Friday, February 26, 2010

Harvard students' newfound inability to entertain themselves

Home life has changed in ways that would seem to undercut children’s development of autonomy. There was a time when children did their own homework. Now parents routinely “help” them with assignments, making teachers wonder whose work they are really grading. Youngsters formerly played sports and games with other children on a sandlot or pickup basis, not in leagues organized, coached, and officiated by adults; kids had to learn to settle disputes over rules and calls among themselves, not by referring them to grownup zebras. Once, college applicants typically wrote their own applications, including the essays; today, an army of high-paid consultants, coaches, and editors is available to orchestrate and massage the admissions effort.

Adults have taken charge even of recreation, as in play dates. “When birthdays come along, kids have been entertained by magicians,” says [Harvard freshman dean Tom] Dingman. “Or taken out to Chuck E. Cheese. They are the ‘Chuck E. Cheese generation.’” Having had their parents organize play and social activities, many young people now arrive at college expecting the institution to operate similarly, in loco parentis. “It’s very upsetting to read on [year-end freshman] surveys that people have been spending Friday and Saturday nights doing problem sets, finding it hard to escape from what they characterize as the ‘intense pressure’ of this place,” Dingman adds. “When they identify what they think is lacking, they say, ‘You haven’t organized other things for us’—things like ‘trips to bowling alleys.’ When I was in college, it never occurred to me that it was Harvard’s responsibility to entertain me.”
--Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine, on Harvard's new in loco parentis role

Cleaning developing country drinking water is hard

Working with the [Innovations for Poverty Action] team, [Harvard economics professor Michael Kremer] first tried making the water cleaner through making improvements to water-supply sites (largely through engineering features that filtered out contaminants while the water was still underground). The water was clean when it came out of the source, but by the time it reached people’s homes, it was contaminated again. Guessing that the weak link might be the containers people were using to carry the water home, the team distributed a different kind of container, only to realize that other sources of contamination meant people were still drinking water that could make them sick: for instance, pouring it into a contaminated drinking glass, or storing it in an open container into which a child might plunge a grimy hand. They decided they had to distribute chlorine, which would not only sanitize the water, but make the water itself into an agent that would sterilize vessels with which it came into contact.

The next trial involved distributing chlorine in small plastic packages for people to add to their water at home. Not even 10 percent of the people in the trial actually used the chlorine; on follow-up surveys, they said they neglected to use it because they forgot the directions for how much to add and when, or simply forgot altogether. In tests of different advertising campaigns—some based on fear (the idea that unclean water is dangerous), some appealing to people’s consciences (good parents provide safe water for their children), some invoking aspirational feelings (“City people use WaterGard”)—none proved particularly effective in getting people to use the chlorine.

The team went back to the drawing board, deciding to try placing the chlorine at central collection sites like the one near Busia. In the pilot phase of testing, the scheme proved far more effective—and far less expensive—than giving the chemical to people in containers sized for use in an individual household. Because such a small amount is needed—“a bottle of bleach you buy at CVS could treat water for one person for 40 years,” says Kremer—the packaging for the earlier trial cost more than the chlorine itself. Installing the dispensers in a public place has the added benefit of potentially creating a new social norm: as people see others doing it, they become less fearful of putting this unfamiliar substance in their water.
Tests of the drinking water at people’s homes indicate that this operation is successful: pre-intervention testing (after distribution of chlorine for household use; before installation of the dispensers) found chlorine in the drinking water at just 8 percent of homes during unannounced visits; post-intervention, it was 62 percent.
--Elizabeth Gudrais, Harvard Magazine, on why it's not enough to just clean up developing country water supplies

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Get thinner by eating more salt?

Dr. [David] McCarron and his colleagues analyzed surveys from 33 countries around the world and reported that, despite wide differences in diet and culture, people generally consumed about the same amount of salt. ...

The results were so similar in so many places that Dr. McCarron hypothesized that networks in the brain regulate sodium appetite so that people consume a set daily level of salt. If so, that might help explain one apparent paradox related to reports that Americans are consuming more daily calories than they used to. Extra food would be expected to come with additional salt, yet there has not been a clear upward trend in daily salt consumption evident over the years in urinalysis studies, which are considered the best gauge because they directly measure salt levels instead of relying on estimates based on people’s recollections of what they ate. ...

