Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why do wet fingers and toes turn pruney?

The wrinkles that develop on wet fingers could be an adaptation to give us better grip in slippery conditions, the latest theory suggests.

The hypothesis, from Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist at 2AI Labs in Boise, Idaho, and his colleagues goes against the common belief that fingers turn prune-like simply because they absorb water.

Changizi thinks that the wrinkles act like rain treads on tyres. They create channels that allow water to drain away as we press our fingertips on to wet surfaces. This allows the fingers to make greater contact with a wet surface, giving them a better grip.

Scientists have known since the mid-1930s that water wrinkles do not form if the nerves in a finger are severed, implying that they are controlled by the nervous system.
--Ed Yong, Nature News, on things you didn't know were controlled by the nervous system. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Aging sushi like a porterhouse

As Julia Moskin made common knowledge a while back, most of the raw fish we’ve been eating has been frozen to kill parasites — and we don’t know the difference. It’s a bit strange to think that anyone might prefer frozen fish. But many great chefs do. ... Deep-sea-fishing boats are equipped with this crazy technology to freeze just-killed fish. And it’s only after chefs defrost the fish that rigor mortis (the muscle stiffening that happens after we croak) sets in. Creepy. In other words, fish that’s been super-frozen for a year is, in a way, fresher than a lot of fish that’s straight off the boat.

Even stranger, perhaps, is that this level of freshness isn’t always ideal. Marco Canora, of Hearth and Terroir in New York, told me he had gone deep-sea fishing and caught a bonito. His shipmates butchered the fish, and Canora sampled the flesh minutes after the fish had been killed. “You could tell it was a great fish — perfect fat content, clean flavor,” Canora said. “But the texture was like eating rubber bands.” Turns out rigor mortis is not delicious. Okay, fine, you might not want to eat certain fish straight from the ocean, but you wouldn’t want to wait longer than a few days, right? Tell that to the Japanese chefs who age their tuna for up to a few weeks, as if it were porterhouse.

And it’s not just red-meat fish like tuna and bonito that benefit from controlled, uh, de-freshening. Kinch told me that turbot is actually at its gelatinous best four or five days out of the water, when its flesh has had a chance to relax...

Kuniko Yagi, formerly chef de cuisine at Sona, recently returned from Japan, where she did a few stages at kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto. She told me that when the chefs wanted to highlight the almost crunchy texture of raw snapper, they’d serve it the day it died, while the flesh was still pulsing. But when they wanted to flaunt the flavor, they’d wait a day. “When the fish died that morning, I couldn’t tell if it was fluke or blowfish or snapper,” she said. “The next day, you could.”
--JJ Goode, New York, on the myth of super-fresh sushi. I blogged about the Julia Moskin article in my 4/20/04 blog entry, but that article didn't mention that tuna is aged for weeks.

Mothering as a world-class runner

After taking second place at the 10,000-meter race at the USA Track and Field Championships on Thursday, Kara Goucher took her 9-month-old son, Colt, from her husband’s arms and ran a victory lap with him around the track. ...

In the past, most female athletes in track and field have waited until retirement to start a family. But Goucher and a small number of other competitive athletes have decided to simultaneously compete and be mothers. ...

For them, parenthood is more complicated than the usual work-life balance dilemma. Goucher purposefully gained weight and reduced her trainings to 30 miles a week from 100 to improve her chances of becoming pregnant. ...

Goucher ran throughout her pregnancy, and on the day she delivered, she lifted weights and went on a 50-minute run. Two and a half weeks after Colt was born, Goucher’s coach called wondering whether she was ready to return to practice. She could not imagine even leaving her house. ...

When Colt was 3 months old, Goucher decided to wean him. She wanted to breastfeed him longer, but she was running 100 miles a week again and had grown too tired to breastfeed and run. She had prepared for this by pumping after she breastfed. She bought a freezer to hold three months of breast milk.
--Isolde Raftery, NYT, on work-life tradeoffs

How to advance knowledge but not your career

“There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong,” the astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said. “That’s perfectly all right: it’s the aperture to finding out what’s right. Science is a self-correcting process.”

If only it were that simple. .... As a series of controversies over the past few months have demonstrated, science fixes its mistakes more slowly, more fitfully and with more difficulty than Sagan’s words would suggest. ...

