Monday, December 31, 2007

The depressingly low value of a GED

Although GED recipients have the same measured academic ability as high school graduates who do not attend college, they have the economic and social outcomes of otherwise similar dropouts without certification. Despite measures of cognitive ability similar to high school graduates, GED recipients perform significantly worse in all dimensions when compared to them (Heckman and Rubinstein [2001]). GED recipients lack noncognitive skills such as perseverance and motivation that are essential to success in school and in life. The GED opens education and training opportunities but GED recipients do not reap the potential benefits because they are unable to finish these activities. GED recipients attrite from the military at the same rate as other dropouts and they exit post-secondary schooling with nearly the same degree attainment rates as other dropouts who start with no credential.
--James Heckman and Paul LaFontaine, "The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels"

Did the South have a chance?

Using a unique dataset of Confederate gold bonds in Amsterdam, we... estimate the probability of a Southern victory from the summer of 1863 until the end of the war. Our results suggest that European investors gave the Confederacy approximately a 42 percent chance of victory prior to the battle of Gettysburg/Vicksburg. News of the severity of the two rebel defeats led to a sell-off in Confederate bonds. By the end of 1863, the probability of a Southern victory fell to about 15 percent. Confederate victory prospects generally decreased for the remainder of the war.
--Marc Weidenmeir and Kim Oosterlinck, "Victory or Repudiation? The Probability of the Southern Confederacy Winning the Civil War"

Venturing outside the ivory tower

I wonder how different the economics profession would be if economists were expected to do a year of service outside of academia or, at the very least, if hiring committees rewarded a year of real-world experience as the equivalent of, say, a couple of academic publications. My conjecture is that the profession would be less creative but more useful.
--Greg Mankiw on polluting the economics profession with the real world

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Human subjects protection gone amok

In Bethesda, Md., in a squat building off a suburban parkway, sits a small federal agency called the Office for Human Research Protections. Its aim is to protect people. But lately you have to wonder. Consider this recent case.

A year ago, researchers at Johns Hopkins University published the results of a program that instituted in nearly every intensive care unit in Michigan a simple five-step checklist designed to prevent certain hospital infections. It reminds doctors to make sure, for example, that before putting large intravenous lines into patients, they actually wash their hands and don a sterile gown and gloves.

The results were stunning. Within three months, the rate of bloodstream infections from these I.V. lines fell by two-thirds. The average I.C.U. cut its infection rate from 4 percent to zero. Over 18 months, the program saved more than 1,500 lives and nearly $200 million.

Yet this past month, the Office for Human Research Protections shut the program down. The agency issued notice to the researchers and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association that, by introducing a checklist and tracking the results without written, informed consent from each patient and health-care provider, they had violated scientific ethics regulations. Johns Hopkins had to halt not only the program in Michigan but also its plans to extend it to hospitals in New Jersey and Rhode Island.
--Atul Gawande, NYT, on ethics bureaucracy excesses

The Harvard ego

Actually, Harvard performs an educational miracle. It is, I believe, an educational miracle. Year after year we seem to deny the laws of mathematics. Here’s how we do it. We survey the freshmen, and we ask them, do you think you’re in the top half of the class or in the bottom half of the class? About 60 percent say that they’re in the bottom half of the class. We also survey seniors. Are you in the top half of the class or are you in the bottom half of the class? And almost two-thirds say that they are in the top half of the class. It’s really quite remarkable what we are able to do for you.
--Larry Summers, addressing entering Harvard freshmen in 2004, on the nurturing of the Harvard ego

Friday, December 28, 2007

Black Friday "bargains"

Of 52 items the Globe tracked over the five-week holiday shopping season, only five items were cheapest on Black Friday. The vast majority of the products either stayed the same price or fluctuated above and below the Black Friday price from week to week. Seven items were actually cheaper the day before Christmas than on Black Friday.
--Jenn Abelson and Rebecca Fitzgerald, Boston Globe, on why you shouldn't wake up at 3 A.M. the day after Thanksgiving

The benefits of fame

Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, you know?
--Chris Rock on fame

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The odds

My favorite statistic in the world is that you would have a better chance surviving the Titanic than getting a tenure track job in the humanities...
--Penelope Trunk, Boston Globe, on reconsidering that humanities Ph.D.

