SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

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Get Rid of Teacher Licenses

When it comes to hiring teachers, much of what we thought we knew turns out to be wrong. Performance on teacher-certification tests is a poor indicator of success in the classroom, and research shows that teachers who come from traditional schools of education aren't necessarily more effective than those from alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America. It's time we scrapped our outdated and inefficient system for recruiting and training teachers, and allow anyone with a college degree and a background check to teach. More
Thinking Big

24 July 2009 3:36 PM

This Is The End

Well folks, it's been fun, but this is my last post at Big Thinking, The Atlantic's ideas blog, which is going dark after today. Thanks to everyone who has read and written during my six week tenure -- and for anyone who'd like to reach me, my e-mail address is conor dot friedersdorf at gmail dot com. Should you want to follow my other writing, bookmark The American Scene where I am among the contributors, and my blog at True/Slant.

I'd also encourage anyone who enjoyed The Atlantic's ideas coverage to subscribe to the print magazine. It's one of the best venues for new ideas in American journalism, and like all high quality publications, it requires the support of those who value its work if it is to survive and thrive.

The New York Times Idea of the Day blog and Bloggingheads.tv are also great venues for ideas coverage.

With that -- and one more admonition to subscribe to The Atlantic -- I bid you farewell.

Cheers,

Conor Friedersdorf 

24 July 2009 2:34 PM

"California's Disposable Cities"

Josh Leon writes from Sacramento:

For the past few months I've been writing about what in my view is a global consensus that favors dense, mixed use and public transit centered development over the old anti-urban, suburban-centric model of the last century. These policies, the consensus goes, can grease the wheels of a global economy that relies increasingly on urban connectivity, personal mobility and access to ideas.  As capital is mobile, so should people be. My problem is that the consensus relies excessively on market pressures to decide where people should live and migrate, and forces cities to deal with the swift vicissitudes of global capital. This city--hopefully temporarily--is on the losing end of what is euphemistically known as a market correction.

24 July 2009 1:16 PM

Cars for the Blind

Wired reports:

The same technology that lets cars drive themselves allows the blind to drive, too.

Virginia Tech undergrads packed an all-terrain buggy with technology lifted from the university's DARPA Urban Challenge entry to create a car the blind can drive. The semi-autonomous vehicle uses a laser range finder, voice software and other sensory technology, and it worked flawlessly when blind drivers took the wheel on a closed course. Advocates for the blind joined the lead researcher in calling the vehicle a breakthrough in independent living for the visually impaired.

I am skeptical!


24 July 2009 11:55 AM

"Conservative INC"

Sean Scallon:

There are several good posts and articles recently written that provide a peek inside the conservative establishment and how it operates, whether its fundraising, or talk radio, and who it consists of and what they are thinking . Many do not like the establishment and posture themselves against it but establishments, like the poor, you will always have with you and they are inevitable because when the centers of government, finance, media and entertainment are concentrated in one place instead of many, it thus requires one to live at or near them to be of some use.  When that many people are at the centers of power, then establishments are born. There's no way around this.  The ascendancy of the right from 1981-2008 was bound to create a conservative establishment with all those people descending upon Washington D.C. since the mid-1970s and onward whether it was to staff think tanks, foundations or Administrations.

However, what we're dealing with here is an establishment that has split itself in two.  In the majority is what I like to call Conservative INC.  It has become a money-grubbing scam as the Boston Phoenix article shows and one that is totalitarian in the way it operates and disseminates ideas.

24 July 2009 11:00 AM

On Losing Gracefully

Josh Levin:

There's a video on YouTube of the world's greatest basketball player getting humiliated at his own basketball camp. He takes the defeat with dignity, explaining that "in your life, in the game, you get dunked on, you get crossed over." The other campers proceed to laugh at him, having been egged on by Damon Wayans.

24 July 2009 10:00 AM

An Author's Rights

A.E. Hotchner is upset about changes to the latest edition of Ernest Hemingway's "A Movable Feast."

