Sunday, December 28, 2008

Music as a jingle

While people still love music enough to track it down, collect it, argue over it and judge their Facebook friends by it, many see no reason to pay for it. The emerging practical solution is to let music sell something else: a concert, a T-shirt, Web-site pop-up ads or a brand. ...

The question is: What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use? That creates pressure, subtle but genuine, for music to recede: to embrace the element of vacancy that makes a good soundtrack so unobtrusive, to edit a lyric to be less specific or private, to leave blanks for the image or message the music now serves. Perhaps the song will still make that essential, head-turning first impression, but it won’t be as memorable or independent. ...

The old, often legitimate accusation against labels was that they sold entire albums with only one good song or two. Now there’s an incentive for a song to have only 30 seconds of good stuff. It’s already happening: Chris Brown’s hit “Forever” is wrapped around a jingle for chewing gum.
--Jon Pareles, NYT, on music and incentives

Saturday, December 27, 2008

College advice

One last thing: Don't go to Princeton. I'm still waiting to meet my first Princeton grad that I might like. I am like 0-for-79. Princeton grads carry themselves like bad guys in a sports movie. Remember the scene in "Pretty In Pink" when James Spader ordered his two henchmen to beat up Andrew McCarthy because he didn't approve of McCarthy's poor girlfriend? There's no question that Spader's character went on to Princeton, just like there's no doubt Johnny Lawrence went to Duke. Neither hypothetical situation is up for debate.
--Bill Simmons,, on Princeton grads

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter and revealed preference

The playwright Tom Stoppard said that before Mr. Pinter: “One thing plays had in common: you were supposed to believe what people said up there. If somebody comes in and says, ‘Tea or coffee?’ and the answer is ‘Tea,’ you are entitled to assume that somebody is offered a choice of two drinks, and the second person has stated a preference.” With Mr. Pinter there are alternatives, “such as the man preferred coffee but the other person wished him to have tea,” Mr. Stoppard said, “or that he preferred the stuff you make from coffee beans under the impression that it was called tea.”
--Mel Gussow and Ben Brantley, NYT, on preferences elliptically revealed

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Maybe it's even worse than they said

Harvard University's admission that it lost $8 billion from its $36 billion endowment fund, as staggering as it sounds, may grossly underestimate the true magnitude of the loss between from July 1 through Oct. 31 2008. According to a source close the Harvard Management Corporation (HMC), which runs the fund for Harvard, the loss is closer to $18 billion if the losses on the fund's illiquid investment are realistically appraised.
--Edward Jay Epstein, Huffington Post, on why Harvard's FAS is "panicking" (in the words of one Harvard professor I spoke to)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Innovation is for suckers

Now I will talk about copying. I think copying is very important. Everyone always talks about how innovation is important. But you need to invest a lot of time to innovate and the risk is high. Why not take things that have already been proven to work in other places? That is copying.
--Bestselling Chinese self-help guru Ding Yuanzhi on a proven path

The importance of overhead

A portion of any general-purpose donation to a nonprofit, whether it be to a church, health clinic or a battered women’s shelter, goes to administration of some kind. And that’s not a bad thing. Sure, giving to defray “administrative costs” sounds unglamorous, largely because the blanket term “administrative costs” is sometimes used as a synonym for “wastefulness” or “inefficiency.” While some administrative expenses might be wasteful, they are not by definition wasteful. They are just costs that enable a mission, like a social service, to be carried out. ...

While there is something to be said for charities that know how to keep their administrative costs under control, lower costs are not always better. For example, many nonprofits seem to cut corners on backroom tasks like bookkeeping and record-keeping because these expenses aren’t viewed as critical to the “mission.” But spending less money on such administrative costs can actually make a charity less effective because it invites embezzlement, a crime that perpetually afflicts nonprofit organizations.
--Catherine Rampell, NYT, on why low administrative expenses aren't always a good thing

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The long hand of the Ponzi scheme

Bayou was a fund that blew up and was revealed in 2005 to be a fraud with some $450 million in investor losses. Bayou is memorable for two reasons. One is founder Samuel Israel III's staged suicide. (He eventually rose from the dead and turned himself in after prosecutors went after the girlfriend who helped him disappear.) The other is a legal precedent set in the Bayou case that should scare the heck out of anyone who once invested with Madoff but who managed to get out safely in the last few years: Any investors who managed to take out profits from a fund like Bayou before the fraud was revealed had to give the money back. ...

There's no time limit on the gains they'd have to give back, so any fund that outed Madoff could be on the hook for any profits it had gained from its Madoff investments for years back. So, as my fund-manager friend puts it, “The question people have to ask is not, 'Do I have money in a fund that has exposure to Madoff now?' but, 'Do I have money in a fund that that has ever invested with Madoff?' ” ...

The Bayou precedent means that the discovery of a huge fraud leads to a whole chain of liabilities that stretches back for years and may hit investors who hadn't dealt with Madoff in a decade. ...

The consequence of this is that any longtime Madoff investors who'd gotten suspicious could very well have seen that publicizing their suspicions and outing Madoff's scam would not have saved their money but actually exposed them to greater losses. As the law stands, post-Bayou, a major fund company that finds itself entangled in a scam like Madoff's has every incentive not to out the fraud but, rather, to keep its fingers crossed and maybe hope that the whole thing can be written off as just another multibillion-dollar stock market blowup.
--Mark Gimein, Big Money, on "just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in"

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Finnish jokes -- who knew they existed?

There's an old joke that runs something like this: "What's the difference between a Finnish introvert and a Finnish extrovert? A Finnish introvert looks at his feet when he's talking to you. A Finnish extrovert looks at yours!" If you think gags like these are just peddling stereotypes, you're probably right. But most stereotypes develop for a reason and many people would argue that there's more than a grain of truth in this one. Others would say it's patently untrue; why would a Finn be talking to you at all?

Perhaps the finest precis is the (true) tale of a foreign girl who married a Finn. Bemoaning her husband's cool and incommunicative nature, she pined for more affection. "I have already said I love you," said the husband. "If I change my mind, I shall tell you so."
--Nigel Wallis, Helsinki: A Bradt City Guide

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't feel bad for every Bernie Madoff investor

Specifically, we're hearing that the smart money KNEW Bernie had to be cheating, because the returns he was generating were impossibly good. Many Wall Streeters suspected the wrong rigged game, though: They thought it was insider trading, not a Ponzi scheme. And here's the best part: That's why they invested with him.
--Henry Blodget, ClusterStock, on some just deserts

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Let the man smoke!

Let me offer a somewhat hyperbolic hypothetical. It's the winter of 2009, and a crisis has erupted between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Putin (surprise!) is acting arrogantly and aggressively, trying to push the new American president around. Do you want Barack Obama, the guy who has his finger on our nuclear trigger, notorious nicotine addict, to be dying for a smoke? All irritable, his nerves and famously smooth temper on edge? ... Do you want to die because President Obama is dying for a smoke?
--Ron Rosenbaum, Slate, on why secondhand smoke risk sounds pretty good in the Obama White House

Fear and trembling

In the market equivalent of shoveling cash under the mattress, hordes of buyers were so eager on Tuesday to park money in the world’s safest investment, United States government debt, that they agreed to accept a zero percent rate of return. ...

Investors accepted the zero percent rate in the government’s auction Tuesday of $30 billion worth of short-term securities that mature in four weeks. Demand was so great even for no return that the government could have sold four times as much.

