The Hub Cool News

Traffic-Light Labels

traffic light labelsMark Bittman proposes a new approach to food labeling that works like a traffic light (The New York Times, 10/14/12). Developed in collaboration with Werner Design Werks, Mark’s packaged-food label would feature a color-coded — red, yellow and green — “bar with a 15-point scale so that almost instantly the consumer could determine whether the product’s overall rating fell between 11 and 15 (green), 6 and 10 (yellow) or 0 and 5 (red).” A separate box would “indicate the presence or absence of GMOs.” (image)

Each product’s score would be based on three factors, rated on a scale of one to five, starting with nutrition: “High sugar, trans fats, the presence of micronutrients and fiber and so on would all be taken into account. Thus soda would rate a zero and frozen broccoli might rate a five. The second is ‘foodness.’ This assesses just how close the product is to real food. White bread made with bleached flour, yeast conditioners and preservatives would get a zero or one … frozen broccoli would rate a four.”

The third rating is “welfare,” which “would include the treatment of workers, animals and the earth.” An industrially-produced chicken, says Mark “would be zero or close to it.” Mark admits that arriving at such calculations is “not simple,” but not impossible. He notes that “traffic-light labeling came close to passing in Britain, and our own Institute of Medicine is proposing something similar.” He also acknowledges that traffic-light labels would be controversial. “It may well be that there are wiser ways to sort through this information and get it across,” writes Mark, adding, “The main point here is: let’s get started.”

Presidential Names

If you want your son to grow up to be president, don’t name him Charles, David, Joseph, Michael or Robert, writes John Steele Gordon in The Wall Street Journal (9/14/12). Those five names are among the top-ten most common first names in America, but “none of the 43 men who have been president has borne one of them as a first name (although David was Dwight Eisenhower’s middle name).” It’s not that America hasn’t had presidents with common names — six were named James; four William, four John; three George and two Andrew. It’s that “more than half of the presidents (22 in all) have borne presidentially unique names.”

We’ve had a Warren, a Zachary, a Chester and a Lyndon. Millard, Rutheford and Franklin. Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but a “bureaucratic snafu” while at West Point “which he never bothered to straighten out, listed him as Ulysses S. Grant, the S being short for his mother’s maiden name, Simpson (It is speculated that Grant rather liked the sound of U.S. Grant, and he was known at West Point as Sam, for Uncle Sam).”

The pattern holds for vice-presidents — more than half of whom “have borne a singular first name, including such unusual ones as Elbridge, Adlai, Hubert and Garret. Among the unique vice-presidential names are Hannibal, Schuler, Levi and Alben.” Nothing about the 2012 election will change this, given the choices between Mitt and Barack. Romney, in fact, whose first name is actually Willard, would be the fourth president to use his middle name. In any case, if you harbor presidential aspirations for your offspring, it may be wise to think different … like maybe naming her Julie, Jane, Beth or Holly.

Presidential Pins

like ikeOther media may be more glamorous, but “campaign buttons can still tell us important things about creating a winning candidate,” writes Thomas Fleming in The Wall Street Journal (9/25/12). Political buttons is a tradition that started, in a way, with George Washington. The first president didn’t campaign, but his admirers wore coats featuring “a set of brass and copper buttons engraved with eagles” in a nod to Washington’s attire at his first inauguration. The first true campaign buttons surfaced 1828. They were made of wood, in support of Old Hickory, or Andrew Jackson, who earned his nickname because he “supposedly gave his horse to a wounded soldier and strode beside his men, flourishing a hickory cane.” Jackson won handily.

William Henry Harrison turned an insult into a winning campaign button: After a newspaper bashed him as “so old and ineffective that he would be happier in a log cabin with a barrel of hard cider for company,” his supporters literally turned the dig into a badge of “frontier honesty and honor.” The Harrison campaign turned out as many as “five dozen different types of metal and wooden buttons … all featuring log cabins and barrels of cider.” Fact was, Harrison lived in a “22-room mansion, which had one of the best wine cellars in the state of Indiana.” No matter: He routed the incumbent, Martin Van Buren, anyway. In a similar vein, Abe Lincoln’s supporters made “medalets” of a “split rail or an ax,” promoting his frontiersman roots all the way to the White House.

