Sunday, January 30, 2011

Modest proposals on taxing the rich

The U.S. is broke. The hole is too big to plug with cost cutting or economic growth alone. Rich people have money. No one else does. Rich people have enough clout to block higher taxes on themselves, and they will.

I spent some time working in the television industry, and I learned a technique that writers use. It's called "the bad version." When you feel that a plot solution exists, but you can't yet imagine it, you describe instead a bad version that has no purpose other than stimulating the other writers to imagine a better version. ...

It's useful to keep in mind how the rich are different. When you are poor, you are willing to trade your time to earn money. When you are rich, you trade your money to get more time. For example, the rich hire people to clean their homes, and they don't waste time shopping for bargains. ...

Suppose we change the tax code so that in return for higher taxes on the rich, we figure out a way to give the rich some form of extra time. The bad version is that anyone who pays taxes at a rate above some set amount gets to use the car pool lane without a passenger. Or perhaps the rich are allowed to park in handicapped-only spaces.

Ridiculous, you cry! Remember, this is the bad version. And if the rich are only a tiny percentage of the population, they would have almost no impact on the traffic in car pool lanes or the availability of parking spaces for the handicapped. You wouldn't even notice the difference. ...

As a bonus, what happens to the economy when the people who are most skilled at making money suddenly have extra time? My bet is that they stimulate the economy by spending more or by earning more. ...

I doubt that the rich will agree to higher taxes until some serious budget cutting is happening at the same time. That makes the sacrifice seem shared. ...

The bad idea here is to change the debate from arguing about which programs and how much to cut, and instead to do what the private sector has been doing for decades: Pull a random yet round number out of your ear, let's say a 10% cut, just for argument's sake, and apply it across the board. No exceptions. ... Managers in the private sector have been handling budget cuts this way for years. They know that their subordinates are all professional liars, so there is no reliable information for making cuts in a more reasoned way. They also know that any project can get by with 10% less money if there is no alternative. ...

If you think that solving the nation's fiscal problems is the job of elected officials, you have to ask yourself how that's working so far. The solution, if it exists, won't be anything that looks like normal business. The rich have the money, and they aren't going to give it up for nothing. I know because I am one, and yes, we do hold meetings.
--Scott Adams, WSJ, on how to solve our fiscal problems. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The myth of Kobe Bryant's clutchness, part 2

[Kobe] Bryant makes crunch-time defense easy for opponents by shooting just about every time he touches the ball (over a five-year period, he mustered 56 clutch shots, to go with one assist). ...

ESPN Stats & Information's Alok Pattani dug through 15 years of NBA data (see table below) -- Bryant's entire career, regular season and playoffs -- and found that Bryant has attempted 115 shots in the final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points. He connected on 36, and missed 79 times.

One shot for all the cookies. And the NBA is nearly unanimous that this is the guy to take it, even though he has more than twice as many misses as makes?

Over Bryant's 15-year career, the Lakers have had the NBA's best offense, and second-best won-loss record. No other team can match their mighty 109 points per 100 possessions over the entire period. ...

In the final 24 seconds of close games the Lakers offense regresses horribly, managing just 82 points per 100 possessions. And it's not a simple case of every team having a hard time scoring in crunch time. Over Bryant's career, 11 teams have had better crunch-time offenses, led by the Hornets with a shocking 107 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, a huge credit to Chris Paul. ...

[The Lakers are] among the league leaders in how much worse their offense declines in crunch time.

When Bryant is on the floor in crunch time, Bryant's Lakers are actually outscored by their opponents.

A great offensive team performing at average levels, with a star setting records for number of shots attempted. Teammates left wide open. Evidence, even, that Bryant's play puts his team into nailbiters that needn't be so close.

That, my friends, is a ball hog.
--Henry Abbott,, on Kobe the ball hog

Friday, January 28, 2011

The case for skipping breakfast

Dieters are sometimes told to have a substantial breakfast, because it reduces the amount of food consumed during rest of the day. Not so, a new study reports.

German researchers studied the food intake of 280 obese adults and 100 of normal weight. The subjects kept records of everything they ate over two weeks, and were carefully instructed about the importance of writing down what they ate as soon as they ate it.

For both groups, a large breakfast simply added to the number of daily calories they consumed. Whether they ate a large breakfast, a small one or none at all, their nonbreakfast calorie intake remained the same. ...

This may mean that exactly the opposite of the commonly offered advice is correct: A smaller breakfast means fewer daily calories consumed, not more.