In addition, for a brief moment, investors were willing to take a small loss for holding another ultra-safe security, the already-issued three-month Treasury bill.
--Vikas Bajaj and Michael M. Grynbaum, NYT, on another sign of the troubled economic times


From my e-mails:

It’s definitely starting to feel very painful. I met up with a friend in the venture business tonight, and he was complaining (very mildly) that it’s just not fun anymore. I responded that most jobs aren’t fun these days, and it’s not because our jobs changed.
--Venture capitalist

My job is the opposite of fun.
--Citigroup employee

My job is where fun goes to die.
--Medical resident

My job actively seeks out and exterminates fun.
--Citigroup employee

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

It's a bull market and you didn't know it

With the Dow closing at at its highest level in a month on Monday, the rally off the Nov. 20 lows has now exceeded 20%, which is the technical definition of a bull market.
--Aaron Task, Yahoo Finance, on the stealth bull market

Correlation (not causation) of happiness

If those riding intellectual fads are sometimes guilty of sloppy reasoning, imagine what happens when two fads collide.

That’s what happened when the British Medical Journal elected to publish a study analyzing 1) happiness in 2) social networks. The study, by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, concludes that happiness is contagious within social networks. ... Indeed, according to Fowler, “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.”

Unfortunately, it’s probably not true. Here’s the crux of the research: the authors show that your happiness is positively related to the happiness of your friends, and that this holds even after accounting for a number of other variables, including how happy you and your friends were a few years back. That’s correlation; what about causation?

There are (at least) three reasons why happiness is correlated within social networks. ... The third reason is perhaps the most likely: if you and I are friends, we are often subject to similar influences. If a buddy of ours dies, we’ll both be less happy. Or, less dramatically, if our favorite football team wins, we’ll both be happier. But this isn’t contagious happiness — it is simply a natural outcome of the shared experiences of people in the same social circles.

Interestingly, the same issue of the BMJ contained a very careful article by Ethan Cohen-Cole and Jason Fletcher making precisely this point. They employ a pretty cheeky research strategy: if you want to show that a research design is silly, show that it leads to silly conclusions.

They use Fowler and Christakis’s approach on another dataset, and show that it leads to the unlikely conclusion that height, headaches, and acne are also contagious. The more likely explanation, of course, is that all are subject to similar environmental influences.
--Justin Wolfers, Freakonomics blog, on why it's not true that your spouse's happiness matters less for your own happiness than a complete stranger's

Monday, December 8, 2008

The price of genius

[Beethoven's] father had pulled him out of school after a few years so he could concentrate on music. (Beethoven learned to add and subtract but never learned to multiply. If he had to multiply 65 by 59, he wrote 65 in a column 59 times and added it up.)
--Jan Swafford, Slate, on making do with what you have

Facts about common cold transmission

If there's any good news about the common cold, it might be this: You don't have to stop kissing your sniffling loved one's lips just to avoid catching their colds. But you probably will want to stop holding hands. ...

Rhinoviruses infect the lining of the nose. But surprisingly, these viruses don't live in saliva, says Dr. J. Owen Hendley, a leading rhinovirus specialist and professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. The lining of the nose "is a different form of epithelial tissue from the lining of the mouth and throat," he says. And the cold virus, having come from the nose, does not fare as well in the dissimilar environment of the mouth.

Colds typically spread when virus-laden mucus from a sick person's nose gets onto the fingertips of a well person who then rubs his own nose or eyes. In short, says Hendley, that means that "kissing is okay, but hand holding is not." ...

As for those increasingly popular alcohol-based sanitizing gels, sorry, but they may not measure up to plain soap and water. "Rhinoviruses like alcohol. They think it's tasty," says Hendley. For whatever reason, adds Zachary of MGH, "cold viruses are not as susceptible to alcohol-based hand disinfectants as other viruses and bacteria."
--Judy Foreman, Boston Globe, on good news for kisses

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The unknown unknowns

Visit the Fulda Gap in Germany, for example, about an hour east of Frankfurt. That was the location of the all-time No. 1 pawn-to-king-four scenario of the start of the end.

In that scenario, the endless tanks of endless Soviet divisions would come racing through this valley -- which looks not unlike the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia -- headed for Western Europe. The American 11th Armored "Blackhorse" Cavalry was there on hair-trigger alert to complicate their lives as thoroughly as they could. ...

While the fast and technologically superior 11th Cavalry tanks were supposedly killing Soviet tanks at a 7 to 1 ratio, so the theory went, the 747s from the States were disgorging troops, who would run to their prepositioned main battle tanks to really bring it on. When the 747s turned around to get more American troops, so the scenario went, they would not return empty. They would be full not only of American military kids, briefers told reporters, but also their pets, in cages stockpiled for exactly this scenario. Yes. They had figured it out to that level of minutiae.

The 11th Cavalry dads, meanwhile, knew exactly where they would stop their tanks to get warm pastries and hot coffee on the way to Armageddon. They knew which German bakeries would sell them stuff out their window at 4 a.m. because they'd responded to surprise practice alerts a zillion times.

Oddly enough, that level of guaranteed certainty produced one of the least likely futures in history. It is the one we have today, in which we have survived as a species and even thrived sufficiently to create credit default swaps that possibly will do what the Soviet nuclear targeters failed to do: bring us to our knees.
--Joel Garreau, Washington Post, on foreseen versus unforeseen disasters

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Wall Street holiday party

Holy crap. My department’s holiday party is BYO, in a conference room. I’m not kidding.
Sent: Tuesday, December 02, 2008 5:02 PM
To: *Citi Finance Controllers 909; *Citi Finance CBS 909; *CFA All Staff
Subject: Join Us For Some Holiday Sweets

You are invited to bring some of your favorite and/ or traditional holiday cookies (treats) and exchange them with our Finance colleagues as we gather to sample these tempting treats and a holiday moment.

If you are interested in participating, bring your treats to Conference Room C by Noon on Wednesday the 17th.

When: Wednesday December 17, 2008

Time: Beginning 2:30 p.m.
--A Citigroup employee on what Citi learned from the AIG resort trip debacle

Find your underrepresented minorities in Spain

When I was on the faculty search committee, I had a meeting with the vice provost about diversity. She showed me some graphs, and of course our numbers were really bad. But there was a blip up on one of the graphs.

"Who's that?" I asked.

"That's you," she said.
--A professor at a top U.S. university on how Spaniards now count as "Hispanics" for affirmative action counting purposes

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The world's most annoying economic crisis

Welcome to the world's strangest economic crisis. Argentina in general—and Buenos Aires in particular—is presently in the grip of a moneda, or coin, shortage. Everywhere you look, there are signs reading, "NO HAY MONEDAS." As a result, vendors here are more likely to decline to sell you something than to cough up any of their increasingly precious coins in change. ...

