Emerging Ideas Roundup: Culture & politics

MCs Do the SATs

Vocab lessons get a boost from hip-hop

by L. Jordon Frauen, from Flux

Remember the days in high school English class when, fretfully twiddling your pencil, you avoided your teacher’s gaze in an attempt to circumvent the humiliation of defining vocabulary words in front of the entire class?

Alex Rappaport and Blake Harrison have joined forces to help today’s generation avoid such shirking and rise to the task by using hip-hop music in the classroom. As the Manhattan-based group Flocabulary, the twentysomething entrepreneurs create raps that accompany a series of study aids and SAT prep workbooks designed to improve vocabulary comprehension for high school students.

Flocabulary’s educational materials can now be found at bookstores shelved right alongside the Princeton Review guides. ‘When you put music in a voice that kids can relate to, they can internalize it,’ says Harrison. ‘Our goal is to get students to feel like they own the info.’

Rappaport combines catchy beats and funky bass undertones with melodic instrumental phrasing. While steering clear of vulgarities, Harrison, a.k.a. Emcee Escher, keeps communication limpid / not too complex / and clearer than a window that just got Windexed. His lyrics are cool and clean, easy for kids to relate to, and user-friendly for teachers.

Students and teachers like Flocabulary so much, they’re inviting the duo to perform in classrooms and assembly halls across the country. In April, Flocabulary embarked on its nationwide ‘Shakespeare Is Hip-Hop’ school tour. The group is planning another tour for this winter that focuses on history.

The guys in Flocabulary are achieving success, and so is their audience. Betty Williams, an eighth-grade teacher at Martin De Porres School in Springfield Gardens, New York, tried Flocabulary’s materials on her class. Shortly afterward, her students received the highest grades on their report cards all year, and the kids began using words like loquacious in their everyday speech. In one instance, she reprimanded a student for making a wisecrack in class. The student quipped, ‘I was just being cogent.’

Reprinted from Flux (Spring 2006), the student-produced magazine of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication; http://influx.uoregon.edu.

Setting the Record Straight

The very political debate over diversity in textbooks has taken a new twist in California. In These Times (July 2006) reports that legislation proposed by openly gay state senator Sheila Kuehl caused a stir because it would mandate that the social science curriculum include the contributions of prominent gays and lesbians. A gubernatorial veto threat led to passage of a watered-down revision of the bill-with additional chapters in this textbook debate still to be written.

[word watch]

noun: The academic discipline of video game studies, covering not just computer science, but everything from game-making theory to cultural critiques of video games. Topics, according to Technology Review (March/April 2006), range from game philology to the study of virtual economies in EverQuest. The magazine notes that more than 100 North American colleges and universities offer some version of video game studies today, a trend that could give the ‘slacker’ pastime a new cultural legitimacy.

From Snapshot to Mugshot

Women who encounter leers and lewd propositions from strangers on the street have a new high-tech mechanism that might help them take back the sidewalks. Ms. (Summer 2006) reports that Holla Back NYC, a blog and a grassroots movement, is urging women to use their camera phones to snap a photo when a man hassles them in public-and to publish the photo on www.hollabacknyc.com. Sites have sprung up in other cities, too. The goal of this new form of Internet outing is not to catch or punish those who offend, but to give women an alternative to feeling powerless to respond.

Closing Time at EPA Libraries

Budget cuts are forcing 10 regional Environmental Protection Agency libraries, as well the headquarters library, to close or cut staff and hours this fall, reports Science News (July 15, 2006). The shutdowns are alarming because of the potential loss, to both scientists and the public, of access to data on local environmental hazards-records that sometimes are available only in these regional libraries. The agency is digitizing documents from the libraries’ collections in order to make them available online. But skeptics contend that it could take years to put everything on the web. And, without librarians, users may have trouble finding what they’re looking for.

The View from There

Grasping the complexities of the Middle East can be challenging, especially when U.S. television news often covers international issues in a passing sound bite. Enter Mosaic news. The daily half-hour TV newscast lets Americans watch a compilation of the news Middle Eastern viewers see themselves-unfiltered, unvarnished, and translated into English. The original reports, from both state-controlled and private broadcasters, are watched by 280 million people in 22 countries, including Qatar and Iran. ‘We try to represent as many perspectives as possible,’ explains producer Jamal Dajani. The Peabody Award-winning program is available via satellite on Link TV and online at http://linktv.org/mosaic.

Wild About Organic

In a crowded, increasingly urban world, farms and other working lands provide essential habitat for many wild animals. Organic farms are even better, according to a comprehensive study documenting how such farms enhance biodiversity. ‘We looked at a very large sample of sites throughout England,’ says Rob Fuller, a biologist for the British Trust for Ornithology and an author of the five-year study. ‘Plants in particular seemed to show big and probably quite rapid responses to organic farming.’ When farms go organic and herbicide-suppressed plants return, they create more habitat for wildlife to recolonize these areas. As a result, the study found, organic farms have 105 percent more plant species, 48 percent more winter birds, and 75 percent more bats than their nonorganic counterparts.

Scratch This

Global-warming naysayers, listen up. Big River (July/Aug. 2006) reports on one more reason to believe the threat: colossal poison ivy. Duke and Harvard researchers piped carbon dioxide into a forest plot to mimic the levels expected in northern temperate forests by midcentury. The result? Not only did the itch-inducing plant grow 150 percent faster, but it produced a stronger concentration of urushiol, the compound that puts the ‘poison’ in poison ivy.


