Thursday, May 31, 2018

Can you ethically study philosophy when so many are suffering?

When I was in college I had the opportunity to attend a summer seminar in philosophy for Christian students who were considering graduate school. Nicolas Wolterstorff came in to talk with us, and one brave student asked a question on everyone’s mind: is it really ok to spend our lives studying this sort of thing when there are people suffering all over the world? I’ll always remember Nick’s reply: people suffer under a lot of things, and one thing that makes them suffer is the weight of bad ideas. I’ve come to see the truth of this first-hand. I see it in my students and, increasingly, in the wider culture. A lot of people are enmeshed in intellectual confusions that have real implications for their own and others’ lived experience. I have a sense of vocation to address bad ideas—in particular bad ideas about ethics, values and justice—and to make some incremental contribution towards replacing them with better ones.
--Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Northwestern University

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Exercising your left arm makes your right arm stronger

According to a fascinating new study, working out the muscles on one side of our bodies can keep the muscles on the other side strong and fit, even if we do not move them at all. ...

There have been hints... that exercising one limb can affect the other. In past studies, when someone pedals a bike with one leg or lifts weights with one arm, muscles in the other limb often contract, a development known as mirroring.

But in most of those experiments, the unused limb was not completely immobilized with a cast and scientists did not focus on specific muscles, making it difficult to know whether exercising certain muscles in one limb affects all muscles in the other or only some.

So for the new study, which was published in April in the Journal of Physiology, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada gathered 16 male and female college students and closely examined their wrists. ...

Then they covered each student’s left forearm and wrist with a hard cast to freeze the wrist in place. (All of the students were right-handed.)

Half of the students were then asked to go on with their normal lives, ignoring the cast as much as possible and not exercising their arms.

The other eight students, though, began a workout program that targeted the flexor muscles in their wrists. Using a small, vice-like weight machine, they completed multiple, strenuous, eccentric contractions of those particular muscles. ...

After a month, all of the volunteers returned to the lab, had their casts removed and repeated the original measures of their muscles.

As expected, the volunteers who had not exercised showed considerable muscle atrophy now. Their left wrist flexors were more than 20 percent weaker, on average.

Those muscles also had shrunk in size, dropping about 3 percent of their mass.

But the group that had exercised their right wrists’ flexor muscles had maintained almost all of those muscles’ original size and strength on the left.

The benefits were quite specific, though. These same volunteers’ wrist extensor muscles, which had not been exercised in their right wrists, were atrophied on the left.   ...

And the entire process seems to involve more than just muscular mirroring, he says. The sensors placed above the volunteers’ cast-bound wrists picked up some muscular contractions in the left flexors when their right-side counterparts exercised.

“But those contractions were very slight,” he says, and by themselves are likely to be insufficient to keep the muscles healthy and strong. 

He believes that there could be changes in the nervous system during unilateral exercise that somehow reach and change the same body part on the other side.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on a yearning for symmetry

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Which countries like their own inauthentic cuisine?

P.F. Chang’s may be seen as an upscale Chinese-food restaurant in the U.S. But the chain is calling its debut location in China “an American bistro”—which is exactly how its early customers there see it.

“The food looks similar, but you eat the food and you know instantly it’s not Chinese,” said Zhang Ji, 35, who works in finance. ...

Animation designer Zhang Xue said she came because P.F. Chang’s got a shoutout on “The Big Bang Theory,” the U.S. sit-com popular in China. ...

After sampling the food, Ms. Zhang’s curiosity was sated.

“I don’t think this is Chinese food,” she said. “I think it’s what Americans think Chinese food should taste like.”

Executives at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz., aren’t arguing—which is why they came up with the idea to call the restaurant, the first of several they are planning here, an American bistro. ...

P.F. Chang’s is hardly the first foreign company to try selling a cuisine back to its native land. The Domino’s pizza chain arrived in Italy in 2015 and now has 11 locations there; South Korea’s Paris Baguette has two stores in Paris that sell bread back to the French.

