From a Reddit Response to Big Budget Film

I love reading stories like this. One day James Erwin was browsing Reddit.com and stumbled upon an interesting hypothetical question: Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit]? He clicked through, answered some questions, and the rest, they say, is history:

It’s common for random questions to appear on Reddit’s front page, like “Is there a magnet capable of pulling the iron out of your body?” or “What is the most awkward thing you could say to a cashier while purchasing condoms?” That day, as Erwin scanned Reddit, a question caught his eye. It was posed by someone calling themselves The_Quiet_Earth: “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit]?” Erwin clicked on the question and a lively comment thread unfurled. Hundreds of people were whipping hypotheticals back and forth, gaming out the implications of a marines-versus-Romans smackdown. What’s the range of a Roman spear? How would the Romans react to a helicopter? What would happen when the Americans ran out of bullets?

Erwin, who studied history at the University of Iowa, had been posting on Reddit for about five months. He used the alias Prufrock451, a dual reference to the schlubby protagonist of a T. S. Eliot poem and the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. Prufrock451′s contributions were all over the map. One day he wrote about the historical roots of the civil war in Liberia; another day he told a funny story about a shooting range in Iowa. He also uploaded a few pictures of European forts that he thought looked cool and a quote by Voltaire. In his atypicalness—Prufrock451 was pretty clearly a quirky character—he was entirely typical of a habitual Reddit user, and like many other redditors, as they are called, he found the site addictive. More than just a creative outlet or time-killer, Reddit was a game. The object was to amass points—”Reddit karma.” Every time Erwin saw his karma level increase, he felt a little squirt of adrenaline. “People are sweating to make you laugh or make you think or make you hate them,” Erwin says. “It’s the human condition, plus points.”

Now, in response to The_Quiet_Earth’s question about time-traveling marines, Erwin started typing. He posted his answer in a series of comments in the thread. Within an hour, he was an online celebrity. Within three hours, a film producer had reached out to him. Within two weeks, he was offered a deal to write a movie based on his Reddit comments. Within two months, he had taken a leave from his job to become a full-time Hollywood screenwriter.

So what was Erwin’s financial gain from this personal endeavor?

Erwin won’t disclose what the deal is worth, but he is now a member of the Writers Guild of America, West, and the guild compensation for an original screenplay plus treatment for a movie with a budget above $5 million is $119,954. According to Kolbrenner, Rome Sweet Rome is “definitely a big-budget movie,” but whether that means $30 million or $150 million will depend on Erwin’s script.

Read the full story here.

The Life and Death of Words

An intriguing new paper by Alexander M. Petersen et al. presents the findings of Google’s digitization project (scanning millions of books). From their abstract:

We analyze the dynamic properties of 107 words recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the period 1800–2008 in order to gain insight into the coevolution of language and culture. We report language independent patterns useful as benchmarks for theoretical models of language evolution. A significantly decreasing (increasing) trend in the birth (death) rate of words indicates a recent shift in the selection laws governing word use. For new words, we observe a peak in the growth-rate fluctuations around 40 years after introduction, consistent with the typical entry time into standard dictionaries and the human generational timescale. Pronounced changes in the dynamics of language during periods of war shows that word correlations, occurring across time and between words, are largely influenced by coevolutionary social, technological, and political factors. We quantify cultural memory by analyzing the long-term correlations in the use of individual words using detrended fluctuation analysis.

How many words are in the English language? The paper gave the best-yet estimate of the true number of words in English—a million, far more than any dictionary has recorded (the 2002 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has 348,000). More than half of the language, the authors wrote, is “dark matter” that has evaded standard dictionaries.

The paper also tracked word usage through time (each year, for instance, 1% of the world’s English-speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck”). It also showed that we seem to be putting history behind us more quickly, judging by the speed with which terms fall out of use. References to the year “1880” dropped by half in the 32 years after that date, while the half-life of “1973” was a mere decade.

Finally, the authors identified a universal “tipping point” in the life cycle of new words. Roughly 30 to 50 years after their birth, words either enter the long-term lexicon or fall off into oblivion. How that’s for a half-life?

