Plus ça change: On Flickr, the Boston Public Library is offering a huge cache of photographs of vintage Boston car accidents. The photos are part of the Library's extraordinary Leslie Jones Collection: Jones was a photographer for the Boston Herald-Traveler from 1917 to 1956. "The collection," the curators write, "is a stunning pictorial document of the history of Boston in the 20th century, and a tribute to the craft and artistry of a man who by doing his job preserve the past on glass and film."
Rarely have morbid curiosity, old-timey nostalgia, and civic pride been combined so effectively. See the rest of the photos -- which appear here courtesy of the Boston Public Library, and are copyright Leslie Jones -- here.
Writing in Nature, John Whitfield highlights a fascinating problem: superstar botanists are a dying breed, and they may be irreplaceable. It turns out that a small number of botanists discover the lion's share of new plant species. "The top 2% of botanical gatherers," Whitfield writes, "have accumulated more than half of the type specimens in some of the world's most important collections.... These elite field workers have probably numbered fewer than 500 people throughout history." Changes in the field of botany are reducing their numbers.
Leonhart Fuchs, one of the three founding fathers of modern botany.
Discovering new plant species gets easier, it seems, when you do it a lot already:
Broad experience helps a collector to know what to sample, and what to ignore.... If a plant looks new, collectors try to get as many parts -- flowers, leaves, root and fruit -- as possible.... That craftmanship must be allied to innate gifts in pattern recognition, says Quentin Luke, a botanist affiliated with the East African Herbarium in Nairobi. “People with a natural ability to distinguish plants from each other are few and far between,” he says.... A prodigious visual memory also helps. Alwyn Gentry of the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the leading botanists of the twentieth century, claimed to remember every plant he had ever collected, amounting at his death to more than 80,000 specimens.
And you have to be more than just gifted -- you also have to be an adventurer, ready to climb huge trees in the rainforest, dodge bullets, and avoid dangerous entanglements with the locals. One botanist, Henk Beentje, tells Whitfield about a narrow escape from an angry mob in Madagascar: “They thought I was abducting virgins and stealing their blood. We got out by the skin of our teeth.” All this, and you must be absolutely passionate about plants, too.
In recent decades, Whitfield writes, the world has become less hospitable to superstar plant collectors. Botany is now highly "molecular" -- that is, focused on DNA -- which gives botanists less opportunity to work in the field. And many tropical countries are increasingly protective of their own plants, which they see as a possible source for new drugs and agricultural products; they prefer to train local botanists. Some botanists now advocate a more "crowd-sourced" approach, Whitfield explains, in which "volunteers will be armed with a tablet computer bearing the world's botanical information in one hand and a pocket DNA sequencer that identifies species in the other."
In the meantime, the best collectors have gathered up so many plants that there's a classification backlog: "The gap between a species being collected and being described averages about 36 years"; at least half of the planet's 70,000 unidentified plant species might be "in a cupboard somewhere." Much more at Nature.
In a forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review, Oxford economic historian Jane Humphries offers a fascinating -- and harrowing -- overview of child labor during Britain's industrial revolution. The paper, "Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution," draws on over 600 autobiographies as well as census reports, business records, and other statistics to paint a fine-grained picture of the forces which brought millions of children into factories, onto farms, and into the British army and navy. (The paper is based on Humphries' 2010 book of the same name.)
The reliance of Victorian England on child labor is hardly a secret -- in fact, a recent BBC special based on Professor Humphries' work is called, quite simply, "The Children Who Built Victorian Britain" (you can watch some clips online). But the reasons for the rise of child labor in the first place are a little obscure. Humphries' work shows that a number of factors led to its prevalence.
Lack of regulation was certainly one of them, and it may have been true that some jobs (crawling inside huge machines, working in small mining tunnels) were performed more easily by children. Just as important, though, were changes in the way work processes were organized (even very traditional, non-mechanized jobs were broken down into very simple tasks); increases in the number of materials involved in manufacturing processes (children were widely employed to carry things from one part of a job site to another, "in never-ending circles of effort"); and larger, social transformations ("Britain developed breadwinner-dependent families early in its history," Humphries explains, "and in advance of sufficient prosperity or social discipline"; many men abandoned their families, forcing their children to find work). Widespread poverty was obviously a factor, but so was the huge demand for consumer goods, which saw factories opening faster than adult labor could be recruited. Humphries quotes from the autobiography of Robert Collier, born 1823:
Very early in the last century there was an urgent need for children to work in the factories they were building then on all the streams they could find fit for their purpose in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The local supply of ‘help’ could not begin to meet the demand; and so the owners of the factories went or sent south to scour the asylums where children were to be found in swarms, to bring them north and set them to work as apprentices....
