Friday, December 30, 2011

The genius of Apple's Genius Bar

Do you know why Apple's Genius Bar is so... 'genius'? Because they've managed to make 30 customers with electronics problems look like the store is stocked with eager customers.
--JW on reinventing the "make people wait in a long line outside the empty nightclub" ploy

How tariffs stripped the X-Men of their humanity

You probably did not realize that the official legal position of Marvel is that contrary to the general thematic content of the Marvel Universe, mutants are not people. A recent Radiolab podcast brings the shocking true story, but it's easy enough to summarize: Marvel-licensed action figures are generally made abroad and imported into the United States. But "dolls" (which are representations of people) face a higher import duty than "toys" (which are representations of non-humans), so it's in the interests of Marvel to argue that X-Men action figures should be taxed at the low non-tariff rate. ...

What we have here is a federal 12% sales tax on dolls, but only if the dolls are made in foreign countries, and a different -- arbitrarily lower -- 6.8% federal sales tax on toys, but again only if the toys are made in foreign countries.
--Matthew Yglesias, Slate, on another casualty of tariff distortions

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stir-fried bagels

Now it’s time to offer some appreciation for New York food in China — specifically bagels in Beijing.

The bagels — translated 贝谷 (beigu, or “precious wheat”) at Mrs. Shanen’s Bagels — are pretty decent. They are not simply rolls with holes that you find in some parts of the United States. These New York-style bagels, though slightly smaller, with a crisp crust and soft insides, are the product of a Brooklyn-bred Chinese-American entrepreneur, Lejen Chen, who wanted a taste of home when she moved to China. ...

The company makes about 26 flavors, ranging from chocolate chip to jalapeno cheddar to rye to cranberry walnut. But one flavor is distinctively missing: poppy seed. Because of the country’s association with opium, poppy seeds are illegal in China. ...

An interesting thing is how Ms. Chen’s staff chooses to eat them. It is not obvious to them that bagels should be limited to being cut in half and spread with cream cheese or butter.

Ms. Chen says the workers will slice up the bagels into little strips and stir-fry them in a way similar to noodles. “They would slice it and slice it again,” she said. The bagel’s chewiness allows it to absorb flavor without becoming too soggy. “They tried it and it was very good, stir fried with cabbage and sometimes bean sprouts.”
--Jennifer 8. Lee, NYT, on stir-frying anything in sight

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The economics of the Empire State Building

The cramped observation decks [of the Empire State Building] on the 86th and 102nd floors are startlingly profitable, especially during the holiday season, when tourists swarm the city.

The decks attract four million visitors a year and generated $60 million in profits in 2010, while the owners made little if any money on the office space, according to newly disclosed documents that offer a rare glimpse at the building’s balance sheet. ...

Even with adult tickets ranging from about $20, for a trip to the 86th floor, to $55, for those who want to avoid the lines and get to the top, attendance never sags.
--Charles Bagli, NYT, on office spaces as loss leaders for the observatories on top

Saturday, December 24, 2011

What's in Champagne

Come quickly—I am tasting stars.
--17th century Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon upon tasting the very first Champagne

The two kinds of causality

The two methods by which we are allowed to produce events may be called work and prayer. ... What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest. But there is an important difference all the same.

You cannot be sure of a good harvest whatever you do to a field. But you can be sure that if you pull up one weed that one weed will no longer be there. ... The kind of causality we exercise by work is, so to speak, divinely guaranteed, and therefore ruthless. By it we are free to do ourselves as much harm as we please. But the kind which we exercise by prayer is not like this; God has left Himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man and we should have the horrible state of things envisaged by Juvenal: "Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants."

Prayers are not always -- in the crude, factual sense of the word -- "granted". This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it "works" at all it works unlimited by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it; except on that condition prayer would destroy us. It is not unreasonable for a headmaster to say, "Such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of this school. But such and such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study. And then -- we'll see."
--C. S. Lewis, "Work and Prayer"

The psychological price of a medical education

It’s been clear for several years now that while aspiring doctors may start medical school as happy and as healthy as their non-doctoring peers, four years later they aren’t.

More than 20 percent end up with depression, more than half suffer from burnout, and in any given year, as many as 11 percent contemplate suicide.
--Pauline Chen, NYT, on post-MCAT risks

The rate of suicidal ideation among medical students in our study (11.2%) is
higher than for individuals of similar age in the general U.S. population (6.9% among 25- to 34-year-olds).
--Liselotte Dyrbye et al., "Burnout and Suicidal Ideation among U.S. Medical Students," Annals of Internal Medicine, on one benchmark group

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Financial bets on North Korea

Saturday's death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has given a lift to that country's only openly traded securities, a batch of bonds that haven't received a payment in almost three decades.

The defaulted bonds, which were created in 1997 when French bank BNP repackaged a series of non-performing syndicated bank loans that were granted to North Korea in the 1970s, have suddenly sparked interest among speculators. The sporadically traded bonds, which trade at a deep discount to their face value, saw a tick up this week and were recently quoted at 14 to 18 cents on the dollar, compared with 13 to 15 cents, according to London-based sales and brokerage house Exotix.

Those who have bought the bonds are making nothing less than a bet that the transfer of power to Mr. Kim's son Kim Jong Eun will usher in a moment akin to that of the Berlin Wall's collapse for the tightly controlled communist country. ...

According to Mr. Chappell's calculations, investors' claims extend to the principal and interest accrued since 1984, when the original loans defaulted. That amounts to anywhere between 300% to 600% of the principal in unpaid interest.

The premise that has attracted hedge funds and pension funds is that North Korea can't exist in isolation forever, and, like other former communist countries, will need to tap the international markets for funds.
--Prabha Natarjan and Erin McCarthy, WSJ, on Arrow-Debreu securities on North Korea's reintegration into the global financial market

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advising James Franco at Yale

When I read that an NYU professor was allegedly fired for giving James Franco a “D,” I was shocked for several reasons. First, that any college could be so stupid as to fire a professor for not giving a good grade seems ridiculous, so much so that I imagine there will be an enormous burden of proof on the part of the accuser even if it is true. ... Second, I was shocked that James got a “D” for not attending class. ... I’ve been James’ professor, and it struck me as highly uncharacteristic for him to just “blow off class,” as several articles are suggesting.

When I was assigned to be James Franco’s adviser in the English department at Yale, I was not exactly sure what to think. ...

The catch was that this was also the semester that James was going to be in Detroit filming for the new Disney blockbuster Oz, the Great and Powerful, which meant he wasn’t going to be able to meet with Matt and me in New Haven. However, I didn’t feel comfortable carrying on a Ph.D-earning conversation over the phone each week, and so I told him he’d have to agree to take the time away from whatever he was doing (which just happened to be shooting a multimillion dollar film) and at least have a video conference call for several hours each week. ...

He always came prepared, and at one point even followed through on our scheduled meeting from Palo Alto where he was attending his father’s funeral. That’s right—he actually did the reading and scheduled discussion the same week his father suddenly died. "I'd still like to have the discussion," he said when I realized that he was preparing for a funeral and offered to postpone. "My dad was very proud that I was at Yale, so this is what he'd want." Blowing off class? I certainly would have blown it off under similar circumstances. ...

How could he possibly be simultaneously reading for a Yale Ph.D and filming a multimillion-dollar motion picture? ... [W]hen you’re the star, you end up just sitting around a lot. ... So when you see James’s character with his arm trapped under a rock in 127 Hours, what you don’t see is that there was an assigned reading under the rock with it. When he’s playfully wrestling with a genetically-enhanced chimpanzee in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, just off to the right of the shot was a stack of books. ...

