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Current Topic: Miscellaneous

how desperate we are to demonstrate that we are special
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:05 am EDT, Sep  3, 2014

David Ulin:

How do we connect, or reconnect, to those around us but also to the very essence of ourselves? Where, in the flatness of contemporary society ... do we find some point of intersection, some lasting depth?

Alan Lightman:

One August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within twenty feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I do not understand what happened in that half second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

Stephen Cave:

It turns out that, with enough tweaking, a scale can be developed according to which humans come out as the brainiest. But the real lesson we might draw from this is how desperate we are to demonstrate that we are special, and how hard this is to do with any rigour.

Michiru Hoshino:

Oh! I feel it. I feel the cosmos!

even doing the right thing rarely works out
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:05 am EDT, Sep  3, 2014

Marcelo Gleiser:

As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance.

Tasneem Zehra Husain:

Personally, I've begun to think of knowledge as a fractal. Rich and intricate worlds lie between points that appear adjacent. The circumscribed area may well be finite, but the boundary is infinitely long.

David Wolman:

What happened in L'Aquila is a window onto how we think about, communicate, and live with risk, and about impediments to clear thinking that afflict us all.

Dan Geer:

The late Peter Bernstein, perhaps the world's foremost thinker on the topic, defined "risk" as "more things can happen than will." With technologic advance accelerating, "more things can happen than will" takes on a particularly ominous quality if your job is to ensure your citizens' survival in an anarchy where, daily, ever more things can happen than will. Realpolitik would say that under such circumstances, defense becomes irrelevant. What is relevant is either (1) offense or (2) getting out of the line of fire altogether.

Adam Gopnik:

The best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out. The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists. What history generally "teaches" is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they're making it.

trapped by wrong assumptions about what's essential
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:05 am EDT, Sep  3, 2014

Freeman Dyson:

The truths of science are so profoundly concealed that the only thing we can really be sure of is that much of what we expect to happen won't come to pass.

Carl Sagan:

If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.

David Brooks:

The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it's possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.

Charlie Huenemann:

Technology is great, but the more advanced it gets, the more likely it is that its fundamental principles will become obscure to us. Without knowing those fundamental principles, we have trouble "unthinking" our way out of technological problems. We become trapped by wrong assumptions about what's essential to a machine.

Robert Pogue Harrison:

The twenty-first century has only aggravated the political, moral, social, and environmental concussions of the twentieth. There would be reason to applaud the would-be world-changers and start-up companies of Silicon Valley if they made it their business to resist or reverse this process of planetary upheaval, the way environmentalists seek to do with the wounds we have afflicted on nature. Sadly they have no such militancy in their souls, nor much thoughtfulness. With a few exceptions, our new tech armies rarely take the time to think through what they are doing. Or if they do, they tend to think in ways that only add to the turmoil and agitation.

dwarfed by what we can never know
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:33 am EDT, Aug 27, 2014

Tasneem Zehra Husain:

Personally, I've begun to think of knowledge as a fractal. Rich and intricate worlds lie between points that appear adjacent. The circumscribed area may well be finite, but the boundary is infinitely long. Out on the perimeter, we can walk forever and never run out of places to explore. What could possibly be better?


Noticing is easier in a foreign place because mundane things are unusual. It's the sameness of the familiar that closes minds.

Rishidev Chaudhuri:

I remember only vaguely the last place I lived, mostly facts rather than emotional textures or spiritual resonances. And, the facts themselves are elusive; when pinned down they emerge as false or inconsistent or, worse, meaningless without the substrate necessary to render them intelligible. And meanwhile the world around becomes ever more solid, losing the fingerprints of transience and history so that I barely remember what it was like to be new here, for things to not have always been the case, for me to have lived elsewhere or to have seen things differently.

Ed Caesar:

The clues that remain will always prove insufficient to our curiosity. Each archaeological advance yields more questions, and more theories to be tested. Our ignorance shrinks by fractions. What we know is always dwarfed by what we can never know.

Christopher Knight:

Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing -- when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.

being wrong is an integral part
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:50 am EDT, Aug 25, 2014

Mike Miley:

Not every truth ought to be lived with. Some truths must be overcome.

Ken Caldeira:

The class of things that we think we know but don't is bigger than we think.

Garret Keizer:

What Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert want teachers to understand is that being wrong is an integral part of mapping the terrain.

John Allemang:

It's always a balance. But just because we've got it wrong now doesn't mean we can't start to get it right.

Peter Stone, a political theorist at Trinity College, Dublin:

Sometimes, the danger of bad reasons is bigger than the loss of the possibility of good reasons.

