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Esoteric Facts
July 16, 2007 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for examples of secret / esoteric information and facts that changed your perspective on the world or caused you to say 'Now that's interesting, I haven't heard that before!'. For example, this recent thread contained information about ADM that opened my eyes to the subtleties of the sugar markets. A simpler example of the type of knowledge I am looking for are the interesting things that grocery stores do to increase sales. Or the unsubstantiated claim that more people speak English in China that they do in America. I am looking for interesting tid-bits of knowledge that you might find in books like The Tipping Point and Freakanomics. Something your Oxford educated, weed-smoking Uncle might whip out during a random conversation at a cocktail party.
posted by kaizen to Grab Bag (62 answers total) 119 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sounds like you are looking for damninteresting.com
posted by ND¢ at 12:15 PM on July 16, 2007


Apparently, there have been studies that show those who live in poverty have an impaired sense of judgement. I read the fact and the citation once and now I can't find the study anywhere.
posted by JaySunSee at 12:18 PM on July 16, 2007


First, here's the English-in-China claim you reference; it was Gordon Brown, sometime before April 2005.

And really, this is exactly what I use Metafilter for. And Arts and Letters Daily.
posted by mdonley at 12:18 PM on July 16, 2007


I find browsing through wikipedia and howstuffworks accomplishes this task nice... This way the tidbits I learn are actually related to my area of interest and are that much more likely to be used, to astounding effect, by me in conversation.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:20 PM on July 16, 2007


Pretty much every post at Dean Baker's Beat the Press blog at the American Prospect is like that. Before reading it, I never knew that hedge fund managers are taxed less than other workers (they get to consider their compensation as capital gains), that Social Security can pay all scheduled benefits until 2048 (I had believed all the stories that it was collapsing) or that most of the people quoted in media stories on the housing bubble have some kind of direct interest in predicting that it won't get any worse.
posted by transona5 at 12:22 PM on July 16, 2007


A friend sent me a link to a news article several months ago that discussed how we are in the midst of a world-wide helium shortage and that, quite possibly, there will come a time when there are no more helium balloons.

That really changed my view of the world.
posted by Ms. Saint at 12:33 PM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


If 70% of a country lives on a dollar or less a day, then assuming the country has a GDP of 30 Billion USD, the remaining 30% are pretty damn rich, even in global comparison.

People from countries with a population that does not have different eye/hair colour cannot often remember the color of a person hair they just met.

People from North China (Beijing, etc) are as tall as Europeans. They also make fun of people from South China for being so small.

Sign language is different everywhere in the world. An American person who communicates with sign cannot talk to a british person who does same.

What you would refer to as 'Blacks' in America would be split up into 'Coloureds' and 'Blacks' in South Africa, depending on their white mixture. In Brazil, they would be split up even further. Africans describe fellow africans (from the same place) as 'Black', 'Fair', 'Yellow' or 'Red' depending on their skin tone.

There is no war in Darfur. It's just a diplomatic struggle for control between China and the United States, and the aid agencies are capitalising on this.

Osama Bin Laden has been dead for several years.

Most snake bites of poisonous snakes do not kill

Lions do not live in the jungle
posted by markovich at 12:36 PM on July 16, 2007


I received An Underground Education by Richard Zacks a couple of years ago. More history than modern science, but I thought it was pretty good.
posted by kookywon at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2007


Sorry, I don't have time to hunt down sources right now:

-- The USA has been around for a little over 200 years, whereas the ancient Egyptian empire lasted for 3000 years.

-- Via brain imaging techniques, scientists have been able to predict certain choices that people will make before they are consciously aware of making them. This deals a serious blow to my definition of Free Will.

-- I'm constantly shocked to find that "there's nothing new under the sun." For instance, back when Gilbert & Sullivan operas were first being produced, sheet music (that you could buy and then play at home, on your own piano) was big business. So guys used to sit in the audience and transcribe the operas as they heard them, then they sold these "boot legs" on the street. Theatre managers hunted them down.