The truth is, if you’re an A-list Hollywood star like James Franco, and are willing to put the time into earning a Ph.D, you may actually have more time to read than many of your colleagues. Heck, you don’t even have to worry about the grocery shopping, laundry, and other sundry tasks that every other poor graduate student in the country has to worry about. After visiting Detroit, the thing I found myself wondering was not “How does James do it?” but rather “Why aren’t more Hollywood actors earning Ph.Ds?”
--R. John Williams, Slate, on extracurricular advice for Hollywood stars

It's hard to effectively regulate pay

Insurers that cover directors and officers may be pushing back on clawbacks. Allowing regulators to recoup undeserved rewards from executives is central to recent financial reforms. But in addition to more standard risks, directors and officers policies are now covering salaries and bonuses lost in this way — at shareholder expense. ...

Meager fines for errant corporations haven’t satisfied the public’s lust for rolling heads. That is one reason the Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley laws provide for clawbacks. The idea is that at least part of senior executives’ hefty pay packages can be recovered if they run banks that fail or receive remuneration based on bad numbers. ...

Clawbacks also created a business opportunity. Insurers began offering policies in April to cover them, even before regulators issued the first applicable rules under Dodd-Frank. Dozens of companies, banks, hedge funds and private equity firms have bought policies covering clawbacks, worth millions of dollars, for annual premiums of a few tens of thousands.
--Reynolds Holding and Una Galani, Reuters, on the invisible hand rising to meet demand

Monday, December 19, 2011

College football hurts non-athlete student achievement

We consider the relationship between collegiate-football success and non-athlete student performance. We find that the team's success significantly reduces male grades relative to female grades. This phenomenon is only present in fall quarters, which coincides with the football season. Using survey data, we find that males are more likely than females to increase alcohol consumption, decrease studying, and increase partying in response to the success of the team. Yet, females also report that their behavior is affected by athletic success, suggesting that their performance is likely impaired but that this effect is masked by the practice of grade curving.
--Jason Lindo, Isaac Swensen, and Glen Waddell, "Are Big-Time Sports a Threat to Student Achievement?," on the negative academic externality of college sports

30% of Americans have been arrested by age 23

The study, the first since the 1960s to look at the arrest histories of a national sample of adolescents and young adults over time, found that 30.2 percent of the 23-year-olds who participated reported having been arrested for an offense other than a minor traffic violation.

That figure is significantly higher than the 22 percent found in a 1965 study that examined the same issue using different methods. The increase may be a reflection of the justice system becoming more punitive and more aggressive in its reach during the last half-century, the researchers said. Arrests for drug-related offenses, for example, have become far more common, as have zero-tolerance policies in schools. ...

Criminal justice experts said the 30.2 percent figure was especially notable at a time when employers, aided by the Internet, routinely conduct criminal background checks on job candidates. ...

The researchers found that the probability of a first arrest accelerated in late adolescence and early adulthood — at 18, 15.9 percent of the participants reported having been arrested — and then began to flatten out as the youths entered their 20s.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Unbelievable cluelessness at RIM

One reason for the worry, analysts say, is that no amount of advertising will help increase the sales of BlackBerrys in the United States because the current line is a jumble of models. There are BlackBerrys that flip, BlackBerrys that slide, BlackBerrys with touch screens, BlackBerrys with touch screens and keyboards, BlackBerrys with full keyboards, BlackBerrys with compact keyboards, high-end BlackBerrys and low-priced models.

The company, in a statement, said it did not know how many models were on the market.
--Ian Austen, NYT, on not knowing the first thing about your own business

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The HBS lifestyle... and its cure

At some point in the process of developing a start-up, every small business owner has to dedicate themselves to their new trade. For Brenna S. Haysom [Harvard College] ’00, that meant four to five hangovers a week for months as she attempted to hone in on the perfect flavor for her new drug

Finally, that work has paid off, and Blowfish, a hangover cure, is now being offered online and is already being sold in some stores in New York. ...

Haysom returned to Cambridge to attend Harvard Business School, graduating in 2006. During her second stint at Harvard, she began researching potential hangover cures.

“I was a lot more social when I was in business school than as an undergrad,” Haysom said. “[Hangovers were] something I started doing a lot of research around, just in my own personal habits.” ...

The final product created by Rally Labs includes caffeine and aspirin to give the consumer energy and relieve pain and antacids to help the stomach recover from the alcohol. The product comes in the form of an effervescent tablet.
--Jacob Feldman, Harvard Crimson, on a candidate for inclusion in MBA welcome packets

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reasons not to check your luggage with American Airlines

Testimony at Mr. Bourne’s trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn during September and October revealed a culture of corruption among some baggage handlers at [John F. Kennedy airport]. They stowed drugs in secret panels inside planes; stole laptops, lobsters and fine clothing flown as freight; and rifled through passengers’ belongings for perfume, liquor and electronics. ...

In 2009, the last year for which there is complete data, the Transportation Security Administration received about 6,750 reports of property missing from checked baggage. Passengers reported the total value of their losses as nearly $5.3 million. ...

From 2002 to 2010, American Airlines generated more such reports than any other airline. ...

“What percent of American Airlines employees would you say engaged in this conduct?” a federal prosecutor, Patricia E. Notopoulos, asked Matthew James, a defendant in the case who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution.

“About 80 percent,” Mr. James answered. ...

“I was bragging around the job that I was doing it, and I was trying to get my other friends involved so they could make extra money,” Mr. Asencio said. ...

Even the defense lawyer, Mr. Savitt, said that he believed part of the witnesses’ testimony. “It became very obvious that everyone in American Airlines’ baggage services is dirty,” Mr. Savitt said.

The price of black and white babies in Texas

My wife and I are thinking of adopting and shockingly found in Texas, the cost for a white infant was $35,000 and the cost of a black infant was $17,000 – these are published numbers on private adoption websites.
--Freakonomics commenter Brian on supply and demand in operation

Caffeinated drinks led to the Age of Enlightenment

Until coffee and tea became mainstream beverages in the 18th century, the daytime beverage of choice for both the masses and elites in British society was alcohol for health reasons because the water just wasn't safe to drink. And so you had an entire culture that was waking up in the morning and was drinking two pints of beer and then going to work and then having a little bit more beer and then having a little wine and then having a little gin... And so the entire culture was basically drunk all day long as kind of a default state. And so it's not an accident... that the Age of Reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages.
--Steven Johnson, ForaTv, on the Enlightenment running on Dunkin'. HT: Greg Mankiw

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The new racial passing

Racial passing refers to a person classified as a member of one racial group attempting to be accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the US to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating to the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.

[Harvard freshman] Lanya Olmstead was born in Florida to a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and an American father of Norwegian ancestry. Ethnically, she considers herself half Taiwanese and half Norwegian. But when applying to Harvard, Olmstead checked only one box for her race: white.

"I didn't want to put 'Asian' down," Olmstead says, "because my mom told me there's discrimination against Asians in the application process."

For years, many Asian-Americans have been convinced that it's harder for them to gain admission to the nation's top colleges. ...

Now, an unknown number of students are responding to this concern by declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications.

For those with only one Asian parent, whose names don't give away their heritage, that decision can be relatively easy. ...

Amalia Halikias is a Yale freshman whose mother was born in America to Chinese immigrants; her father is a Greek immigrant. She also checked only the "white" box on her application. ...

But leaving the Asian box blank felt wrong to Jodi Balfe, a Harvard freshman who was born in Korea and came here at age 3 with her Korean mother and white American father. She checked the box against the advice of her high school guidance counselor, teachers and friends. ...

...Tao Tao Holmes, a Yale sophomore with a Chinese-born mother and white American father... did not check "Asian" on her application.

A study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1600 (today it's 2400). Espenshade found that Asian-Americans needed a 1550 SAT to have an equal chance of getting into an elite college as white students with a 1410 or black students with an 1100.

