June 2009 Archives

30 June 2009 4:20 PM

Ideas 2009

"A Wise Latina Woman..."

Though I'm late to the conversation, I've been meaning to weigh in on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, the controversy surrounding her nomination, and especially her remark, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." I should make clear that I don't find her comment disqualifying given its context, and that I hardly care whether she is confirmed or not. My ideal judge is a federalism loving, commerce clause limiting civil libertarian who safeguards the rights of criminal defendants and limits executive overreach when the president oversteps his constitutional boundaries. In other words, no matter the president, I'm not going to get a Supreme Court justice I like.

But I think "the context" of Judge Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark has yet to be sufficiently explored, and that the controversy speaks volumes about the different ways Americans are socialized on matters of race.

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30 June 2009 4:17 PM

Festival Panels

For the Children

30 June 2009 4:07 PM

Ideas 2009

Those Tweeting Jurors

The first full day of the Aspen Ideas Festival kicked off with a session on the criminal justice system. The panelists: retired associate justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O'Connor, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree (an expert on race and law), and Bishop TD Jakes, who runs a 30,000-member church in Texas. I had to leave before the Q-and-As, but there were some highlights from the panel portion, which was moderated by NPR's Linda Wertheimer. Some quick bullets:

On mandatory minimum sentences: O'Connor suggested it was time for Congress to revisit mandatory minimums, which stipulate certain minimum sentences for certain crimes, often drug offenses. The result of mandatory minimums has been to limit judicial discretion in sentencing and to overcrowd the prisons with criminals who may have gotten 20 years for a first-time drug offense. "I don't advocate making drug use legal, but I do advocate examining the mandatory minimum" regime, she said. She also said that recidivism is so high because there's "a shocking lack of rehab efforts within prisons."

On the jury system: Some talk about how jury service is changing due to technology. The problem with juries, said Ogletree, "is not race or gender or class. It's the tweeting, blogging, texting jurors who want to find out more about the case [so they go online after hours] to see what this guy is really about." Judges already tell jurors they can't read newspapers or talk about the case with their neighbors.  They need to extend those remarks, said Ogletree.  "There's a flaw in the system that has to be addressed, and I think it's in the jury instructions: You can't tweet, you can't blog." O'Connor, who was a local trial judge at one point in her career, implied that good judges should be able to control their juries, regardless of the technology at issue.

On more women in prisons: "We think women can do all kinds of things," O'Connor said. "And I guess they can commit crimes, too."


30 June 2009 2:28 PM

Energy / Environment

The Nuclear Option

David Frum visits a nuclear reprocessing facility in France:

Nuclear waste conjures up images of ultra-toxic green sludge, one spill away from poisoning the planet. In fact, all energy production generates waste, including some very dangerous wastes: not only carbon dioxide, but sulphur dioxide and coal slag. The waste from fossil fuels typically evanesces invisibly into the atmosphere, but that disappearance from view does not render it harmless. If anything, the very invisibility of fossil waste enhances its harm, by deluding us into imagining that what has vanished from sight has vanished from existence.

The Atlantic has published various stories on the harms of nuclear energy -- and why it is essential to humankind's progress.

30 June 2009 2:02 PM

Business / Economics

When Everyone Is Big Business Friendly

David Brooks writes:

Democrats learned never to go to war against the combined forces of corporate America. Today, whether it is on the stimulus, on health care or any other issue, the Obama administration and the Congressional leadership go out of their way to court corporate interests, to win corporate support and to at least divide corporate opposition.
This reminds me of an idea Peter Suderman had:

...what if the GOP fumbles around for a while, fails to develop a coherent message, continues to shout "Reagan!" in place of proposing policy, fails to find fresh political talent, and loses a series of elections, to the point where many begin to predict permanent minority status?

Meanwhile, the Democrats spend the next decade or so getting used to power in Washington. A lot of their agenda involves finding new ways to regulate various industries. As this happens, industry, looking for influence, naturally begins to fund Democrats and Democratic lobbyists more heavily (corporate donations are already shifting away from the GOP), and rent-seeking becomes even more prevalent on the Hill. It won't be long before Democrats, regulators, and the lobbying world have a very cozy relationship.

This opens up the opportunity for the right to exploit the anti-corporate outrage in middle America -- outrage we can already see boiling up in the crusades against earmarks (handouts to donors and corporate interests), against CEO pay, against hedge fund tax rates and oil company profits. But instead of running the traditional anti-corporate campaigns, which mainly focus on taxing and regulating big-business, the right runs against the way liberal politicians have gotten into bed with corporations. It's against the Washington favor-racket, against back-room politics, against collusion between business and government. This pleases libertarians somewhat and, if done properly, keeps low-taxers in the fold. 

Someone certainly needs to say "down with big business."

30 June 2009 12:02 PM

Ideas 2009

On Discourse: The Local Newspaper

"...the publisher of the Los Angeles Times overruled his editors and killed the local news section."

-- Kevin Roderick, LA Observed

The Los Angeles Times now counts 565 editorial staffers, less than half its peak newsroom workforce. Cue the usual laments about all the news that won't be gathered, the beats that won't be covered --  journalists frequently air these concerns, only to be ignored by most everyone else.

Can you blame the average citizen for her skepticism? The Los Angeles Times did a poor job covering local news even at the high water mark of newsroom staffing. Its employees, like all professionals, sometimes overestimate the relative importance of their work. But the death of the California section, and the erosion of the editorial staff, poses daunting problems for local governance in Southern California, or so I hope to convince you by offering a very specific example of what happens when their isn't any beat reporter around.
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30 June 2009 11:54 AM

Ideas 2009

Love and Marriage


In The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Lowe cheats on her husband and ends her marriage (it is interesting to read that essay alongside this one). Ross Douthat opines on reckless romance in The New York Times -- America's meritocratic elite needs more of it, he asserts. Dana Goldstein isn't buying his argument.

30 June 2009 11:15 AM

Ideas 2009

Interview with James Poulos, Part V

(Parts onetwo, three, and four of my interview with James Poulos.)

Q. You've written for a long time at a blog called Postmodern Conservative, a project that I've always thought of as part politics, part philosophy. Recently, however, the blog got picked up by First Things, the "journal of religion, culture and public life." What is a Postmodern conservative, anyway? And what do they -- or at least, what do you -- have to say about religion in America?

People have asked "what's a pomocon" almost as long as I've been blogging at Postmodern Conservative. And the truth is, my wife bought me the URL for my birthday when we first moved to DC. In seriousness, all the intuitions that led me to blog as a self-styled pomocon also led me firmly away from the kind of Ideas For Dummies approach that seems to me one of the lamer things we mean to criticize when we criticize 'modernity'. We want to know how to be or do anything in only ten easy steps; my whole approach to philosophical reflection and political engagement resists this. But I was the kid who thought that instruction manuals were for those too mentally flat-footed or underinspired to figure out how to do it themselves as they went. Dive in first, impose order later. Chances are there's already a latent order present which reveals itself only upon unrehearsed and unquantifiable reflection. So at Postmodern Conservative I've appreciated the varying interpretations of pomocon brought to the table by our various bloggers.

That said, I think there are some noteworthy overlaps.
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30 June 2009 11:00 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind." -- Isaiah Berlin


30 June 2009 11:00 AM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of Fatherhood

Explored ably here by James McConkey. This is one of the best essays published in recent years. 

Stuart W. Jones

30 June 2009 10:00 AM

Ideas 2009

The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

It's here. Great idea!

30 June 2009 9:00 AM

Ideas 2009

On Discourse: Turning People Off

Nick Kristoff:

A study by Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people saw tight television shots of blowhards with whom they disagreed, they felt that the other side was even less legitimate than before.


30 June 2009 8:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Kinds of Television

Okay, here's a puzzle for you: I'm going to put some television shows into Group A and others into Group B. See if you can figure out what metric I used to split them into their respective groups.

GROUP A: Friends, Gossip Girl, The OC, House, Desperate Housewives, 30 Rock, Grey's Anatomy, Entourage, The Gilmore Girls, CSI: Miami.

GROUP B: All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Three's Company, Family Ties, I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, The Flintstones, Roseanne.
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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cut Out the Rating Agencies

Investors could do a better job rating mortgage-backed securities on their own More

Workingmen 2

29 June 2009 4:12 PM

Business / Economics

Recession Strikes -- Men Hit Hardest?

The Week in Review:

Writing in Foreign Policy, Reihan Salam joins those anointing this downturn a great "he-cession" (more links below) -- in which "the great shift of power from males to females is likely to be dramatically accelerated" across Europe and the United States.

Citing heavily disproportionate job losses among men, Salam notes that, by inflating a housing bubble and attendant blue-collar industries like construction, Wall Street's macho risk-taking may simply have masked longer-term declines in male economic power brought on by globalization.

Now, he writes, the world must figure how to handle a different macho problem: masses of "surly, lonely and hard-drinking men" without jobs, wives or much education, and more prone to mental illness.

Tinou Bao

29 June 2009 3:08 PM

Ideas 2009

The Problem of Penalties

Julian Sanchez thinks burqa bans are a bad idea:

If the premise is that women who wear the burqa are being robbed of their agency and dignity--and that even those who protest that they wish to wear it are victims false consciousness--how is the ban supposed to be enforced? By fining or detaining or otherwise harassing the very women who, on this theory, are the most oppressed? By barring them access to public places, government buildings, maybe even courts and police stations? I suppose you could direct the penalties toward their male relations, but that hardly seems like a good way to reinforce the concept of the equal agency of women.  The only way this seems to actually work--and by "work" I mean "severely hamper religious freedom without still further harmful consequences"--is if it's like smoking bans, where you see rapid norm changes and widespread compliance with very limited need for actual sanctions. Except there's very little historical reason to expect it to go that way.

29 June 2009 2:18 PM

Business / Economics

Free Falling

Malcolm Gladwell doesn't buy the argument asserted in the new book by Chris Anderson, Free:

There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money). The only problem is that in the middle of laying out what he sees as the new business model of the digital age Anderson is forced to admit that one of his main case studies, YouTube, "has so far failed to make any money for Google."

Why is that? Because of the very principles of Free that Anderson so energetically celebrates. When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That's the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is "close enough to free to round down," "close enough to free" multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube's bandwidth costs in 2009 will be three hundred and sixty million dollars. In the case of YouTube, the effects of technological Free and psychological Free work against each other.

So how does YouTube bring in revenue? Well, it tries to sell advertisements alongside its videos. The problem is that the videos attracted by psychological Free--pirated material, cat videos, and other forms of user-generated content--are not the sort of thing that advertisers want to be associated with. In order to sell advertising, YouTube has had to buy the rights to professionally produced content, such as television shows and movies. Credit Suisse put the cost of those licenses in 2009 at roughly two hundred and sixty million dollars. For Anderson, YouTube illustrates the principle that Free removes the necessity of aesthetic judgment. (As he puts it, YouTube proves that "crap is in the eye of the beholder.") But, in order to make money, YouTube has been obliged to pay for programs that aren't crap. To recap: YouTube is a great example of Free, except that Free technology ends up not being Free because of the way consumers respond to Free, fatally compromising YouTube's ability to make money around Free, and forcing it to retreat from the "abundance thinking" that lies at the heart of Free. Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose close to half a billion dollars this year. If it were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds.

29 June 2009 1:37 PM


Facebook vs. Google

Wired reports:

Today, the Google-Facebook rivalry isn't just going strong, it has evolved into a full-blown battle over the future of the Internet--its structure, design, and utility. For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google's algorithms--rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg's vision, users will query this "social graph" to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire--rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now.

29 June 2009 1:22 PM

Ideas 2009

Russia, Cont.

Daniel Larison disagrees with James Poulos on Russia.

29 June 2009 12:41 PM

Ideas 2009

"Worst Idea Ever"

-- Building your hive in Manhattan.

-- Avant News lists ten bad ideas from last year.

-- Hosting a race among the worst drivers in America.

-- Swine flu parties.

29 June 2009 11:17 AM

Energy / Environment

Video of the Day: Eco Friendlier Building

29 June 2009 10:48 AM

Ideas 2009

How to Lose Friends and Influence No One

I've addressed political discourse before here, here and here. Each time I directed my comments at media figures whose rhetoric I find flawed. Talk radio host Mark Levin stood in as my most frequent example.

Here I want to take a look at the effect talk radio has on some of its listeners. It's useful to begin by referencing a May 28, 2009 segment on Mr. Levin's show:

MR. LEVIN: Mary, Westport, Connecticut, WABC, you're an independent. You don't like when I yell, do you Mary?

MARY: No, no I don't. The point is this. I truly appreciate what you're doing. You have a clear mind, you present your arguments very clearly, you have background. But I want you every so often to step back. Because we need new people to listen to you. And if new people tune you in screaming, they're going to turn you off.

MR. LEVIN: Let me tell you something, Mary. Let me tell you, you're a very sweet Lady. But it takes all kinds. And the fact of the matter is, there are hosts out there that are NPR types. And they're out there. If you want to listen to them, listen to them. I'm very passionate about my views, and so I express them in a passionate way. I'm a regular guy. I'm a regular guy. (lowers voice) Regular guys don't always talk like this.(raises voice) Regular guys aren't cerebral 100 percent of the time. Regular guys are human beings. Get what I'm saying?

MARY: Yes, I do.

MR. LEVIN: All right, Mary, God bless you, my friend.
Of course, on matters related to political discourse, Mr. Levin is anything but a regular guy. The average American male doesn't reach a nationwide radio audience, nor does he lose his temper and begin to yell angrily when confronted with people whose politics differ from his own.

Unfortunately, some Mark Levin listeners imagine that his behavior is a model, and take it upon themselves to mimic the rhetorical style and attitude of the talk radio host in real life. One hardly needs to read between the lines to see that they aren't well served by doing so. Take the caller who conversed with Mr. Levin on his June 1, 2009 program. A fan of Los Angeles area talk radio host Larry Elder, he began the call by describing Mr. Levin as "Larry Elder with a bite, with a hard bite, and that's what I like about you."

The caller continued (emphasis added):

I'd just like to ask one more question. I'm not invited to a lot of parties anymore, because I hammer people and I try to get my point across, and I read your book, and I try to make people understand what's going on. But like you said they're drones, or they just don't care, they could care less where we're going. But my question is what the hell sacrifice has Obama made-- when the media is swooning over a $24,000 date he went on the other night with his wife, are we kidding? This guy is eating caviar on the back of the American worker, and he talks about sacrifice? It's sickening, we've got to figure out how to stop this guy, and I'd like to know from you, how do we stop him, or why do these people who've lost so much money already, why can't we stop him, and how do we do it?
A responsible host might have said something like, "Look, if your attitude when you attend parties is to 'hammer people' with your politics -- and assume they're drones if they're unreceptive -- you're taking the wrong approach. Don't compromise your views, but try to communicate them respectfully, and do your best to understand where they're coming from so you can better convince them." But Mr. Levin can hardly preach the opposite of what he practices.

Or consider a Mark Levin listener named Cindi who I encountered in the comments section of a post on the blog Riehl World View. I'd criticized Mr. Levin for indulging a mean spirited sense of humor. In a followup comment, she began by saying that she too is a mean spirited person, and went on to say, "My humor, sarcasm is beyond the grasp of the liberal majority. This has cost me, have a few family members as well as friends who choose to cut me off. So be it."

