Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thai kids love K-Pop

In the mascaraed eyes of Thai teenyboppers, South Korea is ground zero of hip. More than Lady Gaga, more than any local act, Bangkok kids aspire to the saccharine perfection of Korean pop.

Thai authorities, however, have proven less welcoming of the “K-Pop” phenomenon. With each new Korean fashion craze comes official warnings that the new fad may blind, disfigure or even kill.

The Seoul-born craze for “Big Eye” contacts can cause blindness and, if swapped among friends, AIDS, according to Thailand’s health ministry. Officials warn that prickly glue-on eyelashes, popular among Korean divas, can put your eye out. Yet another public service announcement warns against imitating Korean looks through surgery or toxic whitening creams.

The latest advisory blames trendy black hosiery — another fashion import from Seoul — for a summer rash of dengue fever in women aged 10 to 24. The mosquitoes are drawn to the leggings’ dark hues, said Deputy Health Minister Pansiri Kulanartsiri. ...

All of these trends are lumped under what sociologists call the “Korean Wave.” (The press has called it “Kim Chic.”) Roughly 10 years ago, the South Korean government began subsidizing the export of slick soap operas and pop groups for pan-Asian consumption.

The investment paid off. Teens across Asia are now addicted to Korean pop culture: soaps, boy bands and films. The wave has steadily grown in China, Japan and all of Southeast Asia, where drab state-controlled media often struggle to compete. ...

K-Pop has even sparked a Korean language craze, compelling high school and college kids to study with professional tutors in their spare time.

“It’s serious,” said Nora Chaikum, 24, a recent graduate of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “They can hardly speak a word of Korean to you. But they can recite entire albums.” ...

“Conservatives maybe worry the Korean virus is too strong,” Nora said. “The problem is, teenagers believe there’s no real Thai style to imitate. I couldn’t even explain to you what Thai style would be.”

“Before the Korean wave,” she said, “we just dressed like kids from the states.”
--Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, on the dire perils of Korean pop culture. HT: Marginal Revolution

Grade compression

GPA cutoffs for honors among Yale College 2010 graduates
3.93 summa cum laude
3.85 magna cum laude
3.76 cum laude
--Yale Daily News on the razor-thin distinctions between summa, magna, and cum laude

Monday, September 27, 2010

Location incentives among the homeless

Since Mayor Gavin Newsom took office, he and the city of San Francisco have spent more than $1 billion on the homeless.

But is it helping?

This year, the city spent $150 million on health care and social services for its estimated 13,500 homeless on the street or in city-funded housing.

That comes to about $11,000 per person.

The city has spent another $176 million, mostly in federal funds, on permanent housing for the homeless since 2004. ...

By the mayor's calculations, 44 percent of the people whom police or social workers talk to on the streets have been in San Francisco for less than 90 days.
--Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, San Francisco Chronicle, on one reason why there are so many homeless in San Francisco

High school sweethearts

[During the first few months of college,] parties, activities, dorms and classes help you find people you actually like to talk to. That is, unless you’re in your room every night, on the phone with your high school sweetheart, who’s back home or at another school. Or worse, you’re leaving school every other weekend to visit your significant other. Break up.

You should break up soon because you are likely to break up over Thanksgiving, anyway. ...

Going to the same college as your significant high school other will not necessarily solve the problem. This is what happened to me. My boyfriend didn’t like my new “scene”; I panicked because I felt that we were spending too much time — then too little time — together. We limped through the first two months of the first semester before we called it quits.

The college year went by, bringing a lot of new people and priorities into our separate lives. The following fall, we realized that all our growing pains had not diminished what was a very precious connection. We ended up getting back together and staying together through the rest of college. But we had to break up first.
--Rebecca Elliott, NYT, on not postponing the inevitable

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nokia's lost opportunities

A few years before Apple introduced the iPhone in early 2007, the prototype of an Internet-ready, touch-screen handset with a large display made the rounds among upper management at Nokia.

The prototype developed by Nokia’s research centers in Finland was seen as a potential breakthrough by its engineers that would have given the world’s biggest maker of mobile phones a powerful advantage in the fast-growing smartphone market.

