Ideas 2009 Archive

07 July 2009 2:07 PM

Ideas 2009

Dept. of Municipal Complaints

Ryan Tate:

In San Francisco, citizens complain to the city over Twitter. Bostonians have it even better: they got an iPhone application just for carping at City Hall. It's never been easier to funnel your complaint into a Kafkaesque black hole!

07 July 2009 12:00 PM

Ideas 2009

Those Pesky Editors

Theodore Dalrymple:

I was recently the victim of a politically-correct sub-editor of a distinguished medical journal for which I write. I do not claim to have suffered inordinately as a result; at most I experienced a brief spasm of anger, leading to a slightly longer period of irritation. Then I calmed down: 99.99999 per cent of the world's population would never read what I wrote, and of the 0.00001 per cent that did read it, 99.99 per cent would not notice the change.

On the other hand, as Burke said, liberty is seldom lost all at once; usually it is nibbled away, until - to change thinkers to Tocqueville - people become 'a herd of timid and industrious sheep, of which the government is the shepherd.' (It needn't be the government that does all the shepherding, intellectual apparatchiks will do just as well.)

Therefore, at the risk of sounding and even becoming a little paranoid, and of seeing dangers to our freedom lurking everywhere, even in insignificant phenomena, it is necessary sometimes to protest at the most minor acts of arbitrary power.

07 July 2009 11:30 AM

Ideas 2009

On Commencement Speakers

Apollo wouldn't pay a million dollars to hear a speech by Michelle Obama -- or anyone else:

I've long thought the culture of high-end commencement speakers was stupid. Virtually every college in the country would benefit if it just gave up on that game and instead had a well-regarded professor speak to the students. It would save money, have  more content, better connect with students, and not subsidize the egos of political and media elites.
Bill Keller spoke at my commencement. Given my interest in journalism I quite enjoyed it, though not enough that I'd have paid for it. Walter Cronkite spoke to the Pomona College class that graduated the following year. I covered it for the local newspaper. It was an awful speech.

07 July 2009 10:45 AM

Ideas 2009

Utopia or Dystopia?

Via Kevin Drum, a report from Irvine, California:

It's a religiously tidy community. Homeowners associations regulate the smallest details: the shade of paint, from eggshell to beige, what trees may be planted, the mowing and edging of every stretch of grass.

Police Chief David Maggard said he sees his department as a service-based organization, operating under the assumption that safety is contagious.

"If people have a sense that their community is safe, they will go out at night, they will interact with their neighbors, they will use the parks," he said, "and that does have an impact on crime."

Cops don't come to Irvine to bust heads or run-and-gun, and several officers interviewed seemed satisfied that they are able to spend time solving cases that might be shrugged off in towns with more crime, even while some say the pace of activity in Irvine is at times too slow.

"It's not that there's absolutely nothing that happens in Irvine," said Barry Miller, a field training officer.

"It just seems like there's no call we won't take," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Miller responded to a typical call.

On the street of two-story suburban homes, lined with jacarandas and palms and curbside recycling bins, a father and his 14-year-old son were arguing about water polo practice while he gave his other son a haircut in the garage.

Two police cars were on the scene within minutes.

Miller defused the situation with some gentle words to the father and son, smiling as he stood on the front lawn, looking more the part of mediator than hardened lawman.

The officer quickly typed the police code for "disturbance" in his patrol car's computer: 415 over son not doing what dad wants. Verbal only. No crime.
I grew up in a lovely neighborhood in nearby Costa Mesa. Crime in my tract is also very low, even though everyone paints their house whatever color they damn well please.

07 July 2009 10:00 AM

Ideas 2009

On Gardening

Amanda Marcotte:

Salon has not one, but two articles up right now about the resurgence of gardening, particularly urban gardening.  One is about the urban gardening trend itself, and one is about the giant organic garden at the White House that Michelle Obama has spearheaded.  The explosion of interest in gardening is obviously due to converging trends---the growing concerns about sustainability and our screwed-up agricultural system, plus an economic collapse that has people thinking long and hard about frugality.

What's interesting about the trend is that it's not really certain that growing your own garden is necessarily going to save people money, as Amy Benfer notes.  In the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt's push for people to start victory gardens was incredibly effective---up to 40% of all produce grown in the country was in victory gardens.  Numbers like that would make one think that this resurgence would have similar results, but I think a lot fewer people (particularly the political foodie types that generally live in urban centers) have as much space to garden, and collectively, we have a lot less know-how.  Of course, if people stick with it for a few years, they'll learn what works and what doesn't, and it will start to save them money.  Of course, that requires staying put for long periods of time, which is also not so easy for modern urbanites.

Still, even if this is only a minor savings or a wash for a lot of people starting out, I still think that this trend is overall a good thing for people.  First of all, gardening---even just if you grow your own herbs---encourages people to cook at home more, which is healthier and cheaper.  Plus, it's a good place to start when it comes to finding ways to eat better overall.  Even with Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman out there telling people that good cooking is easy, I think many people are afraid to start doing things like exploring the bulk section at the supermarket.  I know I was, but gardening has this psychological effect on you.  I dare say it's a genuine example of empowering yourself.

07 July 2009 9:32 AM

Ideas 2009

A Strangely Unpoisoned System

David Frum:

This "great recession" has harshly reshaped the lives of tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of million of people around the world. And yet in one way, it has had surprisingly little impact: We have not seen the kind of upsurge of anti-system political radicalism that might have been expected to follow so painful a shock.

For more than 6 months, Americans have heard one revelation after another of betrayal of customer interests by financial firms - of reckless risk-taking, self-dealing and dereliction of fiduciary duty. Yet there has been no wave of outrage against banks and bankers. The furor over the AIG bonuses blew over in 48 hours. The Obama administration's promised financial "reforms" turn out astonishingly modest. Who would have imagined that after the worst financial crash since 1929, the only institution to be threatened with abolition by the federal government would be ... the Office of Thrift Supervision?

In fall 2008 a friend in a very senior job on Wall Street confided to me, "When the public discovers what has been going on these past years, there is going to be a reaction that will turn this country upside down." Hasn't happened.  There have been no modern equivalents of the Depression-era Pecora hearings. An unequivocal crook like Bernie Madoff can be sentenced to prison, but who has a harsh word to say against Franklin Raines? The public by and large has been trusting and accepting of established institutions and traditional leaders.

His answer is here.

07 July 2009 9:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Folks Who Shouldn't Throw Stones

The New York Times reports:

Engineers, architects and fabricators, aided by materials scientists and software designers, are building soaring facades, arching canopies and delicate cubes, footbridges and staircases, almost entirely of glass. They're laminating glass with polymers to make beams and other components stronger and safer... and analyzing every square inch of a design to make sure the stresses are within precise limits. And they are experimenting with new materials and methods that could someday lead to glass structures that are unmarked by metal or other materials."Ultimately what we're all striving for is an all-glass structure," said James O'Callaghan of Eckersley O'Callaghan Structural Design, who has designed what are perhaps the world's best-known glass projects, the staircases that are a prominent feature of every Apple Store.
Check out the photo.

07 July 2009 8:27 AM

Ideas 2009

Maverick Tendencies

Chris Orr has an idea for Sarah Palin:

If one believes, as I do, a) that Palin has every intention of running for president, barring the emergence a scandal that makes this impossible; b) that she will not win the GOP nomination; and c) that the bitter grudge-holding that has characterized her career will continue; she seems an unusually plausible risk to launch a base-shattering third-party candidacy.
In the (extremely!) unlikely event that she wins this third party bid you know who to blame.

07 July 2009 12:10 AM

Ideas 2009

DIY Furniture

John Schwenkler discovers Ikea Hacker:

So how in the hell had nobody ever told me about this? I mean, backyard chicken coops made from bunk beds and bottle racks? A kids' play kitchen made from a supercharged table leg? This is a penny-pinching directions-hating capitalist libertarian do-it-yourself-er's frigging paradise, and I have to hear about it from Rod? This is your job, readers, so please make a note.

06 July 2009 3:30 PM

Ideas 2009

The End of TV as We Know It?

