Saturday, September 19, 2015

Almost everybody misinterprets "The Road Not Taken"

[Former poet laureate Robert] Pinsky used his public role to ask Americans to submit their favorite poem in various forms; the clear favorite among more than eighteen thousand entries was [Robert Frost’s] “The Road Not Taken.” ... On a word-for-word basis, it may be the most popular piece of literature ever written by an American.

And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. ...

Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. ...

It’s an explanation that Frost himself sometimes encouraged, much as he used to boast about the trickiness of “The Road Not Taken” in private correspondence. (“I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer.)
--David Orr, The Paris Review, on the important of reading the whole context. HT: TS

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Flexibility is all about your nervous system, not your muscles and tendons

Many people think stretching is essential to improving flexibility. ...

It is clear that stretching doesn't actually make muscles permanently longer, experts agree. Instead, it may be that exercises such as reaching for your toes train the nervous system to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension without firing off pain signals. ...

When animals are placed in casts that keep their muscles extended for a long time, their bodies do add additional sarcomeres, or the basic subunits of muscle fibers, but their muscles return to their original shape soon after the animal is removed from those constraints. And in those studies, it's not clear that the lengthened muscles improved the animal's flexibility.

In a June 2014 study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics, Tilp and colleague Andreas Konrad found no differences in people's muscles and tendons after six weeks of a static-stretching regimen.

So, if muscle fiber doesn't get longer as a result of stretching, why does stretching seem to increase people's flexibility? ...

The nervous system is the master conductor determining how far a person can stretch, said Brooke Thomas, a yoga instructor who discussed the science of stretching in a blog post on

Nerve endings are dispersed throughout the muscle and tendon, and if a stretch doesn't feel safe for the muscle, those nerves will fire, registering pain and resistance, Thomas told Live Science.

These nerves "will say 'you better stop stretching, because if you stretch further, the muscle will maybe get damaged,'" Tilp told Live Science.

That's why a person under anesthesia, whose nerves are quieted, can be stretched through a full range of motion with no resistance. And healthy babies are born able to do the splits, because they haven't developed a blueprint for ranges of motion that feel unsafe, Mitchell said.
--Tia Ghose, Live Science, on flexibility being all in your head

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Asking for advice makes you look smarter

People are often hesitant to seek advice because they fear it will make them appear incompetent, said Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In fact, those who seek advice are perceived as more competent than those who do not, according to a recent paper that she wrote along with Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Maurice E. Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. ...

Researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing the responses of college students and working adults who were asked to give their impressions of people (a computer-simulated partner, in this case) who sought their advice on various written tests and tasks. ...

Being asked for advice is flattering. As Professor Gino said, “People commonly believe that asking for advice is inconsiderate — we don’t want to bother others.” But in fact, “by asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice seekers stroke the adviser’s ego and can gain valuable insights,” she said. And regardless of whether you use the advice or not, “People do not think less of you — they actually think you’re smarter.”
--Phyllis Korkki, NYT, on the double benefit of asking for advice

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Princeton Review jacks up its prices in areas with lots of Asians

But few, if any, realize that the prices for The Princeton Review’s online SAT tutoring packages vary substantially depending on where customers live. If they type some zip codes into the company’s website, they are offered The Princeton Review’s Premier course for as little as $6,600. For other zip codes, the same course costs as much as $8,400.

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. (Read ProPublica’s research methodology here.)

The gap remains even for Asians in lower-income neighborhoods. Consider a zip code in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Asians make up 70.5 percent of the population in this zip code. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in the zip code, $41,884, is lower than most, yet The Princeton Review customers there are quoted the highest price. ...

Earlier this year, Harvard undergraduate Christian Haigh stumbled on The Princeton Review’s variable prices doing research for a class he was taking called “Data Science to Save the World.” ...

Today, Haigh and three fellow students are publishing their findings that The Princeton Review’s higher prices correlate to areas with higher income. ...

ProPublica tested whether The Princeton Review prices were tied to different characteristics of each zip code, including income, race, and education level. When it came to getting the highest prices, living in a zip code with a high median income or a large Asian population seemed to make the greatest difference. ...

Customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents were 1.8 times as likely to be offered higher prices, regardless of income. For instance, residents of the gritty, industrial city of Westminster, California, which is half Asian with a median income below most, were charged the second-highest price for the Premier tutoring service.
--Julia Angwin, Surya Mattu, and Jeff Larson, The Atlantic, on what happens when demand is inelastic

Friday, September 4, 2015

Why did the Holocaust occur in only some Nazi-occupied territories?

Why did 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark survive while 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Estonia were murdered? And why were the death camps, shootings and gassings located in Eastern Europe?

[Yale history professor Timothy] Snyder’s account ends up shifting the Holocaust’s center of gravity to Eastern Europe and the countries that then lay between Germany and the Soviet Union: Poland, the Baltic republics, Belarus and the Ukraine. This region is his specialty; he has a knowledge of at least 10 languages and consulted sources in German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, French and English. This is something no other chronicler of the Holocaust has done. ...

What was it about Poland or Belarus that made them so hospitable to participatory mass murder? The usual explanation is anti-Semitism—“a historically predictable outburst of the barbarity of east Europeans,” Mr. Snyder writes. But “the level of antisemitism, insofar as this can be ascertained, does not seem to correlate with Jewish death rates.” ...

Hitler had, from the very start, imagined the German empire expanding across Eastern Europe into the Soviet Union. But in 1939, buying time and territory, he made a pact with Stalin, the two dividing the intervening lands between them. Germany took chunks of Poland; the Soviets swept through the rest, along with Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and other territories. ...

In June 1941 came Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. No sooner had the Communist purges taken place throughout Soviet-run Eastern Europe than the Nazi ones began. The Soviets had destroyed the state apparatus in each territory. Now it was upended again. But often the same local leaders were involved in managing both upheavals. Anybody with authority in the Soviet regime had to quickly dissociate himself from the past and demonstrate a new allegiance. The killing of Jews was a solution. The massacres were, Mr. Snyder suggests, a kind of “political scenography” in which the local population proved itself to its new masters, shedding its Soviet past. This expiation was often made explicit: Nazi ideology identified Judaism with Bolshevism, so the murder of Jews was a form of revenge against the onetime occupiers.

That these were “consecutively occupied lands,” Mr. Snyder argues, is the crucial fact. Whether locals would eagerly participate in the murders and how thoroughly the Final Solution would be pursued were matters determined not by the extent of local anti-Semitism but by the condition of each nation-state. The entire Holocaust took place on lands touched by Soviet power and then again by German power.
--Edward Rothstein, WSJ, on the political expedience of the Holocaust