Thursday, December 31, 2009

Phillips Exeter Academy's specialty

To posterity [the novel A Separate Peace] offers up a minor curiosity: its portrait of Brinker Hadley, a cunning verbal torturer based on [author John] Knowles' Exeter schoolmate Gore Vidal. (Vidal has publicly admired the novel.) Hadley is a campus cynic-dandy of a style Exeter specializes in developing. Taking the type broadly, James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Gore Vidal, and George Trow all attended Exeter, all experienced the splendor of its reproving coldness, and each, in a way, spent a lifetime writing his way out from under it. Here I should add, without including myself (trust me) in anyone's company, I attended Exeter, was a campus cynic-dandy, and, three weeks shy of graduation, was asked by the school administration, in no uncertain terms, to leave.
--Stephen Metcalf, Slate, on old Exeter traditions, going strong in 1945, 1982, and 1994

Where did Cain's wife come from?

[Derek] Kidner goes on to say that:
“Man in Scripture is much more than homo faber, the maker of tools: he is constituted man by God’s image and breath, nothing less....[T]he intelligent beings of a remote past, whose bodily and cultural remains give them the clear status of ‘modern man’ to the anthropologist, may yet have been decisively below the plane of life which was established in the creation of Adam....Nothing requires that the creature into which God breathed human life should not have been of a species prepared in every way for humanity...”
So in this model there was a place in the evolution of human beings when God took one out of the population of tool-makers and endowed him with ‘the image of God’. This would have lifted him up to a whole new ‘plane of life’. ...

Here Kidner gets creative. He proposes that the being who became Adam under the hand of God first evolved but Eve did not. Then they were put into the garden of Eden as representatives of the whole human race. Their creation in God’s image and their fall affected not only their offspring, but all other contemporaries. In this telling, Kidner accounts for both the continuity between animals and humans that scientists see, and the discontinuity that the Bible describes. Only human beings are in God’s image, have fallen into sin, and will be saved by grace.

This approach would explain perennially difficult Biblical questions such as--who were the people that Cain feared would slay him in revenge for the murder of Abel (Gen 4:14)? Who was Cain’s wife, and how could Cain have built a city filled with inhabitants (Gen 4:17)? We might even ask why Genesis 2:20 hints that Adam went on a search to ‘find’ a spouse if there were only animals around? In Kidner’s approach, Adam and Eve were not alone in the world, and that answers all these questions.
--Tim Keller, "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople," on Adam, Eve, and evolution

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Socioeconomic status in the early church

Tradition has it that early Christianity recruited most of its initial supporters from among the very poorest and most miserable groups in the ancient world. ...

All discussions of the social standing of the first Christians would seem to have been settled by Paul's "irrefutable" proof text, when he noted of his followers that "not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth." (1 Cor. 1:26)

It is amazing how many generations of sophisticated people failed to see a very obvious implication of this verse. Finally, in 1960, the Australian scholar E.A. Judge began an illustrious career by pointing out that Paul did not say "none of you were powerful, none of you were of noble birth" (Judge, 1960a, 1960b). Instead, Paul said "not many" were powerful or of noble birth, which means that some were! Given what a minuscule fraction of persons in the Roman Empire were of noble birth, it is quite remarkable that any of the tiny group of early Christians were of nobility. This raises the possibility that like the many other religious movements, Christianity also began as a movement of the privileged. ...

Consider the twelve apostles or disciples. It is widely assumed that they were all men of very humble origins and accomplishments. But is it true? ... When James and John abandoned their fishing boat to follow Jesus, "they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants" (Mk. 1:20). ... Since, according [to] Lk. 5:10, Peter (Simon) and Andrew were partners of James and John, it can be assumed they too were somewhat affluent. In fact, it is quite possible that Peter owned two houses, one in Bethsaida and another in Capernaum. Mark's mother owned a house in Jerusalem that was sufficiently large to serve as a house church (Acts 12:12). Moreover, Andrew had previously had the leisure to be a disciple of John the Baptist. And then there was Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector. Tax collectors were hated, but they were powerful and affluent. ...

Remarkable evidence of Paul's association with the privileged comes from Judge's calculation that, of ninety-one individuals named in the New Testament in connection with Paul, a third have names indicating Roman citizenship. Judge called this "a startlingly high proportion, ten times higher than in the case of a control group" based on epigraphic documents (Judge, 2008, pp. 142-143). If this were not enough, there is evidence in Paul's letters that there already were significant numbers of Christians serving in the imperial household. Paul concluded his letter to the Philippians: "All the saints greet you, especially those in Caesar's household." Paul sends greetings to "those who belong to the family of Aristobulus" and to "the family of Narcissus." Both Harnack and the equally authoritative J.B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) identified Narcissus as the private secretary of the Emperor Claudius and Aristobulus as an intimate of the emperor...

It is instructive that [1 Timothy] offered so much advice about what to preach to the rich members: "As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty" (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Timothy was not advised to tell his rich members to cease being wealthy, but "to do good, to be rich in good deeds." In addition, 1 Tim. 2:9 advises that "women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire." This advice is silly unless there were significant numbers of rich people in the congregation at Ephesus.

Did early Christianity also attract lower class converts? Of course. ... The point is that early Christianity substantially over-recruited the privileged. ...

In 112 CE, Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan for approval of his policies in persecuting Christians. He informed the emperor that the spread of "this wretched cult" involved "many individuals of every age and class."
--Rodney Stark, "Early Christianity: Opiate of the Privileged?," Faith and Economics, Fall 2009

Avatar as white fantasy

This is a classic scenario you've seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.
--Annalee Newitz, io9, on the template from which Avatar was cut

Why 3-D movies won't catch on anytime soon

Despite all this work, no one yet knows exactly what causes this visual fatigue [from watching 3-D video], or "asthenopia"; in any case, there's little reason to think it can ever be overcome.

One potential explanation for the discomfort lies with the unnatural eye movements stereoscopy elicits from viewers. Outside of the 3-D movie theater, our eyes move in two distinct ways when we see something move toward us: First, our eyeballs rotate inward towards the nose (the closer the target comes, the more cross-eyed we get); second, we squeeze the lenses in our eyes to change their shape and keep the target in focus (as you would with a camera). Those two eye movements—called "vergence" and "accommodation"—are automatic in everyday life, and they go hand-in-hand.

Something different happens when you're viewing three-dimensional motion projected onto a flat surface. When a helicopter flies off the screen in Monsters vs. Aliens, our eyeballs rotate inward to follow it, as they would in the real world. Reflexively, our eyes want to make a corresponding change in shape, to shift their plane of focus. If that happened, though, we'd be focusing our eyes somewhere in front of the screen, and the movie itself (which is, after all, projected on the screen) would go a little blurry. So we end up making one eye movement but not the other; the illusion forces our eyes to converge without accommodating. (In fact, our eye movements seem to oscillate between their natural inclination and the artificial state demanded by the film.) This inevitable decoupling, spread over 90 minutes in the theater, may well be the cause of 3-D eyestrain. There's nothing new about the idea—an article published in the Atlantic in 1953 refers to the breakdown of the accommodation-convergence ratio as a "difficulty [that] is inherent to the medium." And there's no reason to expect that newfangled RealD technology will solve this basic problem of biomechanics. ...

