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Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 24, 2014 07:59 PM

As of Monday, July 28, Brainiac is moving to its new home on Its old address on will remain as a working archive. For the newest Brainiac posts, please visit and look for the “Brainiac” logo. A fuller list of posts can be found on this page. If you’ve bookmarked the page, please update the URL – and see you at the new site!

New study: living in Boston makes people unhappy

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 22, 2014 10:54 AM

There’s a saying, “wherever you go, there you are,” which basically means don’t expect your life to change just because you’ve moved to a new place. A new paper called "Unhappy Cities" from a trio of economists says that attitude’s plain wrong. They analyze happiness levels in US metropolitan areas and find that just like it’s hard to be healthy when you’re breathing bad air, some cities actually make their citizens less happy than they might otherwise be.

The authors are Edward Glaeser (who’s also a Globe columnist) and Oren Ziv of Harvard, and Joshua Gottlieb of the University of British Columbia, and the paper was released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They used data from national surveys, which asked people to assess how satisfied they are with their lives.

The metropolitan areas with the least happy residents tended to be declining industrial cities. Springfield, Massachusetts was the eighth least happy city, only marginally better off than such cheery locales as Scranton and Jersey City. Large east coast metropolitan areas fared badly in general—of big cities, New York City was the #1 least happy. Bostonians were also dissatisfied with their lives on the whole, though we fall outside the top-10 least happy cities in the U.S.

Happiness studies are always controversial, not least of all because terms like “happiness” and “satisfaction” are hard to define precisely. One question this study raises is whether specific places make people unhappy, or whether unhappy people happen to cluster in specific places. The authors find that place matters, such that the average person moving from Charlottesville, Virginia (the happiest metro area of all) to Boston, would become less satisfied with his life.

A second question is why people would choose to live in intrinsically unhappy places. In an opinion piece in the Globe in May, Glaeser argued that happiness is just one kind of goal. Others, like higher paying jobs, more professional opportunity, or better schools, are also laudable goals, even if they might lead us to move to places that are expensive and rat race-y and make us less satisfied with our lives.

There are good reasons people might choose to be less satisfied with their lives, especially when satisfaction is defined as something narrow like moment-to-moment contentment. At the same time, we make bad decisions in our lives all the time—and unhappiness itself can promote bad decision-making. So why don’t unhappy people move away from unhappy places? Some people may stay put because they want to, but there’s also surely a large category of people who would if they could, but for any number of reasons, they can’t.

Nurses fire back in the algorithm wars

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 21, 2014 11:26 AM

For a while now, algorithms have been making their way into medical care: nurses and doctors enter vital signs and symptoms, and a computer churns out a diagnosis, or recommends a treatment. There are plenty of virtues to data-driven medicine, but also some notable downsides. We value a good bedside manner in our medical professionals, which a computer doesn't have, and there's also the feeling that the manifestations of disease are too complex to ever be captured reliably in a formula.

As you might expect, registered nurses are among the most vocal critics of so-called "computer care." In May, National Nurses United launched a campaign warning patients about the dangers of "unproven medical technology." The campaign's spots are meant to be funny, in a discomforting kind of way. In a YouTube video, a hippyish computer tech named Steve punches symptoms into a computer console called FRANK, which diagnoses a middle-aged man named Mr. Smith as "pregnant." In a radio ad, a bland but cocksure computer voice tells a man named Mr. Miller, who's complaining that he can't breathe, "oh we have something better than nurses, algorithms!" As Mr. Miller's gasps intensify, the computer jovially spits out diagnoses (gout! bronchitis!) until a woman rushes in and says, "Stay calm Mr. Miller, you’re in a real nurse’s hands now."

The real bad guys in the ads are less the computers themselves, and more the penny-pinching hospital administrators and biotech CEOs who push them. Still, as plainly indispensable as nurses are, it can't feel great to have to justify your profession by picking fights with a computer program.