As Americans ate more calories, they could have eased up on some of the saltier choices so that their overall sodium consumption remained constant. By that same logic, [McCarron] speculated, if future policies reduce the average amount of salt in food, people might compensate by seeking out saltier foods — or by simply eating still more of everything. ...

If you track how many strokes and heart attacks are suffered by people on low-salt diets, the results aren’t nearly as neat or encouraging, as noted recently in JAMA by Michael H. Alderman, a hypertension expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. A low-salt diet was associated with better clinical outcomes in only 5 of the 11 studies he considered; in the rest, the people on the low-salt diet fared either the same or worse.
--John Tierney, NYT, on reasons to reach for the salt shaker 

The need for smuggling into secularism

But the debate takes another turn if one argues, as the professor of law Steven Smith does in his new book, “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse,” that there are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another. ...

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”...

Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By “smuggling,” Smith answers. ...
The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design,” all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. ...

And how do we do that? Well, one way is to invoke secular concepts like freedom and equality — concepts sufficiently general to escape the taint of partisan or religious affiliation — and claim that your argument follows from them. But, Smith points out (following Peter Westen and others), freedom and equality — and we might add justice, fairness and impartiality — are empty abstractions. Nothing follows from them until we have answered questions like “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” — for only then will they have content enough to guide deliberation. ...

Indeed, concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives secular reason has forsworn.
--Stanley Fish, NYT, on secular paralysis

Monday, February 22, 2010

Yale's writing

Yale students swept this year’s Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest, taking first, second and third place and two honorable mentions. English Department lecturer Fred Strebeigh boasted that over the recent history of the Atlantic contest, work written by Yale students has taken 46 percent of first prizes and 32 percent of all nonfiction awards.
--Yale Daily News on a rebuttal to Simon Rich's writing advice to aspiring writers at Yale. Read the advice here.

The SF Muni driver club

The average base pay for a [San Francisco] Muni operator — those who drive buses, cable cars and light-rail vehicles — is roughly $60,000, which is determined by a City Charter mandate that says they must be among the top paid in the country.

Krugman's partisan vitriol

If [Paul Krugman] is writing his column, he will start it on the morning of the day it’s due, and, if the spirit is with him, he will be done soon after lunch. When he has a draft, he gives it to [his wife Robin] Wells to edit... [T]hese days she focusses on making him less dry, less abstract, angrier. Recently, he gave her a draft of an article he’d done for Rolling Stone. He had written, “As Obama tries to deal with the crisis, he will get no help from Republican leaders,” and after this she inserted the sentence “Worse yet, he’ll get obstruction and lies.” ... Here and there, she suggested things for him to add. “This would be a good place to flesh out the vehement objections from the G.O.P. and bankers to nationalization,” she wrote on page 9. “Show us all their huffing and puffing before you dismiss it as nonsense in the following graf.”

On the rare occasion when they disagree about something, she will be the one urging him to be more outraged or recalcitrant. ...

Wells... was so upset when Reagan was elected that she moved to England...
--Larissa MacFarquhar, New Yorker, on one explanation for why the Krugman of today is not the Krugman I loved to read in the 1990s

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Price controls past, present, and perhaps future

President Barack Obama will propose giving federal authorities the power to limit rate hikes by health insurance companies — part of a new health care overhaul plan he will unveil Monday in a last-ditch bid to salvage his signature issue.

The proposal would give the federal Health and Human Services Department — in conjunction with state authorities — the power to deny egregious premium increases, roll them back, or demand rebates for consumers, said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity because details have not yet been officially released.
--Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press, on what could be a Hugo Chavez moment for Obama

[Hugo] Chavez said he’ll create an anti-speculation committee to monitor prices after private businesses said that prices would double and consumers rushed to buy household appliances and televisions. The government is the only authority able to dictate price increases, he said.
--Daniel Cancel, Bloomberg, on eerie echoes from South America

Faced with an accelerating inflation rate and shortages of basic foods like beef, chicken and milk, President Hugo Chávez has threatened to jail grocery store owners and nationalize their businesses if they violate the country’s expanding price controls. ...

