It doesn't work that way
March 23, 2010 7:18 AM   Subscribe

"This is how it really works." I'm looking for things you know that work differently than people assume they do. For instance, people usually assume that school textbooks are chosen strictly on merit, when actually it is Texas book events that end up controlling textbook sales. Or like the comment that said "what the FBI does is collect evidence for prosecution. They rarely solve crimes on their own and they rarely prevent them." Before payola was widely talked about in recent years, most people thought songs on the radio got there solely because of popularity. I'm looking for other examples where widely common perceptions about how something operates are not accurate.
posted by cashman to Grab Bag (101 answers total) 193 users marked this as a favorite
Most people think that erotic thoughts cause erections, when most of the time it is the other way around.
posted by yesster at 7:21 AM on March 23, 2010

Textbooks in the US are one. People often think Texas sets the standard for the whole nation but there are three distinct A-level customizations and often a particular state's book isn't used anywhere else.
posted by Mitheral at 7:32 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

The vast majority of civil cases in the U.S. are settled or dismissed without ever reaching trial--perhaps as high as 97%, or maybe in the 80-92% range.
posted by sallybrown at 7:40 AM on March 23, 2010

Malcom Gladwell loves writing magazine articles like this. He has a recent collection called What the Dog Saw. For instance, the belief that monthly menstrual cycles are historically "normal" and so the birth control pill replicates it, even though for much of history women used to spend most of their time being pregnant or nursing.

Also Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics, although some people have issues with various items. Which actually is often the case with this kind of thing. It's much more grabbing to say "it doesn't really work like that!" than to say "it's complicated".
posted by smackfu at 7:45 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Comparative Advantage
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:46 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

During my stint as a journalist and later editor, I recall being surprised to learn that headlines are the last things written, and are phrased to fill the space available rather than to communicate the story.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hard work leads to promotions and success. Also, natural ability leads to success.
posted by anniecat at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

Having made it through half of The Omnivore's Dilemma, it was interesting to read, in stark black and white, just how much of the food in the average grocery store is ultimately made out of corn. The apparent diversity on the shelves is clever repackaging and marketing of the same set of raw materials, synthetics and additives, nearly all of which derive from corn or petrochemicals.

posted by jquinby at 7:53 AM on March 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

Great question!

A classic example is that bulls are colorblind, and so the fact of the matador's cape being red is actually an artistic/asthetic thing and is not related to making the bull charge.
posted by ORthey at 7:59 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I recall being surprised to learn that headlines are the last things written

All of those articles in Vogue, or any other women's magazine, along the lines of "Twelve Ways To Please Your Man," or "The Seven Secrets of Better Cooking," or "The Five Ways To make Your Child Smarter" -- The specific number is given to writer by the editor when the story is assigned, and before it has been researched.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:00 AM on March 23, 2010

Most people think the Army is a bunch of gung-ho guys who are out there shooting and moving and all "Follow me, men!" and so forth.

In reality it's an almost unbelievable amount of planning and analysis, and the guys who actually go out and shoot a rifle at something are like, the tiniest fraction of the whole thing.

I mean, the strength of America's Army is more in it's ability to develop and execute extremely complex plans than in the bravery of any individual members. Not that they're not brave. They are. But bravery without a good plan is murder.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:04 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Adoption. Few people who haven't been involved in it have any clear notion of what the process is like, or what the various options are. Or, for that matter, that there is no such thing as "the process" but rather a whole bunch of different ways to go about it that can vary based on state, agency, whether you're adopting from foster care or through an agency or through an attorney or internationally...

Homeschooling. Again, people who aren't involved often imagine it like it sounds: home...schooling. But there are, again, many varieties and regulations vary from state to state.

When I was recently involved in my first-ever court case, I was astonished by how slowly things moved. Hearings to decide when to have the next hearing, six weeks for them to do this, four weeks for us to reply, two weeks for them to reply, then the hearing to tell the judge we did it and schedule another hearing... Now I laugh whenever I'm watching a TV show like Law & Order and a case goes to trial while the victim is still wearing a bandage on her wound. During the case people would say to me, "Why don't they just..." and the answer was, "Because it doesn't work like you think it does."

These are all things that I don't think people can be faulted for not knowing. People who don't homeschool, or who don't plan to adopt, don't need to know a lot of details about it, even if it means sometimes I have to put up with ignorant comments.
posted by not that girl at 8:07 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

People complain about how Amtrak and public transit in various cities are subsidized, when in fact, the highway is by far the most subsidized form of transportation.
posted by millipede at 8:07 AM on March 23, 2010 [31 favorites]

More generally: every field of human endeavor is vastly more amateurish, unplanned, seat-of-the-pants, chaotic, and crisis-driven than you might imagine from the outside.

I'm willing to accept atchafalaya's claim that the military isn't like this. But, for example, the White House is; national media organizations are; hospitals and other medical institutions are. Any sense of a highly professional plan being steadily implemented is almost always an illusion caused by lack of access to the insides of the "black box".
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:09 AM on March 23, 2010 [73 favorites]

"Public radio/television are chiefly subsidized by the government." True (perhaps) at one time, no longer true at all.
posted by jbickers at 8:09 AM on March 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

Leaving bright lights on all night does not translate to increased safety or reduced risk of burglary. The lights enable bad guys to see what they're doing--without need for a suspicious-looking flashlight-- and make it impossible for neighbors and passersby to tell whether something is out of the ordinary. In any case, most crimes are committed during the day.

Similarly, bright lights on roadways does not translate to reduced accidents because it is usually uneven and creates distracting glare cones. Drivers, especially older people, experience trouble adjusting to changing light levels because their pupils must repeatedly dilate and contract, making it harder to see obstacles, including bicyclists and pedestrians. Others are made over-confident by the lighting.
posted by carmicha at 8:11 AM on March 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

There is not an army of "legal aid" lawyers ready and waiting to right every perceived injustice. Nor is it affordable or practical for low- or middle-income individuals to obtain the services of an attorney every time they have a problem which might, admittedly, call for legal advice

(This despite the expectations of many of the clients I meet, and despite frequent well-meaning exhortations on Metafilter to "get a lawyer" or "call Legal Aid." Would that it were so simple...)
posted by messica at 8:13 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

When you apply for a research grant in the sciences you're not usually asking for money for something you want to do in the future but for something that is already almost done.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:15 AM on March 23, 2010 [8 favorites]

Seconding what atchafalaya says above.

Force projection - the ability to pick up everything you need to be an area (bullets, beans, and so on) is the real advantage, so when you hear someone say "well, China has an army of so-many-million men", the next question is (or should be) "yes, but can they move/feed /supply them for an extended period of time?" Logistics turn out to be as important - arguably more important - than battlefield tactics.
posted by jquinby at 8:17 AM on March 23, 2010

- School cafeteria food is supposed to be nutritious and affordable when in reality it's often a dumping ground for USDA surplus meats and cheese that are unsalable leading to meals that are much less nutritious than they would be if they were created with nutrition in mind. [cite]
- Movie theaters often play films at a loss and make up the cash with concession sales and on-screen ads [cite]
- Libraries/librarians are supposed to purchase books based on all sorts of things but in reality the majority of them are from major publishers and ordered via book jobbers leading to fewer titles by independent publishers and authors and nearly none by independent presses where people self-publish. It's very hard to get a book into a library without an ISBN. At large libraries the books are sent on approval based on what the jobbers think the libraries will want and the librarians do very litle selection. [cite, cite (pdf, long)]
- from a "good for you/good for the world" perspective organic food may not be better than local food since it's often trucked in hundreds or thousands of miles which makes it more resource-intensive [cite]
- Up until last year's incident, there was no such actual thing as a "water landing" no matter what the flight attendant is required by law to tell you. [cite]
posted by jessamyn at 8:17 AM on March 23, 2010 [22 favorites]

I was suprised to learn that you can't actually crawl through air conditioning ducts as is often seen in movies. My husband is an HVAC designer and laughs every time he sees this in some spy movie. Apparently, if you were to even attempt to do this, you would be cut to shreds by the sharp metal, assuming you didn't fall through the ceiling first.
posted by tryniti at 8:36 AM on March 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

"baby talk" is not harmful to infants; if anything it (may) help their language development

The tongue map has been known to be false for decades.
posted by heyforfour at 8:39 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

General aviation.

I think people are often under the impression that Air Traffic Control (ATC) knows what and where every plane is at all times and whatever they tell a pilot to do, he does. At least in the world of general aviation, it’s much more casual. Depending on the airport/airplane, a pilot can take off, fly around and land without once making a radio call, getting any sort of clearance, filing a flight plan, or letting anyone know.

Often when a small plane crashes the first thing the news report will say is “The pilot did not file a flight plan.” A lot of people hear this and they immediately jump to the conclusion that this is something the pilot neglected to do and therefore he must have neglected to do other things and is probably responsible for the crash. The truth is that, if the pilot is flying under visual flight rules (VFR) he or she is not required to file a flight plan. The press reports this because most often that’s the only bit of information they have to report on.