In March, for instance, Daryl Bem, a psychologist at Cornell University, shocked his colleagues by publishing a paper in a leading scientific journal, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in which he presented the results of experiments showing, he claimed, that people’s minds could be influenced by events in the future, as if they were clairvoyant.

Three teams of scientists promptly tried to replicate his results. All three teams failed. All three teams wrote up their results and submitted them to The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And all three teams were rejected — but not because their results were flawed. As the journal’s editor, Eliot Smith, explained to The Psychologist, a British publication, the journal has a longstanding policy of not publishing replication studies. “This policy is not new and is not unique to this journal,” he said.
--Carl Zimmer, NYT, on the tragically low private returns to scientific replication

Playing against Kareem in high school

I continued to play basketball in [Stuyvesant] high school and this led to a most memorable and humbling experience. I came onto the court as the starting center, and the center on the opposing team from Power Memorial High School lumbered out on the court, a lanky 7 foot 2 inch sixteen year old. When I was first passed the ball, he put his hands in front of my face, looked at me and asked, "What are you going to do, Einstein?" I did rather little. He scored 54 points and I scored two. He was the young Lew Alcindor, later known as Karim Abdul Jabar, who went on to be among the greatest basketball legends and I became a neurobiologist.
--Medicine Nobel laureate Richard Axel on greatnesses colliding

Saturday, June 25, 2011

How contact lenses became wearable

At the same time, German medical student August Muller was experimenting with glass discs aimed at improving vision-his own, actually. His 1889 thesis recounts that although he could get the lenses fit on his eyes, violent pain kicked in about a half an hour after insertion. But with the short-lived fix, his myopia improved.

Two things to keep in mind about these early glass models: First, the lenses were huge. They were not the small, light things we have today. Instead imagine big glass sheets—about twice the size of current disposables—blanketing even the whites of the eyes. The shape exacerbated problem number two. Glass was the wrong material. Eyes need to breathe. ...

For these reasons, very few people—maybe 500 in the world, estimates Efron—wore early models. Eyes would tolerate, at most, four hours of air-prohibiting abuse. It wasn't until 1948, when optical technician Kevin Tuohy realized by accident that contacts didn't have to cover the whites of the eyes at all, that wearers were allowed some extra hours. While Tuohy was lathing the lens, a recently invented transparent plastic, the part supposed to cover the whites of the eyes dropped off. This left him thinking, Is there a way the smaller lens could actually work? So he polished down the disk's edges and tried the slimmer model himself. To his surprise, it actually stayed put—even after blinking.
--Rachel Swaby, Gizmodo, on an innovation that is obvious after the fact

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Capitation doesn't slow health care cost growth

Early results show that putting doctors and hospitals on a budget — a payment method promoted as a way to curb health costs — has not saved money in Massachusetts, Attorney General Martha Coakley concluded in a report released yesterday. ...

In the report released yesterday, Coakley’s staff scrutinized Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts’ “alternative quality contract,’’ which Patrick has held up as a potential model for controlling health care costs. It gives doctors a fixed amount for each patient regardless of how much care the patient requires, and includes incentives for meeting quality measures. These types of global payment systems are supposed to encourage coordination of care and lessen unnecessary treatment because physicians are at risk if they exceed the budget — and can keep some of the extra if they come in below budget. ...

During the first year of the contract, from 2008 to 2009, Blue Cross’s payments to five physicians’ groups grew an average of 10 percent, compared with 1.7 percent for doctors not in the contract, the report said. Atrius, for example, was paid about 9 percent more in 2009 by Blue Cross than in the previous year.
--Liz Kowalczyk, Boston Globe, on yet another failed attempt to curb health care costs

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The exaggerated benefits of job-hopping

In Silicon Valley, where companies frequently poach employees from each other, the pay of 50,000 software employees was studied by Kathryn Shaw, an economics professor at Stanford Business School, and her colleagues. For most experienced workers, typically those who had at least five years of experience in the field, the bulk of wage growth comes from staying with an employer, not hopping between companies. People who had a minimum of experience of five years with a single employer typically got 8% increases in compensation a year compared with about 5% for people with a history of job hopping. Dr. Shaw, who conducted the study in 2006 on behalf of the National Bureau of Economic Research, says she found a similar pattern among workers with relatively fewer skills, such as people who install car windshields.

