Saturday, May 31, 2008

Getting to know James Bond

The only difficulty I had was when I wanted to slow the story down, to allow a page or two for something significant to sink in. I thought that I could draw a little on Bond’s inner life, but I found that Bond doesn’t really have an inner life.
--Sebastian Faulks, author of the new James Bond novel, on James Bond's character

The world's second-best juggler

--Vova Galchenko, featured in the New York Times Play Magazine

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Another horsemeat sushi review

It's very tasty, definitely gamy, extremely tender, and delicious but only in small quantities. Eat it first in your sushi order, not last.
--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

Keeping basketball from becoming soccer

The NBA announced to its teams this week at its annual pre-draft camp that fines will be imposed on players starting next season for clear cases of "flopping," has learned.
--Marc Stein,

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Regulate it, don't ban it

I saw a police officer give an addict back his heroin when the addict was released after a night in jail for some petty crime. I expressed my amazement to the officer that he could give illegal drugs back to a criminal. He explained to me that as soon as the man ran out of heroin, he would break into a car to get money to buy his next hit. It made no sense to the police officer to hasten the addict’s next criminal act by taking away his drugs. I asked about sending the wrong message. The police officer said his message was stop breaking into cars.
--Peter Moskos on policing in Amsterdam

Monday, May 26, 2008

Harnessing the placebo effect

Jennifer Buettner was taking care of her young niece when the idea struck her. The child had a nagging case of hypochondria, and Ms. Buettner’s mother-in-law, a nurse, instructed her to give the girl a Motrin tablet.

“She told me it was the most benign thing I could give,” Ms. Buettner said. “I thought, why give her any drug? Why not give her a placebo?” ...

Ms. Buettner, 40, who lives in Severna Park, Md., with her husband, 7-month-old son and 22-month-old twins, envisioned a children’s placebo tablet that would empower parents to do something tangible for minor ills and reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics and other medicines.

With the help of her husband, Dennis, she founded a placebo company, and, without a hint of irony, named it Efficacy Brands. Its chewable, cherry-flavored dextrose tablets, Obecalp, for placebo spelled backward, goes on sale on June 1 at the Efficacy Brands Web site. Bottles of 50 tablets will sell for $5.95. The Buettners have plans for a liquid version, too.
--Christie Aschwanden, NYT, on using the fact that the placebo effect is real

Thursday, May 22, 2008

When talks are destructive

Senator Obama defended his position by again enlisting Kennedy’s legacy: “If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that’s what he did with Khrushchev.”

But Kennedy’s one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with one’s adversaries...

Kennedy went ahead, and for two days he was pummeled by the Soviet leader... The Soviet leader left Vienna elated — and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world. ...

A little more than two months later, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to begin erecting what would become the Berlin Wall. Kennedy had resigned himself to it, telling his aides in private that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” The following spring, Khrushchev made plans to “throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants”: nuclear missiles in Cuba.
--Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins, NYT, on reasons not to talk

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Richard Posner is not human

Procrastination is very unhealthy. It causes problems for the people who are counting on you to complete things in a timely fashion and it makes your own life more difficult. … It helps to be a little compulsive. Then you feel uncomfortable if something is hanging over you—that’s the opposite of procrastination, a compulsion to complete things and get rid of the albatross hanging over you. … I have that compulsion.
--Richard Posner on his lack of procrastination problems

Customs and Borders gone amok

He was a carefree Italian with a recent law degree from a Roman university. She was “a totally Virginia girl,” as she puts it, raised across the road from George Washington’s home. Their romance, sparked by a 2006 meeting in a supermarket in Rome, soon brought the Italian, Domenico Salerno, on frequent visits to Alexandria, Va., where he was welcomed like a favorite son by the parents and neighbors of his girlfriend, Caitlin Cooper.

But on April 29, when Mr. Salerno, 35, presented his passport at Washington Dulles International Airport, a Customs and Border Protection agent refused to let him into the United States. And after hours of questioning, agents would not let him travel back to Rome, either; over his protests in fractured English, he said, they insisted that he had expressed a fear of returning to Italy and had asked for asylum.

Ms. Cooper, 23, who had promised to show her boyfriend another side of her country on this visit — meaning Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon — eventually learned that he had been sent in shackles to a rural Virginia jail. And there he remained for more than 10 days, locked up without charges or legal recourse while Ms. Cooper, her parents and their well-connected neighbors tried everything to get him out.
--Nina Bernstein, NYT, on shameful border policy

