THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 4

Event: Imperative Mood —  Aphorisms 

Subject: March forth!

Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative. -H.G. Wells

Today, March 4th, is the one day of the year that can be stated as a complete sentence.  By swapping out the word “fourth” and replacing it with its homophone “forth,” you create a punny imperative:  “MARCH FORTH!”

Of all days of the year, today is a day to assert yourself.  Be bossy.  Be commanding. Be bold.  Above all, write sentences in the imperative mood — the kind of sentences that command, beginning with a verb and implying a subject, as in, “[You] march forth!”

To become more familiar with the imperative mood, read the following examples of advice from sages from history:

Never ruin an apology with an excuse. -Ben Franklin

Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up. -Robert Frost

Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall. -William Shakespeare

Speak softly but carry a big stick. -Theodore Roosevelt

Doubt everything – find your own light! – Buddha

Just do it. -Nike

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the imperative mood, and why should it come to mind on March Fourth?

Challenge – Write Imperatives and Be More Assertive!:  In the book The Best Advice in Six Words, Larry Smith has collected hundreds of the world’s shortest commencement addresses. This is a genre that requires both brevity of wit and rhetorical deftness.  Try your hand at writing your own.  Begin with the WHAT you want to say, stating it as clearly as possible in the imperative form.  Then, revise it, focusing on how you say it.

Eat good, feel good, be good.

Turn it off, and go outside.

Don’t let frustration hinder your creativity.

Address the elephant in the room.

Celebrate having the title of underdog. 

Run fast, run hard, run far.

Keep walking forward. Don’t look back.

Sources:

Smith, Larry (Editor). The Best Advice in Six Words.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 3

Subject:   Memory – Simonides’ Memory Palace

Event:  Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein published, 2011

In 2005, journalist Joshua Foer attended the U.S. Memory Championships as a part of his research to find the world’s smartest person.  There he became mesmerized, watching “memory athletes” demonstrate prodigious feats of recall, such as memorizing 27 decks of shuffled playing cards.  Foer discovered that the secret to a great memory was not IQ; instead, it was strategy and focus. Foer found the competition and the strategies so fascinating that the next year he participated himself — and won.

File:Moonwalking with einstein.jpg
(Wikimedia Commons)

Foer chronicled his experiences in his book Moonwalking With Einstein, which was published on this day in 2011.  One specific method he highlights is known as the method of loci, which capitalizes on the brain’s especially strong ability to navigate spatial environments and visualize specific images.  For example, think of how easy it would be for you to draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in.  Even though you never consciously tried to remember the layout, you could probably draw it easily from memory and even recall the exact layout of each piece of furniture.

The method of loci is also known as the memory palace method.  It can be employed, for example, for memorizing a speech by transforming the speech’s key concepts into concrete images.  These images are then placed in the mental floor plan of the speaker’s memory palace.  In addition to making the objects you imagine distinctive, it also helps to make them outrageously absurd.  Doing this makes the images more memorable and more vivid.

For example, say you were giving a speech on the topic of the importance of education and you plan to open with a quotation by Socrates.  To remember this, you might imagine the toga-clad Socrates standing on your front porch with a Bic lighter and an empty bedpan on his head; this might help you remember your opening quotation:  “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”  The next point in your speech can then be found based on an image that you find in your living room as you walk through your memory palace’s front door.

As Foer explains in his book, strategies like the memory palace are nothing new; instead, they were developed over two thousand years ago: “Once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today” (1).

In 55 B.C., for example, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote a book called De Oratore where he outlined the strategies of the ideal orator.  It’s in this book where Cicero tells the story of the origin of the memory palace technique, which began with a dramatic near-death experience by Simonides, a Greek lyric poet:

There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem which he had composed in honor of his host, in which he followed the custom of the poets by including for decorative purposes a long passage referring to Castor and Pollux; whereupon Scopas with excessive meanness told him he would pay him half the fee agreed on for the poem, and if he liked he might apply for the balance to his sons of Tyndaraus, as they had gone halves in the panegyric.

The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed, the story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment; and that this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement.

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it. (2)

Much has changed since Simonides’ time, but the human brain is still very much the same, and we should do what we can to remember how effective the memory palace is for helping us to remember.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the memory palace, and how can it be employed to memorize a speech?