“It was very early days, and no one really knew anything about the touch screen’s potential,” said Ari Hakkarainen, a former manager on Nokia’s Symbian Series 60 marketing team, who handled and demonstrated the prototype to business customers at Nokia’s headquarters in Espoo, Finland, in 2004.

“And it was an expensive device to produce so there was more risk involved for Nokia,” he said. “So management did the usual. They killed it.” ...

As Nokia — which has just hired its first non-Finnish chief executive [former Microsoft business software division head Stephen Elop] — attempts to turn its troubled high-end lineup around, the company faces an obstacle almost as formidable, according to three former executives, as its rivals: its stifling bureaucracy. ...

Juhani Risku, a manager who worked on user interface designs for Nokia’s Symbian operating system from 2001 to 2009, said his team had offered 500 proposals during his tenure to improve Symbian’s performance but could not get even one adopted.

Many analysts say Symbian’s shortcomings have hobbled Nokia’s smartphone offering, as developers are unwilling to write applications for the clunky system. ...

In 2004, managers on Nokia’s Series 60 smartphone development team came up with an early design for a Nokia online applications store — an innovation that both Apple, Nokia and other handset makers would eventually adopt three years later in 2007. ...

“We demonstrated it within Nokia and said this is what we needed,” [Hakkarainen] said. “We tried to convince middle and upper management. But there was no way.”
--Kevin O'Brien, NYT, on Nokia's Soviet-style bureaucracy. And Nokia's bringing a Microsoft executive to fix this?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Top secret FAIL

The New York Times reported in 2009 that President George W. Bush had authorized new efforts, including some that were experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks that serve Iran’s nuclear program, according to current and former American officials.

The program is among the most secret in the United States government, and it has been accelerated since President Obama took office, according to some American officials.
--David E. Sanger, NYT, on not-so-secret "most secret" programs

The first cyberwarfare attack?

An exceptionally sophisticated piece of malware designed to attack programs used in critical infrastructure and other facilities garnered extensive attention among computer security experts this week as new details about its design and capabilities emerge, along with speculation it was aimed at disrupting Iran’s nuclear program. ...

The Stuxnet worm, which was discovered in June and has infected more than 100,000 computer systems worldwide, is designed to attack the Siemens Simatic WinCC SCADA system. SCADA systems, short for “supervisory control and data acquisition,” are programs installed in pipelines, nuclear plants, utility companies and manufacturing facilities to manage operations.

But even more intriguingly, researchers say the worm is designed to attack a very particular configuration of the Simatic SCADA software, indicating the malware writers had a specific facility or facilities in mind for their attack and had extensive knowledge of the system they were targeting. Although it’s not known what system was targeted, once on the targeted system, the worm was designed to install additional malware, possibly with the purpose of destroying the system and creating real-world explosions in the facility where it ran. ...

Frank Rieger, chief technology officer at Berlin security firm GSMK, thinks it more likely the target in Iran was a nuclear facility in Natanz. The Bushehr reactor is designed to develop non–weapons-grade atomic energy, while the Natanz facility, a centrifuge plant, is designed to enrich uranium and presents a greater risk for producing nuclear weapons. Rieger backs this claim with a number of seeming coincidences.

The Stuxnet malware appears to have begun infecting systems in January 2009. In July of that year, the secret-spilling site WikiLeaks posted an announcement saying that an anonymous source had disclosed that a “serious” nuclear incident had recently occurred at Natanz. ...

Statistics from 2009 show that the number of enriched centrifuges operational in Iran mysteriously declined from about 4,700 to about 3,900 beginning around the time the nuclear incident WikiLeaks mentioned would have occurred. ...

If Iran was the target, the United States or Israel are suspected as the likely perpetrators — both have the skill and resources to produce complicated malware such as Stuxnet. ...