“Whenever someone comes to me for dietary advice and says, ‘I never eat breakfast,’ I say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” said the senior author, Dr. Volker Schusdziarra, a professor of internal medicine at the Technical University of Munich.
--Nicholas Bakalar, NYT, on how to cut calories

Gaining weight to lose it

Here’s how Darin McCloud, a 45-year-old man in Portsmouth, England, has been eating lately:
He has been scoffing three-quarters of a loaf of bread, several packets of crisps and bacon rolls every day, and tucking into chips, takeaways and junk food for his tea.
Because, according to the Mirror, he wants to lose weight.

And McCloud has apparently decided the best way to lose weight is to have gastric-bypass surgery. (We once wrote a column on this topic.) The problem is that, at 20 stones (280 pounds), he doesn’t quite meet the requirements for NHS-sponsored gastric surgery. So he’s trying to eat his way up to the limit.
--Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics blog, on moral hazard induced by eligibility thresholds

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Subsidizing $109,000 luxury sports cars

Specialty electric-car maker Tesla Motors also had a successful initial public offering and is being celebrated as some kind of testament to the entrepreneurial spirit. For Tesla, this is pure PR.

Tesla is capitalized via a $465 million no-collateral federal loan. This means that if Tesla goes out of business, the taxpayer will take the loss, while if Tesla becomes a hit, its management and private investors will keep all the profit. The company bought a factory in Fremont, Calif. The Department of Labor made $19 million in special payments to workers there, federal taxpayers subsidizing the Tesla labor force. The firm's electric cars entitle buyers to a $7,500 tax credit, plus sales tax exemption in many states, meaning Tesla marketing receives significant subsidies -- average people are taxed so wealthy Tesla buyers receive extra discounts. Compared to its size, Tesla is more heavily subsidized than General Motors at the low point. Basically, the company's existence is a giant raised middle finger to the taxpayer.

And what's the product? A $109,000 luxury sports car that accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, the speed of the hottest Porsches. Such speed has no relevance to everyday driving; rather, it is useful solely for road-rage behavior such as running red lights and cutting others off. Taxes forcibly removed from the pockets of average people now fund a rich person's plaything. I dread the moment President Barack Obama has his picture taken next to a Tesla, as if throwing the public's money away on this toy for the Silicon Valley rich were an accomplishment.
--Gregg Easterbrook,, on the social price of a commercially available electric car. Posted by request of MEL.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Explaining the spotlight on Amy Chua

Last month, the results of the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests were announced. It was the first time that Chinese students had participated, and children from Shanghai ranked first in every single area. Students from the United States, meanwhile, came in seventeenth in reading, twenty-third in science, and an especially demoralizing thirty-first in math. ...

How is it that the richest country in the world can’t teach kids to read or to multiply fractions? Taken as a parable, [Amy] Chua’s cartoonish narrative about browbeating her daughters acquires a certain disquieting force. Americans have been told always to encourage their kids. This, the theory goes, will improve their self-esteem, and this, in turn, will help them learn.

After a generation or so of applying this theory, we have the results. Just about the only category in which American students outperform the competition is self-regard. Researchers at the Brookings Institution, in one of their frequent studies of education policy, compared students’ assessments of their abilities in math with their scores on a standardized test. Nearly forty per cent of American eighth graders agreed “a lot” with the statement “I usually do well in mathematics,” even though only seven per cent of American students actually got enough correct answers on the test to qualify as advanced. Among Singaporean students, eighteen per cent said they usually did well in math; forty-four per cent qualified as advanced. As the Brookings researchers pointed out, even the least self-confident Singaporean students, on average, outscored the most self-confident Americans. You can say it’s sad that kids in Singapore are so beaten down that they can’t appreciate their own accomplishments. But you’ve got to give them this: at least they get the math right. ...

It’s hard to believe that Chua’s book would be causing quite as much stir without the geopolitical subtext. (Picture the reaction to a similar tale told by a Hungarian or an Austrian ├╝ber-mom.)
--Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, on the limited market for wiener schnitzel or goulash mom memoirs

Security theater in Moscow

The Russian wires are reporting that the bomb went off outside the security zone of the airport, in the arrivals hall. That exonerates airport security, but it reflects badly on the police, since the bomber must therefore be a resident of Russia.
--Anne Applebaum, Slate, on how airport security didn't help today's bombing victims in Moscow

[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.
--Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly, on the uselessness of airport security

Russian authorities said at least 31 people were killed and 150 injured in the attack. ... Monday’s explosion in Moscow pointed to the continuing fascination with air travel for militants, as well as the difficulty of carrying out an attack aboard a jet, said Stephen A. Baker, a former official with the Department of Homeland Security. “They’d like to be bombing planes and they can’t, so they’re bombing airports,” he said, adding that the attack “validates the focus that the U.S. has had on security at airports.”
--Ellen Barry and Andrew Kramer, NYT, on how even successful attacks validate TSA procedures

Battle rap of the Tiger Motha

[Warning: One expletive in the lyrics]

Supreme Court humor

But the seminal study in this area [of Supreme Court humor], from 2005, was indeed lighthearted. It counted up how often comments from given justices were followed by the notation “(laughter)” in the official transcript, and it calculated that Justice Antonin Scalia was by that measure the funniest member of the court, followed by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Justice Clarence Thomas beat out Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the title of least funny justice, but only by a little and aided by the fact that he never asks questions.

