Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Experiencing vs. recording life

Take a look at this picture of Barack and Michelle Obama at one of the inaugural balls. Everyone in the audience has a hand up with a cell phone pointed at the stage, but nobody is actually looking at what's going on. The scene is puzzling: If the guy next to you is taking a picture—one that you can be reasonably sure will end up on a photo-sharing site somewhere—why do you need one, too? But we do this often these days. Win Butler, the lead singer of the band Arcade Fire, once told Terry Gross that he and his band mates have stopped going out into the crowd to perform because nobody pays attention to them—everyone's got their cell phones and cameras in front of their faces.
--Farhad Manjoo, Slate, on the dilutive effect of wanting to record everything

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Forgetting that outcomes = intersection of supply and demand

When I ask them why they would go to law school if they certainly-or-probably do not want to practice law, they always give the same response: "Well, it's such a great, all-purpose professional degree."

Memo to all of the people out there who might be thinking the same thing: do not go to law school. Seriously. I know that you have heard that a J.D. is a "great all-purpose degree," but it isn't. That's a lie put about by parents who are trying to trick you into middle-class professionaldom and law schools who are trying to take your money. A J.D. is not an all-purpose degree, it is a law degree. ...

I know: right now you are mentally listing the names of all of the diplomats, senior policy advisors, politicians, bankers, aid workers, and political operatives who have J.D.s. ...

There may be J.D.s in every walk of life in this country, but lawyers' dirty secret is that their proliferation is due less to that degree's versatility than it is to the fact that thousands of lawyers flee the profession every year. Seriously. I am not even kidding.
--Amanda Taub, Wronging Rights, on why you see J.D.s everywhere. [HT: Chris Blattman]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not just the Chinese, part 2

It was not precisely lip-synching, but pretty close.

The somber, elegiac tones before President Obama’s oath of office at the inauguration on Tuesday came from the instruments of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two colleagues. But what the millions on the National Mall and watching on television heard was in fact a recording, made two days earlier by the quartet and matched tone for tone by the musicians playing along. ...

“It would have been a disaster if we had done it any other way,” [Perlman] said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “This occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.”
--Daniel J. Wakin, NYT, on how when the going gets tough, the tough pre-record. See part 1 of this series.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What is the closest substitute for bottled water?

A friend at another university tells me that his school is banning the sale of bottled water on campus, as the university administration is bothered by the pollution produced by plastic water bottles.

Presumably, they figure that bottled-water consumers will switch to tap water, as tap water is bottled water’s closest substitute. I wonder — aren’t bottled soft drinks a closer substitute? Don’t people want the convenience of a container at their desk rather than an occasional drink at the water cooler (or a cup to be filled at the water cooler)?

This ban may well simply lead to substitution from bottled water to bottled soft drinks, with no reduction in pollution. Worse still, people will be substituting caloric soft drinks for zero-calorie water, so that the ban will help increase obesity among students and staff.
--Daniel Hamermesh, Freakonomics blog, on the small fraction of bottled water's utility that is the water itself

Saturday, January 17, 2009

On medical education at Columbia

Medical education at Columbia is intense right from the beginning. You come to Washington Heights and are immersed in a community that seems foreign and at times even hostile. Eventually you and the dental students get along just fine, but at the beginning they can seem strange.

Second year of medical school is memorable for a lecture they give on how they choose which patients get heart transplants. They put a number of cases up on a board. There's a nun, a child prodigy, an ambulance driver, and so forth. But the person who ends up winning is a British man who deposits $250,000 into a Columbia escrow account and flies over on his own jet. (I'm not making this up, by the way.) It's an amazing moment, since if you listen you can hear the number of your classmates who are planning to go into primary care plummeting.

Third year is something entirely different, though, because people who know you suddenly decide that you are a real doctor, and that they want to ask you a lot of embarrassing medical questions. And you decide that you want to hear those questions, and maybe even answer them. Usually your Hippocratic oath pulls you through, though, and you end up saying, "Look, you're the attending. Maybe you should decide what we're doing with this patient."

Fourth year of medical school is where you start to appreciate some of the things Columbia gives you that no other place does. Such as "Robbery Reports." Here's one from last summer:
Robbery Report — At 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13, a student was walking near the Health Sciences campus when she was approached by an organization calling itself the National Board of Medical Examiners. This organization demanded $1,000 for the student to beta-test its clinical skills exam, and did not even offer to grade it. The student became suspicious when she remembered that Columbia had charged her $500 to take the same test three months earlier.
If you can laugh at that, you laugh at the fact that the amount of money it now takes to send 150 people through four years of medical school is almost enough to buy a one-bedroom south of 140th Street.

