Monday, July 30, 2007


In his memoir, “What Mad Pursuit,” Dr. [Francis] Crick recalled going home that day and telling his wife of the historic discovery [of DNA]. Only years later, he wrote, had Mrs. Crick told him that she did not believe a word of it, saying, “You were always coming home and saying things like that, so naturally I thought nothing of it.”
--Dennis Hevesi, NYT, on spousal skepticism

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The inefficiency of tax holidays

The [Massachusetts] House just approved a "tax holiday" in August. As a manager of a retail showroom in Weymouth, I have seen our business consistently hurt by this policy...

Our sales virtually die as soon as the Legislature starts talking about a tax holiday. Consumers won't buy when they think that they save 5 percent in a few weeks. Unless I'm willing to pay the customer's sales tax out of our margin dollars for half the summer, our sales volume plummets.

Then "tax weekend" comes, and I have to pay my staff overtime to work all weekend to try to recoup some of that loss. While the receipts for those "tax free" days are admittedly high, they do not touch the losses caused by consumers holding off on making purchases.
--Chris Sands, Boston Globe, on the inefficiency of tax holidays. Econ 101: the deadweight loss of a tax increases with the square of the tax rate. So for a given average tax rate, it's better to have a tax that is uniform on a broad base, rather than a tax that is high on some items and low on others.

Faith and evidence

In 1988, the atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer had such an adventure when he choked on a piece of smoked salmon and his heart stopped for a few minutes. Soon afterward, Ayer reported that his near-death experience, in which he saw a red light that seemed to govern the universe, “slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death... will be the end of me.” But he later dismissed it as a hallucination caused by a temporary lack of oxygen in his brain.
--Jim Holt, NYT Magazine, on the unbending faith of unbelievers my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also.
--Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, on A. J. Ayer's dismissal

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A broken peer-review process

More insidious, in my view, is the gradual morphing of the referees from evaluators to anonymous co-authors. Referees request increasingly extensive revisions. Usually these represent improvements, but the process takes a lot of time and effort, and the end result is often worse owing to its committee-design. Authors, knowing referees will make them rewrite the paper, are sometimes sloppy with the submission. This feedback loop - submitting a sloppy paper since referees will require rewriting combined with a need to fix all the sloppiness - has led to our current misery. Moreover, the expectation that referees will rewrite papers, combined with sloppy submissions, makes refereeing extraordinarily unpleasant. We - the efficiency-obsessed academic discipline - have the least efficient publication process...

Consequently, Economic Inquiry is starting an experiment. In this experiment, an author can submit under a 'no revisions' policy. This policy means exactly what it says: if you submit under no revisions, I (or the co-editor) will either accept or reject. What will not happen is a request for a revision.
--R. Preston McAfee, editor of Economic Inquiry, on an attempt at reform a broken system

The pinnacle of Western civilization

I have long been of the opinion that the entire history of American popular culture — maybe even of Western civilization — amounts to little more than a long prelude to “The Simpsons.”
--A. O. Scott, NYT, on the greatness of the Simpsons

Friday, July 20, 2007

The new finance

WSJ: In the past, promising new economics PhDs who didn’t want to work in government or academia probably aspired to work on Wall Street. In the future, will they aspire to work at companies like Google?

Varian: I think marketing is the new finance. In the 1960s and 1970s [we] got interesting data, and a lot of analytic fire power focused on that data; Bob Merton and Fischer Black, the whole team of people that developed modern finance. So we saw huge gains in understanding performance in the finance industry. I think marketing is in the same place: now we’re getting a lot of really good data, we have tools, we have methods, we have smart people working on it. So my view is the quants are going to move from Wall Street to Madison Avenue.

WSJ: Is that because the Web can now provide companies with the density of information once available only for things like stock prices and interest rates?

Varian: Absolutely. Adaptive forecasting, how I revise my forecast to take account of updated information, you use that a lot on Wall Street, where you have time series of stock prices. And some of those things carry over into things that Google is doing, that have this real-time flow of data. How do I detect unusual events, and react to them?
--Hal Varian, the new chief economist at Google, on marketing as the new finance

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I never liked checkers anyway

The ancient game of checkers (or draughts) has been pronounced dead. The game was killed by the publication of a mathematical proof showing that draughts always results in a draw when neither player makes a mistake. For computer-game aficionados, the game is now "solved".

The computer proof took Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer-games expert at the University of Alberta in Canada, 18 years to complete and is one of the longest running computations in history...