Jonah Peretti:

When you think about the media industry, it's also, "How do you reach people and how do you get people to understand?" If you write something and nobody understands it, it's easy to be, like, "Oh those are all the dumb people." Sometimes writing something that's very sophisticated and difficult and technical for a particular audience is totally fine, but you should be able to communicate in simple language.

The thing is, there are dangers in this, because you can also explain something in a way that makes people feel like they understand it when they actually don't.

You can figure out a way to frame something and explain it so that it feels like it confirms what people already believe, including incorrect things they believe.

being mesmerized will have to do
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:50 am EDT, Aug 25, 2014

Mark Edmundson:

It pays, I believe, to distinguish between being absorbed and being mesmerized. Modern life avails one of plentiful opportunities to be mesmerized, enchanted, visually inebriated now: The condition is not hard to bring on. In a culture that asks us too often to "pay attention," we need rest and release, and we can find both through the mesmerizing powers of current electronic culture. Ideally, paying attention should be rewarded by absorption, but when absorption isn't found, or no one teaches us how to achieve it, then being mesmerized will have to do. Being mesmerized is all about wish fulfillment. It's about becoming the soldier, becoming the knight, becoming the sports star, becoming the princess. It is a turning away from reality. To be absorbed is to intensify one's connection with what is real with the hope of reshaping it for the better, if ever so slightly.

Eli Saslow:

Elias Pompa felt heartbroken for the two 15-year-old Guatemalans he had caught a few weeks earlier, buying lunch for them at Whataburger on the way to Border Patrol, even if it cost him $12.50 and a reprimand from a supervisor. He felt disgust for the drug cartels, which had memorized his shifts and sent a letter to the sheriff's office threatening the beheading of two deputies if they continued to interfere with human trafficking.

Pompa performed his work best, he thought, in the rare moments when he could put those issues aside and manage to feel nothing at all.

Christophe de Bellaigue:

It is a remarkable commentary on modern warfare waged by a democracy that a film like Korengal can be made, with the full cooperation of the US military, and without anyone getting into trouble for an excess of candor.

Desmond MacCarthy:

There is nothing to equal the heart-dampening sensation of being crushingly convinced by a crowd that it is only occasionally when people feel strongly that they feel like oneself.

I caught the idea which had been peeping at me, and the irony of it was enough to make one cry: few people experience so genuinely the sense that life is worth living which a feeling of brotherhood gives as when they are banded together to kill their fellow men; never are they so conscious of the humanity of others as when they are out together, sharing risks, to smash the self-respect and mutilate the bodies of those who might, but for a few politicians, just as easily have been fighting alongside them, hoping with them, dying with them side by side.

Francis Fukuyama:

The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country's political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action.

racing around to come up behind you again
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:31 am EDT, Aug 19, 2014

Maryam Mirzakhani:

You have to ignore low-hanging fruit ... Life isn't supposed to be easy.

Alexei Efros:

We think, 'This is Hollywood theatrics. It's not possible to do that. This is ridiculous.' And suddenly, there you have it.


Is our curse the endless pursuit of a happiness which can never be attained?

Cormac McCarthy:

Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

Mason, Waters, Wright, and Gilmour:

And you run and run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Mia Wallace:

Three tomatoes are walking down the street -- a poppa tomato, a momma tomato, and a little baby tomato. Baby tomato starts lagging behind. Poppa tomato gets angry, goes over to the baby tomato, and squishes him... and says, 'Ketchup.'

more and more I wonder
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:31 am EDT, Aug 19, 2014

Roger Highfield:

The reality is that, despite fears that our children are "pumped full of chemicals", everything is made of chemicals.

Carl Zimmer:

Maybe the microbiome is our puppet master.

Richard Conniff:

If the microbiome is like a symphony, then adding in current probiotics may be the equivalent of performing the piano solo with your elbows.

Verlyn Klinkenborg:

Every now and then I meet someone in Manhattan who has never driven a car. Some confess it sheepishly, and some announce it proudly. For some it is just a practical matter of fact, the equivalent of not keeping a horse on West 87th Street or Avenue A. Still, I used to wonder at such people, but more and more I wonder at myself.

the path to the mother lode
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:31 am EDT, Aug 19, 2014

Andrew Solomon:

Most people imagine that resolving particular problems will make them happy. If only one had more money, or love, or success, then life would feel manageable. It can be devastating to realize the falseness of such tempered optimism. A great hope gets crushed every time someone reminds us that happiness can be neither assumed nor earned; that we are all prisoners of our own flawed brains; that the ultimate aloneness in each of us is, finally, inviolable.