"There's a perception in Silicon Valley that there's a gain to be had by hopping from employer to employer," says Dr. Shaw. "But short-term hopping is not advantageous to the employer or employee."

While it is rare for employees to spend their whole career at one company, most are better off if they stay put for five to 10 years, she says. One exception is young workers, who should initially be searching for a firm that offers the right match for their talents and interests, she says.
--Shirley Wang, WSJ, on the case for sticking around

For the approximately 4% of the sample who earn over $1 million in the last period in which we observe them, as we look back over their careers, over 95 percent of their wage growth arose within firms, and less than five percent from movement between firms.
--Frederik Andersson, Matthew Freedman, John Haltiwanger, Julia Lane, and Kathryn Shaw, "Reaching for the Stars: Who Pays for Talent in Innovative Industries?"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sunlight combats nearsightedness

In the early 1970s, 25 percent of Americans were nearsighted; three decades later, the rate had risen to 42 percent, and similar increases have occurred around the world. ...

In this case, the rapid increase in nearsightedness appears to be due to a characteristic of modern life: more and more time spent indoors under artificial lights. ...

Researchers suspect that bright outdoor light helps children’s developing eyes maintain the correct distance between the lens and the retina — which keeps vision in focus. Dim indoor lighting doesn’t seem to provide the same kind of feedback. ...

One study published in 2008 in the Archives of Ophthalmology compared 6- and 7-year-old children of Chinese ethnicity living in Sydney, Australia, with those living in Singapore. The rate of nearsightedness in Singapore (29 percent) was nearly nine times higher than in Sydney. The rates of nearsightedness among the parents of the two groups of children were similar, but the children in Sydney spent on average nearly 14 hours per week outside, compared with just three hours per week in Singapore.

Similarly, a 2007 study by scholars at Ohio State University found that, among American children with two myopic parents, those who spent at least two hours per day outdoors were four times less likely to be nearsighted than those who spent less than one hour per day outside. ...

Parents concerned about their children’s spending time playing instead of studying may be relieved to know that the common belief that “near work” — reading or computer use — leads to nearsightedness is incorrect. Among children who spend the same amount of time outside, the amount of near work has no correlation with nearsightedness. Hours spent indoors looking at a screen or book simply means less time spent outside, which is what really matters.
--Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, NYT, on reasons to get your kids outdoors

Towards an unchecked executive

When Mr. Obama first announced American military involvement in Libya, he notified Congress within 48 hours, as prescribed by the War Powers Act. This initiated a 60-day period, during which he was required to obtain approval from Congress; if he failed to do so, the act gave him at most 30 days to halt all “hostilities.”

Last Sunday was the 90th day of bombing in Libya, but Mr. Obama — armed with dubious legal opinions — is refusing to stop America’s military engagement there. His White House counsel, Robert F. Bauer, has declared that, despite the War Powers Act, the president can continue the Libya campaign indefinitely without legislative support. This conclusion lacks a solid legal foundation. And by adopting it, the White House has shattered the traditional legal process the executive branch has developed to sustain the rule of law over the past 75 years.

Since the 1930s, it has been the job of an elite office in the Justice Department — the Office of Legal Counsel — to serve as the authoritative voice on matters of legal interpretation. ...

But not this time. After Caroline D. Krass, acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, told the president that he had to abide by the act’s requirements, the White House counsel decided to pre-empt the Justice Department’s traditional role. ...

This pre-emptive move was not unprecedented. During George W. Bush’s administration, shortly after 9/11, the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, led an ad hoc war council that included State and Defense Department officials. It was in this hyper-politicized setting that John Yoo, representing the Office of Legal Counsel, prepared his notorious “torture memos” for President Bush’s approval. ...

Although Mr. Yoo’s memos made a mockery of the applicable law, they at least had the approval of the Office of Legal Counsel. In contrast, Mr. Obama’s decision to disregard that office’s opinion and embrace the White House counsel’s view is undermining a key legal check on arbitrary presidential power.

