Something to Read When You're Bored

The Story of Stuff
April 7, 2008, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Interesting

My coworker just sent me this video about the system of consumption in the US – how it works, why it exists, and why it’s really bad. There’s a lot of information in here that most people are probably at least vaguely aware of, but it really reminded me that even though I know about why the system is bad I could still be doing a lot more to help make it better. I think it’s a great reminder of exactly what we’re contributing to when we buy stuff.Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

April 4, 2008, 7:47 pm
Filed under: Interesting | Tags: , , , , ,

Another fascinating world happening I recently learned about is the use of pack animals to bring books to remote villages in developing countries. In Venezuela they’re using mules (locally referred to as bibliomulas) to reach outlying areas, and in northern Kenya there are camel bookmobiles delivering the same service to nomadic tribes.

The program in Venezuela is provided by the University of Momboy, where they place a lot of focus on community-oriented programs. There’s a neat BBC article where they describe how excited the kids all get when the mules arrive (they all shout ‘Bibilomu-u-u-u-las’) , and how they are even beginning to leverage wireless technology by equipping the mules with laptops and projectors. The part that really blew my mind was when they mentioned plans to install wireless modems under the bananna trees – what a crazy mash-up of cultures. But it sounds like the Bibliomulas are making a lot of positive differences in the community, even beyond the improvements in literacy. They’re increasing environmental awareness, connecting communities and helping to support the local economy. Pretty amazing, I think.

The program in Kenya is similar, using camels rather than mules but accomplishing the same sort of thing. This program appears to be more dependent on donations to keep the program going, and I can’t help but think how cool it would feel to donate old books to a cause like this one (if you’re interested in donating, there’s a site for that too).

Masha Hamilton, an author who has traveled with the camel bookmobile, describes the experience:

The actual Camel Bookmobile brings books to semi-nomadic people in Northeastern Kenya who live with the most minimal of possessions, suffering from chronic poverty and periodic drought. I visited the region during a period of drought and made several hours-long walks through the African bush with the bookmobile. I cannot describe how moving it was to see the people, particularly children, crowding around as the traveling librarians set up straw mats under an acacia tree and spread out the books. The excitement is palpable.

The Camel Bookmobile books are primarily in English. The children are taught the language in outdoor “classrooms” under acacia trees for the younger students, indoor classrooms for the older students. They particularly like children’s storybooks, though all fiction is also sought-after, as well as books about math and astronomy, biology and other sciences. As you can imagine, the camel library always needs more books — the trip is hard on books and, as these are a semi-nomadic people known as pastoralists, not all volumes are returned.

This area, Northeast Kenya near the unstable border with Somalia, is definitely a region in transition. Due to years of drought and famine, the elders (many of whom still feel romantically attached to their nomadic lifestyles) are recognizing that their children must be educated, so the demand on the camel library is growing. Illiteracy rates in this region are put at 85 percent. Among adults outside the towns, my guess is that it is higher than that. We in the West have so many books; just mailing a single one to the camel library, if done five-hundred times, would have enormous impact.

The Camel Bookmobile librarians told me their patrons also really appreciate the sense of connection they get when a book is signed from a particular place and person. It widens their understanding of the world. So send a favorite book or two, sign your donations with your name and city, and add a note if you wish.

Masha’s site also includes a transcript of sorts capturing how the village teacher and his wife each react to the influence of the bookmobile. I thought it was a pretty interesting portrayal of cultural differences and how the effort might also have some unintended impacts.

All in all, it feels nice to learn about things going on in the world that are actually good, doesn’t it?

Do you know why you eat?
March 19, 2008, 6:36 pm
Filed under: Food, Interesting | Tags: ,

This morning one of my coworkers (Rich) laughed at me when I told him I was covering up the stack of cookies he brought in because seeing them made me want to eat them. I defended my actions by informing him that there have been studies documenting the phenomenon of food visibility increasing consumption, but I still didn’t get the impression he believed me. So I of course decided to do some digging and prove to him that my snickerdoodle concealing behavior was not absurd.