Finding societal truths in the voices heard by the mentally ill

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 21, 2014 10:32 AM

One view of people with mental illness is that they operate outside of society. While the sane among us observe social mores and pay at least some heed to what other people think of us, the mentally ill live in worlds of their own.

Surprising new research on schizophrenia suggests, however, that people with mental illness may have stronger, stranger ties to their societies than we commonly assume. In a new article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains that for schizophrenics experiencing auditory hallucinations, the cultures they live in shape the voices they hear in their minds.

Most psychiatric research is conducted by scientists. Luhrmann argues, though, that the same psychiatric condition can express itself differently in different cultures, which is where anthropologists come in. For this study, she interviewed adults with schizophrenia who live in three different places: Chennai, India, Accra, Ghana, and San Mateo, California. She asked each person to describe his or her auditory hallucinations—how many voices they heard, what the voices said, where they felt the voices were coming from.

Luhrmann found many similarities across the three cultures, but also some important differences. The people from Ghana and India generally found hearing voices to be a positive experience, describing the voices as benign and playful, involving sex, or as spiritual encounters. The 20 people interviewed in California expressed opposite sentiments, describing the voices as angry, hateful, noisy, and violent. One American subject described the voices as giving directions "like torturing people, to take their eye out with a fork, or cut someone's head and drink their blood, really nasty stuff."

The differences across cultures, Luhrmann argues, can be explained by several factors. In India and Ghana, people were more likely to hear what they thought of as voices of family members, while in the U.S., schizophrenics tended to regard the voices as strangers, which made them more threatening. She thinks this could reflect differences in family structure—extended families are tighter in Ghana and India than they are here, where we’re more likely to live alone

A second factor has to do with basic differences in how people in the study thought of what it mean to hear voices in the first place. In the U.S., people considered the voices to be expressions of an illness or defect, while in Ghana and India, they were willing to think of the voices as coming from disembodied spirits or God. This suggests that how you think about a condition like schizophrenia can go a long way to determining how you experience it. It also points toward another way of thinking about people with mental illness: They exist outside of society, and from that vantage, they’re able to tell us truths about the way we live.

The Week in Ideas 7/21

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 21, 2014 09:00 AM

What playfulness can do for you
: Leon Neyfakh on new research in psychology that finds that acting like a goofball can have all sorts of positive effects on your life.

What does World War I mean? A century of answers: Jordan Michael Smith on the different ways World War I has been interpreted over the last 100 years, how the lessons of the conflict have changed along with us.

What ‘urban physics’ could tell us about how cities work: Ruth Graham on MIT professor Franz-Josef Ulm, who hopes that physics can give urban planners a new tool to understand a city’s structure, its energy use, and possibly even its resilience to climate change.

Travel advice from Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle: Danny Heitman on how psychologists are learning what the Roosevelt family knew a long time ago, that connecting with other cultures can have help you build a stronger trust in humanity.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how people assume socially responsible consumer products are of lower quality; how interracial couples are more attractive; how unmarried CEOs perform better; and more.

When America learned to advertise

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 16, 2014 02:48 PM

When you look at bygone advertisements, it’s hard not to chuckle and think: You silly people, you got taken in by that? The Baker Library at the Harvard Business School is running an exhibition called “The Art of American Advertising” through August 1. It features posters and trade cards (collectible cards given as product premiums) from 1865-1910—the long dawn of modern advertising when advances in manufacturing, transportation, and communication created the first mass-markets for goods like cigarettes, candy, and soda.

The exhibition includes a trade card for Nelson Morris & Co. sugar-cured hams that features a plump pig and the humorous tagline, “Pull my tail and hear me squeal.” A trade card for Singer sewing machines boasts, “Over two million in use,” and cites the hundreds of awards the machines has won at trade fairs.

“[Advertisers used] celebrities, women, children, animals depicted in humorous situations,” said Christine Riggle, a special collections librarian at the business school, noting that Jumbo the Elephant was an especially popular celebrity endorser. “Essentially the marketing gimmicks are not that different from today.” If that’s true—which it seems to be—then maybe the joke isn’t so much on those 19th century simpletons, as it is on us.