Challenge – Your Brain Blueprint:  Draw the floorplan of the home you are most familiar with.  Consider what strange things you might furnish our memory palace with so that you can use it the next time you need to memorize something.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 3, 1845:  On this day, Florida became the twenty-seventh state.  This day we should remember the Florida effect, a psychological phenomena that reaches far beyond the borders of the Sunshine state.  (See Thinker’s Almanac – January 9)

-March 3, 1847:  Today is the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell who not only invented the telephone but also said the first words on the telephone on March 10, 1876:  “Mr. Watson — come here, I want to see you.”  He also said something profound about the power of attention:

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Sources: 

1-Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 

2-Simonides of Ceos.”  The Art of Memory Blog 24 Nov. 2010.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 2

Subject:  Expectations – Pygmalion Effect

Event: Birthday of psychologist Robert Rosenthal, 1933

The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps. -Carl Sagan

An experiment was conducted in the 1960s that reveals the power of teacher expectations.  Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal — who was born on this day in 1933 — divided a group of elementary students into two evenly matched groups, based on age, sex, ethnic background, and IQ.  One-half of the students were assigned to teachers who were told that their pupils were above average students and fast learners.  The other half were assigned to teachers who were told that their pupils were an average group.  One year later, when the students were assessed, the results showed that the students labeled “fast learners” far surpassed the performance of the students who were labeled as “average.” 

Rosenthal’s study provided new insight into how the expectations of others affect us and how our own subjective perceptions can influence our behavior.  Furthermore, the research revealed that beliefs, biases, and expectations are much more than just abstractions that live in the mind; instead, they can be powerful forces that actually influence actual outcomes.

To name his discovery — the Pygmalion effect — Rosenthal turned to an ancient story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses about a sculptor named Pygmalion who carved an ivory statue of his ideal woman.  After completing his work of art and naming her Galatea, Pygmalion fell deeply in love with his own creation. The sculptor then appealed to Venus, the goddess of love, to bring him a maiden as perfect as his Galatea.  Hearing the supplication, Venus transformed the statue into a living woman, who then married Pygmalion and bore him a daughter.

File:Pygmalion and Galatea (Normand).jpg
Pygmalion and Galatea by Ernest Normand (Wikimedia)

To help teachers better understand the power of their teaching and their expectations of their students, Rosenthal published a book in 1968 called Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils’ Intellectual Development.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Pygmalion effect, and what evidence shows that expectations truly can influence performance?

Challenge – It’s “Golem,” Not “Gollum”:  Do some research on the Golem effect.  What’s the origin of the effect’s name, and what exactly is the effect?  Hint: It’s not from the character in Lord of the Rings; that “Gollum.”

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-March 2, 1904:  Today is the birthday of Theodore Geisel — better known as Dr. Seuss, who said, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

-March 2, 1955:  On this day, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This happened nine months before Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

Sources:

1-Goldberg, Philip.  The Babinski Reflex.  Tarcher, 1990.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – March 1

Subject:  Schema Theory – Cultural Literacy

Event:  E.D Hirsh’s book Cultural Literacy:  What Every American Needs To Know published, 1987

On this day in 1987, the book Cultural Literacy:  What Every American Needs To Know was published by American educator E.D. Hirsch.  The basic premise of Hirsch’s bestselling book was that in order to be literate, students need fundamental background knowledge in a range of disciplines, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art, and music.  Hirsch argues that reading is more than just decoding words; comprehension requires a reader to possess knowledge of a shared body of cultural references.  

File:CulturalLiteracy.jpg
(Wikimedia Commons)

For example, imagine a student read the following sentence from Ray Bradbury:

The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.

To catch Bradbury’s full meaning and his negative attitude towards television, the reader needs to understand the mythological allusions he makes to “Medusa” and “Siren.”  The mere ability to pronounce or read the words is not enough to capture the meaning and tone of the sentence.

Cultural literacy, then, is the body of core, essential knowledge of the people, places, ideas, and concepts that form the collective memory of our culture.  Hirsch’s cultural literacy is based on a concept from cognitive science known as “schema theory,” which attempts to understand how we learn and store knowledge.  According to this theory, new learning becomes integrated into mental learning webs, called “schemas.”  More than just storing a new idea in our memory, we integrate the new learning by connecting it to existing learning.  In addition to our own unique individual schemas, there are also shared schemas based on common experiences.  These shared schemas are the basis of Hirsch’s cultural literacy. For Hirsch, an essential element of education should be paying attention to building students’ cultural literacy:

We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education.  We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul.  Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse. 

