John Lennon as an Old Man

Really fun piece of fiction here:

“Time for me mornin’ swim,” says Lennon, who has only just woken up. It is two p.m.

Lennon, who will turn 70 on October 9, remains enviably slim and has a deep late-summer tan. The longish hair is mostly white and a bit thinned out on top but becomingly so, in the manner of late-period Richard Harris. We stop at a crook in the creek where the waters slow and eddy, and where a stand of willows shades the bank scenically. Hung on a hook nailed to one of the trees is a handmade sign bearing the words “old mclennon’s swimmin hole.” Lennon hands me his cappuccino glass, drops his shorts, and Nestea-plunges backward into the water.

He re-emerges with a splash and a triumphant whoop, pushing his hair out of his face. Then he gently lowers himself back in, lying supine and semi-submerged, his penis bobbing upward, pointed right at me. “Alrighty then,” he says. “First question.”

I doubt seriously though that Lennon would’ve voted for Reagan.

[David Kamp @ Vanity Fair via the Browser]

[image via straight blast gym]
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September 27, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Dope

Lance Armstrong taking the Pete Rose approach:

As long as I live, I will deny it. There was absolutely no way I forced people, encouraged people, told people, helped people, facilitated. Absolutely not. One hundred percent.

His choice of words here is interesting even though his grammar is abhorrant.

Personal opinion: People who say “100 percent,” regardless of context, are attempting to blow smoke up your ass.

My thoughts on this whole “Lance Thing” are scattered. You may not care at all, gentle reader. Be assured though that Armstrong’s handlers care deeply what you think, and for good reason. His legacy is at stake and by proxy, so is his charitable foundation. In fact, in the New York Times article mentioned below, there is this sense that his people don’t care what his transgressions are/were since ‘his good acts outweigh his bad ones.’ Sounds like a sideways admission of guilt to me.

Interesting excerpt from the great NYT article on the subject:

Jay Coakley, a sociologist and the author of “Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies,” said that he had no doubt that Mr. Armstrong was guilty of doping, but that it did not matter. For athletes, he said, the line between performance enhancement and medical treatment has become so fuzzy that it is impossible to discern.

“Deciding to use performance-enhancing substances and methods has nothing to do with lack of morality,” Mr. Coakley said. “It has to do with normative structure of elite sport, and the athlete’s commitment to his identity as an athlete.”

Such a great insight. It leads well into an NPR story I heard days later that chronicles Katherine Hamilton’s decision to opt out of sports entirely:

“There is an untold story,” she said, “about all the thousands … who make a conscious decision, that are really great athletes doing the right thing, working really hard — and they just drop out because they’re just not willing to do the things to your body and to go down that road.”

In other words, athletes who don’t just say no to drugs, but no to sport[.]

Doping may be a (very) roundabout way to help cancer patients, but it’s also the apparent cause of other types of societal illness.

[Bruce Weber and Juliet Macur @ the New York Times via the Browser]

[image via correct-weight-loss.net]

September 16, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 2 comments.

Stephen Hawking Is out to Sell Books

Tell me you know what an internet troll looks like by now.

How is Stephen Hawking any different? By stirring up controversy over his boring new book about quantum physics, he gets to make bank. Don’t fall for simple shenanigans.

Anthony Gottlieb @ the Economist was not impressed:

The authors may be in this enviable state of enlightenment, but most readers will not have a clue what they are on about. Some physics fans will enjoy “The Grand Design” nonetheless. The problem is not that the book is technically rigorous—like “A Brief History of Time”, it has no formulae—but because whenever the going threatens to get tough, the authors retreat into hand-waving, and move briskly on to the next awe-inspiring notion. Anyone who can follow their closing paragraphs on the relation between negative gravitational energy and the creation of the universe probably knows it all already. This is physics by sound-bite.

So as a book, it’s probably not for you. Let’s get on with why Hawking’s “god is dead” argument is particularly droll.

