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It was hard to find alone time during a 19th century courtship

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 23, 2014 10:23 AM

The Public Domain Review recently ran a delightful series of images showing the stages of a bygone courtship ritual. The images- undated, but likely from the late 19th century- were created using a technique called stereoscopy, in which two offset images are placed side-by-side to create the illusion of depth, and they're housed in the Harper Stereograph Collection of the Boston Public Library. There are 25 images in all and the first one shows the "bashful lover" making his first call, as he sits beside a well-dressed young woman with an icy expression on her face. Things go better from there, however, and the most entertaining images in the series are numbers 5-7 (below) in which the lovers are caught by the woman's parents primly embracing in the parlor at "half past one in the morning," after which the male suitor is unceremoniously thrown from the room by his lover's father. You can see all 25 images here.

And for an entertaining depiction of how courtship unfolds (and crashes) today, enjoy this very awkward video, "A Relationship in 5 Minutes."

1. The bashful lover makes his first call
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5. One O'Clock in the Morning
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6. Half Past One in the Morning
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7. A Quarter to Two in the Morning
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Via @mrsfridaynext.

Images from the Boston Public Library.

MIT to counterfeiters: Good luck faking a nanocrystal

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 22, 2014 11:23 AM

In the running battle between counterfeiters and security experts, researchers at MIT may have gained a decisive edge for the good guys. Their technique? Nanoparticles that come in a mindboggling range of customizable colors, can be embedded invisibly just about anywhere, and can be authenticated using nothing more than an accessorized smartphone.

The technique was described in a video (below) and detailed in the April 13 issue of Nature Materials. It relies on a special type of nanocrystal that can be dyed using rare elements like ytterbium, gadolinium, erbium, and thulium. The "dye" color can be very precisely tuned based on how much of each element is added to the nanocrystals, and the colored crystals themselves are invisible until placed under near-infrared light that can emitted through a microscope-style reader attached to a smartphone. The crystals can be applied to any number of commonly counterfeited products- currency, Gucci bags, the blister packaging around pharmaceuticals- and you know you're looking at the genuine article when the correct set of colors shows up on your smartphone screen. This technique surely won't end the counterfeiting wars, but it does draw a new line in the sand: Alright you forging fiends, let's see you beat this.

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Image credits, from top: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT; Jiseok Lee; Jiseok Lee.

Henry Adams, a top-notch historian

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 21, 2014 01:18 PM

Last week I wrote about the clubby way Henry Adams came to be a professor at Harvard, and what his appointment says about how hiring standards at universities have changed over the last 140 years. That post was tied to a piece from the Massachusetts Historical Society, which noted that in 1870, Adams was named assistant professor of medieval history by Harvard president Charles Eliot, even though he had no graduate training to speak of. Such an appointment is a far cry from the highly professionalized career track academics take today, which requires years of toil before they even have a shot at such a plum position.

Over the weekend, several readers - taking my post as a knock on Adams - emailed in his defense. "Henry Adams was, in fact, one of the five or so greatest historians that the United States has ever produced," one reader wrote. Another extolled, "Henry Adams basically invented American historical research in the 19th century." They're right: Adams's nine-volume "The History of the United States (1801-1817)," written after he left Harvard in 1877, was called "a prose masterpiece" by none other than historian Garry Wills.

So what of his lack of training? The moral of his story isn't necessarily that modern universities have a better hiring system. Adams was clearly a first-rate mind, with a wealth of personal experience, and the lesson could be quite the reverse: that today we're missing out on some great scholars by over-focusing on formal qualifications.

The Week in Ideas 4/21

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 21, 2014 10:14 AM

Cuba, you owe us $7 billion: Leon Neyfakh on an under-recognized sticking point in any normalization of US-Cuba relations. When Fidel Castro nationalized the Cuban economy beginning in 1959, he seized American assets that today are worth an estimated $7 billion. Figuring out what to do about those debts would need to be part of any reconciliation, and Cuba experts have a range of ideas about how to settle them.