It's unlikely, Humphries explains, that the industrial revolution could have unfolded as fast as it did without child labor. And that quick growth had a ramifying effect: As more children went into the workforce, more working adults found their skills broken down into steps that children could perform. Shoemakers, for example, saw the simplest parts of shoemaking taken over by boys as young as 10; their wages decreased, and so their children had to find work in factories, perpetuating the process.
It's important to understand the dynamics which helped create Victorian child labor, Humphries writes, if you want to stop it from happening today. An analysis of Victorian child labor reveals some of its causes, and, thereby, shows that there are lots of ways to stop it, besides just passing (often ineffective) laws. If one cause, for example, was the narrowing gap between the productivity of children and adults, then you can fight child labor by expanding the productivity differential between them: "Technological change that lowers the relative productivity of children, such as the use of computers," can help to eradicate child labor nowadays. It's an absolutely fascinating paper. Read it here, or watch the BBC special, starring Professor Humphries, on YouTube.
The amazing expanding Pentagon: Thanassis Cambanis on how the Defense Department has slowly taken over our foreign policy. "After a decade of 'mission creep' -- into diplomacy, agriculture, even energy policy -- the Department of Defense has become America’s default tool for dealing with the world. Where does this leave the next president?"
How to look at the Pru: Absolutely awesome interactive info graphic on the Prudential Tower. The history of the Pru is the history of Boston.
Putting that doctorate to work: Keith O'Brien on the Ronin Institute, an initiative to put "the unharnessed brainpower of the highly educated underemployed" to work around the world. It's "named for ronin -- the samurai who broke with the code of feudal Japan, refusing to commit suicide upon the deaths of their masters."
Close-reading Donna Summer: Matthew Guerrieri on the pop diva. She "helped changed pop music’s DNA." It dethroned "the riff-oriented thrust of rock dominance" and replaced it with the ebb and flow of dance music.
"Mixed feelings" might be good for you: Kevin Lewis reports on a study showing that "people who experienced more simultaneous positive and negative emotion tended to report fewer health symptoms."
[Image: The Pentagon, by David B. Gleason.]
Everyone loves vintage-inspired photo software these days -- and now Brooklyn-based writer and artist Matthew Richardson has created the ultimate vintage camera rig. It's called the Descriptive Camera, and it takes you all the way back to the pre-photographic era by producing only textual descriptions of what you photograph. Take a moody, washed-out photograph of the cool-looking building outside your office -- get back a 'photograph' explaining that "This is a faded picture of a dilapidated building. It seems to be run down and in the need of repirs [sic]."
How does the 'camera' work? It takes a photo, then uses a software system run by Amazon, called "Mechanical Turk," to send it to a real, live person who writes the description. (They can be located anywhere in the world, and get paid a small sum, around $1.25, to write up the photo.) The description is then transmitted back to the camera, which prints it out. It's a fun combination of high- and low-tech approaches.
You can read more about the camera's inner workings, and see more example photos and a video, here.
Everybody loves tacos -- but where did they come from, other than “Mexico”? In Smithsonian magazine, Katy June Friesen talks with Jeffrey Pilcher, a historian at the University of Minnesota who has studied Mexican food for two decades, and whose new book, “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food,” is coming out this summer.
Nobody knows exactly where the taco originated, Pilcher says, although it’s clear that Glen Bell (of Taco Bell) didn’t invent it, as he sometimes claimed. “My theory is that it dates from the 18th century and the silver mines in Mexico, because in those mines the word ‘taco’ referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. These were pieces of paper that they would wrap around gunpowder and insert into the holes they carved in the rock face.” From there, Pilcher says, you’re just a metaphor away from a taco filled with spicy chicken. “And one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de minero -- miner’s tacos.”
In the 20th century, the taco’s popularity grew, in part because so many Mexican Americans fought in World War Two; tacos now incorporate distinctly non-Mexican ingredients, like hamburger and cheddar cheese. More at Smithsonian.