The eye-movement issue may even carry other, more serious risks. A long session of 3-D viewing tends to cause an adaptive response in the oculomotor system, temporarily changing the relationship between accommodation and convergence. That is to say, audience-members may experience very mild, short-term vision impairment after a movie ends. I won't pretend there's any hard evidence that these transient effects could develop into permanent problems. But if 3-D becomes as widespread as some in the industry claim—every movie in three dimensions, for example, and television programs, too—we'll no doubt have plenty of data: Small children, their vision systems still in development, could one day be digesting five or six hours of stereo entertainment per day. There's already been one published case study, from the late-1980s, of a 5-year-old child in Japan who became permanently cross-eyed after viewing an anaglyph 3-D movie at a theater.
--Daniel Engber, Slate, on why you should watch Avatar in 2-D

Death and taxes

Starting Jan. 1, the estate tax -- which can erase nearly half of a wealthy person's estate -- goes away for a year [and comes back in 2011]. For families facing end-of-life decisions in the immediate future, the change is making one of life's most trying episodes only more complex.

"I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days," says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. "Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?" ...

One wealthy, terminally ill real-estate entrepreneur has told his doctors he is determined to live until the law changes.

"Whenever he wakes up," says his lawyer, "He says: 'What day is it? Is it Jan. 1 yet?'" ...

Estate-tax experts didn't expect Congress to allow the tax to lapse, and are flabbergasted that it is actually happening. ..

The situation is causing at least one person to add the prospect of euthanasia to his estate-planning mix, according to Mr. Katzenstein of Proskauer Rose. An elderly, infirm client of his recently asked whether undergoing euthanasia next year in Holland, where it's legal, might allow his estate to dodge the tax.

His answer: Yes.
--Laura Sanders, WSJ, on compelling evidence that bequest motives exist, at least among the wealthy at the end of life. HT: Greg Mankiw

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Executive Platinum hoops

CHICAGO. DEC. 8, 5:30 A.M. I am at the coffeepot, steeling myself for a grueling day in the air. O’Hare to La Guardia at 7:40 a.m., Central time. LGA to Dallas at 11:29, Eastern. DFW to San Francisco at 3:45 p.m., Central. And then SFO back to Chicago at 6:20 p.m., Pacific, landing here again a little after midnight. I booked this bizarre itinerary not, as one friend suggested, so I could do all my holiday shopping from Sky Mall. Instead I am running a mileage marathon to retain my Executive Platinum (E.P.) status on American Airlines. ...

Randy Petersen, the founder of and the editor of InsideFlyer magazine, estimates that about 50,000 passengers take off on what he calls “mileage runs” from mid-November to the end of the year. Most of them, according to Mr. Petersen, have the same agenda: “Don’t spend much time or money.” After all, it’s not a free perk if you have to work hard or pay much to get it. My assistant, Kathleen Conway, who plotted my trip, has me circling the United States and flying over 5,400 miles in one day for a total fare of $510 — and all of it in first class.
--Scott Turow, NYT, on maintaining super-elite flyer status. What a colossal waste of time and resources. The airlines should just sell super-elite status for $20,000.

Diagnosing the humanities' decline

[Intellectual historian and literary journalist Louis Menand's] verdict: “It may be that what has happened to the [English] profession is not the consequence of social or philosophical changes, but simply the consequence of a tank now empty.” His homely metaphor pointed to the absence of genuinely new frontiers of knowledge and understanding for English professors to explore. This is exactly the opposite, he implied, of the prospects that natural scientists face: many frontiers to cross, much knowledge to be gained, real work to do. ...

In 2006, Marjorie Perloff, then president of the [Modern Language Association] and herself a productive and learned critic, admonished her colleagues that, unlike other members of the university community, they might well have been plying their trade without proper credentials: “Whereas economists or physicists, geologists or climatologists, physicians or lawyers must master a body of knowledge before they can even think of being licensed to practice,” she said, “we literary scholars, it is tacitly assumed, have no definable expertise.”

Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that. ...

For me, this turn of events has proven anything but happy or liberating. I have long wanted to believe that I am a member of a profession, a discipline to which I could, if fortunate, add my knowledge and skill. I have wanted to believe that this discipline had certain borders and limitations and that there were essential things to know, to preserve, and to pass on. But it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.
--William Chace, American Scholar, on an intellectual discipline's need for boundaries and progress. HT: David Brooks

Food and sex reversals

[W]hat the imaginary examples of Betty and [her 30-year-old granddaughter] Jennifer have established is this: Their personal moral relationships toward food and toward sex are just about perfectly reversed. Betty does care about nutrition and food, but it doesn’t occur to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment — i.e., to believe that other people ought to do as she does in the matter of food, and that they are wrong if they don’t. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way; it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done. Jennifer, similarly, does care to some limited degree about what other people do about sex; but it seldom occurs to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way — because it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done.

On the other hand, Jennifer is genuinely certain that her opinions about food are not only nutritionally correct, but also, in some deep, meaningful sense, morally correct — i.e., she feels that others ought to do something like what she does. And Betty, on the other hand, feels exactly the same way about what she calls sexual morality. ...

In just over 50 years, in other words — not for everyone, of course, but for a great many people, and for an especially large portion of sophisticated people — the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed. Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse. ...

In fact, just observing the world as it is, one is tempted to say that the more vehement people are about the morality of their food choices, the more hands-off they believe the rest of the world should be about sex.
--Mary Eberstadt, Policy Review, on the human longing for universal morality. HT: David Brooks

Health care pricing transparency

The health care reform bill before the U.S. Senate would require hospitals to publicize their standard charges for services, but New Hampshire and Maine have gone much further in trying to make health care costs more transparent to consumers.

New Hampshire and Maine are the only states with Web sites that let consumers compare costs based on insurance claims paid there.

In New Hampshire, the price variation across providers hasn't lessened since the Web site went live in 2007.
--Holly Ramer, Associated Press, on the inefficacy of price disclosure in health care

Indeed, when I saw the bill for Nancy’s scan, I almost fainted, but when I saw how little of it we ourselves had to pay, I felt like ordering up Champagne.
--Dennis Overbye, NYT, on why health care price disclosure is a good political soundbite but doesn't change anything

New Hampshire Insurance Department health policy analyst Leslie Ludtke said the state never promised costs would drop — it simply believed consumers had a right to as much information as possible.

"We never made any claims about transparency being the key to bending the cost curve," she said.

In fact, many opponents of creating the site insisted it would drive prices up because providers would see how much their competitors were charging and adjust their rates. The fact that hasn't happened is a huge victory, Ludtke said.
--Holly Ramer, Associated Press, on moving the goalposts and declaring a huge victory

In the Senate bill, the provision requiring disclosure of hospital charges is listed under a section titled "bringing down the cost of health care coverage."
--Holly Ramer, Associated Press, on what the U.S. Senate claims price disclosure will do

Enjoying each moment

Remember the advice offered in the movie “Sideways” to Miles, who has been holding on to a ’61 Cheval Blanc so long that it is in danger of going bad. When Miles says he is waiting for a special occasion, his friend Maya puts matters in perspective:

“The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.”
--John Tierney, NYT, on consumption complementarities being smaller than you think

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fighting the last war

I don't know what annoys me more: Janet Napolitano saying "the system worked" when what she means is "the system failed, but smart passengers proved that the system is unnecessary", or the moronic new rules the TSA is apparently putting into place in order to "prevent" future such occurances. The TSA's obsession with fighting the last war is so strong that I expect any day to see them building wooden forts at our nation's airports in order to keep the redcoats at bay. Every time they miss something, we have to give up more liberty. ...

