The Wright Brothers and the Patent Wars

Joe Nocera, writing in The New York Times, summarizes Lawrence Goldstone’s new book, Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies. The narrative about the extent of the patent fight between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, another entrepreneur, was extensive (and something I had no idea about):

The Wright brothers’ critical insight was the importance of “lateral stability” — that is, wingtip-to-wingtip stability — to flight. And their great innovation was something they called “wing warping,” in which they used a series of pulleys that caused the wingtips on one side of the airplane to go up when the wingtips on the other side were pulled down. That allowed the Wrights’ airplane to make banked turns and to correct itself when it flew into a gust of wind.

But when the Wrights applied for a patent, they didn’t seek one that just covered wing warping; their patent covered any means to achieve lateral stability. There is no question what the Wrights sought: nothing less than a monopoly on the airplane business — every airplane ever manufactured, they believed, owed them a royalty. As Wilbur Wright, who was both the more domineering and the more inventive of the two brothers, put it in a letter: “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us.”

So, a brief note on the patent system by the author:

Without patent protection, a competitor can simply replicate an invention and undercut the inventor’s price — which necessarily includes all the time and expense of research and development — so the incentive to experiment and create is severely inhibited. But if innovators such as Glenn Curtiss cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the privilege, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited.

What Mike Tyson Is Reading

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Mike Tyson wants you to be aware of his erudite side:

I’m currently reading “The Quotable Kierkegaard,” edited by Gordon Marino, a collection of awesome quotes from that great Danish philosopher. (He wanted his epitaph to read: “In yet a little while / I shall have won; / Then the whole fight / Will all at once be done.”) I love reading philosophy. Most philosophers are so politically incorrect—challenging the status quo, even challenging God. Nietzsche’s my favorite. He’s just insane. You have to have an IQ of at least 300 to truly understand him. Apart from philosophy, I’m always reading about history. Someone very wise once said the past is just the present in funny clothes. I read everything about Alexander, so I downloaded “Alexander the Great: The Macedonian Who Conquered the World” by Sean Patrick. Everyone thinks Alexander was this giant, but he was really a runt. “I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity,” he said. I so related to that, coming from Brownsville, Brooklyn.

What did I have to look forward to—going in and out of prison, maybe getting shot and killed, or just a life of scuffling around like a common thief? Alexander, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, even a cold pimp like Iceberg Slim—they were all mama’s boys. That’s why Alexander kept pushing forward. He didn’t want to have to go home and be dominated by his mother. In general, I’m a sucker for collections of letters. You think you’ve got deep feelings? Read Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine. It’ll make you think that love is a form of insanity. Or read Virginia Woolf’s last letter to her husband before she loaded her coat up with stones and drowned herself in a river. I don’t really do any light reading, just deep, deep stuff. I’m not a light kind of guy.

I prefer to read the deep, deep stuff as well. Mike Tyson, you have (marginally) redeemed yourself.

The Trouble with Portrayal of Female Beauty in Books

A thoughtful essay titled “A First-Rate Girl” by Adelle Waldman gave me pause this morning. She writes about our perception of female beauty in every day life compared to how novelists portray female beauty (in short: they don’t get it):

I have a friend who dates only exceptionally attractive women. These women aren’t trophy-wife types—they are comparable to him in age, education level, and professional status. They are just really, notably good looking, standouts even in the kind of urban milieu where regular workouts and healthy eating are commonplace and an abundance of disposable income to spend on facials, waxing, straightening, and coloring keeps the average level of female attractiveness unusually high.

My friend is sensitive and intelligent and, in almost every particular, unlike the stereotypical sexist, T & A-obsessed meathead. For years, I assumed that it was just his good fortune that the women he felt an emotional connection with all happened to be so damn hot. Over time, however, I came to realize that my friend, nice as he is, prizes extreme beauty above all the other desiderata that one might seek in a partner.

I have another friend who broke up with a woman because her body, though fit, was the wrong type for him. While he liked her personality, he felt that he’d never be sufficiently attracted to her, and that it was better to end things sooner rather than later.

