commonplace book

Failure vs. Losing

From Red Herring:

The key distinction is between failing and losing. Failing means getting blocked on an intended course, backing out, and restarting. Losing means persisting in your failing ways, refusing to change your current course, and instead putting significant effort into justifying the course. Worse yet, it means getting defensive whenever you are challenged about your vision. In high-tech ventures, you can expect to fail many, many times. That’s part of the deal. You get up, brush yourself off, and get back in the game. But lose just once, and you may never have another chance. That too is part of the deal.

Strange mental conditions

From A Collection of Unusual Neurological States:

Kluver-Bucy Syndrome: Damage to the front of the temporal lobe and the amygdala just below it can result in the strange condition called Kluver-Bucy Syndrome. Classically, the person will try to put anything to hand into their mouths and typically attempt to have sexual intercourse with it. A classic example is of the unfortunate chap arrested whilst attempting to have sex with the pavement. …

Capgras’ Syndrome: … The Capgras’ patient will typically identify people close to them as being imposters – identical in every possible way, but identical replicas. Classically, the patient will accept living with these imposters but will secretly “know” that they are not the people they claim to be. …

Cotard’s Syndrome: … this syndrome is characterized by the patient believing that he is dead, a walking corpse. This “delusion” is usually expanded to the degree that the patient might claim that he can smell his own rotting flesh and feel worms crawling through his skin (a recurring experience of people chronically deprived of sleep or suffering amphetamine/cocaine psychosis). …

Fregoli Syndrome: This is an extraordinary experience where the person misidentifies another person as someone who clearly he is not. Indeed, he may begin to see the same person everywhere he looks …

Alien Hand Syndrome: Probably a version of “left hemi-neglect”, brain damage in the right place can disconnect the left hand (controlled by the right, unconscious cerebral hemisphere) leaving the left hand without conscious control and the person at the mercy of the unconscious whims of the right hemisphere.

Symbolic sight

From "The Habit of Democracy" by Adam Gopnik in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, a review of two books about Alexis de Tocqueville:

Newcomers, like newborns, have symbolic sight. They see faces first, and features later. 

Will a technology become revolutionary?

From "The Challenges Facing Nanotechnology", on Ockham’s Razor:

Let us now examine nanotechnology, and assess the hurdles it must overcome before it becomes a society-transforming revolution. In our view there are four major issues:

Feasibility: can we do what we claim we can do, or is it as fantastic as the Nanobot?

Secondly, economic value: does it change the economy in any way? Does it open new sources of wealth?

Third, safety: is it safe, or does it create new dangers we don’t yet know how to handle?

And finally, necessity: do we really need to do it? And have we a choice about it?

These are the major questions all new sciences should face, and nanotechnology is no different.

Movie studios and their genres

From Neither the Power Nor the Glory: Why Hollywood leaves originality to the indies, on Slate:

Back in the old days of the studio system, the brand of a Hollywood studio meant something to the moviegoing public. Each studio, with its roster of stars under contract, came to be identified with a particular genre of movies: MGM (musicals and romantic comedies); Paramount (historical epics); Warner Bros. (gangster stories); 20th Century Fox (social dramas); Universal (horror movies); Disney (cartoons).

French policians and French writers

From "The Habit of Democracy" by Adam Gopnik in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, a review of two books about Alexis de Tocqueville:

[Tocqueville] decided to devote himself to politics in France, and, like all French literary men, made a mess of it. (French writers are emporers of conceits; French politicians must be umpires of the conceited.) 

The French character

From "The Habit of Democracy" by Adam Gopnik in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, a review of two books about Alexis de Tocqueville:

At a deeper level, too, [Tocqueville’s] turn of mind was French: witty but humorless, indifferent to empirical details, constantly searching for the lucid abstraction, what he called the "general idea." 

Relativism in political institutions

From "The Habit of Democracy" by Adam Gopnik in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, a review of two books about Alexis de Tocqueville:

"There is nothing absolute in the theoretical value of political institutions," Tocqueville wrote. "Their efficiency depends almost always on the original circumstances and the social conditions of the people to whom they are applied." 