In the ’30s, “pro-Roosevelt buttons featured donkeys as ‘depression busters’ kicking hapless GOP elephants off cliffs.” In the 1950s, “when Dwight D. Eisenhower trounced Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, not a little credit went to the catchy slogan — ‘I like Ike’ — that appeared on millions of buttons.” Stevenson’s “We Need Adlai Badly” simply could not compete. In the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan was featured “on millions of buttons as a virile man of the American West, complete with cowboy hat.” This election year, both the Obama and Romney campaigns “are selling a wide variety” of buttons, but it is too early to pin down whether either has fastened himself to a button-sized electoral advantage.

Future Perfect

future perfect Much of the progress of the last century is thanks to “peer networks” that pre-date the internet, reports John Horgan in a Wall Street Journal review of Future Perfect by Steven Johnson (9/15/12). In fact, “peer networks” date back to the Renaissance, when creativity was “catalyzed by the free flow of ideas in trading centers such as Venice, Genoa and Istanbul, cities that ‘lacked both big government and big corporations.'” Steven credits peer networks, in part, with halving extreme poverty in the US over the past 50 years, and reducing “crime, traffic fatalities, air pollution and infant mortality” over the past 20.

The internet, of course, enables the potential of peer networks in dramatic fashion, as evidenced in “the grass-roots management style of employee-owned businesses; in schools that reward faculty members for sharing teaching ideas with each other; in ‘participatory budgeting’ that empowers poor communities to decide how to spend tax dollars; in programs that improve the nutrition of Third World villages by disseminating diet tips from healthy families.” Steven sees “a new political movement that embraces the potential of peer networks to improve government, medicine, education and journalism among much else.”

Unlike libertarians, whom Steven says “have too much faith in markets and too little in government,” and liberals, who are just the opposite, peer progressives “believe that good can be accomplished by all organizations, in any combination, if they harness the power of peer networks.” However, Steven recognizes that peer networks “can help governments crack down on dissent and help violent cults spread their hateful propaganda.” He also concedes “that peer networks may not be able to solve some ‘pressing problems,’ namely ‘climate change’ and ‘military defense.'” But he optimistically asserts that peer networks are indeed a catalyst for progress.

Foxy Federalist

Alexander Hamilton “was the Elvis Presley of his time,” says historian Ron Chernow in a Bloomberg Businessweek piece by Claire Suddath (6/4/12). He may also be the Ryan Gosling of our day — judging by the “string of Hamilton fan pages that have cropped up on Facebook,” as well as the “Tumblrs, Twitter accounts and fan fiction communities” swooning over America’s “first US Secretary of the Treasury, and the father of American finance.” One of the Facebook fan groups has attracted devotees such as Julia Cooperman, 22, who explains: “He was sort of the bad-boy alternative to the Washingtons and Jeffersons in history class.”

Julia says her Hamiltonian infatuation started in the eighth grade — and she wasn’t alone. She actually founded an after-school club in his honor. “We had a Mister Hamiltonian Pageant, where we made the four guys in the club compete to see who most embodied the Hamiltonian ideal.” Hamilton’s more recent popularity may be traced to his makeover on the ten-dollar bill, his portrait embellished with broader shoulders, a stronger jawline and better cheekbones. “He looks like he’s been Hollywoodized,” says Ron Chernow, author of a best-sellling Hamilton biography. “The Treasury Department in all its wisdom has turned him into a real hunk.” (image)

It’s not just the women who find him attractive, apparently. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Tony Award-winner, “is currently working on The Hamilton Mixtape, a concept album that tells Hamilton’s life story through rap.” As Lin-Manuel tells it, “When I first read about him, I couldn’t get the stories of Tupac and Biggie out of my head.” In life, Hamilton “was a slender, fair-skinned, auburn-haired man with a chiseled jaw and azure eyes.” He was also “a quick-tempered, egotistical flirt who caused America’s first political seks scandal.” But he’s not the only historical figure attracting modern-day admirers. “Some people find Henry Clay attractive,” says Morgan Herrell, host of Hot and Historical on Tumblr. There’s a “Team Daniel Webster” out there, too.