At its peak, Schaeffer had 200 desktop computers working on the problem full time, although in later years he reduced this to 50 or so. "The problem is such that if I made a mistake 10 years ago, all the work from then on would be wrong," says Schaeffer. "So I've been fanatical about checking for errors."
--Justin Mullins, New Scientist, on the end of checkers

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

WSJ + Murdoch

Rupert [Murdoch] has confirmed to me that we will have Page 3 girls. But in a concession, they will be dot drawings.
--Anonymous Wall Street Journal editor on the paper under the News Corporation ownership

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Another endorsement for horse sashimi

As the extroverted bartender and owner, Hoshi Yuichi, held court in a white dinner jacket, cracking jokes and sharing drinks with the dozen or so people in the room, a plate of unfamiliar meats arrived: a dark gathering of raw horse liver and scarlet slices of horse “sashimi.” Each equine variant had its own dipping sauce: sesame oil and sea salt for the liver, a muddle of spicy miso and garlic for the sashimi. I grew up in Kentucky, where we don't eat much horse, raw or otherwise, though after tasting the crisply cut pieces dipped in the salty oil, I'm not sure why.
--Adam Sachs, NYT, on hope within a tuna-less future

Friday, July 13, 2007

Intranational protectionism

If it's true that theory and evidence in favor of protectionism are sufficiently strong to warrant economists abandoning their conclusion that free-trade policy is generally sound, then why shouldn't economists -- led by Dani Rodrik -- also start exploring the potential benefits of intra-national protectionism? Surely a scholar not benighted with the free-trade "faith" ought to take seriously the possibility that, say, Tennesseeans could be made wealthier if their government in Nashville restricts their ability to trade with people in Kentucky, Texas, Rhode Island, and other states?

I suspect that if someone proposed to Dani Rodrik that he explore the wealth-creating potential of state-level protectionism, he would refuse. He would likely (and correctly) say that it's ridiculous on its face to suppose that such protectionism would make the people of Tennessee as a group wealthier over time.
--Don Boudreaux on the equivalence of international and intranational trade restrictions


We may continue to associate them with childhood sugar rushes and chubby-cheeked fertility metaphors, but in real life honeybees have been virtually extinct in North America for more than 10 years, their absence concealed by a rogue's gallery of look-alikes...

It used to be that it was hard to eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich without a honeybee showing up and doing a little dance around your head. Hives (literally) grew on trees until 1987, when a mite called varroa destructor turned up in a honeybee colony in Wisconsin... By 1994, an estimated 98 percent of the wild, free-range honeybees in the United States were gone.

Beekeepers opted to keep their colonies on life support with selective breeding, and by sprinkling them with medicine and insecticides aimed at the invading mites. This was no longer a hobby for amateurs. The only honeybees left—i.e., the ones that started disappearing in October—had become the cows of the insect world: virtually extinct in the wild, hopped up on antibiotics, and more likely to reproduce via artificial insemination than by their own recognizance.
--Heather Smith, Slate, on why I haven't run away from a swarm of angry bees since childhood

Metric system imperialism

There’s a metric scale for measuring just about everything — weight, distance, volume, even temperature (Celsius is derived from the metric system) — except for one thing — time. How come there’s never been a metric calendar/time system, with, say, 10 metric months of 10 metric days each, each metric day composed of 10 metric hours, each metric hour composed of 100 metric minutes, and each metric minute composed of 100 metric seconds (which would be different from the seconds currently used)?
--Robert Frank, Freakonomics blog, on another domain that should convert to the metric system

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Private-sector research incentives

U.P.S. and FedEx are each pumping more than $1 billion a year into research, while also looking for new ways to cut costs. “When you handle millions of packages, a minute’s delay can cost a fortune,” said John Kartsonas, an analyst with Citigroup. “Information technology has become essential.”

Meteorologists at both companies routinely outguess official Weather Service forecasts... U.P.S. specifically is collaborating with the F.A.A. on a system — formally, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, but usually just called A.D.S.B. — that may make conventional radar obsolete. “We want to make A.D.S.B. the backbone of our future air traffic system,” said Vincent Capezzuto, the manager of the program for the F.A.A.

The research at U.P.S. is paying off. Last year, it cut 28 million miles from truck routes — saving roughly three million gallons of fuel — in good part by mapping routes that minimize left turns. This year, U.P.S. began offering customers a self-service system for redirecting packages that are en route.
--Claudia Deutsch, NYT, on the power of the profit motive

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Giffen good discovered?