Want to reboot civilization? What you’ll need: Annalee Newitz on physicists, philosophers, librarians, and other future-minded thinkers who are working on storing away essential knowledge, in case calamity strikes and we need to rebuild civilization from scratch.

The War of 1812? Don’t remind me: Ted Widmer on important lessons we can draw from the forgotten, dispiriting, War of 1812—among them, the dangers of lurching into a misguided war.

A provocative new theory of Easter: Ruth Graham interviews Bart Ehrman, author of the new book, “How Jesus Became God.” Ehrman argues that the empty tomb from which the Bible says Jesus was resurrected likely never existed, and that the idea of Jesus’s resurrection likely originated with the hallucinatory visions of his followers.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how making the long “e” sound while watching cartoons makes TV funnier; how electrical stimulation helps the brain work better; how Americans become more conservative when they think about growing minority populations; and more.

Image credit: Enrique Marcarian/Reuters

Would less transparency produce a better Congress?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 18, 2014 11:02 AM

In the quest for better government, we’ve implemented a number of reforms at the state and federal level over the last several decades intended to open up our democracy—“sunshine laws,” which require elected officials to carry out committee deliberations in public; term-limits to weed out fat-cat incumbents; and anti-pork provisions which curb favor-trading in the legislative process.

These reforms are all well-intentioned, and make sense on an intuitive level, but a recent book-length report from the American Political Science Association says they can easily backfire, leading to more governmental dysfunction, not less.

The report was co-authored by political scientists Jane Mansbridge of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Cathie Jo Martin of Boston University. It is called “Negotiating Agreement in Politics” and it argues that, among other factors, more transparency sometimes produces worse government.

Mansbridge, Martin, and dozens of other political scientists on a task force that produced the report, examined previous research on negotiation, including everything from cognitive psychology studies about how people bargain, to data from international relations. They found that often, the conditions that provide for the best legislative outcomes run counter to conventional wisdom about how a democracy should operate.

First, people tend to negotiate in better faith when they know they’ll have to negotiate with the same person again down the line—which is why long-serving incumbents may be more motivated than term-limited firebrands to cut a deal.

Second, the report finds that private negotiations are often more productive than public deliberations. The post-Watergate era ushered in “sunshine laws,” which require legislative committees to deliberate in public. This was good for transparency, but in some ways bad for governing, because lawmakers are less willing to give ground in public, where they risk looking weak. (Just imagine, for example, how much more room Barack Obama and John Boehner would have to reach a budget agreement if they could have negotiated out of the tempestuous public eye.)

Third, the report gives a modified endorsement to the discredited practice of logrolling, or “side payments.” Martin is quick to point out that she and her colleagues don’t mean old-fashioned pork barreling, where legislators swap boondoggle public works projects. Rather, the report advocates for expanding the slate of issues up for negotiation—so that, to take a recent, failed, example, Republicans give on taxes while Democrats give on entitlement spending.

It’s a depressing exercise to think about reforms that might improve our government, because any kind of progress seems impossible right now. And, while secret committee meetings still seem antithetical to a healthy democracy, it’s hard to argue that things could get much worse than they are right now.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Invasions! Wars! A graphical history of Europe

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 16, 2014 10:51 AM

Vladimir Putin has been rebuked by the United States and Europe for invading Crimea, but if his actions are wrong, it's not because they're aberrant. A couple years ago the Centennia Historical Atlas produced a mesmerizing timelapse video of a map of Europe- that's finally making the rounds on the Internet now- that shows how, over the last 1000 years, the continent's borders have been in a continual state of flux. The video, set to racing music from the soundtrack of the movie "Inception," shows the splintering of the Holy Roman Empire, the long dominance of the Ottomans, the rise of the Russians. The complete arc of Napoleon's invasion and retreat passes in the blink of an eye, making dreams of conquest seem like folly, and you watch the whole thing with a pit in your stomach, waiting for Hitler. Then you go read the latest news from Ukraine, where government soldiers have begun to move on pro-Russia militants, and it's hard not to see the current geopolitical drama in a different light.

Via Marginal Revolution.

