TotD: Tipping Points

From The Tip­ping Point by Mal­colm Glad­well:
The Tipping Point

We are actu­al­ly pow­er­ful­ly influ­enced by our sur­round­ings, our imme­di­ate con­text, and the per­son­al­i­ties of those around us. Tak­ing the graf­fi­ti off the walls of New York’s sub­ways turned New York­ers into bet­ter cit­i­zens. Telling sem­i­nar­i­ans to hur­ry turned them into bad cit­i­zens. The sui­cide of a charis­mat­ic young Microne­sian set off an epi­dem­ic of sui­cides that last­ed for a decade. Putting a lit­tle gold box in the cor­ner of a Colum­bia Record Club adver­tise­ment sud­den­ly made record buy­ing by mail seem irre­sistible. To look close­ly at com­plex behav­iors like smok­ing or sui­cide or crime is to appre­ci­ate how sug­gestible we are in the face of what we see and hear, and how acute­ly sen­si­tive we are to even the small­est details of every­day life. That’s why social change is so volatile and so often inex­plic­a­ble, because it is the nature of all of us to be volatile and inex­plic­a­ble.

But if there is dif­fi­cul­ty and volatil­i­ty in the world of the Tip­ping Point, there is a large mea­sure of hope­ful­ness as well. Mere­ly by manip­u­lat­ing the size of a group, we can dra­mat­i­cal­ly improve its recep­tiv­i­ty to new ideas. By tin­ker­ing with the pre­sen­ta­tion of infor­ma­tion, we can sig­nif­i­cant­ly improve its stick­i­ness. Sim­ply by find­ing and reach­ing those few spe­cial peo­ple who hold so much social pow­er, we can shape the course of social epi­demics. In the end, Tip­ping Points are a reaf­fir­ma­tion of the poten­tial for change and the pow­er of intel­li­gent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immov­able, implaca­ble place. It is not. With the slight­est push–in just the right place–it can be tipped.

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TotD: How Science Will Change the 21st Century

From Visions: How Sci­ence Will Rev­o­lu­tion­ize The 21st Cen­tu­ry by Michio Kaku:

Gen­er­a­tions of high school chil­dren gasp when they read VisionsShakespeare’s Romeo and Juli­et, for they are amazed to dis­cov­er that Juli­et was only thir­teen years old. We some­times for­get that, for most of human exis­tence, our lives were short, mis­er­able, and brutish. Sad­ly, for most of human his­to­ry, we repeat­ed the same wretched cycle: as soon as we reached puber­ty, we were expect­ed to toil or hunt with our elders, find a mate and pro­duce chil­dren. We would then have a large num­ber of them, with most of them dying at child­birth. As Leonard Hayflick says, “It is aston­ish­ing to real­ize that the human species sur­vived hun­dreds of thou­sands of years, more than 99% of its time on this plan­et, with a life expectan­cy of only 18 years.” Since the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion, thanks to increased san­i­ta­tion, sewage sys­tems, bet­ter food sup­plies, labor-sav­ing machines, the germ the­o­ry, and mod­ern med­i­cine, our life expectan­cy has risen dra­mat­i­cal­ly. At the turn of the cen­tu­ry, the aver­age life expectan­cy in the Unit­ed States was 49. Now, it is around 76, a 55% increase in a cen­tu­ry. As Joshua Leder­berg notes, “In the U.S., greater life expectancy…can be attrib­uted almost entire­ly to this mas­tery of infec­tion, this anni­hi­la­tion of the bugs.” And today, the fastest-grow­ing seg­ment of our pop­u­la­tion is the group that is over a hun­dred years old.”

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TotD: Why is English spelling so odd?

From David Crys­tal, The Fight for Eng­lish: How lan­guage pun­dits ate, shot, and left, by way of Delancey Place.

The Fight for English

In spelling, the [Eng­lish] lan­guage was assim­i­lat­ing the con­se­quences of hav­ing a civ­il ser­vice of French scribes, who paid lit­tle atten­tion to the tra­di­tions of Eng­lish spelling that had devel­oped in Anglo-Sax­on times. Not only did French qu arrive, replac­ing Old Eng­lish cw (as in queen), but ch replaced c (in words such as church–Old Eng­lish cirice), sh and sch replaced sc (as in ship–Old Eng­lish scip), and much more. Vow­els were writ­ten in a great num­ber of ways. Much of the irreg­u­lar­i­ty of mod­ern Eng­lish spelling derives from the forc­ing togeth­er of Old Eng­lish and French sys­tems of spelling in the Mid­dle Ages. Peo­ple strug­gled to find the best way of writ­ing Eng­lish through­out the peri­od. …Even Cax­ton1 didn’t help, at times. Some of his type­set­ters were Dutch, and they intro­duced some of their own spelling con­ven­tions into their work. That is where the gh in such words as ghost comes from.

