why oh why does my book club pick such depressing things
It wasn't *awful*, but this is really not my cup of tea. * I'm so tired of books where awful tewhy oh why does my book club pick such depressing things
It wasn't *awful*, but this is really not my cup of tea. * I'm so tired of books where awful terrible things happen to small children. Can we please find a different way to jerk tears? * The murderer's identity was obvious 1/3 of the way through the book. It wasn't especially gripping before, just tediously tense (I'm not curious about these characters, just stressed on their behalf)... and it became a total slog after that. * The murderer still goes through a long climactic monologue explaining all the crimes to the trapped survivors, even though they have no pressing in-story reason to explain themselves (and we readers already know it all by then). It feels like Scooby Doo's "If it weren't for you meddling kids!" * None of the characters are sympathetic. It's hard to identify with a gang of drunk, cheating, psycho arseholes. Plus every narrator-character's voice sounds the same....more
Some good concrete tips. My favorite: Arrange your kitchen and bathroom for ease of *cleaning*---not to have things easily in reach, but to make it paSome good concrete tips. My favorite: Arrange your kitchen and bathroom for ease of *cleaning*---not to have things easily in reach, but to make it painless to wipe down a wet/dirty sink after each use....more
Fun quick read. The ending felt uneven: everybody reciting their complicated & long-winded origin stories out of the blue. Seems like it was *meantFun quick read. The ending felt uneven: everybody reciting their complicated & long-winded origin stories out of the blue. Seems like it was *meant* to create several Aha! moments, but for me was just too much backstory infodump at once. And the romances/attractions never felt real or natural, just slapped on as an afterthought. The female protagonist's puppy crush (and also her body image issues) felt especially heavyhanded. Finally, it's a bit grating to have the supervillain referred to as smart, brilliant, genius, but we never see it (except we're told he can build nifty gadgets). Don't just *tell* me he's smart; *show* me. His interior monologues don't display much brilliance, just the opposite (complete lack of emotional intelligence). Seems like a missed opportunity to explore, say, *why* supervillians tell the heroes their plan too soon... but instead it's a recurring throwaway joke, totally inconsistent with how brilliant this character's supposed to be. But besides all that, I enjoyed the writing and humor and pacing throughout.
There's a great section that reminds me of how I felt in middle school and beyond, having once been that obnoxious kid who was labeled "smart." Over the years I've learned that there's no magic click; you have to just pick something, and work and work on it, to do anything well. But at the time, I was well-primed to wait for that moment when things would click. Probably for the best that I never decided my thing should be "being a supervillain" like this guy.
[W]hen I was in eighth grade, my guidance counselor told me I was a genius. I wanted to know what that meant. If you think of a genius ... well, you can picture Mozart, or Einstein. Someone who can do a thing better than anyone else. Not just anything, but a particular subject, like math or music, a specific topic they seem to have been born for. I waited to find my subject. To see a thing---chess, physics, dance, a painting---and recognize it. I was a stranger in the world. I waited to see something and know it, to say, "This is me." And I would know that it was now, that one day in my life when the fumbling, the false starts, all the little trials and failures, would stop. I pictured the moment, the rush of excitement, the sure-handed swiftness of apprehension, the stunned look on the teacher's face. There'd be silence, and I'd feel for one second that I was standing at the center of the universe. I read books, biographies of men and women in the past who had actually experienced this. And now I had learned it was going to happen to me. I waited for the moment when I would be picked. I was a shy, homely child. Unless something changed, I was going to grow up into a dumpy postdoc who never knew the touch of fire. I wondered what shape it would take, because I couldn't see it.
[Just re-read it, after originally reading in 2004 during study abroad in Budapest.]
A great mix of charming and disorienting stories. Helps a bit if y[Just re-read it, after originally reading in 2004 during study abroad in Budapest.]
A great mix of charming and disorienting stories. Helps a bit if you know some Hungarian history, especially during the Communist era. Helps a ton (I assume) if you actually lived through it and get all the jokes & references. Even without that background, still worth a read for the colorful sketches and unsettling humor....more
[One star here does not mean I think it's objectively bad, just that I couldn't stand it myself. I had to put it down after 3 chapters.]
I've never rea[One star here does not mean I think it's objectively bad, just that I couldn't stand it myself. I had to put it down after 3 chapters.]
I've never read a classic / traditional Western; never felt drawn to the genre. So if the point of this book is to play with or break down its tropes, I'm just the wrong audience.
Other reviewers suggest that McCarthy has a point with all the endless, episodic, pointless, gruesome violence. The message or experience he's trying to convey apparently relies on making the reader jaded to it all.
But I do not want to become jaded to violence. I don't think it's a good thing to become jaded to violence. I am open to reading histories of violent times and places, learning about atrocities that really happened, reflecting on it somberly---but that's a different thing altogether from this pointless brutality. Even the characters themselves don't seem to care, nor do they have any motivations for it whatsoever (at least in the first 3 chapters).
Maybe the fact I'm raising a toddler now also makes me more sensitive. I want to read about how to raise a good person, not about awful ones.