Last week I wrote about one demographer's argument that the world was likely to grow more religious in the future because religious people have more kids. Here, the statistician Hans Rosling makes the opposite argument: the high-altitude view of world population shows, he says, that religion has very little to do with birth rate. Highly recommended. (Watch to the end for the best explanation of world population growth I've seen.)
Writing in Boston Review, Harvard's Michael Sandel offers an essay-length summary of his new book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. I've enjoyed this book quite a lot and think it's well worth reading in its entirety -- but, if you don't have the time, this is a great place to start. Key quote (from the book): "Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods they exchange. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about... [S]ome of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities."
The idea that thinking about something in a market-based way might corrupt or degrade it may seem like a lot of moralistic finger-wagging. In fact, Sandel argues, it's a very real, measurable effect, and, cumulatively, it can change the way our society works. Consider this example from Switzerland:
For years, Switzerland had been trying to find a place to store its radioactive waste.... One location designated as a potential site was the small mountain village of Wolfenschiessen (population 2,100). In 1993, shortly before a referendum on the issue, economists surveyed the residents of the village, asking whether they would vote to accept a nuclear waste repository in their community if the Swiss parliament decided to build it there. Although the facility was widely viewed as an undesirable addition to the neighborhood, a slim majority (51 percent) of residents said they would accept it. Apparently their sense of civic duty outweighed their concern about the risks. Then the economists added a sweetener: suppose parliament proposed building the nuclear waste facility in your community and offered to compensate each resident with an annual monetary payment. Then would you favor it?
The result: support dropped to 25 percent. What’s more, upping the ante didn’t help. When the economists increased the monetary offer, the result was unchanged. The residents stood firm even when offered yearly cash payments as high as $8,700 per person, well in excess of the median monthly income.
It's a classic example, Sandel writes, of the way that putting a price on something -- in this case, civic virtue -- can actually change and even destroy it. Apart from the market, accepting the location of the storage site is virtuous; with the market, it's simple bribery. In fact, "83 percent of those who rejected the monetary proposal explained their opposition by saying they could not be bribed." It's what Sandel calls "crowding out": Introduce the market, and you "crowd out" other ways of thinking about a decision. Incentivize a behavior, and you might actually get less of it.
Economists, Sandel writes, aren't particularly bothered by crowding out; in their view, society is better off instituting market mechanisms wherever possible so as to reduce our reliance on altruism, which is a fickle and limited resource. But "to those not steeped in economics," Sandel argues, "this way of thinking about the generous virtues is strange, even far-fetched. It ignores the possibility that our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice."
A team of MIT engineers appear to have definitively solved the ketchup conundrum! As Austin Carr reports over at Fast Company, the team has invented a bottle coating, LiquiGlide, which takes solid form but is "lubricated" like a liquid. Put it inside a ketchup bottle, one researcher says, and the ketchup "just floats right onto the sandwich." (Yes, that is 100% real ketchup in the video below.)
The team, which consists of four grad students, a post-doc, and an MIT professor, is part of the Varanasi Research Group, which specializes in "nano engineered surfaces, interfaces, and coatings." Last week, the team came in second at the MIT 100k Competition (where, unsurprisingly, it also won the Audience Choice Award). Dave Smith, one of the grad students on the team, explains to Carr just how useful this "structured liquid" might be:
"It’s funny: Everyone is always like, 'Why bottles? What’s the big deal?' But then you tell them the market for bottles -- just the sauces alone is a $17 billion market," Smith says. "And if all those bottles had our coating, we estimate that we could save about one million tons of food from being thrown out every year."
Here's hoping that shampoo is next. Read more -- and watch a mayonnaise video! -- at Fast Company.
How to ask questions: Leon Neyfakh on the skills involved in asking good questions. "There is, as yet, no field of 'question studies,'" but there are "a handful of thinkers making a career of taking a close look at how questions work, what our brains are doing when they put a question together, and how questions could drive learning, child development, innovation, business strategy, and creativity." They're finding that a question is "a unique instrument that we can get better at using if we try."
National security lessons from the octopus: J. Gabriel Boylan on Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist turned national security thinker who argues the octopus -- "a creature that is both agile and smart -- and whose power comes not just from its brain, but from its body’s ability to make its own decisions when it needs to" -- provides a good model for how big institutions can cope with complicated, unpredictable problems.