No one can say what's causing this absurd situation. The government accuses Argentines of hoarding coins, which is true, at least to some extent. When even the most insignificant purchase requires the same order of planning and precision as a long-range missile strike, you can hardly blame people for keeping a jar of monedas safe at home. The people, in turn, fault the government for not minting enough coins. In fact, the nation's central bank has produced a record number of monedas this year, and the problem has gotten even worse. Everyone blames the bus companies, whose buses accept only monedas. These companies, exploiting a loophole in the law, run side businesses that will exchange clients' bills for monedas for a 3 percent service fee. This is legal, but the business community also routinely complains of being forced into the clutches of a thriving moneda black market—run by the local mob, or the bus companies, or both—in which coins sell for a premium of between 5 percent and 10 percent. The bus companies steadfastly deny any involvement in this racket, but their claims were undercut by the discovery of a hoard of 13 million coins, amounting to 5 million pesos, in one company's warehouse this October.
--Joe Keohane, Slate, on a curious lack of coins

Saturday, November 29, 2008

And you thought American wedding costs were burdensome

We analyze funeral arrangements following the deaths of 3,751 people who died between January 2003 and December 2005 in the Africa Centre Demographic Surveillance Area. We find that, on average, households spend the equivalent of a year's income for an adult's funeral, measured at median per capita African (Black) income.
--Anne Case, Anu Garrib, Alicia Menendez, and Analia Olgiati, "Paying the Piper: The High Cost of Funerals in South Africa," on one last extravaganza

The salutary effect of blue laws

In this paper we identify a policy-driven change in the opportunity cost of religious participation based on state laws that prohibit retail activity on Sunday, known as “blue laws.” Many states have repealed these laws in recent years, raising the opportunity cost of religious participation... We then use a variety of datasets to show that when a state repeals its blue laws religious attendance falls, and that church donations and spending fall as well... We find that repealing blue laws leads to an increase in drinking and drug use, and that this increase is found only among the initially religious individuals who were affected by the blue laws. The effect is economically significant; for example, the gap in heavy drinking between religious and non religious individuals falls by about half after the laws are repealed.
--Jonathan Gruber and Daniel Hungerman, "The Church vs the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?," Quarterly Journal of Economics

An argument for being a salaried drone

The big rewards [to entrepreneurship] come only to those whose companies go public or are acquired on favorable terms, forcing entrepreneurs to bear a substantial burden of idiosyncratic risk. We study this burden in the case of high-tech companies funded by venture capital. Over the past 20 years, the typical venture-backed entrepreneur earned an average of $4.4 million from companies that succeeded in attracting venture funding. Entrepreneurs with a coefficient of relative risk aversion of two and with less than $0.7 million would be better off in a salaried position than in a startup, despite the prospect of an average personal payoff of $4.4 million and the possibility of payoffs over $1 billion. We conclude that startups attract entrepreneurs with lower risk aversion, higher initial assets, preferences for entrepreneurship over employment, and optimistic beliefs about the payoffs from their products.
--Robert Hall and Susan E. Woodward, "The Burden of the Nondiversifiable Risk of Entrepreneurship," NBER Working Paper 14219

Friday, November 28, 2008

What a smarter doctor gets you

This paper compares nearly 30,000 patients who were randomly assigned to clinical teams from one of two academic institutions. One institution is among the top medical schools in the country, while the other institution is ranked lower in the quality distribution... Those treated by physicians from the higher-ranked institution have 10-25% shorter and less expensive stays than patients assigned to the lower-ranked institution. Health outcomes are not related to the physician team assignment, and the estimates are precise. Procedure differences across the teams are consistent with the ability of physicians in the lower-ranked institution to substitute time and diagnostic tests for the faster judgments of physicians from the top-ranked institution.
--Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Steven M. Ewer, Todd H. Wagner, "Returns to Physician Human Capital: Analyzing Patients Randomized to Physician Teams," NBER Working Paper 14174

Black Friday indeed

In Long Island early Friday, the malaise turned deadly. A 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee was killed, the police said, after being knocked down and trampled by a wave of shoppers who broke down the doors of the store at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, N.Y. Several other shoppers were hurt, including a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was taken to the hospital, police said, after the stampede occurred just after 5 a.m.
--Michael M. Grynbaum, NYT, on sacrifices to the altar of consumerism

At 4:55 a.m., just five minutes before the doors were set to open, a crowd of 2,000 anxious shoppers started pushing, shoving and piling against the locked sliding glass doors of the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., Nassau County police said. The shoppers broke the doors off their hinges and surged in, toppling a 34-year-old temporary employee who had been waiting with other workers in the store’s entryway.

People did not stop to help the employee as he lay on the ground, and they pushed against other Wal-Mart workers who were trying to aid the man. The crowd kept running into the store even after the police arrived, jostling and pushing officers who were trying to perform CPR, the police said.
--Jack Healy and Angela Macropolous, NYT

How life changes with a Nobel Prize

“You get invited to places that you never expected to be invited to,” he said. “People want to be associated with it,” including some who have reached out to him after years without contact. One woman from his high school days in Skokie, Ill., told him, “You know, several of my friends had crushes on you.”

“I wrote her back,” Dr. Chalfie said, “to say, ‘Why are telling me this now? Back then, it would have been a very useful piece of information.’”
--Clyde Haberman, NYT, on Martin Chalfie's new life as a chemistry Nobel laureate

Obama as surname

I'm so glad Obama is finally a good guy. I really had a hard time for a while there with Osama.
--Susie Obama, of Japanese descent, on a fringe benefit of Barack's victory

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Bible on credit default swaps?

Do not be a man who strikes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you.
--Proverbs 22:26-27

He who puts up security for another will surely suffer, but whoever refuses to strike hands in pledge is safe.
--Proverbs 11:15

A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge and puts up security for his neighbor.
--Proverbs 17:18

Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger; hold it in pledge if he does it for a wayward woman.
--Proverbs 20:16 on the wisdom of demanding collateral when lending to AIG

Housing prices: Where the carnage is (and isn't)

Phoenix -39%
Las Vegas -39%
Miami -36%
San Diego -36%
San Francisco -34%
Los Angeles -33%
Detroit -29%
Tampa -28%
Washington -25%
Minneapolis -19%
Chicago -12%
Boston -12%
Cleveland -12%
New York -11%
Seattle -10%
Atlanta -10%
Portland -9%
Denver -7%
Dallas -4%
Charlotte -4%

--September 2008 seasonally adjusted Case-Shiller index housing prices relative to peak

Friday, November 21, 2008

What actually convinces economists?

This paper argues that formal empirical work which, to use Sargent's (1987, p. 7) phrase, tries to "take models seriously econometrically" has had almost no influence on serious thinking about substantive as opposed to methodological questions. Instead, the only empirical research that has influenced thinking about substantive questions has been based on methodological principles directly opposed to those that have become fashionable in recent years. Successful empirical research has been characterized by attempts to gauge the strength of associations rather than to estimate structural parameters, verbal characterizations of how causal relations might operate rather than explicit mathematical models, and the skillful use of carefully chosen natural experiments rather than sophisticated statistical technique to achieve identification.

These views may seem extreme. But I invite the reader to try and identify a single instance in which a "deep structural parameter" has been estimated in a way that has affected the profession's beliefs about the nature of preferences or production technologies or to identify a meaningful hypothesis about economic behavior that has fallen into disrepute because of a formal statistical test.
--Larry Summers, "The Scientific Illusion in Empirical Macroeconomics," Scandinavian Journal of Economics (1991), laying the smack down

What is a protected disability?

Disabled travellers -- including the morbidly obese -- must be given an extra free seat on domestic flights as of Jan. 10 after the Supreme Court of Canada refused Thursday to hear an appeal by the country's biggest airlines.
--Tamara Gignac, Calgary Herald, on special considerations for the morbidly obese

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More on resurrecting Neanderthals

Didn't I read as recently as ten years ago that "Jurassic Park" scenarios were more or less impossible? I don't expect Neanderthal man to reappear soon, but assuming the world stays (relatively) peaceful and wealthy, what is the chance of seeing one or more such beings within the next two hundred years? Yes I know all about the law, eventual demographics, and the fear of planet-wide interspecies war, but at $10 million and over one hundred countries in the world, is not private philanthropy robust?

