Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

When nothing in this world satisfies

[My mother] thought my father was underappreciated.
--Erling Onsager, son of the late 1968 chemistry Nobel laureate Lars Onsager, on the insufficiency of the Nobel Prize

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Nobel experience

You know, if you’re fortunate enough to do good work, people do this terrible thing to you — they start saying, “Hey, you might get the Nobel Prize.” Then, when the first week in October rolls around, you lose a little sleep.

Last October, I didn’t sleep well the night before they announced the medicine prize. But no call came. They announce the chemistry prize two days later. Well, on that night, I heard this phone ringing in the distance but assumed it was a neighbor’s. So I woke at 10 after 6 the next morning and assumed the chemistry prize had gone to someone else. I then opened my laptop and went to to see who the schnook was who’d gotten it. And there I saw my name along — along with Osamu Shimomura’s and Roger Tsien’s. I was the schnook! I woke my wife, Tulle: “It’s happened.” She said, “What? Have we overslept taking our daughter to school?” ...

My friend Bob Horvitz, who got the medicine prize in 2002, tried to prepare me. He said, “You’ll go to a rehearsal before the ceremony and they’ll show you a video of Paul Nurse (the head of Rockefeller University) accepting his prize because they want to show you what not to do.” Apparently, you’re supposed to walk up to the king, accept your medal, shake his hand and bow to the king and to the electors. Then, you bow to the audience. Paul had done this, but when he got back to his chair, he lifted his arms à la Rocky, and went, “Yeeess!” They apparently did not approve of this.
--2008 Nobel chemistry laureate Martin Chalfie on what it's like to win a Nobel Prize

Monday, September 21, 2009

Newspapers today, higher education tomorrow?

So when [Barbara Solvig] was laid off from a human resources position at a Chicago-area hospital in January, she knew the time had come to finally get her own credential. ...

She went online looking for something that fit her wallet and her time horizon, and an ad caught her eye: a company called StraighterLine was offering online courses in subjects like accounting, statistics, and math. This was hardly unusual—hundreds of institutions are online hawking degrees. But one thing about StraighterLine stood out: it offered as many courses as she wanted for a flat rate of $99 a month. ...

Economics tells us that prices fall to marginal cost in the long run. [StraighterLine founder] Burck Smith simply decided to get there first. ...

Traditional universities are complex and expensive, providing a range of services from scientific research and graduate training to mass entertainment via loosely affiliated professional sports franchises. To fund these things, universities tap numerous streams of revenue: tuition, government funding, research grants, alumni and charitable donations. But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else. ...

Consider the fate of the newspaper industry over the last five years. Like universities, newspapers relied on financial cross-subsidization to stay afloat, using fat profits from local advertising and classifieds to prop up money-losing news bureaus. This worked perfectly well until two things happened: the Internet made opinion and news content from around the world available for nothing, and the free online classified clearinghouse. ...

The consequences will be profound. Ivy League and other elite institutions will be relatively unaffected, because they’re selling a product that’s always scarce and never cheap: prestige. Small liberal arts colleges will also endure, because the traditional model—teachers and students learning together in a four-year idyll—is still the best, and some people will always be willing and able to pay for it. ...

But that terrifically expensive model is not what most of today’s college students are getting. Instead, they tend to enroll in relatively anonymous two- or four-year public institutions and major in a job-oriented field like business, teaching, nursing, or engineering. They all take the same introductory courses: statistics, accounting, Econ 101. ...

Just as the world needs the foreign bureaus that newspapers are rapidly shutting down, it needs quirky small university presses, Mughal textile historians, and people who are paid to think deep, economically unproductive thoughts. Rather than hiding within the conglomerate, each unbundled part of the university will have to find new ways to stand alone.
--Kevin Carey, Washington Monthly, on uncomfortable thoughts for my industry

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How far does the right to health care extend?

Imagine that someone invented a pill even better than the one I take. Let’s call it the Dorian Gray pill, after the Oscar Wilde character. Every day that you take the Dorian Gray, you will not die, get sick, or even age. Absolutely guaranteed. The catch? A year’s supply costs $150,000.

Anyone who is able to afford this new treatment can live forever. Certainly, Bill Gates can afford it. Most likely, thousands of upper-income Americans would gladly shell out $150,000 a year for immortality.

Most Americans, however, would not be so lucky. Because the price of these new pills well exceeds average income, it would be impossible to provide them for everyone, even if all the economy’s resources were devoted to producing Dorian Gray tablets.

So here is the hard question: How should we, as a society, decide who gets the benefits of this medical breakthrough? Are we going to be health care egalitarians and try to prohibit Bill Gates from using his wealth to outlive Joe Sixpack? Or are we going to learn to live (and die) with vast differences in health outcomes? Is there a middle way?
--Greg Mankiw, NYT, on when the "right" to health care hits the budget constraint

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The efficacy of not punting

Pulaski [Academy] hasn't punted since 2007 (when it did so as a gesture of sportsmanship in a lopsided game), and here's why: "The average punt in high school nets you 30 yards, but we convert around half our fourth downs, so it doesn't make sense to give up the ball," [coach Kevin] Kelley says. ...

