Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Endnotes suck

I call down a painful pox on publishers who put the footnotes at the end of the book instead of the bottom of the page where they belong, thus making sure that readers like me will skip many of them.
--Robert Solow, New Republic, on the endnote inconvenience tax

Diet probably doesn't significantly affect your cancer risk

A trip to almost any bookstore or a cruise around the Internet might leave the impression that avoiding cancer is mostly a matter of watching what you eat. ...

But there is a yawning divide between this nutritional folklore and science. During the last two decades the connection between the foods we eat and the cellular anarchy called cancer has been unraveling string by string.

This month at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, a mammoth event that drew more than 18,500 researchers and other professionals here, the latest results about diet and cancer were relegated to a single poster session and a few scattered presentations. There were new hints that coffee may lower the risk of some cancers and more about the possible benefits of vitamin D. Beyond that there wasn’t much to say.

In the opening plenary session, Dr. Walter C. Willett, a Harvard epidemiologist who has spent many years studying cancer and nutrition, sounded almost rueful as he gave a status report. Whatever is true for other diseases, when it comes to cancer there was little evidence that fruits and vegetables are protective or that fatty foods are bad.

About all that can be said with any assurance is that controlling obesity is important, as it also is for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke and other threats to life. Avoiding an excess of alcohol has clear benefits. But unless a person is seriously malnourished, the influence of specific foods is so weak that the signal is easily swamped by noise.
--George Johnson, NYT, on the case for worrying less about what you eat

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Can the church provide psychiatric care?

These churches are not trying to supplant traditional mental health care. “When someone asks, Should I take medication or pray?” one speaker remarked, “I say, ‘yes.’ ” But they think that there aren’t enough services available for people who are really sick, and they think that many people don’t turn to them anyway because of the stigma. ...

The public mental health system is a woefully underfunded crazy-quilt of uncoordinated agencies whose missions shift depending on who gives them money and for what. It can be hideously difficult to navigate even for someone who is not hearing hallucinated voices. Many people with serious mental illness use the public mental health system at best intermittently for psychiatric care. ... Many psychiatric clients hate the idea of being forcibly medicated.

But they do often go to church. More than 40 percent of Americans say that they attend church nearly every week. Even people who have nowhere to live often go to church. ...

In my formal sample of nearly 90 women, only one in four said that they liked psychiatric services. But fully half of them said that they had a church and that they went to that church at least twice each month, and over 80 percent of them said that God was their best friend — some, that he was their only friend. ...

[In] fact, Sangath, a program based in Goa, India, has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to train local community members to identify mental illness and deliver care. A study just published in the Lancet demonstrated that this community care even produced modestly better outcomes for patients with schizophrenia than care in the psychiatric facility. ...

Being in church automatically gives someone what the great sociologist Erving Goffman would have called an “unspoiled” identity. In the conference announcing the initiative, person after person said: “I am not defined by my mental illness. I am a person with mental illness, and I am defined by Christ.” In a world in which serious mental illness is like a punishing badge, that is a powerful shift. And the safer identity may make it easier for people to accept care.
--T. M. Luhrmann, NYT, on helping the sick among us

When a U.S. trial turns into a USSR trial

Two weeks ago, a pair of F.B.I. agents appeared unannounced at the door of a member of the defense team for one of the men accused of plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a contractor working with the defense team at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the man was bound by the same confidentiality rules as a lawyer. But the agents wanted to talk.

They asked questions, lawyers say, about the legal teams for Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other accused terrorists who will eventually stand trial before a military tribunal at Guantánamo. Before they left, the agents asked the contractor to sign an agreement promising not to tell anyone about the conversation.

With that signature, Mr. bin al-Shibh’s lawyers say, the government turned a member of their team into an F.B.I. informant. ...

Thirteen years after 9/11, nobody has been convicted in connection with the attacks and, because of the F.B.I. visit, a trial could be delayed even longer. ...

Last year, as a lawyer for Mr. Mohammed was speaking during another hearing, a red light began flashing. Then the videofeed from the courtroom abruptly cut out. The emergency censorship system had been activated. But why? And by whom? ... Days later, the military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, announced that he had been told that an “original classification authority” — meaning the C.I.A. — was secretly monitoring the proceedings. Unknown to everyone else, the agency had its own button, which the judge swiftly and angrily disconnected.

Last year, the government acknowledged that microphones were hidden inside what looked like smoke detectors in the rooms where detainees met with their lawyers. Those microphones gave officials the ability to eavesdrop on confidential conversations, but the military said it never did so. ...