Last year, an article published by, a web site connected to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, quoted a former Israeli cabinet member saying the Israeli government determined long ago that a cyber attack involving the insertion of targeted computer malware was the only viable way to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
--Kim Zetter, Wired, on the future of warfare arriving

Friday, September 24, 2010

The American diet

This week, [NPD Group, a market research company,] released the 25th edition of its annual report, “Eating Patterns in America.” The news there wasn’t good, either. For example, only 23 percent of meals include a vegetable, [NPD Group chief industry analyst] Balzer said. (Again, fries don’t count, but lettuce on a hamburger does.) The number of dinners prepared at home that included a salad was 17 percent; in 1994, it was 22 percent.
--Kim Severson, NYT, on shockingly low vegetable consumption

A union for union picketers

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

The formerly low status of academic finance

At that time [the early 1970s] finance was a field largely outside the rubric of economics. Paul Samuelson has reflected on his own experience: "Finance was my Sunday painting. Sunday painters are not quite in the Club. They publish in unrefereed journals and are not read much." ... Similarly, Stephen Ross remembers being warned as a graduate student at Wharton in 1970 against switching from economics to finance: "Finance is to economics as osteopathy is to medicine." ...

Black and Scholes discovered just how low was the status of finance among economists when they tried to publish their result in economics journals. In the fall of 1970 their paper was rejected in short order by both the Journal of Political Economy and the Review of Economics and Statistics, in both cases without even being sent out for referee report. The editors saw the contribution as a narrow technical one at best, but also not really economics, and hence not even worth considering. ...

The crucial intervention came from Merton Miller and Eugene Fama, who persuaded the Journal of Political Economy to reconsider.
--Perry Mehrling, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, on desk rejections of a Nobel Prize winning paper

A compelling reason to donate to Harvard

By being one of the first alumni to contribute now at the start of the academic year, you will receive no further solicitations from the Harvard College Fund for the rest of the year.
--Harvard alumni donation solicitation letter. HT: Bryan Choi

How the Black-Scholes equation was derived

Invoking CAPM, [Fischer] Black used the betas to obtain equations for the expected return on the option and the stock. Expanding the term for the return on the option, and working out some simple algebra, he arrived at the crucial differential equation...

After "many, many days" trying unsuccessfully to solve the equation, Black put the problem aside. ... In Black's mind, just as in [Robert] Merton's, the warrant valuation problem was simply not that important. It was a kind of ivory tower curiosity, important to some academics but not to the wider world. Who really cared about warrant valuation except for speculators...? ...

One day, in summer or early fall of 1969, at one of their regular meetings on the Wells Fargo case at Fischer's office in Belmont, Myron Scholes brought up the topic of options pricing. ...

Indeed, success cannot have appeared very likely, since Scholes seemed no better equipped to solve the equation than Black.

Nevertheless, working together, they did manage to solve it, and in a most unlikely way. Bringing a number cruncher's practical empiricist approach to the problem, Scholes was naturally attracted to the analysis of Case Sprenkle, a graduate student at Yale who had come up with an incomplete formula for the option price containing parameters that he estimated from the data. Having this proto-formula in mind, Black and Scholes achieved the key breakthrough by thinking not about what had to be in the formula but rather about what had to be absent from it. ...

Sprenkle had provided a formula for the option price that required the user to provide two inputs: the expected return on the stock, and the discount rate for valuing the payoffs of the option. But Black and Scholes knew from the differential equation that the expected return on the stock could not enter the correct formula. They concluded that, without loss of generality, they could assume that the option was written on a zero-beta stock, which meant they could set the expected return on the stock equal to the interest rate. Further, since the option on a zero-beta stock would have a zero beta as well, they could use the same interest rate as the appropriate discount rate. Plugging these rates into Sprenkle's formula, they got a formula for the value of an option on a zero-beta stock. But the formula also satisfied the differential equation, which meant that it was also the formula for the value of an option on a non-zero-beta stock. The problem was solved.
--Perry Mehrling, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, on the stumble towards discovery

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hope for better Korean food in the U.S.

South Korean investment in the U.S. got a major boost in 2008 when the federal government decided to no longer require visas for visiting South Korean citizens. The move has already shown results.

For the first six months of this year, some 450,000 South Koreans entered the U.S., a 38% rise over the same period last year. The U.S. is the third-most-popular destination for South Koreans, after China and Japan. ...