Graham Farmello @ the Daily Telegraph:

It is perhaps a bit rich for Hawking to make God redundant after granting him/her/it a celebrity cameo at the end of his multi-million selling A Brief History of Time. In his famous conclusion to the book, Hawking wrote that if scientists could find the most fundamental laws of nature “then we should know the mind of God”. To be fair, he was writing metaphorically – we all know what he meant.

He now suggests that the search for this particular Holy Grail is over, now that scientists have come up with a type of theory, known as M-theory, that may describe the behaviour of all the fundamental particles and force, and even account for the very birth of the universe. If this theory is backed up by experiment, it might perhaps replace all religious accounts of creation – in Hawking’s capacious mind, it already has.

Bottom line:

Science and religion are about fundamentally different things. No religion has ever been rendered obsolete by facts or observations, but this happens to most scientific theories, at least in the long run. […]

A useful characteristic of a scientific theory is that it must be possible, at least in principle, for experimenters to prove it wrong. […]

No religion has ever been set out in terms of scientific statements. This is why scientists are able to mock the claims of religions but have never been able to deal a knock-out blow: in the end, a religious believer can always fall back on a faith that does not depend on verification.

So believe what you will and don’t troll or be trolled. Unless you’re trying to sell books that is.

[both articles via the always relevant Browser]

[image via my mmo site]

September 15, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 4 comments.

Bicycles aint People

Felix Salmon bikes to work everyday. To Reuters HQ. In the heart of New York City.

Let’s take all the different permutations in order. To begin with, there’s the old bike-free status quo, where the possible interactions are pedestrian-pedestrian, pedestrian-motorist, or motorist-motorist. It’s worth thinking about these a bit, because they’re deeply ingrained in us, and they’re responsible for shaping the way we see everything else. […]

The trouble all starts when you drop bicyclists into the mix. At that point, a whole new set of combinations comes into play, and as a city we haven’t worked out how to make them work.

Salmon goes on to present his “Unified Theory of New York Biking,” which is solid no matter where you live.

Kottke weighs in:

If this was a manifesto, I’d sign it.

[Felix Salmon @ Reuters via the Browser]

[image via Doghouse Diaries]

September 14, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Fail Smarter

There’s a huge problem in the attitude towards (governmental) scientific research that I see regularly.  There’s this overt desire to mimic industry, but institution-wide, we’re consistently picking the wrong things to copy.  Our focus should be on problems, questions, and results, but the actual focus is on getting more data, faster, cheaper.

Doesn’t matter how you get the data or if the procedure is flawed.  Doesn’t matter which questions you’re asking.  Doesn’t matter if the course is correct.

Get more data. Ask questions later.

One superficial problem with problem driven research is that it’s a perilous path.  Oh, the failures!  A _real_ scientific process is a tale defined by the numberless problems along the way.  Who has time for all that though when you need more data now?

We would do better to mimic the Googles.

Feel like Google is not only problem driven, but they also give their engineers plenty of leeway to fail. Excerpt from a Slate interview with Google’s Research Director Peter Norvig:

I’m interested in the way that attitudes about error vary across professional cultures—doctors typically think about error very differently than pilots and politicians and so forth—as well as across the cultures of different companies, even within the same field. How would you characterize the overall attitude toward error at Google?

There’s a story going back to the founding of Google: One of the venture capitalists came to [company founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and said “OK, the first thing you have to decide is, is this company going to be run by sales or by marketing? They said, “We think we’ll take engineering.” He laughed and said, “Oh, you naive college kids, that’s not the way the real world works.” And they said, “Well, we want to try it.” Ten years later, that experiment is still running; engineering is still the center of the company. And it seems like it’s worked.

And, like you say, it does create a very different attitude toward error. If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.

[Kathryn Schulz @ Slate via the Browser]

Bonus: Contender for Coolest Guy, Steve Hoefer, has some exceptional thoughts about failure: Here.

[image via pimpin and crimpin]

September 10, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Mad Men Footnotes

If you google “The Footnotes of Mad Men,” your first hit will be an abject failure in both name and execution.

