Saturday, October 29, 2011

The meaning of Hulu

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

Friday, October 28, 2011

The cost of a humanities degree

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The shadow of China's ascendence in the art market

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve Jobs was a jerk

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

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

The logic class's annual hoax at Smith College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 23, 2011

False advertising on the fish menu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hungry weekends in Texas prisons

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What Steve Jobs did the day before he died

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What your audience really thinks of dense PowerPoint slides

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

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse ain't nothing

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Devotion to teaching

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An uncomfortable topic for Siri

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


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Slacking at Wharton

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2011

Extreme pumpkin growing

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

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

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

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

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

What is courageous in Berkeley, CA

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

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

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

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

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

City Councilman Kriss Worthington agreed. ...

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

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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Making food look great on TV

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

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

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

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

Motivated lawyers can justify anything

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

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

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

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Facebook games are popular

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The politics of medical recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't care what the statistics say

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

Why Americans kill more than Europeans

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Taxes predict everything

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

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

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

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

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