Like Clockwork: Your Next Trivia Question at a Party

This post has very little to do with reading, but it’s a really awesome trivia/math question to ask at your next party (or wherever you happen to be).

A good lead-in to this question would be after you and the opposite party are looking at an analog clock..

Here’s the question: What is the first time after 9PM when the hour and minute hands of a clock are exactly on top of each other (that is, coincident)?

First, consider working out this problem on your own… If you’re curious, hit the jump link below to find out about the solution…

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Readings: Steinbrenner, Cryonics, Caffeine, Journalism

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

1) “Reign of ‘The Boss’ Was a Wild Ride” [ESPN] – George Steinbrenner, a long-time owner of the New York Yankees, died today. This piece by William (Bill) Knack profiles The Boss’ life beautifully. A few quotes not to miss:

On his early life (I love this description):

George M. Steinbrenner first began breathing on Independence Day, 1930, and he did so into a life of privilege and wealth — the son of a successful marine company owner who had been a star hurdler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and who later pushed his son into the world of competitive athletics. The father, Henry Steinbrenner, had a bit of “The Great Santini” in him when it came to dealing with his son. George took up the hurdles at age 12; whenever the boy finished second in a race, his father would materialize at his side and demand an explanation.

On Steinbrenner’s influence on free agency:

Surely his most important legacy is the push he gave to the free-agency revolution, feeding his fragile ego as he threw around bags of cash. He was, in a very real sense, baseball’s first truly modern owner. Steinbrenner was always in a hurry to win, sensing his father standing at his side. He wanted to win today, not tomorrow, and certainly did not want to wait until next week, or next year. For Steinbrenner, at least in the first 20 years of his reign, developing talent in the minor leagues was a bridge too far.

On losing:

And what could be said, in sum, at the end of his run? There is this: More than he loved winning, Steinbrenner hated losing. “I hate to lose,” he said. “Hate, hate, hate to lose.” So he threw everything he had into the race not to lose those World Series titles — all his money and energy, his will and fire, all his anger and pride.

There are other Steinbrenner obituaries posted today (the one at The New York Times is notable as well), but I’ll take Roger Ebert’s advice that Bill Knack’s is the one worth reading.

2) “Until Cryonics Do Us Part” [The New York Times] – an interesting, somewhat whimsical piece on how some people want their brains frozen when they die. The piece is not as morbid as it sounds… For instance, one of my favorite passages was one couple’s dispute on the merits of The Brothers Karamazov vs. The Lord of the Rings (both of which I’ve read):

Shortly after they met, Peggy and Robin decided to read each other’s favorite works of literature. Peggy asked Robin to read “The Brothers Karamazov,” and he asked her to read “The Lord of the Rings.” She hated it. “I asked him why he loved it, and he said: ‘Because it’s so full of detail. This guy has invented this whole world.’ He asked me why I hated it, and I said: ‘Because it’s so full of detail. There was nowhere for the reader to imagine her own interpretation.’ ” Robin, less one for telling stories, describes their early days more succinctly. “There was,” he says not without tenderness, “a personality-type convergence.”

On what it takes to run a cryonics facility:

Alcor’s Patient Care Bay, filled as it is with 10-foot steel canisters packed with human bodies and connected to monitors, may appear self-regulating but in fact requires a very human vigilance against entropy. There is a man charged with topping off the liquid nitrogen. There is a man who mops the floors. Those in charge of the Patient Care Bay are only the last in a long chain of people called upon to assist “deanimated” members. Someone must perform the perfusion, for example, whereby blood is replaced with an antifreeze-like solution that will harden like glass rather than freeze like water. Someone must accompany the body from the site of death to the cryonics facility. Someone must deal with flight schedules, local coroners and byzantine hospital bureaucracies generally unfriendly to those who would march into the hospital and whisk away the freshly dead. This is all vastly more likely to succeed if the legal guardian of the remains is willing to help.