Getting a job at Harvard used to be easy

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 16, 2014 08:54 AM
henry adams.jpg

A faculty position at any top university is hard to get these days. Generally you have to prove yourself to be among the very best in your field, and put in your dues at some less prestigious institution, before you can even be considered for a job at a place like Harvard.

Standards haven’t always been so high, however. A post earlier this month on the Massachusetts Historical Society website includes details of Henry Adams’s short-lived career on the Harvard faculty. The post is tied to a letter that Adams sent on June 2, 1872 to one of his students, Henry Cabot Lodge, the future Massachusetts congressman, advising Lodge about a career in the “historico-literary line” of scholarship. What’s striking, to our eyes, is how few qualifications Adams had as an academic himself. The Massachusetts Historical Society writes:

Although he had no graduate training in any subject, in 1870, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot offered him a new post in the history department there—an offer that that included the editorship of The North American Review, then one of the most influential journals in the country, to which Adams previously had contributed articles on politics and history…Henry Adams later would refer back to his years as a teacher at Harvard as a complete failure.

Scholars today toil for years in graduate school, and for years beyond that, just to get a crack at the kind of position Henry Adams cakewalked into 140 years ago. There are a number of reasons for the change. For one, academic disciplines are much more developed today, and the musings of a well-educated blue-blood like Adams are no longer thought to be worth all that much. For two, universities regard themselves as uniquely meritocratic institutions, especially when it comes to hiring decisions; there’d be an uproar if anyone secured a teaching job at Harvard based largely on the strength of his last name.

Image of Henry Adams via Wikimedia Commons.

How to build a sumo body

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 15, 2014 09:57 AM

Sumo wrestlers have iconic bodies—fat, yes, but also muscular, agile, and flexible. This unique constitution begs the question, what exactly do you eat in order to build a sumo body? The answer involves a diet that’s a lot healthier than you’d imagine.

In a recent issue of the Asia Pacific Journal of Sport and Social Science, Skidmore College anthropologist R. Kenji Tierney explains the strict daily schedule sumo wrestlers follow, and why it’s well-calibrated to putting on pounds. To begin with, sumo wrestlers always skip breakfast, rising early, working out, and only eating their first meal of the day around 11am. By skipping breakfast, it’s said, sumo wrestlers lower their metabolic rate, and ensure that more of the food they eat ends up conserved as tissue, rather than burned for energy.

When sumo wrestlers do get down to eating, they pretty much consume just one thing: chanko, the so-called “sumo stew.” Tierney explains that sumo wrestlers eat chanko in their training houses, where they live full-time under the direction of a master and his wife for the duration of their careers. It’s a simple dish of broth, vegetables, and a protein (fish, pork, beef, chicken, or tofu), served over rice, and, according to numerous web sources, often washed down by large amounts of beer.

In moderation, a chanko-diet would be a good way to stay lean, but that’s not how sumo wrestlers go about it. Tierney writes that sumo wrestlers consume 5,000 calories per day on average (other web sources put it at anywhere from 8,000-20,000), which means bowl after bowl of rice and stew. A 2010 report on CNN said it’s not uncommon for skinny, aspiring sumo wresters to gorge themselves until they throw up.

The rest of a sumo wrestler’s day is designed to promote weight-gain: They take long afternoon naps, rise to eat a second mammoth meal, then go to bed for the night. The routine is centuries old, but it is consistent with modern dietary thinking, which says that if you don’t want to gain weight, you should treat breakfast like the most important meal of the day, and avoid going to bed on a full stomach. In other words, do just the opposite of what sumo wrestlers do.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A castle, on a single grain of sand

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 14, 2014 10:12 AM

Castles are hard to place. They're solid and unmistakable, but also mythical and beyond reach: They exist in fables and legends, and we speak of castles in the sky. It's fitting, then, that they'd also be the subject of a new series of mind-bogglingly microscopic drawings.

Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz teamed up with Marcelo Coelho of MIT's Media Lab to etch drawings of castles into single grains of sand. Muniz created the original castle drawings using an old technique called camera lucida, that projects images from right in front of you onto a canvas, where they can be traced. Then he gave those tracings to Coelho, who spent four years trying to figure out how to recreate them on a nanometer scale. Eventually he settled on using a Focused Ion Beam, or FIB, a laser-like tool that's more commonly used to manufacture electronic circuits. Coelho used a FIB to etch Muniz's drawings into single grains of sand, drawing with lines that were only 50 nanometers wide (by comparison, human hairs are 50,000 nanometers wide). Then, through a computer, Muniz took photographs of the etchings, blowing them back up to human scale. "It's really strange because you’re basically drawing onto a canvas and you don’t quite know what it is and you can't hold it," Coelho told The Creator's Project in a short documentary about the project. The final images are indeed otherworldly- the castles appear neither very large nor very small, but instead seem to exist as phantasms.

Sandcastle 1.jpg

Sandcastle 2.jpg

Sandcastle 3.jpg

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Images courtesy of Marcelo Coelho and Vik Muniz.

The Week in Ideas 4/14

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 14, 2014 09:00 AM
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Welcome back, mountain lions: Is the northeast ready for predators?: Keith O’Brien on the prospective return of mountain lions and wolves, whose territory is steadily expanding eastward. In the mid-1800s 40 percent of land in Massachusetts was woodland; today it’s 80 percent, and the increase has created new territory for predators who’ve been extinct from the area for generations. But, after years of having little to worry about in the woods, are we ready to coexist with mountain lions?

Should doctors consider medical costs?: Timothy Gower on the dilemmas that crop up when doctors weigh (or neglect to weigh) the financial costs that expensive procedures can impose on patients.

150 years of American tax resistance: Patrick Kennedy interviews Romain Huret, author of the new book “American Tax Resisters.” Huret, O’Brien writes, “reminds us that today’s Tea Party is less a direct descendent of the Boston Tea Partiers than the flowering of a movement that started during the Civil War and has been around ever since.”

What the Longfellow Bridge did for Boston: I wrote about the Longfellow Bridge—an underappreciated Boston landmark, now under rehabilitation—that symbolized a prosperous city’s aesthetic aspirations when it opened in 1907.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how healthcare interventions in early childhood lead to better health outcomes later in life; how staggering the closing times of bars reduces drunk-driving accidents; how using Facebook puts people in a bad mood; and more.

Image by Ping Zhu for the Boston Globe.

What does the length of the TD Garden have to do with the size of Fenway Park?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 9, 2014 09:50 AM

What do the sizes of a football field, a ping pong table, and a soccer pitch have to do with each other? You might think nothing- that the playing areas are all somewhat randomly sized, owing to the particular circumstances in which each sport developed. However, a team of French physicists has recently discovered a very unexpected law running through the dimensions of courts and fields of very different sports.

The researchers, led by Baptiste Darbois Texier of École Polytechnique, found that the length of a given sport's field is highly correlated with the maximum distance that the kind of ball it uses can be launched. A badminton court is very short because a shuttlecock doesn't fly far, while a golf course is very long because a golf ball can be hit a long way. What's interesting, though, is that the ratio of field size to maximum distance is almost exactly the same in both sports, as you can see in this chart from the study.


The researchers also looked at how long it takes a ball to travel over the length of a field and found that sports can be sorted into two groups: "precision and reflex" sports, where the ball traverses the field quickly (jai alai, volleyball, tennis) and "target" sports where it takes the ball a relatively long time to fly over the length of the field at its maximum speed (baseball, golf, soccer).


The most popular spectator sports in the United States fall into the "target" category which makes sense: It's probably more enjoyable to watch a sport that proceeds slowly enough for you to really watch the action unfold.

Via Phys.Org.