Lev Grossman:

When you're depressed, when you're in bed and feel like you can't get out, you can't imagine doing work or accomplishing anything or anybody loving you. So when you look around you and you see these things happening to other people, they look like magic to you. They look that exotic, that strange, that impossible. And when you begin to crawl out of the pit and reengage with the world, it seems very magical. It felt as though getting out of bed yesterday was impossible, but now you're doing it. Just by returning to daily life, you're a magician.

Miranda July:

During this time I was careful not to think about my life. My life was far below us, in an orangey-pink stucco apartment building. It seemed as though I might never have to return to it now. The salt of his shoulder buzzed on the tip of my tongue. I might never again stand in the middle of the living room and wonder what to do next. I sometimes stood there for up to two hours, unable to generate enough momentum to eat, to go out, to clean, to sleep. It seemed unlikely that someone who had just bitten and been bitten by a celebrity would have this kind of problem.

That evening, I found myself standing in the middle of my living-room floor. I had made dinner and eaten it, and then I had an idea that I might clean the house. But halfway to the broom I stopped on a whim, flirting with the emptiness in the center of the room. I wanted to see if I could start again. But, of course, I knew what the answer would be. The longer I stood there, the longer I had to stand there. It was intricate and exponential. I looked like I was doing nothing, but really I was as busy as a physicist or a politician. I was strategizing my next move. That my next move was always not to move didn't make it any easier.

Jean-Louis Gassee:

There are caves full of riches but, most of of the time, I can't find a path to the mother lode.

Mallory Ortberg:

Run into a cave and break your ankle so that people have to come find you and they see you lying at the bottom of this beautiful cave and maybe there's a waterfall and the light from the crystals makes you look really beautiful and they say "Are you okay?" and you say "I think so" and they say "oh my God have you been here alone this whole time with a broken ankle" and you say "it's okay" and they say "you're so brave" and you are brave and you look so beautiful surrounded by cave crystals and everyone stands over you and says "oh wow" and "you poor beautiful thing" and "I'm so sorry we let you run into the cave but I'm so glad we found you" and let them carry you home and promise to be your best friends forever and that everything's their fault and also they named the cave after you and you're prettier than all of your enemies and your enemies all died of jealousy while you were in the cave.

make your own arrangements
Topic: Miscellaneous 7:31 am EDT, Aug 19, 2014

David Remnick:

Kleptocracies rarely value theoretical tracts. They value numbered accounts. They value the stability of their own arrangements.

Zadie Smith:

She had an idea that Oriental people had their own, secret establishments. (She believed the Jews did, too.) She both admired and slightly resented this self-reliance, but had no doubt that it was the secret to holding great power, as a people. For example, when the Chinese had come to Fatou's village to take over the mine, an abiding local mystery had been: what did they eat and where did they eat it? They certainly did not buy food in the market, or from the Lebanese traders along the main road. They made their own arrangements. (Whether back home or here, the key to surviving as a people, in Fatou's opinion, was to make your own arrangements.)

Andrew Browne:

His real concern is that to get ahead, he's had to make compromises with his principles (he doesn't say bribes, but that is what he means). "I've been forced to prostitute myself," he says, and now he worries that it could all be snatched away. In China, a weak, corrupt legal system may sometimes work in favor of entrepreneurs while they're clawing their way up, cutting corners along the way, but it is almost always a liability once they've made it.

Malcom Gladwell:

Six decades ago, Robert K. Merton argued that there was a series of ways in which Americans responded to the extraordinary cultural emphasis that their society placed on getting ahead. The most common was "conformity" ... The second strategy was "ritualism" ... There was also "retreatism" and "rebellion" ... It was the fourth adaptation ... "innovation." Many Americans -- particularly those at the bottom of the heap -- believed passionately in the promise of the American dream. They didn't want to bury themselves in ritualism or retreatism. But they couldn't conform: the kinds of institutions that would reward hard work and promote advancement were closed to them. So what did they do? They innovated: they found alternative ways of pursuing the American dream. They climbed the crooked ladder.

Alice Goffman:

Can we imagine a world in which the police in poor communities act not as an occupying force ... but instead as mediators of disputes, people residents can turn to for help and support, without fear of going to prison? If we stretch ourselves even further, can we imagine the police connecting residents to jobs and social services, rather than disconnecting them?

People on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the courtroom now acknowledge that the criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. After four decades of zero tolerance and getting tough on crime, we seem poised for change. Can we seize the moment?

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