Monday, April 30, 2012

The Sound of Comprehension

"I feel [laughs] are important because, apart from anything else, I think of laughter as the sound of comprehension."
Tom Stoppard

Four Elements of Critical Thinking

My favorite Bumper Sticker Motto is "Question Authority," so it shouldn't come as any surprise that I'm a big fan of critical thinking. With this in mind, I liked Paul Schoemaker's article 4 Secrets of Critical Thinkers, where he writes:
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman attributes shallow framing to people substituting easy questions for hard ones. We often miss the crux of the issue by drawing imaginary connections between what we see and what we expect to see. As our own book Winning Decisions explains, the essence of critical thinking is to slow down this process, learn how to reframe problems, see beyond the familiar and focus on what is unique in any important decision situation. Here are four ways to hone these critical thinking skills:
  1. Slow down
  2. Break from the pack. 
  3. Encourage disagreement. 
  4. Engage with mavericks. 
These four points are expanded in the article. I know that i'd be ecstatic if my company committed to even two of these important four points.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Flip the Pole!

I didn't know this:
The Sun essentially sheds its current magnetic field and regrows a new one every 11 years.
But this time around, it's different:
The Sun’s magnetic field is reversing, South becoming North, as it does approximately every 11 years on a cycle, but this time, something even stranger is going on: The North is moving much faster than the South, and space scientists aren’t sure why.

“Right now, there’s an imbalance between the north and the south poles,” Jonathan Cirtain, NASA’s project scientist for a Japanese solar mission called Hinode, in a recent article on NASA’s website. “The north is already in transition, well ahead of the south pole, and we don’t understand why.”

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Welcome Miles Vincent Meigs!

Yesterday at 8:00 AM on the nose, we welcomed Miles, our third son, into the world! He was 7 pounds, 13 ounces and has been the mellowest kid in the 28 hours he's been with us. He even let me sleep four and a half hours last night! I'm sure i'll write more about him later, but for now expect posting to be light as I spend some quiet happy time with my family.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Crappy Google Searches

Is it me or have Google searches been more ineffective ever since they started prioritizing more recent news in their search algorithm? It certainly seems like i'm getting a higher percentage of crap in my search results over the last few months.

Banana Fungus, Go Away

I've known for some time now that there's a potential threat to my favorite food: the bannana. Boing Boing gives us a quick run-down of why this is:
Bananas, as we know them, cannot reproduce. The ones we eat are sterile hybrids. Like mules. The only way that there are more bananas is that humans take offshoots from the stems of existing banana trees, transplant them, and allow them to grow into a tree of their own. It's basically a cheap, low-tech version of cloning, and it has a long history in agriculture. ...

The downside to this is that clones are, shall we say, not terribly genetically diverse. Turns out, a lack of genetic diversity is a great way to make yourself vulnerable to disease. Back in the 1950s, a fungus all but wiped out a variety of banana called the Gros Michael. Up until then, the Gros Michel had been the top-selling banana in the world. It was the banana your grandparents ate. You eat the Cavendish, a different variety that replaced Gros Michael largely on the strength of its resistance to the killer fungus.
According to the article, a fungus called Black Sigatoka can kill banana trees and reduce yields in the survivors, and so efforts are underway to develop a replacement strain of banana just in case the Black Sigatoka is successful: the Goldfinger. Click through to see a picture.

Here's hoping that the Goldfinger tastes as good as the Cavendish!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rain on the Sun

Check out this amazing video that Bad Astronomy posted the other day:

Here's the explanation of what we're looking at:
"A lot of the material ... that falls back onto the Sun [is] because of the Sun’s strong gravity. Since the material is an ionized plasma – a gas stripped of one or more electrons — it follows the magnetic field lines of the Sun, so you can see graceful arcs of this stuff falling back down after the blast. ...
Gravity does the work, but magnetism does the steering."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

First Line of "The Strain"

""Once upon a time," said Abraham Setrakian’s grandmother, "there was a giant."

- Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, from "The Strain," an addictive horror book. I'm 162 pages and the slow burn of the beginning is just about to boil over. It's an excellent horror novel, containing a lot of good writing like this:

"That was strange. She was spooked now. Majorly spooked. Dwarfed by a massive, $250-million, 383-ton flying machine, she had a fleeting yet palpable and cold sensation of standing in the presence of a dragon-like beast. A sleeping demon only pretending to be asleep, yet capable, at any moment, of opening its eyes and it's terrible mouth. An electrically psychic moment, a chill running through her with the force of a reverse orgasm, everything tightening, knotting up." p. 17.

