Category Archives: thoughts

Thoughts, musings, etc.

Engineering and A-holes

I’ve been a huge fan of pop science author Mary Roach’s work ever since “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers“, her entertaining book on how we use and dispose of corpses. Her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (non-affilate link here), is a similar quirky but informative work that focuses on the human digestive system, from the point at which food lands on your tongue to the long trip it takes to the toilet.

Her inspiration for this topic? The “gross” process of digestion has, in Roach’s opinion, relegated it to obscurity:

Feeding, and even more so its unsavory correlates, are as much taboos as mating and death. The taboos have worked in my favor. The alimentary recesses hide a lode of unusual stories, mostly unmined. Authors have profiled the brain, the heart, the eyes, the skin, the penis and the female geography, even the hair, but never the gut. The pie hole and the feed chute are mine. Like a bite of something yummy, you will begin at one end and make your way to the other.

The book appeals to a broad audience, but I think the engineer in me especially appreciates Roach’s curiosity. Eating…and everything that happens after it…is such a routine, mundane, yet hidden and essential process that we don’t perceive it as being complex or interesting, just as we generally ignore the amazingly complex sewage systems that make our cities livable. The best engineered works almost always involve details and logistics we don’t care to think about.

An example from Roach’s book: the flammability of farts. Though great material for YouTube today, this was apparently a serious concern in space exploration. In NASA’s early days, Roach writes, they were so worried about the build-up of human gas in the sealed space capsules that it was suggested that astronauts should be selected only from “that part of our population producing little or no methane or hydrogen.”

Roach’s book covers more than the waste-part of human eating, but I think her most memorable passages come at the end. First, here’s an engineering joke that seems to be told to every incoming freshman engineering class:

An electrical, a mechanical and a civil engineer all sat down one day to try and decide of which of their faculties god must be to design the human body.

The electrical engineer says god must be an electrical engineer, for you only have to look at the complex nervous system powered be electrical impulses.

The mechanical engineer was sure that god must be a mechanical engineer, for the advanced mechanical systems, the heart a pump, the veins pipes and the tendons and muscles an advanced pulley system.

Finally after hearing the civil engineers arguments, both the mechanical and electrical engineer both agreed that god must be a civil engineer, for who else would run a sewer system through a recreational area!

The joke is meant at the expense civy engineer’s lack of aesthetics, but author Mary Roach presents an amusing rebuttal, of sorts; it’s not careless planning, but a bonafide miracle of engineering:

Any discussion of the sexuality of the digestive tract must inevitably touch on the anus. Anal tissue is among the most densely enervated on the human body. It has to be. It requires a lot of information to do its job. The anus has to be able to tell what’s knocking at its door: Is it solid, liquid, or gas? And then selectively release either all of it or one part of it. The consequences of a misread are dire. As Mike Jones put it, “You don’t want to choose poorly.”

People who understand anatomy are often cowed by the feats of the lowly anus. “Think of it,” said Robert Rosenbluth, a physician whose acquaintance I made at the start of this book. “No engineer could design something as multifunctional and fine-tuned as an anus.”

“To call someone an asshole is really bragging him up.”

-via Roach, Mary: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (pp. 216-217). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Writing advice: Keep the bear, and just the bear

John McPhee has been writing for about 50 years now, which, even if you ignore his four Pulitzer finalist awards (and one win), is a good deal of writing experience. But getting past writer’s block hasn’t gotten any easier for him.

McPhee wrote about overcoming writer’s block in the Apr. 29, 2013 New Yorker: “Draft No. 4; Replacing the words in boxes”. The full article is behind a paywall, but the excerpted opening includes a great bit of advice for a former student named “Joel”:

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day…

You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do?

You write, “Dear Mother.” And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can.

And then you go back and delete the “Dear Mother” and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

The rest of the McPhee’s piece is a mine of writing wisdom. He goes on at length about how you must just write anything: “The way to do a piece of writing is three of four times over, never once,” McPhee advises another student. “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft…Until it exists, writing has not really begun”

And a truism worth mentioning, and something that I’ve found applies equally to photography and programming: “The difference between a common writer and an improvisor on a stage is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision.”

McPhee’s piece reminded me of writing advice from C.S. Lewis to a young fan. Each point in Lewis’s list is excellent advice, but this is my favorite:

In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

I’ve seen it with non-professional writers including myself: going on a thesaurus hunt for an adjective to fill space when nothing would do just fine. What makes this particularly pernicious is that you never realize how much time you’re wasting on synonyms and, to top it off, the synonym will end up polluting your writing.