Vampire Vamp

lincoln vampireActor Benjamin Walker thinks Americans need to understand Abraham Lincoln as a non-stop party animal, reports Brian Truitt in USA Today (6/20/12). Benjamin, who plays Honest Abe in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, “found a kinship with Lincoln in hearing accounts of him staying out late and cracking up tavern folk.” Says Benjamin: “That’s the kind of Lincoln we don’t know much about … We need to think of him as a human being — somebody with a sense of humor and someone who was willing to be ridiculous and funny.”

Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian filmmaker who shot the film, agrees: “Lincoln is very unique because he is very contemporary, very relatable,” adding that while the 16th American president may be “fighting with an ax and chopping off vampires’ heads … it’s the real Lincoln. It’s not a joke.” The movie is based on the 2010 novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who says he’s “attracted to big, audacious ideas.” His other books include a “Jane Austen-meets-the undead story Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and this year, he released Unholy Night, which tosses the Three Wise Men of Bible into an action-adventure setting.”

Seth admits that some will dismiss his books as gimmicks but insists that his “mashups” work because they are grounded in reality. “With Abe, it was easy because you have the real legend of Lincoln to draw on and that story is just endlessly fascinating in real life.” As Rufus Sewell, who plays Lincoln’s undead enemy in the film, observes: “It uses as much reality as it possibly can to gain footing for its leaps into flights of fancy.” Seth says he hopes the film will stoke greater interest in the man himself. “If this is how people are finding how extraordinary Lincoln’s real life was, then so be it,” he says.

American Minimalism

“It’s hard to check responsible consumption at the door and go back to mass-produced things that have no stories to tell,” says Bradford Shane Shellhammer in a Wall Street Journal piece by David Sokol (4/21/12). Bradford is co-founder and chief creative officer of Fab dot-com, a flash-sale website specializing in simple designs for household items. For example, Fab recently featured “garden tools created by a Montana blacksmith and forged-steel lighting made in Illinois that the site described as having an ‘unpretentious, minimalist sensibility with a rough-hewn edge’.”

David McFadden, curator of the Museum of Art and Design, says the appeal is a “lingering response to the economics of the past few years.” Ruth Storc, who keeps a blog called Design Patriot, agrees: “People are interested in all things artisanal, because they want to know where the things they live with are being made and by whom,” adding: “Perhaps there is a bit of backlash against globalization and technology.” Tyler Hays, founder of BDDW, a furniture designer, also notes that American labor costs are now more competitive with Chinese, and besides, “you can spend $4 in fossil fuel for shipping a $10 item overseas.”

Such forces are fueling a design trend becoming known as New American Minimalism that features “reserved shapes, natural materials, apparent construction and hand finishing.” For consumers, says designer Kimberly Ayres, the “basic yet refined lines allow more whimsical furniture pieces to stand out” while “the handmade quality is grounding.” For BDDW, it’s also smart business. “We’re making a bigger profit on pieces made in America than stuff made in China, and there’s huge, huge interest at the Anthropologie price point,” Tyler says. “It’s green and good for the economy,” he adds. “Local fits everybody’s agenda.”

Engines of Change

engines of change “Since the rise of middle-class prosperity after World War II, cars have been an extraordinary window into the country’s culture and mood,” writes Paul Ingrassia in a Wall Street Journal excerpt from his book, Engines of Change (4/20/12). That window opened in a big way, of course, with the 1950s appearance of tail fins, which were both inspired by fighter planes as well as “powerful totems of America’s peacetime bounty.” The fin-wars escalated between General Motors and Chrysler, peaking with the 1959 Cadillacs, which “had the tallest tail-fins ever appended to a vehicle that didn’t fly.”

Fins became progressively smaller after that, “and disappeared entirely by 1965. By then, extravagance in car design had spawned a backlash. Volkswagen was selling some 150,000 Beetles a year in the US by the mid-1960s,” and became an icon of “the 1960s counterculture.” Another icon of a different sort — the Ford Mustang — “debuted in April 1964, just as America’s first Baby Boomers were coming of age. The car caused a sensation, even though it was built on the chassis of the dull and dowdy Ford Falcon.” Seymour Marshak, Ford’s marketing chief at the time, compared the Mustang’s lines to those of a woman.