As one commentator asks, if we humans killed them off in the first place, does that mean we have any obligation to revive them now?
--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution, on the impossible becoming the inevitable

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mammoth/Neanderthal Park

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this long time staple of science fiction were a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million...

The same would be technically possible with Neanderthals, whose full genome is expected to be recovered shortly, but ethically more challenging.
--Nicholas Wade, NYT, on a brave old world

Sunday, November 16, 2008

An unexpected inheritance

Foreigners who can document Korean ancestry can qualify for the South Korean national health insurance.

Sally Im, a Korean-American from Honolulu, recently traveled to Wooridul for back surgery. After her husband paid two months’ worth of premiums — about $90 — on their arrival, a portion of Ms. Im’s medical bill was covered by the South Korean government. The couple ended up spending $3,200, rather than the $30,000 that her operation would have cost in the United States, Wooridul said.
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, on a little-known backstop available to ethnic Koreans

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Awkward situations

Sometimes it’s easy to know what to do. Should you say hello to your son’s kindergarten teacher, for instance, when you see her on the street? Others times, it’s a little harder: What if you bumped into Miss Judy at a bar? Now, what if it’s a topless bar — and junior’s teacher is dancing there?

Deciding whether to speak to your Wall Street acquaintances about their misfortunes is like that, too.
--Philip Galanes, NYT, on what to say to friends whose firms are imploding

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The shrinkage of the Bond villain

Why is [James Bond] in Bolivia? In pursuit of a global villain, whose name is not Goldfinger, Scaramanga, Drax or Le Chiffre, but ... Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). What is Dominic's demented scheme to control the globe? As a start, the fiend desires to corner the water supply of ... Bolivia. Ohooo! Nooo!
--Roger Ebert on the lameness of Quantum of Solace's villain

An alternative revenue source

The Federal Government owns more than half of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Alaska and it owns nearly half of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. See the map for more. It is time for a sale. Selling even some western land could raise hundreds of billions of dollars - perhaps trillions of dollars - for the Federal government at a time when the funds are badly needed and no one want to raise taxes. At the same time, a sale of western land would improve the efficiency of land allocation.
--Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution, on how to pay for the bailout and more

Friday, November 7, 2008

The price of a name

The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business announced Thursday that it had received from an alumnus a $300 million gift, which it described as the largest ever to any business school in the world. ...

The business school is being renamed the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
--Catrin Einhorn, NYT, on how much it costs to slap your name on Chicago's business school

Our price tag is $1 billion.
--A Stanford GSB professor I talked to yesterday

Monday, November 3, 2008

Things we know just because

Objectives To determine whether parachutes are effective in preventing major trauma related to gravitational challenge.

Design Systematic review of randomised controlled trials.

Data sources: Medline, Web of Science, Embase, and the Cochrane Library databases; appropriate internet sites and citation lists.

Study selection: Studies showing the effects of using a parachute during free fall.

Main outcome measure Death or major trauma, defined as an injury severity score > 15.

Results We were unable to identify any randomised controlled trials of parachute intervention.

Conclusions As with many interventions intended to prevent ill health, the effectiveness of parachutes has not been subjected to rigorous evaluation by using randomised controlled trials. Advocates of evidence based medicine have criticised the adoption of interventions evaluated by using only observational data. We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.
--Gordon Smith and Jill Pell, British Medical Journal, on things we know without exogenous variation of the explanatory variable

Hold and die

In a videotaped interview with the U.S. Naval Institute for its Americans at War program, [retired Marine Col. John] Ripley said he and about 600 South Vietnamese were ordered to "hold and die" against 20,000 North Vietnamese soldiers with about 200 tanks.

"I'll never forget that order, 'hold and die'," Ripley said. ... "When you know you're not going to make it, a wonderful thing happens: You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you're going to save your butt."
--Associated Press on gaining life by losing it

The world is a tough place. You’re never going to get out of it alive.
--Charlton Heston

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Always getting the leftovers

And you can imagine what the black brothers and sisters in the barbershops and beauty salons say: "Right when the thing is about to go under, they hand it over to the black man."
--Cornel West on why the presidency might be a booby prize

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Operation Paul Bunyan

How tense can things get around here [in the Korean Demilitarized Zone]? One example:

Not far away, there's a marker where a yellow poplar tree used to grow. By 1976, it had gotten so big that the UN observation post at upper right couldn't quite see the goings-on at a checkpoint just out of the frame to the left.

At the time, soldiers from each side could move about the JSA [Joint Security Area] freely.

So a group of UN soldiers, including U.S. Army Cpt. Arthur Bonifas, went to cut the tree down. The North Koreans took exception, and pretty soon, a bunch of them ax-murdered two of the UN guys, including Cpt. Bonifas.

Ever since, soldiers from each side can no longer move about the JSA freely.

And that's why the camp where we got our briefing is called Camp Bonifas.

Three days later, a complex raid ("Operation Paul Bunyan") involving a reported 813 men, 23 vehicles, 7 Cobra attack helicopters, a parade of B-52 bomber and F-4 and F-5 fighter planes, and a US Navy aircraft carrier placed into position offshore...

... and managed to cut down the tree.


So, yes. Kinda tense sometimes.
--Rob Harris, Boing Boing, on visiting the Korean DMZ

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Johnny Chung Lee is a bad-ass

IN December, Johnny Chung Lee, then a Ph.D. candidate, posted a five-minute video on YouTube that became an Internet sensation.

The video showed how, in a few easy steps, the Nintendo Wii remote controller — or “Wiimote” — could transform a normal video screen into a virtual reality display, with graphics that seemed to pop through the screen and into the living room. So far, the video has been seen more than six million times.

Interactive whiteboards, which in commercial form generally sell for more than $1,000, make it possible to control a computer by tapping, writing or drawing on an image of the desktop that has been projected onto a screen. Mr. Lee’s version can be built with roughly $60 in parts and free open-source software downloadable from his Web site.

Some 700,000 people, many of them teachers, have downloaded the software, Mr. Lee says.

--Leslie Berlin, NYT, on one of MIT's Technology Review's top innovators under 35

Facebook friends != real friends

So I decided to have a Facebook party. I used Facebook to create an “event” and invite my digital chums. ...

After a week the responses stopped coming in and were ready to be tabulated. Fifteen people said they were attending, and 60 said maybe. A few hundred said not, and the rest just ignored the invitation altogether. I figured that about 20 people would show up. That sounded pretty good to me. Twenty potential new friends. ...

I would learn, when I asked some people who didn’t show up the next day, that “definitely attending” on Facebook means “maybe” and “maybe attending” means “likely not.” So I probably shouldn’t have taken it personally. ...

By now it was nearing midnight. My head was clouded by drink, and it was finally starting to sink in: no one else was coming. ...

Seven hundred friends, and I was drinking alone.
--Hal Neidzviecki, NYT Magazine, on the difference between Facebook and real life

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Scholarly discourse

In a move that surprised [Milton Friedman] Institute advocates, [University of Chicago] economics professor James Heckman, a member of the Institute’s faculty committee, said during a public panel Tuesday that he was open to the possibility of changing the Institute’s name, a proposal that several colleagues firmly rejected. ...

