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The Week in Ideas (2/3)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 3, 2013 08:34 PM

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7003680218_a56d3abf00_z.jpgIntroducing Bostonhenge (and where to see it): Andrew Woodruff on “henge” days in Boston—days of the year when the rising and setting sun aligns perfectly with the angle of streets throughout the city. The term, of course, comes from Stonehenge, which is regarded as aligning with the solstices. The city’s irregular street layout means Boston doesn’t have a single “henge” date the way Manhattan does. Instead, Woodruff uses a fun infographic to display different henge dates for different streets and neighborhoods around the city. Next up are Back Bayhenge February 6-7 and Cambridgehenge February 27-28.

Can juries tame prosecutors gone wild?: Leon Neyfakh on how giving juries more influence in our criminal justice system might be a necessary counterbalance to overweening prosecutorial power. The trouble, as he explains it, is that the current system cuts out juries and is stacked against defendants: Prosecutors are able to pile on charges and wield mandatory sentencing guidelines to coerce guilty plea bargains that preempt trials. Neyfakh talks with scholars who argue that strengthening the grand jury system or creating juries to oversee plea bargaining might help create a fairer system.

Why our flu vaccines can’t keep up: Marlene Zuk on why even the best-designed flu vaccine still fails a large percentage of the time. Some viruses, like polio, evolve slowly, and are easy to fight with a vaccine. The flu, however, evolves very rapidly, changing from season to season in ways that are hard to predict—which makes it hard to know how to engineer next year’s flu vaccine. “We know that the flu virus will change in response to selection, but the precise direction it will take is difficult to predict,” Zuk writes. “All scientists can do is study the genetic variation that exists in the viruses from a given year, and try to determine which mutations are statistically more likely to occur the next time.”

Pentametron, robot poet of Twitter: Chris Wright on a computer program that creates couplets “by randomly matching pairs of rhyming tweets that were inadvertently written in iambic pentameter.” Examples include, “My eyebrows are annoying me/ I’m not a friendly person anyway,” and “I always give the pizza guy a tip/ I’m ready for a REAL relationship.” Wright explores how disparate tweets, coupled together by a computer program, can take on a surprising resonance when a reader comes along and makes meaning out of them.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on adverse selection among multitaskers, the naked self-interest of wealthy legislators, and the surprising upside of eliminating affirmative action.

Image of sunrise over Boston Harbor courtesy of Justin Mier

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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.


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