Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Follow the recycling money

The New York Times recently reported that unwanted appliances -- old washing machines and so on -- placed on the curb for disposal in New York City have been "disappearing." With scrap metal prices strong, what the article calls "thieves" have been driving along streets scheduled for used-appliance pickups -- in New York City, this happens by published schedule -- and taking away the unwanted junk before the city's officially approved recycler arrives. The "thieves" then sell the unwanted junk as scrap metal.

Set aside whether it's theft to take an unwanted item that has been discarded in a public place. New York City bureaucrats think so; they've instructed police to ticket anyone engaged in recycling without government sanction. Twenty years ago, New York City bureaucrats were demanding that citizens recycle whether they wished to or not, and imposing fines for failure to comply. Now if the average person is caught recycling, it's a police matter.

This issue is not the cleanliness of streets or the environmental benefits of recycling -- it's control of money. The New York City Sanitation Department pays a company called Sims Municipal Recycling about $65 million annually to pick up and recycle metal, glass and aluminum. Notice what's happening here? Recycling is supposed to make economic sense. If it did, then the recycling company would be paying the city. Instead the city is paying the company. ...

Recycling of aluminum makes good economic sense, given the energy cost of aluminum and the high quality of recycled aluminum. Depending on where you are in the country, recycling of newspapers may make sense. Recycling of steel and copper usually makes sense. But recycling of glass, most plastics and coated paper is a net waste of energy. Often the goal of government-imposed recycling program is to use lack of understanding of economics to reach into citizens' pockets and forcibly extract money that bureaucrats can control.

Notice what else is happening here -- New York City pays a company millions of dollars to do something "thieves" will do for free. The "thieves" harm no one, and could save New York City taxpayers considerable money. But then bureaucrats wouldn't be in control. And surely no-show jobs and kickbacks have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with New York City sanitation contracts.
--Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN.com, on bureaucratic benefits of recycling

Monday, December 27, 2010

Waiting for a Disney ride

In recent years, according to Disney research, the average Magic Kingdom visitor has had time for only nine rides — out of more than 40 — because of lengthy waits and crowded walkways and restaurants. In the last few months, however, the operations center has managed to make enough nips and tucks to lift that average to 10.
--Brooks Barnes, NYT, on what visitors actually do at Disney World

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Winning the stagehand lottery

My wife and I have season tickets for events at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. At intermissions, we sometimes watch absently as three or four men in gray suits emerge from the wings to move a piano into place or bring out extra music stands and chairs.

What they do is essential but unremarkable. Turns out that it is remarkably well-paid, however. Would you believe $422,599 a year? Plus $107,445 in benefits and deferred compensation?

That is what a fellow named Dennis O'Connell makes at Carnegie Hall. He is the props manager, the highest-paid stagehand.

Four other guys, two of them carpenters, two electricians, are paid somewhat lesser amounts, ranging down to $327,257, plus $76,459 in benefits and deferred compensation, for the junior member of the team, John Goodson, an electrician.

The hall was legally obliged to disclose the pay of the chief executive, Clive Gillinson, and the names and pay of the next five highest-paid employees. All five were stagehands. ...

At Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, the average stagehand salary and benefits package is $290,000 a year.

To repeat, that is the average compensation of all the workers who move musicians' chairs into place and hang lights, not the pay of the top five.

Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, a spokesman said stagehands rarely broke into the top-five category. But a couple of years ago, one did. The props master, James Blumenfeld, got $334,000 at that time, including some vacation back pay.

How to account for all this munificence? The power of a union, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
--James Ahearn, NorthJersey.com, on what your concert ticket pays for. HT: Marginal Revolution

Icing the kicker works

Icing, when a team calls a timeout before a field goal is attempted, has been a part of football since a coach first realized that kickers might be an eccentric lot. Some kickers dread it. The best ones ignore it. But a study published in September by a University of San Diego professor has delivered the worst news of all to kickers: Icing works. Really, really well.

Nadav Goldschmied, an adjunct professor at the university’s psychology department, examined field goals over six seasons, 2002 to 2007. He identified 273 attempts that he considered “pressure” kicks, those attempted in overtime, or with one minute or less remaining in regulation when the kicking team was tied or trailing by 3 points or fewer.

Of the 163 field-goals attempted when a timeout was not called before the kick, 80.4 percent were successful. But in the 110 cases when the kicker was iced, the success rate dropped to 66.4 percent, a difference that Goldschmied — and probably every coach in the N.F.L. — considers significant.

Not surprisingly, kickers were more successful when their team called the timeout (83.3 percent), than they were when the opposing team did (64.4 percent). That is an indication that it is the element of surprise and disruption to the routine, not merely the extra time to think about the stakes, that causes the difficulty for kickers. The study found the success rate after icing was not affected by home-field advantage or the kicker’s years of experience.

“I was very surprised at the effect,” Goldschmied said. “Two things made a difference in successful field goals: distance of kick, which we expected, and the icing variable. The one thing is that there is rumination; it gives you enough to think about what is going to happen if you miss. I think maybe an additional mechanism is that you have a kicker about to kick, he’s ready and then they wait until the end and then ask for a timeout. Maybe the preparation itself is taxing.”
--Judy Battista, NYT, on how to induce a choke

Friday, December 24, 2010

Spelling in Oregon

Do you have to be good at spelling to be a good writer? Not necessarily, at least not in Oregon public schools.

As middle and high school kids begin taking state writing tests next month, they'll have a new tool at their fingertips: spell check.

For the first time, Oregon is allowing students -- those taking online and paper tests -- to use a spell check button on a computer to check their work before submitting answers to the writing test prompts. State officials say the change is an opportunity to better assess students' writing skills and focus less on typos.
--Kimberly Melton, The Oregonian, on movement towards a future where only Microsoft Word knows how to spell anything

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Scientific knowledge and the virgin birth

Thus you will hear people say, "The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility." Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancee was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. ... When St. Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancee's pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature. ...

If [miracles] were not known to be contrary to the laws of nature how could they suggest the presence of the supernatural? How could they be surprising unless they were seen to be exceptions to the rules? And how can anything be seen to be an exception till the rules are known? If there ever were men who did not know the laws of nature at all, they would have no idea of a miracle and feel no particular interest in one if it were performed before them. ...

When a thing professes from the very outset to be a unique invasion of Nature by something from outside, increasing knowledge of Nature can never make it either more or less credible than it was at the beginning. In this sense it is mere confusion of thought to suppose that advancing science has made it harder for us to accept miracles.
--C. S. Lewis, Miracles

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The pension ghost of Christmas future

PRICHARD, Ala. — This struggling small city on the outskirts of Mobile was warned for years that if it did nothing, its pension fund would run out of money by 2009. Right on schedule, its fund ran dry.

Then Prichard did something that pension experts say they have never seen before: it stopped sending monthly pension checks to its 150 retired workers, breaking a state law requiring it to pay its promised retirement benefits in full. ...

So the declining, little-known city of Prichard is now attracting the attention of bankruptcy lawyers, labor leaders, municipal credit analysts and local officials from across the county. They want to see if the situation in Prichard, like the continuing bankruptcy of Vallejo, Calif., ultimately creates a legal precedent on whether distressed cities can legally cut or reduce their pensions, and if so, how.

“Prichard is the future,” said Michael Aguirre, the former San Diego city attorney, who has called for San Diego to declare bankruptcy and restructure its own outsize pension obligations. “We’re all on the same conveyor belt. Prichard is just a little further down the road.”

Many cities and states are struggling to keep their pension plans adequately funded, with varying success. New York City plans to put $8.3 billion into its pension fund next year, twice what it paid five years ago. Maryland is considering a proposal to raise the retirement age to 62 for all public workers with fewer than five years of service.

