A Penny's Worth

A collection of useful, practical, advice and insight from around the web.

Acting (top)

"The studio vice president called me in and said: 'Sit down, kid' even though he was only about six years older than I was. 'I want to tell you a story. The first time Tony Curtis was ever in a movie he delivered a bag of groceries. We took one look at him and knew he was a movie star. You ain't got it kid, you ain't got it. You ain't working hard enough. I want you to get back to class and study. Now get out of here'. I leaned across the table and said: 'I thought you were supposed to think he was the grocery delivery boy'."

Harrison Ford / Columbia Pictures in 1966

Arguments (top)

Athletics / Olympics (top)

Baby Names (top)

Blindness (top)

Brevity (top)

Business (top)

Choice / Contentment (top)

Choices (top)

Coaching (top)

Comedy (top)

Communism (top)

Creativity (top)

Debate / Reason (top)

Dissent (top)

Eating (top)

Economics (top)

Education / Reading (top)

Engineering (top)

Years ago new engineers in the Lamp Division of General Electric were assigned, as a joke, the impossible task of frosting bulbs on the inside. Eventually, however, an undaunted newcomer named Marvin Pipkin not only found a way to frost bulbs on the inside but developed an etching acid that gave minutely rounded pits instead of sharp depressions. This materially strengthened each bulb. Fortunately, no one had told him it couldn't be done, so he did it.

Bits & Pieces, December, 1989, p. 20-21

Entrepreneurs (top)

One of the major failures of entrepreneurs is that they believe in themselves more than their ideas.

Air Asia founder, Tony Fernandes

Fame (top)

Finances/Investing (top)

Football Goalkeepers / Psychology (top)

Ever wondered why football goalkeepers almost always make spectacular dives in those nail-biting penalty shoot-outs ... [and] ... why they often dramatically fail to save the shot[?] ... according to the findings of recently published international research, they'd be better off standing still to win the game for their team ... The reason they dive appears to ... boil down to peer pressure: goalies feel that, if they dive, their coach, fans and team-mates will think they've done their all to deflect the shot. But, after watching hundreds of penalty shoot-outs, researchers concluded they'd be better off ... standing still in the centre of the goalmouth - rather than diving to their left, or right. If they remained still, they would likely save one out of every three penalties. Diving to their left, or right, would result in a chance of below 15% in making a successful stop. How often did the goalkeeper actually stay still? The research, published in the journal, Progress in Brain Research ... found that only in 6% of all penalty kicks faced, did the goalkeeper remain relatively motionless. The research team also discovered after interviews with goalkeepers that many felt pressured to 'look' like they were doing 'something' - best demonstrated by flinging themselves at great speed and athleticism to their left or right. There was also the problem that a goalkeeper - beaten by a shot after staying still in the centre - looked as if they had not tried at all.

Serkan Ozturk / Fairfax Media

Grammar (top)

Gratitude (top)

According to multtiple studies, gratitude is mentally and physically nutritious for kids.

"We know that grateful kids are happier [and] more satisfied with their lives," explains Hoftra University psychology assistant professor Jeffrey Froh in an article this week in The Washington Post. "They report better relationships with friends and family, higher GPAs, less materialism, less envy and less depression, along with a desire to connect to their community and to want to give back."

That's not all. It's also believed to boost immune systems and lower blood pressure over time. In a Temple Univeristy study, patients with hypertension lowered their blood pressure just by calling a "gratitude" hotline everyday.


In a study of early adolescents, Froh found that kids who journaled daily about their good fortune, over a period of two weeks, were less prone to depression and more satisfied with their lives overall. And that optimism and satisfaction made them more likely to take care of themselves physically in the long-term.

Pyschologist Robert Emmons, author of the book "Thanks!", explains it this way: "Our emotional systems like newness, [but] we adapt to positive life circumstances so that before too long, the new car, the new spouse, the new house-they don't feel so new and exciting anymore. Gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it. "

But like anything else, gratitude takes getting used to. Developing a 'thanking' routine, from journaling to dinner time shout-outs, is an essential element to all the studies that noted improvements in patients.

Shine / Yahoo!

Humor (top)

Interviews (top)

Journalism (top)

Leadership (top)

Logo / Identity Design (top)

Loyalty (top)

Marriage / Love (top)

Medicine / Placebos (top)

Say "placebo effect" and most people think of the boost they may get from a sugar pill simply because they believe it will work. But more and more research suggests there is more than a fleeting boost to be gained from placebos.

A particular mind-set or belief about one's body or health may lead to improvements in disease symptoms as well as changes in appetite, brain chemicals and even vision, several recent studies have found, highlighting how fundamentally the mind and body are connected.

