Einstein invented a fridge

Liquid is really interesting

As I was on holiday over the past few weeks, I enjoyed switching off entirely (including — and I hope you noticed — writing this mailing list). I read a bunch more than I normally would. I enjoyed a collection of essays by F SCOTT FITZGERALD on his struggles with being a writer, a fantastic short story collection by TED CHIANG (which made OBAMA’s Summer reading list 2019) and also The Lessons of History by WIL and ARIEL DURANT.

But the most enjoyable book, I think, was Liquid by MARK MIODOWNIK who is director of UCL’s Institute of Making.

Unsurprisingly, the book is about liquid. It follows a plane trip that MIODOWNIK took between London and San Francisco to speak at a conference. Over the course of several chapters, he recalls his trip through the lens of different liquids that he is interacting with. Example: on takeoff, he writes about gasoline. As the drinks trolley goes around, ethanol.

These sorts of books (recall Rain by CYNTHIA BARNETT in an earlier post) are such a pleasure to read mostly because of the level of interest the authors take about relatively commonplace things.

This collection certainly made me feel differently about the plane trips I took this summer, however short.

See you soon,

Marc


SNIPPETS

Pay attention while spreading on toast.

The molecular make-up of the explosive nitroglycerine, for instance, is similar to peanut butter’s.

Hadn’t ever really thought about why this is possible, but now I know:

Look carefully at a pond skater insect as it ‘walks’ on water and you see that its legs are repelled by the water – this happens because the surface tension between the water and the insect’s legs generates a repulsive force that acts against gravity.

Sobering:

The message of the pre-flight ritual is this: you are about to do something that is extremely dangerous, but engineers have made it almost completely safe. The ‘almost’ is emphasized by all the elaborate actions involving the previously mentioned props. The ritual draws a line between your normal life, where you are in charge of your own safety, to your current one, where you are ceding control to a set of people and their engineering systems as they harness one of the most awesomely powerful liquids on the planet to shoot you through the atmosphere to a destination of your choosing. In other words, you need to trust them absolutely, your life is in their hands; and so this ritual, performed before every flight, is really a trust ceremony.

Wine for dogs:

Dogs also get drunk if they drink alcohol, which is why there is a growing market for non-alcoholic wine designed specifically for pets to consume at festive occasions.

Just in case you’re thinking of brewing something for yourself:

Methanol is produced during the fermentation of alcoholic drinks, especially in the production of spirits like vodka and whisky, but it’s removed through the brewing process, so you’re unlikely to encounter it in commercial spirits. If you make moonshine, hooch, poteen, or any other home-brewed spirits, though, you need to be very careful. These drinks are typically made by fermenting starch from crops such as corn, wheat or potatoes. This results in a low-alcohol mixture called a mash, which is then connected to some pipework known as a still, heated up, and distilled into a liquor with a high percentage of alcohol. The first liquid that emerges from the still is concentrated methanol – you have to throw it away. Experienced home brewers know this, but people die every year after making moonshine for the first time.

There’s a section in the book about waves and specifically about tsunamis. What is awful is just how powerful they can be. Ten million swimming pools in a single wave.

As it turns out, just a few hours earlier, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, part of the Earth’s crust had ruptured, causing an earthquake of magnitude 9.0. This is a massive earthquake by any standards. The energy released was estimated to be ten thousand times bigger than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nevertheless, being that far out to sea, it didn’t cause much immediate damage or loss of life. But the earthquake didn’t just shear the tectonic plates of the crust – it also raised the sea floor by several metres. This, in turn, displaced approximately thirty cubic kilometres of water. That’s a lot of water – the equivalent of ten million Olympic swimming pools. And just as moving suddenly in the bath makes the water slosh back and forth, the earthquake set this enormous amount of water into motion.

I’d be crying if someone made me double-blind for the purposes of science. (Sorry).

