Author Archives: ulysse

The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber

There is a guy named Alex Honnold, he free solo climbs mountains and his brain is not wired like ours. J.B. MacKinnon for Nautilus:

Honnold is history’s greatest ever climber in the free solo style, meaning he ascends without a rope or protective equipment of any kind. Above about 50 feet, any fall would likely be lethal, which means that, on epic days of soloing, he might spend 12 or more hours in the Death Zone. On the hardest parts of some climbing routes, his fingers will have no more contact with the rock than most people have with the touchscreens of their phones, while his toes press down on edges as thin as sticks of gum. Just watching a video of Honnold climbing will trigger some degree of vertigo, heart palpitations, or nausea in most people, and that’s if they can watch them at all. Even Honnold has said that his palms sweat when he watches himself on film.

So obviously, they put his brain through an fMRI and: 

‘Maybe his amygdala is not firing—he’s having no internal reactions to these stimuli,’ says Joseph. ‘But it could be the case that he has such a well-honed regulatory system that he can say, ‘OK, I’m feeling all this stuff, my amygdala is going off,’ but his frontal cortex is just so powerful that it can calm him down.’

The article is interesting throughout. 

White House women want to be in the room where it happens

It’s hard to be a woman in politics, especially at the White House. Two-thirds of Obama’s aides are men. Often, women were ignored. But they found a way around this. And it’s brilliant.

Juliet Eilperin for The Washington Post:

So female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

‘We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,’ said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.

James Gleick on our anxiety about Time, the origin of the term “type A,” and the curious psychology of elevator impatience

Maria Popova back at it again with a great review of a book written in 2000 when smartphones, Facebook and the like did not yet exist. Here’s a quote from the book:

We have a word for free time: leisure.

Leisure is time off the books, off the job, off the clock. If we save time, we commonly believe we are saving it for our leisure. We know that leisure is really a state of mind, but no dictionary can define it without reference to passing time. It is unrestricted time, unemployed time, unoccupied time. Or is it? Unoccupied time is vanishing. The leisure industries (an oxymoron maybe, but no contradiction) fill time, as groundwater fills a sinkhole. The very variety of experience attacks our leisure as it attempts to satiate us. We work for our amusement.”

Elementary school homework is useless

Heather Shumaker, writing for Salon

Homework has benefits, but its benefits are age dependent.

For elementary-aged children, research suggests that studying in class gets superior learning results, while extra schoolwork at home is just . . . extra work. Even in middle school, the relationship between homework and academic success is minimal at best. By the time kids reach high school, homework provides academic benefit, but only in moderation. More than two hours per night is the limit. After that amount, the benefits taper off. ‘The research is very clear,’ agrees Etta Kralovec, education professor at the University of Arizona. ‘There’s no benefit at the elementary school level.’

Let the kids play, be free and break the cycle: 

Then there’s the damage to personal relationships. In thousands of homes across the country, families battle over homework nightly. Parents nag and cajole. Overtired children protest and cry. Instead of connecting and supporting each other at the end of the day, too many families find themselves locked in the “did you do your homework?” cycle.

 

The 24-year-old Coca-Cola virgin

Jamie Lauren Keiles never drank Coca-Cola in her entire life. She said she did other things though.

She wrote an insightful and funny — all together interesting — piece for Eater about her experience testing coke (pro tip: Mexican Coke is better because it uses real sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup):

Where to begin? Search: how to try Coke, revise to how to try Coca-Cola, and then finally drink my first Coke. A whole lot of info on how to quit drinking Coke, but nothing for beginners who are just starting out. There are WikiHow tutorials on how to breathe, how to pee, how to love, and how to cry, but drinking Coke apparently demands less instruction than functions which are naturally regulated by the brain.

Nassim Taleb’s commencement speech at the AUB in 2016

Taleb is controversial indeed but he does not deal much bullshit. Here’s an excerpt from his commencement speech at the American University of Beirut in 2016. 

I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them. I was told to focus and I never did. I was told to never procrastinate and I waited 20 years for The Black Swan and it sold 3 million copies. I was told to avoid putting fictional characters in my books and I did put in Nero Tulip and Fat Tony because I got bored otherwise. I was told to not insult the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; the more I insulted them the nicer they were to me and the more they solicited Op-Eds. I was told to avoid lifting weights for a back pain and became a weightlifter: never had a back problem since.

If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been.

How the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ gave Brian Wilson a nervous breakdown

But it was also thanks to 20-year-old engineer Geoff Emerick, who was promoted to replace veteran Norman Smith. Emerick is most notable for his work on the first track recording for Revolver, Lennon’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’ By recording his voice through a Leslie speaker, it gave it the faraway sound the song is known for, which was something that had never been done before. It was ideas like this, along with the microphone placement for McCartney’s bass and Starr’s drums, that paved the way for the way studio recordings were done after Revolver.

An interesting look at what makes “Revolver” the most important album in the history of the Beatles. I always thought it’d be Sgt. Peppers. 

Words for emotions we didn’t know we had

It’s a funny thing about house guests. While they’re in your home and you’re tripping over the extra shoes and suitcases that are suddenly littered about your living room, you start dreaming about how nice it will be when they leave. Yet, after they do, your place often feels too empty. To the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, Smith writes, this feeling is so prevalent that it gets a name all to itself: awumbuk, or the feeling of ‘emptiness after visitors depart.’

Melissa Dahl, for New York Magazine, has had an interesting talk with Tiffany Watt Smith, who’s writing a book about emotions. She recounts the conventional wisdom that is to name your emotions, so as to help you understand them.

Her book, The Book of Human Emotions, is basically a list of very specific emotions that are different from the major ones (fear, happiness, etc.). 

Evolution, not revolution

An interesting argument against revolutions anywhere using complex systems theory, by Nicky Case (whom I’ve just discovered). 

It’s about how to change the world. Pair this with this idea on teamwork

The overarching moral is this: humility.

Humility is the knowledge we don’t have that much knowledge. We’re all too stupid to completely overhaul a complex political/economic/cultural system. We can’t build a world from scratch, so we have to use what’s already there. We can’t find a silver bullet, so we’ve got to evolve all the parts simultaneously. We can’t let hubris get the better of us, so we should go slow and steady and sustainably.

The problem with food and exercise studies

In one study, some foods boost your immune system. In another, they weaken it. What’s going on? Apparently, we can’t measure people’s diet effectively and so the research is mostly irreproducible. This is a problem that plagues scientific research, too.

Gina Kolata writing for The Upshot:

Dozens of studies are publicized every week. But those studies hardly slake people’s thirst for answers to questions about how to eat or how much to exercise. Does exercise help you maintain your memory? What kind? Walking? Intense exercise? Does eating carbohydrates make you fat? Can you prevent breast cancer by exercising when you are young? Do vegetables protect you from heart disease?

The problem is one of signal to noise. You can’t discern the signal — a lower risk of dementia, or a longer life, or less obesity, or less cancer — because the noise, the enormous uncertainty in the measurement of such things as how much you exercise or what exactly you eat, is overwhelming. The signal is often weak, meaning if there is an effect of lifestyle it is minuscule, nothing like the link between smoking and lung cancer, for example.