Blow my mind.
September 22, 2010 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Tell me the most counterintuitive or surprising fact from your field or hobby.

Whenever I talk to someone knowledgeable about a particular craft or field, I'm always curious about what basic thing laypeople take for granted that turns out to be completely ass-backwards. There are plenty of these in math, statistics, and physics, but I'm more interested in everyday stuff - construction, cooking, law enforcement, transportation, health, survivalism, music, spacecraft maintenance, or what have you.

Some examples:

* In terms of greenhouse gases, the distance food travels is almost negligible in comparison to production methods and food type (not that there aren't good reasons to buy locally)

* Lots of great Metafilter comments fit this description - rusty's post about why supermarket tomatoes taste lousy comes to mind, as well as pretty much everything that makes the sideblog
posted by theodolite to Grab Bag (102 answers total) 124 users marked this as a favorite

Successful traders often lose on more than 50% of their trades. I have seen traders whose profitable to losing trades is almost 2 to 1 losing but they get out of losers quickly and ride the winners and end up making big bucks.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:57 AM on September 22, 2010

Print journalism is driven by the advertising business, of course, but most people don't grok the sheer amount of cutting that is part of the editing process. Cutting stories to fit into the "news hole," or the space left over by the advertising content. As an editor, you almost never lack content. Your problem is too much content.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:59 AM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

A relative of mine retired after nearly 30 years as a federal LEO having never once fired his weapon anywhere other than a range for a monthly re-certification deal.
posted by jquinby at 12:00 PM on September 22, 2010

Far from being habitual liars, corporate lawyers are actually almost obsessive about honesty and accuracy in their day-to-day work.
posted by eugenen at 12:02 PM on September 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

It's turtles all the way down.

OK, sorry. Here's a real one: many unsold paperback books have their covers torn off (to be mailed back to the publishers for a credit) but the store destroys the rest of the book. Magazines, on the other hand, are collected by the distributor and returned intact.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:03 PM on September 22, 2010

In the video games field, the major consoles (PlayStation, Xbox and Wii) are far, far underpowered, relative to a cutting-edge PC. Video game developers would love to make their games look better, but they have to design the game to the capabilities of the consoles.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:03 PM on September 22, 2010

There are no absolutes in law. Almost nothing is black and white except the text. I was surprised.
posted by motsque at 12:06 PM on September 22, 2010

As a musician and a performer, I'm most interested in hearing criticism of my work, particularly if that criticism comes from someone knowledgeable. High praise from random people in the audience tells me more about them than it does about my performance, whereas criticism from someone in the know can tell me where I need to improve.
posted by LN at 12:09 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The "p" at the beginning of "pat" and the "p" at the end of "tap" are not exactly the same. For different reasons, the "l" at the start of "leaf" and the "l" at the end of "feel" are different.
posted by knile at 12:10 PM on September 22, 2010 [12 favorites]

People seem to think that television shows with continuity are carefully crafted by an intimate team of writers, who plan entire seasons in detail ahead of time and have every little twist and turn figured out seasons before they happen.

In fact, television production is a merciless machine, and writers have to work within the twin constraints of scheduling and unpredictability. The turn-around time for an episode script may be as little as a couple of weeks from start to finish. The prep-time for a season -- time that could be spent on all that intricate planning people dream of -- may be practically non-existent. Networks often put off the decision of whether or not to renew a show so long that some of the crew may have to find other jobs before the end of their nebulous "hiatus."

A well-run show will have a head writer (or similar) with a concrete idea of the basic arc of a season, who keeps the rest of her staff on track as much as possible. But there is very, VERY rarely any kind of complete master plan that everyone refers to. Show-writing is organic and continuous, and there are no do-overs. Unlike with a novel, there's no chance to let a script sit for a while so you can read it with fresh eyes, and you're almost never going to have a season's worth of scripts all ready ahead of time, such that they can be edited as a complete arc.

It's a testament to the quality of talent on shows like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" and "Avatar: The Last Airbender"* that they're so tight and consistent. Because everything in the system is working against them.

*What? That show is awesome.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 12:10 PM on September 22, 2010 [15 favorites]

Movie studios always purchase and/or develop far more projects than they have any intention of making in a given year. Sometimes it's because they already have one type of movie in pre-production and want to make sure no other studio buys a similar project on the market and beats them to the punch. So they might buy/commission 25 screenplays, with the intention of only making 8.
posted by np312 at 12:13 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Librarians throw away books, a lot of them, although we usually try to sell them first, and we do it because we need the space for new books, and it's hard to get the funding for building a new library or expanding an old one*, and you can't just buy an existing building and repurpose it as a library because libraries have to be built to stand up to the weight of all those books, which are really, really heavy.

*Even without the problems that this library is facing in its expansion efforts.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:13 PM on September 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

People actually can change their behavior. Also, positive reinforcement is the best way to motivate everyone, not just my dog.
posted by bearwife at 12:16 PM on September 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

There will most likely not be a cure for cancer (or even a single cure for each of the many distinct diseases called cancers).

It's more likely that we will turn cancers into chronic conditions with adaptive, life-long treatment plans, similar to HIV.
posted by Jorus at 12:19 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

This changed my thinking (and expectations) about television:

The point of network television is not the shows. Commercials are the purpose of television. The shows exist to bridge the gap between commercials.
posted by nickjadlowe at 12:20 PM on September 22, 2010

A significant amount of classical performances are done with little-to-no ensemble rehearsal.

A professional orchestra may rehearse a concert only 1 or 2 times. A recording or special event orchestra (say, backup for a pop singer) may run through a piece, then immediately record/perform. A show on tour probably has a pit containing multiple local musicians who are sight-reading. A quartet playing at a cocktail party more than likely just flips to random pieces throughout the evening.