(The army captain's briefly sketch of the Texas/Mexico border history did intrigue me. It sounds a lot like all the armies rolling over each other back and forth in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; I'd never realized how much back and forth there was in the Southwestern US too. But again, I'd want to read this in a history book, not in someone's torture porn fantasy.)
On top of that: * Harold Bloom's introduction is so f---ing pretentious. * Punctuation is a useful feature of written language and I wish McCarthy had used some. * I was afraid to even open this book in a public place, in case someone glanced over my shoulder, to avoid traumatizing them with the rape and violence or simply offending them with the racial slurs. ...more
[Trying to digest this for myself, not necessarily a review for others. Hope I don't misrepresent anything here. Just sincerely trying to work through[Trying to digest this for myself, not necessarily a review for others. Hope I don't misrepresent anything here. Just sincerely trying to work through these important ideas, incl. how to apply them in my personal & work lives.]
Once I heard a radio story about race, where an interviewee said we ought to be "not race-blind, but race-competent." That sounded inspiring, but they gave no examples, and I had no idea what it meant. This book gives me a better idea of that concept.
The author's core idea is "stereotype threat." Most of us are not prejudiced racists/sexists/etc ourselves, but we know the stereotypes about our group and others. So when we're in a situation where the stereotype about us hangs silently but prominently in the air (girls can't do math, blacks are bad at tests, whites say offensive things around minorities, old people are stumped by technology)... then our brains get wary, overloaded, hypersensitive to missteps which might prove that stereotype. This overloading and overcaution causes stress and anxiety that (1) worsens our performance on tests & evaluations, *even as we're trying extra-hard to avoid that*, just like an athlete might "choke" by overthinking; and (2) makes the situation unpleasant, undesirable, not somewhere we feel we belong & want to continue working or studying or living.
P.214: "...this protective side of the human character can be aroused by the mere prospect of being negatively stereotyped, and that, once aroused, it steps in and takes over the capacities of the person---to such an extent that little capacity is left over for the work at hand."
This kind of pressure, day in & day out, can cause female and minority students to underperform and, eventually, drop out of school or leave the job. But we can reduce such stereotype threat a bit by removing cues that remind us of the stereotype, or of the stereotyped part of our identity. The author describes his research career and the experiments where he & colleagues have artificially removed (or inflated) stereotype threat in the lab, leading to substantially better (or worse) outcomes on many different measures for many different stereotyped groups.
The existing advice for how to do this *outside* a psych lab is still pretty thin, but a few practical things can help. You can remove or reduce unhelpful cues, and you can add other things that counterbalance negative cues:
* Remove blatant stereotyping, of course, but also subtler cues. The author's clearest example was about how tech startups, with the mostly-young employees' bicycles hanging over their open-office desks while indie rock plays over the PA, provide a ton of cues that constantly remind older employees of their age... & hence bring up the associated stereotypes (poor memory, bad with tech). These things seem harmless (& probably are when you've just started a firm with your college buddies), but might not foster a great culture when it comes time to hire more (incl. older) employees. I don't recall good examples for race or sex. Maybe playing classical music over the PA would detrimentally remind non-whites of their race 24/7? Not that you should never play classical music, but make it part of a rotation over time or in different parts of the office? Or, say, if you put on a world music CD instead, will that make non-whites feel valued for diversity, or will it be another cue that reminds them of their race & hence brings up stereotype threat? I still find this unclear. Thankfully, more blatant things like blonde jokes and pin-up calendars are already out of vogue, but of course you'd want to discourage them if they show up in your organization.
* Help build up a critical mass of people with the stereotyped identity. As the lone female student in an advanced math class, you're constantly reminded of your female-ness (and the associated stereotypes), even if nobody ever says anything rude and all the guys are perfectly polite. You fear that any "dumb" question you ask, or mistake you make, will reinforce the stereotype (and reflect poorly on all women, not just yourself). But if you're one of many females in the course, you can relax about these issues, and just focus on the difficult material itself. Likewise, hiring a critical mass of minority faculty and staff helps the students---as well as keeps those faculty/staff themselves from feeling like token hires.
* Acknowledge and celebrate diversity rather than sweeping it under the rug. A college or workplace that's majority-white, even if proudly color-blind, probably also has a set of cultural expectations and preferences from the majority culture. P.153: "Thus some of the incidental features of being white academics---the preference for dressing down, the love of seemingly all things European, a preference for dry wines, little knowledge of black life or popular culture---got implicitly associated with excellence. Excellence seemed to have an identity, which I didn't entirely have and worried that I couldn't get." P.165: also mentions "ethnic studies programs that are seen as of value primarily for minority students rather than for the general student body..." Even if nobody will criticize you for having black skin (color-blind), it's discouraging when everyone else expects you to share traditionally-white preferences and habits (not color-competent). However, when your students or employees see many paths to excellence, many ways of being successful; when they see that your organization celebrates diversity instead of trying to ignore it; then those stereotyped groups will not feel as stifled by the cues of the majority-group.