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Images courtesy of the Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

In search of a mosquito hideout

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 16, 2014 09:55 AM

Last month Brainiac ran a short piece on how public health workers in Brazil are releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild to combat dengue fever. It’s an extreme step, brought about by necessity: In the fight against infectious diseases, mosquitoes are an elusive foe, and a new report in Nature details the surprising, even bizarre, strategies researchers use to try and track them down.

As writer Emily Sohn reports, malaria researchers in the African Sahel region, which includes Senegal and Sudan, are still baffled by a fundamental question: Where do mosquitoes go when it’s dry? The dry season in that part of the world lasts up to eight months and during that time surface water completely disappears, as do the mosquitoes. But then the rain resumes and within three days, the mosquito hordes are back.

This quick return is especially hard to figure because it takes mosquitos at least eight days to go from eggs to adulthood. The timing has led researchers to believe that mature mosquitoes may go dormant, and hide out in these African villages through the long dry season. (This is no easy feat—eight months in mosquito time is equivalent to 700 years of human time.)

If public health workers could find these hiding spots, they could snuff out the mosquitoes in their sleep—but that’s proven to be hard so far. For decades, public health workers have placed nets over suspected mosquito hiding spots, like animal burrows, barns, and tree trunks, waiting for them to emerge, but they rarely end up catching any.

One new strategy is to use German shepherds to track them back to their lairs. Tovi Lehmann, an entomologist who studies malaria at the National Institute of Health, had heard that dogs could sniff out bedbugs, and thought why not mosquitoes, too? He soaked tiny bits of string in vetiver oil, a perfume ingredient, attached the strings to the underbellies of mosquitoes, and worked with a trainer to teach German shepherds to go after them. The dogs got very good at following the scent, but so far, they’ve haven’t found any hideouts. One factor working for the mosquitoes is that it’s hot in this part of the world, and dogs can’t pant and sniff at the same time.

Researchers are considering other tracking tactics, like attaching radio transmitters to mosquitoes. They’re establishing air defenses, too, launching gigantic helium balloons hung with traps, to snag migrating mosquitoes—though it’s unclear if mosquitoes actually migrate. Malaria is serious business, of course, but there’s also something amusing about this slow boiling cat-and-mouse game. The search might seem hopeless, except for one fact, which must encourage defeated researchers: The mosquitoes have to be hiding somewhere, right?

Germany won the World Cup, but does that make Germans proud of their country?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 14, 2014 12:40 PM

The World Cup is over, and Germany is the victor. For most countries, the triumph would spark an outpouring of national pride, and to judge from my Facebook feed yesterday evening, the Germans I know were indeed very happy their team won.

But were they proud of their country? Patriotism is a complicated topic in modern day Germany, where national pride is still tempered by World War II, the Holocaust, and the role that nationalism played in propelling the Nazis to power.

Recently the question-and-answer website Quora has hosted two interesting discussions on how Germans feel about their country (here and here). The first began as a question about why three players on the German national team—Ozil, Boateng, and Khedira—don’t sing the national anthem before games. The most common answer was: Who knows! But the question did spark a very interesting, more general discussion about patriotism in Germany today.

Most commenters, many of whom identified as Germans, agreed that their country frowns (or shirks from) the kinds of overt patriotism common in the U.S. “Germany is unlike other nations in that we have abolished patriotism,” wrote Judith Meyer. “We are trained not to be patriotic..and we readily comply,” said Stefan Lorengel.

Most people agreed that American-style patriotism is rare in Germany, but explanations for why, varied. Lorengel said that his fellow citizens are afraid of fulfilling the stereotype of “the ugly Germans.” Meyer and several other respondents said that today, only neo-Nazis would say something like “I’m proud to be German,” while other commenters mentioned lingering national shame for World War II. The most common reply, however, was about a long-running aspect of German temperament, not about 20th century history. A commenter named Ute Abel wrote, “I am not proud of being a German, since it is not an accomplishment of mine to have been born here rather than elsewhere.” Others echoed that point, reinforcing the idea that patriotism is too squishy a concept for the ultra-rationalist Germans.

