Category Culture Making

Best. Toys. Ever?

My old friend Jonathan continues lovingly subverting’s tech-toy-heavy Geekdad blog from the inside out. The five best toys of all time? Lego doesn’t even make the list. Try Stick, Box, String, Cardboard Tube, and Dirt. The most enthralling toys are often the ones you can make the most of, ones that open up imaginative possibilities rather than limiting them.

When I was a kid one of my favorite things to play with was Dirt. At some point I picked up an interest in cleanliness and I have to admit that I’m personally not such a fan of Dirt anymore—many parents (particularly indoor people like me) aren’t so fond if it either. But you can’t argue with success. Dirt has been around longer than any of the other toys on this list, and shows no signs of going away. There’s just no getting rid of it, so you might as well learn to live with it.

First off, playing with Dirt is actually good for you. It’s even sort of edible (in the way that Play-doh and crayons are edible). But some studies have shown that kids who play with Dirt have stronger immune systems than those who don’t. So even if it means doing some more laundry (Dirt is notorious for the stains it causes) it might be worth getting your kids some Dirt.

So what can you do with Dirt? Well, it’s great for digging and piling and making piles. We’ve got a number of outdoor toys in our backyard, but my kids spend most of their time outside just playing with Dirt. Use it with Stick as a large-format ephemeral art form. (didn’t I tell you how versatile Stick was?) Dirt makes a great play surface for toy trucks and cars. Need something a little gloopier? Just add water and—presto!—you’ve got Mud!

from “The 5 Best Toys of All Time,” by Jonathan Liu,’s Geekdad, 31 January 2011

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Leaves and teeth

This basket is beautiful, tiny (just over three inches tall), and presumably not for everyday use, what with the teeth and all. It comes from the tiny micronesian republic of Nauru, known more recently as a tiny oasis of environmental devastation, tax-shelter hijinks, internet crime, etc.


Basket (Egadakua), pandanus leaves, shark’s teeth, fiber, late 19th-early 20th century, Nauru, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York :: via the Met’s Artwork of the Day feed

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Power and love

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting
everything that stands against love.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?

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Yearning to know the end of the story

Of course my take on the need to know the story’s outcome is a little more Narnia than Oedipus Rex. But both, I think, apply.

There are two reasons for wanting to know the future: to help you decide between alternative courses of action, or because you just have to know.

As a writer, I’m more interested in the second reason, which seems to me to be implicated in most forms of prognostication.  Why do people get their DNA sequenced?  Partly in order to make better health decisions, but partly for aesthetic reasons.  We have always believed the secrets of human identity and human destiny to be inscribed on the body — etched in the palm, encoded in a “Habsburg lower lip,” or recorded on the Y chromosome. 

In prognostication, identity and destiny are inextricably linked. This is because we can only understand human identity as a narrative — and the meaning of a narrative depends on its ending. Without knowing what happens to us, we don’t know who we were all along. Hence the last line of “Oedipus Rex”: “Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.”

from “The Goal of Predictions: ‘Who Am I?’,” by Elif Batuman,, 29 December 2010 :: via My Life and Thoughts

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Class, power, and empathy

This is a fascinating study on class and empathy. This summary explains the finding—that people with less education (their proxy for class) did better at recognizing others’ emotions—in terms of peer relationships (judging when and how to ask your friends for help), but it seems like they have a lot to do with power dynamics as well (judging how to avoid negative attention from those who have power over you).

The volunteers did a test of emotion perception, in which they were instructed to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions each face was displaying. People with more education performed worse on the task than people with less education. In another study, university students who were of higher social standing (determined from each student’s self-reported perceptions of his or her family’s socioeconomic status) had a more difficult time accurately reading the emotions of a stranger during a group job interview.

These results suggest that people of upper-class status aren’t very good at recognizing the emotions other people are feeling. The researchers speculate that this is because they can solve their problems, like the daycare example, without relying on others—they aren’t as dependent on the people around them.
A final experiment found that, when people were made to feel that they were at a lower social class than they actually were, they got better at reading emotions.

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Alas, the site offers neither name nor date of these beautiful rock drawings. They have a similar look to those at Newspaper Rock, near Moab, Utah. The style of many petroglyphs seems to be a sort of elemental human visual consciousness—some of the oldest surviving evidences of culture-making (though if these drawings are as exposed as the picture suggests, they’re probably much more recent).


from The History of Visual Communication :: via FFFFOUND! :: first posted here 6 November 2008

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Washing away your sins

From an interview with Chen-Bo Zhong, who researches the link between abstract concepts and physical feelings—the deep cultural power of metaphor.