In addition to defining and arguing for cultural literacy in his book, Hirsch also included a 63-page appendix where he listed 5,000 subjects and concepts to illustrate the kind of specific cultural references that every literate person should know.  Below is a sample of some of the terms:

ad hoc, Adam and Eve, Battle of the Bulge, Beatniks, capital punishment, Camelot, Emily Dickinson, The Divine Comedy, elementary particles, Epicureanism, The Federalist Papers, free will, Lady Godiva, gerrymander, hyperbole, Edward Hopper, isolationism, Irish potato famine, Jakarta, Judas Iscariot, King Lear, kitsch, Robert E. Lee, Lilliput, Ferdinand Magellan, Magna Carta, Neptune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, oxymoron, Oedipus, paranoid schizophrenia, pasteurization, beg the question, quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.), The Red Badge of Courage, rank and file, sarcasm, Scylla and Charybdis, Tower of Babel, twin paradox, Ursa Minor, unilateralism, Venus de Milo, Voltaire, white elephant, Woodstock, X-chromosome, xenophobia, yellow journalism, yin and yang, Zeus, Zionism

In 1989, Hirsch published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a book that gives a brief definition of each cultural reference (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is cultural literacy, and why does Hirsch think it is so important in education?

Challenge – Allusion Alphabet:  What would you say are allusions – cultural references from history, religion, mythology, or literature – that everyone should know?  Create an Allusion Alphabet that includes people, places, and ideas that you think are essential elements of cultural literacy; include at least one reference for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Once you have your alphabet, write a report on one of your allusions.  Imagine you are writing to a person who is unfamiliar with the term.  In addition to giving essential background details on the who, what, when, and where of your term, give the reader some explanation on why this concept is so important. 

-March 1 (Every Year):  Today is National Pig Day, established on this day in 1972 to raise awareness and appreciation of pigs.  It’s the perfect day to contemplate the following quotation from John Stuart Mill:  

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

-March 1, 1984:  On this day the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion was published by Robert Cialdini who said, “We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”

-March 1, 1988:  The book Brief History of Time was published on this day in 1988 by Stephen Hawking, who said, “In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.”

Sources:

1-Hirsh, E.D. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 28

Subject: Thinking and Writing – Montaigne’s Essays

Event:  Montaigne begins writing essays, 1571

The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.  –William H. Gass

On this day in 1571 in Bordeaux, France, a nobleman named Michel de Montaigne sat down to write.  It was his 38th birthday, and he had just retired from public life, where he held a seat in the Bordeaux parliament.  What Montaigne wrote that day and what he would write for the next twenty years influenced countless future thinkers and writers.

Montaigne-Dumonstier.jpg
Portrait of Michel de Montaigne (Wikimedia Commons)

Montaigne wrote essays, but he wasn’t just writing essays, he was inventing the genre.  He called his compositions “essais” from the French verb “essayer” meaning “to try.”  An essay, therefore, is an “attempt” or a “trial” where the writer attempts to address a question and figure it out (1).  Unlike the concept we have today of beginning an essay with a thesis – a statement of belief – the original idea of the essay was instead to begin with a question.  The attempt to answer this question in writing then becomes the process by which a writer explores his or her thinking, getting ideas down on paper so that they can be examined.  The act of writing, then, becomes the act of forming ideas and exploring those ideas so that the writer knows what he or she really thinks.  In this sense, the essay becomes a form of metacognition, — thinking about your own thinking.  The abstract thoughts of a writer are transformed into visible words on paper.  This allows writers to see what they know and what they don’t know.  By further rumination, examination, and revision of those thoughts, they can crystallize their thoughts, making them more clear to themselves and to an audience.

Montaigne’s essays were intensely personal.  He wrote about sleep, smells, idleness, anger, repentance, and thumbs, but his main subject was always himself.  By expressing and exploring ideas about himself in writing, he discovered that he not only understood himself better but also understood his own thoughts and his own thoughts about the world.

For example, in the following excerpt from his essay entitled “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” notice how Montaigne explores the idea of inconsistent human behavior by honestly confronting his own character and actions:

For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own proclivity, but moreover I discompose and trouble myself by the instability of my own posture; and whoever will look narrowly into his own bosom, will hardly find himself twice in the same condition. I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion. (2)

Montaigne reminds us of the power of writing not just as a way of expressing what we know, but also of discovering what we know by getting our thinking down on paper.  When we write, therefore, we aren’t just learning how to write, we are writing to learn.