Entering a supermarket here is a bizarre experience. Shelves are fully stocked with Scotch whiskey, Argentine wines and imported cheeses like brie and Camembert, but basic staples like black beans and desirable cuts of beef like sirloin are often absent. Customers, even those in the government’s own Mercal chain of subsidized grocery stores, are left with choices like pork neck bones, rabbit and unusual cuts of lamb.
--Simon Romero, NYT, on the consequences of price controls

Perhaps the earliest case in which a government tried to use price controls to prevent inflation occurred in late imperial Rome. By the end of the third century it had clearly reached a crisis. The state could no longer obtain sufficient resources because heavy impositions had destroyed the economic base of taxation. The historian Lactantius, who lived from 240 to 320, tells us that the problem was a bloated welfare state:

"The number of [welfare] recipients began to exceed the number of contributors [taxpayers] by so much that, with farmers' resources exhausted by the enormous size of the requisitions, fields became deserted and cultivated land was turned into forest."

Rome was forced to rely ever more heavily on debasement of the currency to raise revenue. By the reign of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, who served from 268 to 270, the silver content of the principal coin, the denarius, was down to just 0.02%. As a consequence, prices skyrocketed. ...

At this point, the very survival of the state was at stake. Emperor Diocletian, who served from 284 to 305, attempted to stop the inflation with a far-reaching system of price controls. They were justified by Diocletian's belief that the inflation was due mainly to speculation and hoarding, rather than debasement of the currency.

In 301 Diocletian issued an extensive edict fixing the prices for just about all goods and services. ... The death penalty applied to violations of the edict. Nevertheless, they failed in their purpose. As Lactantius tells us, "much blood was then shed over small and cheap items." Soon there was nothing for sale and the inflation got worse. Finally, after "many had met their deaths, sheer necessity led to repeal of the law."

The historical experience with price controls down to the present day confirms their futility and often counterproductive nature; the U.S. experience is no exception. According to a history of wage and price controls by the Congressional Budget Office, they have never worked more than temporarily.
--Bruce Bartlett, Forbes, on the first price control debacle

Avoiding insurance death spirals

Spurred by heart-wrenching stories of sick people denied health coverage, the state of New York did what many of President Obama's critics say he should do now -- it passed a relatively simple law requiring insurers to accept all applicants. ...

Premiums in New York are now the highest in the nation by some measures, with individual health coverage costing about $9,000 a year on average. And nearly one in seven New Yorkers still lacks health coverage, a greater proportion than before the law was passed.

The state has become a victim of a dangerous dynamic in insurance markets. Laws allowing consumers to buy insurance at any time often saddle companies with a lot of high-cost customers.

That in turn drives up premiums, pushing away younger, healthier people who are vital to a functioning insurance system.

"You basically can't have a functioning insurance market if people can buy insurance on the way to the hospital," said Mark Hall, a Wake Forest University economist who studied New York's experience. ...

"We are sort of a case study of what not to do," said Mark Scherzer, a consumer attorney who helped lead the fight for New York's changes in the early 1990s and is now counsel to New Yorkers for Accessible Health Coverage. ...

Since 2001, the average premiums for a health plan on the individual market in New York has nearly tripled, according to the state Insurance Department. ... Although New York has higher medical costs than many states, its premiums still outpace other high-cost states.
--Noam Levey, LA Times, on why you can't have guaranteed-issue insurance without a purchase mandate. HT: Alex Tsai

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Relentless marketing persistence

It is often said that there are no new ideas, but [Vanessa] Troyer and [Chris] Farentinos turned that cliché inside out. By correctly anticipating how the high-tech future would change the way we shop, they updated one of the most low-tech items around: the repository of snail mail, the trusty mailbox. ...

What was so special about an Oasis? Well, for one thing, thieves couldn’t get their hands past its patented Hopper door — a hinged opening that functions much like those on the Postal Service’s big blue mailboxes. Also, it wasn’t ugly. ...

Consider, too, the way [Troyer] typed the name of Jeff Bezos, the founder and C.E.O. of, into Google and clicked through 58 pages until she found his phone number. She called and, saying that she wanted to send Mr. Bezos a birthday card, also got his address.

Mr. Farentinos created a detailed PowerPoint presentation showing how much money Amazon lost when its packages were stolen or returned because customers lacked a lockable mailbox. They sent Mr. Bezos the analysis along with an Oasis Jr., writing “A birthday gift for Jeff” on the FedEx label. 

A day after the “gift” arrived, an Amazon employee called. The site sold its first Architectural Mailboxes product in January 2006, and it now carries more than 140.