This is a Beltway detail of major significance. Unlike the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, the White House counsel is not confirmed by the Senate — which means that the president can appoint whomever he likes.
--Yale constitutional law professor Bruce Ackerman, NYT, on doing whatever the heck you want as President

Let your kids suffer a little

Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, they won’t develop “psychological immunity.”

“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’”

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who, after the publication of her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee a decade ago, became an adviser to schools all over the country. When I talked to her this spring, she said that over the past few years, college deans have reported receiving growing numbers of incoming freshmen they’ve dubbed “teacups” because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way. “Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods,” Mogel said of these kids, “so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”
--Lori Gottlieb, Atlantic Monthly, on suffering building perseverance, which builds character, which builds hope. HT: ACT

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jillian Michaels on Jillian Michaels

[Jillian Michaels] admitted that she tried to do one of her DVDs once: “I couldn’t get through 15 minutes of it.”
--Catherine Saint Louis, NYT, on not eating your own cooking

Against urban farms

Good environmentalism is smart environmentalism that thinks through the total systemic impacts of any change. Farm land within a metropolitan area decreases density levels and pushes us apart, and carbon emissions rise dramatically as density falls. ...

The National Highway Travel Survey teaches us that when densities drops in half, holding fixed location within the metropolitan area, households buy about 107 gallons more gas per year. ... Together, the increased gas consumption from moving less than a tenth of agricultural farmland into metropolitan areas would generate an extra 1.77 tons of carbon dioxide [per household] per year, which is 1.77 times the greenhouse gases produced by all food transportation and almost four and a half times the carbon emissions associated with food delivery. ...

Urban farms mean less people per acre which in turn means longer drives and more gasoline consumption. Shipping food is just far less energy intensive than moving people. If the First Lady wants to help the environment, she should campaign for high rise apartments, rather than plant vegetables.
--Ed Glaeser, Boston Globe, on moving food, not people

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Is warming up for exercise unnecessary?

A warm-up is thought to allow tissues literally to become heated, to reach a temperature at which they are, presumably, more flexible and malleable and ready for the demands of further exercise. But it hasn’t been proved that warm muscles perform better than colder ones or that they are less prone to injury, Dr. [Brian] MacIntosh said.

According to the largest review and analysis to date of the research on warm-ups, which was published last year in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, a warm-up was “shown to improve performance” to a limited extent in most of the sports studied, which included running, swimming, cycling, golfing, basketball, softball and bowling. But as the review’s lead author, Andrea Fradkin, an associate professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, told me, most of the studies were small-scale and short-term, and their methods were inconsistent. ...

None of the studies persuasively showed that any one approach to warming up was best, or even that a warm-up necessarily would make you significantly better at your sport or prevent injury.

The science about how to warm up “is not well advanced,” Dr. Fradkin said. “We haven’t answered the big questions yet,” she said, about whether to warm up or why to warm up, “let alone the smaller, specific ones” about how.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on how to save another 10 minutes in your workout

Massachusetts's unbroken streak

A jury in federal court in Boston today found former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi guilty of conspiring to exploit one of the most powerful offices in Massachusetts by helping a software company win multimillion-dollar state contracts in exchange for kickbacks.

DiMasi was convicted of seven of nine counts against him, including extortion and conspiracy to defraud citizens of his honest services. He faces a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison. ...

DiMasi became the third consecutive speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to be convicted in federal court. ...

[Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick] reiterated that most people he works with on Beacon Hill are upstanding and any exceptions are “outliers.”
--Milton Valencia, Glen Johnson, and Martin Finucane, Boston Globe, on frequent outliers

The next San Francisco ban

San Francisco's ever-active Animal Control and Welfare Commission has renewed its push for a pet sale ban in the city - only this time, it even covers goldfish. ...

"Most fish in aquariums are either mass bred" under inhumane conditions "or taken from the wild," commission member Philip Gerrie said. That leads to "devastation of tropical fish from places like Southeast Asia," he said.
--Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, San Francisco Chronicle, on what comes after Happy Meals and circumcision

Taking the model seriously

The critique part of the paper you refer to argued that the current core of macroeconomics has become so mesmerized with its own internal logic that it begins to confuse the precision it has achieved about its own world with the precision it has about the real one.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with building stylized structures as just one more tool to understand a piece of the complex problem. My problems with this start when these structures take on a life on their own, and researchers choose to “take the model seriously”—a statement that signals the time to leave a seminar, for it is always followed by a sequence of naïve and surreal claims. ...

