Monday, January 28, 2013

Beautiful Description of Munich in "Gladius Dei" by Thomas Mann

Here is a beautiful description of Munich in the short story 'Gladius Dei' by Thomas Mann, translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Thomas Mann wrote it in 1902, but whenever I read this story, it reminds me of present-day Munich and the Odeonsplatz:


MUNICH WAS LUMINOUS. A radiant, blue-silk sky stretched out over the festive squares and white-columned temples, the neoclassical monuments and Baroque churches, the spurting fountains, the palaces and gardens of the residence, and the latter’s broad and shining perspectives, carefully calculated and surrounded by green, basked in the sunny haze of a first and lovely June day. 
The chattering of birds and furtive rejoicing throughout the streets ... and the unhurried and amusing bustle of the beautiful and leisurely city rolled, surged, and hummed across plazas and rows of houses. Tourists of all nations climbed up the steps to museums or rode around in the small, slow droshkies, peering right and left and up the building walls in promiscuous curiosity. 
Numerous windows were open, and from many of them music poured out into the streets, people practicing on pianos, violins, or cellos, sincere and well-meaning dilettantish efforts. But at the Odeon, as could be heard, people were earnestly studying at several grand pianos. 
Young men, whistling the Nothung motif and crowding the back of the modern theater every evening, wandered in and out of the university or the National Library, with literary journals in the side pockets of their jackets. A royal coach stopped outside the Academy of Fine Arts, which spread its white wings between Turk Street and the Victory Gate. And at the top of the Academy’s ramp, the models stood, sat, and lounged in colorful groups— picturesque oldsters, youngsters, and women in the costumes of the Alban Hills. 
Casualness and unhurried ambling through all the long avenues in northern Munich ... People were not exactly driven or devoured by the greedy craving to earn their livelihood; instead their aim was to lead a pleasant life. Young artists, with small round hats on the backs of their heads, with loose ties and no canes, carefree fellows, who paid their rent with color sketches, were strolling about to let this light-blue morning affect their moods, and they looked at the young girls, that short pretty type with brunet hair in a band, somewhat oversize feet, and heedless morals.... Every fifth house had studio windows blinking in the sun. At times an artistic structure stood out in the series of bourgeois buildings, the work of an imaginative young architect, a wide house with flat arches and bizarre ornamentation, full of wit and style. And suddenly, somewhere, the door in an all-too-boring facade was framed by a bold improvisation, by flowing lines and sunny colors, bacchantes, nixes, and rosy nudes............

This excerpt is taken from "Death in Venice and Other Tales" by Thomas Mann, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Penguin Group 1999.

Here is the original in German from Project Gutenberg:


München leuchtete. Über den festlichen Plätzen und weißen Säulentempeln, den antikisierenden Monumenten und Barockkirchen, den springenden Brunnen, Palästen und Gartenanlagen der Residenz spannte sich strahlend ein Himmel von blauer Seide, und ihre breiten und lichten, umgrünten und wohlberechneten Perspektiven lagen in dem Sonnendunst eines ersten, schönen Junitages.  
Vogelgeschwätz und heimlicher Jubel über allen Gassen. …Und auf Plätzen und Zeilen rollt, wallt und summt das unüberstürzte und amüsante Treiben der schönen und gemächlichen Stadt. Reisende aller Nationen kutschieren in den kleinen, langsamen Droschken umher, indem sie rechts und links in wahlloser Neugier an den Wänden der Häuser hinaufschauen, und steigen die Freitreppen der Museen hinan… 
 Viele Fenster stehen geöffnet, und aus vielen klingt Musik auf die Straßen hinaus, Übungen auf dem Klavier, der Geige oder dem Violoncell, redliche und wohlgemeinte dilettantische Bemühungen. Im 'Odeon' aber wird, wie man vernimmt, an mehreren Flügeln ernstlich studiert.  
Junge Leute, die das Nothung-Motiv pfeifen und abends die Hintergründe des modernen Schauspielhauses füllen, wandern, literarische Zeitschriften in den Seitentaschen ihrer Jacketts, in der Universität und der Staatsbibliothek aus und ein. Vor der Akademie der bildenden Künste, die ihre weißen Arme zwischen der Türkenstraße und dem Siegestor ausbreitet, hält eine Hofkarosse. Und auf der Höhe der Rampe stehen, sitzen und lagern in farbigen Gruppen die Modelle, pittoreske Greise, Kinder und Frauen in der Tracht der Albaner Berge.  
Lässigkeit und hastloses Schlendern in all den langen Straßenzügen des Nordens… Man ist von Erwerbsgier nicht gerade gehetzt und verzehrt dortselbst, sondern lebt angenehmen Zwecken. Junge Künstler, runde Hütchen auf den Hinterköpfen, mit lockeren Krawatten und ohne Stock, unbesorgte Gesellen, die ihren Mietzins mit Farbenskizzen bezahlen, gehen spazieren, um diesen hellblauen Vormittag auf ihre Stimmung wirken zu lassen, und sehen den kleinen Mädchen nach, diesem hübschen, untersetzten Typus mit den brünetten Haarbandeaux, den etwas zu großen Füßen und den unbedenklichen Sitten. …Jedes fünfte Haus läßt Atelierfensterscheiben in der Sonne blinken. Manchmal tritt ein Kunstbau aus der Reihe der bürgerlichen hervor, das Werk eines phantasievollen jungen Architekten, breit und flachbogig, mit bizarrer Ornamentik, voll Witz und Stil. Und plötzlich ist irgendwo die Tür an einer allzu langweiligen Fassade von einer kecken Improvisation umrahmt, von fließenden Linien und sonnigen Farben, Bacchanten, Nixen, rosigen Nacktheiten….

Image Credit: Color photo lithograph of the Odeonsplatz in Munich around 1900, via Wikimedia

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Happier Children Earn Higher Wages When They Become Adults

There is quite a bit of debate about the scientific validity of the proverb “money can’t buy happiness”, because studies on this topic have yielded discordant results. Some studies support the idea that richer people are happier on average than poor people, but there are also reports that while the median income in the US has grown in recent decades, average happiness among Americans has hardly changed.

The researchers Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Andrew Oswald decided to study the link between happiness and income from a very different angle. Instead of asking whether more money leads to more happiness, they reversed the question and asked whether more happiness leads to more money. In the paper “Estimating the influence of life satisfaction and positive affect on later income using sibling fixed effects” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, De Neve and Oswald use in-home surveys and interviews of about 15,000 adolescents and young adults in the US, assessing their “positive affect” (a technical term to indicate “happiness” or “well-being”) at ages 16, 18 and 22. The researchers then analyzed the annual earnings of these adolescents or young adults once they reached the age 29. They found that the degree of happiness at the young age had a major role in predicting their future income. For example, 16-year-olds who scored in the lowest happiness category went on to earn about $28,000 per year at age 29, while those who scored in the highest happiness category earned roughly $38,000!