Humor in an artist's dangerous dioramas

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 8, 2014 09:32 AM

There's something devilish about dioramas. New York artist Thomas Doyle uses the medium to construct captivating scenes of mayhem: a house with its walls ripped off teeters on the edge of a cliff; a woman tries to climb out of a yawning sink hole while a man watches from far below. Doyle uses figurines and building materials from model train sets to make his dioramas. He has a knack for finding the hopeless middle moment in a drama, after the destruction has set in, but before resolution arrives. "There is a darkness in most of the works and it's sometimes quite humorous," Doyle told the website Cool Hunting in a short documentary about his work (the video below). "I think we get a kick out of it because we're lording above it." If Doyle's scenes are amusing, it's a bitter kind of amusement that makes you look over your shoulder and worry: Is someone watching me?

Doyle 1.jpg

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Doyle 2.jpg

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Via Colossal.

Images courtesy of Thomas Doyle.

Adapting London for a wet hot future

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 7, 2014 01:12 PM

The prospect of dramatic climate change has inspired a small industry of futuristic architecture—ideas for how our built environment will need to adapt to an age of rising temperatures and severe weather events. On Brainiac, we’ve looked at some of these plans, including ideas for how to save East Boston from the sea, and how to turn water into a positive feature of the New Orleans landscape.

In that spirit, a chapter in a new book called "Imagining the Future City: London 2062" offers some useful tips for how architecture in chilly, dank London could be modified to ward off the worst effects of climate change. The piece is called "Future-proofing London" and it's written by environmental designer Sofie Pelsmakers. She anticipates that fifty years from now, two of the biggest environmental challenges for London will be reflecting heat out of the city, and improving the city's ability to handle intense bursts of rain.

To reflect heat out of London- and temper the "Urban Heat Island effect" that explains why cities are usually hotter than their surroundings- Pelsmakers explains that London's asphalt and concrete veneer should be replaced with greenery: grass, trees, and green roofs that would reflect heat rather than absorb it. As the following diagram shows, she anticipates that those steps would dramatically reduce surface temperatures in the city.

London Heat Reflection.jpg

As for how to protect buildings from flooding during periods of intense, climate change-induced rain, Pelsmakers's ideas are slightly more whimsical: floating buildings, houses on stilts, and a "sacrificial basement" for collecting rainwater.

London House Plans.jpg

All of these ideas seem far-out, but the basic idea that architecture should be informed by climate considerations is nothing new. If today we use double-paned windows and R30 insulation to keep out the cold, why in the future wouldn't we deck our walls in moss and build bladders around our houses to keep out the heat and rain?

The Week in Ideas 4/7

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 7, 2014 09:00 AM
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Not your grandpa’s labor union: Leon Neyfakh on a new breed of labor unions that try to fit the way we work today. Increasingly, we’re a country of independent contractors, temporary workers, freelancers. In recent years, college football players, music video dancers, and fast-food workers have tried to organize. Their successes—and failures—show what a new model for labor unions might look like.

Taxi data shows Bostonians don’t fear the cold: Martine Powers on insights from a big data analysis of Boston taxi rides. We’re not a 24-hour city, pedestrians flee the rain, but can tolerate the cold, and in many cases might be better off walking to the aquarium.

The museum of how work sounded: Chris Wright interviews Torsten Nilsson, who’s leading a project to collect “endangered” sounds of the industrial age, like “a framed pit saw, a Merlin aircraft on low fly-by, a chain saw, a spinning jenny, a chocolate factory in Belgium, and an Atlas mine compressor from 1910.”

How old is this whale? A new way to tell: I wrote about a new method developed by researchers on Cape Cod for determining the ages of live humpback whales. Whale age is a mystery. They almost certainly live longer than we thought, and knowing their ages would be key to unlocking many other secrets of their deep-water lives.

Plus: Britt Peterson on the man who created the languages Dothraki and Valyrian for “Game of Thrones.”

And: Kevin Lewis on how democracy is good for GDP; how companies that hold their annual meetings in out-of-the-way places tend to perform badly; how our subconscious mind is better than our conscious mind at spotting liars; and more.

Image courtesy of the Center for Coastal Studies.

How to spot a mob business

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 4, 2014 11:41 AM

Just about everything about the mafia is intriguing, including the way it combines legal and illegal activity—drug dealing and gun running alongside ostensibly legitimate storefronts and businesses.