The old study’s author, Jay D. Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, was frank about its methodological shortcomings.

The “(laughter)” notation, he wrote, does not “distinguish between the genuine laughter brought about by truly funny or clever humor and the anxious kind of laughter that arises when one feels nervous or uncomfortable or just plain scared for the nation’s future.” ...

The new study [by Ryan Malphurs] has had respectful coverage in The Washington Post and on National Public Radio. ...

Justice Scalia again turns out to be the funniest justice, and he is again followed by Justice Breyer. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who joined the court in 2005, after the Wexler study was completed, was “squarely in third place,” Mr. Malphurs found. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who came onboard in 2006, gave Justice Ginsburg stiff competition for the role of least funny justice who talks. ...

Chief Justice Roberts has a light, witty touch, while the laughter that follows a long hypothetical question from Justice Breyer can feel like an expression of relief. Justice Scalia, by contrast, will repeat jokes mercilessly, raising questions about whether he has artificially increased his laugh count.
--Adam Liptak, NYT, on the Supreme Court laugh track

Nudity and character development

When actresses like Hathaway (and, to a lesser degree, actors like Gyllenhaal) decide to bare all, they inevitably justify the choice by saying it was integral to the character. Of course nudity is integral to the character; so is buying groceries and paying the bills, yet directors don’t feel compelled to show that stuff. There’s nothing remarkable about a character taking off her clothes to have sex—that’s how most of us do it.
--Jennie Yabroff, Newsweek, on titillation in the name of artistic license

Rewarding fraud at Fannie and Freddie

Since the government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, taxpayers have spent more than $160 million defending the mortgage finance companies and their former top executives in civil lawsuits accusing them of fraud. The cost was a closely guarded secret until last week, when the companies and their regulator produced an accounting at the request of Congress.

The bulk of those expenditures — $132 million — went to defend Fannie Mae and its officials in various securities suits and government investigations into accounting irregularities that occurred years before the subprime lending crisis erupted. The legal payments show no sign of abating. ...

Freddie’s problems arose in 2003 when it disclosed that it had understated its income from 2000 to 2002; the company revised its results by an additional $5 billion. In 2004, Fannie was found to have overstated its results for the preceding six years; conceding that its accounting was improper, it reduced its past earnings by $6.3 billion.
--Gretchen Morgenson, NYT, on a gift that keeps on taking

Understanding your pre-med and med school classmates

Sunday, January 23, 2011

19th century bond market manipulation

A favorite story [of Paul Samuleson's], late in life, had to do with the huge profits [economist] David Ricardo reaped after the Battle of Waterloo, the details adduced by Ricardo’s biographer, Piero Sraffa. The bond trader had an observer stationed near the battle. Once the outcome was clear, he galloped quickly to where a packet ship was waiting. So Ricardo in London received the early news, and conveyed it to the British government.

Then he went down to his customary chair at the Exchange – and sold! Other traders, suspecting the worst, sold too, the prices of Treasuries tumbling, until at last, Ricardo reversed course and bought and bought and made a killing, his greatest coup ever, one that put even the Rothschild brothers in the shade.
--David Warsh, Economic Principals, on an economist who was both smart and rich

Generosity via saving

Saving for your retirement isn't a selfish act. ... Properly saving for retirement says that you care enough about your family and friends to not burden them with taking care of you in your post-earning years. If you properly save for retirement, then your family, church, or fellow tax payers won't be on the hook for your medical bills and living expenses once you can't work any more.
--Phil Taylor, U.S. News and World Report, on providing for others by providing for yourself

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Beware small condo associations

Blum inadvertently found herself in what real estate experts consider the black hole of condo associations: the dreaded two-party. Condo life can be hard enough when both owners have equal stakes in the association, with no third to act as tiebreaker during disputes. It can be even worse when there is an imbalance in two-party ownership stakes, as in Blum’s case, a situation that can leave the minority owner feeling steamrolled by the more powerful member. ...

[The] chance of getting mired in an all-out battle is so high in a condo building with only a few units that some real estate attorneys counsel clients to avoid buying into them altogether. ...