Since happiness at a young age could merely reflect the family environment or family income, the researchers also corrected for this by directly comparing the happiness of siblings growing up in the same family. It turned out that the same relationship between happiness at a young age and higher future income held true. Happier siblings who grew up in the same family were far more likely to earn more money as adults than their less happy siblings. The researchers also tried to uncover possible reasons for why happier adolescents go on to earn more money as adults. Their statistical analysis found that a higher likelihood of obtaining a college degree, getting hired and promoted, having an optimistic outlook and being an extrovert were all possible mediating factors that led to the higher income of happier children. How the happiness of the younger child impacted these factors could not be determined and the study also did not provide data on whether happiness at younger ages was associated with better academic performance. 
            This was an observational study which evaluated statistical associations, but could not assess direct cause-effect relationships nor did it test whether an intervention at a young age can actually make a difference. If we found ways to help children become happier at age 16 (as a parent, I know that this can be quite challenging!), would that necessarily mean that they would earn more money when they grow up? We need more research to definitively answer this question and then identify the potential interventions that would be effective. One has to also bear in mind that this study was conducted in US adolescents and may not apply to other societies or cultures. The fact that extraversion and optimism were associated with a higher income is a reminder that introverts often face challenges at work and may lose out in terms of promotions and earnings to colleagues who exude a lot of optimism and cheerfulness. If this study had been conducted in other societies where there isn't such peer pressure to be cheerful and optimistic, the results may have been very different.   
As a society, we should try to maximize the happiness of children, purely for ethical and altruistic reasons and not because it makes them better earners. However, we live in an environment where terms such as “fiscal responsibility” are thrown around as an excuse to cut budgets for schools and for important educational and community programs. This study provides some data to show that investing in the happiness of children may indeed be “fiscally responsible” and yield returns that can be measured in actual dollars. 

Image credit: Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) by Henri Matisse, 1905. The painting is in the public domain in the US. De Neve JE, & Oswald AJ (2012). Estimating the influence of life satisfaction and positive affect on later income using sibling fixed effects. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (49), 19953-8 PMID: 23169627

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Degree Of Kinship Determines How Far We Are Willing To Travel To See Our Relatives

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost - Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Maintaining regular face-to-face contact with family members can be rather challenging because nowadays families are often geographically dispersed. It takes time, money and effort to travel and visit family members. The famous British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar at Oxford University and his colleagues investigated how far people were willing to travel to see their relatives. Their results were published in the open access journal PLOS One “Going That Extra Mile: Individuals Travel Further to Maintain Face-to-Face Contact with Highly Related Kin than with Less Related Kin” by Thomas Pollet et al. (online publication January 25, 2013). They asked 355 German and Dutch participants about the amount of travel time they invested to see their relatives that were not living with them in the same house. They classified the relatives by the degree of genetic relatedness. Siblings, parents and children of the participants were all combined in the first category (i.e. the ones that were most genetically related to the participants), half-siblings, aunts, uncles and grand-parents were in the second category and even more distant relatives such as cousins and half-cousins were in the third and fourth categories of genetic relatedness. The participants were also asked to comment about the degree of emotional closeness that they felt with the relatives that they visited. Travel time was used instead of distance, because we generally have an easier time making accurate estimates of how long it takes to make a trip than to estimate the actual number of traveled distances.
As expected, the researchers found that individuals were willing to travel for longer to see more closely related relatives than distantly related relatives. The second finding was that for all relatives in categories 2, 3 and 4 (i.e. aunts, uncles, grand-parents, cousins, nieces, half-siblings, second cousins, etc), emotional closeness determined how much travel time the participants were willing to invest. This means that participants were more likely to make a bigger effort to visit an emotionally close second cousin than a grandparent with whom they did not feel that strong of an emotional bond, even though grandparents were genetically closer. One of the most interesting findings of the study was that genetic relatedness to kin in the first category (parents, siblings and children) still trumped emotional closeness. Individuals were still willing to travel significantly further to see their closest relatives as compared to any other relatives, independent of the emotional closeness that they felt.
The study has some key limitations, such as the fact that it only included Dutch and German participants and these results may not apply to other societies or cultures. The sample size was also rather small and the researchers excluded adopted kin, because less than 2.5% of relatives were listed in this category. This did not allow the researchers to investigate whether the increased willingness to invest in travel time was truly due to genetic closeness, or whether perhaps participants would have put in just as much effort to see an adopted child who was not at all genetically related to them. Nevertheless, this study has interesting implications for understanding how we make decisions about investing time and effort into maintaining family relationships. It suggests that emotional closeness and friendship may be far more important determinants of our behavior for distant relatives than for close relatives.

