By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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  • What does the soul weigh? The recent film 21 Grams thinks it has the answer. So did the early 20th century doctor Duncan MacDougall, who established the weight of the soul as a scientific "fact" after elaborate but dubious measurements of how much weight human and canine bodies lose at death. Unfortunately, MacDougall's work is marred by "the poor accuracy of his scales, the huge variability in his data, the all-too-few people studied, [and] the tricky skill of pinpointing the exact time of death," says the Melbourne Age. That didn't stop MacDougall from publishing his findings in 1907, the same year Einstein put forth the more reliable E=mc2. While the body does indeed decrease in weight as it decomposes, MacDougall's belief that humans suddenly lose three fourths of an ounce with the departure of their soul does not, says the Age, carry any weight. Full story (2/23)
  • The nation's breadbasket is emptying out, says The Week magazine. The Great Plains—one fifth of the country's land mass—are in a state of seemingly irreversible decline. The family farm, that irreplaceable ingredient of Americana, faces a hopeless situation: it can't afford the technology to become more efficient, so it can't sell as much food—but since corporations can do both, food prices (and thus profits) keep falling. And those same corporations get the bulk of government subsidies, further dooming the independent farmer. Younger generations are turning their backs on family farms passed down through generations, and are leaving for cities. Those who remain see a grim situation in which crime and drugs are running rampant. "Crystal meth has hit small-town America the way crack cocaine once hit the cities," says The Week. "Much of the Plains region is already well on the way to becoming a series of ghost towns." The Week doesn't say whether more equitable subsidies are a priority of any lawmakers—or whether they would be enough to reverse the Plains' decline. Full story (2/9)
  • "There is a pox upon our public speech," pronounces Don Watson with the kind of bluntness and clarity he says is disappearing. Read a university's Web site blather incoherently about its "quality management … underpinned by a strong commitment to continuous improvement and a whole-of-organisation framework," and you recognize the problem. Watson says "managerial language" is ruining politics, business, education, and the arts, resulting in what the Melbourne Age calls "the death of clarity and irony and funny old things called verbs." Ever since George Orwell's 1946 essay Politics and the English Language (which is scandalously unmentioned here, though Orwell is brought in for a brief bow at the very end), we have been vigilant for jargon in the halls of power. But now, Watson says in his book Death Sentence, everyone is starting to sound like middle management. Full story To his credit, journalist James Button displays the virtuous—and, playfully, some of the contemptible—lingual tendencies under discussion while writing the story. (1/19)
  • Lay off the caffeine, we are repeatedly scolded. But what, exactly, is so bad about caffeine? The Chicago Reader Cecil Adams and isn't sure. "Nobody claims caffeine is a health food," he says. "It can cause jitters, insomnia, indigestion, and other temporary side effects when consumed in excess and is almost certainly mildly addictive." But: "Whether it can do more serious harm, though, has yet to be conclusively established." As he shows, this isn't for lack of trying. Full story (2/9)
  • "The Netherlands, as any European can tell you, has become a land of giants," says the New Yorker in a piece on the history of height. And quickly: in less than two centuries, the average male has grown seven inches. Other European and Asian populations have grown at least a half-inch per decade in the last half-century, but, strangely, the United States hasn't budged. The importance of height in the study of sociology has, shall we say, grown in stature only recently, the New Yorker says. Now researchers are puzzling over a pituitary riddle: How can the United States be one of the wealthiest nations ever and yet fail, for fifty years now, to grow? The New Yorker article gets muddled at the end, taking a stab at blaming income inequality and fast food (and, odder yet, trying to tie them together). Until then, it makes you wonder why we grow. Full story (4/12)
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