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The Week in Ideas 4/22

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 22, 2013 09:00 AM

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Vulnerability in an open city: Ideas editor Stephen Heuser on how the same characteristics that make cities vulnerable to tragedies also make them great. In urban life, everyday we interact with strangers, on the subway, on the street. Recent research shows that this open quality of cities is what makes them so dynamic; it’s why so many new ideas originate in cities, and why 90 percent of our gross domestic product comes from our densest urban areas. Heuser writes, “It is possible to see dynamism and risk as flip sides of the same coin.”

The disaster network: Ideas deputy editor Amanda Katz on how, from 9/11 to the Boston bombing, technology has changed the way we respond to mass tragedies. Katz was near the World Trade Center on 9/11 and she recalls how in the chaos, cellphone networks were overwhelmed and people posted “homemade fliers, pleading for leads on missing loved ones.” Technological changes since 9/11 meant that last Monday, though, we barely had to wait a minute to find out if people we knew were safe. “What’s the value of millions of people not spending hours in stomach-turning suspense, but being able to find loved ones and reach out to strangers immediately?” Katz writes. “It’s hard to quantify. But when I think back to the blank, solitary morning I spent on Sept. 11, I can only give thanks for the astonishing, vital network we have built in the 12 years since.”

How cities reshape themselves when trust vanishes: Thanassis Cambanis on what happens when fear takes over a city. He writes about Baghdad, where fear has completely reordered life: public places have shut-down, ethnic neighborhoods have turned into self-contained sub-cities, and residents have given up urban amusements to gain just a little more security. He also writes about how fear has created a similarly stark transformation in Beirut, where he lives now.

We are all Bostonians now: Maria Konnikova on how events like the Boston bombing demonstrate that many psychology experts have misunderstood urban social dynamics. Psychology pioneer Stanley Milgram wrote about how urban life deforms social bonds, but the collective response to the marathon bombing shows that cities also draw us together. Konnikova thinks about all the generosity exhibited among strangers this past week. She writes, “In the face of extreme circumstances, we recategorize ourselves. Our personal sense of self recedes, and instead, a new, collective sense of who we are rises to the fore.”

Why surreal took over: Ben Zimmer on the words people turn to after tragedies. Right after the bombing last Monday, users searching Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary entered words like “casualty” and “incendiary,” but by the evening a new word was trending: “surreal.” Zimmer looks at why we use “surreal” to describe events we can’t understand. He writes, “When there are no words, ‘surreal’ ends up working as a proxy for more complex, inchoate emotions that are difficult to verbalize.”

Image of a crowd in London for Margaret Thatcher's funeral courtesy of Lisa MacGregor/Reuters.

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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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