“The word gulch sides with breach and gap and hollow against its Latinate counterparts, canyon and valley and ravine. It comes from early English, which, in our English, often signals the humble and the primal: home, hearth, birth, child. Etymologically, it means “to swallow.” Two hours later, 11 men were dead.”—The Story That Tore Through the Trees
Well, I grew up in a dangerous landscape. I think people are more affected than they know by landscapes and weather. Sacramento was a very extreme place. It was very flat, flatter than most people can imagine, and I still favor flat horizons. The weather in Sacramento was as extreme as the landscape. There were two rivers, and these rivers would flood in the winter and run dry in the summer. Winter was cold rain and tulle fog. Summer was 100 degrees, 105 degrees, 110 degrees. Those extremes affect the way you deal with the world. It so happens that if you’re a writer the extremes show up. They don’t if you sell insurance.
The most important is that I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.
I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.
You’ve called Henry James an influence.
He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them. I wouldn’t dare to write one. I’m not even sure I’d dare to read James again. I loved those novels so much that I was paralyzed by them for a long time. All those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down.
“It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age. We live in a consumer society premised on the idea of self-expression through novelty. We believe that we can find ourselves through the acquisition of new things. Perhaps inevitably, we have reconceived creativity as a kind of meta-consumption: a method of working your way toward the other side of the consumer-producer equation, of swimming, salmon-like, back to the origin of the workflow. Thus the rush, in my pile of creativity books, to reconceive every kind of life style as essentially creative—to argue that you can “unleash your creativity” as an investor, a writer, a chemist, a teacher, an athlete, or a coach. Even as this way of speaking aims to recast work as art, it suggests how much art has been recast as work: it’s now difficult to speak about creativity without also invoking a profession of some kind.”—Creativity Creep - The New Yorker
One of my favorite things in Sylvia Plath’s diaries are the entries that swing from “I need to start having people over for dinner more often! What a pleasure to cook for people!” to “I need to stop having people over for dinner all the time, they’re assholes and I need more time to write.” (Loose paraphrase!)
I think of this whenever I get in a burst of sociability.
“An artist of any sort… you must not put down the man before you. It’s like putting down the guy who built the ladder you’re standing on. Without him, you’re standing on the floor. With him, naturally you’re above him, because he’s holding you on his shoulders. You devour his stuff. You eat it up. And then you move one step higher. A lot of cartoonists, I’ll take all the originality they’ve got, and all their ideas, and swallow them, and then I’ll try to move one step further. That doesn’t mean I could’ve done it without their influence or their help. Because, eventually, some guy’s going to be standing on my shoulders…”—Shel Silverstein, in a wonderful interview with Studs Terkel (via austinkleon)
“How did creativity transform from a way of being to a way of doing? The answer, essentially, is that it became a scientific subject, rather than a philosophical one. In 1950, a psychologist named J. P. Guilford kickstarted that transition with an influential speech to the American Psychological Association. Guilford’s specialty was psychometrics: during the Second World War, he helped the Air Force design tests to identify which recruits had the kinds of intelligence necessary to fly airplanes. Unsurprisingly, when it came to identifying creative people, Guilford found that you couldn’t measure the auxiliary light of the soul. You had to measure something more concrete, like the production of ideas.”—Creativity Creep - The New Yorker
“Much like the long-running national debates about jumping off a roof, licking electrical sockets, and gargling with thumbtacks, the vexing question of whether children should fire military weapons does not appear headed for a swift resolution.”
The Aftershocks. David Wolman on what it’s like to have children killed in an earthquake — and to be charged with manslaughter for not predicting it. At Matter.
The trial was consumed by testimony from injured victims and the bereaved. People spoke of relatives who stashed blankets and cookies by the door to grab before exiting in the event of a tremor, but had chosen to stay inside after seeing the TV interview. There was the man whose family had long since believed that tremors are followed by larger subterranean “replies”—and used the experts’ assessment to convince his pregnant wife there was no need to go outside that night. All of them, including their infant son, died when the couple’s home collapsed. There was the university student who was crushed to death, even though his friends had inquired about their dormitory’s seismic stability just a week before. Local officials had told them not to worry.
