Your Chewing Pattern: The Fingerprint of the Mouth

From the department of “did you know?” comes this interesting piece from Mary Roach in The New York Times:

The way you chew, for example, is as unique and consistent as the way you walk or fold your shirts. There are fast chewers and slow chewers, long chewers and short chewers, right-chewing people and left-chewing people. Some of us chew straight up and down, and others chew side-to-side, like cows. Your oral processing habits are a physiological fingerprint.

This was interesting too:

Round foods are particularly treacherous because they match the shape of the trachea. If a grape goes down the wrong way, it blocks the tube so completely that no breath can be drawn around it. Hot dogs, grapes and round candies take the top three slots in a list of killer foods published in the July 2008 issue of The International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology (itself a calamitous mouthful). A candy called Lychee Mini Fruity Gels has killed enough times for the Food and Drug Administration to have banned its import.

If you’re a foodie, you’ll like the article. Mary Roach’s upcoming book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal looks enticing.

Intuit, Maker of Turbo Tax, Opposes Return-Free Tax Filing

I’ve yet to file my taxes for 2012, but reading this piece in Pro Publica is making me shake my head. The United States could have free filing, but Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, has been lobbying the government to oppose the measure:

Intuit has spent about $11.5 million on federal lobbying in the past five years — more than Apple or Amazon. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit’sdisclosures pointedly note that the company “opposes IRS government tax preparation.”

The disclosures show that Intuit as recently as 2011 lobbied on two bills, both of which died, that would have allowed many taxpayers to file pre-filled returns for free. The company also lobbied on bills in 2007 and 2011 that would have barred the Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, from initiating return-free filing.

Bottom line is that the way we file taxes now, we are more likely to make clerical errors on our returns. Why is the “return free” filing available in other countries and working well?

Buzz Bissinger: Addicted to Gucci

Buzz Bissinger is a sick man with an addiction for Gucci products. He owns a $5,000 pair of pants and a $22,000 coat. He reveals his confession in this GQ piece.

I have an addiction. It isn’t drugs or gambling: I get to keep what I use after I use it. But there are similarities: the futile feeding of the bottomless beast and the unavoidable psychological implications, the immediate hit of the new that feels like an orgasm and the inevitable coming-down. 

It started three years ago. I have never fully revealed it, and am only revealing it now in the hopes that my confession will incite a remission and perhaps help others of similar compulsion. If all I buy is Gucci, I will be fine. It has taken a while to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, but Gucci men’s clothing best represents who I want to be and have become—rocker, edgy, tight, bad boy, hip, stylish, flamboyant, unafraid, raging against the conformity that submerges us into boredom and blandness and the sexless saggy sackcloths that most men walk around in like zombies without the cinematic excitement of engorging flesh. 

I own eighty-one leather jackets, seventy-five pairs of boots, forty-one pairs of leather pants, thirty-two pairs of haute couture jeans, ten evening jackets, and 115 pairs of leather gloves. Those who conclude from this that I have a leather fetish, an extreme leather fetish, get a grand prize of zero. And those who are familiar with my choices will sign affidavits attesting to the fact that I wear leather every day. The self-expression feels glorious, an indispensable part of me. As a stranger said after admiring my look in a Gucci burgundy jacquard velvet jacket and a Burberry black patent leather trench, “You don’t give a fuck.”

I don’t. I finally don’t.

Some of the clothing is men’s. Some is women’s. I make no distinction. Men’s fashion is catching up, with high-end retailers such as Gucci and Burberry and Versace finally honoring us. But women’s fashion is still infinitely more interesting and has an unfair monopoly on feeling sexy, and if the clothing you wear makes you feel the way you want to feel, liberated and alive, then fucking wear it. The opposite, to repress yourself as I did for the first fifty-five years of my life, is the worst price of all to pay. The United States is a country that has raged against enlightenment since 1776; puritanism, the guiding lantern, has cast its withering judgment on anything outside the narrow societal mainstream. Think it’s easy to be different in America? Try something as benign as wearing stretch leather leggings or knee-high boots if you are a man.

Bissinger is the author of Friday Night Lights, and he delivers in passages like this in the piece:

Clothing became my shot glass, another round, Net-a-Porter. But too often hits wear off, and the laws of supply and demand for an addict are pretty simple: You replenish. And replenish. And replenish. You fool yourself at certain times into thinking that’s it and you have quenched the beast. But the beast is never conquered, and you don’t really want to conquer the beast anyway, until there is disaster. I wasn’t mainlining heroin, just impossibly gorgeous leather jackets and coats and boots and gloves and evening jackets. I wasn’t harming myself or anyone else. I was spending enormous amounts of money, but because I make a good living and received a generous inheritance from my parents, there was no threat of going broke.