Top schools that don't ask about race in admissions process have very high percentages of Asian students. The California Institute of Technology, a private school that chooses not to consider race, is about one-third Asian. (Thirteen percent of California residents have Asian heritage.) The University of California-Berkeley, which is forbidden by state law to consider race in admissions, is more than 40 percent Asian — up from about 20 percent before the law was passed. ...

Kara Miller helped review applications for Yale as an admissions office reader, and participated in meetings where admissions decisions were made. She says it often felt like Asians were held to a higher standard. ...

...Harvard freshman Heather Pickerell, born in Hong Kong to a Taiwanese mother and American father, refused to check any race box on her application.

About 1,300 students were admitted [to Yale's freshman class]. Twenty percent of them marked the Asian-American box on their applications; 15 percent of freshmen marked two or more ethnicities.

Ten percent of Yale's freshmen class did not check a single box.

The returns to selling candy in NYC subways

"Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Pardon the interruption..."

The announcement is familiar to many New Yorkers, who as they ride the subway, get visits from various people asking for their spare change, sometimes in exchange for an accordion tune, a belted 1960s ballad, or a pack of M&M peanuts. Probably few of those travelers know that at least one of those peddlers earns $150 a day.

Alex "Tracks" McFarland started selling candy on the subway at age 11, and is the subject of a two-minute documentary by Bianca Consunji (via New York magazine). ...

And many New Yorkers spend that dollar. Tracks walks the D train in $300 kicks, and takes home around $55,000 a year, in cash.
--Claire Gordon, AOL Jobs, on lucrative public nuisance jobs

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Tim Tebow is winning

There's no doubt that Tebow's passing accuracy has been spotty at times. At the end of the day, though, he has consistently outplayed the other team's quarterbacks. The problem is that most analysts are limited in their ability to analyze and compare quarterbacks with anything more concrete than the old eye test. Or they look at stats that simply do not matter at the end of the day, such as passing yards, and can't figure out how Tebow is winning games. ...

Enter Cold, Hard Football's Real Quarterback Rating, which we introduced over the summer and which has quickly proven itself the most important indicator in football outside of final score. ...

Tebow's Broncos are winning because he consistently outperforms the opposing quarterback when you take into account all aspects of production: passing, running, sacks, total touchdowns, interceptions and fumbles. In fact, he consistently outperforms them by a wide margin. ...

There are two underlying reasons why Tebow is so effective, two reasons that explain his impressive Real Quarterback Rating week after week.

1. He gets the ball in the end zone more often than any QB in football today
2. He protects the football better than any QB in football today


Career percentage of touches that result in a TD:
Tim Tebow -- 6.0 percent
Aaron Rodgers -- 5.7 percent
Peyton Manning -- 5.5 percent
Tom Brady -- 5.1 percent
Drew Brees -- 4.7 percent
John Elway -- 3.9 percent


Career interception percentage:
Tim Tebow -- 1.78 percent
Aaron Rodgers -- 1.83 percent
Tom Brady -- 2.2 percent
Drew Brees -- 2.71 percent
Peyton Manning -- 2.75 percent
John Elway -- 3.1 percent
--Kerry Byrne, Sports Illustrated, on Tebow's magic

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jeff Sachs's Millennium Villages Project not looking good

A remarkable study reached the public last week. It is the first independent, rigorous, firsthand evaluation of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), an effort by the United Nations and Columbia University whose admirable goal was to show that “the poorest regions of rural Africa can lift themselves out of extreme poverty in five year’s time.” The new study shows that the MVP is far from reaching that goal at its flagship site

Working on her own, without the collaboration or endorsement of the MVP, Kenyan economist Bernadette Wanjala of Tilburg University collected data on households in or near the site at Sauri, Kenya, where the project was launched in 2005. She interviewed 236 randomly-selected households that had been exposed to the MVP’s large package of agriculture projects, education programs, infrastructure improvements, and health/sanitation works. She also interviewed 175 randomly-selected households from an area of the same district (called Gem) that was not exposed to the intervention. ...

In their just-released paper, Wanjala and her colleague Roldan Muradian of Radboud University use the new survey data to measure the project’s impact on poverty. They carefully compare treated and untreated households that were otherwise similar in many ways—such as household composition, adults’ education, fertility, economic sector, and land holdings. Because this project is large and intensive, spending on the order of 100% of local income per capita, it is reasonable to hope that it might substantially raise recipients’ incomes, at least in the short term.

Wanjala and Muradian find that the project had no significant impact on recipients’ incomes.

How is this possible? While Wanjala and Muradian find that the project caused a 70% increase in agricultural productivity among the treated households, tending to increase household income, it also caused less diversification of household economic activity into profitable non-farm employment, tending to decrease household income. These countervailing effects are precisely what one might expect from a large and intensive subsidy to agricultural activity. On balance, households that received this large and intensive intervention have no more income today than households that did not receive the intervention.
 --Michael Clemens, Center for Global Development, on another big-push development failure. HT: Marginal Revolution

UPDATE: See a skeptical appraisal of the Muradian and Wanjala paper by Chris Blattman here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Being consistent in anti-materialism

Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, [Baylor marketing professor James A. Roberts] still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Here are some of the things that upset him and that "document our preoccupation with status consumption": Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as "these people," usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

One of the running themes of the economist Robin Hanson's excellent blog is that arguments like the ones found in these books are actually an elite-status proxy war. They denigrate the one measure of high-visibility achievement—income—that public intellectuals don't do very well on. Reading "Shiny Objects," you get the feeling that he is onto something.

Consider the matter of status competition. Mr. Roberts, like so many before him, argues that conspicuous consumption is an unhappy zero-sum game. But this is of course true of most forms of competition: Most academics I know can rank-order everyone in the room at a professional conference with the speed and precision of a courtier at Versailles. Any competition, from looks to money to academic credentialing, both consumes a lot of resources and makes many of the participants feel bad about themselves. Why, then, does the literature on status competition always tell us that we should redistribute capital gains or inheritances and never tell us that we should redistribute academic chairs or book contracts? 
--Megan McArdle, WSJ, on the need for a more coherent philosophy of good consumption

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday is for suckers

Oren Etzioni writes articles about artificial intelligence for scholarly journals, is a renowned expert on data mining and gained fame when Microsoft paid $115 million for Farecast, an airline-ticket price predictor he founded.

Now, Professor Etzioni, who teaches computer science at the University of Washington, has directed his considerable intellect at the American ritual of shopping for bargains on Black Friday. After examining billions of prices of consumer electronics, he has decided to spend the busiest shopping day of the year scuba-diving in Bali. 

Why? It is not until early December, Professor Etzioni’s research shows, that prices are likely to be the lowest for electronics, products that are among the biggest sellers on the Friday after Thanksgiving. ...

Following the approach of Farecast, now part of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, the professor’s start-up company,, studies current and historical prices, information about new models and rumors about new product introductions to figure out the best time to buy.

Type in the name of a product — a Soundcast SurroundCast speaker system, for instance. will pull prices from around the Web, and tell you to buy or wait.
--Stephanie Clifford, NYT, on the reality of Black Friday

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Your low GPA is a disease

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (most commonly known by the abbreviation ICD) is a medical classification that provides codes to classify diseases and a wide variety of signs, symptoms, abnormal findings, complaints, social circumstances, and external causes of injury or disease. ...

The International Classification of Diseases is published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and used worldwide for morbidity and mortality statistics, reimbursement systems, and automated decision support in medicine.

ICD-9 code 313.83: Academic underachievement disorder
--The official WHO proclamation that that A-minus is a disease

God and the Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln told his cabinet he was going to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation because God had told him to. They were a little taken aback that God had started talking to Lincoln at this late date, but went along.
--David Brooks, NYT, on messages from God

Manipulating the Big Mac Index

At a recently renovated mall in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood [of Buenos Aires], the McDonald’s is immaculate. ...