Some of Heckman’s comments set off alarm bells for his fellow Institute committee member, GSB professor John Cochrane, who has long argued that the Institute will maintain academic integrity.

In an e-mail to Heckman, Cochrane wrote, “My strong, personal suggestion is that you are digging yourself deeper and deeper into public statements that you will regret. Now, not only is Friedman’s name expendable, the GSB political, but President [Robert] Zimmer ’rushed this through.’ He’ll be delighted to see that in print. You may have long, convoluted explanations, but that won’t do much good when this sort of thing gets out.” ...

Heckman e-mailed Cochrane a terse response to his concerns: “Screw off, John,” he said.
--Sara Jerome, Chicago Maroon, on drama in Chicago

Sunday, October 19, 2008

All the mavericks in the house, put your hands up

one two three

my name is sarah palin you all know me
vice president nominee of the gop
gonna need your vote in the next election
can i get a ‘what what’ from the senior section
mccain got experience, mccain got style
but don’t let him freak you out when he tries to smile
cause that smile be creepy
but when i be vp
all the leaders in the world gonna finally meet me

how’s it go eskimo
tell me what you know eskimo
how you feel eskimo
(ice cold)
tell me tell me what you feel eskimo
(super cold)

i’m jeremiah wright cause tonight i’m the preacha
i got a bookish look and you’re all hot for teacha
todd lookin fine on his snow machine
so hot boy gonna need a go between
in wasilla we just chill baby chilla
but when i see oil lets drill baby drill

my country tis a thee
from my porch i can see
russia and such

all the mavericks in the house put your hands up
all the mavericks in the house put your hands up
all the plumbers in the house pull your pants up
all the plumbers in the house pull your pants up

when i say ‘obama’ you say ‘ayers’
obama. (ayers) obama (ayers)
i built me a bridge - it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

mccain, palin, gonna put the nail in the coffin
of the media elite
(she likes red meat)
shoot a mother-humpin moose, eight days of the week

[three gunshots]
now ya dead, now ya dead,
cause i’m an animal, and i’m bigger than you
holdin a shotgun walk in the pub
everybody party, we’re goin on a hunt
la la la la la la la la
[six gunshots]

yo i’m palin, i’m out!
--Lyrics courtesy of TKBB

An anthropological investigation

From this article in the Times:
“I feel like I’m at home,” Ms. Palin said, looking out at a boisterous crowd of about 6,000. “I see the Carhartts and the steel-toed boots,” she said, the first reference being to a clothing brand favored by construction workers and the burly types who make up much of the “Sarah Dude” population. “You guys are great,” she said while signing autographs.

The fact that the NYT has to badly explain the "first reference being to a clothing brand..." is a nice giveaway about the Times, and the NYT readership. Imagine a parallel in a small-town paper: "I feel like I'm at home - I see the pumpkin soy chai lattes and iPhones," he said, the first reference being to a hot beverage favored by urban yuppies who make up much of the Obama base.
--Sophist on a cultural disconnect

Friday, October 17, 2008

Value investing

I’ve been buying American stocks. This is my personal account I’m talking about, in which I previously owned nothing but United States government bonds. (This description leaves aside my Berkshire Hathaway holdings, which are all committed to philanthropy.) If prices keep looking attractive, my non-Berkshire net worth will soon be 100 percent in United States equities.


A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. And most certainly, fear is now widespread, gripping even seasoned investors.
--Warren Buffett, NYT, giving investing advice

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Universal rules for safe living

Sofia guidebooks offer tips: Avoid restaurants that draw businessmen with four or more bodyguards.
--Doreen Carvajal and Stephen Castle, NYT, on out-of-control organized crime in Bulgaria

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


A reformatting error in an Excel spreadsheet has cropped up in the largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history, prompting a legal motion by Barclays Capital Inc. to amend its deal to buy some of the assets of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

The law firm representing Barclays filed the motion (download PDF) on Friday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking to exclude 179 Lehman contracts that it said were mistakenly included in the asset purchase agreement. The firm — Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP — said in the motion that one of its first-year law associates had unknowingly added the contracts when reformatting a spreadsheet in Excel.
--Heather Havenstein, ComputerWorld, on a lawyer who's about to get fired

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tina Fey and Sarah Palin

If she wins, I'm done. I can't do that for four years. And by "I'm done," I mean I'm leaving Earth.
--Tina Fey on how long she'll do her Sarah Palin impression

Presidential impersonators do influence elections, and in this one, Tina Fey is well on her way to ruining Sarah Palin's political career.
--Jerald Podair, Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University

A casualty of the grant process

Twenty years ago, Douglas Prasher was one of the driving forces behind research that earned a Nobel Prize in chemistry this week. But today, he's just driving.

Prasher, 57, works as a courtesy shuttle operator at a Huntsville, Ala., Toyota dealership. While his former colleagues will fly to Stockholm in December to accept the Nobel Prize and a $1.4 million check, the former Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist will be earning $10 an hour while trying to put two of his children through college.

After the American Cancer Society gave Prasher a $220,000 grant in 1988, he set about isolating and copying the GFP gene. ...

Four years later, as Prasher's grant dried up and he was no longer able to continue his own research, he voluntarily gave samples of the GFP gene to Chalfie. ...

"(Prasher's) work was critical and essential for the work we did in our lab," Chalfie said. "They could've easily given the prize to Douglas and the other two and left me out." ...

After stints at a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory and working for NASA in Huntsville, Prasher was out of work for a year before he took a job at the car dealership.
--Aaron Gouveia, Cape Cod Times, on tough luck (HT: Boing Boing)

Credit crunch jokes

For geography students only: What's the capital of Iceland? Answer: About three pounds fifty...

Quote of the day (from a trader): "This is worse than a divorce. I've lost half my net worth and I still have a wife."
--Credit crunch jokes posted at BBC News

Apocalypse now

Shares on the Reykjavik stock exchange plunged by 76 per cent when trading resumed after three days of closure as Iceland’s economy continued to teeter on the brink of collapse.
--Angela Jameson, Times, on a bad day in Iceland

Monday, October 13, 2008

An offer you can't refuse

Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase were told they would each get $25 billion; Bank of America and Wells Fargo, $20 billion; Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, $10 billion each, with Bank of New York and State Street each receiving $2 to 3 billion. Wells Fargo will get an additional $5 billion, reflecting its acquisition of Wachovia, and Bank of America receives the same for amount for its purchase of Merrill Lynch.

The capital injections are not voluntary, with Mr. Paulson making it clear this was a one-time offer that everyone at the meeting should accept.
--Mark Landler, NYT, on the U.S. government's "offer" to invest in banks

Saturday, October 11, 2008

No atheists in foxholes

On Friday, [Robert] Shiller told me of a conversation he had with an economist friend of his. The man had spent his entire career advocating the efficient market hypothesis, which posits that all known information about a stock is already priced into it. But with the market in collapse, the economist sold all his stocks. “I feel like a Christian Scientist who has come down with appendicitis,” he told Mr. Shiller.
--Joe Nocera, NYT, on how deeply the efficient market hypothesis goes against our intuitions

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

I have a colleague who told me some time back that he had identified a strong leading indicator of economists who think they are on the short list for winning the prize: getting a haircut the week before the Nobel is announced. He claims to have many data points supporting his theory.

