Ten Reasons You Will Read This Medium Post

Why we love — or, at least, read — listicles. They pander to our heuristic biases. “Maybe you hated this list. Maybe you disagreed with every proposition and found it painful to continue. You could have walked away at any point between 1 and 10. But you didn’t. As you progressed you became increasingly committed to seeing this through to completion — you succumbed to the sunk cost fallacy(1,980 words)

The Remarkable Self-Organization Of Ants Pick of the day

Put a few thousand ants on to a pile of dirt and in a week they will have built a labyrinthine city inside it. If a flood hits the colony they can mesh their own bodies together into a raft the size of a dinner plate and ship themselves to safety. All done without blueprint or leader. How? Not because ants are smart. But because they know to follow simple rules. Three, to be exact. (And if ants can do this, so can robots) (2,291 words)

How To Be Interesting

What makes great thinkers great is not that their theories are true, but that their theories are interesting — which tends to mean counter-intuitive. They argue that what might seem to be good is, in fact, bad; that disparate things are, in fact, related; that some apparently individual phenomenon is, in fact, collective. Or vice-versa. “It’s unnerving how many thinkers can be pigeonholed this way” (560 words)

Why We All Love Numbers

Book introduction. Grab-bag containing lots of interesting nuggets. Pythagoras thought odd numbers to be masculine and even numbers to be feminine; we have the same instinct 2,500 years later. For a distinctive number, take a round number and add one — Levi’s 501, Room 101. “Eleven has just gone that one past 10. It has recognised that there is an order to things, and now it is exploring the distance beyond” (2,400 words)

The Mental Life Of Plants And Animals

How worms, jellyfish and other living things think. “If one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too”. Plants “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more”. They cannot learn, however; all information must be there in their genomes, which is why some plant genomes are larger than ours (3,770 words)

A Load Of Bullocks

Review of Odd Job Man and Language!, by Jonathon Green, Britain’s greatest living lexicographer of slang. “He is the Dr Johnson of slang, its Putin, its Mr Toad, its Dickens”. His predecessors include Francis Grose (1731-91), “who was so fat that his servant had to strap him into bed every night”; and John William Hotten (1832-73), “a workaholic pornographer who died from a surfeit of pork chops” (Metered paywall) (1,500 words)

Alphabetising Pick of the day

An agreed order for the letters of the alphabet was essential in the days of printed books: How else would you find your way around a dictionary? But in digital texts alphabetical order ceases to matter. The search engine finds what you want. You need to know what letters are available, but BAC will do as well as ABC. Hard for older readers to grasp, but the alphabet is becoming “simultaneous and not sequential” (685 words)

Daniel Kahneman At 80

Festschrift in honour of the Nobel-prizewinning economist and psychologist. Contributors include Nassim Nicholas Taleb; Cass Sunstein; Richard Thaler & Sendhil Mullainathan; Steven Pinker; and Gary Marcus, who says: “Nobody will come up with a compelling account of human cognition unless they wrestle seriously with Daniel Kahneman’s pioneering work with Amos Tversky on heuristics and cognitive biases” (9,800 words)

The Humour Code: Polish Jokes

Every country has a Polish joke, or equivalent. The Tajiks have Uzbek jokes, the English have Irish jokes, the Finns have Karelian jokes. The urge to make fun of supposed stupidity appears to span all time and space. The world’s oldest-known joke book, the 4C Philogelos, contains 265 jokes, of which one-quarter concern “people from cities renowned for their idiocy”. But only Americans make fun of lawyers (750 words)

Why Hawks Win

From the archives, wisdom for the ages. Foreign-policy hawks prevail more often than they should in world affairs because “a bias in favor of hawkish preferences is built into the fabric of the human mind”. People tend to be overly optimistic about their strengths; deeply averse to cutting their losses; and bad at understanding others, especially rivals, even while assuming that their own motivations are clear (Metered paywall) (2,100 words)

A Hundred Thousand Hourglasses

In praise of Purkinje cells, the neurons in our brain that collect the flurry of ambient chatter from our hundred-billion nerve fibres and extract from it the urgent messages that require the immediate attention of body and mind. “If you’re a cranky pessimist, the Purkinje cells might seem like autocrats, but if you’re an easygoing optimist, they’re like a good set of parents: strict, but always looking out for your best interests” (1,420 words)

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

On “mondegreens”, or mis-heard song lyrics. If you think Jimi Hendrix sang “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in Purple Haze, that’s a mondegreen. “This is one of the signature malaises of music in the age of mechanical reproduction. Words that are unintelligible in recordings often remain unintelligible”. They “harden in our memories into the misconstrued forms in which we’ve stored them, through multiple listenings” (1,860 words)

Eight Pronunciation Errors

Pronunciation evolves. Yesterday’s mistakes become today’s good form. “Wasp used to be waps; bird used to be brid and horse used to be hros. Remember this when the next time you hear someone complaining about aks for ask or nucular for nuclear, or even perscription. It’s called ‘metathesis’, and it’s a very common, perfectly natural process” (960 words)

Am I Reading This Right?

