The fun was out there | First Person | Johns Hopkins Magazine | Hub

The fun was out there by Matt Gross (Johns Hopkins Magazine, Summer 2016)
For the first couple of months of freshman year, I spent my evenings breaking into buildings on campus.

Having just passed our 20th college reunion, an old friend starts spilling the beans…

Apparently the statute of limitations on college shenanigans has run out and one of my best friends has written a nice little essay about some of “our” adventures. Fortunately he has kindly left out the names of his co-conspirators, so I’ll also remain silent about who was responsible for which particular crimes. Like him, I will leave the numerous other crimes he redacted unsung.

For the first couple of months of freshman year, I spent my evenings breaking into buildings on campus. This began, naturally, because a few of us who lived in and around the Vincent-Willard dorm had mail ordered lock-picking kits, and, well, we needed something to practice on besides our own dorm rooms.

So down into the midnight bowels of Krieger we crept, sneaking deep underground into disused classrooms, mute hallways, and one strange lab whose floor was tight-knit mesh wiring with a Silence of the Lambs–esque chamber below. We touched little, took nothing (except, once, a jar of desiccant—sorry!), and were never caught.

Such was the state of fun at Johns Hopkins in the fall of 1992, an era when the administration seemed to have adopted a policy of benign neglect toward the extracurricular happiness of its undergraduate body. We had Spring Fair and the occasional bus trip to New York for the day. What more could we want?

For many—really, most—of my cutthroat classmates, this was reason to grumble. Why, they moaned from the depths of D-level, couldn’t school be more exciting? A student union, they pleaded. A bar. A café. Anything to make campus life more bearable.

But for my friends and me, the school’s DGAF attitude meant freedom: We could do whatever we wanted, on campus or off. When lock-picking grew old (quickly, I’m pleased to say), we began to roam, wandering among the half-abandoned industrial sites that lined the unreconstructed harbor, or driving (when someone happened to have a car) under the interstates that cut through and around the city. We were set loose upon Baltimore, and all we ever wanted was to go and see what there was.

Here’s what we found: A large yellow smiley face painted on the end of an oil-storage tank. The 16mm film collection at the Pratt Library. A man who claimed to have been hanging out with Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas the night she lost her virginity. The Baltimore Streetcar Museum. How to clear the dance floor at Club Midnite by playing the 1978 song “Fish Heads” (eat them up, yum!). The big slice at Angelo’s and the $4.95 crabcake subs at Sip & Bite. Smart drugs, Neal Stephenson, and 2600 magazine at Atomic Books. The indie movie screenings at Skizz Cyzyk’s funeral home “mansion.”

None of these alone was world-changing (okay, except maybe “Fish Heads”). Put together, though, they amounted to a constant stream of stimulation, novelty, and excitement, the discoveries that make new adulthood feel fresh and occasionally profound.

All the while, I heard the no-fun grumbling from around campus and failed to understand it. We had freedom—what more could we need? The world was all around us, begging to be explored. We didn’t even have to leave campus: One spring, my girlfriend and I simply stepped off the sidewalk next to Mudd Hall into a little dell—and discovered a stand of wild scallions. We picked a ton, brought them home, and feasted on our foraged bounty. All we’d had to do was to leave the asphalt path—no red brick in those days—behind.

Matt Gross, Johns Hopkins A&S ’96, ’98 (MA), is a food and travel writer/editor who’s worked for everyone from The New York Times and Bon Appétit to The Guardian, The Village Voice, and Saveur. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jean Liu, A&S ’96, and their two daughters.

Incidentally he also had two other meaty pieces that came out yesterday as well:

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Hopkins Humanities Center celebrates 50 years as home to a diverse intellectual community

Hopkins Humanities Center celebrates 50 years as home to a diverse intellectual community (The Hub)

Congratulations to Richard Macksey on 50 years!!

One of the most famous stories about the development of literary and critical theory in the United States has its origin at Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus about half a century ago.