I imagine McPhee agrees. In his “bear” example, he doesn’t use a single adjective to describe the bear. He just lists its concrete dimensions.

First drafts, not coincidentally, come a lot faster when you skip the adjectives.

The Great Gatsby in 3D at the MoMA

Last night I went to the MoMA’s screening of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” . Following the story’s theme of spectacle, it was appropriate that way too many people showed up (it was Film members only) and had to be turned away. I heard a man muttering to his wife, “Someone should be fired for this!” and I had to initially sit on the floor in the overbooked theater.

Today the MoMA’s membership director sent out an apologetic email:

I was dismayed to learn that last night’s MoMA Film Plus screening of The Great Gatsby was overbooked, and that as a result, a number of our Film Plus members were unable to see the film. It is extremely important to me – and to all of us at MoMA – that members have the best possible experience with the Museum. I am deeply sorry for the inconvenience and frustration this must have caused. Please let us know by reply email if you were one of the members shut out of the screening. I would very much like to apologize directly to those who were affected.

I have to admit, if the promise was: “Please email me and we’ll invite you to a second screening of the movie”, I might have lied to see the movie again…it was pretty good, even from the very back rows. Definitely the most appropriate use of 3D I’ve seen yet, and that includes Avatar, but only because Avatar was a terrible movie. Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” had the advantage of Fitzgereald’s story and after watching his vision, it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well (especially when you consider how awful the Robert Redford version was). Even if you don’t like Luhrmann’s over-the-top style, there’s really no better way to do “Gatsby” than being completely over-the-top. And the 3D just complemented the theme of excessive indulgent bullshit, rather than just being a movie-going gimmick.

The movie’s first half was great, the second half couldn’t keep the pace. And disappointingly, some of the memorable character details that I’ve always liked in “Gatsby” — such as Jordan being a total sneak, her relationship with Nick, and Meyer Wolfsheim’s last scene with nick — weren’t in the movie.

Whatever the movie’s faults, what Luhrmann cemented for me is the timeless quality of “The Great Gatsby.” It helps that the story takes place during the “Jazz Age,” one the most progressive and interracially-related period before the Civil Rights Movement. But during the whole movie, I kept thinking how virtually nothing in the depiction of decadent life is alien to what we think of today, and in the movie, the use of Jay-Z and Beyonce in the soundtrack is much less anachronistic than you might think. In fact, the only think that reminded me that “Gatsby” takes place in the past is that none of Gatsby’s party goers were Instagramming/twittering the entire time.

I was surprised when Louis C.K. listed “The Great Gatsby” as his favorite book when the Times interviewed him last month (Louis mocked the fact that the 3D movie was being produced)…It’s my favorite book, too, but I only thought that because I was a high school book nerd. After seeing Luhrmann’s interpretation, I think it’s fair to say that “The Great Gatsby” is a story just as universal as any of Shakespeare’s works. Luhrmann’s version could’ve been better, but the spectacle is worth watching. And it’s hard to beat the “The Wire’s” depiction of “Gatsby” (I think it was a poor choice for Luhrmann not to include the book scene in his movie):

SummerStage 2013 App: SummerStageLove, formerly SummerStageHand.com

Edit: Just kidding, I decided to go for a less lamey sounding name: say hello to SummerStageLove.com. The HackSummerStage entries are here. There were only five but I’m proud to be the only web app (though it’s responsive, thanks to Twitter Bootstrap)

Just a staging post for an app I’ll try to submit for NYC HackSummerStage 2013‘s contest

I thought I might try to build it on EC2 but now it’s looking more like good ol static files on S3, an approach that has gone well for NPR and Alastair Coote, among others. SOPA Opera and the Bastards Books were also S3 apps.

Republia Times: possibly the best game about newspapering ever made

Update: I guess I’m not being completely hyperbolic; Mr. Pope’s “Republia Times” is nominated for “Most Significant Impact” and “Best Gameplay” awards at this year’s Games for Change Festival…not bad for a game he made in 48 hours as practice.

Ever wondered what it’s like to edit a newspaper and influence what the public thinks and cares about? The small, but financially stable Republia Times has an opening for editor-in-chief. The job duties are simply “increase [the public's] loyalty by editing the Republia Times carefully. Pick only stories that highlight the good things about Republia and its government.”