Double-blind studies have shown that when men smell women’s tears, it lowers their testosterone levels, and they find it less easy to become aroused.

re: Soap Operas

Then, with the invention of the radio in the 1920s, P&G started sponsoring serial dramas, which were mostly listened to by women, alone at home during the day, washing clothes and doing household cleaning; the dramas were very popular and ended up being named after the product that sponsored them – ‘soap operas’.

Most mindblowing fact to come out of this for me was that in between escaping the Nazis and coming up with the theory of general relativity, Einstein dedicated large portions of his life to making a healthier fridge:

Szilard moved to Britain, where he came up with an invention that would change the course of history – not by cooling things down, but by heating them up. It was the principle behind the atomic bomb: the nuclear chain reaction. Meanwhile, Einstein toured Europe while an increasingly hostile Nazi party grew in power. Both Einstein and Szilard eventually ended up in America, where they were able to continue their collaboration, but by then it was too late. Scientists in America had also been working to make refrigerators safer, but they’d approached the problem the other way round – making the working fluids safer, rather than eliminating pumps. In 1930, the chemist Thomas Midgley invented freon liquid; it was hailed as safe and cheap and put Einstein and Szilard out of the refrigeration business. Unfortunately, it turned out freon wasn’t safe at all, but it was fifty years before that came to light, even though Thomas Midgley was known for creating dangerous liquids.

What is madness?

Harold Shipman translated Harry Potter into Braille.

When I lived in Paris, I watched Psycho on a packed RER on my way to the office in the morning because I was too scared to watch it at home.

We are totally and perversely fascinated with madness. Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock earned $50M. American Psycho did $34.3M. I was surprised to find that even Psycho III (presumably not by Alfred Hitchcock) also earned $14.4M.

Mental illness is a big business for cinema.

In Hollywood, DARIAN LEADER points out in his neat book What is Madness?, madness is portrayed as a person foaming at the mouth, throwing himself at a wall, nightmarish personality.

But in reality, he explains, it is most often not at all similar to that.

I’m actually quite a fan of LEADER. I’ve read a number of his books. Mainly because I think that FREUD’s widely discredited work still holds a lot in helping us understand ourselves. And LEADER is a Freudian.

Without disregarding the very real and awful experience that many people with severe mental health problems live with, What is Madness? explores the very normal insanity that you, even as a healthy person, probably experience at some level in your day to day.

It is a wonderful relief to know that the secret things you don’t want to share with anyone, might be more common than you think.

Did enjoy. Would recommend.

Marc


Snippets

I actually don’t know how to properly express how interesting I find a lot of the snippets that follow, so this week, I’ll keep it relatively light on comment.

As one of Manfred Bleuler’s patients put it, ‘In my world I am omnipotent, in yours I practise diplomacy.’

Divine rays and filaments.

Thus Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge whose memoirs of his ‘nervous illness’ were first published in 1903, and who believed he was being transformed into the begetter of a new race, inhabiting a bizarre universe of divine rays and filaments, could still deliver acute legal arguments and expertise, not least concerning his own tutelage. He was able to convince the courts, using both legal argument and personal narrative, that he was fit to be released from his incarceration in an asylum and to take charge of his affairs.

😂‘You’re not crazy, you’re a journalist.’

In his famous study, David Rosenhan arranged for eight ‘sane’ people – three psychologists, a paediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter, a housewife and psychology professor Rosenhan himself – to seek admission to twelve different American hospitals. None of them had any reported symptoms, yet they were instructed to complain, when seeking admission, of hearing voices that said the words ‘Empty’, ‘Hollow’ and ‘Thud’. After this, if admitted, they were to simply conduct themselves as usual and report no further occurrence of the voices. This all proved even easier than expected. All but one were admitted with the diagnosis ‘schizophrenia’, and all of them were discharged with the diagnosis ‘schizophrenia in remission’ after stays of between a week and nearly two months. They were prescribed nearly 2,100 pills, from a wide variety of different drugs. Remarkably, staff seemed to have no awareness that these were ‘pseudo-patients’, but inmates were often suspicious: ‘You’re not crazy. You’re a journalist,’ as one patient said.

