Cool Things I Learned, Including How To Literally Judge Books By Their Covers

Commonly misused words include:

  • ‘bemuse’ (confusion, not amusement);
  • ‘devolve’ (responsibility may devolve to or on you, but situations do not devolve, as it is not the opposite of evolve);
  • ‘disinterested’ (impartial, not uninterested),
  • ‘droll’ (whimsical / playful, not dry, humor);
  • ‘enormity’ refers to describe the extent to which something is evil or outrageous and does not refer to physical size (that’s ‘enormousness’);
  • ‘fortuitous’ merely means something happens by chance and doesn’t also imply that there was anything fortunate or desirable about it;
  • ‘Immaculate Conception’ does not refer to Mary being a virgin but to her lack of original sin when she herself was conceived;
  • ‘in lieu of’ means ‘instead of’ and not ‘in light of’;
  • ‘scan’ refers to scrutinizing and not skimming something;
  • ‘schizophrenia’ does not refer to multiple personality disorder (which has a new terminology as well that escapes me at the moment…disassociative identity disorder, maybe?) so using ‘schizophrenic’ when you mean that someone seems to be of two minds about an issue is incorrect; and
  • ‘willy-nilly’ comes from ‘will he or nil he’ and means ‘whether you want it nor not’ and not ‘in a confused state’.

Ah, the joys of language.

Other things I learned:

It’s okay to swim earlier than an hour after eating. No “death from stomach cramp” has ever been recorded.

Chocolate does not cause acne. Stress, clogged pores, not washing your pillowcases regularly, leaving makeup on your face, hormones and overindulgence in sugar are more likely culprits. Chocolate also isn’t as full of PEA (phenylethamine) as previously thought: it is a negligible amount. So if you eat chocolate when stressed, the caffeine and fat and sugar are making you feel better more than any amount of PEA.

People do not necessarily become more conservative as they become older. Basic ideological preferences, e.g. political party preferences, tend to remain stable across most of one’s life span, so it is more accurate to suggest that you start as you mean to go on.

Lemmings do not commit mass suicide.

Capital punishment is not a good way to keep the murder rate down. Most people do not kill in a premeditated fashion, for one, so will not be considering the death penalty as a deterrent while commiting murder. Two, studies show that after state executions, murder rates (briefly) increase, implying a link between perceived brutality from the state being reflected in the population as a whole. Old crime records from twelve countries who abolished the death penalty showed not only a marked decrease in homicide statistics, but also other crimes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Apparently so. Though we can’t quantify precisely what makes someone beautiful, people tend to come to the same conclusions when rating images of strangers. More disturbing, they attribute more positive moral and intellectual qualities to more attractive people. This does not mean that they possess those qualities, but the assumption is apparently there and fairly universal when tested and studied. Prettier people do get perks, such as having greater persuasive powers (influence) and higher salaries (this also applies to taller men).

Few people are actually tone deaf. With training (focusing on learning the difference between pitch and volume, for instance), most people can learn to distinguish fifths, thirds, full-tones and half-tones and even sing reasonably well. In fact, it is possible to teach yourself to have perfect pitch.

Rewards do not actually motivate people. When offered a reward to achieve a certain goal, the reward became more important than the goal. Intrinsic motivation (enjoying what you do) is better. Rewards reduce creativity. Rewards imply that the goals or objectives require a bribe because they can’t be enjoyed for their own sake. Rewards also lead to entitled behavior, wherein you lose the motivation to succeed for its own sake and insist that anything worth doing must include a bribe.

Spicy food does not cause bad dreams, and is, surprisingly, often less harmful than the usual remedy for stomach distress: a glass of milk.

There is no “Seven Year Itch.” 2% of couples split within the first year, 4% split during the next, and 5% end in each of the next three years. Couples who make it past the fifth year have a good chance of staying together into old age. There is no “sudden rash of itching” in the seventh year.