“The Republia Times” was created by developer Lucas Pope and is as sharp as satire of newspapering as I’ve ever seen in the gaming world. Its crude mechanics and appearance may be off-putting, but as a whole, “The Republia Times” is astonishing considering that Pope wrote it to practice for a 48-hour game development competition. Not only that, but it was his first Flash game, which, if you’ve never tried learning the Flash development environment, is astonishing in itself.

I don’t think Pope has been a newspaper editor before, either, but he manages to capture the cynicism behind modern and classic yellow journalism: political articles bore the readership, weather and sports attract it. The twist here is that the Republia Times is the mouthpiece of the state, and so you have to balance the interesting tabloid material (“C&J Tie the Knot!”) with boilerplate to make the government look good (“Latest poll shows broad satisfaction with government leaders”). There’s a little mini-Tetris challenge in fitting the stories in (you choose how much real-estate each article gets) before the clock runs out, and an additional plot twist halfway through the game.

The game is probably too cynical for most journalists, at least the ones who don’t fancy themselves government spokespeople, but even the most idealistic of editors will get a kick out how Pope manages to distill the profession into something so simplistic. That Pope manages to make it entertaining and thought-provoking despite the limits he was working with a notable achievement. I can’t think of any news-related game that has been better executed, though, admittedly, the field is small. The Knight Foundation News Challenge has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to journalism-themed games. If I were them, I’d give Pope six-figures to make something, even though it may be more subversive than the journalism industry would prefer.

I’ve actually buried the lede here. I only came across the Republia Times, which Pope created last year, because I read about his upcoming game, “Papers, Please!“, which puts you in the shoes of a border inspector in a Cold War-era nation. It’s only in playable beta (free for Mac and PC), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s my favorite game of the year. The trailer speaks for itself:

Pope says the game will hopefully be out this summer. If you’re on Steam, give Pope an upvote on Greenlight.

A message of empathy

This week has been rough for the American Muslim community. Besides the Boston Marathon bombing attacks, there was an incident on the Brooklyn subway that, while didn’t result in any lives lost, was very disturbing (and could not have had worst timing): A Brooklyn teenager, Stephen Stowe, but it’s actually pleasantly level-headed and surprisingly and inspirationally empathic:

From user PerrierAndSaltines:

To me, it sounds like this interaction became combative because of a mutual dislike. We cannot combat hate with hate. I have (as I think we all should) a very strong feeling of singularity with Muslim people, and if a Muslim greeted me in the fashion described, I would have at least said “Thank you” or even offered a “Shalom”.

And user lhagler

You know, while this teen was completely out of line and deserved to be taken into custody…would it have been so hard for the Jewish gentleman to just return his originally (according to the article) very polite greeting? Sounds like he might have been reaching out.

Maybe it’s just a sign of how cynical I’ve become that I expect people from communities that have been attacked to reflexively react with anger and fear, but reading the graciousness in this discussion really brightened my day after this terrible week.

A tiny website wins 2013′s Pulitzer for National Reporting

I used to work with Susan White at ProPublica but even I was completely surprised yesterday when InsideClimate News, the non-profit news website she now leads, won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for an in-depth investigation of a 2010 pipeline spill in Michigan.

Don’t remember that spill? Maybe that’s why InsideClimate titled its story, “the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of.”

You might also describe InsideClimate News as “the online news startup you’ve never heard of” – I wouldn’t know anything about it if it hadn’t been where Susan moved to. The surprise isn’t that she led yet another Pulitzer Prize project (she edited two such projects already at the San Diego Union Tribune and ProPublica) – it’s that InsideClimate News just seemed too small, too novel of a news organization to earn the Pulitzer committee’s notice.

At just 5 years old and with only 7 full-time reporters, InsideClimate News is likely the smallest news organization ever to win in the National Reporting category (see table below), and perhaps the smallest news organization ever to win any Pulitzer since the Point Reyes Light in 1979.

Here’s another size measurement: According to the AP, InsideClimate had about 200,000 page views last month. The winner of last year’s National Reporting Pulitzer, the Huffington Post, is also an online-only news site. But it reportedly racks up a a billion page views a month: i.e., 5,000 times the page views at InsideClimate.

Numbers may seem like a superficial metric, but there’s a reason why big papers dominate every Pulitzer category (except for maybe Public Service) – big investigations require big resources. InsideClimate’s investigation occupied 3 of their reporters for 7 months, a major commitment for a news organization still struggling to draw a daily readership. Even more impressive: InsideClimate is based in Brooklyn, but they invested time and money (i.e. a travel budget) for a story several states away.