Glossy out-of-context ads from the 60’s.  I’m referring to a site called Mad Men Unbuttoned that’s run by Natasha Vargas-Cooper who also runs an actual footnotes series for the awl.  It’s ok.

(By ok, I mean rarely compelling, frequently lazy, poorly executed, and shallow.  Not exactly what I expect from a footnote.)

Adam Curtis at the BBC, however, does exponentially better:

The story begins at the end of the 1950s. There were two distinct camps on Madison Avenue. And they loathed each other.

One group was led by Rosser Reeves who ran the Ted Bates agency. Reeves had invented the idea of the USP – the unique selling point. You found a phrase that summed up your product and you repeated it millions and millions of times on all media so it “penetrated” the minds of the consumers.

His favourite was Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted” […]

The other camp were known as “the depth boys”. They believed the opposite. That you penetrated the consumer’s mind by using all sorts of subtle psychological techniques to find out what they really wanted. These were feelings the consumer often didn’t even consciously realise themselves.It was called ‘Motivational Research’.

One of the leading “depth boys” was the wonderfully named Norman B. Norman who ran the Norman Craig & Kummel agency. […]

Behind the techniques of people like Norman were a group of Viennese and German psychologists and psychoanalysts who had come to America as refugees in the 1930s.

One of the most important and influential was one of the few women high up in the Madison Avenue of that time. Dr Herta Herzog. […]

In the first episode of the first series of Mad Men, Dr Herzog is parodied. “Dr Greta Guttman” comes in to tell Don Draper that because of growing evidence of the link between lung cancer and smoking the only way to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes is to link them to the Death Wish.

In the scene Mad Men is dramatising, the war that was going on in Madison Avenue. Draper is obviously modelled on Rosser Reeves who hated the psychologists. In the scene Draper is rude and hostile to Dr Guttman and drops her research in the bin.

Later in the episode Draper invents the slogan – “It’s Toasted” for Lucky Strike. It was Rosser Reeve’s favourite USP.

See why I like this better than some generic tarted up review?  It reads like an actual series of footnotes and it deepens our understanding of the show and the time it depicts.  Past is prelude, so in turn, our understanding of our own time is deepened as well.  After reading this, AMC’s Mad Men seems to serve this little BBC article more than any other article has ever seemed to serve the show.

Interesting footnote about the source: BBC has a proprietary embedded video player just like everyone else and it has an adjustable volume knob also just like everybody else’s.  Only theirs goes up to eleven.

[Adam Curtis @ BBC via the Browser]

[image via Rolling Stone]

September 7, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

The Smoke Ring

The misconception: America’s marijuana laws are draconian compared to the Netherlands, whose citizens can sell and smoke weed all day, errday.

Not so.

Sure, there are Amsterdam shops that sell to both tourists and natives, but they’re operating illegally under the auspices of “tolerance.” To avoid incredible financial penalties, they must maintain a small inventory, they can’t sell much to any one person, they can’t post ingredients, they can’t sell to minors, the list of rules goes on.

If you don’t nail a perfect gram on the first chop, you have to make the weight by laboriously shaving brown flour into the scale pan while the customer volubly wonders who let this fumbling idiot behind the bar. Compounding my professional stress is the computerized inventory system, which, as a prophylactic against embezzlement, is finely tuned to track near-atomic quantities of product that might go missing. (For example, the system builds in a standard deduction for the sticky crumbs of hash residue that cling to the edge of the kitchen knife.) It’s like working at a Starbucks where the customers are cranky zombies, where a latte costs fifty bucks, and where a stray speck of coffee grounds falling underfoot will probably mean an ass-chewing from your superintimidating manager.

We may not have as tolerant a government on this side of the pond, but our slow path towards semi-legalization leads to a more concrete destination.