The fundamental problem is that a small condo association by definition lacks one crucial component of harmonious living: safety in numbers. “In any organization, you get people with extreme views on the edges of the bell curve,” says Patricia Nelson, a real estate attorney in Lexington. “There are people who think that the minute the roof leaks, you have to replace the whole roof. Others would never want to replace the roof; all they ever want to do is patch. In a large association, the people on the edges are diluted by being with everyone else. It’s more likely that you’ll end up with something in the middle.” But in a small association, there are simply not enough members to soften the impact of the pain-in-the-neck outliers.
--Kris Frieswick, Boston Globe, on the harmony of the law of large numbers meeting the median voter theorem

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Take tests to learn

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science , found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.
--Pam Belluck, NYT, on a benefit of taking tests

How to give a great talk

[Steve Jobs] rehearses presentations five to 10 times before doing them live, according to a former manager who worked with Jobs.
--Crayton Harrison and Peter Burrows, Businessweek, on the value of practice, practice, practice. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Against consumer research

Shortly before the iPad tablet went on sale last year, Steven P. Jobs showed off Apple’s latest creation to a small group of journalists. One asked what consumer and market research Apple had done to guide the development of the new product.

“None,” Mr. Jobs replied. “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”
--Steve Lohr, NYT, on avoiding the least common denominator

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

JFK's lackluster Harvard application

The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a "Harvard man" is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.
--John F. Kennedy's uninspiring reasons for wanting to go to Harvard

[H]e can be relied upon to do enough to pass.
--Choate headmaster's recommendation to Harvard for John F. Kennedy's application

[A] very brilliant mind for the things in which he is interested, [but he] is careless and lacks application in those [subjects] in which he is not interested. This is, of course, a bad fault.
--JFK's father to Harvard's dean of freshmen on JFK

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why the Verizon iPhone might drop lots of calls too

AT&T executives aren’t so crazy about [Steve] Jobs, either. They complain that Apple hasn’t accepted its fair share of the blame. They say — and Apple sources confirm — that the software running the iPhone’s main radio, known as the baseband, was full of bugs and contributed to the much-decried dropped calls. What’s more, Apple had chosen to source the radio from Infineon, whose hardware was used widely in Europe but rarely in the US, where cell towers are placed farther apart and reception is therefore less forgiving.
--Fred Vogelstein, Wired, on why it might not be all AT&T's fault

Friday, January 14, 2011

Only one space after a period, please

Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the "correct" number of spaces between sentences. ... When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. "Who says two spaces is wrong?" they wanted to know.

Typographers, that's who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. ... Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces. ... But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.

Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It's one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men's shirt buttons on the right and women's on the left. ... Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. ...

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s.
--Farhad Manjoo, Slate, on sparing your space bar

My momma jokes

If you're Asian American -- or if you have close Asian friends -- you know that a staple of Asian American humor is stories about over-the-top maternal expectations and demands. Black folks tell "yo momma" jokes; Asian folks tell "my momma" jokes.

That's because for many Asian Americans, the path to adulthood is a sustained, multi-decade-long three-legged race, in which mom drags offspring through a furious gauntlet of piano lessons and college prep, violin lessons and more college prep, disappointment and anger and blowups and reconciliation and then more college prep.
--Jeff Yang, San Francisco Chronicle, on Asian American humor

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why you can't get a taxi in NYC from 4 to 5 P.M.

For the first time in the annals of taxi history, new data can confirm what generations of New Yorkers have long known in their bones: Just as the afternoon rush is about to begin, the taxicabs disappear by the hundreds.

From 4 to 5 p.m., the traditional hour for cabs to change shifts, the number of active taxicabs on the streets falls by nearly 20 percent compared with an hour before, according to a city review of GPS records taken from thousands of cab trips over the past year.

In fact, the number of cabs that pick up at least two fares during that taxicab witching hour is the lowest of any hour between 7 a.m. and midnight, the data show. This vanishing trend turned up in the data regardless of time of year or day of the week. ...

The explanation for the 5 p.m. dip is steeped in the history and economics of the taxi industry. Many taxicabs are used by two drivers a day, each working a 12-hour shift. To ensure that each leg is equally attractive, taxi owners schedule the shift change in the middle of the afternoon, so each shift gets a rush hour.

But the switch can’t happen too early, either: a 2 p.m. changeover, for instance, would require a day driver to start his 12-hour shifts in the wee hours of the morning. And cabbies say the midafternoon offers brisk business not evident 12 hours later, when fares mainly consist of late-night revelers.

Hence, the 5 p.m. compromise. When the changeover became standard, its timing did not pose a big problem for passengers. Many taxi garages were situated on the far West Side of Manhattan, requiring cabs to make only a short trip to 11th Avenue before heading back to Midtown with a fresh driver.

