Wednesday, October 7, 2015

DNA testing: The Abominable Snowman is a bear

No one has ever found conclusive proof of the Abominable Snowman, because it isn’t a man but a bear. According to a genetic study published by Britain’s Royal Society in 2014, DNA from two different alleged samples shows that the yeti is almost certainly a bear, either a new species or a hybrid between a brown bear and an ancient polar bear.
--Amanda Foreman, WSJ, on unanticipated scientific advances

Monday, October 5, 2015

Most recycling doesn't help the environment

In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. ...

So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. ... The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!” ...

New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere. ...

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. ...

With the economic rationale gone, advocates for recycling have switched to environmental arguments. ...

...recycling operations have their own environmental costs, like extra trucks on the road and pollution from recycling operations. ...

According to the E.P.A.’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans. ...

Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.

As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. ...

Recyclers have tried to improve the economics by automating the sorting process, but they’ve been frustrated by politicians eager to increase recycling rates by adding new materials of little value. The more types of trash that are recycled, the more difficult it becomes to sort the valuable from the worthless.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Almost everybody misinterprets "The Road Not Taken"

[Former poet laureate Robert] Pinsky used his public role to ask Americans to submit their favorite poem in various forms; the clear favorite among more than eighteen thousand entries was [Robert Frost’s] “The Road Not Taken.” ... On a word-for-word basis, it may be the most popular piece of literature ever written by an American.

And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. ...

Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. ...

It’s an explanation that Frost himself sometimes encouraged, much as he used to boast about the trickiness of “The Road Not Taken” in private correspondence. (“I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer.)
--David Orr, The Paris Review, on the important of reading the whole context. HT: TS

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Flexibility is all about your nervous system, not your muscles and tendons

Many people think stretching is essential to improving flexibility. ...

It is clear that stretching doesn't actually make muscles permanently longer, experts agree. Instead, it may be that exercises such as reaching for your toes train the nervous system to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension without firing off pain signals. ...

When animals are placed in casts that keep their muscles extended for a long time, their bodies do add additional sarcomeres, or the basic subunits of muscle fibers, but their muscles return to their original shape soon after the animal is removed from those constraints. And in those studies, it's not clear that the lengthened muscles improved the animal's flexibility.

In a June 2014 study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics, Tilp and colleague Andreas Konrad found no differences in people's muscles and tendons after six weeks of a static-stretching regimen.

So, if muscle fiber doesn't get longer as a result of stretching, why does stretching seem to increase people's flexibility? ...

The nervous system is the master conductor determining how far a person can stretch, said Brooke Thomas, a yoga instructor who discussed the science of stretching in a blog post on

Nerve endings are dispersed throughout the muscle and tendon, and if a stretch doesn't feel safe for the muscle, those nerves will fire, registering pain and resistance, Thomas told Live Science.

These nerves "will say 'you better stop stretching, because if you stretch further, the muscle will maybe get damaged,'" Tilp told Live Science.

That's why a person under anesthesia, whose nerves are quieted, can be stretched through a full range of motion with no resistance. And healthy babies are born able to do the splits, because they haven't developed a blueprint for ranges of motion that feel unsafe, Mitchell said.
--Tia Ghose, Live Science, on flexibility being all in your head

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Asking for advice makes you look smarter

People are often hesitant to seek advice because they fear it will make them appear incompetent, said Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In fact, those who seek advice are perceived as more competent than those who do not, according to a recent paper that she wrote along with Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Maurice E. Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. ...

Researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing the responses of college students and working adults who were asked to give their impressions of people (a computer-simulated partner, in this case) who sought their advice on various written tests and tasks. ...

Being asked for advice is flattering. As Professor Gino said, “People commonly believe that asking for advice is inconsiderate — we don’t want to bother others.” But in fact, “by asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice seekers stroke the adviser’s ego and can gain valuable insights,” she said. And regardless of whether you use the advice or not, “People do not think less of you — they actually think you’re smarter.”
--Phyllis Korkki, NYT, on the double benefit of asking for advice

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Princeton Review jacks up its prices in areas with lots of Asians

But few, if any, realize that the prices for The Princeton Review’s online SAT tutoring packages vary substantially depending on where customers live. If they type some zip codes into the company’s website, they are offered The Princeton Review’s Premier course for as little as $6,600. For other zip codes, the same course costs as much as $8,400.

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. (Read ProPublica’s research methodology here.)