Yum Brands Inc., however, hasn’t had much success bringing Taco Bell to Mexico, despite two separate attempts.
--Wayne Ma and Liza Lin, WSJ, on the obstinate Mexicans

Monday, May 7, 2018

Machiavelli on loss aversion

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
--Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532, anticipating Kahneman and Tversky (1979)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Evidence that op-eds do change minds

Through two randomized experiments, researchers found that op-ed pieces had large and long-lasting effects on people’s views among both the general public and policy experts. The study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, also found that Democrats and Republicans altered their views in the direction of the op-ed piece in roughly equal measure. ...

The researchers enrolled 3,567 people into the study through an online tool. ... They were randomly assigned into a control group or one of five “treatment” groups. Participants in the treatment groups were shown one of five op-eds that had been published in a major news outlet by a writer affiliated with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, or U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Participants in the control group were not given an op-ed to read.

The op-eds, which had appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, or Newsweek, advocated libertarian policy positions on issues such as climate change, federal spending on transportation and infrastructure, and instituting a federal flat tax on income. The researchers gauged participants’ immediate reactions to the op-ed pieces and surveyed them again 10 and 30 days later, comparing their responses to those of participants in the control group.

The researchers performed the same experiment on a group of 2,169 “elites,” including journalists, law professors, policy-focused academics, think tank scholars, bankers, and congressional staffers.

In both experiments, people exposed to op-eds shifted their views to support the argument presented in the piece, with the general public being marginally more persuaded than the elites.

While 50% of people in the control group agreed with the views expressed in a given op-ed, 65%–70% of the people in the treatment groups expressed agreement with the op-eds’ authors immediately after reading the pieces, [study author Alexander] Coppock said. ...

The gap between the control and treatment groups closed by about half after 10 days, but remained substantial, Coppock noted. Participants’ views changed little between 10 and 30 days after reading the op-eds, demonstrating a lasting effect, he said.

The researchers concluded that op-eds are a cost effective way to influence people’s views. Based on the cost of producing an op-ed, the number of people likely to read it, and its ability to sway a reader’s opinion, the researchers estimated that an op-ed costs from about 50 cents to $3 per mind changed.
--Mike Cummings, YaleNews, on hope for civil discourse

Sunday, April 15, 2018

An occupational living will

My wife says that I love my work too much to ever retire. Perhaps she is right. However, my experiences as a neurologist and clinical director of an Alzheimer center have led me to think a lot about the circumstances under which it would be wise to move on. ...

More specifically, I have begun to develop an “occupational living will,” something akin to a medical advanced directive but expressly intended for one’s professional life. ...

When I was starting out as a young physician, I noticed there were always a few older, formerly very accomplished doctors who would consistently stand up during important meetings and make irrelevant comments that caused me and others to cringe. If I helped to take care of their patients, I was often struck by the mediocre treatment they were providing. At the time, my youthful colleagues and I remained oblivious to the possibility that their fate could ever become ours.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to help care for many previously high-functioning professionals with progressive dementing illnesses. Depending on the stage of the disease and the degree of disruption of brain systems important for self-awareness, patients have widely varied insight into their predicament and appreciation of the impact of their neurological disease on their work. ...

It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of adults who are 65 years and older suffer from mild cognitive impairment and 10 percent from dementia. ...

I suggest that for adults approaching their 60s or beyond, especially those with no intention of retiring, preparing an occupational living will is a particularly important endeavor. ...

No blueprint exists to guide me in this process, so I have broken down this seemingly overwhelming task into manageable steps:

1. Crafting a written document articulating advanced directives for work that represent a personal commitment to how, depending on my cognitive status, I would want to comport myself in the future.

2. Sharing the document with others I trust, who can support me through this process.

3. Recording a video that communicates my wishes and can be used to speak to my future self.

4. Identifying a few peers or colleagues I can confide in, who can access my work and make a fair and reasonable assessment of my functioning.

5. Explicitly empowering these individuals to share their observations with me.

6. Finally, if concerns are raised, having a plan in place for evaluating — via formal assessment by a cognitive neurologist or geriatric psychiatrist — whether my decline exceeds the bounds of normal aging and is truly worrisome.
--Harvard Professor of Neurology Kirk Daffner, Washington Post, on a professional commitment device

Friday, March 30, 2018

HAL 9000 originally had a Bronx accent

HAL 9000, the seemingly omniscient computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was the film’s most expressive and emotional figure, and made a lasting impression on our collective imagination. ...