The court has also been troubled by computer problems. A botched computer update gave prosecutors and defense lawyers access to the other side’s confidential work. And the Pentagon acknowledged inadvertently searching and copying defense lawyers’ emails but said nobody read them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Clever ways to hack corporate computer networks

Unable to breach the computer network at a big oil company, hackers infected with malware the online menu of a Chinese restaurant that was popular with employees. When the workers browsed the menu, they inadvertently downloaded code that gave the attackers a foothold in the business’s vast computer network. ...

Hackers in the recent Target payment card breach gained access to the retailer’s records through its heating and cooling system. In other cases, hackers have used printers, thermostats and videoconferencing equipment. ...

Heating and cooling providers can now monitor and adjust office temperatures remotely, and vending machine suppliers can see when their clients are out of Diet Cokes and Cheetos. Those vendors often don’t have the same security standards as their clients, but for business reasons they are allowed behind the firewall that protects a network. ...

Billy Rios, director of threat intelligence at Qualys, a security firm, was one of those researchers. He said it was increasingly common for corporations to set up their networks sloppily, with their air-conditioning systems connected to the same network that leads to databases containing sensitive material like proprietary source code or customer credit cards.
--Nicole Perlroth, NYT, on hacking ninjas

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

No, changing fonts to Garamond will not save the government $400 million per year

A 14-year-old from Pittsburgh, Suvir Mirchandani, calculated that with a simple change of fonts, the federal government could save as much as $136 million per year. Following up on a middle-school science project, Mirchandani calculated that changing government documents from Times New Roman to Garamond—a narrower, lighter font—would slash the amount of ink required by a vast amount. And as he pointed out, laser-printer ink is far dearer than, say Chanel No. 5. ... Extrapolating his findings to state and local governments, Mirchandani found that the total savings for all governments in the U.S. could be as much as $394 million ...

Mirchandani's estimates of what the federal government spends on ink are on the high end:
A Government Services Administration study (6) had estimated the cost of ink (toner) to be 25.86% of the total cost of ownership of a printer (Footnote 2). Assuming this percentage, the estimated 2014 ink cost by the federal government is $467 million. A savings of 29.24% by switching to Garamond translates into an equivalent dollar amount of more than $136 million at the federal government level.
Mirchandani notes that feds are projected to spend about $1.8 billion on printing in 2014. The GPO [Government Printing Office] accounts for a little more than a third of that ($680 million), but in 2013 it spent only $750,000 on ink. Even if that number could be zeroed out, a logical impossibility, the savings north of $100 million look pretty unlikely.
--David Graham, The Atlantic, on a sad piece of mythbusting

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What it's like to wait in lines for a living



New Yorkers will wait on line for just about anything—pastries, Supreme tee shirts, designer collaborations, iPads—but given the chance, a few would prefer to pay someone else to do it for them. Enter the world of professional line sitting—a gig that's now so legitimate there are Yelp reviews, Twitter accounts, and business cards for the services.

One group in particular is everywhere: Same Ole Line Dudes, or SOLD Inc, which Chelsea resident Robert Samuel started almost unknowingly at the iPhone 5 launch. ...


Who are your customers? Are they people who are really obsessed, or are they really rich?

It's a mix. I have two or three uber rich clients. One that lives in Palm Beach and another that lives on Park Avenue. One wants Cronuts a lot [for] whenever friends come to visit from out of town. The other end of the spectrum is people who don't have time and want to get a head start on the line. ...

What's the longest time you've ever waited?

19 hours for the iPhone. That was how the whole idea of line sitting came about. I was an employee at AT&T, and I lost my job. I wanted to supplement my income because I used to sell iPhones, and this time I wasn't going to be able to sell them and make a big commission check. I live a few blocks from the Apple store on 14th Street, so I said, "Let me wait in line for somebody else and make them happy."

The guy that hired me cancelled and said he wasn't going to use me—he was just going to get it online but that he was still going to pay me. He paid me $100 and I resold the spot and made another $100, and then I called my friends and told them to come on down, because I just made $200 standing in one spot on a weekday afternoon.

They came down and took up spaces, but after a while they got tired and went upstairs to my house and hung out, and I ended up selling one of their spots. I also sold milk crates for $5 a piece that I had in my house. At this point, the line was getting long and people didn't want to stand, and some people didn't want to sit on cardboard on the floor, so my milk crates came in handy at $5 a pop. That's $325. ...

Do you charge by the hour, or is it a flat rate?