Lowbow vs. highbrow

From "Culture Club" by Louis Menand in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker:

Things take their identities from what they are not … The concept of a highbrow culture, the culture of great books and the like, depends on the concept of a lowbrow, or popular, culture, whose characteristics highbrow culture defines iself against. Of course, there have always been good books, and bad books, serious music and easy listening, coterie art and poster art. Making these distinctions is easy if you just put everything on a continuum, and rank things from worst to best. The mid-century notion of highbrow culture required something different – it required a rupture between the high and the low, an absolute difference, not a relative one. …

[Dwight] Macdonald’s contribution to the criticism of popular culture was [that] he supplied a third category – middlebrow culture, or what he called Midcult. Midcult was kitsch for educated people. Rockwell Kent, Walter Lippmann, Ingrid Bergman, Archibald MacLeish, and Dorothy L. Sayers were among the practitioners of Midcult …

Amongst family and friends

From "The Producer" in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, an article about the Hollywood producer Brian Grazer:

His creation achieved its brilliant apotheosis a few years ago, when he reconceived Brian Grazer as a form of performance art. He started putting photographs of himself, grinning like a pixie, in dime-store frames and taking them to parties. Unobserved, he would leave his little photo among the grandly framed portraits of the host’s family and famous friends, for the host to discover, to his startled amusement, usually several weeks later. 

Unsure of himself

From "The Producer" in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, an article about the Hollywood producer Brian Grazer:

Ron Howard: But you love really sophisticated movies.

Grazer: Like what? I guess I do. I do? Which ones were you thinking of? 

The mercurial man

From "The Producer" in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, an article about the Hollywood producer Brian Grazer:

[Edgar J. Scherick, the TV producer, hired Grazer when he was young, & had this to say about him:] "One day, he told me he was dissatisfied. We talked for half an hour and I gave him a raise. The next day, he quit. Why? You tell me."

Painter of kitsch … and security

From "Art for Everybody" in the 15 October 2001 issue of The New Yorker, an article about the immensely popular, incredibly kitschy painter Thomas Kinkaid:

… ten million people own some product featuring his name, and most editions are signed with ink containing DNA from his hair or blood, to prevent fakes. 

I did not tow your car

From Scott Rosenberg’s "Web 2.0 jottings":

AOL’s Jonathan Miller … told them about having his car towed in Manhattan, and visiting the godforsaken place you go to get your car, and waiting in line forever, and getting angrier and angrier, and finally getting to the front of the line and seeing a sign that read: "The person here did not tow your car. They are here to help you get your car back. If you cooperate, you will get your car back faster."

Willie Nelson in New York

From Adam Gopnik’s "The In-Law", a profile of Willie Nelson in The New Yorker (7 October 2002):

"I love Michael J. Fox," one says. "I was upset when he left the show because of that sad illness of his." (Willie’s family really talks that way: Willie,  on being asked about Kris Kristofferson’s remark that he is the greatest songwriter since Stephen Foster, says to a radio interviewer, "I think Kris was offering something a shade too strong with that proposition you quoted.") …

[Two of Willie’s roadies, talking:] "Well, they say he’s got perfect pitch." "Yeah, well, you know what they say about perfect pitch. It’s when you throw a banjo into a trash can and hit an accordion." …

"I don’t get drunk as much anymore because I don’t have as much to get drunk about," [Willie] admits. …

[Willie Nelson] is no longer the outlaw of American music. He is its in-law, peering jovially over everyone’s shoulder at the wedding and saying, "Welcome. I can sing you, too." Nonetheless, he preserves his place as a radical, and outsider Like all great intuitive American performers (Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen, for instance), he gestures toward the edge while occupying the center, thereby’ pleasing the fringe and reassuring the middle. (Less shrewd performers, like Bill Clinton and Garth Brooks, gesture toward the middle and then occupy it, earning the numbed assent of the center and the rage of the edges.) Willie’s voice pulls the edge and the center taut.

Gershwin the prodigy

From Claudia Roth Pierpont’s "Jazzbo", about George Gershwin, in The New Yorker (10 January 2005):

[Gershwin] had been saved by the piano. On a fateful day in 1910, a secondhand upright was hoisted through the family’s Second Avenue window and, to general shock, scapegrace street fighting George, age twelve, sat down and tore through a popular tune like a vaudeville virtuoso. He had never studied a note. Many years later, Gershwin recalled the musical epiphanies of his early childhood: sitting transfixed outside a penny arcade as an automatic piano emitted noises that turned out to be Robinstein’s "Melody in F"; feeling a "flashing revelation of beauty" when the strains of Dvorak’s "Humoresque" reached him from the school auditorium while he was, in fact, outside playing hooky.