It doesn't seem to matter whether people know they are getting a placebo and not a "real" treatment. One study demonstrated a strong placebo effect in subjects who were told they were getting a sugar pill with no active ingredient.


Hotel-room attendants who were told they were getting a good workout at their jobs showed a significant decrease in weight, blood pressure and body fat after four weeks, in a study published in Psychological Science in 2007 ... Employees who did the same work but weren't told about exercise showed no change in weight. Neither group reported changes in physical activity or diet.

Patients in a recent study were treated with placebos for an induced asthma attack. They reported feeling just as good as when they received an active treatment with albuterol.

Another study, published earlier this year in the journal Health Psychology, shows how mind-set can affect an individual's appetite and production of a gut peptide called ghrelin (GREL-in), which is involved in the feeling of satisfaction after eating. Ghrelin levels are supposed to rise when the body needs food and fall proportionally as calories are consumed, telling the brain the body is no longer hungry and doesn't need to search out more food.

Yet the data show ghrelin levels depended on how many calories participants were told they were consuming, not how many they actually consumed. When told a milkshake they were about to drink had 620 calories and was "indulgent," the participants' ghrelin levels fell more "the brain perceived it was satisfied more quickly" than when they were told the shake had 120 calories and was "sensible."

The results may offer a physiological explanation of why eating diet foods can feel so unsatisfying, says Ms. Crum, first author on the study. "That mind-set of dieting is telling the body you're not getting enough."

Studies across medical conditions including depression, migraines and Parkinson's disease have found that supposedly inert treatments, like sugar pills, sham surgery and sham acupuncture, can yield striking effects. A 2001 study published in Science found that placebo was effective at improving Parkinson's disease symptoms at a magnitude similar to real medication. The placebo actually induced the brain to produce greater amounts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter known to be useful in treating the disease.


With depression, an estimated 30% to 45% of patients, or even more, in some studies, will respond to a placebo, according to a review published in December in Clinical Therapeutics. An additional 5% of patients were helped by an antidepressant in cases of mild depression, and an additional 16% in cases of severe depression. (The clinically meaningful cutoff for additional benefit was 11%.)

Fertility rates have been found to improve in women getting a placebo, perhaps because they experience a decrease in stress. A recent randomized trial of women with polycystic ovarian syndrome found that 15%, or 5 of 33, got pregnant while taking placebo over a six-month period, compared with 22%, or 7 of 32, who got the drug, a statistically insignificant difference. Other studies have demonstrated pregnancy rates as high as 40% in placebo groups.

Ted Kaptchuk, director of Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, and colleagues demonstrated that deception isn't necessary for the placebo effect to work. Eighty patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic gastrointestinal disorder, were assigned either a placebo or no treatment. Patients in the placebo group got pills described to them as being made with an inert substance and showing in studies to improve symptoms via "mind-body self-healing processes." Participants were told they didn't have to believe in the placebo effect but should take the pills anyway, Dr. Kaptchuk says. After three weeks, placebo-group patients reported feelings of relief, significant reduction in some symptoms and some improvement in quality of life.

Why did the placebo work, even after patients were told they weren't getting real medicine? Expectations play a role, Dr. Kaptchuk says. Even more likely is that patients were conditioned to a positive environment, and the innovative approach and daily ritual of taking the pill created an openness to change, he says.

Do placebos work on the actual condition, or on patients' perception of their symptoms? In a study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Kaptchuk's team rotated 46 asthma patients through each of four types of treatment: no treatment at all, an albuterol inhaler, a placebo inhaler and sham acupuncture. As each participant got each treatment, researchers induced an asthma attack and measured the participant's lung function and perception of symptoms. The albuterol improved measured lung function compared with placebo. But the patients reported feeling just as good whether getting placebo or the active treatment.

"Right now, I think evidence is that placebo changes not the underlying biology of an illness, but the way a person experiences or reacts to an illness," Dr. Kaptchuk says.

Placebo can be more effective than the intended treatment. In a trial published in the journal Menopause in 2007, 103 women who had menopausal hot flashes got either five weeks of real acupuncture, or five weeks of sham acupuncture, where needles weren't placed in accepted therapeutic positions. A week after treatments ended, only some 60% of participants in both groups reported hot flashes?a robust immediate placebo effect. Seven weeks post-treatment, though, 55% of patients in the sham acupuncture group reported hot flashes, compared with 73% in the real acupuncture group.

Wall Street Journal / Shirley S. Wang

Memorization (top)

Both men use a technique they say is popular with memory fanatics, a method known as loci, which means places, thought to be used by the ancient Romans and Greeks. The theory is that the brain is best equipped to remember images and locations, because this information is evolutionarily useful, say, in helping humans remember which trails through the woods lead back home.