All publishers, Scribner included, are guardians of the books that authors entrust to them. Someone who inherits an author's copyright is not entitled to amend his work. There is always the possibility that the inheritor could write his own book offering his own corrections.

Ernest was very protective of the words he wrote, words that gave the literary world a new style of writing. Surely he has the right to have these words protected against frivolous incursion, like this reworked volume that should be called "A Moveable Book." I hope the Authors Guild is paying attention.

24 July 2009 9:00 AM

Video of the Day: "On Educating Leaders"

24 July 2009 8:00 AM

Policing with Technology

Edward Tenner on the Gates controversy:

What is sad is that a dispatcher's use of freely available technology, not advanced databases, could have defused the whole event. As of 11:10 on July 23, Gates's name, address, and telephone number were still available on line through Google and probably other means. (You can even get the Harvard housing office brochure about the house with rent information online.) A dispatcher could have searched the address, found occupants' names within seconds, used them to determine Gates's appearance and Harvard connection, and relayed all of this to the officers on their way to the scene. I'd be surprised if they didn't have laptops and/or smartphones with them that could have found the same information. And since Professor Gates said he had entered through the back door and turned off the alarm system, shouldn't the dispatcher also have known about the system's existence -- most cities now require registration to penalize repeat false alarms -- and let the officer know that the owner probably was the person observed at the door?

With the right background information the sergeant could have recognized Gates, addressed him by name, and explained that verifying identification was a formality in clearing the call.

23 July 2009 4:06 PM

The Creator of Dilbert Speaks

Wired has a fascinating story on his bizarre problem:

The rules changed all the time--sometimes day to day, sometimes hour to hour--and whenever he tried to recite them, people thought, "This guy is nuts."

The rules dictated when and where Scott Adams, the chief engineer of the Dilbert comic empire, was allowed to speak. He could neither control them nor predict exactly when they'd go into effect. All he knew was that he'd woken up one morning and found that his voice had turned against him, imposing a set of bizarre restrictions.

Take the rule about crowds. If Adams was at a party with friends, he'd open his mouth to talk, only to find the words tumbling out in a raspy, imperceptible staccato, chopping off sentences before they had a chance to form. If he tried to say, "Tomorrow is my birthday," for example, it would morph into a weak "Ma robf sss ma birfday." But if he was on the lecture circuit, delivering a prepared speech to a crowd of thousands, he could stand behind the podium and--"Hello!"--his voice would whir back to life, if only for the hour he was onstage.

There was also the rule about being alone. Adams might be sitting at the desk in his Bay Area office, working on a new Dilbert strip, when suddenly he'd be able to form words. He'd call out to others in the house--"I can talk!"--but the moment somebody stepped into the room, his voice evaporated.

Then there was the rule about the rules themselves. For some reason, if Adams were to explain his condition to you, his speech would suddenly become clear and strong. Change the topic, however, and his voice would jumble again.

But if you were to place a video camera in front of him and have him talk into it--well, in that case, he could be relatively lucid about anything.

That one still baffles him.

Read the whole thing.


23 July 2009 4:01 PM

The Space Age

The New York Times corrects itself.

23 July 2009 4:00 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Elsewhere I write about male pickup artists:

The community of men who study picking up women -- let's call them "players" -- are unified by a belief that dating is a "game," and that utility should guide one's approach to it. The results can be harmless enough. An item I once saw in a men's magazine advised that a good first date might involve walking across a suspension bridge, or standing atop the observation deck of a tall building, because what women feel when they experience vertigo mimics the butterflies that accompanies proximity to a man to whom they're genuinely attracted. I imagined some poor guy bringing his date on a long hike to the bridge over the river only to discover that she isn't confused nearly as easily as he was led to believe.

