Papa on work routines

Could you say something of this process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?

When I am working on a book or story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

The Paris Review, Issue 18, 1958

From Daily Routines, a site that describes how “writers, artists and other interesting people organize their days.”

You seldom hear Hemingway mentioned anymore, and who ever confesses to loving him? Yet I have always loved — I can swim in it, rub it on me, immerse my brain in as if it were music or water — most of this passage from Hemingway’s justly famed interview in Paris Review. The second sentence especially is just perfect — perfect language, and perfectly Hemingway. It’s as good as the the first or the last sentence of A Farewell to Arms, which are two of the singingest sentences in print.

The interviewer, btw, is George Plimpton, who gets pie in his face several times during their conversation, which is — like this very passage — full of great writing wisdom layered around loads of Heming-hooey.

But really — “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write” — that’s music, and I can just about weep reading it.

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Ernest Hemingway, George Plimpton, LIterature, Writing

Face it – culture shapes even instinctive fear

Over at Neurophilosophy, Mo gracefully describes an elegant and insightful study of fear by Joan Chiao:

The amygdala’s response to fearful facial expressions is automatic, and the ability to detect any sign of imminent danger in the environment is of equal importance to all people. Some have therefore argued that the amygdala’s response to fearful facial expressions will not affected by culture. Others suggest that the amygdala’s response will be enhanced for the fearful expressions of those from the same culture, because a threat to someone from the same cultural group might be a more pertinent signal of a threat to oneself.

Chiao and her colleagues now find evidence for the latter hypothesis.

This is beautiful science. As I described in a profile in Scientific American Mind, Joe LeDoux long ago (well, over the past 30 years) used rat studies to establish the amydala as the “fear center” — and he did so with a completeness that makes it natural to think of the amygdala as a sort of evolutionary absolute that expresses itself consistently across context. Our seemingly “instinctive” fearful reactions to stimuli such as fearful faces can seem so hard-wired as to be immune to culture. (Note we’re talking about fears that are so deeply embedded in evolutionary history that we consider them instinctive; these aren’t, in other words, learned responses._ As Mo points out, this study suggests that even such instinctive reactions can be shaped in subtle ways by culture.

The authors of the new study suggest that the brain’s response to fear is modulated by culture itself. Being born into, and spending one’s life within, a certain culture inevitably leads to exposure to a common but unique set of social practices, values, beliefs and experiences. This may therefore fine-tune the amygdala so that it is sensitive to, and optimally activated by subtle variations in facial expressions that are specific to that culture.

Survey the Slippery Slope of Cognitive Enhancement


There’s been a lot of buzz on the Net* about the Nature commentary on cognitive enhancement I blogged about yesterday, in which I noted that you need only think about coffee to realize what a slippery slope the cog enhancement issue presents.

If you want to experience first-hand just how slippery, take this survey, which reader Michael Lanthier kindly drew my attention to. It starts with a question about coffee and pulls you inexorably, um, downhill from there.

It’s hard to take that survey without concluding the issue of enhancement offers no bright lines. if someone knows of a rigorous argument to the contrary, please chime in.

*NB this one from a chess site.

Top Ten Ways the World Could End


CBC Radio | Ten Ways the World Could End :

From the wonderful radio program Quirks & Quarks:

Despite what you may think, the universe is not necessarily a friendly place. Sure, things here on Earth have been pretty stable over the past few millennia, allowing human civilization to gain a foothold. But that could change at any time. Disaster lurks everywhere, from the deepest reaches of space to the very bowels of our planet. We’ve recruited nine prominent Canadian scientists (and one science fiction writer) and asked them to imagine how they think the world might end. We bring you The Quirks & Quarks Guide to the End of the World — it’s cataclysmically fun!

Our top ten list of civilization-destroying events:

1. Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, explains what will happen when the expanding sun engulfs the earth and roasts the planet.

2. Dr. Vicki Kaspi, a Professor of Physics at McGill University, explores the irradiating effects of a giant gamma ray burst.

3. Dr. Laura Ferrarese, a Senior Researcher at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, suggests that a rogue black hole may set its voracious appetite on Earth.

… and so on. Check out the web page for the program or download the mp3 and listen.

Hat tip: The ever-valuable Knight Science Journalism Tracker

Gladwell on spotting great teachers


Malcolm Gladwell on how to spot great teachers (and why we should want to):

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year%u2019s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half%u2019s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year%u2019s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a %u201Cbad%u201D school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You%u2019d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you%u2019d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.

A lot of it, he explains, is about feedback — how and how well the teacher responds to students and engages them in the process of learning.

Old School

At the New Republic, Seward Darby worries that Obama’s choice for the head of his transition’s education-policy team means he’s not serious about shaking up the educational system:

In November, Barack Obama bewildered education reformers by tapping Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor who had advised his campaign, to oversee the transition’s education policy team. Their verdict was swift and harsh. “Worst case scenario,” wrote Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, the day after The Wall Street Journal leaked the news. “This is a sign that the president-elect isn’t a bona fide reformer,” he later told me. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, confirmed, “The reform community is scared to death.”

The “reform community” is an aggressive group of education advocates who argue that the certification programs which produce teachers, and the unions that represent them once they’re in the classroom, have had too tight a grip on progressive priorities in the field for too long. Instead, they want to shake up the system through programs that bring in new blood and hold teachers accountable. They place their hopes in nervy, pioneering leaders like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, the chancellors of the D.C. and New York City public schools, respectively. In Darling-Hammond–an academic, union favorite, and vocal critic of Teach for America and No Child Left Behind–they see the opposite: an ideological enemy representative of a sluggish status quo.