The Cajun Boy writes:

...we believe eventually someone will independently shoot and distribute an episodic series online that will become a cultural phenomenon, something people discuss around the proverbial water-cooler on a regular basis, and that will be the moment when the scale is officially tipped and the television networks run the risk of becoming little more than relics of a bygone era. How far off into the future is something like that happening is anyone's guess, but it certainly seems as though we're getting closer and closer with each passing day.
Are the networks self-destructively hastening that process by putting their shows online?

06 July 2009 3:00 PM

Ideas 2009

When Is Secession Justified?

Ilya Somin has an interesting take:

One of the striking differences between the American Revolution and most modern independence movements is that the former was not based on ethnic or nationalistic justifications. Nowhere does the Declaration state that Americans have a right to independence because they are a distinct "people" or culture. They couldn't assert any such claim because the majority of the American population consisted of members of the same ethnic groups (English and Scots) as the majority of Britons.

Rather, the justification for American independence was the need to escape oppression by the British government - the "repeated injuries and usurpations" enumerated in the text - and to establish a government that would more fully protect the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The very same rationale for independence could just as easily have been used to justify secession by, say, the City of London, which was more heavily taxed and politically oppressed than the American colonies were. Indeed, the Declaration suggests that secession or revolution is justified "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends" [emphasis added]. The implication is that the case for independence is entirely distinct from any nationalistic or ethnic considerations.

By contrast, modern international law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assigns a right of "self-determination" only to "peoples," usually understood to mean groups with a distinctive common culture and ethnicity. If the American Revolution was justified, the ICCPR's approach is probably wrong. At the very least, secession should also be considered permissible where undertaken to escape repression by the preexisting central government. For example, Taiwan's de facto secession from China in 1949 was surely justified, despite the fact that most of the island's population consists of ethnic Chinese.

06 July 2009 2:00 PM

Ideas 2009

Congestion Pricing

Felix Salmon reports on a study of New York City congestion, and the cost each vehicle imposes by driving in Manhattan:

Being a cyclist, I'm acutely aware of the issue of externalities -- it generally costs you nothing to blindly step off the sidewalk and into the bike lane, or to open your taxi door without looking behind you, but it can affect me greatly. Komanoff's a cyclist too, but he's concentrating in this spreadsheet mainly on vehicular traffic. After crunching the numbers, he calculates that on a weekday, the average car driven into Manhattan south of 60th Street causes a total of 3.26 hours of delays to everybody else. (At weekends, the equivalent number is just over 2 hours.) No one car is likely to suffer excess delays of more than a few seconds, of course, but if you add up all those seconds for the thousands of affected cars and trucks, it comes to a significant amount of time.

Many of those hours are very valuable things, especially when you consider big trucks, staffed with two or three professionals, just idling in traffic. Komanoff calculates (check out the "Value of Time" tab) that the average vehicle has 1.97 people in it, and that the average value of an hour of saved vehicle time south of 60th Street in Manhattan on a weekday is $48.89. Which means, basically, that driving a car into Manhattan on a weekday causes about $160 of negative externalities to everybody else.

Matt Yglesias writes:

People seem to be unaware of this, but the evidence suggests that traffic congestion costs the country tends of billions of dollars a year in lost economic activity. If we implemented congestion pricing in those metropolitan areas suffering from chronic congestion and then gathered up all the revenue and lit it on fire, we would swiftly find ourselves living in a more prosperous society. And if we gathered up the revenue and did something else with it, we'd be even better off.

06 July 2009 1:20 PM

Ideas 2009

Switching Days Off

Matt Yglesias has a vital reform proposal:

Let me say that I've really enjoyed this rare Friday-off three day weekend. I think it's been a lot more fun than your traditional Monday-off three dayer. I think it's the difference between a weekend that psychologically feels like it has two Saturdays and a weekend that psychologically feels like it has two Sundays. But whatever the reason, I think we should formalize the switch, eliminate our "observed on Monday" national holidays and shift them to Fridays.
Thoughts? Having blogged a fair amount on Friday, I am unqualified to weigh in.

06 July 2009 12:45 PM

Ideas 2009

Video of the Day: Does Religion Do More Harm or Good?

In a wonderful exchange, Bob Wright and John Horgan grapple with that question:

06 July 2009 12:15 PM

Ideas 2009

"Federer as Religious Experience"

In winning Wimbledon on Sunday, Roger Federer secured a remarkable 15th major title, surpassing Pete Sampras. The late David Foster Wallace wrote the definitive piece about watching the great champion play:

A top athlete's beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer's forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice -- the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game -- as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game. You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or -- as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject -- to try to define it in terms of what it is not.

One thing it is not is televisable.

06 July 2009 11:45 AM

Ideas 2009

"A Manifesto for Scholarly Publishing"

Peter Dougherty writes:

Books -- specifically scholarly titles published by university presses and other professional publishers -- retain two distinct comparative advantages over other forms of communication in the idea bazaar:

First, books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments at a relatively general level of discourse and in familiar rhetorical forms -- narrative, thematic, philosophical, and polemical -- thereby helping to enrich and unify otherwise disparate intellectual conversations.

Second, university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas -- whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism -- when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority. Think of the University of Illinois Press and its Mathematical Theory of Communication, still in print today. Commercial publishers, except for those who produce scientific and technical books, generally don't traffic in hard ideas. They're too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor's recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.

Hard ideas define a culture -- that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores "the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing -- and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share." The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.

06 July 2009 11:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Does Pornography Stop Rape?

Tim Worstall argues that it does:

It has long been said that there's a connection between pornography and rape and other sexual crimes and attacks. Recent evidence shows that there is indeed a connection, but it is that the more porn there is available, the lower the incidence of rape.

This goes against two powerful strands of thought in American society, strange bedfellows though they may be. From the conservative side (best exemplified by Ronald Reagan's Commission on pornography and obscene materials) there is the allegation (perhaps supposition is better) that exposure to more sexual material in the form of porn leads to more sexual acts, of which rape is simply one.

In what is a case of very strange bedfellows indeed there is also a critique from the feminist side: that as porn objectifies women exposure to it will lead to more rape as those exposed to porn will continue to objectify women.

Both groups are therefore claiming that the more porn there is around then the more rape there will be. The only problem with this idea is that in recent decades the incidence of rape has dramatically declined. As the above chart shows, since the mainstreaming of porn into American lives in the early 70s, marked by the release of "Deep Throat", the incidence of rape per capita has declined by an astonishing 85%. Yes, this does include rape and attempted rape, homosexual and heterosexual. Something, clearly, fairly major has been going on in our society. It's also true that we've seen an explosion in the availability of pornography over this period, so perhaps the two points are linked, the availability of porn and the prevalence of rape?

He makes the case for that proposition in the rest of the piece.

06 July 2009 10:30 AM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of Obama

In his Sunday column, Andrew Sullivan says that Barack Obama is an instinctual and temperamental conservative, that he obeys the Constitution, and that he "likes the system; he just wants to make it work for more people."

Andrew goes on:

The question buzzing around Washington's chattering classes is the following: is the actual historical moment that Obama inherited -- unforeseen in its scope and danger this time last year -- the right moment for these instincts? Are his caution and delegation a liability in a period of a dysfunctional Congress, a near-psychotic Republican party and a potentially lethal global depression?

After a period in which the American executive claimed vast powers and institutionalised torture and abuse of suspected terrorists, is it enough simply to forget and forgive the past and try to glue onto the existing system more checks and balances and decency? Is the conservatism we sought, in other words, adequate to the radicalism that may now be required?

I've been pleased by the Obama Administration's foreign policy insofar as it's been more conservative and prudent than its predecessor. On domestic matters, however, I must disagree with my colleague's assessment. President Obama's agenda is nothing if not ambitious, whether measured by the number of major issues he hopes to address or their unprecedented cost.

As Andrew himself writes later in the same column:

The more you observe, the clearer it is that Obama is working on an eight-year time cycle. He wants deep structural change, not swift superficial grandstanding and conflict. He is taking his time and keeping his cool. The question is whether a volatile electorate in a terrible economic time will be patient enough to wait.

A president engaged in a calculated attempt to make deep structural changes to the nation's public policy may be right or wrong, but he isn't engaged in a conservative project, nor is he an instinctual conservative -- rather, he is an instinctual progressive whose political strategy is cautious and methodical. I happen to think we should resist his agenda. Others support it. Either way, there should be no illusion that he seeks a permanent and substantial increase in the size and scope of the federal government.

