Is this actually a Geezer reference? [OT]

I was listening to a podcast (Freakonomics, if anybody’s curious) about the Cold War; and when somebody mentioned Khrushchev the host cut in, for the audience’s benefit, with “That’s Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”

Does anybody, particularly somebody listening to a podcast about the Cold War, need to have Khrushchev identified? Is it all that far out of the collective consciousness?


  1. Just last Sunday I drove over to a neighborhood flea market that had been advertised at our local supermarket. The date was right, the time was right, but the street address did not exist.

  2. Depending on how you want to count it, we might have 3% of human history documented. Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, writing for perhaps 5,400 years. That’s not quite three percent coverage. As to what actually gets written down, well that’s even less. Add in questions about bias and hearsay repeated as fact and our records are quite spotty.

    Fixating on the “meaning” of a word when trying to know what someone speaking a foreign language intended is foolish. Even when a word is “right”, an attempt at word for word translation often misses the mark. I recently had to edit a long, somewhat technical people written by Dutch authors in English. While it was certainly English and coherent (mostly), it wasn’t at all natural. It was much harder than editing a piece written by a native speaker. It was “right’ but required hours of work.

    When interpreting Russian, we interpret it as the nearest equivalent in English. Then there are issues of idiomatic use of the language or rhetorical or poetic flourishes. Finally, language will influence the way one thinks (though I suspect the differences in this case are often oversold). “We will bury you” very likely had some competitive braggadocio behind it, but could very well be more rhetorical than a direct physical threat.

    As for Freakonomics, I considered the book an interesting pop-piece on lateral thinking and the power of opening the scope of investigation. It got rather tedious toward the end, as the last several chapters were all on the same topic, if I recall. I take the podcast in the same vein, that it’s about asking “Are we thinking about this the right way?” I don’t consider any of its conclusions as definitive.

    Now when it comes to snake-oil salesmen, I’ll put Malcolm Gladwell at the front of the back. He has built an empire on tenuous inferences.

  3. @SingaporeBill: by definition we have 100% of history at last partly document. “History” is the part that is written down. The stuff before then is “prehistory”.

  4. Well if we’re nominating snake-oil salesmen, I give you Oliver Sacks — just-so stories that always sound so deep and meaningful and philosophical, while nothing ever gets cured, everything seems to be a one-off, and in the end, nothing seems to ever be learned by science…

  5. @larK, criticizing Sacks’ work because no one is cured is like criticizing CIDU Bill’s because sometimes comics get misunderstood, still. He isn’t writing a heroic narrative about himself as solver of problems, but that isn’t a failure. He’s describing the experience, as best he can, of both being a person with neurological problems and trying to help those people. Note that Sacks’ was in fact a pioneering neurologist whose work helped many, many people, he just didn’t choose to valorize himself in his writing. Are you really into mocking people for their humility?

  6. Re Sacks: “He’s describing the experience, as best he can, of both being a person with neurological problems and trying to help those people.”

    Yeah, and it is this that I choose to criticize — he may or may not be a pioneering neurologist, but his literary works fail to teach me anything useful about neurology, and in fact, because of their ubiquity and popularity without referenced or reliable information, actually make me dumber about neurology.

    He actually is writing a “heroic narrative about himself”, choosing to present himself under a guise of humility, but the mode is most definitely “heroic literature”, and this is not at all a useful mode for disseminating scientific information — English majors might like it because ironically undermining the mode of heroic literature by using a humble protagonist might be interesting, but it still teaches them nothing about neuroscience, nor anyone else.

  7. @larK: odd how much people have actually learned about neurology from Sacks. Some of his books were not nearly as good as others. His best were very good indeed.

  8. carlfink: so I’ll ask you, in the credo of the Freakonomics podcasts, to show me the evidence: I claim there is no actual neurology to be learned from the popular writings of Oliver Sacks, because I’ve read some of it, and I learned no neurology (a weak claim, to be sure, but that’s where the goal posts have been staked). So either: a) find me a reputable neurologist who claims that there is good neurology in the popular works of Oliver Sacks (are you perchance a neurologist?); b) show me data of people who have learned neurology from the popular works of Oliver Sacks; c) at least quote me a passage or two that purport to teach something about neurology.

    ( a) of course has certain problems, as an appeal to authority, but it’s still a start; for c) I would want more than just “neurology is a medical discipline” or “people bump there heads and have weird things happen to them”, or even the naming of a few random conditions that are indeed neurological, ie: I’d want more than just what any high school student could do with Wikipedia.)