Down with chairs! Colin McSwiggen: "Chairs are evil. All of them. No designer has ever made a good chair, because it is impossible. Chairs are a health hazard, they’re morally troubling, and we’ve become dependent on them -- and it’s not clear that we’ll ever be free."
In search of the modern proverb: Ben Zimmer on the new Dictionary of Modern Proverbs from Yale University Press. One of the book's "great pleasures" is "seeing how successful sayings inspire clever or sarcastic elaborations, like graffiti writers scribbling responses to each other. The rueful expression 'Life’s a bitch,' for example, dates back to 1940 in the writing of Langston Hughes. But by 1982, it had spawned the fatalistic 'Life’s a bitch and then you die.'
Figure skating: more corrupt than ever: More great discoveries courtesy of Kevin Lewis -- including the fact that figure skating judges are growing more corrupt, despite efforts to curb corruption.
Business Insider officially wins the internet this week with this absolutely spectacular aerial tour of Canada's Alberta oil sands. Reporter / photographer Robert Johnson explains: "After being refused a mine tour and any type of access to a mining site or equipment, Business Insider rented a plane that I used to see everything I could of the mines on my own."
The oil sands in 1930; they've come a long way since then.
Johnson has put together an extraordinary slideshow. Most of the photos explain some part of the oil extraction process; others look at how the oil companies work to return the land to its original condition afterwards. See all the photos at Business Insider.
Bored with the overexposed-yet-still-intriguing idea of an urban, rooftop farm? UrbanFarmers AG, a firm based in Zurich, has invented a new twist on the usual rooftop formula: a rooftop fish farm, enclosed in a dome which looks like a fish:
Together with our design and product strategy partner Conceptual Devices, we have developed GLOBE (hedron), a unique geodesic rooftop farm design structure which is built using natural, renewable materials such as bamboo for its central structural elements. Inside the structure, we will be utilizing UrbanFarmers AG proprietary Aquaponic system technology, growing both fish and plants in natural synergy with each other. One GLOBE (hedron) could feed a family of 4 with fresh fish and vegetables, salads & herbs - year-round.
To me, there's always something both utopian and post-apocalyptic about these sorts of projects -- after the power goes out, you could subsist for years on the produce from your GLOBE. The system is still in the early stages, and has yet to advance to a "real-world" prototype, although UrbanFarmers have a lot of experience in producing viable urban farms. You can learn more about their Aquaponics system starting at around 4:30 in this TED Talk -- many of their projects are quite large-scale.
The upcoming presidential election means, among other things, that you can expect a lot of (ambivalent, incoherent, possibly self-incriminating) Massachusetts-bashing. Over at Slate, Mark Vanhoenacker has the perfect antidote: a comprehensive overview of why Massachusetts is the best state in the Union. Despite "certain unfortunate regional accents, the term wicked," and the "Taxachusetts" stereotype, Massachusetts is actually "an exceptionally successful state" -- perhaps the all-around most successful.
Some of the highlights, on education:
[T]he home of the original Tea Party also has the best schools in the country. On the most basic measures of educational achievement -- fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading skills -- Massachusetts tops the nation.... [W]hile reading proficiency in Mississippi is comparable to Russia or Bulgaria, Massachusetts performs more like Singapore, Japan, or South Korea. Often better: Massachusetts students rank fifth in the world in reading, lapping Singapore and Japan, and needless to say, every state in the union. In math, Massachusetts slots in a global ninth, ahead of Japan and Germany.
In terms of health:
Massachusetts has the nation’s highest level of first-trimester prenatal care, and the third-lowest infant mortality rate (Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Missouri are about 50 percent higher).... It goes without saying that Massachusetts has the lowest percentage of uninsured residents -- 5 percent (Thanks Mitt! Mitt? You there, Mitt?), compared to 16 percent nationally, and a whopping 25 percent in Texas. On life expectancy, Massachusetts ties for sixth-highest... A few other metrics of social well-being: The Bay State has the second-lowest teen birth rate, the fourth-lowest suicide rate, and the lowest traffic fatality rate. The birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts has the sixth-lowest obesity rate. And depending on the source, the first state to legalize gay marriage has either the lowest or one of the very lowest divorce rates in the country.