The problem with a lot of these horror books is that once the plot begins in earnest, the relative restraint of the beginning becomes overwrought both in terms of events and prose. Here's hoping this doesn't occur here!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cosmopolis Trailer

While I liked Don Delillo's Cosmopolis, it really did require a suspension of disbelief. I thought certain episodes worked very well, while others most definitely did not. Overall, I enjoyed certain scenes and his observations on society and people, but didn't think the book held together as a whole. Of course, this didn't stop me from reading it twice!

Come to find out that David Cronenberg has made a movie out of the book and it looks quite compelling! Check out the trailer. I try to catch all of Cronenberg's flicks, and now i'm excited to see what he does with the book. Plus, I don't think any of Delillo's books have been made into movies yet, so i'm intrigued to see how his voice and tone translates to the big screen.

If Darth Vader Actually Raised Luke Skywalker

So funny.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Genetically-Modified Wheat?

I did not know that the wheat we're eating today is a relatively modern invention:
Modern wheat remained essentially the same until the mid-twentieth century, when the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (IMWIC) and other wheat research centers set out to combat world hunger. Over the following decades, thousands of new varieties were created to dramatically increase yields. ...
[William Davis, author of Wheat Belly] writes, “The oversight in the flurry of breeding activity, such as that conducted at IMWIC, was that, despite dramatic changes in the genetic makeup of wheat and other crops, no animal or human safety testing was conducted on the new genetic strains that were created. So intent were the efforts to increase yield, so confident were plant geneticists that hybridization yielded safe products for human consumption, so urgent was the cause of world hunger, that these products of agricultural research were released into the food supply without human safety concerns being part of the equation.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pregnant and I Know It

Not me, but my lovely wife, who is about to give birth to our third son. She's ready to be done being pregnant, and this one goes out to her:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Bliss of Pure Sensation

As some of you may know, I’m expecting my third son to be born shortly (10 more days!). Having children has both many challenges and benefits, both of which are too extensive to even begin listing here, but I was reminded of perhaps one of the best benefits when I read Eliza Clark’s “Seeing the World Through Our Children’s Eyes” essay. In this post, she ponders what it’s like to be a new child, and reminds us that although life as a parent may seem routine to us, to kids “each new day, however similar in structure to the one that came before, is full of newness and exploration. There are new sounds, new sights, new faces, and new stories to take in; there is the taste of a new meal or play with a new friend to discover, and so on.”

She continues by quoting psychology professor Alison Gopnik (writing in The Philosophical Baby) about this state of mind as analogous to travel, as a “…return to the wide-ranging curiosity of childhood… our attention and awareness are enhanced, not shut down. Life seems more vivid, even painfully so at times.” It's an apt metaphor given all of the fun observations and explorations kids make about the most mundane of tasks (which she puts as the “bliss of pure sensation.")

Personally, this is what I mean when I say that having kids has made me a better person. Their playful attitude towards all aspects of life – even that I used to consider boring or routine – is infectious, and has inspired me to treat tasks that I dread (waiting in lines, shopping, etc.) as opportunities to have fun. There are limits to this mindset, of course – Clark reminds us that “someone needs to look both ways when crossing the street” – but being reminded to tune into the joy in the everyday moment is a gift that my kids have given me.

Deep Thought

Women take the time to actually talk to their friends on the telephone. Men just text or email.

Design is Selfless

"If you ever find yourself designing something a certain way because you think it would be better that way, then you're probably performing art and not design. Art is about self-expression. Design is selfless."

- Jeff Harris

Monday, April 16, 2012

First Lines of "David Bowie's Low: 33 1/3"

"The journey towards Low begins with the rattling pistons of a locomotive, opening the title track of David Bowie's previous album Station to Station, recorded in Los Angeles in late 1975."

- Hugo Wilcken from David Bowie's Low: 33 1/3, one in a series of books about influential albums. Amazon discounted a number of them this weekend and I snapped a bunch of them up. Given this, don't be surprised if you see more about music in this space over the next few months as I slowly digest them.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Grim Spider

"The bitterness of death is past. The grim spider so terrible to human nature has no sting left for me.
My consolations are more than I can number. The separation cannot be so long as twenty separations heretofore."