But money from Seoul has caused tension in Los Angeles' Koreatown, analysts say.

"It's having a hugely disruptive impact," Park said. "If you're a restaurant owner there, you're running scared, because the South Koreans bring a more authentic, more exciting brand of Korean food.

"Many Korean American owners see the writing on the wall — they know they have to step it up or be pushed out," Park said. "But contractors and other businesses are ready to cater to this new investment. Given the tough economy in L.A., they're all happy as clams."
--John Glionna and Ethan Kim, LA Times, on the threat to the mediocrity that is U.S. Korean food

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Goodfellas in an alternate universe

Barbara De Fina (executive producer): I don't remember there being a lot of choices about who could play Henry Hill. There weren't a lot of actors who could pull it off. He had to do terrible things, and yet you had to somehow care about him. But Ray [Liotta] wasn't a big star.

Irwin Winkler (producer): Tom Cruise was discussed.


De Fina: Madonna seemed to be in the mix [for the role of Henry's wife, Karen]. I remember that we went to see her in the play Speed-the-Plow. Marty said hello to her afterwards. There was definitely somebody somewhere wanting to cast her. Can you imagine? Tom Cruise and Madonna? But Marty [Scorsese] can get a performance out of almost anyone.
--GQ interviews on the casting of Goodfellas

Harvard and Yale undergrad utility functions

[Stephanie Kan (Yale '14)] added that when she later visited Harvard during its admitted students days this year, she found that many students spent their free time studying and some had taken time off to get away from the academic stress. The source of pressure on students at Harvard, Kan reasoned, could not be simply academic. ...

Likewise, Christopher Logan [Yale] ’14, of San Bernardino, Calif., said his decision came down to a question of opportunity and college environment. While he said Harvard and Yale were comparable in the opportunities each offered, their environments could not be more different. At Harvard, he said, students seemed more concerned with potential future rewards of the Harvard name rather than their immediate happiness. Yale, on the other hand, seemed to Logan as a place where “everyone was happy to be.” Yale, he reasoned, offered a similar reputation to Harvard without the tension and constant status anxiety. ....

Dany Jradi, who was also admitted to Yale this year, said he also chose Harvard based on its international reputation and the future opportunities and connections the Harvard name would bring. Originally from Lebanon, Jradi said that most people in his home country have only heard of either Harvard or Oxford.

“Considering the fact that I would like to go back to the Middle East for work in the future, what the community’s opinion of where I graduated was important for me,” Jradi said.

The question of future opportunities was also a top priority for Irene Chen [(Harvard '14)], who said she did not develop a “gut feeling” for either Harvard or Yale after visiting both colleges from Atlanta and ultimately resorted to pinning down the pros and cons of each college on an extensive spreadsheet. ...

Chen said she decided not to place as much emphasis on quality of life at college simply because it seemed too difficult to make predictions about how things would turn out over four years after having spent barely three days on campus. ...

Even today, when family friends at her local church ask where Kan is headed to college, her mother will mention that she was accepted to Harvard but chose to attend Yale instead to which there would be gasps of “why Yale and not Harvard?” Kan said.
--Carmen Lu, Yale Daily News, on differences in intertemporal discount rates and brand name valuation between Harvard and Yale undergrads

Well, I say let Harvard have its football and academics. Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life. Why, every friend I have, I made right here.
--Yale alum Montgomery Burns, as written by Harvard alums

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A dark force

Researchers say Pioneer 10, which took the first close-up pictures of Jupiter before leaving our solar system in 1983, is being pulled back to the sun by an unknown force. The effect shows no sign of getting weaker as the spacecraft travels deeper into space, and scientists are considering the possibility that the probe has revealed a new force of nature. ...

Research to be published shortly in The Physical Review, a leading physics journal, will show that the speed of the two [Pioneer] probes is being changed by about 6 mph per century - a barely-perceptible effect about 10 billion times weaker than gravity. ...