The rich do get richer and the poor do get poorer. U.S. policy-makers seem to believe that the promise of financial reward will make rich people work harder and invest more whereas it makes poor people lazy and under-motivated. So the rich get tax breaks and the poor get their food stamp programs cut.

Familiarity does not breed contempt. If you have no aversion to begin with, we like things more as we get used to them.

Women’s moods do not change during “that time of the month”. Part of this is fulfilling expectations; we expect to be moody, then we are. This seems counter-intuitive, but studies show that when women are asked to rate their moods (without knowing what the study is measuring), their moods do not significantly alter from the norm during their periods. Conversely, when they are asked to chart menstrual moods, the expected result is shown.

Whether absence makes your heart grow fonder or whether being out of sight and out of mind ring more true for you depend on whether or not a particular person is a primary attachment figure or not. Absence tends to exaggerate your feelings, whether positive, neutral or negative. Relationships with family members (that were positive to begin with) improved with distance, but high-school romances (in particular) of short duration tend to fade.

The full moon has no effect on behaviors, moods or crime statistics. This has been so thoroughly debunked by law enforcement, hospitals, mental hospitals, and so on, that it depresses me a bit. I kind of liked the romantic notion that the moon made a difference of some sort, even when I never intellectually bought into the idea.

The squeaky wheel does get the grease. Bargainers attain higher and more satisfactory outcomes when they begin their negotiations with extreme rather than more moderate demands. The glitch here is that this can backfire. View negotiations as mutual problem-solving rather than adversarial combat to get best results. The lesson here is not to be modest and undersell yourself when applying for a salaried position.

Are victims of child abuse more likely to turn into abusive parents? Yes. Will all of these victims, or even a good number of them, wind up abusing their children? No. A variety of factors play a part: how severe the abuse was, how early it occurred, how smart the child was, and how s/he perceived the episode. When they are adults, how much social support they receive, how they feel about having children, how openly they have confronted their abuse all have relevance to the likelihood of whether or not they break or continue the cycle. In this case, nature can outweigh nurture.

Time (perception) really does fly when you’re having fun. Time estimates are a lot less reliable before you’re 8 years old, if asked several times to estimate a given time interval, guesses tend to be too long the first few times to attempt it, you’re likely to overestimate a short time and underestimate a long time, your body temperature affects your ability to estimate time, caffeine or a fast-ticking metronome make time “feel” faster (and, oddly, that tasks performed this way are more pleasant), and anticipation of an event tends to make time feel slower (e.g., kids and Christmas, or watching a pot boil).

Dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) did not shorten the length of the war or save more lives. It was done primarily as an experiment; the Japanese were prepared to surrender and asked only that they be allowed to let their emperor maintain his title. The Strategic Bombing Survey in 1946 determined that “certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945 that Japan would have surrendered even if atomic bombs were not dropped, if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion was planned or completed.” Japan was (according to Churchill, Eisenhower, and others) thoroughly “beaten” by late July. US policymakers also knew beforehand that Japan was ready to surrender. So, why? We had spent so much money and time developing the bomb that we were determined to try it out. Note also that one bomb was plutonium and one uranium, which lends credence to the “scientific experiment gone mad” theory. The intended audience may have been the Soviets, not the Japanese: the US was gearing up to take political and economic control of as much of the postwar world as feasible. The bomb allowed the US to breach specific understandings Roosevelt had reached with the Soviets with respect to the future of Europe. In sum, using the bomb was one of the most horrific crimes in human history.

Laughter is not the best medicine. Its affects on mood and positive attitude help, but most efects are temporary. A good joke won’t help the underlying issues.

Reading in the dark won’t ruin your eyes. Glasses that are too strong don’t make you nearsighted (but may give you a headache). However, training your eye to do more close focusing (reading) than distance focusing (getting outside and viewing things at a distance) may indeed exacerbate nearsightedness. There’s some truth to glasses indicating intelligence if reading books voraciously has any relevance to I.Q.

