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    What makes things ‘cool’

    And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog


    Some technologies still seem cool three decades later. Other just look 30 years old. What’s the difference? Apple enthusiast Jeff Porten has an interesting post on this question at the TidBITS blog. The post distills a talk given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at a recent security conference, in which Tyson discussed different aircraft from the past 60 years—including the massive Saturn V rocket; the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane ever made; and the Bell X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier—and asked himself why some of them seem dated and clunky while others retain their ineffable allure. There’s some crackle to this question, primarily stemming from the fact that so much of the time coolness is nothing but novelty in disguise. A cool old thing is special, and it forces us to think more precisely about what “cool” really means.

    According to Porten, Tyson’s theory is that “technology retains its coolness factor so long as it remains best-in-class,” which is to say: We stay delighted by stuff as long as no better version of it comes along. Nobody has ever made a faster plane than the SR-71 Blackbird, and it still has the power to wow people in person. As Porten puts it, “If we had ever invented bigger rockets or faster aircraft, then we’d consider the Saturn V and Blackbird to be historical artifacts, much like the Wright Flyer.”

    There’s a word for that

    The world is full of intensely useful terms we don’t quite have in English. Schadenfreude, zen, and savoir-faire, just to take a few, have arrived unpasteurized in the language because they so perfectly capture something we didn’t have a way to say.


    There are plenty more out there, ready to be pressed into service. That sense of hesitation when you can’t remember someone’s name? The Scots call it tartle. Feeling apathetic about politics? In Italy, that’s an nameable emotion: qualunquismo. Those words come from a project by Irish artist Fuchsia MacAree, who illustrated a whole alphabet’s worth and turned them into a poster. She calls them “untranslatable words,” but you might just think of them as the vocabulary you didn’t know you needed—yet. See the rest at

    ‘Yoo-hoo,’ said the Nobelist

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    Last week the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics was shared by Al Roth, a former Harvard Business School professor (just hired away by Stanford) who specializes in designing “markets” that can fix difficult societal problems: He came up with the national system that matches kidney donors and recipients and helped overhaul the Boston public schools selection process.

    If it strikes you as peculiar that an economist would be preoccupied with “markets” that don’t primarily revolve around how much things cost and what people are willing to pay, then you’ve hit on what makes Roth such a standout figure in his field. In the spring of 2011, Roth sat down with Ideas for an extensive interview in which he compared economists to mechanics, arguing that instead of merely coming up with theories describing the systems our society uses to distribute resources, economists ought to use their theories to help make those systems better.

    He also pointed out that his view of economics makes his job challenging sometimes: Because most people think of economics as being about prices, they don’t always realize when a problem they’re trying to solve could benefit from the insights of an economist.

    “You have to be invited in. Some of the markets we’ve designed we’ve actually knocked on the door and said, ‘yoo-hoo!’ But you still have to be invited in,” Roth said. Usually, he added, “you only get invited in when there’s some crisis.”