My Favorite Things: Noisli

Grad school involves being by yourself. A lot. Even when you take a lot of steps to balance out the isolation, being a student necessarily involves a lot of solitary endeavor. You have to read for yourself,* you have to write for yourself, and you have to think for yourself. All of these things can comfortably be accomplished in the presence of other people as long as those people aren’t actually demanding anything from you, and I find for myself that I actually work better when there is a baseline level of atmospheric distraction. I have described it before in these terms: if there isn’t a small level of external distraction, I have to go seek out the distraction (which then occupies my conscious mind much more fully than is conducive to productivity). In other words: if there isn’t chatter in the background, I go looking for chatter on facebook and twitter.

I attribute this desire for a sociable atmosphere to being an extrovert, but I could be wrong about that. What I know is that coffee shops are an expensive study habit; on top of that, even if I choose to study on campus (for free!) studying away from home means that I don’t have access to all the resources I would like to have handy. I can’t carry three books each for my four classes in a single bag, and I feel awkward schlepping two ginormous tote bags around. The dilemma, then: study at home where it is cheap and all of my things are, but I am alone and things are spookily quiet sometimes, or study in public while either imitating a packhorse or risking that I will be without something essential, and also potentially spending money that I could have saved by staying home.

I don’t always choose the same option. Sometimes I really do need to just get out of the house. But when I’m home, I have found a terrific white noise app that helps create the minimal necessary “distraction” so I can focus. The app is called Noisli, and it’s available for Android, Chrome, and iOS. Besides traditional “white noise” sounds like rain, wind, or static, it also has a “cafe” track with plates clinking, distant chatter, and occasional laughter. I layer that with the train tracks and a fireplace sound to create a really cozy background track for studying. It’s actually handy even when you *are* studying in public places, because it can block out the (often very weird!) conversations that people have in public.

tl;dr: Noisli is a great white noise app and it helps me study.



*Admittedly, a it is possible to read for others if you read aloud. But many of the texts one reads in grad school and many of the ways of reading expected by professors are not actually suited to read-aloud. Additionally, the quantity one has to read in grad school would indicate against reading aloud everything that was assigned in a semester. The eye is faster than the ear. 


A couple notes on being single

First: A friend linked to this blog post a while back: “Five things singles wish married couples knew.”  I like that this is true to its title. It isn’t “five things you can do for your single friends”, it’s just information. And it’s true. I think a lot of my married friends already know this stuff (having been single themselves and all) but it’s a good reminder.

Second: Alastair Roberts has been answering questions on CuriousCat. The questions may vary widely, but Roberts’ thoughtfulness and respect do not. One of his answers (to a question about prolonged or permanent bachelorhood) struck me as perhaps one of the most encouragingly frank statements about single life I have ever read.

While we should always focus on our own agency, responsibility, and capacity in whatever situation we find ourselves in, there are a great many situations in which it won’t be enough to change matters in the ways that we desire.

What it can do, however, is save us from acting and thinking as the abject victims of circumstance. It can make us aware of the ways in which, by giving other people such as a spouse such an elevated place in our imagined happiness, we are engaged in fairly delusional thinking, pinning expectations on them that they could never possibly fulfill. Once we recognize this and act accordingly, we can be a lot happier, whether in or out of a relationship.

In our society, it is easy to believe that it is only possible to be fulfilled and live a meaningful life if you are in a relationship or married. But marriage really isn’t the only way to satisfy our basic human needs for purpose, belonging, stewardship, dignity, and meaning. And when marriage is unlikely, it is incredibly important to reject the notion that its impossibility means that we must learn to live without all of these other things. We shouldn’t surrender ourselves to unfulfilment. While there are certain things that we will lack (a sexual union and biological children, for instance), if we take responsibility for pursuing these things in other ways, we can be fulfilled. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult and painful, but we can rise to our full stature through difficulty and pain: we can’t do so without the satisfaction of our basic human existential needs.

A lack of discomfort can inure us to deep existential lack in our lives. The unhappily unmarried person, who may well have to learn to live in their unchosen state is pushed to learn lessons to which others never truly awake, never developing the wisdom to recognize and escape stunted aspects of their lives.



I had a lot to do on Monday and didn’t say anything to mark the day. It feels fitting, like a mirror: sixteen years ago, we could hardly say anything on the day. All the newspapers my mom went out and collected were from 9/12, because that’s when we could start writing about what had happened.

I was asleep when both planes hit. I think I was asleep when the towers collapsed, too. When my mom told me that terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, I didn’t know where that was. But I remember watching the footage of people running down the streets covered in dust, everybody a ghostly grey. My permanent memory of that day is not framed around the towers; it is the picture of those people down on the street running through the ashy cloud that was not ash, their hair and skin covered in apocalyptic powder.

