Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hot water from the tap

The claim [that you shouldn't drink hot water from the tap] has the ring of a myth. But environmental scientists say it is real.

The reason is that hot water dissolves contaminants more quickly than cold water, and many pipes in homes contain lead that can leach into water. ... The Environmental Protection Agency says that older homes are more likely to have lead pipes and fixtures, but that even newer plumbing advertised as “lead-free” can still contain as much as 8 percent lead.

Scientists emphasize that the risk is small. But to minimize it, the E.P.A. says cold tap water should always be used for preparing baby formula, cooking and drinking.
--Anahad O'Connor, NYT, on urban legends that happen to be true

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Uh oh

In a study published in the journal Epidemiology, the team compared the dietary habits of 465 people with chronic kidney disease and 467 healthy people. After controlling for various factors, the team found that drinking two or more colas a day — whether artificially sweetened or regular — was linked to a twofold risk of chronic kidney disease.

But drinking two or more noncola carbonated drinks a day, they found, did not increase the risk.
--Anahad O'Connor, NYT, on why I should switch back to Mountain Dew

Monday, January 21, 2008

NGOs and African manufacturing

One thing that has always struck me in the African countries I have worked is that the real wages (i.e. wages adjusted for the cost of living) of African formal sector workers seem to be incredibly high, at least compared to that of workers in China or India. Given that firms in China and India seem to be more productive than their African counterparts, it creates a double disadvantage for African workers, and raises the question of why the situation continues. Why don't manufacturing wages fall in Africa, stimulating more jobs for more people at wages still higher than those available in agriculture or informal business? ...

Another possibility, however, is that the largest employers of skilled workers in most African countries are international NGOs and the local government. They are competing, in many cases, for the same pool of skilled and semi-skilled workers as the manufacturers and service sector firms. Neither the government or NGOs, moreover, seem to set wages according to the local market or local conditions, and it requires little imagination to wonder whether they set their wages higher than the market would normally do. ...

I also can't help but notice that the best and the brightest pursue degrees in social work, not business. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does not feel terribly sustainable. You can't build a national economy on NGOs.
--Chris Blattman, Asst. Prof. of Political Science & Economics at Yale, on the possible growth-stifling effects of NGOs

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cool phone tricks

3. Name that tune.
Dying to know what song that is playing on the car radio? Call 866-411-SONG and hold your phone up to the speakers. Just 15 seconds (and a small fee), and 411 SONG will send you a text message with the song name and artist. (This only works on cell phones with SMS capabilities.)

2. Swear like a sailor to skip directly to a human operator.
When that Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system's making you navigate an endless menu of options, put your potty mouth to good use. Some IVR's are programmed to listen for naughty words and speed you along to human help when they hear them. Adam gave this trick a try and dropping the F bomb did indeed zap him right through to a human. We suggest using this trick when you're not within earshot of your co-workers.
--From LifeHacker's Top 10 phone tricks

Friday, January 18, 2008

Is foreign trade special?

People lose their jobs all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with foreign trade. I'd argue that they deserve some help. Why are jobs lost to foreign competition so privileged?
--Tim Harford, Financial Times, on the illogic of giving losers from freer trade special help

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An argument against free trade insurance

One way to think about that is to ask what your moral instincts tell you in analogous situations. Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.
--Stephen Landsburg, NYT, on why we shouldn't compensate people who lose from freer trade

Monday, January 14, 2008

Chuck Norris for President

Norris tries not to overshadow Huckabee, but he can’t resist talking about the time he sky-dived with George Bush Sr. Or the several times he visited Iraq. When Norris is working the crowd, it’s easy to forget that Huckabee is the main act.

Once you consider that Jesse “the Body” Ventura got elected governor of Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger is being credited as a transformational figure in the Republican party, it’s not a leap to imagine Norris seeking—and holding—elected office. He’s ex-Air Force. He served in South Korea between ’58 and ‘62, where he became a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He founded a program for at-risk children. He has become a semiregular Fox News commentator, where his conservative ideas are taken as seriously as anyone’s. Elections have been won with a lot less.
--Christopher Beam, Slate, on the next insurgent Republican candidate

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Retiring to Arizona

Spells of extreme cold kill over 27,000 Americans each year, or about 700 people each very cold day. ... Extreme cold brings cardiovascular stress as human bodies struggle to adjust to the temperature; many of the deaths in these periods come through heart attacks. Heat waves tend to kill people who were already weakened and would have died soon anyway; cold periods bring additional people to the verge of death.

When retired people move to a warmer state, their life expectancy rises dramatically. In fact, 8 to 15 percent of the increase in American life expectancy over the last 30 years comes from people moving to warmer climates, according to research done by two economics professors, Olivier Deschenes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Enrico Moretti, at the University of California, Berkeley.
--Tyler Cowen, NYT, on why we should retire to Arizona

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You can never be too thin...

Panasonic and Samsung demonstrated new TV sets that are only one-inch thick. They’re stunning — when you’re looking at them on edge, that very first day. When you’re looking at them from the front, as you will the rest of your life, they don’t look any different from thicker sets.
--David Pogue, NYT, on innovations that sound better than they are

Bill Gates's last day at the office

Some hilarious celebrity cameos. Big pimpin' Billy G.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The value of humanities

The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. ...

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. ...

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. ... The humanities are their own good.
--Stanley Fish, NYT, on false teleological justifications for the humanities

Myths about voters

Whether you're arguing with friends or watching the news, you hear many claims about how American democracy works that just aren't true.