The article I found on the subject was pretty fascinating. It was published this January in a journal sponsored by the CDC and it discusses food visibility, as well as many other factors we tend to be unaware of, all of which influence what, when, and how much we eat. The basic argument the article makes is that eating is an automatic behavior – something we do without really making a conscious decision to – and that consequently it may be more effective to change environmental factors that effect eating behaviors than to depend on conscious choice for determining what we eat. Here are some of the findings that really made an impression on me (these are quotes verbatim from the article):

People served larger portions simply eat more food, regardless of their body weight and regardless of the food item, meal setting, or timing of other meals; and the temptation to eat food at hand is so strong that human beings eat more even if the food tastes bad.

The amount of food consumed increases as the effort to eat it decreases, even if the differences in effort are tiny (the example they gave of this was a bowl of candy within reach, rather than a few feet away)

The mere sight of food can stimulate people to eat (Take that Rich!)

The longer the meal, the more people eat. The amount of food people eat is directly and strongly related to the number of people sharing the meal, with food consumption increasing by 28% when one other person is present and increasing steadily to 71% when the number of companions is six or more.

The article also discussed findings about how humans are unconsciously influenced by environmental factors in general, which can impact human behavior in all sorts of ways, including how we eat. Here are the highlights (some slightly paraphrased by me):

Environmental perceptions occur without awareness, and many behavioral responses similarly occur without awareness or conscious thought.

Behavioral responses to environmental stimuli can be influenced by priming – the manipulation of decisions and judgments by the previous presentation of words, concepts, or images that are not perceived as being related to the task at hand. (an example of this was a study where subjects who were shown a happy face drank more fruit-flavored drink and rated it more favorably than subjects who were shown an angry face)

Another determinant of how human beings respond to their environment is salience, that is, how much it attracts their attention. Research has shown that when the amount of shelf space for a consumer item is doubled in grocery stores, sales of that item increase by about 40%. Sales also increase when special displays and end-aisle displays are used and when items are placed at eye level.

I know this is getting pretty long, but here’s where it really starts to get interesting, when they describe how eating can be viewed as an automatic behavior, rather than something we do by conscious choice:

[examples of automatic behaviors] Humans smile or laugh when amused, frown when annoyed, become startled when surprised by a loud noise, and tense their muscles when threatened, all without making any conscious decision or being aware of the behavior. In conversation people copy others’ mannerisms, such as smiling, rubbing their face, and shaking their feet, regardless of whether they are acquainted with the other people and without the slightest recognition that they are copying them.

Studies on food consumption indicate that eating should be viewed as an automatic behavior; people are generally not aware of how much they are eating.

Evidence that eating begins without conscious intent can be taken from both the tendency to eat any food that is in sight or at arm’s length, as well as the finding that people are more likely to eat simply because it is mealtime than because they are hungry.

Once people initiate eating, they usually continue until the food is gone or until some other external occurrence changes the situation.

The natural trajectory of eating – that is, what takes place without conscious effort – is for it to continue. Effort is not required to continue eating when food is present; effort is required to refrain from eating when food is present.

The amount of effort required to refrain from eating when food is present is substantial, and it is nearly impossible to sustain over the long term.

Okay, here’s the part that really kinda blew my mind:

In general, human self-control over automatic behaviors is limited. Self-control tires like a muscle and taxes our ability to perform other tasks. And just as refusing food depletes a person’s mental reserves, tasks requiring mental effort can reduce the ability to resist the temptation of food. (this explains why I eat like crazy when I’m stressed out)

Because people are unaware of automatic behaviors, they are also unaware that the behaviors are not under control; people tend to fabricate reasons to explain their behaviors, typically choosing the most plausible, culturally acceptable theories.

And finally, to wrap it all up, here’s the entire closing paragraph from the section about automatic behaviors:

If the behavior of eating were automatic, one would predict that it would favor foods that are most available and most visible and that require the least effort to eat — such as precooked and prepackaged foods and beverages that can be eaten without utensils. In fact, the foods that have shown the greatest increase in sales in the past quarter century meet this description: soft drinks, salty snacks, French fries, and pizza.

