June 21, 2009 - June 27, 2009 Archives

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.
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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:

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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
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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:

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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.