I'll restrain myself from quoting more -- you'll have to read the article yourself for the rest of the awesome statistics, including, incidentally, the fact that the Bay State is one of the most economically productive in the nation, and the startling news that it has only the 11th highest state taxes in America -- "at 10 percent," Vanhoenacker points out, "only barely above the national average of 9.8 percent." Most interestingly, Massachusetts' excellence doesn't flow entirely from the fact that the state is richer than average; instead, according to one policy analyst, it prospers because of "significant public and private investments in the ingredients of well-being" which, over time, pay off. Much, much more at Slate.
How much of our economic growth over the last fifty years derives from the elimination of pointless discriminatory barriers? That's the question asked in a new, work-in-progress paper called "The Allocation of Talent," by the economists Chang-Tai Hsieh, Erik Hurst, Charles I. Jones, and Peter J. Klenow. They write:
In 1960, 94 percent of doctors were white men, as were 96 percent of lawyers and 86 percent of managers. By 2008, these numbers had fallen to 63, 61, and 57 percent, respectively. We develop a Roy model where different groups face different frictions in labor and human capital markets. We then embed this sorting model into general equilibrium to assess the aggregate productivity gains that can be attributed to the changes in labor market outcomes for blacks and women between 1960 and 2008. We find that these changes can explain 15 to 20 percent of aggregate wage growth during the last fifty years.
It's a huge finding -- even if, as the authors admit, their account is still being sketched in. (The paper isn't empirical, as such; it uses a model to arrive at a number for how much of the increase in wages over the period can be attributed to lessened discrimination and better talent allocation.) A big remaining challenge, they write, is to integrate this work, which focuses on broadened opportunities for women and African Americans, with another large trend in American society: the fact "that similar barriers facing children from less affluent families and from regions of the country hit by adverse economic shocks have worsened in the last few decades."
Searching for the money gene: Leon Neyfakh on the search for the genetic foundations of our financial behavior. A group of researchers "say economists are missing something important by ignoring the genetics underlying things like risk-taking, patience, and generosity. If we could grasp how our genes influenced such economic traits, they argue, the knowledge could be transformative." And not necessarily in a good way: Researchers "find themselves in a peculiar situation: unveiling a bold new idea they hope will change the world, but not too much."
The real Olympic spirit: Neil Faulkner on the spirit of the original Olympic games. The Olympics were never "pure" and "classical"; ancient Greece was a patriarchal society on a war footing, and the games were characterized by parochial hatreds, ruthless competition, and the influence of big money. The athletes were never really amateurs, either. "If rich Athenian playboy Alcibiades could dominate the chariot race by entering no fewer than seven teams and then throw a gargantuan victory party in order to advance his election prospects -- and he did -- then the ancient games, too, were not quite what they were meant to be."
The real Olympic schedule: Directions and a list of events for the original Olympic games. Getting there might mean hiding from bandits, although, in theory, "anyone en route to the Olympics is considered a pilgrim under divine protection, so it is bad luck to assault him." Note that there are no sporting events on the third day, as it's the Festival of Zeus.
What Maurice Sendak got right: Tom Scocca argues that Sendak, who passed away last week, understood the inexplicable, in medias res quality of childhood. "This alarming suddenness, the inseparable union of the character and the situation -- this is the way the real world presents itself to a child. Childhood, like a dream, begins in mid-story."
Plus: Kevin Lewis on guilty leaders: "Researchers at Stanford found that being more prone to feeling guilty leads people to think you have more leadership potential."
Over at the truly excellent question-answering website Quora -- a sort of high-brow Ask.Metafilter -- a number of highly informed contributors explain exactly why popcorn pops into its particular popcorn shape. In fact, as Joshua Engel explains, there are two distinctive popcorn shapes: "butterfly" and "mushroom."
Vic Powell weighs in:
When heating popping corn, the starch inside the kernel becomes a liquid-like substance. The water inside the kernel converts to steam. When the pressure becomes greater than the shell can handle, the kernel explodes. When the pressure is suddenly released, the starch cools almost instantly, which "freezes" the starch into the particular shape you see.
More explanations at Quora. And don't miss this website, pointed out by Joshua Engel, which lets you order popcorn which is guaranteed to pop in your desired shape -- 50 pounds at a time, unfortunately.
Fifty years from now, will Western societies be more religious, or more secular? Many informed observers cite survey data which shows that Americans and Europeans are moving away from organized religion; the future, they say, will be a secular one.