Illinois keeps borrowing money to invest in its pension funds, gambling that the funds’ investments will earn enough to pay back the debt with interest. New Jersey simply decided not to pay the $3.1 billion that was due its pension plan this year. ...

By the standard of other public pension plans, and the six-figure pensions that draw outrage in places like California and New Jersey, [Prichard's plan] is not especially rich. Its biggest pension came to about $39,000 a year, for a retired fire chief with many years of service. The average retiree got around $12,000 a year. But the plan allowed workers to retire young, in their 50s. And its benefits were sweetened over time by the state legislature, which did not pay for the added benefits.
--Michael Cooper and Mary Williams Walsh, NYT, on fiscal warnings

Natalie Portman -- just like the rest of us Harvard schlubs

I gained my freshman fifteen or 20 and had superdepressed moments. That Cambridge winter is tough. It was important to know how to go through that and how to get myself out of it. You start learning how to ask your friends or professionals for help, or go to mentors.
--Natalie Portman, Vogue, on her Harvard years. HT: Crimson Flyby

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How Neanderthals lived

Deep in a cave in the forests of northern Spain are the remains of a gruesome massacre. ... They were the remains of Neanderthals who died 50,000 years ago. ...

What happened to the El Sidrón victims? In a paper this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Spanish scientists who analyzed the bones and DNA report the gruesome answer. The victims were a dozen members of an extended family, slaughtered by cannibals. ...

No animal bones washed into the Tunnel of Bones along with the Neanderthals’. In fact, the only other things scientists have found there are fragments of Neanderthal stone blades. And when the scientists closely examined the Neanderthal bones, they found cut marks — signs that the blades had been used to slice muscle from bone. The long bones had been snapped open. From these clues, the scientists concluded that the Neanderthals were victims of cannibalism. Scientists have found hints of cannibalism among Neanderthals at other sites, but El Sidrón is exceptional for the scale of evidence. ...

All three men had the same mitochondrial DNA, which could mean they were brothers, cousins, or uncles. The females, however, all came from different lineages. Dr. Lalueza-Fox suggests that Neanderthals lived in small bands of close relatives. When two bands met, they sometimes exchanged daughters.

“I cannot help but suppose that Neanderthal girls wept as bitterly as modern girls faced by the prospect of leaving closest family behind on their ‘wedding’ day,” said Mary Stiner, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona.
--Carl Zimmer, NYT, on Neanderthal culture

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The mysterious tug home explained?

See the first post in this series here.

The plutonium inside the [spacecraft] Pioneer’s generators gave off 2,500 joules of thermal energy per second at the height of its powers. Some of that heat got converted into electricity and ran the instrumentation. The rest simply radiated into space. If for whatever mechanical reason the heat radiated out from the generators unevenly, the extra heat radiating in one direction would exert an unbalanced recoil force, causing the spacecraft to accelerate. ...

Duly noting that point, the JPL team spent the next few years investigating all heat-related evidence. They came back with their verdict in 2002. Heat: not guilty. For one thing, they said, as the plutonium inside the generators decayed, the heat they gave off decreased, and so if heat were its cause then the anomalous acceleration of the spacecraft ought to have lessened with time as well. But it didn't – it seemed constant. Secondly, the generators were positioned quite far from the body of the spacecraft on the ends of long poles. From that remote distance, they calculated that very little heat would hit the spacecraft and exert a recoil force – an order of magnitude too little to cause the observed effect. Third and fourth, there was the tentative evidence offered by Galileo and Ulysses, both of which employed quite different power systems from that of the Pioneers.

Their arguments persuaded hordes of physicists, who began vying with great gusto for the thrones of Einstein and his non-relativistic assistant Newton. ...

[Viktor Toth] didn't think the study completed by Anderson and his team in 2002, which dismissed thermal effects as the cause of the anomaly, was even close to thorough enough. ...

In search of a more complete data set to work with, Toth started corresponding with [Slava] Turyshev at JPL. They agreed that an analysis was needed of the Doppler data spanning a much longer period of time than the decade-long segment analyzed previously. ...

It was 2005. Toth drove down from his home in Ottawa and met Turyshev for the first time, at Ames Research Center, where all the old data was stored. When they arrived, they found large dumpsters parked outside the building's entrance. All 30-plus years of Pioneer Doppler data and corresponding logbooks were due to be thrown out in two weeks. Funding at Ames was skeletal at that time, and it couldn't afford to archive anything. ...

Using the telemetry data, the two scientists created an extremely elaborate “finite element” 3-D computer model of each Pioneer spacecraft, in which the thermal properties of 100,000 positions on their surfaces are independently tracked for the duration of the 30-year mission. ...

The results of the telemetry analysis? “The heat recoil force accounts for part of the acceleration,” said Turyshev. They wouldn’t tell me how significant a part. (Turyshev: “We’d like to publish that in the scientific literature.”) But according to Toth, “You can take it to the bank that whatever remains of the anomaly after accounting for that thermal acceleration, it will at most be much less than the canonical value of 8.74 x 10-10 m/s2...” ...

“Let me tell you this,” said Turyshev, as I begged him for details about the analysis. “Physics as we know it worked well.”
--Natalie Wolchover, Popular Science, on Einstein and Newton striking back. HT: Gizmodo

The value of sports glory

--Percent of high school football players in an ESPN Magazine survey who respond yes to the question, "Is a good chance of playing in the NFL worth a decent chance at permanent brain damage?"

--Percent of high school football players who would play a concussed star player in order to win a state title game

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The cost of one hire-local mandate

How many bureaucrats does it take to create a job?

Well, if the "hire local" ordinance coming before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this week is any indication - quite a few.

And they don't come cheap.

Under the proposed ordinance coming up for a final vote Tuesday, building contractors doing business with the city would have to hire as many as half their workers from within the city. Half the new hires will also have to come from the ranks of the "disadvantaged."

The goal is to see that 355 locals are trained for work through the hire-local program.

But, of course, any new program requires a bureaucracy to administer it. In the case of the local-hire program, that means the city bringing in a new:

-- $59,000-a-year junior analyst.

-- $80,000-a-year community development specialist.

-- $87,878-a-year accountant.

-- $88,660-a-year contract compliance officer.

-- And a $116,246-a-year contract compliance officer II.

Add in fringe benefits, paper, pencils and the like, and you're talking $1.3 million annually.

But wait, there's more.

To prove that the applicants are indeed San Francisco residents, the county clerk wants them to have an official city-issued ID - which, in turn, means hiring an additional two clerks at $50,000 and $65,546 a year, plus a $57,044-a-year legal process clerk.

Add in fringe benefits, work stations and the like, and you're talking another $923,000.

Total yearly administration cost: $2.2 million, or about $6,200 per job.
--Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, San Francisco Chronicle, on a bureaucrat full-employment program

Monday, December 13, 2010

Employment has its privileges

Highlights of the changes beginning January 1, 2011 include:
  • Gender reassignment surgery — coverage for gender reassignment surgery is now available for Yale Health and Aetna members
--Yale University 2011 Annual Benefits Enrollment brochure

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The coming health care rationing

Unequal access to health care is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States, but the country is moving toward rationing on a scale that is unprecedented here. Wealthy people will always be able to buy most of what they want. But for everyone else, if we stay on the current course, the lines are likely to get longer and longer.

The underlying problem is that doctors are reimbursed at different rates... Depending on the state and on the malady, it is common for Medicaid to reimburse at only 40 percent to 80 percent the rate of Medicare. Private insurance pays more than either.

A result is that physicians often make Medicaid patients wait or refuse to see them altogether. Medicare patients are also beginning to face lines, as doctors increasingly prefer patients with private insurance. ...

Unfortunately, the new health care legislation is likely to speed this process. Under the new law, tens of millions of additional Americans will receive coverage, through Medicaid or private insurance. The new recipients of private insurance will gain the most, but people previously covered through Medicaid will lose.

