In early January I blogged about how the Swedish indie band Shout Out Louds was making records out of ice to promote its new single, "Blue Ice." Those records were cool but they melted, which puts them at a disadvantage to this latest LP creation, which is both innovative and durable: a record etched into hardwood.
Amanda Ghassaei, a physics major and committed audiophile, explains how she did it in a recent post on the DIY-website Instructables. Her step-by-step article is pretty technical, but if you let the talk of sine wave tests and amplitude levels wash over you, you're left with a fine appreciation of all the considerations that go into turning grooves into music.
Ghassei took the raw audio data from a few songs (including Sunday Morning by Velvet Underground) and converted it into vector files, which provided instructions for a laser engraver mounted above 13" wide plates of maple. In different tests she played with the speed, power, and frequency of the laser to produce records of varying sound qualities. She also explains that she couldn't control the depth of the grooves that the laser made, so the laser cuts had to record the audio information laterally rather than vertically in the grooves (a stereo record is cut both vertically and laterally, which allows for two channels of audio).
The end result is compelling if not the clearest music you've ever heard. The wooden records generate a lot of excess noise, such that they recreate the experience of listening to music with your head hanging out of the window of a car doing seventy on the highway. (In a battle of pure sound quality, the pristine ice record wins hands down.) But the process by which the wooden records are made makes up for any performance shortcomings. As you watch this clip of a laser cutting Radiohead's phantasmagoric single Idioteque into a wooden record, it's almost as if the music is creating the record rather than the other way around-- which, in a sense, it is.
For more tree music, check out this Brainiac post from November, about a turntable that derives music from the concentric rings of a tree trunk.
Via Design Taxi.
There’s nothing more boring or conventional than a textbook, but two hundred years ago they were as cutting-edge as a MOOC, and augured a revolution in the way we think about knowledge.
“A textbook is something anyone can read no matter who they are or where they’re from. It allows education to occur on a global, universal scale,” says Hansun Hsiung, a fourth-year graduate student at Harvard University who studies the rise and spread of textbooks in late-18th century Europe and Japan.
Before textbooks, learning typically happened through the dialogic method—exchanges between students and professors. But beginning in the 18th-century, scholars began redacting blocks of information into standardized books that laid out content in logical, easily digestible fashion. The goal of the textbook, according to one 18th-century French pedagogue, was to “make all truths universally familiar, and spare [ourselves] any useless effort in learning.”
The modern day textbook wars have taught us, of course, that one man’s universal truth can be another man’s heresy. Hsiung explains that these types of concerns were present with textbooks from the start. 18th-century Europeans worried about who had the authority to write textbooks and, as textbooks took hold, there was a backlash against the idea that a real education could take place through a book. In this way, textbooks spawned similar concerns to the ones we grapple with around MOOCs— that it’s dangerous to have a single, massively popular online course dominate the way a particular subject is taught, and that there’s only so much learning that can take place through a computer.
Other concerns were more particular to the geopolitical context in which textbooks developed. As the European textbook market grew increasingly competitive, publishers started selling their books in the colonies and in Japan. But after awhile they began to wonder whether there was more to exporting knowledge than shipping books.
“In the second half of the 19th-century people are much more concerned about how to tailor knowledge to local circumstances,” says Hsiung. “They get concerned about the fact that perhaps textbooks being used by British children aren’t suitable for children in Calcutta.”
Today debates about textbooks are alive and well, but the central role textbooks perform in American education would seem to be secure. And while students may malign their hefty textbooks as dull and boring, such criticisms are a sign that textbooks have in fact accomplished what their inventors hoped they would: Here is all the important knowledge in the world, whether you like it or not.
Over at McSweeney's, writer Jason Edward Harrington has alighted on a fun conceit: What if literary characters served as each other's Couchsurfing references? Here, for instance, is Sal Paradise from "On the Road" offering a "positive" recommendation for his road trip companion Dean Moriarty: "I hosted Dean for a week at my aunt’s place in Jersey. After that we headed west, with Dean balling that jack like no tomorrow (I had total trust in him behind the wheel)."