But reading the brightly lit menu behind the cash register, it appears that something missing: The Big Mac. McDonald’s signature sandwich is not prominently advertised. Down the hall toward the bathroom there is a price list that includes a picture of the Big Mac down near the bottom.

Why is McDonald’s downplaying the world’s most famous burger? ...

At 20 pesos, the individual Big Mac is at least 4.50 pesos cheaper than the list price of comparable options. ...

The relatively inexpensive Big Mac has become an open secret in Argentina, spurred by media attention and discussions on social networks. It is being used as Exhibit A by government critics to explain how the government pressures businesses to keep certain prices frozen and manipulates economic statistics in its interest. There is widespread speculation that the government is trying to influence The Economist’s famous Big Mac Index, a “lighthearted” guide that compares burger prices across the globe to determine whether a currency is under- or over-valued. ...

And downplaying the Big Mac would seem to be McDonald’s way of selling as few as possible. ...

The national statistics agency says the inflation for the 12 months through October was 9.7 percent. But private economists insist the real figure is more than double that number. Independent experts agree the widely discredited government statistics agency has been fudging consumer-price data for years for political gain and, to a lesser extent, to lower inflation-linked debt payments.
--Daniel Politi, International Herald Tribune, on the price of being a signature global commodity

Another unsustainable Baby Boomer practice

When my parents married in 1977, women’s liberation was in full swing and my mother was a consciousness-raiser. She was about as likely to take my father’s name as she was to sport a veil at the wedding. She would remain Ms. Tuhus. Nine months later, the surname for their new baby (me) was self-evident. My parents yoked their names into a new one: Tuhus-Dubrow. ...

The problem, of course, is that this naming practice is unsustainable. (Growing up, I constantly fielded the question, “What will you do if you marry someone else with two last names? Will your kids have four names?”) Like many of the baby boomers’ utopian impulses, it eventually had to run up against practical constraints. ...

What did our parents expect us to do when we reached this stage of our lives? They trusted it would all work out somehow. As Ms. Segal-Reichlin’s parents told her, “We figured that was your problem.”
--Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, NYT, on another generational buck-passing

The 102,000 cupcake Groupon nightmare

Let this be yet another warning to small business owners everywhere: London baker Rachel Brown was recently forced to bake over 100,000 cupcakes for Groupon customers, and ended up losing about $3 on each batch.
--Sarah Jacobsson Purewal, PC World, on losing money on every order but making it up in volume

Need a Cake offered a deal of 12 cupcakes with a choice of flavours and designs for £6.50, which would normally cost £26. It received 8,500 requests as a result, substantially more than its usual production level of about 100 a month.

The company, which employs eight people, had to bring in agency staff to try to meet the upsurge in demand.

Ms Brown estimates the extra costs of staff and distribution could be up to £12,500, wiping out profits for the year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

U.S. Congress: Still better than South Korea's parliament

South Korea's ruling party forced a long-stalled free trade deal with the United States through parliament Tuesday, enraging opposition lawmakers who blasted their political rivals with tear gas.

South Korean lawmakers voted 151 to 7 in favor of ratifying the landmark trade agreement in a surprise legislative session called by the ruling Grand National Party, parliamentary officials said.

Shouts and screams filled the National Assembly as ruling party lawmakers forced their way onto the parliamentary floor. Amid the scuffling, one opposition lawmaker doused rivals with tear gas.

Security guards hustled him out of the chamber as he shouted and tried to resist. Outside the National Assembly building, opponents of the deal scuffled with police mobilized to maintain order.
--Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, on extreme politics. HT: New York Daily Intel

Monday, November 21, 2011

Where the GOP outposts ain't

As it turns out, however, evangelical churches are arguably the least-politicized of all the major churches.  At a recent meeting of the excellent Faith Angle Forum, David Campbell, author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, presented his updated research.  When asked whether they heard sermons on political or social issues once a month or more, here is how America’s major religious groups responded:
  • Jewish: 41.4%
  • Non-affiliated: 30.5%
  • Black Protestant: 29.6%
  • Catholic: 20.7%
  • Mainline Protestant: 16%
  • Evangelical: 13.7% 
--Timothy Dalrymple, Philosophical Fragments, on where the campaigning is

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Convex returns to IQ

Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.

Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. In one study, we assessed the practice habits of pianists and then gauged their working memory capacity, which is measured by having a person try to remember information (like a list of random digits) while performing another task. We then had the pianists sight read pieces of music without preparation. ...

In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect).
--David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, NYT, on predicting the futures of CTY nerds

 --Figure 1 from "Beyond the Threshold Hypothesis: Even Among the Gifted and Top Math/Science Graduate Students, Cognitive Abilities, Vocational Interests, and Lifestyle Preferences Matter for Career Choice, Performance, and Persistence," by Kimberly Ferriman Robertson, Stijn Smeets, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Adam Smith on maturity

[Adam] Smith also talks about a selfish passion [in Theory of Moral Sentiments], which is a desire for praise. He argues that people instinctively desire praise, but that, as they mature, this feeling develops into a desire for praiseworthiness. This is a little bit different, and I haven’t seen it written about anywhere else. He points out that, suppose you were praised for something that you knew you didn’t do: It was a mistake, people thought you did something, so they’re praising you, but in fact you didn’t do it. It wouldn’t be such a good feeling – even if you could keep the lie going, and continue to receive the praise. He uses that to show that what people really want is to be deservedly praised. And that turn of mind, which develops as people mature, is what makes us into people with integrity.

I think this underlies how the economy works. We start out with selfish feelings, which are intermixed with feelings of empathy for others, and then we develop this mature desire to be praiseworthy. I think it is central to our civilisation that people do that. Adam Smith uses the example of mathematicians. Mathematicians seem to be, in his observation, totally unconcerned with popular praise. That’s because they know they’re doing good work in their mathematics, but also that the public will never appreciate them for what they do. They live in relative poverty, and they don’t seem to care about praise, except from their fellow mathematicians. And yet they’re doing all of this work which benefits humanity. This is something that happens in our society, and it makes the system work. He doesn’t go on, in this book, to explain how this develops into something that works. But this does mark the beginning of the thought process leading to his later book, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776.
--Robert Shiller, The Browser, on praiseworthiness as a building block of civilization

Bad fMRI research

Consider an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, which used fMRI results to demonstrate, purportedly, that people "literally love their iPhones." The evidence? When the researchers showed subjects a video of a ringing cellphone, a part of the brain called the insula exhibited a spike in activity. Because previous studies have linked the insula with feelings of love, the authors concluded that the gadget had become a "romantic rival" for husbands and wives.

But here's the problem: The insula is also activated by feelings of disgust and bodily pain. It plays an important role in coordinating hand movement, maintaining balance and monitoring bodily changes. In fact, activity in the insula has been implicated in nearly a third of all fMRI papers. Because the brain is such a vast knot of connections, it's often impossible to understand what's happening based on local patterns of activity. Perhaps we're disgusted by our iPhones, or maybe the insula is just preparing the fingers to move. The pretty picture can't reveal the answer.

What's worse, the very fact that we're looking at a brain scan seems to inhibit our critical thinking. Deena Skolnick Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has demonstrated that merely referencing fMRI research can bias the evaluation of scientific papers.