In a new essay in The American -- the online journal of the conservative American Enterprise Institute -- demographer Eric Kaufmann argues against that narrative. The move away from religion, he says, needs to be put in a "demographic context." It might be true that many Americans self-identify as having "no" religion, but it's also true that "values have polarized people and increasingly determine family size." Across the world, "population change is reversing secularism and shifting the center of gravity of entire societies in a conservative religious direction." The same will be true here in the United States, where religious families have more children than non-religious ones.
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar may represent our demographic future. Photo by Jim Bob Duggar.
It's easy to underestimate the role that population change can have in social change, Kaufmann says, but it can have a huge role, especially when differences in values drive differences in fertility. The rise of Jewish orthodoxy in Israel and around the world is one good example:
The combination of religious polarization and demographic upheaval is especially stark among Jews. They began to secularize in large numbers in the 19th century, and Orthodoxy emerged to combat this trend. The temperature of Jewish fundamentalism increased sharply after the horrors of World War II, and an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community emerged, segregating itself from other Jews. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the largely secular Zionist leadership assumed that the black-hatted, sidelocked Haredim were a relic of history. They gave the ultra-Orthodox an exemption from the draft, subsidies to study at yeshiva, and other religious privileges to make sure their anti-Zionism didn't dissuade the Great Powers from establishing a home for the Jews in Palestine. In 1948, there were only 400 Israeli Jews with military exemptions, many of which were not used. By 2007, that number had soared to 55,000. Meanwhile, the fringe of ultra-Orthodox pupils in Israel's Jewish primary schools in 1960 has ballooned: they now comprise a third of the Jewish first grade class. They are gaining power: in Jerusalem, Haredim rioted in late December, demanding the right to segregate women on buses, and have already elected the city's first Haredi mayor. Outside Israel, work by Joshua Comenetz and Yaakov Wise reveals that the ultra-Orthodox may form a majority of observant American and British Jews by 2050.
In the United States, Republicans have a similar values-driven fertility advantage -- an advantage, Kaufmann argues, which will outweigh the Democratic advantage of increased immigration, in part because many immigrants are conservative on social issues and maximalist in their family planning. He quotes policy analyst Philip Longman, of the New American Foundation, who points out that "In Seattle, there are nearly 45 percent more dogs than children. In Salt Lake City, there are nearly 19 percent more kids than dogs.”
Democrats have been trumpeting their demographic advantage for a while now, and the conservative counterattack has been inevitable. I eagerly await more developments. There's much more at The American.
Art school: What, exactly, do they do there? Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment collects more than 100 real-life assignments from art schools, submitted by practicing artists, teachers, and critics to the editors of Paper Monument, an art journal. The result is a fascinating look at the exercises and attitudes -- abstract and down-to-earth, intellectual and sensual, familiar and bizarre -- that lie behind so much contemporary art.
Most of the assignments grapple with an obvious difficulty: Artistic creativity might just be impossible to teach, especially in the structured, warmed-over environment of a classroom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, some of the contributors argue that the concept of an "art assignment" is silly and even harmful: Liam Gillick, a conceptual artist, writes that art-class assignments merely "replace the potential for real work.... Therefore I do not give assignments, I don’t acknowledge work done as an assignment, and I don’t find them funny."
Other teachers, though, come up with ingenious, sometimes risky strategies for breaking down the usual structures of classroom life. They ask their students to slow-dance with each other, then talk about it; they take their students on field trips, where the only assignment is to practice looking and listening; they challenge them with impossible, koan-like tasks, like creating a drawing on a sheet of paper with "no direct hand contact." Some assignments involve creating unorthodox objects within stifling constraints (construct a chair out of a few pieces of cardboard, make a realistic painting of a wall). Others are freeform, like taking a "color walk," a long, undirected stroll in which your only task is to immerse yourself in the colors around you, noticing changes, relationships, and surprises. Perhaps because modern art assignments are so conceptual, there is, the editors write, an admirable culture of collaboration around art assignments: Some are "legendary," and repeated exactly by different instructors, but most are constantly "adapted, shared, and reworked."
Some of the best entries in the book are little stories about especially meaningful art assignments. Julie Ault writes about an art assignment she gave herself -- pretending to be a Republican and working in local politics. Peter Brown shares the assignment which gave him "a wife, a dog, a daughter, and a life"; Jay Battle explains how one assignment saw him bursting out of an under-sized Spiderman costume, every seam ripping simultaneously, in front of his "hot" teaching assistant. (Art-school classrooms, one gathers, are significantly sexier than regular ones.) Almost without fail, the most meaningful assignments aren't about technical skills -- instead, they teach students to take risks, and to lay aside their habits and preoccupations.