As InsideClimate reporter Elizabeth McGowan told the AP:

“That’s quite a sacrifice to make when you’re trying to get eyeballs on your website,” said McGowan, who started her reporting with a trip out to Marshall, Mich., in November 2011. “We made the commitment to this story because we thought this story mattered.”

“Pulling me off, their most seasoned reporter, was an act of faith to some degree because I could’ve been pounding out five, six, seven stories a week”

I didn’t read InsideClimate’s project when it came out and the comment/social-media sections on the early stories didn’t show huge pickup initially. The presentation is what’d you’d expect from a small no-frills operation: nearly all the photos come from government sources and the graphics are relatively straightforward and non-interactive. But thankfully, the stories were judged by the quality and impact of their investigation, rather than fanciness of presentation.

A screenshot of the first story in InsideClimate's series

A screenshot of the first story in InsideClimate’s series

The future of journalism as a profession, never mind investigative news, is still uncertain. But InsideClimate’s Pulitzer is a great validation of how passionate startups can still make a huge impact in the proud tradition of watchdog journalism. Congrats to InsideClimate and its lead reporters, Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemyer.

You can read the entire series on the Pulitzer’s official website. Or you can download the story in ebook format here.

An aggregated list of National Reporting Pulitzers

The list below is scraped from the Pulitzer’s official list, and I used OpenRefine to cluster the names together. Interestingly, the last three National Reporting Pulitzers have been won by online-only organizations: InsideClimate News, Huffington Post, and ProPublica. In 2009, the St. Petersburg Times won a National Reporting Pulitzer for its PolitiFact project. PolitiFact had a print component but it can be reasonably seen as the first Pulitzer-winning website.

Fifteen years ago, there was debate over whether the Pulitzer committee should have a separate prize for online-only submissions. The committee has wisely decided to judge journalism by its quality and not what format it comes in, and the success of news websites in this prestigious category is a good sign of how forward-thinking the Pulitzers have become.

NameNational Reporting Pulitzers
New York Times17
Wall Street Journal14
Philadelphia Inquirer13
Washington Post13
Des Moines Register and Tribune7
Los Angeles Times7
Associated Press5
Chicago Tribune5
Boston Globe5
United Press International3
St. Petersburg Times3
Dallas Times Herald2
Dayton Daily News2
Christian Science Monitor2
Oregonian2
Seattle Times2
Washington Star2
Minneapolis Tribune2
Albuquerque Tribune1
Bloomberg News1
Chattanooga Times1
Chicago Daily News1
Gannett News Service1
InsideClimate News1
Kansas City Star1
Knight Newspapers1
Knight-Ridder, Inc.1
Miami Herald1
Nashville Tennessean1
New York Daily News1
New York Herald Tribune1
Newhouse News Service1
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette1
ProPublica1
Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin1
Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance1
Arizona Republic1
Atlanta Journal and Constitution1
Baltimore Sun1
Boston Phoenix1
Dallas Morning News1
Huffington Post1
Kansas City Times1
Miami (FL) News1
Times-Picayune1
Washington Daily News1

Gawker’s misguided 70-characters-for-SEO memo

Today, Gawker’s Nick Denton issued a mandate that headlines be 70-characters or fewer because of the “tyranny of the search and social algorithms.” The only actual example he refers to is Deadspin’s expose of Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend hoax:

Why this drastic measure? Google and others truncate headlines at 70 characters. On the Manti Teo story, Deadspin’s scoop fell down the Google search results, overtaken by copycat stories with simpler headlines.

Deadspin’s headline was 118 characters. Vital information — “hoax” — was one of the words that was cut off. Our headline was less intelligible — and less clickworthy — than others. And Google demotes search results that don’t get clicked on.

Denton is right about how the headlines were seen and (likely) wrong about why the headlines rank so low.

He’s right that Deadspin’s headline is terrible for search engine users. The original headline was:

Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax

Here’s what happens when you search for Manti Te’o’ and some variation of “hoax” and “girlfriend” in Google today:

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 2.18.29 PM

So, if you’ve been told that there is a crazy hoax by Manti Te’o and you go to Google to find out, which of these headlines seem more interesting to you?

