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October 1, 2004

Thought for the day - from Iris Murdoch

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"The division of one day from the next must be one of the most profound peculiarities of life on this planet. It is, on the whole, a merciful arrangement. We are not condemned to sustained flights of being, but are constantly refreshed by little holidays from ourselves."

October 1, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'The Wisdom of Crowds'

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Title of New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki's new book.

John Kay of The Financial Times recommended it as a book for the beach, high praise indeed from this gimlet-eyed critic.

Kay asks, "When is there wisdom in crowds, and when should you visit the expert?"

He answers that the crowd is more likely to be right about things that do not matter, like guessing the weight of an ox or the number of jelly beans in a jar, than about things that do matter, like flying an airplane or brain surgery.

Where good judgments are important to us, we select people who are likely to be good at making these judgments and train them until they are very good at making these judgments.

There are flight academies and medical schools, but no university offers a course on how to guess the weight of an ox or count the number of jelly beans in a jar.

bookofjoe digression: some of the courses available to athletes at big-time state universities in the U.S. do come very close to those described just above by Kay.

Kay continues: This leads to a simple practical rule, which corresponds to instinct and practice. Address important issues to the most expert people you know, and go on asking until the average of their opinions does not change much.

That is why there are two pilots on the aircraft, and why it is wise to seek a second medical opinion, and a third if the two initial diagnoses disagree.

But it is also why you are better advised to to take good medical advice than to ask your friends what they make of your brain scans.

This approach will let you down if the supposed expertise is spurious, if different estimates are not really made independently, or if the guesses that are made are not unbiased; errors are more likely to be in one direction than another.

That is why it is a mistake to place too much confidence in either great men or the stock market.

You can and should attempt to compensate for these problems.

Be skeptical: ask why you should buy what others want to sell.

Discount the conventional wisdom.

Be wise to conflicts of interest.

There is wisdom in crowds, but more often wisdom in the wise.

If you'd like a window into the mind of a man I consider very wise, have a look here, at Nassim Nicholas Taleb's website.

He's the author of the superb book "Fooled by Randomness," and a bookofjoe fan to boot.

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Must be really, really wise.

October 1, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: 'Yes, I am an addict.'

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So what?

I mean, don't you think the medicalization of daily life is getting a bit out of control when scientists tell us that anyone who drinks one cup of coffee a day is an addict - and mentally ill?

Oh, you hadn't heard about the mentally ill part?

I'm not making it up, unfortunately.

The new issue of the journal Psychopharmacology contains an article by Roland Griffiths, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University.

After reviewing 170 years' worth of studies on caffeine, he concluded it was addictive, and that when people don't get their daily dose, they suffer withdrawal.

OK, tell us something we don't already know.

Here's the good part: Griffiths and his colleagues are pushing hard to get caffeine addiction included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, considered the bible of mental disorders.

Considering that the manual only removed homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, I guess we shouldn't be surprised.

October 1, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

MorphWorld: Buffalo Bull Boat into "Fur-Lined Teacup and Saucer"

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Buffalo bull boats were used by the Mandan Indians encountered by Lewis and Clark.

A bull boat could be built in day.

The framework was willow upon which a fresh buffalo hide was placed and dried.

The hair side faced the water, which prevented moisture from entering the boat and deterred the boat from spinning.

Every household had several bull boats, each of which weighed only 30 pounds yet was capable of transporting about half a ton.

Meret Oppenheim's

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1936 surrealist masterpiece is sui generis.

Yet, viewing a picture of a buffalo boat, one can't help but wonder if the artist either consciously or unconsciously drew on an encounter with such a boat for her iconic sculpture.

October 1, 2004 at 12:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Is it time to get the lead out... of your wine glasses?

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The debate continues over real or perceived dangers of lead in crystal glassware.

California law now mandates retailers post a warning wherever lead crystal is sold, noting that it contains an ingredient that may cause cancer or birth defects.

The Canadian government now recommends soaking lead crystal glasses in vinegar to remove some of the surface lead.

They also advise against washing lead crystal in the dishwasher as detergents can increase the release of lead.

Lead oxide has long been used to make crystal glassware brilliant, clear, and strong.

Now, modern technology and pure crystalline quartz enable the production of hand-blown wine glasses without lead.

$18.99-$24.99 here.

No special handling or preparation required before first use.

Perfectly fine in the dishwasher, too.

A bit anxious now, are we?

Not to worry: it's the bullet you don't hear that's gonna take you out.

October 1, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'We're lousy, we can't play. If you wait until you can play, you'll be too old to get up there.' - Johnny Ramone to Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash

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Strummer had approached the Ramones after seeing them play in 1976, worried that his band's musicianship was still too rough for them to begin performing.

Johnny added, "We stink, really. But it's great."

Johnny Ramone, who died at 55 on September 15th, made the obituary columns everywhere, but none I read - and I saw a few - were better than the full-page one in the current Economist.

Here it is.
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Johnny Ramone (John Cummings), a punk rocker, died on September 15th, aged 55


By the middle of the 1970s, popular music had changed.

The punchy bubblegum sound of the 1960s was gone.

Instead the scene was dominated by musicians who wanted to elevate rock to the status of high art, with concept albums, rock operas and overblown guitar solos.