Any desire to stan­dard­ize would also have been hin­dered by the…Great Eng­lish Vow­el Shift, [which] took place in the ear­ly 1400s. Before the shift, a word like loud would have been pro­nounced ‘lood’; name as ‘nahm’; leaf as ‘layf’; mice as ‘mees’.…

The renewed inter­est in clas­si­cal lan­guages and cul­tures, which formed part of the ethos of the Renais­sance, had intro­duced a new per­spec­tive into spelling: ety­mol­o­gy. Ety­mol­o­gy is the study of the his­to­ry of words, and there was a wide­spread view that words should show their his­to­ry in the way they were spelled. These weren’t clas­si­cists show­ing off. There was a gen­uine belief that it would help peo­ple if they could ‘see’ the orig­i­nal Latin in a Latin-derived Eng­lish word. So some­one added a b to the word typ­i­cal­ly spelled det, dett, or dette in Mid­dle Eng­lish, because the source in Latin was deb­i­tum, and it became debt, and caught on. Sim­i­lar­ly, an o was added to peple, because it came from pop­u­lum: we find both poe­ple and peo­ple, before the lat­ter became the norm. An s was added to ile and iland, because of Latin insu­la, so we now have island. There are many more such cas­es. Some peo­ple nowa­days find it hard to under­stand why there are so many ‘silent let­ters’ of this kind in Eng­lish. It is because oth­er peo­ple thought they were help­ing.


1 William Cax­ton intro­duced the print­ing press to Eng­land in 1476.

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TotD: Robin Laws on Roleplaying Games

I hadn’t ever thought of it this way, but I think the man is on to some­thing.

“One of my pet the­o­ries about the pop­u­lar­i­ty of role­play­ing games goes like this. Role­play­ing is fan­ta­sy shop­ping for guys. That is, men would, as a group, be more inter­est­ed in shop­ping if a) it meant nev­er hav­ing to leave the house and b) they were shop­ping for super-pow­ers. In that case, the typ­i­cal role­play­ing rule­book is like a Nie­man-Mar­cus cat­a­log for super-pow­ers. Depend­ing on the game sys­tem and char­ac­ter type, these extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties might be called feats, spells, schticks, dis­ci­plines, skills, high tech gear, psion­ics, or what­ev­er. For lack of a a bet­ter all-encom­pass­ing term, I refer to these things as crunchy bits.”
Robin D. Laws, Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mas­ter­ing

Secrets of Good Game Mastering cover

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TotD: Bruce Chatwin on Possessions

And do we not all long to throw down our altars and rid our­selves of our pos­ses­sions? Do we not gaze cold­ly at our clut­ter and say, “If these objects express my per­son­al­i­ty, then I hate my per­son­al­i­ty.” For what, on the face of it, enhances life less than a work of art? One tires of it. One can­not eat it. It makes an uncom­fort­able bed­fel­low. One guards it, and feels oblig­ed to enjoy it long after it has ceased to amuse. We sac­ri­fice our free­dom of action to become its priv­i­leged guardian, and we end its impris­oned slave. All civ­i­liza­tions are by their very nature “thing-ori­ent­ed” and the main prob­lem of their sta­bil­i­ty has been to devise new equa­tions between the urge to amass things and the urge to be rid of them.

But things have a way of insin­u­at­ing them­selves into all human lives. Some peo­ple attract more things than oth­ers, but no peo­ple, how­ev­er mobile, is thin­g­less. A chim­panzee uses sticks and stones as tools, but he does not keep pos­ses­sions. Man does. And the things to which he becomes most attached do not serve any use­ful func­tion. Instead they are sym­bols or emo­tion­al anchors. The ques­tion I should like to ask with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly being able to answer it is, “Why are man’s real trea­sures use­less?” For if we under­stood this, we might also under­stand the con­vo­lut­ed rit­u­als of the art mar­ket.,
Bruce Chatwin Anato­my of Rest­less­ness

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