Musicians practice so much at home to learn the standards and be good sight-readers. Ensemble rehearsal, if you're lucky to have it, is all about fine-tuning a performance.
posted by Wossname at 12:30 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Ballerinas smoke more cigarettes than anyone I've ever seen.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:33 PM on September 22, 2010 [8 favorites]

Standup comics really aren't making it up right on the spot, and they definitely tell the same jokes over and over again.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:37 PM on September 22, 2010

Tax compliance went way down during the Bush years due to both lack of corporate and individual audits and outsourcing of collections. The Obama administration has pulled collections back inhouse and introduced new requirements for tax preparers that make me think that they will also increase audits to be on a par with what they were in the 90's.
posted by readery at 12:42 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

OK, sorry. Here's a real one: many unsold paperback books have their covers torn off (to be mailed back to the publishers for a credit) but the store destroys the rest of the book. Magazines, on the other hand, are collected by the distributor and returned intact.

This wasn't always the case--when I was a bookseller a few years ago, we stripped the covers off magazines too--and even got to take a maximum of 5 stripped magazines home with us at the end of the day.

We also got to keep stripped books, before the store started a recycling program.
posted by litnerd at 12:49 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1 horse = about 15 horsepower
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:50 PM on September 22, 2010 [15 favorites]

You may be interested in this post with a similar theme.
posted by TedW at 12:51 PM on September 22, 2010

Real information security has little or nothing to do with technology.
posted by kjs3 at 12:58 PM on September 22, 2010

Response by poster: You may be interested in this post with a similar theme.

I did a search but didn't see that one. If the mods think this is a repeat I suppose it can be deleted, but I'm more interested in things from people's direct experience than stuff they read in a book or article (and I realize that my examples are particularly bad in this respect).
posted by theodolite at 12:59 PM on September 22, 2010

The less time I spend writing and recording a song, the better it is received by those who hear it.
posted by davejay at 1:00 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

The megapixel myth: when shopping for a camera people assume that a higher number means better quality pictures, but in reality a cheap point-and-shoot with a higher number of pixels will generally produce worse pictures than a more midrange model with fewer pixels. And similarly for zoom vs. prime lenses: people tend to think that a zoom lens is the best choice if they are going to have only one lens since it offers more options, but many experienced photographers would choose a prime lens in a heartbeat for their stuck-on-a-deserted-island choice because they are faster and have better optical quality.

If you have a car with a manual transmission, it uses less gas to coast with it in gear and your foot off the accelerator pedal than it does to shift out of gear into neutral. When the car is coasting in gear, the ECU can turn off the fuel injectors completely because the momentum of the car keeps the engine turning. When you shift into neutral, the engine is essentially idling and requires fuel to burn to keep it from stalling.

If you're in a spacecraft/satellite and you want to get to a higher orbit, you have to fire your rockets to increase your velocity, but after the maneuver is over you're moving at a slower velocity than you were when you started the maneuver.

If you had two different DC power supplies, one a large heavy brick and the other a tiny light plastic thing that feels like there's nothing much inside, you might conclude that the heavy one was more expensive, more sophisticated, and could handle higher output currents. But in actuality the tiny light one is a switch-mode power supply which is much more complicated and costly than the simple 60Hz transformer-rectifier in the heavy one, and which can be designed to supply much greater amounts current for the same volume/weight as the traditional kind.

Until relatively recently the phone company still charged a small extra monthly fee for the option of touch-tone dialing. [I don't know, do they still currently do this?] But in actuality, it takes far more effort and hassle on their part to program the digital switches to emulate the old mechanical switches and to recognize pulse dialing than it does to support tone dialing, which is very simple for a digital switch to recognize, so if they were basing their fees on their costs they would charge the fee to support old pulse phones.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:00 PM on September 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

Making local streets appear more dangerous actually slows drivers down and causes them to pay attention, thereby reducing accidents.

Also, you're sitting in traffic because one person braked too hard or made a stupid lane change 30 minutes ago.
posted by hwyengr at 1:00 PM on September 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

Much as boxing has an enormous (and obvious) physical element, top fighters and trainers have long said the mental side of it is what really matters.
posted by ambient2 at 1:01 PM on September 22, 2010

Picture book authors do not pick their own illustrators. Nor do writers and illustrators have much or any contact during the making of a picture book.
posted by the_blizz at 1:03 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Nobody knows how to build software that always works perfectly and never crashes.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:03 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also: the hardest thing about information technology is managing people and expectations, not the technology itself.
posted by davejay at 1:03 PM on September 22, 2010 [12 favorites]

It is much, MUCH more work to sing quietly and well than it is to sing loud and well.
posted by KathrynT at 1:04 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

jeffamaphone: "Nobody knows how to build software that always works perfectly and never crashes."

Oh good lord, this. The best code we write isn't code that never crashes; it's code that crashes elegantly. Also, I probably spend only 10% of my hands-on time writing new code. The rest is either testing code I've written, fixing the bugs I found in testing, or re-testing those bugfixes. This ignores the time spent planning and designing.
posted by specialagentwebb at 1:07 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Half of all fatal accidents in aviation are a result of pilot error. This aircraft could have been saved if someone had simply turned a dial when they knew that oxygen was a problem. Everyone on this aircraft died when it crashed into the sea because the crew weren't able to troubleshoot a simple instrumentation failure.

On the positive side, some pilots are good. Indeed, who knew you could glide an airliner?
posted by Biru at 1:09 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

A horse will not naturally move away when you push it. The natural instinct is to push back and all other reaction are trained from young age to become almost automatic.

