Assorted Links

  • Bruce Handy (who wrote for Spy) on Newsweek. “The second biggest problem is the way each issue begins with a miles-long slog of columns by A-list writers eager to champion the incontrovertible and rehash the already thoroughly hashed. . . . Niall Ferguson has discovered that, thanks to technology, “the human race is interconnected as never before.””
  • The Willat Effect in Venice, CA: side-by-side coffee comparisons at Intelligensia .
  • Why is the headline 28 Unexpected TV Ratings Facts more attractive than Unexpected TV Ratings Facts?
  • Engaging interview with Julia Schopick, creator of Honest Medicine. “After they [his surgeons] were done with him . . . “

Assorted Links

  • The Shangri-La Diet: still too good to be true. It was my dream — and maybe every scientist’s dream — to discover something (a) useful and (b) counter-intuitive, the more surprising the better. It did not occur to me that (a) and (b) conflict. I think that more surprising discoveries are eventually more useful (as logic suggests), but it takes much longer.
  • Marisa Tomei wants to play Jane Jacobs. “I love that she saved Greenwich Village.” When she does, perhaps Robert Caro will post the unpublished Jane Jacobs chapter of The Power Broker.
  • Symposium on The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
  • Did you know that Mindy Kaling’s amusing article in this week’s New Yorker is an excerpt from a forthcoming book? Neither did I. Likewise, the recent Murakami story Town of Cats was from a forthcoming book. The New Yorker, unlike other magazines, never identifies book excerpts. This  is unfortunate because doing so would help both writers (sell books) and readers (find books to read). For more criticism of  The New Yorker, see the great book Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker by Renata Adler.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

The Rules of the Tunnel by Ned Zeman

I loved Ned Zeman’s new book The Rules of the Tunnel, which I read during a long plane flight. Not only does it combine three of my favorite subjects — high-end magazines, bipolar disorder, and the crappiness of modern psychiatry — but it’s very well-written and revealing. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

Zeman once wrote for Spy, as did I. Long ago, I met him at a Spy party. I suppose I could have gotten a free copy of his book but I bought it. I wanted something great to read on the plane.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Dave Lull and Alex Chernavsky.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Paul Sas and Gary Wolf.

Scientific Illiteracy at The New Yorker

A week ago, this passage appeared in an article about timing and the brain:

If you’re hiking through a jungle and a tiger growls in the underbrush, your brain will instantly home in on the sound by comparing when it reached each of your ears, and triangulating between the three points. The difference can be as little as nine-millionths of a second.

As if people had three ears. “Triangulating between the three points” is gibberish. The between-ear time-of-arrival comparison gives you a direction, not a location (which is what triangulation does). Perhaps it was added by a copy editor. If you delete it, the passage makes sense.

Wouldn’t that make a nice newsbreak (one of The New Yorker’s column-ending “Funny Usage Mistakes Made by Other Publications”)? I tried to submit it but couldn’t. So I wrote a Letter to the Editor about it.

In this week’s issue, Hendrik Hertzberg, the magazine’s main editorial writer, calls the idea that “global warming is a hoax” a “denial of reality”. He lumps it with birtherism and the ideas that “evolution is just another theory, on a par with the theory that the earth is six thousand years old.” In case you are reading this blog for the first time, I’ll say it again: Claims that humans have dangerously warmed the planet are based on climate models that are far from fully verified. That these models manage to fit past temperatures means little because the models have many adjustable parameters. Alas, this was no over-zealous editing mistake.

“Do a Small Thing”: Good Advice For Revolutionaries and Scientists

This is the best magazine article I have read in a long time. The subtitle is “What Egypt Learned from the Students Who Overthrew Milosevic”, a good description. The Serbian students who overthrew Milosevic had several lessons for budding revolutionaries in other countries, such as Egypt and Burma. One was/is:

Do a small thing and if it is successful, you have the confidence to do another one and another one.