Okay, so now you probably don’t even need to read the article after my excessive summing-up, but I just found it all too fascinating to leave anything out. Now I’m really thinking about how I might be able to improve my eating habits by adjusting environmental factors instead of depending on my self-control muscles which evidently are bound to eventually get worn out and give up anyway. I also thought this take on things might help out Margaret, who was more than a little disturbed after reading a Scientific American article that convinced her she’s a food addict. Turns out we all are, yay!

Becoming a Trend Junkie
February 21, 2008, 10:44 pm
Filed under: Interesting

I’ve been doing a bunch of trend research at work in the last day or so, digging up compelling examples of trends and movements we’ve been analyzing and documenting, and I love it! I’ve learned about so many fascinating things going on all over the world, my mind is just spinning with tidbits about all sorts of things.

I just learned about a company that’s taking in-car navigation systems to the next level by replacing voice commands with a visible line projected on a heads-up display so all you have to do is follow the line to get exactly where you need to go (check out the video!):


There’s also a site where you can design your own customized sleeping bag online (I think they may only serve customers in the UK though):


And a site to consolidate all your various online travel reservations into one itinerary just by forwarding them your confirmation e-mails. They even do an automated search to add maps, driving directions, and other useful information to your final travel packet. (In europe there’s also a site where you can pay to have them automatically check-in for you online if you can’t get to a computer and still want to ensure you get a good seat)


There’s a genetics-based online dating site, where they actually match people up based on their genetic compatability, how crazy is that? (Apparently compatibility correlates with immune system dissimilarity – according to the site, couples with differing immunes systems are more likely to have a more satisfying sex life, increased faithfulness, higher fertility and healthier children) You send in a cheek swab for analysis, but it evidently doesn’t work if you’re on the pill or were not raised by your natural parents.

Japanese people think it’s really great to get a bag of rice with their baby’s face printed on it (it’s a very popular gift for new parents), and the latest thing is to order customized bags where the weight of rice exactly matches the weight of the baby:



In Amsterdam a business travel services website tried out a new offering – having a motorcycle taxi rescue business travelers who are stuck in traffic on their way to the airport. They even have a second driver who will drive your car the rest of the way to the airport for you. What a great idea.


And there’s so much more too, paying for car insurance by the mile, donating a few cents to a good cause when your cell phone accidentally places calls from your pocket, restaurants where you just pay as much as you want, and cell phones that let you share extra minutes or money via SMS! Isn’t the world a fascinating place? I think there may be more postings like this coming…



A Cool Way to Contribute
February 21, 2008, 9:54 am
Filed under: Interesting | Tags: ,

It feels good to donate money to a good cause, but the experience can be a bit of a letdown. Basically your money disappears, you have some vague idea of the general purpose it went to and you wonder exactly how much of your money will really be used for your intended purpose (in some cases more than others). The website offers, in my opinion, a much more satisfying philanthropic experience. The site is devoted to helping schools get the supplies and funding they need for specific projects (which, coming from a very education-appreciative family, is a cause that I can really get into). Here’s a good description I found of how the site works:

Teachers submit project proposals for materials or experiences their students need in order to learn. Volunteers at the not-for-profit site screen each project proposal and verify that the teacher and project meet set eligibility requirements. Citizen philanthropists can then fund the student projects of their choice—in whole or in part—and are emailed immediate acknowledgements for tax deduction purposes. purchases the student materials and ships them directly to the school along with a disposable camera; the teacher then photographs the students participating in the project and writes an impact letter to the donor, while students write their own thank-you notes. sends all that feedback to donors who completely funded or contributed at least USD 100 toward the project.

I think several things are awesome about this system. First, that you get to read about exactly what your money is going to accomplish for students and only help support programs that you really feel are valuable. The site also lets you search for projects in a specific area and shows you the percentage of low-income students at the school so you have a better sense of how much they can use the help. Plus you get something back from the process, a story about how you actually made a difference to kids’ lives. And the transparency of being able to see exactly where your money is going just seems… right. Maybe it is a selfish approach to doing something selfless, but I think that if this system inspires more people to contribute, then hooray for being selfish!