By turning names, facts and figures into pictures and then anchoring these images in the mind using familiar locations, such as one's house, one needs only to "walk" through his house mentally to remember where the image was placed.

"It's such an addicting hobby-slash-sport," says Mr. Dellis. "When you start the techniques, you don't believe it [is going to work]. When you see the results, you feel like you have a superhuman power."

One key is to move through the location the same way each time to place each memory in order. Using a house, it might be front door, hall mirror, coffee table, etc. To remember a grocery list, imagine, say, the eggs smashed on the front door, the bread reflected in the mirror and the orange juice spilling on the table.

Some anchor their memories on the golf course (the tee box, fairway and green for each hole are natural locations). Others use the trip to school or to visit their grandfather. One past memory championship competitor would move her fingers as she recalled information because she played the piano and was scoring music to remember streams of numbers, says Tony Dottino, a founder of the tournament.

The more outrageous or evocative the picture, the easier the word is to recall, experts say. For instance, to remember a grocery list that includes milk, one might imagine milk spewing from the TV?the location anchor.

Proponents say these memory techniques have uses beyond merely wowing people. They can help business types give speeches without notes, and students memorize facts for tests.

WSJ / Nelson Dellis

Mixed Metaphors (top)

Modelling / Pay Disparity (top)

Mormonism (top)

Online Customer Reviews (top)

Parenting (top)

Peace and Love (top)

Persecution (top)

Politics (top)

Power (top)

"Not having the power is liberating," says [Icann founding chairman, Esther] Dyson, who warns against Web oversight by governments or groups of governments. When asked about lobbying by the United Nations for control over the Web as an alternative to Icann, Ms. Dyson correctly calls this a "fate worse than death" and quotes this warning from a poem by British poet Hilaire Belloc: "Always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse."
Icann proves that a self-regulating body can do its job, if it has limited powers and isn't burdened by political agendas - even and especially - if it oversees something as complex, global and valuable as the Internet.

Prayer (top)

Professional Sport (top)

Public Opinion (top)

Public Speaking (top)

Reading / Fairy Tales (top)

Romantic Comedy Films (top)

Sales / Bargaining (top)

Statistical Misleadings (top)

Teaching / Education (top)

Teaching/Education (top)

Unintended Consequences (top)

United States Supreme Court (top)

Winning (top)

Writing (top)

Harry Kreisler, Institute of International Studies:
I always like to ask writers like yourself, what you think, or the skills and the temperament required for being a professional writer?

Mark Steyn:
Well, I think the first thing is you just have to do it. I think if you sit around and wait for the great opening sentence, you'll never write anything.

You mentioned my father. My father was an art expert and for years he was planning on writing a book on art, and he used to leave notes for himself by the telephone and the note would be, "go to post office, pay gardener, write book". [Laughs] And of course, if you just leave notes for yourself by the telephone like that, then you never will write a book. So I think a lot of it is just doing it.

When I started in journalism and you're kind of a cocky young punk and you can't understand why it is that some of these guys you think are like middle aged bores and haven't written anything interesting in 25 years are holding down all the jobs, and my limited experience of being in the editing rooms at newspapers is that often it's because they are the guys who are reliable. That if you say that we need this by 5pm, they deliver it by 5pm. We have that awful phrase, "oh, he's just phoning it in", you'd be surprised if you're the editor, from the editor's point of view, how grateful you are for the guy who phones it in, compared to when it's 5 o'clock and you haven't got the copy, and you're waiting there. So I think at a certain level, you've just got to be reliable, you just have got to do it.

And I think that after that, if you really don't want to be spending a couple of hours a day writing, you really should not be writing. You've shouldn't be doing it. I am a painfully slow writer compared to a lot of people. I'm always horrified when I hear people saying how long they take to write a book because it comes very slowly to me. But I think that even if it comes slowly, you've just got to actually just sit down there and do it.

Conversations with History: Mark Steyn / 10:37 - 12:52

Writing / Storytelling (top)

1. You admire characters more for trying than for their successes.

2. Remember that what's interesting to an audience can be very different from what's fun to do as a writer.

3. Theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about until you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.

6. What are your characters good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8. Finish your story and let go, even if it's not perfect. Move on, and do better next time.

9.When you're stuck, make a list of what wouldn't happen next. Often the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10. Pull apart the stories you like. You've got to recognize what you like in them before you can learn from them.

11. Putting an idea on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, you'll never share it with anyone.

12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third and fourth?get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive, malleable characters might seem likable to you as you write, but they are poison to the audience.

14. Why must you tell this story? What's the belief burning within you that feeds your story?

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16. What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for your characters. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

17. No idea is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on?it will come back around to be useful later.

18. You have to know yourself: Learn the difference between doing your best and fussing.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20. What's the essence of your story and the most economical way of telling it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Emma Coats