A lot of airports (towered and non-towered) don’t have any radar and the controllers, if there are any, will spot incoming planes with binoculars.

When I was learning to fly I couldn’t believe just how chaotic things were at a busy general aviation airport (KBED). I saw quite a few planes get way too close to each other and heard a lot of “unofficial” chatter on the radio. One very busy evening I actually heard a controller shout “OK, everyone just shut up and let me talk for a minute, ok?” Pilots would yell at controllers for making them go-around three times in a row, planes would land without clearance, and things were generally quite crazy at times. It was like leaving a parking lot after a Dead concert.

Obviously things are much more controlled at busy commercial airports, but the world of general aviation is still very uncontrolled. It’s been a while since I’ve flown GA, I haven’t since before 9/11/2001, so it’s possible things have changed.

Also, pilots can turn runway lights on and off using the radio, which for some reason I thought was the coolest thing ever.
posted by bondcliff at 8:39 AM on March 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

As I learned right here on AskMe, diamonds may be nearly impossible to scratch, but you can crush them with an ordinary hammer.

Some people are surprised to learn that in most animation, the mouths are animated to fit the dialogue, rather than people reciting dialogue to match the mouths. (Unless, of course, the dialogue is a translation of an animation made in another language.)

Most artists use reference material when they draw. They don't just imagine what an emu or a helicopter or the Taj Mahal looks like and draw from their heads, they find a picture (or preferably a few pictures) and use that as a guide (without literally tracing).

I recently learned that only a handful of bird species have any sense of smell at all.

I'm startled by the tenacity of the idea that nobody in webcomics is making a living, and if they are it's because they're living in a studio apartment eating ramen for every meal. Certainly nobody's making Jim Davis money, and it's unwise to go into comics of any sort with the expectation of being rich, but there are many people who are making a good living.

I'm not a chess player, but here's some stuff people may not know about chess:

* Memorization of opening sequences is a very important part of high-level chess. The first flurry of moves goes very quickly, because the players are working with a time limit.

* Half or more of high-level chess games end in ties.

* A high-level, or medium-level, or low-but-not-that-low level chess player will never be surprised by an opponent suddenly making a move and saying "checkmate." The loser will be aware some moves in advance that they've been put in a losing position and resign.

When I was younger I was, if not surprised, at least interested to learn that companies pay for product placement on store shelves, endcap displays on store aisles, and special treatment in catalogs. These days I'm more cynical, but maybe some people still think that a huge photo of a hard drive on the cover of a computer catalog -- if anyone even still uses catalogs -- means that the company thinks it's a great HD.
posted by lore at 8:43 AM on March 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'll second The Game Warden's comment about every human endeavor being relatively ill-planned and sloppily executed. That's part of the reality of human interaction.

Government, frequently, is just people trying to do the (perceived) best they can with the political hand they're dealt. I've sat in a number of meetings recently where I've thought, "Man, this is a total mess." There's this perception that once you win office, you can get what you want done, but it's frequently a slog just to make the tiniest and most incremental change.

Political campaigns are this way, too. On the best day, when things go right, it looks like a well-oiled communications machine that's pushing toward an inevitable electoral outcome. Most of the time it's missed connections, left messages, patiently explaining the same thing over and over and over again, and conversations with vendors about stickers and t-shirts.

Finally, one area that I have intimate knowledge of understanding the mess and confusion is the Catholic Church. There's this perception that "if the Pope says it, it makes it so," when the reality is that the Church is truly lived at the local level. I don't mean at the diocesan level, I mean at the very basic parish level. Sometimes there's variance between the Masses on Sundays because that's the way the community experiences their faith. Sure, it's the "universal Church," but it's lived in a very local way. At least, that's in my experience.
posted by elmer benson at 8:44 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

"During my stint as a journalist and later editor, I recall being surprised to learn that headlines are the last things written, and are phrased to fill the space available rather than to communicate the story."

They're also written by the copy editors. I used to get routinely mocked for my headlines when I had nothing to do with them.
posted by klangklangston at 8:49 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

tryniti writes "I was suprised to learn that you can't actually crawl through air conditioning ducts as is often seen in movies. My husband is an HVAC designer and laughs every time he sees this in some spy movie. Apparently, if you were to even attempt to do this, you would be cut to shreds by the sharp metal, assuming you didn't fall through the ceiling first."

You also can't crawl in the dead space above most commercial dropped ceilings. The T-Bars the panels are mounted on will only support your weight if they are prevented from deflecting; the tops of the T-bars aren't sharp but they are only a couple millimetres wide (it would be like crawling on lego); the rods holding the T-Bars probably aren't fastened with a strong enough anchor to hold your weight; and even if you were light enough the dead space is filled with wire, pipe, ducts, chases, lights, security hardware, trusses and fire suppression equipment. I've had trouble running a pair of refrigeration lines though a dropped ceiling at times and I had access from below. A lot of places the light fixtures are supported independently of the ceiling because the ceiling won't hold them up.
posted by Mitheral at 9:00 AM on March 23, 2010

Up until last year's incident, there was no such actual thing as a "water landing" no matter what the flight attendant is required by law to tell you.

Huh, I always thought "water landing" was supposed to be a transparent euphemism for "horrifically crashing into the ocean". (That is to say, I'm not sure anyone was under the impression that there would be any actual landing involved.)
posted by threeants at 9:01 AM on March 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

When people or organizations think about looking for help, or volunteers, to work on "the web site", they often think that some kind of technical expertise is needed, when really, organizational skills and sharp writing skills are usually what is lacking. The technical part is not that difficult to set up, and can usually be done once, or only occasionally. The content management part, which needs mainly non-technical skills, is ongoing and kind of a burden for a technical person.
posted by amtho at 9:02 AM on March 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

Wings do not generate lift by having one air path longer than the other. (And many, many more incorrect textbook teachings.)

Bottled water does not come from glaciers or mountain springs or anything like that, and the various gasoline 'brands' all come from the same refinery.

"In God we Trust" was not the official US motto (nor was it on paper currency) and "under God" was not in the Pledge of Allegiance until the mid 1950s during the Red Scare.

There's a pretty good chance that most of the scenes in a modern television show showing characters at an exterior location (especially famous or recognizable ones) and pretty much any exterior seen in the background through windows or doors are not real but virtual.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:05 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Similar to the highway subsidies versus public transportation, by far the largest class of subsidized housing in the US is the home mortgage. The mortgage interest deduction cost $67B in 2008, compared to a total HUD budget of $37.6B.
posted by stopgap at 9:07 AM on March 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Hard work leads to promotions and success. Also, natural ability leads to success.

I'm sorry, I should elaborate on what I said because what I said doesn't make any sense at all. I mean hard work alone won't lead to workplace success (you have to have a certain level of charisma, ability, etc.). Natural ability I was thinking more in a learning context. You might have loads of natural ability, but you do have to put in a fair amount of study time/effort to be successful.

Silly annie "contradicting herself" cat.
posted by anniecat at 9:18 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's possible to be a very good historian and have a poor recall of dates and names. In fact, many historians are just as critical of books where it's just one boring fact after another as you probably were in middle school.
posted by nasreddin at 9:18 AM on March 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Telephone companies sold tone dialing as an optional feature (for an extra dollar per month or whatever) for decades despite the fact that it was much more troublesome and costly on their end to continue to support the old legacy pulse dialing method once all the switching equipment became electronic and not mechanical.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:35 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

- No matter how operating systems and computers are marketed, in my experience most non-technical people find them confusing and hard to use.

- Product branding is a massive 'scam'. In supermarkets, a large number of major brand products are sold at a loss. The store brands generate most of the profit. But those store brands are often just repackaged products from the same producers. So these kinds of products, which are sold at lower prices, tend to make the most profit to both the supermarket and the producers.
posted by Harry at 9:38 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

* Half or more of high-level chess games end in ties.

Also, chessplayers call them "draws," not "ties."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:47 AM on March 23, 2010

Elevator close buttons are placebos. So are many pedestrian crossing buttons.

Grade inflation is much worse at private schools, less of an issue at community colleges.

Many radiostations record a week's worth of "DJ" comments at a time, but give the impression that someone is going out live. Likewise, listener request calls are almost never sent out live on commercial stations.

Many people seem to think that when they make a long distance call or use the internent, sattelites are involved. This is almost never the case - there is an extensive network of undersea cables. These are laid using specialized ships, of which there are very few.
posted by phrontist at 9:50 AM on March 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

Similar to what a poster said above about supermarket endcaps and other product placement stuff, in bookstore chains, those books that are on the front tables or in the windows or in cardboard displays at the end of aisles? They're not there because the books are awesome or because the store thinks they're great -- they are up front and in the windows because publishers have paid for them to be there (sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, depending upon where and how long). Also, books don't stay in the stores like cans of soup -- if they're not bought within a certain period of time, they're sent back to the warehouse; then if there's another round ordered by the publisher/store, they'll get sent back in. Also, bestselling books very rarely just "happen" and are just as rarely a surprise to the publishers (though of course sometimes it does happen that a "sleeper" book becomes a runaway hit) -- they are usually decided in advance by a whole team of people (editorial, marketing, publicity, sales, specialty sales, etc.) and millions of dollars in marketing/advertising.
posted by mothershock at 9:51 AM on March 23, 2010

Product branding is a massive 'scam'. In supermarkets, a large number of major brand products are sold at a loss. The store brands generate most of the profit. But those store brands are often just repackaged products from the same producers. So these kinds of products, which are sold at lower prices, tend to make the most profit to both the supermarket and the producers.