The story of the creation of HAL’s performance — the result of a last-minute collaboration between the idiosyncratic director Stanley Kubrick and the veteran Canadian actor Douglas Rain — has been somewhat lost in the 50 years since the film’s release in April 1968. As has its impact: Artificial intelligence has borrowed from the HAL persona, and now, unwittingly, a slight hint of Canadianness resides in our phones and interactive devices. ...

To Scott Brave, the co-author of “Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship,” HAL 9000 is a mix between a butler and a psychoanalyst. “He has a sense of deference and of detachment,” Mr. Brave said, adding that he saw a ripple effect on, for example, the iPhone’s virtual assistant. “When I listen to something like Siri I feel there is a lot in common.” ...

To play HAL, Kubrick settled on Martin Balsam, who had won the best supporting actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.” Perhaps there was a satisfying echo that appealed to Kubrick — both were from the Bronx and sounded like it. ...

Adam Balsam, the actor’s son, told me that “Kubrick had him record it very realistically and humanly, complete with crying during the scene when HAL’s memory is being removed.”

Then the director changed his mind. “We had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” Kubrick said in the 1969 interview. Mr. Rain recalls Kubrick telling him, “I’m having trouble with what I’ve got in the can. Would you play the computer?” ...

The actor hadn’t seen a frame of the film, then still deep in postproduction. He met none of his co-stars, not even Keir Dullea, who played the astronaut David Bowman, HAL’s colleague turned nemesis. ...

Douglas Rain himself has never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For the retired actor who spent decades at the Stratford Festival and turns 90 in May, the performance was simply a job.
--Gerry Flahive, NYT, on the accidental history of how we think computers should speak. HT: EP

Monday, March 19, 2018

Italian-American food is not Italian food

Most of what is called Italian food here comes from the immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily who arrived from 1880 to 1924. They made up about 80% of all Italian immigrants. Interestingly, about half of the dishes that would become Italian staples in America originated in Naples. ...

Italian food in America is largely based on the foods the immigrants had eaten during religious holidays and other celebrations – in and around Naples and elsewhere – much less on what they ate daily. That was often a dreary array of vegetable soups, greens, beans and poor-quality bread. In Italy, they seldom ate pasta, as it was too expensive. They rarely ate meat. They only ate seafood if they lived near the coast.

But, with American wages, commercially made pasta and meat were easily affordable and became regular parts of their diet. Like nearly all immigrants before and afterwards, the Italians quickly grew to include American beef-steak and the crisp, German-born lager beer.

They ate far better than they had in Italy. But, many of the ingredients were not available or not as good quality, so these immigrants had to adapt. Vegetables became less important over the years, reflecting trends in the broader American landscape. ...

Food today in Italy is similar, but is something else.  The often significant differences between Italian and Italian-American cooking can be described as harmony versus abundance. Italian-American cooking uses far more garlic, more sauce, much more cheese and meat. Fewer vegetables are used. The food is also “more cooked,” like the popular baked pasta dishes here such as baked ziti and manicotti. Pasta is an entrĂ©e, which is almost never seen in Italy; it is typically the first course (after the antipasti that is). Fewer seasonal and fresh ingredients are used here. The long-cooked and copious tomato sauces, along with the large amount of cheese, help to mask this fact.

Garlic, you see, is not quite the staple of Italian cuisine Americans think it is. Depending on who you speak to, onions are a controversial ingredient too – and don’t even think of ever combining the two in a single dish. ...

“Fettuccine alfredo are not a thing in Italy,” Silvestris continues as calmly as possible. ...

In Italy, the dish is most similar to what Italians call pasta burro e parmiggiano (pasta with butter and parmesan cheese). Italians eat this, but at home, and would never dream of ordering it in a restaurant, says Simona Palmisano, 37, a Roman native and tour guide who recently settled in New York.

Palmisano explains that in Italy, this way of making pasta is often referred to as pasta del cornuto – which translates as “cuckold’s pasta”, because making it betrays an absence of time or care put into the simple meal, with the consequential assumption that a wife’s [romantic] attention must be elsewhere.

The even more popular way of serving pasta alfredo in the US – with chicken – is beyond imaginable.