Read the four quotations below, noting how each of the writers vividly illustrates the connection between thinking and writing:

Writers take thoughts from the invisible mind and make them visible on paper.  They can then contemplate this objectified thought and revise it until it becomes the best thinking of which they are capable.  -R.D. Walshe

Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate.  Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. -Dennis Sparks

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. -William Zinsser

Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.  -Paul Graham

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What kind of essays did Montaigne write, and what can we learn from him about the power of writing?

Challenge – Thinking in Ink:  What is a question that you have about some aspect of universal human experience, such as anger, happiness, love, lying, or marriage?  Select a universal human theme and form a question about that theme that you do not have a definitive answer to.  Explore that question in a personal essay by writing about different ways the question might be answered and by answering it based on your own memory, observations, and experiences. Don’t commit yourself to supporting a single thesis; instead, try to truly explore your own ideas in writing to see what new thinking emerges.

Sources:

1-”Michel de Montaigne.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2-Montaigne, Michel de. “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” Quotidiana.org.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 27

Subject:  Irony – The Song “Ironic”

Event:  Alanis Morissette releases the song “Ironic,” 1996

On this day in 1996, singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette released her song “Ironic,” a song from her album Jagged Little Pill.  Although the song was a hit, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Top 100, the song’s title “Ironic” is a misnomer.  As you can see by the lyrics of  the song’s chorus, for example, the situations described may be unfortunate, but they are not ironic:

It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Who would’ve thought, it figures

Cover art for the Canadian maxi-single CD “Ironic” by Alanis Morrissette (Wikipedia)

To understand the concept of irony, it’s necessary to understand its various forms, forms that relate to spoken language (Verbal Irony), to real-life situations (Situational Irony), and to literary situations (Dramatic Irony):

Verbal Irony:  A type of figurative language where someone intentionally says one thing while meaning another thing, usually the exact opposite.  This usually involves the use of overstatement or understatement, as in “I can’t wait to get home and get to work on my 10 hours of homework” or “Yeah, Michael Jordan is a pretty good basketball player.”  One specific subclass of verbal irony is sarcasm, which is irony that is used to insult or to cause harm.

Situational Irony:  Irony that involves a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended or when there is a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.  For example, rain on your wedding day is not ironic but a fire station that burns down is.

Dramatic Irony:  This type of irony occurs in fiction and involves events in a story where the audience is aware of something that the characters in the story are not.  For example, in Romeo and Juliet, this occurs when Juliet’s father and mother are planning her marriage to Paris.  The audience knows that Juliet is already married to Romeo, but the Capulets are clueless. 

Based on these definitions we can conclude that the only thing ironic about Morissette’s song is that a song that is entitled “Ironic” contains nothing ironic.

Probably the best thing about Morissette’s song is that it spawned a website devoted entirely to the topic of irony called IsItIronic.com.  Founded by Paul Lowton in 2006, the mission of IsItIronic.com is to provide a writer’s resource for definitions and examples of irony.  At the site, readers can submit their own questions, such as “Is it ironic that there was a hotdog eating contest to raise money for obesity awareness?”  Readers at the website are also invited to calibrate their own sense of true irony by voting on the questions submitted.  

The following are irony questions submitted by readers.  Each is followed by the percentage of readers who answered, “Yes, it is ironic.”:

-Is it ironic if you have a phobia of long words you have to tell people that you have hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?  (91%)

-Is it ironic that: It takes sadness to know what happiness is. It takes noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence”? (63%)

-Is it ironic that a student spells every word on a spelling test wrong except for the word illiterate? (85%)

-Is it ironic that I cut myself on a first aid box? (84%)

-Is it ironic that a tree dedicated to George Harrison has been killed by Beetles? (65%) (1)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are three different kinds of irony, and how is each distinctly different?

Challenge – Truly Ironic Truisms:  Often some of the most profound statements have a twinge of irony that makes the reader stop and think.  Notice the irony in the following three quotations by three philosophers:

Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it. -Rene Descartes

The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.  -Socrates

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. -Voltaire

Research quotations that contain irony.  Find one that you like, and quote it.  Then, explain why you like it.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:  

-February 27, 2004:  The New York Times published an article documenting that of the 3,250 walk buttons at crosswalks in the Big Apple, more than 2,500 do not function, making them, in effect, mechanical placebo buttons.

