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Brainiac

Harvard’s guide to Star Trek

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures

The Houghton Library, Harvard University’s rare book collection, is known for its first editions and scholarly manuscripts from the past, like its archive of Emily Dickinson’s papers.

Now its archive extends to the future—or at least someone’s idea of the future. As the Harvard Gazette reports, the library recently acquired a copy of “The Star Trek Guide,” a set of writer’s guidelines for the visionary ’60s television show.

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As fanciful as “Star Trek” was, the guide suggests that it thrived in part by maintaining a rigorous internal consistency. “Never have members of the crew putting things into pockets,” the guide says. “There are no pockets. When equipment is needed, it is attached to special belts (as in the case of the communicator and the phaser).” The guide also urges writers to think of the Enterprise as a “familiar and comfortable counterpoint to the bizarre and unusual things we see during our episodes.” On a more practical level, it warns against scripts that call for the construction of expensive new sets, and reminds writers that all “Star Trek” episodes have four acts.

If the guide seems like an incongruous acquisition for the library, the Gazette article notes that Harvard professors are increasingly interested in popular-culture-related research, regardless of whether the source really counts as rare. With “The Star Trek Guide,” of course, the line between true scholarship and obsessed fandom is likely to be very thin.

Operation Ceasefire: Did it work?

One of the great apparent success stories in Boston police history was Operation Ceasefire, an innovative antigang program launched in the 1990s. By the time it ended in early 2000, the city had seen a 63 percent decrease in youth murders, and the program became a model for cities around the country.

As a program, Operation Ceasefire was straightforward and in-your-face: The department brought in known gang members and told them that things had changed: Whenever the gangs’ members committed violent crimes, the police would make their lives miserable every way they could. But if the gangs abstained from violence, the police promised they could expect things to stay as they were, with no special dispensations from the law, but no excess scrutiny, either.

More than a decade later, a trio of researchers at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard began to wonder: Do we know these tactics really worked? The evidence that Operation Ceasefire had really achieved what people said it had achieved, rather than benefited from a broader drop in violent crime, was thin. Given the program’s outsized influence on gang violence prevention initiatives around the country, the researchers thought it was especially important to find out whether that was what had made the difference.

They got their chance. In January of 2007, Edward Davis, the newly installed Boston police commissioner, decided to reinstate the program following a surge in gang-motivated killings. And when he did, the researchers—Anthony Braga, David Hureau, and Andrew Papachristos—were there to collect better data. They compared pre- and post-Operation Ceasefire violence statistics for 16 gangs targeted by the program and 82 gangs that were not.

When they ran the numbers, they found that, indeed, Operation Ceasefire was working well, though only about half as well as
data from the first round of the program had suggested. From 2006 to 2010, shootings among the 16 targeted gangs, which included the notorious Lucerne Street Doggz of Mattapan, fell 31 percent faster than shootings among nontargeted gangs—meaning Operation Ceasefire gang members were both less likely to shoot and less likely to get shot at. The researchers published their results in the March issue of the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, explaining that this study adds to the “growing body of evidence that focused deterrence strategies...generate significant crime reduction benefits.”

For academics, it’s always less exciting to come up with results that validate what we already know, rather than contradict it. But in this case, the research helps to put some statistical meat on the bones of a much-ballyhooed program, while providing an opportunity to update one of the most interesting recent crime-fighting stories in Boston.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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