It is not just poultry and pasta that are not allowed to mix – meat and pasta very rarely make it on to the same plate. Pasta is one course (primo) and meat is another, fully separate course (secondo).

“Except for in one particular region of the south [of Italy], where they put very small meatballs in their tomato sauce, we would never put meatballs in pasta. Who has ever heard of spaghetti meatballs?!” Silvestris exclaims. ...

You finish cooking pasta in its sauce after you have drained it from the boiled water; you never dollop the one on top of the other.
--Rose Hackman, The Guardian, on culture clash

Sunday, March 11, 2018

How to comfort the suffering

Every 90 days I lie in a whirling CT machine, dye coursing through my veins, and the doctors look to see whether the tumors in my liver are growing. If they are not, the doctors smile and schedule another scan. The rhythm has been the same since my doctors told me I had stage IV colon cancer two and a half years ago. ...

What does the suffering person really want? How can you navigate the waters left churning in the wake of tragedy? I find that the people least likely to know the answer to these questions can be lumped into three categories: minimizers, teachers and solvers.

The minimizers are those who think I shouldn’t be so upset because the significance of my illness is relative. These people are very easy to spot because most of their sentences begin with “Well, at least ….” Minimizers often want to make sure that suffering people are truly deserving before doling out compassion. ...

Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?

Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God, that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.

The second exhausting type of response comes from the teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body and spirit. ...

The hardest lessons come from the solutions people, who are already a little disappointed that I am not saving myself. There is always a nutritional supplement, Bible verse or mental process I have not adequately tried. ...

A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better. Few people will let you admit that out loud. Sometimes those who love you best will skip that first horrible step of saying: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Hope may prevent them from acknowledging how much has already been lost. But acknowledgment is also a mercy. It can be a smile or a simple “Oh, hon, what a year you’ve had.” It does not ask anything from me but makes a little space for me to stand there in that moment. Without it, I often feel like I am starring in a reality program about a woman who gets cancer and is very cheerful about it.

After acknowledgment must come love. This part is tricky because when friends and acquaintances begin pouring out praise, it can sound a little too much like a eulogy. I’ve had more than one kindly letter written about me in the past tense, when I need to be told who I might yet become.

But the impulse to offer encouragement is a perfect one. There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true anymore. I am a professor, but will I ever teach again? I’m a mom, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future. They say to me, like my sister Maria did on one very bad day: “Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here.”
--Kate Bowler, NYT, on just loving

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Making playgrounds riskier to build kids' grit

Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.

Four years ago, for instance, teachers at the Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School looked critically around their campus and set about, as one of them put it, “bringing in risk.”

Out went the plastic playhouses and in came the dicey stuff: stacks of two-by-fours, crates and loose bricks. The schoolyard got a mud pit, a tire swing, log stumps and workbenches with hammers and saws. ...

Now, Ms. Morris says proudly, “we have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools,” all used under adult supervision. Indoors, scissors abound, and so do sharp-edged tape dispensers (“they normally only cut themselves once,” she says).

Limited risks are increasingly cast by experts as an experience essential to childhood development, useful in building resilience and grit. ...

Outside the Princess Diana Playground in Kensington Gardens in London, which attracts more than a million visitors a year, a placard informs parents that risks have been “intentionally provided, so that your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in an uncontrolled and unregulated wider world.” ...

Australia last fall introduced new standards for playground equipment, instructing operators to consider the benefits, not just the risks, of activities that could result in injuries. Cities and school districts in Canada and Sweden are following suit.

(In the United States, a country with far higher litigation costs, government agencies overseeing play safety are not known to have made any such changes.) ...

Ms. Talarowski, who was struck by how much more adventurous playgrounds were when she moved on London in 2015, threw herself into gathering data. Using a quantitative tool developed by the RAND Corporation, a research center, she used video to track the behavior of 18,000 visitors to London playgrounds, then compared it with similar data on visitors to American parks.