It's per hour. It's $25 for the first hour and $10 for each additional half hour. ...

Do people ever get mad when the person who paid you to wait shows up and switches with you?

That hasn't happened, and that's been one of my biggest fears. ...

I always tell people that if you want us to wait in line for you, it has to be an even ratio. That's what keeps it calm. If you want to come with a girlfriend that's fine, just tell me how many people are coming. If it's four, then we'll reserve four waiters. ...

How many people do you have working for you?

I have fifteen people that are interested and about seven that actually respond to my texts for jobs. ...

What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom?

There's a loyalty between people standing in line—an unspoken code, so to speak. In my experience of doing this, which is a little over a year and half, it's never been a problem. No one's going to say, "You move your feet you lose your space." I just say, I'm going to the bathroom, and find the nearest Starbucks and offer to get them a coffee or something.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The music theory behind why Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" is awesome

Another interesting feature about this endlessly repeating four-chord progression: This song has an ambiguous tonality. “Teenage Dream” denied the listeners the I chord to create weightlessness; in “Get Lucky,” it is aurally unclear what the I chord even is!

See, the song can be heard in two different keys. Most of the time it sounds as if it’s in the minor mode of A Aeolian*—the scale goes A B C D E F G—essentially, a form of A minor, which appears as the third of the four chords (“We’re up all night for good fun”).

But the first chord of the progression isn’t A minor, it’s D minor. The song slides smoothly back to it each time (“I’m up all night to get some”). The insistence of the D minor creates the aural illusion that the song could in fact be in the minor mode of D Dorian—D E F G A B C. Note that the D Dorian scale contains all the same notes as A Aeolian, all the same keys on the piano. The only difference is what key you start on.

So, when the chord cycle comes back around to the beginning, the D minor, each time, the ear is tricked for a moment into thinking that the song is in a different key, a musical Tilt-a-Whirl. I am not going to lie: To my ears the song is clearly identifiable as A minor, but on a Kinsey scale, I’d rate it a 3.

This Tilt-a-Whirl ambiguity is easy for the ear to discern and also easy to describe even without any musical background. Even untrained music writers typically will use the word “cyclical” or “spiraling" to describe this type of ambiguous progression. ...

Third observation: Daft Punk pulls off a classic move in this song during the bridge, at that moment when the chorus of robots breaks it down. The move? They overlay the hook from the pre-chorus with the hook from the chorus, getting them both going simultaneously. This is not an original device, but a classic one in the world of Western music theory, subject and countersubject. Two melodies that live separately but will join together in a climax of ecstatic melodic copulation.

Below is a transcription of the hook (robots) and pre-chorus (Pharrell). See how elegantly the rhythms counterbalance each other! One is busy and syncopated and repetitious, the other is straight and simple and has a nice long arc to it. And yet they’re both such strong hooks on their own! If these four bars appeared on a counterpoint exam, it would get impressive marks.
--Owen Pallett, Slate, on the thought behind the catchiness

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The 146-word essay that got a University of North Carolina athlete an A- in a no-work course for athletes

On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. “Let me have those front seats” said the driver. She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. “I’m going to have you arrested,” said the driver. “You may do that,” Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them “why do you all push us around?” The police officer replied and said “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.
--The complete essay submitted for AFAM 41, as shown on ESPN, via Slate


Monday, March 24, 2014

Why the incongruity theory of humor is incomplete

The majority of humor experts today subscribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when there’s an inconsistency between what people expect to happen and what actually happens. Incongruity has a lot going for it—jokes with punch lines, for example, fit well. But scientists have found that in comedy, unexpectedness is overrated. In 1974, two University of Tennessee professors had undergraduates listen to a variety of Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller routines. Before each punch line, the researchers stopped the tape and asked the students to predict what was coming next, as a measure of the jokes’ predictability. Then another group of students was asked to rate the funniness of each of the comedians’ jokes. The predictable punch lines turned out to be rated considerably funnier than those that were unexpected—the opposite of what you’d expect to happen according to incongruity theory.

There’s another problem with these theories. While they all have their strengths, they share a major malfunction: They can’t explain why some things are not funny. Accidentally killing your mother-in-law would be incongruous, assert superiority, and release pent-up tensions, but it’s hardly a gut buster if you have to explain the catastrophe to your wife. ...

Working with his collaborator Caleb Warren and building from a 1998 HUMOR article published by a linguist named Thomas Veatch, [Peter McGraw] hit upon the benign violation theory, the idea that humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening, but is simultaneously OK or safe.
--Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, Slate, on the mystery of humor

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Treating depression with Botox

New research suggests that it is possible to treat depression by paralyzing key facial muscles with Botox, which prevents patients from frowning and having unhappy-looking faces.