It was at “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library in October 1966 that a then relatively unknown French thinker named Jacques Derrida threw a wrench into a few of the central ideas supporting structuralism, a linguistic methodology for understanding and conceptualizing human culture dominant at the time and epitomized by luminaries such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes. What’s often forgotten about that event is that it was in fact the inaugural conference organized by Johns Hopkins University’s Humanities Center, an academic department that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

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Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read

Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read (The New York Times)
A reader analytics company in London wants to use data on our reading habits to transform how publishers acquire, edit and market books.

likes Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read – The New York Times


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Eugenia Cheng, author of How to Bake Pi, on Colbert Tonight

The author of one of the best math (and cooking) books of the year is on Stephen Colbert's show tonight.

Earlier this year, I read Eugenia Cheng’s brilliant book How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics. Tonight she’s appearing (along with Daniel Craig apparently) on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I encourage everyone to watch it and read her book when they get the chance.


You can also read more about her appearance from Category Theorist John Carlos Baez here: Cakes, Custard, Categories and Colbert | The n-Category Café

My brief review of her book on

How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of MathematicsHow to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While most of the book is material I’ve known for a long time, it’s very well structured and presented in a clean and clear manner. Though a small portion is about category theory and gives some of the “flavor” of the subject, the majority is about how abstract mathematics works in general.

I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to have a clear picture of what mathematics really is or how it should be properly thought about and practiced (hint: it’s not the pablum you memorized in high school or even in calculus or linear algebra). Many books talk about the beauty of math, while this one actually makes steps towards actually showing the reader how to appreciate that beauty.

Like many popular books about math, this one actually has very little that goes beyond the 5th grade level, but in examples that are very helpfully illuminating given their elementary nature. The extended food metaphors and recipes throughout the book fit in wonderfully with the abstract nature of math – perhaps this is why I love cooking so much myself.

I wish I’d read this book in high school to have a better picture of the forest of mathematics.

More thoughts to come…

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Shinichi Mochizuki and the impenetrable proof of the abc conjecture

The biggest mystery in mathematics: Shinichi Mochizuki and the impenetrable proof of the ABC Conjecture by Davide Castelvecchi (Nature News & Comment)
A Japanese mathematician claims to have solved one of the most important problems in his field. The trouble is, hardly anyone can work out whether he's right.

The biggest mystery in mathematics

This article in Nature is just wonderful. Everyone will find it interesting, but those in the Algebraic Number Theory class this fall will be particularly interested in the topic – by the way, it’s not too late to join the class. After spending some time over the summer looking at Category Theory, I’m tempted to tackle Mochizuki’s proof as I’m intrigued at new methods in mathematical thinking (and explaining.)

The abc conjecture refers to numerical expressions of the type a + b = c. The statement, which comes in several slightly different versions, concerns the prime numbers that divide each of the quantities a, b and c. Every whole number, or integer, can be expressed in an essentially unique way as a product of prime numbers — those that cannot be further factored out into smaller whole numbers: for example, 15 = 3 × 5 or 84 = 2 × 2 × 3 × 7. In principle, the prime factors of a and b have no connection to those of their sum, c. But the abc conjecture links them together. It presumes, roughly, that if a lot of small primes divide a and b then only a few, large ones divide c.

Thanks to Rama for bringing this to my attention!

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Review of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't by Nate SilverNate Silver (
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don't Book Cover The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don't
Nate Silver
Business & Economics
Penguin Press HC
September 27, 2012
personal library

The founder of challenges myths about predictions in subjects ranging from the financial market and weather to sports and politics, profiling the world of prediction to explain how readers can distinguish true signals from hype, in a report that also reveals the sources and societal costs of wrongful predictions.

Started Reading: May 25, 2013
Finished Reading: October 13, 2013

Given the technical nature of what Nate Silver does, and some of the early mentions of the book, I had higher hopes for the technical portions of the book. As usual for a popular text, I was left wanting a lot more. Again, the lack of any math left a lot to desire. I wish technical writers could get away with even a handful of equations, but wishing just won’t make it so.