    And to give you an example of what I’m talking about, throughout the stuff of his that I’ve read, neurological conditions seem to come up as macguffins to whatever suits the need of the particular story he’s telling, and as such seem uncatalogued, unorganized, inchoate lists of convenience. They never get developed or seem to have consequences, very much like in a Star Trek episode. Specifically: he wrote about a neurological condition in which a person cannot recognize someone by their face. Being as all research I’m aware of (and I studied psychology for a BA) says that facial recognition is something the brain devotes tremendous resources to, is something that the brain does extremely well (humans recognize a face easier and faster than if it were just the sum of its parts), and is something that bleeds into other domain tasks, often inappropriately (seeing faces where there are none, eg: Face on Mars), the fact that there are some few individuals who cannot perform this most fundamental of brain tasks would seem to me to be something of tremendous importance and active research. Not only did I not learn anything about fallout from the discovery of such a condition and the many other things it should naturally lead to from his story, it turns out that apparently Sacks himself had this condition! And I still learned nothing of consequence about it! (That there is a certain amount of bathos to this condition is obvious, and I don’t need a neurologist to tell me, just as I don’t need him to tell me the irony of Beethoven losing his hearing or Monet losing his vision.) To me, all of Sacks’ stories are like this.

  9. larK, did Oliver Sachs steal your girlfriend?

    But seriously, I have almost as big a hate-on for the reverence accorded Malcolm Gladwell.

  10. larK, you seem to want Sacks to write textbooks. He didn’t. Some folks who learned from him can be found in these (to use Wikipedia jargon) secondary sources:

    Now Gladwell is seriously overrated. Eloquent writer, but doesn’t quite get how scholarship and evidence work.

  11. carlfink: Thank you for the links. I did read each one, but it seems clear we are not going to convince each other. I will concede, from the third link, that maybe for a neurologist, his writing could be illuminating and instructive, in a troubles-talk kind of way for specialists. But I maintain my original position, that for a general lay audience (in which I include myself), his writing is basically snake-oil: it seems deep and illuminating, but in fact teaches nothing, and I think that at least one of the articles you linked (the second one), shows evidence of this. (Am I merely succumbing to the paradoxical increase in polarization of opinion despite additional information? Maybe…)

    So, firstly, I am merely talking about his popular writing — whether he is or isn’t a great doctor, a great neurologist, or a great human being isn’t of interest to me, and merely because someone has been canonized in the forum of popular opinion does not automatically impart greatness to their works (Stephen Hawking, for example, I also think is vastly overrated).
    In the second linked article, the author describes Sacks’ writing as “as much Dr. Hunter Thompson as Dr. Sigmund Freud”, an inadvertently damningly accurate assessment: Freud has nothing to say in modern psychology — indeed, it wasn’t until my final year as a psychology major that I had a course that even mentioned him, and this turned out to be a historical review course, frustrating because it didn’t really teach you anything about the current state of the discipline, just jumped from the wildly disparate theories of one early practitioner to the next, and the fact that all of this stuff failed to integrate almost in any way to the current state of the study is what made it so frustrating. Where I did get a lot of exposure to Freud was in my English classes, which to me is extremely telling. English majors love Freud, but psychologists don’t. (The paranoid, drug fueled scribblings of Hunter S. Thompson don’t much interest me, but then again he’s not claiming to write about science…)
    So it seems to me, English majors love Sacks, but I, looking for some science, don’t. The author of the Smithsonian article, even though he clearly loves Sacks’ work, shows that he has actually failed to learn even some of the most basic aspects of neurology, such that when he is talking live to Sacks himself, he is surprised that Sacks hews to the scientific. That he feels it is some kind of special revelation on page 5 that “Sacks is skeptical of anything beyond the material” is telling; that he feels that Sacks’ use of “the illusion of free will” is a slap on the face shows me that he has understood almost nothing about neurology. He only learns face to face with Sacks himself what Sacks’ writing failed to teach him.
    I don’t want a text book. But popular writing that so fails to instill even the most basic aspects of your discipline — that it comes as a surprise that the author actually hews to the scientific — that writing has failed.

  12. Certainly we will have to agree to disagree, larK. I should mention that I’m a zoology major and biology teacher, and a lifelong neuroscience enthusiast … and I certainly learned things from Sacks’ writing.

  13. WW: you do realize that “the historical inevitability of the dictatorship of the proletariat” is standard Marxist rhetoric/claptrap, right? The ‘outlast’ interpretation of “we will bury you” pretty much makes it this rhetoric warmed over. Whereas the ‘start WWIII’ interpretation has no particular relationship to standard doctrine but does pretty much exactly reflect the fears of rich Westerners that the commies are coming for their moneybags.

    The thing I found the most surprising when I first started reading about the early Cold War in detail is that people believed the rhetoric, including the historical inevitability crap, not just in the Soviet bloc but also in the West.

  14. Dave in Boston; Yes, of course I realize that “the historical inevitability” is standard Marxist rhetoric. I also realize that in the 20th century those inevitable victories invariably occurred through violence, not through some natural withering away of capitalism. You don’t have to be some caricature of Rich Uncle Pennybags to see that.

  15. Well, I can only explain why this interpretation seems reasonable to me and is (or was not that long ago) mostly favored by historians.

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