Of course, the belief that one acts amorally by manipulating women quickly leads to abhorrent behavior. The rogue who is zealous for sexual conquest at least understands that he acts badly if he uses deception to get sex. The cerebral "player," exemplified by the author of the blog Elysium Revisited, doesn't grasp that anything is the matter with his behavior.

As a result, he is quite unabashed as he describes a male behavior that I've observed on many occasions, and that I abhor more than any other mainstream pickup technique. Though I'd never heard it referred to as such, Sebastian Flyte dubs it "the Neg," and calls it "the Swiss army knife of pickup."

More here.


23 July 2009 1:00 PM

People Think He's Good -- Replace Him!

Kevin Drum:

Bernanke isn't indispensable, any more than Alan Greenspan or Paul Volcker or William McChesney Martin were.  But everyone thought they were indispensable at the time, and that's a dangerous way to think about these guys.  Putting Fed chairmen on a pedestal, as the financial community does routinely, breeds both complacency and insularity.  In the long run, it's bad for business.

Wall Street needs to calm down and learn that being Fed chairman for a few years doesn't make someone superhuman.  The world won't end if Bernanke is replaced by one of the other dozen or so highly qualified candidates available, and Obama should take the chance to demonstrate this when he chooses Bernanke's replacement.


23 July 2009 12:00 PM

When Sports Leagues Are New

Dan Levin:

BEIJING -- With 1.3 billion potential fans, China is increasingly seen as a financial promised land for N.B.A. stars through endorsement deals, and the league itself has established a robust organization here valued at $2 billion.

But China's own professional league, the Chinese Basketball Association, has hardly enjoyed a smooth ascendance alongside this country's basketball boom. American players and agents describe broken contracts, unpaid wages, suspicions of game-fixing and rising resentment toward foreign players. Several players have left China after failing to receive paychecks. Last month, the league announced that it lost $17 million last season, which ended in May.


23 July 2009 11:00 AM

Selling Stuff to Liberals

Louis Beckett:

In what may be one of the first publisher-owned web advertising collaboratives, a group of progressive media outlets, including Mother Jones, The Nation, and Air America, is launching the Ad Progress Network, a "one stop buy" for web advertising which is planned to debut early this fall.

The basic idea of an ad network -- smaller web publications teaming up to attract advertisers -- is nothing new. BlogAds, one of the most popular, has been going since 2002. But Ad Progress is trying to "grow the revenue pie for all these independent media types" with a collaboration that will cut out the advertising middleman, Jay Harris told me. Harris is publisher of Mother Jones and co-chair of the coordinating committee for Ad Progress' parent organization, The Media Consortium. He's betting that by joining forces, these sites can achieve the kind of scale they can't on their own -- and thus appeal to advertisers they couldn't reach independently.


23 July 2009 10:00 AM

"Exploring the Mind of a Killer"

23 July 2009 9:00 AM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Yes, the birthers.

TNR:

This week, the so-called "birther" conspiracy theory, which posits that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is thus an illegitimate president, has made some significant strides. As David Weigel of The Washington Independent has documented, the theory has been embraced by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, ten members of Congress, and now Liz Cheney, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and the former vice president's daughter. However, this is hardly the first time an absurd conspiracy theory about an American president has taken hold.

Click through to read about past presidential conspiracy theories, starting with one about Andrew Jackson.


23 July 2009 8:00 AM

Dept. of Unethical but Clever

Jacob Grier on how to sell bricks for a living.

22 July 2009 5:00 PM

"There's Never Been Less Discrimination Than There Is Today"

22 July 2009 4:00 PM

Deep Impact

The Los Angeles Times:

For only the second time in recent history, scientists have observed the results of an object plunging into the solar system's largest planet.

The object, thought to be an asteroid or comet, left a large dark bruise that can still be seen spreading over Jupiter's southern hemisphere, according to Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada-Flintridge.

22 July 2009 3:00 PM

The Death and Life of American Cities

Ryan Avent:

One of the persistent themes of urban change is the presence of positive and negative feedback loops. Crime provides an excellent example. An increase in crime stretches police resources, decreasing the odds that any individual crime is solved and thereby increasing the return to crime -- and generating more of it. Which further stretches police resources.