The first few chapters were a bit more technical sounding, but eventually devolved into a more journalistic viewpoint of statistics, prediction, and forecasting in general within the areas of economics, political elections, weather forecasting, earthquakes, baseball, poker, chess, and terrorism. I have a feeling he lost a large part of his audience in the first few chapters by discussing the economic meltdown of 2008 first instead of baseball or poker and then getting into politics and economics.

While some of the discussion around each of these bigger topics are all intrinsically interesting and there were a few interesting tidbits I hadn’t heard or read about previously, on the whole it wasn’t really as novel as I had hoped it would be. I think it should be required reading for all politicians however, as I too often get the feeling that none of them think at this level.

There was some reasonably good philosophical discussion of Bayesian statistics versus Fisherian, but it was all too short and could have been fleshed out more significantly. I still prefer David Applebaum’s historical and philosophical discussion of probability in Probability and Information: An Integrated Approach though he surprisingly didn’t mention R.A. Fisher directly himself in his coverage.

It was interesting to run across additional mentions of power laws in the realms of earthquakes and terrorism after reading Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour (review here), but I’ll have to find some texts which describe the mathematics in full detail. There was surprisingly large amount of discussion skirting around the topics within complexity without delving into it in any substantive form.

For those with a pre-existing background in science and especially probability theory, I’d recommend skipping this and simply reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s work is referenced several times and his book seems less intuitive than some of the material Silver presents here.

This is the kind of text which should be required reading in high school civics classes. Perhaps it might motivate more students to be interested in statistics and science related pursuits as these are almost always at the root of most political and policy related questions at the end of the day.

For me, I’d personally give this three stars, but the broader public should view it with at least four stars if not five as there is some truly great stuff here. Unfortunately a lot of it is old hat or retreaded material for me.

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Book Review: The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial)
The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom Book Cover The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
Simon Winchester
Biography & Autobiography
Harper Perennial
April 28, 2009

In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.

Winchester really is a magnificent writer. Although I am a bigger fan of some of his other works, this certainly fits well into the rest of his life’s opus. Somehow he manages to cover bits of science, technology, philosophy, history, (his love) geology, archaeology, culture, politics and even uses his flair for travel writing with great ethos and pathos to tell an interesting story.

Aside from the breadth of topics he covers while telling the story of one man’s life’s work, he writes about and discusses topics which should be part of everyone’s personal cultural knowledge. As a small example, he makes mention of one of the real life archaeologists who served as a model for Indiana Jones – though sadly he only makes the direct connection in a footnote which many may not likely read.

Though I had originally picked up the book out of general curiosity (not to diminish the fact that I’m on a quest to read every word Winchester has written), I find that it also neatly fits into providing some spectacular background on the concept of “Big History” (see Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History) as it relates to China’s place in the world. In particular “Needham’s question” (briefly: Why, given China’s illustrious past, did modern science not develop there after the 1500’s?) turned around becomes a interesting illustration on the course of human history and the rises and falls of cultures and societies since the Holocene.

For those who may miss the significance, I was particularly impressed with the overall literary power imbued to the book by the use of the book-ended contrasts of Needham’s Chongqing at the opening of the work and modern day Chongqing at the close. This is one of the few times that the mechanics behind how Winchester, the master of telling often non-linear stories, has been patently obvious to me. I hope one day to unravel all of his other secrets. I can only imagine that in his heavy research of his topics, he somehow internally sees the ultimately magical ways in which he will present the information.

I will note that, in contrast to some of his past works, this one had some better physical maps and photos to go along with the text, although I was highly disappointed in their unusable presentation in the e-book version of the book. (Higher dpi versions would have gone a long way, particularly with the ability to zoom in on them in most e-readers.) For those unfortunate enough to have the e-book copy, I commend picking up a physical copy of the book for better interpretations of the photos and maps included.

