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The Week in Ideas (3/25)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 25, 2013 09:00 AM

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The ideals behind UMass Amherst’s stained concrete: Max Page on how a construction boom on the UMass Amherst campus is causing a re-evaluation of the school’s long scorned concrete architecture. Page, a professor of architecture and history at UMass, explains how the previous building boom, in the 1960s and 1970s, produced a number of mega-concrete structures designed to meet the demands of the university’s rapidly expanding enrollment. These buildings have come to be tagged as “brutal” and “ugly,” but Page says that they actually embody an important ideal—that long-term public investment is a value rather than a burden. UMass is growing again, and Page argues that, “The challenge UMass leaders face now is twofold: preserving and sensitively restoring the most important buildings and landscapes, and, at the same time, spending the time and energy (and state money) necessary to attract today’s visionary architects, so that we will have buildings worth saving 50 years from now.”

Napalm, from Harvard to Vietnam: Gal Beckerman interviews Robert Neer, author of the new book, “Napalm: An American Biography,” the first comprehensive history of an ignominious chemical-cum-weapon. Neer explains that napalm, which was invented by Harvard professor Louis Fieser in the early-1940s, was first used as a weapon in World War II by the U.S. against Japan. Then, the incendiary weapon attracted little public attention. But when the U.S. used napalm two decades later in Vietnam, it spurred an outcry. In the 1980s the U.N. General Assembly designated napalm a “war criminal” (in Neer’s words) and today the chemical has a kind of probationary status as a weapon: The U.N prohibits it from being used against concentrations of civilians, but permits its use against many other kinds of targets.

They eat horses, don’t they?: Kari Weil on why we feel more comfortable eating some kinds of animals than others. Horse meat has been in the news this winter, after food inspectors in the United Kingdom found it being sold as beef. To examine the culinary status of horses, Weil looks to France, which has been wrestling with the issue for centuries. Horse meat was legalized in France in 1866 after forty years of debate, but today it’s still a stigmatized (if legal) food. Weil explains that horses are harder for us to accept as food than cows or pigs because we have more developed relationships with them. She writes that horses “live on in our imagination as comrades, pets, working animals, and creatures of beauty.” So, while from a strictly objective point of view there may be no reason to abstain from eating horses, there are strong cultural forces keeping them off our plates.

Providence’s $5 million plan to shrink the “word gap”: Ben Zimmer on an ambitious plan in Providence to boost language exposure among low-income kids. Since the mid-1990s we’ve known that poor kids hear far fewer words at home in their first years of life than kids from better off families—and this “word gap” has been linked to academic performance gaps down the line. With $5 million in funding from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, Providence is starting a program called “Providence Talks.” As Zimmer explains, “The plan is to equip low-income children with recording devices that calculate how many words they hear, and then coach parents on how to boost their children’s language exposure.”

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how “moral licensing” may lead people who conserve resources in one area (like water) to use more resources in other areas (like electricity); how young people level harsh judgments against old people who act badly; how just looking at a bottle of ibuprofen may have palliative effects; and more.

Image of the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst by Boston Globe photographer Jonathan Wiggs.

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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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