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(via Wall Street Journal)

A Mistaken Identity on the Internet

Rose Agree was a librarian most of her life. But a Wikipedia entry had conflated some of Ms. Agree’s biography with that of an aging pornographic movie star with the same name:

Mistaken identity is an occupational hazard for people who are mentioned even fleetingly on the Internet. Still, consider Peter Agree’s shock when he searched the Web for references to his mother.

“The references I turned up were to ‘Rose Agree, geriatric porn star,’ ” said Mr. Agree, the editor in chief of the University of Pennsylvania Press. “Wikipedia had a biographical entry for this person, and to my horror it fused elements of my mother’s biography, including her having been a librarian on Long Island.”

Mr. Agree’s wife, Kathy Peiss, who headed the history department at Penn, contacted Wikipedia, the self-policing open source encyclopedia, which dutifully removed the entry along with a photograph. But it was too late. The Long Island librarian and the geriatric porn star had been irreversibly conflated. The librarian turned pornographic movie star took on a life of her own.

Two years ago, a Columbia undergraduate wrote to Professor Peiss about a book that she had edited. It was titled “Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality” and was dedicated to her mother-in-law. In retrospect, Rose Agree’s experience with the Internet might have merited a whole chapter.

The story is certainly not unique, but it is interesting how one’s biography can take a life of its own on the internet.

This Is Your Brain on Fiction

What do you say to someone who prefers to read nonfiction over fiction? Easy. Read more fiction. According to several studies, when you read fiction full of detailed descriptions, clever metaphors, and complex characters, your brain is stimulated in novel ways:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

Indeed, individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective. This relationship exists even after the researchers account for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels (which is debatable in its own right).

So: read more fiction.

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Source: New York Times 

Is Everything For Sale?

Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, is the author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsAhead of the book launch, in a post adapted for The Atlantic, he cites examples of things that are for sale around the world:

• A prison-cell upgrade: $90 a night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to disturb them.

• Access to the carpool lane while driving solo: $8. Minneapolis, San Diego, Houston, Seattle, and other cities have sought to ease traffic congestion by letting solo drivers pay to drive in carpool lanes, at rates that vary according to traffic.

• The services of an Indian surrogate mother: $8,000. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States.

• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $250,000. South Africa has begun letting some ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species.

• Your doctor’s cellphone number: $1,500 and up per year. A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000.

• The right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: $10.50. The European Union runs a carbon-dioxide-emissions market that enables companies to buy and sell the right to pollute.

• The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000. Foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment are eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.

Also interesting is this list of (strange) things people do to make money:

• Sell space on your forehead to display commercial advertising: $10,000. A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son’s education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Temporary tattoo ads earn less.

• Serve as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company: $7,500. The pay can be higher or lower, depending on the invasiveness of the procedure used to test the drug’s effect and the discomfort involved.

• Fight in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military contractor: up to $1,000 a day. The pay varies according to qualifications, experience, and nationality.

• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15–$20 an hour. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.

• If you are a second-grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2. To encourage reading, schools pay kids for each book they read.

So is there a market for everything?

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

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Related:  One of the best pieces I’ve read on the black market for organs is this investigative piece in Bloomberg. Chilling.

Why Being Bilingual Makes You Smarter

This is a good piece in The New York Times on the advantages of being a bilingual:

The collective evidence from a number of studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily from an ability for inhibition that was honed by the exercise of suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompea Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.

The benefits of bilingualism stay with you throughout your life as well. Bilinguals, compared to those who speak one language, are more resistant to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s good to be bilingual.

Why Speakers Earn $30,000 an Hour: Confessions of a Public Speaker

Scott Berkun is the author of Confessions of a Public Speaker. If you’ve ever wondered why speakers earn thousands of dollars for their gigs, he breaks it down in this excerpt from the book:

I’m worth $5,000 a lecture, and other speakers are worth $30,000 or more for two reasons: the lecture circuit and free market economics. People come up after I give a lecture and ask, “So when did you get on the lecture circuit?” And I respond by asking, “Do you know what the circuit is?” And they never have any idea. It’s a term they’ve heard before, despite the fact it’s never explained, and it somehow seems to be the only reasonable thing to ask a public speaker when you’re trying to seem interested in what he does for a living. Well, here’s the primer. Public speaking, as a professional activity, became popular in the U.S. before the Civil War. In the 1800s – decades before electricity, radio, movies, television, the Internet, or automobiles – entertainment was hard to find. It explains why so many people sang in church choirs, read books, or actually talked to each other for hours on end: there was no competition.