In a study forthcoming in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, Eric Finzi, a cosmetic dermatologist, and Norman Rosenthal, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, randomly assigned a group of 74 patients with major depression to receive either Botox or saline injections in the forehead muscles whose contraction makes it possible to frown. Six weeks after the injection, 52 percent of the subjects who got Botox showed relief from depression, compared with only 15 percent of those who received the saline placebo.

(You might think that patients would easily be able to tell whether they got the placebo or Botox. Actually, it wasn’t so obvious: Only about half of the subjects getting Botox guessed correctly. More important, knowing which treatment was received had no significant effect on treatment response.)

Other studies over the past several years have found similar effects of Botox on mood. Michael Lewis at Cardiff University reported that nondepressed patients at a cosmetic dermatology clinic receiving Botox injection above the eyes frowned less and felt better than those who did not receive this injection. And M. Axel Wollmer at the University of Basel found that Botox injection was superior to a placebo in a group of depressed patients. ...

The idea that facial expressions may feed information back to our brain and influence our feelings goes back to a theory of emotion first proposed by Charles Darwin.
--Richard Friedman, NYT, on matter over mind

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Gary Becker's grandson

As a child, [Gary Becker's grandson] Louis [Harboe] loved drawing, and at age 10, he got into Photoshop. He made a portfolio of designs, like icons to use in place of computer-program icons on your desktop; he shared them on his website and on Twitter, seeking feedback from designers and developers.

He didn’t reveal his age; his online profile picture was a smiley face. “You don’t want to tell anyone you’re 11,” he said, “because no one will hire you.”

His first job was to design the look of a puzzle game. It took a week of work. The game maker asked Louis his fee. But he was 12. He had no idea. “Um...,” Louis remembers stalling. “$150?”

“He was like: How about a little more because I really like you?” Louis got $350.

Louis got a handful of such gigs, and email inquiries for full-time jobs, including interest from Mozilla and Spotify when he was 14. The next year, an email came from an Apple talent scout. This time, Louis conceded his age and received this response: “You’re the second high schooler I’ve emailed. What are they teaching you in high school these days?”

In the summer after 10th grade, he was hired by Square, the payment company; he says he heard the predictable “child labor law jokes.” Lindsay Wiese, a Square spokeswoman, said that its internship program focuses on “talent, not age,” and that it looks for leaders “like Louis” who provide a diversity of perspective. Young people understand young consumers.

For Louis, the money has added up, around $35,000 in all, most of it spent on computers and accessories, some on business trips and some on eating out.

The AMA doesn't care that much about malpractice reform

Late one summer afternoon [while working on Obamacare], I met my brother Rahm—then the White House chief of staff—in his West Wing office. We chatted, and then he asked in his usual staccato, "What else is going on, Zeke?"

"I'm also working on the medical malpractice proposal I told you about," I began.

He immediately cut me off: "Shut the f— up! We are not doing malpractice. Period. Every time the AMA [American Medical Association] comes in here, they don't talk about malpractice." Their first, second and third priority, he said, was the formula used by Medicare to determine doctors' pay. "We don't need to do malpractice for the doctors, and I am not alienating the president's base for nothing," he barked. "Stop it."

Rahm's reaction told me everything that I needed to know about the politics of the issue. Democrats would accept malpractice reform under two circumstances: if they needed it to keep the AMA's support for the bill, or if they needed it to attract Republican support. Neither was true. In backroom negotiations, the AMA was solely focused on securing higher physician payments—not on malpractice. And not a single Republican in Congress would even negotiate.

The president had already aggravated liberals by forgoing a "public option." He'd offended unions by limiting the tax exclusion. He wasn't going to antagonize trial lawyers, another core Democratic constituency, for no gain.
--Ezekiel Emanuel, WSJ, on focusing on the bottom line

Friday, March 7, 2014

Why daylight savings time should be year-round

As we “spring forward,” we take an hour of daylight away from morning travelers and give it to those out in the late afternoon and early evening. Because travel is generally safer during the light of day, it is plausible that the time change affects travel risks at different times of the day.

My colleague Paul Fischbeck and I looked at the numbers and found clear effects on safety for pedestrians, runners and cyclists. There are more travelers later in the day than in the early morning, and consequently extending the daylight in the spring reduces the total number of injuries and fatalities.