- John Adams, writing John Quincy Adams about the death of his wife Abigail.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Kindles, Collusion, and Copy Protection

NPR gives us a good history of the recent governmental ruling against Apple and several book publishers for price collusion, and makes this prediction:
“No matter what the outcome of this mountain of federal and state litigation, the agency model [an agreement that allowed publishers to set the same price for digital books across all online marketplaces.], in its present form, is dead. Within the next month, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and other e-book retailers will undoubtedly mount a fierce price war for control of this new market. Publishers will bemoan the loss of the tool for preventing predatory pricing, brick-and-mortar booksellers will struggle to compete in the digital marketplace, and cash-strapped book buyers will cheer the competitive prices.”
The article also claims that: “The model may be moribund, but [successful in that] customers no longer think of $9.99 as the only possible price for an e-book. We regularly pay everything from 99 cents to $14.99 for a best-selling e-book.”

This is interesting and all, and I’m looking forward to being able to pick up some ebooks at rock bottom prices. However, I was surprised to not to see anything in the lawsuit about the ability of ebook manufacturers to look their customers into devices. It turns out that I’m not alone: Cory Doctrow at Boing Boing points out that “Every dollar that is spent on a locked, proprietary platform is a dollar of opportunity cost that society will have to spend to get out from under the would-be monopolists of ebooks when (not if) they abuse their power (see my latest PW column on this)."

Frustrating! I guess this came about because the publishing industry, the device came before the format. Thus, if you buy a book on your Kindle, you can’t read it on an iPad or Nook and vice versa. This is opposed to the consumer win in the music industry, where the format for sharing music (mp3s) came before the portable devices that you would use to listen to the devices. Thus, any device that wanted to be successful needed to be able to play mp3s that you could pick up anywhere.

I love my kindle, but amazon's market power and being frozen into one device does makes me nervous. Interesting to see how this will play itself out.

Running as Practice

I’m running more than I ever have before in my life, and I’ve been running (relatively) regularly for 26 years. Ostensibly this increase in my amount of running is to get me prepared  for the Burlington Marathon, but the more I’ve run the more I’ve come to learn that it’s more than that - but before that, my training went through three distinct phases:
  1. Running longer distances at my normal pace. When I first started training, I continued to build up my speed along with distance. This trend maxed out where most of my runs were run at 7:30-8:00 pace. This continued until a major calf injury slowed me down for a few weeks and then...
  2. Running to a training plan. I downloaded a “beginners marathon” training plan, one that told me that I should be running 4-5 days a week, cross-training one day, and resting 1-2 days. I did this for a few weeks before getting discouraged in its robotic nature; it wasn't in tune with what my body or my mind required. So I entered my current phase, which is...
  3. Slower running a few days a week. I now start off as slow as I can and slowly pick up the speed over the course of the run. This has enabled me to relatively quickly achieve distances that I have never done before (my first 20 miler, for example). I've cut back on the number of times I hit the pavement, which keeps me focused when I do run.
While all of this running, has me in good shape for the marathon (7 weeks away!), I no longer subscribe to the current thinking that “every run has to have a purpose.” It's just not how I roll. Planning when and the speed at which I needed to run was taking all of the fun out of it! Now that i'm going out with the only goal being distance or time (to run 20 miles, or to be jogging for 2.5 hours, for example) has been incredibly relaxing. To get all zen on you, this has taught me that the journey is it’s own satisfaction. In other words, while I’ll be excited to finish the marathon (and hopefully beat Eric and Joel & drink their scotch), it’s no longer what I’m running these long distances for. Rather, I’ve fallen in love with the story of the long run, of the sheer ego-destroying time it takes to run 16+ miles (there’s a reason that running makes us stupid).

I was inspired to write this after reading Weapon-Grade Ennui's posting on George Leonard’s Mastery, and his musings on how practice is neither glamorous nor interesting and thus the process can be its own payoff.  Money quote:
“…[Leonard] enjoys Zen parables. … [like] how you have to empty your cup before you can fill it, or how you have to let go of that cup of expertise to grab the quart on the table.

