The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt:
Haidt is a social psychologist, specializing in morality, with a background in anthropology and a sideline in philosophy. With this book he's trying to figure out where morality comes from. To that end he walks the reader through his career in academic psychology: the trends he was brought up with, the reasons he was skeptical of them, and the alternatives he started to explore--around the world, back through the Western philosophical canon, and so on (William Saletan's review, in the New York Times, gives a sense of the scope). 

He ends up with an account of morality that's simultaneously simpler than many such accounts but that leads to more irreducible difficulties. Simpler because Haidt thinks moral beliefs arise intuitively, with reason invoked later (if at all) to explain why. Further, Haidt's research points to six broad moral themes--care, fairness, liberty, authority, sanctity, and loyalty. All of these have been observed across cultures and throughout time, and all of them are intuitively accessible, although different cultures prioritize them differently. 

So in a way, this is a Jiminy Cricket system of ethics: if you go with your gut, you're probably right, even if you couldn't explain why under aggressively contrarian questioning. Some of the funnier passages in the book describe studies Haidt's various teams have done involving disparate subpopulations. When asked whether it's okay to have sex with a dead chicken and then eat it, for example, no one is more likely to reason himself into a grotesque perspective than an earnestly liberal student at an elite American university. Everyone else immediately responds that that would be gross, and gets irritated with the interviewer for asking stupid follow-up questions.  

Haidt's account suggests that moral differences may be hard to overcome, though, for the reason mentioned above: even if these big moral themes are commonly held, different groups prioritize them differently. Haidt cites a study in which American and Japanese participants were shown a drawing of a line in a square. Then they were given two cards, with the square reproduced at a different scale and the line removed, and asked to draw a) the same size line that they saw in the first drawing, regardless of the square b) the line relative to the square. The Americans were better at the first task, the Japanese at the second. The theory was that the individualistic Americans always saw the line as a separate entity from the square, whereas the Japanese saw the line and the square as components of one thing. 

From that straightforward example you can anticipate more meaningful clashes: between people who prioritize liberty and people who prioritize authority, between fairness and loyalty, etc. We can also anticipate that because all of these themes have intuitive underpinnings and indeterminate value, these clashes may seem intractable. This is where Haidt gets into American politics: if Tom wants lower taxes and Steve wants a bigger safety net, they're both making a moral argument, about liberty and care respectively, and neither value trumps the other. 

It's is a challenging read in the sense that Haidt's effectively rehabilitating several moral concepts, like authority and sanctity that Democrats often associate with oppression, and that classical liberals (like me) are more likely to acknowledge than appreciate. It's also a challenging book in the sense that you have to keep stopping to think. And Haidt's kind of explanation is too heady for a lot of what goes on in American politics. But if you're looking for a book to upend assumptions, this is the one. 

This went on for quite a while. The blue is for Democrats, the pink for Republicans. They first appear at the presidential level; Texas went for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. When John Tower was elected in 1961--in a special election to replace LBJ, who had become vice-president--he became Texas's first Republican senator since Reconstruction (the first from any of the former Confederate states, I think). 
Ian McEwan's latest novel, Sweet Tooth, is a postmodern spy thriller. Reading it is like spending time with someone who knows you really well and still likes you. Britain should issue it as currency.  

Can't say I ever gave much thought to staplers until last week, when I had occasion to use the stapler in the office mail room, depicted above.

The first thing I noticed was that it's ugly, and seemingly over-designed. The platonic form of a stapler doesn't have that narwhal tooth. This one does, so that rather than going to all the trouble of squeezing the stapler, or pushing down on the stapler with your hand, you push the lever. I didn't see how that could improve the function and it clearly detracts from the form.

It turned out to be the best stapler I've ever used. It works with surgical precision, almost a sense of purpose. A quiet, hydraulic-sounding shot and the papers are fastened together evenly, dependably, perfectly.

Having given it some thought, I guess the stapler works so well because it's solidly constructed--it's about six inches long and surprisingly heavy--but also, perhaps, because that lever that I was scoffing at encourages accuracy by interpolating a layer of control between the head of the stapler and the human operator. You know how people just staple things all willy-nilly, holding the stapler at whatever angle seems right at the time. In this case you're ergonomically encouraged to change the way the designer intended.

The experience that results isn't fun in any objective sense, but it is exceptionally fun in terms of using a stapler. One caveat: you shouldn't switch to this stapler if you're the kind of person who frequently has occasion to remove staples. It's too good.

Recommended reading: You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier; also this article about how staplers work from one of my favorite writers, "an eHow contributor."
David F. Prindle, Petroleum Politics and the Texas Railroad Commission.

The TRC was created in 1891 to oversee the national railroads. Shortly thereafter, it got tasked with overseeing oil too. That turned out to be an incredible responsibility, because Texas had more oil than anyone had guessed, and because oil, for reasons Prindle explains, is a business that defies the principles of classical economics: "an unregulated oil industry is incapable of acting rationally." Insofar as the TRC was responsible for prorating oil production in Texas, it ended up with a mammoth and unanticipated degree of influence over the economy of Texas, the United States, and the world.

This is easily the most interesting book I've ever read about a state regulatory agency. I would also recommend it if you're interested in: Texas, energy, resource economics, the balance of power between the federal government and the states, the relationship between the private and public sectors, decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, or long-range planning in a democratic political context. 
On Christmas Eve the power button on my phone stopped working, creating a mild but noticeable nuisance because a) I kept pocket-dialing people, b) I couldn't turn it off, and c) it meant that I was going to have to go to the mall, on the day after Christmas. 

