Contagions of Hysteria

Monday, October 27th, 2014

We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction, David Brooks argues:

In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.

Second, you’ve got a large group of people who are bone-deep suspicious of globalization, what it does to their jobs and their communities. Along comes Ebola, which is the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization. It is a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away that seems to be able to spread uncontrollably and get into the intimate spheres of life back home.

Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.

Fourth, you’ve got our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death.

Be Careful What You Let Through the Trapdoor

Friday, October 10th, 2014

You need to be careful what you let through the trapdoor, Jules Evans warns:

The arts, sex, drugs, magic and religion are all ways of ‘turning off the mind’, going beyond rational consciousness, opening the trapdoor and following the Imagination down into the dark, to try and find the treasure. But I think, in that perilous descent, it’s absolutely crucial what motive you have, and your moral ability to handle what you encounter without losing your shit.

Many artists and magicians make that descent for selfish motives — for money, sex and power. That’s very risky — it’s like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to use the Ark for selfish reasons. You end up with a melted face.

I’d say Tolkien had the best idea about how to mine the Imagination without awakening too many Balrogs. You need to go in with a small ego, like a hobbit, with a fellowship of people around you to guide you when you feel lost. And you need to be prepared to give away whatever treasure you find, rather than trying to hang on to it for your own power. That’s the way to create great art, and it’s the way to live a meaningful life. Crowley’s ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ doesn’t end in happiness or power. It ends in emptiness, addiction, madness and self-destruction. It’s a lie — perhaps the oldest lie of all.

(Hat tip to Neovictorian 23.)

Basketball on Turf

Monday, September 8th, 2014

A handful of elite NFL quarterbacks began to use the once-rare back-shoulder throw, and now teams like the Seahawks have changed the NFL by countering with a different kind of cornerback:

Rather than fielding the usual bunch of regular-sized speedsters in the defensive backfield to keep up with opposing receivers, Seattle decided to go big. By starting the tallest, largest cornerbacks possible — the 6-foot-3 Sherman or the 6-foot-1 Byron Maxwell, for instance — they tried to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage to throw off the timing that is crucial to the back-shoulder ballet.

But it wasn’t just the height of Seattle’s cornerbacks — they also had long arms. That is a trait more appreciated in linemen than defensive backs.

According to Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, the numbers say long arms are crucial: Reid said that having long arms is the equivalent of having an extra tenth-of-a-second advantage on a 40-yard dash. It was the equivalent of one full step, which can mean everything at the speed of the NFL. For Seattle, it worked like a charm. If one of those pinpoint passes did get through, one of their long-armed cornerbacks would simply poke it away.

[...]

The result of all this is that the NFL is becoming basketball on turf.

Football has become so fast, and the athletes so good, that coaches use basketball terminology all the time, said Rams general manager Les Snead. He sees tall cornerbacks now as the “power forwards” of football. “When you have to shoot over a taller guy, that’s hard,” he said. As with power forwards, football teams now are willing to give up some athleticism for height.

In The Sports Gene, David Epstein makes the point that basketball players aren’t simply tall; they have even wider wingspans than their height would suggest. (He mentions this on EconTalk, too.)

Nostalgia for the Mud

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Tom Wolfe explains how nostalgie de la boue brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society:

Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.” Within New York Society nostalgie de la boue was a great motif throughout the 1960s, from the moment two socialites, Susan Stein and Christina Paolozzi, discovered the Peppermint Lounge and the twist and two of the era’s first pet primitives, Joey Dee and Killer Joe Piro. Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated “middle class.” They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they are always used in combination. In England during the Regency period, a period much like our own — even to the point of the nation’s disastrous involvement in colonial wars during a period of mounting affluence — nostalgie de la boue was very much the rage. London socialites during the Regency adopted the flamboyant capes and wild driving styles of the coach drivers, the “bruiser” fashions and hair styles of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, the see-through, jutting-nipple fashions of the tavern girls, as well as a reckless new dance, the waltz. Such affectations were meant to convey the arrogant self-confidence of the aristocrat as opposed to the middle-class striver’s obsession with propriety and keeping up appearances. During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and José Torres, and innumerable dress fashions summed up in the recurrent image of the wealthy young man with his turtleneck jersey meeting his muttonchops at mid-jowl, à la the 1962 Sixth Avenue Automat bohemian, bidding good night to an aging doorman dressed in the mode of an 1870 Austrian army colonel.