Fascinating (in a twisted way).

On Mourners for Hire

From the “markets in everything” department, this is just sad (from The Telegraph):

For £45 an hour, the fake mourners can be rented to cry for the duration of a funeral service in order to swell the numbers at funerals.

Ian Robertson, the founder of Rent-a-Mourner, in Braintree, Essex, admits the idea may be unfamiliar to the British, although the phenomenon is popular in places such as Asia.

The mourners-for-hire are briefed on the life of the deceased and would be able to talk to friends and relatives as if they really had known their loved one.

Rent-a-Mourner has 20 staff on its books to hire out for funerals, which Mr Robertson said were friends of his rather than professional actors.

And apparently those hired don’t even have to cry; they only need show up!

Also, I didn’t know this was a popular thing in Asian countries…

On Animal Intelligence

New research shows that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal explains in the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal. This example on elephant intelligence is striking:

Experiments with animals have long been handicapped by our anthropocentric attitude: We often test them in ways that work fine with humans but not so well with other species. Scientists are now finally meeting animals on their own terms instead of treating them like furry (or feathery) humans, and this shift is fundamentally reshaping our understanding.

Elephants are a perfect example. For years, scientists believed them incapable of using tools. At most, an elephant might pick up a stick to scratch its itchy behind. In earlier studies, the pachyderms were offered a long stick while food was placed outside their reach to see if they would use the stick to retrieve it. This setup worked well with primates, but elephants left the stick alone. From this, researchers concluded that the elephants didn’t understand the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t understand the elephants.

Think about the test from the animal’s perspective. Unlike the primate hand, the elephant’s grasping organ is also its nose. Elephants use their trunks not only to reach food but also to sniff and touch it. With their unparalleled sense of smell, the animals know exactly what they are going for. Vision is secondary.

But as soon as an elephant picks up a stick, its nasal passages are blocked. Even when the stick is close to the food, it impedes feeling and smelling. It is like sending a blindfolded child on an Easter egg hunt.

On a recent visit to the National Zoo in Washington, I met with Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of Hunter College, who showed me what Kandula, a young elephant bull, can do if the problem is presented differently. The scientists hung fruit high up above the enclosure, just out of Kandula’s reach. The elephant was given several sticks and a sturdy square box.

Kandula ignored the sticks but, after a while, began kicking the box with his foot. He kicked it many times in a straight line until it was right underneath the branch. He then stood on the box with his front legs, which enabled him to reach the food with his trunk. An elephant, it turns out, can use tools—if they are the right ones.

Worth reading in entirety.

Should Chess Be Taught in Elementary Schools?

A great story from Al-Jazeera on how Armenia has made taking chess a requirement for second, third, and fourth-graders.

A team of Armenian psychologists headed by Ruben Aghuzumstyan has been researching the impact of chess on young minds since last year.

Aghuzumstyan said preliminary results show that children who play chess score better in certain personality traits such as individuality, creative thinking, reflexes and comparative analysis.

I don’t have visions of chess reaching extremes in America (as described below), but I do think at least offering chess as elective courses in elementary school would be advantageous:

Yerevan Chess House, located in the heart of Armenia’s capital, bears testimony to the country’s chess mania. Every day dozens of chess players, young and old, spend hours here battling it out on their boards. Magazines, newspapers, books and DVDs about chess are on sale at the chess house’s newsstand.

Chess 64” is a popular TV show hosted by Gagik Hovhannisian that has been running since 1972. Earlier this year, the government introduced another programme, “Chess World“, hosted by 22-year-old Aghasi Inants, to attract youngsters to the sport.

My parents taught me to play chess at a young age, around five or six. I do think the game sharpens the mind and teaches you how to think.

On Plasticity and Social Connections

Barbara Fredrickson’s op-ed titled “Your Phone vs. Your Heart” in The New York Times this weekend hits a nerve (so to speak):

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

The human body — and thereby our human potential — is far more plastic or amenable to change than most of us realize. The new field of social genomics, made possible by the sequencing of the human genome, tells us that the ways our and our children’s genes are expressed at the cellular level is plastic, too, responsive to habitual experiences and actions.

The gist is that by alienating away from human connection, your brain chemistry/structure changes (the concept is called plasticity). But it can be changed (for the better, in terms of how you feel) if you spend meaningful time with others. So step away from Twitter, slow down on the text messaging, and make plans to go out for dinner with a friend.