I am hardly alone in observing that some people are entirely unpleasant if you get into a political conversation with them. Perhaps you knew someone in college like that? Or you have an uncle who ends up shouting about politics every Thanksgiving? These folks aren't all talk radio listeners, of course, but I do think that the rhetorical style employed by Mr. Levin and others with similar styles encourages listeners to imagine that political discourse is inherently adversarial, that politeness is a mark of insufficient conviction, and that bombast persuades better that pleasantly articulated arguments.

Common sense, electoral politics and personal experience lead me to the contrary conclusion that a conciliatory approach is more persuasive when addressing anyone who isn't already predisposed to accepting your conclusions.

29 June 2009 10:42 AM

Business / Economics

The Idea of Scarcity

The Washington Post:

To put it bluntly, the fiscal policy of the United States is unsustainable. Debt is growing faster than gross domestic product. Under the CBO's most realistic scenario, the publicly held debt of the U.S. government will reach 82 percent of GDP by 2019 -- roughly double what it was in 2008. By 2026, spiraling interest payments would push the debt above its all-time peak (set just after World War II) of 113 percent of GDP. It would reach 200 percent of GDP in 2038.

This huge mass of debt, which would stifle economic growth and reduce the American standard of living, can be avoided only through spending cuts, tax increases or some combination of the two. And the longer government waits to get its financial house in order, the more it will cost to do so, the CBO says

29 June 2009 10:11 AM

Ideas 2009

Interview with James Poulos, Part IV

(Parts one, two and three of my interview with James Poulos.)

Q. In your writing on foreign policy, you've been quite convicted about two things -- that the United States cannot afford to have Russia as an enemy, and that a better world depends in part on a more muscular France. Neither nation is likely to top a list of countries that concern the average American. What is it that makes them so crucially important?

There's a real elephant in the room when it comes to our awkward and crucial relationship with Russia. Freddie DeBoer of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, turning a nice phrase, once suggested we call the acknowledgment of problems like these 'giving the elephant a peanut'. So here's my peanut: bad relations with Russia make us feel so uncomfortable because they challenge and undermine our most cherished narratives about the moral and social progress of the global white community. I know even suggesting that we think analytically in terms of an 'international white race' sets off alarms, but it's obvious that Russian disinterest in, or outright hostility to, liberal political norms is noteworthy primarily because virtually every other majority-white country in the world has embraced and institutionalized them. We (small-l) liberals recoil at the very idea that any white person could seriously appreciate or even live under a regime like Russia's, because this is a reminder that white people are not the charmed winners of Earth's civilizational marathon -- contestants who can rest easy now that they've completed the course and won the race
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29 June 2009 9:38 AM

Health Care

Risk Averse

The New York Times investigates flaws in the process for doling out cancer research money:

...it has become lore among cancer researchers that some game-changing discoveries involved projects deemed too unlikely to succeed and were therefore denied federal grants, forcing researchers to struggle mightily to continue.

Take one transformative drug, for breast cancer. It was based on a discovery by Dr. Dennis Slamon of the University of California, Los Angeles, that very aggressive breast cancers often have multiple copies of a particular protein, HER-2. That led to the development of herceptin, which blocks HER-2.

Now women with excess HER-2 proteins, who once had the worst breast cancer prognoses, have prognoses that are among the best. But when Dr. Slamon wanted to start this research, his grant was turned down. He succeeded only after the grateful wife of a patient helped him get money from Revlon, the cosmetics company.

29 June 2009 9:00 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me - shapes and ideas so near to me - so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn't occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught." -- Georgia O'Keefe

Monday, June 29, 2009

Save GM With Ethanol

Just as Toyota was buoyed by jumping on the hybrid, GM can get an early lead on ethanol, with help from the government. More

Another Vinyl Village

29 June 2009 6:15 AM

Ideas 2009

Defining Prefab-cons

The estimable John Schwenkler offers a useful coinage: prefab conservatives. In construction, a prefabricated house is produced in a factory, shipped out to building sites, and assembled by folks unequipped to design anything better.

The prefab conservative, or prefab-con, brings the same attitude to political discourse: rather than using reason and critical thinking to craft arguments that fit the real world, he trots out prefabricated memes, arguments and conclusions that are passably functional at best. All too often, they are even worse: the typical prefabcon lives in an intellectual house of ugly, wobbly walls that collapse on themselves in slight gusts. Undaunted, he throws up another structure on the same spot, though that wolf named reality is standing right there, ready to huff and puff again.

The best example of prefab conservatism occurred during the 2008 presidential race, when prefabcon Kevin James went on Hardball with Chris Matthews to discuss whether Barack Obama's campaign pledge to engage hostile countries in diplomacy amounted to appeasement.

Behold the prefab con:


Though he does not think deeply or carefully enough to recognize it, the prefabcon's core flaw is a misunderstanding of what it means to be principled. Imagine an architect who studied the classical cannon. He might understand the insights behind columns well enough to employ them in a modern structure. On the other hand, he might thoughtlessly equate columns with good architecture, and justify atrocious designs that fit their site poorly by pointing at the columns, remarking on their long tradition, and insisting that anyone who criticizes their use must hate the most ingenious structures of the Greeks and Romans.

This analogy is usefully applied by thinking of Ronald Reagan as a master architect, and tax cuts as his columns. The thoughtful conservative understands why tax cuts can be beneficial, appreciates the elegant genius of their design, and advocates for them in the right circumstances. The prefabcon insists that a well constructed public policy demands tax cuts in every circumstance, because that's what Ronald Reagan would've done.

It is difficult to tell how many prefabcons truly believe in what they're building, and how many are content to throw up obviously inferior products because it's cheap, easy, and it sells. Certain sites -- Townhall and Human Events spring to mind -- basically earn their keep by mass producing gaudy, ill-constructed intellectual McMansions. In contrast, publications like National Review at their best build carefully designed custom houses on a foundation of conservative insights.

Unfortunately, the gaudy McMansions sometimes sell best -- e.g. the books of Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. This occasionally tempts conservatives smart enough to know better into thinking it would be a good thing if the American landscape could be transformed into endless subdivisions of hastily constructed peach-pink houses, sprawling out into the Arizona desert. ("Don't you understand how many listeners talk radio has?") That's a decent metaphor for John McCain's presidential campaign. It came along just as the bubble market for prefab conservatism burst -- not that it stopped Sarah Palin from throwing up the intellectual equivalent of double-wide trailers in every unscripted interview she gave. It's hard to think of another instance of Katie Couric devastating a politician's reputation on substance like a tornado tears through a trailer park.

Here's hoping that by 2012, the conservative movement rediscovers the value of honest craftsmanship, eschews intellectual shortcuts, and builds arguments suited for this time and place on a foundation of solid principles. At first, these houses many not sell as fast, but neither will they go quickly out of fashion, or blow over at the first huff and puff of critical inquiry.


29 June 2009 1:29 AM

Ideas 2009

Escape Ideas

Wired names the 10 best prison breaks of all time.

Jon's pics

28 June 2009 12:25 PM

Ideas 2009


John Schwenkler coins a useful new term. I'll offer an extended definition tomorrow. 

27 June 2009 2:46 PM

Ideas 2009

Was Primitive Warfare Altruistic?

27 June 2009 11:28 AM

Ideas 2009

Count Like A Sumerian

Why are there 60 minutes in an hour? In a roundabout way, it's because some people discovered that they could easily count to twelve... on their fingers. Here's how.

26 June 2009 4:32 PM

Ideas 2009

Man Seeking (Wing) Woman

A Craig's List ad:

We have an opening for a part-time personal introduction assistant, aka a "wingwoman."

You must be classy and dress well.

Beyond that you must be able to do 4 things: 1) start conversations with beautiful women; 2) after that, remain totally silent, unless spoken directly to, but smile and look friendly while the man you are "winging" orchestrates the social situation; 3) socialize and block any man or woman attempting to interfere with the man you are winging and any woman he is chatting with; and 4) end any conversation you are having instantly at the direction of the man you are winging. These requirements are essential, not for everyone, and difficult to do well.

Now, this is a job (that's why you get paid), but it's very fun, and you may even make new friends, or even meet someone special, if it doesn't interfere with your primary employment purpose.

This job is not for you if you are uptight, frumpy, grumpy, shy, a man-hater, a debbie downer, a critic, a control freak, a pouter, a therapist, researching, writing an article, with the press, a prostitute, an escort, a relationship counselor, or a feminist with a bone to pick. Gack.

You must be 18, usually 21 for the events we attend. All work is in public at cocktail parties, charity benefits, museum openings, and the like. You will be added to any list in advance, and any fees for the event will be paid. You are responsible for transportion. Subways are $2. Although many events have free food and drink, this isn't dating, so don't ask to be bought anything. If you do ask, by mistake, don't be grumpy and bring the mood down when the answer is a polite no, or you will be paid for the time you have spent and politely sent packing.

This job is definitely for you if you are easygoing, classy, dress extremely well, and enjoy many, varied, and sometimes challenging social situations.

Our roster of full-time wingwomen is full, but we do have a part-time opening. Yes we are serious. Yes we are real. You might even have the time of your life.
This seems like a better idea for a screenplay than for meeting a woman. It almost writes itself. The opening scene where the guy utterly strikes out while pathetically trying to pick up on women at a bar. A Chandler Bing like friend who jokingly suggests that he needs a wing woman. The employment ad. The interview process. The terrible candidates. The woman who gets the job. Their quarrels. His crush. Her disinterest. The beautiful girl she successfully wings him into dating. Their seemingly sweet romance and engagement. The wing woman's implausible second thoughts. And the inevitable coming together of man and wing woman in the end.

Man that would be a terrible movie. You could totally sell the screen play and sucker me into watching it on a flight where I'd planned to get work done. Casting suggestions, anyone?

26 June 2009 4:08 PM

Ideas 2009

"Worst Idea Ever"


-- Painting your elephants.

-- Abbreviating "Methodist".

-- Writing the fifth paragraph in this post when you supported -- and continue to support -- the Iraq War.

-- Going all the way to Ikea to buy support trestles when you could get them from this guy.

-- Charts that make no sense.

-- Local TV news. Except for purposes of humor.

26 June 2009 3:14 PM

Ending Traffic in Los Angeles -- A Snag

Noah Kazis at The City Fix responds to my idea for ending traffic in Los Angeles:

I don't think it would be successful at all. There are a few logistical issues--like that the cost of installing the GPS and payment devices amounts to a fairly significant fee to join the program and that as currently imagined it could only be used by a very tech-savvy demographic--that would need to be, but could be, overcome. No, the problem is that Conor completely misunderstands what people want out of transportation.

More than anything else, a traveler, especially the commuters Conor begins his post by describing, wants reliability. Almost anyone would prefer to spend an hour getting to work than have a high chance of not punching in before his shift starts or missing an important meeting. This service doesn't provide reliability, or rather won't until it has already become a mass phenomenon. No commuter would want to rely on a service that might not pan out on any given morning or that might not get her home in the evening. So that narrows the customer base down to the second kind of driver that Conor mentions, the person wanting to casually go down to the beach for the afternoon. In other words, it doesn't eliminate traffic at the periods when there is traffic: the weekday rush hours. In fact, that's even how they measure that L.A. is the most congested city - they compare the time distances take at peak hours vs. off-peak hours.

So by all means, Conor should set up his system. It could take on Zipcar and in particular I think would very much outcompete with taxis. I'd definitely consider using it for a trip to the beach. But I don't think that you'd see enough of a critical mass for this proposal fast enough that I'd ever take it to work. And if no one takes it to work, you don't hit traffic where it hurts.

This may be exactly right! On the other hand, I remain convinced that were the system set up it would generate some pretty rich information about where and when people needed to get places. The question is whether private shuttle services would be able to capitalize on that information to provide useful, scheduled rush hour transportation to far more areas than are now served.

26 June 2009 1:42 PM

"How MacDonald's Conquered France"

The short answer: their idea people were French. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Here's the buildup, ably written by Mike Steinberger in Slate:

In the battle for France, Jose Bové, the protester who vandalized a McDonald's in 1999 and was then running for president, proved to be no match for Le Big Mac. The first round of the presidential election was held on April 22, and Bové finished an embarrassing tenth, garnering barely 1 percent of the total vote. By then, McDonald's had eleven hundred restaurants in France, three hundred more than it had had when Bové gave new meaning to the term "drive-through." The company was pulling in over a million people per day in France, and annual turnover was growing at twice the rate it was in the United States. Arresting as those numbers were, there was an even more astonishing data point: By 2007, France had become the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald's, surpassed only by the land that gave the world fast food. Against McDonald's, Bové had lost in a landslide.

As reprehensible as Bové's tactics were, it was difficult for a food-loving Francophile not to feel a little solidarity with him. If you believed that McDonald's was a blight on the American landscape, seeing it on French soil was like finding a peep show at the Vatican, and in a contest between Roquefort and Chicken McNuggets, I knew which side I was on. But implicit in this attitude was a belief that McDonald's had somehow been foisted on the French; that slick American marketing had lured them away from the bistro and into the arms of Ronald McDonald. However, that just wasn't true. The French came to McDonald's and la malbouffe (or fast-food) willingly, and in vast and steadily rising numbers. Indeed, the quarter-pounded conquest of France was not the result of some fiendish American plot to subvert French food culture. It was an inside job, and not merely in the sense that the French public was lovin' it--the architects of McDonald's strategy in France were French.

Read the rest here.

Anastasia Vasilakis

26 June 2009 12:35 PM

The Rise of Intelligent Humans

As many readers know, The Atlantic's ideas issue is now online and on newsstands. Here's Jamais Cascio on how humans attained the capacity for complex thinking.

Seventy-four thousand years ago, humanity nearly went extinct. A super-volcano at what's now Lake Toba, in Sumatra, erupted with a strength more than a thousand times that of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Some 800 cubic kilometers of ash filled the skies of the Northern Hemisphere, lowering global temperatures and pushing a climate already on the verge of an ice age over the edge. Some scientists speculate that as the Earth went into a deep freeze, the population of Homo sapiens may have dropped to as low as a few thousand families.

The Mount Toba incident, although unprecedented in magnitude, was part of a broad pattern. For a period of 2 million years, ending with the last ice age around 10,000 B.C., the Earth experienced a series of convulsive glacial events. This rapid-fire climate change meant that humans couldn't rely on consistent patterns to know which animals to hunt, which plants to gather, or even which predators might be waiting around the corner.

How did we cope? By getting smarter. The neuro­physi­ol­ogist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition--including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead--evolved in response to the demands of this long age of turbulence. According to Calvin, the reason we survived is that our brains changed to meet the challenge: we transformed the ability to target a moving animal with a thrown rock into a capability for foresight and long-term planning. In the process, we may have developed syntax and formal structure from our simple language

It's interesting to think of how we so often benefit from the utter catastrophes suffered by our distant ancestors.

26 June 2009 10:35 AM

The Vitruvian Man, Etc.

Live Science looks at Leonardo Da Vinci's 10 best ideas

26 June 2009 10:00 AM

Video of the Day: Under the Sea

26 June 2009 9:05 AM

Zeitgeist Free Zone

IDEA: Every time a news event turns into a 24/7 media circus, certain outlets should declare that they'll not cover the story. I would have sought refuge in such places during the OJ Simpson trial. If your moment of need is now, you can count on this ideas blog to ignore every angle of today's biggest story.

