Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ObamaCare's unlikely victim

Perhaps you have to be familiar with New York politics to understand how truly bizarre this story is: 1199 is dropping its health care coverage for children. 1199 is the extraordinarily powerful local health care workers' union which has pushed New York State's Medicaid reimbursements into the stratosphere.

Naturally, 1199--and its national parent--were a powerful force advocating for a national health care program. An article on their website from June speaks approvingly of PPACA as a "first step", though also complains that it didn't go far enough in creating a public option.

That article also says that "1199ers in the major health funds such as the 1199SEIU National Benefit Fund (NBF) should see little or no change in their coverage." Just a few months later, the Journal is reporting that the SEIU is dropping its coverage for children, citing, among other things, the impact of the new healthcare law...
"In addition, new federal health-care reform legislation requires plans with dependent coverage to expand that coverage up to age 26," Behroozi wrote in a letter to members Oct. 22. "Our limited resources are already stretched as far as possible, and meeting this new requirement would be financially impossible."
In fairness, this is not exclusively related to the new law; the union is complaining that the state has forced them to buy more expensive third party insurance, and the state is saying that they did no such thing, but that the union fund has been struggling with shortfalls for a while. Reading between the lines, it sounds like their self-insured health fund was underfunded, and the state told them they couldn't keep operating that way. When the budget scramble began, ObamaCare was making coverage for children more expensive, so it ended up on the chopping block.

Nonetheless, this is an extraordinary thing to hear from the lips of one of the major advocates for national health care, and for generally higher spending on government health care. They're basically saying that the new law has made benefits more expensive, and that this is contributing to people cutting coverage--exactly the argument that opponents were derided for making during the debate.
--Megan McArdle, Atlantic Monthly, on the problem with gold-plated-or-nothing mandates

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Yankee the Red Sox should really want

[W]hile it's ridiculous to think there's any reason for the Red Sox to pursue Jeter other than to tweak the Yankees before his inevitable return to pinstripes, the Yankee icon that it would be legitimately fun to pursue is that great, classy, and apparently ageless closer, Mariano Rivera. There have been reports that the Yankees prefer to give him a one-year deal while he is coveting two. While Rivera has shown some minor signs of slippage himself -- his 6.8 K/9 ratio last season tied for his second-worst since 1999 -- he also had the second-best WHIP of his career (0.883). Plus, he's already helped the Red Sox win the World Series once -- sorry, couldn't resist -- and not only is he still an outs-machine, there is a very good chance that he is actually a robot.

Sure, we know Rivera, like Jeter, will end up back in pinstripes when all is settled. But if you want to daydream of one legendary Yankee making the traitorous jump to Boston, why not daydream about the one who is still, you know, good?
--Chad Finn, Boston Globe, on how to both annoy the Yankees and win

The ex-post serendipity of discovery

Science is filled with examples of major discoveries that were initially underappreciated. Alexander Fleming abandoned his work on penicillin. Max Born won the Nobel Prize in physics for a footnote he added in proof to a paper – a footnote that explains how the quantum mechanical wavefunction is connected to probabilities. That’s perhaps the most important idea anyone had in twentieth century physics. Assessing science is hard.
--Michael Nielsen on perhaps the most influential footnote of all time

The happiness-suicide paradox

Now, alas, the same San Francisco Fed last February published a another study, “The Happiness-Suicide Paradox,” which suggests that all this material happiness comes with a downside. That is, the study concludes, “the happiest places have the highest suicide rates.” ...

“Nations such as Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada, and the U.S. each display relatively high happiness and yet high suicide rates,” notes the study by four economists, Mary C. Daley, vice president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick, Daniel Wilson of the Federal Reserve and Stephen Wu of Hamilton College.

The economists concentrated on comparisons within the United States, and their findings were striking in this regard. Hawaii ranked first in adjusted average life satisfaction, “yet remarkably has the fifth highest suicide rate in the country. At the other end of this spectrum, New Jersey ranks near the bottom in adjusted life satisfaction (47th) yet has one of the lowest adjusted suicide risks (coincidentally, the 47th highest risk).” ...

“People” the study notes, seem to “find it particularly painful to be unhappy in a happy place.”
--Michael Powell, NYT, on misery loving company

Partisan lenses

In 2006, Gallup asked the public whether the government posed an “immediate threat” to Americans. Only 21 percent of Republicans agreed, versus 57 percent of Democrats. In 2010, they asked again. This time, 21 percent of Democrats said yes, compared with 66 percent of Republicans.

In other words, millions of liberals can live with indefinite detention for accused terrorists and intimate body scans for everyone else, so long as a Democrat is overseeing them. And millions of conservatives find wartime security measures vastly more frightening when they’re pushed by Janet “Big Sis” Napolitano (as the Drudge Report calls her) rather than a Republican like Tom Ridge.
--Ross Douthat, NYT, on knee-jerk support and opposition

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gut instinct

Consider this 2008 experiment, led by a team of scientists at Duke University. The researchers began by testing a mouse strain that, thanks to a genetic mutation, can't taste sweetness. As a result, these mice showed no immediate preference for sugar water.

But then the scientists discovered something odd, which is that the mutant mice gradually came to prefer the sugar water, even though they couldn't taste the sweetness. How could this be? How could an animal prefer what it couldn't even perceive?

The first clue came from a control experiment with sucralose, an artificial sweetener used in diet sodas. When the mutant mice were given sucralose water, they never developed a preference for it, which suggested that they were drawn to the calories of sugar rather than to its taste.

Sure enough, subsequent experiments demonstrated that "post-ingestive" factors—the ability of the gut to detect calories—were driving this preference. The mutant mice couldn't enjoy the taste of sugar, but they learned within a few hours to enjoy the taste of energy.