Scientists initially suspected that gas escaping from tiny rocket motors aboard the probes, or heat leaking from their nuclear power plants might be responsible. Both have now been ruled out. The team says no current theories explain why the force stays constant: all the most plausible forces, from gravity to the effect of solar radiation, decrease rapidly with distance. ...

Assertions by some scientists that the force is due to a quirk in the Pioneer probes have also been discounted by the discovery that the effect seems to be affecting Galileo and Ulysses, two other space probes still in the solar system. Data from these two probes suggests the force is of the same strength as that found for the Pioneers.
--Robert Matthews, Telegraph, on a mysterious tug home. HT: Gizmodo

Real-life mice of NIMH

Deleting a certain gene in mice can make them smarter by unlocking a mysterious region of the brain considered to be relatively inflexible, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have found.

Mice with a disabled RGS14 gene are able to remember objects they'd explored and learn to navigate mazes better than regular mice, suggesting that RGS14's presence limits some forms of learning and memory. ...

Since RGS14 appears to hold mice back mentally, John Hepler, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine, says he and his colleagues have been jokingly calling it the "Homer Simpson gene." ...

RGS14, which is also found in humans, was identified more than a decade ago. ...

The lack of RGS14 doesn't seem to hurt the altered mice, but it is still possible that they have their brain functions changed in a way that researchers have not yet been able to spot. ...

"The pipe dream is that maybe you could find a compound that inhibits RGS14 or shuts it down," [Sarah Emerson Lee] adds. "Then, perhaps, you could enhance cognition."
--Medical Daily on better thinking through genetics. HT: Gizmodo

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Another SF Muni whoops

The secret is out: All it takes is a wave of the hand to open [San Francisco] Muni's new subway station fare gates to enter the Metro system without paying.

The gates are designed to open automatically with a motion sensor when a person exits. That same sensor can be activated by someone entering the system. All the scofflaw rider has to do is reach over the gate and wave a hand, bypassing the need to open it with a prepaid fare card.

The flaw, first reported by KRON-TV, is certain to add to Muni's already throbbing headache of illegal fare evasion.

Muni spokesman Paul Rose said Friday that the agency's tech wizards had known about the problem with the new gates but that there's no easy fix. The new $30 million fare gate system, which is part of Muni's transition to the regional Clipper fare card program, is expected to be installed at all the Muni Metro stations next month.
--Rachel Gordon, SFGate, on incompetence

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The oil change scam

“There was a time when [changing your car's engine oil every] 3,000 miles was a good guideline,” said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for the car site “But it’s no longer true for any car bought in the last seven or eight years.”

Oil chemistry and engine technology have improved to the point that most cars can go several thousand more miles before changing the oil, Mr. Reed said. A better average, he said, would be 7,500 between oil changes, and sometimes up to 10,000 miles or more.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board ran public service announcements for several years about “the 3,000-mile myth,” urging drivers to wait longer between oil changes. Although the information is a few years old, the board has a list of cars on its Web site and how often they need oil changes. The concern is not only the cost to drivers, but the environmental impact of throwing away good oil, said Mark Oldfield, a recycling specialist for the agency. ...

Still, some people stick to the 3,000-mile changes, because “the Jiffy Lubes of the world have done a good job convincing people,” Mr. Martin said. ...

But Jiffy Lube, the largest quick oil change company in North America, is now under pressure to change its automatic 3,000-mile recommendation.

For about a year, the company has run a pilot program with some franchises across the country suggesting that instead of a blanket recommendation, mechanics tell customers what the manufacturer recommends under mild or severe driving conditions.
--Alina Tugend, NYT, on why you should change your engine oil less often

Monday, September 13, 2010

Going from ridiculous to obvious

One of the things I like about doing science, the thing that is the most fun, is coming up with something that seems ridiculous when you first hear it, but finally seems obvious when you're finished.
--Fischer Black

