Assorted Musings

Your monthly edition of quick thoughts, cheap shots, bon mots…


1. An ideal age: to be young enough to trade on your little-kid right to ask inappropriate questions, but grown up enough to know what the right questions are. (via Francine Prose)


2. It’s hard to separate personal taste from an assessment of objective quality. Have you ever read a book that you don’t like for personal taste reasons even as you see its objective literary quality? It’s hard to do that.


3. Sometimes people are more interested in “being a” certain person rather than doing the work such a title requires. I have an acquaintance who is more interested in “being a reflective person” than actually reflecting. Lots of folks are more interested in “being a writer” than committing to the difficult task of adhering ass to chair. They want the identity caché without the hard work.


4. Two survey questions to ask to youth in a society that indirectly reveal quite a lot about a population: In general, are people out to get you or help you? and Do you want to work for the government?


5. I like observing people do even simple things. On international flights, I like watching the person next to me fill out his customs form. I’m interested in how he chooses to fill it out: in what order, what he reads carefully, etc. I also like watching people work on their computer. It’s interesting to see how and where they click. I got to do lots of observing as a child staring out the window of my bedroom out onto the elementary school situated across the street. I have spent many hours watching children play and walk around and talk. Either this tendency is creepily voyeuristic or stimulatingly anthropological.


6. Litmus test: business men who wear digital sports watch instead of nice formal watch tend to be more down-to-earth and practical.


7. People who can learn from other people’s experiences have a leg up. Most people just learn from their own experiences. By understanding others’ mistakes, you yourself can avoid them. This is harder than it sounds, and has something to do with empathy…


8. Slowness to change somehow confers legitmacy onto institutions. Colleges, for example.


9. When your relationship with someone gets to the point where you don’t feel a need to prove you’re smart, and thus you can feel free to make mistakes and take conversational risks, the relationship expands to new dimensions.


10. When you tell an inside joke, you more intensely bond with those who get it, but exclude others who now feel more intensely left out. is it worth it to tell an inside joke? If you are a blogger, would you rather have 10% fewer readers but of those who remain, have them more engaged and active and engaged?


11. “Pragmatic” is one of the most overused words. It is not clear what the apparently negative alternative is to being pragmatic. Dogmatically ideological? Who would ever cop to this?

Say PETA takes a stand saying every dog should be saved. This is not pragmatic, right, because it’s highly principled and ideological and doesn’t afford room for compromise? But maybe it actually is stealthy pragmatic because it gets attention and moves the meter. Bleh.


12. Your first observation of the working class ethnic group in a city you fly into is who is pushing the wheelchairs off the jetway in the airport. In San Francisco, it’s Chinese. In NY, it’s black. In London, it’s Indian.


13. You order a bottle of wine at a restaurant. The waiter brings a bottle to the head of table. The head of table sniffs it, swhirls it, tastes it, and then says, “It’s good.” What percentage of people say it’s not good? 1%? 2%? The theatrics, I tell you.

18 Responses to Assorted Musings

  1. Jackie says:

    Re #5: I have a worrying passion for watching men I admire and/or love do mundane things – make a sandwich, clean a bathtub, drink a glass of milk, choose socks. I just now considered how this relates to the Tyler Cowen quote I love so much, which you’ve blogged previously, about shared mundanity being the glue that holds longterm relationships together (paraphrase).

  2. Z says:

    Re #2: Maybe this is obvious, but I think making that distinction becomes easier when you’ve studied something academically for a while, because by thinking critically about something like a book, you acquire both the ability and vocabulary to impose objective standards, as well as the broad experience to determine what you actually like. As a literature major, it’s come to the point where maybe 60-70% of the objectively excellent books I read aren’t my thing- but that’s because I read so much that I’ve determined very precisely the type of reading experience I enjoy, and it’s surprisingly separate from many (if not most) measures of quality. Then again, I’m also entirely willing to enjoy objectively bad or flawed work wholeheartedly, as long as it’s entertaining.

    Re #13: At some point, someone told me that the purpose of the semiridiculous wine check at the beginning of the meal is not to determine the quality of the wine or whether you like it, but only to test that it hasn’t been corked. Given that corked wine is generally pretty rare at restaurants nice enough to have the wine check, I’d certainly hope the percentage is that low! Otherwise, that’s a lot of unnecessarily wasted wine, which is just sad.

  3. Melissa says:

    How do you keep track of these? Do you have a system of some kind or are they just things that have been rolling around in your head?

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    I create a draft post of assorted musings and add them as I think of them,
    and then when the lists hits about 10, I publish.

  5. DaveJ says:

    #2: learned this in high school… teacher that related the idea of “two levels of taste.” Never forgot it, although it takes practice.

    #3: Being pedantic, as best I can tell the word in English is “cachet.” The word caché is French, and if you elect to use it, it should be italicized. Right?

    #8: Any institution with a powerful brand cannot change at the drop of a hat, or the brand is meaningless. It’s a challenging balancing act to build systems and organizations that consistently deliver on the promise of a brand, yet adapt with changing times in ways that do not pollute it. Think “New Coke.” Oh wait, you might not have been around for that.

    #13: I thought it was a check to see if it had turned to vinegar. It does happen, apparently, although never to me.