Ideally, higher demand for medical care would prompt increases in supply, which in turn would lower prices and expand access. But the health care sector does not always work this way.

Doctors are highly regulated and in that manner restricted in supply. ...

We could go further by giving greater scope to nurse practitioners, admitting more immigrant doctors, reforming malpractice law and allowing cheap, retail “Wal-Mart style” medical care, all to increase access and affordability. Yet these changes do not seem to be in the offing, so access is likely to decline.

The health care bill will further privilege private insurance coverage by offering many individuals new subsidies for its purchase. That will create incentives for employers to game the system, dropping or discouraging coverage and sending their workers to buy health insurance on the more expensive federally subsidized exchanges. That will strain the federal health care budget.
--Tyler Cowen, NYT, on how rationing happens when prices aren't allowed to clear the market

Disability incentives

Geneva Fielding, a single mother since age 16, has struggled to raise her three energetic boys in the housing projects of Roxbury. Nothing has come easily, least of all money.

Even so, she resisted some years back when neighbors told her about a federal program called SSI that could pay her thousands of dollars a year. The benefit was a lot like welfare, better in many ways, but it came with a catch: To qualify, a child had to be disabled. And if the disability was mental or behavioral — something like ADHD — the child pretty much had to be taking psychotropic drugs.

Fielding never liked the sound of that. She had long believed too many children take such medications, and she avoided them, even as clinicians were putting names to her boys’ troubles: oppositional defiant disorder, depression, ADHD. But then, as bills mounted, friends nudged her about SSI: “Go try.’’

Eventually she did, putting in applications for her two older sons. Neither was on medications; both were rejected. Then last year, school officials persuaded her to let her 10-year-old try a drug for his impulsiveness. Within weeks, his SSI application was approved.

“To get the check,’’ Fielding, 34, has concluded with regret, “you’ve got to medicate the child.’’ ...

A Globe investigation has found that this Supplemental Security Income program — created by Congress primarily to aid indigent children with severe physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and blindness — now largely serves children with relatively common mental, learning, and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. ...

And once a family gets on SSI, it can be very hard to let go. The attraction of up to $700 a month in payments, and the near-automatic Medicaid coverage that comes with SSI approval, leads some families to count on a child’s remaining classified as disabled, even as his or her condition may be improving. It also leads many teenage beneficiaries to avoid steps — like taking a job — that might jeopardize the disability check. ...

Of the 1.2 million low-income children nationwide who received SSI checks last year, 53 percent, or 640,000, qualified because of mental, learning, or behavioral issues, up from 8 percent in 1990. ... Once diagnosed, these children often bring in close to half their family’s income. ...

The pressure on medical professionals to help families make the case for SSI approval can be considerable.

One nurse practitioner in a large urban clinic who asked to be unnamed because she is not authorized to speak about her patients said she recently faced the wrath of a parent whose 4-year-old child’s SSI benefits, granted at birth due to prematurity, were cut off because the child was much better now. The nurse said she had candidly filled out the SSI form about the child, saying the boy had caught up with his peers and had only “minimal deficits.’’ The mother was livid, shouting at her, “Don’t you think this child’s disabled?’’
--Patricia Wen, Boston Globe, on upward-sloping supply curves for disability

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The end of Inception

[Possible spoiler alert]

The one thing I have heard a lot is the kids are wearing the same clothes at the end. And they’re not. [Laughs.]

Wired: They’re not?

Nolan: No, they’re not. I’m not giving anything away there. Also I’ve read a lot of misunderstanding or misremembering of the way those kids are portrayed onscreen. But on the Blu-ray, people will be able to check, say, the ages of the kids.

Wired: The kids are in different clothes and are older at the end?

Nolan: Yes, two sets of kids! The younger version of the boy is actually my son, and it’s not him who turns around at the end. There’s no ambiguity here.

Wired: I was so convinced that they were wearing the same clothes.

Nolan: They’re very similar but not the same. That I would very much like people to notice, because it was a very, very difficult thing to pull off, taking two sets of kids all around the world and filming things two different ways.


Wired: Let me try another reading on you: When Cobb and Saito are in limbo, they agree to a reality where Cobb can see his kids again—and at the end of the movie we’re still in limbo. Care to rule that out?

Nolan: If I start ruling things out, where do I stop? I will go as far as saying that wasn’t the way I read it. [Laughs.]
--Wired interview with Inception director/writer Christopher Nolan

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Not long ago, the friend of a friend spent the night in a hotel room, which is sometimes what you do when you find out your spouse has been having a yearlong affair. His flight was sadly predictable — it’s all many of us are capable of after discovering such a betrayal — though I am sure he now realizes that mere movement is not a fix for that kind of agony.

I know this for two reasons: No. 1, I have had an affair; No. 2, I have been the victim of one. When you unfurl these two experiences in the sunlight for comparison, and measure their worth and pain, the former is only marginally better than the latter. And both, frankly, are awful.
--Wendy Plump, NYT, on both ends of the affair

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We need a better Better Business Bureau

Until the 1950s member businesses weren't permitted to publicize their [Better Business Bureau] membership; BBB ratings ("satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" and then, starting in 2009, letter grades) came later still. The BBBs recognized that such publicity might corrupt businesses into using their membership fees to bribe local BBBs. Worse still, it might corrupt local BBBs into using membership fees to shake down businesses, effectively turning the BBB into a protection racket.

That's not far from what has happened, according to a January 2009 article by David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times and a November 2010 story by Brian Ross of ABC News' 20/20. ...

Lazarus reported that in searching through the BBB's North American database he found that "the roughly 400,000 accredited businesses, even those that get numerous complaints, very often receive higher grades than unaccredited companies with spotless complaint records." ... [BBB spokesman Stephen] Cox conceded to Lazarus that you couldn't qualify for an A-plus unless you were a member company—a criterion the BBB Web site didn't bother to acknowledge. In fact, Lazarus reported, any company could raise its grade by one-half (from B-minus, for instance, to B) merely by joining.

Or maybe by more than one-half. Cameras from 20/20 rolled while two small-business owners phoned the Southern California BBB chapter to complain about their ratings. Both were told by BBB telemarketers that if they joined the BBB their ratings would improve. Both agreed to join, giving their credit card numbers, and both saw their ratings rise within 24 hours—a C and a C-minus each upgraded to A-plus. ...

Most hilariously, Ross reported (as The Big Money's Mitchell had earlier) that a man who goes by the pseudonym "Jimmie Rivers," says he's a former CBS affiliate news director, and runs a blog devoted to lacerating the BBB teamed up with some buddies to pay $425 to register Hamas with the Southern California chapter of the BBB. The terrorist group got an A-minus. For the same price, "Johnnie" scored an A-plus for the white supremacist Web site Stormfront, registering it under the name "Aryan Whitney."
--Timothy Noah, Slate, on the Better Business Bureau mafia

Monday, December 6, 2010

Laughing your way to insight

In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles. ...

In their humor study, Dr. Beeman and Dr. Subramaniam had college students solve word-association puzzles after watching a short video of a stand-up routine by Robin Williams. The students solved more of the puzzles over all, and significantly more by sudden insight, compared with when they’d seen a scary or boring video beforehand.
--Benedict Carey, NYT, on reasons to watch Chris Rock before thinking about your dissertation

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The DC Metro "Pick" system

Here's perhaps a little insight into the real reason [Washington D.C.] Metro just can't seem to get their act together with escalators.

According to a source intimately familiar with Metro's escalators, twice a year, Metro maintenance personnel bid on the escalators for which they’ll be responsible. Workers with the most seniority get the first choices. ...

As WMATA’s labor force is drawn from a union base, the ability to implement modification of the “Pick” system would require negotiations with the appropriate union representatives. ...