  1. Story of Manti Te’o’s Girlfriend Is Revealed to Be a Hoax – NYTimes …
  2. Story of Manti Te’o girlfriend and her death apparently a hoax – ESPN
  3. Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking … – Deadspin

So Denton’s advice to keep headlines to the point is pretty good advice, although I’d argue that headlines can be longer than 70 characters, if the meat of it (the proper nouns, active verb) are in the first 70 characters.

However, he is wrong in thinking that the less-attractive, less-clickedness of the headline was what makes it rank lower than the NYT and ESPN stories.

Though, again, we don’t know for sure all the factors in PageRank, one of the most-well observed signals is the order of the keywords. When you enter a search query, Google cares about the order of the words, so that “mexican restaurant in new york with good tacos” will bring back a different order of results (or even different results completely) than “mexican restaurant with good tacos in new york”.

In the same way, if these were page titles, Google might consider “mexican restaurant in new york with good tacos” a better “authority” on “Mexican restaurants in New York” than a page titled “mexican restaurant with good tacos in new york.”

So back to Manti Te’o. If you were searching for a story related to Manti Te’o and a hoax, you would query “manti teo hoax”. Notice where those keywords appear in each of these headlines:

  1. Story of Manti Te’o’s Girlfriend Is Revealed to Be a Hoax – NYTimes …
  2. Story of Manti Te’o girlfriend and her death apparently a hoax – ESPN
  3. Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking … – Deadspin

What’s especially wrongheaded about Denton’s memo is that he can have good SEO and good headlines, because SEO (and search results display) is primarily affected by the meta title of the article. It’s strange that Gawker, one of the more modern and most prominent publishing platforms, apparently has no way (or policy) to set the headline differently from the title of an article.

For example, the headline of this Gawker article is: “Feral, Thieving Mountain Men Keep Emerging from America’s Woods, Unwillingly.” This is the same as the title of the article, which is set in the meta tags of article’s HTML. It is this meta-title field that shows up in search engine results.

Presumably, this ranks highly for anyone searching for “feral thieving mountain men.”

But if you were looking for news on the actual “Troy Knapp, the notorious ‘Mountain Man’ outlaw”, you would probably Google for “mountain man outlaw” or “troy knapp outlaw”.

Apparently, even the staid old New Yorker magazine has more Internet savvy than Gawker when it comes to SEO. In this article about a Florida man’s curious trade in dinosaur bones, the headline gets to be all punny – Bones of Contention – while the meta title just lays down the facts for SEO-goodness: “Paige Williams: Eric Prokopi’s Curious Trade in Mongolian Dinosaurs”

The New York Times’ history of covering (up?) breast cancer

After Roger Ebert’s death last week, I picked up The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which was recommended during a discussion on how the war on cancer seemed hopeless. I’m not finished with the book yet, but I can already recommend it for being one of the best medical non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

The facts in Mukherjee’s “biography of cancer” seem to indicate that “no simple, universal, or definitive cure is in sight – and is never likely to be”, but Mukherjee also believes that medical science continues to make profound progress in understanding and treating cancer. And if anything, we might be farther along had we funded cancer research with the resources and commitment it requires.

After World War 2 drained interest and funding from cancer research, Mukherjee writes, “cancer again became the great unmentionable, the whispered-about disease that no one spoke about publicly.” As an example, he retells a story from the 2001 book, The Human Side of Cancer, in which a breast cancer activist describes being shunned by the New York Times:

In the early 1950s, Fanny Rosenow, a breast cancer survivor and cancer advocate, called the New York Times to post an advertisement for a support group for women with breast cancer. Rosenow was put through, puzzlingly, to the society editor of the newspaper. When she asked about placing her announcement, a long pause followed. “I’m sorry, Ms. Rosenow, but the Times cannot publish the word breast or the word cancer in its pages. “Perhaps,” the editor continued, “you could say there will be a meeting about diseases of the chest wall.” Rosenow hung up, disgusted.

The original source for Rosenow’s story – The Human Side of Cancer, by Dr. Jimmie C. Holland – has an upbeat coda:

However, [Rosenow and her friend] persisted, and their devoted efforts resulted in what is widely known as Reach to Recovery, a worldwide support program for women with breast cancer, administered today through the American Cancer Society.

Sixty-five years after the era of the Cleaver family, we’re still having serious debates over whether mothers should be allowed to breast-feed children in public. And Lady Justice herself was shamed about her wardrobe malfunction not too long ago. That the Times, still a stodgy paper today, would be too squeamish 65 years ago to print the word “breast” seems, well, self-evident. And so Rosenow’s story has been repeated in much of the major media coverage of Mukherjee’s book, including NPR, the Boston Globe, and even the New York Times itself.