-- Many events that seem connected are not: I used to stand on the subway platform and watch the trains go by on other platforms. If there were three other platforms, it seemed unfair (and cosmically wrong) that -- if we call my platform #1 -- the trains might come in this order, #3, #3, #2, #4, #3... It seemed like after that, a train was DUE on my platform. But in fact, when I first got to the station, there was always a one in four chance that a train will come to my platform (assuming trains are being dispatched to all platforms at equal rates). There's still a one in four chance. The fact that other trains have been to other platforms has no bearing on the fact that for every train that comes, it's much less likely to come to my platform than one of the other platforms.

-- Humans are bad a faking randomness. Real random sequences tend to have runs in them: 0,0,1,0,1,1,1,1,1,1,0,1,0,0,0... But if you ask someone to come up with a random sequence, he's very unlikely to include strings of 1s or 0s like that.

-- Over and over, human memory has been shown to be faulty. I misremember much of what I'm SURE I remember.
posted by grumblebee at 12:52 PM on July 16, 2007


The Creature from Jekyll Island radically changed how I view banking and the Federal Reserve. It's worth a read.
posted by Durin's Bane at 12:57 PM on July 16, 2007


People from countries with a population that does not have different eye/hair colour cannot often remember the color of a person hair they just met.

I read somewhere recently whereas American people focus on smiles and frowns, Japanese people look to the eyes to see whether someone is happy or unhappy. Because of this, the Japanese have a hard time interpreting American emoticons.

:-)

:-(

Eyes are the same.

Japanese happy: ^_^

Japanese sad: ( ; _ ; )
posted by grumblebee at 1:00 PM on July 16, 2007 [4 favorites]


The Straight Dope!
posted by Martin E. at 1:00 PM on July 16, 2007


once you have a room full of 23 people, there's a greater than 50% chance that 2 people will have the same birthday.
posted by alkupe at 1:02 PM on July 16, 2007


Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" changed the way I viewed history.

From the (above) Wikipedia link:

According to the author, an alternative title would be A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years.[1] But the book is not merely an account of the past; it attempts to explain why Eurasian civilization, as a whole, has survived and conquered others, while refuting the belief that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, genetic or moral superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences, but rather originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops. He also, most explicitly in the epilogue, argues that societies with food surpluses and high-to-moderate degrees of interaction with outsiders are more likely to encourage great people to realize their full potential and to adopt new inventions.
posted by grumblebee at 1:03 PM on July 16, 2007


There is no war in Darfur. It's just a diplomatic struggle for control between China and the United States, and the aid agencies are capitalising on this.

Wow. Apparently "large scale rape and murder of civilians" is what passes for a diplomatic struggle nowadays. Those pesky aid agencies, they're really at fault!

Read.

(As for OBL, I wouldn't be surprised. He's a brand, more useful to both sides alive than dead.)
posted by effugas at 1:03 PM on July 16, 2007


once you have a room full of 23 people, there's a greater than 50% chance that 2 people will have the same birthday.

I work for a tiny company with just six employees. We just discovered that three of us have the same birthday! What are the odds?
posted by grumblebee at 1:04 PM on July 16, 2007


Subscribe to Mental Floss. It's pretty much just a whole slew of things that make you go, "Oh, really? Huh. Weird."
posted by Greg Nog at 1:18 PM on July 16, 2007


I work for a tiny company with just six employees. We just discovered that three of us have the same birthday! What are the odds?

The odds that three people in your particular company share the same birthday is exactly 1.
posted by vacapinta at 1:19 PM on July 16, 2007 [9 favorites]


despite what white people think, interracial crime makes up a very small percentage of street crime.
posted by entropone at 1:36 PM on July 16, 2007


Just to add to grumblebee's point about the relative youth of America, I recently read that Oliver Wendell Holmes met both John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy during his long life. Learning that definitely altered my perception of the age of this country, though I couldn't explain exactly how.
posted by saladin at 1:36 PM on July 16, 2007


The Pyramids were older to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.

Pyramids @ 2500 BCE
Cleopatra @ 50 BCE
posted by Pollomacho at 1:40 PM on July 16, 2007 [5 favorites]


(I worry that this thread will lead to people going "You only use 10% of your brain!!!!")