Similarly it is nothing natural about a horse stopping cause you pull it in the mouth. A horse that is not well trained will only bring the nose back and keep going. The extension of this is that you can train your horse to respond to other commands that no one else use (and the extension of this is that you would never be able to sell your horse).
posted by furisto at 1:10 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

You are far more likely to be injured using a dull knife than a sharp one: with a dull knife you will apply more force to get it to bite into whatever it is you are trying to cut, this extra force often leads to the blade slipping and hitting the person holding the blade. To make matters worse, a dull knife will be more likely to make a laceration style of cut, as opposed to an incision, meaning that it will take longer to heal and be more prone to leave a scar.

This is actually true of pretty much all cutting tools, not just knives, but it's particularly noticeable in knives because they are used so regularly that the risk is underestimated.
posted by quin at 1:23 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Good poker players fold more than 50% of their hands.*

You never see that in movies. Good players are supposed to bluff everyone, right? Folding is weak, it's cowardly, it ensures that you lose.

But that's usually not true. Folding is often a very good strategy -- it prevents you from losing more, especially if you're actually folding to a better hand.

*Not that poker is my profession; it's just a hobby.
posted by Flying Saucer at 1:26 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Theatre:

"How do you learn all those lines?" The hard way. (Is there an easy way?) By repeating them over and over and over until you're as perfect as possible. Different people have different speeds of memorization, but it's certainly taken me three weeks of daily (multi-hour) work to learn a major role in a Shakespeare play. (And I consider a line wrong if I say "too" when the word is "also." Most actors I know aim for that level of fidelity to what's in the script.)

"What exactly does a director do?" Every director works in his/her own unique way. Here's how I work:

I start by reading the play once as fast as I can. If I get confused, I don't flip back and reread. I don't look up words that I don't understand. My goal is to experience the play as close as possible as an audience-member might. What is confusing? What is funny? What is boring? I write down all those impressions, because I'll never be in this "naive" state again.

Starting weeks before rehearsals, I read the play maybe twenty times. I make intricate notes, sometimes putting every word in the play in a category (love words, angry words, words about time, etc.)

I don't do this because those categories will help me later. (I often throw away these lists when I'm done making them.) I do it so that I'll know every word in the play as well as the playwright did. The category exercise is arbitrary. I sometimes do other things, like transcribing the whole play into a notebook. (Kenneth Branagh memorized all of "Hamlet" -- every part -- before he directed it.) But the result I want is to feel like it's MY play -- like I know every nook and cranny of it. Tons of variables come up in rehearsal, and I have to keep the ship on course no matter what happens. If I don't KNOW the course like I'd know a lover, I can't do that.

In addition to learning all the little words (looking up any I don't understand), I look at the big picture in as many different ways as I can: what's the basic plot? What is the genre? What is the play "about"? I read other plays by the same author, read reviews and scholarly essays about the play, read about they play's context (both the author's bio and environment and time-period during which the play is set)... and I also let my mind free associate: what music does the play remind me of? What paintings? What foods?

I don't generally work with designers, because I like a play's visuals to evolve naturally in rehearsal (if the costume designer decides to dress a character in neat clothes, what if the actor later decides that the character should be a slob?), but that's idiosyncratic to me. Most directors -- and I used to work this way -- now meet with designers, talk to them about the play, and help them come up with sketches and concepts.

Now it's time for auditions, the most loathsome part of the process: I hate judging people. Luckily, I don't have to hold many auditions, because I have a company of actors I work with repeatedly. But every now and then, I need some new blood.

To some directors, physical type is really important. I don't care much about that. I do care a little. If the play continually mentions that a character is really tall, I am not going to distract the audience by casting a 4-foot actor in the part. But other than that, I don't care. If a six-foot-tall actress is my best choice for Juliet, and my pre-cast Romeo is only five-foot-two, I ask myself, "Does it ever happen that tall women fall in love with short men?" Yes, of course. So I'm going with the best actors -- not the ones that look like the knee-jerk way I imagined the characters would look.

I usually give the auditioners some speeches to read. I don't give them speeches from the play I'm doing, because I'm not interested in seeing something they've prepared. An actor, knowing I'm directing "Oklahoma!," might have spend weeks working on that script, and so I'm not going to really see him in a raw state. So I usually pull something from an obscure play that's stylistically similar to the play I'm doing. Or sometimes I write something similar myself.

I also don't want the actor to be flummoxed by something he's never worked with before. Some really talented actors are not good at reading a script that's just been thrown at them, that they haven't even looked at. So I give them what they're going to read the night before the audition -- or I give it to them at the audition, but then give them time to go off on their own and work on it for a while before they have to perform it for me.

When they read for me, I'm looking for just a few things: (1) do they sound natural? Do they sound like an SCHMATOR (e.g. William Shatner acting) or like a regular person talking? (If an actor delivers a speech really loudly to an invisible person, I often ask him to say it directing to me, in a normal, conversational voice.) (2) are they interesting? There are many, many ways a person can be interesting. I am not looking for any specific way. I just want to see some sort of spark of personality -- something that would make me want to watch this person walk about on stage for a couple of hours. (3) Do they seem easygoing? I am going to be inflicting this person on my cast and myself for a long time. If I get any warning signals of flakes or nut-jobs or divas, I trust those signals.

(Every director I know will choose a good actor who is easy to work with over a brilliant diva.)

Having assessed those three things -- and because I know the play really well -- I can generally make a good guess as to whether or not a particular auditioner will work well in the play. And I can also guess what part(s) he could play. If I'm unsure of that, I may ask him to read scenes from the play. But I rarely need to do this.

If we rehearse the play for a month, it will go through three distinct phases, each lasting a third of that month: the first third is for table work. We sit around a table together and read the play. We read it over and over. Basically, the actors are going through the same process I went through in pre-production. They are OWNing the play. Sometimes we read through without stopping and discuss afterward; other times we stop during the reading and discuss as we go. We look up words we don't understand; talk about character backstory; talk about relevant research (how much did things cost in Elizbethan England? etc.)