And here you are today, ready to leave a life of taking constant unnecessary tests and to enter a new life of ordering constant unnecessary tests. You may wonder whether you have what it takes — whether you're really different than the person who got here four years ago. Is it just that your white coat is longer, or are you actually getting shorter? ...

Speaking for myself, I will do everything possible to avoid being hospitalized in the next six months.
--Josh Bazell, Columbia Med School '05-'06, during his Class Day 2005 speech

Friday, January 16, 2009

Don't be a boring Asian

Let’s face it, some people are just more affable or more likeable than others. An admissions officer is really asking himself, "Would I like to hang out with this guy or gal for the next four years?" So if you come off as just another Asian math genius with no personality, then it’s going to be tough for you. An admissions officer is not going to push very hard for you.
--Current admissions officer, Ivy League University, on meritocracy in college admissions

My [alumni] interviewer complimented me as a breath of fresh air because he sees a lot of really smart Asian fellows come in with absolutely no personality, who just do well in school, and he laments that they don't seem to have lives outside of school, making for really boring interviews.
--Anonymous Yale student of Mexican heritage

I had a 2-year stint at an Ivy League admissions office (no, not Dartmouth). The information presented in the Ivygate piece is extremely accurate.

A bit of friendly advice for the Asians:

1. You should never, EVER talk about affirmative action in your application and/or interview. Yes, the system is actively hurting you and you may support Prop 209 in California, but if anyone asks, you full-heartedly support affirmative action because you value diversity. Most admissions officers know that it’s an unfair system, and they don’t like to be reminded of this fact by a bunch of snot-nosed 18-year-olds. They probably know a lot more about affirmative action than you do. On a related note, please don’t make references to the Bakke or Gratz/Grutter case in your essay(s). Admissions officers have allergic reactions to anything un-PC.

2. Although there is no explicit/implicit quota, many admissions officers have certain negative preconceived notions about an Asian applicant. Unfortunately, many - if not most - Asian applicants don’t deviate too much from the stereotype. Smart Asian applicants can take advantage of this. Devote yourself to extracurricular activities which are typically devoid of Asians. If you are interested in music, pick up a guitar or become a composer. You are not helping yourself by picking up a violin or any other stereotypically Asian instrument. Pursue these classical instruments ONLY IF you are going to be good enough for prestigious conservatories. Instead of joining math/science teams, get involved with the poetry club, journalism, theater, cooking, etc. In general, be artsy and (at least seemingly) independent-minded. If you are an athlete, try to avoid tennis/badminton. Try football or other organized sports. If you are going to volunteer, try to avoid working at a hospital (screams premed) or go on church-sponsored missions. If your true passion is the violin/math/science/medicine, well… tough luck. Unless you are really, really good at what you do, you have to choose between your passion and Harvard.

3. #2 applies to your academics as well. If you attend a public school with an honors track, do not pick the combination of courses that will yield the highest weighted GPA. Chances are, there will be 10+ other applicants from your school who took the same classes. Take at least one or two classes per year that are atypical (and don’t necessarily have the honors/AP designation). You may sacrifice your rank/GPA a bit, but you’ll be infinitely more interesting.

4. If you first language is not English, it doesn’t help to take an SAT II in your primary language. On the other hand, it does help if you have attained proficiency in a third language.

To sum it up, if you are an Asian applicant, your job is to play against the stereotype. You want to be the “breath of fresh air” - a pleasant surprise. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have perfect numbers. But that’s far less important than finding and presenting a unique voice.
--Anonymous comment on IvyGate

Not to start a panic or anything, but...

--Intrade prediction market probability that U.S. GDP will drop more than 10% in 2009. Note that this number will be higher than the true probability if traders are going long this security as insurance against a depression actually happening.

[UPDATE: It appears that the graph above is being updated at the close of each trading day, which is why the closing price doesn't match the number quoted by me.]

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Steal from Whole Foods

John Schultz says he lost his job at Whole Foods Market in Ann Arbor after he tried to stop a shoplifter from making a getaway. But the company says he went too far and violated a policy that prohibits employees from physically touching a customer - even if that person is carrying a bag of stolen goods. ...

