I Got StoryBoarded: A Chat About Writing

A couple weeks ago I had a good long conversation with The Open Notebook about writing My Mother’s Lover (a story about my mother’s obscured World War II romance). Now the Nieman Storyboard, a wonderful site that “breaks down story in every medium,” posted a conversation I had recently with their Andrea Pitzer: Old story, new media: David Dobbs brings family secrets to the Atavist.

She had some good questions:

There’s a moment in the story where you go to California expecting to find something, and it’s not there. It’s a lovely moment, because it really got me wondering what would happen next. It underlines that not only is historical information hard to come by, sometimes even the facts we think we have are wrong. It gave a wonderful sense of just how complicated this chase was.

That’s why I put that episode in the story. You think you finally have something in your hand that you’ve been looking for a long time, aaaaand… no. It slipped away again. Continue reading →

Do Big Governments Make for Small People?

That’s what John Boehner said last night. Ezra Klein brings the fact-check:

“You know,” Speaker John Boehner said last night, “I’ve always believed the bigger the government, the smaller the people.” That led Jonathan Cohn to tweet that the “Netherlands has 45% GDP from gov’tM spending and the world’s tallest people.”

What I’ve always believed is that the more data on your scatterplot, the better your chances of seeing a relationship. So I asked Dylan Matthews to work up a chart. He took the data from Wikipedia’s tablelisting the average male height in more than 60 countries and plotted each country’s height against the percent of GDP it collects in taxes. The result? A weakly, but noticeably, positive relationship between the size of government and the size of people. Bigger governments, in other words, mean bigger people.

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Is Science Communication Returning to Its Roots?

Former BMJ editor Richard Smith nicely delivers the argument:

A compelling piece in the Economist argues that social media are returning news to the “more vibrant, freewheeling, and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era” and that newspapers will prove to have been a historical aberration. The same, I think, will be true of scientific journals.

His argument parallels much recent discussion about the closed-in stasis of much traditional scientific publication and how it’s being challenged by the open-science movement.

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The Toughest Plane Ever Built? Take a Look

World War II inspired intense experimentation human and mechanical. My mother’s affair with a flight surgeon, for instance, was a personal experiment, more or less intentional, that was in turn part of a larger, accidental experiment in which millions of people were uprooted from their daily lives and dropped into intense situations with strangers. Much domestic disruption.

Another experiment was the empirical field-testing of aircraft. Is this great trial, the B-17 Flying Fortress put up one of most impressive displays, proving not only an effective carrier of firepower (the plane delivered over a 3rd of the ordnance dropped by the allies in Europe and much of the ordnance dropped in the Pacific) but an astoundingly tough plane. Pilots and crews soon learned that the B-17s, which flew tens of thousands of missions under heavy antiaircraft and fighter-plane pressure, could take extraordinary damage and still get home. A site called Dave’s Warbirds carries a particularly impressive series of photos showing planes that survived incredible damage and got home.

Some of these produced incredibly close calls for entire crews; others killed some crew and left others to get home.

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A’glitter In the Net: Mirrored Monkeys, Chilly Skeptics, More Monkeys, Cocaine, and Whales

Some of my favs from the last week or so.

The photo above sums the dilemma explored in Seeing the Monkey in the Mirror: It’s not just the monkey in the mirror: It’s people looking at monkeys looking at themselves in a mirror that the person holds. A nice meta-level look at this self-recognition paradigm by @SrsMonkeyBiz, guest-posting at Jason Goldman’s The Thoughtful Animal.

In a fine Guardian review, Peter D. Smith looks at the human-designed natural enchantment that was Vauxhall Gardens. I consider much of London to be such a place.

“Guys, why wouldn’t you do this for people you claim to value and respect…. It’s time to step up and start acting like brothers.” Jennifer Ouellette examines the chilly atmosphere facing women in math, physics, engineering, and the skeptic community. This is the week’s must-read on this issue, full of smart thinking, cheer amid ugliness, and good advice.

Poisoner’s Handbook author Deborah Blum reviews Howard Markel’s Anatomy of Addiction. “No wonder doctors and patients sought ever more of this amazing chemistry to improve their lives.” As Eric M. Johnson noted, a “truly fascinating” review of a richly engaging book, which I’m now in the midst of myself. Review and book both highly recommended.

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Why Behold Beauty? Because It’s Sociable.

