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