Save your own life

By Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a visiting professor at MIT’s Media Laboratory:

What would you think if someone told you: Do the right thing because your life may depend on it. Or more accurately, that you better start making better decisions because it is a matter of life and death. This may sound like something an over protective parent would tell their child) but in reality it’s the way most of us should start to think about our day to day decisions and their potential to lead to harmful habits and fatal consequences. It is hard to believe that this is true, but recently, researchers have done some interesting analysis on this topic and the results support the idea that personal decisions, and often fairly mundane ones, are a leading cause of premature death in the United States (and I suspect that similar numbers are also the reality in the rest of the developed world).

One of the most interesting analyses on the ways in which our decisions kill us is one by Ralph Keeney (Operation Research, 2008), where Ralph puts forth the claim that 44.5% of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions – decisions that involving among others smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use, and unsafe sexual behavior. In his analysis Ralph carefully defines the nature of both the type of personal decision and what is considered premature death. For instance, dying prematurely in a car accident caused by a drunk driver is not considered premature in this framework because the decision to drive somewhere is not one that can logically be connected to the premature death. Unless, of course, the person who dies is also the drunk driver, in which case this counts as a premature death caused by bad personal decisions. This is because the decision to drive drunk, and dying as a result, are clearly connected. In this way you can examine a large set of cases where multiple decision paths are available (the drunk driver also has the option to take a cab, ride with a designated driver, or call a friend), and where these other decision paths are not chosen despite the fact that they won’t directly result in the same negative outcome (i.e fatality). As other types of examples, consider the decisions to smoke (when not smoking is an option), to overeat (when watching our weight is an option), or for people with long term medical conditions to skip taking insulin or asthma medication when these are important to their ongoing health.

Using the same method to examine causes of death in 1900, Keeney finds that during this time only around 10% of premature deaths were caused by personal decisions. Compared to our current 44.5% of premature deaths caused by personal decisions, it seems that on this measure of making decisions that kill ourselves we have “improved” (of course this means that we actually got much worse) dramatically over the years. And no, this is not because we’ve become a nation of binge-drinking, murderous smokers, it’s largely because the causes of death, like tuberculosis and pneumonia (the most common causes of death in the early 20th century) are far more rare these days, and the temptation and our ability to make erroneous decisions (think about driving while texting) has increased dramatically.

What this analysis means is that instead of relying on external factors to keep us alive and healthy for longer, we can (and must) learn to rely on our decision-making skills in order to reduce the number of dumb and costly mistakes that we make.

The question then becomes how to help people become better decision-makers. Or at least better at making decisions where their health is concerned. If nearly half of premature deaths in the US can be avoided by making better decisions, it is clear to me that it would be worthwhile to spend much more time and effort to disseminate the knowledge we have gained in social science about the main ways in which people fail to make good decisions. It is of course over-optimistic to expect that just helping people to see what mistakes they are likely to make will fix the problem, but personally I would be happy even if it only slightly reduced the number of catastrophic decisions. The next step we need to take is to expand upon the research that examines what kind of methods encourage healthier decision-making and conduct much more research in areas that could help us limit our mistakes. For example, based on research about how people make different decisions when they are sexually aroused we might concentrate on providing comprehensive sexual education that teaches teenagers how to make decisions while in the heat of the moment. Similarly, by understanding how people think we might be able to teach people to enjoy eating fruit and vegetables; how to make exercise part of their ongoing lifestyle; and develop effective smoking cessation programs. And it would also help to remember, in light of this, that every decision counts.


How to: delete your Facebook account, and adjust key privacy settings

Facebook is embroiled in an ongoing row over privacy. Here, we talk you through some of the key things you need to do to manage your Facebook account.

By Claudine Beaumont, Technology Editor of The UK’s Telegraph Online.

Facebook’s privacy policy is a whopping 5,830 words long. As the New York Times recently pointed out, the Constitution of the United States is just 4,543. In recent months, Facebook has made revisions to its privacy policy that makes a growing amount of information public by default; users must opt out if they want to keep their information private, or share it only with a trusted group of friends.

The changes have caused something of a backlash among both the user community and the technology industry, with some commentators questioning whether these changes are the thin end of the edge, and may even result in users leaving the social-networking site in their droves.