1. People vote their self-interest.

In fact, there is only the tiniest correlation between income and party. The country is not divided into two camps: the poor, who vote Democrat, and the rich, who vote Republican. If you consider your own experiences, this is hardly surprising: Are your rich friends really Republicans and your poor friends Democrats?

Self-interest is also a bad predictor of views about specific issues. Yes, the elderly heavily support Social Security and Medicare, but so does almost everyone else. The old bumper sticker says, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament," but men are actually slightly more pro-choice than women. And so on.


5. Voters want serious change.

Nonsense. Public opinion data strongly confirm that the status quo is popular. All the big components of the federal budget enjoy broad support. When asked whether government should do less of something, more of something or stick with the status quo, the average American almost always sticks with what he has.

The only iron-clad counter-example is foreign aid. Most Americans have wanted less of it for decades. But since foreign aid is about 1 percent of the federal budget, we can safely call it the exception that proves the rule.
--Bryan Caplan, Washington Post, on how we really vote

The importance of sitting next to smart people

At Google, employees are encouraged to go online and place bets on a prediction market — an exchange that tries to forecast events based on the money wagered on a particular outcome.

According to the report [by Justin Wolfers, Eric Zitzewitz, and Bo Cowgill], “Using Prediction Markets to Track Information Flows: Evidence From Google,” which was presented Friday at the American Economic Association meeting in New Orleans, the strongest correlation in betting was found among people who sat very close to one another, trumping even friendship or other close social ties.

This is tangible evidence, the authors argue, that information is shared most easily and effectively among office neighbors, even at an Internet company where instant messaging and e-mail are generally preferred to face-to-face discussion.

It is an argument, the authors say, for giving greater importance to “microgeography,” or how people interact in the workplace. The finding that information moved fastest among people who were the closest together is also an endorsement of the company’s “third rule for managing knowledge workers: Pack Them In,” the authors say.
--Noam Cohen, NYT, on the importance of sitting next to smart people

Love and marriage

Given the choice, people like to keep their options open.

When researchers asked people whether they preferred to take home a poster they had to keep or take home one that could be exchanged later on, most people chose the latter. But it was people who made irrevocable choices early on who ended up happier with their posters.

[Harvard psychology professor Dan] Gilbert said the finding prompted him to go home and propose to the woman he had been living with: "I always thought love causes marriage, but my data said marriage causes love," he said. "When you lock yourself in something you cannot get out of, you will find ways to be happier. . . . I do love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend, and they are the same person."
--Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, on the value of irrevocable commitment

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Lawyers and doctors

You can’t say law firms aren’t trying.

At the Chicago office of Perkins Coie, partners recently unveiled a “happiness committee,” offering candy apples and milkshakes to brighten the long and wearying days of its lawyers. Perhaps this will serve as an example to other firms, which studies show lose, on average, nearly a fifth of their associates in any given year, in an industry in which about 20 percent of lawyers over all will suffer depression at some point in their careers. ...

So now who’s going to cheer up the doctors?

As of 2006, nearly 60 percent of doctors polled by the American College of Physician Executives said they had considered getting out of medicine because of low morale, and nearly 70 percent knew someone who already had.


In a culture that prizes risk and outsize reward — where professional heroes are college dropouts with billion-dollar Web sites — some doctors and lawyers feel they have slipped a notch in social status, drifting toward the safe-and-staid realm of dentists and accountants. It’s not just because the professions have changed, but also because the standards of what makes a prestigious career have changed.

This decline, Mr. Florida argued, is rooted in a broader shift in definitions of success, essentially, a realignment of the pillars. Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago.
--Alex Williams, NYT, on why I'm glad I'm a professor

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Super-fat goalies

For hockey, the question is simple and has been asked thousands of times by hardcore sports fans and casual observers... Why not go out and find the fattest goalie you can to block the net?

The only way to fully test this theory was to get an NHL team to shoot against the faux fatso. My esteemed editor, Jed Donahue, got in touch with a fellow Georgetown graduate who was doing nearly as well as he is: Ted Leonsis, billionaire owner of the Washington Capitals, whom the Sporting News once called one of the twenty most powerful people in sports... And while his vision may not have originally included allowing the professional hockey team he owns to take slapshots at a guy in a fat suit, he saw the potential and gave the stunt the green light.
--Todd Gallagher, WSJ, on thinking outside the box in hockey. I won't give away the punchline in this post; the full article must be read to appreciate the experiment's results.

Experience through marital osmosis

I’ve been with my wife for 10 years now. If she got onstage right now, y’all wouldn’t laugh at all.
--Chris Rock on how Hillary Clinton's experience as first lady qualifies her for the Presidency

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Storing opened wine

It’s a problem that’s as old as wine itself: The imbibing is over for the evening, but there’s good wine left in the bottle. Since wine’s flavor is so delicate, how best to preserve it for another night?

A lot of people turn to wine-preservation systems that seek to retard or stop oxidation, the chemical process that degrades wine. If you’re among those who swear by such systems, we have surprising news, based on our tests of four widely known brands: No system beat simply recorking the bottle and sticking it in the fridge. ...

The connoisseurs found few differences between the stored and new bottles. The chardonnay, stored for 10 days, tasted pretty uniform; one judge wondered if it had all come from the same bottle. There was a noticeable variation between the new bottle of cabernet sauvignon and bottles that had been stored for eight days, though testers still said new and old bottles were still “more similar than different.” The zinfandel, stored for 22 days, had aged badly with all storage methods.
--Consumer Reports on the hardiness of opened wine