Stefano Gurciullo, a doctoral student studying corruption at University College London, recently posted a working paper that offers a couple rules of thumb for how to spot mob businesses in the legal economy: look at the most important sectors of the economy and the most important companies within those sectors.

Gurciullo’s analysis is based on evidence from a 2002 anti-mafia investigation in the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle, where the Grassonellis mob family is known to operate. Gurciullo uses a technique known as social network analysis to situate businesses with known links to the Grassonellis family within the overall economy of Porto Empedocle.

The Grassonellis' were mainly into construction, and within the construction sector, they controlled one of the companies (number 49 in the diagram below) that had the most transactional ties with other construction businesses. Based on this analysis, Gurciullo concludes that the mafia likes to infiltrate sectors of the economy that are central to overall economic activity (construction firms do business with just about everyone) and, within those sectors, to use intimidation tactics to become the most important company (the firm that everyone has to do business with). This diagram from the study shows businesses in the construction sector in Porto Empedocle. The red squares are mafia companies.

mob diagram copy.jpg

Gurciullo's analysis isn't airtight: It's based on a small sample; some of the mob companies in the network are very peripheral; and there are likely a number of reasons the mob favors construction, like the fact that it lends itself well to skims and markups, and how organized crime has multiple uses for cement. That said, Girciullo's idea is interesting. It's common to hear people point to a storefront that never seems to do any business and say, "it must be a front." But maybe in some locales it's the companies that are going gangbusters that you really have to worry about.

Via MIT Technology Review.

Stockholm, the Silicon Valley of pop music

Posted by Kevin Hartnett April 1, 2014 09:41 AM

Sweden is an unlikely king of pop music. It’s relatively small, and it’s objectively cold and dark, yet Swedes still manage to churn out songs that set the world dancing—be they from headlining Swedish bands like ABBA and Ace of Base, or the Swedish producers behind mega-hits like the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

So how did Sweden become such an outsized pop music player? In the most recent issue of Pacific Standard, journalist Whet Moser explains that the answer is straightforward: In the 1940s the Swedish government invested in municipal schools of music around the country, cultivating a wide base of musical talent, and establishing the conditions for dramatic musical innovation in the years to come.

Moser explains that the music schools actually came from a conservative impulse—in the 1940s Swedish church leaders were alarmed by the popularity of degenerate dance music originating in America (from artists like Glen Miller and Benny Goodman) and wanted to create a countervailing music culture back home. So, they established free music schools around the country with an emphasis on classical composition.

For reasons Moser doesn’t explain, these municipal schools of music became less conservative over time, and by the 1980s and 1990s, they were teaching the basics of rock and pop. Besides providing nearly universal music education, the municipal schools of music boosted the music ecosystem in Sweden in other ways: They provided teaching jobs for musicians, subsidized practice space, and created a dense network of musicians who could collaborate —the exact conditions that business school professors now cite as key to innovation.

Today many of the biggest names in pop music work with Swedish producers, including Pink, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, and Christina Aguilera. Swedish entrepreneurs have also changed the way we listen to these artists, with the streaming music service Spotify. Sweden’s pop influence is vast—and a good example of how, if you can’t stop the spread of American culture, you might as well influence the way it sounds.

Image of ABBA via Wikimedia Commons.

The language of the future? Surprise, it's French!

Posted by Kevin Hartnett March 31, 2014 11:02 AM

Conventional wisdom has it that European languages are becoming relics, and if you want to join the future, you’d better learn Mandarin.

Or maybe not! A new report from the French investment bank Natixis runs the demographic numbers and concludes that by 2050, French may actually be the single most widely spoken first-language in the world. Today, 3 percent of the world’s population speaks French natively, but by 2050 the report estimates the proportion of French speakers will have increased to 8 percent, tying French with Mandarin as the most common first-language in the world. The projected increase has little to do with France itself—whose future may indeed be grim—and more with the fact that French is the official language in a number of countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, that have booming populations. It’s a surprising twist for a famously effete and parochial language—French flourishes, just not in France!