The economics Nobel is announced Monday. If I’m not mistaken, this very colleague is sporting a snazzy new haircut.
--Steve Levitt, Freakonomics blog, on who thinks they're all that

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Blame Sharon Oster

I have found out that my wife, [Yale SOM economics professor] Sharon Oster, is the godmother of the current financial crisis. My finance buddies tell me that carving up mortgages did not really begin in earnest until the Case-Shiller housing price index was introduced. Before this, financial analysts did not trust the price numbers, but this changed with the Case-Shiller data. They concluded from the data at the time that the correlation among housing prices across regions was low, so they could bundle and lessen risk. (This, of course, with hindsight was stupid, since they ignored possible macro shocks, which in fact happened.) So where does Sharon come in? She introduced [Karl] Case and [Robert] Shiller to each other in the 1980s! Had she not done this, no Case-Shiller price index, no mortgage backed securities, no crisis. Sharon feels bad.
--Yale economics professor Ray Fair, via the Economix blog, on the genesis of a global financial meltdown

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Saving you from yourself

Sometimes I send messages I shouldn't send. Like the time I told that girl I had a crush on her over text message. Or the time I sent that late night email to my ex-girlfriend that we should get back together. Gmail can't always prevent you from sending messages you might later regret, but today we're launching a new Labs feature I wrote called Mail Goggles which may help.

When you enable Mail Goggles, it will check that you're really sure you want to send that late night Friday email. And what better way to check than by making you solve a few simple math problems after you click send to verify you're in the right state of mind?

By default, Mail Goggles is only active late night on the weekend as that is the time you're most likely to need it.
--Gmail Blog on preventing drunk e-mailing (HT: Chris Blattman's Blog)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Experimental economics and psychiatry

Brooks King-Casas and colleagues recruited dozens of people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) to play the role of trustee in an economic game. People with this disorder tend to have unstable personal relationships and difficulty regulating their emotions. ...

Over several rounds, the game involved the investor choosing how much money to pass to the trustee. The investment was automatically tripled and then the trustee had to decide how much money to pass back to the investor. For maximum returns, both parties need to cooperate. If the trustee is unfair in the returns he gives back, the investor will likely reduce his investments on future rounds, meaning less profit for everyone.

The researchers found that cooperation broke down when a person with BPD played the role of trustee. They failed to recognise smaller investments as a sign that the investor was losing trust. Healthy trustees, by contrast, responded to a distrustful investor by increasing the returns they gave, thereby coaxing back the investor's trust and provoking a return to larger investments.

Brain scans taken while the participants played the role of trustee showed that healthy participants, but not participants with BPD, showed greater activity in the anterior insula as investments reduced in size (this is a brain region known to be involved in fairness, as well as sensing the body's internal states). Perhaps because of their low expectations for how others will treat them, the participants with BPD didn't appear to recognise a low investment [return] as unfair.
--Research Digest blog on why BPD people are so difficult to interact with

Friday, October 3, 2008

Woody Allen the information economist

One explanation [for the collapse of the mortgage-backed securities market] is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s remark that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would accept him as a member. ... Two Nobel prizes have been awarded, to George Akerlof and to Joseph Stiglitz, for figuring out how to make this point with math. Woody Allen still awaits his prize.
--Christopher Carroll, RGE Monitor, on Woody Allen's insight into adverse selection

UPDATE: Whoops, both Chris Carroll and I misattributed this Groucho Marx insight to Woody Allen.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What do you eat more of in troubled times?

Campbell Soup Co. was the only stock in the S&P 500 that escaped yesterday's historic sell-off. That’s right: 499 fell, and just one rose.

Could there be a clearer metaphor for Americans refocusing on the basics after a decade of greed and excess?
--Henry Blodget, Yahoo Finance, on who the market thinks is the ultimate producer of inferior (in the microeconomic theory sense) goods

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A billion here, a billion there

Invading the Netherlands might be advisable—that nation's GDP was $768.7 billion last year. Of course, invasions cost a lot of money.
--Juliet Lapidos, Slate, on paying for the Wall Street bailout

Lastly, in apocalyptic terms, $700 billion really isn't all that much. If nothing is done to change the way we finance Social Security, the trust fund reserves will be exhausted by 2041. This means that, in 75 years, there'll be a shortfall of $4.3 trillion—or about six bailouts. According to the Stern report (issued by U.K. economist Sir Nicholas Stern), global climate change could cost the planet $9 trillion (or 12.86 bailouts) if we don't address the problem within the next decade or so.
--Juliet Lapidos on why it's not so bad after all

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Words of wisdom

Don’t invade Russia in the winter, and don’t conduct a short raid on Goldman Sachs when the former CEO is the Treasury Secretary.
--Eddy Elfenbein,, on quests doomed to failure

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No, YOU pay more

Noting that wealthier Americans would indeed pay more [taxes], Biden said: "It's time to be patriotic ... time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut."
--Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press, on Biden's public words on contributing to the public good

The most surprising fact I learned yesterday:
Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden released 10 years of tax returns Friday...The Bidens' joint gross income hovered between $215,000 and $320,000 a year during this period...The amount they gave to charity during this period never exceeded one-half of 1% of their annual income. The Bidens never gave more than $995 to charity in any of the tax years, and usually gave much less.(Source)
Compare Biden's behavior to that of a typical American:
The IRS reports that those who itemize deductions on their income tax returns have claimed, since 1975, that between 1.6 percent and 2.16 percent of their income went to charitable concerns. (Source)
This contrast is an example of a broader phenomenon:
conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure. Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes. (Source)
If Biden's below-average charitable giving is typical of those with his political views, why am I surprised by it? Because this man has run for President more than once. He must have known there was a good chance that his tax returns would at some point be made public and undergo close scrutiny.
--Greg Mankiw on the disconnect between private actions and public policy stances

Monday, September 15, 2008


I would like to thank all my friends on Wall Street for doing so much to spark interest in economic issues. You have gone beyond the call of duty, and your timing could not have been better.
--Greg Mankiw on the interplay between Wall Street and the ivory tower

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Will the real Sarah Palin please stand up?

Can you tell which one is Sarah Palin and which one is Tina Fey? Even CTV's caption writer (linked below) gets it wrong!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The standards of proof

I took the opportunity to ask respondents what method they would recommend for corporate capital budgeting. Table 7 shows that the CAPM is recommended by 265 out of 360 respondents. The strong theoretical underpinning of the CAPM seems to outweigh the fact that it has almost no empirical evidence supporting it. In contrast, the Fama-French model, which lacks a strong theoretical underpinning but performs well empirically, can garner only 41 supporters.
--Ivo Welch, "The Consensus Estimate for the Equity Premium by Academic Financial Economists in December 2007," documenting another example of scientific belief being driven by something other than empirical "proof." See also my thoughts on the scientific method and religious faith here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Two birds with one stone

Now every proposal for balancing the budget includes big cuts for both Medicare and NASA. Now here are two seemingly unrelated facts.

Fact one: 30% of Medicare expenditures are incurred by people in the last year of their lives.

Fact two: NASA spends billions a year on astronaut safety.

Maybe you see where I'm going.