The World Cup, however, seems to be just about the only thing that can bring out Germans’ flag-waving side. Participants in the discussion noted that Germans only really began flying their national flag in 2006, the year their country hosted soccer’s international championship. One anonymous commenter wrote that ever since then, it’s been common for Germans to fly flags around big soccer matches, though even then, he wrote, “it really feels like a playful holiday theme, like when you display scary stuff for Halloween.”

The Week in Ideas 7/14

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 14, 2014 09:00 AM

Gambling: an American love/hate story: As Massachusetts voters prepare to vote on casinos, Ruth Graham on how “gambling is really a clash between the deeply American principle that hard work is what should be rewarded, and the equally ingrained one that big payoffs come to those who take big risks.”

The Roman architecture of Mussolini, still standing: Max Page on how One of the world’s great cities bears the signature of a Fascist dictator, and nobody wants to talk about it.

A brief history of hating cities: Rebecca Onion interviews historian Steven Conn, author of the new book, “Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century.” Conn talks about the anti-urban impulse running through 20th century American culture, and how even the federal government has been involved in pushing people out of cities.

Plus: Britt Peterson on the history of dog naming, and how it makes it hard to come up with a better term for “mutt.”

And: Kevin Lewis on how practice is less related to excellence than we think; how writing about math problems helps you solve them; how physical pain makes people feel socially isolated; and more.

Image by Jason Raish for the Boston Globe.

An art auction where your money's no good

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 9, 2014 11:33 AM

It's the kind of scene you'll find in a movie. An auction is underway, for, say, an exquisite violin or a rare set of books, and two bidders square off: one has deep pockets and a mercenary approach to collecting, the other has a more authentic claim to the object- maybe she's a talented musician, or the books used to be in her family. But the deeper pockets win and it feels like an injustice has occurred. The person who would have really valued the object didn't get it.

That backdrop explains why a unique kind of auction that recently took place in Sweden and was reported by the BBC, feels so satisfying. The event featured $34,000 worth of artwork, but no money actually changed hands. Instead, auction participants competed based on the intensity of their emotional responses to each piece. Participants were brought one at a time into a room and hooked up to sensors that measured their heart rates and galvanic skin responses (the sweatiness of their palms). Then each auction item was revealed; the people whose heart rates spiked highest, and whose palms became the most feverishly sweaty, were the ones who took home the goods.

"It doesnt really matter if you feel happy about it, or sad or angry, just don't be monotone, just feeling something," said a man named Andreas, the inventor of the system, to the BBC. It's a useful way to think about what we hope to get out of encounters with art- that it's the magnitude, not the type, of the emotion the piece provokes that really counts. At the same time, there are cooler ways to experience art, as something to approach intellectually, or whose significance becomes more apparent through slow, repeated encounters. Which is to say, even if we were trying to auction art according to who really deserves it most, we wouldn't want to simply award pieces to the most overwrought among us.

It's like Instagram, for your face

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 9, 2014 10:21 AM

A few years ago Instagram figured out how to make bad snapshots look good, a modest service that netted its founders a cool billion dollars. The Internet is still awash in bad photographs, however, especially bad headshots, in which wan backgrounds and excessively uniform lighting make even the liveliest, most attractive people look ghoulish.

You'd think Instagram could solve this headshot problem, too, but as a recent article in the MIT technology review explains, the app's signature lenses are too blunt for the fine-tuned way we perceive faces: It may work to wash a snapshot of a backyard barbecue in sepia tones, but if you apply the same heavy-handed makeover just to a face, the result appears bizarre.

A team of researchers at MIT, in conjunction with programmers at Adobe Systems and the University of Virginia, is working on a solution. They've created an app which recasts mediocre headshots in the styles of famous portrait photographers like Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus- and in the process reveals how subtle shifts in lighting can completely change the way we perceive a face.

