THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 2

Subject:  Ultimatum Game

Event:  Birthday of Werner Guth, 1944

Try this thought experiment.  Imagine I offer you one-hundred dollars.  The money is yours to keep, except for one catch:  You must give some of the money to another person — a stranger who is sitting across the room.  In order for you to keep any of the money, you must put a portion of it in an envelope, which will then be given to the stranger.  If the stranger accepts the one-time offer, you get to keep what’s left of the $100 and the stranger gets her portion.  However, if the money is rejected by the stranger, neither of you gets anything.  So, here’s the question:  how much money would you put in the envelope?

If you approach this thought experiment purely logically, you might consider offering as little as $1 to the stranger; after all, one dollar is better than zero dollars.  The problem, however, is that you’re interacting with a human being not a computer.  We like to believe that we humans are purely reasoning creatures; however, the truth is that our thinking is heavily influenced by emotion, especially when it comes to social reasoning and issues involving justice and fairness.

German economist Werner Guth, who was born on this day in 1944, made this thought experiment an actual experiment in the 1980s.  He called it the ultimatum game, due to the take-it-or-leave-it nature of the game’s key transaction.  With the help of two colleagues, Rolf Schmittger and Bernd Schwarze, Guth began gathering data to determine how actual people would interact with actual money.  The results revealed that offers of less than 30 percent of the total are rejected and that most participants offer up to half of the money to their partner.  The ultimatum game shows that when it comes to human interaction, perceptions of fairness play a big role in how we make decisions.  We have the ability to reason with logic, but emotion and empathy are big parts of the recipe that makes up human cognition (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the ultimatum game, and what does it have to teach us about human thinking and human interactions?

Challenge – Games People Play:  Do some research on one of the other games listed below.  What does the game have to teach us about human behavior and thinking?  Pirate Game, Public Goods Game, Dictator Game, Impunity Game, Gift Exchange Game, Prisoner’s Dilemma

ALSO ON THIS DAY:  

Today is Groundhog Day.  Watch what many would argue is the most philosophical movie ever made – Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray.  Watch for how weatherman Phil Connors does an “If By Whiskey” about winter. As he is talking to the TV camera, just before the Groundhog Day ceremony is about to commence, he says the following lines.  Version 1 is early in the film when he feels stuck by his fate; Version 2 is late in the film when he had seen the light:

Version 1: “This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat. What a hype.  Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out, and they used to eat it.  You’re hypocrites, all of you!”

Version 2: “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

Sources:

1-McRaney, David. You Are Not So Smart. New York: Gotham Books/Penguin Group, 2011.

February 2:  Prognostication Day

Today is Groundhog Day, a day when all eyes watch for the emergence of a large furry rodent from its winter den.  According to folklore, if the groundhog sees his shadow when he emerges, he’ll be frightened and retreat back into his den, signaling six more weeks of winter.  If, however, he does not see his shadow, he will end his winter hibernation, singling the arrival of an early spring.

The origin of this strange ritual dates back to ancient Europe when the survival of communities was more closely tied to the changing of the seasons.  Since February 2nd is the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, it was an important time to take stock of winter provisions to determine whether or not there was enough food to make it to spring.  It makes sense, therefore, that it is a time to prognosticate about the arrival of spring.

When looking for signs of spring, it’s logical to watch for mammals ending their winter hibernation.  In France, the traditional animal was the marmot; in England, it was the hedgehog; and in Germany, it was the badger.  The groundhog tradition in the United States began with the Pennsylvania Dutch who came to America from Germany.  Finding no badgers in the eastern U.S., they adopted the groundhog (also known as the whistle pig or the woodchuck).  

The largest Groundhog Day celebration is held each February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where it began in 1887.  Locals gather at Gobbler’s Knob, anxiously awaiting Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication.  Unfortunately, an analysis of weather statistics reveals that a flip of a coin would be a better weather prognosticator:  Since 1887, Phil’s accuracy rate is just 39% (1).

Having knowledge about the future is one thing, but being able to impact the future is another thing entirely.  Through writing each individual has the ability to influence future change by communicating his or her ideas to an audience.  Aristotle called this type of rhetoric deliberative.  Unlike arguing about what has happened in the past (forensic rhetoric) or arguing what we value in the present (demonstrative rhetoric), deliberative rhetoric is about making a case for the future, about what decisions will be made or what choices are the best alternatives for a bright future.  Deliberative rhetoric is seen in famous speeches like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, where King was attempting to show his audience his vision of a brighter tomorrow in a world free of racism.

Today’s Challenge:  Prognosticate For Change

If you could make one specific change in order to make the world a better place, what would it be?  Write a speech in which you argue for one specific change that would improve your town, school, state, nation, or world.  Prognosticate how specifically the change you envision, would improve things. Make the case for your change by contrasting the status quo, what is, with the possible future, what could be.  Give your audience a specific vision to show them how bright the future looks with your change.  Use facts and evidence from today to boost the likelihood of your prediction and to show your audience that your change is the best alternative.

The following are a few ideas to spark your thinking:

We should make college tuition-free for all students.

We should change the voting age to 16.

We should limit the U.S. president to one term in office.

We should outlaw football.

