Odds & Ends

Photo of the Day

MATLAB Handle Graphics

A record groove under an electron microscope, magnified 1000 times (via)

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Penn Station, 1962

Penn Station

Pennsylvania Station, New York City. May 10th, 1962. Photograph by Cervin Robinson. (via)

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Galbraith on modern conservatism

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

John Kenneth Galbraith

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Quote of the Day

We now live in a country in which the bottom 40 percent (120 million people) owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth. Data of this kind make one feel that one is participating in a vast psychological experiment: Just how much inequality can free people endure? Have you seen Ralph Lauren’s car collection? Yes, it is beautiful. It also cost hundreds of millions of dollars. “So what?” many people will say. “It’s his money. He earned it. He should be able to do whatever he wants with it.” In conservative circles, expressing any doubt on this point has long been synonymous with Marxism.

And yet over one million American children are now homeless. People on Medicare are being denied life-saving organ transplants that were routinely covered before the recession. Over one quarter of our nation’s bridges are structurally deficient. When might be a convenient time to ask the richest Americans to help solve problems of this kind? How about now?

Sam Harris

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JFK in Ft. Worth, Nov. 22, 1963

November 22nd, 1963: President Kennedy reaches out to the crowd gathered at the Hotel Texas Parking Lot Rally in Fort Worth, Texas. (Cecil Stoughton, White House / John F. Kennedy Library) (via)

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Quote of the Day

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

William James

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Boston, February 1944

Boston cops 1944

Photo by Walter Sanders for Life Magazine.

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Eddie Coyle comes to the stage, almost

Saturday afternoon, a new stage play of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was unveiled at the Burren in Somerville. The little theater at the back of the bar was packed. I’d guess there were 150 or so people there. There was a wonderful excited mood in the room. This was a one-off performance of a work in progress, a peek into the process of how a play is shaped. It was only a staged reading — actors reading from scripts, no costumes or sets — so it is obviously too early to comment on the production itself, but so far it looked very promising.

The difficulties and pleasures of staging “Eddie Coyle” are about what you’d expect. Higgins’ wised-up streetcorner dialogue begs to be spoken aloud, and a lot of the novel’s best riffs are recited seemingly verbatim. The hard part is compressing the story onto a small stage, especially on a limited budget. The novel includes scenes in cars, a bank robbery, a home invasion, a trashy trailer home, a supermarket parking lot, a Bruins game at Boston Garden. Worse, in the book the plot itself is shadowy. Higgins does not spell out what is happening to Eddie. He lets the dialogue swirl around and around, and it is up to the reader to piece the story together, just as it is up to Eddie. On a first reading, the book can be confusing. Obviously that won’t work on stage. So playwright Bill Doncaster has altered a few scenes and dropped others to streamline and clarify. The results were mostly good. Some incidents (the arrest of Jackie Brown, the invasion of a banker’s home in Lynn) were hard to follow if you didn’t know the story beforehand. But, again, this was only a walk-through on a bare stage. The play is a work in progress. When it is properly staged and after some tinkering with the script, these things will become clearer.

More important than all these technical things, the play is true to the spirit of Higgins’ novel, truer even than the 1973 movie starring Robert Mitchum (which I love). Mitchum gave a great performance as Eddie Coyle, but to me he was miscast. Mitchum was a leading man, big, charismatic, cool. Eddie Coyle is none of these things. He is a loser at the bottom rung of semi-organized crime, past his prime, used by everyone around him from the guy who hires him to drive a truckload of stolen booze to the FBI agent who squeezes him for tips. It would have been a good role for a “Midnight Cowboy”-era Dustin Hoffman rather than Mitchum. Eddie is Ratso Rizzo with a Boston accent and a few extra pounds. Doncaster’s play gets this bottom-feeding world just right.

The three lead actors are wonderful. Eddie is played here by Paulo Branco, a local actor who reminded me of the film actor Dan Hedaya. Branco plays Eddie as an anti-Mitchum: desperate, whiny, weak, dense, a loser just smart enough to know how much danger he is in. Great casting, great choices by the actor. To watch Branco cheer like an exuberant little kid for Bobby Orr gives you a completely different Eddie Coyle than Mitchum’s cool, heavy-lidded portrayal. (And if you have to ask why those 1969-70 Bruins would make a grown man cheer like a kid, you are either too young to remember or you aren’t from Boston. I know where I was on Mothers Day in 1970.)