This is good training for young artists, since the art world today is so intensely entrepreneurial, and so invested in novelty. But it's also fun. Aspects of the book might make you wonder about the future of art: Can it really be good for young artists to be trained so thoroughly in a tradition of transgressive, intuitive cleverness? On the whole, though, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed is pretty inspirational, and surprisingly accessible to those of us who love, but don't usually make, art.
Researchers at the W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences at U.C. Davis have used a Microsoft Kinect camera to create an "augmented-reality sandbox." As you play with the real sand in the sandbox, a digital projector suspended above it adds elevation contour lines and even simulated water. No goggles required.
The team hopes that a future version of the system "can be used as a hands-on exhibit in science museums with little supervision." Read all the technical details at U.C. Davis.
This video is full of surprisingly practical tips.
The Asian space race arrives: James Clay Moltz: "Just as the rest of the world is beginning to cooperate in space, Asian countries are becoming increasingly competitive. In the West, 19 European countries are sharing technology and costs within the framework of the European Space Agency; even the United States and Russia have joined in close cooperation on the International Space Station and share a number of joint commercial ventures.... In Asia, by contrast, space appears to be becoming the latest venue for unsettled historical and geopolitical rivalries."
Other ways to use a book: Craig Fehrman on Leah Price, a Harvard English professor (and former teacher of mine) who studies the social uses of literature, and the history of the relationship between readers and books. It's especially relevant now that, "like the Victorians, we’re at a pivotal moment in the technology and culture of literature: For the first time in 500 years, we’re going to see if reading can survive without the book."
What happens when you change an entire health care system? I report on Amy Finkelstein, the MIT economist who just won the Clark Medal, awarded annually to the best economist under forty. "We know surprisingly little about the real-world effects of making changes to health care systems" -- and "Finkelstein has found that changes often have unintended consequences -- sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse."
Plus Ben Zimmer on "meta," which has morphed from meaning "above and beyond" to "consciously self-referential"; Kevin Lewis on an absolutely incredible finding -- having just one African-American person on a jury can not just undo, but actually reverse racial bias in convictions.
Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, Atul Gawande offers a fascinating historical overview of the surgical profession. It's full of incredible facts and anecdotes. Even after the introduction of anesthesia, for example, it took surgeons a while "to discover that the use of anesthesia allowed them time to be meticulous." Here's Gawande on Robert Liston, a British surgeon who had pioneered a particularly speedy technique for leg amputation; Liston tried out anesthesia for the fist time in 1846, amputating the leg of a butler:
Liston, like many other surgeons, proceeded in his usual lightning-quick and bloody way. Spectators in the operating-theater gallery would still get out their pocket watches to time him. The butler's operation, for instance, took an astonishing 25 seconds from incision to wound closure. (Liston operated so fast that he once accidentally amputated an assistant's fingers along with a patient's leg, according to Hollingham. The patient and the assistant both died of sepsis, and a spectator reportedly died of shock, resulting in the only known procedure with a 300% mortality.)
Liston had suspected that anesthesia, like hynptosim (which had been used, unsuccessfully, to put surgical patients under), was a "Yankee dodge." But "throughout the procedure, [the butler] did not make a sound or even grimace. 'When are you going to begin?' asked the patient a few moments later. He had felt nothing. 'This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow,' Liston exclaimed."
Mass. General in 1941.
Viewed from a high enough altitude, Gawande writes, one of the most surprising things about surgery is how routinized and minimal it's become. Surgery was once a cataclysmic, traumatizing life-event; nowadays, "virtually no one escapes having a condition for which effective treatment requires surgery" (the average American will have seven). That's made possible, in part, because surgeries are less and less invasive. In the last few decades, to choose just one example, "the advent of laparoscopy and thoracoscopy reduced the debilitating, half-meter-long abdominal and chest incisions to a half centimeter."
Perhaps, Gawande suggests, the future might bring truly bloodless surgery: "Scientists are already experimenting with techniques for combining noninvasive ways of seeing into the body through the manipulation of small-scale devices that can be injected or swallowed." Surgery could be next. Much more at The New England Journal of Medicine.