  6. Eugene says:

    #5. I’d say you’re being observant rather than voyeuristic.
    #7. Couldn’t agree more.
    #12. (sigh)

  7. David Kinney says:

    Re #3: So very true. This is actually something I need to work on all of the time.

    Re #8: I think this idea suffers from survivorship bias. Slow changing organizations have legitimacy not because they don’t innovate but because they don’t need to innovate to survive. They have either outlived their original competitors and/or have a monopoly. A lack of competition usually leads to less innovation and change. If we were to look at all slow changing organizations, most would already be out of business.

  8. LP says:

    Re #2: I often have the experience of beginning to read a novel, then realizing that it’s a great novel, but that there’s no point in reading it until I’m older/have kids/whatever. In other words, I can predict that my future self will appreciate the literary value, even though my present self doesn’t like the book.

    Re #3: I think this is true of almost everyone, actually. You can tell alot about an aspiring writer by whether she says “I want to be a novelist” vs. “I want to write novels”. (Similarly, “I want to be a rock star” vs. “I want to play music”.)

    Re #11: You’re talking about practical value of signaling values that are not themselves practical. Here’s an entertaining discussion of seemingly inefficient signaling working stealthily in the signaller’s self-interest: link to agoraphilia.blogspot.com.

  9. Re #13 The wine presentation is not a pretentious display or outdated ritual.

    Any well-trained sommelier (will the resident Mrs. Grundy advise me I should italicize this word?;-) can tell you why the wine is presented for tasting.

    A wine is ‘corked’ when it has been in contact with a contaminated cork during aging.

    Cork taint is usually caused by a cork infected with a fungus that produces 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, but the wine can also be tainted by transfer of TCA through the cork, even from wood within the cellar, including cooperage, walls or beams.

    According to cellarnotes.net: “The wine industry estimates that as many as 3% to 7% of all wines have TCA contamination at levels that can be detected by consumers.”

    If you’ve bought a really great bottle and have taken it home only to find that it’s corked, don’t fret. It can often be restored, saving a trip back to the seller.

    The TCA molecule has an affinity for the polyethylene molecule, so if you pour the wine into a decanter or pitcher with a sheet of plastic wrap, the TCA will stick to the plastic and restore the wine.

  10. DaveJ says:

    Isn’t it possible that the organization does something well, and does it efficiently?

  11. I like the watch-wearing litmus test. The problem with such tests (as with much about interpreting signals) is that it’s only useful if it’s relatively unknown. If lots of people use watches as signals of practicality, people will start adjusting their watch-wearing behaviour according to how practical they wish to be known to be. Such tests can only ever have a limited impact.

  12. Tim says:

    Re #11 Check out what William James had to say about Pragmatism as a philosophy.

  13. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes, though I'm talking about the use of "pragmatic" in a non-philosophical
    sense.

  14. Zach Stern says:

    As far as the wine tasting goes, it actually makes sense that most people wouldn’t say it’s no good.

    People think that wine “tasting” at a restaurant is done in order to decide if you like the wine before you accept the glass or whole bottle. In reality, it’s for you to judge whether or not the wine is corked, or gone bad in some other manner. You’re not really supposed to send the bottle back.

    Or so I’ve been told.

  15. Belinda Gomez says:

    “3. Sometimes people are more interested in “being a” certain person rather than doing the work such a title requires. I have an acquaintance who is more interested in “being a reflective person” than actually reflecting. Lots of folks are more interested in “being a writer” than committing to the difficult task of adhering ass to chair. They want the identity caché without the hard work.”

    Do. Have. Be.

    If you do the things a writer does, you’ll have the things a writer has, and in short, you’ll be a writer.

    But some people like to mix up the order. They buy all the stuff a writer has–laptop, jacket with elbow patches, and think they can skip a step.

  16. sancho says:

    According to cellarnotes.net: “The wine industry estimates that as many as 3% to 7% of all wines have TCA contamination at levels that can be detected by consumers.

    A wine is ‘corked’ when it has been in contact with a contaminated cork during aging.

    Any well-trained sommelier (will the resident Mrs. Grundy advise me I should italicize this word?;-) can tell you why the wine is presented for tasting.

    If you’ve bought a really great bottle and have taken it home only to find that it’s corked, don’t fret. It can often be restored, saving a trip back to the seller.
    Cork taint is usually caused by a cork infected with a fungus that produces 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, but the wine can also be tainted by transfer of TCA through the cork, even from wood within the cellar, including cooperage, walls or beams.

  17. sancho says:

    According to cellarnotes.net: “The wine industry estimates that as many as 3% to 7% of all wines have TCA contamination at levels that can be detected by consumers.

    A wine is ‘corked’ when it has been in contact with a contaminated cork during aging.

    Any well-trained sommelier (will the resident Mrs. Grundy advise me I should italicize this word?;-) can tell you why the wine is presented for tasting.

    If you’ve bought a really great bottle and have taken it home only to find that it’s corked, don’t fret. It can often be restored, saving a trip back to the seller.
    Cork taint is usually caused by a cork infected with a fungus that produces 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, but the wine can also be tainted by transfer of TCA through the cork, even from wood within the cellar, including cooperage, walls or beams.

    Regards
    Sancho
    Find Attorney

  18. It’s “The Conclusion of the ‘Novel of the Curious Impertinent,’ with the dreadful Battle betwixt Don Quixote and certain Wine-skins.”

    Regards,

    Miguel

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