Santa and the IRB

Dr. K Kringle
Adjunct Professor of Child Psychology
Far Northern University

Dear Dr. Kringle (Ph.D, M.D., D.O.? Please verify your credentials):

At the regularly scheduled December 24 meeting, the IRB reviewed your protocol, "A Global Observational Study of Behavior in Children" While we believe it has many good features, it could not be approved as submitted. If you choose to revise your study, please address the following IRB concerns:

1. You propose to study "children of all ages." Please provide an exact lower and upper age limit, as well as the precise number of subjects. Provide a statistically valid power calculation to justify this large of a study.

2. Your only inclusion criterion is "belief in Santa Clause." Please provide a copy of the screening questionnaire that determines such a belief. Provide a Waiver of Authorization under MPAA in order to record these beliefs prior to enrollment in your study. The Board recommends that you obtain a Certificate of Confidentiality as beliefs are sensitive and personal information.

3. You propose to "how when they are sleeping and know when they are awake". How will this be done? Will children undergo video monitoring in their beds? Will they have sleep EEGs? You list 100 elves as research assistants. Are any of them sleep physiologists? Please provide credentials of elves.

4. Your primary outcome measure is to "how when they've been bad or good." What standard is being used to determine "goodness'? Do children have to be good all year or just most of the time? Please specify required duration and provide the instrumentation, with appropriate consent forms, that will be used for operationally defining "goodness".

5. You propose to conduct your research by entering the subjects' homes through the chimney. Have you considered the liability potential, i.e., damage to the roof, carpeting, etc., that this will cause? Moreover, children are likely to be startled by your appearance late at night. Please revise your protocol to conduct your home visits between 9 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday with at least one parent being present and all risks and benefits carefully described.

6. You state that compensation for participation will be "sugarplums, candy, and toys" for the good little girls and boys. This may not be appropriate for the chiIdren with obesity, dental cavities, and hyperactivity. Also, your proposal to leave a lump of coal in the stockings of the bad children will be unfairly stigmatizing to them individually and as a group. In general, the Board suggests a small token of appreciation for all participants. Perhaps a $5 Toys-R-Us gift card would be more appropriate in order to avoid potential coercion.

7. The database of good and bad children will be kept "on a scroll at the North Pole." Please describe the location of the scroll and the security provisions you have in place to protect the data. Is the scroll kept in a locked cabinet in a locked room? Who has access to the scroll? Are there backup copies of the scroll and how often are they compared to the original?

8. You mention the participation of "eight tiny reindeer" in your protocol. Please provide the Board with documentation of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approval.

9. Please provide the Human Subjects Protection training dates for Mrs. Claus and the elves.

10. As this study involves prospective data collection and is more than minimal risk without prospect of direct benefit to the subjects, informed consent signed by both parents will be required. Please have the consent form translated into every language spoken by children.

Please submit 25 copies of your revised protocol to the IRB. The IRB will be on Holiday Season schedule for the next two weeks. If approved, you will be able to conduct your study sometime in the spring, if all items are appropriately addressed.

E. Scrooge, MD
Chair, Institutional Review Board

Friday, December 21, 2007

Is it sexual harassment?

Case Study: Gorilla Suit

Kendra was a research associate for The Gorilla Foundation. As part of her duties, Kendra helped care for Koko, the sign-language talking gorilla.

Using sign language, Koko is able to communicate with humans. Over the years, Koko has repeatedly requested that female human visitors display their breasts to her. In fact, certain of Koko's hand movements were interpreted as a "demand" by Koko to see exposed human nipples.

Accordingly, when Koko made the signs about Kendra, Koko's primary caregiver instructed Kendra to expose her breasts to Koko as a way to bond with the great ape.

Although Kendra used to regularly dress in front of the pet parrot that lived in the Foundation's women's locker room, Kendra is uncomfortable with Koko's "demand."

This scenario is based on a 2005 case called Keller v. The Gorilla Foundation. Could Kendra complain that she was sexually harassed?

* No, because Kendra exposed herself to the Foundation's parrot and Koko wanted Kendra do the same thing.

* Probably not, because Koko is not a human.

* Only if she first "signs" to Koko that she will not indulge Koko's request.