The 1970s saw the introduction of the AMC Gremlin, which was “designed on the back of a Northwest Airlines airsickness bag and launched on April Fools’ Day, 1970″ … and was perhaps was a metaphor for the ensuing decade. The 1980s gave rise to yet another Baby Boomer icon, “the revolutionary Chrysler minivan,” which “quickly became the preferred vehicles of ‘soccer moms,’ who were becoming a formidable force in America’s political landscape.” The minivan led to SUVs as well as renewed interest in pickup trucks,which are political icons in their own right, most recently in Scott Brown’s 2010 campaign to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat (link).

Obama’s Boffins

The Obama campaign is turning to "computing experts, mathematicians, programmers and statisticians" — boffins — to try to help attract voters, reports the Economist (2/11/12). The campaign actually has a “chief scientist,” Rayid Ghani, “a leading light in an area of applied science called knowledge discovery and data-mining — techniques that are frequently used by corporations to crunch vast quantities of data in the search for interesting patterns about customers.”

Rayid’s job is to analyze a “torrent of data and predict voting patterns, allowing the Obama campaign to target its spending more accurately and cost-effectively.” Such data links “names and addresses of voters … with everything from magazine subscriptions and home ownership to hunting licenses and credit scores.” As in 2008, the campaign will also “use online experiments to work out which messages are most effective.”

Last time around, for example, the Obama campaign found that a “learn more” button was more effective than “sign up now” in terms of getting voters to submit their email addresses. This time, however, social-media is more crowded, and candidates “can expect less free, word-of-mouth advertising on it.” Then again, Facebook now offers “paid advertisements by zipcode, as well as by political affiliation, age and interests.” The president, meanwhile, perhaps seeking novel, lower-cost channels, recently signed up for Instagram, “a “slightly hip photo-sharing network.”

Twitter Politics

"Twitter has changed the whole way that politics works," says Obama operative Teddy Goff in a New York Times piece by Ashley Parker (1/29/12). "Not just the press element," says Teddy, "but the organizing element and the fund-raising element and the relationship-building that all campaigns try to do." Mitt Romney’s digital director, Zac Moffatt, agrees that Twitter has changed the game, politically. "Twitter is the ultimate real-time engagement mechanism, so it’s moved everything to a much faster speed," he says. "You have no choice but to be actively engaging at all times."

For example, the Romney team uses Twitter to track stories reporters are flagging so they can give their boss a head’s up on likely questions from the press. They also use it to create hashtags aimed at opposing candidates: After Newt Gingrich referred to his own ideas as "grandiose," the Romney campaign "sent mocking Twitter messages with a hashtag #grandiosenewt and encouraged supporters to do the same. Romney has also been on the receiving end, with the #what10Kbuys hashtag unleashed by Democrats, in reference to a wealth-related Romney gaffe.

Rick Santorum helped turn out his troops on the morning of the Iowa Caucuses by paying for a "promoted" message that showed up at the top of Twitter for searches on the #IACaucuses hashtag. During the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich "used Twitter to reach out to voters who had posted positively about guns." The Obama camp posts lines from the President’s speeches to see "which are the most shared." Twitter, says Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, is "basically a focus group." Gingrich spokesperson R.C. Hammond, meanwhile, likes how Twitter "has applied the Strunk and White rules to writing press releases … Be short, be pithy, be engaging," he says.


The existence of the Higgs boson could have cultural, if not practical, applications, suggests Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal (12/19/11). But before either can happen, we need to have at least some understanding of what Higgs boson is. Unlike other scientific discoveries, Higgs boson doesn’t lend itself to shorthand understanding the way black holes, genes, or vaccination do. Nor does it readily translate into metaphor, in the manner of light year, Darwinian or DNA. That’s probably because Higgs boson has to do with "the mysterious manifestation of the field that causes matter to have mass." Indeed.

In hopes of connecting this abstract concept to the real world, William Waldegrave, a British science minister, in 1993 challenged an assembly of scientists to explain on a single page what Higgs boson is and why we should care. Hundreds attempted, and five (link) were picked as winners, among them David Miller, who used Margaret Thatcher entering a room of supporters as a metaphor. The supporters are uniformly distributed until Lady Thatcher enters, at which point they "cluster around her," stopping her progress.

