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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Twitter fad fading?

The number of Americans using Twitter dropped 7.9 percent in October from September, marking the second monthly decline for the social networking site this year, according to research firm ComScore Inc. ...

The month-to-month decline contrasted with a 2 percent increase for users of Facebook Inc., the most popular social network.
--Bloomberg News on Twitter on the ropes

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The more you earn, the less money you take home

One basic point is that when multiple income-based programs are piled on top on one another, the implicit marginal tax rate can reach or even exceed 100 percent.

The chart above (source, via Kling) illustrates this phenomenon. It shows income after taxes and transfers as a function of earned income. Notice that as earned income rises from about $15,000 to $30,000, income after taxes and transfers is roughly flat. Indeed, it could even fall. The bottom line: If you are poor, the government is inadvertently ensuring that you have little incentive to try to improve your condition.
--Greg Mankiw on a problem that will get worse with health insurance subsidies that phase out with income

Would you hire this student?

A learning-disabled freshman suing Princeton University for refusing to allow her extra time to take exams was dealt a setback this week, as a federal judge refused a temporary restraining order on the eve of midterms. ...

[Diane] Metcalf-Leggette has been diagnosed with a series of disorders that limit her ability to concentrate, process information and communicate in writing.

Metcalf-Leggette learned of her diagnoses in 2003. Later, at the private school she attended, she received a 100 percent time extension for exams; a 100 percent extension on the SAT; and a 200 percent extension on the ACT.

According to the suit, Metcalf-Leggett has:

• Mixed-Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, which limits her ability to comprehend language, express language or recall material.

• Disorder of Written Expression, which leaves her ability to communicate in writing below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. When she writes, she has to repeatedly re-check what she has composed.

• Developmental Coordination Disorder, which leaves her ability to spell, punctuate and form sentences below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. She needs to read material several times over, isolate key words and highlight them so she can locate them again. Also under this disorder, her visual-motor processing skills are in the sixth percentile, "far below the average person, let alone the typical Princeton University student." She also suffers eye strain when taking tests and needs periodic breaks because of the way she reads passages over and over.

• Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which limits her ability to focus. When reading, any distraction requires her to go back to the beginning of the passage.
--Charles Toutant, New Jersey Law Journal, on a lawsuit where the student loses even if she wins

Monday, November 9, 2009

Civil protest, Chinese style

Sun [Zhongjie] became a hero of sorts here in Shanghai for his protest against police entrapment.

He was driving his company's minivan on an errand last month when a man flagged him down and begged for a lift. A few minutes later, policemen surrounded Sun's vehicle and accused him of operating an illegal taxi. The van was confiscated, Sun was fined 10,000 yuan, or about $1,400, and his company fired him.

Drivers in Shanghai had been complaining for years about such sting operations. In most cases, drivers angrily pay the fines, which they consider a form of extortion.

But Sun decided to fight back. He chopped off the pinky finger on his left hand as a public way to declare his innocence. Soon, his story was picked up in several national newspapers. The story then spread online, with unregulated Internet bulletin boards, chat rooms and the popular instant messaging site QQ inundated with complaints of police harassment and support for Sun. ...

The Internet furor was so intense that the local government announced a new investigation. Sun won his case and did not have to pay the fine.
--Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, on the cost of effective protest in China

Department of obvious

You as the [grant] recipient, your employees, subrecipients under this award, and subrecipients' employees may not--

i. Engage in severe forms of trafficking in persons during the period of time that the award is in effect;
ii. Procure a commercial sex act during the period of time that the award is in effect; or
iii. Use forced labor in the performance of the award or subawards under the award.
--Onerous restrictions in my Social Security Administration grant terms and conditions

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mark-to-market accounting fail

Ambac Financial Group reported a $2.19 billion quarterly profit Wednesday as the company got a big accounting boost from deterioration in the perceived creditworthiness of its main bond insurance unit.

Most the gain came as credit spreads widened on Ambac Assurance Corporation, the company’s main bond insurance subsidiary. When credit spreads widen, that implies investors are more concerned about a company not being able to meet its obligations. However, when this happens, it reduces some of the insurer’s liabilities. ... That results in a derivatives gain.
--Alistair Barr, MarketWatch, on winning by losing. HT: Donald Marron

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

MBTA fail

[Massachusetts governor Deval] Patrick made the comments this morning during a radio interview as he discussed a new independent report he commissioned that details a decade of neglect at the MBTA. 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. ...

The report pointed out that an $80 million project has been delayed to fix the water leak, which has corroded fasteners and allowed the tracks to move out of alignment, presenting "the possibility of train derailment."
--Noah Bierman and Andrew Ryan,, on the death-defying subway ride north of Harvard Square

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Get yer free golf carts here

Thanks to the federal tax credit to buy high-mileage cars that was part of President Obama's stimulus plan, Uncle Sam is now paying Americans to buy that great necessity of modern life, the golf cart. ...

The golf-cart boom has followed an IRS ruling that golf carts qualify for the electric-car credit as long as they are also road worthy. ...

In South Carolina, sales of these carts have been soaring as dealerships alert customers to Uncle Sam's giveaway. "The Golf Cart Man" in the Villages of Lady Lake, Florida is running a banner online ad that declares: "GET A FREE GOLF CART. Or make $2,000 doing absolutely nothing!"

Golf Cart Man is referring to his offer in which you can buy the cart for $8,000, get a $5,300 tax credit off your 2009 income tax, lease it back for $100 a month for 27 months, at which point Golf Cart Man will buy back the cart for $2,000. "This means you own a free Golf Cart or made $2,000 cash doing absolutely nothing!!!" ...

The IRS has also ruled that there's no limit to how many electric cars an individual can buy, so some enterprising profiteers are stocking up on multiple carts while the federal credit lasts, in order to resell them at a profit later.
--Wall Street Journal on the difficulty of targeting government spending

Monday, November 2, 2009

Just play the game already!

Here's what I don't get in baseball. You have a Korean pitcher, a Dominican catcher, a first baseman from French Canada and a third baseman from Mississippi, and they can't understand each other already. Then they cover their mouths with their gloves. Then the catcher puts down one finger for fastball. What was that all about?
--Bull Durham actor Robert Wuhl on player conferences at the mound

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wisdom from Run Lola Run

It was Franka Potente, [Matt Damon’s] love interest in the first two Bourne films and the star of “Run Lola Run,” who taught him that “most people look ridiculous when they’re running,” he said. She told him to study videos of himself in motion.
--Dennis Lim, NYT, on a lesson gleaned from a woman with lots of experience. I remember thinking this when I was on the track team in high school.