No, what this points out is not that Napolitano is incompetent, but that our elaborate system of security theater is probably next to useless. I cannot imagine where this is going to end. No, actually, I can imagine all too well: with passengers checking all luggage and flying in specially issued hospital gowns. And when some enterprising terrorist manages to sneak through that cordon by swallowing his explosives, the TSA will tell us that "the system works" and start the cavity searches.
--Megan McArdle, Atlantic Monthly, on security theater creep

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Print media stimulus package

Before I begin, let me just state that TSA has yet to confirm any of this on its website, so the details aren't entirely clear at the moment. That said, there are several indications that orders have been issued to cease the use of electronics during international flights. Yes, that means no laptops, no iPods, no Kindles, no CD players, no portable DVD players, no Nintendo DSes -- nothing that requires any sort of power on these flights. ...

[T]he simple fact is that if the TSA was really this seriously worried about electronic devices, they could have banned them anytime since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Instead, they're doing it more than 8 years later after a man apparently lit some sort of mixture of powder and liquid in his lap. How that relates to electronics, I'm not sure. This just reeks of a "well, we have to do something" move.

[It] looks like we'll have to revert back to the old standards: Books, magazines, and newspapers for these flights. If I were the print media companies, I'd jack up the prices in airports immediately. They may have just found a business model that will save them: Fear.

I stand by my statement earlier: If they take electronics away from us on plane, I'd much prefer to be put into a state of hibernation on the flights like in Avatar. That's about the only thing that will make those cattle cars tolerable at that point.
--MG Siegler,, on the surprise comeback of print media. I may finally finish Anna Karenina.

More security theater coming your way

Some airlines are telling passengers that new security regulations prohibit them from leaving their seats beginning an hour before landing.

Air Canada said in a statement Saturday that new rules imposed by the Transportation Security Administration limit on-board activities by passengers and crew in U.S. airspace.

The airline said that during the final hour of flight passengers must remain seated. They won't be allowed access to carry-on baggage or to have any items on their laps.

Flight attendants on some domestic flights are informing passengers of similar rules.
--Joan Lowy, Associated Press, on incentives to make trouble 61 minutes prior to landing

Protester for hire

Wanted: One live-in protester, $146 a month, no days off.

When the managers of a Beijing restaurant marked for demolition were too busy to fight it, they posted an Internet ad and hired a stranger to stay there around the clock. The job seems to be a first for China, where frenzied urban construction has led to violent evictions, protests and even suicide.

Huddled on a makeshift bed in the trash-strewn, freezing restaurant, Lu Daren said he once worked for a demolition crew and understands their tactics.

"I'm tired," the 46-year-old said Thursday, after a long night of fending off the latest visit from what he suspects were hired thugs by the landlord. "Tired, tired, tired." He stays — wrapped in blankets, reading the newspaper or writing idle poetry, occasionally taking short walks — because he thinks the restaurateurs have been treated unfairly. ...

"I'm staying until we get paid," said Qin Rong, who said she invested 500,000 yuan ($73,000) in Fish Castle after signing a three-year contract last year and wants that money back. She said the couple has been given only 35,000 yuan in compensation so far.

But the 28-year-old also has an office job and is too busy to stay at the site. So she decided to pay someone to do it.
--Cara Anna, Associated Press, on Chinese outsourcing to the Chinese. HT: Marginal Revolution

Do something -- anything!

[Airplane bomber wannabe Abdul Farouk] Abdulmutallab told law enforcement authorities, the official said, that he had had explosive powder taped to his leg and that he had mixed it with chemicals held in a syringe.
--Anahad O'Connor and Eric Schmitt, NYT, on how the bombing was attempted

As a result of the attack, British Airways announced on its Web site on Saturday that passengers flying from London to the United States would be allowed to carry only one item onto a plane.
--O'Connor and Schmitt on how to stop explosive powders strapped to a passenger's leg

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hurt feelings? Pop a Tylenol!

Getting the snub from friends can feel like a slap in the face. Now researchers say treating such social pain may be as easy as popping a pain pill. ...

The finding builds on research showing that psychological blows not only feel like they hurt us, they actually do. For instance, scientists have found a gene linked with both physical pain and a person's sensitivity to rejection. And some of the same brain regions are linked with both pain types. ...

In one experiment, 62 healthy volunteers took 1,000 mg daily of either acetaminophen or a placebo. (Extra strength Tylenol contains about 500 mg of acetaminophen in each tablet.)

Each evening participants answered questions on the so-called Hurt Feelings Scale, which measures social pain caused by, say, teasing. Hurt feelings and social pain decreased over time in those taking acetaminophen, while no change was observed in subjects taking the placebo.

Participants' happiness levels didn't change much over the course of the study for either group.

Then, the team had 25 healthy volunteers take either 2,000 mg of acetaminophen or a placebo. After three weeks of taking the pills, subjects played a computer game rigged to create feelings of social rejection. Their brains were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the game-playing.

When experiencing rejection, participants taking the pain meds showed less activity, compared with the placebo group, in brain regions linked to both the distress of social pain and some components of physical pain. on emotional toughness in a pill. I wonder if this means that redheads are on average more emotionally sensitive

Merry Christmas

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
--Philippians 2:5-11

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tail, meet space between legs

Jason Bay has rejected the latest contract offer from the Red Sox and is prepared to "move on," said his agent Joe Urbon.

In a story first reported by Fox Sports, Urbon ratcheted up the rhetoric. "We don't agree with their evaluation of the player," Urbon said. "Frankly, we have other offers on the table that are of greater interest to Jason."
--Peter Abraham, Boston Globe, December 12

The Red Sox spent in the vicinity of $100 million dollars today for two players, longtime Angels frontline starter John Lackey and likable veteran outfielder /defensive whiz Mike Cameron. ...

When [Bay's] agent, Joe Urbon, slapped his cards on the table Saturday and said his client was ready to "move on," little did he know that Epstein was prepared to call his bluff and bloodlessly move on himself with such cold and precise execution. We didn't know what he wanted to do; turns out he sure as hell did, and you can't help but wonder how Bay feels about his agent's negotiating tactic today. Here's hoping he doesn't do anything drastic. Someone needs to tell him that it's not a coincidence that "Met" rhymes with "regret."
--Chad Finn, Boston Globe, December 15

Free agent Jason Bay’s options haven’t been very good this offseason, so his agent, Joe Urbon, who turned down the Red Sox’ four-year, $60 million offer earlier this month, has been going back to the Sox in an effort to keep his client in a ballpark where he was not only happy but where he put up big numbers.
--Nick Cafardo, Boston Globe, December 24, on one agent's pwnage

Not exactly plagarism, but...

In his new book, Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), author William Poundstone dissects the marketing tricks built into menus—for example, how something as simple as typography can drive you toward or away from that $39 steak.

1. The Upper Right-Hand Corner
That’s the prime spot where diners’ eyes automatically go first.

2. The Anchor
The main role of that $115 platter—the only three-digit thing on the menu—is to make everything else near it look like a relative bargain, Poundstone says.


Consultant Gregg Rapp tells clients to “omit dollar signs, decimal points, and cents … It’s not that customers can’t check prices, but most will follow whatever subtle cues are provided.”
--New York Magazine, December 6, 2009, on menu psychology engineering

And the name of the Tabla appetizer, Boodie’s Chicken Liver Masala, draws even deeper from the growing field of menu psychology...

The price of Boodie’s chicken livers, for example, is $9, written simply as 9. ... In the world of menu engineering and pricing, a dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu, particularly at a high-end restaurant. ...

In the “Ten Commandments for Menu Success,” an article published in Restaurant Hospitality magazine in 1994, Allen H. Kelson, a restaurant consultant, wrote, “If admen had souls, many would probably trade them for an opportunity every restaurateur already has: the ability to place an advertisement in every customer’s hand before they part with their money.”