Writhing Time

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

During the first 32 games of the World Cup, Geoff Foster records, there were 302 players who could be seen at some point rolling around in pain, crumpling into a fetal position or lying lifeless on the pitch as the referee stopped the match:

These theatrical episodes ate up a total of 132 minutes of clock, a metric we have decided to call “writhing time.”

To be fair, it is actually possible to get hurt playing soccer. You can clang heads. You can snap a hamstring. You can get spiked in the soft tissue. There were nine injuries in total that forced players to be substituted from the game and to miss, or potentially miss, a match. These were discarded. That left 293 cases of potential embellishment that collectively took up 118 minutes, 21 seconds.

Another trick: how to calculate writhing time. The criteria used here is the moment the whistle is blown (because of a potential injury) to the moment that player stands up. If the TV camera cut to a replay, the stand-up moment was estimated. If he was helped off the field, the “writhing” clock stopped when he crossed the sidelines.

The study showed one thing emphatically: The amount of histrionics your players display during a match correlates strongly to what the scoreboard says. Players on teams that were losing their games accounted for 40 “injuries” and nearly 12.5 minutes of writhing time. But players on teams that were winning — the ones who have the most incentive to run out the clock — accounted for 103 “injuries” and almost four times as much writhing.

Writhing Time

The Iconic Soccer Ball

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

The iconic soccer ball — the black and white truncated icosahedron, composed of 20 white hexagons and 12 black pentagons — only became the iconic soccer ball when Adidas’s Telstar became the official ball of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Truncated Icosahedron

The Telstar ball was named after the Telstar communications satellite.

Telstar Satellite

The design, especially with its black and white panels, made it easy to follow on television — even on black-and-white sets.

The design wasn’t new though. In the 1950s, the Danish company Select manufactured and marketed the first 32-panel soccer ball, loosely based on Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic designs.

If you look at earlier World Cup balls, they look nothing like the iconic design — they look like orange (or yellow, or white) volleyballs.

Challenge 4-Star 1966 World Cup Ball

The 32-panel truncated icosahedron, in some form, remained the World Cup ball until 2006, when the TeamGeist ball, having just 14 curved panels, forming a truncated octahedron, took the stage.

Teamgeist 2006 World Cup Ball

By 2010, the ball had evolved into the Jabulani, made from eight spherically moulded panels. That ball was not popular.

Jo Bulani World Cup 2010 Ball

Now players are adapting to 2014′s ball, the Brazuca:

To stabilize the aerodynamics of this year’s model, named Brazuca, Adidas added about half an ounce to the weight of the ball, gave it the pebble-like surface similar to a basketball and deepened the seams, an effort to make the ball sail more steadily through the air.

Major League Soccer has been using Brazuca this season. So far, the ball has received good reviews.

Brazuca 2014 World Cup Ball

Ditching the Dining Room

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Some luxury home owners are eliminating their dining rooms altogether, the Wall Street Journal reports, instead using the space for libraries, dens and “living pavilions”.

Sounds even more sensible for not-quite-luxury homes…

Himlung Crevasse Fall

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

John All fell 70′ down into a crevasse in the Himalayas and survived. He then recorded a video diary of his slow, painful escape:

A couple years ago, Professor All answered the question, why does everyone climb Everest in May?

It comes down to snow, temperature, and wind. “Mount Everest protrudes into the stratosphere, and most of the year the summit is buffeted by winds of over 100 miles per hour that will kill a climber in minutes or even hurtle them into the void,” All told Popular Mechanics. “It is only during the onset or cession of the Asian Monsoon that these winds die down and allow climbers short seven- to 10-day windows to climb the mountain.”

The highest recorded wind speed at the summit was a 175 mph in February 2004. For reference, a Category 5 hurricane has sustained wind speeds of at least 157 mph. Throughout the winter, hurricane-force winds pummel the summit for three days out of four.

The two windows in which those wild winds die down happen in May and September. But snow falls during the September calm, so fresh snow drifts offset the break from the wind. That’s why so many people try the ascent in May, All says.