In the 1820s, a man named Josiah Holbrook developed the idea of a lecture series called Lyceum, named after the Greek theater where Aristotle lectured his students (for free). It was amazingly popular, the American Idol of its day. People everywhere wanted it to come to their town. By 1835, there were 3,000 of these events spread across the United States, primarily in New England. In 1867, some groups joined up to form the Associated Literary Society, which booked speakers on a singular, prescribed route from city to city across the country. This is the ubiquitous lecture circuit we hear people refer to all the time. Back then it was a singular thing you could get on. “Bye, honey, I’m going on the circuit, be back in six months,” was something a famous lecturer might have said. It took that long to run the circuit across the country on horses and return home. Before the days of the Rolling Stones or U2, there were performers who survived the grueling months-long tours without double-decker tour buses, throngs of groupies, and all-hour parties.

At first there was little money for speakers. The Lyceum was created as a public service, like an extension of your local library. It was a feel-good, grassroots, community-service movement aimed at educating people and popularizing ideas. These events were often free or low priced, such as 25 cents a ticket or $1.50 for an entire season.2 But by the 1850s, when high-end speakers like Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain dominated the circuit, prices for lectures went as high as $20 a ticket – equivalent to about $200 a seat in 2009. Of course, free lectures continued, and they always will, but the high end reached unprecedented levels for people giving speeches. In the late 1800s, it was something a famous person could do and earn more than enough money to make a comfortable living, which is exactly what many famous writers did.

Soon the free market took over. Air travel, radio, telephones, and everything else we take for granted today made the idea of a single circuit absurd. Lecture series, training conferences, and corporate meetings created thousands of events that needed new speakers every year. Some events don’t pay, even charging speakers to attend (as it’s seen as an honor to be invited to give a presentation), but many hire a few speakers to ensure things go well. For decades, there’s been enough demand for speakers that speaker bureaus – talent agencies for public speakers – work as middlemen, matching people who want to have a lecture at their event and speakers, like me, who wish to be paid for giving lectures. If you want Bill Clinton, Madonna, or Stephen King to speak at your birthday party, and you have the cash, there is a speaker bureau representing each one of them that would like to make a deal with you. Which brings us pack to whether I’m worth $5,000.

My $5,000 fee has nothing to do with me personally. I’m not paid for being Scott Berkun. I know I’m paid only for the value I provide to whoever hires me. If, for example, Adaptive Path can charge $500 per person for an event, and they get 500 people to attend, that’s $250,000 in gross revenue for Adaptive Path. Part of what will allow them to charge that much, and draw that many people, are the speakers they will have. The bigger the names, the more prestigious their backgrounds, and the more interesting their presentations, the more people will come and the more they will be willing to pay. Even for private functions, say when Google or Ferrari throws an annual event for their employees, how much would it be worth to have a speaker who can make their staff a little smarter, better, or more motivated when returning to work? Maybe it’s not worth $30,000 or even $5,000, but there is some economic value to what good speakers, on the right topics, do for people. It depends on how valuable the people in the room are to whoever is footing the bill. Even if it’s just for entertainment, or for reminding the audience of important things they’ve forgotten, a good speaker is worth something. Think of the last boring lecture you were at: would you have paid a few bucks to make the speaker suck less? I bet you would.

The disappointing thing is, for these fees, speakers often don’t do very well. After all, they’re not being paid directly for their public-speaking skills. The raw economic value proposition is in drawing people to the event, and it’s more likely people will come to an event featuring a famous person – even one they suspect is boring to listen to – than to hear the best public speaker in the world if that’s his only claim to fame. Two of the worst lectures I’ve attended were given by famous people: David Mamet (playwright, screenwriter, and director) and Nicholas Pileggi (author of Wiseguy, the novel Scorsese’s Goodfellas was based on). Both occasions were author readings, which are notoriously boring and bad bets for good public speaking. Yet, in both cases, they filled their respective rooms impressively well. However, I bet no one in attendance got much from the experience of listening to them, except the right to say they saw a famous person speak, which perhaps is also worth something.

Read the full excerpt here.