Image credit: Wikimedia -17th century painting of a ship in the Brooklyn Museum Asian Art Collection, unknown artist Pollet, T., Roberts, S., & Dunbar, R. (2013). Going That Extra Mile: Individuals Travel Further to Maintain Face-to-Face Contact with Highly Related Kin than with Less Related Kin PLoS ONE, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053929

Monday, January 21, 2013

"We used to sprint to pick and store blackberries, now we run to the Sprint store to pick Blackberries"

Marshall Soulful Jones, part of Team Nuyorican 2011, 2nd place finishers at the National Poetry Slam in Boston, performs "Touchscreen". The Bowery Poetry Club NY.

(h/t Peter Toth)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader”

Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita (Part 1):

“I don’t wish to touch hearts, I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”

Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita (Part 2):

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Academic Publisher Unveils New Journal Which Prevents All Access To Its Content

AMSTERDAM - Academic publishers are currently under attack by scientists, governments and the general public for hiding the majority of published research articles behind paywalls. Readers have to pay either a one-time access fee of up to $50 to read one article or obtain an annual subscription to the journal in order to access the research findings. The access fees for research articles generate multi-billion dollar profits for academic publishers, but this lucrative industry is having a hard time justifying the fees. Since the bulk of research is funded through government grants, most people feel that the research articles which summarize and document the public-funded research should be freely available to the public. Some academic publishers are gradually giving in to these demands and are now offering "open access" publishing. In this model, researchers pay a fee to cover the publication costs, but the publications are then available without any fees to all readers.

Not all academic publishers agree with this approach. Else Beer, the CEO of the prominent academic publisher Elsebeer, has condemned the open access approach and is instead betting on a new line of closed-access journals. Beer unveiled the new closed-access journal "Facts of Life" at a press conference.

"We realize that there is a big push towards open access publishing in science, but few people think about the problems that come with open access. If everyone is able to access a scientific paper, it is far more likely that they will read the paper and perhaps even try to replicate the results. This is a huge problem for scientists who routinely publish irreproducible results, as well as for scientists who want to keep their tools and scientific methods secret."

Unlike previous closed access journals in which articles are hidden behind a paywall and can be accessed after paying a fee, "Facts of Life" guarantees that nobody other than the author can access the published article. This allows scientists to include the article as a published paper on their CV and cite their work, without ever having to worry that someone else might read the article. Beer expects that this new concept will be embraced by many researchers

The physician-scientist and poet Yuri Zhivago is among the first researchers to submit manuscripts to the new journal. "It is a blessing to have this journal", Zhivago commented, "I have at least three manuscripts that contain experiments that cannot be replicated.  Now I can publish them without having to worry about my tenure committee criticizing me for having too few publications. If I published them in an open access journal, I would eventually have to retract the papers and this would could damage my reputation as a researcher. By publishing in "Facts of Life", I can be sure that nobody will ever be able to accuse me of publishing fraudulent data."

Beer is confident that there are many other Zhivagos out there who need a completely closed-access journal. "We are taking closed access publishing to a new level and we think that we provide a much-needed forum for all the researchers want to publish but have no sound data." She is convinced that other publishers will follow suit when they see the success of the "completely closed access" model.    

The Writer's Secret Is Not Inspiration

An excerpt from Orhan Pamuk's 2006 Nobel lecture:

"The writer's secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind. In the old stories, I love the patience of Ferhat, who digs through mountains for his love – and I understand it, too. In my novel, My Name is Red, when I wrote about the old Persian miniaturists who had drawn the same horse with the same passion for so many years, memorising each stroke, that they could recreate that beautiful horse even with their eyes closed, I knew I was talking about the writing profession, and my own life.