"Once moving, she is harder to stop, and once stopped, she is harder to get moving again," David wrote. He also compared the situation to "a rumor spreading through the party, causing a wave of local clustering." Matt says the only point here may be knowledge itself, but also notes that satellite navigation wouldn’t work without the theory of general relativity, which otherwise might seem esoteric. From a cultural standpoint, he suggests that "the way a bureaucracy impedes, delays and weighs down a simple course of action could henceforth be described as Higgsian," and those who impede progress be rebuked, as in "Don’t be such a Higgs boson!" Could be just what we need in 2012 …

Municipal Artwork

Long Island City is dabbling in art therapy as a form of public policy, reports Martha Schwendener in the New York Times (12/13/11). The Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park asked four artists to offer their solutions to "unchecked development, the loss of affordable housing and the chemical hangover of industrialization." Their concepts are currently being featured in an exhibition called Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City.

Natalie Jeremijenko offers "Feral Robots," or "cast-off robot toys outfitted with computer components for sniffing out pollutants in contaminated soil; awnings that collect solar-energy; and bags you can hang over your apartment balcony to grow food." She also proposes "hula hoops filled with wildflower seeds and biomimetic wings for personal travel. " Rirkrit Tiravanija proposes "drivable" grass and opening a community kitchen.

Mary Miss suggests turning "four giant smokestacks … into a kind of eco-feedback center registering environmental changes that would be visible to the community." Whether any of these concepts "will make it out of the gallery and into the world" is, of course, an open question. The stated goal, however is simply to "’spark an ongoing dialogue’ between the creative sector and the community." It is based on the premise that "civic change isn’t merely about infrastructure, but addressing ‘psychological barriers.’"

Gingrich Productions

"The behaviors of someone running for president and someone trying to gain market viability are exactly the same," says Rick Tyler in a New York Times piece by Trip Gabriel (12/9/11). Rick is a onetime aide to Newt Gingrich and sometime co-author of the former speaker’s many books. He’s responding to a certain controversy over Mr. Gingrich’s practice of "selling and signing $25 copies of his books" while running for president. Critics apparently find it unseemly that Gingrich is monetizing his presidential run with book signings (profits go directly to him, personally, not campaign coffers).

"People who are seriously considering someone for president of the United States, I’m not sure they see that the process should be financially beneficial to the candidate," says Jim Dyke, a former Republican National Committee executive. "I don’t know that it presents a presidential feeling to be there pushing your own book." However, Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign, says "we live in a new age," and suggests that selling books while running for president is simply part of the Gingrich package. There’s no law against it.

Gingrich, himself, says his books represent "the cultural wing of what we’re doing," adding: "I am a cultural teacher, with a political campaign to change a government. And that’s how I see myself." He says he is planning to promote his latest novel, which is about black Union troops during the Civil War, during Black History Month. Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann have also made book signings part of their presidential campaigns this season, and Republican consultant Mark McKinnon thinks voters see the events "as just making the candidates more substantive."

Novel Politics

Politicians write novels "to create braver, smarter, more powerful versions of themselves," writes Michael Moynihan in the Wall Street Journal (12/10/11). Politicians who have succumbed to this particular temptation include Gary Hart, Ed Koch, Bob Graham, Scooter Libby and Barbara Boxer. Even Winston Churchill couldn’t resist attempting a novel, Savrola, published in 1899. Jimmy Carter has actually attempted a book of poetry, as has former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who has published two volumes of verse. Some critics say these efforts couldn’t be verse.

Few, if any, of these works of political fiction has achieved anything close to either critical or popular acclaim. The goal, apparently, is "a desire to use the novel to write ideological history." For example, William Cohen’s latest novel, Blink of an Eye, "is a rather obvious morality tale whose lesson parallels Mr. Cohen’s own opposition to the Iraq War: Don’t base momentous foreign-policy decisions on dubious intelligence." Bob Graham, a former senator, meanwhile says he was inspired to write a novel, Keys to the Kingdom, to address unanswered questions about the September 11th attacks.

Graham says he turned to fiction because "there were some things I wanted to say that I didn’t think I could do in nonfiction." Similarly, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich likes to anchor his novels "in specific moments in history — especially those periods or episodes viewed as morally unambiguous, like World War II or the Civil War." He told an interviewer that his "purpose" in writing about Pearl Harbor was "to remind people how real these kinds of dangers are." His latest novel, The Battle of the Crater, meanwhile, is intended to convey that the 2012 election is "as crucial a turning point for the nation as the eve of the Civil War."

