Archive for January 2012
Some authors one enjoys almost as much in the rereading as in the reading—not even counting those that demand an instant rereading in the light of later discovery (e.g., Bernard Malamud’s A New Life). I got to thinking about this as I picked up my copy of Pronto, the novel in which Elmore Leonard introduces Raylan Givens. I had read reviews of the recently published sequel, Raylan, and so I wanted to get ready for it by reading the kick-off novel. And little time to wait: I’m number 7 of 8 in the hold queue, and Elmore Leonard novels tend to move briskly along: can’t put ’em down, you see?
So I read half the first page and remember it—I’ve read it at least two times before. But I plunged ahead, reading with enjoyment, though in some cases I could almost recite the words. And I wondered at this: rereading with enjoyment, knowing what is to come in the story, but still enjoying it. Obviously, it’s not plot that draws us so, it is style matched with content.
Think of a familiar piano concerto—some Beethoven Sonata or Chopin Prelude or some such. When it is well performed, one’s enjoyment seems even more intense than on first hearing, though by now one knows every note to come. But it doesn’t make any difference: what we enjoy is not knowledge, but music.
And in Elmore Leonard’s novels—and in the novels you yourself can reread again and again (Scaramouche, by Sabatini; the Patrick O’Brian series of Aubrey/Maturin novels are on my list, along with many others)—what we enjoy is the music, the artful, honest, fitting arrangement of words to convey the ideas and images that carry the story forward—and, of course, the story itself is one we must enjoy in the retelling. Obviously, many of the “great books” novels are survivors of this kind of natural selection of memes, starting (in our tradition) with Homer.
So I read with enjoyment the well-told recitation of a good story, exactly as I would listen to music I already know and have heard many times before.
Adapted from Michael Grabell’s new book, to be published next week. Details at the link:
A common criticism of President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package has been that it failed to produce anything – that while the New Deal built bridges and dams, all the stimulus did was fill some potholes and create temporary jobs.
Don’t tell that to Annette Herrera. She was 50 when the auto supplier she worked for in Westland, Mich., closed its factory and moved the work to Mexico. Then, after being unemployed for 2½ years, she got a job in October 2010 with A123 Systems, which had received $250 million in stimulus money to help open a new lithium-ion battery plant in nearby Romulus, Mich.
“The first thing I did was call my husband and tell him, ‘You’re never going to guess! I got a job!'” Herrera recalled. “And then it was like celebration time.”
One success the Obama administration can duly claim is the rebirth of the electric-car industry in the United States. Automakers have unveiled a number of mass-market electric cars, which have seen small but rising sales. Battery and parts manufacturers are building 30 factories, creating thousands of new jobs. A123 has hired 700 workers at Herrera’s plant and a second one in nearby Livonia, and plans to hire a couple thousand more people over the next few years.
If it wasn’t for the stimulus, the companies say, they would have built these plants overseas.
It was all part of an effort to promote “green” manufacturing and put a million electric cars on the road by 2015.
The question is: Will it last? . . .
Fascinating article in New Scientist by Roy Baumeister, unfortunately locked behind a subscription paywall (but this is a magazine to which it’s well worth your while to subscribe). From the article, some snippets:
After decades of research, psychologists now reckon two traits are most likely to make us successful. The first is intelligence, with smart people doing better at all jobs. Unluckily, there is little evidence that you can make lasting improvements to intelligence.
The other trait is self-control, the ability to change thoughts, emotions, actions and level of performance on duties and tasks. Of course, goals, moral rules, laws, social expectations, personal commitments and other forces play a role, but the more you can change yourself, the more successful you tend to be.
Studies on self-control have their roots in the “marshmallow test” devised by Walter Mischel at Stanford University, California, in 1972. . .
Other studies support this. People with stronger self-control do better at school, earn more and are more respected by co-workers. They are also less likely to be arrested, have fewer personal problems, less stress and live longer.
So what is this amazing thing called self-control? The common sense view is it depends on using willpower to resist temptation and to enable the right action. Our research suggests this notion is not entirely fanciful but that it lacks a key dimension. Research has shown repeatedly that after people exert self-control, they tend to perform relatively poorly on a subsequent, seemingly irrelevant test of self-control. The most plausible explanation is that “energy” was consumed and depleted during the first test, leaving less for more challenges.
Evidence for this depletion of willpower comes from studies like ours in 1998 . . .
Hofmann found that people spend a staggering three to four hours a day on average just resisting temptations and desires.
Not surprisingly, as the day wears on, the more often the person exercises self-control to try to resist what they desire, the more likely they are to give in to whatever temptation comes along: it’s not the time of day that matters, but the cumulative exertion that saps your willpower. If you do not have many temptations to resist, your willpower stays relatively strong, and you may well be able to resist new temptations.
So rather than seeing willpower as a moral quality, the scientific view is that it is like a muscle that tires. After you exert self-control, you have less willpower so you are less able to resist a new demand. Self-control is only temporarily weakened and can recharge after a rest. Willpower resembles a muscle also in that it can be strengthened by exercise.
Two clear facts about willpower have emerged so far. Willpower is what researchers call “domain-general”: controlling thoughts, emotions and feelings, restraining impulses, and performing tasks and duties will draw on one pool of willpower, not, as people tend to imagine, multiple pools with different quantities for, say, dieting or exercise.
