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The Week in Ideas (2/18)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 18, 2013 09:00 AM

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traffic jam.jpegDo handshakes make you sick?: It’s a question that’s been on all our minds this terrible cold and flu season, and Leon Neyfakh reports that scientist don’t actually know the answer to it. The two best studies on hand-to-hand disease transmission were conducted decades ago and came to opposite conclusions; since then there’s been very little research on how the common cold is spread. Under these uncertain conditions, Neyfakh concludes, “the tradition and warmth of shaking hands may simply be worth the potential cost” in disease acquisition.

The Electro-Theremin’s good vibration: Matthew Guerrieri on an instrument that fell by the wayside as America’s musical tastes changed. The Electro-Theremin “lent a gliding electronic sheen” to the Beach Boy’s 1966 hit “Good Vibrations.” But, Guerrieri explains that the Beach Boys’ sunny, carefree sound was soon eclipsed by the gritty, darker tones of albums like “Sgt. Pepper’s”—and as their sound went, so too did the Electro-Theremin.

The smuggled hard drives of Timbuktu: Sarah Laskow on the challenges and issues raised by the digital conservation of ancient manuscripts. Digital conservation has been in the news recently after librarians in the legendary Malian city of Timbuktu smuggled out hard drives flush with images of centuries old manuscripts as Islamist rebels moved on the city. The preservation technique preserved a number of manuscripts that were later set on fire by the rebels. But as a general practice, digital preservation poses challenges: Among the multitude of old manuscripts, which ones should be prioritized for digital preservation? How should conservationists weigh the risk that manuscripts could be damaged through the preservation process? Who should own the digital copies once they’ve been made?

Traffic: Which Boston-area neighborhoods are to blame?: I wrote about a cutting edge traffic study that has a surprising diagnosis for Boston’s traffic problem. Engineers at MIT and Berkeley used cellphone records to track 680,000 Boston-area drivers on their morning commutes. Using that data, they modeled traffic patterns and determined that if you could reduce the number of drivers from just 15 neighborhoods in the greater-Boston area (Lowell, Waltham, Everett, Marlborough, and Haverhill) by 1 percent, everyone's commute would be 18 percent shorter.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how thinking creatively can put you in a good mood; how people are more ambivalent about their end-of-life health directives than you’d think; how spending 21 minutes a year examining disagreements with your spouse can improve your marriage; and more.

Image courtesy of Marek Stępniowski

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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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