In what psychiatry calls ‘mental automatism’, a person may feel that every action or thought they have is commented on by an internal or external voice, a kind of running commentary on their existence. ‘Now he’s gone to the shops, now he’s buying a newspaper …’ Sometimes, this language has no direct content: the person is aware of being spoken to continuously, yet has no idea of what exactly is being said. There is just an endless murmuring or whispering, which may later become interpreted as a threat or menace. This shows language working on its own, as if separated from our everyday experience of the world. It has started to function autonomously.

I can’t remember what this was in reference to at all, but I still think it’s funny:

Think of Groucho Marx’s quip: ‘He may look like an idiot, and behave like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you: he is an idiot.’

The absence of doubt is the single clearest indicator of the presence of psychosis. This certainty can take the form of an absolute conviction of some truth, be it that of a delusion – ‘I know that the CIA are following me’ – or of a scientific theory or religious dogma. The moment of insight is sometimes quite sudden and precise. As one psychotic subject wrote, ‘I was suddenly confronted with an overwhelming conviction that I had discovered the secrets of the universe, which were being rapidly made plain with incredible lucidity. The truths discovered seemed to be known immediately and directly, with absolute certainty. I had no sense of doubt or awareness of the possibility of doubt.’

Cannot imagine what this is like

Louis Wolfson’s fascination with languages is another example of this process. He became what he called ‘a schizophrenic student of languages’, learning French, German and Russian in order to escape from the English language that so terrified him.

The biggest revelation to me in this book was towards the end. And it’s this:

Otherwise, [Harold] Shipman spent his time translating Harry Potter into Braille.


BONUS

I like jazz, as you’ll have read in a previous edition of this newsletter. One of the most interesting bits of jazz is Sun Ra. Sun Ra believed that he had encountered aliens in college and spent the rest of his life dedicated to this narrative. He was an incredibly interesting man who wore amazing outfits (like the one in the video below). He also made totally wild jazz.

Foiled by an ear print

A french man was caught by police because of his ear

Every now and I again, I take a break from reading books around my normal interests to read something totally out there. Usually, as you’ll have noticed, I read books about economics, technology, philosophy or the self.

Once in a while I read a book like GEOFF MANAUGH’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City to draw a breath from heavier books.

My interest in this topic, as with many topics, was sparked by two podcasts. The first, was a reference to A Burglar’s Guide on an episode of No Such Thing as a Fish. At that point, I bought the book and forgot about it. But it’s not until I heard this episode of This American Life a few months afterwards that I remembered I had a whole book on the topic.

In the episode I linked to above, a man with no criminal record decides to go on a spree of robberies with his unusual ability to climb into unexpected openings in city buildings. A church going, upstanding member of the community by day. A gambling-addicted, building-breaking criminal by night.

I have a great love for odd criminality.

Picking up the copy of A Burglar’s Guide which I had bought several months earlier, I was greatly impressed by the ingenuity of people on both sides of the law as they tried to engineer ways to overcome the failures of architecture that are all around us.

My favourite (as detailed below) is the French man who was caught by police on the basis of his ear print.

Enjoy,

Marc

P.S. Last Sunday’s edition of Adam Westbrook’s newsletter was totally brilliant and fascinating.


SNIPPETS

Leslie was so dedicated to detail, so confident in his abilities, that he would often case the interiors of banks both during business hours and long after: before his gang robbed the Manhattan Savings Institution in October 1878, Leslie had already broken into the bank twice, stealing nothing, simply checking out the building for himself and verifying that he had the correct combination for the vault door.

I totally love the detail of heists:

Anticipating the watchman’s future narrative of the heist, which would naturally include details of when the perpetrators arrived, how long they spent in the vault, and, most important, what time they fled into the shadows of the New England night, they also tampered with the watchman’s clocks, stopping or breaking them. The watchman and his family thus sat, immobile and clueless about how much time had passed, as if forcibly removed from the present moment, left to wait in a criminal purgatory. It could have been twenty minutes or it could have been two hours, but by the time they were found and freed, Leslie’s crew was long gone.