I also want to take issue with this:

I learnt long ago not to underestimate Obama's strategic skills and persistence. The drawn-out stimulus spending might actually help to prop up the economy in the coming months -- and it's utopian to believe that any Congress would have borrowed even more money this winter after Bush's $700 billion banking bailout and the vast projected deficits of the future.

The word I'd use for borrowing more money at this point would be dystopian.

06 July 2009 10:00 AM

Ideas 2009

On Class, Politics, and Bootstraps

Ross Douthat writes his latest column on Sarah Palin.

In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal -- that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal -- that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It's been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she's botched an essential democratic role -- the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it's also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.

There is something about this narrative that doesn't sit right with me. This "ordinary citizen" who "takes on the elites" happened to be a sitting governor with a net worth over a million dollars, and her family enjoyed a 6-figure plus income even before she became governor. She rose to the national spotlight largely because the editor of an inside the beltway conservative magazine enjoyed meeting her during his luxury cruise ship trip to Alaska. It is true that she isn't an elite in the sense that George W. Bush and John McCain were -- they came from families with political connections -- but it is hard to see how she embodies the up-by-the-bootstraps narrative more than Barack Obama (or Joe Biden, for that matter).

In Ross's telling, what separates the meritocratic ideal from the democratic ideal is whether you can be a success story without having attended Columbia or Harvard. Okay. Well Joe Biden was born into a middle class family to a father who had a long spell of unemployment, and later found work as a used car salesman. He made a success of himself having graduated from the University of Delaware in Newark and the Syracuse University College of Law. Why isn't he the embodiment of the democratic ideal?

But I actually don't want to concede Ross's premise. Given the history of race in America, the election of a mixed race black man to the presidency -- Columbia and Harvard or not -- ought to have as much a claim to fulfilling the democratic ideal as the nomination of a woman who didn't attend an Ivy League college. We've had our Andrew Jacksons and our Jimmy Carters. Despite the frequency of Ivy League presidents, no one doubts that a candidate from a less elite educational pedigree can be elected. Which candidate caused more Americans to reconsider the kind of person who might be elected to the presidency, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin?

Ross goes on:

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

Didn't Chelsea Clinton go through the tabloid wringer? Wasn't George W. Bush's religion mocked? Wasn't Dan Quayle's political record distorted to better parody him?

Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You'll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You'll endure gibes about your "slutty" looks and your "white trash concupiscence," while a prominent female academic declares that your "greatest hypocrisy" is the "pretense" that you're a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.

I do think that Sarah Palin was in the unique position of running for high office as the mother of a large family, but Hillary Clinton was certainly attacked for being an ambitious careerist insufficiently focused on family, Mike Huckabee has certainly been sneered at for how he talks, and the "slutty looks" and "white trash" jokes, while unfair and in bad taste, hardly seem any more prevalent than the white trash jokes made about Bill Clinton, or the most strident criticism academics leveled at Dick Cheney.

To sum up, it seems clear to me that Sarah Palin has been criticized unfairly at times, sometimes offensively so -- and equally clear to me that every candidate on a presidential ticket in my lifetime has been mocked and misrepresented. Anyone who doubts that others have faced similarly offensive attacks have too short a memory.

Ross concludes:

All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin's gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.

But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don't even think about it.

There is obviously resistance to having a female president -- an unfortunate fact that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have helped to diminish by garnering support for female candidates on either side of the aisle.

As for social class, however, I am unconvinced by Ross's argument, because Sarah Palin is about as imperfect a test case as one could find. In seeking the second highest office in the land, she garnered uncommonly strident pushback not because she failed to check the Ivy League box, but because she couldn't put a check mark next to any of the boxes that qualifies one for the White House.

Ross mentioned Andrew Jackson as a historical example of the democratic ideal rising to the presidency. Prior to becoming president, Jackson fought in the American revolution, heroically commanded forces at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, served as military governor of Florida, was a delegate to the Tennessee constitutional convention, served in the House and in the Senate, and sat on the State Supreme Court of Tennessee. He was also a very successful businessman.

Sarah Palin served a partial term as governor of Alaska, demonstrated policy knowledge on exactly one subject, and excited the base. The message to another candidate of similar qualifications should be "don't even think about" running for the vice-presidency. It isn't about social class. It's about everything else.

06 July 2009 9:30 AM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of California


California's cascading crises prefigure America's future unless Washington reverses the growth of government subservient to organized labor. The state cannot pay its bills, poorly educates its young, and its taxation punishes whatever success that its suffocating regulatory regime does not prevent. -- George Will

There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. -- Edward Abbey

California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. -- Raymond Chandler

Here is a climate that breeds vigor, with just sufficient geniality to prevent the expenditure of most of that vigor in fighting the elements. Here is a climate where a man can work three hundred and sixty-five days in the year without the slightest hint of enervation, and where for three hundred and sixty-five nights he must perforce sleep under blankets. What more can one say? ... Nevertheless I take my medicine by continuing to live in this climate. Also, it is the only medicine I ever take. -- Jack London

California, that advance post of our civilization, with its huge aircraft factories, TV and film studios, automobile way of life... its flavorless cosmopolitanism, its charlatan philosophies and religions, its lack of anything old and well-tried rooted in tradition and character.  -- J.B. Priestley

California is a queer place -- in a way, it has turned its back on the world, and looks into the void Pacific. It is absolutely selfish, very empty, but not false, and at least, not full of false effort. -- DH Lawrence

The attraction and superiority of California are in its days. It has better days and more of them, than any other country. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion will live here in only the most temporary way. -- Joan Didion

The devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant, nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again. -- George F. Kennan (on California's resemblance to heaven)

You don't have to enjoy being miserable anymore; you're in California now. -- Mathew Fisher

Flickr user Eileansiar

06 July 2009 9:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Are "Aptocrats" Running America?

Walter Kirn attacks the SAT and those who make it their lodestar:

I call this group of contemporary strivers -- a group that has largely supplanted the moneyed gentry as our country's governing class -- the "Aptocrats," after the primary trait that we were tested for and which we sought to develop in ourselves as a means of passing those tests. As defined by the institutions responsible for spotting and training America's brightest youth, this "aptitude" is a curious quality. It doesn't reflect the knowledge in your head, let alone the wisdom in your soul, but some quotient of promise and raw mental agility thought to be crucial to academic success and, by extension, success in general. All of this makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more aptitude that a young person displays, the more likely it is that she or he will have a chance to win the golden tickets -- fine diplomas, elite appointments and so on -- that permit you to lead the aptocratic establishment and set the terms by which it operates.
The SAT is a significant factor in admissions to the most selective colleges in America. But the author assumes something more -- that one's score on the SAT determines success not only in college admissions, but in life. Is this true? What would one find upon surveying America's political, business and cultural leaders? Are they the same folks who scored highest on the SATs, or does admission to a highly selective college actually matter less to future success than Mr. Kirn seems to assume?

I suspect that a high score on the SAT isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy of success -- it seems to me that many high scorers would've been fine regardless of what college they attended, and that plenty of highly successful folks didn't care that much about the SAT or the uber-selectivity of their college. Certain fields privilege this sort of pedigree, but they seem to me the exception rather than the rule.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't do a better job recognizing promising aptitudes other than those measured by the SAT, but it isn't as though there's a good test for the knowledge in your head or the wisdom in your soul. Should a reliable way to measure those things arise, I'm sure that metric will be used too.


06 July 2009 8:30 AM

Ideas 2009

On Discourse: Flagging the "Weak Man" Argument

In a post on The Corner, Victor Davis Hanson uses a strange line of reasoning to analyze the impact of Sarah Palin's sudden resignation:

Conventional wisdom suggests that short-term the Palin decision was unwise -- e.g., "quitter," unpredictable, sulking, etc. But what else are her critics really going to say? It's not like a Letterman can trump laughing at her on late-night television as he puns that a Yankees star had sex in a dugout with her 14-year old daughter. Can Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic website go beyond his slurs that she did not deliver her own child? How much more cleverly can N.Y. feminist pundits tsk-tsk her that she's a Wasilla trailer-park retread?
The presumption here seems to be that the American people judge Governor Palin by listening to the least convincing arguments offered by her most virulent critics -- if these critics can continually top themselves, Palin's political fortunes suffer, whereas if they find themselves unable to muster ever more extreme criticism her future presidential chances are a-okay.