26 June 2009 8:42 AM

Interview with James Poulos, Part III

(Parts one and two of my interview with James Poulos.)

Q. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about my favorite phrase you've coined -- "The Pink Police State." To what are you referring? And why should it worry us?

The Pink Police State is a more extreme version of a regime I use to taunt my libertarian friends in my essay on 'The Sex Vote' that's just been published in Doublethink. I worry, and I think we should all worry, about the way cultural libertarianism is snowballing while the snowball of political libertarianism rolls deeper into hell. I'm aghast at the shrug with which many self-styled libertarians greet massive government, so long as it's run by people with 'enlightened' attitudes about pleasure-seeking. It's not death to the state these libertarians want, it's the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot. I've actually had one good libertarian friend argue straight-faced that the solution to the drug problem is a monopoly partnership between Washington and Walmart. Well, with solutions like that, who needs problems? And of course you get that kind of institutionalized approach from fans of legal prostitution. It's almost as if libertarians are willing to let the state regulate everything so long as everything's decriminalized.
Read More

26 June 2009 8:00 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"The books which help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is by easy reading: but a great book that comes from a great thinker -- it is a ship of thought, deep freighted with truth and with beauty." -- Theodore Parker

Friday, June 26, 2009

Nap at Work

Stop fighting midday drowsiness -- it's nap time! More

Kerri 2009

26 June 2009 2:57 AM

Tricks of the Trade

From a review of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford:

In his book Crawford argues for a fresh view of skilled labor, especially that of the traditional trades. Go ahead, he's saying: Get your hands dirty. Own your work.

His book mixes descriptions of the pleasures and challenges of diagnosing faulty oil seals and rebuilding engines with philosophical views of work -- he draws upon Aristotle, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt, among others -- and economic analyses for the decline of skilled labor. He laments in particular the recent demise of high-school shop classes, which gave many young men their first manual skills. (Crawford points out that his arguments apply equally to women and says he hopes one day to work on a 1960 Volkswagen bug with his two young daughters.)

Skilled manual labor is far more cognitive than people realize, Crawford argues, and deserves more respect. That is especially true during tough economic times, when an independent tradesperson can make a decent and dignified living, and -- this is important -- can't be outsourced. (You can't get your car fixed in China.) "The question of what a good job looks like -- of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored -- is more open now than it has been for a long time," he writes.

Crawford believes that Americans, in their frenzy to send every kid to college in pursuit of information-age job skills, have lost something valuable. "My sense is that some kids are getting hustled off to college when they'd rather be learning to build things or fix things, and that includes kids who are very smart," he says in an interview.

The rest is here.

25 June 2009 4:55 PM

Presidential Travel

A cool idea for representing it visually.

25 June 2009 3:46 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Via Chris Orr, I see that Rush Limbaugh is implying that part of the blame for Mark Sanford's affair -- oh, why even bother saying it, you know who he's going to blame.

[Obama's] trying to kill spirit. All this 'hope' and 'change'--he's trying to kill it. You know how many frustrated Americans there are out there at what's happening?

This Sanford business: I've got to tell you, one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind.... What he did defies logic.... He up and leaves for five days, doesn't leave anyone in charge of the state in case there's an emergency. This is almost like, 'I don't give a damn, the country's going to hell in a handbasket. I just want out of here.' He had just tried to fight the stimulus money coming to South Carolina. He didn't want any part of it. He lost the battle. He said, 'What the hell. I mean, I'm -- the federal government's taking over -- what the hell, I want to enjoy life.'...

I'm not [kidding]. My first thought was he said, 'To hell with this. The Democrats are destroying the country. We can't do anything to stop it. I gave everything I had to stop it here in South Carolina.' ... Folks, there are a lot of people looking at life and saying, 'screw it.' They're saying, 'screw it.' Before Obama takes away their money, before Obama takes away their house, or the economy takes away their house, there are people who are saying, "To hell with all this.... I'm just going to try to enjoy it as much as I can.'

Looking at your life and saying screw it = bad idea! Telling millions of people that attitude kinda makes sense? Even worse.

25 June 2009 2:19 PM

Interview with James Poulos, Part II: Talking Tocqueville

Part I of my interview with James Poulos is here.

Q. Another aspect of your work I've noticed is a fondness for Tocqueville, who I think you cite to good effect. This despite a conviction -- I almost said sense -- among some magazine editors that he is overused. Most famously, Michael Kinsley is said to have prohibited any mention of America's favorite Frenchman in Slate. Do we lean too heavily on his work? Can you give a specific account of why he is relevant today?

You're right that the animus or weariness associated with yet another invocation of the brilliant sociologist of democracy is more the result of a 'sense of diminishing returns' than a conviction about what's the matter with Tocqueville. This is because Tocqueville really is an undiminished resource -- an almost unparalleled resource -- for understanding the present and future of America, and even the world; but Tocqueville suffers from a malady related in a superficial way to what we might call 'the Reagan problem'. Just as it's easy for Republicans to invoke Ronald Reagan as a substitute for thinking, never mind 'fresh thinking', Tocqueville's analysis is oftentimes too penetrating and too lyrical for our own good. The timeless or enduring character of Tocqueville's insight lends itself to 'trendification': we wind up with a Tocqueville for every occasion, and feel sort of like the niece or nephew who gets a Chia Pet on birthdays and on Christmas.
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25 June 2009 1:19 PM

How to End Traffic in Los Angeles

I'm serious. Can I patent this just by saying so? If so, I say so!

The inspiration for this idea came as I talked to a friend of mine about Casual Carpool, a phenomenon in the San Francisco Bay Area. These are basically "informal car pools that form when drivers and passengers meet - without specific prior arrangement - at designated locations." White collar workers line up in their shirtsleeves each morning, and get picked up by motorists headed across the Bay Bridge into the city. Both parties benefit from avoiding the tolls and using the car pool lane.

Several factors allow this arrangement to work. There's a financial incentive to pick up strangers, a time incentive to pick up strangers, the relative security of dealing with professionals during daylight hours, and concentrated population centers such that meeting spots are well-trafficked enough to function.

The same thing could hardly work in Los Angeles.

But I think that technology suggests and enables an alternative system that is built in the same spirit -- something along the lines of Casual Carpool meets Couch Surfing.


You're sitting in your apartment near Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax. It's a Saturday afternoon. You want to go to the beach in Santa Monica, but you haven't got a car. No worries! You go online, or on your iPhone, open up a software program, enter the address where you're located and the address you'd like to go. You click enter.

Elsewhere, 15 motorists are notified about a potential match. At the beginning of their trip, they entered their start address and their destination address. Their cars are also equipped with a GPS device. What being notified means is that there is a person without a vehicle who 1) wants a ride; 2) is easily picked up; 3) is headed to basically the same destination. Among the 15 motorists who are pinged, 3 are interested. One of them confirms fastest. The match is locked into the system.

Soon after the motorist arrives to pick up the passenger.
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25 June 2009 12:59 PM

Little Red Riding Hood Reinterpreted

Slagsmålsklubben - Sponsored by destiny from Tomas Nilsson on Vimeo.

25 June 2009 12:26 PM

Is This Post About Fractals or Procrastination?

I link, you decide.

25 June 2009 11:51 AM

The Objects We Love

Shortly after this talk begins, we hear the story of a woman who loved the Berlin Wall so much that she married it.The rest is interesting too.

25 June 2009 11:31 AM

Faster Scandals, Faster Comebacks?

Mickey Kaus:

We have Faster News and Faster Politics and Faster Scandal. It seems likely that in the course of about 48 intriguing hours those who follow the news have basically learned everything important they need to know about the Sanford mess. He was in Buenos Aires. He cheated on his wife. He really seems to have been in love with this Argentinian. He's out of the 2012 presidential race. Things that ten years ago would have dribbled and drabbed out over the course of days or weeks now hit the Web within minutes. What's left?

Even the story about how scandals happen faster these days has already been done--by TPM, about 29 minutes ago.

There are some obvious implications to Faster Scandals. For one thing, they lead to Faster Comebacks. (Though that won't happen if, like John Edwards, you successfully prolong the suspense, leaving key details--like paternity--hanging for months and even years.) But there are also unanswered questions! Most importantly, what does Faster Scandal mean to Jerry Skurnik's "second electorate"--the one that doesn't follow the news and won't find out about the Sanford scandal until either a) they see it briefly on the nightly news or the front page of their MSM paper tomorrow, or b) Sanford runs for national office years from now, if he runs, in which case a significant segment of voters may suddenly discover that he's an adulterer (the way they discovered that Giuliani was an adulterer at an absurdly late date, namely the GOP primaries of 2008).

Mickey offers answers here.

25 June 2009 10:34 AM

"Time for a Male Anti-Sex Pill"

Matt Miller at The Daily Beast:

A Manhattan Project to develop the sexual disinterest pill for men (call it the anti-Viagra) should have bipartisan support, because it's not obvious in advance who would benefit most from the end of these implosions. For every John Edwards or Eliot Spitzer, there's a John Ensign or Mark Sanford.

I know the drugmakers feel like they've already done their civic duty this week, what with coughing up $80 billion over 10 years to help pay for health reform. But health costs will only kill us in the long run. Rush research on a pill that zaps the male sex drive while leaving the other seemingly testosterone-related aspects of a man's charms intact is now an urgent national priority. Since it's obviously too late to revive any sense of discretion, the only hope for American public life not becoming an endlessly embarrassing comic opera now lies with Big Pharma.

Can we have a deficit reduction pill too?

25 June 2009 9:25 AM

"AIDS Relief and Moral Myopia"

Travis Kavulla offers an intriguing long form piece on AIDS in Africa that focuses on the cultural reasons the disease persists:

HIV is a mysterious virus, and even Western scientists consider there to be a fair degree of randomness in its behavior. A person may be infected with HIV, but never become ill with AIDS, while still infecting others along the way. People's chances in contracting HIV during intercourse depend on whether they are men or women, circumcised or not, and other factors. Even condoms have a failure rate, so that over time even a "cautious" sexually active African's exposure to infection is almost inevitable, just as a gambler shooting craps will eventually roll snake eyes. This is all to say that it appears to many Africans that who is stricken and who is spared is not simply governed by obvious physiological factors: always present is the matter we might call "chance."

It is natural for anyone facing a terminal disease to ask, Why me? This is an exasperated, unanswerable cri de coeur in the rational West--one of the steps of the grieving process, we are told, that we all just need to get through. But many Africans have their own kind of answer to that question.

African tribes are not a homogenous, undifferentiated mass, but the vast majority traditionally held in common a worldview of causation very different from our own. With reference to illness, it is called the personalistic theory of disease. Even today, most Africans believe that any major occurrence, good or bad, has two causes. The first might be called physical: for instance, that a retrovirus causes AIDS by destroying the cells of the immune system. The second is a spiritual, less tangible cause, but is perceived to be no less real. Edward Evans-Pritchard, whose ethnography of the Nuer people of Sudan is a foundational work of anthropology, put Africans' cosmological outlook this way: One might understand that a house collapsed because termites damaged it. But the more important question is, Who sent the termites?

This view isn't so different that prevailing wisdom in the recent history of the West, he goes on to say. The whole fascinating piece is worth a read. Kudos to The New Atlantis for publishing it.

One more enticing sample below the fold:

Read More

Ryan Fung

25 June 2009 8:50 AM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Trading for Shaq.

That means you too, Phoenix.

25 June 2009 8:05 AM

Simplify the Law!

On February 22, 1914, The New York Times reported:


------- AIM TO END CONFUSION --------

Eminent layers and educators who have been seeking for some method of simplifying the study of law and its administration met at the Bar Association yesterday afternoon and took the first important steps toward the organization of the American Academy of Jurisprudence. For more than three years the project has been discussed...

Late last night ex-Judge Alton B. Parker talked with reporters...He was asked if the plan was not to prepare some condensed code like the Code Napoleon. He replied that such a code prepared for use in this country would very comfortably fit into a man's pocket. Then he was asked if the idea was not to print between the covers of certain books the laws of all the States relating to any particular subject so that long and laborious search would not be necessary to find the law on the matter in any State. To this question he replied that the whole matter could be summed up by saying that the aim was to promote the science of jurisprudence and the improvement of the law and its administration...

Chairman James De Witt Andrews... asserted that the natural tendency of the law was toward confusion, contradiction, and uncertainty, and that the practical function of jurisprudence was to give simplicity and harmony to the body of laws.
A lovely project. Evidently they failed.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Create Bike-Only Roads

Forget bike lanes. Let's give riders, the environment, and even drivers a boost by closing some roads to cars. More

25 June 2009 7:10 AM

Adultery and Politicians

IDEA IN THE NEWS/June 25, 2009

Now that Mark Sanford has admitted adultery, the one thing everyone agrees about is that any chance he had to be elected president is gone -- a political judgment that is likely true, but that is pretty weird when you think about it, given that we're a country that elected the obviously philandering Bill Clinton, re-elected him after he got oral sex from an intern under his desk, and gave the GOP nomination to John McCain, even though he cheated on his first wife, instead of Rudy Giuliani, who also cheated on at least one of his wives. These men are all guilty of shameful behavior, all were viable presidential candidates, and at least some of them were guilty of behavior far more egregious than Gov. Sanford, though the South Carolina governor is himself guilty of egregious behavior. Nor does this account for the presidents who've engaged in extra-marital affairs throughout history. Should we have disqualified JFK? Maybe. But Thomas Jefferson? It seems that Gov. Sanford is disqualified largely due to bad timing.

Once I'd have said that an indiscretion like this would cost Mark Sanford my future vote, but no more. Though I am hardly invested in his candidacy, were it the case that he proved the best steward for the federal government in matters domestic and foreign, I'd vote for him even if he cheated again. I'd be appalled by the repeated infidelity, especially given the fact that he has young children. But if I ask myself how many GDP points or lives lost in a foreign war it is worth to have a president who is morally upstanding in his personal life--and no, I am not intending to reference any recent presidents--the answer doesn't amount to much. We need not conceive of the president as the nation's moral leader. Nor is there any guarantee that a candidate who hasn't been caught cheating isn't just better at hiding it.

Should I be lucky enough to marry, I'll stay faithful. I'll counsel friends to do the same. Should I be blessed with children, fidelity is a value I'll impart. Should my child get sick, and require a surgeon, I'll find the most skilled, talented, tested, highly evaluated professional, even if he is a thrice divorced polygamist cheating on both wives with a Chinatown mother and daughter unaware of one another's involvement. Am I wrong? Why should politicians be different? All else being equal, I'll vote for the faithful husband or wife. But all else is never equal, and usually it isn't even close. The politician's propensity for adultery is strange, but so is our collective fantasy that it is wise and natural to hold up folks in that profession as moral exemplars, and dismiss them when they fail. The exercise is bound to degrade more than it elevates. Better that every elected official be judged on his or her official duties, and that any unrelated moral leadership they offer is suspect. Even without Charles Barkley, we've got enough role models that government needn't provided another.

UPDATE: An overlapping take at Secular Right.

