Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Humiliation and Harvard

“I’ve known about this for years,” [terrorism expert Jessica] Stern said, “but until I wrote this book, I didn’t make the connection. I’m not sure how you study it, but I do think it’s there. Humiliation is definitely a risk factor [for becoming a terrorist], and this may be a particular kind of it.”

She paused and added: “But why humiliation in some places and some people but not others? Harvard is a humiliation factory, and yet we don’t produce a lot of terrorists.”
--Charles McGrath, NYT, on how one Harvard lecturer sees Harvard

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Female vs. male voices

When GPS devices first appeared in cars, manufacturers chose male voices, which according to studies, command more respect than female voices. “When the key dimension is competence, the male voice is better,” said Clifford I. Nass, a communication professor at Stanford University and a consultant to many car companies. “When the key dimension is likability, the female voice is better.” As confidence in the technology grew, the primary consideration switched to friendliness.

“The main reason you have female voices in cars is not the technical qualifications like hearability,” said Dr. Nass. “It’s that finding a female voice that is pleasing to almost everyone is infinitely easier than finding a male voice.” Humans are more attuned to female voices from birth, he noted. “Even in the womb, a fetus will be able to distinguish a mother’s voice from all other voices and will not be able to distinguish the father’s voice.
--Bruce Feiler, NYT, on why a woman tells you that your GPS is recalculating

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Social-engineering away the best friend

But increasingly, some educators and other professionals who work with children are asking a question that might surprise their parents: Should a child really have a best friend?

Most children naturally seek close friends. In a survey of nearly 3,000 Americans ages 8 to 24 conducted last year by Harris Interactive, 94 percent said they had at least one close friend. But the classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.

“I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis. “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.”

“Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend,” she continued. “We say he doesn’t need a best friend.” ...

In recent years Timber Lake Camp, a co-ed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y., has started employing “friendship coaches” to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else. If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know.
--Hilary Stout, NYT, on trying to eliminate an age-old social dynamic

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The worthlessness of frequent flyer miles

A study published in May by IdeaWorks, a consulting firm, showed that, for travel dates from June through October 2010, award seats aboard Continental were available 71.4% of the time, followed by United (68.6%), American (57.9%) and Delta (12.9%). ...

TIME sought to make frequent flyer reservations for a round trip from New York City to Los Angeles, one of the nation's most heavily traveled routes with a half-dozen airlines offering nonstop flights, for any date in July or August. On American Airlines, not a single 25,000-mile-award round trip was available for the month of July. A few outbound seats were available in late August, but only a single return: Aug. 31.

Delta Airlines, too, had not a single frequent flyer round trip available in July; for August, just one outbound flight was available, but no return. Continental was only slightly better: no round trips available in July but a few in August, while United could get us out on one flight in July and had a few round trips left in August. Not on your schedule, of course - on the airlines' timetable. ...

Some compare the situation to an inflationary monetary system: with the profusion of frequent flyer deals, consumers can now earn mileage by signing up for credit cards, refinancing their homes, joining Netflix and more. Like paper money, the more miles that are "printed," the less value they seem to have.
--Richard Zoglin and Christine Lim, Time, on why my 50,000 Delta SkyMiles are no good

Thursday, June 10, 2010

GM enacting a Dilbert cartoon

On Tuesday, G.M. sent a memo to Chevrolet employees at its Detroit headquarters, promoting the importance of “consistency” for the brand, which was the nation’s best-selling line of cars and trucks for more than half a century after World War II.

And one way to present a consistent brand message, the memo suggested, is to stop saying “Chevy,” though the word is one of the world’s best-known, longest-lived product nicknames. ...

“When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding,” the memo said. “Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer.”

Although the memo cites Coke, it does not note that Coke is shorthand for Coca-Cola — or that Apple is not commonly used in reference to its products, which are known simply as iPads, iPhones and MacBooks.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The myth of Kobe's clutchness

Bryant did not succeed in closing out Sunday night's Game 2, a nine-point victory by the Boston Celtics. Still, if Game 3 is on the line, the Lakers will give the ball to Kobe. Not that it should surprise Boston: In a 2009 Sports Illustrated poll, 76 percent of NBA players chose him as the player they'd want to take the last shot with the game on the line. (The next closest, Chauncey Billups, received 3 percent of the votes.) Chances are the players didn't pore over the encyclopedic basketball stats Web site 82 Games before weighing in. If they had, his colleagues would have found that while Bryant does excel late in games, his clutchness is definitely overrated. ...

According to 82 Games, Bryant missed the most potentially game-winning shots (42) of anyone in the NBA from 2003-04 through the middle of the 2008-09 season. (In this study, a game-winning shot was defined as one taken with 24 seconds or less remaining and the score tied or the team with the ball down by 1 or 2 points.) While Bryant was fourth in the NBA in game-winners (14) over that period—behind LeBron James, Vince Carter, and Ray Allen—his .250 game-winning shooting percentage was below the league average of .298. ...