Luckily this is apparently a common problem with the iPhone 4S, so the genius at the Apple store (and I use the term with disrespect for Apple's marketing department, not the guy in question, who was perfectly nice) knew exactly how to fix it: either he could sell me a new iPhone 4S today for $199, or I could wait until June, when my service provider would sell me a new iPhone 5 for $199. 

This has been said many times before, but still: we're gross. My grandfather has a business repairing printing presses, many of which are older than he is, and all of which are based on a technology from the 15th century. My generation, by contrast, fetishizes devices which are effectively designed to be discarded on a one- or two-year cycle. 

In any case, here's the workaround, which I intend to use until the whole phone dies and I switch back to bottles with letters rolled up inside, etc: if you enable assistive touch, it creates a button on your screen that lets you lock or turn off the phone without using the power button. This is how you enable assistive touch

As an amazing aside, some of you know that my brother Mark is intermittently spooky. Yesterday, thinking that maybe a piece of dust had gotten stuck under the power button, I was wandering around the house asking if anyone had a can of compressed air. This is the only time in my life that I've asked anyone that question. An hour later, we were opening gifts. This is what Mark had inexplicably but entirely correctly thought would be a great Christmas gift: 
Michael Skapinker, in the Financial Times, reviews a few new books about English. Check out the total burn at the end of this paragraph:

But Crystal cannot stop himself wanting to teach people to spell the old way. If only, Crystal writes, young people understood the derivations of words. If they learnt a little Latin, they would realise that “aberrant” had one “b” and “abbreviate” two because they came from the Latin source words ab+errant and ab+breviate. Crystal is as entertaining and erudite as ever in this book but he has probably spent too long at his desk if he thinks young people are eager for etymology lessons. Those who really want to know how to spell and what words mean can look them up in a dictionary.
A strange little story from 1902:
Via Konstantin, who notes that the profession with which Stephens was so occupied included his time as vice-president of the confederacy. 
I’ve had economic mobility on my mind this week because it was one of the topics that came up during my interview with Richard Fisher. I'm still transcribing it, so I won't quote from it, but to summarize: it was observed that although the United States is in some respects less mobile than other western democracies with market economies, the American system does allow for occasional bouts of spectacular upward mobility--the phenomenon we summarize by saying that in the United States, any child can grow up to be president. 

People who believe that these phenomena are related generally give two explanations. The first is that America’s relatively low taxes allow people more latitude to look out for themselves, and give businesses more freedom to spend and invest, even if the approach means that America’s public-sector safety net is bound to be skimpy. The second (more normative) explanation is that welfare systems create a habit of dependency, whereas America’s stingy approach to social services means that we’re lean and wily, and unusually equipped to make something of ourselves.

This strikes many progressives as harsh and unfeeling, but millions of Americans think this this is true because that’s what their experience has been, and as Fisher was arguing, it’s not necessarily true that a lean public sector is worse for working people. Texas (which is to the United States as the United States is to Britain on these kinds of comparisons) has pronounced income inequality, but the most recent round of Census data found that it’s one of the few states where median household incomes rose in 2011, and economists at the Dallas Fed have found that Texas is creating middle-income jobs at a greater rate than the United States as a whole.

Whether the American system is “better” than a safer, more predictable, more statist approach is a philosophical question, but in any case, this is a deal we we made, as a people, a long time ago. John Adams described it in 1780 in a letter to his wife Abigail: "I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

With that in mind, I wohighly recommend Jason DeParle’s story, in the New York Times, about three women from Galveston--the “triplets,” as they were known at their high school, because they were so close--who were determined to break the cycle, took the logical steps to that effect, made it to college, and then fell short. "With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net,” writes DeParle:

"The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them."

In other words, climbing the ladder is getting harder than it used to be, for economic reasons rather than social ones (like bias) or legal ones (like employment discrimination). DeParle cites a number of reasons why: the cost of a university education, for one thing, is getting more expensive, and the structural economy has changed since Adams’ day: if you're in the second generation and you want to go into agriculture, you can't just grab a roll of barb wire and fence yourself some farmland in Oklahoma.

What DeParle's story illustrates so well, however, is that people could also use some kind of backstop, because inevitably something’s going to go wrong: a car breaks down, or a natural disaster hits the island, or suddenly there’s a baby involved, etc. Over time, a person's capacity to bounce back from these things increases--you finish your education or training, or you build up a nest egg, or you start to qualify for better jobs--but for young people, especially, the consequences of early setbacks tend to linger. 

This brings us to what DeParle politely calls “changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes”--financial support, but also emotional support (as when parents advocate for their children's interests) and logistical guidance. As America's public-sector safety net is small relative to what we see in other rich countries, people have historically relied on ad-hoc personal safety nets as a supplement, and “traditional” family structures have been one of the major hedges against insecurity and poverty for many Americans since the beginning of time (1776), though not the only one. (I would like to think that this is one of the reasons that social conservatives are so exercised about “the decline of the family," although I’m uncomfortable with that way of putting it because “the decline of the family" is pretty closely tied to things like "women’s rights,” etc., which I support.) Given all of this we would do well to keep an eye out for alternative ways to supplement the safety net, whether from the government, the private sector, civil society, churches, or other voluntary or informal arrangements. In the absence of reliable bulwarks, the ladder is going to get more slippery. At stake is equality of opportunity, not just equality of outcomes.