Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bill Buckner did it

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

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

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

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

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

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    Facilitating the creation of Pinkberry knockoffs

    YoCream University™

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

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

    YoCream International, Portland OR near the Portland Airport

    This exciting two-day conference includes:

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

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

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011

    Freedom of association on our terms only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Monday, September 26, 2011

    The joys of innovation

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

    Why you have to add an egg to instant cake mix

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

    UPDATE: But see Snopes for a kind-of refutation

    Sunday, September 25, 2011

    Junk food is not really cheaper than healthy food

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

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

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

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

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

    Saturday, September 24, 2011

    The long trend towards a safer world

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

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

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

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

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011

    Mind over athletic matter and monetary incentives

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

    So, in an unusual experiment, he tricked them.

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

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

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

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

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

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    The conscientiousness of Dakota Meyer

    When the White House tried to arrange a call to inform [former Marine Dakota] Meyer — who was promoted to sergeant but left active duty for construction work in his home state, Kentucky — that he would be receiving the [Medal of Honor], Mr. Obama said, Mr. Meyer hesitated to get on the phone with the president because he was at work.

    The call was rescheduled for Mr. Meyer’s lunch break, Mr. Obama said.
    --C. J. Chivers, NYT, on commitment to duty

    Sunday, September 11, 2011

    MacBook Air as kitchen knife

    When all your kitchen knives are in the dishwasher and you really -- just really -- need to chop up some carrots, what tool do you turn to for backup?

    Well, the MacBook Air, of course.

    Apple's ultra-lightweight laptop computer has become the star of a few bizarre online cooking videos in recent years, with the latest showing the pointed edge of the contoured laptop being used to hack up carrots, apples, baby corn, mushrooms and even shrimp. (For some reason, the shrimp just make this seem all the weirder.) ...

    You can watch several of the videos on YouTube and see pictures and more on a foreign-language blog called Mochrom.
    --John Sutter, CNN, on why I never hold my MacBook Air by its thin edge. HT: SK

    The easiest way to save enough for retirement

    “I think my wife and I have found the answer to having enough money at retirement,’’ a reader wrote.

    The gentleman went on to write: “Experts say you need 70 percent of your working income in retirement. So I am quitting and letting my wife work. Now we need $35,000 less a year in retirement and our savings are now enough.’’
    --Michelle Singletary, Boston Globe, on exploiting a retirement rule of thumb

    Saturday, September 10, 2011

    Demand will be satisfied, one way or another

    In recent years, the state [California] has restricted the calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar in à la carte items for sale in the [public school] cafeterias. Novato Unified School District has gone beyond the state’s requirements, even abolishing chocolate milk.

    Yet, as the school lunch offerings in the cafeteria have become more restrictive, snack food trucks have moved in, sometimes as many as four at a time. And the drivers have been aggressively pursuing the business, even paying the students to save the best parking spots for them, said Rey Mayoral, the principal of Novato High.
    The food trucks have hurt the school cafeterias’ bottom line. Last year, lunch sales in middle and high schools in the district were down by 12 percent. ...

    This year, chocolate chip cookies are back on the menu in the school cafeteria, in hopes of luring students back.
    --Katharine Mieszkowski, NYT, on supply meeting demand

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Two-thirds of scientific results don't replicate

    Bayer halts nearly two-thirds of its target-validation projects because in-house experimental findings fail to match up with published literature claims, finds a first-of-a-kind analysis on data irreproducibility.

    An unspoken industry rule alleges that at least 50% of published studies from academic laboratories cannot be repeated in an industrial setting, wrote venture capitalist Bruce Booth in a recent blog post. ...

    For the non-peer-reviewed analysis, Khusru Asadullah, Head of Target Discovery at Bayer, and his colleagues looked back at 67 target-validation projects, covering the majority of Bayer's work in oncology, women's health and cardiovascular medicine over the past 4 years. Of these, results from internal experiments matched up with the published findings in only 14 projects, but were highly inconsistent in 43 (in a further 10 projects, claims were rated as mostly reproducible, partially reproducible or not applicable; see article online here). “We came up with some shocking examples of discrepancies between published data and our own data,” says Asadullah.

    Irreproducibility was high both when Bayer scientists applied the same experimental procedures as the original researchers and when they adapted their approaches to internal needs (for example, by using different cell lines). High-impact journals did not seem to publish more robust claims, and, surprisingly, the confirmation of any given finding by another academic group did not improve data reliability.
    --Brian Owens, Nature newsblog, on publication bias coming up against the real-world test. HT: Marginal Revolution  

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    The poverty of high-fashion models

    Through interviews, [sociologist Ashley] Mears investigated the financial state of the (unnamed) small modeling firm she worked for in Manhattan. She found that 20 percent of the models on the agency's books were in debt to the agency. Foreign models, in particular, seem to exist in a kind of indentured servitude, she writes, often owing as much as $10,000 to their agencies for visas, flights, and test shoots, all before they even go on their first casting call. ...