Committing “Facebook suicide”, as it’s known, is a very drastic option. Facebook, to its credit, does allow users to have complete control over their profiles and the way their personal information is shared – but you do need to plough through 50 different settings and around 170 different options if you want to control every single aspect of your account. Here, we look at how to deactivate and delete your Facebook account – and the difference between the two – as well as how to lockdown some of the most important privacy settings on your profile:

Deactivating your Facebook account

Deactivating your account simply involves going on a temporary hiatus; it does not permanently delete your personal information. If you deactivate your account, you immediately become invisible to other Facebook users, who will no longer be able to access your profile. However, Facebook “saves” your profile on file, so that if you choose to reactivate your account in future, then all of your friends, photos, lists of interests, games and other preferences, are automatically restored so your account looks just as it did before you deactivated it.

Deactivating an account is fairly simple: when you’re logged in to Facebook, click on the Account tab on the top right-hand side of the page. From the drop-down list, select “Account Settings”. The final option on the page is “Deactivate” – click on the link to be taken through to the deactivation page. Facebook tries to tempt you in to reconsidering, telling you that your friends “will no longer be able to keep in touch with you”; it also asks you to say why you are deactivating your account. At the foot of the page is box that allows you to opt out of receiving future emails from Facebook – if you do not tick this box, then you will continue to receive email notifications every time a former Facebook friend tags you in a photo, invites you to an event, or asks you to join a group. Ticking the box means you will no longer receive these messages.

To reactivate your Facebook account, log in to the site using your usual email address and password. You will then be sent an email to that address containing a link which, when clicked, restores your Facebook profile in its entirety.

Permanently deleting your Facebook account

If you’ve reached the end of your tether with being poked, bitten by vampires, asked to take endless quizzes or are simply concerned about privacy issues, then completely deleting your Facebook account is the nuclear option. When you delete your account, Facebook promises to discard all “personally identifiable information” associated with that account from its databases – that’s things like names, email addresses, phone numbers, postal addresses, instant-messenger screen names etc etc. However, Facebook says that copies of some material, such as photos, may remain on its servers for “technical reasons”, but that the material is “completely inaccessible” to other Facebook users, and is completely disassociated from any information that makes it possible to link that piece of content back to an individual user. If you deactivate or delete your account, says Facebook, it will no longer use any content associated with it, either.

Committing Facebook suicide, though, takes a little effort – it’s not quite as simple as clicking a few buttons to exorcise your social networking presence. Instead, you need to send a message to Facebook, requesting the permanent deletion of your account. Log on to Facebook, then paste the following address in to your browser window: It will take you through to a Help page that describes the difference between deactivating and deleting an account. At the bottom of the second paragraph is a link, which takes you through to a page where you submit your deletion request. Click on the link, read the warning entitled “Delete my account”, and then click Submit. The account is deleted immediately, but it can take up to a fortnight for Facebook to clear your information from its cache.

There’s much more;

The Train That Never Stops – a Chinese Concept

Stopping and accelerating again at each station will waste both energy and time. But in this brilliant new Chinese train innovation No time is wasted- get on & off the bullet train without the train stopping. The bullet train is moving all the time.

A mere 5 min stop per station (elderly passengers cannot be hurried) will result in a total loss of 5 min x 30 stations or 2.5 hours of train journey time!

How it works (view the movie):

1. To board the train : The passengers at a station embarks onto to a connector cabin way before the train even arrives at the station. When the train arrives, it will not stop at all. It just slows down to pick up the connector cabin which will move with the train on the roof of the train.

While the train is still moving away from the station, those passengers will board the train from the connector cabin mounted on the train’s roof. After fully unloading all its passengers, the cabin connector cabin will be moved to the back of the train so that the next batch of outgoing passengers who want to alight at the next station will board the connector cabin at the rear of the train roof.

2. To get off the train: As stated after fully unloading all its passengers, the cabin connector cabin will be moved to the back of the train so that the next batch of outgoing passengers who want to alight at the next station will board the connector cabin at the rear of the train roof. When the train arrives at the next station, it will simply drop the whole connector cabin at the station itself and leave it behind at the station. The outgoing passengers can take their own time to disembark at the station while the train had already left. At the same time, the train will pick up the incoming embarking passengers on another connector cabin in the front part of the train’s roof. So the train will always drop one connector cabin at the rear of its roof and pick up a new connector cabin in the front part of the train’s roof at each station.

[ via my good friend Alasdair Forbes;

Calcium from new supernova ‘could unlock secrets to life on Earth’

A newly discovered supernova in space could unlock secrets to how life was formed on earth, scientists claim.