Much like my advice about science: Do the smallest easiest thing that will tell you something. You will learn more from it than you expect. If someone criticizes a study for being “small” they are saying “1 + 1 = 3”. If someone does a large study that fails, they are saying the same thing.

Via Long Form. I knew little about the author, Tina Rosenberg, before this. I am looking forward to reading the book about peer pressure from which this article was taken.

The Twilight of Scientology

Soon after I moved to Berkeley, someone I met on the street invited me to a dinner in the Berkeley Hills. I thought it was a religious group; it turned out to be more cult-like. The cult wasn’t named. Maybe it was Moonies, maybe Scientology. At the dinner, after the guitar-playing leader learned I was a psychology professor, she ignored me.

The New Yorker has just published a long fascinating piece about Paul Haggis’s defection from Scientology. It reminds me of a piece in Spy — an exchange of faxes between the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and Michael Ovitz, who at the time was the head of CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and considered the most powerful person in Hollywood. Eszterhas called Ovitz a bully. It seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Ovitz’s career.

My interpretation of the piece and associated material is that Scientology is dying. Just as Eszterhas wasn’t afraid of Ovitz, quite a few people, the New Yorker piece reveals, are not afraid of what Scientologists might do to them. The New Yorker website has a great deal of fun-to-read source material, which provides a vivid picture of what you can expect if you decide to join. The famous people associated with the movement, such as Cruise and Travolta (and Greta Van Susteren) are getting old. Simple-minded celebrities will always be with us, sure. But any aspiring actor who considers joining Scientology now faces two hurdles not faced by Cruise and Travolta: (1) Fear of ridicule. The Xenu stuff, for example. They tried to keep that stuff secret for a reason. Anyone can now read endless damaging stuff about Scientology. (2) Fear of professional damage. After South Park ridiculed Scientology, Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist, quit the show. Was he forced to quit by his Scientology superiors? Well, one of his South Park bosses said, “He said he was under great pressure from Scientology, and if we didn’t stop poking at them, he’d have to leave.” Loss of that job must have really hurt him.


I have liked the New Yorker coverage of Wikileaks but my favorite bit was this comment:

The world is divided in many “twos” and I would add another one. Those who are for and those who are against Wikileaks. I will try to describe each group. AGAINST: If a part or the full of your daily life deals with corruption, war crimes, extortion, blackmailing, malfeasance, bribery cover-up, then Assange is definitely a nightmare for you. You surely would like to get rid of him so that you can carry on with your evil. FOR: If you are an honest person, with high principles and impeccable conduct, a person who believes in true justice for each and every single one of the citizens, a person who supports education of the masses so that they can take informed decisions instead of being daily brainwashed and lied to by the Mainstream Media, then you are not afraid of the truth, you love the truth and you want to protect the innocent.

This is the modern version of The Emperor Has No Clothes in which it took a child to point out the obvious. No serious journalist could say this. As far as I can tell, no serious journalist has. It is too simple. Too disrespectful. Too sentimental. But it is surely true.

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie, a great writer, has a new book out called The New Yorker Stories. I loved her early stories. Her first story in The New Yorker (1974) was “A Platonic Relationship“. I still remember this:

When he did have a beer he would take one bottle from the case and put it in the refrigerator and wait for it to get cold, and then drink it. . . . One night Sam asked her if she would like a beer. . . . He went to his room and took out a bottle and put it in the refrigerator. “It will be cold in a while,” he said quietly.

Last night I put a Diet Coke in the freezer. It will be cold in a while, I thought, remembering this passage.

Alas, I haven’t liked her work over the last 20 years as much, although I am looking forward to reading Walks With Men, her latest novel.

Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter

In the latest New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell says Twitter and the like are less revolutionary than claimed.

A month ago a friend and I discussed Gladwell. The friend said that after Steven Pinker’s review of What the Dog Saw, he couldn’t look at Gladwell the same way.