* Encourage cross-group interactions and friendships. Even non-racist people, by nature, tend to make friends mostly within their group. When the black students feel frustrated but don't have a chance to vent together with white classmates, they might give their race too much weight in why they're frustrated---not realizing that it's just the same freshman struggles that whites and others go through too. Schools can organize activities that help students build support systems across groups, reducing this problem. Also, many if not most jobs are found or gotten through networks of friends & family. If minority students or employees don't make connections with the majority group, it's a huge loss for their networking when it's time to apply to the next jobs/schools. In personal life, when you have the possibility to connect with someone outside your group, but you fear making a misstep and it feels safer to avoid the connection entirely... try to frame it as a learning opportunity, not an opportunity to screw up. If you can do it, you'll feel more at ease, so you *will* be more likely to learn something (and less likely to screw up).
* The author mentions several more "formal" interventions that can help, but seem (to me) too specific, not broadly useful. ** In lab experiments, they'd say things like: we admit that math tests do show gender differences, but on *this* particular math test it's known that both genders' performances are equivalent. That was a lie, but after hearing this, females actually do perform as well as males on the exam. Great in the lab, but it seems questionable to lie to students in a real exam (even for their own good). ** Give students a writing assignment where they "affirm their most valued sense of self"? Nice idea, but I'm not sure how to shoehorn that into the statistics classes I teach without it feeling out of place or a waste of time. ** Talk (or assign readings & writings) about Dweck's research into the "growth mindset," to challenge the popular "fixed mindset" view. By believing that the brain is malleable, you can accomplish much more than if you believe "some people just get it and others just don't." Again, I agree with this, just not sure how to pass it on to my students without being hamfisted. ** Assign new students a task of reading upperclassmen's reflections, on how hard their first year was but how the low point passed and they ended up with strong friendships and confidence? Again, great if you're designing the frosh student-life experience, but not sure how I can use that. ** Instead of overusing praise to soften harsh feedback ("you chose such a lovely teal pen with which to do your homework! the only minor problem is that every answer was wrong")... talk to students directly in person, & tell them you have high expectations but believe the student can meet them. Apparently this establishes trust, rather than raising hackles about insincerity or implying low expectations with fluff. This seems good, but I'd need clearer guidance to do it right; and I'm really unsure how to scale it up for a class of 200 new faces taking Stats 101.
Overall, there are quite a few ways in which we can be more "race-competent" (and likewise for other stereotyped groups). This can be tricky subtle stuff, but it definitely doesn't mean the majority group culture needs to be discouraged or its members disadvantaged. In your personal life, don't shy away from chatting with folks from other groups, and try to frame such interactions as a learning opportunity. And if you are in a position of authority---manager at work, professor in the classroom, administrator at the university---you can nudge your organization to celebrate diversity, have a critical mass of underrepresented groups, and avoid subtler cues that the majority group's traditions are the only "right" ones. In both cases, you don't need to walk on eggshells; just respect stereotype threat as a real problem and grapple with it sincerely.
Other notes & quotes: * p.7: "When they were in situations where those stereotypes could apply to them, they understood that one false move could cause them to be reduced to that stereotype, to be seen and treated in terms of it. That's stereotype threat, a contingency of their identity in these situations." * p.11: "No single good athletic performance would put the stereotype to rest. The effort to disprove it would be Sisyphean, reemergent at each important new performance." * p.18: observer's perspective vs. actor's perspective. If you are the observer, you look at the actor & try to explain their behavior in terms of who they are. We assume they underperform because they have low self-expectations, poor preparation, etc. "And we deemphasize, as causes of her behavior, ... the circumstances to which she is adapting." * p.24: On talking to a school's admin who wanted his advice on helping their minority students: "...it was as if a flame burned in the corner. The flame was the possibility that, inadvertently, they might do something or condone something that could be seen as racist. It was a searing flame. They didn't want to get close to it. They wanted me to talk. Did I have any ideas?" * p.28: "The environment, and their status in it, seemed to be an actual component of their ability." * p.72: Thoughts on roots of violence, via essayist Amin Maalouf: "...in the name of an identity that one sees as under siege, one can do things that one could never do as an individual, things that one could never do in one's own name. In defense of one's country, one's religion, one's region, one's ethnicity, the image of one's group in the world, one can do things that would otherwise be unimaginable." * p.77: "it is threat that allows a given identity to 'invade [our] whole identity.'" * p.82: Story of an African American woman, dealing with the usual unpleasantness of being black in the USA, who becomes an expat in Paris---where the French stereotypes of African Americans are just pleasant associations with jazz music. The French have awful stereotypes about black North Africans, but not African Americans, so this woman felt far more comfortable and welcome there. "Absolutely nothing she had to deal with in her Parisian life related to these identities." Same person, different setting, different stereotypes & expectations, much better comfort and outcomes. Yet... "expatriation is not a tactic you can easily retreat from ... Expatriation carries the risk of getting stranded in the new identity." True for my family---we are Polish expats in the USA, and though perhaps we've never fully belonged here (well