SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

June 14, 2009 - June 20, 2009 Archives

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

Q&As

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

Education

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

Q&As

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

Education

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.

Why?

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.
 
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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

Q&As

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

Q&As

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"

A MORNING ROUNDUP:

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

Q&As

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