THE BLOG

This Week in Magazines: Sex, Cars, and Malcolm Gladwell

01/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Warren Washington Bureau Chief, New York Daily News; Former managing editor, Chicago Tribune

Detroit's auto chieftains probably drove themselves to a temporary financial reprieve last week, despite meeting a skeptical Congress. The drama of ultimate fish-or-cut-bait decisions will probably be left next year for President Obama, with the early journalistic consensus that he should support giving Detroit a post-Christmas defibrillator filled with taxpayer largess.

Oh, and if you inexplicably found any of those auto guys arousing in a more primal way, a leading news magazine suggests that "the quality of a man's sperm depends on how intelligent he is, and vice versa."

As for the manufacturing mess at hand, Dec. 15 Time leads the way with its "The Case for Saving Detroit" by Bill Saporito. "Americans may not know squat about collateralized debt obligations, but as a nation we have been defined by car worship. We are angry at our car gods---who for too many years made too many clunkers---because we have owned the Dodge Aries K cars, Mercury Montereys and Chevy Chevettes they produced. So the citizens and the pols are irked to have to throw the same companies a lifeline, even though they probably should do it for the good of the economy."

Business Week chimes in on Businessweek.com with "Detroit's New Bill: $34 billion," while Dec. 22 Forbes seems to temporarily cast aside its Darwinian-free market approach with Jerry Flint's "Everybody's an expert" column.

Flint, a longtime auto industry journalist, derides those who think bankruptcy's a good idea; that Detroit needs lots more restructuring ("It's been "restructured to death. It needs a few great cars."); that government oversight will work ("Have you ever heard of a successful government-run auto company?"); that green machines be a condition of any aid package ("There's only one successful hybrid, the Toyota Prius, and it's outsold by gas-guzzling pickups like the Chevy Silverado, Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram and is even outsold by Detroit's small cars"); and that Detroit hasn't been building the cars people want (hogwash, he says, arguing that a vexing problem is the rampant perception that the other guys' care are better, whether they are or not).

Finally, "Can Ford Pull Ahead?" on Newsweek.com by Keith Naughton speculates about the possibility of a comparatively stronger future for Ford Motor Co. It won't prompt you to call your broker to buy some cheap stock; even there is some cause for solace at Ford, including research suggesting that prospective GM car buyers, nervous about a GM bankruptcy, would be more inclined to turn to a Ford product.

Now as far as the sexy stuff goes:

Dec. 4 Economist offers a science and technology piece with the elegant title "Balls and Brains," citing implications of a paper to be published in Intelligence by Rosalind Arden of King's College in London. She's inspected links among intelligence, genetics and health, and seems to concur with evolutionary biologists who contend that intelligence is a reliable indicator of genetic fitness, and one chosen by the opposite sex for ages. We show off, even exaggerate, intelligence in the same that a peacock's flaunts her tail.

"The process of sexual selection, some believe, is the reason people become so brainy. So Arden decided to test correlations between intelligence and sperm quality, using samples given in 1985 by 4,500 Vietnam War veterans for various mental and medical exams. Arden claims that a general intelligence measure used by psychologists correlated with sperm quality. "Brainy men, it seems, do have better sperm." By implication, "they have fitter bodies over all, at least in the Darwinian sense of fitness, namely the ability to survive, to attract mates and to produce offspring."

Dec. 15 New Yorker includes Malcolm Gladwell's "Most Likely to Succeed," an engaging look at the tricky business of judging future performance. Starting with college football quarterbacks and ranging from financial advisers to school teachers, he raises good questions about what is generally the lack of due diligence we do, especially when it comes to those workers (teachers) who can have an outsized impact on children. In the case of a Minneapolis firm looking for financial advisers, the firm puts 1,000 applicants through a rigorous screening process, then picks 49 of those, sends them to a boot camp, chooses 23 as apprentice advisers and, ultimately, feels confident in settling on just eight or nine. As for research on the performance of teachers, "Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications----as much as they appear related to teaching prowess---turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans." After reading this, education mavens might check Jonathan Alter's "Bill Gates on Education" on Newsweek.com.

December-January Domino deals with one of mankind's most frustrating interior challenges, namely ugly radiators. It's "Hide my radiator, please!" in its "renovator's notebook" offers the alternatives of going the custom route, with building cabinetry around them; going semicustom by ordering customs online after measuring the unit and choosing a material and finish; and cheaping things out by "disguising the radiator as a cloth-draped table."

Oops: December Success has smiling cable talk host Donny Deutsch on its cover, but soon after publication his CNBC show was put on "hiatus." He'll have to find entrepreneurial inspiration somewhere in this temporary setback.

But if Donny wants to really roll the dice with a new line of endeavor, Naturejobs.com indicates that the Department of Ecology & Evolution at the University of Chicago is looking to fill a tenure slot "with an individual whose research emphasizes quantitative, computational or modeling approaches to understanding ecological and evolutionary processes. The successful candidate will demonstrate innovation in addressing fundamental questions at the core of ecology and/or evolution, with preference given to individuals who bridge these fields."

December Women's Health apparently did not rely on any University of Chicago evolutionary biologists in assessing where we can find "The World's Best Sex." The U.S., no surprise, appears to rank very low "in how often we get it on." The magazine's apparent travels result in under-the-sheets praise for Brazil, "where couple will try anything once'; Sweden, "where sex ed is a lifelong pursuit"; Greece, "where nooky is the national pastime"; and Israel, "where women ask for what they want." I can't vouch for the empiricism of the data cited but "a recent poll of Israeli women found that 72 percent of the 14,840 respondents had had an orgasm the last time they had sex, and 71 percent said they knew how to ask for what they want in the sack."

If only the Detroit auto chieftains, who do know what to ask for these days, could be similarly satisfied.