To try to switch a memory from bad to good, the researchers reactivated the neurons in the hippocampus that encoded the “where” component of a shock memory in a male mouse while he got a more positive stimulus—in this case, getting to spend some quality time with two female mice.…
Prior to the memory altering procedure, when the researchers put the mouse in the enclosure where he’d received the shock and used a pulse of laser light to reactivate the memory in his brain, the mouse avoided the area where he’d gotten zapped. But when they did this after the memory altering procedure, the mouse spent more time in that area and even sniffed around a bit, as if looking for his lady friends. His memory of this place, it seems, had changed from bad to good.
“I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic—with its vast fossil-hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice-cap—and I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.”—
“Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones.”—
Tove Jansson in The Summer Book
The Moomin creator would’ve been 100 years old today. Hyvää syntymäpäivää!
I loved a lot of things about last week’s Story Collider podcast, on the feeling of not fitting in a new job (as a theoretical physicist) but one detail stood out. Apparently Wolfgang Pauli, one of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, and Carl Jung, a pivotal figure in the development of psychoanalysis, were good friends and exchanged letters over years. Those are published in Atom and Archetype. Both quantum mechanics and psychoanalysis were pivotal ideas in their fields, and I love that the titanic figures on both sides were talking to each other — and in this case were literally talking to each other about their dreams.
“These machines were [originally] tested in secret, presumably without this kind of adversarial mindset, thinking about how an attacker would adapt to the techniques being used,” says Halderman, who along with the other researchers will present the research at the Usenix Security Conference Thursday. “They might stop a naive attacker. But someone who applied just a bit of cleverness to the problem would be able to bypass them. And if they had access to a machine to test their attacks, they could render their ability to detect contraband virtually useless.”
What we’re seeing here is a gaggle of cops wearing more elite killing gear than your average squad leader leading a foot patrol through the most hostile sands or hills of Afghanistan. They are equipped with Kevlar helmets, assault-friendly gas masks, combat gloves and knee pads (all four of them), woodland Marine Pattern utility trousers, tactical body armor vests, about 120 to 180 rounds for each shooter, semiautomatic pistols attached to their thighs, disposable handcuff restraints hanging from their vests, close-quarter-battle receivers for their M4 carbine rifles and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights. In other words, they’re itching for a fight. A big one.
The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham controls … an area the size of Jordan. The self-proclaimed caliphate stretches from the newly conquered towns along the Syrian-Turkish border, through its de-facto capital of Raqqa, in northern Syria, across the obliterated Iraqi border into Mosul, Tikrit, and Falluja, down to the farming towns south of Baghdad—roughly a third of the territory of both countries. It is exploiting almost every oil and gas field in Syria; it has seized Iraq’s largest refinery, in Baiji, and its biggest dam, north of Mosul, which provides water and electricity for much of the country and could, if destroyed, submerge Baghdad. ISIS funds its operations by selling oil and electricity, emptying captured banks, and extorting money through kidnappings and “taxation.” Its highly skilled army fights with billions of dollars’ worth of stolen American- and Russian-made armored vehicles and heavy weapons. According to Janine Davidson, a former Pentagon official, “ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations.”
This is from my daily “Read Two” Tinyletter. If you’d like to get these by email, you can sign up here.
“Product Alert: This book does not contain a misprint on page 39. We have received complaints from customers that they have received misprinted editions because of the way the story changes direction in the middle of a word on page 39 (for Kindle readers, the end of the first section). This is not a misprint or error. It is the way the author has written the book. He returns to the seemingly abandoned storyline later in the book.”—Cloud Atlas: A Novel: David Mitchell: 9780375507250: Amazon.com: Books
“After dark on Monday, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The ironies of race and policing were readily apparent: law enforcement using force to suppress outrage at law enforcement’s indiscriminate use of force.”—Jelani Cobbreflects on the violence in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. (via newyorker)
“When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.” Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.”—Paul Ford, “How to Be Polite” (via austinkleon)