Take, for example, the preferred “micro-foundation” of the supply of capital in the workhorse models of the core approach. A key parameter to calibrate in these models is the intertemporal substitution elasticity of a representative agent, which is to be estimated from micro-data. A whole literature develops around this estimation, which narrows the parameter to certain values, which are then to be used and honored by anyone wanting to say something about “modern” macroeconomics.

This parameter may be a reasonable estimate for an individual agent facing a specific micro decision, but what does it have to do with the aggregate? What happened with the role of Chinese bureaucrats, Gulf autocrats and the like in the supply of capital? A typical answer is not to worry about it, because this is all “as if.” But then, why do we call this strategy “micro-foundation” rather than “reduced-form”?

My point is that by some strange herding process, the core of macroeconomics seems to transform things that may have been useful modeling short-cuts into a part of a new and artificial “reality.” And now suddenly everyone uses the same language, which in the next iteration gets confused with, and eventually replaces, reality. Along the way, this process of make-believe substitution raises our presumption of knowledge about the workings of a complex economy and increases the risks of a “pretense of knowledge” about which Hayek warned us in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
--Ricardo Caballero, The Region, on knowing the model vs. knowing reality

Do bailouts create moral hazard?

In my “Sudden Financial Arrest” paper, I draw an analogy between panics and sudden cardiac arrest. We all understand that it’s very important to have a good diet and good exercise in order to prevent cardiac arrest. But once you’re in a seizure, that’s a totally secondary issue. You’re not going to solve the crisis by improving the diet of the patient. You don’t have time for that. You need a financial defibrillator, not a lecture. ...

There are many incentive problems within the financial system, and hence there is a strong need for regulation. However, it’s ludicrous to suggest that anticipation of support (a “bailout”) in an extreme systemic event is one of the most significant sources of moral hazard.

With very few exceptions—perhaps Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?—financial institutions and investors (when in bullish mode) make portfolio decisions that are driven by dreams of exorbitant returns, not by distant marginal subsidies built into financial defibrillators. Nothing is further from these investors’ minds than the possibility of (financial) death, and hence they could not ascribe meaningful value to an aid that, in their mind, is meant for someone else.

Logical coherence dictates that if one believes in the undervaluation of the possibility of a future crisis that characterizes the booms that precede crises, then one must also believe in the near-irrelevance of anticipated subsidies during distress for private actions during the boom. ...

People indeed consume more cheeseburgers than they should, but this is more or less independent of whether or not defibrillators are visible. Surely there is a need for advocating healthy habits, but no one in their right mind would propose doing so by making all available defibrillators inaccessible. Such a policy would be both ineffective as an incentive mechanism and a human tragedy when an episode of sudden cardiac arrest occurs.

I think this is one of the many instances when economists and politicians choose to solve a second-order problem they understand rather than focusing on what actually happens in real life.
--Ricardo Caballero, The Region, on the disconnect between irrational exuberance and bailout-induced moral hazard

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Aging gracefully

A weightlifter, [Hawaii governor Neil] Abercrombie celebrated his 72nd birthday in June by bench pressing 272 pounds.
--Honolulu Star-Advertiser on one man's successful quest to bench press 200 pounds more than his age

The Big Law lifestyle

Thirty-five years ago, my first day as a summer associate [at a big law firm] marked the first of what would be years of missed dinners, theater opening curtains and other commitments. I had just returned the day before from my honeymoon, and was supposed to meet my wife for dinner at 7. Instead, an associate three years older than me said we had an urgent call to draft a promissory note. There were no cell phones in those days, and it wasn’t pretty. I showed up for dinner at 10:30 p.m.

Lawyers live in a different time zone than the rest of the world. Up to my last work days, when my wife called, I nearly always looked at the work on my desk and estimated I would be able to leave in half an hour. Nine times out of ten, I turned up at home hours later.
--Retired Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Ronald Barusch, WSJ, on the handcuff part of "golden handcuffs." HT: RC

Monday, June 13, 2011

Very specific plans are motivating

We all have good intentions, but sometimes we need a nudge to turn those intentions into actions. According to a new study, encouraging people to write down the date and time when they plan to get their flu shot increased the number of people who were vaccinated. ...

