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Gin, Sitcoms and the Cognitive Surplus

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The cognitive surplus is the reason this blog exists, and likely the reason you're reading it right now. According to author Clay Shirky, it's also responsible for things like the Industrial Revolution, and it may be about to change the way we live in an even more dramatic way. The classic example of cognitive surplus is this: when British society started becoming more urban and crowding into London in the mid 18th century, it took people awhile to realize they were sitting on a cognitive gold mine; all those minds together in one place had an unprecedented potential to accomplish great things. But they were so freaked out by the sudden disappearance of the way of life their families had cultivated for a thousand years, and at finding themselves stuck in the increasingly loud, rank, dangerous city of London, that instead of taking advantage of their new situation, they spent a lot of time drinking gin. In fact, Shirky argues, they went on a generation-long bender, so extreme that "the stories from that era are amazing -- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London." No joke:

In the 18th century there was an epidemic of gin drinking in England. Rot-gut gin was destroying lives and families. Gin shops sold their product for one penny a pint. People died in vast numbers from cirrhosis of the liver. In London there were twice as many burials as baptisms. William Hogarth's savage portrait of Gin Lane in 1751 (above) stressed the terrible dissolution of the time: a house is falling down, a corpse is being put into a cart and a woman is so drunk that she is dropping her baby over a railing.

Flash forward to the 1950s.

The war is over, Americans are cooling their watchingTV1950ent1.jpgheels back home, enjoying something they never experienced during the Depression or the War that followed: free time. And kind of a lot of it, really; in other words, a cognitive surplus. And what should come along in response to this new national surplus? The Golden Age of Television, of course. So according to this hopefully not-too-tortured analogy, Americans' TV in the 50s was a bit like Londers' gin pushcarts in the 1760s; it was a way to spend a cognitive surplus we didn't quite know what to do with yet. But instead of an Industrial Revolution coming along to take advantage of our cognitive surplus in a useful way, Shirky argues, we got the internet. Here's where this train of thought gets really interesting:

So how big is our surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

All of which, naturally, got me thinking about my own personal surplus. Sure, we all feel busy, but once you start adding up the hours I've spent freaking out over Lost or shredding the competition in multiplayer online Guitar Hero, it becomes significant. I did a back-of-napkin calculation of my own, and figured that I've spent roughly 1,000 hours blogging for mental_floss since 2006. (I'm sure the time I've spent watching TV and movies is at least twice that, if not more.) But instead of figuring out what else I could be doing with that time, I'll ask you guys:

What's your annual cognitive surplus? Is there anything you'd rather be doing with it?

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Food
Let Alexa Help You Brine a Turkey This Thanksgiving
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There’s a reason most of us only cook turkey once a year: The bird is notoriously easy to overcook. You could rely on gravy and cranberry sauce to salvage your dried-out turkey this Thanksgiving, or you could follow cooking advice from the experts.

Brining a turkey is the best way to guarantee it retains its moisture after hours in the oven. The process is also time-consuming, so do yourself a favor this year and let Alexa be your sous chef.

“Morton Brine Time” is a new skill from the cloud-based home assistant. If you own an Amazon Echo you can download it for free by going online or by asking Alexa to enable it. Once it’s set up, start asking Alexa for brining tips and step-by-step recipes customized to the size of your turkey. Two recipes were developed by Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his Top Chef win and Food Network appearances.

Whether you go for a wet brine (soaking your turkey in water, salt, sugar, and spices) or a dry one (just salt and spices), the process isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And the knowledge that your bird will come out succulent and juicy will definitely take some stress out of the holiday.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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