The detection of calories in the stomach and intestines also led to measurable changes in the brain. After the mice drank sugar water, there was an increased release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the processing of rewards. (Previously, it was assumed that only the taste of a food could trigger the release of dopamine.) Interestingly, the mutant mice only showed this spike of neurotransmitter when drinking real sugar water—the artificial sweetener gave them no chemical satisfaction.
--Jonah Lehrer, WSJ, on redundant calorie-seeking systems. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Literacy across U.S. cities

10 most literate U.S. cities (population > 250,000):
1. Minneapolis, MN
2. Seattle, WA
3. St. Paul, MN
4. Denver, CO
5. Washington, DC
6. St. Louis, MO
7. San Francisco, CA
8. Atlanta, GA
9. Pittsburgh, PA
10. Boston, MA

10 least literate U.S. cities (population > 250,000):
1. Long Beach, CA
2. Mesa, AZ
3. Arlington, TX
4. San Antonio, TX
5. Bakersfield, CA
6. Corpus Christi, TX
7. Aurora, CO
8. Anaheim, CA
9. El Paso, TX
10. Stockton, CA
--2007 rankings by Jack Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University, based on educational attainment, newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, and Internet access

The prime in Amazon Prime

One challenge was selecting the annual fee for the [Amazon Prime] service; there were no clear financial models because no one knew how many customers would join or how it would affect their purchasing habits. The team ultimately went with $79 mainly because it's a prime number. "It was never about the $79 dollars. It was really about changing people's mentality so they wouldn't shop anywhere else," says Vijay Ravindran, who worked on the Prime team and is now chief digital officer for The Washington Post.
--Brad Stone, Bloomberg Businessweek, on how to set prices when you don't have a model. HT: Marginal Revolution

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Persimmons and George Clooney

[Persimmon] is a prominent part of everyday life in Japan — there's even an adjective almost exclusively used to describe the taste of a bitter persimmon, shibui. (The only other time it's used is to describe older men with graying hair who are nonetheless hot, like George Clooney.)
--Lisa Katayama, Boing Boing, on the unlikely connection between persimmons and George Clooney in the Japanese mind

Thanksgiving unagi

As the story goes, Squanto — a Patuxet Indian who had learned English — took pity on the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony who had managed to survive that first brutal winter, and showed them how to plant corn, putting a dead fish in each hole where a seed was planted. But before that, before the ground had even fully thawed, he taught them a perhaps more valuable skill: how to catch a fatty, nutritious fish that would sustain them in the worst of winters. And this food item, likely on the table of that first Thanksgiving, would have carried special significance to those remaining colonists. Eels — a forgotten staple of our forefathers.

Indeed, eel was the dinner that Pilgrims were given on the very day after they made peace with Massasoit, the sachem, or leader, of the region. The following account is from “Mourt’s Relation,” mostly written by a Plymouth resident, Edward Winslow: “Squanto went at noon to fish for eels. At night he came home with as many as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of. They were fat and sweet. He trod them out with his feet, and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument.”
--James Prosek, NYT, on the other white Thanksgiving meat

In favor of immigrant children

Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced — America’s top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.

Do you see a pattern?
--Thomas Friedman, NYT, on the fruits of immigration

Goodbye to meaningless colors

The Department of Homeland Security is planning to get rid of the color-coded terrorism alert system. ...

Red, the highest level, meant “severe risk of terrorist attacks.” The lowest level, green, meant “low risk of terrorist attacks.” Between those were blue (guarded risk), yellow (significant) and orange (high).

The nation has generally lived in the yellow and orange range. The threat level has never been green, or even blue. ...

The color-coded threat levels were doomed to fail because “they don’t tell people what they can do — they just make people afraid,” said Bruce Schneier, an author on security issues. He said the system was “a relic of our panic after 9/11” that “never served any security purpose.” ...

Conan O’Brien joked, “Champagne-fuchsia means we’re being attacked by Martha Stewart.” Jay Leno said, “They added a plaid in case we were ever attacked by Scotland.” ...
--John Schwartz, NYT, on a small victory against security theater


Amy Wax, president of the International Association of Color Consultants North America, said — perhaps not surprisingly — colors could be an effective part of a warning system if tied to specific action. ... She said the agency’s use of “childish” primary colors like red, yellow and blue might have diluted the impact. “Purple, orange and magenta might create a sense of something that would get attention,” she said.
--John Schwartz, NYT, on relentless lobbying

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Puritans: a revisionist view

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later [than the Puritans], bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. ...

But in Hawthorne’s day, some people realized that he had things wrong. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who visited the United States in 1831. ...

[I]t was the Puritans who had introduced similar practices [to what Tocqueville admired] in colony governments — mandating annual elections, insisting that legislatures could meet even if a governor refused to summon a new session and declaring that no law was valid unless the people or their representatives had consented to it. ...

Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others. ...

[A]mong the liberties they carefully guarded was the right to petition any government and to plead any grievance, a liberty that women as well as men acted on.

The most far-reaching of these Puritan reforms concerned the civil law and the workings of justice. In 1648, Massachusetts became the first place in the Anglo-American world to publish a code of laws — and make it accessible to everyone. ...

And although it’s tempting to envision the ministers as manipulating a “theocracy,” the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office. Nor could local congregations impose civil penalties on anyone who violated secular law. In these rules and values lay one root of the separation of church and state that eventually emerged in our society.
--David Hall, NYT, on the goodness of the Puritans

The clothes make the president in Korea

“Our government reacted properly [to the North Korean shelling],” said [Seoul restaurant owner] Ms. Pyun, adding that she thought the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, had handled himself well during the first hours of the crisis.

Ms. Pyun said TV news reports showed Mr. Lee — whom she referred to as “MB,” his initials — looked capable and “ready for action,” especially in the black leather jacket he was wearing in place of his usual bespoke business suits.

“It was,” she said, “the correct clothing.”
--Mark McDonald, NYT, on the utility of black leather jackets

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The origin of OK

It started one day in 1839, when a few [Boston] newspaper editors were joking around.

"They had a lot of abbreviations that they were using and made up on the spot and thought they were terrifically funny," [author Allan] Metcalf says. "And OK was an abbreviation for 'All Correct.'"

Now most of those jokey abbreviations faded blissfully into history. But OK's star was rising — thanks in part to President Martin Van Buren's re-election campaign in 1840.

The mutton-chopped incumbent hailed from the town of Kinderhook, N.Y.

"He got the nickname Old Kinderhook, and early in 1840, OK clubs sprung up with the slogan, 'OK is OK.'" ...

The man Van Buren succeeded as president, Andrew Jackson, even got roped into the "OK" story — because of a campaign dirty trick, Metcalf says.

"One of Martin Van Buren's opponents who also opposed Jackson because they both were Democrats, claimed that Andrew Jackson had been a terrible speller, and so he would get a document and when he approved it he would write O period K period on it indicating that it was all correct."

Even though the story wasn't true — Metcalf says Jackson was actually quite a good speller — it stuck. And within the next two decades someone else began writing OK on documents as a sign of approval.

Soon, OK was being used for the telegraph, like an early form of the LOLs and OMGs we send in text messages today. ...

[T]he word continued to struggle for elite acceptance — until Woodrow Wilson, the only president to earn a Ph.D., gave his stamp of approval.