In a study, Ariely asked a group of professional coaches who they thought were the NBA's best clutch players. Not surprisingly, the same set of stars kept coming up, including Bryant, James, Wade, and Duncan. Ariely then compared the performances of alleged clutch players with those were not explicitly identified as clutch. "As it turned out, the clutch players did not improve their skill; they just [shot the ball] many more times," Ariely wrote in a recent piece for the Huffington Post.
--Alan Siegel, Slate, on why I hope Kobe gets the ball for the Lakers at the end of Game 3

The Club

Back in the ’90s, I was working as a design engineer for Chrysler. I had responsibility for key cylinders and door latches. At that time auto theft rates in Europe were increasing and driving the insurers to put pressure on the Euro governments to require increased theft deterrence devices on all new cars. As part of our attempt to figure out where best to invest our design dollars, we hired some professional car thieves to provide a more hands-on perspective than us engineers had (well, maybe not all of us).

At some point, the Club was mentioned. The professional thieves laughed and exchanged knowing glances. What we knew was that the Club is a hardened steel device that attaches to the steering wheel and the brake pedal to prevent steering and/or braking. What we found out was that a pro thief would carry a short piece of a hacksaw blade to cut through the plastic steering wheel in a couple seconds. They were then able to release The Club and use it to apply a huge amount of torque to the steering wheel and break the lock on the steering column (which most cars were already equipped with). The pro thieves actually sought out cars with The Club on them because they didn’t want to carry a long pry bar that was too hard to conceal.
--Jim Burns, Freakonomics blog, on thief jujitsu

Big cats' Obsession

Zoos have long spritzed perfumes and colognes on rocks, trees and toys in an effort to keep confined animals curious.

In 2003, Pat Thomas, general curator for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo in New York, decided to get scientific about it. Working with 24 fragrances and two cheetahs, he recorded how long it took the big cats to notice the scent and how much time they spent interacting with it.

The results left barely a whiff of a doubt. Estée Lauder's Beautiful occupied the cheetahs on average for just two seconds. Revlon's Charlie managed 15.5 seconds. Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps took it up to 10.4 minutes. But the musky Obsession for Men triumphed: 11.1 minutes. That's longer than the cats usually take to savor a meal. ...

Now, Obsession is widely used not only in zoos, but in the field, where it has helped produce breakthroughs in wildlife biology and conservation.

As it happens, big cats of all stripes are obsessive when it comes to the scent. Roan Balas McNab, a Wildlife Conservation Society program director in Guatemala, has been using Obsession for Men since 2007 to help study jaguars in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a protected tropical forest spanning 8,100 square miles.
--Ellen Byron, WSJ, on a magnetic scent

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Correlation vs. causation across disciplines

I’m consistently blown away by what passes for causal analysis in medical journals.

Here’s a cruel and simplified guide to prevailing opinion and practice:

Medical research: Correlation never implies causation.

Epidemiological research: My correlation implies causation, because I controlled for socioeconomic status.

Economics: Confused and conflicted, but sometimes correlation implies causation. If you can find a cool instrumental variable we’ll surely publish you.

I side with the economists on this one.

--Chris Blattman on sloppy causal inference

Google on Windows

Google is phasing out the internal use of Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows operating system because of security concerns, according to several Google employees.

The directive to move to other operating systems began in earnest in January, after Google’s Chinese operations were hacked, and could effectively end the use of Windows at Google, which employs more than 10,000 workers internationally. ...

New hires are now given the option of using Apple’s Mac computers or PCs running the Linux operating system. “Linux is open source and we feel good about it,” said one employee. “Microsoft we don’t feel so good about.”

Windows is known for being more vulnerable to attacks by hackers and more susceptible to computer viruses than other operating systems. The greater number of attacks on Windows has much to do with its prevalence, which has made it a bigger target for attackers.

Employees wanting to stay on Windows required clearance from “quite senior levels”, one employee said. “Getting a new Windows machine now requires CIO approval,” said another employee.
--David Gelles and Richard Waters, Financial Times, on Google voting with its feet

Get a job you love

The General Social Survey (GSS) is an annual national survey of demographic and attitudinal variables with a sample size of about three thousand people. It asks employees about job satisfaction, and the 1991 survey included a module about work organizations. According to our tabulations, 82 percent of employees disagreed, weakly or strongly, with the statement that they had little loyalty toward their work organization. 78 percent agreed that their values and those of their organization were similar. 90 percent were proud to be working for their organization. And 86 percent were very satisfied or moderately satisfied with their jobs. These fractions differed only marginally across gender and race, and between blue-collar versus white-collar occupations.
--George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton, Identity Economics, on the myth that the search for satisfying work is a frivolous bourgeois privilege