A typical track from the Sixties might be four minutes long; by the mid-1970s, ten minutes or more was not unusual.

Many fans despaired, feeling that rock had become bloated, pompous and pretentious.

The counterblast began on August 16th 1974, in front of a tiny crowd in a seedy New York bar called CBGB.

Four young men - Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramon - walked on stage.

The concert they gave was shambolic; they spent as much time shouting at each other as playing.

But they improved rapidly, and it soon became clear they had hit on something.

Dressed in ripped jeans, trainers and leather jackets (a uniform carefully modelled on the gear worn by New York rent-boys), the Ramones were the antithesis of the art-house pretension in which much of rock had lost itself.

Their formula was simple: no synthesisers, chamber orchestras or tedious showing off, just simple three-chord progressions wrapped in two-minute slices of buzzing guitar.

They belted out catchy, rapid-fire songs on the usual topics: teenage boredom, mental instability, drugs and disappointed love.

Their message was a liberating one: you didn't have to be a virtuoso to make music.

Anybody could do it, and technical skill was less important than having a good time and putting on a show for your fans.

Their bare-bones playing was matched by their singing.

The lyrics to “I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You” were four lines long, of which three were the same.

Their songs were never allowed to venture too far into seriousness.

"Beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh yeah," they sang cheerfully on their debut album.

This back-to-basics approach never translated into commercial success.

The Ramones built up a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, but their impact was felt more keenly in Britain than in America.

Their concert at London's Roundhouse theatre in 1976 was a seminal moment for British punk.

The British movement was different: more intense, angrier, more worldly.

But the snarlingly political Clash, the anarchic Sex Pistols and the hundreds of smaller, amateur bands that gave voice to the alienation felt by many of the young all had their roots in the do-it-yourself attitude pioneered by the Ramones.

Even among a band destined to remain one of music's great outsiders, Johnny Ramone was an oddity.

His father was a strict disciplinarian, and the attitude rubbed off.

Johnny, who had a fondness for American army T-shirts, liked to compare himself to a hard-working carpenter.

The hammer and chisel were the tools of the carpenter's trade; the guitar was the tool of his.

Rock concerts are usually referred to as "gigs," but Johnny liked to call them "jobs."

In concert he would stride out on stage, plant his feet wide apart and begin playing in his distinctive style (using only the downstroke, never the up), blowing through songs at breakneck speed.

He kept a meticulous diary on every aspect of the band, from the price of their equipment to notes on every one of their concerts.

Over two decades, he played 2,263 of them.

His political views were wildly out of step.

Almost uniquely in the rock-music industry, he was a staunch conservative.

He idolised Ronald Reagan, and used the band's induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 to heap praise on George Bush.

There were rumours of a nastier side.

When a black man stepped in front of their tour van, he told the driver: "Run him over, Monte. It's just one less nigger."

He explained that being deliberately offensive was part of his sense of humour.

Others were less sure.

It was said that he carried a Ku Klux Klan card in his wallet.

But Johnny's role as the band's “drill sergeant” was crucial.

His frantic guitar-playing set the pace for the others to match.

He was responsible for the uniform, and also for the group's longevity.

One of his favourite dictums was that when bands changed, it was usually for the worse.

He kept the Ramones anchored to his original vision while other acts climbed the charts, went mainstream and then disintegrated in recrimination and accusations of selling-out.

In the late 1970s, the band survived a collaboration with Phil Spector; it endured even after Johnny stole singer Joey's girlfriend, a testament to their professionalism and discipline in an industry known for neither.

After their last concert in 1996, the Ramones' reputation grew.

They had a heavy influence on the grunge groups of the early 1990s, and at last earned mainstream recognition in America.

They are remembered as the band that saved rock from its own excesses and returned it to its roots as an outlet for the young and disaffected.

When Joe Strummer, the lead singer of the Clash, approached the Ramones after seeing them play in 1976, he was worried that his band's musicianship was still too rough for them to begin performing.

"Are you kidding?" Johnny answered him. "We're lousy, we can't play. If you wait until you can play, you'll be too old to get up there. We stink, really. But it's great."

October 1, 2004 at 06:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

fundrace.org - where the money's coming from

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A most interesting website, this; they've taken Federal Election Commission records of political funds raised and plotted them on maps, right down to the individual buildings and addresses the money's come from.

Find out if your neighbor's been fooling you all along....

October 1, 2004 at 03:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Gold medal-winning time for the 100 meters at the 2156 Olympics? 8.079 seconds - for the women

Flojo

The winning men's time is projected to be slower than the women's, a relatively leisurely 8.098 seconds.

Yes, you read correctly: researchers project that women will be faster than men in 152 years.

The scientists, from Oxford University, reported their predictions in the current issue of the journal Nature.

For comparison, the current men's world record is 9.78 by Tim Montgomery; the late Florence Griffith-Joyner set the women's mark of 10.49 in 1988.

Women's times are improving faster than men's, which led the Oxford scientists to extrapolate that they will beat men in another century and a half.

8 seconds for the 100 - that's quick.

For comparison, a runner with that time would have beaten Justin Gatlin, this year's Olympic winner (9.85 seconds) by about 20 meters.

October 1, 2004 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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