The gap remains even for Asians in lower-income neighborhoods. Consider a zip code in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Asians make up 70.5 percent of the population in this zip code. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in the zip code, $41,884, is lower than most, yet The Princeton Review customers there are quoted the highest price. ...

Earlier this year, Harvard undergraduate Christian Haigh stumbled on The Princeton Review’s variable prices doing research for a class he was taking called “Data Science to Save the World.” ...

Today, Haigh and three fellow students are publishing their findings that The Princeton Review’s higher prices correlate to areas with higher income. ...

ProPublica tested whether The Princeton Review prices were tied to different characteristics of each zip code, including income, race, and education level. When it came to getting the highest prices, living in a zip code with a high median income or a large Asian population seemed to make the greatest difference. ...

Customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents were 1.8 times as likely to be offered higher prices, regardless of income. For instance, residents of the gritty, industrial city of Westminster, California, which is half Asian with a median income below most, were charged the second-highest price for the Premier tutoring service.
--Julia Angwin, Surya Mattu, and Jeff Larson, The Atlantic, on what happens when demand is inelastic

Friday, September 4, 2015

Why did the Holocaust occur in only some Nazi-occupied territories?

Why did 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark survive while 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Estonia were murdered? And why were the death camps, shootings and gassings located in Eastern Europe?

[Yale history professor Timothy] Snyder’s account ends up shifting the Holocaust’s center of gravity to Eastern Europe and the countries that then lay between Germany and the Soviet Union: Poland, the Baltic republics, Belarus and the Ukraine. This region is his specialty; he has a knowledge of at least 10 languages and consulted sources in German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, French and English. This is something no other chronicler of the Holocaust has done. ...

What was it about Poland or Belarus that made them so hospitable to participatory mass murder? The usual explanation is anti-Semitism—“a historically predictable outburst of the barbarity of east Europeans,” Mr. Snyder writes. But “the level of antisemitism, insofar as this can be ascertained, does not seem to correlate with Jewish death rates.” ...

Hitler had, from the very start, imagined the German empire expanding across Eastern Europe into the Soviet Union. But in 1939, buying time and territory, he made a pact with Stalin, the two dividing the intervening lands between them. Germany took chunks of Poland; the Soviets swept through the rest, along with Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and other territories. ...

In June 1941 came Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. No sooner had the Communist purges taken place throughout Soviet-run Eastern Europe than the Nazi ones began. The Soviets had destroyed the state apparatus in each territory. Now it was upended again. But often the same local leaders were involved in managing both upheavals. Anybody with authority in the Soviet regime had to quickly dissociate himself from the past and demonstrate a new allegiance. The killing of Jews was a solution. The massacres were, Mr. Snyder suggests, a kind of “political scenography” in which the local population proved itself to its new masters, shedding its Soviet past. This expiation was often made explicit: Nazi ideology identified Judaism with Bolshevism, so the murder of Jews was a form of revenge against the onetime occupiers.

That these were “consecutively occupied lands,” Mr. Snyder argues, is the crucial fact. Whether locals would eagerly participate in the murders and how thoroughly the Final Solution would be pursued were matters determined not by the extent of local anti-Semitism but by the condition of each nation-state. The entire Holocaust took place on lands touched by Soviet power and then again by German power.
--Edward Rothstein, WSJ, on the political expedience of the Holocaust

Friday, August 28, 2015

Finance in 1890 B.C.

In general, we know few details about economic life before roughly 1000 A.D. But during one 30-year period — between 1890 and 1860 B.C. — for one community in the town of Kanesh, we know a great deal. Through a series of incredibly unlikely events, archaeologists have uncovered the comprehensive written archive of a few hundred traders who left their hometown Assur, in what is now Iraq, to set up importing businesses in Kanesh, which sat roughly at the center of present-day Turkey and functioned as the hub of a massive global trading system that stretched from Central Asia to Europe. Kanesh’s traders sent letters back and forth with their business partners, carefully written on clay tablets and stored at home in special vaults. Tens of thousands of these records remain. ...

The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.

It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods — silver, tin, textiles — transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable (though there never seems to be agreement on who the wrongdoers are, exactly). The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.

Taking photos to post on Facebook makes you unhappier

This research examines how taking photos to share with others (e.g., to post on Facebook), compared to taking photos for oneself (e.g., to remember an experience), affects the enjoyment of an experience. Across two field and six laboratory studies, we find that taking pictures to share with others, relative to taking pictures for oneself, reduces enjoyment of experiences. This effect occurs because taking photos to share increases self-presentational concern.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Does Joe Biden have the goods on Hillary?