Sources:

1-”Ironic Alanis Morissette – The Song Has No Irony” Is It Ironic website.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 26

Subject:  Fallacy of the Single Cause – “Give Me One Reason”

Event:  Tracy Chapman wins Best Rock Song, 1997 

What song won the Grammy for Best Rock song on this day in 1997?  The answer to this question has a single right answer:  “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman.

File:Tracy Chapman - Give Me One Reason.jpg
Front cover of CD “Give Me One Reason” (Wikimedia Commons)

Simple factual questions like this have a single right answer; however, life is full of questions that are much more complex, such as the following ones:

-Why did Rome fall?

-Why did a serial killer like Ted Bundy become such an evil person?

-Why has there been an increase in the number of school shootings over the past 20 years in the United States?

Despite the fact that these questions cannot be answered with a single, straightforward reason, we nevertheless instinctively tend to oversimplify our complex world by satisfying ourselves with a single root cause.  

As Tracy Chapman reminds us, we are too often fixated and satisfied with “one reason” or cause when we should realize that most “effects” come about from multiple “causes.”  In the world of logic, this error is known as the fallacy of the single cause (also known as causal reductionism or causal oversimplification).

One classic example of where the fallacy of the single cause might have come into play is the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995. On September 28, 1995, Simpson’s trial was finally wrapping up after 11 months.  Of the millions of words presented to the jury, it was just seven words proclaimed on that September day that stood out.  Defense Attorney Jonny Cochran was speaking to the jury about a key piece of evidence, a pair of gloves found at the scene of the crime.  Earlier in the trial when the prosecution requested that Simpson put on the gloves, it appeared that the gloves were too small for Simpson’s hands.  Cochran was reminding the jury of this fact during his closing argument, saying “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”  A few days later, as the entire nation watched, the jury announced their verdict:  not guilty.

Jurors might have looked at the whole range of evidence and testimony that was presented to them over the eleven months of the trial; nevertheless, Cochran’s closing argument opened the door for them to acquit Simpson based on a single reason: the glove didn’t fit (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What does the fallacy of the single cause tell us about how our thinking can go wrong?

Challenge – When Less is Not More:  What is an example of a complex question that people might try to oversimplify by identifying a single cause?  Explain why the question is too complex to be answered with a single cause.

Sources:

1-Dobelli, Rolf.  The Art of Thinking Clearly New York:  Harper Paperback, 2014. 

February 26: Kernel Sentence Day

On this 26th day of the second month, it makes sense to use the most fundamental tool of literacy, the 26 letters of the alphabet, to create the most fundamental construction of English syntax, the two-word kernel sentence.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King asks readers to explore this challenge by combining subjects and predicates to form the most basic simple sentences:

Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence.  It never fails.  Rocks explode.  Jane transmits.  Mountains float.  These are all perfect sentences.  Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice.  Simple sentences provide a path you can follow in the tangles of rhetoric – all those restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, those modifying phrases, those appositives, and compound-complex sentences.  If you start to freak out at the sight of such unmapped territory (unmapped by you, at least), just remind yourself that rocks explode, Jane transmits, mountains float, and plums deify.”

As King confirms the essential core elements of each English sentence is its kernel – the subject-noun and predicate-verb.  

Today’s Challenge:  Alliterative Abecedarian

What are some possible subjects (nouns) of sentences and some possible predicates (verbs)?   Brainstorm a list of subjects, alphabetically from A to Z.  Then, do the same thing with predicates, listing verbs from A to Z.  Finally, follow Stephen King’s advice and combine your subjects and predicates to form two-word alliterative kernel sentences, like the following examples:

Ants annihilate.

Buses bypass.

Cats caterwaul.

Dandruff defaces.

Ears eavesdrop.

Flamingos flock.

Quotation of the Day:  The way you live your day is a sentence in the story of your life. Each day you make the choice whether the sentence ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. -Steve Maraboli

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 25

Subject:  Epistemology – Bunk vs. Debunk

Event:  Felix Walker from Buncombe County, North Carolina gives a speech, 1820.

On this day in 1820, Felix Walker, a congressman representing Buncombe County, North Carolina, delivered a speech that eventually led to the creation of a new word.