Imagine this criminal in prison explaining how they were caught to their cellmates:

Think of the man in Lyon, France, who was busted because of his ear—his earprint, more specifically, which he stupidly left on almost all the doors of the eighty or so student flats he broke into when he leaned in to hear if anyone was home.

Farcical

Easily one of the more outlandish stories of surreptitious entry I came across while researching this book comes from a book by journalist Ronald Kessler purporting to reveal “the secrets of the FBI.” While breaking into what is described only as a Soviet-bloc embassy, one of the participating agents promptly died of a heart attack. Right there, he collapsed onto the carpet, his heart giving out. Not only did the other agents on the case have to carry him out, but his body relaxed in its sudden death to the grotesque extent that “his bowels emptied on an oriental rug in the office,” Kessler explains. Not only did the team have to remove the entire rug from the embassy in the middle of the night, but they had to find a twenty-four-hour dry cleaner to fix the stain. Then, because the carpet would still be partially wet the next morning, they decided to paint the ceiling above it to make it look as if a water pipe had ruptured in one of the rooms above. Then and only then—improvised narratives piling on top of outright lies, newly cleaned rugs drying below freshly painted ceilings—could the FBI effectively rid the target building of their traces. Go big or go home.

It’s good to know that people have the interests of landlords at heart. Someone has to look after those guys, right?:

While most Brits are convinced they’re living through the rise of an all-pervasive surveillance state, being filmed from every conceivable angle at every time of day, the reality was far more diffuse and disorganized. In a particularly stark example, one security-room supervisor admitted that he would arrive at work each day and, first thing, train one of the cameras away from the building he was being paid to protect in order to watch his own car out in the parking lot. He would make himself a cup of tea, read the morning’s sports pages, and spy on his car against possible break-ins.

Again to reference Adam Westbrook’s work here, he’s just made a great film on this topic for the New York Times:

if you step into an abandoned mine “or any underground portion thereof” with no plans to steal anything, but instead simply intending to shoot an unlicensed handgun (a felony), you are legally guilty of burglary. Why? Because it took place inside a legally recognized artificial structure (the mine).

This genuinely sounds like a pitch for a film:

Consider the case of a fourteen-year-old boy who used what security expert Bruce Schneier described as a “modified TV remote control” to take over an entire tram system in Łodz, Poland. According to the city’s police, the boy turned his home remote control into an electromagnetic supertool that gave him command of every tram switch and junction in Łodz. The boy even “wrote in the pages of a school exercise book where the best junctions were to move trams around and what signals to change,” police explained. While he did not use this homemade magic wand for anything resembling a bank heist, it would have come in quite handy during a crime spree. As clearly as any example from Hollywood, this otherwise childish prank suggests that the most successful getaways of tomorrow will be achieved by hacking the city.

A truly spectacular factoid to retell at your next small-talk opportunity:

This is not the only police project for which Paris is widely known. As historian A. Roger Ekirch explains in his 2005 book, At Day’s Close, the idea of lighting the streets of Paris back in the 1600s originally came from the police. Streetlights were one of many new patrol tools implemented by Louis XIV’s lieutenant general of police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie. De la Reynie’s plan ordered that lanterns be hung over the streets every sixty feet—with the unintended side effect that Paris soon gained its popular moniker, the City of Light. The world’s most romantic city takes its nickname from a police operation.


BONUS

Cartoon, Urbanism and Crime

A short reflection on the glamour of crime and urbanism in cartoons.

Is it a reflection on my disdain for authority structures or organised society that my greatest disappointment was that the bad guy never got away with the crime? As a child, I was left frequently bored by shows like Secret Squirrel (despite its phenomenal and oft-repeated theme tune).

Why must it always be so hard for the bad guys? After all, they are people too with interests and families to provide for. An important distinction, I feel, must be made between villainy and simple badguyism. I so rarely feel pity for any supervillain whose expressed aim is simple domination and subjugation of others. See any Marvel film (although I also feel little sympathy for the heroes who continue to make poor moral interventionist choices in pursuit of American imperialism).