The funniest parts are where Harrington merges the characters' literary styles with the casual hipster-speak stereotypical to Couchsurfing correspondence. Here's Huck Finn giving a "neutral" recommendation for his rapscallion pal Tom Sawyer:
One time we went tubin’ on the Nam Song in Laos (which I reckon’s a mighty cool place to surf on account of tain’t too touristy yet, just keep that ol’ cash ‘n credit card in your money belt). But the best times we had were on that old Mississippi.
And Lucy from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" warning Couchsurfers off Raoul Duke:
Raoul contacted me claiming he was a Doctor of Journalism coming to Las Vegas to find the American Dream. His profile said he was “Up for anything: coffee, drink, friendship, hook-up; willing to share: bed, couch, uppers, downers, screamers, laughers, as long as you’re not a cop.”
The warning bells should have gone off right there, but for some reason I agreed to meet him for a drink.
You can read more of Harrington's amusing sendup here.
H/T The Millions.
Tolstoy famously opened "Anna Karenina" with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It seems, however, that the same may not be true for unhappy marriages.
Psychologist Joanni Sailor at Cameron University in Oklahoma interviewed eight people who’d fallen out of love with their spouses and, in a study published this month in the online journal The Qualitative Report, found consistent pattern of devolution across the relationships. The subjects repeatedly made comments pertaining to a loss of trust, of intimacy, and of feeling loved, and they tended to echo each other in the way they talked about the emotional pain and the negative sense of self they felt during the waning years of their marriages. And while most of the marriages declined gradually, the respondents consistently identified what Sailor refers to as a “pivotal moment of knowing,” when suddenly it became clear that there was no love left in their marriages.
"And I think at that moment it was like a stick just snapped,” one person said. It was over. It was flat done.”
Table 1, which begins on page 8 of the paper, collects respondents' comments. Some of these are pasted below:
A rose by another name may smell as sweet, but what about a rose made out of the dismembered sex organs of a clam? That, in a way, is the ontological riddle posed by the bizarre sculptures created by German artist Heide Hatry, who recreates flowers out of what one gallery release refers to as the "grotesque, immaculately manicured flesh debris of deceased animals." Hatry calls her series "Not a Rose," and it goes on display this week at Stux Gallery in New York. In addition to flowers made from shellfish, she's sculpted a rose-like design using pigs' ears and a pink tropical bloom out of the vocal cords of a hen. Hatry explains that her work is intended as a commentary on the ethics of meat consumption but it's arresting even in the absence of a controlling idea: Stare long enough at her lush, thick-petaled creations and you'll start to think these flowers were meant to look this way all along.
Images courtesy of Stux Gallery New York.
An eccentric, 75-year-old polymath named Ted Nelson thinks he knows who created Bitcoin, and he explains his theory in a highly entertaining video released on YouTube earlier this week. Bitcoin was released to the world in 2008 by a computer programmer operating under the pseudonym "Satoshi Nakamoto." The digital currency has flourished in the years since, prompting even some mainstream speculation that it could be the monetary unit of the future. For his part, Nakamoto has proven to be a peerless cryptographer and also a master of disguise: Despite an intense international hunt, no one can figure out who he is.
But Ted Nelson thinks he knows. Nelson, who's most famous for coining the term "hypertext" in the 1960s, explains in this apparently self-shot amateur video that Satoshi Nakamoto is in fact Shinichi Mochizuki. Mochizuki, you may recall from an article in Ideas last November, is the Japanese mathematician who last summer announced that he'd proven the ABC conjecture--one of the most impossibly difficult problems in mathematics.
Nelson explains that he came to realize Mochizuki is Nakamoto because the two are both brilliant and, more importantly, because they share a work style. Mochizuki announced his potential proof by posting on his website more than 500 pages of dense mathematics that no one in the world could understand- and then he went to ground, declining all requests to give interviews or lectures about his work. The broad similarities between the way Mochizuki announced his ABC proof and the way Nakamoto unveiled Bitcoin led Nelson to conclude that the two geniuses are the same person.