“Amazon helped legitimize us,” says Mr. Farentinos, an engineer who designs the company’s products, which now have a range of competition from other companies.
--Amy Wallace, NYT, on the extra marketing mile 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Why do all national anthems sound the same?

An Explainer reader once asked, "Is it just me, or do all national anthems the world over, no matter how rich and exotic the culture, seem to sound like European marching-band music? Wouldn't one expect China's national anthem [to] be more 'plinky'? Shouldn't Iraq's national anthem sound a little more 'arab-y'?" Upon initial receipt of this question—in 2008— Slate editors relegated it to that year's list of unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. After a week of watching Olympic medal ceremonies, however, the Explainer was also struck by certain broad-brush similarities. Reader, it's not just you wondering—why do the anthems sound so much alike?

Colonialism. National anthems originated in Europe, and then spread around the world. ... With imperialism, Europeans spread their musical taste. Even when former colonies gained independence, they often imitated the traditions of their former rulers. In some cases Europeans actually composed the melodies.
--Juliet Lapidos, Slate, on a permanent cultural legacy of colonialism

Snootiness FAIL

On Friday, in the biggest men’s basketball game in school history, Harvard will face Cornell. Ever heard of it? (It’s most famous alum is Andy Bernard).
--Timothy Walsh, Harvard Crimson, pooh-poohing Cornell while mangling the possessive of "it"

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Afraid of 4

Joseph Grundfest and Nadya Malenko analyzed almost half a million earnings reports from 1980-2006. They discovered that when companies want to appear more successful than they are, they often massage their per-share earnings numbers upward by a tenth of one cent. The evidence? The number 4 appears significantly less often than expected in the post-decimal digits of earnings reports. In the U.S., per-share earnings are reported as pennies, so bumping that post-decimal digit from a 4 to a 5 results in the overall number being rounded up by a full penny. Grundfest and Malenko call the practice quadrophobia. While the tweaking may be legal in some cases, the authors also found that “quadrophobes are more likely to restate financials and to be named as defendants in SEC Accounting and Auditing Enforcement Releases (AAER).”
--Freakonomics blog on why Asians aren't the only ones who fear the number 4 

Home-field disadvantage

11 out of 206 (5.3%)
--Acceptances and applications from Yale College to Yale School of Medicine in 2009-2010. Contrast that to the 6.4% overall acceptance rate to the Yale School of Medicine

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mnemonic for financial dysfunctionality

Nowadays referred to—really!—as the PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain
--Anne Applebaum, Slate, on the financially weak countries of the EU

Joke becomes fact in autos

At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated: "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would be driving twenty-five dollar cars that got 1000 miles to the gallon."

In response to Bill's comments, GM issued a press release stating (by Mr. Welch himself):

If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would be driving cars with the following characteristics:

1. For no reason whatsoever your car would crash twice a day.
2. Every time they repainted the lines on the road you would have to buy a new car.
3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason, and you would just accept this, restart and drive on.
4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.
5. Only one person at a time could use the car, unless you bought "Car95" or "CarNT." But then you have would have to buy more seats.
6. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, reliable, five times as fast, and twice as easy to drive, but would only run on five percent of the roads.
7. The oil, water temperature and alternator warning lights would be replaced by a single "general car default" warning light.
8. New seats would force everyone to have the same size butt.
9. The airbag system would say "Are you sure?" before going off.
10. Occasionally for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key, and grab hold of the radio antenna.
11. GM would require all car buyers to also purchase a deluxe set of Rand McNally road maps (now a GM subsidiary), even though they neither need them nor want them. Attempting to delete this option would immediately cause the car's performance to diminish by 50% or more. Moreover, GM would become a target for investigation by the Justice Department.
12. Every time GM introduced a new model car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.
13. You'd press the "start" button to shut off the engine.
--A 1990s e-mail forward that was in fact never written by GM. But wait, #13 is true now for some cars! And as for #1...

When Toyota Prius owners take their cars to the dealer under the company's latest recall, they'll likely be out of the shop in about 30 minutes. Even though the recall has to do with a problem with the Prius' brakes, mechanics won't have to do much to fix the cars—they don't have to remove the wheels, poke around under the hood, or get near the brakes at all. That's because the flaw in the Prius is not mechanical. It's a software glitch. ...