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fasting and fetuses

This study uses maternal fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan as a natural experiment for evaluating the long-term effects of prenatal nutrition. Because the timing of Ramadan varies by year, we can disentangle the effect of fasting from seasonal effects (e.g. weather, virus exposure). We use the 2002 Uganda Census which collects information on a range of adult outcomes (e.g. disability, education, illiteracy) for a large sample of Muslims and non-Muslims. We find the occurrence of Ramadan nine months before birth increases the likelihood among Muslims of having a disability in adulthood by 20 percent (p =0.03). Effects are found for blindness, deafness, disability involving the lower extremities, and mental retardation. No corresponding effect is found among non-Muslims. We also find that cohorts exposed to Ramadan in utero had lower sex ratios (fewer males relative to females). This suggests maternal fasting may increase attrition of male fetuses and is consistent with previous studies linking maternal famine exposure to reductions in the sex ratio. We find no evidence that negative selection in conceptions during Ramadan accounts for our results.
--Douglas Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder, "Prenatal Nutrition and Adult Outcomes: The Effect of Maternal Fasting During Ramadan"

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Surf's up

Several years ago I watched a particularly memorable “Law Revue” skit night at Yale. One of the skits had a group of students sitting at desks, facing the audience, listening to a professor drone on.

All of the students were looking at laptops except for one, who had a deck of cards and was playing solitaire. The professor was outraged and demanded that the student explain why she was playing cards. When she answered “My laptop is broken,” I remember there was simultaneously a roar of laughter from the student body and a gasp from the professors around me. In this one moment, we learned that something new was happening in class.
--Ian Ayres, Freakonomics blog, on analog substitutes in the classroom

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A very very bad day

One moment, Justin Hill was turning into his driveway. Minutes later he was being flown to a hospital as his home went up in flames. Then he got a traffic ticket.
--Associated Press on a day to forget

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Another argument against food subsidies

[Food] subsidies enjoy significant political and popular support because it is believed they at least protect the nutrition of the poor. This is especially the case when comparing subsidies to other forms of welfare, like cash payments, since people worry that the poor may spend the cash on things other than food, or at least may not use the money in a way that improves their nutrition.

But when we subsidized the price of rice and wheat, people consumed less of them, not more.

And in a follow-up paper, we show that when you take together all the consumption substitutions people make, our large subsidies did not improve nutrition at all.

In fact, in Hunan nutrition actually declined in response to the subsidy. In Gansu, the effect on nutrition was essentially zero. And our sample included only the very poorest households, malnourished by international standards and earning much less than a dollar per person per day — i.e. the exact group whose nutrition subsidies are intended to improve.

Now, we’re absolutely, definitely not saying that we should therefore do nothing to help the poor. ... But while there may be some reasons to prefer subsidies as a form of welfare, it’s time to abandon the long-standing presumption that they are the best policy because they improve nutrition.
--Robert Jensen, Freakonomics blog, on the implications of Giffen goods for anti-poverty policy

Monday, May 5, 2008

Win or else

Just in case you're wondering how many pallet loads of pressure Kevin Garnett has on his Mass Pike-wide shoulders, turn to Page 5 of Sunday's Boston Globe sports section.

Buried deep, deep in his column, Globe resident hard-ass Dan Shaughnessy issued KG a chilling reminder of what happens if the best player on the best team in the NBA can't beat the worst team in the playoffs.

Wrote Shaughnessy: "As for Garnett, I have only two words of warning: Alex Rodriguez."
--Gene Wojciechowski,, on the new synonym for postseason failure

Holding on

FWIW, [Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang] called me last night. Crying. ...

So I cut him off, and I'm like, Jerry, hold on. Hold on. Stop. Listen to me. Jerry, you know what? It's been great knowing you. Really it has. And I think you're going to make a fantastic member of the Ex-Founders Club, alongside Woz and Paul Allen. I'm sure you'll find ways to keep busy. Maybe you can do some creative investments. Build an electric car. Or a commercial spacecraft. Open a restaurant in Napa. Take up high-altitude ballooning.

He's like, Steve, I don't want to go ballooning, I want to keep running Yahoo. I'm like, Dude, I want to turn my house into a polygamous retreat with Gong Li and Scarlett Johansson as my new wives, but that wish ain't gonna come true. And neither is yours. Sorry.
--Fake Steve Jobs on the aborted Yahoo-Microsoft merger

Friday, May 2, 2008

Optimizing memorization

[The software program] SuperMemo is based on the insight that there is an ideal moment to practice what you've learned. Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you've forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you're about to forget. ...

[The 19th-century German scientist Hermann] Ebbinghaus showed that it's possible to dramatically improve learning by correctly spacing practice sessions. On one level, this finding is trivial; all students have been warned not to cram. But the efficiencies created by precise spacing are so large, and the improvement in performance so predictable, that from nearly the moment Ebbinghaus described the spacing effect, psychologists have been urging educators to use it to accelerate human progress...

However, this technique never caught on. The spacing effect is "one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning," the psychologist Frank Dempster wrote in 1988, at the beginning of a typically sad encomium published in American Psychologist under the title "The Spacing Effect: A Case Study in the Failure to Apply the Results of Psychological Research." The sorrowful tone is not hard to understand. How would computer scientists feel if people continued to use slide rules for engineering calculations?
--Gary Wolf, Wired, on better learning through psychology