Things I Learned from the Internet This Week

In a blatant attempt to rationalize how much time I spend reading the internet, I’ve decided to post this first of what I hope to be a semi-regular roundup of some of the more interesting things I’ve come across in my coffee-time divagations. Those who follow me on facebook will recognize many of the links (one of the reasons I want to do this is to keep track of all the things I link to), though thanks to the mystery of facebook I never know how many people see any given link. At any rate, here are some things I found interesting these last couple of weeks. Maybe you will find some of them interesting, too.

The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love.  Full stop.

So says George Vaillant, longtime director of one of “the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development in history.  The study’s goal was to determine as best as possible what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing.  The astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits — ranging from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to ‘hanging length of his scrotum’ — indicates just how exhaustive and quantifiable the research data has become.”

Mostly a shill for the book (which looks fascinating), but you get at least part of the executive summary of the findings. Most interesting to me were the effects of alcoholism and the correlation between a man’s political views and the average end of his sex life. Well worth reading; short and to the point.

Turns out nicotine stimulates the part of the brain that regulates mood and increases your levels of dopamine and serotonin. This isn’t to say that you should go out and start smoking to fix your sad; brain benefits don’t cancel out addiction and dying of lung cancer.

As someone who spent most of my youth and much of my young adulthood wrestling with depression (and deeply addicted to nicotine), I found this article really resonated with me, especially nicotine’s effects on mood stabilization (something I’d intuited for years) and the depressive effects of inflammation (caused, in my case, or so I suspect, by food allergies and intolerances). I learn a lot of interesting things reading Cracked. It’s often also pretty funny.

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

A long but fascinating read about the deficiencies of mathematic instruction in the US, and some of the alternative methods that have been developed but not widely tested. Spoiler alert, the way most of us learned math was dumb and made it almost impossible to internalize (I remember coming up with my own system for doing basic arithmetic in middle school after getting fed up with what I’d been taught). Turns out ‘You-Y’all-We’ works way better than ‘I-We-You.’

Kind of a yay/boo on this one: yay that people have come up with better methods of engaging with math, boo that it took this long and has not been widely implemented. Still, like GI Joe used to say, now we know, and knowing is half the battle.

This is what we did in Texas. The Texicans flooded Northern Mexico in the early 1800s. Turns out that they were migrants who did not care about the borders of Mexico or any immigration laws concerning the land they wished to migrate upon. These Texicans demanded that their universal right of migration trumped any and all laws of the Mexican government. When the Mexican government responded with a demand that Mexican law should be respected, the Texicans launched a violent rebellion.

The Alamo was a battle for the rights of the migrant that is now firmly rooted in the mythology of Texas and America. I find it way off the irony charts that today’s white wingnuts embrace the position of the Mexicans who attacked the Alamo as they demand that new migrants respect borders that were created through a migration that refused to respect borders.”

This one’s some soap-box preaching about the Central American immigrant kids I found particularly resonant.

In fact, if one person in a group repeats the same opinion three times, it has 90% of the effect of three different people in that group expressing the same opinion. When you think about it, that is strange. Indeed, I’m not sure I’d even believe it if I hadn’t already read many other psychology studies that point to the illogical and unreasonable ways our minds sometimes work.

Where does this effect come from? The authors argue it comes down to memory. Because repetition increases the accessibility of an opinion, we assume it has a high prevalence. In everyday life we are likely to hear the same opinion many times in different places. We then put all these together to judge the general mood of a group. When one person repeats their opinion, we simply over apply the rule.

There’s so much interesting work being done, now we can observe the brain in action thanks to modern imaging technologies. Age old questions are getting more and more concrete answers. I found this article particularly fascinating, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things like confirmation bias and the backfire effect. I think it’s also relevant to those with any degree of social or political involvement, perhaps even more so for those who sympathize, but don’t engage.

These are books which clearly inspired a generation of authors, and made a huge splash either in publishing success or critical acclaim. Or both. And these are in no particular order.

I’ve only read fourteen and a half of these twenty-one books that changed science fiction forever (compiled by io9). Doubtless there are many others that might be included on such a list, but this is a pretty good start, if nothing else.

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