Rick Park as Dillon is the other cornerstone of this production. I chatted with Bill Doncaster yesterday, and he mentioned that he saw Dillon as a sort of Iago, a perspective that really sharpens this character. Dillon is even more important here than in the book or movie. Rick Park brings some of the heaviness and watchful intelligence that Peter Boyle brought to the role in the film. His Dillon is older, wiser, wearier than Boyle’s, a sharper character even than Higgins drew in the book.

The other standout in the cast is Peter Darrigo, who makes a completely convincing Boston tough guy in the role of Coyle’s associate Jimmy Scalisi. On the down side, Tom Berry seems to be searching still for how to play the FBI agent Dave Foley. Foley comes off here as just another wiseguy rather than a button-down Fed who works in an office, not on a streetcorner. In the story, Foley uses Eddie and betrays him without a second thought. That requires a more complex character than Berry has managed to capture so far. But this is a work in progress — it is too early to criticize a performance. It is hard to hold back, though. I am rooting for this production, so I want Berry to succeed.

So far the play looks great. Doncaster tells me he is still searching for a theater to stage it. Here’s hoping he finds one. It is hard to believe that after all these years there could be a fresh take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but this could be one. If you’re a Bostonian, you should be rooting for this play to make it.

More info from the Boston Globe here. You can also join a Facebook page for the production here.

The true size of Africa

True Size of Africa

Africa is larger than the U.S., China, India, Japan, and all of Europe combined. Via (click to view full size).

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San Francisco, 1906

Aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (via)

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Churchill: On risk

Play the game for more than you can afford to lose … only then will you learn the game.

Winston Churchill (via)

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Quote of the Day

There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein (via)

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Photo of the Day

Teenage Obama 2

Teenage Obama 1

Obama as a teenager (via)

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The scope-severity paradox

The more victims, the less likely we are to respond.

[A recent study] is the first to show that the bias toward feeling empathy for a single individual versus many — known as the identifiable victim bias — causes people to make judgments based on emotion that are disproportionate to the severity of a crime.

“The inspiration for the study was the observation that we tend to focus an extraordinary amount of attention and resources to crimes that have a really small number of victims, and have a harder time remaining engaged to larger scale kinds of crime,” said psychologist Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University, lead author of the paper Aug. 25 in Social Psychological and Personality Science (.pdf).

The bias, which the researchers named the scope-severity paradox, has implications for a wide variety of fields, including the politics and media coverage of large-scale issues such as climate change or mass genocide.

“It fits well with a line of research that shows that as the number of people who are victims of some problem [rises] — whether it’s a crime or a famine — the responsiveness to it, and the likelihood of taking action to reduce the problem, decreases,” said psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.

It has to do with the way empathy works, Slovic said. People empathize with people by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. The more shoes there are, the harder it is to empathize with any single individual. People don’t multiply their feelings of empathy by the number of people involved.

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Oliver Sacks on Mythmaking

Is the human instinct to tell stories — and it does seem to be instinctive since it crosses all boundaries of time and place — a way we explain the world to ourselves?

I would say that the human brain or the human mind is disposed to create stories or narratives. Children love stories, make up stories. Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models. And of course some of these will come together because then you want to have a story which explains. We all come into the world, and human beings sort of evolved into a mysterious world and had to wonder where they came from, how the world came from [sic], what are the stars doing. And in the absence of better explanations, I think, supernatural explanations sort of come to mind.

Via Big Think.

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Hanging Up

This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.…

The telephone, in other words, doesn’t provide any information about status, so we are constantly interrupting one another. The other tools at our disposal are more polite. Instant messaging lets us detect whether our friends are busy without our bugging them, and texting lets us ping one another asynchronously. (Plus, we can spend more time thinking about what we want to say.) For all the hue and cry about becoming an “always on” society, we’re actually moving away from the demand that everyone be available immediately.

Clive Thompson

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Yesterday was the first anniversary of this blog, which went up on May 22, 2009. As I’ve written here before, I doubt that the blog will generate significant book sales, which was why I started doing it, but I’ve come to enjoy blogging for its own sake and I’ve made a few new friends in the bargain. I may never get to that mythical thousand true fans, but if you’re a writer, you write — even if it’s not clear how many people are reading.