The researchers analyzed the effects of different reminder mailings sent to those employees of a large utility firm who were considered at risk for the flu. All eligible employees received one of three possible reminder mailings that listed the times and locations of free on-site flu vaccination clinics.

The results of the randomized behavioral intervention appear in the June 13 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ...

The control group received a mailing listing the times and locations of vaccination clinics. The first treatment group received a mailing that also prompted them to write down the date they planned to be vaccinated; the second treatment group received a mailing that prompted them to write down the date and time they planned to be vaccinated.

The overall vaccination rate among study participants in the control group was 33.1 percent. The rate in the date-plan group increased by 1.5 percentage points relative to the control group. The date-and-time-plan group had a 4.2 percentage point increase relative to the control group.
--NIH press release on my new PNAS paper

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The difference between male and female politicians

Research points to a substantial gender gap in the way women and men approach running for [political] office. Women have different reasons for running, are more reluctant to do so and, because there are so few of them in politics, are acutely aware of the scrutiny they draw — all of which seems to lead to differences in the way they handle their jobs once elected.

“The shorthand of it is that women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Women run because there is some public issue that they care about, some change they want to make, some issue that is a priority for them, and men tend to run for office because they see this as a career path.” ...

Once elected, women feel pressure to work harder, said Kathryn Pearson, an expert on Congress at the University of Minnesota. Her studies of the House show women introduce more bills, participate more vigorously in key legislative debates and give more of the one-minute speeches that open each daily session. In 2005 and 2006, women averaged 14.9 one-minute speeches; men averaged 6.5.
--Sheryl Gay Stolberg, NYT, on politics as a cause versus a career

Why are California and New York state governments so crummy?

Labor theory suggests that public sector worker pay shouldn't get too far out of line with private sector wages because taxpayers are mobile, and if costs rise too much in a particular state thanks to high public employee compensation, residents will simple leave. ... Still a new paper by economists Jan K. Brueckner and David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine, argues that traditional labor theories don't account for the pull that natural amenities have on citizens, making them willing to pay a premium to live in places deemed more desirable. This attraction, the economists find, accounts for the fact that public sector wages are further out of line with private wages in some states than in others. Not surprisingly, California is a big loser.

"The presence of local amenities can grant public sector workers a form of monopoly power that lets them extract more rents," the authors write. "People can only consume the beaches and sunshine of southern California, or benefit from dense urban areas like Manhattan, by living nearby, and public sector workers can therefore extract rents up to the point where those who pay the rents are induced to leave the area."

The authors measure several variables, including types of weather (mild is most preferred), proximity to water, and population density (because of the variety of experiences and opportunities that heavily populated areas provide). Perhaps not surprisingly, their study finds that states with the highest differential between public and private sector wages, including California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island all boast certain key amenities that help boost the public sector wage premium.
--Steve Malenga, Public Sector Inc., on one way to ration access to desirable geographies

Today, according to the statistics people look at, even with California’s bountiful resources, the most equitable climate in the entire continent, and with every blessing that God could bestow upon a land, people are finding a better place to live and work and raise their families out in the desolation of the Arizona and Nevada deserts. No conceivable act of God could ever wreak such devastation upon our state. It takes a government to do that. And it has.
--California U.S. Representative Tom McClintock on squandered blessings

It is worth clarifying that the problem is rent-extraction, not high taxes per se. If Californians were paying high taxes that were then used to deliver really excellent public services delivered at the lowest feasible cost, we’d be dealing with another situation entirely.
--Reihan Salam, National Review, on lack of value for money

Being middle class in Russia

In Russia today, a sign that a person has arrived in the middle class is not home ownership (Russians actually have a rather complicated relationship with housing and mortgages) but the ability to travel abroad—a relic of all the years when Russia was a closed country. A 2009 novel about the corrupt world of Russian politics (supposedly written under a pen name by one of Putin's aides) describes Moscow cocktail parties in which the first question people ask each other upon greeting is "So where have you traveled recently?"
--Julia Felsenthal, Slate, on Russian aspirations

[Jane Zavisca, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona]: "Few Russians are willing to take out mortgages because the risk of foreclosure is unacceptable, and because they view interest payments – which they call overpayments – as unfair. As one Russian put it: ‘To enter into a mortgage is to become a slave for 30 years, with the bank as your master.'"