This process touches off other feedback loops. Rising crime reduces property values which reduces property tax revenue. This limits city resources and further strains the police force and the public services which might otherwise keep at risk residents from turning to crime. Declines in public safety and service quality encourage mobile residents to leave, and since richer residents are more mobile that has a strong negative impact on the revenue base, further complicating matters.

Out-migration also reduces property prices which then attracts people who need cheap housing, which will tend to be economically distressed individuals and households. These families then demand more city services while contributing less to public coffers, and so on.

Luckily, he says, there are positive feedback loops too.


22 July 2009 2:00 PM

How Far Will You Go?

Radley Balko:

Several years ago, Matt Welch put up a "pro-war libertarian quiz" in an effort to get pro-war bloggers to go on record stating their limits when it comes to what powers they'd give the government in fighting terrorism.

In that spirit, I'd like to pose a similar query to the lefty blogosphere/opinionsphere on the growth and size of government. Every initiative announced by the Obama administration pushes us further into uncharted territory on both fronts, so it would be interesting to see what if any actual limits lefty opinion makers would put on the size, cost, and influence of the federal government. At what point would you be willing to finally say, "Okay, we've gone far enough"?

Note that the intent here is to find your limits, not what you consider to be ideal.

His survey is here.


22 July 2009 1:00 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Sundry police departments are the perpetrators:

While many civil liberties experts are focusing on the recent Supreme Court decision involving the intrusive search of a 13-year-old girl, plaintiffs' lawyers nationwide have been winning huge settlements in class-action suits on behalf of women and men subjected to strip searches by local police departments.

Damages have reached into the millions in some cases. Los Angeles County recently paid $27 million to settle a class-action suit, New York City paid $22 million, and Washington, D.C. had to pay $12 million.

Despite the substantial settlements, most cases have been resolved with out-of-court agreements that limit publicity. As a result, some legal scholars believe that the invasive practice continues, sometimes even in jurisdictions where settlements have been paid.


22 July 2009 12:00 PM

Teaching Naked

Jeffrey R. Young:

College leaders usually brag about their tech-filled "smart" classrooms, but a dean at Southern Methodist University is proudly removing computers from lecture halls. José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts, has challenged his colleagues to "teach naked" -- by which he means, sans machines.

More than anything else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather than using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they're going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.


22 July 2009 11:00 AM

"Don't Blog Anything With More Than Half A Million Hits"

Joshua Davis on how trends kill themselves:

It happens to everyone: You come across something hilarious online and want to pass it along. But are you hopping on a trend that's past its expiration date? Answering that question isn't as simple as you'd think. Just ask Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who has been studying how trends rise and fall for almost a decade. In his most recent work, Berger looked at changing fashions in baby names. Examining a century's worth of data, he and his colleagues discovered that the quicker a name came into vogue, the quicker it went out. Because fads are perceived negatively, parents tend to shun names that have seen a sharp increase in popularity. "If it came out of nowhere, it might not persist that long," he says.
The Dave Matthews Band has suffered mightily due to a similar phenomenon.

22 July 2009 10:00 AM

A Weighty Matter

Jeremy Singer Vine:

For years, critics of the body mass index have griped that it fails to distinguish between lean and fatty mass. (Muscular people are often misclassifed as overweight or obese.) The measure is mum, too, about the distribution of body fat, which makes a big difference when it comes to health risks. And the BMI cutoffs for "underweight," "normal," "overweight," and "obese" have an undeserved air of mathematical authority. So how did we end up with such a lousy statistic?
The answer is here.