Some restaurants use what researchers call decoys. For example, they may place a really expensive item at the top of the menu, so that other dishes look more reasonably priced...

Menu design draws some of its inspiration from newspaper layout, which puts the most important articles at the top right of the front page, where the eyes tend to be drawn.
--Sarah Kershaw, NYT, December 22, 2009, deciding to take an early Christmas vacation

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No, honey, not tonight

To impregnate female ducks as quickly as possible, a certain species of male ducks has evolved corkscrew-shaped penises that shoot out of the ducks' bodies in less than half a second, Yale researchers have found. To thwart the males, female duck vaginas have evolved to spiral the other way — an adaptation the researchers say is one of the most dramatic examples of the conflict between the sexes to control fertilization.

The finding was officially announced today by Yale researcher Patricia Brennan, who worked with fellow Yale researchers Christopher Clark and Richard Prum on the study. They published their results in the Dec. 23 issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B.
--Cross Campus, Yale Daily News, on the battle between the sexes

Low-variance cuisine

James Hinckley asks:

Which cuisine are you most likely to be satisfied with when dining out? Which disappoints you the least # of visits?

If you were at a shopping center you've never been to before and it has one restaurant of each cuisine and your goal was to simply be satisfied (you're not looking to be blown away, you just don't want a bad experience), which cuisine do you pick?

Korean is perhaps the safest bet, for two reasons. First, non-Koreans are not usually interested in the food. They might enjoy Bul-Gogi but there will be plenty of other dishes for Korean patrons and these will not be "dumbed down." The lack of mainstream interest limits the potential for sell-out behavior on the part of the restaurant. Second, many Korean dishes, most of all the pickled vegetables, "travel" relatively well and do fine in a culture -- the USA -- which is not obsessed with fresh ingredients.

The most dangerous cuisine to try, in the United States at least, is Chinese. Your best working assumption is that the restaurant simply isn't any good. Even in a Chinatown, such as in New York or DC, most of the restaurants aren't very good. Inverting the two principles mentioned above puts you on a path toward figuring out why. Still, even in Paris or most of Europe for that matter, most of the Chinese restaurants aren't very good.
--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution, providing non-Korean confirmation of my assertion about Korean cuisine in the U.S. Unfortunately, low variance means that the right tail of Korean cuisine is also largely missing from the U.S.

Tall in Korea

Swayed by the increasingly popular conviction that height is crucial to success, South Korean parents are trying all manner of remedies to increase their children’s stature, spawning hundreds of growth clinics that offer hormone shots, traditional Eastern treatments and special exercises. ...

Ms. Seo [Hye-kyong] spends $770 a month on treatments for her daughter and her 4-year-old son at one such clinic, Hamsoa, which has 50 branches across the country and offers a mix of acupuncture, aromatherapy and a twice-a-day tonic that contains deer antler, ginseng and other medicinal herbs. ...

At [the Kiness] clinic, Kim Se-hyun, a fifth-grader, walked on a treadmill with her torso encased in a harness suspended from an overhead steel bar. The contraption, the clinic maintains, will stretch her spine and let her exercise with less pressure on her legs. ...

For the last four years, [Chang Young-hee] has been taking her youngest child, Seo Dong-joon, to Kiness. The boy, now 15, knows his goal.

“If I’m tall, I’ll have an advantage selecting my future wife,” he said, holding an English vocabulary book, which he studies while exercising. ...

South Koreans have been growing taller anyway, thanks to changes in diet. Over the past 30 years the average height of high school senior boys in South Korea has increased 3.5 inches, to 5-feet-8, according to government data. Senior girls grew an average of 2 inches, to 5-feet-3.

Doctors at the growth clinics say that most children simply aspire to the new average height, but with more tall teenagers, those who are not as tall seem even shorter.
--Choe Sang-hun, NYT, on the next U.S. yuppie parenting craze

You don't need to like it

[Brookings Institute senior fellow Grover Whitehurst] pointed to the tests called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or Timss. Countries in which a higher fraction of students said they liked math generally performed poorly, while some countries where students disliked math, like South Korea, scored among the best. (There are a few exceptions like Singapore, where students liked math and also did well.)
--Kenneth Chang, NYT, on the meager payoff from liking math, or perhaps the cost of becoming good at math

Marriage TMI

Pity the man whose wife writes a memoir.

Consider Elizabeth Weil's husband, Dan. On Sunday, in the New York Times Magazine, Ms. Weil previewed a memoir she is writing about their effort to improve their marriage. She doesn't stint on the frisky bits—or rather, what she proclaims to be the insufficiently frisky bits. The conjugal part of their equation is apparently "not terribly inventive." Ms. Weil derides their "safe, narrow little bowling alley of a sex life" and tells us that she and her husband "hadn't been talking to each other while having sex. And not making eye contact either." ...

DoubleX, a blog on Slate, asked its contributors for their Christmas wish lists. First up was Rachael Larimore, who proclaimed "All I want for Christmas is for my hubby to get a vasectomy. And he is!" I'm sure that made his day. Still, that's nothing compared to what gets aired in coffee klatches, where, according to writers such as Sandra Tsing Loh, the ladies get together to talk about how their husbands haven't touched them in years. ...

If Ms. Weil would really like to improve her marriage, here's a good place to start: Don't write about it in the New York Times.
--Eric Felten, WSJ, on the value of discretion about marriage

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chickens coming to roost at the T

A Red Line train has derailed at Alewife Station, but no injuries were reported, MBTA officials said. ...

It was the second day in a row of problems on the Red Line between Harvard and Alewife. Repairs to a 40-foot wall panel at the Porter Square station, which is in danger of coming loose from water leaks, caused rush-hour delays on the line Monday. MetroDesk on a possible harbinger

The author of the report, David F. D’Alessandro, went so far this morning as to say he would not ride the Red Line between Harvard Square and Alewife because a water leak has created the potential for a train derailment.
--From my November 4, 2009 entry

Peace and happiness are overrated

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
--Harry Lime, The Third Man, being quoted by Clyde Haberman to defend New York's last-place showing in the U.S. state happiness rankings. NB: Connecticut is only one slot above New York. California comes in at #46, and Massachusetts at #43.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The difference between physicists and mathematicians

A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane.
--Yale physicist/chemist/mathematician J. Willard Gibbs, 1839-1903

Fighting tanorexia

To bring in more revenue, the [health care] bill proposes a range of new fees and taxes that would affect some high-income people, profitable health insurance companies and people who use tanning salons. ... Senate Democrats said the 10 percent tax was justified because ultraviolet radiation from tanning devices could increase the risk of skin cancer.
--Robert Pear, NYT, on why your neighbors may be paler in the coming years. Up next under the same rationale: taxes on people who spend time outdoors without sunscreen.

How to pay attention to a boring seminar

In a neat little experiment, Jackie Andrade asked forty participants to listen to a monotone two and a half minute phone message about arrangements for a party. They were told the message would be dull, that there was no need to memorise it, but that they should write down the names of the people who would be able to attend the party. Crucially, half the participants were also told to 'doodle' as they listened, by shading in the squares and circles of their note-paper.

Afterwards, the doodlers had noted fractionally more of the correct names (7.8 on average vs. 7.1 - a statistically significant difference). What's more, moments later, the doodlers also excelled in a surprise memory test of the guests' names and the places mentioned in the message, recalling 29 per cent more details than the non-doodlers.

