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Joint attention is an actual experience that we have. By contrast, the attentional commons is best understood as a purely negative principle, by analogy with the “precautionary principle” invoked by environmentalists. The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.

What this boils down to: Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers. Here is a modest proposal: Could the Muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once every twenty minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm “Yes! We want some emo in here!”

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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A cynic might conclude that our policy to wards drugs in America is to send users either to prison or to the Olympics.

— Bill Bryson

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It has to be said that fencing, at least for the inexperienced observer, is an oddly brief and confusing exercise. At a signal from the referee, the opponents lunge forward, go tick, tick, tick with their weapons for literally about two seconds, and then a light comes on announcing a winner and they return to their starting positions to repeat the procedure. When one has accumulated 15 points in this way, he wins the match.

The total amount of action in a match is generally less than two minutes. Now there must be about a thousand ways you could improve on this. You could, for instance, allow or even encourage surprise attacks. You could have tag-team matches or require competitors to fence blindfolded after being spun around just enough to make them wobbly.

You could arm one competitor with a sword and the other with, say, a pikestaff. Almost any change, frankly, would be an improvement.

Even so, I quite got into it. Because there are four matches going on at once, it’s wonderfully lively and chaotic, with various corners of the auditorium erupting in applause or dismay at different moments.

I stayed for two hours, hopelessly bewildered but also captivated by the noise and passion and the mystifying, unfathomable swiftness of each frantic engagement.

Eventually, and with some reluctance, I bestirred myself and moved on to the nearby judo hall. This is another sport I have never paid much attention to, and I had vaguely imagined it to be like a Jackie Chan movie. I don’t suppose I actually expected the competitors to leap into play from awnings or the roofs of passing buses or to loft each other improbable distances with nifty reverse kicks to the solar plexus, but I did expect something a little more vigorous than the sight of two people in leisure wear circling slowly, and indeed interminably, while trying slyly to take each other’s shirts off.

I watched for more than an hour, but I must confess that the appeal of judo entirely eluded me.

— Bill Bryson

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That’s what you do

The basic ridiculousness of [the Olympics] is intact. Between now and October 1, hundreds of thousands of people will travel great distances, vast and unquantifiable sums will be expended, millions of words will be written and up to 4 billion people at a time will be glued to their television screens as the world once more becomes gripped with determining which human beings can leap farthest into a sandpit or make their legs go fastest or hurl various improbable objects the greatest distance.

That there are people prepared to devote years of concentrated effort to perfecting the ability to fling themselves high into the air with a pole or turn backflips on a narrow beam or poke someone in the chest with a bendy stick before they are poked in turn has long seemed to me one of life’s amazements. That four-fifths of the planet’s inhabitants are willing to become fixated with such pursuits for two weeks every four years is clearly at the very bounds of plausibility. And yet, as always, I will be right there myself, cheering on the finalists in the men’s springboard wrestling or ladies’ 400-meter backward hurdles or whatever other inane and forgotten sport they place before me, because, well, it’s the Olympics and that’s what you do.

— Bill Bryson

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After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don’t wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players — more if they are moderately restless. It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.

Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery, collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it to center field; and that there, after a minute’s pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt toward the pitcher’s mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to handle radio-active isotopes, and a mattress strapped to each leg. Imagine moreover that if this batsman fails to hit the ball in a way that heartens him sufficiently to try to waddle forty feet with mattress’s strapped to his legs, he is under no formal compunction to run; he may stand there all day, and, as a rule, does. If by some miracle he is coaxed into making a miss-stroke that leads to his being put out, all the fielders throw up their arms in triumph and have a hug. Then tea is called and every one retires happily to a distant pavilion to fortify for the next siege. Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.

— Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

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Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera.But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life–outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

— David Foster Wallace, The String Theory

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Regression effects are ubiquitous, and so are misguided causal stories to explain them. A well-known example is the “Sports Illustrated jinx,” the claim that an athlete whose picture appears on the cover of the magazine is doomed to perform poorly the following season. Overconfidence and the pressure of meeting high expectations are often offered as explanations. But there is a simpler account of the jinx: an athlete who gets to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated must have performed exceptionally well in the preceding season, probably with the assistance of a nudge from luck— and luck is fickle.

I happened to watch the men’s ski jump event in the Winter Olympics while Amos and I were writing an article about intuitive prediction. Each athlete has two jumps in the event, and the results are combined for the final score. I was startled to hear the sportscaster’s comments while athletes were preparing for their second jump: “Norway had a great first jump; he will be tense, hoping to protect his lead and will probably do worse” or “Sweden had a bad first jump and now he knows he has nothing to lose and will be relaxed, which should help him do better.” The commentator had obviously detected regression to the mean and had invented a causal story for which there was no evidence. The story itself could even be true. Perhaps if we measured the athletes’ pulse before each jump we might find that they are indeed more relaxed after a bad first jump. And perhaps not. The point to remember is that the change from the first to the second jump does not need a causal explanation. It is a mathematically inevitable consequence of the fact that luck played a role in the outcome of the first jump. Not a very satisfactory story— we would all prefer a causal account— but that is all there is.

— Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

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