Consider the most extreme scenario, say, fourth-and-long near your own end zone. According to Kelley's data (much of which came from a documentary he saw), when a team punts from that deep, the opponents will take possession inside the 40-yard line and will then score a touchdown 77% of the time. If they recover on downs inside the 10, they'll score a touchdown 92% of the time. "So [forsaking] a punt, you give your offense a chance to stay on the field. And if you miss, the odds of the other team scoring only increase 15 percent. It's like someone said, '[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,' and everyone did it without asking why."

The onside kicks? According to Kelley's figures, after a kickoff the receiving team, on average, takes over at its own 33-yard line. After a failed onside kick the team assumes possession at its 48. Through the years Pulaski has recovered about a quarter of its onside kicks. "So you're giving up 15 yards for a one-in-four chance to get the ball back," says Kelley. "I'll take that every time!" Why not attempt to return punts? "Especially in high school, where the punts don't go so far," he says, "it's not worth the risk of fumbling or a penalty." ...

The Bruins have won 100 games this decade, including the Arkansas 5A championship last year.
--Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated, on someone finally following the Bellman equation

Friday, September 18, 2009

This won't help you

According to a recent Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions survey, 71 percent of college admissions officers at 401 of the nation’s top colleges and universities say they or another admissions officer at their school have received a Facebook or MySpace “friend request” from an applicant.
--Yale Daily News on doing your utmost to get in

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pigs everywhere

The surprise is in the fact that elements of production contributed to by pig farming include not only predictable foodstuffs -- pork chops and bacon -- but far less expected non-food items: ammunition, train brakes, automobile paint, soap and washing powder, bone china, cigarettes. ...

Fatty acids derived from pork bone fat are used as a hardening agent in crayons and also gives them their distinctive smell. on why vegetarians may not want to use crayons, among other things. HT: Marginal Revolution

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A descendent of the samurai

A Johns Hopkins University student armed with a samurai sword killed a suspected burglar in a garage behind his off-campus home early Tuesday, hours after someone broke in and stole electronics.

Some shocked neighbors said they heard bloodcurdling screams in an area just blocks from the university. Police held the student, a junior chemistry major who turns 21 on Sunday, for several hours, but no charges were filed by early afternoon, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi

Around 1:20 a.m., the student heard noises behind the home and noticed a door to the garage was open, Guglielmi said. He grabbed the sword and confronted the intruder, who was crouching beneath a counter.

The student asked the suspect what he was doing and threatened to call police.

"When he said that, the suspect lunged at him, kind of forced the kid against the wall, and he struck him with the sword," Guglielmi said.

The intruder's left hand was nearly severed — Guglielmi described it as "hanging on by a thread" — and the man suffered a severe cut to the upper body. ...

Police had not yet released the suspect's name because they were having trouble locating his relatives. Guglielmi said he had 29 prior arrests, mostly for burglary and breaking and entering, and had been released Saturday from a Baltimore County jail after serving about a year for auto theft.
--Ben Nuckols, Associated Press, on death by Hattori Hanzo

D.C. vs. the ivory tower

Here, I have a schedule. There, you show up with nothing on your calendar and then run around until 11 at night.
--Jeremy Stein, Harvard Crimson, on the difference between life as a professor and life as senior advisor to the Treasury secretary

When the homeless feel sorry for the I-banker

I headed to a local bar to drown my sorrows and ponder the future of my career. Around West 51st Street, a homeless man approached me with a cup, gesturing for a contribution. He then looked at my tote bag with its Lehman Brothers logo and said, “Never mind” and “I’m sorry.”
--Former Lehman senior vice president Lynn Gray, NYT, on the day Lehman went under

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The truth about Jordan's high school varsity cut

In all the pageantry of the next couple of days, you can bet that only one blemish on the Jordan record will come up, and I suspect it will be mentioned again and again, because it fits a certain heroic narrative: Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school team.

We have been told that in this early disgrace lay the seed of his greatness. As the story goes, he became mad as a hatter, practiced furiously, and set himself on the course to greatness.

Only, it's not true. He was never cut from anything.

The story, instead, is that at his high school at that time sophomores, even the good ones, played junior varsity. As a sophomore, as planned, Jordan had a great season on the junior varsity, before progressing to varsity for his junior and senior seasons.

As it happened, a size-starved varsity team did make an exception. They took on Jordan's tall sophomore friend Leroy Smith, which may or may not have chapped Jordan.

But he was certainly never sent home.
--Henry Abbott,, on a truth behind the myth of MJ

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Alphabetical exports

Now, one South Korean woman, Lee Ki-nam, is determined to wring more recognition from the world with an unusual export: the Korean alphabet. Ms. Lee is using a fortune she made in real estate to try to take the alphabet to places where native peoples lack indigenous written systems to record their languages.

Her project had its first success — and generated headlines — in July, when children from an Indonesian tribe began learning the Korean alphabet, called Hangul. ...

South Korean popular culture — soap operas, music, pop stars — had mesmerized much of Asia. People like the Cia-Cia, a minority of 60,000 people in Indonesia, were eager to embrace things Korean, according to a Korean documentary shot on their island.
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, on expanding King Sejong's legacy through K-Pop

Friday, September 11, 2009

Team or win?