That hasn't stopped Russians from going into debt, though. They may be averse to mortgages but they love credit cards, small consumer loans and point-of-purchase store credit.

"In my interviews, people there often compared credit card debt favorably to mortgages, the inverse of here in the U.S., where mortgages are viewed as virtuous and responsible." ...

She said Russians find it odd that Americans call themselves "homeowners" from the day they close on a mortgage loan. For Russians, ownership only begins after all debts are paid off.

Zavisca said she is planning a follow-up study on mortgages in the U.S. to learn how Americans equate owing with owning, and how "home ownership" has become Americans' metaphor for a mortgage.
--Jeff Harrison, University of Arizona Communications, on cultural definitions of ownership

Friday, June 10, 2011

NATO the wimp

The mightiest military alliance in history [NATO] is only eleven weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country [Libya] — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference. ...

Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there. ...

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.
--U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Pax Americana

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My infinity can beat up your infinity

Indeed, many 19th century mathematicians found infinity to be vaguely distasteful, and they felt it had no place in serious mathematical discussion. At best, infinity was something for philosophers to discuss, and you can imagine the sort of disdain with which such pronouncements were made. It was in that context that Georg Cantor published the first proof of the existence of infinity in 1874.

Born in Russia but raised in Germany, Cantor provided a stunning and instantly controversial proof that not only defined the nature of infinity, but it also revealed that multiple infinities existed, and some were larger than others. What made his achievement all the more remarkable was that he had built the entire thing out of an ancient and seemingly useless branch of mathematics known as set theory. Basically, it was the mathematical equivalent of building an interstellar drive out of a wheelbarrow. ...

The classical example is a set containing the natural numbers, which are all the non-negative integers beginning with zero. ... [Its] cardinality is actually aleph-null, or aleph-zero, which is the smallest type of infinity. ...

If we want to get to aleph-one, the next order of infinity, we'll need to come up with something that is uncountably infinite. ... The most famous example is the set of all real numbers, which includes all the natural numbers, all the rational numbers, all the irrational numbers such as the square root of 2, and the transcendental numbers such as the values pi or e. ...

Can we go still further to aleph-two, aleph-three, and so on and so forth? It is indeed possible to take things further, and all we need is one more concept: power sets.

A power set for any number N is the set of all the subsets of set N. ...

[If] we take the set of all real numbers - or aleph-one - then the power set of aleph-one will have a greater cardinality, which means it must at least be aleph-two. We can keep doing this forever, with the power set of aleph-two giving us aleph-three, the power set of aleph-three giving us aleph-four, and so on.

And here's the really weird part. Since you can repeat the power set operation an infinite number of times, it stands to reason that there must eventually be an aleph-infinity...or, perhaps more accurately, and aleph-aleph-null. And even that might still pale in comparison to Georg Cantor's notion of an absolute infinite that transcended all attempts to express infinity within set theory. For his part, Cantor suspected that the absolute infinite was God.
--Alasdair Wilkins, Gizmodo, on infinity upon infinity

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Berkeley controversy over the market for lemons

I was on [George Akerlof's] promotion committee, and after I won an argument with [Nobel laureate] Gerard Debreu about the importance of the lemons paper, George got tenure.
--My recollection of Nobel laureate Dan McFadden's description of how George Akerlof, who later won a Nobel prize for the lemons paper, was tenured at Berkeley

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Repeat circumcision customers

Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics, an Orthodox mohel based in Los Angeles who says he has performed some 20,000 circumcisions over several decades, said he often had to soothe nervous mothers.

“I am now doing the sons of the boys I did 30 years ago,” Rabbi Lebovics said. “So I turn to the new mother and ask, ‘Do you have any complaints in the way it turned out?’ ”
--Jennifer Medina, NYT, on how to shut up nervous parents

Friday, June 3, 2011

Brain size and friends

Primates tend to maintain social contact with a limited number of individuals within their group. But here's the thing: primates with bigger brains tended to have a bigger circle of friends. [Anthropologist Robin] Dunbar reasoned that this was because the number of individuals a primate could track was limited by brain volume.