3) “What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain” [Lifehacker] – a good primer on the subject. Briefly:

Every moment that you’re awake, the neurons in your brain are firing away. As those neurons fire, they produce adenosine as a byproduct, but adenosine is far from excrement. Your nervous system is actively monitoring adenosine levels through receptors. Normally, when adenosine levels reached a certain point in your brain and spinal cord, your body will start nudging you toward sleep, or at least taking it easy. There are actually a few different adenosine receptors throughout the body, but the one caffeine seems to interact with most directly is the A1 receptor. More on that later.

Enter caffeine. It occurs in all kinds of plants, and chemical relatives of caffeine are found in your own body. But taken in substantial amounts—the semi-standard 100mg that comes from a strong eight-ounce coffee, for instance—it functions as a supremely talented adenosine impersonator. It heads right for the adenosine receptors in your system and, because of its similarities to adenosine, it’s accepted by your body as the real thing and gets into the receptors.

4) “Journalism Needs Government Help” [The Wall Street Journal] – a feverishly sensational piece in which Lee Bollinger argues that our media/journalism system “needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters.” I’m surprised this piece even made it into the WSJ, frankly. What do you think?

While the Women Are Sleeping

The best thing I read today was a short story in The New Yorker titled “While the Women Are Sleeping.” The story is by an author I haven’t heard of before: Javier Marías.

The story starts out with more questions than answers…

For three weeks, I saw them every day, and now I don’t know what has become of them. I’ll probably never see them again—at least, not her. Summer conversations, and even confidences, rarely lead anywhere.

It’s kind of an intriguing opening: who is them? What have they become? And summer conversations rarely lead to anywhere?

The story concerns a couple from Madrid vacationing on an island. While there, they observe another couple; the beautiful Inés, described as so:

She was beautiful, indolent, passive, and, by nature, languid. Throughout the three hours a day that we spent at the beach (they stayed longer, perhaps taking their siesta there and, who knows, staying until sunset), she barely moved and was, of course, concerned only with her own beautification

and her older, less attractive male companion named Alberto Viana. What the observing couple find remarkable (and so does the reader, no doubt) is that Alberto constantly, without interruption records Ines on video camera. The video camera has become an extension of him…

The story, admittedly, starts out slowly (I had to step away from reading it in the evening, and came back to it the following day)… But then it picks up and absolutely sucks you in. At least, it did for me. What could be so interesting about a guy videotaping his girlfriend? The answer is explained in the story, which begins with this conversation between the narrator and Alberto:

“I’ve noticed that you’re very keen on video cameras,” I said after that pause, that hesitation.

“Video cameras?” he said, slightly surprised or as if to gain time. “Ah, I see. No, not really, I’m not a collector. It isn’t the camera itself that interests me, although I do use it a lot. It’s my girlfriend, whom you’ve seen, I’m sure. I film only her, nothing else. I don’t experiment with it at all. That’s fairly obvious, I suppose.”

And the conversation picks up from there. What I find fascinating is our abilities to remember things; some go about life, cruising. Others write things down. Others photograph the world around them. This was an intriguing conversation between the narrator and Alberto Viana:

“You don’t have a camera? Don’t you like to be able to remember things?” Viana asked me this with genuine confusion.

“Yes, of course I do, but you can remember things in other ways, don’t you think? Memory is a kind of camera, except that we don’t always remember what we want to remember or forget what we want to forget.”

And still others prefer to record things on video, as Alberto explains to the narrator:

“How can you compare what you can remember with what you can see, with what you can see again, just as it happened? With what you can watch over and over, ad infinitum, and even freeze?

But there is something sinister (though arguably honest) in Alberto’s declaration…

I won’t say much more except that this is an incredible story of obsession, vision (literally and figuratively), memory, human misconceptions, life, and death. Shortly put, it is one of the best works of fiction I have read in 2010, so I highly recommend reading it.


A hat tip to @etherielmusings for pointing out this story via Twitter.

Readings: Fourth of July Edition

Today is Independence Day in America, so here are some interesting reads related to the Fourth of July holiday in America:

1) “Star-Spangled Skepticism” [New York Times] – a wonderful photo essay in the New York Times Lens blog on Misha Erwitt’s fascination with the American flag:

The collection, “Stars and Stripes,” is a meditation on Americans and their unusually intimate relationship with their flag, an intimacy that struck him even as a boy, standing with his hand over his heart as he recited the Pledge of Allegiance at school. In the years since, Mr. Erwitt’s fascination has grown, establishing itself as an exploration of the fanfare that shadows the flag.