[Michael] Jordan remembered scoring around 20 points in a row late in a game to pull out a win, which was followed by a conversation with Bulls assistant Tex Winter.

"Tex reminded me that there's no 'I' in team," Jordan said. "And I looked back at Tex, I said, 'There's 'I' in win.' So whichever way you want it."
--Associated Press on optimal selfishness


Love it! It's my second time here!
--Anna Wintour on how she likes Queens

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Levitation through magnets

Scientists have now levitated mice using magnetic fields.

Other researchers have made live frogs and grasshoppers float in mid-air before, but such research with mice, being closer biologically to humans, could help in studies to counteract bone loss due to reduced gravity over long spans of time, as might be expected in deep space missions or on the surfaces of other planets.

Scientists working on behalf of NASA built a device to simulate variable levels of gravity. It consists of a superconducting magnet that generates a field powerful enough to levitate the water inside living animals, with a space inside warm enough at room temperature and large enough at 2.6 inches wide (6.6 cm) for tiny creatures to float comfortably in during experiments.
--Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience, on getting picked up from the inside

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Facts are a moving target

The New Yorker’s checkers are justly renowned for their tenacious scepticism, but even they err sometimes. One reader was annoyed to find himself described as dead, and requested a correction in the next issue. Unfortunately, by the time the correction appeared, he really had died, thus compounding the error.
--Anthony Gottlieb, Intelligent Life, on the lag between fact and publication. HT: Idea of the Day

BS line of the day

Ralph Tornes, who lives in Florida, is pursuing a lawsuit against Bank of America for charging him nearly $500 in overdraft fees in 2008 after it rearranged his purchases from largest to smallest. In May 2008, for instance, Mr. Tornes had $195 in his account when he made two debit purchases for $8 and $13; the bank also processed a bill payment of $256.

He claims that Bank of America took his purchases out of chronological order and ran the biggest one through first. So instead of paying $35 for one overdraft fee, he was stuck with three, for a total of $105.

Mr. Talbott, of the Financial Services Roundtable, said some banks reordered purchases based on surveys showing that consumers want their most vital bills, like rent and car payments, which tend to be for larger amounts, paid before items like a $3 coffee.
--Ron Lieber and Andrew Martin, NYT, on a "service" from banks. How does reordering the purchases in the accounting expedite payment? All the payments are being made anyway. You have to marvel at Talbott's chutzpah in claiming that this practice is customer-friendly.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shoe on the other foot

The controversy over President Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren will likely be over shortly after Obama speaks today at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. But when President George H.W. Bush delivered a similar speech on October 1, 1991, from Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington DC, the controversy was just beginning. Democrats, then the majority party in Congress, not only denounced Bush's speech -- they also ordered the General Accounting Office to investigate its production and later summoned top Bush administration officials to Capitol Hill for an extensive hearing on the issue. ...

Lost in all the denouncing and investigating was the fact that Bush's speech itself, like Obama's today, was entirely unremarkable. "Block out the kids who think it's not cool to be smart," the president told students. "If someone goofs off today, are they cool? Are they still cool years from now, when they're stuck in a dead end job. Don't let peer pressure stand between you and your dreams."
--Byron York, Washington Examiner, on manufactured controversies

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Reformation and education

I see that the common people are dismissive to maintaining the schools and that they withdraw their children from instruction altogether and turn solely to the care for food and bellies, and besides they either will not or cannot consider what a horrible and un-Christian thing they are doing and what great and murderous harm they are doing everywhere in so serving the devil.
--Martin Luther, 1530, Sermon on Keeping Children in School. Another factoid: in his preaching, Luther demanded that every town have both a boys' school AND a girls' school.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Connecticut state legislators at work

--From Fail Blog.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, far right, speaks while colleagues play solitaire on their computers as the House convenes to vote on a new budget for the fiscal year in the Capitol, in Hartford, Conn., Monday, Aug., 31, 2009.

New uses for the CAPM

The theoretical model that finance economists developed by assuming that every investor rationally balances risk against reward — the so-called Capital Asset Pricing Model, or CAPM (pronounced cap-em) — is wonderfully elegant. And if you accept its premises it’s also extremely useful. CAPM not only tells you how to choose your portfolio — even more important from the financial industry’s point of view, it tells you how to put a price on financial derivatives, claims on claims. The elegance and apparent usefulness of the new theory led to a string of Nobel prizes for its creators, and many of the theory’s adepts also received more mundane rewards: Armed with their new models and formidable math skills — the more arcane uses of CAPM require physicist-level computations — mild-mannered business-school professors could and did become Wall Street rocket scientists, earning Wall Street paychecks.
--Paul Krugman, NYT Magazine, demonstrating what can happen when international trade theorists -- even Nobel laureates -- venture outside their specialty. To the lay reader: the CAPM is not used to price financial derivatives! And there are no physicist-level computations needed to apply it. The article also makes a hash out of what Keynesian economics actually is and its relationship to current government interventions, although it gets some points right.

How to levitate like a yogi