Some people would say these men are fatally shallow. Others would say they are realistic about their own needs, and that there is no use beating oneself up about one’s preferences: some things cannot be changed. Those in the first camp would probably say that my friends are outliers—uniquely immature men to be avoided. Many in the second camp argue that, in fact, all men would be like the man who dates only beautiful women, if only they enjoyed his ability to snare such knockouts. In my experience, people on both sides are emphatic, and treat their position as if it is obvious and incontrovertible.

To me, these stories highlight the intense and often guilty relationship that many men have with female beauty, a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women.

You’d think it would also be a rich subject for fiction writers—after all, our attitudes about beauty and attraction are tightly bound up with the question of romantic love. But, in fact, many novels fail to meaningfully address the issue of beauty. In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.

This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.

When a novelist does examine beauty more closely, the results are often startling. Two of my favorite male novelists do not fall into the trap that Shriver delineated. They are clear-sighted and acute chroniclers of the male gaze.

Read the rest here. I haven’t read the books mentioned in the piece, but this line made me laugh: “So begins one of contemporary literature’s worst relationships.”

BiblioTech: The Country’s First Bookless Library Opens in Texas

This week, an all-digital public library in Bexar County, Texas opened its doors. The facility offers 10,000 free e-books for the 1.7 million residents of the county (which includes San Antonio). NPR has more:

On its website, the Bexar County BiblioTech library explains how its patrons can access free eBooks and audio books. To read an eBook on their own device, users must have the 3M Cloud Library app, which they can link to their library card.

The app includes a countdown of days a reader has to finish a book — starting with 14 days, according to My San Antonio.

The library has a physical presence, as well, with 600 e-readers and 48 computer stations, in addition to laptops and tablets. People can also come for things like kids’ story time and computer classes, according to the library’s website.

Is this the future of the library? I sure hope that physical books will remain a core of the library for years to come.

Learning How to Think

A pithy post from Dustin Curtis, in which he argues that once you truly learn how to think, you’ll no longer feel constrained to be a “worker bee”:

There is an insanely huge difference between, “We’re making a site for connecting to your friends” and, “Privacy is a relic of the past, so we’re going to push people to open up their lives and share, connecting them together.”

Most people see Facebook and extrapolate backwards to the first sentence above. But the genius behind Facebook, and why it has been continually successful, is actually in the second sentence. Facebook isn’t about connecting; it’s about sharing. MySpace failed because it focused on the connections, not the interactions between those connections. Facebook had the Wall and the News Feed.

Learning how to think like this is like discovering halfway through your life as a flightless bird that you have wings and can fly. And once you discover it, there is no going back. It’s addictive and powerful. It ruins your ability to be a worker bee, because you’ve tasted blood: you become a killer bee, intent on understanding why things are the way they are, finding their flaws, and pushing the universe forward by fixing them.

For a very good start on learning how to think, check out these mental models at Farnam Street. Highly recommended.

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If you want to go even deeper, I recommend the book Thinking Strategically: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life, which offers invaluable advice in outmaneuvering your rivals/competitors. It takes a series of case studies from business, sports, politics, and more and provides useful strategies for making things happen in your daily life.

The New York Times Reviews The Art of Sleeping Alone

The New York Times reviews Sophie Fontanel’s memoir The Art of Sleeping Alone, and it is filled with wonderful, caustic zingers like this:

The first thing to say about “The Art of Sleeping Alone” is that it’s very French. It’s slim, chic and humorless, that is, a sophisticated bagatelle of a volume, filled with detours to exotic locales: the Sahara, Goa in India, the Greek island of Hydra.

It’s also gauzy and episodic and not particularly well written, yet it drifts along on a kind of existential bearnaise of its own secreting. It’s “Bonjour Tristesse” grown bruised, older, warier.

The book appears to be awkward, with a number of non sequiturs:

The opposite of experience is innocence, of course, and in “The Art of Sleeping Alone,” the author often longs to retreat from the adult world into one that can resemble childhood. She wants her life to be “soft and fluffy.” She wishes to be “the girl I’d been years before.”