LEHRER: What are some other examples of how seemingly abstract thoughts, such as feeling excluded, can have physical manifestations?

ZHONG: Another example would be the relation between morality and physical cleanliness. In my early work “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing” in collaboration with Katie Liljenquist [a professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University], we discussed how metaphors such as “dirty hands” or “clean records” may have a psychological basis such that people make sense of morality through physical cleanliness.

When people’s moral self image is threatened, as when they think about their own unethical past behaviors, people literally experience the need to engage in physical cleansing, as if the moral stain is literally physical dirt. We tested this idea in multiple studies and showed that when reminded of their past moral transgressions, people were more likely to think about cleansing-related words such as “wash” and “soap”, expressed stronger preference for cleansing products (for instance, a soap bar), and were also more likely to accept an antiseptic wipe as a free gift (rather than a pencil with equal value).

Further, physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.

from “Metaphors of the Mind: Why Loneliness Feels Cold and Sins Feel Dirty,” by Jonah Lehrer, Scientific American, 25 September 2008 :: via Arts & Letters Daily :: first posted here 6 October 2008

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Powerlessness and shopping

Powerlessness and consumption can seem a bit at odds. There is, though, significant distinction to be made between feeling and being powerless.

a Jezebel post by SadieStein, 27 June 2008 :: first posted here 27 June 2008

Researchers at Northwestern have found that feeling powerless leads people to shell out for expensive status items to bolster their egos — explaining why those deep in debt continue to spend. “After recalling situations where they were powerless, participants were willing to pay more for items that signal status, like silk ties and fur coats, but not products like minivans and dryers. They also agreed to pay more for a framed picture of their university if it was portrayed as rare and exclusive.” Okay, can’t really comprehend a situation demeaning enough that we’d be willing to pay any amount of money for a framed picture of our alma mater but who hasn’t restored a flagging sense of self with a handsome necktie from time to time? [Science Daily]

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Snippets of recognition

It’s fascinating how little it takes to identify the whole by its parts and—usefully but also troublingly—form opinions that are not that easy to alter as additional info rolls in.

Studies have shown we form initial impressions surprisingly quickly. At Northwestern University researchers found that when they tested listeners by letting them hear tiny samples of music, the listeners were able to classify different styles of music based on samples lasting only 250 milliseconds. A half-second sample added only a little more accuracy, and with a sound sample lasting a second most listeners could classify every style of music they were familiar with. This is an astonishing finding, because it suggests that we use timbre, the character of the sound, to quickly do most of the work when we are identifying musical styles.

from “Quick Impressions,” by Randall Shinn, Deep Glamour, 22 November 2010

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The gift that keeps on giving?

More from the annals of unintended consequences … in this case a long and thoughtful post by a Peace Corps volunteer, considering the “buy one for yourself give one to a poor person” model of consumer charity — and offering some simple changes that companies using that model might make.

In particular I remember this one guy Sori Sogoba; Sori is a 22-year-old who farms millet and peanuts and goes to Bamako every cold season to sell phone cards, and he has a wife and three kids who walk around town barefoot. And he has an iPhone. Just about every time I saw him he would always steer the conversation to “My iPhone is better than your dinky Nokia. Your telephone can’t even play music videos!”

“Yeah, but everyone in my family has a pair of shoes.”

I would try to make the connection between the abundance of unaffordable luxuries and paucity of necessities like shoes and mosquito nets whenever granted the opportunity. And I pissed off a good many people in the process – especially Sori.

He would respond, “Yeah, well, I don’t have to buy them shoes because one day The White People are going to come back and give shoes to the children. My kids don’t have shoes because The White People haven’t come yet!”

In so many inversions, dozens of Malian parents have told me this same sorry excuse on even more numerous occasions. They would always cite the fact that once upon a time the World Vision gift-givers drove around the village in their big SUV and handed out shoes to a couple dozen children every other year or so from 1988 to 1998. The Time That the White People Came and Gave Shoes to the Children is one of the few legends of Sanadougou lore that is recounted over the teapot on a fairly regular basis, and in accordance with their Messianic creed they had every reason to have faith that one day The White People shall return – with shoes, of course.

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