In that vein there is the fascinating world of private label manufacture.
posted by phrontist at 9:52 AM on March 23, 2010

About half of all retail shrink is theft by employees (or so I was told when working at a Barnes and Noble).
posted by phrontist at 9:54 AM on March 23, 2010

You don't steer a bicycle by turning the handlebars. You steer by shifting your weight. When you lean to the right the front wheel turns right, and your hands on the bars keep the wheel from turning too far. If you were going straight and suddenly jerked the handlebars to the right, and managed to recover and not crash, your weight thrown to the left would cause you to turn left.

Calls to wacky morning radio shows don't come from listeners, they are bits set up with actors.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:00 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

-- "Experts" are people with certificates and/or people who have talked others into hiring them. Of course, there are plenty of people who really know their stuff, but most of us assume that titles, positions and degrees necessarily indicated competence and knowledge. "Of course so and so is a good writer! He works for the New York Times!" "Of course so and so is smart! He graduated from Harvard!"

Graduating from a "good college" might mean that you're smart. But it also could mean that you followed whatever rules you needed to follow (doing the minimum work necessary) to obtain a degree. The fact that you've been hired by a prestigious organization may mean that you're competent -- or it may mean that you were very convincing in interviews.

You should be especially skeptical about lone "experts." For instance, I am the only Flash Developer at my job. No one where I work is really capable of judging whether I'm good or bad at what I do. I get my work done on time. Could someone else do it better?

-- Many computer programmers are bad at math and/or rarely use math in their day-to-day jobs. If you program guided missiles or banking software, math is important. If you program web video players, not so much.

-- Most of the sound effects you hear in movies are dubbed in later. I'm not just talking about explosions. I'm talking about if the actor is reading a book and you hear a slight rustle as he turns the pages. If an actor closes a door, the click is added in later. Etc. It's interesting to watch a movie while thinking about this -- realizing that each footstep and rustle of fabric you hear was created by a foley artist.

-- Broadway shows almost always lose money. A show on Broadway is basically an expensive advertisement for the touring production. A show will, of course, do much better on tour if it's "the Broadway production," so the Broadway loss is a calculated loss. (The reason why it's nearly impossible to for a Broadway show to make money on Broadway is real-estate costs. It cost a fortune to rent a Broadway theatre.)

-- By and large, the prime artist behind the movies you see is the editor, not the director. This is not true in the case of a very small number of extremely powerful directors, such as Spielberg, who have "final cut," and it's also not necessarily true in the case of small independent films, but for run-of-the-mill Hollywood film, the guy at the artistic helm is the editor. The director is in charge of handing the editor good raw footage. He hands the editor tons and tons of it, most of which is not used in the final film. The editor pics a small amount of footage from what he receives. So the final artistic choice rests with him.

(Well, not necessarily FINAL, because the film will generally be tampered with by executives, but certainly the editor is a stronger creative force in the final product than the director -- in many cases.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:04 AM on March 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

something my mom learned when she was a welfare case worker for 10 years (about 1998 until 2008, i think):

a large percentage of women on welfare don't want to be. but they don't work because any income they make would lessen their benefits and subsidies for childcare and WIC/foodstamps, leaving them worse off then if they stayed on welfare. they would have to get a job that paid at least $15 per hour (South Central PA). but it's hard to find a job that starts at that salary when you have no experience. and you can't get experience if you can't start out at the front desk or some junior position. which pays less. return to start.

also, if you earned more than $50 a week, that's the limit at which reductions happened. it's kind of hard to make only $50 a week.

(i actually worked with a girl this happened to. we couldn't give her a raise because it would nullify her eligibility for benefits, but the raise wasn't enough to cover her childcare costs that were currently subsidized. we ended up doing bonuses for her instead. it was really awful for her to have to explain all of that to us. she hated being on welfare, but couldn't see a way off it.)

done now.
posted by sio42 at 10:04 AM on March 23, 2010 [29 favorites]

Why is there a make-multiple-columns button on MS Word's toolbar, even though most people don't use columns, whereas you have to go to a menu to access Find and Replace, a function average users need every day?

Because, at a trade show, it's not sexy to show off Find and Replace. Often, the default buttons in a UI have less to do with what's helpful and more to do with what's flashy in a produce demo.
posted by grumblebee at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you haven't read The Drunkard's Walk, you should - there's a lot of this sort of myth debunking in the book. For example, wine ratings and wine pricing are almost completely arbitrary. CEOs of finance organizations and film production companies frequently resign for a bad year when in fact the losses of the company had nothing to do with them (same goes for gloating gains). Winning the lottery twice has happened many times, and it isn't all that unlikely (in fact, it's pretty likely, in the scheme of things). There is no such thing as a 'hot streak' in sports. In fact, people, over time, tend to perform to their average abilities. So, for example, if you're a parent or a coach and your player or child performed poorly on a given test or in a given game and you reprimand them, and then they perform better on the next test or game, the notion that your reprimanding them cause them to perform better is just a chimera or illusion. Because they performed below their average on the previous game, they were quite likely to do better in the next game no matter what you said to them.

In a similar vein, most wine is industrially produced, despite the nice rural picture on the label.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:13 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of misconceptions about the human metabolism. One common fallacy is to believe that eating lower fat foods will automatically make you less fat.
posted by Vorteks at 10:15 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

You don't steer a bicycle by turning the handlebars. You steer by shifting your weight

You turn by shifting your weight is a widely held misconception. You turn by countersteering, which means you turn the handlebars opposite the direction you want to turn. This has two effects. Due to gyroscopic effects, your bikes leans the opposite direction of the wheel. This effect is immediate but small. Turning the wheel also steers the front wheel out from under the bike. Your bike leans over to compensate, so center of the combined mass of you and bike does not move laterally. Once you and the bike are leaned over, you start to turn. Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining.

Some guy welded up a fixed set of handlebars to his motorcycle to see if he could turn solely by shifting his weight. He kinda could. By hanging all his weight off of the left side of the bike and waiting about 10 seconds or so, he could slowly slowly turn the bike left. This is not practical on a twisty road or in traffic.
posted by malp at 10:31 AM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Watching TV or reading crime novels might give the impression that there are hundreds or thousands of "profilers" or "serial killer hunters." Professionals in the field have told me that there are more profilers on TV in a given week than there are in real life.
posted by charlesv at 10:35 AM on March 23, 2010

Similar to the Drunkard's Walk, the book A Random Walk Down Wall Street talks about misconceptions about the stock market. It is, shall we say, very controversial whether anyone has the ability to consistently pick stocks that outperform the market. It's quite possible, some would say certain, that people who have extremely successful portfolios just got lucky.

Stumbling on Happiness is a book that addresses similar issues with happiness. For instance -- going from memory here -- there's no evidence that separating conjoined twins means they'll have a happier life, but they're generally separated anyway if possible, even if it means endangering one or both of them.

How to Lie With Maps covers similar ground with map making. You might be surprised to find out how much a given map is an abstraction, even if it seems like a simple direct translation of the real world.
posted by lore at 10:42 AM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Edit: You can turn effectively by leaning on a bicycle, but it's slower than countersteering. Most people countersteer without even realizing it.
posted by malp at 10:49 AM on March 23, 2010

Often "natural flavors" and "artificial flavors" are the exact some chemical. For instance, "natural banana flavor" might be pure ethyl butyrate extracted from a banana, while "artificial banana flavor" might be pure ethyl butyrate synthesized from ethanol and butyric acid.
posted by lore at 10:50 AM on March 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

In the US, if you get bumped into the next tax bracket, it doesn't cause you to pay a higher tax rate for all of your income. Just the part that's in the new tax bracket.

IRS Publicaton 505, See Page 34 (PDF)
posted by hwyengr at 10:57 AM on March 23, 2010 [10 favorites]

There are any number of misconceptions in medicine but one that I debunk on a regular basis is that when you are under anesthesia you are "as close to death as you can get". Unless you are undergoing an operation under deep hypothermic cardiac arrest (where the patient is cooled to <20 degrees C , the heart is stopped, and the cardiopulmonary bypass machine is stopped for a period of time) a general anesthetic is safer than driving a car for most people and a major goal is to maintain normal vital signs throughout the case.
posted by TedW at 11:00 AM on March 23, 2010

If you are interested in this sort of thing, Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things is a good read. He provides several examples of situations where the user's mental model of how something works does not match how it actually functions (usually due to poorly considered design), leading to frustrating user experiences.
posted by oulipian at 11:00 AM on March 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

Often "natural flavors" and "artificial flavors" are the exact some chemical.