When she gave neuroscience students and ordinary adults a few examples of obviously flawed scientific explanations, people were consistently able to find the flaws. However, when these same explanations were prefaced with the phrase "Brain scans indicate," both the students and adults became much less critical.
--Jonah Lehrer, WSJ, on overinterpreting brain scans. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Where to become a firefighter or police officer

According to figures from the [San Francisco] city controller’s office, uniformed police earned average annual wages and benefits last year of $166,607 per officer. Firefighters fared even better, earning an average total compensation of $178,732.
--Judith Miller, City Journal, on the cost of protection in San Francisco. HT: ACT

Monday, November 7, 2011

Preparations for the Victoria's Secret fashion show

So here's what it really takes to be an Angel: [Adriana] Lima, 30, has been working out every day with a personal trainer since August. For the last three weeks, she's been working out twice a day.

"It is really intense, it's not really the amount of time you spend working out, it's the intensity: I jump rope, I do boxing, I lift weights, but I get bored doing that. If I am not moving I get bored very easily."

She sees a nutritionist, who has measured her body's muscle mass, fat ratio and levels of water retention. He prescribes protein shakes, vitamins and supplements to keep Lima's energy levels up during this training period. Lima drinks a gallon of water a day. For nine days before the show, she will drink only protein shakes - "no solids". The concoctions include powdered egg. Two days before the show, she will abstain from the daily gallon of water, and "just drink normally". Then, 12 hours before the show, she will stop drinking entirely.

"No liquids at all so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that," she says.
--Melissa Whitworth, Telegraph, on supermodels not always looking like that

Louis' Lunch did not invent the hamburger

Louis' Lunch, the venerable New Haven lunch counter, is renowned for its tasty burgers (more than 90 percent lean, freshly ground every day, and broiled in antique cast-iron grills.) Unfortunately Louis' partisans have not been content to boast of its excellent food but have gone on to make an erroneous historical claim: that founder Louis Lassen invented the hamburger in 1900. This assertion has gained such a strong foothold in American pseudo-history that the New York Times has repeated it at least 13 times.

Barry Popik disproved this myth some years ago when he discovered the following passage in an 1873 issue of the Times: "We can have a Hamburger steak, which is simply a beefsteak redeemed from its original toughness by being mashed into mince-meat and then formed into a conglomerated mass."

Even Louis' own contention, which is more limited--that in 1900 Lassen became the first to put bread around a beef patty, thereby inventing the "hamburger sandwich"--falls before Popik's evidence. On October 22, 1896, the Kansas City Star noted: "Rare beefsteak chopped fine and seasoned with salt and pepper is an excellent filling for sandwiches." The Reno Evening Gazette, August 25, 1893, wrote of "Tom Fraker's celebrated Hamburger steak sandwiches." And earliest of all, on July 19, 1881, one of New Haven's own local papers--the Evening Register--mentioned a "chopped beef sandwich." Louis' Lunch's burgers may be the best. But clearly they were not the first.
--Fred R. Shapiro, Yale Alumni Magazine, on possibly best but definitely not first

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Admissions officers' adventures in China

Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American colleges and universities about China, last year published a report based on interviews with 250 Beijing high school students bound for the United States, their parents, and a dozen agents and admissions consultants. The company concluded that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive. The “tide of application fraud,” the report predicted, will likely only worsen as more students go to America.
--Tom Bartlett and Karen Fischer, NYT, on the Chinese applicant jungle

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The shoddiness of psychology research

In a survey of more than 2,000 American psychologists scheduled to be published this year, Leslie John of Harvard Business School and two colleagues found that 70 percent had acknowledged, anonymously, to cutting some corners in reporting data. About a third said they had reported an unexpected finding as predicted from the start, and about 1 percent admitted to falsifying data.

Also common is a self-serving statistical sloppiness. In an analysis published this year, Dr. Wicherts and Marjan Bakker, also at the University of Amsterdam, searched a random sample of 281 psychology papers for statistical errors. They found that about half of the papers in high-end journals contained some statistical error, and that about 15 percent of all papers had at least one error that changed a reported finding — almost always in opposition to the authors’ hypothesis. 
--Benedict Carey, NYT, on warranted skepticism about psychology research results

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The meaning of Hulu

Hulu, coincidentally, has Chinese roots. The company was named after the Mandarin words that roughly translate to the “holder of precious things” and “interactive recording.”
--Amy Chozick, NYT, on where Hulu came from

Friday, October 28, 2011

The cost of a humanities degree

One study found that 55 percent of humanities majors newly released from school are either not working or hold jobs that require no college degree.
--Timothy Egan, NYT, on career-limiting decisions

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The shadow of China's ascendence in the art market

[Sotheby's CEO William] Ruprecht noted that the acquisition of art tends to rapidly follow the creation of wealth. Four years ago, the United States became a net seller of art for the first time in one hundred years. Europe has become the biggest seller in the world. Meanwhile, the Chinese market has exploded. Four years ago, only 4% of Sotheby's sales were in China. So far this year, that number is 35%; China has become the largest art market in the world. "This is the most dramatic shift in demographic consumption in the last 270 years," Ruprecht said. "It's bigger by far than the early 20th century, when the so-called robber barons in the United States began to wish to replicate what they saw on their grand tours of English country houses or grand European collections."
--Yale SOM News on shifting economic mass

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve Jobs was a jerk

There are several admiring Steve Jobs stories in Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s much-anticipated authorized biography, but they’re overshadowed by the many, many more instances in which Jobs comes off as a world-class jerk. Jobs was rude, mean, abusive, and often neglectful to everyone in his life; the people he hated got it bad, but the people he loved sometimes got it worse. ...

Isaacson has compiled so many instances of personal and professional thuggery—and so many from Jobs’ later, allegedly “mellower” years—that even longtime Jobs admirers (a group in which I count myself) will struggle to like the guy in this book.
--Farhad Manjoo, Slate, on the non-sainthood of Steve Jobs

The logic class's annual hoax at Smith College

All last week, students at Smith College were buzzing over a rumor that the school was going completely vegetarian and locavore. There were protests and counter-protests, with slogans chalked on walkways. There was a Twitter feed that caught the attention of VegNews, “America’s premier vegan lifestyle magazine.’’ At a student government meeting, the dining services manager came under attack: How did she expect students to pass their midterms without coffee?

But the Smith administration wasn’t really planning to ban meat, food from outside New England, or anything else.

The whole thing was a hoax - one in a decade of annual pranks perpetrated by professors Jay Garfield and Jim Henle as part of their introductory class in logic. The point is to teach rhetoric and argument, albeit in an unorthodox way. ...

So Garfield and Henle try to liven things up by inventing a rumor just this side of believable, then assigning their 100 students to convince the campus that it’s real by whatever means the students think will be most effective - fliers, Facebook campaigns, word-of-mouth. ...

There was the time the professors planted the rumor that Smith, a women’s college, was planning to fire all of its male faculty members, including themselves. The president was deluged with angry letters.

There was the year of the alleged merger with nearby Mount Holyoke College, a proposal lots of students at Mount Holyoke took seriously, even as Smith’s scoffed.

And then there was the year of the supposed grass-roots attempt to start an ROTC program. Most of the campus didn’t fall for that one, but the president, Carol Christ, did.
--Mary Carmichael, Boston Globe, on rumors just this side of believable about Smith

Sunday, October 23, 2011

False advertising on the fish menu

The sliver of raw fish sold as white tuna at Skipjack’s in Foxborough was actually escolar, an oily, cheaper species banned in Japan because it can make people sick. The Alaskan butterfish at celebrity chef Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger in Wellesley was really sablefish, traditionally a staple at Jewish delicatessens, not upscale dining establishments.

At Chau Chow Seafood Restaurant in Dorchester, the $23 flounder fillet turned out to be a Vietnamese catfish known as swai - nutritionally inferior and often priced under $4 a pound.

The Globe collected fish from 134 restaurants, grocery stores, and seafood markets from Leominster to Provincetown, and hired a laboratory in Canada to conduct DNA testing on the samples. Analyses by the DNA lab and other scientists showed that 87 of 183 were sold with the wrong species name - 48 percent. ...