Getting over it

From Malcolm Gladwell’s "Getting Over It", in The New Yorker (8 November 2004):

We suffer from what Wilson and Gilbert call an impact bias: we always assume that our emotional states will last much longer than they do. We forget that other experiences will compete for our attention and emotions. We forget that out psychological immune system will kick in and rake away the sting of adversity.

Science, secrecy, & mysticism

From "Secret Science", on Ockham’s Razor:

Etymologically, the word ‘science’ just means knowledge, and in pre-modern Europe, when most people would have framed their understanding according to a religious doctrine, questing after new knowledge about the created world could be rather suspect. Things understood according to the word of God were revealed to you, and the work of creation was revealed to your senses. Any form of knowledge that had to be earnestly sought after was by definition, hidden. A landmark study of magnetism, published in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth’s physician, William Gilbert, begins with a statement about "the discovery of secret things and the investigation of hidden causes."

Gilbert’s book was to become one of the foundation texts of the new science of electricity a century later, but writing in 1600, he was aware of the need to argue the case for why ‘things formerly hid in deplorable darkness’ must be brought to the knowledge of mankind.

In Gilbert’s time, seeking forms of knowledge that might enable you to perform operations with material objects and substances carried the implication that you were interfering with the divine work of creation.

Feral cities of the future

From Richard J. Norton’s “Feral cities – The New Strategic Environment” (Naval War College Review: Autumn, 2003):

Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power. Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot’s Rat’s Alley. Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world’s most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city.

The putative “feral city” is (or would be) a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.

In a feral city social services are all but nonexistent, and the vast majority of the city’s occupants have no access to even the most basic health or security assistance. There is no social safety net. Human security is for the most part a matter of individual initiative. Yet a feral city does not descend into complete, random chaos. Some elements, be they criminals, armed resistance groups, clans, tribes, or neighborhood associations, exert various degrees of control over portions of the city. Intercity, city-state, and even international commercial transactions occur, but corruption, avarice, and violence are their hallmarks. A feral city experiences massive levels of disease and creates enough pollution to qualify as an international environmental disaster zone. Most feral cities would suffer from massive urban hypertrophy, covering vast expanses of land. The city’s structures range from once-great buildings symbolic of state power to the meanest shantytowns and slums. Yet even under these conditions, these cities continue to grow, and the majority of occupants do not voluntarily leave.

Feral cities would exert an almost magnetic influence on terrorist organizations. Such megalopolises will provide exceptionally safe havens for armed resistance groups, especially those having cultural affinity with at least one sizable segment of the city’s population. The efficacy and portability of the most modern computing and communication systems allow the activities of a worldwide terrorist, criminal, or predatory and corrupt commercial network to be coordinated and directed with equipment easily obtained on the open market and packed into a minivan. The vast size of a feral city, with its buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles. The city’s population represents for such entities a ready source of recruits and a built-in intelligence network. Collecting human intelligence against them in this environment is likely to be a daunting task. Should the city contain airport or seaport facilities, such an organization would be able to import and export a variety of items. The feral city environment will actually make it easier for an armed resistance group that does not already have connections with criminal organizations to make them. The linkage between such groups, once thought to be rather unlikely, is now so commonplace as to elicit no comment.

6 distinct food consumers

From "Lies, Deep Fries and Statistics", at Ockham’s Razor:

So why is that, if so many people state that they are concerned about GM foods?

An indication of why has been provided by Environics International, a Canadian company which has done some cluster graphs on consumer attitudes to food and whose research translates well into Australia. The general finding of its research shows that attitudes towards GM foods are more driven by general attitudes towards food than attitudes towards gene technology.

They have defined six distinct consumer segments:

The first, Food Elites, who prefer to eat organics and the best foods and will pay for them ( about 1 in 10 amongst the population ).

Then, the Naturalists, who prefer to buy from markets rather than supermarkets ( about 1 in 8 ).

Fearful Shoppers, who have concerns about most foods, predominantly elder consumers ( about 1 in 5 ).

Nutrition Seekers, who treat food as fuel for the body ( about 1 in 5 ).

Date Code Diligent, who read labels, but generally only look at the use-by date and fat content, predominantly younger women ( about 1 in 8 ).

And The Unconcerned, who don’t really care too much about what they eat, predominantly younger men ( about 1 in 8 ).

Those top three, the food elites, the naturalists and the fearful shoppers, are concerned about many food issues and also concerned about GM foods. The bottom three, the nutrition seekers, the date code diligent and the unconcerned have specific concerns only, or aren’t too concerned about foods at all and are not concerned about GM foods.