Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Compress that music file!

I tested the effect of [file] compression with a jury of music professionals, and the results surprised me. Although the type of compression had a definite effect--the judges preferred .wma to .m4a and .mp3--the level of compression had little effect on how they rated the sound quality. Most important, none of the compressed music samples sounded terrible to their well-trained ears. ...

In 2001, PCWorld conducted extensive audio compression tests, using four music samples, 30 judges, and a more-controlled audio environment. Though that study didn't test whether jurors could distinguish an uncompressed clip, it did find that listeners could detect very little difference between a clip at 128 kbps and one at 256 kbps.

And tests by Stanford University music professor Jonathan Berger indicate that young people are actually coming to prefer the sound of compressed music. Berger sees an increasing preference for MP3s and believes that the students he tested like the "sizzle," or metallic sound, that the format imparts.

The bottom line from my testing seems to be this: My jury of professionals generally preferred WMA compression, but weren't able to detect much difference in files with bitrates higher than 192 kbps. In other words, even though the technology is called lossy compression, you may not be losing as much as you think.
--Lincoln Specter, PC World, on how to save hard drive space. HT: Marginal Revolution

Hope for low-GPA students

[Elena] Kagan received two letter grades at the end of her first semester — and they were the worst of her law school career: a B in criminal law and a B-minus in torts.

It was a jarringly mediocre report card for Ms. Kagan, and the torts grade in particular came as a shock to her and to her friends, recalled Jeffrey Toobin, the legal affairs writer for The New Yorker and CNN, who was in Ms. Kagan’s study group. He attributed the result to a “bad day in the exam.”

“She was definitely upset about this torts grade — there was no doubt about it,” Mr. Toobin said. “I remember saying to her that in the larger scheme of things it will not loom very large, and I would say history has vindicated me on that matter.”

Ms. Kagan soon returned to her habitually high level of academic accomplishment: her spring semester report card in 1984 consisted of three A’s and an A-minus. She went on to become supervising editor of the law review, graduate magna cum laude, and clerk for an appeals court judge and a Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.

Indeed, a transcript she submitted with her application to Justice Marshall, which is included with his papers at the Library of Congress, shows she earned A’s in 17 of the 21 courses for which she received a letter grade. In two more — including an administrative law course, a field in which she would later focus as a scholar — she earned a B-plus.
--Charlie Savage and Lisa Faye Petak, NYT, on an academic turnaround

Monday, May 24, 2010

Revelation through jumping

When the photographer Philippe Halsman said, “Jump,” no one asked how high. People simply pushed off or leapt up to the extent that physical ability and personal decorum allowed. In that airborne instant Mr. Halsman clicked the shutter. He called his method jumpology.

The idea of having people jump for the camera can seem like a gimmick, but it is telling that jumpology shares a few syllables with psychology. As Halsman, who died in 1979, said, “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls, so that the real person appears.” ...

It is important that the subjects of Halsman’s images are famous, so we can contrast the general vibe of the images — body language, energy and facial expression — with previous impressions of the subjects, as when Grace Kelly hikes her skirt in a strikingly coquettish way. Halsman’s simple device ensures that we see something we haven’t quite seen before.
--Roberta Smith, NYT, on the appeal of jump photographs

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The pin factory and marital harmony

From 2002 to 2005, before reality TV ruled the earth, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, laboriously recruited 32 local families, videotaping nearly every waking, at-home moment during a week...

“This is the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world,” said Thomas S. Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A. who was not involved in the research. “What it does is hold up a mirror to people. They laugh. They cringe. It shows us life as it is actually lived.” ...

Mothers still do most of the housework, spending 27 percent of their time on it, on average, compared with 18 percent for fathers and 3 percent for children (giving an allowance made no difference).

Husbands and wives were together alone in the house only about 10 percent of their waking time, on average, and the entire family was gathered in one room about 14 percent of the time. Stress levels soared — yet families spent very little time in the most soothing, uncluttered area of the home, the yard. ...

Parents generally were so flexible in dividing up chores and child-care responsibilities — “catch as catch can,” one dad described it — that many boundaries were left unclear, adding to the stress.