Here's how it works. You take a picture of your face, and then choose from a variety of portrait styles, like "low-key and high contrast" or "warm and soft lighting." Then an
algorithm scours a database of high-quality portraits in that style, looking for faces with similar features to your own, like skin tone, facial hair, and eye shape and color (interestingly, eye properties are some of the hardest to match across portraits, which makes sense when you think about the fact that it's often possible to identify a person from his eyes alone). The software then makes "local" adjustments to your original image- subtle changes in light and shading in different places on your face.

The results, which you can see in the series of images above, are impressive: headshots that looked like they came from a police lineup now appear to depict a stud entrepreneur or an exceptionally deep young actress. The results aren't perfect (the young black man in the middle row ends up too deep in shadow in the remade images), but they are dramatic improvements over the originals. We all want to be stars in our own little corners of the Internet, and maybe soon we'll all be equipped with self-portraits to match those aspirations.

Image courtesy of the researchers and MIT-Adobe 5K dataset.

If you go looking for the blue in a peacock's feathers, you won't find it

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 8, 2014 04:13 PM

Over the last year, Ideas has featured several stories on the elusive nature of color—how hard it is to define in terms we all agree on, or to pin down exactly where it comes from (here and here). Now, a story in the current issue of Harvard Magazine offers particularly head-spinning evidence of color’s surprising nature, taking as its starting point the mysterious blue in the feathers of a tropical bird.

Most colors in nature, and in the manufactured world, begin as chemicals. In plants, molecules of chlorophyll absorb most wavelengths of light, but bounce the green ones back out (in a sense, pine trees appear green due to the one kind of light they don’t in fact contain). There is, however, another way to be colorful.

As journalist Katherine Xue explains, Harvard chemical engineer Vinothan N. Manoharan studies what are known as “structural colors”—colors that are produced in nature by the shape of a surface, rather than its chemical content. A peacock’s tail feathers, for example, contain microscopic ridges, which interfere with light, causing some wavelengths to cancel each other out, and others to be amplified, resulting in the birds’ signature iridescent blue color (the narrow grooves on a compact disc have the same effect). One fun consequence of producing color this way is that it’s easy to make it disappear: The Harvard Magazine article notes that if you grind up a peacock’s feathers, there’s no blue at all in what’s left behind.

Chemical colors, like the ones often used in paints or fabric dyes, fade over time, as ultraviolet light breaks down their molecular structure. Structural colors, however, have staying power. Manoharan is working on creating plastic-filled microcapsules that mimic the surface of another bird’s feathers—the bright blue, tropical cotinga. By manipulating the density of the capsules, his research team can change which wavelengths of light the capsules amplify, and thus which colors appear before our eyes. Aside from their potential practical implications, structural colors are also a clear reminder that color exists as a transaction between objects, not a thing unto itself—more like the sound a tuba makes than a piece of brass sitting on the table.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Week in Ideas 7/7

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 7, 2014 01:07 PM
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Dawn of the web: an oral history: Leon Neyfakh interviews a variety of Bostonians about what it was like when, twenty years ago, the Internet first came to their desks.

1776: Not just the revolution: Claudio Saunt on six places in North America—outside those iconic 13 original colonies—that were undergoing revolutions of their own in 1776.

Will cities of the future be built of wood?: Courtney Humphries on why urban designers are pushing to re-embrace a construction material as old as human history.

Plus: Kevin Lewis on how more attractive people are healthier (and healthier people are more attractive); how criminals have more children than the rest of us; how you shouldn’t trust a morning person in the evening, or an evening person in the morning; and more.

In Iraq, an ancient Muslim empire rises. Maybe.

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 2, 2014 10:53 AM

Last Sunday the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) declared the restoration of the Caliphate—a dream more than a millennium old of a single empire to unite all the Sunni Muslims of the world. In a statement, which was posted online in multiple languages, ISIS declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new Caliph (leader of the empire), stated that he traces his lineage back to tribe of the prophet Muhammad, and commanded all Sunni Muslims to “gather around” him as citizens of a new transnational state governed by sharia law.