Stamped Out

A. Lee Fritschler thinks the US Postal Service “should be viewed not as a communications medium but as a broadcasting medium,” writes Randall Stross in The New York Times (10/2/11). He’s referring, of course, to the reality that the Postal Service is mostly in the business of “spraying messages” versus sending letters. “Stamped mail” has declined “47 percent since 2001″ while “standard mail” — the kind sent in bulk for marketing purposes — “dropped only eight percent over the same period.” Either way, the Postal Service is looking at losses, of course, to the tune of “a projection of nearly $10 billion for 2011.”

The American Postal Workers Union meanwhile argues that this decline is because of the recession’s effect on advertising budgets. “As the nation and the world emerge from economic stagnation, hardy-copy mail volume will expand,” the Union states on its website. However, this, says Randall “ignores the rise of the internet, and its ever-growing use for checking bills or sending payments.” Of course, the internet theoretically could help close the gap, given that “our use of package delivery services … has grown with e-commerce.”

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Postal Service is now “on the brink of default unless Congress comes to the rescue.” This raises the question of whether the US Congress should subsidize “the private interests that use the service to distribute advertising cheaply.” That’s not what happened in 1861, when the Pony Express was quickly shut down by its private investors once the transcontinental telegraph was in place. Now, 150 years later, Randall writes, “we have a delivery service whose rasion d’etre is rapidly vanishing before our eyes … and we are paralyzed, unable to decide what to do.”


A crew of young and scruffy German internet activists are forcing conventional politics to walk the plank, reports Nicholas Kulish in the New York Times (9/20/11). The Pirate Party, promising "liquid democracy," shocked Germany’s political status quo by winning 8.9 percent of the vote and 15 seats in the state parliament. To an extent, their electoral success was a protest vote, but some suggest larger implications. "In the internet, they have really found an underexploited theme that the other political parties are not dealing with," says Christoph Bieber of the University of Duisburg-Essen.

These themes include "online privacy" and "data protection," and are rooted in the reality that young people "often spend half their waking hours online, much of it on social networking sites where they share their most intimate moments." In addition, "the Pirates’ call for complete transparency in politics resonates powerfully." To that end, the Pirates "have promised to use online tools to give party members unprecedented power to propose policies and determine stances, in what they call ‘liquid democracy,’ a form of participation that goes beyond simply voting in elections."

"Today’s cadre of politicians is missing out on asking some very relevant questions about the future," says Rick Falkvinge, who founded the Pirate Party in Sweden in 2006. Rick says that, because of the internet, "you don’t have to take these laws being read to you … You can stand up, stand tall and write the laws yourself." So far, the Pirate Party is overwhelmingly the enclave of "young men who spend their evenings writing computer code," but the Pirates say this will change. In the meantime, party leader Andreas Baum says they’ve already made a difference. "The very fact that these other parties are now asking themselves how we won these votes is already progress."

City Cycling

Janette Sadik-Kahn is making New York City safe for cyclists, writes Frank Bruni in the New York Times (9/12/11). Since Miguel Bloombito made Janette transportation commissioner in 2007, "the city has roughly doubled its miles of bike lanes, to about 500 … The city has also plotted a far-reaching and potentially game-changing public bike share program … In a swift manner all the more impressive given government sclerosis these days, New York is truly transforming itself."

This is happening, however, amid tepid public support and strong "opposition, bordering on hysteria." While various "polls have shown that a majority of New Yorkers favor the creation of bike lanes … it’s a relatively soft, quiet support, reflecting the limited use of those lanes." Janette’s efforts to install bike lanes has also been met with at least one lawsuit (it was dismissed) and a New York Post editorial criticizing her for "turning over vast swaths of city streets to delivery boys on bikes and the occasional cool dude pedaling along in Day-Glo tights."

In fact, while New York has far fewer commuter cyclists than some other major cities, "ridership is definitely growing." Over the past decade or so, the "number of cyclists entering Manhattan’s central business district has grown from 4,700 to 15,500. New York remains relatively devoid of bike racks, but it’s hoped that the bike-share program will be a turning point, and help "push back against a range of modern ills" — congestion, pollution and obesity, to name a few. As Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein says, "Bikes are definitely a symbol of what your city stands for."