But in the 1980s, as commercial rents rose, taxi fleets began migrating across the East River, particularly to Long Island City, Queens. The 5 p.m. shift change now included a journey over the often-packed Queensboro Bridge, not to mention the return slog to the city.
--Michael Grynbaum, NYT, on the source of a Manhattan annoyance

Fear not the fever

Fever can indeed be scary, and any fever in an infant younger than 3 months is cause for major concern because of the risk of serious bacterial infections. But in general, in older children who do not look very distressed, fever is positive evidence of an active immune system, revved up and helping an array of immunological processes work more effectively. ...

In fact, fever does not harm the brain or the body, though it does increase the need for fluids. And even untreated, fevers rarely rise higher than 104 or 105 degrees.

As many as 5 percent of children are at risk for seizures with fever. These seizures can be terrifying to watch but generally are not harmful and do not cause epilepsy. Still, a child who has a first febrile seizure should be checked by a physician. (These seizures tend to run in families, and children who have had one may well have another.) ...

Dr. Janet Serwint, another author of the study and a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, agreed. “I personally think there should be much more education about this at well visits,” she told me, adding that parents need to understand “the helpfulness of fever — how fever actually is a well-orchestrated healthy response of our body.”
--Perri Klass, M.D., NYT, on letting fever run its course

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The uselessness of expert forecasts

[Jerker] Denrell and [Christina] Fang took predictions from July 2002 to July 2005, and calculated which economists had the best record of correctly predicting “extreme” outcomes, defined for the study as either 20 percent higher or 20 percent lower than the average prediction. They compared those to figures on the economists’ overall accuracy. What they found was striking. Economists who had a better record at calling extreme events had a worse record in general. “The analyst with the largest number as well as the highest proportion of accurate and extreme forecasts,” they wrote, “had, by far, the worst forecasting record.” ...

Their work is the latest in a long line of research dismantling the notion that predictions are really worth anything. The most notable work in the field is “Expert Political Judgment” by Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania. Tetlock analyzed more than 80,000 political predictions ventured by supposed experts over two decades to see how well they fared as a group. The answer: badly. The experts did about as well as chance. And the more in-demand the expert, the bolder, and thus the less accurate, the predictions. ...

There’s no great, complex explanation for why people who get one big thing right get most everything else wrong, argues Denrell. It’s simple: Those who correctly predict extreme events tend to have a greater tendency to make extreme predictions; and those who make extreme predictions tend to spend most of the time being wrong — on account of most of their predictions being, well, pretty extreme.
--Joe Keohane, Boston Globe, on why we should ignore soothsayers

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Evidence of professional soccer player chokes

In soccer, one of the methods of determining the winning team if a match is drawn but a winner is needed is by the two teams taking kicks from the penalty mark. ... From the time it was first introduced in 1970 and until 2003, the basic procedure established that both teams alternately take five penalty kicks each, and that the order of the kicks be decided by a referee who tosses a coin and the team whose captain wins the toss takes the first kick. ...

Using data on 1,343 penalty kicks from 129 penalty shoot-outs [in international and national club competitions] over the period 1976-2003, we find that teams that take the first kick in the sequence win the penalty shoot-out 60.5 percent of the time. Given the characteristics of the setting we can attribute this difference in performance to psychological effects resulting from the consequences of the kicking order. ...

[I]n July 2003 FIFA introduced a slight change in the procedure used to determine the kicking order. Rather than requiring that the winner of the coin toss must take first kick, it required that he chooses whether to take the first kick or the second kick. ...

[W]e conducted a survey of more than 240 players and coaches in the professional and amateur leagues in Spain, who were asked the following question: "Assume you are playing a penalty shoot-out. You win the coin toss and have to choose whether to kick first or second. What would you choose: first; second; either one, I am indifferent; or, it depends?" ...

We found that just about 100% of the subjects answered that they would prefer to go first. More importantly, when asked to explain their decision, they systematically argued that their choice was motivated by the desire to put pressure on the kicker of the opposing team. ... [W]e find that in 96% of the cases they explicitly mention that they intend to put pressure on the kicker of the second-kicking team, and that in no case they refer to the possibility of enhancing the performance of their own goalkeeper. ...