Simplifying to reduce financial procrastination

The daunting complexity of important financial decisions can lead to procrastination. We evaluate a low-cost intervention that substantially simplifies the retirement savings plan participation decision. Individuals received an opportunity to enroll in a retirement savings plan at a pre-selected contribution rate and asset allocation, allowing them to collapse a multidimensional problem into a binary choice between the status quo and the pre-selected alternative. The intervention increases plan enrollment rates by 10 to 20 percentage points. We find that a similar intervention can be used to increase contribution rates among employees who are already participating in a savings plan.
--Beshears, Choi, Laibson, and Madrian, "Simplification and Saving," on how you can help people do important things promptly

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In favor of frequent testing

When my children were 6 and 8, taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time. There were the “mad minute” math quizzes twice each week, with the results elaborately graphed. There were regular spelling quizzes. Even today I have my daughter’s minutely graded third-grade science exams, with grades like 23/25 or A minus.

We were living in China, where their school blended a mostly Western elementary school curriculum with the emphasis on discipline and testing that typifies Asian educational styles. In Asia, such a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking. ...

Testing of young children had been out of favor for decades among early-childhood educators in the United States, who worry that it stifles creativity and harms self-esteem, and does not accurately reflect the style and irregular pace of children’s learning anyway. ...

But Professor [Gregory] Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.” ...

When testing is commonplace and the teachers are supportive — as my children’s were, for the most part — the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge. It is a testament to the International School of Beijing — or to the malleability of childhood memory — that Andrew now says he did not realize that he was being tested. ...

When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.

“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.
--Elisabeth Rosenthal, NYT, on the upside of frequent low-stakes testing

Friday, September 10, 2010

Against cute course names

When I shop for science and math cores, it always feels like I’m back in elementary school. I scan the course catalogue and ponder what my parents might say when I tell them I’m taking “Science of the Physical Universe 22: The Unity of Science: From the Big Bang to the Brontosaurus” or “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 14: Fat Chance.”

“Is that a real class?” I imagine they’d ask.

These ridiculously named classes are a manifestation of a general bias within the Core and General Education programs that all students who choose to concentrate in the humanities are both incapable of doing math and science and completely uninterested in those subjects. ...

Science and math concentrators often find humanities courses just as challenging or uninteresting, but at least they get treated like adults. “Western Ascendancy: The Mainsprings of Global Power from 1600 to the Present” sounds just as respectable and intellectually fulfilling as anything I could find in the history department. It isn’t called “The West: Why We’re Awesome” just to attract the attention [of] non-history buffs.
--Adrienne Lee, Harvard Crimson, on asymmetric attitudes

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Athens somehow manages to be bright white and grubby at the same time. The most beautiful freshly painted neoclassical homes are defaced with new graffiti. Ancient ruins are everywhere, of course, but seem to have little to do with anything else. It’s Los Angeles with a past.
--Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, on L.A. in 2000 years

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Game theory applied to parenting

Our kids are all at that age and so it's a regular family joke in the car ride home that the first to fall asleep gets a prize. It sometimes even works. But I learned something on our vacation last month we went on a couple of longer then usual car trips. Someone will fall asleep first, and once that happens the contest is over. The other two have no incentives. Also, in the first-to-fall game, each child has an incentive to keep the others awake. Not good for the parents. (And this second problem persists even if you try to remedy the first by adding runner-up prizes.)

So the new game in town is last-to-sleep gets a prize. You would think that this keeps them up too long but it actually has some nice properties. Optimal play in this game has each child pretending to sleep, thereby tricking the others into thinking they can fall asleep and be the last. So there’s lots of quiet even before they fall asleep. And there’s no better way to get a tired kid to fall asleep than to have him sit still, as if sleeping, in a quiet car.
--Jeff Ely, Cheap Talk, on inverting incentives to achieve optimal sleep outcomes. HT: Marginal Revolution

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Early retirement

According to the Department of Education, 1,800 New York City teachers who lost their jobs earlier this year have yet to apply for another job in the system or attend fairs for recruitment, despite the fact that there are 1,200 openings. Perhaps their apathy and poor self-motivation (sounds like someone's getting sent to the guidance counselor's office) stems from the fact that New York is the only city in the U.S. where teachers are guaranteed pay for life even if their school closes and they no longer have a permanent job. The policy costs the DOE more than $100 million per year in salary and benefits. Those teachers go into the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, where they can be used as substitutes. The average salary for an ATR pool teacher? $82,000, with some making $100,000. Some teachers have been in the pool since 2006.
--New York on the ultimate unemployment insurance

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Password security theater

Make your password strong, with a unique jumble of letters, numbers and punctuation marks. But memorize it — never write it down. And, oh yes, change it every few months.