The findings suggested that exciting equipment had a pronounced effect: The British playgrounds had 55 percent more visitors over all, and children and teenagers were 16 to 18 percent more active. The features that held visitors’ attention the longest — sand, grass, high swings and climbing structures — were elements American park managers use sparingly, because of high maintenance costs and the risk of falls, Ms. Talarowski said.
--Ellen Barry, NYT, on un-bubble-wrapping childhood

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Norway's extreme love of the outdoors

Then there is Norway’s abiding infatuation with its lush natural surroundings. People have a such a deep bond with the landscape that there is a ubiquitous word for communing with it: friluftsliv, a.k.a. “open-air living.” The concept is so popular that NRK, the nation’s largest TV network, found a way for Norwegians to enjoy it indoors.

In 2011, the network placed a camera on the front of a boat called the MS Nordnorge and ran live footage for 134 hours of nothing but nature, quietly passing by. Half of the country tuned in.
--David Segal, NYT, on a rugged people

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The inauspicious beginning of K-pop

Before the liberalization of South Korean media in the late ‘80s, the music produced by broadcast networks was exclusively either slow ballads or “trot,” a Lawrence Welk-ish fusion of traditional music with old pop standards. ...

As of 1992, national TV networks had penetrated above 99 percent of South Korean homes, and viewership was highest on the weekends, when the talent shows took place. These televised talent shows were crucial in introducing music groups to South Korean audiences; they still have an enormous cultural impact and remain the single biggest factor in a South Korean band’s success.

As Moonrok editor Hannah Waitt points out in her excellent series on the history of K-pop, K-pop is unusual as a genre because it has a definitive start date, thanks to a band called Seo Taiji and Boys. Seo Taiji had previously been a member of the South Korean heavy metal band Sinawe, which was itself a brief but hugely influential part of the development of Korean rock music in the late ‘80s. After the band broke up, he turned to hip-hop and recruited two stellar South Korean dancers, Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno, to join him as backups in a group dubbed Seo Taiji and Boys. On April 11, 1992, they performed their single “Nan Arayo (I Know)” on a talent show:

Not only did the Boys not win the talent show, but the judges gave the band the lowest score of the evening. But immediately after the song debuted, “I Know” went on to top South Korea’s singles charts for a record-smashing 17 weeks, which would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No. 1 streak in the country’s history.
--Aja Romano, Vox, on knocked down four times, rising up five

Friday, February 9, 2018

Did the Milgram obedience experiment subjects know it was fake?

Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s – in which ordinary volunteers followed a scientist’s instruction to give what they apparently thought was a deadly electric shock to another participant – have been taken by many to show our alarming propensity for blind obedience. ...

Now Matthew Hollander at the University of Wisconsin, and Jason Turowetz at the University of Siegen, have conducted the first in-depth analysis of the interviews that many of the participants gave immediately after taking part in the now infamous research. ...

Little studied before, the secretly recorded interviews were conducted by the actor who played the role of experimenter. Hollander and Turowetz listened to 91 of these interviews featuring 46 “obedient” participants who’d applied the most extreme level of shock, and 45 who defied the experimenter and at some stage refused to continue. ...

The most common explanation was that [the obedient participants] believed the person they’d given the electric shocks to (the “learner”) hadn’t really been harmed. Seventy-two per cent of obedient participants made this kind of claim at least once, such as “If it was that serious you woulda stopped me” and “I just figured that somebody had let him out“.
--Christian Jarrett, British Psychological Society Research Digest, on a problem with deceiving experimental subjects. HT: Marginal Revolution

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

How to talk to cavemen

Researchers have determined that number words for small quantities — less than five — are strikingly similar across virtually every language studied, and the words are among the most stable, unchanging utterances in any lexicon.

They are more conserved through time and across cultures than words for other presumably bedrock concepts like mother, father and most body parts, with a few puzzling exceptions like the words for tongue and eye.

“The sounds that you and I use to say ‘two’ or ‘three’ are the sounds that have been used for tens of thousands of years,” said Mark Pagel, a biologist who studies the evolution of language at the University of Reading.

“It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”

That continuity, Dr. Pagel added, “should astonish us.”
--Natalie Angier, NYT, on words that count

Monday, February 5, 2018

The "cheating husband" email scam

...a nasty new swindle of the digital age: The “cheating husband” email scheme. In it, anonymous extortionists mass email large numbers of men, threatening to unmask their infidelities. The extortionists have no idea if the men have done anything wrong, but enough of them are guilty, it turns out, that some pay up, sometimes with Bitcoin.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Watching Fast and Furious movies makes you drive recklessly

Using detailed traffic violation data from Montgomery County, Md., we were able to examine all speeding tickets there from 2012 to 2017. This length of time allowed us to investigate the effect of three movies in the “Fast and Furious” series. Looking at the 192,892 speeding tickets recorded, we analyzed the average miles per hour over the speed limit that drivers were charged with going on a given day.