[F]or a subset of all the penalty shoot-outs in the sample we have detailed information on whether the no-goals are due to "saves" by the goalkeeper or "misses" by the kicker. ... [L]agging in the score predicts more misses by the kicker but predicts no more saves by the goalkeeper. Hence, these results are also consistent with the idea that the psychological effects may operate mainly through the kicker.
--Jose Apesteguia and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, "Psychological Pressure in Competitive Environments: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment," on how even the best can choke under pressure

Thursday, January 6, 2011

CES pwned

The anti-Apple brigade is ready for its next group therapy session. The Consumer Electronics Show, the giant annual tech confab, kicks off Thursday, when some 125,000 gadget-heads will descend on Las Vegas. Yet again, none of Apple's hipster crew will attend. ...

But it wasn't until 2007 that Apple truly eclipsed [the Consumer Electronics Show]. Boss Steve Jobs stole the show remotely by unveiling the iPhone at a rival event. Meanwhile, the CES best-of-show award that year went to a now nearly useless combination HD-DVD/Blu-ray player.

The stark and humiliating contrast served notice to Apple competitors. But their attempts to compete head-on continue to be derivative and dorky, at best. The top prize at CES 2009 was the Palm Pre, a phone that never caught on from a company that no longer exists. Other big pushes, such as last year's 3D TV hoopla, increasingly look like a depressing journey into groupthink.

There won't be much catharsis this year either. Apple sold about 15 million iPads in 2010, making it the fastest growing consumer electronics good ever. Nearly all of the big gadgeteers in attendance will unveil rival tablet devices. ...

These tablet-come-latelys will struggle for market share. Apple is nearly ready to sell its second-generation iPad.
--Robert Cyran, Reuters, on the yawning gap between Apple and everybody else

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The ballooning tax code

Nina E. Olson, the national tax advocate who acts as an ombudsman for the I.R.S., issued a sweeping criticism of federal tax policy in her annual report to Congress. Ms. Olson found that the volume of the tax code had nearly tripled in size during the last decade — to 3.8 million words in February 2010 from 1.4 million in 2001. She estimated that Americans spent 6.1 billion hours preparing their returns each year — the equivalent of 3 million employees working full time. By comparison, the federal payroll has 2.1 million full-time workers. ...

“The time for tax reform and tax simplification is now,” Ms. Olson said. ...

[T]he fact that the I.R.S.’s own internal watchdog concedes that the federal tax system has become unmanageable underscores the severity of the problem. ...

Like the deficit commission set up by Mr. Obama, the National Tax Advocate’s office suggests that the tax system could be simplified and rates lowered if the federal government eliminated most of the $1.1 billion in write-offs, loopholes and deductions known as “tax expenditures.” ...

[The report] points out that some of the most expensive tax expenditures are collected by tens of millions of lower- and middle-class Americans who receive tax breaks on home mortgage interest, employer-provided health care plans, 401(k)’s and state and local taxes.

“The dirty little secret is that the largest special interests are us — the vast majority of U.S. taxpayers,” the report said. “Virtually all of us benefit from certain exclusions from income, deductions from income or tax credits.”
--David Kocieniewski, NYT, on a time to prune

Serial murder is out of vogue

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University and co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, keeps a database of confirmed serial murderers starting in 1900. According to his count, based on newspaper clippings, books, and Web sources, there were only a dozen or so serial killers before 1960 in the United States. Then serial killings took off: There were 19 in the 1960s, 119 in the '70s, and 200 in the '80s. In the '90s, the number of cases dropped to 141. And the 2000s saw only 61 serial murderers. ...

Then why the down trend? It's hard to say. Better law enforcement could have played a role, as police catch would-be serial killers after their first crime. So could the increased incarceration rate, says Fox: "Maybe they're still behind bars." Whatever the reason, the decline in serial murders tracks with a dramatic drop in overall violent crime since the '80s.
--Christopher Beam, Slate, on a relic of a bygone era

Play that 3-D video game

Nintendo said several days ago that children under 6 should not look at the 3-D screen on its new 3DS handheld device because it could harm eye development.

The admonition raised skepticism and eyebrows among a group that knows a lot about eye development: eye doctors. ...

“The fact you’d watch 3-D in a theater or a video game should have zero deleterious impact whatsoever,” said Dr. Lawrence Tychsen, a professor of pediatrics and ophthalmology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Dr. Tychsen is in an unusual position to understand the impact of 3-D imagery on vision – at least in monkeys. In an experiment at his research clinic, baby Rhesus monkeys wear 3-D glasses and watch a screen throughout the day for three months...

The research, he said, shows that vision of monkeys wearing 3-D glasses develops no differently than for those not wearing the devices. ...

[Dr. David Granet, a pediatric ohpthalmologist at the University of California at San Diego and chair-elect of the ophthalmology section of the American Academy of Pediatrics] added: “I don’t think that parents need to worry about kids playing video games, 3-D or otherwise, from a vision perspective. The bigger question for parents is: Do you really want your 3-year-old playing a video game?”
--Matt Richtel, NYT, on 3-D images' risk for kids

Eat those unopened mussels

Look at the influential cookery books of the 1960s, such as Larousse Gastronomique in 1965 and Italian Food by Elizabeth David in 1966.