Finally, perhaps for Winchester’s benefit, I’ll note that typically I would give this book a full five stars in comparing it will all others, but I’m comparing it only with Winchester’s other works and, so it stands at four, and that only because there isn’t the ability to give tenths or hundredths.

Reading Progress
  • 12/17/09 marked as: want to read; “Purchased copy from”
  • 12/27/09 Purchased copy from
  • 02/05/10 started reading
  • 04/24/10 started reading again
  • 04/24/2010 8.81% done or on page 31 of 316; “Simon Winchester has such a lovely writing style and grasp of language. I’m depressed that I’ve finished reading most of his works.”
  • 12/03/12 started reading again from the beginning
  • 12/03/2012 09.0% done
  • 12/10/2012 20.0% done
  • 12/17/2012 30.0% done
  • 12/20/2012 40.0% done
  • 12/31/12 Finished book

Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

John Hay, America’s secretary of state at the turn of the twentieth century, remarked in 1899 that China was now the “storm center of the world,” and that whoever took the time and trouble to understand “this mighty empire” would have “a key to politics for the next five centuries.”

Highlight (blue) – Location XXX
China – storm center of the world;
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Guide to highlight colors

Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Blue–Interesting Quote
Gray–Typography Problem
Red–Example to work through

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Book Reveiw: P.M. Forni’s “The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction”

The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction Book Cover The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction
P.M. Forni
September 13, 2011

Explains the importance of thinking in daily life, discussing how to achieve focus, creativity, and a positive outlook in a technology-driven world.

The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of DistractionThe Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction by P.M. Forni

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While some might categorize this as a “self-help” or “business” book, it’s really a broader reaching thesis which is perfect for almost any reader. It’s both a descriptive as well as prescriptive manual for the human thinking machine. Similar to his previous two excellent must-read books on civility (Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude), this is a well-written, clear, and concise text whose aim is the noble goal of improving all of our lives.

In the vein of excellent recent books like William Powell’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and others, Dr. Forni covers the ground of how to best deal with the current “age of distraction” in which we live. Even better, however, he makes many of these books obsolete as he uses his phenomenal depth of knowledge of everything from the Greek and Roman schools of thought to Benjamin Franklin and George Washington and then through to Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich) and Dale Carnegie (How To Win Friends and Influence People and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living)and beyond to provide simple and useful examples of how to be a better and clearer thinker and to elucidate how that will make your life a happier one.

Fans of “Getting Things Done” (GTD) will appreciate some of the underlying philosophy, but will love how it extends those concepts to create a truer sense of happiness in their daily lives.

When I initially approached the book–as an avowed addict of the fast-paced flow of information from both the internet and television–I was daunted at the mere ideas that the book portended. But again Dr. Forni breaks the proverbial mountain into a practical mole-hill. He divides things into simple and understandable chunks, but also provides the necessary motivation along with simple examples of how to carry out this wonderful philosophy. In the short time since I’ve read the book, I’ve been able to more easily put down my “crack-berry” smart-phone and focus more on what I’m doing and getting the best out of life.

Fans of his previous work who have “chosen civility”, will also appreciate how he ties in the concepts of civility and further extends them to the concept of thoughtfulness. The same way he broke down the concept of being civil and created simple, executable ways of changing your daily behavior, he does so with thinking while simultaneously removing the implied modern-day stigma of being a “thinking” person.

In short, this is the book that I wish I had been given before I started high school or even before I started college. I’ll desperately miss all the time I’ve had without this book, but I’ll definitely be living a better life now that it’s here. One thing is certain: everyone I care about will be getting a copy for the holidays this year!

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Reading Progress
  • Started reading on 09/12/11
  • Finished reading on 10/01/11
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Book Review: John Avery’s “Information Theory and Evolution”

Information Theory and Evolution Book Cover Information Theory and Evolution
John Avery
Non-fiction, Popular Science
World Scientific
January 1, 2003

This highly interdisciplinary book discusses the phenomenon of life, including its origin and evolution (and also human cultural evolution), against the background of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Among the central themes is the seeming contradiction between the second law of thermodynamics and the high degree of order and complexity produced by living systems. This paradox has its resolution in the information content of the Gibbs free energy that enters the biosphere from outside sources, as the author shows. The role of information in human cultural evolution is another focus of the book. One of the final chapters discusses the merging of information technology and biotechnology into a new discipline — bio-information technology.