The couples who reported the least stress tended to have rigid divisions of labor, whether equal or not. “She does the inside work, and I do all the outside, and we don’t interfere” with each other, said one husband.
--Benedict Carey, NYT, on another gain from the specialization of labor

Friday, May 21, 2010

The arithmetic of polygyny

When men imagine what living in a polygynous society might be like, they imagine themselves married to several wives. What they don’t realize, however, is that, more than likely, they would be left without any wife in a polygynous society. Polygynous marriage in a polygynous society is always limited to a minority of men. If 50% of men have two wives each, then the other 50% cannot have any wives. If 25% of men have four wives each, then the other 75% cannot have any wives. When women imagine what living in a polygynous society might be like, they imagine themselves having to share their current, no-good loser of a husband with other women. What they don’t realize is that they could be sharing Matt Damon or Bill Gates with other women.
--Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today, on why polygyny is a bummer for most men

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief

Composer David Cope has a knack for describing music in the least romantic terms possible. Whenever Mozart heard something, Cope says, "He was able to digest it and store it in his database. He could recombine it with other things so that the output would be hardly recognizable."...

There's a reason Cope talks about composing this way: He is the inventor of the world's most musically creative computer program, whose latest album came out a few weeks ago. Cope has been writing software to help him compose music for 30 years, and he long ago reached the point where most people can't tell the difference between real Bach and the Bach-like compositions his computer can produce. Audiences have been moved to tears by melodies created by algorithms. And yet, it's not exactly that Cope has created a computer than can write music like a human. The way he sees it, it's that humans compose like computers. ...

"We don't start with a blank slate," he said. "In fact, what we do in our brains is take all the music we've heard in our life, segregate out what we don't like, and try to replicate [the music we like] while making it our own." What separates great composers from the rest of us, he says, is the ability to accurately compile that database, remember it, and manipulate it into new patterns. ...

To stump Cope, I presented him with the famous melody to the second movement of Beethoven's C minor Sonata, the "Pathétique." Could a computer really generate such a beautiful string of notes? Surely this was the product of Beethoven's genius. Cope directed me to Mozart's Piano Sonata 14, also in C minor. A nearly identical melody, in the same key, occurs three minutes into the second movement. Of course, pointing out that Beethoven ripped off Mozart doesn't explain where Mozart got the melody. But Cope makes a convincing case that Mozart, in turn, may well have heard something like it and stored it away. In other words, great melodies (to our Western ears) are products of evolution, not creationism. Even if Mozart never heard the precise melody, he surely heard similar riffs that his mind, which was constantly recombining bits and pieces of his database, stuck together to make the final product. Cope has another program, called Sorcerer, that can scan a piece, compare it to various databases, and look for similar passages in earlier works. Positive matches appear more often than you'd like.
--Chris Wilson, Slate, on there being nothing new under the musical sun

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The difficulty of social engineering via fiscal policy

As they struggle with budget deficits, states from New York to Washington are looking to candy and soda taxes to help bridge the gap. Now comes the hard part: Defining candy.

In Washington, a new candy tax will apply to Butterfinger candy bars, yet Kit-Kat wafers remain excise free (this because the law exempts foods with flour in them). There is also confusion in Colorado, where Kit-Kats are also untaxed, but Twix bars face levies. And after Illinois passed a candy tax last year, retailers in Chicago were unsure if Twix Bars — some of which contain flour and peanut butter — were food or candy.
--Conor Dougherty, WSJ, on poor aim

New York as a bet

This is a city of the sublimely illogical dream. You come here and suffer in the hope that you upgrade. Some do, some don't. That's the mystique, the allure. New York's not a choice. It's a bet.

So stop viewing the Knicks as simply an unattractive basketball team. To get LeBron, you have to sell them in New York terms.

The Knicks are a hideously overpriced, 300-square-foot studio apartment.

They're a fifth-floor walkup with a bathtub in the kitchen, a rusty refrigerator that doubles as a closet, and a single window that looks out on to the grease vent to a mysterious chicken-rendering plant. The heat seldom works, there are roaches and there's a weird neighbor who plays hockey at funny hours. Don't even ask about the landlord.

Friends from other cities will visit, and they will shake their heads. LeBron's mother will cry.

But one night in early winter, Mr. James will victoriously exit Madison Square Garden and it will be snowing. Seventh Avenue will sleep under a romantic blanket of white. He will return to his cramped studio, lie on his bedbuggy futon and realize that there was no place he would rather be.

Then the heat will go out, and outside, a wailing ambulance will crash into a garbage can full of rats and set off 14 car alarms.

But he will learn to love it. Like we all eventually do.
--Jason Gay, WSJ, on the concrete jungle dreams are made of. HT: Alex Tsai

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mouthlessness

These days, designers are also urged to make sure their characters work across multiple media — a lesson Sanrio learned the hard way with Hello Kitty. Because Kitty had no mouth, it was difficult for the cat to break into television animation, depriving Sanrio of a lucrative source of revenue.