Michael Pollan
February 19, 2008, 3:26 pm
Filed under: Food, Interesting

I meant to write about this last week but ended up getting sick instead. Last Thursday I got to see Michael Pollan talk at Starbucks headquarters (thanks to a sweet inside connection with Erica), and I thought that what he had to say was pretty compelling (and also, of course, convinced me that I need to own his latest book).

The only book of his that I’ve read is The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was completely fascinating but had the troublesome side effect of making it almost impossible for me to eat. The decision of what to eat became linked to inhumane conditions for animals, destructive synthetic flavors and preservatives, and global repercussions; grocery stores were suddenly the new forum for defining my ethical beliefs and values, while trying not to kill myself with evil evil high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils. Anyway, the point is that I was easily pulled in when Mr. Pollan began his talk by describing how many of his readers had told him that they were unable to finish The Omnivore’s Dilemma because they were afraid that if they finished it there wouldn’t be anything left that they could eat. I was intrigued.

He went on to describe how his new book is intended to help make eating easier again for all of his distraught readers. I liked the sound of this new direction. Next he treated us to his interpretation of our (American) collective cultural belief system about eating, which he called Nutritionalism. There were four basic components of this belief system. First, that foods are essentially the sum of their nutrients-that every food can be broken down into carbs, fats, and so on, and that this breakdown more or less defines the character of the food. Second is that these nutrients aren’t something you can see – only scientists with microscopes are able to figure out what nutrients are in food. This naturally flows into the third premise, which is that we need professionals to tell us how to eat properly, hence the never-ending stream of articles and publications letting us know what new wonder-nutrient is going to solve everything and make us live forever and what foods you need to start eating three times a day in order to get enough of said nutrient. That brings us to the fourth part of the Nutritionalism theory, my favorite part, which is the idea that nutrients are like superheroes; there are super evil nemesis nutrients that are going to kill you- or worse, make you fat. Those would include things like the above-mentioned high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. But you can fight off those demonic little buggers with the angelic wonder-nutrients like fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants (kill those free radicals!).

All in all I thought Mr. Pollan’s theory was pretty astute. I also smugly enjoyed the feeling that my personal attitude about food has expanded beyond the typical American perspective, although when I think about it, maybe not enough. Anyhow, he went on to point out that there are a lot of other really good reasons for eating food, besides the one we all obsess about, which is essentially fuelling our bodies. Eating is also a social activity, a way of expressing your identity, a cultural experience, and a pleasurable one. And people have been managing to eat without professional help for years and years, maybe we could too. So his new book talks about how to eat without professional help and without freaking out about every single food purchase you make. In fact, the cover of the book gives away the trick to this unnaturally difficult objective, neatly wrapped around a head of lettuce:


The trick is defining what ‘food’ actually is, and a whole lot of the things you’ll find in a grocery store don’t qualify. Evidently 14 pages of the book are devoted to this definition. The book also offers simple tips for choosing what to eat, some of which he shared with us, like ‘don’t buy anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food’ and ‘don’t buy anything that claims to be healthy’ (also known as ‘don’t be fooled by the silence of the yams.’) I think the book also discusses some of the other challenges involved in eating, like the fact that real food generally requires cooking, and that doesn’t go over so well with some people. I thought the book sounded pretty interesting, so I went home and ordered it – I should’ve just bought it there, but I have a sexy vampire series to finish first anyway – but I’ll be sure to share my thoughts when I finally read it. Until then, I’ll be bracing myself for the possibility of giving up some of my favorite processed food addictions.

Valentine’s Day Links
February 14, 2008, 8:39 am
Filed under: Interesting | Tags: ,

I came across these articles about love and flirting and thought they were pretty fascinating. The first one, Why We Love, has a bunch of interesting facts about the physiology behind romance, including the fact that strippers get bigger tips when they’re ovulating, and that kissing a lot might transfer testosterone from a man to a woman, making the woman more interested in sex. I also really liked the quote at the beginning that “Every living human is a descendant of a long line of successful maters.” Why We Flirt is also a fun one, exploring how and why people flirt, and postulating some interesting theories about why married people flirt too.