Japanese-Brazilians

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Gregory Cochran asked about Japanese-Brazilians, and I noted that they seemed to share a similar trajectory to Japanese-Americans: welcomed as cheap farm labor, but not stuck there for generations.

Wikipedia’s list of notable Japanese Brazilians is heavy on the artists (singers and models) and athletes (martial artists and footballers).

That doesn’t bode well, but then Cochran found this LA Times piece about the nikkei there:

Two nikkei — in Japanese, the name means “of Japanese lineage” — have been ministers in Brazil’s federal government, and one is currently a key adviser to the minister of finance. Three are members of the national Congress, including Antonio Ueno, now in his sixth four-year term.

Many nikkei have achieved remarkable economic success, too, especially in agriculture. The Cotia agricultural cooperative was founded by Japanese immigrant farmers in 1927, and today it is Brazil’s largest agricultural enterprise. About 70% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in metropolitan Sao Paulo are produced by nikkei farmers, according to Cotia executive Minoru Takano.

Other Japanese-Brazilians, like Fujio Tachibana, have excelled in business and finance. Tachibana, 76, started as a laborer on a coffee plantation in 1932, then became an office assistant in a Japanese company that helped recruit and settle new immigrants. Later he was transferred to the company’s bank in Brazil.

“I didn’t know anything about banking,” Tachibana recalled in an interview. “They taught me, and I learned.”

Today he is chairman of a banking and investment conglomerate with more than 8,000 employees and 18,000 shareholders. About 60% of the employees and 85% of the shareholders are Japanese-Brazilian.

With each generation, the Brazilian nikkei have become better educated and more prosperous in a country where ignorance and poverty are the fate of the vast majority. According to one survey of Japanese-Brazilians, more than 80% consider themselves middle class or above.

Until 1945, fewer than 50 persons of Japanese descent had graduated from the University of Sao Paulo. Currently, 13% of the university’s 30,000 students are nikkei. Japanese-Brazilian students account for about 20% of the enrollment at the Polytechnic Institute, Sao Paulo’s best engineering school.

At the Bandeirantes Institute, one of Sao Paulo’s most prestigious college preparatory schools, an estimated 25% to 30% of the students are descendants of Japanese.

I’m beginning to think there’s something different about Japanese-Brazilians…

A Master of Timing

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

One of the best-described of all charismatic leaders is Jesus, Randall Collins suggests:

About 90 face-to-face encounters with Jesus are described in the four gospels of the New Testament.

Notice what happens:

Jesus is sitting on the ground, teaching to a crowd in the outer courtyard of the temple at Jerusalem. The Pharisees, righteous upholders of traditional ritual and law, haul before him a woman taken in adultery. They make her stand in front of the crowd and say to Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law commands us to stone her to death. What do you say?”

The text goes on that Jesus does not look up at them, but continues to write in the dirt with his finger. This would not be unusual; Archimedes wrote geometric figures in the dust, and in the absence of ready writing materials the ground would serve as a chalkboard. The point is that Jesus does not reply right away; he lets them stew in their uneasiness.

Finally he looks up and says: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” And he looks down and continues writing in the dust.

Minutes go by. One by one, the crowd starts to slip away, the older ones first– the young hotheads being the ones who do the stoning, as in the most primitive parts of the Middle East today.

Finally Jesus is left with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightens up and asks her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers: “No one.” “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says. “Go now and sin no more.” (John 8: 1-11)

Jesus is a master of timing. He does not allow people to force him into their rhythm, their definition of the situation. He perceives what they are attempting to do, the intention beyond the words. And he makes them shift their ground.

Hence the two periods of tension-filled silence; first when he will not directly answer; second when he looks down again at his writing after telling them who should cast the first stone. He does not allow the encounter to focus on himself against the Pharisees. He knows they are testing him, trying to make him say something in violation of the law; or else back down in front of his followers. Instead Jesus throws it back on their own consciences, their inner reflections about the woman they are going to kill. He individualizes the crowd, making them drift off one by one, breaking up the mob mentality.

