Thirty Three Things #2

1. How to Fix One of the Problems With Our Republican Democracy

The problem with democracy is not that politicians kowtow to financiers and lobbyists; it’s that politicians kowtow to their own consituents, spending other people’s money along the way. In other words, their incentives are all wrong. Effective reform should supply better incentives.

So if I could make just one change in the American political system, it would be to give each voter two votes in every congressional election. You’d get one vote to cast in your own district and another to cast in the district of your choice. When a congressman from West Virginia funnels taxpayers’ money from fifty states to his home district, I want him to face the prospect that taxpayers from fifty states will share their feelings with him on election day.

I’d also redraw the boundaries of Congressional districts according to the alphabet instead of geography. Instead of congressmen from central Delaware and northern Colorado, we’d have a congressman for everyone whose name begins with AA through AE, another for everyone whose name begins with AF through AL, and so on. The point being that it’s easy to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone in northern Colorado, but a lot harder to devise a pork barrel project that benefits everyone whose name happens to begin with Q.

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2. Who Are the Sons of God and Daughters of Men in Genesis 6:1-5?

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3. Who Made That Escape Key?

“It’s the ‘Hey, you! Listen to me’ key,” says Jack Dennerlein of the Harvard School of Public Health. According to Dennerlein, an expert on how humans interact with computers, the escape key helped drive the computer revolution of the 1970s and ’80s. “It says to the computer: ‘Stop what you’re doing. I need to take control.’ ” In other words, it reminds the machine that it has a human master. If the astronauts in “2001: A Space Odyssey” had an ESC key, Dennerlein points out, they could have stopped the rogue computer Hal in an instant.

(Via: Neatorama)

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4. Fact of the Week: Every state constitution–all 50 states–make reference to God.

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5. There Was No Golden Age

I often ask my students to give me a quick summary of church history. It’s a good way to see what they know, and, more importantly, what they think they know. The results are fascinating. Beyond the unsurprising fact that most know very little about the story of God’s people between the end of the New Testament and the day before yesterday, the stories usually have at least one thing in common: a Golden Age.

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6. The Lake So Polluted That Spending An Hour There Would Kill You

Welcome to beautiful Lake Karachay, a Russian lake so tainted by nearby nuclear facilities that it’s considered the most polluted place on the planet. In 1990, just standing on the shore for an hour would give you a radiation dose of 600 roentgen, more than enough to kill you. On the plus side, lakefront property is probably really, really cheap.

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7. The Spoon as Contentious Technological Artifact

Spoons – along with their companions and rivals, chopsticks and forks—are definitely a form of technology. Their functions include serving, measuring, and conveying food from plate to mouth; not to mention culinary spoons for stirring and scraping, skimming, lifting, and ladling. Every human society has spoons of one kind or another. In and of themselves, these utensils are mild-mannered—certainly in comparison with the knife. Spoons are what we give babies—whether ceremonial silver christening spoons or shallow plastic weaning spoons containing the first gummy mouthfuls of baby rice. Gripping a spoon in the fist is one of the earliest milestones in our development. Spoons are benign and domestic. Yet their construction and use has often reflected deep passions and fiercely held prejudices.

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8. Why Handwriting Matters

Your hand is formed by aspiration to the hand of others – by the beautiful italic strokes of a friend which seem altogether wasted on a mere postcard, or a note on your door reading “Dropped by – will come back later”. It’s formed, too, by anti-aspiration, the desire not to be like Denise in the desk behind who reads with her mouth open and whose writing, all bulging “m”s and looping “p”s, contains the atrocity of a little circle on top of every i. Or still more horrible, on occasion, usually when she signs her name, a heart. (There may be men in the world who use a heart-shaped jot, as the dot over the i is called, but I have yet to meet one. Or run a mile from one.)

These attempts to modify ourselves through our handwriting become a part of who we are. So too do the rituals and pleasurable pieces of small behaviour attached to writing with a pen.

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9. The Worst Sound in the World is a Knife Scraping a Bottle

Researchers at Newcastle University wanted to learn more about why our brains make us recoil from unpleasant sounds like nails on a chalkboard or screaming. So they looked at the brains of a group of volunteers (who no doubt regretted their decision after this test) and played them a series of sounds to find where the recoil response was coming from. They also asked people to rate the sounds they heard from most to least pleasant, leaving them with a (slightly less than definitive because of its small sample size) list of the very worst sounds on the planet. At the top? The sound of a knife scraping a bottle.

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10. Backyards are highly overrated

According to a survey by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 64% of architecture firms are reporting increased interest in outdoor living spaces: places for adults to relax; places for the kids to play. People want “a luxurious outdoor world, to get away from their everyday lives at home instead of having to go somewhere,” says Janet Bloomberg, with KUBE Architecture.

There’s just one problem: Evidence shows that for all we lust after outdoor sanctuaries, such retreats have little to do with the lives we actually live. Neither adults nor children spend much leisure time outdoors, and in making the trade-offs to have private outdoor space, we could be making ourselves less happy overall.

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11. Positive Correlation Between Chocolate Consumption and Nobel Laureate Production

Of all the chocolate research out there, the most unabashed tribute to the “dark gold” has to be a study just published in one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.