2) “Jefferson Changed ‘Subjects’ to ‘Citizens’ in Declaration of Independence” [The Washington Post] – a very interesting article about a certain “smear” found on The Declaration of Independence:

Scholars of the revolution have long speculated about the “citizens” smear — wondering whether the erased word was “patriots” or “residents” — but now the Library of Congress has determined that the change was far more dramatic.

Using a modified version of the kind of spectral imaging technology developed for the military and for monitoring agriculture, research scientists teased apart the mystery and reconstructed the word that Jefferson banished in 1776.

Fascinating how The Library of Congress made this discovery:

The library deciphered the hidden “subjects” several months ago, the first major finding attributed to its new high-tech instruments. By studying the document at different wavelengths of light, including infrared and ultraviolet, researchers detected slightly different chemical signatures in the remnant ink of the erased word than in “citizens.” Those differences allowed the team to bring the erased word back to life.

But the task was made more difficult by the way Jefferson sought to match the lines and curves of the underlying smudged letters with the new letters he wrote on top of them. It took research scientist Fenella France weeks to pull out each letter until the full word became apparent.

3) “The Mystery of the Declaration of Independence” [Art Lebedev blog] – this fascinating article is featured in a blog, but it was too good to pass up after I chanced upon it today researching about the Declaration of Independence for my photoblog entry. The central premise is why the document of such importance was titled as so:

United States of "Жmerinca"

Granted, the document was found in Kiev, but how did this error happen? The story revolves around Timothy Matlack, born as Tomislav Matlakowski:

In all likelihood, the nostalgic Matlakowski wrote the title in mixed alphabets, while Congress members didn’t notice anything wrong on the day when the Declaration was signed. But it was apparently discovered the next day by Charles Thomson, the discovery leading him to order immediately that the original be hidden from the public eye, and Matlack be demoted from the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Congress Delegate from the same state.

To fill in the gaps, you should read the entire fascinating story. Do you believe it?

William Deresiewicz: On Solitude and Leadership

The best piece of writing/advice I have read this week comes courtesy of The American Scholar; it is a lecture delivered by William Deresiewicz (formerly a professor of English at Yale University) to a plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.

The lecture explores a number of ideas: how we think, what it takes to be a leader, and even the influence of Twitter/Facebook in our lives. A few of my favorite passages are below (keep in mind that I always recommend reading articles in their entirety, but if you want the general idea, see below).

What does it take to be a leader?

So I began to wonder…what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like  leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.

I loved this paragraph on students described as “excellent sheep” (I saw quite a few of these in my high school and college years):

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

Why is there a crisis of leadership in America?

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision. [emphases mine]

There’s a great case study in General David Petraeus in the lecture. On his leadership:

No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

This is the paragraph that stuck with me. What exactly is meant by thinking? William Deresiewicz’s explanation:

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

An excellent point that the first thought isn’t one’s own:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

William Deresiewicz take on Facebook, Twitter, and even The New York Times as distractions:

You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself.

I’ve made this argument before in my previous post (does the Internet make us dumber or smarter? I claimed that it makes us more distracted). The question is: what can we do to get away from all this distraction in our lives? This is the importance of solitude:

So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

There is one passage with which I disagree:

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself.

I think “marinating” in other people’s thoughts helps me develop my own: I probe what I already know, what I believe in, and what I question by examining what others have to offer. Of course, it is important to take what anyone says with an inquisitive (some would say skeptical) mind.

Finally, an excellent point on why it’s important to read books:

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today.

The goal of this blog has been to profile the books I’ve read in 2010. Over the last few months, I’ve shifted more to profiling interesting articles I have found on the web. It seems to me people are less interested in reading book reviews compared to reading interesting articles on the web (at least, that’s my interpretation; let me know if you think otherwise). I absolutely hope you read the entire lecture. It’s one of the most lucid pieces of writing I have read in a while.