As Joe Biden edges closer to a presidential run, there’s no shortage of theories as to what he’s up to. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has built a commanding lead in the national polls, giving Biden little apparent space to gain traction. Perhaps he’s counting on the early-primary state of South Carolina to provide a critical boost. He might be banking on appearing as a stronger general-election candidate than any of his potential rivals in the primary race. Maybe after spending the past 42 years of his life running for elective office, he just can’t stop.

But there’s one intriguing theory that has so far garnered little attention: What if Biden knows something about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton that the rest of us don’t? ...

The emails that Clinton gave to the State Department are now being released in tranches every 30 days. Her server has been turned over to the Justice Department, which is reportedly optimistic that it can recover at least some of the emails that Clinton had deleted. No one knows what the emails that have not yet been released may contain.

No one, that is, outside of the administration.
--Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic, on why Biden's candidacy might not be so crazy after all

When exercising, drink only when thirsty

Are we, with the best of intentions, putting young athletes at risk when we urge them to drink lots of fluids during steamy sports practices and games?

A new report about overhydration in sports suggests that under certain circumstances the answer is yes, and that the consequences for young athletes can be — and in several tragic cases already have been — severe and even fatal. ...

The problem with this situation is that, according to the latest science, dehydration during sports is rarely if ever dangerous, but overhydration undeniably is. ...

At least two other high school football players are known to have died since 2008 from drinking too much fluid during and after a practice, Dr. Miller said. These players had developed a rare condition, he said, known formally as exercise-associated hyponatremia and less technically as water intoxication. ...

The key, he said, is for athletes to drink when they feel thirsty — not before and not after they feel sated. “You do not need to ‘stay ahead of your thirst,’ as many people think,” he said.

Listening to your “innate thirst mechanism” provides a safe and reliable guide to hydration, the new report concludes.

This strategy also should not increase players’ risks for cramping or heat illness, Dr. Miller said, since, “based on current evidence, it does not appear that dehydration directly contributes” to those problems.

During recent telling experiments that he directed, for instance,volunteers who exercised and sweated in the heat until they had become severely dehydrated were no more prone to muscle cramps than they had been at the start.

Similarly, if perhaps more surprising, other studies have found that being dehydrated does not increase athletes’ susceptibility to heat problems, and that athletes who collapse from heat illness often are quite well-hydrated.

Instead, both cramping and heat problems seem to result from athletes pushing themselves too hard.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on the reliability of your thirst signal

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Almost all female Ashley Madison profiles are fakes

So I downloaded the data and analyzed it to find out how many actual women were using Ashley Madison, and who they were.

What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots. ...

A few years ago, a former employee of Ashley Madison sued the company in Canada over her terrible work conditions. She claimed that she’d gotten repetitive stress injuries in her hands after the company hired her to create 1,000 fake profiles of women in three months, written in Portuguese, to attract a Brazilian audience. The case was settled out of court, and Ashley Madison claimed that the woman never made any fake profiles. ...

Then, three data fields changed everything. The first field, called mail_last_time, contained a timestamp indicating the last time a member checked the messages in their Ashley Madison inbox. If a person never checked their inbox, the field was blank. But even if they’d checked their messages only once, the field contained a date and time. About two-thirds of the men, or 20.2 million of them, had checked the messages in their accounts at least once. But only 1,492 women had ever checked their messages. It was a serious anomaly.

The pattern was reflected in another data field, too. This one, called chat_last_time contained the timestamp for the last time a member had struck up a conversation using the Ashley Madison chat system. Roughly 11 million men had engaged in chat, but only 2400 women had.

Yet another field, reply_mail_last_time, showed a similar disparity. This field contained the time when a member had last replied to a message from another person on Ashley Madison. 5.9 million men had done it, and only 9700 women had.
--Annalee Newitz, Gizmodo, on the great Ashley Madison con. HT: Chris Blattman. Read the full article for the boring technical details behind why more women replied to messages than checked their messages.

UPDATE: Annalee Newitz realized she misinterpreted the data. What the data really show is that there were 70,572 company-created chatbots (almost all of them posing as women) that sent 20 million messages to men on Ashley Madison.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Banning plastic bags is bad for the environment

When the city council in Austin, Texas, passed a single-use plastic shopping bag ban in 2013, it assumed environmental benefits would follow. The calculation was reasonable enough: Fewer single-use bags in circulation would mean less waste at city landfills.