The Globe-sponsored DNA testing found 24 of the 26 red snapper samples were in fact other, less prized species, including fish collected at Minado restaurant in Natick, Teriyaki House in South Boston, and the now closed Big Papi’s Grille in Framingham, owned in part by Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.

All 23 white tuna samples tested as some other type of fish, usually escolar, which is nicknamed the “ex-lax’’ fish by some in the industry because of the digestion problems it can cause. ...

Frozen fish at grocery stores was far less frequently misidentified, with some sellers - including Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and BJ’s Wholesale Club - passing muster in all instances. At restaurants, mahi mahi and swordfish were correctly labeled in all samples tested. ...

For example, nearly all of the sushi restaurants surveyed replaced wild-caught red snapper with tilapia, a farm-raised species usually from Asia that has a significantly higher concentration of the fatty acid Omega 6, which some research suggests increases the risk of heart disease.
--Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley, Boston Globe, on bait and switch

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hungry weekends in Texas prisons

Thousands of other inmates in the Texas prison system have been eating fewer meals since April after officials stopped serving lunch on the weekends in some prisons as a way to cut food-service costs. About 23,000 inmates in 36 prisons are eating two meals a day on Saturdays and Sundays instead of three. A meal the system calls brunch is usually served between 5 and 7 a.m., followed by dinner between 4 and 6:30 p.m.

The meal reductions are part of an effort to trim $2.8 million in food-related expenses from the 2011 fiscal year budget of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state prison agency. Other cuts the agency has made to its food service include replacing carton milk with powdered milk and using sliced bread instead of hamburger and hot dog buns. 
--Manny Fernandez, NYT, on redefining brunch in Texas

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What Steve Jobs did the day before he died

I visited Apple for the announcement of the iPhone 4S [at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California]. When I was having a meeting with Tim Cook, he said, 'Oh Masa, sorry I have to quit our meeting.' I said, 'Where are you going?' He said, 'My boss is calling me.' That was the day of the announcement of the iPhone 4S. He said that Steve is calling me because he wants to talk about their next product. And the next day, he died.

Even one day before he passed away, the first subject he wanted to call Tim Cook about…he wanted to talk about the next product… That's the kind of spirit a true entrepreneur would continue to have until they die. He was very sick, very ill. But the announcement of their newest product made him live longer. Physically he could have died much earlier. But his passion, his love for his own company and dream, about the next products, that made him energized.
--Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son, PCMag, on passion for your work. HT: MacRumors 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What your audience really thinks of dense PowerPoint slides

Internally, some have questioned Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s role in overseeing the efforts, noting that the Nobel laureate with the keen grasp of physics at times seems to lack political skills. On one occasion, Chu prepared a dense PowerPoint presentation to brief Obama on the complexities of last summer’s BP oil spill. After Chu narrated six slides, one senior adviser who attended the meeting recalled that Obama simply stood up and said, "Steve, I’m done."
--Daniel Stone and Eleanor Clift, Newsweek, on why you should strive to have big pictures and minimal text on your slides

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse ain't nothing

The fuss made over the fried chicken and beer consumed in the [Red] Sox clubhouse by the starting pitchers was greeted with amusement by at least former major leaguer, who told me that when he played, in the '70s and '80s, it was not uncommon for a player to pop into the clubhouse to do a line of cocaine before returning to the dugout. Yes, sports fans, he asked that his name not be used. I think you can understand why.
--Gordon Edes, ESPN Boston, on why pro athletes should not be held up as role models. HT: Joy of Sox

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Devotion to teaching

Economics Nobel laureates Tom Sargent (at the blackboard) and Chris Sims (seated in the back row) co-teaching their graduate class just hours after their Nobel Prize announcement

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An uncomfortable topic for Siri

Everyone knows what happened to HAL. I'd rather not talk about it.
--Siri when asked "Do you know HAL 9000?"


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Slacking at Wharton

It will not surprise you that the vast majority of faculty believe that grade nondisclosure weakens students' motivation to make course work a priority and is therefore antithetical to Wharton's culture of academic excellence. ... What is more remarkable, and to me very instructive, is that the senior alumni leaders of the School, especially the very impressive and accomplished alums who populate our Advisory Boards, are uniformly and strongly opposed to grade nondisclosure. In our discussions on the issue, our Board members have consistently warned us that, over time, grade nondisclosure will undermine our core competence).

In recent years, a number of our faculty have reported a gradual but discernible shift away from academics in the students' priorities. Some have kept careful records to document the trend. We have heard, from some of our most sought-after faculty, that not only is the MBAs' performance lower in our cross listed courses than undergrads', but that the trend over time shows a widening gap between the performance of the two subpopulations. (One faculty member speculated that the widening gap could be caused by the undergrads getting smarter at a faster rate than the MBAs, but thought that the more plausible explanation lies in changing effort levels!). Another faculty member, the winner of countless teaching awards, reports that on exams that are psychometrically calibrated to have similar levels of difficulty, he has found a clear decline in performance in recent years. A few other frequent winners of teaching awards have stopped teaching MBA classes.

Several student leaders too have expressed serious concerns about the lack of academic engagement. Pete Kim, graduating WGA President, wrote a compelling piece in these pages a few weeks ago and stated that we have a problem. Various academic reps, DGSAC members, MBA Program Advisory Board members, and numerous other students with or without formal roles in the student government have echoed such sentiments. More comprehensively, the Annual Stakeholder Surveys have shown a 22% decline over four years in the students' (self-reported) time spent on academic commitments.
--Wharton Vice Dean and Director Anjani Jain on the academic efforts of Wharton MBAs in 2005. HT: Freakonomics blog

Monday, October 10, 2011

Extreme pumpkin growing

With the current world record at 1,810 pounds (a Smart car, by comparison, weighs 1,600 pounds), these growers can see the most important milestone of all on the horizon: the one-ton pumpkin. Galvanized by the prospect, they are doubling their efforts and devising a raft of new strategies involving natural growth hormones, double grafting and more, to become the first to reach that goal. ...

[G]rowers typically feed their pumpkins a compost “brew” so rich — the water is mixed with worm castings, molasses and liquid kelp — that the fruits can gain as much as 50 pounds a day. ...

Sometimes, Mr. Young said, he will just sit among his pumpkins.

“This is going to sound really crazy, but when these are really at their peak growth, they’ll make a sound,” he said. “You can feel it. It’s something surging in the pumpkin. Bup. Bup.” ...

Mr. Connolly remembers with particular sadness one morning a few years ago when he left his pumpkins to go to church. He was gone for less than an hour, but he returned to find that his biggest pumpkin had exploded under the force of its own growth spurt.
--Julia Scott, NYT, on size matters

What is courageous in Berkeley, CA

City Councilman Gordon Wozniak wants to repeal key portions, if not all, of that most hallowed of Berkeley legislation: the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act. ...

Wozniak is working on an ordinance to overturn the portion of the act that bans the city from investing in U.S. Treasury bonds, notes and bills. ...

Ideally, he wants to eliminate the entire law, which is a wide-ranging ban on anything dealing with nuclear energy or companies that have connections to nuclear power. That includes the U.S. government as well as research facilities and even purchases of nonnuclear products from energy companies. ...

Wozniak's proposal has riled some of Berkeley's left-leaning politicians and activists.

"I'll fight this in the streets, at City Hall, anywhere it needs to be fought," said Peace and Justice Commissioner Bob Meola. It "is total nonsense that the act is a relic left over from the Cold War. The threat of nuclear war is very real and, unfortunately, will continue to be so as long as nations and unknown players have possession of nuclear weapons." ...

City Councilman Kriss Worthington agreed. ...

However, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act might not be the effective political statement it once was. ...

