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The Year in Ideas in Minutes

December 13, 2009

Here’s my recap of a recap.  The distillation of a distillation.  The meta of a meta.  Ok, you get the idea.  Here are my favorite selections from the New York Times’ 2009 Year in Ideas.

Cognitive Illiberalism

The law professors argued that the justices in the majority were in the grip of a common psychological fallacy: that other people’s perceptions might be shaped by socioeconomic position or political commitment, but they themselves perceived the objective truth.

In one sentence: Wondering if you’re racist might make you one.

Cows With Names Make More Milk

A study of several hundred British dairies published in the journal Anthrozoös in March compared responses to a survey about cow treatment with independently collected milk data and found that cows that have names make, in a given year, about 258 liters more milk per farm than anonymous ones — a bump of about 6 percent.

In one sentence: Greater investment leads to greater return.

Good Enough is the New Great

Companies that had focused mainly on improving the technical quality of their products have started to notice that, for many consumers, “ease of use, continuous availability and low price” are more important.

In one sentence: People prefer convenience (read: laziness) to excellence.

Massively Collaborative Mathematics

Gowers’s goals for the so-called Polymath Project were modest. “I will regard the experiment as a success,” he wrote, “if it leads to anything that could count as genuine progress toward an understanding of the problem.” Six weeks later, the theorem was proved. The plan is to submit the resulting paper to a top journal, attributed to one D.H.J. Polymath.

In one sentence: Crowdsourcing works, but unlike the article, I wouldn’t be so so sure that principle extends non-functional/aesthetic works.

Random Promotions

We wrongly assume that people who are good at their jobs will also be good at jobs that are one rung up on the corporate ladder — so we promote them. But often the new job is so different from the previous job that the employee can’t handle it. Now performing incompetently, the employee stays in place, dragging the efficiency of the firm downward. Eventually the entire economy becomes like the paper company Dunder Mifflin in “The Office” — clogged with incompetence.

In one sentence: Skill sets differ between management and fry-monitor.

Subscription Artists

At Kickstarter, creative types post a description of a project they want to do, how much money they need for it and a deadline. If enough people pledge money that the artists reach (or surpass) their financial goals, then everyone is billed, paying in advance as you would for a magazine subscription. For goals that aren’t reached, nobody is charged.

In one sentence: The argument for media companies as financiers is now also dead.

Zombie-Attack Science

When he ran the model on a computer, the results were bleak. “After 7 to 10 days, everyone was dead or undead,” he says. He tried several counterattacks. Quarantining the zombies didn’t work; it only bought a few extra days of survival for humanity. Even creating a “cure” for zombification led to a grim result. It was possible to save 10 to 15 percent of the population, but everyone else was a zombie.

In one sentence: Epidemiology can be fun.

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