Since you know about sugar and grocery store psychology, you probably already know these things, but I have found eye-opening and fascinating (I cannot source these statements! I'm sorry.): how the diamond industry controls the diamond market through what I can only call romantic brainwashing; how retail clothing chain stores display their wares to maximize sales (people shop first from the tables, then from the standers, then along the walls); waiters who squat down at your table or pull up a chair while explaining the specials will have a bigger check than those who impart this information while standing.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 1:42 PM on July 16, 2007


I work for a tiny company with just six employees. We just discovered that three of us have the same birthday! What are the odds?

About 0.016 or 1 in 61, which isn't actually all that unlikely. This is kind of the point of the 23 person birthday overlap example: people tend to underestimate the likelihood of things that we call coincidental.

posted by ssg at 1:42 PM on July 16, 2007


There is no war in Darfur. It's just a diplomatic struggle for control between China and the United States, and the aid agencies are capitalising on this.

Osama Bin Laden has been dead for several years.


OP, a word of advice: it might be wise to memorize citations along with your facts, especially the more outlandish ones. It will prevent you from stumbling over that fine line between Oxford-educated, weed-smoking uncle and stringy-haired, pot-addled conspiracy theorist uncle.

Also, it ensures that your facts have citations. And that they are (in fact) facts.
posted by granted at 1:43 PM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


new york city is closer to dakar, senegal, than it is to los angeles.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:45 PM on July 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


The USA has been around for a little over 200 years, whereas the ancient Egyptian empire lasted for 3000 years.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond points out that the Norse lived in Greenland for longer (~450 years) than the USA has been around. Both Guns, Germs and Steel (per grumblebee) and Collapse were world-view-changing for me.
posted by anadem at 1:53 PM on July 16, 2007


Social Studies daily in the Globe and Mail.
posted by GuyZero at 1:56 PM on July 16, 2007


new york city is closer to dakar, senegal, than it is to los angeles.

If you mean Los Angeles, California...no.
posted by backupjesus at 1:59 PM on July 16, 2007


I work for a tiny company with just six employees. We just discovered that three of us have the same birthday! What are the odds?

About 0.016 or 1 in 61, which isn't actually all that unlikely. This is kind of the point of the 23 person birthday overlap example: people tend to underestimate the likelihood of things that we call coincidental.


I can't let my slight miscalculation stand: it is actually about 0.013 or 1 in 75.

posted by ssg at 2:00 PM on July 16, 2007


http://www.tradetricks.org/
posted by kanemano at 2:05 PM on July 16, 2007


Most of the stuff you think you *know* is actually misinformation which has been passed around from person to person without anyone looking into it too deeply to discover for themselves. This includes harmless factoids such as the distance from NYC to Senegal but, more importantly, it also includes gross and harmful generalizations about other people and cultures.

Realizing and truly understanding this, about how much misinformation you're carrying around, then working to discover the actual truth behind them - this process can be truly eye-opening.
posted by vacapinta at 2:07 PM on July 16, 2007 [7 favorites]


mdonley, I was told that fact when I was doing my TEFL course in 2001, so I'm not sure it originally came from Gordon...
posted by Helga-woo at 2:07 PM on July 16, 2007


(I am sourcing my statements, because I'm too suspicious of a person to feel okay not doing so.)

The same diamond-industry article everyone always passes around. It's old, but particularly eye-opening re the industry's history: The Atlantic article.

Crouching waiter, growing tip: Random article on this: everything cites the same Cornell study I'm too lazy to track down.

I can't source the retail-layout theory: it was told to me when I worked at a major women's chain by one of their long-time market research execs who conducted studies on how to get women to buy more 80-dollar pants.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 2:21 PM on July 16, 2007


my bad, i think it was that the flight is shorter (due to gulf stream?)
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:30 PM on July 16, 2007


Holmes could not have met JFK. He was 20 years dead by the time JFK was born. Citation.