The Nomad Tribes of Africa

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Photographer Harry Hook grew up in Kenya and has been documenting the nomad tribes of Africa for decades:

Harry Hook 01

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Serenity Prayer

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

The wisdom of the Serenity Prayer may be timeless, but the prayer itself is rather new:

The best-known form is:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Though clearly circulating in oral form earlier, the earliest established date for a written form of the prayer is Niebuhr’s inclusion of it in a sermon in 1943, followed closely by its inclusion in a Federal Council of Churches (FCC) book for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944. Niebuhr himself did not publish the Serenity Prayer until 1951, in one of his magazine columns, although it had previously appeared under his name.

The prayer is cited both by Niebuhr and by Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton. Sifton thought that he had first written it in 1943, although Niebuhr’s wife wrote in an unpublished memorandum that it had been written in 1941 or ’42, adding that it may have been used in prayers as early as 1934. Niebuhr himself was quoted in the January 1950 Grapevine as saying the prayer “may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don’t think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself.”

In his book Niebuhr recalls that his prayer was circulated by the FCC and later by the United States armed forces. Niebuhr’s versions of the prayer were always printed as a single prose sentence; printings that set out the prayer as three lines of verse modify the author’s original version.

The original, attributed to Niebuhr, is:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.

An approximate version (apparently quoted from memory) appears in the “Queries and Answers” column in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1950, p. 23, which asks for the author of the quotation; and a reply in the same column in the issue for August 13, 1950, p. 19, where the quotation is attributed to Niebuhr and an unidentified printed text is quoted as follows:

O God and Heavenly Father,
Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The prayer became more widely known after being brought to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 by an early member.

The prayer has many precursors:

Epictetus wrote: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us [eph' hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”

The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva of Nalanda University expressed a similar sentiment:

If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?

The 11th century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote “And they said: At the head of all understanding — is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”

The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes without comment Niebuhr’s prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

Friedrich Schiller advocated the first part in 1801:

„Wohl dem Menschen, wenn er gelernt hat, zu ertragen, was er nicht ändern kann, und preiszugeben mit Würde, was er nicht retten kann,” or “Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save.”

The prayer has been variously but incorrectly attributed to, among others, Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Marcus Aurelius, Francis of Assisi, Thomas More, and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702–1782).

Popular Posts of 2013

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2013. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year, half of which are new, half of which are evergreen:

  1. Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?
  2. Words from a Bosnian Survivalist (new)
  3. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics
  4. Thermal Runaway
  5. No Longer Unthinkable (new)
  6. He-Man Opening Monologue
  7. Foux Da Fa Fa
  8. The Nazis a Warning from History (new)
  9. Richard Feynman’s Low IQ (new, but not from 2013!)
  10. Longbow vs. Armor (new, but not from 2013!)

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2013 and not from an earlier year:

  1. Words from a Bosnian Survivalist
  2. No Longer Unthinkable
  3. The Nazis a Warning from History
  4. Making Mordor’s Economy Work
  5. All Too Humane
  6. Comparing Vickies with Thetes
  7. Most Americans Against Race-Based College Admissions
  8. Reading Old Books
  9. Situational Awareness and Good Sense
  10. Fukushima’s Incredible Death Toll

Again, I’m not sure what to conclude.

Tailoring Is the Secret of the Well-Dressed

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Spending $40 to tailor $79 pants feels wasteful:

The result: American closets are brimming with ill-fitting clothes.

Tailoring is the Secret of the Well-Dressed

Solzhenitsyn Spots the Cathedral

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was invited to give Harvard University’s 1978 commencement address, which he entitled “A World Split Apart”. In it, Solzhenitsyn spots Moldbug’s “Cathedral”:

Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within Western countries, exceeding that of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Yet one would like to ask: According to what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has voted Western journalists into their positions of power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the totalitarian East with its rigorously unified press: One discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole (the spirit of the time), generally accepted patterns of judgment, and maybe common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Unrestrained freedom exists for the press, but not for readership, because newspapers mostly transmit in a forceful and emphatic way those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and that general trend.

Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad. There is no open violence, as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to accommodate mass standards frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block dangerous herd development.

In America, I have received letters from highly intelligent persons — maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but the country cannot hear him because the media will not provide him with a forum. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to a blindness which is perilous in our dynamic era. An example is the self-deluding interpretation of the state of affairs in the contemporary world that functions as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds, to such a degree that human voices from seventeen countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will be broken only by the inexorable crowbar of events.

As Nick B. Steves notes, Solzhenitsyn spoke a little too plainly.