We should discontinue the Olympics.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring. -George Santayana

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/29889/where-did-groundhog-day-come

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 1

Subject:  Syntax and Semantics – Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas”

Event:  Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures published, 1957

Syntax and vocabulary are overwhelming constraints — the rules that run us.  Language is using us to talk — we think we’re using the language, but language is doing the thinking, we’re its slavish agents.  –Harry Mathews 

Today is the birthday of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, who was born in Philadelphia in 1928.  Chomsky spent more than 50 years as a professor at MIT and has authored over 100 books. Chomsky has been called “the father of modern linguistics” and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.  Despite all of his accomplishments, Chomsky is perhaps best known for a single sentence:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Published in his 1957 book Semantic Structures, Chomsky’s famous sentence illustrates the difference between two essential elements of language:  syntax and semantics.  Syntax relates to the grammar of a language or the order in which words are combined to construct sentences. Semantics, in contrast, relates to the meaning of individual words. Chomsky’s sentence illustrates the difference between syntax and semantics, showing that a grammatically or syntactically correct sentence can be constructed that is semantically nonsensical.

Of course, we can construct zany sentences all day for entertainment purposes, but to truly communicate our thoughts to an audience, we must craft sentences that synthesize both syntax and semantics to make sense.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the difference between syntax and semantics, and how does Chomsky’s famous sentence illustrate the difference?

Today’s Challenge – Strange Semantic-less Syntax Sings Soporifically:  What are some adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs that all begin with the same letter of the alphabet? Try your hand at constructing a syntactically correct, yet semantically nonsensical sentence.  For an added layer of interest, use alliteration by selecting words that begin with the same letter.

Begin by brainstorming as many adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs as you can.  Then, select randomly from your list, filling in words in the following order:

Adjective + adjective + noun + verb + adverb

For example:

Angry, ambivalent aardvarks argue awkwardly.

or

Zany, zymolytic zookeepers zoom zealously.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-On February 1, 1852, Henry David Thoreau recorded a rant in his journal, enumerating the idiocy of the California Gold Rush:

The recent rush to California and the attitude of the world, even of its philosophers and prophets, in relation to it appears to me to reflect the greatest disgrace on mankind.  That so many are ready to get their living by the lottery of gold-digging without contributing any value to society, and that the great majority who stay at home justify them in this both by precept and example! . . . . The hot that roots his own living, and so makes manure, would be ashamed of such company.

Sources: 

1-Psychology Wiki. “Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously.”

February 1:  From News to Novel Day

Robinson Crusoe 1719 1st edition.jpgOn this date we celebrate two influential works of fiction, both influenced by actual events. The first was Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel based on the real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, who was rescued on this date in 1709.  

A black cover depicting a woman swimming and a shark coming towards her from below. Atop the cover is written "Peter Benchley", "Jaws" and "A Novel".The second work of fiction is the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley, published on this date in 1974.  The idea for the book, Benchley’s first novel, began ten years earlier in 1964 when Benchley read a news story about a 4,550 pound Great White shark caught off the beaches of Long Island, New York. The brief news story sparked Benchley’s imagination:  “And I thought right then ‘What if one of these things came round and wouldn’t go away?’” (1).

The true story behind the fictional Robinson Crusoe begins in 1704.  Alexander Selkirk was a Sailing Master aboard the Cinque Ports, an English frigate fighting with Spanish vessels off the coast of South America.  When the captain of the Cinque Ports stopped at a desert island to re-stock supplies of freshwater, Selkirk refused to get back on board due to the ship’s less than seaworthy condition.  When the Cinque Ports left him behind, Selkirk hoped to quickly flag down another ship. This, however, was a more difficult task than he imagined.

Selkirk spent the next four years alone on the island, surviving primarily by hunting and eating goats, which were in plentiful supply on the island.  Unfortunately for Selkirk, rats were also in plentiful supply.  They would gnaw at his clothes and his feet as he tried to sleep.  To solve this problem, Selkirk domesticated several cats he found on the island, employing them to keep his campsite rat-free.

Finally, on February 1, 1709, Selkirk was rescued when two British ships spotted his signal fire. When the landing party came ashore, they were astonished by Selkirk’s appearance:  he looked like a wild man dressed from head to toe in goat skins.

In 1713 an account of Selkirk’s ordeal was published, and six years later, influenced by Selkirk’s adventures, Daniel Defoe published his novel Robinson Crusoe*.  Defoe’s book went on to become one of the most widely read books in history and is recognized today as the first work of realistic fiction.  Selkirk and Defoe also influenced world geography; in 1966 Mas a Tierra, the Pacific island which Selkirk inhabited for four years and four months, was renamed Robinson Crusoe.  A separate island, 100 miles west, has been renamed Alejandro Selkirk (2).

Like Defoe’s novel, the story of Jaws also follows an interesting path from fact to fiction.  The novel’s author Peter Benchley was working as a journalist in 1971 when he had lunch with a publisher from Doubleday.  They discussed Benchley’s book ideas which were all non-fiction.  At the end of the meeting, the publisher asked Benchley, who had never written fiction, if he had any ideas for a novel.  At that point, Benchley remembered the 1964 news story about the colossal shark caught off of Long Island.  He told the publisher,  “I want to tell the story of a Great White shark that marauds the beaches of a resort town and provokes a moral crisis.”

When Jaws was published on February 1, 1974, it made Benchley one of the most successful first-time novelists of all time.  The book spent 44 months on the New York Times bestseller list and sold over 20 million copies.  Benchley went on to co-write the screenplay for the book’s wildly successful film version; today the film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, is recognized as the movie that invented the summer blockbuster.

Today’s Challenge:  All the Fiction That’s Fit to Print

What story from today’s newspaper could you adapt for a short story?  Select a story from a recent newspaper, and use the facts from the true story to spark your imagination.  Generate a central conflict from the true story that might be used in a fictional story, such as an individual fighting to survive alone on a desert island or a town struggling to survive attacks from a killer shark. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. -Albert Camus

*The complete original title of Defoe’s novel is:  The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

1-http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3400291.stm

2-http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/europe/oddities_europe.shtml