In some versions of the 2010 Prius, the code that runs the braking system is buggy. It sometimes lags before applying full stopping power. To fix the error, the dealer simply downloads and installs a new version of the software—pretty much the same routine you'd go through to fix a security flaw in Microsoft Windows.
--Farhad Manjoo, Slate, on a 21st century car crash

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cheating coders

Cases in which students borrow code in computer-science classes make up a disproportionate share of the honor-code violation situations heard by [Stanford] university’s judicial panel. Last year, according to a new report, cheating incidents in computer science classes accounted for 22 percent of the total honor-code violations, The San Jose Mercury News reported. Historically, the computer science department accounts for between 20 to 60 percent of all honor-code cases, even though the courses represent about 7 percent of student enrollment. ...

“Programs are idiosyncratic as sentences and no two are alike,” [Professor Eric Roberts] said. “They are not even comparable if they are independently generated. It’s particularly easy to detect if they’ve been copied.” ...

The computer science department currently employs a computerized watchdog, a software program that scans a student’s code on homework assignments. It compares the assignment not only with other students’ work but also with assignments turned in from previous years. ...

Perhaps the temptation to cheat is even stronger in computer science than other disciplines, said R. J. Walsh, a computer science major and a teaching assistant in the department. “CS is not like an English paper where you can just turn it in and there’s not a way to say if it’s a good paper or not,” he said. “At 3 a.m, you can be looking a program and definitively say that it’s not going to work.”
--Ryan Mac, NYT, on the strong temptations and low rewards from cheating in computer science class. HT: Crimson FlyByBlog

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The double positive

The eminent linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin of Oxford once gave a lecture in which he asserted that there are many languages in which a double negative makes a positive, but none in which a double positive makes a negative — to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, sarcastically replied, “Yeah, yeah.”
--Steven Strogatz, NYT, on a lightning-fast linguistic wit

Friday, February 12, 2010

Health care plan cracks appearing in Massachusetts

Governor Deval Patrick is seeking sweeping authority to review and reject rates charged by hospitals, physician groups, medical imaging centers, and insurers, in a broad new effort to make health care more affordable, particularly for smaller companies and their workers.

A 40-page bill filed by the governor yesterday proposes to give the insurance commissioner the power to essentially cap health care price increases.
--Kay Lazar, Michael Levenson, and Robert Weisman, Boston Globe, on proposed health care price controls in Massachusetts. Because gasoline price controls worked so well in the 1970s. HT: Jess Austin

The Governor's desire to reduce costs is understandable, since Massachusetts has the highest premiums in the nation.

But the Governor's approach to reducing expenditure is misguided because it will kill the incentive to supply healthcare services in the Commonwealth.  A better approach is to make consumers pay a higher fraction of their health costs, via increased co-pays and deductibles in government insurance and greater taxation of employer-paid premiums.
--Jeffrey Miron on the cost of price controls

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Bill Gates really thinks of Apple

Internal Microsoft e-mail, subpoenaed for an antitrust case, from after the iTunes Store launch in 2003:
Steve Jobs ability to focus in on a few things that count, get people who get user interface right and market things as revolutionary are amazing things.

This time somehow he has applied his talents in getting a better Licensing deal than anyone else has gotten for music.

This is very strange to me. The music companies own operations offer a service that is truly unfriendly to the user and has been reviewed that way consistently.

Somehow they decide to give Apple the ability to do something pretty good. ...

I am not saying this strangeness means we messed up - at least if we did so did Real and Pressplay and Musicnet and basically everyone else.

Now that Jobs has done it we need to move fast to get something where the UI and Rights are as good.

I am not sure whether we should do this through one of these JVs [joint ventures] or not. I am not sure what the problems are.

However I think we need some plan to prove that even though Jobs has us a bit flat footed again we move quick and both match and do stuff better.
--Bill Gates on the blindside hit of iTunes

1. How did they get the music companies to go along?

2. We were smoked.
--Microsoft vice president Jim Allchin's e-mail

I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft.
--Jim Allchin's e-mail to Bill Gates in 2004

A crowded top of the class

[Harvard] history professor Steven E. Ozment said he gives out grades based on participation and student understanding of the material.

“When someone is excited, it is hard to say they shouldn’t get an A,” Ozment said. He estimates that about 80 percent of his students have earned A’s over the past four or five years, all of which were “fully deserved.”
--Monika Robbins, Harvard Crimson, on the GPA doctor

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What downhill ski racers are made of

Behold the downhill racer, the fearless daredevil oblivious to the dangers of skiing 80, if not 90, miles an hour. ...