From what I am to understand in the past people in power were allowed to project a public persona which was at some variance with their private life. This disjunction has been melting away over the past generation.  If you are going to extol bourgeois probity, it seems likely that you're going to have to walk the talk. Various sexual scandals involving politicians have indicated to some that their power allows them to satisfy their sexual appetites in a manner which would otherwise not be possible, but in an age of radical transparency this temptation and fringe benefit might be sharply diminished. Or perhaps public norms will shift in terms of what is demanded of their political leaders? The transparent society will effect public figures first, but we'll all have to deal with it sooner or later.
I am guessing that public norms will shift. The trick is doing so in a way that casts immoral behavior as irrelevant to certain tasks, not okay and to be expected.

UPDATE 2: James Joyner rightly points out that "While Clinton's escapades with Lewinsky started in 1995, the affair wasn't reported until well after his reelection. Drudge broke the news January 17, 1998."

25 June 2009 5:52 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"Nobody can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered an old idea and thinks it is his own." -- Sydney J. Harris


25 June 2009 3:27 AM

Population Density Matters

Live Science:

Party planners know that scrunching a bunch of people into a small space will result in plenty of mingling and discourse.

A new study suggests this was as true for our ancestors as it is for us today, and that ancient social networking led to a renaissance of new ideas that helped make us human.

The research, which is published in the June 5 issue of the journal Science, suggests that tens of thousands of years ago, as human population density increased so did the transmission of ideas and skills. The result: the emergence of more and more clever innovations.

25 June 2009 3:06 AM

Video of the Day: The Idea of Collateral Damage

Generally speaking, I am averse to Fox News, and cable news generally, but this is some incredible video:

Flick user HealthServiceGlasses

24 June 2009 4:56 PM

Business / Economics

The Idea of Economic Complexity

RADLEY BALKO: "No single man is capable of making a toaster." Explanation here

Flickr user Joel Bedford

24 June 2009 4:07 PM

A Picture Is Worth 600 Words I Don't Have to Write

A bemused reader from Kansas requests a post that captures "the idea of New York City hipsters." As a California philosopher-surfer at heart, this is perhaps not the best task for me -- and frankly I am loathe to give the ubiquitous-in-media hipster phenomenon more attention -- but I aim to please, so below the fold I have placed an original photograph titled, "Aftermath of a hipster dinner."

Any other requests for posts? E-mail Thinkingbig@theatlantic.com
Read More

24 June 2009 3:29 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Kashmir Hill notices that Lancaster, PA has installed security cameras that cover almost all of its streets to monitor its 55,000 residents -- and unlike other Orwellian initiatives of this kind, there's a twist: its your neighbors rather than police who are mostly doing the monitoring. Check out her worthwhile post here.

Flickr user Gliouu

24 June 2009 3:10 PM

A Genre Is Born

The always sharp cultural critic Katie Roiphe reads every recent stripper memoir, and remarks on their striking similarities to one another.

24 June 2009 2:36 PM

Go Midwest, Young Man, Continued

In a recent post, I talked about Ord, Nebraska as an example of a town in the Midwest trying to attract young professionals. Is that realistic? I pressed Caleb T. Pollard, the man in charge of the project, for answers.

My question:

One of your goals in Ord is to convince young professionals that life can be better in a small town miles from the Interstate than in a big city dense with business and people. Why do you think that is so?
Mr. Pollard's response:

Read More

24 June 2009 1:59 PM

Ill Conceived

"Worst Idea Ever"


-- A Full House movie.

-- This is much worse than lifting weights without a spotter.

-- Dating via Craigslist.

-- Failing to credit Wikipedia for passages in a book bound to be read by Wikipedia enthusiasts.

-- Naming any tax a "Freedom Tax."

-- Dissing The Olive Garden in a world with James Lileks.

-- Continuing to pay hundreds of teachers to do nothing years after This American Life pointed out the problem.

24 June 2009 12:35 PM

Gourmet Everything

Ed Levine at The Huffington Post:

Bacon has owned the "food of the moment" title for a while. The latest recessionary sales slogan should go something like: Make Money At Home While Still In Your Pajamas, Start a Bacon Blog! Cupcakes have also been glorified. And naturally, bacon cupcakes have developed a fanatical following.

Now hot dogs, or should I say haut dogs, are threatening to take away the glory. Fancypants chefs, French and otherwise, in pursuit of their own American hot dog dreams can't leave well enough alone. By nature, fancypants chefs are obsessive, compulsive tinkerers and lily-gilders. So now they're going about the business of reinventing the hot dog.

Hmmm. Gourmet hot dogs? Why not just seek out the superior bratwurst or kielbasa instead? Excellent varieties can be ordered by mail here.

24 June 2009 11:55 AM

Folksters? Get Ready, NY Times Style Section...

Elizabeth Nolan Brown flags a new trend among 20-somethings -- the Folkster movement:

Folkster attributes: farm-ier hipster clothes. Flannel. Beekeeping. Brewing ginger beer or mead. Rooftop gardening. Music like Bonnie Prince Billy or William Elliot Whitmore or Welcome Wagon or Woods. Returning to pre-industrial production methods. Localism. More urban and tech-savvy than your typical hippie, less likely to irrationally hate Starbucks. Knowing at least one person who has, since the beginning of the economic turmoil, packed it up from the city and moved to a farm/mountain town/California. Arthur magazine.

24 June 2009 11:39 AM

Interview with James Poulos, Part I

James Poulos is a writer, editor, and PhD candidate at Georgetown currently at work on a dissertation about individuality after Napoleon. His blog, Postmodern Conservative, is currently hosted at First Things.

Q. You've lately waged a quiet war in your writing against the phrase "sense of...." What's your objection?

It really is astounding, once you become aware of it, how incapable we are of talking about what matters to us without repeated recourse to the phrase 'sense of'. It's a verbal and written tic of huge proportions, hiding in plain sight. That in and of itself suggests we might want to think about why we talk this way. It's a tic that appears in common language and educated language alike -- on the local news ("Give us a sense of what's going on out there in that hurricane, Bob") and in the scholarly work of our most respected academics (Charles Taylor, in his monumental, Templeton-prize-winning A Secular Age, can hardly write a sentence without the phrase). Even critics of our contemporary life urge us to recover 'senses of' whatever our current corruption has purportedly taken away from us. Christopher Lasch, as long ago as the late '70s, fell into this trap. For a sense of a thing, obviously, is not the thing itself; critics of contemporary life merely beg the question when they call for us to replace, say, our lost community with a new 'sense of community'.

Hopefully you can see right there where I'm headed:  Read More

24 June 2009 11:02 AM

Business / Economics

Big Business and Big Government

Anyone who's ever read Down with Big Business, the famous Robert Bartley editorial, should also read Tim Carney's piece today on the tobacco legislation that President Obama just signed, and the misleading rhetoric surrounding it:
Read More

Flick user Mikecough

24 June 2009 9:03 AM

Idea in the News

On Iran, Solidarity, and Known Unknowns

Will Wilkinson won't be turning his Twitter avatar green in solidarity with Iranian protestors:
Read More

24 June 2009 8:45 AM

What Makes Us Happy?

The Atlantic tackled that question in a recent cover story. Here Dan Gilbert addresses it:

Flick user Robert1407

24 June 2009 8:20 AM

On Discourse: The Bunker Mentality

bunker mentality. noun. An attitude of extreme defensiveness and self-justification based on an often exaggerated sense of being under persistent attack from others.
In previous posts on how we talk to one another about politics, I've used arguments offered by Mark Levin (see this post too), Andy McCarthy and Amanda Marcotte to show why it is unwise to assume ill motives on the part of ideological opponents.

As Rob Holmes put it:

When you make an argument about hidden motivations that (a) lacks external evidence and (b) conveniently coincides with your existing biases, then it is more likely that the argument and your conclusions are attractive to you because they confirm your biases than that the argument is correct. This has less to do with the specifics of the cases quoted and more to do with a general rule about examining one's own motivations.
A related problem, present on both sides of the ideological divide, is prominent spokespeople who cultivate a bunker mentality among their core audience. This is a phenomena I initially observed on the left, when folks like Al Sharpton started using even fabricated instances of racism to advance a narrative of black victimization. There isn't any doubt that some black people are victimized due partly to their race everyday in this country. However, asserting a fabricated instance of racism does real harm.

The point is perhaps best made by thinking about the Duke Lacrosse rape case, wherein a rogue prosecutor ignored exculpatory evidence and charged numerous white players with the rape of a black stripper. The prosecutor obviously victimized the innocent players, as we all know, but less remarked upon is how he victimized other black students on the Duke campus. They walked around for weeks imagining that more privileged white kids were maliciously preying on black women than was in fact the case. The world is a frightening enough place without folks who deceptively propagate false horror stories for their own aggrandizement.

On the right, a less harmful but still troubling form of bunker mentality plays a prominent role on talk radio.
Read More

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Court Nominees: Skip the Hill Testimony

Enough with the confirmation theatrics. There are better ways to gauge a would-be justice's fitness for the job. More

Flick user Phil G

24 June 2009 7:21 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If they're any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken

24 June 2009 6:28 AM

The Cult of the Governorship

The Economist talks sense:

SOUTH CAROLINA'S newspaper the State, which has never suffered from too-kind coverage of Mark Sanford, the state's Republican governor, trumpeted the news yesterday: the governor had disappeared. His staff had not heard from him in four days, his phones had been turned off, and his security detail seemed confused. Within minutes it became a national story. Mr Sanford, perhaps the most prominent opponent of Mr Obama's economic plans, became a laughingstock. At the end of the day Politico's Ben Smith said the episode "may be eccentric enough to disqualify him from national office."

Okay, serious question: Why? The life of a governor is not that of a president, who spends 24 hours a day in a media fishbowl. The life of South Carolina's governor can actually be pretty low-key, because the state constitution devolved so many powers away from him and over to the state legislature and independent boards. (It was like this, a relic of the post-Civil War era, before Mr Sanford took over.) Moreover, the legislative session had ended.

Where was the governor? He was hiking. The governor's wife said he wanted to "clear his head", so the scandal here seems to be that he failed to tell everyone before he left. That's a disqualification from national office? Tell that to the reporters who had to follow George Bush to the middle of Texas and report on his yardwork. 

Thank God I don't watch cable news -- I can just imagine the speculative banter about his whereabouts.

23 June 2009 6:45 PM

Calling Nate Silver

Reader Geoff writes:

Here's something I've pondered often.

Someone ought to use polls to pull us away from the evil of polls.

We need a series of questions that can help unpack how flexible voters are on issues, and how certain issues relate to other issues with voters.  If you ask the right questions and use the right metrics, it's theoretically feasible to put together a sort of voter flexibility matrix, and something that's powerful enough to counteract these silly black/white polls that offer absolutely no nuance.

You could further the policy debate massively with a tool like this, and you'd remove the tendency to use polls for political cover or bludgeoning tactics.

A voter flexibility matrix could help thaw or shed light on some of our biggest issues.  Gay marriage, abortion, the Iraq war, Iran, Israel/Palestine, stem-cell research, whatever.  Rather than knowing what % of voters are pro-choice/pro-life, or pro-nuclear/anti-nuclear, we would be able to delve into how meaningful each of the biggest issues of the day are, and to what extent someone inhabits the shades of gray on any given issue.

Hell, maybe I'll email Nate Silver.  If anyone can tease out something like this he can.

23 June 2009 5:14 PM

"Worst Idea Ever" -- Smart Man with A Bad Idea Edition

In the November, 1947 issue of The Atlantic, Albert Einstein fretted about nuclear weapons -- quite reasonably, I might add -- before arguing for this dubious solution:

I should wish to see all the nations forming the supranational state pool all their military forces, keeping for themselves only local police. Then I should like to see these forces commingled and distributed as were the regiments of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. There it was appreciated that the men and officers of one region would serve the purposes of empire better by not being stationed exclusively in their own provinces, subject to local and racial pulls.

I should like to see the authority of the supranational regime restricted altogether to the field of security. Whether this would be possible I am not sure. Experience may point to the desirability of adding some authority over economic matters, since under modern conditions these are capable of causing national upsets that have in them the seeds of violent conflict. But I should prefer to see the function of the organization altogether limited to the tasks of security. I also should like to see this regime established through the strengthening of the United Nations, so as not to sacrifice continuity in the search for peace.

I do not hide from myself the great difficulties of establishing a world government, either a beginning without Russia or one with Russia. I am aware of the risks. Since I should not wish it to be permissible for any country that has joined the supranational organization to secede, one of these risks is possible civil war. But I also believe that world government is certain to come in time, and that the question is how much it is to be permitted to cost. It will come, I believe, even if there is another world war, though after such a war, if it is won, it would be world government established by the victor, resting on the victor's military power, and thus to be maintained permanently only through the permanent militarization of the human race.

Yikes. On the other hand, our present inattention to loose nuclear materials, and the gradual proliferation of nuclear weapons, is just as insane.

23 June 2009 4:50 PM

The Request Line

Anyone keen on my writing a post about any particular topic that falls under the "Ideas Blog" rubric? E-mail ThinkingBig@theatlantic.com -- I can't promise to honor all requests, but I'll give it a shot.

Flick user A Geek Mom

23 June 2009 4:16 PM

If Kindles Had Been Invented Before Books

Via one of Megan McArdle's commenters:

I was walking through a bohemian part of town and ran across this place called a "bookstore". I thought, "Hmm, that's interesting. I've always gotten my books electronically on my kindle, but this could be an interesting idea." So I stepped inside. What I saw was an unfamiliar way of experiencing books: on hundreds of of sheets of paper, bound up on one side with glue and wrapped in a hard cardboard cover. They even smell a little musty, at least the old ones.

At first I was excited; but then I began to think, well how would I do a text search in such a book? Supposing it was a reference book, or I wanted to find a quote that was particularly memorable? Also, I can resell it if I don't want it, but I can't take notes in the book without ruining its value. Plus, where am I going to keep these books if I buy a whole bunch of them? They're really heavy! And it uses a lot of paper - especially newspapers! What if it's dark and I need a bigger font? What if I'm on the train to work and decide I want to buy the paper version of the Times that day? Can't get it!! Not only that, but they wanted to charge me MORE for these clunky, static, physical, books than the normal electronic price! Honestly, with all these limitations and disadvantages, they should be giving them away for free. I decided I'm never going to pay a single red cent for a paper book until these issues are addressed. No way.

Megan predicted problems for the Kindle here.

23 June 2009 2:41 PM

On Discourse, Briefly

This is helpful:

When you make an argument about hidden motivations that (a) lacks external evidence and (b) conveniently coincides with your existing biases, then it is more likely that the argument and your conclusions are attractive to you because they confirm your biases than that the argument is correct. This has less to do with the specifics of the cases quoted and more to do with a general rule about examining one's own motivations.

23 June 2009 2:09 PM

Bounding the Idea of Punishment

At The Corner, Eli Lehrer writes:

It has been far too long in coming but, yesterday, the Federal Prison Rape Elimination commission released its report on elimination and prevention efforts regarding the biggest social problem nobody wants to talk about: prison rape.

Anyone who looks at the problem can't react with anything other than horror. According to the Bureau of Justice Statics, over 60,000 prisoners -- the great bulk of them male -- fall victim to sexual abuse in prison each year. A fair number of these men are "punks" who are subject to frequent, even daily, male-on-male rape for years on end.