Two years later, an assessment commissioned by the city finds that the ban is having an unintended effect –- people are now throwing away heavy-duty reusable plastic bags at an unprecedented rate. The city's good intentions have proven all too vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. ...

Part of the problem is that -- despite the world-saving rhetoric that typically promotes and supports plastic bag bans -- plastic bags simply aren't that big of a problem. According to the national data recorded by the EPA in 2013, the weight of single-use plastic shopping bags amounted to around 0.28 percent of the total municipal solid waste that Americans generate. ...

Among the main environmental benefits of Austin's ban was supposed to be a reduction in the amount of energy and raw materials used to manufacture the bags. To that end, the city encouraged residents to instead use reusable bags. Those bags have larger carbon footprints, due to the greater energy required to produce their stronger plastics...

What the city didn't foresee is that residents would start treating reusable bags like single-use bags. The volume of reusable plastic bags now turning up at the city's recycling centers has become "nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single use bags removed from the recycling stream as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013," according to the assessment. And those lightly used bags are landfill-bound, because recycling isn't any more cost-effective for reusable plastic bags than the single-use variety.

Some of these issues could be addressed through the increased use of reusable canvas bags. But canvas is even more carbon intensive to produce than plastic; studies suggest consumers would need to use a single canvas bag around 130 times before they start achieving any net environmental benefit as compared with a single-use plastic bag.
--Adam Minter, BloombergView, on the case for keeping the single-use plastic bag alive. HT: OM

Friday, August 21, 2015

The oxymoronic nature of commencement speeches

Dartmouth Class of 2015: It’s an honor to be at your tree stump. As your Commencement speaker, I have important responsibilities. Commencement speakers have to be skilled at pretentious verbiage and pompous but completely meaningless rhetoric. I think you made a smart move when you asked someone who normally teaches at Yale. ...

This may be your first college Commencement, but you probably know these addresses have a certain formula. The school asks a person who has achieved a certain level of career success to give you a speech telling you that career success is not important.

Then we’re supposed to give you a few minutes of completely garbage advice: Listen to your inner voice. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Your future is limitless.

First, my generation gives you a mountain of debt; then we give you career-derailing guidelines that will prevent you from ever paying it off.

I especially like all the Commencement addresses telling graduates how important it is to fail. These started a few years ago with a Steve Jobs address at Stanford built around the message. Well, failure is wonderful if you’re Steve Jobs. For most people, failure just stinks. Don’t fail.
--David Brooks to the Dartmouth class of 2015. HT: LY

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The 7 A.M. - 3 A.M. workday in Japan

At 3 a.m. on Monday morning, Eriko Fujita leaves the IBM offices in Tokyo. She rushes home to take a shower and get a few hours of sleep before she returns to her office at 7 a.m.

This is the hidden side of life at IBM Japan. For a period of eight months, Fujita, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, averages 18 to 20 hours of work per day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Her working hours are particularly demanding since she interfaces with programmers in different time zones, including those in the U.S.

“We don't have a 5 o’clock-and-get-out kind of culture,” she says with a shrug. While her schedule depends on the specific project, she says her typical workday lasts about 15 hours. ...

Fujita's situation is not uncommon in Japan, where overtime work has increased as firms cut workforces. About 22% of Japanese employees work 50 hours or more each week on average, well above 11% in the U.S., and 6% in Spain, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. ...

In Fujita's case, the long hours became overwhelming. Eventually, she took a three-month leave of absence from IBM.

"I had a mental breakdown," she says. "I was working so hard and not sleeping well. Physically and mentally I got so tired... I was crying for no reason. I didn't know why my tears are coming out."
--Justine Underhill, Yahoo! Finance, on making Amazon's work culture look humane

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The secret ingredient that makes high-end perfumes irresistible

So on Monday, when the temperature in Central Park tied a daily record of 95 degrees, we took a tour with a sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier, the beverage director at Rouge Tomate in Manhattan; and a perfumer, CĂ©line Barel, who develops scents for major fragrance companies at International Flavors & Fragrances in Manhattan. ...

She passed around a sample of another expensive perfume, which had an even sharper earthy scent.

“It’s the classical smell of a syrah from the northern Rhone,” Ms. Lepeltier declared. “That black olive and a little bit of horse and saddle.”

Ms. Barel nodded. When the salesman was a safe distance away, she lowered her voice and added that that particular fragrance was “very fecal.”