When the company created a talking Kitty for a pilot cartoon series, it set off a fury among fans loyal to the cat’s mouthless look, Ms. Yamaguchi said.
--Hiroko Tabuchi, NYT, on the unforeseen handicap of having no mouth

Technological incivility

I define incivility as behavior, seemingly inconsequential to the doer, that others perceive as inconsiderate. Electronic devices lead to more incivility because of their powerful ability to claim our attention — no matter where we are or what we’re doing. No one likes to be snubbed, of course, but the offense can take on a new edge when the winner is a machine. ...

One of the most annoying examples is texting and checking e-mail while working with colleagues. Some workers would call this disruptive; others would say it is downright insulting.

I’ve given lectures on incivility around the globe. When I ask audiences whether anyone considers sending e-mail or texts during meetings uncivil, almost everyone raises their hand.

Then, when I ask whether anyone in the audience sends texts or e-mail during meetings, about two-thirds acknowledge the habit. (Presumably, there are still more who don’t want to admit it.)

I often hear this rationalization: It’s a way to multitask and increase efficiency. But neuroscientists tell us that dividing our attention between competing stimuli instead of handling tasks one at a time actually makes us less efficient.

Still, the illusion that multitasking can aid productivity is powerful. And it’s abetted by the fact that splitting our attention between real and virtual worlds can produce a kind of neural intoxication, research shows. ...

Count how many times this happens each day, and you begin to understand the cumulative effect of electronic incivility in the workplace. For one thing, other workers need to pick up the slack caused by the wandering attention and diluted energies of their e-cruising colleagues.

Not only that, when people disappear from formal or informal meetings via their electronic devices, their colleagues interpret it this way: “You are less important to me than my cellphone/P.D.A./laptop/latest gizmo.”
--Christine Pearson, NYT, on why you should put away that gadget

Friday, May 14, 2010

At least California beats Greece

California bonds are now viewed as one of the riskiest places in the world for investors to put their money. At least that is according to the latest "CMA Sovereign Risk Monitor," which ranks the world’s most volatile sovereign debt issuers. The analysts, in a May 11 list, said California has the seventh highest risk of default.

The six with rankings more worrisome than California are Venezuela (the worst), followed by Argentina, Pakistan, Greece, Ukraine and the Emirate of Dubai. California ranks ahead of the Republic of Latvia, the Region of Sicily and Iraq. See the list under "Highest Default Probabilities."
--Joseph Vranich, Business Relocation Coach, on the world's financial basket cases

Conan O'Brien's Harvard Class Day speech

Ten years after reading it, I finally found and watched the video.



Internal Aristotelian tension

The people in tragedies, according to Aristotle, are better than the rest of us, while the people in comedies are worse. In a certain kind of modern comic romance, though, the two primary stipulations are that the main characters be better-looking and duller than the audience, which produces a self-canceling wash of emotions. No cathartic tears or therapeutic laughter, but instead a mild, smiley stupefaction.

Car viruses

Automobiles, which will be increasingly connected to the Internet in the near future, could be vulnerable to hackers just as computers are now, two teams of computer scientists are warning in a paper to be presented next week.

The scientists say that they were able to remotely control braking and other functions, and that the car industry was running the risk of repeating the security mistakes of the PC industry. ...

The researchers, financed by the National Science Foundation, tested two versions of a late-model car in both laboratory and field settings. They did not identify the maker or the brand of the car, but said they believed they were representative of the computer network control systems that have proliferated in most cars today. ...

They also demonstrated what they described as “composite attacks” that showed their ability to insert malicious software and then erase any evidence of tampering after a crash.

The researchers were able to activate dozens of functions and almost all of them while the car was in motion.

Wireless connections are increasingly becoming available in a wide range of automobiles. For example, services like the OnStar system from General Motors now report vehicle position and diagnostic information to the manufacturer.
--John Markoff, NYT, on yet another thing to worry about

Breaker-uppers

It began with an invitation from a young female friend, Kaori, whom she’d met by chance a few weeks earlier. A group of friends were going out for the evening and, unexpectedly, Rika — 40, and unhappily married — was invited to join them. ...

They met in one of Tokyo’s smartest restaurants; the beer and saké flowed. Kaori’s friends were flatteringly interested in her, none more so than a man of her own age named Osamu Ota, a successful businessman with a droll and confident charm. ...