We talk a lot about character motivation: the question I ask over and over, to each actor in each moment of the play he's in, is "Why are you doing THIS now?" In other words, if his character is saying, "Does anyone know the time?" I ask him, "Why are you asking about the time now?" They answer is either in the script, can be guessed from the script or must be made up. But one way or another, the actor has to have a reason for everything he does. If he doesn't, he'll wind up looking tentative or lost on stage.

We talk a lot about goals: "what is your character trying to achieve in this moment?" And we try to express those goals using active verbs: "I'm trying to seduce... to win ... to flee ..." Goals must be achievable, at least in theory, even if the character doesn't wind up achieving them, and they must be specific. I know there's a problem if an actor says his goal is "to be happy." Too vague. So we talk about it until it's very specific: "what, specifically, are you doing to be happy? What, specifically, would make you happy?"

We talk a lot about stakes: "Why are you smiling at her?"

"I'm flirting."

"Okay, but why are you flirting with her?"

"Well, she's pretty."

"Yes, but what are you trying to achieve? What's the goal of your flirting?"

"Hmm. I'm just flirting. It's fun."

"So what if she rejects you?"

"No big deal."

"Yeah. That's the impression I get. Of course, that happens sometimes in real life: we just flirt out of boredom or whatever, but it's not all that compelling to watch. Can you maybe raise the stakes? What if you've already flirted with four girls tonight and they've all rejected you. You really NEED to win this one over, or you'll know there's something seriously wrong with you..."

I limit theorizing. I think rehearing a play should be about DOING, not thinking. So when an actor says, "I can't decided if I'm angry or bored when I say this line," I say, "try it both ways."

Once table work is over, we "block" the play, which means we choreograph all the movement. I try to leave a lot of the movement open, allowing actors to sit in different chairs every night and so on. But so that they don't bump into each other, a certain amount of the movement must be planned.

When blocking, I try to make all the movement psychologically plausible: usually, it's based on a sort of cat-and-mouse game. On a particular line, an actor my be "hunting" another actor (read hunting as pursuing, seducing, threatening, etc.) So he'll move towards his target. His target will react by fleeing, casually walking away, standing his ground, etc.

I've learned to watch actors' feet. Sometimes, I'll ask an actor to stand in one spot while saying a speech. He'll do it, but I'll notice that at a particular point in the speech, he always shuffles his feet a little. This is often a very good impulse to move. If I see he has that impulse, and it makes sense to me in light of what he's saying and trying to achieve, I'll often change the blocking, giving the actor license to move.

In general, I try to tweak actor impulses rather than force moves on them: "You know how you just shifted in your chair. I think that makes sense. Can you broaden that a little and maybe stand up?"

Once the play is blocked, we'll start running it. The more runs we have before we open, the better -- the actors need to get used to going through the whole play. Generally, we run and then afterwards I give notes.

While I'm watching the runs, I'm looking for some very specific things: first, does the play make sense? Are there confusing bits? Do they actors seem to be really listening and responding to each other? Do any moments seem fake? Are there lines I don't understand, because the actors get too quiet or mush-mouthed? Is the tension mounting in the right way?

Sometime we get so lost in details, I talk about the big picture: "the story in this scene is that you come in thinking you're going to get a raise. You then find out you're fired. I know a lot of other stuff happens, but that's the basic arc of the scene. We need to make sure there's a clear before, turning point and after." Sometimes, it's the opposite -- the big picture is okay, but some small details need correcting: "You know, something looks fake about the way you look at your watch. Are you really looking at it, or are you just holding it in front of your face? If I ask you, you should be able to tell me what time it is..."

Stephen Speilberg once said that directing is about repeatedly stepping in really close and stepping back out again, looking at the play from afar.

I am also very interested in what MUST be played the same way in each performance vs. what can (and maybe SHOULD) vary. Sometimes, I will say to an actor, "You really HAVE to stand by the table on that line -- otherwise what follows won't make sense."

Other times, I will say, "You know, that speech could work equally well with you sitting or standing, so can you alternate? Stand today. Tomorrow, try it sitting." I think this is a key way that live theatre is different from film. Film, of course, is the same every time. Theatre shouldn't be. It should be like a jazz-improvisation of a standard. You need certain notes hit the same way every time, or the standard will be unrecognizable. But between those fence-posts there's a lot of wiggle room. And if you don't wiggle in it, you're not exploring the play as fully as it deserves.

As we near opening, I give fewer and fewer notes. It's not my play any more: it belongs to the actors. Once we open, I am no longer their coach. I am the number-one fan. I am there to help the actors if they need me, but mostly I just get out of the way and let them play.
posted by grumblebee at 1:27 PM on September 22, 2010 [48 favorites]

Following quin's point:

The most dangerous tool in the shop is a screwdriver.
posted by nickjadlowe at 1:27 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Game designers do not spend all day playing the latest games, with their feet up on the desk.
posted by Joh at 1:29 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the physical world, you can speed things up by adding more people and getting more hours out of them.

This is not true in software.

Years ago, Brooks wrote that adding more people to a late project makes it later. This is because new people slow down the existing people as they need to be brought up to speed, they screw up things they don't understand yet, and the the complexities of communication and co-ordination start to overwhelm people's capacity.

Furthermore, getting the team to work longer hours for more than about a week retards progress. Software is a thinking activity, and once you have exhausted people, they produce less usable work over a 12 hour day than a normal person does in an 8 hour day.