Drum roll, please. The higher a country’s chocolate consumption, the more Nobel laureates it spawns per capita, according to findings released in the New England Journal of Medicine.

(Via: Neatorama)

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12. 101 Dumbest Moments in Business

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13. Sin and the Historian

The historian Herbert Butterfield informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have had to deal with human nature.” (Christianity and History, 1957). Marsden adds: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.” Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. At first my students balked at this idea, but I continued to press the point. I suggested that people often perform heroic acts and rise about their broken circumstances, but in the end all human beings are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought upon by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

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14. The New Yorker‘s 7 Greatest Covers of the Century

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15. Why Bible-Lovers Should be Bibliophiles

There are three stages in the history of God’s people which can be used to show three ways Christians can benefit from reading. Tradition itself is no infallible standard which can be imposed on the consciences of Christians, but if past practice can be shown to be reasonable, we may miss something worthwhile if we ignore it.

The first stage in the history of God’s people with books came with the writing of the Scriptures. Unlike an oral tradition, written Scriptures required literacy in order to be understood, so the people became literate. The second stage came with the confrontation of Christian teaching with pagan learning. When learned pagans argued that Christianity was unreasonable, Christian teachers had to know how to refute, reinterpret, or assimilate the teachings of their opponents. Critics of paganism became literary critics. The beginning of the third stage cannot be located with any precision, but this stage begins for any Christian reader when the ability of a book to set forth possibilities is exploited to a Christian end, allowing the Christian reader to explore the feasibility of other forms of Christian life. In each of these stages, a new reason was given for the Christian to take up books and read them. I wish to explore each stage and see what it has to offer as an incentive to today’s reader.

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16. Obama the Anti-Orator

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17. The Three Pigs and the Ancient Greek Philosopher

The earliest versions of the Three Pigs story are buried in time, although we do have nineteenth-century English renderings of it. I want, as a foil, to consider Disney’s Silly Symphony animation, from 1932, with its refrain, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?,” frequently issued in print form and known worldwide, because it forms, like so much of Disney’s work, an inescapable template. Disney’s pigs are “little,” that is, they are children; whereas Wiesner’s pigs are neither verbally nor pictorially “little.” On the book jacket, Wiesner’s three porkers zoom in and eye us. We go snout to snout with them, as if looking in a mirror. Disney’s tiny fellows, on the other hand, caper at a distance; they are comical and vulnerable in their sailor suits, except of course for the wise guy in blue working man’s overalls and cap, who, channeling La Fontaine’s La cigale et la fourmi, warns the others against frivolity. The story, as Disney tells it, conforms to Aristotelian aesthetics: from start to finish, the plot conforms to propter hoc, replete with necessity and peripeteia (an unexpected reversal of fortune), as the industrious little pig saves his brethren by turning the tables on the wicked wolf, who flees in howling agony, his bottom scorched in boiling turp. And children feel good; they smile. They have been through fear, trembling, revenge, resolution, catharsis. And all of this in a single, justly famous, work of art.

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18. How To Avoid Being Killed By a Black Swan

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19. The General Motors Model of the American Church

The Christian churches in the United States are in trouble for all the usual reasons — human sinfulness and selfishness, the temptations of life in an affluent society, doctrinal and moral controversies and uncertainties and on and on and on — but also and to a surprisingly large degree they are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth. The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today. They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.

Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination). Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners. And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year. The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try. People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.

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20. 15 Scathing Early Reviews of Classic Novels

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21. The Dirty Bathroom Theory of Schools

Whenever I evaluate a school, my first stop is the boys’ bathroom because, without an unflushed urinal of doubt, it is every school’s least common denominator. Its sticky floors, calcified wads of toilet paper and juvenile-yet-timeless graffiti (“Here I sit broken hearted…”) are generally not what a principal shows off. . . .

In today’s data-driven world of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes accountability, administrators and lawmakers tend to obsess over hard measures. Adequate Yearly Progress determinations and School Performance Scores are based on precise formulas—formulas made up of clean, cold and supposedly foolproof numbers. In this highly calculable place, soft measures are rarely factored in. Nonetheless, after my “inspection” discovers the good, the bad and the ugly of the boys’ john, I usually have a good sense (or scent) of how a school is doing. Though I wouldn’t necessarily hold the bathroom test up against SAT scores as a measure of school success, I do consider it a telltale sign of either problems or promise.

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22. Top 10 Ways to Make Yourself Look (and Be) Smarter

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23. The Most Beautiful Phrase in English?

The claim that cellar door is beautiful to the ear — in opposition to its prosaic meaning — has been made by and attributed to a wide variety of writers over the years. . . .

The fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien, who was also a philologist, might well be the linguist she had in mind. He mentioned the idea of cellar door’s special beauty in a speech in 1955 and is often given credit for it. Other supposed authors abound; the story is tangled. But Tolkien, at least, can be ruled out as the originator. He was, after all, just 11 years old in 1903 when a curious novel called “Gee-Boy” — which also alludes to the aesthetic properties of cellar door — was published by the Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper. Hooper’s narrator writes of the title character: “He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare, (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setbos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Junfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”

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24. The Meaning of the Atari Logo

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25. Human Anatomy Terms That Sound Like Things You Would Go See On A Vacation

Aortic Arch
Corpus Callosum
Islets of Langerhans
Bowman’s Capsule
Cranial Vault
Semicircular Canals
Medullary Pyramids
Brodmann Areas
Crypts of Lieberkühn
Prussack’s Space
Fissure of Rolando
McBurney’s Point
Anterior Horn
Alcock’s Canal
Hesselbach’s Triangle
Loop of Henle
Renal Columns of Bertin

Image via GOOD magazine

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26. Author Advances and the Earn-Out Fallacy

To anyone who knows anything about publishing, a book does NOT need to earn out its advance in order for its publisher to make money. Sometimes a lot. Which is why they can afford to pay writers like John Grisham and James Patterson closer to, if not more than eight figures per book, knowing they’ll never earn out. So whether Dunham sells as many copies as Tina Fey is completely irrelevant. Here’s why.

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27. Why Food Insecurity Was One of the Most Important Causes of WWII

blockquote>Today’s world of plenty is a relatively new phenomenon. There is only one generation left that remembers hunger as a possibility in the industrialized world, and they are quickly dying off due to old age. World War II took a world that we would barely recognize and remade it into the modern life that we experience today. It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire world really was different before World War II. In 1942 only 24 percet of Americans owned cars per capita, compared with with 83 percent today, television was virtually unheard of prior to WWII with less than one percent of Americans owning a TV in 1942, and many rural districts in the US still did not have electricity. Similarly, in 1940 almost half of Americans lived on farms or in rural areas, compared with less than one quarter today.

What is more astounding is that in the US prior to World War II malnutrition—a word that is now almost unheard of in the West—was still a common affliction. In The Taste of War, Lizzie Collingham’s excellent and exhaustively researched book on food’s role in starting and ending World War II, she writes that in the US, “2 out of every five men called up were unfit for military service due to disabilities which were linked to poor nutrition.”

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28. How-To of the Week: Buy a Round-the-World Plane Ticket

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29. Your Emotions Are A Gauge, Not A Guide

God designed your emotions to be gauges, not guides. They’re meant to report to you, not dictate you. The pattern of your emotions (not every caffeine-induced or sleep-deprived one!) will give you a reading on where your hope is because they are wired into what you believe and value — and how much. That’s why emotions like delight (Psalm 37:4), affection (Romans 12:10), fear (Luke 12:5), anger (Psalm 37:8), joy (Psalm 5:11), etc., are so important in the Bible. They reveal what your heart loves, trusts, and fears. At Desiring God we like to say pleasure is the measure of your treasure, because the emotion of pleasure is a gauge that tells you what you love.

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30. Why the End of Conservative Nonfiction Could be a Blessing

This is a good thing, because it means that conservatives can move into areas aside from non-fiction political tomes, which have traditionally been their strength. Conservatives can now move into writing fiction, making documentaries, maybe even try and get into television. A new website named Liberty Island has just launched with the intent to have more conservatives engage with fiction. Founded by longtime conservative editor Adam Bellow, it will publish conservative fiction, seeing an opening in the liberal publishing world of New York.

[. . . ]

The promise of Liberty Island is that it will make righties stretch their legs a little bit. It will challenge them to create art, which is much more difficult than a political jeremiad. This may, ironically, argue the conservative case better than nonfiction. More people read The Hobbit, a thrilling adventure about courage and evil, than read National Review..

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31. What Does Beauty Taste Like?

For centuries it was commonly asserted that beauty could only be apprehended by means of the senses of vision and hearing. . . . This is a typical sentiment, for the vast majority of philosophers writing about aesthetic taste dismiss or even disparage the literal sense of taste, its objects, and its pleasures, developing the concept of the aesthetic in explicit contrast to bodily taste sensation. Kant’s famous distinction between the sense pleasure of eating and the aesthetic pleasure of beauty merely reiterates what was essentially a philosophical commonplace. . . .

Given the poor reputation of the gustatory sense, one might be surprised to see it pressed into such delicate service. But several features of the sense of taste dispose it for this usage. Taste requires intimate, first-hand acquaintance with its objects. One cannot judge the taste of food from second-hand reports, and the same may be said of an object of beauty. Furthermore, taste is a sense that nearly always has a value valence – that is, one either likes or dislikes what is tasted. Because modern philosophy widely associates beauty with pleasure, the likes and dislikes that eating typically occasions are parallel to the pleasure-displeasure responses that mark aesthetic evaluations. Perhaps most paradoxically given the dismissal of this sense for its tendency to direct attention only inward toward the body, taste was selected also for its extreme sensitivity to the qualities of its objects. Properly cultivated, the sense of taste can detect fine distinctions among different kinds of food and drink, just as the good critic is able to discern subtle qualities in works of art.

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32. The 50 Best/Worst Childhood Fads

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33. The Bloody Olive

This clever short film by French filmmaker Vincent Bal contains more twists in ten minutes than you’ll find in a dozen feature length film noirs.