By Andrew Hough in the UK’s Telegraph Online

Astronomers believe they have found a cosmic link to how calcium is formed in people’s bones.

They say a new type of supernova, called SN2005E, may be the chief source of calcium in the universe and on Earth.

Scientists say the mineral provides vital strength to bones, which could show how humans have an ability to stand upright, the Nature journal reported.

High levels of calcium and radioactive titanium were detected during observations of the exploding star, both of which are products of nuclear reactions involving helium.

So much calcium was present that it accounted for half the material thrown out by the explosion.

The star exploded around 110 million years ago in the spiral galaxy NGC 1032 in the constellation Cetus. Supernovae occur when stars reach the end of their life and blow themselves apart.

Information about it was collected by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Palomar Observatory in Los Angeles and the Liverpool Observatory in the UK and pieced together to create a detailed picture of the explosion.

Professor Alex Filippenko, from the University of California at Berkeley, said: ”We hope that, by finding more examples of this subclass and of other unusual supernovae and observing them in greater detail, we will find new variations on the theme and get a better understanding of the physics that’s actually going on.

”We know that SN2005E came from the explosion of an old, low-mass star because of its specific location in the outskirts of a galaxy devoid of recent star formation.

”And the presence of so much calcium in the ejected gases tells us that helium must have exploded in a nuclear runaway.”

Until now scientists knew of two kinds of supernova.

One was caused by an old white dwarf, a faint highly compact star mainly made up of carbon and oxygen.

The other occurred when a hot and massive short-lived star exploded leaving behind a super-dense neutron star or black hole.

Scientists believe its source is helium ”stolen” by a white dwarf from a companion star.

Increasing pressure and temperature eventually caused the helium to ignite in an H-bomb-like thermonuclear blast.

Two such supernovae occurring every 100 years would be enough to produce the high abundance of calcium seen in our galaxy, the Milky Way and in all life on Earth, they said.

Astronomers believe seven other previously identified supernovae may belong to the same ”family”.


Happiness begins at 50 claims new research

The good life begins at fifty claims a new report which found that this was the start of the happiest time of our lives.

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent of the UK’s Telegraph Online.

Stress, anger and worry fade after the landmark birthday when we begin experiencing greater daily joy than younger adults, it is claimed.

Despite increased risk of death and disease, it seems that people worry less and that they ignore the negatives and accentuate the positives.

Dr Arthur Stone, a psychologist of Stony Brook University, New York, said the findings were “striking”.

“You would think as chronic illness threatens life would get worse but that is not the case because people don’t focus on the threats,” he said.

“They focus on the good things in life like family and friends.”

A survey of more than 340,000 people published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found overall feelings of wellbeing improve as we pass middle age.

The researchers found positive and negative emotions varied with age similarly in both sexes – although women reported greater stress, worry and sadness at all ages.

Stress and anger reduced after people reached their early 20s with worry declining after the age of fifty.

Variables such as having young children, being unemployed, or being single did not affect age-related patterns of well being.

The research showed that levels of stress, worry and anger all dropped significantly in the fifties and levels of happiness and enjoyment increased.

The only feeling that remained constant was that of sadness. Overall feelings of well being increased in the fifties all the way up to the eighties, it was discovered.

The US participants answered yes-or-no questions regarding whether they had experienced enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger and sadness during a large portion of the day prior to the call.

Researchers said the results are consistent with earlier research suggesting increased “wisdom” and emotional intelligence with age – at least through middle age.

Older people also have an increased ability to self-regulate their emotions and view their situations positively and recall fewer negative memories than younger adults.

The researchers said: “They are also in accord with a ‘positivity effect’ wherein older people recall fewer negative memories than younger adults and with the possibility older adults are more effective at regulating their emotions than younger adults.”

Previous studies have shown increased life expectancy and widespread early retirement has created a much greater emphasis on “quality of life” among men and women in their fifties.

The consequence is instead of settling down to a stereotyped “jumpers and slippers” existence by the fireside many now pursue a vigorous social life in search of personal fulfilment.

Many more fiftysomethings see themselves as young and are adopting hedonistic attitudes as they imitate younger ways of living.

The findings back up those of a British study that showed that happiness is U-shaped over life, being at its highest in the young and old and bottoming out in middle age.

This was thought to be because people begin to accept their limitations in their later life and were just happy to be alive.