Everyone who has been involved with software knows these things are true, but remarkably few people act on the knowledge when outsiders insist that you put more people on the job and work 60 hour weeks for the rest of the project.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:31 PM on September 22, 2010 [23 favorites]

Jumping from joe's_spleen's point...
For cognitive tasks, large monetary rewards lead to poorer performance.
posted by specialagentwebb at 1:38 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

People don't form or join labor unions or take collective action because they want more money. They do it because they feel disrespected. The money, staffing ratios, or whatever are just the clearest example of the disrespect, and conversely, people can be paid very little or work very long hours and have no desire to do anything about it so long as they feel respected and heard.
posted by crabintheocean at 1:55 PM on September 22, 2010 [12 favorites]

taking a cue from Joh - people who work in bookstores do not have time to sit around and read.
posted by bibliogrrl at 1:56 PM on September 22, 2010

The longer you're a writer, the harder it gets.

When buying a rug, knot count is irrelevant. What really matters is the quality of the materials, the workmanship, and all the aesthetic stuff.
posted by booth at 1:59 PM on September 22, 2010

having worked backstage in theater productions: the male "divas" far outnumber the female divas.
posted by teg4rvn at 2:02 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

The quality of the diamond jewelry you get at the fancy jewelry store frequently isn't any better than the diamond jewelry at a discount department store. In fact, it probably comes from the exact same manufacturer. But it will cost you about 5 times as much at the jewelry store.

In spite of being local celebrities, radio DJ's get paid pretty badly, for the most part. Sometimes they only make minimum wage, even at the big stations and/or in major markets.

Your flight attendant also doesn't get paid very well, and they only get paid after the plane is pushed back from the gate. All that time you spend sitting at the gate waiting to get cleared for take-off, they're off the clock. They're also off the clock while cleaning the plane between flights. And while helping you put your luggage in the overhead. And although you hear stories of how much they hate passengers, the truth is most of them like most of the passengers. It's the other flight attendants they can't stand.
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:05 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

In most Architecture firms, the most profitable projects are those that never get built.

Also, you can typically pick out an architect out of a group because they check out the ceilings to get a sense of space. I find myself getting busted by my wife all the time.
posted by Benway at 2:05 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: IV pain medications are not better or stronger or more effective that pain pills. They kick in faster, it's true, but they also wear off more quickly. I know you just had surgery and you don't want to give up the push-button pain bumps into your IV, but you really might be more comfortable if we can get you on pills instead.

Also, different kinds of pain medications work better for different kinds of pain. I've seen people in agony while on narcotics, but when we give them ibuprofin they become comfortable. But my GOODNESS, the time we spend trying to convince people to even try the ibuprofin. I know that vicodin or percocet sound like they must work better because you can't just go buy a bottle at CVS, but that's not always the case.
posted by vytae at 2:08 PM on September 22, 2010 [9 favorites]

> Brooks wrote that adding more people to a late project makes it later.

You missed his best joke, something like: if you assigned nine women to the job, could you get a baby born in one month?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:10 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can take a solid ball, cut it into a finite number of special pieces, then reassemble those pieces into two different balls EACH HAVING THE SAME VOLUME AS THE ORIGINAL. (zomg)

Not everything in mathematics is known. Not by a longshot.
posted by King Bee at 2:11 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

erp, here is the zomg link I meant above.
posted by King Bee at 2:12 PM on September 22, 2010

Teaching a language has very little to do with knowing the language at a native-like level, and everything to do with knowing how to explain it and how to teach. This has a lot to do with why so many of us had such terrible language-learning experiences in kindergarten through college (well, that and a lack of motivation). Few of our teachers had any training in what they were supposed to be doing; most were probably hired because of where they were born.

(Along the same lines, I've grown increasingly convinced that college teachers overall are participating in a horribly anti-student system--almost none have been taught how to teach, so most of them are okay at "teaching" to people who are academic in the same way they are [like I was], and mostly terrible at any other form of teaching.)

Not at all related: I considered getting a master's in library science and becoming a librarian before I wound up in my field. My best friend went ahead and did that. At least in the US, it seems that most jobs, especially the ones that are easier to get, involve "front of the house" positions dealing with the public more than with books. You need to be a people person (even better, great with screaming kids and demanding parents!) or be able to fake it. It's apparently a rude awakening for some of the introverted, bookish types who go to library school because of their love of the printed word. (And yeah, I would have been pretty unhappy about that!)
posted by wintersweet at 2:16 PM on September 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

On a woodwind instrument, learning the fingerings for different notes is the easiest bit.

In classical music the standard pitch of an A (and thus every other note) varies between countries. For example, in the UK, it's A=440Hz and in France it's A=442Hz. Baroque music on period instruments usually uses A=415Hz.
posted by plonkee at 2:18 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Teachers get 2 months off for the summer, not 3.
posted by kirst27 at 2:38 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Building on Bibliogrrl and Wintersweet: Librarians don't have time to sit around and read any more than bookstore employees.

Some people have found it interesting and amusing that many closed stacks libraries arrange books by size because it saves space.
posted by CheeseLouise at 2:46 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The vast majority of industry computer programming involves absolutely no math beyond grade school arithmetic.

The exception is computer graphics, which are easily the most math-filled non-specialized programming anybody does.

(It does take some math to graduate with a compsci degree, though. The analysis of algorithms takes considerable math.)
posted by Netzapper at 2:56 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a lawyer and in my (illustrious) eight year career, I've spent exactly 15 minutes in a courtroom.
posted by Leezie at 3:04 PM on September 22, 2010

Well, and following up on kirst27, many community college and college teachers don't take summers off at all--depending on how much they're paid, where they live, their debts, etc., they may not be able to afford to, so they may teach during the summer. On top of that, the time they do get off isn't that great anyway. (Not to mention that it hardly makes up for a job that involves constantly working nights and weekends at home.) For many (US-based) teachers, it's extremely difficult to take time off unless it's during term break (which is usually shorter for them due to administrative and professional development obligations). For practical reasons, they have to minimize the amount of time they call in sick, often wind up arranging their own substitutes, are under internal and external pressure to not let students get behind, and really can't generally think about extending a three-day weekend by a couple of days the way regular employees can. It's not impossible to take time off for personal reasons; just very, very, very difficult.