These instructions are supposed to protect us. But they don’t.

Some computer security experts are advancing the heretical thought that passwords might not need to be “strong,” or changed constantly. They say onerous requirements for passwords have given us a false sense of protection against potential attacks. ...

“It is not users who need to be better educated on the risks of various attacks, but the security community,” [Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley] said at a meeting of security professionals, the New Security Paradigms Workshop, at Queen’s College in Oxford, England. “Security advice simply offers a bad cost-benefit tradeoff to users.”

One might guess that heavily trafficked Web sites — especially those that provide access to users’ financial information — would have requirements for strong passwords. But it turns out that password policies of many such sites are among the most relaxed. ... The sites that insisted on very complex passwords were mostly government and university sites. What accounts for the difference? [Herley and Dinei FlorĂȘncio] suggest that “when the voices that advocate for usability are absent or weak, security measures become needlessly restrictive.”

Donald A. Norman, a co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, a design consulting firm in Fremont, Calif., makes a similar case. In “When Security Gets in the Way,” an essay published last year, he noted the password rules of Northwestern University, where he then taught. It was a daunting list of 15 requirements. He said unreasonable rules can end up rendering a system less secure: users end up writing down passwords and storing them in places that can be readily discovered. ...

A short password wouldn’t work well if an attacker could try every possible combination in quick succession. But as Mr. Herley and Mr. FlorĂȘncio note, commercial sites can block “brute-force attacks” by locking an account after a given number of failed log-in attempts. “If an account is locked for 24 hours after three unsuccessful attempts,” they write, “a six-digit PIN can withstand 100 years of sustained attack.”

Roger A. Safian, a senior data security analyst at Northwestern, says that unlike Amazon, the university is unfortunately vulnerable to brute-force attacks in that it doesn’t lock out accounts after failed log-ins. The reason, he says, is that anyone could use a lockout policy to try logging in to a victim’s account, “knowing that you won’t succeed, but also knowing that the victim won’t be able to use the account, either.” (Such thoughts may occur to a student facing an unwelcome exam, who could block a professor from preparations.)
--Randall Stross, NYT, on why I never change my passwords unless forced to

The slow extinction of final exams

It appears that finals are going the way of the dodo [at Harvard]. [Dean of undergraduate education Jay] Harris told the faculty that of 1,137 undergraduate-level courses this spring term, 259 scheduled finals—the lowest number since 2002, when 200 fewer courses were offered. For the more than 500 graduate-level courses offered, just 14 had finals, he reported. Until the 1940s, Harris noted during subsequent discussion, requests to conclude a course without a final examination required a formal vote by the entire [Faculty of Arts and Sciences].
--Harvard Magazine on a trend I'm contributing to at Yale

Perseverance's place in Korean culture

This diminutive [69-year-old] woman, now known nationwide [in South Korea] as “Grandma Cha Sa-soon,” has achieved a record that causes people here to first shake their heads with astonishment and then smile: She failed her driver’s test hundreds of times but never gave up. Finally, she got her license — on her 960th try.

For three years starting in April 2005, she took the test once a day five days a week. After that, her pace slowed, to about twice a week. But she never quit.

Hers is a fame based not only on sheer doggedness, a quality held in high esteem by Koreans, but also on the universal human sympathy for a monumental — and in her case, cheerful — loser. ...

Of course, Ms. Park and another driving teacher noted, perhaps Ms. Cha should content herself with simply getting the license and not endangering others on the road by actually driving. But they were not too worried about the risk, they said, because it was the written test, not the driving skill and road tests, that she failed so many times. ...

Her tenacity has struck a chord with South Koreans, who are often exhorted to recall the hardship years after the 1950-53 Korean War and celebrate perseverance as a national trait.