Seconding memorizing citations.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:33 PM on July 16, 2007


One fact that made me think about the universal health care debate is that there are more Americans over age 65 than there are Canadians. While I would not say that means we cannot adopt a Canadian style universal health coverage, it does mean we need to think about it at a whole different scale.
posted by pasici at 2:36 PM on July 16, 2007



One fact that made me think about the universal health care debate is that there are more Americans over age 65 than there are Canadians. While I would not say that means we cannot adopt a Canadian style universal health coverage, it does mean we need to think about it at a whole different scale.


I hope this is some sort of joke.
Of course the USA has more people over 65 than Canada does: there are about 10 times as many people in the USA than there are in Canada.
As a percentage, the USA has 12.6% of their population over 65 and Canada has 13.5%.
posted by ssg at 2:44 PM on July 16, 2007


Oliver Wendell Holmes, JUNIOR OR SENIOR? Junior could have in theory met John Quincy Adams as long as it was before little Ollie was 7 years old (that's when ole J.Q, died) and if he met JFK before Kennedy was 18 (which is when Mr. Holmes JUNIOR died.) Just to clear up things a bit. I'm getting these dates from Wikipedia ...if you wanna trust that source for such things.
posted by thatguyryan at 3:00 PM on July 16, 2007


ssg, I think that pasici was making the point that there are more Americans over age 65 than there are Canadians of any age.
posted by crabintheocean at 3:13 PM on July 16, 2007


While I'm flattered that you liked my post about ADM, it seems like this thread is the worst kind of chatfilter.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:15 PM on July 16, 2007


ssg, crabintheocean is correct: the point is that there are more Americans over age 65 than there are Canadians, period. I should have made it clearer.
posted by pasici at 3:41 PM on July 16, 2007


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.! Forgive me.
posted by saladin at 3:43 PM on July 16, 2007


ssg, crabintheocean is correct: the point is that there are more Americans over age 65 than there are Canadians, period. I should have made it clearer.

Even so, I'm not sure what the portentous implications are. On a per capita basis, American health care is more costly than Canadian health care, which is truly amazing, because America's per capital GDP is higher than Canada's per capita GDP.

So, I would say the real issue is the inefficiencies of administering health care caused by the current system. Adopt a Canadian system, and you will pay less.

[If it's been established in this thread that it's quicker to fly to Senegal from NY than it is to fly to LA, then I feel no need to quote citations here]
posted by KokuRyu at 3:59 PM on July 16, 2007


I just read on the back of my pasta bag that the longer you cook pasta, the higher its glycemic-index rating. Blows my mind!

Few more trustworthy sources than the back of a food package.
posted by doift at 5:30 PM on July 16, 2007


I remember when I first read that television existed to support advertising and not vice-versa it was pretty eye-opening for me. Daniel Boorstin's book The Image is along the same lines about the generation of news and the creation of media worthy pseudo-events specifically for consumption.
posted by Jeff Howard at 6:09 PM on July 16, 2007


If only you were a subscriber to Harper's Magazine you would have access to all the Harper's Index features back to 1984.

Which is nothing but interesting facts. Like this. (You have to turn some pages to get to some samples).
posted by extrabox at 6:34 PM on July 16, 2007


You should check out books by William Poundstone and Charles Panati.

William Poundstone`s books include Big Secrets and Bigger Secrets.

Charles Panati, a former science editor at Newsweek magazine, has written a series of books that really changed how I look at the world. In his books, he writes about where things come from. Some of the most mundane things in our world have really amazing histories. Reading these books, you get a sense of what an amazing world we live in.

He’s written the following books: Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things; Browser's Book of Beginnings: Origins of Everything under, and including, the Sun; Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias: The Origins of our most Cherished Obsessions; Browser's Book of Endings: The End of practically Everything and Everybody; Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions; Sexy Origins and Intimate Things: The Rites and Rituals of Straights, Gays, Bi's, Drags, Trans, Virgins, and Others; and Words to Live By: The Origins of Conventional Wisdom and Commonsense Advice
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 7:21 PM on July 16, 2007


Books by Richard Zacks
posted by hortense at 7:53 PM on July 16, 2007


wikipedia's daily "did you know" section
posted by growabrain at 7:55 PM on July 16, 2007


read Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling On Happiness", about how poor human beings are at predicting what will make them happy. An amusing, easy read with lots of practical examples of the concepts he introduces - examples that, after you read them, will make you smack your forehead in realization of how wrong your basic assumptions are.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:05 PM on July 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


There's good stuff to be found in Connections.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:20 PM on July 16, 2007


Realizing and truly understanding this, about how much misinformation you're carrying around, then working to discover the actual truth behind them - this process can be truly eye-opening.