over 90% but not quite 100%), we'd feel even more out-of-place if we moved back to Poland now. Is this why my parents & sister move around the world so much? Trying to escape contingencies? So far they've chosen poor places to have a foreign accent if you don't want to stand out: Virginia, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas... * p.84: Don't focus on changing the underrepresented group's views, but the contingencies they have to face. If you want more women in Computer Science programs, don't try to change women's attitudes about CS directly---change the crap "to which all of that internal stuff is an adaptation." * p.87: White people in a class on African American history can feel awkward very much the way blacks feel in other classes. "He could see how the setting affected his 'smartness.' The pressure he felt confined his thought to the safe, the inoffensive, the superficial 'tip of the iceberg.'" * p.101: Really interesting study, by Philip Uri Treisman, of the social & study habits of white, black, & Asian college students in a calculus class. ** Asians tended to have less separation between social and academic life. Saturday night doing homework in the library still counts as bonding with friends. And by working in groups, you get quick and deep feedback on mistakes: was it just an arithmetical error, or a bigger misunderstanding? ** Whites worked more independently, but still "talked shop" about calc outside of class and sought help from each other or TAs. ** Blacks worked the longest hours, but were fiercely independent. Studying by yourself, in your room, with only the back-of-the-book answer key for feedback... you don't get rich feedback, you don't know what else to try if you got it wrong, and you don't even talk shop with others to reinforce concepts (nor get to see that others have difficulties too). You redouble your efforts until you can't anymore, then get discouraged and decide it must not be for you. Treisman came up with workshops and approaches that helped a ton. For example, see here; I need to read up more on this. * p.110: If stereotyped but motivated students are given manageable tasks (& enough support to accomplish them), "extra motivation to disprove a stereotype can raise performance..." But when the work is too hard or not supported well, performance drops and discouragement ensues. * p.140: Marginalized groups entering a new class or workplace count faces like theirs, "Because it tells us whether there are enough identity mates around that we won't be marginalized on the basis of that identity." (My own spin, not mentioned by the author: Maybe you don't feel so bad asking a risky "dumb" question if it'll only reflect badly on *yourself*, but you're more hesitant when it'll reflect badly on *your group*.) * p.146: A study explicitly compared how minorities would feel about working for a hypothetical company with a "color-blind policy" vs a "valuing-diversity policy." When you're a successful white male, it's easy for all this to feel like pointless fluff. But to other groups, with a history of bad experiences in "color-blind" arenas, it does matter. Companies that explicitly claim to value diversity were more attractive than color-blind ones, when there were only a few minority employees. On the other hand, when the hypothetical company already had a large critical-mass of minority employees, the diversity policy didn't seem to matter---there was already a strong cue that you could be understood and accepted. * p.171: Seems to be less pressure, and better performance, when there's a lower "density of cues in the setting that evoke stereotypical images." There's an example dataset I've used in class, with the weights of babies of different ages, races, genders. The difference between races is neither substantially large, nor statistically significant---but there *is* a small difference in the group means, I mean they're not going to be exactly the same to all decimal places, and the white babies' average happens to be higher than black or Hispanic. Should I avoid using this dataset, because the estimates do evoke an idea that white babies are better fed & healthier, even though the difference between estimates is tiny & spurious? * p.184: "For the sake of minority students in college, perhaps the curriculum considered 'core'---and thus of foundational value for all students---could include in-depth material reflecting the history and perspective of multiple groups..." This is a helpful point. Instead of saying "here's the core required curriculum, it's all dead white European dudes, but you're also required to tick off another culture for your Gen Ed req'ts, we don't care which one" ... it'd be a helpful shift in framing to include material besides dead-white-European-dudes as part of the explicit core. * p.207: Lab experiment, with white subject told they're about to discuss a sensitive topic (like racial profiling) with blacks. Trying to find an intervention that makes the white subject less anxious about misspeaking. What helped was analogous to reminding them of Dweck's growth mindset: "He said that tension was natural in a discussion of racial profiling, that it was difficult for everyone. He said they should treat the conversation as a learning experience---that is, try to learn what they could about the issue and, more generally, about how to talk about charged issues with people who might have differing perspectives." So, think of tough conversations as a learning opportunity, not an eggshell walk to dread. ...more
Funny, friendly, gentle, welcoming intro to bird-watching. Great drawings illustrate different ways to distinguish birds (not just the obvious color,Funny, friendly, gentle, welcoming intro to bird-watching. Great drawings illustrate different ways to distinguish birds (not just the obvious color, but also shape of body and beak, song, behavior, etc), explain some of the science involved in birding, and encourage sketching and responsible behavior. It's not meant to be a guide to birds in your area, as such, just an intro to the things you might enjoy and look out for while birding in general (although some good guides are recommended at the end)....more
Nice survey of the modern dating scene in the USA, helpful contrasts with previous generations and other countries, and plenty of good jokes. A lot ofNice survey of the modern dating scene in the USA, helpful contrasts with previous generations and other countries, and plenty of good jokes. A lot of it reminds me of my own online-dating attempts... and how glad I am that's not my life anymore.