When a reporter looked startled, she explained, again in a hushed tone: “It’s usually used in traces, in very high-end fragrances, to give the addiction, the sexual aspect. And that’s what makes the fragrance literally irresistible. But people, they don’t want to know about that.”
--Kate Taylor, NYT, on the dirty secret of attraction. HT: ML

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Gene Fama's advising style

One thing that was pretty important for me in my development was an office visit with Eugene Fama, my dissertation adviser, where I had a couple of ideas to pitch for a dissertation. I pitched the first idea, and he barely looked up from whatever paper he was reading and shook his head, saying, "That's a small idea. I wouldn't pursue it." Then I hit him with the second idea, which I thought was way better than the first one. And he kind of looked up and said, "Ehh, it's OK. It's an OK idea." He added, "Maybe you can get a publication out of it, but not in a top journal." He indicated I should come back when I had another.

Even though he had shot down both of my ideas, I left feeling energized. The message from him was that I had a chance of hitting a big idea. That interaction, which I am sure he doesn't remember, was very influential — it pushed me to search for big ideas and not settle on the small ones.
--Campbell Harvey, Econ Focus, on Chicago love

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What it's like to work at

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”) ...

Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.” ...

Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working. ...

Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

“One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said Dina Vaccari, who joined in 2008 to sell Amazon gift cards to other companies and once used her own money, without asking for approval, to pay a freelancer in India to enter data so she could get more done. ...

In 2012, Chris Brucia, who was working on a new fashion sale site, received a punishing performance review from his boss, a half-hour lecture on every goal he had not fulfilled and every skill he had not yet mastered. Mr. Brucia silently absorbed the criticism, fearing he was about to be managed out, wondering how he would tell his wife.

“Congratulations, you’re being promoted,” his boss finished, leaning in for a hug that Mr. Brucia said he was too shocked to return.

Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” ...

Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years. But when she began traveling to care for her father, who was suffering from cancer, and cut back working on nights and weekends, her status changed. She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said.

A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. ...

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

The mother of the stillborn child soon left Amazon. “I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,” the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.”
--Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, NYT, on the cost of the greatest store on Earth

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Schrodinger the extreme night owl

Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel-prize-winning Austrian physicist, was able to make major contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, general relativity, and color theory during his lifetime. There was only one caveat: He was not able to make those contributions ... in the morning.

“He couldn’t work in the mornings at all,” his wife, AnneMarie, said in an interview. “The [Max] Planck lectures—as you know, it was 30 or 40 years ago that Planck was in Berlin—were given in the morning from nine to ten. When he got this very, very honorable call to Berlin, he wrote first thing and said, ‘I’m very sorry, but I can’t keep the lecture hours because I can’t work in the morning.’ ... They understood, and changed it to the afternoon—two lectures, one after the other—on two days.”

Ah, to be so famous that a major university rearranges its events just so you can hit the snooze button.
--Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, on the ideal schedule of my 20-something self

The paper with 5,154 coauthors

A Frenchman named Georges Aad may have the most prominent name in particle physics.

In less than a decade, Dr. Aad, who lives in Marseilles, France, has appeared as the lead author on 458 scientific papers. Nobody knows just how many scientists it may take to screw in a light bulb, but it took 5,154 researchers to write one physics paper earlier this year—likely a record—and Dr. Aad led the list.

His scientific renown is a tribute to alphabetical order.

Almost every paper by “G. Aad et al.” involves so many researchers that they decided to always list themselves in alphabetical order. Their recent paper, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, features 24 pages of alphabetized co-authors led by Dr. Aad. There is no way to tell how important each contributor might be. ...

From Aad to Zoccoli, these physicists, who conduct experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, are a measure of an accelerating trend in science—the growth in the number of people who get credits.

In fact, there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk—by the “kilo-author.” ...

In fact, some scientists speculate that “Aad” isn't a real person. He is listed among a group of thousands of researchers from 38 countries who use the ATLAS particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider. Some speculate that the ATLAS group picked the name to avoid disputes over who most deserves to be named first author on each new research paper.

Aad would always appear first in their alphabetical listing.

Google searches turn up little information about someone so well published. In a field notable for seeking the “God particle,” the pronunciation of the name as it usually appears in technical citations—G. Aad—has stoked suspicions.

“People ask me,” said Dr. Aad. “Do you exist?”
--Robert Lee Hotz, WSJ, on winning the alphabetical lottery. HT: Chris Blattman