The second fact is that the resource is limited. Even a few minutes of exerting self-control is enough to cause a decline in performance on a subsequent, seemingly unrelated test. That might suggest human willpower is scarce, but, again, no: willpower is like a muscle, and when a muscle gets tired, an athlete may cut back effort to conserve what remains. In fact, willpower looks as if it is indeed a kind of energy, tied to levels of the chemical glucose used to carry energy from the digestive system and fat stores to muscles and other organs. Neurotransmitters, that enable brain cells to fire, are made of glucose.
The standard willpower depletion effect, confirmed by a 2010 meta-analysis of 83 studies, shows that after exerting self-control, people perform worse on the next self-control task without being given glucose between tasks. Researchers use lemonade these days: one batch sweetened with sugar (plenty of glucose), the other with diet sweetener (no glucose). After allowing up to 15 minutes for the lemonade to reach the bloodstream, subjects drinking sugared lemonade perform quite well at the next test, while those on diet lemonade fare less well.
This glucose research also suggests why dieting is so fiendishly difficult. In order to resist tempting foods, we need willpower but to have willpower, we must eat. The essence of dieting (restricting food intake) robs us of the psychological strength needed to succeed. Perhaps dieters should concentrate on filling up with healthy food so they have the willpower to resist fattening stuff.
If research continues to implicate glucose in willpower, it could be a powerful key to understanding the human mind since self-control is such a vital part of daily life. But willpower is also used in making choices and decisions, so here’s a startling thought: could daily decision-making impair self-control?
Last year, Jonathan Levav at Stanford University and Shai Danziger at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, came up with important clues when they studied parole judges in Israel. The safe and easy decision is to refuse parole since it carries the risk of the convict committing further crimes – and making the judge look bad. The researchers found judges often granted parole in the early morning, but as the day wore on and they made more decisions, they were less willing to take a chance and sent most people back to prison. After a snack, or after lunch, the likelihood of parole went up. In other words, the food seemed to restock the willpower depleted by making many choices, leaving the judge more willing to take a riskier step and grant parole to the next applicant. . .
When I first started planning my weight-loss book, a year or so ago, I gave it the title Weight Loss Without Willpower, because I specifically designed an approach that made as light a demand as possible on my willpower. I did it just because I wanted to avoid the effort of resisting, but it seems to have been a wise decision (as evidenced by my current weight—172.0 lbs this morning—and the research described above).
Very interesting op-ed in today’s NY Times by Andrew Sniderman and Mark Hanis:
DRONES are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan. In Iraq, the State Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans. It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy.
With drones, we could take clear pictures and videos of human rights abuses, and we could start with Syria.
The need there is even more urgent now, because the Arab League’s observers suspended operations last week.
They fled the very violence they were trying to monitor. Drones could replace them, and could even go to some places the observers, who were escorted and restricted by the government, could not see. This we know: the Syrian government isn’t just fighting rebels, as it claims; it is shooting unarmed protesters, and has been doing so for months. Despite a ban on news media, much of the violence is being caught on camera by ubiquitous cellphones. The footage is shaky and the images grainy, but still they make us YouTube witnesses.
Imagine if we could watch in high definition with a bird’s-eye view. A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.
Drones are increasingly small, affordable and available to nonmilitary buyers. For hundreds of thousands of dollars — no longer many millions — a surveillance drone could be flying over protests and clashes in Syria.
An environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has reported that it is using drones to monitor illegal Japanese whaling in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere. In the past few years, human-rights groups and the actor and activist George Clooney, among others, have purchased satellite imagery of conflict zones. Drones can see even more clearly, and broadcast in real time.
We could record the repression in Syria with unprecedented precision and scope. The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the likelihood that the world would become as outraged as it should be.
This sounds a lot like surveillance, and it would be. It would violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work? . . .
The kyoku 901 (normal skin) is a birthday gift from The Wife, who can inspect my shaving collection and thus avoid duplicates. So I did not have a jar of this, and indeed I had not heard of it, but it is intriguing.
You’ll not my Emilion brush is communicating something with its body language—standing a bit distant, turned away. That’s probably because it knew, which I did not, that this is not a lathering shaving cream, though in fact the brush is a good way to apply: dip tips, brush (wet, washed) face.
As soon as I finished the shave, I of course immediately read the instructions, whereupon I learned that I was to have let the shaving cream sit on my beard for 2 minutes at the start. So I need to try again. I got a very smooth, very nice shave indeed, and the shaving cream has a noticeable cooling effect, which we attribute to the sake. I did discover, after trying both ways, that using the brush works better than using the fingers.
Three passes of the Weber with its Swedish Gillette blade, a splash of Alt-Innsbruck, and this afternoon I see my ophthalmologist. Vision is slowly, steadily improving, much as it did for my right eye.
High-level columnist usually hew to a doctrine of “publish and forget” and extend to colleagues the courtesy in the (generally realized) hope of having the favor returned: howlers go unnoted, ludicrously wrong predictions are passed over in silence, and so on.
But sometimes a columnist will point out a glaring idiocy in the ignorant ramblings of a colleague. David Broder wrote political commentary for 40 years, but the last ten years saw a downward drift in quality as he gradually seemed to lose touch.
Krugman rightly points out that, had the President actually listened to Broder’s prescription, the US would be in even worse shape than it is now.