There are so many things I love about this video, which explains why burgers in fast food commercials look so incredibly awesome -- starting with the way the food stylist refers to the burger as "him":
Here's a real gem from the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs: "Campaign Tips From Cicero: The Art of Politics, From the Tiber to the Potomac." The article is in two parts. The first is an excerpt from the Commentariolum Petitionis, or "Little Book of Electioneering," a memo full of campaign advice (probably) written by Quintus Tullius Cicero for his famous older brother Marcus on the occasion of his run for Consul in 64 B.C. (A new translation has just been published by the classicist Phillip Freeman.) The second part is a commentary by the political strategist James Carville, who notes -- mournfully, guiltily, gleefully -- that Cicero's advice is completely relevant today.
Some choice bits, about going negative early:
[One] factor that can help you as an outsider is the poor quality of those men of the nobility who are competing against you.... Who would believe that men as pathetic as Publius Galba and Loucius Cassius would run for the highest office in the land, even though they come from the best families?.... But, you might say, what about the other candidates, Antonius and Catiline?.... You should be grateful to run against men like those two.... Remember how [Antonius] was expelled from the Senate after a careful examination by the censors?.... After he was elected... he disgraced himself by going down to the market and openly buying a girl to keep at home as his sex slave.
As for Catiline, [he] was born into a poor family, brought up in debauchery with his own sister, [and] even murdered his own brother-in-law, a kindly old fellow and good Roman businessman who cared nothing for politics.... Catiline afterward was a friend of actors -- can you imagine? -- and gladiators.
About courting the elite:
You must diligently cultivate relationships with these men of privilege. Both you and your friends should work to convince them that you have always been a traditionalist. Never let them think you are a populist.
About developing the common touch:
You have excellent manners and are always courteous, but you can be rather stiff at times.... Keep the doors of your house open, of course, but also open your face and expression, for these are the windows to the soul. If you look closed and distracted when people talk with you, it won't matter that your front gates are never locked.
About cultivating the youth vote:
It will also help your campaign tremendously to have the enthusiasm and energy of young people on your side to canvass voters, gain supporters, spread news, and make you look good.
And, best of all, on why you should make outrageous promises:
If you break a promise, the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. Most of those who ask for your help will never actually need it. Thus it is better to have a few people in the Forum disappointed when you let them down than have a mob outside your home when you refuse to promise them what you want.
It was probably easier to win, Carville writes, back when your opponent was "a murderer, child molester, and 'friend of actors'" -- but, in almost every other respect, this advice is just as germane today as it was back then. It's incredible that politics works, despite everything. There's much, much more at Foreign Affairs, although the article is for subscribers only. (Subscribe -- it's worth it!)
Tyree Callahan is a painter based in Bellingham, Washington. Usually, his paintings tend toward the abstract, but his new objet trouvé, the Chromatic Typewriter, is very concrete. It's a sturdy vintage typewriter upgraded with colored keys, and turned into a kind of mechanized paintbrush.
Callahan got the idea when he tried to use an old typewriter in his studio to add text to one of his in-progress paintings. "Seeing that art in the typewriter's carriage," he explains, "just made me think of how interesting it would be to be able to 'type' up a painting." It took a few months to find a suitable typewriter and modify it so that the keys would work. Because you can't automatically reapply different colors of paint to different keys -- a typewriter ribbon only applies black ink -- you can't really use it to create the sort of saturated, edge-to-edge painting you see in the first two photos above. But Callahan has used it to create the "paragraph" you see in the third image, which, in my opinion, is quite beautiful.
If you're fascinated by the purely visual possibilities of type, or by what Callahan calls "the practice of writing as art," then you might enjoy Johanna Drucker's beautiful book The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination, or Jean Holland's gorgeous, minimalist Vladimir Nabokov: Alphabet in Color. And don't miss Callahan's more traditional paintings, which you can view at his website.
Lolita: Story of a Cover Girl is a collection of newly created covers for Nabokov's great novel. It's the end-result of a project by John Bertram, an architect, blogger, and Nabokov enthusiast. Appalled by the almost universally terrible covers Lolita has had in the past -- in an interview at Print magazine, he says that there have been "dozens of soft-core covers over the years" -- he solicited new covers from dozens of artists, designers, writers, and scholars which more accurately reflect the darkness and complexity of the novel.
From top to bottom, these covers are by Jamie Keenan, Peter Mendelsund, Ellen Lupton, and Rachel Berger. See more at Print.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.