The source said it’s very common for someone with seniority to bid on escalators they know to be well maintained so they can slide and and not do anything for the six months it's under their "care."

“They can coast for a while,” the source said. “Then when problems start, they can move on,” leaving an ailing escalator under the supervision of someone with less experience.

This way of doing things, the source said, "destroys the incentive" of the younger workers who know that if they do a good job, their escalators will be taken away by someone with more seniority.

“There’s a culture in which you don’t really have to perform to keep your job,” they said.
--Unsuck DC Metro on perverse seniority privileges. HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, December 3, 2010

The world's best cities for local flavor

Bangkok, Thailand
New Orleans, Louisiana
Bologna, Italy
Lima, Peru
Istanbul, Turkey
Oaxaca, Mexico
San Francisco/Berkeley, California
Lyon, France
Bruges, Belgium
New Delhi, India
New Haven, Connecticut
--Huffington Post on the 12 cities with the best local food

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The low value of stolen credit card numbers

A glut of stolen data — combined with innovation and cutthroat competition among vendors — is conspiring to keep prices for stolen [credit card] account numbers exceptionally low. Even so, many readers probably have no idea that their credit card information is worth only about $1.50 on the black market.
--Brian Krebs, KrebsonSecurity, on comfort if you believe that marginal price = marginal benefit. HT: Gizmodo

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fitness-faking behaviors

Like many casual games, Angry Birds uses positive reinforcement to make players feel good when they succeed: After a player lays waste to all the pigs on a level of the game, a raucous wave of cheers goes up. Other than the gentle mocking of the pigs, Mr. Hed says, "our game doesn't really punish players."

Game designers say this type of "reward system" is a crucial part of the appeal of casual games like Angry Birds. In Bejeweled 2, for example, players have to align three diamonds, triangles and other shapes next to each other to advance in the game. After a string of successful moves, a baritone voice announces, "Excellent!" or "Awesome!"
--Nick Wingfield, WSJ, on what we and our descendants will do instead of colonizing the galaxy

Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox. ...

Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. ...

The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don't seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography. ... Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. ...

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems.
--Gregory Miller on resolving Fermi's Paradox

The upside of radical honesty

As holiday events pick up, and sensitive spouses prepare to grapple with their partners’ socially challenging behavior, here’s a frightening insight from A.J. Jacobs, a writer who says he makes his living embarrassing his wife, Julie.

Jacobs is the author of “The Know-It-All,’’ “The Year of Living Biblically,’’ and “My Life as an Experiment.’’ In a phone interview, he described running into a friend of his wife’s while he was practicing “radical honesty’’ for an Esquire magazine story. When the other couple suggested a get together, Jacobs was frank. “You seem like nice people,’’ he said, “but honestly I don’t want to see you again.’’

“I know they were offended, and my wife wanted to strangle me,’’ he said. But there was an upside. “One advantage is that we have not seen them again. If you plan it properly you can reap the benefits.’’
--Beth Teitell, Boston Globe, on telling them how you really feel

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ObamaCare's unlikely victim

Perhaps you have to be familiar with New York politics to understand how truly bizarre this story is: 1199 is dropping its health care coverage for children. 1199 is the extraordinarily powerful local health care workers' union which has pushed New York State's Medicaid reimbursements into the stratosphere.

Naturally, 1199--and its national parent--were a powerful force advocating for a national health care program. An article on their website from June speaks approvingly of PPACA as a "first step", though also complains that it didn't go far enough in creating a public option.

That article also says that "1199ers in the major health funds such as the 1199SEIU National Benefit Fund (NBF) should see little or no change in their coverage." Just a few months later, the Journal is reporting that the SEIU is dropping its coverage for children, citing, among other things, the impact of the new healthcare law...
"In addition, new federal health-care reform legislation requires plans with dependent coverage to expand that coverage up to age 26," Behroozi wrote in a letter to members Oct. 22. "Our limited resources are already stretched as far as possible, and meeting this new requirement would be financially impossible."
In fairness, this is not exclusively related to the new law; the union is complaining that the state has forced them to buy more expensive third party insurance, and the state is saying that they did no such thing, but that the union fund has been struggling with shortfalls for a while. Reading between the lines, it sounds like their self-insured health fund was underfunded, and the state told them they couldn't keep operating that way. When the budget scramble began, ObamaCare was making coverage for children more expensive, so it ended up on the chopping block.

Nonetheless, this is an extraordinary thing to hear from the lips of one of the major advocates for national health care, and for generally higher spending on government health care. They're basically saying that the new law has made benefits more expensive, and that this is contributing to people cutting coverage--exactly the argument that opponents were derided for making during the debate.
--Megan McArdle, Atlantic Monthly, on the problem with gold-plated-or-nothing mandates

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Yankee the Red Sox should really want

[W]hile it's ridiculous to think there's any reason for the Red Sox to pursue Jeter other than to tweak the Yankees before his inevitable return to pinstripes, the Yankee icon that it would be legitimately fun to pursue is that great, classy, and apparently ageless closer, Mariano Rivera. There have been reports that the Yankees prefer to give him a one-year deal while he is coveting two. While Rivera has shown some minor signs of slippage himself -- his 6.8 K/9 ratio last season tied for his second-worst since 1999 -- he also had the second-best WHIP of his career (0.883). Plus, he's already helped the Red Sox win the World Series once -- sorry, couldn't resist -- and not only is he still an outs-machine, there is a very good chance that he is actually a robot.

Sure, we know Rivera, like Jeter, will end up back in pinstripes when all is settled. But if you want to daydream of one legendary Yankee making the traitorous jump to Boston, why not daydream about the one who is still, you know, good?
--Chad Finn, Boston Globe, on how to both annoy the Yankees and win

The ex-post serendipity of discovery

Science is filled with examples of major discoveries that were initially underappreciated. Alexander Fleming abandoned his work on penicillin. Max Born won the Nobel Prize in physics for a footnote he added in proof to a paper – a footnote that explains how the quantum mechanical wavefunction is connected to probabilities. That’s perhaps the most important idea anyone had in twentieth century physics. Assessing science is hard.
--Michael Nielsen on perhaps the most influential footnote of all time

The happiness-suicide paradox

Now, alas, the same San Francisco Fed last February published a another study, “The Happiness-Suicide Paradox,” which suggests that all this material happiness comes with a downside. That is, the study concludes, “the happiest places have the highest suicide rates.” ...

“Nations such as Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada, and the U.S. each display relatively high happiness and yet high suicide rates,” notes the study by four economists, Mary C. Daley, vice president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick, Daniel Wilson of the Federal Reserve and Stephen Wu of Hamilton College.

The economists concentrated on comparisons within the United States, and their findings were striking in this regard. Hawaii ranked first in adjusted average life satisfaction, “yet remarkably has the fifth highest suicide rate in the country. At the other end of this spectrum, New Jersey ranks near the bottom in adjusted life satisfaction (47th) yet has one of the lowest adjusted suicide risks (coincidentally, the 47th highest risk).” ...

“People” the study notes, seem to “find it particularly painful to be unhappy in a happy place.”
--Michael Powell, NYT, on misery loving company

Partisan lenses

In 2006, Gallup asked the public whether the government posed an “immediate threat” to Americans. Only 21 percent of Republicans agreed, versus 57 percent of Democrats. In 2010, they asked again. This time, 21 percent of Democrats said yes, compared with 66 percent of Republicans.

In other words, millions of liberals can live with indefinite detention for accused terrorists and intimate body scans for everyone else, so long as a Democrat is overseeing them. And millions of conservatives find wartime security measures vastly more frightening when they’re pushed by Janet “Big Sis” Napolitano (as the Drudge Report calls her) rather than a Republican like Tom Ridge.
--Ross Douthat, NYT, on knee-jerk support and opposition

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gut instinct

Consider this 2008 experiment, led by a team of scientists at Duke University. The researchers began by testing a mouse strain that, thanks to a genetic mutation, can't taste sweetness. As a result, these mice showed no immediate preference for sugar water.