We found a large increase in the average speed of drivers who received speeding tickets on the weekends after “Fast and Furious” releases. Comparing the three weekends before each movie’s release with the three weekends after, we found that the speeds people were given tickets for increased almost 20 percent, to an average of 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, from 16 miles per hour.

We also found that rates of extreme speeding increased. For example, the percentage of drivers charged with driving more than 40 miles per hour above the speed limit nearly doubled (though it remained a tiny proportion of the total), to 2 percent of all violations.

Additionally, using data on latitude and longitude reported in the tickets, we found that increases in this extreme speeding were concentrated in areas close to movie theaters (often within two miles), consistent with speeding behavior induced by moviegoing.

We compared the geographic distribution of these extreme speeding violations in the three weekends before versus after movie releases. We found that the vast majority of tickets handed out in the three weekends after movie releases occurred on Route 270, a major highway that runs adjacent to several large movie theaters in the county.

During the three weekends before movie releases, extreme speeding violations were not only less common but were also, on average, farther from the movie theaters (and Route 270).

To check that these findings weren’t spurious, we looked at speeding tickets after the release of four movies in “The Hunger Games” series, another popular franchise in the same time period that didn’t glorify fast driving. Speeding didn’t go up.

We also performed a “falsification test.” When we looked at the dates of “Fast and Furious” releases and compared them with the previous year, when no movie was released, there was no effect on speeding.
--Anupam Jena, Aakash Jain, and Tanner Hicks, NYT, on an effect I have personally been subject to

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Next weight loss trend: Weighted vests

Our skeletons may help to keep our weight under control, according to a fascinating new study with animals.

The study [published in PNAS] suggests that bones could be much more intimately involved in tracking weight and controlling appetite than scientists realized. ...

...the scientists implanted tiny capsules into each rodent’s abdomen. Some contained weights equaling about 15 percent of each animal’s body mass. Others were empty. ...

The scientists then left the rodents alone to deal with these added ounces as they would. And their bodies quickly went to work. Within two days, the animals containing the weighted capsules were eating less and after two weeks, had generally lost almost as much weight as the capsules contained.

When the scientists subsequently removed the weighted capsules from some of the animals, those mice and rats began eating more and soon added back those ounces. ...

Finally, the scientists considered bones. As they knew, most animals’ skeletons readily sense when they are being stressed by such things as strenuous weight-bearing exercise and will add extra bone cells to handle that pressure.

Osteocyctes, a type of bone cell, are thought to be the cells that recognize when outside forces are affecting the bone and send out biochemical signals prompting the creation of new bone.

To see if they likewise detect and respond to changes in body weight, the scientists bred a group of mice with unnaturally low levels of osteocytes. Then they again implanted the weighted capsules.

This time, the animals did not drop that added weight. Their bodies did not seem to realize that they had become heavier, presumably because of the low levels of osteocytes, and the animals remained artificially plump.

The implication of this result is that healthy bones seem to sense changes in body mass and then somehow initiate alterations to appetite and eating that can return the body to its previous weight, says John-Olov Jansson, a neuroscientist at the University of Gothenburg who led the study. ...

The possibility could help to explain why sitting for hours is associated with obesity, he continues. When we sit, much of our body weight is supported by cushions rather than bones, leaving our skeletons unaware of how much we actually weigh and whether that amount has changed or should change.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on the thigh bone being connected to the potbelly bone

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hillary's revenge on Moscow

For anyone who braves the Russian winter, overcast skies and short, dark days are a depressing reality.

But even those bleak expectations were shattered in December, when Moscow was shrouded in an unrelenting cloud cover for all but six minutes.

It was the darkest December in the capital since the city began recording the data, the previous worst having come in 2000, when the sun checked in for a meager three hours. ...

...the dearth of sunlight undoubtedly has contributed to a surge in visits to psychiatrists in Moscow even beyond the expected seasonal rise, the daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets reported.