Someone aiming for excellence might roll their eyes at these Zen paradoxes. I am convinced by them. Maybe to get good at something, you have to not care if you ever do. The road is too long to be motivated by a destination you can only imagine and never see. The journey has to be its own satisfaction. I don’t fantasize about seeing my name on a bookstore’s shelves, anymore. I am more interested in learning how to pay attention to all the steps leading to it.”
This sounds about right. All of the writing and pondering and soul-searching that has lead up to my ability to not only run but like running 20 miles has been enjoyable in and of itself. I know this because I am looking forward to continuing my long runs even after May 27th has come and gone, something that was inconceivable just a half-year ago. I’ve liked learning more about my body, my capabilities and my limits, and it’s made me a better person for it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

It Remains Elusive

"People often take the truths of a tradition on faith accepting the testimony of others but find that the inner kernel of the religion, its luminous essence, remains elusive."

- Karen Armstrong

SK sings about this idea in the church song "feel."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Coming Soon: the Ashland Farmers Market

My lovely wife, despite being 9 months pregnant, has been hard at work organizing the inagural season of the Ashland Farmers Market. It sounds like it's going to be a great opportunity to buy local! Details from the Ashland Tab:
The Ashland Farmers Market will officially open on Saturday, June 9, and will be open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. until Oct. 20. The market will be set up at 125 Front St., on the grassy stretch of land diagonally across the street from the library.
The market is a “grow it or make it” market. Among the produce vendors that will be participating are Sunshine Farm, in Sherborn, Arcadian Farm, in Holliston, and Long Life Farm, in Hopkinton. A list of participating vendors will be available online at
Besides produce, there will be meat, fish, honey and bakery vendors. Organizers have also lined up specialty and artisan vendors, and there are plans for a children’s tent, a community organization tent and entertainment.
The goal is to provide a fun place where families can purchase locally grown, fresh produce, grass-fed beef, and other healthy food choices. People are encouraged to sign up at to be included in email blasts for vendor specials and other updates.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Social Darwinism Tends Towards the Good

I was astounded by the sublimity of this vision [of social Darwinism in business], whose implications spread far beyond the business sphere. Thinking back to my first discussion with Riley, I wondered if this weren't the answer to the question he’d proposed: How was the Christian to reconcile the existence of evil with the unconditional benignity of God? Or, alternatively, how did the Taoist reconcile the existence of what was not Tao – which represented an affront to its essential nature, even contradicted it – with the primordial unity of all things in Tao? Was it possible that this was the answer? If so, then on both counts the objections were based on a simple narrowness of view. Once the Great Whole was seen, objections flew away like chaff. Evil, then, was the crucible in which the good was tried and proved. The unnatural was the fever which the body suffered internally to purify itself and become well again. The sores and the corrupt places of the economic world, as of the larger, were where the Tao had sent the legions of its influence, its platelets and leukocytes, its antibodies and white corpuscles, to eradicate diversity’s failed experiments, devouring the excesses of the blood. Diversity was necessary to insure the greatest possible perfection, and if it created a few monstrosities as well, then it also provided for their destruction by natural selection. That was the miracle! Everything was tending towards the good!

The Sustainable Curator

Brain Pickings highlights Hans-Ulrich Obrist's ideas on curation, where he expands upon the standard idea of a curator adding meaning to art through selection and arrangement to make a fascinating point about the curator as a sustainability pioneer:
"...the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material products that we all witnessing today. Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century life. These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood as simply the person who fills a space with objects but as the person who brings different cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions that allow unexpected encounters and results.
To curate, in this sense, is to refuse static arrangements and permanent alignments and instead to enable conversations and relations. Generating these kinds of links is an essential part of what it means to curate, as is disseminating new knowledge, new thinking, and new artworks in a way that can seed future cross-disciplinary inspirations. But there is another case for curating as a vanguard activity for the 21st century.
As the artist Tino Sehgal has pointed out, modern human societies find themselves today in an unprecedented situation: the problem of lack, or scarcity, which has been the primary factor motivating scientific and technological innovation, is now being joined and even superseded by the problem of the global effects of overproduction and resource use. Thus moving beyond the object as the locus of meaning has a further relevance. Selection, presentation, and conversation are ways for human beings to create and exchange real value, without dependence on older, unsustainable processes. Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Who: "Live" in Sweden!