Then he did something interesting. He plotted brain size against number of contacts and extrapolated to see how many friends a human ought to be able to handle. The number turned out to be about 150.

Since then, various studies have actually measured the number of people an individual can maintain regular contact with. These all show that Dunbar was just about spot on (although there is a fair spread in the results).

What's more, this number appears to have been constant throughout human history--from the size of neolithic villages to military units to 20th century contact books. ...

[Bruno Goncalves and coauthors] studied the network of links created by 3 million Twitter users over 4 years. ...

It turns out that when people start tweeting, their number of friends increases until they become overwhelmed. Beyond that saturation point, the conversations with less important contacts start to become less frequent and the tweeters begin to concentrate on the people they have the strongest links with.

So what is the saturation point? Or, in other words, how many people can tweeters maintain contact with before they get overwhelmed? The answer is between 100 and 200, just as Dunbar predicts.
--Physics arXiv Blog on friendship capacity. HT: ACT

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Who eats their vegetables

South Koreans eat 73 percent more vegetables, and Japanese 34 percent more, than do Americans. Americans eat about 70 percent more veggies than Northern Europeans do.
--Brian Palmer, Slate, on consumption patterns I attribute to the relative tastiness of regional vegetable dishes

The risks of co-signing loans

I mentioned in my last post that cosigning loans is risky. How risky? According to the FTC, depending on the type of the loan, as many as three out of four primary borrowers default on their obligations, leaving the cosigner to pay. ...

If you think that they really need the money, and that you're not just helping someone dig themselves even deeper into financial irresponsibility, then my advice is to just give them the money.

Give them the money? I can't possibly afford to do that!

Well, my friend, given the default rates of primary borrowers, that is what you're doing when you cosign--with the additional cost of origination fees, interest payments, late fees, collection fees, a black mark on your credit report, and probably, a destroyed relationship.

When the primary borrower defaults, you're on the hook, not just for the loan, but for any late charges or collection fees that may have accrued. If it's a car, the repo man will sell it for cheap at auction, and then sue you for the difference--there are no "non-recourse" auto loans. Meanwhile, your credit will be trashed. Contracts don't always include notice requirements for the secondary borrower, so you may not even find out about late payments until it's in collections.
--Megan McArdle, Atlantic Monthly, on knowing the price of co-signing. See also Proverbs on co-signing

Health food and religious cults

By the time I dined with Chinmoy, I'd spent months eating at restaurants run by fringe religious movements, often referred to as "cults," and trying to figure out why so many sects have opened shrines to a single deity: health food. ...

In addition to restaurants, many fringe groups own natural-foods stores or manufacture products like Yogi Tea, invented by Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization founder Yogi Bhajan. Here's a challenge: Name an infamous sect or "cult" that has never operated some sort of restaurant or natural-foods store. Most of them—the Church of Scientology, Aum Shinrikyo, the Branch Davidians, the Mormon Fundamentalists, even Jim Jones' People's Temple—have. The question is: Why? ...

One reason small religious groups tend to serve health food is that they helped invent it. In fact, they arguably launched the whole movement. ...

In 1930s San Francisco, a Seventh-day Adventist named Ella Brodersen ran what might have been the city's first vegetarian restaurant, the Health Way Cafeteria. Near Santa Barbara, Alan Hooker, who had moved to the town of Ojai to be near his guru, Yogi Krishnamurti, opened the Ranch House restaurant in 1956—which would lead some people to call him "the grandfather of California cuisine," a precursor to famous chefs such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. Los Angeles became home to yoga pioneer Paramahansa Yogananda. As Hollywood chef Akasha Richmond put it, "by the 1950s, it was the Mushroom Burger, served at Yogananda's SFR India Café, that made the veggie burger popular in Hollywood." ...

The 1974 edition of the Spiritual Community Guide, "The Yellow Pages of the New Age Movement," listed 2,470 addresses throughout the country. ... 31.2 percent of the total, were health-food stores or restaurants. ...

[U]nlike large religions, which can sustain themselves with tithes and donations, smaller groups usually have to generate revenue through actual businesses—and the restaurant industry has low barriers to entry.
--Daniel Fromson, Slate, on health food's cult origins. See also my previous post on food and morality.