Andrade said more research is obviously needed to find out how doodling helps us maintain our attention. However, her theory is that by using up slightly more mental resources, doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering off the boring primary task into daydream land.
--BPS Research Digest on distracting yourself to concentrate. I'm going to conduct this experiment on myself for the next semester. HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, December 18, 2009

San Francisco government

It's time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. This year's city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion — more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho — for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can't point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle — and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short. ...

During [former Recreation and Park Department head Yomi Agunbiade's] reign, an audit revealed, rec centers frequently didn't open, because staff simply didn't show up — and the department had no process to do anything about it. ...

When the city controller's office made the common-sense recommendation that groundskeepers ought to be where they were assigned to be when they're supposed to be there, Agunbiade fought them on it for three years. ...

Last year, the Civil Grand Jury could not find — we reiterate, could not find — up-to-date budget numbers for the city's Branch Library Improvement Program. The numbers that were available aren't pretty: Voters approved a $106 million bond in 2000 to rebuild 19 libraries, and $28 million more was ponied up by the state and private donors. That money was spent without a coherent building plan being formulated between the Library Commission and Department of Public Works — leading to such large cost overruns and long delays that the commission abandoned five of the projects. In 2007, the city went back to the voters, asking for another $50 million for libraries — without publicizing that this would fund the five unfinished projects voters had already paid for. Voters approved it. After all, who doesn't like libraries? ...

Back in 1999, San Francisco voters were pitched a $299 million bond to "save" Laguna Honda Hospital as a 1,200-bed facility for the city's frail, elderly population. Who doesn't want to help the frail and elderly? A decade later, the Department of Public Works project is still incomplete, its price tag has swelled by nearly $200 million, and the hospital is slated to hold only 780 beds — so the city is going massively overbudget to construct a hospital only 65 percent as large as promised, which is four years behind schedule.

Amazingly, this gets worse. After securing the bond funding to save Laguna Honda as a hospital for the elderly, the Department of Public Health began transferring younger, often dangerous and mentally ill patients there and mixing them among the old people. This went about as well as you'd think: A 2006 state and federal licensing survey noted numerous instances of elder abuse, staff abuse, and patients toting drugs, alcohol, and even loaded weapons. One patient was assaulted four times in four months; to address this problem, staff erected signs reading "No Hitting." (That didn't work.) ...

In 2007, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) held a seminar for the nonprofits vying for a piece of $78 million in funding. Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required — for the first time — to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something.

The room exploded with outrage. This wasn't fair. ... [A nonprofit CEO] suggested the city's funding process should actually penalize nonprofits able to measure results, so as to put everyone on an even footing. Heads nodded: This was a popular idea. ...

The city continues to toss millions annually into programs that don't quantifiably help people. But the city is effectively taking cash from one program that does demonstrably help people. That would be Muni. ...

The unions worked their magic on Peskin's Muni reform, gutting the ability of management to fire workers and getting a higher base salary out of the deal. ...

Prop. A gave Muni tens of millions of dollars in parking meter money that had previously been spread around the city. But even though voters decided that money should go to Muni, city departments found novel ways to keep it for themselves — and then some. Denied funds by Prop. A after 2007, departments began charging Muni for "services" they were legally required to provide anyway. Police charged Muni whenever they went onto transit vehicles; ambulances charged Muni for picking up people off the buses. Newsom, meanwhile, paid his green advisers' hefty salaries from Muni's coffers. By 2009, this was costing Muni about $63 million — more than double what the agency was making in new revenue from Prop. A.
--Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi, SFWeekly, on a worthy rival to the California state government

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Crap birthday

Turning 102 is crap, and there is nothing to commemorate.
--Architect Oscar Niemeyer on his 102nd birthday

Paul Samuelson quotes

Piquant Paul Sameulson quotes from a New Yorker interview

He didn’t believe in God, but he knew a devil when he saw one. He insisted that the old economic system—the neoclassical one worked pretty well, except in the Great Depression. That’s a pretty good science. One that is true except for its exceptions.
--On Frank Knight's attitude towards Keynes

The rational expectations paradigm of analysis had nothing to contribute to the Reagan administration, where it would have been welcome, or, indeed, to the Federal Reserve Board’s outside committee of academic consultants, which I used to attend. There was usually one rational expectations man at each meeting, but it was rarely the same one twice. In terms of practical analysis, they had nothing to teach us.
--On the impact of rational expectations

I’m about as rational a person as you could get, but did I set up a sinking fund to pay off my taxes? No. Was I lazy and irrational? No...At bottom, I’m in the Herbert Simon camp of limited rationality. People are rational, but you are always doing things in a hurry and with limited information. The last thing you can do is a big optimization problem down to five decimal places.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

How to lead

Despite his celebrated accomplishments, Mr. Samuelson preached and practiced humility. The M.I.T. economics department became famous for collegiality, in no small part because no one else could play prima donna if Mr. Samuelson refused the role, and, of course, he did. Economists, he told his students, as Churchill said of political colleagues, “have much to be humble about.”
--Michael Weinstein, NYT, on setting an example from the top

The difference between men and women

Women are men without money.
--Paul Samuelson defending women complaining about salary and career inequities

The passing of a giant

That’s what I would like to do until the end of time — to go on scribbling my articles on the third floor of the Sloan Building, in between playing tennis and drinking coffee at my other study in the Concord Avenue branch of Burger King.
--Paul Samuelson, 1915-2009. Read the MIT obituary here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Parenting is easy, right?

On the one hand, every single one of my ancestors going back billions of years has managed to figure [parenting] out. On the other hand, that's the mother of all sampling biases.
--xkcd on the terrifying implications of survivorship bias. In order to see the text, you need to have your pointer hover over the comic. Every xckd comic has this hidden comment text. Now go forth and waste an afternoon going through the entire xkcd archive and seeing all the gems you missed.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

End world hunger too, please

Twenty-six students were arrested at San Francisco State University before dawn on Thursday after some students barricaded themselves inside a building to protest budget cuts and tuition increases across the state’s public university system. ...

Along with indignation over budget cuts, a blog listing the protesters’ demands included forgiveness of all student loans and ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With demands far beyond the purview of school administrators, negotiations with the students was nearly impossible, [university spokeswoman Ellen] Griffin said.
--Malian Wollan, NYT, on getting the most bang for your protest buck

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The practical impact of repentance

Some of the studies revealed an impulse for "moral cleansing": When our moral self-image is threatened, we want to restore it—to add moral credits to the account. Research indicates that writing about our negative traits, or recalling our own sketchy behavior, prompts a surge of virtue.
--Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Slate, on how confessing our sins promotes goodness

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why L.A. has no NFL team

[Vanderbilt sports economist John] Vrooman points out that the [NFL] likes to leave one prominent city without a football franchise, “like an empty seat in musical chairs”, so that teams in other cities can threaten to move if they do not get their way. This invariably prompts state and local governments to contribute public money to help teams that replace old stadiums with new ones. Los Angeles residents have been scratching their heads about why the country's second-largest city has had no football team since 1994. But the NFL has made far more money from new stadiums that have been built using Los Angeles as a threat, says Mr Vrooman, than it could have made by actually putting a team there.
--The Economist on the musical chairs bargaining strategy, a manifestation of monopolistic supply restriction

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Military disbelief

The cable stunned some in the military. The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — military slang for an expression of shock.
--Peter Baker, NYT, on WTF

Regulate it, don't ban it

A Chinese man has signed a contract with his wife that entitles her to attack him once a week.

The 32-year-old man, who was named by the Chongqing Evening News as Mr Zhang, took the unusual step after suffering intense abuse from his wife, who studies kung fu.