22 July 2009 9:00 AM

Video of the Day: Tinkering School

22 July 2009 8:00 AM

A Dissenting Take on Taxes

Myron Magnet:

It's worth recalling that when the Founding Fathers led the American colonists in revolt against British oppression, they weren't rebelling against torture on the rack or being chained in galleys or having to let aristocrats deflower their daughters. They were rebelling against taxes. To them, having to pay duties they hadn't voted for themselves was a tyrannical taking of property--theft--and, in true Lockean fashion, they concluded that since government exists to protect life, liberty, and property, a regime that does the opposite renders itself illegitimate. What would they make, then, of today's New York City, where 1.2 percent of the taxpayers--40,000 households--pay 50 percent of the income taxes, and half the households pay no income tax at all? If the tax code ensures that those who pay the bulk of the taxes are always a minority of those who vote for the legislature that imposes the taxes, isn't that taxation without representation? Isn't it also the tyranny of the majority that the Founders tried to prevent?

22 July 2009 3:03 AM

The Future of Spell Check

21 July 2009 5:00 PM

Bye Bye Books

Clark Stooksbury:

Score one for Gutenberg. The New York Times reports that Amazon.com deleted books from Kindles that weren't supposed to be sold. I am probably the millionth person to note the irony that the books deleted in such a Big Brother fashion are George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm. I checked, and I have copies of both books still on my shelves.
I think Fahrenheit 451 would've been more ironic.

21 July 2009 4:00 PM

Energy / Environment

Pee Powered Cars

Wired:

A scientist at Ohio University has developed a catalyst capable of extracting hydrogen from urine. That's right. Urine. Now you can fill one tank while draining another.

Garardine Botte claims the device uses significantly less energy than is needed to extract hydrogen from water and says it could power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the near future. Her electrolyzer uses a nickel-based electrode to extract hydrogen from urea (NH2)2CO, the main component in urine. Hydrogen is less tightly bound to the nitrogen in urea than to the oxygen in water, so the electrolyzer needs just 0.37 volts across the cell to oxidize the urea, according to Botte. That's less than half the amount of energy in an AA battery and considerably less than the 1.23 volts needed to split water.

One of hydrogen's biggest stumbling blocks to use as an alternative fuel is the amount of energy needed to produce it. And then there's the matter of distributing it. Botte says her gadget eliminates such problems because it's small enough to integrate into an automobile. Urine is also readily available -- your body produces two to three liters of it each day, and it is the most abundant form of waste on the planet. We could treat waste water while fueling our cars.


21 July 2009 3:00 PM

The TV Version Would Be Better

Amanda Marcotte:

Before the movie, we talked about how much more fun the Harry Potter franchise would be as a TV show, because that means that each season could be dedicated to a book and use anywhere from 12 hours to 17 hours to tell the story of each book.  And some subplots could get their own episodes, like the various love affairs.  This would have the benefit of resolving that storyline while isolating it from the darker happenings, and avoiding groaningly awful situations, such as the end where Hermione and Harry talk about the war and Dumbledore's death, and then a little about why you shouldn't snog Ron's sister in front of her.  No one talks like that, but with a running time slightly over two and a half hours, it's clear that they were just cramming stuff in.

And, inevitably, leaving out some of the best stuff to advance the plot.  On a TV show, you can have entire episodes that only minimally advance the main plot, but fill in the necessary color and resolve subplots.  There's so many things that are half-explored that could, on a TV show, get an entire episode or two all to themselves.  Imagine an hour-long episode dedicated to the memory retrievals about Voldemort, another one that's light about the love affairs of Hogwarts, a mid-season break episode about how Katie touches the cursed necklace that was intended to kill Dumbledore, a twinkly sweeps episode about how Harry finally (after spending one-two scenes per episode of trying) gets Slugworth to spill his secrets by getting him drunk, and of course, a two hour season finale where Harry and Dumbledore go to get the Horcrux in the necklace and then battle the Death Eaters at Hogwarts.  Hour one could end with the dramatic poison-swallowing scene, and then they pick up in hour two with the daring escape, only to find Hogwarts besieged by Death Eaters when they return.  Season six of "Harry Potter: The Series" could end with Snape cursing Dumbledore, and Dumbledore's body flying off the tower.  In a movie, they have to do it so quickly it loses its impact, but on TV, it could be spectacular.  You could also get audience members who haven't read the book so involved in the characters---and you could have time to construct red herrings, etc.---that you could actually get them to an emotional point where Dumbledore's death is a surprise.  As it is, in the movie, it's neither surprising nor impacting.  Believe me; I'm a blubbering baby at movies.  I cried like 4 separate times during "Up".  But I wasn't even tempted when Dumbledore died.