* Yes, and the Foundation was required to take effective action to stop the harassment from continuing.
--Actual material from a sexual harassment training course, as reported by

Medical myths

  • People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day
  • We use only 10% of our brains
  • Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death
  • Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser
  • Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight
  • Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy
  • Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals
--Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll, British Medical Journal, on medical "facts" that have no supporting evidence

Incomplete adaptation

Many of you asked why [Tony] Romo would date [Jessica] Simpson in the first place. After all, he could date anyone he wants, and even if he's attracted to Simpson because he has a thing for top-heavy blondes -- we don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing -- he could just as easily find an equally top-heavy Texas blonde who a.) doesn't have a Svengali father who travels everywhere with her, b.) doesn't have press following her every move, c.) isn't divorced, and d.) didn't become famous simply for being dumb, right?

Here's my theory, which we could call the Affleck/J-Lo Corollary: When people become famous, we think of them only as celebrities and forget they were once normal -- people like you and me -- who became normal people who were also suddenly famous. Now, fame eventually changes just about everyone, but a small part of every celebrity will always be in perpetual disbelief that they're famous and their life worked out the way they wanted it to work out. It's that small "part" that draws celebrities like Ben Affleck and J-Lo to each other ... they're always in disbelief they scored the other celeb.
--Bill Simmons,, on the origin of bad celebrity romances

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The butler didn't do it?

For most of the post war period, economic expansions did not die of old age. They were murdered by the Federal Reserve in the name of fighting inflation.
--Larry Summers

So true

Five studies investigate identity denial, the situation in which an individual is not recognized as a member of an important in-group. Asian Americans are seen as less American than other Americans (Study 1) and realize this is the case, although they do not report being any less American than White Americans (Studies 2A and 2B). Identity denial is a common occurrence in Asian Americans' daily lives (Study 3). They react to instances of identity denial by presenting American cultural knowledge and claiming greater participation in American practices (Studies 4 & 5). Identity denial furthers the understanding of group dynamics by capturing the experience of less prototypical group members who desire to have their common in-group identity recognized by fellow group members.
--Sapna Cheryan and Benoit Monin, "'Where Are You Really From?': Asian Americans and Identity Denial," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, November 2005

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The mystery of our motivations

“You get a focus group together and you ask them which toothpaste they use,” [Republican consultant Mike] Murphy told me, “and they say, Crest. And you ask them, ‘Is it because of the ads?’

“‘Oh no, of course not!’ they say. ‘I never listen to ads. Ads don’t affect me. I make up my own mind.’

“‘Oh, OK, so why do you use Crest?’

“‘Because four out of five dentists recommend it!’ ”
--Matt Bai, NYT, on the limits of self reports of motivation

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A home run every time

It’s not possible to make one perfect movie every time. I don’t know of anyone who has done it. I guess Kurosawa has come the closest.
--Francis Ford Coppola, NYT Magazine, on the greatness of Akira Kurosawa


I was able to follow what my heart desired without overstepping the moral bounds.
--Confucius on freedom at age 70

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Expanding the coffee pie

[Taylor] Clark is frank about his bias: “Starbucks diminishes the world’s diversity every time it builds a new cafe, and I can’t help but feel troubled by this.” But when Clark looks at whether the towering Mount St. Helens that is Starbucks, with its volcanic eruptions of store openings, has buried the competition, he has the grace — not given to every pundit — to look at what he’s actually seeing. Clark informs us that in 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in America. Now there are more than 24,000. Fifty-seven percent of these are what Clark calls “mom and pops.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the surest way to boost sales at your mom-and-pop cafe may be to have a Starbucks move in next door.”'
--P.J. O'Rourke, NYT, on why Starbucks has been good for local cultural flavor

Friday, December 14, 2007

1984 in 2007

Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s “1984,” worked at a government job he hated, rewriting history to conform to current propaganda imperatives. This week, a group called Wikileaks asserted that the United States military appeared to have a Winston Smith of its own at the Guantánamo Bay naval base, mucking about with the way Wikipedia and news sites portray the base and, curiously, posting odd assertions about Fidel Castro.
--Patrick Lyons, NYT, on cyber-propaganda

Labels and pleasure

At the Cornell lab, Dr. [Brian] Wansink and his colleagues offered six different foods to cafeteria diners on different days for six weeks — but they changed the names. Sometimes they served “red beans and rice” and “seafood fillet.” Other days they served “Traditional Cajun Red Beans With Rice” and “Succulent Italian Seafood Fillet.”