There are complications with Nelson's theory, of course. For one, Mochizuki is not a programmer or a cryptographer. For two, he is by all accounts single-mindedly devoted to pure mathematics, so it would seem unlikely he'd take so much time away from his research for this kind of side project. But regardless, Nelson's video exposition is wonderful viewing, especially when he acts out a conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
I say Satoshi Nakamoto was and is Shinichi Mochizuki…I cannot say Q.E.D to that because I have not proven it, but I have presented an existence proof that there exists a very similar man with a very similar brilliance and a very similar style of Lone Ranger delivery of big, big stuff who has recently given the world another extraordinary universe they’re not ready to understand and who has moved on like Satoshi to his next task.
Public housing has always been a politically charged issue. That’s true in Boston today and, according to a pair of historians, it was true in late-18th century Boston as well, where residents of the burgeoning city had to figure out what to do with a rapidly expanding population of poor people.
One of their chief tools was the almshouse. In a new paper published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Ruth Wallis Herndon and Amilcar Challú of Bowling Green University explain that from 1795-1801, nearly five percent of Boston’s population took shelter for at least a short time in the Boston Almshouse, which was located directly adjacent to the Common. Many almshouse residents came from the densely populated North End; others were immigrants who’d lived in the commercial and shipping neighborhoods in the center of the city.
The almshouse was part public charity and part ghetto. Boston maintained a twelve-member board of overseers of the poor that was responsible for consigning the city’s most indigent residents to the almhouse (though many other poor residents took refuge there voluntarily, especially during the winter). However, when city magistrates encountered people “whose characters are suspicious, whose morals are bad, who have no settled reputable means for a livelihood,” they skipped the almshouse and instead relocated these unwanted citizens back to their hometowns using a legal mechanism known as “warning out.”
Begin forced from the city may have actually been preferable to living in the almshouse, which had a 20 percent mortality rate, most likely from infectious diseases. And in 1801 the Boston elite decided that the almshouse had become a blight, and so they moved it from the Common to the distant West End, which was still mostly rural at the time. The new almshouse had twice the capacity of the old one—but more importantly, it helped to sanitize the core of the prospering city.
Image of the Boston Almshouse on Leverett Street in the West End, 1828, via Wikimedia Commons.
The too-smart city: Courtney Humphries on philosophical debates around the emerging ‘smart city.’ Smart city technology is anything that takes the chaotic jumble of activity in a city and tries to monitor it for the purposes of creating a more efficient, cleaner, safer version of urban living. Examples include sensors that direct drivers to open parking spots and utility meters that beam water and electricity consumption stats to a central hub. There is a lot of promise in these types of initiatives, but they also raise a number of important issues that, experts say, aren’t being discussed enough.
Humans: We will survive!: Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9.com, looks at five reasons why the human race is in good shape to survive the next wave of mass extinctions. These include our large population, our adaptability to different environments, and our relatively indiscriminate palates (we can eat slime and bugs if need be).
Garden hermit needed. Apply within.: Alice Gregory interviews Gordon Campbell, author of the new book “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome.” In 18th-century England it was common practice for wealthy landowners to adorn their gardens with a hermit— a real live person paid to live in solitude and squalor in a small dwelling (a hermitage) on the garden grounds. Campbell explains that the hermits, who were not allowed to cut their hair or their nails for a term of up to seven years, were so positioned in order evoke a feeling of melancholy, and to assert (in Gregory’s words) “the spiritual benefits of privacy, peace, and mild woe.”
The long, weird history of the Nigerian e-mail scam: Finn Brunton on the rich history of so-called “advanced-fee scams.” The ruse is familiar today from those ubiquitous spam emails, many originating from Nigeria, which promise investors a huge payday if they provide upfront funds to help launder a cache of dirty money. But Brunton reveals that this type of scheme is actually centuries old, and was perpetrated to tremendous success during the Spanish-American War.
The real, shameful story behind ‘Don’t give up the ship!’: Tom Halsted on how bad decision-making and an epic defeat produced one of the Navy’s enduring slogans. On June 1, 1813 in Boston Harbor, in the midst of the War of 1812, the US frigate Chesapeake commanded by Captain James Lawrence squared off against the HMS Shannon. It was a lopsided fight, and just before the British commandeered his boat, a wounded Captain Lawrence entreated his crew with these now-famous words, “Don’t give up the ship.” While his remark soon took on a sheen of heroism, Halsted explains that, in fact, Captain Lawrence blundered into a fight he had no chance of winning and his exhortation was completely ignored by his defeated crew.