Rupert Taylor Price

21 July 2009 2:00 PM

The Idea of Everest

Is it time to revise?

On May 21 at 9.45 a.m., Bierling stood on the highest point on Earth, the 8,848 meter peak of Everest, for a quarter of an hour. That made her the first German woman to have climbed Everest from the Nepalese side and returned alive. Fellow Bavarian Hannelore Schmatz had reached the summit 30 years ago but she died of exhaustion on the way down.

When Bierling arrived in Nepal she was surprised at the extent of the commercial tourism on Everest. In the high season in May some 700 people live in base camp at a height of 5,350 meters -- it has hot showers and even a bakery.

Some summiteers are anything but professional. "Many don't know how to put on crampons or even how to hold an ice pick," Bierling says. She was even more astonished to find that she didn't need to use her own ice pick to reach the summit. "Anyone looking for a mountain adventure shouldn't go for Everest," she says. Without the Sherpas and infrastructure -- such as fixed ropes leading right up to the summit -- some 90 percent of climbers wouldn't even reach the top, she believes.


21 July 2009 1:00 PM

"A Wild Theory About Ancient American Civilization"

21 July 2009 12:00 PM

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Pascal Emmanuel Gobry:

Here's my modest proposal: why not just break up the banks?

Seriously.

All of the big ones: Goldman, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup... Too big to fail is too big to exist, right?

It's hard to see why the bits of Goldman Sachs that underwrite bond issues can't operate independently from the bits that account for most of the high-frequency trading on the NYSE and Nasdaq. You have boutique M&A shops and hedge funds that do each of those things without doing the other stuff, and do quite well.

Unlike a terra incognita Lehman-style bankruptcy, there are well-established legal frameworks for doing this: banks routinely spin off, sell and buy bits of each other, without creating counterparty risk and widespread panic. Goldman would simply spin itself off bit by bit and the remaining shell would return its symbolic assets (an $80,000 commode and Hank Paulson's hair, perhaps) to shareholders and shut down.

There are not the ethical or legal problems that you have in a nationalization. Corporations do not have rights as such, and only exist insofar as they are a very efficient way of pooling together financial and human resources and providing products and services to the market.

21 July 2009 11:00 AM

Technology

Plugged In -- And Burned Out

Jacob Silverman:

In a recent essay in n+1, Benjamin Kunkel, in a wide-ranging consideration of technology's effects on contemporary culture and daily life, writes that the internet and its products feel forced upon us. For anyone who goes online daily--and increasingly that is most of us--there is a never-ending barrage of e-mail, articles of note (for their vulgarity or supposed profundity), amusing videos, invitations, profiles, photos, blog posts, news feeds, figurative "gifts," and the like--and most of it is free, available to be guzzled down with a click. It is nigh impossible to simply dip into the internet; the irony is that if you have any awareness of how to navigate it, this endless stream of content, digital companions, and e-communiques becomes more numerous and oppressive, its depths cavernous and alluring, rather than simpler and streamlined.

What does it take to separate us from these omnipresent digital phenomena, and will that separation one day be impossible, when gadgets, screens, and Wi-Fi are everywhere? Even now, the term "going off the grid" is often used as a jesting hypothetical, something done by eccentrics and believers in an impending apocalypse. As a regular feature of electronic social discourse, waiting a day or two to answer an e-mail requires an explanation, if not an apology.