A soggy situation in Northern California will put a sleepy suburb on the map. The city of Petaluma is building a 270-acre wastewater facility to use wetlands to help process sewage. When the facility is completed in 2009, treated wastewater will drain into two marshes, eliminating one round of chemical treatment. The marshes will filter solids, soak up nutrients, and shade water to retard algae growth, while providing flood protection and wildlife habitat. During the summer, about 4 million gallons of reclaimed water per day from the $110 million facility will green the lawns of nearby golf courses and city parks.

By Kristen Pakonis, reprinted from Sierra (July/Aug. 2006); www.sierraclub.org/sierra.

The Softer Side of CO2

Climate misinformation reached new lows in May when the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) released two television commercials promoting the benefits of-get this-carbon dioxide emissions, the single biggest contributor to that little problem called global warming. ‘They call it pollution,’ says the narrator; ‘we call it life.’ The commercials feature children blowing dandelions, animals frolicking in nature, and families happily piling into their cars, all to give some positive attention to the embattled climate-warming gas.

The two 60-second spots were aired in 14 cities a week prior to the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary on global warming. They are part of a campaign to counter negative media attention about carbon dioxide-and discredit politicians who call for reducing energy use.

Not surprisingly, CEI is supported financially by ExxonMobil, Amoco, Texaco, the American Petroleum Institute, and other corporations whose emission-generating products do more than blow dandelion seeds.

This isn’t the first time CEI has addressed global warming in its defense of unfettered enterprise. First it claimed global warming didn’t exist. Then it claimed that humans have nothing to do with it. This, however, is an entirely new approach: Maybe it exists. And maybe we’re causing it. But carbon dioxide is just so darn cute. Embrace it. Feel its gentle breeze on your face. Never mind the hurricanes and melting glaciers.

View the ads for yourself at www.cei.org.

By Jennifer Errick, reprinted from In Balance (Summer 2006), the newsletter of the Center for a New American Dream; www.newdream.org.

Getting Out of Park

Cities experiment with ways to reduce the tolls of hunting for a spot

By Dan Orzech

The next time you score a parking spot downtown, consider this: The most expensive part of parking may not be the quarters you feed into the meter.

First, there’s the time drain. On average, you’ll spend eight minutes looking for a parking place on downtown streets, according to 16 studies in 11 American cities, says Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning and author of the book The High Cost of Free Parking (American Planning Association, 2005).

Then there are the hidden costs. If you’re driving around for eight minutes looking for a space, so are lots of other people. Add up all those slow-moving cars gulping down gas and spewing out exhaust fumes, and you’ve got an enormous, and largely unnoticed, environmental toll. In just one 15-block area in Los Angeles that Shoup has studied, cars hunting for parking on the street drive a total of 945,000 miles each year. That’s enough to make it around the earth 38 times, or to the moon and back.

With nearly a third of cars, on average, searching for parking in downtown areas, congestion has gotten so bad that some municipalities are now charging people just to drive downtown. In London, that’s enforced by video cameras recording the license plate numbers of cars entering the city center.

Ironically, it’s the cities that are causing much of the problem, with artificially low meter rates. At noon on a weekday in 20 American cities, says Shoup, parking on the street costs about five dollars an hour less than off-street parking.

Some cities, including California’s Redwood City and Old Pasadena, are experimenting with a new approach: constantly adjusting the price of street parking so that no more than 85 percent of the parking places on a city block are occupied at any given time. The theory is that higher prices compel more drivers to seek off-street spots.

Changing rates quickly is becoming easier as cities replace meters with parking pay stations that cover multiple spaces and can be updated remotely from city hall. Some cities, San Francisco among them, are beginning to install wireless sensors that can tell them when a space is occupied, allowing them to know when pricing needs to be changed.

With 230 million motor vehicles in the United States, that might just mean a lot less driving and a much healthier environment.

Finding NEVerland

More than a golf cart, not quite a traditional car. Welcome to the world of the NEV-or neighborhood electric vehicle-a battery-powered, superclean vehicle that travels 25 miles an hour or less, perfect for a quick trip to the neighborhood market. So why isn’t there one on every street corner? Well, it turns out that no one seems to know about them. Perhaps that’s poised to change, posits Green Car Journal (Summer 2006). With gas prices on the rise and more conversations about alternative fuels and green technologies, the dawn of the NEV era may finally be here.


Cat allergies? No worries, thanks to a San Diego-based company that has developed a hypoallergenic cat. According to Plenty (Aug./Sept. 2006), scientists at Allerca Inc. are altering cats’ genetic profiles so they don’t produce the glycoprotein responsible for itchy eyes, sneezing, and hives. There are some hitches. Not only do these kittens carry a hefty price tag-$3,950-but, according to critics, there is no guarantee that the genetically tweaked critters will lead normal, healthy lives. Maybe it’s still better to accept the sneezing and adopt a stray.


Tiny robots that act and smell like cockroaches? Yep. The pheromone-dipped roachbots are a creation of a group of French, Swiss, and Belgian scientists, according to Wired (Aug. 2006). The machines infiltrate roach nests and, through scent and movement, coax the roaches out of their home and into the light-something they generally avoid like Raid. But this isn’t a form of high-tech extermination: The scientists are actually seeking insight into collective intelligence.

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