"He thought it had really come from a Choctaw Indian word, which he spelled 'okeh,' which was their equivalent of something like OK," Metcalf says.
--NPR on how OK became OK

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The perquisites of power

Representative John A. Boehner, the soon-to-be Republican speaker, pledged recently that he would fly commercial airlines back home to Ohio, passing up the military plane used by the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat. But that does not mean he will endure the hassles of ordinary passengers, including pat downs and other new security screenings.

As he left Washington on Friday, Mr. Boehner headed across the Potomac River to Ronald Reagan National Airport, which was bustling with afternoon travelers. There was no waiting for Mr. Boehner, who was escorted around the identification-checking agents, the metal detectors and the body scanners, and whisked directly to the gate.

The Republican leader, who will become the second person in line to assume the presidency after the new Congress convenes in January, took great pride after the midterm elections in declaring his man-of-the-people plans to travel home as other Americans do. In a time of economic difficulty, it was a not-so-subtle dig at Ms. Pelosi, who has access to a military jet large enough to avoid refueling for her flights home to San Francisco.

But he is not giving up all the perquisites of power.
--Jeff Zeleny, NYT, on who is not feeling our TSA pain

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guilty pleasures

[The Yale SOM MBA student veterans] also talked about what life was like when the workday came to an end. There was time to catch up with family or to work out, but many of the errands of everyday life-grocery shopping or getting the car in for an oil change-aren't part of a military life. Off hours were spent playing video games or watching DVDs. Desperate Housewives was surprisingly popular even in all-male attack helicopter flight crews.
--Yale SOM press office on not-so-macho viewing habits

Deficit reduction theater

On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a champion earmarker, bowed to pressure from Tea Party activists and agreed to a voluntary ban. But at least in budgetary terms, this is much less of a victory than it may seem. Earmarks account for only about $16 billion a year, or less than one half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Banning them would not lower spending or cut the deficit, since, contrary to popular perception, the money would not be returned to the Treasury but would simply revert to the Appropriations Committee to be spent elsewhere. To make a real dent in federal spending, the appropriations process itself would need reform, and that’s not currently on the table.
--Joshua Green, Boston Globe, on why earmarks are a rounding error


A band of conservative rebels has taken over the House, vowing to slash spending, cut the deficit and kill earmarks.

And of course they’d love a seat on the powerhouse Appropriations Committee so they can translate their campaign zeal into action, right?

Not really.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was asked to be an appropriator and said thanks, but no thanks. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a tea party favorite, turned down a shot at Appropriations, which controls all discretionary spending. So did conservatives like Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an ambitious newcomer who will lead the influential Republican Study Committee. ...

The difficulty that GOP leaders have faced in recruiting Appropriations Committee members is a stunning reversal from the panel’s storied history, when members of both parties aggressively competed for committee slots as a way to increase their House influence.
--Simmi Aujla and Richard Cohen, Politico, on the gap between campaign rhetoric and official action

Harvard prayer walkers

James and Nicole, who do “prayer walks” at Harvard on Friday mornings, asked that neither their real names nor the name of their church be used because they are concerned about potential ramifications for their relationship with the University. Their church, which runs “faith groups” at several local colleges, recently established one catering to Harvard students. In addition to the prayer walks, they hold fellowship meetings at Nicole’s apartment near campus. ...

I first heard of James and Nicole’s group in August when a tall young man wearing a dress shirt and slacks stopped and offered to help me carry some gear back to the Outing Club. As we walked down Plympton Street, he told me he was on campus doing a prayer walk.

Until then, I had thought the only group doing prayer walks on campus was the Justice House of Prayer Boston. Since June I had been attending meetings for thesis research at their house in Central Square...

On the Friday morning I tag along with James and Nicole, we meet at Au Bon Pain at 11 a.m. Missy’s there too, with a young woman from Texas she just met who is now staying with her while she’s in the city. Before we start, James and the others pray, asking God to show them whom to talk to or where to go. They do, and Missy shares first. “I got a picture of a lion,” she says, interpreting this to stand for courage. “I also got a picture of someone smoking outside the science building.”

Nicole says she saw a green tree but doesn’t spend time analyzing the image.

“Mine was really random,” James says. “I got a picture of a kangaroo.”

With that, we start for the Yard. Missy and her friend split off, and I go with Nicole and James. As we cut across on the path in front of Grays, James prays for God to open students’ hearts. We pass in between Weld and University Hall, and I notice something on top of one of those posts that deter cars and bikes. I drop behind so I can look closer. It is a tiny pink plastic kangaroo.

My first thought is that James planted it, but neither he nor Nicole stop. They don’t seem to have seen it. ...

Missy and her friend are waiting for us, excited to tell us how they found the woman in the red jacket and the red hat they were looking for. I had forgotten this particular vision. “We saw a lot of smokers outside the Science Center,” Missy says. James talks about the boy with the cast and the man visiting his brother-in-law. I ask if they saw the kangaroo. They think it’s cool, but not a big deal. I appreciate that they don’t try to use this as evidence for anything.

I say good-bye and return, alone, to the post by Weld, but the kangaroo is gone. ...

A few months after our Starbucks conversation, I’m reminded of Will’s question, when he asked me if I think they’re completely weird. ...

Temple has just realized he can’t find his car keys. The other staff and guests call out suggestions while he searches the prayer room and the adjacent kitchen. The part-time staffer tells him God had given her a vision that the keys were still in the trunk. She says it like she’s kidding, but she’s not, not really. Temple insists that he already checked, but when he can’t find them anywhere inside, he goes out again. A moment later he comes back, holding the keys. The part-time staffer grins.

“The Lord speaks to me,” she shrugs.

It’s tempting to be a little amazed, but by now I expect this sort of thing. The prophets joke about being prophets.

“You said they were in the trunk,” Temple protests, explaining that he’d found them stuck in the front door of his car.

The staffer shrugs and explains that her vision had been of the keys in a keyhole. She has automatically interpreted the metal surrounding the keyhole as the trunk. There’s a regular attendee with a scraggly orange beard and combat boots. I’ve almost never heard him say anything, but now he offers what sounds like a rule he’s learned by heart, a basic principle in dealing with prophetic visions: “You gotta say what you see.”
--Chelsea Shover, Harvard Crimson, on saying what you see

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Micro-subprime collapse?

India’s rapidly growing private microcredit industry faces imminent collapse as almost all borrowers in one of India’s largest states have stopped repaying their loans, egged on by politicians who accuse the industry of earning outsize profits on the backs of the poor. ...

[M]icrofinance in pursuit of profits has led some microcredit companies around the world to extend loans to poor villagers at exorbitant interest rates and without enough regard for their ability to repay. Some companies have more than doubled their revenues annually.