"I don't want to beat him, but arguments are inevitable and I can't help myself," his wife told the newspaper. She added that in the week before they signed the deal, she had beaten him up three times. ...

In order to curb his wife's aggression, Mr Zhang proposed signing a contract in front of his in-laws. If his wife breaches the contract, she has to return to her parents' home for three days. "She is very obedient to her parents, and her parents will support me and blame her," he said.

His wife said that she always feels regret when she sees her husband with a black eye. "Now that we have a contract, I will force myself to drop the use of force," she said.

Mr Zhang's parents told the newspaper that although they felt bad that their son was regularly attacked, the couple were a good match. "They have a good marriage, so we can say nothing about it," said his father.
--Malcolm Moore, Telegraph, corroborating stories my wife told me about Shanghainese women. HT: Marginal Revolution

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Blood products obey the laws of economics

The United States is one of the few countries that allows [blood] plasma donors to be paid....

But many of the countries that prohibit compensation do not collect enough plasma. So they rely on plasma or plasma products made from the blood of people who donate in the United States, which supplies more than half the world’s plasma.
--Andrew Pollack, NYT, on upward sloping supply curves in blood product donation

The next celebrity non-mystery

Everyone is talking about Tiger the spineless cheater. I would like to talk about his wife, Mrs. Tiger, the former nanny from Sweden. Bill and I were at dinner when news broke about the 'incident.' Bill shrewdly predicted that she attacked the car and that's why Tiger crashed. I told Bill that if he ever cheated on me, I would do the same thing she did, only I would attack the car with his League of Dorks trophy and keep hitting him with it until he stopped breathing. I then tweeted this so he knew I was serious.

Now Mrs. Tiger is being portrayed as a crazy loon. Isn't she a hero? Did you see the parade of skanks that Tiger cheated on her with? Each one looked like she came with her own pole and lip plumper. Mrs. Tiger could have looked the other way and said, "I am just lucky to live in America in this big mansion with my wealthy and famous husband who wins many golf tournaments. I will get back at him by having sex with cabana boys and masseurs." Instead she stood up on behalf of women everywhere. Just because you are rich, famous and successful doesn't mean you get to humiliate your wife and kids.

I wish Mrs. Tiger would admit what she did, if she did anything. She won't because Florida has strong domestic violence laws. California does not. If Bill ever follows Tiger's skank-chasing footsteps, I am going to beat him to death with his 2.8-pound book, while also having sex with cabana boys and masseurs. There will be no mystery about what happened. That's my Great Call of the Week.
--The Sports Gal,, on crashes with an explanation

Thursday, December 3, 2009


A behind-the-scenes struggle takes place on "Dancing With the Stars" as producers plead with professional dancers not to overdo the spray tan. Ms. Mills calls dancers who get too dark "tanorexic." ...

On "Dancing With the Stars," in season six in 2008, Miami Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor, who is African-American, had to get a spray tan because his Polish dance partner, Edyta Sliwinska, had over-tanned and was darker than Mr. Taylor, says Mr. Green, the producer.
--Amy Chorzick, WSJ, on maintaining a racial hierarchy. HT: William Saletan

Monday, November 30, 2009

The evolution of "hello"

It's fascinating that the telephone would require its own category of greeting—at least for 27 of the 182 languages listed. Moreover, for the vast majority of those, the word for "Hello (on phone)" is a cognate of the English hello... By simply adding the Chinese phone-greeting wéi to one's arsenal, I'm guessing one can have a cordial if extremely limited phone call with at a minimum four-fifths of the people on earth. Such power rests in so few syllables. ...

[Hello's] current ubiquity is tied to the telephone and the specific social and technological situations that the new device brought about. Initiating a conversation on the telephone involved two difficulties: first, the person might or might not even be there; and second, the caller had no way of knowing who they were talking to, and thus how they should be appropriately addressed.

For the technical problem, there were several early contenders. The British favoured "Are you there?" as a proper way of answering the phone, and in the days of newfangled and spotty phone technology, it was probably a useful one, saving the user the embarrassment of accidentally offering a personal greeting to the void. Once connection became commonplace, one assumes "Are you there?" must have lost its edge as the implications of its question drifted from the technical to the existential. ...

But it was Thomas Edison who won the day (or at least claimed the day in hindsight), suggesting the old ferry-hail-whoa-there as being most suitable, writing to a business partner, "I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away."

Though it passed the technological test, Edison's ringtone was some decades in overcoming its social stigma as a low and crass word whose audibility at 20 feet was not entirely advantageous. ... Hello streamed into the gap created by an unprecedented social scenario, gaining popularity and, little by little, respectability. By the 1920s, Emily Post had given up on banning hello from her version of proper speech and simply tried to tame its former brashness...

The fact that the message did not depend on the word itself was probably as key a factor as the device's American pedigree in the internationalization of the telephone hello. This was especially for languages that have an active distinction between the formal and informal you. In Bulgarian, say, the formal greeting is zdravejte, while the informal is a simple zdravej. The phone rings in Sofia: what do you do? Is the caller a friend or a stranger, an official, a salesman, a wrong number? Will it be zdravej or zdravejte? I know, alo!
--Nate Barksdale, Comment, on the rags to riches story of "hello"

Debt and empire

Already, the federal government's interest payments are forecast by the CBO to rise from 8 percent of revenues in 2009 to 17 percent by 2019, even if rates stay low and growth resumes. If rates rise even slightly and the economy flatlines, we'll get to 20 percent much sooner. And history suggests that once you are spending as much as a fifth of your revenues on debt service, you have a problem. It's all too easy to find yourself in a vicious circle of diminishing credibility. The investors don't believe you can afford your debts, so they charge higher interest, which makes your position even worse. ...

As interest payments eat into the budget, something has to give—and that something is nearly always defense expenditure. ...

This is how empires decline. It begins with a debt explosion. It ends with an inexorable reduction in the resources available for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Which is why voters are right to worry about America's debt crisis. According to a recent Rasmussen report, 42 percent of Americans now say that cutting the deficit in half by the end of the president's first term should be the administration's most important task—significantly more than the 24 percent who see health-care reform as the No. 1 priority. ...

The precedents are certainly there. Habsburg Spain defaulted on all or part of its debt 14 times between 1557 and 1696 and also succumbed to inflation due to a surfeit of New World silver. Prerevolutionary France was spending 62 percent of royal revenue on debt service by 1788. The Ottoman Empire went the same way: interest payments and amortization rose from 15 percent of the budget in 1860 to 50 percent in 1875. And don't forget the last great English-speaking empire. By the interwar years, interest payments were consuming 44 percent of the British budget, making it intensely difficult to rearm in the face of a new German threat.
--Historian Niall Ferguson, Time, on how finance brings down empires

New York state of mind

Why are you in New York? Deep down, you think something is wrong with you.
--Tim Keller on New Yorker insecurity

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The brave new world of collect calls

When a Los Angeles hairstylist accepted a collect call from a customer, she had no idea it would run more than $45. And no idea that's just what collect calls from pay phones cost in the mobile age. ...

[Barbara] James' bill from Network Communications International showed about $37 for the quick call, about $5 in regulatory fees and taxes, and about $3 for a "billing cost recovery fee."

NCIC president Bill Pope says the tiny number of collect calls makes such prices inevitable.
--Associated Press on how not to mooch a phone call

Friday, November 27, 2009

Monthly death cycles

Daily mortality counts fluctuate over the course of a calendar month. As has been documented by Phillips et al. (1999), daily mortality decreases to about one percent below the average in the week prior to the 1st day of the month, and then increases to almost one percent above the average in the first few days of the month. This within-month mortality cycle is particularly pronounced for homicides, suicides, and accidents. ...