I'm glad it ends with a reminder to take people seriously, treat them respectfully, get to know the human on the other end---not just treat online profiles and text/phone numbers as some abstractions you can be rude towards. Treat dating and texting as an "introduction service" and not an end in itself---just a chance to meet in person with someone new you'd have missed otherwise.
The sections on cheating, snooping on your partner's stuff, and being "monogamish" were super depressing. Who are these people? How do you end up in the kind of awful life where "I'd better cheat on her first before she cheats on me" sounds like a reasonable general rule to you?
Notes: * p.41: "In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle convincingly makes the case that younger people are so used to text-based communications, where they have time to gather their thoughts and precisely plan what they are going to say, that they are losing their ability to have spontaneous conversation." [Our talking brain-muscles are atrophying? Sounds a bit like "dang youngsters these days" but it feels like there may be truth to it too.] * p.47: "texting, unlike an in-person conversation, is not a forgiving medium for mistakes" [Also true of emails and chat threads, I've found in the past. It's so easy to make the wrong joke or use the wrong word in written form, then have the other person overanalyze "what you meant by that" forever, instead being able to correct yourself quickly in a face-to-face chat and get over it immediately.] * p.53: "Another thing that really pisses women off is when dudes ask them to 'hang out.' The lack of clarity over whether the meet-up is even an actual date frustrates both sexes to no end, but since it's usually the guys initiating, this is a clear area where men can step it up." [But we almost never see this in books, TV, movies---those almost always show situations where the situation leads him & her to click naturally, and there's no need to step up and make it clear it's a date. I wish the media showed more good role models, with a guy confidently but relaxed-ly asking the gal out, in a way that makes it clear (1) it's really a date, but (2) if she says no then it's totally fine and he won't be offended or turn into a creeper or whatever.] * p.94-5: [Great section comparing two guys' experiences: Arpan is exhausted with online dating---it feels like drudge work, sitting alone and staring at a screen to weed through profiles, going on tons of dates and being disappointed and wanting to get them over with. Dinesh hasn't online-dated, just meets new girls organically by interacting with several different social/friend circles. Not only is he not exhausted, but he actually has friends and pleasant social interaction even when no date comes out of it. The variables we can filter through online (height? job?) are totally unhelpful for finding people we'd actually get along with (I'd rather meet someone "too tall" who clicks with me than an average person of "the right height range").] * p.107-8: "As Fisher sees it, there's only one way to determine whether you have a future with a person: meeting them face-to-face. Nothing else can give you a sense of what a person is actually like, nor whether you two will spark. ... I wouldn't know how to search for the things I love about my current girlfriend. It's not the kind of stuff you can really recognize." [Not only are the filtering-variables unhelpful, but the websites' algorithms are no help either.] * p.117-8: [Nice positive spin on Tinder. It always depressed me to think how many folks in my generation are using a hookup app---but here they point out it's really just stripping away the time-consuming-but-unhelpful parts of other online dating. Instead of writing a long profile and answering matchup-questionnaires... which the other person will either ignore or misread... just skip all that, find someone cute, and meet in person to decide whether you like them. Makes me feel a bit less disappointed with kids these days :) ] * p.128: I didn't know Herbert Simon invented the term "satisficers." Simon's name keeps coming up in unexpected places, and had big impact here at CMU and beyond; I ought to learn more about him. ...more
Pretty darn funny, and accurate, depictions of Eastern European culture and academic math culture. Mixed with moving reminiscences about survival in WPretty darn funny, and accurate, depictions of Eastern European culture and academic math culture. Mixed with moving reminiscences about survival in WW2 on the Russian front.
Now, I really hate some of the awful parts of math culture: participants can only be either brilliant or mediocre, and there's absolute refusal to respect anyone who's not on the brilliant side... The book depicted these flaws well too, though it glorified them a bit too much for me.
It has very funny moments, but it's more subdued than the screwball comedy I expected from the synopsis on my copy's cover. It is *not* a zany chase full of people prying up floorboards during a funeral.
It's definitely clear out that the author is a scholar of the atmospheric sciences. The weather descriptions are never "It snowed and stayed cold," but rather "The high-pressure Arctic air mass had decided to stagnate."
The narrator's griping about Americans was spot on the first few times, & sounds just like some of my relatives---but it got old and repetitive. Did he start writing the same content in several chapters, then forget to edit it out?
Also, why does he spend almost no time (view spoiler)[talking to his newfound daughter and granddaughter? Of course it's hard for me to imagine the grief I'd feel at a parent's funeral, plus the narrator has all these other people's antics to deal with---but still, if my long-lost child wandered into my life, I'd forget all the rest and want to get to know them. Right (hide spoiler)]?