Why not shoot the elderly into space? Stay with me. Because I'm not just thinking about the budget here. I'm talking about science. Just think how many more manned space operations NASA could undertake if they didn't have to worry about getting the astronauts back.
--Al Franken, 1996 White House Correspondents Dinner, on a way out of our budgetary problems

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Marriage engineers for hire

Kyoko, of course, is not the girl’s real name. She did not meet Mr A by chance and does not work for a design company, as he thinks. She is an agent paid to seduce him... The whole operation is paid for by Mr A’s wife, who gets an amply illustrated report every time an encounter takes place. The aim is to have Mr A fall so completely for Kyoko that he wants to marry her and asks for a divorce. Failing that, his wife will have a sizable dossier with evidence of infidelity to confront him with.

In Japan, if you have the money you can sort out virtually any problem in your love life. If you want to get rid of an unwanted spouse, retrieve a straying one, get back with an ex or even get together with someone you’ve seen but don’t yet know, there are companies that will help you, using all the technology and expertise in human psychology at their disposal. ...

Jobs such as separating Mr A from his wife take an average of two to four months. For this the client pays £2,500 a month, plus expenses. ...

Bringing separated people back together is altogether more complicated – and more expensive. It also takes longer. ACYours charges £7,500 for three months for breaking up, but £12,500 for bringing together. In some ways the procedure is the same, explains Mishima.
--Lesley Downer, Sunday Times, on what money can buy in Japan

Monday, September 1, 2008

Why Democrats should go easy on the Palins

Without families like this our nation would have no chance of affording the social welfare programs proposed by the Democratic Party.
--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution, on the highly fertile Palin family

Saturday, August 30, 2008

President Palin?

Not that I wish him ill, but wouldn't the most surreal outcome of McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate be that McCain gets elected, shortly afterward he dies in office, and the president of the United States becomes a 44 year-old breast-feeding, moose-eating mother of five?
--Emily Yoffe, Slate, on unexpected presidencies

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Listen local

Should we minimize our “music miles” and boycott bands on tour? Thankfully, our next-door neighbors have a band, Dead Larry. We don’t have to go anywhere to hear them.
--Will Wilkinson on consuming locally

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Japanese sadism = humor

In one famously controversial [Japanese game] show, an aspiring comedian named Nasubi was locked naked in an empty apartment and forced to live on winnings from magazine sweepstakes until he earned $10,000. When he finally reached his goal 14 months later, the show's producers gave him some clothes, blindfolded him, and took him on a surprise vacation to South Korea, where he was locked in yet another apartment until he won enough money to buy a plane ticket home. While some vehemently opposed the show, most watched it religiously with delightful horror and amusement. Nasubi wrote a best-selling book about his experience and later became a successful stage actor.

It's the type of comedy that only works in a culture where lawsuits don't take precedent over a nationwide commitment to make fun and have fun.

In a nutshell, a real funny Japanese TV show will have you thinking, over and over:

This is embarrassing to watch.
This is so wrong.
I'm so glad that's not me.
This is f-ing hilarious.
--Lisa Katayama, Boing Boing, on real-life Oldboy scenarios broadcast for giggles

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Human magnetic sense?

The researchers noted that humans and even whales are suspected of having an innate magnetic compass.

Some studies suggest humans who sleep in an East-West position have far shorter rapid eye movement or REM sleep cycles, in which dreams occur, compared with North-South sleepers who got more REM sleep.
--Reuters on a new way to optimize your sleep to the nth degree

Et tu, Australia?

It seems Lin Miaoke, the adorable 9-year-old who perhaps unknowingly lip-synched “Ode to the Motherland” more than two weeks ago, is not alone in the pantheon of “great Olympic musical deceptions of our time,” as The Age termed it. An entire orchestra, in fact, got there eight years ago, we now learn. The Sydney Morning-Herald revealed the secret: “Sydney Olympics faked it too.”

Not only was the Sydney Symphony just going through the motions of a live performance while speakers pumped out recorded versions of its musical selections, some of the recordings were recorded by another group altogether, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Both countries defended the sacrifice of authenticity to avoid putting the nation’s image at risk, and considered the trade-off a no-brainer.
--Mike Nizza, NYT, on how it's not just a Chinese thing

Sunday, August 24, 2008


[LinkedIn] bills itself as “the world’s largest and most powerful business network” but is known to most people as the Web site they begrudgingly visit every few months to approve be-my-contact invitations.
--Brooks Barnes, NYT, on the sad status of LinkedIn

Monday, August 11, 2008

The freedom to enhance

It’s possible, of course, that gene doping or other techniques could turn out to be much riskier. But is that a reason to ban them? Society has always allowed explorers and adventurers to take risks in exchange for glory. The climbers who died on K2 this month ascended it knowing that one climber dies for every four who scale it.

If elite adult athletes were allowed to push the limits of human performance in return for glory, they might point the way for lesser mortals to coax more out of their bodies. If a 50-year-old sprinter could figure out how to run as fast as her 25-year-old self, that could be useful to aging weekend warriors — or any aging couch potato.

I’d like to see what would happen if someone started a new anything-goes competition for athletes over 25. If you have any ideas for how to run it or what to call it — MaxMatch? UltraSports? Mutant Games? — submit them at Maybe fans would object to these “unnatural” athletes. But maybe not. The fans, after all, include people with laser-corrected eyes, chemically whitened teeth and surgically enhanced anatomies. Not to mention the pharmacopeia coursing through our veins.
--John Tierney, NYT, on the case for legalizing performance-enhancing drugs

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Market values

A few years after Margaret Thatcher came to power and launched what at the time seemed a futile war to compel the English people to embrace business values, I found myself dazed and confused in a London corner shop.

Down one aisle and up the other, I paced but found no trace of what I'd come for: the world's finest pseudo-cookies. The shelf that once held those delicious McVitie's wafers coated with milk chocolate was now stocked with less desirable items.

At length, I went to the middle-aged shop owner and asked where she'd hidden my favorite treats -- this gift from the gods to those of us who want to pretend our cookies are merely crackers.

"We used to stock those,'' she said, sweetly, "but we kept running out, so we've stopped.''

Right then I thought: Thatcherism is doomed.
--Michael Lewis, Bloomberg, on pre-Thatcher England

In case you missed it, Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president, has decided that the French need to become more productive. He eliminated the law forbidding work weeks longer than 35 hours, and he's making noises about changing the rule that allows unemployed Frenchmen to turn down job offers that they feel are beneath them and remain on the dole instead. ...

Sarkozy's poll numbers have plummeted. The very same middle- class, white-collar workers who elected him have taken to the streets to protest his callous disregard of the role of leisure in French life. ...

Inflicting market values upon the British circa 1980 felt a bit cruel, but visiting it upon the French circa 2008 feels almost like an unnatural act, like forcing a cat to fetch.

Their problem isn't an incapacity for selfishness, or for individual initiative. Anyone who has ever watched a middle-aged Parisian male muscle aside a pregnant lady with a baby and steal her taxi can see that the French have what it takes to succeed in the modern world. They just don't want to.

They want to take all those selfish impulses that might be directed into improving productivity and efficiency and wealth- accumulation and channel it into being ... French.

And if you want to be French -- if you want to be able to describe the smell of thyme or the sound of cicadas or simply to lounge around some tropical island in a disturbingly small bathing suit -- you need time. And not just a little time. You need so much time that when your president puts an end to a preposterous law limiting the work week to 35 hours, you think nothing of going out into the street and marching around for hours protesting.

There is also the question of competitive advantage. Most nations gain their advantage by making things more efficiently, and at lower cost, than their competitors.