Dangerous Minds points us to this great video of The Who lip-syncing five of their early songs on Swedish TV in 1966. My favorite part is that nobody even pretends to play Nicky Hopkins' clearly audible piano parts.

I've been listening to a lot of The Who's early songs recently. In particular, the "Deluxe" version of the My Generation LP which contains a treasure trove of old covers and alternate takes of this earliest incarnation of the group, where pop music (or "Maximum R&B") still dominated their sensibility. I love the power and joy in these old songs! My favorites of the rarities are "Daddy Rolling Stone" and "Leaving Here," although I still can't get enough of "A Legal Matter." It's been a revelation clearly hearing all of the dense power of John's diving bass lines and the controlled chaos of Moon's drumming.

When Your Intentions are Zero

"...everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration [art], when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical."

- John Cage, in Michael Kirby and Richard Schechner, "An Interview with John Cage," TDR, 10, No. 2 (1965), p. 65.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dada Quotes

Two quotes from Hugo Ball’s diaries.

“In their childhood, men envision such a clear ideal of themselves and their world that experience is bound to let them down later. They find out unexpectedly, and the shock of it is usually so great that they never lose a certain sensitivity about it. Someone who has the power to enhance man’s store of dreams can become a savior. the wounds that men die of lie in the area between dream and experience. That is where the graves lie from which they are raised.”
- From Flight Out of Time

"The dadaist fights against the agony and the death throes of this age. Averse to all clever reticense, he cultivates the curiosity of one who feels joy even at the most questionable forms of rebellion. he knows that the world of Systems has fallen apart, and that this age with its insistence on cash payment has opened a jumble sale of godless philosophies. When fear and a bad concience begin for the shopkeeper, hearty laughter and gentle encouragement begin for the dadiast. "
- From Dada Fragments

Football Hurts Your Brain

I've known for sometime that I would be, at best, uncomfortable with my sons playing football when they got older. Now, I think i'm going to prohibit them from playing at all:
This link is to a TERRIFIC Frontline episode on high school football, and it has a segment on brain injuries. The most frightening part is a team of doctors who set out to do a study of changes in cognitive functions of high school players in the hours and days after a concussive head injury. But there weren't any significant episodes in their first couple days so they decided to put their time to use by doing some baseline studies of cognitive functions of the players before any injury.

One of the things they learned was that there was a measurable decline in cognitive function just from the ordinary helmet-to-helmet impacts on every play, even when there was no concussion suffered by the player. They tracked this group of players for several weeks of practice, and measured the decline in their brain function - thinks like short term memory, pattern recognition, etc.  The concluded that the cumulative effect of all these sub-concussive impacts of the brain on the inside of the skull lead to the same conditions as a concussion.
Scary stuff. h/t the Dish.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Age as Genre?

This arrogant article about how normal adults shouldn't read fiction marketed to Young Adults won't do anything combat the impression that the New York Times is elitist:
Books are one of our few chances to learn. There’s a reason my teachers didn’t assign me to go home and play three hours of Donkey Kong. I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.
This is the worst kind of lazy thinking. Note how he admits that he doesn't know what he's bashing, only that because it's labeled as "Young Adult" it's not worthwhile to him. This really raises my hackle. First of all, it's the worst kind of literary snobbery. Has Mr. Stein even asked himself who labels a book as YA or not? I certainly don't want anyone making these decisions for me. For example, knowing the kinds of excellent fiction that are disparaged as "science fiction" when one could make a very strong argument that they should be marketed as "regular" fiction (Stephenson and Gibson, to name just two), makes me wary of trusting any booksellers to label what i'm reading. Secondly, it's a bit stunning to think of the excellent books that he'll miss under this line of thinking: off the top of my head, he's miss out on The Chocolate War and The Catcher in the Rye along with countless others.

Personally, I enjoy ripping through a YA novel now and again. I recently ripped through L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time in a few days and found it highly enjoyable, both as a good story and also as a fun nostalgia trip back to the kid I was when I first read it. I also continually get meaning out of Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth when I pick it up every few years or so. It's good to look through the eyes of a kid now and again!

For a better argument against Mr. Stein's writing, see Alyssa's good breakdown. What are your thoughts? Do you avoid YA books, find them a "guilty pleasure," or actively seek them out?