At night, she hugs her clean pillows as if they were stuffed animals. When she sees a kind father with his children, she thinks, “Who had adored me like that since my parents?”

She takes long lavender milk baths, baths that are no longer just about the “Silkwood”-style scrubbing of the smell of men from her body. “I felt as if some divinity were rejoicing in me,” she writes. “Until then, water had been only a useful element, like the showers, for example, into which I rushed to cleanse myself of a presence after having let myself get caught.”

I am definitely NOT putting this one on my reading list.

Charles Bukowski on “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

In 1969, publisher John Martin offered to pay Charles Bukowski $100 each and every month for the rest of his life, on a single condition: that Bukowski quit his job working at the post office and commit to becoming a writer. The then 49-year-old Bukowski did just that, and in 1971 his first novel, Post Office, was published by Martin’s Black Sparrow Press.

Fifteen years later, Bukowski wrote the following letter to Martin and spoke of his joy at having escaped full time employment:

8-12-86

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Hank

In Factotum, he was even more direct:

It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so

Fascinating. It’s incredible I haven’t read Bukowkski before. I am remedying this situation by having ordered the Kindle versions of his books: You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (only $2 on Amazon), Love is a Dog From Hell (also $2), and Women ($3).

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(via Letters of Note)

On Reading, Forgetting, and Re-Reading

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on Medium.

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A couple of months ago, while I was in line waiting to get a Caffè Americano at my local coffee shop, the barista inquired about my reading habits. I noted my favorite science fiction novels:Slaughterhouse-Five and Brave New World. The barista then asked me about Fahrenheit 451, which I read early in my youth. “The ending was amazing, wasn’t it?” she inquired. At this point, a mild shock came over me, my cheeks reddened, and I muttered “Yeah, definitely.” The truth is: I’ve read the novel, but have forgotten almost the entire plot—ending included.

Ian Crouch, writing in a recent piece in The New Yorker, likened reading and forgetting with the following anecdote:

This forgetting has serious consequences—but it has superficial ones as well, mostly having to do with vanity. It has led, at times, to a discomfiting situation, call it the Cocktail Party Trap (though this suggests that I go to many cocktail parties, which is itself a fib). Someone mentions a book with some cachet that I’ve read—a lesser-known work of a celebrated writer, say Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” to take an example from my shelf—and I smile knowingly, and maybe add, “It’s wonderful,” or some such thing. Great so far, I’m part of the in-crowd—and not lying; I did read it. But then there’s a moment of terror: What if the person summons up a question or comment with any kind of specificity at all? Basically, what if she aims to do anything other than merely brag about having read “Daniel Deronda”?

My very brief encounter at the coffee shop still didn’t sway my mind on re-reading. Yes, I felt embarrassed about the episode, but the embarrassment did not deter my pride (re-reading is silly!). But about a month ago, things started to unravel. It began with my friend Steven’s suggestion to read John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden. I’ve long considered this novel to be in my top five books I’ve ever read: for the story, for the writing, for the allegory. I distinctly remember, how one summer before my junior year of high school, I spent four days, non-stop, engrossed in the novel (I’m a slow reader, I admit). But after Steven suggested reading the novel, I replied in the most glowing way possible: “A sublime selection. For anyone deliberating on whether to read this magnum opus: do it, and you will be better for it.”

And yet. I didn’t re-read East of Eden.

It was only during the discussion of the novel that someone by the name of Blake struck me as extremely profound. “Eugene, the first time you read East of Eden was in your teenage years. That was half a lifetime ago. Think about that.” And Blake is right. When put in that context, so much has transpired in my life over the past fifteen years, that I’ve had an epiphany: re-reading should be a pleasure in its own right. I shouldn’t feel guilt in re-reading; on the contrary, I should take comfort and joy in rediscovering a book which enlightened me so much in the past.

Ian Crouch notes:

If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade.

I recollect not only when I read East of Eden, but how: in my room, in the downstairs basement curled up with a warm blanket, outside on the patio with butterflies floating in the distance. It is perhaps more wonderful to remember the sensory associations with reading than the plot.