If a writer is to tell his own story – tell it slowly, and as if it were a story about other people – if he is to feel the power of the story rise up inside him, if he is to sit down at a table and patiently give himself over to this art – this craft – he must first have been given some hope. The angel of inspiration (who pays regular visits to some and rarely calls on others) favours the hopeful and the confident, and it is when a writer feels most lonely, when he feels most doubtful about his efforts, his dreams, and the value of his writing – when he thinks his story is only his story – it is at such moments that the angel chooses to reveal to him stories, images and dreams that will draw out the world he wishes to build.

If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my entire life, I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences, dreams, and pages that have made me so ecstatically happy have not come from my own imagination – that another power has found them and generously presented them to me."

The complete Nobel lecture can be found here.

Image Credit: Orhan Pamuk by David Shankbone 2009, Via Wikimedia - Creative Commons license

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Accuracy of Medical Information on the Internet

We can just Google it!” is becoming our standard response to unanswered questions in life. Whether we are looking for the title of an irritating 80s song, a restaurant serving authentic Icelandic food or the quickest bus route to the Star Trek convention, the Internet usually offers the long-sought answers. However, when we enter key words in a search engine such as Google, we end up with thousands of websites – many of which are barely relevant to what we are looking for or are rife with inaccuracies.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, by Vincent van Gogh, 
public domain

Identifying the websites with the most accurate and relevant information are critical skills that are necessary for navigating our way in the digital information jungle, but unfortunately, these skills are rarely taught. In most cases, inaccurate or irrelevant information on the internet merely delays us for a few minutes until we do find the answer to what we are looking for. However, when it comes to medical information, inaccurate or irrelevant information could potentially have a major detrimental impact on our well-being. Patients and their family members are increasingly using the internet as a major source of advice regarding their illnesses, treatment options, dietary advice and disease prevention. 

However, little is known about the accuracy of medical advice obtained via the internet. A study entitled “Safe Infant Sleep Recommendations on the Internet: Let’s Google It” by Dr. Rachel Moon and colleagues (published online in the Journal of Pediatrics on August 2, 2012) addresses this question by focusing on the question of sleep safety in infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has published guidelines for reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), suffocation or other accidental sleep-related infant deaths. Since such guidelines are written for clinical professionals, they often contain medical jargon that cannot be easily understood by concerned parents that want practical advice regarding how to ensure the sleep safety of their infants. Thus, instead of reading the AAP guidelines, most parents probably enter key phrases related to infant sleep safety into an internet search engine and may follow the advice displayed on the sites identified by the search engine.
Google Girls, by Defluiter at Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Moon and colleagues tested the accuracy of such websites by entering thirteen search phrases such as ” Infant sleep position”, ” Infant co-sleeping” or ” Pacifier sleeping” into the Google search engine, and then cross-checked the medical information offered in the search results with the AAP recommendations, which was used as the standard for medical accuracy.

Since most parents would probably read the first few pages of the Google search results, the researchers only analyzed the first 100 websites identified by each of the thirteen Google searches (total of 1300 websites). Only 43.5% of these 1300 websites contained recommendations that were in line with the AAP recommendations, while 28.1% contained inaccurate information and 28.4% of the websites were not medically relevant. The accuracy was highly dependent on the type of question asked. The search phrase “infant cigarette smoking”, for example, yielded 82% accurate results, while the search phrase “infant home monitors” resulted in only 18% accuracy.

Of note, the researchers also categorized the results by the organization or group that had generated the website. Out of the 1300 websites identified by the searches, 246 (19%) were retail product review site websites and 250 (19%) were websites associated with specific companies or interest groups. Product review retail websites were also the ones which had the lowest level of medical accuracy (8.5%). On the other hand, government websites and websites of national organizations (as identified by URL ending in .org) had the highest level of accuracy (80.9% and 72.5%, respectively).

Surprisingly, educational websites (universities or other websites with URL’s ending in .edu, ebooks, peer-reviewed articles) only had 50.2% accurate medical information, possibly due to the fact that either some of the information was not updated or that a number of the linked articles required a subscription and thus could not be accessed. The majority of the books found by the search engine either provided outdated or irrelevant information, which may have also contributed to the low accuracy rate of educational websites. Blogs and websites of individuals also had very low rates of medical accuracy (25.7% and 30.3%).