This I could not resist: Ed Yong and Jonah Lehrer have written intriguing fine pieces about a new study of beauty — or rather, beauty’s appreciation. The study examines which brain regions fire up when a viewer perceives something that he or she finds beautiful: It’s not a particular stimulus that evokes these distinctive brain patterns, in other words, but a particular response to the stimulus. As Yong puts it,

A beautiful thing is met with the same neural changes in the brain of a wealthy cultured connoisseur as in the brain of a poor, uneducated novice, as long as both of them find it beautiful.… The fact that the activity of their mOFC rose with the strength of their feelings of beauty means this most subjective of experiences can be objectively measured in the brain of the beholder.

The mOFC, as brain geeks will tell you, is the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain area involved in processing reward, pleasure, and decision-making, among other things. The consistency of its response to beauty in the study was startling. But as Yong and Lehrer separately explain, it’s not the first time researchers have tied the mOFC to beauty., so this comes as no huge surprise; we’ve found pleasure here before. Tt’s this area, Lehrer reminds us, that responds to “the taste of an expensive wine [or] the luxurious touch of cashmere.” But the starkness of the response in this study was notable.
What, Lehrer wonders, is the brain responding to — and why do we respond to it?
What’s the point of marveling at a Rembrandt self portrait or a Bach fugue? To paraphrase Auden, beauty makes nothing happen. Unlike our more primal indulgences, the pleasure of perceiving beauty doesn’t ensure that we consume calories or procreate. Rather, the only thing beauty guarantees is that we’ll stare for too long at some lovely looking thing. Museums are not exactly adaptive.

He’s onto something here: Beauty, or rather our perception of it (for only in an eye does does it reside), is a prod to curiosity. It’s a invitation to invest attention and emotion, which are expensive.Continue reading →

Check Out These Swinging Balls of Steel

If you have friends who actually believe National Science Foundation money is going to waste, show them this: an expansion of the usual 5-ball desktop oscillation toy. Good stuff. I’m hoping Rhett Allain will step in and explain the physics.

From a neuro perpsective, this makes me think of Gyorgy Buzsaki’s wonderful book Rhythms of the Brain, which explores how oscillatory patterns in different brain regions synchronize to pass messages and Get Things Done. The first ten pages of that book are mind-blowing; enormous explanatory power and imagination. Buzsaki explains in a video available at archive.org. Meanwhile, the pendulum above  can serve as a very rough analog in the way different groups of balls swing together at different times. Plus it’s just pretty.

Here are the notes from the YouTube site:

Fifteen uncoupled simple pendulums of monotonically increasing lengths dance together to produce visual traveling waves, standing waves, beating, and (seemingly) random motion.

For more details see http://sciencedemonstrations.fas.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k16940&pa…

The period of one complete cycle of the dance is 60 seconds. The length of the longest pendulum has been adjusted so that it executes 51 oscillations in this 60 second period. The length of each successive shorter pendulum is carefully adjusted so that it executes one additional oscillation in this period. Thus, the 15th pendulum (shortest) undergoes 65 oscillations.

Our apparatus was built from a design published by Richard Berg [Am J Phys 59(2), 186-187 (1991)] at the University of Maryland. The particular apparatus shown here was built by our own Nils Sorensen.

Like us on Facebook! http://www.facebook.com/NatSciDemos

Video courtesy of Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations, © 2010 President and Fellows of Harvard College

Hat tip to James Colwell, Brigadier General, USAF Reserve, Retired.

Related posts:

The Consciousness Meter: Sure You Want That? (see bottom)

Marc Hauser Resigns from Harvard

Marc Hauser, the star psychologist and morality researcher accused of fraud, has resigned his position at Harvard.

Appropriately, the Globe’s Carolyn Johnson, who covered this story better than anyone, breaks the story:

Marc Hauser, a well-known Harvard psychology professor who has been on leave since an internal investigation found him guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct, is leaving the university.

“Marc Hauser has resigned his position as a faculty member, effective August 1, 2011,” Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in an e-mail statement today.

Hauser was a popular professor known for his research and writing on the evolutionary underpinnings of morality and the traits that make the human mind distinct from those of other animals. He took a leave of absence after a faculty investigating committee concluded a three-year investigation — first reported last August by the Globe. But he was due to return to the university this fall, a prospect that made many of his former colleagues uncomfortable.

A large majority of the Harvard psychology faculty had voted not to allow him to teach this year, and Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith had supported the decision.

“While on leave over the past year, I have begun doing some extremely interesting and rewarding work focusing on the educational needs of at-risk teenagers. I have also been offered some exciting opportunities in the private sector,” Hauser wrote in a resignation letter to the dean, dated July 7. “While I may return to teaching and research in the years to come, I look forward to focusing my energies in the coming year on these new and interesting challenges.”