And so, when 1984 was announced as the next book we were going to read in book club, I wasn’t going to make any excuses: I was going to re-read this novel. And I am glad I did. There were so many specifics from the novel which I didn’t remember that it felt like reading the novel for the first time.

My obstinate attitude on re-reading took more than ten years to come around. If you currently rationalize re-reading like I used to, I encourage you to consider re-reading not only as a remedy to forgetting, but as a profoundly new, joyous experience.

 

The Sports Gene and the New Science of Athletic Excellence

Katie Drummond interviews David Epstein, the author of the recently released The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

The context is fascinating: whether you’re a gym rat or just starting out with an exercise routine, you typically follow the advice you read in magazines, from friends/coworkers, or personal trainers. But in the future, however, you might be able to develop a training plan that has nothing to do with external edicts, generalized principles, or even trial and error. Instead, you’d be training according to your own genetic athletic profile — a sequence of genes that determine what kind of exercise, done for how long and how often, your body will best respond to.

According to Drummond,

Epstein offers a fascinating look at how genetic research is already transforming sports science. Along the way, he digs into controversial questions about gender and race, examines the latest in genetic testing that purports to spot athletic traits, and unravels how some of the world’s best athletes — from Usain Bolt to Michael Jordan — attained the pinnacle of sporting success.

On to the interview questions:

Q: You don’t shy away from controversial topics in the book, including gender and ethnic differences where athletic ability is concerned. You also mention how scientific progress has been hindered because of concerns about sexism or racism creeping into cultural discussions about findings. To what extent, do you think, have those fears held back research on genetics and athleticism?

A: You know, when I went into the book I figured that scientists worked in bubbles to some extent, and that they didn’t decide what to publish based on any external force. In a sense, that they published their data so long as they maintained academic rigor. But in this field, that hasn’t been the case at all: scientists have literally told me that they have data, really great data, that they won’t publish because of how it might be perceived or construed by the public.

The primary instance of this is related to race. Namely, scientists are concerned that data suggesting that black people are predisposed to some athletic superiority will get wound up into this bigoted misconception that athletic ability means someone lacks intellect. That might sound ridiculous, but it’s been a prejudice for some time, and it has really reached deeply into the psyches of some scientists. Where gender is concerned, I had one researcher who has published a huge amount on sex and gender differences tell me that he didn’t publish any findings until he got tenure, because it just threatened to be too controversial. From my perspective, the best way to move the field forward and to help athletes is to collect sound data and then publish it — I was disappointed to see that this hasn’t happened.

Q: As you point out, the relationship between athletics and genetics is really complicated. But where do you see research going in the future, and what will it mean for athletes — elite or otherwise?

A: It is complicated, but we’re already seeing genetic tests trickling out that can hint at different aspects of someone’s athletic ability. Namely we’re seeing gene tests that relate to injury risk — one example is a test for the ApoE gene, which helps determine your vulnerability to brain damage from the hits you take during boxing or playing football, for example. That test is already out there, and it might really make a difference for athletes, how they compete, and what kind of medical treatment they get.

Where research is concerned, the most progress we’re seeing now is in studies that look at genes related to responses to endurance training — genetic pathways that determine who responds well to cardiovascular exercise, and who doesn’t. That has obvious appeal for athletes, or even people who wish they were athletes: the takeaway is that just because you don’t seem to have this innate, amazing talent, you might have an underlying predisposition to respond much better than you’d expect. The idea of figuring out someone’s training routine based on what they do and don’t respond to is really appealing, and I’d say we’re maybe five or ten years away from getting into that.

And it might also play an important role in personalized medicine: if someone with heart problems can respond well to aerobic activity, then maybe we can prescribe an exercise program instead of medicating them.

Fascinating. I’ve placed The Sports Gene in my to-read queue.

Rainer Maria Rilke on Patience

Someone in social media cited Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as their favorite book. I haven’t read it, but this quote on patience is sublime:

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

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(via Brainpickings)