Scott Macartney, a two-time Olympian, laughed when he was asked what it took to be a downhill racer. “Well, first they gather together all the extremely talented skiers,” he said. “Then they take the dumb ones and make them downhillers.”

But the Swiss ski champion Didier Cuche disagreed. “I am a downhiller,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It means I’m crazy.”
--Bill Pennington, NYT, on the hazards of downhill ski racing

The debt that keeps on collecting

But we gave the world democracy, and we expect the European Union to support us.
--Greek civil servant Vasiliki Revithi, NYT, at a protest against Greek government spending cuts

Solid writing advice

Transfer to Harvard.
--Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich's advice to aspiring writers at Yale

The greenness of food packaging

Food packaging seems like a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution: there’s too much of it; it piles up in landfills; we should reduce it. These opinions are standard among environmentalists, many of whom have undertaken impassioned campaigns to shroud consumer goods—including food—in less and less plastic, cardboard, and aluminum.

But the matter is a bit more complex than it might seem. Consider why we use packaging in the first place. In addition to protecting food from its microbial surroundings, packaging significantly prolongs shelf life, which in turn improves the chances of the food actually being eaten.

According to the Cucumber Growers’ Association, just 1.5 grams of plastic wrap extends a cuke’s shelf life from 3 to 14 days, all the while protecting it from “dirty hands.” Another study found that apples packed in a shrink wrapped tray cut down on fruit damage (and discard) by 27 percent. Similar numbers have been found for potatoes and grapes. ...

[W]hen it comes to saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our behavior in the kitchen far outweighs the environmental impact of whatever packaging happens to surround the product. Consumers toss out vastly more pounds of food than we do packaging—about six times as much. One study estimates that U.S. consumers throw out about half the food they buy. In Great Britain, the Waste and Resource Action Programme (funny enough, WRAP) claims that the energy saved from not wasting food at home would be the equivalent of removing “1 out of every 5 cars off the road.” The Independent reports that discarding food produces three times the carbon dioxide as discarding food packaging
--James McWilliams, Freakonomics, on why we should embrace plastic food packaging

T-Rex: looking kind of ridiculous

Feathered dinosaurs first appeared in the late Jurassic period, Prum said. The discovery of “dino-fuzz” on the skin of dinosaur fossils in the late 1990s proved that theropods — a suborder of dinosaur that includes Anchiornis huxleyi, as well as Tyrannosaurus rex — were actually covered with feathers, [Yale Professor of Ornithology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Richard Prum] added.
--Christian Eubank, Yale Daily News, on the possibility that T-rex was really just a massively overgrown chicken

Monday, February 8, 2010


Hey I'm sure when Peyton Manning was growing up he always wanted to throw the TD pass that gave the Saints a Super Bowl win. Now he has.
--ESPN the Magazine writer Jorge Arangure on Peyton Manning's interception. HT: Josh Levin, Slate

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What color were dinosaurs?

Deciphering microscopic clues hidden within fossils, scientists have uncovered the vibrant colors that adorned a feathered dinosaur extinct for 150 million years, a Yale University-led research team reports online Feb. 4 in the journal Science.

Unlike recently published work from China that inferred the existence of two types of melanin pigments in various species of feathered dinosaurs, the Science study analyzed color-imparting structures called melanosomes from an entire fossil of a single animal, a feat which enabled researchers to reveal rich color patterns of the entire animal.

In fact, the analysis of melanosomes conducted by Yale team was so precise that the team was able to assign colors to individual feathers of Anchiornis huxleyi, a four-winged troodontid dinosaur that lived during the late Jurassic period in China. This dinosaur sported a generally gray body, a reddish-brown, Mohawk-like crest and facial speckles, and white feathers on its wings and legs, with bold black-spangled tips.
--Yale University press release on the answer to a question I really wanted to know as a kid, but regarding the T-Rex and other cool dinosaurs, not a boring troodontid

Friday, February 5, 2010

How to painlessly balance the budget

We could auction off 10 million U.S passports. Suppose we could sell each for $200,000 --- that would yield a one time payment of 2 trillion dollars. Now that I think of it, that's a pretty good idea!

As these "international superstars" sort across our cities, many of them will buy homes. This will help to slow down home price declines and thus slow down mortgage defaults. This will prop up the balance sheets of banks and make them more likely to make loans and this will help the economy to rev up again.