Via Forbes.

The Week in Ideas 3/31

Posted by Kevin Hartnett March 31, 2014 09:00 AM

How the American playground was born in Boston: Ruth Graham on a sand pile deposited in the North End in 1885 that started the modern playground movement—and may remind us how to revitalize playgrounds today.

Why Putin’s Crimean move crosses the line: Thanassis Cambanis on how Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a “break in the order that America and its allies have come to rely on since the end of the Cold War.”

America, the religious?: Christopher Shea interviews Steven D. Smith, author of the new book, “The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.” Smith argues that contrary to conventional wisdom, the founders actually intended religion to play a role in how America was governed.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how older fathers produce less attractive kids; how standardized testing in schools makes parents trust government less; how an extra hour of sleep boosts voter turnout; and more.

Medieval castles, still good for war

Posted by Kevin Hartnett March 27, 2014 12:24 PM

Last week government troops in Syria’s bloody civil war retook the famed crusader castle Crak des Chevalier (pictured above) from rebel soliders. The castle has been the site of consistent fighting over the last few years, and is just one ancient fortification that has played a tactical role in the conflict. Last year the Washington Post reported that the citadel in the Syrian city of Aleppo, once a major tourist attraction as a UNESCO world heritage site, has turned into a shooting blind for regime snipers, who fire through the arrow slits in its walls.

It’s surprising, of course, that stone castles built centuries ago to withstand battering rams remain tactically useful against modern weapons. At Ideas, we were curious to know whether there are other examples of ancient buildings being used for defensive purposes in modern wars and queried three experts in military history: Paul Dover at Kennesaw State University, Clifford Rogers at the United States Military Academy, and Geoffrey Parker at Ohio State University. By email, they explained that there is indeed precedent for what’s happening in Syria, and offered these four 20th century examples:

German troops used the Chateau de Coucy, built in the 13th century in northern France, as a military outpost, before destroying it just prior to their retreat in 1917.

Coucy chateau.jpg

The Alcazar (castle) of Toledo, Spain, was built in the third century by the Romans and restored in the 1540s. It was held successfully by Nationalist soldiers during a two-month siege at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.


The abbey in Monte Cassino, Italy, was built in the 14th century and reduced to rubble by Allied bombers in 1944. That rubble provided cover for German soldiers in the ensuing Battle of Monte Cassino.

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Malbork Castle in Poland was completed in 1406 and destroyed at the end of World War II in last-ditch, heavy fighting between the Germans and the Russians.

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Images via Wikimedia Commons.

How not to hyperventilate while playing the tuba

Posted by Kevin Hartnett March 26, 2014 11:50 AM

At a glance, the tuba makes you wonder why anyone would choose to play it. When you're just starting out in music with all the instruments of the world laid before you, why pick the one that's hardest to lug around and guaranteed to produce premature cheek wrinkles?

Yesterday McSweeney's ran a fun article by novelist Elizabeth Eshelman about the perils of returning to play the tuba after ten years away from the instrument. The piece, which is Eshelman's latest in a series called "I Like Big Brass and I Cannot Lie: Confessions from the Tuba World," contains a number of interesting and surprising facts about the tuba. One is that the two instruments that require the most air to play are the tuba (obviously) and the flute (less obviously). Another is that in a band, the members of a tuba section get together beforehand and designate where, in a piece of music, each musician is permitted to breathe, with the breathing breaks staggered so that the audience doesn't notice a drop in sound. Eshelman writes that a typical exchange between tubists in a band begins, "Hi, I'm Pat. Do you want to breathe on the bar line or not on the bar line?"

Finally, there's this interesting element of tuba breathing: Tubists inhale near their instruments' mouthpieces, which lets them recycle the carbon dioxide they've just exhaled in the previous breath. Recycling carbon dioxide staves off hyperventilation, which occurs when your body has too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide. It's the kind of coping strategy that can be hard to perceive if you're not a tubist, and maybe begins to explains how, for practitioners, the ungainly instrument grows on you over time.

About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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.


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