I said that was a silly review. Sure, Gladwell has faults, but he also has strengths. He chooses interesting research to write about and writes about it in an accessible attractive way. An example is the Korean Airlines chapter in Outliers. It had little to do with the rest of the book but it was excellent journalism. Pinker barely mentioned these strengths but did point out spelling mistakes. It is silly to judge something by dwelling on what’s wrong with it. (Exhibit A: correlation does not equal causation.)

Gladwell’s latest piece is one of his best. It makes four points:

1. The strong-tie/weak-tie distinction in social networks. An old idea, but worth being reminded of.

2. Strong ties were behind the civil-rights lunch counter sit-ins. The movement they helped start was long and dangerous. Strong ties helped.

3. Twitter and other social media create weak ties. It isn’t clear they create strong ties. Donations based on weak ties were in several cases a few cents/person. Much less than the cost of participation in the civil-rights movement.

4. If you’re going to claim something is “revolutionary”, as Clay Shirky did about Twitter and the like, you should start your book with a better example than a rich guy getting his Sidekick back.

Perfectly good points, especially the last.

Tyler Cowen’s reaction.

Excellent Jonathan Franzen Story

The current issue of The New Yorker has an excellent story by Jonathan Franzen. I enjoyed reading it (unlike most recent New Yorker fiction, unfortunately) and it’s closely related to stuff I blog about.

It tells what happens after a girl is raped by a boy with powerful parents. Her coach wants her to report it but her parents dissuade her. They are afraid of what the boy’s parents would do to them. The mother is active in the local Democratic Party and says “I wish it had been anyone else.” They have three other children — this one, they seem to decide, is disposable.

The story is so wrenching because the parent-child bond is usually so strong. But smaller abandonments happen all the time. When I was a graduate student at Brown, I was a teaching assistant. One of the papers I graded turned out to be plagiarized. I told the professor about it; he did nothing. I’m sure I know why: It would have been costly for him. Time-consuming, for example. He abandoned the student. Teachers, like parents, should teach right and wrong.

I posted yesterday about a Columbia University valedictorian named Brian Corman who plagiarized part of his speech. Was this the first time he’s plagiarized? Of course not. It’s merely the first time he’s been punished for it. I believe he’s plagiarized many times and in some cases the teacher noticed. The teacher did nothing — thereby abandoning the student — because to do something would have been costly for the teacher. Had Corman been punished earlier, he would (a) not have been valedictorian (it would have gone to someone more deserving) and (b) not face ridicule for the rest of his life, since this episode will be preserved by Google. Likewise, Adam Wheeler — a flagrant liar who almost graduated from Harvard without being caught — will be ridiculed the rest of his life. He too was abandoned by his professors, who surely noticed before now that he plagiarized.

That Brown, Columbia, and Harvard professors put their own comfort ahead of doing right by their students is unsurprising, given the examples set by countless university presidents and underlings. (Examples here.) Why did Columbia University President Lee Bollinger show a shocking lack of understanding of the purpose of free speech? (He’s a law professor whose specialty is freedom of speech.) Because he thought it would be crowd-pleasing — and it was.

Elizabeth Kolbert Confronts Climategate

The New Yorker website has a weekly podcast called The Political Scene. I’ve listened to almost all of them. This week’s was unlike any other.

The brief description is “Elizabeth Kolbert and Peter J. Boyer discuss recent attacks on climate science.” Never before have the discussants been so far apart. They should have replaced discuss with debate. Boyer hasn’t written a word about climate science — or even science. He moved from the New York Times to The New Yorker after he wrote an (excellent) book about television. Recently he’s covered politics. Kolbert has written dozens of articles and a book about climate science. In spite of this, the moderator (Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of the magazine), asked Boyer to describe the Climategate emails and their significance. They showed, he said, “an intolerance [by the scientists] of skepticism of their narrative . .  this was a real shock to the system and a real shock to the global warming consensus.” I think any unbiased observer would agree.