Plus: Kevin Lewis on how in business, liberals and conservatives manage their employees differently; how, when colleagues are laid-off, the employees who stay behind are more likely to get sick; how women are more likely to deflect credit for success when their teammates include men; and more.
Image: "The Hermit in the Garden" by Gordon Campbell.
Can you tell the difference between the arid Australian Outback and the desiccated American Southwest? What about a quiet alley in Buenos Aires and a back lane in Barcelona? If you can, you'll do well at Geoguessr, the new hyper-addictive online game that drops you into a scene from Google Street View somewhere in the world, and asks you to guess where you are. You can zoom in on your surroundings, spin around, and walk down the street to look for clues. When you think you know where you are, Geoguessr, which was created by Swedish programmer Anton Wallén, has you indicate your supposed location on a map, and the closer you guess to the actual location, the more points you get. The game yields an enjoyably vertiginous sense of global travel and plenty of satisfying moments, like when you come within 15 kilometers of identifying an inter-coastal waterway in Florida. However, the depth of shame it produces is even stronger: It's hard not to feel hopelessly parochial when you say Alaska and then the map reveals that you're actually in Turkmenistan.
And before you get started, one Geoguessr addict offers this helpful reminder: Google and China don't get along. (Play here.)
The Great Recession of 2007 hit all American households hard, but a March report from the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College shows that the economic downturn was relatively less hard in Boston.
The report was written for The Boston Foundation in order to assess the future of charitable giving, but its most interesting results describe the overall state of wealth in the region.
By now it’s well understood that the recession was gentler on wealthier Americans, and that begins to explain why the Boston area—which is richer, on average, than the nation as a whole—bounced back so quickly. The Boston College report cites three specific reasons why the Boston metropolitan area (defined as Bristol, Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester counties) fared so well: The resilience of the real estate market in the northeast; high rates of investment in the stock market, which has recovered faster than other parts of the economy; and the relatively low debt levels of Boston households.
Boston as a whole weathered the recession well, but the region’s wealthiest residents came out of it the best. According to the report, the 14 percent of Boston area households with a net worth north of $1 million lost 15.9 percent of their wealth. At the same time, the 41 percent of households with a net worth of less than $100,000 lost 77 percent of their wealth. It’s such a staggering difference that the authors of the report decided to state it twice, writing, “It’s worth repeating this important finding: 41 percent of Boston area households lost more than three-quarters of their wealth during the recession.”
The recessionary shocks took a toll on charitable giving, knocking it down 23 percent, from $2,420 per household in 2007 to $1,861 per household in 2009. But even with this dip, the overall outlook of the report is quite sunny for Boston where, from 1997-2011, the economy grew faster and the unemployment rate remained lower than national rates, and, today, the broad top-tier of society is awash in money.
There's a lot of joy and some sadness, too, in Tiny Town, a small-scale world housed in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The elaborate model was carved and assembled over the course of 68 years by Frank Moshinskie and today it's managed as a modest tourist attraction by his son, Charles. Tiny Town received a flare of attention last year when the magazine Oxford American made a mini-documentary about it. That video was nominated for a National Magazine Award, though it lost out to Mother Jones and the infamous Mitt Romney "47 percent" video when prizes were handed out earlier this month.
To judge from the documentary, though, Tiny Town isn't preoccupied with glitzy hardware. The movie shows Charles--who's no young man himself--telling about how the display began as a decoration beneath his dad's Christmas tree and grew over seven decades into an ensemble that includes scenes from 21 different states in the country. There's a replica of Dodge City from the television show Gunsmoke, a little Niagara Falls, and an island cabin tucked among the trees. Charles says his dad liked to carve figures that move, so Tiny Town includes kids poised on teeter-totters, a sheriff sticking up some poor soul, a floating hot air balloon, and a circling airplane. The whole thing is marvelous, but it becomes more acutely melancholic when Charles climbs into Tiny Town to show the audience around: He's ostensibly a giant, but really the model's smallness starts to reflect our own.
H/T The Paris Review.
In the 1990s the Boston Police Department launched Operation Ceasefire, an innovative program aimed at curbing gang violence in the city. The program worked—or so it seemed—and shortly became a model for cities around the country.