The federal report's conclusions -- a zero-tolerance policy, more direct monitoring, and the like -- almost are all common sense. State, local, and federal governments should take immediate legislative and administrative action to implement nearly everything in the report. (Most of the practices are already commonplace in the federal and better-run state systems.) Although giving trial lawyers more business rarely makes sense, Congress may also want to reconsider laws that make it very difficult for prisoners to sue prison authorities absent concrete evidence of physical harm. It's quite possible that many legitimate prison-rape claims get thrown out of court under current laws. And prison rape needs to stop.

But the nation's prison-rape problems can't go away overnight for at least two major reasons. To begin with, the racial supremacist gangs that control many prisons use rape as a tool for keeping other prisoners in line and, in some cases, prison officials may turn a blind eye towards sexual abuse when it keeps prison populations more orderly. Second, the understandable widespread social distaste for people in prison has lead to a widespread attitude that's frankly inhumane. It is one thing to say that prison shouldn't be fun and quite another to say that detainees "deserve" rape. Nobody does. But, somehow, prison rape remains a perfectly acceptable topic for sitcoms, widely trafficked websites, and late-night comedians.

Read the whole thing -- Mr. Lehrer is absolutely right that prison rape is one of the biggest problems that no one in America wants to talk about. Lots more cameras in jails would help.

Flickr user Torisan

23 June 2009 12:34 PM

"Hunting the Elusive First Ms."

Ben Zimmer, word detective:

I've been on the trail of this historical nugget for a few years now. Until recently, the earliest known appearance of Ms. was nearly half a century later, from 1949. In The Story of Language, Mario Pei wrote: "Feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, 'Miss' (to be written 'Ms.')." Pei states that Ms. had been "often proposed," but where were the proposals? The closest precursor that had been found was a 1932 letter to the New York Times where the title M's is suggested, not quite the same as Ms.

Some have theorized that Ms. has roots long before the 20th century. One piece of evidence that has been put forth is the tombstone of Sarah Spooner, who died in 1767 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As you can see from this image, what appears on the headstone is M with a superscript s. As Dennis Baron writes in his excellent book Grammar and Gender (1987), "it is certainly an abbreviation of Miss or Mistress, and not an example of colonial langurage reform or a slip of the chisel, as some have suggested."

There things stood until 2004...
Click through here to see what he discovered.

23 June 2009 11:36 AM

Does Immigration Lead to Fewer Wars?

The New York Times "Idea of the Day" blog features this argument today:

"The immigration process is the single most important determinant of American foreign policy," wrote Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan in 1974. And much the same is true today, writes Scott McConnell in the journal World Affairs.

He foresees immigrants again shaping America's profile in the world as they did in the First World War, when they long prevented President Woodrow Wilson from taking sides. It's an era "whose contours are only just now emerging," McConnell writes.

"On the basis of what is visible thus far," he says, "today's and tomorrow's Mexican-, Asian-, and Arab-Americans will more resemble the Swedes, Germans, and Irish of a century ago than the Poles, Balts, and Cubans of the cold war era." That is, new immigrants are more likely to oppose intervention abroad, or be ambivalent about it, than lobby for it as many did during the cold war.

Paradoxically, then, if isolationist conservatives lose their battle to control immigration, they will end up winners of "an important consolation prize: the foreign policy of what remains of their cherished republic."
I am skeptical of this argument for two reasons.

1) We ultimately did take sides in World War I -- and although I hardly think it's a causal relationship, the United States has become a more interventionist country in the post-World War II era as it's gotten more diverse, not the opposite.

2) High levels of immigration are a significant factor in the ability of the Armed Forces to get new recruits. This makes interventionism abroad easier. Or to put it another way, America would have to be a lot more careful about where it deployed resources abroad if it was finding it increasingly hard to get new recruits.


23 June 2009 10:48 AM

An American in Iraq

The Atlantic's Graeme Wood says a book with a famous title is exceptionally relevant to the American mission in Iraq:

FALLUJAH -- Every Marine officer who sees me reading The Ugly American (another MWR library treasure) nods in recognition and asks me what I think of it. At first I thought the Marine Corps had recruited an unusually bookwormish class of junior officers. Later, a lieutenant told me it was on the Marines' required reading list. I can think of few better texts for their curriculum.

The Ugly American (written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958) relates a series of episodes in US efforts to reach out to Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country. The novel's title has come to mean an American style of boorishness, with English spoken in loud voices and an inability to understand foreign currency. (I think of the Simpsons episode in which Homer goes to Brazil and walks around with a t-shirt depicting Uncle Sam taking a bite of a globe, with big letters underneath, "TRY AND STOP US.") The characters in the actual Ugly American are, by and large, exactly the opposite of this stereotype. They speak Sarkhanese. They live among Sarkhanese, and they come up with ideas and schemes sensitive to Sarkhanese culture. The ugly American himself, Homer Atkins, is not a lout and boor, just a physically hideous man.

The book's relevance to the Marine mission turns out to be substantial, and growing.
The rest is here.

23 June 2009 10:14 AM

Denying the Holocaust -- An Investigation

Mark Oppenheimer writes:

In his long lifetime, James von Brunn--the 88-year-old who earlier this month allegedly shot and killed United States Holocaust Memorial Museum guard Stephen Johns--managed to embody every cliché about the Holocaust-denying anti-Semite: seething with hatred toward Jews, convinced that somehow they rig the money system, certain that there are multiple world-wide conspiracies afoot. And if we stopped to think harder about it, we might have to admit that there's something comforting about how perfectly von Brunn fulfills our preconception of the Holocaust denier. It is pleasantly convenient to imagine that all Holocaust deniers belong to one coherent movement--as if all of our enemies could be found, and could fit, in the same contained, albeit ghoulish, landscape.

In reality, however, that caricature grossly misunderstands this anti-Semitic Holocaust skepticism, which is not a unified movement but a loose confederation of people who often have very little in common.
As the piece proceeds, he introduces two leading Holocaust deniers who are feuding with one another.

...to meet these two men late in their careers in anti-Semitism, and to get to know them as they tangled with each other, helped illuminate what kind of man might choose to cross the borders of respectable opinion, and what inner needs might keep him exiled from his fellow man.
Read on here.

23 June 2009 9:00 AM

The Madness of Berlin

In Berlin, left wing activists are setting cars afire. Lots of cars.

In total 165 cars have been set on fire in Berlin since the start of the year, police say, far higher than the total for all of last year. And the number of arson attacks has hit record levels since the start of June. Left-wing militants are suspected to be behind the haphazard nocturnal trail of destruction, which includes torched cars, stones and paint bomb attacks on banks and job centers. There are many police investigations but rarely do they detain suspects -- largely because there are rarely witnesses. Most crimes are registered in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighborhood, long fertile ground for counter-culture. But the attacks on cars are now spreading across the city, to districts previously unaffected.
I visited Berlin once in 2005. Shortly afterward I jotted down some impressions, which I've pasted below the fold.
Read More

23 June 2009 8:06 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"If I were required to guess off-hand, and without collusion with higher minds, what is the bottom cause of the amazing material and intellectual advancement of the last fifty years, I should guess that it was the modern-born and previously non-existent disposition on the part of men to believe that a new idea can have value." -- Mark Twain

23 June 2009 8:00 AM

Interview with Glenn Reynolds, Part II

Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, is one of the Internet's most popular and prolific bloggers--and one of its most impressively productive people, full stop. A Professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, he is the author of An Army of Davids (a book I've purchased, read, and enjoyed). And he hosts InstaVision on PJTV, the Web video project of Pajamas Media.

PART I of my interview with him is here.

Q. Are blogs making people better informed, or allowing them to cocoon?

Well, both.  Though Cass Sunstein famously worried about cocooning, research -- and my own experience -- suggests that people don't just read things they agree with.  For one thing, you have to read people you disagree with in order to call them "asshats," which is a key aspect to the Internet experience . . .

More seriously, I find that there are a <i>lot</i> of very interesting and well-informed people on the Internet, but that they tend to be drowned out by the obnoxious trolls.  That breakdown in civility -- or even in serious debate, since trolls never really debate, they just shout -- is a more serious threat than "cocooning."  With cocooning you avoid people who disagree with you; with trolling you notice them but write them off as unserious.  The latter, I think, is more dangerous to democracy.

Q. In the past, you've offered your readers valuable advice about disaster preparedness, advocated for paying more attention to tracking asteroids, and otherwise drawn attention to issues that weren't getting enough. What issue is currently off the political and/or media radar... and ought to be on it?

The biggest under-appreciated looming crisis right now is the impending public pension collapse.  That's tracked at a blog called Pensiontsunami.com (which also tracks the bad, but not nearly as-bad, private pension debacle).  Between payroll bloat, underfunding, and the stock market decline, many cities and states won't be able to meet their pension obligations.  That's likely to make the housing bubble-burst look minor by comparison, but most politicians are just trying to ignore the problem.

(Yes, it's a short second part. But if you're craving more Glenn Reynolds you're in luck -- he somehow finds time to do an astonishing amount of freelance writing given his blogging output and professorial duties. Check out his law review articles and journalistic work here.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An E-Z Pass Model for Web Content

Pennies per page could eventually add up to a sustainable business model More

22 June 2009 3:18 PM

On Discourse

How to Get Political Analysis Wrong

On the subject of how we talk to one another about politics -- discussed before here and here -- I'd like to posit a perverse symmetry between this post by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, and this post by Andy McCarthy at The Corner. Though they differ in important respects, both posts serve as a caution to ideologically alligned bloggers: if you assume, without clear evidence, that your political or ideological opponents are motivated by extraordinarily dark motives, you're probably going to end up gravely misjudging reality.

Let's take a closer look at the posts in question.
Read More

22 June 2009 2:43 PM

Business / Economics

Video of the Day

The Atlantic's Bob Cohn and Michael Hirschorn discuss why even as newsweeklies like Time, Newsweek and US News and World Report decline, The Economist is thriving. Video is below the fold.

Mr. Hirschorn's article on the same topic appears in The Atlantic's current issue.
Read More

Flickr user rhenriquez

22 June 2009 1:30 PM

Ill Conceived

"Worst Idea Ever"

James Joyner ably explains why it's an awful idea for the FTC to regulate monitor blogs. Yes, you read that right. If you think your RSS feed is overflowing...

Flickr user Uncommon Depth

22 June 2009 1:15 PM

Business / Economics

Don't Kill Copyright -- Reform It

Ross Douthat mediates between Mark Helprin, who wants copyrights extended, and Lawrence Lessig, who wants to remake the current system.
Read More

Flickr user Kevin Zollman

22 June 2009 12:33 PM

Business / Economics

"Worst Idea Ever"

E-mail spam.

What an awful drag on a wonderful means of communication.

There's a certain kind of "spam" that seems acceptable -- for example, a guy is looking for a new apartment, and e-mails his grad school list-serv to see if anyone has a room opening up between terms.

But what about the worst kind of spam -- the completely unsolicited junk sent by folks who haven't any connection to you, and aren't even selling anything you'd remotely dream of buying? Check your spam folder now. See what I mean? Sending it out must be profitable, or else it wouldn't happen. But I've never even considered purchasing anything solicited in that manner, nor has anyone I know.

So who is it that's buying the stuff advertised in spam e-mail? Anyone out there? You can comment anonymously.

Flickr user Andrew Mason

22 June 2009 12:17 PM

Health Care

The Idea of Newsworthiness

It isn't the same everywhere -- from a small town newspaper in Iowa:

Bellvue Woman Sets AARP Magazine Straight

A local medical technologist recently spotted an error in AARP magazine, and decided to take it upon herself to fix it. She sent a letter to the publication, noting the mistake, and the magazine recently published it.

"They mixed up the good and bad cholesterol on one of their charts," said Mary Jo Bonifas, of Bellevue, Iowa.

Bonifas has been a medical technologist, certified by the American Society of Clinical Pathology, for more than 35 years.

She is currently the manager of Laboratory Services at United Clinical Labs in Dubuque and Dyersville.

The AARP chart incorrectly said low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the "good" type of cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the "bad" type of cholesterol. It should be reversed.

"It helps to remember you want your HDL to be high, and your LDL to be low, like the first letter in each acronym," Bonifas said.

That's an elegant way to remember it. My high school health teacher told us to think of HDLs like rabbits and LDLs like turtles. Somehow it's always stuck with me. I have no idea what it means.

Flickr user Chad H

22 June 2009 12:00 PM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew." -- Abraham Lincoln

Flickr user Foxtongue

22 June 2009 9:58 AM

The Coming Pet Revolution

Admit it, you want a baby polar bear. Or perhaps a baby snow seal. A lion cub? A miniature elephant? An infant grizzly? Though I cannot know your particular fancy -- this blog prides itself on its diverse audience -- my guess is that my average reader wouldn't hesitate to take on a wild animal pet, if only it would stay a baby.

Do you doubt that? Go here, here and here.

Of course, the fact is that all those animals will grow up into wild beasts, unfit for the urban apartment or suburban backyard. Once mature, they aren't even much fun for cuddling (though I admit there are exceptions).

But here's a prediction. Within our lifetimes, genetic engineering will bring us wild animals that stay babies, in body if not in mind. In fact, I expect that sometime before I die, I'll click onto YouTube or its equivalent, search "pet polar bear," and see the inevitable baby polar bear given a Coca Cola bottle by its Cola Wars generation owner.

Is there a consumer desire for this sort of thing? Informal market research suggests this phenomenon tests quite well in the influential "intelligent, attractive, charismatic woman who likes to roll around the floor with pets" demographic. So the perfect spokesperson stands ready. All that remains is the science (and the objections from PETA, the Vatican, and sundry others). Would you take a perma-baby animal as pet? If so, what animal?

Skeptics are also welcome to comment. Would perma-baby animals be a bad/unnatural/catastrophic development? Why?

22 June 2009 8:30 AM

Interview with Glenn Reynolds, Part I

Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, is one of the Internet's most popular and prolific bloggers--and one of its most impressively productive people, full stop. A Professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, he is the author of An Army of Davids (a book I've purchased, read, and enjoyed). And he hosts InstaVision on PJTV, the Web video project of Pajamas Media. He's also been quite generous to a lot of talented journalists over the years--I started reading Megan McArdle after she guest blogged on Glenn's site, and I've hit Michael Totten's tip jar after discovering his foreign reporting the same way.

My interview with Prof. Reynolds includes this post and another part that runs tomorrow.

Part I

Q. How do events in Iran fit into the thesis you advance in An Army of Davids.

As I write this, we'll have to see how it works out.  But we have an awful lot of self-organization via the blogosphere, Facebook, Twitter, and, of course, SMS -- enough so that the mullahs are investing substantial effort into trying to block those sorts of communications, producing a distributed response from people around the world who are trying to help.  Not much is clear about what's going on in Iran, but it does seem clear that this is in large part a self-organizing movement.  What I'd like to know, and don't, is how much "horizontal" communication is going on among protesters, Revolutionary Guard members, and members of the military.

There's a pretty extensive scholarly literature on "riot, tumult, and revolution" -- my University of Tennessee colleague John Bohstedt, who also knocked down a crazed shooter at a church last year, is one of the experts -- but the way in which modern communications technology is changing the traditional pattern is still unclear, in part because it keeps changing.  However, it's much easier to form a "flash mob" or a "flash political movement" nowadays.