Subliminal advertising and backwards masking have no effect.

Breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day unless it is your ONLY meal of the day. A balanced diet, no matter when it is consumed, is more important than making a point of eating early in the day.

Competition does not build character, it produces people who are less sensitive and trusting to the needs of others, less generous and empathetic, less likely to see other people’s points of view, and less likely to use higher level moral reasoning than those who are not competing or personally competitive. competition also does not build self-esteem or faith in oneself. Instead, losing feels terrible and, like building tolerance to a drug, more and more victories and wins are required to provide a lasting sense of security. Reducing situations to “winners v. losers” instead of focusing on cooperative behavior is the primary result of competitive behavior. You can build tenacity and discipline without doing so at the expense of others. Competitiveness also increases anxiety and the feeling that you lack control over your environment and situations.

Great minds think alike…sort of. Many great thinkers can make unpredictable, even bizarre, connections between ideas and this remote association between various ideas is fairly common among geniuses. On the other hand, the unpredictability of this associative behavior, and the fact that it, by definition, runs counter to any expected trend or pattern, underscores the dissimilarity of the thinking processes of geniuses.

There are no vision-related benefits to eating carrots. In the developed world, it is rare to have a deficiency of vitamin A (beta-carotine), and eating it in excess has no benefits.

Playing hard to get is more likely to backfire than succeed.

Cold weather and chicken soup have no effects on a cold.

Picking up babies whenever they cry doesn’t spoil them–on the contrary, infants that are reassured by their parents in early life have their emotional needs fulfilled and can become more independent as a result. Deprived infants who learn that the can’t count on a loving adult to soothe them when they need it internalize the feeling of abandonment and helplessness and may grow up to spend their lives searching for the love, affection and physical contact denied to them in infancy. Note that responding to a child’s needs is not the same of being afraid to say no when appropriate.

Power does corrupt.

Expressing hostility does not get it out of your system; it sets a precedent for angry behavior. Catharsis, or not bottling up emotions, is healthy. Encouraging expressions of anger or aggression when venting, however, is not. It tends to lower your inhibitions against violence and make it more likely that you’ll behave the same way in the future and it raises the bar, so that more frequent and more explosive expressions of rage are required for the temporary relief they bring.

He who lives by the sword does die by the sword. In Seattle, the majority of gunshot deaths occurred in homes where the gun was kept, the guns are more likely to kill a resident than an intruder, and, in Detroit, more people died from handgun accidents in one year than were killed in home-invasion-style robberies over the previosu five years.

No pain, no gain? Wrong. Coaches and athletes feel that the person who trains the hardest and most often is the most fit, but you can beat yourself to a frazzle to the point where you get worse and not better. Training with pain is generally counterproductive and demotivating. You do have to stress yourself for the body to grow stronger, but setting a reasonable schedule and backing away from “more is best” will give better results.

Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone? True. Unhappy people tend to drive away those people whose support and acceptance they need, thereby worsening their need for that support and understanding.

Religious people are not necessarily more altruistic. A study of Episcopalians in the 1950s turned up no discernable relationship between involvement in the church and charitable acts. Another study in the 60s revealed only a slight correlation between altruism and a belief in God and none at all between altruism and attendance of religious services. In the 70s, born-again Christians, conventionally religious people, non-religious and atheists were studied. None were more or less likely to volunteer their time to the community or to resist temptation to cheat on a test. (Except for one group: atheists were the least likely to cheat, and the only group where a majority of group members did not cheat.) In the 80s, religious involvement could not be tied to sociability, helpfulness directed towards neighbors, or participation in neighborhood organizations. Most recently, a study of people who helped rescue Jews from the Nazis showed that rescuers and bystanders did not differ much from non-rescuers with respect to their religious beliefs and practices. In sum, simply being religious does not make you a more moral, kind or helpful person.

Spare the rod and spoil the child? False. Corporal punishment for offenses merely teaches children that beating up on others is a viable solution to problems.