Reformers are right to be nervous. During the campaign, Obama deftly appeased all sides of the policy debate. While appealing to the unions, which have long been bastions of Democratic support, he also gave great hope to reformers inside and outside the party by supporting merit pay and pledging to increase funding for charter schools. In asking Darling-Hammond to helm the transition–a precursor, some worry, to her appointment as secretary of education–Obama has suggested that he wasn’t entirely serious about change, at least when it comes to education. It’s a misstep that threatens to derail his quest for post-partisanship–and ruin a critical opportunity to revolutionize America’s lagging schools.

Some heavyweights vote Yes on cognitive-enhancing drugs for the healthy

This time had to come: A group that includes some serious neuro-heavyweights, such as neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Ronald Kessler and the highly prominent and influential neuroethicists Hank Greely and Martha Farah, has published in Nature an essay “Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.”

In this article, we propose actions that will help society accept the benefits of enhancement, given appropriate research and evolved regulation. Prescription drugs are regulated as such not for their enhancing properties but primarily for considerations of safety and potential abuse. Still, cognitive enhancement has much to offer individuals and society, and a proper societal response will involve making enhancements available while managing their risks.

This will make uneasy many who feel our society is already overprescribed, that we have medicalized the normal, and that the drug industry has pushed a lot of this expansion of diagnostic categories and prescribed drug use. Yet Greely et alia here are not proposing we medicalize normality; they’re proposing we make it okay to upgrade the normal. This is the difference between treatment and enhancement.

That difference is not as clear as it might be, of course, for it ultimately depends on what we agree to call normal. My own powers of memory and focus, for instance, probably fall within the normal range ; yet they’re not as good as those possessed by some of my peers who can therefore perhaps outwork me. Taking some modafinil can close some of that gap — and, more to the point, help me work at my own best capacity. And it’s not hard to rationalize or justify: I already drink (too much) coffee to boost my energy and cognitive performance, and modafinil essentially provides a more complete coffee-achiever boost without producing jittery hands or irritability; in fact, many people find it has a nice antidepressive effect rather than producing the anxiety that too much coffee can.

And virtually no one, of course, suggests it’s unfair to drink coffee — even though I clearly drink it not to cure an ill but to enhance my already existing powers and attentiveness (such as they aren’t).

So let’s say I switch from coffee to modafinil. Have I done wrong? Greely et alia are saying I have not, and that I should be free to if my doctor and I agree that it’s safe to do so. (Modafinial so far has not been shown to have significant ill-effects, either in clinical trials or the more robust test that wide use provides.) This is what the authors mean when they say that “cognitive-enhancing drugs seem morally equivalent to other, more familiar, enhancements.”*

This is an important essay, methinks, in which some undeniably influential players make a pretty clear assertion and distinction. And it is, I’m delighted to say, free to read, unlike many things posted at the Nature site.

Update: Here are a few posts and reports on the Nature commentary:

Nature’s Great Beyond blog does a bit of a roundup. Technology Review has an interview with co-author Michael Gazzniga. Commentary, meanwhile, includes posts by Nicholas Carr, who explores what I call the crucial coffee question (i.e., as above: Why not use an enhancer if its benefit-cost ratio is better than coffee’s?):

I can come up with plenty of thought experiments that shake me up: imagine that the risks are better known, and that they’re as much as, say, caffeine (but with more benefits). What then? What if such things turn out, many years in the future, to be necessary to work at any reasonably high level in science, since everyone else will be taking them, too? Is part of my problem with drugs that alter brain function a streak of Puritanism – would I feel better about using such things if I knew that they were guaranteed not to be enjoyable? And so on. . .I have to confess, I found such issues a lot easier to deal with inside the confines of old science fiction stories.

Bernadette Tansey, of the SF Chronicle, ask a good question: Are these drugs fair to those who simply want to live natural? (Hat tip: Knight Science Journalism Tracker) And Maia Szalavitz at HuffPost asks whether this is the beginning of the end of the drug wars.

And Benedict Carey of the Times had a good piece on this back in March.

There will be many more, and I’ll try to keep up among other work.

*(I wish someone at Nature had taken some modafinil before reviewing those commas.)

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The Media Equation – Stoking Fear Everywhere You Look –

I get a couple media-industry newsletters, which lately have made gruesome reading: The blood is running deep in most media companies, and today came the news that the New York Times, from which I get some of my better freelance assignments, is borrowing against its own brand-new building to meet cash shortages.

The same paper today runs an essay on how constantly rains such bad news these days. My favorite line:

Every modern recession includes a media séance about how horrible things are and how much worse they will be, but there have never been so many ways for the fear to leak in.

Read the whole thing at Stoking Fear Everywhere You Look:

The Moffatt Christmas Tree Farm — Some Old Friends of Mine

Eva Sollberger of Seven Day has posted a charming video feature about the Christmas tree farm run by Jim and Steve Moffatt, of Craftsbury, Vermont — a family that occupies a major part of my first book “The Northern Forest,” which I wrote with my friend Richard Ober. I spent a lot of time with the Moffatts, some of the finest people I’ve ever known. This video captures their wonderful combination of humor, intelligence, and virtue.

Short, sweet, and just the thing for the season.

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Jim Moffatt

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Steve Moffatt, Eva Sollberger, Christmas tree farms, Vermont, The Northern Forest, Richard Ober