On a related note people who worry about MSG in their food are often unaware that it is often hidden under the name "natural flavor", "hydrolyzed yeast extract", "hydrolyzed soy/vegetable protein" or other names. Those aren't pure MSG but are high in glutamate and are put in to add the umami flavor that glutamate provides.
posted by TedW at 11:03 AM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

The majority of movies you watch at movie theaters are still projected from 35mm film, much as they have been for the last 80+ years. Not surprising to some, but you'd be surprised how many people have asked me to pause or rewind a film, thinking it was tape or digital.
posted by bjork24 at 11:22 AM on March 23, 2010

Similar to what a poster said above about supermarket endcaps and other product placement stuff, in bookstore chains, those books that are on the front tables or in the windows or in cardboard displays at the end of aisles? They're not there because the books are awesome or because the store thinks they're great -- they are up front and in the windows because publishers have paid for them to be there (sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, depending upon where and how long).

At the quite large independent bookstore I work at, we generally choose which of the cardboard displays we want to have. The publisher provides the display, but we order them from the catalogs along with the books that go in them. Every now and then the publisher will have a title it's reeeeeallly pushing/discounting/incentivizing, and someone higher up at the bookstore will order in a quantity of some book we could care less about.

At any given time, we might have 2 or 3 publisher sorts of sales going on in the store, along with the discounted table of new releases. However, even when I worked at the large corporate behemoth bookstore, where there were scads and scads of mandated displays that the higher-ups would distribute each month, we still had quite a few employee displays. In the music department, we'd receive lots and lots of promotional materials from record companies, but we got to pick which of them we made displays for. Admittedly, that frequently corresponded to albums that we had tons of, but not always.

Generally, the way to tell whether a display was something that the publisher had something to do with or not is to look at the display. Nice fancy full-color preprinted sign advertising the display? If marketing got paid to make a sale sign, it's probably a sale or special that's put together with the publisher. If it's a giant cut-out piece of styrofoam painted to look like a pair of emo glasses? Or a collage of poster pieces taped up in a weird and artistic manner, with letters cut out of colored paper? The employees are behind that. Staff picks are usually staff picks, thematic offball displays are legit. My store puts whatever we want in the front window.
posted by redsparkler at 12:04 PM on March 23, 2010

The linguistic community does not have any set standard to differentiate a dialect from an entirely different language. There are plenty of dialects that are farther apart than some national languages. The cliche that a language is a dialect with an army is true in a surprising number of cases. (For more information...)

Contrary to popular belief, Mandarin Chinese is not the hardest language for an English speaker to learn. Most languages of the Caucasus region are harder to pronounce, plenty of languages have more tones (Vietnamese, Chori, for example), and Japanese is much harder to learn to read. The grammar doesn't have much inflection and is pretty regular. So, if you really want to learn it don't be scared!
posted by Alison at 12:13 PM on March 23, 2010

We aren't addicted to oil, we are addicted to coal -- coal provides over 70% of all electrical generation capacity in the US -- why? Because is costs about 4.8 cents/KwH to generate vs the cost of oil or LNG ~ 10 cents, nuclear ~ 40 cents, wind ~ 4-6 cents, or solar 12-40 cents depending on the method. It also is the dirtiest way to produce electricity. If you capture the carbon, it costs about 7 cents a KwH -- most electric grids use Coal as their baseload source of power and then add oil, gas, or some other carbon based fuel for "peak" loading -- you "pay" the rate your utility company works out with your local government that ensures them a profit for all the infrastructure they have to maintain, upgrade and build -- so the monopoly favors a consumer who uses more electricity rather than less -- we don't try to manage demand with our grid, we have a market approach to supply -- and the monopoly says that the power company has to provide every last electron you demand -- so, no efficiencies exist within the supply, other than to maximize profit -- the rate you pay depends on where you live (Hawaii is most expensive 22 cents/KwH - Oil based infrastructure and you have to ship it a long way)
Now, ask yourself what life would be like without electricity and then ask yourself what life would be like without gas for your car and tell me which one you are really addicted to.
posted by cactus86 at 12:23 PM on March 23, 2010

Dark or bold roasts of coffee have less caffeine than their lighter/milder counterparts. So when one asks for the 'stronger' coffee, clarification is often needed to determine whether it's the strength of flavor (bold) or caffeine content (mild) being indicated.
posted by carsonb at 12:23 PM on March 23, 2010

Oh no, they're putting chemicals in our foodzzz....

Chemicals are not a subset of matter that is primarily used in industry. Chemicals are everything.
posted by malp at 12:34 PM on March 23, 2010 [16 favorites]

The largest poverty reduction program in the country isn't considered welfare by the government — it's treated as a tax credit.

Because of this, it isn't administered by government employees, but by privately run tax offices — H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, Liberty, and so on — who turn a considerable profit doing it. In fact, Earned Income Credit recipients can be the biggest source of income for these tax office chains. Their returns tend to be very simple, but they can often be talked into paying high fees and usurious interest rates in order to get a fraction of their EIC payment up front. I worked for a Liberty franchise for several years, and without a doubt we would have been completely unprofitable if it weren't for our gullible or desperate EIC customers.

(Incidentally, one of the things ACORN used to do was offer free tax preparation to people who were getting the EIC. When I worked at Liberty, I was encouraged to bad-mouth ACORN any chance I got, because if they had a good recruiting year they could cut into our profits pretty hard.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:52 PM on March 23, 2010 [21 favorites]

The policy of Aboriginal self determination does not mean that you can simply decide you are Aboriginal. Self determination requires Aboriginal ancestry and for the Aboriginal community to accept you as indigenous. This requires documentation that can be quite difficult to get.

Ticking the 'Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander' box on your Centrelink forms does not get you higher payments. It does not mean you are automatically exempt from needing to actively seek work. Ticking the box when you know you are not an Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander is welfare fraud.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 1:36 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

# "Some people are surprised to learn that in most animation, the mouths are animated to fit the dialogue, rather than people reciting dialogue to match the mouths. (Unless, of course, the dialogue is a translation of an animation made in another language.)"

To clarify, this is true only in Western animation. In Eastern (anime), voice actors are expected to act to the movements of already animated sequences. Actually, in general, the voice acting processes for animation are very different between West/East.
posted by Ky at 1:38 PM on March 23, 2010

Dictionaries are not lists of how words are permitted to be used, nor is there some grand council that asserts that a word may or may not be a word because it's a proper noun or some other attribute.

Anything that is a symbol (or series of them, whether written, spoken, seen, felt, tasted, etc) that represents a concept (or series of them) is a word. Ain't is a word but it's not permitted in certain acceptable grammatical styles appropriate for a certain context.

"Seventy" isn't a word according to some older AP Style books unless it begins a sentence, because that style dictates that you write numbers out only if they're a whole number and lower than nine or ten.

When the Oxford dictionary adds a new word to it's list, Oxford isn't saying, "this is now a word" but instead, "this word meets the criteria we uphold for what existing words we will include in this list of words."

If I were to suggest that purple means drive, and banana means store -- then if told I were to momentarily be purpling down to the home improvement banana, you'd know what I meant. Oxford will not likely include "to drive" as a definition of "purple" until it meets certain usage requirements that Oxford holds as a standard for its inclusion, such as how many people/regions have been known to use it and how frequently, among others. However, should a publication citing obscure usages of words wish to include it in their list of words, they might rightfully cite this Ask Metafilter thread as a potential origin.

Dictionaries are instead newspapers of words, in the same way that newspapers do not, by nature, tell readers the only way in which an event has permission to unfold. It may be advisable to hold to a dictionary's usage listing to crucially aid prompt understanding of something specific (such as a medical term) but ultimately a word -- even a medical term -- is defined specifically under the definition the speaker/writer/etc of that word intends it to be used, even if "incorrectly" according to a dictionary. Incorrect usage of a word might be better restated as a usage that is atypical or unique from previously established usages of it. Likewise, English words tend to be merely "words that people who speak English have used a lot" rather than there existing a list somewhere of all words and to which language that may or may not (by permission) belong.

"That word isn't in any dictionary I've ever seen," is to suggest you've never actually understood how words actually exist and are created. I suspect incessant hounding of "improper" usages by school marms and rules from games like Scrabble are what have driven home the idea that a word isn't a word. Rightfully so: orange, silver and month have rhymes: Blorange (a hill in the UK), chilver (part of a horse) and grunth (grand unified theory) are words, but they're not acceptable words for use in Scrabble.