Actually, something like the opposite is true. When the public perceives that Gov. Palin is being attacked unfairly, the backlash redounds to her benefit. Hence her tendency to exaggerate insults and draw ever more attention to any criticism that her base will perceive as unfair. On the other hand, when she is criticized for good reason -- for example, when her inability to complete a single term as governor, or even to cogently explain her resignation, is cited as evidence of an erratic nature and an unfitness for the presidency -- the average American voter thinks to him or herself, "Yeah, a small town mayor who hasn't even completed a single term in higher office and explains her resignation by employing an impenetrable basketball analogy probably shouldn't be our next president." This is particularly true when her actions are so inexplicable that the class of people actually being critical of her expands to encompass almost everyone save her most dedicated boosters.

Imagine if in 2005 someone would've written, "Yeah, President Bush has already been likened to Hitler and burned in effigy, so I don't think he's going to get any more unpopular -- how can his critics go any further criticizing him than they already have?" It's almost as if one is led astray by evaluating a politician and his or her prospects through the lens of the weakest arguments against them.

In other "weak man argument" news, Jonah Goldberg associates himself with Mr. Hanson's weak man post, and Jesse Taylor at Pandagon does one better, arguing that the failures of Mr. Goldberg are in fact a refutation of the whole conservative movement. 

06 July 2009 8:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Quote of the Day

The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds. -- Mark Twain

05 July 2009 12:53 PM

Ideas 2009

Ideas from the Archives: "As We May Think"

In the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, Vannevar Bush remarked on the stunning number of innovations lately produced by science -- and the impossibility of keeping up with them:

Of what lasting benefit has been man's use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.

Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers--conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call. Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

The proposed solution?

"A new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge."

04 July 2009 2:28 PM

Ideas 2009

July 4th Photos

Slate's got 'em.

04 July 2009 2:14 PM

Ideas 2009

Quote of the Day

For what avail the plough or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail?
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

03 July 2009 4:38 PM

Ideas 2009

The Fourth of July

This anniversary animates and gladdens and unites all American hearts. On other days of the year we may be party men, indulging in controversies, more or less important to the public good; we may have likes and dislikes, and we may maintain our political differences, often with warm, and sometimes with angry feelings. But to-day we are Americans all; and all nothing but Americans. --DANIEL WEBSTER: Address on July 4, 1851.

03 July 2009 1:51 PM

Ideas 2009


Troy Patterson writes against fireworks. Freddie de Boer pounces.

03 July 2009 11:52 AM

Ideas 2009

"17 Words of Architectural Inspiration"

03 July 2009 11:45 AM

Ideas 2009

Shorter Legislation, Please

Bob Gales writes:

Earlier this year, Congress passed a "Stimulus" Bill. It was 973 pages long. This past Friday, the House passed a "Climate Change" Bill. It was more than 1200 pages long.

This got me wondering: how long, exactly, is our Constitution? How many pages did it take our country's founders to lay out the structure and functions of our Federal Government?

Easy to answer. I found the Constitution online and copied it into a Word document, in Times New Roman 12 point type. So how long is it?

Including the preamble, all signatures and all 27 amendments, it's 20 pages.

Without the signatures and amendments, it's 11 pages.

Think about that. The entire foundation of our country - the complete design for our entire government -- is clearly explained in only 11 pages.

No single Amendment is a full page. Many are only a single sentence.

He proposes a brevity amendment to rein in our long-winded political leaders.

03 July 2009 11:15 AM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of History

H.W. Brands:

Even when they aren't motivated by politics or ideology, historians muddle what really happened. They have to: reality is too unruly to fit between the covers of one (or several) volumes. The historian picks facts the way a mountaineer finds a route across a boulder field: one fact leads to another and then another and yet another, allowing the historian to cross the ground in reasonable time. Important boulders are inevitably bypassed; rocks of lesser significance are included on the route for what they lie between.

Histories, moreover, require plots--the networks of causality that distinguish histories from mere chronicles. But causality, beyond the most trivial kind, is nearly impossible to prove. Most of us like to think we are rational, at least some of the time, and perhaps we are. But often rationality is a polite name for rationalization, and the stories we tell ourselves about our motives are simply that: stories. "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature," Benjamin Franklin observed, "since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do." A. J. P. Taylor put the same point differently. "History is not another name for the past, as many people imply," the British historian explained. "It is the name for stories about the past."

03 July 2009 10:31 AM

Ideas 2009

The GOP's "Rebuilding Year"

If Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty runs for president in 2012 -- and early signs suggest he is beginning to lay that groundwork -- he'll have two clear things to offer: He's an affable Republican who's shown he can win a key state, and he's a fiscal conservative who's ready to exploit any backlash to Barack Obama's big government. In an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival Thursday, Pawlenty presented himself as a bulwark against federal spending. "The country cannot sustain the level of financial commitments that we have now, particularly in the entitlement programs. If we don't change it, we're going to have the government equivalent of the mortgage foreclosure crisis, and it's going to come relatively soon." (Video of interview to be posted on TheAtlantic.com early next week, along with video of other interviews from the Festival.)

Pawlenty, who was on John McCain's short list for vice president, is on every great mention list for 2012 GOP candidates. "I don't know what I'm going to do be doing three years from now," demurs Pawlenty, who announced last month he will not run for a third term next year. He says he wants to travel the country and speak out on issues, but beyond that, "I don't know what my future holds."

Pawlenty acknowledged that the GOP is struggling. The president is popular, the Democrats control the government, and the GOP is the victim of several self-inflicted wounds, namely Ensign and Sanford. "If the Republican party were a sports team and the coach and general manager were sitting here, he or she would say, 'It's a rebuilding year. We gotta get some new draft picks, we gotta make some trades, we gotta do things differently.' "

One question is whether Pawlenty, a married father of two who's a convert to evangelical Christianianty, would be able to claim that his is the party of family values. Pawlenty insists it can, but concedes that Sanford makes this positioning more complex, at least for now. "For Republicans and others, if you say you're about one thing and you do something else, people don't like that. It's a basic fact of life...We're going to have to earn back the support of the American voter, that's for sure."

03 July 2009 10:30 AM

Ideas 2009

Cancelling Our Trip to Mars

Andre Balogh:

Even though no less a figure than Neil Armstrong has been quoted recently as saying that the challenges to land on Mars are not as difficult as the Apollo pioneers faced, a manned mission to Mars seems beyond the reach of affordable technology and political will (not least because of the financial resources that would be required). What was possible in the 1960s to a technically less advanced generation may be out of reach to this and future generations, simply because of the change in attitudes and priorities and the vast increase in the thresholds of risk that are now seen as acceptable. This is one overhead that the Apollo programme did not have to face. Apollo could not be reproduced in the early 21st century, simply because the world we live in is so utterly different from that of only 40 or 50 years ago; sights have lowered as fears have increased. But the Apollo programme happened, men really walked on the Moon and drove their buggies over the lunar landscape and 40 years on we have to recognise the achievement that crowned an undertaking made to that very different world. It remains an inspiration.

03 July 2009 9:30 AM

Ideas 2009

Blogs Then and Now

Ezra Klein on how the blogosphere has changed:

The place has professionalized. Talking Points Memo used to be some unemployed writer's blog. Now it's a significant media institution. Atrios used to be the only guy articulating a certain set of progressive frustrations with the media. Now he's a fellow at Media Matters, a well-funded watchdog organization dedicated to tracking the media in excruciating detail. It used to be that people blogged in their spare time. Now kids graduate from college and apply for jobs as bloggers and, sometimes, internships as assistants on blogs.

The blogosphere isn't thrumming with the joyous, raucous, weirdness of the early years. And that's a shame. But the upside is that it's more careful. It reports and investigates and uncovers. My blog certainly isn't as fun to write as it used to be. But it's also a lot better than it used to be. And it certainly pays more. And so it goes. The blogosphere grew up and it got a job, or, to be more specific, lots of jobs. That made it less fun, but, like a frat house legend who now goes to work every morning, probably more useful to society.