But then the scientists discovered something odd, which is that the mutant mice gradually came to prefer the sugar water, even though they couldn't taste the sweetness. How could this be? How could an animal prefer what it couldn't even perceive?

The first clue came from a control experiment with sucralose, an artificial sweetener used in diet sodas. When the mutant mice were given sucralose water, they never developed a preference for it, which suggested that they were drawn to the calories of sugar rather than to its taste.

Sure enough, subsequent experiments demonstrated that "post-ingestive" factors—the ability of the gut to detect calories—were driving this preference. The mutant mice couldn't enjoy the taste of sugar, but they learned within a few hours to enjoy the taste of energy.

The detection of calories in the stomach and intestines also led to measurable changes in the brain. After the mice drank sugar water, there was an increased release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the processing of rewards. (Previously, it was assumed that only the taste of a food could trigger the release of dopamine.) Interestingly, the mutant mice only showed this spike of neurotransmitter when drinking real sugar water—the artificial sweetener gave them no chemical satisfaction.
--Jonah Lehrer, WSJ, on redundant calorie-seeking systems. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Literacy across U.S. cities

10 most literate U.S. cities (population > 250,000):
1. Minneapolis, MN
2. Seattle, WA
3. St. Paul, MN
4. Denver, CO
5. Washington, DC
6. St. Louis, MO
7. San Francisco, CA
8. Atlanta, GA
9. Pittsburgh, PA
10. Boston, MA

10 least literate U.S. cities (population > 250,000):
1. Long Beach, CA
2. Mesa, AZ
3. Arlington, TX
4. San Antonio, TX
5. Bakersfield, CA
6. Corpus Christi, TX
7. Aurora, CO
8. Anaheim, CA
9. El Paso, TX
10. Stockton, CA
--2007 rankings by Jack Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, based on educational attainment, newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, and Internet access

The prime in Amazon Prime

One challenge was selecting the annual fee for the [Amazon Prime] service; there were no clear financial models because no one knew how many customers would join or how it would affect their purchasing habits. The team ultimately went with $79 mainly because it's a prime number. "It was never about the $79 dollars. It was really about changing people's mentality so they wouldn't shop anywhere else," says Vijay Ravindran, who worked on the Prime team and is now chief digital officer for The Washington Post.
--Brad Stone, Bloomberg Businessweek, on how to set prices when you don't have a model. HT: Marginal Revolution

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Persimmons and George Clooney

[Persimmon] is a prominent part of everyday life in Japan — there's even an adjective almost exclusively used to describe the taste of a bitter persimmon, shibui. (The only other time it's used is to describe older men with graying hair who are nonetheless hot, like George Clooney.)
--Lisa Katayama, Boing Boing, on the unlikely connection between persimmons and George Clooney in the Japanese mind

Thanksgiving unagi

As the story goes, Squanto — a Patuxet Indian who had learned English — took pity on the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony who had managed to survive that first brutal winter, and showed them how to plant corn, putting a dead fish in each hole where a seed was planted. But before that, before the ground had even fully thawed, he taught them a perhaps more valuable skill: how to catch a fatty, nutritious fish that would sustain them in the worst of winters. And this food item, likely on the table of that first Thanksgiving, would have carried special significance to those remaining colonists. Eels — a forgotten staple of our forefathers.

Indeed, eel was the dinner that Pilgrims were given on the very day after they made peace with Massasoit, the sachem, or leader, of the region. The following account is from “Mourt’s Relation,” mostly written by a Plymouth resident, Edward Winslow: “Squanto went at noon to fish for eels. At night he came home with as many as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of. They were fat and sweet. He trod them out with his feet, and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument.”
--James Prosek, NYT, on the other white Thanksgiving meat

In favor of immigrant children

Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced — America’s top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.

Do you see a pattern?
--Thomas Friedman, NYT, on the fruits of immigration

Goodbye to meaningless colors

The Department of Homeland Security is planning to get rid of the color-coded terrorism alert system. ...

Red, the highest level, meant “severe risk of terrorist attacks.” The lowest level, green, meant “low risk of terrorist attacks.” Between those were blue (guarded risk), yellow (significant) and orange (high).

The nation has generally lived in the yellow and orange range. The threat level has never been green, or even blue. ...

The color-coded threat levels were doomed to fail because “they don’t tell people what they can do — they just make people afraid,” said Bruce Schneier, an author on security issues. He said the system was “a relic of our panic after 9/11” that “never served any security purpose.” ...

Conan O’Brien joked, “Champagne-fuchsia means we’re being attacked by Martha Stewart.” Jay Leno said, “They added a plaid in case we were ever attacked by Scotland.” ...
--John Schwartz, NYT, on a small victory against security theater

Amy Wax, president of the International Association of Color Consultants North America, said — perhaps not surprisingly — colors could be an effective part of a warning system if tied to specific action. ... She said the agency’s use of “childish” primary colors like red, yellow and blue might have diluted the impact. “Purple, orange and magenta might create a sense of something that would get attention,” she said.
--John Schwartz, NYT, on relentless lobbying

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Puritans: a revisionist view

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later [than the Puritans], bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. ...

But in Hawthorne’s day, some people realized that he had things wrong. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who visited the United States in 1831. ...

[I]t was the Puritans who had introduced similar practices [to what Tocqueville admired] in colony governments — mandating annual elections, insisting that legislatures could meet even if a governor refused to summon a new session and declaring that no law was valid unless the people or their representatives had consented to it. ...

Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others. ...

[A]mong the liberties they carefully guarded was the right to petition any government and to plead any grievance, a liberty that women as well as men acted on.

The most far-reaching of these Puritan reforms concerned the civil law and the workings of justice. In 1648, Massachusetts became the first place in the Anglo-American world to publish a code of laws — and make it accessible to everyone. ...

And although it’s tempting to envision the ministers as manipulating a “theocracy,” the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office. Nor could local congregations impose civil penalties on anyone who violated secular law. In these rules and values lay one root of the separation of church and state that eventually emerged in our society.
--David Hall, NYT, on the goodness of the Puritans

The clothes make the president in Korea

“Our government reacted properly [to the North Korean shelling],” said [Seoul restaurant owner] Ms. Pyun, adding that she thought the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, had handled himself well during the first hours of the crisis.

Ms. Pyun said TV news reports showed Mr. Lee — whom she referred to as “MB,” his initials — looked capable and “ready for action,” especially in the black leather jacket he was wearing in place of his usual bespoke business suits.

“It was,” she said, “the correct clothing.”
--Mark McDonald, NYT, on the utility of black leather jackets

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The origin of OK

It started one day in 1839, when a few [Boston] newspaper editors were joking around.

"They had a lot of abbreviations that they were using and made up on the spot and thought they were terrifically funny," [author Allan] Metcalf says. "And OK was an abbreviation for 'All Correct.'"

Now most of those jokey abbreviations faded blissfully into history. But OK's star was rising — thanks in part to President Martin Van Buren's re-election campaign in 1840.

The mutton-chopped incumbent hailed from the town of Kinderhook, N.Y.

"He got the nickname Old Kinderhook, and early in 1840, OK clubs sprung up with the slogan, 'OK is OK.'" ...

The man Van Buren succeeded as president, Andrew Jackson, even got roped into the "OK" story — because of a campaign dirty trick, Metcalf says.

"One of Martin Van Buren's opponents who also opposed Jackson because they both were Democrats, claimed that Andrew Jackson had been a terrible speller, and so he would get a document and when he approved it he would write O period K period on it indicating that it was all correct."

Even though the story wasn't true — Metcalf says Jackson was actually quite a good speller — it stuck. And within the next two decades someone else began writing OK on documents as a sign of approval.