After eating, diners rated the foods. Foods with fancier names were rated as more appealing and tastier than the identical foods with the less enticing labels, he says.
--Tara Parker-Pope, NYT, on the power of labels

Tree-hugger meets hunter

In New York State alone, roughly half a million hunters harvest around 190,000 deer in the fall deer hunting season — that’s close to eight million pounds of venison. In the traditional vernacular, we’d call that “game meat.” But, in keeping with the times, it might be better to relabel it as free-range, grass-fed, organic, locally produced, locally harvested, sustainable, native, low-stress, low-impact, humanely slaughtered meat.
--Steven Rinella, NYT, on reframing the political correctness of hunting

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Against electronic classroom distractions

Halfway through the semester in his market research course at Roanoke College last fall, only moments after announcing a policy of zero tolerance for cellphone use in the classroom, Prof. Ali Nazemi heard a telltale ring. Then he spotted a young man named Neil Noland fumbling with his phone, trying to turn it off before being caught.

“Neil, can I see that phone?” Professor Nazemi said, more in a command than a question. The student surrendered it. Professor Nazemi opened his briefcase, produced a hammer and proceeded to smash the offending device. Throughout the classroom, student faces went ashen.

“How am I going to call my Mom now?” Neil asked. As Professor Nazemi refused to answer, a classmate offered, “Dude, you can sue.”

Let’s be clear about one thing. Ali Nazemi is a hero. Ali Nazemi deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Let’s be clear about another thing. The episode in his classroom had been plotted and scripted ahead of time, with Neil Noland part of the charade all along. The phone was an extra of his mother’s, its service contract long expired.
--Samuel Freedman, NYT, on the losing battle against electronic classroom distractions

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The power of checklists

Line infections occur in eighty thousand people a year in the United States, and are fatal between five and twenty-eight per cent of the time, depending on how sick one is at the start. ...

In 2001, though, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give it a try. ... On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

The next month, he and his team persuaded the hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist; nurses were also to ask them each day whether any lines ought to be removed, so as not to leave them in longer than necessary. ...

Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from eleven per cent to zero.
--Atul Gawande, New Yorker, on the power of checklists

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

DIY higher taxes

Anyone is free to pay more tax than the legal minimum. For that matter, Clinton absurdly receives $191,000 annually in presidential retirement subsidies -- though Clinton is a multimillionaire who does not need the money and is not retired! If Clinton feels he is insufficiently taxed, he could simply tear the annual $191,000 check in half and cause that amount to remain in the Treasury.

Any wealthy person who claims to favor higher taxes on the rich should voluntarily donate to the Treasury whatever additional amount he or she believes the rich should pay. For Clinton, or any wealthy person, to proclaim a willingness to be taxed more but then not voluntarily tax himself, is self-promotional hypocrisy. Clinton and other rich people who make claims about favoring higher taxes on the wealthy, but then hoard their money, want to be admired for seeming to be willing to sacrifice -- without the annoying complication of actually making any sacrifice.
--Gregg Easterbrook,, on manufacturing your own higher tax rate

Monday, December 3, 2007

Movie violence outside the lab

Laboratory experiments in psychology find that media violence increases aggression in the short run. We analyze whether media violence affects violent crime in the field. We exploit variation in the violence of blockbuster movies from 1995 to 2004, and study the effect on same-day assaults. We find that violent crime decreases on days with larger theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is partly due to voluntary incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, a one million increase in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.1 to 1.3 percent. After exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, violent crime is reduced by an even larger percent. This finding can be explained by the self-selection of violent individuals into violent movie attendance, leading to substitution away from more volatile activities. In particular, movie attendance appears to reduce alcohol consumption. We find suggestive evidence that strongly violent movies trigger an increase in violence; however, this increase is dominated by a substitution away from more dangerous activities. Overall, our estimates suggest that in the short-run violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend. While our design does not allow us to estimate long-run effects, we find no evidence of medium-run effects up to three weeks after initial exposure.
--Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna, "Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime," on the good of the lesser of evils

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What about a quick sort?

The proceedings at Google are not unremittingly serious affairs. Mr. Schmidt asked Senator McCain, “How do you determine good ways of sorting one million 32-bit integers in two megabytes of RAM?” Immediately signaling that the question was asked in jest, Mr. Schmidt moved on. Six months later, Senator Obama faced the same question, but his staff had prepared him. When he replied in fluent tech-speak (“A bubble sort is the wrong way to go”), the quip brought down the house.
--Randall Stross, NYT, on the value of good advance briefings