It was really a bit of a shock to me when I realized we wouldn't be attending friends' weddings and other multi-day out-of-area events for the foreseeable future, unless they happened to held during the tiny fraction of the year when we were genuinely free.

To steer it back to things that are more "things learned on the job" and not "things learned about the job": actual grammar has next to nothing to do with what I learned in junior high, and actual linguists don't really agree on everything anyway. (However, they do agree that a lot of what junior high and high school English teachers say is wrong. Phew!) As I mentioned in that one thread about books, Language Myths is a good look into that, but so is The Fight for English. Most homework isn't very beneficial to students, and assigning a huge amount of homework is virtually never beneficial. Assessment can be beneficial (but most tests are so badly written that they're useless to everybody). Group work and peer editing, two banes of my junior high through college existence, are not busywork for students or the tools of lazy teachers. They have sound pedagogical foundations and are wonderful tools that can really help students when presented and used appropriately (okay, so those tools weren't aimed at me as a learner, and I didn't need them or benefit from them--big deal! it's not all about me or students like me).
posted by wintersweet at 3:10 PM on September 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Technology for self-driving cars on well marked roads mostly already exists, and could become affordable if widely deployed.

Many popular definitions of 'robot' are broad enough to include military technologies that have already killed people, such as cruise missiles.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:13 PM on September 22, 2010

Adding lanes on roads, most of the time, makes traffic worse. There is a thing called "induced demand."
posted by millipede at 3:25 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Journalism filter.

Spell check has not rendered copy editors obsolete. There are no misspelled words in the following sentence, yet it is incorrect: "After taking a shower, Bob brushed his teeth and combed his hare."
posted by virago at 3:39 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Professional photographers have a license to steal, what with getting paid all of that money for only a "few hours of work". Apparently the perception is that there's no investment of time or money is running and maintaining the business.

Ownership and use of physically bigger cameras = better photographers.

Prime lenses are the be-all end-all for producing quality images. ...unless you're shooting something where your movement is restricted and you need to be instantly prepared to roll with the situation.

Gimp is as good as Adobe Photoshop, but Gimp is free.

All of those photographers shooting raw files are just gluttons for a longer workflow. JPEG's are just as useful.

Cut us a serious break on a photo usage fee today because there will be lots of work coming your way "down the road".

"You'll get a photo credit line. That's worth a lot!"
posted by imjustsaying at 3:39 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

(Unless, of course, Bob has placed the grooming of his leporid on his pre-work to-do list.)
posted by virago at 3:44 PM on September 22, 2010

I was following up on this comment, not this one. Sorry, imjustsaying!
posted by virago at 3:46 PM on September 22, 2010

Artists are not privileged individuals channeling the creative energy of the universe. They're persistent, hard workers (good ones, I mean most of the bad ones think that they are channeling some kind of magic).

Also, anyone who is physically capable of making marks on something can learn to draw.
posted by cmoj at 3:47 PM on September 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you've only seen guns and bullets in movies/TV, it might be tempting to think that rifle bullets are bigger and heaver than handgun bullets because rifles are more powerful. I mean, just look at this picture of a number of different cartridges: the smallest ones on the right marked with blue are for handguns, the rest are for rifles. But while the cartridges are larger, the bullets are quite often significantly smaller.

Here are some common handgun calibers and the masses in grains (1 gr = 1/7000 pound or 64.8 mg) of the most popular kinds of bullets for that caliber. Note that within a given caliber you can have different types of bullets which serve different purposes, which is why there is usually not a single number.
  • 9mm - 115, 124, 147 gr
  • .357 - 125, 142, 158 gr
  • .38 Special - 130, 158 gr
  • .40 S&W - 165, 180 gr
  • .45 ACP - 185, 230 gr
  • .44 Magnum - 200, 240 gr
And here are some common rifle calibers:
  • .223 Remington / 5.56×45mm - 55, 62 gr [M16 / M4 / AR-15]
  • 7.62×39mm - 122, 124 gr [AK-47]
  • .308 Winchester / 7.62×51mm - 147, 150, 168 gr [M14 / M60]
  • .30-06 Springfield / 7.62×63mm- 150, 180 gr [M1903 Springfield, M1917 Enfield, M1918 BAR, M1 Garand, many hunting rifles]
Note that the two most common current military arms, the M16 and AK-47, have bullets that are lighter and smaller than almost all common handgun bullets, and that even the high powered rifles have bullets that are barely larger -- if even -- than the smallest of handguns. And even though these rifle bullets are smaller and lighter they are much more powerful and can cause a whole lot more damage than any handgun. The thicker barrel of a rifle can withstand higher gas pressures, and the longer barrel length gives the expanding gas more time to act on the bullet and transfer more of its energy into propelling the bullet. To get higher pressure you need more propellant (or "gunpower" although it's properly called smokeless powder) which finally explains the reason that rifle cartridges look so much bigger despite smaller bullets: most of the volume of the case is filled with propellant. Compare the cross-section of a 7.62mm rifle cartridge with a 9mm handgun cartridge.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:51 PM on September 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

For a lot of people in corporate environments, excel is a database to be passed around in email.
posted by jasondigitized at 4:20 PM on September 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

Draftsmanship, or Drawing, is actually one of the easier things to teach and is pretty straightforward. The really hard thing is stylizing or exaggerating things well.
posted by The Whelk at 4:31 PM on September 22, 2010