One interesting sideline is that -- as Megan McArdle noted here at The Atlantic recently -- much of the reporting we're seeing is firsthand stuff from citizens and participants, because Big Media outfits have slashed their news gathering budgets.  That's a trend I pointed out in An Army of Davids, and it's one that has, alas, accelerated.  I'm a huge believer in citizen journalism, of course, but that doesn't mean I'm happy to see traditional reporting in decline.  But at least ordinary people are now in a position to pick up some of the slack.

 Q. How has the blogosphere changed over the years you've been a part of it?
Read More

22 June 2009 8:05 AM

On Discourse

The Varieties of Blogging

I've been reading blogs since 2001, but I can still remember when the word sounded anachronistic, like the first time I heard about fish tacos, another innovation that enriches my life. These days, the medium is present within the most renowned newspapers and magazines in the country, features freelance blog pros who've built reputations and livelihoods around their sites, and still welcomes amateurs who enjoy low barriers to entry in a worldwide conversation that never ends.

Here I want to survey some of the bloggers I've most enjoyed over the years (three at a time), and comment on how their talents and innovations have shaped a medium. My survey is incomplete by necessity. But I owe a personal debt to all these folks -- they've taught me how to do this -- and my feeling is that every blogger owes them thanks.

I'll proceed in the order that I discovered them -- here's Part I, featuring Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, and Mickey Kaus.
Read More

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tax Meat

In the end we’ll save money—not to mention the planet and our health. More

Flickr user Runran

22 June 2009 7:30 AM

Is Poverty A Violation of Human Rights?

Will Wilkinson is asking the question. It is prompted by William Easterly's exchange with Amnesty International:

Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy -- someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary -- it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a "human rights violation" does not point to any concrete actions that the "violator" must stop in order to restore rights to the "violated."
After offering an even longer excerpt, Mr. Wilkinson notes that he is as yet unsatisfied with his own thoughts on the subject, but that the act of writing about them helped him flesh out his ideas. That tidbit alone is worthy of mention on this blog. A lengthy piece of writing does force its author to flesh out his thoughts, assess their validity, and organize them logically. Do Twitter, Facebook feeds and text messages decrease the incidence of such writing? Without taking a definite position, let me say how glad I am for a blog post length reckoning on this subject, especially by so talented a thinker.

It is here. Let's call it the ideas blog post of the day. It's one of those messy, thinking-things-through exercises that don't lend themselves to excerpts. That's okay. Watching how Will thinks things through is part of the fun.

22 June 2009 3:50 AM

Ideas from the Archives

Ideas from the Archives: "Among the Hostage Takers"

The Atlantic's December 2004 issue features a story by Mark Bowden about the young Iranian men who seized the United States embassy and took hostage the entire American diplomatic mission.

His description of Iran is fascinating given current events -- the whole piece is worth a read -- and particularly striking is an excerpt about the hostage-takers, or gerogan-girha.

The gerogan-girha live in the ruins of their dream. As they've grown gray-haired and plump, the fame and admiration they once enjoyed have faded like the graffiti at the Den of Spies. Those who despise the current regime now regret their role in bringing a small circle of wealthy, authoritarian clerics to power. And more than anything they blame the hostage crisis for a litany of problems and setbacks that have befallen their country in the past quarter of a century. Iran's loss of ties to the United States after the embassy seizure prompted Saddam Hussein to invade in 1980 (when the hostages were still being held). In the ensuing war Iran lost more than half a million young men. Iran's status as an outlaw nation has had a stifling effect on its chances for an economic turnaround.

Some of the gerogan-girha have gone into exile and taken up arms against the religious rulers; others have been harassed, denounced, beaten, or imprisoned for advocating democratic changes. In some cases they have been persecuted by their former colleagues. "None of us in the revolution believed Iran would ever have an autocratic regime again," Mohsen Mirdamadi, a leader of the gerogan-girha who is today a controversial reform politician, told a Knight Ridder correspondent earlier this year. "Yet here we are."

Again, do read the whole thing. And also note his follow-up on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's role.

21 June 2009 6:20 PM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged." -- Thomas Edison

21 June 2009 3:39 PM

Sunday Links

-- The people battle the police in Iran.

-- A defense of tennis grunts.

-- Have we forgotten how to lose?

-- "How Colbert Happens"

-- Father's Day photos.

-- Simon Cowell grapples with his role in the world.

20 June 2009 6:17 PM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas." -- George Bernard Shaw

20 June 2009 2:20 PM

Video of the Day

Video of the Day: "Jocks vs. Nerds"

Flickr user Dahon

20 June 2009 8:15 AM

Ideas from the Archives

Ideas from the Archives: "Waiting on the Weekend"

In August 1991, Witold Rybczynski lamented the way that Americans spend their Saturdays and Sundays. Society took a long time to offer its members two days off, he wrote, but "what we choose to do looks increasingly like work, and idleness has acquired a bad name."

My favorite part of the piece is as follows:
Read More

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Deconstruct McMansions

Erase the blight of abandoned homeownership dreams. More

19 June 2009 3:45 PM

Quote of the Day

Ideas about The Weekend

The rhythm of the weekend, with its birth, its planned gaieties, and its announced end, followed the rhythm of life and was a substitute for it. - F. Scott Fitzgerald

If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend. - Doug Larson

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on the weekend. - Woody Allen

Keep Holy the Sabbath. -- God

Weekends are a bit like rainbows; they look good from a distance but disappear when you get up close to them.  -- John Shirley

Your hair may be brushed, but your mind's untidy.  You've had about seven hours of sleep since Friday.  No wonder you feel that lost sensation.  You're sunk from a riot of relaxation.  -- Ogden Nash

My life ain't heaven/but it sure ain't hell./I'm not on top/but I call it swell/if I'm able to work/and get paid right/and have the luck to be Black/on a Saturday night. - Maya Angelou

Weekend planning is a prime time to apply the Deathbed Priority Test: On your deathbed, will you wish you'd spent more prime weekend hours grocery shopping or walking in the woods with your kids? -- Louise Lague

Every man has a right to a Saturday night bath. -- Lyndon B. Johnson

Sunday clears away the rust of the whole week. -- Joseph Addison

Give a man a fish and he has food for a day; teach him how to fish and you can get rid of him for the entire weekend.  -- Zenna Scha

There is little chance that meteorologists can solve the mysteries of weather until they gain an understanding of the mutual attraction of rain and weekends. -- Arnot Sheppard

I hate weekends because there is no stock market. -- Rene Rivkin

The feeling of Sunday is the same everywhere, heavy, melancholy, standing still. -- Jean Rhys

Always strive to excel, but only on weekends. -- Richard Rorty

Middle age is when you're sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn't for you. -- Ogden Nash

Living up to ideals is like doing everyday work with your Sunday clothes on. -- Ed Howe

Flickr user Jakevol2

19 June 2009 2:38 PM

How We Think of Sex Offenders

The always sharp Julian Sanchez offers thoughts on Washington DC's sex offender database (emphasis added):

Based on a cursory scan, most of the people in the database seem to have committed truly vile acts--rape or sexual assault or child molestation. But there are a significant minority who--reading between the lines, using the rather vague wording of the offenses and the relevant ages of perpetrator and victim--basically seem to fall in the category of "young 20-something who had some kind of sexual contact, possibly consensual, with a 15-year-old." Now, I have no problem with the state deterring and punishing that conduct, but I do wonder whether it's wise to permanently and publicly group those people with violent rapists. A college student dating a high school girl may be displaying questionable judgment, but I'm not sure he's therefore a danger to anyone else's children 20 years later. Of course, the concerned parent can just pull up the rap sheet and see who's guilty of what, but some states employ particularly confusing terminology: Florida's legal system apparently classes age-inappropriate sexual contact as "lascivious battery."

Many other cases are similarly unclear. I don't know about you, but in my mind, the words "misdemeanor" and "sexual abuse" do not belong together--certainly not in a case involving a man in his 50s and a victim of 13. Yet there they are juxtaposed on my neighbor's rap sheet.
I think there is good reason to limit these sorts of databases to the most serious offenses. Otherwise the powerful stigma against "sexual abuse" and "sex offenders" is going to marginally diminish -- how could it be otherwise when 14-year-old New Jersey girls are threatened with sex offender status for posting naked pictures to a MySpace account, as are folks cited for public urination?

If the stigma a sexual offender registry carries is to be maintained, the transgressions that land one on it must comport with our idea of sexual abuse. 

19 June 2009 12:55 PM

The 10 Most Ridiculous Inventions Ever Patented

Cracked.com published this timeless list last year.

19 June 2009 12:46 PM

Lightbulbs Revisited

Does anyone know how people represented ideas visually prior to the invention of the light bulb? Also, does the new CFL spiral variety mean that the ideas of cartoon characters are 40 percent more efficient than before? Watch out Road Runner!

Flickr User Rob J Brooks

19 June 2009 11:50 AM

Business / Economics

Melts on Your Cake, Not In Your Hands

Okay readers, let me confess that I've been holding back - I've got an idea that could revolutionize the birthday celebration: the chocolate candle. There isn't any shame in admitting that the wax candles you use for even the most momentous birthdays drizzle hot viscous paraffin all over your icing. It isn't pretty, but we've all been there.

What if hot viscous chocolate melted down onto that cake top instead? Too decadent? Please. Life is short, as the birthday milestone ought to remind you. And these chocolate fire sticks are so much more civilized than mom cleaning up after the child who took too long to blow out 20th Century candles by picking wax from the frosting with fingernails that sometimes fall off as readily as they pressed on. Would you rather have a fake fingernail atop your slice or a Ghirardelli complement?

I know what you're now thinking. That you'd expect to pay $40, $50 or even $60 dollars for candles like that. That a recession is no time for coco luxuries. But what if I told you that assuming a cut rate chemist, physical properties amenable to what I've described, a bit of venture capital and a whole lot of string, I could bring you these candles for less than half that. Would it sweeten the deal if I threw in a novelty lighter?

Wax is for surfers and creepy celebrity museums. Chocolate candles are the future.

19 June 2009 10:50 AM

Video of the Day: "How Twitter Can Make History"

19 June 2009 8:45 AM


Interview with Radley Balko Part V

Radley Balko has laid out his views on the criminal justice system in parts one, two, three and four of our interview.

All that remains is part five.

Q. Having run through a fair number of problems, let's turn our attention to solutions. What are your top 5 ideas for reforming the criminal justice system? What are the most significant obstacles preventing them?

1. Changing the federal government's role in the criminal justice system.

The federal government has a legitimate function in investigating and prosecuting some crimes, such as crimes related to national security. But we've federalized far too many crimes, and federal crimes like racketeering, conspiracy, and money laundering have been interpreted far too broadly. The Constitution lays out three federal crimes. We now have thousands. Federal crime-fighting grants like the Byrne Grant also distort the priorities of local police departments, incentivizing them to expend more resources on consensual drug crimes than violent crime. Since the late 1980s, the feds have also been giving local police departments surplus military equipment, which has reinforced the problem of creeping militarization.

On the other hand, the Department of Justice needs to get more involved in enforcing civil rights and investigating corruption and abuse in the criminal justice system at the state and local level.

2. Ensure that scientific evidence in the courtroom is actually scientific.

The forensic science community needs more peer review. Crime lab technicians and forensic scientists should be independent of the prosecutors who hire them, to prevent unintentional bias--they should report to someone other than a DA or state attorney general. Ideally, forensic analysis would be sent to multiple private labs. Occasionally, evidence would be sent to multiple labs for double-checking. Right now, there's too much pressure--subtle and overt--on state crime labs to produce results favorable to prosecutors. Using several private labs would put the incentive back on accuracy. Technicians would be rewarded for getting things right and for catching other labs' mistakes, not necessarily for confirming or bolstering the state's case.

Farleigh Dickinson University economist Roger Koppl has some other innovative suggestions (PDF) on how we can improve the quality of the science used in the courtroom.

3. Community policing.

Community policing is a broad term generally meaning an approach to law enforcement that's proactive instead of reactive.
Read More

Friday, June 19, 2009

Subsidize the News

Government support doesn't have to mean bias. More

19 June 2009 7:50 AM

Ideas from the Archives

Ideas from the Archives: "Shoot to Kill"

In an ongoing Q&A, libertarian writer Radley Balko is setting forth his ideas about what is wrong with the American criminal justice system. One lament concerns the rise of SWAT teams. "We're dressing police officers in military attire, giving them military-grade weaponry, training them in military tactics, then sending them into American cities and neighborhoods and telling them they're fighting a war," he wrote. "That's not a healthy development for a free society."

Tim Harper explored the rise of SWAT tactics in an October 2000 Atlantic article that showed how the Columbine high school massacre transformed our idea of local police departments, especially how officers ought to react during hostage situations.

He writes:
Read More

Flickr user thumblebee

19 June 2009 7:45 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them, and the cause is half won." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

19 June 2009 1:54 AM

On Discourse

Lefty Blogs Chart Course for Future

As the right focuses on Twitter, the left is increasing its sizable advantage in a different communication medium: the blog post + graphic. Anyone who follows blogs on both sides of the ideological divide knows what I am talking about. Take Matt Yglesias. Map. Bar graph. Figure. Those are consecutive posts!

Ezra Klein takes time to praise a graphic here. He slips one into a post here. Scared of the Chinese? Relax! He reassures us that the national debt is as American as these pie charts.

And Conor Clarke? He got this baby linked all over the Internet.

Strange, isn't it? The right has empiricists -- Jim Manzi and Heather MacDonald are examples of folks who offer evidence based arguments grounded in quantitative analysis and/or thorough reporting. But even they almost always have their say in words. Is it the left's affinity for arguments from wonkery that's driving this trend? Its association with academia? Its cultural preference for Macs rather than PCs? Its appeal to visual learners? Is there a graphics competition on the Journo-List?

Thinking Big has questions, but as yet, no answers. Have a theory? Write Thinkingbig@theatlantic.com

Flickr user pretty typewriters

18 June 2009 6:58 PM

Rearranging the Bookstore

Fans of literary nonfiction -- or if you prefer, long form non-fiction or new journalism -- know that upon entering most bookstores, it can be very difficult to find what you seek. Fiction is arranged alphabetically by author, so if I know I am an Ernest Hemingway fan, I can easily find more of his work.

But what if I am a huge John McPhee fan? He's written on topics from oranges to the Swiss army to the Alaskan wilderness. In a store where non-fiction is arranged by subject, where do I find his stuff?

The great non-fiction writer Lawrence Weschler, a onetime professor of mine, proposes a rather drastic step that would serve as a solution.