On this note, Snopes.com. There's a lot there besides those freaky urban legends about people finding "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the light" written on the mirror in their roommate's blood.
posted by Many bubbles at 9:41 PM on July 16, 2007


Weird things I learned very young, may or may not be true but I ceratinly repeat them enough:

If the head of a pin was as hot as the surface of the sun, it would kill everything in a two-mile radius.

If a pregnant reindeer is unable to find enough food to survive, her body will resorb the fetus.

If you plant a cowslip upside down, the flowers will be red, not yellow. (Not actually true, unfortunately... I tried it)

The closest genetic relatives of the Saami (indigenous people formerly known as Laplanders) are the Berbers of northern Africa.

Fair Isle knitting was taught to the Scottish islanders by shipwrecked sailors from the Spanish Armada.
posted by methylsalicylate at 2:50 AM on July 17, 2007


Oh, I completely forgot the really cool one I learned because of my previous job:

The brace position on airplanes (head between legs) will not save your life. In fact it will make you more likely to die of a occipital base ring fracture in a survivable crash. It exists so that, in a nonsurvivable crash, your teeth will be close to your remains for identification using dental records.

"Cool" being a relative term here.
posted by methylsalicylate at 3:14 AM on July 17, 2007


The brace position on airplanes (head between legs) will not save your life. In fact it will make you more likely to die of a occipital base ring fracture in a survivable crash.

Mythbusters people say no.

Also, BBC and wikiHow on surviving a plane crash.
posted by Martin E. at 3:38 AM on July 17, 2007


I read an article about UPS in the Wall Street Journal last week. They said UPS was able to save 3 million gallons in fuel last year by reprogramming their delivery routes to eliminate as many left-hand turns as possible.
posted by lpsguy at 6:06 AM on July 17, 2007


Tigers have striped skin, not just striped fur.

Sheep don't fly so much as plummet.

and more seriously...

Samurai swords killed more people in WW2 than the atomic bombs did.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:48 AM on July 17, 2007


(lpsguy reminded me of this)

Unlike UPS, FedEx does not own their own delivery trucks. The drivers own them. The drivers also own (or lease) particular delivery routes. For example, here's a FedEx route for sale.

A lot of companies do this.

(Is this obvious? I didn't know this until a year ago.)
posted by LordSludge at 8:50 AM on July 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


The theory of evolution does not say that man evolved from apes; it says that man and apes evolved from a common ancestor that is now extinct.
posted by Brian James at 12:31 PM on July 17, 2007


Not so much facts, as concepts that really opened my eyes to how we think. Things like cognitive/social biases, logical fallacies, memory errors. (I'm not sure if this is what you're looking for, but, what the heck.)

Learning (slowly) about these things really helped change me from a "true believer" to "skeptic".

By the way, this is a very good question. I'll be adding a bunch of books to my amazon wish list...
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 2:23 PM on July 17, 2007


Sorry Martin E., going to have to disagree with Mythbusters, based on case histories, not dummies at moderate forces.

We're not talking about survivable crashes here, we're talking about nonsurvivable ones.
posted by methylsalicylate at 3:23 AM on July 18, 2007


For starters: "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False"


JaySunSee -- Apparently, there have been studies that show those who live in poverty have an impaired sense of judgement.

Are you thinking of this?
Life's Harsh Lessons 'Make You More Gullible'-Study

Psychologists discover adversity makes people more susceptible to suggestion and lies
methylsalicylate -- If the head of a pin was as hot as the surface of the sun, it would kill everything in a two-mile radius.

Not so much:
"Lightning can heat nearby air up to even 10 times the temperature of the Sun's surface. Actually, the Sun's surface isn't so hot — some welding torches are hotter."
Finally, regarding Snopes...
posted by NortonDC at 8:26 PM on July 18, 2007


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