This paper provides the first rigorous, empirical evidence of the existence of Giffen behavior, i.e., a situation in which consumers respond to an increase in the price of a good by demanding more of it... We then present evidence on the existence of Giffen behavior among extremely poor households in two provinces of China. In order to obtain an unbiased estimate of the key price elasticity, we conducted a field experiment in which we randomly subsidized households' primary dietary staple (rice in Hunan province and wheat flour in Gansu province). Using consumption data gathered before, during and after the intervention, we find strong evidence of Giffen behavior with respect to rice in Hunan province.
--Robert Jensen and Nolan Miller, "Giffen Behavior: Theory and Evidence," on finding the elusive Giffen good

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


It was a ginormous year for the wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster. Along with embracing the adjective that combines "gigantic" and "enormous," the dictionary publishers also got into Bollywood, sudoku and speed dating...

Merriam-Webster traces ginormous back to 1948, when it appeared in a British dictionary of military slang. And in the past several years, its use has become, well, ginormous.

Visitors to the Springfield-based dictionary publisher's Web site picked "ginormous" as their favorite word that's not in the dictionary in 2005, and Merriam-Webster editors have spotted it in countless newspaper and magazine articles since 2000.
--Adam Gorlick, Associated Press, on one of my favorite words going official

The liquid charade

John Hargrave has discovered the secret to getting your deadly liquids onto an airplane, even if they're in bottles larger than 3 oz (the vessel size at which all liquids become high explosives, unless they are purchased at a duty free store).

All you need to do is surrender the bottle at the screening station, wait for the the TSA to throw it away in an unguarded trash-barrel on the "secure" side, and then retrieve it from the trash...

The reason this "smuggling" technique works, of course, is that liquids aren't dangerous. Everyone knows this -- even the TSA. That's why they don't guard the barrel after they confiscate your wine, water, and salad-dressing. The point of taking away your liquid isn't to make airplanes safe, it's to simultaneously make you afraid (of terrorists with magic water-bombs) and then make you feel safe (because the government is fighting off the magic water-bombs). It's what Bruce Schneier calls "security theater."
--Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing, on the ridiculous liquid ban

I moseyed over to the walkway and glanced in the barrel. It was filled with half-empty coffee cups and discarded water bottles. There, on top of the trash, wrapped in its protective paper, was my salad dressing.

Now, keep in mind this was a trash barrel full of highly dangerous liquids and gels! More than three ounces of this stuff could take down an entire plane, and I was standing next to gallons of it!

Questions about the deadly liquids flooded my mind: why would these be dropped into an ordinary trash barrel, and not a special explosion-proof containment unit? Why would they combine the hazardous liquids so carelessly? Most importantly, why would they leave a barrel of liquid dynamite right next to innocent American air travelers?
--John Hargrave on dire dangers at the airport

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Another reason to hate your cellular provider

As longtime Pogue’s Posts readers know, my biggest cellular pet peeve is the endless recording you hear when you reach someone’s voicemail: “To page this person, press 2 now. You may leave a message at the tone. When you finish recording, you may hang up. Or press 5 for more options”—and so on.

At the conference, I asked one cellular executive if that message is deliberately recorded slowly and with as many words as possible, to eat up your airtime and make more ARPU [Average Revenue Per User] for the cell carrier. I was half kidding—but he wasn’t fooling around in his reply: “Yes.”
--David Pogue, NYT, on evil revenue-enhancing strategies

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The end of an era

In a gut-busting showdown that combined drama, daring and indigestion, Joey Chestnut emerged Wednesday as the world's hot dog eating champion, knocking off six-time winner Takeru Kobayashi in a rousing yet repulsive triumph.

Chestnut, the great red, white and blue hope in the annual Fourth of July competition, broke his own world record by inhaling 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes -- a staggering one every 10.9 seconds before a screaming crowd in Coney Island...

Kobayashi finished with 63 HDBs -- hot dogs and buns eaten -- in his best performance ever. His previous high in the annual competition was 53½. The all-time record before Wednesday's remarkable contest was Chestnut's 59½, set just last month... The two had each downed 60 hot dogs with 60 seconds to go when Chestnut, the veins on his forehead extended, put away the final franks to end Kobayashi's reign.
--Associated Press on the end of an era

Outrage when expedient

Republicans who’d worked themselves up into a spittle-spewing rage because Bill Clinton lied under oath were appalled that anybody would bother with poor Libby over lying under oath. Democrats who were outraged that Bill Clinton was hounded for something as trivial as perjury were furious that Scooter Libby might not be ruined for a crime as heinous as perjury. It was an orgy of shamelessness. The God of Self-Respect took sabbatical.
--David Brooks, NYT, on convenient double standards

Monday, July 2, 2007

The invisible hand everywhere

In the commentary track on the 20th-anniversary edition of the [original Transformers] movie, Flint Dille, one of the writers, explains he was instructed to eliminate much of the existing product line to make room for the new characters Hasbro was planning to sell me. I already owned Optimus Prime, after all.
--John Swansburg, Slate, on the real reason Optimus Prime died