Soon, OK was being used for the telegraph, like an early form of the LOLs and OMGs we send in text messages today. ...

[T]he word continued to struggle for elite acceptance — until Woodrow Wilson, the only president to earn a Ph.D., gave his stamp of approval.

"He thought it had really come from a Choctaw Indian word, which he spelled 'okeh,' which was their equivalent of something like OK," Metcalf says.
--NPR on how OK became OK

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The perquisites of power

Representative John A. Boehner, the soon-to-be Republican speaker, pledged recently that he would fly commercial airlines back home to Ohio, passing up the military plane used by the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat. But that does not mean he will endure the hassles of ordinary passengers, including pat downs and other new security screenings.

As he left Washington on Friday, Mr. Boehner headed across the Potomac River to Ronald Reagan National Airport, which was bustling with afternoon travelers. There was no waiting for Mr. Boehner, who was escorted around the identification-checking agents, the metal detectors and the body scanners, and whisked directly to the gate.

The Republican leader, who will become the second person in line to assume the presidency after the new Congress convenes in January, took great pride after the midterm elections in declaring his man-of-the-people plans to travel home as other Americans do. In a time of economic difficulty, it was a not-so-subtle dig at Ms. Pelosi, who has access to a military jet large enough to avoid refueling for her flights home to San Francisco.

But he is not giving up all the perquisites of power.
--Jeff Zeleny, NYT, on who is not feeling our TSA pain

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guilty pleasures

[The Yale SOM MBA student veterans] also talked about what life was like when the workday came to an end. There was time to catch up with family or to work out, but many of the errands of everyday life-grocery shopping or getting the car in for an oil change-aren't part of a military life. Off hours were spent playing video games or watching DVDs. Desperate Housewives was surprisingly popular even in all-male attack helicopter flight crews.
--Yale SOM press office on not-so-macho viewing habits

Deficit reduction theater

On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a champion earmarker, bowed to pressure from Tea Party activists and agreed to a voluntary ban. But at least in budgetary terms, this is much less of a victory than it may seem. Earmarks account for only about $16 billion a year, or less than one half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Banning them would not lower spending or cut the deficit, since, contrary to popular perception, the money would not be returned to the Treasury but would simply revert to the Appropriations Committee to be spent elsewhere. To make a real dent in federal spending, the appropriations process itself would need reform, and that’s not currently on the table.
--Joshua Green, Boston Globe, on why earmarks are a rounding error

A band of conservative rebels has taken over the House, vowing to slash spending, cut the deficit and kill earmarks.

And of course they’d love a seat on the powerhouse Appropriations Committee so they can translate their campaign zeal into action, right?

Not really.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was asked to be an appropriator and said thanks, but no thanks. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a tea party favorite, turned down a shot at Appropriations, which controls all discretionary spending. So did conservatives like Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an ambitious newcomer who will lead the influential Republican Study Committee. ...

The difficulty that GOP leaders have faced in recruiting Appropriations Committee members is a stunning reversal from the panel’s storied history, when members of both parties aggressively competed for committee slots as a way to increase their House influence.
--Simmi Aujla and Richard Cohen, Politico, on the gap between campaign rhetoric and official action

Harvard prayer walkers

James and Nicole, who do “prayer walks” at Harvard on Friday mornings, asked that neither their real names nor the name of their church be used because they are concerned about potential ramifications for their relationship with the University. Their church, which runs “faith groups” at several local colleges, recently established one catering to Harvard students. In addition to the prayer walks, they hold fellowship meetings at Nicole’s apartment near campus. ...

I first heard of James and Nicole’s group in August when a tall young man wearing a dress shirt and slacks stopped and offered to help me carry some gear back to the Outing Club. As we walked down Plympton Street, he told me he was on campus doing a prayer walk.

Until then, I had thought the only group doing prayer walks on campus was the Justice House of Prayer Boston. Since June I had been attending meetings for thesis research at their house in Central Square...

On the Friday morning I tag along with James and Nicole, we meet at Au Bon Pain at 11 a.m. Missy’s there too, with a young woman from Texas she just met who is now staying with her while she’s in the city. Before we start, James and the others pray, asking God to show them whom to talk to or where to go. They do, and Missy shares first. “I got a picture of a lion,” she says, interpreting this to stand for courage. “I also got a picture of someone smoking outside the science building.”

Nicole says she saw a green tree but doesn’t spend time analyzing the image.

“Mine was really random,” James says. “I got a picture of a kangaroo.”

With that, we start for the Yard. Missy and her friend split off, and I go with Nicole and James. As we cut across on the path in front of Grays, James prays for God to open students’ hearts. We pass in between Weld and University Hall, and I notice something on top of one of those posts that deter cars and bikes. I drop behind so I can look closer. It is a tiny pink plastic kangaroo.

My first thought is that James planted it, but neither he nor Nicole stop. They don’t seem to have seen it. ...

Missy and her friend are waiting for us, excited to tell us how they found the woman in the red jacket and the red hat they were looking for. I had forgotten this particular vision. “We saw a lot of smokers outside the Science Center,” Missy says. James talks about the boy with the cast and the man visiting his brother-in-law. I ask if they saw the kangaroo. They think it’s cool, but not a big deal. I appreciate that they don’t try to use this as evidence for anything.

I say good-bye and return, alone, to the post by Weld, but the kangaroo is gone. ...

A few months after our Starbucks conversation, I’m reminded of Will’s question, when he asked me if I think they’re completely weird. ...

Temple has just realized he can’t find his car keys. The other staff and guests call out suggestions while he searches the prayer room and the adjacent kitchen. The part-time staffer tells him God had given her a vision that the keys were still in the trunk. She says it like she’s kidding, but she’s not, not really. Temple insists that he already checked, but when he can’t find them anywhere inside, he goes out again. A moment later he comes back, holding the keys. The part-time staffer grins.

“The Lord speaks to me,” she shrugs.

It’s tempting to be a little amazed, but by now I expect this sort of thing. The prophets joke about being prophets.

“You said they were in the trunk,” Temple protests, explaining that he’d found them stuck in the front door of his car.

The staffer shrugs and explains that her vision had been of the keys in a keyhole. She has automatically interpreted the metal surrounding the keyhole as the trunk. There’s a regular attendee with a scraggly orange beard and combat boots. I’ve almost never heard him say anything, but now he offers what sounds like a rule he’s learned by heart, a basic principle in dealing with prophetic visions: “You gotta say what you see.”
--Chelsea Shover, Harvard Crimson, on saying what you see

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Micro-subprime collapse?

India’s rapidly growing private microcredit industry faces imminent collapse as almost all borrowers in one of India’s largest states have stopped repaying their loans, egged on by politicians who accuse the industry of earning outsize profits on the backs of the poor. ...

[M]icrofinance in pursuit of profits has led some microcredit companies around the world to extend loans to poor villagers at exorbitant interest rates and without enough regard for their ability to repay. Some companies have more than doubled their revenues annually.

Now some Indian officials fear that microfinance could become India’s version of the United States’ subprime mortgage debacle, in which the seemingly noble idea of extending home ownership to low-income households threatened to collapse the global banking system because of a reckless, grow-at-any-cost strategy.

Responding to public anger over abuses in the microcredit industry — and growing reports of suicides among people unable to pay mounting debts — legislators in the state of Andhra Pradesh last month passed a stringent new law restricting how the companies can lend and collect money.
--Lydia Polgreen and Vikas Bajaj, NYT, on the bloom coming off microfinance

The Pervert Jihad

A terrorist group — let’s call them, I don’t know, the Pervert Jihad — issues a videotaped threat.