These books made absolutely no mention of discarding unopened mussels.

The myth seems to have been started by the English food writer, Jane Grigson in her 1973 publication, Fish Book. ...

By the 1970s, some 13 per cent of cookery books were agreeing with Jane Grigson; and by the 1980s, this had risen to 31 per cent.

By the 1990s, there was almost universal agreement among the cookbook writers — none of whom were fisheries biologists. ...

Nick Ruello got involved in this mussel myth because he was commissioned to write a report for Seafood Services Australia, on the rather specific topic of adding value to mussels. ...

Nick Ruello found that 1.9 per cent of mussels opened early. These mussels opened before they had been cooked long enough to kill any potential pathogens in them.

If you removed them from the stove once they opened and ate these mussels, you would be at risk of food poisoning.

But you would get a strong hint from the texture of the meat — it would be unappetizing, jelly-like, un-coagulated, and stuck to the perimeter of the shell.

At the other extreme, he found that some 11.5 per cent of mussels remained closed after a so-called "normal" cooking time.

When he forced them open with a knife, every single one was both adequately cooked and safe to eat.

So, according to Nick Ruello, even if the adductor muscles refuse to bow to the heat, the meat is still safe to eat.

But on the occasions when he cooked them for a further 90 seconds, about one-seventh of them still remained shut.

And in the mussels that finally did open, thanks to the overcooking, the meat was now shrunken and tough.

The best way to check the safety of mussels is to check them before you cook them.

Mussels have such a small mass that if they are invaded by a pathogen or germ, they will be overwhelmed almost immediately, and will smell bad.
--Karl Kruszelnicki, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, on how to increase your mussel yield by 10+ percent

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Self-checkout and shoplifting

Although some may think that the self-checkout system is more susceptible to theft, studies show otherwise. Theft deterrents on the self-checkout machines include integrated cameras, scales, security tags, and, in some cases, laser analysis of dimensions of the products, according to Greg Buzek, president of IHL Group.

“Our studies show [retailers] lose less with Self-Checkout because most front-end theft at stores is due to employee theft or a customer in partnership with an employee,’’ he said in an e-mail.
--Beth Teitell, Boston Globe, on who shoplifts

Monday, January 3, 2011

The evolution of U.S. currency

Before the Civil War, banking involved issuing private money—that is, banks issued their own currency or bank notes. And this system worked in the way economists would expect it to work. The private bank money did not trade at par when it circulated any significant distance from the issuing bank. Instead, it was subject to a discount, so that a bank note issued by a New Haven bank as a $10 note might only be worth $9.50 at a store in New York City, for example.

Such discounts from par reflected the risk that the issuing bank might not have the $10—redeemable in gold or silver coins—by the time the holder took the note back to New Haven from New York. The discounts from par were established in local markets. But you can see the problem of trying to buy your lunch when the cook has to figure out the discount. It was simply hard to buy and sell things in such a world.

A big innovation in that period was to back the money by collateral, by state bonds. It turned out that this didn’t always work very well because the bonds themselves were risky. The National Banking Act then corrects this by having the government take over money and issue greenbacks, or federal government notes backed by Treasuries. That was the first time in American history that money traded at par. That was 1863.

The National Banking Acts (there were two of them) are arguably the most important legislation in the financial sector in U.S. history.
--Gary Gorton, The Region, on the need for a national currency

Why have human faces gotten smaller?

About nine years ago, while contemplating why human faces have become smaller in the brief span of recorded history—too short a time for evolution to explain—[Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel] Lieberman wondered whether the modern diet of soft food might be a contributing factor. As bones grow, their size and shape respond to biomechanical stresses, so he decided to study the effects of chewing hard versus soft food on the growth and development of the skull in various animal species. In one experiment, he fed soft food to one group of pigs, hard food to another. The stresses of chewing made the upper and lower jaws of the pigs eating hard food grow larger. The study suggested that there is a link between smaller jaws and regularly chewing very high-quality soft food. And humans, he points out, have never had greater access to high-energy processed food than they do now. “I think many people today never have to actually chew anything all day long,” he says. “You can see the effects of that shift in our heads now in terms of molar impactions”—small faces and jaws leave too little room for teeth.
--Jonathan Shaw, Harvard Magazine, on how to make your kid's face look like Arnold Schwarzenegger's

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Against cheap fried chicken

Five thousand South Korean won, or $4.40, is the price of the most politically charged bucket of fried chicken to hit South Korea.