03 July 2009 8:15 AM

Ideas 2009

Deindustrialized Food

The New York Times Magazine profiles urban farmer Will Allen:

...to Allen, local doesn't mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee's northwest side, less than half a mile from the city's largest public-housing project.

And this is why Allen is so fond of his worms. When you're producing a quarter of a million dollars' worth of food in such a small space, soil fertility is everything. Without microbe- and nutrient-rich worm castings (poop, that is), Allen's Growing Power farm couldn't provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites -- through his on-farm retail store, in schools and restaurants, at farmers' markets and in low-cost market baskets delivered to neighborhood pickup points. He couldn't employ scores of people, some from the nearby housing project; continually train farmers in intensive polyculture; or convert millions of pounds of food waste into a version of black gold.

With seeds planted at quadruple density and nearly every inch of space maximized to generate exceptional bounty, Growing Power is an agricultural Mumbai, a supercity of upward-thrusting tendrils and duct-taped infrastructure.

03 July 2009 6:51 AM

Ideas 2009

A Boxer's Legacy: "Alexis Arguello, RIP"

Matt Feeney sums up his career:

In the world of boxing, Kevin Rooney is famous for two things. He was Mike Tyson's trainer during the brighter half of Tyson's career, and, before that, in 1982, he was the victim of a spectacular one-punch knockout at the hands of Alexis Arguello. It was one of those perfect boxing moments, in which a crafty, technically brilliant, and heavy-punching champion sees an opening and exploits it. The punch itself was audible, if not visible. It was, in fact, too perfect. Rooney went down in a way that made the count, for everyone watching, a formality bordering on sarcasm. He was - spiritually, mentally - nowhere in the building. It was worrisome, actually, and Arguello was visibly worried. Instead of thrusting his hands up and prancing around the ring, he simply turned back to his corner for the length of the count and immediately came back to stand among Rooney's cornermen as they worked to rouse their fighter.

I bring this up because Arguello's legacy as a boxer - leaving aside his legacy as an anti-Sandinista rebel and elected mayor of Managua and, this past week, victim of an apparent suicide - tends to overemphasize his first big fight with junior welterweight champ Aaron Pryor. I say overemphasize because even before he went up in weight class to box Pryor, he was a singular fighter. If he had decided to rule as a lightweight for the rest of his career (he had started as a featherweight), his status in the pantheon would have been assured. There were divisions among boxing fans - especially when it came to Hearns and Leonard - but there were no divisions when it came to Alexis Arguello. Everyone loved Arguello. He was handsome. He was a sportsman and gentleman, sincere, modest, reverent toward his sport. And, in the ring, he called to mind, more than any other boxer of the time, what Richard Pryor said about Sugar Ray Robinson: "Sugar Ray? Sugar Ray fight so good it make your dick hard."

03 July 2009 1:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Efficiencies in Journalism

Tim Lee points out that today's journalists have some advantages over their predecessors:

...while it's often true that hard news stories take a "great deal of time to write," the Internet has made the process much easier for many types of news. Most obviously, the laborious process of editing and typesetting stories on strict deadlines is being replaced by much more flexible editing using web-based content management systems. Many primary sources (court decisions, regulatory filings, government data) that once required a physical trip to obtain can now be downloaded off the web. Reporters also have access to a vast new universe of primary sources from user-generated media that simply didn't exist in the past.

It's possible that the absolute number of reporters doing "hard news" in the future will be lower than it was in the past. And certainly the next decade will be a tough one for print journalists. But there's nothing fundamentally broken about the "give away content, sell ads" business model. And we're not heading toward a dystopian future in which no one produces hard news.

I got my first reporting gig at an 80,000 circulation community newspaper in 2002. It is quite difficult to adequately emphasize how much more difficult my job would've been without the Internet. Mapquest alone saved me perhaps 30 minutes a day. Reporting before e-mail? I can't imagine it.

02 July 2009 5:00 PM

Ideas 2009

"Ant Mega-Colony Takes Over The World"

The BBC reports:

Argentine ants living in vast numbers across Europe, the US and Japan belong to the same inter-related colony, and will refuse to fight one another.

The colony may be the largest of its type ever known for any insect species, and could rival humans in the scale of its world domination.

What's more, people are unwittingly helping the mega-colony stick together.

02 July 2009 4:28 PM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of Marriage, Cont.

Caitlin Flanagan:

...two more American families discover a truth as old as marriage: a lasting covenant between a man and a woman can be a vehicle for the nurture and protection of each other, the one reliable shelter in an uncaring world -- or it can be a matchless tool for the infliction of suffering on the people you supposedly love above all others, most of all on your children.

02 July 2009 4:00 PM

Ideas 2009

Saving Summer

Fellow Atlantic blogger Conor Clarke and I have taken our argument about whether summer vacation should be eliminated to Bloggingheads.tv

02 July 2009 3:07 PM

Ideas 2009

A Dark Idea

If the young people on track to become America's ruling class are overwhelmingly using Google search and Gmail -- and they are -- is it the case that the company is going to be in a position to blackmail almost every future presidential candidate, Supreme Court Justice, and Congressperson? I think so! of course, they probably won't, but still.

02 July 2009 2:30 PM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of Picnics

James Michener:

I have never bothered much about whether or not people will remember me when I am dead; but I am sure that as long as my generation lives, in various parts of the world someone will pause now and then to reflect, 'Wasn't that a great picnic we had that day with Michener?'

I have lured my friends into some extraordinary picnics, for I hold with the French that to eat out of doors in congenial surroundings is sensible: in Afghanistan we ate high on a hill outside Kabul and watched as tribesmen moved in to attack the city; at Edfu along the Nile we spread our blankets inside that most serene of Egypt's temples; in Bali we picnicked on the terraces and in Tahiti by the waterfalls; and if tomorrow someone were to suggest that we picnic in a snowstorm, I'd go along, for of this world one never sees enough and to dine in harmony with nature is one of the gentlest and loveliest things we can do. Picnics are the apex of sensible living and the traveler who does not so explore the land through which he travels ought better to stay at home.
That's from his masterpiece on Spain, Iberia.

02 July 2009 1:40 PM

Ideas 2009

Bad to the Bone

Gretchen Reynolds:

Is cycling bad for the bones? A number of intriguing studies published in the past 18 months, including Smathers', have raised that possibility -- an issue that has special resonance now, with this weekend's start of the 2009 Tour de France. Certainly, the toll of broken bones among top-level racers is high. Famously, Lance Armstrong broke his collarbone this year, while Christian Vande Velde, another of America's premier Tour hopes, fractured six bones, including three in his spine, during a crash at the Giro d'Italia in May.

Of course, slamming into the pavement at 40 miles per hour can be expected to break anyone's bones. But Smathers' research suggests that other factors may be at work as well. "If you have low bone mineral mass, you can wind up with a much more serious break from a crash" than if your bones are thicker, he points out.

In his study, the bone density of 32 male, competitive bike riders, most in their late 20s and early 30s, was compared to that of age-matched controls, men who were active but not competitive athletes. Bone scans showed that almost all of the cyclists had significantly less bone density in the spine than the control group. Some of the racers, young men in their 20s, had osteopenia in their spines, a medical condition only one step below full-blown osteoporosis. "To find guys in their twenties with osteopenia was surprising and pretty disturbing," Smathers says.

02 July 2009 12:48 PM

Ideas 2009

Dangerous Ideas

Wendy Kaminer:

Last month, Christopher Handley, a collector of comic books, pled guilty to federal charges of importing and possessing obscene cartoon drawings of children; he faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, for a crime involving neither actual children nor actual child porn.  Last week, a Tennessee prosecutor charged Michael Wayne Campbell with aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, for photo shopping the faces of three girls onto the nude bodies of three adult women.  How might this constitute a crime (outside Iran)?  The prosecutor explained:  "when you have the face of a small child affixed to a nude body of a mature woman, it's going to be the state's position that this is for sexual gratification and that this is simulated sexual activity."  It is also a crime - a federal crime -- to share your sexual fantasies about children in private communications with other adults: Two weeks ago, the 4th circuit court of appeals declined to review the conviction of Dwight Whorley for sharing fantasies about sexual abusing children in purely textual email exchanges between consenting adults.  Like Christopher Handley, Whorley was also convicted of receiving obscene Japanese cartoon drawings of children.  Be careful what you imagine.

