Older Brains Hatch New Ideas

Earlier generations of scientists didn't have to wade through quite as much preexisting work before making an original contribution. Now innovators are establishing themselves much later in life. Over the last century and a half, the average age of a Nobel Prize winner at the moment of his great breakthrough has risen more than five years, from 34 to almost 39 years old. Run-of-the-mill inventors are also older: the average age for registering first major patents has jumped seven months per decade.

Books: Why Work Sucks

If you're lucky enough to have a job—especially a cushy, high-status job—you might feel guilty about how much you hate it. Prosperity perpetuated a little white lie: that work is supposed to make us happy. But the office is a fickle friend, according to British author Alain de Botton, who in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work spotlights life in 10 alternately routine and rarefied industries, including accounting, rocket science and cookie marketing. His implicit question, "When does a job feel good?" is answered with brutal calm: "Rarely." The tragedy is that we expect anything more.For most of human history, work was seen as penance, punishment or a necessary evil. But with the creation of meritocratic America—an "aristocracy of talent and virtue," as Thomas Jefferson described it—toil was transformed into an expression of identity, a way for people to measure themselves and others. "What do you do?" entered the social lexicon as an unavoidable acid test of relevance, while the...

The Translation Wars, Starring Douglas Hofstadter

In the literary world, translators are low in the pecking order. Titans like Milan Kundera and Isaac Bashevis Singer have branded them traitors for betraying the beauty of the original text, so most keep their heads down and hew closely to the source material. In their 2007 version of "War and Peace," translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky preserved Tolstoy's use of "wept" seven times in a single scene. But hold on a minute—is such slavish devotion really the right approach?No, says Douglas Hofstadter, Indiana University's Pulitzer Prize–winning cognitive scientist, who moonlights as a translator. In an afterword to his third work, Françoise Sagan's "La Chamade," he issues a cri de coeur, urging his brethren to become "co-progenitors"—Ella Fitzgeralds to the author's Cole Porter, as he puts it— who must take liberties or risk failure. In "La Chamade," he punches up flat dialogue, refines blurry descriptions and injects dozens of ready-made phrases (such as "bit his...

Debunking the 'Dating a Banker Anonymous' Girls

It was billed as a blog and support group for Wall Street's saddest cases: the once pampered young women forced to adjust to life without bottle service, Bergdorf Goodman accounts and boom-time sex—the collateral damage caused by thousands of points vanishing in a blink from the Dow. Last month, Dating a Banker Anonymous broke out as the hated, irresistible Website du jour, and it has earned its self-pitying, gold-digging authors some national press, not to mention promises from Hollywood agents of a "Real Housewives"–style media franchise. But hold on a minute—are the DABA girls even for real?Not exactly. DABA cofounder Laney Crowell tells NEWSWEEK that what The New York Times and many other outlets portrayed as a serious Web site is, in fact, a full-blown parody by Crowell and her sidekick Megan Petrus, a Manhattan lawyer. There are no DABA meetings. There is no support group. Crowell and Petrus fill the blog with a liberal mix of their own experiences, anecdotes from girls they...

"Age Of Anxiety": America's Love Of Tranquilizers

America's all-time favorite pill isn't for birth- control, according to historian Andrea Tone. It's a potent little tranquilizer called Miltown, after the New Jersey hamlet where it was born in 1955. The original "mother's little helper" set off a consumer frenzy that emptied drugstores and launched the era of psychiatric cure-alls. But it also raised a perennial question: do we actually need these drugs, or does Big Pharma push them on us? In "The Age of Anxiety," the McGill University professor pans for answers, and finds the blame lies largely with us. ...

Page-Turner: The Age of Anxiety by Andrea Tone

America's all-time favorite pill isn't for birth control, according to historian Andrea Tone. It's a potent little tranquilizer called Miltown, after the New Jersey hamlet where it was born in 1955. The original "mother's little helper" set off a consumer frenzy that emptied drugstores and launched the era of psychiatric cure-alls. But it also raised a perennial question: do we actually need these drugs, or does Big Pharma push them on us? In "The Age of Anxiety," the McGill University professor pans for answers, and finds the blame lies largely with us. ...

"Damp Squid" Book And The 2 Billion Word Database

The best part of "Damp Squid," a series of lexicographic essays by Jeremy Butterfield, isn't the oddball title but the computer that inspired it. The Oxford English Corpus, a database of more than 2 billion words culled from a range of global sources, works like a magic cauldron: it allows researchers to see how any word in circulation is actually being used. "Damp squib," for instance, is British slang for a firework that doesn't fire, or a party that fizzles. But the Corpus says most people mistakenly reference the sea creature. A small number also think that "hammer and tongs"—meaning to work vigorously—is actually "hammer and thongs."Dictionary makers rely on such tidbits to keep pace with the masses. But some of the most compulsively quotable factoids from the Corpus are pure brain candy: the 22nd most common noun modified by "naked" is "pic." (No. 1: "eye.") The most common adjective used to refer to "muscles" is "fabulous." And there are 214 derivations of the word "blog,"...

A Walk to Remember

For author Geoff Nicholson, walking is a source of "self-medication," a tonic that beats back depression and helps him write. The happy result is "The Lost Art of Walking," a rambling man's survey of the oddities and intrigues of putting one foot before the other. Humans have hoofed it for so long that the motion is etched into our very nature: unborn babies, he reports, make walking movements in the womb. Over time, the upright life has inspired a lofty "science, philosophy and literature" of its own, writes Nicholson, who guides readers through pedestrianism's highs and lows while ambling around London, Los Angeles and New York. Walking for pleasure is compared to sex (sometimes banal, sometimes beautiful) and traced to the automobile revolution, which turned walking into a special treat and strollers into rebels without a car. The message: walking is a form of physical and mental exploration. But perhaps Nicholson sells it a bit too well. Reading the book makes you want to put it...

In Tough Times, A Move Towards Local Currencies

Americans may hoard cash as recession fears grow. But in Riverwest, an enclave of Milwaukee, residents have another answer to money trouble: they'll print their own. The proposed River Currency would be used like cash at local businesses, keeping the area economy robust whatever the health of the country at large.It's an attractive idea in tight times. Communities print bills with serial numbers, anti-counterfeiting details and images of local landmarks. Residents benefit through an exchange system: 10 traditional dollars, for instance, nets them $20 worth of local currency. When businesses agree to value the funny money like real greenbacks, they also get a free stack to kick-start spending. It's all perfectly legal (except coins) as long as it's not for profit and the fake dinero doesn't resemble the real thing. Dozens of such systems arose during the Great Depression. In the 1990s, they resurfaced as a way to fight globalization and keep wealth in local hands. Now the idea of...

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