To the extent that the French enjoy a natural advantage, it is in their inefficiency: They are the world's most efficient producers of structured indolence. They are the kept women of the global economy; their status depends, in part, on their practical uselessness.

Reinvent the British and you get a global finance center, edible food and better service. Reinvent the French and you may just get more Germans.
--Michael Lewis dissing the French

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What could have been

Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early Obama supporter, told me a story about watching his father, a South Carolina sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, weep uncontrollably when Cummings was sworn in as a representative in 1996. Afterward, Cummings asked his dad if he had been crying tears of joy. “Oh, you know, I’m happy,” his father replied. “But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die.”
--Matt Bai, NYT Magazine, on lost opportunity

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Revolving doors and energy efficiency

How big a difference can using a revolving door make? In 2006, a team of graduate students at MIT conducted an analysis of door use in one building on campus, E25, where they found just 23 percent of visitors used the revolving doors. According to their calculations, the swinging door allowed as much as eight times more air to pass through the building than the revolving door. Applying average Boston weather to their equations, the MIT team found that if everyone used the revolving doors, it would save more than 75,000 kilowatt-hours of energy—about 74 percent of the total required to heat and cool the building—and prevent 14.6 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted. (By way of comparison, the EPA says an average American vehicle emits about six tons of carbon dioxide over a year.)
--Jacob Leibenluft, Slate, on why you should use revolving doors

Monday, July 28, 2008

Never talk to the police!

The most eye-opening, educational videos I've seen in a while. Professor James Duane of Regent University School of Law tells you why you should never talk to the police, even if you're innocent. Police officer George Bruch speaks immediately afterwards and says that Duane is exactly right!

50 minutes long in total, but well worth it. And I usually have a pretty low tolerance for any YouTube video that extends beyond 2 minutes.

Larry Summers and the case of the gender variance ratio

For the past week or so the newspapers have been trumpeting a new study showing no difference in average math ability between males and females. Few people who have looked at the data thought that there were big differences in average ability but many media reports also said that the study showed no differences in high ability.

The LA Times, for example, wrote:
The study also undermined the assumption -- infamously espoused by former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers in 2005 -- that boys are more likely than girls to be math geniuses.

All of these reports and many more like them are false. In fact, consistent with many earlier studies (JSTOR), what this study found was that the ratio of male to female variance in ability was positive and significant, in other words we can expect that there will be more math geniuses and more dullards, among males than among females. I quote from the study (VR is variance ratio):
Greater male variance is indicated by VR > 1.0. All VRs, by state and grade, are >1.0 [range 1.11 to 1.21].
Notice that the greater male variance is observable in the earliest data, grade 2. (In addition, higher male VRS have been noted for over a century). ...

Does this mean that discrimination is not a problem? Certainly not but we need the media and academia to accurately present the data on ability if we are to understand how large a role other issues may play.
--Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution, on what the latest study really says about differences in within-gender ability variance

Monday, July 21, 2008

The scholar queen

The mayor of Chicago once asked the president of the [University of Chicago] to give the visiting queen of England an honorary degree. "We're happy to consider it," was the reputed reply. "Please send copies of her scholarly work."
--L. Gordon Crovitz, Wall Street Journal, on Chicago's honorary degree policy

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An officially approved Obama joke

Saying he is "sympathetic to late night comedians' struggle to find jokes to make about me," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) today issued a list of official campaign-approved Barack Obama jokes.


A Christian, a Jew and Barack Obama are in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. Barack Obama says, "This joke isn't going to work because there's no Muslim in this boat."
--Borowitz Report on Obama jokes

Sunday, July 6, 2008


• From the marquee outside the Emmanuel Church in Wimbledon Village: "Jesus served better than Andy and attracted more people than Maria."

• Still love that the British call Jay-Z, Jay-zed.
--Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated, on random Wimbledon observations


When a distinguished American military commander accuses the United States of committing war crimes in its handling of detainees, you know that we need a new way forward.

“There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes,” Antonio Taguba, the retired major general who investigated abuses in Iraq, declares in a powerful new report on American torture from Physicians for Human Rights. “The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
--Nicholas Kristof, NYT, on the need for a U.S. Truth Commission

Men, friends, and marriage

Never marry a man who has no friends. This usually means that he will be incapable of the intimacy that marriage demands. I am always amazed at the number of men I have counseled who have no friends.
--Father Pat Connor on what a man's friends say about him

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Wordsmithing by committee is the best site for tracking the changes made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and for comparing the language of the various versions. Who says you can't edit by committee? "That all Men are created equal and independent; that from that equal Creation they derive Rights inherent and unalienable"—that was reasonably well said. "That they are endowed by their creator with inherent & inalienable rights" is slightly more elegant. "That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"—now that really nails it.
--Jacob Weisberg, Slate, on the refining of the Declaration of Independence

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Neuro-competitive advantage

Are people in your office using performance-enhancing drugs?

I'm not talking about steroids. I'm talking about brain enhancers, such as Ritalin for concentration and Provigil for sleep reduction. ...

[The] really interesting comment comes from Zack Lynch, the executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization:

If you're GE Capital and you have offices in 154 financial centers around the planet, and these [brain-drug] tools are available in Dubai, and your workers there are trading more effectively, 5 to 10 percent better—they'll have a neuro-competitive advantage over workers where these tools are not legalized.

Neuro-competitive advantage. There's the leverage point for pushing brain boosters into the workplace. The good news is, these pills might make you more productive. The bad news is, if you don't take them, some guy in Dubai will, and he'll eat your job.
--William Saletan, Slate, on the pressures of "everybody else is doing it"

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The bright side of hookworms

While carrying out field work in Papua New Guinea in the late 1980s, he noticed that Papuans infected with the Necator americanus hookworm, a parasite that lives in the human gut, did not suffer much from an assortment of autoimmune-related illnesses, including hay fever and asthma. Over the years, Dr. Pritchard has developed a theory to explain the phenomenon.

“The allergic response evolved to help expel parasites, and we think the worms have found a way of switching off the immune system in order to survive,” he said. “That’s why infected people have fewer allergic symptoms.” ...

[The] National Health Services ethics committee let him conduct a study in 2006 with 30 participants, 15 of whom received 10 hookworms each. Tests showed that after six weeks, the T-cells of the 15 worm recipients began to produce lower levels of chemicals associated with inflammatory response, indicating that their immune systems were more suppressed than those of the 15 placebo recipients. Despite playing host to small numbers of parasites, worm recipients reported little discomfort.

Trial participants raved about their allergy symptoms disappearing. Word about the study soon appeared online among chronic allergy sufferers, and a Yahoo group on “helminthic therapy” sprung up.
--Elizabeth Svoboda, NYT, on an old-school antihistamine

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Trust us, we're from the government

The New York Times keeps reporting that there may be an itty-bitty chance that when the Large Hadron Collider at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), located just outside Geneva, Switzerland, gets switched on late in August, the world will come to an end. But probably there is no such chance, even an itty-bitty one.

On June 27, Overbye reported, again inside the Times A section, that the United States was seeking to dismiss a lawsuit by two worried citizens aimed at preventing anyone from throwing the big switch at the Large Hadron Collider. The government's principal response, I'm sorry to report, wasn't that there's no chance that switching on the Large Hadron Collider will bring about the end of the world, but rather that a six-year statute of limitations has already passed.
--Timothy Noah, Slate, on how the world could end on a legal technicality

Buy one, get one free

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