The 16th Congress was debating the issue of statehood for the territory of Missouri.  The key conflict in the debate was the issue of slavery and whether or not Missouri should be admitted as a free state or a slave state.  In the midst of the debate, Congressman Walker rose to speak.  However, instead of presenting remarks that were germane to the issue of slavery, Walker instead began to ramble about topics totally unrelated to the issue at hand.  As he continued to drone on with his irrelevant speech, his colleagues attempted to stifle him.  Walker resisted, saying that he had been sent to Washington to deliver a speech, and he would, therefore, continue to address the constituents who elected him in North Carolina.  Walker’s specific words were:  “I shall not be speaking to the House but to Buncombe.”

Buncombe County, North Carolina (Wikimedia Commons)

Walker’s speech was not forgotten — not because of its great content, but because it became synonymous with the type of insincere, bombastic nonsense that some politicians are known for.  The Americanism that emerged from the Walker incident took that name of the Congressman’s county Buncombe, spelling it as bunkum.  Today we recognize the clipped form bunk, meaning “empty, pretentious nonsense” (1).

Later in 1923, novelist and biographer William E. Woodward wrote a novel called Bunk.  In the novel, Woodward introduced the verb debunk, meaning “the act of exposing false claims” (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are the origins of the noun “bunk” and the verb “debunk”?

Challenge – Debunk A Myth:  Since 1994, David and Barbara Mikkelson have been a presence on the internet, debunking false information.  At first, their work revolved mainly around debunking urban legends, but today Snopes.com fact-checks a wide range of subjects.  Visit Snopes and explore some of the topics.  What is one specific subject that Snopes has determined is bunk, and how specifically does Snopes debunk it?

Sources:

1-Chrysti the Wordsmith.  Verbivore’s Feast Second CourseHelena, Montana, Farcountry Press, 2006: 43.

2- Dickson, Paul.  Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  53.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 24

Subject:  Distillation and Simplicity – The Two Things Game

Event:  “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things,” 2012

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe. -Albert Einstein

On this day in 2012, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled, “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.”

The column begins with an anecdote about the economist Glen Whitman.  In 2002, Whitman was sitting in a bar and struck up a conversation with a stranger.  Upon discovering that Whitman was an economist, the stranger asked, “So, what are the Two Things about economics?”  Whitman wasn’t sure what he meant by “Two Things” so he asked for clarification.  The stranger replied:  “You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

Getting the picture, Whitman thought for a moment and replied with his Two Things about economics:  “One: incentives matter. Two: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

That brief conversation in a bar in 2002 began Whitman’s quest for other Two Things from other fields, such as philosophy, marketing, finance, and computer science.  The idea behind the Two Things game is to distill and to simplify.  To do this experts must re-examine what they know and go back to basics.  This helps them see their field with new eyes.   Experts within a single field seldom agree on their Two Things; nevertheless, what they come up with is always interesting and illuminating, both to insiders and to outsiders.

At his website, Whitman has collected numerous examples by posing the Two Things question.  Here are a few examples of the answers he’s gotten from various fields and areas of expertise:

The Two Other Things about Marketing:

-Find out who is buying your product.

-Find more buyers like them.

The Two Things about Advertising:

– Get people’s attention

– Overwhelm them with charm.

Two Things about Trial Lawyering:

– 90% is just showing up (borrowed from Woody Allen’s philosophy of life).

– When you are winning, keep your mouth shut.

The Two Things about Neuroscience:

-Neurons strengthen or weaken signal strength between connected synapses.

-If you think you’ve found the part of the brain that controls _________, you’re probably wrong.

The Two Things about Writing:

– Include what’s necessary.

– Leave everything else out.

The Two Things about Editing:

– Know the rules.

– Pay attention. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Two Things Game, and why do people play it?

Challenge –  Two Things Game:  What would you say is the area or field in which you have the most expertise?  What are the two things that people need to know about that area or field?  Select an academic discipline, an area of interest (such as a hobby, sport, or pastime), a profession, a specific person, place, thing, or idea that you know well.  Then determine what the Two Things are that everyone needs to know about it.  Assume that your audience knows little about your topic, and write an explanation that goes with each of your two things. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 24, 1955:  Steve Jobs was born on this day. He said, “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

Sources:

1-Burkeman, Oliver. “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.” The Guardian 24 February 2012.

2-The Two Things by Glen Whitman