The idea of a new Caliphate is by turns breathtaking and preposterous, and seemingly more suited to the medieval ages or Game of Thrones than to the modern world. In fact, however, ISIS, which has gained significant ground in Iraq over the last several months, can find inspiration for its vision in the surprisingly recent past. The first Caliphate was established in the seventh century AD, but the last Caliph was dethroned less than one hundred years ago, in 1924, when the victorious West divided up the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I.

In order to better understand the history of the Caliphate, and what ISIS hopes to achieve by invoking it, Ideas recently spoke by phone with Philip Jenkins, co-director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at Baylor University and author of the new book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.” Jenkins explains why the idea carries power in the Sunni Muslim world, and also a lot of baggage, and offers a prediction for what this aspiring empire will look like a year or two from now.

IDEAS: What does ISIS hope to achieve by invoking the Caliphate?

JENKINS: What they’re trying to do is establish themselves symbolically as the leading force in reviving Islam. They’re trying to get back to the earliest stages of the Islamic faith. It’s also a symbolic statement to try and get one up on the various other groups that are claiming leadership of Islam.

IDEAS: How resonant is this idea for Sunni Muslims?

JENKINS: The idea itself is very attractive, but it also runs into a couple major problems because the Caliphate idea has become associated with a lot of radical baggage. It almost limits the status of Muslim to absolute true believers who go along with ISIS, and at the same time it invalidates the Muslim credentials of any and all states. [The Caliphate] carries some very ugly baggage, which even people who are quite militant and quite pious Muslims do not want to accept.

IDEAS: How does this declaration affect the more general Sunni-Shia conflict?

JENKINS: The Ottomans would certainly have regarded Shias as an inferior breed of Muslim, but generally they accepted them as Muslims. The modern Caliphate is not just saying that Shia aren’t real Muslims, they’re saying that many Sunnis aren’t real Muslims either. They’d say any Sunni who doesn’t go along with them is not a real Muslim. It’s an extremely exclusive, elitist, narrow idea. It’s almost as if ISIS is painting targets on their chests, they’re provoking so much opposition.

IDEAS: Do you think this was more of a strategic play by ISIS, or an expression of true belief?

JENKINS: I would say it’s mainly the first. It invites so much opposition, and once the Caliphate is in play, it invites other groups to set up a Caliphate. I bet in a year or two you wont be able to throw a stone without hitting a Caliph.

I wonder if the modern Saudi monarchy might respond to this by saying, no, we’re the Caliphs. When you declare yourself Caliph, you’re setting yourself up for lots of rivals. Three of the four first Caliphs were assassinated. The fourth was assassinated and his murder led to the whole Sunni-Shia split, which is a gaping wound 1300 years leader. Saying I’m the Caliph invites rivalry, civil war, and assassination.

IDEAS: Is that the kind of chaos ISIS wants?

JENKINS: I’m honestly wondering if they’ve thought it through. They might also figure, what have they got to lose, they’re in such a risky, exposed position.

IDEAS: Where will ISIS be a year or two from now?

JENKINS: Let me go out on a limb here. What I would expect to see is ISIS ruling a limited Sunni state within what is presently Iraq and with Iran and its Shia allies governing most of the south. I would expect to see Iraq partitioned and there would be one tiny state in Iraq and maybe stretching over to Syria calling itself the Caliphate.

Image of Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph, via Wikimedia Commons.

You'd think people know not to bring grenades to the airport, but you'd be wrong

Posted by Kevin Hartnett June 30, 2014 12:56 PM

If you fly often enough, you'll inevitably run afoul of the Transportation Security Administration: maybe it's a belt buckle that sets off a metal detector, or a container of contact lens solution a few ounces too big, or a pocketknife you forgot to detach from your keychain. It turns out, however, that lots of people fail their security screens in far more spectacular fashion.