02 July 2009 12:27 PM

Ideas 2009

Interview with Jack Hitt, Part II

(Part one of this interview is here.)

Q. Once you've got a great story, by luck or pluck, how do you tell it? Given your successes, the answer will probably be of interest to folks who make their living as media professionals -- I'll certainly take note -- but I imagine just about everyone could benefit from the storyteller's skill set, whether the midcareer professional in a job interview, the best man preparing his wedding reception remarks, or the grandmother who loves nothing more than captivated grandchildren gathered at her feet. What does one do to get better at storytelling?

I have spent a long time looking for short cuts to the answer to this very question. But I haven't found any. So, begin by over-reporting and over-researching everything. If the story involves talking to people, talk to them as long as they will stand to have you around and then talk to them some more. Keep reading. Outline a structure to the piece. Set that aside for now. Realize you don't know enough. Go over all your interviews and research notes again, only this time, make a laundry list of all the great details, large and small, along with the best quotes. Look at that list a lot. Begin the process of re-reading all of your research. Bail out of re-reading all of your research by convincing yourself that what you really need is a long walk to think about "structure." Walk toward your shoes and look at them. Blow off the walk altogether. Descend into a shame spiral. Now, catch up on your HBO tivo'd backlog. After several hours, take another ride on the shame spiral. Lumber over to the desk and go over the interviews again. Make notes of your notes in tiny scrawl so that they can fit on a single sheet of paper. Look at the details. Write down the big ideas that form the superstructure of the piece. Realize you are a pompous git for thinking that ideas have anything to do with it and go back to that list of details. Set it aside. Read some blogs.

The next day, re-read the single sheet of paper with the notes of your notes and wonder, what does this shit even mean? Then outline a structure.  Indulge in a nice long afternoon of intense self-loathing. Start to write according to that outline. Throw that draft away. Write a new outline. Go over your notes. Re-interview a few people. Realize, as if you hadn't realized this a thousand times before (most recently, a few minutes before) that your own big ideas about this story are pathetic, but this list of details and the more decent quotations from the interviews--there's some pretty good stuff in there. Fiddle with writing a few more paragraphs. Microwave your cold cup of coffee for the third time. Go over your notes again. Yell irrationally at your spouse/child/dog/a bare wall. Now, kick the wall. Limp. Review all the transcribed interviews one more time from beginning to end. Paste a large sheet of paper to a wall and, standing up with a fresh cup of coffee in your hand, outline the piece in really big letters. Realize that you've misunderstood the point of the entire story all this time. Scream the word, "fuck" really loud in an empty room. Do this about 40 times. Wipe off the flopsweat. Look at the notes on the single sheet of paper and realize just how brilliant they are, or moronic. Espy the grime on your bike chain--it could use a good cleaning with some WD-40. Start writing the lead paragraph again. Set that aside. Find that single cartoon frame from "Peanuts" that you keep in a box somewhere, the one in which Snoopy is reading a publisher's rejection letter for his novel that goes, "Has it ever occurred to you that you may be the worst writer in the history of the world?" Read it and laugh. Later that day, read it again and not laugh. Feel really, really sad. Go over your notes one more time. Look at earlier drafts and passages and realize that maybe this stuff here is the lead, actually, and then if you follow that outline from seven outlines ago, it just might work. Re-read the last couplet of the first strophe of Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. Look at those riffs in the earlier draft again and realize some are not that bad. Convince yourself that your bike chain really does need another good cleaning and what's that gunk on the inside of the rear fender? Read the latest draft-like substance and think that, with a little work, maybe this won't be too embarrassing. Feel mildly excited that there could actually be something here worth reading eventually. Look at the list of details again. Re-read the edited draft and start to feel better. Or, if not, set it aside and then repeat all of the above instructions, only this time, after each step, masturbate.

Q. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you to recommend some of your favorite stories. Any books, magazine stories, radio segments, or great stories in any other medium that interested readers ought to hunt down?

I used to read by subject matter. Now, if I see or hear certain bylines--Susan Orlean, Michael Pollan, say--then I know I'm fixing a cup of coffee, ordering the nearest kid to leave dad alone for the next fifteen minutes unless her hair is on fire, and kicking back with a magazine (or glowing computer screen--I don't care about that fight anymore). I was going to provide some names here, like Melissa Fay Greene, or Lawrence Weschler, or Scott Carrier or Sarah Vowell, but the problem is that this kind of anthologizing is painful. Sometimes you know one or two of these people, and even if you don't, the whole listing thing seems vaguely butt-kissy and confessional in an icky, governor of South Carolina sort of way.

So, rather than carry on with this list that I thought I said I wasn't going to start, discover the writers you really like and then read them. It doesn't really matter what they're writing about. And if there's time enough at the end of the day, check out the early Esquire pieces by Terry Southern--they're just brilliant--and never forget to dip into that S. J. Perelman complete works you have on the shelf there. How he continues to hold up is one of the more pleasant, ongoing mysteries.

Jack Hitt is one of America's best storytellers. His credits include Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, This American Life and Rolling Stone. You can buy his most recent book here.

02 July 2009 11:27 AM

Ideas 2009

The Police, Unplugged

Phoenix Business Journal:

Taser International Inc. has released a new shotgun-ready projectile similar to its other stun-gun products, but with twice the range and the first with wireless capabilities.

Taser (Nasdaq:TASR) released the eXtended Range Electronic Projectile on Tuesday, along with a customized shotgun from O.F. Mossberg & Sons Inc. capable of firing the device.

The wireless device has the same effect as Taser's other products, but can be fired from up to 100 feet away. It also can be used by other 12-gauge, smooth-bore shotguns, although the Taser-produced shotgun is designed only for the less-lethal projectiles.

Any guesses as to how long it takes for this to make it on YouTube?

02 July 2009 10:31 AM

Ideas 2009

"Worst Idea Ever"

Jack Shafer calls it "a bad, bad idea... from the Washington Post Company." Chris Hayes says, "If you asked me to come up w story that encapsulates everything wrong with Washington, couldn't top this."

What's the story?

For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post is offering lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, non-confrontational access to "those powerful few" -- Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper's own reporters and editors.

The astonishing offer is detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he feels it's a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its "health care reporting and editorial staff."

The offer -- which essentially turns a news organization into a facilitator for private lobbyist-official encounters -- is a new sign of the lengths to which news organizations will go to find revenue at a time when most newspapers are struggling for survival.

This is a bad idea. The Washington Post Company is behaving far better when it subsidizes its reporting by preparing upper middle class kids to game the SAT. But I can't say I'm surprised. America can have a press that assiduously avoids these ethical mine fields, but only if we pay for it. The information gathered by newspapers, the skill set of reporters, and platforms of societal influence have value. If citizens aren't willing to pay for it, owners and workers in media are going to find some other way to be compensated, regrettable and unwise though some of their decisions may be.  

02 July 2009 10:26 AM

Ideas 2009

How Famous Are You?

Hugh Hewitt on "the measure of celebrity":

"LKM" stands for Larry King Minutes --the number of broadcast minutes that Larry King would devote to your death if it occurred today.  Michael Jackson has set a very high standard, swamping all other coverage from Larry's show and triggering hours and hours of extra programming from Larry.

02 July 2009 9:15 AM

Ideas 2009

Sex Still Sells

A New York Times Style section piece on the vampire craze:

What began with the Twilight Saga, the luridly romantic young-adult series by Stephenie Meyer, followed by "Twilight," the movie, has become a pandemic of unholy proportions.

Is it a wonder?

Rarely have monsters looked so sultry -- or so camera-ready. No small part of this latest vampire mania seems to stem from the ethereal cool and youthful sexiness with which the demons are portrayed. Bela Lugosi they are not.

"The vampire is the new James Dean," said Julie Plec, the writer and executive producer of "The Vampire Diaries," a forthcoming series on the CW network based on the popular L. J. Smith novels about high school femmes and hommes fatales. "There is something so still and sexy about these young erotic predators," she said.

02 July 2009 8:30 AM

Ideas 2009

Are Banks Obsolete?