Screenshot 2017-09-12 at 12.34.15 AMSo strong in my mind is the image of people fleeing the towers that I was viscerally shaken when a Marvel movie included this shot as part of the aftermath of a tower collapsing. I still don’t have very good words to describe my feelings on the subject. I was a little bit angry, a little bit shocked, surprised, and stung; I felt a deep grief; I couldn’t tell if I the filmmaker wanted me to have that reaction—if he was intentionally recalling 9/11 imagery—or if I was importing the connection. When I looked afterward, none of the reviewers seemed to be talking about those shots of ashen faces.

But whenever September 11 rolls around, and with it the refrain of “Never Forget”, mostly what I remember is this:

In observance of Labor Day

A short tidbit from Marilyn Robinson’s essay “Family” (in The Death of Adam, Picador: New York, 2005).

Take for example the weekend, or that more venerable institution, the Sabbath. Moses forbade that servants, even foreigners, should work on the seventh day. If their wage was subsistence, as it is usually fair to assume in premodern societies, then his prohibition had the immediate practical effect of securing for them seven days’ pay for six days’ work. He raised the value of their labor by limiting access to it.

Quantitative analysis

Two reviews that I recently read got me thinking about how you can use quantitative analysis in reviewing literature.

The first is a review of a book titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt. The book apparently presents the results of studying word frequency in a range of authors, but from Matthew Walther’s review it seems like Blatt did hardly anything remotely useful with his numbers:

“Sure, Joseph Conrad wrote three times as much about men than [sic] women, but he wrote more than 100 years ago.” True. He also wrote about the sea and the colonial ivory trade…. No doubt one could employ statistical analysis in the hope of discovering why, for example, the word “suddenly” occurs far more often in The Lord of the Rings than it does in Pride and Prejudice. One could also note, on the basis of nothing more than having seen the respective film versions, that one is a sword and sorcery epic in which goblins and wizards and maidens fair are always popping up out of nowhere, while the other is a comedy of manners whose action scenes tend not to rise above the “Her ladyship was highly incensed” level of tension.

Even though this kind of thing seems like overall it would be a terrible approach, I want to give you a counter-example in this (very long) review of a collection of NYT movie critic Pauline Kael’s columns. You have to read the whole thing to see what I mean, because it’s chock-full of extended quotations and selections, but it works because it is a thorough and ABSOLUTELY DEVASTATING demonstration of “the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.” If you’re going to talk about someone’s favorite words, do it like this.

What a Physicist Sees When She Looks at a Fancy Gown

Because I have friends who are interested in fashion, I get a sort of secondhand interest myself. I’m actually fascinated by men’s fashion, because it’s all about infinitesimal variations within fairly narrow perameters: how much of a break do you give your trousers? How wide are your lapels? How wide is your tie and what kind of knot do you use? Women’s fashion is much much more wide-ranging. If you needed proof, just remind yourself that Barack Obama wore the same tux for his entire presidency, while Michelle wore a tremendous variety of dresses. I don’t think it’s really worth complaining about (I mean, POTUS has way more on his plate than FLOTUS, so I’m very cool with giving him one less decision to make), but there’s no denying the difference.

All that is a preamble to this article, which discusses the ways that physics and structural engineering come into play in constructing haute coture gowns.

Think of it this way: Engineering is classically a field of bridges, buildings, ball bearings, and machines. But it’s also fundamental in transforming flat sheets of fabric, piles of feathers, and strings of beads into gorgeous gowns. Material science, geometry, kinematics, strength, structure, and cloth dynamics are all essential theory for successful fashion design.

It’s an article based on this twitter thread which came out immediately after the Met Gala.

The thread and the article are both worth 5-10 minutes of your day. Enjoy!

Throwing stuff against a wall

I was talking to my friend Ashley† the other day and lamenting the fact that this space doesn’t have an identity of its own.

This post will not change that.

Mostly right now I’m lining up a bunch of stuff, throwing it against the wall, and seeing what (if anything) sticks. If you see something you like, would you say so? Maybe say what you like about it? Thanks in advance!

And now to the little item I *actually* wanted to post today.

Here’s a tidbit in the “make the world a more informed place” category: have you ever considered that other people have different experiences with bathroom scales than you do? I don’t mean the obvious “some people have eating disorders and scales might trigger their impulses where a scale is just an appliance for me” kind of different experience. What I mean is that some people can know that they have lost a single pound and other people can’t. For real. I can’t be sure I’ve lost weight until the change is in the 4-5lb range, which astonishes my friends who can tell me with certainty (as a friend did this afternoon) that they lost 3lbs in the last 5 months. It’s just that my weight fluctuates day to day by a couple of pounds, so even if a pound is temporarily missing I don’t feel like saying that it’s really lost. Most of the time my “lost” pounds come back so fast that it’s hardly like they even left—they’re not even gone long enough to qualify for a missing persons report. Of course, I don’t count weight gain until it’s 4-5lbs, either, because sometimes I pick up stray pounds for a couple days as they pass through town. But once 5 of them have formed a gang, they stick together whether coming or going.

No grand point to make here. I just found it interesting and wanted to share. Cheers!

† Of the previously-mentioned fabulous fashion-adventure blog “The Art of Getting Dressed”, home of the #AshleyTries series (A++, highly recommended, I read it every week).