Their demand: America must select 25 million of its citizens per year. Those citizens must give complete strangers working for the government a brief look at a blurry naked picture of themselves. In addition, the complete strangers working for the government must select 1 million of the citizens — men, women, and children of all ages — for “special treatment.” That “special treatment” involves the one million lucky citizens submitting to the strangers from the government briefly running their hands over the citizens’ clothed breasts and genitals, in public, in front of a crowd of annoyed strangers. The whole experience takes about an hour of the citizens’ time every time they have to put up with it.

The Pervert Jihad says that if America does not comply, they will kill Americans every year. They’ll kill, let’s say, about 450 — the capacity of a jumbo jet. We have reason to believe they may or may not succeed at this mass murder if they try.

Would we do it?
--Popehat on an equivalent reframing of the TSA body scan policy. HT: JDA

Purell as placebo

[Emory University's Christine] Moe observed up to a 96 percent reduction in stomach flu cases after washing with soap and/or water, as compared to a 54 percent reduction after sanitizer use. ...

Why is this the case, if Purell effectively disables more frightening bugs, like herpes and HIV? These viruses are enclosed in an envelope that helps them infect host cells but also makes them more susceptible to the drying effects of alcohol. In contrast, stomach viruses and the cold virus, which are non-enveloped, are more alcohol-resistant. Dr. James Arbogast of GOJO Industries, the company that invented Purell, suggests that a sanitizer made of 70 percent alcohol might inactivate stomach viruses more effectively, but such high-concentration sanitizers aren’t in common use; the Purell in your college’s dining hall is eight percent lower in alcohol.

While research suggests that stomach viruses can survive hand sanitizer, it’s less clear whether alcohol-based gels fend off the flu or the common cold. The University of Virginia’s Dr. Ronald Turner found that sanitizer users and old-fashioned soap-and-water users are infected with the flu and cold at an equal rate. Based on these results, Turner believes that hand-to-hand and hand-to-object contact is unlikely to spread these illnesses, which may be more contagious via air.
--Michaela Panter, Yale Daily News, on Purell's inefficacy

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

TSA humor

Photograph at Indianapolis airport security checkpoint:

The image on the computer screen:

HT: Gizmodo

Flying with a period

Do the [new body] imagers, for example, detect sanitary napkins? Yes. Does that then necessitate a pat-down? The T.S.A. couldn’t say. Screeners, the T.S.A. has said, are expected to exercise some discretion.
--Joe Sharkey, NYT, on a heightened monthly risk of getting groped

Monday, November 15, 2010

More stuff white people like

In “Whiter Shades of Pale,” [Christian] Lander’s targets are more far-flung [than in his previous book, “Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions”], and it’s a treat to watch him take aim. He takes note of the industries, in addition to classical music, that survive solely on white guilt: “Penguin Classics, the S.P.C.A., free-range chicken farms, and the entire rubber bracelet market.” About the chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV show — during which Mr. Bourdain eats arcane dishes and complains about tourists — the author writes, “There hasn’t been a show this reaffirming to white people since ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

He explains sea salt’s current vogue: “When white people think about regular salt, all they can think about is sodium and poor health. When they think about sea salt they think about France.”

Many of his observations are more pointed. About picking your own fruit: “When white people harvest a crop it’s known as ‘berry picking.’ ” About flea markets: “Once again white people have taken over something that poor people used to like and made it extremely expensive.” At a “Mad Men” theme party, he says, “you can severely curtail the amount of fun by saying, ‘I’m glad this isn’t really 1960 or else I’d be serving all of you.’ ” ...

You’ll find “Whiter Shades of Pale” in that dimly understood and flimsy bookstore subdivision, the humor section. It belongs upfront, where the best new nonfiction walks point.
--Dwight Garner, NYT, on a certain brand of white person

High school dating and the laws of economics

In the Darwinian world of high-school dating, freshman girls and senior boys have the highest chances of successfully partnering up. Senior girls (too picky!) and freshman boys (pond scum!) have the least. ...

A recently released paper—called "Terms of Endearment," but don't hold its too-cute title against it—looked at how and when high-school students choose mates and their preferences when searching for a partner. Economists Peter Arcidiacono and Marjorie McElroy of Duke and Andrew Beauchamp of Boston College examined an enormous trove of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, more commonly known as Add Health. ...

[Arcidiacono] and his colleagues found one classic economic tenet driving the byzantine high-school dating market: Scarcity determines value. Among freshman boys, what's rare, and therefore valuable, are freshman girls willing to have a relationship and, even better, willing to have sex. Among senior girls, what's valuable and scarce are boys willing to have a relationship without having sex. ...

Unsurprisingly, the majority of high school boys want to have sex (though only 47.6 percent of freshmen boys do). Unsurprisingly, the majority of high school girls do not (though 50.1 percent of senior girls do). Over the course of four years, the power shifts from the freshman girls who don't want to have sex to the senior boys who do.

The conclusion? Though high-school girls don't really want to have sex, many more of them end up doing so in order to "match" with a high-school boy. For them, a relationship at some point becomes more important than purity. Because of that phenomenon, in schools with more boys than girls, the girls hold more cards and have less sex. Where there are more girls, the male preference for sex tends to win out. ...

And who does the high-school dating system disadvantage most, statistically? Senior girls, at least according to the skew between stated sexual preferences and actual sexual activity. Though that will undoubtedly come as cold comfort to those legions of lonely 14-year-old boys.
--Annie Lowrey, Slate, on market power in high school

Management consulting: a randomized controlled trial

Management consultants don’t have the most stellar reputation for offering value for money – although, truth be told, the infamy of investment bankers has long since left them in the shade – so I was impressed when, early this year, rumours reached me of a fascinating new study in which a consulting firm was implicitly agreeing to subject its advice to a randomised trial. ...

(A draft, “Does Management Matter? Evidence from India”, is available from the website of co-author Nick Bloom at Stanford.) ...

The researchers hired Accenture to provide management consulting services to 14 factories in Mumbai, chosen at random from a group of 20. The other six factories served as a control group and received a diagnostic performance audit but little serious advice. ...

The results were undeniably impressive. The effect of a few months of consulting advice was that profits rose by almost a fifth, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year. (The latest draft of the study puts the figure at $230,000; an earlier calculation reckoned it was even higher.) Output was up, inventory was tighter and defect rates were halved.

Accenture’s fees for the five-month consulting gig, at commercial rates, would have been roughly the same amount as the increase in profits – so the arrangement would have paid for itself by the end of the year. If any of the consulting advice stuck, this would have been a fantastic investment. The indications are that the advice more than sticks: the new procedures generate more information, more ideas for running a tight ship, and a spiral of continuous improvement. ...

The more substantial caveat is that textile companies in India have their own distinct problems: tools and machinery were left lying around, and stock control was frequently non-existent. ... Modern inventory-management techniques made a big difference in this particular sector of Mumbai’s economy, but that does not mean that Vodafone or Barclays or the civil service have as much to gain from bringing the consultants in.
--Tim Harford, Financial Times, on the case for pursuing your management consulting career in India. HT: Chris Blattman

Consumerism as a god

Are brands the "new religion"? Practitioners and scholars have been intrigued by the possibility, but strong theory and empirical evidence supporting the existence of a relationship between brands and religion is scarce. In what follows, we argue and demonstrate that religiosity is indeed related to "brand reliance," i.e., the degree to which consumers prefer branded goods over unbranded goods or goods without a well-known national brand.

We theorize that brands and religiosity may serve as substitutes for one another because both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth. We provide support for this substitution hypothesis with U.S. state-level data (field study) as well as individual-level data where religiosity is experimentally primed (study 1) or measured as a chronic individual difference (study 2). Importantly, studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that the relationship between religiosity and brand reliance only exists in product categories in which brands enable consumers to express themselves (e.g., clothes). Moreover, studies 3 and 4 demonstrate that the expression of self-worth is an important factor underlying the negative relationship.
--Ron Shachar, Tulin Erdem, Keisha Cutright, and Gavan Fitzsimons, "Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?," Marketing Science, on our all being slaves to one thing or another

Saturday, November 13, 2010

We'll always have Oakland

The Board of Supervisors just banned toys in Happy Meals, which drew worldwide attention.