Information Theory and EvolutionInformation Theory and Evolution by John Avery
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic book which, for the majority of people, I’d give a five star review. For my own purposes, however, I was expecting far more on the theoretical side of information theory and statistical mechanics as applied to microbiology that it didn’t live up to, so I’m giving it three stars from a purely personal perspective.

I do wish that someone had placed it in my hands and forced me to read it when I was a freshman in college entering the study of biomedical and electrical engineering. It is far more an impressive book at this level and for those in the general public who are interested in the general history of science and philosophy of the topics. The general reader may be somewhat scared by a small amount of mathematics in chapter 4, but there is really no loss of continuity by skimming through most of it. For those looking for a bit more rigor, Avery provides some additional details in appendix A, but for the specialist, the presentation is heavily lacking.

The book opens with a facile but acceptable overview of the history of the development for the theory of evolution whereas most other texts would simply begin with Darwin’s work and completely skip the important philosophical and scientific contributions of Aristotle, Averroes, Condorcet, Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, or the debates between Cuvier and St. Hilaire.

For me, the meat of the book was chapters 3-5 and appendix A which collectively covered molecular biology, evolution, statistical mechanics, and a bit of information theory, albeit from a very big picture point of view. Unfortunately the rigor of the presentation and the underlying mathematics were skimmed over all too quickly to accomplish what I had hoped to gain from the text. On the other hand, the individual sections of “suggestions for further reading” throughout the book seem well researched and offer an acceptable launching pad for delving into topics in places where they may be covered more thoroughly.

The final several chapters become a bit more of an overview of philosophy surrounding cultural evolution and information technology which are much better covered and discussed in James Gleick’s recent book The Information.

Overall, Avery has a well laid out outline of the broad array of subjects and covers it all fairly well in an easy to read and engaging style.

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Reading Progress
  • Started book on 07/11/11
  • Finished book on 08/14//11
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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Book Cover The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, #3
Arthur Conan Doyle
mystery, detective
The Strand Magazine
Kindle e-book

Comprising the series of short stories that made the fortunes of the Strand, the magazine in which they were first published, this volume won even more popularity for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes is at the height of his powers in many of his most famous cases, including The Red-Headed League, The Speckled Band, and The Blue Carbuncle.

The original “procedural”, but in fiction form and focusing on logic instead of high tech science.

Read between January 02 – May 09, 2011

Quotes and Highlights:

You may remember the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.

Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home.

Well, moonshine is a brighter thing than fog, …

…as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.

“My God! It’s Watson,” said he. He was in a pitiable state of reaction, with every nerve in a twitter.

41% Note: An interesting early use of @Twitter…

I should be very much obliged if you would slip your revolver into your pocket. An Eley’s No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel pokers into knots. That and a tooth-brush are, I think, all that we need.

magnifying lens.

87% First reference to Holmes with a magnifying lens in print that I’ve seen.Like

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Brief Review: Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s “Advice for a Young Investigator”

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934)
Advice for a Young Investigator Book Cover Advice for a Young Investigator
Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Biography & Autobiography
MIT Press
book (paperback)

This recently rediscovered classic, first published in 1897, is an anecdotal guide for the perplexed new scientific investigator as well as a refreshing resource for the old pro.

Book Cover for Advice for a Young Investigator
Written by Santiago Ramon y Cajal and translated by Larry W. Swanson and Neely Swanson.

This is certainly worth the read for the high qualities of its translation and vocabulary. There are lots of great aphorisms and brilliant bits of advice. Some of the parts about patriotism and information about things like picking a wife are anachronistically funny to read 100+ years after they were written.

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