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The Week in Ideas 5/13

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 13, 2013 09:00 AM

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Bring back the United States of pork: Leon Neyfakh on how the return of pork-barrel spending might loosen the gridlock in Washington. In 2010 and 2011 Congress banned earmarks (appropriations for specific projects in a legislators’ home districts that don’t have to go through the normal legislative process) and the move was hailed by members of both parties as a triumph for good governance and fiscal responsibility. But according to a number of academics, pork is an essential if slightly distasteful part of the democratic process: It helps build coalitions for major legislation by bribing reluctant legislators with pet projects they can trumpet in front of their constituents.

The DNA in your garbage: up for grabs. I wrote about the legal riddle posed by “abandoned DNA.” We all leave DNA behind everywhere we go—on coffee cups, cigarette butts, chewing gum, paper towels, and hairs that fall out while we’re walking down the street. This bodily debris contains our complete genome—information that in some ways is the most personal thing about us—and right now in most states, including Massachusetts, that DNA is fair game for anyone who picks it up.

4,000 years of oaths, curses, and obscenity: Ruth Graham interviews Melissa Mohr, author of the new book “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.” Mohr talks about how categories of swear words have changed over time (religious curse words were more taboo in the Middle Ages; today racial, and to a lesser extent, sexual, epithets carry the greatest social sanction). She also discusses how swearing varies by social class (members of the lower and upper classes do it a lot while the aspiring middle class tends to be cleaner with its language).

“Boston Strong,” the phrase that rallied a city: Ben Zimmer on how “Boston Strong” developed on the heels of many other “strong” brands. First there was Livestrong—a flat adverb without the “-ly” ending—then Army Strong and Country Strong. Zimmer explains why the “sloganeering frame of ‘X strong’ has proven so powerful.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how strict parents may rear children with less self-control; how Generations X and Y are greedier and lazier than their Boomer predecessors; how thinking about death makes people more interested in sex; and more.

Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, iStockphoto; Globe Staff photo illustration.

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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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