What Ms. Rosenow described may have actually happened (it’s not like she or the Times society editor had Google or Lexis-Nexis back then), but a quick search of the New York Times digital archive shows that the Times had published articles about breasts and cancer throughout the 1950s.

For example, on September 24, 1950, the Times ran a story headlined “Movie Aids Cancer Detection:”

A color film designed to aid women in recognizing early signs of breast cancer is available for showings before Brooklyn women’s groups. Titled “Breast Self-Examination,” it was produced by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute of the United States Pubic Health Service.

Besides running notices of which local theaters were screening “Breast Self-Examination,” the Times also wrote several articles about the movie’s educational impact: “Cancer Film Saves Lives”, the Times reported on April 22, 1951. And, a year after the film’s introduction, the Times reported its success: 911,000 SAW CANCER FILM; Year’s Record Cited in Showing Self-Test for Women. And of course, the Times found fit to print the obligatory self-back-patting hug-your-newspaper-today feature: NEWSPAPER AID PRAISED; Cancer Experts Say Sufferers Gain by Care Publicity:

Newspapers and the radio were credited today with helping doctors fight cancer by causing sufferers to seek early treatment.

“There is no question but that the information made public by newspapers, radio, and other news services is making it possible for us to see patients with breast cancer earlier than ever before,” Dr. J. Elliott Scarborough, Jr., declared.

In fact, the breast cancer advice that the Times printed in 1952 doesn’t seem far removed from what you’d find in any contemporary medical column:

SELF-EXAMINATION URGED: Women Must Detect Early Stage of Breast Cancer, Doctor Says

If breast cancer is to be detected in its early stages, it is the women themselves who must do it…Dr. Haagensen said the breasts should be examined at least every two months to be reasonably sure they are free of cancer signs…Physicians, Dr. Haagensen said, should teach women self-examination.

Of course, cancer is a far more common topic of public concern and media coverage today. As Mukherjee himself points out, that’s because until relatively recently, humans generally didn’t live long enough to die from cancer. One of the earliest mentions of breast cancer in the Times archive occurs in 1852, in its column titled, Weekly Report of Deaths in the City and County of New York. Between January 10-17, the Times noted 324 deaths, the majority of them children. The top killers are diseases we rarely hear today: 54 deaths from consumption, 28 to convulsions, 20 to scarlet fever, 18 to “Dropsy in the head.” In contrast, “Cancer” and “Cancer of Breast” accounted for 1 death apiece. That cancer has become medicine’s public enemy number one is almost a sign of wealth and progress. In impoverished countries, cancer doesn’t even rank among the top 10 in causes of death.

If you’re interested in taking a depressing trip through medical history, type “cure for cancer” into the Times’ digital archive. You’ll find headlines from every decade – if not every one or two years – since 1852 touting a promising development in the fight against cancer:

If the war against cancer seems like an unending series of misguided schemes and false hope – much like our ongoing wars against terror, drugs, and poverty ‐ it’s because, like those wars, the enemy was never just one monolithic opponent that one kind of “weapon” (and lots of it) could ever defeat. So it’s fitting that the facts may be more complicated than they seem in Ms. Rosenow’s anecdote – because that’s the case with everything related to cancer. One of the most interesting things about Mukherjee’s attempt to write a “biography” of cancer is how, when the literary framing is inadequate for describing cancer, it serves only to more fully illuminate the scope of this war.

Louis C.K. on success: “It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life”

The NYT had a great Q&A with Louis C.K. on Saturday about how successful he’s been in taking control of his own distribution: “The Joke’s on Louis C.K.” (the editor who thought up this headline deserves a bonus).

A key exchange about how “easy” it was for him to achieve success:

NYT: Does it matter that what you’ve achieved, with your online special and your tour can’t be replicated by other performers who don’t have the visibility or fan base that you do?

Why do you think those people don’t have the same resources that I have, the same visibility or relationship? What’s different between me and them?

NYT: You have the platform. You have the level of recognition.

So why do I have the platform and the recognition?

NYT: At this point you’ve put in the time.

There you go. There’s no way around that. There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.

In 2010, Louis talked about how he was learning to shoot and edit Louie his own laptop. It probably wasn’t a smooth process to coordinate with actually directing, writing, and acting the show early on, but the ability to exert control over the entire creative process seems to have paid off.