The makers of Spritz claim their app can quadruple the user’s reading speed. Spritz uses a technique called “rapid serial visual presentation”: each word is flashed individually on screen for a brief period of time. And you do indeed read faster; but you might as well not bother: “Comprehension and memory for text falls as speeds increase, and the problem gets worse for paragraphs compared to single sentences” (820 words)

One More Time: Repetition In Music Pick of the day

Repetition is the essence of music. Repetition is “so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song”. Repetition “makes a sequence of sounds seem less like an objective presentation of content and more like a kind of tug that’s pulling you along”. Repetition “actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical” (2,700 words)

Language Barriers

Stephen Wolfram’s new computing language is getting a lot of attention “on the basis of Wolfram’s outsize reputation” as builder of Mathematic software. But his claim that Wolfram Language is fundamentally new because it “knows about the world” is “rehashed snake oil”. Yes, it connects to a lot of data sets, and has rules to manipulate them. No, it doesn’t have any artificial intelligence baked in (1,400 words)

Dear Presenter, Please Don’t Drive Me To Suicide

“There are plenty of gurus and about.com articles and TED talks that may show you how to create amazing presentations, but these people don’t actually sit through your said presentation. So, as someone who has had hours shaved off my life by presentations, let me tell you what the hell you should be doing … If you use Powerpoint, so help me god, you’d better only have three goddamn words on each slide” (1,120 words)

Searching For The Elephant’s Genius

Elephants have huge brains, and show every sign of being correspondingly intelligent. They love and grieve. “To look an elephant in the face is to gaze upon genius. Here is a creature who experiences emotional intimacy, who seems to understand death; who can recognize itself in the mirror, fashion twigs into tools, formulate and implement plans, and remember someone’s face for decades” (1,500 words)

Where Do Savant Skills Come From?

Savants remember lots but understand little. Kim Peek, a model for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, knew by heart some 12,000 books including the Bible. “Theoretically, all that is required to explain savant skills is an innate predisposition to find redundancies and sequential regularities fascinating and an intact implicit learning system that gradually extracts those regularities over many hours of experience” (2,955 words)

The Cactus And The Weasel

Isaiah Berlin’s division of thinkers into foxes and hedgehogs can be extended usefully by the addition of weasels and cacti — ignoble versions of foxes and hedgehogs respectively. “While foxes and hedgehogs are both capable of changing their minds in meaningful ways, weasels and cacti are not. They represent different forms of degeneracy, where a rich way of thinking collapses into an impoverished way of thinking” (6,543 words)

Watson And Siri Are Not Intelligent

Interview with Dougles Hofstadter, cognitive scientist at Indiana University and author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, who argues that we are still far from developing artificial intelligence. “Watson is basically a text search algorithm connected to a database. Watson is finding text without having a clue as to what the text means. There’s no intelligence there. It’s clever, it’s impressive, but it’s absolutely vacuous” (1,200 words)

The Public Voice Of Women

First recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’ comes at the start of the Odyssey — the start of literature itself. “The more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns. It doesn’t much matter what line you take, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say, it’s the fact you’re saying it” (5,200 words)

Can Beauty Make Us Better?

We cannot define beauty. But by thinking about why we find things beautiful, we can learn about, and possibly improve, ourselves. Still the best starting point for reflection is Friedrich Schiller’s Aesthetic Education; which argues that we find beauty in those things which satisfy both sides of our human nature: our sensual drive, which seeks immediate gratification, and our formal drive, which seeks coherence over time (1,900 words)

Lessons From Lacan’s Practice

Jacques Lacan, following Freud, never published a systematic guide to his methods of psychoanalysis. But accounts by his former patients reveal something of his art. “Lacan’s sessions were notoriously short. By abruptly cutting his analysands off Lacan was aiming to produce a disorientating effect that forced them to question the significance of what it was they had said or done immediately before he intervened” (2,870 words)

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