Last week the official blog of the TSA ran a surprisingly scintillating post detailing the alarmingly wide range of weapons confiscated at airport security checkpoints in the last week. The list includes brass knuckles, stun guns, ammo, inert grenades, spent artillery shells, "a lot of sharp pointy things," and a small militia's-worth of handguns. Among the most frequently confiscated weapons were so-called "credit card knives," lethal looking things that fold down to the size of your AmEx card and can be tucked neatly into a wallet. TSA agents seized 61 of them last week, and the blog post suggests people are carrying them more often (either that or agents are just now getting better at finding them).

There's no suggestion that any of these weapons were intended for in-flight use, which is both reassuring and disturbing: If people are coming so heavily armed to the airport- literally (or at least hopefully) the most secure place most of us ever visit, with widely publicized prohibitions against anything even remotely resembling a weapon- what the heck are they carrying around with them on a day-to-day basis?

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Images courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration.

The Week in Ideas 6/30

Posted by Kevin Hartnett June 30, 2014 12:24 PM

Why Americans love to declare independence: Robert Tsai on the long history of groups of Americans declaring independence from their own country—and what it tells us about “an unquenchable desire to improve the American bargain.”

The surprising appeal of ISIS: Thanassis Cambanis on how the brutal tactics used by ISIS in Iraq obscure another key element of its success—the way it has promised to give Sunni Muslims active roles as citizens in a state governed by sharia law.

How to paint van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers,’ in 20 steps: Ideas present step-by-step instructions from Chinese copycat artist Zhao Xiaoyong for how to create your own version of van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.

Behind the Santa Maria, a Harvard professor’s obsession: Ted Widmer on how an early 20th century Harvard professor’s devotion to finding Christopher Columbus’s lost ship ended up contributing to its likely discovery off Haiti last month.

Plus: Britt Peterson on why English is by far the leading exporter of “loanwords”— words like “OK,” “Internet,” and “hamburger” that have been incorporated into other languages.

And: Kevin Lewis on how the story of George Washington and the cherry tree causes kids to lie less; how people believe less in free will when they feel the need to urinate, have sex, or eat; how people prefer to be disliked than disrespected; and more.

A sculpture that retrieves forgotten memories

Posted by Kevin Hartnett June 27, 2014 11:45 AM

In an idle moment on a winter day, have you ever looked at a slant of sunlight through your living room window and found yourself transported back to childhood? Well, even if you haven't, you may still enjoy Dispersion, a towering metal and glass sculpture recently on display at Brown University, which promised visitors a revelatory experience: "It truly can prompt memories that are beneath our conscious minds," stated a news release. How so? Dispersion, created by Providence artist Daniel Clayman, is made from 682 pieces of glass, stained a radiant gold and joined together in the shape of a full sail 16 feet high and 32 feet wide. Sunlight passes through the sculpture, bathing viewers in an amber glow meant to generate what Marcel Proust called "involuntary memories"- forgotten experiences invoked by a single brush of sensation. It's a lot to hope for in an art installation, or maybe something to fear, if the golden hours haven't treated you so well over the years.

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Photographs by Mark Johnston.

When it cost you $5 for refusing the measles shot

Posted by Kevin Hartnett June 26, 2014 10:51 AM

Even today, public health concerns sometimes trump individual medical preferences. That was the message last week from a Federal District Court in Brooklyn, which ruled that New York City has the right to bar unvaccinated children from attending school in situations where their classmates are infected with vaccine-preventable diseases, like chicken pox. The case was the latest in series of flare-ups around vaccination, and in issuing his ruling, Judge William F. Kuntz II relied on a surprisingly long-ago precedent: the case of a Cambridge minister who in 1902 was fined $5 for refusing a smallpox vaccination during an outbreak.

The minister was a Swedish immigrant named Henning Jacobson and he resisted vaccination because a childhood immunization had made him sick. Cambridge health authorities were unmoved, fining him for his refusal, and Jacobson sued. The case went to the Supreme Court. In 1905 the Court ruled against Jacobson, with Justice John Harlan writing that the government is permitted to suspend personal liberties in situations where “the safety of the general public may demand.”

