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Brainiac

How to build a three-foot salad

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

How to build a three-foot salad

The holidays are supposed to be a respite from the cold, calculated world of efficiency and optimization. Unfortunately, those forces have a habit of creeping into every corner of life — even the buffet line.

Writing in New Scientist, Jamie Condliffe surveys the science of buffet dining — which, it turns out, is quite elaborate and sophisticated. Game-theoreticians have studied the brinksmanship that ensues among tablemates competing for a limited supply of especially good buffet fare; psychologists have studied how who we’re sitting next to can affect how much we eat (hint: avoid men); and engineers have discovered how to construct a salad bar salad more than a meter in height — it’s been figured out by Shen Hongrui, a Chinese software engineer:

The key is to build a cylindrical tower using a base of radiating carrot sticks balanced on the bowl rim. “The foundations are very important, so choose dry and strong material,” Shen advises. Then build walls of cucumber slices or fruit blocks, before filling the inside of the tower with any food items you want.

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Hey, it’s salad, so it’s good for you!

Thirteen ways of looking at a tanked economy

When did the financial crisis start? Who caused it? What were the key mistakes? What led so many people to make bad decisions — and what, exactly, were the bad decisions in the first place? These are basic questions, and if we’re going to get ourselves out of this mess, we’ll need to know the answers.

Unfortunately, according to Andrew Lo, an economist who directs the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering, we don’t know them yet. Lo has reviewed 21 books about the financial crisis for the Journal of Economic Literature — 10 by academic economists, 10 by journalists, and one by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The experience, he writes, was like watching Akira Kurosawa’s classic film “Rashomon”:

We’re left with several mutually inconclusive narratives, none of which completely satisfies our need for redemption and closure . . . .Even the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission — a prestigious bipartisan committee of 10 experts with subpoena power who deliberated for 18 months, interviewed over 700 witnesses, and held 19 days of public hearings — presented three different conclusions in its final report. Apparently, it’s complicated.

What’s most disconcerting to Lo is “the fact that we can’t even agree on all the facts,” even basic ones like whether or not CEOs took too much risk, how much of a role over-leveraging played, or how much the Fed’s low interest rates mattered.

It’s a reflection, Lo writes, of the inherently imprecise nature of economics — and of the extraordinary scale and complexity of the financial crisis. Like viewers of “Rashomon,” he writes, we need to take that complexity very seriously, and be suspicious of the ability of any one account to capture all of what happened. No one person, he writes, will have the definitive view. So, instead of waiting for that person to arrive, we need to start the work of comparing and synthesizing the many contradictory accounts we do have.

It’s through synthesis that we might start to come to an agreement about what happened, and to establish a basic set of premises upon which we can base our next moves — however imperfect they may be. Until then: Beware analysts who claim to have all the answers.

One thing books are still good for

These days the future of the printed book is uncertain, and, looking at a book, it’s

Artist and photographer Guy Laramee carves beautiful landscapes out of books.

hard not to see it as an object of curiosity, even nostalgia — a piece of technology that will soon be as obsolete as a rotary phone. Guy Laramee, an artist and photographer based in Montreal, sees books differently. His beautiful book landscapes, carved out of huge stacks of hardcovers, emphasize imagination over technology. They suggest that it’s the resolutely human world of ideas, emotions, and dreams inside our books that really matters .

The landscapes are Romantic in their drama and grandeur, full of unscalable peaks and sacred caves. The stuff they’re made of evokes the “erosion of culture” and the demise of the book — but, Laramee asks, “Do we really believe that ‘new technologies’ will change anything concerning our existential dilemma, our human condition?”

Joshua Rothman is a doctoral candidate 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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