Anyway, here are a few random statistics about this blog’s first year. They are culled from SiteMeter, which is linked at the bottom of every page (click the green badge in the footer), and WordPress itself, the software the site runs on, which compiles a slightly different array of stats.

  • Total visits: 8,547. Total page views: 14,946. Those are infinitesimal numbers next to some of the bigger blogs out there, but they are much higher than I expected a year ago. (The SiteMeter badge in the footer of this page understates the visits count because I did not join SiteMeter until a couple of months after the blog launched.)
  • Most views in one day: 180. A spike like that usually means a post got picked up by some high-visibility blog or Twitterer.
  • Average views per day: 41.
  • Total posts: 150 (not including this one).
  • Most Popular post: 848 hits, for a post on the writing habits of Graham Greene. The popularity of this post points up the difficulty of winning fans to my books by blogging. Most people come to this blog after Googling something completely unrelated to me but that I happen to have written about, like Graham Greene. Most of these visitors don’t stick around to learn about my books. Some of them do, I suppose, but it is a vanishingly small number. So is it worth it? Damned if I know.
  • Least popular posts: 1 hit. Eight posts are tied for this honor. And I can’t even be sure that the one lonely hit isn’t me checking to see that the post looks all right. I don’t do much to publicize this blog. I link to significant new posts on Twitter and Facebook, but most of the smaller stuff I just put on the blog and never alert anyone. So most of the short posts slip under the radar, which is fine. Anyway, I will award the honor for Least Popular Post to this one, in which I announced I was taking a vacation and inexplicably required three long paragraphs to do it. It cops the prize because of this pathetic irony: a post announcing there will be nothing to read — and nobody bothered to read it. Oy. Blogging can be a kick in the groin.
  • Total comments: 259. The best part of blogging by far is hearing from readers.
  • Total cost: $0. Well, this isn’t quite true. I do pay to have the site hosted at Media Temple. But the site itself has cost me nothing. All the software and services I use are free. All the design, the Photoshopping, the coding, and of course all the writing is done by me. Of course, all that labor is only “free” if you assume my time has no value…

Last thing: the map below, also clipped from SiteMeter where you can see an updated interactive version anytime, shows the location of the last hundred visitors. In the last two days or so, this blog has had visitors from Queensland, Australia; Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Israel, Ukraine, Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, plus several in England; and all over the U.S. Very cool.

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The Burry Principle

“Once you become an idea’s defender, you have a harder time changing your mind about it.”

— Michael Lewis, The Big Short, paraphrasing investor Michael Burry (slightly paraphrased again by me)

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Explaining Insomnia

Jonah Lehrer on why we can’t sleep, an affliction that has me thrashing around every night:

Because insomnia is triggered, at least in part, by anxiety about insomnia, the worst thing we can do is think about not being able to sleep; the diagnosis exacerbates the disease. And that’s why this frustrating condition will never have a perfect medical cure.

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Bill Gates on Energy

Is there a more demoralizing problem than global warming? Discussing it feels utterly hopeless. Climate skeptics are unmoveable despite the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. Intelligent, well-meaning conservative friends of mine, people I like and respect, simply reject that the problem exists, let alone that we ought to fix it.

So I found this video of Bill Gates at TED heartening. Saddled as we are with a feckless government and a venomous, polarized political climate, it is good to know there are actual adults working on solutions. It is a hopeful note to take with you into the weekend.

Also, it occurs to me that Bill Gates has become, surprisingly, a model of how the obscenely wealthy ought to behave. Instead of using his wealth for self-indulgence or simply to go on making more and more money to no real purpose, as so many rich guys do, he has become a powerful, articulate force for good. Whatever you may think of his products or his business tactics at Microsoft (and I am no fan), Gates has become a sort of self-funded NGO, consciously emulating enlightened plutocrats past, Carnegie in particular. No longer the nerdy villain to Steve Jobs’s hip, black-turtlenecked rebel, Gates now takes on problems that seem too big even for governments: disease and poverty in Africa, global warming. Isn’t that a greater contribution than, say, the iPad?

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