Hierarchy of Beards

What are the three primary beards? Is a Maltese the same as a Claus-esque beard? What the hell is a Queen’s Brigade? All these and more are addressed in the manliest poster ever made.


What Is a Philosopher?

By Simon Critchley in the UK’s Telegraph Online

There are as many definitions of philosophy as there are philosophers – perhaps there are even more. After three millennia of philosophical activity and disagreement, it is unlikely that we’ll reach consensus, and I certainly don’t want to add more hot air to the volcanic cloud of unknowing. What I’d like to do in the opening column in this new venture — The Stone — is to kick things off by asking a slightly different question: what is a philosopher?

As Alfred North Whitehead said, philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Let me risk adding a footnote by looking at Plato’s provocative definition of the philosopher that appears in the middle of his dialogue, “Theaetetus,” in a passage that some scholars consider a “digression.” But far from being a footnote to a digression, I think this moment in Plato tells us something hugely important about what a philosopher is and what philosophy does.

Socrates tells the story of Thales, who was by some accounts the first philosopher. He was looking so intently at the stars that he fell into a well. Some witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a joke at Thales’ expense — that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. Socrates adds, in Seth Benardete’s translation, “The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.”

What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, part one.” Whenever the philosopher is compelled to talk about the things at his feet, he gives not only the Thracian girl but the rest of the crowd a belly laugh. The philosopher’s clumsiness in worldly affairs makes him appear stupid or, “gives the impression of plain silliness.” We are left with a rather Monty Pythonesque definition of the philosopher: the one who is silly.

[Read the full article;

Men lose the ability to sleep soundly as they get older, scientists have discovered

Middle-aged men do not feel as rested in the morning because a reduction in the sex hormone testosterone affects their quality of sleep, according to a new scientific study.

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent of the UK’s Telegraph Online

It has long been thought that a lack of sleep led to a reduction in testosterone but now scientists believe it could be the other way around.

When men reach the age of 30, their testosterone levels drop by one to two per cent every year. By the age of 40, men’s quality of sleep also begins to diminish.

Researchers in Canada have discovered a possible link between decreased testosterone levels and reduced deep sleep.

Zoran Sekerovic, a graduate student from the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology, has discovered a link between testosterone levels in men over 50 and their quality of sleep, specifically less deep sleep.

He said: “Deep sleep is when the recuperation of body and mind is optimal.”

In young men, “deep sleep” represents 10 to 20 per cent of total sleep. By age 50, it decreases to five to seven per cent. For men over 60, it can disappear altogether.

The University of Montreal researcher said that men in their twenties do not have such a correlation because their neuronal circuits are intact.

Mr Sekerovic said: “With age, there is neuronal loss and the synchronisation of cerebral activity isn’t as good, which is why there is a loss of deep sleep.

“Because deep sleep requires great synchronisation, low levels of testosterone intensify the lack of synchronisation and can explain 20 per cent of men’s inability to experience deep sleep.”

He suggested dwindling testosterone levels are what impact sleep, not vice versa, as other studies have suggested.

He said previous investigations measured daily fluctuations in testosterone levels, which are higher in the morning.

If he is right, his findings could reignite the hormone therapy debate.

Mr Sekerovic said: “The loss of deep sleep is a serious problem that could be treated with testosterone. That would be tremendous progress

“But hormone therapy can have secondary effects. Therefore, it will be essential to better understand the mechanisms leading to the loss of deep sleep.”

The study was conducted under the supervision of Julie Carrier, a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and director of the Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montreal.


Black, Brown, and Beige

Duke Ellington’s music and race in America.

By Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker.

The basement club was cramped, and the bandstand was so small that, by the drummer’s measure, it could hardly hold a fight. The clientele included mobsters, musicians, and star performers from the nearby Broadway shows, slipping in among the crowd from the time the band appeared, at about ten o’clock, straight on “until.” The banjoist who provided the schedule could elaborate no further about how long the night went on: “Until you quit. Until period.” After 3 A.M., you couldn’t get a seat. In the fall of 1926, the craze for Negro music was already sending savvy white New Yorkers up to Harlem, but the Kentucky Club, on West Forty-ninth Street, had the hottest band in town. Trumpets, trombone, saxes, clarinet, tuba, banjo, and drums—nine or so players, huddled on the stand beneath the pipes that ran along the ceiling, plus the handsome young piano player who led the group while dancers surged around him on the floor. But the band did more than keep the temperature high and the dancers moving; its arrangements were so startling that even a familiar number like “St. Louis Blues” sounded new. Variety capped a gushing review of the “colored combo” by noting that the club’s patrons—transfixed “jazz boys” and civilians alike—spent a remarkable amount of time just sitting around and listening.

Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians had been performing in New York, under one name or another, for about three years, but their range and ambition were just beginning to show. As new arrivals, they had practiced the sweet, straight, “under conversation” music that had been in demand at the Washington society dances where the original group members started out, but they had quickly discovered that this sound was all wrong for New York. Not brazen enough, not rhythmically driving; not Negro enough; not jazz. In truth, a New York style of jazz hardly existed. In the mid-twenties, the city offered, instead, a heady variety of musical models, including its own native Harlem stride pianists (who welcomed Ellington as one of their own); the blues musicians who were part of the ongoing mass migration from the South; Fletcher Henderson’s big, polished sound; and the great horn players of New Orleans, who blazed through town now and again like comets. And then there were the resident players who had absorbed the New Orleanians’ famed techniques: the trumpeter Bubber Miley joined the Washingtonians before their first uncertain year was out and, with his waa-waa outbursts and uncannily human shrieks and cries, quickly blew their decorum away. Ellington was inspired by Miley’s wild expressiveness, even if he couldn’t yet meet it or let go the promise of all the other sounds he heard.

The number that caught Irving Mills’s attention at the Kentucky Club one night, as he recalled, was “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a three-minute musical drama jointly credited to Ellington and Miley. It isn’t difficult to figure out which of the authors did what, as a throbbingly mournful blues gives way to a refined society tune—rough and smooth, black and tan, Miley and Ellington—or as Miley’s solos rise to a hectoring beauty that finds ease and release in the band’s response. The trumpeter’s manipulation of a simple rubber plunger cup over the bell of his horn makes for some irresistibly antic sounds (the trombonist, not to be outdone, gives a good impression of a whinnying horse), but the piece delivers an unexpected emotional punch: a concluding riff from Chopin’s “Funeral March” is willfully absurd yet seems to seal the trumpet’s urgent message. (“I like great big ole tears,” Ellington said, teasingly, about audience reactions.) The over-all effect is at once mocking and chilling, like a funeral cortège with skeletons dancing behind.

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Who Invented the Cocktail?

That depends on how you define invented. And cocktail.

By Wayne Curtis in The Atlantic.

Last fall, I visited a new restaurant and lounge in London called Hix. It specializes in revivals and adaptations of early-19th-century British libations, including a rum shrub of the sort one might have sipped during the reign of King George III. (Shrubs typically involved fresh fruits preserved in vinegar, then mixed with spirits.) I thought it was uncommonly delicious, and immediately felt traitorous for thinking so. The early Brits were famous for guzzling sweetened gin in large and harmful quantities, not for producing mixed drinks of sophistication or quality. The Americans were supposedly the ones who did that.

The drink catechism has long held that cocktails as we know them were created by “Professor” Jerry Thomas, a pioneering and flamboyant American bartender who published the first bar manual in 1862. David Wondrich, the author of Imbibe!, the most comprehensive account of Thomas’s work, did much to secure this reputation. His book advanced the notion, now commonly repeated, that cocktails are a reflection of our native genius, as American as apple pie and baseball.

“And it turns out that’s precisely true,” Wondrich told me recently. “Because they made apple pies in Europe before we did. And they played rounders before we did. Whenever you look into any of these things and poke at the beginning, you’re suddenly earlier.”

While researching Imbibe!, Wondrich had been intrigued by Thomas’s frequent mentions of punch—spirits mixed with citrus juice and other flavorings. Wondrich suspected that such drinks represented a British precursor to the modern American cocktail. He investigated for his next book, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, due out this fall, and his suspicions were confirmed. “As far as I can tell,” he said, “the British pretty much invented mixology with spirits when they came up with punch.”

In particular, Wondrich now singles out James Ashley, who ran a famous punch house in London from 1731 to 1776, as “the world’s first celebrity mixologist.” Ashley refined the idea of mixed drinks with spirits, even serving his concoctions in smaller, individually mixed cups rather than big bowls. Wondrich found further accounts, from around the same time, of other barmen in England serving up proto-cocktails like sweetened gin mixed with bitters.

[Read the rest;