Ray Fisman reports on peer-to-peer lending:

...an increasing number of borrowers are turning to "peer to peer" networks that connect individual borrowers directly to lenders, cutting out the banking middleman. These networks have now financed nearly a half a billion dollars in lending. This is still a long way from the $931 billion in loans and leases that Bank of America had on its balance sheet in 2008, but it's growing rapidly. Peer-to-peer lenders describe themselves as a solution to many of the banking sector's current weaknesses, from the lack of small-business finance to the evils of payday lending (which now serves as financing of last resort for those shut out of formal banking altogether).

Economists have been studying these peer-to-peer lending programs from the beginning, and their findings are now starting to show up on the Web. They've discovered that while the sites may be useful for some high-risk borrowers--those who stood little chance of attracting loans from traditional banking institutions--these credit markets also result in loan decisions tainted by human frailty and bias. It seems that the middleman--with his credit models and balance-sheet analysis for evaluating prospective borrowers--may provide some value after all.

Let's consider that a "no." (Note: the answer to any question posed in the headline or subhead of a magazine story is almost always no.)

02 July 2009 7:40 AM

Ideas 2009

What Does It Mean to Be a Nun?

The New York Times reports:

In the last four decades since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many American nuns stopped wearing religious habits, left convents to live independently and went into new lines of work: academia and other professions, social and political advocacy and grass-roots organizations that serve the poor or promote spirituality. A few nuns have also been active in organizations that advocate changes in the church like ordaining women and married men as priests.

Some sisters surmise that the Vatican and even some American bishops are trying to shift them back into living in convents, wearing habits or at least identifiable religious garb, ordering their schedules around daily prayers and working primarily in Roman Catholic institutions, like schools and hospitals.

"They think of us as an ecclesiastical work force," said Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California. "Whereas we are religious, we're living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity. So our vision of our lives, and their vision of us as a work force, are just not on the same planet."
Rod Dreher sides with Rome: "Fidelity and orthodoxy are beautiful things."

02 July 2009 6:45 AM

Ideas 2009

Ideas Extravaganza!

Now that the Aspen Ideas Festival is going full speed ahead, there's even more great content than usual at this Web site. Andrew Sullivan explains what attracted him to the blogging medium. Google's chairman gives his take on the financial crisis. The Washington Post's Katherine Weymouth explains how the newspaper is adjusting to the digital age. Sandra Day O'Connor ponders the growing number of female convicts. And there's also all the stories from the current issue of the magazine.

01 July 2009 5:43 PM

Ideas 2009

Instantly Permanent

Alan Jacobs on the perils of our information age:

My own view, as someone who has written negative reviews and been on the receiving end of them, is that if you want to put your thoughts before the public and be paid for it, you simply have to accept, as part of the deal, that some people won't like your writing. When your response to a negative review is to shout for all the world to hear that the reviewer is an "idiot," or, worse yet, you tell the reviewer directly that "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make" -- well, you simply give the impression that you are full to overflowing with preening self-regard.

Of course it hurts to have a book you've slaved over slammed or dismissed. And in those cases there's nothing wrong with letting off steam with your family or friends. I think "dismissed" is probably worse than "slammed": among the responses to my books, the one that most bothered me was Adam Gopnik's cursory kiss-off in The New Yorker of my biography of C. S. Lewis, and I may have made the odd unkind comment about Gopnik over pints with my buddies. However, I can honestly say that I do not hate Adam Gopnik and do not want to see his career destroyed. And more important, I didn't share my every uncharitable thought with the whole world. Some websites may be disappearing, but this much is for sure: if you've said anything online that really, really embarrasses you, it'll be available forever.

01 July 2009 4:50 PM

Ideas 2009

The Weak Man Argument

Julian Sanchez:

Via erstwhile debate compatriot turned awesome academic Steve Maloney, I discover the "weak man" argument, which actually seems far more prevalent than the better-known straw man. Making a straw-man argument, of course, involves misrepresenting a position opposed to your own so that you can beat up on it easily. The Internet makes it somewhat harder to do this credibly because people expect that you actually link to an instance of the argument you're attributing to your opponents. With a "weak man," you don't actually fabricate a position, but rather pick the weakest of the arguments actually offered up by people on the other side and treat it as the best or only one they have.
A close cousin is the evil critic argument, where you deflect criticism from yourself by drawing attention to the critic who treats you most unfairly. (See electoral strategy, Palin, Sarah.)


01 July 2009 4:24 PM

Ideas 2009

Vending Machines in Everything

Ezra Klein writes:

Arguably, I shouldn't be expecting too much culinary authenticity from a pizza vending machine. But this vending machine is in Italy. My understanding is that putting, say, pineapple on a pizza in Italy is punishable by death, or at least by loud exclamations accompanied by energetic hand movements. Which is, of course, how it should be.

But back to the vending machine. "The machine does not just slip a frozen pizza into a microwave," reports the New York Times. "It actually whips up flour, water, tomato sauce and fresh ingredients to produce a piping hot pizza in about three minutes." Impressive! But...how?

01 July 2009 2:16 PM

Ideas 2009

Climate Change Ideas

I always got a kick out of this old post on climate change by my friend Alex Schmidt -- but her idea isn't so different from some of the global warming reversal schemes that The Atlantic's Graeme Wood writes about so entertainingly in the current issue.

Within a few years we could cool the Earth to temperatures not regularly seen since James Watt's steam engine belched its first smoky plume in the late 18th century. And we could do it cheaply: $100 billion could reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and some experts suspect that a hundredth of that sum could suffice. To stop global warming the old-fashioned way, by cutting carbon emissions, would cost on the order of $1 trillion yearly.
Of course, there's a catch.

01 July 2009 1:06 PM

Ideas 2009

Ideas in Politics

Back in 2005 Jon Chait made a case against new ideas in politics:

Ideas--the idea of ideas, anyway--have always held a lofty place in our political culture. But perhaps never before have they been imbued with such power as at this particular moment. Since last November, conservatives have been braying about their victory in the war of ideas, often with a whiff of Marxian assurance. "Conservatism is the ideology of the future," gloated Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. "Republicans are driving the course of history with new solutions." A GOP operative, even while conceding President Bush's recent difficulties, noted that things would be worse but for the fact that "the Democrats are really brain dead and have nothing positive to put on the table."

Oddly enough, it's not just conservatives who say this. Liberals, too, widely attribute their minority party status to a lack of new ideas. "Feeling outmatched in the war of ideas," The New York Times noted last month, "liberal groups have spent years studying conservative foundations the way Pepsi studies Coke, searching for trade secrets." Or, as Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris wrote last December, "[Y]es, there is plenty of blame to go around, from an admirable but not widely loved presidential candidate to his stunningly ineffective strategists. But at this point, it requires a willful act of self-deception not to see the deeper problem: conservatives have won the war of ideas." Since the 2004 elections, liberals have earnestly set about writing manifestos, establishing new think-tanks, and generally endeavoring to catch up with a conservative idea machine.

The notion that conservatives are winning politically because they are winning intellectually has a certain appeal, particularly for those in the political idea business. And the aspiration of liberals to sharpen their thinking is perfectly worthy. As analysis, though, it's all deeply misguided. The current ubiquity of such thinking owes itself to the fact that liberals and conservatives have a shared interest in promoting it. (Liberals in the spirit of exhortation and internal reform, conservatives in the spirit of self-congratulation.) But, more than that, it reflects a na?fvet6 about the power of new ideas, one that is deeply rooted in long-standing misconceptions of how our politics operate.

Read the rest here.

01 July 2009 11:55 AM

Ideas 2009

"Worst Idea Ever"

This may be the winner:


01 July 2009 11:15 AM

Ideas 2009

East Meets West

Johann Hari writes on "the sordid history of the sexually exotic east."

In the 16th century, Portuguese seamen began leaving a Christian fundamentalist Europe to sail the seas in search of resources and spices to pillage. But as soon as they arrived in Goa, Malacca, Sumatra, and Japan, they also discovered an alternative sexual world where all their repressed longing could roam free. "On one side," Bernstein writes, "was Christian monogamy in which sex was shrouded in religious meaning and prohibition, and regarded as sinful when enjoyed out of marriage. On the other side was an Eastern culture wherein sex was strictly organized, especially when it came to women, but where it was disassociated from both sin and love."