In four days, the chicken has generated impatient three-hour queues, street protests, a regulatory investigation, national soul-searching on the ethics of competition and condemnation from the office of the President. ....

The poultry-centric controversy began late last week when Lotte Mart, one of South Korea's biggest retailers, began selling its fried chicken at a level that undercut the prevailing market price by more than 60 per cent. ...

That was the cue for a verbal bombardment from Kyochon Chicken, Goob-ne Chicken and hundreds of small restaurants and shops across South Korea that make their living from fried chicken, who fear they would be thrust out of business. Their trade body, the Korea Franchise Association, quickly weighed in with a threat of legal action and allegations of “fried chicken dumping”.

At first, the public shared their rage and seemed ready to be worked up by the media into passionate defence of the little guy against rapacious giants such as Lotte. Then they smelt the chicken, realised they could feed their families for roughly the price of a bus ticket and joined the monstrous queues at branches of Lotte. ...

South Korea's co-prosperity committee, a body established to ensure balanced growth between big and small business and designed with precisely this dilemma in mind, met overnight for the first time.

Lotte announced that it would stop selling the fried chicken this week.
--Leo Lewis, The Australian, on the socially acceptable price of fried chicken

Confiscating savings

People’s retirement savings are a convenient source of revenue for governments that don’t want to reduce spending or make privatizations. ... In recent weeks I have noted five such attempts: Three situations concern private personal savings; two others refer to national funds.

The most striking example is Hungary, where last month the government made the citizens an offer they could not refuse. They could either remit their individual retirement savings to the state, or lose the right to the basic state pension (but still have an obligation to pay contributions for it). In this extortionate way, the government wants to gain control over $14bn of individual retirement savings.

The Bulgarian government has come up with a similar idea. $300m of private early retirement savings was supposed to be transferred to the state pension scheme. The government gave way after trade unions protested and finally only about 20% of the original plans were implemented.

A slightly less drastic situation is developing in Poland. The government wants to transfer of 1/3 of future contributions from individual retirement accounts to the state-run social security system. ...

The fourth example is Ireland. In 2001, the National Pension Reserve Fund was brought into existence for the purpose of supporting pensions of the Irish people in the years 2025-2050. ... However, in March 2009, the Irish government earmarked €4bn from this fund for rescuing banks. In November 2010, the remaining savings of €2.5bn was seized to support the bailout of the rest of the country.

The final example is France. In November, the French parliament decided to earmark €33bn from the national reserve pension fund FRR to reduce the short-term pension scheme deficit. In this way, the retirement savings intended for the years 2020-2040 will be used earlier, that is in the years 2011-2024, and the government will spend the saved up resources on other purposes.
--Jan Iwanik, Christian Science Monitor, on one way to plug budget holes

Co-pay coupons

Executives of a small insurance company in Albany were mystified when, almost overnight, its payments for a certain class of antibiotics nearly doubled, threatening to add about a half-million dollars annually in costs.

The reason, it turned out, was that patients were using a card distributed by the maker of an expensive antibiotic used to treat acne, sharply reducing their insurance co-payments. With their out-of-pocket costs much lower, consumers had switched from generic alternatives to the more expensive drug. ...

The use of such co-payment cards and coupons and other types of discounts has more than tripled since mid-2006, according to IMS Health, an information company that tracks the pharmaceutical industry.

Last month, for instance, Pfizer introduced a new card that can reduce the co-pay on its blockbuster drug Lipitor to $4 a month, a savings of up to $50. That brings the out-of-pocket cost in line with what consumers might pay at Wal-Mart for a generic version of a competing cholesterol-lowering drug.

Drug companies say the plans help some patients afford medicines that they otherwise could not.

But health insurers and some consumer groups say that in many cases, the coupons are just marketing gimmicks that are leading to an overall increase in health care costs. That is because they circumvent the system of higher co-pays on costlier drugs that insurers use to encourage consumers to use less expensive products. ...

For very expensive drugs, co-pay assistance is almost de rigueur, because in some cases co-payments can be up to 20 percent of the price of the drug. Novartis’s new pill for multiple sclerosis, Gilenya, costs $48,000 a year, compared with $30,000 to $40,000 for rival drugs, which are injected. Novartis is offering to cover the entire co-pay, up to $800 a month, which is 20 percent of the drug’s monthly cost.

“It seems the best strategy for a pharmaceutical company is to price their drug as high as they possibly can and offer that co-pay assistance broadly” to insulate consumers, said Joshua Schimmer, biotechnology analyst at Leerink Swann, an investment bank.
--Andrew Pollack, NYT, on exploiting the moral hazard of insurance for profit