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Infrastructure: What are the most beautiful bridges ever built?

The Evil Economics Of Judging Teachers

An excellent précis of the difficulties faced by Americans attempting to understand the Finnish system appeared last month in The Atlantic. It was written by Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality. […] In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year — or even just the price of a house in a good public school district — and the other “99 percent” is painfully plain to see.

Stunningly, the comments to this piece are bristling with what amounts to white-supremacist nonsense, suggesting that there is Something (White) About the Finns that other, more diverse nations just can’t compete with. This assertion flies in the face of facts as stated in the article itself and elsewhere. (For example, Norway, which is demographically very similar to Finland, but which uses American-style standardized testing methods, ranks near the U.S.’s mediocre level in the PISA results.)

Any Americans who wish to maintain their white-supremacist fantasies should have a look at the consistently excellent results produced by American military schools, which outperform public school results year after year. Military schools are exempt from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, you may be surprised to hear. “Even more impressive, the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools,” wrote Michael Winerip in The Times last month.

Here are things that Finnish schools and U.S. military schools have in common:

• No standardized testing of kids
• Egalitarian treatment of kids
• Teachers have autonomy and are trusted
• No standardized testing for teachers, principals or schools
• Smaller class sizes
• Smooth relations between teachers and administrators

Flavors: What should everyone know about the flavor industry?

Natural flavorings are not any better than artificial flavorings and might even be worse.

Processed foods switching to all natural flavorings are nothing but marketers attempting to exploit your ignorance.

What is a natural flavor? The federal rule is:

the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional (21CFR101.22).

Beaver anal glands produce a natural flavoring ingredient called castoreum. It’s been used to flavor foods for 80 years. Here’s the NIHM report on its safety:  Safety assessment of castoreum extract… [Int J Toxicol. 2007 Jan-Feb].

Artificial flavorings are created Breaking Bad-style, just a bunch of chemicals thrown together (which can result in very pure product), but natural flavorings don’t come from the ingredient you’re trying to imitate, either. They just come from something natural instead of straight chemicals. Instead of Walt starting with a lot of Sudofed, he’s got a bag of anal glands or apple seeds.

Professional flavorists analyze a food and try to pick out a handful of chemicals that roughly give you the same flavor. Real grapes might have 100 chemicals that contribute to flavor, but fake grape flavoring will have just a few.

Then it’s just a matter of selecting which chemistry process will give them that chemical.

One of the strawberry flavorings comes from a peach pit, which also contains cyanide. The flavoring can also be made in a lab in a process that doesn’t potentially expose it to cyanide, but who’d want to do that when you can put “natural” on the label instead?

I first read this in Fast Food Nation. Lots of vegan and natural food sites have more information, and here’s a mainstream news site with some expert opinion on the relative safety of natural flavorings: Food Q&A: Just what is ‘natural’ flavoring?
Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, says that  the distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is based on the source of these often identical chemicals. In fact, he says, “artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized.
(I’d love an edit suggestion trying to indent this. The site’s not totally working for me right now.)

7-Up recently did a makeover where they started using all natural flavorings instead of some artificial. That doesn’t mean they started using real lemon juice instead of chemical mix A.

Neuroscience: If willpower is like a muscle, how does this actually work in the brain?

What is like a muscle is not willpower but discipline.

Discipline is about acting according to your goals, principles, and agreements rather than acting according to comfort or the feeling in the moment. Discipline is a habit that can be cultivated.

In the brain, neural connections that support the action paths taken are strengthened. The more one gives into fear or chooses comfort over principle, the more automatic those pathways become and the more “willpower” it takes to “choose” the other pathways.

In the military or in aviation, when heroic acts are performed, the “heroes” will often say “it was the training.” If the same scenarios are practiced over and over, then when a dangerous and challenging situation comes up requiring immediate action, the action is automatic.

Conversely in addiction, the action sequence taken repeatedly is the sequence that supports the addiction, often by avoiding discomfort. This path is taken so often, and rewarded so consistently with the goal experience at the end (drug effect, gambling/winning, eating, video game “success”, …) that the action steps to get there become automatically executed by the brain and it “feels” like it takes a lot of “willpower” to do something different.  The “willpower” in this case is the vigilant attention and sustained discomfort required to prevent the brain from doing what in the past it has been trained to do.

In the brain, the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in strengthening the neural pathways that are most frequently taken and most frequently lead to a “reward”. So by deliberately following the action paths you want to become easier, the brain strengthens and indirectly weakens others. You could say that this is like strengthening a muscle.

Oliver Emberton’s answer provides a great take on the same process:
Life Advice: How do I get over my bad habit of procrastinating?