Favorite parts: * p.42: Dear reader, don't panic. Newton was barely past twenty when he invented calculus. It's pure adolescent whimsy at work. Think of the language of mathematics as shorthand that has been around for centuries, the equivalent of teenage texting, but for geeks. Yes, I know you don't know half the text abbreviations that your teenage children use, but you can figure out their argot if pressed, can you not? You can figure out this one as well. * p.91: "You spend too much time worrying about men, Anna. They are all alike. Pretty boring, really. Just pick one and keep him." * p.105: At the time I thought I had learned an obvious lesson. Do not fall in love with someone when that love is heavily dependent on the goodwill and kindness of your parents. Find someone else. It's a stupid thing to expect a family to help you tie up your love life into a nice bow, and smart people do stupid things far more often than most people realize. Now, looking back, I don't think that's the lesson that I should have learned. I should have understood that when you love someone, and they are being subjected to cruelty, you need to do whatever you can to shield them, to defend them, even if the source of that cruelty, maybe especially if the source of that cruelty, is your own mother. This is your obligation. There are no exceptions. * p.150: I knew the type. They had begun to invade Tuscaloosa, these young professors. Male and female, they were all so skinny, fit, and earnest, and so remarkably free of anxiety. When you asked them what they liked to do, they had two answers, their work and running. They ran an ungodly number of miles every week not to avert a health crisis, but simply because they loved to run. Who understood them? Endorphins saturated their blood, mixed with the caffeine from their no-fat lattes. A new generation had arrived, and it quite frankly was superior, if much more boring, than my own. * p.267: She had also started to develop the ability (or liability) of being in one place physically but only partially there mentally. It was like dealing with a cell phone wavering between one and two bars of reception, functional but a bit worrisome. Her mind was not in the here and now but was usually preoccupied... This habit of only sort of being present can drive nonacademics crazy. But it's the only way I know that anyone can solve intellectually difficult problems. It's a constant processing of ideas and techniques in the background that happens even when you dream. * p.276: "You think you've been lucky?" "I don't allow myself to be unlucky." * p.285: "It's the best place in the world for a smart man to be. All this money, all this opportunity, and only stupid, lazy Americans to compete against. It's heaven on earth."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A well-dramatized telling of the Salk polio vaccine's origins. It's a gripping read, demonstrating the widespread terror of polio season among parentsA well-dramatized telling of the Salk polio vaccine's origins. It's a gripping read, demonstrating the widespread terror of polio season among parents and kids, even telling the sad stories of a few polio victims who played roles in the vaccine's testing and development.
But sometimes it felt like the author focused too much on the researchers' human drama---Salk's killed-virus vaccine vs. Sabin's live-virus! Which will win? Will one fail dramatically like the Brodie vaccine? What catty snipes will they make next?---and didn't explain why each scientist felt his belief was justified.
This story had such potential to illustrate why researchers & statisticians design studies the way they do---why the trials have to be just so in order for the sample results to reflect something meaningful about the whole population. That concern is touched on in this book, but shallowly. Still, the book is worth reading as it is.
There's also some good history about FDR and his support of the fight against polio. I hadn't known he developed polio as an adult, after already being a (not-so-successful?) politician/candidate.
Moving, too, were the mentions of Salk's insurance inquiries (how much would it cost to insure yourself and lab colleagues against possible self-infection with polio? a test-tube could break or virus samples could splatter on you at any time, as they did when the Life photographers visited... oof...) ...and of his early vaccination of his own family (you have to be seriously confident of your results to give your own sons this vaccine!).
Favorite parts and statistical questions: * p.5: "Facts were precious enough commodities when you needed them; why violate them once you'd got them in hand?" * p.67: I didn't know March of Dimes was started to raise funds for polio, nor that it was a pun on a popular newsreel March of Time. * p.57-58: Pacifists during WW2 were not dismissed from the draft---they were put to work as vaccine guinea pigs! * p.72-73: Salk also worked earlier on a flu vaccine, and he ran into the same problems we have today of quick-changing flu strains from year to year. I never thought about the intense "epidemiological reconnaissance work" or "viral scouting" needed to stay ahead of each year's flu. What a great job title: Viral Scout. * p.117: "It was the zero-sum nature of the virus game that the only way to prevent more blameless children from streaming into the upper floors [of the polio hospital] was to sicken and kill the blameless monkeys in the basement. Somewhere, perhaps, was the person who could tease out all the moral threads of that arrangement, but polio scientists, as a rule, could not turn their minds to the task. Once the virus was beaten, all the creatures---the ones upstairs and the ones below---could be left in peace. Until someone offered a better deal, this was the one they would have to take." * p.228: Sabin, a "rival" scientists, thinks a live-virus vaccine would work better than Salk's killed-virus vaccine (but doesn't have one ready yet himself). When Congress deliberates on Salk's field trial, Sabin says: "I for one, would strongly oppose large-scale work on hundreds of thousands of children based on the work of any one investigator..." which is a reasonable argument. I wish the author had spent a bit more time explaining Sabin's POV and rationale, instead of presenting it as just a personal conflict between two guys. Also, how did Salk's preliminary trials differ from the massively-failed Brodie-Park-Kolmer vaccine trials