The reports have unleashed a tide of snarky comment on social media. ...

“Hillary’s revenge,” an American, Steve Lemson, chimed in.
--Matthew Luxmoore, NYT, on the forces of darkness

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Giving military equipment to the police is a good thing

Surprising to me:

Sparked by high-profile confrontations between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, many commentators have criticized the excessive militarization of law enforcement. We investigate whether surplus military-grade equipment acquired by local police departments from the Pentagon has an effect on crime rates. We use temporal variations in US military expenditure and between-counties variation in the odds of receiving a positive amount of military aid to identify the causal effect of militarized policing on crime. We find that (i) military aid reduces street-level crime; (ii) the program is cost-effective; and (iii) there is evidence in favor of a deterrence mechanism.
--Vincenzo Bove and Evelina Gavrilova, "Police Officer on the Frontline or a Soldier? The Effect of Police Militarization on Crime," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy

We provide the first local level empirical analysis of the causal effects of providing military equipment to local police. Employing a novel combination of publicly available county-year panel data matched to hand-collected data on citizen complaints, we investigate the effects of acquiring tactical weapons, optics, and vehicles on citizen complaints, assaults on police officers, and offender deaths. For causal identification, we exploit exogenous variation in equipment availability and cost-shifting institutional aspects of the 1033 Program. Our results indicate that these items have generally positive effects: reduced citizen complaints, reduced assaults on officers, increased drug crime arrests, and no increases in offender deaths.
--Matthew Harris, Jinseong Park, Donald Bruce, and Matthew Murray, "Peacekeeping Force: Effects of Providing Tactical Equipment to Local Law Enforcement," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

How the classic endowment effect paper was published

One of the most powerful findings of behavioral economics is “loss aversion,” the psychological tendency to feel losses more acutely than gains. As Adam Smith (1759) put it, “Pain … is, in almost all cases, a more pungent sensation than the opposite and correspondent pleasure” (1981, III, ii, 176–77). Although Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (1979) and I (1980) had earlier written about this phenomenon, its empirical validity was still very much in question when Kahneman, Jack Knetsch, and I submitted an experimental paper on the subject to the [Journal of Political Economy], later published in 1990.

In the experiment we randomly assigned half the subjects to receive some object (often a coffee mug), with the other half getting nothing. We then conducted a market for the mugs in which both buyers and sellers stated their reservation prices. Since transaction costs were negligible and the objects were randomly assigned, the Coase theorem predicts that roughly half the mugs will change hands so that subjects who value mugs the most end up owning them. Our hypothesis was that fewer than half the mugs would trade because owners would regard a trade as a loss. This hypothesis was strongly supported. In a typical experiment, the expected number of trades was 11 but the empirical average was only 3.4. As predicted by loss aversion, median reservation prices for selling the mug were roughly twice the median prices for buying the mug.

The editor handling this paper was George Stigler. He sent us back a rejection letter based on a highly critical referee report from someone Stigler described as a “heavyweight in the field.” The referee said that income effects could explain our results since those who received the mugs had received a windfall relative to those who did not. After taking a few days to calm myself down (a good self-control strategy) I wrote back on behalf of my coauthors (who were both away traveling) explaining why the referee’s comments could not be taken seriously, either theoretically or empirically. First, the marginal propensity to spend windfalls on university insignia coffee mugs must be minuscule. Second, one experiment explicitly tested and rejected this explanation. Stigler wrote back in his usual witty style saying that JPE stands for Journal of Perspicacity and Equity, and he offered to send both my letter and the original referee report to another referee to adjudicate. That referee said that if forced to choose between our view and that of the original referee, he would side with us, which is how the paper came to be accepted.*

*The self-control paper [Thaler and Shefrin (1981)] also involved quite a bit of back and forth with the editor Sam Peltzman, who somewhat reluctantly agreed to accept it rather than continue to exchange letters. Both papers were published as the last paper in the issue, which I took as a signal that they were considered the paper the editors were most ashamed to publish. It is gratifying that both papers were ranked highly on the list of most-cited papers compiled by the editors for this issue. Perhaps people read the JPE from back to front.
--Richard Thaler, Journal of Political Economy, on the slings and arrows of publishing seminal papers