The Hub Cool News

Michael Fertik is collecting your personal data so he can help you keep it from marketers, reports Natasha Singer in The New York Times (12/9/12). Michael is founder of, which, since 2006, has attracted some $67 million in venture capital to create a “data vault” that enables consumers to control which marketers get what information about them. The basic service, priced at $99 a year, can also remove personal details “from databases maintained by various information resellers” and install software “that blocks web tracking by 200 data brokers, advertising networks and ad trading platforms.”

Michael describes himself as “Jewish, lefty, pinko” and says he created because “something was wrong … when you go into a bank and an insurer that you may get offered different rates than the next person, but you have no idea when you go on the internet that your options, the offers you get or whether you get a coupon, have been defined 20 steps before you get to a site.” With, consumers agree “to store their data in the vault and share some of it with selected companies in exchange or benefits like cash, coupons or status upgrades.” has already “amassed files on millions of Americans” and has “several hundred thousand paying customers.” It is not yet making a profit. David Vladeck of the FTC is not a fan of the concept. “Having to pay a fee in order to engage in a retrospective effort to claw back personal information doesn’t seem to us to be the right way to go about this,” he says. Both Congress and the White House, meanwhile, are looking into regulating data-mining activities. also must convince marketers that its “vault has more valuable information and consumer insights than an ordinary data broker.” But Michael believes he’s on the right track because, as he says, “it’s your data.”

The Optimizer

It may have been information and technology as much as gender and ethnicity that told the tale of the 2012 election, reports Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times (11/13/12). It appears that the Obama campaign may have outmatched the “galvanized and incredibly well-financed” Romney camp with database-driven media buys and targeted messaging. While Republicans were still battling it out in the primaries, Democrats compiled “so much information about the electorate that it knew far more about which sorts of voters were going to turn out — and where — than the Romney campaign and public pollsters.”

The result was a system known as “the Optimizer,” that developed “ratings based on the political leanings of categories of people the Obama team was interested in reaching, allowing the campaign to buy its advertising on political terms as opposed to traditional television industry terms.” The data were drawn from the campaign’s own email list, as well as “Facebook and millions of door-to-door discussions conducted by volunteers in swing states.” The system ranked voters based on their likelihood of voting for Obama, and then used Nielsen and cable-box data “to figure out what sorts of programs likely and undecided voters were liable to watch, and when.”

Media buys included late-night shows like Jimmies Fallon and Kimmel, as well as ESPN “and, most surprisingly, TV Land, a basic cable network devoted to re-runs of old programs.” According to Jim Margolis, an advertising strategist, TV Land was a fit with “lower-information voters” who “may not be as political, and may not be deciding until later.” Traditionally, campaigns segment purely by demographics, “advertising most heavily in news and pre-prime-time game shows, where the most reliable voters can generally be found.” The “Optimizer” was explicitly designed to make a marginal difference in a close election, exactly how the 2012 campaign turned out.


The Consortium

ballot boxAn unpaid team of academic advisers may have given the Obama campaign a psychological advantage, reports Benedict Carey in The New York Times (11/13/12). Known as the “consortium of behavioral scientists,” the informal group of six psychologists “provided ideas on how to counter false rumors,” and “suggested how to characterize the Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in advertisements. It also delivered research-based advice on how to mobilize voters.” According to team-member Craig Fox of UCLA, the consortium focused on “little things that can make a difference.”

For example, research by team-member Susan T. Fiske of Princeton found “that when deciding on a candidate, people generally focus on two elements: competence and warmth.” Since polls found Romney “was recognized as a competent businessman” opposition ads portrayed him “as distant.” Meanwhile, when “countering rumors, psychologists have found that” it’s best “not to deny the charge … but to affirm a competing notion.” This is because “denial works only in the short-term; but in the long-term people only remember the association.” Accordingly, the Obama campaign affirmed the president is a Christian to blunt any “Muslim” association.