Conversely, America, via the sturdier Trojan horse of medical marijuana, looks poised to chart a wiser course, through policies that more closely resemble full legalization than “tolerance.” While Dutch dollars still flow to Baltic thugs, states like Michigan license small-time growers to provide for certified “patients.” American legalization would also almost certainly include FDA regulation and chemical analysis of the product for sale. […]

By liberating cannabis from the symbolic company of heroin, cocaine, and Ecstasy and grafting it to the sympathetic litany of “glaucoma, cancer, and AIDS,” America’s cannabis activists have, by all appearances, begun extending marijuana’s roots into the culture to depths undreamed by the Dutch. At the start of 2010, Los Angeles alone had nearly as many dispensaries as Holland has shops, one of the reasons that Dutch weed professionals sound like Dust Bowl Okies when they talk about California and the other markets emerging in the United States.

Interesting article throughout. Told from the perspective of a journalist who had to work at an Amsterdam marijuana coffee shop for a week.

[Wells Tower @ GQ via the Browser]

UPDATE. Highly relevant scene from Pulp Fiction:

Thanks Kottke.

[image via SBS film]

September 6, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. 3 comments.

Bad Churchill

Turns out (the great) Winston Churchill was a bit of an imperialist murderer.

He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, writing: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages.”

Obama apparently kind of hates the guy. For good reason too.

George W. Bush left a big growling bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with Churchill’s heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain. It’s not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.

Obviously, dude wasn’t all bad. Hitler repulsed him for good reason.

He may have been a thug, but he knew a greater thug when he saw one — and we may owe our freedom today to this wrinkle in history.

[Johann Hari @ the New York Times via the Browser]

[image via solarnavigator]

September 1, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Narrative

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of narrative in scientific writing. The primary reason is my job (which consists of much reading), but coming in at a close second is an article by the author of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden.

What initially grabbed me was a scene that could have come straight from the Wire.

So then we left, and we pulled up in front of the housing project outside of Annapolis. And I thought, “This is odd. Why would the major drug dealers in Anne Arundel County be living in the projects? Don’t they make any money dealing drugs?” That night, I watched as they banged on doors and they dragged people out in their pajamas and their underwear, and they rounded everybody up, and made a big commotion. The following morning, like seven o’clock in the morning, they had this very dramatic press conference in Annapolis, where they had invited all of the reporters from the newspapers in Washington and Baltimore and Annapolis, and TV and radio—it was a big deal. And laid out on tables in front so they could all get pictures were all the drugs they had seized from the housing projects the night before.

[…]

I wrote what happened, beginning with the party in the parking lot, with the beer and the urinating, and then going on to my description of the unfortunates being roused from their apartments. And then we come to the press conference, and I describe the drugs that were on the table accurately and estimate what they’re worth, and then I quote the Anne Arundel County spokesman claiming that this is $800,000 worth of drugs.

The story was an enormous hit. My editors loved it, the readers loved it. It was a narrative. It was my way out of a thorny problem. Captain Lindsey was very unhappy with me, but he couldn’t be angry with me, because he knew that everything in the story was true.

Very compelling read throughout.

[Mark Bowden @ Nieman Storyboard via the Browser]

[image via Wikimedia Commons]

August 31, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

Chongqing Dog Days

Epic recounting of a rainy evening in the fastest growing city in the world.

My bout of anguish began a few weeks back on a wintry night in central China, in the restless megalopolis of Chongqing. I was cold, wet and seeking refuge.“What’s that?” I asked my resourceful interpreter, Xiyun Yang, pointing to a steamy, crowded establishment with a big red neon sign (the Chinese approach is, when in doubt, make it gaudy).

“You don’t want to know.”

“I think I do.”

Some thoughts about the morality behind the particular animals we choose to eat, but the real draw here is the narrative.

“It’s a dog restaurant.” It was then that I noticed the image of a puppy with floppy ears beside the Chinese characters.

I gave Xiyun a long, hard look. “Dog’s really good,” she said. “I love it.”

[…]

“When the dog meat is being simmered, even the gods become dizzy with hunger.”

[Roger Cohen @ the New York Times via the Browser]

[image via dojmg]

August 30, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

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