I covered this story extensively since it broke last year (most recently in May), and will try to visit it here this week if I can find time amid finishing a feature and starting a transAtlantic move. But by all means, track it at the Globe, where Johnson will do it well.
In the meantime I’ll just say I’m not surprised, though this is a very big deal. The faculty’s vote earlier this year not to allow Hauser to teach this coming year was likely a fatal blow, signaling his effective expulsion from the fraternity and favor of his colleagues, if not his position.

Related posts:

Marc Hauser, monkey business, and the sine waves of science

Journal editor’s conclusion: Hauser fabricated data

Hauser & Harvard speak; labmates & collaborators cleared

In Marc Hauser’s rush to judgment, what was he missing? (my wrap-up last fall)

May 2011: Hauser rumbings: Are these a settling, or pre-quake tremor?

Why We Lie – An Honest Look at Deception, from Ian Leslie

I’ve written here before on how understanding one another is our biggest cognitive challenge, and how the “social brain” theory of Robin Dunbar and others asserts that this challenge is what drove the development of our great big brains. In the short talk and q&a above, writer and former ad man Ian Leslie, whose acquaintance I’ve had the pleasure of making here in London, argues that in essence our brains got big so we could figure out deception amid our complex relationships — and that lying is not a bug or an aberration, but essential to our success as individuals and a species.

He covers some nice ground: why kids lie, for instance; and why politicians lie and why we need them to lie. For instance: “People who can lie a little better to themselves do better in business. And economies stagnate when people are too honest with themselves.” Why? Because you have to lie to yourself a bit to think you can actually succeed at something as difficult and risky as launching a business (or making it as a writer).

For the full story, check out his Born Liars, which elaborates this argument and is stuffed full of interesting studies and good writing. It’s a fun read and a great companion to Robert Burton’s On Being Certain.

Also check out Leslie’s ever-interesting (mostly) political blog, Marbury, and follow him on Twitter.

Deconstructing “My Mother’s Lover”

The Open Notebook, begun last fall,  interviews writers to see how they research and write longform nonfiction pieces. Its entries include conversations with Steven Silberman about writing about placebos, Slate’s William Saletan on memory,  Robin Henig on anxiety, Hilary Rosner on scarce fish, and Carl Zimmer about inner ecosystems. I had the pleasure of talking with them for their latest entry, just published, which looks at the making of My Mother’s Lover, my recent Atavist story about my mom’s WWII secret love affair. They have pictures, snips from my notebooks, illos of the mind maps I used for the piece, and a soundslide show in which I talk about some of the photographs I used to reconstruct my mother’s story. The piece also gave me a chance to talk about structure, including how one can find models for structure and narrative strategy in  theater and music — in this case, Schubert:

It seems like by creating that psychological distance [between yourself and the story you tell], you give your readers the opportunity to put themselves in that situation.

Yes: they have to fill in the space. I try to take a lot of cues from music when I’m thinking about how to structure a piece and what to put in. I play the violin—not terribly well—and when I was writing this piece, I kept thinking of a Schubert quartet that I used to play that’s very beautiful and intensely emotional. There’s this line that he develops during the first movement, and the second violin has this gentle, running theme that is one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever heard. It’s just aching. Then the first violin brings in this beautiful singing line, and the climax is just so gorgeous that when you play it, you almost can’t contain yourself. It’s quite sexual. You can feel this thing coming and you can’t wait but you don’t want it over. Then it arrives and it’s utterly fulfilling; playing it, you want to weep and sing at the same time, but it’s energizing too, so you want to do it again. The phrase is so perfect it just begs to be repeated.  But Schubert doesn’t let you. Any other composer would have repeated that line, or elaborated on it. Schubert plays it once, you almost can’t stand it — and then he pulls the music back and returns to the piece’s excruciatingly beautiful but understated opening theme, only now it has a whole body of new tension built into it.

And that’s how I tried to place this one little part of my story, where I talk about what it was like to be my mother’s son. I don’t think that would be a proper part of the story—to bring me in as a boy—unless it reflected upon who she was. Yet the picture of my mom, of Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, would be incomplete if you didn’t understand how much love she delivered to those that were close to her. That’s where the son’s experience comes in as relevant. And I decided to put it just short of the story’s end—and then cut it off and go into something else. So it’s very short. But it’s the most powerful stuff that I could distill from that passage.

For more, check out the full entry at The Open Notebook.