"Maybe we're a place where this has become an outdated notion," she said. "I think this is a gutsy thing for Gordon to do."
--Carolyn Jones, San Francisco Chronicle, on Berkeley activism

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Making food look great on TV

If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and thought, “This does not look like the dish in the ad,” here’s the irony: The dish in the ad doesn’t look like the dish in the ad, either.

This casserole shot, for instance, is an elaborate tango of artifice, technology and timing. The steam wafting over the dish comes not from the food, but from a stagehand crouched under a table with the kind of machine that unwrinkles trousers. 

The hint of Alfredo sauce that appears when the fork emerges from the pasta? That’s courtesy of tubes hidden in the back of the dish and hooked to what look like large hypodermic needles. Moments before each take, Mr. Somoroff yells, “Ooze!” That tells the guy with the needles, standing just outside of the frame, to start pumping.

As for that quarrelsome drip from the fork, it is the responsibility of Anthony DeRobertis, a special-effects rigger who holds his own hypodermic of sauce and is having a hard time synching with a hand model, a young man with a military haircut who is clutching the fork. 
--David Segal, NYT, on the unreality of restaurant food ads

Motivated lawyers can justify anything

The Obama administration’s secret legal memorandum that opened the door to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen, found that it would be lawful only if it were not feasible to take him alive, according to people who have read the document. ...

The memo, written last year, followed months of extensive interagency deliberations and offers a glimpse into the legal debate that led to one of the most significant decisions made by President Obama — to move ahead with the killing of an American citizen without a trial.

The secret document provided the justification for acting despite an executive order banning assassinations, a federal law against murder, protections in the Bill of Rights and various strictures of the international laws of war, according to people familiar with the analysis.
--Charlie Savage, NYT, on when executive orders, federal laws, the Bill of Rights, and international laws are no obstacle

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Facebook games are popular

But then I realized that what these major Facebook games are really selling is control. They are about giving you a little oasis, a patch of unreality that you can make just as perfect and ordered and neat as you like. When you are building your dream house or plantation or suburb, no one else can mess it up. No one is badgering you to change it or make it better. Not your parents, or your children, or your boss, or your boyfriend or your husband. It’s yours. 

Surveys indicate that women broadly outnumber men on social networks and also use them more avidly. More narrowly, within social gaming, women also play much more than men.

It was a game industry executive who clued me in to the fact that the top social games appeal most heavily to women and girls. That’s one reason FrontierVille, which was supposed to be Zynga’s big new game last year, basically flopped (it now has only around three million users): the chopping-down-trees and fighting-off-bears vibe was too macho. 

And it was a female friend who made me think that playing a game like the Sims Social is actually a bit like a sewing circle. It requires close attention to detail, you produce something of your own design and women often do it together to get away from annoying men.

As she put it, “Is it so different from women who sit around crocheting macramé owls?” 
--Seth Schiesel, NYT, on new ways to satisfy old needs

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The politics of medical recommendations

Despite the seeming logic of the P.S.A. test, the evidence that it saves lives is far from conclusive, and [chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society Otis Webb] Brawley is not the only one questioning it. A growing cadre of doctors, epidemiologists, patients and cancer biologists are rethinking its value. And the most recent studies, while not ending the debate, indicate that routine P.S.A. testing appears not to reduce the number of deaths, and if it does, the benefit is exceedingly modest. ...

So what should a man do when his doctor suggests a routine P.S.A. test? The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of independent experts that evaluates the latest scientific evidence on preventive tests and treatments, is charged with making recommendations in just such situations. ... According to an internal document, in 2009 the task force conducted an in-depth analysis of data and seemed poised to give routine P.S.A. testing a “D” rating — “D” as in don’t do it — for any man of any age. But this was around the time that the task force stated that routine mammography for women ages 40 to 50 was not necessary for every woman. That recommendation caused a public uproar, and Ned Calonge, the task-force chairman at the time, sent the P.S.A. recommendation back for review. One year later, in November 2010, just before midterm elections, the task force was again set to review its recommendation when Calonge canceled the meeting. He says that word leaked out that if the November meeting was held, it could jeopardize the task force’s financing. Kenneth Lin, the researcher who led the review, quit his job in protest, and now, nearly two years after its initial finding, it remains uncertain when the task force will release its rating for P.S.A. screening. ...

David Newman, a director of clinical research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, looks at it differently and offers a metaphor to illustrate the conundrum posed by P.S.A. screening.

“Imagine you are one of 100 men in a room,” he says. “Seventeen of you will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and three are destined to die from it. But nobody knows which ones.” Now imagine there is a man wearing a white coat on the other side of the door. In his hand are 17 pills, one of which will save the life of one of the men with prostate cancer. “You’d probably want to invite him into the room to deliver the pill, wouldn’t you?” Newman says.

Statistics for the effects of P.S.A. testing are often represented this way — only in terms of possible benefit. But Newman says that to completely convey the P.S.A. screening story, you have to extend the metaphor. After handing out the pills, the man in the white coat randomly shoots one of the 17 men dead. Then he shoots 10 more in the groin, leaving them impotent or incontinent.

Newman pauses. “Now would you open that door?”
--Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, NYT Magazine, on the dirty business of medical task forces

I don't care what the statistics say

A small portion of the population is willing to be reasoned with, but when I tell my reasonably intelligent sister that “children are probably safer today than at any time in human history” she scoffs at me as if I am telling her that cigarettes have nothing to do with lung cancer. She is so dismissive she won’t even read the few things I have given her about it, and her attitude is not uncommon.
--Steven Pinker, Freakonomics blog, on how far expertise gets you within your family

Why Americans kill more than Europeans

You ask a good question about violence in the United States, though it’s in large part a question about the American south and west, and about African Americans—the homicide rates of northern states are not much greater than those of Europe. It isn’t just guns, because even if you subtract all the killings with firearms and count only the ones with rope, knives, lead pipes, wrenches, candlesticks, and so on, Americans still kill at a higher rate than Europeans. ...

My own guess is that Americans (particularly in the south and west) never really signed on to a social contract that gave government a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, as Europe did. Americans not only retain the right to bear arms but believe it is their responsibility, not the government’s, to deter harm-doers. With private citizens, flush with self-serving biases, acting as judge, jury, and executioner, body counts can pile up as trigger-happy vigilantes mete out rough justice. This may be a legacy of the long periods of anarchy in the mountainous south and frontier west, and of the historical failure of the police and courts to serve African American communities.
--Steven Pinker, Freakonomics blog, on the where, how, and why of U.S. homicides

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Taxes predict everything

According to biologists, billions of years ago the first sea creature wiggled onto the beach. This was a pivotal moment in life's long march from amorphous sea snot into the highest form of mammalian beings—hedge-fund managers. Many people see that as an improvement, but I'm not judgmental. What we don't know is why the first sea creatures were so anxious to leave their ocean habitats. My guess is that it had something to do with taxes.

Reliable people on television have informed me that taxes are the root cause of all behavior. And that means we can predict the future by looking at tax policy. ...

Somewhere in Washington our leaders are furiously planning an economic death spiral. It will start innocently with a modest tax increase on the rich, the same way you might pluck a chicken to give it fair warning before you barbecue it. The final phase will involve a tax rate on the top 1% of earners that is so high it can't be described without the Viking word for pillage. I base my prediction on the fact that the country is out of money, poor people don't have any, rich people do, and the middle class has almost figured out how voting works.

In the old days, every member of the middle class thought he or she had a chance of becoming rich. In that sort of optimistic environment, you don't want to urinate in the pool that you hope to someday swim in. But lately there's more fatalism in the air, thanks to our crushing debt and the hobo militias that I assume are forming all over the country. The middle class will soon trade their unrealistic dreams of wealth for the opportunity to transfer money from total strangers to themselves—a process often referred to as fairness. That's when the rich will get serious about an escape plan, just like the brave little sea creatures billions of years ago.  ...