But more than a decade later a trio of researchers at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard began to wonder: Was Operation Ceasfire really responsible for the 63 percent decrease in youth murders that had occurred by the time the program was ended in early 2000? Correlation does not equal causation and the evidence that Operation Ceasefire had really achieved what people said it had achieved was thin. And given the program’s outsized influence on gang violence prevention initiatives around the country, the researchers thought it was especially important to find out whether it really worked.
As a paper they published in the March issue of The Journal of Quantitative Criminology explains, they got their chance to test Operation Ceasefire in 2007. In January of that year, Edward Davis, the newly installed Commissioner of the BPD, decided to reinstate Operation Ceasefire following a surge in gang-motivated killings. And when he did the researchers—Anthony Braga, David Hureau, and Andrew Papachristos—were right there to gather the type of rigorous data that researchers had missed out on the first time around.
As a program, Operation Ceasefire was straight-forward and in-your-face, and could have served as the premise for a season of The Wire. In the 1990s, fewer than one percent of Boston kids were in gangs but gang members were behind more than 60 percent of the city’s youth murders. So, the BPD thought: Why not go hard after the small number of gang members responsible for such a disproportionate amount of the violence?
Operation Ceasefire began with “call-ins,” in which the BPD brought in known gang members and told them that things had changed. The BPD explained that whenever the gangs members committed violent crimes, the police would make their lives miserable every way they could—a strategy that came to be known in the law enforcement world as “pulling levers.” Gang members are often exposed to the law on multiple fronts, and the BPD told them that they’d crack down on probation and parole enforcement, push for tougher plea bargains, higher bail terms, stiffer sentences, and focus even more resources on the day-to-day drug and gun trades. But if the gangs abstained from violence, the BPD promised they could expect things to stay as they were, with no special dispensations from the law, but no excess scrutiny, either.
The researchers compared pre- and post-Operation Ceasefire violence statistics for 19 gangs targeted by the program and 82 gangs that were not. They also took pains to eliminate from their study any gangs that were socially connected with the targeted gangs, because they were concerned (from a methodological point of view) that those gang members might have changed their behavior simply as a result of hearing what was happening to gang members elsewhere.
And when the researchers ran the numbers they found that, indeed, Operation Ceasefire was working as well as people hoped it was. From 2006-2010 shootings among the 19 targeted gangs fell three-times as fast as shootings among non-targeted gangs—meaning Operation Ceasefire gang members were both less likely to shoot and less likely to get shot at.
For academics, it’s always less exciting to come up with results that validate rather than contradict conventional wisdom. But in this case, the Operate Ceasefire research helps to put some statistical meat on the bones of a much-ballyhooed program, while providing an opportunity to update one of the most interesting crime fighting stories in Boston over the last two decades.
The Globe has covered Operation Ceasefire extensively over the years. One place to start reading is this column from October 2011 called "Expanding the Boston Miracle.'"
Sleeping in a tent is fun, except for the part about being on the ground. So why not suspend a tent in the trees? That's the concept behind the Stingray, a (literally) high-flying new camping product from the British company Tentsile. It's part tent, part treehouse, part hammock, and the concept is undeniably cool. But in practice, well...people have raised some concerns. Commenters on an article in Gizmag balked at the price ($1350) and the logistics of setting it up ("Good Luck finding 3 trees in a perfect triangle," one chap wrote). And all that's before you get to the most obvious concern: While sleeping on a rock may be bad, falling 10 feet onto one is surely worse.
Images courtesy of Tentsile.
In Season Five of Mad Men, a former advertising colleague asks Harry Crane for feedback on a script he plans to send to the producers of the new cult hit Star Trek, which debuted in 1966. The script stinks, and Harry is not sure how to deliver the news to his friend, but had he known about the "The Star Trek Guide," he might have at least been able to offer some helpful pointers.
"The Star Trek Guide" is a real life handbook that the show’s producers created to help writers craft better freelance scripts. The Houghton Library at Harvard recently acquired a copy of the guide as part of a broader plan to increase its collection of popular culture materials. Last Friday the Harvard Gazette ran an article on the acquisition and explained that long after Star Trek has gone to reruns, the guide provides a unique perspective on the show’s underpinnings.