Now some Indian officials fear that microfinance could become India’s version of the United States’ subprime mortgage debacle, in which the seemingly noble idea of extending home ownership to low-income households threatened to collapse the global banking system because of a reckless, grow-at-any-cost strategy.

Responding to public anger over abuses in the microcredit industry — and growing reports of suicides among people unable to pay mounting debts — legislators in the state of Andhra Pradesh last month passed a stringent new law restricting how the companies can lend and collect money.
--Lydia Polgreen and Vikas Bajaj, NYT, on the bloom coming off microfinance

The Pervert Jihad

A terrorist group — let’s call them, I don’t know, the Pervert Jihad — issues a videotaped threat.

Their demand: America must select 25 million of its citizens per year. Those citizens must give complete strangers working for the government a brief look at a blurry naked picture of themselves. In addition, the complete strangers working for the government must select 1 million of the citizens — men, women, and children of all ages — for “special treatment.” That “special treatment” involves the one million lucky citizens submitting to the strangers from the government briefly running their hands over the citizens’ clothed breasts and genitals, in public, in front of a crowd of annoyed strangers. The whole experience takes about an hour of the citizens’ time every time they have to put up with it.

The Pervert Jihad says that if America does not comply, they will kill Americans every year. They’ll kill, let’s say, about 450 — the capacity of a jumbo jet. We have reason to believe they may or may not succeed at this mass murder if they try.

Would we do it?
--Popehat on an equivalent reframing of the TSA body scan policy. HT: JDA

Purell as placebo

[Emory University's Christine] Moe observed up to a 96 percent reduction in stomach flu cases after washing with soap and/or water, as compared to a 54 percent reduction after sanitizer use. ...

Why is this the case, if Purell effectively disables more frightening bugs, like herpes and HIV? These viruses are enclosed in an envelope that helps them infect host cells but also makes them more susceptible to the drying effects of alcohol. In contrast, stomach viruses and the cold virus, which are non-enveloped, are more alcohol-resistant. Dr. James Arbogast of GOJO Industries, the company that invented Purell, suggests that a sanitizer made of 70 percent alcohol might inactivate stomach viruses more effectively, but such high-concentration sanitizers aren’t in common use; the Purell in your college’s dining hall is eight percent lower in alcohol.

While research suggests that stomach viruses can survive hand sanitizer, it’s less clear whether alcohol-based gels fend off the flu or the common cold. The University of Virginia’s Dr. Ronald Turner found that sanitizer users and old-fashioned soap-and-water users are infected with the flu and cold at an equal rate. Based on these results, Turner believes that hand-to-hand and hand-to-object contact is unlikely to spread these illnesses, which may be more contagious via air.
--Michaela Panter, Yale Daily News, on Purell's inefficacy

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

TSA humor

Photograph at Indianapolis airport security checkpoint:


The image on the computer screen:

HT: Gizmodo

Flying with a period

Do the [new body] imagers, for example, detect sanitary napkins? Yes. Does that then necessitate a pat-down? The T.S.A. couldn’t say. Screeners, the T.S.A. has said, are expected to exercise some discretion.
--Joe Sharkey, NYT, on a heightened monthly risk of getting groped

Monday, November 15, 2010

More stuff white people like

In “Whiter Shades of Pale,” [Christian] Lander’s targets are more far-flung [than in his previous book, “Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions”], and it’s a treat to watch him take aim. He takes note of the industries, in addition to classical music, that survive solely on white guilt: “Penguin Classics, the S.P.C.A., free-range chicken farms, and the entire rubber bracelet market.” About the chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV show — during which Mr. Bourdain eats arcane dishes and complains about tourists — the author writes, “There hasn’t been a show this reaffirming to white people since ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

He explains sea salt’s current vogue: “When white people think about regular salt, all they can think about is sodium and poor health. When they think about sea salt they think about France.”

Many of his observations are more pointed. About picking your own fruit: “When white people harvest a crop it’s known as ‘berry picking.’ ” About flea markets: “Once again white people have taken over something that poor people used to like and made it extremely expensive.” At a “Mad Men” theme party, he says, “you can severely curtail the amount of fun by saying, ‘I’m glad this isn’t really 1960 or else I’d be serving all of you.’ ” ...

You’ll find “Whiter Shades of Pale” in that dimly understood and flimsy bookstore subdivision, the humor section. It belongs upfront, where the best new nonfiction walks point.
--Dwight Garner, NYT, on a certain brand of white person

High school dating and the laws of economics

In the Darwinian world of high-school dating, freshman girls and senior boys have the highest chances of successfully partnering up. Senior girls (too picky!) and freshman boys (pond scum!) have the least. ...

A recently released paper—called "Terms of Endearment," but don't hold its too-cute title against it—looked at how and when high-school students choose mates and their preferences when searching for a partner. Economists Peter Arcidiacono and Marjorie McElroy of Duke and Andrew Beauchamp of Boston College examined an enormous trove of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, more commonly known as Add Health. ...

[Arcidiacono] and his colleagues found one classic economic tenet driving the byzantine high-school dating market: Scarcity determines value. Among freshman boys, what's rare, and therefore valuable, are freshman girls willing to have a relationship and, even better, willing to have sex. Among senior girls, what's valuable and scarce are boys willing to have a relationship without having sex. ...

Unsurprisingly, the majority of high school boys want to have sex (though only 47.6 percent of freshmen boys do). Unsurprisingly, the majority of high school girls do not (though 50.1 percent of senior girls do). Over the course of four years, the power shifts from the freshman girls who don't want to have sex to the senior boys who do.

The conclusion? Though high-school girls don't really want to have sex, many more of them end up doing so in order to "match" with a high-school boy. For them, a relationship at some point becomes more important than purity. Because of that phenomenon, in schools with more boys than girls, the girls hold more cards and have less sex. Where there are more girls, the male preference for sex tends to win out. ...

And who does the high-school dating system disadvantage most, statistically? Senior girls, at least according to the skew between stated sexual preferences and actual sexual activity. Though that will undoubtedly come as cold comfort to those legions of lonely 14-year-old boys.
--Annie Lowrey, Slate, on market power in high school

Management consulting: a randomized controlled trial

Management consultants don’t have the most stellar reputation for offering value for money – although, truth be told, the infamy of investment bankers has long since left them in the shade – so I was impressed when, early this year, rumours reached me of a fascinating new study in which a consulting firm was implicitly agreeing to subject its advice to a randomised trial. ...

(A draft, “Does Management Matter? Evidence from India”, is available from the website of co-author Nick Bloom at Stanford.) ...