Updating and extending the earlier work of Phillips et al., we document within-month mortality cycles for many causes of death, including external causes, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke (but not cancer). The within-month cycle is also evident for both sexes and for all age groups, races, marital status groups, and education groups.

[We] obtained daily data on a number of different activities and purchases, including going to the mall, visiting retail establishments, purchasing lottery tickets, going to the movies, and the amounts spent on food and non-food retail purchases. These data all show the same pattern, namely, that activity declines toward the end of the month and rebounds after the 1st of the month. ...

The concordance between the mortality and activity cycles leads us to conclude that an increase in activity leads to an increase in mortality. ...

We provide suggestive evidence that the rise in mortality is linked to changing liquidity over the month. First, we document that the peak-to-trough in mortality is greatest for those with low levels of education, a group that has been found to have liquidity problems. Second, we link liquidity to movements in consumption by showing there are smaller movements in activity and consumption over the month for groups we would expect to have less liquidity issues, namely, those in higher-income groups and those with more education. ... Finally, we provide direct evidence that mortality increases in the short term after the receipt of income. ...

First, seniors who enrolled in Social Security prior to May 1997 typically received their Social Security checks on the 3rd of the month. For this group, daily mortality declines just before paycheck receipt, and is highest the day after checks are received. Second, for those who enrolled in Social Security after April 1997, benefits are paid on either the second, third or fourth Wednesday of the month, depending on beneficiaries’ birth dates. Among this group, mortality is highest on the days checks arrive. Third, the Alaska Permanent Fund pays residents of Alaska an annual dividend, and during the week that direct deposits are made, mortality among urban Alaskans increases by 13 percent. Fourth, during the week the 2001 tax rebate checks arrived, mortality among 25-64 year olds increased by 2.5 percent. Finally, counties with a large percentage of their population in the active military experience relatively large spikes in mortality among 17-64 year olds immediately after the 1st and the 15th of the month, the dates on which military personnel are paid.
--William Evans and Timothy Moore, "Liquidity, Activity, and Mortality," on the upside of being short on cash

Turkey: the land and the bird

So how did such a creature [turkey] end up taking its name from a medium sized country in the Middle East? ...

The next day I mentioned my musings to my landlord, whose wife is from Brazil. "That's funny," he said, "In Portuguese the word for turkey is 'peru.' Same bird, different country." Hmm.

With my curiosity piqued, I decided to go straight to the source. That very afternoon I found myself a Turk and asked him how to say turkey in Turkish. "Turkey?" he said. "Well, we call turkeys 'hindi,' which means, you know, from India." India? This was getting weird. I spent the next few days finding out the word for turkey in as many languages as I could think of, and the more I found out, the weirder things got. In Arabic, for instance, the word for turkey is "Ethiopian bird," while in Greek it is "gallapoula" or "French girl." The Persians, meanwhile, call them "buchalamun" which means, appropriately enough, "chameleon."

In Italian, on the other hand, the word for turkey is "tacchino" which, my Italian relatives assured me, means nothing but the bird. "But," they added, "it reminds us of something else. In Italy we call corn, which as everybody knows comes from America, 'grano turco,' or 'Turkish grain.'" So here we were back to Turkey again! And as if things weren't already confusing enough, a further consultation with my Turkish informant revealed that the Turks call corn "misir" which is also their word for Egypt! ...

"You see," [Harvard linguistics professor Sinasi Tekin] said, "In the Turkish countryside there is a kind of bird, which is called a chulluk. It looks like a turkey but it is much smaller, and its meat is very delicious. Long before the discovery of America, English merchants had already discovered the delicious chulluk, and began exporting it back to England, where it became very popular, and was known as a 'Turkey bird' or simply a 'turkey.' Then, when the English came to America, they mistook the birds here for chulluks, and so they began calling them 'turkey" also. But other peoples weren't so easily fooled. They knew that these new birds came from America, and so they called them things like 'India birds,' 'Peruvian birds,' or 'Ethiopian birds.' You see, 'India,' 'Peru' and 'Ethiopia' were all common names for the New World in the early centuries, both because people had a hazier understanding of geography, and because it took a while for the name 'America' to catch on.

"Anyway, since that time Americans have begun exporting their birds everywhere, and even in Turkey people have started eating them, and have forgotten all about their delicious chulluk. This is a shame, because chulluk meat is really much, much tastier."
--Giancarlo Casale on the link between turkey and Turkey

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lincoln's establishment of Thanksgiving

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln
--Abraham Lincoln (actually, Secretary of State William Seward writing on behalf of Lincoln) showing that it's possible to give thanks under any circumstances. HT: Megan McArdle

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The cost of cupcakes

For each cupcake she sells, Ms. [Porche] Lovely figures she spends 60 cents on ingredients, 57 cents on mortgage payments and utilities, 48 cents on labor, 18 cents on packaging and merchant fees, 16 cents on loan repayment, 24 cents for marketing, 18 cents for miscellaneous expenses and 4 cents for insurance. That totals $2.45, leaving a potential profit of 55 cents on each $3 cupcake. ...

She spends 80 hours a week baking and minding the shop, noting ruefully, “This is that $10-an-hour job you didn’t think you’d ever have again.”

It’s uphill, she conceded, adding, “I still live in my brother’s basement.”
--Elizabeth Olson, NYT, on how not to get rich

Michigan summary statistic

Here's all you need to know about the real estate market in Michigan: The 80,000-seat enclosed Silverdome, built for $55.7 million in 1975 to house the Detroit Lions, has sold for $583,000. ...

The Silverdome's new owner, Canadian real estate developer Andreas Apostolopoulos, mailed in a bid for the dome on a whim, when he saw an ad for building's auction in the back of a newspaper, according to this piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

According to the paper:

In fairness, Mr. Apostolopoulos didn't expect his bid to be chosen. The 57-year-old doesn't have any experience managing large venues or sports facilities, but does see opportunities. He'll visit the stadium next week, his first real look at the facility.
--Frank Ahrens, Washington Post, on the market's verdict on Pontiac, MI, home of a 35% unemployment rate. HT: Marginal Revolution

More negative evidence on stretching

For Dr. [Stephen] Thacker's paper "The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature," he and his colleagues pored over nearly 100 other published medical studies on the subject. Their key conclusions: stretching does increase flexibility; the highest-quality studies indicate that this increased flexibility doesn't prevent injuries; few athletes need extreme flexibility to perform their best (perhaps just gymnasts and figure skaters); and more injuries would be prevented by better warmups, by strength training, and by balance exercises, than by stretching.

Ian Shrier, M.D., a past president of the Canadian Society of Sports Medicine, has been drilling into the stretching literature since the early 1990s. In a 1999 paper titled "Stretching Before Exercise Does Not Reduce the Risk of Local Muscle Injury," Dr. Shrier lists five reasons why stretching shouldn't be expected to work. Among them: stretching won't change eccentric muscle activity (when a muscle simultaneously contracts and lengthens, as in downhill running), which is believed to cause most injuries; stretching can produce damage at the skeletal level; and stretching appears to mask muscle pain, which could cause the exerciser to ignore this key pre-injury signal. He concludes: "The basic science and clinical evidence today suggests that stretching before exercise is more likely to cause injury than to prevent it." ...