I want to get rid of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The class I teach at NYU is called "The Fiction of Nonfiction", and it is less a class about reporting methods than it is about the fictional methods that can be applied to nonfictional writing. It presupposes that the writer will try to be fair, but also acknowledges that there is no such thing as objectivity, and revels in that fact. Then we get down to business and talk about all the stuff that's interesting: form, freedom, irony, voice, tone, structure. We are looking at masters--Ian Frazier, Jane Kramer, John McPhee, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell--and if you look at their books, absolutely they are works of literature.
What drives me crazy is that my books are spread all over the bookstore. My Boggs is in Economics, my A Miracle, A Universe is in Latin America. This book here (holds up a copy of Vermeer in Bosnia), who the hell knows where they're gonna put this. I was in a Barnes & Noble somewhere and looked for Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders and found it in New Age Psychedelics. And it's not just me; the same is true of Ian Frazier and Jane Kramer and so forth. The point is that they should be in alphabetical order, in Literature. It's not just that my books have a super-plenitude of meanings, but that they are designed to illuminate each other. Boggs and Mr. Wilson, for example, even have the same type face, the same trim size. They're meant to be read side-by-side, but no one ever knows that.
Kudos are owed to Kramer Books in Washington DC for being the rare shop that has a section for the sort of nonfiction discussed above. Good idea!

18 June 2009 5:18 PM

"How to Build a Better Mouse Trap"

I'd be negligent as an ideas blogger if I didn't point you toward a This American Life episode wherein Ira Glass interviews the head of a company that makes mousetraps to hear about the various unsolicited proposals from product improvements it gets.

Flickr user M. Keefe

18 June 2009 2:24 PM

On Discourse

Talk Radio Rants Cont. -- Response to Comments, Additional Examples

In a prior post about the way political ideas spread, I argued that conservative talk radio hosts like Mark Levin aren't merely doing damage to public discourse -- they are ill-serving their most loyal listeners, and by extension conservatism itself. This is so for several reasons, I said, promising to cite specific examples to back up my assertions. The post linked above includes a monologue wherein Mr. Levin provides negligent, demonstrably wrongheaded analysis to his audience. The segment is a waste of time at best. More likely, it persuaded some listeners, leading them astray from reality and inhibiting their ability to participate in reality based arguments. In this way, they are marginalized.

Insofar as I've seen, responses to my post offer no defense of Mr. Levin's analysis. It is telling that even my least forgiving critics are reduced to attacking me for writing in a pretentious style. This series of posts is written more formally than is my habit. I am making an effort to bring more light than heat to a subject where the opposite is more often true. Were I being outrageously pretension in tone, however, it would hardly refute the substance of my argument.

Another critique I've seen is that only someone who misunderstands the medium of talk radio would write as I've done. 

Friedersdorf, like most journalists, doesn't really understand talk radio. Talk show hosts aren't employed to run on-air education and organizing efforts; they are paid to attract and hold the largest possible audience.  Showmanship plays a big part in achieving that objective.  Talk  pioneer Willis Duff once said that talk radio is like bullfighting.  People appreciate the cape work -- but they come to see the bull get killed. And no one kills the bull like Mark Levin.
But my argument isn't that Mark Levin is an unsuccessful radio host -- I grant that he measures success by the size of his audience, and that he has a sizable number of listeners who come for what he provides. What I contend is that the effect of Mr. Levin's least defensible tics -- whether or not they attract market share -- is to damage public discourse and ill-serve his listeners in the realm of politics. The Roman Coliseum packed in audience members. That didn't make the entertainment on offer good for the republic.

Finally, some readers wonder whether the monologue I quoted is representative of the analysis offered by Mr. Levin. In my judgment, it is -- many other monologues are flawed in the same ways. In fact, it is fair to say that Mr. Levin frequently questions the motives of his ideological adversaries as a substitute for rational discussion. Perhaps a couple brief illustrations will be instructive.
Read More

Flickr user Boliston

18 June 2009 1:02 PM

Health Care

Fat Smokers with High Blood Pressure Beware

The CEO of Safeway, Inc. has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argues America can dramatically cut its health care costs by adopting a relatively simple free market solution that the company has tested out to good effect.

Safeway's plan capitalizes on two key insights gained in 2005. The first is that 70% of all health-care costs are the direct result of behavior. The second insight, which is well understood by the providers of health care, is that 74% of all costs are confined to four chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity). Furthermore, 80% of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is preventable, 60% of cancers are preventable, and more than 90% of obesity is preventable.
How does the company translate these insights into cost savings?

Safeway's Healthy Measures program is completely voluntary and currently covers 74% of the insured nonunion work force. Employees are tested for the four measures cited above (tobacco usage, healthy weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels) and receive premium discounts off a "base level" premium for each test they pass. Data is collected by outside parties and not shared with company management. If they pass all four tests, annual premiums are reduced $780 for individuals and $1,560 for families. Should they fail any or all tests, they can be tested again in 12 months. If they pass or have made appropriate progress on something like obesity, the company provides a refund equal to the premium differences established at the beginning of the plan year.

...we are building a culture of health and fitness. The numbers speak for themselves. Our obesity and smoking rates are roughly 70% of the national average and our health-care costs for four years have been held constant. When surveyed, 78% of our employees rated our plan good, very good or excellent. In addition, 76% asked for more financial incentives to reward healthy behaviors. We have heard from dozens of employees who lost weight, lowered their blood-pressure and cholesterol levels, and are enjoying better health because of this program. Many discovered for the first time that they have high blood pressure, and others have been told by their doctor that they have added years to their life.

I am hardly a health care wonk, but the argument sure seems compelling on first look. I'd be curious to see what Ezra Klein, one of the most knowledgeable and readable progressive bloggers on health care, would say about this. If seemingly fair risk pricing demonstrably brings down overall costs, isn't it preferable to a much more complicated and costly set of reforms?

Of course, one can see the downside to all this:

Today, we are constrained by current laws from increasing these incentives. We reward plan members $312 per year for not using tobacco, yet the annual cost of insuring a tobacco user is $1,400. Reform legislation needs to raise the federal legal limits so that incentives can better match the true incremental benefit of not engaging in these unhealthy behaviors.
Smoking today. Alcohol, downhill skiing, and premarital sex tomorrow? Pricing unhealthy habits means testing for them in ways intrusive enough to reliably detect them. What are your vices? Do you want your employer or your government determining which vices cost you money?   

18 June 2009 12:37 PM


The East, The West, and The Ivy League

As a Californian who moved to the East Coast for graduate school, I've long thought that the Red/Blue lens so often used to look at the United States elides significant differences between folks referred to under the common banner of "coastal elites." There is an undeniable tendency among those from one coast to move to the other, rather than settling in the places disparagingly referred to as "flyover country."

Our experience is, nevertheless, one of moving between cultures. This is hardly a new insight--The Great Gatsby's narrator, Nick Caraway, mused on The East as an outsider, as did Joan Didion. She is particularly insightful here: Read More

Flickr user Sandr 123

18 June 2009 9:40 AM


Interview with Radley Balko Part IV

My interview with Radley Balko, who is meeting his fans in Denver tonight, began here. Part two is here. And part three is here. The next question:

Q. Perhaps the most significant story you've covered lately involved prosecutors using the services of a bite mark expert, though evidence suggests he is no expert at all. Can you briefly describe that case, reflect more generally on the idea of expert witnesses in our criminal justice system, and explain why you think the status quo is problematic?

In the 1990s, a Mississippi dentist named Michael West became a popular expert witness for prosecutors because he claimed to be a bite mark expert who could find and identify tooth impressions in human skin that no other expert could see. He was eventually exposed as a fraud by 60 Minutes and other media outlets, though he continued to testify in Mississippi, and there are still people in prison who were convicted primarily because of his testimony.
Read More

18 June 2009 9:30 AM

Video of the Day

Video of the Day

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Robert Wright wrote about how over history "it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent." In the video below, he addresses the question of whether he personally believes in God. Read More

18 June 2009 9:29 AM

Ill Conceived

"Worst Idea Ever"

A reader writes:

The Chinese government is creating a database of 8,000 characters and requiring all parents to name their newborns by limiting themselves to the characters in it. A population of 1.3 billion people limited to 8,000 characters? Mayhem. I work in an office where 3 out of 10 people are named Wong, and the database didn't even pertain to their names. 
The article I first read about this in explained that the database was being created to "rein in a trend of unusual names," which I'm sure is code for "government authorities are having a tough time recording all these strange names when writing people up for crimes, so we must create a name database to more easily keep tabs on the population." Proponents of the idea compare names to numbers and argue that in the name of social development, like automobiles and mobile phones, names must be standardized. No need for me to elaborate on how many things are wrong with that school of thought, although I did rather like the response of Xinmin Evening News journalist Tao Duanfang -- there are many different kinds of restaurants, but no one has ever suggested a ban on home cooking.
This -- like flying cars -- seems like a subject just waiting for a pearl of wisdom from James Fallows. Send your bad idea nominations to ThinkingBig@theatlantic.com

18 June 2009 8:42 AM

Google As Idea Factory

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Google Inc. is revamping how it develops and prioritizes new products, giving employees a pipeline to the company's top brass amid worries about losing its best people and promising ideas to start-ups.

The Mountain View, Calif., company famously lets its engineers spend one day a week on projects that aren't part of their jobs. But Google has lacked a formal process for senior executives to review those efforts, and some ideas have languished. Others have slipped away when employees left the company.

"We were concerned that some of the biggest ideas were getting squashed," said Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt ...

It's this attitude that makes them the obvious leader in Web based e-mail. Every so often they just add new features to Gmail that take it from being the best... to being even better.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Let Criminals Vote

Enfranchising former felons -- and some current convicts -- would right a civic wrong, and may even point criminals down a more lawful path. More

18 June 2009 7:01 AM

Energy / Environment

Ideas from the Archives: "The American Forests"

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,--chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones... Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time--and long before that--God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools,--only Uncle Sam can do that.
The excerpt is from "The American Forests," an 1897 essay by crusading naturalist John Muir. Although he wrote long after westward expansion fell and burned much of the country's woodlands, his advocacy helped spur President Theodore Roosevelt to launch a major conservation program, creating the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and preserving millions of acres of American wilderness.

An ode to trees bring to mind two things for me: the Ents that Tolkien renders so beautifully in The Lord or the Rings, and the closest I've found to an earthly equivalent, the giant Sequoia and redwood forests of California. It is impossible to walk among those forests without feeling awe at proximity to creatures so magnificent in scale and ancient in age.
Read More

Flickr user Peter II

18 June 2009 6:10 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true!" -- H.L. Mencken

17 June 2009 4:01 PM


Don't Kill Summer Vacation

Thinking Big is pleased to announce its first blogger on blogger argument, and against a worthy adversary: The Atlantic's Conor Clarke. Let me assure you that he is an intelligent and friendly sort, even if he does want to rob school children of summer break. If he gets his way, I propose that the following example be added to SAT prep books: "Grinch is to Christmas as ______ is to summer vacation." It's an illustration that won't leave any child behind.

Mr. Clarke initially argued for year long school here. His position: All the reasons we initially adopted summer vacation don't apply any longer. American kids score lower on standardized tests than kids from countries where everyone attends school more days each year. Even within the United States, summer vacation exacerbates the inequitable outcomes between rich kinds and poor kids, because the former enjoy edifying summer experiences, while the latter do not. Thus, we should say goodbye to summer vacation.

In the name of countless children nationwide -- and adopting this as my theme song -- I attacked his anti-summer jeremiad here, and sent reinforcements at his flank here. My campaign employed several weapons as arguments:  Read More

Fliickr user Paulaloe

17 June 2009 3:00 PM

The Idea of Marriage: Till Death Do Us Part?

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh offers this advice: "avoid marriage--or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love."

She is speaking from personal experience:

Sadly, and to my horror, I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man, though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued. This turn of events was a surprise. I don't generally even enjoy men; I had an entirely manageable life and planned to go to my grave taking with me, as I do most nights to my bed, a glass of merlot and a good book. Cataclysmically changed, I disclosed everything. We cried, we rent our hair, we bewailed the fate of our children. And yet at the end of the day--literally during a five o'clock counseling appointment, as the golden late-afternoon sunlight spilled over the wall of Balinese masks--when given the final choice by our longtime family therapist, who stands in as our shaman, mother, or priest, I realized ... no. Heart-shattering as this moment was--a gravestone sunk down on two decades of history--I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family's domestic construct back together. In women's-magazine parlance, I did not have the strength to "work on" falling in love again in my marriage. And as Laura Kipnis railed in Against Love, and as everyone knows, Good relationships take work.
The always sharp Kerry Howley dissents, though her rebuttal is hardly an endorsement of traditional marriage:

I was most struck by the fact that Tsing Loh has such high expectations for the longevity of marriage; so high that her eventual disavowal of the institution is almost inevitable. It's not like she got hitched late one night in Vegas and regretted it the next morning. She was with her husband for 20 years. They produced two seemingly happy kids, and Tsing Loh has managed to build a fantastically successful career while raising them. This is what failure looks like? Why is this split treated as a lack of will--"a gravestone sunk down on two decades of history"--rather than a natural, peaceful end to a happy and productive union?

As Tsing Loh says, Americans marry and divorce, and divorce and marry, and continue to attend endless engagement parties without deeming the institution a waste of everyone's time. Tsing Loh thinks we're deluded, but perhaps we've adapted to the fact that modern unions can be both meaningful and temporary. Surely, given the reality of serial marriage, we can come up with a better metric for determining a successful partnership than "does/does not last forever"? Tsing Loh asks "why we still believe in marriage," but I'd like to know why she still believes that the only successful partnership is one you're in when you die.

Ms. Howley is correct that 20 happy years and two well-loved children aren't adequately described by the word failure. I'd even go so far as to say that lots of marriages are both meaningful and end in divorce. I do not think, however, that soceity should rethink its norms such that marriage is entered into as a temporary arrangement--unions that end before death aren't merely failures, but they are rightly regarded as partial failures in most instances of marriage.


Read More

Flickr user Audabon

17 June 2009 2:00 PM

"Worst Idea Ever"

Reader Alex Waller, who blogs here, nominates the 401(k) debit card. "Because, you know, the hard-earned savings you've locked away for retirement should be treated like an ATM...with a hefty interest rate each time you withdraw," he says. "It blows my mind that people nowadays are saving so little, and spending so much...but we need yet another way to tap our savings to encourage spending."

He goes on to point out that in a sudden medical emergency, you can already take loans out of your 401(k), negating the need for a debit card and the associated interest rate. "When would this ever, ever be anything but a terrible idea?" he asks.

I'm tentatively convinced. Any readers with a good reason for debiting down their nest egg?

17 June 2009 12:58 PM

Business / Economics

Go Midwest, Young Man

On a recent cross country road trip, I stopped in Ord, Nebraska, where I interviewed Caleb T. Pollard, a 29 year old man charged with bringing young professionals, businesses, and even tourists to a rural town hours from the Interstate. The goal is for Ord, population 2,269, to avoid the fate of certain other Midwestern communities: a dearth of young people, a steady population decline, a hollowing of downtown, a flight of the professional and creative classes to the big city.

One idea for achieving that goal: "Insourcing."
Read More

Flickr user Balaji Dutt

17 June 2009 12:39 PM

Wish List

Powdered Beer: Pro and Con

In e-mails I've put out asking what folks would like to see invented, a surprising three people have expressed a desire for powdered beer. I'll quote one of them:

Liquid beer is obviously more convenient for everyday use. At the same time, liquid is heavy, and there are a lot of places where having beer on hand is pretty damn enhancing as far as the general experience. Take a camping trip that involves a long hike into the woods. A concentrated alcoholic powder could drastically increase the servings of beer it's feasible to bring along. Powder would also free us from the tyranny of sports stadium and concert beer prices. I realize that underage kids would use this innovation to smuggle beer onto college campuses, which is a feature or a big depending on your age and opinions, but that shouldn't prevent the rest of us from this society changing invention.
I am a skeptic. The thing about beer is that it's got to be cold to taste good. Nor are there many powders that turn into anything as tasty as even the cheaper, more watery beers currently on the market. If it's worse than Natural Light, who needs it?