    Mears details how, in the fashion world, there is typically an inverse relationship between the prestige of a job and how much the model gets paid. A day-long shoot for Vogue pays a paltry $150, for instance, while a shoot for Britain's influential i-D magazine, which Mears calls "one of the most sought-after editorial clients for a model," pays absolutely nothing, not even the cost of transportation or a copy of the magazine for the model's portfolio.

    The alternative to high-fashion poverty is to be a "money girl," working for catalogs and in showroom fittings, jobs that pay well and reliably. The best-paid model at Mears' agency, for instance, was a 52-year-old showroom model with "the precise size 8 body needed to fit clothing for a major American retailer. She makes $500/hour and works every day." But the commercial end of modeling is widely derided within the industry as low-rent, as mere work without glamour. Once a model has done too many commercial jobs, she is thought to have cheapened herself, and it's exceedingly difficult for her to return to high fashion.

    So many models operate against their short-term interests, hoping that by investing time now they will hit pay dirt later in the form of fame and a high-paying luxury ad campaign.
    --Libby Copeland, Slate, on the high price of staying in the glamor game

    Tuesday, September 6, 2011

    Optimal speaker placement

    The trick was to establish a baseline for what sounded best, and there was no guidebook. So Dr. Kyriakakis and his students went to Boston Symphony Hall in 1998 to conduct a series of sound tests and to record the “Messiah.”

    At that time, acousticians had long known that a shoebox-shaped concert hall like Boston’s offered the best sound, but what was important for Dr. Kyriakakis was to know why the human ear and the human brain that processed the signal felt that way.

    Back in Los Angeles, his team began a series of simple experiments. Listeners were invited into the labs to hear the Boston tests and music and to rate the sound, using a scale of 1 to 5. Researchers shifted the sound to different combinations of speakers around the room.
    Statistics showed that speakers directly ahead, combined with speakers 55 degrees to either side of the listener, provided the most attractive soundstage. The “wide” speakers mimicked the reflection from the side walls of the concert hall by causing the sound to arrive at the listener’s ears milliseconds after the sound from the front. Sound from other angles did not have as great an effect.

    Next, the team asked listeners what combination of speakers gave the best impression of “depth of stage.” Here again, statistics showed a clear preference for speakers in front of listeners and high above them. This sound — also slightly delayed — gave the ear and the human brain a sense of where the different instruments were on a bandstand.
    --Guy Gugliotta, NYT, on what makes sound pleasing

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    Did the atomic bomb really end World War II?

    Tsuyoshi Hasegawa - a highly respected historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara - has marshaled compelling evidence that it was the Soviet entry into the Pacific conflict, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that forced Japan’s surrender. ...

    By the summer of 1945, the Americans had cornered Japan and assembled a final invasion plan, codenamed Operation Downfall. ...

    Japan’s leaders were in fact quite savvy, well aware of their difficult position, and holding out for strategic reasons. Their concern was not so much whether to end the conflict, but how to end it while holding onto territory, avoiding war crimes trials, and preserving the imperial system. The Japanese could still inflict heavy casualties on any invader, and they hoped to convince the Soviet Union, still neutral in the Asian theater, to mediate a settlement with the Americans. Stalin, they calculated, might negotiate more favorable terms in exchange for territory in Asia. It was a long shot, but it made strategic sense. ...

    As Hasegawa writes in his book “Racing the Enemy,” the Japanese leadership reacted with concern [to the Hiroshima bombing], but not panic. On Aug. 7, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo sent an urgent coded telegram to his ambassador in Moscow, asking him to press for a response to the Japanese request for mediation, which the Soviets had yet to provide. The bombing added a “sense of urgency,” Hasegawa says, but the plan remained the same.

    Very late the next night, however, something happened that did change the plan. The Soviet Union declared war and launched a broad surprise attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria. In that instant, Japan’s strategy was ruined. Stalin would not be extracting concessions from the Americans. And the approaching Red Army brought new concerns: The military position was more dire, and it was hard to imagine occupying communists allowing Japan’s traditional imperial system to continue. Better to surrender to Washington than to Moscow.

    By the morning of Aug. 9, the Japanese Supreme War Council was meeting to discuss the terms of surrender.

