This week's New Yorker

Strong issue of The New Yorker this week. Having to fly a bit this week, I had time to read it nearly cover to cover.

Two articles which are not online but are quite good: "All the Answers" by Charles Van Doren, who was played in Quiz Show by Ralph Fiennes. After the scandal, what happened to Van Doren? In his own words.

The other, my favorite article in the issue, is a Gladwell-esque Annals of Science article titled "The Eureka Hunt: Where in our brains do insights come from?" and written by Jonah Lehrer. Though it's not online, it is here in PDF form (thanks Kottke), and I will post a few excerpts here:

The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. "The relaxation phase is crucial," Jung-Beeman said. "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers." Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. Jung-Beeman said, "The problem, though, is that we're always so rushed. We've got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed and never give ourselves a chance to think." He recommends that, if we're stuck on a dificult problem, it's better to set the alarm clock a few minutes early so that we have time to lie in bed and ruminate. We do some of our best thinking when we're still half asleep.

As Jung-Beeman and Kounios see it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation--the brain must be focused on the task at hand--transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. We must concentrate, but we must concentrate on letting the mind wander.

Further on:

One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight. While it's commonly assmed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that we should be encouraging.

Some anecdotes:

In his 1908 essay "Mathematical Creation," Poincaré insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that "nothing good is accomplished," you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a "walk or a journey." The answer will arrive when you least expect it. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7 UP, "watch the entertainment," and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

Two articles which are online which are worth reading are Evan Osnos's article on young Chinese nationalists who reject the West, and David Samuels article "Dr. Kush" on the medical-marijuana economy.

19 years after the events in Tiananmen Square, this is not where we would have expected a sizeable portion of the youth of China to arrive ideologically. They don't necessarily support the Chinese government, but they reject Western democracy, also. Here is the video cited at the start of the article, one that represents many of the feelings of this group.

Whatever you think of its ideas, it's hard to deny that it's a fascinating example of user-generated propaganda, and maybe the famous video ever made with Windows MovieMaker (if you count its views on Sina.

Mike Peed reviews Adour, a new NYC restaurant by one of the famous chefs of our time, Alain Ducasse.

There are people, a dwindling lot, who are secure in their mortgages and to whom the spectre of five-dollar-a-gallon gas presents more a challenge than a threat. These people eat at Adour.

And of course, there is Anthony Lane's review of Mamma Mia! which, to this male, is likely more entertaining than the movie iself.