Now the latest ban being proposed in San Francisco is on male circumcision.

A proposed ballot measure for the November 2011 ballot – when voters will be electing the San Francisco’s next mayor – would amend The City’s police code “to make it a misdemeanor to circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the foreskin, testicle or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18.”

Doing so would result in a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail, according to the proposed measure submitted to the Department of Elections.

The measure was submitted by San Francisco resident Lloyd Schofield, who has spoken up on this issue in the past. ...

For the ordinance to make it on to the November ballot, it would require the collection of 7,168 valid signatures by April 26, 2011.
--Joshua Sabatini, San Francisco Examiner, on the San Francisco activist spirit

Mental focus and happiness

Everyone knows they do it, but new research by Harvard researchers, which used the iPhone to periodically interrupt 2,250 people’s lives, found that about half the time, people’s minds are wandering. Most strikingly, they found that overall, people whose minds are wandering are less happy than those focused on the task at hand.

“It’s paradoxical and ironic, in the sense that you would think if you leave the present, you’d go someplace better, but people seem to go to places that make them less happy,’’ said Matthew Killingsworth, a psychology graduate student at Harvard University and lead author of the work, published today in the journal Science. ...

In order to measure people’s errant minds and moods, Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, took advantage of modern technology to randomly and seamlessly interrupt people’s days to ask a few simple questions. People from ages 18 to 88 signed up for a Web application that periodically sent them an e-mail or text message to ask a simple set of questions: How happy were they at the moment? What were they doing? Were they thinking about something other than the task at hand, and if so, were they thinking of something pleasant, neutral, or negative?

Researchers found that 47 percent of the time, people reported that their minds were wandering. In nearly two dozen activities reported, people’s minds were wandering more than 30 percent of the time, with a single exception — sex — in which people seemed to be both single-mindedly focused on what they were doing and happy.
--Carolyn Johnson, Boston Globe, on a possible downside of daydreaming

Friday, November 12, 2010

Redefining merit

When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.” ...

[A]n “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.” It’s a term being used in some U.S. academic circles to describe a phenomenon that’s become such a cause for concern to university admissions officers...
--Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, Macleans, on too Asian

When [Jerome] Karabel picks up the story shortly after 1900, the colleges were becoming increasingly concerned about the number of Jews who were passing the entrance exams. Since the Protestant upper classes who paid tuition bills had deserted other universities, notably Columbia, where “Hebrew” enrolments were deemed excessive, administrators regarded the increased Jewish presence as both a cultural insult and a threat to their institutional viability.

As a result, the colleges limited the size of their classes and began to reject students by creating a definition of merit that was expressly designed to justify quotas on Jewish applicants. Academic achievement would play second fiddle to the character and manliness thought to be inculcated by prestigious boarding schools. Jews (limited to 15% of the class at Harvard and 10% at Yale) were deemed lacking in these attributes. In the words of a former Harvard dean of admissions, Wilbur Bender, Jews were “effeminates, the precious and affected, the unstable”, while private school boys were “virile, masculine, red-blooded he-men”. ...

“Those who are able to define ‘merit',” [Karabel] writes, “will almost invariably possess more of it, and those with greater resources—cultural, economic, and social—will generally be able to ensure that the educational system will deem their children more meritorious.” Even today, efforts at Harvard to place more emphasis on the sciences (potentially replacing some wealthier white students with nerdy Asian-Americans) have attracted criticism that they might make the student body too one-dimensional instead of iconoclastic and well-rounded—exactly the same style of disparaging argument used to justify the Jewish quotas of yesteryear.
--The Economist on the shifting definition of merit

For [Philip Roth's fictional Jewish character] Alex Portnoy, athleticism was something alien. It was part of a total package that included not only the golden shiksas but their brothers ("engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift, and powerful halfbacks"), their fathers ("men with white hair and deep voices"), their mothers who never whined or hectored, their curtained, fireplaced houses, their small noses, their lack of constant nagging worry--in short, the normalcy and confidence that go along with belonging, with being on the inside.

In the Portnoy household nobody played sports--bodies existed only to generate suffering--and there was only one thing that really went well. That, needless to say, was Alex's performance in school. ...

In my many hours standing next to hockey rinks last winter, I sometimes engaged in one of the Jews' secret vices: Jew-counting. All over the ice were little Cohens, little Levys, their names sewed in block letters on the backs of their jerseys. It was amazing how many there were. ...

More to the point, these Jewish kids and their parents have decided to devote endless hours of childhood to an activity with no career payoff. Do you think they're going to 6 a.m. practices for a shot at the National Hockey League? Of course not. They're doing it--mastering hockey, and every conceivable other sport--to promote "growth," "teamwork," "physical fitness," "well-roundedness," "character," and other qualities that may be desirable in a doctor but don't, as a practical matter, help you get into medical school. ...

What all the hockey-playing Jewish kids in America are not doing, during their hundreds of hours hustling to, on, and from the ice rink, is studying. It's not that they don't study at all, because they do. It's that they don't study with the ferociousness and all-out commitment of people who realize (or who have parents who realize) that outstanding school performance is their one shot at big-time opportunity in America.

Meanwhile, there is another ethnic group in America whose children devote their free time not to hockey but to extra study. ... This group is Asian-Americans. ...

[A]s Asians become America's new Jews, Jews are becoming ... Episcopalians.
--Nicholas Lemann, Slate, on Jews as Episcopalians

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Koreans on David Chang

Those who have or haven’t been to [David Chang's] Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan should know that on the subject of this superstar chef, the Koreans are split. Go figure.

Important taste-buds are dazzled by unctuous Berkshire pork stews accented with the bright, tart, scarlet strands of pickled cabbage. Plenty of people delight in the toothsomeness of roasted glutinous rice cakes complemented by the impossibly green taste of scallions cast in this light. But others of us — or our mothers and aunts — have performed such sleights of hand in our own homes. We know that rice cakes are pre-fabricated and sometimes shipped frozen, and that being heralded for adding kimchi to butter is akin to granting a patent for slicing hot dogs atop blue-box mac-and-cheese.
--Mary H.K. Choi, NYT, on gussied up home cooking

The fastest readers and thinkers in the world

The chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan commission on reducing the national debt outlined a politically provocative and economically ambitious package of spending cuts and tax increases on Wednesday, igniting a debate that is likely to grip the country for years. ...

Liberal groups immediately condemned the plan when news of it broke, for its Social Security and Medicare changes and for the scope of the spending cuts. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in a statement called it “simply unacceptable.”
--Jackie Calmes, NYT, on knowing your reaction before knowing what you're reacting to

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Academic celebrity

Other researchers are eager to work with [John Ioannidis]: he has published papers with 1,328 different co-authors at 538 institutions in 43 countries, he says. Last year he received, by his estimate, invitations to speak at 1,000 conferences and institutions around the world, and he was accepting an average of about five invitations a month until a case last year of excessive-travel-induced vertigo led him to cut back.
--David Freedman, Atlantic Monthly, on life as an academic celebrity

The imperfection of the research endeavor

In the paper, [John] Ioannidis laid out a detailed mathematical proof that, assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the well-known tendency to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time. Simply put, if you’re attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you’re motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you’ll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right. His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials. ...

To say that Ioannidis’s work has been embraced would be an understatement. His PLoS Medicine paper is the most downloaded in the journal’s history, and it’s not even Ioannidis’s most-cited work—that would be a paper he published in Nature Genetics on the problems with gene-link studies.
--David Freedman, Atlantic Monthly, on research bias