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The Week in Ideas (4/8)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 8, 2013 09:00 AM

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Should America let Syria fight on?: Thanassis Cambanis on a disquieting consensus emerging among foreign policy experts on the Syrian civil war: The U.S. hasn’t intervened strongly in the conflict because, from a realpolitik perspective, it serves our interests to let the killing go on. Cambanis explains that the fighting distracts Iran and Hezbollah—two of the U.S.’s chief enemies in the region, both of whom are working to prop up the Assad regime. At the same time, the Assad regime may be loathsome, but it also may be less directly antagonistic to the U.S. than some of the Islamist groups vying to replace it. “In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, [experts] point out,” Cambanis writes, “the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.”

Taxes, a love story: Leon Neyfakh on strategies the IRS might use to make people happier about paying taxes. Scholars note that we’re very often happy to give money to charities while grumble incessantly when it comes to paying out to the government. One problem is that the government doesn’t do a good job explaining what our tax dollars actually end up providing. One PR strategy scholars propose (that was in fact adopted in 2011) is for the IRS to issue “tax receipts”—explaining exactly what types of services are funded out of every tax dollar. Of course, even if the government could make us feel better about paying taxes, would we want it to? Neyfakh talks to other scholars who argue that when it comes to the IRS, the line between public education and manipulative propaganda is very thin.

A treasury of opera poisonings: Carolyn Johnson on the long history of poisonings in operas. Johnson looks at a recent study by chemist and opera aficionado João Paulo André that categorizes the ways that chemistry figures in operas. There are the “apothecary operas,” in which one character is a pharmacist or chemist; the “operas of poisonous natural products,” in which, Johnson writes, “the drama often hinges on some unnamed homebrew potion;” and the “operas of the great poisoners of antiquity,” which are, Johnson writes, “based on historical figures’ penchant for poisoning people.

Boston driving: So bad it needs its own lingo?: Ben Zimmer with a delightful look at regional terms for bad driving. They include the “Boston left” (jumping a green light to make a left turn); the “California stop” (treating a stop sign like a yield sign); and the “Boston crawl” (blocking the right-bound lane of traffic while you wait for an opening to turn into the left-bound lane).

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how 19th-century laws giving women the right to own property spurred more women to spend longer in school; on how believing their side is right leads lawyers to perform worse in court; on how NFL officials pick up only about 60 percent of the penalties actually committed in a game; and more.

Image of Syrian rebel fighters courtesy of Narciso Contreras/Associated Press.

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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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