Readers, I think we can do better when it comes to dreaming up inventions that we want. Shoot me an e-mail with yours: Thinkingbig@theatlantic.com

17 June 2009 11:55 AM

Business / Economics

Hypocrisy In American Style Capitalism

Joseph Stiglitz has an interesting piece up at Vanity Fair arguing that "when the current crisis is over, the reputation of American style capitalism will have taken a beating."

The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, marked the end of Communism as a viable idea. Yes, the problems with Communism had been manifest for decades. But after 1989 it was hard for anyone to say a word in its defense. For a while, it seemed that the defeat of Communism meant the sure victory of capitalism, particularly in its American form. Francis Fukuyama went as far as to proclaim "the end of history," defining democratic market capitalism as the final stage of social development, and declaring that all humanity was now heading in this direction. In truth, historians will mark the 20 years since 1989 as the short period of American triumphalism. With the collapse of great banks and financial houses, and the ensuing economic turmoil and chaotic attempts at rescue, that period is over. So, too, is the debate over "market fundamentalism," the notion that unfettered markets, all by themselves, can ensure economic prosperity and growth. Today only the deluded would argue that markets are self-correcting or that we can rely on the self-interested behavior of market participants to guarantee that everything works honestly and properly.
It's always a fraught exercise to predict what idea historians are going to take away from a period that you're still living. Were I to hazard a guess, however, I'd say that looking back on this economic crisis, historians are going to conclude that it pales in importance to the rise of China and India as economic powers -- and that their rise is due to the fact that they've essentially grafted the core insights of American capitalism into their societies.
Read More

17 June 2009 11:26 AM

Ill Conceived

"Worst Idea Ever"

Via Megan McArdle, an excerpt from an old Paul Krugman column that must make the Nobel prize winning economist cringe:

The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn't a typical postwar slump, brought on when an inflation-fighting Fed raises interest rates and easily ended by a snapback in housing and consumer spending when the Fed brings rates back down again. This was a prewar-style recession, a morning after brought on by irrational exuberance. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.
A worthy nominee for this competition! Send your own suggestions to Thinkingbig@theatlantic.com

Flickr user publik 15

17 June 2009 10:25 AM


Interview with Radley Balko Part III

(My interview with Radley Balko began here. Part two is here.)

Q. You mentioned no-knock raids -- can you explain what those are, and why you object to them so regularly on your blog?

No-knock raids are when police force entry into a home without knocking or announcing themselves first. The Supreme Court has recognized that requiring the state to knock and announce before entering a home is part of the Fourth Amendment -- part of the "Castle Doctrine" that extends back into English common law. The problem is that in the same opinion (Wilson v. Arkansas), the Court carved out enough exceptions to overwhelm the rule.

Police can now enter your home unannounced if they believe that knocking would endanger their safety, or if they believe it would give you time to destroy evidence, which in most cases means the time you would need to flush your drug stash down the toilet.
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Flickr user Duchamp

17 June 2009 9:32 AM

Business / Economics

"Worst Idea Ever"

Charles Homans of The Washington Monthly offers an inspired nomination: "the ketchup packet." As soon as I saw the words I concurred, but I followed up to make sure I knew exactly what he meant.

"Any non-obvious reasons for your pick?" I asked.

"The design flaws are pretty obvious," he wrote. "Difficulty of operation, wastefulness, insufficient quantities for any conceivable ketchup application. That's what makes its existence in present form--and the lack of design improvements over however many decades--so baffling. Mayonnaise packets were actually able to solve most of these problems. It suggests to me that there must be someone powerful with a vested interest in the ketchup packet as it stands."

Of course, there are powerful people behind ketchup, and dedicated men have tried and failed to challenge its status quo before.

(Send your own "Worst Idea Ever" nominations to Thinkingbig@theatlantic.com)

Flickr user Duchamp

17 June 2009 8:49 AM

On Discourse

When Talk Radio Rants Go Wrong

In an earlier post, I promised to grapple with the way political ideas spread. The medium that's interested me most lately is talk radio. Though every host is different, I've spent some time listening to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. It is verboten to criticize any of these men if you consider yourself to be on the right side of the political spectrum, as I do. I'll press on anyway, not only because I enjoy a lively argument, but because these men, though their talent as broadcasters varies widely in the order I've listed them, do similar violence to a healthy public discourse -- and do a particular disservice to the conservatives and libertarians most loyal to them.

In fact, I want to address this post to their listeners, for having grown up in Orange County, California, the admiring grandson of grandparents who are Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin fans respectively, I've met enough talk radio aficionados to know that many are intelligent, devoted citizens with kindly dispositions, and a far cry from the negative stereotypes that prevail in some quarters. Those folks should note that this isn't a thoughtless, knee-jerk condemnation of the programs that they enjoy, nor is it a call to kick Messieurs Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin off the radio. This is a carefully considered, honestly held, and pointed argument: though I maybe unable to persuade these men to take stock of specific shortcomings that do you a disservice, perhaps I can convince you to demand better. The quality of our political ideas are at stake.
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17 June 2009 8:00 AM

Video of the Day

"Ideas That Spread, Win"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Make Everyone an Organ Donor

We could dramatically increase the number of donations if we switch to an opt-out system. More

17 June 2009 6:15 AM

Business / Economics

"The Story of a Great Monopoly"

In March 1881, The Atlantic published "The Story of a Great Monopoly," one of the earliest pieces of progressive muckraking to run in a national, well-respected magazine--and the first exposé of the Standard Oil Trust to be taken seriously. "The issue in which the article appeared sold out seven printings, and it helped bring antitrust legislation to the forefront of national debate," notes Sage Stossel, a longtime Atlantic editor who is one of the magazine's most knowledgeable and dedicated historians.

It is no wonder that the article augured the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 -- after laying out numerous specific complaints against the biggest corporations of the day, it concludes by offering as powerful an objection against the idea of monopoly power as has ever been written:
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17 June 2009 5:15 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

"For an idea ever to be fashionable is ominous, since it must afterwards be always old-fashioned." -- George Santayana

Flickr user Sean Tyler

16 June 2009 3:56 PM


Law and Order: Interview with Radley Balko Part II

(Part one of my interview with Radley Balko is here.)

You've criticized the militarization of law enforcement. It's a topic The Atlantic covered in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting, when police departments all over America began encouraging a SWAT team mentality among regular officers. Why is this war mentality a bad thing? Aren't there heavily armed bad guys who are literally causing war-like casualties in urban neighborhoods?

The military is trained to kill people and break things -- to annihilate a foreign enemy. The police are charged with protecting our rights while securing the peace. Those are two very different missions, and it's dangerous to conflate them. But that seems to be what's happening.
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Flickr user Woordenaar

16 June 2009 2:16 PM

The Richest Literary Tradition

Could it be sci-fi?

Sam Jordison thinks so, assuming that the metric used is how many new words a genre contributes to the English language. His post is at its best when it delves into particular linguistic contributions.
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16 June 2009 12:56 PM

Bets in the Blogosphere -- Why Gambling Would Improve Commentary

At the top of the ideas page, The Atlantic's Josh Green suggests that pundits be penalized for being woefully wrong.

You can blow the biggest questions of the day, time after time, and still claim to be a discerning seer. Well, there ought to be consequences. It's not as if blogs and propaganda outlets don't keep track of this stuff. In Washington, regulation is back in fashion. If we can regulate tricky things like credit-default swaps, surely we can regulate pundits.

That pesky First Amendment prevents us from silencing them outright. But couldn't the more reputable media outlets reach a gentleman's agreement to stop inviting commentary from the very worst offenders, at least for a respectable interlude? Pundits should have to explain their bad calls (and grovel?) as a condition of return.

I've got a variation on his idea that's easier to implement: on certain matters, pundits ought to put their money where their mouth is.

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Flickr user GandHiJi40

16 June 2009 12:03 PM

Heart Attack? No Problem

Elsewhere I'm interviewing Radley Balko about his views on the criminal justice system. After checking in on his blog, I can't resist posting the video he describes as follows: "No, he wasn't faking... Cool footage of a Belgian soccer player who collapses of a heart attack on the field, then jolts back to consciousness thanks to an internal defibrillator he'd had installed due to a heart condition."

Video below the fold.
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16 June 2009 10:59 AM

Business / Economics

Notes on the Flying Car

As a kid, I desperately wanted one of the hover boards featured in Back to the Future II. I wasn't alone. The devices seemed so compelling that Snopes had to debunk rumors of their existence that circulated in elementary schools including mine. Even in the films, however, hover boards were for kids and teenagers. The dream for the 16-and-up set was the flying DeLorean, perhaps the most iconic depiction of humanity's long running, ongoing quest for the flying car.

A staple of futuristic films and cartoons, it feels as though we've been promised the flying car as surely as a machine to teleport us from place to place -- and that we're destined to be disappointed for quite awhile longer. Though we lack teleportation technology, however, we possess the tools to fly and to drive. So why no flying car? What's the hold up? I've long thought the fundamental flaw in our approach is a focus on making cars fly, rather than making a plane that drives better.

And it seems my hunch is being vindicated.
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Flickr user Kevygee

16 June 2009 9:13 AM

Ill Conceived

"Worst Idea Ever"


Goats do not need towers -- though I can't say I didn't laugh at this one.

Rooting for lunatic leaders to retain power as a hedge against underestimating how evil other countries are? Bad idea.

Sure, trees fall over sometimes, but when they take out two Priuses on the way down they aren't much helping out the cause of their species.

Sen. Tom Coburn flags the worst ideas in stimulus spending.

Atul Gawande reports from "McAllen, Texas, the most expensive town in the most expensive country for health care in the world," explaining what it is that they're doing wrong.

Returning to the NFL at age 40 after surgery and a season wherein you threw as many interceptions as touchdowns? Say it ain't so, Brett.

16 June 2009 8:00 AM

Idea in the News

Iran, Twitter, and The American Information Elite

IDEA IN THE NEWS / June 16, 2009 -- Over the weekend, Iran hurtled into political upheaval, and America's 24-hour cable news networks hardly noticed. Mark Ambinder explains the role Twitter played in Iran. Here in the United States, Andrew Sullivan made The Daily Dish a leading worldwide information hub for updates, an impressive feat for a guy blogging from a pier in Cape Cod (aided back at the Watergate by the most skilled aggregation helpers in the business). I'll leave it to others to remark on what this means for the Iranian people, or authoritarian governments generally. (See these stunning photos too.)

What I want to suggest is that events like this portend an interesting, largely unremarked upon change in American political discourse.
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Flickr user Darrin Barry

16 June 2009 8:00 AM


Law and Order: Interview with Radley Balko Part I

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason Magazine whose award-winning investigative work focuses on criminal justice and civil liberties. His blog, The Agitator, is one of the most carefully curated resources for stories on the same subject.

Q. In your work, you've frequently reported on police abuses and the appropriate role of law enforcement in a free society. Though you're often writing in regard to specific controversies, I wonder if you have any general criticisms of the American criminal justice system. What's wrong about where we're at? What are the most urgent improvements you would recommend?
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16 June 2009 8:00 AM

Video of the Day

"Schools Kill Creativity"

VIDEO OF THE DAY/June 16, 2009 -- This video helps explain why, contra my Atlantic colleague Conor Clarke, I do not think that summer school should become the norm for American children.

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Flickr user Photos8.com

16 June 2009 8:00 AM

Ideas from the Archives

"Broken Windows" and Its Forgotten Argument

IDEA FROM THE ARCHIVES/June 16, 2009 -- Any history of influential articles published by The Atlantic must include "Broken Windows," a 1982 cover story by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling about the relationship between police and neighborhood safety. The theory it proposed is credited by many (though not all) with reversing the lengthy crime epidemic that plagued New York City and other urban centers. Former NYPD Commissioner James Bratton called Mr. Wilson "my intellectual mentor." A head of the Justice Department's research arm once said that the piece "has had a greater impact than any other article on serious policing."

On re-reading it, I am struck by the fact that although the "broken windows" part of its argument is conventional wisdom these days, an equally prominent part of the article is all but forgotten. In fact, the forgotten part includes what strikes today's reader as its most radical--some would say reactionary--idea.

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Flickr user Jill Clardy

16 June 2009 8:00 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen. -- John Steinbeck

Flickr user Caveman 92223

16 June 2009 8:00 AM

Welcome to "Thinking Big"

What's the best idea you've ever had? What's the worst? Is there anything big or small that you'd love for someone to invent? How did people illustrate the act of having an idea prior to the light bulb? Instead of flying cars, why not planes that drive better? Why do so many ideas occur in the shower?

These are the questions that occurred to me immediately after I found out I'd be writing a blog about ideas for The Atlantic Online. I jotted them down in a notebook. Naturally, it wasn't on hand the next afternoon when I found myself waiting for a friend at a Los Angeles café. What I discovered, once the waitress lent me a pen, is that necessity is the mother of writing on napkins. These I stuffed into my pockets, the fragile squares overflowing with frenetically scrawled brilliance I thrilled at sharing. Could a single blog contain them? Alas, we'll never know: into the wash went the pants and around they spun. Once in the dryer the napkins separated into pieces so small that picking them from the surrounding load took an hour. Ideas survive laundering about as well as insights from social science survive the legislative process.

One funny thing about ideas is how difficult they can be to recover once forgotten. Luckily each day is rife with new insights, and the ones you'll get here mostly wound up in that notebook after all. Repeat visitors to this blog will see several regular features -- "Idea in the News," a daily look at some notion pulled from the current events; a "Quote of the Day" and a "Video of the Day" on the subject of ideas, broadly construed; "Ideas in the Archives," a look back at some of the best think pieces ever to appear in The Atlantic; occasional Q&As wherein I press smart people on what's occupying their minds; and if my readers help out, a sample of your e-mails on any topic related to the life of the mind, and specifically about the worst ideas you've ever run across (more about that in a minute).

Beyond the recurring features, I'll engage whatever conversations are happening in the blogosphere, or at least the ones that dovetail with this project. One theme I hope to tackle repeatedly is the way that political and cultural ideas spread in a democracy. I make my living as a journalist partly because I believe that public discourse acts as a crucible for free people. It tests our notions, destroys the worst, and strengthens the best -- or it does so when it functions properly. Unfortunately, I think that America's national conversation is in a bad way. More on that later too.

I encourage readers to comment (civilly!), and to e-mail me often. As noted, one sort of e-mail I'd love to get is anything nominating a "Worst Idea Ever." Interpret that liberally. I'm eager to receive a paragraph or two on bad historical ideas, bad ideas you've had in your own life, bad ideas observed at the workplace or in your field, unfortunate trends in the culture, anecdotes about bad ideas -- silly and serious, short and long, whatever you've got send it my way. I can be reached at conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com

Finally, do bookmark this page or paste this in your RSS.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Regulate Pundits

It's time we imposed consequences for too many wrong opinions. More