a few decades before? Clearly they did---but how? * p.234: Nice quick summary of double-blind trial vs observational controls. But what justified Salk's faith in his vaccine, without the gold standard of a double-blind trial? Just the small-scale trial results around p.187? When is lab-science proof good enough for medicine, vs. statistical proof of a massive trial? * p.238: If Salk thought it's unethical to give placebos (and hence preferred observational controls over a double-blind trial)... then why was it ethical to give the drug to 2nd-graders but not at all to 1st- or 3rd-graders? Why is refusal to treat any better than placebo, which would at least give you sounder statistical evidence? * p.242: Tommy Francis (Salk's former supervisor/mentor) led the design and analysis of the major field trial, and he convinced Salk to go for a double-blind rather than observational-control study. But how? The argument presented here is from authority: "If Francis, of all people, said a double-blind trial was the best possible one he could conduct, Salk would accept that." Surely there was much more to Francis-convincing-Salk than that! (Also---logistically they had to end up doing a dual-mode trial: double-blind in some states, observational-controls in others. What are the statistical methods for combining such results?) * p.245: Another curious moral question, once Salk was convinced of his vaccine's value (but before field tests were complete), about whether to give some to family & friends. Obviously there's not yet enough vaccine to share with all the strangers sending letters requesting it---does that make it immoral to share a small amount with "a handful of children in their charmed circle and not to those who happened to fall outside it"? * p.262-3: Failure during manufacturing led to arguments over new testing procedures. 54 monkeys vs 350 monkeys per lot, and 11 safe lots required in a row before releasing any---what statistical arguments justified these numbers? I wish the author gave a bit more space for the NIH statisticians' response to Rivers' comment: "As far as I'm concerned, you can take your pencil and paper and shove them up your ass." * p.277: Large-scale implementation of a trial is a mess. This section should be required reading for people who want to do massive data collection. Technical issues with syringes and manufacturing; personal issues with getting the kids to the shot facilities; even confusion over the simple fact that blood samples must be drawn from the same kids who got the shots! * p.280: Salk, impatient to change a manufacturing procedure: "Data from these experiments have not yet cooled off. But it is said that to await certainty is to await eternity." * p.311: Salk again, this time waiting out a possible manufacturing flaw: "The people of Idaho have had a tragic experience. Our deep concern has not been a secret. But only when the evidence is available will the state be in a position to draw a sound conclusion." (I like that---"a sound conclusion"---that's what experimental design is all about: you can't always know if your conclusion is correct, but at least it can be soundly drawn.)...more
Haven't read the whole thing, just intro and commentaries. But I like his explanation for this non-standard translation: He's trying to bring the readHaven't read the whole thing, just intro and commentaries. But I like his explanation for this non-standard translation: He's trying to bring the reader closer to Aristotle's work *itself*, not necessarily to the centuries of commentary and scholarship *about* this work.
Nice section of the intro, contrasting Aristotle's view of physics with the modern worldview: * p.15: "The glory of the new physics is the power it gains from mathematics. The world that is present to the senses is set aside as 'secondary,' and the mathematical imagination takes over as our way of access to the true world behind the appearances. The only experience that is allowed to count is the controlled experiment, designed in the imagination, with a limited array of possible outcomes that are all interpreted in advance." [This really speaks to my background in engineering and statistics. A huge part of my job is exactly to bridge that gap between our human experience of the world and mathematically-described designed experiments. Maybe by reading Aristotle's alternative, I can learn to do and communicate my work better?]...more
I enjoyed seeing the author speak at a conference, and I wanted to love this book. As it is, I'm really glad that *things like this* can exist, pushinI enjoyed seeing the author speak at a conference, and I wanted to love this book. As it is, I'm really glad that *things like this* can exist, pushing against the standard boundaries on what a PhD thesis and scholarly work is "supposed" to be---but I'm not sure what I got out of reading *this particular* book.
Of course, like any other PhD thesis, only an expert in the field will get everything out of it, even though it's far more accessible than a usual thesis. But a big part of his point seemed to be that we should do a lot more to integrate text and images (and other senses), not just convey ideas in text with the occasional image added as an illustration... yet I didn't feel like I was really getting extra meaning from his images. Either they explicitly illustrated something the text was already saying (which traditional works can do with the usual "See Figure 1 ..."), or they made visual allusions to other works (which could be done in text too, say as footnotes).
I'm sure that's largely my own shortcoming as a reader. I hope other readers get more out of the text-image integration than I did. But I just don't know how else to digest a book like this, beyond the usual approach of "text=primary, illustrations=bonus/filler."
Maybe the comics medium just didn't do it for me. I'd love to see the analogous thing for music or sound. While I'm not that much of a visual thinker, maybe I'm more attuned to the distinctions & integration between music and lyrics.
But I can say the book inspired me to try adding many more visual elements (or even interaction? an online exploratory dataviz supplement?) to my own PhD thesis, coming up soon.
I also really liked what he says about drawing as a way to think and understand. Even if I don't get that much out of seeing other people's drawings, I can appreciate the value of sketching as I work things out myself. (See note for p.79 below.)
