12/29/2009 5:23:35 PM
Here’s a brain-boggling challenge from Psychology Today blogger Satoshi Kanazawa:
List all of your friends. Then ask each of your friends how many friends they have. No matter who you are, whether you are a man or a woman, where you live, how many (or few) friends you have, and who your friends are, you will very likely discover that your friends on average have more friends than you do.
It seems impossible—given that friendships are reciprocal—but it’s true. The apparent friendship paradox is explained in what the evolutionary psychologist calls one of his “all-time” favorite papers: “Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do,” by sociologist Scott L. Feld, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1991.
In his blog post, Kanazawa reproduces some charts, which show that in a hypothetical group of eight friends, each individual has an average of two-and-a-half friends. Those friends, however, each have an average of three friends. What causes the disparity? Kanazawa explains:
If you think about it for a moment, you’ll figure out the source of this seeming paradox (although this simple insight did not occur to anyone before Feld published his paper in 1991). You are more likely to be friends with someone who has more friends than with someone who has fewer friends.
There are 12 people who have a friend who has 12 friends, but there is only one person who has a friend who has only one friend. And, of course, there is no one who has a friend who doesn’t have any friend. Yet there is actually only one person who has 12 friends. So “12” gets counted only once when you compute the average number of friends that people have, but it gets counted 12 times when you compute the average number of friends that their friends have.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by Jolante, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/29/2009 3:21:30 PM
I had never read J.F. Powers when a collection of his short stories was published by New York Review of Books Classics in 2000. Ten years later I'm still wrapping copies of the book on birthdays and holidays. And to the recipients of this most generous gift, the man is always a stranger. He's buried not far from Minneapolis in a cemetery at St. John's University, where he taught. John Rosengren, a former student of Powers, has written a delightful appreciation of the life and work of Mr. Powers for Portland:
Quite simply, J.F. Powers was a literary giant. His first novel ... won the 1963 National Book Award, for which Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, and Katherine Anne Porter were also nominated ... Powers' pen pal Flannery O'Connor sought his comments on her work and wrote him that "I admire your stories better than any others I know."
Not bad. Rosengren swallows some pride and shares some of Powers' scribblings from the margins of the young student's short fiction. "Where I'd written 'A twinge of anxiety shot into his gut,'" Rosengren writes, "he's penciled THIS IS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF A BAD SENTENCE. STUDY IT." During a meeting in Powers' pristine office, he remarked to Rosengren, "God doesn't like crap in art."
There was a brilliant absurdity to the way Powers talked and wrote about his theology. Rosengren gives us a taste. "I figure you have to make a bet," Powers told him once. "You can't go to the horse races and not make a bet. You can't go through this life and just be a spectator without ever laying it on the line. I'm betting on God to win, not to show." And here's Powers in an interview with the St. John's literary magazine:
There is a common quality in all art; in a sense that really good paintings, sculpture, music, writing have. I can't name it. It has something to do with God-given spirit, going beyond oneself. I think it's possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. It's possible for me to hit a note, to get in a mood, to write something that is worthy even of God's attention. Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I believe it. I don't think God is there and we're here, and there are no connections. I think there are connections, and I think art is certainly one.
Source: Portland (article not yet available online)
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
12/23/2009 3:44:29 PM
"Whether it's the Mayan prediction of the 2012 cataclysm or the theology of the rapture," writes Dan Archer in an introduction to his illustrated primer on the apocalypse over at Religion Dispatches, "predictions of the end of the world tell us as much about ourselves as about the coming apocalypse. And we've got plenty to worry about either way."
Archer does more than showcase his work at Religion Dispatches, he footnotes it with a link for nearly every panel of his apocalypse story. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get my affairs in order.