This study highlights the opportunities and pitfalls of using the internet to communicate medical information. The internet is providing an opportunity for patients and family members to obtain additional medical information that they did not receive from their physicians, as well as to address questions that may arise and do not warrant a visit to a physician. On the other hand, the study also demonstrates that the quality of medical information on the internet varies widely. Searches for certain key phrases can unwittingly lead a user to websites that promote certain products or treatments without taking the medical evidence and professional guidelines into account.

One key factor to help address this pitfall is for physicians and other healthcare professionals to actively guide patients or family members to website that are likely to have information with high levels of medical accuracy. Instead of placing the burden of discriminating between accurate and inaccurate information on patients, healthcare professionals could advise patients or parents as to what websites should be used to address medical questions that they might have.

Furthermore, government institutions, organizations and educational websites need to realize the importance of maintaining up-to-date and accessible medical information on their websites. Concerted efforts between government or educational institutions, professional organizations and healthcare professionals are necessary so that patients can maximally benefit from the information opportunities afforded by the internet. Chung M, Oden RP, Joyner BL, Sims A, & Moon RY (2012). Safe infant sleep recommendations on the Internet: let's Google it. The Journal of pediatrics, 161 (6), 1080-4 PMID: 22863258

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"I think it may be taken as the rule among primitive men, that they both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar."

An excerpt from Bertrand Russell's 1950 Nobel lecture:

"Interwoven with many other political motives are two closely related passions to which human beings are regrettably prone: I mean fear and hate. It is normal to hate what we fear, and it happens frequently, though not always, that we fear what we hate. I think it may be taken as the rule among primitive men, that they both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar. They have their own herd, originally a very small one. And within one herd, all are friends, unless there is some special ground of enmity. Other herds are potential or actual enemies; a single member of one of them who strays by accident will be killed. An alien herd as a whole will be avoided or fought according to circumstances. It is this primitive mechanism which still controls our instinctive reaction to foreign nations. The completely untravelled person will view all foreigners as the savage regards a member of another herd. But the man who has travelled, or who has studied international politics, will have discovered that, if his herd is to prosper, it must, to some degree, become amalgamated with other herds. If you are English and someone says to you, «The French are your brothers», your first instinctive feeling will be, «Nonsense. They shrug their shoulders, and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs.» If he explains to you that we may have to fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when he says that the French are your brothers. But if some fellow-traveller were to go on to say that the Russians also are your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians. We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be very few people whom we should love."

The complete 1950 Nobel lecture of Bertrand Russell can be found here.

Image: Photo of Bertrand Russell/Wikimedia

"To oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life"

An excerpt from the 1982 Nobel lecture given by Gabriel García Márquez:

"Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration. However, the navigational advances that have narrowed such distances between our Americas and Europe seem, conversely, to have accentuated our cultural remoteness. Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions? No: the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness, and not a conspiracy plotted three thousand leagues from our home. But many European leaders and thinkers have thought so, with the childishness of old-timers who have forgotten the fruitful excess of their youth as if it were impossible to find another destiny than to live at the mercy of the two great masters of the world. This, my friends, is the very scale of our solitude.

 In spite of this, to oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life. Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death. An advantage that grows and quickens: every year, there are seventy-four million more births than deaths, a sufficient number of new lives to multiply, each year, the population of New York sevenfold. Most of these births occur in the countries of least resources - including, of course, those of Latin America. Conversely, the most prosperous countries have succeeded in accumulating powers of destruction such as to annihilate, a hundred times over, not only all the human beings that have existed to this day, but also the totality of all living beings that have ever drawn breath on this planet of misfortune."

The complete 1982 Nobel lecture of Gabriel García Márquez can be found here.

Image: Photo of Gabriel García Márquez via Jose Lara/Wikimedia