On working with noise

Many people are working from home these days, often with more (or different) distractions than usual, not least the other people in the house. About two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca faced related problems. He discussed them in his essay “On quiet and study.” He sets the scene:

I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake-seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

But wait, he says, maybe the noise is actually on the inside.

By this time I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing, so that I can endure even a boatswain marking the time in high-pitched tones for his crew. For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. For of what benefit is a quiet neighbourhood, if our emotions are in an uproar? … You may therefore be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or of threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning din.

Then again, maybe it’s easier just to find a quieter room.

“What then?” you say, “is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?” I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice. Why need I be tormented any longer, when Ulysses found so simple a cure for his comrades even against the songs of the Sirens? Farewell.

I recommend the whole short essay, which you can read here.

How to design conference name badges

If you’re lucky, you’ve never had to think about this. But I’ve been involved in enough conference organizing to wonder what’s best: the string or lanyard around your neck? the clip? the safety pin?

So I asked, and 51 people on Twitter answered.

how to design a conference name tag

So the lanyard or string takes the day. But Alix explained why this is particularly true for women.

If you have the kind of lanyard that swivels, it’s better to have the name printed on both sides.

What else? Alice and Emilia both suggested having the first name BIG with the last name and the institution small, so the emphasis is on the individuals rather than the hierarchy.

So in case you’re the kind of person who has to think about this, maybe this data will be sufficient for you never to have to think about it again.

Oh, and I did receive three alternative suggestions for alternative name tags, only at the most innovative conferences: neck tattoos, magnets, and piercings.

people or dolphins? and the conquest of the Americas

The other day I encountered this quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, excerpted in Angrist & Pischke’s Mostly Harmless Econometrics:

On the planet earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time.  But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons. (MHE, p11)

which is funny and clever.  Then I read this quote in Luís Fernando Veríssimo’s Borges and the Eternal Orangutans:

Rotkopf…said that he did not understand the modern lament that the conquest of Latin America had been a cultural violation.  There had been no conquest, the natives had won, and the indolent, fatalistic culture still dominated the continent.  They merely allowed the whites to think they were in charge in order to expose them to constant frustration and ridicule.  (B&EO, tr from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, p15)

which reminded me of the HGG quote except for the massive body count of indigenous persons (as well as the racism of Rotkopf’s initial evaluation of native culture).

Of course, the dolphins have had a pretty massive body count at the hands of humans as well, so maybe Adams was wrong after all.

the rules for Variety Boggle

I’ve just spend the weekend with my sister in Kansas, and we – big Boggle players as are most in my family – refined and piloted a new version of playing Boggle that introduces some fun variations.  (We tried a few variations and this worked best for us.)

If you have the 5×5 Boggle board (sold as Boggle Deluxe or Big Boggle), here is the way to play.  Get a die, take turns rolling the die.  The number on the die determines the rules for the round:

1.  Standard Boggle rules, 4 letters or more

2.  Standard Boggle rules, 5 letters or more

3.  Nouns only (pronouns okay, proper nouns not okay), 3 letters or more

4.  Verbs only (adverbs not okay), 3 letters or more

5.  First person to write down a six letter (or more) word* and then say Got It wins the round.  Winner earns 8 points, everyone else gets Zero.  [If the claimed six-letter word is proved to not be a word, the pretended winner loses 15 points and round ends.]

6.  Roller chooses any of the above games.

Point scheme is as follows: 3 letter word=1 point, 4 letters=1 point, 5 letters=2 points, 6 letters=3 points, 7 letters=5 points, 8+ letters=11 points.

* We tried the first person with a seven letter word, but my sister is one of the best Boggle players I know and even with her, I think this would lead to a lot of dry rounds.  Sometimes 6-letters goes fast, but that’s okay.

Continue reading “the rules for Variety Boggle”