Source: Religion Dispatches
12/20/2009 9:51:22 PM
Thrift is in—perhaps with lasting ramifications, according to Urbanite. We’re witnessing nothing short of a “tectonic shift” in consumer culture, Rob Hiaasen writes for the Baltimore magazine. Hiaasen hooks up with anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff, who “frames the issue as a before-and-after question: Why shop then? ‘I shop, therefore I am.’ Why shop now? ‘I shop because I live in a consumer society and I need stuff, but it doesn’t define me.’ ”
The transformation, which began last year, took “grief-like stages,” Hiaasen writes, “as ‘Homo Economicus’—a creature ‘consumed by consumerism’—was miraculously transformed into the more enlightened ‘Grounded Consumer,’ who lives within his or her means and understands the concepts of debt and savings.
“In the third stage of this transformation, the shopper moves from ‘Me’ to ‘We’ consumerism, Blinkoff says, which emphasizes family and community relationships rather than just satisfies personal material whims. In the fourth stage, consumers begin to “un-stuff” their lives by selling off or giving away excess possessions.”
12/18/2009 11:41:42 AM
Budgets are stretched thin this holiday season, but a little home-baked goodness is just the antidote for gift giving woes. In the latest issue of Baltimore’s Urbanite, Rafael Alvarez celebrates the thoughtfulness and meaning behind gifting prepared food such as Spanish chorizo, sweet and spicy barbecue rub, Belgian-style homebrewed ale with ginger and honey, stained glass candy, and Irish pudding cake. Hungry yet? Some recipes are included if you’re inspired to serve up your own gifts. So what’s so special about giving edible fare? Alvarez shares the perfect anecdote:
During the recession of the early 1990s, Kathy O’Dell’s brother lost his job as vice president of a successful chain of national retail stores. How Jack O’Dell handled Christmas in the wake of his misfortune was a gift his kid sister remembers as “the best ever.” He filled recycled glass jars with sugar and cinnamon for that great breakfast toast concoction we all remembered from childhood,” says O’Dell, an associate dean at University of Maryland Baltimore County who makes molasses cookies each year in memory of her late mother. “The image of my big, hulking, successful brother carefully sifting sugar and cinnamon into jars and attaching personal notes about how lucky we all were to be alive and healthy and family is a treasured symbol of humility and grace.”
Image (above left) by yoshimov, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/16/2009 10:40:10 AM
Travel is a pain. Few people would say that packing, schlepping to the airport, stripping down in front of strangers for security, and wedging yourself into a miniscule and uncomfortable airplane seat for hours is exactly the paragon of relaxation. Every day, though, people spend valuable vacation hours traveling.
It might not be fun, but travel contains “the secret tonic of creativity,” according to Jonah Lehrer in The San Francisco Panorama, the newest print journalistic experiment by McSweeney’s (and reprinted on Lehrer’s blog). The distance provided by travel, and the cultural differences that people are forced to encounter, have tangible cognitive benefits. Travelers are often more creative, and putting some distance between you and your problems makes them easier to solve. The research Lehrer cites gives credence to what Thomas Jefferson wrote more than 200 years ago: “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.”
Source: The San Francisco Panorama (via Science Blogs)
Image by DMahendra, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/11/2009 5:43:35 PM
McDonalds will begin selling their sausage McMuffin for a buck come January, reports Daily Finance, along with other golden-arch staples such as the hashbrown, small coffee, sausage burrito, and sausage biscuit. The preponderance of meat, specifically sausage, “sparks my interest because I have watched as concern about cheap meat has become more and more mainstream,” Sarah Gilbert writes for the AOL-group beta site.
While analysts are chalking the dollar menu up to slumping sales (and, depressingly, unemployment reducing breakfast-time commuters), Gilbert sees another possibility. In the coming decade, U.S. citizens will have to confront industrial meat production with “an unusual-for-us sobriety,” she contends. Which makes dollar menus at McDonalds and other fast-food chains look an awful lot like a sausage-puck shaped “Hail Mary strategy, a last hurrah before the era of cheap meat comes to an end.”