Nobody "fact checks" newspapers.
People don't realize most stories are is usually written by a reporter hoping not to screw up too badly, read by an editor looking mostly for structural and fairness issues, checked over by a copy editor looking for typos, and then rushed into print. The kind of intensive double-checking of names and dates and facts and quotes that some people picture happens largely at glossy magazines, which are generally not considered as authoritative as newspapers, amusingly.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:45 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

To those of you who assume that if someone's an artist or a musician that they have talent, you may be correct in your assumption, but more likely you won't.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 4:47 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lively, populated street is less dangerous than a deserted one.
posted by The Whelk at 4:55 PM on September 22, 2010

Taken as a whole, graduate students are not at all superior to undergraduates when it comes to basic research skills.
posted by coolguymichael at 5:18 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

"All bleeding stops eventually." - An anonymous heart surgeon

"Hypoxia is the best pain reliever." - An anonymous anesthesiologist

Oh the joys of having been an orderly in surgery.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 5:47 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." - Edsger Dijkstra
posted by aesacus at 7:07 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Bob brushed his teeth and combed his hare

... is also a good example of why my job is not likely to be replaced by translation software any time too soon - context in translation is everything.

Furthermore, translation is only translation (not to be confused with interpretation, which is verbal) about 70% of the time. For commercial translators like myself, 30% of the time is spent on research.
posted by msali at 7:13 PM on September 22, 2010

To turn a motorcycle (other than low-speed parking lot maneuvers), you turn the front wheel away from the direction you're turning. If you're approaching a right-hand bend, you turn the front wheel to the left. Picture and explanation here.
posted by workerant at 7:39 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

previously (?)
posted by dogmom at 7:40 PM on September 22, 2010

Not exactly my field, but most music scored for big budget movies is actually written by the composer's team of assistants, not the big name you see in the credits.
posted by speicus at 10:15 PM on September 22, 2010

Mechanical parts that are machined out of a single block of metal are significantly weaker than forged parts. Machining gives great precision, but forging strengthens the part by deforming the metal's grain to follow its shape.
posted by scose at 10:39 PM on September 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

Good poker players fold more than 50% of their hands.*

You never see that in movies. Good players are supposed to bluff everyone, right? Folding is weak, it's cowardly, it ensures that you lose.

The same goes for the tourneys you see on TV (although good players will fold more like 75-85% of the time before the community cards come out). The hands that make the edit are basically just highlights. A lot of the time you just get a couple players seeing the flop, one guy bets, the other guy folds. Good players want to get to the turn and river as little as possible.

So when you do see what seems like a crazy bluff, it's often because a guy has picked up the habits of another player, and surmise he will fold to the right bet at the right time. It's not (completely) random. Or he may have established a "tight" image, so when he bets big, the other players figure he must have something.

Another thing about poker is that on any given day, the best player doesn't always win, but if they played each other often enough, skill wins out. You can make what's technically the right move every time and still get eliminated. But more often, you'll be rewarded for it. If anything, poker has taught me to be a lot less superstitious.

Also, on any given day, grade-A players fare best against average players, as they "go by the book," so are generally easy to figure out. Other A players don't go by the book so are harder to read. Poor players also don't, and can also be hard to read because their play is so counterintuitive, which in the short term can be to their benefit.

(And maybe this is obvious, but in tournaments, the chip amounts are just a way of keeping score, they're not actual dollar amounts. Payouts are pre-determined based on what spot you're eliminated in.)
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:47 AM on September 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you have two populations of the same species of animal, you only need a single individual to migrate between the two per generation to prevent them divergent, regardless of the size of the populations.
subject to a whole load of assumptions, but surprising non the less.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:04 AM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you are working close to a source of heat, wearing more clothing will keep you cooler.

If you work outside in the sun, wearing long sleeve and pants (of a natural, breathable fiber) will keep you cooler than shorts and a tank top because you're skin will be covered from the sun.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 3:24 AM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Engineering is not the logical, well-thought-out process it appears to be (or at least appeared to me before I saw how the sausage is made). Products are developed under schedule and cost constraints that prevent the "ideal" product from ever being built. More "engineering" decisions are actually made by managers that are optimizing for short-term gains than long-term solutions.

In other words, I get to say "I told you so" a lot at work. This is not exactly pleasant, since I usually have to clean up the mess afterwards, too.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:19 AM on September 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Regarding travel writing:
If living in a city or reasonably populated area, there is no such thing as an undiscovered area. Someone, somewhere, in some format, and possibly some other langauge. It's already been written, and it's already been done. You need a new perspective, and to tell a story from that new perspective.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:17 AM on September 23, 2010

Stuttering is just totally, totally, totally misunderstood.
posted by shortyJBot at 10:26 AM on September 23, 2010

Rock climbing is as much about balance as it is about strength. And it's not a constant series of pull-ups: your legs are much important (i.e. stronger) than your arms. In a general sense, your arms keep you attached to the rock, your legs lift you.

That's why novice women are often better than men. They're not trying to muscle up the climb, but tend to use their better sense of balance to move from hold to hold.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:47 AM on September 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

To fly an airplane: the throttle is not the speed control, and the elevator (pulling back on the yoke/stick) doesn't make you go up. In fact most of the time the throttle is your up/down control and the stick/yoke is your speed control.
posted by phliar at 12:56 PM on September 23, 2010

I've heard countless people say that they have panic attacks without really knowing what the term means. When many lay people say "panic attack," they really mean a high level of anxiety that comes to a head while under large amounts of stress. This may involve feelings of panic, but this is not a panic attack. Technically, a panic attack lasts no longer than 5-10 minutes, and is primarily characterized by physical symptoms (chest pain/dizziness/shortness of breath/feeling like death is swiftly approaching), not emotional ones. True panic attacks are also rarely triggered by a specific identifiable stressor, so while you may be hyperventilating, crying hysterically and unable to function after your SO dumps you/boss yells at you/life falls apart, this is not a panic attack.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 3:53 PM on September 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

The most important cooking skills involve knowing how to get the best results possible out of mediocre ingredients, using inferior equipment and in substandard conditions.