The researchers hired Accenture to provide management consulting services to 14 factories in Mumbai, chosen at random from a group of 20. The other six factories served as a control group and received a diagnostic performance audit but little serious advice. ...

The results were undeniably impressive. The effect of a few months of consulting advice was that profits rose by almost a fifth, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year. (The latest draft of the study puts the figure at $230,000; an earlier calculation reckoned it was even higher.) Output was up, inventory was tighter and defect rates were halved.

Accenture’s fees for the five-month consulting gig, at commercial rates, would have been roughly the same amount as the increase in profits – so the arrangement would have paid for itself by the end of the year. If any of the consulting advice stuck, this would have been a fantastic investment. The indications are that the advice more than sticks: the new procedures generate more information, more ideas for running a tight ship, and a spiral of continuous improvement. ...

The more substantial caveat is that textile companies in India have their own distinct problems: tools and machinery were left lying around, and stock control was frequently non-existent. ... Modern inventory-management techniques made a big difference in this particular sector of Mumbai’s economy, but that does not mean that Vodafone or Barclays or the civil service have as much to gain from bringing the consultants in.
--Tim Harford, Financial Times, on the case for pursuing your management consulting career in India. HT: Chris Blattman

Consumerism as a god

Are brands the "new religion"? Practitioners and scholars have been intrigued by the possibility, but strong theory and empirical evidence supporting the existence of a relationship between brands and religion is scarce. In what follows, we argue and demonstrate that religiosity is indeed related to "brand reliance," i.e., the degree to which consumers prefer branded goods over unbranded goods or goods without a well-known national brand.

We theorize that brands and religiosity may serve as substitutes for one another because both allow individuals to express their feelings of self-worth. We provide support for this substitution hypothesis with U.S. state-level data (field study) as well as individual-level data where religiosity is experimentally primed (study 1) or measured as a chronic individual difference (study 2). Importantly, studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that the relationship between religiosity and brand reliance only exists in product categories in which brands enable consumers to express themselves (e.g., clothes). Moreover, studies 3 and 4 demonstrate that the expression of self-worth is an important factor underlying the negative relationship.
--Ron Shachar, Tulin Erdem, Keisha Cutright, and Gavan Fitzsimons, "Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses?," Marketing Science, on our all being slaves to one thing or another

Saturday, November 13, 2010

We'll always have Oakland

The Board of Supervisors just banned toys in Happy Meals, which drew worldwide attention.

Now the latest ban being proposed in San Francisco is on male circumcision.

A proposed ballot measure for the November 2011 ballot – when voters will be electing the San Francisco’s next mayor – would amend The City’s police code “to make it a misdemeanor to circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the foreskin, testicle or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18.”

Doing so would result in a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail, according to the proposed measure submitted to the Department of Elections.

The measure was submitted by San Francisco resident Lloyd Schofield, who has spoken up on this issue in the past. ...

For the ordinance to make it on to the November ballot, it would require the collection of 7,168 valid signatures by April 26, 2011.
--Joshua Sabatini, San Francisco Examiner, on the San Francisco activist spirit

Mental focus and happiness

Everyone knows they do it, but new research by Harvard researchers, which used the iPhone to periodically interrupt 2,250 people’s lives, found that about half the time, people’s minds are wandering. Most strikingly, they found that overall, people whose minds are wandering are less happy than those focused on the task at hand.

“It’s paradoxical and ironic, in the sense that you would think if you leave the present, you’d go someplace better, but people seem to go to places that make them less happy,’’ said Matthew Killingsworth, a psychology graduate student at Harvard University and lead author of the work, published today in the journal Science. ...

In order to measure people’s errant minds and moods, Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, took advantage of modern technology to randomly and seamlessly interrupt people’s days to ask a few simple questions. People from ages 18 to 88 signed up for a Web application that periodically sent them an e-mail or text message to ask a simple set of questions: How happy were they at the moment? What were they doing? Were they thinking about something other than the task at hand, and if so, were they thinking of something pleasant, neutral, or negative?

Researchers found that 47 percent of the time, people reported that their minds were wandering. In nearly two dozen activities reported, people’s minds were wandering more than 30 percent of the time, with a single exception — sex — in which people seemed to be both single-mindedly focused on what they were doing and happy.
--Carolyn Johnson, Boston Globe, on a possible downside of daydreaming

Friday, November 12, 2010

Redefining merit

When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.” ...

[A]n “Asian” school has come to mean one that is so academically focused that some students feel they can no longer compete or have fun. Indeed, Rachel, Alexandra and her brother belong to a growing cohort of student that’s eschewing some big-name schools over perceptions that they’re “too Asian.” It’s a term being used in some U.S. academic circles to describe a phenomenon that’s become such a cause for concern to university admissions officers...
--Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, Macleans, on too Asian


When [Jerome] Karabel picks up the story shortly after 1900, the colleges were becoming increasingly concerned about the number of Jews who were passing the entrance exams. Since the Protestant upper classes who paid tuition bills had deserted other universities, notably Columbia, where “Hebrew” enrolments were deemed excessive, administrators regarded the increased Jewish presence as both a cultural insult and a threat to their institutional viability.

As a result, the colleges limited the size of their classes and began to reject students by creating a definition of merit that was expressly designed to justify quotas on Jewish applicants. Academic achievement would play second fiddle to the character and manliness thought to be inculcated by prestigious boarding schools. Jews (limited to 15% of the class at Harvard and 10% at Yale) were deemed lacking in these attributes. In the words of a former Harvard dean of admissions, Wilbur Bender, Jews were “effeminates, the precious and affected, the unstable”, while private school boys were “virile, masculine, red-blooded he-men”. ...

“Those who are able to define ‘merit',” [Karabel] writes, “will almost invariably possess more of it, and those with greater resources—cultural, economic, and social—will generally be able to ensure that the educational system will deem their children more meritorious.” Even today, efforts at Harvard to place more emphasis on the sciences (potentially replacing some wealthier white students with nerdy Asian-Americans) have attracted criticism that they might make the student body too one-dimensional instead of iconoclastic and well-rounded—exactly the same style of disparaging argument used to justify the Jewish quotas of yesteryear.
--The Economist on the shifting definition of merit


For [Philip Roth's fictional Jewish character] Alex Portnoy, athleticism was something alien. It was part of a total package that included not only the golden shiksas but their brothers ("engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift, and powerful halfbacks"), their fathers ("men with white hair and deep voices"), their mothers who never whined or hectored, their curtained, fireplaced houses, their small noses, their lack of constant nagging worry--in short, the normalcy and confidence that go along with belonging, with being on the inside.