For example, The Star Trek Guide admonishes would-be screenwriters, “Never have members of the crew putting things into pockets. There are no pockets. When equipment is needed, it is attached to special belts (as in the case of the communicator and the phaser).” Similarly, the booklet cautioned writers not to get bogged down explaining exactly how this or that super-gadget works. “Never try to explain or describe the sensors, simply use them — they’re real because they are and they work.”
Other pieces of advice reveal how Star Trek producers thought about the show’s emotional and narrative architecture. The Star Trek Guide urges writers to think of the Enterprise as a “familiar and comfortable counterpoint to the bizarre and unusual things we see during our episodes.” It also reminds writers that the show’s intergalactic setting is really just a means for conveying a more down-to-earth human drama, stating, “We’ve learned during a full season of making science fiction that believability of characters, their actions and reactions is our greatest need and is the most important angle factor.” On a more concrete level, there’s also a warning against scripts that call for the construction of expensive new sets, and a reminder that all Star Trek episodes have four acts.
At first glance The Star Trek Guide is an incongruous acquisition for the Houghton Library, which is known for more obviously scholarly collections, like its archive of Emily Dickinson’s papers. The Gazette article notes that Harvard professors are increasingly interested in popular culture-related research—with The Star Trek Guide, however, the line between true scholarship and obsessed fandom is likely to be very thin.
Thoroughbreds wear blinders to keep them focused on the race, so why shouldn't you do the same next time you sit down to work? That was the insight that came to inventor Hugo Gernsback nearly 100 years ago while he was looking for ways to block out distractions. Except instead of stopping at blinders, he proposed a full on helmet that covered the head and face completely save two little slits for the eyes. Gernsback called his invention "the Isolator" and, as Matt Novak reported in a post for the magazine Pacific Standard, the prototype suffered just one drawback: It was stuffy and quickly made the wearer drowsy. So, the plucky Gernsback added a vivifying oxygen tube and got down to work.
The Isolator never caught on, but at a time when balance balls are replacing chairs and you can buy a treadmill-equipped standing desk, maybe it's time to bring it back.
Image of the Isolator from the July 1925 edition of Science and Invention magazine.
The culture of contemporary China seems impossible to pin down. The country combines a long sense of history with head-spinning modernization. It's capitalist and communist, spiritual and, during the Cultural Revolution, stripped of religion. Boston University anthropologist Robert Weller has spent more than three decades conducting fieldwork in Taiwan and China. In that time he has not unraveled the complexity of Chinese culture, but he has identified themes- many of which run against the conventional wisdom about China- that shape the way people there live today. Weller, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this spring, spoke with Ideas by phone about some of the important dimensions of Chinese culture, including the surprising persistence of religion and the practice of democracy in local village life. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)
IDEAS: You cover a lot of ground in your work and much of it has to do with abstract dimensions of culture. How do you explain your research to non-specialists?
WELLER: All of it’s about China and Taiwan so in that sense it’s all the same. I’ve been from the beginning exploring ideas of power and interpretation and how those things fit together with each other—who has the right to impose interpretation and what does that process look like where people come to share an idea.
IDEAS: When you talk about power in China I immediately think of state power. Is that what you have in mind?
WELLER: I mean power the way anthropologists often use it, which is in the broadest possible sense—simply the ability to impose your own ideas or actions on somebody else. Certainly state power looms really large. I started my career on religion and I’m back on religion at this point and the role of the state in China looms so large.
IDEAS: We think of religion as not being very prominent in China but you say that’s not the case.
WELLER: We had assumed that religion was more or less wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, our assumption has been that since 1949 there had been increasing pressure on religion until it was squelched out completely. We’re actually starting to get access to archives from the 1950s and there was a lot more religion going on and a lot more uncertainty within the government itself about what to do about it. We’re finding more and more hidden underground religious activity. It was never as little as we thought and it’s clearly growing rapidly today.
IDEAS: You have similarly unintuitive ideas about the possibility for democracy in China.
WELLER: The authoritarian states like this argument that democracy [doesn’t fit Asian culture]. First of all, it’s empirically wrong. Taiwan shows it’s empirically wrong. It’s culturally a very Chinese place and it’s a democratic place.
