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The Week in Ideas (4/15)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 15, 2013 09:00 AM

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What baby names say about everything else: Ruth Graham on an explosion of research into baby naming trends. In recent years data on baby naming has become more available—at places like the Social Security website and the website Baby Name Wizard—which has given social science researchers a new way to analyze trends in American society. Graham looks at research that examines how certain syllables and phonemic sounds come in and out of fashion, how naming across generations within a family codes for social mobility, and how the overall distribution of names in the population has increased in recent decades, suggesting we live in a time that prizes individualism.

The novels of Boston’s squares: Prompted by the publication of the new novel “Harvard Square,” Ideas Deputy Editor Amanda Katz speculates on the fictional stories that might be prompted by other famous Boston-area squares. Set in 2059, “Kendall Square” the novel would be about the search for an eccentric physicist who is the only person on earth who can save humanity from colonization by robots. “Scollay Square” the novel would be about love in a time of dissertation writing. “Washington Square” the novel would about a battle for authentic bagels in Brookline. Read about more fantastical “square” plots here.

Shakespeare the skinflint: Shakespeare scholar Daniel Swift on why we shouldn’t be so surprised that William Shakespeare has turned out (in recent historical research) to be a miserly tax cheat and famine profiteer. While it’s tempting to want to see Shakespeare the artist as someone who was “gloriously unattached to practical worldly concerns,” Swift argues it is exactly that attachment that makes Shakespeare’s plays so insightful. Swift works through examples of how very often a cold accounting of human emotions drives Shakespeare’s dramas. “Everything can be divided—this is Shakespeare’s great insight,” Swift writes. “Nothing is so whole that it may not be cut into parts, given away slowly, measured out.

Can you MOOC your way through college in one year?: Marcella Bombardieri interviews Jonathan Haber of Lexington, who is trying to earn a “one-year MOOC BA” (32 massive open online courses completed in 365 days). The interview offers a lot of insight into what it’s actually like to take a MOOC. Haber talks about, among other features, the great advantages of the medium (access to world famous professors on your own time) and the downsides of engaging in a discussion board conversation with 25,000 other people.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how women eschew careers in business because they don’t like the ethical compromises that wheeling and dealing sometimes entails; how holding an alcoholic drink makes people perceive you as less intelligent; how Tiger Woods has turned out to be a really good deal for Nike; and more.

Image courtesy of istockphoto.

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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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