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Brainiac

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Joshua Rothman
September 11, 2011

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Memo to cities: build or die What would you rather own--a 600-square-foot apartment in Beacon Hill, or a 2,500-square-foot house, with pool, in Phoenix? As housing prices in America’s biggest cities rise, people around the country are opting to move elsewhere. In his new book, “The Gated City,” published this month as a Kindle Single, Ryan Avent, the economics correspondent for The Economist, argues that this migration away from big cities has real costs for the country as a whole. Big, dense cities are home to America’s most innovative and productive jobs--and now, slowly but surely, “Americans are moving away from the places where the jobs of tomorrow are being created.”

Cities, Avent shows, are hotbeds of innovation largely because of their extreme density. When lots of people live and work on top of one another, all sorts of benefits emerge. Businesses grow more specialized, competition intensifies, and networks spring up; a more fluid labor market encourages entrepreneurship and risk-taking. That’s why motivated and talented people want to move to big, dense cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston: They’re where the best, most exciting jobs are, whether you want to work in a biotech lab or open a hip restaurant.

Over the last few decades, though, moving to the big city has gotten harder. The main obstacle is the price of housing. The outrageous cost of living in America’s big cities, Avent argues, means that supply isn’t keeping up with demand. There’s a shortage of new homes--a shortage that exists, he argues, mainly because current residents, aiming to preserve their quality of life, actively oppose new-home construction. Americans want to participate in dynamic, urban economies. And yet, in 2005, San Francisco, a hotbed of innovation and a magnet for talented strivers, issued permits for only 15,000 new houses. Phoenix, which is less dense and, therefore, less productive, issued permits for 62,000.

We are reining in our cities, Avent writes, “because we worry that urban growth will be unpleasant.” Yet cities are work zones, not theme parks; it’s good for them to be crowded, bustling, and overrun by newcomers. If the American economy is going to grow, he concludes, developers and residents need to learn to work together. Motivated people and innovative jobs need to be brought together, not kept apart.

Better reading through dance Reading is the foundational educational skill--and yet students today don’t like to read. Writing in Harvard Magazine, poetry critic Helen Vendler suggests that we’re teaching reading the wrong way. Nowadays, students are taught to be “proficient” readers, and learning happens through worksheets and comprehension tests. Instead, Vendler writes, students should be taught to be enthusiastic readers--people who love reading, and who engage with the written word imaginatively, emotionally, and socially.

How, exactly, do you teach kids to love reading? Vendler proposes an elementary school curriculum (for, she admits, a “utopian world”) designed entirely around enjoyment. The school day is divided up into periods of around 20 minutes; each period emphasizes a different, and differently fun, aspect of reading. And reading happens in all sorts of contexts--inside and outside, alone and in groups. As part of her 14-point curriculum, students might:

2. be read to from poems and stories beyond their own current ability to read;

4. march or dance to counting rhymes, poems, or music, “reading” rhythms and sentences with their bodies;

9. expand their vocabulary to specialized registers through walks where they would learn the names of trees, plants, flowers, and fruits;

11. learn conjoined prefixes, suffixes, and roots as they learn new words;

13. compose words to be sung to tunes they already know.

It’s an idyllic, idealistic vision of learning--and yet, if you enjoy reading, you may recognize parts of it from your own upbringing. Education today puts too much emphasis on measurable skills, Vendler concludes, and not enough on enjoyment. By contrast, if you can teach students to enjoy reading, the skills will follow.

How many heartbeats make a life? Sea turtles can live for hundreds of years; hummingbirds live for three or four; humans are somewhere in the middle. Writing at the Cosmic Variance blog, physicist Sean Carroll explains that all these lifespans are linked. “There exist simple scaling laws relating animal metabolism to body mass,” he writes. “Larger animals live longer; but they also metabolize slower, as manifested in slower heart rates. These effects cancel out, so that animals from shrews to blue whales have lifespans with just about equal number of heartbeats--about one and a half billion.”

Geoffrey West, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute, helped establish that number. Human beings, he’s pointed out, now live longer than we should, given our size. Medicine, nutrition, and hygiene have let us add to our total heartbeat allotment.

Joshua Rothman is a doctoral candidate in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.