China introduced village elections some years ago and nobody takes them that seriously now that it seems clear that the experiment is not expanding past the village level. But I think even at that level there’s a learning experience that goes on there. The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to say there’s no social organization outside the state. There’s only you and Chairman Mao. And that leaves people with almost no resources if democratization should happen. But since reforms in 1979, China has moved to something that looks structurally more like Taiwan in the 1960s…that is, there is much more social space than there used to be. I would argue at this point that at least the resources [for democracy] are there if the opportunity arises.
IDEAS: You’ve written about how western environmental ideas have influenced China. Can you explain that?
WELLER: The idea that becomes really important after the Enlightenment is that nature and culture are two opposed forces. There’s one discourse that says culture should control nature—that says we should build canals, railroads. Almost from the beginning there was a reaction that really valorized nature. There’s also a third stream, a pastoral view of nature. The whole mess of ideas shows up in China in the late-19th century but the one that really seems to resonate with Chinese intellectuals is the science view that we should control nature.
IDEAS: That brings to mind projects like the Three Gorges Dam and the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
WELLER: The Three Gorges Dam was actually proposed in the early-20th century, so it goes back to this period where these ideas are just becoming dominant. It’s not so different from what you saw in the 19th-century here, with the Panama Canal and the railroads across the country and the damming of the Mississippi and all the other rivers.
IDEAS: I’m going to jump again, to the Boston Marathon bombing. You write about how we live in a culturally pluralistic time, where we have to live alongside people who are different than we are. Did you think about these kinds of ideas in the aftermath of the attack?
WELLER: Terrorism is an attack on social trust, on public space and public life. It pulls apart our ability to trust a stranger, including a stranger who might look different or dress different or eat different. So, terrorism puts stress on our ability to deal with it.
IDEAS: On this question of pluralism in modern life more generally—how do we deal with living in such a culturally varied place?
WELLER: We don’t insist too hard on maintaining our boundaries, by which I mean everything that separates us from each other: class, ethnic, religious, geographical, kinship boundaries. We need to find ways to allow these categories to flex, or we need to allow ourselves to cross over and back. Ritual is one way of doing this.
IDEAS: I think of ritual as existing within cultural boundaries. How does it cross boundaries?
WELLER: One of the biggest boundaries is the sacred/profane one. Durkheim defined the sacred as that which is set apart. And rituals tell us where the line is between sacred and profane, and they also bring us over the line. They let us be in the sacred world for a little while even though we know we have to come back out of it. There’s that kind of line, the knowledge that alternate worlds are possible, which is crucial. Empathy is based on the idea that somebody cannot be me, can be really different from me in some fundamental way and yet I can make the leap into feeling as they feel.
Last month I interviewed Richard Grossman, an economic historian at Wesleyan University and another Boston-area 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. You can read that interview, titled "Historical lessons for current economic policy," here.
Bring back the United States of pork: Leon Neyfakh on how the return of pork-barrel spending might loosen the gridlock in Washington. In 2010 and 2011 Congress banned earmarks (appropriations for specific projects in a legislators’ home districts that don’t have to go through the normal legislative process) and the move was hailed by members of both parties as a triumph for good governance and fiscal responsibility. But according to a number of academics, pork is an essential if slightly distasteful part of the democratic process: It helps build coalitions for major legislation by bribing reluctant legislators with pet projects they can trumpet in front of their constituents.
The DNA in your garbage: up for grabs. I wrote about the legal riddle posed by “abandoned DNA.” We all leave DNA behind everywhere we go—on coffee cups, cigarette butts, chewing gum, paper towels, and hairs that fall out while we’re walking down the street. This bodily debris contains our complete genome—information that in some ways is the most personal thing about us—and right now in most states, including Massachusetts, that DNA is fair game for anyone who picks it up.
4,000 years of oaths, curses, and obscenity: Ruth Graham interviews Melissa Mohr, author of the new book “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.” Mohr talks about how categories of swear words have changed over time (religious curse words were more taboo in the Middle Ages; today racial, and to a lesser extent, sexual, epithets carry the greatest social sanction). She also discusses how swearing varies by social class (members of the lower and upper classes do it a lot while the aspiring middle class tends to be cleaner with its language).