The photographs taken the morning after tell the story of what happened next: the discarded clothes and screwed up tissues and Rika, looking bashful but happy, sitting among the churned up sheets of the hotel bed. ...

But Rika was the victim, not of a straightforward womaniser, but something more chilling: a meticulously planned professional sting operation.

Everyone involved in that wild evening — from the young “friend” who invited her, to the guests in the restaurant — was an actor, an employee of an agency that specialises in sexual entrapment. The chance meeting with “Kaori” weeks before, the dinner invitation and the act of seduction were commissioned and paid for by someone Rika has never met — the lover of her husband, a woman who yearns for the failure of Rika’s marriage.

The whole thing was masterminded by Mr “Ota” — real name Osamu Tomiya — a member of a peculiarly Japanese profession, part-private investigator, part-prostitute, known as wakaresase-ya — the “splitter-uppers”. ...

The simplest job, such as seeing off a stalker, might be wrapped up for £3,500. But a set-up such as the one used to trap Rika will cost at least double that — plus a bonus of about the same amount for Mr Tomiya’s personal participation.

“We produce a drama at the request of our clients,” he says. “We write the script and put on the play. For a member of my staff, it could take a year to make someone fall in love. If it’s me, I can do it in a day. In this industry, I’m a god.”
--Richard Lloyd Parry, Times of London, on things that happen only in Japan

How to get a commencement speaker

Behind the scenes, securing a high-profile commencement speaker often involves a messy, anxiety-filled yearlong courtship, a process one college president likens to making sausage.

Schools face intense competition to land a bold-faced name like Senator Scott Brown, this year’s hot ticket. An acceptance from someone of that stature can send a signal about the institution’s importance, presidents say. ...

Speaker fees, [KEYS Speakers bureau events coordinator Shayran] Samor said, range from $5,000 for someone like former New England Patriot Brian Holloway to $100,000 or more for a Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who also requires a private jet. ...

Several college presidents privately lament the amount of time and energy they must devote to finding a celebrity commencement speaker, calling it a “necessary subplot in academic life.’’

“One of the greatest tension moments of a college president’s life is how the senior class will react when I announce the name of the speaker,’’ one former college president said.

“Very often, what a student wants is different from what an institution wants. And very often when I announced the name of the speaker, students would say: ‘Why would I want to listen to that person? That’s going to be boring.’ ’’ ...

[Another college] president recalled trying to book a head of state one year and only making it past the outer layer of handlers.

“This person had received over 200 requests that year,’’ said the president, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “If you end up in that pile of stationery, you’re dead. You’re cooked.’’
--Tracy Jan, Boston Globe, on why you got a boring commencement speaker

LeBron and the Knicks

I was talking with a couple of NBA guys last year, one a current star and the other a high-profile former Knick. We were talking about where LeBron might go as a free agent. Both insisted he'd stay in Cleveland.

This surprised me because I expected the former Knick to push for New York. But he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the only reason to go to the Knicks was if they were paying more money.

"What about playing in the Garden, and the fans, and the prestige of being a Knick?" I asked.

He laughed, then mumbled a curse, then said LeBron should stay in Cleveland.

So much for that Knicks mystique. ...

The arrogant claims that the life's dream of a kid born in Akron, Ohio -- or Dallas (Chris Bosh), or Chicago (Dwyane Wade) -- is to play for the Knicks just makes you look foolish and out of touch.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Asker vs. guesser

But it's also worth considering whether part of the problem doesn't originate in a simple misunderstanding between two types of people: Askers and Guessers.

This terminology comes from a brilliant web posting by Andrea Donderi that's achieved minor cult status online. We are raised, the theory runs, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favour, a pay rise – fully realising the answer may be no. In Guess culture, by contrast, you avoid "putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes… A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept."

Neither's "wrong", but when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won't think it's rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor – or just an Asker, who's assuming you might decline. If you're a Guesser, you'll hear it as an expectation. This is a spectrum, not a dichotomy, and it explains cross-cultural awkwardnesses, too: Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because it's a Guess culture, yet experience Russians as rude, because they're diehard Askers.