One notable exception to this rule, is the original version of the recently reproduced Carmen Sandiego. A truly global game and cartoon series, Carmen Sandiego’s franchise explores what it might be like if the villain’s are already in power (a theme which feels infinitely relatable) and the bad guys are really the heroes.

Carmen makes use of the architecture of global metropolises to escape and evade the law in order to give back to the communities. A robin hood character in quite fantastic style.

More villains like Carmen, pls.

A Proustian Moment

I took Proust’s famous survey

This week, I thought I’d do something a little different. A few years ago, I read How Proust Can Change Your Life by ALAIN DE BOTON. One of my favourite authors, DE BOTON takes PROUST’s relatively short but impressive life and applies its key teachings to contemporary living.

One element of the PROUST’s life which continues to interest people is his questionnaire. He claimed the questions could tell you all you needed to know to understand a person.

Vanity Fair even published a collection of famous responses to the survey. The most well known is probably DAVID BOWIE’s response.

I thought that rather than share my snippets from the book, I’d share my own answers to the PROUST QUESTIONNAIRE.

Perhaps you’ll even reply with your own response?

Until next time and here we go,

Marc

My Responses

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Lying in a sunny window, listening to piano jazz, feeling sleepy.

What is your greatest fear?

How I will feel once my parents are gone

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I am insufferably grumpy at times.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Approval seeking which leads to self moderation

Which living person do you most admire?

David Bowie

What is your greatest extravagance?

I buy a huge number of books.

What is your current state of mind?

Calm.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Self sacrifice

On what occasion do you lie?

Never

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

I would have liked to have lived in a time when wearing a suit was normal

Which living person do you most despise?

The student who frequently parks across the street from my driveway.

What is the quality you most like in a man?

Sincerity

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Confidence

 Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

That’s interesting. 

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

I am, of course, obsessed with my wife.

When and where were you happiest?

The greatest sense of wellbeing I ever had was on a train through the Czech Republic, broke as I ever have been, on my honeymoon with Hannah’s sleeping head on my shoulder.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I should have continued with piano lessons.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m currently working on having a toned torso

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I have fostered my sense of self-confidence to a fine level.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

A kite, flying from a rooftop in a rural city. 

Where would you most like to live?

These days, I would consider Stockholm before Berlin, Berlin before the idea of Tokyo, Tokyo before Paris. But I have committed to staying in Cardiff for the foreseeable future. 

What is your most treasured possession?

My intellect

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Being boring

What is your favourite occupation?

Sitting in a sauna.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Being interested by odd turns of phrase. 

What do you most value in your friends?

The trait of answering but not returning my questions.

Who are your favourite writers?

Have you heard about my mailing list?

Who is your hero of fiction?

Meursault or Sal Paradise, depending on how I am feeling.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Guy Fawkes

Who are your heroes in real life?

Bill Murray

What are your favourite names?

Frank Sobatka

What is it that you most dislike?

Feigned idiocy

What is your greatest regret?

Having regrets

How would you like to die?

Assassination after travelling back in time to bump off the man who invented the can but not the opener. 

What is your motto?

I forgot my mantra.

My most highlighted book this year

I'm doing more charisma now

I once had a lecturer who looked like KARL MARX. He was from Pankow in Berlin and when he came to visit me at Alexanderplatz to check I was doing OK on my year abroad, I kid you not: I felt as though I was in a weird space/timeloop.

Aside from looking like KARL MARX, HEIKO FELDNER was one of the most magnetic people I have ever met. Everything about him made me want to sit and talk with him. When you sat and talked him through something, he would often say ‘yes… yes… that’s good… develop this idea’ in a very German accent and he made you feel like you could accomplish anything.

I’ve always tried to emulate that quality but couldn’t really put my finger on exactly what it was, but now I know: he was displaying a high level of charisma.