“Boston Strong,” the phrase that rallied a city: Ben Zimmer on how “Boston Strong” developed on the heels of many other “strong” brands. First there was Livestrong—a flat adverb without the “-ly” ending—then Army Strong and Country Strong. Zimmer explains why the “sloganeering frame of ‘X strong’ has proven so powerful.
Plus: Kevin Lewis on how strict parents may rear children with less self-control; how Generations X and Y are greedier and lazier than their Boomer predecessors; how thinking about death makes people more interested in sex; and more.
Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, iStockphoto; Globe Staff photo illustration.
There are lots of factors that go into a good education but here’s one you may not have thought of: the color of the paint on the classroom walls. That’s just one of the new ideas discussed in the most recent issue of Architecture Boston, which looks at how research into the relationship between student learning and architecture is changing the way schools are constructed.
For decades schools were built using a linear model, with classrooms lined up along a hallway, and desks lined up within classrooms. But that regimented approach is out of synch with current pedagogical thinking, and to see how consider the proposed new high school in Grafton, Massachusetts. Cambridge firm SMMA/Symmes Maini & McKee Associates has put together plans for the school around what it refers to as an “egg crate” floor plan, where the school building is divided into groups of classrooms clustered around common spaces. The idea is to provide students with multi-purpose spacse in which to work in groups or pursue independent projects.
Another example of the emerging architecture-learning nexus is John D. Runkle elementary school in Brookline. Recently renovations there brought more natural light into the classrooms and changed the school’s color scheme to muted greens and blues—colors chosen because they’ve been shown to minimize students’ stress and distraction.
These changes in school architecture are being driven by research that shows that where students sit, so to speak, has big effects on how they learn. The Architecture Boston article cites research from the University of Georgia, which concluded that freedom of movement and views of the outdoors were correlated with better performance on standardized tests. Similarly, a 1999 study of 2,000 classrooms in California found that students in classrooms with the most natural light performed 20 percent better in math and 26 percent better in reading than students in classrooms with the least natural light.
Those are big numbers but there are good reasons not to swallow them whole. Social scientists still have significant disagreements about the impact that major factors—like parental education, family income, and race—have on how well students do in school. Given that, it’s no easy feat to isolate the salutary educational effects of a new paint scheme or wider windows.
But then again, maybe it’s enough simply to recognize that we’d all prefer to read in a sun-drenched nook over a fluorescent-lit bunker.
Last month I wrote about an interactive light installation in Milan and noted that there seems to be no end to these types of projects. But just when you're feeling a little jaded, here come two installations with a fresh twist on the genre. The first is the Rain Room, which opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this weekend, and lets visitors walk through a field of falling water without getting wet. The second (video and pictures below) is Cerebral Hut, at the Istanbul Museum of Art this month.
A hut, of course, is a primitive kind of structure while cerebral connotes abstraction. So how do the two work together? The Turkish architecture firm Ozel Office "hacked" a commercially available headset that measures brain waves and blink rates, and wrote a program that connects that data to a hut made from kinetic building materials. The more a visitor to the installation concentrates, the more the hut pulses and contorts. The result, according to the creators, is the first "moving architecture that directly responds to human thought." They also note that Cerebral Hut has the quality of a video game environment, which raises the fun possibility of using side-by-side cerebral huts to conduct staring competitions (whoever's hut bends farthest and longest wins) or engage in concentration art displays, where judges assess the concentration patterns that produce the most interesting architectural changes.
Images courtesy of Ozel Office.
The dollars are flowing on Kickstarter for a Moby-Dick inspired card game. The game, by King Post of New York City, challenges groups of 2-4 players to assemble their crews, hunt whales and accumulate oil, and navigate adventures including the final, fateful encounter with the White Whale. The cards feature quotations from the novel and art culled from the mountains of visual images that have been inspired by Melville’s epic. And, in keeping with the doomed spirit of the book, the Kickstarter page states, “In the end, no player truly ‘wins’ the game, but the last survivor of the Final Chase does earn the right to say, ‘Call me Ishmael.’" You can visit the Kickstarter page here and see a trailer below.
For another literature-inspired Kickstarter project, see this Brainiac post from January, about an illustrated, choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.