Those who assert that words have a default definition or are only permitted to be used in certain ways have been called linguistic prescriptivists, while those who believe as I have stated above have been called linguistic descriptivists and have genuinely investigated the nature of word formation historically. However, true to descriptivist lines of thinking, you may call them whatever you like, even perhaps reversing those titles if you very well please, at the risk of confusing your audience.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 2:16 PM on March 23, 2010 [13 favorites]

As a part-time worker (who asks a lot of questions) for a big-box retailer, I can confidently say that a peculiar portion of retail profit loss (as mentioned in an earlier entry in this thread) is due to failure of big-box retailers to inventory their own stock of cosmetics received on freight trucks, particularly freight that is packaged by a vendor (such as P&G) that bundles up an order to a specific store and mails the large outer box to the retailer's distribution center and the distro merely forwards that box without checking the contents against the actual order -- nor does the store receiving it check it. Often it would require far too many unjustifiable man-hours to inventory each specific item (particularly cosmetics) against the order made, than to just stock whatever comes in on the truck and trust that the vendor included the correct amount of correct products. Even at a loss of potentially hundreds of dollars per order in product prepaid for and not received, it often costs more labor to inventory specifically what wasn't sent than to double check and account for any possible errors, if there even are any.

Similarly, book stores may often merely tear off the front cover of paperbacks that never sold and toss the rest in the dumpster (returning only the covers for credit), as it is overtly less expensive than for the retailer to return unpurchased paperbacks cover and all.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 2:38 PM on March 23, 2010

Anything that is a symbol (or series of them, whether written, spoken, seen, felt, tasted, etc) that represents a concept (or series of them) is a word.

I agree with the spirit of what you're saying, but they way you're saying it is a bit contradictory. On the one hand you say that dictionaries listings and definitions are arbitrary. Agreed. But if they are arbitrary, then so are you. In which case, why should we accept your definition of "word."

I consider myself a descriptivist, but it's always weird to me when I hear other descriptivists saying "words DON'T mean what dictionaries say they mean, they mean what users say they mean." These descriptivists are replacing rejecting dogma via more dogma. To me, they would make more sense if they said, "I don't care what it says in the dictionary" or, possibly, " I don't think anyone should care what it says in the dictionary." "What's important to ME is how people use words."

Surely it makes more sense to talk about utility. My form of descriptivism says that for most of us, it's more USEFUL to define a word by the way it's commonly used than by its dictionary definition. It's more useful because, whether schoolteachers like it or not, most people will use words however they want (or however history and fashion prompts them to use it). Those who cling to dictionary definitions will always lose the battle in the end.

Which arbitrary system you accept is situational. At a convention of English teachers, going by what's in the dictionary might be the "right" choice. In my house, it's the wrong choice.

In the end, as much as it doesn't make sense to say a chair IS something you sit on because it's defined that way in the dictionary, it also makes no sense to say a chair IS something you sit on because that's what most people think a chair is.

Whether you decide to honor usage or dictionary definitions is itself an arbitrary choice. But you can talk about which is the better choice if you want to be understood by most fellow speakers of your language. You can also speculate about why some people make the choices they do. Maybe they cling to "proper grammar and word use because they are snobs." Fine. That tells us they are snobs. Not that they are wrong.

To me, it doesn't make sense to talk about whether "ain't" is a word or not. It's a word to those who think it's a word. It's not a word to those who don't think it's a word. And while those two groups are off in a corner arguing, people who want to say ain't will go on saying it. Meanwhile, people who forbid the the word in their schools or homes will go on forbidding it.
posted by grumblebee at 2:39 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Scrabble, I know some people think slang words aren't allowed in Scrabble. All words that are listed as primary entries in the dictionary you're using -- and their inflected forms -- and which are not capitalized and do not contain hyphens or apostrophes are allowed. If a word exists in both acceptable and unacceptable forms, like "Polish" vs. "polish," it's allowed.

In tournament Scrabble, you're going to use one of two official books (in English), depending on where you're playing. The American book contains, for instance, the word "ZA" which is an obscure slang term for pizza.
posted by lore at 3:19 PM on March 23, 2010

It is now illegal nationwide for insurers to deny coverage to people for pre-existing conditions. Laws like this were already on the books in some states, including my own. However, these laws do not prevent insurers from pricing health care for people with pre-existing conditions at prohibitively high levels. My fairly mild condition was going to cost me $1,000 per month in premiums alone--that doesn't include co-pays or minimums or any of that. But that's not against the law.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 3:30 PM on March 23, 2010

To continue on the topic of Scrabble, the World Scrabble Championship uses a combined word list called SOWPODS (anagram of OSPD and OSW, the American and British lists).
Also, I think most casual Scrabble players would be surprised at how small a role vocabulary plays in the game at the highest level. Or rather, everyone's got all the words memorized so strategy and calculation of probabilities becomes much more important. Scrabble players usually don't much care what a word means, so long as it's "allowed."
posted by peacheater at 3:44 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Many of the provisions of health care do not take effect immediately, including the requirement for insurers to provide adults with coverage even if they have pre-existing conditions.
posted by lore at 3:46 PM on March 23, 2010

Not all Bottom Line Books are as bad as the web page might suggest
posted by IndigoJones at 4:37 PM on March 23, 2010

Up until last year's incident, there was no such actual thing as a "water landing" no matter what the flight attendant is required by law to tell you.

Does this count?
posted by dogmom at 5:38 PM on March 23, 2010

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes is about how the prevailing recommendations in nutrition are wrong, and the scientific and political missteps that lead to the current state of affairs where people are receiving nutritional advice that's killing them. (If you've ever wondered why you hear so much conflicting nutritional information, or which study to believe which different studies reach contradictory conclusions, this is the book that sorts all that out into something comprehensible.)
posted by Nattie at 8:00 PM on March 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

Jews once dominated basketball. Naches
posted by malp at 8:05 PM on March 23, 2010

To elaborate: at the time Jews dominated basketball, a disproportionate amount of Jews lived in the inner city. Many people used racist stereotypes to justify their success. e.g. Jews have keen eyesight, nimble fingers, an innate trickery, etc. Kinda like how today, many people claim blacks are superior ballers because of some psychical uniqueness.
posted by malp at 8:29 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many of the tenants of New Urbanism are things that at first thought might not make sense, but studies are clear. For example, the more confusing an intersection -- if more than two streets intersect -- the fewer accidents that happen because people get confused, slow down, and pay attention. Turns that are abrupt (closer to 90 degrees) are safer because they're more of a pain in the ass to execute than smoother (closer to 45 degrees) turns. People think that getting a house in the suburbs will make them happier when studies show that people who live in suburbs are considerably more unhappy than other people. Suburbs increase traffic rather than decrease them because most of the streets lead out into a main street that acts as a bottleneck. Adding lanes to highways and widening lanes can actually increase traffic. Suburban Nation is a good book about this.

Similarly, you'd be surprised how little planning goes into "city planning" in a lot of places, and how much stuff just goes everywhere due to ordinances that are influenced by special interests.
posted by Nattie at 8:42 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

For major sporting events (Olympics, Superbowl, etc.), our customer has us prepare several different versions of their orange-boxed breakfast cereal so the cartons will be ready regardless of who wins. The boxes you see immediately after the game are foam-filled blanks with a sticker applied to the face panel. Many people think our customer makes a small run for each possible outcome, but that's simply not the case.
posted by nathan_teske at 8:51 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reality TV shows, including higher-end competition reality shows that may rhyme with Roject Prunway or Cop Teff or Gear Sheenius, all have writers -- writers who are not covered by the Writer's Guild agreements and thus are ineligible for union benefits like health care, but that's another story don't get me started. When you see AttractiveSpokesmodelOrHost or EminenceGriseCoHost talking about this week's theme or giving an introduction to the episode's guest judge or telling the contestants the rules of the week's challenge or things like that, he/she is almost always wearing a hidden radio transmitter earpiece and simply repeating the words being delivered into his/her ear by the producer, who is sitting in the control room of the show, which is usually somewhere else in the same building or soundstage. The exact phrasing he/she is using was first written out by the show's writers, who spend much of the episode huddled in the control room looking at the footage being fed to them from many different camera angles, in order to create a narrative flow for the episode when the footage gets edited down later on. They are building a story for the episode, figuring out where the conflicts are, who the good guys and bad guys are, and crafting an arc to the season. You will see their hand in how the interview clips are played off one another, and especially in how the recaps of each previous episode are framed.

And yet, contrary to popular belief, the judging process really is fair and neutral and the network does not interfere at all in the judges' decisions. This does not stop fans of the show on their blogs from reading into things like "oh, they wanted so-and-so off the show" or "so-and-so got kept on by the network just so we'll keep watching, what bullshit". This actually does not happen; the judging is for real. What fans of the shows do not seem to realize is that if you do a good enough job casting the show in the first place, you do not need to manufacture a lot of story later on.

And these shows are cast within an inch of their lives. They absolutely go for types -- the young cute blonde chick, the older seen-it-all type, the one who the moms will identify with, the bad boy, the one who is self-taught and has to prove themselves against the ones who have the pro background, the one from the unusual minority ethnic group, the one with a very poor or rural background who has come up in the world now, etc. If you watch enough of the shows, especially ones on the same network, you will see the same patterns repeat across seasons and even across multiple shows on the same network. This is not an accident; they sell the shows to their advertisers beforehand as attracting a specific kind of viewing demographic, and they need to try to stick to that plan. The viewers are usually not seeing the very best PersonWhoHasThisSkillset compete, they are seeing the PersonWhoHasThisSkillset who may indeed be very skilled but who also, the show's producers think, will have the right kind of big personality for TV and who fits the right pre-designed niche. I always thought it was telling that within the mundane daily workplace discussion back in the network offices, the contestants of a show are almost always referred to, without irony, as the characters of the show.