That or the menu, and others like it, will let Americans fall in love with cheap meat all over again, she concedes. But the stage (or perhaps the table), is set to favor the former: More now than ever, “what dishes one consumes or refuses, what food products one buys or boycotts, constitute an expression of style, statement of politics, reflection of values, index of environmentalism, pledge of allegiance, and measure of health,” Siobhan Phillips writes in The Hudson Review. Even priced at a buck, the sausage McMuffin is becoming an increasingly difficult sell.
Yet trying to articulate what a more sustainable, healthy American food culture will look like is a tricky thing in a country “where pizza bagels, pesto hummus, and picante ramen are as authentic as any other version . . . a place where an indistinct assembly-line beef patty is the only common taste,” Phillips writes. She offers, however, a refreshingly prescription-free suggestion for how we might forge ahead:
No one needs another study on the benefits of the family dinner table or another lament for its supposed—and probably fallacious—demise. But many people, as they manage many different sorts of households and meal plans, would like to feel that feeding is more than functional. . . .
Better to advocate subsidized cooking classes, perhaps—along with an expansion of programs that bring local produce to all and an increase in minimum wages so that strapped workers will have a bit more time and money to spend on their meals. These important specifics however, could and should join a more conceptual shift, a materialist attention as applicable in our talking and thinking about food as in our preparing and partaking of it.
Such a focus is egalitarian, possible in the bite of a lettuce leaf as well as the bouquet of a syrah; it is simple, emphasizing the fragrance of coffee as much as the flavors of caviar; and it is general, accommodating those with no further time to spend as well as those who wish to invest more effort. . . . It is also, importantly, always instructive, leading ordinary eaters to expansive convictions.
Reviving and fostering material attention to food, Phillips argues, could lead people to become dissatisfied with the “sweet-and-salt uniformity of mass-produced items” or the “contradictions of ‘natural flavor.’ ” It could lead the way to “an awareness of the tragedy of hunger and a rejection of the truism that being thin is the goal of eating well.” Even to political action. And, it would seem likely, to the end of cheap meat.
Sources: Daily Finance, The Hudson Review
Image by avlxyz, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/7/2009 5:47:32 PM
Religions can try to teach people the difference between right and wrong, but the ultimate source of morality may be biology. For proof, scientists asked for people’s opinions on moral dilemmas—for example, would you kill a healthy person to save 10 lives. In the answers to these dilemmas, evolutionary biologist Marc D. Hauser writes in the Edge, “we find no difference between men and women, young and old, theistic believers and non-believers, liberals and conservatives.” Instead, there is a common, unconscious code that is common throughout the entire species.
Even with this shared biological code of morals, people still commit atrocities on an almost daily basis. According to Hauser, this is because people have learned to view others as sub-human and unworthy of the shared moral protection. There is hope, however, that people can learn to view all people as having a shared humanity. Hauser writes that education and exposure to diversity can fight prejudice and tap into this shared moral code.
Source: The Edge
12/4/2009 5:38:02 PM
Have you ever been a good sport? Do you ever look on the bright side? Speaking to In These Times about her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich offers some reasons to think twice about the origins and virtue of optimism. Optimism became a prevailing cultural phenomenon as job security began to change (and in many cases vanish) in the 1980s, she explains. “If you want to have a compliant populace, what could be better than to say that everyone has to think positively and accept that anything that goes wrong in their lives is their own fault because they haven’t had a positive enough attitude?”
Source: In These Times
12/4/2009 1:50:48 PM
The tiny landlocked Himalayan country of Bhutan has been at the Center of Gross National Happiness (or GNH) studies since 1972, when its king proclaimed that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
Since then, Bhutan has enshrined the concept in its constitution and looked for ways to operationalize it and measure it. A highlight of the conference was Karma Ura, director of the Center for Bhutan Studies and one of about a dozen Bhutanese in attendance, who explained that, over time, the Bhutanese have identified nine aspects that factor into analyses of happiness. They include: psychological well-being; good health; time use (work-life balance); community vitality; education; cultural preservation; environmental protection; good governance; and financial security.