Academic politics

Sometimes, something weird will happen in a meeting, and I'll be told afterwards that it has roots in an incident in 1986 where one person offended another person.
--An assistant professor at a top business school on long professorial memories

The difference between MBAs and lawyers

However, it has been my experience that classes with the same name at both schools [law schools and business schools] are often completely different, and thus even more worth taking. Business students negotiate differently than law students, or so I am told. The difference: taking vs. creating value. (I’ll let the reader decide who does which).
--Josh Rosenblatt, Young Lawyers Blog, on the difference between dealing with a lawyer and an MBA. HT: Bryan Choi

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The job of a dean

You may not be aware of it, but tonight the students are putting on a talent show... While most of the performers are students, Ed Kaplan is also doing a bit. I hope some of you will join me in showing support for his bravery while we admire his talent.

I will be having a beer at the happy hour beforehand in case the talent does not meet my expectations.
--Yale SOM dean Sharon Oster showing her trademark dry wit

Yale in the bad old days

Devices called “econstats” were installed in all undergraduate residences in 1974. The machines offered heat to rooms sparingly, allowing students no heat if the temperature was above 60 degrees, 20 minutes of heat at 50 degrees, 40 minutes at 40 degrees and continuously below 30 degrees. Heaters automatically shut off between 12 and 8 a.m.

Although the administration claimed “the thick stone walls of the colleges retain heat quite well,” according to the News article, students begged to differ. ...

In a spirit of this austerity, the University turned its frugal eye toward dining, as well. Yale’s total food expenditure increased by 27 percent due to rising prices in 1973, and Albert Dobie, the director of University dining halls, was forced to ration students one piece of fresh fruit per day, and to limit servings of meat. ...

Yale adopted a deferred maintenance policy throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, siphoning resources away from building maintenance and causing many facilities to fall into disarray. Students going to study found puddles in Cross Campus Library in 1979. Responding to complaints from students, Michael Casella, then University’s physical plant manager, said the puddles caused “some cosmetic, but no structural damage,” according to the News.
--Will Horowitz, Yale Daily News, on how Yale cut costs in the 1970s

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Real estate financial history repeats itself

Although few people now remember it, another wave of private [real estate] securitizations once altered the real estate landscape, particularly in New York but also in Chicago and some other American cities.

That wave ended pretty much like this one did. ...

The original wave of securitizations took place in the 1920s, when the United States went on the greatest building boom ever. Many investors saw how rapidly real estate prices were rising and wanted in on the action. The builders and brokers were only too happy to oblige.

To be sure, the securitizations were not as complex as the ones invented in recent years, but they were not all simple either. Most were bonds backed by one commercial building whose construction was being financed, but there were also pools of residential mortgages. Some of the bonds included warrants for partial ownership of the building, and some were convertible into stock.

There was even something similar to the exotic C.D.O.’s, or collateralized debt obligations, that failed so spectacularly. ...

“Easily obtainable financing via public capital markets corresponded with an urban construction boom,” reported [Yale SOM professor] William N. Goetzmann and Frank Newman in a paper just released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, titled “Securitization in the 1920s.”

“Regulation and centralization were glaringly absent,” they add. “Ultimately the size, scope and complexity of the 1920s real estate market undermined its merits, causing a crash not unlike the one underpinning our current financial crisis.”

Yet the lessons of that boom and bust have largely been ignored. Everyone remembers the 1920s and the stock market crash of 1929, but there has been little data collected on what happened to real estate securities or even on how large a market it was. It turns out that real estate securities constituted a major market, and began to falter before stocks did.
--Floyd Norris, NYT, on real estate securitization on the eve of the Great Depression

Getting "serious" about the deficit

The green line shows deficits as proposed by President Obama last year. The blue line shows deficits as proposed by President Obama this year. The dotted yellow line shows the deficit consistent with holding federal debt (as a share of GDP) constant.

We can draw five important conclusions from this graph:

1. At 8.3% of GDP, the proposed budget deficit for 2011 is still extremely high.
2. President Obama is proposing larger budget deficits than he did last year.
3. For 2011, the most relevant year of this proposal, the President is proposing a budget deficit that is 2.3 percentage points higher than he did last year (8.3% vs. 6.0%).
4. Using his own numbers, the President’s proposed budget deficits will cause debt as a share of the economy to increase.
5. Under the President’s proposal, budget deficits begin to increase as a share of the economy beginning in 2018.