Also, some of the AttractiveSpokesmodelsOrHosts are as dumb as a bag of rocks, and a lot of time is wasted each day with the poor antsy contestants just standing around itching to start their challenge, while AttractiveSpokesmodelOrHost tries to get his/her lines right for the camera, despite having the earpiece in their ear telling them what to say. And despite all this, many of the lines still need to be re-looped in later on in post-production. If you listen closely to many shows on a good quality surround sound system, you can clearly hear where the audio gets spliced in, because it's hard to match the original timbre exactly.

Finally, those confessional-type one-on-one interviews are conducted by people on the show who try to build a rapport with the contestant throughout the filming of the season, and it is part of the staffer's job to get the contestant to say shocking or edgy things on camera, or to trash-talk the other contestants. Alcohol might be involved, a little. Most of the contestants are actually quite professional and nice, so it's a specific kind of much-valued talent to be able to get them to be bitchy on camera in their interview.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:00 PM on March 23, 2010 [16 favorites]

posted by lunchbox at 9:29 PM on March 23, 2010

Fui Non Sum: "It is now illegal nationwide for insurers to deny coverage to people for pre-existing conditions."

Not until 2014.

Within six months, the plans will have to stop some practices, like setting lifetime limits on coverage and canceling policy holders who get sick. They will also have to allow children to stay on their parents’ policies until they turn 26 and cover children with pre-existing conditions, but can still deny adults with medical problems until 2014.

See, there's something else that doesn't work like people think... just because a law passes, it does not get implemented immediately.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:19 PM on March 23, 2010

Oh, and I hate to point this out because I think the average MeFi user is probably more aware of this than the average American in general, but having worked at a state rep's office I can say with certainty that a lot of people have no idea what politicians are like as people, what they can and can't do, what they actually do and don't do, etc. The idea they have in their head is a far distance from reality.

And most importantly, a ton of people think that having a negative attitude toward politicians is somehow helpful because it keeps them in line or something, but they don't realize all the ways that attitude works out in the political system to their own detriment: aside from inadvertently making elections in some areas less democratic and thereby electing the exact kinds of people most people are wary of, there are more personal effects. If you have the idea that all politicians are greedy assholes, for example, you would never think to go to your state rep and ask for his personal help with finding a job, for example. He wouldn't help you personally, right, because he doesn't really care, right? They're like political robots, right?

You'd be surprised.

- Tons of people have no idea that there is a difference between their state rep, and the national representative from their part of the state. Just as the United States government has a House of Representatives and a Senate, so do most states have state-level Houses of Representatives and Senates. (I'm hazy on this at the moment, but I think Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, and some other states might too. But by and large, states have their own, separate bicameral legislature.)

Similarly, tons of people don't realize there is a difference between their state rep and their elected city officials.

Still more people don't realize their national rep has little control (more often no control whatsoever) over their city issues.

And yes, some people don't realize there's a difference between the legal and judicial system.

On the whole, a lot of people don't know what parts of their life are handled by what levels of the government -- nevermind the individual agencies, which is more understandable.

Every day when I would sit down to answer constituent letters, a good 10% of them would either ask the state rep to do or vote on something that's simply not within his jurisdiction, or else go off on an insult spree over something the representative had nothing to do with, nor could have anything to do with by law. I'm willing to bet this figure is a lot higher for the national level; I've encountered a ton of people who seem to think their national rep is in charge of everything -- it's the kind of "default" in most peoples' minds.

In case anyone is curious, another 80% of the letters were form letters. So roughly half of the letters that people actually sat down and wrote personally weren't going to anyone who could do anything about them. Some reps will send the letter to the appropriate person, and tell the constituent they have done so. Some reps will instruct that such letters just be trashed. It depends on the rep.

- Some people think sending a politician a rant will accomplish something, or else maybe they think it will be a blow to someone's ego, or-- who knows. This is not true. Going on an insult spree, even if you write the correct rep, just makes you look like an idiot -- just like going on a rant in real life. If anything, it makes your position look less attractive: it associates the opinion with crazy, unreasonable people, and it inspires little confidence that you're worth engaging with.

Furthermore, it's not going to phase anyone; whereas it might reduce someone you know personally to tears, these people are entirely used to that sort of thing. If you get a response at all, it will be polite and completely ignore the tone of your letter -- the person answering would have to be pretty unhinged to do anything else. The person answering it will not be put out by having to be nice to you: they will think it's funny, or else less boring than answering the usual letters. And, I hate to admit this happens, but anything outlandishly childish might be read aloud and laughed at. This sort of thing is discouraged in the name of being professional, but the people who read your letters are human.

If you are upset, or if you disagree, then be civil and you will be taken seriously and treated with respect. Even some degree of charged, hyperbolic language is expected and easily tolerated -- just no personal attacks or anything vulgar.

- I have often encountered the misconception that no one reads constituent letters, or that the politicians themselves don't read them. Some politicians actually take an active role in answering all their constituent letters. Whether or not your politician is one of those is more or less a crapshoot, but don't assume you shouldn't write because it won't get read or it won't get answered or someone other than the politician is going to do it.

In this particular case, a couple people on the state rep's staff would read the letters and draft responses, but the rep himself always read every single letter and response before it went out, and QUITE often he would handwrite entire paragraphs to add in or change sentences, etc. I had to do three and four drafts/revisions for letters about some relatively small issues, and it wasn't for any silly grammar or spelling errors. These were substantive revisions.

Because of this, it will almost always take longer to get a response from a rep that actually cares about constituent letters: reps are always busy, but the good ones are busier than most and so they have fewer blocks of time to use reading and writing/editing letters. In our case, the staff was pretty good about drafting responses within a week of receiving the letter, but the representative was the bottleneck; sometimes it would take three months to actually mail the response, but it took that long because he cared about quality and only had so much time.

- Also, don't assume that if you get a response, it's going to be a form letter or else unsubstantive. If you send in a form letter, you'll probably get a form response. And some politicians do send a form letter, or else a one- or two-liner, for everything.

But some of them will really and truly give you a definitive answer on what they plan to do and explain their reasoning if they know it's not what you want to hear. I had to write and edit per the rep's instructions quite a few of those; he was always more specific than I was. I had been instructed to take my best stab at it with the knowledge that he would completely rewrite it if he had more to say, especially if it was an obscure issue I didn't know his stance on.

Also, I frequently made calls to government agencies to make sure I was giving people detailed and correct information.

- Some people will tell you that form letters don't do anything and just get thrown away. Not true, or at least not for a lot of politicians. Form letters actually do make an impression if enough people send them in. Multiple copies from the same person is usually pointless, though: the softwares used to manage constituent stuff can see through that (unless the rep handles the software poorly, or there's some truly terrible software used in places I haven't worked). Receiving 100 copies of a form letter tells the politician more than 15 copies do. Receiving a thousand copies is a big message. You get the idea.

- Don't assume your letter wasn't read because you didn't get a response. Don't assume your letter didn't matter because you didn't get a response. For whatever reason -- sometimes budgetary restraints mean there's not adequate staff for the task, sometimes there's too high a volume of letters regardless -- some officials will read the letters but not send responses.

- Don't assume your letter won't mean anything. Some politicians will keep certain letters with them, to remind them of certain principles or what's important and that sort of thing. This might sound unbelievable and mushy to those who don't consider politicians real people, but they really do it. And some of the ones that do that are the ones that don't respond. It's weird, I know.

- Most people are not aware that representatives will offer "constituent services" to their constituents. Some aren't huge on this, but then some are AWESOME about this. What's a constituent service? Usually a member of the staff, but sometimes the politician himself, will try to help you with some personal issue that's tied up in the government some way, especially with agencies the public doesn't interface much with. And since politicians have a large social network and some sway, this is where they can actually be helpful with things they don't have legal authority over; they might not be able to write a law -- though sometimes they will, depending on the issue -- but they will talk to people and go to bat for you. Some politicians find this incredibly rewarding; a lot of them go into politics to help people and get disillusioned when the majority of their job is bureaucratic and they don't have much power to do much about issues where they're very much in the minority.

The kind of stuff they might help you with is varied, so it doesn't hurt to call or write and ask. Sometimes they can at least refer you to someone who can help you better. People would ask for help when they got contradictory information from different state agencies; had some sort of sticky and confusing legal situation; were stuck in some governmental "no man's land" where they were caught in a loop of not being able to do something because of something else they weren't able to do; there's some educational issue or issue with a school, etc . People often asked for help finding a job, but I did this sort of stuff around '05 and '06 so I would suspect they might get a lot of these now and have a harder time helping.