The best research on stretching and injury prevention has been done with military recruits. Military training has much in common with exercise, and the Army has a huge interest in keeping injuries to a minimum. In one study, titled "Physical Training and Exercise-Related Injuries," a U.S. Army research team found that trainees with the highest and lowest flexibility had the highest injury rates. They were, respectively, 2.2- and 2.5-times more likely to incur an injury than trainees with average flexibility. Apparently, when it comes to flexibility and injuries, don't try to be all that you can be. Settle for average.
--Amby Burfoot, Runner's World, on more evidence against conventional fitness wisdom

No need to stretch

For research published earlier this year, physiologists at Nebraska Wesleyan University had distance-running members of the school’s track and field team sit on the ground, legs stretched before them, feet pressed firmly up against a box; then the runners, both men and women, bent forward, reaching as far as they could past their toes. This is the classic sit-and-reach test, a well-established measurement of hamstring flexibility. ...

Far more telling was the correlation between the various runners’ tight or loose hamstring muscles and their running economy, a measure of how much oxygen they used while striding. Economy is often cited as one of the factors that divide great runners from merely fast ones. ...

When the Nebraska Wesleyan researchers compared the runners’ sit-and-reach scores to the measurements of their economy, which had been garnered from a treadmill test, they found that, across the board, the tightest runners were the most economical. ... They also typically had the fastest 10-kilometer race times. Probably, the researchers concluded, tighter muscles allow “for greater elastic energy storage and use” during each stride. Inflexibility, in other words, seems to make running easier. ...

“It’s been drummed into people that they should stretch, stretch, stretch — that they have to be flexible,” says Dr. Duane Knudson, professor of biomechanics at Texas State University in San Marcos, who has extensively studied flexibility and muscle response. “But there’s not much scientific support for that.”

In fact, the latest science suggests that extremely loose muscles and tendons are generally unnecessary (unless you aspire to join a gymnastics squad), may be undesirable and are, for the most part, unachievable, anyway.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on how to costlessly save five minutes at the tail ends of workouts

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


They are a familiar sight on street corners across the five boroughs: Men and women standing behind folding card tables, urging passers-by to throw a little change into the empty plastic water jug marked “U.H.O.”

But an investigation by Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo appears to have confirmed what many New Yorkers secretly (if somewhat guiltily) suspected all along: The United Homeless Organization, supposedly a nonprofit group set up to help feed and house the homeless, was actually an elaborate fraud.

According to a complained filed by Mr. Cuomo on Tuesday morning, U.H.O. does not operate a single shelter, soup kitchen or food pantry. It does not provide food or clothing to the homeless. It does not even donate money to other charities that do.

Most of those coins and bills, Mr. Cuomo contended, end up in the pockets of the group’s founder and president, Stephen Riley, and its director, Myra Walker. The rest was kept by those working the donation tables, who paid a daily fee to Mr. Riley and Ms. Walker for the right to use the U.H.O. tables, jugs and aprons.
--Nicholas Confessore, NYT, on parasites on the charitable impulse

Friday, November 20, 2009

Community service vs. the union

In pursuit of an Eagle Scout badge, Kevin Anderson, 17, has toiled for more than 200 hours over several weeks to clear a walking path in an east Allentown park.

Little did the do-gooder know that his altruistic act would put him in the cross hairs of the city's largest municipal union.

Nick Balzano, president of the local Service Employees International Union, told Allentown City Council Tuesday that the union is considering filing a grievance against the city for allowing Anderson to clear a 1,000-foot walking and biking path at Kimmets Lock Park.

"We'll be looking into the Cub Scout or Boy Scout who did the trails," Balzano told the council.
--Jarrett Renshaw, The Morning Call, on no good deed going unpunished. HT: Marginal Revolution

Don't think, just protest

"There will not be any students who won't be able to afford a UC education," [University of California President Mark] Yudof told reporters. "If someone slips through the cracks, send me an e-mail and we'll take care of it."

He was referring to UC's Blue and Gold program in which the university will pick up the entire tuition, excluding living and campus costs, for students whose families earn $70,000 or less and who qualify for other financial aid such as Cal Grants and federal Pell Grants. ...

Tears ran down the face of UCLA neuroscience student Anabel Resendiz as she stood with the protesters after the regents had voted [to increase tuition]. She said she wasn't sure she'd be able to afford to continue her education and added that her roommate was talking about quitting.

Asked if she qualified for UC's Blue and Gold program, Resendiz said, "What do you mean?"
--Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, on not exactly being a brain surgeon

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How not to make your political case

Isaac Miller and Irene Van, who traveled to U.C.L.A. [to protest the impending 32 percent undergraduate fee hike at the University of California] late Wednesday night in a bus caravan from Berkeley, said they worried about how higher fees would affect illegal immigrant students, who are not eligible for financial aid...
--Tamar Lewin and Rebecca Cathcart, NYT, on political tone-deafness from Berkeley

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Patriots and academia

The Patriots have turned to the academic world on several occasions. A few years ago, Rutgers professor Harold Sackrowitz got a call from Patriots director of football research Ernie Adams, who quizzed Sackrowitz on some work he had just done detailing football’s two-point conversion — when to go for two and when to kick the extra point. Adams sent the professor the Patriots’ “go-for-two” chart, and asked Sackrowitz to take a look. Of the 32 NFL teams, the statistician told the New York Times, only the Patriots called.
--Christopher Price,, on the unusually high regard the Patriots have for academic research

Descriptions that stick

Like a prison designed by Ikea.
--CB forever ruining the interior of Yale's new Rosenkranz Hall for me

Monday, November 16, 2009

I'm shocked, shocked to find that work-hour violations are going on here!

The surgery training program at Massachusetts General Hospital has been put on probation by a national accrediting organization.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education warned the hospital in April that a significant number of junior surgeons were working too many hours and were on the job seven days straight, in violation of patient safety rules. The organization believes heavy workloads contribute to fatigue-related mistakes, and had given the hospital until Aug. 15 to fix the problem.

Even though the hospital made "enormous changes" and is now in "100 percent compliance" with the rules, said Dr. Andrew Warshaw, chief of surgery, the accrediting group told Mass. General last month that it had put the program on probation. ...

According to a 2007 survey of Mass. General surgery residents, nearly 20 percent said they weren't always getting a 10-hour break, while another 20 percent reported working more than the 88 hours per week allowed on certain especially difficult rotations.
--Liz Kowalczyk, Boston Globe, on discovering common knowledge

Go for it on fourth down!

With 2:08 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful 4th-and-2 conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A conversion on 4th-and-2 would be successful 60 percent of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53 percent of the time from that field position. The total win probability for the 4th-down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP (WP stands for win probability)

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their 34. Teams historically get the TD 30 percent of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount.
--Brian Burke, NYT, on why Bill Belichick was right in going for it on fourth down. Part of a continuing series on this quasi-blog. See also here and here (search for "Bellman Equation").

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Igon values

[Malcolm] Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
--Steven Pinker, NYT, on a journalistic problem not unique to Malcolm Gladwell

My turn as a fictional movie character

Judith Krant makes her directorial debut with MADE IN CHINA, a satirical mockumentary mumblecore mutt of a movie that is as original and creatively risque as it is funny and intelligent. Jackson Kuehn (SINGULARITY) stars as Johnson, an eager and ambitious young entrepreneur who has decided to go all out and focus on making his novelty invention a reality. He sets off for Shanghai, China at his mother’s behest and begins his journey to find the elusive James Choi, the man who Johnson believes will manufacture anything.
--Travis Keune, We Are Movie Geeks, on the next breakout indie hit