Kate Klotz, a company spokesperson, said the policy is clear and listed in a booklet that all employees have to acknowledge that they received before they can start work.

"The fact that he touched him, period, is means for termination," said Klotz.
--Dave Gershman, Ann Arbor News, on no good deed going unpunished (HT: Freakonomics blog)

Hand over the family jewels

We require complete transparency. We either know every position, or we don't invest. I have access to every position in every hedge fund in which we're invested. If they won't trust us with that information, why should we trust them with our money?
--David Swensen, Yale's endowment manager, on the price of attracting Yale money

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Marriage as a mercenary arrangement

One mother in TriBeCa, who is married, at least for now, to a Wall Street executive, put it rather bluntly: “My job was to run the household and the children’s lives,” she said. “His job is to provide us with a nice lifestyle.” But his bonus has disappeared, and his annual pay has dropped to $150,000 from $800,000 a year. “Let me just say this,” she said, “I’m still doing my job.”
--Peg Tyre, NYT, on what happens when you marry for money and the money disappears

Friday, January 9, 2009

How economists see (saw) the world

If, like every university, the American Economic Association had a coat of arms, its obligatory Latin banner might read: “Est, ergo optimum est, dummodo ne gubernatio civitatis implicatur.” (”It exists, therefore it must be optimal, provided that government has not been involved.”) ...

And thus the economics profession slept comfortably as Wall Street was imploding. One can only hope that the medical profession would do better, should America ever be struck by a serious epidemic.
--Uwe Reinhardt, Freakonomics blog, on economists' instinct

Thursday, January 8, 2009

More reasons to support congestion tolls

Believe it or not, converting some of the lanes on a congested freeway to toll lanes should benefit everyone, even the people who choose to never use the tolled lanes.

The reason has to do with the curious mechanics of traffic congestion... When roads are severely congested, you get a paradoxical situation: the more cars you jam in at one end, the fewer come out the other end.

By pricing to keep traffic speeds at 45 m.p.h. or a bit higher, the toll lanes will work with maximum efficiency. They’ll move a lot more cars through than they did when they were congested. ... So the toll lanes will actually ease the burden on the free lanes, hence the benefit even to those who never choose to pay. ...

The early projects show that motorists initially have doubts, but they become enthusiastic converts when they see and use the facilities. According to the last survey, over 70 percent of SR 91 express-lane users — and even over half of the nonusers — approve of the use of variable tolls.
--Eric A. Morris, Freakonomics blog, on why congestion tolls lift all boats

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

American roads as a Communist scheme

For decades, economists and other transportation thinkers have advocated imposing tolls that vary with congestion levels on roadways. Simply put, the more congestion, the higher the toll, until the congestion goes away.

To many people, this sounds like a scheme by mustache-twirling bureaucrats and their academic apologists to fleece drivers out of their hard-earned cash. Why should drivers have to pay to use roads their tax dollars have already paid for? Won’t the remaining free roads be swamped as drivers are forced off the tolled roads? Won’t the working-class and poor be the victims here, as the tolled routes turn into “Lexus lanes”? ...

[Variable] tolling is an excellent public policy. Here’s why: the basic economic theory is that when you give out something valuable — in this case, road space — for less than its true value, shortages result.

Ultimately, there’s no free lunch; instead of paying with money, you pay with the effort and time needed to acquire the good. Think of Soviet shoppers spending their lives in endless queues to purchase artificially low-priced but exceedingly scarce goods. Then think of Americans who can fulfill nearly any consumerist fantasy quickly but at a monetary cost. Free but congested roads have left us shivering on the streets of Moscow.
--Eric A. Morris, Freakonomics blog, on the virtues of congestion tolls

Monday, January 5, 2009

Putting the horse before the cart

Like Europe did and other societies in Asia have done recently, Africa must, therefore, metamorphose socially, economically and technologically from a pre-industrial, sometimes feudal, society into a middle class, skilled working class society. Period. Meeting all the [Millennium Development Goals] is a consequence of this metamorphosis.

You cannot maintain a pre-industrial society and, then, somehow, meet these MDGs... This means that Africa must industrialise, develop modern services sector and commercialise agriculture. The MDGs are consequences of these. They are not precursors or autonomous phenomena to these.
--Yoweri Musevini, President of Uganda, on the impossibility of a prosperous Africa without industrialization. [HT: Chris Blattman]