They have developed questionnaires by which they assess life satisfaction in each of these areas and which they use in regular polls of the Bhutanese people. Included are such questions as: How safe do you feel from human harm? Rarely? Usually? Always? Bhutan uses the results of its indicator questionnaires to guide public policy. Each decision is based on assurance that it will not lower—and should raise—overall life satisfaction. One such analysis led Bhutan’s government to decide not to join the World Trade Organization.
I sat at a table with two young Brazilian environmentalists, and a middle-aged Bhutanese man named Tshewang Tandin. Soft-spoken, but open and informal, Tshewang told us that their polls found that Gross National Happiness was much higher in the Bhutanese countryside, despite its materially poor life, than in the capital of Thimphu, where westernization and globalization were changing daily life at an alarming rate. Later the same day, he gave me a book published in Bhutan and written by his 12-year old daughter. Titled Coming Home, it is the story of a 15-year old Bhutanese girl and her efforts to fit in to the newly-westernized life of Thimphu’s children. For me, the book was a shocker.
A change in the names and one might have heard the same story in any American suburb: children seeking popularity in school by becoming part of the in-clique of wealthier girls; cell phones and terse, often-nasty text messages; hazing of the less attractive or popular children; competition for clothes and shoes with western brand names. Even the language mirrored American slang: “As soon as I walked into the room I saw him. I knew I was dead meat.”
I was saddened, but in another sense, hopeful. I’d believed Bhutan was too different from the United States for its research on happiness to apply much to us. Yet clearly, the human struggle between an authentic life rich in family and friendships and a media-mediated life revering material possessions and outward image, is not confined to the West.
I was further surprised to find that, for the Bhutanese, one of the lowest polling scores comes on the issue of “time use,” defined more simply as work-life balance. Even in Bhutan, work is expanding with consumption to fill all the moments of life.
I talked with Susan Andrews, a vivacious American with a Harvard Ph.D., who moved to Brazil in 1992 and now runs Visao Futuro, a model “eco-village” and environmental learning center near Sao Paulo. Clearly a popular leader in Brazil, with great respect from government, corporations and activists alike, Andrews had organized the conference and invited me to speak. She told me that the time crunch is also a powerful limit to GNH in Brazil, where Natura, a natural cosmetics company that was one of the sponsors of the conference, polled its own workers using the Bhutanese model. While majorities reported overall satisfaction in every other area, only 30% felt positive about their work-life balance.
Susan Andrews told conference attendees that standardized GNH questionnaires, developed by Dr. Michael Pennock and other researchers in Victoria, British Columbia, would soon be available for use around the world. Pennock himself explained that the questionnaires had already been used in Victoria by a group called the Victoria, BC Happiness Index Partners. The same results regarding time use prevailed: while 76% of Victoria residents were satisfied with their overall quality of life, only 45% felt the same toward their work-life balance.
Bhutan’s research, frameworks and results can be found at grossnationalhappiness.com. While the country is among the world’s poorest materially, the Bhutanese have quite a high level of GNH, especially in the countryside, and especially when compared to the resources they consume. Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in London explained his measurement of international well-being, the Happy Planet Index. HPI divides two indicators—average life satisfaction and life expectancy—by a third—ecological footprint, to see how efficiently countries are using natural resources to create a high quality of life.
Bhutan, with a relatively low life expectancy of 66 years, relatively high life satisfaction and one of the smallest ecological footprints in the world, ranks 13th overall, a highly respectable showing. Costa Rica is number One. Brazil ranks 9th, highest among large countries, while the United States is a dismal 111th. Imagine Americans chanting “We’re number One (pause) One (pause) One…”
Nonetheless, Americans will not quickly buy HPI, nor be willing to sacrifice their material comforts anytime soon, just to reduce our ecological footprint. Still, Bhutan’s ideas about measuring GNH as well as GDP, can, and should, be taken seriously here as well.
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