    How is it possible that the Japanese leadership did not react more strongly to many tens of thousands of its citizens being obliterated?

    One answer is that the Japanese leaders were not greatly troubled by civilian causalities. As the Allies loomed, the Japanese people were instructed to sharpen bamboo sticks and prepare to meet the Marines at the beach.

    Yet it was more than callousness. The bomb - horrific as it was - was not as special as Americans have always imagined. In early March, several hundred B-29 Super Fortress bombers dropped incendiary bombs on downtown Tokyo. Some argue that more died in the resulting firestorm than at Hiroshima. People were boiled in the canals. The photos of charred Tokyo and charred Hiroshima are indistinguishable. ...

    To us, then, Hiroshima was unique, and the move to atomic weaponry was a great leap, military and moral. But Hasegawa argues the change was incremental. “Once we had accepted strategic bombing as an acceptable weapon of war, the atomic bomb was a very small step,” he says. To Japan’s leaders, Hiroshima was yet another population center leveled, albeit in a novel way. If they didn’t surrender after Tokyo, they weren’t going to after Hiroshima. ...

    Bernstein, Hasegawa, and many historians agree on one startling point. The public view that the atomic bomb was the decisive event that ended World War II is not supported by the facts. ...

    If the atomic bomb alone could not compel the Japanese to submit, then perhaps the nuclear deterrent is not as strong as it seems. In fact, Wilson argues, history suggests that leveling population centers, by whatever method, does not force surrender. The Allied firebombing of Dresden in February of 1945 killed many people, but the Germans did not capitulate. The long-range German bombing of London did not push Churchill towards acquiescence. And it is nearly impossible to imagine that a bomb detonated on American soil, even one that immolated a large city, would prompt the nation to bow in surrender.

    If killing large numbers of civilians does not have a military impact, then what, [nuclear weapons scholar Ward] Wilson asks, is the purpose of keeping nuclear weapons? We know they are dangerous. If they turn out not to be strategically effective, then nuclear weapons are not trump cards, but time bombs beneath our feet.
    --Gareth Cook, Boston Globe, on what nuclear weapons did and do. HT: Franklin Shaddy

    Sunday, September 4, 2011

    The U.S. Postal Service's labor problem

    The United States Postal Service has long lived on the financial edge, but it has never been as close to the precipice as it is today: the agency is so low on cash that it will not be able to make a $5.5 billion payment due this month and may have to shut down entirely this winter unless Congress takes emergency action to stabilize its finances. ...

    As any computer user knows, the Internet revolution has led to people and businesses sending far less conventional mail.

    At the same time, decades of contractual promises made to unionized workers, including no-layoff clauses, are increasing the post office’s costs. Labor represents 80 percent of the [U.S. Postal Service's] expenses, compared with 53 percent at United Parcel Service and 32 percent at FedEx, its two biggest private competitors. Postal workers also receive more generous health benefits than most other federal employees.
    --Steven Greenhouse, NYT, on our nearly insolvent postal service

    Saturday, September 3, 2011

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    Harvard's values

    Harvard values success above all else.

    At least that’s how members of the Class of 2014 see it. In last spring’s freshman survey, respondents ranked “success” as the value that Harvard most stands for, choosing from a list of about a dozen options that included compassion and honesty.

    The 90 percent of the class responding to the survey ranked hard work, honesty, respect, and compassion as their top four personal values.

    Asked to do the same for Harvard, they ranked success first, followed by hard work, respect, and community.

    According to Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 students ranked compassion near the bottom of the list of Harvard’s attributes, despite naming it as one of the top values they personally held. ...

    The survey results also indicated that, while students place power and wealth at the bottom of their own values, they ranked them in the middle of the pack among the values of Harvard.
    --Stephanie Garlock and Hana Rouse, Crimson, on facts that never change

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    From Dartmouth to food stamps

    “We did everything we were supposed to,” said Stephanie Morales, 23, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 2009 with hopes of working in the arts. Instead she ended up waiting tables at a Chart House restaurant in Weehawken, N.J., earning $2.17 an hour plus tips, to pay off her student loans. “What was the point of working so hard for 22 years if there was nothing out there?” said Ms. Morales, who is now a paralegal and plans on attending law school.

    Some of Ms. Morales’s classmates have found themselves on welfare. “You don’t expect someone who just spent four years in Ivy League schools to be on food stamps,” said Ms. Morales, who estimates that a half-dozen of her friends are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A few are even helping younger graduates figure out how to apply.
    --Jennifer 8. Lee, NYT, on the lost generation of the Great Recession