There is no correlation between suicide rates and the holidays. The myth is that suicides go up during the holiday season. April, not Decfember, is the cruelest month. (Beware the Ides of April and taxes!) Suicides peak in the springtime. Americans and Canadians are LEAST likely to top themselves in December or January.

Marijuana is not a “gateway drug”. If you want to predict who might be likely to try and abuse ‘hard drugs (e.g., heroin),’ a criminal record is a far better indicator and predictor of serious drug use and related offences than is smoking marijuana. The other primary factor is availability of the hard drugs, not use of marijuana. Caveat: the link between marijuana use and smoking crack has not yet been definitively explored.

The Guide To Buying Books (according to Paul Collins, author of Sixpence House):

If a book cover has raised, metallic, (or both) lettering, it is likely to be an easy-to-read book about espionage, romance, murder or a celebrity (or a combination of the above). To readers who care about such things, this lettering tells them Hello, I am crap. Crap books can only use glossy paper. Serious books can use glossy paper, but ONLY serious books use matte finish. Tiny paperbacks are aimed at the uneducated. Small hardcovers are aimed at the educated, except for the very small hardbacks that are religious books aimed at the uneducated. Highly rectangular format hardcover books are aimed at the somewhat-but-not-entirely-educated. Paperbacks with a rectangular vertical format tend to be pocket travel guides (educated); a rectangular horizontal format (e.g. Garfield Eats Lasagna Again) are aimed at the uneducated.

Bright colours and shiny colours are for the Hello I am crap market, and black will work too, but only to set off the bright and shiny colours. A work of serious literature will probably be presented with muted, tea-stained colours. Black is okay, but only to accentuate cool greens, blues and greys.

On both Crap Books and Serious Books, you will find the author headshot. The author will be posed unnaturally looking pensive or staring into the middle distance. The size of this photo is in inverse proportion to the quality of the book. If the author photo is in colour, it is not a serious book. If there is no author photo at all, it is a serious book indeed–maybe even a textbook. If a full colour author photo occupies the entire front cover, the book is unequivocal crap.

He also points out what happens when books break the rules. Reviewers railed against The Bridges of Madison County because the diminutive hardcover and muted colors tricked readers of Serious Tomes into buying Crap. Conversely, when the Harvard University Press released Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project with gigantic raised metallic lettering, it’s not unlikely that disgruntled Tom Clancy fans were annoyed or bemused to discover that the topic was not war or espionage or murder but a thoughtful cultural analysis of 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie.

I, personally, own my fair share of Crap. I know it is Crap. Crap is for reading in the bathtub or on an airplane. Crap is cheap and disposable and won’t keep me up at night pondering the Meaning of Life or who created God or if there is, indeed, anything as lovely as a tree and, if so, have I ever seen it? Crap is light on Deep Thoughts and heavy on Tom Swifty-type speech verbs and loving descriptions of the main character’s new shoes or daily routine or whatever. I mean, hey, it’s Crap. Most of it was bought for 25 cents per book at thrift stores. It’s bubblegum for the brain.

I also, however, own a LOT of non-Crap. These are the books that stay with me even as I go through periodic Crap Purges. I have to admit, Paul Collins is right. None of my favorite books have raised, metallic lettering (or die-cut covers, or full-color author photos). The again, I’ve been known to read textbooks and encyclopedias for funsies, so perhaps I am more susceptible to the Serious Book Bug than some.

When I go to the library, I tend to get a fairly equal mix of Crap and Non-Crap. Sometimes I think I’m getting Non-Crap and am disappointed; Crap is sneakier about disguising itself. It’s more likely that Crap will break all the How To Sell Crap Rules than it is for serious books to break them. Damn you, Crap! Anyway, I see it as cleansing the palate for deeper and better things. Two books to grow and think on, and one to give my voracious reader brain a little candy. I’m happiest when my Crap Ratio is under 40%.


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