The country’s most popular boxing champion was Hong Su-hwan, who was floored four times before knocking out Hector Carrasquilla to win the World Boxing Association’s super bantamweight championship in 1977. His feat gave rise to a popular phrase about resolve: “Sajeonogi,” or “Knocked down four times, rising up five.”
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, making a very true observation about Korean culture

Friday, September 3, 2010

Capital structure and love

Nobody likes unpleasant surprises, but when Allison Brooke Eastman’s fiancĂ© found out four months ago just how high her student loan debt was, he had a particularly strong reaction: he broke off the engagement within three days.

Ms. Eastman said she had told him early on in their relationship that she had over $100,000 of debt. But, she said, even she didn’t know what the true balance was; like a car buyer who focuses on only the monthly payment, she wrote 12 checks a year for about $1,100 each, the minimum possible. She didn’t focus on the bottom line, she said, because it was so profoundly depressing.

But as the couple got closer to their wedding day, she took out all the paperwork and it became clear that her total debt was actually about $170,000. “He accused me of lying,” said Ms. Eastman, 31, a San Francisco X-ray technician and part-time photographer who had run up much of the balance studying for a bachelor’s degree in photography. “But if I was lying, I was lying to myself, not to him. I didn’t really want to know the full amount.” ...

When, exactly, are you supposed to reveal a debt of this size during the courtship? Earlier than you’d disclose, say, a chronic illness?
--Ron Lieber, NYT, on financial liabilities becoming romantic liabilities

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Church makes you happier than shopping

A new study ... reveals that women in the United States generally derive more happiness from religious participation than from shopping on Sundays. Additionally, the repeal of "blue laws," which allow stores to open on Sundays, has a negative effect on the level of religious participation of white women and therefore has a negative impact on their happiness. Interestingly, the authors did not observe any significant decline in reported happiness of other groups whose religious participation was not significantly affected by repeal.

The research also reveals that when Sunday blue laws are repealed, women who choose secular activities, such as shopping, are not happier. The repeal of blue laws decreases the relative probability of being at least "pretty happy" relative to "not happy" by about 17 percent.

According to Dr. Danny Cohen-Zada of BGU's Department of Economics, "We found that there is direct evidence that religious participation has a positive causal effect on a person's happiness. Furthermore, an important part of the decline in women's happiness during the last three decades can be explained by decline in religious participation." ...

The researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey (GSS). They selected respondents who either live in states where there was a distinct, clear and significant change (repeal) in the prohibition of retail activity on Sundays (10 states) or where there was no change at all (six states).

Within the states, they used data for Catholics and Protestants because they were the most likely to attend church on Sundays. Non-Christian religions and respondents with no religion were excluded.
--e! Science News on what does and does not make us happy

The abstract of the original paper, "Religious Participation Versus Shopping: What Makes People Happier?" by Danny Cohen-Zada and William Sander:

Previous studies indicate that there is a positive correlation between religious participation and happiness. However, it is not necessarily the case that religious participation has a causal effect on happiness. In this study, we try to test whether religious participation affects happiness. Following previous research, we use the repeal of blue laws in states to identify the relationship between religious participation and happiness. We show that the repeal of blue laws can be used as a valid instrument for estimating the effect of church attendance on happiness. Further, we find that religious participation does indeed have a positive effect on happiness. The primary data source for our study is the National Opinion Research Center’s “General Social Survey.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A man who loves his work

In a year when news about Alzheimer’s disease seems to whipsaw between encouraging and disheartening, a new discovery by an 84-year-old scientist has illuminated a new direction.

The scientist, Paul Greengard, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on signaling in brain cells, still works in his Rockefeller University lab in New York City seven days a week, walking there from his apartment two blocks away, taking his aging Bernese mountain dog, Alpha. ...

The finding, to be published Thursday in the journal Nature, reveals a new potential drug target that, according to the prevailing hypothesis of the genesis of Alzheimer’s, could slow or halt the devastating effects of this now untreatable disease.
--Gina Kolata, NYT, on the passion of a man who has nothing left to prove