We can draw two conclusions from this graph:

1. Taxes are low now, but are scheduled to increase to above historic averages.
2. The President is proposing slightly lower revenues over the next few years than he proposed last year, but essentially no difference in the long run.

We can conclude:

1. The President is proposing significantly more spending than he proposed last year: 1.8% of GDP more in 2011, and roughly 1 percentage point more each year over time.
2. Spending is and will continue to be way above historic averages.
--Keith Hennessey on taxing more and spending even more. HT: All over the blogosphere

Tax-deductible MBA tuition!

The Wall Street Journal reported last week about a Maryland nurse who won a long battle with the I.R.S. when the United States Tax Court said she had properly deducted nearly $15,000 for the cost of her master’s degree in business. ...

What the court said in this case, following a precedent set in earlier cases, is that an M.B.A. degree is different from other degrees because it’s more general and doesn’t provide the foundation for, and lead to, a specific professional license or certification. ...

It turns out the rules for M.B.A.’s depend on whether individuals can prove that they were already established in a certain trade or business before going to get an M.B.A. and that the degree will help them maintain or improve their skills in that specific trade or business.

If they can demonstrate both, they can deduct [from their taxable income] whatever tuition costs their employer didn’t reimburse or offer to reimburse. And if they can’t — say they are switching careers or didn’t have qualifying work experience before heading to school — they can’t.
--Jennifer Saranow Schultz, NYT, on a reason B-schools should start jacking up tuition. HT: Jimmy Quach

As long as you have established your trade or business before getting the degree — and that the degree will help you further your career in that trade or business — you can deduct the tuition, [tax accountant Saul] Brenner said. “The deductability is not contingent on you doing the degree part time,” he added.
--Jennifer Saranow Schultz on the broadness of the tax break

Mathematics pointing to the transcendent

Children learn from this that numbers are wonderful shortcuts. Instead of saying the word “fish” exactly as many times as there are penguins, Humphrey could use the more powerful concept of “six.”

As adults, however, we might notice a potential downside to numbers. Sure, they are great time savers, but at a serious cost in abstraction. Six is more ethereal than six fish, precisely because it’s more general. It applies to six of anything: six plates, six penguins, six utterances of the word “fish.” It’s the ineffable thing they all have in common.

Viewed in this light, numbers start to seem a bit mysterious. They apparently exist in some sort of Platonic realm, a level above reality. In that respect they are more like other lofty concepts (e.g., truth and justice), and less like the ordinary objects of daily life. Upon further reflection, their philosophical status becomes even murkier. Where exactly do numbers come from? Did humanity invent them? Or discover them?

A further subtlety is that numbers (and all mathematical ideas, for that matter) have lives of their own. We can’t control them. Even though they exist in our minds, once we decide what we mean by them we have no say in how they behave. They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there’s nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand. In that sense they are eerily reminiscent of atoms and stars, the things of this world, which are likewise subject to laws beyond our control … except that those things exist outside our heads.

This dual aspect of numbers — as part- heaven, and part- earth — is perhaps the most paradoxical thing about them, and the feature that makes them so useful. It is what the physicist Eugene Wigner had in mind when he wrote of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”
--Steven Strogatz, NYT, on the order in God's Creation

Monday, February 1, 2010

How not to help Haiti

Don’t donate goods. Donating stuff instead of money is a serious problem in emergency relief. Only the people on the ground know what’s actually necessary; those of us in the rest of the world can only guess. ... It’s far better to give money so that organizations can buy the things they know they need. ...

After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras was flooded with shipments of donated goods. They clogged ports, overwhelmed military transport, and made it nearly impossible for relief agencies to ship in the things they really needed. Those donations did harm, not good. Expired drugs had to be carefully disposed of. Inappropriate donations had to be transported away and discarded. All of this wasted time and money.

Don’t go to Haiti. It’s close to the US, it’s a disaster area, and we all want to help. However, it’s dangerous right now and they don’t need “extra hands”. The people who are currently useful are people with training in medicine and emergency response. If all you can contribute is unskilled labor, stay home. There is no shortage of unskilled labor in Haiti, and Haitians will be a lot more committed than you are to the rebuilding process.
--Alanna Shaikh, Aidwatch, on things that make you feel good but do harm. HT: Marginal Revolution