We've already entered the era of megaships, including plans for island-size vessels with permanent homes and businesses. We'll soon see rapid advances in high-speed Internet for seafaring vessels, floating fisheries, hydroponic gardens, energy generated from waves, and desalination. The only other element needed to trigger mass migration of the wealthy to the oceans is a financial motive. If a billionaire can escape taxation by leaving his dirt-based country behind, he'll save more than enough money to pay for his floating fortress of awesomeness.
--Scott Adams, WSJ, on the ultimate tax haven

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bill Buckner did it

It’s hard to describe just how epic the Red Sox’ collapse was — something on the order of [Bill] Buckner’s play multiplied by itself two or three times over. ...
  • The Red Sox had just a 0.3 percent chance of failing to make the playoffs on Sept. 3.
  • The Rays had just a 0.3 percent chance of coming back after trailing 7-0 with two innings to play.
  • The Red Sox had only about a 2 percent chance of losing their game against Baltimore, when the Orioles were down to their last strike.
  • The Rays had about a 2 percent chance of winning in the bottom of the 9th, with Johnson also down to his last strike.
  • Multiply those four probabilities together, and you get a combined probability of about one chance in 278 million of all these events coming together in quite this way.

    When confronted with numbers like these, you have to start to ask a few questions, statistical and existential. ...

    On Sept. 4, the day after the Red Sox’ playoff probability peaked, H.B.O. aired an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The show is the brainchild of Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld.

    In the episode, “Mister Softee”, Mr. Buckner was featured prominently. Jeered by Red Sox fans everywhere he went, he dropped a baseball autographed by Mookie Wilson out a window. But he restored his reputation after catching a baby dropped from a burning building.

    Since the Red Sox’ curse already seemed to have been lifted after 2004, Mr. Buckner’s redemption was superfluous: a case of two 180-degree rotations turning the Red Sox’ karma all the way back around. From the day that the episode aired, the Red Sox went 6-18.
    --Nate Silver, NYT, on improbabilities seeking an explanation

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    Facilitating the creation of Pinkberry knockoffs

    YoCream University™

    An Intensive Two Day Conference on
    Starting and Operating a Frozen Yogurt Business

    Session Dates:
    August 11th & 12th, Septemper 13th & 14th, October** 13th & 14th, and November** 10th & 11th 2011

    YoCream International, Portland OR near the Portland Airport

    This exciting two-day conference includes:

    Opening a Frozen Yogurt Shop:
    We'll address the most common questions with tips and details to help get you on your way.  
    • Concept Development: Self Serve? Full Serve? Equipment? Menu Concepts? and more
    • Project Management: Tips on Site Selection, Negotiating the Lease, Space Planning, Project Timeline
    • Working with Distributors
    • Day-to-Day Operations: Business tools, forms, managing costs, seasonality planning and more
    • Hiring and Staffing
    • Soft Opening: Working out the "kinks"
    • Grand Opening: Party planning, advertising, media relations
    • Marketing: Promoting your store for ongoing success

    Yo–U™ Conference fees are $1100 for one to two participants that agree to YoCream soft serve product exclusivity for one year from the opening date of their shop. Attendees that do not agree to YoCream product exclusivity may attend the conference for $10,000.
    **Classes from Oct 13th & 14th forward will cost $1,200.
    --From the YoCream website

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011

    Freedom of association on our terms only

    Is Vanderbilt University flirting with the suppression of religion? Yes, according to Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Law School.

    Specifically, Swain is referring to four Christian student groups being placed on "provisional status" after a university review found them to be in non-compliance with the school’s nondiscrimination policy.

    Vanderbilt says the student organizations cannot require that leaders share the group’s beliefs, goals and values. Carried to its full extent, it means an atheist could lead a Christian group, a man a woman’s group, a Jew a Muslim group or vice versa.

    If they remain in non-compliance, the student organizations risk being shut down. ...

    Among the groups threatened with shut down is the Christian Legal Society. It ran afoul with this language from its constitution. “Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.” CLS President Justin Gunter told me, “We come together to do things that Christians do together. Pray, and have Bible studies.”

    To that, Rev. Gretchen Person – interim director of the Office of Religious Life at Vanderbilt – responded “Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/qualification for officers.” ...

    Carol Swain is CLS’s faculty advisor. She insists the university has gone way beyond political correctness with its actions and demands. “It seems reasonable”, she told me, “to require that leaders share the beliefs of the organizations that they seek to lead.”
    --John Roberts, Fox News, on protecting Vanderbilt students against thoughtcrime

    Monday, September 26, 2011

    The joys of innovation

    William Sharpe struggled to get his now-famous CAPM paper published, and recalls the reaction even after its appearance in print: "I knew ... [t]he phone would start ringing any moment. After one year, total silence. Nobody cared. It took quite a while."
    --Avinash Dixit on the inauspicious beginning of an intellectual revolution

    Why you have to add an egg to instant cake mix

    When instant cake mixes were introduced in the 1950s as part of a broader trend to simplify the life of the American housewife by minimizing manual labor, housewives were initially resistant: the mixes made cooking too easy, making their labor and skill seem undervalued. As a result, manufacturers changed the recipe to require adding an egg...
    --Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely, Journal of Consumer Psychology, on gratuitous-labor-creating devices. HT: Chris Blattman tweet 

    UPDATE: But see Snopes for a kind-of refutation

    Sunday, September 25, 2011

    Junk food is not really cheaper than healthy food

    The “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. ...

    This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. ...

    You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

    Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. ...

    It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)
    --Mark Bittman, NYT, on why demand, not supply, is responsible for the socioeconomic gradient in obesity

    Saturday, September 24, 2011

    The long trend towards a safer world

    Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species. ...

    Forensic archeology—a kind of "CSI: Paleolithic"—can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control.

    These investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states. Tribal violence commonly subsides when a state or empire imposes control over a territory, leading to the various "paxes" (Romana, Islamica, Brittanica and so on) that are familiar to readers of history. ...

    The rate of documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) in the past decade is an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point. Even if we multiplied that rate to account for unrecorded deaths and the victims of war-caused disease and famine, it would not exceed 1%.
    --Steven Pinker, WSJ, on escaping the Hobbesian state of nature

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011

    Mind over athletic matter and monetary incentives

    The trained bicyclists thought they had ridden as fast as they possibly could. But Kevin Thompson, head of sport and exercise science at Northumbrian University in England, wondered if they go could even faster.

    So, in an unusual experiment, he tricked them.

    In their laboratory, Dr. Thompson and his assistant Mark Stone had had the cyclists pedal as hard as they could on a stationary bicycle for the equivalent of 4,000 meters, about 2.5 miles. After they had done this on several occasions, the cyclists thought they knew what their limits were.

    Then Dr. Thompson asked the cyclists to race against an avatar, a figure of a cyclist on a computer screen in front them. Each rider was shown two avatars. One was himself, moving along a virtual course at the rate he was actually pedaling the stationary bicycle. The other figure was moving at the pace of the cyclist’s own best effort — or so the cyclists were told.

    In fact, the second avatar was programmed to ride faster than the cyclist ever had — using 2 percent more power, which translates into a 1 percent increase in speed.

    Told to race against what they thought was their own best time, the cyclists ended up matching their avatars on their virtual rides, going significantly faster than they ever had gone before. ...

     Money, in contrast, does not increase individual performance, Dr. Corbett said — at least, not in research experiments. Physiologists have asked athletes to go as fast as they can on a course and then offered money if the athletes could beat their own best times. They could not.
    --Gina Kolata, NYT, on mental barriers to athletic performance. Warning: Sample size in the study is only 9 cyclists.