Handball Diplomacy

Over the past 20 years, former handball champion Paul Williams has found racial harmony and community in his favorite game, reports Scott Cacciola in the Wall Street Journal (8/23/11). "You’d see bigotry in different communities as a kid," says Paul. "But the thing is, people respected talent. It didn’t matter what neighborhood you were in — if you could play handball, there was a place for you." Paul found this to be true while growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. As a teenager showing promise on the handball court, he was sponsored by both Jewish clubs and the YMCA. He later turned pro, winning his first national title at 30. With this positive experience in mind, Paul launched the Inner City Handball Association "as a way to foster opportunities for young players."

This was late August, 1991, and as fate would have it, the association’s first tournament was scheduled to take place "in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood that just days before had been the scene of one of the city’s worst race riots in decades." Naturally, this gave him pause, but Paul decided to move ahead. "People were like, ‘You’re still going to have a tournament? That’s insane," he recalls. "But when you have a vision about doing something, achieving something, I think you can inspire people to take a hold of that. And for a lot of us, that common bond was handball."

Paul "recognized that people from all walks of life played the sport. It was part of the city’s cultural fabric, transcending ethnic boundaries and color lines. And there was beauty in its simplicity — a slab of concrete and a rubber ball." But the tournament, despite its bad timing, was a success, with "about 30 players from different parts of the city" participating as "hundreds of police officers patrolled the streets … The handball courts became an unlikely refuge, a place for calm and competition." As Kendell Lewis, a player, remembers: "You could tell there was a lot of anger and hate … But once you got on the court, you were only thinking about the game." Twenty years later, the Inner City Handball Association "is still going strong," with tournaments regularly drawing "more than 200 players."

Women & Hoes

Attitudes toward women and work are rooted in "ancient agricultural techniques," reports The Economist (7/23/11). A trio of economists are presenting new research indicating that most people’s modern views "about the economic role of women seem to line up with whether their ancestors ploughed or hoed." The theory is that because the plough is heavier than the hoe, and demanded greater upper-body strength, men gained an economic advantage. This was certainly true in ancient Mesopotamia, whose move from matriarchy to patriarchy coincided with the advent of the plough.

This notion was earlier explored by economist Ester Boserup, "who argued in the 1970s that cultural norms about the economic roles of the sexes can be traced back to traditional farming practices. It is further supported by new research by Alberto Alesina and Nathan Nunn of Harvard and Paola Giuliano of UCLA, whose findings are based on data from more than "1,200 language groups across the world," going as far back in time as possible. (link)

This research shows that even after industrialization, women from hoe-based societies worked outside the home more often than those who did not. The question is whether existing attitudes about "men’s work" led to plough adoption, but the evidence is that climate was the determining factor: The plough was adopted where crops like wheat, barley and rye grew best, while the hoe remained popular if the climate suited roots and tubers. Further research finds that "descendants of plough users" are more likely to agree "that men should have first dibs on jobs when unemployment is high" and that men make better political leaders.

Common Sense

"The digital future of news has much in common with its chaotic, ink-stained past," reports the Economist (7/9/11). No question but that the news business "is being reshaped by technology," but the technology is also "returning the industry to the more vibrant, freewheeling and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era." After all, before we had the mass distribution of newspapers and other news media, we had Thomas Paine, John Locke and Benjamin Franklin — the bloggers of their day — collecting, sharing and exchanging information.

News spread "as people chatted in marketplaces and taverns or exchanged letters with their friends." Newspapers at the time were local, and "conveyed news, gossip, opinion and ideas within particular social circles or communities, with little distinction between producers and consumers of information. They were social media." Centuries earlier, "news ballads" reported "the defeat of the Spanish Armada," in song, and going back to Roman times "members of the elite kept each other informed with a torrent of letters, transcriptions of speeches … News travelled along social networks because there was no other conduit."

Today, "news is becoming more opinionated, polarised and partisan, as it used to be in the knockabout days of pamphleteering." And it’s beginning to look like the era of mass-media was a "relatively brief and anomalous period that is coming to an end. But it was long enough for several generations of journalists to grow up within it, so the laws of mass media are accepted as the laws of media in general," according to NYU’s Jay Rosen, who suggests "that it’s only going to be generational change that’s going to solve this problem." Media organizations, meanwhile, need to "get off political and moral high horses and stop trying to erect barriers around journalism to protect their position." Why, back in the day, there was no such thing as reporters …