- Most things should be cooked either rapidly over, very high heat OR slowly, over very low heat.
- One of the most important things about cooking food is knowing when to stop cooking it.
- The trick to seasoning food is that it shouldn't taste like anything you've used to season it.

If I could show you how to apply these techniques the way you cook would be changed forever.
posted by ChefJoAnna at 7:37 PM on September 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Viruses don't have to be that sophisticated in order to kill you quickly. Most of the adaptations they undergo after jumping species result in less symptoms and thus more chances to spread. Many large complex viruses are virtually obligate parasites which stay with you from cradle to grave.
posted by benzenedream at 12:33 AM on September 24, 2010

This is on the sidebar right now, but in case you missed it: pretty much everything you're looking at right now came to you via a big metal box.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:39 AM on September 24, 2010

To fly an airplane: the throttle is not the speed control, and the elevator (pulling back on the yoke/stick) doesn't make you go up. In fact most of the time the throttle is your up/down control and the stick/yoke is your speed control.

I'd agree, though pushing the yoke forward never got me far down the runway!
posted by Biru at 8:29 AM on September 24, 2010

Being unemployed: Having so much extra time does not make you accomplish things that you had put while you were working.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 12:16 PM on September 24, 2010

Career myth:

Many young people have a passion for a career that's not easy to make happen so they choose a career that's financially rewarding and plan to work X number of years in the financially rewarding career and make X amount of money to use the financially rewarding career to fund their entrance into the career they are passionate about.

However, what these young people fail to take into account is how much their environment affects them. Every year in that "other" career takes them farther from being connected to their original passion. Often, 10 years later, there is too much distance between them and their original passion to make a switch. They've spent all their energy thinking about something else. This is major fuel for a mid-life crises.

If you are passionate about something, move towards your passion. The worst thing you can do is move in the opposite direction.

Everyone I know (including myself) who has used this philosophy is making their passion happen. Conversely, I've never met anyone who actually pulled off the risky and evasive "money first" strategy. I'm sure someone out there has made it work, but I haven't met them yet and I'm constantly looking for them (and lucky people don't count--I'm talking about normal people in normal career growing situations, not lottery winners).
posted by Murray M at 5:04 AM on September 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Not exactly my field, but most music scored for big budget movies is actually written by the composer's team of assistants, not the big name you see in the credits.

In my experience this is true of most aspects of movies and television. People like the composer, the production designer, the director of photography, the editor, etc. are usually referred to as "department heads" in production parlance and their roles involve more decision-making and liasing with other departments and higher-ups like the director and producers than any use of the technical skills which got them the job.

Also, here's my contribution: when you're watching an interview with a filmmaker, or a commentary, you will often hear such people speak of aspects of the production as decisions they themselves made or actions they themselves took. They are almost always lying. They don't really know that they're lying, because in some weird cognitive leap they really do think that they did whatever it was. But 99 times out of 100, the thing was actually done via a huge collaborative process that they played only the tiniest role in.
posted by Sara C. at 11:19 AM on September 26, 2010

We (the United States) spent more on two weeks in Iraq than our entire annual budget for foreign aid.

posted by northxnorthwest at 5:02 AM on September 27, 2010

Newspaper comics: Some of the cartoonists whose names appear on their strips have little to do with their product, mostly on the older ones. Jim Davis (supposedly) comes up with rough ideas and sketches for Garfield and hands it over to a team. Others might have an assistant or two. Some of are completely handled by others. Some of the credited cartoonists might even be dead.

Also, they aren't done one at a time and handed in to newspapers a day before press time. They're often done in batches a couple months in advance. And they're typically done at least twice the size seen in papers.

And, if being a spectator of sports counts for this purpose, pro hockey: Very few NHL players get into fights. That's usually left up to a couple of "enforcers" on each team, who do the dirty work so the high-priced skill guys don't A) spend time in the penalty box, and B) get hurt. The idea is that the enforcers are there to discourage the other team from taking cheap shots at their star players. Then you have other players who are willing to get into fights if it gets heated enough. Then there are the pure finesse guys who rarely, if ever, do.

And hockey players only play 10-25 minutes of a 60-minute game. They'll change shifts, either during stoppages in play, or while it's still going on. Goalies do play the entire game though, and can lose 7 or 8 lbs through sweat.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:05 PM on September 27, 2010

"Computer science" and "fixing a computer" literally have nothing to do with each other except the word computer in the title.

To turn a motorcycle (other than low-speed parking lot maneuvers), you turn the front wheel away from the direction you're turning. If you're approaching a right-hand bend, you turn the front wheel to the left. Picture and explanation here.

The name of this is "countersteering". It also occurs on a bicycle, but works a bit differently because in that case, you far, far outweigh the bike.

In either case, to turn right, you very briefly steer left first... which causes the bike to start leaning right. At that point, you then steer right, and the bike turns. Voila!
posted by talldean at 7:18 AM on October 3, 2010

People like the composer, the production designer, the director of photography, the editor, etc. are usually referred to as "department heads" in production parlance and their roles involve more decision-making and liasing with other departments and higher-ups like the director and producers than any use of the technical skills which got them the job.

This is less true for editorial, at least in my experience. The edit assistants do an enormous amount of work, and senior assistants will often create the first edit of particular scenes, but more often than not the editor who is credited on the film has been instrumental in crafting every scene in the movie. The technical aspects of cutting may be largely handled by the assistants, but the creative, selective cutting is nearly always the work of the senior editor.
posted by shimmerbug at 3:21 PM on October 6, 2010

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