Self-help seeks to make us all Askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish; the mediation expert William Ury recommends memorising "anchor phrases" such as "that doesn't work for me". But Guessers can take solace in logic: in many social situations (though perhaps not at work) the very fact that you're receiving an anxiety-inducing request is proof the person asking is an Asker. He or she is half-expecting you'll say no, and has no inkling of the torture you're experiencing. So say no, and see what happens. Nothing will.
--Oliver Burkeman, Guardian, on social pressure relief through Bayesian updating. HT: Marginal Revolution

Monday, May 10, 2010

Black sheep of the family

The bridegroom, 29, is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also received an M.B.A. He graduated from Yale. His mother, in South Korea, is the author, most recently, of ''Aim for Harvard Instead of S.N.U.'' (Seoul National University).
--NYT on the educational narrow-mindedness of Koreans

Friday, May 7, 2010

The downside of full-body scanners

We don't know whether the average air traveler has any privacy issues to worry about when using those full-body scanners increasingly being installed in airports, but this story is a little alarming for anyone who actually works with the TSA screeners who examine those images. At least if you have a small penis.

Rolando Negrin, a TSA employee working in Miami International Airport, was training with the new scanner with his co-workers recently. After Negrin walked through the machine, his co-workers starting mocking him about the size of his penis. Negrin couldn't take it, snapped, and attacked one of his co-workers with a police baton. Now he's been arrested, and instead of just a few wiseasses at the TSA, everyone knows about his undersized penis, because of jerks who write about it on the Internet. So if you have a small penis, and you're wondering whether you should pursue a career as a TSA screener, the answer is probably not. The end.
--Dan Amira, New York, on easily foreseen unintended consequences

Group DUI punishment

Few years ago I was in Norway for a wedding. At a lunch, few days before the wedding, I offered to give a lift to a few people that were staying at the same hotel.

I ordered a light beer. Within a few seconds, I was notified that nobody would drive back with me. They have an Absolute Zero tolerance policy. If you sniff a beer, you’re driving alone and nobody will take a ride with you. The reason: If caught in a car when the driver is over 0.5 g/l , the driving license of everybody is suspended. Everybody meaning all passengers. As a passenger, if you have a driving license, you know that you should not let someone drive drunk. It’s really extreme, but it works very well.
--Steve, Freakonomics, on group enforcement through group punishment

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why so many Ivy League kids go into consulting or finance

The typical Harvard undergraduate is someone who: (a) is very good at school; (b) has been very successful by conventional standards for his entire life; (c) has little or no experience of the “real world” outside of school or school-like settings; (d) feels either the ambition or the duty to have a positive impact on the world (not well defined); and (e) is driven more by fear of not being a success than by a concrete desire to do anything in particular. (Yes, I know this is a stereotype; that’s why I said “typical.”) Their (our) decisions are motivated by two main decision rules: (1) close down as few options as possible; and (2) only do things that increase the possibility of future overachievement. Money is far down the list; at this point in their lives, if you asked them, many of these people would probably say that they only need to be middle or upper-middle class, and assume that they will be.

The recruiting processes of Wall Street firms (and consulting firms, and corporate law firms) exploit these (faulty) decision rules perfectly. The primary selling point of Goldman Sachs or McKinsey is that it leaves open the possibility of future greatness. The main pitch is, “Do this for two years, and afterward you can do anything (like be treasury secretary).” ...

The second selling point is that they make it easy. Yes, there is competition for jobs at these firms. But the process is easy. They come to campus and hold receptions with open bars. They tell you when and how to apply. They provide interview coaching. They have nice people who went to your school bond with you over the recruiting period. ... For people who don’t know how to get a job in the open economy, and who have ended each phase of their lives by taking the test to do the most prestigious thing possible in the next phase, all of this comes naturally. (Graduate schools, which also have well-defined recruiting processes, are the other big path to take.) The fact that most companies don’t want new college graduates makes it easier to go to one of the few that do. ...

And once you’re in the door, the seduction begins. ... It’s just human nature. Your expenses grow to match your income. As the decades pass and you realize that no, you’re not going to save the world, the money becomes a more and more important part of the justification. And when you have kids, you’re stuck; it’s much easier to deprive yourself of money (and what it buys) than to deprive your children of money.
--James Kwak (Harvard '90), Baseline Scenario, perfectly capturing the psychology/sociology I remember. HT: Chris Blattman

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lazy college students?

In this paper, we have documented that full-time students at four-year colleges in the U.S. are investing much less time in academics than they once did. Full-time college students in 1961 allocated about 40 hours per week toward class and studying, whereas full-time students in 2003 invested about 27 hours per week. ...

