut oil and flaxseed oil (nose-clipped).

smaller pants: $60
blush I use as excuse for better-looking skin: $8
blood test for improved lipids: $80
migraine-free TOM: priceless

Short blog posts are a little like haiku.

Update (7 Dec 06): funny coincidence.

The Invisible Made Visible

An artist, UC Santa Cruz professor of art history Mary Holmes would say, is someone who makes the invisible visible. Does that make the Internet an artist? These examples of the invisible made visible impress me:

1. Security footage of a man stealing two chairs. (Thanks to HuntGrunt.)

2. Tracking data at the Shangri-La Diet forums reveal what weight loss is like for other people.

I think the other extreme — the very visible made extremely visible — is also art. Here is an example: David Caruso one-liners. Too funny not to be art.