Favorite bits: * p.35: On specialization within science: "This narrowing of focus led to fragmentation---a cascade of individual searchlights." * p.52: "Languages are powerful tools for exploring the ever greater depths of our understanding. But for all their strengths, languages can also become traps. ... The medium we think in defines what we can see." Parts of his book sound like the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis applied to the text-image divide. Also reminds me of a conversation on the PolicyViz podcast about dataviz as just another (facet of) language, not as objective facts. * p.57: "Every language, Hayakawa suggests, 'leaves work undone for other languages to do.'" * p.58: "A description of an image never actually represents the image. Rather, as Michael Baxandall observes, it is a representation of thinking about having seen a picture---it's already formulated in its own terms." See Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures. Maybe that's why this book's use of pictures didn't click for me. I didn't have many thoughts about the pictures here beyond what's already in the text around them. * p.76: "Lakoff and Johnson and Nunez say that our fundamental concepts do not spring from the realm of pure, disembodied reason, but are grounded in our seeing and being in the world." See Metaphors We Live By, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, and Where Mathematics Come From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. Reminds me of the intro to Sachs' translation of Aristotle's Physics: A Guided Study, talking about the difference between Aristotle's careful reasoning about what our bodies can experience, vs. modern physics' careful reasoning about what our measurement instruments tell us (ignoring our immediate experience). * p.79: "Drawing, as Masami Suwa and Barbara Tversky suggest, is a means of orchestrating a conversation with yourself. Putting thoughts down allows us to step outside ourselves, and tap into our visual system and our ability to see in relation. We thus extend our thinking---distributing it between conception and perception---engaging both simultaneously. We draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads but to generate them in search of greater understanding." * p.91: "Both binding agent and action, imagination allows us to span gaps in perception." For some reason I love the idea of imagination as "binding agent." * p.95: "By stories, I don't mean only wondrous tales, but that most human of activities, the framing of experience to give it meaning." * p.135: So, by this point in the book I was getting tired of the author's push against "how it is" and telling us that we're all automatons, puppets, stuck in a rut. C'mon, dude, we have agency! And it really is worthwhile to understand how things became "how it is"---to respect history, not to ignore it while you blaze forward. So it was a pleasant surprise when, here, he brought it back together: "Emancipation, Bruno Latour writes, 'does not mean "freed from bonds" but well-attached.' The strings stay on. By identifying more threads of association, we are better able to see these attachments not as constraints but as forces to harness." See Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. The images here show rock climbers roped for safety and sailing ships using ropes to direct their travel. Nice of him to foresee my frustration :) * p.136: Comparing European ocean navigation by "the detachment methods of Descartes" (reduce the 3D world's complexity using maps and instruments) vs. Pacific islanders' navigation by complete immersion in the world---not just where land is, but where the sea life or birds travel, where the pattern of waves changes, etc. See Strongman (2008). Detachment "scales well" (as tech companies today would say---maybe that ties to why Google et al. love machine learning over statistics), but it's not the only way or the best. * p.145: Wonderful small-multiples example of real-world variation among people with the "same" measurements. He outlined his own foot and that of other people who wear the same (10 1/2) shoe size. The lengths match, but the overall shapes differ a ton. "The great variance between my foot and these (and between one another), despite all being classified as the same size, illuminates my difficulty in finding shoes that fit." I should use this example in teaching intro stats classes.
Finally: * p.54: This is the only page in this book formatted (almost) like a traditional thesis---a wall of double-spaced text with occasional labeled figures/images. The endnote (p.162) says, "In the dissertation version of this work, I was required by the Office of Doctoral Studies to include a 'List of Figures' at the front of the document to refer solely to the 'figure' on this page---the page on which I most directly break the fourth wall as to what academic scholarship is supposed to look like. Their insistence upon having a list of figures to point to the sole page of text in a work made of figures quite poetically emphasized the point I was already making here."...more
[Not read, just skimmed.] I skimmed this as a statistician looking for ideas on how to teach Stats 101. This is not purely stats---maybe more like Data[Not read, just skimmed.] I skimmed this as a statistician looking for ideas on how to teach Stats 101. This is not purely stats---maybe more like Data Science, since it also includes (very useful) things like optimization and databases. It seems to cover the most important stats concepts without going deep into details of p-values and such. I'm not sure about the silly pictures and word bubbles or contrived examples, but I *love* that designing experiments is already in the 2nd chapter, after a 1st chapter on framing the problem and examining your (client's) assumptions. I know we're all supposed to love being awash in Big Data, but to answer a concrete question, you still can't beat a good designed experiment (Bespoke Data?). I'll come back and read this more thoroughly next time I'm designing an intro course....more
[Not fully read, just skimmed.] It's probably just because I've read too many similar grad school / career guides recently, but this one had nothing r[Not fully read, just skimmed.] It's probably just because I've read too many similar grad school / career guides recently, but this one had nothing really new to me. So, there's nothing wrong with the info here -- but it's no better written or more helpful than the other guides out there.
My favorite advice here was on choosing a dissertation project: * p.54-5: "Attack an important problem, and be able to articulate its significance ... It is worth noting that the National Science Foundation has two merit review criteria for research proposals: (1) What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity? (2) What are its broader impacts?" * p.56: "Pick a project that is feasible ... Herbert Simon has written, 'The quality of a research problem rests on the importance of the ideas it addresses and the availability of ideas and techniques that hold out a promise of progress'"...more