In the Portnoy household nobody played sports--bodies existed only to generate suffering--and there was only one thing that really went well. That, needless to say, was Alex's performance in school. ...

In my many hours standing next to hockey rinks last winter, I sometimes engaged in one of the Jews' secret vices: Jew-counting. All over the ice were little Cohens, little Levys, their names sewed in block letters on the backs of their jerseys. It was amazing how many there were. ...

More to the point, these Jewish kids and their parents have decided to devote endless hours of childhood to an activity with no career payoff. Do you think they're going to 6 a.m. practices for a shot at the National Hockey League? Of course not. They're doing it--mastering hockey, and every conceivable other sport--to promote "growth," "teamwork," "physical fitness," "well-roundedness," "character," and other qualities that may be desirable in a doctor but don't, as a practical matter, help you get into medical school. ...

What all the hockey-playing Jewish kids in America are not doing, during their hundreds of hours hustling to, on, and from the ice rink, is studying. It's not that they don't study at all, because they do. It's that they don't study with the ferociousness and all-out commitment of people who realize (or who have parents who realize) that outstanding school performance is their one shot at big-time opportunity in America.

Meanwhile, there is another ethnic group in America whose children devote their free time not to hockey but to extra study. ... This group is Asian-Americans. ...

[A]s Asians become America's new Jews, Jews are becoming ... Episcopalians.
--Nicholas Lemann, Slate, on Jews as Episcopalians

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Koreans on David Chang

Those who have or haven’t been to [David Chang's] Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan should know that on the subject of this superstar chef, the Koreans are split. Go figure.

Important taste-buds are dazzled by unctuous Berkshire pork stews accented with the bright, tart, scarlet strands of pickled cabbage. Plenty of people delight in the toothsomeness of roasted glutinous rice cakes complemented by the impossibly green taste of scallions cast in this light. But others of us — or our mothers and aunts — have performed such sleights of hand in our own homes. We know that rice cakes are pre-fabricated and sometimes shipped frozen, and that being heralded for adding kimchi to butter is akin to granting a patent for slicing hot dogs atop blue-box mac-and-cheese.
--Mary H.K. Choi, NYT, on gussied up home cooking

The fastest readers and thinkers in the world

The chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan commission on reducing the national debt outlined a politically provocative and economically ambitious package of spending cuts and tax increases on Wednesday, igniting a debate that is likely to grip the country for years. ...

Liberal groups immediately condemned the plan when news of it broke, for its Social Security and Medicare changes and for the scope of the spending cuts. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in a statement called it “simply unacceptable.”
--Jackie Calmes, NYT, on knowing your reaction before knowing what you're reacting to

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Academic celebrity

Other researchers are eager to work with [John Ioannidis]: he has published papers with 1,328 different co-authors at 538 institutions in 43 countries, he says. Last year he received, by his estimate, invitations to speak at 1,000 conferences and institutions around the world, and he was accepting an average of about five invitations a month until a case last year of excessive-travel-induced vertigo led him to cut back.
--David Freedman, Atlantic Monthly, on life as an academic celebrity

The imperfection of the research endeavor

In the paper, [John] Ioannidis laid out a detailed mathematical proof that, assuming modest levels of researcher bias, typically imperfect research techniques, and the well-known tendency to focus on exciting rather than highly plausible theories, researchers will come up with wrong findings most of the time. Simply put, if you’re attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you’re motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you’ll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right. His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials. ...

To say that Ioannidis’s work has been embraced would be an understatement. His PLoS Medicine paper is the most downloaded in the journal’s history, and it’s not even Ioannidis’s most-cited work—that would be a paper he published in Nature Genetics on the problems with gene-link studies.
--David Freedman, Atlantic Monthly, on research bias

The TSA doing the small things

It is a source of continual astonishment to me that [airline] pilots -- many of whom, it should be pointed out, are military veterans who possess security clearances -- are not allowed to carry onboard their airplanes pocket knives and bottles of shampoo, but then they're allowed to fly enormous, fuel-laden, missile-like objects over American cities.
--Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly, on incoherent security policy

The hipster illusion in Mexican Coke

I’m a big fan of Mexican Coke. I can bore you silly talking about the elegant slender glass bottle, and the simple sweet taste of real sugar (Mexican Coke is made with sucrose, not high-fructose corn syrup) and the slightly lower levels of carbonation. It’s a delicious drink, far less harsh and cloying that its American equivalent. (And did I mention the glass bottle? And the cool “Hecho in Mexico” sticker?)

But here’s the rub: Mexican Coke appears to be a cognitive illusion. Marion Nestle summarizes a recent study in Obesity:
You know how everyone thinks Mexican Coca-Cola is so much more delicious than American Coke because it is made with table sugar (sucrose), not HFCS? Oops again. The investigators could not find any sucrose in the Coke, but did find plenty of glucose and fructose. This suggests that Mexican Coke is also made with HFCS (or it could also mean that the sucrose had been split into its constituent glucose and fructose).
--Jonah Lehrer, Wired, on false HFCS sanctimony

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A declining Derek Jeter

All of the available evidence seems to suggest that [Derek] Jeter is a worse fielder than most defensive metrics indicate, perhaps on the order of 20 to 30 runs [allowed per season] below the average shortstop. This makes it possible that Jeter, in 2010, was performing at roughly the same level as a typical replacement—in other words, his ability to hit like something resembling an average shortstop doesn’t offset his inability to field like one. And while Jeter’s bat may improve next year from a disappointing 2010, over the next three years it’s a fair bet that his hitting will continue to erode. That’s what happens to baseball players as they get closer to 40.

No, I don’t envy [Yankees general manager] Brian Cashman at all.
--Colin Wyers, Baseball Prospectus, on the delicious prospect of watching Derek Jeter drag down the Yankees for the next half decade

Smartphone risks


--MacRumors on data from warranty company SquareTrade

The evolution of rap lyrics

The Anthology of Rap allows us, over the course of its more than 800 pages, to watch the long herky-jerky evolution of the genre. We begin with rap’s birth in the primordial soup of the Old School, a late-seventies swamp in which single-cell rap organisms floated around calling to each other in long strings of pre-lexical nonsense syllables. “Told you ’bout the ding-d’-d’-ding-d’-ding-dingy-ding,” rapped Ikey C, to which the Sugarhill Gang responded, “Baby-bubba to the boogedy-bang-bang the boogie,” to which Sequence retorted, “I said I hip-ma-jazz and a raz-ma-jazz,” at which point DJ Hollywood interjected, “Hip-hip-the-hop, the hop, the hop / Dippy-dippy dip-dip-dop.” Early rap was mainly an avant-garde way to get people to dance at parties; its lyrics were never intended to be transcribed and studied. Today they read like nursery rhymes, or the kind of verse John Keats once criticized as “rocking horse” poetry: simple couplets, religiously end-stopped. (“And the way she moved was like a graceful swan / And we can make love to the break of dawn.”) Reading 100 pages of it made my brain numb. ...