We highlight two important implications of the finding. Firstly, falling academic time investment by full-time students suggests that the opportunity cost of a year of college (or, more precisely, the time component thereof) has declined over the years. This change appears substantial, and may not have been fully understood or appreciated in previous work on changes over time in the wage return to college. Secondly, if student effort is a meaningful input to the education production process, then declining time investment may signify declining production of human capital—or a dramatic and heretofore undocumented change in the way human capital is being produced on college campuses.
--Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, "The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data," on how they don't study like they used to

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Flaxseed oil, butter, and brain speed

[Seth] Roberts told me about his own method of measuring mental changes, a quick test he programmed on his computer that involves 32 easy arithmetic problems. The test takes about three minutes, and he has found that it can detect small changes in cognitive performance. He has used his self-tracking system to adjust his diet, learning that three tablespoons daily of flaxseed oil reliably decreases the amount of time it takes him to do math. Consuming a lot of butter also seems to have a good effect.
--Gary Wolf, NYT Magazine, on faster arithmetic through diet. HT: Bryan Choi

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Taxing e-mails

A blog reader makes a Pigovian suggestion:
I think an excellent Pigouvian tax would be a tax on emails. Many emails involve a negative externality (I don't really want to receive them) and almost all the ones I really want to get are worth much more than a penny or so to the sender. So a penny tax (say) on email would probably generate large amounts of revenue, mitigate an important negative externality, and have minimal inefficient disincentives. Since email servers are necessarily centralized and networked and all email senders are ipso facto connected to an ISP who is charging them for access the transactions costs and evasion problems seem low.
I know my life would improve under such a tax.

Even better, if possible, might be to have the recepient set the price! I would happily raise mine to a dime, and let the government use the revenue to fix the long-term fiscal imbalance or cut other more distortionary taxes.
--Greg Mankiw on a welfare-improving tax

The deadweight loss of insurance, public or private

At a recent social gathering, a doctor friend who has been in private practice for almost 15 years revealed something that caused one physician to nearly choke on her drink, another to gasp in disbelief and the rest of us to stop what we were doing and gawk as if he had committed some grave social faux pas.

“I love what I do,” he announced to all of us. “I really love being a doctor.”

His wife, suddenly aware of the silence that fell upon the room, inched closer to her husband. “He really does,” she said nodding to confirm what some of the rest of us couldn’t quite believe. ...

More frequently, doctors’ conversations about work reflect a sense of disenchantment, frustration and even anger — not toward patient care or doctoring per se, but toward the increasingly intrusive role of insurance companies and government agencies. ...

Last year, a study published in the health policy journal Health Affairs found that physicians in private practice on average spent nearly three weeks in time and $68,000 in staffing per year dealing with the particular administrative constraints of third-party payers.
--Pauline Chen, NYT, on the soul-sucking burden of insurance paperwork. HT: Alex Tsai


Health insurance is the primary payment mechanism not just for expenses that are unexpected and large, but for nearly all health-care expenses. We’ve become so used to health insurance that we don’t realize how absurd that is. We can’t imagine paying for gas with our auto-insurance policy, or for our electric bills with our homeowners insurance, but we all assume that our regular checkups and dental cleanings will be covered at least partially by insurance. Most pregnancies are planned, and deliveries are predictable many months in advance, yet they’re financed the same way we finance fixing a car after a wreck—through an insurance claim. ...

Insurance is probably the most complex, costly, and distortional method of financing any activity; that’s why it is otherwise used to fund only rare, unexpected, and large costs. Imagine sending your weekly grocery bill to an insurance clerk for review, and having the grocer reimbursed by the insurer to whom you’ve paid your share. An expensive and wasteful absurdity, no?

Is this really a big problem for our health-care system? Well, for every two doctors in the U.S., there is now one health-insurance employee—more than 470,000 in total. In 2006, it cost almost $500 per person just to administer health insurance. Much of this enormous cost would simply disappear if we paid routine and predictable health-care expenditures the way we pay for everything else—by ourselves.
--David Goldhill, Atlantic Monthly, on the inefficiency of low-deductible insurance

Punishment out of love

If anything really serious required to be punished, he retired first to his "closet" for prayer, and we boys got to understand that he was laying the whole matter before God; and that was the severest part of the punishment for me to bear! I could have defied any amount of mere penalty, but this spoke to my conscience as a message from God.

We loved him all the more, when we saw how much it cost him to punish us; and, in truth, he had never very much of that kind of work to do upon any one of all the eleven—we were ruled by love far more than by fear.
--19th century Scottish missionary John Paton on "this hurts me more than it hurts you" made apparent. HT: KS