Then Wickenden asked Kolbert what she thought:

KOLBERT  I don’t agree with him [Boyer] . . . One of the things that comes out in these emails is the climate scientists’ frustration with having to deal with people who use the data in all sorts of irresponsible ways. . . I’m not aware of any instances where people have had to go back and had to say “you’re right and the conclusion we drew was wrong.”

BOYER Perhaps we could say that language was used in these communications that would allow for an interpretation that perhaps there was fudging or something going on that needed to be obscured. There was a whole tone of intolerance of questioning of their data or — and this was what was so disturbing to hear from scientists — any questioning of what sounded an awful lot like their mission.

Boyer went on and on — as if he were the expert. (And he clearly knew what he was talking about.) Then Wickenden turned to the United Nations IPCC report and asked Kolbert what she thought of recent criticism (which Wickenden learned about from the NY Times).

KOLBERT . . . [The error was in Part 2.] In [Part 2 of] this report, which was literally 986 pages long, there were a couple of things inserted that weren’t from the peer-reviewed literature. . . .

BOYER Well, Betsy, I’m sorry, these aren’t just 986 pages of Scripture, and then a couple of little awkward errant notations on the side. The IPCC isn’t an inconsequential body. Al Gore and Mr. Pachauri shared the Nobel Prize. They are granted a level of authority when they speak. These reports were certainly granted authority. . .

KOLBERT [interrupting] I guess I should ask you: What is your point? . . .

BOYER . . . The consensus about the consensus has begun to crack. That’s just the political reality . . . There is a crack in the consensus.

Kolbert has published hundreds of thousands of words about global warming in the most prestigious magazine in the world. That she is unable to see or at least say this basic truth but must have someone else say it is another sign of problems with her reporting.

Until now, all speakers on The Political Scene have sounded calm and confident. On rare occasions they disagree, but never like this. And the conversation always has a relaxed tone. Not this time. Boyer sounded calm and confident but I thought Kolbert sounded nervous and upset. With good reason: It struck me as a huge and public rebuke from her employer. She’s been the expert. Now someone with no credentials has been allowed to say she’s wrong — has been brought on the program, apparently, in order to disagree with her. As if it’s no longer clear she’s right. And her dismissal of the Climategate emails, as if they taught her nothing, didn’t help her. The debate with Boyer was preceded and followed by softball questions by Wickenden to Kolbert. They struck me as attempts to soften the blow, as did a comment at the end by Boyer about a Super Bowl commercial.

“Two or Three Sentences That Go Together”

In the latest episode of This American Life, devoted to 2010 predictions, a sixth-grade teacher says she would like one of her students to become a better writer. His essays are disorganized. “I would like Lewis to write two or three sentences that go together and make sense,” she said.

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, a profile of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor by Lauren Collins contains this paragraph:

Perhaps in an effort to absorb quickly the mores of the Court, Sotomayor has hired experienced clerks, including one who spent the past year clerking for Justice Stevens and another who clerked for Justice Ginsburg. Near her desk is a framed cartoon by the Mexican-American illustrator Lalo Alcaraz. Against a lavender background, a girl with a pink bow in her dark hair sits at a desk, banging a gavel. A nameplate in front of her reads “Judge Lopez.” To her right is a makeshift witness box, inhabited by a Teddy bear. The jury box is full of stuffed animals. Taped to the wall behind her is a photograph of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The first sentence (“Perhaps in an effort . . . “) and the rest of the paragraph (“Near her desk . . . “) don’t go together. I suppose Collins or her editor liked the cartoon detail but didn’t have a good place to put it. So they put it here, at the end of a section.

The whole profile is more great work from Lauren Collins. The impressive thing about Sotomayor, someone tells Collins, isn’t that she’s the first Latina Justice, it’s that she’s the first Justice to grow up in a housing project. To good writing based on lots of work, Collins adds interesting observations:

In a profession that values the illusion of infallibility, Sotomayor has been unusually willing to acknowledge murky areas.

We want stories with heroes and villains. We want moralizing, in other words. In this sentence, Collins calls the legal profession bad and Sotomayor good.