It's not guaranteed to be successful even if they agree to try, but I saw a lot of good things happen. I hate to say this, but no politician wants to tell a constituent, directly, that he tried to do something for them, something that he knows was really important to them, and failed. And as a human being, no one wants to recognize that someone else is suffering and have to tell them they can't make their life better. The ones that agree will try really hard. (Stories are still told about J. J. Pickle, Texas state rep of legend for his constituent service. A lot of the Texas state reps looked up to him.)

Also, this is less politically motivated than some think. In other words, while such things make for good campaigns and word of mouth, or else press spectacles if something's a big deal, that's secondary in most cases. Most people who are helped in this manner you never hear about. When something does become the basis of big public battle, or else inspires a law, the media attention is in part because it's really the only way to get an issue addressed.

The media also turned down a lot of offers of things we'd suggest needed media attention precisely because they don't want to look like shills for a politician's campaign, for what it's worth. That conception was unfortunate more often than not, because it meant trying to do simple things with no political motivation -- like encourage people to donate blood by donating blood -- was difficult.

- Lots of people think politicians are lazy, or pampered, or stupid, etc. Politicians as a whole, regardless of party and even if they delegate a lot, tend to work really hard, and for long hours. 12 to 16 hours a day is not unusual; they often come in early or have to attend something early, give up their lunch hour to business, stay late, take their work home with them, and have to attend things after they leave the office. Weekends often aren't breaks. They might seem to spend a lot of time sitting around talking or asking for money, but many of them dislike the former -- you have to talk to people all day, regardless of whether you enjoy their company -- and haaaate the former. Though they may seem to get nothing done if you don't know much about politics, politicians are anything but lazy. Things not getting done is largely the result of intractability, not lack of effort.

And very few of them are stupid. People have an oversimplified idea of what goes into bills. There are tons of reasons to vote for and against bills that otherwise sound like good ideas -- reprehensible or insane amendments or riders, for example, or there is a superior version of the bill under consideration -- so sometimes when someone reaches the conclusion that a politician is just an idiot, the person professing that view is actually the ignorant one. From my rather limited experience, politicians from both parties are a lot more versed in nuance than your average person and are skilled thinkers. And -- this is unfortunate -- sometimes the ones that say things that sound dumb and simplistic are just doing that for the benefit of their audience. They will discuss the bills on very different grounds when in the company of people who can follow the discussion. Very few politicians are open about political complexities like Al Fraken, for example; they get slammed for it when they are. So there are definite grounds for criticism of politicians, but "stupid" and "lazy" they are not.

- People think politicians get paid a lot. That depends. National level, yes. But in some states the salary does not at all make up for the hours and they're earning far, far below minimum wage. Texas State Reps made something like $16k a year the last I checked (a few years ago), depending on how you calculate it anyway. Why? It looks bad to vote to give yourself a pay raise, so it hasn't kept up with inflation.

Lots of bad things happen because of voter knee-jerk irrationality and the assumption that politicians are all greedy assholes, and this is just another example: they don't want to look greedy because people already think they're greedy -> so the position pays nothing -> so it's really difficult to run for some of these offices if you're not already rich -> so mostly rich people get elected because people don't want their reps to be rich -> so the system is indirectly undemocratic because it's much less feasible for a normal person to run for office -> so a disproportionate amount of those officials are predisposed to have an upper-class perspective, particularly on money and business issues, or else enter politics specifically to protect their interests.

But that's not all! One could also argue that you'd be more susceptible to bribes or kick-backs, or at least more inclined to skirt the edge of some shady financial stuff, if you aren't making enough money to support yourself -- say, especially if you got elected without being rich already.

Furthermore, the officials that aren't rich have to keep other jobs at other parts of the year, so they're less effective as elected officials: stuff is happening year round, even when you're not in session. Those officials don't have as much time to answer your mail. Those officials don't have as much time to provide constituent services. Those officials don't have as much time to draft new legislation. They could be the epitome of a down-to-earth human politician, got into it for all the right reasons, and it doesn't matter: they have to pay rent and support their families, too.

So if anyone ever catches themselves thinking that a particular politician must lead a glamorous, pampered life, consider that in some areas they're working for $5/hour or less in a high-stress job with few breaks where they're damned if they do, damned if they don't. The blind misconceptions and cynicism toward politicians works its way into the system in a way that directly hurts you. People ought to be educated and act as watchdogs, but more often than not people instead strip issues of their nuance, reduce things down to black and white strawmen, and make unfounded inferences about the character of politicians when they have no idea what their lives are actually like or what they sacrifice. We tell people not to be racist or sexist or otherwise prejudiced, but time and time again the characteristics and motivations of individual crooked politicians is attributed to every politician. I understand a sense of betrayal when that happens, but writing politicians off is profoundly unhelpful and misguided. It also discourages decent people from becoming politicians because they associate it with negative things. It drives away good people: people who are thick-skinned enough to fight for what they believe in, but perhaps not thick-skinned enough to put up with constant, baseless attacks on their character from people who judge them based on what other people have done wrong. Very few people can handle that, and it's a hell of a lot easier for the people that don't actually care about other people. You get what you demand.

It's not a popular position to hold, but honestly when someone says something ignorant and cynical about politicians as a whole it irks me about as much as someone saying they hate [Insert Group Here] because a member of that group wronged them once. What's worse, it ultimately only hurts them and the health of the political system as a whole: you can watch out for unethical behavior without writing people off or dehumanizing them. The "I'm going to assume the worst so it won't surprise me or hurt my feelings when it happens" attitude is childish.

So yeah, politics is really one of those things where things don't operate quite as people think they do. There is always corruption somewhere, but the prevailing opinion I've encountered is far too simplistic and cynical compared to reality, even when it comes down to basic operational things like whether people read your letters.
posted by Nattie at 11:12 PM on March 23, 2010 [77 favorites]

I keep thinking of more. Here are some about writing:

- People think that if you write a book you get rich. This is almost always untrue. You might get a decent amount of money if it's a best-seller, or your next book might get a big advance if your previous book was a best-seller, but mostly you're not even going to be adequately compensated for the time it took you to write the book.

How big an advance will you actually get if you find someone to publish your fiction book? Around $6k. It varies by genre, but that's about what you should expect. If you become successful, you might get into the very low five-figures range for your next books.

What's worse: if you get a big advance and your book doesn't make near that much money when all is said and done, your publisher might not want to publish your next book. So getting a huge advance for a book is a mixed blessing, especially if it's your first book.

[cite] [cite] [cite] [cite]

Non-fiction fares better, iirc -- five figures is more common.

Writing because you want a lot of money is a bad idea. It can happen, but it's not the get-rich-quick scheme so many people seem to think it is.

- People generally seem to underestimate the necessity of having an agent, or aren't even aware that writers have them. The average person seems to have the perception that you just write something and then send it to a publisher, but not many publishers will even read un-agented submissions. It happens, but not having an agent is generally a big handicap.

The usual route to getting published is this: writer gets an agent, agent gets a publisher.

- For some reason I can't fathom -- maybe because it's commonplace for non-fiction -- tons of people think that you can get an agent for your fiction writing even if you haven't finished writing your book. Agents will ignore those without finished manuscripts.

- Some people think that an agent will hire anyone who's interested, I guess because they figure the agent has nothing to lose if they can't sell someone's book. That's not the case. Agents are selective. They only have so much time, most of which they have to devote to clients that have sold books, and they can't waste it on things that are too bad to ever sell.

- Apparently a lot of people -- and non-writers more than writers -- think spelling and grammar don't matter because the editor will handle all that. No. If something has obvious spelling and grammar errors, an agent won't even bother to keep reading and the writer won't ever get an agent.

Plus, while some agents will act as an editor for their clients, it's not a necessary part of their job description. Some are willing to edit the minor syntactical error here and there, but mostly they suggest edits about the actual substance of the book, not grammar and spelling. Publishers have editors and copy editors, but no agent is going to present something riddled with spelling and grammar errors to a publisher, and no publisher would accept it.

Things have to be as close to "wouldn't be an embarrassment if published as is" as possible before even showing it to an agent, much less a publisher. Copy editors aren't employed so that the publisher can publish anything anyone might write, they're employed to catch little mistakes that will inevitably -- but scarcely -- crop up no matter how carefully someone reads their own writing. (They do other things, too, but you get the idea.)

Some people seem to have the idea that an idea, or "voice," or a compelling plot are all that matters, but if the actual writing is riddled with easy-to-fix right-or-wrong kinds of problems, the writer looks unprofessional.
posted by Nattie at 12:04 AM on March 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

Anarchism isn't "everyone does what they want" - quite the opposite actually. It's more like "no one can force you to do what they want".
posted by Baldons at 3:12 AM on March 24, 2010

To say that elevator close-door buttons are fake is not universally true. I am pleased to say that, in Switzerland, they work very well. But I will also say, after 2 years, it still surprises me a little.
posted by Goofyy at 5:21 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Rabbits can't live on carrots; in fact, eating too many will kill them -- too much sugar makes a bunny's digestive system stop working.

