1) “We Aren’t the World” (Pacific Standard, 20 minutes, February 2013). Thanks to reader Ellie C. for suggesting this. It’s the story of an anthropology student named Joe Henrich who, in the course of some field research, realized that some of the things we take as inherent just aren’t.
The test that Henrich introduced to the Machiguenga was called the ultimatum game. The rules are simple: in each game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But there’s a hitch: players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed. North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a 50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the tendency to be equitable with strangers—and to punish those who are not.
Among the Machiguenga, word quickly spread of the young, square-jawed visitor from America giving away money. The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not insubstantial—roughly equivalent to the few days’ wages they sometimes earned from episodic work with logging or oil companies. So Henrich had no problem finding volunteers. What he had great difficulty with, however, was explaining the rules, as the game struck the Machiguenga as deeply odd.
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
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3) The Now I Know Week in Review:
- Monday: How a Creative Codebreaker Changed the Course of WWII — a self-explanatory title.
- Tuesday: Meet History’s Best Checkers Player — another self-explanatory title!
- Wednesday: Take Me Out to the Mayhem — a baseball promotion gone wrong. Very, very wrong.
- Thursday: A Profitable Way to Stop Telemarketers — if you liked this one, see item #4 below.
And a bonus item: Prisoner C2559. If you were incarcerated, this is the prisoner you probably would want as a roommate.
4) “The Rise and Fall of the 1-900 Number” (Priceonomics, 12 minutes, October 2016). Goes well with Thursday’s Now I Know. For a while, 1-900 numbers were hugely popular — and hugely profitable — and then, poof. What happened?
In 1993, there were more than 10,000 900 numbers in operation. You could call a number to play interactive Wheel of Fortune, to get farm commodity prices or surfing conditions, to get advice from a lawyer or an estimate on your used car, to order a soap opera magazine, to hear a religious rap song, or to meet a single man in Alaska.You could dial a 900 number to help victims of Hurricane Hugo, to get coupons, to record a music audition, to vote for Miss America, or to get Microsoft technical support. There were cartoon hotlines, tax help hotlines, joke hotlines, insurance hotlines, and even horror hotlines. For $60, you could call a 900 number and listen to a three-hour live broadcast of a Penn State football game. There was even a $25 hotline you could call to get information on starting a hotline!
5) “Their goal: Meet the Beatles on tour in 1966. Their solution: Impersonate the opening act.” (Washington Post, 12 minutes, August 2016.) I love a good prank, and this one — wow. Thanks Richard V. for the tip!
In August 1966, as the Beatles made their way to Washington during what would ultimately be their last tour, a group of six scheming 15-year-olds from the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood developed a plan: 1. See the concert. 2. For free. 3. By sneaking into what then was called D.C. Stadium. 4. Disguised as the Beatles’ opening act, a band called the Cyrkle.
Incorporated into this plan were makeshift costumes, a rented limo, decoy groupies and the unwitting participation of D.C. police, who provided the fake band with a motorcade escort.
Aside from a paragraph-long mention in the Washington Star, in which the kids refused to provide their names, the plot went uncatalogued in the public record. Now, on the concert’s 50th anniversary, members of the fake Cyrkle provide an oral history of how they pulled off one of the greatest pranks in Washington folklore.
6) “There’s No Crying in Professional Wiffle Ball” (Narratively, 9 minutes, July 2017). The subhead: “With strict rules, stiff competition and cash on the line, this is nothing like the breezy backyard ballgame you remember.” After reading this, go to YouTube and watch some professional whiffle ball videos; the ball does things that seem impossible.
Have a great weekend!