Vaccine refusal has existed basically as long as vaccination itself, and the recurring conflict owes to the way vaccines straddle personal and collective interest. For the most part, our medical decisions are our own private business, while there are plenty of situations, like highway speed limits, where we recognize the need to rein in our own behavior to keep everyone safe.

But vaccines exist somewhere in the middle. Getting vaccinated is a personal medical choice (that conveys immense personal benefits as well as some very small risks), but it’s also an act of civic duty, like serving on a jury or paying taxes, because vaccines only prevent epidemics when nearly everyone in a population has received them. That’s an even harder perspective to adopt today than it was in Rev. Jacobson’s time largely because vaccines have been so successful: We worry less about diseases like measles (though cases are on the rise, especially among the unvaccinated), not just because your child has received her shots, but because the kid next to her in class has, too.

Floating robots and sensory pods- coming to a bookstore near you?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett June 24, 2014 10:04 AM

By all accounts bookstores should be dead by now, but even in the Age of Amazon, they hang on. So, if they’re not doomed to disappear, what might they look like in the all-digital future? In the May/June issue of Intelligent Life magazine, four top architecture firms offer their visions for the future of the bookstore- designs that are by turns fanciful and abundantly practical, and all of which involve very few actual books.

The San Francisco firm Gensler imagines the next-generation bookstore as a multipurpose space fronted with a touch-screen facade that pedestrians could use to buy books as they stroll by on the sidewalk. Inside, the store would be staffed by "literary sommeliers" akin to the widely knowledgeable bibliophiles who staff the best independent bookstores, and would feature individual-sized "pods," which would offer customers a "multisensory" reading experience: crack a copy of The Great Gatsby while sipping a gin rickey, listening to Roaring Twenties jazz, and inhaling a sea breeze to simulate the Long Island Sound.

Two other firms, 20.20 and Coffey Architects, emphasize self-publishing in their designs, assuming (probably correctly) that even if people are no longer interested in reading other people's words in print, they'll still want to see their own that way. 20.20 uses something like the kiosk approach to self-publishing, while Coffey combines futurism and nostalgia: floating robots help you choose paper, ink, and a font, before sending your work to be produced on antique printing presses and binding machines. These ideas are fun, if unlikely to support a thriving business. A fourth firm, Burdifilek, took a more purely business-minded approach: Their design calls for bookstores to hawk related merchandise along with their titles, so that customers walk out with a copy of Thomas Keller's "ad hoc at home" and a bagful of Le Creuset.

All of this may be wishful thinking- just because bookstores survived the first decade of e-commerce doesn't mean they'll last much longer. At the same time, there's hope in the very fact that we're discussing this question. After all, who's bothering to daydream about the future of the video store?

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Image credits (from top): Coffey Architects; Gensler; 20.20.

Can you spot the port-a-potty on the nature trail?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett June 23, 2014 12:00 PM

We think of camouflage as a concern for hunters and soldiers, but in fact our lives are filled with objects we wish blended a little better into their surroundings: a wireless router in your living room, a port-a-potty beside a soccer field, a trash can in a public park. Now, a team of computer scientists at MIT is on the case. Led by graduate student Andrew Owens, they've created an algorithm that analyzes pictures of incongruous objects and creates custom camouflage that makes them fade into their surroundings.

The algorithm analyzes images of an object in situ and pays particular attention to textures and contour lines, which are two of the biggest visual cues we use to distinguish objects from their backgrounds. The researchers' biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the camouflage work from multiple perspectives (if a box sits between a black leather couch and a smooth yellow wall, a pattern that makes it blend in best from one angle would make it striking from another). There's no perfect way to solve this problem, but the MIT researchers found that the best algorithm came up with a camouflage design that worked best from as many angles as possible and also allowed for smooth transitions from one side of the object to another. The camouflaged objects don't disappear completely, but it does take a few extra moments of scrutiny to find them, which, come to think of it, may not actually be what we want in a trailside restroom.


Image courtesy of MIT.

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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