The library, museum, or archives almost certainly does not want your deceased relatives' old books, letters, or typewriters. They have strict collection policies and rules about terms on which they can and can't accept gifts. Only a small fraction of stuff is important enough to be preserved for posterity. Collecting things costs time and money.

Similarly: libraries get rid of books on occasion. We can't keep everything, especially if it's not getting used. Yes, sometimes this means throwing things away. Yes, even if they are Classic Literature OMG.

Your antique spinning wheel is almost certainly not rare or particularly valuable! There may be collectors of antiques-in-general who will pay a lot for an old wheel, but to those of us who actually use spinning wheels, they look like complete idiots. We want a working tool, and antique dealers often don't have any idea what kinds of damage make a wheel unusable or even how the parts go together. Do not EVEN get me started about people who sell spinning wheels on Craigslist. Protip: if your ad contains a passage like "I don't know anything about spinning, but I think this works. The wheel turns when you press the foot pedal," you sound like a fucking chucklehead. If you call it Early American or Primitive, you have no idea what you're talking about. While we're at it, there is no historical evidence of spinning wheels being designed for children, so if you have a tiny spinning wheel, don't try to tell me it's a child's wheel. It's just small.
posted by clavicle at 1:09 PM on March 24, 2010

Nattie, on behalf of political staffers everywhere, thank you!!!
posted by jgirl at 3:58 PM on March 24, 2010

"Natural" and "Organic" does not imply non-toxic in any way.
posted by benzenedream at 5:41 PM on March 24, 2010

Carefully planned murders-- or planned murders at all-- are extremely rare. Murders done by serial killers, or involving horrific or unusual features, are even rarer. The vast majority of killings are heat of the moment events, usually with alcohol or drugs involved, between people who know each other.
posted by jokeefe at 5:49 PM on March 24, 2010

* When an author writes a picture book, he or she does not (generally) choose the illustrator. The publisher will choose the illustrator (often, but not always, with the author's input) after signing up the text.

* I used to think that the length of a text dictated the length of the book, but it's sometimes the other way around. Books usually have to be in multiples of 16 pages, because of the way they're printed, folded, and cut. This is why there are sometimes blank pages at the back of a book -- or, sometimes, the publisher will add advertisements, etc, to fill those empty pages. For picture books, which are usually only 32 pages long, you don't want to have blank pages, so the pacing needs to be worked out very carefully so that the text fits the pages properly.

* Similarly, because most (novel-length) book text is full-justified, there is a risk of "loose" (spaced out) or "tight" (crowded) lines. If the designer is unable to avoid this, they will sometimes ask the author to add or delete a word so that it fits better on the page.
posted by cider at 10:23 AM on March 25, 2010

A law degree, even from a good school, is not a ticket to a six figure paycheck. Relatively few graduates work for big firms and for big paychecks.

If you lose at trial, you generally have an appeal of right to an intermediate court of appeals, where they have to listen to your argument and give a ruling. Then there is generally another level of appeal to a supreme court, which usually doesn't have to listen to your appeal unless they want to.

The majority of appellate court decisions are drafted by attorneys not long out of law school, then edited and signed by judges or justices.

The difference between Ales and Lagers is the type of yeast used to ferment the beer, the difference doesn't tell you anything about how light/heavy the beer is.

The best examples of classic vienna lagers are found in Mexico.

Root canals, when done correctly and with modern methods, don't hurt any worse than a large filling.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:42 AM on March 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most have the impression that Ninjas dressed in a black suit and only reveal their eyes. I am sure there were occasions for that; however, because ninjas were spies they dressed and disguised themselves very differently depending on who they were spying on.
posted by justinimages at 9:01 PM on March 25, 2010

Some people think travel writers stay in every hotel, eat at every restaurant, take every tour, hike every trail and visit every museum they write about in a guidebook. They do not. That would take forever and cost a ridiculous amount of money, and anyway it would drive any normal person insane.

Travel writing is not sitting on a beach drinking mai tais, scribbling a few notes, taking a few snapshots, wondering whether to go to St Moritz or Machu Picchu with your next free plane ticket.

Well, OK, some of it is. Like five percent. About 80 percent is sitting in your underwear in front of a computer, typing like mad for an hourly wage it's too painful to even calculate.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:38 PM on March 25, 2010

Drug companies don't research diseases. They develop drugs based on existing knowledge, usually work published by academia or government-sponsored agencies like NIH. That's not to say that what drug companies do is easy—it's absurdly difficult and expensive to develop a new drug. But it does mean that, without publically-funded research, new treatments would not get developed.

A big part of the cost of developing a new drug is the failure rate. Most new drugs (upwards of 90%) fail in clinical trials, either because they don't work as expected, or because they cause unacceptable side effects. Keep in mind that clinical trials are the last step in a billion-dollar, multi-year process.

Every step involved in the synthesis of a drug has been checked and stamped and verified—not just once, but for every batch produced. The FDA does not fuck around. Outside of perhaps nuclear power, there's more red tape and regulation involved in drug production than almost any other private enterprise (and rightfully so).
posted by dephlogisticated at 6:17 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not part of universal Christian dogma that God has endowed us with free will. This thread made me realize how common that assumption is -- not the assumption that we have free will (which IS common) but that belief in free will is part of the core of Christianity.

In fact, Christianity has a very complex relationship with the idea of free will (as well as whether or not God is omnipotent and omniscient). This Wikipedia article is pretty good at explaining how different strands and sects of the religion have positioned themselves around the subject.

I do think that the man-on-the-street Christianity in 20th-Century America embraces the "God gave us free will" notion as axiomatic, but that's not the case for the religion throughout history, and I know some thoughtful (and devout) Christians who don't believe in free will or are skeptical of it.
posted by grumblebee at 6:27 PM on March 26, 2010

"The difference between Ales and Lagers is the type of yeast used to ferment the beer, the difference doesn't tell you anything about how light/heavy the beer is."

Not really. They do usually use different yeasts, but the difference is in how long they're stored during fermentation, or "lagered."
posted by klangklangston at 9:35 PM on March 28, 2010

Metals don't get brittle at low temperature, as you could think from watching Terminator 2. Wood and most plastics get hard, but not for that sake easy to shatter.
posted by springload at 11:43 AM on March 30, 2010

By and large, the prime artist behind the movies you see is the editor, not the director. This is not true in the case of a very small number of extremely powerful directors, such as Spielberg, who have "final cut," and it's also not necessarily true in the case of small independent films, but for run-of-the-mill Hollywood film, the guy at the artistic helm is the editor. The director is in charge of handing the editor good raw footage. He hands the editor tons and tons of it, most of which is not used in the final film. The editor pics a small amount of footage from what he receives. So the final artistic choice rests with him.

I do not believe this is true. Are you saying that the editor can disregard instructions given to him by the director or producers? If he can't, then he doesn't have "final artistic choice." If he can, then I would like to see some evidence for this claim.
posted by grouse at 2:50 PM on March 30, 2010

grouse, if you really don't believe me, I will go looking for evidence. My "evidence" is that (a) I've worked in the industry; (b) I speak at a huge, national convention every year at which many editors, producers, etc. attend, and so I've spoken to them about their work.

The producing body (e.g. the studio) has final say over everything, unless some other person has contractually-based final cut. But, yes, during an average film shoot, the director does not have the power to contradict the editor.

I don't think it's usually an issue. It's not like the directors are banging on the editing-room door, demanding control. Director's know they don't have final cut.

Mostly, this is about saving time. The footage from yesterday is being edited while the director is shooting new footage, today. So it's not like the whole movie is shot and then the editing begins. The editing is just a tiny bit behind the shooting. There's not time for the director to be in the editing room.

Again, I'm not talking about Spielberg or Scorsese. I'm talking about the average, b-list director. And I'm not talking about indy films. There are no rules to those. Whoever is in control is in control.

It's been over ten years since I was in a studio. But when I was, it worked exactly the way I outlined, above. The director and editor were on very friendly terms. And the director would, when he could, pop into the editing room and make suggestions or requests. But for the most part, he couldn't, because he had a producer nagging him to get back on the set.

When he saw rough cuts, if he had some huge problem, I'm sure everyone would have listened to him. But had he tried to micromanage and ask for constant changes, the producers would have told him to stop. He accepted this (I doubt he even considered not accepting it), because at his level, that's the job.
posted by grumblebee at 3:44 PM on March 30, 2010

From the wikipedia article on final cut:

On nearly all occasions, only established and bankable directors are given such a privilege (such as Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Weir and M. Night Shyamalan). However, outside of the Hollywood studio system - in France, for example - directors whose reputations are built on artistic merit, as opposed to bankability, frequently have final cut on their films. In America some acclaimed, but not necessarily bankable directors, such as Woody Allen and Terrence Malick, also enjoy final cut.

The article does not say, "and so the editor has final cut." He doesn't. The studio executives have it. And they will often come in and screw with the film in all sorts of ways. But barring that, the movie is ultimately in the hands of the editor.
posted by grumblebee at 3:52 PM on March 30, 2010

[few comments removed - email please.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:28 PM on March 30, 2010

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