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The Week in Ideas (5/20)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  May 20, 2013 09:00 AM

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The too-smart city: Courtney Humphries on philosophical debates around the emerging ‘smart city.’ Smart city technology is anything that takes the chaotic jumble of activity in a city and tries to monitor it for the purposes of creating a more efficient, cleaner, safer version of urban living. Examples include sensors that direct drivers to open parking spots and utility meters that beam water and electricity consumption stats to a central hub. There is a lot of promise in these types of initiatives, but they also raise a number of important issues that, experts say, aren’t being discussed enough.

Humans: We will survive!: Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9.com, looks at five reasons why the human race is in good shape to survive the next wave of mass extinctions. These include our large population, our adaptability to different environments, and our relatively indiscriminate palates (we can eat slime and bugs if need be).

Garden hermit needed. Apply within.: Alice Gregory interviews Gordon Campbell, author of the new book “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome.” In 18th-century England it was common practice for wealthy landowners to adorn their gardens with a hermit— a real live person paid to live in solitude and squalor in a small dwelling (a hermitage) on the garden grounds. Campbell explains that the hermits, who were not allowed to cut their hair or their nails for a term of up to seven years, were so positioned in order evoke a feeling of melancholy, and to assert (in Gregory’s words) “the spiritual benefits of privacy, peace, and mild woe.”

The long, weird history of the Nigerian e-mail scam: Finn Brunton on the rich history of so-called “advanced-fee scams.” The ruse is familiar today from those ubiquitous spam emails, many originating from Nigeria, which promise investors a huge payday if they provide upfront funds to help launder a cache of dirty money. But Brunton reveals that this type of scheme is actually centuries old, and was perpetrated to tremendous success during the Spanish-American War.

The real, shameful story behind ‘Don’t give up the ship!’: Tom Halsted on how bad decision-making and an epic defeat produced one of the Navy’s enduring slogans. On June 1, 1813 in Boston Harbor, in the midst of the War of 1812, the US frigate Chesapeake commanded by Captain James Lawrence squared off against the HMS Shannon. It was a lopsided fight, and just before the British commandeered his boat, a wounded Captain Lawrence entreated his crew with these now-famous words, “Don’t give up the ship.” While his remark soon took on a sheen of heroism, Halsted explains that, in fact, Captain Lawrence blundered into a fight he had no chance of winning and his exhortation was completely ignored by his defeated crew.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how in business, liberals and conservatives manage their employees differently; how, when colleagues are laid-off, the employees who stay behind are more likely to get sick; how women are more likely to deflect credit for success when their teammates include men; and more.

Image: "The Hermit in the Garden" by Gordon Campbell.

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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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