Sure, he wasn’t doing a Steve Ballmer (that guy really loved Microsoft. See also: this). But whenever he spoke, I genuinely felt like the smartest person on the planet despite the fact that FELDNER’s intellect could crush me under its heft.

Reading The Charisma Myth by OLIVIA FOX CABANE last week made me realise that actually with practice you can adopt a charismatic personality, turning it on and off to suit the situation you’re in.

As an attempt to put CABANE’s very practical ideas into action, I have been doing a lot of prolonged eye contact, leaving gaps of awkward lengths before answering any question and also being overly familiar with strangers.

Today, I had a brilliant day. I met new people and every new person I met left the conversation having genuinely felt like I provided value to them. I arrived home to find a number of invites to follow up. Which is pretty cool.

gtg, am vibing on my positive day ✌️🍵👯,

Marc


SNIPPETS

This was reassuring for me. I think of myself as quite an interesting person but don’t always feel like I’m a master of a situation:

Have you ever had the experience of feeling totally confident, master of a situation? A moment when people seemed impressed by you—even just one moment of the people around you going “Wow!” We don’t necessarily think of these experiences as charisma, or consider ourselves charismatic, because we assume that charismatic people are magnetic every instant of every day. They aren’t.

It was actually a reference to this particular passage that helped me pick up the book in the first place. I like the concept of charisma as a set of behaviours:

Charisma has come under the scrutiny of sociologists, psychologists, and cognitive and behavioral scientists. It has been studied in multiple ways, from clinical laboratory experiments and cross-sectional and longitudinal survey research to qualitative interpretative analysis. The subjects of these studies have been presidents, military leaders, students of all ages, and business executives from low-level managers to CEOs. Thanks to such research, we now understand charisma as a set of behaviors.

Going to use this one at a dinner party sometime:

IN THE TORRID London summer of 1886, William Gladstone was up against Benjamin Disraeli for the post of prime minister of the United Kingdom. This was the Victorian era, so whoever won was going to rule half the world. In the very last week before the election, both men happened to take the same young woman out to dinner. Naturally, the press asked her what impressions the rivals had made. She said, “After dining with Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest person in England. But after dining with Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in England.” Guess who won the election? It was the man who made others feel intelligent, impressive, and fascinating: Benjamin Disraeli.

Here’s some of the stuff I’ve been working on to, so far, noticeable effect:

Three quick tips to gain an instant charisma boost in conversation:

  1. Lower the intonation of your voice at the end of your sentences.

  2. Reduce how quickly and how often you nod.

  3. Pause for two full seconds before you speak.

It’s fun because I like mindfulness and this is kind of that.

The very next time you’re in a conversation, try to regularly check whether your mind is fully engaged or whether it is wandering elsewhere (including preparing your next sentence). Aim to bring yourself back to the present moment as often as you can by focusing on your breath or your toes for just a second, and then get back to focusing on the other person.

If I’m doing a difficult phone call where I’m feeling nervous, I always walk around with my headphones in, smiling and maybe throwing a ball in the air. It makes my voice sound entirely different on the call (I’ve heard myself in phone recordings). It’s nice to know this is validated by MIT:

After extensive studies, the MIT Media Lab concluded that it could predict the outcome of negotiations, telephone sales calls, and business plan pitches with 87 percent accuracy simply by analyzing participants’ body language, without listening to a single word of content.

Humans are incredible and mystical:

The placebo effect can sometimes be remarkably powerful. Ellen Langer, a Harvard University professor of psychology, gathered a group of elderly patients in a nursing-home-like environment and surrounded them with the decor, clothing, food, and music that was popular when they were in their twenties. In the following weeks, physical exams showed tighter skin, better eyesight, increased muscle strength, and even higher bone density than before.

As I said, this is my most highlighted book so far for the year so I’m not going to get near to sharing all of the snippets I have with you. This is less than 10%. If you’re a person who would like to learn to be more charismatic, I highly recommend this book.


BONUS

Just once more, here’s that Steve Ballmer moment:

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