As we “spring forward,” we take an hour of daylight away from morning travelers and give it to those out in the late afternoon and early evening. Because travel is generally safer during the light of day, it is plausible that the time change affects travel risks at different times of the day.

My colleague Paul Fischbeck and I looked at the numbers and found clear effects on safety for pedestrians, runners and cyclists. There are more travelers later in the day than in the early morning, and consequently extending the daylight in the spring reduces the total number of injuries and fatalities. ...

Based on the pedestrian fatality numbers alone, there is a case to take daylight saving time from its current eight months to the full year, eliminating the time changes altogether.
--David Gerard, NYT, on the case for one permanent spring forward

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Putin's clever jujuitsu in Ukraine

Mr. Putin’s aim is not a de jure separation of Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. That would be legally problematic and disadvantageous to Moscow in terms of its future influence over Ukrainian politics. The purpose of Russia’s incursion was to obtain the greatest possible autonomy for Crimea while still retaining formal Ukrainian jurisdiction over the peninsula. ...

A referendum on March 30 is likely to result in a vote for further autonomy, and it would provide Crimea with such broad freedoms that it would become a de facto Russian protectorate. Moscow would then aim to keep the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea indefinitely, and remove any limits on its operations, size and replenishment. ...

This strategy seems to be paying off already. The mere specter of a Russian intervention was enough for the new Ukrainian government to abandon its threat of reducing autonomy for the “rebellious” peninsula. ...

...Russia has a strong interest in nominally retaining Crimea as part of Ukraine. From the disintegration of the Soviet Union onward, Crimea, with its traditionally separatist leanings, was always a destabilizing factor. It served as a direct avenue of Russian pressure on Ukraine, and also guaranteed almost a million “pro-Russian” votes in Ukrainian elections, ensuring the dominance of the pro-Russian eastern half of the country over the nationalist western half.

If the Ukrainian nationalists had been smarter and more farsighted, they themselves would have advocated a renunciation of claims to Crimea in order to remove this needle in their side, but their desire for a Greater Ukraine has trumped sober political calculations.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A ranking of concert hall acoustic quality

The author, over a period of 40 years (1960-2000), has conducted interviews and made questionnaire surveys of over 150 conductors, music critics and (a few well traveled) aficionados of concert and opera music. About half were conductors.

--Leo Beranek, Acta Acustica united with Acustica, on where to go hear music at its finest

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Law students should take corporate finance



Law students might want to consider taking classes on accounting, corporate finance, and financial statement analysis, according to a survey of major law firms published last week by several faculty at Harvard Law School.

The study—which was conducted by Law School professors John C. Coates IV, Jesse M. Fried, and Kathryn E. Spier—found that 83 percent of the practicing attorneys interviewed believe students should take “Accounting and Financial Reporting” classes. Only 10 percent of attorneys, however, suggested taking a class entitled “Leadership in Law Firms.”

“The large law firms that hire Law School students have always generated most of their revenues by assisting businesses in structuring and litigating over complex financial transactions,” Fried wrote in an email. “What's different today, perhaps, is that law firms are under increasing pressure from clients to be more efficient, and so the bars for hiring and promoting associates have been raised.” ...

Mark A. Weber, the assistant dean for career services at the Law School, said that students should not let the study go unnoticed.
--Tyler Olkowski, Harvard Crimson, on why law students should take my class

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Swiss air force only works from 8 to 5

When an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise aircraft carrying 202 passengers entered Swiss airspace today after being hijacked by the co-pilot en route to Rome, Switzerland’s Air Force remained on the ground. That’s because the incident occurred outside normal office hours. Instead, French and Italian fighter jets escorted the Boeing 767 to a safe landing in Geneva.

“You have a budget and you have to prioritize,” said Swiss Air Force spokesman Juerg Nussbaum. While Switzerland monitors airspace around the clock, intervention only occurs during routine business hours starting at 8 a.m., he said.
--Benedikt Kammel and Jan-Henrik Foerster, Bloomberg, on work-life balance in the Swiss military. HT: Marginal Revolution

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The problem with reducing Wall Street compensation to decrease inequality

It is certainly true that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of highly paid people in finance over the last generation. Recent studies reveal that most of the increase has resulted from an increase in the value of assets under management. (The percentage of assets that financiers take in fees has remained roughly constant.) Perhaps some policy could be found that would reduce these fees but the beneficiaries would be the owners of financial assets – a group that consists mainly of very wealthy people.
--Lawrence Summers, Financial Times, on Robin Hood returning money to the rich. HT: Marginal Revolution