The consortium also advised “motivational techniques” to prompt Obama supporters to vote. These included reminding voters that they had voted in the past, because “people want to be congruent with what they have committed to in the past, especially if that commitment is public,” says consortium member Robert Cialdini of Arizona State. Voters were also asked to sign cards pledging they would vote, urged to make plans to vote, and told their neighbors they were voting – all of which are believed to increase the likelihood that they will indeed follow through and vote.


gallup piechartThe Gallup Poll is most famous for its presidential election surveys, but that’s not where it makes its money, reports Ira Boudway in Bloomberg Businessweek (11/12/12). You may have noticed that Gallup’s tracking poll received much publicity during this year’s election by incorrectly predicting a comfortable Romney win while many other surveys showed a close race, or a slight Obama advantage. In a way this was ironic, because the late George Gallup, a onetime Young & Rubicam market researcher, made his name with a 1936 poll correctly predicting victory for FDR over Alf Landon.

Gallup further burnished his image by publicly attacking a rival poll published by the Literary Digest for “skewed samples of right-leaning magazine subscribers, car owners, and phone customers.” Sure enough, not only did Landon lose, he lost in one of the largest electoral landslides in history. Gallup then translated his resulting overnight fame into a lucrative business that has little to do with politics — in fact, the firm turns down political clients. It actually loses money on its political surveys, which “cost the company about $10 million a year.”

Instead, Gallup, Inc. pulls down “high nine figures in revenue” in research and consulting “for about 200 clients, many of them Fortune 500 companies.” Its specialty is collecting data to “give clients advice about getting the most out of employees and serving customers better.” George Gallup died almost 30 years ago, and in 1988, SRI acquired the firm for an estimated $45 million, even though it was losing money. The reason: Fewer telephone hang-ups thanks to the Gallup brand name, and therefore better data. “That Gallup Poll brand gives us a little cachet,” says CEO Jim Clifton. “Sort of a Tiffany’s thing, rather than a Walmart.”

Positive Linking

Better understanding of the “network effects” of linked individuals could “achieve better outcomes for society,” according to Positive Linking by Paul Ormerod (The Economist, 10/13/12). The key is getting a grip on how “links to other people influence a person’s decisions.” Networked people “mostly opt to follow the crowd,” although enough of them “decide to go their own way often enough to make network effects extremely hard to predict.”

It’s important, then, to understand several different “sorts of network. In a ‘scale free’ network, most people have only a few connections to others, giving potentially massive influence to a minority with a ‘hub’ of a large number of connections. In a ‘weighted’ network, a well-known person or organization carries far more influence than others. In a ‘small world’ network, people typically have a small number of connections” that are directly connected.

Finally, there are “‘random networks’ … that people may not even know exist — the sort of network that can pass around a contagious disease from someone sneezing on a bus,” for instance. The main idea is that understanding the different kinds of networks and how they work enables policymakers to engage in “positive linking.” High unemployment, for example, tends to happen in “communities outside the right networks. A policy of fixing that network failure could make a big difference.”

Parsing Organics

Two studies of the same data resulted in very different conclusions about the value of organic food, reports Kenneth Chang in The New York Times (10/16/12). The first study, “by scientists at Newcastle University in England, appeared in April 2011″ and found that “organic produce … was more nutritious, with more vitamin C, on average, and many more of the plant-defense molecules that in people help shield against cancer and heart disease.” The second study, released last month by “a team from Stanford University,” concluded that “organic meat and produce … is no more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.” Both studies were based on “meta-analysis, a statistical compilation of earlier work by others.”

Meta studies “seek out robust nuggets in studies of disparate designs and quality that offer confounding and often conflicting findings, especially in nutrition and medicine.” Kirsten Brandt, who led the Newcastle study, suggests the Stanford study went awry because its was conducted like a human clinical drug study, and was based on averages. That may be fine in medicine, she says, because “the effects of a medicine should be consistent and variations indicate that a study may not have been conducted well.” However, in nutrition, the differences may be because of variations in “plant species, weather, soil and other conditions,” and not because of “shoddy research.”

Accordingly, the Newcastle study differed from Stanford’s in that it presented each crop year as a separate data point, where Stanford “averaged the multiple years into a single data point.” Even so, the two studies both found “no large difference between organic and conventional produce” when it comes to most vitamins and minerals. Both “found that organic produce contained more … phenols, believed to help prevent cancer and other diseases,” but the Stanford study “questioned whether the phenol increase was real because the magnitude of the increase varied widely among studies.” Meanwhile, some organics advocates say the entire argument is irrelevant because “they buy organic food … to avoid pesticides, for the health of farm workers and environmental considerations,” not nutritional considerations.

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."