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.