In 1986, Run-DMC made rap a mainstream phenomenon, and then the innovators moved in. Rakim, whose flow was so powerful it would earn him the nickname “God MC,” introduced rhymes within lines instead of just at the ends of them: “The melody that I’m stylin, smooth as a violin / Rough enough to break New York from Long Island.” Big Daddy Kane started playing with multisyllabic rhymes, pairing Tylenol with why you all and vasectomy with wreck with me. Suddenly rap sounded recognizably modern:

The wrath of Kane, takin over your circumference / Destroyin negativity and suckers that come with / The weak, the wack, the words, the poor / I thrash, bash, clash, mash, and then more / Blow up the scenery, I reign supremer, see / You need a savior to save ya, so lean on me

...

Based exclusively on my reading of The Anthology of Rap, who is the best rap lyricist of all time? (Please note that this is a very different question than “who is the best rapper of all time?”) ... [M]y shortlist for the best ever comes down to just six: Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Eminem, Canibus, Chino XL, and Lupe Fiasco. These are the rappers who dazzled me most consistently with the density of their ideas and wordplay and imagery. I could make a strong case for any of them. If I had to choose just one, though, I’d go with Big Daddy Kane: He towers, for me, over rap’s other early innovators (Melle Mel, Rakim), he was still around to outrap 2Pac and Biggie in a freestyle in 1995, and his fingerprints are all over today’s best lyricists.
--Sam Anderson, New York, on the best rappers on paper

The inhumanity of humanitarian war aid

The conventional wisdom was that Sierra Leone’s civil war had been pure insanity: tens of thousands dead, many more maimed or wounded, and half the population displaced—all for nothing. But [Dutch journalist Linda] Polman had heard it suggested that the R.U.F.’s rampages had followed from “a rational, calculated strategy.” The idea was that the extreme violence had been “a deliberate attempt to drive up the price of peace.” ... Addressing Polman as a stand-in for the international community, [the Sierra Leone rebel leader] elaborated, “You people looked the other way all those years. . . . There was nothing to stop for. Everything was broken, and you people weren’t here to fix it.”

In the end, he claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special “cut-hands gangs” to lop off civilian limbs. “It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate,” he said. “Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn’t have come.” The U.N.’s mission in Sierra Leone was per capita the most expensive humanitarian relief operation in the world at the time. The old rebel believed that, instead of being vilified for the mutilations, he and his comrades should be thanked for rescuing their country.

Is this true? Do doped-up maniacs really go a-maiming in order to increase their country’s appeal in the eyes of international aid donors? Does the modern humanitarian-aid industry help create the kind of misery it is supposed to redress? That is the central contention of Polman’s new book, “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” (Metropolitan; $24), translated by the excellent Liz Waters. Three years after Polman’s visit to Makeni, the international Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone published testimony that described a meeting in the late nineteen-nineties at which rebels and government soldiers discussed their shared need for international attention. Amputations, they agreed, drew more press coverage than any other feature of the war. ...

“Yes, but, good grief, should we just do nothing at all then?” Max Chevalier, a sympathetic Dutchman who tended amputees in Freetown for the N.G.O. Handicap International, asked Polman. ... Polman insists that conscience compels us to consider that option.
--Philip Gourevich, New Yorker, on moral hazard created by good intentions

Monday, November 8, 2010

The upside of a First Lady with moves

An Indian public and news media that were lukewarm before the official three-day visit began on Saturday have since become exuberant Michelle Obama fans. ...

While Mrs. Obama’s thoughts on education have been politely received, many foreign politicians’ wives have come bearing the same message. ...

Not all of the politicians’ wives have danced, though. In India, where everyone from teenage boys to septuagenarian aunts dance at weddings, a reticence to join the dance floor is seen as a troubling sign of a possible character flaw — one that Mrs. Obama certainly does not exhibit. ...

One video clip from that event is winging its way around the Internet, inspiring as much commentary on the grace of Mrs. Obama as the seeming left-footedness of her husband.
--Heather Timmons, NYT, on troubling character flaws of past First Ladies

Perpetual liberal anxieties

These are difficult times at The Nation, and not just because liberals are in retreat. Lately the magazine has suffered a one-two punch. On top of political malaise, it faces the economic pressures that political journals often confront when the party in power is on their side. ...

No weekly magazine tracked by the Media Industry Newsletter has lost more pages of advertising this year than The Nation.

As of Nov. 8, ad pages were down 30 percent compared with last year’s figures, remarkable even though advertising accounts for only a 10th of the revenue. Traffic to TheNation.com has also declined recently. And since 2008, the magazine has run an operating deficit of about $500,000 a year. ...

[National editor and publisher] Ms. vanden Heuvel is showing few signs of worry.

“Am I a believer that The Nation will survive another 150 years? Yes, I am,” she said. Then she paused as a pang of classic liberal anxiety hit her. “Unless there’s a nuclear war.”
--Jeremy Peters, NYT, on things that don't change

Friday, November 5, 2010

Why don't McDonald's burgers rot?

Back in 2008, Karen Hanrahan, of the blog Best of Mother Earth posted a picture of a hamburger that she uses as a prop for a class she teaches on how to help parents keep their children away from junk food... The hamburger she's been using as a prop is the same plain McDonald's hamburger she's been using for what's now going on 14 years. It looks pretty much identical to how it did the day she bought it, and she's not had to use any means of preservation...

[T]here are a number of theories as to why a McDonald's burger might not rot:
  1. There is some kind of chemical preservative in the beef and/or bun and/or the wrapping that is not found in a normal burger and/or bun that creates an inhospitable environment for mold to grow. ...
Theory 1 is the one most often concluded in the various blogs out there, but there doesn't seem to be strong evidence one way or the other. ...

I decided to design a series of tests in order to ascertain the likeliness of each one of these separate scenarios...

Turns out that not only did the regular McDonald's burgers not rot, but the home-ground burgers did not rot either. Samples one through five had shrunk a bit (especially the beef patties), but they showed no signs of decomposition. What does this mean?

It means that there's nothing that strange about a McDonald's burger not rotting. Any burger of the same shape will act the same way. ...