Where the West tied sex to the marriage bed and felt ashamed when it broke free, the East unleashed its libido in the harem, the brothel, and a smorgasbord of sexual options. "In the East," as Bernstein puts it in gushing terms, "it was taken for granted there would always be a certain reserve of women, often supreme models of beauty, cultivation and charm, whose assigned role in life was to provide sexual pleasure for men." The Asian babe as dream-object was born. Rudyard Kipling wrote one of the first rhapsodies to her: "I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!/ On the road to Mandalay."

Since the 1970s--when Edward Said wrote his classic Orientalism, exposing the myriad ways in which the West had patronized and stereotyped the East--such fawning has been dismissed as exploitative, racist distortion. Western merchants depicted the East as a den of sin and depravity, according to Said, in order to justify colonizing the land and taking whatever else suited them, from spices to resources to women. But Bernstein argues that "the eroticized vision of the East carries a hard kernel of truth, which the followers of Said are loath to acknowledge."

01 July 2009 10:15 AM


Web Next

Farhad Manjoo says the newest release of Firefox is so excellent it may change the Internet itself:

The best thing about the new Firefox is that it gives us a peek at the Internet of tomorrow. Since 2007, the World Wide Web Consortium, the international standards body that sets common technical definitions for the Web, has been working on HTML 5, an update to the coding language that defines every page you visit online. Although the consortium has yet to publish its final specifications for the new standard, many browser companies have been incorporating features of the language in their latest releases. Firefox 3.5 offers the best implementation of the standard--and because it's the second-most-popular Web browser in the world, the new release is sure to prompt Web designers to create pages tailored to the Web's new language. In other words, Firefox isn't just an upgrade for your computer; it could well prompt a re-engineering of the Web itself.

The best way to appreciate what HTML 5 can do is to install the new Firefox and run the collection of demos put together by Paul Rouget, Mozilla's European evangelist and a Web developer extraordinaire. Rouget's pages show off one particular aspect of the new language--its facility with video, which has always been a second-class citizen on the Web. Today, most of the clips you encounter online require plug-ins that you have to install alongside your browser; when you go to YouTube, for instance, your browser calls on Adobe Flash, the platform that actually knows how to play the clip.

HTML 5 will alter this process. Firefox 3.5 allows designers to add videos that require no third-party plug-ins; the clips, which can be coded in the open-standard Ogg format, are processed by the browser itself. This allows videos to become just as interactive as every other part of a page: You can rotate a video while it's playing, have a clip show up in a circular frame rather than a square one, or have a video respond to data pulled in from other parts of the Web.

01 July 2009 9:25 AM


Worth the Debt?

The New York Times hosts a symposium about whether a master's degree is a good buy. 

01 July 2009 8:30 AM

Ideas 2009

Interview with Jack Hitt, Part I

Jack Hitt is one of America's best storytellers. His credits include Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, This American Life and Rolling Stone. You can buy his most recent book here.

Q. A famous Joan Didion line is that "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." That idea appeals to me. I'm a radio listener who lusts after episodes of This American Life, a magazine reader who loves nothing more than a 15 page feature story by Michael Lewis, and a television viewer drawn in by ongoing sagas like those portrayed on Lost or The Wire. The examples I've cited attest to the appeal storytelling retains in our culture.

At the same time, long form narrative non-fiction seems less present than it once was, and among the magazine writers I know quite a few fear it's disappearing, whether due to financial constraints or a shortening of the American attention span. As one of the best in the business when it comes to storytelling in magazines and on the radio, what's your take on the present and future of nonfiction storytelling in America?

You'd think that for as long as we have heard that our stories are disappearing, our attention spans shrinking, our children not reading and our teens skanking out at rainbow parties that by now we'd just be a nation of spastic bonobos. Long-form stories? I've never understood what "long form" stories are. Stories either hold your attention until you get to the end or they don't. If they don't, then usually an editor or someone with the remote control brutally reduces them to short-form stories.

I hear a lot about how television destroyed our attention spans 25 years ago with MTV and paved the way for the micro-information age of the internet. But that same lights and wires in a box has now given us the Wire, the Sopranos, the Shield, Deadwood, and Mad Men. If Charles Dickens were alive today, wouldn't he be collaborating with Richard Price or Barry Levinson? Half the plots on TV today owe a full frame screen credit to Jane Austen. This is not the fin de si├Ęcle of the long form; this is its siglo del oro.

As to the internet, a word that now means far less than what it is, doesn't it all depend on where you look?

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01 July 2009 7:30 AM

Ideas 2009

The Cosmic Timekeeper

In one of the most enjoyable blog posts I've read all year, Reihan Salam presents a new way to think about life.

01 July 2009 2:11 AM

Business / Economics

How Big Business Manipulates the Law

30 June 2009 4:20 PM

Ideas 2009

"A Wise Latina Woman..."

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

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

Read More

30 June 2009 4:07 PM

Ideas 2009

Those Tweeting Jurors

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

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

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

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


30 June 2009 2:28 PM

Energy / Environment

The Nuclear Option

David Frum visits a nuclear reprocessing facility in France:

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

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

30 June 2009 2:02 PM

Business / Economics

When Everyone Is Big Business Friendly

David Brooks writes:

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

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

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

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

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

30 June 2009 12:02 PM

Ideas 2009

On Discourse: The Local Newspaper

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

-- Kevin Roderick, LA Observed

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

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

30 June 2009 11:54 AM

Ideas 2009

Love and Marriage


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

30 June 2009 11:15 AM

Ideas 2009

Interview with James Poulos, Part V

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

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

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


30 June 2009 11:00 AM

Ideas 2009

The Idea of Fatherhood

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

Stuart W. Jones

30 June 2009 10:00 AM

Ideas 2009

The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

It's here. Great idea!

30 June 2009 9:00 AM

Ideas 2009

On Discourse: Turning People Off

Nick Kristoff:

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


30 June 2009 8:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Kinds of Television

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

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

GROUP B: All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Three's Company, Family Ties, I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, The Flintstones, Roseanne.
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Workingmen 2

29 June 2009 4:12 PM

Business / Economics

Recession Strikes -- Men Hit Hardest?

The Week in Review:

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

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

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

Tinou Bao

29 June 2009 3:08 PM

Ideas 2009

The Problem of Penalties

Julian Sanchez thinks burqa bans are a bad idea:

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

29 June 2009 2:18 PM

Business / Economics

Free Falling

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

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

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

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

29 June 2009 1:37 PM


Facebook vs. Google

Wired reports:

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

29 June 2009 1:22 PM

Ideas 2009

Russia, Cont.

Daniel Larison disagrees with James Poulos on Russia.

29 June 2009 12:41 PM

Ideas 2009

"Worst Idea Ever"

-- Building your hive in Manhattan.

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

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

-- Swine flu parties.

29 June 2009 11:17 AM

Energy / Environment

Video of the Day: Eco Friendlier Building

29 June 2009 10:48 AM

Ideas 2009

How to Lose Friends and Influence No One

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

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

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

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

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

MARY: Yes, I do.

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

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

The caller continued (emphasis added):

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

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

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

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

29 June 2009 10:42 AM

Business / Economics

The Idea of Scarcity

The Washington Post:

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

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

29 June 2009 10:11 AM

Ideas 2009

Interview with James Poulos, Part IV

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

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

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


29 June 2009 9:38 AM

Health Care

Risk Averse

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

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

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

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

29 June 2009 9:00 AM

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

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

Another Vinyl Village

29 June 2009 6:15 AM

Ideas 2009

Defining Prefab-cons

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

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

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

Behold the prefab con:


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

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

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

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

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


29 June 2009 1:29 AM

Ideas 2009

Escape Ideas

Wired names the 10 best prison breaks of all time.

Jon's pics

28 June 2009 12:25 PM

Ideas 2009


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

27 June 2009 2:46 PM

Ideas 2009

Was Primitive Warfare Altruistic?

27 June 2009 11:28 AM

Ideas 2009

Count Like A Sumerian

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

26 June 2009 4:32 PM

Ideas 2009

Man Seeking (Wing) Woman

A Craig's List ad:

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

You must be classy and dress well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 June 2009 4:08 PM

Ideas 2009

"Worst Idea Ever"


-- Painting your elephants.

-- Abbreviating "Methodist".

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

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

-- Charts that make no sense.

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