That a Quarter Pounder grows mold but a regular-sized McDonald's burger doesn't is some pretty strong evidence in support of Theory 3 from above. Because of the larger size of a Quarter Pounder, it simply takes longer to dehydrate, giving mold more of a chance to grow.
--J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, A Hamburger Today, on vindication for McDonald's. HT: Chris Blattman

High-speed railway to nowhere

Bay Area loses out on high-speed rail

And we have the obstructionists and NIMBYs in Menlo Park, Palo Alto and environs to thank, in good part, for blowing it.

As reported on SFGate by AP, the first segment of line between San Francisco and Anaheim will be built "in the middle of Central Valley farmlands, far away from either urban center."

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, taking directions from Washington, voted unanimously that $4.3 billion in federal money will be spent on segments linking Fresno to either Merced or Bakersfield.

Rail authority board member Rod Diridon, a former Santa Clara County supervisor is quoted in the San Jose Business Journal as saying "it's heartbreaking for me and many others" that the the San Francisco-to-San Jose leg would not be built first.
He said one of the reasons the Central Valley was chosen is the opposition to the project that has arisen in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame, which comprise the Peninsula Cities Consortium.
--Andrew Ross, The Bottom Line, on federal money that must be spent

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No more Happy Meals in San Francisco

It seems the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has accomplished what the Hamburglar never could. They've made off with McDonald's fare.

The supes today passed an ordinance that will require meals to meet nutritional guidelines if restaurants wish to include a toy with the food purchase.

More importantly, the supes passed the so-called "Happy Meal Ban" by an 8-3 vote -- meaning it can survive a promised veto from Mayor Gavin Newsom. That's right: San Francisco done banned the Happy Meal. Robble robble.
--Joe Eskenazi, SF Weekly, on San Francisco taking in loco parentis seriously

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Work and cognitive health

The two economists call their paper “Mental Retirement,” and their argument has intrigued behavioral researchers. Data from the United States, England and 11 other European countries suggest that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.

The implication, the economists and others say, is that there really seems to be something to the “use it or lose it” notion — if people want to preserve their memories and reasoning abilities, they may have to keep active. ...

While not everyone is convinced by the new analysis, published recently in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, a number of leading researchers say the study is, at least, a tantalizing bit of evidence for a hypothesis that is widely believed but surprisingly difficult to demonstrate.

Researchers repeatedly find that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive tests than people who are still working. But, they note, that could be because people whose memories and thinking skills are declining may be more likely to retire than people whose cognitive skills remain sharp. ...

Examining the data from the various countries, Dr. [Bob] Willis and his colleague Susann Rohwedder, associate director of the RAND Center for the Study of Aging in Santa Monica, Calif., noticed that there are large differences in the ages at which people retire. ...

Economic incentives produce the large differences in retirement age, Dr. Rohwedder and Dr. Willis report. Countries with earlier retirement ages have tax policies, pension, disability and other measures that encourage people to leave the work force at younger ages.

The researchers find a straight-line relationship between the percentage of people in a country who are working at age 60 to 64 and their performance on memory tests. The longer people in a country keep working, the better, as a group, they do on the tests when they are in their early 60s.


--Gina Kolata, NYT, on the case against early retirement

The irresistable appeal of South Korean soap operas

It's estimated that half of all young people in major [North Korean] cities have watched pirated South Korean TV dramas. ...

The shows are recorded from South Korean satellite TV broadcasts in China and burned onto DVDs or Video CDs that soon make it over the border and into North Korean markets.

There are occasional crackdowns, but even the police want to watch the dramas.
--Martyn Williams, IT World, on a vice everybody shares

Monday, November 1, 2010

Resisting the TSA

[T]he coiled, closely packed lines at TSA screening sites are the most dangerous places in airports, completely unprotected from a terrorist attack -- a terrorist attack that would serve the same purpose (shutting down air travel) as an attack on board an aircraft.

Agents were funneling every passenger at this particular checkpoint through a newly installed back-scatter body imaging device, which allows the agency's security officers to, in essence, see under your clothing. The machine captures an image of your naked self, including your genitals, and sends the image to an agent in a separate room. ...

In part because of the back-scatter imager's invasiveness (a TSA employee in Miami was arrested recently after he physically assaulted a colleague who had mocked his modestly sized penis, which was fully apparent in a captured back-scatter image), the TSA is allowing passengers to opt-out of the back-scatter and choose instead a pat-down. ...

At BWI, I told the officer who directed me to the back-scatter that I preferred a pat-down. I did this in order to see how effective the manual search would be. When I made this request, a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them -- the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down -- said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search. I asked him if the new guidelines included a cavity search. "No way. You think Congress would allow that?"

I answered, "If you're a terrorist, you're going to hide your weapons in your anus or your vagina." He blushed when I said "vagina."

"Yes, but starting tomorrow, we're going to start searching your crotchal area" -- this is the word he used, "crotchal" -- "and you're not going to like it."

"What am I not going to like?" I asked.

"We have to search up your thighs and between your legs until we meet resistance," he explained.

"Resistance?" I asked.

"Your testicles," he explained.

'That's funny," I said, "because 'The Resistance' is the actual name I've given to my testicles."

He answered, "Like 'The Situation,' that guy from 'Jersey Shore?'"

Yes, exactly, I said. ...

"But what about people who hide weapons in their cavities?" I asked. I actually said "vagina" again, just to see him blush. "We're just not going there," he reiterated.

I asked him if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. "Nobody's going to do it," he said, "once they find out that we're going to do."

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? "That's what we're hoping for. We're trying to get everyone into the machine." He called over a colleague. "Tell him what you call the back-scatter," he said. "The Dick-Measuring Device," I said. "That's the truth," the other officer responded. ...

I draw three lessons from this week's experience: The pat-down, while more effective than previous pat-downs, will not stop dedicated and clever terrorists from smuggling on board small weapons or explosives. When I served as a military policeman in an Israeli army prison, many of the prisoners "bangled" contraband up their asses. I know this not because I checked, but because eventually they told me this when I asked. ...

The third lesson remains constant: By the time terrorist plotters make it to the airport, it is, generally speaking, too late to stop them. Plots must be broken up long before the plotters reach the target. If they are smart enough to make it to the airport without arrest, it is almost axiomatically true that they will be smart enough to figure out a way to bring weapons aboard a plane.

UPDATE: Many people are asking me if I actually named my testicles "The Resistance." Of course not. I was just messing with the guy from TSA. My testicles are actually named "Tzipi" and "Bibi."
--Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly, on TSA security theater